Light Mist Falling
Part 2 of 2
Clouds still covered the sky as Xena guided Argo slowly down the lane. Gabrielle gripped the bag containing the still-warm nutbread to her stomach and shivered. It was cool between the hedges. Sitting on Argo, the bard could finally see over them and spent the time looking all around her. Something struck her as odd, and she leaned forward.
"Xena, is it me or is the fog in those fields thickening?"
The warrior didn't turn around. "It's not you."
"Huh." Gabrielle leaned sideways, trying to see around the warrior. "Hard to tell with all the turns, but the lane seems pretty clear."
"Yeah. Don't move around so much, you'll fall."
The bard stuck her tongue out at Xena's back. "You'd catch me."
"True, but it'd give those guards time to catch up with us, and since they don't want to, I'd hate to spoil things for them."
Gabrielle didn't bother asking. She settled down with a sigh and leaned her head against Xena's back while tightening her arm around the warrior's waist.
At the bottom of the lane, Xena pulled up and patted Gabrielle's thigh. "You awake back there?" she asked quietly.
"Mmm? Sure. Absolutely. Can't remember ever having a more exciting ride."
"It may get even more exciting from here on. Look there." Xena leaned to one side as she said this to allow the bard a clear view. The lane led directly into a wall of whitish grey where it met the road to Amentus.
"Now that's fog." Gabrielle said, quietly.
"Where's the bread?"
"Here." Gabrielle handed her the bag and waited while Xena secured it to her saddlehorn. 'So much for my hot water bottle.' she thought. The bag had grown warmer rather than the reverse on the ride down.
"Scootch forward and wrap both arms around me. Whatever happens, whatever you see, don't let go."
"Xena, what's going on?" the bard asked, somewhat alarmed, as she adjusted her seat.
"If I knew, we wouldn't have to go find out. Ready?"
"Ready!" Gabrielle affirmed.
"C'mon Argo, pick up your feet." Xena urged the mare forward at a brisk trot. The white mists enveloped them almost immediately, swallowing even the sound of Argo's hoofbeats before they could travel so far as the bard's ears.
=============== Part 6 ================
The fog beaded up on Xena's breastplate and spattered wildly on her skirt straps as they trotted down the road to Amentus. She'd been of two minds about bringing Gabrielle along, but frankly, the bard was better than she when it came to digging information out of people. At least, when they didn't need it scared out of them.
They reached the edge of the town within a few minutes and Xena slowed Argo to a walk as they threaded their way through the ruins. They made it down the main street without incident and turned at the smaller road on which they'd entered town the day before. The mare side-stepped as part of a crumbling wall crashed on their right, stones bouncing and tumbling into the street, accompanied with flat, clipped 'chinks' as they fell into one another. Xena soothed the horse's trembling and eased her through the fallen stones to examine the new opening in the wall.
Gabrielle had looked up at the noise and was now craning her head around, futilely trying to place their surroundings. "Okay, I give. Where are we?"
"Remember that hut we passed on the way in yesterday?"
"With the kid and the guards? Huh. Looks different in the fog and with... wow, half the front wall gone."
The makeshift cloth roof sagged low over the hole. It had been put up after the original timber and thatch was burned away in the attack. It now hung unevenly from its remaining supports and sported several water-filled depressions. It was dark inside, the sounds of dripping water within faintly echoing. Xena dismounted, handing the reins to Gabrielle. "Stay with Argo. If there's trouble, get out. Don't wait for me."
Xena grabbed her ankle and shook it, speaking low and earnestly. "I'm going in there. You guard my rear. Shout if something happens, then get out. Don't try to fight if you can run. Not today. I'll catch up."
Gabrielle looked away, staring at Argo's bedraggled mane as she fought for composure. She nodded, mentally crossing her fingers.
Xena decided not to push her luck. Without another word, she turned away and ducked under the roof edge. There wasn't enough room to let her stand upright. She swivelled her head slowly, letting her eyes become accustomed to the dim light. It didn't take long. The walls were bare and soot-blackened. On one side of the room were piled partially burned chairs, bedding and other detritus, as though someone hadn't decided yet if they were worth keeping. They were sodden from the leaks in the roof and gave off a sickly-sweet odour. Stifling a sneeze, she spied a doorway in the far wall and carefully approached it.
Xena dodged back as a rock chip flew out past her ear. Cursing silently, she cautiously stuck her hand around the doorpost and caught the next one, letting it drop to the floor. A barrage of stones, chips, and bits of wood followed. Xena waited patiently till it appeared to ebb, then eased around the post into the opening. She batted a spoon away just before it hit her nose and looked around for the source of the missiles.
The room was empty save for a wide hearth built into one corner. Next to it crouched a small figure.
"Get away! Get back, I'm warning you!" it said, in a high, thin voice on the edge of hysteria.
Xena blinked. It was the young thief they'd run into the day before. One hand brandished a chair leg at the warrior. The other swiped at her nose.
The two stared at each other, frozen. Then Xena took a slow step forward. The girl flung the chair leg at her and dove for the fireplace. Dodging the stick, Xena sprang after her, but she was gone. The warrior could hear her scrabbling up the chimney, but before she could attempt to follow, a shout came from outside.
Gabrielle watched Xena disappear inside the ruined hut, her jaw muscles working in anger as she fought for control. She looked around. The fog surrounded her. She could feel it beading in her hair and soaking through her clothes. The quiet was enormous. She leaned forward and patted Argo's neck. The mare tossed her head in return, shaking her bridle soundlessly. Gabrielle looked back toward the hut, but it had melted away behind a wall of white fuzz. The dampness caught in her throat as she urged the horse around, peering uselessly into the fog. Someone was watching her; she was sure of it. The feeling passed as quietly as it had come. She walked Argo in a tight circle, now simply lost.
A man shimmered into view before her, carrying a spear. Argo reared and she clutched the saddlehorn to keep from being thrown. With a cry of dismay the man snatched at the bridle and missed. Several shadowy figures emerged from the fog, surrounding the plunging mare.
"Get her head, you fool!"
Gabrielle caught up the reins and pulled up sharply. Argo danced backwards, snorting and ducking her head. Gabrielle was tugged forward and almost lost her seat again. One of the men came up beside her and she kicked out, sending him back into the mists again as she raised her head and shouted, "Xena!"
"Stand away, lads, you're scaring the horse!"
Argo turned in place as the bard struggled for balance. Another man appeared directly in front of the pair, neatly avoiding the warhorse's flashing teeth. He held his empty hands at shoulder level, palms out. Argo backed and turned, snorting, trying to keep her head between this latest intruder and her charge.
Gabrielle finally got a decent grip on the reins and sat up, breathing a sigh of relief as she recognised the soldier. "Scillon!" she breathed. "What on earth are you doing here?"
The guard captain opened his mouth to answer and shut it abruptly as Xena slapped his shoulder from behind. "Hello, Scillon!" she said, grinning evilly. "Nice day for a run."
"Hello, Xena." Scillon responded evenly. "Well, I see you're both safe and in one piece. Good. Now, how about we just walk on back to the house while that's still true, hmm?"
"Sorry," Xena said, walking over to Argo and winking at Gabrielle, "but we have a few... errands to take care of first." She took the reins and prepared to mount. "We'll catch up with you."
"By Hades' helm!" the captain exploded, "We didn't send for you to have you both killed for nothing!"
Xena smiled as she turned toward him, leaning on Argo. "Well, then. Why did you send for us?"
Gabrielle quietly dismounted behind her. "I thought Ly--" she whispered, but subsided at the slight movement of Xena's head. She looked from Xena to Scillon, her brow furrowed. One by one the members of the cadre moved in behind their captain.
"Can we at least discuss this on the way?" The sounds of a brief scuffle on the fringe cut Scillon's words short. They all looked up as a guardsman stumbled into their circle, dragging an inert body behind him.
"Sir," the guard said anxiously, "it's starting. Hadn't we better go?"
Scillon turned to the warrior. "If we stay here much longer, we'll have to fight our way home. I don't like to kill these people, but if that's what you want..."
"One moment." She quickly undid the oat sack and pulled it down from Argo. "Lyamen said that foodstuffs he sent down seemed to mysteriously 'spoil' along the way."
The captain snorted. "Oh, horse--" He caught sight of Gabrielle out of the corner of his eye and blanched. "Beg pardon, miss," he mumbled, then continued, "Your friend Lyamen is missing a few fish in his stream, if you get what I'm saying."
Xena nodded as she lifted the heavy sack to her shoulder. "Watch my horse. Gabrielle, can you get that?" she said, indicating the bag tied to the saddlehorn.
Gabrielle undid the knot and followed Xena inside the hut. Xena crossed the room carefully and stood by the inner doorway. The bard watched curiously as she balanced the sack on her upper back and stuck her hand into the opening. Nothing happened. Xena took a deep breath and motioned Gabrielle to follow her into the kitchen.
"What's up?" the bard whispered in the still air, as Xena laid the oats on the hearth.
"You know how I hate being late." Xena replied in a low voice, and then louder, "I know how much you like nutbread, Gabrielle, but let's leave this here." She took the bag from the thoroughly puzzled bard and set it on top of the oat sack, then shoved the pile directly under the chimney. "We'll get more later."
Gabrielle frankly stared at Xena as the latter took her arm and steered her around toward the doorway, then back over her shoulder at the fireplace. Comprehension dawned when she saw a thin sooty arm snake down from the chimney and snatch up the bread sack. She looked back to Xena, who leaned over and whispered, "She take it?"
"Uh-huh." Gabrielle replied equally quietly.
They ducked back outside. "All right, Scillon. We can go now." Xena announced as she picked up Argo's reins.
"About time." the captain muttered. "All right, you lot. Fan out. You three in front, the rest behind."
As they set out for the villa, Scillon dropped back to walk beside the women.
The captain remained silent until they were clear of the town and out of immediate danger.
"You may have noticed by now that the master's, well, not himself all the time." Scillon began. "He gets confused. Remembers things that happened a long time ago. Forgets things that happened yesterday. Easy to bend, if you've a mind to do that."
One of the men behind called out; Scillon held up his hand and they all stopped and stood in the road, listening. There was a thump, as of a body falling, then a high-pitched scream. Xena made as if to go back, but the captain stopped her. "Wait; they're not in trouble yet." Just then the same guard signalled again. They started forward once more, Scillon taking up his narrative as if nothing had happened.
"Take this business with the supplies, for example. There's not much to go around, and we've been parcelling it out as best we can-- "
"Who's 'we'?" Gabrielle interrupted.
"Thyrtos and I. He's the steward; keeps tabs on everything at the farm. He tells me how much is to go and when."
Xena listened to the almost imperceptible sounds behind them, mentally ticking them off against the number of guards who'd hung back. Satisfied, she asked, "Lyamen's nephew? Haven't met him yet."
The captain nodded. "Keeps to his rooms, mostly. Barely more'n a boy, but a good head for business. Anyway, we sent for you when the master started all this talk of curses and whatnot. We've got our hands full as it is, without him spreading panic."
"So, if you're such a nice guy, why were you chasing that girl yesterday?"
Scillon merely shrugged. "She'd had her share already."
They reached the turn into the lane. Almost immediately the fog dropped off as they began the uphill trek. Scillon regrouped his men to watch the intersection, then the three of them continued onward.
"Anyway," the captain said, "We wanted you here to talk some sense into him. Not so's you could go wandering off in the fog, attracting every starveling lunatic for twenty miles."
Xena stopped, staring down at him, one eyebrow hidden under damp bangs. He dropped his eyes after a second and they began walking again, lengthening their steps to catch up with Gabrielle, who was lost in thought ahead.
The bard turned to Scillon as they came abreast of her. "About those, what did you call them, lunatics? What's causing that, do you know?"
"Hunger," he said gruffly. "Exposure. Don't have to look too far to find a reason there." They passed a gate just then, and the captain idly gestured over its top. "Gets worse in fog, gods know why." Gabrielle stretched up to see where he pointed. Someone was out there, weaving in and out of the low-lying mists that still covered the fields. Gabrielle looked up as Xena stopped beside her, then back at the man in the field. "Lyamen?" she said quietly.
"What's he doing?" the bard whispered. "Looks like he's talking to someone."
"Let's go find out." Xena responded, equally quietly, then over her shoulder to the captain, "Later, Scillon."
They slipped neatly between gateposts and hedge and were moving stealthily into the field behind their wandering host as the too-wide guard captain cursed behind them. The gates were locked on the inside.
=============== Part 7 ================
The captain's protests faded away as the two got closer to the man they had seen. With shock they realised that it wasn't Lyamen after all, but a much younger man. Gabrielle pulled Xena's head down and whispered in her ear, "Thyrtos?"
Xena nodded. "I think so," she mouthed almost noiselessly.
"What's he doing?"
"Can't tell... wait, he's stopped. He's found something, looks like."
"Something big... he's picking it up."
They whirled. Lyamen came out of the fog, smiling happily. "Isn't it a lovely day?"
"Um, yeah. Really nice... weather we're having." Gabrielle replied, cautiously. "What's up?"
"Well, so these are our famous guests." The women turned around again. Thyrtos stood quite near, running one hand through the shock of damp hair that had fallen in front of his eyes. His other hand and arm were wrapped around the torso of an emaciated boy, slung over his shoulder. "How nice to meet you finally. So," he continued, bouncing a little to settle the weight of his burden, "what brings you out today?"
"Oh, um... just walking around, taking in the sights." Gabrielle winced inwardly. That sounded weak, even to her.
Before the steward could reply, Xena jumped in. "What's the problem with the boy?"
"Offhand, I'd say he's hungry." Thyrtos smiled unpleasantly. "You wouldn't happen to have anything to eat with you? Nutbread, perhaps? No? Well. Don't let me keep you. Enjoy your afternoon." He turned and walked away toward the villa. The fog swallowed him almost immediately.
Lyamen watched him go, then turned back to the women. "Thyrtos will take care of him, don't worry about that. Well, can I show you around? What sights were you interested in?"
"Scillon was showing us the, um, sheep." Gabrielle replied, stealing a look at Xena.
Lyamen frowned. "The sheep? The sheep are all in the barns--" He smiled happily at the pair. "Did you want to see them?"
The bard stammered, "I, uh... Xena?"
Xena smiled weakly. "Sure. We'd love to."
"Xena, I don't care if my stitches get wet; I've got to have a bath."
"It was your idea. 'We wanted to see the sheep,' you said. I heard you. And I let you live."
"I didn't mean all of them. Individually. Up close and personally."
A word from Xena, and Argo had gone with Scillon willingly enough. The rest of the afternoon had been a blur of woolly, bleating, pissing and defecating animals, milling ceaselessly under long, low barn roofs. Gabrielle had tried to follow their host's non-stop patter on the minute details of the care and feeding of sheep, but only Xena's mock glares and sly pinches had kept her from yawning outright in Lyamen's face. To top off the excursion, it had begun to rain again as they left the far barn.
The bard leaned on the wall of their room, then slowly sank to the floor, her mud-spattered legs sprawled out before her. "Gods... my feet hurt. And that smell!" She opened her eyes. "Don't you dare sit on that bed, princess! Not unless you change clothes."
"Okay, okay!" Xena jumped up off the corner of the bed. "You've got a point. Help me off with this."
"Do I have to get up?"
"Nah, I'll come down there." The warrior crouched down between Gabrielle's legs and leaned back. "How's that?"
"Painful. But in a good way." Gabrielle quickly undid the breastplate buckles before the brass bits could imprint permanently on her skin. "There. Now, sit up. Thanks."
There was a knock at the door. Xena stood up slowly and stretched before dropping her armour in a corner. "I'll get it."
The bard closed her eyes again and leaned back against the wall. "Thanks, love." Her lips began to move soundlessly.
Xena opened the door, then stood back to let a small parade of servants bearing buckets of steaming water enter. As they filled the tub and filed out again, Gabrielle murmured, "Thank you, Artemis."
Xena shut the door again and helped the bard to her feet. "Okay, let's get those clothes off."
"Do I get to get in the tub?" Gabrielle asked dreamily, as Xena unlaced her top.
"Nope." Xena replied, unwrapping her skirt.
"It's my bath-- Artemis sent it 'cause I asked."
"Not gonna happen. But if you're good, I'll wash your hair, too. Step out of your boots and go stand on the mat."
"Okay. Xena, was he dead?"
"That child Thyrtos was carrying. Oooh, that feels good."
"Lift your arms. No, he was still breathing."
"I don't think I like him."
"Turn around. Who don't you like?"
"You know, I don't think I do, either. How's this feel?"
"Too good. I'm going to fall asleep right here."
"Wait till I get your hair done. Then you can take a nap if you want."
The blonde was asleep almost before Xena carried her to the bed and tucked her in. 'Guess I'm on my own for supper tonight,' she mused as she finished her own wash-up and found a clean tunic to replace her leathers. The idea of spending the evening chatting with Lyamen in his present condition wasn't one that appealed to the warrior. 'Oh, well,' she thought as she pulled the door shut behind her, 'maybe I can knock some sense into him.'
Gabrielle woke from her nap just at dusk. She lay there for a few minutes longer, enjoying the warm cocoon created by her body heat under the blanket Xena'd tucked around her and the silky friction of clean skin against clean fabric. She tried going back to sleep, but found it impossible in the face of Xena's absence and her own growing hunger.
Locating a clean, if worn, tunic in their bag, the bard quickly dressed and combed out her still-damp hair. She briefly considered and discarded the idea of stuffing her slightly swollen feet into her boots. 'Now,' she thought as she padded down the hall, 'to find out where everyone's got to.'
As she walked, her mind kept returning to the scene in the field. Lost in thought, she bumped squarely into something.
Or rather, someone. "Sorry! Are you all right?" she said anxiously as the Thyrtos bounced off the wall and turned to face her, a tentative smile forming.
"Quite all right, yes. Did you enjoy the rest of your afternoon?"
"Oh, yes, very, um, educational." she stammered. "Your uncle certainly knows a lot about sheep."
"No one in Greece knows more about sheep," he affirmed. "I do apologise for not meeting you when you came in last night."
"You're probably a very busy man, though, I mean, it's quite a large, um, farm..." Gabrielle knew she was babbling, but the way he was regarding her felt unpleasantly like the way a mouse might feel when, going about its own business, it suddenly finds itself face to face with a cat.
"Yes," he replied as she wound down, "I've been very busy. Still, I should have been there to meet you. Say, you're a bard, aren't you?"
"Well, yes, I am. I really should--"
"I was wondering if you could help me with something," he continued, taking her arm as he began walking down the hall again.
"Well, I'll try..." she said, doubtfully.
"I found a scroll in one of the storerooms last winter. It supposedly relates the tale of Antigone, how she defied Creon for her brother's sake. Only there are some new sections, parts I hadn't heard before." He stopped in front of a door and laid his hand on the latch. "Could you take a look at it, see if it's for real?"
"Antigone? Sure, I suppose. If I can take it away with me and look at it later."
"Not a problem." He pressed down on the latch and the door swung soundlessly open.
Xena leaned back in her chair and stared moodily at her empty wine goblet. Lyamen had just finished telling a long and involved story which she hadn't followed at all. Every time she looked at him she was struck anew by the difference in the man before her and the bright, highly competent stablemaster she'd known years ago.
"More wine, Xena?"
She looked up, and despite herself returned his happy smile. "Sure." She held out her goblet. "Lyamen, we need to talk."
He finished pouring and sat down, looking at her quizzically. "About what?"
The warrior sighed. 'Where's Gabrielle when I need her?' she thought, then aloud, "About the villagers."
Lyamen frowned. "What about them?"
Xena swallowed half the wine in a gulp. "They're hungry. They need food."
He looked away nervously. "I can't help them."
"What do you mean, 'you can't help them'?" The warrior's patience stretched and broke. "You could give them a hundred sheep and never miss them!"
Lyamen jumped up and began pacing the room. "You don't understand-- I can't do it! Thyrtos says we can't spare them."
Xena stood, grabbing his arm as he passed her and spinning him around to face her. "Yes, you can." she said quietly. "Tomorrow, you and I are going to Amentus. With one hundred sheep. Do you understand?"
"No!" He broke away. Xena seized him again, this time dragging him around and shoving him into her chair. She leaned over him, unyielding. "Yes, we will. You and I. If I have to tie you and Thyrtos to a horse!"
He shivered where he sat, tears starting to fall as he ducked his head. "We can't..." he whimpered, "He needs them hungry. To fulfil the curse."
"Who?" the warrior blinked. "What are you saying?"
His head shot up, face bright red and twisted in an unrecognisable mask. "I don't have much time-- he's busy, he's let go for a bit... find the cloud-chamber.... in my-- in Thyrtos' study-- it's the gateway." He gripped the arms of the chair as a spasm rippled through him, shouting, "Shut up! Ungrateful lout-- they're your family, too!" Lyamen threw himself forward out of the chair, knocking Xena aside. He slammed his head hard against the table top, then with great effort turned his face against its surface till he could see her. Blood ran from his nose and puddled in the crevice formed by his cheek mashed against the table. His voice was hoarse. "He takes from the souls of the hungry in the fog-- thinks... thinks it will... salvage their deaths..."
Xena grabbed his shoulders and pushed him back in the chair. "Salvage who?"
"My father's, his also... they killed each other. He wants to redeem them... with others..." he whispered.
"Who's doing this?"
"Lyam... eaaugh!" His eyes rolled back in his head and the tension went out of his body.
"Who are you?" Xena whispered. She tried to revive him, but had no luck. Finally, assuring herself he was still alive and in no real danger, she propped him up in the chair in a comfortable position before leaving the dining hall.
=============== Part 8 ================
Gabrielle looked around the room in wonder. It was large and well-lit, but so cluttered she felt crowded and clumsy. A half-open door on her right led to another, dark room. She could just make out one corner of a bedstead. The rest of the walls were covered in tattered drawings and maps, especially of the coastline. Odd, curving lines were crudely sketched in charcoal on top of inked land masses. It made no sense that she could see.
Thyrtos was digging around in a trunk behind her, scrolls flying everywhere as he searched. He would unroll one a bit, read, and toss it aside with as much care for the parchment as if it had been old rags. Gabrielle winced and looked away.
On a table in front of the windows she saw a litter of more parchment and foreign instruments, tools, candle stubs, tiny ink and dye pots, all surrounding something the bard had never seen the like of before. She stepped closer. It was no wonder she'd missed it at first, as it was made almost entirely of glass, balanced over a low, wide iron dish, raised above the table surface on five stubby legs.
She stepped over a statue of Pan on its side, half in and half out of a feed bucket and bent over to look more closely at the glass and iron thing. It exuded a warm, moist heat, and she thought for a moment that it was a unique kind of room warmer. Then, looking up, she spotted something moving around in the upper section.
The top part was shaped like a pear, upside-down, and held over the iron pan with an arrangement of thin metal supports melded to its curves. Inside it a miniature cloud was forming from the steam rising from the iron pan, darkening as she watched.
Gabrielle jumped and turned as the steward stood, holding out an old, dirty scroll. He motioned her over to a sideboard and unrolled it. "Here-- here's the part I was talking about. It says that Creon had Antigone executed for what she did."
The bard looked at him, puzzled, then at the scroll. She shrugged. "Well, yes. He did. What did you think happened?"
"Well, yeah, okay, but read that part." He pointed to another section that had been recently inserted.
"That's the part I found. It seems to fit best there."
Gabrielle looked at him. She was troubled by something, a false note in his voice.
"Read it out loud, you'll see what I mean."
She shrugged. What harm in reading a silly scroll? She began, sounding the first four lines, then broke off. "This has nothing to do with Antigone."
"Yes it does, go on, you'll see."
She shook her head, but continued. Suddenly the room swam and darkened before her in a hazy mist. She looked up, startled. Thyrtos was fading rapidly from her sight, that cat's smile she remembered back on his face. He mouthed the words 'See you soon', then he was gone and she was caught in a formless void.
The warrior climbed the stairs slowly, her mind whirling. How could he warn her against himself? And why? By the time she reached the top, she calmed enough to consider the possibility that Lyamen was simply a raving lunatic, like the townspeople.
Xena paused at the door of their room. Opening it as quietly as she could, she eased inside. As she shut the door behind her, a warning flickered at the edge of her senses. Something was wrong-- the room felt... cold. Empty. Careless of noise now, she strode quickly over to the bed and felt around. No Gabrielle.
Fear settled in a cold lump in the pit of her stomach, even as she sought to reassure herself that the bard was a grown woman, and one well-trained in defence. Xena flew to the door and threw it open. The hall was empty. Hurrying down the stairs, she made for the kitchen, half-hoping the bard had awakened hungry and simply gone looking for a quick snack.
Scillon looked up from his place by the kitchen hearth. "Evening, Xena. Care for some wine? I was just--"
"No time. Have you seen Gabrielle?"
"No, not lately. Here, try some of this. Good vintage."
Xena slapped the proffered cup to the floor, spilling its contents in a wide splash across the stones. "When did you last see her?"
Scillon stared at her. "half a candlemark gone, maybe."
"Was she alone?" the warrior demanded.
"Well, no... "
Xena lifted the captain by his tunic and slammed him up against the wall. She spoke in a deadly calm voice. "Who was she with, and where?"
The captain stammered, "Th-Thyrtos. In his workroom. I saw them from the garden. Xena, I don't think--"
She dropped him. "Fine. Don't think. Just lead me to that room. Now."
Gabrielle floated, lost. She felt herself spread out, her consciousness dispersed across a vast space with no shape.
She sensed she was no longer alone. Shifting her awareness, she felt along the edge of her being and found two Others. They tore at her, rending tiny pieces of her soul. The pain rippled throughout the plane of her existence, discovering to her her own boundaries in this world. She pulled back and in, tracing the limits and forcing them ever closer to her centre.
The pain lashed at her again and she doubled away from it, finding at last a calm place to regroup. With something akin to sight, she forced the void around her to take on colour and shape. There. Her antagonists approached, screaming as they flew, jaws agape.
She lashed out at them, pummelling them with a staff of light, her surprise at its appearance almost causing her to lose it again. They fell away into the void and she relaxed, drawing her energies together, seeking new reserves.
She sucked in strength from beyond herself, uncovering tiny wellsprings here and there. She felt them scream, shrill and high, and turned them loose abruptly.
Her enemies were upon her again, joined by a third carrying a spear of fire.
They started back upstairs. Xena turned to the captain. "What do you know about Lyamen's father?"
"Not much. Before my time. Why?"
"How'd he die?"
The captain shrugged. "Killed in a brawl with his other son. Actually, they both died. Nasty business, that. Lyamen's got a bit of a fixation on it, to tell the truth. Gets in his cups and starts going on about meeting them in Tartarus."
They had reached the top of the landing. "What, after he's dead?"
"No, no-- now. Whenever it's foggy, come to think of it. Says he's feeding them, or some such."
"Feeding them with what, exactly?"
"What's it matter? He's as crazy as if the Furies themselves whispered in his ears." Scillon snorted. "As long as Thyrtos pays me each month, Lyamen can feed figs to his dead family in the garden, for all I care."
They hurried down the hall and around the corner. Scillon added, "Besides, for all I know, he might be doing them some good. Who's to say?"
Xena spat. "I've been dead. It doesn't work that way."
Gabrielle struck out with her staff again, but the spearcarrier blocked the blow easily. Meanwhile the two souleaters drifted around to either side, flanking her.
She spun upward as the two dove for her and crashed into each other. The force of their meeting caused them to fly apart, spreading outward as their control lapsed. She felt them pass around and through her, their mindless evil sickening her even as she realised they had no longer any power to harm her.
That left only one.
His howl of anger at the loss of his creatures echoed through her own being, shaking her core. Grimly she held her will in place against it, only just able to parry his spear as he attacked. His fire tore a ragged path through her as he reversed his weapon and snuck under her guard. She felt herself spreading out, losing control, and with one last effort drove her light staff through the centre of his being.
He exploded around and through her, and this time she was powerless to hold her will together. And then the void itself cracked asunder.
The door was locked. Scillon knocked lightly, calling, "Thyrtos! Need to talk to you!"
Xena shoved him aside and backed up the width of the hallway. She crouched down, then ran and leapt at the door with both feet, shattering the heavy wood as though it were parchment. Inside, she saw Gabrielle's body lying on the floor and went to her, ignoring Thyrtos' slumped in a chair nearby.
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle, can you hear me?" Xena patted her cheek. Getting no response, she set her head to the bard's chest and listened. The heartbeat sounded faint in her ear and she relaxed slightly, looking up at Scillon. "She's still alive."
Scillon stood stock-still in the centre of the room, staring at the glass-and-iron thing on the table. Within light and dark gases shifted and turned, shaking their container as they twisted around and under each other. "What? Oh-- good." He moved to the steward's side, bending over him and raising his eyelids.
With the captain no longer blocking her view, Xena got a good look at the device on the table. "What in Tartarus in that thing?"
"That?" the captain looked up. "Cloud-chamber. Thyrtos uses it to predict the weather," he mumbled. "It's hot-- don't touch it."
"Oh gods... oh gods, no--" Xena whispered as she slowly stood and walked toward it. The shapes within separated and seemed to shrink, becoming more dense, their hues more saturated. A bolt sprang out from the lighter shape, splitting the darker and it diffused outward, expanding to envelope the lighter one.
"Noooo!" Xena screamed as she reached up to the container, and even as she did so, the dark fell away altogether, and the light grew, filling the globe.
Then her hands were on it, and she threw it to the floor.
Behind her, in the silence that followed the shattering of glass and scree of hot metal twisting, a small voice whispered, "Xena... I'm so cold..."
=============== Part 9 ================
"Scillon, get a blanket, now!"
The captain slapped at the last of the flames from the broken cloud-chamber and fetched back a quilt from the adjoining bedroom. Handing it to Xena, he resumed checking Thyrtos' body for signs of returning awareness.
Xena helped the half-conscious bard to sit up and wrapped it around her. She listened with half an ear to Scillon's attempts to revive the steward as she leaned back against the trunk and pulled the bard into her lap. She glanced up at him. "Well?"
Scillon shook his head. "Hard to say... he's got a heartbeat, he's breathing, but that's it."
Gabrielle doubled over in her arms; Xena patted her back as she coughed and retched. As it subsided, Scillon knelt beside them. "How's she doing?"
Xena felt Gabrielle relax. She smoothed back the bard's hair. "Okay, I think... hey, you in there? Hello?"
Gabrielle tilted her head back and opened her eyes. "How about that?" she said softly. "I can see, after all."
"Good. Think you can stand up?"
"Think so. Why?"
"Oh, just intellectual curiosity. And an idea that we'd be more comfortable elsewhere."
"Okay." Gabrielle started to stand, then sat down again quickly, clutching her side. "Ouch."
"What's wrong?" Xena said, gently trying to pry the bard's hands away from her ribs.
"Nothing--" she gasped, then more normally, "It's nothing, I'm okay. Let's try this again. More slowly."
Scillon leaned back on his heels. "Take her down to the kitchen, if you like. I'll be there in a bit. Then we'll see what's what, and what's to be done."
The two women carefully got to their feet and walked arm in arm to the doorway. Xena turned and looked back at Scillon. He had just lifted the steward's body from the chair. "Need a hand?"
"No, you go on. I'll just make him comfortable, then I'll join you." He shifted the dead weight in his arms and shouldered through the door to Thyrtos' bedroom.
Gabrielle shook her head as they walked slowly down the hall. "I should know better by now."
"Than what?" Xena replied, walking around to her other side. "Move your hand, and let me look at that."
"I'm fine, it's just a stitch or something." She pulled the quilt back anyway so Xena could see for herself. There were no marks on the bard's skin, and the burning sensation was beginning to fade. "He wanted to me to read this scroll he said he'd found."
"Let me guess: out loud."
Xena rolled her eyes. "Bards."
"What I don't understand is, why me?"
They reached the stairs and started down. "Well," Xena said, "I suppose the short answer is 'because you will.'"
"Because I will what?"
The warrior shrugged. "Just that. Because you'll lift stones to what's under them. Open doors to see what's behind them. Step off the cliff to see if the air will hold you."
"I've never done that!" she said indignantly over her shoulder, missing the last step entirely. Xena caught her up before she could fall and held her briefly before setting her feet firmly on the flagstones.
"Haven't you?" Xena laughed. They ducked under the stairs and kept going. "Once Thyrtos unrolled that scroll, you were no more able to keep from reading it than the stars to stop shining. Here's the kitchen-- how do you feel about cheese toasted on bread?"
"It better-- I'm not sure where anything else is."
Gabrielle settled on a high stool by the kitchen worktable, wrapping the quilt more securely around her. She watched Xena build up the hearth fire, her memories of the recent ordeal already hazy. There seemed so little correspondence between the warm, solid, cosy kitchen she was in now and the ethereal world where she'd been forced to confront Thyrtos. And yet, she had been there just as she was now here... which meant that Thyrtos was.... "Xena, where's Thyrtos?"
The warrior stabbed a thick slice of bread with a toasting fork and set it on the rack close to the embers. She rocked back on her heels. "Scillon put him to bed. He's still unconscious, I think."
"No-- I mean, I came back. So, if he didn't, then he's still there."
"Sounds reasonable. Is that a problem?" Xena said, laying bits of soft cheese on the toast and resetting it on the rack.
"I don't know." Gabrielle thought about it a minute. "Might be. Depends on... I don't know what it depends on."
"Toast's ready." Xena replied, pulling it off the fire and bringing it over to the table. She set it on a plate before the bard and leaned on the table. "So, what actually happened?"
Just then Scillon strode into the kitchen. "No change. I've got one of my men watching him. Where's the wine?" He looked around, spotting an open bottle on a counter. "Between us, working for this crew is driving me to drink. Either of you want a cup?" he said, pouring a measure for himself and downing it in two quick gulps.
"Good idea," Xena replied. "We'll both have some. Gabrielle was just telling me what happened."
The captain set full cups before them and settled down near the hearth with his back to the fire. He took a sip of wine and looked at the bard expectantly. "Well? What's that lad done?"
"It's hard to describe," Gabrielle began, "I couldn't see anything, or hear; at least, not normally. It was like being underwater in a blood-warm pool at midnight, in the slack of the month when there's no moon. I couldn't tell where I ended, and anything else began at first..." As the bard continued, describing the attacks and her reactions, Scillon became more and more disturbed.
"Wait a minute--" he interrupted. "You drove them off the first time, and then what, again?"
"I felt weakened, and as soon as I realised that I also found, I don't know, points from which I could pull strength. Except it hurt them, I could tell, so I stopped." She took another sip of wine and went on, relating the second attack and its outcome. "It was like the whole world coming apart around me, and then the next thing I knew, I was back in the room with you." She looked at Xena and smiled. "This toast is really good, by the way."
"Thanks." Xena replied absently. She stared past the captain at the tiny flame ridges riding the backs of the charred logs in the hearth. Her hand slid across the table on its own to curl around Gabrielle's even as her mind wandered through the possibilities. Thyrtos neither dead nor alive, but with a possible source of... rejuvenation? Unless they could close that off. "Scillon, wake the staff. We have a village to feed, and the sooner we get that started, the better our chances for bringing this to an end."
"What? Wait a minute, we can't--" His next words were cut off by a high-pitched scream from upstairs. It stretched out beyond bearing and then cut off sharply as Xena's eyes locked with the captain's.
Xena reached the door first and was well up the stairs before Scillon or Gabrielle found their feet.
Newly-woke servants poked their heads out of their doors as they raced down the hall, some pointing the way. Hampered by the quilt, Gabrielle slowed long enough to drop it at the last turning, then followed Scillon through the door to Thyrtos' bedroom. She saw Xena standing over the guard Scillon had left to watch the steward. Lyamen was kneeling behind her in the corner, panting and clutching at his throat. She guessed he'd been the one screaming. More guardsmen poured into the room behind them, fanning out around the walls, their faces impassive.
Lyamen coughed as he tried to speak. "Xena... on the bed... "
"Lyamen, try to relax, everything's okay." Xena began calmly.
"No!" Lyamen shouted, "I'm not--" As Xena turned toward him in surprise, the guard below her kicked up. Xena caught his foot and twisted it. He screamed and clutched his knee. The warrior let go almost negligently and put out a hand to help Lyamen to his feet.
He waved her off frantically. "On the bed!" He gasped and began coughing again. She turned to the bed, frowning at the still figure lying there and looked back as Gabrielle brought Lyamen a glass of water from the sideboard.
The sound of clapping swung her around again. Thyrtos sat up, resting his elbow on one upraised knee as he smiled at the tableau in the corner. "I'm sorry, I really just couldn't keep still any longer."
Lyamen looked up, his face sagging. "Too late." He slumped back down.
"Uncle!" Thyrtos exclaimed, "How sweet, a moment of clarity! And after all my hard work, too. Well, that's what I get for napping. Tsk. I just can't turn my back on you-- one day you're sending for someone to kill me, the next you're trying to kill me yourself." He plucked a knife from the folds in the bedclothes and twirled it idly in his fingers. The guards shifted nervously and brought their spears to the ready.
Gabrielle stood, aware of Xena slowly backing toward her, putting herself between the bard and the others in the room, and aware, too, of the dozen or so spears aimed in their direction. 'Time for a distraction,' she thought, and aloud, "Thyrtos, didn't I punch a hole in you an hour or so ago?"
"Where...?" He waggled his head from side to side and continued in a playful tone, "Oh-- there you are. You're hiding, aren't you? But to answer your question, yes, you did. Quite painful, too, not to mention lucky for you. But, you know," he went on, sliding out of the bed, "staves don't actually, well, cut, or anything. No sharp edges."
In a lightning move, he threw the knife in a flat arc toward them. Xena whirled, pulling Gabrielle behind her, but the blade shot past both of them and buried itself deep in Lyamen's left shoulder. He didn't move.
Xena snatched at the nearest guard's spear and swung it around, knocking two more out of the air and landing a glancing blow on Thyrtos' head that sent him to the floor by the bed. Kicking one of the fallen weapons behind her to Gabrielle, she leaped over the bed as she threw the one in her hands, pinning another guardsman to the workroom door. It sprang open from the force of the blow. Three more spears flew toward her as the guards began backing through it into the workroom and from there to the hall.
Scillon shouted, trying to rally them, but they were unused to this level of fighting. When Xena flung another guard bodily through the window, though, they stopped worrying about it and began retreating in earnest. Growling in frustration, their captain picked up a spear and charged the easier target-- the wounded man behind Gabrielle.
The bard had been crouched over Lyamen to protect him from the flying missiles in the room. Hearing distant sounds of fighting from the hall on the other side of the wall, she looked up and saw Scillon bearing down on them. She brought her spear up butt-first, slamming it into the pit of the captain's belly. As he went down, retching, Thyrtos rose up in his place, catching the spear as it fell from Scillon's hands. He stared at the bard, twirling the weapon, then suddenly turned and flung it at Xena while simultaneously kicking backward at Gabrielle. His foot connected with her ribs, reigniting the burning stitch she'd felt earlier and she doubled over.
Xena saw both the throw and the kick just as she'd knocked two guard's heads together. Dropping them, she leaned to one side and caught the spear, intending to hurl it back. At the last minute, she checked her arm, realising the danger to Gabrielle and Lyamen if she missed or Thyrtos dodged.
Thyrtos smiled at her indecision, then quite deliberately reached behind and dug his fingers into the bard's scalp, dragging her around and in front of him.
Gabrielle struggled, despite the growing fire in her midsection. She drove her shoulder into Thyrtos' abdomen even as he pushed her head down, slamming him into the wall. She found herself staring down into Lyamen's open eyes. He blinked and slowly began raising his left hand.
Xena took the opportunity to close the distance between her and the pair. Thyrtos slipped out from between Gabrielle and the wall and renewed his hold on the bard's hair. He jammed his right leg behind hers, then pulled her head back and across his hip. He gasped at Xena, "Any closer and I'll break her--"
His next words were cut off as Xena flipped the spear in her hands and lunged, cracking its handle across his jaw. Gabrielle ducked and rolled away from his loosened grip as Xena manoeuvred the steward toward the centre of the room with short, hard blows to his ribs. The groans of fallen guardsmen receded in the warrior's ears. She flicked the razor-sharp edge of the spear point across Thyrtos' cheek and laughed.
The steward broke and ran for the windows, but Xena was there before him, leaping and spinning over his head, and slashing his other cheek on the way down. His face was a mask of sweat and blood as he backed away from the fury before him, chest heaving in fear.
Xena closed on him slowly, drinking in his panic and stringing it taut between them. A flash of wood and metal and his right knee was suddenly useless. He went down heavily on his back, still scrabbling away from her as best he could. Xena laughed again as she knelt on his chest, the spear in her hands held high for the killing strike.
His scream filled the room, rebounding from the garden outside. Xena pulled the spear down and thrust it home, splitting the hair between sound and silence.
For a moment, no one moved. Then Gabrielle heard an odd, chuckling sound to her left and turned. Lyamen sat up, still laughing. "I'll miss that boy. I really will."
He pulled the knife from his shoulder. Gabrielle started toward him. "No-- leave it!"
"Gabrielle, get back!"
The bard jumped. Xena wrenched the spear up and cast just as Lyamen let fly with the knife. His throw fell harmlessly short even as he was pinned to the wall.
Gabrielle stared in shock as Lyamen twitched helplessly, blood and matter gushing from the widening wound in his belly. Behind her she heard Xena getting up and slowly turned toward the warrior. Who was helping a very much alive Thyrtos to his feet. It was too much. She sat heavily on the bed as her mind raced.
Thyrtos was saying, "You did it. You really did it. By the gods..." The bard stared at him as he examined his own hands and body in wonder. He really was different. Gone was any trace of that viciously playful manner she remembered. Xena moved in front of her, blocking him.
She looked up at the warrior. "How'd you do... what did you do?"
Xena shrugged. "My old friend over there," she nodded towards Lyamen's still-jerking form, "forced his nephew to switch bodies with him. I scared him into switching back."
Gabrielle let out a deep breath and leaned her head against Xena's stomach. "You've got to start warning me about stuff like that."
"Sorry. There really wasn't time." Xena rubbed her shoulders lightly. Off to one side they heard Scillon groan and try to stand. Xena whispered to Gabrielle, "Hang on."
She stood as the warrior walked over to Scillon, who had made it to his knees. Xena squatted down in front of him. "How are you feeling?"
He snarled at her, trying and failing to form a fist.
Xena t'sked. "You tuck your thumb outside your fingers. Like this." Taking careful aim, she punched the side of his head hard enough to slam him back against the bedpost.
Thyrtos was over at the washbasin, trying without much success to clean his face. He was crying. Gabrielle pushed him gently into a chair and took over. She nodded as Xena came up beside them. "Yeah, I'd say you've got that technique down pat."
"Dare I say it?"
Gabrielle turned back to Thyrtos. "Okay. I think the bleeding's stopped. Hold this pad on your knee."
Xena eyed him critically. "You'll need stitches. It'll still scar, though. Sorry about that."
Thyrtos tried to smile. Both women dived for more towels as his cheek wounds reopened. "No smiling!" Xena ordered, as she pressed the towel up to his face.
Gabrielle stepped back and looked over his head at the open door to the hallway. "You can come in now," she called. One by one servants in varying stages of dress tip-toed in, some carrying pans, some pots and a few with kitchen knives. A couple of the pots were rather severely dented.
An older woman whom Xena recognised as the cook shouldered her way through the crowd. She looked from Xena to Thyrtos to Gabrielle and back. "Well. I expect you'll be wanting the use of my table." She narrowed her eyes at Lyamen's corpse, now hanging quite still.
Xena nodded. "And some hot water. And if anyone here has rope..." The cook nodded and began issuing directions. Two men gingerly began pulling the spear from the wall.
Another pair of servants went around the room, binding the remaining guards with strips torn from the bedsheets. One of them looked up at Xena warily. "They attacked us in the hallway. We heard the noise and were coming to help. Next thing we know, this lot's knocking us around."
"Anyone else hurt?"
The cook looked back on her way out the door. "A few. They're being seen to."
Xena snugged an arm around Gabrielle's waist and guided her toward the door. "C'mon, love. Let's get Thyrtos stitched up. Then maybe we can get some sleep."
"Suits. Coming, Thyrtos?"
The steward spared a last glance for his dead kinsman, then limped out the door behind them.
=============== Part 10 ================
The midday sun sparkled on the fountain, making Gabrielle squint a bit. She shifted on the bench, trying to move away from the glare. Xena absently turned with her, putting an arm around her shoulders. That did it. She could now clearly see the young man sitting across from them, black hair still falling in his face as he poured spiced tea into their mugs. The stitching in the swollen flesh of his cheeks gave him an odd kind of lopsided look, but she knew from experience that they would heal cleanly. It did make him sound funny, though. The bard took another sip of her tea as they waited for Thyrtos to continue.
"I was just a boy at the time," the new master of the house went on, describing Lyamen's return, "but he blamed my father for the quarrel, and that meant all of us, my family, as well. He hid it, though it would come out sometimes. Small incidents. He would get drunk and shout at my mother. We ended up moving back to her home, over the hills."
A woman came out of the kitchen. "Excuse me, sir. They found another family hiding in the basement under what used to be the Weaver's Hall. Housekeeper says we're full up on the second floor but there's a couple rooms on first she can convert."
Thyrtos nodded. "Tell her to do as she sees fit. Have they finished digging the cookpits yet?"
"Almost. The first two are already set up, though."
She went back in and he resumed his story. "After a few years he sent for me, to teach me how the farm worked. My mother thought he was trying to make up and let me go. He'd been studying. All kinds of things, not just alchemy. I've never see herds increase like his before. Anyway, we got on well, at first. He told me lots of stories about you, Xena. He really admired you, especially how you ran things. He wanted to run the farm like you ran your army. It was a bit strict-- some of the stablehands complained. When he made me steward, I tried to ease things a little.
"I think that's where it really started... I'd been tracking the weather cycles in the area, trying to establish a pattern. He brought this, this thing to me one day last winter, said it reflected cloud movements."
"So that's what that was!" Gabrielle exclaimed.
"Well, not exactly," Thyrtos continued, "though it did seem to mirror cloud formations. Among other things. He called it a 'cloud-chamber'." He took a long drink. "We were fooling with it one night. He'd been drinking. So had I, for that matter. Anyway, he started getting angrier and angrier, going on and on about that old quarrel. I answered back, rougher than I should have, seeing he was my uncle.
"That did it. He snapped, started raving and stalking up and down the room. He turned bright red and fell over. I ran to catch him, and as I was holding him, trying to get him to a chair, he grabbed my collar and pulled my head down to his. He was saying something. I couldn't quite catch it at first, but then his voice got stronger as he went on. He was chanting... I didn't understand what it meant. And then I was... somewhere else. I don't know where--"
"Been there, done that." Gabrielle murmured. The arm around her shoulders tightened briefly.
"Nothing. Just that I think I know what you're talking about. Kind of a no-where place?"
"That's right, you do. Huh... So, while I was trying to figure that out, I found myself back in my body, only I wasn't alone anymore." He shuddered and looked at his mug, setting it aside with an expression of distaste. "We need wine out here." He bent down and retrieved a pebble, tossing it over his shoulder into the kitchen. A yelp came from its interior. "Oops."
A different woman stuck her head out the archway. "Now what? Sir?"
"Wine, please. Sorry." he answered meekly. She popped back in and returned moments later with a bottle and three cups. As he poured, she bounced the pebble off his head, then turned without a word and returned to the kitchen.
Thyrtos rubbed his head as he set the cups within reach. "I don't get a lot of respect, as you can see."
Xena smiled. "Oh, I don't know... you get more than you think," she drawled.
He blushed and Gabrielle fought to keep her composure at the sight. "Anyway," he went on, "he was in my mind also. I could hear what he was thinking. He'd been projecting himself back and forth from that place for some time. This was the first time he'd taken someone else with him. He was very pleased about it. Then suddenly he was gone, back in his own body. The relief was enormous.
"He was so excited he completely forgot that he'd been arguing with me. He started going on about this idea he had, about his father and mine. About... fixing things for them. So they could go to the Fields instead of staying in Tartarus. Let me see if I can explain this: the transfer itself is an air and water process. He'd built the cloud-chamber originally as a gateway to this no-where place. Once there, he said he could sense other beings, other people, sometimes, but not always. He worked out that it was only when it was foggy somewhere nearby that he could make a connection with someone in the fog. That wasn't enough for him. He'd kept casting about, in a manner of speaking, and told me that he'd located our kinsmen in Tartarus, that they were in torment, and we could help. He and I.
"I told him it was madness and I would have nothing to do with any of it. Then so help me, he pinned me to the wall and chanted again, and I was lost.
"We were back in the void, and he pulled me along and forced me to 'see', I guess is what you'd call it. There were two creatures with us, and they were horrible and evil and he said one of them was my father and I cursed him and he wouldn't let me go!" Thyrtos clutched at his cup in his hands, staring at nothing as he remembered the sick despair he'd felt. Gabrielle shuddered and leaned further into Xena's shoulder.
He took a ragged breath and looked down at his cup. The rim was bent slightly. He refilled it and continued. "He had a spear. I don't know where it came from. I've never learned to fight... he thrust it at me and when I woke again we were in his body. We weren't really talking, but that's the best way of describing it. He said he'd give me one more chance, that all we needed was fog, and hungry people. Our 'kinsmen'," he spat, "would supply the fog. We could do the rest."
"Why 'hungry people?" Gabrielle asked softly.
"Hunger makes them weak," Thyrtos smiled bitterly. "Starving people's souls aren't so firmly anchored. He could search through the fog for them and take small pieces. He then fed the pieces to the evil ones. To 'clean' them. He was worse than deluded."
"I told him he could go to Tartarus and live with those things if he wanted, but I was going home and to put me back. He laughed, I could hear it in the room as well as in his head. He said he needed me to do this, but if I wouldn't help willingly, he'd just keep me where I was, where he could keep an eye on me.
"Then he... clamped down, I guess. I could sort of hear and see and feel, but it was like being drugged. That was a good thing, in a way, because otherwise, when I saw my own body get up, and walk around with his movements and speak with his voice, I would have gone mad myself.
"When the dragon attacked, he took it as confirmation he was doing the right thing. Because it gave him a whole townfull of souls to steal from. That's how far gone he was." Thyrtos paused for another drink.
Xena looked up. "How'd you get the note to us?"
"Once in a while, I think when he'd had a particularly busy time and was very tired, his control would slip. I took advantage of one of those times to give a note to a stablehand. I remembered you, both what he'd told me and what we'd heard later, after the dragon. I couldn't write much as I didn't know how much time I had, and I signed it 'Lyamen' because I thought you'd come faster for him.
"He knew I'd done it afterward, but by then the man had gone. All he could do was, well, push the fog outward and send some of the worse cases out in it to try to stop you. He'd gotten pretty good at controlling others, still, he had his hands full with me and could only nudge them along the farther away they got from Amentus."
"What did Scillon know about all this?" Gabrielle asked.
"He knew he'd get rich. All he had to do was make sure enough food got to the villagers to keep them alive and no more. He and his men didn't need controlling beyond waving dinars under their noses. The rest of it was just so much nonsense to them. Uncle thought it was funny when he'd get the villagers to attack the guards sometimes, since Scillon was under orders not to kill them."
Thyrtos looked at the bard. "He tricked you into the no-where place because he wanted to use you to kill Xena before she started feeding the whole town."
"What?!" Gabrielle sat up, startled. "How?"
"If he had beaten you there, he could have used your body to walk right up to Xena and, well..." he shrugged. "Instead, you trapped him. For a little while, long enough for me to get close to him with a knife. If Scillon hadn't left a guard there, I'd have managed it, too."
Gabrielle leaned back into Xena, her eyes wide. The warrior stroked her hair and whispered in her ear. "Didn't happen." She looked up at Thyrtos and winked. "All in all, I think it worked out better this way. Though I am sorry about your face."
Thyrtos nodded. "Believe me, I can live with it." He stood. "Lunch should be ready. They were going to set it up on the front lawn. Shall we?"
"Good idea," Xena said, standing and pulling the bard up with her. "I know you're hungry, Gabrielle."
"Oh, like you're not? Your belly's been rumbling since we sat down, I'll have you know."
Thyrtos wandered off to confer with a knot of shepherds. Xena and Gabrielle picked up bowls of vegetable and mutton stew from a stand set up on the lawn near the front entrance and were walking slowly through the small knots of villagers when a young girl dropped out of a tree directly in front of them. She was eating an apple.
Xena moved her hand off her hip where her chakram normally hung and looked up in the tree. It was an oak. She raised her eyebrows. "Nice trick," she said to the girl.
The child nodded absently as she fished around in a small pouch tied to her waist. Stuffing the apple in her mouth, she attacked the pouch with both hands, dumping it on the ground in front of her. "There it is!" she muttered around a bite of apple and knelt down to pick out a braided strip of blue and silver, twisted into a rope. A small blue gem depended from it. "Here," she said to Xena, "my mother wanted you to have this."
"Wha--" the warrior said, taking it carefully and holding it up in the sunlight.
"For the bread." the girl said impatiently, as she gathered the rest of her small belongings and refilled the pouch. She stood. "My da was starting to rave, you know. Between the oats and the bread, well, we're okay now. See ya!" She wandered off as Xena stared after her.
"Hey, that's really pretty." Gabrielle said, taking it from the warrior's loose grip.
"Yeah, it is, isn't it?" Xena replied, looking at the way the sunlight flashed off the stone and the thread of silver wire running through the braid. She cocked her head. "Look really nice on you, I think."
"Oh, c'mon, it'll pick up your eyes. Put it on."
"Nope," Xena said, taking the necklace and expertly slipping it around the bard's neck onehanded. "Don't worry, it'll still pick up my eyes." she rumbled in her ear.
Gabrielle laughed as she fingered the stone. "All right, all right-- let's sit here and eat before this stew gets cold."
They did try to eat, but they found themselves constantly interrupted by quiet visitors. A word or two of thanks, a wool tunic or six, a fine inlaid boning knife, soft sheepskin bracers, belts, and one odd peaked cap Gabrielle threatened to poke holes in and tie onto Argo, and they both decided they'd better get back inside before they needed another horse.
Back in their room, Gabrielle laid it all out on the bed as Xena rearranged their packs to make room. Pulling up a half-full bag, Xena mused, "Maybe we should have held out for a new whetstone."
"Don't turn your nose up, princess, that tunic you have on now is getting pretty ratty."
"And yours isn't?"
"Hmm... our travelling stuff clean yet, you think?" She finished packing the gifts and set the bag with the others.
"Oh! Yeah, it's over by the window. On the table."
Gabrielle sighed. "Guess we're set. What's the story on that wagon train?"
Thyrtos had asked them to escort a train headed for his home village in the hills, to beg a loan of supplies from his mother's people. "We don't need that much," he'd noted with a grimace.
"Leaving tomorrow. Early." Xena answered as she lay down on the bed.
The bard sat down beside her and leaned across her stomach. "Is that 'early' for me or 'early' for you?"
"We meet them at dawn, at the bottom of the lane." Xena replied, running her fingers lightly across Gabrielle's neck and just under her ear.
"Dawn. Yuck." she said, softly, her eyes closing as her head sank down onto Xena's chest.
"Uh-huh. Better rest up now."
"Hmmph. What's this?"
"A loose thread?"
"Thanks. I loved this tunic."
"Sorry." The bard stretched forward until she was lying half on and half off Xena's torso. "Tell you what," she said, nibbling at the warrior's chin, "you have two choices." She inched up further. "You can continue to wear what is, to all intents and purposes, a polishing rag, or..." she lightly nipped Xena's lower lip and smiled.
Three days later, a maid found the remains of the tunic under the bed. It made an excellent polishing rag, so far as she was concerned.
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