Light Mist Falling
Part 1 of 2
Disclaimers: Okay, lessee... Xena, Gabrielle & Argo belong to the Renaissance & Universal crew. They just came visiting for a little while cause they like my coffee. Subtext: yes. Sex: well, okay, a little bit. Snuck in while I was brewing up a fresh pot. Violence: like, duh. Rift: not yet.
I would also like to publicly abase myself at the feet of de Bonheur who actually read over this as it came off my 'puter and fussed at me whenever it stopped making sense, which was quite often, and all that despite her being heavily involved in her own tremendous uberFrenchEpic.
Woman's a saint. That said, please don't blame her for what remains. It's still my fault.
Comments, criticism, etc. are welcome. (Please note: pointed remarks concerning getting off the damn computer and doing a little yardwork have already been covered in painfully exact detail.)
=============== Part 1 ================
"You make it look so easy."
"It isn't hard. Just relax, you'll get it. Now, take a deep breath..."
Gabrielle obediently inflated her lungs again. Xena gently pushed her back under the water and held her down. All too few seconds passed before the young woman slapped her arms, indicating she wanted up again, and Xena pulled back, allowing her to surface. Gabrielle broke water in something approaching panic, which she quickly controlled.
"I'm sorry, I don't know what's wrong."
Xena looked at her thoughtfully. "I don't know, either. You do well enough on dry land."
"That's different-- I can take a breath any time on land."
Xena smiled. "That's true in the water, too. You can surface anytime you like. Want to try again?"
"Okay. I guess."
"Try this: take a deep breath, then let it out. And another. Good... one more-- good. Now, down you go."
This time the bard stayed down. The seconds passed. Xena watched tendrils of blonde hair swirl about in the gentle eddies of the pond. After she judged a couple of minutes had gone by, she squeezed Gabrielle's shoulders and lifted her out of the water.
"I did it!" the younger woman gasped as she caught her breath. "Wow! That was awesome!" She turned and threw her arms around Xena's neck. "I did it." she murmured into the warrior's ear.
Xena lifted her slightly out of the water and began carrying her to shore. "You sure did. Good job. And you'll only get better the more you practise."
Gabrielle pulled back slightly and twitched her thighs. Xena appeared not to notice. She tried the direct approach. "You can put me down now."
Xena paused, pretending to consider the idea. She nodded. "True."
Gabrielle glared at her, drumming her heels lightly into the warrior's thighs. "I want down, princess."
Xena widened her eyes in mock earnestness. "You sure?"
"O-okay..." Xena appeared to simply shrug, but the bard didn't have time to spend analysing the movement, as her view spun sharply around a tight axis and she found herself cannonballing into the deeper water of the pond some feet behind Xena. She held her breath and flattened herself along the bottom, peering through the silt and weeds along the bottom. A fish suddenly appeared directly in front of her nose; she shook her head slightly and it vanished.
Xena watched the surface of the pond, expecting Gabrielle to pop up within seconds of her dunking, and readied herself for the coming water fight. Seconds slipped past and the pond remained silent. Concerned, Xena swam forward a few feet and began to dive.
The water was murky from their recent activity, but Gabrielle spotted Xena's legs as her feet left the bottom. She pulled herself away at an oblique angle and circled behind the warrior. As Xena dove, Gabrielle pushed herself up and over the warrior, wrapping her arms and legs around her torso.
Xena reacted automatically, spinning in place and breaking her attacker's hold. As she started to push away, she recognised Gabrielle, and instead reversed her course shoreward. She came up under the bard, wrapping one arm around her legs, and stood free in the waist-deep water, with Gabrielle balanced over her shoulder.
"Is this more comfortable?"
Gabrielle pushed off against Xena's back with her hands until she was more or less upright, dragging soaked locks out of her face. "It lacks something. Dignity, maybe." She turned her head, looking around. "Hey, I can see our camp from here. Argo's.... chewing on your leathers?"
"Just kidding. But someone's coming down that trail we were on yesterday."
"Just at the foot of the hill."
"Ah. No hurry, then."
"Nah. Xena, I'm cold."
"Okay." Xena loosened her hold and the bard slid unhurriedly down until she was once more on her feet in the water. As Gabrielle started to pull away, Xena tightened her grip around her waist. "Pay toll."
Green eyes sparkled up into blue. "For what?!"
"Hey, I've been porting you all over this pond-- you owe me. Pay up."
"Xena, Ferrywoman Princess... it has a nice-- mmrm." As the kiss lengthened, Gabrielle felt all traces of her earlier chill vanish. She relaxed into Xena's arms and barely noticed when the warrior lifted her again and splashed to shore, depositing her on the grassy bank next to their clothes. They broke apart at last, and Gabrielle said wistfully, "Do you think we could just sort of move camp farther into the woods, right now, really fast?"
Xena shook her head as she made a long arm for a towelling rag. "Not enough time. We'll just have to see what they want. Turn around, I'll get your back."
"Oh, well. Just a thought." They finished drying off and started up the steep trail to their campsite, still shaking water from their hair.
A short while later, Gabrielle was helping Xena lace up the back of her leathers when their visitor entered the campsite. Xena adroitly moved to partially block Gabrielle from the man's line of sight, and the two women stared at him as he dismounted his horse and turned toward them, hands upraised in a gesture of peace. Without further preamble, he said to the warrior, "Are you Xena?"
"I am," Xena smoothly replied, her face a mask of studied calm.
"I have a message for you. It's in my pack. I'll get it." He turned around carefully and even more carefully retrieved a scroll from his saddlebag. Xena watched this with an inner amusement that never touched her expression. 'Someone's been telling tales on me,' she thought.
Xena took the scroll from him and read it through. She glanced between it and the man leaning quietly against his horse. The way his cheekbones stood out in relief concerned her. "Gabrielle," she said quietly, "is there any of that rabbit left from last night?"
"Well... yes, there is," the bard replied, looking over at the tree limb from whence they'd hung last night's leftovers. "Up there."
Xena nodded. "Good." She pulled it down and walked over to the messenger. "Take this. Eat it. You can tell Lyamen we're on our way."
"I was told to ride with you."
Xena's eyes narrowed as she stared him down. "No."
The soldier swallowed and nodded. "Very well." He snatched the parcel of meat and remounted his horse, cantering back the way he'd come.
After he'd gone, Gabrielle slapped Xena's shoulder. "Sit down, you. You're still half-undone here. Though maybe that's just as well...?"
"No such luck, Gabrielle," Xena smiled down at the bard. "We have to pack up and go."
"That man looked half-starved."
"That's because he was half-starved."
"His horse didn't."
"His horse wasn't."
The bard sighed in exasperation as she finished off the last of Xena's laces and began gathering their things. Xena settled her breastplate and the rest of her kit while pondering Lyamen's note. She looked up to see Gabrielle giving her an exaggerated bow.
"Princess, your train is packed and your steed awaits."
Xena looked around in surprise. Their stuff was indeed all done up and piled neatly near Argo's tack. She stood. "Sorry, guess I was preoccupied."
"That's okay," the bard said, and grinned as she took Xena's place on the log. "I'll just rest here while you deal with Argo."
Before long the mare was loaded and they headed back up the trail on foot, Xena leading the mare. At last Gabrielle could stand it no longer. "Xena," she began, "are you ever going to tell me what was in that scroll?"
Xena laughed. "I had a bet on with myself about how long it would take you to ask."
Gabrielle poked her lightly in her ribs. "Did you win?"
"Yes." Xena reached behind Gabrielle without turning her head and tugged on a blonde lock.
"Well, good," the bard replied, capturing Xena's hand in her own and twining her fingers between the warrior's. "Always nice to add to our purse when we can. Now, what about the note?"
"Not much to it. Lyamen wants us to come to his villa as soon as we can."
"Oh." Gabrielle considered this. "Why?"
"Don't know, he didn't want to put it in writing."
"How come we didn't go back with that man?"
"I want to stop in Lyamen's village, Amentus. Get a feel for things. He works for Lyamen; he might be in the way there." Xena paused as they reached a fork in the trail and squinted at the horizon. "Remember that river we camped next to night before last? The one with the berry bushes?"
"Me, too. Nice place... On second thought, we're not going there. Take too long. We need to pick up the sea road for a bit and then swing inland tomorrow. Get out of these hills." Xena turned and mounted Argo, holding a hand out for the bard. "Come on, up you go!"
Gabrielle sighed in resignation. The day had been going so well. Not as well as it might have, but then again, there hadn't been any horses involved before now. She took Xena's outstretched arm and swung her leg over the saddle. Settling down, she wrapped her arms around Xena's waist and buried her head between the warrior's shoulderblade and her scabbard.
Without a word Xena took the reins and headed the mare down the left-hand fork toward the sea. They reached the shore within the next hour and Xena pulled up near a stand of trees that formed a partial windbreak. "Ready for some lunch?"
"Am I ever not? And does it involve getting off this horse?"
Xena laughed up at her as she dismounted. "No, you have to stay on Argo-- here, take my hand."
They settled down under one of the trees and munched their way through a loaf of bread and some hard cheese, washing it all down with water from the pond. A small brown bush bird repeatedly poked its head out from behind a clump of weeds near Gabrielle, who couldn't resist tossing crumbs for it to snatch up. Catching her at it, Xena leaned over and whispered in her ear, "You know, if you feed them, they'll follow you everywhere." Gabrielle promptly broke off a bite of cheese and laid it on the warrior's lower lip. The little bird peeped its displeasure at being forgotten and hopped into the open to peck at Xena's boot. Gabrielle's eyes ran with suppressed laughter as the bird and the warrior stared at each other, then Xena pulled off a small piece of bread and tossed it lightly back into the weeds, saying, "Forget it, bird. She's my bard. But you can have the leftovers." The tiny creature raced after it, issuing victorious cheeps all the way until it was once more hidden from view.
While Gabrielle licked her fingers, Xena pulled a last small packet out of the saddlebag and laid it on the bard's lap.
"What's this?" Gabrielle said, unwrapping it. "Oh-- figs!"
"Can you eat them riding? We need to hurry it up."
Gabrielle rewrapped the fruits and stood, stretching. "I'm sore already," she lamented, "but for you, I'll ride."
"Attagirl. C'mon." Xena helped her up and this time mounted behind her. She held Argo to a walk along the shoreline, which gave her ample opportunity to steal figs from the bard's bundle. Between feeding Xena figs, slapping Xena's hands away from the figs, and eating one or two figs herself, Gabrielle forgot for a bit that she was afraid of heights.
The fruit finally devoured, Xena wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's waist and held her firmly. "Ready?" She felt the bard shiver involuntarily before she heard her reply, "No, but let's do it anyway."
The shoreline was long and mostly unbroken. As Argo kicked into a run, Gabrielle felt the wind buffet her from the front as well as from seaward. She was startled to find that she could still hear Xena speaking quite plainly.
"How are you doing?"
"All right," Gabrielle responded, surprised at the truth of it. "Hey, this isn't too bad. Kind of nice to see where we're going." She felt Xena nod above her, and let the rushing air push her back into the warrior's chest. The westering sun beat down on her face, warming her despite the chill of the sea's wind. "I'm starting to see why you like this so much," she continued.
"Are you? You know, Lyamen keeps a very good stable, we could--"
Gabrielle looked up, for a moment thinking Xena was serious, then relaxed when she saw her grin. "Hey, you. Don't tease the bard. 'Sides, then I'd have to drive myself. I much prefer it this way."
"Who's the princess on this horse, huh?"
Gabrielle relaxed further, as the constancy of Argo's gait lulled her into drowsiness. She tucked her head under Xena's chin before murmuring "That's 'queen' to you, warrior."
They rounded an outcropping and thundered through a flock of seagulls. The grey and white forms flew up in ragged, noisy formations, yet so thickly did they rise that Gabrielle almost felt as if she were floating. Then they were through and the gulls behind them, screaming faint insults chopped off by the wind. Gabrielle returned her attention to the crashing surf, shimmering bronze in the late afternoon sun. The tide was coming in, pushing Argo higher on the beach. For a moment as she watched, the waves seemed to surge forward with fingerlike tendrils, snatching at the mare's hooves, trying to pull them all under the molten shroud. Then Xena slowed Argo to a walk, and the waves became just water again.
Gabrielle shook her head. Xena'd said something she didn't quite catch. "What was that?"
"We can walk the rest of the way. Give Argo a rest. There's a few caves in that cliff just ahead." Xena pointed out the darker spots a mile ahead where the shoreline again curved farther out to sea. "Be out of the wind, too," she continued.
Gabrielle nodded and they dismounted. As they made their way slowly up the beach, she sought out the little depressions in the sand that signified a hiding clam. Her hands rapidly filled and she jogged back to Xena with her catch, dumping them in a cloth the warrior had brought out for that purpose. By the time they'd reached the point where they needed to leave the beach and start climbing, she'd retrieved two dozen and was already planning their preparation.
Xena had watched the bard dart about on the beach with growing amusement as she became more and more covered with wet sand in her efforts to hang onto the clamshells. As they worked their way toward the caves, Gabrielle poked her lightly in her side. "What are you grinning about?"
Xena turned, openly smiling now. "You. You look as though you'd burrowed under the beach after those shells."
"Grin all you want, princess. Just remember who brought back supper this time."
"Okay, Mighty Huntress... up for a swim before we eat?"
"Fabulous-- hurry it up, I've got sand in places you haven't found yet."
After a quick swim in the sea and a filling meal of clams and other odds and ends, moonrise found them resting by the fire, Xena lying on her side with Gabrielle's head leaning against her stomach. The pounding surf was a faint and constant voice somewhere beyond the mouth of the cave. Gabrielle watched the fire's light call flickering beings forth from the high, irregular walls and just as quickly banish them again. Xena idly ran her fingers through the bard's hair, thinking of the day to come and the man who'd sent for them.
Gabrielle broke the silence. "Xena, how well do you really know Lyamen?"
The warrior twisted two locks of red-gold hair into a loose braid as she replied, "He used to ride with me. Younger son, looking for adventure. I think he found more than he really wanted. He had a real way with horses, kept our stables, made sure my captains had fresh mounts and such. Used to break his heart when they were hurt or had to be put down. Barely more than a boy, really... Anyway, he got word one day that his father and brother had died in some freak accident and he asked leave to go home and settle the estate. He was supposed to rejoin us within the season, but he never came back. Where's the comb? You have a tangle back here."
Gabrielle sat up and fished the comb and a small vial of oil out of a pack. Xena settled behind her and started working the oil through the younger woman's hair with the comb. The bard almost purred as the tangles came loose. Xena went on, "He sent word, though, along with a string of draft horses. Said he could continue to supply us if I liked. It was just after Cirra; I wasn't in the mood to waste time on him and it seemed a good arrangement. So I had it put about that he was on detached duty in the supply line."
"Do you trust him?"
"I don't distrust him... He cares about his herds, but never seemed too interested in people. Remember the dragon, when Amentus was scorched? His big worry was for the sheep, according to the tracker he hired."
"Huh. Your turn. Swap places."
Xena moved forward and sat cross-legged before the fire as Gabrielle knelt behind her, working the oil into her long mane. "Wow. You thought I had knots."
"Sorry, but you need to comb it even when I'm not around, you know."
"I do comb it!"
"Not in the back, you don't. I've seen less tangled undercoats on bear pelts."
As the bard worked her way through the snags, Xena thought about the conversation she'd had with the tracker. The village had been so devastated that the ones still living had wanted to leave, but Lyamen's steward had persuaded them to stay. Lyamen himself was nowhere in evidence, except once when he'd come out to survey the damage to the sheep pens.
Gabrielle slowed her strokes as she felt Xena relax under her. The firelight gleamed in the burnished black of the warrior's long hair. Unable to resist, she put the comb aside and worked her fingers up under the thick fall and began massaging Xena's scalp. The warrior ducked her head and deep rumblings seemed to come from her chest.
"Are those supposed to be purrs?" Gabrielle teased, without missing a beat. "Xena, Warrior Kitty..."
Xena's eyes flew open, and she sat up suddenly, forcing Gabrielle to lean back on her elbows. Twisting around, she crouched over the bard, who stuck out her tongue in defiance. "Warrior kitty?" Xena asked, in a deceptively calm voice.
"Um... here, kitty, kit--?"
Xena's head shot forward to catch Gabrielle's lower lip in her teeth. Blue eyes stared into green. Gabrielle sighed happily as she snaked her arms around Xena's neck. The day was finally starting to pick up again.
During the night a storm moved in from the sea. It lasted no more than a couple of hours before dissipating further inland, but it trailed behind it a thick fog. Xena awoke to the feel of cold, clammy fingers dripping along her skin where it was not already covered by snoring bard. She eased out from under and drew the blanket crumpled at their feet over her lover. They'd stabled Argo in another cave farther up. As Xena made her way there, the new day's sun disappeared for good behind the massive cloudbank hanging low in the sky. Her senses shouted out into the mist and were lost. The fog sucked both colour and sound from her surroundings, muting her footfalls and even the slight jingling of her sword in its scabbard. Xena paused and sniffed the air. All that came to her was the slightly salty, metallic tang of the sea. Her head told her that there was no one within miles of their encampment; her heart, though, hammered out a thousand warnings. By the time she reached Argo's cave, she was crouched over and sweating.
The mare whickered as Xena entered the cave, giving the warrior some measure of returning calm. "Hey, there, old girl," she said as she approached the horse and stroked her nose. Argo tossed her head in greeting and snorted as she caught wind of Gabrielle's scent on Xena's skin. "Yes, it's true-- I stayed all night with her and left you here to fend for yourself..." Xena began untangling the bridle and set it on the mare's head. "all alone. After, of course, brushing you..." She pulled Argo's ears through the leather straps and did up the buckles. "and watering you..." Argo inhaled deeply as Xena laid the saddle on her back. "and feeding you... c'mon, suck it in... thank you." She turned the mare and led her out onto the path. "I know I didn't stop to tell you your bedtime story, but I did have a date, after all."
"A horse-- he-he... heh, the gods have sent a horse..."
Xena's head snapped up as Argo backed away, whinnying furiously. A tall stranger stood before her, smiling foolishly as he swayed from side to side. His tunic hung in tatters from his gaunt hips and fleshless shoulders. Bony knees stuck out from beneath its frayed hem. He was drooling, saliva hanging from his mouth in ungainly ropes. "It's been a long time since we've had meat, hasn't it? and horse meat at that," he went on, whining in excitement, "oi-ee, not one of the master's..." The long knife he held in his hand wavered as he sought to bring the tip up. He swallowed and his face hardened into a grimace. "Hand him over. Now."
Xena shook her head. "Argo's a 'she'." Not bothering to draw her sword, Xena simply kicked out, sending the would-be robber's weapon spinning high in the air. He fell to his knees, clutching his broken left hand crossways under his right arm and glared at up at her. The knife crashed to the ground behind him, the sound of it seeming to spark something in him. Struggling to his feet, he charged her. The effort of it all was suddenly too much, and he lost his balance. Xena made a grab for his arm as he fell past her, momentarily catching her fingers in a scrap of his tunic. It almost held together. She looked over the edge, but could see no sign of him through the fog. The warrior picked up his knife, intending to send it after him, yet something was wrong about it. She looked at it more closely. There was blood on the blade. As she watched, a slow droplet formed and dribbled a muted wine-red path down the edge to the tip.
=============== Part 2 ================
Gabrielle awoke when she felt the blanket being tucked around her. She lay unmoving, her eyes barely slitted open, and watched Xena get dressed. Their cave faced east, and the rising sun pierced the fog to form a halo around her warrior, creating an image the bard wanted to memorise for a future tale. Then Xena turned and left the cave, seeming to take the sun with her. Gabrielle sighed and closed her eyes again. If Xena was going to tend to Argo, she knew she had another twenty minutes of sleep coming to her.
She awoke a few minutes later with a feeling that something was very wrong. She started to sit up, but a thing unseen crashed into her head, propelling her sideways farther back into the cave. She rolled with it, and fetched up on her knees. A strange man was crouched with his back to her, pawing frantically through their bags. She shook her head to clear it and stood. He pulled her prized wooden sheep toy from her bag and threw it in disgust against the cavern wall. This was too much for Gabrielle, and she shouted, "Hey!"
He looked up and snarled. Gabrielle was taken aback for a second at the sight of his wasted form and twisted face. She took a step forward, and as she did so, he suddenly picked up the knife he'd lain down and swung it, catching the bard a ragged cut along her inner thigh. She fell back, feeling blood run wet and warm down her leg. Then he was in front of her, with his knife raised for another swing. She kicked out with her good leg as she spun away from the blow, and felt her foot slam solidly into the bone of his hip, spoiling his aim. By sheer luck, his hilt connected solidly with her temple, sending her to the ground. Whining in both pain and panic now, he turned away from her and fled the cave.
Behind him, the bard raised her head woozily from the cave floor and tried to focus. Her shouted "Xena!" was only a whisper on the chill, damp air. She pulled one of the blankets over and tried to staunch her leg wound with it, with little success. Her eyesight cleared, and she was appalled to see how much blood she was continuing to lose. Someone near her whispered, "Xena?" And then the cold entered her bones as she slumped over into the dark.
Xena stared numbly at the knife for a heartbeat before flinging it aside and running down the path to their cave. Pausing just inside the entrance to the cave, she let her eyes adjust to the dimness. A hint of light gold caught her eye beyond the cold firepit, and she traced past it along a greyish white form swallowed in a splash of dark red. She stumbled into the cave and knelt down. "Gabrielle?" she called softly, reaching out to touch her shoulder.
Relief mingled with new fear as Xena gently turned the bard onto her back and saw a minute flutter of eyelashes. The movement reopened her leg wound, and fresh blood began seeping out, trickling over cracks in the old. Xena took in the danger at a glance, and let her automatic reactions take over, folding the blanket into a pad which she pressed down on the wound.
Gabrielle whimpered without waking, and Xena made soothing noises as she checked her work. The bleeding subsided, but the mess on the ground told Xena all too clearly how much had been lost. Working quickly, she built a new fire and heated the last of their water, using it to wash away the dried gore covering Gabrielle's legs. The cut itself was not difficult to stitch, and Xena made quick work of cleaning and closing it, grateful at least that her lover remained unconscious for the duration. A shadow fell over her as she tied off the last knot, and she whirled, drawing her sword as she stood. "Argo," she breathed in relief, putting her weapon away and walking over to the mare, "here, let me get this stuff off you; we won't be going anywhere today."
She undid the horse's bridle and laid it to one side, letting her wander out again to forage. Returning to Gabrielle's side, Xena was gladdened to see the young woman's eyes open. She knelt down beside her and smoothed the hair from her face. "How do you feel?"
"Not good... Xena, it hurts."
"I know. Try not to move. Can you tell me what happened?"
"Surprised a robber..." Gabrielle's eyes widened and she started to sit up. "Xena-- he ran outside-- he's still out there!"
Xena quickly grabbed the bard's shoulders and held her in place. "It's okay. He's gone."
"Shh... it's okay. He won't be back." Xena made a bundle of another blanket and pushed it under Gabrielle's head. "Relax now. You've lost a lot of blood."
"My head hurts..." her voice trailed off as she settled back against the makeshift pillow.
Anxiously, Xena combed back the bard's hair from her face and saw the beginning purpling of a bruise near her temple. "I'm not surprised," she muttered.
"Nothing. Can you stay awake for awhile? I need to make a poultice for your head."
Xena steeped herbs in hot water and wrapped them in a bandage. Gabrielle looked on, gritting her teeth as the pain in her abused leg spread outward. Xena knelt beside her, holding the wrapping in her hands.
"Hmm? Lift your head a bit-- there."
"The robber... ow... I think he was looking for food."
"Expect so." Xena finished tying off the ends and began prepping another for her leg.
"Why didn't he just ask?" Gabrielle's voice trailed off into a whisper as her eyes closed. Xena gently squeezed her shoulder and they opened, looking up at her.
"You can't sleep yet, not after that knock. Lift your leg..."
Xena's herbs dulled the pain to a bearable ache. Gabrielle smiled at her ruefully. "I let him surprise me. Sorry."
"Not your fault. We're low on water. I won't leave you alone any longer than I have to, but we need water and a few other things."
"Okay. Where're my scrolls?"
Xena found the bard's parchment and quill, and helped her to a semi-sitting position near the fire, wrapping a blanket around her against the chill, damp air. Almost as an afterthought, the warrior pulled the small dagger from her bodice and laid it beside the bard.
"What's this for?" Gabrielle asked, "What about my staff?"
Xena returned the bard's stare. After a moment, she said only, "You can't use a staff sitting like that." Gabrielle started to protest, but Xena cut her off. "Don't argue with me, not now. I'll be back as soon as I can." Turning, she grabbed an empty rucksack and their waterskins and strode from the cave. Just outside on the path, she whistled up Argo. "Stay here," she told the mare, "and don't let anyone in."
Another half mile up the beach, Xena found the mouth of a river emptying into the sea, and followed it back inland. Salt-encrusted grasses quickly gave way to fresh-water bushes and then trees. Xena waded out into the middle of the stream and waited motionless. Within a very short time six trout flopped about on the bank. After wrapping them in the broad leaves of a nearby bush, she dropped them in the bag, slinging it and the filled waterskins across her body. Errand accomplished, she turned to head across country to the cave with her burdens.
The mists hung heavily in the clearings between the scattered groves. Approaching one of these, she overheard muffled sounds. A woman's voice was crooning, mixed with the fitful cries of a baby long past exhaustion. Xena cautiously crept nearer. A thin woman loosely wrapped in a ragged cloak sat leaning back against a tree trunk, absently trying to comfort the tiny baby in her arms with one shrivelled breast. Near them a young boy, his belly distended against the cloth of his shirt, sat chewing listlessly on a few blades of grass.
Silently the warrior drew back and continued wide around them.
Working her way down to the path to their cave, Xena saw Argo near the entrance, placidly pawing at a loose rock to free up a bit of grass. Tension she'd been unaware of till now melted away suddenly and she sauntered the last few yards and into the cave.
Gabrielle looked up from her writing in alarm which subsided almost immediately. "Welcome home," she said, waving her quill, "you'll like this part. Have you any idea how heroic you are?"
Xena dropped the bag of fish near the entrance and continued in with the water, kneeling beside the grinning bard. "Do I want to know how heroic I am?" she replied, undoing the head bandage.
"Probably not. What's in the bag?"
"Fish. Your lump's better. How's the leg?"
"I'm not thinking about it." Gabrielle shrugged as she rolled up the scroll. "It hurts. I'm dealing with it."
Xena nodded and stood. "Drink as much water as you can. I'll get the fish cleaned."
Gabrielle sighed contentedly as she tossed the bones from her third fish into the fire. "Not bad."
"Thanks," replied the warrior, rewrapping the uneaten trout in their leaves.
Gabrielle looked at her curiously. "Um, Xena, you can eat in here. I don't mind. Not much, anyway."
Xena's lips twitched as she finished stowing the fish in the sack. "Thanks. I think." She stood, nudging the bard's scrollcase within reach. "Write some more. Stay awake. I'll be back soon."
"Where are you going? Why--"
"Gabrielle, it's something I have to check out." Xena turned at the entrance and called over her shoulder, "Don't forget to keep drinking."
The warrior worked back along her trail of the morning. The fog seemed to have thickened everywhere. Water condensed on every available surface, running down smooth trunks, pattering through clumps of leaves and underbrush. It was only mid-afternoon, but the gloom and damp surrounded her with a feel of coming night. A shadow flitted across her path and her hand automatically clenched her sword hilt. She froze there for a few seconds, weapon half-drawn. Somewhere high above her head, a squirrel chittered and ran across a tree limb, leaping from it to another and disappearing in a crash of twigs and leaves. Xena relaxed and continued on.
She slowed to a crawl as she neared the clearing where she'd seen the woman and boy that morning. She could hear nothing of them. She reached the edge of the trees and peered out. They were still sitting where she'd left them, the boy huddled next to his mother and the baby draped loosely across the woman's lap. The boy stared vacantly as Xena approached. A sudden breeze sprung up, sending the mist swirling between her and the small group. It cleared away as Xena walked forward and knelt before them, tugging the sack from her shoulder. The boy continued to stare, but not at her. Xena cautiously reached out and touched his shoulder. He fell sideways into the body of the woman next to him, the movement jarring a piece of grass from his lip. It fluttered downward, sticking on the rough threads of the woman's cloak.
Xena knelt there for a long while unmoving. Then, leaving the sack where she'd dropped it, she rose swiftly and walked away.
Hearing Argo's whinney outside, Gabrielle called without looking up from her writing. "Which is better, 'her mighty sword' or 'her-- oh, gods, not you again."
The robber leaned against the wall, head lolling from his seaweed covered shoulders. His eyes rolled in their sockets as his lips stretched wide. His tongue snaked out and knocked one of his remaining teeth loose. He didn't seem to notice. "No horse... no horses here..." he muttered, and began giggling. "No horse for you, no horse for me... it's a she, she said, in the sea..." he pushed away from the wall and balanced carefully. "Nothing to eat here, but the she by the sea--"
Gabrielle dropped her quill and snatched up the little dagger as she tried to stand. A wave of dizziness caused her to sit down suddenly again. The man took a step toward her, and in a panic she flung the knife. It hit him squarely in his chest, hilt first, but with enough force to send him reeling back. He closed one hand around the blade as he caught his balance against the edge of the cave. Gabrielle looked on in growing horror as he slowly opened his hand and, releasing the dagger, began to lick at the drops of blood oozing from two shallow cuts on his palm while humming tunelessly. With his hand half in and half out of his mouth, his eyes locked on hers as he suddenly bit down convulsively and fell forward, his other hand extended toward her.
Outside the fog thickened and churned into a misty rain darkening the air. A breeze sprang up out of nowhere, sending the fast falling droplets inward and spattering against the upturned soles of his feet. Gabrielle stuffed her fist in her mouth to keep from screaming, but she could do nothing to stop the tears she didn't know were rolling down her face.
=============== Part 3 ================
Xena stood near the cave mouth staring out into the darkness, clad only in a full-length cloak. The rain fell steadily, and she was fairly certain it wouldn't be stopping before morning, if then. She spared a glance behind; Gabrielle was sleeping finally. Xena shook her head. She hadn't been able to give the bard any of the mixtures she normally would have used to calm her down because of her head injury. It had taken a long time, even after Xena'd tossed the robber's body over the cliffside, for Gabrielle to finally cry herself into an exhausted sleep in the warrior's arms.
'And where,' she berated herself for the umpteenth time, 'was I all afternoon? While she sat there watching the rain fall on that man, thinking she'd killed him and afraid she hadnt?'
Xena'd come to her senses late in the afternoon, standing at the edge of an overgrown drop-off, soaked to the skin. She couldn't remember how she'd got there; only a confused jumble of images came to mind when she tried. Greyish green tree bark peeling in strips under her fingernails. Golden eyes framed in reddish brown fur staring at her from under dripping bushes. Low-lying mists swirling around her ankles, hiding rocks and tree roots, catching her toes over and over. Her knees and shins were bruised and scraped raw from falling. And always, appearing and fading away again, a flickering phantasm of that young boy sitting in the rain, his dead eyes following her every move.
She'd worked her way back to familiar ground, and did the last mile to the cave at a dead run, dreading what might await her there, half-fearing she'd been wandering mindless for days. Her joy at finding Gabrielle alive and unharmed quickly fled when she took in the bard's condition. She was rocking back and forth, her eyes-- her whole face-- red and swollen, glinting with dried tears. She'd spoken to her, quietly, "Gabrielle?" as she stepped carefully over the dead body between them, never looking away from the bard's face. She'd been rewarded for that, when Gabrielle looked up and recognised her. Her white knuckled hand fell from her mouth to her lap as her eyes slowly travelled up from the warrior's knees to her face. "Xena? I think-- I think he's-- and I couldn't stop-- I killed him?" Xena'd knelt directly in front of her, blocking her view of the robber and holding her hands together in her own. "No... no, my love, it's all right. Shh."
Gabrielle had started crying again, great hitching sobs that served to release her torment as Xena held her head to her breast. When that first wave subsided, she'd let Xena move long enough to carry the body out of the cave, where she'd dropped it over the cliff, praying this time for the sea to take it for good. She'd checked it over, just to be sure, and satisfied herself that, however he'd died, it wasn't from something the bard had done. Gabrielle had calmed down considerably with that reassurance.
And now Xena kept watch as the bard slept. She walked back in, peering back in the shadows in the rear of the cave where she'd stabled Argo. She normally didn't worry over the mare's ability to take care of herself, but she wasn't up for taking any chances this night. Kneeling near the fire she turned her drying leathers over and pulled out her sword. As she began sharpening it, she glanced down at her sleeping lover's form and saw that with the familiar sound of stone on metal came a kind of peace to Gabrielle's face.
When next Gabrielle awoke, the first thing she saw was Xena's thumb carefully checking the edge of her blade. "Did you stay up all night?"
"Mm-hmm." The warrior carefully replaced her sword in its sheath and stretched out beside her lover, leaning on one elbow. "Sleep well?"
"Not too bad... sorry I lost it yesterday."
Xena reached out and ran a slow finger down the bard's cheek. "Not your fault, I told you. Anyway, I had an odd time myself, while I was outside yesterday."
"Not sure." Xena sat up and looked out at the still drizzling rain. "We ought to get away from here. How's the leg?"
"Better. Pretty stiff, though. What happened yesterday?"
"Let's have a look."
"Not till you tell me what happened yesterday. Where were you?"
"I got lost in the fog. Okay?" Blue eyes challenged green.
Gabrielle searched the warriors face, lingering on the smudges under her eyes and then on a small muscle dancing under the skin of her neck. She reached up, laying a hand over it and felt it quiet under her palm.
"Okay," she said lightly, leaning back and moving the blanket off her leg, "but you shouldnt wander around without me, you know. Its a dangerous world out there. You might get hurt."
"Ill remember that," Xena said, smiling as she unwrapped the bandage. The cut was swollen but still clean and uninfected. Satisfied, Xena laid the bandage loosely over it. "I'll work up a new salve, then let's get you on your feet."
"Later. Maybe on the road. Nothing to eat here."
Xena packed up slowly, surreptitiously watching Gabrielle practise limping around the cave, using her staff as a crutch. Despite her offhand words, the warrior could see that she was struggling against the pain she felt. The bard paused after a couple of turns around the cave and leaned against the wall near the entrance to rest. Xena put down the bag she'd just fastened and walked up behind her, wrapping her arms around her and resting her chin on her head. "Are you sure you're up to this? We could stay another day--"
Gabrielle relaxed into her embrace even as she shook her head. "No. You said it yourself-- we're out of food."
"I can hunt--"
"I can't stay another minute here!" Gabrielle spun around on her good leg and caught herself on Xena's shoulder. "Xena, please... I'm sorry, but please take me away from this place."
Xena tightened her hold around the bard's waist. "All right," she breathed, brushing her lips lightly on her forehead, "Okay. We'll go. C'mon, I saved your cloak out."
Gabrielle was whey-faced and trembling all over by the time Xena called a final halt that afternoon. They'd followed the river trail several miles inland, resting often, for the bard couldn't ride if she'd wanted to. Her wound would have rubbed unbearably against the swell of the saddle. That meant she'd had to walk, which wasn't much better. Struggling through the sodden undergrowth would have been difficult under good circumstances, but she seemed only to grow more stubborn with every thwack of heavy bush or low-hanging bough.
Xena stopped suddenly by a wall of thick foliage. Her eyes on the ground before her, Gabrielle bumped into her back. Unable finally to stand alone, she simply leaned into the warrior's back as the reserves that had taken her this far melted away with the last of the rain.
Xena turned and caught her before she could fall, then carried her to a nearby moss-covered deadfall. "Why are we stopping here?" the bard murmured, as Xena helped her to sit with her back to the log and her wounded leg stretched out before her.
"We're camping here tonight," the warrior replied absently, surveying the leafy tangle on the far side of the trail, and drawing her sword.
Gabrielle looked around dully. "Well. Have the porter bring up my bags, then."
"At once, my queen. And pheasant this evening?" Xena bantered, raising her weapon and grinning back over her shoulder.
Gabrielle smiled in spite of her weariness. "That will do nicely." She closed her eyes and leaned her head back. "You have our leave to go."
With that the warrior began chopping through the leaves and branches, revealing a place Gabrielle still didn't believe, even as the warrior carried her inside. The trees growing high above them formed a thick canopy that had stunted growth below, yet on all sides an unruly barrier of bushes and trailing ivy had spread out to take in whatever sunlight they could at the outer perimeter. The result was a natural shelter, warm with the smell of decaying leaf litter, yet dry and, now that Xena'd opened it up, airy.
Wrapped in a blanket with a fresh leg bandage and curled up against Argo's saddle, Gabrielle yawned hugely. "How do you find these places?"
Xena looked up from checking the edge on her chakram and squinted at the canopy above them. "My love of soft living, I guess. Leads me right to them." She stood and suddenly sent the weapon whirring upwards. Gabrielle sat up in alarm as it crashed through the branches and returned to Xena's hands, several broken limbs and a falling bird just behind it.
"What on earth is that?!" the bard stared from the tumbled feathery mass to the calm warrior bending over it.
"Supper." Xena said, taking the carcass nearer to the light.
"Xena," Gabrielle said, closing and reopening her eyes, "it's not a pheasant, is it?"
"What was a pheasant doing that high up?"
Xena continued plucking. "Trying to avoid being supper?"
"Don't you have any curiosity at all?"
The warrior paused and looked over at her. "About what?" she said, and shrugged.
Gabrielle sighed and lay back down. "Never mind." She started to close her eyes and opened them as she felt a warm presence leaning over her.
Xena smiled broadly down at her as she bent over to steal a kiss. "I don't question a gift from the gods, Gabrielle," she said, borrowing another kiss. "I just check it for hidden weapons and leave it at that."
The warrior stood and stretched. "Get some rest-- I'll wake you when it's done."
Hours later, Gabrielle woke to the smell of steaming hot bird. She opened her eyes and sat up, mildly surprised to see that Xena'd cleared a space in the centre of their bower for a firepit. The glancing flames made for some very strange shadows above them, but there was no denying that the shape of the canopy made an excellent chimney. She felt warm and dry for the first time in many hours.
"How's the leg?" Xena asked, pulling off a drumstick and carrying it over to her.
Gabrielle tried an experimental knee bend. "Not too bad." She took a bite of the pheasant. "Hey, this is pretty good."
They ate in companionable silence after that, until Gabrielle lay back down, announcing "I'm full."
Xena looked at the neat pile of bones beside her, then at the denuded carcass still by the fire, then finally back at the bard. "You sure? I think there may be a wing left."
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes and glared at the warrior. "I'll get you for that."
"Looking forward to it--" Xena smiled as she gathered up the leavings and prepared to dispose of them outside. "Actually, I saw a berry bush when I was refilling the waterskins. Still full?"
"Hey, there's always room for berries."
Xena paused by the vines she'd arranged to cover their entrance, her expression changing rapidly from disbelief to determined anger. She laid the bones down soundlessly and crept back to the bard, bending low and whispering in her ear. "Get your staff. Put your arm around my neck."
Without a word, Gabrielle did as she was told, and Xena pulled her to a standing position. Making sure she was balanced, Xena moved a pace away from her and drew her sword.
They didn't have long to wait.
Gabrielle saw it first-- a thin layer of mist snaking in through the vines at ankle level. Fingerlike tendrils twirled lightly in delicate eddies before descending on their fire like a snatching hand. As the smoke poured out from the now-damp pit, the bard spun in alarm toward Xena, and found the warrior had troubles of her own.
Xena's attention had also been captured, not by the mist, but by what came behind it. As the fog mingled with billowing woodsmoke, the first of the intruders slipped through the vines and stood before her. It was the young boy from the clearing. His eyes were no longer vacant, but filled with a malevolent madness. Still Xena hesitated, drawing back a step, luring him close to the glowing embers of the fire.
Gabrielle felt a chill at her back and whirled. A terribly emaciated woman stood in the shadows, cradling a bundle in her arms. Gabrielle shifted her weight and brought her staff up, ready to strike. The woman's head canted to one side and she held the bundle out to Gabrielle. The coverings fell away, revealing a tiny form, all skin and bone. Gabrielle checked her swing with an effort that threw her off-balance and sent her reeling toward the pair.
Xena heard the bard's cry of dismay and turned. With her free hand, she snatched the back of her top and pulled her upright again. Her sword arm struck out behind her of its own volition, her hilt slamming into the boy's head. The warrior spun around as she kicked and caught him in his midsection. He fell in a heap on top of the pheasant leavings. Tugging the bard behind her, Xena raised her sword on guard against the remaining intruder.
Gabrielle came down hard on her bad leg, and collapsed on her knees in the litter. From her low vantage point she caught glimpses of Xena through the smoke, slowly advancing on the woman, who began to giggle mindlessly as she backed around the firepit. Gabrielle heard a sound to her left and twisted around, bringing up her staff as best she could. The boy had risen to his hands and knees and was digging in the leftovers below him. With single-minded intensity, he pulled a scrap hanging from a thigh bone and shoved it in his mouth. His face crumpled in weariness as the fog suddenly thickened around him and the fire flared anew.
Gabrielle looked back over her right shoulder and saw to her horror that the woman had tossed her baby onto the coals and the flames were licking at its blanket. Xena charged the woman then and she stumbled backward over the kneeling form of the boy and landed on her side next to him. He looked over at her, confusion etched into his face. "Mother?" He touched her arm tentatively. "Mother... here's food..." She batted his hand away, snarling, and clutched his throat in a vicious claw. Xena's blade sliced down through the smoke and bit deeply into her neck.
The smoke and mist rapidly cleared away, sucked upward in a sudden updraft. Gabrielle pushed herself to her feet as Xena wrenched her sword from the woman's backbone. She turned to the bard, her face and arms covered in ashes, holding up a still-smouldering bundle. "I was too late. Again." Xena said tonelessly. She wiped her sword and resheathed it. "It was already dead, but it distracted me when she threw it in the fire." Kneeling, she laid the tiny corpse next to its mother and turned to the boy's body, checking for signs of life.
Gabrielle planted her staff and lurched to her feet. "Is he okay? You're burned. Where's the salve?" She limped over to the saddlebag and started digging in it. She felt Xena's hands on her shoulders. "He's dead, isn't he?"
Gabrielle pulled a small pouch from the bag and held it back over her shoulder. "Here's the salve."
Xena took it from her and laid it to one side, turning her around in her arms. The gentle love and concern on her face almost broke Gabrielle's heart. "Hey... " Xena said softly, pulling her into a warm embrace, "you okay?"
The bard stared numbly at the pile of bodies bundled up against the ivy wall. "Am I okay?" she said, softly. "Sure. Fine. Who were those people, do you know?"
"Yesterday afternoon, well, morning, I saw them; they were in a clearing. I think they were alive then. Not in good shape, but... when I went back with the fish, I thought they were dead, that I'd come back too late."
"Was that when you got 'lost' in the fog?"
Gabrielle leaned her head against the warrior's chest. "They must have followed us."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Opening them again, she looked at the corpses in the flickering light of the fire. Something about that jarred her memory. "Xena, the fire-- something smothered it when they came in. Now it's okay."
"Yeah. C'mon, you need to lie down." The warrior gently coaxed her back to the blankets. "I'll clean up."
The moon rode high and full above outside, giving off plenty of light for digging. Xena made quick work of stacking the bodies in the shallow grave. She almost forgot the baby, but recalled it as she was covering over the larger corpses.
She brought it out and laid it in its mother's arms. As she turned away for the shovel, she thought she saw a wisp of vapour float from its open mouth. It glistened in the moonlight for a moment before dispersing.
=============== Part 4 ================
The next morning dawned bright, warm and dry. Normally indifferent to the weather, Xena was privately grateful for that last. The bard, though, was uncharacteristically silent. Gabrielle insisted on helping break camp and pack, but beyond that she seemed preoccupied. Xena decided to let it go for now.
She was pleased to see that Gabrielle barely limped today. They made good time along the river trail, well enough that around noon Xena dropped back to ride beside her.
Gabrielle looked up briefly and shook her head.
"You sure? We could take a break just up there..." Xena pointed to a gap in the trees ahead.
"Let's just keep going, okay?"
"Wow. A whole sentence." Xena dismounted and set her hand lightly on the bard's head, warmed from the sun. "Not hungry, not tired, not talking. What's going on in there?"
Gabrielle shifted her staff to her left hand and took Xena's in her right, twining her finger's with the warrior's. "I don't know." She bit her lip and looked up at her lover. "I just think we should keep going."
Xena nodded slowly. Then Gabrielle smiled at her suddenly and squeezed her hand. "C'mon, princess. I'm looking forward to a real bed tonight, with sheets and pillows. And maybe a bath."
Xena grinned back. "Me, too."
As they reached the outlying farms around Amentus that afternoon, Gabrielle was struck by the lack of activity in the fields. 'It's more than that, though,' she thought, watching a skinny dog creep around the side of a collapsed barn. "Xena, I thought you said the steward had persuaded the people to stay."
"Well, where are they? No one's planted anything in these fields since last harvest."
Xena just shrugged and Gabrielle fell silent again. They continued on, and the landscape around them changed, becoming rougher, more wild. Gabrielle noted the skeletons of several burned out buildings on a rise to their right, then as they rounded the bend they saw Amentus proper laid out before them.
'So much for the hot bath idea,' Gabrielle thought wistfully. Aloud, "I wonder where the steward persuaded them to stay? Athens?"
"It doesn't look promising."
"Promising? Xena, Draco's left towns in better shape."
Privately, Xena had to admit that the bard had a point. Much of the town was still in ashes, and even the few buildings still standing bore marks of the dragon Indonia's passage. Here and there in the ruins were dotted drab canvas shelters flapping in the breeze. They were actually well into the town before they saw their first inhabitant.
A half-grown girl rounded a corner at full speed and skidded to her knees at Xena's feet. The warrior looked down at her, raising both eyebrows, taking in her huge eyes, thin face and the half bag of oats smashed between two dirty hands. Suddenly the girl sprang up and dashed away at right angles under the low lintel of an abandoned hut just to their left.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a look, Gabrielle motioning with her head slightly toward the dark doorway. Before they could act, though, a cadre of soldiers dashed around the same corner, crashing into each other in their efforts to avoid being impaled on Xena's drawn sword. Hefting his spear, their corporal grimaced as he faced off against her.
"It's Xena! Put that down, you fool!"
All heads turned toward the source of this bellow. The guard captain pushed his way through the knot of men in front of Xena and slapped irritably at the corporal's spear. "Put it away, I said! Xena's a guest of the house."
The corporal stepped back in confusion as the captain nodded to Xena, seemingly oblivious to her weapon. "Lyamen sends his greetings, Xena, and asks that you and your friend be escorted to the house as soon as may be. Will you come with us now?"
The corporal interrupted, "Sir-- the thief--"
"Oh, yes," the captain said, looking sharply at both women, "did either of you see a young girl run this way?"
Xena merely pointed with her sword down the road off to their right before sheathing the blade. "Shall we go?"
The captain turned to his squad. "All right, you lot. Back that way and search the Tanner's Yard." As the men saluted and departed, he turned back to the women and indicated the street he'd just come down. "This way, please."
As they started around the corner, Gabrielle hung back, risking a glance at the doorway. About ankle level she saw a small head stick out and slowly nod once at her before disappearing behind the post.
This street was wider than the one they'd been on, with more people going to and fro. Gabrielle welcomed the opportunity to look around unhindered, as Xena walked ahead with the soldier. The townsfolk gave them a wide berth, looking sidelong at their backs and muttering to one another. No one would meet her eyes for more than a second. It came to Gabrielle that this time, it wasn't Xena they were leery of; it was the guard captain. She took a quick half-step to catch up and listen to their conversation, in time to hear Xena say, "... but wouldn't the harvest have been better if someone had actually planted crops?"
"Couldn't spare the seed," the man replied. "so we planted the smaller fields only. Then half of that failed."
Gabrielle tuned out again and resumed her sightseeing. None of the people she saw could be termed well-fed, and some looked well on their way to starved, though not to the degree of her attacker in the cave. She looked sharply at the back of the captain. While not overfed, he certainly didn't look as though he were missing too many meals. She felt she was beginning to understand the attitude of the street people.
Lost in her musings, she failed to notice how far behind she was falling until she felt a small hand pluck at the hem of her skirt. She looked down in the face of a very young child in a long ragged gown. "Yes, sweetie?"
The child reached up and patted her shoulder bag. "Bread?"
Gabrielle knelt down. "Honey, I don't have any--"
"Miss, have any food to spare?" Gabrielle looked up. A gaunt boy stood behind the toddler. "No, I'm sorry, I--"
A shout came from behind her. "She's brought food!"
Gabrielle quickly stood. A small crowd was forming around her, muttering. A voice at the edge called out, "It's in her purse!"
"No, please, I don't have anything to-- Hey!"
Someone pulled sharply on her pouch and she felt the strap part. She grabbed for the loose end and held on tightly. More hands closed on her other arm and tugged in the opposite direction. Just as she thought she'd have to let go and make a run for it, a flash of metal caromed off the side of the bag and spilled its contents to the ground. A welcome voice followed it from above, "As you can see, she doesn't have anything to eat. Now, back off!"
The disappointed crowd quickly dispersed as Xena dismounted and began helping the bard to reload her belongings. "What's this?" she said, squinting at a small object in her hand.
"I can see that," Xena replied as they started back to where she'd left their escort, "but what is it supposed to be?"
"A rabbit. Riding on a wolf."
"Gabrielle, rabbits don't ride on wolves."
"They do in stories."
"Oh." Xena shrugged and tossed the statue back to the bard, who stuffed it in her satchel and slung it over her shoulder, hanging on to the broken ends of the strap.
Gabrielle noticed that the captain very carefully made no reference to the cause of their delay as they continued out of the town and on up the lane that led to Lyamen's villa.
The lane twisted and turned up a gentle sloping hillside and was lined with tall hedges set close together. Xena could see that they had once been kept well manicured, but had of late become rather shaggy. It was now late afternoon, and the hedges cast a thick unbroken shadow across their path. Xena could just see over them to the empty fields on either side. The contrast between bright sunshine over the tops and the gloom of the lane subconsciously irritated the warrior. Every hundred yards or so they passed wide gates set in the hedgerow on either side. Xena took in their details automatically. They were each made of two frames of wood, with slats running between, and hung on hinges affixed to free-standing poles set in the ground. The design was obviously not defensive, but the warrior was hard-put to understand it.
A faint, flat-pitched thundering came to their ears. Xena frowned, but relaxed at Gabrielle's reassuring hand on her waist. As they continued, the noise resolved itself into the muffled sounds of many hooves. When they came around the next turn, they saw the source of the noise: the gates ahead had been opened and a herd of sheep was being urged across the lane within the temporary chute formed by the open gates.
"That's really clever." Gabrielle whispered up to her.
"What is?" Xena replied.
"The gate arrangement. When we go back to Poteidaia next, I'll have to sketch it for Father."
"Lyamen himself put those in." the captain said, overhearing the last statement as he returned from conferring with the shepherds. "Only two men needed to control the transfer. He's made a lot of improvements like that around here."
The herd was quite large. Xena's eyebrows inched upward as they poured through, estimating their numbers at upwards of several hundred animals. At last they were done and the shepherds closed the gates, allowing their party to continue.
"How much farther is it to the house?" Xena asked as they started up again.
"It's right up there," the captain replied, pointing ahead. "That was the last gate, in fact."
Sure enough, the hedgerows opened out just ahead, enclosing a wide lawn. At its centre was a low spreading villa glowing pink and gold in the setting sun. As they spilled out onto the grass, Xena shaded her eyes against the dazzle and searched the villa's porch. A figure separated itself from a column and strode down the path toward them.
As he came closer, he held out his hand in welcome. "Hello, Xena! I see you made it after all. Welcome!"
Xena took his arm in greeting. "Lyamen. Good to see you again. You look... well. This is my friend, Gabrielle."
Xena stepped back a little, allowing Gabrielle to move to her side. The bard smiled. "Hello, Lyamen. I've heard so much about you."
A touch of confusion crossed the man's face and was as quickly gone. "Well-- I, too, have heard of the Bard of Poteidaia. Please, both of you, come in. Scillon will see to your horse."
At this the captain took Argo's reins and began leading her away. Xena put out a hand to stop him. "I prefer to see to her myself."
Lyamen looked pained. "Xena! Have I ever given your horses less than the best? Please, let the man go. It's late; surely you'd like to get inside yourselves?"
After a heartbeat, Xena nodded. "All right. But don't take it personally if I check up on her later. Argo's special to me."
"Certainly, certainly, whatever you like. Come, this way." Still talking, Lyamen led them up the stairs and into his home, just as the sun dipped below the horizon behind them.
Gabrielle reclined on the bed in their room, dressed in a light cotton shift and feeling clean for the first time in the last three days. She closed her eyes and listened to the splashing from the tub in the corner of the room. Xena'd refused to let her sit down in the water, citing the need to keep her stitches dry, but had more than made up for it by washing the bard herself. 'And she's so... thorough.' thought Gabrielle, remembering how it'd finally been necessary for the warrior to carry her to bed when her legs gave out.
Lyamen had ultimately avoided all of Xena's questions regarding their business there, though he'd regaled them with a multi-course dinner. Gabrielle sat quietly and listened (and ate) as the two reminisced about the old days. She hardly ever got an opportunity like this, and wasn't going to spoil it by reminding Xena of her presence.
She had tried not to stare at their host, though he didn't seem to notice either way. Lyamen was a thin, wiry man, with short black hair that had started to recede. What had caused her to study him so closely was not any great amount of personal good looks, but the contrast between his lined face and neck and the wistful youth she could see in his eyes. 'Not much older than Xena, either. Probably spends a lot of time outdoors,' she had thought, 'Hm, we'll need to stock up on skin oil ourselves pretty soon.'
The one false note had been when Xena mentioned the recent attacks they'd suffered on the way. Lyamen's face slackened as he stared at the candle flame on the table. "There's a curse on the villagers... hunger calls it to them... their souls feed the fog." Then he'd jumped and started talking about the horse market. Nothing Xena said could get him to acknowledge he'd spoken of anything but horses. Gabrielle filed it away in her mind. War had odd effects on some people, and Lyamen had certainly left the battlefield behind as soon as he could. What was the reason again? Someone died...
More splashing, and all thoughts of their host and his family history vanished as Gabrielle turned her head and was caught once again by the sight of that long, full form gliding up out of the water and stepping gracefully onto the mat beside the tub. Candlelight broke into tiny stars all over the warrior's skin, then suffused into warm bronze as she dried off.
Xena's head lifted as she finished towelling her hair and she smiled suddenly at Gabrielle. "Are you still awake?" she said softly, moving over to the bed and lying down beside her lover.
"Why should I sleep," the bard replied, running a small thumb across Xena's lips, "when I can't dream anything to compare to you?"
Having no answer to that, Xena leaned over her, meeting her lips for a long, slow moment that somehow never quite ended, even as the warrior doused the last candle by the bed.
The darkness was almost complete, as clouds moved in to cover the moon. Gabrielle moaned softly as Xena's hands traced the line of her hip bone from apex to base and found a waiting warmth between her legs. Her pulse sang in her ears when she opened her eyes to see Xena's shoulder and thigh picked out in the soft blue light of the disappearing moon. Then the warrior raised herself up, suspended in air, and eased a knee between Gabrielle's thighs. The light vanished completely as their lips met again, until finally another sort altogether exploded behind the bard's eyelids and she sank blissfully beneath the waves engulfing her soul.
=============== Part 5 ================
Xena awoke with the first rays of the dawn. Untangling herself from sheets and bard, she silently dressed and strode out of the room.
Theyd had a partial tour last night, as their host showed them to their room. Lyamen's villa was built as a square of four wings enclosing an open garden. The main entrance faced west. Connecting halls on both floors ran along the outer edge of the square, while all the rooms looked inward over the garden.
Normally sure of her surroundings, Xena found the regularity of the modest furnishings to be mildly disorienting. She paused before an outer window to get her bearings, remembering from their talk of the night before that the barns and other outbuildings were primarily to the north and east of the main house. Checking the shadow of one large structure in her line of sight, she hurried off toward the east side and the only staircase.
Once down and outside, Xena breathed a little more easily. The morning was crisp and cool, with a hint of coming rain in the air. Glancing to the west, Xena noted the beginnings of another storm massing over the horizon. For now, though, the sun shone brightly. Continuing toward the barns, Xena stopped a passing stableboy and obtained directions to Argo's stall.
The mare whickered in pleasure at seeing her. Xena smiled and stroked her neck. "How are you doing, girl? I see they got you all cleaned up... Hey! No chewing on the skirt straps! What's got into you?" Argo snorted and bumped her shoulder with her nose. "Oh, I see... I smell like Her again, don't I?" Xena reached up and scratched behind the mare's ears. "You're going to have to get used to it, you know." Xena gave her a final caress and turned to the feedbox. "Let's see what they put out for you to nibble on."
Argo rested her head on the warrior's shoulder as Xena ran her hands through the mix in the trough. "Pretty rich... almost all oats." An image of a dirty child clutching a bag on the ground, oats spilling across her shoulder, came and went almost immediately. She ducked out from under Argo's chin and eased her way out of the stall, promising the horse a turn in the fields before the rain came.
Gabrielle awoke slowly, feeling very relaxed and alive at the same time. 'That's no surprise,' she thought, remembering the night before. 'Now where's she run off to so early?' She stretched under sheets she distinctly recalled being wadded in a heap under her feet the night before. Her healing wound itched under its wrapping, but it was easy to ignore as she stood and walked over to the washbasin. There were more important things to think about. Like breakfast. And finding Xena. As she splashed water over her face, the bard tried to prioritise the two. Breakfast. Xena. Xena. Breakfast. Her stomach rumbled authoritatively. Breakfast! She dried and dressed quickly, then started down the hall.
At the second turning she paused, wondering if perhaps she should've paid more attention to the layout of the house the night before. Her stomach complained again, and she peered out a nearby window. She saw a tiny figure twirling a sword around its head in a nearby paddock. As she watched, it took a running leap and followed it with a double backflip toward the house. Gabrielle amended her priorities as she hurried from the window. The next turning brought her to the staircase. She pulled up short at the sight of the banister, gleaming long and straight in the sunlight from high windows.
A resounding 'whoop!' caused Xena to look up as she came back in from her exercise. She caught Gabrielle just as the latter became airborne at the end of the rail and spun around with the bard in her arms. Xena quickly found her balance and quirked an eyebrow at her lover's happy grin. "Good morning?"
"Excellent morning..." Gabrielle responding, her arms tightening around Xena's neck as she leaned forward. A loud rumbling from her abdomen interrupted their kiss. Xena laughed silently as she hugged the younger woman to her tightly before setting her back on the floor.
"Let's find the kitchen before you get really hungry."
"Suits. Which way?"
Xena sniffed the air. "I think... it's this way." She headed under the stairs, pulling the bard along as she turned the corner and followed her nose to the source of the faint spicy odour.
The kitchen, once they found it, was a bustling warm haven of good smells and tasty dishes. One of the staff directed them to a sideboard laden with oatmeal, bacon, sizzling fish slices, figs, toasted bread, and several items new to them. Xena held a platter for Gabrielle to fill, then equipped with food and drink the two made their way through an arched passage leading to the garden.
There they found their host sitting at the central table under a fig tree with a mug of tea in his hand. He looked up a trifle blearily. "Xena. Gabrielle. Good morning, I think." He took another sip as Xena set the tray on the table. "Xena, I should know better than to drink with you."
The warrior sat down beside Gabrielle and began buttering a piece of toast. "Were we drinking?" she said quietly. Gabrielle looked up from the bacon and cheese sandwich she was making.
"Weren't we?" Lyamen blinked, looking lost for a moment before he recollected himself. "I... How's your room? Comfortable?"
"Very." Xena responded, watching him closely. "Lyamen, why are we here?"
Their host ran a hand distractedly through thinning hair. "You're here because I, um..." He looked at his empty mug with a frown and then at the pair. "Want a refill?" At their nods he reached down, plucked a pebble from the path and tossed it lightly through the archway into the kitchen.
He stared after it a minute before continuing. "I'd heard you took care of that... problem we had a few months ago. With the dragon. Why didn't you stop by?"
"The source of the 'problem' was miles south of here," Xena replied, "and then, well, other things came along to take up our time."
"Oh... " His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of a servingwoman with a pitcher of spiced tea. She set it on the table and, almost as an afterthought, tossed the pebble into Lyamen's mug before leaving as quietly as she'd come.
He fished it out and dropped it back on the path before refilling all three mugs. "She hates it when I throw things in the kitchen. Where was I? The attack, right? We've been rebuilding since. It's not going very well, though. Can't get the mortar to mix up right... the walls fall down in the next rainstorm."
He took another long drink, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. "And the harvest is failing all over the area. Thyrtos says it's a curse, but Scillon-- you remember Scillon? He's a real piece of work, that man that escorted you? Anyway, Scillon keeps trying to take food to them. He wants to take my sheep, can you believe that?" He shook his head in regret. "Xena, I lost too many to that dragon-- I won't slaughter what's left."
Gabrielle looked down at the still half-full tray. She suddenly didn't want any more. "Lyamen, you've got to do something to feed the villagers. You seem to have plenty to spare here."
He turned to the bard. "When we sent grain down, it spoiled on the way. Black rot. What do you think will happen to my sheep?" He took another drink and stared at his boots a moment.
Xena leaned back in her chair as she regarded him. He was beginning to annoy her. "Certainly seems a run of bad luck. Who's this Thyrtos?" Under cover of the table top, her little finger began idly working its way up Gabrielle's hip to the belt of her skirt.
"My nephew. Acts as my steward. Bright lad, Thyrtos. He's made a study of these things. He says the village has been cursed, and all we can do is wait it out." He shrugged.
The finger eased its way inside the belt and began a small exploration. "If you agree with him, why did you send for us?" Xena stared at him blandly. Another finger joined the first.
"Why... did I send for you?" He looked genuinely puzzled.
Gabrielle's eyes widened and she suddenly shivered. Lyamen looked at her, startled. "Are you okay?"
"Fine, just fine." she smiled quickly before hiding her face in her mug. Xena put both hands on the table and affected an innocent expression.
"Lyamen," the bard said, kicking Xena under the table, "curse or not, why won't you at least try to do something for them?"
The farmer bent down and picked up a handful of pebbles and began tossing them into a tiny fountain that bubbled up on the far side of the garden. The mask of indifference he'd worn through the meal fell away as he spoke. "When I came home, years ago, after I left Xena's army, I passed through a town we'd 'visited' only days before. The... the people were huddled around a bonfire in the centre-- they said they were cursed, they couldn't rebuild. Instead, they'd hauled everything that would burn to the middle of town. I argued with them about it, even tried repairing one of the barns. They pulled me out of the rafters and beat me. In the end, I snuck out of town when they started throwing each other into the flames."
His voice faded as he continued to stare blankly at the never-ending splash of water in the little pool, then "Thyrtos says that the curse will lift when the fog has cleansed their souls."
Xena checked the sky. The clouds were starting to roll in and a cool breeze circled down around them. "It's getting chilly. We should go inside."
As if on cue, a second servingwoman appeared to clear the table. Without another word, Lyamen led them indoors.
"Xena, is he crazy?"
Xena looked up from a repair she was making to her leathers. The bard sat on the window sill of their room, looking out at the rain falling in the fountain below. Xena shook her head. "He used to make more sense, all right. I remember the day he left-- seems all the horses were throwing their shoes for the next week. Anyway, wed been in the hills for a month, training."
"So that burned village he was talking about..."
"Not one of mine. If it existed at all."
Their host had left them alone, citing estate business as his excuse. They'd come back up to their room to wait out the rain. Gabrielle was getting restless; that had been two hours ago.
A slight shift in the wind caused a spray of rain to spatter directly in her face. She jumped away from the window and paced over to the bed, where Xena sat. The warrior looked up. "Want me to close the shutters?"
Gabrielle stretched out on her back on the bed. "No-- bad enough we're stuck up here as it is. Besides, it's letting up some."
Xena finished tying a knot and bit the end of the thread. She squinted out the window. "It is, isn't it? Up for a ride?"
"How about 'walk'? Where to?" the bard sat up as Xena began dressing.
"Amentus. We'll ride. Can you get that?" the warrior pointed to a loose lace in back.
"Sure." Gabrielle tightened the straps. "What's wrong with walking? I'm wounded, remember?"
"If you can slide down banisters," Xena grinned as she fastened her breastplate, "you can ride with me on Argo. Besides," she continued, more seriously, "we may need her speed. I'll pad your bandage; you should be okay."
On their way out of the house, they detoured by the kitchen. On impulse, Xena asked for and received a loaf of nutbread tied up tightly in a sack, which she handed to Gabrielle as they left the villa.
"What's this for?" asked the bard.
"Just an idea. Hang onto it."
They entered the stables and proceeded down the row that lead to Argo's own stall. Gabrielle looked around in some consternation. "Lot of horses..." she murmured, hearing the muffled 'clompf' of large hooves on straw-covered wood. One huge equine head leaned over its partition and gazed at her disinterestedly. "Big horses..." she continued, craning her neck to look back at it.
"They're not small." Xena remarked. "Lyamen specialises in draft animals. Wider market, but his feed costs must be enormous." She paused by a small storage area and swung a bag of oats over her shoulder.
"Why can't they just graze?"
"They do that also, but if you want a horse to really put on height and muscle, you have to feed it better than field grass, especially during its first year. Here we are-- hey, Argo. Ready for a little exercise?"
Argo looked reassuringly normal-sized compared to the animals they'd passed. Gabrielle waited quietly as Xena saddled the mare and led her out of the stall. She handed the reins to the bard and secured the bag of oats over Argo's withers. Mounting the mare, she pulled Gabrielle up behind her and they set out for the road to Amentus.
Continued...Part 2 (Conclusion)