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Editor's Choice Award

Sleeping with the Enemy

Copyright 1998 by Two Bards Writin’

All Rights Reserved

DISCLAIMER: Xena, Gabrielle and all other characters having previously appeared in Xena: Warrior Princess, are the sole property of MCA/Universal. They are borrowed herein without permission. All other characters are the creation of the authors.

VIOLENCE WARNING/DISCLAIMER: This story depicts scenes of violence and/or their aftermath. There are also occasionally uses of mildly obscene language. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of material may wish to read no further than this disclaimer.

SUBTEXT: Yes, plenty of subtext, and none of it sexual.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: The authors of this story would like to thank the following individuals for their contributions: Atalanta, Eight of Ten, Ambrosia, Proud Warrioress and EMARTIN for their more than occasional input and counsel. Many thanks to Web Warrior Princess for her wonderful color cover. Special thanks go out to Mit18, the person responsible for the genesis of "internet fanfic" to hardcopy book. Thank you.

Excerpts from "Light Sleep", by Hazel Hunt, used without permission of the author.

Sleeping with the Enemy


Christine Toups


Becky Lutzke

Chapter I

‘Night, Sleep, Death and the Stars’

Gabrielle threw another log on the fire and sat down heavily, watching the flames dance while she waited for Xena to return from her hunting expedition. In contrast to the crystal clear evening sky, fog cloaked the ground like an amorphous shroud and settled a damp chill around her shoulders. More to keep herself occupied than to placate her muse, Gabrielle pulled her best quill and a piece of parchment from her pack, intent on completing a letter she'd begun a half dozen times, but the quill hovered in the air, aimless. After a few moments, Gabrielle wadded up the paper and threw it angrily to the ground. "Who am I kidding? I can't do it!"

"You can't do what?" Xena said as she strode into camp, two hastily-gutted and plucked quail dangling from a length of twine. Gabrielle turned quickly, startled out of her thoughts, and caught Xena's barely disguised frown of disapproval.

"I know," Gabrielle sighed, and parroted her friend's oft-told advice: "I’m sitting with my back to the tree line..."

Xena handed her the two plucked birds. "Hey, it’s your back, besides, staring into that fire, you’re night blind anyway." Gabrielle ran two skewers through the quail and set them to cook over the fire. As she sat beside her friend, Xena reached down and gathered up the discarded parchment. She ran it over her thigh once to make it legible, and began to read. Momentarily, she looked up at her companion. "You're not going to tell them by letter?"

"No!" said Gabrielle defensively. "That would be stupid, and callous and unfeeling. That would be the coward's way."

"Yep," countered Xena, not a woman to use two words where one would do.

"It’s just that sometimes it helps to write these things out first...edit, perfect, and..."

"...and you're stalling," interjected Xena.

"And I'm stalling. Okay. I admit it." She shook her head, and leaned forward, wrapping her arms around her knees. "I should never have put it off this long."

"Go home and talk to them. They should hear the details from your own mouth."

Gabrielle pursed her lips in an audible pout and let her chin come to rest against her knees. "I don't know if I can face them, Xena..."

Xena gently placed a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Of course you can! You faced down Callisto, for Zeus' sake. You can face them. You owe them that as their daughter-in-law...and as Perdicus' wife."

"Perdicus' widow..." mumbled the bard. She turned abruptly and looked at Xena. "I was the reason Perdicus died. It should have been me, not him!"

"You can't second guess what happened on that road, Gabrielle. You don't know how many times I've run that scenario in my head, wondering if I could've reacted faster...saved Perdicus...but it all happened so never occurred to me that Callisto would..." Xena let her voice trail off as memories ran across her face.

Wordlessly, Gabrielle turned Xena's face to meet her own. "Xena, I don't blame you for what happened to Perdicus. I never have."

Xena smiled. "I wish I had your forgiving heart sometimes, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle leaned into her friend and rested her chin on the other's shoulder. "Come with me to Poteidaia?"

Xena shook her head, "No. You need to do this alone...and I should go home and check on mother; it's long past time for a visit."

"Well, why don’t I come back to Amphipolis with you, then? I’d love to see it again."

"Uh huh," came the dubious reply.

"I’d like to see the house where you grew up...and up," Gabrielle chuckled.

"It’s not there anymore," said Xena. "It’s a market now."

"Oh. Well, I guess you can’t go home again..."

"No, but you can shop there," murmured Xena. She waited a beat and said, "Look, Gabrielle, I know you pride yourself on your powers of persuasion, but you’re not going to talk me into anything so why don’t you just stop trying."

Gabrielle nodded unhappily. "So -- we part company for a while."

Xena grinned, "You'll survive," and turned the two quail on the spit. "The time apart will do us both good. And we can meet in Thebes in two weeks. There's an inn on the south side of town called The Fates."

"The Fates," Gabrielle intoned. "I like it."

"It’s a dump, but the food is good. All the wagon drivers eat there."

Gabrielle nodded agreement, a forced smile crossing her face. "Thebes in two weeks." She removed one of the quail from the fire and examined it. "A few more minutes I think..."

Xena snatched the remaining quail and raked it off the stick with her knife. "I like mine rare." She picked at the crackly skin of the bird with her fingers and ravenously stuffed a lump of hot pink flesh into her mouth.

Gabrielle laughed aloud. "And you say I have no patience!"

Xena chuckled softly and licked her fingers. "I'm hungry!" She cast about absently for the water flask. "You know what would go down well with this...?"

"Ah!" began Gabrielle with effect, "The Oracle of Poteidaia knows all!" She reached behind her and with a flourish produced the wineskin, empty the day before, now plump with dark red wine. Xena arched an eyebrow in pleased surprise, and Gabrielle shrugged. "Hecatia is famous for its vineyards, and I know how you like your port. Since our purse was empty, I traded the vendor a story for the wine."

"Must've been a heckuva story..."

"It was," replied the bard dismissively. "Say what you will about Callisto, she's good fodder for bards. I had that vendor was spellbound."

Xena laughed soundlessly. "Your ingenuity never ceases to amaze me, Gabrielle." Unstopping the wineskin, Xena drank deeply of the port. She wiped her mouth against the back of her hand and settled the open container at her feet. The idea that her friend would go to such lengths to obtain something meant solely for her use warmed her more than the wine. Within a few minutes, both quail were picked clean, the bones tossed in the fire to char. "We should get some sleep," said Xena, tossing Gabrielle a blanket. "We both have a long way to travel tomorrow."

Gabrielle spread her blanket and lay down near the fire where the ground was warmed through. Using her pouch as a pillow, she lay on her back staring up at the night sky; the stars were a million frosty, flat eyes in the dark. Sleepily, she looked back over her shoulder and said, "I still wish you were coming with me."

"You'll do fine," Xena replied succinctly. "Goodnight."

Unconvinced, Gabrielle sighed and stared off into the fog-shrouded forest; she was still wondering what she would say to Perdicus' parents when she fell asleep. Xena positioned her sword on the ground by her side and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders. She watched her friend for some time, noting the slow, steady rhythm of her breathing, the gentle rise and fall of her chest as sleep claimed her. In the brief time it took for her to remove her armor and gauntlets, Xena reflected that things between she and Gabrielle had never been better. Time was healing the wounds of everything that had happened in the past few weeks: Callisto's murder of Perdicus, her subsequent invasion of Xena's own body. It was all just fodder for bards now, as Gabrielle had said. All these events combined to bring the two travelers closer than they had ever been before. ‘Chance had made them companions’, Xena observed, ‘But Fate had made them sisters.’ And had been a good day -- carefree, productive; they had covered nearly five full leagues since leaving Hecatia. But their proximity to Poteidaia had brought the shadows back to Gabrielle's face, and the bard's own words echoed in Xena's ears; ‘The innocent Gabrielle was gone’, but here, in her place asleep by the fire was the woman into whom Gabrielle had grown. Xena had yet to make her own peace with the exchange. She shook herself out of her reverie and, without rising, made one last check of the campsite by eye. Adding another log to the low-burning fire, she pulled her blanket close around her and drifted off into her own fretful sleep a short time later.

In the darkness, at the perimeter of the camp, two pairs of eyes watched the women intently. "Tomorrow," they whispered, "She is ours."

* * * * * * * * * *

"Two weeks -- in Thebes," confirmed Gabrielle as she and Xena stood at the crossroads. Nodding, Xena handed her a cloth-wrapped parcel containing bread, hard cheese and fruit, which Gabrielle stowed in her pack. Turning to face her friend, hope twinkling in her eyes, Gabrielle said, "You're sure you won't change your mind and come with me?" She knew the answer before it left Xena's lips.

"No, Gabrielle," retorted Xena as she mounted Argo. "You’re always reminding me you’re an adult. You can do this. Besides, this is family; I shouldn’t get involved."

Gabrielle looked mildly wounded. "I consider you family."

Xena leaned down, ran her finger along Gabrielle's jawbone and then tweaked her chin between her thumb and forefinger in a rare display of affection. "Let's just pretend mother and father wouldn't be thrilled to see this wayward daughter and leave it at that, okay?" She gathered the reins in one hand. "Better be on your way. Tell Lila hello for me."

"The first words out of my mouth," quipped the bard, smiling; it was a well known fact that her younger sister didn't care for Xena one bit. "Take care, Xena. I’ll see you in two weeks."

"Two weeks," echoed Xena over her shoulder as she spurred Argo off at a gallop up the road.

Gabrielle stood and watched until Xena topped the hill and disappeared from sight. Then with a deep breath, she shouldered her pack and turned briskly on her heels pointed in the general direction of home. It was only a day's walk from the crossroads to her village, less if she utilized one of the many shortcuts she knew. She spent her traveling time practicing with her staff, and rehearsing, ad nauseam, what she would say when she met Perdicus' parents. "Hi, Mom and Dad!" she said cheerfully into the air. "No, that won't do." She cleared her throat and adopted a more serious tone. "Hello. I'm sorry about...No! Arrgh! How about, ‘Hello, the wayward daughter-in-law who got your son killed has returned!' Stupid. Stupid," she chanted, pounding her brow with the palm of her hand. "You're the bard: tell the story! Words are your stock in trade!" Gabrielle let out a pent-up breath. "So where are they when I need them?" Better not to worry about it, she thought to herself. Something will come to mind.


She froze in mid-stride; it was a man’s voice, but when she looked up from her musings, he wasn’t readily visible. She moved forward at a cautious walk, hugging the periphery of the road. "Hello?" she called, instinctively bringing her staff across her body in a defensive posture. "Where are you?" She pivoted on her heels, performing a graceful full revolution, senses primed for any signs of danger. But she was not the instinctive being that Xena was. In spite of Xena’s warnings about not giving an enemy information he did not already possess, Gabrielle announced, "I won’t hurt you! Please. Show yourself." A slight movement at ground level some twenty paces away caught her eye -- the weak, distressed wave of an injured man lying crumpled on the apron of the road.

"Over here..." he moaned.

Gabrielle hesitated. Something in the back of her mind screamed at her to be cautious; she recognized the voice as Xena's.

The injured man beckoned again, "Help me, please..."

His voice sounded weaker, more pitiful; it grabbed at Gabrielle's heart and pushed all thoughts of caution aside. She came close and could see that the figure was a young man, in his 20's, holding his head in obvious pain. "What's wrong? Can I help you?" She bent close to get a better look and suddenly the man's hand shot forward, grabbing her around the throat. Gabrielle brought her staff up from underneath, ramming it into his chin and stepped back quickly as the man released her and fell to the ground, blood pouring from his mouth.

Stupid! she cursed herself. Xena would never have let that happen! She slung her pack to the ground and took a defensive stance, watching in horror as a dozen armed men poured out of the forest to surround her. "Great. I hope this isn't going to be typical of the entire day."

Momentarily, a hooded figure emerged from the forest and installed himself at the head of the dark squad. "I want her alive."

Gabrielle looked toward the man; she couldn't see his face clearly because of the hood, but something about him seemed familiar. When the man pushed back his hood to reveal a round, ruddy face and small, close eyes, she said, "Don’t I know you?"

By way of response, the man looked to the warriors, waggled his fingers and said, "Take her."

Gabrielle snapped the focus of her attention back to the dozen armed men surrounding her. She stood, the peaceful eye at the center of this storm, weaving her staff in a figure eight, pivoting and wheeling as she looked for an exit, but none was to be found. In the next instant, they were upon her. She fought well, employing all her acquired skills and gifts, but the number of assailants combined with their almost inhuman resistance to pain was beginning to exhaust her. Presently, an underlying degree of desperation crept into her movements; she'd gone for the long reach on a couple of attempts, and had the staff knocked from her hands, always recovering it quickly, but nonetheless, much-needed energy had been fruitlessly expended.

"End this!" called the cloaked figure. "But don't kill her."

Breathing hard, Gabrielle parried with her original assailant, who spat blood on the ground and snarled as he waved his sword. She brought up her staff in a roundhouse swing which connected beautifully off the head of a man to her right; she felt the percussion in her wrist and arm before the weapon was wrenched indelicately from her grasp. As two warriors moved in to restrain her, she brought her foot up in a swift arc, landing a paralyzing kick to the groin of one of them. In the same movement, she pivoted and delivered a crushing blow to the other's nose with the flat of her hand. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the butt of her own staff coming towards her; bright pain exploded behind her eyes and she crumpled to the ground, senseless.

"Idiot!" bellowed the cloaked figure, striking the staff wielder hard across the face. "She was not to be harmed!" He crouched beside the unconscious girl and examined the ugly gash at her left temple. When he had determined that the injury was not fatal, he got to his feet breathing a sigh of relief. Retribution had been months in the planning; every contingency had been taken into account...every contingency but the subject's early demise. Morpheus be praised! he thought, and then aloud, "Now it can begin."

Chapter II

‘Home is the warrior home from the war’

Xena rode through the fields of green wheat that surrounded Amphipolis. The village women, singing as they moved between the rows, took little notice of her. Their voices rose up to meet her ears and as she slowed Argo to a walk, she found herself singing in unison, mouthing long-forgotten harvesting songs. She galloped out of the fields and topped the rise, entering the outskirts of town. She could see the inn her family had owned for two generations, and her stomach knotted up with nervousness. "Stop it!" she admonished aloud, giving voice to her anxieties, but feeling awkward, she turned the dialogue internal. You're not this nervous when you meet your enemies! She's your mother for Zeus’ sake! Mothers can forgive anything...

Anything. It had only been a few short weeks since Callisto, in Xena’s body, had kidnapped and held hostage almost the entire population of Amphipolis. Gabrielle, after much hesitation, had begrudgingly related the details of the ordeal as explained to her by Cyrene. Although not morally responsible for Callisto’s actions, Xena couldn’t help but feel guilt and shame for the havoc the witch had wreaked while in her guise. With Herculean effort, she managed to still her nerves as she rode through the village. She reined Argo to a halt in front of the inn. As she dismounted, she could feel many eyes settling on her -- some ambivalent, some angry, many fearful, and all with an expression of vague surprise to find her once more in their midst. As she walked the passive gauntlet of stares, she did her best to shut them out. Taking a deep breath, steeling herself for what might happen within its walls, she entered the inn. She paused a moment, letting her eyes adjust to the ambient dimness. The only two patrons seated within looked up as she passed, and the young man sweeping up broken crockery met her gaze with a bemused smile. Behind the bar, with her back to Xena, Cyrene was settling a cask into its holder. Hating the timid, tentative feeling inside her, Xena called quietly, "Mother."

Cyrene froze, and then turned at the sound of the voice. "Xena?"

"Yes, it’s me. I can prove it if you like," she said, struggling for levity. "Ask me anything..."

"Xena, my little one!" Cyrene rushed out from behind the bar and threw her arms around her daughter. Xena returned the embrace, relieved by the warm reception.

"I didn't know if you'd have me..." she whispered into her mother's ear.

Cyrene held her daughter at arm's length and looked seriously into her azure eyes.

"Whyever not?"

Xena’s eyes cast about the room to find the tender reunion of mother and daughter was the center of attention. She wore her embarrassment like an ill-fitting cloak. "Maybe now isn’t the best time, mother..."

"Nonsense," replied Cyrene. "This is my inn. I can do what I like." She steered Xena towards a table in the corner of the room. Seated opposite Xena, Cyrene clasped her daughter's hands tightly. "Talk to me...tell me what’s on your mind."

Xena looked at her hands, tanned and strong, entwined in the callused hands of her mother. Working women. "The last time these hands touched you, they brought pain and fear..."

Cyrene cringed inwardly, remembering the rough hands and the cold, dead eyes that met hers that day not so long ago. Just another loving daughter... She shivered. Xena, to her credit, appeared not to notice. "Xena, I remember that the last time my daughter touched me, she stroked my hair and kissed my cheek..." Cyrene mirrored these gestures, finally tracing the outline of her daughter’s strong jaw with the tips of her fingers. "You are, and always have been, more than the sum of your parts. Whatever the outward trappings, you exist inside."

Stunned, Xena dropped a kiss into her mother’s palm. "It’s good to be home."

"You're my Little One; you're always welcomed here. You look hungry. Cenon!" she called, and the young boy who had been studiously sweeping the floor when Xena arrived, came instantly to her side. "Bring a flagon of port, and a bowl of that rabbit stew." Cenon all but leapt to the task. "It is still port, isn't it?" Xena nodded. "You must be tired after your journey."

"I am a bit," said Xena, settling back into her chair. "You look good, mother."

"Liar. I’m a wreck. I don't suppose you've come home to stay?"

"Not this time," replied Xena.

"Where's Gabrielle? Didn't she come with you?"

"She's visiting her family in Poteidaia," Xena said, choosing her words carefully.

Cyrene, who had a sensitivity for nuances, said, "Why do I feel that there’s more than you’re telling me?"

"Later, mother. I promise you’ll hear everything."

Cyrene patted Xena’s hand. "I’ll hold you to that. But whatever the reason, I’m glad for the visit. Toris is off helping friends get settled in Athens. I don't expect him back for a month. Confidentially," she whispered, "I don't think life as an innkeeper agrees with him. Like you, there's too much of his father in him to stay in one place too long."

Before Xena could retort, Cenon reappeared bearing a bowl of piping hot stew and a mug. "I’m sorry, but there’s no port. Cadmon hasn’t delivered today. Is mead all right?"

Xena shrugged and reached for the mug. "All I care is that it’s wet."

"Cenon," began Cyrene with a degree of pride, "This is my daughter, Xena."

Cenon smiled broadly. "I knew it." His eyes darted from mother to daughter and back again. "I could tell at once." He hugged the wooden tray to his chest. "I've heard many stories about you."

Inwardly, Xena cringed, outwardly, she was the picture of calm self-assurance. "Hello,

Cenon. How's the rabbit stew?"

"Pretty good. But be careful; you'll hurt your eyes." Xena turned up an eyebrow. Cenon elaborated with a smile and a punch line he'd used a dozen times that day, "You'll hurt your eyes looking for the rabbit!"

Cyrene disguised her amusement as it only served to encourage the boy. "Cenon, Xena will be staying with us for a while. Go make up the room at the top of the stairs." When the boy had retreated from earshot, she loosed a smile in his direction. "He's a good worker, but he talks far too much. I don’t pay him to talk."

"Well, he didn't run screaming and he didn't reach for a sword, so I guess the old stories must be losing their punch."

Cyrene squeezed her daughter's arm. "Perhaps they're just being replaced by more potent material; Gabrielle's stories of your deeds reached us months ago." Xena managed to look relieved and alarmed at the same time. "I'm very proud of you, daughter."

Xena washed down her mother’s praise with a swig of mead. "So who's the boy?" she asked. "I don't think I recognize him."

"He's originally from Kepsis. His parents died last year in the plague."

Xena smiled crookedly over her mug. "Still taking in strays, mother?"

"You disapprove?"

"I worry about you," Xena replied simply. "You’re so trusting."

"You make that sound like a character flaw, Xena. He’s a child after all."

Xena was adamant. "I’ve found myself at the mercy of children at one time or another..."

"As have I." Cyrene gave her daughter’s hand a possessive pat. "Trust has to begin somewhere, Xena."

Xena absently swirled the mead in her cup. "Why must it begin with you?"

"Let’s not start your visit this way," said Cyrene, attempting to steer the conversation out of treacherous waters. She rose and patted her daughter’s shoulder. "Eat. Then we'll get you settled."

Watching as her mother resumed her duties at the bar, Xena sighed contentedly and fixed her gaze on the bowl in front of her, moving its contents around with her spoon. She gave up hopes of finding meat and trapped a chunk of vegetable between her spoon and the bowl. Chewing thoughtfully, she hoped Gabrielle's own visit home had begun as promisingly as hers.

* * * * * * * * * *

Gabrielle awoke groggily to pitch blackness. She was blindfolded, and her head ached terribly. Her arms, drawn and tied over her head, sang in their sockets and she stood on the balls of her bare feet trying to relieve the strain on them. For the briefest of moments, she was blank and confused, until she remembered the skirmish on the road, just miles from her home. She wondered how long she had been unconscious. As she hung there in the close, almost palpable darkness, she could feel a presence at her side. She licked her dry lips and in a raspy voice asked, "Who's there?" Her voice echoed back, her inquiry unanswered. But she was sure there was at least one other person in the room with her, first at her right, then at her left, then standing before her, warm breath in her face, a rough thumb running across her parched lips; she recoiled at its touch.

"Welcome, Gabrielle."

The voice, smooth yet strong, silken and granite -- even after all this time she knew it at once. "Manus."

"I hoped you hadn't forgotten me."

Finding her voice, weaker than she preferred, Gabrielle quipped, "A girl never forgets her first jailer."

"So we've come full circle," he replied. "You must know it's not by accident."

"What do you want from me?"

At her ear, in her space, "All in good time...but first, I want you to become accustomed to your surroundings," he hissed, his voice wrapping her in an icy chill.

"I won't be staying."

"Feisty to the end, I see, and delusional in the bargain. Well, I wouldn't hold out any hopes of imminent rescue by the redoubtable Warrior Princess. Your prison is escape proof, in the great tradition of The Impregnable Fortress. Not even Xena can save you now."

Under her blindfold, Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. "Now who's delusional?"

"This is the limit of your world, Gabrielle." When he spoke again, he was some distance away, and his whispered words were not directed to her, but to a third party in the room. Gabrielle strained to hear their conversation. "I’m disappointed in you, Hesperos..."

"Yes, Lord..." Hesperos mumbled, resigned and dejected.

"I ask you to bring me one innocent, defenseless hard could that be?"

"Lord, she wasn’t all that defenseless; she bested a half dozen of my men before being subdued...she --"

"It was a rhetorical question, Hesperos. Neither Morpheus nor I are impressed by your excuses. If you weren’t an integral part of my plan...well, you know what your fate would be. Disappoint me again --"

"Yes, Lord Manus. I understand."

"Of course, you do. Now, make known to Anthor his duties. She’s not to sleep. If I sense her on the dreamplane before I am ready for her, both your lives are forfeit." Instantly, Manus’ lips were at Gabrielle’s ear again. "I hope you will enjoy your stay with us."

Even as his words hung in the air, the blindfold was wrenched away from Gabrielle's eyes, but neither Manus nor his toadie, Hesperos, was anywhere to be found. Gabrielle blinked the room into focus, and then wished she hadn't. The room, no room at all but a cavern, painted blood red and she was suspended from its ceiling, her hands bound by silken ropes. In the torchlight, she could make out a beefy guard bearing a pike, standing against a wall which bore an array of instruments of torture: thumb screws, blades of all sizes, mallets, chains, and a number of articles who's purpose was left to her very vivid imagination. She shivered, despite the oppressive heat in the cavern and looked down to see that she was clothed only in a light shift which clung to her body, soaked with perspiration. "Anthor? Is that your name?" The guard blinked impassively. Gabrielle fought off the urge to scream at him. "Look, Anthor, you're in so much hot water I can't begin to tell you..." Salty droplets stung the corners of her eyes and she wiped them awkwardly against her shoulder. "Does the name ‘Xena’ ring a bell?" Anthor pulled a stool close and sat down, resting the pike against his knee. He seemed impervious, or ignorant of Gabrielle's veiled threat. Without taking his eyes from her, he reached for the iron crank on the floor by his feet and turned it one half revolution. As he did so, Gabrielle could hear the chain above her head rattle in its pulley, and seconds later, she was dangling inches above the cavern floor. Her shoulders strained in their sockets as her feet lost all purchase on the floor; the resulting wave of dizziness forced a moan from her throat. "Xena," she whispered, tasting salt on her lips, "If I ever needed you, I need you now."

Ever mindful of the penalty for dereliction of duty, Anthor rose and filled a bucket from a water barrel and approached the girl. He could see plainly that she was on the verge of passing out. He drew back the bucket and pitched it forward in an arc with great vigor.

* * * * * * * * * *

"Wake up."

Xena sputtered and spat out a mouthful of warm water. Cyrene sat laughing on the edge of the tub as the water rolled off her very surprised daughter. "I'm awake! I'm awake!." Xena wiped the water from her eyes with the back of her hand. "You know, I knew you were there all along..."

"Uh huh."

"Just a little old for such pranks, aren't you, mother?"

Cyrene good naturedly thumped the empty bucket in her lap. "You can't sleep in the hot tub all afternoon."

"You’d be surprised, mother. I have many skills."

Cyrene tossed her a towel. "Dry yourself. Come for a walk with me by the lake. I have to check the lines."

"I checked the lines this morning," said Xena as she patted her face dry. "We caught nearly two dozen perch, and half that many trout..."

"I have hungry patrons, daughter dear!"

Xena smiled at her mother. "Alright, give me a minute to dress. I'll join you at the big oak." Clicking her tongue in satisfaction, Cyrene left the bath house, swinging the empty bucket in a casual arc. Xena rose, dried herself and dressed quickly. It had been four days since she had left Gabrielle at the crossroads and things had gone better than she expected at home. She had settled into a comfortable routine at the inn. Rising at dawn, she helped her mother prepare breakfast for the guests, waited tables and did the daily marketing. The townspeople, though not overtly warm towards her, had treated her kindly, with a semblance of civility she knew she had no right to expect. As she made her way towards the stand of oaks where her mother waited, she fastened the last button on the soft blue dress she wore, enjoying the way its modest lines clung to her curves, accentuating her femininity. She could almost forget that as battle dress it offered nothing in the way of protection. Her mother waved to her and Xena broke into a trot to lessen the space between them. Together they started down a well-traveled dirt path, straw baskets in hand.

"If I didn't already tell you," said Cyrene, slipping an arm around her daughter's waist, "It's good to have you home."

Xena shifted her basket to the other hand so she might return her mother's hug. "You told me, about a dozen times...and it's good to be home. I didn’t realize how much I missed it... and you." She gazed at the fruit bearing trees, the blue sky thick with birds and the children playing near the bank of the river. "So much life..." she murmured, and her face clouded over.

Cyrene was immediately sensitive to her daughter's change of mood. "Xena, what's wrong?"

"Mother," she began, her gaze fixed on the dirt path before her. "I know I may not always show it, but it means everything to me that you're here to come home to. It would be easy for you to hate me, to shut me would be the popular thing to do."

"Stop it!" Cyrene stopped in her tracks and turned to face Xena. "I won't hear that kind of talk. I don't tolerate it from my patrons, my neighbors or my friends, and I won't hear it from you." She cupped her daughter's cheek in one hand and looked at her fondly. "Xena," she began patiently. "Let the past lie."

Xena gazed seriously into her mother's eyes; in them, she found a reflection of herself.

"Sometimes that's easier said than done, mother."

"I'm sorry. I don't mean to dredge up bad memories for you."

Xena shrugged, "Not that it means much, but they don't have far to come to break the surface." She started down the path again, drawing her mother beside her. "Gabrielle keeps telling me that I can't expect forgiveness from others until I'm ready to forgive myself."

Cyrene smiled. "Wise words for one so young."

"She has her moments," quipped Xena.

As they neared the river's edge and Xena left her side to haul in the fishing lines, Cyrene reflected that she very much approved of the change in her daughter. Some of the hard edges had blunted, and her smile, though rarely bestowed, was as brilliant as ever. It had been more than a year since Xena had left Amphipolis, and although they had parted on good terms, Cyrene had always doubted that her daughter would return home again of her own volition. How pleased she was to be so utterly wrong. And she knew, with absolute certainty, that the majority of change in Xena was due to her friendship with Gabrielle. In the company of the young bard, Xena had found unconditional love and acceptance, a willing receptacle for her measureless guilt, and a bottomless faith that defied reason. If she couldn't convince her daughter to remain in the village with her, Cyrene was comforted to know that at least she would be in good company on the road.

A half hour later, they arrived back at the inn, laden down with baskets of trout, perch and carp. Cenon met them at the door and relieved both women of their baskets. Peering over Cenon's shoulder, Xena could see that there was a respectable crowd gathered in the main room of the inn. "Doesn’t anyone cook anymore?"

Cenon leaned in and whispered, "Lysandra's performing; she always gets a good crowd."

Cyrene gave Cenon a sideways look. "But are they eating and drinking, Cenon? Are they ordering from the kitchen?"

Cenon smiled and nodded. "Ravenous as lions, Cyrene, and drinking like fish!"

Cyrene beamed in satisfaction and shooed Cenon into the kitchen. Turning to Xena she said, "I had hoped to surprise you. Come," she took her daughter by the elbow. "Come listen."

Standing at the center of the crowd she had drawn, was a young woman no older than 15 and yet she held the assembly rapt as she vividly spun her tale.

"In dreams she walks, she knows not where,

She calls out in fear, for someone to hear

But no response does she receive,

Only the endless passage of life's dreams

Echo back hauntingly

Taunting her heart and soul

Where is the peace she once had found?

Where is the answer to the confusion she feels?

Lost within the void

Where dreams soar on the gilded tips

Of Morpheus' fingers."

Xena moved to join her mother behind the bar. She was spellbound as was the crowd, but while they erupted in well-deserved applause, her countenance remained fixed, her own hands at her sides, still. Cyrene leaned close and whispered, "Her name's Lysandra. She arrived two days ago. She offered to perform in exchange for a room."

"Another stray, mother?"

"I could hardly turn her out, Xena, a young girl like that...but she is good, isn't she?"

Acquiescing, Xena gave a small nod. "She’s good." She listened intently as the young bard began to weave a tale of avarice, betrayal and retribution, the players in which, although disguised, were achingly familiar to her. "I can't help but be struck by her choice of material," she said pointedly.

"She told me she sometimes uses Gabrielle's stories as inspiration." Cyrene set a half dozen mugs on a tray and filled them from a pitcher of wine. "She's late today. She’s normally here during the afternoons, while you're minding the traps. I'm so pleased you have the chance to hear her stories. I thought it might be like having a little bit of Gabrielle with you." Cenon appeared on the other side of the bar and slid the tray into his hands, nimbly navigating the close quarters to deliver the round of drinks. Cyrene appreciated his speed and conscientiousness. "Cenon's been a great help to me. Business triples every time Lysandra performs."

"I can see why; she's very gifted," Xena conceded.

Cyrene arched an eyebrow. "But she's no Gabrielle." She squeezed Xena's arm. "You miss her."

Xena let out a pent up breath and at last moved her eyes from the bard to her mother.

"It’s..." she began, struggling for articulation. "It’s like a part of me is being half awake."

Cyrene gave her a daughter of look of profound surprise. "Xena, such eloquence from my warrior child..."

Xena reddened. "Blame Gabrielle."

"No. I like it."

"I’ll tell her you said as much. Anyway, I think we both needed the time apart." Her sharp eyes caught the frantic gesticulations of a bar patron as he tried to hail her for service.

"Yo! Miss!"

Xena tried to restrain the urge to roll her eyes and took up an empty tray. "Xena: Warrior Waitress," she quipped and turned to tend to the patron's order.

Chapter III

‘The Plan Unfolds...’

mesmerbarruchdolasliniusboriasagaliarheabitonmarcustaluslyceusambrusfarrisalyssaphoebostermincallisto varatheodoruscletusgilles...Gabrielle clamped her hands over her ears and squeezed her eyes closed in a futile attempt to shut out the incessant murmur that had assaulted her consciousness, penetrated the core of her being long had it been? In the confines of this tiny cage within the stifling heat of the cavern, time had ceased to have meaning. Has it been days? she mused. Yes. least one day, maybe two... She hadn't closed her eyes in sleep in two days. mesmerbarruchdolasliniusboriasagaliarheabitonma rcustaluslyceusambrusfarrisalyssaphoebostermincallistovaratheodoruscletusgilles... "By the gods," she moaned, "Please...please make it stop..." She lay exhausted on the floor of the cage which hung suspended a full fifty feet above the cavern floor. Peering down at the gurgling red cauldron of lava below, a recent addition and a nice touch, she conceded, she began to have profound doubts that she would ever leave the cavern alive. After all, no one outside of Manus and his cronies knew she was here. Xena believed her to be safe in Poteidaia with her family, and her family didn't know to expect her home. She closed her eyes in utter exhaustion. At the edge of consciousness, amidst the din of indiscernible voices, she heard a chain rattle, clinking endlessly over its pulley and then she felt the cage descending at a dizzying velocity until it rested on the cavern floor. She thought she heard the cage door swing open, but couldn’t summon the strength of confirm the suspicion.

Momentarily, she felt a strong hand supporting her neck and the rim of a cup pressed against her lips.

"Drink," ordered a voice, gravelly from disuse. "Drink," he repeated, sensing her apprehension. "It’s only water."

Thirst won out over caution and Gabrielle drank deeply, without opening her eyes. Oh, please, gods, let this be a nightmare, she thought, tepid water sliding down her dry throat. If I open my eyes slowly, it’ll be Xena sitting here beside me Please, sweet Athena, let this be a nightmare...Her fingers brushed those holding the cup to her and tentatively she opened her eyes to find Anthor, and not Xena, squatting beside her; the compassionate look on his otherwise unremarkable face emboldened her to ask, "Anthor, what does Manus want with me?" Her own voice, raspy, not much more than a whisper. Anthor parted his lips, as if to reply, then ripped the cup from her hands with undue ferocity, as if he despised himself for this momentary lapse into humanity. Gabrielle sat up, gripping the condensation-slick bars for support. "Why doesn't he just kill me and be done with it?" Anthor slammed shut the cage door and moved once again towards the crank in the floor. "Anthor, wait!" she cried and got to her knees. "Just tell me why!"


Gabrielle started. It was Manus, standing at the foot of the cage; she hadn’t even seen him enter. "How do you do that?!"

"One question at a time," he replied, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. Even in his heavy robes, he seemed impervious to the waves of heat rolling off the lava pit. Manus looked at Anthor, waggled his fingers, bidding him to continue with his actions. As Anthor raised the cage, Manus expounded, and as he spoke, the endless litany that had plagued her waking hours gradually faded to an annoying murmur at the edge of conscious perception. "I hold no ill feelings towards you, child. I simply want what is mine."

Summoning her strength, Gabrielle retorted, "This is a guy thing, isn’t it?" She kept her gaze centered on him as she fought to remain lucid; her body cried out for rest and nourishment, but she knew she had to stay focused if she stood any chance at all of escaping. "If this is about Morpheus..."

"It is. And it isn't," he said cryptically. "Of course, Morpheus was quite displeased with the end results of your first visit to us. You had such potential. We had such high hopes."

"Get over it," she quipped. "I wouldn't kill then, and I won't kill now. Can't you give this revenge thing a rest?"

Manus smiled, showing a little too much canine to be taken seriously. "Now what kind of person would I be if I only lived that philosophy eight hours a day?" He made a steeple of his fingers and pressed them to his lips, considering her as he moved about the outside of the cage.

"No, as I said, I bear you no ill will. You were merely a bystander in the injustice inflicted upon me. I reserve my animosity for those who played a more integral part in my exile into the dreamscape...that sanctimonious old mystic, Elkton..." He stopped and looked down at her. "And Xena." He read the terror in her eyes; Manus could recognize terror better than anyone else. "Because of them I have been confined to this netherworld," he gestured expansively with his hands, and for the first time Gabrielle noticed that although she was suspended in the cage far above the cavern floor, Manus moved about freely, without visible support.

"Is that where I am?" she asked, her jaw working reflexively, "...the dreamscape?"

"No, child. As you can see," he pinched the back of her hand hard and she yanked it from the bars with a small yelp of pain. "-- it’s quite real."

Gabrielle was skeptical. "You were banished to the dreamscape. How can you be here?"

"With comparative ease, child. We are between sleep and wakefulness, that delicious twilight where mind and body hover on the edge of consciousness. I am able to cross to and from the dreamscape at will, but only for brief periods of time. In those moments when I am unable to be at your side, I have employed other means to hold your attention."

"You mean Anthor...and those...voices...who are they?" She cast about the room. "More tenants?"

Manus loosed a hollow laugh. "Oh, the voices are not of my making, but your own."

As if on cue, there arose the chorus mesmerbarruchdolasliniusboriasagaliarheabitonmarcustaluslyceus ambrusfarrisalyssaphoebostermincallistovaratheodoruscletusgilles... "Listen to them...I’m convinced the young do far too much talking and not nearly enough listening..." mesmerbarruchdolasliniusboriasaga liarheabitonmarcustaluslyceusambrusfarrisalyssaphoebostermin callistovaratheodoruscletusgilles. "They speak to you, Gabrielle..."

Gabrielle clasped her fingers behind her head and covered her ears, squeezing her eyes shut, willing the voices to be silent. "I...I don't understand what you want from me..." she cried.

mesmerbarruchdolasliniusboriasagaliarheabitonmarcustaluslyceusambrusfarrisalyssaphoeboste rmincallistovaratheodoruscletusgilles. Rocking back and forth, lost within the misery that had become her life, she chanted, "I...I can't...I can't..."

"You can," countered Manus. mesmerbarruchdolasliniusboriasagaliarheabitonmarcustaluslyceus ambrusfarrisalyssaphoebostermincallistovaratheodoruscletusgilles. "Open your mind and listen...with their words, all will become clear." mesmerbarruchdolasliniusboroasagaliarh eabitonmarcustalusambrusfarris alyssaphoebostermincallistovaratheodoruscletugilles...

Gabrielle's eyes opened, mere slits at first. She unclasped her fingers, whitek nuckles quickly grew pink with blood. As she moved into a sitting position, the voices...the names became distinct... and familiar. Mesmer. Barruch. Dolas. Linius. Borias. Agalia. Rhea. Biton. Marcus. Talus. Ambrus. Farris. Alyssa. Phoebos. Termin. Callisto. Vara. Theodorus. Cletus. Gilles. "Ah, I see at last a glint of recognition in your eyes. You hear at last..." said Manus, breaking into a pleased grin. "A roll call of death...Mesmer. Barruch. Termin - her first...Theodorus, Callisto's lieutenant...yes, possession aside, we count him as one of her victims. And the list grows daily. Marcus, her lover. Talus...what would he have been to you, I wonder, if not for her?" Gabrielle's eyes narrowed in seeming comprehension. Manus could barely contain himself. "Oh, yes, she used you, Gabrielle, like so many others in her wake."

"No," she rebuked, shaking her head. "No, it wasn't like that. Xena's not like that!"

Mesmer. Barruch. Dolas. Linius. Borias. Agalia. Rhea. Biton. Marcus. Talus. Ambrus. Farris. Alyssa. Phoebos. Termin. Callisto. Vara. Theodorus. Cletus. her utmost horror, the list while gaining clarity and volume grew in capacity. Phantes. Lyceus. Perdicus. M'Lila. Kepa. Cadmon. Fedor. Philamond. Ephiny. Melosa. Neola. Pandora. Orion. Diana. Lila. "No!" she screamed. "No. I don't believe you!"

"She used you then as she continues to use you now. Do you see yourself as her friend? Can you possibly be that stupid, I wonder? Surely not. Then, perhaps, you play the willing role of squire; you cook, tend her horse, mend her clothes, wash the blood from her wounds. But the truth -- and you should hear the truth -- is that she sees you as nothing more than a tagalong, a stone around her neck."

"That's a lie," she countered through her tears.

"Think, Gabrielle." He was close enough now to tap her brow with his forefinger, emphasizing his words. "Think. Wasn't it her idea you separate? She insisted that you set out alone on this journey. She didn't even offer to escort you to Poteidaia. Are those the actions of a caring, loving friend? No. You could be dead for all she knows...or cares. How many have died at her hands? How many more will die because she failed to act?" Cadmon. Fedor. Philamond. Ephiny. Melosa. Neola. Pandora. Orion. Diana. Lila. "Names and faces... human beings who, until her advent into their lives, had families, hopes and dreams. Hear them, Gabrielle." Not a request or a suggestion, but a flat command.

"Nooooo!" screamed Gabrielle, challenging the voices for dominion of her conscience and soul. Her exclamation still ringing off the cavern walls, the voices died and lay to rest in silence. Her head lolled forward like that of a child's rag doll, her body collapsing in on itself, as if spent of air and energy. Perspiration mingled freely with tears and fell unimpeded through the bars of the cage.

Manus' keen ears picked out the satisfying sizzle as each droplet met the gurgling lava below. He reached into the cage and stroked the damp red hair, almost lovingly, as a father would soothe a distressed child. "Submit. Submit and it ends here," he crooned, speaking in warmly seductive tones. Under his hand, her head did not move, nor did she utter a sound. The same hand that had so gently ministered now closed into a fist, catching a handful of hair in its grasp. "I can help you," he said, pulling her head back until he could see her face clearly.

Her eyes were closed, and her face, save for the obvious signs of exhaustion, was otherwise expressionless. For a moment, he feared he had pushed too hard too quickly, and then she took a frantic gulp of air, like a swimmer breaking the surface; he expelled a breath of his own in its wake. "I can help you, Gabrielle. I want to help you." He loosened his painful grip on her hair and slid his hand down her jawline to her chin, raising her face up to meet his. "Submit, and you can have peace."

Reluctantly, Gabrielle returned Manus' gaze; he was beaming benevolently down at her in his best savior-father-figure smile. She wanted to look away, to spare herself his toothy hypocrisy, but instead, with the last ounce of defiance left in her aching, exhausted body, she narrowed her eyes at him and spat, hitting him deftly in the right eye. Even as it dribbled down his face, she knew she had at last made an enemy of him.

Manus clicked his tongue and shook his head sadly, patiently wiping the spittle from his face with the voluminous arm of his robe. "That bit of insolence cost you more than you know, little one." He straightened and drifted back from the cage and as he did so, Gabrielle thought he looked suddenly worn, exhausted; she was inwardly pleased to have had this effect on the man. "I'll leave you to contemplate the wrong decision you have made," he was saying. "But I won't have you wait alone." With an airy wave of his hand, the voices returned and that same now-familiar litany echoed in the cavern, but secondary this time, to another, deeper sound... rhythmic, basal, strangely comforting... "Generous man that I am, I will grant you a metronome to mark the minutes as they pass. You have but to call my name for me to appear."

Gabrielle summoned a temerity she didn't know she possessed. "Never."

"Oh, child," he said, and his face almost kind, "You will call for will."

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