ALL THE BETTER THAN ONE
Disclaimers: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, Autolycus, Salmoneus and yes, even Perdicus and Joxer belong to MCA/Universal and any other of the plethora of PTB that want to claim 'em. I am only writing this for enjoyment and not profit of any kind.
Subtext Disclaimer: This is an alternative fan fiction piece which presupposes a deep love between a certain warrior and bard. While no more explicit than what one would see on the show, if this type of thing is illegal in your area, you might want to give this story a miss.
Genre/Timeline Disclaimer: This is what I consider to be a "characterization"/"episodic" piece. In most cases, I've tried to get as close to an actual episode as possible, especially regarding plot and characterization. Because of this, you'll see YAXI's, blatant double-entendre subtext and more loose ends than you can shake an Amazon fighting staff at. It's all part of the fun of Xena, right? I've tried to make it a sort of "comedy/drama" piece ala "The Greater Good". WARNING: This piece is set in a sort of "alternate timeline" which presupposes that Gabrielle is still married to Perdicus.
Now, on with the show. Feedback is always welcome. You can reach me at BladeMast@aol.com.
Xena rose up through the levels of sleep slowly, urged on by the abysmal pounding in her head. Gods, she thought, I didn't have that much to drink, did I? Leaving her eyes closed against the grey light of dawn, the dark-haired warrior tried to piece together events of the day before. She'd been stowing the last of her gear when a frightened villager blundered into her campsite, screaming as if all the hounds of Tartarus were nipping at his heels. After she had calmed him down enough to get the story coherently, Xena learned that two warlords were sweeping down upon the villager's town and he, their fastest runner, had been sent to find some help. Assuring him that his mission had been successful, the warrior urged him back on his way into the village as she and Argo followed.
Urging Argo up the last hill before the village, Xena saw two enemy camps laid out side by side. Xena smirked as she realized that "sweeping down on the village" was a bit of an overstatement. Presently, the two warlords of the opposing armies were too engaged to do any sweeping. They were busily trying to pummel each other senseless with the hilts of their swords. Riding unconcerned into the camps, the tall warrior dismounted and came in between the erstwhile combatants, managing to disarm them both with a single kick as she grabbed each by the scruff of the neck and held them off the ground. "You wanna tell me what's going on here, boys?" she drawled, eyeing each, in turn, with a mixture of amusement and disgust.
"Put me down, harlot!" yelled one, ineffectually trying to loosen her grip on him.
"Yeah! What he said!" said the other, obviously a man of high intelligence.
Briefly wondering whether either, or both, of the men were related somehow to Joxer, Xena allowed a sneer to cross her lips. "I'll put you both down if you promise to make nice with each other and leave those villagers alone."
"Just who do you think you are, you demon woman?"
Turning her coldest glare on the struggling warlord, she replied, "Who I am is the woman holding you a foot off the ground. My name is Xena. And if you've got any other smart comments to add, I'll be happy to let you down and teach you a lesson on what it means to question me."
Both men paled at the mention of her name and immediately ceased their ineffective struggles.
"Good," she said. "Now, are you both gonna play nice?"
"Yes!" squeaked one.
"Yes!" squeaked the other.
"That's what I like to hear. Be on your way now, fellas. And if I see so much as a hair of either of you, I'll send you to Tartarus in so many pieces you'll need a wagonload of dinars just to pay Charon to ferry all of you across the river. Got me?" Her voice was soft, low, and silky smooth with menace.
Nodding emphatically, both warlords ran in opposite directions, shouting orders as they went. Within a candlemark, the area was completely cleared. Grinning smugly, Xena dusted her hands on her leathers and remounted Argo. Gabrielle woulda been proud of me, she thought. Then a frown creased her beautiful features. Best not to think of that.
The villagers welcomed her into town as if she were a conquering hero. It was all Xena could do not to allow herself to be swept onto the shoulders of the excited men and paraded around the square like a prize side of pork. Cheering and chanting her name, they escorted the warrior into the tavern and sat her in the best seat in the house, plying her with food and drink as the men and women offered her their heartfelt thanks.
Coming back to the present, Xena's brow furrowed as she realized that she couldn't remember much past that point. Not usually one to overdo it when it came to the consumption of liquor, she wondered why her head was pounding so loudly. Oh well, she thought with a sigh, guess I'd better get up and face the day. Nothing to do for this headache but wait it out. Putting an arm down on the bed to brace herself into a sitting position, Xena halted suddenly, her blue eyes flying open. What the-? Gazing down at her hand as though it were a fascinating piece of weaponry, she realized that she wasn't alone in her bed. Whoever was in there with her, and it was obviously a man by the shape of the body and the cut of the hair, was sleeping soundly on his stomach, his face buried in a pillow. Oh boy. This is not good.
While not totally adverse to waking up beside a stranger, the fact that she couldn't remember any of the events of what would seem to have been an amusing evening perplexed the warrior. Raising the sheet covering the man from the waist down confirmed her suspicions. He was naked. Looking down at her own uncovered body, she realized that she was in the same state. Great, she sneered to herself. Just great.
Grabbing a handful of shoulder, Xena shook the stuporous man. "C'mon," she growled. "Wake up."
The man mumbled, tossing a hand over the back of his head. "Is the hour up already? Listen, I know I have some more dinars around here somewhere. Just wait till I-hey!" He felt himself being forcefully turned over on his back and his brown eyes snapped open, then widened. There was a long beat of shocked silence. "Xena?" he asked.
"Autolycus?" the stunned warrior choked out.
A slow smile spread over the King of Thieves' handsome face. "Xena!" he bellowed. I died and went to Olympus. Whoever did this for me, thank you!!
"Autolycus," Xena replied with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.
"Well you don't have to sound so excited about it," Autolycus grumped, smoothing his moustache. "After all, we did spend a wonderful night together." His brow furrowed. "Didn't we?" The grin reappeared. "Of course we did!" The smile disappeared. "I think."
"So you don't remember anything either?" Xena asked, unaccountably relieved.
"Honestly? No. Not that I'm complaining mind you. Well, yeah, I am complaining. I mean, how could I not remember me . . .and you . . .you know. You know?"
"No, Autolycus, I don't know," she snapped. Despite the circumstances, Xena was somewhat amused. Autolycus was prudently keeping his eyes glued to her face, his hands white knuckled around the sheet twisted about his waist. "Did you have alot to drink last night?"
The thief snorted. "Not hardly. Though I hear the spirits were flowing freely for a certain Warrior Princess we all know and love. Something about saving the village bare handed?"
"I didn't drink that much," Xena retorted, feeling somewhat defensive. She raised a hand to her pounding head. "How's your head?" she asked.
"Like a herd of Centaurs used it for kicking practice," he groaned.
"Mine too. I'll grab some water. It should help." Unabashed, as always, by her own nudity, Xena rolled over and straddled Autolycus, one long arm reaching out and snagging the water skin balanced precariously on the table. Sliding off the now apoplectic thief, she uncorked the skin and took a long drink, sighing in relief as her head cleared a little. "Want some?" she asked.
"Some what?" Autolycus squeaked.
"Water! What's wrong with you, anyway?"
"Me? Oh, nothing. Nothing at all." Grabbing the skin, he guzzled the cold water, resisting the urge to douse other parts of his body with it as well. The water helped his head a little, but not much else.
"I don't think we're suffering the aftereffects of too much liquor," Xena said finally, totally missing the beseeching look Autolycus was giving her. "I think we were drugged."
"What?" she asked, annoyed, looking down and noticing the pained expression on his face for the first time. "What's wrong?"
Autolycus blushed and damned himself for it. Giving in to the cold stare burning his way, he finally spoke. "Well, you kinda know how I feel about you, right? And I know we have to talk about what happened. But . . .it's just . . .damnit, Xena, you're naked!"
A fine black eyebrow lifted. "So?"
"C'mon, Xena. Have a little pity on the King of Thieves, please?"
Xena gusted out a disgusted sigh. "Oh, alright," she said, grabbing a handful of the sheet Autolycus was using to cover himself with.
"Not that. Please," the thief begged, refusing to give up even part of the sheet.
"Fine," Xena snarled, jumping out of the bed, striding over to where her leathers lay hanging over the back of a chair, and thrusting her long body into them. "There. Better?"
Breathing a sigh of relief, Autolycus looked over at her. "No. Not really. But it'll have to do. For now." His wits back under control for the moment, the thief grinned rakishly. "Now, you were saying something about us being drugged?"
"Yeah," the warrior replied, sitting down in the now unoccupied chair and crossing one long, well muscled leg over the other. "What I can't figure out is why."
"It doesn't make much sense," Autolycus agreed. "I mean, you saved their village. And they don't know me from a hole in the wall. Who would go to all that trouble just to see us end up in bed together?" He looked up at Xena. "Aphrodite, maybe?"
The warrior snorted. "Dream on," she said, then noticed the hurt look on her friend's face. "Listen, this doesn't sound like Aphrodite's work. She's about as subtle as a peacock, but when she sets her mind to something, she usually makes sure the participants remember the event. Otherwise, what good is it?"
"And so you're thinking . . . ." Autolycus urged her on by waving his hand in circles.
"That someone did this to get us out of the way."
"Out of the way of what?"
"I don't know yet."
As if on cue, there was a loud pounding on the thick wooden door. Autolycus let out a mighty yelp and, releasing the sheet, grabbed his head and rolled over, landing on the floor with a sodden thump.
"Xena!" came a bellow from behind the door, accompanied by another strangled scream from the thief. "Xena, are you in there?"
Rising gracefully from the chair, Xena strode over to the door, opening it a crack. "What is it?" she growled, her head beating time to the now ceased door pounding.
"Thank the gods," the tavern keeper said, trying unsuccessfully to bolt into the room. "You've got to help us. The Ponopholona has been stolen!"
"Ponopholona," the man repeated. "It's an ancient magical scroll that we've pledged our lives to protect. Please, Xena. You have to help us find it!"
Sighing, the warrior rolled her eyes. "Fine. Just give me time to finish getting dressed and I'll come down, ok?"
The man beamed. "Thank you, Xena. You're a gift from the gods." Turning, he bustled back down the long hallway.
Closing the door again, Xena strode over to the other side of the bed, toeing the writhing thief. "You wouldn't have anything to do with the missing Ponopholona, would you?" she purred.
"Anything to do with it? I can't even pronounce it!"
"That doesn't answer my question, Autolycus."
"How could I have possibly stolen the Pono-whoozits. I was up here with you the entire time, remember?"
"That's just it. I don't remember!" she yelled, reaching down and yanking the now naked man to his feet.
Autolycus straightened, as much as he could with his arms crossed over his groin area. "Listen, Xena, there are two things I am guaranteed to remember. One is stealing. The other is sleeping with you. Oh, that didn't come out so well, did it. Ok. Well, one thing then. I didn't steal that Pono-thing. I swear."
"Then I guess we found out the reason why someone felt it so important to drug us." Turning to begin the arduous process of arming for battle, Xena let a smile cross her lips as she heard Autolycus mutter, "Now how in Tartarus did my pants end up in the fireplace?"
A short time later, both friends were fully dressed. Xena flung the door open, her saddlebags slung over one broad shoulder. "After you," she said to the thief.
"Oh no," Autolycus countered with a grand bow. "After you, my dear- oof!" He tripped through the door and stumbled down the hall, aided as he was by the helpful shove of the Warrior Princess.
Descending to the bottom of the stairs, the pair walked over to the table occupied by the tavern-keeper and several other village men. "Xena!" the tavern keeper beamed, rising. "Thank the gods." Looking over at Autolycus, he scowled. "Who's this?"
Twirling his moustache, Autolycus sketched a bow. "None other than Autolycus, King of ACK!" he bit off as a hand came sharply between his shoulderblades. He coughed. "Ah, Swordmakers. Yes, the King of Swordmakers. I was just upstairs showing Xena my new . . .er . . .line."
"Never can have too many swords," Xena agreed, a false smile on her face, before shooting a piercing glare at Autolycus, who shrugged slightly. "Now, about this Ponopholona. When did you first notice it missing?"
"Very late last night, after the party. One of the village men went to check on it and found it was stolen!"
"Was there a ransom note left behind?"
"Nothing! Not even any footprints to tell how the thief did it! Please, Xena, we really need you to find it for us. The Ponopholona could be very dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands!"
"What, exactly, does it do?"
At that moment, the tavern door flung open and Joxer stumbled in. Dragging himself up off the floor, he sighted Xena and Autolycus, a big, goofy grin overspreading his face. "Xena!" he shouted happily. "And Autolycus! What a surprise! What's the King of Thieves doing around these parts? Doesn't seem to be much around to steal."
Xena shot Joxer 'the look' as Autolycus rolled his eyes. "Ah, ha ha, you must be talking about the other Autolycus, stranger," the thief said. "I'm the King of Swordmakers." He jerked his head at Joxer.
Joxer grinned, stepping closer to them. "You're giving me one of your warrior tests, right Xena? Well you can't fool Joxer the Mighty. I'd know the King of Thieves anywhere!"
"'King of Thieves'?" the tavernkeeper bellowed. "Guards! Arrest that man! And Xena as well!"
"Joxer, I'm gonna kill you one of these days," Xena growled, resisting the urge to backhand the bumbling idiot.
"Um, Xena," Autolycus said, tapping her on one broad, armored shoulder, "don't you think it's time to show these villagers a little Warrior Princess action?"
"They're innocent villagers, Autolycus," Xena retorted. "I can't just cut 'em to pieces."
"Then what would you suggest, oh mighty warrior?"
"Hang on!" Xena called, wrapping the thief's arms around her neck and flipping over the row of oncoming guards. Bolting out of the tavern with Autolycus in tow, Xena brought her long fingers up to her lips and emitted a loud, piercing whistle.
A whinny was heard from the stables as Argo came charging into the courtyard. Jumping into the saddle (ok, author's note....just call this a YAXI...since we all know that Xena wouldn't leave Argo's saddle on overnight.), Xena reached down and grabbed Autolycus' hand, flipping him into the saddle behind her. "Yah!" she yelled, urging her warhorse into a gallop. "Hold on tight!" she shouted behind her.
"Xena, wait for me!" Joxer shouted, running and tripping as he tried to follow the charging steed.
"Joxer! Get out of here!" the warrior bellowed, charging past him and outside of the village.
"Sheesh," Joxer said to Xena's retreating back. "I know when I'm not wanted. Don't have to tell me twice. No, Joxer the Mighty . . . ." Still mumbling to himself, Joxer walked dejectedly in the other direction.
Autolycus was very much enjoying being pressed up against Xena as Argo thundered down the forested pathway. At least until the back of her head collided rather forcefully with his forehead. "Hey! What was that for?"
"When I told you to hold on tight, I meant around my waist!"
"Oh, yeah," he chuckled, mentally snapping his fingers and pulling his hands back down to clasp the warrior's narrow waist securely. "Where are we going, anyway?"
"I want to get to Melesus by noontime. If I remember correctly, Salmoneus is staying there for awhile. He might know what this Ponopholona is and who'd want to steal it."
"Sounds like an exotic dancer to me," Autolycus muttered under his breath.
"Er . . .I said it looks like a nice day out."
"Uh huh," Xena said, smiling crookedly. "And just how many exotic dancers have you seen, Autolycus? Is that where all your dinars go?"
"Damn your hearing, Xena," Autolycus said, sighing.
It was almost noon when Xena, Autolycus and Argo arrived in Melesus. Just as they were dismounting, the warrior spotted Salmoneus dressed in a garish purple and orange toga which barely fit his corpulent frame.
Salmoneus' eyes lit up as he spotted the two. "Xena!" he yelled, smiling and walking over to them, arms outstretched. "How's my favorite Warrior Princess? And Autolycus! Long time no see, my friend!"
"Salmoneus," Xena greeted shortly, avoiding Salmoneus' grabbing arms.
"Here, I'm known as the High Grand Poobah of the String Can," the merchant whispered to Xena, guiding a conspiratorial arm around her shoulders.
"Salmoneus," Xena replied, easily slipping out of his half-embrace.
"Please, Xena. Not in front of my public. I've got a reputation to protect, you know."
"Uh huh. What is it this time, Salmoneus?"
The merchant smiled wider, his seamed face almost splitting in two. "Just wait till you try this, Xena! It'll set the world on it's ear, so to speak." He held up two cylindrical metal objects, open at one end, closed at the other, connected by a heavily waxed string of gut. "I call them string cans."
"Uh huh. And just what do you do with 'em?"
"That's the beauty of it! You talk into them. Of course, you're not one to talk very much, but these could revolutionize communications across the world!"
"Yeah. How do they work?"
"Well, one person takes one of the metal objects and the other person takes the other. You hold the metal thing up to your mouth and talk into it. The other person holds his, or her, metal thing up to their ear and they can hear you talking! Isn't it wonderful?"
"Fabulous. Do they work?"
"They work perfectly!" Salmoneus beamed. "Why, I was testing them out just yesterday in that tavern over there! I was just about to talk into my end when this bumbling waitress spilled port all over my arm! I shouted into my metal thing 'Wasson' that's my partner, you know, 'Wasson, come here! I need you!' And would you believe he actually heard me? Came over with a rag just in time to save my favorite toga!"
"Riiiight," Xena remarked, grabbing the contraption from Salmoneus. Handing one of the metal objects to the thief, she said, "Autolycus, go over there."
Nodding, Autolycus walked opposite of the warrior, stretching the waxed gut as far as it could reach. He nodded that he was ready for the experiment.
Leaving the can dangling by her right hip, Xena called out, "Autolycus, can you hear me?"
"Perfectly, Xena!" came the reply as the thief also let his can drape by his hip.
Giving a short nod, Xena collected the cans, handing them to the frowning merchant. "You're right," she smirked. "They work perfectly."
"Well," Salmoneus explained, flustered, "these are just prototypes, you know. I'll just have to come up with a longer string. Yeah, that's it! Longer string! And a new name. 'String-can' just isn't working for me. It has to be something more forceful. Hmmm. Tele-something, I think. Teleprompter? Nah, too garish. Telephoto? Too Roman. I'll just have to think on it."
"Wonderful," Xena said, sliding her arm around Salmoneus' shoulders. "Much as I'd love to stick around and help you 'revolutionize communications across the world', I've got business to take care of. I need your help."
"You need my help. You need my help! Xena, that's wonderful! Come, step into my office."
The three companions stepped into a tiny, sparsely furnished hut. A rickety chair and table sat in the middle and mounds of boxes were stacked precariously along the walls. "Nice office," Autolycus said, coughing and flicking cobwebs away from his face.
"Best I could do on short notice," Salmoneus said, sitting down on the chair and leaning over the table, dinar signs flashing in his eyes. "Now, how can I help you your breast--I mean your high--I mean Xena?"
"Have you ever heard of the Ponopholona?" she asked, shooting him a glare.
"Isn't she the exotic dancer over at Aphrodite's Pleasure Palace in Thrace?"
"See? I told ya!" Autolycus piped in.
Rolling her eyes, Xena slammed her hands down on the table, sending up clouds of dust and almost demolishing the aged furniture. "It's a magical scroll of some type. It was being kept hidden in a town not more than three candlemarks north of here." Turning to the thief, she asked, "Just what was the name of that town anyway?"
Autolycus shrugged. "Beats me. Probably something exotic like Ponopholonaville."
Surpressing a chuckle, the warrior turned back to Salmoneus. "Regardless, have you ever heard of such a scroll?"
The merchant cupped his face in one hand, a finger tapping against his dark beard. His eyes lit up. "Come to think of it, I think I have heard of it. Or something like it. There's a legend of a scroll that's hidden near here. It's said that when the words are spoken at a certain time, in a certain place, the bowels of Tartarus open up and a dragon, or some such other monstrosity, will come forth to do his Master's bidding."
"And the Master would be the one who reads the scroll?" Xena asked.
"Most likely," Salmoneus agreed.
"Great," the warrior muttered, bringing a fist down on the table and splitting it neatly in two.
"Xena! That was my table!"
"I'll build you another one, Salmoneus," Xena purred softly, showing her teeth.
"Hey," the merchant said, throwing up his hands. "What's a little broken furniture between friends?"
"So, all we have to do is find the scroll before it gets read," Autolycus said.
Xena whirled towards him, her hair fanning out across her shoulders. "Brilliant deduction, Plato. Just how do you suggest we go about getting it back?"
"Hey, that's your department, Xena. I'm just a thief, remember?"
A feral smile crossed the warrior's lips. "Yes," she purred, "you're a thief. And the scroll's been stolen."
Throwing up his hands, Autolycus stepped back a pace. "Now hold on a minute, Xena. I thought we already agreed that I didn't steal it."
Rolling her eyes, Xena said, "If you had stolen the scroll, where would you go with it?"
The handsome thief shrugged. "Probably to the man who paid me to steal it."
Xena sighed again. "This is getting us nowhere." She looked around for more furniture to take her frustrations out on.
"Wait a minute. Waaaait a minute," Salmoneus said, standing up slowly and turning to the row of boxes along one wall. "I might have exactly what we need. Now where did I put it?"
"What are you mumbling about, Salmoneus?" Xena ground out from between clenched teeth.
"About a year ago, I gave a wizard friend of mine some Talgamite swords to play a trick on his brother, the Prince. In return, he gave me this scroll. He guaranteed that it would uncurse any magic spell ever uttered. Now if I can just find where I put it . . . ." Still mumbling to himself, Salmoneus pawed through the boxes as Xena paced around the interior of the small hut. "Ah! Here it is!" he exclaimed, pulling his prize out of one of the boxes.
Walking over to where the table used to be, the merchant untied and unrolled the scroll, flattening it against his legs. "Hmmm," he said after a long moment. "I don't think this is going to be of any use to us. I can't even read it."
"Give me that," Xena said, grabbing the scroll off Salmoneus' lap.
"Hey! Be careful with it! It could be worth a fortune, you know."
The warrior stalked to the door, stepping out into the light of mid-day, eyes scanning the scroll. After a moment, she stepped back in, her face grim. "It's in an ancient Greek dialect, but I can read it. It just doesn't make any sense."
"Read it outloud, Xena," Autolycus offered. "Maybe it'll make sense to one of us."
"'The valley between a woman's breasts is furrowed with sweet dew. Her stomach trembles as the hot breath of . . . .' Bearded Zeus, this thing belongs in Aphrodite's Pleasure Palace! Salmoneus, I'm surprised at you. I thought you knew better than to accept a trade sight unseen."
"He seemed like an honest guy, for a wizard," the merchant replied.
"Keep reading," Autolycus said, grinning and stroking his moustache.
"You read it," the warrior snarled, pegging the thief's chest with the scroll.
"Ow! No need to get so testy, Princess."
"Hold on a second, Xena. Maybe this is the right scroll. Just because it sounds like something you'd find carved in a dungeon somewhere doesn't mean it's worthless. You know how these poets are, writing one thing and meaning another." His eyes brightened. "What we need is a bard!" he exclaimed.
Autolycus looked up sharply, cutting his eyes past Xena and directly to the merchant, trying desparately to catch his gaze. "Ixnay on the ardbay," he mouthed, making throat slashing gestures with his free hand.
Cocking his head at the thief, Salmoneus returned his gaze to Xena, not reading the torrent of emotions crossing her beautiful face. "It's perfect!" he went on, unaware of how close to death he was coming with every word, only knowing that Autolycus looked like he was having some type of brain seizure behind the tall warrior. "All we need to do is get Gabrielle . . .hey! Where is Gabrielle, anyway? Eep!" His breath came out in a soundless gush as he felt Xena's inhumanly powerful fingers clamp around his windpipe.
"Uh, Xena," Autolycus said softly, coming to stand beside her, looking from the warrior to the merchant and back again worriedly. "C'mon, Xena. That's enough. He just doesn't know, that's all."
After a long moment, Xena released her grip on the merchant and he fell, wheezing, to the floor. "You tell him then," she snarled at Autolycus, striding past him and out into the open courtyard.
"What was that all about," Salmoneus wheezed, rubbing at his neck and allowing Autolycus to help him into the chair.
"I was trying to tell you, ya idiot! Gabrielle's not with Xena anymore."
"Whaaat? You're kidding, right? I mean, Xena and Gabrielle were like this!" he said, crossing his fingers. "Well, maybe not like this, exactly, though I have heard stories. . . ."
"Shut up before I tell her to come back in here and finish the job," the thief said, slapping Salmoneus across the back of the head. "Listen, cause I'm only gonna say this once. About a year ago, Gabrielle agreed to marry some farm boy turned soldier. Perdi . . .Perdi . . .something. Anyway, from what Hercules says, Gabrielle felt sorry for the lout because he just flat out refused to fight anymore. So they got hitched. Xena hasn't been the same since."
"Oh boy. I guess I put my foot in it this time, huh?"
The thief nodded glumly. "Yeah. You did. So when she comes back, if she comes back, you're not going to mention Gabrielle's name again, right?"
"I understand!" Salmoneus said hastily. "So, what do we do now? I still think the bard idea is a good one."
"I do too. Are there any bards around here that we can ask to help?"
"Not a one," Salmoneus sighed. "Everyone's getting turned on to plays now. Not much call for bards around here anymore."
Autolycus snapped his fingers. "How about Athens? Xena told me that Gabrielle went to the Academy for Performing Bards in Athens! There's bound to be a ton of bards there!"
"Great idea! Except for one small detail I forgot to mention."
"And what's that?"
"The 'certain time' that I mentioned? Well, the scroll has to be read during a full moon for it to work. And near as I can figure, the next full moon is in three days. It's almost four days' ride to Athens from here!"
"Wonderful," Autolycus said. "I guess Gabrielle's our only hope then."
"You get to be the one to tell her then. I plan to be as far across town as these little legs can carry me."
"Oh no you don't," the thief exclaimed, grabbing Salmoneus by the collar.
"Careful! That's silk from Chin you're mauling there!"
"It's gonna be shredded silk from Chin unless you stop trying to get away," Autolycus warned.
"Okay. Okay! After all, what's the worst she can do? She can't kill both of us, right?"
"Bite your tongue."
The two men found Xena in the tavern guzzling a mug of port. Her eyes narrowed as she spotted them and she set the cup down with a rattling thump, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. "What."
"Um, Autolycus has something to tell you, Xena," Salmoneus the Brave said, scuttling to hide behind the tall thief.
"Spill it, Autolycus."
"Um . . .well . . .heh heh . . .it's like this, Xena. We need a bard and there aren't any around here. The closest ones are in Athens, which is four days' ride away. The problem is that the scroll needs to be read during the full moon, which is only three days from today. Gabrielle'souronlychoice," he spit out quickly, holding his hands up in a defensive stance, stepping back and bowling the cowering merchant over.
Slowly unfolding her tall frame from the stool upon which she was perched, Xena pinned the trembling thief with a cold glare. "Fine," she said softly. "You go to Poteidia and get her to tell you what's on that scroll. I'll go and see if I can track down the person who stole the Ponopholona. We'll meet back here in two and a half days. If I'm successful, we won't need her help. If I'm not, at least we'll know what to do once the creature is released."
"Um, no offense, Xena, but I don't think that's such a hot idea."
"What do you mean," Xena rumbled, taking a step towards the pair.
"It's just that, well, I don't think her hu . . .ah . . .husband's gonna particularly like it if a handsome, dashing fellow such as myself comes barging into their home to spout erotic poetry to his wife. If you know what I mean."
"You're going to get her help," Xena intoned dangerously.
"Don-don't you think it'd be better if I tried to find the Ponowhatzit? I mean, it takes a thief to catch a thief, right?"
"You're going to get her help."
"Heh heh, yeah. Like I said, I'll go get her help."
"Good. Salmoneus, show us where you keep your horse."
"My horse? Now Xena, wait a minute. Don't you think you're taking this Salmoneus the Altruist thing a little to far? I mean, first I give you, give, mind you, the scroll. Now you want my horse too?"
"Yes," she said simply, towering over his trembling figure.
"Hey," he gulped, " come to think of it, maybe there's something to this altruism stuff after all!" Running out of the tavern, Salmoneus hurried into the stable and brought out his horse.
To Xena's jaundiced eye, the beast looked to be little more than a broken down nag, but if it could carry Autolycus and still walk, she wasn't going to complain. "Thanks," she said, helping the merchant saddle and bridle the horse.
"Don't mention it. Well, not to my public, anyway. If word got around that I was just giving things away, my life as a businessman would be ruined."
"Consider your good deeds forgotten," Xena replied, bestowing a crooked smile on the stunned merchant.
Salmoneus grinned in return. "Thanks! I think."
Quickly mounting Argo, the warrior leaned down. "Listen. If I'm not back by the full moon, Autolycus is gonna need all the help he can get to put the beast back where it came from. Can I count on you?"
The merchant saluted her, thumping a clenched fist against his chest and coughing. "Your wish is my command, Proud Warrioress. At least as long as it doesn't involve me giving away large amounts of dinars, that is."
"Thanks," she said again, reaching down and clasping his arm briefly before straightening and wheeling Argo around. "C'mon, Autolycus. Let's move!"
The bright sunlight overhead filtered steadily as the day quickly progressed to early dusk. Slowing her warhorse down to allow Autolycus to come abrest of her, Xena looked over at the tall thief. "Sorry about snapping at you earlier," she said softly, not quite meeting his eyes.
Autolycus nodded. "That's ok," he said, voice just as quiet. "It's hard to lose someone you love."
After a long moment of silence, the warrior nodded. "Yeah," she replied in a defeated tone, ducking her head, her black hair fanning her face, hiding her features from view.
Uh oh. Time to change the subject. "I don't know about you, but my butt is getting mighty sore. Whaddaya think about looking around for a place to spend the night?" One hand on his horse's flank, the thief struck a dashing post, grinning suggestively.
Autolycus knew he hit the nail on the head when he was rewarded by one of Xena's full, flashing smiles. Gods, he thought, why does she have to be so damned beautiful?
"If I didn't know you any better, Autolycus, I'd think you were propositioning me," she teased, some semblance of a good mood restored.
"If the boot fits," he replied, rakishly stroking his goatee and twirling his moustache.
Eyes twinkling mischieviously, the warrior slowed Argo just enough so that she could reach one long arm out and swat the dun colored rump of Autolycus' horse. Barking out a loud whinney, the horse bolted, carrying a screaming thief who was clutching the saddlehorn with all the strength in his hands.
Shaking her head, Xena urged Argo on, catching up to the now wailing thief in seconds.
Full dark had almost set in when the warrior led Autolycus to a small clearing on the outer edge of a great forest. "We'll stop here for the night," she announced, dismounting and retrieving her saddlebags and bedroll. "We'll split up tomorrow. You go east to Poteidia and I'll continue up north past the town we were in last night."
Also dismounting and rubbing his aching hind quarters, the thief strode into the center of the small clearing, watching the warrior set up camp and feeling quite useless. "Do you have a plan for finding the Ponothingie?"
"It's called a Ponopholona, and yes I do. I just hope I'm right," Xena said as if to herself.
"I think those two idiot warlords were there to cause a distraction. Unless I miss my guess, they were supposed to come riding into the village yesterday and cause enough of a ruckus to insure that the scroll could be stolen and it's absence not noticed until much later. I feel like a fool," she sighed, gathering wood and starting a small blaze with her flint.
"Hey, Xena, you couldn't have known. You thought you were doing the right thing." Autolycus was tempted to lay a comforting hand on the warrior's shoulder, but pulled back at the last second. "Listen, is there anything I can do to help? I'm not really the outdoorsey type, but there must be something I can do."
"Can you cook?" Xena asked, looking over her shoulder at him, her face and form backlit by the fire's crackling blaze.
Chuckling, the thief said, "About as well as you can . . .ah . . .whatever the one thing is that you don't do well."
"Cooking would be it," the warrior replied, returning her gaze to the fire.
"Oh well. I'm not that hungry anyway." Yawning, he stretched his lanky body. "I think I'll turn in."
Smirking, Xena walked to the saddlebags and brought out the last of her bread and cheese. Splitting the offering exactly in half, she gave the thief his share and returned to sit by the fire with hers.
"Thanks," Autolycus said, smiling and digging into the sparse fare as if it were ambrosia.
The two friends ate in silence, each absorbed in their own thoughts, staring into the fire as if it could divine answers to questions neither dared verbalize.
Finishing her simple meal, Xena rose and drew her sword and, sitting on a convenient log, set about the much beloved task of sharpening and oiling the weapon. Autolycus leaned back against another log, sneeking covert glances at the absorbed warrior through the fire's cheery flames. The thief was rife with confusion, a totally foreign emotion to the normally egotistical man. He loved the woman as a friend and was drawn to her physical perfection from the first time he'd laid eyes on her. Theirs was a flirtatious type of relationship, neither quite daring to step over that self-imposed line. Autolycus finally came to the realization that he could never have the warrior's heart. That firmly belonged in the hands of another. Yet the attraction was still there, on both sides, and it was nearly killing him. They had finally shared a night of carnal bliss and damned if he couldn't remember any of it! Did he think, this morning, that he had died and gone to the fields? Oh, how wrong he was. He was in Tartarus.
Finishing her task, Xena rose gracefully from her perch on the log and stowed her gear, reaching down and grabbing her bedroll and unfurling it on the dusty ground. Divesting herself of her breastplate, greaves and bracers, the warrior threw back the fur blanket and crawled inside. "Goodnight, Autolycus," she said.
"Xena?" he asked, disbelieving. "It's gonna be cold out tonight!"
One eyebrow arched. "Is it my fault that you forgot to bring your bedroll?"
"Well, forgot isn't exactly the word. I don't own one."
The other eyebrow joined the first as blue eyes widened. "You don't own a bedroll?"
Autolycus shrugged. "Never needed one, I guess. You see, Xena, I'm an Inn-man. Soft beds, hot baths, beautiful wo. . . . Well, you get the picture."
A corner of Xena's mouth moved upward. "Well, my friend, tonight you're a 'cold, hard ground' man. No soft beds. No hot baths. No beautiful women."
"You're wrong about the beautiful woman part," he retorted, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.
"Am I," she drawled, pinning him with an unreadable look.
"C'mon, Xena!" he exclaimed, throwing up his hands. "Can't you help an old friend out over here? Do you really think you could sleep well knowing that the King of Thieves is laying, huddled in a ball, shivering?" He threw the warrior his best 'wounded puppy dog' look.
Rolling her eyes, Xena sighed. "Oh alright," she said, lifting one corner of the thick blanket. "But if you so much as touch me, freezing is going to be the least of your worries."
"Er, Xena? In case you hadn't noticed, we're both strapping specimins of physical perfection. In other words, there's no way in Tartarus that we can share this bedroll without touching in some fashion or other."
"Fine. Just as long as it's not the other," the warrior ground out, rolling onto her side and facing away from Autolycus, towards the fire.
"Great," Autolycus mumbled sotto voce. "Of all the places in Greece I could be, I'm stuck sharing a bedroll with an incredibly beautiful, incredibly grumpy ex-warlord."
A loud, pitiful sigh. "Goodnight, Xena. Sweet dreams. I know I'll have them. OW!"
Several moments of silence punctuated by the pops of a slowly dying fire.
"Autolycus . . . ."
"Hey, a man's gotta stretch, ya know."
"Not all over my breasts he doesn't. Now roll over and get to sleep."
Rolling over, Autolycus muttered, "Well, if they weren't so big . . .oof! G'night Xena."
Hearing the soft snoring behind her, Xena returned her gaze to the dying fire. Maybe Autolycus is right, she thought. Maybe I should be the one to ask Gabrielle for her help. Perdicus would probably take better to me coming than Autolycus. After all, I did promise to visit. Closing her eyes against the sudden pain, the images of their parting kiss ran through her brain. So soft. Opening her eyes again, the warrior looked out over the quiet campsite, wondering what Gabrielle would look like now, almost eight months later. She's probably heavy with child by now. The vision of that tight abdomen which Xena secretly loved to eye now swollen in late stage pregnancy caused her to wince. She pictured Gabrielle in the fields, her once proud shoulders bowed over the heavy labor, her laughing eyes now faded and dull. I can't do it. I can't bear to see her like that. I'd rather just remember the way things were, even though they can never be that way again. Coward, she spat at herself, closing her eyes a final time, not bothering to brush off the single tear that fell down her cheek.
Autolycus was rudely awakened from a wonderful dream involving himself, the Warrior Princess, a large skin of Thesselian oil, and two dozen manacles. "I was just stretching, honest!" he mumbled, keeping his eyes closed in a vain attempt to recapture the dream now fading from his conscious mind.
"We've got company," came Xena's low voice from somewhere above and behind him.
Squinting his eyes against the early morning light, the thief looked over the situation. An indeterminate number of large men were pointing swords at him. "So we do," he said, not attempting to rise, but wondering how anyone could have been able to sneak up on Xena like that. "Morning, fellas. What can I do for you?"
The largest of the lot grinned through a mouthful of blackened teeth, poking at his chest with the sword. "Well, seein' as you've already given us your horses, we'll just take your valuables. And, of course, your pretty little wife there," he leered.
The thief snorted. "Little? Have you ever thought of having your eyes checked? AH. Guess not." Turning his head slightly, Autolycus noted that Xena was on her knees behind him, her hand hidden beneath the bedroll, clasping what he prayed was her sword. The weapon poking his chest brought his attention back to the uninvited guests. "Well, I don't really have any valuables, being but a poor travelling. . . .basketweaver. As for my wife, well, you'll have to take that up with her." He hoped that he'd hidden his smirk well.
As Autolycus watched, the raiders' eyes travelled up, and up, and he knew Xena was now standing behind him. The thief couldn't surpress his smile. "See what I mean?"
"Shut up, you," the leader said, rapping his chest with the flat of the sword. "Now listen, lady, you really shouldn't play with your husband's sword like that. You could hurt yourself."
"Oh really," Xena purred, twirling her weapon in her characteristic fashion.
The leader smiled. "Well, well, well. I see who wears the pants in this family."
"But boss," another said, "she's not wearing any pants!"
"I knew you were too smart to be a thug," the leader sneered, eyeing the warrior's long expanse of bare, muscled leg. "Why don't you put that sword down, ok? Leave the fighting to the menfolk. I wouldn't want to scar that cute lil body."
Xena grinned and twirled her sword again. "One or two more won't hurt," she said. Then, quick as lightening, her swordarm flew out and over and the leader of the raiders found his pants in a puddle around his ankles.
"Why you . . . ." he growled, lunging towards her. The man's eyes widened as he realized that his legs were entangled in his own trousers. He went down quickly, landing on top of Autolycus, his heavy weight expelling most of the air from the thief's lungs in a whoosh. (Author's note: Insert "Whoosh" sound effect here.)
The second man tried to make a charge and was stopped as the hilt of Xena's sword connected forcefully with his jaw. He went down in a heap, pinning the struggling leader to Autolycus, who lost his breath again. "Do you mind?" the thief asked, turning beseeching eyes up to the warrior.
"Mind? YAH! Why CHEEEIIIAH should I YAH mind? You're the one who's HAH relaxing!"
"Relaxing? Is that what I'm doing," Autolycus said thoughtfully, smoothing his goatee. "And here I thought I was being used as a palatte for the dead and stupid." Heaving mightily, he managed to roll the two bodies off of his chest, only to be flattened back to the ground as another body landed bonelessly on top of him.
Rolling her eyes heavenward, Xena backflipped away from the thief. "C'mon, boys," she taunted, beckoning the raiders with her hands. "My husband hasn't had enough beauty sleep. I guess it's just you and me, huh?"
Throwing the latest body off of him, Autolycus struggled to his feet, spit in both hands, rubbed them together, and downed an attacker with a double handed blow. "Xena, behind you!" he yelled.
The warrior disposed of the man in front of her with a thunderous kick, reversed the grip on her sword and plunged it, over her right hip, into the belly of the onrushing attacker. Eyes closed, head thrown back as if in ecstasy, she pushed her weapon back until she felt it exit the other side of his body, then pulled forward, freeing her sword and allowing the thug to drop to the ground, disemboweled and quite dead.
"Well, that was a barrel of laughs," Autolycus commented, eyeing the bodies littering the campsite.
"Wasn't it though?" Xena agreed, wiping her bloody sword on a dead body and resheathing it.
"I don't get it. How could you let those idiots sneak up on you like that?"
"Didn't," the warrior said, blue eyes twinkling.
"Now wait a minute. Was this little display for my benefit, Princess?"
Shrugging, Xena gave Autolycus one of her endearing cockeyed grins. "Nah. Just a refreshing little pick-me-up. Fun way to spend a morning, doncha think?"
"You're kidding, right?"
Autolycus looked at her closely. By the gods, the woman positively glowed! "You're not kidding," he said with awe. He rubbed his hands together. "So, now that your juices are flowing, so to speak, what next?"
Pushing the bodies out of the way, Xena picked up her belongings and stowed them on Argo. "We get moving," she commented over her shoulder as she mounted her horse. "Poteidia is about half a day's ride from here. Just stay on the main path."
Nodding, Autolycus jumped on his own horse, reigning the gelding in close to Xena and extending his arm. "Good luck," he said.
Grasping the proffered arm, the warrior smiled. "You too."
"I'll tell Gabrielle you said hello." The tall thief winced as the grip around his forearm became like iron.
"Ah, Xena, no offense, but you're breaking my arm." The grip loosened slightly.
"Don't tell her I'm part of this, Autolycus. I mean it." She pinned him with a cold stare. "Don't even mention my name, understand?"
"I wish I did, Xena," he said, pulling back his arm hastily, afraid she was going to apply another death grip to it. The woman was strong! He dropped his eyes from the intensity of her glare. "But I'll do as you ask." He chanced to looked up at her again. "You gonna be ok?"
"Yeah," she said before applying her knees to Argo and galloping away, leaving Autolycus to stare after her, a sad and perplexed look on his face.
Women, he thought. Reining his own horse in the opposite direction, he gave a little kick to heaving sides. "C'mon, ya old nag. Let's scedaddle."
Four candlemarks later, Autolycus was passing through downtown Poteidia, heroically enduring the cold, suspecting stares being levelled his way by the town's populace. No wonder Gabrielle couldn't wait to get away from here. Poor kid. I can't imagine her being stuck in a place like this. Walking his horse up to the large building he assumed was the tavern, the handsome thief dismounted, tying the reins to a fencepost and entering the establishment. The place seemed clean enough, though mostly empty but for a few farmers drinking away the day's profits. Striding up to the bar, Autolycus flashed the 'keep his most charming smile which, for all the good it did, made him reevaluate his personal definition of the word "charm".
"What'll ya be wantin' then," the 'keep said in an insufferably bored tone.
"An ale, my good man," the thief replied, slapping a coin on the bar.
"No ale. Port only. If you be lookin' for somethin' else, ye'd best move on."
"Ah, no. Port will be fine." Gods, what rock did they dig him out from under?
"Yer port," came the sullen response as a wooden mug was pushed towards him, half the contents sloshing over the sides.
"Mmmm," Autolycus responded, taking a healthy sip and trying hard not to choke on the foulness of it. "Good stuff," he wheezed.
"Ain't from around here, are ya," the 'keep asked the bar-top.
"No, can't say I am. Though this is a lovely town you've got here. I'll have to remind myself to stop here more often." When Centaurs fly.
"What's yer business then?"
"Ah, nothing, really. Just saw the town and figured I'd drop in. I have a friend who lives here."
The 'keep's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Ya do, do ya. And who might that be?"
"Little blonde girl. A bard. Goes by the name of Gabrielle."
"T'aint bardin' no more. Not seemly fer a woman, mind ya."
"I didn't know telling stories was a male profession."
"'Round these parts, 'tis. Farmer's wife she is now. T'ain't got time fer storytellin. Got real work needin' ta be done."
"Well, I'd kind of like to drop by and see her. You wouldn't happen to know where she lives, would you? Of course you would."
"Not much of a mind ta be tellin' strangers where kin lives."
"I told you, she's a friend."
"From before tho, right?" The man spat out the word.
"'Fore she did right and married Perdicus."
"Ah, yes. Before. Right."
"Won't be tellin' ya then."
Autolycus resisted the urge to pummel the man into submission. Xena, I wish you were here right now. A little Warrior Princess persuasion and he'd be singing like a canary. "And why is that?" he asked in the nicest voice he could muster.
"Ya might be spyin for her."
"Her? Her who?"
"T' warlord," he spat.
"Warlord? What war--? Xena?"
"Don't ya be speakin that vile name around here, stranger. Not if'n ya want ta live ta ride out of this town."
Autolycus stood swiftly, towering over the 'keep. "Now just a minute. First of all, Xena isn't a warlord anymore. Secondly, if she wanted to see Gabrielle, she sure as Tartarus wouldn't send me here to do it. She'd come herself."
"Don't much care 'bout that."
Calm, Autolycus. Breathe. Yup. That's it. Breathe. "Do you have a daughter?"
The man's eyes narrowed again at the abrupt change in topic. "Don't see how that's any of yer ken, stranger."
"Well, I figure I answered all your questions. You can answer one of mine. Do you have a daughter?"
"I s'ppose I might at that."
"How old is she?"
"Too young for you."
"That's not why I'm asking and I think you know that. How old is she?"
"Jes' turned 17. Why?"
"Do you love her? Are you glad she's around?"
"Are ye daft then? Of course I love 'er!"
"Think about this then, you miserable excuse for a human. If it weren't for that warlord you're so fond of hating, she'd either be dead or keeping some rich man very happy. With a collar around her neck." His temple vein throbbing, Autolycus slammed another coin on the bar. "Keep the change," he ground out, turning on his heel and striding for the door.
A soft voice halted him in his tracks. "Take the north road," the 'keep almost whispered. "Second farm on the right."
"Thanks," Autolycus said without turning around.
"Fer my daughter, ya understand. Not fer the likes of her."
Shaking his head in mute disgust, Autolycus mounted his horse and cantered away, looking forward to the end of his mission when he could ride into the sunset, kicking off the dust of this one horse town from the soles of his boots.
A short time later, he slowed his mount to a walk, carefully eyeing what he hoped was the correct house. It was tiny, hardly more than a hut really, but seemed sturdily built for all it's meanness. Sitting amidst a vast expanse of mostly fallow fields, the home bespoke of hard times and little money. Autolycus dismounted, sighing, and tethered his horse to a fence rail. Walking over to the door, he raised his fist, took a deep breath, and knocked.
He was just about to knock a second time when he heard movement from inside the dwelling. The door opened a moment later. The thief caught a familiar glimpse of honey blonde hair as the door moved inward.
"Hello. Can I help--Autolycus?"
"Gabrielle!" he greeted, grinning warmly. "Long time no see, eh?"
Gabrielle's face lit with a sunny grin. "Autolycus! It's great to see you! What are you doing in Poteidia?"
"Don't worry," Autolycus said, smiling and holding his empty hands up, "I'm not here on business." He winked.
The young blonde snorted. "If you were, I'd say you'd lost your touch. There isn't much around here to steal."
"You can say that again," he agreed. "So, are ya gonna invite me in?"
Gabrielle looked undecided for a moment, then smiled brightly again. "Sure," she said, escorting him inside. "Don't mind my manners. It's been practically forever since I've had a guest who wasn't family here to visit. Please, sit down. Make yourself comfortable. You must be thirsty. Can I get you something to drink?"
The tall thief smiled inwardly. At least some things haven't changed. Still the little chatterbox. "Water's fine," he said aloud.
"I can do better than that. Do you still like ale? I've got some, if you'd like."
"That'd be great." He took the time to study the young woman busily puttering around the kitchen. Physically, she hadn't changed all that much in the last eight months. Of course, he couldn't be sure, clothed as she was, from the neck down, no bare skin showing but her hands. When she turned toward him, ale in hand, he noticed a few faint wrinkles which weren't there before. Her green eyes looked different as well. They seemed older, more worldly-wise, the sparkle he so well remembered dimmed to a mere ember within their depths.
"So, how have things been?" she asked, handing him the mug and sitting in the chair opposite the thief.
"Ah you know, same old same old. A little thievery. A little jail time. All in a day's work for . . . ."
"The King of Thieves," she said with a small giggle.
"Exactly." He took a small sip of the proffered ale. It was cool, refreshing and delicious. "How have things been with you?" he asked casually.
"Not too bad. We've had a little trouble with the crops this year, but Perdicus is confident that next year'll be better."
"Uh huh. Uh huh," Autolycus commented, starting to feel a bit uncomfortable.
Gabrielle looked down at the checkered tablecloth, running one finger against the fabric in an abstract design. "How's Xena?" she asked in a soft voice.
"Xena? Ah, she's doing . . .fine, I guess. I mean, I haven't seen her in months. But you know what they say, no news is good news." He tried to manufacture a confident smile.
"What do you mean?"
Autolycus shrugged. "Well, there were those of us who wondered how she'd do once you two . . .you know . . .split up. I haven't heard of her razing any villages, so I guess she's doing ok." Oh boy did that come out wrong.
She looked up then, a tiny trace of hurt in those strangely emotionless eyes. "I guess," she said finally, lowering her gaze back to the table. "I haven't seen her since the wedding." That came out as a whisper.
Resisting the urge to hug the small woman, the thief chose instead to take another sip of ale. "Well, you know Xena."
"I thought I did." Sighing, she looked up again. "So, do you want to tell me why you're really here?"
"Well, you see---"
The conversation was interrupted by Perdicus stepping through the front door. "Afternoon, sweetheart," he said, scraping mud off his boots, entering the kitchen and giving his wife a kiss on the cheek. "Who's our guest?" he asked, eyeing Autolycus suspiciously.
"Who am I?"
"We were talking about cookware?" Gabrielle helpfully supplied.
"Ah yes. The name's Ahmed, my good man. I'm a travelling cookware salesman, dealing only in rare Graecian . . .cookware."
"Didn't see any pots on your horse," the farmer said dubiously.
"No, you didn't did you. That's because I left . . .er . . .them all back in my factory in Melesus."
"Doesn't seem to be a very profitable way to do business to me."
"No, it doesn't, does it. Well, you see, I . . .visit door to door explaining the finer points of cookware and um . . . ."
"Your scroll," Gabrielle urged.
"That's right! See, it's all here in black and white, so to speak." He handed the scroll across the table to Gabrielle. "The descriptions are in there. If the lady of the house sees something she likes, all she has to do is tell me and I go back to my factory and make it for her. See for yourself."
Gabrielle unrolled the scroll as Perdicus stood over her shoulder, scowling. "What language is this in? I can't read a word."
"Why, it's in . . .er . . .Melesusian. It's an Ancient Greek dialect. Not spoken too much anymore except, of course, in Melesus."
"I can read it," Gabrielle said, scanning the first few lines, then blushing, turning wide eyes up to Autolycus.
The tall thief shrugged and shot a desparate look back at her.
"Let's see. 'Item Alpha. Large kettle, made of the finest iron plating. Perfect for feasts large or small. Big enough to hold half a wild boar, tusks included.' How interesting."
"We've no need for fancy cookware, Gabrielle," Perdicus said firmly, reaching down for the scroll.
"But Perdicus, I just want to read--"
"I said no. Perhaps after the next harvest."
Autolycus stepped in quickly, watching his plan turn to ashes. "Ah ha, but that's the beauty of this business, my good man. One lucky lady in each village gets to try out my products absolutely free of charge! That way, she can invite friends and family over for a feast and when the guests comment on how good the food is, the little lady just mentions Arman--"
"Ahmed." the blonde muttered.
"Ah, Ahmed (old frying pan injury you know) the cookware king. It's the best advertisement in Greece!"
"I don't know . . . ."
The farmer sighed. "I suppose. As long as no money's involved. But don't take too long, sweetheart. The back field still needs to be plowed, and I've got a fence to mend."
"I promise, Perdicus," Gabrielle said contritely. "Thank you." She lifted her face to be kissed and was obliged with a small peck to the lips.
Shooting a last, suspicious look at the tall, handsome stranger, Perdicus turned from the room and left the house.
"Just what do you think you're doing?" Gabrielle asked, anger in her eyes, scroll upraised.
Autolycus threw up his hands and leaned back in his chair, almost toppling it over. "Wait a minute, Gabrielle, it's not what you think."
"It's erotic poetry, Autolycus. What do you want me to think?"
"Well, that's true. But it's not real erotic poetry. What I mean is . . . . Oh Hades, Gabrielle, can I just start at the beginning?"
"Ok. A couple nights ago, I was in this town, I don't even know what the name of it was. Anyway, I wake up in the morning in a strange bed and find out I've been drugged. Um . . .my partner's been drugged too, and we find out that a magic scroll was stolen while we were . . .er . . .under. Well, of course, me being the King of Thieves, I'm immediately the prime suspect. So my partner and I hightail it out of town and head to Melesus to find Salmoneus."
"Why would you do that?"
"Well, my partner figured that Salmoneus might know what this scroll was and who might have stolen it. It's called the Pono . . .Pono . . .something."
Autolycus snapped his fingers. "Right. That. Anyway, it turns out that Salmoneus knew what the Ponopholona was but didn't know who stole it. He did, however, have a scroll that, supposedly, will erase any magic incantation uttered. This scroll. Trouble is, we couldn't read it. My partner could read it some, but it didn't make sense to us. So Salmoneus decided that we needed a bard to translate it and tell us if it really is something that can help us out. And we thought of you right away, of course. So here I am. Can you help us?"
"I'm not a bard anymore, Autolycus. I'm sorry. I can't help you." She handed the scroll back across the table.
"Gabrielle, you're our only hope. Please."
"There are plenty of other bards around."
"No, there aren't. Athens is four days away from here, and if you know anything about the Ponothing, you know that it has to be read during a full moon. And, well, that's tomorrow night."
"Where's your partner?"
"Ah, s-he's backtracking to see if he can find out who stole the Ponowhoozit and try to get it back from them before it's read. If he fails, we need to read this before the beast is unleashed. You've got to help us. Please."
Sighing, Gabrielle reached for the scroll once again, unrolling it and scanning the text. After a few long moments of silence, her eyes raised from the scroll to meet Autolycus' gaze. "You're right. This is more than badly written poetry. The first part is a sort of map."
"Yes. It shows where you have to go to read the incantation, which is at the bottom of the scroll. See here? 'The valley between a woman's breasts is furrowed with sweet dew.' It's talking about two mountains with a stream running between them. And so on and so on," she said, blushing again. "I think I know the place it's talking about."
"You do? That's great! Then all you have to do is give me the directions, translate the words I'm supposed to chant, or whatever it is you do with magic words, and we'll be fine!"
"No? What do you mean, 'no'?"
"Just what I said, Autolycus. Look, the directions are really convoluted and there's a ton of places where you could get lost. As for the words, well, they can't be translated. They have to be spoken just as they are written."
"Great. Then we're sunk."
"No we're not."
Autolycus' eyes opened wide. "We? As in you and me?"
"Yes, we. You were right, Autolycus. I'm the only one who can help you if your partner can't find the Ponopholona in time. We'll go together."
"But what about Perdicus? And the fields?"
"Perdicus will just have to understand. As for the fields, they've been fallow so long, the only thing I'd be plowing up is rocks. It's a wasted effort and he knows it." She sighed again.
"But I wouldn't . . . ."
"This is my decision, Autolycus. If Perdicus doesn't understand, then he just doesn't. But he's not going to stop me."
The thief grinned. The fire was back in the former Amazon Queen's eyes. It was a sight to see.
"I'll be back in just a minute. Just wait here, ok?"
When Gabrielle returned some minutes later, Autolycus' grin widened. She had donned her old travelling clothes, her trusty staff held confidently in her right hand, her bag slung over one shoulder. "Wow," he said admiringly. "You look . . .transformed!"
The bard grinned back, her green eyes sparkling. "Yeah, I do, don't I. And it feels good too."
"I'll bet!" He frowned. "What are you gonna tell Perdicus?"
"The truth. Either he'll understand or he won't. I'm going regardless. This is something I have to do for me."
"You go, Gabrielle!" Autolycus said happily.
"Come on," the bard ordered, brushing past the grinning thief and out into the light of day. "Perdicus!" she shouted.
"Gabrielle?!? What are you doing? What are you wearing? What's going on?"
"Listen, I don't have time to argue with you, Perdicus. I'm sorry I lied to you before. This is Autolycus, a friend of mine from before we got married."
"A friend of Xena's, you mean."
"And mine," she countered. "A dangerous scroll has been stolen and if it isn't returned, something bad is going to happen. Autolycus came here to see if I could translate another scroll which will undo the spell. I have to go with him to a place where this scroll can be read, in case the other one isn't found in time."
"No, Gabrielle, I forbid it. You're my wife now. A farmer. Not an adventurer. That part of your life is over."
"That part of my life was over because I let it be over, Perdicus. Now I realize how wrong that was. I need to do this. Please, don't fight with me."
Perdicus threw up his hands, his face flushed the deep red of anger. "I knew that bitch Xena would find a way to ruin out lives. I knew it!"
"Now wait just a minute . . . ." Autolycus interjected before Gabrielle cut him off.
"This isn't about Xena, Perdicus. It's about me. It's about doing what I need to do because I need to do it. I've stayed by your side for eight months now, never complaining. You told me that it wasn't womanly to tell stories, so I didn't. You told me to dress more modestly so I did. I did everything you asked of me, Perdicus. Why can't you just let me do this?"
"Because, godsbedamned, you're my wife now. You made a vow to love, honor and obey me. And I'll see you in Tartarus before I let you break that vow."
"Don't threaten me, Perdicus."
"I'm not threatening you, Gabrielle," he said beseechingly. "I love you."
"I love you too, Perdicus. But this isn't about love, is it."
"I'm warning you, wife. If you leave here, you'll never be welcomed back."
"Then that's a chance I'll have to take. The lives of innocent people may be at stake here. I can't just sit back and let that happen. I have to do something about it."
"Please, Gabrielle. I'm begging you. Don't do this."
"Why is this so difficult for you?"
Perdicus looked at the ground, his boot scuffing the barren dirt, clouds of dust rising up to hide his feet and ankles. "Because I'm afraid. I'm afraid that if you leave, you'll find out that you missed it too much and you won't want to come back. I'm afraid you won't want to be my wife anymore."
Gabrielle's heart softened at the words, but her resolve remained firm. "And keeping me pinned to your side like a dog on a leash is supposed to make me keep wanting to be your wife?"
"I didn't realize you felt that way," he said, his voice hurt and cold.
"Oh Perdicus, I didn't mean it that way. I realized that there would have to be compromises in our life together. And I was as happy as it was possible for me to be. But I won't be happy if I don't do this. I'll feel guilty and eventually angry. At both of us. You for forbidding me to go, me for allowing you to control me like that. Can't you see that this is important to me?"
"Can't you see that your staying is important to me?"
"I know it's important to you. I know I'm important to you. But these people are important to me too. And I'm going to do everything in my power to help them. With or without your permission."
"Then don't come back here, Gabrielle. I mean it. When I laid down my sword and asked you to marry me, I did it because I realized that, no matter how hard we try, it's impossible for one person to make a difference in this world. I won't have any wife of mine making a fool of herself, and me, trying to do just that."
"Then I guess this is goodbye, Perdicus. Because you're wrong. I've made a difference. And I intend to do so again."
"Fine," he said, fists balled. "Be off with you then. You're my wife no longer."
"Don't do this, Perdicus," Gabrielle said softly, taking a step towards the distraut man.
"Be gone!" he thundered, turning from her and fleeing into the safety of his barron fields.
After a long moment, Gabrielle turned to Autolycus, tears brimming in her sea-green eyes.
"Are you gonna be ok?" the thief asked, beyond uncomfortable with the whole scene.
"Yeah," she replied. "Let's just go, ok?"
It was coming on dusk again and Xena was beginning to look for a secluded place to camp for the night. She had spent the day tracking and sensed she was close to her destination. Her instincts had been correct, as was usual for her. About half a league south of the clearing where Xena had found the two battling warlords, the warrior picked up signs that the group had backtracked and turned to catch up with the second camp. She had been following the tracks of the enlarged group ever since. They were moving quickly for such a large party and she knew that whomever had stolen the scroll intended to use it tomorrow night. The warrior was confident she could catch up quickly enough to prevent that from happening.
"C'mon, girl," she whispered to her horse, patting Argo's neck gently. "Let's call it a night, huh?" Argo whickered in agreement and Xena soon found a site perfect for her needs, close enough to be back on the road quickly in the morning, secluded enough to be undetected by any passing raiders.
Within moments, Argo was unsaddled, groomed, cooed to, and set free to munch on tender shoots and drink from the small stream just to the south of the small clearing.
Divesting herself of her leathers, the warrior decided to take the bathing opportunity where it arose and was soon immersed in the chill waters, scrubbing off the road dust clinging to her supple skin. Drying off and slipping back into her leathers, Xena strode back to the campsite, saddened, as always, by the single empty bedroll that awaited her. Stop it, she told herself firmly for what seemed like the hundreth time in as many nights. Stop it right now. Focus on the mission ahead instead of wasting time wishing for something you can't have. She's safe now, and happy. Curled up, warm and comfortable, in a real bed with her husband. No worries about bandits. No wondering what kind of mood I'm gonna be in in the morning. No wondering where her next meal is coming from. Not even bothering to light a campfire or eat, Xena crawled forlornly into her bedroll and waited for sleep to come.
Scarcely a dozen leagues away, Autolycus and Gabrielle were settling in for the night as well. They were, by the bard's estimation, more than halfway to their destination. The two companions had been mostly silent during the entire journey, each immersed in their own thoughts. Gabrielle had accepted, in the interests of expediency, a ride from the thief just after they had exited Poteidia. It felt strange riding behind someone on a horse again. It felt strange even being out on the road again. In the eight months since she'd been married, Gabrielle had never once left the town of her birth. What surprised her the most was that, after the initial readjustment to domestic life, she couldn't recall missing the travelling. But now that she was out again, she wondered how she could have been so content living in one place. Maybe I just needed a break from the travelling, from the danger. From Xena? Maybe. Gods, I don't know. Being around her was just so . . .intense all the time. Always up, or down. No in between. No, that's wrong. Never much in between. Why did she have to be so damned perfect all the time? Why couldn't she have needed me? Like I needed her? Perdicus needed me. He still does. Will anything be the same between us ever again? Will he keep his promise? Do I even care? Yeah, I guess I do. He's a kind man. A good man. He gave me the best he could. He needed me. And I need to be needed. Gabrielle sighed inwardly. This was getting her nowhere. She was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she barely noticed when the sun set and Autolycus pulled off the road, heading for a clearing in the woods.
"Does this look like a good spot, Gabrielle?"
"Um, yeah. It's fine."
"Good. I'm not much good at this camping stuff. Heck, I don't even own a bedroll."
"That's ok. I brought mine, remember? We'll just share."
Autolycus smiled. Well, that was certainly much easier then begging Xena. Still . . . . "Are you sure? I mean, you are a married woman," he grinned, waggling his eyebrows in an attempt at levity.
Gabrielle laughed softly. "Oh, I trust you not to ravish me in my sleep, Autolycus."
"Hmmm. I must be losing my touch, then."
The bard threw her bedroll at him, groaning. "Put that on the ground over there. I'll get a fire going. I brought some dried meat, some cheese and some bread we can share." Her eyes twinkled. "Since you left your cookware in Melesus, I guess we'll be eating cold food tonight."
Winking, the thief commented, "That's ok. Although after this is all over, I'm checking into the finest inn money can buy, sleeping on the softest mattress in the known world, and gorging myself till I burst."
The fire was soon blazing away and Gabrielle split up the food. The companions sat side by side on a small log to consume their simple repast. As the breeze changed direction, the bard caught the faint scent that she had noticed earlier when riding behind Autolycus. The scent of horses, sweat and . . . .
"Xena," she said softly.
"I beg pardon?" Autolycus said around a mouthful of bread.
"You were with Xena, weren't you."
"Ah, define 'with'."
"With! You know, travelling with. Together with."
"Xena travels alone as far as I know," Autolycus said, lying for all he was worth and, as usual, doing it badly.
"Don't lie to me, Autolycus," she countered, pinning his eyes with a glare.
"Is she here?" the bard asked, looking around. "Xena. Is she here?"
"No! Why would you think something like that? She's not here. I promise you."
"Xena's the 'partner' you were talking about, isn't she."
Gods, is that jealousy I hear? What do I do? What do I say? Xena's gonna kill me.
"Tell me, Autolycus," Gabrielle demanded, placing a none too gentle hand on his already bruised forearm. "I have a right to know."
Forgive me, Xena. "Yes, Gabrielle. Xena's the 'partner' I told you about. Are you satisfied?"
"I knew it," she spat, rising and gripping her staff.
"Knew what? Gabrielle, what are you talking about?"
"I'm onto your little game, Autolycus." Her eyes pierced the darkness beyond the campfire. "Xena, you can come out now! The joke's over! Ha ha!"
"Gabrielle, please," he said, grasping her arm.
"Let go, Autolycus. I mean it."
"What are you doing? Where are you going?"
"Home. Maybe if I explain everything to Perdicus, he'll take me back. Gods what a fool I am."
"Listen Gabrielle, I'm sorry I didn't tell you that Xena was the person I was talking about. Maybe that was wrong of me, but I had to lie. She didn't give me any choice. She made me promise not to mention her name to you."
Red-faced with anger, the bard spun to face him, staff at the ready. "Don't you think I know that? How stupid do you think I am, Autolycus? The only way she could possibly get me away from Poteidia was to send you in here to fetch me! Now where is she? I want to see the look in her eye when she sees she pulled a good one over on me."
"Now wait just a Tartarus-blasted minute, Gabrielle," Autolycus said, getting very angry and using his full height to tower over the small woman. "I have no idea what kind of crazy ideas are spinning around in that pretty little head of yours, but you're way off the mark here. This whole mission hasn't been some elaborate ex-warlord joke to pull one over on poor Gabrielle. It's real. Xena almost ripped out Salmoneus' throat when he suggested finding you to translate this stupid scroll."
"I don't believe you."
"No? Then maybe you'd better go to Melesus and ask Salmoneus. Unless you think Xena put him up to something too."
"I just might do that."
Autolycus' temper snapped. "Listen, Gabrielle. I've had it just about up to here with everyone berating Xena. First the Poteidian powerhouse himself, that idiotic tavernkeeper. Then your husband, ex husband, whatever he is. But the last person in the world I would ever have expected to hear spewing that trash is you. I'm shocked and more than a little angry. Ok, I'm a lot angry! Xena didn't discuss her motives with me, but I bet I can easily guess the main reason why she didn't want you to know she was part of this. She loves you, Gabrielle. Still. She's never stopped. You only have to take one look at her to see what I mean. And maybe, just maybe, she didn't want you to seperate yourself from your husband and put yourself into danger because of a sense of obligation to her. Doesn't that sound more like the Xena you knew than the one you're making up in your head right now?"
Gabrielle stood stock still, her staff curled in one hand, her eyes wide.
Autolycus was on a roll. "You think you have the lock on loving Xena? You don't, you know." He smiled in self derision. "Lots of people love the Warrior Princess. Lots of people lust after her. Lots of them still hate her for what she was. But there are very few whom she has allowed to love her. Would you like to know where you stand on that very short list, Gabrielle?"
"She didn't need me," the bard said, her voice husky with unshed tears.
"She didn't need me! She got along just fine before I met her, she's doing just fine now. She didn't need me!"
"Didn't nee--?" Sighing, Autolycus walked over to Gabrielle and enveloped her shaking form in a hug. "Gabrielle, she needed you. She needs you still. Maybe not the way you thought, but she does need you."
"No buts. Are you sad that she's still on the path of good?"
"Of course not!"
"Not even a little bit? Not sad that she's doing good works, but maybe a little upset because even without you she has the strength to keep the dark side at bay?"
"No." But it wasn't convincing.
"Listen, I'm not much on this talking about emotions stuff. I'm probably really like Xena on that, huh? But I will tell you what I know. You know her better than anyone else alive. You know her focus, the strength of her will. Once she turned from the darkness, there was no going back. Oh maybe a little would come peeking through every now and then, but nothing is going to keep her away from trying to redeem her soul. But Gabrielle, don't you see? Herc might have unchained her heart, but you, my friend, you walked right in and made yourself at home!" He was happy to hear a muffled giggle against his chest. "You were the one person in all the world that let her know that it was ok to be loved, that it was okay to be admired, and genuinely liked. Hades, Gabrielle, I've heard the stories about when you two first met. How she hated herself so much that she was willing to let the people of her own village stone her to death! You changed all that, don't you see? You showed her that somewhere deep inside herself, there was someone worthy of love, your love!" The handsome thief wound down finally, wondering what spirit possessed him to say such uncharacteristic things to a woman he, to tell the truth, didn't know all that well to begin with.
"I've made a fool of myself, haven't I," the bard said softly, pulling out of his embrace.
Autolycus smiled. "Nah. But you did hurt the name of someone I hold in very high esteem. And I'd appreciate it if you didn't do that anymore."
"You love her, don't you," Gabrielle said, cocking her head.
"Yes," the thief said proudly. "I do. But you knew that already. It doesn't matter anyway. She loves you." He stretched and yawned. "Now that we've got that settled, do you mind if I get some sleep? I was woken up pretty early in the morning by a certain Warrior Princess and her graveyard humor."
"What do you mean?"
"I opened my eyes to about ten ugly guys sticking swords in my chest." He laughed. "Xena could have taken care of them before I got up, but no, she didn't want me to miss the fun. Warriors. Go figure. Didn't sleep very well anyway."
"Really? Why? I would have thought sharing a bedroll with Xena would have made you sleep like a baby."
There's that jealousy thing again. I am most definitely not going to tell her about waking up naked in bed with the woman. No sir. Not me. Nuh huh. "Normally, my dear, it would have. But when you have a highly agitated ex-warlord threatening you with great bodily harm for even innocently brushing against her, well, let me tell you, sleep doesn't come easily."
Gabrielle threw back her head and laughed, a light and happy sound. "I, um, never had that problem, Autolycus. I'll have to take your word on it."
"You do that," the thief said, grinning. "Let's get some shut-eye, huh? The King of Thieves is bushed."
Grinning and shaking her head, Gabrielle couldn't resist commenting, "Autolycus, I have to say it again . . . ."
"Please don't," he begged, eyes wide.
"You're a good man."
"Ya had to say it, didn't you. Just had to say it." He put his hands to his head in mock surrender.
Autolycus awoke the next morning to the feel of yet another sword pointed at his chest. "C'mon, Xena," he grumbled, still half asleep. "Can't you take care of 'em without me just this once?" When there was no response, he turned his head to catch a glimpse of red-gold hair. Oh yeah. Gabrielle. Gabrielle! "Aw, Hades," he muttered, turning his gaze back to the ruffians. His eyes widened. "Hey, aren't you the same guys who woke me up yesterday?"
The leader peered at him closely before his eyes also widened. "Where's that tall harpy you were with yesterday morning?" he asked, looking around the campsite a bit nervously.
The thief took advantage of the thug's momentary distraction to plant an elbow very firmly in the stomach of the lightly snoring bard. "Gabrielle," he whispered, "wake up. We've got company."
The bard kept snoring.
"Um, she's around here somewhere. Probably just got up to kill us some breakfast."
"Yeah? And who might this be then?" the leader asked, pointing his sword at Gabrielle. "Your wife doesn't seem the type that'd cotton to sharing you."
"Sharing? Ha ha. No, this is my . . .daughter. She had a . . .nightmare during the night."
"Your daughter." The thug looked singularly unconvinced.
Swallowing hard, Autolycus played the only card he held. "Xena!" he yelled. "A little help here please?"
The leader stepped back, holding his sword upright. "Xena?"
"That's what I said. You know, the tall harpy you fought with yesterday?"
"That was Xena?"
The thug turned quickly to find the backs of his two companions as they ran away as fast as their cowardly legs could carry them. Gulping, the leader quickly sheathed his sword and followed their retreat.
"Well now that wasn't so bad," Autolycus grinned to himself. Peering around, he noted that dawn was still a way off and so, with a self-satisfied smirk, the King of Thieves covered himself with the thick skin once again, intending to get another hour or so of rest. That was, of course, until Autolycus made the mistake of brushing, ever so lightly, against the bard's outstretched arm.
"Whuuu-" Gabrielle snorted, coming awake quickly, grasping her staff and sending it smartly in the direction of her platonic bed-partner's defenseless body.
"Yeowch!" Autolycus yelped, managing to get a hand up, barely, to deflect the screeming missile from impacting with his head, and getting his fingers smacked hard in the process. "What'd ya have to go and do that for?"
"Autolycus?" the bard said, blinking the sleep from her eyes. "Oh gods, I'm sorry. Don't ever do that again! I could have killed you!"
"Do what?" he demanded, totally baffled.
Gabrielle looked puzzled. "Well, whatever it was you did that woke me up." She cocked her head at him. "Frankly, I don't understand how, if you've been travelling with Xena, you're still alive."
"Hey, I'm not travelling with her, alright? I only spent one night, ok, make that two nights with her, except the first one doesn't count because neither of us can remember it." He sighed dramatically. "I just don't get it."
"How you can sleep through three thugs trying to use my heart for a pin-cushion and when I barely touch your elbow, you take a swing at me! Boy, Xena must have loved having you around in the mornings."
"Hey! I'll have you know that Xena loved having me in the mornings just fine, thank you very much." (Author's note: Blatant double-entendre subtext inserted here.)
Autolycus' jaw dropped open.
Gabrielle's eyes widened. "Eh, heh heh. Around, that is. Having me around." Sigh. "Forget it."
The thief nodded. "I think I will."
"Good. Well, it's going to be light soon. I suppose we should get up and get ready."
The thief sighed. "This save-the-world hero stuff is very overrated."
The rising sun found Xena perched comfortably in a tall tree, a spring-green leaf clenched lightly in long-fingered hands, twirling idily. The warrior's eyes narrowed as she surveyed the scene below her. The merged armies filled the valley as before, the difference being that this encampment was very well laid out and orderly. Guards fanned out around the perimeter at regular intervals, each seeming very aware of those on either side. The two bumbling warlords were very much in evidence, still griping at one another loudly enough to be easily picked up by Xena's sensitive hearing. A large command tent sat centrally located to the compound, and the warrior very much doubted that it was occupied by either one of the buffoons arguing heatedly below her perch. It was obvious that the brains behind this entire operation was still unknown to her, and Xena didn't want to make her move until she knew who she was up against. High on a hill to the west of the camp, soldiers were busily erecting what appeared to be an altar of some type. Piercing blue eyes swept over the guards once again, scanning for her prey. Spotting a likely specimin, she dropped silently from the tree and padded, unnoticed, to the sentry line.
The young guard she had chosen was standing slightly further away from the rest, patrolling the outermost perimeter and, as such, was the one least likely to be noticed missing by his fellow soldiers. One moment he was striding along, intent on his duties. The next moment, a hand clamped over his mouth and he felt himself dragged away from the camp as easily as if he were made of air.
Xena dragged her quarry back to her sheltered lair and dumped him unceremoniously on his back, trapping him there with one strong knee to his chest. Getting a good look at the man, her eyes widened. "You don't even look old enough to shave," she commented.
"I'm fifteen summers!" he stated, hoping his voice didn't crack as he gazed at his beautiful captor with wide, frightened eyes.
Fifteen summers? By all the gods on Olympus, that's the age I was when Cortese raided Amphipolis. Was I really that young? "You should be home with your family. You don't belong out there with a bunch of crazed killers."
"I'm not a killer," he protested. "I'm a warrior!"
"Well, 'warrior', now you're a stoolie. My stoolie."
"I'll tell you nothing."
"I wouldn't be so sure of that," she purred, jabbing her fingers into the nerves at his neck. "I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. Tell me what I want to know or you'll be dead in thirty seconds." She smiled encouragingly.
I knew I should never have stolen that chicken from Old Man Stephanos' barn! the young man thought as his head exploded in agony.
"Now, who do you work for?"
Xena nodded. She knew the man by reputation and would bet her chakram that Caronus was one of the idiots she had separated two days ago. "Who's the other warlord working with him?"
"And the big cheese?"
"Answer me. The one who gives orders to Caronus and Thaddeus. Who is he?"
"Good." Malacus she knew. She'd defeated him in battle twice before. The man was cunning and clever, but hampered by a big ego. This was good news. "Does he have the Ponopholona?"
Xena rolled her eyes. "The magic scroll. Does Malacus have it?"
"Yes. He's planning to use it tonight!" The young boy's vision was darkening slowly. "P-please," he whispered.
Sighing, Xena released the pinch but remained on the boy's chest, looking down at him, menace very apparent in her eyes. "Now here's what I want you to do for me. I'm gonna let you up and when I do, I want you to run, very quickly, in the direction opposite the camp. I want you to go back to your family and stay there till you're old enough to make the right decisions about your life. If I ever run across you with a sword in your hand again, I won't be so nice. Am I making myself clear?"
The boy nodded. "Very," he whispered, rubbing his neck.
"Good." Slowly, she raised her knee off the boy's chest and watched in amusement as he scrambled away from her. Running backwards a few paces and staring at her with wide eyes, the boy narrowly missed knocking himself unconscious against a sturdy tree as he whirled around and disappeared into the forest.
Shaking her head, the warrior walked back to her lookout tree and was soon scrambling up the branches.
Noontime saw Gabrielle and Autolycus plodding along the trail that would lead them into the foothills. The thief had been grumbling non-stop for the past several candlemarks and the muttered, half-understood words were getting under Gabrielle's skin. "What is it?" she demanded finally, swinging her staff at an errant tree branch in frustration.
"Oh, nothing," Autolycus replied, scowling. "Aside from the fact that my forarm looks like a map of Greece and my fingers are bigger than Mount Olympus, I'm just peachy. How about you?"
"Quit complaining, you big baby," Gabrielle said, pulling out some linen strips from her bag and wetting them down with cool water from her waterskin. "Here, let me take a look at that hand." Gently receiving the thief's hand, she peered intently at the injured fingers. "They're not broken, just bruised."
"No thanks to you," he quipped. "These fingers are the fastest in Greece, you know. I wouldn't be the King of Thieves without them."
"I know. I know. Now just hush up and let me wrap them. There. Better?"
"Not really," he pouted, then waggled his eyebrows.
"I'm not kissing them and making them better."
"Hey! No fair!"
"Men," she huffed disgustedly, totally missing Autolycus' leering grin as she stomped past him and veered right along the seldom used trail they were following.
Dusk cast its dappled shadows over Xena and her hiding place, ensconced within a large clump of high grasses occasionally blown almost flat by the sudden gusty breeze. The warrior smiled as she heard the signal to commence her attack. A dinner bell was struck and she watched in satisfaction as every fourth guard left the perimeter to eat. The remaining guards adjusted their positions accordingly, leaving enough space for a stealthy, determined Warrior Princess to enter the camp.
Keeping low beneath the feathery tips of the swaying grasses, Xena crept forward slowly until she was well within the camp's guarded perimeter. Waiting a beat, she scanned the guards and, when she was convinced that no attention was diverted her way, she stood casually, looking for all the world like she belonged there.
The corner of her lip turned up in a mocking sneer, Xena turned and headed through the armed encampment toward the large command tent. Quite a few of the men looked up from their dinners at the beautiful, confidently striding warrior who walked amoung them as if she owned the place. Not one soldier thought to question her presence and, as soon as she was out of eyesight, each returned to the meager, tasteless food that was on the plate.
Striding up to the imposing command tent, Xena fixed her fiercest stare at the four guards. "Malacus!"
There was a brief sound of rustling fabric within, and then the flap opened to expose the warlord. "Xena," he said, smiling broadly. "Coronus said you'd stirred up some trouble earlier. I've waiting for you to show up. And here you are."
"Still the epitome of fashion," the warrior remarked, appraising his tall form bedecked in a peacock-colored silk robe. "It's good to see some things haven't changed."
The warlord's smile widened into a leer. "Indeed. You're looking as ravishing as ever, I must say. Please, join me. I was just about to have . . .dessert."
"This isn't a social call, Malacus. You have something I want. I intend to get it."
Eyebrows raised in mock surprise. "Something you want? You must be mistaken."
"We both know I'm not," she said, voice low and sultry.
"And just how do you propose to go about getting this . . .thing . . .that I have? In case you haven't noticed, Xena, you're surrounded by three hundred soldiers."
Smiling ferally, the warrior reached behind her and retrieved her sword. "Simple, really. You're going to give it to me."
Malacus threw back his balding head and laughed. "Give it to you! That's a good one! Give it to . . . .Get her!"
The warlord quickly disappeared into his tent as the four guards surrounded Xena. The warrior dispatched the first wave rather quickly, ducking at the last second as two of the guards came at her from opposite ends, allowing them to skewer one another as she kicked backwards, catching the third soldier in the chest and sending him thirty feet through the air. She caught the forth's decapitating blow with the hilt of her sword, rising and arching her arm out, disarming the man and rendering him unconscious with her pommel to his skull.
A group of soldiers, noticing the commotion, came next, swords waving. Xena dealt with each in turn, allowing the wolf to surface and going for the quick kill. Blood spattered over her skin and armor in hot sticky gluts as each soldier fell to her skillfully swung blade.
Still more came, the numbers seemingly unending as the warrior delt out thunderous punches, kicks and lethal thrusts of her sword, watching in satisfaction as the pile of bodies around her grew. More still were coming in and Xena knew that soon she'd be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Swiftly decapitating the guard attempting to get behind her, the warrior turned and ran into the command tent, quickly disarming Malacus and sliding behind him, her sword at his neck. "Always were a crappy fighter," she muttered into his ear as she forced him out of the tent, using him as a human shield against her enemies. "Back off!" she snarled at the soldiers who attempted to close again.
The men looked at their leader with wide eyes, awaiting his command.
The tall thief muttered a curse as he swung off his mount, helping Gabrielle down out of the saddle. "Broken down old nag," he said, resisting the urge to kick the horse in it's suddenly lame foreleg.
"Calm down, Autolycus. It's not his fault."
"Fine. So what are we supposed to do now?"
"We walk. The ground was getting too steep to ride much further anyway."
"Great," he muttered, aiming a mock kick at the horse.
"Autolycus!" Gabrielle shouted, coming in between the horse and the thief.
"Calm down. I wasn't gonna kick the old glue bucket."
The bard grinned. "I know. You're a good man."
"Alright already! Next thing you know you'll be shouting it off a mountaintop."
"I just might do that," she replied, eyes twinkling. "Right in the middle of reciting this scroll. Autolycus is a good man!"
"Do, and I'll push you off, bard. I swear it."
"Come on, Autolycus," Gabrielle said, grinning. "It's not that much further."
"I'm a thief, not a mountain climber."
"You may think you've won, Xena, but you haven't," Malacus said, swallowing hard against the sharp blade pressed against his neck, drawing blood. "You're too late."
"What do you mean," the warrior intoned.
"Look," he answered, jerking his head to the right just slightly.
Keeping a firm grip on the warlord, Xena chanced a quick glance up the mountain. A tall man, bedecked in the robes of a High Priest, stood at the makeshift alter, the Ponopholona unfurled in his hands. His head was swung back towards the heavens and Xena could just make out the chanting words over the din of the soldiers surrounding her.
Quickly flipping her sword to her left hand, leaving it pressed against Malacus' neck, Xena removed her chakram, flinging it with deadly accuracy at the back of the robed priest. The chanting stopped abruptly as the priest fell to the ground, the scroll dropping from dead fingers.
The camp was deathly silent. An unearthly screaming howl was heard in the valley between the two mountains. The stench of sulphur permeated the air and a foul mist rose over the mountain enveloping the camp quickly.
Xena slit Malacus' throat and propelled the dead body at the gawking soldiers, slipping into the malicious fog and running up the mountain.
"Ares' left nut," Autolycus muttered breathlessly as he came to the top of the mountain. Peering into the stinking mist, he could just make out a gigantic beast, greenish scales iridescent in the filtered moonlight.
"The scroll, Autolycus," Gabrielle commanded urgently.
"Wha? Oh, yeah. Here."
Grabbing the scroll, the bard unfurled it quickly, her eyes scanning down to where the magic words were scribed. "I just hope I can do this," she whispered. "Malleram cor-umm-cordulam fesatus, peridos, polonas--Autolycus, what's this word?"
"You're asking me? I'm the thief, remember?"
The bard shrugged. "Pasuvenus, pasu, masu, oragasu! Tolemas pasantius tellas morduk!"
Reaching down and pulling her chakram out of the dead priest's back, Xena snapped her head up suddenly as she heard an achingly familiar voice echo across the distance between the two peaks. "Gabrielle?" she said softly, not wanting to believe. Autolycus, when I get my hands on you, you'll wish your father was a eunich!
"It's not working, Autolycus," Gabrielle said nervously, watching as the creature began to howl.
"Is that all there is?"
"That's all you gave me!"
"Does it say 'continued on the back' somewhere?"
"No! Tartarus, Autolycus! What do we do now?"
"Running would be a good idea," the thief said, looking nervously into the valley and seeing the creature starting to make its way up the mountainside. It was huge, dwarfing the valley below, it's eyes were a murderous red, it's fanged mouth opening and closing, drooling some type of saliva which bubbled the rocks it landed on. "Gabrielle, I think it's time we got outta here. That thing looks hungry and I think we're on the menu."
"We can't just leave, Autolycus! We have to do something!"
"I'm open for any suggestions you might have."
"Maybe I should try reading the scroll again?"
"Uh, I don't think that's such a hot idea," the thief said, backing away from the edge of the cliff.
Xena watched in horror as the beast made its way up the mountainside, howling and snapping its murderous jaws. It was closing quickly on Gabrielle and Autolycus, who she could barely make out within the swirling fog. Stepping back several paces and muttering a quick, silent curse at all the gods, she ran forward, squatting, using the energy in her powerful legs to send her skyward off the cliff. Flipping twice in a tight tuck, the warrior landed atop the shoulders of the beast as it screamed in rage and tried to buck the annoying creature from its back. "Oh no ya don't," Xena said, clamping powerful thighs around it's shoulders.
"Xena!" Gabrielle yelled, her eyes filling with tears.
"Yes!" Autolycus shouted as he watched the warrior land on the beast, distracting it from its dining pleasure. "Now's your chance, Gabrielle. Read the scroll again!"
"You don't understand! Xena's there! If I read the scroll and the creature disappears, she'll die!"
"Gabrielle, if you don't read it, we'll all die!"
"Read the scroll, Gabrielle!" Xena shouted from her writhing perch. She was attempting to withdraw her sword from its scabbard, but the beast's movement was making that impossible. "Hurry!"
The bard looked down at the scroll again, trying to read the words through the haze of her tears.
"Hurry up, Gabrielle," Autolycus warned, watching warily as the creature twisted it's strong neck trying to bite Xena in half.
"Shut up, Autolycus," the bard cried.
"Gabrielle!" Xena shouted, still reaching for her sword as she tried mightily to avoid the snapping jaws.
"Malleram cordulam fesatus peridos polonas! Pasuvenus, pasu, masu, oragasu! Tolemas pasantius tellas Morduk!" Finished, the sobbing bard threw the scroll down in front of her as if the parchment was burning her fingers. "Satisfied?" she screamed at Autolycus.
As the last words were spoken, Xena managed to unsheath her sword and drove the point into the tough hide of the beast. Blood flew up into her face as the creature screamed. Uh oh, she thought as the beast suddenly became transparant beneath her. Quickly resheathing her bloody sword, the warrior reached down to her left hip.
"It worked!" Autolycus shouted. "You did it, Gabrielle!" He looked down into the ravine. "Uh oh. This is not good."
"XENA!!!" the bard screamed, watching as the creature began to disappear underneath the warrior.
"Xena! Catch!" the thief shouted, pointing his right hand at the now plummeting warrior and releasing his spring loaded grappling hook. A look of horror crossed his features as he realized that the hook was going to fall well short of its intended target.
Xena found herself falling through the air as her hand found the whip. Resisting the urge to twist, she kept her body steady, spotting Autolycus' hook as it flew out above her. Snapping her whip out and up, she managed to wrap the tip around the hook. The merger between leather and metal was solid and the warrior could feel her shoulder twist out of its socket as she was suddenly jerked to a complete stop. This is gonna hurt, she thought as the side of the mountain came rushing at her at blinding speed. Whatever you do, don't let go of the whip. Don't let go. Don't let go. Whatever you do, don't let go. Chanting the mantra, Xena prepared herself for impact with the mountain, ducking her head down, chin to chest, twisting so that her back would bear the brunt of the crash, tucking her legs up.
"Nooooooooooo!" Gabrielle screamed, watching her friend smash bonelessly into the side of the mountain.
Sparkles of black, red, yellow and silver danced across the warrior's vision as she slammed into a large rock outcropping jutting from the side of the mountain. Savagely, she held onto consciousness, her hand a vice around the handle of her whip. Xena felt several ribs give way on impact, thanking the very gods she had just cursed. An inch to the left and her spine would have been severed. Well, one good thing. The impact seems to have put my shoulder back in place.
Autolycus' injured fingers were screaming as he tried to pull the deadweight of the warrior up the mountain. "Gabrielle," he muttered from between clenched teeth. "A little help, if you don't mind?"
Gabrielle stood in shock, gazing down the side of the mountain.
"Gabrielle!" the thief shouted again. "I'm gonna drop her if you don't help me!"
Snapping out of her guilt-induced trance, the bard ran over to Autolycus, grabbing onto the rope of the grappling hook and pulling upward with all her strength.
Xena felt the upward tug and winced as she was slammed once again into the rocks. She thought to bring her right arm up to start climbing, but as most of her ribs had been broken on that side, the action was an exercise in pure torture. Gritting her teeth against the pain, the warrior twisted her long body so that she faced the mountainside. Bracing against the rocks with her boots, she tensed, then thrust upwards.
"Woooah!" Autolycus and Gabrielle shouted in unison as the sudden absence of tension on the rope caused them both to fly backwards, landing in a tangled heap on the ground. Autolycus' injured fingers gave way and his eyes widened in horror as his grappling hook slowly slid away.
"Gabrielle! Grab the rope!"
The bard made a flying tackle and just managed to grab the line firmly. Xena's surperior weight started to drag the bard to the edge. "Autolycus!" Gabrielle shouted. "I'm slipping!"
"Hang on!" the thief replied, shaking his injured hand and grabbing the bard by her ankles. Gritting his teeth, Autolycus dug his heels into the rocky ground and started to pull the bard back.
Gabrielle winced at the pain of the rock shards raking against her naked abdomen, but no amount of pain would distract her from her task of hauling Xena out of the canyon. Her hands were sweaty and her grip on the line tenuous at best, but the bard began a slow hand over hand tug, pulling the temporarily stunned warrior up by slow, agonizing inches.
"Ah, Xena?" the wincing thief called from his perch behind Gabrielle. "No more Warrior Princess heroics ok? Just relax and let us rescue you for a change."
There was no response from below.
"Xena?" Gabrielle yelled, frightened.
"Just . . . pull . . .me . . .up!" demanded the disembodied voice below, hissing against the fire in her chest and arms.
Autolycus, sliding over Gabrielle's prone body, grabbed the whip which had just shown itself above the lip of the cliff. "One demanding Warrior Princess, coming right up!"
The last few feet were a study in agony for Xena, and when her fractured ribs collided again with the rockface, the world around her greyed out momentarily. When she came to, she cautiously opened her eyes to see the concerned, but much beloved, face of Gabrielle looming over her. "Nice night," she quipped, quirking her lips in that endearing trademark half grin.
The look of relief on the bard's face was palpable as her green eyes filled with new tears. "Xena," she said, laughing and crying all at once, one shaking hand tenderly brushing the dark bangs from the warrior's eyes.
"Good of you to drop in," Autolycus said, grinning and squatting next to Xena's recumbant form. "Your timing could be a little better, though. I was just about to become 'Auto Flambe'."
Xena shot him a glare. "Just be glad my ribs are broken," she said dangerously. "'cause if you're anywhere near me once I can handle my sword again, you're gonna be 'diced Auto'."
Autolycus scrabbled backwards. "You wound me, Xena," he said, hands in front of his face. "Is that any way to talk to a friend?"
"Just what did you think you were doing?" she asked, a very real heat to her words.
"Ah, I'm afraid I don't quite follow you," the thief replied, shooting a look over to Gabrielle, who was looking equally confused.
"Gabrielle wasn't supposed to be a part of this," the warrior hissed, forgetting for the moment that the object of her conversation was cradling her head in her lap.
"Now wait a minute-" was all he got out before Gabrielle interrupted.
"Xena, calm down. It isn't Autolycus' fault. I chose to come here."
"You don't belong here, Gabrielle," Xena said, turning her glare up to the woman holding her. "You belong in Poteidia, with your . . .husband." She turned her head back to the thief, who shrugged. "You almost got yourself killed," she sighed.
"I chose to come here, Xena," the bard repeated. "I belong here. I've always belonged here," she whispered as if to herself.
The warrior let the words run over her, sinking tendrils into her shattered heart. Ruthlessly, she clamped down on the feelings and struggled to rise from her position against Gabrielle.
"Xena, I-" Gabrielle said, trying to keep the struggling warrior flat.
"Autolycus," Xena ordered, flinging Gabrielle's restraining arms away.
"Xena, I don't think this is such a hot idea," the thief said.
"Autolycus," the warrior intoned, holding out her left hand.
Sighing, Autolycus rose to his feet and grasped Xena's hand, gently pulling her to a standing position and holding her securely as she swayed briefly. "Now what," he said, releasing Xena from his grasp as she steadied on her feet.
"I'm going back to Malacus' camp to retrieve Argo and the Ponopholona. You escort Gabrielle back to Poteidia. Make sure she arrives there safely."
"Xena, I-" Gabrielle tried again.
The warrior whirled around to the bard, wincing and clamping a hand to her aching right side. One short step and the distance between the two women was closed. Xena leaned down slightly, putting her hands on the warm skin of Gabrielle's upper arms. "Gabrielle, I'm sorry. I never meant for you to risk your life by becoming involved in all this. But I thank you. Your actions probably saved alot of people. But it's over. You need to get back to Poteidia, to your husband . . .and your life. Thank you," she said again, heartfelt. Their gazes locked and Xena felt her heart begin to shatter all over again. Taking a deep breath, she removed her hands from Gabrielle's shoulders and turned away, striding painfully to where Autolycus stood, his jaw lowered in shock. "And thank you, my friend," she said, clasping his forearm. "It wasn't exactly as I'd planned, but you got the job done. I owe you." Giving the thief a small grin, Xena released her hold on his arm and brushed past him on her way down the mountain.
"NO!" Gabrielle shouted, stopping the retreating warrior in her tracks. "Xena, wait!"
"Go home, Gabrielle," Xena stated flatly, not bothering to turn around. "It's over."
"It's not over!" the bard insisted, running to catch up with the warrior. "I won't let it be over!"
"Go home, Gabrielle," Xena repeated firmly, easily shaking Gabrielle's hand off her arm.
"NO! I won't go home, Xena. I can't. I love you!"
The warrior turned slowly, the mask gone from her face, her feelings showing plainly. "I love you too, Gabrielle. But you have Perdicus. And I have . . .I have my work. We're on two different paths now." Turning back, she started down the rocky trail again. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
Gabrielle ran past her, spinning and facing the retreating warrior yet again, her staff raised. "Don't do this, Xena."
Xena raised an eyebrow and, without breaking stride, flipped the staff away with negligent ease. "Don't be stupid."
The bard spun and placed herself in front of the warrior again. "You're the one who's being stupid." Seeing Xena's angry glare, her tone softened. "Please don't do this, Xena. Don't leave me. I couldn't take it if you did."
"You made your choice eight months ago, Gabrielle. You chose home and family over the dangers of the road. I didn't begrudge you that choice then. I don't begrudge it now. Go back to Perdicus. He needs you."
"You need me too," the bard retorted, realizing the truth in those words for the first time. Her eyes widened.
The dark head nodded. "You're right. I do need you. But your life belongs elsewhere now." Sighing heavily, she pushed her way gently past Gabrielle again. "Goodbye, Gabrielle. Be happy."
"I won't let you do this."
The eyebrow rose again, though Gabrielle couldn't see it. "And just how do you intend on stopping me?"
"I'll hunt you down, Xena. I'll follow you everywhere you go. I'll dog your steps. I'm good at that, remember? I did it for almost an entire year."
"Autolycus, take her back to Poteidia."
"Autolycus, don't move."
"Autolycus . . ."
"Autolycus . . . ."
Sighing, the tall thief sat down on a convenient boulder, stretching out his long legs, and preparing for the long seige.
"Go back to Perdicus," Xena said, her tone hard and flat, belying the pain in her soul.
"I . . .can't. Perdicus isn't my husband anymore."
"What?" Xena asked, spinning around and facing the bard.
"We had an argument. He didn't want me to leave. He said that if I went back on the road, I might discover I liked it too much and I wouldn't want to be his wife anymore." The bard sighed. "He told me that I was no longer his wife."
Xena's voice and gaze softened at the look of pain on Gabrielle's face. "Let Autolycus take you back to him. You both can explain what happened. He'll take you back. He has to. You're too wonderful a person to let go of willingly."
"He was right, Xena. Perdicus was right. I realized that when I saw you jump into that canyon just now to save me. He's a good man, but he never would have done what you did for me." Gabrielle sighed and put a gentle hand above Xena's left gauntlet. "Eight months ago, I thought that I needed stability in my life. I never realized, until just now, that I had that stability with you. I had the stability of knowing that you would always be there for me, would always love me, no matter what I did or who I was. I had the stability of knowing that you would always be there to protect me, even at the cost of your own life, or your very soul. I was too blind to recognize the gift you had given me, Xena. I'm not blind anymore. Please don't make the same mistake I did. Don't throw this away."
The warrior covered the small hand on her arm with her own, looking intently into those pleading jade eyes. "You weren't blind, Gabrielle. You followed your heart."
Gabrielle let out a mirthless laugh. "You're wrong. I followed my head. Just like when I left you for the Academy. Or when I left to go back to my family, thinking I'd become too much of a burden to you." She looked up into the night sky. "Why did I marry Perdicus?" she whispered to the moon. "I gave up all my dreams, all my desires, to settle down and become exactly what my parents wanted me to be. Why did I do that?"
"I don't know, Gabrielle. I don't have any answers for you."
The bard lowered her head slightly, meeting Xena's concerned gaze dead on. "Yes you do, Xena. You are the answer for me. You always have been. I may have followed my head every time I left you, but I followed my heart every time I came back. And I'm following my heart again now." She gently lifted Xena's large hand and placed it above her left breast. "This is what my heart wants, Xena. Please don't leave me."
Feeling the sure, strong contractions underneath her callused palm, the walls Xena had hastily erected around her own shattered heart came down, brick by brick with every beat. Finally, unable to stand the distance any longer, the warrior gathered Gabrielle into a crushing embrace, unmindful of her broken ribs, unmindful of the watching thief, unmindful of anything save the warmth and love represented by the young woman in her arms. "Welcome back, Gabrielle," she whispered. "Welcome home."
And the scene fades to black as Xena's hand is seen sliding slowly down the naked skin of Gabrielle's back.
Final disclaimer: No YAXI's, plot twists, loose ends or recycled actors were harmed during the production of this piece of fan fiction. Autolycus' fingers, however, are still the size of "Ball Park Franks" and he's currently loaning out his bruised arm to lost Grecian travelers.
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