Ye Olde Disclaimer
The characters are property of Universal MCA. It is not meant to infringe on any copyrights whatsoever.
The story, however, is mine.
The story below contains adult scenes between two women so if you are under 18 years of age stop reading now. There are also some scenes of violence, and a bit of horror this time around. If you find this offensive don't read it. For the rest of you, well - enjoy! You thought the last one was long, well, double it. Also, measured by the size of the dark circles under my eyes.
This story takes place immediately after my first one, "About that Kiss". It is not necessary to read it before this story, but you might miss a few inside jokes. Not to mention the party at the Amazon camp! Oh Yah! *VBG*
By Trish Kerr (Phopas)
The way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own.
But as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea,
So tears run to ever destined end.
Your suffering is over, and now you find peace for eternity.
They had been riding for almost half the day without stopping. Neither Xena or Gabrielle wanted to end the ride in fear that this new spell of closeness would be broken. Gabrielle was leaning back against the warmth of Xena's body, her eyes closed as a safe contentment had spread over her in the last few hours. That and her hangover was making the sun burn too brightly into her sensitive eyes. She silently vowed that she would not be so ambitious with the wine were she ever afforded another opportunity. She smiled at the memory of the Amazon feast and the special, no, make that incredible night she and Xena had just spent together.
Xena had one hand on the reins of Argo and the other wrapped gently around Gabrielle's waist. For the last half an hour she had the urge to sink her head into Gabrielle's shoulder and disappear into the warmth of it. She had recovered somewhat from her escapades at Helcus's castle but she was still tiring quickly. With some reluctance she decided they should stop and rest though she hated to break the spell of peace that had come over her ever since they had rode away from the Amazon camp. She was completely at home on the road and her restlessness faded slowly with each mile they traveled. But is was more than that now. They had ridden on Argo together before but this was the first time they had shared this ride as lovers and the experience had taken on a deeper meaning. But this was just the first of many rides to be savored with their new found closeness. Xena sighed looking down at Gabrielle and reluctantly initiated it's end.
"Gabrielle..." Xena whispered into the bard's ear while taking advantage of the moment and stealing a nuzzle anyway. "It's time we stopped for a rest...and some food."
"Hmmm?" Gabrielle responded dreamily. She had been far away reliving in vivid detail the events of their night together. This would make a great story for her scrolls but she was still not quite sure how she would go about writing it down yet. Perhaps this one would never make it to the scrolls.
"Gabrielle?" Xena asked again, she bent down and kissed her on the top of her head. If this didn't get her attention she would resort to more aggressive measures.
"Xena.." Gabrielle responded, finally. She opened her eyes and a blinding dagger of sunlight shot through her skull. "Ow!!" She cried and instinctively shut them again.
Xena felt the bard flinch and chuckled to herself silently. "Would you like some henbane to go with that hangover?"
"Very funny." Gabrielle replied. "But I'm just fine thankyou...as long as I keep my eyes shut."
Xena sighed and grinned down at her love. She was feeling way too mushy for her own good these days. She afforded herself a moment of reprieve and gave the bard a big squeeze. She would have to gain back some sense of control here or her reputation would be ruined. Xena, Warrior Princess, Love Sick Puppy. She turned that one over in her mind and immediately decided it would not be very good at all.
"Come on..." Xena growled as she dismounted the mare. "Down you go!" She then grabbed Gabrielle and pulled her off the horse.
Gabrielle landed on her feet but was not ready for it. Her eyes shot open and her legs gave way and she collapsed pulling the warrior with her. "Whoa!" Gabrielle cried.
Argo snorted in silent laughter as she watched her mistress lose her footing and unceremoniously land on the bard. This was unusual behavior for her master and it did not go unnoticed by the trained eye of her war horse. She stamped her hoof on the ground to make her point and waited to see what new events would unfold. She also wondered how long this riding together business would last. The extra weight was not really welcome but, after all, the strawberry blonde companion of her master wasn't so bad, and she smelled nice too. She had been a pest at first but over the last few years she had grown to like her almost as much as the mistress herself, though she'd never admit it publicly.
Gabrielle lay there grinning, gazing into Xena's eyes that were trying hard to look annoyed. "Don't' bother Xena. I can see right through that look and I'd say you're feeling just a tiny bit mushy....."
"I'm am not." Xena replied but she knew her words were failing and a grin escaped her restraints and spread across her face. "Hades, I'm losing it!"
"Yes you are...isn't it great!" Gabrielle exclaimed. She reached up and kissed the warrior playfully.
"Yah, great." Xena replied. "Terrific." She got to her feet dragging the bard with her. They stood together in the middle of a beautiful clearing.
Gabrielle finally took in their surroundings. They were at the edge of an incredible meadow filled with yellow flowers. The sun had lit the rich lush green of the grass to an almost blinding intensity. The sky was a clear blue, no clouds to obscure it's beauty. The breeze was warm and playful on her skin. She held onto the woman of her dreams and soaked in the sights and sounds of the day. She pulled away from Xena and walked into the meadow and began picking flowers for her lover. "Oh Xena, isn't it beautiful......"
Xena nodded in silent agreement. She had to admit it was a beautiful day. She was really beginning to worry about herself now. Had she actually slipped into the bard's world? She hoped not as she was sure she would be struck down right where she stood by Zeus himself. Gabrielle had melted her alright, in more ways than one. This raw emotion was new to her. It left her feeling far too vulnerable for there were no weapons that she could use against it - even if she wanted to, that is. She needed a good old brawl to get back her edge. Where were the ruffians when you needed them? Perhaps she could find trouble at the next village. Karyaes, a small farming village, was only half a day's ride away and there were always bad blood passing through there. My, that was pathetic, she thought to herself. Now I'm looking for trouble as if there wasn't enough in this world.
Gabrielle returned with a bouquet of the beautiful yellow flowers and handed them to the warrior as a gift. She watched with mild disappointment as Xena took them absentmindedly, her thoughts far away. "Xena?" Gabrielle said. "What are you thinking about?" She looked searchingly into the warrior's brilliant blue eyes that were even more beautiful with the sun shining on them. By the gods she was more incredible with each passing day. Her raven hair flowed gently over her shoulders and her brass armor was dazzling in the bright sun. And the leather....well.
Xena looked down at her smiling. "Oh, about an inn at a village up ahead......and you." Then she noticed she was holding a bouquet of pretty flowers in her hand. "Oh. Sorry Gabrielle." She said. "Thank you for the flowers."
"Your welcome." Gabrielle said and put her arms around Xena, pulling her down for a kiss. They stayed like that for some time, intertwined in a warm embrace. "An inn sounds wonderful Xena! It could be like a honeymoon. Just the two of us!" Gabrielle exclaimed. Then she looked deeper into Xena's eyes warily. "As long as you stay out of trouble. I just got you back from the dead, and then you had to go and get yourself captured......it would be nice to relax for a change!"
Xena smiled down at her. "I'll be good, I promise."
"I have no doubt you'll be good Xena, it's whether you'll behave is what I'm more concerned about." Gabrielle said with slight trepidation.
"Shall we eat, then?" Xena said innocently, changing the subject with one of the most powerful weapons she held against the bard - food.
"Yes!" Gabrielle cried. "I forgot just how starved I am!"
Xena rolled her eyes and went to retrieve the food the Amazons had graciously supplied them with for their journey. They could have loaded up an entire wagon and it still would not be enough to satisfy the hunger of this woman. And she was quickly realizing Gabrielle's insatiable appetite was not confined to food alone. She grinned to herself for she liked this new discovery very much indeed. She looked at the flowers in her hand and her heart melted. She tucked them into her saddlebags. She would have to keep them as they were the first flowers Gabrielle had ever given her. She would also have to hide them far down near the bottom as there was no way in Tartarus she was ever going to let anyone see that side of her. She grabbed the food and headed back to Gabrielle shaking her head. Flowers, she thought to herself, she gave me flowers.
The sun was low in the sky by the time they reached the outskirts of the Karyaes. It was nestled in a lush valley at the foot of Mount Lycaeus and had yielded excellent crops year after year. This made it both a prosperous place and a dangerous one because of it. The villagers were constantly defending against those that wished to take what was not theirs. The two gazed down at the village from the crest of the hill that wrapped around it. The smell of cooking and smoke from the chimneys mixed together to create a delicious and comforting aroma at the same time. A large cluster of buildings lay at the center of the village and the division of farmers' land circled it. There were sizeable portions of land devoted to wheat crops as well as areas where sheep and cattle were raised for food and wool. From a distance the patterns of the land made wonderful quilt-like designs that all wove towards the middle that was the heart of the bustling town.
Gabrielle breathed deeply and sighed. "It's such a pretty place. Have you been here before Xena?" she asked warily.
"Yes, in passing, but never as a warlord." Xena replied. Thank the gods for that. Her army had planned to take this valley but they had not gotten around to it before Xena had been ousted by Darfus and stripped of her command. Luckily, she thought to herself. She then looked down at Gabrielle seated in front of her and thought that indeed she was the luckiest person alive.
"Great Xena!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "But I'm sure they've heard of you, and all the good that you've done. And what they haven't heard maybe I can fill them in. And hopefully make a few dinars for us at the same time. After all, I want the best room in the inn! One with a fire, and a nice hot bath!"
"Don't worry," Xena said. "Only the best for my lovely bard."
As they made their way down towards the valley the moon crested over the hill and shared the sky with the sun for a brief time, exchanging glances and trading places in a daily cycle that had spanned the millenniums.
"The moon Xena!" Gabrielle cried, pointing towards it in the dusk of the evening sky. "Look how big it looks! Isn't it beautiful?"
Xena sighed and nodded. Gabrielle always found wonder and beauty in everyday things. That is one of the reasons Xena loved her so much. She looked up at the waxing moon, nearing it's full cycle, and marveled at it's magnificence. She had seen it many times before but Gabrielle made her truly look at it for the first time. Moon gazing, she thought to herself, Terrific. Xena, Warrior, Princess, Hopeless Romantic, now that had an all too comfortable ring to it. By the gods, save me.
They headed down the streets of the village. All of the townsfolk had disappeared into their homes and the streets were eerily empty. As they rode through the main street towards the inn they felt eyes upon them through darkened windows and shadowed doors. Xena's initial exuberance was quickly replaced with a heightened sense of foreboding. The all too familiar smell of fear hung heavily in the air like so many times before when her army had rode through a conquered village to take what was left of it. She slowed Argo in preparation of a possible ambush.
Argo whinnied nervously in warning and strained slightly against the reins. Her mistress tugged gently and she reluctantly carried on.
"Ahh, Xena?" Gabrielle whispered. "Are you sure you never attacked this village...."
"Quite sure." Xena replied evenly. She was sitting in a ready position on the horse, her eyes scanning the street for any signs of danger. Argo was spooked, no question about that. Well she'd asked for it, hadn't she. She spotted the inn a few buildings down and guided Argo slowly towards it. She had one hand on the reins as her other arm released it's grip on Gabrielle's waist and moved to rest over her chakrum. Her warrior senses were on full alert but she had yet to locate the direction of this elusive threat. Her heart began to beat loudly in her ears and she was in fear it would give her away. But away from what? And when exactly had her palms began to sweat? This was ridiculous. But her instincts never lied.
"Xena..." Gabrielle whispered through clenched teeth. "I'm suddenly not so interested in a warm inn....maybe we should.."
"Shhhh.." Xena whispered, as she strained to hear any sounds that would indicate where the threat might be approaching from.
The inn was only a building away now but they would have to pass a shadowed alley to get there. All the hairs on Xena's arms and back were raised in a instinctual fear that had no visible cause. She had hunted many times and had been the hunted, but never had she felt such an unnatural quality to the air. Never had she felt so much like prey. This was definitely not a good sign. She stopped Argo, and as quietly as a snake slid down and softly landed on her feet. She looked up at Gabrielle, who was now wide eyed from fear as much as confusion, and motioned with her hand to her lip to be quiet.
Gabrielle looked down at Xena with wide eyes, that grew wider as she gazed into her companion's own fearful eyes. If Xena was unnerved, then by the gods, what was out there? Xena had motioned for her to be quiet. This was not a problem as she didn't think her voice would be working even if she had desperately needed it. Xena had removed her chakrum and held it in throw ready position. She watched Xena head towards the darkened alley that bordered the inn and disappear. Oh no you don't, I'm not staying out here by myself. Gabrielle slipped down off of Argo, grabbed her staff and headed into the cloak of darkness to follow Xena.
Xena peered down into the blackness of the passage. The moon was bright tonight but the cover of the inn's roof made visibility almost nil in the small confines of the alley. But then as her eyes adjusted to the darkness she could see a figure moving about near the back of the enclosure. She could not make out the shape and strained to listen for tell tale signs of who or what it might be. Every fiber in her being cried out to just turn away, get back on the horse and put as much distance between this quaint village and herself and Gabrielle. This was crazy! Xena Warrior, Princess, Paranoid. Her back stiffened and she shook off her unfounded fear and silently crept towards the darkened shape that she was now sure was the source of her unprecedented panic. She absentmindedly wiped the sweat from the palm of her freed hand and reached up and unsheathed her sword. She wasn't sure which weapon she might need so she readied them both. She'd never walked away from anything in her life, and she wasn't about to start now.
Suddenly Xena felt a presence behind her. She instinctively whirled around swinging her sword.
"Xena!" Gabrielle gasped. She jumped back on her heels raising her staff to deflect the sword that swung at her head.
Xena's heart leapt into her throat and her eyes widened in surprise, followed by fear, and then anger quickly after that. "Gabrielle!!!" Xena cried, her heart pounding wildly in her chest. She had nearly decapitated her lover. "Never, EVER, sneak up on me like that again!"
Gabrielle's chest rose and fell in quick gasps and she nodded in dumbfounded agreement. Her knuckles were white from gripping her staff so tightly. She gazed at the solid nick Xena's sword had left as a reminder of her near fatal indiscretion. "Uh, sorry Xena, but there was no way I was staying ba...."
"Shh!" Xena whispered, grabbing the bard by the arm and pointed towards the figure moving about in the darkness. Gabrielle's eyes widened with renewed fear. "Stay here." Xena commanded.
"No way." Gabrielle replied.
Xena rolled her eyes and turned to the bard. "Look. I don't want to get into this...not now..."
"I'm right behind you Xena." Gabrielle replied sternly. "There's no where safer, er, well at least most of the time."
Well the bard was nothing if not persistent. And there was no time to argue the point. She signaled with her eyes for Gabrielle to follow and she headed towards the shadowy figure that was moving silently near the inn wall.
The two women crept towards the figure. Fear, their own now, permeated the enclosure. Xena was sure the figure was of a predatory nature. And she was equally sure it would smell her fear as well as the bard's. Her uncanny abilities afforded her such insights that a normal human would not even begin to perceive. This was both a blessing and a curse, for knowledge was key, but ignorance was bliss.
The distance separating the figure and themselves closed to within ten feet. Xena's body tensed in anticipation of the confrontation that was surely to unfold. She could make out only vaguely the shape of the beast. It was too dark to be afforded anything more but she could sense the immenseness of it's presence. She smelled the unmistakable aroma of death and tasted the scent of wild animal in the air. No, this was not a true description for it stopped far short of what she really sensed. It was something more, something bordering on madness and barely containable rage that surrounded the as yet named object of her incredible fear. Her heart pounded wildly in her ears, or perhaps it was Gabrielle's own frantic heart that she heard. Gabrielle was practically attached to her back now. You couldn't have squeezed a piece of parchment through there to save your soul. It was time to make a move.
"AIIYAIYAIIYAIIYYYY!!" Xena let out her battle cry, flipped into the air, somersaulting and landed two feet away from the huddled figure sword drawn and ready.
"AHHHHHH!!!!"A female voice screamed, piercing the night air and cracking through the mist of fear and anticipation.
Then Gabrielle screamed from behind her and Xena's eyes widened in horror as the beast turned to reveal itself.
The cloaked figure raised it's hands in defense of the warrior's sword and cringed towards the ground in a sign of submission. "Wait....please..." the small voice pleaded shakingly.
Xena took a few stumbling steps back and bumped right into Gabrielle. Both women jumped.
The figure sensing their fear, stood up and lifted her hood back to reveal the most beautiful young woman they had ever laid eyes on. Except for each other, of course.
"I'm sorry...." She stammered. Absently running her fingers through her long thick auburn hair. She eyed the two women warily. "Did I startle you? I was just taking out the garbage.....I'm...you were...." Her voice trailed off as she pointed at Xena's sword.
Xena's mouth hung open only slightly more than the bards. They were frozen statues in the passage, unable to speak or move. Only the rapid rising and falling of their chests in unison gave visual proof they were not made of stone.
"Uh, are you alright?" She asked tentatively. A puzzled expression spread over her face as her fear of them was now replaced with a wonder and a slight concern for the two women before her. It was as if they had just seen a ghost. But there was nothing here, only the rats, the garbage, and herself. She looked behind her to make sure there was no monstrous being she had yet to see. Satisfied there was nothing there she turned back to face the two beautiful women before her. The taller of the two, in what appeared to be a warrior's outfit, was visibly shaken and though it was dark, she could see that the colour had been drained from her face. The smaller petite woman was equally frozen, she gripped a stick fiercely, her fearful eyes locked with her own.
Xena finally found her voice. "I'm sorry. I mistook you for....." For what exactly she was not sure. Her sword hand was still shaking and she tightened the grip to hide the tell tale sign. "I...we...." Xena's voice trailed off as she looked down at her threatening sword and silently wondered what in the Hades had come over her. She quickly placed it back in her sheath and stepped back even further and inadvertently on Gabrielle's foot.
"Oooww!" Gabrielle cried and immediately broke out of her stone like pose. She dropped her staff and grabbed her foot and began hopping around and cursing.
A smile broke across the face of the cloaked woman and she burst into laughter, the tense moment now gone. "By the gods! You scared me half to death!" The woman exclaimed through gasps. She now was sure the they meant her no harm.
The woman's laughter was infectious and Gabrielle joined in despite her pain. Xena relaxed slightly and allowed herself a small smile.
Gabrielle looked over at Xena and decided a bard was better at handling this situation. She extended a hand to the cloaked woman. "I'm sorry, we haven't been properly introduced. I'm Gabrielle, and this is my....." Gabrielle's voice faltered. What exactly were they anyway? "My best friend, Xena." She finished.
"It's a pleasure to meet you." She grasped Gabrielle's hand in hers. " I'm Lucinda, my father owns the inn. I help him run it. I was just taking out the garbage when..." She didn't finish.
"When I nearly killed you..."Xena did it for her. "I'm sorry, I was sure there was a terrible..." Xena was struggling for words now.
Gabrielle saved her, once again. "We were just a little spooked...we thought we'd heard something and the streets were so empty, and, well.....Xena exaggerates a lot. She would never harm you. Right Xena?" Gabrielle looked over at her troubled companion. Her face was deep in thought. She elbowed her discreetly in the side.
"Oh, yes, " Xena jumped. "Sorry, yes that's right..." She nodded in agreement hoping this was the correct response. She hadn't been listening. Her mind was racing, working over the last few moments again in her mind.
"You are new to the town. Then that would explain it. " Lucinda sighed.
"Explain what?" Xena was suddenly very interested.
"Why you were on the streets after dark of course." Lucinda replied. "There have been strange goings on lately and it's safer indoors."
"What kind of things, exactly?" Xena asked.
"Look, why don't we go inside. You must be tired and hungry. We can talk then. You have come for a room I gather?" Lucinda asked. She didn't feel safe outside the inn, especially now that the sun had completely disappeared and the moon now fully revealed.
"That's a wonderful idea!" Gabrielle piped up. "We are looking for a room and of course, food!" Gabrielle smiled at Lucinda. She had taken an immediate shining to the woman. "Lead the way."
Lucinda walked towards the alley opening and Gabrielle followed. "I'm a bard, I was hoping I might get to tell some stories..." They walked out into the main street.
"Oh, a bard, how wonderful!" Lucinda exclaimed. "We could sure use some cheering up."
They chattered together leaving Xena still standing in the alley.
Gabrielle finally noticed she had not followed. "Xena!" She called to her. "Are you coming? What are you doing standing there?" Gabrielle turned to Lucinda whispering. "She might appear a bit stiff but once you get to know her she's just a big mushball....really."
"I'm sure...but she sure can look mean, and that's quite a sword she has. I've never seen a woman warrior before. But I think her name sounds familiar." Lucinda said.
"It should." Gabrielle replied. "She's saved a lot of people. She used to be a warlord but now she fights for good." The two waited for Xena to catch up. Gabrielle watched the warrior walk towards her, "Isn't she magnificent!"
"Yes, she is indeed." Lucinda smiled and looked down at the petite woman named Gabrielle. Many people had passed through her village. She saw the look of admiration on the woman's face and knew immediately that they would need a room with only one bed. Cute couple, she thought to herself. The evening was shaping up to be interesting after all. This was not the regular fair that stayed at the inn. It would be refreshing to have some unusual women to talk to. She had already made a mental note to give them the most romantic room available. Ah, to be in love, she sighed to herself. She was not of that kind but she had to admit she found herself admiring the beauty and majestic quality of the tall dark haired warrior. As she neared her, she got a closer look at her chiseled features and she looked even more beautiful in the moonlight now that she wore a smile.
"I'll have the stable boy take your horse." Lucinda said. "Right this way ladies." and she led them into the inn.
Xena took one last wary glance at the dark passage, shook her head in disbelief, and followed the women through the doorway.
The warmth of the inn greeted them as they stepped through the door, contrasting greatly with the cool dampness that had settled over the valley after dusk. The warmth was mixed with a succulent aroma of good food and strong port. It was a nice enough establishment, though simple in it's furnishings. There was a bar to the right near the door and several men sat on stools drinking port and eyeing the strangers with some interest. To the left were tables and chairs that were used for dining and larger gatherings. Lucinda led Gabrielle and Xena to a secluded candlelit corner.
Xena eyed the clientele with caution. She was always ready in case someone recognized her from her old warlord days and had a bone to pick with her. She was not herself tonight and was in no mood for a confrontation, a stark contrast to her earlier fantasies of an invigorating brawl. Though eyes were on them no one gave them trouble tonight. It was as if the town folk was as spooked as Xena herself.
Xena and Gabrielle sat down and Lucinda went to fetch them dinner and see about a room. They were finally alone. Xena sat in stony silence gazing at, no make that, through the bard.
"Xena." Gabrielle said. No response. "Xena!" Gabrielle's voice raised slightly and she waved her hand in front of the warrior's face. By the gods she hated when Xena got like this, silent and distant. She knew Xena was still suffering over the near miss in the alleyway. But nothing had happened and everything was fine now and she was hungry once again. "Shall I take my top off and dance on the table Xena?" Gabrielle asked.
"Hmmmm...? " Xena replied, her thoughts miles away, "Sure Gabrielle...sounds good. I'll have one too."
"Xena!" Gabrielle cried under a hushed voice, and grabbed Xena by the arm, trying hard not to make a scene. "Talk to me!" A few patrons glanced over at the strawberry blonde grab the warrior and quickly looked away. Brave little sprite that one was.
Xena looked into Gabrielle's eyes. She finally had her attention. Gabrielle sighed with some relief. "Soooo, how many dinars should I charge for the table dancing then?"
"What?!" Xena asked finally listening to her relentless chatter. "Are you talking about?" She looked over at the bard who was grinning at her. She looked even more beautiful in the candle light and especially when she smiled mischievously.
"Well, I've finally got your attention." Gabrielle growled. "Pretty soon I was going to have to take my top off and make good on my promise!"
"I'm sorry Gabrielle.....I'm still thinking about what just happened, or rather what just didn't happen." Xena said, her brow furrowed with worry.
"We got spooked, maybe whatever it is that is keeping the people inside at night was prowling around out there......and we just didn't see it." Gabrielle replied.
Xena leaned in closer to the bard. "But that's just it Gabrielle.....it *was* there and I sensed it and that's what really has me confused..."
"But.." Gabrielle was interrupted as Lucinda placed two mugs in front of them. One was strong port, she guessed the warrior would like, the other a fine wine from her father's cellar.
"Thank you Lucinda." Xena said, looking up at her and noticing the deep piercing green eyes for the first time, so much like Gabrielle's. "Now can you tell us about this problem you're having?"
"I've got customers waiting...." Lucinda smiled down at her. "I've got a room for you as well and dinner is being prepared. I'll try and grab a moment to sit and chat in a bit. Why don't you just relax and enjoy yourselves, you're safe here." With that she left to attend to the serving of more port and more dinners.
Xena sighed. Safe here, now what in Hades did that mean?, she pondered. Safe was a relative term., safe was something....
"Xena!" Gabrielle barked. "Have a drink. It'll loosen you up a bit!" She could see the warrior slipping away again. Gabrielle had sworn off this stuff only hours ago but under the circumstance she thought it couldn't hurt to have just this one. She took a small tentative sip of the poison that had nearly killed her last night.
A drink, Xena thought to herself. I think I actually need one. She picked up the mug and swallowed the entire contents in one fail swoop.
Gabrielle's mouth dropped. She turned to signal Lucinda for another.
They had finished up a bowl of delicious stew and a small loaf of hearth baked bread. Well, Gabrielle had actually done most of the eating. She could always eat, there was never a fear of that. Gabrielle leaned back in her chair, full at last. She gazed at Xena who appeared to be growing impatient waiting for Lucinda. She had already downed four ports waiting for the woman and Gabrielle was worried Xena would be of no use to her later if she continued on this destructive course. She had plans for her tonight. But as she was pondering this she saw Xena's eyes light up and turned to see Lucinda making her way over to their table with a new round of drinks that included one for herself.
"Sorry for the wait...we're never usually this busy....with everyone in fear of walking the streets, we've actually never been as profitable." Lucinda sighed as she laid down a drink for each of them and seated herself. "It's funny how things work...isn't it?" She sighed. She looked over at the warrior woman and her eyes wandered to a small purple bruise on her neck. She blushed slightly and tried not to stare.
"Funny doesn't come to mind." Xena said. She noticed Lucinda was looking at her neck. She made a mental note to check the first mirror she came across in the inn. "Now tell me everything." She leaned towards the woman, mug in hand in an almost threatening manner.
"Xena!" Gabrielle cried as she turned towards Lucinda. "She likes to get to the point, but please, take your time..." Gabrielle smiled at Lucinda and simultaneously glared over at the warrior who finally got the message and pulled back a bit from her menacing pose.
"Yes, well..." Lucinda started. "There's not much to tell really. It started a few months ago. I remember it well. It was my twenty first birthday that night. Father had a small celebration at the inn for me. It was that night the trouble began. Solston, a farmer from the village has a large flock of sheep. That morning he discovered a few of his sheep killed in his fields." She said as she took a long drink from her mug.
"How were they killed?" Xena barked as she leaned towards the woman again. She ignored Gabrielle's foot that kicked her hard under the table.
"Well they were killed by a wild animal, some say something more, so I guess....they...."Lucinda suddenly felt as if she was under interrogation. She was at a loss for words as she gazed into the piercing blue eyes of the warrior woman. She began to feel the first pangs of fear though she knew it was unfounded and broke into a cold sweat. She understood that Xena was only trying to help but she still had the incredible urge to flee the inn. Her panicked thoughts were interrupted by a voice from behind her.
"They were mutilated...." A voice spoke from behind them. "Torn from limb to limb....like nothing I'd ever seen." All three women turned to see a man stand up from a few tables away, clutching a mug of ale and swaying slightly, almost as if in a trance. He was of medium build but appeared smaller as his shoulders hung in defeat and his voice was haunting and distant. All eyes in the inn now turned to look at the solitary standing man who's name most knew to be Solston. But he was a shadow of his former self and his face had the sickly white pallor of someone who was near death or had drank from it's dark brew.
All chatter ceased as the crowd waited for Solston to continue. The villagers' had heard most of what he knew before but the chilling way in which he delivered his tale still struck a dagger of fear deep into their bones, one they were trying to drink away tonight. They were mesmerized by his words once again.
Solston began to speak, his eyes rested on no man in the inn but instead far away at a beast he had yet to name. "I found the first dead sheep that morning. I'd seen the work of varmints before on my land. The traps I set usually keep them at bay for the most part, that, and my trusty dog Tupper." His voice faltered with the mention of his dog. He paused to sip from his mug of ale and continued. "Tupper had always been a proud dog, never to back down from a fight but when I went out into the field that morning she was nowhere to be seen. But that wasn't all. The sheep are usually grazing lazily in the fenced pen by morning but instead the entire flock was tight together in a circle as if they were finding comfort in each other, a terrifying fear in their eyes. Now I've been a sheep farmer all my life and I've never seen behavior that has come near to this before. Never."
Gabrielle looked over at Xena and then at the crowd in the inn. She had never come even close as a bard to capturing a crowd's attention as this man now did. She felt slightly envious despite the circumstances. She then turned to listen to his words.
"And then I spotted the carcasses up on the hill. You could see them glistening in the morning sun. I went over to investigate cursing my trusty dog all the way. When I reached the area I was taken back by a stench so strong I nearly lost my morning meal. Yet I was fascinated by the sight before me and I had no other choice but to look upon the remnants of what had once been my sheep. There were limbs and entrails spread across the grass in no discernible pattern. I couldn't tell where one sheep ended and the other began. There were only grizzly bloodied pieces mixed with the red stained wool of their coats. "
Xena stole a glance over at Gabrielle and noticed a slight green pallor had covered her face. She watched Gabrielle take a large swallow, and then she quickly turned back to the man.
"It was a bloody mess alright. But that wasn't what really bothered me." He paused to take another long drink of elixir. "It was the fact that there was such a mess at all. I couldn't tell how many sheep had been taken but I was sure it must have been at least four or five for the remnants of at least two were still present. I quickly counted my sheep and then thinking mistaken, counted them again. I was missing only two sheep which would mean that the beast that destroyed my sheep never ate them." He stopped to ponder this for a moment as it had haunted him for some time now. "And if it not killed to feast on my sheep, then why had it killed at all?"
"Are you sure there were no dagger marks?" Xena asked, breaking the spell of the crowd. Everyone turned to look at the warrior woman, and then quickly back at Solston to hear his reply.
The man did not acknowledge her visibly as he still stared out into empty space, still far away on the hill of that sunny morning. He began again. "There were no human marks left on those sheep. Only powerful jaws and enormous claws would have left such destruction. Oh no, I have seen many a kill by many a predator in my time but as Zeus is my witness, I had never seen anything as odd as this, as violent, as meaningless, as maddening...." The man's voice drifted off as he raised his fist in the air shaking at unseen demons and nameless ghosts. He raised his mug but it was empty. A villager quickly handed Solston his own mug of ale so that he could continue.
"You said *it*."Xena stated, breaking in once again on Solston's story. "How can you be certain it wasn't a pack of wolves or wild boars?" The crowd turned in unison towards the warrior and then back at Solston.
Solston took a long drink from his new mug and spoke. "Because I seen the beast with mine own eyes the very next night."
Well, you could have cut a dagger through the air in the inn, it was so thick with tension. The crowd hung on Solston's every word. And with his last statement a small collective gasp escaped the spellbound patrons.
Gabrielle looked around the room. She sighed inwardly. She knew she would never be able to work in this town. How could she possibly compete with this? Slight envy mixed with a greater fear evoked from his heart felt words and she prayed silently that he was exaggerating. Surely he was, wasn't he? She took a large gulp of wine and turned to hear the rest of his tormented tale. To Hades with the hangover, she needed another drink.
"Now you have to understand, I was madder than Hades at the time. And scared like I'd never been before you see. And there was no one in which to vent my anger at. I headed back down to the farmhouse in search of Tupper. Why hadn't that damn dog alerted me. Nary a yelp had crossed her lips that night while I lay sleeping. Part of me was in fear I'd find her dead, the other part was going to kill her if I didn't. For close to an hour I searched for her, calling her name but still I had not laid eyes on her. My frustration grew and I shook my fists at the sky commanding the gods themselves to end this madness that had overtaken me. I was about to give her up for dead when I spotted movement out of the corner of my eye. I watched with some fascination as Tupper slowing crawled out from under my porch, her belly dragging along the dirt, her eyes wild with panic and fear. All of the anger fled me then and a sorrowful pity took over my being. For only the presence of a demon could have evoked such a reaction in what was once a proud and loyal friend." Solston paused to wipe away a tear that threatened to spill across cheek.
Xena glanced over at Gabrielle whom she noticed with mild surprise had tears in her eyes as well. Such a sensitive creature was her Gabrielle. She watched Gabrielle lift the mug to her lips, her hand slightly shaking. And she noted again, with further interest that Gabrielle was indeed drinking again, her early pledge long since forgotten. She turned to the village man again, surprised at how enwrapped she too had become with his words. Only the bard had ever moved her like this. But she had to remain separated from the rapture of the story and weed out the facts if she was ever to solve this problem.
"You said you saw the beast?" Xena asked bluntly hoping he would be getting to the point soon.
Once again the crowd turned to Xena, with mild irritation this time. She shrugged in innocence and the crowd turned back to Solston's story, a few grunts of disapproval were heard around the room.
"I tried to comfort the dog, but there was nothing I could do. She lay there, oblivious to all around her, and she no longer recognized me as her master. This, more than any vileness that had been bestowed upon me and my land, was the most crushing. I vowed then and there to kill what had destroyed the soul of my faithful friend and I spent the rest of the day setting up traps and sharpening my weapons. In my lust for revenge I had heeded all rational cautions and sat waiting, on my porch, beside the breathing carcass that had once been Tupper. I watched the sun set over the horizon and waited in the hopes that the beast would return to me." Solston paused.
"And..." Xena prodded from the back of the room growing more impatient. Gabrielle gave her a swift kick with her boot heel and glared over at her. This time the crowd ignored her interruption in a collective unspoken decision. All eyes were on Solston.
"The sun had long since set, and the moon, now in full gibbous hung from the darkened sky lighting my meadow in a silvery glow, all colour now drained from the landscape. I held my trusty sword ready, but I was tiring, and my eyes were losing a battle with Morpheus. I strained to keep them open but I soon succumbed to the nightmares of my dreams.
Xena rolled her eyes impatiently. Trusty sword, she thought, he'd probably never used one, and falling asleep on watch, well, she wasn't at all surprised. But she bit her tongue and continued to listen fearing one more outspoken comment and she would start a riot.
"I don't know how long I'd slept but suddenly I awoke with a start and jumped up from my chair. The sheep were once again tightly tucked together and they were nervously shuffling their hooves. There was an electricity in the air that raised the hair on my arms and back. I strained to hear for any signs of the beast that I was now sure was close. I felt inhuman eyes upon me and I knew I was being watched and my own eyes darted around feverishly in search of the direction of it's ghastly stare. My trusty dog lay shivering at my feet. I was wild with fear now and I stepped out from the porch into the clearing heading for the sheep pen as I was sure it was the object of the beast's desire. But I was lying to myself, for I now knew that I was the hunted and I cowardly moved towards my flock in hopes that the beast would find interest in different quarry tonight." Solston hung his head in shame at this last admission.
The crowd sighed in unison feeling Solston's shame as their own. Everybody took a drink from their respective mugs.
"I stood there, amongst my sheep, having entered the protective circle, and became one with the herd and it's encompassing terror. I waited, as did the sheep, hoping only that I would not be of the chosen on this dark night. I heard a low growl come from behind my home. It was none like I had ever heard before as if it came from Hades himself. It sent a chill down my spine and my legs threatened to give way. I was wild with panic and all fibers screamed for me to run but I was frozen in the circle, my body long since having ceased communication with my mind. A shadow passed over us and I looked up to see a cloud cover the large moon that hung over me like a spectre of doom. Darkness descended on us like a blackened cape and I strained to see the shape that now crept towards me on all fours." Solston paused and swallowed hard.
The crowd swallowed hard as well. Gabrielle picked up Lucinda's mug and drank from it. Xena leaned forward in hopes that he would *finally* reveal the identity of the beast.
"I could see it's form was huge as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. My body shook with terror as I watched it close upon the circle. I smelled it then. It was the smell of death, of barely containable rage, of madness. It's slitted eyes glowed a fiery red and it grinned at me revealing long sharp teeth. I could hear it's raspy breath and as it neared me I saw it's shape was covered with fur, but it was of no earthly animal, of this I was sure. I raised my sword, my hands shaking, and the beast rose on it's back feet in reply. It towered over me as I sunk to the ground, my legs finally giving way, my sword slipping from my hands, long since forgotten. I kneeled there gazing into the beast's fiery eyes and awaited my execution." Solston paused finding it now difficult to finish.
The crowd collectively held it's breath.
"And then I heard her. Her growl was low and full of rage. The beast paused and turned towards the direction of the porch. Tupper broke into a run and leapt at the startled demon. The beast caught her with it's raised forepaws and I heard the crack of my loyal companion's spine as the powerful arms crushed her instantly. I looked into the eyes of my faithful friend, that had once again recognized me in her one last act of ultimate sacrifice. I saw the light go out of her eyes and I found my legs. I turned and ran from the pen, faster than I had ever run. I did not look back again in fear that the beast would be upon me, it's powerful jaws wrapping around me in a dance of death. I ran until my legs were numb and I finally collapsed in a feverish heap far away from my home and the horror that had been there." Solston paused and swallowed. "I must have passed out for when I woke it was once again daylight. I was numb as I made my way back to my land. I reached the enclosure of the pen and surveyed the carcasses of the sheep that it had once again taken from me, and there among them lay the body of my dog Tupper." He finished, tears now spilling freely from his eyes. He sat down and covered his head in his hands sobbing quietly in memory of his trusty friend.
There was not a dry eye in the establishment. Tears streamed down Gabrielle's face and she glanced over at Xena noticing a small tear escaping and making it's way down her stoic features. "Xena?" She whispered.
Xena looked over at her companion. "I don't know what it could be..." She replied knowing the bard's question instinctually. "I need more information."
Xena turned to look at Lucinda. "Have you had any more sightings of the beast?"
Lucinda broke from her daze, still far away in Solston's grief and realized the warrior woman was talking to her. "I....what?"
Xena sighed impatiently. "Have you had any more sightings of the beast?"
"No, not exactly. The villagers all banned together after that night and formed a hunting party, but there was no trace of the beast that Solston spoke of. Weeks passed and the village returned to normal, the events seeming less real with the passage of time. Some had even begun to think it was all in Solston's mind." She paused. "But then it came back."
Xena and Gabrielle leaned forward, listening intently to the beautiful woman's words.
"Cattle from Henison's farm were found mutilated, in the same way as before. Nothing much had been consumed. It made no sense at all. And for the following two nights more livestock was claimed in the same senseless manner." She shook her head.
"And that was when?" Xena asked intently.
" It was exactly one month ago. When the moon was gibbous, full." She explained. "And once again the beast left no trace and it has not been seen since. The only connection we have made is.."
"The final phase of the waxing of the moon." Xena finished for her. "As it begins tonight. And that explains why everyone is indoors, is that right?"
"Yes, there are some amongst us that fear that Zeus has cursed our village. Some say that he has sent a demon down from Mount Lycaeus. There is an ancient temple there that is said to be haunted by the spirits of the dead. Some say there once was terrible sacrifices there....human sacrifices. It is said that an evil king from Arcadia sacrificed a baby on the altar and spilled the blood of the innocent. It's said Zeus turned him into a wolf."
"Oh how terrible!" Gabrielle cried.
Lucinda nodded in agreement. "We have lain gifts at the temple ruins but we do not know if this will appease him." Lucinda sighed.
"And what do you believe?" Gabrielle asked.
"I believe it will come again, and no gifts at a temple will stop it's evil descent upon our village." Lucinda said, swallowing hard. "But we are safe in here. And this time the farmers have boarded up there livestock as best they can. We have also tied up a lamb out near the border of the town in the hopes that if it comes it will go there instead of attacking closer to the village. We can only wait and pray that this evil demon will pass over us."
"So you're just going to sit here like lambs at the slaughter and wait..." Xena started but was interrupted as the inn door flew open.
The entire room jumped in unison and turned towards the door in terror. I gruff looking warrior and his henchmen entered through the passage and headed for the bar. Sighs of relief were quickly replaced by a wariness as the band of men, heavily armed shoved seated patrons off their stools and sat down.
Xena's eyes narrowed as she watched the vermin shove villagers aside to get to the drinks.
The one who seemed to be the leader grabbed Lucinda's father by his shirt roughly. "I want some ale for my men and be quick about it." He spat.
Lucinda got up to rise but Xena's hand grabbed her arm as she motioned for her to remain seated. Looks like she would be getting that badly needed release after all. Xena rose and headed towards the bar.
The leader turned to face the patrons, ale in hand. He was a large man, his dark mangled hair hung down across his shoulders. He shoveled the ale down his throat spilling half it's contents down his stubbled chin. He wiped his face with his raised arm and a toothy yellow grin slid across his face. His men all drank from their mugs, loud and boisterously banging their goblets down on the bar demanding refills.
"You people look like you've seen a ghost!" The leader bellowed gesturing towards the seated patrons. "Is it something we've said?" He laughed and jabbed his buddy next to him. He turned back towards the bar and stared at the innkeeper." I hear you're doing quite a good business these days.....that so?" He leaned forward across the bar in a menacing manner.
"What's it to you?" A woman spoke from behind him.
He whirled around in disbelief. His eyes widened in slight surprise as he turned to face a beautiful raven haired woman that appeared to be in warrior's garb. And she was armed, by the gods. But what was that round metal thing that hung from her waist. His eyes then traveled down to her well muscled thighs and then back up to her ornate breast plate. His jaw dropped as his eyes finally locked onto the ice blue eyes of the woman.
"Didn't your mother ever tell you it was rude to stare?" Xena swung her fist out and landed it squarely to his face, delivering the words and her fist simultaneously. His head flew back and hit the bar.
He quickly recovered and lunged for Xena. She calmly stepped to the side and watched him tumble forward and land on top of a table full of patrons. One of them smacked his mug down hard on his head as a parting shot as they stood up and moved away from the table. He growled in fury and spun around.
His men had unsheathed their swords now and lunged for the woman as well. Most of the patrons just sat there and watched in disbelief and a growing fascination. Two of the closest men swung their swords towards the woman's midsection but made contact with air as she leapt straight up, somersaulted in mid air and landed on the table straddling the leader who still leaned against it. He stared at her thighs, now eye level with his head and froze. She smacked her legs together painfully against his head. She released him and watched him sink to the floor in stunned silence.
His henchman, four in total, watched in astonishment. They circled the warrior woman with some trepidation now, swords drawn. Xena was visibly grinning now which further unnerved the men. Two lunged forward with their swords but Xena was already moving. She jumped vertically into the air and simultaneously kicked out with both boots making contact with the two lunging men. Two large cracking sounds resonated through the inn and both men slid to the floor half unconscious. They looked up at her through glassy eyes as she landed back down on her feet.
The two others swung their swords at her legs but she was way ahead of them. She back flipped landing on the adjacent table much to the surprise of the stunned patrons seated there. She kicked the back of the closest man and he sprawled into the empty table downing his companion across from him. They all landed in a tangled heap on the floor, writhing in pain and surprise, but mostly embarrassment.
Xena jumped down and landed on top of the leader. She knelt on his chest, glaring down at his quivering form. He eyed her with visible panic. "My name's Xena." She spoke as she smiled down at him. "I don't believe we've been properly introduced."
He lay there stunned until he realized she was waiting for a reply. "I..I'm kkk...Keltore..." He stuttered, his voice barely a whisper.
"Well remember this Keltore." She spat down at him. "If I ever see your sorry carcass again it will be your last day on this earth. " She leaned down further, "Have I made myself clear?"
Keltore nodded dumbly, beads of sweat forming on his brow.
"Now get out of here." She warned as she got up and stepped away.
He quickly gathered himself as did the others and they stumbled as a herd out the inn door. Keltore took one last look as he exited the establishment. His eyes narrowed in vile hate for this woman and he vowed he would kill her, but some other time.....he thought to himself. He and the others left the inn and headed out into the night, their tails tucked firmly between their legs.
The inn door closed and the crowd erupted into a whooping cheer. This show of admiration embarrassed the warrior and she turned to head back to the table and the safety of the corner. The inn keeper stopped her.
"I don't know how to thank you.." He started.
"Think nothing of it." Xena replied.
He extended his hand towards her. "My name is Nuktimos. I see you've already met my daughter Lucinda." She shook his hand in return. "You and your friend are welcome to stay here tonight, on the house of course." He added.
"I couldn't do that.." Xena said.
"It's the least I can do...please..." He looked into her eyes.
"Well, thank you." She accepted and returned his look with smiling eyes. "Maybe I can help with your problem?"
"No!" He cried, visibly shaken. "I don't want anyone getting hurt or risking themselves...." His voice trailed off. "You must leave tomorrow! It's not safe beyond these walls, not as long as the moon is full."
"As long as you stay here in fear.." She spoke to him but also turned to the crowd and spoke louder. "You will continue to be prey to this evil." She looked back and forth across the room. "You have to stand up to it...face it, or you will forever be haunted by this demon, and your own fear itself."
The room was silent. No one could look into her eyes. "I'll need some time to form a plan but I will capture your beast." She made a promise to the crowd.
Gabrielle cringed visibly in the corner. No Xena, she pleaded silently, please no.
"It's too late to do anything tonight. First we see if it returns. Then we build a trap in which to catch it." She finished and with that last thought left to settle amongst the villagers she headed back to Gabrielle. She saw the look on the bard's face and knew she was not pleased.
"You said you had a room?" Xena said as she approached Lucinda and Gabrielle. Lucinda nodded and led the two women down the passage at the back of the inn and towards the best room in the house. Xena avoided Gabrielle's eyes but she felt them burning into her back as she headed down the passageway to privacy, and perhaps, their first fight.
"Are you crazy!!!" Gabrielle cried pacing back and forth in front of the fire.
Xena sat on the bed watching the bard wear a path into the carpet that lay in front of the hearth. She didn't speak for she knew it would not matter what she said now. The bard was on a roll and she decided to wait her out. She watched with slight humor as the bard's arms waved around frantically. She was so cute when she was angry.
Gabrielle stopped and turned to look at Xena. "Xena!" She barked. "Why must you always take care of other people's problems!" The warrior just stared at her. She began to pace again. She stopped and turned to look at her again. "Look, " She said, "This thing...whatever it is, sounds terrifying....you can't just go out there and.." Her voice trailed off as she noticed a small grin being barely contained at the corner of Xena's mouth.
"Xena." Gabrielle spoke sternly, her eyes attempting to give Xena one of her own looks but missing the mark. She was getting angrier. "What's so funny? Can I ask you that? Hmmm?" She glared at her warrior sitting on the bed and looking good enough to eat. Damn her for looking so good, she thought to herself. Damn her for....she lost her train of thought as she watched Xena pat the bed beside where she sat, gesturing her to come sit down. She stood there torn between beginning another pacing frenzy or giving in to her weary bones and sinking into the softness of her warrior. She hovered in indecision for a brief moment.
Xena watched the bard hesitate and knew she was close to trapping her quarry. She smiled at her lover and shot Gabrielle the best soft eyed look she could muster. Gabrielle's eyes melted and she knew she had her.
Gabrielle's heart contracted at the sight of Xena looking so forlorn and immediately went to her side. She came over and sat down heavily on the bed beside her proud warrior, tears forming in her eyes. Xena put her arm around the bard and pulled her close.
"Shhh" Xena whispered as she pulled the bard into her, her head resting on Gabrielle's, now nestled into her shoulder.
"Oh Xena..."Gabrielle whispered. "I'm frightened."
"I know." Xena said hugging her tighter. They sat there holding each other and gazing into the fire for some time before a knock on the door interrupted them.
Xena got up and went to the door, irritated at this intrusion on their private moment. "Who's there?" She barked.
"It's me, Lucinda...."She spoke from behind the closed door with some hesitation. "I've brought the bath water."
Xena's eyebrow arched and a wicked grin spread across her face. She opened the door in a welcoming gesture. "Come right in."
Lucinda finished filling up the bath and headed towards the door to leave. "If there's anything else you need..."
"We'll let you know." Xena finished, her arm resting on the rim of the door. She looked at Lucinda who hesitated as if stalling. "Is there something wrong?" Xena asked.
"No, nothing, I just wanted to thank you for what you're doing...we're.." Lucinda started.
"You already have." Xena cut her off once again with growing impatience. She looked at the woman and noted that she did not look good. "Now stop worrying and get some rest. Everything will be fine." She reassured her. Then she noticed with mild irritation that the woman was no longer listening to her. She was staring past her, towards the window. Xena turned to look as well. The moon was visible from the open window and it was now high in the night sky. It appeared even larger than normal but Xena was sure it was her own imagination that made it so.
"I'll be going..." Lucinda said quickly and before Xena could turn to say good-bye she had disappeared down the passage into darkness.
Xena was left standing with the door open wondering just what exactly had just transpired.
"Xena?" Gabrielle called to her. "The bath water will get cold if you hang around that doorway much longer."
Xena turned to see the bard was undoing the laces of her green top and quickly forgot everything that was bothering her. She closed the door and walked towards the bard while slowly removing her breastplate.
"My head hurts!" Growled Tennus, one of Keltore's men. The group were walking along the road and into the forest that bordered the valley. Some were limping, shoulders sagging, and all were mumbling obscenities under their breath.
"Shut up or I'll make it really hurt. "Keltore barked at him through clenched teeth. His own head throbbed more with each step he took but he would be damned if he would admit it openly. His hatred for that woman warrior grew with each pulsing dagger that shot through his skull. He was blinded to all around him save the ice blue of her stare that he could not erase from his mind's eye.
"Now what'll we do Keltore?" Stanton whined from behind him. He was holding his elbow with great care.
"Stop whining and let me think, damn you to Hades." Keltore cried and flinched as a fresh wave of pain pierced his skull. He lowered his voice considerably. "We'll travel a bit of distance and make camp and then we'll plan for attack. I want that woman warrior dead." He spat out this last statement like venom.
Tennus laughed from behind him. "You must be mad!" The others joined in.
Keltore stopped dead in his tracks and whirled around towards his men. The laughter died on their lips. "If none of you are man enough to follow me then speak now!!" He growled, his eyes slits of seething anger.
"I...it's just that..."Tennus's voice trailed away. He looked nervously at the others. "I mean she's..."
Keltore leaned forward his eyes burning holes into Tennus's face. "She's what?!"
Tennus flinched visibly then gained inner strength and spoke his piece. "She's a far better warrior than you could ever hope to be!" He leaned into Keltore, his own anger now replacing his initial fear of their leader.
Keltore's face shook with a barely containable rage, his face turned a deep crimson. He looked around at his other men and his anger deepened as he saw their eyes echo the sentiments of Tennus. He closed his own eyes to gain some semblance of control and took a deep breath. The men held their own breath in fear of what was to come from this deadly exchange of truths.
There was a lengthy pause in which no man moved. Then, suddenly, without ceremony, Keltore turned on his heels and walked away heading into the forest. "You're on your own then." He said as he disappeared into the shadows of the trees. "The blood of Xena will be mine alone." And with that he was gone.