Part 1| Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Index |
Janice and eyed Richard with new contempt. "You've stooped to a new low, Dick," she blurted. "Which is amazing, considering your track record."
Richard sighed, eyeing Janice's hand that instinctively moved to rest on her revolver.
"Just give me a reason to shoot you," Janice threatened.
"I didn't make up the reason why I needed the money, Janice," he added softly, making Janice's eyebrows furrow with annoyance.
"So becoming a FATHER gives you permission to endanger people and break the law?" She snapped.
"So what's your excuse?" He countered with a smirk.
Remembering her father's lectures on the importance of reputation in the business world, the southerner silently wept, feeling the horrible ache of having caused her best friend such humiliation in front of a business associate. Her heart sank further, knowing that because of her, Janice lost a backer.
"Oh, Janice, why didn't you just tell him it was MY fault?? Just like everything else??"
Mel cried, feeling utterly useless.
All she wanted to do was help her friend. . . like excavating those vases for her. Mel remembered bitter-sweetly, her sheer joy when Janice agreed, after her not-so-subtle begging, to let her take charge of digging them out. She remembered how, with painstaking care, she dusted and gently chipped them out of the tenacious rock. . . how Janice would grin at her and make an offhand comment or two about the southerner's patience putting Job to shame.
She felt so proud when she got both of the vases out intact. Proud, up until the point she excitedly jumped up from the workbench to go tell the archeologist she was finally finished, and bumped into the table. She helplessly watched as the vases fell and shattered on the ground.
Mel's tears freely fell as she remembered how her father would kiss her forehead and tell her she shouldn't be wasting her time with 'menial' chores every time she messed one up in her own, incredibly blundering way. That happened so often. . . .
Why didn't she learn, she lamented, remembering how upset Janice looked when she walked in the tent to find the vases in tiny pieces. Mel bit her lip remembering the smaller woman swearing and tossing the small folding chair across the tent before turning and storming out of the tent.
When the southerner fearfully blurted out how sorry she was, Mel remembered Janice stopping and taking a deep breath. After what the southerner thought was an eternity, the redheaded woman finally responded over her shoulder.
"I'm sorry too, Mel . . . you didn't deserve that." With a weary sigh, the archeologist took a step to leave but something stopped her. After a handful of the southerner's pounding heartbeats, Janice turned towards the southerner.
"It's a good thing you're so patient . . . " Janice said softly, looking directly into her eyes. In the silence shared, each woman could see the other's sorrow. Mel remembered never feeling more vulnerable in all her life . . . well, up until the moment when that devilish glint emerged in Janice's beautiful eyes.
". . .especially since you'll be spending the rest of the dig picking up those pieces."
Mel remembered those words with a tearful laugh that quickly dissolved into pained sobs. "Why didn't you ever tell me how important those vases were?" Mel whispered through her tears.
Xena continued to stare at the bodies, briskly wiping away the unwanted tears that escaped from her eyes. Feeling a familiar stickiness on her fingers, she inspected them and confirmed what she already knew . . . the blood from the innocent woman was now on her hands.
Shutting her eyes, she took a deep breath, struggling to gain control over her ragged emotions. She shook her head, finding it ironic that with all the blood she casually shed during her life, she could let herself get rattled over just two more . . . three, she corrected herself, counting the man they watched brutally cut down in the street.
Why did Gabrielle have to witness that, she angrily thought, remembering the horrified gasp escaping from her love.
"Damn you, Bayentes," she cursed as her eyes drifted down to the soldier she strangled. You've learned well, Xena noted with the fear already embedded in her heart growing. Just how many others are as intent on seeking revenge, she wondered as her eyes watered.
The warrior's head dropped into her hands as she silently fought with the tears that were not easily conquered.
Hearing footsteps, her teary face popped up from her hands. Looking around the temple, she couldn't see anyone but she knew she wasn't alone. She could feel it.
"Georg, is that you?" She called out nervously. Not wanting to be caught crying, Mel quickly wiped her tears.
She heard another step in the darkness.
"Georg!" Mel blurted out with annoyance, getting no response. She panicked slightly, considering it might be the archeologist.
"Janice? Is that you??" She asked uneasily, squinting into the blackness.
Hearing another step made Mel almost start crying again, not from heartache, but fear.
"I am not interested in games, SHOW yourself!" Mel went over to the torch and pulled it from the wall. "I'm warning you, I'm armed!" Mel called out, looking at her torch then into the darkness, and attempted a menacing stance.
Hearing another step, she swiftly unsheathed her sword and turned to face the noise behind her, pointing the tip at his throat.
"How would you like to join them?" Xena said coolly with a menacing gaze.
He glanced at the two bodies and sighed. "No thank you," he responded and displayed his empty hands. "Are you ok?" He asked, noting the tear-stained blood smeared on her face and chest.
Her eyes suspiciously narrowed.
"It is not healthy to sneak up on a woman with a sword," Xena relayed, glancing over his simple white tunic and brown pants. Noting he had no weapon on him, she relaxed slightly.
"You can put your. . . weapon. . . away. I didn't mean to startle you," a man called out with a sincere voice.
"Wh. . . who are you?" Mel asked uneasily, holding the torch out towards the man emerging from the darkness. She wiped her eyes again nervously and tried to get a good look him. He didn't seem like a threat, she considered, eyeing his plain white tunic and brown pants. No weapons, she observed, relaxing slightly.
"You look upset," he noted, dusting off a spot on the floor next to the altar. "Is there anything I can do?" He asked sincerely, sitting down.
Still clenching her torch, Mel uneasily glanced around the temple then back at the man, surprised at his question.
"I . . . uh. . .No . . . thank you . . . there's nothing you can do," Mel said with polite sadness. Her head hung as her eyes dropped to the ground.
"You can put down your weapon," he informed her, looking at the tip of her sword still pointing to his throat, then the warrior on the other end. "I was traveling by and heard the commotion," he informed her. "Are you ok?"
"Why do you keep ASKING that?" Xena snapped angrily as she lowered her sword. "How do you think I am, after seeing an innocent woman's throat cut by an enemy of mine just because she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time!?!" She relayed angrily, motioning towards the bodies on the floor.
"I'm sorry," he said softly, noticing the pain in her bloodstained face. "It can't be easy," he mentioned as he stepped back to retrieve a water skin and rag from his bag on the altar.
A single sharp laugh from the warrior relayed her agreement.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" He asked, holding out the rag and water skin towards her.
She eyed the offering a moment, then the man.
"Sure, why don't you take care of Bayentes and his army for me," Xena suggested, sheathing her sword. "That would be a really big help . . . thanks," she added, plastering on a smile.
"I'm afraid that is a little beyond what I can do," he said sadly.
Xena's smile drained away. She took the rag and waterskin.
"Seems we have the same fear," she responded weakly.
"Sounds like you've given up," he noted with concern.
"I . . .who ARE you?" Mel blurted uneasily, finding it odd this total stranger seemed so sincere in his desire to help.
"Depends on who you talk to. . . . " He shrugged. "Why were you crying?" He asked sympathetically.
Melinda wiped her eyes again, sighing wearily. "I . . . I have caused so much trouble for my friend. I. . . ." She started to tear up again but quickly turned from him with the convenient excuse of returning the torch to its receptacle on the wall.
"What could possibly be so bad to cause such a beautiful woman to be so unhappy?" He said with a sincere smile, making an agitated Mel turn abruptly towards him.
"LOOK, I don't know WHO you are, since we STILL have not been properly introduced, but I am NOT interested in discussing my problems with a stranger. And although I appreciate your concern, there is NOTHING you can do for me," she blurted in a polite southern huff.
"Don't be too sure," he smiled warmly.
"You're crazy or you're drunk. And either way, you are in no position to offer me help, even if we HAD been properly introduced AND I was inclined to accept your . . . gracious . . . offer," Mel responded crisply, amazed she was having this conversation.
"I don't think I'm crazy and I haven't had a drink in a very long time," he mentioned with an easy smile. "I just want to help you."
"Help me, you want to HELP me?" Mel responded in disbelief, pulling off her glasses and rubbing her eyes. "Why?!? You don't even. . ."
"Let's just say, I remember a time long ago when I had a chance to really help - I didn't. I was too afraid of what would happen to me," he said somberly, his eyes dropping to the ground remembering the heartache that followed. "I promised myself I'd make amends . . . someday," he relayed then looked up at the beautiful woman. "And here you are!" He grinned.
Mel stared at him blankly. Not smelling alcohol, she concluded the nice man was just crazy.
"Tell me what would make you happy," he encouraged her.
"If I do, then what?? Do you have a magic wand or something?" She smirked with amusement.
"Well, no," he replied. "Although one might help, I'm a bit rusty," he chuckled. "There hasn't been much need for my help for a long time," he added with a frown, looking around the partially buried, sparse temple of a 'minor' god. "But I'm game!!" He blurted quickly with a broad smile.
Mel chuckled at his enthusiasm. "Well, if anything, you've managed to cheer me up for the moment," Mel relayed, her chuckle dissolving into a sigh.
"That's a start," he relayed happily. "Tell me what would make you happy," he repeated, seeing her eyes roll. "What do you have to lose?" He added sincerely.
She sighed and laughed softly at his good point. "All right, fine . . . why not?" She relayed with a breathy exhale and shake of her head. Then perhaps he'll go away, she considered hopefully.
Her answer brought a delighted smile to the man's face.
"I'd be happy if I wasn't so . . . accident prone," she admitted to the eager-to-please crazy man.
He looked at her, intently listening and thoughtfully nodding as she paced.
"It's amazing, really, how uncoordinated I AM," she added, her southern accent punctuating her annoyance more than she intended.
"Did you know that I'm a descendant of one of the most skilled warriors in history?"
She gave a sharp laugh and started to pace. "Some descendent I turned out to be. I bet HER tents never fell down," Mel grimaced, shaking her head at her stupid mistake.
Absently, she touched her bare wrist and stopped her pacing with a sad sigh.
"And I suspect she was never late to an important battle . . . ," Mel relayed guiltily, remembering the trouble her tardiness brought Janice with that unpleasant Dr. Maveros.
"And I am pretty sure SHE never accidentally whipped her friend in the . . . ," she paused and cleared her throat, deciding elaboration on that particular incident unnecessary.
"All I am is a walking accident waiting to happen," she blurted, struggling against her tears as she remembered the vases fall. "I don't know how Janice has survived my presence THIS long," Mel relayed with annoyance. "Let alone tolerated it," she added softly.
"If I were only more like my ancestor. . . a woman of many skills as the scrolls say," Mel sighed and shook her head. ". . . . Wouldn't that be a nice change?"
"You think having more SKILLS . . . would make you happy?" He asked curiously, scratching his chin.
"Happy? I would actually be a help to my friend without causing a major catastrophe. Now THERE's a thought!" Mel blurted sarcastically.
"Are you really SURE that would make you happy?" He asked again, making Mel roll her eyes.
"You asked me and I told you," she snapped with annoyance. "Now, if you'll excuse me," Mel blurted crisply, standing erect with her head held high. "I have other things to attend to," she relayed curtly with a polite smile and turned to leave.
"But what will you do?" He asked softly, watching her pour the water into the rag.
"Whatever I have to," Xena said bluntly, wiping the damp rag over her skin to remove the red stains.
The man nodded thoughtfully. "Many will die," he noted with a sigh, looking back down at the bodies.
"Yes. Many will," she answered with an icy candidness which melted seeing his genuine sadness.
"Look, I wish things were different, you have no idea," she admitted stiffly, with a pained look in her eyes, which dropped to the reddened rag in her hand. Clearing her throat, she took a sharp, composure-gathering breath. "But they're not."
"OK," he called out, stopping her exit. She turned towards him impatiently with a questioning eyebrow.
"If that's what you want, Melinda Pappas," he said with a sigh. "But mortals tend to waste time worrying about what they can't do . . . instead of enjoying what they can," he relayed and waved his hand and disappeared.
"People will die . . . whether I stop Bayentes or not," Xena informed him bitterly. "But I WILL stop him," she responded with angry confidence.
He nodded at the troubled warrior, who sighed and inspected herself for blood.
Finding no more, Xena held out the water skin to return it to its owner as he reached for it.
Hearing the bard call for her, the Warrior Princess glanced towards the entrance of the temple.
The water skin fell onto the floor.
The raven-haired woman's eyes widened with surprise.
Chapter 21 - FINE, JUST FINE
The warrior rolled her eyes and sighed wearily as she knelt down to pick up the water skin. She paused a moment, feeling a little out of sorts and put a hand out on the floor to steady herself.
"Are you ok?" He asked.
She looked up at him with a raised eyebrow, still feeling odd, but shook it off before standing back up with the water skin.
"That question is getting annoying," Xena responded with a thin smile as she handed him back the skin, more carefully so he wouldn't drop it again.
He shook his head with a small chuckle at the warrior's tough attitude as he accepted the water skin.
Xena heard the bard call for her again. "In here, Gabrielle," Xena answered, turning to see the bard cautiously enter the temple with her staff at the ready.
Hearing the man's foot steps as he walked away, she turned back to him with a small smile. "Thanks for the . . . ," she blurted but stopped, discovering he was gone. The warrior's eyes darted around the temple for the quickly exiting man.
"Xena," Gabrielle called with relief as she walked towards her warrior. "I'm done checking on the wounded, got Staveros to inventory the weapons, if you could call them that, and I have the militia and their wives waiting for . . . ," the bard rambled off quickly but stopped abruptly as her eyes dropped to the two bodies.
"Oh Gods," Gabrielle gasped softly. "Are you. . . ."
"The soldier killed her, I killed him," Xena explained plainly. "I'm sorry . . . ," Xena added weakly.
"Sorry?? For what?" Gabrielle asked in confusion moving closer to her warrior, who sighed.
"That you had to see this, that you are in danger. . . that you," Xena blurted, finding it extremely easy to find things to be sorry for.
"Xena," Gabrielle interrupted harshly. "You've said it will be rough. You know I'm not thrilled with that and I know you feel guilty, but Xena, let's not waste time now with apologies and guilt. . . . You and I have enough to deal with, with Bayentes and his army. OK?" Gabrielle snapped and eyed her warrior.
Xena raised her eyebrow. "Being right twice in two days, Gabrielle . . . you going for a record or something?"
"For THAT, I'll let you apologize to me . . . later," Gabrielle smiled thinly and turned to leave the temple.
The warrior watched the bard exit with a small smile. As she started to leave, Xena glanced at the bodies again, took a deep breath and followed the bard.
"Sir, you asked that you be informed when the attack was all over," the new first lieutenant nervously informed Bayentes, as he entered the warlord's tent.
"It's over," the redheaded lieutenant added, earning a glance from the warlord, who just finished bathing and was putting his pants and shirt on. "She killed them all with that round disc. . . thing," the lieutenant blurted, upset with the senseless defeat.
"Chakrum," Bayentes informed him as he put his armor back on with the help of his servants.
"Huh?" The lieutenant asked then continued seeing the impatient glare of the warlord. "Uh . . . Anyway, I wanted to tell you I have the remaining men in camp standing by, ready for another attack. Xena should be tired by now, I thought a staggered attack with two or more platoons would surely. . . ."
Bayentes looked at him and blinked a couple of times. "You thought?" He interrupted his eager lieutenant, who realized his mistake . . . too late.
In the main street, Xena assessed the ragtag group of Zemalian men and women. A few men in the militia had swords but the rest carried shovels, pitch forks, clubs, and one had his water pitcher.
Xena sighed. Gabrielle bit her lip.
"It's useless, Xena, how can we win against an army?" One older man asked.
"You don't need to win . . . just survive," Xena responded coolly, looking directly into his eyes, which broke his gaze as he nodded.
"You, come here," Xena called out, making the young man with the water pitcher look around then at the Warrior Princess curiously. "Yeah you, water boy, come here," she clarified.
He left the curious group and approached her nervously.
"Nice pitcher," she mentioned with a thin smile. "Don't you have anything else? A pitch fork or . . . ," she softly asked the embarrassed man, placing a hand on his shoulder.
He looked at his pitcher, shrugged, and shook his head no.
"How about this?" Gabrielle suggested, holding out a long plank of hard wood for the warrior to assess. While not having a smooth surface like a finished staff, the squared strip of wood could be used as one.
The approving nod from the warrior as she took the wood made the bard smile.
"Here, try this instead," Xena relayed as she swapped weapons with the curious water boy, who grabbed the wood as he handed over the water pitcher. He handled the wood in his two hands, getting the feel of it and smiled.
The warrior glanced over to the smiling bard, who suddenly stopped smiling when the man accidentally whacked Xena in the arm with his new stick. The Warrior Princess' eyebrows furrowed as she slowly turned towards the now very nervous man, who considered he should have stuck with the water pitcher.
The group of Zemalians gasped nervously, hoping the Warrior Princess wouldn't kill him for his mistake.
The sting to Xena's arm was minor compared to the sting to her ego. Wake UP warrior, no time to be dozing you idiot, Xena silently scolded herself as she saw a number of uneasy looks in the crowd.
"See, a much more dangerous weapon than a water pitcher," Xena joked to a relieved group, making them chuckle.
Gabrielle wasn't chuckling.
"OK, then," Xena relayed loudly. "Let's start with the basics . . . blocking, I want you to pair off," Xena ordered.
As the people paired off, Gabrielle came to Xena's side. "Why did you let him hit you?" Gabrielle asked softly, inspecting and touching her arm.
Xena shrugged it off with a sly grin. "Distracted by a beautiful bard?" The answer didn't get the smile the Warrior Princess was expecting.
"Now what?" Staveros called out loudly from the back of the waiting group.
Xena looked at the pairs. "Gabrielle and I will demonstrate a blocking move, then you and your partner will try it with your weapons," she announced, then looked at her bard with a raised eyebrow.
"Are you going to continue to be evasive?" Gabrielle asked softly with a thin smile.
"Why don't I be defense?" Xena answered her. Gabrielle rolled her eyes.
"Fine," Gabrielle responded with irritation as she backed up and gracefully whirled her staff around her.
Xena grinned at her bard's flair for showmanship and reached to unsheathe the sword on her back. Instead of the grand flourish Gabrielle expected, Xena pulled her sword, which got caught in its sheath. After a second pull, the sword was finally freed. Xena eyed the sword in her hand with a furrowed brow. Her weapon felt oddly out of balance. Perhaps she needed to hone the edge down, she considered, but curiously noted no burrs or nicks on the blade.
Xena looked up uneasily, suddenly feeling all eyes on her, including a concerned bard's.
"Ok, we'll start with basic blocks . . . a swordsman will have a number of attack strokes, but a few basic blocks will be sufficient to counter most of them."
"Most?" A woman blurted out with concern.
Xena eyed her.
"Just asking . . . " The woman added with a shrug and kept quiet.
"Ok, let's start with the over head attack," Xena announced loudly and turned to a grinning Gabrielle, who's staff quickly descended, until it hit Xena's head.
"Ow," Xena yelped as her hand shot up to her throbbing head, almost as fast as Gabrielle's hand shot up to her gaping mouth.
"Xena . . . ," the shocked bard exhaled as Xena shook off the blow.
Plastering on a smile, Xena looked to Gabrielle then the group.
"As Gabrielle and I have just demonstrated. . . ," Xena announced loudly. ". . . blocking the over head blows would be preferable to getting hit," Xena relayed, rubbing her head with a grimace and getting amused laughs from the group.
Gabrielle wasn't laughing.
"SO . . . if Gabrielle will make another over head strike, I'll show you that block," Xena relayed to the crowd, turning back to the bard. "How about a little more slowly so they can see . . . my Queen," Xena relayed softly to her worthy opponent with a small, respectful nod of the head.
"Gabrielle?" Xena asked the bard, who looked uneasily between the waiting group and warrior. "Uh Gabrielle? Any day now . . . " Xena blurted, making the bard nod hesitantly.
Slowly, the bard raised the end of her weapon and brought it overhead of the warrior. In a purposeful but unthreatening stroke, the bard brought down the staff.
Xena lifted her sword into a block position, feeling a bit sluggish. The day was catching up to her, she considered. Sloppily deflecting the blow, Xena allowed the staff to slide down her sword, towards the hilt.
Realizing the impending collision with Xena's hand, Gabrielle lifted the end of her staff in time to avoid it.
"There . . . now, face your partner and try," Xena relayed to the group, who followed her instructions. "Slowly at first," Xena added, with an accusing glance at her bard before walking around between the pairs.
"Not bad," Xena encouraged a couple of people.
Gabrielle also helped a few pairs but found her attention focused on her warrior. The bard uneasily watched as Xena returned her sword to its sheath, after the second try.
The group tenaciously drilled on the basic blocks knowing their lives likely depended on them. However, there was a loud sigh of relief when they were given a break by the Warrior Task Master.
A very concerned Gabrielle was finally able to pull her warrior aside.
"Are you ok??" Gabrielle blurted nervously, looking around at the scattering people.
Xena smirked. "I'm FINE, Gabrielle. You don't have to worry about my head, you know it's too hard to really get hurt," Xena grinned, which faded seeing Gabrielle still upset.
"What's wrong, are you feeling ok?" Xena asked, placing a concerned hand on her bard's forehead, which was quickly swatted away.
"XENA! What about that guy hitting you with the stick?" Gabrielle asked with great agitation, making Xena uneasy.
"No big deal Gabrielle, no splinters SEE?" Xena smirked, pointing to her arm. "I think after that battle with the three-headed hydra, you shouldn't worry about me surviving a little smack on the arm," Xena answered with an amused chuckle.
"Come with me . . . " Gabrielle snapped, grabbing the warrior's arm and pulling her with her.
"Now??" Xena asked with surprise, looking around at the town's people.
"Xena!" Gabrielle blurted with annoyance. "I need to show you something . . . in the stables . . . NOW."
The curious warrior followed the upset bard to the stables. The stress was finally catching up to her, Xena considered sadly. She couldn't blame Gabrielle. This was not a good situation.
Spotting a lone man pull out a brush and start to groom his horse, the bard immediately ordered him out of the stables.
Wisely, he quickly gathered his belongings. He quickly exited, finding unneeded encouragement from the bard who followed on his heals. Once outside the stables, the man turned to find the red headed woman shutting the large stable doors behind him.
Now alone, except for a couple nervous horses, Gabrielle turned back to the warrior, finding a questioning eyebrow raised.
Whirling her staff in a flourish, the bard attacked Xena, who reflexively lifted her arms which only enabled the bard to strike her side. It wasn't a soft tap.
"OW. Gabrielle!! What are you DOING??" Xena blurted out with surprise as she rubbed the sore side.
Gabrielle paused a silent moment with a variety of emotions crossing her face before continuing her attack. Xena quickly stepped backwards, dodging Gabrielle's next strike.
"What are you DOING, Gabrielle!?!" Xena grabbed her sword and pulled it awkwardly out of its sheath and attempted to block the rapid blows with her unusually unresponsive weapon. She managed to stop a few, but most slipped past her sluggish defenses. Between the occasional blocks and more frequent stinging strikes, the Warrior Princess continued to back up, finally stumbling over a saddle and down onto the hay-covered ground.
The stunned Warrior Princess looked up to the emotional bard, whose world seemed to be crumbling at her feet.
"NOW tell me your FINE!" Gabrielle snapped.
"When will breakfast be ready?" Georg asked, joining Janice and Richard at the cooking fire.
"Georg, here," Janice responded, tossing her truck keys to him. "Take my truck and get Mel back to Athens, NOW," she blurted with an urgency that made Georg know better than to argue.
"You got it Dr. Covington," Georg blurted and started to leave but froze when he spotted a truck in the distance. He eyed the archeologist and Dr. Wright.
"My friends are here," Richard relayed smugly. "Driving off now might just offend them," he relayed with amusement, drawing an annoyed look from the archeologist.
"Georg, go into the temple and wait there with Mel. And stay out of sight, these men are not coming to work," she added gravely. "Go!"
Georg ran back to the temple as fast as he could.
Janice eyed Richard with an intense, almost crazed look in her eyes that he had never seen before.
"You say one word to those men about either of them, Dick . . . I'll kill you." Janice spoke her threat slowly and passionately. She was serious. And Richard, who had heard threats from Janice before, knew it.
George quickly descended the steps and entered the temple.
"Miss Pappas??" He called out urgently. "Miss Pappas," he repeated spotting her sitting on the ground next to the altar. "We've got some . . . are you ok?" He asked noting her confused expression when she looked up at him.
"Georg?" She asked softly. "People just don't disappear . . . do they?" She questioned him calmly and pushed her glasses up.
"Uh . . . not unless they are like my Uncle Orestes and running from the law. Why? What's wrong Miss Pappas??" Georg found her looking around the temple then back at him.
"Oh nothing," Melinda smiled and laughed weakly as she stood up. "Georg, why are you out of breath?" She asked curiously.
The truck pulled up and stopped a few feet from the archeologist and Richard, causing a cloud of dust. Three armed men jumped out of the driver's cab and scanned the area as they approached Janice and Richard. They all had rifles. As they came closer, Janice also noted the handguns on their belts. The largest man of the group, who sported a beard, had an extra belt of ammunition draped over his chest, Janice noted with a heavy sigh.
"Real subtle," Janice blurted to Richard.
"The men with the big guns don't have to be, Janice," Richard relayed with a smirk.
"You Wright?" The beaded man asked gruffly. The two other armed men continued to scan the area for trouble.
"Usually," Richard answered with an amused grin, which faded when the bearded man stared at him and spit next to his feet.
Janice concluded with annoyance that if things turned really sour, she wouldn't be able to take out all three without them returning some rounds. However, her hand still casually rested on top of her revolver on her belt, in case Dick continued to be 'amusing.'
"Is the broad with you??" He asked, eyeing the redhead with interest as he took a cigar out, bit off the tip and spit it out. Cuban, Janice noted.
"NO," Richard blurted quickly, receiving a glare from Janice. The bearded man eyed them with amusement as his two henchmen pointed their guns the archeologist's way.
"She found out about this . . . transaction . . . and wanted a piece of the action. Hard to refuse when a gun is pointing at you," Richard blurted quickly.
"Ass-hole," Janice snarled at Richard as one of the men stepped up to her to take her revolver away. As she pulled it from the holster, Janice paused a moment and eyed the three men.
The second man raised his machine gun and aimed it at her head to provide her more encouragement to cooperate. She begrudgingly handed her weapon over with a plastered on smile.
"Janice, Janice, Janice . . . I counted on your soft spot still being there," Dick relayed shaking his head. "And even after everything, you're still blinded by love and a sense of loyalty. You really are a sentimental f. . ."
"Shut up, ass-hole," the large man interrupted impatiently. "Where is it?"
The bearded man not only had good taste in cigars, he was observant too, the archeologist thought with a small smile.
"In the truck, all 300 bars," Richard said uneasily, not appreciating the tone of his business associate.
The large man whistled and five other armed men jumped out of the back of the brown truck. Janice sighed. Yep, she thought, this was not her week.
"Get the gold," he commanded and lit his cigar.
"Uh. . . ," Richard said uneasily and cleared his throat, making the man look up from his cigar.
"The payment? It's, uh, 600,000 Drachmas . . . That was the agreed upon price," Richard relayed weakly, making Janice shake her head.
What an idiot, she thought with a sigh as she rubbed the bridge of her nose and nonchalantly scanned the area for signs of Georg or Mel. Thankfully, she didn't see either of them.
"There's been a change of plans," he relayed with a smile.
"Change of plans? What change of plans??" Richard asked uneasily, looking over at Janice, who rolled her eyes.
"If you play with fire, Dick . . . you ought to know, you can get burned," she explained to him with a thin smile and glanced over to the five men sorting through the crates in the back of the supply truck.
The bearded man chuckled. "Sounds like you've played with fire yourself, honey," he answered. Janice looked at him and smiled unenthusiastically.
"It's not here!" One man blurted as he and the four other men frantically double checked all the boxes.
"What's going on ass-hole?" The man blurted as he pulled out his pistol and pointed it at Richard's head.
"I don't understand . . . I loaded the crates on the truck before we drove here!!" Richard blurted, sweat building up on his forehead which he dabbed with a handkerchief he pulled from his pocket.
"Well, I don't see it," a mustached man blurted through a yawn as he jumped out of the back and scratched his head.
"Let ME see!!" Richard rushed over to the truck and climbed in, and frantically searched the boxes. He quickly concluded they were right, the boxes did not contain the precious metal.
"YOU! Where did you put it??" Richard glared at Janice, who sighed and silently shook her head.
"We are not leaving without the gold . . . or somebody's hide," the bearded man coolly informed Richard.
"Janice, you've GOT to tell them where you've put the gold!!" Richard blurted in panic.
"What makes you think I did anything with the gold, Dick?" Janice asked calmly.
"I think Ass-hole here is right, and you know something about it . . . spill the beans, honey . . . or I'll shoot you," the bearded man threatened, aiming his pistol at Janice, who stared directly into his eyes.
"What . . . what did you see out there?" Melinda asked nervously when Georg came back from his quick scouting trip.
"A group of men with guns. Eight total . . . they all had guns," Georg informed her.
"We have to do something," Melinda announced to Georg, who shook his head no.
". . . we can't just sit here and do NOTHING!" She countered with annoyance.
"Dr. Covington said to wait here, Miss Pappas," Georg explained. "She knows how to handle these things . . . " Georg relayed confidently.
A shot rung out, echoing through the temple.
"Good Lord," Melinda gasped and rushed to the temple door.
"Miss Pappas, NO! Dr. Covington would never forgive me if something happened to you," Georg blurted fearfully, making the upset southerner pause and turn towards him abruptly.
"But something might have just happened to HER!" Mel snapped.
"If it did, there is nothing we can do now . . . if it didn't, we're not going to be any help if we get captured," Georg reasoned.
"God Damn! You've got brass balls, don't you honey?" The large man looked between his smoking pistol and the archeologist who still stood, eyeing him coolly. "I guess threatening to shoot ass-hole here, won't make you talk either," he asked with a smirk.
"Only to thank you," Janice relayed, making the large man chuckle. Richard's eyebrows furrowed.
"A couple of love birds, aye?" The large man joked to Richard, who was too nervous to say anything.
"Ok, boys, fan out and search the area, that gold couldn't have gotten too far," he called out as he walked to the tents. The bearded man entered one tent for a moment and quickly finished his unsuccessful search. Exiting the tent, he eyed Janice and Richard, wearily shook his head, then entered the second tent.
What now . . . What if they find Mel, Janice's mind raced. At least with them spread out, there's a better chance of taking them out, she considered.
"Janice, PLEASE tell them . . . or they'll kill us," Richard pleaded softly, nervously eyeing the bearded man entering a tent.
"Right now the only thing keeping us alive, you idiot, is the fact they don't have the gold," Janice snapped.
"You two, shut up and get over here," the bearded man at the tent flap beckoned them with his pistol as he puffed on his cigar.
"What are we going to do?" Richard asked in quiet panic.
"Go over there," Janice responded calmly, pointing to the bearded man with the pistol.
"I'm sorry I had to do that, Xena," Gabrielle said guiltily, kneeling down next to her stunned warrior who was still on the stable floor. "But it was the only way I could think of showing you . . . ."
"I can't fight . . . I can't . . . I, " Xena relayed hollowly, still in shock. "Gabrielle. . . what if he drugged the water . . . my sluggishness, that would explain my sluggishness . . . maybe he drugged the water." The warrior quickly grasped for an explanation.
"Xena, if he did, others would be feeling the effects too. . . I feel fine. . . well . . . relatively speaking," Gabrielle relayed wearily. "Do you think Ares . . . ?" Gabrielle suggested hesitantly.
"He wouldn't do that, he wants to see me fight. . . not get slaughtered," Xena responded, then her eyes darted nervously around the stables.
"What am I going to do? Bayentes is out there waiting," Xena relayed quickly, fear evident in her voice. "I can't even protect myself anymore, let alone these poor people . . . or you, oh Gabrielle," Xena blurted, starting to do what Gabrielle had never seen the Warrior Princess do . . . hyperventilate. "What am I . . . "
"Xena," Gabrielle interrupted.
"What am I . . . ," Xena blurted again, gasping.
"XENA!" Gabrielle shook the warrior by the shoulders, stopping her rambling, and looked her in the eye.
"WE will think of something. Right now, only you and I know about this. I think it will be best to keep it that way," Gabrielle relayed firmly. Her heart ached seeing the Warrior Princess look so unsettled, so nervous. But she had to be strong now . . . for both of them.
"XENA! Get a grip," Gabrielle shouted as she shook the warrior's shoulders. Gabrielle's hands moved to hold the warrior's face. "Look at me, Xena," she ordered, holding her face firmly.
The warrior's nervous eyes were finally forced to focus on the piercing green eyes gazing down at her. "I have faith, Xena. . . we WILL get through this . . . together," Gabrielle stated with such conviction that the Warrior Princess almost believed her.
The bard pulled the warrior's head into her chest and hugged her protectively, stroking her hair.
"Gabrielle," Xena exhaled, clinging to her bard as tears escaped.
Bayentes looked at the map and sighed. Where to be, where to be, he wondered as he tapped his fingers under the city of Zemal then looked at Amphipolis. Should he go to see Xena fight against another platoon or go to see the rest of his army level her hometown. Choices, choices, he thought. He sat back and contemplated his options.
"Sir, reporting as ordered," his newest first lieutenant entered the tent, standing at attention.
"Sit down, Rolf," Bayentes smiled, immediately putting the young man on guard. "Come now, I won't bite . . . " he added with a grin.
"Yes sir," Rolf answered, hesitantly sitting down. He smiled weakly, surviving that nerve-wracking task.
"I have a dilemma," Bayentes relayed with a perplexed look on his face as he stared at his map.
"Sorry to hear that sir," Rolf answered, his eyes darting around the tent before returning to the warlord and his map.
"Thank you for your concern, Rolf. You see, I'd like to attack Zemal and Amphipolis at the same time but I can't be both places at once," he relayed to the nervous man, who quietly listened. "Which is what I'd like," he added with a smile.
"I understand," Rolf relayed, then held his breath, realizing he just spoke aloud.
"Now, what would you do?" Bayentes asked, pointing to the map. "A platoon here in Zemal, then the rest of the army here, just outside of Amphipolis."
Rolf looked tentatively at the map.
"Well, you could delay the Amphipolis attack until you finish with Zemal," he responded, pointing at the town. "The only advantage of a simultaneous attack that Xena can't be in both places at the same time either. You could leave in the middle of the battle, while she's still busy in Zemal and go to Amphipolis," Rolf relayed enthusiastically.
"Yes," Bayentes smiled. "Well thought out, Rolf," he added.
"Thank you sir," Rolf said proudly. "Do you have any orders for the platoon or should I tell them to make camp?" He asked.
"Tell them to make camp, I want her to wait a little longer," Bayentes informed him as he still studied at the map. "She hates waiting," he grinned.
"She's awfully quiet," Staveros relayed to Gabrielle as he wiped the sweat from his forehead while taking another break from practice. The merchant and bard eyed the warrior as she walked around the practicing Zemalians, looking distant.
"She has a lot on her mind, Staveros," Gabrielle relayed. Staveros nodded sympathetically.
"You should tell your people to stop for the evening," Gabrielle quickly changed the subject. "You don't want everyone to be exhausted when Bayentes' men come back," Gabrielle relayed.
"Yeah, we need all the rest we can get," Staveros relayed. "Do you think the two look outs will be enough?" Staveros asked.
Gabrielle looked around the city then the locations for the lookouts. "Absolutely," she relayed with more confidence than she had. But two sounded good, she thought.
Staveros smiled and nodded.
"You should make it three, one should be a roving watch to check up on the two, sleep becomes tempting in the middle of the night," Xena relayed as she walked up.
"Ah, good idea, I'll get right on it. Thanks Xena," Staveros blurted with a smile. Xena eyed the man she still did not trust. Her eyes returned to a much prettier sight and she offered a small smile.
"Ok, not so absolutely," Gabrielle eyed her warrior with a grin. "Well, it seems your hearing and knowledge of warfare is still intact," she observed, reaching for and capturing her warrior's hand.
"Yeah, great. That knowledge and good hearing will do us a lot of good in the middle of a battle. . . ," Xena relayed sarcastically with a sad sigh, squeezing the bard's hand slightly.
"Well, you can still teach us what to do," Gabrielle relayed optimistically.
"You know what they say, those who can't do. . . teach," Xena blurted, looking around town for signs of trouble. Not that she'd be able to do anything to stop it. . . .
"You tired?" Gabrielle changed the subject.
"Yeah, I feel exhausted. I could go for some . . . ," Xena blurted then stopped, seeing the bard's frown and feeling the pleasant tingling the bard's gentle caresses brought to her hand.
"OH. . . I, uh . . . not really," she responded, lying through her white teeth.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "We'll see if that's the case once your head hits the pillow," Gabrielle added, tugging her warrior's hand as they headed towards the inn.
As they walked past the front desk, Xena looked around. "I wonder where the innkeeper is," Xena mentioned.
"Me too," Gabrielle relayed with a thoughtful sigh, pulling her warrior's hand as she led her up the stairs.
"Gabrielle, I still don't like staying here," Xena relayed as they entered their room.
"I know," Gabrielle shut the door. "But there are look outs who will alert us if Bayentes men come again," she offered, slowly taking the Warrior's armor off, stealing caresses that were unnecessary for the task at hand. She moved behind the warrior and pulled the armor free from her and carefully placed it on the table.
"Like last time? We heard the attack before they told us it was coming," Xena complained. "Some look outs . . . ," she muttered and rolled her eyes.
"Yeah . . . well, I think they realize they have a vested interest in being alert now," Gabrielle slowly faced Xena and reached with both hands for one of the warrior's bracers, managing a long caress as she slowly slid the bracer down Xena's arm.
"Gabrielle, you should leave tomorrow before dawn, like we planned," Xena blurted.
"I am not leaving, Xena, so don't try to talk me out of it. It's a waste of breath," Gabrielle responded calmly as the warm breath of her words teased the warrior's sensitive skin. She followed with a kiss to the warrior's collarbone.
Xena swallowed hard, determined to ignore the bard's obvious attempt at distracting her with gentle kisses that were slowly progressing up her neck.
"Gabrielle, I . . . " the resisting warrior started to counter but was interrupted by an amorous bard, whose kisses made it up to the warrior's mouth.
After the kiss, Gabrielle gently captured the warrior's hand and pulled her towards their canopy bed. At the foot of the bed, the brooding warrior paused.
The morbid thought of their last night together always lingered in the back of Xena's mind. When they first met, she had to not only defend herself, she had to see to it a young bard also survived the battle. As Gabrielle's skills with the staff grew, Xena became more comfortable during battles, able to focus more on the enemy and less on the far-from-helpless bard. Now who was helpless, she pondered with a clenched jaw, far from comfortable now.
The warrior looked at her bard, wondering if their last night was now here.
Seeing the incredible sadness in her warrior's eyes, Gabrielle gently caressed her face. "I love you," she said simply, wondering if . . . NO, it wasn't going to be their last night, she thought, angry with herself for considering such a thought.
"I'm afraid, Gabrielle," Xena admitted in a whisper. "You should. . ."
"Shhh," Gabrielle interrupted gently. "If something happens. . . which it WON'T. . . but if something does, I want to be with you," Gabrielle responded softly, starting to tear up.
"I know," Xena pulled her bard into a hug. "I just want you safe, but I guess that's not so easy anymore," Xena whispered into her hair, and kissed her head.
A silent moment passed in each other's arms, each savoring the satisfying contact. Contact each had grown dependent on.
"Well . . . nothing has ever been easy with you," Gabrielle relayed thoughtfully, pulling herself away from the warm embrace.
"ME??" Xena blurted, looking into her grinning bard's face.
"Yeah, YOU, my love," Gabrielle responded, poking her in the stomach. "A big, brusque, pain in the . . . WHOA!"
Gabrielle was swept up by the warrior, who grinned wickedly as she stepped toward the bed. A loud thunk wiped the wicked grin off the warrior's face.
"OW!" Gabrielle's hand shot up to her head, which ached from the collision with the bed post.
"Gabrielle!" Xena quickly put the bard down. "I . . . I'm . . . I'm SORRY!" Xena sputtered, reaching out but stopping herself from touching the bard's head. She didn't want to inflict any more pain.
"HEAD wasn't the word I was looking for . . . but it will do," Gabrielle rubbed her tender spot, and shook her head with a soft chuckle.
"I can't believe I just did that," Xena relayed uneasily, eyes darting between the bard and her hands.
"Xena, it's ok," Gabrielle responded, moving toward her nervous warrior. "I'll let you kiss me and make it better," Gabrielle added with a grin.
"I'd better not . . . " Xena stepped back.
Gabrielle sighed and sat on the bed.
"Xena," Gabrielle said softly, starting to untie her boots. "We should take things slowly, that's all," she offered as she took her time removing a boot. "Slow can be good . . . very good," the bard relayed to the warrior with a knowing glance before continuing to remove her other boot. . . slowly.
If anyone knew how to make the removal of boots an erotic experience, Gabrielle was certainly the one, the warrior considered, watching uneasily. "But . . . I don't want to hurt you . . . ," Xena admitted softly, swallowing hard as the last boot slipped from the bard's nimble fingers and dropped to the floor.
"Xena," Gabrielle said slowly, her voice dripping with desire. "You don't have to worry, you won't have to lift . . . one. . . finger," she spoke silkily as her fingers trailed up to the laces on her green top.
She had a point, Xena considered. If the warrior wasn't expected to do too much, the chances of injury would be lower, Xena reasoned, taking a hesitant step forward.
"Leave everything up to me . . . " Gabrielle added with a seductive grin, as she slowly tugged on the laces until she released two pointed and extremely compelling reasons for the warrior to join her.
The warrior now stood at the bed side, before her bard, who slowly helped the warrior remover her leathers.
"Do you always get your way, Gabrielle?" The warrior asked with a small grin. When her leathers dropped to the floor, Xena got her the answer.
The bard gazed upon the warrior's beautiful form with hungry eyes. Unsatisfied with her pleasure being limited to sight, her fingers eagerly sought the pleasure of contact with the warrior's smooth skin.
Hearing a sharp breath from the warrior, who's previously smooth skin became rippled with goose bumps, Gabrielle looked up curiously into the warrior's eyes.
"Cold fingers," Xena explained.
"Not for long," Gabrielle responded with a sly grin, slowly tracing her fingers up the warrior's flesh to the back of the warrior's neck. With the slightest of pressure, the bard encouraged the warrior to lean towards her parted lips.
Slowly, their lips met. Their gentle, probing kiss lasted as long as the warrior could stand not lying next to her bard. Xena broke their kiss and glanced at the large bed then the bard, who grinned. As Xena climbed into bed, she felt Gabrielle's hands suddenly on her shoulders.
"Stop," Gabrielle blurted briskly, greatly disturbing the Warrior Princess, who froze with two hands and a knee on the bed and one foot still on the floor, staring into the bard's grimacing face. Xena's heart stopped; She didn't think she hurt her again.
Georg couldn't stop Mel from taking a peek outside the temple entrance. She pushed her glasses up on her nose as she peered out over the rocks. Suddenly, Georg saw her retreat back into the temple.
She put her finger up to her lips and stood back in the cover of the shadows.
Georg's heart pounded harder. He hoped the loud sound wasn't going to give him away as he also retreated into the shadows. Considering his increased breathing likely to be too loud, he held his breath. He also prayed to GOD, thinking that couldn't hurt.
Georg's eyes widened as a tall man entered the darkened temple with a pistol drawn. He gasped, attracting unwanted attention.
Though not seeing the source of the gasp, the man pointed his pistol directly towards Georg. "Show yourself," the man blurted, squinting to see what was in the shadows, his eyes not yet adjusted from the bright sunshine to the darkened temple.
Taking another step deeper in the temple, he repeated his command and added a threat. ". . . or I'll start shooting," he blurted and cocked the hammer back.
Another gasp sounded. This time from the armed man, when he felt someone grab his wrist. Within a second, his hand was slammed against a knee, easily knocking the weapon away. He turned to see his attacker, finding light reflecting off a pair of glasses a few inches above his head. Then he felt a fist.
A surprised Mel stood over the unconscious man.
Georg emerged from the shadows out with his mouth gaping wide open. His eyes dropped to the man on the temple floor. He quickly knelt down and picked up his pistol.
"Wow," he blurted, looking up at the equally amazed southerner, who pushed up her glasses.
"So honey, where did you put the gold?" The bearded man offered Janice a cigar. Both sat at the table in her tent while Richard nervously stood watching.
"Thanks," she smiled, accepting the cigar. Drawing it under her discriminating nose, she inhaled appreciatively. "You have good taste," she added, making the man crack a smile as he lit his lighter and held it out for her. Not too many women he knew appreciated his cigars.
"So do you," he responded, as she leaned to the offered flame and lit her cigar. "So, where's the gold," he repeated softly.
"Why do you think I have the gold?" Janice asked innocently, puffing her cigar.
The man chuckled. "Well, I've heard about you Dr. Covington," He leaned back in his chair, waiting for a response.
She looked at him a moment, then smiled thinly. "You can't believe everything you hear."
"Well, I've heard that you are intelligent and have . . . experience . . . in these matters."
"Really? From whom?" She asked nonchalantly with a shrug.
The bearded man smiled, offering no more. "Seems we are at a stand still . . . you have something I want and I have something you want . . . your lives," he said.
"Interesting dilemma," she relayed thoughtfully, puffing on her cigar.
"I could kill you right now, and search for the gold," he informed her.
Richard tried counting to ten to not panic.
Janice nodded her head in agreement and took another puff. His eyebrows furrowed for a moment before he thought of a different approach.
"But that's not a very enjoyable way of passing the time," the bearded man grinned, stroking his beard. "Ass-hole, leave the tent," the bearded man barked, his eyes overtly assessing the redhead's small form.
Janice's eyes narrowed.
Richard stood frozen. Three . . . three . . . three. . . .
"Go on Richard, you'd just be in the way," Janice relayed softly, still looking at the bearded man, who was pleasantly pleased by her answer. She did have good taste, he considered smugly.
"Make sure we aren't interrupted either," the bearded man added with grin, noticing the archeologist overtly assessing him. "It will be a while, I promise," he added with a hungry twinkle in his eye.
Don't count on it, Janice considered with a thin smile.
Richard looked at the two uneasily then cleared his throat and left the tent. He stood outside, uncertain of how far away he should stand. He also wondered what he would say to anyone who wanted to see the bearded man. He didn't have long to wait to find out.
A blond man came up to the tent pushing past Richard. "WAIT!" Richard said nervously, holding the blond man's arm then immediately letting go when he felt the barrel of the blond man' gun in his gut.
"Uh. . . I mean . . . he said he didn't want to be disturbed," Richard relayed nervously, glancing down at the gun, then pointing at the tent.
The blond man looked at Richard, then the tent. Hearing a woman's moan, the man rolled his eyes. "Great, that's just fucking GREAT," the man blurted and left in an annoyed huff.
Georg and Mel finished tying up the unconscious tall man and propped him against the base of the altar.
"Now only seven to go," Georg blurted, shaking his head wearily, eyeing the pistol in his hand.
"One at a time, Georg," Mel replied confidently, feeling a surge of pride for how she handled herself with this man.
Her body responded exactly the way it needed to, she mused, looking down at her hands in amazement. Like a dancer's trained body instinctively responding to music, she considered . . . or rather, imagined.
Even after four painful years of ballet lessons, designed to instill upon the gangly youth some much-needed grace, she could still only imagine what a trained dancer must feel like . . . much to the chagrin of her strict teachers, father, and her own miserable self. Her mother tried to encourage her to continue, telling her she wasn't going to keep growing forever. Yet thankfully, she remembered her father taking pity on her and telling her she should focus on more important things.
This feeling that washed over her now was indeed a unique and heady one, she admitted with a smile.
Mel's head snapped when she heard footsteps approach. Before she could tell him anything, Georg was already retreating into the shadows. Mel followed suit. This time, two armed men entered the temple.
"Bob? You in here Bob?" The shorter man called out, his loosely held machine gun pointing at the ground.
"He's probably taking a leak or something, Nick," the blond-haired man relayed as he followed the shorter man into the temple, right past Mel.
Mel felt a surge of adrenaline coursing through her. Both men were vulnerable. She had the element of surprise on her side. However, she wasn't sure if she could take on both at the same time.
"I can't believe we are stuck looking around this godforsaken dump for the gold," Nick complained. "It was supposed to be an easy pickup," he added shaking his head.
"Well, I can't believe we are stuck looking around this dump while Hank is getting some action with that broad," the blond man blurted. "Life just isn't fair," he added with frustration.
Mel's eyes widened in surprise.
"Dan, he's the boss," Nick responded. "And what Hank wants, Hank gets," he added snidely. "Even if it IS at gun point," Nick chuckled.
Mel's eyes narrowed with growing anger. Perhaps she could take on two. . . .
"Hank always did have a weakness for redheads," Dan relayed looking around the temple. "He says they're not just hot tempered . . . they're really hot in bed," Dan relayed. "But I've never noticed the difference," he added with a shrug.
"That's because you haven't had a real red head," Nick responded with an amused chuckle. "The bottled reds don't count."
Hearing the bearded man groan followed by a loud thump, Richard glanced back to the tent uneasily, debating whether to go in or not. He swallowed hard and stayed put.
Glancing around as she carefully poked her head out of the tent flap, Janice whispered, "Dick," making Richard jump.
"NO, don't turn around. You need to keep everyone thinking we are . . . preoccupied," she informed him, glancing around the campsite. "If you are going to survive this Dick, you need to be very convincing guard," Janice blurted then slipped back into the tent.
Looking at the bound and gagged unconscious man on the floor, Janice knelt down and picked up her revolver and put in her holster. "Is this enjoyable enough for you?" She asked with a smirk as she extracted a small knife from her boot.
Reluctantly, the archeologist cut through her tent, contemplating the time it would take to sew yet another patch over the already worn material. Cautiously, she poked her head out the new opening. Confirming all clear, she left the tent.
"BOB!" Dan blurted with surprise, tripping over the unconscious man when he came around the altar.
"Freeze!" Georg called out uneasily, stepping from the shadows his pistol pointed at the blond man's head.
"No, you freeze, buddy," Nick replied smugly, pointing his bigger weapon at Georg.
His smugness turning to concern, Nick felt a strong hand grab his shoulder and turn him around. He gasped when he saw the tall brunette with angry blue eyes glaring at him from behind her black-framed glasses. He broke his gaze from her unnerving glare to her fist, which rapidly approached his face.
Mel watched the now unconscious man slump to the floor and pushed up her glasses, with a content smile on her face. She needed to act, and she did. Janice would be - Janice! Her thoughts jumped to the archeologist's present problem. Within three long strides, the southerner was next to a grinning Georg and a shaking blond gunman.
"So, Daniel, where exactly IS Hank?" Mel asked with a polite smile, part of her strangely hoping he would not want to cooperate.
"You can't be thinking of going out there . . . with five armed men still roaming around," Georg blurted nervously, making Mel take a breath to try to explain she couldn't possibly sit by and do nothing now. . . especially now.
"Four, Hank's busy," the disgruntled man blurted absently, earning an irritated glare from the southerner.
Georg knew there was absolutely no chance now for him to convince her to listen to reason and stay put. So much for looking out for her, he sighed, hoping Dr. Covington wouldn't get too angry with him.
"Where's Hank?" She asked crisply. The blond gunman nervously gulped, suddenly glad he wasn't Hank.
"The tent closest to the river," Dan informed her then quickly squeezed his eyes shut when he saw her fist approach his face.
"Three down, five to go," Mel relayed casually, dusting her hands off as she stared at the latest unconscious gunman added to her collection. Pushing her glasses up, she looked over to Georg.
"You stay here Georg and watch these men," Mel ordered him.
"Miss Pappas, please be careful?" Georg asked uneasily.
"Georg, don't worry, I'm just going to have a little visit with this HANK," Mel spoke through another polite smile.
Georg sighed as he watched her leave the temple. He glanced down to the unconscious men thinking they were the lucky ones.
Xena woke and smiled as Gabrielle shifted in their bed, taking up more space and more of the covers. Sleepily, the bard scratched her cheek, managing to pull more of the blanket towards her. She moaned contentedly and returned her arm to cover the warrior's bare chest, now the only thing protecting the warrior's skin from the chilly air. Xena shivered.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked groggily.
"Hmmm?" Xena responded with a kiss to her bard's head.
"You ok?" She asked. She felt her warrior shiver again and noticed how she was hogging the blanket. "Oh . . . sorry," she said sheepishly as she relinquished some of the covers, pulling them over her warrior. "Why didn't you say anything?"
"Didn't want to disturb you," she answered with another kiss to her bard's head.
Gabrielle propped herself up on her elbow and looked into her warrior's eyes. They smiled at each other. Silently, Gabrielle indulged herself by tracing her fingers over the warrior's beautiful face, pausing at her lips which puckered to kiss her fingers.
"Do you think he'll come today?" Gabrielle asked softly. Xena sighed and glanced away as she reached up and captured her bard's hand in hers.
"I don't know," Xena answered, then tenderly kissed her bard's palm.
"Have I mentioned I love you?" Gabrielle leaned down and kissed her warrior.
"Well, you certainly showed me last night that you do," Xena grinned. The grin faded. "I'm sorry I wasn't more. . . " Xena blurted uneasily.
"Shhh," the bard put a finger to the warrior's lips. "You were fine once you got over your nervousness of touching me," Gabrielle relayed sincerely, replacing her finger with a quick brush of her lips.
"FINE? . . . oh wonderful, just wonderful. That's like saying 'gee Xena, you have a GREAT personality," Xena complained, rolling her eyes.
"Well, I'd never say THAT," Gabrielle answered, then grinned.
"What??" Xena responded indignantly. "First my reputation in bed is shot to Tartarus, then my personality is attacked," Xena blurted.
"Whoa, my warrior," Gabrielle countered defensively. "First off, I have absolutely NO complaints about last night, trust me," the bard offered and leaned down to the warrior's ear.
". . . your reputation is very much intact," the bard added in a whisper and gently nibbled at Xena's earlobe. The sharp intake of air by the warrior made the bard grin as she pulled back, thoroughly enjoying her ability to stoke the embers of her warrior's desire.
"Second . . . your personality. . . ," the bard paused a thoughtful moment, drumming her fingers on the warrior's chest. ". . . well, there's really not much we can do about . . . Ack!"
The bard found herself on her back, looking up at the Warrior Princess, whose eyebrow was raised.
"You realize this does nothing to help improve my opinion of your personality," Gabrielle blurted quickly. If she wanted to, she could have easily escaped her captor's gentle grip. . . but that would have been no fun at all.
Xena lowered her lips to the bard's, but stopped just short of contact.
"Oh . . .OH!" Gabrielle bellowed, making the warrior grin, thoroughly enjoying her ability to frustrate the bard. "And TORTURE, my dear warrior, will NOT get you ANY personality points," Gabrielle added in a threatening tone.
"Really?" Xena responded with feigned hurt, gazing into the bard's green eyes. "Then what would, Gabrielle?"
"Don't you want to keep going?" The bard suggested, eyeing the frustrated warrior who wiped the sweat off her forehead.
Xena moaned her answer as she sat on a hay bale in the stables. Putting her staff down across her lap, she sighed heavily and started rubbing her shoulder which the bard had whacked a number of times during practice.
"Gabrielle, you can't expect me to gain back what I lost in a single day of practice . . . it will take YEARS of training to get my skill back," Xena relayed with great irritation.
The bard looked at her own staff and nodded with a knowing sigh. And both knew they didn't have years to wait, they had days . . . if that.
"Besides, we need to go back and check on the militia's training. Staveros and his men keep coming by wondering what we find so fascinating in here," Xena blurted, shaking her head.
Gabrielle chuckled softly, scratching the back of her neck.
"You know, you have improved since the morning," Gabrielle offered encouragement, then became nervously silent, wondering how the proud warrior would react to that comment . . . from a bard.
"But not enough . . . I can't even block all YOUR blows . . . ," Xena complained with great frustration, then paused, realizing the unintentional insult. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle, I didn't mean that the way it sounded," Xena apologized as she stood up.
"It's just. . . ." Xena shrugged and glancing at the wood weapon in her hand. She was as clumsy and awkward with the staff as she was with her sword. 'Years . . . ,' the warrior repeated silently, not finishing her thought to the bard.
"I know," the bard responded, understanding the warrior's loss. The loss of something so much a part of her. "It's not easy . . . for either of us, Xena," Gabrielle admitted.
"I'm sorry for putting you through all this," Xena responded, knowing her words fell woefully short of expressing how she felt. As they usually did.
"Xena. . . you shouldn't apologize. You're the victim here," Gabrielle relayed softly.
"I am NO victim, Gabrielle. I created victims, remember?" Xena countered harshly.
"Xena," Gabrielle countered in a scolding tone.
"NO! It's about time you face facts, Gabrielle, and just listen to me for ONCE," Xena snapped. "I have a crazy man seeking revenge because I drove him mad when I cut his EARS off, Gabrielle. And he happened to recruit a bunch of my enemies, an entire army's worth, to do his bidding," Xena added sharply. "Enemies I created when I wronged them, and there are SO many I can't even remember them . . . Do you know what this all means? As long as you stay with me, YOU will be the true victim, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle looked at her warrior and sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose. She knew there was no arguing with her now, she was too upset.
"With my fighting skills gone, I can't do ANYTHING to protect you . . . not to mention protect my family or hometown . . . or even total strangers who are victims because of me," Xena relayed bleakly.
"This has to be my punishment," the warrior added, shaking her head wearily. "A bard should appreciate THAT irony, don't you think Gabrielle?" Xena asked her bard with a plastered on smile.
Gabrielle sighed, which she was doing a lot of lately. "If you are right, and this IS some sort of punishment . . . ," Gabrielle offered reluctantly. ". . . who would do this to you, Xena?" She asked calmly with a shrug. "And more importantly, who COULD do this to you? You said yourself, Ares wouldn't."
"You two . . . finished in there?" Staveros called out hesitantly at the stable doors, poking his head inside.
The two annoyed women abruptly turned their heads to eye the interruption.
"Uh, I was just wondering what other drills the militia should work on," he relayed nervously, taking a few steps into the stables.
"Blocks," Xena responded flatly.
"But we've already done blocks . . . isn't there anything . . ."
"I said BLOCKS, now get OUT of here and go practice your damn BLOCKS," Xena snapped.
He looked nervously between the two women and wisely retreated out of the stables, muttering about blocks.
"Xena," Gabrielle called to her warrior, who started to leave follow Staveros out.
Xena paused and looked at the staff in her hands. Surprising the bard, she tossed it to her.
"If I am going to die in battle, Gabrielle, it will be with a sword in my hand," Xena explained coldly and walked towards the stable doors.
"Now wait a DAMN minute!" Gabrielle blurted angrily, throwing down the staves and rushing to grab the fatalistic warrior's arm and prevent her from leaving.
"I'm done talking," Xena said neutrally and pulled her arm from the bard's hand. "If you're smart you'll leave tonight, when the sun sets," Xena said with forced indifference. "But I know you'll end up doing what you want . . . as you usually do," Xena added wearily, then departed.
As the daylight retreated behind the mountains, Gabrielle suggested the group break for the night. "Good work everyone, get some good food and a good night's rest," she said warmly and watched the tired Zemalians happily stop training and start rubbing some sore body parts as they broke ranks to return to their homes.
Staveros watched the Warrior Princess silently head towards her horse, not waiting to talk with Gabrielle as was their usual routine after a break. The waiting must be wearing on them too, Staveros concluded.
"What's wrong with Xena?" Staveros asked softly, joining Gabrielle as she walked towards the Inn. The two saw the warrior grooming her horse, outside the stables where it was safest for Argo.
"It's catching up to her," Gabrielle relayed truthfully. She feels the pain of guilt . . . now more than ever, the bard considered sadly, feeling the beginnings of that damn wall her warrior was determined to rebuild around her heart. Old habits are hard to break, she concluded.
Staveros nodded thoughtfully.
"Good night, Staveros," the bard said softly and entered the Inn.
"Well, girl . . . what do you think? Have I lost my touch with you too?" Xena asked Argo, scratching her neck.
Argo snorted softly and nuzzled her warrior, bringing a smile to Xena's face.
"I don't suppose you could talk to Gabrielle and convince her to go, huh girl?" Xena asked.
Argo snorted loudly and shook her head, then stared at Xena.
Finished drying the dinner plates, a quick chore because there were only two, Cyrene dried her hands on the dishtowel as she walked outside. She sighed, joining her son Toris outside her empty Inn in the heart of Amphipolis. The usually healthy pulse of the town had slowed so much over the past few days that they were contemplating a funeral service.
"I don't like this," Toris blurted, suspiciously eyeing the Amazons who had arrived earlier that day.
"Neither do I, now THEY are scaring away the rest of my customers," Cyrene sighed, seeing yet another couple strolling the street smile uneasily and walk around the intimidating warrior women.
"Mother, that's not what I mean . . . first that army sets up camp just beyond the south hill and then . . . the Amazons come to town," Toris scratched his chin.
"And NOBODY seems to be hungry or need a BED!" Cyrene added with annoyance, turning the heads of a few Amazons who heard the woman's loud complaint.
"Yell at the Amazons . . . good move Mother," Toris informed her, rolling his eyes.
"Keep it up, Toris," Cyrene threatened, turning her cold blue gaze to her son, who smiled weakly.
Xena finally returned to their room and was not surprised to find Gabrielle still up, at the table by the fireplace, writing. The focused bard didn't acknowledge the warrior's entrance and continued to write on her parchment, which was fine with Xena.
Xena glanced over to her predictable bard as she took off her sword and smirked, ready for that seemingly offhand comment she knew would come. A comment that would be carefully constructed to make the warrior feel bad and apologize for her actions earlier.
Finished removing her weapons and armor, she put them down on a chair by the bed and glanced over to the bard with a knowing grin, waiting for that comment.
Gabrielle continued to write.
The knowing grin faded with a small shrug and sigh. Taking off her bracers, the warrior remembered how much more enjoyable it was when her bard helped. So THAT was it, the warrior concluded. The bard was giving her the cold shoulder treatment, the warrior smirked. A cold shoulder treatment specifically designed to make the warrior feel bad and apologize for her outburst earlier. The warrior silently chuckled at Gabrielle's predictability.
"Did you eat?" Gabrielle asked softly, looking up from her parchment.
"Uh . . . no," Xena responded with surprise, her eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"I saved some meat and bread for you, I debated about wine but decided you'd probably want just water . . . considering," Gabrielle relayed, pointing to the tray on the table with her quill.
Xena walked over to the table and lifted up the cloth napkin covering the tray to find healthy portions of meat, bread, and some cheese. She picked up a hunk of already sliced meat and took a small bite which reminded her how really hungry she was. Picking up a soft roll, she ripped off a piece. As she placed it in her mouth, she paused, suspiciously eyeing the bard, who went back to writing.
So . . . she's being nice, the warrior concluded. Being NICE to make the warrior feel bad and apologize for earlier, Xena considered with a smug smirk and placed the bread in her mouth and chewed with satisfaction.
"Xena could you please SIT, you're really annoying hovering over me like that," Gabrielle complained.
"Oh . . . " Xena blurted weakly with her mouth full. Sitting down, Xena swallowed as she pulled the tray slowly towards her. She ate in silence, glancing between her food and the bard, who was still intensely focused on her parchment. Her curiosity finally getting to her, the warrior broke the silence.
"What are you writing?" Xena asked nonchalantly and sipped some water.
Gabrielle briefly looked up from her parchment. "Letters," she said simply then looked down at the words. "Friends, family," the bard added with a shrug. "You know . . . ," Gabrielle relayed softly with a small laugh. " . . . It's amazing the things you put off because you think you'll get to them later," Gabrielle noted and shook her head as she started to write again.
A pained look crossed the warrior's face. After clearing her throat, Xena asked softly "what are you telling them?"
"That I'm very happy but I do miss them . . . that I should visit more. . . kinda boring stuff," Gabrielle relayed distantly then fell silent for a long thoughtful moment. "Funny, writing usually makes me feel better," Gabrielle said sadly, looking at her quill and parchment.
Glancing up from her letters to her warrior's eyes, the bard found them full of sorrow. "Oh Xena . . . I didn't mean to . . . ," Gabrielle shut her eyes, feeling tears welling up.
Xena was immediately kneeling at her side. "I promise you Gabrielle, I will fight the best I can. I won't give up," Xena relayed with conviction, evoking sobs from her bard, who melted into the warrior's arms. "I promise . . . "
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7