Mine to Have and Hold
Disclaimer:The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, and Toris belong to MCA/Universal, all others were born of necessity and imagination. A great teacher once told me that the best of any art form is what you take from it; we are all individuals we all see things from our own point of view. There is no sex/subtext here, only strong feelings of love and family. There is however a bit of violence, but no more than you might see on television.
Thanks to KC and CC for editing and encouraging me to complete this epic.
On shaky ground
Xena walked into the mine with some trepidation; she wasn't fond of closed in places. She had come to visit Toris, her older brother. He had been lucky enough to accidentally find this vein of gold and the local village was more than happy to supply him with workers to mine the precious metal. The once small town would soon be the envy of everyone in the province.
Gabrielle walked ahead with Barillus, the young man in charge of the most recent dig. He casually pointed out bits of ore and the best locations to continue mining. Xena smiled, knowing that her young friend's current interest was not in the mining, but in the miner.
"Xena, can you believe it? It's too good to be true." Toris' voice broke her reverie.
"Hmm," she answered nodding in his direction. She looked at the beams set against the stone for support and tested one for its strength. "I didn't know you knew anything about mining, Toris."
"How hard could it be?" He answered smiling. "Besides, the miners know what they're doing and Barillus is a good man. He knows a lot about this underground stuff. Come on, little sister be happy for me. Don't be so skeptical. Sometimes luck is just what it is - luck."
"Yeah, sometimes," she replied watching Gabrielle and Barillus round a corner just ahead.
Toris reached back and grabbed her arm pulling her forward. "Xena, you've got to see this vein. It's at least three cubits wide. By the time we get it all out, I'll be able to have a castle of my own. Mother can live like a queen. Oh, Xena you won't believe it." Xena hesitated, but let Toris lead her farther into the mine. She glanced over her shoulder at the entrance and stopped before turning the corner.
"Ya know, Toris, I think I'll just take your word for it." She gently slid her arm out of his grasp. "Besides, Gabrielle will give me a more than accurate description. Why don't we go back and wait for her?"
"Xena?" Toris pondered. "If I didn't know better I'd say you were scared." Xena smiled weakly. "You are, aren't you. You're afraid to go into the mine. I can't believe it. I didn't think you were afraid of anything!"
"Yeah well, I'm not really comfortable right now so let's just go outside and discuss this." Xena stated starting to sound a little anxious.
Toris laughed at his sister's plight, but gave in. "Okay, I guess I can show you what we've already taken from the place and I'm sure the men would love to meet you." They began walking back toward the entrance of the mine.
Far behind them came a sound like a low growl of a giant's stomach rumbling. They stopped and looked at each other before looking behind. The noise stopped. "Nothing to worry about," Toris assured the warrior, "does that all the time. We're used to it." They started walking and went only a few feet before the noise came again. This time much louder and much stronger. This time it could be felt as well as heard. Above the rumble came sounds of men's voices shouting, panicking. Three men ran toward them stumbling over each other in their frantic effort to escape the threat. Toris grabbed one man as he passed. "RUN!" he shouted, desperately trying to free himself. "Get out while you can, the whole thing is coming down! RUN!" He broke free and followed his friends out of the mine. Toris grabbed Xena and turned to exit. Even if she was the Warrior Princess, he was still her 'big brother' and that instinct took over in his attempt to protect her. The rumbling grew louder, the shaking stronger. Dust and rocks fell around them. Several more men ran from the bowels of the mine and out into the midday sun. Toris dragged a struggling Xena toward the exit finally throwing his younger sister into the daylight as a great puff of dust and rock exhaled from the mine. He landed on top of her a few feet from the entrance. Xena pushed Toris away and jumped to her feet. She started back toward the mine, again stopped by her older brother. She looked at him wide eyed, then toward the mine, and uttered one word, "Gabrielle."
A few men stumbled out of the dust cloud, coughing and straining to catch their breath once outside. Toris moved to help them. Xena looked from face to face searching for the familiar smile of the young bard. The last men out shook their heads when asked if there were more, if everyone had made it. Except for a few scratches, bruises and one broken wrist the miners escaped unhurt. Toris searched for Barillus without success. A few minutes later he found Andreas, the foreman. Andreas was unhurt and had moved among the escapees, searching and asking questions about who had gotten out and -- who had not. Andreas was one of the last men to escape the thundering mountain. Toris grabbed his arm and spun him around.
"What happened?" he demanded.
Andreas looked back shocked at Toris' reaction to the tragedy. "I, I don't know. Everything just came down."
"What do you mean, you don't know?" Toris' temper flared as he moved very closed to the miner.
"I_mean_I_don't_know." Andreas answered slowly and deliberately. "Aren't you the least bit interested in those that did not make it out?" He questioned solemnly. Toris realized his anger had gotten the best of him and inhaled slowly before answering. He cast a quick glance at Xena who had been standing next to him. "Yes, yes Andreas, I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking. Tell me, who is missing?"
Andreas swallowed hard, "Almost everyone made it out, four maybe five are missing, Daemon and Barillus, and " he paused, his eyes darting toward the anxious warrior and back to Toris before continuing, "and the girl."
Xena looked toward the mine. "Her name is Gabrielle." She informed him through clenched teeth. Then started for the entrance forgetting her apprehension about the tunnel. Toris ran after her.
"Where do you think you're going? There's no way any of them could be alive! And even if they are " he paused weighing the consequences of his statement, "there is no way we can get to them in time to save them!"
She turned, giving her brother an icy stare. "Are you saying you're not even going to try?"
Toris looked from his sister to the dark mine entrance. He knew her stubborn determination would never allow him to shirk this responsibility. "Xena, it isn't safe." He said quietly. "The mountain is pretty shaky, the rest of it could come down on us." She looked past him. "We don't have enough men, enough time to dig through all that rock." He knew she wasn't listening. "Even if we find them, it will only be to bury them again." She turned and glared at him, without words she sent a clear message. "Fine! Fine, we'll try. It's pointless, but there's no talking to you, is there?" He threw his hands in the air and stormed away, leaving her to stare into the massive rockslide that had smothered a piece of her soul.
Gabrielle and Barillus had just walked around the corner of the mine when the first rumble began. Gabrielle stopped, wide eyed but, was reassured by Barillus' confidence that there was nothing to worry about. He pointed out the beginning of the vein of gold and explained that it would get larger as they continued. He also began to tell her about the history of the mine and the area. It seemed that some of the locals believed the mine was cursed and were quite against taking anything from it. The mine had been there for many years before Toris had discovered the old entrance and long before anyone had taken control of the area. Gabrielle took all of this information and stored it for future story telling use. By the time the second, more terrific rumble sounded she and Barillus had passed into a small chamber he called the map room. Gabrielle heard the men's voices and knew this was now something to worry about. She turned to follow those she had seen run past the small room, but a sharp tremor sent her reeling backward. In a matter of seconds the ground began to shake and rocks began pummeling in all directions. She felt large strong hands haul her up from the ground and push her not toward the exit but in the opposite direction. 'No', she thought as she fell. Something fell on top of her and she expelled a breath with a loud 'oopf'. Total blackness consumed everything around her. She gave in to it without a fight.
Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open. At least, she thought they were open, she couldn't see anything and she couldn't move. For a moment she thought 'this is what dead feels like'. She tried to move and was rewarded with a sharp pain in her left arm, which was tucked, under her body. 'No, I can't be dead, that hurt too much,' she thought reaching back with her right hand to feel just what was pinning her down. Not rock, too soft. No, this wasn't something it was someone. Someone was on top of her. Someone not moving. She pushed back and that someone's face came very close to her own. Fear gripped her for a split second, before she realized the soft sound near her ear was the someone's breathing. "Thank the gods!" She said out loud. "At least you're alive." She pushed hard on the ground with her right hand in an effort to roll the someone off of her. He seemed to roll away very easily, and on the first try too. 'Hmmm,' she thought, 'all those work outs with Xena must have paid off." Before she could attempt to bring herself to an upright position a pair of very large hands grabbed her. The release of her own weight from her injured left arm brought a new wave of pain and she could not contain the scream that escaped her.
"So many pardons, little missy. Meneos is not meaning to cause harm, just to see if there is life here," a gruff but somehow gentle voice reassured her. She still could not see, but could feel the massive size of the man who held her. She was like a small child in his arms and he carried her, where? She could see nothing, but this large man was walking through the darkness with no effort at all. She could hear soft sounds of men talking and coughing in the distance. The man spoke to her in soothing tones. He could feel her fear.
"Have no fear, little missy, no fear. Meneos is seeing many rockslides, many caves falling to the dust, but Meneos is coming out. No the ground is not wanting Meneos and Meneos is protecting you, and the others, until a way out we are finding," he explained. He carried her to a large cavern, that must have been more a part of a cave than of the mine, and set her down very gently on a large flat boulder. "Now stay, Meneos is coming back, yes. Others there are. Meneos is bringing them. Safe here, you listen, you stay." He spoke as he moved away from her. A second later she heard the familiar sound of flint stones being struck together and saw the sparks they created. Those sparks ignited a small flame and as Gabrielle's eyes readjusted to the light she could see it was a small torch. A large very dirty man was holding it and walking toward her. She shrank back. "No, no little missy, is Meneos. See," he held the torch close to his face. For the first time Gabrielle saw the man that belonged to the gentle baritone voice. He was big, bigger than any man she had ever seen. She immediately thought of a bear, a dusty old bear. He had grayish frizzy hair that blended into his chest length beard and mustache. She could hardly make out his eyes or his mouth. His hands were large enough to hold at least two melons each and his chest was as big as one of the barrels of mead she had seen in many taverns on her travels. His long legs reminded her of tree trunks and his feet were without shoes, probably because they didn't make boots that large. But, he was as gentle and compassionate as he was huge, and she immediately trusted him. She smiled back at the giant, "I, I'm okay. You can go. I'll stay right here." He smiled and handed her the torch. She watched him disappear into the blackness of the mine.
Across the chamber Gabrielle noticed two men seated on the ground. They were dirty and bloodied. One man had a deep gash on his forehead; the other was trying to help to stop the bleeding by holding a rag to his friend's wound. The second man did not seem to be badly injured, but quite shaken by the experience. Meneos returned to the cavern carrying a third man whom he laid on the ground next to the first two. Without stopping or saying a word he disappeared into the darkness returning one more time and laying the last man on the ground next to the first three. He approached Gabrielle. "That is all. No more. No bodies. All alive. Now we are finding the way out. But first Meneos is making sure all men, and little missy, are being fine." He assured her reaching out with a damp rag to wipe her face. Gabrielle winced and pulled back. "Tsk, tsk, Meneos is wanting to wipe away dirt. Such a sweet face, such a bad bruise. Meneos is knowing there is being hurt, just a little bit more, yes?" Gabrielle nodded and allowed him to clean the blood and dirt from the scrape on her left cheek.
"How are the others?" She asked as he worked. "Barillus? Is, is he okay?" She stopped his ministrations with her right hand and looked directly into his eyes.
"Barillus? Yes, yes Meneos is finding Barillus. Barillus is having a bad ache in head, but miner lives. Resting, he is." Gabrielle wondered at the strange accent of this giant.
"I can help," she informed him eagerly. "I know a little about healing. My friend," she stopped realizing that Xena was not among those Meneos rescued.
"Yes, yes Meneos is knowing. Warrior sister of Toris is not being near when the mountain is coming down. Meneos is thinking woman is being outside, yes is being outside to help." he smiled and sat back, then became quite serious. "Now, little missy, Meneos is being very sorry."
"Sorry? Why?" She asked, suddenly apprehensive.
He nodded at her left arm. Gabrielle realized she had been holding it close to her body, unconsciously refusing to bend or move it in any direction to avoid the sharp pain it would cause.
"Oh, this" she laughed weakly. "This is nothing. I just landed on it wrong. It'll be okay. Just stiff. See...ah, oh, ow!" She exclaimed trying to straighten her arm. Meneos shook his head. "No, little missy, no, no. Meneos is seeing many times how this is happening. Is broken, yes. Meneos is needing to putting bone back, yes?"
Gabrielle was already shaking her head and backing away. Her arm actually hurt so much it was beginning to make her sick to her stomach. She had never had a broken anything, but she had seen enough to know it wasn't pleasant. A few months ago she and Xena had come upon a young man who had broken his leg trying to fix a wheel on an overturned cart. Xena had sent her to find sticks for a splint while she set the young man's leg. Gabrielle had watched from the brush and heard the snap as the bone returned to place and the scream the young man could not hold back. He seemed like a strong young man, but there were tears in his eyes when she returned with the splint. Her arm was already throbbing, the thought of that giant man yanking it into place terrified her. 'No,' she thought to herself as she backed away, 'no I can wait for Xena. Xena can do it. Xena will come. I want Xena to do it '
Meneos did not attempt to pull her back. He merely watched, patiently, standing back with his large arms folded across his massive chest. Under his fatherly gaze she slowly realized how childish she was acting. She looked at her arm and then at Meneos. She slid back toward him stopping at the edge of the boulder and hanging her legs over it. He sat down next to her, wrapping a large arm around her shoulders.
"That was pretty silly, wasn't it?" She said solemnly, looking down at her feet.
"Not silly is being scared of pain, little missy, but sometimes is needing pain to make things better. Meneos is being quick and then is over, yes?" He smiled kindly at her removing his arm from her shoulders and standing. A low groan from behind diverted his attention and he turned to see which of his other patients needed him.
Barillus had awakened and was making a valiant attempt to stand. Meneos moved toward him and helped him to rise. "Is being awake, yes? Good, good." Meneos exclaimed.
Barillus held one hand to his head, the other to Meneos strong arm for support. "Not so loud Meneos, not so loud."
Meneos examined the bump on the side of Barillus' head. "Good strong head! Good bump!"
"I'm glad you're impressed, Meneos." Barillus laughed, knowing the huge man meant no harm. "Thank you for getting me, us, out of there. You're a good man, Meneos."
"Meneos is doing what he must," he answered simply. "Now Meneos is helping little missy."
Barillus suddenly remembered the young redhead he had been with before the mountain began to rumble. "Gabrielle? Is she, is she alright?"
"Come, come with Meneos. Girl is being alive, is being hurt, is not being bad, Meneos can fix. Come," he urged Barillus to accompany him across the cave to where he had left Gabrielle. She was still seated on the edge of the boulder when he returned.
"You know, Meneos, if I keep my arm really still it doesn't hurt at all. Maybe it isn't even broken," she lied, noticing the bump on her arm a few inches below her elbow. Her stomach turned just a bit imagining what a broken bone might look like. She closed her eyes and raised her head. "Let's just get it over with," came out in a whisper as she opened her eyes and saw Barillus standing in front of her.
He smiled weakly. "You know we don't put on a show like this for just anybody," he joked.
Gabrielle smiled back, "I'm glad you're okay. How's your head?"
"Oh, I'll be all right," he answered rubbing his head. "Hard heads run in my family."
Gabrielle laughed nervously. Meneos had positioned himself in front of her. He reached around to his side and drew a long blade from its scabbard. Gabrielle let out a frightened gasp. Nowhere in her memory was cutting involved in setting a broken bone. "Now, little missy, is not being reason to fret." He looked at the big knife in his hand and then at the wide eyed girl in front of him. "This? No Meneos is not needing this." He dropped the weapon to the ground and began to remove the scabbard from his belt. "Meneos is needing good hard leather, a good splint, yes?" He smiled at Gabrielle and for the first time she saw a gold tooth glistening in the smile of this gentle giant. She nodded without much confidence. "Barillus is helping, yes? Done before, Barillus has. Is over before you know, yes?" He nodded to Barillus and the young man moved to Gabrielle's side placing his arm around her back and pressing her closer to him. Gabrielle leaned against Barillus and let her head rest against his shoulder. She bit her bottom lip and felt her breath coming in short gasps. Meneos took her broken limb in his meaty hands, one bracing her elbow and the other around her small hand, covering it to her wrist. Most of the arm disappeared in his grasp. Gabrielle struggled to compose herself, to stop the little whimpers escaping with each breath. This was no way for an Amazon Queen to act, what would Xena say, this was childish, this was...
Suddenly and without warning all thought disappeared in an explosion of pain. Somewhere between her last thought, and that explosion, there was a vivid crunching resonance that vibrated throughout her entire body and rang in her ears. Before the world dissolved to black, she was sure she heard someone screaming in agony.
With torches in hand Toris and Xena entered the mine, the others were either too shaken or just too timid to return immediately. Broken beams and large pieces of rock made the their path treacherous. Small streams of silt fell from the ceiling resembling sand in an hourglass. Unsettled dust swirled around them giving the impression of thick fog. The torches were little help in the heavy gloom. They made their way slowly and carefully over the obstacles in their path, trying to get their bearings in the newly designed tunnel. A strange creaking noise repeatedly echoed through the excavation, giving both explorers a feeling of dread. Yet, neither would ever admit it. Toris was able to ascertain that they had gone the same distance as they had before the collapse.
"Xena," he said in a hushed tone, afraid that even the sound of his voice would bring down the rest of the mountain. "This is insane, no one could have survived this!" He moved his torch from left to right surveying the damage.
Xena was a few steps ahead and cast an angry glare back at her brother. She continued on despite her own trepidation and his protests. But, even the determination of the warrior princess was halted by the wall of stone just around the bend of the mineshaft. Just around the same bend where she had last seen Gabrielle and Barillus. Boulders the size of Argo filled the shaft from top to bottom. Xena stood in front of the blockage deep in thought.
"Look at this," Toris commented, awestruck. "Not even a score of workers working day and night could clear it away in time to save them. Even if they are still alive, and that is impossible. We dont even know how far back the slide goes. It could be as deep as your arm or it could be completely filled in. " He looked at Xena and realized she was not listening. "Xena, XENA, did you hear anything I said?"
"Yeah, I heard ya" she replied without looking at him. She placed the palm of her hand in front of her and passed it along a few inches from the surface of the boulders. Toris watched, puzzled and anxious as the soft silt continued to fall from the ceiling. She continued this action for a few minutes before turning to her brother. "Its not completely filled in and it is possible that they survived. Theres air. If they're are not badly hurt theyve still got a chance."
Toris rolled his eyes, "and you can tell all that with a wave of your hand?"
"No" she replied quietly "but I can feel the fresh air coming from between the rocks." She held her torch closer to the wall and he noticed the flame flicker beneath the soft breeze. Toris shook his head and smiled at his sisters expertise. "Come on." Xena started toward the entrance of the mine. Toris practically had to run to catch up. "We have to get started. You organize the men who are able to start digging. Well need horses and a few wagons or carts. Have some of the men cut a few small trees and clean off the branches. Well need some strong wood to make bracers and a lever. Send someone to the village for tools, blacksmiths hammers should work or a large battle axe." Xena shot orders faster than Toris could hear them. He was panting in his effort to match her stride. He caught her arm as they exited the mine.
"Wait," he gasped, "wait one minute. Just what are you planning to do? Dig those boulders out of there?" He stepped in front of his sister to stop her. She glared at him, grit her teeth and let out a sigh of frustration. "For gods sake, Xena, those rocks are the only thing holding up that tunnel! No one, no one is going back in there! Its a death trap!" Toris was just as determined as Xena. "These men are hurt and frightened, you wont find a single volunteer!"
"Who said anything about volunteers?" she shot back pushing him aside.
"Right, thats right" he called after her. "Youre used to ordering men to their deaths to satisfy your wishes, arent you?"
Xena stopped without turning around and for a split second Toris wondered if his sister was capable of fratricide. She turned slowly facing her brother, anger and fear swelling inside practically setting her ablaze. She tossed the torch she was still carrying into the dirt. Flame practically shot from her electric blue gaze. Toris stood his ground, shooting the same gaze back at his younger sister. The last time they had faced each other in this fashion, Toris had seen fourteen summers and Xena had only just passed her tenth vernal equinox. She had gotten the better of him that day and left him with a black eye and a split lip. To exact his revenge he told their mother of Xenas actions, which earned his sister a severe switching for her unlady-like behavior. He had hidden beneath the store room window and listened as Cyrene delivered her punishment. At first he chuckled with delight at her plight, feeling he had finally gotten the upper hand on his upstart kid sister. Cyrene meant business, Xena had been warned about her misdeeds and the consequences of them on one too many occasions. As promised, the flogging was lengthy and severe. It wasnt long before Toris was cringing with each lash his sister received. He always regretted that incident. Always wished he had the courage to apologize. Years later, during the ten years he did not see his sister, it was the clearest memory he had of her. He could still hear her softly weeping in the storeroom after Cyrene had finished administering her promised disciplining and left her daughter to atone for her misdeed. He sat outside the window for a long time wiping his own tears. They never discussed the incident after.
Xena glared at her brother walking slowing toward him. "My best friend is somewhere on the other side of that wall, brother. She might be dead, but gods willing she is alive and probably hurt, along with at least four of your workers. If they are alive, and I for one believe they are, they wont be for long if someone doesnt do something and no one deserves to die like that, Toris!" She finished standing nose to nose with her brother. "Yes, I did order men to their deaths and I ordered the deaths of men, but I did not and will not walk away and let innocent people die when I can do something to prevent it. Now, you can help me or you can run away from your responsibility like you usually do. But one way or another I intend to get through that rock!"
Gabrielle had never seen so many colors, spinning, sparkling, and shimmering like jewels or colored stars in a violet sky. She wanted to look at them, touch them, collect them and keep them, but someone was calling her name. She tried to ignore the call and stay with the colored stars, but the voice persisted and seemed to get louder and closer. The colors faded as the voice grew louder. She recognized that voice. It was Barillus calling her away from the beauty and the light. "Gabrielle, Gabrielle, come on, Gabrielle wake up." She felt a soft touch on her cheek and slowly opened her eyes. It took a few minutes to focus completely in the dim light, but she was sure it was Barillus smile that greeted her. Gone were the colors, the jewels, the stars, replaced by shades of gray and deep dark foreboding corners and a dull throbbing pain in her left arm. She found herself in Barillus arms and blushed immediately embarrassed by the closeness to his young man she had so recently met. With her good arm she attempted to push herself away and sit up on her own. Barillus smiled again and helped her to right herself.
"Glad to have you back." He grinned.
Gabrielle blushed again. She had passed out, how embarrassing, how infantile! "I, Im so sorry." She stammered noticing the leather splint Meneos had fashioned on her broken limb. It ran from the fingertips to her elbow. There it had recently been cut to bend around and along her upper arm ending a few inches below her shoulder. Meneos had then used the leather thong to lace around and over the heavy leather sheathe making one of the most efficient splints she had ever seen. Xena would be impressed. For a moment she forgot her pain while she admired this fascinating handiwork. She didnt notice Meneos approach.
"Ah, little missy is waking, yes? Is good time to be checking. Is tight, no?" He asked pointing to the splint on Gabrielles arm. She shook her head and smiled. Meneos held his torch close to young girl and examined the tips of her fingers. "Color is being good. Splint is being good, yes." He smiled back and reached up removing a colorful scarf from around his forehead. "Is being heavy too, little missy. Meneos is having this to be helping." He unraveled the scarf and tied a sling around Gabrielles shoulder and neck, gently placing her arm inside.
Barillus helped her to stand and since she was still a little wobbly, he wrapped a strong arm around her waist. "Maybe you should walk around a little. Youve been out for a while." He encouraged her.
"How how long?" Gabrielle asked suddenly realizing how thirsty she was. She put her good hand to her head in an effort to stop the dark world from spinning. Barillus made sure the girl kept her balance. "Long enough." He chuckled as he helped her make her way toward the other prisoners of the dusky cavern. Slowly, Gabrielle regained her senses along with her painful memories. She worried that perhaps Xena had not made it out of the rockslide, worried that she had and now the warrior was out of her own mind with worry over the bard. Gabrielle knew Xena well. If she was out there she was searching for a way in, if she wasn't The girl dared not complete the thought.
Meneos read the pain on Gabrielle's face and knew its sources. "Here, little missy. Meneos is not forgetting he is carrying water skins for workers before mountain comes down. Take. Drink." Meneos held the skin out to the girl, smiling his big toothy smile. Gabrielle returned the smile and took a small drink. "Yes, is being well to drink slow now. Save for later. Good. Good, little missy." Meneos voice was calm and reassuring.
"BARILLUS!" The shout echoed in the large cavern as two men hastened toward the small group. Gabrielle recognized them as the men Meneos had also pulled from the cave in. "Ah, I see she's finally come to." The taller of the two remarked. "I don't know if that's good or bad." He added with little emotion. "We need to talk." He motioned to Barillus and Meneos with a quick jerk of his head.
"Tristan and I checked out the slide. There's no way we can dig our way through there. We don't have the tools or the manpower. Even with the giant here." Gregor pointed with his thumb toward Meneos. "We found two tunnels and checked out both."
Gabrielle watched the four men huddled on the opposite side of the large cavern. She could hear their words clearly in the dark silence, even though they spoke in hushed tones. She knew they were trying to protect her from the awful truth, but the truth was Xena was out there and Xena would get her, would get all of them out. Xena could do anything and she would not give up hope. A soft moan interrupted her thought and she turned to find a young man, perhaps a few years her senior, struggling to get to his feet.
"Here, let me help." She offered her hand as she recognized the man with the large gash on his head.
"No no I think I might be better off on the ground right now." He grimaced as he sat back against the stone wall. Gabrielle knelt down next to him and offered the water skin she was still holding. "Thanks." He managed before taking a long draught. "Daemon." He introduced himself as he returned the skin.
"Gabrielle." She replied reaching out to inspect the gash along his hairline. "I wish I had our medicine pouch, this looks like it might need a few stitches."
"You a healer?" He groaned squirming to find a more comfortable position.
"No." Gabrielle blushed, "actually, I am a bard. But, I do know a little about healing, or at least about helping."
"A bard, huh?" Daemon smiled a crooked smile. "Well, actually I'd rather hear a story about stitches than be a story about 'em." He laughed a weak laugh.
Gabrielle smiled at his attempted humor in this less than humorous situation. "Well, Daemon, when we get out of here I will remember that. Perhaps, you will be in my next story." Daemon laughed again, and nodded toward the somber group heading toward them.
Well, it seems we have a decision to make." Barillus announced as he and the rest of the group reached Gabrielle and Daemon. "Tristan and Gregor checked out the two tunnels off this cavern. One runs on for about two hundred paces then narrows to a crawl space. And since most of us are not capable of navigating that space, I think we can rule it out."
Gabrielle's eyes widened, but Daemon spoke first. "Now, just a minute Barillus! I might have a cracked skull, but I can certainly get myself out of here!"
Barillus put out a hand to stop his tirade. "Hold on, Daemon! From what Gregor says that tunnel gets so small a child would have to crawl through on his belly. So, I don't think it's an option."
"I could try." Gabrielle offered, for once being grateful for her petite size.
"Thanks for the offer, Gabrielle." Barillus smiled. "But, even if you could fit we have no idea where it leads and with that arm, well "
Gabrielle looked at her arm in the sling and realized he was right. "Can't we just start digging?" She asked innocently. "They must be digging on the other side. We can help by starting on this side."
Suddenly, all of the men seemed to have something catch their eye. None of them would look at the girl. Even Daemon seemed preoccupied. Meneos, however could not hold back his honesty. "No, little missy. No one is being digging. No one is being looking. Dead miners are being to them. Too much rock. Too much dirt. Is being time to be helping selves, no?."
Gabrielle shook her head, struggling to hold back the tears that were so close. "No, that's a lie! Xena would never stop looking for me, never!" Gabrielle's voice shook with the fear and the truth of Meneos' words. She backed away from him as he moved to comfort her. "Xena knows I'm here. She knows I'm alive and she_ will_ come! I know her. She doesn't give up. She doesn't!" The girl's tears broke through, as her voice became small. Meneos gathered her into his large arms allowing her to let loose the anxiety that she had fought to contain since this ordeal began. The four remaining men nervously fought their own feelings of dread, wondering if their families were somewhere out there trying to get to them or if they had already decided they were entombed in a self made grave. Four men let their anxiety go in the tears of a young girl, too ashamed to let the tears of fear fall from their own worried eyes.
The daylight faded quicker than Xena would have liked, making it much more difficult to begin the task of digging out the cave. Toris had sent Andreas into the village for the needed supplies and more men to help with the excavation. The families of the injured and rescued men had arrived and taken their relatives back to the safety of their homes, leaving the siblings alone at their campfire. Xena paced like a caged animal willing the night to pass as quickly as the day in order to begin the work. She reasoned, to herself, that this was work that could be done in the dark since inside the cave neither day nor night existed. Her thoughts turned to Gabrielle. She was all right. She had to be. If the bard was well, was badly hurt the warrior would know. She would sense that the better part of her soul had been taken away. No, she would not give up. She would take that mountain down rock by rock until she found Gabrielle and she would be alive and well.
Toris poked at the fire watching his sister's pacing. He could feel her impatience, her anxiousness. He always could. Xena had to have what she wanted when she wanted it, no matter what the cost. Her pacing was driving him crazy, but not crazy enough to say anything to the incensed warrior. He thought of his workers, his friends buried under that mountain and wondered how he would face those families in the morning. He knew they could not be alive, not under all that debris, not after all this time. He realized that Xena had stopped pacing and raised his head to speak only to find his sister nowhere in sight. "Not again." He moaned as he slowly rose.
For the countless time that evening Xena had found herself at the mouth of the mine, staring into its vast obscurity. "Gabrielle." She whispered. "Hold on, I'm coming. Please, hold on."
"Xena." Her brother's voice came soft and quiet behind her. She dared not turn and let him see the tears she could no longer hold back. She straightened her back and stood firm. "Xena, there's nothing we can do until sunrise or at least until help gets here." Toris approached her slowly and stopped within arm's reach. "You won't be any help at all if you don't get some rest." He waited, giving his sister time to compose herself. He knew of the bond between the warrior and the bard. He had seen it when they fought Cortese two years ago. He had heard it in the way Gabrielle spoke of his sister and in a way he was jealous. Xena never was close to him, not like she was with Lyceus and not like she now was with the little bard. He wished he knew what to say, how to reach her, but words failed him just as they did her. "Xena?" He spoke softly again as he placed his hand on his sister's shoulder and felt her tremble. As he expected, she shook off his touch and took a step away. Toris shook his head, "Ya well anyway you might just never mind suit yourself." He turned and walked away.
Xena swallowed hard and quickly brushed the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand. He was right. She would be no help at all if she kept this up. "Toris." She spoke his name in a voice small and unsure. He stopped without turning. She heard his silent answer and turned to follow. When she reached his side, neither looked at the other. Both looked straight ahead. Both fumbled for words that would not come. Toris slowly reached out and took her fingers in his hand, fully expecting to be brushed aside once more. Surprisingly, his warrior sister gasped his hand and squeezed tightly. He squeezed back and for a brief moment they felt a long lost connection. And just as quickly, it was gone. Xena released her brother's hand, walked to fire side and lowered herself onto her bedroll. She rested her head on the soft fur covering the young bard's bag and laid her hand on the quarterstaff resting against it. "Be safe." She whispered as she closed her eyes and let exhaustion take her into the hands of Morpheus. Toris watched his sister until her breaths became even and steady, then crossed the campsite and gently placed a blanket over her sleeping form.
Gabrielle had certainly not cried herself out, but suddenly became aware of how futile tears were at a time like this. Hysterics would only make matters worse. She did not want this group of men to think she was some pitiful little girl who would be of no help in this crisis. She quickly, composed herself and pushed free of Meneos' embrace. The gentle giant smiled at the girl's spunk. "Okay." She said as she brushed the last of her tears from her eyes and sniffed her last sniff. "If we can't dig our way out and we can't wiggle through that skinny tunnel, we'll just have to find another way out won't we? What's in the other tunnel?" She demanded as she walked toward the dark portal on the far side of the cavern.
"Hold on there, captain!" Barillus chuckled as he caught her right arm. She turned to face him, her face a mask of grim determination. "Tristan and Gregor checked that tunnel, too. It is a possibility, but I think we all need to rest for a while. It's got to be late. Hard to tell down here, but my body's telling me it's time to sleep. Can't go off on a quest half exhausted, it will only make matters worse."
Gabrielle stood for a moment looking directly into Barillus' eyes. For a moment her impulse was to pull away and continue toward the tunnel, but he wasn't being patronizing. He was right. They all needed some rest before they could think straight and find a way out of this dungeon. She relaxed her stance and he relaxed his grip.
"Hope you don't mind sleeping on a few rocks?" He smiled as he released her arm.
Gabrielle half laughed, half cried as a flood of memories flashed through her mind at his comment. "No, no I'm sure I can get comfortable." She patted his arm as she walked back to Meneos. The others slowly wandered off to find their own spots of comfort for what they considered 'the night'.
Meneos, having appointed himself Gabrielle's temporary protector, put an arm around her shoulders. Since his mass greatly outweighed hers this simple act almost engulfed the entire girl. "Good now?" He questioned softly, bending down to look into her eyes. She returned a simple nod and squeezed the large hand on her shoulder with her small hand. "I'm fine." She whispered, trying more to convince herself than the man trying to comfort her.
"Meneos." Barillus called softly. "Can I see you a minute?"
Meneos looked down at his small charge. At her nod he smiled and left to join Barillus. Gabrielle made her way back to Daemon, who still rested against a large boulder. She lowered herself to the rock floor next to him. He slowly opened his eyes and gave her a weak smile. "Battle over?" He groaned as he tried to move into a more upright position.
"Huh?" Gabrielle looked at him confused for a moment. Then seeing his smile understood the humor in his question. "Oh, yeah. I guess. For now." She answered with a weak laugh.
"Well, pull up a rock and make yourself at home." Daemon continued to joke. "Sorry, I don't have much in the line of refreshment, but I really could use the company." He finished with his eyes closed and his head back against the granite wall.
Gabrielle returned the smile and rested her own head against the wall. She closed her eyes. For the first time in as long as she could remember she was afraid to sleep. She remembered the feeling she had as a child when noises of the night, eating one too many of mother's nut breads or stories of some terrible demon would keep her awake. On those nights she would close her eyes tight and think herself away. She would imagine herself somewhere else, somewhere light and safe, with people whom she loved, people who would protect her from that demon. Now she rested against the cave wall, eyes shut tight and thought herself away to the last day she and Xena had spent together. She imagined the sun and the warm summer breeze that tousled her hair. She imagined the shimmering lake she and her friend had cooled off in, taking time out of the day for a relaxing swim. She imagined their campsite that evening, her bedroll and the soft furs and blankets she nestled in to sleep. Slowly, as in years past, she comforted herself and the 'demons' disappeared. "Goodnight, Xena." She whispered to herself. "I'll see you soon. Don't worry too much." Her body relaxed as she drifted away into a restless sleep.
Barillus and Meneos walked to the farthest section of the large cavern, watching their companions until they were sure all had surrendered to Morpheus. "How bad is it?" Barillus spoke without looking at the man next to him.
Meneos answered knowing exactly what the young man wanted to know. "The boy is having lost much blood. He is being weak, is hard to be staying awake. He is being worst injury. Little missy is already feverish, yes. Not bad, but might be getting worse. Both are needing more attention than Meneos can be giving."
"How many water skins did you have?" Barillus needed to ask, but was not sure he wanted to know.
"Two full. One is being almost empty. Enough for two, maybe three days if being very careful not to be wasting. No food. Not finding any here. Must be finding way out soon, Barillus." Meneos stated simply.
The two men sat in an uncomfortable silence for a few moments, both deep in thought. "Can you care for Gabrielle and Daemon I mean help them to keep up? Make sure they're okay?"
"Meneos can do. What is being worry, young friend?"
"I'm concerned about Tristan and Gregor. They were not my best workers, always seemed to be in the middle of every argument. They're both short tempered, impatient and self serving." Barillus looked at the large man next to him. "They're not usually the ones to help others and in this situation we all need each other." Meneos nodded and placed a large hand on the younger man's shoulder.
"Be getting some rest young leader. Tomorrow is bringing many new challenges." He moved away slowly, gently patting Barillus' shoulder as he left.
"Yeah." Barillus crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the wall. He closed his eyes in a feeble attempt to rest. He knew he would not sleep that night.
The first light of dawn fell across Toris' brow wrestling him from sleep. He brought his arm across his eyes to block the sun, but had already begun to mentally go through the motions of waking. He sat up and ran his fingers through his dark hair turning to see if just this once he had risen before his sister. No such luck. Xena was nowhere to be found. Toris shook his head and rose slowly. He knew where to find her. He walked toward the mine wondering what he would say to her, but his thoughts were shaken when he did not find her there. He walked a few paces into the darkness not seeing nor hearing anything. "Xena?" He called quietly. "Now what!?" He silently cursed as he searched for a torch. "She probably waited until I fell asleep then started digging on her own. Why can't she just be " He didn't finish the thought, it was pointless. His sister had frustrated him her entire life. She would just never be what he expected a little sister to be, NEVER. He grabbed a torch and struck a flint to light it, cursing himself as well as his sister as he did.
"Starting without me, hum?" Toris jumped at his sister's stoic accusation dropping both the torch and the flint.
"What in Tartarus is wrong with you! Sneaking up on me. Can't you just for once tell a person where " Toris stopped short realizing Xena was not alone.
Xena stood a few feet from her brother, arms folded across her chest, with a silly smirk on her face. Behind her was Andreas, looking down at the pebbles near his feet in an effort to keep from laughing. "Andreas brought help and supplies from the village." Xena turned and walked back toward their campsite. Toris stormed after her stopping only to cast a warning glance at Andreas.
"All right, let's get things organized. We'll need a few of you to start cutting down " Toris stopped short noticing the group he was addressing.
Andreas shook his head at his boss's plight. "Let me introduce you to our 'crew'. This is Linaeus." He put a hand on the shoulder of a man who looked as if he had weathered at least 60 winters. He stood leaning on a staff. His hands seem to shake and his eyes were clouded. "Pleased to meet you sire." He said looking directly ahead, but not in Toris' direction. The man was blind and barely able to walk. 'Great.' Toris thought to himself. "And this," Andreas continued, "is his grandson, Nyran." Next to the aged man stood a young boy who could not have seen 12 summers. He was a lanky boy with dark eyes and dark hair that fell in soft waves over his ears. He smiled a wide toothy grin and reached out a hand to Toris. When Toris hesitated, a quick fierce glance from Xena, as she cleared her throat, brought his hand to the boy's. Toris was surprised at the youth's strength.
"Linaeus is Daemon's grandfather." Andreas added. "Nyran is his brother. They are the only people from the village that were willing to come out here. It seems this curse thing is worse than we thought. Even the village elders denied that they ever had anything to do with the mine."
"You mean no one else is coming!" Xena shouted. "This is it. We're supposed to take down a mountain with an old man and a little boy. What about the other men inside, have they no families? Isn't there anyone willing to help look for them?"
Andreas shook his head. "Tristan and Gregor just showed up here one day looking for work. I have no idea where they are from. Barillus keeps to himself mostly, never talks about his people "
"Well that's it then? It's as hopeless as I said yesterday! There is no way we are going to get through to them. We cannot get through that rock! We just can't." Toris growled, imitating his sister's tone as he shook his head. His blue eyes flashed with the anger she fought to contain in herself.
Xena drew a deep breath, closed her eyes, and thought about her young companion deep within the mountain. She clenched her fists to keep from taking her impatience out on the seasoned miner standing a few feet from her. 'Gabrielle would listen.' She silently told herself, but she could feel her blood begin to boil and knew she could not contain her anger much longer.
"We don't have to." Andreas calmly informed the incensed warrior and her raving brother.
"We don't have to! We don't have to! Yesterday, you were going to tear down that mountain with your bare hands and today 'we don't have to'!" Toris was livid. He threw his arms up into the air and stomped away from the group.
"I think you should listen to Linaeus, Toris." Andreas tried to calm him. "He may have the answer."
Toris threw an angry glance at Xena. She nodded slowly. "Fine." He sneered. "Let's hear it."
The old man cleared his throat and waved his hand in front of him. Nyran immediately caught his grandfather's arm and led him to a stump to sit down. When he was comfortable, Linaeus began.
Many years ago, when I was a young and foolish boy I chose to serve the goddess Hera. My parents dedicated me to her temple. It was a grand and glorious temple filled with the riches of kings who sought her favor. But the goddess was greedy and demanded more and more. When she was refused she sent death and destruction on the surrounding villages. Soon, she could not be appeased. She became insatiable. The people had nothing left to give. Many left, many died. The people revolted and tried to destroy the temple." The old man paused and closed his eyes reliving some horrid memory. Nyran reached out and squeezed his grandfather's hand. Linaeus grinned and patted the boy's hand. "The result was tragic. The temple was destroyed and so many died. Hera vented her rage on the survivors and cursed the land the temple stood upon saying that it would forever continue to take revenge on the people who betrayed her. She claimed the land as her own and vowed that anyone who dared to enter the ruins of her temple would belong to her for eternity."
For a few minutes no one spoke.
"That's a very interesting story, but I don't see how it helps us at all." Toris said without emotion.
"Only that the temple ruins are but a few miles from this place." Linaeus continued. "The temple was built into the side of the mountain and went underground to a great cavern. Only the most trusted of Hera's priests were given the knowledge of the way."
"And you were " Xena started to ask.
"I was. Hera took my sight in retribution, but she cannot take my memory and that young woman is as clear now as it was then. I allowed that to happen. I have seen this mountain take many lives throughout my lifetime. I will not sit by idly and allow my grandson to become one of its victims."
The distinct sounds of someone arguing slowly brought Gabrielle to wakefulness. She opened her eyes sluggishly and let them adjust to her dim surroundings. She realized she was resting her head on someone's shoulder and could feel the soft breathing of that person on her forehead. Apparently, someone was also resting on her. She tried to carefully move from this position, but found that brought a sudden sharp pain to her left arm, not to mention a low moan from her 'pillow'. 'Great.' She thought to herself. 'Now what do I do? This guy is gonna wake up and get the wrong idea. Boy, is he gonna get the wrong idea. How the heck did I get in this position anyway?' Actually, she knew the answer. She had fallen asleep thinking herself away from her fears and when she did that she always reached out to someone. As a child it had been her sister, Lila. These days the only person she could reach out for was that ornery warrior she chose to travel with. She decided that the straight forward approach was probably the best and gently pushed away from Daemon with her right hand. Besides, the argument that woke her seemed to be getting more intense and she had to know what was going on.
"Hmmm." Daemon moaned as he moved slowly away from his comfortable perch. "Just a little while longer."
"Shhh!" Gabrielle hushed him trying to hear the conversation more clearly. She nodded toward the group of men huddled on the opposite side of the cavern. Daemon squinted his eyes and listened.
"And I say we leave them! We can make better time if we're not dragging invalids with us."
"We all got here together and we'll get out together."
"We only have so much water and NO food, just how long do you think we'll last down here?"
"We're not leaving them!"
"Daemon's too weak to go anywhere and I'm not carrying him. The girl is useless, she can't climb with that arm. We'll have to pull her along as well! Meneos says she's feverish. How long before we have to carry her too?!"
"It doesn't matter! As long as they're drawing breath they're alive and we're all going together! End of discussion!" Barillus stood nose to nose with Tristan each silently daring the other to make the first move. Gregor stood close behind waiting for the fracas to begin.
"Not needing for to fight." Meneos stepped forward and pushed the men apart with one hand on each of their chests. "Meneos is taking care of young ones. Men are needing only to find the way. If is carrying young ones need, Meneos is plenty strong. Barillus is leading. Meneos is following. Meneos is bringing young ones." He smiled a wide smile but kept a watchful eye on both men until their tempers began to melt.
Daemon slowly pushed himself up the wall into a standing position and reached down to help Gabrielle to her feet. "Come on." He whispered.
"What are you doing?" Gabrielle demanded quietly, trying to hold Daemon up.
"Helping myself." He replied flatly. "Can't have them thinking we're helpless or hopeless, now can we?"
"Your head!" She exclaimed.
"Your arm." He returned. "Care to name any other body parts before we go? I don't walk on my head and you don't walk on your arm. I'm a little dizzy and you're a little warm, we'll make a great team." He smiled and took a shaky step forward. "So, ya coming or what?"
She paused for a moment then shook her head and moved to join him.
"Keep your direction into the rising run." The old man said turning to feel the early morning warmth on his weathered face. Nyran walked ahead of Xena who lead her horse at a pace slower than she liked. Andreas and Toris walked a few paces behind.
Linaeus sat atop Argo as the small group began the journey up the slope. There had been a brief argument over leaving Nyran behind.
"This is no place for a child!" Xena barked. "You're staying behind!"
"No way." Nyran smirked in the way only a pre-adolescent can. The look was a mixture of pure defiance and innocent rascality, a look Xena was somewhat accustomed to. The familiarity amused, infuriated and saddened her all at once. She bent to the boy's level and came very close to his face.
"I'm not someone you want to disobey." She stated evenly and a deep harsh voice. The boy blinked twice but held his ground. Toris shook his head contemplating the boy's fate should he choose to push the issue.
"I I'm not." Nyran inhaled and swallowed hard, but kept eye contact with the warrior a few inches from his face. "It's just " His voice was squeaky, but even. Xena raised an eyebrow giving the child 'the look'. "It's just that I know the way." His weak smile widened as the warrior stood back and studied him. "I do, really. Daemon and I found it a long time ago." He smiled again.
Xena shook her head and pursed her lips. Everyone held their breath in anticipation of the warrior's explosion of temper. She exhaled deeply. "Fine!" She turned sweeping an arm toward the sun. "Lead the way!"
The boy scampered up the gradual incline following a trail that only a young boy could see. It was apparent to Xena that the boy had been this way many times. Although he sometimes disappeared from her sight, her keen sense of hearing and his lack of stealth made tracking him quite simple. Throughout the trek Linaeus continued his story. Xena divided her listening skills between the old storyteller and the young pathfinder.
"Within the temple ruins lies the gateway to the chamber. You must follow the passageway into the bowels of the ruin. There you will find the river of black water, whatever your thirst you must not drink for one sip will bring a painful death. The mist that rises from this river is caustic and wrings tears from the eyes of those who dare to cross its depths. You must stay close to the cave wall and slide along the rim of the bank until you reach a bend in the rock face. There you must take a leap of faith, for there is the only place the rim is wide enough and the only place the river is narrow enough for you to do so."
Xena rolled her eyes. 'Of course it couldn't be easy, could it?' She thought to herself.
"On the opposite side you will find the Well of Diminution you will understand its purpose as you arrive but, from there you must follow the narrow tunnel to the Chamber of Temptation and Destruction."
Xena stopped. "Oh, so it does get better." She heard the old man chuckle as he started again.
"The chamber is where Hera punished the unfaithful as well as stored her treasures. Here you will find carnage as well as opulence. What remains of the sacrificed mortals lies among the tribute of the faithful. Here you must neither touch nor desire the riches you see, for those tortured souls are doomed to protect the wealth. If you so much as admire a jewel or a tap a coin, you will become part of the assemblage. You will suffer the same fate of those who lie amid that atrocity."
Xena had seen enough carnage in her warrior years to haunt her for all eternity. She closed her eyes at the flash of memories, so many dead, so much blood and all on her hands. Immediately she forced the thought from her mind replacing it with the only treasure she sought in that deathtrap. The treasure of the true friendship and unconditional love of that annoying little chatterbox she had become very attached to over the past few years.
"I sense, warrior, a bit of apprehension?" The old man queried.
"What's next?" Xena asked ignoring his question and catching a glimpse of Nyran skirting around the edge of a large copse of gnarled oaks. The boy stopped and turned, making sure the group was still following.
"You will find two pillars, the color of pitch at the farthest end of the tomb. Pass beneath and feel your way through the darkness. The way winds downward, mind your footing if you should slip you will be forever lost in the core of the mountain. At the bottom of this path again you must stay close to the rock face on the perimeter of the chasm until you reach the great cavern. If your friends and my grandson have survived, that is where you will find them."
As Xena and Linaeus rounded the copse of trees, Toris stepped up to join his sister. He and Andreas had been following close enough to hear all of Linaeus' story. Xena scanned the tree line for Nyran and caught a quick glimpse of him scurrying over a large flat stone. The boy was at least 200 paces ahead of the group.
"Xena?" Toris began. "This sounds even worse than digging through that mountain. Are you sure "
"I am." Xena answered before Toris could finish. "I understand if you're not willing to come with me, Toris. Someone will have to stay with Linaeus."
Toris was insulted and defensive. "We will go together."
Xena smiled and picked up the pace in order to catch up to their young scout. She could feel they were very close.
Gabrielle and Daemon slowly made their way to the group of men. Daemon made a valiant effort not to lean on the young girl, although he was having a hard time keeping his balance and his line of vision. Gabrielle tried to be helpful, without being too obvious. This, of course, was a learned skill. Many times she had to help her proud warrior friend, without being detected by the general public or the warrior herself.
"I am quite capable of getting myself out of here! I don't need a babysitter!" Daemon announced with forced strength as he approached the group. "In fact, neither of us are children and both of us are able to do whatever is needed to find a way out. Right, Gabrielle?" The young man emphasized his question by placing a hand on the bard's shoulder. She could tell by the unusual amount of pressure that it was more for balance than for her encouragement.
"Yes, YES we are!" She nodded in an effort to keep her shoulders even and hold up the young miner next to her without letting the men in front of them know his actual condition.
For a few minutes no one spoke, then Meneos came to the rescue. "Is settled, yes. Young ones are being fine. All are going to find the surface together, yes?" Barillus smiled and reached out a hand to Daemon, who took it and shook it with strained force. The mine foreman understood and nodded to the young man. Tristan and Gregor shook their heads, but held their tongues knowing that time would reveal the true nature of the youths' conditions.
"We might as well get started." Tristan mumbled turning toward the gaping hole in the rock face to his left. Gregor eyed the group for a few seconds before grabbing the torch and joining his cohort. Barillus followed carrying the water pouches. Meneos swung his arm out in front of him gesturing Gabrielle and Daemon to go ahead, then moved to bring up the end of the small group.
The group made its way slowly and silently through the dimly lit passageway, each keenly aware of the danger surrounding them. Daemon stumbled more than a few times and was soon leaning on Meneos for support. It was easier to walk with his eyes closed anyway, that way the world stopped spinning and at least he could keep going. Gabrielle wondered how she could be so cold and still be sweating so heavily. She wiped the moisture from her brow with the back of her good arm and squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. She sincerely hoped the queasy feeling in her stomach was from the fact she hadn't eaten in a day. Barillus glanced back over his shoulder to check on those behind. Tristan and Gregor traded noxious smiles as they continued to lead the way.
Minutes later Tristan came to an abrupt stop, so abrupt that Gregor could not help stumbling into him. Both men teetered forward narrowly catching their balance as Barillus stepped ahead in time to see the look of terror on both faces. Their eyes were wide, mouths open and skin pale. Neither man made an effort to speak, only looked blankly ahead. Barillus moved closer to the men and saw what froze them in their tracks.
Nyran had once again disappeared into the heavy brush and for a few minutes the group came to a stand still. Xena stood a few paces ahead listening. The brush rustled a bit before a very self-satisfied boy burst into their midst. "Come on!" he shouted. "It's right over here! Hurry up!" He waved a hand in the direction he wanted them to follow and quickly dove back into the dense foliage.
Xena drew her sword and began hacking her way through the undergrowth. Toris pushed the larger branches aside. Andreas followed behind leading Argo and Linaeus. It had taken most of the day to climb the mountain. When the midday sun was at its worst more than once the group had to stop to rest and refresh their thirst. Nyran had to be ordered to stop, his youthful exuberance pushing him to dangerous extremes. Linaeus' age was against him. The unrelenting sun had at one point become too much for the elderly priest and the group was forced to seek a cool shaded spot to rest. Now, late in the day the sun had begun its slow descent and Xena knew another night would pass before she could rescue Gabrielle from the mountain tomb. She silently prayed for the bard's safety and began to work at clearing the brush with more effort. Toris noticed his sister's renewed vigor and shook his head. 'She just never gives up,' he sighed as he stepped up his own exertion to match hers.
As the last of the brush fell away Xena stepped into a large clearing. "Finally!" Nyran exclaimed. "Here it is! I told you I could find it, didn't I?" The boy stood proud with his hands on his hips, smiling from ear to ear.
Xena returned the smile as she sheathed her sword and gave the boy's shoulder a friendly pat. She walked around him and stood in the middle of the clearing. Toris moved from the brush and joined her. He let out a long sigh as he took in the sight before him.
Large marble pillars lay in pieces covered by years' growth of vines and bracken. Large stones bleached white by the sun were piled in what may have been a staircase now littered with dead leaves and the small bones of some larger predator's late night meal. An enormous statue of a peacock, symbol of the queen of the gods, stood at the top of the staircase. It was split down the center with either half pitched at a strange angle giving the impression it was waiting with open arms for anyone who dared climb those steps. The head of the great bird rested on the left half and the last rays of the setting sun reflected off a large green stone set in what was once its mighty eye. Thick undergrowth and ancient arbors surrounded the area making it almost impossible to find. Vines grew and entangled almost every inch of the area in some places growing to the size of a man's leg and in others as tiny as a blade of grass. Between the rubble and the growth were strewn precious stones of every possible color and size. Xena turned toward Linaeus, "Where's the entrance?"
The old man slid off the large horse and stood for a moment trying to get his bearings. He turned until he could feel the warmth of the setting sun on his face. Even without sight he knew the giant peacock was directly behind him. He turned slowly and pointed straight ahead. "There. You will find the entrance there, behind the great seal." Everyone's gaze turned toward the shattered avis at the top of the crumbling staircase, but it was Nyran who made the first move. The boy turned and sprinted toward the object his grandfather pointed to. A low grumble rolled under the clearing almost making the ground beneath their feet quiver and ripple. It wasn't like the rumble in the mine the morning before, but more like the feeling of a large beast moving under a carpet and it was slithering in same direction Linaeus directed. Toris grabbed the old man as he staggered forward. "They know we're here." He whispered into Toris ear. Suddenly, several small whirlwinds formed throwing dust and debris toward the small group, effectively blinding them. Nyran stopped half way up the incline and turned to the adults below, "Come on ." He started to call, but stopped when he saw what was happening below. The boy's eyes grew wide as he watched the rippling turf racing toward him. Whether fascinated or frozen with fear, Nyran stood planted on the stair. Argo whinnied and reared, striking out with her forelegs. Andreas struggled to hold the frightened animal. Toris raised his hands to shield his eyes from the stinging particles that assaulted him. Xena blinked away burning tears and tried to clear her vision. She began running toward the boy, bolting into the air when she reached the foot of the stairs. Nyran watched as she smoothly flipped up and over the rubble and landed effortlessly directly along side of him. Before the boy could draw a breath, Xena let loose her chakrum. The weapon bounced off a broken pillar with a sharp ping then smashed into the great green eye of the peacock shattering it into thousands of small green sparkles that scattered into the air and were caught in the building wind. For a few seconds before they disappeared completely they swirled around the clearing. Then just as suddenly as the attack of nature began, it ended.
Xena smiled down at the wide-eyed child holding tightly to her hand. Nyran snapped his mouth shut, but could not take his eyes off the round weapon in the warrior's other hand. He didn't see her catch it, he didn't even see it return. Andreas and Toris were quickly climbing the steps. Linaeus held the reins of the now calm war horse, nervously waiting for word that his young grandson was safe.
"And that's why it's not such a good idea to go racing into something before you know what's waiting for you." Xena verbally chastised the boy.
"Uh?" Nyran replied still amazed by all that had happened. Xena squeezed his hand and shook it. The boy looked up into her eyes realizing, for the first time, he was holding her hand. A deep flush warmed his cheeks and he quickly pulled away. "Yeah yeah okay no more racing." He swallowed hard and watched the two men approaching them.
"Don't worry," Xena assured him, "I won't say a word." She gave him a quick wink and a smile. The boy smiled back understanding that the warrior would not tell the others just how frightened she thought he was or that he was holding her hand. He smiled suddenly thinking about the story he could tell the other boys back in the village.
"What in Tartarus was that?" Toris asked between breaths as he reached his sister. "And how did you know knocking out that thing's eye would get rid of it?" He stood bent over with his hands on his knees trying to catch his breath.
"I didn't." Xena replied dryly. "But, it was worth the risk." Toris took a deep breath and cast her a sideways glance wondering if there was a double meaning to that answer. For a moment they locked glares before Xena turned and began to ascend the remaining steps to the great seal.
Toris stood up straight and turned to Andreas, "Maybe you should take Nyran down to his grandfather and start setting up camp. It'll be dark soon. I don't think we'll accomplish much more today." Andreas nodded and put a hand on Nyran's shoulder. Before the boy could protest Andreas began explaining what he needed him to do in order to set up camp. As he did so he steered the boy down the steps toward his waiting grandfather. Toris watched them for a few seconds then turned to join his sister who had reached the apex of the great stone staircase. He reached her just as she stepped behind the right half of the broken peacock to examine the entrance of the temple.
"You don't have to do this Toris." She stated indifferently without looking at her brother. She moved her fingers along the edge of the temple door. Like everything else it was well covered with years of plant growth, but she could make out the indentation of a doorframe. Her sword would make short work of the vines, but before she had a chance to draw it she was suddenly and gruffly spun around.
"Look!" Toris shouted, finally losing what was left of his short temper. "You've been telling me I don't have to do this, since we started and I've had it Xena!" He stopped for a moment and stepped back wondering whether the glare in his kid sister's eyes was surprise or rage, but then again he didn't really care. He was going to finish this once and for all. He stepped forward again, meeting Xena eye to eye. "Stop telling ME what I should or shouldn't do! I can make that decision myself!" He shot at her through clenched teeth. Xena said nothing, but her breath came in quick heavy puffs and he could see by the set of her jaw that she too was clenching her teeth. "You're never going to forgive me are you? NO, not you. That's not in your nature is it, Warrior Princess?! You've been running around these last few years changing YOUR life, trying to redeem YOUR past, but you can't seem to see that I might want to do the same thing! Well, maybe you haven't changed as much as you think you have, Xena! You never forgave me for anything, why would you start now!" There, he said it, finally got it off his chest. He turned away from her trying to calm his own rage. Now it was his breath that came in quick puffs as he bit his lower lip, clenched his fists, and shifted his weight from foot to foot.
"Toris." Xena's voice was soft behind him. She reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder. He shook it off, still battling with his own anger. "I I'm I guess I well "
Toris turned to face his sister. "You what? You want to make sure I won't run? You want to remind me of what I am responsible for? You want to tell me again that I don't have to do this. What? What, Xena, just WHAT is it you want to say?" He demanded.
Xena saw herself in her brother's anger and pain. How many times had she tried to explain her actions? How many times had she tried so hard to show people she had changed only to be accused of being the monster she had been? Even her own mother had not believed she could change, until until Gabrielle had made them listen. Gabrielle had always been there to explain, to calm the fears of those who still saw the beast within her. So many times the bard had convinced the warrior to believe in herself. "Toris." Xena tried again stepping toward him. "Toris, you're right."
He opened his mouth to continue and stopped, staring at her. In all the years since Xena had been old enough to speak, almost every word between them had been in anger or torment. So many times Cyrene had made them apologize to each other, but neither ever really meant it. Never, in all those years had Xena ever given in, never said he was right. He turned his head and glared at her sideways but saw no deception in his sister's eyes. She was being sincere, not teasing, not taunting, not patronizing. Again she placed her hand on his shoulder. This time he allowed her to do so.
"I'm sorry, Toris. I my mind has been on other things and I haven't been treating you very " Her voice trailed off, some things were just too difficult to explain and she wasn't much for words anyway.
Toris put his hand over Xena's. "I'm sorry too. Sorry for now and sorry for then." Xena shook her head and started to speak, but Toris interjected. "No, let me finish Thirteen years ago I let you down. I ran. Maybe if I had stayed and fought maybe if I wasn't such a coward "
"Toris, don't " Xena tried to stop him not wanting to relive suppressed memories. She put her fingers to his lips, but he gently removed them.
"I know how much you loved Lyceus, Xena. I always envied what you had, that closeness. I guess I always treated you both the way I did because I was so jealous, because neither of you had room for me. But, I never meant for him to die. Believe me Xena, I never meant for that to happen. Maybe, if I stayed it would have been me and everything would be different. I wasn't there for you - either of you and for that I was the cause of my only brother's death. I know how much Lyceus meant to you then and I know how much Gabrielle means to you now, Xena. I know it was Lyceus that kept you in check so long ago and it's this young girl who has not taken his place, but filled that empty space in your heart. I realized that two years ago when we met. I saw that same look in your eyes. The one you always had for Lyceus. That same fierce big sister protector spirit in your voice. I wasn't there to save Lyceus and I lost both of you. Maybe, if I can save Gabrielle I can can I let you down then. I won't do it now. If I have to I will give my own life this time. I swear by the gods Xena, I will not let you down." Toris finished as a single tear escaped and rolled down his cheek.
Xena wiped the tear from her brother's face without realizing her own tears. "Toris, do you think for one minute that I wouldn't have avenged your death with the same vengeance?"
"We both know the answer to that question, Xena." He smiled and shook his head. "If Lyceus had lived you would be a different person."
Xena paused for a moment remembering that glimpse of reality the fates had given her. "We can't change what was, Toris, but we can make the best of what is."
Toris laughed weakly at his sister's attempt at philosophy, "Where'd you hear that?"
"Oh, a little bard told me." Xena smiled back then turned toward the temple entrance. "We'll have to get these vines cleared away before we can get to the door."
Toris looked toward the sun. "We have a bit of light left, we might as well get started." He drew the sword he had been carrying and stepped toward the overgrowth. Xena, in turn, drew her own sword and the siblings began hacking the vines away from the door.
Barillus stood at the edge of a gaping chasm and looked into its infinite blackness. Tristan's torch had fallen from his grip as he teetered at the edge and it was swept away into the dark hole. The three men listened to hear it hit bottom. The sound never reached their ears. It gave all three an eerie feeling of something incomplete, unfinished...endless. They were still peering into the emptiness when Meneos and the others approached them. Barillus put out a hand to stop them at a safe distance.
"Stop! Daemon, stay back! Gabrielle you too, stay where you are! Meneos, I need you be careful."
Without the torch Barillus, Tristan, and Gregor were invisible in the darkness. The slightest bump by the approaching group could send them all into the unknown. Meneos stretched the torch in his hand forward in an effort to see the danger ahead. He helped Daemon to the ground and turned to Gabrielle, who was a few steps behind. "Meneos is needing to help Barillus, yes. Little missy now is needing to tend to young miner. Safe here. Stay. Meneos is needing to take light to Barillus, young ones will be seeing much dark. Stay. Meneos is coming back soon." He gently pushed Gabrielle to the ground next to Daemon, noticing the heat radiating from the girl. Gabrielle understood. She sank down next to the young miner, grateful for the time to rest. She leaned close to Daemon and let him rest his head against her good shoulder.
"How ya doing bard?" He half smiled, half grimaced at her. "Better than you, it seems." She replied, realizing he had already dozed off. She'd wake him in a few minutes. Xena had told her over and over that in the event of a head injury it was important to keep waking the person to check their judgement and awareness. But now her arm hurt more than she cared to admit. She was cold, hungry, tired, and sore. Earlier she discovered the damage done to her face in the fall she taken the morning before. Apparently she landed on her left side, even more apparent she must have skidded to a halt on her left cheek. She could feel the raw skin from just above her left eye along her cheekbone and ending on her jaw just short of her chin. 'I must look like Tartarus.' She thought when she discovered the abrasion. 'Xena's gonna love this. She'll be mothering me for days.' As long as she thought that way, there was hope. She leaned against the young man next to her and closed her eyes listening to his raspy breathing. She did not yet know that hope had just dropped into a pitch-black abyss.
Meneos moved slowly to the edge and looked into the darkness below. Barillus stood at his elbow, shaking his head. "We didn't hear the torch hit the ground and we can't see the other side. We don't know how deep or how wide it is." Meneos bent down and picked up an egg sized rock. He hurled it straight ahead into the black nothingness. Again the men waited to hear it connect to anything. Again they heard nothing. Barillus shook his head. Tristan and Gregor shuffled their feet and grumbled their disappointment inaudibly. Meneos moved slowly to his left until his outstretched hand made contact with solid rock. He carefully leaned forward and felt the rock jutting out over the gap. The others watched him intently. The large man turned and retraced his steps back to Barillus then passed him and continued to the right, slowly dragging his bare feet across the rocky floor of the cavern. His progress continued along a precarious ledge that seemed to skirt the edge of the chasm. He followed it until he came to a sharp turn, then reversed his direction and slowly made his way back to the small group.
"Meneos is finding a path no a shelf that is going around this dark place. Is wide enough for maybe two men to be fitting across, but perhaps not being safe, no?"
The men looked at him, no one wanting to ask the next question.
"Meneos is not knowing how far shelf is going. Not knowing where shelf is going. Safe it is not. Hard it is being, but escape it is, yes?" Meneos smiled his encouragement to the men and his golden tooth sparkled in the light of the small torch.
"We've only got one torch left. We'll have to stay close together. We can only move as quickly as our slowest people, so that means we ALL help Daemon and Gabrielle." Barillus said, directing the last of the statement to Tristan and Gregor. Neither man argued, but cast sinister glances at each other both understanding the other's intent. Barillus took the torch from Meneos and turned away from the chasm. Meneos placed a weighty hand on each of the others' backs and urged them in the same direction.
Barillus approached the sleeping youths cautiously. In the dim light it was possible to pass them or stumble on top of them causing more injuries. When he was close enough he stooped down and gently touched Gabrielle's cheek startling the girl awake.
The bard's eyes sprang open wide as she jumped up straight. The twilight sleep she had fallen into had left her temporarily unaware of her surroundings or situation. She stared at the miner with fear filled eyes, pressing herself tightly against the rocks at her back. The small flickering torch distorted the image before her and in that fuzzy place between dozing and waking she placed the men before her into the shadowy memory of a disturbing dream. Her heart pounded in her chest, something told her the warrior princess was not close. She raised her right hand in front of her in a half-hearted attempted at defense.
Barillus recognized her confusion and backed away slightly. "Gabrielle. Gabrielle, it's me Barillus." He spoke in a gentle reassuring tone and watched as the girl became fully awake and aware of her surroundings. For a moment he hoped the flush in her cheeks was due to her embarrassment, but he knew all too well that the girl was raging with fever due to her broken limb. "Come on, Gabrielle, it's time to go." He reached a hand toward her. She smiled weakly, finally aware, and expelled a small laugh as she took it and allowed him to help her to her feet.
"I I guess I dozed off a little." She turned and looked back at Daemon. "I guess we both did. Daemon Daemon." She attempted to wake the young man who was still on the rock floor. He did not respond to her voice. "Daemon?" She repeated moving closer to him, only to be stopped by a strong hand.
Barillus reached out and gently shook the miner's shoulder, but also got no response. He glanced quickly at Gabrielle then back to the young man. "Come on, Daemon. Wake up!" He shook him again, with slightly more force. Still Daemon made no sign of waking.
"He's dead." Tristan announced without emotion standing directly behind Barillus arms folded across his chest. "No loss just one less invalid to worry about." He said to Gregor who had moved in for a closer look.
Meneos placed a hand on either of their shoulders and moved them apart with little effort as he stepped forward to examine the young man. He squatted down next to Barillus and placed his hand close to Daemon's mouth and nose. Putting one knee on the ground he rested his ear against the young miner's chest. After a few seconds he sat back and rested his elbow on his knee. Barillus and Gabrielle held their breath in anticipation. "Young miner is not being dead, just not being with us for now. Perhaps is better for him, yes?" He smiled at Barillus.
"Perhaps." Barillus smiled back placing a hand on the gentle giant's shoulder then stood. Gabrielle sighed with relief.
Tristan's sigh was of disgust. "Better for him, perhaps, but what about the rest of us? How are we supposed to get around that ledge dragging a half dead kid?" He demanded stepping closer to Barillus. Meneos had also risen and helped Gabrielle to her feet. He stood with a protective arm around the girl's shoulders, placing himself directly in front of Daemon. Tristan cast a baleful glance at the girl. "It's bad enough we have to cater to the princess here! She's only good for one thing! I say " Tristan never finished the statement. Barillus had him by the throat and against the cold granite wall.
Meneos held Gabrielle in place as she instinctively moved to join the fracas, with his free hand he grabbed the collar of Gregor's shirt as he moved to do the same. Barillus used every ounce of his strength, out of anger, fear and desperation to lift Tristan off the ground still holding him against the wall. He moved close enough to Tristan that the others would not hear his warning. He spoke with cold calculation through clenched teeth. "I've had just about all I can take from you and your friend, Tristan. Now you listen to me and you listen good! I am in charge here! I make the rules! You keep your sickening comments to yourself and your greasy hands off that girl!" He emphasized the last remark with a hard shake to Tristan's neck. "If I have to deal with your attitude again, I will personally crack your empty head against this rock," he thumped the man's head back to drive home his point, "and leave you to whatever dark demons dwell in the emptiness of that pit! Understand?" Barillus waited for an answer. Tristan merely stared. "I asked you a question. Do you understand?" He squeezed the man's neck tighter and pressed him even closer to the wall. Tristan nodded slightly. Barillus loosened his grip and patted the man on the cheek. "Good." He slowly removed his hand from Tristan's neck and let him down on to the floor. Tristan's hands immediately went to his throat as he began to cough and sputter. Barillus started to turn away then swiftly turned back and landed a strong punch in the man's midsection effectively bringing Tristan to his knees. "Just so you don't forget." He then turned and walked away. Tristan was down on his hands and knees with his forehead almost to the ground, still coughing profusely. Meneos released Gregor to go to his aid and the two men met a few paces from the fallen Tristan. "You want some of this?" Barillus threatened, still hot with anger. Gregor put up his palms and shook his head backing around Barillus and hurrying to help his friend.
Barillus walked past Meneos and Gabrielle. He rested a hand on the cold wall and breathed deeply, collecting himself. Gabrielle recognized the posture and gave the man his space. Apparently, Meneos was also aware of what Barillus was feeling. For a few minutes no one said anything and the only sound in the large cavern was that of Tristan trying to catch his breath.
"We need to start moving." Barillus stated turning back toward the group. " There is no way to make a litter, we can take turns carrying Daemon."
'That's right.' Gabrielle thought, 'just go on as if it never happened.'
"No." Meneos stated flatly. "Meneos is being plenty strong. Meneos is saying he will take care of young ones and Meneos is doing that. Barillus is needing to lead group to light, cannot be carrying young man and watching others. Little missy is being too small and too weak and dark ones are not being trusted. Meneos is being the one to carry boy, no?" He slid the ragged shirt off his large frame revealing a great leather halter beneath that crisscrossed his chest and back coming together with a large metal circle at the vortex. Gabrielle immediately thought of the halters worn by every centaur she'd ever met. Meneos removed the great piece of armor with practiced ease. The familiar sounds of metal clasps and leather bindings being undone brought a hint of sadness to the girl who watched the giant with confused fascination. For a few minutes Meneos tinkered and readjusted the leather and bronze apparatus, holding it out every so often to examine his work. When he was satisfied he smiled and winked at Gabrielle. "Is being a great burden sometimes to wear such a piece, but sometimes is being good thing to have, yes?" He held his masterpiece out to the girl. Gabrielle raised an eyebrow in a silent gesture of not understanding. Meneos laughed. "First leather is being a halter, now is being a harness." He shook the piece again. The girl shook her head, still unsure.
Barillus, who had been standing nearby watching the man work, moved forward. "I think what Meneos is saying is that he's made something to help him carry our friend Daemon." Meneos nodded and smiled again. He slipped back into his ragged shirt then reached down and lifted Daemon from the ground with very little effort. The young man let out a low moan. "Hmm, is not being so far away after all, no?" He commented gently to him. "Barillus, Meneos is needing your help." Barillus understood what Gabrielle did not. Within minutes the two men had secured Daemon's limp form to Meneos broad back using the readjusted leather halter. The wide belts were now fixed sideways acting as a great sling, allowing Meneos full use of his arms and hands. He shrugged the young man into a comfortable position and chuckled when he felt Daemon do the same. The giant took a few steps testing the new weight and after feeling comfortable with it turned to his companions. "Now is being time to start again, yes?"
"Yes," agreed Barillus. He turned to check on the two temporarily ostracized members of the group. Tristan had regained his aggressive demeanor and Gregor was at his side. "Time we all got started again." He took the lead holding the dimming torch. Meneos stepped back allowing the gruesome pair to pass, then reached back and took Gabrielle's hand leading her toward the great pit and the ledge that skirted its perimeter.
Xena and Toris had hacked away at the unforgiving brush until they lost the daylight. Not nearly through the brush to the door they were forced to turn back and find their way to the small campsite in the center of the clearing. Luckily, Andreas had never been a warrior or a soldier and had never learned the trick of keeping the fire small and inconspicuous. The fire below was large and served as a beacon in the darkness leading the siblings safely to the site. Andreas was however a fine hunter and an even better cook. The group shared a well-prepared evening meal then settled in for the night. Andreas volunteered to take the first watch, being a little too jumpy in the eerie clearing to rest let alone to sleep. Toris spread his blanket on the ground and lay back staring at the starless sky. Xena did what she always did to relax and think. She found her sharpening stone and set to work on her sword. The slow rhythmic strokes lulling both the warrior and her brother into cautious contemplation. Nyran also spread a blanket near the fire for himself and his grandfather. The boy helped the old man to get comfortable then laid down next to him and fell into an exhausted sleep.
Xena looked at the small crew that surrounded her. She stifled a small laugh. This was a far cry from yesterday, when her army would have filled this small clearing and most of the hillside. She closed her eyes and remembered the tents, the banners, the fires, the low banter among the men as they settled in for the night. Although she had no regrets for leaving that life behind, she almost wished for the multitude of men to help in this new quest. Another memory slowly overtook this one, a memory of just herself and Gabrielle at their last campsite. A memory of the bard's light laughter over some sarcastic remark she had made. A memory of her soft sleeping noises from across the small campsite. Xena shook off this memory as well as the other, she would not sleep this night. These memories were threatening to become dreams, or more than likely nightmares. No, she would not sleep. Andreas would come for her soon to take the second watch, she would let Toris sleep, and keep watch on the small group until dawn. She turned and looked toward the crumbling staircase straining to see the entrance through the inky blackness. Xena was not a praying person, in her whole life she could remember only a few times she turned to the gods for help, but now she silently invoked any god who looked after the innocent to watch over Gabrielle for just one more night. Tomorrow, tomorrow she would enter that temple and find whatever waited for her there. One way or another she would bring the bard home. She put away the sharpening stone and rose to find Andreas. She would take over the watch now, better than to sit here any longer drowning in her own thoughts.
"XE-NA!" The insistent tone in her brother's voice broke the warrior's concentration. She jumped drawing her sword in one movement. The sun was just peeking over the horizon and through its pink morning light she sensed someone coming toward her. She dropped from the tree where she had been keeping watch into the path of the oncoming threat almost impaling Toris as he raced toward her.
Xena stepped aside at the last moment pushing her brother away and to the ground. She sheathed her sword, shook her head and reached down to help him up. "What is it, Toris?" She asked sarcastically.
Toris stared for a moment then took her hand. He rose and brushed himself off, indignantly. "You were supposed to wake me!" He barked.
"That's it? You're bellowing and crashing around making enough noise to wake the dead because I didn't wake you?" Xena huffed with disgust and walked back toward camp. Toris stood and watched her. "I did it on purpose, you know..." she remarked casually without turning around, she knew the look he was giving her. He took the bait, hurrying to catch up and then confront her. He stood in her path ready to vent all of his unspent anger. She stopped and crossed her arms over her chest, almost daring him to start but before he could she simply stated, "You owe me brother. I took your watch last night. You'll be taking mine tonight. I will have my hands filled with other matters." Toris' mouth snapped shut, his eyes narrowed. "Now, if you're quite finished we have work to do." She stepped around Toris and walked away. "Coming?" She asked over her shoulder. He shook his head, threw up his hands and followed.
The small group assembled in front of the thick stone door. Xena, Toris and Andreas continued to clean away years of plant growth, rumble, and debris. Nyran made sure they had plenty of water to quench their thirst and keep up their strength. By noon they had cleared away enough growth that the door was clearly visible. It seemed to be one complete wall of stone set apart from the rest of the rock only by a barely visible indentation that ran around its edge. It was at least a head taller than the warrior and her brother and as wide as the three workers standing shoulder to shoulder. Yes, it was definitely a big door and it had no apparent means of being opened. Toris and Andreas sat back against the large boulders surrounding the doorway. Xena stood in front of it, hands on her hips. Andreas wiped the sweat from his brow, "maybe we should look for another one of those green stones." Toris smiled and shook his head.
Xena was not amused nor was she listening, she made no response. She moved forward and ran her fingers around the edge of the door. It was completely sealed no air escaped through any crack. Behind her she could hear the old man shuffling toward the door. Nyran held his grandfather's arm and guided him. Linaeus moved around the warrior and repeated her actions, tracing the door with his own fingertips. "Yes," he whispered. "Yes, this is the way. This is the beginning. You must remember everything I have told you warrior, the safety of those below -- as well as we above -- rests with you." For a moment it seemed that his colorless eyes could see through to her soul. Slowly, the old priest reached under his cloak and brought out a large dagger, wrought of the finest gold. Its hilt was of pure ebony and decorated with dazzling green jewels. "Hera is of the most blood thirsty." He announced. "She demands absolute loyalty of her minions. She accepts nothing less than a blood oath." He raised the knife above his head. Nyran gasped. Toris and Andreas leapt to their feet and Xena reached to stop the weapon's descent.
Linaeus moved with speed uncommon for a man his age bringing the knife down quickly and cleanly slicing a deep gash across the palm of his right hand. "Grandfather!" Nyran shrieked. The knife dropped to the ground with a clang. Toris grabbed the boy, before he could move closer holding him from behind by his upper arms. Nyran struggled to free himself to go to his injured grandfather. Andreas stooped to pick up the weapon 'damned green stones' he thought to himself as he turned it over in his hands. Xena grabbed the man's wrist and immediately began to apply pressure in an effort to stop the bleeding. "NO, warrior." Linaeus pulled away. "It is necessary." He turned and placed his bloodied hand on the center of the large door. He leaned forward resting his left hand across his chest and quietly chanted in a long forgotten language. The blood from his hand soon ran in long streams down the door and onto the rock base. The man began to slump forward, but maintained his contact with the stone. Xena moved toward him knowing he would not remain upright much longer. She was right. He suddenly stood bolt straight shouting the last of his strange supplication then fell back into the warrior's strong arms. She gently lowered him to the ground. Nyran could no longer be held. He broke free of Toris' grip and ran to his grandfather's side. Tears streaked the young boy's face as he knelt at Linaeus side.
"Toris!" Xena barked to her brother. "Bring the water and get me something to bind this wound!" She reached for the old man's hand in order to examine the damage he had inflicted on himself. She wasn't sure her healing skills would be enough to repair the injury. She was sure Linaeus had cut himself to the bone. His skin was cold and pale, she could barely hear his shallow breathing. Nyran looked from his grandfather's ashen face to the worried face of the warrior. Slowly she turned over the injured hand and stifled a gasp but could not help the quick wave of shock that overtook her. Nyran gasped aloud as Toris arrived with the needed supplies.
The man's hand was completely healed. There was no trace of injury, no mark, no scar. The palm of Linaeus' hand was pink, soft and warm. Slowly the old man took a long deep breath and his eyes fluttered open. Nyran sobbed again and fell onto Linaeus' chest hugging him tightly. The boy's words were lost in the folds of his grandfather's cloak. Linaeus stroked Nyran's head and smiled up at the warrior he knew was close by.
Startled by Andreas' voice, Xena and Toris quickly looked in the direction he was pointing. Tiny tendrils of smoke were seeping from the edge of the large stone door. Andreas was already backing away. Toris pulled Nyran off of his grandfather as Xena lifted the man to his feet. They backed away looking for protection from the impending explosion. A low hissing noise began coming from the area as the smoke continued and both increased in volume. Soon the sound was overwhelming and the small group stopped in their tracks sinking to their knees. Everyone's hands went to their ears and just when they were sure they could take no more, the sound and the smoke abruptly stopped. Slowly Xena rose and started toward the door. Toris followed. Andreas moved to care for Linaeus, who had not regained his strength. Nyran stayed close to his grandfather.
The warrior and her brother approached the door with caution, feeling the heat circulating in the still air. There was a strange smell that Xena could only compare to bad eggs (only worse). Toris' hand went to his nose, but he followed his sister's lead. She reached toward the door expecting it to be hot to the touch, but found it's surface quite cold. The edge, however, was no longer sealed solidly. She could see the deep crack now surrounding the door. It was wide enough to pass her hand inside. Toris reached out, touched the door and felt it give slightly under the pressure. He quickly glanced at Xena and she at him. He shrugged his shoulders and pushed a little harder. Again the door moved easily. He placed both hands on the door. Xena did the same. They braced themselves to give a great shove, but before they could the door fell inward with a dull thud allowing a great cloud of ancient dust to escape the passageway behind. As the dust cleared Xena and Toris stared into the first of the dark paths they would have to follow to lead the trapped miners and one small bard to safety.
Barillus moved slowly on the treacherous ledge. There was no way of telling if or when the width of the edge might shrink or suddenly disappear completely causing all of them to drop into the endless blackness. The small torch gave little illumination to the trek. Even Tristan and Gregor's aggressive behavior seemed quelled by the peril. Meneos kept Gabrielle close to the cave wall and only a few paces ahead of him. He did not seem hindered by the extra weight he was now bearing. The only sound was the scraping of their feet along the gravelly path. Barillus paused every few paces to be sure the others were following. At this pace it would take a very long time to get to wherever this path led.
The strain on her calves and the experience of walking beside her friend for so long told Gabrielle the group was heading uphill. She used that hopeful thought to push away the terror of what lay just a few feet to her left. 'Up, we're going up. Up toward the surface, toward the light, toward the sun and the warmth and the fresh air and that warrior who will act stoic and stern, but will be just as relieved to see me as I will be to see her.' Gabrielle smiled in spite of the current danger. She was so lost in her thought and so intent on watching where her feet were sliding she collided abruptly with Gregor who had stopped in front of her. The small girl's slight bump pushed the man forward and he let out a small gasp. Before she could utter the slightest apology he turned quickly and gave the bard a hard shove causing her to fall back against the rock wall. She grabbed her arm as a quick shot of renewed pain ran through it.
"Watch it, imbecile!" Gregor barked, his voice tinged with fear. "You could have knocked me over the edge, you clumsy fool! I otta " he raised his hand to deliver a rough backhanded strike. Gabrielle instinctively ducked and raised her good arm in front of her face. Meneos, however, was close behind and reached out a large hand catching Gregor's wrist before he could begin his swing. His grip was firm and he squeezed slowly making his message adamant.
"Little missy is being sorry, no? Being far from the light we are, yes. Is being hard to judge where others are being, no? Gregor is forgetting little missy is being hurt, perhaps maybe is being not well." Meneos stated slowly and clearly pulling the skinny miner closer to him and away from Gabrielle. "Perhaps also Gregor is forgetting all are being tired and cold. Little missy is having slight accident. Meneos is thinking Gregor is wanting now to apologize, yes?" It wasn't a question, it was a command and the intense grip on Gregor's wrist was enough to convince him to follow it. But, before he could Barillus' call interrupted the altercation.
"Meneos! Meneos, everything all right back there?" Barillus' voice echoed in the gaping darkness.
For a moment there was no answer as Gregor and Meneos glared at each other, each silently daring the other to make the first move. Meneos' grip tightened on Gregor's wrist to emphasize his advantage. "We're fine!" Gregor yelled over his shoulder. "Just fine." He repeated to Meneos. "Aren't we?" He said through clenched teeth as he roughly pulled his hand free of the giant's grasp. He turned quickly to Gabrielle. "My sincere apologies, princess." He feigned sarcastically bowing in front of the girl. He smiled wickedly and winked at her making a small clicking noise with his teeth. The bard glared back, sickened by his unspoken implication. Gregor chuckled then turned and walked away.
Meneos placed a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. She shook it off, "I'm fine." Anger, frustration, fear, disgust, uncertainty, all of these things played on her emotions and she realized she was taking this out on the wrong person. "I I'm sorry I shouldn't I mean I was " She turned to face Meneos, immediately sorry for treating her benefactor with such rudeness.
"Meneos is understanding, little missy." Daemon softly moaned as Meneos shifted his weight and adjusted the harness on his shoulders. "Is being hard on all of us. Come, is better we are going." He smiled at her and she could not help returning the same.
"Meneos!" Barillus called again. "Hurry, you've got to see this!"
They carefully made their way to Barillus' position following the glow of the one torch they still had. Gregor had rejoined Tristan and the two stood along side Barillus looking over the edge.
"Look." Barillus said flatly, pointing ahead.
Ahead the ledge that had been their path narrowed drastically. Where two men could walk abreast, now only one would fit safely, if he kept very close to the rock wall. Even worse it seemed to get narrower as it continued toward a sharp point about 50 paces from where they stood.
Tristan shook his head. "Great! Now what?"
"Could be just an illusion, the light isn't very good." Gabrielle hoped out loud.
"Yeah." Gregor huffed shooting a disgusted glance her way. He shook his head and rolled his eyes.
"Somebody's got to go ahead and take a look." Barillus stated logically. He looked at his companions. Meneos was too big and with Daemon on his back, well it was out of the question. He trusted neither Gregor nor Tristan to return if it were in fact the way out. And Gabrielle was too hurt and much too feverish. That left one choice. "And I guess that somebody is me, huh?" He smiled at Meneos, who understood. The large man nodded. "I'll have to take the torch. That will leave you pretty much in the dark until I get back." He shot a quick glance at Tristan and Gregor with his last statement.
"Safe we are being. Go you must. Meneos is thinking Gregor is good choice to be helping Barillus, yes?" Barillus understood, divide and conquer. Made sense. Those two weren't much of a threat when separated. It almost seemed as though they couldn't complete a thought if they weren't occupying the same space. Barillus nodded in agreement.
Gregor sneered at Meneos. 'So this is how you're getting even for the girl, huh freak? Well we'll see, won't we?' He had plans of his own for the girl and her protector.
"Good, good idea." Tristan agreed. "That way we can be sure you'll be back. Wouldn't want to think you'd leave us down here if you should find a passage out of this stinking hole." He laughed an evil laugh knowing that was the real reason for dragging Gregor along. 'Did those fools think he was an imbecile? Of course he knew what they were up to.' He pulled Gregor aside to explain.
"It shouldn't take long." Barillus informed Meneos without taking his eyes from the pernicious pair whispering a few paces away. "Keep an eye on our young friends here. And you " he turned to Gabrielle. "Stay out of trouble." He grabbed her chin and gave it a playful shake. His gesture had a double meaning. He wanted to let the girl know he was kidding, but mostly he wanted to check her fever. As he suspected her skin was hot to the touch. They would have to stop soon. She needed rest if she were to make it to wherever this path would take them.
Barillus started to move away from the group. Gregor followed. Slowly they inched their way toward the pointed rock at the end of the narrow ledge. Meneos and the others watched as the torchlight moved farther away. It seemed as though everyone held their breath anticipating some unseen disaster to strike at any moment. They continued watching the small light as it stopped and then suddenly disappeared. Tristan moved toward the path that the others had taken only to be stopped by Meneos. Gabrielle gasped, thinking the worst, waiting to hear the screams as the two men plummeted down into the eerie pit. But the only sound was that of their breathing. Tristan struggled against Meneos' hold. "If being free you wish, then Meneos is letting go. Tristan should be remembering we are being blind and the fall is being far." Tristan stopped, considering the truth in the large man's statement. Before he could reply they noticed the small torchlight reappear and slowly move back toward their position.
Barillus and Gregor reappeared from the blackness. Both seemed no worse for wear. Gregor nodded at Tristan. Meneos caught the gesture and fought to hold back his suspicions. "Come on," Barillus told them. "It's tricky. But we can make it."
Tricky was hardly the way Gabrielle would later describe this part of the journey. Hazardous? Maybe. Horrendous? Definitely! The group inched its way along a ledge hardly wide enough for a foot to rest on comfortably. Gabrielle pressed herself flat against the rock face and squeezed her eyes shut so tightly she began to see little specks of light behind her eyelids. With her good arm she reached out, or along side herself, to feel her way along. Meneos was close behind. He edged along with his chest against the wall and Daemon practically dangling out over the chasm. One wrong move, one slip and both men would be caught in an endless fall. Barillus and Gregor had gone ahead and were waiting at the point. After all they had been this way before, it was old hat to them. Tristan brought up the rear this time. No way anyone would trip and knock him into oblivion, but if he saw an opening someone else might just but, even he was too busy worrying about his own safety to do any plotting or planning. After what seemed like hours the small group reached the point where the rock wall jutted out sharply.
"Here's where it gets difficult." Barillus warned. Gabrielle almost laughed. 'Yeah, like up to now it's been a casual stroll.' She muttered to herself. "I'll go first, then help the rest of you around." Barillus announced. Gabrielle opened her eyes daring to look at what would be her next step. Barillus was very close to the edge, he took a step and disappeared. Gabrielle gasped as Gregor followed and also disappeared. Panic was creeping slowly into the girl's already wild range of emotional stress. She froze in place. They had just stepped off the ledge and wanted her to do the same? She closed her eyes again. It had to be the fever, she was probably seeing things. Seeing things? Damn! It was so dark she couldn't see anything if it were a hairsbreath from her nose. Her head ached and her stomach lurched. 'Oh, gods! Not here, not now.' She took a deep breath. She could feel Meneos next to her. She could hear her own heart beating. 'Focus.' She told herself. 'Focus.' She forced herself to repeat the word over and over, while another voice screamed 'on what?'. 'On getting your butt out of there!' a very familiar warrior sounding voice bellowed over both. 'Open your eyes and get moving, girl!'
"Get moving, girl!!" Another voice barked. "Move before I move ya!" Tristan was getting impatient and he had the advantage. Meneos could not defend himself or Gabrielle without risking Daemon's life. One push, one little shove and the large man could be sent over the edge with his dead weight backpack adding the extra tow. Then he'd get his hands on that girl and give her a little added pain before he knocked her into obscurity. He'd find Gregor, get rid of Barillus and
Suddenly the torchlight reappeared. "Come on, Gabrielle. It's okay, you can do it. I'll be right here." Barillus spoke softly to the girl encouraging her to step toward him. She moved toward his voice not opening her eyes until she felt his hand on hers. "Come on, you're doing fine." He urged her on gently. She locked her gaze on his eyes, not wanting to see anything else. She felt the ledge grow smaller under her feet and the rock wall behind her fell away. "No!" She wailed taking a step forward and trying desperately to pull away from Barillus. He held tight and quickly yanked her back. She fought to hold on to anything, but was again lost to the black hole of unconsciousness.
Barillus caught her as she fell back and gently carried her to a spot a safe distance from the edge of the pit. He returned to the edge and quickly helped Meneos navigate the sharp turn. The narrow edge ended at a spot where the rock wall came to a perfect point. There it began to widen giving the travelers just enough space to make a quick half circle turn around it. They were, in fact, now on the opposite side of the same rock wall heading in the same direction from which they came. The ledge on this side was wide enough for five or six men to stand abreast and seemed to get even wider as the path progressed. Gregor helped Tristan around the point. Barillus directed Meneos to the same point of safety. The large man loosened the harness on his shoulders and carefully lowered his cargo to the ground. He checked the younger man's breathing then moved to the girl who lay just as still a few feet away.
"Little missy is being all right. Is fainting, yes?"
Barillus nodded. "I guess this is as good a place as any to rest for a while. I think we all need it." He stuck the torch into a crack in the wall and slid down onto the ground under it. Tristan and Gregor made themselves comfortable on the opposite side of the area, leaning against each other back to back perhaps for the extra warmth but probably for the extra protection. Meneos settled himself between his two patients wishing he had some sort of covering for both. It would be a cold 'night'.
Gabrielle woke. Something, someone was calling to her. She sat up and surveyed the area. Meneos was snoring loudly next to her and at his other side Daemon seemed to be wrestling with a bad dream. The young miner tossed and turned, mumbling something she couldn't make out then suddenly settled back and rested quietly. A few feet to her left Barillus rested against the wall. His arms were folded in front of him and his chin rested on his chest. She could tell he was asleep. Her eyes darted about the dark cavern in search of Tristan and Gregor. She found their shapes just outside the rim of light provided by the small torch. They were asleep too.
"Gabrielle." A voice whispered again. She looked from one sleeping form to the other. No one had moved. "Gabrielle, it's me."
"Who?" The girl whispered back. A tall thin form seemed to materialize at the edge of the light directly in front of her. She rubbed her eyes and pushed her damp hair away from her face. "What do you want?"
"To help you, Gabrielle. I'm here." The form stepped into the light and the girl's heart soared.
"Xena!" She struggled to stand. The warrior stood in place.
"Come, Gabrielle, I'll show you the way." The girl finally got to her feet and took a step toward her friend, sure that their exit would be delayed while the warrior examined her injuries. But, Xena had already turned and started in the opposite direction. "Come, Gabrielle. Follow me."
Gabrielle did as she was told following the warrior. "Xena, what about the others. Shouldn't we wake them?"
"Follow me, Gabrielle. Follow me to freedom."
The girl stopped, "Xena?"
The warrior turned and reached out her hand. "Come, Gabrielle."
Somewhere in her mind something told her this was not right, but Gabrielle wanted it so much to be that she reached out for Xena's hand. The warrior was farther away than she thought and the bard had to take a few more steps forward. Closer, closer to the outstretched hand of her best friend she moved. Just as she was about to finally grasp it a strong arm grabbed her around the waist and roughly pulled her back and away from the warrior.
"Xena!!" She screamed fighting to free herself.
"Gabrielle!" She fell back on to the dirt floor, still fighting for release. She watched as the image of the warrior dissolved over the black pit.
"Xena, no, no Xena wait for me. Don't leave me here!"
"GABRIELLE!" Someone shook her, hard.
"Xena " The warrior was gone. The girl stopped struggling and dissolved into tears. She was defeated, her hopes dashed. "You win, I can't fight anymore." She whimpered.
"Gabrielle, it's okay. Wake up, come on, wake up." Barillus comforted the young girl as he rocked her gently. He woke up just in time to snatch her from the edge. One more step and she would have gone over. Apparently the girl was having some feverish dream and thought she was walking toward her warrior friend. The fever was getting worse, if she was hallucinating it was getting much worse. They had to find the way out, very soon.
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