History Cast in Amber
(c) July 1997
CHAPTER ONE - ROAD TO TROUBLE
On the road into Corinth the morning was bright and a breeze picked up strawberry blonde hair. Brushing it out of her face, Gabrielle walked beside Xena who was rubbing Argo's neck as she rode along. The warrior was attentive as Gabrielle tried out her latest finished tale, the story of their battle against Velasca and Callisto. She'd titled it "A Necessary Evil." When she reached the part about Xena luring the two demi-goddesses to the lava flow, the warrior held up a hand.
"You make me sound like a goddess myself, Gabrielle. Can't you tone it down just a little? I guessed that the lava would hold Callisto and Velasca. I didn't know," Xena admonished.
"You went up against a goddess-in-the-making," argued the bard. "I'm convinced this is the only way to convey your brilliance."
"Great. Now I'm 'brilliant'."
Gabrielle retorted, "Xena, listen, you are the greatest strategist I've ever had the pleasure to tell a story about. You're even better than Ulysses, and he was incredible!"
"He beat the Sphinx too," Xena commented.
"No, that was Oedipus," Gabrielle sighed. "You just don't get it, do you?"
Xena sighed back. "No, I guess I don't. You're the one who beat the Sphinx's riddles when we tried to get those girls back for Atalanta on the Thessaly Road. And that's final."
"But you gave me the idea to use the Trojan War as the basis for the final riddle. You realized the Sphinx was unaware that it had taken place, but that the Sphinx's soldiers would know, validating the answer. She'd already guessed my riddle about your chakram."
Gabrielle hung her head. She recalled easily the surprise she'd felt when the Sphinx had just studied Xena for just a moment and then blurted, "That! Her round killing thing."
Xena looked down at Gabrielle and shook her head.
Gabrielle stopped walking. Xena brought Argo to a stop. "Are you really that uncomfortable with the presentation?" Gabrielle didn't want to anger her best friend.
"I appreciate the confidence in my skills, Gabrielle, I really do. But I am embarrassed by the praise. I'm just me, not another Hercules."
Gabrielle knew that, but she was determined to make Xena claim some glory. There were so few heroes; Greece needed a real one to follow. Nothing against Hercules, but Xena was all too human. Gabrielle thought that made her stories of the warrior woman more gripping, and memorable. "I'll tone it down, but you deserve praise. You've done well for yourself and others, and I think people ought to know that."
Xena smiled. "I guess I can understand that, but I don't have to like it."
Gabrielle frowned. "I'd appreciate it if you liked it ... at least a little."
Xena's tone was conciliatory. "Write the story as you think it deserves to be told. I'll like it just fine. But remember, I'm not your audience; Greece is."
"So what stories do you want to hear? I'm your bard, remember. I am your entertainer as well as your tale-bearer."
"You insinuated yourself in that role as I recall," Xena replied with a half-smile.
"So? I'm still here, aren't I?" Gabrielle smiled broadly up at Xena, waiting to see if the warrior would challenge her yet again.
"Yeah," Xena relented. "Okay. Tell me stories of ordinary people making a great difference." Xena pushed her dark hair off her shoulder.
"Honest." Xena straightened in her saddle and nudged Argo with her knees.
"Then you'll have to continue hearing at least some stories about yourself," the bard answered curtly. Gabrielle walked quickly ahead of the horse for a few strides, presenting her back to the warrior. Xena made a useless, silent gesture to call her back, but said nothing, merely nudging Argo alongside. Xena waited. She wanted to apologize but didn't know where to start.
Gabrielle broke the silence first, as usual. She looked up at Xena and asked, "How long do you think until we reach the valley?"
"Maybe another day."
Gabrielle touched Argo's withers. "What exactly are we here to do?"
Xena pulled the weather-beaten parchment from her pouch. "There's a slaver in the area. I've been asked to come solve the problem."
"You looked pretty angry about what the runner from Amber had to say," Gabrielle commented, thinking back to the night in the tavern in Briar when the rag-clothed, tired man had stumbled in from the rain, crying Xena's name.
"Slavers go after women. We all know that. But this one also collects children," Xena replied coolly.
Gabrielle sighed. "Can't anybody play by the rules for once?" She stepped away from Argo's side and kicked at the dirt. "So, who are we supposed to meet up with?"
"The tavern keeper in Amber knows where the slavers' camp is. I was told to meet with him. Amber's just over the Northern Pass, and the terrain isn't the easiest to travel. In fact, for some of the way, I'll probably walk with you to make it easier for Argo."
Gabrielle winced, "That steep, huh?" The bard stepped around a large rut in the road, and skipped forward twice to return to Argo's side.
Xena mused at her companion's lightfooted walk. Sometimes she wished she could hold a picture of the bard's sunny face, keep it in her pack to look on when her spirits were low. "Pretty sight at the top. I think you'll like it." The warrior patted Argo's neck when the horse's ears twitched toward her voice.
"So, you've been to this valley before?" Gabrielle asked. Xena nodded slowly but not answering. Gabrielle realized when she looked up and saw the shadow stealing across the warrior's bright blue eyes that the history of Xena in this place wasn't a pleasant memory. "What happened here?"
Xena shook her head. "Nothing that matters now."
Gabrielle nudged a little. "Come on, what happened here?" Xena frowned at the blonde. "I've heard a lot about your early travels. Just tell me." Xena shook her head. Gabrielle tried a different tact. "How can you atone for a past you keep denying?"
Xena's eyes darkened to the blue of a moonlit night sky. "Gabrielle," she warned. The bard pulled up on Argo's reins, making Xena stop, and turned to stare up obstinately at the warrior. Xena forced her jaw to loosen and said evenly, "Amber's older citizens are probably some of my old victims."
Gabrielle nodded. "All right. Well, at least I'll know not to mention your name anywhere." She released Argo's reins, allowing Argo to resume walking. She strode alongside Argo's head. The two women walked in silence for a while, each woman focused on her own thoughts.
Xena sighed. She should know by now that Gabrielle would never judge her for her past actions. But she suffered through an incredibly powerful urge to run whenever the pair was entering an area where the Warrior Princess had once plied her evil. Dredging up her past made Xena... tense.
Xena's ears and body sense focused on every sound of the forests around them. She happened to glance down and see the top of Gabrielle's strawberry blonde head. The bard was looking around in that absorbing way of hers, memorizing details. Xena loved the bard's sense of awe and reverence for the world around her. The warrior had suffocated that trait in herself so many years ago out of a need to survive.
Gabrielle's friendship brought that sense of amazement back to the weary warrior. Even now with the coming confrontation on her mind, Xena let her heightened caution slip and looked around. A squirrel scooted across Argo's path and skittered up a nearby tree. Xena watched the animal until it disappeared.
Gabrielle noticed when Xena's eyes followed the squirrel. She'd been watching the little beast herself for the last fifty paces. Gabrielle skipped around another rut and came alongside Xena. She decided to try and lighten Xena's mood further. "Sometimes, I envy you, Xena."
Gabrielle looked up as Xena looked down. "Why is that?"
"You may have been a warlord while you were doing it, but you have traveled everywhere. Is there anywhere you haven't been?"
Xena shrugged. "I don't know. I haven't been there," she replied with a wry smile. Gabrielle laughed so hard she brought herself under control only with great difficulty.
She hiccuped, "Gods, why do you hide that wit?"
Xena smiled genuinely. "I can't beat a warlord with wit."
"It might be an interesting battle, since you'd be the better armed," Gabrielle laughed. She was pleased at the turn of events and the smile, so rare, on her friend's face. She stopped walking, alerted to the growl of her stomach. She looked up at the position of the sun.
Xena noticed the pause in the bard's even stride. She watched Gabrielle rub her stomach and looked at the sun herself. "Maybe we ought to stop and have some lunch." The warrior started looking around more carefully at their surroundings, and cocked her head to listen. "I hear some water over that next rise. Let's cut into the trees over there." In another stride, without causing the mare to pause, Xena slid off Argo's back and walked beside Gabrielle, leading both the younger woman and the horse off the right side of the road.
Gabrielle sighed. Everything she did was so transparent to this woman. She wondered if it was even possible for her to think something without Xena seeing it plainly written on her face within minutes. Or if the woman was a mind reader. She glanced up at the older woman at the thought.
Xena pushed aside a low-hanging branch so Argo could pass and continued to hold it for Gabrielle to slip past as well. "I don't read minds, Gabrielle. Just body language. And you, my friend, have the most expressive face and body of anyone I've ever met." Gabrielle gasped. Xena chuckled.
Gabrielle shook her head. "Don't ever change, Xena," she said, touching the warrior's arm. She was rewarded when Xena lifted her left hand and captured Gabrielle's hand in her own. Neither spoke anything more. As they broke through more trees, Gabrielle finally heard the sounds of water which Xena had heard a hundred paces back on the road. She shook her head again in amazement and smiled.
The bard collected berries from a robust bush along their path. "Let's just snack on some trail sticks," Gabrielle suggested, popping the berries into her mouth. "I want a swim in that water. It sounds perfect."
Xena shook her head. "You like to live dangerously, don't you?"
"What's wrong with that?" Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand, which she still held. "Besides, I travel with the great Warrior Princess. Danger is my life," she replied with a light laugh, knowing that was a sticky point with the warrior. Gabrielle liked the adventure and risk that came with traveling with Xena. Her laugh prevented Xena from dwelling on that fact.
Xena didn't dwell on it, but late at night when she couldn't sleep, she would think about it - hard. Why the soft-spoken bard put up with Xena's taciturn nature and quick-as-a-flash temper, questions the warrior would never ask and had been unable to answer.
The pair reached a clearing by a river thick with rocks and rushing white water. Gabrielle removed her scroll bag and their food supply bag from her shoulders. She dropped her staff on the ground beside them, sat down, and unlaced her boots.
"If we stay in that alcove, we should be safe enough," The warrior pointed out a spot in the river surrounded by large rocks that would be a perfect place to soak off their trail dust. She dropped Argo's reins and removed the mare's saddle and their bags and bedding. Argo lowered her head and nibbled the soft, green grasses blanketing the clearing.
Xena removed her scabbard and armor, standing in only her leathers for the moment, looking around. Gabrielle stepped out of her skirt and folded it atop her bags.
"I'll race you to that water," Gabrielle suggested. "Looks absolutely inviting!"
Xena's eyes sparkled at the challenge and said simply, "Whenever you're ready."
Nodding, Gabrielle jumped toward the water, then yelled, "Now!" A few paces from the water's edge, she looked over her shoulder and saw Xena. The clearing was empty behind her. She stopped. "Xena?"
"Over here," came the reply. Gabrielle spun to see Xena come out of an aerial somersault and land lightly ahead of the bard, about a step from the water.
"Gods!" gasped the bard, falling to the ground as she spun quickly around. "You did that without so much as a rustling sound!"
"Nothing was on the ground where I took off. Not even a dry leaf," shrugged the warrior. She stripped and slipped into the water first, while the bard remained on the shore, her face suffused with astonishment. Smiling broadly Xena announced, "I win."
Gabrielle shook her head, pulled off her shift, and slid into the water beside her friend. Both women sank down in the warm water, moaning contentedly. Although a strong current still moved past them, the huge boulders kept the harshest white water away.
"Divine!" sighed Gabrielle, ducking her head under the water and rubbing trail dust from her face and strawberry blonde locks. When she came up for air, water cascaded over her head, making her splutter. "Hey!" She splashed back at the warrior... or at least where the warrior had been.
Xena popped to the surface behind Gabrielle and splatter her from behind. This time, as Gabrielle turned in the water, she felt the warrior's body sliding past her legs. She dropped a hand in the water and touched a bare back. "Gotcha!" the bard spluttered when Xena came to the surface, splashing her in the face once again. "Gotcha, too!"
Both women laughed and settled against the rocks, breathing deeply.
Sounds of branches breaking and a woman screaming broke their idyll. Within an instant of hearing the first piercing scream, Xena was on the bank. Another moment later, she had pulled on her shift, grabbed up her sword, and charged into the forest.
Gabrielle groaned, "Wouldn't you know it? Never an afternoon of peace." She sighed again, climbed out of the water, and headed for her clothing.
CHAPTER TWO - MISSION DEFINED
Gabrielle stepped into her skirt and tied on her top before grabbing her staff and following the warrior. The bard cocked her head and listened, wondering which way was best to approach the situation. Xena always took the direct approach, but she had a sword. With a staff, the bard needed surprise to help in her battles. She heard scuffling and finally Xena's high-pitched battle cry directly ahead. Then, her sensitive ears detected noises to her right. So, Gabrielle decided to circle ahead of the commotion, maybe surprise someone headed for the water. She pushed through the line of foliage, waist high bushes and thick tree trunks.
Suddenly, Gabrielle was face to face with a young woman not much older than herself. In the next instant the woman collapsed to the ground. Gabrielle checked the inert woman and found her still breathing. She had bruises on her temples, and her arms were one big mess of red and purple. No doubt, her back was the same. Slavers! Gabrielle thought in the next instant, as she assumed a stand over the woman's body, ready to meet any and all comers. The Amazon-trained bard spun her staff into a defense position, looking around for an opponent. She calmed her own breathing and focus her anger about the woman's condition into battle readiness, as Xena had taught her.
All at once, a burly man in rough clothing crashed through the foliage yelling. Xena had probably just thrown him aside, but Gabrielle had to disable if his victim was to escape from her kidnappers. Gabrielle had no idea how many others Xena was keeping busy. From the nearby sounds, Gabrielle knew quite a fight was going on. So she focused on doing her part of the job - protecting the downed woman.
The man stood, shaking the uncertainty out of his head. Looking up, he grinned lopsidedly at the fierce stance of a slip of a girl wielding a staff. Beside her was the escaped slave, unconscious. He charged, and Gabrielle shifted her grip on her staff, swiped once at his chest and caused him to take a step back in mid-stride. He was knocked onto his backside by her counter-swing to the backs of his knees.
"Take that!" Gabrielle shouted, poking the man hard in the chest with the end of her staff. "You men taking defenseless women! Ugh!" She spun her staff quickly again and knocked him out with a stinging blow to the head. Then she straightened up and stepped back to check on the unconscious woman.
She was resting her hand against the woman's temple when more crashing sounds in the next clearing caught her attention. Patting the woman's cheeks, she roused her enough to convey that they had to move to deeper cover. With Gabrielle's help, the woman came to her feet, and the two moved into the foliage.
Gabrielle pushed the woman down behind the branches of a thick bush. "Stay here. I've got to go check on my friend,"
"The warrior woman is your friend?" These were the first words the woman had spoken, and Gabrielle almost laughed. Xena was a shock to most people. To a woman half-out of her mind with fear, Xena dropping out of the air to land in the clearing must have appeared like the arrival of a dark angel.
Gabrielle nodded. "Shh. I'll be back." The woman shrank back into the bush as Gabrielle moved off.
The bard broke into the clearing to find the battle all but over. Xena stood over a man cowering on the ground, her sword tip at his thick throat. "Tell me where your leader is!"
"I ain't talkin'!" The man, bleeding from a long cut on his sword arm and a deep gash in his left leg, was panting, but still defiant in the face of Xena's glare.
On her way to Xena's side, Gabrielle saw seven men dressed in iron-studded leather armor. None were moving. She arrived just as Xena, quick as lightning, changed position and struck the remaining soldier's neck, interrupting the flow of blood to his brain. She informed him as much while he writhed on the ground. "Now, I want to know who your leader is."
Barely able to respond, he croaked out the answer, "Fracchus."
Xena released the pressure and stepped back. "Tell him that Xena is in the neighborhood, and I'll be looking him up. Now, go!" The man crawled a few paces, then struggled to his feet and bolted away.
Xena turned from watching his departure and asked, "Did you get the girl?"
Gabrielle nodded, "All safe and sound. Come on, I'll take you to her."
The two women left the clearing. Gabrielle led the way to the bush where the young woman sat. "Here's my friend, Xena. What's your name?" the bard asked, helping the woman to her feet.
The woman looked from the little bard to the dominating presence of the warrior woman. She looked back at the easier countenance of the bard. "Arianna."
Gabrielle grasped the woman's hand and smiled reassuringly. "I'm Gabrielle."
"Where are you from, Arianna?" asked Xena, shifting her blood-covered sword behind her back. But the girl saw it anyway and shivered.
"Are they dead?" Again, Arianna looked at Gabrielle instead of Xena.
"Xena made sure they won't come after you again. And if we can get to their camp, we can make sure their friends won't be kidnapping anyone else either."
Arianna shivered again. "Thank you. I'm from the village of Amber. I was in the fields yesterday morning when several men charged down the mountains and snatched my friends and me from our work."
Gabrielle studied Xena for a moment before speaking again. The warrior betrayed nothing. "Do you think you could show us the location of the slavers' camp?"
"I don't know. When I ran though, I didn't really pay attention to how I got out. I just did it."
Xena finally spoke, keeping her voice soft. It was obvious Arianna was uneasy around her, and she didn't want to scare her entirely. "You two stay here. I'll fetch Argo and clear up our things at the riverbank." She saw the girl start. "You'll be safe. Those men won't be going anywhere. And their only survivor hotfooted it back to camp."
Gabrielle watched Arianna shiver. She shook her head at Xena, who shrugged. They'd had weapons, her demeanor said. I had to kill them. Xena ducked through the trees.
When they were alone, Gabrielle sat down to wait. Arianna asked the question that had been on her mind since first seeing Xena charge into the clearing. "Does she always fight in a shift?"
Gabrielle laughed. "No, of course not. We were bathing in the river when we heard your shout and the noises. She just doesn't believe in wasting time."
Arianna settled back and waited with Gabrielle. Both women jumped to their feet when a voice called out behind them. "Arianna, do you want to ride?"
Gabrielle and Arianna turned and watched the Warrior Princess stride up leading the palomino mare. The bard neatly caught the large shoulder bag flung toward her. She was adjusting it over her shoulder when Xena pressed the other two bags into her hands. Gabrielle looked at Argo's back and saw that all their other gear was already secured. Impressive speed, warrior woman, Gabrielle thought.
Gabrielle turned to walk toward Xena and stopped, amused as she watched her friend approach Arianna. The young woman was fighting her instinct to step back as Xena came up. Dressed in her leathers and armor, Xena looked even more massive. Gabrielle cleared her throat, reminding Xena to soften her expression. Arianna visibly relaxed.
Xena said to Arianna, "Want to ride? You've had a hard couple of days." The young woman nodded. "Well, here. Let me help you up." The warrior cupped her hands so Arianna could step up and hefted her to Argo's saddle.
Gabrielle watched as Arianna's eyes went wide with amazement. Gabrielle had no doubt the young woman was shocked at the strength and ease with which she'd just been deposited in the saddle. Xena's contrasting warrior behavior and stunning femininity confused many. It never ceased to amaze Gabrielle either, who knew, even after two years, that Xena didn't do anything more than practice with her weapons every day yet remained stronger than several men put together.
Xena came up behind the bard and talked in a low voice as they started walking toward the road again. "Let's get going. Arianna should be back home by nightfall and then, Gabrielle, you stay there while I go after Fracchus."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I'm going with you. How can you even think of marching into a warlord's camp and taking on the head man himself?"
Xena shook her head. "I know Fracchus."
Gabrielle wryly smiled, "I guess that shouldn't surprise me. So, what's the plan?"
"If the man I let go delivers my message, well, then he'll know why I'm here."
"Great." She paused and thought a moment before adding, "I'm still coming with you." Before Xena could protest, Gabrielle moved around to the other side of Argo and started conversing with Arianna, getting a view of village life in Amber from the young woman.
"We've lived quite peacefully for several years. My father and I arrived in Amber about 6 years ago," Arianna told Gabrielle. "He liked the idea of leaving Athens for such a small town."
"You lived in Athens? What would possess him to move so far out here?" Gabrielle asked.
"He heard about this City of Gold and had to see for himself. He...he likes unusual stories."
Gabrielle smiled. "Well then I can relate to that. What is the City of Gold?"
"Actually, it's amber at noonday," Arianna replied, "and just beautiful! The name comes from the mud they use to make the bricks. The clay bakes up into a beautiful golden brown... smooth and shiny, like Amber -- or, for the less well traveled -- gold.
"Really? I didn't know that," Gabrielle.
"Oh, yes, it's as pretty a gold color as her horse here," Arianna said, touching the mare's neck reverently. "Really nice horse you have," she called over to Xena.
"Thanks," Xena smiled and let out Argo's lead so she could walk a little further ahead of the mare, Arianna and Gabrielle. The ground became steeper and rockier. Gabrielle continued her conversation with Arianna, but looked out over the valley as the mountainous pass they strode afforded the opportunity. "What a beautiful place," Gabrielle sighed. Too bad slavers have to come in and muck things up. Glancing over at Xena, she watched the memories play across her face. Sometimes even Xena was easy to read. That made Gabrielle feel better about her earlier impression that the warrior read minds.
Xena began to think about her upcoming confrontation with Fracchus. She suspected that his army camped somewhere near here. Perhaps the tavern keeper would be able to give her good directions. If so, she could be out of here quickly.
Her mind slipped back over the years. She recalled a battle for a small Corinthian village. Fracchus had been a lieutenant of hers by then. When Borias died, Fracchus moved up in the ranks to take his place.
He'd been young then. They all were. But Fracchus had a mean streak in him. Interrogations under him more often resulted in the captive's death than useful information. But she hadn't taken much notice of that then. He fought with the skill of an Ares-blessed warrior, and she'd needed every man willing to fight, regardless of scruples. Those times were her earliest and most paranoid ones as a warlord. She was still raiding and subjugating surrounding villages, expanding the buffer she believed she needed to keep Amphipolis safe.
The town's name was Amber, at least that was what the spies had called it. The men there were assembling and arming for her arrival. She'd had some scruples even back then. She never surprised villages. She didn't have to. Word traveled like wildfire whenever the Warrior Princess' army was on the move. And that was partly due to Fracchus.
He appointed himself sort of a public relations representative. He made sure that survivors of a town knew who had attacked them and where Xena's army was due to strike next. She recalled, to her surprise, that she had not yet been working with Ares then. She could scarcely remember when she had not known the God of War.
Often, survivors ran to the next village - the target toward which her army would move slowly. As the escapees spread their account of terror and woe, Fracchus knew panic would set in.
Most warriors had an aspect of battle they thrived on. Xena liked seeing fear in her opponents' eyes. Fracchus thrived on watching panic, disorganized chaos, as he descended against a village.
Xena remembered approaching Amber, as she rode at the head of her army. Her men whispered back and forth about a golden city. Seeing the reflection of the midday sun off its buildings and wall, she had agreed with their description.
The city shimmered with such a blinding brilliance that Xena had decided attacking then would put her army at a disadvantage. She rescheduled the raid for that night. Among the loot were grains and other food stores for her army. She killed and captured men who came out of their homes to challenge her. Her men rounded up the women, for a slave auction in Thrace. And she left the village after setting fire to the food storage buildings.
CHAPTER THREE - AMBER
Gabrielle moved up to talk with Xena, cutting short her memories. "I'm sorry. I know you probably have a wonderful plan for defeating Fracchus but...."
Xena raised her right hand, forestalling anything else the bard might say. "I forget how much you hate being left behind."
"Yes, but that's still no excuse. I wasn't thinking. Anyway, how do you know Fracchus?" Gabrielle shifted her staff from her left hand to her right so she could look up at Xena.
The warrior princess looked down at her bard's upturned face. "He was a lieutenant in my army. When I was forced through the gauntlet, by default he became second in command under Darphus over the troops. I guess this means Darphus is finally, really dead."
"Great, this is your old army we're about to go up against?"
"Probably not many of the men who followed me are left in the ranks, Gabrielle. A warlord doesn't keep around those who were loyal to another."
Gabrielle sighed. "Still, this is going to be difficult, isn't it? Fracchus wouldn't have become a lieutenant in your army if he hadn't had half a brain."
Xena nodded. "You got that right. So now I just have to out-think him." She looked squarely at Gabrielle. "I can't do that if I have to worry about you."
Gabrielle nodded. "I know. I wish I wasn't such a liability to you."
"Don't change, Gabrielle. I like my liability just the way she is, thank you." Xena chucked the bard under the chin and smiled.
Gabrielle pulled away from Xena, feeling better for having talked over the situation. She looked out as the view cleared and could get a glimpse of the valley below. "This is beautiful!" Gabrielle commented. "Which town below is Amber, Arianna?"
Arianna adjusted herself on Argo to see. "There," she pointed. "Over by the base of that waterfall. You can just see the edge of the storehouse."
Xena and Gabrielle nodded. The warrior changed their direction at the next choice in the path.
Within another hour, just as Apollo's chariot slipped beneath the horizon, the three women were walking onto the main street of a sleepy little village. A blacksmith's shed was right next to the stables and a small inn up from there.
Xena pulled Gabrielle aside. "Be careful, Gabrielle. Don't mention my name unless it's absolutely necessary."
The bard nodded and went to secure
a room at the inn for them.
Xena led Argo to the stable and helped Arianna dismount. The two women handed Argo over to a stable hand, and Arianna led the Warrior Princess to a small line of houses on the opposite side of the street. "My father is the town bard. I'd better let him know what happened."
Xena nodded. She knew how bards were sticklers for details from eyewitnesses. "I'm sure your father will just be happy to have you home, Arianna. He may take two breaths before demanding the story." The warrior patted the young woman's shoulder.
Arianna walked into the second house they came to. "Father, I'm home!"
Xena glanced around the front room of the small, cozy home and smiled. This was definitely a bard's home. Trinkets of all kinds, used as props during storytelling, lined shelves on the walls around the room. She wondered at the delicacy of some of the pieces. Arianna's father probably was a delicately built man, like Orion, Gabrielle's friend from the Academy. Hearing a crash, Xena looked up.
A broad-shouldered moose of a man with sparkling eyes came out of a back room and enveloped Arianna in a tight hug. The girl winced and bit back tears of pain from her bruises. "I'm so glad you're back, Arianna! Are you well?"
Arianna laughed as her father pressed and prodded her arms and shoulders. She winced when he pressed a particularly tender bruise on her right shoulder. "Should I get the healer, Arianna?"
"I will be fine, Father. Please, come meet Xena. She and her friend rescued me."
The father approached the warrior judiciously. "I've heard of you, Warrior Princess." He looked behind her then grinned broadly. "I'm Theocratus."
Xena nodded warily. Not what she had expected at all. "You're a bard?"
"Amber's best...and only," he boomed, pounding his chest. "Father wanted a doctor like himself, but I keep people happy instead of in stitches," he laughed at his own joke.
Xena nodded again, not laughing. She wasn't sure about the reception just yet and withheld her smile.
Theocratus correctly interpreted her unease. "I wasn't here when you came through with your army. There are others who remember that." Theocratus held up a hand as Xena tried to take a step back. "Don't you go anywhere, woman. I've heard the new tales, at least some of them. I want more from your bard. Hope you've brought her with you. Gabrielle, isn't she? We simply must trade a few scrolls. I'd like a few new tales to tell around the square this fall."
"You'll have plenty of time to speak with Gabrielle I'm sure. She's getting a room at the inn. I must be moving out and find Fracchus to put an end to the kidnappings."
"No, no," Theocratus said, shaking his head. "You both are welcome to call our home yours while you are here. It is the least I can do for your safe return of my daughter."
A knock sounded at the door.
"Come in, come in!" boomed Arianna's father. After a long moment of silence when the door did not open, Theocratus strode across the room and opened the door. "I said, 'Come in,'" he boomed. Gabrielle stood in the doorway, hand half-raised to knock again.
Xena introduced the blonde bard and watched the greeting given to her friend. Theocratus spoke a mile a minute, but Gabrielle seemed to follow every word, and soon she was smiling, laughing and being led into Theocratus' back rooms. "I must simply show you my latest, Gabrielle," urged Theocratus.
Her friend happily entertained, Xena waited only a moment before turning to leave. Arianna came from the back with a tray of food.
"They went to his writing room, I believe," Xena explained, continuing to the door.
"You aren't going tonight, are you? Is it safe?" Arianna set the tray down.
"Thanks for the concern, Arianna. But I'll be fine," Xena smiled.
"Take some food with you," Arianna urged, pressing a loaf of bread and a skin of goat's milk into the warrior's hands.
Xena nodded her appreciation. "Please take care of my friend. I'll be back...with good news, I hope."
Arianna nodded. "Thank you again for coming to my rescue."
"Don't worry about it," Xena replied. "Have someone take care of those bruises for you, all right? Goodbye." Xena ducked out the door (No comma is needed here.) carrying the bread and milk.
Xena secured the food in Argo's saddlebags and swung aboard the mare's saddle. She turned Argo's head toward the road. A small group of men, one dressed as a border guard, strode up to the departing warrior and spoke.
"You Xena, the Warrior Princess?"
Xena remained seated on Argo and looked down at the border guard. "What's it matter?"
"The Warrior Princess destroyed this town once. Gerston, here -" The border guard indicated an older man in their midst. "He thinks you have something of the look of her."
Xena fixed her gaze on Gerston and said evenly, "Do I know you?"
Gerston stepped back. "My wife and son died in the raid, woman. If you are the Warrior Princess, you are guilty of murder."
In spite of a sinking feeling inside, Xena was careful to not betray her reaction to these men. She needed to get going and find Fracchus, not sit here discussing past actions for which she had no defense. "If I meet Xena, I'll let her know she has a price on her head."
"Why are you out traveling so late?"
"I thought I'd have a look into your little problem. I heard about all the kidnappings."
"Where did you say you were from?"
"I didn't. But I am from Thermopylae."
"News travels far and fast. We haven't had any luck finding the women and children since a few have stumbled back to their hometowns a few days later."
Xena perked up. "Really? Are any of the former captives talking? Telling how they escaped... who kidnapped them...that sort of thing?"
The border guard thought a minute. "Most of the women aren't talking. Too scared. And the children who've been returned... they're just being held close by their parents. Very little has been said."
Xena considered this. "Well, I'm heading out. I'll tell you anything I discover, all right?"
"You do that," responded the border guard, who gave her another careful once over before waving her on.
Xena rode hard for nearly an hour, hunting in the surrounding area for signs of Fracchus' army. She'd much rather solve the town's problem and have them deal with who solved it after the fact.
CHAPTER FOUR - RECONNAISANCE
It was just after sunset when she spotted the outlying sentry posts. Circling around to the north a bit, she examined the layout while seeking a way to move in closer.
Fracchus wasn't sloppy. The sentry fires were arranged just as Xena would have done them. She left Argo on the riverbank, secured a few items from the saddlebags on her belt, and moved to the trees - her only cover for getting closer to the encampment. She scrutinized the quality of sentry at each post, looking for a weakness.
None of the men shirked their duty, were drinking or otherwise distracted. She had to proceed very carefully to avoid detection.
From a treetop perch, she studied the layout of Fracchus' camp. Classic arrangement, Xena thought. She spotted Fracchus' tent almost immediately -- the largest in the center and, at this hour, the only one with candlelight within. No doubt he's consulting with his lieutenants. While advancing toward the camp, she'd seen two troop detachments return with struggling captives. The tent that housed the captives was right next to Fracchus'. Xena would have done the same; the arrangement kept the property close by in case of emergency.
Before she could drop from the trees and work her way through the shadows to Fracchus' tent, Xena detected a slight amount of motion in the trees about one hundred paces on the other side of the camp. Slithering closer to her tree's trunk to blend with the shadows, she studied the movement, trying to identify the other intruder. What a chance bit of moonlight revealed made Xena gasp, "Draco!"
The warlord, holding a knife in his teeth, was slithering through the treetops, just like herself. Agile as a monkey, he was making his way to just over the captives' tent.
Draco stealthily dropped to the ground and hugged the shadows as he moved to the back of the tent. He ducked into the captives' tent through a back flap and brought out a single woman, held tightly to his body. With a quick glance this way and that, he climbed back up the tree with the woman slung over his shoulder.
Xena sat back on her branch and tried to absorb what she had seen. Draco stealing into another warlord's camp takes out one of the man's captives. It didn't make sense. Xena slipped through the trees, following the departing Draco. She missed a branch and fell to the ground about fifty paces shy of the north camp perimeter, right behind a sentry fire.
Draco heard the commotion. Surprised by seeing Xena fall to the ground among Fracchus' soldiers, he lost his hold in the trees and fell to the ground. He twisted so that the woman in his arms landed on top of him. She screamed when she saw the soldiers.
"Damn!" Xena came to her feet swearing under her breath, encircled by four of Fracchus' soldiers. They charged her together. That permitted her to leap up and over their heads, landing lightly outside their collapsing circle.
She pushed at the woman and Draco. "Go!" Xena turned her attention back to the advancing soldiers. She cursed when Draco didn't move.
Draco shook his head. He pushed the woman in the direction they'd been moving. "Go! My men are waiting for us over that ridge."
The woman ran. One of the soldiers started after her. Xena's sword cut across his middle before he took his second step.
Draco and Xena stepped back to back. Draco wielded only his short dagger, normally a second-choice weapon stowed in his boot. Xena shook her head and swung her sword at one of the soldiers. The battle was engaged.
Draco parried the broadsword of one soldier; Xena traded blows with the other two. She brought her sword up, feinting back, leading the two into a false sense of advantage. They both stepped forward. She brought her sword hilt down in quick succession on one head then the other. The two soldiers dropped unconscious to her feet.
"Good night, fellas." Turning away from her task she saw Draco dodge a sword thrust. She stepped up behind the soldier and cold cocked him with the flat of her sword. Draco nodded his thanks and dashed into the darkness without a word.
Behind her, Xena heard the approach of several more soldiers. Their little skirmish had attracted attention. Xena sighed and turned to her attackers. Draco and the woman were out of sight, likely on the way back to wherever the warlord was camped. She'd have to track them later.
If she remained for very long, Xena knew she'd eventually tax her strength. Even she couldn't fight an entire camp alone. She quickly attacked the first man who approached, but spent much more time vaulting over heads trying to distance herself from the men. With a bit of luck, she might be able to outrun and lose them.
After swinging her sword at a man's head caused him to duck, she ceased her opening. She vaulted over him and rolled into the bushes. Two soldiers were standing behind her when she got to her feet. She slammed her bracers into their faces, then dashed into the darkness.
She was pursued for nearly a mile. The soldiers finally dropped off when she leapt over a ridge only to discover a short cliff on the other side. Grabbing wildly for a rooted vine to hold, she caught one and pulled herself flush to the cliff face.
She kicked a few stones to clatter down the incline.
A young-faced soldier peered over the cliff and saw the stones bouncing down the cliff face. Xena heard him holler to his comrades, "The warrior woman fell down here! Report to Fracchus!"
Another soldier came up to verify this. Xena held her breath. A second rockslide would tip them to her presence. She heard the soldiers move away.
She waited until the moon had shifted in the sky. Then, hand over hand, she pulled herself up the vine until she could find a handhold on the cliff's edge. With exhaustion hounding her every muscle she finally grappled her way back up. She rolled over and took several cleansing deep breaths. For a few moments everything was ignored as she reveled in not having been discovered and not having fallen from the cliff. Cheating Death brought a heady sensation she didn't want to lose right away.
"Bravo!" came a deep voice. Xena rolled over and pushed to her feet quickly. "Took you long enough though."
"Ares!" Xena sighed. "As if I don't have enough problems." She dusted her leathers and scowled. "What do you want?"
"You," Ares purred, striding close until his breath covered her neck.
"Well, you're crazy."
"Perhaps, I am."
Xena pointed back toward Fracchus' camp. "Do you have anything to do with him?"
Ares raised an eyebrow. "Nah, Fracchus is great. Does stuff like this without any prompting from me. Like you used to," he reminded the warrior.
Xena pointed in the other direction. "What's Draco doing here?"
Ares scowled. "Beats the Hades out of me. He just showed up a few days ago."
"Well, get out of here. I have work to do," concluded Xena, dismissing the god from her immediate concerns.
Ares scowled and grabbed Xena's arm. "Don't toss me aside so casually, Xena."
"Why not? I don't serve you anymore, Ares." She looked down at his hand clasping her arm. "Do you mind?"
Ares studied her face and then, reluctantly, released his grip. "Just one battle, Xena. That's all I want."
Xena pushed her hair from her face and looked into Ares' eyes. "Why can't you get it through your head...."
Ares slapped the air with a fist as he spun away from the warrior. "To Tartarus with you...With us both!" Then in a flash, he vanished.
Xena shook her head and chose to try to avoid thinking about what Ares' presence in the valley might ultimately mean -- for her... and for the valley. She needed to find Draco and figure out what the warlord was doing in Corinth.
It took Xena another hour to find Draco's trail. She followed it to his camp. It was smaller than any she remembered him having in the past. There were only fifteen tents and two perimeter fires - indicating an army less than half the size of Fracchus' forces. What was going on here? Figuring the direct approach would be best, she walked up to a sentry. After all, she had no quarrel with Draco.
"I need to speak with Draco," requested the Warrior Princess.
"I'll have to take your sword and that chakram," answered the sentry, as he held out his hands.
"Fine. Let's go." Xena handed over the weapons and followed the sentry to Draco's tent.
The man ducked inside and soon reemerged. "He's ready for you, Xena."
Xena ducked past the tent flap and stood looking around the interior. "Welcome, Xena." The warlord came to his feet from behind a table and extended a hand. "You are a little late."
"Had a bit of trouble with a cliff. Nice reception you've got out there. I don't recall it ever being so sweet."
Draco, still as fiercely dressed as ever, had a look about him.... Xena remembered the last time she'd been in Draco's tent. It had been to seduce him to change his ways while she was under the influence of one of Cupid's arrows. "Draco, what brings you back to Corinth?" Her voice was questioning, but politely so.
"I heard Fracchus was kidnapping young women and children."
Xena blinked. "You are here to stop Fracchus. Really? Amazing."
Draco stood toe to toe with Xena. "I didn't come to get ridiculed by the likes of you, Xena. I want Gabrielle, and I'll earn her, like you suggested."
Xena backed up. "Okay, okay. I believe you. I guess most of your army deserted when you came back from Hestia empty handed?"
Draco's face betrayed a hurt Xena had never seen on it. Just as quickly the look was gone, replaced by the more familiar stiff anger. "Weaklings. It takes a lot more courage to take this road than I thought." He grew fiercer still. "But I'll do it. I am doing it. For her."
Xena left Draco's camp shortly after that. He had assured her that the captives, although coming out of Fracchus' camp one at a time, would get safely home.
"Don't get yourself killed, Draco. You're doing the right thing, you know," Xena assured the warrior with a smile before ducking out of the tent. She reclaimed her weapons from the sentry and disappeared into the woods, returning quickly to where she'd left Argo.
When she at last found the mare, she swung up and pressed her for speed. Gods, do I have a story for Gabrielle!
CHAPTER FIVE - REVELATIONS
She arrived back at Amber in record time, not worrying about discovery. She left Argo with the stable hand again and walked down to the home where she'd left Gabrielle with Arianna and her father. She knocked.
"Welcome back, Xena." Arianna ushered the warrior into the home.
"Gabrielle still here?"
"Yes, in the back, with Father."
"May I?" Xena asked. Arianna nodded. Xena brushed past the girl and went into the back of the house. "Gabrielle?" she called out for the bard.
"In here, Xena," came the reply.
Xena entered a room to see Gabrielle and Theocratus hunched over a table laden with several scrolls. "Having a good time?"
Gabrielle beamed. "The best. Theocratus wants to take some of my stories! His are great!" Theocratus gave a dismissive shrug. Gabrielle pushed his shoulder. "Don't you dare sell yourself short, Theo. These are great stories."
Xena came into the room. "If Gabrielle says your stories are good, Theocratus, I'd believe her."
Theocratus straightened and turned to the Warrior Princess. "How'd it go?"
Xena nodded. "Everything will be fine very soon. May I talk to Gabrielle alone?"
Theocratus nodded. "Of course. I have a room at the end of the hall. You are welcome to stay there tonight."
Xena nodded. "Thank you."
Theocratus left the two alone.
Gabrielle came to Xena's side. "What's up?" She looked the warrior woman over critically and noticed the dirt and scratches on her arms and hands. "What happened to you?"
"I fell over a cliff." Gabrielle's eyes went wide. "Well, I'm here, so I'm fine. Don't worry." Xena leaned back against the door. "Ran into an old friend of ours while at Fracchus' camp."
Gabrielle nodded. "Did you free the other captives?"
"Draco was already doing so. Has apparently been doing so for three or four days now."
Gabrielle held up a hand. "Excuse me? Draco?"
Xena smiled. "Yes, Draco has lost about half his army and came to Corinth specifically because he heard Fracchus was picking up new slaves. Summoned here probably much like we were. News travels fast to the right people."
"This is crazy!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "Draco is freeing slaves?"
Xena nodded. "I know it's hard to believe, but he says he's still in love with you, and apparently intends to win you."
"But I thought the effects of Cupid's arrows would wear off eventually? Cupid reassured me before we left Hestia."
"I guess even a god can be wrong," responded Xena wryly. "Come on, Gabrielle. Aren't you the least bit flattered?"
"Did you let him know I was here?"
Xena shrugged. "He's probably assumed as much, though I didn't expressly say so. He knows we travel together."
Gabrielle groaned, recalling the frustration and chase that Draco had given her back in Hestia. "Just so long as he keeps to his task and leaves me out of it."
"After he's defeated Fracchus and driven him out of the area, Draco might just decide to come looking for you. To plead his case."
Gabrielle groaned, "Let's go first thing in the morning. I ... I've got a competition to get to in ... in Baretaria." She finished quickly, naming a city on the opposite side of Greece.
"I'll think about it, but I'd prefer to stick around. Draco probably could use a little help closing down Fracchus' operation." She pressed her hand to Gabrielle's shoulder. "So, anyway, which stories of mine are you going to give to Theocratus?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "He'll take the ones he thinks most entertaining or instructional, I guess. He hasn't chosen yet." She fingered one of the parchments. "He spent a lot of time over this one."
"Which one is it?"
"The story of David, Warrior-Bard of Israel, and Goliath, Soldier of Philistia." Gabrielle's eyes welled with tears at the memory of that adventure... David... and Xena's friend, Goliath. Xena later killed Gareth, avenging the deaths of Goliath's family. "I'm tired. Let's turn in." Xena opened the door and the bard ushered her out. "Down here," said Gabrielle. "I brought our stuff from the inn."
"So, how did everything else go? You were gone a long time."
"You wouldn't have wanted to come with me tonight, Gabrielle. I spent nearly four hours traversing through treetops entering Fracchus' camp. Then, well, stupidly, I fell over the cliff running from Fracchus' sentries. After that, I had to pick up Draco's trail."
Wisely, she left out the encounter with Ares. The God of War scared Gabrielle, probably because of some deeply rooted fear that somehow he would entice Xena back into his fold.
Gabrielle squeezed Xena's arm. "I believe you. I'm not up to running into Draco if he's in the condition you say he's in." She flopped down on one of the two beds. "Besides, Theocratus is nice. I haven't had a chance to chat with another bard in quite some time." Xena stretched out for a moment on her own bed, looking at the ceiling. "Not that I'm blaming you of course," Gabrielle hastened to add.
Sitting up on the edge of the other bed, Xena slipped off her breastplate and shoulder guards. Her boots, armbands and wrist guards followed. Briefly she stood to remove her weapons belt and scabbard before settling on the bed and tucking her bare feet underneath the woven blanket.
Gabrielle slipped on her sleeping shift before sliding beneath the blankets.
A soft knock sounded at their door. Xena stood up and called out, "Come in." Her hands automatically went to grip the hilt of her sword leaning against a small table next to the bed.
Arianna entered bearing a tray of warm mugs. "Thought you might enjoy a warm drink to soothe your sleep."
Xena took the tray and said, "Thank you."
Gabrielle sat up. "You're very kind. Thank you." She took one of the mugs offered by Xena and sipped. "Mmm. Lovely."
Arianna nodded and thanked them both again for rescuing her. Xena nodded, and Arianna left them alone, closing the door behind her.
"So what's the plan tomorrow?"
"I'm going back to Fracchus' camp and see if I can't run him off with a little intimidation."
"Need someone to watch your back?"
"Do you really want to come along? Fracchus is, well, to put it mildly, not very nice. Draco was the perfect gentleman, though," she teased the bard with a grin.
Gabrielle groaned, "I'll take my chances with Fracchus. I'd like to help if you think I can."
Xena thought a moment. "I don't need someone to watch my back, but you are the smooth talking bard. Your words may work where my sword doesn't. But," she admonished the bard, "you'll have to be very careful."
Gabrielle nodded. "Get me to Fracchus, and I'll take care of the rest." She thought a moment. "Can you tell me a story tonight? I'll need to know as much about Fracchus as possible."
Xena tried to find the words to describe her former lieutenant. "Well, he is a bit more direct than most. That's probably why I liked him so much back then. No pussyfooting around. Just went straight in when he took a village. Always followed my rules though. No women and children. Just men with weapons."
"What about family?" Gabrielle asked. "What made him join up with the Warrior Princess?"
Xena sifted through her memory. She came up blank. "I don't know about family for certain. But he joined up with my army in a pre-winter recruitment drive. We'd just come off an early battle with the Centaurs, and I needed to replenish my troops. He was quite a standout, if I recall correctly."
Gabrielle sighed. She always hated Xena having to remember her military days. But this time it was important. Gabrielle couldn't bargain with anyone unless she had a sense of the person's values. "Come on, I need more to go on than that if I'm going to have a chance of fast-talking him out of some lucrative slave business. Doesn't he have anything he craves, desires above everything?"
Musing, Xena replied, "I'll have to give it some more thought." She gestured with her chin toward Gabrielle. "Go to sleep. I'll sit up and think a little while longer."
Gabrielle dutifully lay back. As her mind combed through the day's events, she murmured, "Gods, I hope Draco stays put and doesn't come looking for me."
Xena chuckled, "Cupid's arrows must be stronger than even he thought." She laid back, pillowed her head on her arms, and focused on the ceiling as if trying to visualize the man she known in her previous life. After a while, she began to wonder about what tomorrow would bring.
Ares walked through Fracchus' camp that night, scowling at nearly everyone in his path. He ducked into Fracchus' tent and awakened the sleeping warlord with a slap.
"Hey!" yelled the brawny man as he leaped to his feet, instantly brandishing his sword.
"Oh, sit down!" growled Ares who, with a flip of his hand, "seated" Fracchus flat on his butt on the floor.
"Great Ares! I am pleased to have you in my camp again." The warlord beamed and stood, more slowly this time. "What brings you?"
Ares stood toe to toe with the warlord and growled, "Xena!"
Fracchus shrugged. "One of my men brought word she is in the area. I guess my activities drew her attention. Good for you, eh?"
Ares scowled. "But she isn't the one kidnapping your slaves right from under your nose, is she?"
Fracchus shook his head. "No, we don't think so. Though my men apparently tussled with her on the outskirts of camp tonight." He posed a question to the god. "Who is frustrating my plans? If you know, tell me. I will bring the mongrel to heel for you, Ares!"
"Oh, no, my willing follower. Leave that to me. Just put more guards on the slaves."
"As you wish, Ares." Fracchus bent slightly at the waist. Ares liked him, liked the way the man pandered to his every wish. Too bad he wasn't Xena.
Ares pounded his fist into his other hand so hard, Fracchus jumped. "Is there something else I can do for you?" Fracchus asked.
Ares waved him away. "No. Just be prepared. I will bring you a great prize for the slavers, and you must be ready to move when I come."
"Anything for you, Greatest of the Gods."
Ares smirked and with a wave of his hand disappeared. Fracchus sank to his bedding and sighed, "Damn Xena anyway. I'm the head of your army now, Ares. You bring her anywhere near here, and I'll kill her myself... your favorite or not."
Continued in part 2
Return to the Academy