Thicker than Water
Disclaimer: Characters aren't mine, but the story is the names were changed to well that's another show isn't it? Anyway, long before there were warlords and kings, before the passion and the power, there was simply a family and what you survive makes you strong.
"You really have noooo idea where we are, do you?" The very square bodied youngster smirked with an evil smile. Her voice was akin to the squeal of a wet wagon wheel and she did very little to hide the hint of laughter behind the statement. A taller masculine child stood next to her. He cast a matching sneer her way but refused to take the bait. The boy was at that gangly age, when everything seems too big, too long, too wiry, too short, too clumsy, and too foolish to be old enough for adult matters and just as mismatched to childish ways for the young. The girl was a head shorter and although feminine, seemed to possess a stronger more suited frame for running, climbing and keeping up with not only children her age, but those much older. Something in her stance seemed a bit more mature than that of her clearly exasperated brother. She stood at his side mimicking his stance and staring at the same distant point on the horizon. They bore the same sun bronzed skin, the same dark hair that shined like polished ebony in the summer sun. The young boy's eyes blazed with resentment at the mischief that danced in the eyes of the girl. Both sets of clear crystal blue would put the finest sapphire to shame. It was immediately apparent that they had been born of the same parentage.
"I told you that was no shortcut." The girl giggled in a singsong voice. She brushed her windswept hair from her face as she shook her head. He turned and glared down at her, resisting the urge to knock that 'know it all' smirk off her face. The difference in their age could not be more than four or five seasons, he reaching the end of that awkward age and she just beginning to show the soft rises of the feminine version of the same. Her head reached to his shoulder, but the promise that she too would soon be just as tall and lanky was evident.
He clenched his fists at his side and turned away from her, speaking through clenched teeth. "All that shrieking you did wasn't much help either." His voice was more of a growl to himself than to her.
The girl laughed out loud. "Well, you gotta admit you looked pretty silly slipping and sliding all over those rocks!" Her voice rose to that squealing pitch again as she wrapped her arms around her ribs and continued to laugh at her brother's expense. He mumbled a few curses under his breath, very low under his breath. Luckily, her laughter drowned out what she certainly would have repeated to their mother when she had the chance. "Whoa! Whoa! AHHH!! Ohhhhh!!!" She began mocking him by throwing her arms out as if balancing herself on ice then wobbling across the surface of the large boulder they had climbed.
"Shut Up!!!" He shot at his sister. He'd finally had enough. "You and your stupid laughing lost the horse as well. And if you didn't try running after that damn mare, we wouldn't have gotten so so turned around and we wouldn't be here now!" His face was scarlet as he let loose his frustrations.
For a moment the girl simply stared at him, then sighed and dropped her eyes toward her sandal covered feet. She kicked at a loose pebble and played with her fingers. "You're right," she began remorsefully, then sighed heavily. "Mother is going to be furious. I'll tell her it's all my fault." She kept her eyes to the ground refusing to meet her brother's gaze.
He stared at her for just a second, having fallen victim to her false penitence on more than one occasion. He could just imagine the taunting grin on her face, although her long hair shielded that smirk at the moment. He shook his head rapidly. "Oh no you don't!" He growled, "no you don't, no way no way are you gonna take the blame for this so mother can make me feel guilty and look like a fool." He shook his finger at the top of her head.
Slowly she raised her eyes to meet his, smiling the most innocent of little girl smiles. She shook her head slowly, "oh I never said I'd take your lickin' for ya Toris, I was just goin tell mother it was my fault so she'd get even more mad at you! Besides, no one has to make you look like fool, you do such a good job all by yourself!" She giggled and then quickly ducked the swing he made at her, jumping off the large rock and landing in the dust below. She turned back and stuck out her tongue at her agitated brother.
"Hey, you guys!" A decidedly younger voice piped up from beneath a row of scrub. Both children turned quickly toward the sound. "I got 'em!" A mop of curly blonde hair poked out of the prickly brush, followed by sparkling green eyes that smiled out of a very dirty face. The child proudly held up a bright yellow and brown lizard. It squirmed a few times before wrapping its odd shaped feet around the boy's arm as he grasped its long curling tail. He blinked into the sunshine and smiled widely, displaying the many spaces vacated by baby teeth where second teeth were making uneven efforts to fill the gaps. "Ainnee a beauty!" He boasted in that odd kid-speak of toothlessness.
The older boy stood with his hand on his hips, shook his head and sighed with disgust. "Put that thing down, Lyceus! And stay out of those bushes!"
The girl bent closer to examine the beast and the child who held it. She looked back toward her older brother, "leave 'em alone, Toris!" She warned, immediately defending the smaller boy. "At least he's smart enough to do some hunting! We are going to have to eat, ya know!" She turned back toward the little boy, who now stared at her with wide eyes.
"Yer not gonna eat 'em are ya, Xena?" His tone was as disappointed as it was astonished.
While the two elder siblings were all angles and seemed dark with some penned up anger, this child's countenance was soft, his face round with the remnants of 'baby fat', his eyes deep with innocence and wonder. The resemblance was faint, but the affection of the girl toward the child was immediately and unmistakably maternal. Clearly, she was not his mother, but she hovered over him protectively, smiling, then examined the animal he now held in his arms. It blinked its large black eyes and swallowed with a deep gulp. The boy, no more than seven seasons (if that), pet the spiny creature tenderly.
"Nah!" The older sister guffawed as she wrinkled her nose, "he's probably all bony and scaly anyway." She ruffled the child's curly blonde locks. "Come on, I saw some berries just over that little rise. We can eat those while Toris the trail master decides what to do next." She put an arm around his small shoulders and led him toward the row of bushes heavily laden with ripe red berries.
Toris watched as his younger siblings plodded away, "You two stay within sight or else!" He warned with mock authority.
Xena rolled her eyes, waved a hand at him and contorted her face into a comical scowl. "Ooooo, see me shake!" She called back without turning around. 'Toris is such a big stupid jackass...' She thought to herself remembering the taste of that horrid yellow soap mother used the last time she'd used such colorful adjectives to describe her older brother.
Toris slumped down on the rock, immediately feeling the heat of the sun soaked granite surface through his thin britches. He drew his long legs up in front of him, rested his elbows on his knees then set his chin onto the backs of his interlaced fingers. The boy stared blankly for a moment before dropping his forehead down on his hands and letting out a breath that fluttered over his lips. 'What a stupid, STUPID mess and it is mostly her dumb fault, spoiled brat! If she just ' He let the thought go unfinished. It would only add to his misery.
It had all been so simple, so easy, so perfect and then Xena! A simple short trip to their uncle's farm, just a bit more than ten miles north of Amphipolis, should have taken less than half a day. He shook his head and closed his eyes. All he had to do was deliver a few supplies to the man who had become almost a recluse after the death of his wife. He'd done it a hundred times in the past two years, but this time Xena had begged and bartered and bargained until Mother gave in and the little brat got her own way. AGAIN!! Mother always seemed to give in to Xena. Of course, it didn't ever matter because the obnoxious greedy little monster would just do what she wanted to do anyway. Even when she got caught, EVEN when she was punished, she just did it anyway. Xena was certainly a stupid kid. Toris sighed again. Traveling to Uncle Micha's farm was the only escape he had from her until now. As if that weren't bad enough, just to add insult to injury he had to drag Lyceus along as well. He was a man, not a nursemaid! The great responsibility of getting back and forth from the out lands had been turned into nothing more than a day of babysitting. Then their strong black stallion had gone lame making the last leg of their journey even longer.
The horse had taken a sharp pebble through its right forefoot and slowed them down to little more than a crawl. Toris rubbed his ear remembering the smart cuff his uncle had given him for being late. 'Ungrateful oaf,' he thought, 'some gratitude for going all the way out there with those two! He doesnt' care anyway, just sits out there by himself all day. I coulda been lyin' half dead on the side of the road and he wouldn't care!' He turned his head in the direction of the lighthearted laughter. Xena stood tossing bright red berries into the air and catching each one in her mouth, an ability Toris had never managed to acquire. Lyceus laughed at his sister's antics and urged her to 'do it again!'
Toris shook his head. "Show off," he grumbled then looked toward the western horizon. The mid-afternoon sun was glaring on the boy. He wiped beads of sweat from his brow. The sky was streaked with stretched out clouds and hazy with the deep blue of late summer. The boy had traipsed back and forth to his uncle's farm so many times and found several alternative routes to keep from getting bored with the chore. He did suggest the short cut across the stream instead of walking all the way to the bridge. After all, they were late already and that plow mare Uncle Micha had insisted they take, while the stallion's injury healed, was more work than both his younger siblings combined. The thing was so old it could barely see and it was certainly unaccustomed to the high-pitched voices and wild antics of children. Xena had made a game out of leaping from one rock to the next as they crossed the water, leading Lyceus in a sort of 'follow the leader' path. When the little boy slipped and landed on end in a chest deep pool he did what he always did. Lyceus started with that baby-faced pout and was soon blubbering like a toddler. Of course, Xena then did what she always did. She went running to him with all that sniveling coddle that mother used as well. Toris shook his head, at this rate his mother and sister would have a pansy made out of his brother before the kid was old enough to wipe his own nose. AS IF either of them would ever allow Lyceus to see to his own needs.
Xena had plopped down in the water next to Lyceus just to show him that it was all right to fall. In a matter of seconds, they were happily splashing each other and making a racket that would wake all the inhabitants of Tartarus. He did the right thing, he scolded them, insisting that they get up and get moving. He promptly received a mouthful of water before he even finished the sentence. Little sister and littler brother did their best to fire wave after wave of splashes his way, which spooked the horse even more. In an effort to get a better grip on the reins, he lost his footing, as well as that grip. Then, after what was later described as a very ungraceful dance of the water nymph, he too was sitting waist deep in the stream. He dropped both hands down with a smack against the surface tension, but before he could begin admonishing his siblings, Xena let out a squeal and pointed behind him. Toris turned and watched as the rusty colored mare slowly trotted upstream away from them, stopping a few times to sip from the gurgling water. He pushed himself up in an effort to catch the animal before it was too far away but was knocked face first back into the drink as Xena bolted past. Oh that helped! That really helped! She was all screaming and warning as she made it to the shore a split second after the animal that now wore that rolly eyed look that animals wear when they are caught in the sight of a predator. The thing actually kicked its rear legs straight out and bolted in a zigzag fashion back across the stream to the opposite shore, up the bank, jumped a small line of brush and disappeared into the thicket beyond.
Toris laid his head against his hands again and squeezed his eyes shut. He'd been so angry with Xena. He spent so much time screaming at her to stop chasing the horse and scaring it even more that he'd neglected Lyceus. The child had found a marvelously slippery path of moss with an even more marvelous strong current that could actually push a small boy very rapidly downstream. He'd caught his headstrong sister by the scruff of her neck a second before she too disappeared into the thick forest line. They probably would have come to throwing a few punches if it hadn't been for the long and very loud shriek of their younger brother. Both turned toward the sound and with their conflict temporarily forgotten they sped back to the little boy. Xena had dived headfirst and landed on her stomach caught in the same strong current as she followed Lyceus down stream. Determined not to make the same mistake Toris ran along the bank after them, shouting a slew of cuss words he had heard from the many patrons of his mother's establishment through the years. The younger children continued to squeal and shriek in the fast running water, but not in terror. Toris had nothing to save them from, they were having the time of their young lives as they were tossed and turned in the swift water on the soft moss. Thwarted in his attempt to snatch his little brother Toris tripped over a snarled root and slid into the flow directly behind his sister.
In that moment he had forgotten his anger and all the frustrations of the day, allowing himself to be caught up in the merriment and fun of the watery slide. He actually laughed and the blend of his deep laughter combined easily with his sister's giggle and the baby's chuckle in perfect harmony. They rolled and splashed in the cool water until the slide ended at the edge of a rock that jutted out a few inches past the edge of a short drop. The stream sent each child, in turn, sailing out into the air before dropping them, one by one into the deep lake below. Splash! Splash! Splash! Each bobbed to the top, immediately scanning the surface for the other two. Luckily they had all learned to swim around the same time they had learned to walk and all were strong and confident in the water. They laughed off the panic they had felt as they flew off the slide and exchanged opinions on the ride as they swam to the edge and dropped into the soft silt on the shore. They laid there, the three of them side by side, catching their breath and watching the fluffy white clouds as they drifted lazily across the sky. It was just about then that the trouble sneaked back into Toris' day.
"Hey!" Xena huffed as she tapped her knuckles on the top of her brother's head. He lifted his elbow and peered at her with one eye. She held out a handful of berries. He eyed them suspiciously. She raised her eyebrows and motioned for him to take the offering. Slowly he raised his head and reached for the fruits, expecting her to snatch them away just as he was about to take them from her. Xena couldn't even be consistent in her taunting. She held her hand still until Toris had taken all of the fruit, rubbed off the excess juice on the front of her dress then dropped down next to her brother on the rock. Toris stared at the berries in his hand then back at his sister. "Whatsa matter?" She wrinkled her nose and frowned back. "I didn't spit on them or nothing. I just thought ya might be hungry, jeez!" She slammed her elbow into his ribs then scooted a few inches away.
Toris flicked the berries around in his hand with one finger then popped one in his mouth. "Thanks," he mumbled under his breath and around the small sweet fruit. Lyceus clambered up between them, still clutching the lizard he had captured. He crossed his feet and folded himself down on to the rough surface.
"Ouch!" The little boy jumped a bit, "hot rock," he commented, wiggling his bottom a bit as he adjusted to the warmth.
"So'd ya figure out which way yet, mighty leader?" Xena quipped as she wired a small rock as far as she could throw it. Toris pushed the handful of berries into his mouth and shook his head. Xena stood and reached her arms out on either side then spun in a circle slowly. She stopped with one finger pointing toward the setting sun. "West," she announced then threw one hand behind her, "east," she continued then jerked her body in a ninety degree turn with her index fingers still pointing to either side. "North and south," she finished then plopped back down on the rock.
Toris glared at her for a moment then rolled his eyes. "No kidding," he sighed then threw his own arms up and out, "but it's useless if we don't know what direction we're supposed to be heading! We got turned around so much in that stream and dumped so far downstream that I don't know which way is the right way."
"Uncle Micha's farm is northwest of the village, Toris, even I know that." Xena grumbled out of one side of her mouth.
Toris sneered, swallowing what he really wanted to say only because he was sure if Xena didn't squeal to Mother, Lyceus was sure to repeat the colorful language. "Don't be such a dolt!" He scoffed at his sister as he stood and placed his hands on his hips. "If you know so much, ya little jerk, you'd know that before we can go in the right direction we have to know exactly where we are. Yeah, the farm is northwest so we need to head southeast, but that wouldn't do much good if we're already east of the village. Understand, twit?!" He bent forward and narrowed his gaze at the girl who just glared back at him.
Lyceus sat watching his older siblings, turning his head from one to the other in tandem. "Toris," he asked in a small voice then continued when his brother looked toward him, "are we lost?"
Toris took a deep breath then looked back toward Xena. She held her hands out in front of her and shook her head, silently telling him he was on his own. The older boy squatted down in front of the little blonde. He stroked the long lizard the child was still cradling. "No," he smiled at the boy, "not lost, just mixed up a little. Don't worry, we'll be home before supper." He patted the child's head and stood, once again, staring at the horizon.
Xena shook her head and mumbled under her breath, "only if mother plans on having supper after midnight."
"We have to get up higher," Toris noted more to himself than as an announcement, "maybe if I can pick out some landmarks I can get us moving the right way."
"That's what you said when we climbed up here." The deadpan voice next to him added.
He looked down at his sister then back toward the horizon, clenching his fists at his side. Oh, how he'd love to just throttle that little creep sister of his. Just once he'd like to pummel her senseless, beat her till she was full sore, until she managed a little bit of respect for her elders, for him. He fought the urge valiantly. All those bruises would be way too hard to explain, anyway she'd fight back and he'd have just as many to account for. Mother'd know they'd been fighting and she'd well he didn't really want to think about what mother's reaction to all of this was going to be, not now. The boy took a deep breath and continued. "It's gotta be higher, high enough to see more." He pointed to the distance, "like that mountain "
"It's at least a half day's walk!" Xena exclaimed, as she shoulder butted her brother. "Now who's the dolt?"
"You got a better idea?" He growled at her.
"What about a tree? A big tree?" She pointed toward the line of ancient cedars a few meters away.
Toris turned up the side of his lip and sighed. Why did she always have to be right? Without answering her, he jumped from the boulder making a dusty landing below. He took a few steps toward the trees and silently agreed it was a much better idea. Behind him Xena had already leapt to the ground and helped Lyceus to slide off the rock's edge.
"You know I'm right, dork!" The dark haired girl teased as she strutted past her older brother pulling the younger one along beside her.
"Come on, Toris," the smaller boy called over his shoulder as he ran to keep up with his taller sister, "Xena knows the way!"
Toris blew out an exasperated breath and hurried to catch up to them.
They stood at the base of a tree that, if they held hands and stretched their arms out as far as possible, they could probably embrace. The first branches were a more than six feet from the ground. Toris could just reach them if he stood on tiptoe. He put one hand above his brow to block out the sun and peered up into the deep green above him.
"What kind of landmark should I look for?" Xena asked as she searched for a foothold.
"YOU?!" Toris dropped his hand, placed both on his hips and glared at her. "What makes you think I'm gonna let you climb this tree!?" He laughed despite his brewing anger.
"Simple," Xena replied without batting an eye. She smiled that smug smile that always made Toris just want to slap her silly. "If I fall out and break my leg you can carry me home and still keep an eye on Lyceus," she nodded at the child who stood next to him. "But," she continued, "if you fall out and break yours I'll have to leave you here while I wander across the wilderness in search of help while Lyceus withers away from thirst and exposure." She finished with a smile, blinking several times at her brother.
Toris frowned as he crossed his arms over his chest. Dammit! She was right again, well about the broken leg thing all the rest was just stupid Xena exaggeration. Gods! He hated when she did that.
"So?" she urged with her palms turned out in front of her, "you gonna give me a boost or what?"
He thought for a moment about proving her wrong. Then he thought for a longer moment about how upset Mother would be if he carried her through the front door all bleeding and broken, then thought again about the fact that she'd never fall anyway. Xena never seemed to get hurt when she did something stupid, no that was something reserved for him. Anyway, if she got hurt, she'd get all of Mother's sympathy while he'd only be told how foolish it was to do something like that to begin with
"Toris!" Xena smacked him hard on the upper arm, "come on!"
He sighed in resignation as she turned her back to him and reached up. He grabbed her just above the hips and pushed her up until she reached the lowest branch. The girl swung back and forth a few times then threw her legs up over the next branch. From there she merely reached up with one hand at a time to the same branch, pulled herself into a sitting position then stood on the limb. She smiled down at her brothers. "So what am I looking for?" She repeated.
Toris thought for a moment, trying to choose the most prominent landmark, something to give him his bearings. Xena advanced five or six branches while he did so. He snapped his fingers, "the lion, Xena look for the lion." The girl nodded then disappeared into the thick foliage of the tree. The lion was a group of boulders about halfway between the village and the bridge they should have crossed. From a distance it resembled a lion lying in a regal state, like something you might see at a temple. Travelers used it as a way to give directions into Amphipolis. The residents mostly took it for granite.
"Toris, I'm tired. I don't wanna play any more. I wanna go home." Lyceus whined as he stood next to his brother peering up into the tree.
"Dont start, Lyceus. I want to go home to. We all do. It's just gonna take longer than we planned." He warned the younger boy. Toris' patience was wearing thin.
"Momma's gonna be awful mad, Toris." Lyceus shook his head making his many curls bob from side to side. "I don't like it when she yells Toris, she gets too scary. She said you had to take care of me and Xena and not be foolish "
"Just shu be quiet, Lyceus," Toris warned the boy again. "Anything?" He called to the girl in the tree.
Xena climbed until the crackling of wood beneath her feet told her it was not safe to go higher. She poked her head out of the greenery and allowed her eyes to adjust to the bright sunshine. She looked in all directions, searching for the large landmark her brother suggested. She had to wrap her arms around the trunk in order to lean out far enough to look beyond the tree cover. Her efforts were rewarded. "There it is!" She announced excitedly.
Toris smiled and slapped his palm against his thigh. "She did it! Lyceus, she did. We'll be home in no time." He assured his brother by grabbing the smaller boy's shoulder and shaking it gently.
"Yippee!" Lyceus shouted almost losing his grip on his newfound pet. He continued to show his approval by hopping up and down excitedly.
"Which way?" The older boy shouted up to the sister he could not see.
"That way." She called down through the branches.
"Cute," Toris whispered, then called up to her, "okay smart ass, try using those directions, you know so well, this time " He wasnt sure he heard her laughing, but he was sure she was doing just that.
Xena looked at the large rock and back toward the sun, "West er southwest yeah southwest " she called to her brother, then began her descent. A few minutes later she bounced to the ground next to him. "It's that way," she pointed in the direction she had seen the lion, "but it's pretty far, Toris. It'll be dark before we get home." She shook the loose needles from her clothes and pulled a few twigs from her hair.
"Dark?" Lyceus' eyes grew large. "I don't like dark, Xena. You didn't even bring a torch." He scolded his older brother.
Xena put her arm around the boy. Toris knelt in front of him. This was no time for panic. If Lyceus went into one of his 'I don't want to' fits, it would take most of what was left of the afternoon to calm him down. Of course with all the screaming he'd do, it was likely someone from the village might just hear them. Toris shook off the thought quickly. "We'll make a fire, Lyceus and watch the stars come out. It won't be scary. Me and Xena will be right here with you." He reassured the boy then looked to his sister for some cooperation. To his surprise this time, Xena did the right thing.
"Come on, let's go." She urged the littler boy as they started moving in the direction she had just pointed out to her brothers. Toris stood for a moment watching them. It would be dark soon, sooner than he wished and yes they would be a long way from home. He wasn't afraid of starving. He could set a snare. There was abundant small game in this area. But he didn't like it much himself he had no weapon and there were things worse than the dark to fear much worse.
A little more than an hour later the three young travelers stood at an unmarked crossroad. Daylight was softly fading into hues of pink and shades of purple. Even the warm late summer breeze had cooled considerably, hinting that the night would be much colder than the day had been. To the left the road wound down and around a large lush meadow then on into a dense already dark wooded area. The right path led to a rocky terrain up and over a much hillier track. Toris looked both ways, fretting over the fact that neither looked very familiar. The shadows of the day had grown long and regardless of his choice, they would be in a hostile environment by dark. So the decision was his, lead his little sister and brother into the forest or the mountains, neither seemed a much better choice. Toris sighed and ran his hands through his hair as Xena and Lyceus waited patiently.
"Tough choice, huh?" A deep voice startled the children. They jumped, then turned quickly to face a ragged man standing a few feet behind them. "Course, from what I understand both roads lead to the same village " he rubbed one hand over his scrubby beard drawing his mouth in an 'O', then smacking his lips loudly. "Just depends on yer preference, I suppose," he finished then rested on the long staff he was holding.
Toris instinctively stepped in front of the younger children and made a silent prayer that Xena would just keep her mouth shut. "We're just resting," he explained hearing the high pitch of his voice defy his attempt at bravery.
"Well there's a fine idea as well," the man agreed as he easily strode around the children effectively blocking one of the paths. Toris pivoted with him pushing his siblings along as well. Xena had managed to poke her head out for a better look while at the same time keeping Lyceus and his lizard well behind her. She glared at the dirty traveler. He seemed not as old as Uncle Micha or as mother, but much older than Toris. He wasn't a boy. His clothes were tattered and worn. The dirt on his hands and feet looked as if it had seen many days of travel. But, his eyes were clear and his voice powerful, he was not a drunk or a man sick with fever or starvation. His words seemed harmless, but something in that voice was sinister threatening Xena shook off the strange chill that crawled over her flesh and stepped next to her brother.
"Come on, Toris," Xena tugged at her brother's sleeve without taking her eyes from the stranger. "Let's go, father's waiting just inside the tree line," she pulled him harder to the left.
Toris took the hint quickly and thanked whoever had given his sister such quick wits. He grabbed each younger child by one hand and backed away from the man who had seated himself on a large rock just off the road. He smiled at them with an odd grin.
"Father ain't in the woods Xena," Lyceus scrunched up his nose and shook his head at his sister, "Momma said he's gone far away. OUCH! Toris! Yer hurtin' me!" He squealed as his older brother squeezed his hand tightly. The unexpected pinch caused the boy to lose his one handed grip on his pet. The lizard fell to the ground, squirmed itself right side up and wriggled off under the closest pile of rock. "MY LIZARD!" Lyceus cried as he immediately turned and began alternately kicking and punching his older brother. The youngster wriggled and squirmed, turning his bones to jelly in that way young children do in order to escape a bigger and stronger person's grasp. He made a valiant effort to loosen his hand as well. Toris held on with an iron grip, withstanding all of Lyceus' punishment.
Xena slipped from Toris' grip as he attempted to calm his brother. She stepped to Lyceus' side and snatched his other hand while at the same time clapping a hand over his mouth. The boy struggled in her grip as tears streamed clean streaks over his dirty cheeks. "Hey, hey Lyceus you know mother wouldn't let ya keep that bugger and what would Dighty think if you all of a sudden showed up with a new friend?"
The boy stopped struggling and pushed his sister's hand away. "Ya think she'd be mad?" He sniffed then swiped his nose along his sleeve. Xena nodded. Dighty was the mutt that belonged to Cyrus, the man who tended the sheep her mother kept for the Inn. Cyrus had named her Aphrodite claiming that she was the only goddess of love he'd ever get close to. Lyceus and the dog seemed to have some sort of bond. She followed him everywhere and made a habit of finding her way into his bedroom window night after night, only to be shoed out by their mother every morning. Lyceus rubbed his chubby hands over his eyes, smearing the tears across his face. "But father isn't in the woods, Xena. You lied!" He began sobbing again. Xena looked up at her older brother then back at the younger.
The stranger merely sat on the rock and examined his fingernails. "Seems odd that chur papa would leave the three of ya out here all alone while he's so far ahead?" He smiled and glanced at them over his eyebrows.
"Yeah, well that's why we have to hurry." Toris shot back as he lifted his sniffling brother on to his shoulders. Lyceus wrapped his arms around his brother's forehead. Xena stood for a moment glaring at the man, who glared back. It wasn't until Toris growled her name that she hurried to catch up, but kept a close eye on the stranger who remained behind.
By the time they reached the foot of the slope, Lyceus had fallen asleep resting against his brother's head. Toris breathed heavy under his weight and slowed his footsteps despite his desire to hurry. Xena had disappeared into the brush claiming she had a need to answer a call from nature. Toris paced back and forth casting quick glances back up the road. He nearly dropped his cargo as Xena practically fell in front of him from the brush. She caught her balance and struggled to pull her short dress over the britches she wore beneath it. "Toris," she breathed as if she had run a mile to catch up to him. He turned up one eyebrow. "He's coming," she nodded toward the rise in the road where someone was just coming into view.
The same man was in fact coming down the path, slowly as if he had no care in the world and no where to get to fast. He walked along as if he were taking in all of the sights, swirling the large stick he was carrying. Toris slid his brother off his shoulders around to his chest and wrapped one arm around the boy who instinctively clung to the body in front of him. He tossed his head toward the woods, hoping his sister understood his wordless command. He forced himself to walk casually toward the cover somehow knowing that if they ran the strange man following them would do the same. Xena cast one look over her shoulder then fell into step with her brother.
"What does he want Toris? We don't have anything to steal." For once, her voice sounded young and dependent on him knowing what to say.
Toris glanced at the child asleep against his chest and then into the crystal blue eyes of his sister. There were men, he'd been told, who preyed on children in some depraved need for physical closeness. He'd heard a few patrons in the tavern talking about what they'd done to such a man when he bothered the children in their village. It had given him nightmares for weeks. He could not believe anyone was capable of doing something so horrid. Even more was the fact that there were still worse men that stole children and sold them into slavery, especially strong beautiful blue-eyed young girls. He swallowed hard and decided a lie would not be the worst thing he could tell his sister. "He doesn't know that, Xena. Maybe he's just going the same way." He huffed out between breaths.
"I don't like him, Toris, he has creepy eyes. He looked at me funny, I really don't like him at all." Xena announced with conviction as she looked back again.
"Don't keep looking, then," her brother scolded, "just ignore him and keep moving. When we get in the trees we can lose him." He urged her forward with a nudge of his elbow, but couldn't help looking back himself.
The boy waited until they were well into the forest, checking to be sure the road behind was well covered by the branches and brush of the woods. He shifted his brother to his hip and gave his sister a sharp shove between the shoulders. "Run!" He shouted in the loudest whisper he could muster. Xena obeyed without question, almost as if she had thought of it herself. Lyceus bounced and bumped against his brother's shoulder as they hurried down the shady path and around two sharp twists on their way. Just past the second turn, Xena pointed to a long row of Rhododendron, thick and lush from the warm summer weather. Toris nodded and they turned off the path and into the brush beyond.
Both children dropped into the leaves and scrub on the forest floor, trying desperately to slow their heavy rapid breathing. They looked at each other with wide eyes. Toris nodded toward the thicket. Xena nodded back then crawled into it, on all fours, with her brothers close behind. Toris pushed himself as far into the brush as he could resting against a thick branch where he could just peer through the heavy leaves to the path beyond. Xena pressed herself close to his side, pulling Lyceus between them. They remained stone still, listening to the sound of their breathing and their own hearts pounding rapidly against their chests. There was no need to tell Xena to keep quiet, she knew. Her eyes told her brother she understood and would do exactly that. She pulled herself closer, resting her cheek against his shoulder, immediately sensing his growing fear. The sound of a staff scraping along the forest path stopped her from pursuing that thought.
Toris slid down farther into the underbrush pulling Xena and Lyceus along with him until the only view he had was eye level with the surface of the path. He swallowed hard as a booted foot stepped into his line of sight followed closely by the matching one. They seemed to pause for a moment pivoting from side to side then stopping with toes pointed directly at them. The boy shook off the feeling that the feet alone could see their hiding place. Xena peeked over his shoulder, her breath soft against his ear. The feet shuffled a few times then turned and slowly resumed their journey. Lyceus stirred and let out a small mewling sound. The feet stopped abruptly, turning toward that sound. The child sat up between his brother and sister, snapping small twigs as he moved. Both older children reached for him, pulling back and down between them. Toris clapped a hand over his mouth while Xena put a finger over her lips silently telling him to keep still. Lyceus whined in protest and kicked both feet in the dry leaves, which apparently disturbed a large rabbit that must have been using the brush for cover as well. The animal leapt, frantically kicking leaves and twigs toward the three giants who had invaded his home. The large booted feet on the path moved with a jerk as the creature bolted across the path and disappeared into the brush on the opposite side. In the meantime, Xena threw herself on top of her smaller brother, whispering in his ear that he must be quiet. Toris threw his own weight across both children more in an effort to protect them than to quiet both. The three lay as still as death, holding their collective breaths as the feet on the path paused listening to the sounds of the forest. A beat later a soft chuckle set a flock of starlings toward the sky, then the feet turned and walked away into the darkness of the woods humming a less than merry tune as it went.
It seemed like a very long time before Toris felt safe enough to pick up his head and look back toward the path. Xena pushed him a bit as she too sat upright and looked briefly into his eyes before daring to cast a glance toward the road. Lyceus let out a long breath and slammed his small fists against the dirt as he rose.
"Are you guys crazy?! You tryin to squish me?! I couldn't even breathe down there!" the small boy screeched indignantly.
Immediately Toris pulled him into a headlock burying whatever other comments the boy attempted to make into his shirt. Xena sat motionless, staring wide eyed and waiting for what would come. Seconds passed but the only sound was that of a crow cawing in the distance and the chirping of thousands of insects as they sang their summer song. Xena rose to a crouch and inched her way to the edge of the brush. Toris was powerless to snatch her before she ducked under the outermost branches and stepped into the road. He still had his hands full with the struggling Lyceus. Xena stood in the center of the path, alternately turning her head from side to side. She turned left and ran back to the turn in the road, stopped and listened carefully then ran in the opposite direction past her brothers and down the path until she came to a second turn. There she paused a briefly, looked in all directions and listened to the sounds of the forest. Satisfied, she turned, trotted back to the Rhododendron thicket and dropped to all fours to peer into it's interior.
"He's gone, Toris! The road is clear!" She announced happily as she squirmed toward him on her stomach.
Toris blinked a few times then crawled forward, dragging the still complaining Lyceus along. "I'm tellin' Momma!" the boy squealed, "I'm tellin' and you're in trouble." He stomped his foot and socked his older brother (as hard as a seven-year-old could), as the boys stood up in the road. Xena moved to his side and began brushing the leaves and other debris from his clothes and hair. He spun on his sister as well, "and I'm tellin' on you too, Xena! You wouldn't let me breathe!! Momma's gonna whip you good. She's gonna be mad when I tell her. She's gonna really, really whip both of ya!" The boy slapped his sister's hands away and brushed his clothing himself. Toris shook his head as he pulled weeds and twigs from parts of his own clothing.
Xena stood back and folded her arms over her chest, smiling a crooked little smile. "You go right ahead and tell her Lyceus and I'll just have to let her know what happened to all those berries she thought the mice stole from her cupboard." Her voice rose and fell in a singsong fashion as she swayed in time with her little tune. Lyceus' angry red face turned a new shade of red as he ceased his tirade mid-word. Xena smiled again.
Toris had to laugh at his sister's ploy. He knew (for a fact) that he had tasted quite of few of those berries and Xena was just as guilty. It was, however, Lyceus who finished off the bucket caught red-handed by their sister. Now she had him believing he'd polished off the whole thing. Xena was always conniving some sort of ruse, but strange thing was that most of the time it worked. Just like now. Lyceus had stopped that blasted ranting and wailing and probably (if only to save his own hide) would keep quiet about the whole issue. Explaining this fiasco to Mother would be hard enough without Lyceus adding this little episode to it. What Mother didn't know wouldn't hurt them. He brushed the last of the dirt from his knees and stood straight.
"Okay, let's see how far we can get before d " he glanced quickly at Lyceus who was still matching glares with Xena in an odd sort of stand off, "before we have to rest again."
Xena nodded and turned away, letting Lyceus think he'd won, then marched down the road she had scouted before. Toris started as well then stopped when he realized Lyceus was still rooted in place. "Ya comin?" He called as he turned to his little brother. Lyceus pulled his arms across his chest, stuck out his chin and shook his head. Gods! Why was he cursed with such stubborn ox-brained siblings? "Fine," the older boy shrugged his shoulders, "suit yourself." He turned back and took a few slow steps. "Be dark soon, hope you know how to start a fire. See ya tomorrow!" He lifted his hand and waved without turning back. A second later the sound of his brother's quick steps on the hard packed path made him laugh under his breath. He looked down at the top of the boy's head as he slowed down along side of him. Xena was far ahead, bobbing out of sight as she traveled up and down the small rises in the road. "Hey!" Toris gently slapped a hand on Lyceus' shoulder. "Race ya to Xena!" Lyceus nodded with a smile. "Okay on three ready?" The little boy smiled again and placed one foot out in preparation. "One " Toris placed a foot out as well. "Two " Lyceus broke into a run, peddling his short legs as quickly as he could. "Three," Toris laughed as he broke into a slow trot. It was a lot easier to keep an eye on them when they were ahead of him.
As the shadows grew deeper and the woods darker, Lyceus drew close to his brother latching tightly on to the older boy's hand. Xena stayed a few steps ahead keeping a sharp eye out for the man they had eluded earlier and the best place to stop safely for the night. The sound of water cascading over rocks caught her attention. She pointed toward it and motioned for Toris to follow her off the road. They stepped into a small clearing bordered on three sides by thick hedge. A small stream, easily stepped across with one long stride, gurgled from under the brush and on into the darker shadows. Toris wondered for a moment if it were part of the same stream that had begun this nightmarish day.
Xena squatted down next to the brook and scooped a handful of water to her lips. She dunked both hands into the water and swished them briskly then brought a significant splash to her face, scrubbing away the grime that had collected there. She shook her hair free of the tiny droplets, tossed it back then stood. "No chance of catching any fish here, Toris, it's way too small," she giggled a bit then added, "unless you're interested in a few hundred minnows."
Toris shook his head and wished his mother had allowed him to take the hunting knife he prized so highly. She'd pooh-poohed the idea saying it was much too dangerous to have around the younger children. He rolled his eyes wondering if she knew just how dangerous Xena was around anything. She didn't need a knife to wreck havoc. He wondered if perhaps his vexatious little sister could catch a fish with her teeth. He sighed mightily, even if he could snare some small game, he'd have no way to skin or clean it. He wondered how far that damn mare had wandered with the pouch of bread and cheese his uncle had insisted they take when they left his farm earlier in the day. Xena had dragged Lyceus to the brook and was struggling to clean his hands and face. The child put up a good fight, but in the end, his sister won the battle. He wasn't quite clean, but he did look better when she was finished. Toris moved to the water as well, hoping to wash away as much of the day as he could.
"I guess we'd better get some wood and start a fire. At least we can keep the dark away and be warm." He mentioned as casually as possible between splashing water on his face and rubbing the dirt away. "I'm sure there's more berries around "
"Berries? Again?" Lyceus groaned. "I'm really hungry, Toris."
Toris turned quickly on his brother as Xena stepped between them. "Look, Lyceus," she began, "berries aren't so bad. But," she turned back to Toris, "a nice juicy rabbit or a game hen would be a lot better, right?"
"You're a big help," Toris shook his head at her.
Smiling widely, the girl reached a hand inside her dress and withdrew a small scabbard then held it out to her brother. "I know," she answered biting her bottom lip and wagging her eyebrows at him.
"Where how you " Toris was abashed.
"Actually," she moved closed to her older brother and lowered her voice as he took the weapon from her hand, "I lifted it." She placed her hands on her hips and jutted out her chin haughtily. "I've had it for a long time. Mother doesn't even know." She finished with pride.
"YOU STOLE IT?" He whispered loudly, "Xena!"
"Ah fer Hades' sake, Toris, the guy won't ever miss it. He had a dozen of them and besides he shorted mother when he left the inn. I figured that made it even."
"You stole it from someone at the inn?" Toris' voice was getting that squeaky tone to it when she did something he just could not believe. He'd suspected his sister was rifling through rooms of the patrons but he never imagined her swiping anything. Mother would have a cow! No, not a cow a hydra, a full grown three headed snarling hydra! He turned the leather object in his hand and examined the etchings in its side. It just fit from the tip of his middle finger to the heel of his palm. The grip of the knife was silver and bound with a dark wound handle. A small green jewel adorned its hilt where the blade and handle connected. He slid it from the holder and examined its blade. "Mother's gonna skin you alive," he breathed in a low voice.
"You gonna tell?" She sang, as her dark eyebrows disappeared into her even darker bangs. Toris shook his head without looking at her. She smiled knowing he would keep his word. "Anyway, he's long gone, Toris. It was last summer, for cryin' out loud. Just take it, you gotta admit ya need it. I kept it sharp. No nicks either." She pointed to the blade he now examined closely.
"Yeah I see," he agreed turning it over in his hands. It wasn't a large knife, certainly not as big as his own hunting knife and of course small enough for her to conceal for what, a whole year? But, it was probably the finest piece of weaponry he had ever held. He couldn't imagine its worth, or why the man who'd lost it hadn't come back. It had to be worth at least a hundred dinars. Mother never charged anyone that much. This was way more than payment. Xena would smart for days when Mother got wind of this.
"Me and Lyceus will get the wood, you get the meal," she took the younger boy's hand and stepped away from Toris hoping he'd take the hint and get moving before it was too dark to see anything.
"Rrright," was all he managed to slur as she walked away.
Before it was fully dark, the children had managed to start a small fire and even fashion a spit to roast the two hens Toris had flushed out of the brush and cleaned with his sister's well-honed knife. He rinsed it in the brook and dried it on his shirt, placed it back in the sheath and handed it back to her, hilt first, the way a fine weapon should be handled.
"Thanks," he said simply as she tucked it back inside her tunic, "I won't say a word."
"I know," she smiled back at him.
"I got lotsa berries, Xena, look!" Lyceus announced displaying the deep purple fruit piled in the hollow he had created with the hem of his shirt. Despite his objections to having the same menu for supper as he had for lunch, there was a deep juicy stain around his mouth and on every fingertip. "Is the supper done yet?"
"Almost," Toris smiled as he helped the boy to dump his load onto one of the large leaves Xena had used to make a plate.
"Wow," Lyceus exclaimed, happily accepting the situation, "good meat and dessert and no vegetables to have to eat first! Can't hunt for them!" He giggled. The older children joined in his laughter.
"Mmmm, sure smells good "
The laughter died immediately. The three children turned quickly toward the voice. Toris felt the hair rise on his arms and the back of his neck. Xena pushed away the creepy little feeling of fear that threatened to climb out of her, grabbing on to a tiny spark of anger to combat it.
"Hi!" Lyceus chirped amicably, "you met us again!"
"Well, I had to," the man spoke directly to the boy as if the others were not standing directly behind him, "look here what I found!" He reached inside the baggy coat he was wearing and pulled from its depths a long yellow and brown lizard. He held it dangling by its long skinny tail. The animal swung helplessly.
"YOU FOUND HIM!" Lyceus cried with glee. He raced toward the man before Toris or Xena had a chance to hold him back. He reached up and easily took the lizard from its captor. The intruder smiled and patted the boy's head a few times before stepping up and pulling Lyceus in front of him.
Now, the tattered man held Lyceus close to him, as the boy caressed the reptile and whispered welcomes tenderly to it. His large dirty hands rested on the boy's shoulders. Toris noticed just how large those hands were and just how close they were to his brother's small neck. The man smiled a mouthful of dirty yellow teeth, but the smile never reached his eyes. An unspoken threat rested there.
"Seein as I brought back yer pet, maybe yer father'll invite me to share with ya seein as I have no food for myself," he suggested to the boy. "I see he's a mighty fine hunter, sure'd like to meet that man."
Lyceus slid his head back and looked up the man's chest at his chin. "We ain't got no father, Xena was lyin'. She lies all the time. Don't she Toris?" He looked toward his older brother who suddenly looked as if he had eaten too many green apples. The boy pet the lizard again and continued without waiting for an answer. "Momma says she is gonna put red pepper on Xena's tongue if she don't stop tellin lies, but Xena don't care she just does it anyways."
The man stared into the fiery eyes of the small girl. "Yeah, ya looked like a real hellion to me right from the first there princess, sure did. Maybe someone otta just take him a nice switch and stripe yer backside raw for ya, just ta teach ya a proper lesson, eh?" He smiled that awful 'not quite a smile' smile again. "Yep, that's what my daddy wudda done, but seein' as ya got no daddy I am not surprised. No, not surprised one bit. Children ought to have a pa to teach em right from wrong. Yes sirree, teach em the way of the world." He kept right on talking and staring right into Xena's eyes.
"Our Mother does fine by us, sir," Toris interrupted as he stepped in between the man and his sister. The man just kept on smiling. Toris felt Xena's head against his spine and her nails as she dug them into his skin. She was doing her best to hold on to that awful temper and dreadful mouth of hers.
"Toris did the hunting, so you could meet him and he won't care if ya have supper with us," Lyceus nodded, "wouldja Toris?" He raised his eyebrows at his brother.
"We only have two hens," Toris pointed out, "and they're kinda small."
"Well, that's no problem," the man lifted one hand from Lyceus' shoulder and shook a very familiar looking pouch that hung from his own. "Ya see I just happen to have enough bread and cheese to share with such a fine group of travelers." Toris stared at the bag in disbelief. "Yep took it off some dumb jughead horse that snapped it's damn neck when it took a tumble off a rise over yonder," he tossed his head in a vague direction and smiled again. "Couldn't find no rider, though, nope guess the rider was thrown or just up and walked away." He slung the bag over Lyceus' head and gave the boy a gentle shove. "Ya take that there over to yer brother, son. Let 'em see I mean ta share my meager find." The man laughed a smart-alecky laugh, swiped a hand under his nose with a loud sniff then crossed his arms over his chest.
Toris snatched Lyceus as soon as the boy was within arms reach, ignoring his brother's protest, then shoved him safely behind with Xena. She yanked the pouch from the boy's neck and passed it back to her brother then immediately examined Lyceus for any sign of injury, no matter how faint. The little boy pulled and tugged in an effort to escape his sister's attentions, but she held him fast. Toris tugged the string that held the pouch closed and peered inside. The loaf of bread that Uncle Micha had placed in the bag was half eaten and the cheese all but gone. He looked back at the man who had moved closer to their fire and was holding his filthy hands out over it.
"A man's gotta eat, boy," he grinned as he squatted down to poke at the larger of the two hens. Satisfied that it was cooked to perfection he slid it from the spit and tore off one leg. He dropped that onto one of the leaves then carried the rest of the meat across the clearing and leaned against a tree trunk. He bit into its flesh slobbering the juices across his face and chin. He ran his filthy sleeve over his dripping beard as he nodded toward the other hen. "Better eat what ya can kids, I got a big appetite," he spoke with his mouth over full, bits of meat dropping from his lips as he did.
Toris moved himself and his family to the opposite side of the fire and shared what was left of their catch between them. After seeing the man drool over the food he had no intention of giving his younger siblings any part of what was in that parcel. He dropped it to the ground and kicked it aside. The man just laughed under his breath and continued to gnaw on the hen. Toris was sure he was devouring bones and all. The children sat side by side on a fallen log, dark siblings on either side of the light cherubic boy. Xena and Toris ate slowly, merely picking at what could have been a delightful meal. Lyceus seemed oblivious to it all. He had that dumb lizard back and it was all that mattered. Of course to a seven-year-old, that wasn't unusual. Despite his complaints of hunger, the boy nibbled on one leg of hen and a handful of berries, especially after discovering that the lizard was fond of the fruits as well. Lyceus was much more fascinated with feeding his pet than with finishing his portion of the meal. When the last of the food had been consumed the man sat back against the tree and patted his stomach, then let loose a loud belch. Lyceus laughed hysterically.
"Ahhh," the stranger moaned, "nothing like a good meal to put a man's mind at ease, now if I just had me a woman and tankard of ale I'd be set for the night. Guess I'll just have to do with what the gods saw fit to send me." He sat up and made a quick move toward Xena. The girl, taken by surprise, leaned back quickly and slid off the log. Lyceus' laughter again drifted through the quiet woodland as Xena's feet stuck straight up in the air. Toris was on his feet in a split second, his heart racing wildly as he wondered if he had the strength protect his sister. The man moved back to his position slowly and reached inside his coat. He pulled out a wineskin. "Whatsa matter, boy?" He laughed as he took a long draw on it, "yer awful jumpy. Ya want a slug?" He held out the skin to Toris who shook his head quickly. "Didn't think so." The man sneered then took a second long drink.
Xena pulled herself to her feet, making a silent promise to herself that that would not happen again. She regained her dignity, brushed off her clothing then stomped to the stream in a huff. Toris watched her retreat, but chose to stay where he could watch his little brother and keep an eye on that man.
The last light of day slowly slid behind the trees and into the land beyond the western sky. Darkness, amplified by the thick forest canopy engulfed the area with the exception of the small ring of light cast by Toris' scanty campfire. Lyceus had spent the last bits of daylight constructing a fortress to hold the small dragon he now possessed. The stranger watched the boy, carefully studying his every move and instructing him when he needed guidance in his endeavor. Yet, he never rose from his spot against the tree as he drained his wine skin empty. Toris said a silent prayer that the man would drink himself drunk and fall into a stupor that would put him out until after the sun rose. Xena sat next to Lyceus holding the scaly reptile while its master did the building. She looked at the man as little as possible, but each time he seemed to be staring back at her. She felt the contents of her stomach curdle every time.
Now as the darkness surrounded them, the smallest child slept soundly with one dirty hand holding the flimsy top on his pet's enclosure. Xena rested with her back against the log she had fallen from earlier, fighting to keep her heavy eyelids from closing. Several times, she shot back into consciousness when her chin bounced against her chest. Every time she moved closer to her little brother until the child's back pressed against her thigh. She placed her hand over him to keep them close.
The wine seemed to have no effect on the stranger who grumbled a few times about the rocky ground and sang a few off color songs that Toris was relieved Lyceus would not have the opportunity to repeat. The man's eyes seemed to glow with an amber tint in the firelight, the dark hollows under his eyes and nose made even darker in the gloom. Looking at the man brought back visions of demons that would take away naughty girls and boys who didn't follow their mother's directions or engaged in foolish frivolity instead of keeping to the path. He swallowed hard and wondered if Xena remembered all of the stories father had told them of such things. In that moment, he hated the father he all but forgotten. The father that simply disappeared three years before, gone without a word, without a goodbye, without anything. He hated being the 'man of the family'. He hated dealing with children and working when the other boys were playing or hunting or fishing or just doing what young boys do. He hated the man that sat across the clearing, hated him more than he thought it was possible to hate. He hated the fear the man brought out in him. Cold paralyzing fear that made him want to run as far as possible away from the threat but there was Lyceus and there was Xena and he couldn't just
"Better think bout gettin more firewood soon, boy," the man smacked his lips as he rested the wineskin on his chest. "Wouldn't want that fire to go out and leave yas all alone in the dark, now would ya?" He said it like it was a game, like he wanted the dark to come and swallow them whole, like there were things that he could do in the dark that the light would not allow.
Toris swallowed his panic as Xena sat up, shaking off another little dance with Morpheus. If he went searching for wood, he'd have to leave the children alone alone with him. 'How did he know they'd be there when he returned? What if ' He didn't allow himself to complete the thought. But if he didn't get the wood now the fire would go out and then then the blackness of the forest would swoop into their little clearing and the world would disappear everything would just be gone everything Toris wanted to cry. For the first time since the morning his father left for good, he wanted to cry cry like Lyceus could when all the frustrations of the world just got to be too much for him. He didn't even care how much Xena would tease him for it, he just wanted to let everything go and bawl his eyes out. He wanted to kick and stomp and wave his arms in some toddler tantrum, to scream and rant and rave and maybe even throw himself on the ground and pound his fists into the dirt. In his mind, he could see it all happening. Maybe the man would think he was possessed or stricken with some disease of madness and run off to save himself. Maybe
"I'll go, Toris " Xena said softly. He hadn't noticed her rise and move next to his elbow. He looked down at his little sister who refused to exchange glances with the man who insisted on being a part of their adventure. "I'm not afraid of the dark. You sit by Lyceus in case he wakes up, he'll be afraid." Something in her voice told him she understood his dilemma, he hoped she hadn't seen the tears welling in his eyes as well. He cast his eyes quickly to the area behind him and she nodded just enough to let him know she saw it. As she moved slowly from the edge of the firelight, Toris sat on the log above his sleep brother. Lyceus sighed a bit and wiggled into a tighter ball, moving his hand from the lizard's cage then resting it under his cheek. A soft splash in the stream told the boy that his sister had moved to the opposite side and was away from the campsite. The man that had leaned against a tree for most of the evening rose slowly and cocked his head toward the spot where Xena had disappeared.
Xena moved quickly through the darkness, allowing her eyes to grow accustom to the obscurity of the woods. She had made many ventures into the night, unbeknownst to her mother, sneaking off to watch the priestess' at the temple initiate novices or to take part in a little prank on a cranky neighbor. She'd even gotten good enough to sneak in and out of a patron's room without the man even knowing she was there. She had plenty of loot to show for it too, including the knife she kept hidden in her blouse. Of course, she never took anything from the good people, just those greedy snipes who thought they were better than her mother. Or the ones who insisted on a lesser fee since the atmosphere of the inn was not to their liking and the ones like this creep that was haunting them now. She picked up several large branches and tucked them under her arm. 'If I could get around behind him ' she thought to herself, 'with a big enough branch I could knock him and ' The thought dwindled away. What then? Run off into the dark forest and just get more lost? She shook her head and collected more branches. There was the knife she patted her stomach just to make sure it was still tucked into the waistband of her britches. But the thought of sticking it into someone and having their blood run over her hand their eyes bugging out in shock as they clutched at the weapon No! That was not an option! She shook her head and chastised herself for even having the thought. She would never unless unless he hurt Lyceus or Toris or
"XENA!" Toris' voice startled her, almost making her drop the wood she had collected. Her arms barely reached around the pile she had managed to accumulate. "Are you all right?" The boy called again.
The man moved away from the tree scratching his backside with one hand and running the other through his greasy hair. "I guess I best go look for the little gal then, since ya've got yer hands full babysittin' " He ran his tongue over his lips and smiled with only one side of his face.
"XENA ANSWER ME!" Toris called again forcing the feminine pitch from his voice.
The man stepped to the edge of the stream.
"XE-NA!" Toris commanded.
A second splash told the boy the man had also crossed the water. Visions of things he had only heard boys a few years older discuss danced in ugly pictures across his mind. At sixteen he had often thought about girls, even kissed young Brea after the festival last fall but not no not his sister she was a child a baby and no one was going to "XEEEENAAA!"
"For Gia's sake, Toris, you're gonna wake Lyceus," Xena scolded from behind him as she dropped the wood she was holding next to the fire. It plinked and plunked in hollow tones as it fell. The little boy wrinkled his brow once, rubbed a hand under his nose, rolled to his other side, let out a soft sigh, but did not awaken.
"Xena!" The boy breathed and was at her side in a step. He wrapped his arms around her in a moment of forgotten relief.
The girl pushed him away. "What's the matter with you?" she frowned, "I wasnt gone that long!" Her teasing immediately eased his embarrassment as she turned and tossed a few branches on the fire then began to break the longer pieces over her knee. She had silently circled the entire camp and come back on the side opposite the stream. Her abilities just never ceased to amaze him.
Before Toris could say a word, thundering footsteps came from the darkness splashing back across the small brook. The man broke through the cover of darkness glaring at them with bloodshot eyes and bared teeth. "Think yer smart, doncha girlie?" He had her by her tunic in one step, kicking Toris aside in the process. Xena was held at least two feet from the ground. He shook her hand. "You pull a stunt like that again, princess, and I'll personally take a layer skin off that pretty pink hide a yers! Ya understand!" Instead of fighting or kicking or even struggling, Xena remained still. Only her clenched fists gave away the fury she contained. She glared at the man staring deep into his muddy brown eyes, refusing to look away even when the spittle from his frantic outburst struck her. He shook her again then dropped her to the ground raising a hand to strike the small face that still stared right through him. Toris wrapped an arm around his gut and coughed as he struggled to stand. Xena refused even to blink. She did not back away or raise a hand to protect herself. The man dropped his hand mumbling that she wasn't worth his effort then kicked the dirt at her before he returned to his spot by the tree. She stared at him until he turned away. Only then did the girl hurry to her older brother's side.
She looked at him wide eyed, "I'm sorry, Toris," she began.
He hushed her silently. "I'm okay. You okay?" He winced. She felt the knife still in its spot and nodded. He smiled. They moved as one to their younger brother each taking up a spot on either side of him. The lizard had long vacated its home, scampering to freedom in the dark shadows of the forest.
Xena didn't remember falling asleep, didn't even remember her eyes closing but now Lyceus was frantically bouncing on the side of her ribcage. "Wake up Xena! Wake up, I gotta, I really, really gotta!"
The girl forced her eyes open and blew off the particles of leaves that stuck to her lips. She cleared her throat and rolled over grabbing her brother's hands roughly, "you gotta what?" She snarled in a gruff sleepy voice.
"Come on I gotta go!" Lyceus snatched his hands away from his sister and jammed them against the middle of his legs frantically bobbing up and down on his knees.
She got the message quickly and rolled her eyes, "then go!" she insisted.
"You gotta come with me, I'm scared," the little boy whined, "and ya gotta come quick, please!"
Xena pushed herself up from the ground and dragged her brother along, "when are you gonna do this yourself Lyceus? I can't always be going with you!" She complained as she pulled him into the brush at the edge of their camp. He hopped and danced still clutching at himself as she fought to untie his trousers. Finally free he dropped his pants and turned away from her. She shook her head and stepped away from him putting a small tree between them.
The forest was still in semi-darkness as the first rays of sunlight poked through the canopy. Long streams of misty light poured onto the forest floor giving an eerie glow to the haze that rose from the damp ground. In the chill of the morning air, Xena's breath came in little vapor clouds as she yawned mightily. The crickets and cicadas had silenced, giving way to the chirps and calls of jays and sparrows. She smiled at the beauty of the morning catching just a glimpse of a deer as it moved cautiously through the thicket.
"Can we go home now?" Lyceus yawned as he stepped in front of her holding out the laces of his britches. She took them automatically and pulled them tight before tying them securely.
"Shhh," she whispered as she took his hand and led him back to the spot where they had been sleeping. She glanced quickly across the camp, but the foggy ground made it difficult to see if the stranger was still curled up beneath the tree. The fire had burned out completely and only wormy tendrils of gray smoke drifted up from the ash. She held onto her brother's hand and gently shook Toris with the other. He grumbled a little. She stopped, looking quickly again toward the oak tree.
"Toris," she whispered close to his ear, "wake up." She shook him again. This time he sat straight up startling both her and Lyceus. The smaller boy toppled over, as she bumped against his knees, landing butt first on the cage he had built the night before. It collapsed with a loud snap.
Xena spun on the child giving him a stern look with one eyebrow raised. She held one finger up in warning. Lyceus swallowed the yelp he was about to make and took a small breath instead. She turned back to Toris who just blinked a few times then rose with as little sound as possible. Xena did the same then reached out to Lyceus slowly lifting him from the debris of the tiny house he had built the night before. Toris shook the cobwebs from his head. He had slept off and on during the night alternately checking his siblings then on the man that stalked them. It wasn't until he heard the man's rhythmic snoring that he allowed himself to drift off to sleep.
Slowly the children sneaked across the clearing, cringing every time a leaf crunched or a twig popped under a foot. Each held one of Lyceus' hands and urged him along with the other. They resembled a weary group fighting a strong wind. The trek to the path seemed miles long, but after what seemed like an hour or more (when it was only a matter of minutes) they stepped on to the hard packed earth and let loose their breaths.
"Why are we " Lyceus' high pitched voice began, only to have two hands clamp over his mouth and two arms lift him from the ground. The larger children scrambled down the road holding their brother aloft between them until both ran out of breath. They set him down, but did not remove their hands.
"Shhh," Xena warned again as she and Toris stood still listening and looking in all directions. Slowly they let go of the smaller child.
Lyceus drew a long exaggerated breath then expelled it with equal gusto. He landed a punch in Toris' tender midsection and turned swinging a foot toward Xena's shin, which she easily sidestepped. Lyceus ducked under Toris' arm and backtracked a few feet before snatching a handful of pebbles from the path, which he launched one by one at his brother and sister.
"You two are bad!" He cried as he bounced a small rock off his brother's arm. "I'm tired of you pushing me and pulling me and shushing me and squishing me! I wanna go home. I want my momma!!" He threw the last of his ammunition in one shower of gravel then turned and ran back the way they had come running headlong into the stranger who had been standing in the road watching the battle. He plucked the boy up into his arms where Lyceus held on and wept against the dirty man's shoulder.
"There, there now," the man comforted mockingly, "didja think ya were going off and leaving me after all the fun we had last night?" Toris moaned before he realized the sound escaped him. Xena closed her eyes and silently sighed in defeat. "Are they teasin ya again little man?" He cooed to the boy who nodded without picking up his head. "Well, doncha fret, no donchew fret none at all," he patted Lyceus' back while glaring at the older children. "I'm gonna make sure ya get where yer going and then I'll be real sure to teach them big kids a lesson or two on the way." He sneered at the children while gently rocking their little brother. Silently he warned them to behave or the boy would pay. Silently they understood. He tossed his head forward ordering them to get moving.
"They let my lizard go again too," Lyceus sniffled against the man's coat.
"Shh, now," the stranger crooned knowing he had gained the lad's confidence, "ya just leave it all to me."
Toris and Xena turned and began to walk fast enough to keep ahead of the man and slow enough that he wasn't threatened into any violent moves. They knew they couldn't run, couldn't leave their brother at that man's hands.
"Toris?" Xena asked in a low voice without looking at her older brother. "Do you think you could ever kill somebody?" She patted the knife under her dress and picked up her step just a notch. Toris felt his heart beat faster, wondering if maybe his crazy sister was capable of that too.
By midmorning, they reached a crossroad in the wood that had spread out to clumps of trees and brush opening the canopy and allowing the sun to warm them. Toris stood in the center of the path recognizing the road that lead to the bridge over the stream. He knew this place. He knew where he was and the realization boosted his morale. They would need to stay straight on this path, straight until the sun started its descent, by late afternoon they'd be in Amphipolis. Could it be that simple?
He turned as he detected Lyceus' giggle behind. The man was telling him something and twice tickled the boy's ears. Lyceus waved to his brother happily and called, "Hey, Toris he can make a dinar come right through my head!" He giggled again and nodded as the man said something Toris could not hear.
Xena paced back and forth across the path with hands on her hips. The older children had stopped at the crossroad when commanded to do so by the man who walked behind them. The girl stood and stared down the path, squinting her eyes as if trying to focus on some distant point, then turned and did the same thing in the other direction. Toris looked in both directions wondering just what she was looking for and why.
The stranger approached and stopped just far enough away, snatching Lyceus back when the boy attempted to catch up to his siblings. He looked at the man with a quizzical scowl. The man smiled, "now remember, you're my second in command you have to protect my flank."
"Oh yeah," Lyceus scrunched up one side of his face, "I fergot." He pulled himself into a soldier stance and announced to the others, "I'm a lieutenant and you guys are the slaves!"
"Great," Toris mumbled under his breath as he turned away and began to walk ahead.
"Hold on there, boy," the man ordered, "we're takin' a little detour here, ya can head off to the right." He pointed in that direction just in case the boy didn't understand. Toris' heart fell with a loud crash that rang inside his entire body.
"Wait," Xena called holding up a hand. "We can't go any farther."
The man stared at her for a moment then laughed, "and pray tell, why not, princess?"
"Cuz I gotta " she grit her teeth and arched her eyebrows toward the side of the road.
The man waited for her to finish then let out a long breath. "Ya gotta what?" He growled impatiently.
"I gotta a you know," she shrugged. Toris snickered under his breath and looked at the man who actually seemed to blush.
"Yeah well then go 'head " he motioned with a swish of his hand, "and no funny business," he reminded her with a quick glance toward Lyceus who was examining a dinar by trying to push it into his ear. Xena took two steps toward the brush then stopped, but did not turn toward the man. "So what's wrong now, false alarm?" The man cackled.
"No," she shook her head. "I need Toris to come with me." Toris' head shot up, his eyes wide in silent astonishment. "I mean there might be snakes in there or some kind of nasty little beady eyed critters and "
"Fine, fine, just go and get it over with," the man was clearly frustrated, "and don't be long!"
Xena marched back to her brother and grabbed his hand. He dragged his feet but followed. "What in Tartarus is wrong with you?!" he hissed through his teeth. "I'm not going " she squeezed his hand and shook her head silencing him.
"Yep I really gotta go, really gotta go " she said louder than Toris felt was really necessary.
"Me too!" Lyceus piped up. "I gotta too!" He took a step toward his brother and sister but was stopped by the stranger's grip on his shoulder.
Xena smiled and winked at Toris before she turned around. Immediately he saw her plan.
"I really, really gotta go too," Lyceus repeated hopping from foot to foot and holding that place as if it would help at all.
Toris shook his head and tsked a few times. He crossed his arms over his chest. "When he says he's gotta, he's really gotta." He stated matter-of-factly. "He can't wait really long and sometimes he has little accidents, but well, we're used to the smell. Aren't we Xena?" He raised his eyebrows at his sister.
Xena pulled her face into a dreadful scowl, "wellllll almost used to it, I guess."
The man turned pale then pushed the boy toward the others, "go, get done and get back here or I'll come in after all yas, and don't think I won't."
Lyceus ran to his sister grabbing her outstretched hand as he met her. The instant that little hand touched her a wash of relief flooded her soul. She took Toris' hand in her other and pulled him along behind. A moment later they had slid down a small embankment and into the thick hedge beyond.
Toris stood with his back to the younger children listening both to Xena talking quietly to Lyceus and for any hint that the man was coming close.
"We're gonna play a new game, Lyceus," Xena explained as she tied his drawstring. "Hide and seek, you like that game, right?" The boy nodded. "We get to hide and your friend has to find us. We have to be really quiet because if we win we get to home, but if he finds us then its his turn and we'll have to stay and look for him."
Lyceus frowned, "I really miss, momma Xena. I don't wanna look for him. I'll be really quiet."
Toris smiled at his sister's ingenuity and creativity.
"Now you go stand by Toris and both of you turn around." Xena finished.
"What now?" Toris groaned. He didn't quite understand this part of the plan.
"Cause I really gotta go!" She fumed.
Toris' mouth formed a silent 'O'. He shrugged his shoulders as he turned himself and Lyceus around.
"You been in there long enough!" The man's voice called from the road. "Git up here all a ya, now!" He demanded. "If I have to come down there " His voice trailed off in a slew of cussing as he paced and kicked at the gravel on the road.
Xena pulled her clothing back into place then slide the shiny knife from its hiding place. She looked at it in her hand turning it from side to side. Again, she wondered could she? A sound from the opposite side of the brush startled her. She stepped around it cautiously.
Lyceus sat as far under a large bush as he could get, both hands covering his eyes but his wail was unmistakable. The stranger held Toris to the ground with one hand. In the other, he held a large rock. In one move, he would bring that stone down on her brother's head. In one move just one move She sprang before she thought, slamming into the man's side with a loud scream. Startled by the sound, he dropped the rock and slapped her aside like someone might swat a pesky insect. Apparently, his tattered clothing covered his strength as well as his body. The knife fell from her hand and clattered out of reach. The man abandoned his battle with the skinny young boy with one vicious backhanded swat. Toris rolled to his stomach, pushed himself up on his hands for a second then dropped back trying to regain his senses. Xena crab crawled backward, as the man approached, keeping an eye on the knife that somehow he had not seen. He stopped inches from her face.
"I'd love to break yer spirit, princess, but I just don't have the time and yer just not worth the effort." He turned toward Lyceus. "But that little one will bring me a pretty penny after he and I get to be much better friends." He turned quickly, somehow knowing that in taking the little boy he could do much more damage than any amount of beating he might give her. Besides, if he started beating the little brat, he'd probably kill her anyway. He snatched Lyceus from his hiding place and turned back.
"By the time you get this jerk home, I'll be long gone princess " He nodded toward Toris' as he laughed over Lyceus' cries and turned to leave.
Toris pushed himself up, slipping once then righting himself. He staggered a bit then slipped to his knees. Xena rolled to her side locked her hands on the handle of the knife and pulled herself to her feet. She bolted after the man as he struggled up the bank with Lyceus kicking and screaming all the way.
Without thought, she grabbed at the back of his coat. He shook her off. She lunged again missing him and landing in the dirt. She lifted her face as he looked down laughing at her. Her eyes held no laughter, no fear, no anger as she stared deep into his. He never saw her lift her hand. He never saw the weapon, until he felt the knife drive through his foot and into the ground below.
Lyceus tumbled from the man's grip as he howled in pain, reaching for the instrument that impaled him. Xena pulled the boy to his feet before he had a chance to react. Toris, who had regained most of his balance stood behind them.
"RUN!" Xena shrieked at him, tears streaming down her cheeks. "Please Toris, please run!"
Something clicked inside the boy and he obeyed. The man had hit him more than once and cut off his air before grabbing the rock to crush his skull. Toris was dazed, but moving. Xena pushed one brother and pulled the other back to the road and on until she felt her heart would burst from her chest or her legs would simply burn from her body. She stopped only with a large form and two strong hands blocked her path.
"NO! NO!" The girl screamed as she let go of her brothers and beat the man with both fists.
He grabbed her wrists, "Xena, Xena it's me, Xena, look here "
Slowly the familiar voice broke through her terror. Slowly she stopped fighting, stopped battering the man before her. She opened her eyes. "Cyrus?" The large white haired man nodded with a smile. "Cyrus!" She fell into his arms finally letting the all of tears she had been holding for so long have their freedom.
Toris dropped to the ground gasping for breath and clinging to Lyceus who was still caterwauling. A second pair of large hands pulled the older boy to his feet and pushed a water skin to his lips. Toris took it automatically. He drank his full then turned to the man who had given it to him. "Uncle Micah," he panted.
"You okay, boy?" The large man asked genuinely concerned, "that's some shiner!" He put one hand on either side of Toris' head and tilted it back examining the dark bruise on the boy's face.
"How " Toris began as he struggled to catch his breath.
"When that mare came back before dusk, you had me worried." The old man stated then pulled the boy close. "You had me real worried boy." He repeated softly as he patted Toris' shoulders gently.
Lyceus let out an extra loud wail letting everyone know that he had not yet received the least bit of attention. Xena lifted her head from Cyrus' large chest, sniffling once then swiping tears from her cheeks. Toris and Micah looked down at the small form standing in front of them. Lyceus wailed a second time, just for good measure. Micah raised one eyebrow and smiled half a smile, but Cyrus' deep laughter juggled his upper body and bounced the small girl he held in his arms. Xena looked at the large man for a moment before becoming infected by his chortle and joined in as well, her sobs slowly transforming into laughter. Micah reached down and drew the little boy into a bear hug, lifting him into his arms. Toris laughed a small laugh then winced at the twinge it brought to his ribs. He placed a hand against the pain and managed a weak smile.
"Well then," Micah announced as he took a large rag from his pocket and used it to wipe most of the grime and tears from Lyceus' face, "best we get you back to your Momma," he told the boy. He placed the rag over the child's small nose and motioned for him to 'blow'. Lyceus produced a loud honk that brought about a second round of laughter. This time the smallest boy joined in as well.
"Will the man in the woods come too?" Lyceus asked as he wrapped both arms around his uncle's neck and spoke close to his ear.
Micah stopped mid stride on his way to the wagon he and Cyrus had used to come from the village. Cyrus stopped as well, a few feet ahead of him. He looked into the still wet crystal blue eyes of the little girl he carried. She quickly looked away then squirmed out of his grasp, sliding slowly to the ground as she smoothed her clothing back into place. The two men locked eyes asking the same silent question. Micah leaned forward bending slightly to look into Toris' eyes. The boy looked away as well, but not before exchange a quick glance with his sister. Lyceus remained locked in his embrace around his uncle's thick neck.
Cyrus gently lifted Xena's chin with one finger forcing her to look at him. "What man, Xena? What is Lyceus saying?"
Xena swallowed once then chewed her bottom lip before answering. "Just some guy that we met in the woods," she thought for moment about the knife that she imagined was still stuck in the creep's foot. That would take some explaining and she'd felt Uncle Micah's strong hand on more than one occasion. He'd been awfully mad that time he slipped on the manure trap she'd set for Toris. He would really flip over the knife incident. GODS! She'd stabbed that guy. She looked over her brow at her uncle who had turned back to Toris.
"Is this how you were hurt?" He was saying to the boy, "a stranger did this to you Xena?" He was asking Toris not her.
"NO!" Toris shook his head rapidly, "he didn't touch her it I he knocked me down and Xena Xena sta started to push him and we we ran we just ran " Toris stuttered his explanation.
Micah sat Lyceus on the back of the wagon and reached down to lift Xena up as well. "Cyrus you stay with the little ones." The older man nodded and moved close to the wagon. "You," he pointed to Toris who he had left standing in the road, "show me." He walked toward the boy and nodded back in the direction the children had come. Before Toris could react he put a hand around his shoulder, turned him around and walked that way.
Cyrus looked at Xena who had scooted close to Lyceus and wrapped her arm protectively around him. "He said he wanted to be my friend, Xena," Lyceus whimpered, "but he was a bad man. He pushed me and he hurt Toris. He was a bad man, Xena." She hugged him, pulling him closer and kissed the top of his head. He was a bad man, a very bad man.
"Xena," Cyrus began in a quiet but very firm tone, "the truth now, little one "
She looked at her little brother once then down the road at the back of her older brother. She nodded slowly then began her tale, explaining in 'almost' detail what had happened in the woods.
Toris spun his own version of the tale to his uncle as they walked, careful to leave out points that might cause more chastisement than sympathy. By the time they reached the bank the children had scrambled up, he had all but finished the story. Micah inched his way down, telling the boy to wait. Toris shifted from foot to foot, his eyes darting toward the smallest sound while his uncle searched the brush below. A few minutes later he emerged from the woods shaking his head. He looked at Toris' with a strange stare as if he were eyeing every inch of the boy. "Nothing," he reported as he brushed his hands against each other, "nobody, nothing." He finished, turning his back on Toris and speaking to the woods more than to the boy. When he turned back he looked normal again and once more he put an arm on the boy's shoulders and began walking back toward the wagon.
Toris took one last look over his shoulder, imagining the stranger watching him through the thicket smiling that evil smile and laughing silently. He glanced up at his uncle, who for now was silent and kept his eyes cast directly ahead. 'There must have been blood,' Toris thought, 'I saw the blood when she ' He shook his head trying to erase the vision of his sister driving that knife into that man's boot. Uncle Micah pulled him a bit closer and walked a little faster, almost as if he knew what the boy was thinking.
By the time they reached the wagon, Lyceus had fallen asleep. Xena sat with the boy's head in her lap, swinging her legs at the edge of the cart. Cyrus paced back and forth in front of her. He looked up as they approached then walked the short distance to meet them. Micah tossed his head toward the wagon telling Toris to keep moving. The two men huddled close together in muffled conversation, occasionally turning to glance at the children. They shook their heads as a quiet argument seemed to unfold.
Toris leaned against the wagon and picked at the splintered wood on its side. Xena played with Lyceus' curls, softly petting the sleeping child's head. "Toris," she said in a hushed voice without raising her eyes.
"Mmm," the boy answered without taking his eyes from the loose wood.
"I told." She stated simply.
"Me too," he breathed.
A few seconds passed as they watched the men a few yards away. "Everything?" Xena asked casually.
"Just enough," Toris answered as Micah and Cyrus approached. Xena nodded as Toris climbed in beside her, the men took the driving seat and the wagon lurched forward. They would be home by dusk.
Cyrene stood in the doorway of her inn wiping her hands in the apron she wore. The setting sun cast an almost golden glow on the dark haired woman. She looked toward the main thoroughfare of the large town, watching for a wagon driven by her uncle and the only other man she trusted enough to tend her flock, man her tavern and guide her children. Another woman approached, urging her to come inside, to sit or perhaps to rest. Cyrene shook her head. She needed the fresh air as well as the privacy of the open doorway. Patrons and friends as well had come throughout the day to offer their support, their help and their advice. She'd had enough of it all. In a way, they had helped, keeping her busy as the daylight hours ticked by, drinking her ale and eating her fare while filling her cash box with dinars. 'As if all the dinars in the world could help take away the pain or the worry,' she thought as she brushed a tear aside. She wasn't sure if she were sick with that worry or boiling with rage. In the last day she had waxed and waned between the two emotions. First, she was livid with her eldest for keeping the younger children out so late into the day. She envisioned the punishment she would dole out to the boy on his return. But, as the sun set the day before she had promised every god on Olympus that if her children were returned safely she would not so much as raise her voice to her son. This morning, after a night without sleep she again seethed with maternal anger, plotting and planning each step of her children's admonishment. 'Xena,' she thought, 'that little scamp, she probably got into something with that stubborn nature of hers and ' She'd set both of her older children straight when she got her hands on them. But as Micah and Cyrus drove off in the wagon she thought of nothing but pressing each of her offspring to her breast and holding them there, protectively, as long as humanly possible. She'd never let them out of her sight, never again. Throughout the day her thoughts and feelings had swung, pendulum fashion, in just that fashion. Now, she stood, void of any feeling, merely waiting for whatever news the men would bring back.
The innkeeper stared at the wagon for quite sometime before she recognized the man driving the team. It lumbered down the road toward her. It seemed like it was moving, but not getting closer, or as if she was being pushed away by its approach. It wasn't until the vehicle stopped directly in front of her that she noticed the men's stern visages. She felt her breath catch in her throat and clutched a hand over her heart, bracing herself for what they would say. The woman who had stood next to her a few minutes before was at her side again, patting her back and murmuring something, something she didn't want to understand.
Cyrus pulled himself down off the seat as Micah held the team steady. He stepped to the side of the wagon and glanced at his employer. She envisioned three small bodies lain tenderly in the back of the cart. A sob escaped despite her resolve.
"Come on then," the man coaxed, "end of the road."
A tall lanky boy stepped around the large man. His clothes were askew, a large bruise covered most of his face and he seemed to favor his left side. A smaller equally dirty little girl stepped up next to him, keeping her eyes toward the pebbles she kicked in the dust. One sandal held on to her foot with very few straps as the others poked out in frayed strands. Her dark hair was matted and dull, a myriad of cuts and scratches crisscrossed her arms and legs. She leaned against her brother slightly, giving him the support he seemed to need more than she did.
"MOMMA!" a small voice shrieked as a dusty blur darted from the wagon and plowed into Cyrene's midsection. "MOMMA, MOMMA! I missed you. I missed you." Two chubby grubby hands reached up as she looked down into a face so dirty that only a mother would recognize the child within.
"Lyceus," she whispered as she lifted him to her heart, covering his curly head as well as his dirty face with kisses.
Safe in his mother's arms Lyceus for once had very little to say, there was very little need for words as the child folded into the security of her embrace. Toris and Xena watched as their baby brother was smothered in their mother's welcome. Each silently envying the little one's soft, tender and joyous reception. Each dreading the flip side that was waiting for them. They stood where they had stopped, waiting for their mother's wrath to overtake her elation. Cyrene squeezed the boy and kissed him even more, pushing him away from her to look at him as if she needed to be sure he was really there, then hugging him tightly to her again. Lyceus had wrapped his arms and legs around his mother in a vice like grip, refusing to release her. She looked over his shoulder at her two older children who immediately looked back down at their toes. The mother kissed her baby again then handed the protesting boy to his uncle. Micah held the boy under the arms and legs and whispered something in his ear. Lyceus stopped his struggle and giggled a bit bringing both hands up to his mouth. He turned toward his siblings to watch what was to come.
Cyrene stepped past Micah, walking slowly up to her older children. Xena backed up a bit, sliding more behind her big brother than she usually did. Toris almost laughed, mother was the only one who could bring fear into his sister's eyes. Cyrene stopped mere inches from her children. They could actually feel her breath on them. She folded her arms across her chest and stared down at her repentant daughter then at the son who stood just a few inches taller than his mother. She tapped her foot in the dust.
Xena watched the foot bump against the ground causing little dirt clouds to poof out around it each time. Toris let out a deep breath then lifted his head to meet his mother's gaze. Expecting his mother to light into a string of 'I told you's' followed by 'when I'm finished with you's'. He opened his mouth to try to ward off the worst of it. He never got the chance.
A second later Toris and Xena found themselves wrapped in their mother's arms. Toris winced at the gentle pain it caused. She kissed each of them just as many times as she had Lyceus, first as she hugged them together and then when she hugged them individually. She kissed them and hugged them over and over until all three of them were crying with relief. There were no questions asked, no lectures given, only a mother's joy at having her children returned. She took them each by the hand and led them into the inn with Micah and Lyceus following. Cyrus smiled as he led the team toward the stable.
An hour later, three well-scrubbed children sat before a feast spread out across the largest table of the inn. Cyrene had seen to every bump and bruise, every cut and scrape. Again, they shared the story of their misadventure in the woods outside of Amphipolis, this time with the added comments of the littlest traveler who was still quite disturbed over the loss of his lizard. He managed, as well, to point out that his brother and sister had squeezed him too tight, shushed him too much and made him walk much too far. While he received just the right amount of sympathy, Xena and Toris escaped any penalization for their acts. But no matter how many times the story was told, both older children were careful to leave out what they felt was too much for their mother to know, too terrifying for a mother to have to imagine. It would be many moons before any of them would venture near that wood. Many weeks before they would stop eyeing every grimy stranger that happened into the inn, and many days before they would trust that the man would not leap back into their path once again smiling and laughing that awful laugh.
It seemed as if the entire village passed in and out of the tavern welcoming the children home. There was music and dance, laughter and merrymaking well past what should have been their bedtimes. But, all too soon Cyrene called the party to an end, pushing the last of her patrons out the door and locking it behind him. She turned to her brood, for once, smiling at the mess she would soon have to clean. Micah motioned to Cyrus to follow him and the two men silently excused themselves, slipping out the back door.
Cyrene tucked three very tired children into their beds, pulling blankets protectively up under their chins and placing a kiss on each cheek as well as each forehead. She walked back to the work that waiting in her main room as tears fell across her cheeks.
Exhausted from two restless days and the chores she had completed, Cyrene blew a soft breath across the last candle, putting the inn into darkness. She plodded softly into her children's room intending to check each bed one last time before letting herself find sleep. One small candle lit her way. Panic crept back into her heart as she found the first bed, then the second empty. She turned quickly to the last mattress, smiling at the scene before her.
Lyceus lay curled in a tight ball, one chubby thumb barely inside his lips. His head rested against his older brother's chest. Toris' right hand lay protectively over his little brother while his left one wrapped around the dark haired little girl who lay cupped around the child between them. Each child linked gently to the other, chasing the nightmares away. She sighed heavily, wondering how much of their sweet innocence had been lost in those woods. 'Never again,' she said quietly to herself as she climbed into bed next to her daughter and wrapped her arm over the three of her children. She rested her cheek against Xena's shoulder and smiled as the girl made soft snuggling noises, cuddling closer to her mother. 'Never,' she repeated to herself, 'never will I ever allow them to be that close to danger never '
She closed her eyes and allowed sleep to take her away. Her children were home. Her world was safe. She would protect them forever.
While a mother slept next to her children, two men spoke in hushed tones near the well of the inn.
"It had to be self defense, Micah." Cyrus reasoned, "Toris had to protect himself as well as the little ones."
The older man nodded and stared at the bloody knife in his hand.
"They're only children," Cyrus continued as he too eyed the weapon. "They can't be held responsible."
"No, they can't," Micah agreed as he let the object slip from his hand and disappear into the darkness of the well. The men waited in silence listening for the distant splash in the hollow chamber. Cyrus nodded and patted his shoulder. The men parted, vowing to keep the matter between them.
They would return in the morning to search the wood. Micah had found the knife in a large pool of still sticky blood. The man the children had described was seriously wounded. He couldn't have gotten far. But, after three days of searching, no body would be found, not a trace nor a sign of where the stranger had gone was ever uncovered. Years later in the heat of battle a fierce warlord would hear the strangled cry of a child. She would find a dirty man hobbling away dragging a small boy by the hand. Her sword would find its mark, taking a life that was but a mere speck in a long line of lives. The child would break free and dart away into the fracas. The man would gasp in silent recognition, looking into those angry crystal blue eyes as the last of his life drained away.
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