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The woman stood sentry although she knew no guard was necessary. She had searched this forest during their daylight trek, backtracking and scouting forward, riding restlessly while her companion walked. There had been too much danger these last few weeks, too much fear that she dared not show. Now she watched when she should sleep. She walked over to where her young companion lay. Was the glow of that young face a reflection from the campfire, or did it come from within? Fighting the feeling that some nameless danger stalked them, she leaned down to brush her lips across the smooth forehead, then covered the sleeping woman with her own blanket. The fierceness of her thoughts surprised her: Nothing will harm you. Not while I live.
Gabrielle stretched and entered the day the way she liked, slowly and with a proper respect for the rituals of rising. She could tell that it was fully daylight and was grateful Xena had let her sleep this late. There had been little enough sleep these last few weeks. She shook her head as if to shake out bad memories and dark thoughts. It was a beautiful day, with sunlight finding its way even through the thin canopy of branches overhead. Soon they would leave this forest, Xena had said. Then they would find their way to the shore and bask in clear salt air and sunshine. That, thought Gabrielle, is my native clime, not all the cold and darkness we've known. . . .
She rose and looked around the camp but already knew that Xena wasn't there. Although Xena could be silent as any night creature, Gabrielle always felt her presence. Last night, she thought, Xena was by my side. She kissed me goodnight, and I had thought she would sleep beside me, but she covered me and then was gone.
"So you're finally up?" The rich voice was teasing. Gabrielle watched the tall figure, armed and fully dressed in warrior garb, emerge from the denser forest.
"If you had wanted me up earlier, you would have managed it." She laughed and thought of other mornings when her wake-up call had been one of those big boots on her rear.
"I thought that you could use the rest." Xena walked to the fire and placed on the hot embers two bundles of what looked liked leaves and clay. "Fish for breakfast," she announced. "And tea." She picked up a skin water bag that lay near her saddle and from it filled a smaller bag and hung that one from a stick. Using two more sticks as tongs, she lifted hot stones from the fire and, after shaking off the ashes, dropped them into the small bag. From a pouch at her side, she removed dried leaves and dropped these into the heating water. She looked up to see her companion watching her intently.
"What?" Xena said. "You've seen how I make tea."
"I like to watch you work."
"You like to WATCH anyone work." Her tone took any sting from the words. "Wash the sleep from your face. We'll eat soon."
"Can we spare the water?" She longed for a real bath.
"Yes, I filled all of the skins at the same pool where I caught the fish." Knowing what Gabrielle really wanted to ask, she added, "We'll be out of these woods by nightfall. Tomorrow we'll be in sunlight and heading for the sea."
While Gabrielle washed her face and hands with the fresh water and took a welcome drink, Xena removed the clay balls from the fire. Already baked hard, they needed only to be split to reveal the succulent white flesh within. Tea also brewed and poured, the two women sat together on the blankets Gabrielle had so recently left.
It was a while before Gabrielle mumbled between bites, "This is great!"
Xena nodded and pushed half her fish toward Gabrielle. "You have to find the right kind of fish with the right clay." Gabrielle looked at the extra portion and, hunger overwhelming guilt, took it and made short work of that as well. The tea followed, and, for the first time in days, the small woman felt filled. Content, she was surprised to look into her friend's scowl.
"Xena, what's wrong?" she asked.
"You've been hungry, and I haven't even realized it."
"I've been in as much hurry as you to get back home," Gabrielle reminded her. "That's why you haven't taken time to hunt. And our other provisions are almost gone. Don't think I haven't noticed how little you've been eating."
"It's different for me," Xena said flatly.
"I've been hungry many times before. My body expects it. Until you came with me, I doubt that you knew even one day of hunger."
>From Gabrielle's quick downward glance, Xena knew that this was correct. When Gabrielle looked up, however, she was smiling. "Well, actually, that's not true. I'm always hungry."
"No, not now." She paused as if to calculate. "But soon."
The forest ended, not gradually, but all at once, dense woods giving way abruptly to bare, rocky ground. Gabrielle had been about to admit that Xena was wrong. They would not leave the trees behind before nightfall. But, leaving the screen of branches, she saw night return to only dusk. Xena, who had been riding slightly ahead, turned her golden mare around and smiled. Then, dismounting, she waited for her friend.
"Beautiful! Nothing but sky overhead," Gabrielle told her.
Xena nodded, but added, "Not too many call this landscape beautiful."
It was a bleak perspective. As far as they could see was barren land, rocky, with only brownish vegetation sparsely dotting the plain. Gabrielle's shoulders slumped slightly, and Xena rested a hand against her back. "Don't worry. I know where we are. There's an important crossroads near here. Two trading routes, one from the north and the other from the east meet there. There's bound to be a village that supplies travelers."
Gabrielle smiled and said one word, "Bread." She took the friendly hand on her back as a sign to hug the taller woman.
For one moment, Xena rested her chin on soft, sweet-smelling hair. Then she straightened and spoke gruffly. "We'll go a little farther, then camp for the night."
"Can't we go on to the village now? I'm not tired."
Xena's expression was serious. "No. People around here don't take kindly to visitors after dark. They've had some bad experiences."
"People," Gabrielle repeated. "That word sounds almost as good as bread."
The two women walked on companionably until it was almost full dark. Not finding a more comfortable spot, they stopped in a slight depression and began to clear away the stones and rocks. "Pile them here," Xena directed. "We'll clear a place to sleep and have a small hearth as well."
"Give me the bag you used for the tea," Gabrielle said. "I'll use the last of the dried vegetables and meat to make soup."
"That won't work until the rocks get hot," Xena warned.
"Don't worry. The vegetables and meat need to soak for a while. While the rocks are heating, I'll recite you a poem I made up."
The fire made and the vegetables soaking in the bag, Xena and Gabrielle put all their blankets down to pad the hard ground. They sat together, Xena busying her hands with mending some clothing. Gabrielle chuckled, and Xena responded with her characteristic "What?"
"I wonder what the other warlords would think if they knew you do all the sewing."
"They would think that I'm an EX-warlord with many skills." She bit off a thread and made another knot. "What about the story?"
Now that she had Xena's full attention, Gabrielle felt shy. She had been proud of these words when they came to her earlier in the day. What if the warrior thought they were silly?
"Go on." Understanding why Gabrielle was hesitating, Xena dropped her clear blue eyes back to her mending. More gently, she said, "Please."
Gabrielle cleared her throat, and Xena expected to hear her voice declaim, as it usually did when she was being the bard. Instead, both the words and the soft tone gave Xena another reason to keep her eyes averted.
Within dark woods and on bleak plain,
Upon the ocean's waves or by its shore,
Ever am I safe and fear no dangers,
For you are here, my friend,
My dear companion.
You claim my trust and closest affection
As no one else has done.
My family calls me from afar
And to their land I travel,
But it is only as a visitor that I come,
For my true home is you.
You, whose arms surround me,
Are my walls and ceiling,
My comfort and protection from all ills.
Within dark woods and on bleak plain,
Upon the ocean's waves or by its shore,
Ever am I safe and fear no dangers,
For you are here, my friend.
Long after the stew was made and eaten, and other poems and stories had
been shared, Xena lay beside the sleeping Gabrielle and whispered, "Ever am
I safe and fear no dangers, for you are here, my friend."
Xena was wide awake at the first rustling, but she lay still to pinpoint the direction and nature of the sound. Something was at the packs. An animal? Too large for the animals that would be after their food. A man? Too small. A child then.
A boy, no more than nine or ten, was searching the sack that had held the ingredients for the soup. "It's all gone," Xena said softly. The boy tried to climb the rocky slope behind him, but the small stones slid under his desperate feet. Ducking to minimize his already small size, he tried
to slip past Xena's legs, but she snatched him by his tattered shirt and easily lifted him from the ground.
"Put him down," a voice ordered. Xena saw Gabrielle at her side.
"He was trying to steal our food."
"He's a thief."
"Xena. . . ."
"Okay." Xena let go of the boy's shirt, and as soon as his feet touched the ground, he shoved Gabrielle and tried to scamper through the opening this created. Xena reached behind and easily snagged his shirt again. This time he bit her. "Ow!"
"Don't hurt him, Xena," Gabrielle said. "He doesn't mean any harm."
Xena held the boy aloft with her other hand and inspected the one he had bitten. "Then why are you sitting on the ground? And why does my hand hurt like Hades?"
"Is it bleeding?" Gabrielle asked. "A human bite can be more dangerous than a wolf's."
"Stop it!" Xena gave the boy a slight shake, and he stopped struggling. "Whoever told you that was never bitten by a wolf. My hand is fine. Didn't even break the skin."
Before rising, Gabrielle reached into one of the packs and pulled out a piece of fruit, a little withered beyond telling its exact type. She smelled it before handing it to the boy. He smelled it, too, before biting it. He chewed as one who has been starving.
"You can let him down now," Gabrielle told Xena. "He won't run."
"Won't run?" Xena grumbled. "Now that you've fed him, we'll never get rid of him." But when he swallowed the last bite of the fruit, it was Xena who held the water skin for him so he could drink. "Take it easy. Don't drink too fast, or you'll get sick."
"I don't have anything else to give him," Gabrielle mourned. "We ate all the soup."
"He shouldn't have too much anyway, if he hasn't eaten for a while." Xena checked the sky. "It's getting light. Since there isn't going to be any breakfast, let's pack up and find that village. Someone there may know who our little friend is."
Xena whistled for Argo, who, her grazing as meager as her mistress's meal, came at once. While the warrior saddled her horse, Gabrielle packed up the few things they had used the night before. While working, she studied the boy, who watched her as well. She noticed that his clothing, although filthy and tattered, was not unlike that a child in her own village would wear. His brown hair was a dirty tangle, but it was only a little longer than boys usually wore. There were dark circles under his eyes, but they were not hollowed out like those of starving children she had seen.
"Xena," Gabrielle said, "I don't think he's been on his own very long. I think someone was taking care of him until recently."
"I agree. He's not a wild boy, like I thought at first." When Xena went toward the boy, he jumped up and withdrew behind Gabrielle's skirt. "I won't hurt you. What's your name?"
Gabrielle turned and, although she wasn't much taller than the boy, knelt in front of him. "What's your name?"
She thought she saw comprehension in his gray eyes, but he didn't speak.
He briefly laid his head on her shoulder. Then, straightening, he set off
down the small depression where the two women had spent the night. They
let him go a few paces and, when they didn't follow, he turned around as if
to ask what was keeping them. Xena shrugged, and she and Gabrielle,
leading Argo, fell in behind the boy.
The sun was approaching its zenith when the small group of travelers came upon a rutted track. The landscape, although still desolate showed scattered brush and stunted trees. Argo snatched a few blades of tough grass as her human companions stopped at the road to consider direction.
"Ask him," Xena said to Gabrielle. "He's still afraid of me."
Gabrielle turned to the boy. "Which way? Where's the village?"
Without hesitation, the boy pointed. "North," Xena said.
"How can you tell?" Gabrielle asked. "I can tell when there are shadows, but not when the sun is right overhead."
"That's north," Xena said. "I just know. If I'm right about where we are, that crossroads should be close by. The village is probably just beyond that." She turned to the boy. "Are you tired? Do you want to ride the horse?" He looked from her to Argo, then shook his head vigorously. Xena chuckled. "Just like you."
"We like to keep both feet firmly on the ground, don't we?" The boy nodded just as energetically. "Xena, he understands everything we say. Why doesn't he talk?"
"I think he's had a scare," Xena said. "Remember that little girl we met? The one who wouldn't talk after her mother died? She talked when she had a reason. I think this boy will talk when he feels safe, when he's with people he knows."
As they walked on, Gabrielle began to sing a nonsense song that she had learned as a little girl.
Up the mountain,
Down by the village,
Over by the rolling sea.
Here we go marching together,
You and I and me (tramp, tramp)
You and I and me.
On the second time through, Xena joined in, and then she and Gabrielle took turns making up verses. The boy didn't sing, but he seemed to keep time with the nodding of his head. He even smiled when Xena came up with this verse:
Out of the door,
In through the window,
Finding dust under the bed,
Here we go sneezing together,
You and I and me (Achoo!)
You and I and me.
In the middle of Gabrielle's next verse, Xena called a halt. "There's the crossroad." A group of ten or eleven men and women stood on the spot Xena had indicated.
"What are they doing?" Gabrielle asked. "That couldn't be. . . ."
"Wait here," Xena ordered. Handing Argo's reins to the other woman, she walked toward the people. She kept her hands open and at her sides, relaxed enough to indicate peaceful intentions but ready to grab a weapon if necessary. Before she had covered half the distance, the boy passed her at a run.
"Mama," he called in a high, thin voice. "Mama!" A woman turned toward him, and he threw himself into her arms.
Gabrielle caught up with Xena, and both women heard the boy's mother greet him. "Dhamphir," she said, "my boy. I thought you were lost to me."
"Papa?" he asked.
His mother shook her head, and Dhamphir buried his head against her chest and sobbed. Over his head, she looked at Xena and Gabrielle, and the others also turned their attention from the boy to these strangers. "Where did you find him?" she asked.
"Near the western forest," Xena replied. "He seems unhurt, but he's hungry. We didn't have much to give him."
"Dhamphir," his mother said. "Do your duty by your father." She turned him from her and toward the others. They parted, and Xena and Gabrielle saw behind them a freshly dug grave. The boy hesitated and looked up at his mother. "Go," she said and gave him a gentle push.
Dhamphir walked slowly toward the grave. Kneeling, he picked up a handful of the dusty dirt of the road and let it fall through his fingers upon the corpse of his father. Gabrielle did not walk close, but she still saw enough to make her turn sharply toward Xena. "Why is that man. . . ."
"Be quiet," Xena whispered. "I'll explain later. We need to be very careful."
"But, Xena. . . ."
Dhamphir having done his part in the ceremony, the village men quickly filled the grave with the dirt they had removed. When they were done, a signal was given, and an old man drove a heavy ox-cart back and forth across the grave, obliterating any sign of its existence.
Dhamphir's mother approached Xena and Gabrielle. "My name is Anoma. Thank you for bringing my son home."
"He brought us, more than we him," Xena admitted. "My name is Xena, and this is my friend Gabrielle."
"You're a warrior," Anoma stated.
"You are welcome to come to our village. We will all share food and drink in honor of my husband, Dhamphir's father."
"We wouldn't want to bother you at a time like this," Gabrielle said. "We'll find an inn or market where we can buy food."
"There's no inn in Chechlaea," Anoma said, "and the market is closed today. Please come. It will honor my husband to have travelers attend his feast." As she talked, another woman joined them and then another, but the men stayed back. Gabrielle noticed that all the women were dressed in white, not black, as would have been the custom in her own village. She would remember to ask Xena about this later.
Seeing that Anoma was sincere in her invitation, Xena nodded, and she and Gabrielle, followed by Argo, joined the procession back to the village. The village was smaller than Xena had expected, just a few modest homes around a central square. The square obviously served as the marketplace, but, as Anoma had said, no business was being done there. As they reached the square, the crowd around them began to break up, men and women drifting away to their own homes. A few children came out of houses and began to run and play in the square.
A tall man wearing a blacksmith's apron approached Xena. "I'll care for your horse," he offered. "We have good hay from the south." He held out his hand and, after a moment's hesitation, Xena handed him the reins.
Anoma, her arm around Dhamphir, led Xena and Gabrielle to a small house in the center of town. The signs marked above the doorway told Xena and Gabrielle that this was a house of mourning. "Please go in and refresh yourselves," Anoma said. "In the bedroom there is water in a pitcher and a bowl in which to wash. When you are ready, return to the square." Before her guests could reply, she and her son turned and walked away.
Inside, the house was neat and very clean. Walking through an open common room, the two women quickly found the bedroom and washed with the water they found there.
"Xena, why was that man. . . ," Gabrielle began again.
"Gabrielle, listen, we could be in serious trouble here," Xena whispered urgently. "No matter what happens, just follow my lead."
"Are you ready?" The voice belonged to a woman they had not seen at the crossroads. Reed-thin, she stood in the doorway and watched them. Not even Xena had heard her enter.
"We're ready," Xena answered. To Gabrielle, she added, "Remember what I
As if by magic, tables and chairs had appeared in the square. The people who had been at the crossroads appeared to be about a third of the adult population of the village. Gabrielle guessed that the women who had not attended the burial had stayed behind to prepare the meal.
She and Xena, as travelers, were given a place of honor across the table from the widow and her son. Bread and fruit adorned the middle of the table. One corpulent man poured a sweet red wine at each place. Even the children were given half a glass of the strong potion. Mothers hastened to fill the rest of each child's glass with water.
The man who had poured for the others filled his own glass and then offered a toast. "Let us all remember the husband of Anoma, the father of Dhamphir."
"Remember!" the villagers toasted, and everyone took a sip of the dark wine. There was a solemn moment, then bread was passed, and women began serving meat and vegetable dishes. The thin woman who had come for Xena and Gabrielle placed before each of them a spoonful from the large dish she carried.
"Taste it," she said. "It is a village specialty."
Xena took a bite and smiled, "Delicious." She ate the rest of the small portion and indicated that she would take another. "Gabrielle, eat up. I know you'll enjoy it."
Gabrielle took a bite and choked. All conversation around the table stopped. Xena quickly gave her a sip of wine. "Eat it," she whispered. "Ask for more."
Gabrielle took another bite, and then another and managed to swallow. She smiled and asked politely, "Could I have a little more, please?" The woman heaped several spoonsful on Gabrielle's plate and offered more to Xena, who cheerfully accepted. Conversations started up again, and Anoma nodded approvingly at Xena.
"What was all that about?" Gabrielle whispered indignantly to her friend. "You know I hate. . . ."
"Hush," Xena directed, while keeping a smile on her face. "Eat the rest of what she gave you. It won't kill you. Not eating it might."
With that encouragement, Gabrielle ate the rest of what she had been given, along with a glass of wine and a couple of large pieces of bread. After that, she relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the meal. Talk around her turned to memories of "Anoma's husband" and "Dhamphir's father," and, if she wondered why his name was never mentioned, she didn't ask.
Xena ate what was served and, each time someone offered to refill her wine glass, she accepted.
It was in a relaxed mood that the two women accepted lodging from Anoma and
returned to the house of mourning. Insisting that the widow and her son
keep their bedroom, Xena and Gabrielle placed their blankets on the floor
of the only other room, and soon fell asleep.
The wailing started before the moon had traveled a quarter of the way around the sky. It was followed by a few screams and then by many angry shouts. Xena was up and holding her sword at the ready before Gabrielle had both eyes open. Anoma and Dhamphir ran out of the bedroom just as Xena reached the house's door.
"Don't go outside," Anoma cautioned.
"Someone needs help," Xena answered. She took a step forward, and Anoma reached out to stop her.
"It's safe," Dhamphir said quietly. "She can go."
Anoma dropped her hand to her side and stepped back. She looked at her son. "Are you sure?"
He nodded. "They were here, here within the village, but they are gone. They took what they wanted. They won't return tonight."
Xena ran out of the house, followed by Gabrielle. Both having slept in their clothes, they were more prepared than the villagers, who wandered around the square in various states of dress and undress. The thin woman had her arms around a weeping child, a girl about the same age as Dhamphir. The woman looked up when Xena approached. "Warrior, this is what those monsters do," she hissed. "They took this child's father a month ago and took her mother tonight."
Gabrielle asked, "Who took them? Slavers?" Thinking suddenly of the child, she clapped a hand over her own mouth.
"Slavery would be better than the purpose for which they're taken." The woman, too, seemed to remember the child and closed her pale lips. She led the child away and, joining the corpulent man who had served the wine, entered a nearby house.
Anoma and several villagers joined Xena and Gabrielle. Anoma spoke first. "Warrior, I think you may know what is happening here. We want you to join
us for a talk, but it can wait till dawn, when you are more rested."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a glance and seemed to come to an understanding. "We can join you now, if you wish. If we hurry, we might be able to get that girl's mother back."
Sadly, Anoma shook her head. "It's too late for that. She's joined her husband. If something isn't done, they'll be back for the little girl. Maybe it isn't too late for her."
With that, Anoma led the way back to her small house. Xena noticed that the people who joined them were the same as those who had attended that day's burial. Sitting and standing around the main room of the house, they looked toward Anoma. Dhamphir entered and leaned against the back of his mother's chair. Gabrielle wondered that nobody shooed him out.
Then Dhamphir began to speak, and it was clear that it was his words everyone had come to hear. "Before the mists cleared from the lands around the forest, there was no great difference between man and beast. All lived together, took what they needed from the land, gave back upon their deaths all they had taken. Man and beast lived and died, and neither was buried."
Although all in the room, except the travelers, had surely heard this tale before, they listened intently to the child's words.
"Then something changed. The mists began to clear, and men looked around. They saw themselves, and they saw the beasts, and they understood that these were two different kinds of beings. Men were no longer content to die and leave their bones scattered around the ground. They would have a special place beneath the ground and ceremonies and feasts to mark the changing from one form to another. People would remember."
Dhamphir looked at Xena and Gabrielle, and his gray eyes seemed old as the mists of which he had spoken. Was this the lost, mute child they had so recently rescued?
"People would remember," he repeated. "For men realized that they were not beasts and must have names. And every time someone said his name, a man who had passed to another form would hear it--and know that he was remembered. All these things seemed such good ideas, the graves, the ceremonies, the feasts, remembrance of the dead, the names. . . ." The boy seemed to lose himself in thought.
The adults waited.
"All would have been well if there had been only men and beasts. But there were men who were not just men, and beasts that were not only beasts. These things were in between, neither one nor the other. We call these things evil, but they didn't see themselves, don't see themselves that way. They see themselves as the way things should be, men and beasts together, as they were in the time of the mists. And they will not rest until all of us of this village join them, becoming as they are, man and beast, both--and neither."
The boy stopped talking.
Xena asked, "Dhamphir, why did you bring us here?"
The boy seemed to seek what might be hidden in the blue depths of Xena's eyes. As he searched, she felt something touch her soul, and she shivered. Gabrielle, standing beside her friend, felt the movement and showed her surprise. Fierce warlords and bloodthirsty bandits couldn't make the tall warrior tremble. What was this boy?
As if he heard her question, Dhamphir spoke to Gabrielle, not Xena. "I am called Dhamphir, but that is what I am, not who. And Anoma is a title among our people. It is held by my mother, but it is not her name."
"We don't know any of your names," Xena observed.
"No. You know none of our names and so have no power over us," Dhamphir agreed.
Gabrielle complained, "I don't have any idea what you are talking about. What's a Dhamphir, if it's not a name? Are these men-beasts supposed to be real? What kind of power are you talking about?" She ceased her string of questions to take a breath and was about to continue, when Xena held up a hand.
"I think the men-beasts are what some people call nightwalkers. And others call the undead," Xena said matter-of-factly.
Anoma nodded. "They feed on the flesh or blood of the living and, when those people die, they, too, become monsters."
"Bacchae?" Gabrielle asked, still struggling to understand.
"No," said Xena, "not Bacchae. These things don't have anything to do with any god."
"Our legend explains the men-beasts in a way that we can understand," explained Dhamphir. "No human being can really know what they are or where they come from. If not destroyed, they live forever, always making others of their kind. Some who die during the feeding become a special kind of man-beast. All others live a human life until they die, and then they become men-beasts of the ordinary sort."
Gabrielle had to bite back a giggle, half nervous laughter, half caused by the image of an "ordinary" man-beast. Xena shot her a stern look, and she subsided.
"You said that you are a Dhamphir. What is that?" Xena asked.
Dhamphir looked at his mother, who answered for him. "Although Dhamphir is a special child, he is still a child and doesn't completely understand this part. The special sort of man-beast preys on humans in a. . . .different way. He--or she--takes with pain and hate that which should be given in love." She blushed, and both Xena and Gabrielle nodded to show they understood her meaning. "Men or women who are attacked in this way will become beasts themselves only if they die during the attack. If a woman lives and gives birth to the monster's child, that child is called an Anoma or a Dhamphir, as are all their descendents. The men-beasts cannot feed on these children."
"That's what you and your son are," Xena said.
"Yes," Anoma confirmed. "My grandmother was attacked and gave birth to my mother, who was an Anoma. She passed her mixed blood to me, and I to my son. The women only carry the blood from generation to generation. The sons, the Dhamphirs, have the powers."
"What powers are those?" Gabrielle asked.
"The powers of knowing," Anoma answered. "My Dhamphir knew you were both human. When the watchers saw you traveling in the forest, they thought you must be of the enemy. They wanted to stake you and burn you. Dhamphir and his father went to see if you were what the watchers said you were."
Dhamphir took up the story. "When Papa and I got close to the forest, there was a dense fog. We got separated, and I wandered around, unable to find him. I didn't know he was dead until I got back home." He looked down to hide sudden tears, again a sad, little boy.
One of the men, a sturdy woodsman in rough clothing spoke up. "When Dhamphir and his father didn't return by the next night, I led a group to find them. It was still foggy up on the plain, an unnatural fog. We didn't find the boy, but we found his father, a good man. He was at the bottom of a small drop-off, his neck broken. There were no marks on him, so he may simply have fallen in the fog. When we brought him home, we still had to take precautions." The last was said defensively, as if he wasn't sure that this was true.
"That's why you buried him as you did," Xena guessed.
"Yes," the woodsman continued. "The women dressed in white to fool him into thinking it was his wedding, not his funeral. We buried him at the crossroads to keep him from knowing the way home. And he was buried face down so any attempt to free himself would cause him to dig his grave deeper."
Gabrielle said, "That's what I wondered about."
"And no one can say his name," the dead man's wife added. "That's the hardest part. Saying his name might call him back."
"Dhamphir, were you really lost when we found you?" Xena asked.
The boy smiled. "You found me? I found you." He sobered. "After the fog lifted, I knew my way home, but I was tired and scared and hungry. I lay down and slept and, when I woke, you were coming out of the forest. I figured you were the travelers the watchers had reported."
"Who are these watchers?" Gabrielle asked.
"The village men take turns watching the edge of the forest," Anoma explained. "They watch for men-beasts coming from the forest and the newly undead trying to get there. If they can catch and overpower either, they destroy them."
Gabrielle was surprised. "Men-beasts can be destroyed?"
"Oh, yes." The speaker was an older man, gnarled and strong as an olive tree. "The new ones, the ones just leaving their graves, are weak as kittens. They're easy to catch if they try to cross into the forest without help. The others aren't much stronger than us when they're on the way to feed. Coming back is a different matter. The watchers don't get in their way then."
Xena brought the discussion back to Dhamphir. "If the watchers thought we were men-beasts, women-beasts, whatever, on the way to feed, why did you approach us? Were you that hungry?"
"I was hungry," he admitted, "and I figured you might have some food--if you weren't that kind. And when I got real close, I knew you weren't, that you were humans." He looked slyly at Xena. "Even then, I was a little afraid of YOU. Sorry I bit you."
"How did you know?" Gabrielle asked.
"I just did." He shrugged. "That's what it is to be a Dhamphir. So, once I knew you weren't a danger, and I saw that you might be a help, I brought you here."
"And you always could talk," Xena said.
He nodded. "Sorry. I didn't want to have to explain."
"At the crossroads, my son whispered to me that you were not of them," Anoma explained.
Xena observed, "But you still tested us."
Anoma smiled apologetically. "Some of our neighbors insisted."
"Tested us?" Gabrielle asked.
"That dish the thin woman served us?" Xena reminded her. "It was full of a seasoning which I like, and which I know you hate. But we both had to eat it. Refusing to do so would have meant you failed the test."
When Gabrielle still looked puzzled, Anoma explained. "The men-beasts or undead can eat most foods, even though those foods won't nourish them. There's one thing they can't eat, no matter how hard they might try. As Xena said, that dish was loaded with it."
Xena gave the ingredient a name. "Garlic."
"This brings us back to a question I asked a long time ago," Xena said. "Why did Dhamphir bring us here? Or maybe a better question now is what do you want me to do?"
With streaks of dawn appearing in the eastern horizon, the child was now resting in his mother's lap and, although still awake, did not answer. The adults looked around at each other and waited for someone else to speak. Finally, the old man, the one who had explained that men-beasts could be caught, took it upon himself to reply. "Sometimes we go many years without much trouble from the others. In my youth, we had a bad time, then things got better. Now they are the worst that they have ever been. We think the men-beasts are building up to take over the world, or, at least our part of it."
"This still doesn't answer my question," Xena stated, and Gabrielle could tell her friend's patience was becoming strained. Gabrielle laid a hand on the tall warrior's forearm, and her touch seemed to have a calming effect.
The old man saw this and dared to speak again. "This latest bad time started when a man named. . . ." He caught himself and looked at the child, who seemed to be dozing now.
Without opening his eyes, Dhamphir said, "It's okay to say it. He's far away. You won't call him."
". . . .named Strego. Strego. . . ."
"You don't have to say it a dozen times," Dhamphir cautioned.
"He was a very capable man, the carpenter for the village. One day, he traveled a little way into the forest to look for a special kind of wood. My group of watchers was right there, but he walked out of sight for a short time. When he returned, he told us about a beautiful woman he had seen. Of course, we all guessed what she was, but he claimed they never even touched, so we weren't that worried. We kept an eye on him for a few days, then forgot all about it. The next month, he was found dead on the floor of his workshop. He was naked. There were bites on his neck and chest and deep scratches, like those from an animal, on his back."
"Of course, you took precautions when you buried him," Xena observed.
"Buried him? We were going to burn him, but we never got the chance. We went to stack the wood and prepare his pyre, and, when we returned, his body was gone."
Xena couldn't believe the villagers could be that careless. "Surely you left someone to watch him!"
"Of course, we did!" The old man's tone was indignant. Who was more experienced at this business, she or him? "I left one of my best men. When we returned to the workshop, the body was gone, and so was the watcher. Now the carpenter leads our enemies against us, and the watcher is his lieutenant."
Xena nodded as if she finally understood her role. "You've been able for many years, maybe centuries, to keep a balance with these men-beasts, as you call them. But since S. . . .the carpenter has led them, the tide has turned in their favor. As you said, he was a very capable man, and he's very capable now as. . . .whatever he is." She looked around to see Dhamphir sleeping peacefully and all the other villagers agreeing. "You want me to kill Strego."
"No," said Anoma. "We want you to destroy the body that houses a monster.
You can't kill what is already dead."
Xena checked over the pack she would carry. Having checked on Argo and finding her well cared for, she had decided to leave her with the blacksmith. Now she stood in the middle of the village square and looked around at the small group that would accompany her into the forest. There was Gabrielle, of course, who was showing some of the village children how she used her staff. The old man, the leader of the watchers, was going. He stood talking with the sturdy woodsman, but glanced at Xena as if feeling her eyes upon him. Good man, she thought, as she would size up a veteran soldier before a battle. To her surprise, the thin woman who had taken in the little girl was going. When packs were distributed, she had hefted hers with no problem, and Xena had not objected. The last two members of the group were young men, both strong and quiet, who had been introduced to her only as watchers. Each carried an ax and a sharp knife and nothing else.
Anoma and Dhamphir walked out of their small house and into the square. Anoma brought the boy to Xena and said, "Take care of my son."
"You take care of him. He's not going."
"He's the only one who can find what you're looking for," Anoma pointed out. "I only wish that I could go, too."
Gabrielle looked surprised. "You aren't coming?"
Anoma shook her head sadly. "I'm the only Anoma the village has. And I'm . . . . I'm still young enough to have another child if . . . ."
"Mama must have another Dhamphir if something happens to me," her son added cheerfully. "Right, Mama?"
"I thought these things couldn't hurt a Dhamphir," Gabrielle said.
"They can't make me one of them," Dhamphir explained, "but they can kill me." Before Xena could speak, he added. "Your job is being a warrior. My job is recognizing the men-beasts. I think we were both born to these duties."
Gray eyes had to look up a long way to meet blue ones, but an understanding was passed between the tall warrior and the slight boy. Xena turned away to speak to the small group. "You know more about this enemy than Gabrielle and I do. We'll follow your lead in how to deal with them. But if I do give an order, you will follow it immediately. Does anyone have a problem with that?" She looked especially at the old man and waited until he shook his head.
The small group followed the rutted track until they had passed the crossroads. Neither Dhamphir nor any of the villagers spared a glance for the unmarked grave where his father was so recently buried. It was a subdued group that left the road and set off across the desolate plain that knew no path.
They walked steadily, drinking frequently, but stopping only once for a quick meal of cheese and bread. They had packed no meat for the journey, and the thin woman explained to Gabrielle that the watchers never ate meat in the forest. It was a tradition for which she didn't know the reason. Gabrielle, a strong walker herself, noticed that this woman had no trouble keeping up. Seeing Gabrielle watching her, the woman explained, "Most watchers are men, but I've done this all my life."
When they reached the edge of the forest, it became clear why the young men carried only the axes and the knives. Directed by the old watcher, they found a particular tree and began chopping off tough branches. These they cut into pieces about as long as a man's arm and then quickly trimmed and sharpened them. When they were done, each man had formed for himself a bundle of wicked looking stakes. With the woodsman's help, they raised these heavy packs onto their backs and faced the forest.
The old man turned to Xena. "We're ready. If the boy will lead us, we'll finish with some monsters today."
Xena nodded and looked down at the small boy. "Dhamphir?"
The boy didn't answer. His eyes appeared unfocused, and his whole being seemed to strain toward the darkness of the forest. He stepped forward, and the others followed, Gabrielle just behind him, then the others, and Xena guarding the rear. Gabrielle told herself this was the same forest she and Xena had already safely passed through. She had not liked being in it then but had been able to tell herself that her fears were groundless. Now she knew differently, and that knowledge made a difference.
Xena, too, felt the difference as she watched over her little army. She wanted to bring them all back safely and knew that this was unlikely. She WOULD bring back the boy and Gabrielle. That she would not negotiate with fate.
Soon Dhamphir stopped. No one else seemed to breathe as the boy stood as if entranced. Xena silently made her way to him. Without looking at her, he whispered and pointed, "That way. They're close."
Motioning for the old man to follow, Xena crept in the direction the boy had pointed. Beyond a screen of undergrowth, she saw three huts, so small and camouflaged, they almost blended in with their surroundings. She doubted if she would have seen them if the boy had not indicated where they were. Xena looked questioningly at the old man. He stole away and returned quickly with the rest of their party.
Efficiently, the villagers set about their work. The woman took from her pack a heavy hammer of the kind used to join rafters in wooden buildings. One of the young men unlashed some of the stakes from his pack. "How many?" he asked the woman.
She looked toward Dhamphir, who was gazing at the huts as if mesmerized. "Six," he said, "No. Seven. One's a child."
The young man counted out seven stakes and handed them to the woman. "Do you want to see?" she asked Xena.
Xena turned to Gabrielle. "Stay with Dhamphir. If anything goes wrong, go with him to the village."
"I want to go with you."
"You don't need to see this," Xena answered. "And I'm entrusting the boy to you." She knew that responsibility for the boy would restrain her friend as a mere order wouldn't. The two young men were kneeling beside Dhamphir, and Xena made eye contact with one of them. He nodded toward the boy and then toward Gabrielle, and Xena understood his meaning.
Xena and the others cautiously approached the nearest hut. The woman entered first and motioned for Xena to follow. Inside, lying on bare
ground, not just bare but looking cultivated, were two forms, one a pale young woman, the other a man, his skin ruddy with apparent health. "The girl's parents," the watcher whispered. "The woman was my niece. She isn't now. She's one of them."
"The man?" Xena asked. "He looks. . . .normal."
"He fed last night. Off her." Dropping to her knees, the watcher placed a stake against the breastbone of the thing that had been her niece. Raising the heavy hammer above her head, she struck the stake once, driving it through the body and into the ground. She hit it once more to make sure it was secure. Xena noticed that no blood issued from the wound.
The man stirred, and the watcher hurried to repeat the procedure with him. This time, a thin trickle of blood stained the stake. "The ones who have just fed bleed. A little." Rising, the woman led the way out of the hut. Outside, the woodsman was dousing the hut with lamp oil from a large bag he carried.
"Won't the others see the smoke and know we're here?" Xena asked him.
"Even in the forest, they stay in their huts and holes during the day," he answered. "When night comes, they'll know we're here all right."
The woman worked her way from hut to hut. Finally, there was only one stake left. She handed it to the old man, who had started a fire and was preparing torches to ignite the huts. "Only the little one is left," she said. Without questioning her, he walked to the last hut. Xena followed.
Inside the hut, two adults lay, both women, both already staked to the ground. Between them was a child, no more than two or three years old. "You can't," Xena began to say.
"She's not a child," the old man said. "just the body of one. Who knows how long she's been one of them? Once they're taken, they never grow." But Xena noticed how tenderly he turned the small form and placed the stake's tip against her breast. "Rest now, little one," he breathed just before bringing the mallet down with force. The child's eyes opened, and Xena thought she heard a sigh. It was a peaceful sound.
When the old man and Xena exited the last hut, the woodsman was already firing the other two. The old man grasped a torch and finished the job. "I hate this part," Xena thought she heard him say. Just then, terrible screams erupted from all three burning huts. Xena thought one voice sounded like that of a terrified child. She looked at the thin woman, who said, "The stakes hold them down, but the fire destroys them." Then they were all running back to where they had left their companions.
Before darkness filled the forest, they had found and destroyed three more small groups of the undead. A total of 18 soulless bodies were put to rest, become ashes that couldn't harm the living. In the last group, two were waking as the woman and Xena entered their hiding place. The woman hit the smaller with her hammer, and it collapsed on the ground. The other, who, in life, had been a strong man, grabbed Xena and tried to sink its teeth into her shoulder. Knowing what the slightest wound would mean, Xena pushed it away and, with a sweep of her sword, severed its head. The woman staked the body she had knocked out, but she didn't bother with the other. "Decapitation is pretty effective, too," she commented as they left the hut. There were noises coming from the other hiding places, whose residents had already been staked, and the huts were hastily fired. Again the screams, this time lasting longer.
"They grow stronger with the dying of the sun," the old man told Xena. "It may be only dusk outside the forest, but it might as well be midnight here."
"We still haven't found the carpenter," Xena said.
"Don't worry," the old man reassured her, "he'll soon find us."
Xena gathered her small force around her. "We can make a run for it, try to get out of the forest before the men-beasts find us. Or we can stay and try to end it."
"End it," said the woman, and the others showed that their resolve was the same.
"Dhamphir?" Xena asked.
"There are so many more of these things than I thought," the boy said. "Every step we take into the forest, I feel more."
"Then you want to go back?"
"No, Xena," he denied. "We can't go back. There are as many behind us as ahead."
Gabrielle involuntarily looked around. In the gathering gloom, every tree or bush could be one of the undead. She moved closer to Xena, her staff held at the ready. Whether she moved to get protection or to give it, she could not have said.
"Gabrielle, do you trust me?" Xena asked.
To Gabrielle, this was as nonsensical as asking if water was wet. But, seeing that Xena needed to hear it, she said, "Of course, I trust you. What do you want me to do?"
"Make camp, just as if this were any other evening. Make a fire, lay out our blankets, start a meal. Can you do that?"
"Yes," Gabrielle said. "Dhamphir can help me."
"No," said Xena. "Do it yourself. Dhamphir and the others are coming with me. We're going to prepare a few surprises for our neighbors." Motioning for the others to follow her, she added, "Bring your packs and all the stakes we have left."
Feeling very much alone, Gabrielle quickly gathered firewood and made making a fire her first task. Having heard from the others that those stalking them could see better in the dark than in the light, she made it a larger fire than usual. Deciding that Xena had meant that she was to cook, she put on the fire the only pot she had brought and filled it with water. >From her pack, she took some vegetables and the edible root she had gotten from Anoma. These she cut and added to the water. While the meal cooked, she placed her own and Xena's blankets side by side near the fire. Not sure what else she was to do, she got out a piece of parchment and a pen and, sitting on one of the blankets, began to scribe the poem she had recited for Xena two nights before.
She had almost lost herself in this task when she heard scuffling just outside the circle of light cast by the fire. Jumping up, she grasped her staff tightly. If the men-beasts entered the circle of the camp, they would pay.
"Gabrielle," Xena's voice said quietly from behind her. Gabrielle still jumped. "Come here." She sat upon the blanket Gabrielle had just vacated and patted it to show that her friend should join her. From her own pack, Xena had taken the mending she had started a couple of evenings before. Totally mystified, but remembering her vow of trust, Gabrielle sat and picked up the scroll she had been working on. "Is our meal ready? I'm really hungry tonight."
There was loud tramping in the surrounding woods.
"Who is it?" Xena called, and Gabrielle wondered if, in the course of the day, her friend had suffered a blow to the head.
The familiar voice of the old man called, "Travelers seeking shelter by your fire tonight."
"Enter the circle," Xena responded. "You are welcome in our home."
Into the firelight walked the "travelers," the old man, the thin woman, the woodsman, the two young watchers, and Dhamphir. "Remind me to ask you your names when this is all over," Gabrielle said with a nervous giggle.
"Please place your blankets by our fire and join us in our evening meal," Xena said formally. She looked at Gabrielle, who jumped up and finished preparations for the meal. All had spoons, and they ate the vegetables and root from the communal pot, soaking bread in the broth, and drinking wine from a skin Xena took from her pack. Gabrielle saw that Xena's pack was considerably smaller than it had been and wondered what surprises had been set for less welcome visitors to their camp.
After they had eaten, Xena offered to sing a song for their guests, a rare treat even for Gabrielle. The warrior's haunting voice filled the campsite as she sang about a sailor's longing for his home in Thrace. Before the last notes had died away, each person within the circle could imagine the lonely boy dying far away from his beloved homeland. Gabrielle, at least, brushed away a tear.
"Now you sing a song," Xena encouraged.
"I won't sing after you," the younger woman said. "You should know that by now. But I will tell a story. It's one your song reminded me of. It's about a ship that forever sails the seas until its captain is rescued by love."
Xena smiled, knowing the truth of what was about to be told. "Is there anything about seasickness and squid in this tale?" she asked.
"No," Gabrielle denied blithely. "But this one has a blonde heroine, not the usual one with dark hair." And, with that, Gabrielle began to weave her spell upon her listeners.
At times, there was scuffling outside the firelight and occasionally thumps
and low cries. But everyone ignored these and, when Gabrielle's voice had
grown hoarse with telling stories, they lay down on their blankets, some to
listen and some to sleep. Except for Xena, who sat beside a slumbering
Gabrielle and added wood to keep the campfire blazing.
Xena shook her friend awake as the first morning rays made their way through the branches. The others, including the boy, were already up and gathering their things. Xena handed Gabrielle bread and cheese. "No cooked meal this morning."
Gabrielle sloshed some water over her face and hands and ate the food, grateful to be alive to do so. Alive and not. . . .undead. She hurried to pack up the few supplies that were left and rolled the blankets. After her long session of story-telling the night before, she felt, for once, talked out.
"Stay here. We'll be right back," Xena said. She took a large firebrand off the campfire.
"I'm going, too," Gabrielle insisted.
Xena glared at her but didn't argue. "Then bring the rest of that firewood
with you." Their companions were already moving through the woods, picking up dry branches as they went. The two young men carried a large log and placed it beside another they had found. The others threw their wood on top of the logs, and Gabrielle followed their lead. Using the firebrand, Xena lit the pile of wood, and soon there was a large blaze. The woodsman and the old man approached the fire, and Gabrielle saw that they were dragging something. She looked away, too late, wishing that she had followed Xena's instruction to stay in camp. The thing started to struggle against the stakes that impaled it and the hands that restrained it. A flash of Xena's sword ended its struggles before it was thrown onto the fire.
Feeling that she would be sick, Gabrielle turned and looked into the face of Dhamphir. "That one was a leather worker from our village. I remember him from when I was small. I'm glad we can do this for him. He was a kind man."
When Gabrielle looked back, the fire was burning even more fiercely, as if the bodies that were being fed it were better fuel than wood. Heading back into the woods, one of the young men remarked to Gabrielle, "Give your friend some sharpened stakes and a little rope, and she can make a dozen different kinds of traps."
"Gabrielle?" The young woman looked up into concerned blue eyes. "We're almost done here. Do you want to wait back in camp?"
"Is this why we were safe last night?" Gabrielle asked. "Because of your traps?"
"No," said Xena. "We were safe because of you."
"Me? All I did was start a fire and cook a meal."
Xena placed a hand on the smaller woman's shoulder. "You did much more than that." She looked around and, seeing that the others were finishing the task at hand, decided to explain. "Ever since Dhamphir told us about the 'men-beasts' and that the villagers suspected that anyone passing through these woods might be one, I've wondered how we came through without being attacked. Both of us were uneasy the whole time we were here. We couldn't wait to get out of the cover of these trees."
Gabrielle nodded. "That's right. All I wanted was bright daylight. And you kept watch constantly and hardly slept at all."
"I think there were undead near our campsite every night. They were watching us, just waiting for one of us to come outside the circle of our fire."
"Comforting thought," Gabrielle said. "So why didn't they just come in and get us? You didn't have traps set then, did you?"
"No traps. I didn't know what was out there, just that something was. After Dhamphir told us about the men-beasts, I remembered something from a legend about the undead. It was that they can't come into your home unless you invite them in."
"Remember your poem, Gabrielle," Xena told her. "You said that I was your home. I know that you are mine. Not to stretch it too far, our home is where we make our camp together. It's our circle of firelight."
"So my job last night was to make our home," Gabrielle said. "And then we invited the 'travelers' to join us."
"Right!" Xena agreed. "But no undead were welcome."
"And it worked. Because of magic?"
Xena chuckled. "Maybe. Or maybe just because the men-beasts knew the legend, too."
The woodsman approached the two women. "Eight more who won't take any more villagers," he reported. "Dhamphir says there are more hiding nearby. Do you want to go after them?"
Xena shook her head. "No, I think we could spend years hunting down every
hiding place in this forest. We came after the carpenter. Let's see if
Dhamphir can find him."
Shouldering their packs, the young men each carrying a new load of stakes, the group set off to find the most dangerous of their enemies. Dhamphir and Xena were in the lead, and the boy moved his short legs to match her long stride. Eyes straight ahead, focused on nothing, he seemed to be following a trail no one else could see. Although Xena didn't turn, she knew that Gabrielle was safe and only a few paces behind her. The others fanned out a little, figuring to make short work of any undead whose hiding places they happened to find.
It was nearly midday, when Dhamphir suddenly stopped. He looked confused, and Xena worried that he had lost whatever track led them to their prey. "It's so strong," he said. "I've never felt any of them like this. It must be. . . .him."
"Where is he?" Xena asked.
"I don't see anything. Are you sure?"
The boy's voice was steady and confident. "I think he's. . . .underground."
Gabrielle had come up beside them and felt a shiver up her spine at Xena's question.
Dhamphir thought a moment, then said, "I think he has a house under the ground. The door is just ahead. That's what I feel. The place where he goes in and out. His presence is very strong there."
Xena motioned, and the group converged on the spot Dhamphir indicated. It looked the same as the rest of the forest floor. Xena turned back to Dhamphir, and he said, "It's there."
Xena brushed away the leaves and pine needles and found a thin layer of dirt below. Beneath that was a wooden door. "He couldn't cover this door from inside," Xena commented.
"There are probably other ways to enter," Dhamphir said, "but this is the main one."
"Or he has help," Xena added. She looked around at Gabrielle and the villagers. "Is everyone ready?" When they nodded, she reached down and, with a mighty pull, lifted the door. It opened smoothly, fitted perfectly on leather hinges. The old man handed her a torch he had prepared and, with one motion of flint on metal, lit it as if by magic. He did the same service for the woodsman and for one of the young men, and, lighting a torch for himself, indicated that he would bring up the rear.
Xena held her torch over the opening to reveal a staircase of wooden steps. The light didn't go far enough to reveal what was at the bottom. "Stay close to me," she instructed Dhamphir and Gabrielle and placed a cautious foot on the first step. There were no tricks or traps, and the group soon stood at the foot of the stairs. Their torches revealed a long tunnel or hallway, shored up and lined with large timbers. "I didn't think the men-beasts had this kind of energy," the old man whispered. "They usually live in holes in the ground or in simple dwellings like the ones we found yesterday."
Dhamphir started forward, and the others followed. At the end of the tunnel, they found themselves in a large cavern. "Nobody hollowed this out," Xena said. Holding their torches aloft, they saw high ceilings and walls of limestone. A few stalagmites and stalactites told them the origin of this room. It was what they saw as they pushed farther into the cavern that gave them reason to gasp. Like boxes stacked one on top of another, there were wooden shelves built along each of the walls. The shelves were covered with dark soil and, upon the soil rested what looked like the corpses of dozens of men and women. Most were pale as death itself, but some showed the rosy glow of those who had recently fed.
"This can't be," Dhamphir protested. "There can't be this many. They would have to suck dry every village for miles around."
"What do you want us to do?" the woodsman asked Xena. "We can go back up and make more stakes."
"Leave them for now," Xena ordered. "Let's see what's ahead."
On the other side of the cavern, there was another passage, this one seeming to have occurred naturally. Marks on the sides showed that it might have been widened in a few places. Stone lying at the sides might have once been formations that had blocked the way. After a short time, the group entered another cavern, this one much smaller than the first. There were also wooden structures around this cavern, but these were not shelves, but cages. In each cage, there was confined a woman or a child. Naked or wearing rags, they blinked at the sudden light and cringed from the visitors to their dark world. Gabrielle started forward and fumbled with a lock.
"Leave it," Xena ordered, her voice harsh.
"But. . ."
More gently. "Leave it."
"They're human," Gabrielle said.
"They were." It was Dhamphir who spoke this time. "Look at them."
Xena held her torch near the cage Gabrielle had tried to open. A woman, her age impossible to tell, huddled against the back wall. From her mouth issued small sounds like those of an animal in a trap. She was naked, and her thin body was covered with bites and scratches. Xena rattled the door of the cage, and the woman turned her eyes that direction for a moment. Her eyes were the eyes of madness.
Gabrielle turned, pressing her face into Xena's body. Xena stroked her friend's hair before stepping away. "Dhamphir, are we getting closer?"
"What we seek is beyond the next passage."
Now so close together it was hard to tell the order of their march, the
group followed Xena through the opening into that passage. This tunnel was
short, and they soon found themselves in a cavern half as large as the
first. In this one, there was furniture, including a large bed, looking
like one in which a king might rest. The only difference was an important
detail. Instead of bearing a mattress and coverlet, the bed's frame was
filled with dirt. Xena held her torch high, and it illuminated a horrific
sight. A small woman, little more than a girl, hung naked and bleeding
from chains set into the cavern wall. Seeing the girl at the same time
Xena did, Gabrielle gave a cry and started forward.
"Leave her alone or take her place." The voice came from a patch of darkness beyond the bed. All turned to find its owner, and he stepped out
into the light. Although the torches continued to glow brightly, he did not blink or turn his head away. For a moment, Xena thought that he must be a man. Then he laughed, and something in that sound was so inhuman that she knew he had to be one of. . . . them.
Almost as tall as Xena, he was well-built without being muscular. He wore peasant garb, but it was clean and mended, not ragged like that of the undead they had killed. His hair was long and a lustrous black that accented his strong facial planes. As he moved easily and confidently to stand in front of Xena, his dark eyes seemed to absorb the light of her torch. "You wouldn't invite me into your home, but I welcome you to mine."
As Xena reached for her sword, the chamber was suddenly filled with undead pouring from the passage through which the humans had just come. The small force of villagers fought bravely, slashing with knives and stakes. Swinging her staff in wide arcs, Gabrielle took down several of the attackers. Finally, however, through sheer force of numbers, Gabrielle and the others were overwhelmed and taken to the floor of the chamber.
After a short while, only Xena was still standing. Finding milling bodies between herself and her main quarry, Xena slashed with the blade of her sword and punched with the pommel, leaving limbs and limp bodies all around her. Fighting for every step, she at last found herself facing the being she sought. Throwing off two attackers that tried to hold her right arm down, the warrior raised her sword and prepared for the slashing blow that would separate the monster's head from his shoulders.
"STOP!" The voice filled the chamber and brought all movement to a halt. Beyond the bodies pinioning her arms, Gabrielle saw Xena pause and then slowly lower her sword. Long moments passed, as no one moved. The thing facing Xena gave his odd laugh and ordered, "Breathe." As she took a gasping breath, Xena realized that she had been holding her breath. She tried to lift her sword again but was shocked to realize that she could not move. The man watched her face as if wanting to see this knowledge in her eyes. Then he turned his attention away to give orders to his minions. "Borreyo," he called. A slender figure, looking more boy than man, stepped forward. "Don't let them be hurt. I want them for my private stock." The one called Borreyo took a key from the back wall and opened a heavy door. He motioned for the undead holding the villagers and Gabrielle to put them into the cell beyond.
One of the undead, tall and gaunt, looking like what he was, an animated corpse, protested. "What about us, Strego? We hunger, too."
Strego seemed to consider. "You can feed on those in the cages. And, Borreyo, give them the girl." Xena's heart seemed to stop as Borreyo pushed Gabrielle toward the waiting mob. "No, you fool, not that one. Trade the blonde for the one in the chains. If I feed on her one more time, there will be another like me and you."
As the others pushed the villagers into the cell and locked the door behind them, Borreyo released the girl from the chains. As she fell, the one who had complained caught her. She moaned quietly, and he licked his lips. Although Gabrielle struggled with all her strength, Borreyo easily held her weight with one hand while he used his other to chain her arms over her head. When he was done, her feet barely touched the floor. After seeing that the keys were again hanging on the far wall, Borreyo motioned for the others to leave the chamber and then started down the passageway himself.
Strego shouted after him, "Tell those fools not to kill any of the prisoners. Leave enough blood to keep their hearts beating." Turning to Xena, he said, as much to himself, as to her. "They will kill them, you know. If I'm not watching, they always do. Just what I need, more undead cluttering up the place."
"I would be glad to reduce the population for you," Xena offered.
"I heard that you and your group have already done a bit of that," he responded. "Burned a few of the citizens of the hinterland." He studied Xena for a moment, then removed her sword from her hand and let it fall to the floor of the chamber. Stepping forward, he extracted her breast dagger and one from each of her boots. "There may be more, but don't worry, I'll find them later." Xena's skin burned from the slight contact with his hand.
He walked to a heavy dining table and moved one of the chairs so it was behind Xena. "Where are my manners, my dear? Please SIT." Without knowing why she did so, Xena sat in the chair, her hands and arms resting on the chair arms as securely as if they were tied. Strego pulled one of the other chairs over so he could sit facing her, his knees almost touching hers.
"You military types are so easy to control," he informed her. "If must be your training in taking orders."
"I give orders," Xena answered.
He laughed. "I'm going to enjoy you." He got up and went to the table again. "Would you like some wine?" Without waiting for an answer, he poured red wine into an ornate goblet and carried it back to his prisoner.
"I seem to be unable to take the cup," Xena told him.
"No matter." He held the glass for her as she took a sip.
"Aren't you having any?"
"I'll take refreshment later," he answered.
Although her arms and legs still would not respond, Xena found that she could turn her head enough to see Gabrielle. Gabrielle mouthed her name, and Xena smiled to reassure her. Strego observed the exchange. "I was going to give your traveling companion to Borreyo," he said. "That was before I had seen her. Now I'll keep her for myself."
"Won't Borreyo be disappointed?" Xena asked.
"I'll give him one of the young men. That will make him just as happy."
"You and Borreyo seem different from the others." Xena nodded toward the wine, and he gave her another sip before answering.
"That's an understatement, my dear." He used his finger to wipe the corner of her mouth, and again his touch burned. "The others are just what the villagers call them, men-beasts or undead. You saw them. Even down here, they can barely stay awake during the daytime. Borreyo and I are special."
"That's what Dhamphir said."
"Did he? So even the stupid villagers realize it." He seemed pleased with this recognition.
"Weren't you a villager, too?" Xena asked innocently. "A blacksmith or something?"
"I worked as a carpenter," he corrected. "Following in my father's footsteps, you know. But I was always smarter than the others. I taught myself to read and write even though that village didn't have a school. Every time a traveler or trader came through, I asked if they had scrolls. As a boy, I traded little wooden carvings of animals for them. Later, when traders wanted to buy my furniture, I made sure some scrolls were thrown in on the deal."
"Your learning?" Xena asked. "Is that what makes you special? Borreyo doesn't seem all that learned, but you say he's special, too."
Strego strode to the table and brought back a scroll. He held it in front of Xena and waved it at her. He pointed to a word and asked, "Do you know what that word is?" Xena shook her head. "Dumb warrior, can't you read? It's incubus. That's what I am. That's what Borreyo is, whether he deserves to be or not."
"What does it mean?"
"When those others out there, those undead, take blood, they create more of themselves every time. If they kill the human while feeding, it happens almost immediately. If the human dies later, even fifty years later, it happens after the corpse is buried." All this was said with complete contempt, as if talking of a lower life form. "That's why the villagers have made up so many ways to bury their dead, face down, hands tied with dozens of little knots, even stones placed over their heads." He laughed at the ridiculous things humans would do.
"Don't those things work?" Xena thought she could move her fingers a little.
"Oh, sure, STOP THAT, so long as the undead believe it!" Xena's fingers stopped moving. "Like that stunt you pulled with your campsite. When Borreyo told me how those idiots stumbled around in the dark, tripping your traps, all because they were afraid to enter your home without an invitation! If I were alive, I would have died laughing."
"So how is an incubus different from those ordinary men-beasts?" Xena remembered Gabriel's reaction when Dhamphir had called these monsters 'ordinary' and grimaced in her direction. Gabrielle made a face in acknowledgement.
"When I feed, it is an experience in pain and pleasure for both myself and the one on whom I feed. And, unless I take their last drop of blood, unless I kill them, they won't become undead themselves. If I do kill them, as I did with Borreyo, through inexperience, I assure you, they become as I am." He obviously thought this was something to be desired by anyone.
"It sounds to me like you are less dangerous than the ordinary kind of undead," Xena observed. "Why do the villagers fear you more?"
"Because I am intelligent, not just a walking corpse. It was I who thought of keeping prisoners, so we could feed without having to expose ourselves to those wretched watchers when we are at our weakest." He smiled slyly. "And they should fear me for what they don't even know. I am leaving this backwater soon and striking out for Athens, where I will live as a king, no, as a god, starting a new race of beings that will someday rule the earth. I was going to take Borreyo along as my companion, but perhaps I will take you, too. Or even instead. Would you like that?"
Xena tried to keep the disgust out of her voice. "Why would I?"
He looked at Gabrielle, who defiantly met his dark gaze. "I was going to
use the girl to build my strength for the trip, then give her to that mob." He shifted his gaze to Xena. "Suppose I create you in my image and then give the girl to you? You would both be immortal, bound together forever. And you could help me start my new race."
"I thought you didn't believe in creating new undead," she reminded him.
"Not from these villagers, this common clay, but from you. . . ." A look came into his eyes that chilled even Xena's brave warrior soul. Leaning forward, he brushed one finger along the line of her cheek. The agony was such she expected to see smoke curling up from where he touched. He leaned forward, claiming her lips with his, and she cried out.
Gabrielle was struggling and yelling, but Xena couldn't make out the words as Strego continued to kiss her. His hand fumbled with the front of her bodice, and the heat of his touch was suddenly inside her. She felt herself in flames, and, as much as she wanted to deny it, pleasure was building to rival the pain. She wanted him to stop, and she wanted him to never stop. He removed his mouth from hers and looked at her with flat black eyes. Soulless eyes. "You will be with me always." He leaned over her and placed his mouth at the base of her throat, where her tender neck met her shoulder. When he bit, it was not a puncture, but a rough tearing, as by a wild beast. He chewed on the delicate flesh and pulled her pulsing life into himself, savoring it before he swallowed. . . .
"WHAT DID YOU DO?" He pulled away from her, falling onto the floor beside
his chair. "WHAT DID YOU DO?" In that instant, Xena felt his control
slip, and, able to move at last, she spun from her own chair to where her
sword still lay. Raising it for a swift strike, she approached where he
sat retching on the floor. As she swung the sword downward, he recovered
enough to whisper, "Stop," and her blow was off enough that she cut into
his throat but did not sever his head. Although the sword felt as if it
weighed as much as a boulder, she raised it for another strike. He opened
his mouth and his lips formed, "Stop," but, his windpipe cut, no sound came
out. Xena finished the downward arc, and his head rolled free of his
shoulders. As she knelt on the chamber's cold floor to recover, Xena was
thinking that the blood that poured from his neck was not even his.
"Xena? Xena? Are you all right? Xena?" The warrior raised her head to look into concerned green eyes. She nodded but, to her surprise, staggered slightly when she stood. She made her way to the door of the cell and, taking the key from the wall, unlocked and opened the door. The villagers, having prepared to jump whoever opened the door, tumbled out. They looked up, surprised to see the warrior still living.
Taking the other key, Xena walked more steadily to Gabrielle.
"Xena, what DID you do? What made him sick?"
Xena chuckled. "I've been eating garlic since we left the village. My blood is saturated with it."
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose. "So is your breath."
Xena unlocked the chains and held her friend and rubbed her wrists where the bands had dug in. Gabrielle tore a piece off her own blouse and touched it against the wound on Xena's neck, which was still bleeding freely. "Okay, if a human bite is worse than a wolf bite, how does an incubus bite compare?"
"Xena, that's not funny," Gabrielle scolded, but she laughed anyway.
The thin woman looked at the bite, and said, "I'm glad it was Strego who bit you. Otherwise I would have to kill you."
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other, and both of them laughed. The other woman shook her head as if they were crazy. The woodsman interrupted, "Does anyone know how we're going to get out of here?"
Xena turned to Dhamphir. "You said there was probably more than one way out. Any ideas?"
Dhamphir thought. "There should be a way to get outside from this chamber. For Strego's safety, and so he wouldn't have to go through the other chambers every time he went out."
The old man walked to a tall cabinet sitting against one of the walls. "Here." He tried the door, which wouldn't open, and started to look for a mechanism that would open it. Xena kicked the front of the cabinet, and the door swung open.
"That usually works," Gabrielle commented.
There was no back in the cabinet. Instead, they could see a staircase. Steeper than the one by which they had entered the caverns, it led into darkness above. Xena ran up the stairs and, when she pushed open the door at the top, dim sunlight illuminated the steps. "It's still daylight," she said. "I thought Strego talked away the day and half the night."
The woodsman had retrieved his pack and was pouring lamp oil on Strego's body. "How much of that do you have left?" Xena asked.
"About half of this one and another full bag," he answered.
Xena turned to the old man. "Do you have a fresh torch?"
"I only need one." He held it out to her. "Light it." He found his flint and quickly did so. Xena held the torch in her left hand and pulled her sword with her right.
"All of you go up these stairs and head back to the village," Xena directed. "I'm going to take care of a few more of our friends. I'll join you in a little while."
"You can't carry the oil and the torch and use you sword all at the same time," the woodsman pointed out. "I'm going with you." Realizing he was right, Xena nodded.
"I'm staying, too," Gabrielle said.
"No you're not," Xena told her. "You're going up those stairs if I have to knock you out and let someone carry you."
"What about the people in the cages?" Gabrielle asked. "Someone has to release them."
"I'll take care of the people in the cages. Now, go!"
"But. . . ."
Xena took a step toward Gabrielle, who realized she was serious. "I'm going." As soon as the others were in the stairwell, Xena closed the cabinet door and, with the woodsman's help, blocked it with the heavy table. "Just so she doesn't change her mind," she explained. Touching her torch to Strego's body, she ignited the oil. "Ready for a run?" At the woodsman's nod, she took off down the passage.
In the next cavern, they found the answer to Gabrielle's question. Strego had been right about what would happen to the people. The cages were open, and their former occupants lay pale and still on the floor of the cavern. Among them was the girl who had been chained in Strego's chamber. "They'll awaken soon," the woodsman said.
While Xena waited, he sprinkled the rest of the first bag of oil on the bodies. Xena touched off the oil with her torch, and they sprinted down the next passage. Most of the undead had retired to their resting places, but Borreyo and a few others leaped toward them as they entered the big cavern. Borreyo was armed with a club that he wielded with strength far beyond his size. Xena found herself hard-pressed to hold onto the torch and parry his blows with her sword. Three others were closing in. She threw the torch to the woodsman with the hope that it would not set off the volatile oil. With another hand free, she was able to launch her chakram, which passed cleanly through the thin, dry necks of all three moving corpses, caromed off the far wall and came back to make Borreyo duck to save his own neck. Xena used this distraction to kick Borreyo in the midsection and, as he bent over even farther, she struck a mighty blow with her sword that caused his head and body to permanently part company.
The woodsman threw the torch back to Xena and set about dousing the undead and their shelves with the rest of the oil. Xena motioned him toward the passage to the stairs and, as he reached it, she ran through the cavern igniting the oil. As she caught up with her partner, an inferno raced through the passage behind them, igniting the timbers that lined it. Xena pushed the woodsman up the steps just as the door was opened from above. With not a moment to spare, the two fell onto the ground, as flames shot up the wooden stairs.
Xena turned to look at the brave man who lay gasping on the ground beside her. "What's your name?" she asked.
"Apollodorus," he answered. "Glad to meet you."
Far to the east, where the Pelopponese meets the sea, two women sat on the silvery sand. Turning their faces to the sun, they let its brightness replace thoughts of dark caverns and of beings neither alive nor dead. Others would continue to guard the world from that particular evil, but that was not now their task. If they could have heard each other's thoughts, these would have been much the same: Today there's sun in sky, and we're alive.