Chapter 25: I've Just Cut Off The Flow Of Blood To Your Um...

As the men were trudging home, wondering what to do next, Xena, mounted on Argo, was silently bushwhacking through the woods, her wary eyes on the lookout for members of the search party. It wasn't difficult to track last night's raiders on the initial leg of their retreat, but given Xena’s desire to keep her presence secret for the time being, she had to steer clear of the road and content herself with making slow progress in the brush.

Xena eventually reached the spot where the raiding party had left the road for their climb into the hills. At that point, she paused and scowled. Without meaning to, the searchers had made a mess of the trail, obliterating any useful signs that might have pointed Xena in the direction of the bandits' redoubt. Clearly, the search party had been on the tail of the kidnappers, and Argo had no trouble trotting along the wide swath made by their passage. The trail soon began its ascent. It zigged through a narrow, stony crevice and zagged above a notch spiked with a young growth of reedy trees that gave out sprays of spiny leaves atop long, thin sticks of trunks. The notch topped out along the rise just below the leafy expanse that lifted above a gorge within sight of the distant ridge. It was at this spot that the men had decided to turn back after a feeble attempt to venture down to the lower glens where the trail began its climb once more, this time steeper and rockier than before.

As Xena surveyed the notch with its lookout to the east, she drew a blank. The shelter of the distant ridge seemed the most likely place for the outlaws to have pitched their camp. It was a high, broad and well-guarded butte overhung by a towering outcropping of rock, an ideal place for any gang to hole up but also, for that reason, an obvious one. In the dead of night, on horseback, in the company of two frightened hostages neither of whom could ride well, a direct assault on the ridge would have been foolhardy, subjecting the horses to a flagrant risk of injury given the treacherous slope of the terrain that ran up and over craggy bluffs which offered little to no visibility at the dark of the moon.

As Xena mulled over her options, she noticed little white granules of fluff flying about, some of which landed on her leathers before fluttering away. One of them tickled her nose and made her sneeze. She waved a hand in front of her face to bat these puffy annoyances away.

"Milkweed," she frowned. "What are sprinkles of milkweed doing up here in the hills? Milkweed likes to cluster around ponds and marshes."

Still frowning, Xena turned Argo away from the trail's incline to examine a scrawny stand of stemmy hardwoods from whose floor the lilting puffs of milkweed seemed to emanate.

"That's peculiar," Xena mused. "Milkweed doesn't ordinarily grow among beeches, chestnuts and stands of white oak."

Curious about the appearance of the milkweed and not having any better clues to go on, Xena meandered a little ways into the hardwoods and, sure enough, fluffy pips of the powdery milkweed were floating in abundance on the breeze. And then, a little further into the grove, Xena happened upon their source.

The ground leveled off and began a mild decline to a mushy bog in whose soggy goo there grew a smattering of marsh reeds, brown catkins and pods of milkweed, some of which had recently burst to send their silky strands wafting through the air. On the far side of the bog, a narrow opening in the woody grove looked as though it might lead to an obscure side trail.

Braving the mosquitoes and deer flies, Xena and Argo plowed through the sticky muck and, sure enough, a little-used path ran from the far side of the grove into a vale of firs whose new-fallen needles, more orange than brown, coated the ground like a soft, satiny carpet. Pressed into the carpet, faint but detectable, were the imprints of horses' hooves that couldn't have been more than a day old as they hadn't yet been covered by additional drifts of the blown, falling needles.

From that point, it was a fairly simple task to track the raiders through the woods. The path wound away from the craggy notch and the broad approach to the distant ridge to veer, in a grand spiral, via a much less precipitous trail, toward the back side of the ridge. A league or two further into the woods, Xena came upon the spot where the palfreys had been waiting to carry Lila and Alexis the rest of the way to the camp. Traces of the milling horses were everywhere. The raiders had made no effort to cover their tracks. It would have been extremely difficult to do in any event, with darkness all around and the path, in places, uncertain and, once or twice, blocked by fallen tree trunks so that the trail temporarily vanished in the brush.

Being a skilled rider on a seasoned mount, Xena managed, in less than a candlemark, to ascend the slope to the broad plateau below the well-fortified ridge.

Just as the tree growth began to thin, Xena's intuition brought her up short. Reining Argo to a halt, she perched in the saddle and listened to the soughing of the beeches and the soft swaying of the firs. Then she turned her head ever so slightly to the rear. Her eyes widened, her ears perked, her hand tensed and, with reflexes honed razor-sharp in numerous battles and skirmishes, Xena flung her arm upwards with lightning speed just in time to catch, mere thumblengths from the side of her face, the twisting quarrel of a finely fletched arrow that came hurtling silently through the air and, had she not grabbed it in mid-flight, would lethally have pierced her neck.

With a blood-curdling "la-la-la...!" Xena vaulted out of the saddle and sprinted in pursuit of her fleeing attacker. A mighty backflip, accompanied by her frenzied war cry, brought Xena somersaulting over the head of her opponent to land on her feet a dozen paces in front of him. These unexpected gymnastics brought the sniper skittering to a halt.

The fellow was dressed in leather and brass and wore a plated helmet whose visor hid his face. A quiver of arrows jangled on his back as he flung his bow to the ground and whipped a heavy iron sword out of its scabbard, extending the blade in front of him with both hands gripping the pommel.

"Prepare to meet your doom, woman," the swordwielder prophesied.

"Not before you've told me what I want to know," Xena said in a cagey, soft-spoken voice as she gazed at her adversary with a wickedly snarling smile. "Do yourself a favor and put that thing away before you get hurt."

With a bumbling yowl, the attacker took a run at Xena, wildly waving his sword in the hope of landing a stunning blow.

"Bad move," Xena smirked as she kick-boxed the sword out of his hand. The sword flew upwards on the vertical as high as the tallest tree top.

The attacker then whipped out a dagger and made a second lunge.

"Another bad move," Xena repeated as she sidekicked her opponent in the breastplate, causing the dagger to go flying and him to topple and land on his back with the wind knocked out of him.

The fellow's eyes, staring upwards, grew wide with hideous fear as the tip of the sword, descending with lightning speed, came rushing downwards on a beeline to a spot between his eyes. At the last instant, Xena thrust out her forearm, mere thumbwidths above her fallen foe's nose, and, with the brass scrollwork of one of her bracers, deflected the sword whose blade turned speedily aside to imbed itself, with a clanking boi-oi-yoinng, in the trunk of a nearby tree.

Xena knelt beside her vanquished opponent and, with two of her fingers locked together, jabbed him sharply at the base of the neck.

"I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain," Xena looked down at him. "You'll be dead in the drop of thirty sand grains unless you tell me what I want to know."

"No! Not the pinch!" the fellow exclaimed, the cords of his neck growing taut under the strain, and a trickle of blood running down his cheek from one side of his nose. "Gack! You must be... Xeee... nahhh... I made a big mihh... histake. I wasn't sup... possed to try and... kii...hill you."

"Why not?" Xena said through gritted teeth. "Where's Latrinus and what has he done with the girls?"

"I cah... ha... an't teh...ell you. Lattt... rinus will haa... ave my heh... heh... head if I spi... hill the buh-buh-beans," the fellow yammered under great internal strain.

"So Latrinus must suspect that I'm coming," Xena thought out loud. "In fact, he must be waiting for me to come. Why?"

"I cah... hahhn't say. Latrinus doesn't tuh-tuh-take well to... stuh-stuh-stoolies," the fellow gasped.

"Given your options," Xena glowered at the stricken henchman, "and considering that you've got about ten sand grains of consciousness left before you catch the next boat across the River Styx to Tartarus, I don't think you've got much choice. Talk!!"

"Up there...," the fellow groaned. "Above that brush... sshy knob. There's a guh-gap in the rocks that luh-leads to the rurrr...ridge. The camp is jjjj...ust to the east, surr... ounded by a wuh-windbreak."

"And the girls?" Xena grabbed him by the collar above the breastplate. "Where's Latrinus keeping them?"

"They're thu-thu-ere," the fellow yammered. "Lah... lah... last I nuh-knew..."

The fellow started going into convulsions. Xena zapped him again, and he collapsed in a cold sweat as the air came rushing back into his lungs and the blood surged back to his brain. Xena reared back and – ker-pow! – popped him in the chops. Little birdies started whistling around his head as the stars came out just before the fellow flopped down on the dirt for a bit of a snooze and a head that would be feeling as big and full of seeds as a giant pomegranate when he woke up some time around midnight.

Hopping onto the saddle, Xena climbed the trail and started poking around in the junipers and thick bands of scrub hemlock that bordered the perimeter of Latrinus' now visible camp. He'd picked a good spot for a hideout, easily defensible from the main approach yet, if overwhelmed by a sufficient force, one that offered a not too dangerous escape route though a copse of low trees and bushes. And – as an added bonus – there was no place to run the gang's horses off in an effort to foil a quick getaway.

Sneaking silently around to the rear of the camp, Xena got a feel for its layout: the two wooden huts, the tents and fire pits, the makeshift corral for the horses, the rustic, sanitary facilities. This wasn't a hideout intended to last for any length of time. It was plainly a staging area for an imminent operation and quick departure.

The aroma of skinned rabbit roasting on a spit came drifting over to the spot where Xena was hiding. The scent of the singed meat was overlaid with the sweet smell of corn and meal being baked for bread. And there, on the far side of one of the fire pits, stoking the low blaze with little bits of tinder, was Alexis, sitting on a log, dressed in slacks and a jacket. Her thick, wavy hair lay gracefully bunched on her square shoulders. Her broad, sallow face, freckled and attractive, seemed composed. Draped across her forehead was a swath of wrapped bandage that looked, from where Xena was crouching in the brush, like a wide headband.

One of the gang members came over and squatted down beside Alexis. He appeared to be talking softly to her. Alexis smiled and made room for him to sit next to her on the log at which point he began to tend the fire. Shortly afterwards, he motioned for Alexis to turn her face to one side. Then he reached up and ran a slow hand along the sweep of her headband. It seemed to Xena that the fellow was touching her carefully, even tenderly, while, for her part, Alexis seemed not to shy away from his touch.

A hostage permitted to tend a fire? With little to no supervision? Very unusual. Anyhow, one down, one to go. Where was Lila?

Xena circled the premises, scoping out its dimensions, the whereabouts of its installations, the number of its defenders and the types of arms with which they were equipped, also the condition of their horses. But there was no sign of Lila. She must be inside one of the huts. Or, on second thought, maybe she wasn’t there at all….

Xena stealthily made her way back to the far side of the windbreak and skittered down the incline to the glade where her attacker was lying zonked out in the grass, three sheets to the wind. She let out a low whistle and Argo came trotting over from the spot where she'd been waiting, concealed in the high shrubbery close to the trail. Xena swung herself casually onto the saddle and began a gradual descent to the bog and, lower down, to the notch. Then, following the crush of the day's unsuccessful search party, Xena and Argo ambled out to the main road that led west by northwest to the place where a much more formidable challenge awaited the

Warrior Princess' many skills: saying hello to Gabrielle's parents.

Continued in Part 26

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