As Mel rushed through the third floor hallway, she saw the disturbing damage done to the stairwell by the fire and wondered with growing annoyance why Janice didn’t say one word about it to her. Quickly arriving at the door to room 313, she paused a second, feeling a little awkward barging into her friend’s room. She knew how much Janice valued her privacy. However, hearing another clap of thunder made her feelings of awkwardness moot. Janice needed the tent.

Opening the softly squeaking door, she entered and scanned the room. She wasn’t surprised to find it sparsely furnished and a bit messy. Mel grinned at the unmade bed with the covers in a jumble and clothing thrown haphazardly across it. Next to the bed was a night stand cluttered with books, newspapers and on top, a revolver which made Mel cringe with displeasure.

Looking over the rest of the archeologist’s room she spotted Janice’s desk which was covered with papers scattered in a large pile, making Mel wonder if the archeologist had ever heard of that amazing piece of office furniture called the filing cabinet. A smile emerged on the southerner’s face seeing one neat thing in the room. On the back of her desk chair, was Janice’s carefully hung leather jacket.

Mel’s grin faded when she noticed more evidence of the fire. A small scorched couch next to the blackened wall.

"Oh Janice," she exhaled sadly.

Another startling crack of lightening reminded the southerner of the task at hand. The tent! Spying the two doors next to each other, she reached for the one on the left and opened the door. Wrong one, she concluded after from the subtle clues of a bathtub and commode.

"That’s the bathroom," Georg announced helpfully, startling her when he entered the room.

"Thank you," Mel said with a thin smile and closed the door. Turning, she gave Georg a questioning look.

"Dr. Covington said the tent was heavy," Georg explained as he followed closely behind her.

"Hmmm," Mel responded flatly as she opened the closet door to find the tent rolled up in a large bag on the bottom of the closet. Next to the tent was Janice’s whip and a cardboard box filled with more paper, and a few pieces of clothing - actually on hangers. One piece caught Mel’s eye, Janice’s pretty green dress. Or rather, what was left of it. Pulling it towards her for a closer inspection, she found about a quarter of the skirt gone and the edges charred.

"Oh my," Mel responded.

Georg was on his toes to peek over the southerner’s shoulder.

"You should have seen it catch on fire," Georg relayed with amusement. "When Dr. Covington pulled Aristotle out of his room, her skirt caught and WHOOSH! . . . I’ve been friends with Dr. Covington a while now and have to say, the words out of her mouth surprised even me!" He chuckled, annoying Mel at his cavalier attitude.

"Georg, she could have been hurt!" Mel blurted angrily, effortlessly picking up the tent by herself. "And I, for one, do NOT find that funny," the southerner scolded him and marched out of the room, leaving the stunned Greek to scratch his head.

Janice was surprised when the southerner climbed the ladder, with the tent.

"Jesus Christ, Mel . . . you should get Georg to . . . "

Without a word, Mel glared at Janice and plopped the tent on the roof.

"Ok, no Georg. . . ," Janice responded cautiously and as she pulled the tent away from the hole in the roof to unroll it. She glanced up at the quiet southerner, now sitting on the edge of the roof by the ladder. Janice knew she didn’t like having all her clothes drenched. There was certainly no need for Mel to endure this too.

"You don’t have to be out here," Janice relayed, smoothing out the tent.

"I know," Mel responded crisply, pushing up her glasses. She didn’t budge.

"Oh," Janice relayed uneasily as she pulled her hammer out of her tool belt. She felt around the belt pouch for some nails. Damn. She looked up with a weak smile.

"Would you mind getting some. . . , " Janice started to ask when Mel reached in the pocket of her smudged and soaked suit, grabbed some nails, and held her hand out. "Nails . . " Janice blurted, eyeing the southerner’s extended fist and the drops of rain water that dribbled from it.

Mel raised her eyebrow.

Janice felt a bit unnerved at the silent treatment. "Thanks," Janice responded with another weak smile as she took the nails.

As Janice started to fit the tent over the hole, she looked up at Mel. "I think this will do the trick," she relayed with a hammer in her hand and a confident smile on her face.

Mel eyed the archeologist and sighed. Janice’s smile faded.

"Yeah. . . well," Janice relayed, grabbed a wood board and started to carefully hammer it over the tent. After a few more moments of tacking the tent down, Janice looked up at the drenched and silent southerner.

"You know there is really no need for you to be . . . . " Janice stopped and cringed, seeing Mel silently raise her eyebrow again.

"Yeah . . . well," Janice relayed and continued attaching the makeshift roof. Finally getting to the last side, Janice looked between Mel, who sat in the way, and the ladder.

"How will you get down?" Mel asked coolly.

"Fire escape," Janice answered with an unconcerned shrug.

Mel eyed her a moment, then apparently satisfied, nodded curtly and descended the ladder.

Janice stared at the ladder a moment before attaching the final side of the tent. Finished with the makeshift roof, Janice sat on the roof, looked up to the sky and sighed.

Chapter 10 - Just The Facts

The warrior and bard rode Argo in silence, each thinking of what might lay ahead in Zemal.

Gabrielle found comfort in Xena’s arms, which held her a little more tightly than usual. The bard didn’t mind. It felt safer, though she knew very well they weren’t safe. Not with Bayentes out there . . . somewhere, the bard considered, her eyes sweeping over the remote and overgrown path before them.

Though missing the comfort of the bard’s voice, Xena was relieved for the quiet. It made it easier for her to focus on the sounds of the forest, making it nearly impossible for Bayentes men to surprise them. Though she was pretty sure Bayentes wouldn’t want to waste his resources trying to hunt her down in the dense forest.

‘But what will Bayentes do?’ Xena silently examined the situation.

If she were Bayentes, the warrior considered, she would send out a patrol to Zemal to assess the defenses. ‘What defenses?’ she sighed heavily at the problematic situation. When her army marched through towns like Zemal, she remembered being bored. No challenge. A small patrol could probably take towns like Zemal by themselves. Maybe they already have, the Warrior Princess speculated with growing apprehension.

Being uncertain of Bayentes’ next step took away any comfort she might have had holding the bard close. Yet, she found no comfort in the one thing she was certain of - he would go after Gabrielle.

"Hey, you’re making a permanent indentation . . . ," Gabrielle relayed softly, patting the warrior’s bracered arm that wrapped tightly around her waist.

"Sorry," Xena whispered, relaxing her hold a little as they stopped at the edge of the dense forest.

Peering through the trees, they saw the town of Zemal. A few quiet moments passed as the sun set further in the sky while they observed the people coming and going from the busy town. Gabrielle took interest in the man who started to light the torches lining the street, remembering a merchant of similar build who wouldn’t sell ‘her kind’ anything.

"Remember when we weren’t welcome here?" Gabrielle spoke softly. "I guess they are pretty lucky you don’t hold a grudge," Gabrielle added with a small smile which grew when she felt the warrior nuzzle against her hair.

"Well, it looks ok to me. Just like any other town getting ready for the night," Gabrielle relayed to the warrior optimistically, patting her warrior’s thigh.

Xena straightened up in the saddle and took a deep breath.

"Looks can be deceiving," Xena spoke, suspicious of all activity she observed. "Get down," Xena ordered her coldly.


"I’m going in alone," the Warrior Princess announced. "Get down."

"Like I said . . . WHAT!?!" Gabrielle relayed with annoyance, twisting in the saddle to look at the warrior.

"Gabrielle, I’m not going to argue," Xena relayed crisply.

"Good. Neither am I," Gabrielle said with a thin smile.

"Get down," Xena articulated slowly.

"No," Gabrielle also articulated slowly and turned back forward. "I’m going with you."

"Don’t make me make you get down," Xena threatened.

Argo snorted uneasily.

"WHAT?!?" Gabrielle blurted.

Before the bard could take a breath and express the full measure of her displeasure, she felt the warrior grab her arm and slide her other hand under her thigh. Within a heartbeat, she gasped, experiencing the odd sensation of being lifted out of the saddle and abruptly deposited on the ground.

"I can’t . . .BELIEVE . . . you just DID that!!" Gabrielle sputtered up at the warrior between angry breaths, struggling to maintain her composure.

"I said get down and I meant it. I also meant what I said about going in alone," Xena relayed coldly. "It’s too dangerous."

"We’re in this together!" Gabrielle snapped angrily, amazed they were even having this discussion after everything they’ve been through.

"Not this time. . . . Gabrielle, I can’t be distracted with Bayentes and his army out there," Xena attempted to reason, hoping the bard would stop arguing.

"First I’m a weak link, now a distraction, THANKS! I thought I was a little more than that to you. Apparently NOT!" Gabrielle threw her hands up towards the sky in frustration.

"Gabrielle . . . " Xena sighed heavily, concluding this wasn’t going well.

Gabrielle looked up at the warrior with narrow eyes and crossed arms, waiting.

"Gabrielle, Bayentes is too dangerous, I need to focus on one thing, not whether you might need my help or not."

"Xena . . . " Gabrielle said with amazing calm. Xena didn’t know if that was good or bad.

"You’re sure he’s in Zemal?" The bard asked with a raised eyebrow.

"NO," Xena blurted with relief, seeing an opening to win this argument. "And that’s why I should go in ALONE . . . just in case he has already occupied . . . ," the warrior explained with a tone of reason.

"And what if he hasn’t?" Gabrielle interjected simply, making Xena’s smile fade. "Ok, let’s go over the facts shall we?" Gabrielle added, making Xena’s eyes narrow.

"Gabrielle . . . "

"Xena," the bard interjected. "You know I’ll follow you if I am not convinced you are right, so I’m giving you the opportunity to convince me to stay here, like you want me to," Gabrielle relayed with an innocent shrug.

Xena sighed as her eye’s dropped to the ground. So much for taking charge. Ok, it was a really stupid idea to think after all this time, Gabrielle would just do as she said, the warrior admitted to herself. She knew the bard didn’t respond well to orders. But all she wanted was to go in alone, check out the town, do whatever she had to do to make it safe for Gabrielle . . . .

"Can’t we just arm wrestle for it?" Xena offered, looking up to see the bard roll her eyes.

Argo snorted.

"Number one, you are concerned about me," Gabrielle offered diplomatically, looking up at the stubborn warrior, who looked at her and cautiously nodded, unsure of how that would support the bard’s case for going.

"Number two, we don’t know where Bayentes is," the bard added, holding up a second finger.

In agreement, Xena cautiously shook her head ‘no’ and raised an eyebrow.

"Number three, Bayentes is smart," the bard relayed holding a third finger.

Xena nodded.

"Number four, he knows about me and would not mind getting his revenge by hurting me," Gabrielle said calmly, though not particularly thrilled with that fact.

"Number five . . . " Gabrielle started strongly but paused. "Uh. . . What if he’s not in Zemal when you go in alone?" She asked curiously.

"It’ll will be quick work then. Once I’m sure it’s safe for you, I’ll come back and get you," Xena explained.

"Assuming . . . " Gabrielle relayed with a shrug.

"Assuming what?" Xena asked testily.

"I don’t bump into him while I’m safely waiting out here . . ." A thin smile crossed the bard’s face. ". . . alone."

Xena looked at the bard a moment. With a heavy sigh, she extended an arm down.

Chapter 11 - Mr. Wright

"It’s right there," Octavia pointed Mel to the phone on the front desk as they walked in the front door. "But if you wait a bit, I’m sure Janice will . . . "

"A taxi will be fine, thank you," Mel interjected firmly.

"Well, I’ll be in the back . . . starting dinner," Octavia motioned to the curtain behind the front desk. Seeing the southerner nod as she picked up the receiver, Octavia shook her head and disappeared behind the curtain.

Finished ordering a taxi, Mel placed the receiver down and sighed, wondering why it was so difficult for the archeologist to talk to her? They were friends and friends do that, she considered. Her HOME was on fire . . . SHE was on fire for heaven’s sakes, the southerner sighed heavily. And she probably didn’t even let a doctor check her for injuries, Mel thought shaking her head in exasperation as she picked up her purse off the counter and turned around abruptly.

"Whoa!" The man blurted before Mel collided into him.

"Oh EXCUSE me!" Mel blurted as she awkwardly backed away from the gentleman’s embrace.

"My pleasure," he responded with an easy smile, lingering his hand on the southerner’s hip a little longer than she considered necessary. "I’m Richard Wright." The American introduced himself with an extended hand as he took his hat off with the other.

"Melinda Pappas." Mel smiled uneasily and pushed her glasses up before delicately shaking his hand with the tips of her fingers. "Pleased to meet you. I’m sorry for running into you like that . . . I don’t know where my head is sometimes," Mel laughed weakly and uncomfortably backed up another step from the well dressed man, suddenly aware of every wrinkle and every smudge on her outfit.

"No harm done Miss Pappas. Actually, colliding into a beautiful woman is the best thing that has happened to me today," Richard responded with a weary exhale, adjusting his tie.

"Sounds like you’ve had a bad day," Melinda offered, feeling sympathy for the handsome man with a sad look on his face.

"Well, things are looking up now," he smiled easily and winked at her. "Are you a guest here?" He noted she seemed to be out of place in the dumpy hotel, even with her current disheveled appearance.

"No, just visiting someone," Mel answered with a polite smile. "You?" Mel asked.

"I’m visiting someone too, an old . . . . " He laughed awkwardly. "Well, I haven’t seen her in a long time. I’m surprised I was able to track her down," he informed the southerner as he looked around the front lobby.

"It’s wonderful that you’re looking up an old friend," Mel said with a warm smile.

He looked at her uneasily. "Wonderful," he repeated thoughtfully, then gave a short laugh. "I hope she’s as positive about that as you are." He smiled thinly.

The dripping archeologist paused at the front door not sure why the southerner was annoyed or what she would say. But she felt compelled to see Mel before she left and at least offer her a ride back. Oh hell, Janice silently swore and opened the door. What’s the worst thing that can happen?

Spotting the tall woman, Janice started to smile. The smile was short lived when she noticed Mel standing next to a man she never expected to see again. A man she never wanted to see again.

"Janice," he blurted nervously when she entered, braking off his small talk with the lovely southerner.

"You two are old . . . friends?" Mel asked, looking between the two, who apparently didn’t hear her question. They were busy staring at each other. Richard seemed extremely uncomfortable and Janice, well . . . Mel couldn’t tell.

"Why are you here?" Janice asked neutrally, despite her strong desire to deck him. He was lucky Mel was there, Janice considered, acutely aware of the southerner’s presence.

"To see you . . . ," he quickly answered.

If ever Mel felt like a third wheel, now was the time. She glanced uncomfortably down at her Italian shoes. Wondering just how good an ‘old friend’ Richard was, she cringed, remembering her embarrassment over Dr. Maveros. It was just none of her business, she reminded herself.

". . . about a job," Richard quickly added.

The southerner looked up with surprise. A good old . . . business associate?

"A JOB," Janice laughed with surprise, though Mel knew it wasn’t a happy laugh.

"Yes, Janice. I heard you got another dig . . . in Zemal," he relayed nervously.

"Word gets around fast," Janice said neutrally, her suspicious eyes narrowed.

"Yes, well . . . I need a job and . . . Janice, I’ll be cook, bottle washer. . .whatever. . ." he blurted with desperation.

"You’re a little overqualified for a bottle washer don’t you think, Doctor Wright?" Janice interjected skeptically.

"Janice . . . I," Richard tried to explain.

"Look . . . DICK," Janice interjected. "I’m tired, wet, and have absolutely NO desire to talk to you now. So if you want me to give you a job, you might want to try to convince me tomorrow because your chances right now are zero," Janice informed him coldly, staring him down.

Mel glanced away from Janice uncomfortably, wondering what Dr. Wright did to earn that unnerving stare.

He looked down to the hat in his hands, nodded and started to leave. He paused at the door, turning back to the southerner. "Miss Pappas," he said politely with a nod, then looked at Janice. "I’ll be back tomorrow, Janice," he said softly as he placed his hat on his head.

"Oh joy," Janice said flatly.

He sighed and closed the door behind him.

Mel was not sure of what to say, noting the weariness of the day suddenly seem to catch up to the archeologist.

"Are you all. . . " Mel asked cautiously, interrupted by the sound of the taxi honking.

"I’ll be fine," Janice said with a heavy sigh, seeing the cab outside through the drapes.

Mel opened her mouth to say something, but the taxi horn blew again.

"You better not keep your cab waiting," Janice relayed coldly.

As the dejected southerner nodded silently and started to leave, Janice felt like an ass, which the archeologist considered appropriate since she was acting like one.

"Mel . . . thanks for your help today," Janice offered softly, making the southerner turn at the door and smile. The small gift buoyed the archeologist’s spirits.

"I’m glad I could." Mel answered softly.

Janice’s gaze dropped from the startling blue eyes to the southerner’s clothing.

"Sorry about your outfit. . . " Janice relayed sincerely, then started to chuckle. "You look like shit," she blurted with a grin, taking stock of the drenched and smudged woman.

"Why THANK you, Doctor Covington," the southerner responded with frosty politeness. "It is SO refreshing to find someone who believes there’s no such thing as TOO much honesty," Mel smiled thinly and briskly left the amused archeologist.

A moment later, the grinning archeologist was at the window. As she moved the drapes slightly to the side to peek outside, Octavia emerged from the curtain behind the front desk.

"She’s an interesting one," Octavia remarked with a smirk. Janice just nodded with an amused grin still on her face as she watched the taxi drive away.

"Are you going to give that son-of-a-bitch a job?" Octavia asked bluntly, making Janice turn and sigh.

"I’ll deal with that tomorrow. . . ," Janice said wearily.

"Janice, how could you even stand looking at him let alone talk to that thieving . . . ," Octavia blurted angrily.

"Octavia," Janice interrupted sharply, then exhaled heavily. "Not now. . ."

In a phone booth down the road from the Rits Karlton, Richard Wright anxiously hunted for a nickel in his suit pockets. Finally successful, he picked up the receiver, dropped the coin in the slot, and dialed as quickly as he could with the painfully slow rotary dial.

Each unanswered ring made him more agitated. He moaned after the fourth ring when finally, someone answered.

"Hello?" The deep voice answered.

"It’s me," Richard relayed, his eyes suspiciously darting outside the phone booth for unwelcome ears.


"I saw her," Richard relayed with some irritation.

"Did she agree?" the deep voice asked.

"Uh. . . she didn’t say no," Richard admitted.

"Your plan better work . . . " the deep voice threatened.

"It will!" Richard responded testily. "I’ll be in Zemal with the goods just like we planned," he added.

"Where are they now?" The deep voice asked. "The police are looking all over. . ."

"Don’t you worry about that . . . they’re safe," Richard snapped defensively. "Just make sure the people and the money are in Zemal, like we agreed," he added. "Or I’m taking my business elsewhere," Richard threatened and hung up.

Emerging from the taxi, Mel chose to ignore the lingering stares from many curious eyes as she made her way up what felt like the longest set of stairs she ever climbed. As Janice so eloquently informed her. . . she didn’t exactly look her best, which was even more excruciatingly evident when she passed hotel guests in their evening wear.

Quickly passing the doorman as she entered the hotel, she cringed when she heard him call her name. "Good GOD, Miss Pappas!"

Placing polite smile on her face and tucking her purse neatly under her soggy arm, she turned to Christos, who rushed up to her.

"Are you all right, Miss Pappas?!?"

"I’m fine, thank you," Mel responded politely.

Christos’ eyebrows furrowed at her unconvincing answer, critically assessing her from head to toe. His eyes stopped at her toes, where the small puddle of water was forming on the marble floor.

"It rained," Mel explained, then cleared her throat. "If you’ll excuse me." Mel smiled weakly, turned and quickly retreated to the elevator.

Finally in her hotel room, Mel sighed with relief as she placed her damp purse on the table. Unbuttoning her weather-beaten suit coat, she walked into the bathroom and sat down on the tub edge. She turned the hot water on, twisting the brass faucet handle as far as it would go, anxious for a long hot soak. After today, she considered she deserved it.

Returning to her bedroom, she plopped on the edge of the bed. She took her shoes off and wiggled her toes with a sigh of relief. The things women have to do to look good, she smirked as she stared at an uncomfortable shoe in her hand. Well, SOME women, Mel corrected herself, getting up and placing her shoes neatly in the closet. Passing the full-length mirror, she paused, daring to take a look. A grimace formed on her face as she confronted the dreadful reflection, which would have mortified her a few months ago.

"Well Dr. Covington, it does seem you’ve hit the nail on the head." She spoke aloud as she took her earrings off. "But we really MUST work on your tact," she added and grinned as she pulled her ring off and placed it on the vanity. As she reached to unclasp her watch band, her eyes darted to her wrist with a gasp.

Her grandmother’s watch was gone.

Chapter 12 - Warhorses and Warriors

While Xena checked the stables for warhorses and warriors, Gabrielle hid behind a wagon, watching for suspicious activity in town. There were a few people conversing by a water troth in front of a store . . . a pair of men walking into the tavern. . . a mother chasing after her son to get him to come inside for the evening. Not exactly suspicious activity, she considered. Unless, they are all TRYING to act normal . . . . The bard’s keen eyes narrowed, darting back and forth along the street, looking for seemingly normal activity. Gods, it was everywhere. . . .

"Aghhh..." She blurted and jumped, feeling a hand on her shoulder.

"Don’t DO that!" She whispered angrily, ducking back behind the wagon and refocused on the incredibly suspicious street.

"You were SUPPOSED to be paying attention to your surroundings!" Xena scolded with hands on hips, looking down at the bard.

"I was! Can I help it if you are so QUIET?" She turned and whispered angrily, then refocused on the incredibly suspicious people in the incredibly suspicious street.

"Gabrielle, you HAVE to watch your back. What if it wasn’t me?"

"But it WAS . . . ," Gabrielle quietly countered. "And . . .you got lucky," Gabrielle added with annoyance, knowing full well there was no luck involved.

"It only takes one lucky blow to ruin your day," Xena relayed coolly with a raised eyebrow.

Gabrielle opened her mouth to respond but instead paused a moment to stare at the tall warrior towering over her, then eyed the wagon she was crouched down next to.

"Xena," Gabrielle said coolly, looking up with a thin smile. "Is there some reason why you are lecturing me about being careful while standing UP, visible to ALL who pass by and talking so LOUDLY your family in Amphipolis can hear???" Gabrielle snapped.

"Gabrielle, you’d tell me if you were exaggerating . . . wouldn’t you?" Xena asked dryly.

Gabrielle stood up with a thin smile, then glanced around, choosing to ignore her warrior. "I gather you didn’t find Bayentes or his men."

"No," Xena relayed coolly. Her eyes darted to the street and narrowed. ". . . until now."

Staveros trotted into town, exhausted from his disturbing meeting with Bayentes. He looked up to the sky, praying this all would be over soon and he could just go back to being a family-man and merchant. His eyes returned to the street when he noted the a dark blur pass in front of him. Before he could register what was happening, he felt two powerful hands grab his tunic and yank him off his horse.

He tumbled to the ground. Looking up, he found a dark figure towering over him. He gasped.

"Xena. . ."

"You were in such a rush, we didn’t get a chance to say good-bye," she said with a glaring smile which faded. "Where is Bayentes?" The Warrior Princess asked coolly, swiftly unsheathing her sword.

"He . . . He’s on his way . . . You’ve got to help us," Staveros blurted out, looking up at the blade pointing at him.

The scene in the street was drawing a nervous crowd. Xena threw sharp stares of warning at the people starting to line the street.

"Why should I trust you?" Xena growled as Gabrielle caught up to the two.

"He has my family," Staveros whimpered nervously.

"And why should I believe that??" Xena barked. "Gabrielle!" Xena snapped angrily, as the bard went to Staveros and helped him up.

"Xena . . . " Gabrielle responded with a sigh, eyeing the sword then the warrior.

In his home, Staveros nervously made some tea for the women, feeling the Warrior Princess’ cold eyes watch his every move.

While Xena sat at the kitchen table, glaring at Staveros, Gabrielle stood, casually looking around the small Zemalian home. From the embroidered curtains and other nick-knacks carefully displayed, Gabrielle could tell there was a strong woman’s influence, though the home was unkempt at the moment.

"We were out by the river three days ago . . . having a quiet picnic," Staveros poured the tea into two mugs, struggling to not let the warrior’s glaring get to him. "Sylvia, my wife, finally got me to finally take a day off from work," the man said sadly.

Xena glanced at the two mugs then the man, unmoved by his tale of woe.

Gabrielle sat down quietly, next to her tense partner.

"Riders came and took us to Bayentes’ camp. I was separated from my wife and child and brought to his tent. Bayentes told me I could free my family if I helped him. If I refused . . . he’d torture them and kill them in front of me," Staveros looked down at the table.

"Why should I believe anything you say?" Xena asked, pushing the still-full mug away from her. She knew Bayentes was more than capable of that kind of recruitment, as was she. She also knew, Bayentes routinely used spies . . . as did she.

"For GODS sake, he has my FAMILY," Staveros snapped, then felt two sharp jabs to his neck. The tea kettle dropped onto the floor, followed by the merchant.

"You know, I’m still not quite there yet . . . but I’ll give you 30 more seconds to try and convince me." Xena stood over him.

"XENA!" Gabrielle blurted, knocking her mug over as she stood abruptly. "What are you doing?!?"

"Chatting with Staveros." Xena responded casually, still eyeing the so-called merchant.

"XENA!" Gabrielle grabbed her arm. "Just look at his home, the curtains, the child’s bedroom . . ." Gabrielle relayed testily. Xena yanked her arm from the bard and eyed her with annoyance.

"Gabrielle, DON’T underestimate Bayentes. I wouldn’t put it past him to set ALL this up," Xena countered angrily.

"Please! I’m telling the truth . . . oh GOD’s!" Staveros cried fearfully. Xena glanced at the man, sure he was holding something back.

"Xena, PLEASE!" Gabrielle pleaded.

"Gabrielle . . . " Xena tried to explain.

"You’re scaring me," Gabrielle interjected forcefully, locking eyes with her warrior.

Xena froze, letting the words and fearful look sink in.

"Bayentes is capable of doing much worse than scaring you, Gabrielle," the warrior responded coolly before inflicting two more jabs to Staveros’ neck.

"Is the platoon ready?" Bayentes asked with his mouth full upon the arrival of a young lieutenant in his tent. The warlord washed down the lamb with a gulp of wine, emptying his goblet.

"Yes sir, but . . . . " the man hesitated, looking at Bayentes slice another piece of lamb, then the servants who looked at each other uneasily.

"Yes BUT?" Bayentes sat back in his chair, nibbing at the meat on his knife. "Oh, I don’t like the sound of THAT," he said with a slight frown. "Are they or are they not ready?" Bayentes asked calmly.

"Yes sir, the platoon IS ready. But I just was wondering, since we have our whole army ready, why only one platoon? You’ve said we shouldn’t underestimate Xena." Seeing the thoughtful look on Bayentes face, helped eased the lieutenant’s nervousness.

"So, you were curious?" Bayentes asked, getting up from his seat with an understanding smile which was interrupted with a sip of wine.

"Well, yes sir. If she is as good as you say . . . " the young man explained to the attentive warlord.

"Oh, trust me, she IS . . ." Bayentes interjected helpfully, leaning against the table and finished devouring the lamb chunk on his knife.

"So you were just questioning. . . why only one platoon, huh?" Bayentes asked, emptying his goblet. He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his forearm and placed the goblet on the table behind him.

"Yes sir," the lieutenant nodded, watching the servant promptly refill the warlord’s drink.

"You really want to know why?" Bayentes spoke softly, waving him closer to let him in on a secret. The lieutenant nodded and walked over to the warlord.

The young man noticed Bayentes’ eyes darting conspiratorially around the tent just before a dull sensation filled his chest.

The lieutenant’s jaw dropped as he looked down at the knife handle protruding from his breast. His initial shock was replaced with an odd curiosity as his fingers absently touched the knife handle. ‘Why didn’t it feel sharp?’ he wondered as his fingers fell to his side and he collapsed to the ground. A few gurgling breaths escaped past the bloody knife as his body shuddered, then became still. The gurgling stopped.

Bayentes looked down at the body thoughtfully then glanced up at his shocked servants with a smirk.

"Why, why, why," Bayentes blurted wearily. "Kids these days and their darn questions." Bayentes shook his head with a chuckle as he anchored his foot on the young man’s chest and withdrew his knife.

Bayentes sighed as he sat back down at his dinner table. Eyeing the bloody knife, he shrugged and sliced another piece of lamb.

"Staveros, you were spying for Bayentes, weren’t you, " Gabrielle asked as Xena sat in a chair in the corner of the room, with her arms folded across her chest and untrusting eyes glaring at him.

Staveros nodded, rubbing his throat and trying to ignore the dark presence in the corner.

"Why?" Gabrielle asked softly.

"I told you, he has my family. He said if I help him, he’ll return them to me," Staveros said with irritation.

"I wouldn’t count on it," Xena replied coldly, drawing a glare from Gabrielle.

"You don’t know that Xena," Gabrielle countered, for Staveros’ sake.

Xena sighed and shook her head as Gabrielle continued with her questioning.

"What did he want?"

"He wanted to know about Xena. What she is doing, who she is with . . ." Staveros looked at her sadly then dropped his eyes to the floor.

"And you told him . . . ." Gabrielle stated softly.

"Yes. But he already knew. He said . . . ." Staveros stopped, his eyes dropped to the ground as he moaned with a grimace.

"What did he say!" Xena bolted out of her chair, startling both Gabrielle and Staveros.

"He said . . . he heard she had lovely ears."


Mel groaned with frustration and put the receiver down. The phone at the Rits Karlton was still busy. She hoped to get Janice to start looking for her watch before it got dark. She just had to get her watch back. Picking up the receiver, she dialed again, this time for a taxi.

The cab screeched to a stop at the now familiar Athenian street, lunging Mel forward. The cabby looked at the low-rent neighborhood then at the high-class lady in the back seat. "You sure this . . . ?"

"Yes Yes, this is the right street, thank you," Mel blurted impatiently as she handed him the fare and pushed up her glasses.

Stepping out of the cab, she glanced up to the sky. Still cloudy and rainy, she sighed as she opened her umbrella, grateful she thought to bring it this time.

With quick, determined steps, she arrived at Janice’s hotel. Shaking the water droplets from the collapsed umbrella before entering the front door, Mel overheard Octavia chatting on the phone. Without a pause in her conversation, the old woman waved at Mel when she appeared in the lobby.

"I don’t CARE how much you hate hospital food . . . I’m not brining you any baklava or any OTHER food, you ol’ fool!" Octavia snapped. "And I’m certainly NOT going to bring you any Ouzo!"

Mel could hear the faint sound of the man’s voice on the other end of the phone and grinned.

"You are LUCKY to still be around to complain about the bad food and lumpy beds, ol’ fool."

Mel heard the man grumble then ask when they were going to visit next.

"Janice and I will be by tomorrow morning early, Janice has to . . . " Octavia stopped at something else he said which Mel couldn’t make out. "WHAT?!?" Octavia blurted then slammed the receiver down.

"What did he say?" Mel asked with concern.

"He said we shouldn’t come by too early, cause HE wanted to sleep in . . . that ol’ fool" Octavia shook her head.

"Is Janice here?" Mel asked glancing up at the ceiling expecting that after an exhausting day like today, she was probably sleeping. Though feeling a bit guilty she was about to interrupt Janice’s well-earned break, she just had to find her watch.

"Just missed her," Octavia relayed. A look of surprise, disappointment, then worry covered the pretty southerner’s face. "What’s wrong?" Octavia asked.

"I lost my watch . . . My grandmother gave it to me," Mel explained, absently touching her bare wrist.

Octavia nodded in understanding. "WE’LL find it," Octavia said confidently.

"A full house, lead by a pair of lovely ladies," Janice announced with a twinkle in her eye, first laying down the queen of diamonds then hearts, followed by the other

cards . . . . which happened to be kings.

Georg grinned as he entered the bar, hearing the moans from her fellow poker players. Finished with his errand for Dr. Covington, he sat on a stool, ordered a drink and eyed the sizable jackpot. His grin grew. The poor fellows at the table were learning a costly lesson he learned long ago . . . don’t ever play poker with Dr. Covington.

Janice sat back in her chair and puffed on her cigar, enjoying the disgruntled looks from the four other players, especially from the boastful Greek soldier, who spent the past hour telling of his irritating exploits with the army and the ladies. He downed his sixth drink, and cursed when he spilled some on his ceremonial dress uniform.

"That’s four hands in a row!" The cocktail waitress laughed with amusement as she set down another round of drinks in front of the players. "About time someone showed these guys how it’s done. This one’s on the house, honey," she squeezed the archeologist’s shoulder and winked.

"Thanks sweetheart." Janice downed her whiskey and grinned with satisfaction, for the free drink and even more for the fact the attention from the waitress was annoying the army braggart.

"Four hands . . . either you are a great player or . . . " the soldier observed, leaving his accusation hanging dangerously in the smoky barroom.

Janice’s grin disappeared.

"Uh, my wife is probably wondering where I am . . . " the thin man in glasses blurted, unheard by the soldier and archeologist. The thin man quickly collected the remains of his fortune, nervously glancing between the two, and left the table.

"What are you saying?" Janice asked coolly as she placed her empty glass down on the table and straightened up in her chair as she eyed the soldier.

"Well, seems to me . . . no one is THAT lucky, Dr. Covington," the soldier leered accusingly at the red-head.

"Whoa . . . look at the time," another poker player blurted, quickly glancing at the watch without reading it as he stumbled out of his chair and left the table.

"You better be careful of what you say . . . Sergeant Tomas," Janice warned him crisply, her body tensing.

"Or what?" The soldier glared at her.

"All out of money . . . been a pleasure losing to you . . . " the third man got up and nodded to Janice, who was too busy glaring at the soldier to acknowledge his departure.

"Or I’ll teach you some manners," Janice informed him casually, drawing a long, slow puff on her cigar. Her eyes narrowed.

The waitress sighed and nodded to the bar tender who rolled his eyes and started to stow away some glasses below the bar.

"Tough talk. . . from a woman," the soldier tried to stare her down. "How could a little thing like YOU be able to teach ME any manners." The man laughed at Janice, who smiled thinly.

Georg quickly moved behind the bar, smiling at the waitress who shook her head at his overt cowardice.

"Don’t sell yourself short," Janice smirked. "I’ve taught manners to bigger and DUMBER jack-asses than you," Janice snarled.

"Sounds like I need to teach YOU a lesson in manners," the angry soldier clenched the table.

"Tough talk. . . from a guy in a SKIRT!" Janice blurted through her cigar, successfully provoking the Greek soldier out of his chair, which he knocked over. Janice also stood, dodging his large hands lunging at her.

With a swiftness that surprised the soldier, Janice grabbed his arm and the back of his ceremonial dress uniform and tossed his bulky frame to the ground. When he looked up from the floor stunned, Janice eyed him and took her cigar out of her mouth.

"I don’t cheat," she informed him through clenched teeth. "And you owe me an apology," she relayed, puffing the last drag out of her cigar before tossing it to the floor.

"Ahhhh . . . shit," she blurted with annoyance as he scrambled to his feet and lunged at her again.

Octavia and Mel went outside the Rits Karlton to search for the watch. Mel followed the old woman and dutifully opened her umbrella, attempting to protect them both from the light rain. When they got to the crates that attacked the southerner’s purse earlier that day, Mel glanced to the ground hopefully, considering this the most likely place she would find the precious heirloom.

"It could have fallen off around . . . ." Mel informed Octavia. "Ugh." Mel blurted, struggling with her umbrella which got stuck between the narrow space between the crate and building. With a sharp yank, she successfully unlodged it . . . and bent it completely out of shape.

"I don’t see it." Octavia squinted as she inspected the ground, ignoring the southerner, which she considered best.

With a heavy sigh of defeat, Mel neatly folded up the mangled umbrella as best she could and tossed it on top of the crate.

"I don’t either," Mel said sadly.

"Well, we haven’t looked upstairs," Octavia offered hopefully. Mel nodded and followed the older woman.

"I know it’s silly to get so upset about a watch but . . . ," Mel explained with a little embarrassment, shaking her head. "I can just imagine what Janice would say." Mel sighed and pushed her glasses up her nose.

"You’d be surprised Melinda," Octavia responded with a knowing grin. "Though she’d rather shoot herself than admit it, Janice can be very sentimental," Octavia offered with a shrug. "You know that compass her father gave her?" Octavia asked as they started to climb the fire escape stairs.

"The small burgundy one she carries around?" Mel asked curiously, then rolled her eyes at the fire escape. She knew should have worn slacks.

"Yeah. He told her if she ever got lost, it would help her find her way. When she thought she lost it," Octavia explained, pausing a moment to shake her head at the memory. "I never saw anything get Janice so upset," Octavia informed her.

"I know how she must have felt," Mel said sadly touching her bare wrist.

Janice sat on a hard jail-cell bench, holding a handkerchief over her split eyebrow to stop the bleeding.

Except for the prostitute, who was snoring soundly on the cot in their cell, she was separated from the rest of the dregs of humanity because she was a woman. This was the one occasion where she didn’t mind that distinction, considering the large collection of drunken and thieving male dregs packing in the cell across from them.

Janice eyed the soldier, in his now not-so-pristine ceremonial uniform, sulking and tending to his wounds in the dark corner. He shouldn’t have called her a cheat, Janice considered, eyeing the knuckles on her right fist, trying not to feel guilty about the broken nose she gave him just before the police arrived. She sighed heavily and applied more pressure to her aching eyebrow. If only she hadn’t slipped on that spot on the floor, she silently moaned, looking around the familiar cell.

The jingling of the jail keeper’s keys as he opened up the main door got everyone’s hopeful attention, except for Janice who glanced over to the snoring prostitute, who just shifted with a snort.

"Covington," he announced, slowly walking over to her cell as he sorted through his large collection of keys. Finally selecting one, he placed it in the door. "Come with me," he ordered and twisted the key, getting a loud metallic clunk before he rolled open the heavy door.

Janice stood up, withholding a pained groan as she glanced over to the soldier. His black and blue eyes bitterly followed her every step as he continued to sulk in his cramped corner.

"Dr. Covington! Are you ok?" Georg asked with concern as she was lead to the Sergeant’s desk.

"Yeah, just great," Janice answered, pulling the handkerchief from her head and eyeing the blood on it.

"Hey Janice!" A tall patrolman blurted as he paused on his way out of the station for his rounds. "I saw that soldier’s nose . . . he’ll have a good time trying to explain THAT to his captain!!" He chuckled, waving to her as he left.

Janice waved back unenthusiastically with the bloody handkerchief and replaced it on her brow.

"Janice, you ought to go to the hospital and get that stitched up," the sergeant at the front desk told her, handing her personal effects back to her in an envelope.

Janice grunted as she opened the envelope. Sighing with relief nothing was missing, she placed the various contents back in her pockets.

"You know, it’s been a few months since you’ve visited us. We were beginning to worry about you . . . " the policeman smirked.

"Thanks for your concern, Victor," Janice responded dryly, feeling her head throb.

"Well, we have also been missing the bail money . . . " the policeman admitted with a shrug, finishing some paper work.

"How much money is left Georg?" Janice questioned him curiously, glancing back at the cell.

"Well, after your bail, you won enough for new tires for your truck like you wanted," Georg said happily, then eyed Janice suspiciously. "Why?"


Chapter 14 - Bad ideas

"What does he want you to do now?" Gabrielle continued her questioning of Staveros, who found Xena’s pacing unnerving. The bard was used to it.

"Make sure Xena stays in Zemal. He is coming for you, Xena. He will kill everyone in Zemal if you aren’t here . . . you CAN’T let that happen!"

"So he wants me to just sit and wait for him . . . AND his army," Xena laughed sharply. "Well, I don’t LIKE waiting. Why don’t I just drop in on Ol’ Bay and say ‘hi’ right now and save him the trip?" She suggested with a sneer.

"You can’t DO that!" Staveros blurted. "He’ll kill my family."

Xena sighed and looked at Gabrielle, who knew the warrior didn’t believe his family was still alive. The bard glanced sadly to the ground, beginning to believe that as well.

Xena returned her gazed back to Staveros. "How well armed is Zemal?"

"Uh. . .we’re not fighters, Xena, like I said before, and. . . uh. . . " Staveros paused uneasily.

"And WHAT?" Xena blurted with annoyance, finding it difficult discussing anything with this man.

"You can’t really blame them, Xena," Gabrielle relayed softly as they followed a number of paces behind Staveros through the Zemalian streets. "Bayentes is after you, not them," Gabrielle added, noticing the people in the streets nervously disappear when they spotted the two women.

"They’re idiots," Xena said bluntly, also eyeing the people giving them a wide berth as they walked through town. "If they think Bayentes will let them just sit back and watch without getting their hands dirty . . . ." She paused, shaking her head. "Whether they like it or not, Gabrielle, Bayentes has involved them," the warrior added, her anger smouldering.

Before Gabrielle could think of a response to help ease her warrior’s escalating anxiety, they watched a couple quickly exit the Inn where Staveros was motioning them to enter. The inn-keeper moaned at the lost income.

"Well, I guess we won’t have trouble finding a room," Gabrielle mentioned with forced optimism as they approached the front desk.

"This is not a good idea, Gabrielle." Xena eyed the surroundings and scattering people.

"I’m not happy about it either," the old woman muttered then plastered on a large smile when she felt the Warrior Princess’ glare. "You can have any room you want, free of charge . . . of course," she informed Xena, glaring at Staveros, who nodded.

"Xena, we need to talk. We might as well do it in a comfortable room," Gabrielle informed her softly, squeezing her warrior’s forearm, and headed up the stairs to the first vacant room.

"Xena," Staveros blurted uneasily, causing the warrior to turn and silently eye him. "You know nobody wants to fight, but I do have some men who’ll be looking out for Bayentes and his army. We’ll let you know as soon as we know," Staveros informed her.

A thin smile crossed the warrior’s face. "Great," Xena responded flatly.

"If there is anything you want Xena, let me know. I’ll get it," he offered nervously.

"Like a last meal?" Xena asked with a raised eyebrow. Her unnerving gaze sent a chill through Staveros.

"Uh. . . I . . . Uh . . ."

"For your information . . . I’m not hungry," Xena responded coolly, turned and ascended the stairs.

Gabrielle sat quietly in their room waiting for her warrior, who was busy inspecting the hallway and adjacent rooms. Finally, Xena entered their room. The bard watched the focused warrior walk straight to the window and peer out into the street. Then the warrior went to the walls and tapped them for what the bard believed had to be a very good reason, even if she didn’t know why. After tapping on the walls, Xena inspected the closet and then under the bed. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, the warrior returned to center of the room and finally settled in to pace.

"Xena . . . " Gabrielle called softly as she got up from her chair.

"Gabrielle, they expect me to surrender. If . . . "

"Surrendering is NOT an option!" Gabrielle snapped, interrupting the warrior.

Xena stopped in her tracks, finding fire, not just in the bard’s words, but blazing in her green eyes. She knew the bard would stick by her no matter what. It made the warrior both thankful and fearful.

"I wasn’t planning on it," the warrior relayed, with a smirk.

"Good," Gabrielle said firmly, but with great relief.

"What I was trying to say is surrendering isn’t an option with Bayentes. He would keep me alive just so I could see him continue to hurt the people I love." Xena sighed. "Part of me wishes surrendering WAS an option," Xena admitted wearily. Seeing the bard start to protest, Xena placed her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder.

"Gabrielle, I want you to go to Amphipolis and wait for me there," Xena quickly relayed, looking deeply into the bard’s surprised eyes.

"You said he likes to play mind games." Gabrielle responded, ignoring her warrior’s discussion about leaving. "So we may have . . . "

"Gabrielle, Amphipolis??" Xena interrupted the bard, determined to get her to agree to go. "Or Amazonia, but that is further away. I think Amphipolis is a better choice. . . less time on the . . . " Xena relayed, then noticed the bard’s eye roll.

"Gabrielle, he would harm you in an instant, if he had the chance," Xena informed the bard with annoyance that she wasn’t taking this seriously.

"Because it would hurt you, Xena. I know. But why Zemal? Why make a stand here?" Gabrielle asked and started to pace herself, contemplating that question.

"Zemal isn’t different from any other town. They are full of innocent people who Bayentes has involved in this mess," Xena relayed impatiently. "Gabrielle, I would feel better if you went to Amphipolis and waited for me there. . . please." Xena hoped her pleading look would convince the bard.

"Amphipolis . . . it’s about a three day’s walk from here," Gabrielle stopped and considered that fact thoughtfully. "It’s really not that far . . . "

"Yes! And you could easily get there in about a day on Argo," Xena said with enthusiasm. "You could wait for me with mo..." Xena paused, realizing what Gabrielle was getting at. ". . .ther."

"You’re right, I SHOULD go." Gabrielle said with concern.

"NO!" Xena countered, feeling so helpless. Damn him, she silently cursed. Amphipolis, of course, she silently scolded herself for overlooking that.

"Someone will have to warn them, Xena. Amphipolis is a target, your family is a target."

"You Gabrielle, YOU are a target. I’ll send someone else. . . Staveros . . .what am I thinking," Xena blurted, rubbing her temples. "I’ll send somebody else. . . " the warrior added.

"We’ve got a problem then," Gabrielle said flatly. "You don’t want me here with you, yet you don’t want me in Amphipolis with your family, and those are the ONLY two places I am willing to be."

"The Amazons?" Xena suggested, already knowing the answer from the bard’s expression.

"No Xena," Gabrielle responded firmly. Xena moaned with frustration and started to pace again not liking her choices one bit.

"You are the most stubborn, aggravating, single-minded . . . " Xena paused, searching for the right word. "stubborn . . ."

"You said stubborn," Gabrielle informed her helpfully, making the warrior’s eyes roll.

"ANNOYING, disagreeable, argumentative, vexing. . . " Xena continued.

"Oooh, Vexing! GOOD one," Gabrielle interjected.

"Ugh! Why do I put up with this?" Xena spoke to the room, shaking her head.

"For the opportunity to work on your vocabulary?"


"You know I’m right and it annoys you. It was bound to happen," Gabrielle stated with a confident smirk. Xena sighed.

"So what do you want to do?" Xena asked and exhaled heavily, rubbing the back of her neck.

"I think you’re stuck here . . . at least until you find out what Bayentes’ next move is." Gabrielle relayed, moving behind the warrior to rub her knotted neck for her.

"It does seem he has all the cards. I leave Zemal, the town gets attacked, I stay here, the town gets attacked, I go to after him, Staveros’ family dies, if they are not dead already," the warrior relayed, shaking her head, and looked to the ground. "AND he knows I hate waiting," Xena added with annoyance.

"That could be an advantage." Gabrielle noted. "The longer he makes you wait, the more time we have to plan." She responded thoughtfully, making the warrior look at her curiously.

"You don’t happen to have a plan do you?" Xena asked, making the bard smile broadly. But the smile quickly faded.

"Not yet. But I should go to Amphipolis and warn them, Xena," Gabrielle informed the unhappy warrior. "Hey." Gabrielle reached and caressed Xena’s face. "They are my family too, or did you forget that?"

"I’m sorry," Xena relayed, pulling her bard into a tight embrace.

"This isn’t your fault." Gabrielle blurted automatically, then stiffened. The Warrior Princess’ arms fell away from the embrace.

"Xena . . . "

"There’s no need to say anything," Xena said coolly. "We both know it IS my fault. All of this. And I’ll figure out how to deal with it."

"WE’LL figure it out." Gabrielle relayed with annoyance. "Together." She added firmly, poking the warrior in the stomach then sighing with great exasperation.

"I guess I’ve answered my own question." Xena gazed at the annoyed bard.

"WHAT question?" Gabrielle snapped.

"Why I put up with this," Xena answered. "I’d be a fool not to."

Chapter 15 - Things Happen

In the Athens General Emergency Room, a gray-haired doctor finished stitching up the corner of Janice’s eyebrow. He sighed heavily as he put a small bandage over the stitches. That was the third heavy sigh from the older man since she arrived.

"Having trouble breathing, doc?" Janice asked coolly.

"Frankly, I’m disappointed, Janice. I thought you were finally through with this carousing nonsense. I guess not." He sighed again as he shook his head.

"Would you believe I missed you?" Janice responded as she pulled a cigar out of her pocket.

"I’d prefer a visit where I wasn’t sewing you up or setting your bones, Janice," the doctor countered, eyeing the cigar the archeologist placed in her mouth as she searched her pockets for a lighter.

"You KNOW there’s no smoking in the hospital," he scolded her.

With an annoyed grunt, Janice reluctantly returned the cigar to her pocket.

Georg returned to the emergency room. Janice noticed his normally smiling face was blank. He looked ill.

"What is it? Another nurse turn you down?" Janice smirked as she hopped off the examining table. "Thanks doc," she relayed to the old man, who nodded quietly then shook his head.

Georg was still quiet.

"Georg, what’s wrong?" She repeated as they left the emergency room.

"Aristotle is dead," Georg blurted, blinking back tears forming in his eyes.

"Dead?" Janice blurted with a disbelieving laugh. Georg looked at the ground. "He was fine," Janice added with annoyance.

Seeing Georg shake his head no, she pushed past him and marched through the hospital hallways. Arriving at the door to Aristotle’s room, Janice found Octavia sitting alone and weeping softly. Aristotle’s bed was empty.

"Janice." Octavia looked up from her chair and wiped her nose with a handkerchief. "They just took him away," she said with an uneasy voice, tears still flowing from her eyes.

"He was FINE," Janice countered angrily, staring at the empty bed.

"The doctors say the smoke and stress from the fire was too much for him. His heart finally gave out, Janice," Octavia spoke softly as she stood and put her hand on Janice’s shoulder. "That ol’ fool left without saying good-bye," the old woman complained through choked sobs.

"Yeah . . . he did," Janice said numbly. She stared a long silent moment at the empty bed. "What about . . . arrangements?" Janice asked, looking at the floor by Octavia’s feet.

"He . . . left his body to the medical school," Octavia answered with a couple sniffs. "Old fool, why would they ever want HIS pickled body . . . probably thought he’d save money on funeral expenses," she added, dabbing the tears from her eyes.

"I’m going home . . . it’s been a long day," Janice relayed vacantly, took a deep breath and left the hospital.

Mel looked out the window to the starry sky. The rain clouds had finally moved on, allowing the stars and moon to shine brightly. With a sigh, the southerner returned to pacing in Janice’s room, wondering how to break the bad news to her friend.

Hearing someone climb the fire escape, Mel froze. It had to be Janice, she thought and anxiously waited for the archeologist to open the door. Curiously, the door didn’t open when she expected. She bit a nail and continued to wait, until she heard a canvas sheet fall to the floor, followed by hammering.

Mel followed the sound of hammering to Aristotle’s room. At the doorway, she looked up to find Janice, up on a roof beam, pounding away in the moonlight. Stepping into the room, Mel focused on the shadowy figure busy with the roof repair . . . instead of the sawhorse directly in front of her. Toppling it over, along with the box of nails resting on it, Mel became unwitting liberator to the metal prisoners eagerly scattering far from their cardboard confines.

The hammering stopped.

"Do you want to be alone?" Mel asked softly.

"Yes," Janice said automatically.

Mel nodded sadly and started to leave when she heard a weak ‘no,’ from the archeologist, who wasn’t really unsure what the right answer was.

The southerner looked back uncertainly. "Do you want another board?" Mel asked, picking up a two-by-four.

Mel heard the archeologist’s pained breath and ragged exhale. Without a word, Mel offered the board to the dark form above her. With a sluggish nod, Janice took the offering. The southerner retrieved another board.

The hammering resumed.

Mel slowly woke. The comfortable bed tempted her to continue sleeping, but she couldn’t. There was too much to do. Covering her eyes from the offensive morning light with her arm, she moaned, feeling the aches of a very long yesterday.

Stretching her long arm out towards the night stand, she grabbed for her alarm clock to find out the time. Grabbing only air, her hand blindly searched over what seemed like an unusually large number of papers and books before she felt something cold, metallic and certainly not her alarm clock. She abruptly sat up, knocking that something off the night stand, along with the pile of papers that something was resting on.

"Oh my," Mel blurted, a bit disoriented as she looked around Janice’s room. Glancing down at her very wrinkled outfit, she groaned. Looking to the floor, she confirmed that something she knocked off was Janice’s revolver. With a sigh, she leaned over the edge of the bed and very carefully picked the gun up with her fingertips.

Janice emerged from the bathroom dressed in a fresh shirt and pair of khaki trousers. She stopped in her tracks when she saw the southerner sitting up with a stunned look on her face and a revolver dangling from her fingers.

"I promise, I won’t tell you how you look . . . just don’t shoot," Janice blurted, quickly raising her hands up with a cringe on her face.

Mel rolled her eyes. "It fell," she explained curtly as she motioned to the floor.

Janice grinned as she approached the southerner. "You surprise me, I thought you didn’t like guns."

"I don’t!" Mel blurted with frustration. "I was reaching for my alarm clock, which of course, wasn’t there and . . . " Mel stopped her explanation, realizing the archeologist was teasing her. Her eyes narrowed slightly. "Please take this . . . thing . . . now."

Mel released the revolver from her finger tips into the capable hands of Janice, who quickly slipped it in the holster hanging on her chair.

"You sleep well?" Janice asked, pushing a pile of clothes out of her way to sit on the sofa and put her boots on.

"Yes," she responded with surprise. "I never imagined I could be comfortable sleeping in this," Mel glanced down at her wrinkled suit.

"I don’t think comfort had anything to do with it . . . you were exhausted." Janice relayed. Seeing the southern squinting at her, Janice got up and retrieved Mel’s glasses from the table.

"Me? I’m surprised you are up, let alone. . . "

"Here," Janice interrupted and handed the glasses to the southerner.

"Oh, thank you." Mel gratefully put on her glasses. "Good Lord Janice, your face!" She blurted, seeing the stitches and bruising over her left eyebrow.

"Yeah, one only a mother could love . . . well, maybe not." Janice chuckled as she grabbed her holster, greatly disturbing Mel. "Feel free to sleep in. It’s only eight-thirty now and you could probably use a few more hours."

"What about you? You must be . . . ," Mel blurted to the archeologist heading for the door. "Janice Covington! Would you PLEASE slow down for one moment!" Mel blurted with frustration as she pushed the covers aside and scrambled out of bed.

"Mel, I can’t," Janice snapped back, turning to the southerner. "I can’t," Janice repeated softly then broke her gaze from the disturbingly blue eyes.

"I’ve got a meeting with DICK today and a few more errands to run before our trip to Zemal tomorrow," Janice quickly offered.

"You should start thinking about packing, yourself, if you haven’t already. We’ll be leaving tomorrow morning, early. A day later than I hoped but . . . things happen." Janice blurted, quickly leaving.

Once again the worried southerner was left alone, staring at a door.

"Things happen?" Mel spoke with amazement to the empty doorway. "Things happen?!?" Mel repeated testily, marching to the bed. "Things like a fire!?!" She snapped at the bed as she tucked the sheets neatly under the mattress.

"Or perhaps a friend’s death," she blurted as she angrily fluffed the pillows, threw the bed spread over the bed, and tucked and straightened it until there were no wrinkles left.

"Or perhaps, bumping into an ‘old friend’ who seems to bother you for some reason, which I’m sure you are not about to tell me because it is NONE of my business," She continued, picking up the papers and books she knocked off the night stand and placing them back in neat piles.

Georg entered the room with a smile which faded as he watched the brunette, who marched to the sofa and sat down and picked up a shirt.

"Or perhaps, the things like whatever your face happened to run into???" She blurted as she folded the clothes on the sofa into neat piles. Finished, she sighed heavily and turned to find Georg staring at her.

"Ah, I can come back when you’re done . . . with the room," he relayed with an uneasy smile and started to retreat.

"Georg? What is it?" Melinda asked firmly, standing up. He was surprised at how uncomfortable he was with her blue eyes demanding an answer from him.

"Well, Janice wanted me to tell you Octavia has breakfast ready, if you’re interested." Georg smiled and shrugged.

"Did SHE have any breakfast?" Mel asked crisply.

"Uh. . ."

"Of course not," Mel blurted with annoyance, grabbed her purse and walked briskly past him.

Octavia looked at Georg as he entered her kitchen. "She wasn’t hungry?" Octavia asked as she flipped the eggs over in the frying pan.

"I guess not." Georg shrugged as he sat down at the table. "She actually straightened up Dr. Covington’s room." He informed the old woman with an amazed chuckle and sipped his coffee.

"God knows, it’s about time someone did . . ." Octavia put a plate of toast in front of him.

"I think she’s crazy," he blurted, eagerly biting into a piece of toast.

"Well, the room WAS messy," Octavia noted as she served the eggs.

"No, I mean . . . she was talking to herself. Well, more like talking to the room. I should tell Dr. Covington to watch out for . . . "

"Georg! Don’t stick your nose in where it doesn’t belong!" The old woman scolded him. "Besides, anyone who would put up with Janice would have to be a bit crazy," Octavia informed Georg, who nodded.

After they got on the road, Janice seemed more at ease then she had been the past few days, Mel noticed with relief. Mel hoped that meant Janice would be willing to talk about a few things that had been on her mind, like the stitches on her eyebrow, or why Janice felt it necessary to bring a gun to a meeting with Dr. Wright, or why she agreed to hire "Dick" when it was apparent to her that Janice didn’t trust him.

For hours, Mel sat patiently in the passenger’s seat, staring between the map in her lap and the road ahead of them, quietly debating the pros and cons of asking her any or all of those questions. Staring at the map some more, she sighed and looked over to the archeologist.

"How did you get those stitches, Janice?" Mel finally asked what she considered the easiest question.

"I went to the emergency room with a gash and they gave them to me, pretty straight forward," Janice responded, evoking an irritated sigh from the southerner.

"Dr. Covington . . . you KNOW what I mean!"

"Why didn’t you say what you mean?" Janice countered. Mel’s eyes narrowed.

"All right. . ." Mel said slowly, then plastered on a thin smile. "Janice, how DID you get that gash that required those stitches?"

"There you go! Now I know exactly what you mean without having to guess," Janice relayed with a broad smile and abruptly stopped the truck, causing the southerner to crumple the map as she lunged forward.

"Well, here it is," Janice announced to the southerner, who sat up slowly and glared at the evasive archeologist. Lord, grant me the strength, Mel silently prayed, sighing heavily as she pushed her glasses up on her nose.

Shaking her head in defeat, she glanced between the site and the large map in her lap with confusion.

"Janice, are you sure? The river should be on the left and it’s clearly on the right," the southerner questioned. "See?" Mel pointed to the map.

Janice leaned towards the southerner, glancing at the map then the southerner. "Do you mind?" Janice asked, reaching for the map. Getting a sigh and shrug from the southerner, Janice took the map, rotated it upside down and placed it back on Mel’s lap.

"Mystery solved," Janice smirked.

"But . . . ." Mel’s eyebrows furrowed.

"North is behind us." Janice motioned to the back of the truck. "You had the North arrow facing South, which is in front of us."

"Oh Janice, I don’t know why you insisted on me being the navigator. You of all people certainly don’t need one and I’ve never been any good with maps," the southerner blurted with frustration, shaking her head at the stupid mistake.

"You will be," Janice said confidently, surprising the southerner. "Besides, you already fold them better than I do . . . and that’s half the battle," the archeologist added with a shrug and hopped out of the truck.

Chapter 16 - To Amphipolis

"Remember, don’t go on the main roads," Xena quietly reminded a yawning Gabrielle as she checked the saddle for a third time.

Finished with the saddle, Xena stepped back and quickly glanced around the alley behind the inn, content there was no one who would see Gabrielle’s pre-dawn departure.

"No main roads, check," Gabrielle softly responded and started to mount Argo but the warrior’s gentle hand over her forearm stopped her. The bard turned back to the warrior with a patient smile, which was interrupted by another yawn.

"And don’t forget to watch for ambushes from the trees," Xena added helpfully, for what Gabrielle counted as the fourth time.

"Look up, check," Gabrielle repeated with a firm nod, trying to ignore her growing irritation with the warrior’s help. Perhaps her irritation was just lack of sleep, the bard considered as she attempted to mount Argo. She was once again stopped by the warrior, who’s hand held her elbow.

"And don’t forget . . . no camp fires, just blankets," Xena added, looking into her bard’s eyes to ensure she understood. A thin smile crossed the bard’s face.

"Freeze my butt off, check," Gabrielle relayed and started to mount Argo.

"Gabrielle . . . " Xena moaned with annoyance, which stopped the bard’s ascent into the saddle.

"Xena, you’ve told me all this . . . the next thing you know, you are going to tell me not to talk to strangers,"

"Wouldn’t be wise," Xena added helpfully.

"Would you just have a LITTLE faith in me?" Gabrielle snapped, trying desperately to keep her voice down.

"Gabrielle, I do! It’s just. . . It’s . . . . " Xena paused then looked at the ground with a sigh. "I’m sorry," the warrior said softly.

"I’m scared too, Xena." Gabrielle whispered firmly. "And the fact that he scares you, TERRIFIES me. But as a certain wise, and occasionally redundant warrior told me, we can’t let our fear get in the way." Gabrielle reached out and caressed her warrior’s face.

"I’ve never had so much to lose, Gabrielle." Xena received a strong hug from her bard, who fit perfectly in her arms. "And Bayentes knows it . . . ."

Gabrielle sighed heavily as she stepped back from her warrior. "Gotta go," the bard said through a yawn.

After a quick peck on the warrior’s cheek, Gabrielle attempted to mount Argo but felt the warrior’s hand on her elbow once again. Gabrielle’s eyes rolled. "XENA! Would you PLEASE let me . . . " Gabrielle’s angry plea was interrupted when the warrior swiftly pulled her into a fierce kiss.

After the grinning Warrior Princess was finished helping, a wide awake Gabrielle cleared her throat and reluctantly mounted Argo. As Gabrielle pulled the reigns, Argo snorted and stopped. Gabrielle rolled her eyes.

"What?" She asked the horse.

With the unwelcome sound of thunderous hooves growing louder, Gabrielle’s heart pounded.

"Xena, they’re coming!!" A Zemalian lookout came running into the alley to warn the Warrior Princess who’s sword was already drawn.

"I can already HEAR them!" Xena snapped and growled with frustration at the lookout as she rushed passed him. Gabrielle dismounted and grabbed and assembled her staff.

"But I couldn’t FIND . . . ," the lookout blurted defensively as Gabrielle also rushed passed him. ". . . you."

Xena entered the main street, ready for a battle. She quickly assessed the size of the offensive force to be a platoon of riders and foot soldiers. Her attention was immediately drawn to the soldier riding rapidly towards her with his sword drawn. She whirled her sword, readying herself for a strong blow.

At the last minute, the rider sharply turned and rode after a man, who made the grave mistake of being up so early this day. Grabbing her chakrum, she hurled it towards the rider.

The round metal weapon swiftly sailed through the air, hitting it’s target. The soldier slumped over and fell off his horse . . . after his blade sliced through the man’s neck, releasing a violent gush of blood, killing the man instantly. The nearly decapitated body collapsed to the blood-soaked dirt, followed by the rider’s body.

Catching up to her warrior, the bard gasped, witnessing the gruesome kill. Fighting against the nausea that threatened to distract her, she loosened her nervously tight grip on her staff and breathed deeply to gain control. Glancing over to her warrior, Gabrielle could see the silent anger surface through the tightly clenched jaw and twitch in her eye.

Catching the chakrum, the warrior quickly focused on a rider with a torch, setting fire to some buildings, prompting the previously sleeping inhabitants to flee screaming into the street. Her eyes narrowed, spotting a man rush into the street and stumble, directly in the path of a large grinning rider. Her eyes then darted to two other horsemen cornering a screaming woman and child against a building wall and taunting them with torches. Within two long strides, the Warrior Princess somersaulted onto a wagon cart. Glancing over the four targets, Xena let her chakrum fly with a shrill war cry.

Launched from the confident hand, the chakrum sailed on it’s intended course, felling rider after rider. Finished with the bloody assignment, the circular blade swiftly returned back to the skillful hand of it’s satisfied owner, resting for only a briefest of moments. The chakrum once again returned to the air, enlisted for more deadly accurate work.

Gabrielle readied herself for the attack of a rider who galloped towards her. Squinting at her, the rider slowed his charge, turned and chased after another woman who luckily found shelter in a building.

Gabrielle looked around, confused. Seeing two laughing foot soldiers approaching a man armed with a water pitcher, Gabrielle ran towards them. "Hey!" She called out, making the two men stop laughing and turn. The Zemalian and his water pitcher took advantage of the break in the attack to run away.

The soldiers took a long look at the red-headed bard before they retreated, without a fight. Gabrielle’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion as she looked around and noted the absence of threats.

A squad of torch-bearing foot soldiers became the grinning Warrior Princess’ next target. She drew back her arm but abruptly stopped her throw with an annoyed exhale. Staveros and the reluctant local militia finally arrived with their pitch forks, clubs and staves, blocking an easy, clear shot.

Xena’s eyes rolled.

Adapt and overcome, the warrior reminded herself as she quickly lined up the shot and threw the chakrum around the green Zemalian group. Ricocheting off a roof beam with a large puff of dust, clanging off a metal wagon wheel with a bright spark, and bouncing off a marble statue, chipping a wing off it’s helmet, the chakrum finally sailed towards the squad of four foot soldiers and fell them, as originally planned.

Catching her chakrum with a satisfied grin, Xena glanced over to her bard, who looked at her with confusion. Since the start of the attack, not one soldier attacked her.

On the hill overlooking Zemal, the warlord and his lieutenants sat upon their warhorses watching the battle below. The lieutenants shifted uncomfortably seeing their platoon decimated by the ululating Warrior Princess.

"She still has it," Bayentes laughed approvingly.

Unexpectedly, a lone foot soldier came running up the hill and stood by the warlord’s foot, gasping. "Sir!" He blurted between heavy breaths. "We need reinforcements! She has this disc . . . thing . . . and. . . ." The man didn’t complete his voluntary report, suddenly wheezing from the new hole his chest.

"Why can’t anyone just follow orders?" Bayentes complained wearily, looking down at the skewered soldier on his sword.

He sighed as he moved his foot from its stirrup. Stepping on the soldier’s chest, he twisted and pulled his sword free. The dead soldier slumped to the ground as the warlord returned his foot to its stirrup.

"Is that too much to ask?" He asked his lieutenants, sheathing his sword and shrugging.

His lieutenants nervously shook their heads no.

"Was that it?" Gabrielle asked in amazement, looking around the now quiet streets of Zemal with relief. Compared to her fearful expectations, this conflict was a breeze.

"It was only one platoon, Gabrielle," Xena snarled as she sheathed her sword.

"Why only one? And why didn’t they attack you . . . or me?" Gabrielle asked.

"He’s toying with me. He wanted me to see innocents killed, " Xena answered calmly, eyeing the bard then scanning the area. "He wanted me to know . . . he knows who you are."

"Great," Gabrielle relayed with a weak smile, joining the warrior in scanning the area.

"I’m going to check to see if he has any of his men hiding in town. . . " Xena relayed.

"Xena, why would he bother hiding a few men in town? You just defeated a platoon. He couldn’t possibly think a couple soldiers could do anything to you," Gabrielle responded confidently.

"Gabrielle, he would do it just to prove he could. He would do it because, just maybe, one of them might get that lucky blow. He would do it just to irritate me. . . He would do it because that’s exactly what I would do," Xena snapped.

Gabrielle sighed heavily.

"Gabrielle . . . ." The warrior’s tone softened considerably.

Staveros approached the two women with a stunned look. "He attacked us . . . with you here," Staveros relayed in amazement, looking around at the damage then back to the Warrior Princess. "He said . . . "

"Staveros," Xena interrupted him curtly. "Bayentes is ruthless. That is the ONLY thing you can count on," Xena informed him coldly.

"But, my family . . . If he attacked us after I got you here . . . Gods , what about my family??" Staveros asked fearfully, looking between the stoic warrior and uncomfortable bard.

Xena sighed and looked the worried man in the eye.

"I don’t know about your family, Staveros. But I do know you have a town in desperate need of training. Get your men and women assembled, we’ll start as soon as I’m done my inspection of the area," Xena said calmly, bringing a needed sense of purpose to the man. Staveros nodded and jogged off to carry out her orders.

Turning to her bard, Xena continued in her commanding tone. "It’s too late for your departure. Leaving in daylight is too dangerous. Tend to the wounded while I check the town." Xena ordered.

"Be careful," the bard said simply, making the warrior’s cold face melt into one of apology and concern.

"You too," the warrior responded softly, her eyes automatically glancing over the area for threats.

"We’ll get through this Xena and when we do," Gabrielle informed her confidently. "You and I have a LOT of wedding planning to do," Gabrielle scolded her, sounding scarily like her mother Hecuba.

"In case you’re wondering, I didn’t plan this," the warrior relayed with a small smile.

"Uh huh," Gabrielle responded and turned to follow the Warrior Princess’ orders - tend to the wounded.

Chapter 17 - In Skillful Hands

Unloading the truck, the archeologist watched the tall southern lady lug around heavy boxes with amazing ease. Though considering herself in good shape, Janice concluded with a slight grin she would be wise to never challenge the southerner to an arm wrestling match.

As she anchored down her side of their large tent, which also served as their office, Janice was impressed at how quickly the southerner had taken to camping and its chores. Like building fires and pitching this tent, the archeologist considered, noticing the enthusiastic southerner had already finished anchoring down her side of the tent and was now busy with another task. She’s not only beautiful and intelligent, she’s a hard worker, the archeologist noted with great appreciation as she drove her last stake in the ground.

A tall shadow on the tent made the archeologist look up to find Mel with the large collapsible table in one hand, pushing up her glasses with the other. Janice was amazed with the southerner’s incredible patience with those spectacles, considering she would have gone insane if she had to wear glasses.

"Do you want the table inside the tent this time?" Mel asked with an easy smile for her friend.

"Yeah, it might rain and this wind is kicking up too much dust," Janice responded as she grabbed the cots and followed the southerner into the tent.

Diligently opening up the table legs, Mel hummed, prompting the archeologist steal a glance at the southerner. As Janice had come to expect, a look of contentment covered the southerner’s face. Mel got up and smiled warmly at Janice before leaving the tent to retrieve the chairs.

How is it that a woman like that could possibly derive such pleasure from such menial tasks, the archeologist wondered, shaking her head as she finished setting up one cot.

"This should be it," Mel blurted happily as she brought two folding chairs into the tent. A strong gust of wind blew the tent flap in her way, causing one of the chairs to catch in the flap’s brass eyelets.

"Mel, let me . . . " Janice quickly stood, but not quickly enough. Mel abruptly yanked on the chair. ". . . get that." Janice finished, covered in canvass.

The two stood quietly inside the collapsed tent for a moment.

"Mel?" Janice asked calmly, breaking the silence.

"Yes Janice?" Mel answered, wondering how furrowed the archeologist’s brow was.

Perhaps it was a good thing she couldn’t see Janice at the moment, the southerner thought with a cringe.

"Did you use the stakes in the bag to anchor down the tent?" Janice asked calmly.

"Uh. . . no," Mel answered meekly, biting her lip.

"You need to use the stakes," Janice informed her.

With the tent finally pitched and anchored by the southerner, such that a tornado would have a hard time toppling it, and their personal supplies unloaded from the truck, Janice found herself watching the sunset on a grassy hill overlooking a tree-lined river . . . and waiting. It was a very beautiful sight, the archeologist admitted, though she’d rather be busy working.

"Where are they?" Janice wondered with an impatient sigh.

"Isn’t it beautiful?" Mel asked uneasily, as she stepped next to her uptight friend and glanced between the landscape and archeologist.

She really as NO concept of personal space, the archeologist considered, staring at the sunset and feeling the tall presence so close to her. However, the archeologist elected not to mention it to Mel this time, considering she was probably still feeling horrible about the tent. After all, Janice didn’t want to make the southerner feel any worse.

"They should be here by now," Janice blurted.

"I’m sure they’ll be here any. . . " Mel relayed optimistically then smiled broadly, seeing the dust cloud on the distant road. "Look! There they are!" Mel blurted with excitement, placing a hand on the archeologist’s shoulder and pointing to the road.

Janice’s surprised eyes darted to the hand on her shoulder, causing the southerner to retract it quickly. With a sigh, Janice looked to the road as a truck came closer. She squinted.

"There’s only one truck," Janice said with surprise. "There is only one GOD DAMN truck!" Janice erupted, startling the southerner. Janice stormed towards the supply truck as it pulled in behind hers.

"Where the hell are all the men?!?" Janice yelled angrily at Georg as he emerged from the driver’s side.

"They’re on strike," Georg relayed, cringing for the tirade he expected and got.

Continued...Part 3

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