Part 1| Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Index |
Sustra and Eponin didn't wait long in the tavern before receiving reports from the Amazons who checked on the whereabouts of the Warrior Princess.
"Sustra! I haven't seen her but Argo is still here, in the stables," the first Amazon blurted, out of breath from running. Sustra looked smugly at Eponin, who was genuinely surprised.
A second Amazon came running into the tavern. "I've checked the Inn, Sustra. Xena's belongings are gone," the second Amazon reported, disturbed by her find.
Eponin now looked at Sustra with a raise eyebrow, returning the smug look.
"Should we send out a scouting party?" The first Amazon asked.
"No, we need to make sure our Queen is protected while she recovers. We can't spare the warriors," Sustra blurted quickly, looking at Eponin, daring her to countermand the order.
"I agree, it would be a waste of warriors to search for her. If the Warrior Princess doesn't want to be found, she is not going to be found," Eponin relayed with worry. "We'll need to post a guard at the Queen's bedside, in case she decides to come back and finish . . . "
"EPONIN!" Sustra blurted, ready to punch her.
"You expect Xena to come back and kill Queen Gabrielle?" The second Amazon asked nervously.
"NO!" Sustra interjected vehemently.
"We don't want to take any chances with our Queen," Eponin informed the younger Amazon. "You will be the first watch. You'll be relieved in four hours," Eponin instructed her calmly.
The Amazons looked between Eponin and Sustra and nodded uneasily.
"What do you think happened?" Cyrene asked, breaking the long silence between the older women, who rode behind Solari and another Amazon who came to protect Cyrene from Bayentes men if needed.
"I'm not an oracle, just an old healer," Frea replied with a shrug.
Cyrene nodded and sighed.
"I do know, if what Solari said is true and Xena hurt our Queen, life will not be easy for your daughter around the Amazons," Frea offered truthfully.
"If Xena did hurt Gabrielle, life will not be easy for her, regardless of where she is," Cyrene snapped. "I'm sorry," Cyrene blurted quickly. "I know she has done horrible things in the past but she has changed - and Gabrielle is part of the reason . . . if not all," Xena's mother explained.
"It is difficult for parents to see bad things happen to their children," Frea relayed knowingly.
"You're a mother?" Cyrene asked.
"I was. My daughter died in battle," the healer informed her. "There was nothing I could do," the Amazon added softly.
"I'm sorry," Cyrene offered sincerely, understanding that helpless feeling.
"Me too," Frea added.
It was before dawn when they entered the town of Zemal. Cyrene looked uneasily around the street noticing Amazon guards eye her carefully.
"It's dark and there is a strong resemblance between you and Xena, Cyrene," Frea noted the concerned look on the dark-haired woman's face. "Don't worry, they know you are not her," Frea added, dismounting.
"They despise her," Cyrene said fearfully, dismounting her horse.
"They are just uncertain, Cyrene," Frea offered softly. "Let's go see the Queen," she added.
Gabrielle stirred in her cot, mumbling something the guard couldn't understand.
"Sustra! She's waking up," the guard called out, waking Sustra and Eponin who fell asleep. They rushed over to Gabrielle's side.
Sustra felt her Queen's forehead, sighing with relief there was no temperature.
Gabrielle shifted and mumbled something.
"What was that?" Eponin asked Sustra. "What did she say?"
"You didn't understand that?" Sustra questioned the dark-haired Amazon.
"NO," Eponin responded with irritation.
"Then HOW do you expect ME to??" Sustra responded with annoyance.
"I just thought . . . oh never mind," Eponin blurted wearily.
Gabrielle mumbled something again.
Eponin once again looked with anticipation at Sustra, then realized with disappointment that neither of them knew what their Queen was saying.
"Hmmm," Sustra relayed and scratched her chin thoughtfully.
"What did she say??" Eponin asked.
"She says . . . uh, you probably don't want to know." Sustra relayed with a shrug.
"WHAT?" Eponin asked eagerly.
"She says stop being such an idiot about Xena," Sustra relayed unconvincingly.
"You, me, outside, NOW," Eponin spoke slowly, her anger seething as she stood up.
"Gladly," Sustra responded through clenched teeth, as she rose to meet her opponent.
"Girls, girls, curb your tempers," Frea warned them, interrupting their angry glares.
"FREA! Thank the Gods!" Eponin relayed happily, rushing to greet the healer but stopped in her tracks when she saw Cyrene. "Why is she here?"
"I'm here to see how my daughters are doing," Cyrene responded firmly, looking directly into the hostile Amazon's eyes.
"It is her right," Frea reminded Eponin, who sighed and reluctantly nodded.
Frea knelt down by Gabrielle and inspected her wound. She thanked Artemis it was healing well. But the cause still greatly disturbed her. Frea's brow furrowed as she gazed upon the wound.
"Gabrielle is alive and healing, thanks to Xena," Sustra blurted to the elder Amazon.
"Thanks to you," Eponin corrected her, with a glare. "Sustra did the stitching, Xena wouldn't touch her after she. . . ."
"Where is she?" Cyrene interrupted uneasily, looking around the tavern. She was surprised not to see her daughter hovering protectively over Gabrielle.
"She left," Eponin gladly offered with a thin smile as she left the tavern to get some air.
"Where?" Cyrene asked Sustra.
"We don't know," Sustra offered uneasily. "She took her things from the Inn but she left Argo."
"She left . . . " Cyrene hollowly spoke, feeling anguish for her daughters. "Oh Gods, how did this all happen?" She asked in a desperate whisper.
"Xena?" Gabrielle moaned softly, drawing everyone's nervous gaze to the groggy Queen.
Cyrene was quickly at Gabrielle's side. "Shhh, honey, go to sleep," the older woman spoke soothingly as she stroked the bard's head. "Sleep now," she repeated softly, successfully convincing the bard to return to Morpheus.
Cyrene looked up to Frea with a lost look. "We have to find her," Cyrene relayed uneasily.
Georg paced ever since hearing all the gunshots. Stay here, that's what Dr. Covington and Miss Pappas told him to do, he reminded himself as he drummed his fingers nervously on his rifle. Stopping his pacing, he eyed the hostages who were still out cold. Thank God for small favors, he thought.
Hearing heavy footsteps approach the temple entrance, he jumped and pointed his rifle at the entrance. The barrel of his rifle shook as he waited. Finally seeing the source of the footsteps, he quicky lowered his weapon with concern.
"Miss Pappas! Dr. Covington! What happened??" Georg blurted, as the southerner carried Janice into the temple.
"Janice was shot in the shoulder. I don't think he followed. Do you know anything about gunshot wounds???" Mel rambled quickly as she carefully lowered the archeologist on the temple's altar.
"Ugh," Janice moaned. "Careful," she blurted.
"Sorry," Mel relayed with a cringe.
"To stop the bleeding, direct pressure, like you're doing," Georg answered her question, eyeing the wound which Mel's hands covered.
"ANYTHING BEYOND THAT?" Mel snapped.
"Uh. . . did the bullet go through?" Georg asked.
"No," Janice relayed weakly, taking shallow breaths. Although the altar was a bit hard, she was at least lying down now, she considered optimistically. Only if she had that scotch. . . .
"With ALL the education I've had to prepare me for crises . . . from whipping up seven-course meals for last-minute dinner parties to emergency mending of formals during debutante balls, no one ever mentioned ANYTHING about BULLET wounds!" Mel complained testily.
"Really? I thought those balls could get pretty ugly," Janice joked through a cringe to ease the tension, but realized Mel was starting to panic. "It's not that bad, Mel," Janice quickly offered, placing her hand over Mel's and looking into her eyes.
Mel took a calming breath and nodded.
"There's a first aid kit in the truck," Georg mentioned helpfully.
"Georg, there's a gunman out there and once he stumbles onto his friends. . . " Mel informed him.
"I'd better go quickly then, before I'm out numbered!" He blurted and enthusiastically ran off to get the first aid kit.
"Georg!" Janice yelled with annoyance, unsuccessful at stopping him. "Damn it," Janice growled and closed her eyes. Already Aristotle was dead because of her, she sighed, praying Georg wouldn't be next.
"He'll be ok, Janice," Mel relayed unconvincingly, causing the archeologist to open her eyes and stare at her briefly before sighing and laying her head back with exasperation.
"Have I mentioned . . . I HATE ZEMAL!" Janice barked to the temple ceiling, then cringed from the pain she caused her shoulder.
"And here you were worried it was going to be boring dig," Mel responded, shaking her head with a sigh.
Janice looked at her friend a moment and softly chuckled. "Ow ow," Janice blurted in pain, drawing a concerned look from the southerner.
"Hurts when I laugh," Janice quickly explained.
"I'm sorry," Mel offered guiltily.
"Jesus Christ Mel!" Janice blurted, getting a confused look from Mel. "I get you shot at and you are apologizing to ME for making me happy?" Janice snapped, then grimaced at the jolt to her body when she shifted to her good side and rested on her elbow.
"I . . . I make you happy?" Mel asked shyly.
"Yeah, except when you irritate the hell out of me," Janice smirked, then immediately felt like a heel for causing the hurt look in those blue eyes.
"Which I'm sure I do to you, occasionally, only you're too polite to say it," Janice offered quickly. "Which is probably why we get along so well," Janice added with a small grin, pleased with herself for bringing a shy smile to the southerner's face.
Shifting again on the hard surface to get more comfortable, Janice groaned and laid back down with a moan.
"Janice, would you stop moving around!" Mel blurted with irritation.
"I hate not being able to do anything," Janice grumbled, hoping Georg was all right. She also wondered what they would do once the gunman and his buddies figured out where they were.
"Now you know how I feel," Mel absently noted, surprising the archeologist as she quickly inspected the wound. Mel cringed. She did not like blood, especially coming from her best friend.
"Why do you say that?" Janice asked softly, making Mel look up, realizing she spoke out loud.
"I ah . . . it's nothing," Mel hedged as she twitched her nose because her glasses slid down. She looked to her bloody and busy hands and sighed in defeat.
Janice reached up with a slight cringe and carefully pushed her glasses up for her, surprising a very self-conscious Mel.
"You wouldn't have said that if it was nothing. Have I done anything to. . .?" Janice asked with concern.
"NO," Mel responded vehemently. "Absolutely not Janice, if anything you . . . you've always made me feel like I could do things . . . even when I couldn't."
"Mel, you are one of the MOST capable people I know," Janice countered, still confused at her admission.
"Well, yes, NOW," Mel interjected with a shrug. Janice looked at her a moment, then slowly glanced around the temple, realizing there was something they still had to discuss.
"Mel, I think it's time you told me about this 'good thing' that happened to you," Janice relayed calmly, though being very uneasy about what might have happened.
"Ah. . . oh. . . ," Mel responded with a small uneasy chuckle. "Kind of funny really. . ." Mel offered to the archeologist, who silently stared at her, waiting.
"Yes . . . well," Mel cleared her throat. "You see, I was . . . here," Mel offered, looking around the temple. "And I was feeling . . . well . . .a bit upset," she relayed with some embarrassment. "I found out from Georg the vases I broke made you lose your backer and forced you to . . . "
Janice listened quietly, struggling not to interrupt the southerner. It made her feel horrible to think Mel was still so upset about two stupid clay pots.
"Well, of course, you know all that . . . anyway, this man appeared. . . I thought it was Georg, but it wasn't. He scared me at first but then, he seemed . . . very nice."
Having been a long time since he heard a mortal sing his praises, he appeared in the shadows. A smile of pleasure crossed his face as the beautiful southerner spoke of him. She was much more pleasant and observant that her ancestor, he recalled.
"Did he, by any chance, mention his name, Mel?" Janice asked impatiently, looking around the rather plain temple again. Though Ares would have been her first guess from Mel's new fighting skills, she was almost certain it wasn't Ares. This place wasn't nearly ostentatious enough and he seemed the type to brag about his handiwork.
"Well, I asked but he never answered," she responded with a bit of annoyance. "He kept asking me what would make me happy, which made me think he was drunk or crazy . . . but I didn't smell any alcohol so I just assumed a bit crazy . . . ."
Janice sighed and listened.
". . . anyway. . . when he kept on and on about what would make me happy, I thought 'why not?" Mel offered with a shrug. "I'd could tell him and maybe it would make him go away and stop bothering me. . . ."
He frowned. Maybe not so observant.
"So you said you wanted to be able to kick some ass??" Janice asked in amazement.
"Heavens no, Janice," the southerner blurted indignantly. "I just told him it would be nice to not be so utterly uncoordinated," she added defensively. " . . . to actually be able to help you," she admitted with a shrug, then became very self conscious under the surprised gaze of the archeologist.
Before the archeologist could say anything, Mel quickly continued.
"You know, I AM supposed to be the descendant of one of the most SKILLED warriors in history and I told him that. . . that I couldn't even pitch a tent without - well, you were there . . . anyway, all of a sudden he disappeared and I was able to do AMAZING things, like what I imaged Xena always could do," Mel relayed, her southern drawl accenting her enthusiasm. "You don't know what that FEELS like Janice - well, maybe you of all people do," Mel added with a warm smile.
He glanced between the two women. "Ugh oh," he thought with an uneasy feeling growing in his godly stomach as he started to remember unhappy events centuries ago.
He dabbed the sweat on his forehead. It had been a long time since he did anything like this, he rationalized to make himself feel better. It didn't work. This wasn't good. Not good at all.
"Janice?" Mel asked, when she got no response from the concerned archeologist. "It's not like I went out looking for this . . . it just, well, fell in my lap," Mel noted defensively. "And I'm glad," she added with a firm nod.
He looked at the southerner apologetically then disappeared from the shadows.
Janice looked up into the blue eyes with mixed emotions. "Mel," she spoke softly. "I want you to listen to me . . . and not interrupt, ok?" Janice asked, making Mel sigh with exasperation and nod.
"You don't need to be a Warrior Princess, Mel - you are a capable woman in your own right," Janice informed her, making her unconvinced eyes roll.
"I'll be the first to admit those amazing things, disarming a guy with a whip or overpowering a couple thugs without breaking a sweat, have been really helpful lately. But those are just learned skills Mel. Given time and practice, you could have had those skills on your own . . . just like your ancestor did," Janice spoke with certainty, making an uncertain Mel wonder why.
"You already have something more important than those learned skills, Mel, you have a good heart . . . and you care about others."
Mel looked into Janice's impassioned eyes. It was a good heart and concern for others that Mel loved about Janice.
"When most people just ignore the problems around them, you jump in without hesitation. Hell . . . You'll practically kill yourself to help. And believe me Mel. . . you DO help," Janice spoke from the heart.
Mel waited a moment for her heart to stop racing before daring to speak. "I didn't know you felt that way . . . I thought you were just . . . too NICE to mention all the trouble I've caused you."
"ME? Too nice?!?" Janice snapped with feigned annoyance, making Mel grin sheepishly.
"Sorry. I forgot who I was talking to - Mad Dog," Mel countered with a flush sweeping over her.
She was tired of staring at the wall her room in the Inn. She was tired of lying face down on the bed. She was tired of not knowing. And she was tired of doing absolutely nothing as she waited for the scouting report. So, the restless bard took matters into her own hands.
As she pushed up from the mattress, she groaned as the pain shot through her back. Gabrielle immediately plopped back down on the bed. Ok, bad idea, she considered with a grimace.
Down but not out, she started to move her feet over the side of the bed. Rotating her body, she was able to slide off onto her knees. Success!
"GABRIELLE!" Cyrene almost dropped the plate of food as she came into the room. "You shouldn't be moving around like that!" Cyrene scolded her as she placed the plate down on the table.
"It's been . . . forever, I have to . . . get up," Gabrielle spoke between breaths. "Or I'll . . . go crazy," she added, carefully standing up to avoid more stress on her aching back.
"It's only been a few days," Cyrene informed her, carefully holding the bard's arm and back as she nervously looked over her bandages.
"Almost three weeks," Gabrielle corrected her.
"You've already got them to move you hear from the tavern," Cyrene noted.
"Which, I'm sure, the tavern owner is very thankful for," Gabrielle responded and pointed to the table. "I'll eat over there," Gabrielle said stubbornly, wondering if she could actually make it across the room.
"Gabrielle, you are pushing yourself," Cyrene scolded her.
"I'll be FINE Xe . . . " Gabrielle blurted at the older woman, pausing uneasily as her eyes dropped to the floor. "I'll be fine, Cyrene," Gabrielle informed her, finally looking into the eerily familiar but older eyes. Eyes that didn't bother to hide her concern or sadness from the young bard.
" . . . If you don't mind giving me a little help here," Gabrielle added softly with a sheepish smile.
"The Amazons will string me up for aiding and abetting," Cyrene muttered as they approached the table, unable to refuse the young woman's request. She wondered if her daughter had similar trouble refusing the bard.
"Don't worry, I know their Queen," Gabrielle relayed dryly, making Cyrene smile easily and conclude her daughter didn't stand a chance.
Finally sitting at the table, Gabrielle carefully sat and let out a big sigh. "Thanks," she added. "Dinner look delicious," she added appreciatively, taking a sniff as her stomach growled.
"Well, it's not my kitchen but I made do," she said with a tinge of pride.
A light knocking drew the women's attention anxiously to the door.
"Come in," Gabrielle commanded with surprising strength, the older woman noted.
"Queen Gabrielle," Sustra started to report to the bed, which was now empty. Quickly turning to see her Queen at the table, her eyebrows furrowed. "What in Tartarus are you doing over . . . uh," Sustra complained with annoyance then wisely stopped, receiving a warning glare from the Amazon Queen.
"What is your news," Gabrielle asked, knowing the answer when the Amazon's eyes dropped.
"The same, my Queen," Sustra reported sadly as Gabrielle looked back to her plate of food. Sustra and Cyrene noticed Gabrielle's head drop slightly, the only evidence of how the news tore at her heart.
"We'll resume the search again tomorrow morning," Sustra added as consolation.
Gabrielle briefly glanced over to Sustra, dismissing her with a nod. Sustra looked at Cyrene, who took a long, uneasy breath. Shaking her head sadly, a depressed Sustra left.
Gabrielle blinked back tears and tried to eat a few bites. Putting her fork down, she looked up to Cyrene, whose heart broke for the young bard. "I'm kinda tired . . . do you mind?" Gabrielle asked weakly, with a slight motion to the bed with her head.
"Oh, no dear," Cyrene responded, helping Gabrielle up.
With the young woman back in bed with closed eyes and heavy sighs, Cyrene quickly left Gabrielle's room. As she carefully shut the door behind her, the Warrior Princess' mother heard the brave woman's sighs dissolve into quiet weeping.
'Do you have any idea what you are doing to this poor child, Xena?' Cyrene silently reprimanded her absent daughter.
In the early morning, Cyrene entered the stables with Sustra and Eponin.
"Hello girl," Cyrene greeted Argo as she patted her on the neck and received a welcoming nicker.
"No offense Cyrene, but the best Amazon trackers haven't been able to find Xena. You really think you can find her?" Sustra asked skeptically as the older woman draped her saddle bags over the horse.
"I have no idea," Cyrene answered, patting Argo's neck again. "But I think Argo might have some ideas, don't you girl?" She asked the horse.
Argo whinnied and snorted loudly.
Eponin and Sustra glanced at each other then turned to smile weakly at Cyrene.
"We're going in circles," Eponin complained to Cyrene. Sustra was going to also mention that but was glad Eponin said it first when she saw the cold look Cyrene gave her.
"Argo thinks she's around here someplace," Cyrene informed her as she dismounted. The Amazons rolled their eyes and dismounted.
"Cyrene, we've been in this valley before and found no signs of her," Eponin informed the older woman, who silently nodded and looked around for herself. The Amazons sighed and followed behind the determined woman.
Rolling though the valley framed by snow-capped mountains was a lazy river. Cyrene almost smiled, picturing her daughter happily fishing there. But she didn't smile, quickly remembering Xena would be far from happy. Cyrene sighed and looked at the land.
Good grounds for hunting, Cyrene concluded from the looks of the lush foliage. There were ample berries and nuts to hold her over, if she didn't want to hunt or fish. A perfect place to stay - except there was absolutely no sign of anyone using the area, Cyrene noted with a discouraged sigh. But Xena was too smart to leave obvious signs of a campfire or shelter, she consoled herself then looked at Argo when she snorted.
"I can't believe we're listening to a horse," Eponin muttered softly to Sustra, who shrugged.
"What girl, where's Xena?" Cyrene asked. As Argo tilted her head towards the mountain, the surprised Amazons looked at each other then Cyrene.
"I'm NOT climbing a mountain because Xena's HORSE thinks it's a good idea," Eponin quickly informed them.
Sustra looked at Eponin and rolled her eyes in disgust. "I'll go with you," Sustra volunteered and walked next to Cyrene. The older woman surprised her when she placed a gentle hand on the Amazon's arm and stopped.
"No, Sustra, I need to go alone," Cyrene informed her softly. Sustra eyed her a moment and reluctantly nodded.
As Cyrene slowly ascended the mountain, she felt a cold breeze from the mountain tops and shivered, unsure of what she would find.
As she had done every day since she arrived, Xena sat, staring at the ashes in the fire
pit of the dark cave.
She didn't bother putting on her armor, which stayed piled up in a corner of the cave. Whenever she looked at it, she thought of the bard, who made it her job to help the warrior with her armor. But those haunting memories were not the reason she kept it in the corner, she told herself . . . she just didn't need it.
She didn't need to make a fire yet. It was still too early to need it for heat. And she didn't need it to cook since she hadn't found her appetite beyond an occasional bite of jerky or dried fruit. There was still plenty of that in her supplies.
As she had done every day since she arrived, Xena concluded there was only one thing left to do.
Pulling out her dagger, she started at it. The bard's words "As long as there's life, there's hope," repeated in her mind. She really believed that, the warrior thought numbly, unable to share that optimistic sentiment. What she held in her hand would within a short moment allow her to escape her agonizing pain . . . the pain of knowing she almost killed the most precious person in the world . . . the pain of being separated from the woman she loved because it was just too dangerous not to be, the pain of not having that light in her life. . . .
As she placed the point of the blade at her heart, she took a final deep breath.
But the dead can hear your thoughts, Xena remembered and slowly exhaled. . . .
She remembered just how powerful Gabrielle's thoughts were. So powerful, the warrior didn't just hear them, she felt them, making her selfishly cheat death to ease that overwhelming emptiness she felt in her bard's heart. In death, the warrior would be even more tormented than she was in life. But she wouldn't cheat death this time - she couldn't.
She couldn't live, she couldn't die . . . it was Tartarus.
As she had done every day since she arrived, Xena threw her dagger across the small cave in a burst of anger.
After the anger drained away, leaving a void for the numbness to return, she exhaled wearily and got up. Retrieving her dagger, she sluggishly sheathed it and placed it back in her supplies.
As she had done every day since she arrived, she sat down and stared at the ashes in the fire pit.
She didn't need to make a fire. It was still too early to need it for heat. She didn't need it for cooking since she hadn't found her appetite beyond an occasional. . . .
Xena blinked a couple of times when she thought she heard . . . knocking.
There. Her eyebrows furrowed, hearing the sound again.
"Hello?" She heard a voice. Her mother's voice.
Xena's eyes widened. Her mother was visiting her on a mountain in a cave no one knew about?
"Xena . . . would you PLEASE let me in?" She asked with exasperation, trying unsuccessfully to move the heavy barricade.
The Warrior Princess's eyes darted around the dark cave. She didn't expect to lose her mind so quickly. Well, she considered as an intrigued eyebrow lifted on her gaunt face, at least it was a change.
"Xena!" Cyrene called out with annoyance, then jumped when the barricade started to move and shudder. She saw a brief flash of her daughter's arms before the barricade stopped moving and Xena retreated into the shadows.
Cyrene walked in the stream of light that spilled into the dark cave from the opening just large enough for her to enter. She could feel her daughter's presence, though she couldn't see her. After a long uneasy silence, Cyrene started see the outline of her daughter emerge as her eyes adjusted to the dark.
"Xena . . . ," her mother called softly as her hand reached out to touch the tall shadow.
"How. . . , " Xena blurted weakly with a crack in her unused voice as she stepped back from her mother's hand. ". . . did you find me?"
"Argo. She's a smart horse," Cyrene informed her warmly.
"You . . . alone?"
"No," Cyrene answered, generating a wave of fear that washed over the Warrior Princess.
"Sustra and Eponin are waiting at the bottom of the mountain." Cyrene sat by the pit and looked up at her uneasy daughter, whose eyes briefly closed with temporary relief.
Now that this cave was known, where would she go, Xena wondered.
"Sit down dear," Cyrene encouraged her daughter, who numbly stared at her.
"You're not . . . going to change my mind," Xena informed her weakly.
"Of course not," Cyrene responded softly. "Sit down Xena," Cyrene added more firmly.
Xena reluctantly sat, deliberately out of reach from the older woman but inadvertently in the shaft of light. The warrior immediately recoiled from the blinding light, moving out of its path.
"Xena . . . ," her mother gasped at the glimpse of sunken in cheeks and dark rings under her daughter's eyes. "You need to eat something. " She reached out and gently stroked her daughter's cheek.
"I'm . . . not hungry," she informed her, weakly pushing her mother's hand away.
"Let me make you something . . . I could . . . ," Cyrene offered warmly, reaching out to squeeze her daughter's arm.
"STOP" Xena snapped angrily, once again pushing away her mother's hands. "Just . . . stop it," Xena repeated wearily. "A warm meal isn't going to fix anything," Xena said with defeat.
"She told us what happened to you . . . losing your ability to fight. She doesn't blame you for what happened to her," Cyrene relayed.
"I know that," Xena says testily.
After a long pause, Cyrene finally spoke again. "Well, you owe her an explanation," Cyrene informed her daughter, anticipating the bard would have a better chance of convincing her daughter of her foolishness.
"She's smart. She'll figure it out."
"She needs to hear it from YOU, Xena."
"I can't," Xena snapped then sighed in defeat. "This is . . . best," she added, telling herself as much as to her mother.
Cyrene took a deep breath, trying to avoid telling Xena she was being a fool, knowing Xena didn't respond well to the antagonistic approach. However, having engaged in numerous battles of will with her stubborn daughter, Cyrene had another strategy.
"She told us how you still stood up to Bayentes' army . . . how you stood up to Bayentes himself and faced your fear in the eye. I'm very proud of you, Xena," Cyrene told her truthfully.
"Proud," Xena repeated with a sharp laugh. "Do you know what I did to Bayentes, mother?" Xena glared at the older woman, unwilling to accept words of praise from her mother.
"Yes, Gabrielle told me that too," Cyrene replied firmly, seeing her daughter's eyes shut in pain. "She's always been on your side," Cyrene added softly.
"And that's what got her hurt," Xena countered with a cracked voice, the guilty ache she had fought hard to suppress almost overwhelmed her. "Being with me almost killed her," Xena added bitterly and stood up, needing to move. "Being with me will only bring her more pain," she relayed quietly, facing the cave wall. "Or end up killing her."
"Right now, Xena, being without you is hurting her far more than any physical wound ever could," Cyrene looked up to her daughter, whose hand reached out for the rocky wall to steady herself.
"She'll get over it," Xena said with forced detachment. However, her mother knew better than to believe the cold words. The hunched shoulders and dependence on the wall betrayed her daughter's emotional turmoil.
"So you have lost your ability to fight . . . ," Cyrene spoke softly, preparing herself for the harsh words her daughter needed to hear. "But you've lost other things too, haven't you Xena?" Cyrene continued. "You've lost your ability to see things through to the end . . . you've lost your ability to care about others. . . . You've lost your ability to love her," Cyrene taunted her daughter.
"YOU'RE WRONG!" Xena snapped, turning towards her mother, who looked up expectantly. "I . . . love . . . her," Xena spoke slowly, daring her mother to argue. Xena's eyes blinked back tears as she turned to the wall. "Too much," she whispered as tears finally fell.
"You owe her an explanation," Cyrene repeated as she stood up.
"I can't," Xena repeated, wiping her eyes with a trembling hand.
Cyrene fought the powerful maternal instinct to rush over and embrace her little one. She wished she could sing to her and rock away her troubles as she did when the tall warrior was just a waist-high sprite.
It had been too many years since she could offer her daughter comfort, she considered sadly, remembering how quickly her independent young daughter grew out of that motherly indulgence . . . how quickly the stubborn teenager grew rebellious . . . how quickly the young woman became the infamous Warrior Princess; The woman she was ashamed to call her daughter. Not just ashamed of the Warrior Princess, but ashamed of herself as well. For she was a mother who failed to guide her troubled daughter away from the wrong path.
But now, the woman standing by that cave wall was not that Warrior Princess, thanks to the love of the young woman who tunneled through the emotional walls that almost imprisoned her daughter forever. But now, the woman standing before her was her daughter. A daughter who was once again troubled.
But this time, come Tartarus or high water, however much it hurt, Cyrene was going to help . . .
"I've always thought you were the kind of woman who would finish what she started. You NEVER ran away from a problem before, Xena . . . that was ONE thing I was ALWAYS proud of," Cyrene noted firmly. "Always."
"Do the right thing Xena," Cyrene spoke and left her daughter in the dark cave . . . alone.
"It's about time you . . . ," Janice barked at Georg as he entered the temple with the first aid kit, followed closely by Hank and a tall gunman. "Shit," Janice exhaled.
The odds just got worse again.
Hank nodded to the gunman, who went over to his friends and untied them. Standing up as they rubbed their sore wrists and jaws, they all eyed the tall southerner warily.
"You, get away from her," Hank blurted at Mel, motioning with the barrel of his rifle.
"She need's medical attention!" Mel snapped, not budging. "She needs pressure on her . . . "
"Honey, I'm only not going to say it again," he growled, pointing his rifle at her.
Mel stood still with a cold gaze fixed on HANK.
"Mel, go on," Janice encouraged her, seeing Hank's patience wearing thin and his trigger finger become itchy. Mel looked down with questioning eyes. Janice nodded slightly, making Mel sigh.
"Well don't come crying to me if you bleed to death, Dr. Covington," Mel blurted in a southern huff as she reluctantly pulled her hands away and stepped back. Janice couldn't help but grin at the southerner, whose eyes narrowed, warning the archeologist this was no time to be making fun of her.
"So, Dr. Covington, you took a bullet . . . ," Hank interrupted the women's silent exchange with an amused smirk. "That can get pretty nasty sometimes . . . getting infected and all," he mentioned with a grimace.
"Well, with you here, the chance of THAT just increased," Janice said with a thin smile, then curiously sniffed the air.
Personally, if she were trying to talk their way out of this bad situation, she would not have started with insulting the man's hygiene, Mel considered, rolling her eyes. She sighed with relief when Hank just chuckled at the feisty woman.
"Well maybe, if you hand over the gold to me, I'll let you get that looked at in a hospital. What do you say honey?" He said with a smile and wink.
Mel glanced between Janice and Hank nervously.
"Why don't I think I'll be helping myself if I say yes?" Janice said as she sat up, muffling a moan.
"Janice!" Mel scolded her through clenched teeth. Hank eyed her with interest, then turned his attention to the feisty redhead.
"You don't have many choices, Dr. Covington. If you don't tell me where that gold is, I'll start shooting. And the first target will be your lovely brunette here," he informed the archeologist, immediately evoking a look of concern from the southerner.
Janice's eyes darted to the southerner then Hank then the floor. Her jaw clenched tightly as she thought of what to do now.
"Well, I'd have to say, Hank," Janice responded as her cool green eyes lifted from the floor and fixed on his. "If you shoot her, I'm not going to be in a talkative mood."
Mel's eyes widened in surprise followed by furrowed eyebrows as she decided she didn't appreciate that response from the archeologist.
"You ARE a heartless bitch. Aren't you, honey?" Hank laughed. "It's a shame we don't work together," he relayed with a longing glance and regretful sigh.
"Who says we can't?" Janice offered with a sly grin. "I know I've got what you want," she said. "And since you probably don't want to go back empty handed . . . I'm sure we could come to some sort of . . . arrangement." Janice offered in a low, seductive voice.
Mel nervously cleared her throat.
"Honey, I'm about the horniest guy around . . . ," he admitted with a grin, making the southern lady's eyes widen at his crassness. "But you're not exactly in top form and I do have my standards," he added glancing at the archeologist, who looked down at her shoulder and sighed with annoyance.
"And . . . I COULD just take what I want," he said as his eyes drifted over to the southerner, making Mel avert her eyes from his gaze and shudder with disgust.
"Oh, I think she likes that idea," he said with a smirk as he looked at Janice, who glared at him with intense hatred in her green eyes.
"And you don't . . . ," Hank added with amusement, making Janice furious with herself that she was so easily read by him.
"Well Hank, I have to admit," Janice glanced up to Mel, whose eyes were glued to her. "No woman likes to be dumped . . . especially before the first date," Janice complained and shook her head with a frown. With a deep breath, she climbed off the altar.
"Janice," Mel called uneasily as Janice slowly headed towards a cautious Hank, who pointed his rifle at her.
"Careful, Dr. Covington," Hank warned her. "You are out numbered and my men outside are armed and not too thrilled with you . . . or your lady here," he added, getting an odd look from Mel.
"You want the gold or not?" Janice asked with annoyance.
"Well, it's about damn time," he blurted and politely motioned for her to proceed, while still pointing his rifle towards her. He wasn't about to drop his guard again.
"Mel, could you give me a hand here?" Janice asked as she swayed, prompting Mel immediately to her side.
Hank kept a close eye on the two as he pulled out a cigar.
"Do you know what your doing?" Mel whispered uneasily as she helped Janice to the entrance of the temple.
"Would you like the truth . . . or a good story?" Janice asked quietly as she looked up at the southerner. The bright sunlight made them squint as they emerged outside.
"I'm guessing here, but is the answer 'no?" Mel asked as they slowly climbed over the pile of rocks blocking the path away from the temple. The archeologist managed to softly chuckle between some pained moans.
Walking slowly on the path, Mel glanced behind them to see if there were any immediate options. She sighed when she made eye contact with Georg. He was being escorted out of the temple at gunpoint and looked rather ill. Her eyes shifted to Hank, the closest man with a gun, who was staring at the two of them, at a cautious distance. He puffed his cigar and winked, evoking a shudder in the southerner.
When they approached the clearing where their tents were pitched, Mel noticed the men wandering around the trucks, stop, and coldly glare at them. They were not amused with two women who gave them so much trouble.
All present, armed, and accounted for, Mel noted, sympathizing with Georg when she started to feel ill herself.
Mel felt the archeologist slip something into her hand that was on Janice's hip.
"What . . . ?" Mel asked.
"A compass," the archeologist quickly informed her. "I'll create a diversion. When I do, I want you to go to the river and run North," Janice ordered her. "Promise me," Janice added softly.
Mel glanced down to the burgundy compass in shock.
The archeologist repeated herself. "Promise. . . ."
"I can't," Mel said testily through clenched teeth.
"Sure you can," she sighed. "When the metal piece with the wire around it points to the big "N" that's . . . " Janice patiently explained.
"I will NOT . . . " Mel struggled to keep her voice down.
"Mel, once I give him the gold, I have no more leverage. He'll kill us," Janice said. "After he's finished with you," Janice spat.
"Janice. . . ."
"Promise me. . . ." Janice asked with pleading eyes that were hard to say no to, so very hard . . . the Southerner admitted to herself. But she would have to.
As Mel opened her mouth to object, machine gun fire erupted from four armored jeeps as they charged into camp. Mel instinctively tackled Janice from the path, behind a thick cover of trees. "Ugh," Janice blurted as her wounded shoulder hit the ground sending a painful jolt through her.
"Sorry," Mel responded quickly and got up to look around a tree at the violent commotion.
The camouflaged jeeps skidded to a stop in front of the two parked trucks, kicking up large dust clouds as soldiers jumped out. The gunmen around the trucks scattered, some dove for cover behind the vehicles, some tried to make it to the foliage but were quickly apprehended.
Harry and his thugs turned and ran back towards the temple, leaving Georg standing alone, shaking with the first aid kit he clung on to. The men's escape was foiled when their path was quickly blocked off by two armored jeeps that burst through the foliage.
"Drop your weapons," a soldier barked out as all the machine guns mounted on the back of the jeeps aimed at them.
"This is the Greek Army, we have your camp surrounded," a captain in the passenger's seat announced on a bull horn. "Put your weapons down and your hands behind your heads," he ordered.
"Aw SHIT" Hank screamed out as he threw his weapon down angrily and put his hands up behind his head.
"Janice, we're SAVED!" Mel blurted with excitement to the archeologist, who didn't move.
"Janice!" Mel grabbed her arm, making the archeologist look up.
"I still hate Zemal," Janice blurted and passed out.
Xena had it all figured out - until her mother had to come and ruin her plans to live in self-imposed solitude.
Do the right thing, her mother said . . . as if that wasn't what she was trying to do.
The warrior angrily wiped the tears from her face.
Do the right thing. . . .
"Damn it," she growled and kicked her saddlebags, which sailed across the cave and crashed into her armor and sword.
"Ugh!" She moaned with frustration and pain, grabbing her now throbbing toe.
Her mother was right. She had to finish what she started.
She limped over to her saddlebags and pulled out the pouch of food and looked at it, well aware she was going to need every ounce of strength she could get for the trouble ahead.
The lone Amazon heard a noise and bolted up from her bed roll with her sword drawn. It was morning and the Warrior Princess finally emerged from her cave and descended the mountain. Sustra smiled with relief as she sheathed her sword.
The Amazon had almost given up hope. It was three days ago when Cyrene came down empty handed. A furious Sustra was going to personally drag the Warrior Princess' stubborn butt back to her Queen. But somehow, Cyrene got her to promise to let Xena make her own mind up to come back. Those intense blue eyes, Sustra remembered, shuddering.
Argo saw her mistress descending the mountain and whinnied in anticipation.
"Sorry we doubted you," Sustra apologized to the horse, who snorted.
Near the bottom of the mountain, Xena paused a moment, seeing Sustra, next to a black horse and her Argo. Argo. A smart horse, she mused. Too smart sometimes, her eyebrows furrowed.
"Hungry?" Sustra asked, carefully looking over the Warrior Princess, who approached her silently. She could use a few meals in her, Sustra concluded.
"No," Xena replied as she walked to her horse. Argo whinnied happily, making Xena smile for the first time in a long while. She realized just how much she missed her horse as she patted her neck.
"Mother went back?" Xena asked, looking around the camp.
"Yeah. She went with Eponin back to Zemal," Sustra noted.
"Good," Xena said with relief. "And I suppose you're here to make sure I go back." Xena turned and looked at Sustra with cold eyes.
"Your mother made me promise to let you decide," Sustra noted with her eyes narrowing. "But I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't go back to my Queen empty handed. So I waited," Sustra added with a thin smile.
Xena turned to Argo.
"You'll need to wait some more," Xena informed her, placing her saddle bags on Argo.
"What?" Sustra blurted with annoyance.
"I've got some things to take care of first," Xena mentioned as she inspected Argo's saddle. Sustra was not pleased.
"What things?" She asked as Xena placed her hands on Argo's mount.
"Things I started, that I need to finish," Xena informed her confidently as she put her left foot in the stirrup and with a fluid grace, mounted her horse . . . sidesaddle.
Argo turned her head to look back at her rider, who stared ahead blankly and sighed.
After an awkward moment, Sustra spoke to the still silent warrior.
"I think you might want to . . . " Sustra suggested biting her lip, unable to finish as she motioned for Xena to move her leg to the other side of the horse.
With as much dignity as possible, Xena took a deep breath and swung her leg over the other side of the saddle and rode out of camp.
Sustra quickly mounted and caught up to the warrior. "So . . . where are we going?" Sustra asked, sporting an amused grin which really annoyed Xena.
"You should go back to Zemal," the Warrior Princess informed her.
"Oh no, I'm not letting you out of my sight, Xena," Sustra responded. "You're stuck with me . . . at least, until you come to your senses," she threatened the Warrior Princess.
"Fine," Xena relayed with a weary sigh. "But don't say I didn't warn you," she added.
"Where ARE we going?" Sustra's eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"To visit Bayentes," Xena replied nonchalantly.
"You're crazy," Sustra said in an annoyed whisper as the two lay on their stomachs and cautiously peeked over the top of a large grassy hill to spy on the camp.
"Sustra, I heard you the first thirty times," Xena relayed calmly, noticing the number of men in the camp curiously.
The two carefully crawled back down the hill, unseen by the soldiers below.
"Well, if you are trying to get yourself killed, Xena, your plan is brilliant." Sustra blurted sarcastically, drawing a glance from the Warrior Princess.
"You don't like the direct approach?" Xena asked, as she got up and adjusted her bracers.
"When you were able to whip an army single handedly, SURE," Sustra admitted as she got up and batted some grass off her skirt with annoyance. "But you have to admit, things are a little different now. Although, you'd probably still scare the Tartarus out of them riding into camp . . . sidesaddle," she smirked.
"You said the army withdrew from Amphipolis?" Xena asked Sustra, ignoring the gibe.
"Yeah. When we moved our forces into Amphipolis, they apparently weren't interested in Amphipolis anymore. Solari thought this was due to Bayentes getting injured in Zemal, Why?"
"There's only two platoons, at most, there," Xena relayed scratching her chin.
"That's good," Sustra blurted confidently. He eyebrows furrowed. "Isn't it?"
"Where would the rest be? He focused on Zemal and Amphipolis . . . you haven't heard of any movements against other towns the past few weeks have you?"
"No, just that the army left Amphipolis," Sustra noted, making the Warrior Princess sigh.
"If you're up to it, I'd like you go check the tents for Staveros' family while I . . . talk with Bayentes," Xena informed the surprised Amazon.
"Xena DON'T do this. You would just be walking into your death," she argued.
"I wanted to get Staveros' family back . . . if they are still alive. The chances of doing that are much better with your help, Sustra. They will be so preoccupied with me, you'll slip in and out with no trouble. Will you do it?" Xena asked.
Sustra looked at her with mixed emotions. "You're are going in without your fighting skills, knowing that if they start something, you probably won't walk away. . . ." Sustra stated the grim situation as she saw it.
"What in TARTARUS are you thinking?" Sustra snapped. "What do you THINK you are going to DO down there?!?" Sustra asked with annoyance.
"Kill Bayentes and take his army," Xena answered calmly.
"Oh . . . well, at least you have a plan," Sustra responded calmly. "You're crazy!" She blurted angrily. "Why are you deliberately trying to get yourself killed?"
Xena's eyes rolled as she sighed with little patience. She didn't need this.
"Are you afraid that if you live, you'll have to face Gabrielle?" Sustra accused.
"Keep Gabrielle out of this," Xena uttered her warning slowly to the Amazon.
"That's IT isn't it? You are going to go off, doing the stupid warrior thing and get yourself killed for WHAT? So you don't have to face the woman who YOU hurt, the woman who has been crying herself to sleep EVERY night for the past three weeks because you are the biggest idiot on the face of the. . . . Ooofff."
Xena tackled her, abruptly interrupting Sustra's accusations.
"Ugh," the stunned Amazon moaned, hitting the ground hard. She found herself on her back, pinned down by the Warrior Princess. Sustra looked up at the Warrior Princess' angry blue eyes glaring at her, then glanced at the tightly clenched fist hovering over her, trembling in anger.
"I am doing what I have to do," Xena explained through gnashed teeth. "If you don't want to help fine . . . but stay out . . . of . . . my . . . way," she threatened slowly.
"You'll have to go through me first - you warrior idiot," she responded, prompting the rapid descent of the fist towards her face. Before the fist hit, she bucked the Warrior Princess off her and quickly stood.
"If you can beat me, Xena, I'll let you go," Sustra challenged with a satisfied smile on her face as the furious warrior slowly picked herself up from the ground. Sustra never thought she would ever challenge the Warrior Princess - and expect to live.
Xena started to charge the Amazon then stopped abruptly and looked around. "What was that?" Xena asked, alerting the Amazon, who also looked around. "Oooof," Sustra blurted as Xena tackled the Amazon.
"Is THAT your plan for the entire army, Xena?" she heckled as they wrestled in the dirt.
"Stay out of my way," Xena repeated angrily, wildly throwing a punch which missed the quick Amazon and hit the ground. "Ugh," she rolled off the Amazon. The two scrambled to their feet. Xena shook her throbbing hand with annoyance.
"This PROVES my point, you are in no . . . ," Sustra blurted and froze as a blue spiral of light appeared and expanded near them. A familiar man in white tunic and brown pants jumped out from its center.
"YOU!" Xena blurted angrily at the man from Hermes' temple as she stopped rubbing her sore hand. But she now knew, he was no man - he was Hermes.
Xena looked over with concern to Sustra, who continued to stand still with her mouth in an "o" and her finger pointed angrily at the warrior.
"Don't worry, she's ok. . . ."
"You did this to me!" She snapped and stepped towards him. "WHY?!?" She asked, completely bewildered. Ares she could understand, but Hermes? Why would HE cause them so much trouble?
"Well, it was a little accident," he offered uneasily, taking a nervous step back.
"Little accident?!?" She snapped in utter amazement, continuing to close the distance between them with a few more steps.
"Uh. . . Calm down Xena!" He held his hands up as he took a few steps backwards.
"Calm down?!?" She asked incredulously, taking another, more menacing step towards him. "Do you know what I DID because of you?" She stammered in anger. "I'll show you a little acci . . . " She snarled with a wild glare as her hands lunged for him.
He quickly waved his hand and stopped the Warrior Princess' angry attack. He sighed with mixed feelings, as he wiped his forehead with his forearm.
"I never meant to hurt you . . . or Gabrielle," he said softly to the frozen Warrior Princess, whose hands were still reaching out to strangle him. "I just wanted to help. . . ." He added sadly.
Raising his hand again, he quickly looked around the clearing and up to the sky. With the coast still clear, he waved his hand over Xena once again and disappeared through the spiraling light that collapsed into nothingness.
". . . condition to fight!" Sustra finished yelling at the Warrior Princess who moved on her. She quickly turned to see the Warrior Princess grab at the air and blurt ". . . dent."
"Huh? How in Tartarus did you get over there?" Sustra barked uneasily, her eyes darting around the area for any other odd things.
Xena shook head and took a deep breath. She felt a little dizzy. What did he do THIS time, she wondered. Her eyes widened as she dared to hope.
"I'm not going to let you kill yourself Xena," Sustra informed her. "I WILL stop you," she added with a confident air that slowly faded as she watched the Warrior Princess take another deep breath and slowly stretch her neck and back.
Finished stretching, Xena looked blankly at an uncertain Sustra for a moment. A smile emerged as Xena slowly laced her fingers together and cracked her knuckles.
Sustra swallowed hard as Xena slowly walked towards her. She's just trying to psyche me out, Sustra concluded standing her ground. Yeah, that's it. Gods she's really good at that, Sustra noted.
Xena focused on the uneasy Amazon, like a panther ready to pounce on her prey.
Sustra was relieved when Xena just walked past her, unsure if was the slight cool breeze or her intimidating presence that generated the goose bumps on her arms.
After a few paces, Xena stopped and turned towards the Amazon. With a long absent grace, she smoothly unsheathed her sword and started to guide the blade around her tall form in an intricate pattern. The blade moved slowly at first, then more rapidly as the warrior's confidence grew - until the Amazon saw only a metallic blur.
Sustra's mouth dropped in awe at the warrior's skill. So confident, so beautiful, Sustra noted with a smile. The smile quickly faded when Xena did a back flip and without a beat, continued her sword drill. So deadly, Sustra considered with a gulp. She never did like pain.
After the drill was finished, a bright smile burst on the Warrior Princess' face and she sheathed her sword. In an instant, a buoyant Xena was lifting her ill-looking friend in a big bear hug and chuckling joyfully.
Please don't hurt me, please don't hurt me. . . .
When Xena put the Amazon down, she noticed Sustra's eyes still tightly shut and body still stiff.
"Sustra?" Xena asked with a grin.
"Uh huh?" Sustra answered weakly with her eyes still tightly shut.
"I'm not going to hurt you," Xena relayed, hiding her amusement.
"Really?" Sustra asked as one eye ventured open, followed by the second after she realized nothing bad happened.
"Well, not unless you deserve it," Xena informed Sustra, whose eyebrows furrowed as she considered that.
"Still interested in stopping me?" Xena asked with a raised eyebrow.
"How do you feel?" Sustra asked tentatively.
"Like I could take on an army," Xena responded with a fire in her eyes.
"Well, in that case, my answer would be no," Sustra relayed with a weak smile.
"Good answer. I still need your help . . . you up for it?"
"I'm game," Sustra responded with a relieved smile.
"Ah, there we go," the Army medic smiled as his smelling salts jolted the wounded archeologist awake. The bumpy ambulance ride wasn't enough.
Janice's face cringed from the potent odor. After a few blinks, she finally opened her eyes and focused on the camouflaged medic hovering over her.
"Oh God . . . ," she blurted through a rough voice, staring at his familiar broken nose and two black eyes. ". . . I'm in hell."
An anxious Mel looked curiously at the medic then Janice. Her eyes widened in surprise when they hit another bump in the road and a small box of bandages fell off a shelf and onto the patient. Mel's eyebrows furrowed.
"Not yet," Sergeant Tomas muttered as he grabbed the box and shoved it back onto the shelf. "You're in an ambulance going to Athens. You lost lots of blood but you'll survive," he informed her as he grabbed her wrist and looked at his watch. "I've seen much worse," he added casually, letting go of her wrist, allowing her hand to plunk back on the gurney.
"Janice?" Mel asked uneasily, unsure about the medic's assessment. "How are you feeling?" Mel came into the archeologist's view, peering over the Sergeant's broad shoulders in the cramped ambulance.
"Mel, you ok?" Janice immediately asked.
"I asked you first, Dr. Covington," Mel countered with annoyance.
"You must be fine or you wouldn't . . . ," Janice responded with a smirk but was interrupted when the Army ambulance hit a huge hole in the road and violently jostled them. The archeologist groaned sharply as Mel was thrown into the sergeant's back.
"Janice!" Mel called with concern as she peeled herself off of the medic.
"Would you watch where the hell you're going Mac?!?" Sgt. Tomas yelled at his driver with a bang on the forward window of the compartment and received a grumbled response.
"Sorry about that Dr. Covington," Sgt. Tomas apologized sincerely as he rechecked the bandage. Janice nodded.
"When will we get to the hospital?" Mel asked with annoyance.
"Soon, Miss. Don't worry about Dr. Covington, she's in the best hands in Greece." Sgt. Tomas informed the southerner with a wink and grin.
Mel looked blankly at him a moment then down at her friend, choosing to ignore him.
"Janice, I wanted them to take you to Athens General because it was the best hospital and the sergeant SAID you could easily make the trip." Mel explained, then glared at Sgt. Tomas. "But I'm SURE they won't mind taking us to a CLOSER hospital."
"Athens is closest now," he informed her with a furrowed brow.
Mel eyed him coldly.
"Mel," Janice spoke, drawing the southerner's cold gaze, which immediately warmed.
"Where's Georg?" Janice asked.
"Oh don't worry Janice, he's fine," Mel informed her with a warm smile.
"Where IS he?" Janice asked again with a sigh, making the tall woman roll her eyes.
"Driving the supply truck behind us. We'll have to go back and get your truck later." Mel said, making Janice nod and smile.
Mel sat down in the hospital cafeteria and anxiously started tapping her fingers on the table. Despite Sgt. Tomas telling her it was a simple surgery to remove the bullet, she knew she wouldn't be able to relax until she saw for herself that Janice was Ok. She glanced over to Sgt. Tomas, who was at the counter getting two cups of coffee and flirting with the pretty cashier.
"Men," she silently sighed, pushed her glasses up and returned to nervously tapping her fingers on the table as Sgt. Tomas returned with the coffee.
"Here you go, blond and sweet," he remarked as he sat down and slid the cup and saucer towards her.
"Thank you, Sergeant," she responded with a small smile. "You know, you really don't need to stay, I'll be fine," Mel said unconvincingly as she stirred her hot cup.
"I thought you might want some friendly company. Those detectives are going to want to talk with you," he informed her, eyeing the two men in dark suits by the cafeteria door talking with a doctor.
"Why?" Mel asked, also glancing at the men. "I already spoke with that officer we met in Zemal."
"Well, they want to be thorough - you were involved in gold smuggling with Dr. Covington," Tomas offered with a shrug.
"I most certainly WAS NOT," Mel snapped indignantly.
"I didn't mean YOU were the mastermind or anything," he quickly responded.
"Janice wasn't masterminding anything either!" Mel snapped. "We were just minding our own business at the site and . . . ," Mel explained to the Sergeant then stopped when she felt someone hovering near her.
"Why don't you tell US all about that, Miss Pappas," the oldest man in a dark suit interjected with an insincere smile.
"I'm Detective Agnu, and this is Detective Pollus. We're very interested in what you have to say . . "
For the life of her, Melinda could not fathom why these men could not remember or understand what she said. She had to repeat herself for what seemed like a thousand times over the past two hours.
"I've already told you," Mel wearily responded, rubbing her eyes underneath her glasses, and repeated her story once again for the amazingly dense police.
"Janice and I went on a dig for the University in Zemal and . . . ," Mel began her story.
"I thought you said the dig was on for the University of Athens. . . ." Detective Pollus eagerly interrupted.
"I just DID," Mel replied, nonplused.
"You just said the University of Zemal," he countered, making Mel roll her eyes.
"I said the dig was for the University . . . IN Zemal," Mel argued, finding it difficult to be civil to these men, especially the pushy Detective Pollus.
"There IS no University in Zemal," he countered argumentatively.
"I KNOW . . . You are deliberately misunderstanding what I say," Mel snapped, adding him to her growing list of those needing to be smacked.
"Well you should be more careful to say what you mean," Detective Pollus responded with annoyance.
Mel pondered those annoyingly familiar words. Janice had told her that too.
"Go on . . . ," the older detective interjected softly, drawing Mel's gaze for a moment before she sighed and looked at her cold cup of coffee.
Detective Agnu shot a warning glare at Detective Pollus who frowned.
"The men Janice hired didn't come to the site," Mel started again.
"What men?" The young detective asked.
"I don't know," Mel responded with annoyance.
"How do you know Janice hired any men?" The young detective asked.
"Because Janice SAID so," Mel replied in amazement.
"You trust the word of this woman?" He asked.
"YES," Mel groaned, making the detectives look at each other and shake their heads with a knowing smirk. "WHAT?!?" She asked heatedly.
"Please, go on," the older detective encouraged her warmly.
"Dr. Wright said the workers went on strike but that we shouldn't worry because he hired replacements," Mel continued.
"What replacements?" the young detective asked, raising the southerner's temper to very near boiling.
"Go on, please," the older detective wisely interjected.
"Dr. Wright never hired replacements . . . eight armed men came instead. Dr. Wright had smuggled gold in her supply truck and arranged a pickup in Zemal but these armed men, Hank and the others, double crossed HIM and tried to take the gold. When they couldn't find the gold, they threatened us. We tried. . . . "
"Where's the gold now?" The younger detective interrupted.
"I don't KNOW!" Mel spat as she slapped her hand down on the table, inadvertently knocking her spoon off her saucer and onto the cafeteria floor. A vigilant Sgt. Tomas quickly retrieved it.
"I've TOLD you that," she moaned shaking her head wearily. "You're wasting valuable time here. You should be interrogating Dr. Wright and Dr. Maveros!"
The detectives looked at each other and once again smirked knowingly. Sgt. Tomas sighed, feeling great sympathy for the pretty southerner.
"Miss Pappas, you do realize Dr. Covington has been associated with the smuggling of Ancient Greek artifacts," the older detective finally explained. "It is natural we'd like to understand her involvement with the stolen gold," he added with a seasoned voice of reason.
"But she didn't steal the gold!" Mel responded angrily . . . again. The lead detective motioned for the other detective and the sergeant to leave. Sgt. Tomas ignored the detective who glared with annoyance as he continued to sit next to the fair southerner.
"Miss Pappas, look," the lead detective sighed. "We know you didn't have anything to do with this. You are an upstanding American from a good family with a good reputation in Greece. But you are accusing Dr. Maveros, who is also an upstanding citizen, not to mention the senior professor of archeology at the University. And this Dr. Wright has never done anything to make us think he is anything but an upstanding citizen. Which leaves, Janice Covington."
"DOCTOR Covington," Mel corrected him, making his eyes roll.
"Miss Pappas, DOCTOR Covington doesn't care about the laws of our land. She's been arrested more times than I can count. She'd be in jail today if we could prove even one of the many things we suspect her of," he mentioned.
"Which means you have absolutely no proof of your suspicions," Mel countered.
"Eight men say Dr. Covington was behind the gold smuggling," he offered as if that was conclusive.
"Eight upstanding citizens, no doubt," Mel responded coolly.
"Miss Pappas . . . ," he sighed wearily.
"I'm a little curious, Detective Agnu. How do you intend to prove Dr. Covington has been smuggling gold if you can't find it?" Mel countered innocently, making his eyes narrow.
"Miss Pappas, if you are involved in this . . . ," he responded, surprised at her question.
"Detective, I am not and neither is Doctor Covington," Mel relayed firmly.
"I've dealt with DOCTOR Covington before, Miss Pappas, and I don't share your confidence in her. If we find so much as a trace of the gold in DOCTOR Covington's possession that she doesn't have a legitimate receipt for, I'll throw every book I can find at her and personally see her rot in prison," he said with an eerily pleasant tone and smile.
Mel swallowed hard.
"What if Dr. Maveros confesses?" Mel asked.
Before leaving on her mission to check for Staveros' family, Sustra looked over her weapons, more out of ritual than utility. With her dagger in hand, the Amazon looked up to watch the Warrior Princess get ready for her grand entrance into Bayentes' camp.
Xena first unsheathed her sword. In relaxed motions, she whirled it skillfully around her tall form, making Sustra very thankful she didn't hold a grudge. Apparently satisfied, Sustra concluded from the content grin on the warrior's face, Xena sheathed it.
Pulling out a dagger that was hidden in her boot, Xena ran her thumb along the blade. Tossing it up in the air by the blade, the dagger quickly tumbled blade over hilt as it rose in the air then started to descend. Catching the dagger by the hilt, she smoothly slipped it back into her boot.
Sustra smiled, considering every experienced warrior has a hidden dagger for emergencies as she ran her thumb over the blade of her own dagger. Glancing up, Sustra's eyebrows furrowed curiously when she saw Xena's shoulders tense oddly.
Out from the Warrior Princess' cleavage popped another dagger.
"Ow," Sustra blurted and her bloody thumb shot up to her mouth as Xena snatched the breast dagger from the air.
"Problem?" Xena asked with amusement, as she eyed the weapon and returned it to its happy home.
"No no . . . uh . . . supposed to be sharp, right?" Sustra shrugged, glancing at her dagger. Placed her thumb back in her mouth, the Amazon pondered the sharpness of the Warrior Princess' happy dagger.
The Warrior Princess grinned.
"Right," Xena responded as she instinctively reached for her last weapon. Her grin immediately dissolved as her fingers brushed over where her chakrum would have hung.
"I'm ready," Sustra quickly informed the disturbed Warrior Princess, attempting to draw her thoughts away from the painful memory. "You?" She mumbled with her thumb back in her mouth.
"Yeah," Xena replied with a small, appreciative smile and turned to pat Argo on her neck.
Seeing Xena whisper something into her ear seemed a little odd to the Amazon. But then, Argo was a smart horse, Sustra considered with a shrug.
"Be careful," Xena said, turning to the surprised Amazon.
"Uh . . . you too," the Amazon responded, watching Xena mount. With effortless grace, Xena propelled herself onto her horse . . . sidesaddle.
Sustra's mouth dropped as she gasped in fear. Her shock dissolved into annoyance as the Warrior Princess chuckled and swung her right leg over to reposition herself on the saddle.
"Sustra, lighten up," Xena said with a smirk.
The look outs alerted the camp as the Warrior Princess rode towards them, alone. They nervously watched her tall form sitting imperiously on her golden mare as she slowly glanced over the camp. A camp which they fully expected to soon be hers.
She noticed the men, curiously appearing weary, almost defeated. A few of those men nervously surrounded her when she stopped in the center of the camp.
"Where's Bayentes?" Xena coolly asked the tallest soldier, whose eyes darted uneasily to the others, then to a tent which she suspected he was in.
Tired of waiting for a response, she dismounted. One soldier made a half-hearted attempt to stop her by placing his blade in her path.
"Your manners leave a lot to be desired," Xena noted with a raised eyebrow, prompting the soldier to quickly move his sword out of her path.
Opening the tent flap, Xena saw everyone turn and nervously look at her. A few lieutenants stood in a protective line in front of a cot, immediately drawing her attention to the injured man on it.
"Invite her in . . . " Bayentes blurted cordially through a wheeze.
"Sir?" One lieutenant asked hesitantly.
"Good Gods, NOBODY listens anymore," Bayentes complained then started coughing. "I want to see her," he added, weakly wiping the spit away from his mouth.
Xena cautiously went to the cot and looked down at the dying man who was once her trusted, then victim, now . . . enemy.
"Your Amazon arrows did this," he weakly informed her as if it were merely a stain on his tunic. "I was so close to victory . . . wasn't I?," he asked with a small smile and coughed. Sniffing, he added wryly, "well, you lose some, you lose some. . . . "
She knelt down and looked under his bandages. "You . . . ," she ordered a lieutenant. "Get my saddle bag, and YOU," she looked at another lieutenant. "Get some hot water and rags," she barked, prompting quick action.
"What in Tartarus are you doing?" He asked, coughing.
"Your wounds weren't that bad until they got infected. I think we can still fight the infection . . . ," she noted with encouragement.
"Xena? Do you actually think I will stop hounding you or your loved ones if you help me get better?" He asked calmly and coughed.
She looked at him and considered the question. Sighing heavily, she answered "No."
"Then it would be in your interest to let me die, don't you think?" Bayentes asked her with a smirk.
"Yes . . . it would," she answered as she continued to take the bandages off, motioning to the lieutenants to come closer with the items they brought.
"For GODS' sake woman, are you deaf?" He snapped, then smiled oddly.
"I'm NOT going to let you die because it's easier for ME if you do," she snapped back.
"What? Don't tell me you are worried about your soul NOW, Xena," He blurted with a chuckle, followed by a cough.
"It's about time, don't you think?" She replied as she grabbed a damp cloth and started to wipe his wounds carefully.
"No," he blurted, grabbing her hand and stopping her from cleaning the abscessed wound. "Do what you should have done in the first place . . . kill me," he told her.
Xena took a deep breath.
"You OWE me, Xena," he spat bitterly.
Xena made a decision to finish what she started.
"You . . . owe . . . ," he repeated angrily, stopping when the dull sensation filled his chest. A smile flickered across his face before he stilled.
Xena stared at her hand, which still wrapped around the dagger protruding from the now dead man.
She remembered when her friend first joined her army, the various campaigns he fought for her, and that hot, miserable day when she disfigured him. Her eyes lifted to his earless face. She did owe him . . . more than she could ever repay. But she finally finished what she started, something he also wanted. Now she would move on.
"You were a good warrior, Bayentes," she whispered as she let go of the hilt of her dagger.
"We await your orders, Xena," Rolf announced, clearing his throat nervously when she shot an annoyed glare at him.
"How can you possibly follow me?" She asked in annoyed amazement and stood.
"Uh . . . ," he looked around to the other lieutenants, who shrugged. "You defeated our leader."
"Defeated? I just killed a dying man," she responded incredulously.
"Still . . . ," Rolf shrugged.
"You all ride against me to get revenge one moment, then you turn around and follow me in the next?" She asked, nonplused.
"Uh . . . revenge?" Rolf questioned then looked to the other lieutenants, who shrugged. "What exactly are you talking about?" Rolf asked cautiously.
"Why did you ride with Bayentes?" Xena's eyebrow rose questioningly.
"It certainly wasn't for the advancement opportunities," Rolf blurted with a smirk, then noticed the Warrior Princess' annoyance growing. "Uh . . . he payed well," Rolf offered quickly, looking to the other lieutenants who nodded their heads in vigorous agreement.
"Really well," Rolf added to the surprised warrior. "Well, until he started to run out of money," Rolf explained. "He had downsized and let some soldiers go. 'Right-sizing,' he called it. Anyway . . . with you leading us, I'm sure in no time . . . ," Rolf relayed with encouragement.
"Money. You just did it for money," she interrupted numbly and glanced down at Bayentes.
Mind games, she concluded in weary amazement and shook her head. He won that round too, she considered with anger, reluctant respect and most of all . . . relief.
"What are your orders," Rolf asked, drawing her eyes away from her dead enemy.
"Go home," Xena replied and started to leave the surprised group.
"But . . . ."
Pausing at the tent flaps, the Warrior Princess looked back at the confused men.
"We should all just . . . go home," she added wearily and left.
"Dr. Covington?" Georg whispered into her room after the doctor left, looking in the hallway for nurses.
"It's clear, Georg. Where's the truck?" She asked blinking her eyes to focus, still feeling the effects of the drugs from her surgery.
"Back at the hotel," he said. "What are you going to do? The detectives are questioning Miss Pappas now," he said, evoking a concerned look from Janice.
"Shit," Janice blurted and closed her eyes with a guilty ache in her heart. Opening her eyes, she focused on Georg. "Tell the detectives I want to see them RIGHT now," Janice informed him firmly, hoping to minimize the time her southern friend would be subjected to that unpleasantness.
"What are you going to . . . ?" Georg questioned, then froze, hearing the southerner's voice in the hallway. He glanced nervously to Janice.
"I can't believe you are not going to let her rest, she's been shot and just operated on you know!" Mel blurted with annoyance as the crowd following her passed the nurses' station and approached the room. A blond nurse looked up from the desk at the parade passing by and frowned.
"The doctor said she could see us, Miss Pappas," Detective Agnu countered unsympathetically.
"Guess they saved you a trip," Janice informed Georg wryly.
Mel entered the room first and smiled with relief at the site of her alert friend. Detectives Agnu and Pollus, and Sgt. Tomas quickly filed into her small hospital room behind her. Sgt. Tomas grinned appreciatively at the well-endowed blond nurse, who entered the room last. Esther was ready to toss every last one of them out if HER patient so much as blinked funny.
"You ok?" Janice asked with concern as she glanced at the southerner then the crowd.
Mel shrugged her answer and approached the archeologist's bedside.
"How are you feeling?" Mel asked, reaching out to squeeze her forearm.
"I asked you first," Janice responded with a grin, making Mel sigh and roll her eyes.
"So Dr. Covington," Detective Agnu interjected. "You've been involved in some interesting events lately," he blurted with a smile.
"You could say that, Detective Agnu," Janice relayed coolly.
"You shouldn't be surprised to know, you are our prime suspect in the theft of the gold at the moment," he informed her with a smile. "Eight witnesses have implicated you."
Janice silently nodded and stared at the smiling detective. Nope, now would not be a good time to hand over the gold, she considered.
"Aren't you going to say anything?" Detective Pollus asked in surprise.
"Why bother? You've already decided what happened," Janice offered, still staring at Agnu, who stared back with equal dislike.
"Miss Pappas has made some interesting accusations about Doctor Wright and Doctor Maveros," Agnu noted, seeing the cool archeologist glance at the southerner.
"Janice, I had to tell them what I know," Mel explained.
"I know," Janice said softly, glancing at the southerner a moment longer before returning her attention to the less pleasant-looking detective.
"The problem is," Detective Agnu explained. "They are not exactly the kind of people to be associated with gold smuggling and. . . ."
"I am," Janice finished his sentence.
"Yes. But your friend has an interesting solution to your problem," he offered, prompting the archeologist to look at the southerner with worry.
"All we need is a confession from Dr. Maveros," Mel offered simply, making Janice stare at her in amazement.
"We'd need the gold too," Detective Agnu noted with a smile.
Janice glanced between the southerner and detective. What the HELL was she thinking, Janice wondered, looking over at the crowd in her room and focusing on Esther, whose eyebrows rose expectantly.
"I'm tired, is there anything else?" Janice informed them conveniently. It also happened to be the truth.
"Ok, time to go people," Nurse Esther informed them forcefully, winking at Janice as she started to move the herd.
Mel's eyebrows furrowed.
"We'll have someone right outside," Detective Agnu informed her with a sigh. "So don't plan to go anywhere, DOCTOR Covington," he added, glancing at Mel with a thin smile and left with the crowd.
Nurse Esther stood in the door with her hands on her hips glaring at the final visitor. Mel sighed with annoyance and started to leave.
"Where do you think you're going?" Janice snapped the southerner.
"You're tired and YOUR nurse wants me to leave," Mel responded with annoyance.
"Miss Pappas. . . . " Nurse Esther called firmly to the straggler, making Mel roll her eyes. Normally, she'd really appreciate someone protecting Janice. But for some reason, she just didn't like this blond . . . extremely attractive . . . woman.
"It's ok Esther, I wanted to talk to her," Janice informed the nurse, whose eyebrows furrowed.
"Janice, you are in NO condition to . . . ," Esther blurted with annoyance.
"ESTHER . . . Sweetheart," Janice interjected with an uneasy laugh, drawing a curious look from the southerner. "I just need to talk to her," Janice explained with a soft smile, making the nurse's firm position crumble. Esther sighed and shook her head with a small smile.
Mel's eyebrow raised as she glanced between the nurse and her patient.
"You need to rest to heal, Janice," Esther added softly.
"Remember that," she added bluntly, throwing a glare at Mel before leaving the southerner alone with the archeologist.
When the door to her room finally closed, Janice finally exploded.
"And how the HELL will I get Dr. Maveros to confess?" Janice barked, startling the southerner who was still glaring at the door. "She MUST know something went wrong by now. If I just waltzed in, she'd call the cops on me, or more likely - just shoot me" Janice added.
"I wasn't talking about YOU getting her to confess Janice, I'll do it," Mel told her confidently.
"Would you just calm down and listen? All they need is for Dr. Maveros to admit her involvement in front of the police or a witness the police trust . . . Sgt. Tomas has volunteered. . . . "
"Absolutely NOT," Janice blurted, amazed how the bad situation kept getting worse.
"Janice, I don't think we have much choice," Mel reasoned.
"MEL, there is no WE about this. This is MY problem. I'm not going to let you risk yourself or your reputation if this brilliant plan of yours goes sour," Janice argued vehemently.
"Janice, trust me," Mel said simply.
"It's just not worth the risk," Janice told her with pleading green eyes attempting to dissuade determined blues.
"It is to me."
Early the next morning, an uneasy Mel stared out the backseat window of the taxi as it stopped at their destination. Her eyes followed the long flight of steps up to the imposing marble building perched on top.
She would have felt much more comfortable had it been the University of South Carolina, where her family had considerable pull and the friendly faculty spoke southern. However, there was no use wishing for that, she sighed. She was going to meet with that scary woman who, despite being the senior professor of archeology for the University of Athens, had an appalling lack of manners.
The southerner turned from her window to find the driver and Sgt. Tomas turned towards the back seat and Georg, sitting next to her in the back, staring at her. She sighed and started opening her purse to pay the taxi driver.
Sgt. Tomas furrowed his brow. "I'll get it," he offered, quickly pulling out his wallet from his suit pocket, surprising the southerner.
As Sgt. Tomas handed over the fare to the driver, Georg leaned towards her and discreetly asked, "You sure you want to do this?"
"Yes. I am going to clear Janice," Mel said firmly, making her friend nod.
With a deep breath, she clenched her purse and started to exit the cab. Glancing up, she was once again pleasantly surprised by Sgt. Tomas who was already at her door, with his hand extended. Smiling, she reached out to take the offering. As she stood, the strap of her purse fell off her shoulder and caught on the door knob handle, causing her to stumble back.
"Oh . . . " she blurted uneasily.
"Careful . . . ," Sgt. Tomas cautioned and quickly came to the rescue with a strong arm wrapping around her. ". . . Miss Pappas," he finished with a sly grin.
Staring at the sergeant's bandaged nose inches from her face, Mel dropped her purse, which dangled on the open door. The sergeant smiled and reached down, easily rescuing the purse from the clutches of the hostile door. With the purse in hand, he once again stood face-to-face with the southern lady and handed the purse to her.
With narrow eyes, Georg glared at Sergeant Romeo, who accomplished that heroic feat single handedly . . . since he never removed his hand from her hip.
"Ah . . . thank you, sergeant," Mel responded as she took back her purse. With a questioning glare she glanced between him and his unneeded hand on her hip.
"Perhaps you should call me Spirou, Miss Pappas. Dr. Maveros might be suspicious of a Sergeant in the Greek Army showing up in her office," he suggested softly, his brown eyes gazing into her nervously blinking blues. He smiled and finally removed his hand.
"Good idea . . . Spirou," she responded hesitantly. "Let's go," she announced with a weak smile, gingerly stepping around him to head towards the steps.
At the bottom of the steps to the Department of Archeology with Georg and Sgt. Tomas at her side, Mel glanced over her shoulder. She easily spotted the detectives in their car. If she could spot them, she worried if Dr. Maveros could too.
"Do you think Dr. Maveros really is involved?" Detective Pollus asked his mentor as they watched the three approach the University steps.
"I don't know," Detective Agnu responded. "I guess anything's possible," he added with a shrug.
"Like Dr. Covington isn't really involved?" the younger man asked.
"I think that's about as possible as pigs flying," he blurted with a smirk.
"Hmmm. She has Miss Pappas fooled then," the younger man responded. "She's convinced of Dr. Covington's innocence."
"Miss Pappas is either really naive or . . . ," Detective Agnu spat without finishing, not wanting to speak of that distasteful alternative.
"But what if she's right? How will she get Dr. Maveros to confess," Pollus relayed.
Detective Agnu shrugged.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 |