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COPYRIGHT DISCLAIMER: All of the characters mentioned in this story that have appeared in the syndicated series "Xena: Warrior Princess" are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended.
This story may be freely distributed in unaltered form, provided that no profit is gained from such distribution. Of course, it is civil to ask my permission first.
OTHER STUFF DISCLAIMER: No sex, no violence, no mature themes, no subtext, no profanity, no Joxer. Sort of approved for all audiences. I wonder myself how nice it is.
An Abnormal Fear of Eights
It was late in the morning, and Xena and Gabrielle were packing their things to move on after a restful night. They had been travelling slowly, without a clear destination for several days now, leisurely making their way south through western Macedonia, towards Thessaly. Ultimately, their destination was Athens, but they were in no hurry to get there. So they took their time, allowing Gabrielle to get as much sleep as she wanted in the mornings. Mostly, they stayed in village inns, that were cheaper than usual, because the villages they visited were far from major trading routes. Some nights, however, they had no choice but to make their beds under the open sky.
"It has been too long since I visited these parts," Xena spoke as she was checking Argoís saddlebags. "Looks like I made a mistake in the dark, in regard to our location."
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle wondered.
"You see that standing stone over there?" Xena asked, pointing at a naturally formed granite pillar in the distance. "It marks the road to Throcada. We canít be more than five stadia away from it."
"We should reach it before noon, then," Gabrielle said. "Of course, had we pushed on last night, we would have reached it before midnight."
"But wasnít it fun to spend the night outdoors for a change?" Xena asked.
"Indoors was fine with me. I prefer a bed you know," Gabrielle answered, being slightly resentful. "My back hurts like..."
She stopped in mid-sentence, seeing Xenaís hand signal. From the absent stare in the warriorís eyes, Gabrielle could see that she was listening to something.
"A horse and a walker approaching, from the south," Xena said after a short silence. "The walker is leading the horse."
Show off, Gabrielle thought as she turned to look towards the southern path. Not that she would have bet against the warrior princess.
And sure enough, a few moments later a slim man leading a lame white horse appeared over the ridge to the south. Having packed their belongings, the two walked over to meet the man.
"Greetings, traveler!" Xena called out when they were a few paces away. The black-clad man looked up grimly.
"Greetings, ladies," the man replied, continuing with a troubled voice. "You are Xena, the warrior princess, are you not?"
Xena nodded. "Yes. And you, by your emblems, are from the court of King Gregor."
"That is true. Xena, I have a desperate need for your horse. Would you exchange it for mine, and all the dinars I have? It has hurt its leg, but not badly. It will be all right after a few days rest, but I need a fast steed now."
Xena and Gabrielle were touched by the manís desperate plea. Xena, however was not too inclined to give Argo away.
"Tell us what you need. What is your urgent business?" Xena asked.
"King Gregorís neice, Ethynira, was bitten by a Hypnos spider three days ago."
Gabrielle had heard of the Hypnos spiders while Xena and her had been travelling in Thrace, although she had never seen one. The word was enough to make her skin crawl. Gabrielle hated all spiders, and these were certainly not an exception, quite the contrary.
"Arenít they very rare this far west?" she asked.
"Yes, they are, but not unheard of. As you know, their venom is not lethal by itself, but causes a deep sleep that may last for days or weeks. This happened with Ethynira as well. She is now lying in her bed-chamber, withering in front of her doctors. They have tried to pour water and soup down her throat, but she is still becoming weaker. King Gregor is afraid that his niece may starve to death in her sleep. That is why I was sent to Cadipolis, to visit a healer rumoured to know an antidote to the Hypnos venom."
"This seems urgent indeed," Xena agreed. "Unfortunately, I would rather give away my right hand than my horse. Would you trust me with King Gregorís task?"
The man seemed to consider this for a moment, before looking up again to reply.
"Yes, Xena. I know that King Gregor holds you in high regard. Iím sure that he would not hesitate to trust his neiceís life in your hands."
Xena nodded and smiled wryly. "Iím glad to be of help." Turning to Gabrielle, Xenaís smile changed to a more sympathetic one. "I guess that this means we have to separate for a while. I have to be able to ride as fast as I can."
"I understand, Xena," Gabrielle sighed. "How long do you think it will take?"
"Not for long, I suspect. One days ride to Cadipolis, two days back to King Gregorís castle, maybe less if I think Argo is up to it. And the day after that I should be back here to pick you up. Unless you wish to join this man as he returns to King Gregor. On foot, you should reach it by the time I get there with the antidote."
"No, I think Iíd prefer a short rest in Throcada. Youíll meet me there in four days, then?"
"In four days, give or take," Xena replied as she mounted Argo. "I think youíll like Throcada, the people there are friendly and love good stories."
"Very well, Xena," the man said to her as she turned Argo towards the north. "When you get to Cadipolis, ask for a woman called Ileanta."
"I will. Now go and tell your king to keep up hope. If there is an antidote to be found, I will get it. Goodbye, Gabrielle."
"Be careful," Gabrielle said as Xena urged Argo to a fast gallop. In a few moments, the warrior was out of sight.
The road to Throcada was indeed to be found by the standing stone. It was very badly kept, a pair of deep, muddy cart tracks being the only parts of it that were not covered with tall grass. It was easy to follow, though, and Gabrielle reached the quaint little village well before noon.
She instantly saw that something was out of place. The weather was beautiful, only a few small clouds occasionally drifted out of their way to block the sun. Yet there was no movement on the main street, no peddlers or merchants, not even children playing. There were no people to be seen... or heard.
Slowing down, Gabrielle took a stronger grip of her staff and scanned the buildings for any signs of attack. There were none. No arrows sticking out of walls, no broken things scattered about, and no burning buildings. No smoke. Not even from the chimneys. The village seemed utterly deserted.
"Hello?!" Gabrielle yelled. "Anybody here?"
There was no answer. Gabrielle had now reached the first buildings, and saw no sign of any trouble. No sign of anything, for that matter.
Maybe thereís some sort of a village festival going on, Gabrielle thought. The villagers were probably all out on the fields, dancing and celebrating. Then she realised that it wasnít harvesting season yet, and that farming villages did not usually hold any festivities before harvest.
"This is getting stranger and stranger all the time," she said to herself. "Something is obviously amiss."
She was suddenly startled when she heard a sound from her left. With her staff at the ready, she spun around and tried to spot the source of the strange noise. She sighed with relief when she saw it.
There was a small stable on the side of one of the houses. The door was partly open, and inside Gabrielle could see a small horse. It had apparently been upset by her voice as she had been talking to herself. It seemed even more restless than it should have, though.
"Oh, poor thing... you havenít been fed this morning, have you?"
Gabrielle opened the stable door, and noticed a barrel half full of oats just inside the door, placed so that the horse would not reach it from its pen. She made a cup out of her hands and filled it from the barrel, and offered it to the small horse. Gabrielle felt comfortable tickling as the animal ate, brushing its lips against her palms. After it had eaten two such portions, it seemed satisfied. Gabrielle then went outside and was pleased to find a bucket near one of the buildings. She filled the bucket from barrel of rainwater she had seen earlier, taking the water to the small horse.
As Gabrielle watched the little horse drink, she became more puzzled. Obviously, the animal had been well kept so far, for it was in good health. Yet she had found it abandoned, left without food or water. This seemed strange. The villagers were all gone, there was no sign of any resistance, but the state of this horse indicated that they had either left in a hurry or against their will, quite possibly both. None of this made sense.
Watching the animal eat reminded Gabrielle of how hungry she was. Walking out of the stable, she proceeded to a larger building that seemed to be the local tavern. As she was going inside, she spotted a plump, yellow cat sitting right outside the door, ignoring Gabrielle.
"Hello, kitty? Lost your owner?"
The cat did not flinch. It was intently watching something. After several further efforts to attract the felineís attention, Gabrielle finally gave up and stepped inside.
The tavern was more comfortable-looking inside than outside. The wooden floor was smooth and clean, and the furniture of good craftsmanship. There was even a bardís corner where the floor was slightly higher than elsewhere in the room.
"Oh yes," Gabrielle noted. "The Throcadites love a good story... but where are they all?"
She searched through the kitchen and pantry. She did not find any fresh milk but there was plenty of bread, dried meat, ale, wine and mead. Wanting to keep her wits about her, Gabrielle poured a simple mug of water for herself and grabbed a loaf of bread and two sticks of meat to go with it. She carried her loot to one of the tavern tables, placing a sheet of parchment, her quill and ink bottle next to the food, intending to continue her travel journal. Before she began to eat, though, she turned about and placed a sum of dinars on the counter as payment.
As she turned back to her awaiting meal, she saw something that made her yelp and jump backwards a few steps. On top of the bread stood a spider. It was about half the size of Gabrielleís hand, with hairy legs. It was brown in colour, with yellow stripes in the joints.
Although Gabrielle feared and hated spiders even under normal circumstances, the news of King Gregorís neice made her even more afraid of the hairy arachnid on the table. Barely able to move, she took a cautious step towards the wall her staff was leaning against. The spider moved slightly, seemingly looking straight at her.
Gabrielle was not going to take any chances with the eight-legged horror on the table. She had no way of knowing whether this was a Hypnos spider, as she didnít know exactly what one would look like. Taking a quick leap to cover the distance to her staff, she grabbed it and swung it around her with one hand, the heavier end coming down at the spider.At the last moment the small pest managed to step aside, scurrying down the length of the table. The mighty stroke of the staff pulverised the loaf of bread.
"Take this, you foul insect!" Gabrielle yelled as she struck and struck again at the spider. "And this! And this!" The spider was lightning-fast, however, and avoided all her blows. Running at high speed on the floor, it used every cover the stools and tables could provide. Eventually, Gabrielle lost sight of it.
Catching her breath, the bard suddenly began hearing quiet ticking in her ears. Turning to look, she saw three more spiders sitting on top of the bar counter. Tightening her grip of the staff, she suddenly realised how inadequate a weapon it was against these octopeds.
The ticking sound was coming from the three spiders. The small black mandibles surrounding their mouths were clicking together. It almost seemed as if they were talking to each other.
Gabrielleís heart was racing. Consciously, she knew it was ridiculous to be so terrified by these little creatures. Deep within, however, she could not shrug off her fear.
"Get away from me!" Gabrielle screamed hysterically. "I warn you, donít come any closer!"
This did not have the effect she desired. Suddenly, from every dark corner around the far end of the tavern, dozens of spiders crept out. Before Gabrielle could move towards the door, there was a thin carpet of them between her and the exit, slowly approaching her.
The staff dropped to the floor as she retreated to avoid the advancing horde of spiders. Near panic, she stumbled on a chair and fell ungraciously to the floor. Seeing that the arachnids were already close to her, she crawled away from them, her every muscle shivering like a drumskin. The spiders followed her, until she had nowhere else to go. Curling up to the back corner of the tavern room, she stared in horror as the brown-yellow army got closer and closer. Then, as if commanded, the spiders stopped, barely two feet away from her.
Taking short, rapid breaths, Gabrielle gawked at the creatures surrounding her, when a peculiar spectacle began. A small group of spiders separated from the others and started to assemble. First, their maneuvers seemed confusingly random, but then Gabrielle began to see familiar shapes forming on the floor. They were letters.
Gabrielleís eyebrows rose almost as much as her jaw dropped. There, on the floor, the group of spiders had formed a clearly readable word.
"By the blood of Zeus," Gabrielle exclaimed quietly.
The spiders were quiet now. Not a single mandible clicked, and not a single hairy foot made a move. All of the spiders were just staring at her.
"You want my help? What... why? Can you understand what Iím saying?"
The letters disappeared as the small group began to form new ones. These took much less time, but the change still wasnít too quick.
"We have to find a better way to communicate, you know. I have an idea."
As writing ink has the tendency to dry up if stored for long, and make a mess if spilled, Gabrielle never carried large quantities of it in liquid form. She had learned to make her own on the road. For this purpose she had a pouch of inkblack powder and a small jar of spleen. When mixed in water with common soot or ground charcoal, these ingredients made excellent ink.
Working furiously, Gabrielle mixed a cupful as the spiders watched and waited.
"There you go," Gabrielle said as she put the bowl of ink on the table. A spider that had been standing on top of the ink bottle jumped into the ink and then on top of the parchment.
Watching the small, ink-soaked spider jump and spin across the parchment both delighted and nauseated Gabrielle. The small creature was so quick, so careful and precise, yet so awful, hairy and leggy. Quickly, the spider produced smeared but readable writing on the parchment.
WE ARE PEOPLE.
That explained a lot of things, Gabrielle thought to herself. It also created a host of new questions. "You are the villagers?" she asked for confirmation. "But how can that be? What can we do?"
A HORRIBLE CURSE.
MUST GET TO FOREST SHRINE.
"Well.." Gabrielle said uncertainly. "Of course Iíll help you any way I can. Itís quite amazing to watch you write like that, by the way."
The spider moved again, flipping and wheeling across the parchment, and ending its move with a strange bobbing motion that resembled a curtsey.
IíM A DANCER.
"Iím sure youíre a good one," Gabrielle said with a smile, but then turned serious again. "Do you mean this nightfall thing for real?" she asked, looking outside to see how much the shadows had already lengthened since noon.
There was some furious clicking of mandibles between the spiders, until the inky one began to dance again.
OR SPIDERS FOREVER.
Gabrielle swallowed. "Well, youíd better show me which way it is, then."
The path started from the side of the village opposite to the one Gabrielle had entered from. It lead through fields and orchards, and was in better condition than the road on the north side.
Their procession was a sight to behold. In the front, a young bard carrying her bag and staff, followed by a seething swarm of arachnids. They kept a respectful distance to her, as she had requested, but Gabrielle still tried to avoid looking behind her. It was just too weird and disconcerting. The sound that the throng of spiders made scurrying through the grass was enough.
Knowing that the spiders were not really spiders, and would do nothing to hurt her did not give Gabrielle much comfort. She still instinctively abhorred them. As he watched them move, she could almost feel their multitude of legs touching her, tickling.
The spiders knew how to move, though. Gabrielle found that she did not have to walk any slower than usual, the spiders were well matching her speed. The village quickly disappeared from sight, hidden behind the apple trees and tall bushes. In front of them, the scenery opened up into gently sloping fields of barley. It was a beautiful day.
Gabrielle took a deep breath of air, watching the golden meadows around her, and actually felt herself relax. While she did not forget the formation of spiders following her, she felt less bothered by them as she watched the hills growing into mountains on the far horizon, the forests, a playful flock of crows taking to their wings up ahead...
"Oh no," Gabrielle realised aloud. The flock of birds wasnít just being playful. It was also hungry, and heading straight at the feast set at her feet. "Take cover!"
The spiders spread out, seeking shelter in the tall barley fields. The crows were already swooping down. Gabrielle raised her staff and twirled it around, fending off the first ones. The staff made a low humming noise as it sliced through the air in a wide arc.
She knew that this would not keep the crows away for long. They were circling above, trying to spot their prey down below, and the most daring birds were already diving and swooping. So far, Gabrielle had not seen any of them come up holding a twitching spider in their beak.
Taking a one-hand hold of her staff, Gabrielle put her other hand into her bag, looking for a small object that she thought might help. Quickly rummaging through the contents, she found what she was looking for. Dropping her staff to the ground, she brought her pan flute up to her lips.
A high-pitched whistle screamed over the fields, assaulting the ears of every living thing that could hear it. Gabrielle blew into the flute as hard as her lungs allowed, trying to produce the most soul-piercing screech possible. It was working. The crows scattered to escape the shrill noise.
Taking a short break to inhale more air, Gabrielle blew again into her flute. Her lungs hurt and her ears had gone through enough punishment to numb them, but she kept on with the whistle until the birds were out of sight. After she finally put the pan flute away, she thought for a moment that she had permanently damaged her own hearing. Snapping her fingers beside her ear fortunately confirmed otherwise.
Slowly, the spiders returned to the path. It took a long time for all of them to assemble again, while Gabrielle kept looking at the sun with concern. She tried to estimate how much time they had left, and the results she was ending up with werenít pleasing. Then again, she had no clear knowledge of how far they still had to go.
Despite her worries about time, Gabrielle spent a lot of it to ensure that all the spiders were present. Only when they had all made certain that no-one was missing and communicated this to her, Gabrielle allowed them to move on. If all these spiders indeed were people, she had no intention to lose a single one of them.
Their journey continued down into a narrow valley running between the fields and the forest ahead. Gabrielle noticed that she could no longer maintain a brisk walking speed. The spiders had obviously been frightened by the attack of the crows, and were no longer moving straight on. Instead, they occasionally stopped to check their surroundings and make sure there was no danger, and moving more cautiously overall. Gabrielle decided she needed to do something to cheer them up.
"Hey, I once heard a song with a spider in it," she said. "Iíll sing it to you."
And after a short preparation, she cleared her voice and began.
"An archer lived in Athens once, a bowman of great skill, His arrows flew so straight and true, all bullseyes did they fill, Until one day he found his bow, and looked at it with dread, For in between the bow and string, was weaved a little web. The archer, to his horror, tried the bow and saw it fail, His arrows that had brought down birds, now would not hit a snail. He vowed right there to get revenge, renew his injured pride, And back into his chamber with a vengeance did he stride. He found the culprit soon enough, and battled it with glee, But in his rage, first overlooked what we can clearly see. The spider was too small and quick to shoot at with a bow, And so the archer raised his foot and... crushed it with his toe..."
Gabrielle turned to look and saw that the spiders had stopped. "Sorry... I did not remember how that song ends."
But the abrupt halt had not been caused by Gabrielleís song. The real reason lay a short distance in front of them, and while Gabrielle had seen it from further away, she had been too occupied by the song to realize what it meant.
On the bottom of the shallow vale ran a small river. Not too wide or deep, though, and on the spot where the path intersected it, the bottom of the river rose slightly to create a crossable ford.
This created a problem. Obviously, the spiders could not get across unaided, the stream was much too wide and flowed too fast. Gabrielle looked at the forest on the far side, and considered cutting down a tree or two to make a bridge of sorts, but the only sharp object she had was a small knife. It would have taken ages to whittle down a tree with it. Building a raft out of twigs was also out of the question. The sun was coming down fast, leaving no time for such things.
Then Gabrielle saw the solution. It made her shake just to think about it, but she saw no other possibility. Biting her lip so hard that some blood seeped out, she turned toward the legion of spiders, who all seemed to be staring at her.
"Thereís only one way I can think of to get you guys over this river in time," Gabrielle said, her voice almost faltering, and her face filled with fear. "I have to carry you... on myself."
There was nothing to carry them with - her bag certainly wasnít big enough. This was the only way. She swallowed and took deep breaths to relax herself, her arms trembling with horror and revulsion.
"Okay... hop on," Gabrielle said and closed her eyes. She could immediately feel little legs coming up her clothes, tickling her all over. "The water... it (gulp) seems pretty deep... You all have... have to come above my waaaaist...!"
She almost fell over as she felt the spiders climb up her back and midriff. She wanted to scratch herself, roll on the sand or jump into the river to get rid of the itching sensation, but knew what that would mean for the villagers.
Opening her eyes to look, Gabrielle immediately wished she hadnít. There were still dozens of spiders at her feet, while it already seemed that there wasnít enough room on her for any more. The first ones were already on her shoulders.
"Watch...out...Iím going to... spread my... arms. There will be... more room... that way. Just remember... if you fall... climb again. Thatís what youíre... ahhh! ... good at."
She raised her arms up, immediately feeling the spiders on her shoulders start down her arms. They entered through her sleeves and were inside her shirt.
"All aboard now?" Gabrielle asked, not seeing any more at her feet. "Now, I want... you to listen to me. Just... keep... still and hold on. If you move your... oooo... feet... it tickles, and I really... REALLY... fear I might fall... into that stream! You all know what that means!"
As by a single command, the itch became less bothersome. The spiders had each found their place on her clothes, her shoulders, her... well, everywhere on her. They were all holding on, and the only noise they made were the occasional quiet clicks of their mandibles. Gabrielle wanted to scream, right now, right there. But she resisted the urge.
"Very good... youíd better be ready, because weíre going over."
She took a step forward, feeling how the weight of more than two hundred spiders tried to tip her off balance. It was like wearing a shirt of chainmail.
Gabrielle examined herself as she walked down towards the waterline, making sure that no-one was in danger of falling as she moved. She noticed what a sight she was. Every part of her upper body was covered by the spiders, clinging to her clothes, her hair and each other. She tried to imagine that it was just a tattered shirt of brown wool with yellow spots all over, but wasnít convinced.
Reaching the waterline, Gabrielle stepped into the stream without hesitation, not wanting to spend a blink of an eye too long with the mass of arachnids on her. The water was very cold.
"Oh Gods... please donít let me have a cramp now!" Gabrielle prayed as the ford became deeper.
Forcing herself into a steady pace, Gabrielle drove deeper and deeper into the stream. The current was quite strong, and she really had to struggle to stay upright on the rocky bottom. Then, as she crossed the middle of the ford, her boot slid off a slippery stone.
Quickly replacing her weight on the other foot, she had to tilt herself rapidly. To her horror, Gabrielle saw one of the smaller spiders lose its hold on her right sleeve and plunge into the water. Stomping her slipped foot back to the bottom, she swiftly rebalanced and lowered her left hand slightly. Seeing mere brief glimpses of the spider as it was violently thrown around by the stream, Gabrielle reached for it. Just as the small arachnid was about to escape from her reach, she managed to close her fingers around it. Gently, she lifted the soaked creature out of the cold water.
The small spider wasnít moving. Gabrielleís concern for its well-being made her forget her aversion for the rest of them completely. With brisk, steady steps, she covered the rest of the distance and climbed out onto the opposite shore, kneeling on the warm sand.
"Get off me, quick!" Gabrielle yelled, feeling again the sensation of the small creatures scuttling on her body. This time, though, she had no time to be bothered by them. As soon as she was sure that every single spider was off her, she placed the small one on the ground in front of her.
The tiny creature still did not move. It just lied there with its legs curled.
Gabrielle was devastated. She knew that the small spider was a human being, and if size indicated anything, a child. Sorrow entered her heart as she turned to look at the other spiders, gathered into a crowd around her. She wanted to say something, but couldnít. Then, suddenly, she caught movement from the corner of her eye.
The spider moved. Slowly at first, it straightened its legs and shook them dry, one by one. Tears of joy running down her face, Gabrielle delicately picked it up on her hand and brought it up near her face.
"The cold water just froze you for a while, didnít it?" Gabrielle said with relief. "Are you all right now? Click your mandibles if you are."
Immediately, Gabrielle could hear a quiet but clear tick. Smiling with joy, she lowered the spider down on the ground. "Go join the others. We have to move on."
After the ford, Gabrielle and her army of arachnids reached the forest. There was a clear path going through it, rising slightly. The surface was mostly dried mud, making the travelling easy for all. Gabrielle was worried, though. Under the shade of the trees, she could not see any shadows or the sun, but already the light seemed to be fading, acquiring a slight red tint.
Then, the forest formed a clearing, with a small temple in the middle, built of limestone and granite. The walls were covered with vines, and the foliage at the foot of the building made it seem as if the shrine had grown out of the ground.
"Quickly, we still have time!" Gabrielle shouted, looking at the ruddy sky. The sun was already below the treetops from her angle of observation. She tried to move as fast as she could without stomping the spiders scrambling for the shrine.
"Get organised, people! No need to panic!"
They stopped at the door. There was no lock on it, but the door was sagging slightly and refused to open as Gabrielle gave it a push.
Carefully, Gabrielle inserted her staff into a small crack between the door and the pane. Twisting with all of her strength, she only managed to create a small opening. The door creaked under the strain, but didnít give in.
"Well, this is where I get off," Gabrielle groaned, struggling to keep the tiny passage open. "You can fit through there. Good luck!"
In a frenzied queue, the spiders scrabbled to the small hole and through it into the darkness inside. It took some time, with Gabrielleís muscles aching from the exertion. She looked up and saw sunlight quickly fading on the treetops. Finally, after an eternity, all of them were inside. Gabrielle let go of the staff and the door sealed itself again. She was outside, alone.
Darkness fell upon the clearing. Nothing seemed to happen inside the shrine, and there was no audible sound. Feeling slightly worried that they had been too late, Gabrielle gathered some sticks of wood and made a fire. Sitting by the warm glow, she noticed she was famished. All she had was a small flask of water. She cursed herself for not taking any food from the village.
For a long time she waited. The moon appeared to the sky, and nightingales began to chirp their songs in the forest. Gabrielle was just about to stand up and force the door open again to let the spiders out, when there was sudden banging from inside the shrine. Within moments, the door came crashing down.
Then, from the dark depths of the shrine, people started to come out. Farmers, stable hands, seamstresses, all sorts of men and women appeared into the doorway. In only a few moments, the small clearing was filled with people, all feeling strange and happy to be their old selves again.
Gabrielle felt slightly abashed as the villagers gathered around her. It felt funny, because she had not been the slightest bit awed when they had been just a pack of two hundred spiders.
"I am Nadeius, the village elder," a small, grey man in purple robes introduced himself. "We are all in your debt. What you did took a lot of courage."
"It was nothing, really," Gabrielle said modestly.
"Oh, but it was," Nadeius insisted. "We all saw your fear and abhorrence when you first met my son at the inn."
Nadeius pointed at a young man standing a few feet away. "We almost lost hope when you attacked me with your staff!" the man laughed.
"Iím so sorry," Gabrielle said apologetically. "You shouldnít have scared me."
"That wasnít your fault, or his," Nadeius said. "You learned to overcome your fear of eight-legged things, and by so doing saved us all."
There was cheering from the crowd, that quickly died out when the people noticed that Gabrielle had something to ask.
"What happened here that turned you into spiders? Was it the work of a sorcerer?"
Nadeius sighed. "This curse has been plaguing this village for generations now. Once, every hundred years, all the villagers turn into spiders overnight. We do not exactly know how this came to be, but apparently an inhabitant of Throcada insulted one of the gods centuries ago. We donít even know which one. To tell you the truth, after a hundred years had passed after the last time, no-one really believed the curse to be anything more than a myth, and that is why we were so surprised by it."
"If it hadnít been for you, none of us would have made the journey to the temple," A female voice said from the crowd. Turning to look, Gabrielle saw a middle-aged woman, with a small flaxon girl by her side. The woman, obviously the girlís mother, nudged her daughter.
"Thank you fow saving me fwom the wiwew, Gabwielle!" the girl said with a smile.
"That was you!" Gabrielle realised. "I hope youíre all right now."
"We will all be fine, thanks to you," Nadeius said, turning to the villagers. "What do you say? This brave bard carried our village across the river, now I think it is our turn to carry her back!"
And on that command, Gabrielle was grabbed from all sides and lifted on the shoulders of the villagers. Cheering and singing, the merry crowd carried her out of the clearing, back towards Throcada.
Xena stepped into the crowded tavern and looked around. Just as all the irritatingly helpful villagers had said, Gabrielle was there. She was sitting at a table, enjoying a light meal and chatting with an old man and a young red-haired girl.
"Well, I see youíve had a pleasant stay," Xena greeted her.
Gabrielle glanced up at Xena and smiled. "Oh, youíre back!" she said quickly. "This is Xena, you remember I mentioned her," she then explained to the others. "Xena, this is Nadeius, the village Elder, and she is Laenice. Laeniceís a very good dancer, you know."
Feeling tired and cranky after four days in the saddle, Xena greeted Naedius and Laenice half-heartedly before pulling herself a chair.
"So youíre the warrior princess?" Laenice said. "I see now why you need Gabrielle on your side. You look like the type who gets into trouble easily."
"You are very lucky to have such a friend," Naedius followed up in agreement.
Throwing a few curious glances around the table, Xena stood up straight, about to say something. Instead, she simply nodded, not really sure what to make of the situation. Assuming that Gabrielle had simply selected her repertoire of stories unwisely in her absence, Xena decided to ignore the strange comments.
"Your trip went well, then?" Gabrielle asked.
"It was successful," Xena replied. "There was no trouble on the road, and I found the healer without any difficulty. King Gregor was very pleased to see her neice up again. He is holding a celebration in his castle in two days time, by the way. If we want to make it in time, weíd better leave as soon as possible."
"Do you have to go?" Laenice inquired. "We were all hoping you could stay for a while longer, Gabrielle. Of course, your friend Sheena is welcome to stay, too."
"Thatís Xena," the warrior princess hissed venomously, impaling the dancer with her cold blue stare. "And besides, the king said he would never forgive us if we fail to attend."
Gabrielle almost broke up in laughter seeing the hidden anger on Xenaís face. She had expressly forbidden the villagers to reveal Xena what had happened. She was slightly embarrassed by her earlier fear of spiders, and wanted to tell Xena about it herself. With a touch of artistic license.
"Well, when a king calls, even the bravest among us must come running," Naedius spoke theatrically. "But before you go, Gabrielle, we wish to offer you a gift."
"Oh, you really shouldnít," Gabrielle resisted.
"Please, we insist."
"You are unbelievable, Gabrielle," Xena said as they rode out of Throcada and towards the south. The villagers were still standing on the square behind them, waving.
"What do you mean?" the bard asked.
"You really think you need a horse just to carry your staff and pack? Why donít you just ride on him?"
Gabrielle faced Xena. "Heís too small to be ridden."
"No he isnít. Heís just the right size for you. Youíve always said how you hate them so tall."
"Look, donít argue about this. I will not ride him and thatís final."
"Then why did you accept him as a gift?" Xena asked.
"I couldnít have refused it, they were so nice in offering it to me. We donít have to keep him, Xena. Iím sure King Gregor can offer him a nice home in his stables."
Xena sighed and acquiesced. Gabrielleís little quirks should have been all too familiar to her after all this time travelling with her. All of them so annoying and still so lovable.
At that moment, something small with eight legs decided that its resting place had just become too mobile for comfort. Slowly it made its way to the brightest source of light it could see, quickly reaching the exit. It stepped out of Argoís saddlebag.
Xena felt something brush agains her thigh and turned to look. As she saw the spider hopping on the saddle leather, she quickly changed his position to avoid it. She raised her hand to squash the horrible little thing, but before she could strike, Gabrielle had already placed a protective hand over the creature.
"Donít hurt him, Xena," the bard said. "This little fellow canít harm us," she continued as she lowered the spider gently into the grass beside the road.
"Have you ever considered that you may be taking this Ďblood innocenceí thing a bit too far?" Xena asked, sounding more startled than she wanted to. "Those things are disgusting!"
Gabrielle turned back to Xena, fighting a snigger.
"Let me tell you a story about those Ďthingsí," she said.
"Am I right in assuming that this isnít one of your own stories? I think I know all of those."
"Oh no, this happened to a friend of mine. I heard it a long time ago, before we met."
A bit of artistic license, Gabrielle thought to herself. Just a touch.
If you made it this far, please send me email to voice your critique. As English is not my first language, I'd be especially grateful for grammatical corrections.
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