Written June-July, 2000 - deep in the Xena Withdrawal Syndrome season (summer reruns). This story occurs some time after the events of Season Five and, therefore, does take into account events that occurred in that season. You may find, however, that it reads more like an episode from Season Two. I did this on purpose. I miss the 'Golden Age of Xena.'
Consider this a companion piece to What Are Little Girls Made Of? After all, if I can shrink Xena, then I ought to be able to do something with the bard .
THE 50 FT BARD
(graphic by Ciegra)
"Your mother wears gladiator boots!" the drunken farmer cursed as he gave his pick a mighty swing. The deadly sharp tip cracked against rock hard earth.
The pick thudded into the soil, but barely made a dent. The farmer's land was as dry as bone, though he and his wife had just sat in their home through three days of rain.
"This must be the god's burial ground." He wiped his lips after taking another sip from the almost empty bottle of homebrew and squinted at the heavens. There were still a few dark clouds in the sky, remnants of the rain from the days before.
He turned to the gray statue that sat silently, watching him. The strange figure had occupied this small spot on his land as long as he could remember. God or mortal, he did not know, but the effigy was a part of his inheritance and belonged to the land as much as every tree or shrub. The lines of exotic detail in the sculpture had long since faded, but the sardonic grin was easily visible, mocking his efforts even as he swung his pick again.
"Amazon tits!" A spray of dirt hit him in the eyes and he dropped the tool angrily to wipe them clean. The figure's scornful grin seemed to widen. Such folly to work this earth, which was as gray and pitted as the statue's own skin.
"I might as well try to farm in marble," the farmer slurred drunkenly to a sky empty of Gods. "I don't know why I even try. My father tried, and my father before him. We all tried. This land is cursed. It's cursed! Nothing grows here. Nothing has ever grown here! Why did I stay? Why did I ever stay? I should have left with my sister!"
He covered his face with his hands and groaned, picturing his beloved father whispering to him as a boy.
"One day this land will be fertile and fruitful." His father squeezing his shoulder and pointing out from the porch of their crumbling home to the barren fields. "Crops will blossom across our land as far as the eye can see. I've heard the whispers of the gods, boy, and they tell me don't give up. Never give up. Keep the land and work it, until your hands are raw. When your body aches as though it is one step from the grave and your fingers bleed from the tools you wield, the earth will suck up the drops of your blood and then all your wishes will come true. Never give up, boy. I've heard the whispers. Never give up."
"I GIVE UP!" His angry voiced echoed across the pasture of gray dirt. He thought of his poor wife and the years of squalor. "I give up," his voice cracked with admittance of his failure and he took another long drink.
"It's not my fault." He threw away the empty jug and curled his raw palms into fists. "This land is cursed."
That had to be the reason. The land was cursed -- not blessed, but cursed. For as long as he had lived, nothing grew here. His father gave up his blood and soul to lifeless land. The statue knew the truth. Hadn't it sat there for three generations, watching as his family tried in vain to work this land? The farmer scowled at the contemptuous smirk that seemed to spread across the face of the quietly watching idol.
"YOU cursed this land." The realization of it suddenly hit the farmer in the gut. "All along, it's been you."
He looked at his feet and noticed for the very first time how the barren dryness seemed to emanate from the base of the statue as though it was sucking the very life up from the soil. The cracking sickness spread from the sculpture outward, throughout the entire expanse of land, stretching to the horizon beyond.
"You BASTARD," the farmer yelled, "all this time -- you're not blessing this land, youre SUCKING IT DRY!"
He hoisted up his pick, lifting it high over his head.
"SUCKING THE LAND DRY!"
Shaking arms barely registered the pain of the effort as he swung.
"SUCKING MY LIFE DRY!"
The pick smashed into the side of a grinning face, cracking the cheek and splitting the ear.
He lifted the pick high again, his muscles trembling in drunken anger.
"MY FATHER DIED WORKING THIS LAND!"
He swung and the pick took another chuck out of the stone. Gripping the wood of the handle so tight that his fingers began to bleed, he lifted the tool again, his eyes round with rage.
"BUT I WON'T LET YOU KILL ME!
The force behind the overhead swing was so powerful, it threw him off balance, feeding the full weight of his body into the angry blow. The point of the pick hit dead center into the top of the head of the statue. With a resounding crack, the aged stone split, and then shattered into countless pieces. The statue seemed to crumble into itself as it collapsed to the earth in a mound of chunky dust.
He dropped the pick to the earth. Blood dripped from his fingertips adding to what was already sliding from the handle of the pick and soaking the dirt. The farmer breathed heavily as he stared at the pile of pitted rumble.
The ancient idol was history.
An abrupt coldness clenched at his heart. The constant breeze that normally skipped across the land, playfully lifting dry earth into a swirling dance, stilled to nothing. All the fields around him were suddenly silent. Grasshoppers ceased their call. The birds halted their song. He listened in terror to the oppressive silence, half expecting the angel of death to tap at his shoulder.
"It's a hard life."
The farmer jumped at the sound of the deep voice.
He whirled around and faced a man -- a man who had appeared as though out of nowhere.
"Did I frighten you?" the man asked.
The farmer stared incredulously at the person before him, not registering the question.
"My apologies," a deep, slightly accented voice spoke from a smiling mouth. The mouth belonged to a very thin, yet handsome face, dark of skin, with eyes the color of ink.
The farmer found his voice. "Who are you?"
"This life is a hard one." The man lifted his hand eloquently to indicate the fields. "The life of a farmer, I mean. Haven't you ever wished you had chosen another?"
"Who are you?"
"A man." The man smiled. "And who are you?"
The farmer squinted suspiciously. "A farmer," he answered.
"A farmer? Really? A farmer who destroys statues?"
"It was a cursed statue," the farmer explained in his defense. "It had been cursing my land for years."
"If it was certainly cursed," the dark man agreed, "then you were right to destroy it. Now tell me, what would a farmer wish for, if there was a wish to be had? Certainly there is another life you would desire, one that would not take the blood from your hands and feed it to barren earth." He pointed to the farmer's raw palms and the drying blood painting the handle of the pick that was lying in the dirt.
The farmer looked at his damaged hands and shrugged. "I come from a long line of farmers. This land is my home. There's no other life for me."
"You love tending this soil this much?"
"I love farming," he replied to the strange, yet compelling foreigner, forgetting for a moment the question of how the man arrived in the middle of his field in the first place, "I only wish "
The dark visitor's eyes sparkled and he leaned forward expectantly, "What is your wish?"
The farmer regarded the strange man sadly. This was his family's land; he loved it despite its barrenness. "I only wish this land was fertile. If crops would grow easily here, I would be the happiest man alive." He sighed wistfully and looked at the dry, cracked soil at his feet. He might as well wish that he could fly.
The stranger moaned and his eyes rolled back in his head in delight.
The ecstatic sound drew the farmer's attention. Was it his drunken imagination or did the stranger's face appear to fill out, his skin growing darker and healthier before his eyes?
"As you wish," the stranger said throatily, and then turned on his heels and walked away.
"Mikos, where have you been?" the farmer's wife asked angrily as he walked in the door. "Dinner is ready, it's getting cold."
Mikos did not answer, but walked to the kitchen table and grabbed a water pitcher to rinse the blood and dirt from his hands.
"Drunk in the fields again, I suppose," Uliss continued, ignoring the fact that her husband did not answer. "If there was a market for dust, we'd be rich." She plopped a ladle full of stew into a bowl. "I don't know why I waste my time cooking." She threw the bowl on the table and wiped her hands on her apron. "Good thing I make and sell brooms from the dried up weeds or we'd starve." She watched as her husband lowered his tired body into the chair, frowning when he didn't reach to lift his spoon to eat. "Whatssa matter? Don't like my stew?"
Her husband didn't answer, but just stared at the bowl.
She waited, hands on hips, foot tapping for a sign of life from the man sitting at her table, but he simply sat there, as lifeless as the land he owned.
"Don't eat then, drink yourself to death. Save me the trouble of killing ya," she stated bluntly. Uliss turned away and went to work scraping food from a dirty pot.
"I knocked down that statue today," Mikos said softly.
Uliss stopped scraping. "What was that?"
"I said I knocked down that old statue in the field."
Uliss dropped the pot. "You what?"
"Swung at it good and hard with my pick. Cracked it into a pile of rocks, right down into the dirt."
"Whadya go an' do a thing like that for?"
"It was parching the soil. Sucking the life right out of it. That's why we could never grow anything."
Uliss regarded her husband for a moment, scowling. "Have you lost your drunken mind?"
"I finally realized what's been wrong here after all these years. That statue was cursing our land!" Mikos said as he turned his eyes to his wife for the first time.
Uliss stared at her man in disbelief. "So, instead of working the land, you spent the day drinking ale and smashing an old statue?"
"I just broke the curse, was all." Mikos smiled, feeling it all the way to his toes, for the first time in years. He took a big, satisfying spoonful of stew and shoveled it into his mouth. "The curse is busted, Uliss," he announced through his food. "We're gonna grow us some grapes lots of 'em, too, from the looks of it."
"From the looks of it?" Uliss said, looking at her husband as though he had just grown another eye in the middle of his head.
Mikos inhaled another spoonful of food and pointed over his shoulder with his thumb to the window. "Go take a look for yourself, Uliss. You'll see what I mean."
Uliss turned her head to look at the window, then back to her husband with a look of uncertainty on her face. Wiping her hands on her apron, she grunted skeptically and then stepped to the window for a peek outside.
After a few moments, Uliss's silence confirmed for Mikos that his wife was seeing what he had seen. Mikos smiled again and convinced himself he deserved a bottle of Ouzo right after dinner in celebration. He swallowed his stew and burped.
"What did I tell you? Can I plow or can I plow?"
Uliss brought her hands up to her face in alarm. "Sweet Hestia," she prayed.
From the table in the kitchen, Mikos laughed. "Believe me now?"
"Sweet Hestia," Uliss repeated, backing away from the window and the sight before her.
It wasn't long after his older sister left that Mikos had taken to the bottle. Uliss had been given to him in marriage shortly after. For as long as she had lived with Mikos, their fields had been dry and empty. Now, after all this time, she found herself staring in disbelief out of the window at farmland shimmering in the sunlight, green with the leaves of grape vines, wondering if she wasn't drunk herself. The creeping plants covered the land, turning parched dirt into pasture, covering what was once dry dust with lush foliage.
"In the mood for some stuffed grape leaves?" Mikos laughed at his own joke and downed his first glass of Ouzo in one gulp.
"By the gods, Mikos, what did you do?"
"Forget about the gods, Uliss, they're dead. My father always said these fields would be fertile one day."
"Fertile, Mikos?" Uliss backed away from the window in fear. "Fertile? This ain't natural. I swear, I can see them growing right before my eyes! How can this be?"
"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, my darling wife." Mikos poured himself another shot and drank it down. "Ahhhh. We're finally gonna get what we've been wishing for, eh Uliss?"
Mikos smacked his lips happily and looked at his wife, but Uliss was still staring out of the window in dread and horror.
Gabrielle shifted the reins into her left hand and gently maneuvered her horse so she could walk closer to Xena.
"Are you going to say anything?" she asked, giving her partner a pointed look.
Xena sighed in exasperation and tugged at Argo's reins, adjusting the mare's position so she wouldn't nudge the bay. "What do you want me to say?"
"Yes will do for a start."
At Xena's continued silence, Gabrielle looked away, the disappointment obvious on her face. "Then it's no."
"It's not yes and it's not no, Gabrielle," Xena stated impatiently.
The sadness in her partner's demeanor forced Xena's gaze away. She studied the passing scenery for a few moments, hiding the ache already filling her heart. When she finally spoke, her voice was soft. "I can't make a decision like this on the spot. I have to think about it."
"I know." The bard's small voice couldn't hide her disappointment.
Gabrielle waved away the apology. "That's okay. It's a big decision."
"Yes, it is."
Gabrielle nodded her head quietly in agreement, but had only just begun to argue her point. "Eve is happily married and settled now."
"I know that."
"The gods are dead."
"I know that, too. I killed them, remember?"
"I want you to come with me."
Xena smiled sadly. "I'm glad you do."
"Does that mean you will?" Gabrielle stopped walking, much to her horse's surprise, and turned to face her partner hopefully.
The warrior let her steps slow to a stop, so Argo stopped too. "No, it doesn't, Gabrielle, I'm sorry. I have to think about this for awhile. What you're asking for is a big change in our lives and I don't know if that kind of change is right."
Xena held up her hand, "I know it's the right thing for you, but I'm not sure it's the right thing for me."
"It's not right for me, if it's not right for you."
"It is right for you. You know that and I know that." Before Gabrielle could respond, Xena continued, "You wouldn't have even mentioned it if you hadn't been seriously thinking about it, probably for a long time, too. Am I right?" At Gabrielle's silence, Xena sighed. "Gabrielle, why haven't you said anything before this?"
"Because I knew what you would say."
"How could you possibly know how I would respond?"
Gabrielle grunted, "Like you would really come with me to Athens and settle down so I could write plays."
"Hey, it could happen."
"And the moon could turn blue."
The corners of Xena's mouth lifted into a grin. "If anyone could turn the moon, you could, Gabrielle."
"I'd fly up there and paint it blue myself, if that's what it would take to make you see that this could be a good thing for both of us," Gabrielle replied, returning the smile, though sadly.
"It is a good thing. It's a good thing for you, Gabrielle but, not for me." Xena reached out to touch a soft cheek.
Gabrielle turned away and gave her horse a gentle pull. The bay snorted, speaking on
her mistress's behalf.
Xena watched as the bard walked slowly away. "I always knew this day would come," she called out after her friend, giving a reluctant Argo a tug and pacing herself to catch up. "That's why I didn't want to "
The unfinished comment stopped Gabrielle dead in her tracks and the bay flicked his tail, annoyed at the sudden stop. "Didn't want to what?" the bard asked quickly.
Gabrielle's direct and intense stare made the warrior curse herself for speaking aloud.
"Didn't want to what?" Gabrielle asked again, demanding that the unfinished sentence be completed.
For once Xena faltered in her confidence.
"What was that, Xena? I don't think I heard you?"
Xena pressed her lips together and played with the reins in her hands. The uncomfortable silence only made her angry at herself for speaking her thought aloud. Damn.
"That's why I didn't want us to make promises I knew we couldn't keep," she blurted out, tugged on Argo's reins and hurriedly walked away. The mare trudged after her.
"And what promise was that?" the bard asked as her friend stomped by.
"I don't know," the warrior answered without turning around, "whatever promises two people make when they, you know "
"When two people do what, Xena?" At Xena's continued silence, Gabrielle raised her eyebrows, "Oh, I see." She gave her horse's reins a hard pull, suddenly realizing that Xena's long strides were taking her too far away. The bay's ears flattened, but he followed his mistress.
Gabrielle shuffled her feet quickly pulling her horse along, until she was able to catch up. "Since when did sex become a promise to you?"
"Sex? Who's talking about sex?"
"Isn't that what you were just talking about?"
"No," Xena lied and halted her strides causing Argo to butt her nose against cold armor at the sudden stop. The mare stomped her hoof in annoyance. "I thought we were talking about you going to Athens?"
"You changed the subject. And I wasn't talking about me going to Athens, I was talking about 'we' going to Athens."
Xena raised her eyebrow. "Interesting grammar for one who wants to write plays."
Gabrielle raised her finger in warning. "Xena, you're changing the subject again."
"I'm not." When Gabrielle opened her mouth to argue, Xena smiled. "I'm not, really, I'm not. I know we have to talk about this Gabrielle. Just just give me some time to think a little here. I just need some time to think, okay?"
Gabrielle gave her friend a small smile and a nod.
Xena responded with a smile of her own. "Thank you," she said sincerely.
"Anytime," the bard replied.
"Anytime?" Xena said, waggling her eyebrows.
"Hey! You're changing the subject again!"
"I wasn't. You just have a one track mind." Xena bit the inside of her mouth to stop from laughing as she pulled on Argo's reins and walked away.
"I have a one track mind?" Gabrielle asked incredulously. "You think I have a one track mind?" She followed quickly after her partner. "Look who's talking. Hey, you're the one that brought it up. You know, if you would just look at things from another point of view every once and awhile, you might see things in a different light."
"And who's point of view should I be looking from, if not my own?"
Xena's sometimes strange, yet always practical, logic never failed to make Gabrielle laugh. "Well, you could try looking at things from my point of view, for a change."
"Your point of view?" Xena quipped, the clever one-liner poised to leave her lips.
"Let's dispense with the height jokes, if you don't mind."
They walked along the path, the change in tone from sensitive chat to friendly banter lightening the load from Xena's shoulders for a moment. Argo glanced at the bay, the brown horse bobbed his head in agreement.
Xena chuckled wickedly, "Me? Make a height joke? Never," and ignored the exaggerated eye roll thrown her way, "but if I did think like you thought all the time, we'd be in those fields right now, doing the wild thing."
"WHAT!" The bard's indignant yell caused a few birds to take flight, and both horses' ears to twitch and flatten. "Do you think I have sex with you on my brain all the time?"
"You said it, not me." This time, Xena couldn't hide her laughter.
"You are a real piece of work, Xena," the bard mumbled as she chuckled. Then her expression turned sassy. "All right then, if that's what you think. Let's get to it."
"What?" Now it was Xena's turn to be surprised.
"Come on, let's go. I want some sex and I want it now."
"Yeah, right." Xena laughed and gave Gabrielle's shoulder a friendly pat, "Sure, whatever you want, Gabrielle."
"I'm serious. Let's go."
"I mean it, come on. I want you, Xena. It's been a long time. Let's get it on."
Xena's hearty laugh turned weak and unsure at the expression on her friend's face. Her strides slowed uncertainly.
Gabrielle took a step closer to her partner. "I can't make any promises, though "
Xena's brow lifted at the comment, "Gabrielle," she warned, her voice drawing the name out slowly, "careful what you ask for "
"I just might get it?" Gabrielle answered saucily, taking up the dare. "That would be a pleasant change."
A pleasant change? The warrior recognized a challenge when she heard one. Never one to back down from a dare, Xena dropped the reins in her hand and stepped up to tower over the bard. "You name the time, I'll name the place." Argo took the opportunity to meander over to the side of the road in search of some sweet grass.
"No time like the present," Gabrielle answered, lifting her chin and raising an eyebrow of her own. She dropped her own reins and a moment later, the bay joined the mare.
"All right then, get in the field."
"Pick a field, any field. They're all around us."
"That field?" Gabrielle pointed.
Xena nodded. "That one's as good as any."
Both Argo and the bay snorted in agreement that the field their mistresses were referring to looked like it tasted pretty good to them, too.
Gabrielle considered the very lush pasture, overflowing with an abundance of crops, "Looks good to me. Find the spot, then."
"Oh, I don't have to find the spot, Gabrielle, I know EXACTLY where it is."
Gabrielle gulped. Xena was impossibly close. "Come on, then," Gabrielle countered, coughing to hide the crack in her voice, "put your dinars where your mouth is."
"I know where I want my mouth," Xena answered, the body part in question suddenly aching with anticipation, "and its not anywhere near my dinars." Promises be damned, she was going to kiss the breath right out of the bard, take her up in her arms and just carry her right out into that field.
"No promises," Xena whispered as she bent to claim her prize.
"I've always known that, Xena," Gabrielle answered sincerely and closed her eyes.
But the kiss never came. The bard reopened her eyes in annoyance, certain that Xena had changed her mind once again.
The warrior was staring over her head, into the field beyond, with a strange expression on her face.
"What the hell?" Xena mumbled. She straightened up and walked around her partner, the distraction taking all of her attention.
"Xena," Gabrielle's voice revealed only a fraction of her annoyance, "Xena " She turned, an exasperated expression on her face. "Xena, I'm over here." She shuffled after her partner in anger. "Hey, what could possibly be more interesting over there than what we were about to do over here?"
Xena waved her quiet. "What do you suppose that is?" She motioned with her head out into the farmland.
The harvest was certainly plentiful out here, the bard mused as she squinted into the sunshine. She searched the field for what Xena was referring to, her annoyance replaced by curiosity. The harvest was beyond bountiful. In fact, it was out and out, out of control. Grapevines were entwined into clumps as tall as trees. There were other plants as well, fruits and vegetables, growing just as abundantly. They spiraled up and around one another, as though fighting a war for space in the soil.
It was a farmer's worse nightmare.
Gabrielle's eyes widened at the unending expanse of tangled harvest, watching as the plants wiggled and coiled, fighting for their place in the sun.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked in alarm, "Are those plants moving?" And then her eyes rested on the object in question.
There was a house in the middle of the field, or rather what used to be a home. A farmer's home - completely covered and overwhelmed by the growth of his own crops.
"By the gods, Xena!" Gabrielle grabbed her partner's arm. "Do you think there's anyone in there?"
She felt Xena stiffen at the suggestion.
"Stay here." The warrior drew her sword.
"Oh no, you don't." Gabrielle grabbed her arm at the elbow and pulled her back. Despite Xena's glare, she tightened her grip. "You're not going out there."
"Let go, Gabrielle."
"Xena," Gabrielle watched as a vine suddenly crawled its way along the dirt, "don't go into that field."
The same vine had captured Xena's attention for the moment. "Look at the way it won't cross over into the road, Gabrielle." Xena pointed down with her sword. "See that?"
"Good." Gabrielle nodded quickly. "Then we'll just stay right here in the road."
"What if there's a family in there?"
The bard lifted her attention away from the crawling vine and stared at the overgrown mound of foliage in the middle of the field that was once a house. It looked more like a sculpture in leaves than a dwelling, but the thought of a family trapped inside made her loosen her grip on the warrior's arm.
"Be careful," she whispered and let go completely.
Xena took a deep breath and stepped over the invisible boundary between road and field.
A plant coiled away from her footstep. Its retreat gave her confidence. She took another step, and then another, and then more until she was several feet from the road and far out of Gabrielle's reach.
The bard held her breath, her eyes wandering to the field and the farmer's home. It looked impossibly distant and resembled less and less a home as the mountain of plants slowly engulfed it. Her gaze wandered back to Xena and she gasped in alarm.
The warrior was fighting a losing battle against vines that were crawling up her legs and twisting around her body. Slashing left and right with her sword, she was attempting to cut herself free, but for every vine that fell another entwined itself tighter around her body.
"XENA!" Gabrielle screamed. She ran into the field without thinking and starting ripping plants from the ground at their roots.
Her strategy worked. Every vine pulled from the dirt went slack around Xena's limbs. Eventually, the warrior was able to pull free and together, she and Gabrielle backed out of the field and into the road.
Cursing, Xena pulled some foliage from her chest plate and threw it angrily to the ground. When the last of the creeping plants were tossed, Xena sheathed her sword and mounted Argo.
"Come on," she said, tugging on her mare's reins, "let's find out what the hell is going on around here."
Gabrielle flipped a few leaves from her fingers in disgust and ran to her own horse, mounting with practiced ease.
She clicked once and kicked, taking off quickly after her partner, who was already galloping at full speed and a good distance down the thankfully clear road.
Lifting her shoulders, Thyra straightened her posture on the stool, hoping it would draw attention to her two best features. The girl's face fell when the overweight, yet nonetheless eligible, customer picked up two mugs of ale from the bar, turned and walked away without so much as a glance.
The only attention her two best features had earned her was a splash of ale right down the middle of her bodice.
She flicked the liquid out of her cleavage. "Umphf! Clumsy oaf." The mumble ignored, she slumped back in her seat, brightening only when another eligible bachelor passed close by.
Thyra did everything but offer herself up on a silver platter; the result was the same. Another chance at a romantic encounter for the evening picked up his drinks and walked right on by, gallantly placing the beverages in front of a beautiful blond in the seat right next to her instead.
"Bah! No accounting for taste." Dejected, she leaned on the countertop and sighed. The new bodice she had purchased was not having the desired effect at all. Picking at its ruffles, she adjusted the revealing top to be even more revealing.
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," a deep voice spoke seductively in her ear. She turned in surprise to find a dark, handsome gentleman sitting in the seat that had previously been occupied by the blond.
"Excuse me?" Thyra asked, twisting to see if the incredibly attractive man was talking to some beautiful woman behind her.
"Why draw attention there," the dark man said, motioning to her bodice, "when the beauty is here?" The back of his fingertips drifted lightly down her cheek, barely brushing the tips of his nails across a mole.
Thyra blushed at the contact. "You must be blind, then."
"I assure you, I can see very well."
"Then you've had too much too drink."
"Not a drop all night, though I am very thirsty." His eyes, black as coal, bored into hers, the corners barely creasing with a seductive smile.
He moved a bit closer to whisper in her ear. "Is there somewhere we can go, you and I?"
Her eyes drifted away from his midnight orbs to rest on the large bulge between his legs. Oh my. Thyra gulped again. "How 'bout the alley?"
The stranger frowned. "Surely, we deserve better than an alleyway?"
"I don't have the dinars for a room."
The dark man stood, rubbing his manhood along her leg in the process. "Pleasure has no price."
Swayed by the incredible hardness that just touched her thigh, Thyra jumped up from the stool and grabbed the passing innkeeper by the front of his shirt. "Room now!"
Thyra pushed open the door to the room and rushed in anxiously. She couldn't believe her luck -- the gorgeous man wasn't blind and hadn't been drinking. In fact, he was actually following her into the room at a leisurely pace.
It was bare and ugly and the bed sagged, but right now it was the most beautiful bed that Thyra had ever seen. Not that she'd seen the inside of many tavern rooms of this sort. Most often, she sat on a barstool and watched while other women got to see the inside of the hourly rentals.
Tonight, though, was her lucky night. This time, she was the one on the inside and the man gliding up to her right now was -- Thyra glanced down at the bulge once more -- beautiful beyond belief.
"Is this okay?" her voice squeaked.
The dark eyes, which she could not seem to look away from, creased when he smiled. "It's perfect." He walked up and ran a silky smooth palm along her neck.
The hand drifted down to the top of the bodice. Thyra thought she would faint. She closed her eyes, almost swooning, until she felt the hand change direction and grip her shoulder.
Suddenly, she found herself facing the mirror. The dark man was standing behind her, ever smiling, as he caressed the bare tops of her arms.
Catching her own reflection, she flinched and looked away.
"Don't you like what you see?" he asked, the question turning into a nibble at her ear.
"Doesn't matter what I like. Just so long as you like it."
He squeezed her shoulders. "Of course, it matters. Tell me what you see, when you look in the mirror?"
At the gentle urging of his hands, Thyra looked again. "I see an ugly woman," she answered curtly and looked away.
"You don't see beauty?" His hands flowed down from her shoulders and began to unlace the front of her bodice, causing her eyes to drift back to the mirror.
She watched, mesmerized, as gentle fingers untied the laces and pulled the bodice apart.
"No," she gasped in answer as strong hands reached into her top and cupped the undersides of her breasts.
Gently, he lifted her breasts out of the confines of the bodice and caressed them, watching her all the while in the reflection of the mirror. "There is nothing in the mirror you see that pleases you?"
Eyes that had closed in pleasure reopened to stare into the glass. Oh yes, she saw something that pleased her all right. It was the sight of his thumbs stretching out to rub across her sensitive nipples.
She groaned at the contact, feeling an ache in a part of her body that she had never felt before.
"Tell me what you want," his lips tickled the question in her ear.
It sent a shiver right down to her toes. "I want you," she rasped in reply.
He squeezed her nipples, hard, and she jumped in surprise, opening her eyes in alarm.
He was staring at her, into the glass, black eyes cold and intense despite the seductive smile. "If you don't like what you see in the mirror, then tell me what you might wish to see."
She stared at her own reflection and at his. Here was as beautiful a man as she had ever seen. How could he understand what it might be like to stare into the mirror every day and see the ugliest woman in the village? He couldn't possibly know what it was like to go home every night alone. What did he think she wanted to see when she looked in the mirror?
"I want to see what you see," she replied, the truth of the answer almost ruining the mood.
"You wish to look like a man?" The strange man moved closer to her, smiling, filling as much of the mirror with his own visage as hers. The heat of his body against her own made her sweat, even through the clothes she was wearing.
She laughed slightly, "No, I wish I was as beautiful as you were. I wish I was drop-dead gorgeous, that's what I wish."
He growled in absolute, unrestrained pleasure, pulling her away from the mirror. She was face down in the mattress and, before she knew what was happening, he was inside of her, grinding into her, the pain so exquisite that she cried out in joy.
The last thing she remembered was the sound of her own voice, howling, as she climaxed.
She woke up in the alley.
Hadn't she rented a room?
Thyra lifted herself out of the dirt and adjusted her skirt, wincing a little in pain. Gods, he had gotten her good. She smiled at the memory and then looked about in confusion.
Were was the dark man?
And hadn't they gotten a room?
She staggered out of the alley and turned the corner toward the tavern.
A young man was just exiting and whistled in appreciation as he stepped aside to let her pass.
Thyra ignored him. She was used to being made fun of and just continued on her way, not noticing when the young man dropped to the dirt moments after whistling at her.
He was dead before he even hit the ground.
She pushed passed the fat customer who had so pointedly ignored her earlier. His eyes roamed over her body in rabid admiration and then he grabbed at his own neck, choking for air until his face turned blue and he fell under a table.
Thyra slumped into her usual stool and pounded on the bar. She needed a drink and she needed it now -- her head was killing her, not to mention her crotch. Boy, he had gotten her but good.
The innkeeper stomped over, angry at the impatient pounding. She went to order a drink, but stopped mid-sentence when she noticed the bartender's eyes traveling across her features hungrily.
"Very funny, Hesiod."
Hesiod fell face first onto the bar.
"Oh my gods!" Thyra screamed and backed away in alarm.
"You rang, lady?" a handsome, bearded man sitting to her left asked in an off-handed manner, then gave a double-take to the incredible beauty who had just screamed the phrase.
Thyra shrieked as he, too, dropped forward, face first, on top of Hesiod. She yelped again when the man to her right did exactly the same thing.
Her hands flew to her face.
"What's wrong with me?" she cried out in alarm, her eyes seeking the mirror she knew was hanging just behind the bar.
Thyra looked in the mirror and, for a brief moment caught the reflection of the most beautiful woman she had ever seen -- right before she collapsed, her body adding to the already growing pile of corpses that were littering the tavern.
Xena galloped through the village kicking up a dusty cloud of urgency. She pulled on Argo's reigns to slow the horse down when they reached the trough at the town's center. Gabrielle rode up right behind her.
"Looks quiet enough," the bard commented as she glanced around.
"Too quiet," Xena said, sliding off of her mare. "Let's check out the tavern. See if we can find someone who knows something about that farm."
Gabrielle jumped from her saddle and tied her bay to a post. "Right," she said and rushed to keep up with her partner.
The warrior burst through the door, expecting the worst. What she got was a tavern full of people, happily drinking and eating the afternoon away. The din quieted at her entrance, but the distraction was only momentary; the sounds of conversation and clanking tableware quickly resumed.
Gabrielle rushed in, almost running right into her partner. They both stood in the doorway and stared. Everything appeared perfectly normal.
"Close the door!" someone yelled.
"In or out," the innkeeper added from behind the bar. Though it was late in the afternoon, the light was harsh compared to the cool dimness of the tavern inside.
The warrior and bard walked in, letting the swinging doors close behind them.
"Looks normal enough," Gabrielle whispered behind her partner.
Xena didn't answer, but strode purposefully toward a few empty seats at the end of the bar.
"Can I get you something?" the barkeep asked as he wiped a glass with a towel.
The warrior slid onto an empty stool and smiled. "How's your food?"
"Good enough," the man answered.
"Lots of vegetables?"
The man raised his bushy eyebrows. "You a vegetarian?" he asked, eyeing the long sword slung across her back.
"No, just like my vegetables."
"There are some vegetables in the stew."
"Get them from that farm down the road, I suppose."
The tavern keeper turned back to the work he was doing, bored with the conversation. "You mean, Mikos's place? Nah, he hasn't been able to produce a crop there in years."
"Looks like he's doing well now. The place was crawling with plants."
"Really? Hmmm, guess his luck's changed. Good for him. Maybe now he'll stop drinking."
"Drinker, is he? Does he come in here much, then?" Xena asked, hoping perhaps the farmer was here.
"Hardly see him. He tends to go to Serrai for his liquor. Thinks the ale is better, no accounting for taste."
"Town just west of his farm, about 7 leagues from here if you take the road. Closer, if you cut through his farm. Borders the far end of his field. All he has to do is cross the road." He put the dried glass on a shelf and then crossed his arms. "So, you gonna be wantin' that stew?"
"No, thanks. Not in the mood for vegetables."
Xena stood up from the chair and walked away, ignoring the annoyed glare of the barkeep at her back. Gabrielle followed quietly behind, having learned a long time ago to save her questions for the appropriate moment. The warrior found an empty table in the far corner of the room and sat.
"I thought you hated vegetables?" Gabrielle joked, sliding into the chair beside her.
"I hate it when they wrap themselves around me." Xena looked at her friend. "What do you think?"
"I think we should go to Serrai and see if the farmer is there."
"Seven leagues," Xena thought, tapping her fingers on the tabletop. "It'll be dark in a few hours. I'm not about to cut through those fields, and I don't want us anywhere near them in the dark."
Xena sat back in her chair, her mind made up. There was nothing they could do for whoever was in that house now. "We'll stay the night and head out first thing in the morning."
"Do you think this town is safe, Xena? What if those plants continue to grow and start creeping down the road?"
"Then we'll be here to help these people, right?"
Gabrielle shivered at the thought of vines creeping along main street, filling the town with a crop of killer tomatoes. "Right," she mumbled, only partially convinced.
"Feel like some stew?" the warrior asked, relaxing into her seat.
"Just so long as it's beef stew."
"Why? Lose your appetite for vegetables?"
"How'd you guess?"
"Thought as much."
The couple grinned at one another.
"That's what I like about you, Xena," Gabrielle said, resisting the urge to hold her partner's hand, "you're always thinking."
"One of us has got to do it," Xena quipped and leaned away to avoid the predictable slap.
At a table, unnoticed, just out of eyesight, a dark figured straightened at the sound of Xena's name. He turned in his seat to study the woman who had spoken it.
Short, golden hair, shining even in the dimness of the dull tavern light. She gave her companion's shoulder a playful slap and then blushed, when the same companion leaned over to whisper something in her ear. And the one she had called Xena, dark and strong -- emanating a power seldom seen in a woman. The recognition of a spirit kindred to darkness tickled at his senses, making him smile.
It was definitely she -- the one who had destroyed his chosen vassal all those years ago. How fortuitous that she should be here now, the dark one.
That meant her companion had to be the beauty who had distracted his servant so. He remembered the name and rolled it around in his mind: Gabrielle - that was the name of the woman who his vassal had coveted.
Here they sat, the two of them, delivered into his very lap by the hands of fate. He couldn't have wished for more himself. The lone figure chuckled at the irony of it.
Now, he could have his revenge upon them for ruining the sweet one he had originally chosen so many years earlier. He was going to enjoy turning their most hidden desires against them. And it would be easy, for they were plain for all the world to see.
He watched them quietly as they flirted with one another and made his plans.
"So, I guess camping is out of the question?" Gabrielle commented, giving her partner a pointed look. There was no way she was about to camp out in the open tonight with those creepy crawly grapevines slinking about.
Xena snorted in agreement. "Room, then? How's the dinar situation?"
Gabrielle checked the purse tied at her waist. "I guess it's the stable for us or, I could do my bard thing?"
Xena thought for a moment, then shook her head. "No, I'd rather talk."
Gabrielle almost dropped her spoon. "You would rather talk?"
"Yeah. Why ya looked so surprised? I know how to talk."
"I know that, Xena. I'm just surprised you want to talk."
"Nice to know I can still surprise ya." Xena smiled, then shoveled a spoonful of stew into her mouth and chewed.
"That's one thing I never have to worry about."
Gabrielle grinned at her partner. "Getting bored."
The warrior swallowed. "Good. I was beginning to worry that the reason you wanted
to go to Athens was because you were bored."
"Small chance of that, Xena," Gabrielle said, stirring her stew before taking a bite, "Life with you is never boring. Dangerous, yes. Life-threatening? Almost always. But boring? That word doesn't exist where you're concerned."
Xena's expression grew serious. "Yes, but are you happy?"
"That depends on how you define happy," Gabrielle put her spoon down. "How do you define happy, Xena?"
"I don't know," Xena responded, "I'd have to think about it."
"How 'bout thinking it's time to leave the road? Settle down? I'm a writer, not a warrior."
Xena pointed her spoon at the bard. "You are a warrior, Gabrielle."
"Now, I'm a warrior. But I was a writer first. I want to get back to that again."
"And you can write better in Athens than you can write on the road, with me?"
"I could write the best if I were in Athens with you."
Gabrielle looked away and began to play with her food. "Because I can sell my plays there. Have them produced."
Xena's eyes narrowed. Gabrielle only played with her food when she was hiding something. "You did that once before. I thought you didn't enjoy the experience?"
"I didn't enjoy being scammed. This isn't a scam."
"What isn't a scam?" Xena said, feeling she was finally getting close to whatever it was her partner had been avoiding.
"I've gotten an offer "
Ah ha. Xena looked sharply at her. "An offer? You got an offer? For what? From who?"
"From whom," Gabrielle corrected, but remained quiet, purposely ignoring the annoyed expression thrown her way by her companion. "From Homer," she finally admitted.
Both of the warrior's eyebrows lifted. "Homer? Academy of Bards Homer? He wrote you an offer?"
"And you're just telling me this now?"
Gabrielle averted her eyes and nodded again.
Xena pushed her chair away from the table, exasperation written all over her face. "Gabrielle, Homer must be an old man by now."
"He's not that old. And it was an offer to produce a play, Xena, not an offer of marriage."
"I should hope not." Xena bit her lip to keep herself from saying anything further. "Why didn't you tell me this before?" she finally blurted out.
"I had to think about it myself, you know. It was a big decision for me, too."
"So you've made up your mind, I gather?"
"No, I want to know what you think about it first."
A dozen snide remarks drifted through Xena's mind, but she pushed them aside. They
would only make the situation worse. After all, she hadn't exactly been forthright with
her emotions in quite some time. All these years, she had kept her distance, believing
that there was a better life out there, somewhere, waiting for her partner. Her secret
fear was that one day it was going to walk up, tap Gabrielle on her shoulder, and then she
would be taken away -- just as Perdicus had done. Well, a letter wasn't exactly a tap, but
here it was, just the same.
"Gabrielle, if you're worried about me "
"Don't even say it!" Gabrielle held up her hand, almost shouting. "That is NOT what I want to hear."
"Then what do you want me to say?"
Gabrielle reached across the table and gently laid her palm on Xena's hand. "I want you to say that you'll give it a try."
Xena stared at the hand on top of her own. A small hand, but strong and sure. Delicate, unlike her own, which was long and big, clumsy even in comparison. She wanted to turn her hand over and hold the smaller one in her own, but that would give Gabrielle the hope for something that she had never promised, and never could.
Gabrielle studied Xena's face as the warrior stared at their hands. She watched emotions drift across the stern features on a face once so unreadable, now as transparent to Gabrielle as her own soul. She gave the still hand a gentle squeeze. "You could just give it a try, you know. No promises. We could go there and see what happens. If it doesn't work out, then we'll leave."
"What if it works out for you and not for me?"
"Then, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it." Gabrielle lifted her hand away from the familiar warmth. "I want you with me."
Xena smiled, disguising the doubt that was filling her heart. "And what Gabrielle wants, Gabrielle gets?"
"Something like that," the bard smiled sadly, knowing the statement was far from true.
"Anything else you want, as long as we're on the subject?" Xena asked, quietly taking a deep breath and thinking the only thing she wanted right now was to change the topic.
Gabrielle leaned back in her chair, letting a golden eyebrow rise. "Yes, now that you mention it."
Xena raised her own brow, minicking her partner. "And that would be ?"
Anything Gabrielle might have wanted to say would have to wait when an unearthly howl and then a blood curdling scream from the street outside brought the noisy tavern to stiff silence.
Before the bard could even react, the chair next to her was empty.
Xena burst through the swinging doors of the tavern, half-expecting to see a wave of plants overtaking the village. She ran out into the center of street, sword drawn, prepared to start hacking, but the street was clear and the buildings free of vine. Her eyes quickly scanned the area for the source of scream and found it just at the corner of the next building.
A small crowd had surrounded an elderly and clearly hysterical woman.
"There, there, Oretha, you just calm down," a villager said as he patted the old woman's back affectionately.
Xena slipped her sword into the sheath on her back and strode over to the group. Pushing a few villagers aside, she entered the center of the circle to see if she could help.
"What's going on?" the warrior asked. Xena's authoritative voice drew everyone's attention.
"Oretha's had a bit of a scare. She's just a little confused, is all," the man replied.
"I'm not confused!" Oretha wailed, "It's true! It was Brutus, I tell ya!"
Xena placed a gentle hand on the old woman's trembling shoulder. "Did this Brutus
"He ran away," Oretha cried, "It was just a wish. I only meant it as a wish, but that strange man made it come true. I swear it."
At Xena's confused expression, the man next to her pulled her to the side. "It's nothing, warrior, really. She's just old and confused. Thanks for offering your help, though."
"Who is Brutus?"
"Brutus?" the man chuckled, "that's her pet dog. Says her dog turned into a handsome man right before her eyes, gave a howl and then ran for the hills."
Xena's brow lifted thoughtfully. She had heard the howl clearly enough and here was the woman, crying hysterically. "Well, something has sure upset her. Where's the dog?"
"Good question," the villager commented, looking around for the canine, "Maybe it did run away."
"Or ran after the man who frightened her." Xena turned to the old woman. "What did he looked like, Oretha? This man, did you see him?"
Oretha's hands left her face, her eyes suddenly shining and clear of tears. "He was beautiful," she whispered in wonder as a large smile drew across her features, "just as I knew he always would be. My beautiful dog became a beautiful man. My man. My wish come true."
Xena and the villager looked at one another, disbelief raising both of their eyebrows.
"See what I mean? Confused," the man said under his breath.
Xena smiled and chuckled softly in agreement. Poor old woman, she thought as she shook her head, imagine being so lonely you wished your dog was human.
The villager leaned closer to whisper in Xena's ear. "Besides, poor Brutus wouldn't have made much of a man, anyway."
"Why? Was it an ugly mutt?"
The man slapped Xena once on the back, laughing heartily at the expression on her face, then turned and walked away.
"What's going on?" Gabrielle asked, smiling at Xena's unexpected laughter. The bard had just managed to push her way through the crowd to stand at her partner's side.
Xena acknowledged her friend's arrival with a squeeze to the shoulder. "Nothing," she answered as she watched a few of the villagers lead the old lady down the street. Then that nagging intuition that never failed to warn the warrior of danger began to tickle at the corners of her senses.
"I think," she finished thoughtfully, watching as the villagers shuffled the old woman away. She could see the remnants of the wistful smile still lingering on the aging features.
"I don't think that's very funny," Gabrielle stated as they walked back into the tavern. Xena had explained the disturbance and the villager's humorous joke, but the sensitive bard did not find it funny at all. "I don't find an old woman's loneliness particularly amusing, Xena."
They walked back to their table and sat. Xena leaned back in her chair and placed a boot comfortably on the table's wooden surface. "It wasn't the old woman I was laughing at."
Gabrielle pulled the bowl of stew back to her and picked up her spoon. "What were you laughing at then?"
"You're taking things too seriously today, Gabrielle. You're a bard. Think of the irony of it. "At her companion's blank expression, Xena huffed. "You know the old saying careful what you wish for?" she prompted hopefully.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes as she chewed. "Oh, I get it," she replied sarcastically through a mouthful of food. "Funny."
"I thought it was," Xena said and then smirked, her mind suddenly drifting in a very lewd direction. Silently, she wondered just how big the irony might be if Argo was a stallion and had been turned into a man.
Hung like a horse, she thought to herself.
Snickering at her own joke, Xena's gaze drifted through the crowded tavern, her attention suddenly captured by a man staring at her from across the room.
Their eyes locked and Xena was captivated by the man's seductive smile, as though he had read her mind and appreciated the vulgar notion.
"Speaking of hung, now there's a fine specimen," Xena muttered low and soft, staring at the stranger even as he stared at her. He was handsome and dark and Xena took a deep breath, imagining she could smell the sweet scent of danger all the way from where she sat. She watched keenly, as his hand drifted from the tabletop to his lap, the gesture a rude promise that perhaps her unspoken comment was true.
The corner of her mouth twitched in appreciation.
"Xena? Hello? Xena?" Gabrielle asked in annoyance.
"What?" The spell broken, Xena turned her head to look at her partner.
"What are you staring at?" Gabrielle asked and then looked across the room suspiciously.
"Nothing," Xena replied. She took her foot off the table and put it down on the floor, grabbing at her own bowl of stew to pick at the remains.
"Right. Nothing," Gabrielle squinted skeptically into the crowd and then back at her partner. "You haven't been listening to a word I've said."
"Yes, I have."
"What did I say then?"
"You said you said," Xena filled her mouth with a spoonful of cold stew and mumbled something incoherent.
Gabrielle placed her own utensil carefully on the table, suddenly not hungry. "I said, I think I'll go see if we can get a room for the night."
"I thought we didn't have the dinars?"
"I have many skills," the bard replied sternly and she rose, giving Xena a last, questionable once-over. Halfway to the bar, she slyly glanced back. The warrior was still chewing on the cold stew, an unreadable expression on her face as she continued to stare across the room.
Gabrielle's eyes followed Xena's until her gaze rested upon the object of the warrior's attention.
"Shit," Gabrielle cursed under her breath when she spotted the dark, handsome man staring at her friend.
She turned away. It was suddenly very important that she find the innkeeper and get them both to a room.
"I don't think I can take this anymore," the bard said to herself sadly as she walked away.
"We're heading out to Serrai at first light, right?" Gabrielle asked as she lifted the sleeping shift over her head.
It was too cold to sleep naked and, if she wasn't going to be sharing a bed with her partner, then there was no need to sleep naked anyway. No chance of that happening, Gabrielle thought as she glanced at Xena. The room she bargained for had two very small double beds, the price negotiable only because most normal sized warlords would never have fit comfortably on either cot.
A certain ex-warlord's feet were already dangling over the end of the bed, as it was.
"Right, at first light," Xena's answer was soft and distracted.
Gabrielle shifted the sleeping garment into place and turned to face her companion. Xena was staring at the ceiling, arms crossed under her head and didn't even seem to notice that she didn't fit in the bed. At least she could be thankful that Xena had followed her to the room, instead of staying in the bar as she was sometimes prone to do whenever something or someone attracted her attention.
Gabrielle sighed as she sat on the bed. Xena's mind was obviously somewhere else, and the bard had no trouble figuring out exactly where that might be.
She blew out the candle and settled her head into the pillow. "Good night, Xena," she said softly.
It took a few seconds, but eventually her partner's quiet voice drifted through the darkness.
"Good night, Gabrielle."
She couldn't sleep. Xena shifted uncomfortably in the small bed, wincing when rusty springs creaked loudly in the quiet darkness. Lifting her head, she looked at the cot on the other side of the room. The slow rise and fall of the lump under the covers confirmed that Gabrielle was sound asleep.
Xena groaned and let her head drop back to the pillow. Where was Gabrielle when she needed her? Gods, her body ached with an unearthly desire. She tossed and turned as visions of the dark stranger staring at her, smiling, invaded her thoughts like a fever dream.
She ached for his touch almost as much as she yearned for Gabrielle's. The bittersweet memory of their infrequent encounters made her ache even more, but she had no one but herself to blame for that, didn't she? Xena closed her eyes, sighing, once again going through the mental exercise of listing all the reasons why it had to be this way.
Without thinking she stands up from the bed and, as quietly as possible, tiptoes across the room. She opens the door and pauses briefly, watching to be sure Gabrielle has not been disturbed.
The only sound is the soft gurgle of the bard snoring.
All she wants is a quick, cool drink from the bar and then she will be back before Gabrielle even knows she is gone. Yeah, that is all she needs.
Who cares if the bar is closed? Or that she is dressed in only a thin sleeping shift?
Quietly, she slips through the door and closes it behind her.
She walks down the stairs, enters the dark tavern. Bathed in shadow, he is leaning on the bar, is waiting for her, as she suspected he would be all along. She smiles craftily and saunters over, lifting her breasts, knowing the affect that the shadows are having on her body, clad only in the translucent shift.
His black eyes are boring into her own, tunneling her vision down to a single goal: her
body against his. In a moment, she is standing before him staring deeply into his eyes,
breasts barely touching the silk of his shirt. It makes her nipples grow taunt in
anticipation and her chest rise and fall in full deep breaths, the scent filling her
nostrils. She feels his heat right through their clothes.
His smile is wicked and mirrors her own and then, without warning, large hands reach for her shoulders and run down the length of her arms, the coarseness of his palms electric against her overly stimulated skin. She gasps, feeling them grab her roughly by the buttocks and pull her body into his. He is big and hard and strong and her eyes grow wide at the contact. With surprising strength, he lifts her on to a nearby table.
Xena's primal scream echoed in the quiet of the small room. She shot up from the bed, bangs plastered against her head, and breath coming in short, hard gasps.
"Xena!" The scream had awoken Gabrielle from a dead sleep. She scrambled out of her covers and rushed over in alarm. "Xena! What is it? Xena!"
The warrior's eyes were blank and confused as she fought for breath. Gabrielle pulled the covers away to find her shift was soaked through to the skin with sweat.
"Xena, calm down. It's all right. It's just a dream. Just a dream," Gabrielle repeated gently, jumping into the bed behind her partner and wrapping her arms around her in a comforting embrace. For years, the bard had quieted the warrior after nightmares, but never had one awoken them both like this. She tightened her arms and rocked her gently.
"Gabrielle?" Xena rasped out the question as her breathing calmed.
"I'm right here, Xena," Gabrielle replied softly, giving her a kiss on the side of the head and a strong hug. "Right here."
Xena stood up quickly from the bed, removing herself from her partner's arms.
"Gods, what a dream that was," she said as she swiped the sweat from her forehead. Where did that come from, she wondered? She had to pull herself away from Gabrielle -- if she could smell the erotic nightmare of her encounter with the dark stranger filling the air with her arousal, then Gabrielle certainly would.
"You scared the living daylights out of me," Gabrielle said laughing, letting her arms drop down to the bed. "Nightmare, huh? Are you all right?"
"Yeah, nightmare," Xena confirmed, though not very convincingly.
Gabrielle eyed her skeptically. "Are you sure you're all right?"
Xena lifted her bangs from her forehead with one hand and fanned her face with another. "Wow," she breathed heavily, "I think I better wash my face." Avoiding all eye contact with her partner, Xena quickly strode over to the table and began to splash her face with cold water from a bowl.
"More like you need a dunk in a cold lake," Gabrielle muttered as she watched her friend wash, the very familiar scent of Xena filling her heart with dread.
He entered the tavern again, grinning at the patrons who were there bright and early for their morning sustenance. He was hungry, too. And why not? For he had developed quite the appetite despite his little midnight snack.
Chuckling to himself at the delicious memory of last night, he scanned the room. An unspoken desire, though not as completely corruptible and satisfying as an outspoken wish, was nonetheless very enjoyable. The dark woman's wayward thought made for a delicious treat. He would have to remember to do that again the next time an appropriate errant thought drifted his way. At any rate, he was sure their surreal encounter was going to give the one they called the Warrior Princess something to think about for the rest of the day.
All was going as planned. He had no doubt that when he finally tricked the warrior into articulating her need, it would be a dark and dirty wish indeed. Too bad it would destroy her -- he could enjoy suckling on those dark, hidden dreams for years to come, he was sure. But no, her dark desires were just as tasty a dish, and he planned to take them from her rough and hard, just as he had taken her last night. Only when the time came, there would be no awaking from the nightmare.
Thoughts of the dark womans need made him naturally consider the golden one. Her hidden desires were not so iniquitous. Like his previous vassal, her goodness shone like a beacon in the night. But that light, bright though it may be, had one small, dark imperfection marring its purity, and that darkness was called Xena.
Oh yes, together they would make a most delicious meal.
For now, though, he needed a few morning treats. His black eyes scanned the room until they rested on a man sitting at a table alone. He was drinking strong ale despite the early hour.
Breakfast is served, he thought gleefully and glided through the room.
"Bitch!" the villager cursed, and downed his ale. "Pathetic whore." He burped and stared angrily into his empty mug, accusing it for being empty.
"They are all whores, are they not?" a stranger commented as he walked by the table.
The villager looked up to the source of the deep voice and smiled. "You can say that again, friend."
"Good for chattel and not much else."
The villager's smile widened, his tongue sticking out through the holes of a few missing teeth. "Ain't that the truth." He motioned with his goblet to the chair beside him. "Care for a seat?"
"Don't mind if I do." The stranger sat and smiled in thanks.
The villager motioned to the barkeep for another. "Drink?" he asked his new companion.
"Why yes, how kind of you," the stranger replied.
"Name's Gaulus," the villager said and suddenly regretted the hasty offer. Probably should have waited for him to buy he thought as he eyed his new companion's clothes. Though foreign, they looked clean and expensive.
"Good morning to you, Gaulus, and thank you for the drink. I am Jan bin Jan Mareed, but you may call me Sayyid," the stranger responded, smiling as though at a hidden joke.
"Sayyid," Gaulus repeated to be sure of the pronunciation, "stranger in these parts, are you?"
"Yes," Sayyid nodded, "on my way to Amphipolis."
"Amphipolis, eh?" Gaulus grabbed the mug from the barkeep before he could even put it down . "Big town. Good tavern there. Ever been to it?"
"No, but I plan to."
"Good ale," Gaulus took a quick gulp from the fresh mug and smiled, raising his glass to his companion.
Sayyid lifted his own and toasted in reply.
Polite guy, Gaulus thought, and drank once more. "Slut," he mumbled, suddenly remembering why it was he was drinking in the first place.
"Trouble with your woman?" Sayyid asked, leaning forward.
"That bitch," Gaulus blurted out, "is over at Heliodoro the sculptor's. Claims she's just a model, but I know she's tuggin' on his toga right now."
Sayyid took a sip of ale, "Put a healthy man and a naked woman alone in a room together and there can be no doubt of that."
"Exactly!" Gaulus struck the table with his fist and spit on the floor. "Harlot!"
"Where I come from, a woman could be whipped for such behavior."
Gaulus regarded his companion thoughtfully. "I should whip her, shouldn't I?"
"It is law in my home. Prove a woman guilty of infidelity, and her man may whip her."
"Good law, "Gaulus took a thoughtful draught of ale and snarled. "If I could prove it, I would." His eyes squinted in pleasure at a sudden thought. "I wish I could be a fly on the wall in there right now, I'd find out what was going on, that's for sure."
Dark eyes flashed as Sayyid's upper lip curled, "As you wish," he said, stood and walked away.
For Gaulus, the room twirled as though he was passing out from too much drink. When his eyesight cleared, he was no longer in the tavern.
He glanced about nervously, his vision still blurred, split into a dozen images as if a mirror had cracked and he was looking at the room's reflection through its pieces.
Squinting to focus, he suddenly recognized his surroundings. He was in Helidoro's house -- he could see the bits of marbled body parts all around. But where exactly was he sitting? His point of view seemed oddly tilted somehow.
He looked down and saw the ceiling. He looked up and saw the floor. He looked at his feet and saw the white paint of a wall. Could he be sitting on the wall? He looked at his feet again, but he had no feet. Nor did it appear that he had any legs, for that matter. In their place, were long, spindly, hairy black sticks. A vibration just behind his head caused him to glance back, a feat he somehow managed to achieve without turning his neck. Odd as that was, odder still was the set of translucent wings he could clearly see attached to his shoulders, pulsating rapidly, just as he would have if he were a
"HELP ME!" He buzzed as he scuttled about on all six legs, scrambling across the wall in a panic.
"HELP ME! HELP ME! HEEEEELLLPPP MEEE!"
Gaulus's wife looked up in annoyance. "What is that awful buzzing?"
She was concentrating hard on staying still and any disturbance, small or otherwise, was unbearable. Looking around, she tried to locate the source of that annoying sound and stood to follow it. The loud buzz led her to the wall and she frowned at the unusual whiteheaded fly that was darting about on the surface. So, she bent down and picked up her shoe from the floor.
"What is it?" Heliodoro asked, stopping what he was doing to look up.
"Nothing," the wife replied as she scrapped her shoe on the edge of a garbage pail, "just a bug. It's gone now. I'm afraid it made a spot on your new white wall, though." She sat back down on her stool and resumed her stance while Helidoro sat, gave his own toga a tug, and continued to sculpt.
"It's a demon's work, I tell ya!" the bartender yelled.
Xena and Gabrielle were just dressed and descending from the rooms above into the tavern, when they heard the comment. They left the stairway and entered the room, heading for the small group of villagers whose attention was centered on the mantle over the fireplace.
"Or an angry god," another villager added.
Gabrielle gave her partner a concerned glance and together, they increased their pace.
"What's going on?" Xena demanded as she approached the group.
"The gods are having their revenge on us," a thin woman responded in a trembling voice. "Theophalia's been turned into a mantle piece." She pointed at shelf above the fireplace and screamed.
Both Xena and Gabrielle moved a little closer, pushing a few of the villagers aside for a better look.
Clearly, there was a woman's head, minus the body and shrunken to fit, centered on the shelf over the fireplace like a mantelpiece. Its eyes were staring ahead, wide in horror.
"By the gods," Gabrielle gasped, putting her hand over her mouth and turning away.
Xena stepped forward and inspected the macabre decoration, momentarily taken aback to find the mouth still moving. Gathering her nerve, she moved closer to see if she could hear what the human statuette was saying.
"I wish the pain was gone. I wish the pain was gone. I wish the pain was gone," it repeated over and over and over again.
The bartender and Xena stared at one another incredulously.
"She had arthritis," he said as if that could explain the situation.
They all stepped back and watched in horror as the head muttered on, slowly running out of life, until the eyes closed and the agonizing phrase finally ceased. Then human head transformed into eerily life-like gray marble bust.
The entire group stared at it for a few moments in silent disbelief.
"What is going on around here!" Xena's frustrated exclamation surprised even Gabrielle. "Plants growing out of control! Dogs turning to men, and now this!" The warrior pointed at the mantle in exasperation.
"We're cursed, I tell you!" the frightened woman cried, "the gods "
"The gods are dead and I'm the one that killed 'em," Xena announced in a voice just begging for someone to say something about it, "You can take it from me, this is not the work of the gods."
Ignoring the few terrified gasps of "godkiller" and "it's Xena", Gabrielle stepped around the villagers and got the angry warrior's attention.
"Xena, what are we going to do?"
"We're going to find out what's going on, that's what we're gonna do." She drew her sword and approached the fireplace. With a quick flip of the wrist, her sword sent the chilling statue crashing to the floor. "You clean that up."
She was pointing at the tavern owner. The bartender gulped at gruesome pile of eyes, nose, and mouth, but nodded compliance.
"You shut up!" she pointed her sword at the frightened woman just as she was about to open her mouth and declare they were cursed again.
"You," she said, softening her voice as she motioned to her partner, "come with me."
They walked off to a corner of the room while the villagers huddled around the bartender, watching in morbid fascination as he swept tiny pieces of a broken face into a dust pan.
"I want you to stay here while I go on to Serrai."
"Oh, no you don't. No way, Xena," the bard was shaking her head before the words had even left the warrior's mouth. "I'm going with you to Serrai."
"I need you here, Gabrielle."
"Why? So I can help sweep up?" They both looked at the barkeep, grimacing as he swept. "Uh uh, I'm with you."
"Gabrielle, listen to me. I need you to question every single person in this tavern while I'm gone. Someone has to have seen something. Find that old woman, too -- the one with the dog. There's got to be a common denominator to all these goings on between here and Serrai. Something is causing this to happen, and I'll take dinars for drachmas, it has nothing to do with the gods."
"And what will you be doing?"
"I'll be doing exactly the same thing in Serrai."
Gabrielle thought about it for a moment, cursing the always irrefutable logic of her partner's plans. "Do you think the same thing that's going on here is happening in Serrai?"
"I don't know. There may be nothing happening at all in Serrai, or it may have started there and spread to here. I only know one thing -- it started with that farm and that farm is dead center between these two towns. And there's something else, Gabrielle," Xena said, an additional note of worry adding to the already distressed voice.
"What is it?"
"The next town "
"What about the next town?"
Serrai was a ghost town. The eerie emptiness filled the warrior with dread as she rode into the village. All around her were the signs of danger: a door left open swinging in the wind, a table overturned, an abandoned cart in the middle of the road. Most of all, it was the silence -- a potent silence that sent the hairs on the back of her neck standing straight up.
She guided Argo to the village center, all senses on alert. Something definitely rotten was cooking in Serrai, and the tavern was the best place to start looking.
Xena pulled Argo to a halt, immediately seeing the dead body at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the inn. She slipped out of the saddle and tied her mare to a post. Stepping carefully over the body, Xena climbed the few creaking wooden stairs and cautiously walked inside.
The tavern was crowded with customers, all dead. Corpses were sprawled over tables, spread-eagle on the floor. In some cases, the bodies were still in the chairs where they sat, face-first in plates full with unfinished food. Entering the room with quiet respect for the souls who had perished here, she studied the chilling scene displayed before her. Strange how there appeared to be a pattern to fallen bodies, she thought as she squinted through the funeral-like gloom. It was as if they had all collapsed away from the same toxic point. Her eyes followed the bodies, connecting the dots, until they rested on the apparent source of their death.
A very ugly woman lay at the dead center of all the bodies, the corpses spread out around her like a fan. It was though they had dropped dead from just looking at her.
Now that's ugly, Xena thought morbidly.
She backed out of the tavern slowly, carefully avoiding the bodies as she returned to the street.
If it was a plague that caused this, it was the strangest plague she had ever seen.
The warrior turned and took off at a run, determined to see if there were any more clues to be found.
There were plenty and they were all just as enigmatic.
She discovered a solid gold, full-sized statue of a man, standing in the middle of his home. It was artfully paired with that of a woman, hugging him in despair. The sculpture wouldn't have been odd if not for the fact that everything within the home seemed to have turned to gold as well. Xena backed out of there quickly, checking her boots for any signs that they were about to exceed their worth.
And she found more evidence, even more disturbing.
The town magistrate was dead at his desk, choked on the writings of his own words.
A dead bird, hardly unusual, except for the fact that it had the head of a man.
A man so fat, he appeared to have exploded from within. The table in his home held a mountain of rotting food and there was a part of a pig stuck in his mouth, snout and all.
And the most macabre of all -- a woman with so many infants, they had suckled the life right out of her and then died themselves.
It was a village of nightmares.
Xena backed out of the simple hut, so horrified by the sight of the woman, her stomach threatened to empty. Thank the gods Gabrielle had not come with her. She stared around the town, confused by what she'd seen and then her gaze fell upon a strange shape at the end of an alley.
Cautiously, she approached the shadowed contour until she could make out the details of the body that lay there. No surprise, it was another corpse. Only this time, she found herself staring at a body with two heads. She knelt and turned it over carefully, wanting to examine it just a bit closer. Whatever it was that caused this abomination, it had to have recently happened, because the skin was not quite cold.
It must have been the improbability of the situation because all the warrior could think of as she stared in horror at the mutated cadaver was the phrase 'two heads are better than one'. And that silly cliché froze her dead in her tracks. She stood and backed away. Suddenly the gruesome puzzle was becoming terrifyingly clear.
I wish everything I touched turned to gold.
I wish I could fly.
I wish I could have children.
I wish I may I wish I might
Be careful what you wish for.
Her eyes widened at the recognition of an emerging pattern.
I wish the pain would be gone.
She thought back to Nigrita and the human head on the fireplace mantle whispering the ghastly plea -- now, there's a cure for arthritis. The sarcastic thought pushed the warrior into action.
With long strides, she ran for Argo and mounted the horse.
I wish my farmland were fertile.
Xena's lip curled into a snarl. Fertile, indeed. No fertilizer on earth worked that good.
Whatever it was causing this, it sure smelled like shit to her, and the best place to find shit
The warrior kicked and Argo took off into a gallop.
is on a farm.
Gabrielle rubbed her eyes briskly with her palms and sighed. She was tired. After questioning as many people as she could find, she was no closer to understanding what was going on than when she started.
She had sure heard some weird tales, though -- unusual even for a bard. Dogs turning into men, white-headed flies, human mantle pieces -- and there had been more. More strange stories, one more ridiculous than the next.
She looked at the row of cut limes on the plate before her and sighed again. But did they mean anything, or were they all just a bunch of tall tales with morbid punch lines as endings?
With a sprinkle of salt and a quick tip of the bottle into a glass, she was soon finishing off the first of several shots she planned to do for the evening. In no time, she was sucking on a lime and feeling a whole lot better.
Speaking of tall tales, it was getting dark and where the heckates was Xena?
She had her own story to tell, the bard thought to herself as she poured another shot. Not so strange, perhaps, but just as ridiculous and maybe even a little sad. It was the story of a warrior who preferred romantic encounters with handsome strangers instead of being with her.
"But I know what that's all about, Xena," she stated confidently before taking another shot, forgetting all about sucking on the lime.
Gabrielle was absently sprinkling more salt on the top of her hand in preparation for another drink, when a silver-haired, withered old woman approached. A wrinkled hand touched her shoulder, bringing her attention away from the liquor.
"If you don't mind my saying so, my dear, you look awfully sad. Would you like some company?" The sweet voice reminded Gabrielle of her grandmother, Henna - long dead, may she rest with Eli.
Though she would much rather be alone, the bard didn't have the heart to refuse the nice old lady's request.
"I'd love some company," she answered, forcing a smile.
Gabrielle watched the old woman lower her portly body slowly into the chair beside her.
"Now tell me, young lady," the kindly woman said as she settled into place, "what could possibly make a beautiful woman like you so melancholy?"
Gabrielle sighed and looked at the glass in her hand, suddenly feeling too guilty to take another drink in front of someone who reminded her of her own grandmother. "It's nothing, really. Nothing at all."
The woman smiled. She had no teeth - just like Henna.
"And what is this nothing's name?" the old woman asked.
Gabrielle's shoulders dropped in surrender. "Xena."
"I see," the woman nodded in understanding, "Well, this Xena is not very smart, if she leaves such a beautiful woman like you alone in a bar. Did she go off with someone else?"
Gabrielle looked up, surprised at the old woman's perceptiveness. "No, no," she answered and then looked down to play with her drink. "Not this time anyway. At least, I don't think so."
"But she has before," the woman prompted.
To Gabrielle, the old lady might as well have turned into Grandma Henna. The kind face, the gums -- the bard started talking like she had known her all of her life.
"Yes, she has, but not often. Oh, and I know what that's all about, believe me. We've been together for five no, six no seven no, six six years , and she thinks I can't see right through her." She poured a shot and knocked it back. "You see, she thinks she's not good enough for me. Can you imagine? After six no, seven, no, six six years and she STILL thinks she no good for me."
Gabrielle sucked on a lime and stared at Grandma Henna. She was just getting warmed up.
"But she wants me all right. Oh, after all this time, I can tell that. She wants me," Gabrielle nodded confidently and kicked back another. "And she loves me, too."
The woman smiled encouragingly, so Gabrielle smiled back.
"Yeah, she does love me," Gabrielle's eyes grew a bit dreamy as she spoke this aloud, then she got back on track, "but she's got this THING about wanting something better for me."
Gabrielle nodded slowly, confirming the unbelievable. "It's true. Can you believe it? As if there could be anything in this world better for me than her."
Grabbing the bottle, she splashed a bit of liquor on her hand and knocked back a shot from the salt shaker.
"And where does all this leave me, I bet you're asking?" Gabrielle asked no one in particular as she played with the salt in her mouth. She licked off the liquor from her hand and looked at Henna.
"With an open relationship," the bard announced in exasperation.
"What does that mean, an open relationship?" Henna asked innocently.
Gabrielle put her elbow on the table and pointed at Henna. "What it means is this it means that Xena lets me know I can be with whoever I want to be with by being with whoever she wants to be with whenever she wants to be with them."
Gabrielle threw her hands up in disgust. "Can you believe that?"
"Have you ever done it?" Henna asked, leaning forward.
The bard looked at her blankly.
"Been with somebody else?"
Gabrielle waved the question away. "Yes, of course. But that was only to make Xena jealous so I could prove to her that she didn't really want me to be with someone else, she just thought she did."
Henna grinned. "So, did she get jealous?"
The bard's shoulders slumped. "No." And she took another drink, this time remembering to suck on the lime, but forgetting the salt.
"You know, it wouldn't be so bad," Gabrielle explained as she pulled bits of lime from her teeth and flicked them away, "if I didn't get so damn jealous when Xena went off with someone. It doesn't happen very often. Most of the time, she's with me. Sure, we have our dry spells when she's feeling guilty about this or that, but let me tell you, when we're together hooo boy, we are together, if you get my drift." She tipped back in her chair, put her hands proudly behind her head, and gave Henna a wink.
The front legs of the chair thumped back to the floor and Gabrielle's elbows hit the table as her chin plopped dejectedly into her hands.
"But when she gets it in her mind that I deserve a better life, and goes of with someone else to prove it, I swear my heart just breaks into a million tiny pieces. I wish I could be as big about it as Xena is ," the bard sighed and stared into the empty space, "but I just can't be big enough -- not about that."
Henna's smile would have chilled the heart of the bravest warrior. "What a very good idea," the old woman chuckled as she caressed the golden head of the bard who had just passed out, face first onto the table. "As you wish, my dear . as you wish."
Xena stood on the side of the road, looking across the farmer's fields. All the plants were dead; dried up in the hot sun, no farmer to tend the crop. It seemed as though the harvest had one day of insane growth and then died - dead, just like everyone in Serrai. It completed the pattern for her: a wish is made, it comes true but with an evil twist and then fades away, all evidence gone that anyone had made the wish at all -- no one left alive to tell the tale.
Not the work of the gods, she thought as she stared out at the wilted crops, though something supernatural was at foot, of that much the warrior was sure.
Making certain that not even a field mouse was moving in that farm pasture, Xena stepped across the invisible boundary between farm and road once more. The only thing that happened this time was the loud crunch of a dead vine beneath her boot.
Using her sword to cut some of the thicker foliage out of the way, she made a path to the house, passing mounds of dead vegetables and stepping over the remains of a crumbled, old statue. She paused briefly to examine a pick she found discarded near the pile of stone. A dried stain of blood on the handle was what had attracted her attention and she stooped over it, considering it thoughtfully before standing and continuing on her trek through the field to the farmer's home.
She had to clear away a mass of plant skeletons from the door before she could enter. Ripping off one last clump from the latch, she forced the rusty handle up and pushed the door in. It creaked as it opened; a creepy sound considering the circumstances. Xena pushed a few dangling dead leaves away from her face and stepped through the entrance.
It was dark inside, damp and musty. The smell of soil and leaves was still thick in the air. The plants, despite the fact that they were dry and dead, were so dense around the windows that they blocked the light. Only through the now open door could sunlight force its way in and illuminate the quiet interior.
The plants had gotten inside as Xena had feared. And it was obvious from the position of the two corpses covered in vines on the floor, that Mikos and his wife had died in absolute terror.
Xena winced at the sight of the couple. The bodies were barely recognizable under the cloak of plants, arms wrapped around one another in one last leafy embrace.
This evil was far beyond anything the gods had ever done. She forced her gaze away from the bodies and started to look around the room. It all started here, she was sure of it. The warrior began to search the home, looking through the scattered belongings of the farmer and his wife, intent on finding anything that might lead her to the source of all this horror.
Wiping dead plants aside, she lifted up cups and looked under plates. She sorted through boxes, checking the contents carefully. There was nothing unusual, just normal farming tools and supplies. It wasn't until she reached a small, carved writing desk that she became hopeful. Under it, she discovered a sealed box containing a small pile of neatly tied scrolls. She fingered the ribbons around them and couldn't hold back a small grin; they reminded her of Gabrielle.
She tore open the tie and read one.
It was a diary of a young woman. Xena read the lines - some gibberish about hating it here and wanting to leave the farm. She threw the scroll down impatiently and picked up another, twisting the paper toward the fading light seeping in from the door so she could read better.
Another entry in the diary - the woman hated the fact that her brother drank. In fact, it bothered her so much, she had resolved to leave the farm and travel the world
Xena read the next words and groaned. It was the way it was phrased that made her want to barf. She read the words again: "travel the world, fighting evil and bringing all those lost to darkness into the light."
"The light," Xena repeated through tight lips, "the goddamn light." Gods, she hated that phrase. It reminded her of someone she would rather not think about right now.
She threw that scroll down and quickly unwrapped another. It was a drawing, the simple etchings of a very young girl's attempt to paint her home, her farm, and
. . . a statue in the field.
Xena studied the drawing more closely. It was a child's simple etching of a statue in the field with a big heart underneath it. She looked up in alarm, her eyes so intent she could almost see through the wall of the house out to the pile of stone and dust she had only moments ago stepped over out in this very same field.
She looked down at the drawing again. She squinted in the darkness, trying to figure out what the statue might have been, but the child's picture was too infantile and there wasn't enough detail. Then her eyes rested on the young artist's signature, printed in large, uneven letters, as any child might scribble their own name and her heart froze.
The paper almost fell out of her hand. Najara! This was Najara's home, the place where she grew up?
Xena could hardly believe it. She looked around the house, her mind reeling, trying to remember everything she could about the crazy bitch. Najara heard voices, didn't she, Xena asked herself anxiously, what was it she called them?
Scrolls and parchment flew as Xena tore through the box looking for more. She read each as quickly as she could then tossed them aside, to rip open another. Scroll after scroll, she read the ramblings of a young girl, growing up on a farm. A young Najara had written in the scrolls all of her hopes and problems from childhood until the time she left the farm. It would have read like the diary of any young girl, except for one tiny thing: a morbid fascination with a certain idol that sat in the field, just west of the house. Finally she found a piece of the diary that completed the puzzle.
'The statue spoke to me today', Najara wrote, the written words were more mature though it was obvious that she was still young. 'He told me he was a djinn and that he was my friend. I'm so happy I have a friend. My brother is no fun at all.'
The djinn, Xena thought, snarling. That was it. Najara heard voices and said it was the djinn talking to her.
The djinn, the warrior repeated to herself and put the scroll down. She could just imagine it, a young Najara wishing that she could grow up to be a warrior fighting for the light.
The goddamn light, she thought, wishing she had never heard the phrase.
"Careful what you wish for."
Xena lurched in surprise at the sound of the deep voice behind her. She twirled and drew her sword, all in one motion.
"I'll let this one slide." He smiled, his teeth bright against the darkness of his skin. "After all, you didn't speak it aloud, and I happen to know that you are capable of something so much more creative."
The warrior raised her weapon threateningly. "Don't you move."
"Now, now, now," he wagged his finger at her, "don't point your sword at me. You'll force me to draw my own, and my sword is much, much bigger than yours." His smile widened and he stepped forward. "But then, I've forgotten. You are already intimately familiar with the size of my sword."
Xena's eyes narrowed at his laughter and she adjusted her stance. "Who are you?"
"Why, I'm the djinn, but then I thought you had figured that out."
"Who are you?" Xena asked more forcefully as she stepped away from the desk, carefully keeping him a sword's length away.
"My name is Jan bin Jan, but you may call me Sayyid," he replied, chuckling.
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Sayyid? Not likely." She circled to a more strategic position. "I call no man 'master'," she responded to the djinn in his own language.
He threw back his head and laughed out loud. "Oh, HOO! Intelligent, as well as beautiful. You surprise me, Xena. And here I thought you all brawn and no brains."
"I've got plenty of both."
"So I see," his eyes followed the length of her body with appreciation, "I enjoyed our encounter last night immensely."
Her upper lip curled, just a little. "It was only a dream."
"Yes, but dreams are the food of the gods." He moved, eyes intent on her own, circling her dangerously.
"That's what you do, isn't it? Live off of dreams."
He halted, ensuring that his body blocked the door. "Man does not live on dreams alone."
"All right, wishes then. You live off of wishes." She was growing tired of his play on words.
His eyes darkened. "What I thrive on is chaos. I use men's wishes to create that chaos. A desire spoken aloud may be the dish, but chaos is the meal." The djinn smiled evilly.
"You were trapped in that statue out there." She motioned with her head to the field, not taking her eyes - or her sword - off of him.
"Yes," he admitted, confident that the knowledge would do the warrior no good, "since before your gods ruled this earth."
"It was you who spoke to Najara."
"She was my golden beauty. Her wishes were so sweet. I meant to keep her around for a long time. Light corrupts to darkness in the most delicious way, as you well know." His eyes flashed in amusement.
Xena ignored the remark and stepped back. He was too close and she couldn't let herself be baited. "So why didn't your golden beauty get you out of that statue?"
He shrugged. "It was too early yet. I needed the way prepared. There has to first be a void, before it can be filled with chaos."
"A void?" She thought furiously. His words were puzzles, just like his wishes and her mind raced to decipher the meaning.
"Our gods!" she announced with a flash of insight.
"Yes," he said in dark appreciation, "I've been meaning to thank you for that." The djinn regarded her thoughtfully. "You have a quick wit, Xena. Perhaps my choice was too hasty."
"What choice?" she asked suspiciously.
"Between you or your companion. I had plans for Najara and now someone has to replace her. Since you both were responsible for taking her from me, I think it only fitting that it be one of you."
"What do you mean?" Her sword lowered, just a little, as she became concerned.
"Gabrielle." He said the name with relish. "She reminds me of my golden Najara. Beautiful, yes? I know you agree," a wicked smile graced his features.
Xena had to hold herself back from grabbing him, "What about Gabrielle?"
"Najara loved her and I can see why. Of course, I can't blame you for your jealous rage. I would have done the same thing had someone tried to take one such as she away from me. She'll make an excellent replacement."
"Over my dead body," she vowed and swung at him with her sword, a deadly arc that would have taken off the head of any man, but his sword was suddenly there to meet hers. Their blades flashed in the last of the sunlight as it filtered through the door, the ring of metal slicing through the silence.
"A simple wish, easily arranged. Careful what you speak, warrior." Steel edges scraped apart as they parried. Xena growled and struck again, this time going for the abdomen. He met the blow and deflected it away.
"Jealous again, Xena?" His laughter made the dead vines shiver. "I thought you and Gabrielle had an open relationship?"
His sarcasm earned him Xena's fist swinging at his face. The djinn dodged it easily. He jumped away a few steps and arrogantly flipped his blade. Before he could finish the move, Xena's chakram was leaving her left hand, but the djinn managed to avoid that as well, titling to one side, just in time. The circular weapon whizzed past his face at a blinding speed and embedded itself in the far wall.
"You cannot best me, Xena. That is, unless you wish to."
She snarled, frustrated at her inability to hit her mark and did a quick flip over his head. Surprising as the move was, she still ended up kicking air as the djinn once again somehow managed to get away.
The warrior halted, breathing heavily. "I swear if you do anything to hurt Gabrielle, I'll send you to the same place I sent the gods."
He straightened, relaxed, tapping the flat of his blade in the palm of his open hand. "I thought you wanted a better life for the bard? Isn't that what you truly wish? And, I intend to grant you that one. After all, what better life could she have than with me?"
Anger flashing in her blue eyes, she flipped her sword once and gave an inhumanely powerful swing. It whooshed over Jan bin Jan's head as he ducked, slicing close enough to split hair.
The djinn stood and grew stern. "I grow tired of this."
The blow was so fast, Xena didn't even see it. So hard, it sent her crashing into a far wall.
The warrior slumped to the floor onto a pile of dead leaves, her eyes closing into an unconscious state where not even her dreams could follow.
Xena woke to the crunching of dried leaves and the taste of soil in her mouth. Spitting dirt, she lifted her head and looked around. She lay in a pile of dead vines and brown husk. The house was empty, a few scattered scrolls the only evidence that any encounter with the djinn had occurred at all. She pushed herself up from the floor, recovered her sword, then raised herself with shaky legs to her feet and returned the weapon to its sheath.
"My timing was off, but I'll get his djinny ass next time," the warrior vowed as she stumbled across the room. With a tug, she pulled the chakram from the wall, "He'll wish he'd never met me."
She placed the chakram on its hook at her hip and leaned against the wood. After waiting a moment or two for her head to clear, Xena pushed herself away from the support and staggered outside.
Her eyes grew round with alarm.
The sun was peeking over the eastern horizon. It was dawn. She had been out cold for the entire night.
"Gabrielle," she said aloud, remembering the djinn's threat and took off at a run through the now barren field.
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