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"What does he want you to do now?" Gabrielle continued her questioning of Staveros, who found Xena's pacing unnerving. The bard was used to it.
"Make sure Xena stays in Zemal. He is coming for you, Xena. He will kill everyone in Zemal if you aren't here . . . you CAN'T let that happen!"
"So he wants me to just sit and wait for him . . . AND his army," Xena laughed sharply. "Well, I don't LIKE waiting. Why don't I just drop in on Ol' Bay and say 'hi' right now and save him the trip?" She suggested with a sneer.
"You can't DO that!" Staveros blurted. "He'll kill my family."
Xena sighed and looked at Gabrielle, who knew the warrior didn't believe his family was still alive. The bard glanced sadly to the ground, beginning to believe that as well.
Xena returned her gazed back to Staveros. "How well armed is Zemal?"
"Uh . . . we're not fighters, Xena, like I said before, and . . . uh . . . " Staveros paused uneasily.
"And WHAT?" Xena blurted with annoyance, finding it difficult discussing anything with this man.
"You can't really blame them, Xena," Gabrielle relayed softly as they followed a number of paces behind Staveros through the Zemalian streets. "Bayentes is after you, not them," Gabrielle added, noticing the people in the streets nervously disappear when they spotted the two women.
"They're idiots," Xena said bluntly, also eyeing the people giving them a wide berth as they walked through town. "If they think Bayentes will let them just sit back and watch without getting their hands dirty. . . ." She paused, shaking her head. "Whether they like it or not, Gabrielle, Bayentes has involved them," the warrior added, her anger smoldering.
Before Gabrielle could think of a response to help ease her warrior's escalating anxiety, they watched a couple quickly exit the Inn where Staveros was motioning them to enter. The innkeeper moaned at the lost income.
"Well, I guess we won't have trouble finding a room," Gabrielle mentioned with forced optimism as they approached the front desk.
"This is not a good idea, Gabrielle." Xena eyed the surroundings and scattering people.
"I'm not happy about it either," the old woman muttered then plastered on a large smile when she felt the Warrior Princess' glare. "You can have any room you want, free of charge . . . of course," she informed Xena, glaring at Staveros, who nodded.
"Xena, we need to talk. We might as well do it in a comfortable room," Gabrielle informed her softly, squeezing her warrior's forearm, and headed up the stairs to the first vacant room.
"Xena," Staveros blurted uneasily, causing the warrior to turn and silently eye him. "You know nobody wants to fight, but I do have some men who'll be looking out for Bayentes and his army. We'll let you know as soon as we know," Staveros informed her.
A thin smile crossed the warrior's face. "Great," Xena responded flatly.
"If there is anything you want Xena, let me know. I'll get it," he offered nervously.
"Like a last meal?" Xena asked with a raised eyebrow. Her unnerving gaze sent a chill through Staveros.
"Uh . . . I . . . Uh . . ."
"For your information . . . I'm not hungry," Xena responded coolly, turned and ascended the stairs.
Gabrielle sat quietly in their room waiting for her warrior, who was busy inspecting the hallway and adjacent rooms. Finally, Xena entered their room. The bard watched the focused warrior walk straight to the window and peer out into the street. Then the warrior went to the walls and tapped them for what the bard believed had to be a very good reason, even if she didn't know why. After tapping on the walls, Xena inspected the closet and then under the bed. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, the warrior returned to center of the room and finally settled in to pace.
"Xena . . . " Gabrielle called softly as she got up from her chair.
"Gabrielle, they expect me to surrender. If . . . "
"Surrendering is NOT an option!" Gabrielle snapped, interrupting the warrior.
Xena stopped in her tracks, finding fire, not just in the bard's words, but blazing in her green eyes. She knew the bard would stick by her no matter what. It made the warrior both thankful and fearful.
"I wasn't planning on it," the warrior relayed, with a smirk.
"Good," Gabrielle said firmly, but with great relief.
"What I was trying to say is surrendering isn't an option with Bayentes. He would keep me alive just so I could see him continue to hurt the people I love." Xena sighed. "Part of me wishes surrendering WAS an option," Xena admitted wearily. Seeing the bard start to protest, Xena placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.
"Gabrielle, I want you to go to Amphipolis and wait for me there," Xena quickly relayed, looking deeply into the bard's surprised eyes.
"You said he likes to play mind games." The bard responded, ignoring her warrior's discussion about leaving. "So we may have . . . "
"Gabrielle, Amphipolis??" Xena interrupted the bard, determined to get her to agree to go. "Or Amazonia, but that is further away. I think Amphipolis is a better choice . . . less time on the . . . " Xena relayed, then noticed the bard's eye roll.
"Gabrielle, he would harm you in an instant, if he had the chance," Xena informed the bard with annoyance that she wasn't taking this seriously.
"Because it would hurt you, Xena. I know. But why Zemal? Why make a stand here?" Gabrielle asked and started to pace herself, contemplating that question.
"Zemal isn't different from any other town. They are full of innocent people who Bayentes has involved in this mess," Xena relayed impatiently. "Gabrielle, I would feel better if you went to Amphipolis and waited for me there . . . please." Xena hoped her pleading look would convince the bard.
"Amphipolis . . . it's about a three-day walk from here," Gabrielle stopped and considered that fact thoughtfully. "It's really not that far . . . "
"Yes! And you could easily get there in about a day on Argo," Xena said with enthusiasm. "You could wait for me with mo . . . " Xena paused, realizing what Gabrielle was getting at. ". . .ther."
"You're right, I SHOULD go." Gabrielle said with concern.
"NO!" Xena countered, feeling so helpless. Damn him, she silently cursed. Amphipolis, of course, she silently scolded herself for overlooking that.
"Someone will have to warn them, Xena. Amphipolis is a target, your family is a target."
"You Gabrielle, YOU are a target. I'll send someone else . . . Staveros . . . what am I thinking," Xena blurted, rubbing her temples. "I'll send somebody else . . . " the warrior added.
"We've got a problem then," Gabrielle said flatly. "You don't want me here with you, yet you don't want me in Amphipolis with your family, and those are the ONLY two places I am willing to be."
"The Amazons?" The warrior suggested, already knowing the answer from the bard's expression.
"No Xena," Gabrielle responded firmly. Xena moaned with frustration and started to pace again not liking her choices one bit.
"You are the most stubborn, aggravating, single-minded . . . " Xena paused, searching for the right word. "Stubborn . . ."
"You said stubborn," Gabrielle informed her helpfully, making the warrior's eyes roll.
"ANNOYING, disagreeable, argumentative, vexing . . . " Xena continued.
"Oooh, Vexing! GOOD one," Gabrielle interjected.
"Ugh! Why do I put up with this?" Xena spoke to the room, shaking her head.
"For the opportunity to work on your vocabulary?"
"You know I'm right and it annoys you. It was bound to happen," Gabrielle stated with a confident smirk. Xena sighed.
"So what do you want to do?" Xena asked and exhaled heavily, rubbing the back of her neck.
"I think you're stuck here . . . at least until you find out what Bayentes' next move is." Gabrielle relayed, moving behind the warrior to rub her knotted neck for her.
"It does seem he has all the cards. I leave Zemal, the town gets attacked, I stay here, the town gets attacked, I go to after him, Staveros' family dies, if they are not dead already," the warrior relayed, shaking her head, and looked to the ground. "AND he knows I hate waiting," Xena added with annoyance.
"That could be an advantage." Gabrielle noted. "The longer he makes you wait, the more time we have to plan." She responded thoughtfully, making the warrior look at her curiously.
"You don't happen to have a plan do you?" Xena asked, making the bard smile broadly. But the smile quickly faded.
"Not yet. But I should go to Amphipolis and warn them, Xena," Gabrielle informed the unhappy warrior. "Hey." Gabrielle reached and caressed Xena's face. "They are my family too, or did you forget that?"
"I'm sorry," Xena relayed, pulling her bard into a tight embrace.
"This isn't your fault." Gabrielle blurted automatically, then stiffened. The Warrior Princess' arms fell away from the embrace.
"Xena . . . "
"There's no need to say anything," Xena said coolly. "We both know it IS my fault. All of this. And I'll figure out how to deal with it."
"WE'LL figure it out." Gabrielle relayed with annoyance. "Together." She added firmly, poking the warrior in the stomach then sighing with great exasperation.
"I guess I've answered my own question." Xena gazed at the annoyed bard.
"WHAT question?" Gabrielle snapped.
"Why I put up with this," Xena answered. "I'd be a fool not to."
In the Athens General Emergency Room, a gray-haired doctor finished stitching the corner of Janice's eyebrow. He sighed heavily as he put a small bandage over the stitches. That was the third heavy sigh from the older man since she arrived.
"Having trouble breathing, doc?" Janice asked coolly.
"Frankly, I'm disappointed, Janice. I thought you were finally through with this carousing nonsense. I guess not." He sighed again as he shook his head.
"Would you believe I missed you?" Janice responded as she pulled a cigar out of her pocket.
"I'd prefer a visit where I wasn't sewing you up or setting your bones, Janice," the doctor countered, eyeing the cigar the archeologist placed in her mouth as she searched her pockets for a lighter.
"You KNOW there's no smoking in the hospital," he scolded her.
With an annoyed grunt, Janice reluctantly returned the cigar to her pocket.
Georg returned to the emergency room. Janice noticed his normally smiling face was blank. He looked ill.
"What is it? Another nurse turn you down?" Janice smirked as she hopped off the examining table. "Thanks doc," she relayed to the old man, who nodded quietly then shook his head.
Georg was still quiet.
"Georg, what's wrong?" She repeated as they left the emergency room.
"Aristotle is dead," Georg blurted, blinking back tears forming in his eyes.
"Dead?" Janice blurted with a disbelieving laugh. Georg looked at the ground. "He was fine," Janice added with annoyance.
Seeing Georg shake his head no, she pushed past him and marched through the hospital hallways. Arriving at the door to Aristotle's room, Janice found Octavia sitting alone and weeping softly. Aristotle's bed was empty.
"Janice." Octavia looked up from her chair and wiped her nose with a handkerchief. "They just took him away," she said with an uneasy voice, tears still flowing from her eyes.
"He was FINE," Janice countered angrily, staring at the empty bed.
"The doctors say the smoke and stress from the fire was too much for him. His heart finally gave out, Janice," Octavia spoke softly as she stood and put her hand on Janice's shoulder. "That ol' fool left without saying good-bye," the old woman complained through choked sobs.
"Yeah . . . he did," Janice said numbly. She stared a long silent moment at the empty bed. "What about . . . arrangements?" Janice asked, looking at the floor by Octavia's feet.
"He . . . left his body to the medical school," Octavia answered with a couple sniffs. "Old fool, why would they ever want HIS pickled body . . . probably thought he'd save money on funeral expenses," she added, dabbing the tears from her eyes.
"I'm going home . . . it's been a long day," Janice relayed vacantly, took a deep breath and left the hospital.
Mel looked out the window to the starry sky. The rain clouds had finally moved on, allowing the stars and moon to shine brightly. With a sigh, the southerner returned to pacing in Janice's room, wondering how to break the bad news to her friend.
Hearing someone climb the fire escape, Mel froze. It had to be Janice, she thought and anxiously waited for the archeologist to open the door. Curiously, the door didn't open when she expected. She bit a nail and continued to wait, until she heard a canvas sheet fall to the floor, followed by hammering.
Mel followed the sound of hammering to Aristotle's room. At the doorway, she looked up to find Janice, up on a roof beam, pounding away in the moonlight. Stepping into the room, Mel focused on the shadowy figure busy with the roof repair . . . instead of the sawhorse directly in front of her. Toppling it over, along with the box of nails resting on it, Mel became an unwitting liberator to the metal prisoners eagerly scattering far from their cardboard confines.
The hammering stopped.
"Do you want to be alone?" Mel asked softly.
"Yes," Janice said automatically.
Mel nodded sadly and started to leave when she heard a weak 'no,' from the archeologist, who wasn't really unsure what the right answer was.
The southerner looked back uncertainly. "Do you want another board?" Mel asked, picking up a two-by-four.
Mel heard the archeologist's pained breath and ragged exhale. Without a word, Mel offered the board to the dark form above her. With a sluggish nod, Janice took the offering. The southerner retrieved another board.
The hammering resumed.
Mel slowly woke. The comfortable bed tempted her to continue sleeping, but she couldn't. There was too much to do. Covering her eyes from the offensive morning light with her arm, she moaned, feeling the aches of a very long yesterday.
Stretching her long arm out towards the nightstand, she grabbed for her alarm clock to find out the time. Grabbing only air, her hand blindly searched over what seemed like an unusually large number of papers and books before she felt something cold, metallic and certainly not her alarm clock. She abruptly sat up, knocking that something off the nightstand, along with the pile of papers that something was resting on.
"Oh my," Mel blurted, a bit disoriented as she looked around Janice's room. Glancing down at her very wrinkled outfit, she groaned. Looking to the floor, she confirmed that something she knocked off was Janice's revolver. With a sigh, she leaned over the edge of the bed and very carefully picked the gun up with her fingertips.
Janice emerged from the bathroom dressed in a fresh shirt and pair of khaki trousers. She stopped in her tracks when she saw the southerner sitting up with a stunned look on her face and a revolver dangling from her fingers.
"I promise, I won't tell you how you look . . . just don't shoot," Janice blurted, quickly raising her hands up with a cringe on her face.
Mel rolled her eyes. "It fell," she explained curtly as she motioned to the floor.
Janice grinned as she approached the southerner. "You surprise me, I thought you didn't like guns."
"I don't!" Mel blurted with frustration. "I was reaching for my alarm clock, which of course, wasn't there and . . . " Mel stopped her explanation, realizing the archeologist was teasing her. Her eyes narrowed slightly. "Please take this . . . thing . . . now."
Mel released the revolver from her fingertips into the capable hands of Janice, who quickly slipped it in the holster hanging on her chair.
"You sleep well?" Janice asked, pushing a pile of clothes out of her way to sit on the sofa and put her boots on.
"Yes," she responded with surprise. "I never imagined I could be comfortable sleeping in this," Mel glanced down at her wrinkled suit.
"I don't think comfort had anything to do with it . . . you were exhausted." Janice relayed. Seeing the southern squinting at her, Janice got up and retrieved Mel's glasses from the table.
"Me? I'm surprised you are up, let alone . . . "
"Here," Janice interrupted and handed the glasses to the southerner.
"Oh, thank you." Mel gratefully put on her glasses. "Good Lord Janice, your face!" She blurted, seeing the stitches and bruising over her left eyebrow.
"Yeah, one only a mother could love . . . well, maybe not." Janice chuckled as she grabbed her holster, greatly disturbing Mel. "Feel free to sleep in. It's only eight-thirty now and you could probably use a few more hours."
"What about you? You must be . . . ," Mel blurted to the archeologist heading for the door. "Janice Covington! Would you PLEASE slow down for one moment!" Mel blurted with frustration as she pushed the covers aside and scrambled out of bed.
"Mel, I can't," Janice snapped back, turning to the southerner. "I can't," Janice repeated softly then broke her gaze from the disturbingly blue eyes.
"I've got a meeting with DICK today and a few more errands to run before our trip to Zemal tomorrow," Janice quickly offered.
"You should start thinking about packing, yourself, if you haven't already. We'll be leaving tomorrow morning, early. A day later than I hoped but . . . things happen." Janice blurted, quickly leaving.
Once again the worried southerner was left alone, staring at a door.
"Things happen?" Mel spoke with amazement to the empty doorway. "Things happen?!?" Mel repeated testily, marching to the bed. "Things like a fire!?!" She snapped at the bed as she tucked the sheets neatly under the mattress.
"Or perhaps a friend's death," she blurted as she angrily fluffed the pillows, threw the bed spread over the bed, and tucked and straightened it until there were no wrinkles left.
"Or perhaps, bumping into an 'old friend' who seems to bother you for some reason, which I'm sure you are not about to tell me because it is NONE of my business," She continued, picking up the papers and books she knocked off the night stand and placing them back in neat piles.
Georg entered the room with a smile, which faded as he watched the brunette, who marched to the sofa and sat down and picked up a shirt.
"Or perhaps, the things like whatever your face happened to run into???" She blurted as she folded the clothes on the sofa into neat piles. Finished, she sighed heavily and turned to find Georg staring at her.
"Ah, I can come back when you're done . . . with the room," he relayed with an uneasy smile and started to retreat.
"Georg? What is it?" Melinda asked firmly, standing up. He was surprised at how uncomfortable he was with her blue eyes demanding an answer from him.
"Well, Janice wanted me to tell you Octavia has breakfast ready, if you're interested." Georg smiled and shrugged.
"Did SHE have any breakfast?" Mel asked crisply.
"Uh . . . "
"Of course not," Mel blurted with annoyance, grabbed her purse and walked briskly past him.
Octavia looked at Georg as he entered her kitchen. "She wasn't hungry?" Octavia asked as she flipped the eggs over in the frying pan.
"I guess not." Georg shrugged as he sat at the table. "She actually straightened up Dr. Covington's room." He informed the old woman with an amazed chuckle and sipped his coffee.
"God knows, it's about time someone did . . ." Octavia put a plate of toast in front of him.
"I think she's crazy," he blurted, eagerly biting into a piece of toast.
"Well, the room WAS messy," Octavia noted as she served the eggs.
"No, I mean . . . she was talking to herself. Well, more like talking to the room. I should tell Dr. Covington to watch out for . . . "
"Georg! Don't stick your nose in where it doesn't belong!" The old woman scolded him. "Besides, anyone who would put up with Janice would have to be a bit crazy," Octavia informed Georg, who nodded.
After they got on the road, Janice seemed more at ease then she had been the past few days, Mel noticed with relief. Mel hoped that meant Janice would be willing to talk about a few things that had been on her mind, like the stitches on her eyebrow, or why Janice felt it necessary to bring a gun to a meeting with Dr. Wright, or why she agreed to hire "Dick" when it was apparent to her that Janice didn't trust him.
For hours, Mel sat patiently in the passenger's seat, staring between the map in her lap and the road ahead of them, quietly debating the pros and cons of asking her any or all of those questions. Staring at the map some more, she sighed and looked over to the archeologist.
"How did you get those stitches, Janice?" Mel finally asked what she considered the easiest question.
"I went to the emergency room with a gash and they gave them to me, pretty straight forward," Janice responded, evoking an irritated sigh from the southerner.
"Dr. Covington . . . you KNOW what I mean!"
"Why didn't you say what you mean?" Janice countered. Mel's eyes narrowed.
"All right . . . " Mel said slowly, then plastered on a thin smile. "Janice, how DID you get that gash that required those stitches?"
"There you go! Now I know exactly what you mean without having to guess," Janice relayed with a broad smile and abruptly stopped the truck, causing the southerner to crumple the map as she lunged forward.
"Well, here it is," Janice announced to the southerner, who sat up slowly and glared at the evasive archeologist. Lord, grant me the strength, Mel silently prayed, sighing heavily as she pushed her glasses up on her nose.
Shaking her head in defeat, she glanced between the site and the large map in her lap with confusion.
"Janice, are you sure? The river should be on the left and it's clearly on the right," the southerner questioned. "See?" Mel pointed to the map.
Janice leaned towards the southerner, glancing at the map then the southerner. "Do you mind?" Janice asked, reaching for the map. Getting a sigh and shrug from the southerner, Janice took the map, rotated it upside down and placed it back on Mel's lap.
"Mystery solved," Janice smirked.
"But. . . ." Mel's eyebrows furrowed.
"North is behind us." Janice motioned to the back of the truck. "You had the North arrow facing South, which is in front of us."
"Oh Janice, I don't know why you insisted on me being the navigator. You of all people certainly don't need one and I've never been any good with maps," the southerner blurted with frustration, shaking her head at the stupid mistake.
"You will be," Janice said confidently, surprising the southerner. "Besides, you already fold them better than I do . . . and that's half the battle," the archeologist added with a shrug and hopped out of the truck.
"Remember, don't go on the main roads," Xena quietly reminded a yawning Gabrielle as she checked the saddle for a third time.
Finished with the saddle, Xena stepped back and quickly glanced around the alley behind the inn, content there was no one who would see Gabrielle's predawn departure.
"No main roads, check," Gabrielle softly responded and started to mount Argo but the warrior's gentle hand over her forearm stopped her. The bard turned back to the warrior with a patient smile, which was interrupted by another yawn.
"And don't forget to watch for ambushes from the trees," Xena added helpfully, for what Gabrielle counted as the fourth time.
"Look up, check," Gabrielle repeated with a firm nod, trying to ignore her growing irritation with the warrior's help. Perhaps her irritation was just lack of sleep, the bard considered as she attempted to mount Argo. She was once again stopped by the warrior, whose hand held her elbow.
"And don't forget . . . no camp fires, just blankets," Xena added, looking into her bard's eyes to ensure she understood. A thin smile crossed the bard's face.
"Freeze my butt off, check," Gabrielle relayed and started to mount Argo.
"Gabrielle . . . " Xena moaned with annoyance, which stopped the bard's ascent into the saddle.
"Xena, you've told me all this . . . the next thing you know, you are going to tell me not to talk to strangers,"
"Wouldn't be wise," Xena added helpfully.
"Would you just have a LITTLE faith in me?" Gabrielle snapped, trying desperately to keep her voice down.
"Gabrielle, I do! It's just . . . It's . . . . " Xena paused then looked at the ground with a sigh. "I'm sorry," the warrior said softly.
"I'm scared too, Xena." Gabrielle whispered firmly. "And the fact that he scares you, TERRIFIES me. But as a certain wise, and occasionally redundant warrior told me, we can't let our fear get in the way." Gabrielle reached out and caressed her warrior's face.
"I've never had so much to lose, Gabrielle." Xena received a strong hug from her bard, who fit perfectly in her arms. "And Bayentes knows it. . . ."
Gabrielle sighed heavily as she stepped back from her warrior. "Gotta go," the bard said through a yawn.
After a quick peck on the warrior's cheek, Gabrielle attempted to mount Argo but felt the warrior's hand on her elbow once again. Gabrielle's eyes rolled. "XENA! Would you PLEASE let me . . . " Gabrielle's angry plea was interrupted when the warrior swiftly pulled her into a fierce kiss.
After the grinning Warrior Princess was finished helping, a wide-awake Gabrielle cleared her throat and reluctantly mounted Argo. As Gabrielle pulled the reigns, Argo snorted and stopped. Gabrielle rolled her eyes.
"What?" She asked the horse.
With the unwelcome sound of thunderous hooves growing louder, Gabrielle's heart pounded.
"Xena, they're coming!" A Zemalian lookout came running into the alley to warn the Warrior Princess whose sword was already drawn.
"I can already HEAR them!" Xena snapped and growled with frustration at the lookout as she rushed passed him. Gabrielle dismounted and grabbed and assembled her staff.
"But I couldn't FIND . . . ," the lookout blurted defensively as Gabrielle also rushed passed him. ". . . you."
Xena entered the main street, ready for a battle. She quickly assessed the size of the offensive force to be a platoon of riders and foot soldiers. Her attention was immediately drawn to the soldier riding rapidly towards her with his sword drawn. She whirled her sword, readying herself for a strong blow.
At the last minute, the rider sharply turned and rode after a man, who made the grave mistake of being up so early this day. Grabbing her chakrum, she hurled it towards the rider.
The round metal weapon swiftly sailed through the air, hitting its target. The soldier slumped over and fell off his horse . . . after his blade sliced through the man's neck, releasing a violent gush of blood, killing the man instantly. The nearly decapitated body collapsed to the blood-soaked dirt, followed by the rider's body.
Catching up to her warrior, the bard gasped, witnessing the gruesome kill. Fighting against the nausea that threatened to distract her, she loosened her nervously tight grip on her staff and breathed deeply to gain control. Glancing over to her warrior, Gabrielle could see the silent anger surface through the tightly clenched jaw and twitch in her eye.
Catching the chakrum, the warrior quickly focused on a rider with a torch, setting fire to some buildings, prompting the previously sleeping inhabitants to flee screaming into the street. Her eyes narrowed, spotting a man rush into the street and stumble, directly in the path of a large grinning rider. Her eyes then darted to two other horsemen cornering a screaming woman and child against a building wall and taunting them with torches. Within two long strides, the Warrior Princess somersaulted onto a wagon cart. Glancing over the four targets, Xena let her chakrum fly with a shrill war cry.
Launched from the confident hand, the chakrum sailed on its intended course, felling rider after rider. Finished with the bloody assignment, the circular blade swiftly returned to the skillful hand of its satisfied owner, resting for only a briefest of moments. The chakrum once again returned to the air, enlisted for more deadly accurate work.
Gabrielle readied herself for the attack of a rider who galloped towards her. Squinting at her, the rider slowed his charge, turned and chased after another woman who luckily found shelter in a building.
Gabrielle looked around, confused. Seeing two laughing foot soldiers approaching a man armed with a water pitcher, Gabrielle ran towards them. "Hey!" She called out, making the two men stop laughing and turn. The Zemalian and his water pitcher took advantage of the break in the attack to run away.
The soldiers took a long look at the redheaded bard before they retreated, without a fight. Gabrielle's eyebrows furrowed in confusion as she looked around and noted the absence of threats.
A squad of torch-bearing foot soldiers became the grinning Warrior Princess' next target. She drew back her arm but abruptly stopped her throw with an annoyed exhale. Staveros and the reluctant local militia finally arrived with their pitchforks, clubs and staves, blocking an easy, clear shot.
Xena's eyes rolled.
Adapt and overcome, the warrior reminded herself as she quickly lined up the shot and threw the chakrum around the green Zemalian group. Ricocheting off a roof beam with a large puff of dust, clanging off a metal wagon wheel with a bright spark, and bouncing off a marble statue, chipping a wing off its helmet, the chakrum finally sailed towards the squad of four foot soldiers and fell them, as originally planned.
Catching her chakrum with a satisfied grin, Xena glanced over to her bard, who looked at her with confusion. Since the start of the attack, not one soldier attacked her.
On the hill overlooking Zemal, the warlord and his lieutenants sat upon their warhorses watching the battle below. The lieutenants shifted uncomfortably seeing their platoon decimated by the ululating Warrior Princess.
"She still has it," Bayentes laughed approvingly.
Unexpectedly, a lone foot soldier came running up the hill and stood by the warlord's foot, gasping. "Sir!" He blurted between heavy breaths. "We need reinforcements! She has this disc . . . thing . . . and. . . ." The man didn't complete his voluntary report, suddenly wheezing from the new hole his chest.
"Why can't anyone just follow orders?" Bayentes complained wearily, looking down at the skewered soldier on his sword.
He sighed as he moved his foot from its stirrup. Stepping on the soldier's chest, he twisted and pulled his sword free. The dead soldier slumped to the ground as the warlord returned his foot to its stirrup.
"Is that too much to ask?" He asked his lieutenants, sheathing his sword and shrugging.
His lieutenants nervously shook their heads no.
"Was that it?" Gabrielle asked in amazement, looking around the now quiet streets of Zemal with relief. Compared to her fearful expectations, this conflict was a breeze.
"It was only one platoon, Gabrielle," Xena snarled as she sheathed her sword.
"Why only one? And why didn't they attack you . . . or me?" Gabrielle asked.
"He's toying with me. He wanted me to see innocents killed, " Xena answered calmly, eyeing the bard then scanning the area. "He wanted me to know . . . he knows who you are."
"Great," Gabrielle relayed with a weak smile, joining the warrior in scanning the area.
"I'm going to check to see if he has any of his men hiding in town . . . " Xena relayed.
"Xena, why would he bother hiding a few men in town? You just defeated a platoon. He couldn't possibly think a couple soldiers could do anything to you," Gabrielle responded confidently.
"Gabrielle, he would do it just to prove he could. He would do it because, just maybe, one of them might get that lucky blow. He would do it just to irritate me . . . He would do it because that's exactly what I would do," Xena snapped.
Gabrielle sighed heavily.
"Gabrielle. . . ." The warrior's tone softened considerably.
Staveros approached the two women with a stunned look. "He attacked us . . . with you here," Staveros relayed in amazement, looking around at the damage then back to the Warrior Princess. "He said . . . "
"Staveros," Xena interrupted him curtly. "Bayentes is ruthless. That is the ONLY thing you can count on," Xena informed him coldly.
"But, my family . . . If he attacked us after I got you here . . . Gods, what about my family??" Staveros asked fearfully, looking between the stoic warrior and uncomfortable bard.
Xena sighed and looked the worried man in the eye.
"I don't know about your family, Staveros. But I do know you have a town in desperate need of training. Get your men and women assembled, we'll start as soon as I'm done my inspection of the area," Xena said calmly, bringing a needed sense of purpose to the man. Staveros nodded and jogged off to carry out her orders.
Turning to her bard, Xena continued in her commanding tone. "It's too late for your departure. Leaving in daylight is too dangerous. Tend to the wounded while I check the town." Xena ordered.
"Be careful," the bard said simply, making the warrior's cold face melt into one of apology and concern.
"You too," the warrior responded softly, her eyes automatically glancing over the area for threats.
"We'll get through this Xena and when we do," Gabrielle informed her confidently. "You and I have a LOT of wedding planning to do," Gabrielle scolded her, sounding scarily like her mother Hecuba.
"In case you're wondering, I didn't plan this," the warrior relayed with a small smile.
"Uh huh," Gabrielle responded and turned to follow the Warrior Princess' orders - tend to the wounded.
Unloading the truck, the archeologist watched the tall southern lady lug around heavy boxes with amazing ease. Though considering herself in good shape, Janice concluded with a slight grin she would be wise to never challenge the southerner to an arm wrestling match.
As she anchored down her side of their large tent, which also served as their office, Janice was impressed at how quickly the southerner had taken to camping and its chores. Like building fires and pitching this tent, the archeologist considered, noticing the enthusiastic southerner had already finished anchoring down her side of the tent and was now busy with another task. She's not only beautiful and intelligent, she's a hard worker, the archeologist noted with great appreciation as she drove her last stake in the ground.
A tall shadow on the tent made the archeologist look up to find Mel with the large collapsible table in one hand, pushing up her glasses with the other. Janice was amazed with the southerner's incredible patience with those spectacles, considering she would have gone insane if she had to wear glasses.
"Do you want the table inside the tent this time?" Mel asked with an easy smile for her friend.
"Yeah, it might rain and this wind is kicking up too much dust," Janice responded as she grabbed the cots and followed the southerner into the tent.
Diligently opening up the table legs, Mel hummed, prompting the archeologist steal a glance at the southerner. As Janice had come to expect, a look of contentment covered the southerner's face. Mel got up and smiled warmly at Janice before leaving the tent to retrieve the chairs.
How is it that a woman like that could possibly derive such pleasure from such menial tasks, the archeologist wondered, shaking her head as she finished setting up one cot.
"This should be it," Mel blurted happily as she brought two folding chairs into the tent. A strong gust of wind blew the tent flap in her way, causing one of the chairs to catch in the flap's brass eyelets.
"Mel, let me . . . " Janice quickly stood, but not quickly enough. The southerner abruptly yanked on the chair. ". . . get that." Janice finished, covered in canvass.
The two stood quietly inside the collapsed tent for a moment.
"Mel?" Janice asked calmly, breaking the silence.
"Yes Janice?" Mel answered, wondering how furrowed the archeologist's brow was.
Perhaps it was a good thing she couldn't see Janice at the moment, the southerner thought with a cringe.
"Did you use the stakes in the bag to anchor down the tent?" Janice asked calmly.
"Uh . . . no," Mel answered meekly, biting her lip.
"You need to use the stakes," Janice informed her.
With the tent finally pitched and anchored by the southerner, such that a tornado would have a hard time toppling it, and their personal supplies unloaded from the truck, Janice found herself watching the sunset on a grassy hill overlooking a tree-lined river . . . and waiting. It was a very beautiful sight, the archeologist admitted, though she'd rather be busy working.
"Where are they?" Janice wondered with an impatient sigh.
"Isn't it beautiful?" Mel asked uneasily, as she stepped next to her uptight friend and glanced between the landscape and archeologist.
She really as NO concept of personal space, the archeologist considered, staring at the sunset and feeling the tall presence so close to her. However, the archeologist elected not to mention it to Mel this time, considering she was probably still feeling horrible about the tent. After all, Janice didn't want to make the southerner feel any worse.
"They should be here by now," Janice blurted.
"I'm sure they'll be here any . . . " Mel relayed optimistically then smiled broadly, seeing the dust cloud on the distant road. "Look! There they are!" Mel blurted with excitement, placing a hand on the archeologist's shoulder and pointing to the road.
Janice's surprised eyes darted to the hand on her shoulder, causing the southerner to retract it quickly. With a sigh, Janice looked to the road as a truck came closer. She squinted.
"There's only one truck," Janice said with surprise. "There is only one GOD DAMN truck!" Janice erupted, startling the southerner. Janice stormed towards the supply truck as it pulled in behind hers.
"Where the hell are all the men?!?" The archeologist yelled angrily at Georg as he emerged from the driver's side.
"They're on strike," Georg relayed, cringing for the tirade he expected and got.
"WHAT?!? I spoke with Eduardo yesterday . . . He didn't mention anything about a GOD DAMN strike!"
Mel stood by uneasily, wishing she could do something.
"Janice, they wanted to be paid before the dig," Richard Wright informed her as he got out of the passenger side of the truck.
"Jesus H. Christ!! Eduardo and his men all KNEW the University only pays AFTER the work is done." Janice rubbed her throbbing temples, amazed that after the past few days, things would continue to be so bad. Covington luck holding up as usual, she silently groaned.
"With the Nazis plague spreading, workers are not so sure about tomorrow, or whether they'll get paid," Richard explained, making the archeologist furrow her brows. She hated it when he sounded so all knowing.
"Don't worry Janice . . . " Richard added calmly.
"Don't worry?!? How the hell, DICK, can four people excavate ONE building, let alone the whole god damn CITY!!" Janice barked, making Mel cringe.
"Dr. Covington," George interjected with cautious enthusiasm. "Dr. Wright was able to hire replacement workers who don't mind being paid later," George quickly offered, standing uneasily at Dr. Wright's side.
"Unfortunately, they won't be here until tomorrow," Richard added.
Janice's anger drained away to everyone's relief.
"Pretty impressive, Dick. Getting a group together on such short notice. I suppose I should thank you," Janice offered with a cool smile.
"No thanks necessary, Janice. Your reputation isn't the only one on the line with this dig," Richard added, smiling easily with a shrug.
Mel sat alone in the tent, tapping her fingers on the table as she waited. It seemed an awfully long time since the archeologist left for her walk.
From the snoring in the next tent, Mel could tell the men were sleeping soundly which made Mel wonder why she and Janice weren't doing the same. Well, she knew very well why SHE wasn't sleeping. Janice was outside somewhere, alone. For some reason it bothered her, even thought she knew Janice was more than capable of taking care of herself. And she did have her revolver with her, the southerner considered, which didn't help ease her mind. 'Guns,' Mel sighed and shivered slightly.
With a deep breath, Mel rose from her chair and started pacing. Despite being from a family of avid hunters, Mel never got comfortable with guns. And she never understood those who liked to be around them. They were just plain scary. Anyone could pull a trigger and cause horrible damage, Mel considered.
Stopping in front of Janice's cot, Mel eyed the whip coiled up on top of it. Without any reservation, she picked up the braided leather object, admiring it for what it was. A dangerous weapon? Sure, but only in the in the right, skillful hands, Mel reflected. Janice had demonstrated that to her a number of times. She smiled, remembering on the last dig how Janice rolled over, grabbed the whip, and in a single stroke, killed a particularly annoying fly that invaded the tent, then rolled back over on her cot and fell asleep.
Janice made it look so easy, the southerner mused. Mel uncoiled the lengthy whip, spilling the end of it onto the floor. Giving in to her curiosity and having an opportunity a southern lady wasn't usually afforded, Mel grinned and enthusiastically drew her arm back.
The end of the whip caught around the chair leg and table, causing the southerner roll her eyes with frustration at her complete lack of coordination. With a sigh, she knelt down to untangle the whip. Standing up, she took a deep breath and pushed her glasses up on her nose. Abruptly, she cocked her arm back. The crisp crack on the back stroke surprised and just might have delighted her, had she not heard a loud "OW!" along with it.
Mel gasped and turned to find Janice with a stunned look on her face, holding her hand on the top of her left breast.
"Oh MY! Janice!!" Mel blurted, quickly tossing the whip on the table as if it was too hot to handle. "Oh My. . . ." The southerner repeated, rushing over to her friend. "Are you ok?!?" Mel asked nervously, trying to move Janice's hand to see if she did any real damage. An annoyed Janice pushed her hands away.
"FINE, Mel, Just FINE," Janice blurted, tossing her hat down on the table and sitting down in a chair. Glancing at the whip then the southerner, she shook her head, thanking GOD the southerner didn't like guns as she rubbed her tender spot.
"I'm SO sorry, Janice. I'll never touch it again," Mel blurted guiltily, glancing at archeologist's breast.
"Jesus Christ, Mel, you can touch it. . . just be more careful," Janice sighed, surprising the southerner.
"Uh . . .of course, Janice," Mel relayed uncertainly.
"And practice OUTSIDE . . . OK?" Janice added.
"Outside," Mel repeated with a hesitant nod, amazed the archeologist didn't tell her to keep her hands off her whip.
An exhausted Janice groaned as she stood back up.
"I did hurt you!" Mel blurted anxiously.
"I'm fine Mel, really," Janice responded softly, then looked at the southerner curiously. "Why are you still up?"
"Why are YOU still up?" Mel countered firmly, surprising the archeologist.
"I have trouble sleeping when I'm not sure what's going on," Janice admitted with a shrug.
"Richard hired replacement workers, Janice," Mel offered. "It will all work out, you'll see," she added warmly.
"Yeah," Janice responded, unconvinced anything Dick was involved in would ever turn out OK. "You should get some sleep, Mel. We have an early day tomorrow. Even without the workers, there is some excavating we can do on a building I found," Janice relayed with mild enthusiasm, sitting at the table. "Its main door is partially exposed. Shouldn't take much to get inside,"
"You've already planned tomorrow's work?" Mel asked with amazement as she sat on her cot and took her boots off.
"Yeah," Janice said, pulling out a map and a journal.
"Janice, aren't you going to get some rest?" Mel pulled off her second boot. "You've been going nonstop for the past few days," Mel observed with concern.
"I just have a few observations to log. Go try to get some shut-eye, I'll get some sleep in a minute."
"You sure? You need your rest too, Dr. Covington," Melinda scolded her.
Janice looked at her blankly. Melinda raised an eyebrow. Janice rolled her eyes and looked back at her journal.
"Well, just as long as we understand each other," Mel relayed sternly and laid down on her cot. Within minutes, the southerner was sound asleep.
Xena's eyes darted from building to building, face to face, as she walked through Zemal. Only a few buildings were affected by fire, she noted thankfully. If Bayentes wanted to destroy the town by fire, she knew he could have done so easily. And if it happened along the way, she also knew it wouldn't bother him in the least. But destruction of Zemal wasn't really what he was after, the Warrior Princess sighed.
Gabrielle scanned the tavern, now a makeshift hospital. Seeing a handful of men with relatively minor injuries, she was thankful the casualties were not worse.
Smiling warmly at a bearded man with large belly, the bard knelt down by him and looked over the shallow sword wound on his arm.
"You know, I think a drink would help speed up my recovery. . . " He suggested helpfully to the bard, pointing to the bar.
"Nice try," Gabrielle responded with a smirk, handing him a water bottle instead.
The injured man shrugged with a sheepish smile and took a long sip.
The bard gathered her medical supplies. They were hardly used, she noted thankfully as she inventoried them. However, she also knew they were not out of the woods yet.
Her thoughts drifted to the man none of her herbs or bandages would have helped, the first man to be brutally cut down in the street. Remembering his life violently gush from his body as he collapsed to the ground like a rag doll, the bard shivered.
In front of a charred home, Xena paused as she passed a mother comforting her crying child. Both were still in their nightclothes after being abruptly driven from their home by the flames from the early morning attack.
They didn't deserve to be the battlefield for Bayentes' revenge, the warrior thought as a guilty ache grew in her heart. The mother looked up to find the warrior looking at her.
"Go AWAY!" The mother spat, clutching her frightened son. "Haven't you brought enough pain already!!"
Xena took in a quick, sharp breath and shook off the comment. "If you need help . . . " Xena offered with forced detachment, starting to point towards the makeshift hospital.
"Help!?!" The woman gave a pained laugh. "My husband was MURDERED and my home was BURNED!!" She kept her arms protectively around her crying son. "I think we've had enough of your HELP already! GO AWAY!!" The mother blurted and started to cry, hugging her son tightly. "Just go . . . away . . . " She repeated between her sobs.
Xena nodded once and turned from the angry mother. Squaring her shoulders and taking a deep breath, Xena continued her search for Bayentes' men.
"Hey, you ok?" The large bearded man asked Gabrielle, who looked at him a moment. She nodded with a warm smile, giving his forearm a squeeze. When she got up to check on another injured Zemalian, she noticed out of the corner of her eye an argument between Staveros and a couple of women.
"You are crazy to think I am hanging around here," the stocky innkeeper snapped at the merchant. Another woman nodded in agreement.
"But we need everyone! Xena said . . . " Staveros countered.
"I don't give a rat's ass what Xena said. We are in danger being around her! If she is right and another attack is coming, I'm not interested in sticking around HERE for it," the woman blurted.
"It's not safe here," the quieter woman added, looking around uneasily at the room of injured.
"It's not safe on the road either," Gabrielle interjected firmly, causing the three to turn to the bard. "Bayentes will have soldiers looking out for people trying to leave."
"Listen to Gabrielle," Staveros pleaded to the women, then turned to the bard. "Please talk some sense into them, Gabrielle. Tell them they need to stay here," Staveros blurted.
The two women silently looked at each other then the bard.
"I can't," the bard responded, surprising the three. "They are right, Staveros, it isn't safe here either."
The stocky innkeeper eyed Staveros with a raised eyebrow, not needing to say 'I told you so.'
"But if you are determined to go, we need to talk," Gabrielle relayed with concern for the two women.
As she started to enter one of the last buildings she was going to check for soldiers, Xena's head snapped towards the sound of a muffled yelp, followed by a deafening silence alerting the warrior to trouble. She followed the sound to the temple next door.
Quietly unsheathing her sword, the Warrior Princess paused at the entrance, listening. Hearing a pair of shuffling feet, Xena slipped into the shadows of the torch lit temple.
She waited in those shadows until she saw the pair, a terrified woman held by one of Bayentes men with a knife to her throat. He was waiting for her, Xena concluded, seeing him glance around the temple.
"Let her go," Xena spoke calmly, emerging from the darkness. The startled soldier gripped the woman tighter. He pressed his dagger firmly against her throat.
"Let her go, and I'll spare your life," Xena added coolly, staring him directly in the eyes.
He smirked. "Not worth much, all in all . . . thanks to you," he relayed coolly, surprising the Warrior Princess, who tried to place him. She couldn't.
"What else do you have to offer?" The soldier asked with a smirk, then felt the woman in his grip squirm. "Settle DOWN wench, or I'll slit your throat!" The soldier barked at the shaking woman, who whimpered.
The woman's eyes sought and found Xena's. Finding comfort in the confident blue gaze, she calmed down.
"What is Bayentes offering you?" Xena asked, returning her sword to its sheath, and waited for an opening.
"Something you couldn't possibly give me," he laughed.
"Oh? And what would that be?" Xena asked with a silky voice and raised eyebrow.
"Revenge for your crimes against us," he added with an eager look in his eyes.
"Us?" Xena asked as her stomach dropped. He laughed with amusement.
"You've left a long line of destruction in your wake, Warrior Princess. Bayentes isn't the only one who wants revenge. It's incredible how many people. . . an army's worth," he grinned with satisfaction at the stunned, albeit brief, look he brought to Xena's face.
Without another word, the soldier viciously ripped open the woman's small neck with his jagged blade. Her life's liquid spewed out, splattering the Warrior Princess on the face and chest, before the dead woman slumped to the ground.
Xena's wide eyes of surprise angrily narrowed as her hand lashed out and clamped tightly around his throat. The dagger was immediately knocked to the floor as the Warrior Princess erupted with a loud angry growl and lifted his murderous body by the neck. Stepping over the dead woman, she slammed him against the temple wall.
Already resigned to the fact he would die today, the soldier only smiled as he gasped to regain the breath knocked out of him.
"You BASTARD," Xena exploded, seething with anger as the woman's blood trickled down her face. "She was an innocent!"
"We were all innocents . . . once. . . but you destroyed that. And we'll see you pay for your past . ., " he blurted with difficulty, yet with a smile firmly planted on his face. "We are many . . . we . . ."
Interrupting his propaganda, her hand clamped down harder on his throat. Their eyes locked as she continued to squeeze the life out of him. His body twitched a few times before it finally went limp. Letting go, she watched his lifeless shell slide down the wall and slump over onto the floor, where now there were two dead bodies.
Two more to add to the long list. . . .
Chapter 19 - Cat and Mouse
"Mel?" Janice eyed the southerner, who was sleeping soundly on her cot. The archeologist glanced back at the tent flaps, where the morning light peaked through.
"Mmmmmm," Mel responded as she shifted and clenched her pillow tighter. Janice rolled her eyes.
"Mel, wake up," Janice tried again with some annoyance, glancing at the tent flaps then back to the southerner, who pulled up her blanket to her neck and sighed contentedly.
"Mel! Wake UP!" Janice tried again, shaking her shoulder.
"AH!" A startled Mel blurted, sitting up rapidly. "Janice! There is NO need to shout!" Mel snapped. She looked at the small nightstand next to her cot for her glasses. Mel smiled sheepishly, seeing the archeologist already holding them out for her.
"Oh . . . thank you," she responded softly, taking them and putting them on.
"Mel, we need to talk," Janice said gravely, sitting down on the adjacent cot.
"Janice, how long have you been up?" Mel asked with concern, eyeing the archeologist's already dusty and sweaty clothes. The southerner quickly pinned up a stray piece of hair that fell down in her still-sleepy face.
"Mel," Janice responded impatiently.
"Knock, knock!!" Richard announced brightly, standing just outside the tent door.
"Come in," Mel instinctively answered, rubbing her eyes under her glasses. Janice moaned and shook her head.
"You ladies ready?" He asked happily as he entered the tent. "Oh. . . I guess you're not," he added with amusement, seeing Mel just waking up.
"What do you want, DICK?" Janice asked coldly as she stood, eyeing the intruder.
"Whoa Janice, I guess we got up on the wrong side of the cot this morning!" He joked then cleared his throat seeing Janice's eyes narrow into dangerous slits.
"Uh, just wondering what you want for breakfast. I'm the cook this morning. Luckily, you'll only have to put up with my cooking for one day," Richard informed them with a big grin.
Seeing Janice still eye him, the grin dissolved. "Well, why don't I make . . .uh. . . something . . . ," he relayed uneasily then tried to smile. "I'll let you know when it is ready," he added and left.
"Janice, what is with you two?" Mel asked curiously, finally getting up from her cot.
Janice turned to her with an unnerving gaze. "Don't EVER turn your back on him, Mel," she warned her friend. "We've got . . . ," Janice gravely added, but was interrupted with the second visitor that morning.
"Dr. Covington!" Georg excitedly burst into the tent. "I freed the door up on that building. . . ," Georg paused, seeing the familiar look on Dr. Covington's face. " . . . you showed me," he peeped, knowing Janice wanted to strangle him.
"I guess I should have. . . knocked?" He said sheepishly, looking back at the tent flap.
Janice sighed heavily.
"Did you go inside??" Mel gushed with excitement. Not yet jaded by the business, Janice considered with mild envy, remembering when she was just as enthusiastic.
"Yes I did!" He answered happily. Janice couldn't blame Georg for that stupid smile on his face. Although he had seen the seedier side of the business, the southerner's genuine enthusiasm was contagious, Janice considered.
"How exciting! What a way to start the day," Mel relayed with a huge smile, glancing at the archeologist, who took a deep breath and quietly listened.
"Well, unfortunately, it's rather . . . uninteresting," Georg revealed with a slight frown. "But perhaps there is more to it than I've seen so far," Georg relayed optimistically with a hopeful smile.
"Well, I've just GOT to go see it!" Mel added, bubbling with enthusiasm. "I'm glad you woke me, Janice. If I slept any longer, I wonder what ELSE I would have missed out on," she relayed as she eagerly followed Georg out the tent.
Pausing, a smiling Mel turned back curiously to her friend. "Aren't you coming?" Mel asked Janice, who wasn't moving.
"In a minute," Janice responded, scratching the back of her neck. Mel eyed her. "Go on, have fun, I'll catch up . . . ," Janice added with a small smile. Mel smiled broadly and left.
With her friends off to explore the Zemalian structure, Janice sighed and pulled her revolver from the holster on her hip and inspected it. Confirming each chamber in the cylinder was loaded, she glanced at her weapon a moment and returned it to her holster.
Mel followed Georg, sporting a big smile as she looked appreciatively around the site. The diverse collection of plant life made the area beautiful. A beauty she would never have known about if she wasn't on a dig with Janice, she thought, thankful for all the new experiences the archeologist shared with her.
"What kind of building is it?" She asked trailing behind Georg as they descended a grassy path to the building, still partially buried under hundreds of years of earth and wild growth.
"A temple of some sort, the altar kinda gives it away," he said with a smile, enjoying Mel's refreshing sense of wonder and awe.
"A TEMPLE?" Mel blurted uneasily, stopping in her tracks.
"Yep," Georg answered as he climbed over a pile of rocks, pushed back some dangling ivy, and entered the temple.
Since nothing bad apparently happened to him, Mel's curiosity won out over fear and she followed.
Pulling out a lighter from his shirt pocket, Georg lit some torches and took one from its receptacle on the wall. "As you can see, it is not the ornate kind of temple you usually see for the gods. . . like Aphrodite or Ares," Georg remarked, looking around the inside of the torch-lit temple. "I'd say a minor god." Georg stroked his chin thoughtfully.
"So Dick, here we are . . . in Zemal, of all places," Janice relayed with a thin smile, surprising Richard, who was crouched down in the dirt, fanning the small fire he had just started for cooking breakfast.
He looked up with a weak smile.
Pulling a folding chair out from the table, Janice's thin smile remained in place as she sat down.
"Yeah, Zemal," he relayed nervously as he stood up. He didn't expect Janice would want to chat with him. God, he silently moaned.
Janice grinned and pulled out a cigar, silently offering it to him.
"Uh. . . no thanks," he declined the unusually polite offer with a small wave. Janice nodded and lit her cigar up. She took her first puff and let out a long sigh.
"You know . . . " Janice broke the awkward silence, then paused a long, uncomfortable moment to puff on her cigar. "I'm still not really clear on why you are here, Dick," Janice relayed, leaning back in her chair and crossing her legs. Her eyes locked on his for a moment and she saw panic.
A strained smile emerged on his face. "I told you Janice, I really need the money . . . and truthfully, I did want to get my foot back in the archeological door, as it were."
Richard forced a chuckle. Janice joined in and chuckled. The chuckling quickly died.
"Uh huh. I can see that," Janice relayed thoughtfully and took another puff on her cigar. "It's tough getting work these days . . . tough supporting a family," she offered with a bitter smile.
Richard cleared his throat.
"I want you to know, I appreciate you giving me work. After everything, I wasn't sure you would," Richard relayed as he pulled out the cast iron skillet from a cardboard box of kitchen supplies, keeping his eyes on his chore.
Janice nodded and puffed on her cigar. "So, DICK, was it tough packing the supply truck?" She asked nonchalantly with a raised eyebrow. Dick swallowed hard, glancing to the truck then back to the skillet in his hands.
"You don't look so well Dick, maybe we should go back to Athens and see a doctor or something," she offered helpfully, sitting up in her chair.
"Uh, that won't be necessary," he replied with a cough.
"Dick, you're coughing now and look at that sweating! I can't have my people work when they are ill . . . and as you know, people are the most important thing to a dig," Janice smiled. ". . .worth their weight in gold."
Richard dropped the skillet.
Mel and Georg inspected the temple. "You're right, the temple is not very ornate. . . rather bland in fact," Mel relayed, holding the rim of her glasses as she peered closely at some writing chiseled on the stone wall near a torch. "Hmmmmm. . . ." She sighed with disappointment, unable to brush away tenacious dirt caked over the lettering.
"Yeah, Dr. Covington is already THRILLED about this dig," Georg responded sarcastically, shaking his head.
"Well, she mentioned Dr. Maveros was interested in the site," Mel relayed, earning a disgusted grunt at the name. "I take it you've met her," Mel responded dryly.
"Yes. Once. And that was enough. It's a crime Dr. Covington was forced to deal with HER and the University of Athens. We never had to before and I liked that just fine."
"Well, Dr. Covington had one . . . backer. . . he was a private collector," Georg said uneasily. Amazed the southerner didn't say anything, he continued. "He financed her digs and she provided him pieces for his collection. It was working out just fine until the last dig. He got really upset when she didn't recover the artifacts he wanted on the last dig."
"What artifacts?" Mel asked, amazed that she didn't know anything about this. But she reminded herself, she didn't even know Janice's favorite color was. . . .
"There was a set of Gurlan vases the collector was interested in at our last site."
"Blue with a red floral design?" Mel said weakly, remembering them vividly . . . in pieces, after she dropped them.
"Yeah. He was very anxious to get a hold of those vases. Well, because Janice broke the Gurlan vases during the last dig, he. . . . "
"What!?! JANICE broke them?" Mel repeated incredulously. "Is THAT what she told you?"
"Well, I was there when she tried to explain to the backer what happened. She told him it was a freak accident."
Mel's stomach dropped.
"He didn't care. He told her she was incompetent and couldn't even handle the simple excavation of a vase. Then he said she'd never leech off of his good nature for her worthless digs ever again. Well, you could imagine, she wasn't very pleased about that," Georg shook his head with the memory of that uncomfortable encounter.
"No . . . I should think . . . not," Mel answered weakly as she her eyes welled up. She nodded and turned from the man, feigning interest in the pile of rocks stacked next to the altar.
"Well, Miss Pappas, I'm starving," Georg announced. "Let's see what Dr. Wright has thrown together," he suggested. "We should get a good meal in us before the workers arrive and the real work begins," he added with a smile.
"Uh . . . I'm not hungry Georg . . . I'll just look around in here," she said feebly, still eyeing the rocks.
Georg shrugged and left the southerner alone in the temple.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 |