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Disclaimer: The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess are owned by MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures, bless them. No copyright infringement is intended.
Note: This is a prerift story. There is some subtext, as little or as much as you want. Antipany is a character from a previous story, but this tale stands alone. Suffice it to say that Antipany and Xena don't like each other very much.
Death of Dreams
The warm spring day gave no warning to the tragedy to come. In fact the tedious plodding of the horses hooves set Gabrielle to doze from her perch on Argo's back behind Xena. Following along side was a disgruntled sorceress riding on a small sway backed brown pony named Circe. Unruly auburn hair framed a thin, pale, unhappy face. Despite the heat, she wore a cloak that seemed far too bulky for her slight frame and still she never broke a sweat. The longer they rode, the more unhappy Antipany became.
"Tell me again why I'm required to come along?" she fumed to Xena.
"Because you volunteered," replied Xena shortly. "Remember that 'If you ever need my skills, summon me' speech you made the last time we crossed paths?"
"Yeah, but I never thought you'd take me up on it," Antipany protested .
"It wasn't my idea."
The sorceress pondered that for a moment. "So," she said slowly, "Gabrielle twisted your arm until you agreed I had to come?"
"Something like that."
Gabrielle roused from her doze, wiping the drool off Xena's leathers. "Go ahead Xena, tell her how we came to an agreement."
"You're a sore loser, you know that?"
"Wait a minute," Antipany interjected. "Are you telling me I'm here because you lost a bet?" She glared at the warrior. "How many wagers have you won?" she asked Gabrielle.
"That Xena will admit to? Well, counting this time, once." Gabrielle snickered.
Antipany's pale complexion reddened. "After all these years you picked now to lose a bet!" she snarled, then fumed some more. "What was the bet?" she asked the bard.
"Never mind," replied the warrior hastily.
Gabrielle snickered again. "I made her move her hand. It was probably the wine that did the trick," she added cryptically.
Antipany stared at her. "You mean I'm here because her Eminence got drunk!"
Xena turned a cold eye to Antipany. "I'm never drunk." She glanced behind at the bard. "And believe me, Gabrielle, it wasn't the wine that made me move."
"No, no," Gabrielle said hastily, rubbing the warrior's back soothingly. "She wasn't drunk. Just very... mellow." Then winked at Antipany, who proceeded to mutter something about the sorry state of warrior intelligence under her breath.
Xena grimaced and urged Argo on a little faster.
Circe gamely trotted faster to keep up. "So, how did you get her to move her hand?" Antipany asked.
"Never mind!" the warrior snarled. She urged Argo into a canter and poor Circe nearly had to gallop to keep up. Gabrielle yelped in surprise and clung to the warrior.
"All right, all right," Antipany called out. "Slow down, princess, I don't really want to know the sordid details." Argo slowed to a walk. "Why Telamedes would trust you to save the Books of Prophesy, I'll never know," Antipany grumbled. "He gets some obscure message that someone's trying to steal them and he can't wait to get you involved. And what do you do? Drag me out of my wedding bed and insist I come along."
"You've been married for three months, Antipany, I doubt very much you and Telamedes were still in bed. And believe me, if I'd known your husband approved of your coming, I never would have agreed to do this. These are very powerful old texts that have been hidden for a long time in the Valley of Larima."
Antipany snorted. "The Valley of Larima is a death trap. I don't know of anyone who came back from there."
"Maybe Telamedes is trying to tell you something," Xena suggested
Antipany glared at her. "What makes you so sure we can get in. And if we get in, get back out?"
"I know how."
"Of course you do," murmured the sorceress. "But who would want a bunch of musty old texts?"
Xena brought Argo to a halt and stared at a knoll in the distance. "I suspect they would," she said with a tight smile. Gabrielle slid off Argo without comment and twirled her staff.
"How many?" she asked.
"Ten. Two on horseback."
"Can you tell us the color of their eyes while you're at it?" Antipany asked dryly.
"Who cares?" Xena retorted then spurred Argo into a gallop as ten men crested the knoll. With a whoop the two mounted mercenaries spurred their horses forward to meet her, swords raised.
"Let's go," Gabrielle yelled. She skidded to a stop when she noted Antipany had not moved. "What's wrong?"
Antipany frowned watching the mercenaries. "This a warrior thingy, Gabrielle. Blood, guts, dirt. Hardly suited to those of us who practice the finer arts."
"Oh right, wouldn't want to break a fingernail. But you have to help, that's what friends do," Gabrielle replied impatiently. Suddenly she whistled and Circe broke into a trot, following the bard toward the action.
Antipany nearly fell off the saddle at the pony's sudden movement. She grabbed the saddlehorn and with the skill of a seasoned warrior, roundly cursed her gentle patient pony. "We're not even friends," she finally wailed when profanity failed. Then there was no time for talk as they entered the fray.
They came at Xena from both sides. She neatly ducked the sword of the man on her left and parried the thrust of the other. Bringing her foot up, she kicked the mercenary on her left, unhorsing him, then vaulted onto the back of the other horse as his rider was trying to bring him around. She grabbed the man's neck and gave it a savage twist, instantly breaking it. Throwing the body to the ground she drove through the ranks of the foot soldiers, scattering them and killing two more in the process.
Two of the men ran forward to take on Gabrielle. She dropped and took the legs out from one and then brought the staff up and connected with the jaw of the other. Spinning around, she swept the staff across the head of the soldier struggling to get up. He sat back down with a thump.
"All right, Gabrielle," Antipany said with approval, still perched on Circe.
"We could use a little help here, Antipany," the bard panted as another mercenary ran toward them.
"But you're doing so well..." Antipany's hands began to glow as the soldier ran by Gabrielle and headed for Circe.
Xena vaulted off the horse and immediately found herself surrounded by four men. They paused as a look of wicked delight crossed her features. "Come on boys," she coaxed. "Come to mama."
Antipany had brought her hands up to fire off a bolt of energy when Gabrielle swung around and clipped the charging soldier in the back sending him crashing into Circe. The little pony shied away, effectively unseating her mistress. Startled, Antipany shot off a huge, wayward bolt of energy that sheared off a large branch from a nearby oak.
There was a loud crack and everyone looked up just in time to see the massive branch come hurtling down on their heads. When the dust cleared, no one moved as Gabrielle and Antipany looked on in stunned silence. Then the leaves rustled and one very angry warrior princess stood up, shaking the leaves out of her hair. Her eyes fixed on Antipany, she brushed the debris off her shoulders, picked a small branch out of her cleavage and stalked over to where the sorceress was sitting.
"It's not my fault!" Antipany protested, scooting backwards as fast as her bulky cloak would allow.
Gabrielle hastily inserted herself between the two women. "She's right, Xena. It was my fault. I caused Circe to move." She absently picked off a few more leaves and brushed at the warrior's leathers.
Xena stopped and glowered over Gabrielle's shoulder at the sorceress for a moment, then turned and growled at the three mercenaries at her feet. Taking that as an invitation to depart, the three scampered to their feet and ran away. Stalking back over to the downed branch, she reached in and hauled out a body, then threw him over to the side. Reaching back in she hauled out another, this time with a grunt of satisfaction as she found the leader of the mercenaries. She dragged him out of the debris and watched patiently as he shook his head groggily.
When he glanced up at her she suddenly reached down and stabbed both sides of his neck with her fingers. He stiffened and looked bewildered as a small trickle of blood came out of one nostril.
"No blood, no brain," she explained. "You have thirty seconds to tell me what I want to know or you die."
He gulped and nodded.
"Who sent you?"
"Carnus of Larissa," he gasped.
She scowled. "What does a merchant want with the books?" she asked.
He looked up at her in agony. "I don't know. He paid me to delay you. Any... way... possible..." His eyes began to glaze over.
Xena reached down and poked the man in the neck. He relaxed with a sigh of relief. "Is it my imagination or are the scum getting scummier these days?" she asked before laying him out with a hard right cross. "Let's get moving." She mounted Argo and offered a hand to the bard.
Antipany looked around. "What about these guys? Won't they just come after us again?"
"I doubt even they are that stupid. They did what they were paid to do." She urged Argo on.
Antipany sighed as her pony nudged her. "I'm coming, I'm coming." She scratched Circe's forehead. "You should remember who feeds you," she scolded. "You never come that fast when I whistle." She mounted up and rode to catch up.
They camped that evening at the base of a mountain. After dinner Antipany went to wash the cooking utensils at a nearby stream. Xena sat on a log cleaning and sharpening her sword while Gabrielle made a few notations on some parchment. The vigor with which Xena was wielding the soapstone told Gabrielle just how angry she was. Every now and then the bard would glance over to her companion only to receive the same aggrieved look. Sighing, she put down her parchment and wandered over to the warrior.
"Antipany will be useful, Xena. Eventually," Gabrielle said with more hope than conviction.
Xena's hands stilled for a moment and she stared at her companion. "You are irritating sometimes, you know it?"
Gabrielle's brow furrowed and she knelt down between Xena's legs. Resting an elbow on each of the warrior's knees she asked, "If I'm so irritating, why do you keep me around?" She snapped her fingers. "I know! You'd perish without my cooking."
"I can cook, Gabrielle. At least enough to survive."
"What you do to good food is called a crime, not cooking, Xena. There's something to be said for the quality of life."
Xena shook her head. "No, I don't keep you around for your cooking." She cocked her head. "And it sure isn't for your snoring." Her face was carefully neutral. "Why do I keep you around?"
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed and a slight smile appeared. "Must be my stories then. You need entertainment on the road."
"You're always entertaining," Xena conceded. "But no, that's not why." A warm gleam appeared in the sky blue eyes.
Suddenly sober, Gabrielle looked at her friend. "Would it be because I'd follow you to Tartarus and live there happily with you if that were your fate?"
Xena sighed and bent forward to touch foreheads with her companion. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. We do need Antipany and I need you."
Gabrielle grinned, "Thanks."
She caught Gabrielle's arm as she started to rise. "Now why do you keep me around?" Gabrielle sank back to her knees considering the question.
"I know," Xena said, "it's for my conversational skills."
"Nooo, I don't really think so."
"My pleasant, even temperament?"
"Not even close," Gabrielle said dryly.
Xena stared intently into her companion's eyes. "Because not even Hades can keep me out of the Elysian Fields if you're there?" And was rewarded by a wide, warm smile. The clanging of pots announced the imminent arrival of Antipany.
"I love you, Xena," the bard whispered. With peace restored Gabrielle kissed her companion and went back to her parchment.
Antipany dropped her load of dishes and sat down with a groan. "I still can't see the wonder of camping out. A hard lumpy bed on the ground, insects providing the only meat in your food, and best of all those wonderful leaves to scratch the Tartarus out of your rear end."
"Parchment works well for that," Xena commented as she continued to sharpen her sword. "Gabrielle has some very soft pieces." The bard's head shot up from her text.
"Don't even think it," she warned Antipany, clutching her scroll to her chest.
Antipany shrugged. "Relax Gabrielle. I won't touch your scrolls." She thought for a moment then reached into her cloak and pulled out a scroll. "I brought my own wiping parchment. Some guy named Sappho..." It was snatched out of her hand before she could finish.
"Sappho's a woman, you... you Philistine," Gabrielle exclaimed.
"I'd be insulted if I knew what that meant, wouldn't I?" Antipany asked Xena, who nodded in confirmation. "So Sappho's a woman. Well, that certainly gives new meaning to those words." She exchanged an amused glance with the warrior. "Not to change the subject but why would a man who has more dinars than Zeus want with obscure old prophesies?"
Xena shrugged. "A man like that never has enough. He obviously thinks the books have some value or he wouldn't be after them." A coldness settled on her features. "But he's not going to get them. If we can get there before his men do, we can make him see it's not worth his time."
"What makes you think we can?"
Xena smiled, the coldness never leaving her eyes. "Because we're taking a shortcut."
"Why does that always sound so ominous when you say it?" grumbled the sorceress as she settled down to sleep.
The next morning they rode slowly along the base of the mountain searching for a path to take them up. Xena finally shook her head in frustration. "I know it's here," she said. She searched the face of the mountain. The grass and rocks stretched up as far as they could see, broken only by an occasional tree.
Antipany looked at her in surprise. "Aren't you following the signs?" she asked.
Xena stared at her, loath to admit she didn't see a thing out of the ordinary. "What signs?" she finally asked.
"Those signs," the sorceress said impatiently, waving a hand at some rocks. "The ones that point up that way." She pointed up the mountain, then paused. "Oh, you can't see them, can you? They were probably set by another sorcerer." She dismounted and walked up to some stones. Murmuring a few words, the stones glowed and revealed a mark pointing in an upward direction. "There's more," she announced, scanning the mountainside, "but it looks like we're going to have to climb a little."
Xena felt a movement behind her. "Gloating doesn't become you Gabrielle," she said softly.
"Now Xena, I would never say I told you so," said the bard, "even if I did. Telamedes knew her ability to see illusions would come in handy."
They left the horses to graze in the meadow. Taking some provisions, they hid the saddlebags and proceeded to follow the gentle incline up past markers which the sorceress insisted were there until they came to a sheer rock face which even Xena would have been hard pressed to climb.
The women stopped to rest and take a little nourishment before continuing. Xena opened the bag Gabrielle had been carrying and took out bread and cheese. Then a frown creased her face as she took out five hand sized rocks. "What are these?" she asked.
The bard settled down by her side and picked one up. "Aren't they unusual, Xena? I picked them up while we were climbing."
"They're rocks, Gabrielle."
"I know that. But look at the colors and the striations and the shapes. That one could be a flower and that one a wolf's head, and that one..."
"They're heavy. You don't need to be carrying the extra weight."
Antipany laughed. "Give it up, Gabrielle. All she'll ever see is a rock."
Xena looked unruffled. "What do you see?" she asked.
"A pile of rocks," the sorceress admitted. Gabrielle shook her head sadly and waited until Xena had moved away before covertly placing the rocks back into the pouch. Packing up they stood for a while staring at the rock face.
"What do your signs say now?" Xena asked.
Antipany shrugged. "Enter here," she replied, then disappeared through the rock face.
"An illusion," Xena said in resignation. "Should have known. Did I ever tell you..."
"...how much you hate sorcerers?" the bard finished. "Yes. Many, many, many times. Shall we go?" Trying hard to quash a sense of impending doom, she placed a hand on Xena's back and followed the warrior through the illusion.
They found themselves in a brightly lit, small cavern. The first thing Gabrielle noticed was the tunnel leading out at the back of the cave. The second thing that caught her attention was the pile of bones by the wall they had just walked through.
"Your lights?" Xena asked the sorceress, pointing to the brightly burning torches lined around the cavern and back in the tunnel.
"Nope," Antipany replied. "They lit up when I came through. Someone knows we're here, princess. By the way, we can't go back the way we came. The opening has been sealed."
Gabrielle tried to put her hand through and met solid rock. "Guess we go through the tunnel, huh?"
Xena smiled cheerfully. "Guess so." She strode off to the tunnel.
Antipany put her arm around the bard's shoulder. "Tell me again why you stay with her," she asked as they walked toward the tunnel.
Before Gabrielle could answer, the floor of the cavern began to shake, throwing them to the ground. And suddenly there was no ground at all as a chasm opened up beneath them. Acting on instinct, Xena launched herself into the air, somersaulting toward the tunnel. She fell a bit short, but managed to catch the edge of the chasm with her fingertips. The dirt crumbled under her fingers and she scrabbled desperately, trying to find safe purchase. Finally her feet found a small ledge and she held on, noting that even with her keen hearing she still hadn't heard the loose dirt hit bottom. All she heard was a faint moaning sound coming from the depths. With a determined yell she launched herself into a flip and landed in a squat on the lip of the chasm, teetering on the edge. Propelling herself forward with her arms, she stood and whirled, calling out, "Gabrielle!"
Xena stopped, her eyebrow raised at the sight before her. Antipany floated in the middle of the chasm, her eyes shut tight, arms outstretched, softly chanting for all she was worth. Gabrielle hung from the hem of Antipany's cloak.
"Gabrielle," the warrior called softly. "Can you swing over here a little closer and I'll pull you in."
"I... I don't think we can move, Xena, and I sure don't want to distract Antipany in any way."
Sweat poured off the sorceress' brow, and the chanting continued at a fevered pace. It was a lost cause. Slowly the pair began to sink into the dark, cold depths. Xena grabbed her whip and as she drew back, the lights went out.
"Gabrielle," she snapped, "talk to me."
"Gosh, Xena," came the shaky reply out of the darkness. "You sure pick strange times to want to talk things out..." The whip cracked and wrapped itself around a body part.
"Owww," someone yelled and Xena hung on for dear life as the whip suddenly jerked downward. There was a thump as bodies hit the side of the chasm. The warrior pulled up on the whip, then reached down and grabbed a handful of cloak. Pulling the sorceress up over the edge with one hand, she reached down and after a little fumbling grabbed a handful of skimpy green top with the other. One powerful tug propelled the bard up over the edge and onto Xena's lap.
Gabrielle wrapped relieved arms around her companion's neck and hugged her thankfully. Xena let out a sigh of relief and returned the embrace. "Gabrielle, as much as I love those magnificent abs of yours, we're going to have to get you something a little more substantial to wear. I had trouble finding something to grab on to. You don't even have love handles... at least on your back." She stroked the bard's trembling form until the shaking passed and they sat holding each other in the blackness.
Finally Gabrielle lifted her head and felt around with her hand. "Where's Antipany?" she asked. Her hand touched a piece of cloth and she followed it up to a shoulder and then a face.
"I'm here," came a soft, tired voice under her hand. "Would you please turn on the lights." The torches flared into life revealing the sorceress lying on the ground and Xena sitting next to her with Gabrielle in her lap.
"Boy, that's service," said the bard. They stared at the hole that took up nearly the entire cave. As they watched, the hole began to close and soon there was no evidence that a chasm had ever existed.
"Another illusion?" Xena asked, her brow furrowed.
Antipany sat up and sighed. "Yes, but whoever created this is far more skillful than me."
"You seem to have developed some new tricks since the last time we saw you," Xena observed. "Why did you just hang up there instead of coming over to the edge?"
"The 'trick', as you so quaintly call it, is levitation, not flying. And the reason you never saw it is because it requires your feet to leave the ground. You know how I hate heights." Her head dropped. "Dear Zeus, I'm tired."
Xena rose to her feet, taking her companion with her. "I know what levitation is. I managed to do it once or twice myself." She looked lost in thought. "A long time ago. I even flew around a little too."
Antipany raised her head. "Of course you did," she said dryly.
Giving Gabrielle one last hug, Xena released her and reached down to help the sorceress to her feet. "It takes a control I never could manage to keep." She placed her hands on Antipany's shoulders. "You saved Gabrielle's life, I owe you for that."
Antipany held up a weary hand. "Don't hug me princess. I think I've suffered enough indignities on this trip."
Wrapping a long arm around Antipany's shoulders, Xena pulled her down the tunnel. "Oh, you haven't seen nothin' yet," she said with a wolfish grin.
Antipany groaned. "Please let me rest a while, Xena. I can't go on..."
"No time to rest yet. We have to go."
"Xena," Gabrielle protested. But the warrior continued to walk down the tunnel, dragging the sorceress along with her, holding her up when she stumbled in her fatigue. When they reached a part of the tunnel that took a hard right turn, Antipany pushed away from the warrior and stared at the wall.
"It's here," she announced. Her companions stared at a nondescript dirt wall and exchanged glances.
"Another illusion?" Xena asked.
"Yes," replied the sorceress. "Now let's get out of here." She walked swiftly into the wall, then sat down with a thump as her face contacted the solid rock. "Oww," she howled, holding her bloody nose. Tears rolled down her face as she turned bewildered, pain-filled brown eyes to Xena.
Xena sighed and knelt down, putting some pressure to the base of Antipany's head and tilted her head back. Taking a cloth, she gently wiped the blood away and pinched her nose. "You know, Antipany," she said in a conversational tone, "even a warrior knows not to lead with her face."
Antipany slapped the warrior's hand away and turned to Gabrielle for comfort. "Did I ever tell you how much I hate warriors?" she sniffed, leaning against the bard's chest. "Tartarus take you, Xena. I'm not moving from here until I get a nap." Then her eyes glazed over and she hurled herself into the waiting arms of Morpheus.
Gabrielle settled down with her back leaning against the wall, Antipany's head cradled in her lap. "I think this is as far as we go, Xena." She yawned. "I'm a little tired myself."
Xena looked around impatiently. "All right. You stay here with Antipany and I'll scout ahead and see where the tunnel leads. Don't move from here."
"We won't," Gabrielle promised. "Be careful." She watched Xena walk down the tunnel and disappear around another bend. Resting her head against the wall, she tried to keep alert but soon found herself drifting off. As she sauntered toward Morpheus' realm she composed a poem, saved the world from certain destruction, had the most incredible romantic interlude with... and remembered no more, finally succumbing to Morpheus' insistent touch.
When she woke Xena was sitting nearby, patiently waiting for her companions to return to wakefulness. "Have a good sleep?" she asked.
"Oh, yeah," replied the bard with a dreamy smile. At the warrior's upraised eyebrow, she cleared her throat and wiped at her eyes. "What did you find?" she asked.
"This tunnel is a maze. There's a few bones, but no way out. It seems this shortcut has been tried by others. It's pretty clever. Lure us in, then don't give us any way out. Takes care of all those people who would want to steal the books. Let's wake up your friend here and see if she has any ideas." Xena gave Antipany a nudge. When she didn't respond a cold gleam came to the warrior's eyes.
Gabrielle hastily held up a hand. "Let me try, Xena." She leaned down and whispered in the sleeping woman's ear. Antipany's eyes flew open.
"She wouldn't dare," the sorceress sputtered, sitting up. One look at Xena's face told her otherwise. "You really are a barbarian," she informed the warrior.
"Comes in handy sometimes," Xena replied coolly. "Tell us about this wall Antipany."
Antipany studied the wall then shook her head. "If I hadn't been so tired earlier," throwing Xena a reproachful look, "I wouldn't have tried to just walk through. The top line says 'This way out' then there's some writing I don't understand." She bent down and scribbled in the dirt. "This is what it says."
Gabrielle studied the writing. "I think I can translate it. It looks like an older version of Latin. It says,
One head, four eyes
Look behind, look ahead
Say my name
Or you'll be fish"
She looked up in confusion. "Fish?"
Antipany looked at the wall again. "Oops." She rubbed out the symbol and replaced it with another.
"Dead. Say my name or you'll be dead. Not much of a poet was he." She looked at the sorceress again.
"That's what it says. I just see it, I don't read it. Don't ask me what it means."
Gabrielle looked at the writing again. "What's Latin doing here?"
The warrior's brow furrowed. "I thought that was a dead language."
"It will be if I have anything to say about it," Xena said grimly.
"If I remember the stories right the Romans have a god with two faces. One points to the east and the other to the west. Something to do with gates, I think," Gabrielle continued.
"What's that indentation in the wall?" asked the sorceress
Xena studied the wall then reached up and brushed gently at the shallow hole. "It looks like a picture of some kind. Hmm... a face maybe." She bit her lip. "Great, just great."
"What's the matter?" Gabrielle asked.
"It's a lock, and we don't have the key," she said grimly.
They sat on the dirt floor trying to decide on their next move. Gabrielle finally threw up her hands and announced, "I'm hungry, let's have a snack." She grabbed her bag and dumped the contents on the ground. Gathering some olives, cheese and bread, she passed the fare around.
Xena's attention was fixed on the five stones Gabrielle had dumped from her bag. "Gabrielle, those rocks..."
Gabrielle looked guiltily at her companion. "Now, Xena, I know you told me to get rid of them but I couldn't. Please don't be upset."
Xena stared at her then took the bard's face in her hands and kissed her passionately. Releasing her startled friend she grabbed the stones and began to examine them. "Upset? Why should I be upset? I think you just saved our lives."
"Remind me never to do that," Antipany said to Gabrielle, who sat with a silly grin on her face, not looking the least bit offended. She humphed then watched Xena try to rub some of the dirt off the stones before reaching into her cloak and withdrawing a small brush. "Maybe this will help, princess."
"Did you bring the market, Antipany?" Taking the brush, Xena cleaned the surfaces of the rocks. "They're all about the same. Two faces, one looking right, the other left." She stood up and brushed out the impression in the rock wall. Holding up each rock, she compared it to the impression. Finally she chose one and started to insert it into the wall.
"Be careful, Xena," Antipany warned. "Put in the wrong one and we may never get out of here."
"I'm never wrong," Xena said matter-of-factly, inserting the rock into the depression.
"Of course you're not," murmured the sorceress.
"She's not," Gabrielle confirmed. "Although.... sometimes the rest of the world is." The rock melted into the wall and disappeared. "Janus," commanded the bard. They waited. And waited, getting more uneasy as the minutes passed. Antipany was starting to make rude noises when she suddenly fell silent.
"What happened?" Xena asked suspiciously.
"The happiest day of my life will be when I can finally say you're wrong," came the resigned reply, then the sorceress disappeared through the wall. Xena grinned at her companion and escorted her through the rock face.
And ran into the back of Antipany who was standing frozen in front of the opening. "What the...," muttered Xena, pushing the silent figure aside. Then she saw what Antipany was gawking at. At the front of the group was a priestess in a long white robe and behind her stood three attendants similarly attired. But what caught the warrior's attention was the two temple guards. Seven and half feet tall, bulging muscles, full black beards and long black hair. Even more impressive were their coal black eyes. Antipany instinctively ducked in behind Xena while Gabrielle moved up to her side. Xena's hand started for her sword.
The priestess was an older woman with long snow white hair pulled back into a braid. Piercing hazel eyes regarded them calmly. "Hold warrior," she said in a commanding voice. "There is no need for violence here. We are not your enemies."
"That remains to be seen," Xena replied coolly, pushing Gabrielle back a step. However her hand fell to her side, sword undrawn.
"My name is Herophile. And you, warrior, are trespassing. Now kindly tell us who are you and more importantly, what do you want?"
"I'm Xena. This is Gabrielle," she said, indicating the bard, who nodded to the priestess. "And that is Antipany," she said pointing back to the sorceress who simply stared in wonder at the guards. "Antipany's husband is Telamedes, a priest of Apollo. We have word that an unscrupulous merchant named Carnus is going to try to steal the books of prophesy and we came to warn you."
Herophile appraised her for a moment. "Why should you care, Xena? Unless you came to steal them yourself." She turned to the temple guard. "Escort our guests to the temple."
As they walked Gabrielle attempted to make conversation with the guards. "Boy, you guys are impressive. Not from these parts are you?" Getting no response didn't deter the bard one moment. "What a remote place to have a temple. Don't get many visitors I'll bet."
The temple was a large, domed structure made of white marble. Impressive columns lined the front. Two massive wooden doors stood open. They were escorted into the cool interior, through several hallways until the guard stopped in front of a door. Pushing open the door, he gestured into the room. "You'll stay here. Dinner will served in an hour. You are not allowed out without an escort," he warned.
They filed into the windowless room and looked around. Slits along one wall allowed sunlight to filter in. It was sparsely furnished with a couple of chairs and tables, a large sleeping pallet in one corner, and a basin with a pitcher of water sitting by it on a stand. Antipany threw herself on the pallet. "Well, that was certainly interesting. How do you suppose Herophile ended up here, princess?"
"Do you know her?" Xena asked.
"I know about her. Being married to a priest of Apollo has its advantages." She sat up on the pallet. "She's a sibyl, an oracle of Apollo. But what I can't figure out is what she's doing here. She supposedly died years ago." Antipany scowled at the warrior. "Doesn't anyone know how to stay dead in this world?" she asked with a sigh.
Gabrielle turned to her friend. "She doesn't look very dead to me. I'm a little confused here, Xena. If she's a sibyl then she already knows the books are in danger. And those temple guards of hers can handle any threat to the books. So what are we doing here?"
Xena shrugged. "Guess we'll find out at the evening meal."
Dinner was served in an elegant dining room. Marble columns lined the walls and a long marble dining table graced the center of the room. Herophile sat at the head of the table with Xena on her right. A young acolyte, Hygea, sat on her left. The small blonde regarded the warrior across from her with silent awe throughout the meal.
Antipany sat between Hygea and another dark haired priestess named Demo. The reserved priestess picked at her food as she talked to the sorceress. "You're the first visitors to make it through the cave since I've been here. How did you do it?"
"It wasn't too difficult. Although it would have taken me a little longer without Gabrielle's excellent translation, and of course Xena's menial skills." the sorceress replied taking a bite of food. "The traps were interesting and vaguely familiar. Who set it up for you?"
"Oh, I know!" exclaimed an excited, red headed acolyte named Ionea sitting next to Gabrielle. "It was Maxius!"
Antipany inhaled sharply, then a look of bewilderment passed over her face. Frantically she grabbed her throat and her face took on a slightly bluish tinge. Quickly assessing the situation, Xena moved around the table and slapped the sorceress between the shoulder blades. Which caused her upper abdomen to strike forcefully against the edge of the table and a piece of lamb flew out of her mouth, landing in her plate. Sucking in great gulps of air, her color gradually passed from blue to red to its normal pale color.
Xena motioned everyone to sit down. "She's all right. It happens when all that hot air gets trapped in the lungs. You know, those signs in the cave seemed to be of Roman origin. Was Maxius a Roman?"
"Wasn't Maxius your mentor, Antipany?" asked Gabrielle.
Antipany wiped the tears from her eyes. "Ye... yes, but he wasn't Roman." She thought for a moment. "Maxius was... Well I don't know what he was. He was just old. He'd traveled all over the world." She shifted uncomfortably under Xena's unwavering gaze.
"Really?" Ionea said, running her hand through her unruly red hair. "He's said to have set up the protection for this valley over two hundred years ago, when this temple was built. It seems to have worked rather well. The mountains surrounding us are unscalable and that cave is the only entrance. I don't think more than a handful of outside visitors have been recorded since that time."
"How did you come to be here?" Gabrielle asked.
Ionea shrugged. "We were promised to Apollo as children. My parents brought me to the cave when I was very young. It's the only home I've ever known. Tell us about the world beyond the mountains, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle glanced at Herophile, who nodded her permission. Slipping into bard mode she soon had a captivated audience of acolytes and priestesses hanging on to her every word.
Herophile waited until everyone was engrossed, then motioned Xena to follow her out into the courtyard. Antipany watched them slip away, then returned her attention to Gabrielle's story.
Xena was led into a torch lit yard with stone benches and bordered with carefully tended flowers and bushes. She walked restlessly around the yard, touching the flowers, searching the darkness for any hint of trouble and finding none. Finally she turned back to the priestess who was watching her impassively.
"You're looking remarkably fit for a dead woman," Xena said.
Herophile smiled. "The reports of my death were a bit premature."
"I had heard no one escaped that siege. What happened?"
"Apollo happened. Just before the city fell he took me away. There are benefits to serving the gods, Xena."
Xena snorted. "Yeah, and a lot of heartache. It's not worth it. All right, Herophile, we were sent by Telamedes. He says you know him."
"We've met. He's a good man."
"Yes, he is. And he's concerned that those books will fall into the wrong hands."
"You are also well known, Xena. I understand why the priest is concerned but why did you come?" asked the priestess.
"Because I always repay my debts and I always help my friends," Xena replied steadily. "I've turned my life around, Herophile. No more looting, no more war making, no more armies." She gave the priestess a small rueful smile.
"I'm an oracle Xena, I know you've changed. I just don't know how much. As for the cave," she shrugged, "only the worthy make it and not many are worthy. Don't give me that put upon look. You like challenges. The harder they are, the happier it makes you. And I'm about to make you very happy."
"Oh?" Xena raised an interested eyebrow.
"Someone will steal the Books of Prophesy. I already know that and you have told me his name is Carnus. The time is soon, I can feel it. My problem is that the picture is clouded by someone within the temple who will betray us. I don't know who it is, but my vision tells me you are meant to be here and that's why I'm going to let you stay. Find out who it is and stop them."
"Are the books here?" Xena asked, staring into the darkness.
"Last time I looked. I'm still not sure I trust you, Xena. You say you've changed, my dreams tell me you've changed, but the darkness still roils deep within you. It will surface again."
Xena shook her head. "That part of my life is over, Herophile. Gabrielle keeps me on a steadier course. I won't go back to the darkness."
Herophile looked out into the black night and her eyes lost focus. "Interesting choice of a companion, Xena," she said thickly. "How did you happen to pick her?"
"I didn't," Xena chuckled. "She picked me. I did my best to discourage her from following me, but she can be pretty stubborn." Her eyes narrowed as she watched the oracle stare out into the distance.
Presently the oracle shook her head and turned her attention back to Xena. "Lucky for you, but not so lucky for her. I see trouble ahead, Xena."
"Now there's a news flash," the warrior replied dryly.
Herophile shook her head. "I see a dragon bursting from a volcano. Her fiery breath threatens to consume you but instead of running away you run toward it."
"I think that pretty well describes my whole life, Herophile." Xena said still unimpressed.
"The dragon has Gabrielle's face," said the oracle unperturbed by Xena's skepticism.
Xena stiffened. "Gabrielle could never be my enemy," she said shortly and turned to go back into the temple.
"Xena." Herophile's command stopped the warrior. "Remember your companion is young. Her choices will not always be wise, as yours weren't at that age, but they come from the goodness in her heart."
"You should stay away from those spicy foods," Xena snorted. "Antipany isn't the only one full of hot air tonight."
"It's wise not to dwell on what you can't change," acknowledged the oracle, watching Xena enter the temple. "But ignoring us completely is an arrogance few can afford." She smiled once more at the stars, then sat down and let the visions sweep her away.
The women were led back to their room by their omnipresent guard. Xena shut the door and leaned against it, lost in thought. "All right," she said presently, "the books are here, someone hired by Carnus is out to steal them, and he has help from within the temple. Did you learn anything about the women who live here, Gabrielle?"
"A few things. There are seven others living here besides Herophile and the guards. Two, Dionia and Ariadne, are recent initiates and still quite young. I don't think they're part of the scheme. Demo is second to Herophile and she's something of an enigma. Doesn't talk much and keeps to herself most of the time. Hygea has been here a less than a year. She's pretty shy but quite bright and she sure is quite taken with a certain warrior we all know."
Xena's eyes narrowed in warning. "Just stick with the facts, Gabrielle."
"That is a fact," retorted the bard. "She wanted to hear every story I knew about you. Ionea has been here most of her life. She was left by the cave as a baby and this has been her home ever since. The other two priestess are Semone and Ardenia. They're older women who work in the kitchen and tend the gardens. All of these women seem dedicated to Apollo. I can't image any one of them plotting to steal the books."
"Neither can Herophile. That's part of the problem. I'm going to take one of our guard friends and have him give me a tour of the temple." She walked back out into the hall to be immediately challenged by a massive guard. Not missing a step, she crooked a finger at him. "Come on big boy, let's take a little tour of this dump."
Antipany shrugged off her cloak while Gabrielle washed up in preparation for bed. "You were going to tell me why you stay with her. It's not like she needs you now. She'll do this do-gooder stuff whether you tag along or not."
Gabrielle looked up, her face dripping with water. "No, she doesn't need me to do that." She smiled. "But maybe I need her. Why did you marry Telamedes? You two are as different as night and day."
"No accounting for taste is there?" Antipany rolled her cloak up and used it as a pillow. "No wonder Tele was so hot for me to go on this little escapade. He didn't want me to pass up the chance to make brownie points with Apollo. You wouldn't think he'd still be upset about those old laurel trees I accidentally pruned, would you?"
"The gods have long memories, Antipany," Gabrielle sighed. "Ares still hasn't given up on Xena, no matter how many times she rejects him."
She settled down on the pallet and they talked until both drifted off to sleep. Xena didn't return until much later. Quietly she entered the room and quickly washed up, then gently nudged Gabrielle over and settled onto the pallet.
Antipany roused and gave her a disgruntled look. "I thought you preferred the floor, princess. Isn't that a sign of warrior toughness?"
"If you're feeling crowded, Antipany, you sleep on the floor," she retorted softly.
"Much too hard for my delicate frame," Antipany sniffed.
"Very funny." Antipany ducked as Gabrielle's arm came flying at her face. "Whoa, gets a little dangerous sleeping next to our restless young friend, doesn't it ?"
Xena smiled. "Wait a few minutes. You won't even know she's here." Soon Gabrielle rolled over, tucking herself into the warrior and suddenly there was plenty of room on the pallet. Antipany just shook her head, then reached out and threw a blanket over the pair.
With a sigh, Xena closed her eyes and draped a long arm over her companion, holding her close, her face relaxing into an expression of peace and contentment. Her eyes flew open to find Antipany sitting up, glaring at her.
"What's wrong now?" she asked wearily.
'You don't deserve that peace," Antipany said, her voice full of resentment.
"I thought you forgave me?"
"Oh, I did. I don't want to see you dead anymore. But I don't want to see you happy either. My family died because of you and I'll never forget that. You don't deserve happiness, you don't deserve peace, and you certainly don't deserve her," Antipany hissed, indicating the sleeping bard. She flopped back on the bed and turned to the wall. If she had bothered to look at the warrior, she would have at least had the satisfaction of seeing Xena's jaw tighten and the impassive expression return before she turned to blow out the remaining candle.
Xena lay on her back and considered the darkness . But her brief moment peace and contentment had been crushed under the burden of Antipany's resentment. At Gabrielle's soft murmur of protest, she willed her body to relax and turned once again to cradle her sleeping companion.
Ionea could hardly contain her excitement. She lay in bed thinking of all the stories she had just heard, all the places she had never visited, all the wonders she had never seen. She nudged the woman beside her. "Hygea, are you awake?"
"I am now," came the sleepy reply. "What do you want?"
"Wasn't that wonderful! I wonder what it would be like to visit Athens, sail on a ship, see a giant. There's so much to do out there." She sighed.
"You wouldn't last two days out there," Hygea retorted. "I've been there and believe me it's much better here." She turned over, now wide awake. "Although that warrior was pretty impressive."
"I'm going to see those places," Ionea said dreamily. "Soon."
Hygea rolled back over, "Keep dreaming, Ionea. Herophile has already said you had to stay."
"There's no reason for me to stay here. I don't have visions like the rest of you. All I'm good for is to help in the kitchen and the gardens. There's got to more to life than that."
Hygea snorted.. "Not for you, now go to sleep."
But Ionea was much too excited to sleep.
She sat in front of the fire soaking her aching feet in a pan of warm water, a cup of steaming tea sat on the table next to her chair and a woolen shawl covered her tired shoulders. Sighing in contentment she picked up the cup and took a sip. Suddenly the door of her home flew open and three strangers burst in and hauled her to her feet. The pan of water tipped over splashing its contents all over the floor. "It's time to go," one of the strangers snarled. "Why?" she asked bewildered. They didn't answer, just dragged her to the door. "I can't leave here," she wailed to no avail. They laughed and threw her out into the dark, cold night, slamming the door behind her. She screamed, but there was no one around to hear her cry.
"Semone!" A gentle hand shook her shoulder. "Wake up! Come on old woman, wake up."
Semone moaned and slowly opened frightened eyes. She shook her head and sighed. "I had the dream again, Ardenia. It won't be long now."
Ardenia gave a weary sigh. "You've had that same dream for the last ten years. I have no doubt it will some day come true, but not tonight. Go back to sleep."
"But the strangers have come," Semone protested.
"No one is going to hurt you," Ardenia retorted vehemently. "Herophile won't allow it. I won't allow it." Her head sank back into her pillow. "But the strangers are up to something. There is more to that warrior than she lets on. I can feel it." She shifted uneasily then turned and wrapped a protective arm around her gray haired friend. "We have an early day tomorrow, please go to sleep," she pleaded.
"Thank you, Ardenia," Semone said contritely. She snuggled closer to her friend but the dream came with regularity these days and not even the soothing comfort of a forty year old friendship could quell her growing panic.
Antipany woke early the next morning with an urgent need to pee. The night sky was just beginning to turn to dawn, and the room barely had enough light to make out the door. The forms next to her didn't move as she slid out the end of the bed and made her way to the hall. Two guards stood at alert attention outside the door and they scowled at her as she slipped between them.
But Antipany was in a foul mood herself and even the ferocious countenances of the two men could inspire no more than irritation in the sorceress. "Save it for someone who cares," she snapped walking down the hall, one of the guards trailing behind her. Abruptly she turned around, ramming into the stomach of the guard. Hands on hips, she glared up at the now totally bewildered man. "You know what really makes me mad? I feel bad about saying those things to her. She murders my brothers and I feel bad. Does that make sense?" She threw up her hands and turned back. "Boy, am I one messed up magic maker." The guard couldn't have agreed with her more.
Xena propped herself up on one elbow, unwilling to remove herself from the young body comforting her, and listened to the soft snoring of her companion. Finally she sighed and gently shook the sleeping bard. "Wake up, Gabrielle, we need to get going." Gabrielle grunted and turned over. Xena shook her head ruefully and hauled the bard up into a sitting position against the wall at the head of the pallet. Slowly she started to slide back down.
"Oh no you don't," Xena said, hiking her back up then sitting down on the pallet beside her. "Come on, Gabrielle, we have some thieves to catch. Wakey, wakey."
"Hmmmph," mumbled her companion, reaching down to grab the blanket and throw it over them. Then she turned into Xena's chest and began to snore once more.
"Gabrielle," the warrior sighed, "you're the only person I know who can sleep standing up, sitting up, or on your head." She rested against the wall and gently kissed the bard's head.
Antipany stomped back into the room. "Nice to see you two finally awake." She paused and peered at the bard. "Well, at least one of you is awake. I see Gabrielle is her usual somnolent self this morning." She climbed back onto the pallet and reached for her cloak. "So what's the plan, princess?" she asked, slipping into her cloak, then sitting on the bed.
Xena regarded her impassively. "I'm going to investigate outside and see if our friendly thieves have arrived yet. You and Gabrielle, when you get her awake, can talk to the women and see if you can figure out which one is the traitor. Oh, and find out where the books are kept."
"I'm awake," Gabrielle mumbled from her comfortable pillow against Xena's chest.
"What do you want the books for, princess?" Antipany asked, eyes narrowing. "In fact, what are you doing here? We don't need your help."
"Telamedes thought you did."
"My husband thinks you can do no wrong," muttered the sorceress. "I know better. You aren't telling me everything, are you?"
Gabrielle sat up and rubbed her eyes. "Now, Antipany..." she began.
"I tell you what you need to know," interrupted Xena. "You couldn't handle any more than that. Telamedes knows you very well."
Gabrielle's head snapped around. "Now, Xena..."
"You don't trust me! After all I've done for you and you still don't trust me!" Antipany sputtered. "Well, you ignorant daughter of a basilisk, I don't trust you either. What do really want with those texts, Xena? Are you out to steal them yourself?"
Head swiveling to Antipany, Gabrielle said, "Antipany..."
"What exactly have you done for me, Antipany, besides try to kill me a few times, not to mention putting Gabrielle's life in danger more times than I can count." Xena growled, leaning over her companion to make her point.
Gabrielle put her head in her hands. "Xena..."
"I would've done the world a big favor if I had succeeded," Antipany retorted. "Killing Xena, not you," she added, patting the bard's shoulder.
"Gee, thanks, but..." the bard never got to finish.
"Well, it's too late now. I told you before, you'd never have another chance. But I'll be glad to toss you back into the cave." The warrior's voice deepened with implied threats.
Gabrielle sighed and slowly slipped under the blanket.
"And leave you free to steal the sacred texts?" Antipany snorted. "I don't think so princess. You haven't changed at all."
Xena leaned close, her eyes cold. "Why didn't you tell us your mentor was a Roman, Antipany?"
Antipany started at the sudden change in topic. "I don't know that he is a Roman, Xena. Maxius never told me where he was from and it never mattered to me." Her voice got angrier. "Don't try to change the subject, princess. Those prophesies are worth their weight in gold to those who can interpret them."
"Antipany, I've had enough of you." The warrior's hand clenched. "I'm going..." Suddenly her eyes widened and she gasped, clutching the blanket to her chest as her body jerked. She raised the cover and peered underneath. "Gabrielle, wha... what are you doing?"
"Trying to get your attention," came the muffled reply. "How am I doing?"
"Apparently quite well," said a baffled Antipany, noting the quickening of the warrior's breath and the sudden loss of focus in her eyes. She reached for the blanket. "What's going on under there?"
Xena slapped the blanket from the sorceress' hand. "Never mind," she said thickly. A barely audible gasp escaped from her lips as her body tensed. "Antipany, get out of here, now!"
"Are you kidding!" Antipany grabbed for the blanket. "This is just getting interesting."
Struggling for some vestige of self-control, Xena slapped a restraining hand on the lump underneath the blanket. "Ooomph," went the blanket. She grabbed Antipany's wrist with the other hand and her eyes bored into the recalcitrant sorceress. "Go relieve yourself, Antipany!"
"I just went," Antipany protested. But her kidneys took notice of the icy blue eyes, the deadly threat in the voice. Kicking into overdrive, they poured golden fluid into their reservoir, and in no time her bladder was trumpeting an urgent call to empty. "How do you do that?" Antipany grumbled as she climbed off of the bed and headed to the door.
"She has many skills," called out the blanket.
"Yeah, yeah." Antipany waved a disgusted hand at the bed before yanking open the door. As she slammed the door behind her, she heard a deep throaty voice say, "Well, now that you have my undivided attention..."
And the blanket snickered.
Antipany glared at the inquiring looks of the guards. "Yes, I have to go again, you want to make something of it?" Apparently they didn't. One fell in behind her as she made her way up the hall.
"I can't believe you did that, Xena. There must have been another way," Gabrielle said as she reached for her clothes.
"I couldn't let the opportunity slip by, Gabrielle. I promised Telamedes I'd take care of it and I did. Now we need to find Carnus' men and get out of here before we're discovered."
Xena quickly jammed her feet into her boots, readjusted her leathers, and slipped on her armor. She turned an impatient eye to her companion, who was struggling into her skirt. "Hurry it up, Gabrielle, we should have been out of here long ago." She yanked open the door and started out into the hall.
"Hey, wait up Xena," her companion called, grabbing her boots and dashing out after her.
"Any problems?" Xena asked the burly guard. He shook his head. "Come on then, lets go hunting," she said with relish, starting down the hall in eager anticipation. She turned back to the bard who appeared by her side. "Put your boots on, Gabrielle." She raised an eyebrow at Gabrielle's sudden look of ire. "Now what?"
Gabrielle leaned against the wall and put on her boots. "You know Xena, I wish you'd at least talk to me before..." A noise came from somewhere in the temple.
"Listen!" Xena ordered, holding up her hand. The noise came again.
Gabrielle's eyes widened. "That sounded like a..."
"Scream," the warrior finished grimly. She took off running, with Gabrielle and the guard right behind.
They pelted down the hall, through the sanctuary and into another hall, the screams getting louder as they ran. Other women joined them until by the time they found the source of the screaming, most of the temple's occupants were gathered at the doorway of the library. Cautioning everyone to stay in the hall, the pair entered and shut the library door.
The room was in shambles. Demo was trying to quiet a hysterical Ionea. Herophile and a guard were on their knees examining a prone, unmoving Hygea. A large text case had been overturned and covered most of the acolyte's back. Scrolls and texts were scattered all over the room. Antipany sat on the floor holding her head. She glanced up when Xena entered and groaned. "It wasn't my fault," she protested before the warrior could say a word.
Shaking her head, Xena knelt by Hygea. "She's dead," said Herophile helplessly. "I knew something evil was going to happen and I couldn't do anything about it."
"What happened?" Xena asked as she examined the body. She moved the blood soaked blond hair and felt the back of Hygea's head. There was a depression that moved under her probing fingers.
"I don't know," replied the oracle. "We heard screaming, and when we ran in, we found Ionea in the doorway, screaming and your friend bending over Hygea's body." She turned to the young acolyte. "Ionea that's enough!" The loud wailing became gentle sobbing against Demo's chest. "Take her to her room, Demo. We'll talk to her when she settles down." The pair left the room.
Xena stood up and stared at the wall. "Where does that opening lead to?" pointing to the hole in the wall.
"There's a series of caverns leading down into the mountain. As far as I know there's no exit. They put up the bookcases long before I came to keep the youngsters from exploring the caves. It's easy to get lost down there. There's also an entrance from the kitchen. We use some of the caverns for storage."
Taking a torch from its stand, Xena entered the hole and soon the light from her torch disappeared. Gabrielle stood at the entrance anxiously awaiting her return, giving a relieved sigh when torch light reappeared.
Xena stepped back through the opening, laying a reassuring hand on her companion's shoulder. "Herophile, get a couple of guards down there. Someone has left in a great big hurry and they've left a trail a blind man can follow."
Two guards grabbed up some torches and squeezed through the opening. Xena turned to Antipany. "What did you do?" she asked quietly.
"Nothing! Much." She dropped her gaze. "Look, I was just doing what you told me to. I was hunting for the texts." She rubbed the side of her head and looked back up at the warrior. "I was looking around and heard a noise coming from the library, so I looked in and saw Hygea on the floor and someone in a brown cloak was bending over her. I was getting ready to hit the guy with a bolt when someone hit me over the head. When I woke up, I was laying next to Hygea and someone was making a god awful racket. I was checking to see if she was alive when Herophile ran in."
"What makes you think the figure was a man?" Xena asked.
Antipany thought for a minute. "I don't know," she finally admitted. "If it wasn't a man, then it was pretty tall woman. The hood was up and I didn't see his... or her face. Do you own any brown cloaks, princess?"
"You're not helping yourself here," Gabrielle warned.
Xena walked over to the bookcase and hoisted it up to a standing position. There was a burn mark on one of the case walls. "This is yours, I assume," she said, pointing to the burns.
"Yeah," the sorceress admitted. "It kind of went astray when I got popped on the head."
"Maybe there's a simpler explanation," said Herophile, staring at the sorceress coldly. "You were in the library looking for the sacred texts, Hygea interrupted you and you killed her by dumping the bookcase over on her."
Xena looked at the astonished sorceress. "Sounds good to me," she said cheerfully turning for the door. "Let's go home, Gabrielle."
"Princess!" Antipany protested in a panic. "You can't leave me here. I didn't do anything!"
Xena crooked an eyebrow at her companion. "I suppose you want to stay."
"I suppose so," Gabrielle smiled tolerantly. "There are a few loose ends we need to clear up."
"Like who's down there in the caverns, what was Hygea doing in here so early in the morning, who's the person in the brown cloak..."
"Assuming there is such a person," Xena said dryly.
"The bookcase didn't kill the girl, did it, Xena?"
"Very good, Gabrielle." Xena said grimly. "It didn't hit her head, just her back." She knelt by the body and moved the torn robes aside to expose her back. "See this line where the top of the bookcase fell across her shoulders, the little breaks in the skin? There's hardly any bleeding. She was dead before the bookcase fell on her."
"See," Antipany exclaimed. "I didn't kill her!"
"Not with the bookcase, anyway," Xena retorted. "Where's your guard, Antipany?"
"The one who followed you when you left the room this morning."
"Oh, that guard." Antipany appeared to be thinking hard. Finally she shrugged. "Last time I saw him he was staring at this cute little ball with brightly colored lights spinning in the air..."
"You didn't!" exclaimed the bard. "You mesmerized him?"
"Well, it's hard to be stealthy with feet as big as his following you around," she said defensively. "He'll be all right. I'm getting better at this, you know. Just take the ball away and he'll snap right out of it." She paused. "I hope."
Herophile glared at them. "There's one other problem, Xena. The sacred texts are missing."
"Missing? How do you know... You mean you actually kept valuable texts in the library?" Xena asked.
"Of course we kept them in the library. Where else do you keep texts? In a vault? What good would they do there?"
"Why didn't you just put up a sign that said Steal Me?" Xena snorted. She whirled around and pulled Antipany to her feet. "All right, Antipany, time for a strip search."
Antipany jerked her arm away. "You're not searching anything, princess. Not on my body."
"We could always let him do it," Xena said, pointing to the guard as Antipany glared defiantly at her.
"There are seven books," Herophile pointed out. "I hardly think she could have fit them all under that cloak, Xena."
"Oh, you'd be surprised at what she can fit into that cloak," Gabrielle said dryly. "Why don't I get Semone and take Antipany somewhere private and we'll search her cloak together. That all right with you?" she asked the sorceress. Antipany nodded sullenly.
"Take her to the storeroom," Herophile instructed. "It's about the only room we can lock."
She called Semone and a guard in and instructed them to escort the grumbling sorceress to the storeroom. Gabrielle pulled her companion out into the hall and away from the others. "You don't really think Antipany had anything to do with this, do you?" she asked.
Xena smiled, her eyes twinkling. "No, I don't."
"Then why are you letting them lock her up?"
"Think about it Gabrielle, we won't have a roommate tonight." She raised an inquisitive eyebrow.
Gabrielle pursed her lips and nodded. "You know, you can never be too careful. Maybe Antipany had something to do with it after all." She hurried down the hall to catch up.
A stretcher was brought in and Hygea's body was removed. The guards still had not returned from the caverns, so Xena instructed everyone to go about their business. With the room cleared, she searched the area then sat down in a chair and propped her feet up on the table. "You can come down now," she called to a corner of the room.
A shadowy figure covered in a brown cloak detached itself from the dark corner where the walls met the ceiling and dropped to the floor. Sweeping the hood off his black hair with his hand, the man walked over to the warrior. "Hello, Xena," he said sheepishly.
"Hello, Autolycus," she responded with a cold smile.
"You must have to get up awfully early to get the baking done. This is wonderful bread."
"Yes, Ardenia and I are up before dawn to say prayers and start the bread. This is just terrible, terrible." She covered her face with her hands.
"Yes, it is terrible," Gabrielle agreed, patting the woman's shoulder sympathetically. "Did you see anything this morning?"
Semone uncovered her face and shook her head. "No, we were just taking the bread out when we heard poor Ionea screaming. We got to the room just after you did." She sighed. "Poor child. It hasn't been easy for her, growing up here. Now this." With Gabrielle's sympathetic encouragement, the old priestess poured out her distress and much of the temple's dirty linen.
They were interrupted by Ardenia who frowned when she saw Semone talking to the young stranger. She walked over and placed her hands on the priestess' shoulders. "It's all right, Semone," she said soothingly. She glared at Gabrielle. "Can't you see you're upsetting her?"
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle said apologetically. "Did you see anything this morning?"
"No," returned Ardenia shortly. "We heard Ionea screaming but we didn't see anything."
Semone sighed, "I need to lie down. There's more cheese and bread for your friends and a canister of tea there on the table. Help yourself." She heaved herself up and made her way dejectedly out of the kitchen accompanied by Ardenia.
"Now, Xena," Autolycus said hastily, "It isn't what you think." He sat down in a chair beside her. "Well, it is what you think. But I had nothing to do with that girl's murder. That just isn't my style."
Xena merely looked at him. "Suppose you start at the beginning."
He shrugged. "There's not much to tell. I was hired by Carnus to steal the Books of Prophesy. He can afford the best, you know." He studied his fingernails. "And I am the best..."
"Autolycus," Xena warned.
"All right, all right, keep your leathers on," he grumbled, then gave her a hopeful look. "Or not, whatever you prefer..." She growled. "Anyway," he continued hastily, "Carnus gave us a map to get into this place through a series of underground caverns. He said we would have a contact in the temple who would help us get the texts. It was supposed to be a simple snatch. They don't even lock the books up, for Zeus' sake."
"Who was with you, Autolycus?"
"Just Carnus' lapdog, Dionetes. He has the manners of a cur." He wrinkled his nose. "So we got here early this morning and found what you saw. The girl dead on the floor, blood everywhere. I made Dionetes stay in the cavern, you can smell him a mile away, while I went to search the room. I was kneeling down to check the girl when I heard this thump and a bolt of energy came flying past and hit the bookcase, knocking it over. I dove behind the table and when I looked up Antipany was lying on the floor unconscious, and this sweet young thing was in the doorway screaming her lungs out."
"That's when you decided to make like an owl?"
He grimaced. "If I'd known you were here, I would have been running with Dionetes. I thought I might get another chance to look for the texts once things settled down. I have a reputation to protect, Xena. Failure doesn't look good on a resume. Anyway, once you showed up my only choice was to stay put and pray."
"I doubt stealing from the gods will earn you their good-will," she said dryly.
"No, but it certainly adds to the mystique," he said with a roguish smile.
Shaking her head, she stood up and started for the door. "Come on, Autolycus, I have a nice safe place for you to stay until we get this all cleared up. And you'll love the company," she added with a smile.
"Ah, Xena, couldn't you just let me go for old times' sake?" he pleaded, following her to the door. She crooked a finger at him and he followed her to the storeroom grumbling the whole way.
Gabrielle was sitting at the table mulling over her conversation with Semone when the pair entered the kitchen on their way to the storeroom. She glanced up absently. "Oh, hi, Autolycus," she said.
"Hello, Gabrielle," he returned. They continued through the kitchen and nearly made it to the other side when Gabrielle's voice rang out.
"Hold it!" commanded the bard. They stopped and slowly turned to face her. Gabrielle studied them for a moment. "Let's see, brown cloak, that fits," she mused. "Then there's unobtainable objects in an inaccessible place and a fortune to be made. And you know what, Autolycus? I'm still surprised to see you." She gave a small, humorless laugh.
"Now Gabrielle, how could I pass up an opportunity like that? After all, I am the King of Thieves," he proclaimed proudly, running a finger across his mustache.
"And the Prince of Prevaricators, the Monarch of Malarkey, the Sovereign of Sophomoric Swagger." She glared at him. "Carnus is a slaver, Autolycus. How can you work for a man like that? And since when do you resort to murder?"
He clutched his chest. "You wound me, Gabrielle. I didn't kill that girl. I wish you people would stop saying that. Besides, after your run-in with Carnus, he turned over a new leaf. He now deals in antiquities and I'm merely helping him replenish his inventory."
"Now there's a big improvement," noted the bard. "I thought you vowed to work alone after your last misadventure with Jett."
"Dionetes wasn't my partner. Carnus sent him along to evaluate my performance."
"Wanted to keep an eye on you, huh? Imagine not trusting a thief, what's the world coming to?"
"Pretty sad, isn't it?" he said indignantly.
Xena grabbed him by the back of his vest. "Let's go." She hauled him to the store room. Taking the key off the rung by the door, she unlocked it and threw him in. "Going to have to find a new place for these keys," she murmured.
Antipany was sitting on a box and glanced up when they entered the room. Her eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed in anger. She rose and her breathing quickened, her hands burning with a bright glow.
Autolycus straightened up, noting the brightly glowing orbs. "Oh, oh," he said. "This is not good." He quickly ducked behind Xena as a bolt of energy flashed by his head. Cautiously peeking out from behind the warrior, he said, "Xena, you're not leaving me in here with her, are you?"
Folding her arms across her chest, Xena only smiled. "Antipany, you remember Autolycus, don't you? By the way, you'd better learn to play nice. He's going to be your roomie until we find out who killed Hygea and recover the books."
They stared at each other in consternation. "Surely you jest!" they exclaimed in unison.
"Nope. Antipany, come with me. I need to talk to you and we can get something to eat while we're talking." She turned and headed out the door with the still protesting Antipany on her heels.
"Ah, Xena," said Autolycus, waving his hand. "I'm a little hungry too."
"I'll bring something back for you. Stay here," she warned. "You won't like what I'll do to you if I have to hunt you down."
No, he thought as the door slammed shut and the key turned in the lock, I'm pretty sure I won't.
Xena and Antipany walked into the kitchen, where Gabrielle was making tea and setting out more food. Sitting down at the table, the bard served them each a cup. Antipany sniffed at the liquid then put it down without tasting it.
"Ares' Semen," she said quietly, turning her attention to the food.
Gabrielle put her cup down with a thump. "Pa... pardon me?" She grabbed Xena's arm as she was bringing the cup to her lips and forced it down to the table. "Did you say Ares' Semen?"
"Yes," replied the sorceress. "That's what this tea is made of."
"That's ridiculous," Xena snorted, brushing the bard's hand away and bringing the cup to her lips once again. "This is chamomile tea."
"That's what the uneducated call it," Antipany sniffed. "But people in our profession know it as Ares' Semen." She watched Gabrielle force the warrior's arm back down to the table again, Xena's questing lips having made a vain effort to taste the tea. "You mix it with a few other ingredients, say a few words and presto! You have a potion to increase aggressiveness and leadership abilities. Drink a lot of it, don't you, princess?"
"What opening did you blow that waste out of, Antipany?" Xena crowed. Then narrowed her eyes as Gabrielle quietly tried to pry the cup from her fingers. "You don't believe all that nonsense, do you, Gabrielle?"
"Of course not," Gabrielle replied, but having failed to get the cup, she reached up and gently kissed the warrior. "Please?" she asked softly, looking into the sky blue eyes. Xena's fingers reluctantly released the cup and the bard pushed it out of reach.
An eyebrow raised. "I'm never going to see another cup of chamomile tea for as long as you live, am I?"
"Oh, probably not," Gabrielle responded with a tight smile. She took the cups of untasted tea and trotted to the door to throw the contents outside.
Antipany looked at the warrior with innocent eyes. "You probably won't see chamomile anything for as long as she lives," she said compassionately.
"There isn't an oracle of truth to any of this is there?" Xena growled.
"Actually, there is. I may have, well... embellished a little. In fact, Ares is quite a stud you know. I think some practitioners are even using it as an aphrodisiac. I've heard it makes for more aggressive love making."
Xena's eyes followed the bard as she brewed a fresh pot of tea. "Well, we certainly don't need that."
"Of course you don't," murmured the sorceress.
"This is rose hip tea," Gabrielle said. "Are there any special uses for this?"
Antipany opened her mouth to respond, then noticed the icy glare she was getting from the warrior. She felt her kidneys twitch a warning. "Ah, no," she replied. "Can't think of a thing. Make me a biiig cup. All right, princess what do I need to do to clear my much maligned name?"
Taking a bite of food, Xena chewed slowly before answering. "Autolycus pretty much cleared you of everything but stupidity, Antipany. But since Herophile still thinks you're in on it, you'll have to stay locked up for a while."
Antipany glared at the warrior. "And how long will that be?"
"We'll know everything by tomorrow morning," she replied.
"We will?" Gabrielle asked.
Her companion smiled. "Yep. I think we can eliminate the two youngest initiates, and perhaps the two oldest, Semone and Ardenia, we'll see. I think we can also assume Autolycus is telling the truth and Hygea was already dead when they arrived. We should concentrate our efforts on Herophile, Demo and Ionea."
"What about the guards?"
"I don't think so. They're all well over seven feet tall and skilled at killing. We would have seen a different type of wound if one of them did it. Whoever did this is not skilled at murder. I found a small stone statue of Apollo with blood on it. My guess is that someone panicked, picked up the statue and struck the base of her skull with it. I don't think murder was the intent, just the unfortunate result."
There was a commotion in the hall and young Dionia flew into the room. "Come quick, Xena. The guards have returned from the caves and they found someone." She whirled around and rushed back out of the room.
Everyone jumped up and started for the door. Xena reached out a put a restraining hand on Antipany's shoulder. "Oh no you don't." She shoved the keys into Antipany's hands. "Go back to the storeroom and lock yourself in. And stay there!" she commanded. Then she rushed down the hall with Gabrielle at her side.
Antipany stood for a few moments fuming, then gathered some food and headed for the storeroom. "But I'm not locking the door," she muttered.
"You trust her with the keys?" Gabrielle asked.
"I doubt whether a mere locked door would keep either one of them confined for long," Xena replied. "I'm hoping that they fear me enough to stay out of trouble."
"That would do it for me," Gabrielle agreed.
Xena suddenly grabbed her companion, pulling her to a stop. Looking into the questioning green eyes, she laughed ruefully. "Gabrielle, it's nice to know you've never been afraid of me."
"You know that's not true, Xena," Gabrielle scowled. "I can't help it if trouble seems to find me an easier target than you." She thumped her friend's midsection. "Now let's go."
They arrived in the library to find two very dusty guards standing over a body. Herophile was examining the man, whose head lolled at an unnatural angle. Glancing up at the pair, she shook her head. "He's dead."
Xena walked over to the dead man and sniffed. "Whew, must be Dionetes. The stench is unmistakable." Even soiling his trousers in death couldn't hide the fact he hadn't bathed in a good long time. She turned her attention to the guards, who backed up a couple of steps under her deadly glower. "It's hard to question a dead man," she ground out.
They exchanged puzzled looks. "You never said to bring him back alive," one replied.
"Don't blame them," Herophile interceded. "They protect this temple and bringing him back alive isn't their first priority." She turned to the guards. "Did you recover the books?" she asked hopefully.
"He didn't have them," one replied sullenly. "We searched the path he took and there wasn't any sign of the sacred texts."
"He never had them," Xena said flatly. She studied the priestess. "You knew they would kill him, didn't you?"
She shrugged, "Of course, everyone knows that. He violated the temple. I understand you captured his accomplice and he'll also be held accountable."
Gabrielle made a gesture of protest, but caught the warning look Xena tossed in her direction and remained silent.
"I've seen everything I need to," Xena said quietly. "You may remove his body. Come on, Gabrielle." They walked down the hall a ways until Gabrielle could no longer bear the silence and stopped her friend.
"Xena, you're not going to let them hurt Autolycus are you?" she asked.
"No, of course not, Gabrielle." She fell silent again.
The bard waited anxiously. Finally in exasperation she asked, "Xena, what are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking that Autolycus is fortunate he thinks so highly of himself. Otherwise he'd be just another dead thief." She stared at the wall again lost in thought.
"Xena?" Gabrielle waved a hand in front of the warrior's face. "Are we going to have to have another talk about your communication skills?" Xena looked at her friend with a bemused expression. "What are you thinking?" asked the bard again.
Focusing on her companion, Xena said quietly, "I love you, Gabrielle."
Confused by the sudden change of topic, Gabrielle stared for a moment. Then a look of concern swept over her face. "Oh Xena, are you dying?" She grabbed her friend's forearms.
A finely sculpted eyebrow lifted to impossible heights. "No."
Gabrielle looked stricken. "Am I dying?" she asked.
Xena's mouth quirked. "Not to my knowledge. Look, you asked me what I was thinking and that was it." She spun on her heel and they started walking down the hall. Glancing down at her companion, she said, "I suppose there was a message in all that, wasn't there?"
"Can't put anything over on you, can I... princess." Gabrielle punched her friend's arm playfully.
"Well, I think it a lot even if I don't say it very often," replied Xena somewhat grumpily. She wound an arm around the bard's shoulders. "You are irritating sometimes." But the gentle squeeze of her shoulder and the soft kiss on the top of her head told Gabrielle volumes more than the gruff words.
Gabrielle wrapped her arm around her companion's waist as they walked. "Aww, there's nothing wrong with your communication skills, Xena. Words are one way to communicate but you speak to me most eloquently in a lot of other ways."
Demo sat quietly by Ionea's bed watching the young woman sleep. The hypnotic had done its job but the young woman was tossing and turning in her sleep, occasionally crying out Hygea's name. The setting sun threw ghostly shadows along the wall as the room slowly darkened. The dark haired priestess put a soothing hand on Ionea's shoulder as the young woman turned again restlessly in the bed.
She had to leave this place and now was the time. Her visions had become quite clear and they told her to go to Corinth. There was nothing left for her here now and she could no longer refuse the call. All she had to do was tie up a few loose ends. Quietly she picked up a pillow that had fallen to the floor and stood over the whimpering young woman.
"How is she?" the voice said softly. Demo whirled around, startled by the sudden noise. Seeing it was Xena she dropped the pillow on the bed and walked over to the door trying to compose herself.
"You shouldn't sneak up on people like that," she said shortly. "Especially at a time like this."
Xena motioned her into the hall. "Sorry, but I need to talk to you. Let's go out to the gardens. Gabrielle will stay with Ionea." When the priestess hesitated, Gabrielle patted her arm. "It's all right. I'll make sure nothing happens to her."
Abruptly nodding her assent she walked out to the gardens with Xena. "I suppose you want to know what I was doing last night?" she said. Xena raised a questioning eyebrow. "I was sleeping, just like I do most nights."
Now it was Demo's turn to raise an eyebrow. "Of course by myself. I'm a solitary person, Xena. I have no need for the comfort of others. My visions are the only company I keep." She looked at the mountains her face a stoic mask. "I was awakened by the screaming and when I got to the library Herophile and Ionea were already there."
Xena studied her for a moment. "Why was Ionea there?"
"I don't know, you'll have to ask her. She was so hysterical, she wasn't making any sense, just kept on screaming. When I brought her back to her room, I gave her something to help her sleep."
"You and Herophile weren't getting along, were you?"
Demo looked at her sharply. "Where did you hear that," she asked.
"Word gets around." Not telling her of Gabrielle's penchant for dirty linen.
"It's true," Demo sighed. "I don't agree with Herophile on how to run the temple. I believe it should be open to everyone, not hidden away. The only contact we have with the outside world is with a trader who brings supplies once a week and then we have to go to the other side of the cave to conduct our business. No one is allowed in unless they can make it through the traps. We've had some pretty strong arguments about it and I was all set to leave when this happened."
"Who usually goes to meet the trader?"
"Myself and usually Ionea or Hygea and a couple of the guards. Sometimes we'll take one of the younger girls."
"Herophile never goes?"
Demo looked at her sharply. "No, never. Apollo put her here and this is where she'll remain. She wants nothing more to do with the outside world."
"What took you so long to decide to leave?"
"This is my home, you don't just up and leave your home." She looked away.
The truth, but not the whole truth Xena decided. Besides, Gabrielle had done just that and hadn't looked back more than once or twice. "Tell me about Hygea."
At the mention of the dead woman, Demo closed her eyes for a moment then turned her grief stricken countenance to her inquisitor. "What's there to say? When she came to us she had been driven out of her village because of her dreams. Prophesy is dangerous in the unskilled, Xena. Here she had acceptance and was learning to control and interpret her dreams. She was a beautiful, bright, wonderful young woman who didn't deserve to die. I wish I would have told her..." Her voice trailed off, regret written on her face.
"Told her what?"
"Nothing," Demo said abruptly. "I have work to do." She turned to the door and swiftly walked back into the temple. Xena's eyes narrowed as she watched the priestess walk away.
Gabrielle lit the candles as evening shadows lengthened, then returned to her vigil by the bed. Finally the restless girl stirred into wakefulness and sat up with a groan, trying vainly to shake the cobwebs from her brain. She jerked when the bard touched her shoulder. "It's all right, Ionea. I'll stay with you."
Ionea leaned against the wall and stared blankly at the bard. "Nothing will be all right again, Gabrielle," she said thickly. "It's too late. What happened?"
"I'm sorry, Ionea, but Hygea is dead." The young acolyte buried her head in her hands. "Can you tell me what you saw in the library?"
She stared at the bard, thinking hard. "It took me a long time to go to sleep. When I woke up Hygea wasn't in our room and when she didn't come back I finally went looking for her. When I got to the library I saw your friend standing just inside the door and Hygea was on the floor with blood all over." She shuddered and Gabrielle sat down beside her and put an arm around her shoulders.
"I know this is hard but we need to know what happened. What did you do?"
"Well, I picked up something, I'm not sure what and hit her over the head with it, This bolt of energy came flying off her hand and I just lost it . I started screaming and soon everyone came." She started to cry again.
Gabrielle hugged her and rubbed her back soothingly. "You're doing fine. Ionea, this is important. Was there anyone else in the room?"
"No, I don't think so," she looked up her eyes narrowing. "Was there?"
"Apparently so," replied the bard. "We caught a thief in the room and the guards killed another man in the caves."
Ionea caught her breath. "Is the thief still alive?" she asked sharply.
"Yes, but we're pretty sure someone else is involved."
She leaned back against the wall and looked blankly across the room. "I've never seen anyone murdered before, Gabrielle. Things like that just don't happen here. All that blood..." her voice tailed off.
Gabrielle patted her hand. "We'll find out who's responsible, don't you worry. Is there anything I can get you. Are you hungry?"
"No, I doubt I'll ever be hungry again," replied the young girl. "But you can do something for me. Tell me a story, Gabrielle." A tear rolled down her cheek. "Tell me what happens when dreams die."
And Gabrielle looked into empty eyes that had forsaken all dreams and for once she couldn't think of a single story to tell. Ionea lay down with her face to the wall. "It's all right, Gabrielle. Please leave. I really want to be alone for awhile."
Gabrielle covered the young girl up with a blanket then quietly left the room. She met up with Xena in the hall and they made their way back to their room, where Gabrielle related her conversation with Ionea.
"So Ionea never saw Autolycus in the room? Antipany and the table must have blocked her view of him. Maybe we can use that..." She fell silent, staring at nothing in particular.
Gabrielle took her friend's hand in hers. "Ah, Xena. Xena, Xena. I know that look. You have a plan."
"Semone and Ardenia are preparing the evening meal, Gabrielle. We need to make sure everyone is present, including Ionea. That's your job."
"And what are you going to do?"
Xena gave her friend an enigmatic smile. "What I do best. I'm going to beat the crap out of someone." Her eyes gleamed, her canines bared in a snarl, her face twisted in cruelty.
"You know, I just hate it when you do that," Gabrielle disapproved, noting her companion's facial expression. "Who is this poor person?"
"Autolycus," replied the warlord.
"Well... maybe just this once," allowed her friend as they walked out of the room.
Xena growled a greeting to the two elderly priestesses as she stalked through the kitchen on her way to the storeroom. They started to respond then looked at each other in apprehension.
"Now there's someone on the hunt," Ardenia remarked to her friend. Tanned and lean from her years of working outside, she was in marked contrast to Semone who was pale and somewhat plump from too many years of sampling her own wonderful cooking.
Semone shuddered. "Best let her do her job, Ardenia. Help me cut up some more vegetables, will you?" But it soon proved difficult to concentrate on their task with the sounds of fists pounding flesh and the howls of pain that followed.
Xena finally emerged from the storeroom and casually wiped the blood off her hands with a rag. "Supper ready yet?" she asked. "I'm starved. Nothing like a little exercise to stimulate the appetite." She smiled at them and whistled her way down the hall.
"Shall we look?" Ardenia asked her friend.
"No!" replied Semone. "Let's just get this meal over with. I want them out of our temple and the quicker she gets what she wants, the quicker they leave. Help me get this food on the table." She picked up the heavy pot of soup and headed for the dining room.
Gabrielle had done her job. Everyone, including Ionea, was seated at the table when Xena entered. She called her companion over and whispered in her ear. With a nod, Gabrielle left the room and went to the storeroom. Semone and Ardenia entered with the food and quickly ladled soup into bowls for everyone. There was a momentary pause when the bard returned with a sulking Antipany. Xena pointed to an empty chair and the sorceress sat down in a huff.
No one had much of an appetite that evening except for Xena, who emptied her bowl of soup with relish. "Well, I've softened your thief up a little and left him hanging up to dry. He told me he was hiding in the room and saw everything and now he wants to bargain. He'll be ready to sing his larcenous little heart out by tomorrow morning." She looked over at Ionea's untouched soup. "Are you going to eat that?" she asked. The pale young woman shook her head. Xena switched bowls, digging into soup. "Better eat up, Antipany. It's your turn tonight. I think we'll have our conversation in my room. More privacy, don't you think?"
Antipany glared at her and her hands began to glow. Xena whipped out her chakrum. "I wouldn't if I were you. A handless sorcerer is kind of useless, don't you think:?" The glow died abruptly. Xena chuckled and took a long drink of wine. "Yes, we're going to have a lot of fun. All night long."
"Xena," Herophile said reprovingly, nodding at the two wide eyed youngsters at the end of the table. "Don't you think we could talk about something else?"
The warrior shrugged. "That's life, Herophile. What are you complaining about? By tomorrow we'll know who the murderer is and my friend and I will be on our way. You should be happy."
"I know I'll be happy to see you leave," Demo said, pushing away from the table. "I've had enough of this." She stormed out of the room.
Xena looked at her untouched bowl of soup. "Anybody want this?" she asked. When no one spoke she switched bowls and cheerfully downed her third helping of soup. In no time the room cleared out as one by one the women left to seek the solitary confinement of their own places.
Finally the warrior leaned back in her chair, swiping a hand across her mouth and gave a satisfied belch. "Let's go," she said with a feral smile, grabbing Antipany and hauling her to her feet.
Antipany leaned close and whispered, "Aren't you enjoying this a little too much, princess?" Xena just looked at her with a predatory gleam in her eyes. If Antipany could have become any paler than she was, she would have.
Autolycus snored loudly, asleep even though he was hanging from a beam. At least the chains were long enough to allow him to lean against the wall and sleep. It was a better position than a lot of jails allowed. And he was an expert on jailhouse decor. He had been a little put out with Antipany when she had dug those chains out from somewhere deep within her cloak and offered them with what he thought was unseemly enthusiasm to Xena as she was looking for something to tie him up with. Xena had assured him it was all part of the plan, along with the two superficial cuts to his face. Head wounds bleed more she explained; it added authenticity to their plan. He still wasn't sure exactly what that plan was, but he suspected she was going fishing and he was the bait.
It was deep into the night, when everyone was sound asleep, that the door of storeroom was pushed hesitantly open and robed figure crept in. She paused in the darkness, listening to his snoring, and after being satisfied that he was indeed asleep, lit a candle and made her way quietly to him. She studied him for a moment, trying to get her courage up, knowing it was her only chance.
Silently she slid the knife out of her sleeve and slowly raised it over her head. She gasped when his eyes flew open and they stared at each other for a long moment.
"For the love of Zeus," he finally said in disgust. "Who would have thought of you?" Before she could react he swung his foot, kicking the knife out of her hand. It impaled itself in the ceiling above their heads. She whirled around and ran for the door. Only to run into a leather clad warrior.
Xena caught the woman in one hand and her candle in the other. Holding the candle up, she examined her quarry. "Guess we both lose this wager, Autolycus. Going somewhere?" she asked the startled woman.
"No," sighed Semone. "This is the only place I want to be." She started to cry.
The sun was creeping over the horizon by the time Xena got everyone assembled in the kitchen. Semone sat looking dejectedly at the table top. Herophile and Demo sat staring grimly at the priestess. Ardenia stood behind Semone, trying to comfort her. Ionea and Gabrielle sat on her other side.
"It was a simple plan to steal the books," Xena explained. "Hygea was working for Carnus and your trader was their contact. She really did have the gift of prophesy but without guidance it was never developed properly. She was driven from her village straight into the arms of Carnus. The merchant is a patient man. He planted Hygea here just waiting for the right time to steal the books. How did you find out about it, Semone?"
Semone wiped the tears away with her apron. "That morning I got up before the sun and went to the sanctuary to pray. I was in the shadows at the back when I saw Hygea come through on her way to the library. It was an odd time to be wandering around and she was acting funny. I finished my prayers and went to find her. She had moved the bookcase away from the wall and was stacking the Prophesy books by the opening. When I told her to put the books back, she just laughed at me. She pushed me into a chair and told me to be quiet or she'd hurt me. When she turned away I picked up the statue and hit her with it. I may look soft, but all those years of lifting pots have made me pretty strong." She broke into fresh sobs. "I didn't mean to kill her!" she wailed. "I just wanted to stop her until I could get some help."
"I wonder how she knew about the caverns and the map," Gabrielle mused.
Ionea sighed. "I told her. I wanted to get away so badly."
Xena looked at the Ionea thoughtfully. "How did you know about the map?"
The young woman smiled bitterly. "Because I made it. I grew up here, Xena. I've been exploring those caves for years. I finally stumbled on the exit to the outside last year and I saw a way to leave. But I knew I'd never make it on my own in the outside world, so one day I showed Hygea the map and asked her to come with me. She refused, but she knew where I hid it." She stared defiantly at Herophile. "You have no right to keep me here. I'm no better than a slave."
"I was trying to protect you, child," Herophile retorted. "The world beyond these mountains will kill you."
"I'll die here!" Ionea shouted angrily. Xena placed a hand on her shoulder to force her back into the chair.
Semone sighed and patted Gabrielle's hand. "Well, I'm thankful you found the poison. I wasn't thinking very clearly yesterday. I'm sorry."
They all looked at her in shocked silence. "What do you mean, Semone?" ask Xena softly.
"Why, the tea I gave Gabrielle to brew yesterday. I was so afraid you would take me away from my home, I was in a panic. I added a little poison to the chamomile tea thinking that if you were dead you couldn't make me leave."
"Can't beat that logic," Xena said dryly.
"When I went to get the container of tea last evening, it was missing. I just assumed you had found the poison since you were still alive."
"I think I have an idea where the container went to," Xena said staring at her companion.
Gabrielle blushed and refused to meet the warrior's eyes. "All right, all right. I admit it. I wanted to make sure you didn't drink the stuff so I hid it." She went back into the pantry and returned with the container of tea, handing it to Xena with a wry smile.
The warrior sniffed cautiously and nodded. "This would have done it. With the taste and smell of the other herbs, it would have been very hard to detect if we weren't looking for it."
"Why were you going to kill Autolycus?" Gabrielle asked.
Semone looked surprised, then shrugged. "I was afraid he'd expose me. He violated the temple. He'll die anyway. What difference does it make who executes him? Only I afraid I'm just not very good at it," she added sadly. "It's harder to do than I thought. It's much easier to murder accidentally than on purpose." She looked at Herophile. "I was going to tell you what happened after the outsiders left. Don't let them to take me away from here," she pleaded.
The oracle rubbed her face. "Why would you think I'd let them take you away from here, Semone?" She noted the stern look Ardenia was giving her. "Even if I wanted to, I doubt Ardenia would let me. No, you'll never leave here."
"But what about my dream! It must mean something."
"Sometimes a dream is just a dream, Semone." Herophile stood abruptly and called a guard over. "Take Semone to her room and see that she stays there." She turned to Xena. "Your task is finished, Xena, please leave. We can handle the problem from here." The old priestess was escorted from the room by a guard. Then Herophile strode out of the room trailed by the others and the two companions found themselves alone in the kitchen.
"Well," Gabrielle said, "I guess we've been dismissed. But what about the texts?"
"My guess is that Herophile doesn't want us around when Semone tells her where they are and we don't really want to be here. I have a feeling we're not considered trustworthy. Not that I can blame her when you go around stealing her tea."
"Hey," Gabrielle protested. "I was not stealing. I just misplaced it, that's all."
They started down the hall to their room. "Yeah, sure you did," Xena replied.
"I did!" Gabrielle said. Then she brightened. "Boy, wait 'til I tell Antipany she saved our lives!"
Xena pulled her to a stop. "You're not telling her that. You saved our lives, not her."
"Only because she said what she did. I am too going to tell her..." And found herself pushed against the wall with an angry warlord glaring down at her.
"She'll never let us live it down if you tell her that," Xena growled.
Gabrielle blinked then looked up at her friend and smiled thoughtfully. "You know Xena, if you would have done that to me three years ago, I'd be quaking in my boots. But not now. I know you too well."
The warrior's countenance softened. "I'm that transparent, huh?"
"Only to me," replied the bard. She reached up and planted a kiss on her friend's chin, then slid away to the door of their room. "Besides, do you really think Antipany will be happy to hear she saved YOUR life?" She smiled mischievously and entered the room.
Xena leaned against the wall, listening to murmur of voices as Gabrielle told the sorceress what had happened. After several minutes there was a sharp exclamation and a steady stream of curses. Gabrielle poked her head out of the door.
"You told her?" Xena asked.
"Yep. You wouldn't think such a delicate creature would have such a well-rounded vocabulary, would you?" Gabrielle grinned.
"It would make a sailor proud," Xena confirmed. She pushed away from the wall. "You get packed up while I see to Autolycus. I'll meet you two out front." She strode down the hall to the storeroom.
Commandeering a guard on her way, she turned the key in the lock and entered. The manacles hung from the beam, empty. The startled guard searched the room, pushing crates and bags out his way. In one corner he found a small hole scarcely big enough to get his head through. "It goes back into the caverns!" he exclaimed.
"Big enough," Xena said ruefully to the guard's inquiring glance. She held up a hand as he started to run from the room. "Don't bother. He's halfway home by now. Just be thankful he didn't take the temple with him." She laughed and walked out to meet her companions.
Herophile accompanied them to the cave. "I've been informed your friend the thief has escaped. Please tell him he won't be given a second chance."
"I think he knows that, but we'll remind him," Gabrielle said. "What's going to happen to Semone?"
"That's up to Apollo," the priestess replied. "But if it were up to me, nothing would happen to her. She was serving Apollo by defending her home."
Gabrielle shuddered. "Better keep her away from the poison. Practice makes perfect, you know; she may get it right next time. What about Ionea?"
Herophile didn't smile. "Demo has agreed to take her to Corinth. It won't be what she expects; she'll die there, but it's her choice." They arrived at the steep mountain wall and without hesitation she walked through the barrier and into the interior, closely followed by Antipany.
"I'll never get used to that," Gabrielle mused. She glanced back at the temple nestled in its beautiful tiny valley of green. "Great place to visit but I'd never want to live here. I can see why Ionea wanted to get away so badly."
"Enough to kill?" her companion asked.
"Hmmm," was the bard's only reply. She walked through the illusion with Xena.
The walk down the tunnel was uneventful but when they reached the small cavern Antipany suddenly stopped. Herophile continued on to the far side of the cave. "This is the way out," she said, pointing to the wall. "Get moving," Xena growled pushing Antipany out into the cave. But the sorceress remained frozen staring at the ground.
"I... I can't," she whispered. Her eyes were wide with fear.
"Daughter of a Bacchae," Xena swore. Before the sorceress realized what was happening she found herself tossed over the warrior's shoulder and they were half way across the cave.
"Nooo, Xena. Waaait," she wailed. She closed her eyes tight against the horror she saw below her and held on as best she could as the warrior swiftly crossed the cave to Herophile.
Xena set her burden down with a thump. "There. That wasn't so bad was it?" She raised a surprised eyebrow when a very angry sorceress reared back and slugged her arm as hard as she could. Which the warrior hardly felt, but it was the lack of gratitude which irritated Xena most. She grabbed Antipany and gave her a shake. "What's wrong with you? There's no hole there, it's all an illusion."
Antipany grabbed Xena's leather straps and pulled herself even closer. Furious brown eyes to icy baby blues she hissed, "The chasm is not an illusion, warrior brain, but the ground you just walked over certainly is!"
Casually dropping the sorceress, Xena exchanged a nonplused glance with her companion. They both looked to Herophile for confirmation. The priestess gave a wry smile and shrugged. "Well, I've never seen it, but I've heard if you listen close you can hear the wailing of the damned in Tartarus."
"I wondered what that noise was," Xena murmured.
"Why didn't we just fall through like we did the first time? And why didn't you see it then?" Gabrielle asked.
"I suspect this time we have the key," Xena said, eyeing Herophile.
Antipany nodded, "But we didn't know that until now, did we?" She turned to Gabrielle. "And I didn't see it the first time because I was busy talking to you and not paying attention."
"Good thing I'm not afraid of heights, isn't it?" Xena said with a sardonic smile.
Antipany looked like she might attack the warrior again. "You know, I broke my tailbone for you, had my skull smashed in, broke my nose, fractured my ribs, and you just gave me heart failure. The least you could do is show a little appreciation." Her voice raised. "I want to go home. Now!" She whirled and headed for the wall. Stopping abruptly she cautiously patted the wall and sighed in relief as her hand slid through the illusion, quickly followed by the rest of her body.
The companions exchanged glances. "A little tap on the noggin', a flick to her nose, a tiny bruise over her ribs and she thinks she's dying," Xena snorted.
"Well, you have to admit she got the worst of it this trip," Gabrielle replied. They bid Herophile farewell and stepped through the illusion. Bright sunshine greeted them and they saw Antipany was already halfway down the path, rapidly striding for the glen where they had left the horses. By the time they reached the meadow, Antipany had retrieved her pony and was saddling her with undue haste.
Gabrielle hurried over and put a restraining hand on her arm. "Thank you, Antipany. We couldn't have done it without you."
Antipany hugged the bard and held her for a moment. "If you ever get tired of living this way, you know where to come."
"Thanks, but I'm happy with my home," Gabrielle replied, nodding toward Xena.
Shaking her head, Antipany said, "You deserve more than a hovel, my friend."
"It's a palace," declared the bard. "Well... most of the time. But I would like another peek at your library." She looked at the sorceress with questioning eyes. "Could I bring Xena this time?"
"If you insist," Antipany said grudgingly. "But what good is a vacation if you drag the hut along?" She sighed and walked over to Xena. "Goodbye, princess. It was a nightmare as usual. Do us both a favor and don't use me as the grand prize in your next wager, all right?" She grasped the warrior's forearm.
"I've learned my lesson, Antipany," Xena replied. "Thank you. Tell your husband the problem is taken care of."
Antipany's eyes widened. "What did you do with the books, Xena?"
"Telamedes gave me a solution to destroy the ink in them. You aren't the only one who's able to slip a guard, Antipany. By the time they recover the books, all they'll find are blank pages."
"But...but when did you have time to do that? We were with you...," her voice trailed off. "Except for when you were scouting out the temple night before last." She shook her head. "Those prophesies could have been used for good, Xena. Tele would have known what to do with them." She scowled at the warrior. "I really wanted those books."
"Telamedes agreed with me, Antipany. He knew that in the wrong hands those prophesies would have brought about a great deal of misery and death. Carnus would've never given up searching for them. And if it wasn't Carnus, it would be someone like him."
Antipany glanced at Gabrielle. "You knew about this?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Not until after it was done. I'm not in favor of destroying books but sometimes we have to trust they know what's best."
"I don't suppose you read any of the prophesies before you destroyed them, did you princess?" the sorceress asked hopefully.
Xena shook her head. "Not very closely. It's just the same old stuff. Wars, famine, odd looking devices, some entity who will bring about terrible evils. Nothing that applied to us personally and we don't need an oracle to tell us about it. We fight it every day."
"I think it's time Tele and I had a long talk," Antipany said grimly. They watched Antipany turn and mount Circe. With a wave of her hand she disappeared down the road to home.
"Do you think she'll hurt him very badly?" Gabrielle asked.
"No, but I think Telamedes better keep her away from his beloved laurel trees," Xena replied. She continued to adjust Argo's saddlebags. "Palace, huh?" She looked down at her companion in amusement.
"Yeah, well, it's a bit bedraggled and the upkeep is a hassle at times but I like it." She slid under Xena's outstretched arm and gave her friend a tight hug. Resting her head on Xena's chest, she sighed. "I could have been her, you know. Ionea, I mean. Only, if I had to stay in Poteidaia, I would've ended up killing someone. Probably myself." She laughed ruefully. "I know all my dreams would have died there. We can't give up our dreams, Xena. There's no future without them." She looked up into warm blue eyes. "You've saved my life more times than I can count, but it was that first time that means the most. You've given me the chance to live out my dreams. Thank you."
"Poteidaia would have never held you, Gabrielle. You would have made it out without my help." She grabbed Argo's reins but kept an arm around the bard's shoulders. "Let's get going." They began to walk down the road. "It goes both ways you know."
"I saved your dreams?" the bard asked.
"Not exactly," Xena replied. "You saved me from my nightmares. I didn't have good dreams for a long time. They were all about blood, war, death. But you came and dreaming became bearable again. My visions of the future are much more pleasant these days, thanks to you."
Gabrielle smiled then jabbed her friend in the ribs. "You're pretty sneaky, you know it?"
"I don't know what you mean," Xena replied, looking perplexed.
"Letting me win that bet so Antipany would have to come with us. You knew she could help us, but you couldn't bring yourself to ask her for her help. But you knew I would."
Xena shook her head. "That sounds pretty devious for me. I don't think my imagination is that good."
"Yeah, right," Gabrielle snorted. "We make a pretty good team, don't we?"
"Yeah, we do," Xena replied. "Nothing's going to change that, my friend."
They continued down the path bantering back and forth, enjoying the gentle breeze, the warm sunshine and each other's company until coming through the trees they spotted a soldier leading a group of men with their arms tied to poles across their backs. The two started to walk by when one of the prisoners spoke. "My people will never give in to Caesar," he shouted and the fight was on. With vivid memories of the past, and now grounded firmly in the present, the warrior had no foreshadowing that her greatest nightmares were yet to come.
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