Chapter 42 - 44
By M. Parnell
In the end, Xena refused the bath, but acquiesced to a brief nap. Gabrielle shook her awake carefully. "Come on Xena, time for the Warrior Queen to put in an appearance." Xena gave her a quick smile before recalling the task of the evening. It was just dusk, torches were being lit around the castle, and Gabrielle had illumined Xena's bed chamber. She knew a warrior couldn't go into battle feeling vulnerable, and allowed her time to put the emotion of the past hours behind her. Toughen up, she seemed to say, as she slapped Xena's greaves, then bracers into her hand. She busied herself while Xena donned her own armor. She liked to help with that job, but felt that Xena needed the time to focus on her job, and her garb was all part of that. Gabrielle was ready to go. Except for one detail.
"Xena. Are dispatches really getting through?"
"Yeah." Too much traffic in and out of here for my liking, she thought.
"Could a rider carry word from me to Ephiny?"
The blue eyes narrowed. "What message?" she asked, her suspicion evident.
"Just to put her mind at rest. Let her know I'm all right."
"Just that?" she pressed.
"What do you think I'll say?"
"I don't want you summoning help from Ephiny for this battle. It's my fight."
"Xena, you can read it before it goes out, if it makes you feel better." Gabrielle had guessed it might come to that. For a change she felt one step ahead of Xena. Maybe. "I'll just get my things from the infirmary - "
"It's done. I wasn't going to let you stay there." Xena spoke without apology.
"Oh." Gabrielle didn't know if she liked that assumption of control, but decided that issue could wait for another day. She hoped. "Where am I staying?"
"I had your things put in the room which adjoins mine. Was that all right?" Suddenly uncertain, she offered an alternative: "Look around. This suite has enough rooms to house the Queen's Own. Take your pick."
"I will." Gabrielle moved to the room Xena had chosen for her and did a quick survey. "Not bad," she admitted, then picked up her few bags and hauled them back to Xena's room. She dropped them on the floor. "I'll unpack later." She smiled at the relief in the warrior's face. "I just have to find my scrolls. I sent some on ahead, but there should be some in here...Ah! Here they are. Go do your stuff, Xena. I'll just be a few minutes."
Already Tarimides was at the door, ready for last minute instructions before the foray. He was puzzled at the continued presence of Gabrielle, but understood Amazons to be a strange lot. He waited for Xena to seal several documents. Gabrielle finished rolling her own with a flourish and handed it to Tarimides. "Could you get this to the Amazons, please? They shouldn't be to far out of reach." He raised an eyebrow to Xena. She took the scroll, unrolled it and read. She re-rolled it and handed it to Tarimides. "Do as she asks. Sorry," she directed to Gabrielle. "It isn't that I don't trust you..."
"It's okay." She stooped to tie her boot. "I'm all set," she announced.
Xena stared. Somehow she hadn't expected this. "You aren't coming," she said flatly. "It's too dangerous."
"It's more dangerous if I stay behind." Tarimides excused himself discretely.
Xena leveled a stare at Gabrielle. "You're about the only Amazon who did no sparring during the visit. When's the last time you even touched your fighting staff? That night at the inn?" She guessed by Gabrielle's silence that she was right. "You didn't have it on the road to Amazon Territory, and you don't have it now. You can't go into battle unarmed, Gabrielle."
"I'll get my staff."
The dark head shook emphatically. "No. You're out of practice, and you're heart isn't it."
"I'll be fine - "
"Sure. Maybe. And I'll be distracted. I can't be worrying about you, and still get the job done."
"Xena - "
"Gabrielle. You want me to stay alive? Then, please, let this be my decision." Gabrielle stood speechless. "You can be my shadow when I get back, all right?" she asked gently. "Besides, we're riding. Hard."
The bard struggled against Xena's logic, wanting to see it as patronizing, yet realizing she spoke the truth. She was also convinced there was a higher truth.
"I'm coming. I heard you talking, Xena. You're taking carts, each manned by two soldiers. I can ride in a cart. Xena, I'm your shadow, remember?" She grinned. Xena stopped arguing. "My keeper," she shot at her as they left the room. She wasn't smiling.
There was no way to be stealthy with a half-dozen carts and twenty men on horseback, so speed was of the essence. The route had been well reviewed; no one hesitated as they clattered through the empty streets of Pres. Against her first instinct Xena had decided that the men whose families were in danger were to be part of the expedition. They knew the district, and would know when each household was accounted for. Her nagging fear was that personal considerations would be put ahead of the mission, but she weighed that against what she knew would certainly be true: these men with families at their side would fight like harpies to keep them safe. To keep them focused, she had spread the theme of the mission, indeed a theme of her reign, up and down the small line of march:
"Take back our streets!"
So it was that Arcus was astride one of the thundering mounts that rounded the corner and stopped before the neat row of homes that Gabrielle had first seen that awful night when Xena had been taken by Radec. He had explained to Gabrielle while they waited to depart that Delia and a still-weakened Woody had not arrived at the castle. He expected that they were all right but...She followed his progress as he ran through the courtyard to his home, and on a sudden impulse followed him; her guilt over Woody's near-fatal wounds still pricked her conscience. Delia's kitchen was as she remembered, fragrant with spices, vibrant with splashes of color in the steady moonlight. She paused by the table, still set, as if a meal had been interrupted. Arcus came down the stairs and started at her shadowy form. "Delia?" he asked hopefully.
"Arcus. No, it's Gabrielle."
"Not here. Must have - " he began, when a piercing cry shattered the night air. They ran toward the sound, in time to see Xena, sword raised over her head, attack a small band of soldiers that sought to turn over the cart Gabrielle had ridden in. These were not brown-shirts, but mercenaries that had ridden in with Memnos. They abandoned the cart and turned their attention to the solitary rider who bore down on them; nothing in their lives had prepared them for what they were about to meet.
Gabrielle paused at the courtyard gate, arrested by the poetry of movement that was Xena in action. As each man unsheathed his sword, Xena's savage grin widened. No cold-blooded killing would be necessary; they would all die with steel in their hands, and a chilling laugh echoing in their ears as they slid into darkness. It was over in a moment; Xena looked to where she knew Gabrielle stood watching her, then moved down the street to some new clamor.
The streets began to bustle with people. Laden with children and bundles of gear, they pressed toward the carts, comforted by the presence of loved men in uniform, and the knowledge that they hadn't been abandoned. Gabrielle threw herself into the effort to load the carts, casting anxious glances over her shoulder, looking for the raven-haired warrior in every movement. At last they were ready to go, all the carts full, some soldiers clutching small children before them on their saddles. It couldn't be helped; one cart had broken an axle, and the overflow had to ride somewhere. Still, Xena surveyed the scene with trepidation. Damn, in Prestia something always seemed to go wrong. She noted Arcus speaking from horseback to Gabrielle in her overcrowded cart; it seemed that his family had not been found. She swore again. "Gabrielle. That cart needs to be lightened." She held out a strong arm, and waited for Gabrielle to grasp her meaning. At last she took the arm and Xena lifted onto Argo. The precariously balanced cart seemed to right itself, and Xena spurred ahead to lead them forward.
They returned by a different route, to keep Radec's troops off-guard, and to look for additional townsfolk who might need aid. Some casual looting was underway. The brown-shirts saw the approaching movement and struggled between holding their loot and defending themselves. Or simply running. It was common knowledge among them that an encounter with the Warrior Princess was to meet death itself. As they scattered, Xena was only too aware that Gabrielle rode at her back, as witness to all she would do. No one opposed her, and she fought the impulse to strike them anyway. Damn, if it wouldn't endanger Gabrielle, she would have rescued the hard earned possessions of the townspeople and dispatched a few more of Radec's superior numbers despite the bard's pleas for mercy. Instead she rode a sweeping arc around the little procession, her presence alone serving notice that it was not to be interfered with. The brown-shirts were pleasantly surprised at her silent truce, and happy to acknowledge it. Except for one, who stepped out of a darkened doorway and unleashed a crossbow-dart at the warrior. Gabrielle gripped tight in reaction to the sudden rearing of Argo. The bolt passed by harmlessly, but the warrior had glimpsed the now-panicked bowman as he fled the scene, and her fingers were around her chakram, prepared to deal death one more time this night.
"Xena. He's no threat," the younger woman whispered urgently, daring to place a hand on the other woman's arm. "Let him go. Please." In that moment, he was gone. Xena didn't reply, didn't look at the woman, but drove her heels into Argo's flanks, berating herself for letting Filxon live. A second time.
"Are you angry?"
"No, Gabrielle, for the third time, I'm not angry."
"But something's wrong."
"I told you. It goes against my nature to let scum like Filxon have a second chance, let alone a third chance." She stepped out of the leather battledress and stepped into the large tub. Fragrant water lapped over the sides as she sat. She took a moment to appreciate the soothing warmth, and touched the wound on her thigh, afraid to remark on the fact that the pain had been minimal for hours. She picked up a sponge and began to scrub the accumulated grime and blood of the day from her body. As the blood washed away, she felt renewed surprise that Gabrielle had consented, had been eager to share the bath. It made her want to hug the little bard, and so she did. Gabrielle squealed in pleasant shock as the big arms enveloped her. How I've missed that, she sighed, as she caught her breath. "What was that for?" she asked, just to hear it said aloud.
"If you have to ask, you don't deserve to know," Xena whispered evasively in he ear, sending a shiver down the smaller woman's spine. That was enough. The bard turned to face her, and began to wash the well-muscled frame, scrubbing at the tough dirt, lingering softly on the discolored bruises that seemed always to be there. Xena watched her face as she worked, wondering at her luck, until she snatched the sponge and returned the favor.
"Yess," she drawled, as she began to lather the bard's hair.
"I saw your balcony performance last night.
"Just remember, it was a performance," Xena responded, a little embarrassed to discuss it.
"I know. I just wanted to say that you were beautiful. I thought my heart would break just watching you." Xena's movements slowed. "I wasn't the only one. I think half of Prestia is in love with you." The dark head slid beneath the surface at that. When she emerged, Xena shook the water from her hair and climbed out of the tub. "Wasn't really fair of me," she observed. "They have to fight because they love this place, love each other. It isn't about me." Gabrielle saw a cloud over the warrior's face, and regretted bringing it up. "When this is over, they'll need more than memories of me by torchlight to get them through."
Salmoneus waited in the spacious main room of the suite with a sheaf of scrolls, and a freshly laid table. Xena entered, in battledress, sans armor. Wet hair hung about her neck and shoulders; Salmoneus tore his eyes away to keep his mind on the business of the realm. "Xena. Magnificent job. Really, the buzz around the castle is all about tonight's raid. These people feel that you're invincible right now."
She regarded him soberly. "But?" she asked.
He shrugged. "One of the citizen advisors is upset about the bloodshed."
She blew out a sigh. "That's not fair," Gabrielle said. "One civilian casualty, no one in the army killed...What does he expect."
"Calm down, Gabrielle." She quirked an eyebrow at Salmoneus. "Syton?" He nodded. "Syton's had a cozy relationship with Radec for years," Xena explained. "He stands to lose a lot when Radec's gone. No point talking to him. How do the others feel."
"No problem. They're excited about your proposals." A pleased smile played on her lips for a moment. "They do want some clarifications."
"Give them to them; you have authority to speak for me about the proposals." Syton was a special case. He had much influence on the appointed council. He was the self-appointed envoy to those members of the council who had chosen to remain ensconced in town, neutrals in the struggle. She wouldn't force them to move to the castle confines, but had chosen to limit their access to the castle. Syton had sworn loyalty to her reign, and requested permission to keep the absent members up-to-date about council matters. She had granted the request. At the time it had seemed important for her to be deemed a fair person. Now she regretted that decision; it seemed more important to limit Syton's activities. "Make sure Syton is watched."
"I'm a step ahead of you there. He's spending a lot of time with Drusander." Her brow furrowed. She hadn't expected Drusander to sketch her a bow, but he hadn't seemed like a threat. Until now.
Gabrielle knew that something had Xena upset. "Is Drusander a problem? He seems harmless enough."
"Could be a problem. He's the uncle and guardian of the only other viable heir to the throne. If someone wants to use Teremon as a means to depose me, Drusander would be the key. I should toss him in the dungeon right now, ' she said aloud.
"Do it," Salmoneus intoned. "You haven't been around him, Xena. Your
name alone makes him foam at the mouth."
"He wanted to pull the strings for a little boy king," she said dismissively.
"You left his bed." Gabrielle reminded her in an odd voice. The green eyes flashed a little, remembering how she felt when Xena was with Drusander.
Gods, of course, Xena thought with self reproach. How can I tell them that I've all but forgotten that? She searched for Gabrielle's eyes, but the bard pulled them away. Another apology due.
"Whatever the reason, he's not one of my fans, but if I put him in the dungeon, Teremon loses the one constant figure in his life."
"You care about that little boy," Gabrielle commented. "Yet, you seemed so cold..."
"Gabrielle, that little boy is my brother. If I've been cold, well, just remember how Callisto reacts to anyone I care about." She spoke a painful truth, and it showed in the cloud that settled on her brow. "She won't be very friendly toward you once she realizes you're still here. With me."
"Yeah." Callisto had been far from the bard's thoughts. "Does my being here make things harder for you Xena?"
"Harder?" She grinned. "Callisto's just a thing I have to deal with. Like the weather. If you weren't here, I think things might be impossible." She gathered her into her arms for a kiss, unmindful of the waiting Minister-without-portfolio.
"What else Salmoneus?"
"Happy news. A new Prestian made his appearance last night. A strapping boy, named Xenos. You've won them, Xena."
"Salmoneus, I'm riding a tiger. One slip and I'm history."
The third day of Queen Xena's reign saw a rare daytime deluge in Prestia. The sunny skies had turned dark just before dawn, and rain fell steadily as the day's tasks began. Some saw this as an evil omen. Xena saw it as respite from the threat that Radec would torch the town. She hoped to use this day for planning an end of the crisis. First she had to make her rounds of the castle enclosure. Her subjects responded warmly to the now familiar features, and she had grown accustomed to the deference they showed their monarch. It was similar to the way her soldiers, or conquered, had behaved in her presence when she was a warlord: standing aside for her, standing in her presence, addressing her by title. It was different in that there was no fear in their eyes. She could live with that for the time it was necessary. Gabrielle watched the display with gentle pride. When a visit was paid to the new mother and Infant Xenos, the mischievous bard had urged Xena to hold the child, enjoying the rare picture of Xena's maternal instinct on display. Then she had gone to at work the infirmary, and Xena had continued to a meeting with her officers, happy that her body was free of pain, for the moment, anyway.
Gabrielle was surprised to find Arcus waiting in the infirmary for her. He wasn't injured, the king's household was well, he assured her, but he needed something, for pain, in case Woody was too ill to travel without it. "You've found them?" she asked.
"Not yet. But I think I know where they might be. Did you notice the soup was still warm on the table last night?"
She hadn't noticed, but followed where his words led. "They must be hiding close by, right?"
"A little place beneath the stable floor, a sort of root cellar, odd place, but I don't know who built the house; it's been there for donkey's years. If I had to hide, I'd be there. There was no time to look last night, but, well, Barrus and I thought we'd try our luck tonight, if he can avoid guard duty," he confided.
"Then I'll try it myself. I'm afraid to let it go another night. Please don't noise it about. Don't want to cause any fuss." Or be ordered not to go, he thought. "The rain looks like it's settled in for a spell, so we should have no moon, and that will help. Once the castle is quiet, we'll make our move. Be back in a wink."
"How will you get out of the castle?"
"I know this place pretty well. There's a place a guard will look the other way. Only for me," he assured her quickly. "Can't manage a cart, but two horses, one passenger each, will do nicely. I just need a little something to make it easier for Woody."
She nodded her understanding and measured out a powder into a small patch of cloth which she folded into a tight square. That should take care of it." She paused then asked sincerely: "Is there anything I can do?"
"No, Princess, you've done plenty. Xena looks very happy now." She was touched by this concern for the woman who had deposed his king.
"I know Xena would help you - " she began, but he shook his head.
"Xena's got enough on her plate. I think we'll do this ourselves," he told her.
The lack of sun made it necessary to light torches even at noon. A sooty smell drifted in from the corridor in the old barracks where they met, and Tarimides found himself rubbing his eyes as he tried to follow her map references in the flickering light. They were in a half-sunken room for the sake of security; the shutters, at eye level were closed, and only the shadow of the guard outside could be seen, as he paced his rounds, boots clomping against the cobbles in the cold rain.
"A frontal assault would be suicide," Tarimides argued.
"Who said anything about a frontal assault? A small band, working surreptitiously, can have the same effect with minimal risk." Xena's blue eyes shone with an almost impish joy. She looked forward with relish to a contained strike at the headquarters of Radec and his nefarious crew. The new general eyed her doubtfully. "It can't be done," he decided. "There's no way into that building."
"There's always a way," she assured him. "Have a little faith in your monarch, Tarimides. This is my kind of business," she said with a quick wink. He didn't know why her nonchalance should inspire such confidence, only that it did. He saw it mirrored in the faces of his subordinate officers. They turned back to her maps and diagrams with renewed interest. Xena spoke with quiet enthusiasm, detailing her part in the plan, explaining what assistance she would need, then sat and waited for objections. Her eyes followed those of her officers as they debated points at which the plan might fail, and she listened with approval to the rhythm of the rain, which, if anything, had increased. No other sound was heard. Then her head came around, finger to lips, and she rose to plant a powerful spinning back-kick on the shutter nearest her. Before the others had moved she hauled a soldier from the alleyway outside into the depths of their meeting room. She stood over him, and dragged him to his knees by his shirt.
"Majesty, wait, this is a man from my legion!" exclaimed an officer, wondering at her actions.
"I don't doubt it," she answered through bared teeth. "There are traitors in every army."
"I'm no traitor," he began to bawl. "I was just walking my rounds..."
"You stopped to listen," she told him. Who's paying you for information?"
"I wasn't listening," he protested, "I just...had to pee!"
"Liar," she hissed.
"I swear it's true!"
"You chose a funny spot for it." Her hands shot out to poke him on each side of his neck, and he went rigid where he knelt, while she stepped back to watch his face.
"Do I have to explain?" she asked.
"I already told you the truth," he protested.
"Then you'll pay a high price for peeing on duty." She turned her back and pretended not to notice while a trickle of blood began from his nose. She gestured her officers back to the maps, and they obeyed, but cast anxious glances at the soldier in distress.
"Stop it!" he gasped suddenly, "I'll tell!" She was there in an instant to remove the pinch; he had time for one quick breath before she demanded his story. "In my company there's a soldier, Virtis. We have duty together a lot. He always says you're a usurper, that you have no right to the throne. He had a bag of gold. He was going to pay for anything worth while." Satisfied, she threw a punch at his head and he collapsed before her. "Virtis," she spat.
Salmoneus peered over a scroll to where Drusander and Syton shared a simple meal of bread and cheese. No crime against eating together, he thought, but the two were obviously up to something, whispering, and stealing wary glances at each passerby. Overall, he'd rather Drusander were in the dungeon.
"You've heard the latest?" Syton was saying. "Word is that she laughed as the pyre was lit. The brown-shirts may be our enemies, at the moments, but we can't applaud her blood-lust. We can't delay in this Drusander, every day, her grip on the kingdom grows tighter. When she has silenced all opposition it will be too late."
Drusander considered. He was no supporter of Xena, believed her capable of awful deeds, yet what Syton proposed was too radical for his tastes. Placing Teremon at the center of the storm seemed dangerous.
"Syton, I don't feel comfortable placing Teremon in danger."
"You think he's not in danger now? What do you think Xena would do to the boy if she realized the threat he posed? I know she paints Radec as the monster in this, but consider what Radec heard from her own lips: the destruction of Cirra was her reaction to a baby being sick on her boots. Do you feel safe with a woman like that on the throne of Prestia?"
Drusander started in horror at those words. For days he'd listened to new arguments for Teremon standing as the symbol of a government in opposition. The boy-king, as an alternative to Radec and Xena, sponsored by the Advisory Council of Citizens. It seemed so reasonable. It would fulfill the intentions of King Cletus, and secure his birthright for the Teremon. Why then did he hesitate? Something about Syton? His own ignorance about Prestian politics? "I don't know Syton. Xena has the army behind, her, the people - "
"Yes, the people," he agreed shaking his head. "They love her, do they not? They've been bewitched, Drusander," he contended. "Just as she bewitched you, until you were expendable." The truth of his words hurt. "Help me break this spell before it's too late.
Too late for Prestia, too late for your sister's child."
She had bewitched him, he felt, and he still smarted over the memory. The bard was still confused, but from long practice he responded to his first duty: the protection of Teremon, and Teremon's best interests. "Tell me what to do," he said simply, placing his trust in the hands of the Council.
"You men have been recommended for this mission because of your valor, and proven skill."
If Virtis was honest with himself he would have questioned his place with the others, the elite of each outfit; but he was used to deception, and found it easy to believe the flattering lie. "It won't be easy," Tarimides continued, "but it is necessary for the safety of our realm. For the success of Queen Xena." Virtis stood a little straighter at her name, anxious to prove his loyalty. "For reasons of security you will be sequestered here for the remainder of the day. Any gear you need will be brought to you. Your final briefing will be held after the evening meal. I suggest that you rest now." He left, and the fifteen hand-chosen men chose bunks on which to spend their last leisure hours. Virtis chose his bunk, then began to sweat, wondering how he could get word out to his contact. His duties had thus far taken him outside the walls each day, where he could leave a message under a specified rock. He wouldn't be outside today, until it was too late. He had no stomach for going outside at all really, on a mission so dangerous. His bag of gold was another consideration. Once outside, he'd like to just keep going; the gold would make that all the easier. How to manage it? Necessary gear would be fetched, the officer had said. If he could arrange for the right mate to bring his things, he'd know what to bring if the message was clever enough; a few private, words and he'd know what to leave under the rock. He brightened. He would profit from this, and live.
They had made pitifully small progress that day, yet when Ephiny called an early halt, none of the Amazons were surprised. Backward glances along the road had been the order of the day since word had spread that Gabrielle had stayed behind. I can't keep this up, Ephiny thought, as she took a long draught of water. Not for one Amazon. Not even a part-time Amazon princess. Her eyes traveled sharply to the dusty rider who galloped into their camp, with the bearing of a soldier, but the clothes of a farmer. "Message from Prestia," she heard him say, as he slapped a scroll into Eponin's hand, and galloped off without asking for a reply. The unsealed scroll was addressed to Ephiny, who skimmed it before choosing to read it aloud to Eponin and Solari.
"Dear Ephiny, " it began, " Please forgive me for the deception, and try to understand why I had to stay. Things are better between me and Xena. Thank you for everything. I hope we can both see you soon to say that in person. I do need one favor. I sent my scrolls in one of the wagons. Would you check to see if they are okay? Pay particular attention to the new scrolls and ink that Salmoneus gave me. The last batch of those seemed to vanish completely. I keep hoping those words could appear again. Know that my thoughts travel with you. Love, Your Sister, Gabrielle."
Glances passed around the small circle, as Gabrielle's words were digested.
"Things are okay with them," Eponin commented, happily, yet bothered by some subtext in the script.
"Yeah. Why does that bother me?" Solari asked.
"You're a born cynic," Eponin replied pointedly.
"So why does it bother you? Solari rejoined, reading Eponin's face.
"That's not the part that bothers me. I expected that, sooner or later. It's the rest of it. Just sounds odd somehow."
"Then let's look a little deeper," Ephiny suggested.
Forty minutes later, while the rest of the encampment unwound from the day on the road, the trio put aside the last of the bundle of scrolls. Nothing. "Ladies, what are we looking for, anyway?" Solari asked at last. They had no reply, repacked the scrolls and joined the rest of the group as they sat down to their evening meal.
Virtis didn't realize until they were outside the walls that the Queen was with them, was leading the foray. He examined her in the dim light of torches, which struggled to stay lit in the rain which continued to fall. He wondered if it was true about her and the young Amazon. He dismissed it as barrack gossip. She was obviously all woman. He had stuffed his pants legs with the things he intended to bring away with him, when he made his break, and tied them tight at the bottom. He didn't carry much, and hoped the extra baggage wasn't too obvious in the baggy pants he wore. He looked around, wondering at the delay, and watched with interest as a new group arrived to join them. Extra numbers mattered little; his message for Glaucon's eyes had been very general, in the nature of mentioning that something would happen in a certain quarter of the city this night. He chuckled at the thought that Glaucon would fume when he found his spy had taken off, with advance payment in hand. Through the rain he made out the first late arrival. A coincidence that made him uneasy: Sarpus. His unease grew with the second figure, Metriolus, the mate who had fetched his gear. Panic set in when he saw the third: Chroliathon. He turned to run on jelly-legs, but the face he saw, inexplicably behind him now, was that of Xena. "Where do you think you're going?" she asked, with a wicked grin. She enjoyed his discomfort, then took in the oddly bulging pants. "You carrying a little extra luggage, or are you just real happy to see me?" Two fingers lodged under his chin and lifted him to stand on his toes. She reached with her sword to slash the ties around his ankles and his gold and assorted treasures spilled out. His co-conspirators were herded over and a gold coin was lifted from the gutter for each of the mouths before gags were affixed. The four were left with their swords, and at blade point marched before the grim warrior and her trusted lieutenants. They looked from left to right for any means of escape, but had no doubt she would cut them down at any false start. Sarpus whimpered behind his gag; Metriolus cast hateful glances at Virtis, he of the persuasive tongue.
A half-mile they walked, until the reflection in rain puddles of hidden candles, told of silent watchers. Radec's forces were alert for action, expecting some royal foray this rainy evening. They would not be disappointed. "Go meet your friends," Xena whispered harshly to the traitors before her, and booted Virtis in the rear end. He stumbled forward; at that moment she issued her inimitable cry. From an abandoned home poured swordsmen enough to meet her whole force. They made quick work of the four men they encountered, and looked for more, puzzled by the small number, and the gags on their mouths. Xena waited in the shadows, prepared to kill any survivors. Then she
wiped the rain from her grim face and led her soldiers back to their castle. They would each carry word of the treatment for traitors to a different barracks. She didn't know if she had cut away all the diseased flesh, but any other traitors would have a hard time finding recruits.
She was glad to come in from the rain, anxious to shed her leathers, and feel the warmth of the fire, or for preference, the bard, if she was back from the infirmary. She didn't feel the same rush from action as usual. Tonight's work had been grim, a sorry business. Four men dead, driven to certain doom by the tip of her sword. It was the same as killing them, she acknowledged; yet the object-lesson for her troops was reason enough to condone her actions. The alternative was a summary trial for treason and quick execution. The result would have been the same in either event. She tossed her boots in the corner, found a jug of wine, poured a cupful, amazed that she was really alone, no questions in her ear, no documents to be signed, no - She heard her door open, and rose, smiling, waiting expectantly for Gabrielle to join her. Suddenly the whole room seemed warmer.
"How was your day?" she asked as the bard came into view.
"Long," was the reply. Her face showed it. She looked tense and drawn. An uncomfortable chill touched Xena's heart, but she crossed to the other woman, and placed strong hands on her upper back, knowing how Gabrielle could respond to a soothing massage.
After a moment, the bard shrugged her off. "How was your day? Guess I don't have to ask, really. Ferreted out some traitors, huh? Then showed your men how the new queen reacts to treachery? One night I'm not at your side - "
"Word travels fast," was Xena's only comment.
"Wasn't that the point? For word to spread? To forestall anyone else who'd dare
think of betraying you?"
"Yes, Gabrielle," she agreed, "that was a big part of it. So what's the problem?" she asked, annoyed, and a little angry now.
"Problem? Why should there be a problem? Four men sent to face certain death...Sounds a little cold-blooded, but I guess it's not a problem," she ended sarcastically.
"Gabrielle, I sent them to face the ambush they helped arrange. Isn't that a kind of justice? They were willing to send me and the others 'to face certain death'. It just saved me the trouble of hanging them. It was no less than they deserved," she said reasonably, working to keep anger from her voice.
"What if you had the wrong men?" Gabrielle asked.
"I didn't. They each confessed."
"I heard. With your pinch to aid their memories. I'd probably confess to anything under those circumstances," she said caustically.
"Listen," Xena said, her patience near an end. "They confessed. They named each other. They described the roles each had in the conspiracy. It was a little circle of finger pointing and admission. Even without the pinch," she ended. "I left the full interrogation to others."
"You actually let someone else do something?"
Xena ignored the last comment. "Justice was served, Gabrielle."
"Justice? Xena, what about mercy? I just can't stop believing that even in situations like this we can't lose our humanity."
"Try to understand, Gabrielle. I couldn't let this go. I can't put down this rebellion with soldiers ready to sell out their comrades with little risk to themselves if they're found out!" She was losing the battle with her anger, and both women knew it.
" 'Sell out their comrades'? Or betray you, Xena? Isn't that what this is all about? Your basic reaction to betrayal?"
"What are you suggesting?" Blue eyes searched the bard's face, wondering at her meaning. "Do you think this was just some personal pique?"
"You tell me, Xena," she responded. "Look," she decided suddenly. "there's something I need to do. Don't wait up for me. The infirmary is very busy, even with the casualties being so light, there's always something to do. I might just sleep on a cot there."
Xena's heart sank at the bard's real meaning. "Don't go anywhere without your guard, Gabrielle," she warned, thinking more of the constant threat from Callisto than anything else. She could think of nothing to make Gabrielle stay. The chill had returned to the room.
There was more to conflict than killing, Gabrielle mused as she crossed the courtyard. War, rebellion, whatever Xena chose to term it, could bring out the best in people as well as the worst. If she could only hurry now, she could be part of a humanitarian mission. If Arcus and Barrus had not yet left... She spied Arcus from a distance, leading two horses from the stable; no sign of Barrus. She slipped beside him quietly, boots squishing softly in the puddles, and tugged at his sleeve. "Barrus not coming?"
He regarded her with surprise, then shook his head. "No." Gabrielle took the reins of the second horse from him. "Good thing I've become a better rider," she whispered.
Arcus shook his head emphatically; "No," he said firmly. "This is too
dangerous. Xena would have my hide if you're injured."
"I won't be injured. Xena need never know."
He was resolute, moving to grab the reins back from her, until she held out a threat he couldn't risk: "Of course, I could tell her right now. Then your mission wouldn't go at all." He doubted the young girl meant it, knew she shared his concern for Delia and Woody, yet the threat worked. Arcus was too distracted and weary to argue. Gabrielle had been counting on that. "Just hang on and stay close," he intoned softly.
Rain had cleared the streets of even the looters tonight, it seemed. They met no patrols as they wended their way through the town, until they pulled up before the little courtyard once again. Arcus dismounted to move quietly through the courtyard to the stable, where he hoped to find Delia and Woody. Gabrielle followed close behind, clutching a sodden shawl over her head in a vain attempt to keep the rain off. Arcus' head came around at a sudden noise. If they had company, he didn't want to lead them to his sister and wounded brother. "Mount," he mouthed to Gabrielle, and gave her a boost onto her steed. He remounted, and took her reins to a far spot of the yard where the horses would have only a stunted hedge to clear to leave the confined space. Behind him shadows moved and rain-sodden branches cascaded noisy showers as they were brushed. He wished Gabrielle was riding with him as they approached the small jump. He had led her into danger and feared now that he would not be able to save her. Too late to worry, he told himself, time to act. He could hear running footsteps in the wet earth now, as he veered to the side and urged Gabrielle to "Jump." She caught only a glimpse of the hedge as she spurred and held on, hoping the horse would know what to do. So many times she had taken a jump with Xena, and had never bothered to watch how Xena made it work. Oh, Xena, I'm sorry, she thought, wishing she had not walked out, remembering the lonely face she'd left behind her, as the muscles beneath her tensed and the horse left earth briefly to clear the obstacle. Then she was on solid ground, and moving away from the courtyard, from the voices that called after her to stop. She was sure she knew her way to the castle. Delia and Woody would have to wait for another time, she thought with regret, knowing that Arcus would feel the failure bitterly. She listened for his horse, realized he wasn't there, and reined to a halt, peering through the rain for a sign of him. For a moment she hesitated, torn between looking for him, and going on to find help. Xena will know what to do, she admitted at last, yet, as she prepared to spur forward, she was aware of movement around her, as if a nest of ants had been disturbed. They came from all sides, clubs raised, eager to bring them down on anyone. "Hiyaah!," she called to her mount, yet the bridle was held firmly now, and a voice said in surprise: "An Amazon!" A stronger voice gave a command and the group hushed, to let him move closer to examine their prize. She knew this face, had glimpsed it before, somewhere. He certainly knew her face, and his own split in a leering grin as he savored the irony. "You saved my life, little girl, and now I return the favor, for the moment," Filxon said. "Glaucon will be thrilled to be handed the usurper's woman."
The moonlight cast a glow on the Amazon warrior's face as she came to wakefulness, but it was not the moonlight which had awakened her. The scrolls would not leave her mind. She crept to Ephiny's tent, and called the queen softly, to alert her of her presence. It was unnecessary. Ephiny sat re-examining the scrolls, certain there was some significance to Gabrielle's message, but at a loss as to what it might be. "What?" she asked of Eponin's questioning face. "I hate mysteries!" she explained. A bunch of scrolls were tossed at Eponin's feet. "You take those. Read every word."
So they worked by torchlight, seizing on and discussing every reference, no matter how obscure, that might solve the mystery. The morning star was rising before Eponin began to roll the last document. "The only ones left are that blank bunch," she said wearily. "I don't suppose it's significant that Gabrielle usually makes a clear distinction between the ones she's written on, and the blanks. Seldom mixes them." Ephiny raised an eyebrow at her. "I helped her pack when we set out for Prestia," she said by way of explanation. "She was very particular about that. Like a warrior and her weapons, these are her tools, and her product." She held up a scroll, a quill, and a small, stoppered ink jar. At that moment Solari entered, pitching Eponin head first, scattering the contents of the cracked jar over a small pile of scrolls. "Damn, Solari," can't you announce yourself," she snapped, snatching the rest of the scroll's from the path of ink.
"Gabrielle won't be happy with that," Solari observed. "And you deserve it for sneaking behind my back like this."
"Excuse me?" the Amazon Queen protested. "Nobody's sneaking. It was fruitless anyway. The scrolls seem innocent. Except that these," she held up some blank scrolls, "are mixed in with the finished scrolls."
"Eponin. Which scrolls did the ink spill on?" Solari asked, clearly puzzled.
The ink-splattered scrolls were nowhere to be seen.
Eponin pointed to where she had tossed the scrolls. All were perfectly clean.
"The last batch seemed to vanish," Ephiny quoted Gabrielle's letter. She dug through Gabrielle's bundle and found a second jar. "Let's see what kind of ink she uses," she mused, as she unstoppered the jar, and poured as small amount onto her hand. It had no color at all. Her breath caught as she snatched up a scroll that had been spilled on. Carefully, she poured a drop onto the scroll, then another, and another. In each spot, a dark ink stain appeared. "Mystery solved. Half solved, anyway," she announced. "Get me the letter."
They started in the margins, then across the top, and finally along the bottom of the scroll, patiently daubing on the clear solution, and waiting for the strange alchemy to work. No luck. Ephiny's shoulders slumped, showing her disappointment. Solari grabbed the letter and asked tentatively: "Aren't these line spacings a little wide?"
Again they daubed, this time in the spaces between the bard's precise writing. They were rewarded as the subtext was revealed.
"Since you're reading this, I bless whatever genius among you figured it out.
I did stay behind, I am well. Xena has taken control of Prestia from Cletus, and Radec.
The final outcome is still in doubt, I guess, but I have faith in Xena, and feel in no danger for myself. Xena seems a little reckless." Solari snorted at that. "I know the gods have abandoned Prestia, but I never feel they abandon me. Please remember us to Artemis. I hope to see you again, soon."
That was all. Ephiny's mouth was dry as she finished reading. Her heart was pounding, and she knew it was the same for the others.
"Gods." Solari spoke first. "Queen Xena, battling for a kingdom. I thought she seemed a little too anxious for us to leave."
"What a mess," was Ephiny's only comment.
"If anything happens to Gabrielle..." Solari began.
"Xena didn't know Gabrielle stayed," Ephiny observed in defense of Xena. "And it's pretty obvious Xena doesn't want us getting involved, otherwise Gabrielle wouldn't have needed this deception. 'I fight my own battles'. That's what she said," Ephiny recalled.
"Yeah. Her own, and everybody else's," Eponin put in. There was silence for a moment. The sky was light now, and the first stirrings were heard in the camp outside.
Eponin stood suddenly, as if responding to a cry for help. "The road ahead is clear, Ephiny. You're well protected, and the lands you'll be passing through are friendly." She ducked her head for a moment. "I'm not really needed here, and I have some personal business that needs my attention. If you have no objection, I'll see you back home in a little while." The stoic face expected no opposition, and was not surprised when Solari spoke up.
"You know, Ephiny, it's a long time since I had any time away, with no official duties. I think I'd like to join Eponin." Ephiny rolled her eyes. This was no business of Amazons, she had no right to put her people in danger for this matter, but as Eponin pointed out, there were personal ties at stake here. She wanted to give each of the warriors a hug. She settled for a proud smile as she granted the requests. "I only wish I could take leave of official duties myself," she told them
Word of the letter spread through the camp like dye in clear water. Mutters of conjecture raised to a crescendo of open curiosity, until Ephiny felt bound to satisfy the whole camp. The letter was read to the hushed assemblage, and a lone voice asked : "Are we abandoning Gabrielle?"
"No one's being abandoned, Hela." Eponin spoke. She was ready to travel. Solari stood a little to the side, holding two sets of reins.
"Are the two of you going to make such a big difference? Ephiny, I'd like to take off for a few days."
"Me, too," came another voice, and another, until Ephiny was forced to call
"Sisters! I don't know what's happening in Prestia. It won't be the peaceful land we just left. I don't know if Gabrielle is in danger. I do know I won't object if anyone of you wishes to go back and find out. Just see Eponin and Solari with your intentions." In minutes, she stood alone, as the entire camp stood clustered around Eponin and Solari. "Now what duties does that leave me with?" Ephiny asked herself, a slow smile spreading over the tanned face.
From the dirty pallet Gabrielle watched the sky over Prestia grow light. It promised to be a beautiful day. Xena would be up and dressed she knew, already on her daily tour of the castle. She would not find Gabrielle in the infirmary, and would come looking for her. She hoped. Then her heart sank. Once again she had gotten in a jam and once again Xena would put herself at risk to pull her to safety. She had heard them talking, the night before, and knew Arcus had escaped them. It could be that he had already told Xena, and the warrior was about to burst in to rescue her. She looked at the thick walls of the cell that held her, recalled the glimpses she'd had of the building as she was hustled in from the rain. This place would test even Xena. Maybe there was no way out, this time. She let the thought play at the corners of her mind for a moment, before thrusting it away. Xena always found a way; she trusted in that. Until then, she would hope that Radec would hesitate before harming an Amazon princess. Or Xena's woman. In the brief time she'd spent in his presence Gabrielle had realized she had some value as a potential bargaining chip, leverage against Xena. About Glaucon, she wasn't so sure. He had struck her once, when she refused to tell him why they had been in the courtyard, who was with her. Of course, she realized the blow was payback for the way she'd tricked him in Amphipolis, more than anything else. He was nasty; his thugs were patterned after him, and that scared her.
Gods, she prayed, don't let this end up hurting Xena. Filxon's face drifted back to her, and she pictured herself arguing for his life on the road to Amazonia, urging Xena to mercy again just two nights before. Xena had sensed something about this... She shook the thought from her head, and wondered if, in Prestia, the gods would hear her prayer.
A sudden smile came to her, as she recalled something Ephiny had told her once: 'Artemis never abandons her Amazons. We carry her with us. I learned that at my mother's knee, Gabrielle.' With that assurance in mind, Gabrielle renewed her prayer, this time to the special attention of the patron goddess of the Amazons.
The stable hay had absorbed much moisture the day before, and still smelled damp as Teremon found his way to the golden mare. Argo shied away from Callisto, whinnying in alarm. "She doesn't like me," Callisto told the boy, not explaining the very good reasons why that was so. She stood far back and watched as the boy stroked the smooth hide.
"Argo feels like butter," he said aloud. "Smooth. And rich."
"Butter? Interesting," Callisto said.
"She smells like Xena," he continued.
"Xena smells like a horse? That's true enough," she smirked.
He laughed, and corrected her. "Xena doesn't smell like a horse, Callisto. Argo has picked up her scent."
"Which is what? Congealed blood?"
"Xena smells of the woods, and the meadows," he said after a moment.
"Pine, woodruff, birch bark, verbena; wild lavender. Like the earth. Like
Yes. And leather, and sweat and that oil she puts in her bath, Callisto added silently. "And what do I smell like?" she asked suddenly.
"You smell like no other, Callisto. Do you know how the air smells after a thunder storm?"
"Yes," she said uncertainly, recalling the faintly acrid odor.
"You like that smell?" she asked, just to be sure.
"I do. It's exciting. I always ask Drusander to open the windows after a storm to let that smell fill the house."
"Oh." She sometimes didn't know what to make of the boy, but found his honesty refreshing.
"Do you live here in the stable?" he was asking now. "You often smell as if you've just come from here."
"I sleep here. Sometimes. The palace is too busy. I like my solitude," she confessed. "No one bothers me here; except our big sister. Just the other night, she came here to sleep."
"You don't like Xena."
"No, I don't."
"You like everyone," she said with wonder. "I can't figure, though, why you like her. She has no time for you."
"I understand that," he confided. "A lot of people hate Xena. If she was my friend, they might hurt me, to make her feel bad. I think that's why she's not with her little boy. My nephew," he beamed. "It must be hard for her to have friends," he added quietly. "On Dracatha, I didn't have many friends, or family. Now there's Father, and you." He moved tentatively toward her, and squeezed her outstretched hand.
"A lot of people hate me, too, Teremon."
The small face reflected on this for a moment, then he said: "If you need to stop being my friend, someday, too, I'll understand. But I wish people wouldn't try to hurt you; or Xena. I know you're both sorry for the bad things you've done, and I'd like to have you both be my friends."
"You know I can never be Xena's friend."
He nodded. "She killed your family. Sometimes I wonder how I'd feel to meet the warlord who raided my village, when my mother was killed. I hope I wouldn't hate him too much. Not if he was sorry."
A sudden chill touched the blonde warrior. "Teremon, where did that happen?" she asked casually.
"It was a long way from here, in Gaul."
"Oh. I've never been to Gaul." She smiled in relief.
It was to be a long morning of meetings. The army, the ministers, and first the Council of Advisors. It occurred to her that if she appointed a council, she would not fill it with so many pompous pains in the - "
Xena came back from her private thoughts. She was easily distracted this morning. She had awakened to an empty bed, recalling Gabrielle's words of the night before. She understood Gabrielle's point of view, she thought, but couldn't share it. Would never share it. But she missed the bard, and frowned a little at the loneliness she felt. In addition, a dull throb had begun at the site of her thigh wound, which she thought had finally healed. Troubles hate to be lonely, she reminded herself.
"I'm listening," she assured the speaker. Syton was unusually quiet. That made him seem more dangerous. He would find it necessary to visit the councilors outside the gate later today, to let them know what transpired at this meeting. She found herself little caring what transpired, as long as it didn't take much time. She wanted to squeeze in a visit to Gabrielle at the infirmary sometime today, before much time had passed. She increasingly felt the passage of time, as if the sands running through the glass sprinkled her as they fell.
"Callisto, I wish you wouldn't just spirit him away like that." Drusander's voice had an uncharacteristic edge. That had been his way since the crown had been snatched from Teremon, Callisto noted. She winked at her little brother. "Don't be cross," she admonished Drusander. "Teremon and I have a lot of catching up to do."
"That's fine, but I need to know where is he is. These are dangerous times."
"What with Xena running the show," she nodded in sympathy.
"Time for lessons, Teremon." His haste to be rid of Callisto didn't bother her at all; she disliked the bard, and was happy to be gone before Cletus showed up. He moped so, expressing alarm over events in the crisis; yet beneath his manner she detected a sort of pride in Xena's activities. It was puzzling. Just as puzzling was the sudden reappearance of the other bard, the little blonde. She had been so certain that it was over between Gabrielle and Xena, so certain that the brat had returned to her game of being an Amazon. Now she was running the infirmary, and bedding down with Xena. Callisto wasn't certain if it had been a temporary rift, or a deliberate deception. After some consideration she settled on deception; it was so in keeping with Xena's character. That would have to be paid for, she shrugged, a small matter among so much else Xena had to pay for.
Drusander carried a larger-than-usual bundle of things for Teremon's lessons. The little boy trotted alongside his uncle, wondering at the path they were taking. He was certain they had never been this way before. They stopped near a cart, and Teremon was lifted in. This was something of a game, he explained to Teremon, as he covered him with cloths, then climbed in alongside. Being quiet was part of the game. Syton arrived, with his escort of two soldiers. They were more concerned with what he might bring into the castle, than out, so never searched the small cart before setting off. Syton planned on collecting a few of his household goods on the return trip, if the way was clear; time enough to dig through the straw then, they decided. They never did discover that Syton planned on never returning to the castle at all, during the reign of Xena. They lay in a burial pit behind Radec's headquarters before the sun set. Drusander's own body was dumped in the river; it was intended to be found.
This day had turned out to be more a bitch than Xena had expected. Even in the midst of the crisis, politicians played games with each other; they had yet no heart for playing games with her, and she had long ago learned how to say 'no' without giving offense, when necessary. Only among the troops did she relax, and she spent a good part of the day with them, reminding them of the warrior-woman behind the punishing avenger of the night before. She also refined the plan which at last would put her inside the headquarters of the revolt. The old building was as familiar to her as the contours of her sword-hilt. Diagrams had been drawn and read, soldiers who had been stationed there when it belonged to the army had been interviewed, and she had sat quietly recalling the little she'd seen of it until she felt she could tour the building blindfolded.
Satisfied, she'd left her late lunch with the Queen's Own, and begun a visit to the infirmary, anxious to see Gabrielle, but there was urgent word from Salmoneus. Something about Teremon.
Cletus' quarters, cluttered with his own keepsakes and interests, was doubly crowded
now that he shared space with a small boy. Xena's keen eyes moved restlessly over the sitting room, looking for any sign that would indicate where Drusander and the boy might be. The palace and the grounds had been painstakingly, quietly, searched for hours by a discreet group of soldiers and members of the royal household. Drusander had been seen with the boy near the old paddock, and no one had thought it odd, except that the guardian had been carrying a rather large bundle. In her gut she already knew the answer to the puzzle, cursed herself for not having taken the advice of Salmoneus. The dungeon would have been safer for Drusander than anyplace Radec would put him. Why the fool would think his services would be needed once the boy was in hand... She exhaled her frustration; she was prepared to fetch Teremon back. Drusander could hang, for all she cared.
Cletus moved aimlessly around the room. His rambling narrative of the days events had taken a long time to arrive at the relevant point. He spoke now, at last, of the words Drusander had spoken as he took his final leave. " 'Teremon and I will see you for supper.' That's all he said." Cletus ran long fingers through his graying hair. "He was disturbed, you know, by the incidents of the past few days."
Xena compressed her lips, biting back an angry retort. She was tired of being blamed for all the troubles of the world, the consequences of every act. Drusander apparently had chosen to throw in his lot with some other party, Radec, whether he knew it or not, and that was her fault. Traitors die in an ambush of their own devising, and the blame was heaped on her. She sighed, ready to explain one time, for the record.
"No. This isn't about me. It's about power. Drusander must have spent those years on Dracatha dreaming of the day when it would all be made worthwhile, he would be the regent, then trusted advisor to King Teremon. I wrecked his plans." The grim lines of her face expressed her contempt for the bard. Why he ever thought he could swim with sharks like Glaucon and Radec... She shook her head wearily.
"You're so sure that's what he's done? He despises Radec."
"No more than he despises me,' she observed. "If his contact was Syton, he might not understand that Radec is be the ultimate power behind it all; the only other game in town. Drusander is not politically astute," she said caustically, hoping Cletus remembered his decision that Drusander would serve as regent. The old man only moved vaguely for a moment between the window and the table where Teremon's toy animal kingdom was arranged, as if the boy had just left the room.
"What are you going to do?" He asked her anxiously, pain in the blue eyes that were so like her own.
"Do, old man? Don't ask me that," she snapped. "You know what I'm going to do. You've always known. From the first moment I walked into your kingdom you've known what I would do. Did my attempts to break away amuse you? Like a rabbit caught in a snare, who doesn't know its fate is sealed? You know what I'll do."
"Xena, it wasn't like that," he told her in a sad voice. "I have watched you become a magnificent ruler of this land, fulfilling your destiny in a blaze of glory. I am proud to call you daughter."
"Daughter." The word sounded ugly as it came form her lips. "Did it ever occur to you that nature knew the curse it would be for you to sire any children? The Earth would have heaved a sigh of relief for the blood of Pres Prima to vanish forever."
"And what of your son?"
"Another mistake. I don't know his destiny," she admitted. "Let him find it far from this place," she ended.
"Salmoneus, I'll be back. And if I'm not, you know what to do. Tarimides will support you; he's a good man." I was lucky to find him, she acknowledged. He'd make a fine military advisor long after this rebellion was over.
Xena was preparing for a solo visit to the viper's den. She had fought back the opposition of Tarimides, who preferred a group endeavor. In the end he had conceded that she was more likely to succeed if alone. He was to coordinate excursions by two different groups, to keep the brown-shirts busy. Officially, there was to be no mention of Teremon's disappearance. Radec would be expecting a rescue attempt in any event, so it made little difference to the success of her plan, but the news would be disheartening to the people.
She held out a scroll to Salmoneus. "Please, see that Gabrielle gets this."
In truth her plan consisted of nothing more than finding a quiet way into the squat old building, locating Teremon, and getting out again, destroying anyone who got in the way.
She was certain he would be in Radec's headquarters. Her extensive knowledge of the building would be useful here. She knew which rooms were occupied by troops, which used for weapons, which were the private living quarters of Radec and Glaucon. She knew the dungeons well, on paper. She shuddered to think of the boy in the dungeons, yet
they were on her mental list of places to be searched. Of course, that was just a contingency plan. First choice was finding a well-informed brown-shirt to put the pinch on; or better yet, Radec himself. She scowled, understanding how remote a chance that was. Tonight, Teremon was the priority.
She had made her way through the eerily quiet street of the city on foot, easily avoiding the few brown-shirt patrols she'd come across. Now she stood back against a tree, barely concealed in the shadows outside the headquarters, hardly breathing, her existence, for the moment radiating nothing. She had stood this way for several minutes, watching people come and go, fetching wood and water and hauling kitchen waste outside to dump in a small stream that fed the river. This was the entrance to the kitchens. The soldiers here were far from any scrutiny, and worked primarily to direct the civilians who did the kitchen work. So they had grown lax, little expecting an attack in this quarter. It was an easy thing to greet them one-by-one with a jab to the neck. The brown-shirts she dragged off to the side and left. The civilians were a problem; she could only guess at their loyalties, so they were rendered unconscious and left bound and gagged in the woods. It wouldn't be long before so many people were missed, but it didn't bother her; this would not take long, and Radec would be expecting her visit anyway.
When the area was less congested she entered through the door to the large kitchens. A small boy looked up from the pot he scrubbed as she passed through torchlight. They both paused, then he recognized the warrior, and shot a thin arm into the air in a silent salute, understanding why the kitchens were suddenly so empty. She smiled and passed on, reminded again why she fought this battle. At the door she paused and looked back; the boy was gone. He took his chance, she knew, certain he'd make good on it.
She knew the corridors ran off several ways from here, and took her first choice, to bring her to the wing which held the living quarters of Radec, Glaucon and the superior officers. The rooms of personal servants would be close by, and she guessed Teremon and Drusander would be in one of those, close to the power elite, yet not privy to their activities. She wondered if Drusander had caught on yet; wondered briefly if he was still alive. The corridor was empty, too empty, she thought, half-expecting to find that she'd walked into an ambush when she turned a corner and came face to face with a brown-shirt. He started and moved to strike her as her own long arms reached out to jab at his neck. He fell to his knees and she whispered her questions to him. When she asked about Teremon he reacted oddly, and she wondered if she had miscalculated, if Radec had found some reason to kill him, then the guard told her that the boy's room was close by.
She released the pinch to let him lead her there, giving him no reason to doubt his fate if he caused any problems. She shoved him in ahead of her, suspicious to see that the room was unguarded, unlocked, and empty. If the boy had been here, he was gone now. She looked a question at the brown-shirt. He shrugged; "Someone beat you to it," he said as a look of smug satisfaction spread over his face. That angered her and she punched him in the face. It was a lethal blow; she hadn't intended that, she told herself, then shrugged the admission that maybe it had been intended. Regardless, she felt no guilt over it.
So, she'd found the boy's room easily enough, but there was no sign of the boy. 'Someone had beat' her to it. Who? Was he with Radec? Or moved somewhere more secure? As she shoved the guard's lifeless body under the bed an odd notion came to her, and she hesitated only a moment before trusting her instinct. She followed her path back along to the main corridor, then took the narrow, winding stairway down to the dungeons.
She descended for several levels to an area where the floor was below the ground, and high windows provided minimal light and air. She was struck again by the absence of guards, which confirmed her suspicions: someone else had been along this corridor, following the available path to an exit, disposing of opposition as she moved. Callisto. She shook her head, in silent wonder at her enigmatic sister, then looked up, struck by an odd sensation, as if someone was thinking of her. She dismissed the thought and hurried along, anxious now to catch Callisto before she made an error which would be fatal for both her and Teremon.
Behind a stout wooden door Gabrielle crouched, listening for a second time that night to unfamiliar noises in the corridor. Those were no the boots of guards she heard, and she held her breath, willing Xena to open the door. The door over the tiny barred window had been opened briefly, the first time, and a face had peered in; she'd hoped in vain that had been Xena. Now, for a second time, she turned away dejected. Xena was not here, she admitted, and the beginnings of despair began to gnaw at her mind.
Xena moved warily on, alert for noise or movement that would be a clue to the pair she was looking for. She spied at last a trail of fresh blood droplets, and followed them in the dim light to a cell at the end of the corridor. Two steps of well-worn stone descended to the cell; the door was shut, but it responded to easy pressure. Callisto's head jerked around and Xena pulled a dagger out of the air before she had taken a step into the room. It had been aimed for her head.
"Callisto," she said evenly. "Where'd you stash all the bodies?" She tossed the dagger at Callisto's feet.
Callisto's teeth showed in a broad grin. "Stuck them in vacant cells, Xena. Didn't have time to be creative." She smiled at the memory of one cell which hadn't been vacant.
"Xena? They took Drusander away." Callisto looked at her and shrugged indifferently. Teremon's hoarse whisper betrayed a lot of fear, but he was handling it well, Xena thought with approval. "I knew you'd come," he said, "both of you. I have the bravest sisters in the world."
"Yeah, well, " Callisto scowled, her solo rescue having been undermined by Xena's arrival. She was kneeling beside a grate in the floor, and had been digging at the masonry which held it in place. She was nearly finished, and pulled it free with an effort, to reveal a large drainage pipe. She looked at Xena. "We don't really need your help dear, it's all under control, as you can see."
Xena examined the pipe; she knew of it, knew it ran underground for a considerable distance from the building, to empty in the stream. Its flow was unimpeded, and it would be a safe route to travel but for one thing. "There's a better way, Callisto, a safer way."
"Then take it, Xena, no one's stopping you. I have my own plans."
"Go ahead, Callisto, if you insist; but Teremon stays with me. Give Glaucon my
"Afraid of getting your feet wet, dear," she taunted. "I know it can't
be a distaste for rats.
You've lived among them for so much of your life." She peered into the hole she'd
opened. "You're just unhappy that I beat you to it. That competitive problem of yours."
Xena shook her head deliberately. "No, Callisto; it won't work. It's exactly what they're expecting. Why do you think they made this so easy?"
Callisto eyed the older woman with suspicion. "Easy? What do you mean?"
"Did you have any trouble getting in here?" she asked impatiently. "I know, now, that you were disposing of the guards ahead of me, but didn't you think, considering the stakes, that there would be more guards on duty here? In a building which houses them? Conveniently, the grate in the floor could be pried loose with minimal effort. It's an invitation, Callisto. After a quarter mile of slogging through rainwater you'll emerge into the waiting arms of Glaucon and a pack of his men." Callisto looked doubtful, then grudgingly accepted that what Xena said might be true.
"So what's your plan, Sis, " she asked in a harsh voice. She followed Xena's eyes to where moonlight streamed in through a small barred window, set in the wall twenty-five feet above their heads. "Oh? Do you propose we fly up?" she asked archly.
"It will require a little more effort," Xena replied through clenched teeth. In the darkness, Callisto had not noticed the rope Xena had wrapped around her torso. She coiled it now, and displayed a grappling hook. "This should work," she said as she moved to the proper angle and tossed it up to the window. It held there, snagging on the masonry sill, rather than the iron bars.
"Clever," Callisto acknowledged. "Have you thought past the iron bars?"
"I've done my homework, Callisto," she told her. "Maintenance in this place is pathetic. Dig for a few moments with a dagger, and the bars will yank right out."
"Well then, I'll go first." She leaped to a handhold high on the rope and began to haul herself up, moving quickly until she grabbed the sill and swung over to the narrow perch. "Your turn," she called down to Xena. She watched a moment before turning to the work of dislodging the iron bars. The dark-haired warrior gathered Teremon in the embrace of her left arm and gripped the rope with her other. "Hang on," she told him, with a reassuring kiss. She worked her left hand around the small body to grip the rope and began a slower two-handed climb up the rope, speaking quietly to Teremon as she climbed, confident the boy would be calm and still. By the time she neared the top Callisto had worked one bar free, and was finishing a second. "You were right Xena," she said over her shoulder as she jerked the second bar out of the crumbling masonry, showering the warrior with debris. "Here we are Teremon," Xena told him as she anchored herself with her right arm, and lifted him as high as she could in her left. Callisto took him from her and sat him on the windowsill. "Thanks for everything, Xena," she smirked, "Pity you won't becoming with us." She smashed an iron bar against Xena's closer hand, then once again she swung, and the grip released. She watched smugly as her sister clung to the rope by her left hand alone, the right hanging uselessly by her side.
"Callisto! What's happening?" The blonde warrior ignored the panicked confusion in Teremon's high voice.
"Xena, your work here isn't finished. I know you'll want to stay until you've rescued sweet Gabrielle." Xena's eyes grew wide at that. "Yeah," Callisto nodded her head, one finger caught between her teeth. "I came across her while I was poking around looking for Teremon. Thought you'd like to know. I'd stay to help," she said with regret,
"except for the deception you worked on me. Pretending that you and Gabrielle were all over each other." She shook her head in disapproval. "Shouldn't have done that, dear."
Xena's legs were around the rope and she had started to inch her way up, hoping for one grab at the ledge, even as she came to grips with Callisto's announcement. Callisto reached swiftly to snatch the chakram from Xena's side. "My little keepsake, Xena," she said. She brought the iron bar down sharply on Xena's head, stunning the woman, then smiled, and severed the rope with her sword.
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