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Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.

NOTE: All works remain the © copyright of the original author. These may not be republished without the author's consent.

Any polite comments you would like the author to read send to Short and to the point would be nice. Venting at the author is not advisable since the Muses protect their own. 8-)


By J. A. Bard



Chapter 1-2 Chapter 3-5 Chapter 6-7 Chapter 8-11


Chapter 3

The merchants and guards positioned themselves around the carts taking up defensive positions, trying to hide their weakness. The bound prisoners were smirking and taunting their captors when Gabrielle's well aimed staff at one and the cuffing of another from one of the guards got the message for silence across.

"Argo, first chance you get, find Xena." Gabrielle whispered in Argo’s alert ear as she stepped in a defensive position. She gripped her staff steadying her heart beat thinking about the tall dark haired warrior whose presence would be a great equalizer as well as comfort.

The setting sun to the left of their group was about eye level to most of the weary travelers, with no trees or mountains to break the glare. The road was relatively smooth due to the high amount of traffic since the last rains, but it was also dusty as the tiny whirlwinds gusted the dust onto the horses and their traveling companions. There was little brush, vegetation or rocks on either side of the road to take refuge behind which offered some comfort for it was not likely an ambush would be undetected by forward scouts. By the time the thunder from the approaching horses became unmistakable the dust from their advance pushed forward by a small breeze was catching in everyone's throat and eyes. The two horses of the forward scout group came suddenly clear though the dust cloud.

The unmistakable tunic of the prince’s army was the first thing they all noticed, with great sighs of relief. The rest of the group quickly caught up with the two coming to a sliding halt on seeing the group before them. One of the lieutenants pulled his horse alongside the first cart and extended a hand. From what Gabrielle was able to see they knew each other. Nervously she patted Argo's neck relieved and the knot in her stomach went away.

"It’s Leston’s brother-in-law." One of the merchants informed Gabrielle. "They always have something ordered from the village. The Fates are with us!"

Gabrielle resisted the impulse to make a comment on the Fates.

Leston’s brother-in-law’s troop had arrived at the rest site earlier and had waited a few candle marks for their scheduled arrival. When the merchant’s group did not arrive they had headed out to see what was wrong. Now they accompanied them back to the rest site and spent the night with the traders sharing stories with Gabrielle doing most of the sharing. At dawn the soldiers took charge of the prisoners and continued on their own journey to patrol the roads to Taltos while a few others took the prisoners to the prince’s city for trial. There was no spare horse to take Argo’s place, which Gabrielle didn’t expect.

Their arrival into the village was late in the morning. The merchants gratefully paid for Gabrielle’s room for the night and made sure that Argo had plenty to eat. Gabrielle spent some time at Argo’s side brushing her and taking comfort in the mare’s familiarity. Both wished someone else was there doing the brushing. When Argo’s coat was shinny enough and her nose contently buried in oats Gabrielle went up to her room by passing the noisy common room in the inn. She didn't want to socialize and asked the young attendant in the hall for some food to be delivered to her room and asked about a bath.

The tub was in a large room at the end of the hall and it was not hot, just warm enough to get in, wash and get out. She found a bowl of lamb stew still warm and a loaf of bread covered on the small table in her room. She moved the bowl near the low fire and sniffed at the pitcher of ale. Not in the mood for ale she moved it to a corner of the table and pulled out her scrolls and writing implements. She had some catching up to do on her journal and she wanted to finish a poem she had thought of the other day. Remembering what had inspired the poem caused her to sigh.

"Artemis!" She thought with a pang of regret.

Gabrielle looked out the window feeling the late afternoon breeze waft in. She could smell the cooking smoke from various food stands and the unmistakable smell from a fragrance merchant, who was either testing his own wares or he had a busy stand. All the mixtures at one time was definitely too much.

Gabrielle dipped her quill back into the ink thinking of the next line. She kept running the first line in her head hopping it would bring the next. Nothing. Sighing she turned back to the bowl of stew and ate. Normally she would have asked for seconds but she wasn’t feeling all that hungry.

She wanted to get an early start the next morning so she decided to retire early.

Gabrielle's dreams were along the same story line as they had been for the last two weeks. This time she wasn't an observer. She was watching as one of the participants. After four candle marks of sleep she woke up to an empty room and found she could not go back to sleep -- and she was hungry. As she became more alert her memory of the details of the dream faded as they have been doing.

Gabrielle entered the dinning area and stopped at the entrance. The room was full to capacity and yet it was quiet. She peered around the corner to see where everyone’s eyes were focused. There was an old man sitting on a small platform setting a mug down. A bard!

The old man looked over his audience and seemed to draw their energy toward him as he continued with his story. His voice was strong and hypnotic as it rose and fell in a rhythm that was pleasing for the telling of the tale.

Gabrielle looked toward the back of the room where she and Xena would normally sit, in the shadows. For a moment she held her breath as a lone figure sat with plenty of space on both sides, as those around seemed to sense that the warrior wanted no one near. It wasn’t Xena, nor anyone that she knew but for a brief moment ---

Gabrielle made her way to the back listening to the bard as he enchanted his listeners with an old tale of a dragon and a Menotaur.

"Excuse me." Gabrielle leaned toward the red headed warrior, "Would you mind if I sat here?"

Icy blue eyes met hers and flickered over her in a quick assessment. Gabrielle had the distinct feeling of being categorized in this person’s mind. The warrior gave Gabrielle a slight nod and returned her attention to the bard at the front, occasionally glancing around the room.

"Definitely a warrior thing." Gabrielle thought as she sat down, careful to leave enough space for the warrior in case she felt the need to jump up and pull her sword out. Gabrielle didn’t have to locate the waitress. She found a full plate of lamb stew placed before her with a small loaf of bread and a pitcher of...ale. That was the fastest service, outside of Amphipolis, that she had ever witnessed.

"Thanks." She smiled at the barmaid.

"Don't thank me. The merchants you came in with have paid for your board and meals." She nodded to another table where she saw Metrois, one of the injured merchants who looked much better, waving at her. Gabrielle waved back with a grin.

Food was a great reward, she thought. "Ahh. Can I have cider instead." She hurriedly asked as the woman picked up the empty mug from the warrior.

The woman nodded at her and retrieved the pitcher. She deposited it on another table exchanging it for an empty one and moved around picking up empty plates as well, as she made her way back to the bar.

Gabrielle attacked the stew realizing that she was very hungry. The pitcher of cider was brought with another mug of ale for the quiet warrior at her side.

Gabrielle continued to listen to the bard as he started to end his story. Odd ending. Gabrielle knew if she closed her eyes she would be able to see the images he painted and by the tone of his voice the listener was drawn in and could feel as part of the story. He used the voice. If he wanted he probably could get the people believing they were barnyard animals, she thought with rye amusement.

When he was finished the room was silent. He seemed to take that as a compliment for he gathered his things and left the stage. It was when he was off the platform that wild cheers broke out and the grateful crowd pounded tables and the floor. The old man bowed to his cheering audience and a young child went around collecting coins.

Gabrielle pulled out her own coin. Since she was in the back it would be a while until the child reached her. Meanwhile she ate her stew scanning the crowd as Xena had taught her. She was aware of the warrior next to her but she remembered when she had first started traveling with Xena that warriors were very sensitive to being watched and took it as a threat.

The barmaid came back to her side to check on her.

"This stew is great. Give my compliments to the cook. Could I get another helping?"

"My mother would pleased to hear that." The woman said with a grin, taking her empty plate.

Gabrielle sipped her cider and watched the old bard make his way toward her table talking to his admirers. Gabrielle was thinking of talking to him if he came by when a voice from the platform called her attention back to the front.

Another bard! This one was younger and he used a lot of gestures, which showed off his muscular arms. Unusual for a bard, she thought ruefully, as she mentally flexed her own arms. His story was about Helen of Troy. It was fanciful and romantic. Not at all based on facts. But storytellers didn’t always stick to the facts and for Helen’s sake it was better that all of the truth were not made public.

Gabrielle could feel the hairs on her back raise. A voice cleared near her.

Gabrielle looked up at the old bard. "That was a great story you told up there." She was careful to keep her voice low, not wanting to disturb the audience.

The old man laughed softly but there was no warmth in his eyes. "Do you mind?" He gestured to the seat that was across from her that had been vacated.

"No, not at all. Would you like some cider?"

"No. I have what I need." He indicated the mug he had in his hand. "So, you liked my delivery?"

Gabrielle smiled. "Great imagery."

"That is a compliment coming from Gabrielle of Portetia, one of the most well known bards in Greece today."

Gabrielle’s face turned a slight shade of pink. " did you know me? I don’t think we’ve met before." The hackles on the back of her neck sent goose bumps down her spine. This person was a definite threat, somehow.

The old man chuckled "Well, I over heard one of the merchants say that a bard and a tall black haired woman warrior rescued them from a band of thugs and everyone knows that, that pair would have to be the bard, Gabrielle of Portetia and Xena, the Warrior Princess. After hearing so many of your tales told by others I wanted to meet you in person. I would also like to hear you tell one of your tales."

"Oh, well, I'm leaving first thing in the morning." She was relieved.

"Oh." His voice sounded disappointed. "Would you tell one of your tales before the night is over? Ametheus," he nodded to the Bard on stage, "is the last scheduled for tonight."


"There is a bard contest during the festival. Some of us get here early to practice and find a place to stay. Each night a different inn is chosen for the contest. It gives all the inns a chance to make some money."

Gabrielle's face lit up at the mention of the bard contest.

Her second helping was placed before her and the barmaid checked with the others then left.

"Well,’ll be a difficult act to follow and Ametheus," Gabrielle looked up at the stage. "he’s got a style that’s engaging."

"Are you saying you don’t think you can win your audience's attention?" He challenged softly.

"Oh," Gabrielle laughed embarrassed. Being around Xena with her competitive spirit had somewhat rubbed off on Gabrielle, for she could feel the challenge raise her temperature and mentally she quickly went over what type of story would grab the attention of these people that were tired, full of ale and ready to ...Hmmm. A nice quick adventure story would wake them up. Probably keep them awake through the night if she made it scary enough.

"Well, if the inn keeper doesn't mind another story." Gabrielle nodded at the old man.

"Great! Let me go break the news to Axel. He would love the extended business. Puts money in his pocket too." The old man laughed as he patted Gabrielle's hand. He got up and nodded toward the warrior.

Gabrielle had not forgotten her. She had heard a shift in her position when Xena's name was mentioned. Another of Xena's past war casualties? Which side was she on, victim or perpetrator? She also noted that the old Bard knew that Xena wasn’t with her, for he didn’t look around for her or ask about her.

The woman at her side still said nothing so Gabrielle started on her second helping listening to the sounds around her and keeping a casual eye on what was going on about her. As she gazed around the inn, at the audience that she was being challenged to woo she watched the warrior out of the side of her vision careful not to let her neighbor know she was being observed. She also was careful to hide what the old man had carefully inserted in her curled hand when he patted it.

"Well," The old man chuckled as he returned, "Axel mentioned that he would appreciate you waking them up and...he's also interested in hearing a story from you. Your fame, my dear, has reached even this wantabe village of festivals."

"What do you mean by that?" Gabrielle asked curious.

"The mayor, Promia, comes from a village near Crometh. You’ve no doubt heard of Crometh’s tradition of holding every full moon competitions in drama, story telling, and singing. Promia wants to eventually do the same here."

Gabrielle couldn't help feeling that she was getting a sell-job. His voice was distracting and seemed to compel her what? Xena on occasion used the same voice to induce sleep in someone or on injured animals. The last person was a wild child. The voice was very compelling. Xena referred to it as the voice. She warned Gabrielle about getting caught up in the cadence and tone; for combined they lulled a person into sleep as well as gave another person control over the will of the one that was lulled into sleep.

Gabrielle looked down at her empty plate for a moment as she remembered the last time Xena used the voice. They had cut across a recently plowed land to get to where Xena had spotted a plume of black smoke rising. They found a family frantically trying to put out a fire to their storage building. After everything was put back to some order Xena had gone to one of the wild children that the aging couple had adopted and talked to the child with that voice. Gabrielle found herself being shaken by the shoulders by an irritated Xena who had told her to remain with the others while she talked with the child. Later, Xena had told her that she thought maybe the old couple was abusing the child and that was why he had started the fire. In actuality he had been abused before the couple had taken him in and the fire was started on a dare by one of the girls. Xena had a talk with both children. They had spent a few days helping the family get what was burned down rebuilt.

Gabrielle finished her cider and was about to refill her mug when the old man leaned over and poured her drink. Gabrielle smiled and nodded a thank you.

"You never told me your name." She smiled at the old man.

"Taleaus." He smiled.

Gabrielle was sure she kept up on all the bards who were good and then the not so good and she had never heard of Taleaus.

"Well, its nice to meet cha."

Gabrielle raised the mug to her lips watching then set the mug down without drinking. "Well, I guess that's my call." The inn-keeper was gesturing to her that it was her turn.

"Well, let's see how tired the crowd is." She smiled as she got up. She didn't want to use the same method as the guy before her. He used a little too much of his arms when he should have used less for the slow parts. Maybe it was because he had very nice muscular body and verrry nice arms, for a bard.

"My name is Gabrielle," she started, "from the village of Portetia, and I have a story to tell of demigods and gods. This story starts in ....."

Gabrielle had picked a story of Hercules and Iolaus in an amusing but deadly tale where she and Xena had rescued them.

"They probably would have gotten out eventually, but who knows when." She finished.

The crowd had been hooting and banging the tables at the right times in her story, and cheering when she wanted them to and booing the bad guys in the appropriate places. She hadn't looked at the old man during the whole time with his annoying flashing ring, though she did keep an eye on the warrior now and then.

The innkeeper was beaming, as the crowd became lively again, that is the snacks and drinks started flowing.

Taleaus was smiling when she returned to her place. "You well deserve your reputation."

Gabrielle merely nodded. "Well, I've got to get some sleep. I want to be out of here early in the morning. It was nice meeting you and I wish you luck in your competition."

"Are you sure you don't want to stay just one more night? By tomorrow there's another bard that I would like you to meet. He tells a mean story and I would like to see someone give him some competition."

Gabrielle smiled again. Why was he using the voice on her? Was he another one of Xena's exfriends? "I think you will do just fine. You really do get your audience’s attention. Fair night to ya."

Gabrielle nodded to the people that found more coins for her performance and pounded her on the back in gratitude. She wished Xena was here. It certainly was not as bad as running a gauntlet but she knew she was going to have bruises on her back. Xena's presence alone would have stopped the over enthusiasm and she would have been able to figure out what the old man was up to.

When she entered her room she knew that it had been searched. She closed the door behind her and studied the room from the doorway. Packs were in the same place but not as she had placed them. Gabrielle was amazed how easy it was to fall into this mode of watchfulness. It had taken Xena a full season of playing pranks on Gabrielle for her to learn to detect something disturbed from its original position, a drug being placed in her drink, and someone trying to distract her. What was Taleaus up to? She hadn't bothered to read what he had put in her hand. When she saw his slight of hand with the powder in her cider she had dropped whatever he had given her.

She was rather proud of herself for she had so far made it through the evening without a mishap. Well, she had better see what was disturbed.

Her scroll pouch with her diary was disturbed. She pulled it out and fingered the pages. Someone was interested in her last entry. Her marker was moved. So, whoever it was knew that Hercules called Xena and her for something urgent. They knew also where she was now headed. She frowned. If she could find out where Xena's ultimate destination was she could meet her there instead. Knowing Xena she had already left with Hercules and Iolaus with word at the inn for her to catch up or to wait for her return.

She would have gladly waited here so that she could participate in the bard contest but after her experience with Taleaus she wanted to get back to Xena.

She continued checking her pouches and found someone had also gone into Xena's bags. Would she be able to tell if something was missing or disturbed? No. It would be better to let Xena check without her further moving things around.

She checked her food and suspiciously sniffed the travel bars that Xena was good at making. She sighed. She couldn't chance it. She would have to get new supplies in the morning and empty out her water-skin. She closed her eyes and thanked Xena for her over protectiveness.

Gabrielle pushed the one chair up against the door and latched the shutter to the window. The idea of closing out the night was already making her testy. She liked the night air. But then, she didn't have Xena's body to keep her warm so maybe it was better to keep the cold night air out.

Gabrielle went over to the fireplace and was about to push the ashes around to build another fire when she halted with the stick. She heard a faint board creek outside her door and noticed there was an unfamiliar piece of parchment peeking out from under some of the ash.

A soft rap made her decide which to attend to first. "Who's there?" She asked softly. Of course if this was the person behind all this, they could lie, but at least she would know by the voice something of what she was going to face.

"A friend of Athena's" The voice came back.

Gabrielle was still for a moment. Athena? Now if it was Artemis, that would be a different story for she was the protector of her Amazons. But Athena, goddess of commerce, wisdom in battle, patron of those that wished to seek the truth... Gabrielle opened the door. Before her stood the red headed warrior. By her expression she didn't want to be seen standing in the hall. Gabrielle opened the door wider and let the silent woman in.

They both regarded each other for moments before the warrior gave a small smile.

"Oh, these stoic warrior types." Gabrielle thought amused.

"You're a friend of Athena's?" Gabrielle gestured to the chair she righted while she sat on the edge of the cot not taking her eyes off the woman.

The red headed warrior smiled a crooked grin and took a quick glance around the room then pulled the chair toward her. She had placed herself between the barred window and the door.

"I thought that would get you to open the door."

Gabrielle chuckled. She knew she was a guard from a temple by the gold threads on her weathered cloak.

"My name is Alala. I am a guard to her temple in Athens."

"I’m Gabrielle. This - is pretty far from Athens, Alala." Gabrielle pointed the obvious out, keeping her body relaxed and concentrating on the other person's body language.

"It is. I was on my way to meet with some sisters that will be traveling to Mecsa."

Gabrielle had the distinct feeling that the temple guard was waiting for her to react. Was Mecsa supposed to mean something to her? Maybe that's why she reacted to Xena's name. Is that where Xena is headed?"

"Ahh. A celebration of some kind?" Gabrielle guessed.

"Yes. There is a Temple to be dedicated to the goddess Gaia. The priestess are skilled in all the arts from dramas to insuring the fertility of the land."

Gabrielle eyes blinked at the last. "Fertility?"

"An abundant harvest is dependent on the preparation of the ground and the sower's seed. The priestess insures that both are ready for their part in the cycle of life."

"Hmm. Right." Gabrielle wasn’t quite sure what Alala was describing but the images that appeared in her head were of a lot of bodies joined together in rather intimate grips. That’s what she remembered on a relief painting in Aphrodite's temple depicting the blessing of the land. She tried not to grin at the memory of Xena trying to explain to her what the two had to do with the other. She spoke of the birds and bees. Gabrielle knew perfectly well what it was about but enjoyed Xena’s discomfort of trying to educate her in such a delicate matter.

Gabrielle’s brow puckered as she thought about it. If what Alala was describing was what she thought it meant, her own warrior had better not even think about messing around with any of the priestesses. And why did she assume Xena was involved with these women, or for that matter Hercules and Iolaus? She shook her head. Hercules would not be involved in something like this. Not his style. Oh, Oh. But, he would get Xena to do it for him so he wouldn’t have to. Noooo. No. No. Ohhh, did this Bard have an imagination. Couldn’t possibly happen.

"I see." Gabrielle finally said. Not really sure what to believe, her imagination or whatever Alala was hinting at. "So what brings you to my door this late at night?" Not to mention to this town which is way out of the way of the Etrurian lands where Mecsa laid and what was a temple to Gaia doing in Etruia? She and Xena had been talking about visiting Crometh. But they had been getting sidetracked with helping people out.

"I noticed the old man had taken an interest in you." She answered, letting her eyes roam slowly around the room as if looking for something.

"Well, he had his own motives of which I'm not sure they were related to story telling." Gabrielle smiled waving her hand easily, though she was glad to hear someone tell her she wasn't imagining it.

"The sleeping potion in your drink and the light from his ring hint at something -- quite serious."

"What makes you think it was a sleep potion?"

"I switched mugs with someone else while he was watching you on the stage. He was too busy with his ring trick to notice." She retorted contemptuously.

Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Have you heard of a bard by the name of Taleaus?"

"No. But I have heard of an ex high priest from Ares’ Temple, Malucus, who uses slight of hand and voice commands to get people to do what they don't want to do."

"Ares. I should have known!" Gabrielle fumed.

"Well, he's no longer a priest in his temple. He got caught too many times, the rumor goes, doing something Ares didn't like. He was discredited as a priest and has been out for hire over thirteen moons, a full passing of the seasons."

"Hire? What does he do?"

"Kidnap and hold people for others."

"I see. So you think there is a contract out for me?" She studied the red headed warrior curiously.

The warrior laughed. "I know there is a contract out for you. I have been asked to escort you to Crometh where you can wait safely and in comfort for Xena. Like Taleaus or Malucu said, Crometh has monthly festivals. It is under the protection of the three goddesses, Athena, Aphrodite and Artemis and blessed by the Muses. One of the few things they all are consistently together on." She laughed softly, watching the open face before her. "It’s a half day from my destination, Mecsa."

Gabrielle smiled. "You think I shouldn’t travel alone?"

"I don't think it is wise. And I think Xena would advise the same." She pulled out a small parchment that had been folded into a small packet, and handed it to Gabrielle.

It had Xena's mark on it and one other character that told Gabrielle this person could be trusted.

"When did you get this?"

"This morning."

Gabrielle's expression was of indecision. It was too good to be true to be handily rescued by a warrior who just happened to be in the right place at the right time and with a handy message received from Xena just this morning. Did all of this have a familiar ring to it?

The warrior moved over to the window and unbarred it. She cautiously pushed the window covers back. The cold evening breeze blew her dark red hair behind her bringing with it the scented smell of the warrior. She cautiously looked out and around before putting her frame in the window and made a mewing sound. Where had Gabrielle heard that sound before?

A large beautiful owl fluttered in. Its big eyes regarded Gabrielle while it took the treat its caller had for her.

"I have feathered friends that carry messages between temples for our sisters as well as the ones on the road. Xena had to leave immediately. She asked our temple to send you this message."

"Why don't you get some sleep, and we'll keep watch. We will need to leave a lot earlier than you had planned."

Gabrielle nodded.

"Oh." Gabrielle pointed to the fireplace. "There's something under the ashes, so don’t light the fire."

The owl hopped off the arm of the warrior and sat on the windowsill looking out into the night. The warrior stooped near the fireplace with a candle. "Hmm." She used a stick to pull out the unburned parchment from under the pile of ashes. "Good eye. It's probably coated with something to either put you out or create a smoke screen for diversion. We'll forgo fires tonight. Now, let Morpheus take you into peaceful sleep." The woman silently went back to the window to stand near her owl friend. She leaned close to the owl and Gabrielle could have sworn she had a soft conversation with it. Was it Athena's messenger? All owls are her messengers, she reminded herself tiredly.

Gabrielle woke from a disturbing dream rolling to her feet from the cot with her hands gripped around her staff in a defensive position before her head had cleared.

The room had been cleared of the packs. She hadn't changed into night cloths, expecting to get up and leave quickly in the morning. Only her cloak remained on the chair and she hadn't taken that out herself. The window was opened and a ---Gabrielle's breath caught. The owl was perched in the window. Where is her mistress?

She heard the noise again. Floor boards creaking closer to her room. Alala's hiss from the window startled her.

She mouthed a warning then gestured for Gabrielle to exit the window. Gabrielle grabbed her cloak with one hand while the other held onto her staff. The only thing that saved Gabrielle in her climb out the window was that it was still dark. She hated heights.

The warrior guided her down then pointed to the light gray shape of Argo patiently waiting saddled and with packs tied on, near the alley.

Argo actually let the woman pack her and lead her out. That’s certainly impressive, Gabrielle thought. The two led their animals quickly out past the buildings of the town before Alala motioned for Gabrielle to mount. Alala led the way quickly onto the same road Gabrielle had entered the town from. She didn't push the horses past a fast trot since it was too dark. There was little light from the moon hidden by clouds.

Alala pulled her mount alongside of Argo. "We need to get into the woods as soon as possible. It will be slow moving but the roads will not be safe. Too many travelers coming in for the festival that could give Malucu information.

Gabrielle nodded and her stomach growled. "Not a good time to remember food." She muttered to herself.

The warrior looked startled then smiled. "I took the liberty of searching your packs before I packed them. Your food was poisoned so I repacked it."

She leaned over and pulled some fruit and cheese from the saddlebag behind Gabrielle. "Here. A snack on the run."


As dawn was peeking over the trees the owl fluffed her feathers and settled on the saddle horn that was wide enough for it to perch on. Alala moved her own mount to lead the way up a path away from the road. It was barely visible in the pale light. They stopped long enough for a small group of men dressed in dark clothing furtively moving in the shadows of the trees to move past them. The dark clad men appeared to be making periodic sweeps though the woods that lined the road they were following. From where they were they could hear the occasional laughter and songs from the travelers on the road.

The second day they were spotted and both women had to fight a small group of the dark cloaked men that seemed very determined to take them alive or Gabrielle anyway. Alala had not the same restraint as Xena and killed them all with Athena's name on her lips. She caught up their attacker’s horses and stripped them of their gear then set them loose, but not without whispering something in each of their twitching ears.

Gabrielle wearily smiled, as Alala was about to remount. "Why did you kill them? Couldn’t you have just tied them up or something? You seem to care more about the horses then people."

Alala looked up at her. She took a deep breath and nodded. "They would have kept coming after us to kill. If we had time, I would take them to a town, but what would they be charged with? Attacking you? By the time they would have come to trial the whole town would have been over run with their followers or released by their followers. Then we would be in worse trouble. I need to get you to Crometh by the thirteenth moon."

Gabrielle nodded not happy with she knew was sensible. Maybe she could think of another alternative as they traveled. It would give her something to think about other than the fact she wasn’t feeling the usual connection with Xena. It was there, but it was not as strong as she was use to. They traveled for another two candle marks when Alala pulled her horse alongside of Argo.

"We need to change direction. Malucu knows we are following this road. Tonight we’ll cross over and head for another road that runs almost in the same direction. It will take us a bit out of the way, as it runs along the mountains for a while. There is a cave not too far from here that is defendable and a safe place for us to sleep and the horses to rest. I don’t think Malucu knows about it, but just to be sure I want to scout it out. Will you be okay alone for a while?"

"Sure." Gabrielle didn’t bother to argue, as she wanted to get a break from the saddle. If it meant being left alone for a few moments that was fine with her. She needed to relieve herself anyway. She thought of the difference between this warrior and her own who didn’t always explain why she did things. Instead she gave short orders and would disappear sometimes for long periods of time. If they changed their direction Xena would give no explanation as to why they changed direction. It usually took days to get her to explain to Gabrielle why and though it was a good reason, it’s just that she wanted to know then, not days later after having to drag it out of her. Gabrielle stood still for a moment comparing the two and decided after over three years of traveling with Xena, she wouldn’t trade her in, nor chance wishing for any sudden changes in her habits as it might disrupt their connection that was deeper than a friendship. A connection, she reminded herself, that in a day had become less intense. It caused her to worry.

Gabrielle wandered a little further than she wanted in search of the suitable choice of leaf or rock to comfortably take care of her bodily functions. She was headed back to where she had heard Argo wander off for better grass, when she spotted a wild flower she liked and paused to admire it. She also noted the smells around her and the sounds of late afternoon wild life. The breeze shifted and with it the smell of unwashed bodies passed her nose. Before Gabrielle had a chance to react the sting of a dart in her neck caused her to stumble forward. "Hades helmet!" She mumbled as she struggled to keep to her feet. What did Xena say about this part? The drug was quick acting for her balance was off and she felt she was carrying a lot of weight on her right side. Two more strides away from Argo's shadowy form and she was face down in the forest leaves remembering to wish Argo safe passage back to Xena before the numbing feeling overcame her senses.

Alala heard the cry of the hawk above her. "Hera’s tits!" She hissed. She already knew this place was a mistake when she found traces of someone's recent passage. She had wanted to find out more information of who had been there and now she regretted her decision.

She had backtracked quickly to where she had left Gabrielle and found only her staff and a dart. She rubbed her fingers on the tip and sniffed it. She wrapped it in a small cloth and put it at the bottom of her bag. She was going to need it to mix an antidote to it. She broke the staff down and stashed it in her pack. She couldn't locate Argo. She sent a thought out to the falcon and he located the group moving west, with Argo following empty saddled.

She patted her horseYori. "Follow me at a safe distance friend."

Alala swung up into one of the nearby trees. From the treetops she followed the group of men that silently scouted the area. She had almost missed the other silent men that were using the trees to guard their camp had not the falcon and their smell tipped her off.

"Gods, they've been on the road too long." She silently laughed. "Didn't anyone teach them what the animals know everywhere, smells carry?"

She furtively moved in closer to get an idea of their camp layout. She could see the unconscious form of the bard bound to a tree that was too near the center of their camp to rescue. The group was very quiet, which worried the warrior. Usually there was small talk, bragging, etc, going on around a campfire, especially when you just bagged your quarry. These had to be professionals, but from where? They didn't wear anything she was familiar with. Malucu. What was that loser up to?

"Well, Athena - " She sighed to herself not daring to finish the thought. She was not happy with herself.

She made herself comfortable and waited until something happened to give her an indication of where the men were going to take their captive.

It was dawn when the familiar form of Malucu entered the clearing. The others quickly started packing and getting ready to move out without any verbal direction from Malucu. Malucu knelt next to the still unconscious form of the bard. He slapped her face a few times and the force of the slaps had Alala cringing. There was no reaction from Gabrielle’s still figure. He tilted her head back and poured something down her throat. She watched the body react and Malucu's angry reaction. Alala flinched before the sound of the slap reached her. Malucu's temper. He probably was furious with Gabrielle for escaping his little tricks and evading him for so long.

One of the dark clothed figures stayed his hand before he struck her again and took the cup from Malucu's hand. He finished pouring the contents down the bard’s throat trying to disregard the convulsions that started. Malucu waited for the convulsions to stop before untying her.

He's not taking any chances, Alala thought. Why? What does he fear about her so much that even when sick he doesn't trust her? Is it because she had been able to avoid his voice commands?

Malucu moved the unconscious body to a horse that was moving around. No doubt his replacement mount. She could feel the stallion's resentment toward Malucu. That might come in handy later. He tossed her body across the saddle like a sack. Alala could see the body not react at all. She suspected something to numb the mind and body was in what he gave her. So, it doesn't take all the contents to render her helpless. Has to be something potent. Alala's mind went over the different herbs the temple healers had familiarized all the guards on.

The men fanned out while some she could see remained in the trees. No doubt waiting for her. She smiled. She had her own methods of eliminating assassins or kidnappers.

When the others were far enough away Alala pulled her own weapon out. She had her own dart pipe. She slid the first dart in, coated with poison. Two could play the game. She didn’t want any of these men following her upset worse than Hades' hound at an escaped prey. The movement in the tree she had been focused on gave her better view of the dark outline of the guard that blended very well with the tree he was hiding in. She aimed and knew she got a good shot when the body tumbled from the tree. She had the other shot ready and when the unconscious man hit the ground the next victim had moved enough for her to get a fix on him and soon another body joined the other on the forest floor. She knew the third one was going to be more difficult but she already had moved to cut off his escape. She was sure he was going to warn Malucu.

Alala called softly for Yori. The third man was harder to kill. He stayed to fight her. He must have thought temple guards were softies. She smiled grimly as she mounted up and took to the road. She had an idea where they were heading. Malucu, I can't believe you are that arrogant to take her to your old Temple in Madras as a sacrifice. To make amends with Ares. That’s what the last guard had told her. She laughed contemptuously. Who did he think he was lying to? She could feel the evil and contempt the man had for her. She may believe in where they were going but not to make amends with Ares. So, why was Malucu taking Gabrielle to be sacrificed in a Temple of Ares? Ares' tight leathers, but that would certainly set Xena off. Alala paused. Why would Malucu want to set Xena after Ares?

Alala sighed. "Dam politics. Don't you just love it, Yori?" Yori's one ear that he kept turned in her direction twitched as if in answer.

It was past noon when she was not far from where they had taken a rest. She wanted to look and see if she could find some evidence of what they were giving Gabrielle. She left Yori out of sight and cautiously approached the area. She couldn't feel or smell anyone around. Nor had the falcon spotted anyone. She circled the area a couple of times not wanting any surprise visitors. She knelt in the leaves as she found evidence of Gabrielle’s rejected stomach contents. She also found blood. She picked up the leaf and tried to make out what herbs were in the mixture.

Alala suddenly came alert listening to the light sigh of feathers moving through the air. Not the kind of feather arrangement she would want to hear. Too many to dodge. She managed to get hit with one only in her shoulder as Yori's form came plunging out of the shadows of the trees. She grabbed the saddle horn and hung on hoping Yori would not be a target, but no more came their way. Yori paused after a few moments of dodging between trees, letting Alala pull her shaking body into the saddle.

"Yori, I don't know how long I can hold on. Get us out of here!" Desperately she reached back into her saddlebag for the familiar feel of herb pouches. The numbing feeling in her arms and legs was bad enough but the darkness that threatened to move in on her was frightening. She was use to reaching behind a galloping horse for something in her saddlebags but not when she was fighting for consciousness and with fingers that were struggling against the numbing feeling. All her herb pouches had symbols stamped on them so that her sensitive fingertips could feel in the dark what was in each of them. She found the one she wanted letting the leaf she had sacrificed her safety for drop into the bottom of her bag. While gripping the saddle horn with one hand she pulled the distinctive leaf that would hopefully counter the numbing of her limbs from her pouch and clamped her jaw on its succulent body. It was bitter and foul tasting. But the sickness the drug was causing was moving up to her hand that was finding it harder to hold on to the pommel. Her legs had already lost all feeling as the flopped against the horse’s side. She didn't feel Yori slow down to a cautious walk nor her body falling onto a soft patch of leaf droppings off the side of the road.

The owl she favored had not returned since she had sent her last message off. The falcon was circling in the sky over head watching for any movement.

Chapter 4

The caravan of horses and riders, followed by one cart with a few extra horses trailing, was ambling along with two formable women in the lead looking for a sign one of them was familiar with. It was a lone tree with the split rock on the left side of the road. When standing before the split rock the distant mountain peaks could be seen behind it. A small animal path use to run behind it that would take them to four caves out of the impending bad weather that was fast approaching. The leader, the younger of the two, sitting tall on a big bay horse, again looked up at the sky. The cloak over her shoulders was flapping behind her in the wind. She didn’t bother pulling it around her for warmth as her partner had done.

"Whadaya think?" Lily asked as she too looked upward.

Aleka eyes didn't leave the soaring falcon's form as it dipped then rose again. It wasn't the pattern of a falcon ridding currents or looking for food. Aleka could hear her companion shift her position in her saddle again. She refrained from smiling knowing the Amazon preferred walking to riding and probably even more so now, after days of ridding.

"I think I would like to see what is over there." She turned her gaze to the Amazon. "The turn-off should be a few furloughs up ahead. Let's find it first."

Lily was going to argue again that it was too early to set up camp. She thought they could push for more distance before the rain started to fall. But a drop from the sky that had been threatening wetness finally squeezed out a big drop, and it landed on the tip of Lily's nose.

Lily snorted. "By Artemis’s shield!"

"Hmm." Aleka smirked. That ended that argument of when it was going to rain. "We should reach the caves before we’re too wet. It will take some doing to get the cart up but it's possible."

Lily groaned. "Great!" The last time Aleka had used the description 'some doing' it took them a lot of doing.

The rain started in earnest and both women could hear the others mumble between themselves of the wetness and the cold wind they were riding against. Sealskin cloaks thrown over their warmer wear could be heard rippling in the wind.

Aleka glanced back up at the soaring falcon. It hadn't taken cover and that was worrisome.

Aleka dropped to the ground and handed her reins in one fluid motion to Lily. Her feelings that something was afoot increased. Her intuition was telling her it was imperative to find out what the falcon was about. The sight of the gray wolf ambling just out of sight in the direction of where the falcon was flying over increased the need to investigate what was over that way.

"It’s a dirt road. Hard packed. Just steep. Make sure whichever cave you enter is not in use this time." Aleka deadpanned.

"Wait a moment!" Lily motioned to one of the Amazon warriors. "You know the rules, my friend." She whispered. She also let a grin crease her face as she was reminded of their first night out on the road. At her insistence she went to locate a cave for the group. She knew of one that was near by for them to stay. After she and Agnes had set it up for their group the two had returned to the tardy caravan that was held up with a broken wheel. When they had all returned to the promise of a comfortable cave others, who thought that some god had gifted them with a snug haven for the night had occupied it.

Lily realized she had been cranky all day with Aleka and the younger woman had said nothing about it. The exchanged humor seemed to dissolve what ill humor had possessed her. She shifted again uncomfortably in her saddle, with a few mumbled curses. There was no comfortable way to sit now that she was thoroughly sore. Lily swung off her horse deciding she would have a better sight of the marker on foot, even if the road was getting muddy.

Erica was quickly off her mount and gestured to one of the young trainees, Candra who was her charge for the day. They were quickly chasing after Aleka as she turned and headed in the direction of the circling falcon.

The two followed spreading out as they had been trained. Aleka easily spotted the dun colored war-horse standing over a dark heap, shielding it from the light rain. Aleka knew he wouldn't be standing over the body if it were a carcass. She didn't have to look at the other two women for she could hear their silent passing as they made a sweep of the area. Aleka looked above in the trees for anything out of the ordinary, letting her other senses also reach out and scout the area. All she saw was the falcon that took a position on a limb over the body and all she felt was the presence of her two companions. Whatever had passed had scarred the wildlife away. The Falcon kept its eyes focused on Aleka as if trying to convey something to her. Aleka looked toward the shimmering shape of her spirit guide, the gray she wolf. She was but two sword lengths from her yet no one saw her but Aleka. The wolf sniffed the air and turned her yellow eyes toward Aleka. Aleka broke gaze and studied the war-horse.

The war-horse had a saddle pommel that was used for carrying birds of prey. That explained the falcon’s connection to the pair on the ground. The rain hadn’t removed all traces of lather from the horse’s flanks and as Aleka put a firm hand on its neck she could feel the heat radiating from its skin as if it had just finished a hard run. The cold rain hadn’t cooled it down yet. The neck muscle flickered under her soothing strokes letting her soft voice further calm him.

Aleka moved slowly to see whom the horse was protecting. It stepped aside as Aleka bent over to turn the form over, careful that she wasn't doing further injury. Aleka cursed softly under her breath.

Satisfied there were no broken bones or internal injuries Aleka lifted the unconscious form and started to make her way to the caves. The falcon had settled on the pommel of the war-horse that trailed closely behind Aleka with its nose close to her elbow. She looked up at the sky through the rain and felt the tightness in her stomach again that something was amiss. Gabrielle?

That was another worry. The connection she usually felt with Gabrielle had lessened to almost nothing, as she let the character of Aleka dominate most of her moods. How could it not as she dreamed of her every night and worried as new faces superimposed over Gabrielle's. What transposed itself over her need to protect Gabrielle was an intense need to take care of these women in her charge. She suspected there was a conflict that was playing itself out in her dreams.

The two women flanked her as they hurried through the rain. A whistle from Erica signaled those in the cavern of their approach, that they were friends, and a healer was needed.

Eleanor and Agnes were just outside of the cave entrance in the rain waiting. They followed on either side of Aleka taking note of the color, breathing and pulse of the woman in the dim lighting of the overcast day. Inside the cave Eleanor motioned to the space that had been hurriedly prepared. Grace was at the fire preparing water. Another torch was lit near the pallet that had been set up.

The war-horse hesitated at the cave entrance. Aleka turned and spoke softly to him. She waited patiently for the war-horse to study them and then it followed the tall form that carried his mistress. The Amazons and the other women watched as the falcon lifted from the saddle and effortlessly sailed to the rail on the cart. It was near the pallet that Aleka gently laid the unconscious form on.

Aleka handed the dart she found snagged in the tunic’s fabric under the leather shoulder pad. Eleanor sniffed it and frowned, handing it quickly to Agnes whom also studied it not touching the point. She in turn handed it to Grace.

Eleanor's medicine bag was opened and she quickly selected what she needed. Agnes mixed what Eleanor pinched into the bowl and Grace brought the hot water to mix the herbs with. Aleka watched with a knowing eye as the women worked as a well-trained team.

Lily moved to Aleka's side. "We better send a scouting team out to be sure whoever did this still isn't around." She didn’t want any of them to be caught in the middle of someone else’s bad business.

"They aren't now." Aleka nodded toward the falcon. "He wouldn't have been circling over her if they were. Any tracks would be gone now with the weather. We’ll have to wait for her to waken to find out why someone wanted her unconscious."

Aleka glanced at the dun horse that was being well taken care of by Camila, who was speaking soothing words and brushing the tired horse down.


"Whatever it was, it was not meant to kill right away. Someone wanted her alive enough to get some information out of her." Aleka observed to Lily.

"Notice her robe?" Lily asked.

"Yea." Aleka returned noncommittally. It was the robe that gave her the idea that someone wanted some information from this guard.

"So has everyone else."

Aleka turned a bemused face toward Lily. "Kinda hard not to notice." Aleka couldn't help hearing the conversations going around her in the cave.

Camila nodded to the two women. They both moved over to her. "This is Yori." She indicated the horse while stroking his wet neck. "His rider is Alala, Athena's Aviary Warden from the Athens Temple."

"Thought as much." Aleka remarked.

"Ohhh. How so?" A skeptical Lily asked.

"You mean, besides her robe, the ring and the saddle?" Aleka quirked a brow up at Lily as she turned from her to face the cave entrance. Something had pulled her attention to the outside.


"There's a white ring around her left wrist, where she probably wears a wrist guard for handling the larger birds." She explained distracted.

"How about a bracer?"

"It’s only on her left wrist."

"All right. Let's say you didn't see the saddle ..."

"How many women, dressed in a gold fringed Athena's Temple Guard robe, followed by a falcon and an owl, do you know that can be..."

"Wait a moment. What owl?" Interrupted Lily following the tall woman toward the cave entrance.

"The one that's carrying a small message pouch in its left talon." Aleka’s amused tone of voice was not lost on Lily.

"Hera's tits, woman! Where do you see an owl?" Lily peered out of the cave to where Aleka was looking.

"Too far a way for your old eyes, right now." Her friend teased. She waited a moment then pointed with her jaw. "There."

"I see, I see." Lily was exasperated. It wasn't raining hard enough to use the excuse of the weather nor was it dark enough. "You gotta have Athena's eye in the middle of your head." She muttered.

The two were oblivious to the entertainment they supplied the others. Though Lily was the elder of the group she always deferred to Aleka’s suggestions not because of her leadership role but because of her knowledge which was always surprising the others. However, Lily’s past personality was finding it difficult to give in to all of Aleka’s leadership decisions and Lily’s compromise was to compete when she could. Aleka seemed to understand and said little to stop Lily’s bantering or attempts to better her at things it would have been best to let alone, for Aleka always won.

The others used Aleka to learn what they would not have normally been able to. They all knew that if the dark haired warrior was not influenced by Aleka’s personality, they would not have the courage to share an open friendship with this tall and sometimes forbidding warrior. They all took advantage of the openness by asking questions and seeking advice in things related to survival and healing. They were rewarded with a patient and attentive teacher.

"Camila can you call the owl over here?"

The dark form became bigger as it sailed with purpose directly toward the cave’s entrance. It knew exactly where it wanted to go. Aleka stepped back and Lily dropped to her knees fearful of getting hit.

The owl certainly had an attitude and it wasn’t the least bit intimidated with their presence or in being in the cave. It had moved to the side of the falcon though not feather close. It made a further spectacular show of fluffing its feathers and shaking off water from its feathers.

The arrival of the owl with the attitude had everyone on her feet staring. Camila was the only one with a big grin on her face.

"This is not a good sign." Erica muttered to no one in particular. Her uneasiness spoke for the rest. The birds, Athena’s priestess and the circumstances they found her in spoke of portentous events. Something they had all been expecting with mixed emotions, as memories of an ill fated quest kept them apprehensive at what this quest would test them at.

Camila was able to approach the owl with no problem and remove the pouch. Camila handed the pouch and its contents to Aleka who read the parchment that was folded into a small square. Without any change in expression Aleka handed the document back to Camila. It was written in the runes of Athena's priestesses.

Aleka motioned for Agnes, Lily and Camila to follow her to a log that had taken the roll earlier as their meeting area. Once the four were settled and each had a cup of warm tea Aleka nodded to Camila to read the message to the others since she was one of Athena’s priestesses. As a young warlord she had learned the code for her own reasons.

"What’s the message?" Lily asked as she tried to understand what the symbols meant, looking over Camila's shoulder.

"It indicates warrior princess is fine. This symbol is the warrior; this crown above is the princess. If the crown was tilted the princess would not be fine." Camila smiled at Lily who was viewing the message side ways

"This symbol is ...the dark power, from ancient times. This scroll represents a storyteller with the symbol below it as the Amazon Queen." Camila eyed Aleka for a moment.

Lily and Agnes exchanged glances. The anticipated challenge before them.

"Can you send a message back?" Aleka asked not looking at Lily and Agnes. Her stomach was in knots.

"Sure can."

Aleka stared into the fire bleakly. So, what are we going to ask? What does the message imply? The storyteller is in danger by darkness. The symbol for the warrior princess was the symbol she had used when she was a warlord. It meant others knew of their journey. But, that was understandable. There are enough priestesses on this journey for temple gossip to fly and didn't they say they were away from their temples for a full season’s cycle? Was Ares creating problems? She frowned. We need Athena’s Warden to give us some answers. What is the guard’s interest in this? What is Athena’s interest? Or for that matter, what about the other goddesses whose priestesses represented the group? Aleka put a sudden stop to her thoughts.

Aleka dictated to Camila the message. The owl obligingly took off with the note into the darkness. The rain had slowed to drizzle.

"Why don’t we get some practice in and then get some sleep. We can only wait now." Lily told the others who were as anxious over the message. Whatever happened along this journey was meant for us to experience. It was as we all expected. Gabrielle is part of the journey! Lily didn’t know whether to be excited that what they had all guessed was right or be worried. They all had wondered when she would come into it, thinking it would be at the beginning, but understanding that the timing wasn’t right. The circle of friends had to first come together and get comfortable with each other, she had reasoned. Lily nodded to herself. Trust the goddess to take care of the timing. After all, how could one of the most appreciated duos amongst people in need, be separated in this life by unfinished business from a previous one? Lily chuckled to herself as she thought about it.

Lily looked over at Aleka who was staring into the fire. She didn’t think that habit was Aleka’s. "Aleka, how about that work out?" She asked softly.

"Right." Aleka roused herself and joined the women whom she had been drilling daily on the use of various weapons and hand-to-hand combat.

By the time the others were worn out Aleka felt relaxed enough to try to sleep.

However, Aleka couldn't sleep. She finally rose and went outside. The air was heavy with a wet mist. Footing was still slippery, which was an advantage to them if anyone tried to approach the cave without being heard. The wolf was no where to be seen, but it was that way since they started the journey. The she wolf would only appear when there was danger or when something important came up. Like the first few days when Lily fought her various decisions. It was the she wolf who reminded Aleka of their relationship on the first journey and the need to be patient with Lily so she could work her way through it. Aleka would have just liked to stay with the group as little as possible and let Lily work it out by herself but the she wolf insisted that she was not to distance herself from the others. It reminded Xena of her first year of getting use to Gabrielle’s chatter and presence. That was different, Xena had objected. But she remained in the camp and since she didn’t have her sword to sharpen and sooth her nerves she took to drilling the women. She wondered if they would be as appreciative of her interest in this physical workout if they knew that it was her only way to work off her excess energy and irritation with being in such close contact with them.

She checked the guards and the outer perimeter then returned to the cave’s entrance. Something was pulling her to the south of here. Aleka closed her eyes and shuddered at the long forgotten memory of just what laid to the south. She had thought the experience was deeply buried in Xena’s youthful life as a warlord. She listened to the wind pushing the mist into sprinkles that were cold against her exposed face. She heard the falcon cleaning its beak on the branch it was sitting on, not far from the cave's entrance. She could smell bruised winter foliage stubbornly growing between the rocks and boulders on the side of the mountain. There was a river to her right and the canyon that would take them south was to her left. The road they had been on would take them to the next village, two days away. It curved to the south but it was the long way around. The memory surfaced again. This had to be the dark power the note referred to. She needed to talk to the injured guard to be sure -- before she changed their direction. She took a deep breath. She may be just putting the wrong pieces together.

The knot in her stomach for the last few days had been making eating the last thing on her mind. Without Agnes’ observation and insistence she eat, she probably would not be eating very often. The herbs were not settling her stomach either. Is Gabrielle in trouble? Hercules had better be keeping an eye on her, she thought grimly. However, the note was implied otherwise.

Aleka turned and went back into the warm dry cavern. She needed to sleep.

The last thing that Aleka heard before letting Morpheus take her was the falcon returning to the cart railing and the howl of a wolf in the distance.

The next morning one group repacked the horses, another scouted ahead, and others prepared a quick early morning meal of hot tea and a cereal that would stick to the walls of their stomach.

Aleka knelt before the unconscious women and studied the pale face. A tired Eleanor was mixing herbs in a cup next to her. Kneeling next to the body she placed her fingertips lightly to the inside of her wrists feeling for the pulse. She moved her right hand to a space just below the curve of the rib cage resting her fingers lightly on this spot. With the other hand she moved the fingers in a slow pattern of light touches from the space just above the left clavicle up the left side of her neck. She repeated the pattern on the other side of the neck. She moved her right hand to the small of the woman’s back and moved her left in another series of movements, touching each spot lightly for a few moments.

The other women stopped to watch. Agnes nodded as she watched their tall leader slowly remove her hand from behind the unconscious form.

"The healers call it chi work."

Aleka looked at Agnes for a moment. The memory of whom taught it to her caused her to blink for a moment. It was amazing that the death from Caesar’s troops that was meant for her didn’t carry the same heaviness.

"I don’t know what it’s called. What matters is that it works." Aleka frowned to herself. She was feeling cranky. Must be that time of the moon, she thought, referring to her menstrual cycle.

The cart was prepared for its second occupant. This was one of the reasons it was brought, besides carrying supplies and for carrying their drama costumes and masks. For the length of time they were to travel they assumed there would be injured from the attacks of raiders or idiots that thought a small group of women was an open invitation for attack. They did not intend on leaving anyone behind. Erica had been its first occupant. She had been knocked out on their first encounter with fools from the second village they had performed at. A group of young men from the village didn't take "no" for an answer when they demanded favors from the young performers. The ambush was expected as they were brash enough to announce to everyone what they intended on doing.

The women had disabled and disbanded all but one, whom they left wounded on the road. Even in his wounded condition he didn’t have the sense to keep his snide comment to himself. The women left him on the side of the road, under a tree, to his own resources to seek safety from any trouble that might find him in his condition. It was an example of a village that had changed in a matter of two summers due to the migration of people escaping from wars and warlords and not absorbing the differences between people well.

Aleka checked the dun war-horse out. He was added to the extra string of horses that were tied to the cart. They were relief horses. He seemed to be contented to walk close where he could smell his mistress and probably the grains they carried for the horses. The falcon had taken to the sky again and would disappear now and again. Camila kept an expert eye on both new comers, their unconscious patient and the bird.

"She is going to be well." Eleanor told Lily and Aleka as they walked behind the cart to check up on the occupant. Aleka noted the return of color to the cheeks and her pulse was beating stronger on her neck.

"The drug should be wearing off by about noon. She doesn’t have any other injuries."

"Ridding in that cart may bring her out sooner." Erica muttered. "It'll hit every rut and bump and shake her awake."

"It does have its advantages." Eleanor laughed. "I have quick recoveries."

"Last night she sweat out the majority of the poison and we got a lot of liquids in her. We were lucky it wasn’t any exotic mixture of poison on the dart. Being healthy is a big help, too."

Aleka nodded. "Get some sleep yourself while you’re back here. Agnes, that goes for you too. There’s room enough. Brona, get up on the wagon and relieve Agnes for a bit."

The two young priestesses didn’t argue. They had the first two shifts watching over the unconscious woman but found two pairs of hands were needed. They had shooed Aleka back to her bedroll knowing she was always up longer than anyone else was.

Chapter 5

Gabrielle was vaguely aware of being sick. Through dazed eyes and foggy thoughts she realized her face was being forced up to let something pour down her throat. When it hit her stomach it only remained for a brief moment. She could feel her face struck by something but she wasn't conscious enough for it to register fully.

The second time Gabrielle came conscious, she saw some light between her swollen lids. Her nose kept bouncing against the leg of a horse, which didn't improve the pounding in her head and the very sick feeling in her stomach. Mercifully, consciousness did not remain long.

Gabrielle could hear ragged breathing from somewhere. At first it scared her for she thought it might be Xena but the idea required stringing a lot of memories together and she was finding putting images and memories together was too difficult. There was only darkness around her and she couldn't feel anything. She had awareness but no body form. Out of the darkness she felt she was being watched but she couldn't see anything. Then there was a large eye that moved toward her. A Cyclops? It stopped in front of her and wanted to know who she was. How in Tartarus was she supposed to know? She felt a burning pain in all her limbs and couldn't get the satisfaction of screaming to release her mental anguish. There was a grim satisfaction from the eye and when it turned she realized it had another but it had been damaged. Her mind went further into oblivion, where even her thoughts were stilled.

When did she become aware of the comforting shape of a tree against her back? She was bound securely to the tree with a leather strap tied around her forehead to keep it against the tree. Her elbows were tied to the tree and hands tied together in front of her. Her body hurt all over. Gradually she began to feel the throbbing pain that begin to engulf her. The vile smell of the drink that someone had tried to pour down her was on her cloths mixed with her own vomit. Did she wrestle with a Minotaur? Naww. Only Xena does that, or Hercules. She tried to get past the pain as Xena had been trying to teach her, but that had been for injuries that didn’t feel this bad.

She listened to the night noises about her, trying to ignore her body’s unhappy condition. How does Xena do it? The breeze smelled of rain. She could hear the rustle of something moving around in the – bushes? Not grass. No, she couldn't hear any grass move. Leaves, yes. The sound of voices arguing far away, then the sudden impact of something hard hitting bone came to her.

"I run this show!" She heard the enraged voice of Malucu. "Now get some more of the stuff ready! And if I catch any of you giving her anything else but this, I'll kill you!""

A few moments later she felt a slap against her face that had not her head been bound to the tree would have rocked her head. Her eyes popped open but she couldn't focus on anything and the light that was shinning in her eyes burned to the point her eyes started to tear. She thought only one eye opened completely.

"See!" Malucu muttered triumphantly. "She shouldn't be feeling anything! Give me that!"

Gabrielle felt her mouth forced open, which she didn't and probably couldn't resist, and a foul tasting liquid poured down her sore throat. It didn't even have warmth to sooth the soreness. It didn't stay down long. A hand was clamped over her swollen lips but the liquid came out anyway. Some had gotten into her lungs and if she had not been tied securely she would have collapsed as her abused body struggled to get the liquid out of her lungs and her stomach at the same time. She could feel her sides hurt as if she had bruised or broken ribs. The numbing effect the drug had on her body protected her from feeling the beatings Malucu rained on her at one of their stops but right now it wasn’t numbing enough and she did begin to feel pain.

"You keep pounding her and you'll be carrying a corpse to the temple." A voice warned him. "If you don't feed her at least stop with the beatings."

"She's got to have bruises that Xena can see! Malucu snarled.

"She has enough. It's going to be days before we get to the temple. If she dies before we reach the temple the Dark One said Xena would know. If Xena knows, Ares will know. That kinda rage Ares can't miss. You'll be giving up the bait before we put it in the trap."

Gabrielle could hear Malucu swear and leave. The other person stayed and tried to pour what was left in the container down her with hardly more success. The little that did get into her system gave her nightmarish visions leaving her too weak to fight off the terrors her vivid imagination furnished. Her throat was too dried and constricted to let out her cries as she met frightening creatures that tore at her physically leaving tears in her skin and tortured her with her own fears of Xena’s abandonment or death. They were the bad kind of terrors that slung over a bouncing horse, or bound securely to a tree didn't relieve.

What might be her second day of captivity, Gabrielle could feel the first bits of consciousness creep up her legs in a burning wave of pain. Through puffy lips she tried to cry out but her throat was swollen and dry from lack of water. She was now welcoming Malucu’s numbing drug. It was the only moisture she took in. There were other places that were in pain but her legs were a new source of intense feeling and they took up her attention. She didn’t know if they were broken, only that both legs were burning appendages that she wished were not part of her.

She didn’t stay conscious long for her own body mercifully released her into a painless bliss, but the payment was the nightmare. She returned back to the cave she had been hiding in. The one-eyed man from the wasteland kept looking for her. The cave was near the old bare tree from which an owl, much like Alala’s friend, had been sitting with its eyes closed.

Her cave had a good view of the mountain from where great black clouds of smoke came, with occasional spurts of fire that erupted from it, shaking the ground. Cries of anguish came from this place. Gabrielle didn’t know which was more frightening, the one-eyed man who was searching for her, or the knowledge that sooner or later she was going to go to the fire mountain to see if she could stop the cries. Her need for Xena’s help was pressing yet she knew she wasn’t in this land and she would have to do it herself. She didn’t even know where this land was...and who is Xena?

Continued in Chapter 6

Chapter 1-2 Chapter 3-5 Chapter 6-7 Chapter 8-11


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