I thank Ren Pic and all the initials in NZ for letting me use Xena and Gabrielle. They belong to them and not me.
This story has violence, sex and profanity. All the good stuff. It is R rated
Do I want feedback? Most definitely. This is the beginning of a major new Xena novel. It will come out in three or four parts over the course of the summer and early fall. Something to fill those long lonely months waiting for the new XWP season to start. Because new parts of the story will come out at unpredictable times those who are interested should contact me and Ill put you on my email list and notify you when a new segment is posted. Please let me know how Im doing. I can be contacted at Aleckk1@hotmail.com
Our story begins about six weeks after the birth of Keolas baby.
By Jim Kuntz
The sun was high, yellow and insistent in the cloudless, blue, early summer sky. Xena walked out on the freshly swept porch with a tall cup of cool apple cider. The Lion had spent the morning helping Herodotus build a large addition to his chicken coop. As usual the old farmer had a new scheme for increasing the farms production, and the familys profit. She enjoyed helping her father-in-law. It felt good working with him, not talking, not joking, just working up a good sweat, creating something together. Occasionally she daydreamed about what it would have felt like to work beside her real father. Funny how sometimes you dont feel the hole in your life, she sat on the porch steps and took a sip of cider, until someone fills it.
She leaned back on an elbow and took a deep breath of the warm, fresh air. The oppressive humidity of the last week had finally disappeared with the gentle overnight rain. Her eyes lazily took in the scene before her. The brown dirt road, the dust finally settled by the rain, that ran in front of the farmhouse and away to the east, to Potadia, three leagues distant. The flat green fields that stretched on either side of the lane, freshly sprung shoots of wheat rippling in pretty geometric patterns before a swirling breeze that swept down from the high hills that formed the northern border of the broad Potadia valley. A half a league away a scruffy stand of maples grew along the small meandering stream that emptied from the hills, watering Herodotus fields, and marking the eastern edge of his land. The road crossed the shallow creek at a low bank and turned south, disappearing behind the trees. Xena started to bring her cup up for another sip when a small figure, a woman, appeared from behind the maples. She splashed heedlessly across the creek at a run. The Lion stood up. There was something disturbing about the way she ran, like she was being chased by the hounds of hell.
The woman waved her arm over her head.
"Hello!! Help!!," she cried breathlessly. "Help!!"
Xena threw down her cup and took off at a sprint down the road. As she approached she finally recognized the woman as Henna, the wife of Timon, the cobbler of Potadia. Her light blue blouse was dark with sweat and clung to her body, her face ashen with exhaustion. She stopped and bent double, hands on her knees, desperately heaving in air as the Lion reached her.
"Henna? Whats happened?" Xena asked anxiously as she put a hand on the womans back.
The woman straightened a little and grabbed the Lions arm.
"Xena," she gasped. "Its terrible! Some men, strangers, came to the village. They attacked Lila and took little Sula from her! I dont know if poor Lila is alive or dead!!"
The Lion took a shocked breath, then her face darkened and her blue eyes flashed. She looked up to see Argo drinking from the trough inside the large corral next to the barn.
"Argo!!" she roared. The big war-horse raised her head, ears perked. "Argo!!"
The palomino knew what that sound meant. The horse made a circle in the pen, gathering her energy, then charged the fence and leapt it, with room to spare, and galloped to her mistress. Xena saw the Bard come onto the porch, drawn out of the kitchen, where she was helping Hecuba make lunch, by the shout.
"Gabrielle!! Bring my sword!!" the Lion called. "Hurry, beloved!!"
The Bard hesitated only a moment, then raced into the main room, took down the Lions long, double-edged sheathed sword from its place over the hearth and ran out of the house.
Xena turned back to Henna. "Tell me everything," she demanded.
"Yes, yes," the middle-aged woman gasped. "As soon as I catch my breath."
With the Lions help she lowered her aching, exhausted body to a sitting position and wiped her glistening brow with the back of her hand. She took a deep breath.
"Six of them came into the village, about mid -morning," she began. She glanced at Argo as the horse pulled up beside Xena. "They were all mounted on big war-horses like yours. They were warriors, armed with swords and knives in their belts, a couple of them were wearing breastplates." The womans eyes widened as she looked at the Lion. "And two of them were black men. They had black skin, like your Sula. Ive never seen black men before. And their clothes were strange, they each had a cape over their shoulders, one was a leopard skin and the other a lion skin, with the head of the beasts tied up over their heads. It frightened me just to look at them." The woman took another gulp of air. "They dismounted in the village square like they owned the place. The two black men held the horses while the others spread out and started asking questions. One of them came up to me, a thugish looking man with a scar on his forehead, and asked me if I had seen any little black girls. I didnt say anything. I didnt like the look of him, or his friends, one bit. Nobody else was answering their questions either, and you could see they were getting mad about it. Then on the other side of the square Lila came walking out of Phides bakery with Sula on her hip. I didnt know she had come to the village." Hennas face drooped and her eyes filled with water. "Oh, why did she have to come to town today?" she moaned, shaking her head.
Xena grabbed the womans shoulder. "What happened!?" she demanded.
"The two black men spotted her immediately," Henna answered quickly. "They ran over to her and started talking at her and to each other in some strange barbarian gibberish. I could see they scared Lila, just from the look on her face. They kept pawing at Sula. The other four men ran over too, and surrounded the poor girl. A lot of us were in the square watching, but everything was going so fast we were like, frozen, not knowing what was happening or what to think. Then one of the black men just grabbed Sula and tried to pull her out of Lilas arms. Lila screamed "No!" and then one of the bastards behind her stabbed her. Oh, Gods, he stabbed her! I could see her body stiffen and her face go white. Oh, it was horrible!" the woman gasped. "Even as she was falling Lila tried to hold onto Sula but the man was too strong and ripped her out of her grasp. She kept screaming "No! No!" as she fell and Sula started crying. Then the men all ran to their horses and mounted. The old blacksmith Baltus and his son, and a couple of other men, ran up to try to stop them but they almost got trampled as the bunch of them galloped out of the square down the Athens road."
The woman paused as Gabrielle arrived with the Lions sword. Xena took it and started cinching it on her back. "Go on, what else?" she said impatiently.
"Well, uh, uh," Henna stammered, trying to remember where she had left off, "I ran over to Lila, with a lot of other people, to see about her." The womans eyes shifted to the Bard, who had a questioning look on her face. "Im sorry, Gabrielle. Lila was hurt bad. There was blood coming out of her mouth and nose and she was coughing and gasping for air." The Amazon Queens face changed into one of shocked disbelief. "Someone ran to get the healer," Henna continued, "and just as he arrived that Amazon girl, the one with the wooden leg, came running up with her little baby in her arms."
"Yes, Keola and Lila went into Potadia together at first light," Gabrielle said, her face turning white with stunned fright at what she was hearing.
"Lila saw her and reached up and grabbed her hand as Keola knelt beside her and she kept saying over and over "get Sula back, get Sula back." She sounded so desperate, it broke your heart to hear her. The poor Amazon girl didnt know what to do. But old Baltus told her quick what had happened. Then she got this really mean, angry look on her face and she just handed her baby without a word to Verinia the fruitseller and ran over to her horse and jumped on and took off down the road after them." Henna glanced at Xena and Gabrielle. " By the Gods," she whispered. "what can she do against six of them?" She took a breath. "Anyway thats when I decided to get here as quick as I could to get help."
The Lion did not wait for another word. She leapt up on Argos bare back. "Im coming," the Bard said and she was quickly hauled up behind her mate. "Tell mom and daddy whats happened," she called to Henna as Argo bolted into a gallop. The woman waved that she would.
As Argo thundered into the central square of Potadia it was not hard to tell where Lila was. A dozen people were crowded in front of Phides bakery, all with anxious looks on their faces, all conversing in hushed but animated tones. The mates jumped off Argo and hurried into the shop as the crowd parted.
Lila, eyes closed, was lying face down on a long table, the loaves of fresh baked bread it once held shoved unceremoniously onto the sawdust covered floor. She was stripped to the waist and a rolled up cotton tunic was under her head for a pillow. Aneas, the young healer, who had just taken over for his father last summer, stood by the table pressing a blood soaked cloth to the suckering wound that slowly hemorrhaged in the middle of the young womans back, an inch to the right of the spine. Small rivulets of blood trickled from the wound and across Lilas skin until they dripped into a slowly expanding puddle on the table.
A low strangled moan of dismay escaped Gabrielles lips as she rushed to her sister. She went to the end of the table and pressed her cheek against Lilas. "Sister," she whispered, trying to keep the panic out of her voice.
Lila opened her eyes. For a moment things swam fuzzily before her, then the Bards apprehensive face came into focus.
"Oh Gabby, Im so sorry," she gasped, a drop of blood falling from her nose and water filling her eyes.
"Oh no, sweetheart, no," the Bard said, voice cracking through a painful lump in her throat as she covered Lilas cheek with kisses. "You dont have anything to be sorry for. You did everything you could." She pulled back so she could look into her sisters stricken brown eyes. "Were going to get Sula back and youre going to be all right. I know you are." She lovingly caressed Lilas cheek, but at the same instant her eyes glanced anxiously at the Lion.
Xena pulled the cloth away from Lilas wound and examined it for a moment. Aneas, well aware of the Lions reputation as a healer, made no effort to interfere. He leaned close to the tall woman beside him and whispered nervously in her ear, "I cant get the bleeding to stop. Her breathing is getting steadily worse."
Xena nodded. "Blood is filling her chest," she said, more to herself than the healer. "Weve got to drain it or shell drown." She looked rapidly around the room, but did not spot what she needed. Her eyes shifted to the crowd of faces at the door. "I need a hollow reed, at least six inches long," she barked commandingly, "someone get me one. Now!" After a brief moment of hesitation several men went racing away in different directions.
Xena pulled the small, razor sharp knife she kept in her boot and wiped it on her leather skirt. She knelt by the table and carefully probed for a moment with her forefinger till she found just the right spot between two of Lilas ribs. She looked up at her mate. Gabrielle took a deep, ragged breath.
"Lila," she whispered, "Xenas going to make a small cut between your ribs. It will let out some of the blood in your lungs so you can breath."
A shadow of fear passed through Lilas gentle brown eyes and the Bard felt a slight tremor where her hand rested on her sisters neck.
"I know, sweetheart, I know," Gabrielle agonized. She leaned over and pressed her cheek against Lilas. "Im here, Im here," she repeated over and over.
Xena took a deep breath to steady herself, then, as Aneas watched intently, with a quick, decisive motion she opened a half inch wound in Lilas side, slicing through flesh and muscle to open a passage into the chest cavity underneath. The girl started and let out a yelp.
The Lion gently rubbed her patients back. "Im done, Lila," she said soothingly as she put her thumb over the incision. Then her eyes turned fierce as she looked at the crowd by the door.
"Where in Tartarus is my reed!?" she demanded hotly.
The words were hardly out of her mouth when Taren the weaver pushed through the gaping bystanders.
"Will these do?" he asked breathlessly as he held out a handful of reeds he used for weaving mats. Xena examined them a moment, then picked one out of his fist. She blew through it with her finger over the end, to feel the rush of air and be sure the tube was clear. Carefully she inserted it into her incision, working it delicately back and forth, till suddenly a steady stream of blood poured out. She stood and put her hand over Aneas where he held the blood soaked cloth over Lilas wound. She pushed down till the girl grunted.
"Pressure," she said, her eyes fixed on the healers, "constant hard pressure. If you get tired have someone relieve you. But never let up on the pressure till the bleeding stops. Do you understand?"
"Yes," the man replied, nodding.
"When it does stop," she continued, "take out the reed and stitch the cut. Have her drink as much water and soup and other liquids as she can. It will make her feel better and build up her blood."
The young healer nodded again. The Lion went to the end of the table and knelt. Lilas face was pure anguish as she looked at her sister-in-law.
"Im so sorry, Xena," she whispered hoarsely. "I couldnt stop them. Im so sor "
"This isnt your fault," Xena growled deep in her throat. "Were going to get Sula back, and the men who did this are going to pay with their lives. I swear it." She put her hand on Lilas head and stroked her black hair. "And youre going to live." The Lions eyes blazed a fierce blue light as they bored into watery brown orbs, as if she were trying somehow to transfer her own overpowering will to live and conquer into Lila. "We love you and need you too much to lose you. Do you understand?"
Lila nodded weakly.
"Yes, Lila, yes," the Bard repeated in her sisters ear as she kissed her temple and cheek. "We love you too much to lose you."
The Lion stood and looked at the Bard. "Maybe you should "
"Im coming, Xena," the Amazon Queen said sternly. She kissed Lila one more time, whispered I love you in her ear, and followed her mate out to Argo. When they reached the big war-horse Gabrielle put her hand on Xenas shoulder. Her eyes searched her lovers beseechingly. The Lion let out a small, bitter sigh. "If the bleeding stops, beloved," she said quietly, shaking her head, "if the bleeding stops."
Bultus the blacksmith showed Xena where the strangers horses had stopped in the square. After briefly examining the tracks to pick out a few identifying marks, she leapt up on Argo, pulled Gabrielle up behind her, and headed east toward Athens at a head down gallop. After six leagues of flat, easy riding down the center of the broad valley, the road branched. The main highway continued southeast, following the curve of the valley toward Athens, thirty-five leagues away. The other branch was more a cart path than a regularly traveled road. It turned northeast, then finally north, snaking up into the high hills toward Macedonia, a hundred leagues distant. Argo had hardly gone fifty yards past the fork, toward Athens, when Xena pulled back on her mane. She turned the war-horse and retraced her steps to where the road separated. She followed the cartpath for a few feet, leaning down to examine every inch of ground.
"What do you see?" the Bard asked anxiously.
"They split up here" Xena answered, straightening. "Two went on toward Athens. Four of them took this road." She paused and took a breath as she stared up at the looming mountains. "Keola turned here as well. Shes following the four headed into the hills."
Gabrielle followed her mates gaze. In a league the trail disappeared around the shoulder of a heavily wooded hillock.
"Can you tell from the tracks how far behind Keola is?" she
"No," Xena replied. "She could be right behind them, or several leagues back."
The Bard shook her head, mind racing.
"We dont know then if shes following them because shes seen them with Sula, or she just took a guess that these four have her?"
The Lion nodded.
Gabrielle took a deep breath, trying to steady her nerves and control her pounding heart. "It does seem more likely that kidnappers would head into the mountains to hide, rather than parade into Athens with their victim, doesnt it?"
"It would seem so." Xena answered.
"And you know Keola," the Bard continued. "She wont think of herself at all. Shell plow into them without hesitation." Gabrielle squeezed her mate tight. "Daria needs her mother too, beloved. As much as Sula needs us."
Holding the Lion was like hugging a statue, her powerful form rigid with tension.
"The mountains?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle squeezed her eyes shut. Artemis, be with us now. She opened them and kissed her mates shoulder. "The mountains," she whispered.
Xena put her heels into Argo and they were off at a gallop.
The cartpath wound around steadily higher hills and through narrow valleys, towering forest on either side. After three leagues, at the top of a steep ridge, the Lion pulled Argo up and examined the track.
"Keola broke off the trail," she pointed into the treeline that ran along the top of the ridge, "here". She looked at the path as it spilled down the slope and turned east at the bottom, disappearing behind the trees. "Shes trying to cut them off."
Gabrielle looked into the densely growing forest of pines, and swallowed to think of her friends reckless courage, plunging Luka into such a dangerous tangle of limbs and undergrowth so that she could face four warriors alone, all for the sake of a little girl that was no blood of hers. Her heart ached to know that such love and loyalty existed in the world, and that someone felt she and her family were worthy of it.
"Should we follow?" she asked.
"No," the Lion shook her head. "Its too thick. Lukas small enough to get through, but Argo will just get bogged down. It will be faster for us if we stay on the path."
She put her heels to the war-horse and they plunged down the ridge. After another league they came to the crest of a rise in the bottom of a narrow valley. At the end of the valley were four horsemen, riding at a walk, two by two. The mates could see they all wore helms of various types, and one of the men in the second pair had the crisscross straps of a breastplate across his back. They were hardly half a league ahead. Xena pulled Argo up.
"Can you see Sula?" Gabrielle asked desperately.
"No." Xena answered tersely, eyes straining to see everything. "She could be in the saddle in front of one of them."
"Maybe we should stay out of sight and let them camp for the night," the Bard suggested. She looked up at the late afternoon sky. "It will be night soon. We could ambush them in the dark."
The Lions face was an iron mask of concentration, her mind racing with every possibility. She shook her head.
"We cant wait that long. If they dont have her well lose a whole day to those two headed for Athens. Besides, we dont know what these bastards have in mind. I dont want Sula in their hands one moment longer than necessary. But well need to get a lot closer before they spot us and run. Argos worn out. She wont be able to run them down with this much of a head start on us."
She turned the war-horse and retreated down the rise, out of sight of her quarry, to let them reach the end of the valley and disappear around the bend. After the mates impatiently waited out a candlemark, more than enough time for the men to clear the path, she put her heels to Argo and charged up the lane to make up some ground. They crested the hillock at a run.
"Son of a bitch!!" the Lion exploded.
At the very end of the path, just before it disappeared, was the little band of warriors. Two of them were standing off the road, heads down, urinating against a large maple, their horses at their sides, while the other two sat their mounts, patiently waiting. Xena considered for a split second pulling Argo up and retreating again, but the fates took that decision from her. One of the men finished, and as he hiked up his woolen breeches he turned his head to speak to the man next to him. Immediately he was yelling and pointing at the big palomino and its riders pounding toward him. The four warriors looked at one another for the briefest of moments, considering. They all reached the same conclusion at the same time. The two men jumped into their saddles and all of them snapped their reins on the flanks of their mounts and they fled down the path at a gallop.
At her mistresses insistent urging Argo stretched herself out and found some way to increase her pace. After half a league she had gotten to within two hundred yards of the men, the last man in line taking anxious peeks behind him as they closed. But every breath now for the war-horse was a deep, painful blow, her lungs expanding and contracting like overworked bellows, lather flying from her lips and covering her neck. The road took a sharp turn north and for a few moments the men were out of sight, hidden by the forest. When Argo turned the corner the Lion let out an angry, frustrated oath. The lane went straight up a long incline to the top of a ridge. The four riders were already halfway up, their fresh horses having no trouble with the grade. But Argo was spent and Xena knew it. If she continued at her present pace, up that long slope, she would break down, or burst her heart. With agonized reluctance Xena pulled back on the war-horses mane.
"We cant catch them," the Lion spit, voice cracking with pent up fury.
"I know," Gabrielle answered bitterly, and Xena could feel her mate trembling as the Bard held her tight.
The warriors pulled away as Argo slowed to a trot, and the mothers felt their hearts being ripped from their chests with every increasing yard of distance that separated them.
The last man in line, a youngish fellow with a scar over his dark eyes and a raggedy, unkempt, dirty black beard, took another look behind him and grinned a relieved, gap toothed grin. As he and his comrades reached the top of the ridge, he was about to call out that they should slow and save the horses, their pursuers had given up, when a wild, shrill war cry startled him. Before any of them could react, an Amazon warrior burst out of the trees beside the road and blocked the path with her horse. Instantly there was an incredible, crashing, thrashing tangle of falling mounts and men. Luka was knocked sideways and down as the first two horses ran into and fell over her, kicking and screaming in fright. The next one planted her forelegs in the dusty lane to stop, but skidded into the struggling pile of horseflesh and fell, breaking a leg with a crack, like a dry branch snapping off a tree. The last horse avoided the disaster by veering into the pines, and immediately began bucking and thrashing in a desperate panic at the branches that engulfed and stabbed at her from every direction.
"Take my sword!!" the Lion yelled as Argo approached the rapidly disentangling wreck.
Gabrielle leaned back and pulled Xenas blade from its sheath.
Keola was up, sword in hand, covered with dirt, blood running from a dozen small cuts and scrapes accumulated forcing Luka through the forest. She was engaged in a furious duel with a large, muscular warrior with a sword in one hand, dagger in the other. Luka and the other horses had struggled back to their feet and were milling about, except for the brown mare with the broken leg, who was standing head down, trembling in shock and pain, broken leg bent at a grotesque angle. The last two warriors were on their feet as well. One was attempting desperately to catch his mount by the rein, but the stubborn animal kept turning away. The other was trying to clear his head, and catch his breath, after having it knocked out of him. The still mounted warrior emerged from the trees into the road, his horse at last under control. He took a quick glance at the situation, then snapped the animals head around and dug in his heels, almost knocking Keola down as he barged past her to escape. He had hardly gone twenty yards when the Lions chakram buried between his shoulder blades. He stiffened, then dropped silently out of the saddle like a sack of turnips, spine severed, dead. His horse galloped on without him. The warrior trying to catch his mount gave up the hopeless effort and ran into the woods to the west. His comrade regained enough of his senses to turn and disappear into the trees east.
"Ive got left," Xena called as she pulled Argo up and leaped off the horse in one fluid motion, hitting the ground at a sprint after her prey. The Amazon Queen was almost as quick as her mate, sliding off the palomino and racing into the trees right.
Gabrielle could hear the man crashing and stumbling through the undergrowth, a bull in a pottery shop. With her small size and agility she closed rapidly, and soon spotted him, a dozen yards ahead. He tripped over a vine and fell, but was quickly on his feet. He turned to face his pursuer. A slight, relieved smile crossed his face. The little, redblonde woman with the blade in her hand charging at him did not look so threatening. He drew his sword and prepared to fight.
The Bard attacked with a rush, green eyes fierce. Her opponent, a foot taller and twice her weight, met her head on. It was quickness against strength. Gabrielle opened a cut on the mans arm, then slashed his leg. But his brute power began bearing down on her, forcing her back. And the blade was not her weapon, her inexperience with it putting her at an increasing handicap as her energy ebbed before the mans relentless, bludgeoning assault. He backed her against a tree, and after parrying a thrust, snapped her head with a forearm. She was stunned and helpless for an instant. The warrior drew back his sword to finish her. Clang!! A fist sized rock bounced off his helmet, rattling his brain.
"Here, you asshole!!" Keola screamed. The man turned just in time to meet the enraged Amazon as she rushed him. Backing up at every blow, he desperately fended off her savage attack, until he tripped over a fallen branch. Instantly the Scouts blade was at his throat, and he knew, looking up at the face hovering over him, that his life was done. He closed his eyes.
"No, Keola," a stern voice said, a voice that expected to be obeyed. "We need him alive."
The man opened his eyes to see Gabrielle shouldering the young Amazon back. She kicked the sword out of his hand and put her own blade at his throat.
"Get up" she ordered.
He painfully rose, bleeding heavily from his wounds.
"Im such an idiot, such a fucking idiot!"
The Bard looked up in surprise. She had never heard the young Scout use profanity before. Keola was shaking her head, pounding the flat of her sword on her thigh, in a furious rage at herself.
The Amazon looked at Gabrielle, her face flushed under the dirt and dust and scrapes of dried blood.
"I picked the wrong ones, my Queen," she spit the words out like hot metal through gritted teeth, "Ive failed Sula, Lila, you. Ive failed everyone. Everyone!"
Gabrielles eyes were soft as she reached out and squeezed the Scouts arm.
"You did all a loyal friend can do," she said softly. "There are others who bear the responsibility for this. And we will soon know who they are."
She looked up at her prisoner.
"Now," the Bard said as she gave the man a kick in the back to start him toward the road, "lets see if any of your friends are still alive."
The three of them emerged into the lane just as the Lion dragged her prey by the collar out into the path as well. The man was bleeding from the lip and a black eye was already beginning to puff out. He had the groggy look of a punch drunk boxer. Xena had his sword in her hand. She slammed him face first into a large tree.
"Stay there," she growled.
She stalked across the road and grabbed Gabrielles man by the collar.
"Get my chakram," she barked at Keola, her eyes lit up with a chilling blue blaze.
"Yes, Warleader," the Amazon warrior replied.
Keola hurried down the road past the man she had fought earlier. He lay in the dust holding his stomach, where she had run him through, quietly moaning. She jerked the chakram from the back of its victim and returned it to Xena, as the Lion slammed the other man against the tree beside his comrade. She jammed the razor sharp weapon against the mans jugular, pinning him against the treetrunk.
"Now," she said in a low menacing growl, "why did you kidnap my daughter?"
The man looked at the three cold, angry faces staring at him and tried to think, to judge his options. In the terror of the moment something his father once told him floated into his brain. Never admit anything. Dont convict yourself with your own words. He decided to try bluffing his way through. Perhaps planting some seed of doubt might save him. He sucked in a breath and put on his most innocent, offended face.
"I dont know what your talking about," he huffed. "We were just on our wa "
A gurgle of blood erupted from his lips, then his head dropped as the Lion cut his throat to the bone. She stepped back and let his lifeless body collapse to the ground.
The last warriors face turned whiter than new fallen snow as a stunned, horrified gasp escaped his lungs.
Xena put her chakram to his throat, eyes glittering with a cold, controlled, rage that sent a shiver down his spine.
"Do I have your complete attention?" she said, her voice terrifying in its calmness. The man nodded, eyes wide and wild with fear.
"I want to know everything about why you took my daughter," she said. "If you tell me you can die quick and easy." Her eyes narrowed. "If not, Ill stake you to the ground, slit your belly, and pull out ten feet of intestine. You can lay there and watch the coyotes and carrion birds eat you alive."
"Ill Ill tell you everything I know," the man gasped, trying to get the words out before Xena could do anything rash.
The Lion nodded her head slightly.
"Start at the beginning and make it quick," she growled.
"Yes, uh, yes " the frightened man gulped. "We uh, we, my friends and me, we were sitting in a tavern in Athens, seven days ago. We had been working as muscle for a brothel, and helping the owner, Mentius, roll some of the drunk sailors, till that rat bastard Pericles had us closed and Mentius exiled. We were sitting there minding our own business, talking about what we should do next, join another mercenary company or something, thats where we all met, when three black men came in the place. Two were warriors, Ive seen their like before, from Africa, Nubia or Ethiopia, someplace like that. The other man was older, with white in his hair and beard and fine clothes and jewelry. He had that superior, everyone but me is trash kind of way about him. Made you want to knock some of his teeth out just to look at him. He stopped at some other tables where men, warriors, sailors, were drinking, the two warriors trailing behind not saying anything. Finally he came to our table. He asked if any of us was from northern Greece, around Sirrus or Corinth. He spoke pretty good Greek. You could hardly tell he was a barbarian. Titus," the mans eyes flicked down to the man lying at his feet, "is from Corinth. His father was a peddler and cutpurse, and Titus traveled all over northern Greece with him when he was young, helping him steal. When he spoke up and said where he was from this guy invites himself to sit with us. He says he has a job for us, if we dont mind playing rough, and like money more than manners. He says its a hundred dinars each if we take these two warrior friends of his to Sirrus, to meet someone at the Inn there. And that we should follow whatever orders we were given after that, till the job was done. He said it wouldnt take four or five days at most." The man took a breath. " A hundred dinars is a lot when you dont have any." He looked at his interrogators, hoping for some glimmer of human sympathy from one of them. There was none. He swallowed and continued. "We got to Sirrus two days ago, late. We went to the Inn and all of us sat together in a corner, waiting. It got later and later, the place emptied out till we were almost the only ones left. I was getting pretty fed up myself, but the warrior with the Lion skin, I dont remember his name, some barbarian name, who spoke Greek just well enough that you could understand him, if you listened close, said we would wait till the end of the world if necessary. Finally, when I was about to tell his black ass the end of the world had arrived, a big, tall warrior woman came in the door. She looked around, then came straight to our table and sat down like she knew us or something."
"Describe her" Gabrielle demanded.
When the man hesitated he felt the chakram press harder against his throat.
All right, all right," he stammered, "I was going to. I just needed to think a second. She she had dark hair and black eyes. And she had tattoos all over her arms. She had the look of somebody you didnt want to mess with, if you know what I mean."
"Where did she wear her weapon?" the Lion growled.
"It was uh, uh, on her hip," the man replied, "a short blade, like one of those swords the Roman Legionaries use."
"Murise" the Amazon Queen muttered bitterly under her breath. Xena nodded. The angry color came back to Keolas cheeks. "Go on," the Lion said.
"She ignored us Greeks," the man continued. "Didnt even look at us, like we werent there. Pretty damn arrogant. She only talked to the black warriors. She said the child they were looking for was in Potadia. At the farm of someone named Herodotus, that she didnt know where Potadia or the farm was, that they would have to find it themselves. Then she leaned across the table at them and said "beware of the Lion, only take the child when the Lion is away". The warrior that spoke Greek nodded like he knew what she meant. Then she got up and walked out without a word."
The man swallowed and took a breath.
"Titus knew where Potadia was, so in the morning we went there. We were asking about a black child, and this Herodotus, when a girl walks out of a shop with a black kid on her hip. Those two warriors ran over and started fighting with the girl, and they seemed certain that that was the kid they wanted." The prisoners eyes glanced over at the man lying in the road moaning. "Then Persus stabbed her. I I swear I didnt know he was going to do that. I swear it" His voice was desperate. "Then the warrior who spoke Greek said we should go, before the Lion found out what was happening. So we got out of there. When we reached the fork in the road he said we should head into the mountains. That wed be safer there. And that we should beware the Lion. Then the two of them headed for Athens with the child as fast as they could go." The prisoner swallowed again through his fear-constricted throat. "Thats all I know, I swear, thats all." He stared into the blazing blue eyes only inches from his, icy eyes that had no mercy in them. "Youre the Lion, arent you?" he whispered hoarsely.
"People gave you good advice" the Lion answered coldly, "too bad you didnt take it."
With a jerk of her arm Xena cut the mans throat and let his lifeless body drop to the ground. Gabrielle let out a long held breath, and her eyes filled with a deep, haunted, sadness, though her face otherwise betrayed not the slightest emotion.
The Lion looked at her mate. "You know this area better than I," she said quickly, "is there a short way to the Athens road from here?"
"No," the Bard replied. "Well have to backtrack almost to the fork to get back on."
"Damn it" Xena said with a disgusted shake of her head.
She looked around, mind racing.
"Keola, get Luka and Argo," she ordered.
She put her hand on the Bards shoulder. "Well take the two horses these scum left behind. Theyre a lot fresher and I dont care if we ride them into the ground, as long as they get us to Athens as soon as possible."
Quickly the mates each caught a horse. Before she mounted Xena went to the animal standing in the road with the broken foreleg and removed her bridle, which she threw to Keola. After gently patting its neck, she cut the mares jugular with a decisive zip of her chakram. The horse staggered, fell, then relaxed into the painless oblivion of death. The Lion mounted and pulled up beside Gabrielle. She looked back at Keola, who had just gathered up Luka and put the bridle on Argo.
"Warrior," she said, looking the young Scout in the eyes, voice commanding. "Take Argo home. When you get there I place the security of the family in your hands. Youre to stay there until you receive word from the Queen or I." The Lions eyes narrowed. "Youre to use your judgment, Keola, on whats necessary to keep the people we love safe. Weather Herodotus agrees with your decisions or not. I trust you with their lives, Amazon. I hold you responsible. Murise is out here somewhere. Who knows what she intends. Understood?"
Brown eyes intense, Keola straightened and made a slight bow. "Understood, Warleader."
Gabrielle looked at the young woman covered in dirt and blood and felt a tightness in her throat.
"Thank you, Keola," she said quietly. "Thank you for everything youve done. Tell Lila, when you see her, how much I love her."
Before the Scout could respond the mates were gone in a rising cloud of dust down the lane. Keola took a deep breath. As she put her foot in Lukas stirrup, a weak voice called out from behind her, "wait, dont go, dont leave me like this."
"Mister," the Amazon said, her voice flat and emotionless as she mounted, "anyone stupid enough to attack the Lions family is a suicide. And I dont have any time now to waste on a talking corpse." Without looking back Keola put her heels to Luka and led Argo back down the road to Potadia.
It was well after sundown as Keola entered the dark village common. Only a few huts showed a wavering light through the crack of a closed shutter. The only sound was the chirping of amorous crickets seeking a midnight tryst. She pulled Luka up by the long public trough on the east edge of the square and wearily dismounted. She slipped Luka and Argos reins through the iron ring atop the tall wooden stake planted at the end of the trough, and guided the tired animals to water. She looked around at the quiet, peaceful scene, and for the briefest instant all the running, confusion and fright of seeing Lila lying on the ground, her face white with panic, blood welling out of her, flashed before her eyes. She took a sudden deep breath and blinked the vision from her brain, as a cold, hard, tight ball of anxiety formed in her stomach. She consciously set her jaw and steeled her nerve and headed across the common to the dark hut of Phides bakery.
"Who is it?" an old, suspicious voice called in answer to the Amazons knocking.
"Its me, sir. Keola. Lilas friend," she answered.
"Oh, I know you, yes, the young Amazon. Just, uh, just a moment."
There was a rustling of movement and whispered voices. A light appeared through the crack of the door. Then the door opened to reveal an old man with gray, thinning hair and a gray beard, holding a candle. He pushed the wavering light out toward Keolas face as his fading eyes crinkled up to take her in. A shocked little breath escaped his lips as he saw her dirt and blood encrusted face and arms.
"Oh, child," he gasped. "You should you should come in."
"No, sir," the Scout answered with a slight shake of her head, "thank you for your kindness, but Im fine. I would just like to know," she paused and took a slight, trembling breath, "do you know what happened to Lila, where she is? And I left my baby with Varinia, the woman with the fruit stand. Can you tell me where she lives?"
"Oh, child," the man sighed sadly, "its been a terrible day, hasnt it?"
The Amazon nodded.
"Dont worry about that cute little one of yours," the baker continued. "Shes safe in Hecubas arms. She and Herodotus arrived here not too long after Gabrielle and the Lion left."
The man paused, old eyes dark and questioning, "Have they did they find their daughter?"
Keola shook her head with a look that said she did not want to say more. Phides sighed.
"Anyway, Hecuba went and got the baby after spending some time with Lila. Lila kept looking around asking where the little thing was. Like she was afraid she had lost both children. The poor girl was so upset. She kept apologizing like she had done something horrible. She never asked about herself once." Phides swallowed, face anxious. "The healer finally got the bleeding stopped. Poor Lila was pale as milk. She quit talking and was so weak she could hardly keep her eyes open. The healer kept trying to get her to drink water but she couldnt swallow. That young farmer Philip arrived just as the sun was setting. Oh, the look on that young mans face when he saw Lila. Such a look no one should have."
Keola bit her lip, and her chin quivered for an instant.
"With the bleeding stopped," the old man continued, "the healer said they should take Lila to his hut, to rest in a comfortable bed. Somebody got a litter and they carried her down there just after dark. I havent heard anything since."
"Thank you, sir," Keola said quietly. She turned to go, but a hand on her arm stopped her.
"All the village is praying for Lila, young lady," the old baker said sincerely. "It would be terrible to lose her sweet spirit. And were praying for Gabrielles little girl too. Its " he let out a sad breath "its hard to understand sometimes, why the Gods visit such heartache on people."
"I wonder about that too," the Amazon whispered, a thought unknowingly spoken. She patted the mans hand. "Thank you, sir, for your kindness." She disappeared into the darkness.
Keola walked slowly down the narrow street, counting huts. She knew the healers hut was the fifth or sixth on the right. Suddenly a shape loomed out of a dark doorway. She could tell it was a strong, stocky man. His arm came up and she caught the telltale silhouette of a heavy blacksmiths hammer in his hand. She froze, eyes concentrated, reflexes taut.
"Sir?" she said quietly.
The hammer immediately came down.
"Keola." A relieved voice answered.
Herodotus came out into the street, and as he approached, the Scout noticed that he hid the hammer behind his leg, as if embarrassed to be seen with it.
"Keola," he said again as he caressed her cheek with a callused hand, "are you all right?"
"Im fine, sir," she replied.
"Sula?" he asked, voice choked with emotion.
"They split up at a fork in the road. Two went on toward Athens. Four headed north into the mountains." The Amazon suddenly put her hand to her forehead, then ran it slowly through her hair. Herodotus could feel her trembling where his hand touched her cheek. "I uh I followed the wrong ones, sir. And the Queen and the Warleader followed me. We caught them, and found out some of what happened. And who stabbed Lila. The Queen and Warleader are on the way to Athens now, after Sula."
"The men you caught, what "
The cold stone face and hard eyes the old farmer saw on the Amazon answered his question before he could finish asking it.
"Lila," the Scout whispered, "is she is "
"Shes alive," Herodotus said forcefully. "And shes going to stay that way. You have to believe that so shell believe it. She feeds off your confidence and courage. She finds her strength in you and Philip. Be strong for her now, Keola. Make her believe."
Keola took a deep breath and let it out as she straightened her backbone and put her weary shoulders back. She looked into the old farmers eyes as she touched his hand on her cheek. He nodded.
"Go on," he whispered.
The Scout entered the hut. The front room was dark. She could dimly make out the healer lying on some blankets on the floor against the far wall, lightly snoring. She could also hear the sound of a baby crankily fussing. She knew the sound of Darias hungry cry instantly, the way every mother knows the sound of her child. She hurried through the room to the bedroom door and pushed it open. Philip looked up from where he was sitting on the floor, beside the low slung bed, gently stroking Lilas long black hair as she lay on her stomach, covered with a sheet. She did not react to the door opening.
"Shes only asleep," Philip said quickly, reading the look on Keolas face.
He got up and the two friends fell into each others arms and held each other tight for a long time. Finally Keola pulled back and looked at Philip, eyes glistening.
"They needed me and I wasnt there. I "
"Stop." Philip commanded, face stern. "Just stop." He hugged the Scout again, then stepped back. "Did you find Sula?"
Keola shook her head. "Two of the bastards have her. Theyre headed to Athens. We dealt with the rest. The Queen and Warleader are after them. We can only wait, and hope."
Daria let out an especially unhappy squeal of displeasure as Hecuba, who was sitting in a chair on the other side of the bed, tried to get her to take some cows milk from a small pig bladder.
"Ive spoiled her too much," Keola said quietly as she went around to her daughter. "Only mom will do."
Hecuba rose and handed Daria to her mother, as she looked at her with a soft, worried expression.
"Im all right," the Scout reassured. "It looks worse than it is."
Hecuba stroked the Amazons cheek, then hurried from the room. Keola collapsed into the empty chair and exposed a breast. Daria was quickly nursing, quiet and content. Philip watched for a moment, then sat back down by the bed, slowly rubbing Lilas arm where it showed from under the sheet, his eyes concentrated on her pale, placid face, counting every breath she took. The Scout reached down and placed her hand on the sleeping young womans head. It helped her aching heart just to touch her again. Hecuba soon reappeared with a large clay bowl of water and several cloths over her shoulder. She began washing the Scouts face and body, carefully cleaning the scabbing wounds. Keola stared straight ahead, motionless, and one thought began to crowd out all the others, as her brown eyes grew hard. Murise.
It was noon, the sun high and blistering in a cloudless, deep blue Mediterranean sky. The mates entered Athens on foot, through the great Acharnian gate, ten-foot high marble images of Athena standing on either side of the broad entrance, watching benignly over the comings and goings of carts, horses, workman, merchants, cattle, sheep, shepherds and peasants. Gabrielles horse had stopped ten leagues short of the city, refusing to take another step, too exhausted to move. Riding double, the other mount collapsed seven leagues later, and was left by the side of the road, covered in lather and panting painfully for air. The narrow streets Xena and Gabrielle jogged down were mostly empty, everyone driven indoors by the midday heat. The few people out stared quizzically as the tall warrior woman, and her short companion, both dripping sweat, trotted past. What fools would be out running in this heat they asked each other and rolled their eyes.
The lane of small shops, restaurants and taverns finally opened into the large square at the bottom of the Acropolis, the steep sided hill in the center of the city, where the great Parthenon, the magnificent temple to Athena, Pericles greatest achievement, or greatest folly, depending on who you asked, was nearing completion. The hill was surrounded by a high wall, the inner bastion, the last line of defense if Athens great outer walls were ever breached. Other buildings, almost as beautiful as the Temple, dotted the hill. Government buildings, the treasury, the granary that contained a years supply of grain in case of siege, a dozen grand villas, home to Athens richest, most powerful families. Near the top of the hill, close to the Temple, was Pericles villa, a magnificent marble rectangle that enclosed his private offices and library and an inner courtyard with a fountain and some of the greatest sculptures and mosaics ever produced by Greek artists. The leading men of Greece, and the known world, often came to his home simply to stroll the grounds and soak in the beauty of the human imagination. And some came to secretly stew in the juices of envy and hate, of a man whose accomplishments, and culture, would always make them small men by comparison.
Xena stopped and grabbed Gabrielles arm.
"Im going to Piraeus to search the ships docked in the harbor. Maybe were in time to stop them from leaving Athens" she said. "You see Pericles, perhaps he knows something about all this. Ask him for any help he can give us."
The Bard nodded and the mates parted, Xena headed toward the harbor of Piraeus, connected to Athens by a wide paved roadway with forty foot high walls on either side that ran two leagues from the citys outer wall to the little harbor town, where the products of the whole world passed through the great warehouses that made up most of the village. Gabrielle raced across the square, past a hundred little peddlers kiosks, the owners napping in the shade under their tables, tables piled high with fresh produce, trinkets, pottery and household supplies. The gate through the Acropolis wall was guarded by two warriors with round hopolite shields and tall pikes at their sides, but they made no effort to stop the her. Times were peaceful and Athens was a democracy, where everyone was admitted to the centers of power, even the humblest of citizens.
She ran up the steep road past panting pedestrians of every class in Athens, who all wondered at her stamina, and her sanity. A well-worn flagstone walk led from the road to the chest high, whitewashed wooden wall that enclosed the First Citizens home. A guard stood on either side of the trellised, vine covered entrance and a officious young man in a white toga, trimmed in gold, sat behind a wooden table just outside the gate, a dozen scrolls spread out before him. Tintius fanned himself with the loose sleeve of his garment, and seemed in a vexed humor at being left out in the noon day sun with such an obnoxious assignment, a glorified gatekeeper for the great man. The son of a rich, well-connected grain merchant, with dreams of political power and influence of his own one day, ought to be engaged in more important work than this.
Gabrielle stopped in front of his table.
"I need to see the First Citizen immediately," she said urgently, not the slightest hint of breathlessness in her voice despite the water dripping from her nose and down her neck.
"Yes, well," the young man answered, his expression somewhere between bored and suspicious as he sized up the sweaty, dust covered, but still obviously attractive, peasant woman before him, "we would all like to see the First Citizen today, me as much as anyone, but Im afraid his time is quite taken up for," he looked over some of the scrolls in front of him, "the next several days. I can put you on his list of appointments in, lets see, four days, if you like. You know our First Citizen refuses no one an audience."
"No," the Amazon Queen said forcefully, green eyes focused and demanding, "I need to see him right now. Tell him the Queen of the Amazon Nation requests an immediate audience."
Tintius eyes narrowed. Of course youre the Queen of the Amazons, and Im Poseidon, God of the Sea. "Well, young lady, er, Your Majesty," he said, trying to be polite, although he did not want to be, "the First Citizen is extremely busy today and would have me thrown out in the street if I were to disturb him. He insists on things being done in an orderly fashion. Now, if you dont want to make an appointment, perhaps you should go on about your business."
Color rose in the Bards cheeks and she put a hand on the table and leaned closer to the young grain merchants son. The man swallowed, face serious. This little peasant woman had a look about her that was suddenly, shockingly, dangerous, as if she could call on more than just words to back her demands. The guards came alert and one of them let his hand fall to the hilt of his sword.
"Look," she said, voice low, "I need to speak to my friend Pericles and " behind Tintius the Bard saw a familiar face walk across the open portico of the Villa and disappear behind an ornately carved column.
"Antoninus!" she shouted, jumping in the air and waving her arm. "Antoninus!!"
The guards stepped forward, ready to pounce on this obviously disturbed woman. A tall, thin, middle aged man, with curly black hair and a sallow, deeply lined face, a bundle of scrolls under his arm, backed up from behind the column and squinted toward the entrance, trying to identify who was calling his name so insistently.
"Antoninus!!" The Bard shouted again, waving. "Its Gabrielle!"
As the guards crowded on either side of her, ready to grab an arm, Antoninus hurried down the white marble steps and crossed the short distance to the gate.
"Queen Gabrielle" the man said in surprise when his short sighted eyes were finally close enough to recognize the woman waving at him. "I didnt know you were in the city. Were you scheduled to meet with the First Citizen today?"
The guards backed away as Pericles most trusted, and overworked, aid approached.
"Antoninus," Gabrielle said in relief, "I must see Pericles immediately. Something terrible has happened to my family and I must see him."
"Well, oh, oh my," the man stammered, "I know the First Citizen will want to see you then. I know how fond of you he is. Come with me and Ill see what I can do."
The Bard hurried around the table and followed Antoninus into the villa at a quick walk. Tintius looked at the guards for a moment, stunned, then finally shrugged a what do you expect, no one tells me anything shrug and went back to fanning himself with his sleeve.
The man and woman walked along a polished blue marble floor, the walls on either side of the hallway decorated with black and white mosaics of Gods and men and legendary beasts of mythology. At the end of the hall they turned left into a large ante-room. A mosaic of Athena and Poseidon, competing for the honor of being patron of Athens, covered the floor. Ornate marble benches lined the walls, magnificent statues filling the spaces between benches. And occupying every inch of space on the benches, waiting in various stages of impatience, were supplicants. In a time before clocks, they appeared at the front entrance at dawn, the days appointments, rushing in as soon as the gates were opened by the guards, to find a place on a bench till their turn was called by the First Citizens secretary, to enter his private office and have their precious few moments to plead their case, or remind the great man of a favor done and owed, or ask for some patronage that only he could give, or just complain about the state of things, for any citizen of Athens had a claim on the First Citizens ear, and if enough citizens decided the First Citizen was not receptive to their will, a new First Citizen would be hearing their complaints. And well the First Citizen knew it, for his own father had once been exiled for displeasing the citizens too much, a fact never far from his consciousness. As Gabrielle walked across the room, a hundred curious eyes followed her, eyes that grew unfriendly and envious as Antoninus led her directly to Pericles outer office. Whispers hissed around the room asking why this dusty, sweat stained peasant woman, in the plain cotton blouse and skirt of a rustic, was being escorted by the First Citizens personal aid. What magic did she possess that merited such attention.
Antoninus stopped at the curtain across the entrance of the office.
"If youll wait here, Queen Gabrielle," he said quietly, "Ill see if the First Citizen can receive you."
"Thank you, Antoninus," the Bard replied with gratitude.
The man disappeared through the curtain.
Gabrielle stood back from the entrance, folded her hands in front of her, and waited. A candlemark burned slowly past. She began to pace, head down, nerves on razors edge, as another candlemark burned away. The urge to burst into Pericles office, consequences be damned, built overpoweringly. She was about to give in to it, when a hand was placed on her shoulder.
"Gabrielle?" a surprised voice asked.
The Bard looked up into Aspasias gray, intelligent eyes and handsome, high boned features. The middle aged woman was dressed and coifed as always, in elegant, understated, perfection. Her auburn hair was wrapped in a bun and highlighted with a delicate diamond tiara, an exquisite gold necklace hung around her scented neck, a simple but perfectly tailored white silk dress trimmed in gold hugged her firm, sensuous figure.
"Oh Aspasia," the Bard gasped as she impulsively gave the woman a hug, as if her savior had just arrived, "Artimis has sent you."
"Gabrielle, whats the matter, whats happened?" Aspasia asked, concern in her face as she pulled back to look at the Bard.
"My daughters been kidnapped," Gabrielle blurted, "Xena and I followed the bastards who took her here to Athens. Were afraid theyre trying to escape by ship. I need to see Pericles right away. Antoninus said he would get me in to him, but Im still waiting. Aspasia," the Bards eyes were desperate, "I need to see him."
Aspasia took in a shocked breath. Then contempt flashed across her face.
"That spineless buffoon," she said with an angry shake of her head, "hes standing at the doorway to Pericles office, afraid to interrupt him. Hell stand there all day rather than risk an annoyed look from the First Citizen. He wouldnt say a word if the house were burning down."
She grabbed Gabrielles hand and pulled her through the curtain into the outer office. At a large, finely crafted oak desk sat Servius, Pericles personal secretary, intently studying a scroll, and at the doorway to the inner office, nervously peeking through the curtain across it, stood Antoninus.
"Oh," he squeaked as he spotted the two women, "I was , hes almost "
"Out of the way, buffoon," Aspasia snarled through tight lips as she pushed the man aside.
Pericles looked up, startled, as Aspasia and Gabrielle swept into his large office. He was sitting behind a huge marble topped desk covered with scrolls. A large, square window behind him gave a breathtaking view of the inner courtyard, with its high, round, flowing fountain in the center, and great works of art and sculpture, personally selected by he and Aspasia, that filled the spaces between the beautifully fluted Doric columns that lined the edge, supporting the roof. The floor of the courtyard was covered with a colorful shell and tile mosaic mural of the history of Athens. The four Persian merchants sitting on the long bench in front of Pericles desk also looked up with surprise, and ill-concealed annoyance, at this interruption, just as they were about to seal the deal that would make them rich, or more precisely, richer, as the exclusive suppliers of expensive cedar from Lebanon to Athens and all Greece.
"Queen Gabrielle," the First Citizen said as he rose, "what an unexpected and pleasant surprise."
The merchants rose as well, and bowed politely, though not with a good grace.
"First Citizen," Aspasia said forcefully, "the Queen of the Amazon Nation must speak with you immediately. Our friends need is most urgent." She looked at the merchants and nodded slightly. "Im sure these worthy gentlemen would excuse us."
The men looked at each other very unhappily, but then gave in to the inevitable. No one who wanted the First Citizens friendship would be foolish enough to make an enemy of Aspasia, his closest, most trusted, and most beloved, friend. They bowed and left.
Pericles came around his desk and took Gabrielles hand and kissed it. He was of middle height, with a receding hairline that exposed a large forehead. His brown beard was cut close, and sprinkled with gray, and a bulbous nose erupted from the center of his face. His complexion was pasty, he spent entirely too much time closeted in his office, out of the sun, something Aspasia chided him about constantly, and there was a thickness around his middle that only accented his skinny arms and bird legs. A handsome man he was not. But under thick, graying eyebrows sparkled two clear blue eyes that blazed with an intimidating intelligence. Eyes that seemed to see into the heart of every problem, and person. Eyes that could crackle with lightning when angry, but also reflect the tenderest feelings of love and friendship. When people met the First Citizen, they only remembered the eyes.
Pericles motioned to the empty bench and helped the Bard sit, then returned to his own chair as Aspasia sat next to Gabrielle.
"Tell me, Gabrielle," he said, intense eyes focused completely on the Amazon Queen, "whats happened?"
Quickly the Bard described all the events of the last day, from walking out on the porch of her childhood home when she heard her mates shout, until her arrival in Athens. The First Citizens brow furrowed with momentary surprise when she mentioned that Sula was black like her abductors. As she finished Pericles had already pulled a blank parchment in front of him and was furiously scratching on it with an eagles feather pen.
"Servius!" the First Citizen roared.
The Secretary instantly appeared. Pericles blew lightly on the parchment to dry the ink, then handed it to Servius.
"Take this to the Harbor Master personally, and immediately," he said. "The port is closed. No ship is to leave the harbor till I rescind this order."
"Sir?" the man said, incredulous.
"If the Harbor Master asks, tell him Ive been informed someone is trying to ship out a cargo of diseased sheep to Egypt. I wont tolerate our reputation in the world market being ruined by one unscrupulous trader. The port is closed till we get to the bottom of this."
"But, uh, sir," Servius stammered, still in shock, "the other merchants and ship owners will be furious with this. The yearly elections are only a few weeks away. We can hardly afford to "
The mans mouth suddenly closed as the First Citizen froze him with an imperious stare. He bowed and left.
"The buffoon is outside," Aspasia said with a nod of her head toward the door.
"Will you stop calling him that," Pericles replied exasperatedly, "I need him. Hes the only man in this city who will do what I ask without giving me an argument. Antoninus," he called, "get in here."
The aid quickly entered and bowed.
"Find Mithrades," the First Citizen instructed, "tell him I want to see him at once. Then "Pericles paused and rubbed his chin absently for a moment, deep in thought, "then go to the Nubian Ambassadors residence and inform Ambassador Sunawesii that I wish to see him. Ask him to wait in the ante-room till I am ready to receive him. Assure him that it is a matter of grave importance."
The aid bowed and left without a word.
Pericles glanced at Aspasia. "See," he said with a slight smile, "wasnt that refreshing."
Mithrades, commander of the permanent garrison, entered a moment later. He, and his few thousand warriors, were the only full time, professional soldiers in Athens. And most of the time they functioned as a police force, rather than as warriors. The Athenian army was a citizen militia, every able bodied man trained and equipped to stand in the phalanx in time of war, but when there was no war, Athens had no army.
"My friend," Pericles said as the tall, muscular warrior entered, gold painted helm under his arm, "you know Xena, the Lion of Amphipolis, dont you?"
"Yes," the commander replied, "Ive seen her several times when she was here visiting you. You dont forget the Lion."
"Excellent," Pericles said. "I want you to take a dozen warriors and go to the harbor immediately. Youre to find the Lion and give her my respects and place yourself and your warriors at her disposal. Aid her in any way you can. Go now, shell explain the situation when you find her."
Mithrades did not try to hide his mystification, but he bowed and with a dignified "sir" turned on his heel and left.
Pericles took a deep breath and blew it out. Then his eyes focused on Gabrielle.
"I think thats all we can do for now," he said quietly.
"Thank you, Pericles," Gabrielle said, a slight tremor in her voice, green eyes shining, "thank you."
The First Citizen shook his head and shrugged that it was nothing.
"You sent for the Nubian Ambassador, do you know something about this?" the Bard asked.
Pericles nodded gravely.
"Yes, I believe I do," he replied. "But lets wait until we find out whats happened at the harbor, and Xena is here to join us. Then Ill tell you both what I know."
Pericles leaned across his desk, eyes soft with concern for a favorite friend. "You look exhausted, Gabrielle. How are you?"
The Bard took some slow deep breaths. For the first time in twenty four terrible hours she let herself feel something besides overwhelming desperation. Like a boulder landing on her soul, she suddenly felt crushed by everything, the earth engulfing her as the weight on her shoulders forced her down. Her head dropped as she put her hands over her face.
"Sweetheart?" Aspasia whispered as she gently massaged Gabrielles neck. "Its going to be all right. I know it is."
"No, its not," Gabrielle answered slowly, her voice trembling as she took her hands away. "This is more Its more than " The Bard swallowed as a thin, clear line of mucus descended from a nostril, water clouding her vision, eyes reddening. "Ive never seen Xena like this. Shes absolutely beside herself with rage and hatred. Hatred of the people whove done this, and and hatred of herself."
"Herself?" Pericles said, face sad and questioning.
"You have to to understand the Lion." Gabrielle said as she wiped her running nose with the back of her hand. "Lyceus, Marcus, Solon, all the people she has truly loved, dead. And she blames herself for all of them. In her heart of hearts, she believes her love is a curse. A curse that brings only suffering and death." The Bard paused to rub her bloodshot eyes, water trickling down her cheeks. "I know its not rational, but how often does reason show its light in the darkest places of our souls. It it took years for Xena to truly give herself to me. She was so frightened her love would destroy me. But these last years, since we married, shes found a real sense of confidence, of peace. She let herself believe that she could have a life, a family, a hopeful future. She wrapped her heart around Sula, gave her all her love, without reservation. Now " Gabrielle turned her head away from her friends and her body began to shake as tears burst from her eyes, "now this. My beloved she she believes in her heart that our daughter is suffering because she loves her. She hates herself for that" The Bard put her hand on her forehead to try to steady herself, before she was drowned in emotions that were overwhelming her exhausted body. "Im afraid if Sulas dead Im Im going to lose both of them. I dont think Xena can bear it. I I dont know what shell do."
Aspasia put both arms around Gabrielle and held her trembling body tight. Pericles leaned back in his chair, face solemn, chin resting on his intertwined fingers, his usual pose when he was deep in concentration on some problem.
"Gabrielle," Aspasia whispered soothingly in the Bards ear, "come with me. A cool bath, fresh clothes, something to eat, it will make things better. Pericles will inform us the moment Xena arrives."
The First Citizen nodded that he would.
The Bard closed her eyes and took a moment to regain her composure. "Yes," she finally said. Pericles stood as the two women rose and Aspasia led the Bard out, her arm around the smaller womans shoulders.
He took his seat and resumed his habitual posture, lost in thought.
It was late afternoon, the heat of midday receding, the shadows long on the ground, as Xena strode through the First Citizens ante-room. The buzz of voices stopped as all eyes turned to the tall, athletic, graceful, ravenhaired woman with the chakram bouncing on her hip and the long blade on her back. Even without her armor, dressed only in dusty leathers and boots, the Lions commanding presence, all rippling power, and cold, penetrating blue eyes, dominated the room. Xena was aware of none of it, long past noticing the effect she had on people. For her it was simply the normal condition of life. She would have noticed more if people had ignored her. As she approached the entrance to the outer office she spotted something out of the corner of her eye. Sitting alone on a bench against the wall, next to an exquisite statue of Aphrodite, watching her with narrow, concentrated eyes, was a man, a black man, with white sprinkled through his black, kinky, carefully trimmed hair and beard. Simple, elegant gold earrings dangled from his ears, and a gold chain hung around his neck. His finely woven cotton toga was sky blue, and fitted perfectly around his sturdy body. When she glanced at him she could see his jaw muscles tighten as he gazed back unblinking. The Lions own muscles tightened, and her eyes flashed, as adrenaline surged in her suddenly tense body. For a moment the urge to walk over, seize the man by the throat and slam his head against the marble wall till he said what she wanted to hear, or his skull split open like a cracked egg, was overwhelming. But the cool, detached, calculating warlord side of her brain overruled the lion part of her soul, that wanted only to eviscerate this enemy. Pericles has him here for a reason. Ill see what he has to say before I take things in my own hands. Without betraying the slightest emotion, she walked past the man and entered the outer office.
Servius jumped to his feet behind his desk.
"Great Lion," he said quickly, with a slight bow, "the First Citizen is expecting you. Hes meeting with some people but Ill announce you immediately."
The Secretary disappeared into his masters office, then quickly reappeared.
"The First Citizen will see you now," he said, motioning to the entrance with his hand. "If you will excuse me, Im to inform Queen Gabrielle and Aspasia that you are here." He departed with a bow.
Xena entered as three suddenly dismissed merchants were herded out the door, with a promise to have their complaints about rowdy boys from a neighboring gymnasium throwing rocks at their patrons addressed immediately by the city inspector. The looks of righteous outrage on their faces disappeared as they edged past the Lion, replaced by a nervous awe.
"Xena?" Pericles asked as he extended his arm.
The Lion took it with a slight shake of her head.
The First Citizen sighed, sincere sympathy on his face as he felt the rock hard tension in Xenas grip on his forearm.
"Gabrielle is coming," he said quietly as he motioned his guest to sit. "Can I get you something to eat or drink. Even you must be exhausted by now."
"No, Im not hungry." Xena said as she sat. Pericles went around to his chair behind the great desk.
"Thank you for the help you sent."
Pericles acknowledged the thanks with a modest, dismissive shrug. He watched his friend closely as a long silence descended, while they waited for Aspasia and the Amazon Queen to join them. The Lions face was an iron mask, perfectly controlled and emotionless as she sat with her hands carefully folded in front of her, her posture erect and perfect. But the First Citizen could see that the blue eyes were distant and unfocused, staring past his shoulder into the shadows that lengthened through the courtyard behind him. Finally a small sigh escaped Xenas lips.
"Have you ever been to Tartarus, Pericles?" she murmured, her words barely audible.
The First Citizen showed no surprise at the question. His head shook slightly. "No," he whispered.
"I have," Xena said slowly, her jaw muscles tightening till Pericles could see them rigid in her cheeks, her cold blue eyes focused on some far distant image, "this is worse."
Gabrielle burst into the room, closely followed by Aspasia. She was clean and fresh, the scent of lilac from the bathwater surrounding her, her long redblonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, held by a green ribbon, an emerald green chamois, hastily shortened and fitted by Aspasias personal seamstress as the Bard bathed, draped lightly over her lithe form. Pericles and Xena rose simultaneously as the two women approached. The Lion swallowed painfully as she saw the crushing disappointment in her mates emerald eyes, although the Bard tried with all her will to keep the agony that filled her soul out of her face. The Lion was suffering enough. Gabrielle did not want her beloved to have to carry her own heart break as well. Wordlessly she went to her mate and wrapped her in a tight embrace. Aspasia quietly went to the short marble bench placed against the wall beside Pericles desk, flanked by two chest high clay vases filled with freshly cut sunflowers, her not so subtle reminder of what the First Citizen lacked in his life. After a moment the mates pulled apart and Xena took Gabrielles hand tightly in hers and they took a seat before Pericles desk, as he resumed his.
"We waited until you were here, Gabrielle," Pericles said. His gaze shifted to Xena. "What have you found out?"
Xena placed the Bards hand in her lap and put her other hand over it, gently caressing the fingers.
"As soon as I arrived in Piraeus, I went to the Habor Masters office," she began, voice steady and controlled. "I asked him if any ships had left the harbor with the morning tide, especially any that had arrived from Africa. The first words out of his mouth were, I knew there was something suspicious about all this. He said a regular merchant galley from Nubia, hes known the Shipmaster for years, arrived eight days ago and unloaded its usual cargo of ivory and hides and loaded its normal cargo of wool and olive oil and wine. But then, instead of shipping out for home, it stayed at its berth on the dock, day after day, the Shipmaster coming into his office every morning to pay the days docking fee, in gold coin no less, without explanation. He said he was getting ready to throw the ship out of port, the crew getting to be more trouble than they were worth, drinking, gambling, fighting in the taverns, with nothing else to do, when this morning, shortly after dawn, the Shipmaster comes pounding on his door, insisting that he come immediately and unlock the berthing chain."
Xena paused and took a breath, and impulsively pulled Gabrielles hand to her mouth and kissed it and pressed it against her cheek for a moment. The Bard rubbed her mates arm, eyes dark and full of anxiety as she tried to read the Lions every expression.
"The Harbor Master said hed never seen anything like it," Xena continued. "As he unlocked the chain the crew was running to the ship from every direction, some of them still pulling on clothes as they came stumbling out of the brothels. Two of them had to jump for their lives as the galley pulled away from the dock. And once out in the harbor, instead of waiting for the morning tide to carry them out, they put out oars and rowed into the channel to hoist sail. He said hed never seen a merchantman leave in such a hurry, like Medusa herself was chasing them."
Xena paused and a bitter sigh escaped her lips.
"I I didnt want to believe it," she said with a slight shake of her head. "I wasnt ready to accept it, that I was too late. I started questioning everyone on the dock about what they had seen that morning. Then Mithrades and his men found me. I explained what I was looking for, and they scattered through the taverns and brothels, talking to everyone. It wasnt long before a warrior came out of a tavern dragging a sailor by the arm. The man said he was sitting on the dock at first light, trying to get through a hangover, when two Africans, warriors he guessed from the weapons they had, walked quickly past him and jumped onto a ship. He remembered them because one of them was carrying a cheap carpet, one you could buy at any local shop for a few dinars, in his arms instead of over his shoulder, the way anyone else would. It just looked funny he said. I asked if the warrior carried the carpet like you would a child. He nodded and said, exactly like that."
Gabrielle turned her head and let out a trembling breath. She wiped the corner of her eye with one hand while squeezing Xenas hand with the other. The Lion caressed her forearm soothingly.
"You have a man waiting outside," Xena said finally, looking at Pericles, an unpleasant edge to her voice.
"Yes," Pericles nodded. "His name is Sunawessii Sinii. He is the Ambassador from Nubia."
The First Citizen leaned back in his chair, placed his chin on his intertwined fingers, and regarded his friends with intense blue eyes.
"Your daughters full name is Sulawesii Shaka. She is a full blooded Princess of Nubia. A granddaughter of Shaka the IV. Shaka the Leopard he was called, for his power and physical grace, and also I hear, because he had birthmarks on his cheek and neck, like the spots of a leopard. Do you know his history?"
"Some," Xena nodded.
"No," the Bard said, eyes questioning.
"Shaka had a long and glorious reign, Gabrielle," Pericles began. "When he came to the throne as a young man Nubia was falling apart, on the verge of civil war. The country is made up of three main tribes, all very proud, and very jealous of each other. Under his grandfather and father, both weak, corrupt men, the Monarchy had fallen into disrepute as a symbol of unity, and as a focus of power. The Crown was very unsteady when it was placed on his head. But Shaka was a man forged from the hardest metal. Through clever politics, and brute force, he pulled Nubia together again. He married a Princess of the largest tribe, and filled the Royal offices with members of her family and tribe, insuring their loyalty. He then bribed or terrorized the other tribes into line. But he was more than a tyrant. He was a builder, and organizer, and conqueror. He turned Nubia into a power on the north coast of Africa. He gained control of many of the caravan routes into the interior, and became a major trading partner of Athens. He built his army into something more than a tribal horde. Nubia has become a genuine rival, and threat, to Egypt. When he died four years ago, he left behind a strong state, and a family disaster."
Pericles looked at Xena, eyes penetrating and serious.
"Poor Sulas suffering now is a product of that disaster," he said pointedly.
The Lion looked back unblinking, her warlord mask revealing nothing of her thoughts or emotions.
"King Shaka had three sons," Pericles continued. "Shakesi, Zunni, and young Farsisi, fifteen years younger than his brothers, the son of Shakas second wife, after his first Queen died. Shakesi was the eldest, the heir to Shakas throne. He was also a lazy dilettante, more interested in wine, women and song than learning to rule the Empire his father was creating. He was married to another Princess of his mothers tribe, to keep them loyal when he became King, although he was hardly loyal to her. Ive been told Shakesi could man his own galley with the illegitimate children he fathered with the women of the court."
"Zunni was everything his brother was not, a true product of fathers loins, tall, powerful, charismatic. In his youth a warrior of awesome skill and reputation, with age the leader of Nubias army, a general to be feared, his fathers strong right arm. And a man of considerable intellect as well. He speaks four languages, including Greek and Latin. He was married to a Princess of another of Nubias tribes, to bind them closer to the crown, and to placate their jealousy of his mothers tribe."
The First Citizen paused and took a breath.
"My ambassador to Nubia at the time of Shakas death told me there were many signs that Zunni had no intention of submitting to his brother when Shaka was gone. His contempt for Shakesi was such that he refused to be in the same room with him. And he let it be known that if Shakesi ever dared visit the army when it was on campaign, he would have him tied and gagged and shipped back to Napata, the chief port and capital of Nubia, in the back of a wagon drawn by jackasses. When King Shaka was struck with his final illness, he had a decision to make. Which of his two sons would he chose as the new King, by executing the other. For it was obvious there could be no compromise between them. But the great man, at the end of his life, could not make the hardest decision of all, the one that would insure stability and peace for the nation he had built. He did nothing, and died quietly in his sleep. Within candlemarks of the Kings death Zunni took action. Warriors loyal to him personally, members of his wifes tribe, invaded the Royal Palace through a gate opened by a traitor to Shakesi. There was a massacre. Shakesi, his wife, their six children, all the mistresses and illegitimate children that could be found, all died. The halls of the Palace ran red with blood. The story is that Zunni killed his brother himself. And placed his fathers crown on his head with his own hands, hands still dripping with blood, proclaiming himself Shaka the V while his bloodstained warriors knelt at his feet. The story is probably not true, but people believe it is, and that makes it true."
Pericles shifted in his chair and glanced at Aspasia sadly, then back at the mates.
"Which brings us to Sulawesii. Her father, as Im sure youve guessed, was Farsisi, the youngest son, half brother to Shakesi and Zunni. The unfortunate young man grew up ignored and irrelevant. And considering the dangerous tension that was constantly building in the family, he did his best to be the invisible brother, a threat to no one. Shaka married him to Princess Warissii of the smallest of the three tribes and thought no more of him. Zunni, however, did think of him. Farsisi and Warissii were supposed to die that night as well. A man who takes a throne not rightfully his cant leave any rivals that might have a legitimate claim to it. But an old servant of King Shaka took pity on an innocent man and his wife, and spirited them by a secret passage out of the Palace and helped them find a ship out of Napata."
" Warissii was great with their first child when they arrived here in Athens. They came immediately to the Nubian Ambassadors residence. Thats where Aspasia and I first laid eyes on them, the very night of their arrival. She and I were dining with Ambassador Selii Shaka and his wife Surissii. Selii was a cousin to King Shaka, and had been one of the few people to take an interest in poor Farisisi as he was growing up, in many ways becoming his father, till he was sent here to Athens as Ambassador by the King."
Pericles paused a moment, his eyes vacant as he let pleasant memories flow through his brain.
"Selii was as fine a man as Ive met in my life. Intelligent, educated, cultured, wise, a man of the deepest emotions and loyalties. Also fearless and proud. He was as good a friend as Ive ever had," he looked at Aspasia with gentle eyes, "save one."
"Although the sensible thing to do would have been to turn the fugitives away, considering the situation," Pericles continued, "Selii took them in without hesitation. We all agreed on the spot that their presence in Athens would be kept strictly secret. They were settled into some empty servants quarters in the back of the residence, and Aspasia quietly sent over extra furniture and household supplies to make them comfortable. Little Sula was born a week later, a healthy, happy baby, the image of her beautiful mother." The First Citizen smiled with the memory. "Farsisi and Warissii were an unusual Royal couple, brought together by politics, they truly were lovers, happy only when they were with each other. Farssisi was a scholar, he hoped to write the history of his country, and his turbulent family, one day. His greatest regret about fleeing the Palace was leaving behind all the scrolls he had collected to write his history. Warissii was grace and beauty itself. Tall, slender, long elegant neck, high cheekbones, with a friendly, happy, radiant smile that made you smile every time you saw it. And she was as intelligent and well spoken as her husband. Aspasia and I spent many pleasant evenings at Seliis talking the night away about the affairs of the world, while Sula played in her mothers lap." Pericles sighed. "Then the summer of the bloody flux came, only eight months after they arrived. Im sure you remember it."
Xena and Gabrielle nodded.
"Five thousand people were taken here in Athens. Warissii and Farsisi died within days of each other. Selii and I had to take the bodies out secretly at night to be buried. It was a hard thing to see those two leave us. I suggested to Selii myself that he take Sula to the Amazon Nation. I knew she would have a chance at a happy, honorable life there. And an anonymous one. She would be alive and safe and free. Her parents greatest wish for her. I never dreamed for an instant that she would one day be the daughter of the Lion of Amphipolis and the Amazon Queen. Or that her sanctuary in the Amazon Valley would somehow be compromised. I cant believe that Selii would betray her. He was recalled a year ago, and this new Ambassador sent. I begged him to stay. I could have found a hundred useful jobs for a man of his character and intelligence. But he said if he stayed members of his family would most certainly suffer. And besides, for good or ill, Nubia was his home, he could never abandon it. It was a sad day when he and Surissii boarded ship and left."
"We know who betrayed Sula," Xena growled low her throat. "It wasnt your friend."
Gabrielle leaned anxiously forward.
"Why ,Pericles?" she asked. "Why after all these years has Zunni bothered to take our little girl? Is he just finishing the job he started that night?"
"Ive been thinking about that," the First Citizen said. "If he wanted Sula dead, those warriors would have cut her throat in Potadia, and been done with it."
The Bard let out a painful sigh to hear her worst fear spoken out loud.
"He wants her home alive," Pericles continued. "My guess is he wants to use her as a pawn in keeping her mothers tribe loyal to him. She represents their possible claim on the throne one day when he is gone. All the reports I get from my Ambassador in Nubia, my cousin by the way," Pericles said with a slight smile, "say that the tension between the tribes is very high now. Zunni has replaced all the important officials in his government with people from his wifes tribe. His mothers tribe is feeling very ill used, and growing bolder about making their complaints known. Sulas tribe is now the balance of power. If he has her he has a chance of keeping them loyal." He paused and considered for a moment, deep in concentration. "Of course Sula could also be like a cure that is worse than the disease. She could quickly become a rallying point for the opposition. A legitimate heir to the throne not tainted by Zunnis fratricide. And young enough to be controlled by whoever has her. If that happens I think we can take it for granted he will have no conscious about having her quietly executed."
Pericles sighed, his face sad.
"Its hard to see how anything good can come of this for Sula. Zunni will keep her very tightly under his control. The sword of Damacles will hang by a thin thread over her neck every day of her life, likely to snap at the slightest change of fortune in the politics of the court. Shell never be allowed to draw a free breath, or have the slightest say in her fate, if she lives."
The First Citizen looked at Xena. The Lion nodded her agreement with his analysis of the situation. Gabrielle lay her head against her mates shoulder.
"We have to have our daughter back," she said, voice thick. "What can we do?"
"Ive been thinking about that too." Pericles said. "Thats why Ive had the Ambassador wait on us. I think its time we had a talk with him."
"Pericles," Xena said, eyes cold crystals of blue ice, voice a low rumble, "fair warning. Ill have my daughter back alive, or the man responsible for her death dead. That is not subject to negotiation."
The First Citizen nodded gravely. The Lion and the Bard went over and joined Aspasia on her bench against the wall.
"Servius, have the Ambassador join us," Pericles called.
In a moment Sunawessii entered. He glanced uncertainly at the women on the bench on the far side of the room. Especially at the imposing, raven haired warrior that met his gaze with a chilling blue glare. He shifted his attention to the First Citizen and tried to ignore them. Pericles motioned him to sit. He took his place on the bench in front of the great desk.
"Ambassador, thank you for coming," Pericles said with a nod.
"I am at your service, First Citizen," the Nubian replied with only the slightest accent in his Greek.
Pericles put his chin on his intertwined fingers, as was his habit.
"Ive asked you here, Ambassador," he said, "because a most unfortunate incident has occurred. An incident that could have " he paused to chose his words carefully, "have very unforeseen consequences for Nubia and for your King."
Sunawessii said nothing, face expressionless.
"I refer, Ambassador," Pericles said, carefully studying the Ambassador, "to the kidnapping of a child in the village of Potadia yesterday. A black girl named Sulawessii. Sulawessii Shaka to be precise. She is the daughter of Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazon Nation and the Nations Warleader, the Great Lion Xena. Two of the kidnappers were black as well. Warriors who were traced by Sulawessiis parents to a ship that left early this morning, a Nubian merchantman that is presumably headed home at this very moment."
Sunawessii took a slow, well considered breath.
"That is certainly interesting information, First Citizen," he said. "But Im not sure how it affects the cordial relations that have always existed between Athens and Nubia."
Pericles eyes narrowed.
"The use of the port of Piraeus to transport the stolen child of one of Athens closest allies certainly affects the relations between our two nations, sir," he said evenly.
The Ambassador shifted nervously on the bench, then his face hardened.
"You identify this girl as Sulawessii Shaka," he said. "Are you suggesting that she is a member of our Great King Shaka the V family? I know nothing of this incident, First Citizen, but perhaps the two warriors you speak of were simply returning the girl to her family. Perhaps there was no kidnapping at all."
Pericles glanced at Xena. The Lions face was marble, but the eyes glowed with a cold flame. He understood the diplomatic jousting would have to come to a quick conclusion, before Xena did something they would all regret.
"I am suggesting, Ambassador," he said, "that Sulas parents want their daughter back. Nothing more. Reuniting a frightened child with the people who love her is something all people of good will would wish, is it not."
"Of course, First Citizen," Sunawessii nodded.
"Then Im sure we can count on your co-operation in getting little Sula back where she belongs," Pericles said.
"Well, First Citizen," the Ambassador replied cautiously, "as Ive said, I know nothing of this incident so Im not sure what "
"Sir," Pericles interrupted forcefully, "before you continue, I must tell you that one of the kidnappers was captured and interrogated. He said that the man who recruited and paid him to take part in this crime looked very much like you. I will be blunt with you, Ambassador. I am unconcerned with the whys and whos of this unfortunate episode. I simply want the girl returned as soon as possible, safe and unharmed."
Sunawessii sat on the edge of the bench, body rigid with suppressed anger and emotion. He took a slow, deep breath to calm himself.
"It is not every day I am accused of being a criminal, First Citizen," he said, anger in his words. "I still do not understand why this incident should be of any concern to Athens. A member of the Nubian Royal Family has been rescued from a land of strangers, who know nothing of her race or culture, and returned to her homeland. That is a cause for celebration, not accusations."
"Ambassador," Xena snapped, no longer able to contain herself, "Sula has had only one home in her life, the Amazon valley and the Amazon people. They are her race, and her culture. And she has two parents who have sworn their lives to love, protect and nurture her. Hired thugs came to our home and stole her from us." The Lion leaned toward Sunawessii, eyes blazing. He unconsciously leaned back. "Ill have my daughter back," she growled, "or Ill come to Napata and burn it to the ground. There wont be one blackened stone left on top of another. Ill sow the land with salt and turn it back to desert."
The Ambassador let out a shocked breath, but he was no coward.
"And how will you do all this?" he sneered. "Your thousand Amazons are no threat to us. The Lion roars but she has no teeth."
"I am the Destroyer of Nations, Nubian." Xena said, rage and hate flashing from her eyes, "Ill put up my banner in Alexandria and by spring Ill have twenty five thousand mercenaries ready to march. Cleopatra owes me. She has enough problems keeping the Romans out of Egypt. Shell be very happy to let me destroy Nubia for her."
The Ambassador jumped to his feet.
"I cant believe, First Citizen," he said, outraged, "that you would allow such threats to be made against Nubia! A nation youve had peaceful relations with for decades."
"If I heard any threats made, Ambassador, I would certainly object," Pericles replied evenly. "But my experience of the Lion is, she does what she says she will. And I think she is being unnecessarily modest. When the Great Lion makes it known she is raising an army to attack Nubia, every mercenary company in the Mediterranean world will flock to Alexandria to get their share of the loot. I would think forty five or fifty thousand would be closer to the truth. All of them eager to plunder your country from one end to the other."
The Ambassador seemed on the verge of storming out, but Pericles motioned gently with his hand that he should sit. Sunawessii hesitated a moment, considering, then swallowed his anger and sat. It would not due to insult the First Citizen. He knew the Lion only by reputation, but he had personal experience of the advantages of Pericles friendship, and the pain of his wrath.
"Ambassador," Pericles said soothingly, "we are reasonable men here I think. We both understand that sometimes things cost more than they are worth. Keeping Sula would cost Nubia a great deal. On the other hand, returning her could be a very profitable gesture for King Shaka. Weve discussed several times in the last months reducing the import taxes Nubian products are charged here in Athens. I believe I could have those taxes dropped entirely for a period of oh say five years. It would be worth at least fifty or sixty thousand dinars to King Shakas treasury. And such a goodwill gesture on his part would, of course, be looked on as a personal favor by me, and would be remembered in the future."
Pericles pulled a blank parchment in front of him and began writing. When he finished he poured wax onto the scroll from a small candle kept burning on his desk and stamped it with the seal of Athens that sat next to it. He rolled up the scroll and pushed it across the desk. After a moments hesitation the Ambassador took it.
"Thats my offer, in writing." Pericles said, "so there can be no misunderstanding. I would strongly urge that you take it home to Napata immediately and give it to King Shaka, along with a complete report of this meeting."
The Ambassador was a left a bit speechless at the rapidity with which everything was happening. "Well, uh," he stammered, "making arrangements for passage will take some time and "
"It so happens, Ambassador, that Athens newest trireme, built for the Vonitsa campaign, a campaign already won, thanks to the brilliant victory of Warleader Xena and the Amazon Nation at the Zama ridge," Pericles glanced at the Lion, in case Sunawessii missed the point" was launched last week and is about to leave on its shakedown cruise. I think a voyage to Nubia would be an excellent test of its seaworthiness. It leaves with the morning tide. I strongly suggest, for the benefit of your King and people, that you be on it."
Sunawessii studied the First Citizen closely for a moment, eyebrows knitted together in concentration as he weighed the situation. Finally he stood, bowed formally, and without a word, or a glance at Xena or Gabrielle, Pericles offer firmly clutched in his hand, he left.
Gabrielle took a deep breath, her first breath in a long time it seemed.
"Is he going to return home?" she asked no one in particular.
Pericles shrugged. "What choice does he have. Im sure hed rather not face Zunni and tell him its common knowledge who kidnapped Sula. But Xenas promise, and my offer, are things he knows he must report. Hell be on the ship in the morning. Well just have to wait and see how the King responds."
The Lion stood up.
"Were not waiting for Zunni to make up his mind about anything," she said with iron conviction. " Ill be on that ship as well, and hell either give me my daughter, or regret that he didnt."
Everyone looked with surprise at Xena.
"Beloved," Gabrielle said, "what do you intend? Are you going to walk into King Shakas palace with the Ambassador and demand her back in person? What if he says no? You cant fight his entire palace guard."
"Im going to be a little more subtle than that, Gabrielle," Xena replied, looking at her mate. "I dont intend for the Ambassador to know Ive accompanied him." She turned to Pericles. "A trireme has its major cargo area in the bow of the ship doesnt it, while the Captains quarters are in the stern?"
"Yes," Pericles nodded.
"During the day," Xena continued, "while hes out on deck enjoying the sun, Ill put up a hammock in the cargo hold and sleep among the boxes and crates and sheep and goats. A man like him will have no interest in poking around in the dirtiest, smelliest part of the ship. When the trireme beaches every night hell retire to the Captains cabin to sleep and Ill have the chance to get out and stretch my legs and get some fresh air. All I need is a Captain and crew that can be trusted with a secret."
Her gaze fixed on the First Citizen.
"Do you have a crew I can trust?" she asked.
The man shrugged.
"Whos to say about a whole crew of seventy. I can tell you the Captain is named Braccus. Hes an experienced and tested sailor and leader. Hes never failed in his duty. And the Lt. in command of the ships marines, Apollodorus, is the son of my second cousin. Its his first time out as an officer, since finishing his schooling at Socrates old gymnasium, fulfilling his military training as a citizen of Athens, before he marries and begins his career in politics under my tutelage. For the rest, only time will tell if they can be trusted." His eyes narrowed, face uncertain. "Are you sure, Xena, you want to take the risk? If Sunawessii finds you "
"The gain outweighs the risk," Xena interrupted. "If I can reach Napata undiscovered Ill have the element of surprise to use however I choose. If Zunni takes your offer and sends her back, Ill be there to comfort her on the trip home. If he doesnt take it, or if he harms her..." The Lions face darkened, eyes glowing with a fierce, cold light. Gabrielle felt her stomach shrivel, as she saw a person she had not seen in years, a person she had hoped was dead, the merciless warlord, the conqueror, the Destroyer of Nations. "Im going to have my daughter back, Pericles," she rumbled like a thunderstorm, "or the heavens above Napata will split asunder, and it will rain blood."
"Sweetheart," Lila whispered with a tinge of embarrassment, "I really need to go out and, you know, use the "
A huge, relieved smile erupted on Philips face, as water welled up in his eyes. He leaned close, till his nose touched hers.
"Yes, beautiful," he whispered back, "Ill take you right now."
When Lila awoke at midmorning, four anxious people, who had not slept a wink, collectively let out a gasp of thanksgiving and crowded around to kiss her cheek and gently touch her face. The healer changed the bandage on her back and Philip and Keola helped her roll over and find a comfortable way to lie. Immediately the poor patient was plied with water, soup, cider, anything she could swallow. And it was amazing how much she did drink, painfully at first, but then with steadily growing ease, her thirst never seeming to slacken. By mid-afternoon the relief of the morning had been replaced with a growing tension. Her belly had to be on the verge of bursting, yet still she was thirsty. Herodotus and the healer whispered at the door to the room, trying to decide what could be happening, and what to do next. Keola helped her friend down another large cup of cider. She wiped Lilas chin and bravely smiled and joked about her drooling worse than Daria, but inside her heart thumped painfully with dread. Philip sat by the bed, holding her hand with a grip no goddess of death could break. After wiping Lilas face with a cool, damp cloth, the heat of the day rising in the hut, Keola took Daria from Hecuba and started her afternoon feeding. A worried silence settled on the room as time became an anvil around everyones neck. Then suddenly Lila pulled on Philips hand to draw him close.
"Sweetheart," she whispered.
Part 1 continued
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