Read The Fine Runes

by baermer

Disclaimers: Xena: Warrior Princess is owned by the lucky folks at MCA and Universal and Renaissance Pictures, however they choose to divide it up. I have not intended to infringe on their rights. Rather, I've borrowed their characters for a story that will reap me no monetary benefits but might, just might, add a fan or two to the Xenaphile ranks which will perhaps, in turn, reap a few more dinars for those who rightfully stand to profit from the show.

This story does depict the main characters in a loving relationship though there is nothing in here illegal for the younger folks. If you would prefer not to read this fiction for these reasons, please do not continue. It's your decision.

There's a bit of violence, but I'd put it at about the level of a typical Xena episode.

A warrior, divested of heavy armor, lay relaxing against a felled tree trunk by a crackling fire, her leathers hidden under a thick woolen blanket. Covered by the same blanket, heedless of the chilled wind blowing across their simple campsite, a bard waved her hands wildly, punctuating each turn in her complicated story.

Xena peeked through slit eyelids, "Hey, you're letting all the heat out!" She flopped an arm out into the cold and tucked the blanket around the bard again.

"Sorry, but the end of that one always gets me worked up." Gabrielle pouted, then smiled softly. "You're really tired, aren't you?"

"Been a long three days for both of us." They'd headed in toward Panppeus looking for supplies and found themselves a part of a human water brigade, shuffling buckets of water from the well to the burning stable. They lost that battle and spent the next three days tending the burns, mostly minor--but for one stubborn young man who made certain that every last horse escaped--and helping to re-build the stable.

Gabrielle studied the drawn features of the woman next to her, her friend, companion, lover... "I guess I got my energy back when I realized we'd bathed for the first time in three days and had the whole area to ourselves." Gabrielle had balked at traveling so far after a grueling morning of roofing but was glad for it now. "And we don't have anywhere we have to be. And," Gabrielle added as she slipped her hands around the warrior's waist, "it's nearly Solstice. I'm sure we can find a nice relaxing inn..."

Xena laughed, "In a town chock full of greedy merchants waiting for a young woman and her purse of dinars to come through." She opened her eyes to see the smirk she knew waited for her.

"You laugh! You're a very hard woman to shop for." Back came the pout, the curling under of the bottom lip, furrowed brows, and twinkling green eyes that undid all her face's hard work scowling.

"So don't shop for me. I don't need anything more than you." Xena wrapped her arms around the bard and squeezed. Pressing her lips against the bard's ear she, tickled it, "And you know I really mean that, don't you?"

"I know," Gabrielle responded, disappointment creeping in. "I just like to do nice things for you, that's all."

"Don't equate a purchased trinket with what you give to me every day." Xena trailed fingers up the bard's back and gently kneaded tired muscles in her neck. "Why don't you tell me another story, okay?"

Sometimes you are so frustrating... "Sure, Xena. Another story. Since we're near Mount Parnassus, why don't I tell you about Echo?" So this means I can't buy anything for you. It just makes it harder but not impossible.

"Echo. Wonderful." Xena wiggled closer to the bard, resting her head on a soft shoulder, an arm across Gabrielle's lap, fully expecting to be asleep before the end of the tale.

"The fairest of the mountain nymphs, Echo, lived with her sister oreads on Mount Parnassus. Her beauty was known far and wide and her many admirers included Artemis, who watched her from afar, and Zeus, who occasionally paid her nocturnal visits."

Xena snorted, "Hmmm? What kind of visits?"

"The kind we can't mention in full detail in a family-oriented story," Gabrielle explained glibly.

"I didn't ask for a family story," sighed Xena, letting her lips press against Gabrielle's soft skin and nibble a little.

"I thought you were planning on nodding off." Gabrielle poked her between ticklish ribs.

"Hey, I'll never get to sleep if you keep doing that," this all said with her eyes closed and body still propped against Gabrielle's. "Now you settle down and go on."

"Yes, Miss Warrior Princess. Where was I? Oh yeah... Zeus did like to," she cleared her throat, "visit Echo sometimes and this drew the attention Hera who spent a great deal of time conjuring up and meting out punishments for Zeus' many mistresses. One night, she followed Zeus to Mount Parnassus, the nymphs home, and spied on him as he seduced Echo. It seems that Echo was a rather... verbose lover. And loud. And what Hera heard coming from Echo made the great goddess' blood boil. She planned and plotted and when she'd devised the perfect retribution, Hera descended upon Echo and took away her ability to speak except to repeat what others said to her. You can hear Echo's voice across the valleys of the land if you call for her."

Gabrielle smiled, thinking she'd told that story well but quickly enough to finish before Xena fell asleep. She looked down and saw a peaceful face and steady breathing. Oh well, she thought. I guess it's for the best. Gently, she maneuvered Xena down on the bedroll and snuggled up next to her.

What neither woman realized was that Pan, out causing mischief (his most favorite activity), had stopped to listen to the bard's story. Gabrielle's sweet voice reminded him of Echo's own lovely, long-lost voice. And what neither women knew was that Pan had loved Echo since he'd first seen her dancing with her sister oreads more moons ago than any mortal could count.

Now Pan knew just what to get Echo for Solstice. A gift so precious she would surely change her standoffish ways and agree to become his wife. Perfect, he thought. Now I just have to figure out how to get it.

* * * * *

"Okay," Xena snipped back, "we'll go into the town, you can LOOK at what they're selling, but don't count on getting a room at the inn. This close to Solstice it's sure to be full."

"Fine." Gabrielle turned to finish packing their bedroll and whispered under her breath, "Gods did you ever wake up on the wrong side of the palette, or what."

"I heard that."

Gabrielle tucked their bedroll into its loop on the back of Argo's saddle, grabbed her staff, and trudged forward down the road, not waiting for Xena who could catch up in a heartbeat if she was in a mood to do so anyway.

Xena watched her go, wishing once again that she had used her brain before her tongue. She slung the packs over Argo and took her reins, leading her down the trail after the dejected bard.

Xena caught up with her quickly, her long strides closing the distance without needing to hurry her pace. She slowed slightly for the last few steps, then clicked into synch with Gabrielle's stride. Waiting until the bard was just about to turn to say something to her, Xena slung a powerful arm over Gabrielle's shoulders, pulled her into a tight hug and whispered, "Sorry about that."

"No, Xena. I'm sorry." Gabrielle tried to shoulder the responsibility. She knew better than to goad Xena in the morning. "I shouldn't make you go shopping..."

"And I shouldn't keep you from shopping." Xena pulled out of the hug to make eye contact with the bard. "I'm sorry I'm always telling you what to do."

A tiny smile lit the corner's of Gabrielle's lips. "I need to remember that you're usually telling me something to keep me from getting killed."

Xena flexed her arms around the bard once again. "So... we need supplies. Let's both go shopping, shall we?" She pressed a kiss onto Gabrielle's forehead.

"Okay, Xena." Gabrielle fingers tangled themselves in the warrior's hair. "I'm still sorry for how I acted this morning."

That earned a smile. "Just as I'm sorry for being a cad, myself. Let's call it even."

"Deal." Gabrielle reached up on tiptoes to meet Xena's lips with her own.

* * * * *

"Solstice Eve, one of the best days for bargains! What can I help you with, ladies?" A plump and ruddy-cheeked shop owner hovered near the pair of travel-weary shoppers, combing the good available in Daulis.

Gabrielle ran her fingertips down the length of a bead chain and answered distractedly, "Just looking."

The shop owner plucked the beads from under Gabrielle's hand and the next thing she knew they were around her neck, stubby fingers working the clasp in back. "Oh my, those are becoming on you, Miss. And just you're luck, they're on sale today... seventeen dinars."

Xena chuckled to herself as the outrageous price brought Gabrielle straight up out of her buying haze. "Seventeen dinars?" Gabrielle gasped. "Seventeen? They're not worth two for the beads plus a token for the stringing." Come on, Xena, let's get out of here. This man's a cheat." She reached up behind her neck and fiddled with the clasp.

Stubby finger's caught Gabrielle's arm, "Th... that's Xena?"

Xena drawled in answer, "You got a problem with that?"

"Ah, no!" he lied. "No problem at all. Six dinars."

Gabrielle finally worked the catch open and with her left hand she grabbed the shopkeeper's wrist and deposited the chain of baubles in his palm with her right. "Never mind, I don't want them anyway. Too gaudy for me." She strode out in a huff.

"Two dinars?" he squeaked at Xena.

She smiled. "You heard her, she doesn't want them." She tailed Gabrielle out onto the street. Dare I admit to myself that watching Gabrielle shop can be fun? Nah... better not.

They made their way into every store on the south side of the street, usually exiting under the same pretense: the owner quoting a ridiculously high price which muted any desire for Gabrielle to haggle. But the bard was also aware that the day was waning and she'd have to find something for Xena's Solstice gift soon. And a way to ditch the Warrior Princess while she did it. "Are you hungry?"

"I was wondering when you'd mention that. Yeah, I could eat." Xena patted her stomach.

"There's a tavern over there." Gabrielle plastered a friendly smile on her face, "Why don't you get something to eat and I'll meet you in there in a little while."

A little knot twisted in Xena's stomach, a premonition? She'd learned to trust them long ago. "No, I don't think we should separate. Besides," she tried not to let any of the unfocused worry gain manifest itself on her face, "I'm having a good time."

"Uh... Are you sure, Xena? I mean, I think it's okay and all. I'll just hang out close to the tavern." Damn, she thought. She's really not going to let me do this. Think of something, think of something...

"You don't want my company?" The tall warrior pouted, a sight so rare, Gabrielle's heart skipped a beat.

"Come on," she melted. "I saw a fabric store I wanted to peek in." Gabrielle pulled Xena along behind her through the burgeoning crowd of last-minute shoppers.

Xena's gaze shifted between Gabrielle and everyone else on the street. Something about the air... the knot in her stomach twisted once more and she lunged forward to come even with Gabrielle, allowing a rare display of physical affection as she wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders.

Bolts of cloth lay piled on a side table. "No, that print is too big." Gabrielle muttered a dismissal of every sample the merchant brought for her to see.

"Perhaps if you could tell me what you were looking for?" The man had long since grown tired of coddling the small woman's needs. Other shoppers, mostly Daulis natives, ones the merchant knew might actually purchase something, demanded his attention. "Why don't you call for me when you can suggest something you'd like."

"Ah, sure," said Gabrielle, running her fingertips over a soft pelt.

When the shopkeeper's attention finally latched onto someone else, Xena hopped off the crate where she'd been perched, keeping watch. "You were mean to him," she whispered in the bard's ear.

A tiny smile broke out on the bard's face, still focused on the soft fur she held. "No I wasn't. I just don't know what I'm looking for exactly. But I'll know it when I see it."

Xena tilted the bard's face up to hers. "Like now, for instance?"

"Yup. I see it now." But to Xena's dismay, Gabrielle looked right past the warrior to a bolt of material long since shoved to the back of a top shelf. Gabrielle jumped for it but her hands couldn't quite reach it. Xena gracefully plucked it down for her.

"No, no. Not this isn't it either..." Gabrielle dumped it on top of the pile of rejects. "I guess there's nothing here I want."

Xena followed her out chuckling at the merchant's expression: half grateful they were leaving, half horrified that he'd gone to all that trouble and not made a sale. Out on the street again, Xena caught an undercurrent of tension, unfocused, but even more powerful than any of the other unsettling tremors she'd been feeling all afternoon. It was no time to dawdle.

"Gabrielle..." she reached for her to stop the bard from charging into the street. Suddenly everyone around them began running, some screaming in fear. The throng of people ran in all directions, there was no rhyme or reason to their paths, just that at the same moment, everyone broke into a panicked dash from wherever they had been standing.

So many oddities had occurred simultaneously that Xena didn't take time to process all of them, not the least of which was why neither she nor Gabrielle seemed to have been affected by the sudden mass hysteria. The only concern on Xena's mind at the moment was getting Gabrielle to safety.

She had a sure hold on Gabrielle's arm, leading her toward the tavern and, hopefully, out of the mayhem. But before they could make much headway, two horses broke loose from a cart, several chickens fluttered up in front of them heaping feathers all around, and a goat came stampeding through the crowd.

The goat, a large bell fastened around its neck clanking over the din, charged Gabrielle. Xena flung Gabrielle around behind her, expecting to take the brunt of the collision herself. The goat, however, had other plans and slipped by her which was just fine with Xena, until she heard Gabrielle's grunt. On its way past them, the goat managed to land a hefty kick with its cloven hoof right in the middle of Gabrielle's thigh.

That was enough for Xena. She caught Gabrielle as the bard threw her weight over to her good leg and looked down to see a bloody mass on her beloved's thigh. Without stopping to assess the damage, she picked up Gabrielle and plowed her way through the crowd toward the tavern. Kicking the door open, she strut into the large, dark room relieved and yet also confused to see everyone behaving normally. Gently, she put Gabrielle down in a chair and bent to look at the wound. "How does it feel?"

"It hurts!" growled the bard through gritted teeth.

"Barkeep! Bring me some clean cloths and warm water now!." Xena tucked some errant strands of hair behind Gabrielle's ears. "Hang on, love. We'll get it cleaned up and then see how bad it is."

A short man with a graying beard brought a basin of water and a few strips of cloth, putting them on the table by the women. "What happened?"

"Everyone went crazy out there, that's what happened!" Xena picked up a piece of the cloth and dunked it in the water, ringing it out before patting it on Gabrielle's thigh. "I'll need more cloth than this." She ignored the man as he scurried away. As carefully as she could, she dabbed the blood away, wincing at every hiss she heard from Gabrielle. Fortunately, it would only need a few stitches but she had yet to check if the animal's kick had broken any bones. "This is going to hurt."

Gabrielle took a deep breath and held it, squeezing her eyes and grinding her teeth together as Xena's hands poked and prodded the tender area. Then she felt those same hands gently stroking her cheek. "It's okay, nothing's broken, but it's a deep bruise. I'll need to put a few stitches in there, and," Xena sighed, "you shouldn't walk on it for a few days."

Slowly, Gabrielle exhaled. The news wasn't bad but her thigh sure hurt like Hades and the idea of Xena passing a needle through that skin now... "Can you wait?" She took another deep breath, "Wait to stitch it?"

Xena stood, keeping her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, "Have you got rooms?" she called to the tavernkeep.

"All full," he called back, busy pouring mead. Several Daulis townsfolk had had the same idea as Xena, escaping the madness and taking refuge in the tavern, and the bar was filling up with thirsty customers.

"I'll be right back. Will you be okay?" Xena asked her, leaning down to hear the answer.

"Fine," came Gabrielle's tight lipped response. It spurred the warrior on.

Xena pushed her way up to the bar and in no time at all had secured a room with only a modicum of intimidation. He said the room was small but she didn't care.

As Xena came back to get Gabrielle, the bard rewarded her with a tiny smile and said, "That was fast." She relaxed into powerful arms as they scooped her up. "Thanks, Xena."

"Just wish I could do more." She glided up the stairs doing her best to keep from jarring Gabrielle any further and found out the barkeep's description of the room as 'small,' was a conservative epithet. There was a bed and a small fireplace holding a meager fire, nothing more: no chairs, no table. Still, on Solstice Eve, she reminded herself, anything will do. She lay Gabrielle on the bed then leaned up and kissed her forehead. "Sorry, Gabrielle. I tried to keep you out of harm's way."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes in frustration. "Don't be silly, Xena, there's nothing to be sorry about. It was just a stupid goat and my stupid leg was in its stupid way. Not your fault." She turned her head away.

A knock at the door interrupted Xena's attempt to mollify her friend. A basin of clean water, more cloth and their saddlebags from the stable were deposited on the floor. A young lad of ten summers or so stammered, "Your... your... ho... hor.... horse is... is... is..." he took a break then reset his jaw. "Fine," he blurted out.

If he hadn't been a child, Xena surely would have beaten the information out of him faster than he was able to tell her. Nothing was going right. "Thanks." She said before shooing him away. "Hey," she said softly, turning her attention back to Gabrielle, "we'll get this taken care of and be laughing about it soon enough."

But Gabrielle could only think of how it really would be impossible to get Xena something for Solstice now And how incredibly thick-witted it was to have been bested by a dumb goat. A goat! A bearded, four-legged creature who was only good for feta cheese.

"Gabrielle?" Xena sat on the edge of the bed worried by the frustration etched on the bard's face.

"Sorry, Xena. I just can't believe I was pummeled by a goat."

"Well, I can't say it's ever happened to me..." She tried to engender a smile from her friend. "But there was a stamped out there." Her brows knit, "And none of it made any sense at all." She shook the unsettled air away. "Come on, let's get this over with."

Digging into their bags to get the medical kit, Xena cleaned the wound again and put three stitches in faster than she'd ever sutured before. Wrapping the thigh in clean, soft, cloth finished the job. "All done." She looked up to see tears streaking down Gabrielle's cheeks. Tossing the gear aside, Xena crawled up on the bed by Gabrielle and wrapped her in a safe, warm hug.

Gabrielle didn't move until long after she'd stopped crying, long after Xena thought she'd fallen asleep. "Thanks, Xena," she muttered once again.

"You awake?" Xena loosened her hold, pulling away enough to look at Gabrielle's face.

"Just thinking." Gabrielle spoke in a neutral voice, not letting her instinctive inflection color the statement.

"What about?"

"You." Smiling at last, the bard added, "My favorite subject."

"As you are mine." Xena kissed her softly. "Need anything before going to sleep?"

"Are you offering to wait on me hand and foot?" Gabrielle had no intention of letting the warrior out of their embrace.

"Always." Xena laughed, "Well, for now at least."

"No thanks, love. I've got just what I want."

* * * * *

Gabrielle felt Xena's muscles stiffen, or so she realized as she dragged her mind out of a heavy sleep. She could hear muffled voices from the street and could tell, even in her bleary state, that the noises were not the happy sounds of villagers making their way home. "What?" she croaked.

"Not sure," Xena answered, slipping out of the bed and crossing two paces to open the window. "Damn. What is it about Daulis?" She forestalled Gabrielle's attempts to get out of bed with a stiff wave of her hand. "Those crazy people are at it again, just going berserk. I don't get it."

"Any goats out there?" Gabrielle asked half to make a joke and half out of curiosity, pulling the blanket up tight around her neck.

"I should go..." Xena stopped herself. That unnerving trepidation she'd felt since they'd arrived in this town came slamming back. She looked at Gabrielle. "I should stay here."

That set off alarms for Gabrielle. "What's that supposed to mean?" Why would Xena choose not to help those people?

"Uh, I don't think there's anything I can do for them." Quickly, she turned back to the window, not wanting Gabrielle to read her face.

"Well, you never know who might get hurt, need you to help them. Xena, you don't have to worry about me. I'll make sure the door is latched." Gabrielle watched the shadowy image of Xena take a few breaths.

"No, I'll secure the door and just use the window." In a matter of moments, Xena had sufficiently barred the door from all save Hercules (or herself in an emergency), and thrown another log on the fire. "Don't go anywhere," she tossed to Gabrielle as she settled her armor and scabbard, then with one hand clutching her chakram, she somersaulted out into the dark mayhem below.

And all the way down, Xena fretted over her decision to leave Gabrielle alone. Fortunately, there were many fewer people on the streets than the incident the previous afternoon, and she was actually able to break up a few fist fights and send people on their way. Some cuts and bruises, and flared tempers were the worst of it. Before long she was able to head back to the tavern.

Standing under their open window, Xena felt the hairs on her neck prickling. Her hand found the hilt of her sword and drew it out to stand ready. But watchful eyes saw nothing, sharp ears heard nothing. Upstairs, she thought suddenly. Just as swiftly, she re-sheathed her sword, took three steps back from the wall and jumped, sailing neatly onto the floor of their room.

"Hey!" Gabrielle yelled out of pure reflex, the loud thump of Xena's landing shocking her awake instantly.

"It's just me," Xena said quickly, her heart pounding unnaturally. "You okay?"

"Yeah, fine. How 'bout you?" Gabrielle try to slow her own racing heart. "Everything all right out there?"

Lighting a candle just to make sure nothing beyond her senses lurked in a dark corner, Xena finally shut the window and forced herself to relax. "Fine. Everything's fine."

"So what happened?" Gabrielle grimaced as she shifted her legs. "Wow, that really hurts."

Xena took a look at the bandages. "It's swollen. Can you stand some cold on it? It'll get the swelling to go down."

"Why is it," Gabrielle asked, "that I pull muscles in the summer when heat helps and I get bruises in the winter when cold helps?"

"You're just clever that way, I guess." She tested the leftover water in the basin. "That should do it." The water was downright frigid, and the icy cold, damp cloth Xena rested on Gabrielle's thigh got a little screech out of the bard. "It's cold enough to work well."

"It's cold enough to freeze Tartarus!" Gabrielle growled. She'd have strung out a series of complaints but for Xena's soft and very warm arms snuggling around her.

"That better?"

"Hmmm," the bard rumbled. "Much."

* * * * *

The next morning, Xena woke with the first glimmer of dawn. And since this was just about the latest dawn of the year, Solstice morn, it meant she'd slept in well past normal. Moving only her eyes, she studied the room and found nothing amiss. The fire had died down to a few embers, Gabrielle's staff stood propped next to their saddlebags, her armor and weapons within arms reach by the bed where she'd left them. Closing her eyes once again, she sought out that uneasy air from the day before to turn it over in her mind, try to find its origins or at least a viable direction from it.

It came back in tones of black and purple, murky and indistinct, outlined in dread. The intensity of it startled her, but this extra sense she carried with her, the one that had saved her life on numerous occasions warning her of a arrow just before its arrival or of an ambush architected in the next valley, was an old friend. For however much she roiled against the physical sensations from its fierceness, she welcomed its message. And this time, this time it truly scared her, for the message, though garbled by images of panicked villagers, was clear: protect Gabrielle.

Opening her eyes again, she looked into the worried face of her partner. "You okay, Xena?" Gabrielle asked.

"Just thinking." She willed her face into a softer expression. "How do you feel this morning?"

"How do I feel any morning?" The bard's eyes twinkled as she felt her hand automatically move to caress Xena's cheek. "You looked worried about something."

"Nah," Xena tried to deflect the inquiry.

But Gabrielle wasn't dissuaded. She propped herself up on an elbow and looked at her friend with a serious gaze. "You've been avoiding telling me something since yesterday. Come on, Xena, if it's bothering you, you'll feel better for talking about it."

Xena considered just how much to tell her. "I've been trying to figure out what's going on. I don't know, I just have this... feeling."

Gabrielle seemed to understand. "Do you think it's just Daulis in particular or are people going berserk everywhere?"

"I have no idea. But I'd sure like to figure out what's making everyone act so weirdly. When I went out last night, I found men slugging each other, not holding anything back. Their eyes shone with madness, and yet when I broke up their fights, they just stood there, no hint of anger. They looked like they had no idea how they'd gotten there." Xena shook her head slightly.

"Outside influence?" Gabrielle saw Xena nod. "Something they ate?"

"I don't know. I don't think so. What would a everyone in Daulis have eaten? And why would this craziness just seem to turn itself on or off all of a sudden. And," Xena let her eyes lock onto Gabrielle's, "why does it only seem to happen to people who're outside? An why didn't it affect either of us yesterday?"

Gabrielle leaned forward and kissed Xena. "I know this is bothering you, love. But we're not going to figure out anything by spending the day in bed."

"Oh no," Xena fought the rising panic in her gut. "You're going to do just that."

"It'll drive me crazy, Xena! I feel fine. Besides, it's Solstice."

She knew she couldn't keep Gabrielle in the room without telling her everything and yet she didn't want to scare her, or even worse, not have Gabrielle believe her. "Okay. We'll go downstairs to the tavern, but I don't want you walking around. Deal?"

"Thanks. Deal."

Gabrielle willing let Xena carry her down the stairs. Even standing sent unpleasant sensations down her leg. When she put weight on her sore leg, the sensations turned to tiny daggers as bruised muscles flexed. Once they were seated, Xena chose a table near the roaring fire, the pain subsided and Gabrielle was glad for having pressed the issue, making Xena bring her to the tavern. If she'd had to spend the day in bed she would have gone crazy by noon. She bit her lip at the irony.

They overheard many strange stories told by people who filtered in and out during the morning. Some had awakened in odd places--the hayloft, the kitchen floor, under the bed. Others told of bits and pieces they could remember, conking a friend over the head with a chair and then coming to their senses only in time for their wobbly friend to retaliate.

Occasionally, someone would stumble into the tavern with a broken arm or bloody lip. The barkeep was happy for the two traveling woman to take care of them. Xena and Gabrielle spent the morning listening to and questioning the villagers, setting bones, and wrapping cuts.

Around midday, things seemed to settle down, several villagers straggled in for a meal and to swap even more ribald retellings of peculiar antics. Not long after the sun began its journey back toward the horizon though, more people came in with a variety of injuries and stories of more outrageous behavior.

A young boy arrived cradled in his father's arms. The man, distraught for he realized he'd inflicted the injury himself and couldn't recall what had made him do it. "I remember hitting the lad, I just can't remember why. Gods..." He buried his face in his hands. "Then someone told me there were healers here. I came right away."

Gabrielle scooted her chair over by him. "I don't think it was your fault. Lots of these people," she swept her hand around letting him know she spoke of everyone there in the tavern with them, "have done things they'd never have dreamed of doing. Something is making you behave this way, making everyone crazy. We'll just have to find out what it is."

Xena pinched the nerves at the base of the lad's neck, quickly set the bone in his arm, securing it with a plank of wood and strips of cloth. As she released the pinch, the boy screamed. "That's the worst of it, I promise," Xena tried to soothe him.

"Hey!" a man burst into the tavern. "We need help out here! Horses went off, ran a cart into the weaver's workshop. It flipped over and the roof collapsed on 'em. Lots of people were in there."

Xena looked to Gabrielle, her gut reactions pulling her in two directions at once.

"Go on, Xena. I'll keep things together in here." Gabrielle smiled reassuringly.

Gods... Xena shuddered. If she didn't go, she'd have to tell Gabrielle that it was only because she was worried about her. And Gabrielle would never stand for that. She nodded curtly to the bard, got up, and went straight to the bar. "You're going to keep an eye on her." She grabbed the barkeep by his collar and tugged him close. "See that no one bothers her, no one so much as spits in her direction. Got it?"

"Sure," he answered. Those two seemed to be the only ones weird things weren't happening to, and he guessed it would be his easiest job of the day.

Xena let him go, staring at him to drive home her point, then snatched the medical kit as she ran outside. She hadn't stopped to get directions to the weaver's nor had she needed to. She could hear the screams from where she was and all she had to do was to follow those running to help.

Strange, she thought as she ran, how all of a sudden everyone was in control. It was as if the panic had reached a critical level and then dissipated so they could help the people trapped under the roof. And they needed everyone's help to pull the heavy timbers away. Xena directed them to one end of a huge beam, getting the necessary leverage to shove it aside. As six men hefted a second beam, Xena single-handedly pulled the cart upright. A man's leg was badly broken and when the heavy cart was lifted away, suddenly releasing blood to his leg, he let out a blood-curdling scream before passing out. Xena hurriedly checked him for more broken bones. "You can move him, but get a board to support his leg before you do."

A tall blonde man acknowledged her command and gathered two others to help him. Xena kept going, plowing under loose debris, looking for survivors. It was going to be a long afternoon.

* * * * *

Gabrielle smiled at the boy whose arm Xena had set. "Feeling better now?"

"A little," he replied softly.

"What's your name?"

He didn't offer an answer.

"Want to hear a story?" Gabrielle caught the barely discernible nod. "Since today's Solstice, I guess I'll tell you about a pretty weird Solstice Xena and I once had. We happened on a town where it was illegal to celebrate Solstice. Can you believe that? Not letting someone enjoy the Solstice!" Gabrielle knew she had the boy now. His eyes were glued to her. "We found an orphanage full of children." She added, "oh, they were much younger than you," getting a huge smile out of him. Two or three other patrons came over near them, bringing chairs, sitting on the edge of a nearby table, to listen to the story.

"The children all wanted to sing songs and open presents just like you'd expect to do on Solstice but since the law forbade them to do it, they had to be very sneaky and hide it. But they were found out anyway!" The boy gasped, she heard more chairs being dragged their way, so she continued in a louder voice.

"We decided to treat the monarch to a little of his own medicine and I pretended to be a ghost! I flew through the air, with some help from Xena," she laughed, "and we really scared him."

By the time Gabrielle had finished the whole story down to the little carved lamb Xena gave her, everyone in the tavern had given her their ears. After that Solstice story she was asked for another, and switched to some of Xena's other spectacular adventures like solving the curse of Cecrops and ridding a tiny village of a threat from the Gareth: the biggest, meanest giant ever to roam the face of the Earth.

After her fifth story they still begged for more, but she laughed and protested, "Maybe later. I need a break now." They allowed as how that might be all right so long as she promised to tell more that night, and then one man bought her a cider to cool her throat.

He set it on the table in front of her. "Sure you wouldn't prefer wine or mead, perhaps?" he asked kindly.

"No thanks. This seems to be a day better spent with as many senses working at full tilt as possible." She took a drink and set the mug down and frowned. "Since it's Solstice an all," she added under her breath.

"What's that supposed to mean?" the man asked her. "Solstice is supposed to fun, what's the long face for?"

"Oh, just being silly, I guess." She rubbed her fingers on the table top around the base of her mug. "I haven't had a chance to get anything for Xena. And it doesn't look like I'll be able to now."

"What would she like?" he asked.

"That's the problem. I just don't know." Gabrielle let out a sigh. "She doesn't want anything frivolous. She made it clear that she doesn't even want me to buy her anything. But its just not fair," she grouched, bouncing her fist on the table, "I want to get her something. That's what makes me happy."

"Ah, I understand," his eyes brightened. "Look, if you tell me what she might like, I'll go see if I can't find it and then we'll call it even."

Gabrielle snorted, "No, goodness, I could never ask you to do that. Besides, I've haven't done anything for you."

"Ah, but you have." He smiled widely. "You've told me your stories. That's made me happy, so now I would like to make you happy. Tell me, what would Xena want for Solstice? Something practical like new saddlebags?"

"We could never afford that. And she never take something that expensive as a gift."

"Clothes, then. A new chiton or cloak perhaps?" Gabrielle shook her head, he tried a few more things. "Water bag? Perfume?"

"See, it's hopeless. When we need something, we buy it. And Xena never carries more than she needs." Gabrielle explained.

The man drummed his fingers, "I've got it!" he hooted. "She's a pretty good healer, yes?"

"She's the best," Gabrielle responded proudly.

"And she's been using up lots of her supplies today. Why don't you get more herbs for her? Especially the ones that can't be foraged for in winter!" He was certain he'd hit on the perfect gift.

"I like that..." Gabrielle thought aloud. "Not bad." But then she raised sad eyes to his, "But I told you before, I can't afford such a gift and I haven't really done anything to deserve it from you."

"I disagree," he replied flatly. "But if it will make you feel better, I'll draw up a little agreement. I'll write down all that you've given me in exchange for a bag of healing herbs. I'll make you a fair deal, lass."

"You're a nice man." And though her sense of honesty told her it could never be an even exchange she agreed.

"Great. I'll be back in a flash!"

Gabrielle sipped more cider, wondering what she'd done to deserve such a great break from a complete stranger and thinking that perhaps Daulis wasn't such a bad place after all.

When he returned, he dropped a small leather bag beside the now empty mug. "I'm sure she'll be happy with that. It's got Echinacea, hyssop, and Coltsfoot."

"Wow!" Gabrielle beamed as she peeked in the pouch. I know she was already low on Coltsfoot and after today she'll probably need the others, too. How can I ever repay you?"

"That's where this comes in." He threw open a scroll. "It says in exchange for all your stories, I'm giving you a Solstice gift for Xena. I've signed it here, you sign it," he pointed next to a scribble, "there."

Gabrielle took an offered quill and signed her name neatly. "Your signature is hard to read," she observed.

"But it's also hard to copy. Can come in handy at times." The man blew the ink dry, then re-rolled the scroll. "There. That should do it. Happy Solstice to you!"

"It'll be a good one now. Thank you, again." She reached for his hand and when they shook, she got a faint impression of it tickling her palm. She forgot it soon enough as she hefted the bag of herbs and tried to decide the best way to give it to Xena.

Xena wrapped the last gash having stitched and set and cleaned various injuries to a dozen men and women. Remarkably, no one sustained any life threatening wounds, something she never would have believed when she first started combing through the wreckage. And through it all, that sense of foreboding returned in waves, threatening to haul her up and walk her back to the tavern. She fought the feelings away and began to wonder if they weren't just her own manifestation of whatever was affecting the villagers.

At any rate, the moment she had finished with the last victim, another wave of trepidation plowed into her, nearly taking her feet out from under her. She didn't have to fight this one. Re-collecting her wits, she was about to speak to one of the men willingly assisting her about caring for the last victim's wounds when another panic attack blasted through the villagers. The coincidence of timing wasn't lost on the tall warrior.

Xena thread through the masses of people as best she could, trying not to injure any of them as she powered by. Nearing the tavern, she caught sight of a group of crazed men and women heaving a battering ram, heading straight for the tavern. Now she believed those premonitions were becoming reality. As fast as she could, she sprinted across the street, planting her feet to sail over the group set on barging into the tavern. And once again, her instincts were torn between expending the energy to stop the people from hurting themselves and whomever they ran into in the tavern, and going directly to Gabrielle's aid.

Her heart won as she exploded into the tavern.

Gabrielle looked up in surprise, immediately recognizing the set features on Xena's face: she meant business. The bard slipped the bag of herbs into her belt and waited for Xena to tell her what to do. Any questions would have to wait until later.

"Grab your staff and let's get out of here. I'll get our stuff later."

"Later," Gabrielle nodded in agreement.

They made their way to the stables, Xena carrying the bard so she wouldn't have to run on her bad leg, but also to keep her protected from whatever might come their way. If they had to fight, Xena was pretty sure she could do it one handed, the other still holding Gabrielle. If not, she'd put her down as a last resort and fend off the attacking parties until the craziness subsided.

This round of hysteria seemed weighted toward projectile releases of mayhem, rotten fruit, the favored weapon for the hurlers. Fortunately, though it smelled bad, it didn't usually seriously hurt the person it hit. But when the skies darkened with stones, Xena upped their pace and made it to the relative safety of the stables without either of them being hit by a rock.

Argo sensed the town's wild behavior, she skittered about anxiously in the stall. Xena threw the saddle on her, buckling it tight. "You're riding," she said to Gabrielle.

The bard muttered, "Riding..." back at her and put out a hand to Xena after the warrior had mounted.

"In front," Xena instructed.

"In front?" asked the bard.

"Yes, front. I don't want you getting hit with any rocks and I can't deflect them if you're behind me." Xena pulled her up and settled an arm around her waist, feeling Gabrielle first wince from the change in pressure on her leg, then lean back into her, willingly surrendering her life to her.

Xena guided Argo out of the stall and down the corridor past other uneasy horses, Argo snickering to them as they went by. At the door to the stables, Xena pulled her to a stop. She didn't want Argo being pelted by rocks either, now that she thought about it more. Her anxiety over Gabrielle's safety made her think the only thing to do was leave town, but as they were about to venture out into the madness again, she wasn't so sure. Fortunately, the villagers had apparently tired of throwing things, and she didn't see anyone out there who might be out of sorts enough to run into their path, so she gingerly eased them out into the street.

Choosing a back route, Xena took them by the tavern, planning to scurry up to their room and collect their belongings. She wondered about Gabrielle, "Do you want to come up with me to get our stuff or stay here?"

Gabrielle thought about it for a moment, "Stay here."

"I'll be right back," Xena kissed the top of Gabrielle's head, dismounted, and dashed into the tavern through the kitchen entrance. She paid for the room and returned with their bags, tossing them over Argo before Gabrielle could begin to get worried about her. No one came around to bother the bard as she waited for Xena's return. "Okay then, let's get out of here," Xena told her as she settled in behind Gabrielle.

They got a few more blocks before they ran into any of the villagers, almost long enough for them to relax, but fortunately Xena stayed fine-tuned, for at the last junction, the one that took them to the main street and the gates out of town, they ran headlong into a pack of crazed townsfolk, each sporting an axe, club, or sword.

"Whoa," Xena called to Argo, and also hoping to send her message to the villagers. "Now what?" she muttered under her breath.

"What?" asked Gabrielle.

"Just trying to figure out what to do." She couldn't very well ask Argo to ride through them, there was no telling what a mob mentality might do with such hot tempers around. As she pondered their options, some of the men standing in the front row took a few tentative steps toward them. Xena reacted instinctively, kneeing Argo forward in an equally aggressive move. It seemed to work, for the men stopped. She urged Argo ahead once again and the men shifted uncomfortably, sliding ever so slightly out of their way.

"Hold on tight, I think we can get through," she whispered to Gabrielle, securing her hold on the bard's waist. A few more paces forward from her horse, led to the villagers shuffling away from the middle of the path. In an odd mix of aggression and fright, their eyes burned with the fire of madness, their arms twitched with ready weapons, but their legs took them to safety, away from a direct confrontation. Xena counted on that and as soon as she saw a corridor wide enough for Argo to negotiate, she spurned her on, dashing through the mob as quickly as she could.

The villagers closed ranks behind the women and started chasing them. Xena wasn't too worried about people on foot catching up to Argo but was surprised at their tenacity. Her ears picked up their plodding steps until it was almost dark and they were high up into hills of Mount Parnassus.

"I guess we'd better find a place to spend the night. It's getting cold and it's going to rain." Xena tried to sound calm about everything even though the weirdness of the past two days weighed heavily on her.

"Rain?" Gabrielle moaned.

"I think they're caves just up ahead. We can stay dry." She hoped.

But not long after that, Xena was guiding Argo off the path and into the interior of a huge cave, replete with stalactites hanging from the ceiling. She was worried about Gabrielle who hadn't spoken much the whole trip and who shivered ever so slightly under her hand. She slid off Argo and looked up at Gabrielle. "Cold?" she asked.

The bard gave her a miserably sad look, so she dug into their bags and pulled out her cloak, dropping it over the bard's head. "I'll get a fire going shortly to warm you up." They followed the cave deeper, winding around a few bends to cut off the wind and settling on a flat spot as far from the entrance as they could get and still have plenty of room for Argo. Xena sat the cold bard down on the cave floor, looking at her carefully. Some residual effects of the weirdness in Daulis must be affecting her, too, thought Xena. "Why don't you wait here while I go get wood and make sure we weren't followed. Okay?"

Gabrielle tried to give her a smile and whispered, "Okay," in answer.

"Be right back." Xena found herself sprinting to the cave entrance, relieved to find it quite dark outside. On this, the longest night of the year, there was little twilight. It seemed to move from the warm light of the late afternoon directly to pitch black. She glanced up at what she knew were rain clouds, shutting out any sources of light from the stars or the moon. Fine, she thought to herself. All the more difficult to find us.

Gathering wood proved more of a challenge than she would have liked. She did find some, mostly by feel, and took a few loads into the cave far just enough to keep the wood dry, then picked the best kindling and some pieces of eucalyptus that would burn fast and hot to try to warm Gabrielle as quickly as possible. Re-tracing her steps to their little camp, her gait never faltered even though she couldn't see where she was going.

Argo snorted as she neared. "Hi ya. Glad you could tell it was me," Xena laughed at the thought of Argo mistaking her for someone else. This was a horse who could even tell who inhabited her body, she never had to worry about Argo in that regard. Xena bent and cleared a circle on the dusty floor, propping a few pieces of kindling up against a stone. Another reason to carry a flint in your belt, she said to herself as she retrieved hers from its small pouch hidden on her leathers. With two swift strokes, she had sparks, then a tentative flame, and soon the kindling burned enough to add a few small logs.

"See, I told 'ya I'd be right back and get you warmed up." Xena glanced up. "Gabrielle?" She looked left and right quickly. No bard.

"Gabrielle?" she called again. Without stopping to think, Xena grabbed an extra shift from their bags and tore it into strips, wrapping them around the tip of one of the pieces of wood she'd brought back for the fire. Lighting it, she headed farther back into the cave, searching for Gabrielle by torchlight.

Footprints, uneven and swirling as if Gabrielle had been fighting with someone, led away from her. But for the life of her, Xena couldn't find any prints other than Gabrielle's. Gods, the pit of her stomach ached. Following Gabrielle's tracks as best she could in the dim light, she wandered farther and farther back into the maze of passageways that made up the cave.

Soon, the dusty floor was replaced by rock as few creatures had ventured that far back with enough regularity to wear down the stone into soil. That meant no more footprints. At the next junction, Xena pulled up. Which way? Left or right? She knew she wouldn't gain anything by indecision, so she just randomly picked one way, and did so again at the next intersection and the next after that. Soon, she had no idea where she was or where she'd been, and she was aware of her torch sputtering, the first signs that she would lose her light source.

She gave herself one more burst forward before turning back, not quite ready to give up yet. The air smelled damp suddenly, she sniffed carefully, then felt the strong tendrils of netting surround her before blacking out.

"Isn't that the warrior who travels with Gabrielle?" Xena overheard voices as she pulled herself up out of a deep fog.

"They say she travels with Xena."

"The Warrior Princess?"

'Yes. Interesting, Gabrielle chose to use our gift on her exploits."

"You know we don't attach stipulations to our gifts!"

"Yes, but it's still strange. I would never have guessed that about Gabrielle."

Xena opened her eyes and, in her most demanding voice, growled, "What have you done with her?"

Nine women, lovely and graceful, surrounded her. They must have been quite sure of themselves for they'd left the dangerous warrior unshackled, free to move about or attack as she saw fit.

One off the women, clothed in robes of a golden light, stepped forward. "Are you not Xena of Amphipolis?"

She scowled, "I am," hoping to intimidate her captors. "And I ask you again, what have you done with Gabrielle?"

"Done with her?" Another asked, very surprised. "You mean... you... you lost her?"

How dare these woman speak to me this way, she groused to herself. "I didn't lose her, someone took her."

Now the women exuded on a very different air. All at once the nine asked her, "Where was she?" "Who took her?" "Why would someone take here?" "Is any one mad at her?" "When did you last see her?"

If nothing else, it made Xena think these woman just might not be at fault. Then she thought some more. And looked around her. She was in a cavern and though there was no opening to the sun, the space was well lit. Perhaps by some sort of odd lichen, hidden torches, or perhaps...

"Who are you?" Xena asked cautiously.

"Do you not know where you are, Xena of Amphipolis?"

"In a cave," Xena offered. Until she knew who, or what, she was dealing with, she didn't want to give them very much information.

"Yes. This is Corycian Stalactite Cave. And we're the Muses."

It did make sense. "But where is Gabrielle?" she asked them again.

"We didn't know she was here," one of them answered. "Ah, excuse me. I am Clio, Muse of History." Clio worn a chiton of deep maroons, a color so rich and dark it hid the folds of its pleats in shadow.

"Clio," Xena began tentatively, "Gabrielle and I took shelter in the cave. I went to gather wood and when I returned she was gone."

"This is not welcome news." Another said. Her gown was a brilliant red. "I am Erato."

Xena smiled. "Muse of Love Poetry."

She smiled and dipped her head slightly. "I bestowed a great gift upon Gabrielle."

"As did we," said two more.

"I am Euterpe, Muse of Lyric Poetry. This," she said indicated the other woman who'd spoken, one in a sweet green robe, "is Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry."

Calliope nudged her sister Muse, "We fought over Gabrielle. Finally Clio suggested we all bestow our gifts on Gabrielle."

"And I'm glad they did," chided Clio. "Gabrielle has more Muses on her side than she's aware of. Thrice blessed."

"She does well by your gifts," Xena said, no small measure of pride creeping in.

"Oh, that much we know." Erato smiled, "She's rather adept in my field, don't you think, Xena?"

Xena felt her skin prickling at the blush creeping up her neck. "I would agree with that, yes," she replied softly.

Euterpe brought them all back to the issue at hand, "And so now you've lost her. Tell us what happened."

"For two days I've had the strangest feeling that something was going to happen. Then everyone at that village kept going berserk..."

"Wait!" Clio's tone demanded silence and she held up her hand. "What village?"


"And you say the villagers acted strangely?" she questioned Xena.

"Yes. It was the most disconcerting thing I've ever seen. All of a sudden they'd go crazy and get into fights, throw things at each other..."

"Pan." Clio nodded to herself. "That no good, mischievous little twerp is at it again."

Xena finally put it together. Pan -- panic. One of the oddities he was often responsible for. "So why would Pan afflict an entire village with panic, give me the sense that something was about to happen, but have no apparent effect on Gabrielle?"

"Why don't you go ask him?" Clio put her hands on her hips.

Xena rolled her eyes. "And just where do I find Pan?"

"Come on, I'll take you to him." Erato started up the path.

"We'll come, too," cried Calliope and Euterpe.

Xena found herself following three Muses through labyrinthine passageways deep in the Corycian Stalactite Cave to find Pan--and hopefully Gabrielle as well. They found him, all right. A blubbering fool, weeping and moaning just outside the home of the nymphs, also tucked away in the Corycian Stalactite Cave.

"Pan," Calliope scolded him as if he were a child. "Stop that crying right now. We've got questions for you."

He wailed and buried his face in his hands, a neat trick for one with cloven hooves. Cloven hooves... Xena began to sort out everything. "You kicked her, didn't you?" He sent a shifty peek at Xena but refused to answer her which only focused her anger and frustration.

Just as Xena was about to wrap her quivering fingers around his neck, Calliope intercepted her, holding her back with one hand. "Pan, we're missing Gabrielle. Can you tell us where she is?"

He started to answer her but his voice broke and he could only blurt out a mournful cry.

"We'll have none of this!" Erato stepped up to Pan. "You'll answer our questions or we'll ban you from the Cave again."

"No, no, no..." he cried.

"And we know that you don't want to be away from your nymphs," Erato added.

"No! Please. I'll talk." He wiped his nose and sniffled.

Erato asked him, "Where's Gabrielle?"

"I... I don't know where she is now."

"Now?" screeched Xena.

"Okay, okay. So she was here. We had a deal."

"A deal?" Xena seethed with frustration. Why couldn't he just tell her what she needed to know.

"Yeah, see she wanted to get you something for Solstice, Xena." The corners of Pan's mouth spasmed and it looked like he was about to cry again.

Calliope stepped in. "From the beginning. All of it, Pan, and don't dawdle!"

"Okay." He sheepishly looked at Xena. "I heard her the other night when she was telling you stories. She told the story of Echo, and... well... you know what happened to her with Hera taking her voice and all, so I wanted to... to," nervous twitches broke out on his face.

"You wanted to take Gabrielle's voice?" Euterpe asked him.

"No, not really. Just her stories," he finally confessed.

"Those stories are not hers to give for we bestowed them upon her," Euterpe answered him. "But Pan, in another sense they are meant for everyone. They're free. All you need do is re-tell them, and you've made them yours as well."

"But she gave them to me!" He pulled out the scroll, Gabrielle's fine hand clearly inked next to some squiggles at the bottom. "In exchange for a Solstice gift for Xena, she gave me all her stories."

"Let me see that," Xena snatched it out of his hand and read it, peering closer and finally squinting. "What does it say down here?"

"Oh that?" he scrapped a hoof along the ground timidly.

"Yes, that!" shot back Xena, none of the Muses bothering to calm her now.

"Just that she agreed to, ah," he cleared his throat and mumbled indistinctly.

"What?" Xena screamed right up into his face.

Pan looked to the Muses for help and saw them all anxiously waiting for his answer to Xena's question. "Well," he squeaked, "it says that she agreed to come here and make the exchange permanent."

"The exchange?" said in such a darkly menacing voice, she scared Pan so, he could barely muster his breath to answer the tall warrior.

"I wouldn't just leave her with nothing, so I gave her... Echo's, ah, method of communication." Pan struck a smile which quickly melted under the angry glances of four wrathful women.

Xena took one more step forward, her muscular body pressing up against Pan's quivering hide. "Where is Gabrielle now?"

He scratched a spot behind an ear. "Oh, that..."

Xena had her hands around his throat before he could even get out a peep. None of the Muses made any attempts to pry her hands away. "Nyx," he wheezed.

Xena let him go, partially relieved to get an answer out of him but mostly hoping she'd heard him wrong. "Nyx?"

"Yeah. Seems they good people of Daulis raised such a ruckus they attracted her attention." Pan hoped to deflect some of the blame from himself. "Nyx wondered what was going and so she came and asked me about it." Dead silence. He continued. "Well, I told her I'd kinda made those nice people panic and she kinda didn't like that seeing as how they disturbed her and all and so then she wanted me to pay for all those little annoyances she'd suffered and I explained that I didn't have anything to pay her with and then she asked if I had any possessions at all and I made the mistake of mentioning that I was about to give Gabrielle's stories to Echo and Nyx sorta figured that Gabrielle would make a suitable restitution so she, um... took her."

"Nyx has Gabrielle?" This time, it was Xena's voice that threatened to leave her out of nervousness.

Calliope had heard enough. "Pan, do you realize what you've done?"

"Uh... I guess so?" he offered as unconvincingly as possible.

"Nyx is the daughter of Chaos, the mother of Sleep and Death; War and Famine! Even Zeus is afraid of her!" Calliope finished in a high-pitched scream.

"Well that's even better reason to be afraid of her myself," replied Pan in a huff.

"We've got to get her back." Xena had stopped listening to Pan and started planning. "Will you take me to her?" She looked to the Muses.

"We, ah, don't get along very well with her." Euterpe hedged.

Erato scrunched her nose, "Actually, no one has ever bested her, Xena."

Xena was not dissuaded. "Nyx can only function at night, right?" Heads bobbed. "So if I survive until dawn..."

"You'll win back Gabrielle, but remember Xena, you've picked the longest night of the year."

"And she has Gabrielle," Xena said matter of factly. "Are you going to help or not?"

"Well," stammered Erato, "we can certainly give Gabrielle her voice and stories back." She swiped the scroll from Pan's hands and tore it up. "Consider that done, Xena."

"Great, so I've got to do this alone?" Xena perched white-knuckled fists on her hips.

"We wish you the best of luck," Calliope said, taking a few steps toward the passageway leading to their home.

"But it's Gabrielle!" cried Xena.

"Sad, so sad," replied Euterpe, joining Calliope in little backward shuffles.

"I hope it goes well. And, you'll find Nyx at the summit. We can get you as far as... the mouth of the cave." Xena saw Erato smile weakly, then the next thing she knew, she and Argo were at the entrance to the cave, rain pelting them. She started to reach for her cloak and then remembered she'd given it to Gabrielle. Well, at least she'll be warm, thought Xena as she mounted Argo and began to pick a path up the mountain in the dark.

She had no idea how long she'd been in the cave, no moon or stars could be seen to measure the hour, consequently, she had no idea how long she'd have to fight Nyx, or, for that matter, if she could even find her. She pushed on through the cold rain.

It was not an easy climb. As the path got steeper it also narrowed so she dismounted to lead Argo, worried that her horse might misstep in the dark. Not that she didn't fall herself a few times. Luckily she had a firm hold on the reins so when she tripped and slipped off the edge, Argo retained her steady footing and helped pull her back up to the path. The lack of sleep the night before, coupled with no sleep this night, all the tension she'd be shouldering, and the mud caked to her legs, not to mention the prospect of going up against Nyx made for a tired, cranky, and worried warrior.

At last the path flattened out, the summit loomed near. Checking her sword and scabbard, making sure they were positioned perfectly, she led Argo to a safe spot under a tree. She'd go the rest of the distance on foot. At least the rain had let up and the clouds thinned to allow a pale shade of moonlight through, barely outlining the trees.

There was nothing to do about the soft squishing noises her boots made in the mud. Xena's arrival had no doubt long since been predicted by Nyx, oracular abilities among her trove of powers. Shaking as much mud from her feet as possible, Xena walked straight to the summit and stood in the center of an ancient amphitheater, mostly in ruins, a few well-worn rocks left among the rubble.

"Are you as brave as they say?" A voice, unfettered, disembodied floated toward her.

Xena cocked her head trying to locate the source.

"Our are you just stupid?" The voice laughed sending booming refrains across the rocks.

Xena took a breath and responded in kind, "I was just about to ask you those same questions."

A huge thunderclap announced Nyx's corporeal arrival. Black robes blowing in the wind revealed little of Nyx's form, but Xena had a direction and a target now.

"You have taken someone, I've come to free her." Xena took the offensive.

"I keep only that which is my due. All that is here is mine," Nyx answered her challenge.

"All mortals are free, they cannot belong to the gods." Xena shifted slightly, squaring her body to Nyx's form.

"So some would like to believe, but the gods have license to trade in whatever they desire."

"Pan did not own Gabrielle. He had no right to give her to you."

"Oh, but I saw the contract. She signed herself away."

For once, Xena was glad to engage someone in conversation, to debate with words rather than steel. "That contract has been nullified. The Muses' gifts are not to be traded. Not even among the gods."

Nyx seemed to grow larger, Xena realized it was because the goddess was moving towards her. "It was a fair contract in good stead when our exchange took place. I needn't be worried about the likes of Pan and his petty problems now."

"That contract was void from the outset. It involved only Gabrielle's stories and they're not negotiable." Xena's fingers trembled over her chakram.

"I can see you didn't read it carefully. Mortals, so anxious to take their next breath, they forget to pay attention." Nyx set her straight, "Gabrielle signed away her storytelling abilities to Pan, Pan gave them to me."

"They're non-negotiable." Xena grit her teeth, this debating business proved much more taxing than fighting. "And besides, you've got Gabrielle, not just what you claim to be her storytelling abilities."

"But are they not one in the same?" A cold air shivered past Xena as she listened to Nyx's rebuttal. "Aren't you humans defined by what you do, what you say, how you act? Gabrielle is her storytelling, therefore she is mine as well. One neat package, don't you agree?"

Xena desperately wished she had Gabrielle's help right now. The bard would be so much better able to bore holes through Nyx's logic. "Are you that unaware of what it is to be mortal?" asked Xena. Throw it back at her, yeah, that's what Gabrielle would do.

"Piddly creatures that mortals be? Oh, I have a very clear picture of them since it only takes a fraction of my mind to encompass one of yours." This Xena creature amused Nyx. She'd have to find a way to keep the warrior as well.

"Then you've been allowing yourself to miss a great deal. Mortals are much more complicated than you realize." Come on Xena, just pretend you're Gabrielle. Say what she'd say. "It's a shame, really."

"How dare you," the goddess rumbled. "I can't even believe I'm taking the time to have a conversation with such a shallow creature. You know not of what you speak, you flea."

"But you said a mortal's identity is fashioned from what they do. I'm a warrior, right?"

"A Warrior Princess, from what I've heard," Nyx agreed.

"Do you see my blade now? Am I only able to battle my opponents with weapons of metal?" Xena was rather proud of herself. She was making a pretty good Gabrielle.

Nyx's robes twisted in the wind. That had unsettled her.

Xena continued, "Mortals are defined by their souls. Something the gods know little of."

"A figure of speech invented to fill a void mortals don't understand." Nyx wrinkled her nose. "I'll bet you can't even explain what this 'soul' is to me."

An opening. She took it gladly. "What are you willing to wager?"

"Don't play that game with me."

"I assure you, it is no game." Xena had talked enough. "I will beat you and I will take her back, give Gabrielle the freedom that is hers."

"You cannot win."

"Okay, Nyx, I'll offer this proposition. If I'm still alive when the first rays of dawn appear over the horizon, you will agree to let Gabrielle go." It would have to work.

"You will not win. Are you prepared to give your life to Gabrielle?" Nyx's eyes narrowed.


Nyx thrust her arms out to her sides, wild trains of black fabric trailing in the winds. Xena drew her sword, ready to thrust when she saw the unmistakable strands of strawberry hair mixing with the pleats of Nyx's robes. "As you can see I wear a type of armor impervious to your attacks, Xena. You cannot win because you will not fight."

Xena stepped back and considered her options. "We agreed only that I would be alive at dawn. No one said anything about fighting."

"You are a warrior, Xena." Nyx's voice took on an air of assuredness that held lethal truth. "You cannot refrain from attacking me. It is who you are. It defines you, Xena." Nyx moved closer to the warrior. "I will enjoy proving myself right. You cannot remain passive and when you do choose to fight, you will have to kill Gabrielle before you can put the smallest scratch on me." For the first time that night, Xena caught a glimpse of Nyx's teeth. They glittered with gold but were outlined in the same foreboding darkness that colored her person and her words.

And it was a darkness Xena understood how to beat.

She sheathed her sword and relaxed the twittering muscles, more than ready to release their energy impacting Nyx's body. Xena smiled. She perched herself on a smooth stone, brought one knee up and lay her elbow on it, resting her chin in her palm.

And broke out in a cold sweat from reining in her need to scramble Nyx's brains with a hard jab in the jaw.

Nyx smiled as well, seeing the struggle on Xena's brow. "It is a long night, Xena. Are you prepared to engage me in this way for an unlimited time?"

"Time is finite. The sun will rise in the same interval whether or not we fight."

"Really? How do you judge time, Xena? Are not some minutes longer than others? Doesn't time pass quickly on a warm summer afternoon and drag on endlessly when you long for those lazy days?" The goddess nodded to Xena as if to say 'your turn.'

"Time does not change. Our perception of it might ebb and flow, but to this stone tomorrow will come the same if I sit here all night or not."

"So you admit that humans can't keep an accurate accounting of time?" Nyx was sure she had her this time.

"I'll admit," replied Xena slowly, "that mortals have a complicated relationship with time. I guess that's something you can't understand either. Immortality must make time a rather boring subject for you, for it never matters how long something takes, you always know you'll be there to see the resolution."

Nyx shifted uncomfortably.

"And," added Xena, "it seems the gods have difficulty admitting they're wrong. It's a lesson many of us mortals learn in our limited life spans. How come you never learned how to do it?"

Nyx balled her fist and brought her arm back, cocking it before unleashing it to throw something in Xena's direction. Xena didn't wait to find out what it was, she ducked out of the way, letting it pass. "Missed me," she intoned, slapping away the dust and re-settling herself on the rock. Inside, though, her body ached with pent up frustration. Oh, how her muscles needed to react, to slap back equal force. Another deep breath helped a bit, but if this was to go on much longer, she wasn't sure she could make it.

"It taunts you, doesn't it?" Nyx's sly grin accompanied her soft, teasing words.

"What does?" a tired Xena asked.

"Your passions. Your needs. Your... identity. It taunts you, beckons to you. You cannot deny who you are."

"That's true," Xena admitted. It is more true that I ever realized, she said to herself.

"Good, then I have won. Be gone with you." Nyx tossed her hand in the air easily. "And remember, you won't be taking anything with you."

Xena laughed, an exhausted, weak laugh. "You give up easily, don't you?"

"I thought it was you who were admitting defeat. I claim victory."

"As I claim victory over my desires. I claim control over my decisions while allowing myself the freedom of thought. That's what makes us alive, Nyx. That's what makes us mortal."

"But you want to fight me, don't you, Xena?"


"So I've won. You're a warrior. It is your individuality."

Xena stood, Nyx smelled her surrender. "I admit that I am a warrior." Xena spoken solemnly. "I admit that I do want to fight you, Nyx. I admit that I would willingly give my live for Gabrielle's." She confused Nyx by not drawing a weapon. "But I am much more than that. I am so much more than you could possibly understand. Once I was like you, devoured by darkness. But someone came into my life who helped me grow. That's what mortals do, Nyx, they grow, they change, they react to their lives. You have been just as you are for as long as you can remember."

Xena showed Nyx a satisfied grin. "One of the things that person taught me is to judge people for who they are and not just what they seem. So though you seem a frightening entity, you are no different from that rock I've been sitting on. As unchanging and predictable as stone, and," she added, lowering her voice, making Nyx strain to hear her, "you are slowly eroding, just like that stone. Because you never change, you erode, wear away under the forces of the wind and the rain and the sun until you are nothing but the dust that coats the Earth." Xena stood still, in control of her body, in control of her mind.

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the subtle shift in color along the horizon. "And that person, Gabrielle, taught me patience. It's a hard lesson to learn when you're motivated to grow, but it can be worth the wait from time to time."

Nyx turned in horror to see the sure signs of Apollo's chariot about to break over the horizon. She swirled around, becoming an eddy of wind and dust, then vanished. Xena bolted to the spot where Nyx had been and found Gabrielle blinking up at her. "Xena?"

"I'm here." She knelt down and picked up the bard, taking her over under a copse of trees and out of the wind. In one graceful move, she sat down, cradling Gabrielle on her lap.

"You were amazing," Gabrielle reached up and touched her fingertips to Xena's lips. "Amazing."

"Are you okay? Did she hurt you?" Xena asked, tremors coursing through her as she was finally released from her emotional cage.

"Fine. I'm fine, Xena." They both turned toward the horizon as the sun broke the night. Across valleys to the foothills of Mount Parnassus, everything was bathed in soft blue glow that melted into reds and yellows, etching more deeply into the terrain, revealing slowly all that were the secrets of the Earth. Gabrielle looked to Xena's face, lit by the most spectacular sunrise she'd ever seen. "Wow."

Xena leaned in and kissed her softly, letting her lips say what she couldn't articulate in words. When she coaxed her voice into working again she said, "I'd heard that sunrises on Mount Parnassus were the most beautiful in the world."

"Hmmm," replied Gabrielle, taking possession of those lips again. "I'd say they were right." She settled against Xena's chest, closing her eyes as she felt Xena's arms fold around her. "You really were amazing, Xena."

"Nah. I just kept thinking about what you would say. Actually it was you who got yourself out of that mess."

"Not true!" She squeezed Xena. "You did that! I couldn't do anything but... well, you know, the usual. Get in trouble."

"And that you did, my bard. How did you manage it anyway?"

"Oh, yeah," Gabrielle snaked her finger into her belt retrieving the pouch she'd meant to give Xena for Solstice. "Sorry it's a day late. Happy Solstice, Xena."

Xena worked the tie open with one hand, the other clamped around Gabrielle where, she was determined, it would stay for the whole day. She peeked in the bag. "Hey, I need these!" With a big grin on her face she thanked her. "But don't ever sign anything again until you read the whole scroll!"

"Well, that guy seemed nice enough. How was I supposed to know he was Pan?" Gabrielle frowned. "Besides, it was the only way I could get you anything."

Xena hugged her. "I know. And I think it's great and..." she stopped.

"And what?"

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I didn't get you anything for Solstice."

"What are you crazy? You were about to give me your life, Xena!"

Xena chuckled once. "Well, that's been yours for a long time."

"Then you gave me the most amazing sunrise in all of the known world. That's pretty special."

"Yes, I guess you're right." She sighed and let her chin rest on Gabrielle's head.

"Aren't I always right?" Gabrielle asked, waiting for and the receiving a tickling, then a kiss, then a caress, and then an all-in-all wonderful morning.


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