Arless refilled his cup and then drained its contents in three huge gulps. This was his third such cup and, to his dismay, the wine was not having any effect. He still felt like he had been hit between the eyes with a board. He slammed the cup down upon the table and was proceeding to fill it up again when from his right a hand shot out and covered the cup.
"That's enough, Arless," said Braxxus.
"I'll say when I've had enough, boy," snarled Arless. He pulled the cup out from under Braxxus' hand and quickly refilled it.
"For the love of the gods, what's wrong with you anyway?" Braxxus asked. "You look like you saw a ghost."
Arless looked at the man wildly and cackled, "A ghost you say? It's worse than a ghost."
"What are you talking about?"
Arless sat down his cup and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Xena," he said ominously. "She's here."
"Xena, the Warrior Princess. The conqueror of half of Greece."
"You must be delirious," said Braxxus. "I've never heard of this...Xena."
Arless stared open mouthed at Braxxus for a moment and then grinned. "I guess you are too young at that."
It was true. Despite occupying such a lofty position Braxxus was only in his late twenties.
"Xena," Arless continued, "it the smartest, bravest, meanest, trickiest, person I've ever known. You think Agamemnon was a great general? Hah! Compared to Xena he was a Wood Scout. You think Ulysses was tricky? Remember that's what he called himself--The Great Trickster? Well, who do you think dreamed up that little scheme to take Ithaca back? That's right, Xena did. Boy, I can't even begin to tell you how smart she is. Everything I know about soldiering I learned from her. And tough?" Arless laughed ruefully and said, "In the old days she would just as soon cut your throat as look at you. I once saw her disembowel a guy from twenty paces away with that chakram thing of hers. You know why? Because the poor bastard had the temerity to not obey her orders quickly enough to suit her. Yes sir, she made ruthlessness and cunning an art form."
"So what happened to this fearsome 'Warrior Princess'?" scoffed Braxxus. "If she was so great why hasn't she conquered all Greece by now?"
"Because she turned good," sneered Arless. "She ran into Hercules and somehow he got her to change her ways." He shook his head in wonder. "I still don't see how he did it."
"So, another thing we should be grateful to the great Hercules for, eh?"
"Well it wasn't all his doing" said Arless. "I still think she would have backslid soon enough if she had not met up with that kid from Poteidaia. Xena fell in love with her."
"Her? Another woman? Was she from Lesbos?"
"Naw, Xena wasn't one of those," said Arless. "No, she'd had her share of men before that--and then some. You know, I think I knew her about as well as was humanly possible in those days. I think it was simply a case of the one true love of her life happening to be a woman, not because she was a woman. Whatever it was, they've been together ever since."
"Whatever," said Braxxus, losing interest.
Arless however, was not about to let him. "It could mean trouble for us--her being here I mean."
"Oh come on, Arless. What's there to be afraid of? This woman's surely in her, what, early fifties by now? Now what threat could someone old enough to be my mother possibly be?"
Arless glared at him and poured himself another cup of wine. "Don't say you weren't warned, Braxxus. You can be sure Xena didn't come all this way just to soak herself in the waters at Midian."
"Oh, I don't know," replied Braxxus. "Maybe she did. No doubt her old bones could use it."
Arless narrowed his eyes until they were mere slits. "Braxxus, you hold quite a distinction. You're the first man in thirty years to underestimate her. Now listen to me, you young fool. If we don't do something, and fast, we might end up with a rope around our necks--or a sword in our guts."
Braxxus patted the old soldier on the shoulder and with a patronizing smile said, "All right, my friend. If this Xena scares you that much I'll have Burbus and his ah, 'associates', pay her a little visit. Okay? You know how efficient he is."
Arless nodded but was hardly put at ease.
"Now, to more important matters," said Braxxus. "Is your army ready?"
"They're ready. We'll sweep those dogs from Elis from the field before midday."
"Good. But remember, don't make it too quick. We have to give our friends time. As for me my preparations are also finished. Now all we need is the queen's word to attack."
"We already have it," said Arless. "I just left her. She said to attack at dawn."
"Excellent!" Braxxus smiled broadly and reached for the wine flask. Pouring himself a cup her said, "Just think, General, in as little as two days you and I could be sitting on a half a million dinars apiece."
"The sooner the better for me," said Arless. "I can't wait to be out of here."
"I know what you mean." Braxxus held up his cup. "I propose a toast," he said. "To traitors."
"To rich traitors," replied Arless.
The two men touched cups and eyed each other carefully. Having already betrayed their country and their queen, they now busily set their minds to betraying each other.
Gabrielle jabbed her fork into the last dumpling on her plate and held it up in front of her. "You know, I can't think of when I had a better meal," she said contentedly.
"My guess would be whenever it was you ate cooking other than your own," said Xena playfully.
With a grin Gabrielle shot back "Hey! My cooking's kept your ass alive all these year's hasn't it? It couldn't be that bad. She finished off the dumpling and pointed her fork at Xena. "You really should try some of these."
"I'm not hungry," said Xena. "Maybe later."
Gabrielle knew it was no use pushing it any farther. "Do you think this Braxxus knows something?"
"Possibly. In any case it won't hurt to talk to him."
Gabrielle leaned back in her chair and, with a conspiratorial glance, looked about the inn. Satisfied nobody was listening, she leaned forward and whispered, "You've got a handle on what's going on here, don't you?"
Xena's only reply was a subtle furrowing of her brow.
I give up, thought Gabrielle. "It looks like we're going to have some time on our hands," she said aloud. "What do you want to do to kill it?"
"Take a nap," Xena said simply.
"You heard me. I'm going to take a nap, Gabrielle," Xena repeated. "I'm tired."
Gabrielle shot a hand out and said, "Well give me some money then. While you rest I want to do some looking around. You never know, I might see something I like."
Xena reached inside her tunic and pulled the leather pouch out from the specially sewn pocket. She counted out twenty-five dinars and placed them in Gabrielle's still outstretched hand. "Don't spend it all in one place."
"Thank you," said Gabrielle breezily. "I won't be gone over an hour or so."
Gabrielle dropped the coins in the pocket on her dress and started for the door.
"Don't get lost," Xena called out.
Xena watched her pass through the door and hesitate for a moment. She'll turn left, thought Xena. Sure enough, Gabrielle looked up the street to the right, frowned, and turned left. Xena smiled and shook her head. That's my girl, she thought.
She waited until she was sure Gabrielle was out of sight before standing up and laying five dinars down on the table for Gabrielle's meal. She then walked briskly to the door and exited into the street. She felt a little guilty about her deception but she figured it would be good for the bard to spend some time to herself just goofing off. She knew Gabrielle would never do it own her own. Besides, if all went well she would not be gone for very long.
As Xena worked her way up the street a pair of green eyes watched her every movement. "Uh huhhh, I thought so." Gabrielle stepped out of the shadows of the alley and gave a little smile of satisfaction. "Xena," she said, under her breath, "you should know by now I'm not the dumb little kid from Poteidaia anymore."
She waited until her love had turned the corner before daring to enter the street. "Now," she said, "let's see what you're up to."
Fifteen minutes later Gabrielle saw Xena stop in front of a huge barn-like structure and gape up at the sign above its large double doors. Gabrielle noted the sign simply read "BUY SELL TRADE."
This is it, thought Xena. She stepped through the big double doors which were chocked open by wooden wedges. The light level was low enough to make her stop for a moment to allow her eyes to adjust. That done, she began to take in all the sights around her. Over to her right there were bags of grain, stacked ten high, taking up almost an entire wall. On the opposite side there was just about every item one could imagine. Slowly moving from shelf to shelf, Xena saw everything from hammers to fine silk.
It seemed odd to her that no one was around. "Hellooo," she called out. "Huh, they must be around somewhere." Xena turned the corner and began walking down another long aisle. Here there were mostly household items. Plain, ordinary things used by people in their plain, ordinary lives.
Except for one item. It was a carving. It was small, about the size of one's thumb, and beautifully crafted. It was an image of someone dressed in a flowing robe. The hair was long and the face was beautiful but for some reason Xena could not ascertain whether the face was masculine or feminine. However, the thing that really got her attention was the wings. They were tucked in behind the back and looked much like those she had seen on Eros but were larger and more full. For some reason the carving intrigued Xena. It seemed to hint at...peace.
"It's beautiful, isn't it."
Xena had been so captivated by the figurine she had, for one of those very, very few times, been caught off guard. But not for long. She whirled to face the voice. "Zander!"
The man was older than Xena, older by at least ten years. She was relieved to see he still seemed to be in good health.
"Looks like business is good," she observed.
"Yeah, I'm doing all right. I've got six guys working for me now."
"Yeah, they're all up at the inn right now. Lunch time, you know."
"That carving, there's something about it isn't there?" he asked.
"Yes, there is," she admitted. "Where did you get it?"
"From one of those Egyptian rascals," he answered. "Cost me forty dinars too. He said it came from the land northeast of his country."
"The land of the Israelites," said Xena.
"Yep, that's it. He said the people there called it ah, what was the word...aww, I forget."
Xena returned the piece to the shelf. "Zander, I have to talk to you. It's important."
"The old man smiled and said, "Well, I didn't think my old commander had traveled all those leagues here just to get a good deal on a Persian carpet."
Thirty years ago Zander had been one of the best soldiers in Xena's army. He had never risen above the rank of sergeant but Xena had known him and even more--trusted him. Unlike most of those under her command she knew even then that Zander was not a bad man. An orphan since he was seven years old, Zander had managed to survive by begging and stealing until he was old enough to pick up a weapon. As a member of Xena's army it sometimes bothered him that he had to kill people but he felt he owed her. She had found him nearly dead and, for reasons still unknown to him, ordered that he be taken care of. But at the time Xena's perceived charity had held a cynical motive behind it. She knew the man would be beholden to her from then on and thus she would always have a loyal set of eyes and ears in an army where loyalties were not exactly carved into stone. However twisted her motives, Xena knew human behavior. No one ever had a more loyal underling and over time she came to genuinely like him. But when Xena left and the army disbanded Zander took the money he had managed to stash away and settle down in Elis. He opened a small shop there and ultimately built it into one of the largest trading houses in Greece.
Zander pointed to a pot hanging over an open fire. "Would you like some tea? It came all the way from the land of Chin."
"No thanks," Xena said.
Zander poured some for himself and sat down. "What can I do for you?" he asked.
"You know of course about the disappearance of Prince Felix," Xena said.
"It's the talk of the city," said Zander. He looked up at her and shook his head. "A bad business. And bad for business. There's gonna be war for sure."
"That's why I'm here," said Xena. "To stop it."
"What are you going to do?"
"Zander, what can you tell me about..." she reached in her pocket and extracted the fingernail-sized piece of parchment she had discreetly torn off the note, "this."
Taking the parchment, Zander stood up and walked over to a window. "It's Thracian," he said. "Very heavy, very expensive."
"Too expensive for most people?"
"Oh absolutely," he replied. "This type is only used by royalty and the very wealthy. Even they don't use it for everyday writing. It only comes in scrolls and it's mostly used for archival purposes. It's almost like having something written in stone."
"You mean, like record keeping?" asked Xena.
"Would that include treaties?"
"For most governments it's the preferred material," said Zander.
Zander, I knew you'd come through for me, thought Xena. You always have.
This was why she had come to him. From the very first Xena had known the parchment was unusual. At least once a year Zander made the rounds of all the various bazaars and trading meets of Greece--even to the great agora in Athens. This man traded on anything and everything and thus knew all there was to know about any and everything. If it could be bought, sold, or traded Zander was the person to see if one wanted to learn about it.
"Zander, you've been a big help. Thank you."
"Must you go so soon?" he asked.
"I'm afraid so," she replied. "Time could be very short."
The old man stood to attention and gave her the fist-to-the-heart salute. "As always, I'm yours to command."
"Cut that out," said Xena, genuinely embarrassed. "Those days are long gone."
"If you need me don't hesitate to call on me."
"I will," Xena promised him.
They gripped arms and Xena turned to leave. "Ahh, Xena?"
"Yes?" She turned back to see the Zander with the figurine in his hand.
"Here, take this," he said. "I know you like it."
"Zander, I couldn't--"
"Go on" he said, cutting her off. "I want you to have it."
Xena started to say something but the old man beat her to it. "Please?"
The warrioress took the carving from him and put it in her pocket. "You know something, you're one of the very few guys I commanded that I can say I'm truly proud of. You've really made a good life for yourself."
"The old man grinned and replied, "No more proud than I am to have served under you. I knew even then that way down deep inside, you had a good heart."
"I'm just sorry it took so long to resurface," said Xena.
"Good luck, Xena. And remember what I said," said Zander.
Xena nodded and said, "Enjoy your tea. I can find my own way out."
She left the old man to his tea and retraced her steps. Back at the double-doored entrance she stopped and, still looking straight ahead, said, "Okay, Gabrielle, you can come out now."
Gabrielle sheepishly stepped out from her hiding place between two stacks of grain bags. "Xena, I swear. How did you know?"
Xena looked at her tenderly and smiled, "I felt you, Gabrielle."
Xena knew it would be useless to try to explain the glow, aura, whatever one wanted to call it, she always sensed whenever Gabrielle was near so she merely replied, "Nothing."
Gabrielle followed her through the doors and out into the street. "This Zander, do you know him? Did he tell you anything useful? Has that Arless guy got anything to do with all this? What's that in your pocket?"
Still walking, Xena said, "Gabrielle, your answers are yes, yes, maybe, and..." she dug her hand into her pocket, "this." She handed the carving to Gabrielle.
"It's beautiful," she remarked.
"It's for you," said Xena.
"What's it supposed to be, a god?" asked Gabrielle, noting the wings.
"Some people call it an angel," said Xena.
"Yeah. Remember the Israelites?"
"It's from their culture. In their religion an angel is a sort of messenger or servant of their god."
"Oh. Well whatever it is, someone sure put in a lot of effort to make this. Thank you, Xena"
"Okay, tough guy. Whatever you say," smiled the bard. Xena was always doing things like this. Starting with that toy lamb so long ago to the one she now held in her hand Gabrielle reckoned she had at least twenty-five of these little gifts. Of course most had come since they settled down. After all, there was only so much room in a saddle bag.
"So what do we do now?" asked Gabrielle
"I don't know about you," said Xena, yawning, "but I'm going back to the inn and take a nap."
"Hmph. You really don't think you can fool me with that again, do you?"
"No foolin' this time," said Xena. "I really am."
"Well before you do," said Gabrielle coyly, "maybe we out to, you know, make sure the bed is warm enough?"
"Warm enough huh?" asked Xena slyly.
"Yeah, I mean, what if you were to get sick from sleeping in a cold bed? What would we do then?"
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Gabrieeelle, what are you talkin' about?"
Gabrielle leaned close enough to whisper loudly, "All right, all right. So I'm horny. You satisfied?"
With a wicked smile Xena said, "Not yet." She gently took Gabrielle by the elbow and they began to walk quickly back toward the inn. "Now remember" she said to the bard, "we might have work to do tonight so we're just going to warm the bed up-- not burn it down, okay?"
"Just come on, will you?" replied Gabrielle. "We'll discuss semantics later."
"Xena, this is Braxxus." Queen Draganis shifted her gaze from the tall, stoic woman to the even taller, boyish-looking minister. A woman of short stature herself, she envied ones like these.
"Xena, I've heard so much about you," said Braxxus smoothly.
"Yes, it seems you have made quite an impression on my friend, Arless."
"I knew it, thought Xena. That spineless Arless is involved in this. "That was a very long time ago," she said aloud.
"Nevertheless your ah, exploits shall we say, must have been monumental indeed to have remained so vividly fixed in his mind for all these years."
You smug bastard, thought Xena. She began to entertain thoughts of breaking his nose. This one is too smart for his own good, she thought.
"Xena's twenty years of service to humanity have more than atoned for her dark past," the queen said sharply.
"It is as you say, my queen," said Braxxus, bowing. "How can I be of service to you?" he asked Xena.
"The note from Felix," she began, "where did you find it?"
Braxxus looked at her incredulously and turned to Draganis. "My queen, I--"
"Answer her," the queen said firmly.
"Very well. It was just before midnight, I had finished with my work for the day and I was on my way to bed. As usual I stopped to look in on the prince just to make sure all was well. However when I knocked on the door there was no answer."
"Weren't you afraid of waking him up?" asked Xena.
The boy is an insomniac," said the queen. "Most nights he stays up quite late. It's as if Hypnos forgets him."
"I see," said Xena. "So when Felix didn't answer you became concerned and opened the door, right?"
"That is correct," said Braxxus. "And, to my dismay, the prince was nowhere to be found. The note was on his pillow."
"Did you have any idea Felix was romantically involved with this girl?"
"Of course not," Braxxus replied brusquely. "What do you think I am? Had I know I would have put an end to it immediately. The prince was there to learn the art of diplomacy, not to fall prey to the wiles of a common slattern."
Gabrielle glanced up at Xena and saw the expression on her face. It was only there for a second but there was no mistaking its meaning. It was a look she had seen many, many times before and it usually preceded the death of whomever it was fixed upon. Braxxus, you're a lucky son of a bitch, Gabrielle thought.
The bard knew her well. It was all Xena could do to restrain herself from reaching out and snapping his neck like a chicken bone. She wasn't quite sure why his remark had made her so angry. Draganis had more or less said the same thing earlier in the day. Perhaps it was because of his haughty demeanor. No, the reason was simple enough, she decided. Sonia was the eldest child of her brother. She was blood of his blood, just as she and Toris were blood of their mother's blood. She felt something well up inside her from the very depths of her soul. Something powerful, and very ancient--even primordial. Although Xena could not have put it into words it was that drive, that force, that need to defend one's own. In many respects it was much the same force that had caused her to stand up to Cortiz oh so long ago. But again that was somehow...different.
Xena didn't know Sonia any better than she knew the arrogant son of a bitch standing in front of her but it was totally irrelevant. All that mattered was that she was her brother's child and was probably in danger. And then it finally dawned on her. All those years of laying the blame on Toris for Lyceus' death had been a terrible, tragic waste. She understood that, with kin, you don't have to agree with them, you don't even have to like them. All you have to do is...love them. Sonia was Toris' family and that made her Xena's family and, by the gods, she was going to return the girl safely to her family if it meant kicking the ass of a hundred scum bags like Braxxus.
All this raced through Xena's fertile mind in the split second that elapsed before she replied to Braxxus. Her voice as cold as the mountain snow, Xena said, "The girl might be common but I know her father well and he is a good man. No daughter of his could ever be a..." Xena dared not say the word lest she become so angry as to do something counterproductive to her cause.
Xena's countenance made even Gabrielle shudder.
"I'm sorry," said Braxxus, barely hiding his insincerity. "I meant no offense. It's just that this whole affair has unnerved me somewhat."
"Do you have any idea how long the boy had been gone before he was missed?" asked Xena.
"No more than two turns of the glass," said Braxxus.
"Where was he last seen?"
"In my office. He stopped in and we chatted for a few minutes. He then said he was going to retire to his room. That's the last anyone has seen of him."
"Braxxus, don't you find it hard to believe that a prince, trained since childhood to rule a kingdom, would just up and disappear like this.? Wouldn't you think his sense of duty, not only to his country but his mother as well, would be stronger than that? Why would he seemingly just throw his birthright away?"
"I wish I knew," said Braxxus. "However are praying that he will soon be returned to us."
"I hope you have a thick rug," said Xena.
"What's that supposed to mean?" the queen asked.
Xena nodded to Gabrielle and said, "You know more about this sort of thing than I do. You tell her."
"Well it seems that Sonia has incurred the wrath of Hera," said the bard.
"What's this got to do with my boy?" the queen inquired.
"Let me explain," said Gabrielle. "Sonia was pledged to serve a year in the temple of Hera at Olympia. In fact, she was due to begin serving her term there yesterday. Now as you know Hera is not likely to take a snub like this lying down. If she sends somebody from Mount Olympus to punish Sonia the chances are pretty good it'll be kill first and ask questions later."
As Gabrielle skillfully weaved her lie, Xena intently studied Braxxus' face. The two of them had concocted this little story back at the inn as a way of confirming Xena's suspicions. Naturally Xena had informed the queen of her intentions before their meeting with Braxxus. Although Gabrielle hated lying she had no illusions anymore about the fact that it was sometimes necessary. And on these rare occasions when she did have to lie her thirty years of storytelling experience served her well.
"Are you saying my boy could die because...?" The queen became so choked with emotion she could not finish the sentence.
Gabrielle replied by nodding mournfully. "Yes, I'm afraid so," she said sadly. "Anybody with her at the time will probably die also."
And there it was. Xena saw a faint, almost imperceptible, hint of panic in Braxxus' eyes. She knew for damn sure it wasn't because he was worried about the prince. Braxxus, she thought, I've got you. Out loud she said, "Of course, there still may be time. What do you think, Braxxus?"
Now Braxxus felt Xena's piercing eyes boring in and a shroud of uneasiness began to envelop him. Who is this woman? he wondered. He began to think maybe Arless wasn't just a paranoid fool after all. "I really couldn't say," he answered lamely.
"Thank you," Xena said abruptly.
The minister bowed to the queen and said, "With your permission I will return to my duties."
The queen nodded her approval and the three women watched him depart.
When he had gone Xena turned to the queen and said, "Draganis, you should have been an actress." She then cast a wary eye toward the two palace guards. "Is there someplace we can talk?"
"Follow me." The queen led them down the long corridor. Soon she reached a flight of steps bearing off to the right.
Xena felt a hand on her elbow. It was Gabrielle. "Xena, what is all this?"
Xena did not reply. She merely narrowed her eyes and silently "shushed" her.
The steps led up to the parapet on the castle wall. Situated at each end of the long wall was a watchtower with a lookout inside but they were well out of earshot.
Before the queen could say anything Xena whispered, "Act as if you're showing us the sights."
The queen raised her arm and pointed to the large temple in the center of the city. "Do you really think Braxxus kidnapped Felix?" she asked.
"Yes, I do," Xena answered. "And I'm afraid that's not all."
"What could be possibly worse?" asked the queen.
Xena looked at the temple with a fixed smile on her face. "Ma'am I have reason to believe there is a plot to overthrow your throne. I believe the disappearance of the prince was the first step of that plot."
"That's a very serious allegation, Xena," said the queen. "Do you have any proof?"
"Nothing definite as yet," said Xena. "Just a lot of loose threads."
Draganis swept her hand toward the string of lows hills off to the southwest. "I can't charge a man with kidnapping and treason based on 'loose threads'."
Xena licked her lips and said, "Queen Draganis, you know me. You know I'd never tell you this if I didn't think it was true."
"I know that," said the queen. "But still..."
Xena saw the queen was still not entirely convinced. She decided to play her trump card. "Sixteen years ago," began Xena, "I came across a party of travelers being attacked by bandits. They had already killed most of the party and had the last two trapped in a ditch and were just about to finish them off. Luckily for them I showed up and killed some of the bandits and drove the rest off. When I pulled this woman out of the ditch, badly injured and bleeding all over, she gasped that she was a queen. You know, I don't recall asking that woman for proof. I took her at her word and made sure she and her child got home safely."
Draganis dropped her chin and said, "I remember." She looked up at Xena and smiled thinly. "If it were anybody but you telling me this I'd have their ass thrown in the dungeon so fast they wouldn't even know when the cell doors were opened."
"So you believe me then?"
"I don't know so much that I believe you as I believe in you," said Draganis.
"Thank you," said Xena quietly.
"So what do we do?"
"For the moment, nothing," said Xena. "I have to go speak to Zander again."
"Why?" the queen asked, somewhat alarmed.
"To get an intelligence report," replied Xena. "And to maybe have him do a job for me. In the meantime I suggest you not let Braxxus or Arless leave the palace. Use any excuse you like but keep em here. And don't say anything to them about the tomorrow's attack being delayed."
The queen nodded gravely as she watched the sun disappear below the horizon. "It will be as you ask."
At that very moment, in another part of the palace, Braxxus was tossing a bag of coins in the direction of a burly man looking at him from across the table. "I want this done tonight, Burbus, and no slip-ups," said Braxxus.
Burbus opened the bag and dumped the coins out into his huge hand.
"Don't worry, it's all there," said Braxxus. "Double your usual fee, just like I said."
Burbus scratched his head and returned the coins to the bag. "I don't get it," he said. "What's all the fuss about two women anyway?"
"Never mind that," snapped Braxxus. "It's enough for you to know that I'm paying you twice the normal fee to make sure that nosy bitch Xena and her little friend don't see another sunrise."
"Yeah. Why? Do you know her?" Braxxus asked.
Burbus tossed the bag of coins down on the table.
"This one's on the house, Braxxus."
"Huh? I don't understand."
"My brother, Thersides. Xena murdered him a long time ago. Now finally, after all these years, I get the chance to return the favor."
"Suit yourself," said Braxxus, shrugging his shoulders. "Just make sure she does die. And after you take care of that check in on the prince and the girl and report back to me."
"Why don't we just kill them?" asked Burbus, impatiently. "We don't need those two brats anymore, do we?"
"Ah, my uncouth friend, think of them as a safety net. If something were to go wrong tomorrow we can't use them as hostages to make good our escape if they're dead." He decided to leave out the part that there might be a good chance an agent of Hera could show up and kill them anyway. No use giving the buffoon too much to think about, he told himself.
"I guess you're right," said Burbus, scratching his head again. Braxxus sure likes to use big words, he thought. Maybe someday he would ask him what "uncouth" meant.
BAM! BAM! BAM!
The night guard moved to the door. "The place is closed," he called out. Come back in the morning."
"I need to see Zander," came a voice back through the door. "It's urgent."
"Sorry, Zander's asleep," the guard said.
"Then get him up," replied the voice.
"What do you think I am, an idiot?" the guard retorted. "He'd fire my ass for sure."
"He might fire your ass if you do," said the voice, "but I'll kick your ass if you don't."
BAM! BAM! BAM!
"Stop that!" rasped the guard.
BAM! BAM! BAM!
"By the gods, that's enough!" The guard unlocked the door and flung it open. "Listen you son of a owww!" Through his tears of pain he saw two figures, a tall one and a much shorter one, standing in the darkened doorway. The tall one had caught him by the nose and was squeezing it so hard that it made him dizzy.
"Now," Xena purred, "you're gonna be a good boy and take me to your boss, ain't cha?"
"Uhh haww, nyea," the guard honked.
Xena released his nose and said, "See, Gabrielle, I knew he would see it our way. Now shut the door."
In short order Xena had Zander awake and sitting on the side of his bed. While she gave him some time to clear out the cobwebs Gabrielle searched around and found a candle. "There," she said, lighting it with her ever trusty flint. "That's better."
"What's happened, Xena?" Zander asked.
Before answering him Xena turned to the guard and said, "You can go now." When he hesitated she barked out, "Beat it!"
Needless to say the guard practically fell over himself in his attempt to remove himself from the presence of this frightening woman.
"I'm sorry to barge in on you like this," said Xena, "but I have something important to ask you."
"What do you want to know?"
"In the last couple of weeks have any of the traders coming in here mentioned anything to you about signs of unusual military activity anywhere?"
"What kind of activity?"
"You know, evidence of troop movements, heavier than normal patrolling, tighter security in border areas, that sort of thing," said Xena.
The old man sleepily rubbed his eyes and looked up at his old commander. "You mean like a buildup?"
Zander furrowed his brow and stood up. After a few thoughtful moments he spoke. "Excey was in here late last week complaining about not being able to get his horse shod up north. He said every blacksmith shop he went to was busy repairing chariots."
It was just as Xena figured. For her the whole thing was as clear now as if it were written up on one of Gabrielle's scrolls. Zander saw the concerned look on her face and tried to reassure her. "They always hold maneuvers up there this time of year, I don't think it's anything to worry about, Xena."
However she thought differently. What better way to disguise an invasion force? she asked herself. She thought for a moment and then put her hand on the old man's shoulder. "Zander, I need your help," she said. "What would you say if I told you I was drafting you?"
Eyes sparkling, he sprang to his feet. "I'd say I'm ready," he replied excitedly. "What do you want me to do? Is there going to be a fight? You want me to get my sword?"
Gabrielle saw Xena smile at the old man and then she heard her tell him in an unusually gentle voice, "No. No you don't have to do that. But I do have an important mission for you."
"I'm yours to command, Kondesah."
Gods! Xena thought. I'd forgotten that name!
Fifteen minutes later the three of them were standing in the dark street out in front of Zander's warehouse.
"Now you're sure you can pull this off by yourself?" asked Xena.
In the pale moonlight Gabrielle saw him smile. "Don't worry, he said, "I won't let you down. Remember what you used to call me?"
"Yeah, I remember," said Xena. "The Ghost. Just be careful."
The two women watched the old man start up the street disappear into the blackness.
"What was that he called you? Kansa?"
"What is that, another name for you?"
"Something like that," said Xena. "It originated with one of the northern tribes we used to battle with from time to time. None of my men ever dared call me that to my face, of course, but to tell you the truth I liked the name."
"What does it mean?" asked Gabrielle, almost afraid of the answer.
"It means dark warrior,Gabrielle," said Xena.
"That's it? That's all it means?"
"Well what did you expect?" Xena asked. "Something like The Great Slaughter or maybe Death's Mistress?"
"You see what you get for always expecting the worst?" teased Xena.
"I'm sorry," said the bard.
Xena patted her on the shoulder and, in a voice that just did hint of playfulness said, "Forget it. Actually it was the Assyrians that called me those other names."
With that Xena strode off down the street. For a moment Gabrielle just stood there gawking at her, not sure whether she was kidding or not. With Xena one could never be sure.
After walking a few paces Xena turned. "Are you coming?" she asked.
"Huh? Oh, ah, yeah."
As the darkness swallowed them Gabrielle said, "Xena, I have to know. Were you really called those horrible names?"
"Gabrielle, those were some of the nicer ones."
For what seemed like an eternity to him the old man led his horse through the darkened city streets. More than once he fought back the urge to just mount up and ride out but Xena's orders had been explicit on that point. "Be as inconspicuous as possible," she had told him. Zander smiled to himself, were they orders? Yeah, he thought, they were orders. No, she had not issued them with her old terrifying warlord snarl--Zander had seen more than one brave man piss down his leg in the face of her fury--but they were orders nonetheless. She had known well enough he could not refuse her. Now, upon reaching the outskirts of the city, he mounted his horse and pointed it up the north road.
The two women turned the corner and worked their way down the narrow street.
"Xena, why all this secrecy?"
"We don't know yet who are friends are," said Xena. "Anybody here could be a spy or some other disloyal bastard."
"Oh." Gabrielle knew if there was one thing that could be guaranteed to bring Xena's blood to a boil it was treachery. She hated a traitor no matter whose side he was on. Gabrielle wondered if perhaps it was because Xena herself had been betrayed so many times. She guessed it probably was.
"Remember your promise?"
"Yeah, you know. The one you made today."
"Oh, yeah. Sorry, I guess I forgot."
"I know some of it now," said Gabrielle. "I mean, I heard what you told the queen and I know you think Elis is the verge of being invaded but my question is how did you know?"
"Okay," Xena began. "At first it was just bits and pieces--the note, Felix's apparent indiscretion- that sort of thing."
"Just what is it about that note anyway?" Gabrielle asked.
"That was really just a long shot but the moment the queen handed it to me I knew something was not quite right," said Xena. "I mean, it was obvious it had been cut from a much larger piece. Why do that? Why not just leave the whole sheet of parchment there on the pillow? Then when Zander identified the parchment type and what it was used for my suspicions naturally turned toward Braxxus. His office was the only likely source of Thracian parchment."
"So you're saying he kidnapped Felix and then made him write the note to cover himself?"
"But why didn't he just use regular parchment?" Gabrielle asked.
"You know how rainy it's been lately," Xena reminded her. "Remember what Zander said about Thracian parchment? That's it's almost like having something written in stone? You of all people should know what moisture does to ordinary parchment. He used it because he wanted to make sure the note stayed intact. He had to take the chance of using it because it was of utmost importance to him that the note not be damaged in transit. After all, for all intents and purposes, it was his alibi."
"How so?" the bard asked.
"You've got to remember the real purpose of the note," said Xena. "Braxxus knew the queen would never believe the boy's disappearance was an elopement. In fact he was counting on it. What the note did was shift the suspicion off his ass to the Arcadians. Without that note the blame for the prince's disappearance would have undoubtedly fallen on him. He averted that by wording the note in such a way as to give the impression that Sonia was the initiator of the relationship. This, naturally, implicated the Arcadians."
"Gods, Xena! gasped the bard in wonder. "You should have been a magistrate."
"Hey I have many skills, remember? However that wasn't the only thing that convinced me Braxxus was responsible. Remember the queen's observation about how Felix's betas were unusual? I think it was a subtle attempt by the prince to identify his abductors."
"Too subtle," Gabrielle snorted.
"I agree. But you have to look at it from his perspective. No doubt he was being scrutinized very closely as he wrote the note so I imagine he figured the altered betas were about as far as he dared go. The price took a big chance in doing that."
"But why Sonia?" Gabrielle asked. "Why take her and not someone else?"
"Think about it, Gabrielle. How many young ladies do you suppose Felix was exposed to in Arcadia? Not very many. I'm just guessing here but I'd say Toris wasn't the only one that saw Sonia pass that note to Felix. I bet Braxxus, or at least one of his staff, did too. That conveniently links her to Felix. And her being the daughter of a prominent government official only serves to further incriminate the Arcadian government."
"Xena, what do you think was in that note Sonia passed to Felix?"
"The gods only know," sighed Xena.
"They're coming!" Burbus' lookout ducked past him and into the blackness of the alleyway.
"Good," whispered Burbus. "Get ready, boys." In the alley were three other men. In the alley across the street lurked three more. Seven men, all experienced killers, waited in silence while Xena and Gabrielle drew nearer to the ambush site. Burbus had chosen his spot well. The street was particularly narrow here, barely enough for two carts to pass. That meant Xena would have very little time to react when he and his men made their move. As far as Burbus was concerned she was already dead. I'm gonna cut that slut's heart out and make her little friend eat it, he thought dreamily.
Burbus had decided he was not going to kill the little one--yet. He had seen Gabrielle upon her arrival at the palace earlier in the day and had been struck by how good looking she was. Conveniently, he had forgotten he had also been stirred by the tall, still very attractive woman with the graying hair that had accompanied her there. That, of course, was before he had learned that woman was Xena.
"Xena, how did you know about this invasion thing?"
"Be quiet, Gabrielle." The alarm bells were ringing in Xena's head. She had not seen or heard anything to even hint at danger but her instincts were screaming to her that something was not...right. For the first time in a very long time Xena drew her sword. When she had strapped it on her back earlier in the day she had been struck by how heavy it was.
"What is it?" Gabrielle whispered. "An ambush?"
Xena touched her on the shoulder and, in a barely audible whisper, said, "Stay here."
Gabrielle nodded and watched Xena ease her way ever so slowly down the street. For the first time the bard noticed how quiet it was, so quiet she could hear her ears ringing. People sure go to bed early around here, she thought.
What's keeping them? wondered Burbus. They should have been here by now.
Xena could almost smell them now. By her reckoning there were five, at the most six, men hidden in those two alleys up ahead. I ain't got time for this crap, she thought angrily. There was a time when her all senses would have been deliciously alive in anticipation of a good fight but not now. Now she was tired, frustrated, just a little mad. However the one thing she was not, nor would she ever be, was scared. I don't know who you bastards are, she thought, but your dog's pissing on the wrong leg. Ever so slowly she unhooked her chakram.
"What's that noise?" hissed Burbus' lookout.
"Shut--" The screams of the three men across the street drowned out Burbus' reproval. Had it been light enough he would have been able to look over just in time to see the deadly ring ricochet several times off the alley walls effectively slicing up his men like cooked beef in the process.
Now two of the men in his alley shoved their way past him and out into the street. They no sooner cleared the alley before Xena's sword caught the first one in the area where the neck meets the shoulder. His body sinking to the cobblestone caused his mate to stumble over him and fall right into Xena's arms.
"Sorry, asshole," she rasped. "I'm spoken for." She head-butted him and followed it up with a punch to the jaw, knocking him out. "Son of a bitch," she muttered, rubbing her aching hand. She still didn't know how many of them were but she knew it was imperative that none of their assailants escape.
Satisfied that all those in the opposite alley were dead or at least incapacitated, she slowly inched her way up to the corner of the alley. "Throw down your weapons and come on out and you won't get hurt," she called out.
"Go on," Burbus whispered to the lookout. The man started to protest but cut it short upon feeling the point of Burbus' sword in his ribs. Slowly, reluctantly, the now terrified man stepped out from the alley and into the street.
"I give up," said the lookout,
"Anybody else in there?" Xena asked him.
"No. I'm the last one."
"Come out here," said Xena, "out in the moonlight where I can see you."
The lookout put his hands on his head and slowly walked out into the moonlight.
"Who sent you?" asked Xena.
"I don't know," said the lookout. "I'm just a hired sword. Burbus takes care of the business end of things."
"And which one is this Burbus?" Xena asked him.
"That one," lied the lookout, pointing to the one with his head nearly cut off.
"Well pick up your buddy here," said Xena, motioning to the one she had knocked out. "We're goin for a little walk."
The lookout bent over and, with great effort, hefted the man over his shoulder. Xena silently turned and gestured for Gabrielle to follow and fell in behind the lookout. In the old days she would not have believed the lookout. She would have checked out the alley herself but this one time, whether it was because of her fatigue or because she just plain forgot, she failed to do so.
While Xena was dealing with the lookout Burbus crept his way to the edge of the alley. He could not see Xena yet but he saw the lookout bend over and pick up one his men. Almost daring not to breathe he eased his sword up close to his chest. He knew the danger he faced. He would only get one chance. He waited on one knee while the lookout struggled to pick up his comrade. He saw him stagger a couple of steps under the load before finally getting the body balanced on his shoulder.
Burbus then saw the lookout pass by and continue down the street. And there she was. Huddled there in the darkness, he could sense her power as she silently passed by him much like a menacing warship at night on a black sea. For the first time since he was a little boy, Burbus prayed to the gods. He felt the pounding of his heart in his chest and feared it would give him away. Many, many men had died by his hand during his lifetime but he could never recall being this apprehensive--not even before his first kill.
Now he saw the lookout disappear from view and, to his great relief , he realized that Xena had not seen him. He gave her two more steps and then quietly stepped out of the alley. You stinking bitch, he thought as he raised his sword, this is for Thersides. Just before his sword started its downward arc a troubling thought came to him. Where's the little one? Almost immediately he got his answer.
Like Xena he had been so focused on what was in front of him he had forgotten to watch his back. He failed to see the little bard take two quick steps and make her leap. She caught him squarely between his shoulder blades with her right foot and the would-be assassin went down like a sack of corn. Xena heard the dull thump of Gabrielle's foot ramming into Burbus' back followed by a sharp "uhhhh." She whirled in time to see Burbus hit the street and roll over. Even before his momentum stopped Xena had her sword on his neck but she saw there was no need. The man was out cold.
"Are you all right, Gabrielle?"
"Mee? Yeah. I'm good. How about you?"
"Fine, thanks to you," said Xena, kneeling down to check Burbus. She rolled him over to get a look at his face. She didn't actually know him but she realized there was something vaguely familiar about him. She correctly guessed he was probably the relation of someone she had once killed. It wouldn't be the first time, she thought ruefully.
Damn it, she raged silently. What the Tartarus were you thinking? You should have checked out the alley. If it hadn't been for Gabrielle...
Xena stood up and turned to the terrified lookout. "So the alley was empty, eh?"
The lookout began to panic. "He, he made me do it," he bleated. "He threatened to kill me if I didn't."
Slowly Xena began to advance on him. "Gee you're having a really bad day, aren't ya? Put your friend down."
"You're not going to...wait!"
"Put him down," Xena repeated, this time in a much more menacing voice.
Reluctantly the lookout laid down his burden. "What are you gonna do?" he asked.
"This." Xena backhanded him hard across the mouth and then followed that up with a crushing kick to the side of his knee. The lookout crashed headlong to the street, moaning in agony.
"I ought to kill you, you bastard," Xena hissed, leveling her sword.
She turned toward the soft voice. "Don't worry, Gabrielle," she said. "I'm not going to kill the lying shitbag. Besides, we're wasting time here." She reached down, grabbed a handful of the lookout's hair, and slammed his head against the cobblestone. "That ought to hold you for awhile," she muttered. She stood up and strode quickly over to a shop on the other side of the street which happened to have an awning out in front of it. Two swift hacks with the sword and the rope holding it up came tumbling down into her hands. In ten minutes she and Gabrielle had the surviving assailants bound hand and foot and heaped up against the back wall of the alley. All except Burbus. He had awakened and Xena had him lying face down in the street.
"That will keep those two of trouble until daylight anyway," said Xena as she secured her chakram. She then took Burbus by the collar and yanked him to his feet. "Now cmon, let's get this one back to the palace."
Braxxus sat in his chair watching Arless nervously pace up and down in front of him. "What do you think she wants?" Arless asked.
"She said something about going over the plan again," said Braxxus, yawning.
"Well why aren't we doing that? I should be at the border right now. Why make us wait like this?"
"How the Tartarus would I know?" replied Braxxus. "Maybe she's stuck on the pot or something. Arless, will you sit down? You're driving me crazy with your stupid pacing."
Arless looked at him as if he was a hydra but complied. "I don't like it," he said for perhaps the tenth time. "I don't like it at all."
"You know for a soldier and a conspirator you don't have much backbone, do you?"
"Why, you young whelp, I've got as much as the next man," said Arless, sharply. "I have killed my share of men." He then slumped into his chair and added, "It's that damn Xena. You don't know her like I do. I can't help thinking she's probably got this whole thing figured out by now."
"Even if she has it's not going to do us any harm," said Braxxus smoothly. "By now Burbus and his boys have sent her to Tartarus where she belongs."
"I hope you're right," said Arless. "I hope you're right."
Zander slid off his horse and quietly led it into a stand of poplar trees. After tying it up he patted it on the neck and murmured, "Now don't go anywhere, okay?" Just then the full moon broke through the clouds and the old man noticed how white his hands were. Oh shit, he thought. We can't have that. Quickly he crouched down and ran both hands along the wet ground. In short order he had coated his face and hands with the soft mud.
Yeah, that's better.
After silently working his way through the trees for about a half an hour he came to a line of gently sloping hills which marked the northern border of Elis. Well, old fellow, this is it, he thought.
He had done this more times than he could count. This was why Xena had named him "The Ghost." In his day he had been a master of infiltration. It was standard practice for him to to steal into an opposing camp on the eve of battle and gather intelligence for her. Not once had he ever been even close to getting caught. Sometimes, to his dismay, his commander had gone with him. While he recognized that Xena was even better at it than he was it just didn't seem right to him. Their irreplaceable leader should not be out there crawling on her belly through mud and over rocks and Zeus knows what else with an ordinary foot slogger like him. He saw, though, that she seemed to enjoy it.
He had known Xena respected him but he was never quite sure why. She looked upon most of her rank and file troops as so many insects. Perhaps it was because he had always told her the truth. If during one of his reconnaissance missions he found conditions to be unfavorable he told her so. He never tried to bullshit her. More significantly, under Xena's harsh and often ruthless command he had never been subjected to nothing more serious than a couple of tongue lashings by his chief
Having said that, he had no illusions about his position. He was not anywhere even close to being in the great Xena's inner circle. She had made him a sergeant and therefore entitled to higher pay but he knew she viewed him as just another sword-swinger; someone whom she would not have hesitated one second to hang for the slightest breach of discipline. Even so, when Darfus took Xena's army away from her Zander went off and sat in the middle of a grove of birch trees and cried like a baby. He was a good ten years older than Xena but he had always looked up the tall, fierce, stoic, and stunning woman as something of a big sister. She had always treated him fairly.
That very night he had taken his gold, his horse, his sword and abandoned all else. He had had enough of the army. Six months later he had a small shop in the capital of Elis and from there his life had been onward and upward. Now, twenty years later, he was a very rich man.
But standing there looking up at those low hills, knowing the potential danger that lay in them, his face covered with mud, he realized how much he had missed it all. Wealthy merchant-trader or not, he knew in his heart he would always be a soldier--one of the mighty Kondesah's fierce horde. Zander quietly spat out dirt that had somehow gotten into his mouth and, crouching low, began to work his way up the hill.
"Xena!" Queen Draganis whispered loudly, "I'm so glad you've returned. I was running out of excuses to keep Braxxus and Arless here."
"Where are they now?" Xena asked.
"In the war room," said the queen. She took Xena by the elbow and led her into a small anteroom. "What did you find out?"
"It's just as I feared," Xena answered. "Your son was kidnapped and it was made to look like the Arcadians did it. Those responsible knew you would send your army against them." Here Xena paused, "Queen Draganis, Braxxus and Arless are traitors but more importantly, I believe tomorrow morning there will be an attempt to invade your country from the north."
The queen was flabbergasted. "But..."
"It's all part of an elaborate plan," Xena explained. "They kidnap your son. They make you think the Arcadians did it. Your army is posted on the Elis-Arcadia border. Once the attack on Elis begins, the army from the north swoops down and take your lightly defended capital and effectively cut off your own army from its line of supply."
"Then the army must be recalled at once," said the queen.
"I agree," said Xena. "Send a message to your field commander and tell him to forget about the attack on Arcadia. Tell him to form his battalions at once and return to defend the capital. But I must tell you, Draganis, even if he force marches them it's gonna take some time for his infantry to get here."
The queen cast her eyes downward. "By then it will be too late, will it not?"
Xena touched the queen's arm and said, "Cheer up. I think we've caught a break here."
"What do you mean?" the queen asked.
"You've had a lot of rain around here lately, haven't you?"
"Yes. An unusual amount for this time of year," the queen replied.
"That is a very big plus for us," Xena said. "You see, their army relies heavily on chariots. Very big, heavy chariots. Now as soft as the ground is now those big old chariots are not going to be able to pass over open country. They will be forced to stay on roads and I know for a fact the only road capable of sustaining chariots is the main north-south artery. If we can cut that road we can bottle them up and make them halt their advance long enough for you to recall your forces."
"But how do we do that?" asked the queen.
Xena smiled slyly and said, "It's being taken care of as we speak. Just north of the border the main road runs through some hills. At several points there are some very steep cliffs overlooking the road. Now if by chance somebody was able to get up there and cause a rock slide... or two... or three...?
"I see what you mean," said the queen. "You said it's being taken care of. By whom?"
Xena smiled and said, "A good man." The smile disappeared and she jerked her head toward Burbus. "I think it's time to speak to our ahh, friends."
Zander eased up to the edge of the cliff and stuck his head out over it. This ought to do nicely, he thought. This spot marked his deepest penetration into the enemy's (Zander now thought of them as the enemy) territory. He was at least a league over the border and had already succeeded in eluding at three patrols. This had convinced him Xena was correct in her assessment of the situation. Elis was about to be invaded.
You dumb ass, he chided himself. Don't you know she's always right?
Now, per her instructions, he had chosen the three points where the road was to be blocked. Naturally he would start with the farthest one and work his way back toward the border. He knew the heavy rains of late would make his task easier to accomplish. With luck, a couple of well-placed rocks pushed over the edge would cause a fair sized landslide. After picking out the one he thought most likely to do the trick Zander stuck the flat plank he had brought along to use as a lever under it. Five minutes later he had sent not one, but two large rocks tumbling over the cliff. He didn't have to look to see the results, he could hear it. That loud rumble told him a good portion of the cliff had given away. Already loosened considerably by the heavy rains, it had only needed a well placed push to finish the job. Before the rumbling had even stopped the old man was on his way to the next site. He knew those patrols would not be long in discovering the slide and sounding the alarm. Moving along at a steady trot, his senses alert for signs of possible danger, the old man realized he had not felt this alive in a very long time.
Damn, he thought. This is fun.
"I tell you, Braxxus, I think the queen knows something."
"The queen knows nothing," replied Braxxus. He and Arless stood looking at a map on the war room table. While both men gave the appearance of being calm, in truth both were becoming worried.
"Then why does she contrive to keep us here?" asked Arless.
Braxxus had to admit he had a point. For a full turn of the glass she had kept the two of them there answering a myriad of mostly trivial questions about the plans for the impending attack on Arcadia. "Perhaps the queen is getting cold feet," said Braxxus, as much to convince himself as Arless. Why hasn't Burbus reported back to me yet? he wondered. You don't suppose...?
Braxxus began to make his way to the door.
"Where are you going?" Arless asked, eyeing him suspiciously.
"To speak to the queen," came the reply. Braxxus stepped out into the corridor. It was long, about forty paces, and had a flight of curved stairs connecting directly to a rather large reception room below. He walked to the flight of steps on his left and, nearing the corner, heard voices on the stairs. He peeked around the corner and saw the queen appear from around the steps immediately followed by four guards. He then saw a sight that made his blood run cold. For there was Xena and she had her sword pointed directly between the shoulder blades of Burbus! He knew that if Burbus had not yet sung like a canary, he soon would.
For a brief moment he considered trying to deny everything but after seeing the grim look on the queen's face he knew she wasn't coming to promote him. No, his only viable option now was to get to the prince and use him to guarantee his safe passage out of Elis. And so the young man with the irritating air of superiority and the carefully cultivated sense of dignity did a most undignified thing. He slowly backed away from the stairs, turned, and went tearing down the corridor like a bat out of Tartarus.
Xena heard the loud whap, whap whap, of Braxxus' sandals on the marble floor and instantly realized what was happening. "Let me through!" she yelled, pushing her way past the guards. She hit the top step and turned into the corridor in time to see Braxxus rush past the war room and start down the steps at the far end. One third of the way down the hall she saw Arless emerge from the war room and take one wild look in her direction before following his coconspirator down the stairs. He too had heard Braxxus and guessed the jig was up.
Xena reached the far steps where she suddenly stopped to avoid the chance of blindly rushing into an ambush. As she did she noticed that end of the corridor was slippery but was able to compensate for it and maintain her balance. Had she the time to investigate she would have found the cause to be water leaking onto the floor through a crack in the large planter standing nearby.
Gabrielle, on the other hand, was not as fortunate as Xena. Flying down the hall in a desperate attempt to keep up, she was taken completely by surprise by the wet floor. That, combined with slower reflexes and well-worn boots, caused her to lose her balance and go skidding hard into Xena's right leg. Xena's knee buckled and she went down like a rowboat in a hurricane. She tried frantically to get her hands under her to break her fall but her left hand hit the planter and her right one landed squarely on Gabrielle's knee.
Xena landed hard on her tail bone which, in itself, was painful enough but the resounding shock of her unbroken fall also caused her already tender back to feel like someone had thrust a red-hot sword into it. Gods be damned! she silently raged. For one very brief moment her anger got the best of her and that dark Xena still very much within her surfaced and turned all its fury on Gabrielle. The old Xena wanted to lash out and punish the unfortunate bard for her clumsiness but in less than a heart beat she was again banished to the depths of Xena's soul. And as always...always, this Xena's first concern was Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, are you all right?"
Poor Gabrielle. The only thing she had injured was her feelings. She saw the grimace on Xena's face and it was clear she was in great pain. It horrified her to know she was responsible--even if it had been an accident. "Yeah," she replied, almost with a whimper. "You?"
Pain was a very old acquaintance to Xena. It had visited her with varying degrees of intensity many, many times throughout her life. Over time she had learned to use her indomitable will to if not conquer pain, at least control it. Once again the great warrioress reached down into the depths of her magnificent heart and summoned forth her courage, her will, her spirit. With that wry look Gabrielle knew so well Xena answered, "Gee, Gabrielle, I think I've fallen for you."
She raised herself to a sitting position and then quickly scrambled to her feet. She sheathed her sword and then extended her arm down to the still ashen Gabrielle. "Cmon," she said. Her lover took the hand and with one powerful yank Xena pulled her to her feet. Before Gabrielle could say she was sorry Xena was halfway down the steps. In reality this entire incident lasted a mere fifteen seconds but to Gabrielle it seemed like a very long time indeed. Now almost as if pulled along by some kind of invisible tether, Gabrielle followed after Xena. When she reached the bottom of the steps Gabrielle saw Xena was halfway across the large room and Braxxus and Arless were just reaching the door that led out to the palace courtyard.
Once outside Braxxus rushed up to the two guards manning the palace gate and shouted, "Stop that woman! She's trying to kill me!" He then burst through the gate and into the street. The heretofore drowsy guards snapped to attention and drew their swords to face the onrushing Xena.
"Halt!" one of them commanded.
Xena's knee was killing her. Her tail bone screamed in protest with every step she took and her back felt like it was on fire but, at the moment, Xena's only concern was catching Braxxus. "Sorry, guys," she called out. "Maybe some other time." With that she came to a hard jump stop and vaulted neatly over the astonished men. Their mouths were still agape when Gabrielle streaked by them.
Braxxus stole a peek over his shoulder and saw the devil-woman was gaining on her. Frantically he looked about for some means to escape. Got to reach the prince, he thought. Then I'll be safe. Another look behind him and he saw the woman had closed the distance even more.
Now a glimmer of hope offered itself to him for just down the street was a tavern and tied up out in front of it were several horses. Panting heavily, Braxxus rushed up to the horses and, taking out his dagger, cut one free. He then mounted up, pointed the horse up the street, and kicked to life.
Right behind him came Xena and, she too, did not bother to waste time by untieing the horse's reins but simply cut them. But all the sudden excitement had caused the horses to become somewhat skittish and it took Xena three tries to get her foot in the stirrup. By the time she was finally in the saddle Gabrielle had managed to join her.
"Xena!" she panted. "I saw Arless run down that alley back there."
Turning her horse in the direction Braxxus had taken, Xena said, "Forget him, Gabrielle. Braxxus is the son of a bitch we want."
The bright moonlight reflecting off Braxxus' white tunic made it very easy for Xena to keep him in sight. She could see she was slowly, but steadily, gaining on him. In truth Braxxus had selected the faster animal but his horsemanship was vastly inferior to Xena's and thus his horse's natural advantage in speed was negated. Just get me there first, he silently pleaded. All his hopes were now pinned to his use of the prince as a bargaining chip to secure his safety. After abducting the prince Braxxus had secretly transported him and the girl back to Elis and hidden them in an abandoned copper mine just outside of the capital. He had done this partly because of his mistrust of his fellow conspirators, especially Burbus, and partly because he had wanted the price handy in case something went awry. Well something had gone awry and he knew that without that shield of safety the price would provide he was as good as dead. Queen Draganis was not exactly known for turning the other cheek.
Fifteen minutes later Xena found herself only about ten horse lengths behind. She could see Braxxus was not used to such hard riding and was sure he was tiring.
Xena's body was now a veritable pool of pain and the pounding of the horse beneath her was very much causing that pain increase exponentially. The battle raging within her was as fierce as any she had ever experienced in war. It was a grim struggle between the nerve endings in her body, shrieking for help, and her matchless will, demanding that they shut up and let the muscles to their job. It was as if somewhere deep in her a voice was saying, "Pain, I know thee well. You are my enemy. Many times your power has sent me reeling but you have never defeated me. Once again I grapple with thee and though I am in years you shall not prevail. I will conquer thee." Xena rode on oblivious to this massive struggle raging inside her. All she knew was she was hurting like Tartarus...and that she would go on.
There it is! At last Braxxus saw two huge poplar trees standing side by side, their branches silhouetted against the moon. These trees marked the place where a small lane broke off from the main road and ran toward the old mine. It was only a short distance from there to the mine and Braxxus was able to beat Xena to it and enter first. Xena followed him in and saw the main shaft was not very long. Obviously it had not been a very productive mine. At the end of the main shaft she could see light, probably torches, emanating from what she guessed had been an aborted attempt to cut another shaft. Xena drew her sword and made for the light. She stuck her head around the corner and saw Braxxus jerk a young man to his feet and put a dagger to his throat.
"That's far enough, Xena! Braxxus shouted. "You try to be a hero and the prince gets another air hole."
Xena coolly stepped into the room and swept her eyes over the scene. Besides Braxxus and Felix there were two other very startled men and, sitting with her back against the wall bound hand and foot, was Sonia.
"Give it up, Braxxus," said Xena. "There's no way I'm gonna let you walk out of here."
"Oh no?" smirked Braxxus. With the point of his dagger he pricked the prince's neck. He then ran his finger over the small cut and held it up so Xena could see the blood. "Then he dies."
"Tell me something. What reason could a man possibly have to make him want to betray his country?" asked Xena.
"Not one reason, a million reasons," said Braxxus.
"Of course," purred Xena. "Money."
"You got it," said Braxxus. "You see, I'm a very good minister but a very poor gambler. I lost quite a large sum of money in Corinth some time back and, my paltry salary being what it is, I was unable to make good my losses. After keeping me locked up in a store room for two days I was taken to see the owner of the gambling house, a man named Ausmus. To my surprise, he knew me."
"And so he offered you a deal," said Xena.
"My dear Xena, you are as smart as Arless said you were. It turns out this Ausmus was an operative, a spy if you will, and he said he had been authorized by his government to make me an offer. I was promised a million dinars to create some ah, incident, that would allow his country to invade Elis unopposed. At first I refused but then he waved my gambling receipts under my nose and said Queen Draganis would be seeing these within a week if I didn't cooperate. Well, faced with the choice of being a rich man or a disgraced public official I naturally chose the former."
"So you sold your country down the river," said Xena disgustedly.
"That's a crude way of saying it but, yes."
"How did you manage to convince a coward like Arless to throw in with you?" asked Xena.
"It was simple enough," replied Braxxus smugly. "Most of his life is behind him," Braxxus sneered at Xena and added, "as is yours, Xena. I was able to convince him that a half a million dinars would enable him to retire to some remote place quite comfortably."
"Of course," he sniffed, "once his participation in the plan was no longer needed his usefulness to me would have been at an end."
"And you would have double-crossed him and kept the money for yourself, right?"
"Oh absolutely," said Braxxus. "You see, once one has practiced treachery it becomes much easier the next time." He then wrapped an arm around the prince's neck. "It's been so very good to talk to you, Xena," he said sarcastically. "But I'm afraid I must go now. Maddux, Persiphedus, come on."
"What about the girl?" asked Persiphedus.
"Well I--" Braxxus' reply was cut short by a startling revelation. Fool! he thought. Why didn't I notice it before? For the first time he saw that the girl's face was really nothing more than a much younger version of the one glaring at him from across the room.
"Is the girl your daughter?" he asked.
With an mocking sigh he asked, "My my, this certainly adds more chips to my stack doesn't it? Take her, Maddux!"
Xena wrapped both hands around her sword and pointed it at Braxxus. "I can't let you do that," she said menacingly.
"I don't see where you have any choice in the matter if you want the girl to live. Now back off, Xena!"
Still holding the sword on him, Xena slowly backed away. As she did she bumped into one of the supporting timbers and felt it give. She swept her eyes over the room, made her calculations, and decided it was worth the risk. She turned and savagely kicked the timber with all her might.
There was a loud crack! as the timber gave way followed by the sound of rock grinding on rock.
"What have you done?" shrieked Braxxus. He tightened his grip on the prince's neck and snarled, "Let's go."
At this point a rock approximately the size of a man's fist broke loose from the ceiling and struck Braxxus in the head, causing him to lower his hand. Seeing her chance, Xena swung her sword in arc of blinding speed and cut off Braxxus' hand just above the wrist. Even before the dagger it still gripped was on the ground Xena had wrenched the prince free and was shoving him toward the exit.
"Run!" she screamed at him.
"You bitch!" Braxxus wailed. "You filthy, meddling bitch!"
Xena ignored him and started straight for Maddux and Persiphedus.
"Kill the girl" screamed Braxxus. "Killlll her!"
But the two men were not killers. In fact when they saw Xena cut Braxxus' hand off it had frightened them so badly they were unable to move. They were just a couple of not particularly bright guys.
Xena read their eyes and recognized they were not dangerous. "Get out of here!" she yelled at them.
Maddux and Persiphedus did not have to be told twice. Like two streaks of lightning they bolted out of the room and into the main tunnel. Xena rushed to Sonia and, as she cut the bindings on the girl's feet, another loud crack resounded through the room. Xena shot a glance at the ceiling and saw the whole thing buckle. She took Sonia by the arm and yelled, "Come on!"
Xena had figured she could take care of Braxxus and his henchmen and get everyone out before the roof came crashing down but she had not counted on Sonia's legs being numb from sitting in such an awkward position for so long. The girl simply could not walk. Xena wrapped her arm around Sonia's waist and deperately tried to drag her out. But it was too late.
Lying on his back, Braxxus good a very good look at the tons of rock and dirt descending upon him. He didn't even bother to scream.
The old man untied his horse and swung himself up into the saddle. "Well I guess you don't have one foot in the grave after all," he chuckled. In truth Zander was in very good physical condition for a man his age but, even so, the two leagues he had covered this night, much of it at a steady jog, had left him fatigued. But it was a good feeling. A feeling one gets when a worthwhile task had been completed. The old man knew he had done well. Back in those hills there were three places where the main road was covered with tons of dirt and rock. He guessed it would be at least three, maybe four, days before the road would again be passable. Kondesah will be well pleased, he thought. He eased his horse onto the road and pointed it south. Even his rumbling stomach felt good. "Boy could I go for some roast chicken right now," he murmured.
His pleasant reverie was broken by the sound of hoofbeats thundering up the road toward him. Zander pulled his horse off the road and dismounted. As he waited there in the shadows Zander turned over in his mind the possibilities. Nobody rides like that at night unless they're crazy, he reasoned. Or scared. The more he thought about it, the less he liked it. Somebody riding north. He knew that by now Xena had made her play. Maybe this is one of her "friends," he thought. Maybe it's another gods-be-damned spy going to warn the invasion force. Maybe. Maybe not. Whoever they were he decided they were not a friend--to him, to Xena, to his adopted country. Having reached this conclusion he reached down and picked up a large tree limb that had been broken off by the recent storms. No sense killing the guy, he thought. Xena might want to "talk" to him. The hoofbeats were coming very close now so Zander took his limb and crept out to the side of the road, making sure he stayed in the shadows. Yes, he could see him now. "Come on, pal," he whispered. "Just a little closer..."
Arless was sure he was riding the slowest horse in all Greece. "Come on, you nag," he rasped. As he fled north he silently cursed the woman that, once again, had caused him so much misery. For the second time in his life she had forced him to flee a most comfortable situation and run for his life. Damn her! And damn that Braxxus for talking me into this idiotic scheme. As usual Arless blamed everyone but himself. "I'll show them!" he railed at the blackness. Especially that cursed Xena, he thought. I'll cross the border and offer my services.
This was no idle threat. As a fixture in the Army of Elis for more than a dozen years Arless was well aware of its capabilities. He knew not only what it could to but, more importantly, what it could not do. He knew every weakness. What was more he was more than willing to show his new allies how to take advantage of those weaknesses ...for a price of course. Who knows? he thought. I might even be able to turn the tables on that putrid Xena for once. With that he began to fantasize on what would be the best way to make Xena suffer. Make her watch as her little Gabrielle was tortured to death, of course.
With his eyes locked in on the center of the road, Arless only saw what seemed to be a shadow move by the side of the road. He dismissed it as nothing and was therefore completely unprepared when Zander's tree limb found its mark. The last conscious thought he had was of a fierce pain in his chest and air rushing from his lungs. This was followed by a sense of falling and then a blinding white light in the back of his brain. And then....nothing.
Zander pitched the now broked limb away and knelf down beside fallen rider. In the moonlight he saw the man was lying on his back with his neck tilted at an odd angle. Recognizing the man as Arless, Zander placed his hand underneath his head to raise him upright and load him on the horse. It was then he felt something wet and warm oozing onto his fingers. Blood! he thought.
Zander now realized what had happened. After he struck Arless with the limb the man had fallen backward off the horse which, in turn, made the horse rear up. He figured that when the horse felt something hit his backside it had been a reflex action on its part to kick at it. That had to be it, Zander thought. The horse kicked him in the head. Zander put his ear to Arless' nose to listen for sounds of breathing but there was nothing. He then checked for a pulse. Again nothing. Shit, he thought. I didn't mean to kill him. In spite of his commitment to Elis and to Xena it made him a little sad to think of what he had done. It had been a very long time since he had taken a life.
Quietly he rounded up Arless' horse and laid the dead man across its back. A few minutes later the body was secure and Zander took the horse's reins in hand, mounted his own horse, and slowly made his way south.
"Look there! Someone's in the road!" shouted the guard. He was one of ten men hastily assembled by the captain of the palace guard to accompany the queen and Gabrielle in their pursuit of Xena and Braxxus.
Upon seeing the apparation the captain now rode forward to challenge it. "Who are you? What are you doing out her alone?"
A weak but very familiar voice replied, "It's me Delanos. It's Felix."
"Great Zeus!" the captain gasped, leaping from his horse. "It is you!"
"Your majesty!" the captain squalled, "it's the prince!"
A few seconds later the weary young man was in the happy arms of his tearful mother. "Oh, my boy," she repeatedly sobbed.
The guards gathered around to pat him on the back and all concerned were very much relieved. All except Gabrielle.
Still mounted on her horse, she asked, "Felix, where's Xena?"
"You mean the tall woman?"
Felix pointed down the narrow lane he had just traversed. "Down there. The old mine. I think she's--"
Gabrielle was no longer there to hear his words. Recklessly she drove her horse full speed down the dark lane. She soon entered a clearing and, to her utter dismay, saw a massive dust cloud billowing out of the mine.
Off the horse now and stumbling repeatedly over the rocky ground, she paused upon reaching the mine's entrance. With the strength people often have when placed in situations like this, she reached down and ripped off a large piece of her heavily woven dress with the ease she would a piece of parchment. Using the rag to cover her mouth and nose, she started forward into the mine.
Suddenly a strong hand caught her arm. It was Delanos, the captain of the guard. "Gabrielle, you can't go in there. It's too dangerous."
"Let me go!" howled Gabrielle. She broke away from him and again attempted to enter the dark mine. This time Delanos was not so polite. He dove forward and tackled the bard around the legs. Somehow he managed to avoid the vicious kicks aimed at his groin and succeed in wrapping his arms around each of her legs. While Gabrielle writhed and called him every name she could think of, Delanos slowly and as gently as he could dragged her out of the mine.
By this time Draganis and the rest of the party had arrived on the scene. After a minute or so the queen was able to calm Gabrielle down enough for Delanos to release her.
"Gabrielle," she said gently. "I promise you we're going to get her out of there. Delanos!"
"Organize a work detail at once and clear that mine!"
"Yes, ma'am!" The huge man turned and began barking orders. "All right, you heard her. Virdon, Prathius, go back to the city and bring more men. And bring digging equipment. You know what we need. Xylus, you and Darcineon build a fire so we can see what the Tartarus we're doing. Come on, damn it. This ain't the Festival of Luna here!"
Realizing his error, Delanos sheepishly turned to his queen. "I beg your pardon, ma'am. I didn't mean to be so crude."
If the situation had not been so somber Gabrielle might have thought the sight of the huge Delanos practically cowering before the diminutive Draganis humorous--but not now.
"It's all right, Delanos," the queen assured him. "You just do whatever is necessary to get that mine cleared as quickly as possible."
An obviously relieved Delanos saluted his queen and went to oversee his men. After an anxious wait for the dust to settle enough to allow him to see, Delanos made his initial inspection of the shaft. To his surprise he saw the damage wasn't as bad as he feared. The main shaft itself was clear except for that debris which had spilled out from the aborted shaft. Satisfied he knew where Xena was, Delanos unleashed his men.
Two hours later Gabrielle saw why the queen thougth so highly of Delanos. The man was a veritable whirlwind in action. In a very short time he had organized the men into a very efficient work force. Each man knew not only what his job was, but the best way to do it.
For the entire time Gabrielle had stood by the entrance, silently praying to every god she could think of to please spare Xena's life. At last she had ran her hand into her pocket and fingered the little winged carving Xena had given her earlier. "If you really are a merciful god," she whispered, "you won't let her die."
Gabrielle swore to herself that if Xena survived she was not going to let her out of the house unless it was to take a crap. She knew it was a silly thought. One could no more confine Xena than they could the wind but it comforted her to be able to direct her anger at something.
It has often been said that as one dies, they see their life pass before them. Now Gabrielle's mind began to ponder the events of her life; joyous, sorrowful, silly...loving. No, it was not her life that hung in the balance there but as far as the little bard from Poteidaia was concerned it might as well have been. For she knew that if the only way Xena came out of that mine was in a broken and lifeless body her own life would effectively be over. Yes, she would go on. But to what purpose? What does one do when half their heart and half their soul has been ripped away? Faced with such a crushing loss one could surely never be whole again. For over twenty years practically every thought she'd had was in some way connected to Xena. She had without reservation devoted her life to the stoic, moody, playful, grouchy, sexy, brave, kind, fierce, generous, selfless and incredibly loving warrioress. Gabrielle had gladly given up her own potential greatness to walk in Xena's shadow. Now she faced with the very real possibility that shadow would be no more, Gabrielle's heart was more than being broken--it was being crushed into dust.
She felt a tear on her cheek and wiped it away with the piece of rag she, for some reason, still clung to. "My sweet warrior," she whispered sadly. "My sweet warrior."
For a moment the shout did not register on Gabrielle's brain. Almost as an afterthought she leaned in to look down the shaft.
"Hey!" the voice repeated. It was Delanos.
Breathlessly he tore up the shaft toward Gabrielle and the queen. "We've broken through!"
For a long time Gabrielle would be unable to remember more than bits and pieces of what happened next. Men pitching rocks away. Shovels plunging into the loose dirt. A hole. Someone, she later remembered it was Delanos, bravely squirming through first. Someone pulling her through. She had to see. Rocks. Dirt. Dust piled high. A body. Xena's? No, a man's. Braxxus, his head crushed. His right hand gone. A shout, "Here!" A sword, sticking out of the rubble. It is Xena's. Oh sweet gods no!
Hands. Bleeding hands frantically clawing at the sharp rocks. Her hands. She hears someone scream, "Xeeenaah!" She does not realize it is her own voice. Many hands, tearing at the mound. Someone's hand breaks through. Another hand, Xena's hand. The fingers move. She's alive! Five more minutes of digging that seem like eternity itself. Hair. Filthy, dusty hair. A face, black with dirt...and blood. Xena. Her lips moving. "Gabrielle," they whisper. A soft kiss...blackness.
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle!" The bard's eyelids fluttered open and her unfocused eyes drifted toward the sweet voice. "Gabrielle."
"I'm here, Gabrielle." Gabrielle saw an indistinct face loom over her and she felt herself being hoisted into two strong arms. "Wake up, Gabrielle."
Xena sat on the floor of the mine with Gabrielle's head in her lap.
"Is she going to be all right?" asked Delanos.
"Yeah," replied Xena. "I guess all this was too much for her. Xena then slapped Gabrielle twice on the cheek, not hard--just enough to make it sting. At last Gabrielle's eyes began to focus in on the face. It was a beautiful face. It was covered with grime and streaked by sweat. It had a fair sized cut on the forehead which had bled down around the left eye forming a macabre circle. Yes, it was a beautiful face.
"Yes, Gabrielle. It's me." Xena took the offered water bag from one of the guards and put it to Gabrielle's lips.
"I, I should be taking care of you," said Gabrielle.
"Shhh. You just rest," cooed Xena. "I'll take care of both of us--of all of us."
The following day was filled with good news for Draganis. First, she learned that the northern road had indeed been cut. Soon after she was informed that the lead elements of her army would be in the capital by midnight. Her son was safe. Her realm was safe. Burbus had confessed all and the queen, to her relief, found the conspiracy to be confined to Braxxus and Arless. It pleased her to know the treacherous bastards were dead. It saved the kingdom the expense of hanging them.
Xena and Sonia were none the worse for wear despite almost being killed. Just before the ceiling gave way Xena had managed to throw Sonia into a shallow recess in the wall and cover her with her body. Xena's legs and torso were then pinned by the falling debris which had filled up around the depression in the wall forming a pocket. Though they were trapped there was little danger of suffocation. Xena had pretty well figured they would be rescued before they ran out of air. She had known Gabrielle and the others would not be far behind.
Sitting there in the dark, Xena had revealed herself to the girl and the two of them had gotten to talk. Xena found the girl to be smart, devoted to her family and still as serious as ever. She had even found out why Sonia had passed the note to Prince Felix. The girl had asked him to write a letter of recommendation that would allow her to apply to the fine art school Elis was famous for.
Queen Draganis extended her hand to the tall warrior and said, "Xena, once again you have preserved life. Not only my son's, but my kingdom's as well." She had not been surprised when Xena turned down her offer of reward.
"It wasn't just me," said Xena. "I had plenty of help."
"That reminds me," said the queen. She turned to Zander and said, "You have bravely given good service to your country in her time of need. Name your reward and you shall have it."
The old man blushed and said, "Ma'am for the last twenty years this country has given me all I ever wanted--a home."
"But surely there is some way I can show my appreciation," said Draganis.
"Well there is one thing."
"Name it," the queen said quickly.
"Well for twenty years now I've passed the palace and I've often wondered what it looked like on the inside. Do you suppose...?"
"I shall conduct the tour personally," said the queen, smiling. She turned to Xena and said, "I have already sent Arcadia a formal apology but I would like for you express to your brother my personal regret over this matter."
"I will," said Xena.
"Tell him I am ready to make some concessions regarding our border dispute," said Draganis. "I think it is time we settle old squabbles and go forward."
"He will be be happy to hear that," said Xena.
Draganis was not one to express emotion and she surprised Xena by hugging her and saying in an unusually warm voice, "You are always welcome here." The queen nodded to Gabrielle and Zander and disappeared through the palace gates.
Xena's back was still hurting but she had not felt this good for a long time. She watched Sonia as she chatted quietly with Gabrielle and already knew she loved the girl. For the first time since she was a teen the thought of being part of a true family again appealed to her. Yes, she thought, it's time.
"Xena?" It was Zander.
"I suppose there's no way I can talk you into staying an extra day or two, is there?"
Xena smiled at the old man. "No. I need to get Sonia home to her folks. Poor Toris is probably half nuts by now." She laid a hand on Zander's shoulder and said, "I just want you to know I am deeply grateful for your help. You did a brave thing."
The old man's eyes welled up and he said, "Kondesah, until the day I die I will be at your command." He stepped back and sniffed. "Look at me, acting like a little kid."
"Not a little kid," Xena corrected him, "a good man."
The old man nodded. "Ah, have you obtained a horse for the girl yet?"
"No as a matter of fact we haven't," replied Xena.
"Then allow me to take care of it for you," said Zander. Turning to Sonia, he asked, "Do you like horses?"
"I love horses," said Sonia.
"If it's all right with Xena you want to come with me and pick one out?"
Sonia looked up the tall woman she had heard so much about all her life. Her father had on many occasions told her Xena was a remarkable woman. From their short time together Sonia had already decided remarkable was a very inadequate description. "Is it all right with you, Aunt Xena?" she asked.
"Sure, go ahead," smiled Xena. Aunt Xena, I like that.
Xena and Gabrielle watched the young girl and the old man stroll leisurely down toward the stable. Already he was making her laugh.
"You know," said Gabrielle, "I still can't get over how much she looks like you."
"Ha, ha. Funny."
"Have I told you lately that I love you?"
"Weelll, actually it has been awhile," teased the bard.
"I love you."
Gabrielle gazed into the eyes that were still so captivating after all these years. "Xena, I love you so much. You know, sometimes I uh, I pray that I will die before you do. I don't think I'm going to able to bear losing you."
"Xena pulled the precious little bard close to her. "Gabrielle," she cooed, "what have I told you time and time again? I'll always be here. No matter what. A little thing like death is not going to keep us apart."
She hugged Gabrielle and tenderly kissed her on top of the head. "My little one," she whispered, "our time together is just beginning."
The Bard's Corner