When The Bough Breaks
By Pink Rabbit Productions

Part Three

*****

Xena moved easily through the inky black night, her footsteps perfectly silent. Cool, blue eyes searched the darkest shadows, hunting for any sign of movement. Her gaze flicked up to touch on the men moving on top of the keep walls. They were all walking in pairs, but their slumped shoulders and exhaustion were visible, even from that distance.

Sooner, or later, one of them was likely to make a mistake.

And instinct warned her that Dayne would be there to take advantage. He was out there. She could almost feel the energy put out by his insanity. It was a living thing, moving, breathing, absorbing the night for its own.

The warrior shook herself sharply, throwing off the ominous thoughts. He was just a boy...insane perhaps, but there was nothing unearthly about him. She was letting her own fatigue get to her.

She continued moving through the grounds, hunting for any obvious loopholes in the security of the castle. The most obvious was the south outer wall, where the repairs were still unfinished. An agile man could get past the crushed part of the wall, and the debris would form easy cover that would allow him to work his way close to the castle proper.

She hunkered down, blending into the shadows to watch, the blue fire in her eyes all that made her visible to any but the most discerning eye. She concentrated, willing Dayne to appear.

Nothing.

For more than an hour, she sat and waited, instinct telling her this was where he'd appear. He was close, she could feel it. Occasionally, a guard went by, but they were nervous in the area, aware it was risky and hesitant to explore the shadows. None of them saw the woman who crouched and watched.

But even Xena had limits...and she was closer than she'd like to them. She spotted the broad figure of Purgamon, and stepped from the shadows, landing a hand on his shoulder. He jumped and started to reach for his sword before he realized it was her.

"I thought you were going to be careful," she chastised.

He shrugged, and pointed toward the debris. "It occurred to me how vulnerable this area is. I've got more men on the way, but I wanted to check it out first."

"I've been watching. No one's come through." She reached back to massage her neck, feeling the soreness, of overused muscles, and the itch of grimy skin, and sweaty clothes.

Four soldiers and two peasant men, arrived, looking tired, but ready to protect what was theirs. Purgamon waved them to their positions, then turned to face Xena. "I'll get some rest, if you will," he offered.

She smiled faintly, and nodded. Neither one of them would be any good to anyone, if they went much longer without sleep. "Deal. I don't suppose it would be possible to get a bath first?"

"We'll arrange something."

Xena leaned her head back in the small tub, sighing softly as water sloshed around her, and decided to leave an offering on behalf of Magda at the next shrine to Artemis she ran across. The old woman might be a bit on the annoying side, but she made up for it with her ability to come up with almost anything. The washroom attached to the kitchen was private, and while the tub wasn't much bigger than Xena herself, the water was warm and scented with something that reminded her of a pleasant memory from her childhood.

She ducked under, thoroughly soaking her hair before coming up again. The loamy, cream colored soap smelled faintly of the bacon grease used in its making, but it lathered well and washed away the grime. She worked it through the thick, dark strands of her hair with strong fingers.

She blinked, tensing abruptly as she heard the door open. She relaxed again, almost instantly as she realized it was only Gabrielle.

"That looks wonderful," the bard murmured longingly, then eyed one soot dark forearm.

A half smile tipped on end of Xena's mouth up. "I don't mind sharing, but I think you'd have to sit on my lap."

Gabrielle hunkered down, resting her folded forearm on the tub, and her chin on her arm. A bleary smile played about her lips. "I'm willing to suffer that for the sake of cleanliness."

"One moment," Xena murmured and held up a hand. She dropped back under the water, rinsing the soap out of her hair before resurfacing. The water wasn't the cleanest when she came up, but there was still a clean bucket of rinse water, and if Gabrielle was climbing in, they'd need to share it. "Come on," she murmured and held out a hand, waiting patiently, while Gabrielle slipped out of her clothes. Finally, the bard dropped one her delicate hand into Xena's, and stepped into the tub, with the warrior steadying her. She sat down carefully, well aware of the strong muscles in Xena's thighs as she settled on her lap. Xena wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's torso, tugging her back until her head rested against a muscular shoulder. "How's that?" she questioned.

Gabrielle sighed softly. "Wonderful," she exhaled.

Xena chuckled softly and began running the soap over the bard's skin, smiling faintly at the amount of dirt that slid away. "You really got filthy today." She reached up and ran a light finger over soot darkened hair. "Though, I kind of like the brunette look."

"Har dee har har...some of us were working all day."

"Poor baby," Xena murmured with absolutely no sympathy. She ran the soap down over Gabrielle's breasts and flat stomach, smoothing the dirt away as she nibbled gently on her earlobe. She slid a hand up to the top of Gabrielle's head and pushed gently, urging her underwater.

The bard came up blowing the bangs out of her eyes. Chuckling softly, Xena smoothed the errant strands back with one hand, and used the other to begin lathering the soap into her hair. With a soft sigh, Gabrielle leaned back to just enjoy the gentle massage as her lover worked the soap through her hair. She was half asleep when Xena gently urged her under water again, rinsing the soap away. Again, she carefully brushed Gabrielle's bangs back as she surfaced. The bard leaned against her lover, enjoying the powerful muscles that flexed against her back. "We're both dead tired," she exhaled thoughtfully.

"Mh, hmmm," Xena agreed distantly, her primary focus on the slick skin under her hand. She guided the soap down over Gabrielle's arm, across a swollen nipple, swirled it around her breasts, and down. Stomach muscles rippled and concaved in response to the sleek caresses.

"So why does this feel so good?"

The woman behind her chuckled softly, and let the soap dip even lower, fingers brushing over soft hair and softer skin. Gabrielle jumped suddenly as Xena ran the soap lightly over her swollen clitoris.

"The only thing I should be capable of, is sleep," the strawberry haired young woman groaned, and pressed back against her lover.

Xena laughed, her voice little more than a low purr. "Let's see if we can make you feel even better," she drawled, and dropped her lips to run them along a narrow shoulder. She lost her grip on the soap, but didn't try to retrieve it. Instead, agile fingers danced over sensitive flesh, teasing and caressing in earnest now. She trailed her other hand up and down Gabrielle's small frame, massaging smooth, warm skin, with strokes carefully calculated to please. Within minutes, Gabrielle was clutching the edge of the tub, her hips moving with Xena's quick fingers. Every thrust sent water washing over Xena's own sex, and shudders of pleasure through the warrior. Gabrielle's ear tasted good, like the rest of her, and Xena buried her nose in wet hair as she whispered. "Come for me."

Gabrielle arched back as the softly breathed words shattered the last wall holding off her orgasm. It wasn't the electric-sharp wash of sensations that it could be, but it sent shudders of pleasure through her small frame. Xena's hand continued to move against her, pushing the sensations longer, and stronger, until it all became too much and she pushed those strong fingers away. She twisted in Xena's arms, folding herself so that they were breast to breast, to share a long, slow kiss. "You didn't..." she groaned against Xena's lips.

"It's all right," the warrior princess groaned, ignoring her own sense of disappointment in favor of looking after her lover.

"No, it's not," Gabrielle disagreed and slipped a hand down between them.

Xena lifted an eyebrow. "Really?" she drawled coolly.

"Really," Gabrielle murmured, then ducked her head to taste a smooth breast. She braced a knee on the floor of the tub between Xena's legs, then pressed her fingers into warm, enveloping flesh, smiling at the feel of muscle rippling against her hand. They kissed again, and she tasted Xena's soft groan. Gabrielle urged her higher, sliding her lips and tongue over Xena's torso, as the warrior shifted steadily higher in the water. Finally, with Xena seated on the edge of the tub, Gabrielle fell into her sex, loving her in all the ways she knew Xena enjoyed. It didn't take more than a minute or two before her climax swept through her, radiating outward from the sharp point of Gabrielle's tongue. She bucked against the intense sensations, until finally, they began to ripple away. Xena slid back into the tub, careless of the way water sloshed across the floor. "Very nice," she exhaled.

Gabrielle leaned over the taller woman to share a slow kiss.. "It was supposed to be."

"Mission accomplished, however..." She swirled a finger in the soap and dirt grey water. It was considerably cooler against her skin that it had started out. "I think it's time to rinse off and get out."

Gabrielle rose easily, a smile touching her soft mouth as Xena did likewise. She sputtered a moment later, as the warrior snagged the bucket of now cool water next to the tub, and poured half of it over her head, sluicing the last of the soap away.

"I don't suppose you'd let me return the favor?" she grumbled and wiped the water from her eyes.

Xena gave her the look, running her pale eyes from head to toe. "Planning on standing on a box?" she deadpanned.

Gabrielle caught the rope handle of the bucket. "Duck down," she ordered. Even at that, it required a stretch, but she poured the clean water over her lover's head. Xena shook the water away and pushed her hair away from her face with a wide grin.

"You enjoyed that," she accused.

"Uh, huh," Gabrielle agreed cheerfully, and stepped from the tub. She picked up her discarded clothes, eyeing them with some distaste. "I wish these were clean," she muttered.

Xena shrugged, tugging on her own clothes. "Maybe tomorrow you can borrow something and wash them."

"Let's hope," the young woman sighed, wrinkling her nose as she slipped back into the smoky smelling clothes.

Minutes later, Xena led the way back into the kitchens, her footsteps light, senses wary and attuned to everything around her. Soldiers were clumped at various parts around the room, some dozing, some talking, a few gambling. Her eyes swept across the unfamiliar faces, hunting for anything out of the ordinary. A few glanced up, noting the two women, but most did no more than glance their way. The family of the injured peasant girl was crowded around her, as though their presence could undo the damage already done. Their eyes were scared. They knew there was a predator on the loose. Her sky blue gaze landed last on the table where Rhiannon lay. Someone had spread a blanket over her slender form, and she lay still, probably sleeping. Purgamon sat on a bench next to her, gently petting her hair as he watched for any change in her even breathing.

"It's all right," Magda's faintly amused cackle reached Xena's ears, and her chin whipped around, pinning a cool gaze on the old woman. "Nobody gets past these old eyes."

"Really?" the warrior drawled doubtfully.

"Really," Magda confirmed. "I put down a pallet for you in the corner over there," she changed subjects, nodding toward a nearby corner where the blankets had been arranged into a sleeping space wide enough for two bodies.

Xena's eyebrow lifted in wordless question, but she didn't speak.

"What?" Magda snorted. "You think I'm stupid. There's a reason I've reached this age without ever coming up with a husband or children."

That comment managed to do the unusual, and catch the warrior princess by surprise. Both brows lifted, and a faint frown line creased her forehead.

Magda hrumphed, and stomped off, though it was impossible not to hear her irritated mutterings. "Why does the younger generation always think they invented sex?"

Xena heard Gabrielle's soft giggle behind her, and opted to ignore it. Instead, she silently led her lover over to the pallet, quickly arranging her sword within easy reach. Magda had already put Gabrielle's staff near the blankets. She settled into the makeshift bed, drawing her lover into her protective hold. "Get some sleep now," She exhaled near Gabrielle's ear.

"What about you? You must be exhausted."

"Don't worry, I will," Xena assured her, and settled her cheek against the bard's silky hair. Her eyelids were already heavy. They were as safe as it was possible to be, for now. She could afford a couple of hours of light sleep, and she'd be no good without them. Within moments, her breathing was slow and easy with slumber.

*****

Xena came awake with a start, hand on her sword, eyes wide and hunting for any possible threat. She felt Gabrielle stir, and start to speak, and dropped her free hand over her mouth as she hissed, "Shhh."

The younger woman tensed, twisting to peer across the darkened expanse of the kitchens.

Xena frowned slightly, as she realized that the sound that awakened her was caused by Rhiannon sitting up sharply on her makeshift bed. She was leaning back on her unbroken hand, and talking quietly with Purgamon, though Xena couldn't make out the words. She pushed easily to her feet, her movements pantherish in the faint light. "Come on," she whispered to Gabrielle.

The couple was speaking in low tones as Xena drew near, but she could make out at least part of what they were saying.

"...But that was all locked off...." Purgamon whispered.

Rhiannon shook her head. "I know he was down there a few weeks ago, because I caught him coming up. He goes down there, to do...the Gods only know what..."

There was a long pause, and Purgamon ran a hand through his hair in a gesture of worried frustration. "I'll put soldiers on the escape tunnel and the entrance to the catacombs."

Rhiannon shook her head, wincing as she threw her legs over the side of the table. "That's not enough. Somebody has to go down there."

He caught her arm supportively. "You can't seriously be considering--"

"I know the catacombs better than anyone other than Dayne," she exhaled struggling to ignore the pain any movement sent washing through her nerve endings. Pinning the blankets in place across her breasts with her tightly bound left hand, she reached for her sword with her right.

"Why can't we just starve him out?"

She shook her head. "Because it's a rabbit warren down there, and I can't guarantee there aren't other exits."

"Sounds like you have a problem," Xena inserted herself into the low conversation.

Both people looked up, Purgamon with something that might have been hope, Rhiannon, with a bland expression that only partially succeeded in hiding her suspicion. Her gaze met Xena's. "It's nothing," she said softly, almost challenging the warrior to disagree.

"Nothing?" Gabrielle broke in before Xena could hush her. "It's not nothing that has you grabbing your sword when you can barely see straight."

The warlord flicked a faintly annoyed look Gabrielle's direction. "I haven't seen straight in years," she said dryly.

Xena ignored her to turn a deceptively cool look on the captain of the guard. "What's going on?:"

"Purgamon," Rhia hissed in warning, when she saw him about to answer.

He flashed a look at his leader and lover, then made up his mind. "There are catacombs under the keep...they look to have been dug out as some kind of early religious burial. There's also an escape route into the forests to the west."

"And you didn't think to put a guard on it?" Xena filled in dangerously.

He had the good graces to wince. "I didn't think it needed to be guarded." He shared a tension filled look with his lover before continuing. "We sealed the tunnels when we moved in. They're dangerous. The ceilings and walls are crumbling, and you could easily get lost."

"Sounds like fun," Xena drawled, then pinned a hard gaze on Rhiannon. "You're not going in there," she said flatly.

"You don't give orders here."

Xena's eyebrow lifted, but she didn't bother with an argument, just transferred her gaze back to the captain of the guard. "Purgamon, how long would it take you to get a half dozen men on the entrance and exit?"

"Not long."

"Do it."

He stood poised for a moment, visibly uncertain what to do, until Rhiannon nodded almost imperceptibly, and added. "Then put together three man teams to start checking the grounds. There's no guarantee he isn't already out of there." She dropped her feet to the floor, momentarily whitening before she regained her balance. Gabrielle saw Purgamon jerk as though to catch her, but she waved him away. "Go on...Magda, I need clothes, and my boots." She called to the old woman.

"You aren't going down there," Xena said softly, her voice little more than a low purr.

"It's my problem to deal with, Xena. Thanks for the help last night, but you aren't going into those catacombs."

Around them, soldiers were beginning to rouse and break into groups. More than a few curious eyes watched the face off between the two women, several with their hands on their swords.

"I don't understand," Gabrielle broke in. "If it will help catch Dayne that much faster, why not let Xena go down there?"

It was Xena who answered the question, her voice rich with dark irony. "Because she's afraid I'll find the way through, and once I know that, I can take this castle anytime I want."

"That's right," Rhiannon exhaled, and began tugging on the clothes Magda brought.

"She saved your life," Gabrielle snapped impatiently. "Last night, you said you believe she's changed. Why can't you just trust her?"

Rhiannon turned a serious look on the young woman, something that might have been regret reflected in her expression. "Because, Gabrielle, no matter what's happened, I can't forget that my father trusted Xena, and it destroyed his kingdom." She leaned against the table to tug her boots on, but couldn't get a proper grip. Silent for the first time since Xena had met the old woman, Magda leaned in to help with the task.

"And because she thinks that maybe, just maybe, I'm using you, the way I used her," Xena added the words Rhiannon would have spared Gabrielle.

"I don't understand?" the bard murmured, her gaze moving back and forth between the two women.

It was Xena who spoke, her voice so cool, that only Gabrielle understood how truly self-lacerating the words were. "I used to send her into villages to take stock of their defenses. She was so young, and so beautiful. Who could have believed she'd be working for the raiders?"

"That's right," Rhiannon said grimly, hard gaze locked with Xena's.

It was the warrior princess who looked away first.

"Magda, make sure they have food and water for two day's travel ready at first light." Rhiannon ordered with forced briskness, then picked up her sword, and strode away with the sort of determined care usually reserved for madmen and drunkards, trying to look like they aren't madmen and drunkards.

Xena was so lost in thought, that Gabrielle was fairly certain she was the only one who heard the old woman's softly muttered comment, "Fool."

"She can barely walk," the bard whispered.

"She'll do what she thinks she has to," Xena exhaled, understanding far too well. She'd pushed herself to that point enough times to know that the body would respond. Pushed past endurance, pain ceased to have meaning, and adrenaline gave weakened muscles, strength. She swallowed hard, twitching her head away when Gabrielle reached up, as if to catch one of the tears that sat on her thick lashes.

Magda lifted a thick gray eyebrow and seemed to make some kind of decision. "Warrior," she murmured and turned a considering gaze on Xena. "Can you be trusted?"

"Of course she can," Gabrielle swore. "She's..." Her words trailed off as Xena's hand landed on her shoulder.

"Yes," Xena said softly.

A vaguely feral grin touched the cook's mouth. "Good...because there's another way into those catacombs that Rhiannon and her army don't know about."

The faintest frown marred Xena's forehead. "Why not?" she drawled, not exactly suspicious, but not entirely trusting either.

"When her army set about throwing Childus' army out, we kept a way to deal with 'em if we had to."

In short, the villagers had kept a backup option for murdering the castle's newest inhabitants if they turned out to be anything like their predecessors.

"Where?" she clipped.

"It's in the hills, just south of here. Not far away."

"All right," Xena murmured. "I'll need spare torches...and candles."

"Easy enough," Magda murmured, and started to turn away to get the items.

The room had nearly emptied of soldiers, except one skinny one, who reminded Gabrielle vaguely of Joxer. He pushed his helmet back, ducking his head nervously, as he moved to join the three women. "Magda," he spoke carefully, as if striving to keep his voice from cracking. "The captain told me to stay with you. Said he wanted you to have a personal guard, in case anything happened."

More likely to keep the boy out of harm's way--Xena thought, since she strongly suspected the shrewd old cook had a knife hidden somewhere in her clothes...and knew how to use it.

The old woman probably knew it too, but she didn't let on, just ordered him to accompany her.

"I'm coming with you," Gabrielle said softly, when the two were out of earshot.

"No, you're not," Xena clipped, in her best I'm-not-arguing-about-this voice. She quickly checked her chakram, and made sure her sword was comfortably settled across her back.

Gabrielle laid a hand over her lover's forearm, stilling her fast, efficient movements. "I'm coming with you," she repeated, refusing to be put off.

Xena lifted one hand to cup the bard's face. "It's too dangerous. If it's like the catacombs I've been in before, he could be hiding behind any corner or in any shadow, and you wouldn't see him until it was too late."

"That's just one more reason for you to have someone at your back." She held up a hand to forestall any further arguments and continued. She gestured to the surrounding room, now empty of soldiers. "And I'm no safer here...alone...at least if I'm with you..."she trailed off and held up her hands.

Xena started to argue, insist Gabrielle go stay with the peasants or with the soldiers, but in the face of the determination on the younger woman's face, she couldn't do it. Besides, Gabrielle made a fair point. "All right," she exhaled at last. "Get your staff," she commanded in a low voice as she saw Magda return. "You may need it."

*****

Rhiannon stared down through the pitch-black hole that led into catacombs. There was a short drop to a tunnel that angled down sharply, before opening into the first of the manmade caverns. "Torch," she murmured and reached back. She thrust the burning torch into the narrow space, hunting the narrow passageway for any sign of her brother. "All right," she exhaled. "It's clear." The painful stiffness was still there, but not as bad. Movement and adrenaline were already loosening tight muscles.

"I'll go first," Purgamon said grimly. His dark eyes flicked up to the dark ceiling overhead, and he had to struggle to keep his hands from shaking. The basement was trying to close in on him, the way anything dark, and too tightly enclosed had, since his time in a Spartan prison.

"You won't go at all," she disagreed without looking up.

"Blast it--"

"No argument," she snapped. She caught herself and laid a light hand against his arm. "You're no good to me in a closed passage, and we both know it." She understood his fears, just as he understood hers. Even though his room in the castle had the largest windows he rarely stayed the night through. "And I need you out here to make sure he doesn't do anymore damage...no matter what..."

"Then at least take some of the soldiers," he urged.

She shook her head. "Too much noise...and I have to try and talk to him...one more time..."

"You're a damn fool," he growled.

A soft smile touched her mouth. "Yeah, but you love me...don't you?" she whispered uncertainly.

He curved a hand to the back of her head. "You know I do..." They shared a fast kiss, then broke apart. She dropped into the passageway before he could grab her back.

*****

A short way from the castle, amid low hills, and thick trees, Magda led, Xena, Gabrielle, and her sputtering young guard up to a small natural cave in the dark gray rock. "Here," she panted, breathing hard from the climb. She stuffed her torch in the cave, gesturing toward a narrow passageway, a few feet in. A rope and wood slat ladder lay rolled against one wall, where it was easily available, but not readily visible.

Xena waved her back and stepped inside, sword drawn and up. "Hand me a torch," She instructed.

Magda quickly lit one of the spare torches, watching momentarily as the tightly bound thrushes quickly caught.

When she was certain it was well lit, Xena slipped the torch through the hole in the rock and let go, watching carefully as it plummeted downward. The thrushes broke apart on landing, and blazed even faster, the bright flames cutting through the inky darkness to reflect off sleek cavern walls. Xena leaned forward, keen vision searching every shadow for any possible threat. This part of the caverns was natural. Obviously, whoever had originally hollowed the catacombs under the castle, had started with caves that already laced the ground throughout the area. "It looks like it's clear," she told the others. "Wait until I reach bottom," she told Gabrielle. She casually flicked the rope ladder over the edge of the rocks, watching silently, as it unfurled it's way down to the floor, nearly thirty feet below.

The girl nodded.

"You two stay here until morning." She pinned a hard gaze on the young soldier. "If you haven't heard back from us by then, or if Dayne shows up, you yank this ladder up, and head straight back to the castle for help. Understood?"

He nodded nervously, and turned a vaguely pleading gaze on the old woman he was supposed to be guarding. "I really don't think this is what the Captain had in mind when he said I was supposed to help you any way you needed."

The cook only grinned and patted his hand sympathetically. "Tell him it's all my fault, if there's trouble."

"Don't worry," Xena murmured with a dry grin, as she slid onto the rope, and hung over open space. "After what I've seen, I think he'll believe that."

"Remember, keep to the left at every turn until you hit the first burial chamber," Magda called down. "That's when you'll find the first of the oil sconces too. We always keep 'em filled..." The "just in case..." was there, though she left it unspoken.

Xena nodded, but didn't speak as she dropped the last few rungs to the floor, careful to avoid the last of the burning thrushes. She waved Gabrielle down. The bard dropped her staff down to her waiting lover, then a bag of spare torches. The small shoulder bag of twine and candles, she slung over her shoulder. Taking a deep breath, she caught the first rung of the ladder, and braced herself, momentarily feeling as though she was swinging free as she scrambled for a good foothold on the unsteady surface.

"Easy," Xena soothed, after seeing the momentary panic.

Gabrielle stilled herself, calming the momentary burst of nervousness, before she started the descent.

"Atta girl," Xena whispered encouragingly. She reached up, steadying the bard the last few feet.

Once Gabrielle was off the ladder, Magda and her protector pulled it up a few feet, while Xena drew one of the torches, and lit it from the remains on the floor.

"You can still go back," Xena pointed out hopefully, as she watched Gabrielle gather herself together, sling the bag of torches over one shoulder, and take up her staff.

The bard shook her head. "Not this time," she murmured.

Xena took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and nodded. In many ways, it was far more frightening going into the dark with Gabrielle at her side, than it would have been alone. Her own life mattered little to her, but the bard's was the world. At the same time, her presence was always a comfort. "All right," she sighed. "Stay behind me. Do exactly as I say. And no talking."

Gabrielle nodded, bracing herself for what lay ahead. The faintest of smiles touched her lips as Xena chucked her lightly under the chin.

"Light feet, cool head," the warrior reminded.

Another nod.

"Okay." Sword in her right hand, torch in her left, Xena started down the left passage. It narrowed quickly, forcing the two women to move single file. Water ran in streams down the mineral laden walls of the cave, washing over the spikes and bubbles of rock formed long before. As they moved deeper into the darkness, Gabrielle's eyes touched on the formations, wishing they were there under different circumstances. The strange rocks shapes were fascinating. She would have liked to study them when she wasn't afraid for her life.

*****

Rhiannon slowed as she saw a glow ahead of her in one of the chambers. She quickly tucked her own torch into a metal wall sconce, before creeping forward carefully, leading with her left side, sword arced over her head to meet any attacks. "Dayne?" she questioned as she stepped into the chamber. Oil burning wall sconces flanked the entry to the chamber, casting a dirty glow, and near invisible smoke that smelled faintly of death.

Nothing.

At least nothing threatening.

It was one of the burial chambers, the walls marked by niches, each containing the shrouded remains of a body. "Dayne?" she called again, her low voice echoing oddly in the darkness of the catacombs.

"Hello, Rhiannon," the boy's answering words were barely audible.

She spun, sword up and ready to fight. She froze as he stepped into view, carrying a crossbow aimed straight for her heart. "Planning on killing me?" she whispered hoarsely.

A hint of a smile touched his mouth. "I've been killing you for months now...a piece at a time...a body at a time...they didn't look like you...but when they begged..." He laughed softly, the sound chilling in its intensity.

Her mouth worked soundlessly. "I didn't know you hated me that much," she exhaled atlast.

Time had banked some the raging fury, leaving him slightly more in control. "That's the worst part," he admitted, suddenly sounding younger than his years. "As much as I hate you...I love you too...sometimes, I can almost forget...everything that's happened..." He shook his head slowly.

Rhiannon's eyes narrowed. Pathetic as he was, instinct warned her the violence could reappear at any moment. Still clutching the scimitar tightly, she reached out with her left hand, palm up. "Let me help you."

He shook his head, fury flickering again in the depth of his eyes. "Do you think I'm a fool? I know you have to kill me--"

"No," she disagreed, uncertain whether the words were true, or false. "I wouldn't do that, Dayne. You're my little brother."

"That's why I have to kill you," he exhaled.

She saw the almost imperceptible tightening of his finger on the trigger, heard the snap of the string as the bolt took flight, and ducked sideways, barely avoiding the bolt's deadly flightpath.

Brother and sister both stood shocked for a moment. The arrow made a soft sound as it fell to the floor somewhere in the distance.

"NO!" Dayne roared, drawing the sword strapped across his back. He started to lunge, only to pull up short as she pointed her sword his direction, her gaze suddenly rich with the dangerous tint of a warrior. She could be pushed only so far, before that side of her resurfaced...with a vengeance.

"If I have to kill you to survive...Brother..." she snarled the last word. "I will." Even injured, there was no question who would win any confrontation of swords. "Put your weapon down," she ordered in a voice rich with threat. Despite their relationship, she was still a warlord who'd built a command through raw strength and skill.

Dayne stared at her, something like panic showing in his eyes. The years as a slave had conditioned him to respond to that tone of voice. Abruptly, he sighed, shoulders slumping in defeat. "All right," he whispered.

She tensed as he started to move, but he only crouched and began to lay the weapon down.

Her concentration slipped for no more than a heartbeat, but it was enough. His other hand brushed the dusty, stone, clutching at the fine ground earth to hurl it her direction.

Rhiannon flung out her free arm, and twisted her head away, but not fast enough. Sand and grit blinded her good eye to agonizing effect. Anyone else would have been in dead in the same situation. Blind and in pain is no way to win a fight, but she'd been blind, and in pain before...and she'd won that fight. She felt as much as heard his attack, and parried the first thrust with controlled skill. The sword hilt rolled in her hand, and she blocked him again, teeth gritting against the force behind his blade. Struggling to blink away the blinding effects of the dirt, she continued to slash and parry, tracking her brother's movement by the sound of his boots in the dirt, the whistle of his sword arm, and the crash of their blades. Even blind, she made contact. Her blade slowed in its arc as it brushed something solid, and she heard her brother's sharp gasp of surprise.

As soon as she could see straight again, he was dead.

That thought suddenly occurred to Dayne as well, because he hurled more dirt at her face, then spun on his heel and fled into the darkness.

Rhiannon stood perfectly still for a long moment, listening carefully for a scuff of dirt, a telltale intake of air.

Nothing.

She blinked away the last of the dirt, her vision still painfully blurry as she searched the surrounding burial chamber.

She let out a soft sigh. Dayne was gone. She crouched down, noting the droplets of blood spattered across the floor.

Gone, but wounded.

It would make finding him easier.

And like any wounded animal, it also made him more dangerous.

*****

Xena abruptly pulled to a halt, and signaled for Gabrielle to do likewise. Light glowed in corridor ahead of them.

Gabrielle leaned forward, her voice little more than a breath. "From Magda's description, that must be the first burial chamber."

The warrior nodded, her breathing suddenly slow and controlled. Storm blue eyes glittered with predatorial lights. "Stay here," she commanded almost inaudibly. She doused the remains of their last torch, not wanting to warn anyone she was coming, then started forward. Her tread was impossibly light, like some giant cat, as she stepped around shadows Gabrielle couldn't even see.

The bard felt her heart slam in her chest as her lover disappeared from view. She tightened her grip on her staff, ears pricking in search of any sound that might hail the madman hunting them all. The darkness itself, seemed alive, as though it was a part of the man they sought.

Xena abruptly appeared, silhouetted in the faint light ahead. She waved Gabrielle forward, with the softly whispered comment. "It's clear."

An imagined chill brought shivers as Gabrielle stepped into the burial chamber. Small niches lined the walls, each containing a shrouded body. The burials were old enough that the shrouds were rotting and more than once, she caught a glimpse a bones and desiccated flesh through the decay. As if sensing the nervous turn of mind, the comforting weight of Xena's hand landed on her shoulder.

"The dead can't hurt you. It's the living you have to be careful about."

Gabrielle swallowed hard, and nodded, but she kept glancing at the silent remains of days long gone.

Xena led the way through to another corridor, and, this time, even she looked faintly uneasy as she peered out into the darkness.

Tunnels fanned out in a half dozen directions, and lights could be seen glowing somewhere down each of them. More than one appeared to lead to multiple rooms, while some of the corridors simply curved away into infinity.

"Well," Gabrielle exhaled. "Which way?"

Xena's crystal blue eyes narrowed as she considered the question. Nothing in any of the corridors gave her any more reason to pick that direction than any other. Finally, she pointed down the center. It was straighter than the others, and since it ran down the center, seemed to offer the best access to the area. "Stay close," she instructed. "And follow in my footsteps."

They moved carefully forward, Xena slightly ahead, searching the near darkness for any sign of a trap. As they neared the next lighted chamber, Xena again waved for Gabrielle to stay where she was, while she continued forward. Like the first chamber they'd encountered, the sconces were lit, but the room, itself was empty.

"Why are all the lamps lit?" Gabrielle questioned as she came up on her friend's left shoulder.

Xena twitched, and flashed a disapproving look over her shoulder. "I thought I told you to stay back, until I let you know it was safe."

Gabrielle shrugged. "You didn't start killing anything. I took a gamble." She tried her question again. "So, why are all the lamps lit?"

Xena shook her head, genuine confusion showing in her expression. "I don't know," she admitted hesitantly.

The next few chambers yielded the same results as the first two. Softly lit rooms, empty of life, and full of deaths long since mourned and forgotten. Xena just shook her head, and continued deeper into the caverns. More than once they had to go around caved-in sections of the floor or ceiling. Whoever had hollowed the catacombs out of the original natural caverns, had done so long before. Time had pulled down many of the walls.

"This is getting very creepy," Gabrielle whispered nervously.

"Maybe that's why he's doing it," Xena said thoughtfully. "In hopes of spooking anyone who might come after him."

"That wouldn't frighten Rhiannon, or Purgamon..."

"But most of the soldiers...and villagers?"

Gabrielle thought of the villagers she'd grown up with, and the mercenaries she'd met on the road. They'd all tended to be superstitious. They would have been uncomfortable enough moving through burial chambers. Add flickering lamps that cast living shadows on every wall, and the knowledge that someone had been there ahead of them, and they'd have run for the hills. "I see your point," she murmured.

They'd gone another fifty or sixty yards, when Xena abruptly froze, every muscle taut. Gabrielle heard her pull to a halt, and did likewise, pivoting carefully. She hunted the surrounding darkness for any sign of someone coming up behind them.

Xena focused in on her senses, listening to the things she couldn't hear. Her prey was near. She could feel the over-fast beat of his heart, and the barely controlled roughness of his breathing. The entrance to another burial chamber lay only a few feet ahead. Her footsteps so light, they barely disturbed the dust beneath her boots, as she moved forward, confident that Gabrielle would guard her back.

The chamber ceiling swept over Xena's head as she stepped into the faintly lit room. It was a dead-end, only one way in and one way out. She froze, and pivoted slowly. Close...but not...right...Vivid blue eyes swept the shadows. That's where he'd be...in the dark...like any other rat.

Three more corridors branched away no more than ten yards up the path.

He was there. She could feel it.

The softest skuff of dirt imaginable, confirmed her instincts. A hint of a feral smile twisted her lips. He was as good as hers.

Gabrielle heard the faint shift in her friend's breathing, and knew she was closing in.

Xena closed the distance to the branch in the tunnels with grace and speed, her sword slicing the air ahead of her. She stepped around a visible weak spot in the floor, and twisted into the first branch.

She realized her mistake almost instantly.

He was in the third tunnel, and she heard the brush of his boots and a grunt, as he exploded into motion.

Xena pivoted and thrust her sword up, ready to skewer anyone who tried to get too close.

Unfortunately, that wasn't Dayne's intention.

He slammed the point of his sword into the weakening section of the floor with rage induced strength, snapping the heavy blade midway.

Everyone seemed frozen in place as a curious silence fell over the caverns. For the first moment, nothing happened, then a low rumble vibrated through the surrounding walls. Xena tried to leap, but it was already too late. The floor crumbled and dropped out from under her. Arms and legs pinwheeling in a vain attempt to regain her balance, she plummeted downward. Even through the chaotic din, she heard Gabrielle's scream and the answering thunk of metal on wood. "NO!" A clawing hand dug into the rock wall as she fell past. A dull scream was torn from Xena's throat as she yanked herself up short, and somehow managed to resheath her weapon, before scrambling for a hold with her other hand. "GABRIELLE!!"

"NO!" Gabrielle lunged forward when she saw her lover start to drop, only to pull up short as Dayne swung the blunt, broken end of his sword toward her. She blocked the swing with her staff, then another and another, each delivered with enough force that she was afraid the wood would crack. She could hear her lover's distant yells, but couldn't concentrate on them. She was too busy just staying alive. With the point of his sword gone, he couldn't hope for a thrust, but he could drive her back. Sooner or later, she'd make a mistake, or her staff would snap, then he'd crush her skull.

Gabrielle spun her weapon around, sneaking under Dayne's swing to snap a sharp blow into his face. He stumbled backward, spitting blood from a split lip, and she pressed her momentary advantage, forcing him to block her beating blows. He twisted suddenly, grabbing at her staff, and literally hurling her backwards.

Gabrielle stumbled, and scrambled to regain her balance, while Dayne straightened, grinning at her.

He wiped at the blood running down his face, smearing it across his lips and chin. "I like it when they fight," he whispered, and flashed a mad grin. He advanced slowly, confident the warrior princess was no longer a threat. "I knew I was going to have you from the moment I saw you at the lake..." He leered. "You know lots of tricks..."

*****

Tracking the blood drops left by the wound in Dayne's arm with minute care, Rhiannon's head snapped up as she heard the rumbles and echoey screams. Someone else was in the cave. Not knowing whether it was a captive, soldiers, or peasants after revenge, she broke into a run, darting through the narrow corridors of the tightly woven maze with inhuman speed. Long legs ate up the ground in pursuit of the sounds that echoed through the darkness.

*****

Gabrielle let out a startled shriek as her staff gave way, shattering into two roughly equal pieces. Without planning, she knocked the next blow aside with one half and aimed the other half for the side of Dayne's face. He blocked the prospective blow with one hand, then slapped the heel of his palm into the underside of her chin. She went down hard as he swept her feet out from under her. A booted foot landed on her right wrist, pinning it to the floor, and flat of his blade smacked into her left hand, sending the remaining half of the staff skittering across the floor.

Clinging to the sheer rock wall, Xena heard the sudden silence and redoubled her search for handholds, fighting to pull herself up, any way she could. "GABRIELLE!" she screamed to let her lover know she was still coming.

"Don't worry XENA!" Dayne shouted back. "She'll have plenty to do without you around."

"Touch her, and you're DEAD! Do you understand me? DEAD!" Xena let out a full-throated roar of rage.

Dayne laid the sharp edge of the broken blade just under the curve of Gabrielle's jaw. "Right now," he whispered suggestively. "It would be very easy for me to knock your...friend...back into that hole...so deep she'll never climb out."

The girl swallowed hard, and felt the metal press painfully against her skin. It would take only a little more pressure to draw blood. "You aren't strong enough," she hissed.

His lips drew back from his teeth, in a feral snarl. He reached down, grabbing her by the collar to haul her to her feet, careful to keep the sharp blade against her throat the whole time. "Strong enough to kill her and do whatever I want to you," he sneered.

Gabrielle eyed him with enraged hate. She barely felt the scratch of his blade against her skin, or the trickle of blood that slid down her throat. "You'll never succeed," she shot back. "She'll kill you."

Dayne shoved her back, slamming her into a rock wall hard enough to knock the air from her lungs. She lashed out, knocking the sword aside, and cracking her fist into his jaw. His head snapped back with the force of the blow, and he shoved her away with a grunt.

Gabrielle skidded dangerously close to the open pit. She twisted to her knees, scrambling for her feet, but Dayne kicked a booted foot into her midsection, and sent her tumbling. She rolled with the force of the blow, grabbing for handholds as her lower body suddenly swung out over open space.

"GABRIELLE!!" Xena's horrified scream echoed off the walls, only to choke off a heartbeat later as rocks and debris rained down on her head. She nearly lost her tenuous purchase on the wall, while Gabrielle managed to catch herself before spilling any further into the pit.

One hand clawed into a broken section of the floor, the other clutching the wall that scraped against her chest and belly, the bard's eyes swept down, staring into blackness that could have fallen away for no more than a few feet, or a thousand miles. Her gaze lifted to the madman grinning down at her. Caught in the trap of his eyes, she couldn't move.

The toe of his boot landed on the arm stretched flat across the floor, grinding the bones of her wrist against cold, hard rock. "I'm beginning to think you just aren't worth it," he jeered and raised the broken half of his sword high over his head. Gabrielle saw him start the downswing, and a let out a scream, losing her unsteady grip on the rocks. She was already falling, the drag of her arm under Dayne's boot throwing him off balance, when she caught a glimpse of a silver flash over her head. Swords crashed with thunderous force, while the bard clawed at the walls in an effort to catch herself. She continued to skid until a hard arm wrapped around her waist, pressing her against the wall, and halting her descent.

"Hold on," Xena ordered roughly.

With a heartbeat more time, Gabrielle got her fingers into narrow crevices, and managed to take most of her own weight.

Having barely managed to stop Dayne's blow from the side, Rhiannon stepped into the block, altering her center of gravity to drop her shoulder, and muscle his sword up and back. Fighting one handed because of her broken left arm, she nonetheless managed to get enough leverage to force her brother back several steps. He pulled his weapon back and tried to hammer her, but she blocked the blows easily. She could hear the crumbling of rock as Xena and Gabrielle fought to find handholds in the disintegrating stone. They didn't have much time.

Her brother saw her brief moment of indecision, and took advantage, delivering a hard shove that put her dangerously close to the edge of the pit.

Rhiannon fought for balance, swinging her sword to back him off.

"Dammit, Gabrielle, climb," Xena's voice floated up from the pit.

"I'm trying."

Dayne grinned, then suddenly danced back into the shadows, the sound of his running feet echoing clearly through the chamber. Rhiannon started to follow, but she could still hear the warrior and the bard fighting for their lives. She spun, dropping to her stomach, right arm flung into the hole. "Can you reach my hand?"

When she was certain Gabrielle was finally stable, Xena lifted her hand, but her fingertips were more than a foot short of the warlord's hand. She shook her head. "Not even close...and the rocks are crumbling too much to climb out."

Rhiannon glanced over her shoulder to make certain Dayne hadn't returned, then called down. "Your whip?"

"Can you hold it one handed?"

"I'll have to," came the quick answer.

Careful not to endanger her position on the rock wall, Xena loosened the whip, and wrapped strong fingers around the handle. She flicked the end up, cursing softly when Rhiannon missed her grab for it. Xena tried again, letting out a soft sigh of relief when she saw Rhia's fingers wrap around the braided length. The woman quickly wrapped it around her forearm several times before regripping it, arm muscles tense with effort. "Do it," she ordered.

Holding onto the rocks with one hand Xena guided one of Gabrielle's hands to the braided leather, with the other. "Up you go," she commanded quietly.

The girl's expression was frightened as she lifted her chin. Even in the faint light, she could see the glow of her lover's pale eyes. "What about you?"

"I'll be fine," Xena assured her. "Now go."

Her grip steady on the rope, Gabrielle began to slowly climb. In the faint light, she couldn't see Rhiannon's face, but she could hear the rough timbre of her breathing, and each soft grunt as she pulled herself up another few inches. Her hand brushed Rhiannon's tightly braced left forearm, then the curve of her elbow.

"Grab my arm," the woman ordered through clenched teeth.

"But--"

"Do it," the warlord growled.

Gabrielle got a hand around her arm just above the splint, just as she felt Xena's hand brace her backside, from underneath.

"Now!" Rhiannon ground out, and abruptly yanked Gabrielle high, while Xena shoved from underneath.

The next thing the bard knew she was half out, and half in. She scrambled, and quickly made her way free, while Rhiannon swung the handle of the whip back down to Xena. "Your turn," she called down, not managing to cover the pain the effort had already cost her.

"You can't hold my weight," Xena called up.

"Will you just shut up and climb?" Rhiannon growled. She jumped a second later when Gabrielle fell into place next to her, reaching down to add her strength to the warlord's grip on the whip.

"Come on," the bard urged.

Xena caught the handle of the whip, tugging herself upward. She tried to use her other hand on the rocks, but they only crumpled and refused to take her weight, leaving her with no choice but to simply climb the whip. Finally, her hand met Gabrielle's, and she braced her feet against a stable point in the rocks, kicking off with enough momentum to carry her most of the way free of the pit. Gabrielle's hands curved to her armor, helping to haul her friend the last couple of feet.

Rhiannon just rolled to one side, lying sprawled as her breath came in rough pants. She groaned softly as she shook her right hand free of the tightly coiled whip, barely able to move her fingers.

Xena noted the gesture as she rolled into a sitting position. "Did you do any damage?"

"Don't think so..." came the mildly slurred reply.

"Gabrielle, what about..." Xena trailed off as she saw the smeared blood on her the bard's throat. Panic glittering in her eyes, she reached for the injury, wiping away blood mixed with dirt. "How bad is it?"

Gabrielle's hand lifted, covering her lover's. "I-I didn't realize..." she stammered uncertainly and reached up to touch the wound. "It's nothing...He must have done it...when..." she shook her head, struggling to remember.

Xena didn't wait for the explanation of exactly when it had happened, just snapped to her feet. "He's dead," she bit out furiously.

Somehow, Rhiannon bounded to her feet almost as quickly. "No!" she growled. "This is none of your affair, Xena."

Her temper already on edge, the warrior princess lashed out, grabbing Rhiannon's shirtfront in hard hands to drag her forward. "None of my business?" she demanded dangerously.

"That's right," Rhiannon shot back, her own temper frayed to the limit. "You were told not to come down here. This is your own damn fault."

"I wouldn't have had to come down here, if you had dealt with the sick little bastard."

Rhiannon shoved her back...hard. "That sick little bastard...is my brother..." she choked out. "And whatever he has become," she pronounced in measured tones. "You helped create. Now, you take your companion, and Get out of here!"

"Not until I know Gabrielle is safe."

"Stop it," Gabrielle hissed, and stepped between the two, terrified by the edge of violence permeating the air. "Right now, the most important thing is to find Dayne. If you two want to beat the tar out of each other, wait until later."

Blasted out of their growing rage by the bard, both warriors backed off a step.

Rhiannon ran a hand through her hair, brushing it back from her forehead, visibly struggling to calm herself. Finally, she spoke carefully. "Dayne is my family...my problem to deal with. Take your friend and go."

Her temper back under control, Xena simply folded her arms across her chest, and shook her head. "I can't do that. You're in no condition...and even if you were...you can't do it."

"I'll do what has to be done," Rhiannon said bitterly and turned away. She'd taken no more than two steps, when Xena's voice brought her to a halt.

"He's your brother...whatever he's done. Can you honestly say you can put a sword through him, if it comes down to that?"

Rhiannon's shoulders trembled violently, but she didn't turn back around. When she finally spoke, it was with a voice thick with tears. "So...what...I just hand him over to you? Let you carve his heart out?"

"If that's what it takes to stop the killing," Xena responded with brutal honesty.

"Damn you," Rhia exhaled.

"I was damned long ago," Xena allowed. "For what I did to you... your brother...and hundred of others..."

There was a long moment of thick silence, before Xena spoke again.

"Gabrielle, can you find the way we came in again?"

"I think so," the bard murmured after a moment.

"Take Rhiannon and go back. Wait for me." She brushed a gentle hand along her lover's jaw. "I'll come when I can."

Gabrielle's expression fell. "Xena...I..." She swallowed hard, unable to continue.

Xena smiled gently. "I'll be fine."

Rhiannon peered back over her shoulder. "I can't let you do that," she said softly.

"I'm not giving you any choice," Xena said blandly. Before Rhiannon could say anymore, the warrior princess took two long steps forward, and her right hand flashed out. She barely tapped two fingers against, Rhiannon's throat and the warlord toppled straight down. Xena caught her under the armpits, before she hit the floor. "Gabrielle," she called, and nodded the bard over.

"I can't carry her," Gabrielle pointed out.

"You won't have to," Xena denied, pulling Rhiannon back to her feet, and helping to settle her right arm across Gabrielle's shoulders. The bard wrapped her arm around the warlord's waist, supporting her with less effort than expected.

"She's just a little woozy..." Xena explained and caught the warlord's chin in one hand, forcing her head up until their gazes locked. "And suggestible...right, Rhia?"

Her gaze was unfocused, and she tried to twist her chin free, but Xena wouldn't let her.

"You're going to go with Gabrielle," she commanded, her voice hypnotic. "And leave Dayne for me to deal with...trust me...this isn't your responsibility anymore..."

The warlord seemed to struggle against the low spoken commands, but couldn't fight them. Finally, she nodded dumbly, leaning heavily on Gabrielle's support.

Xena caught her under her left arm, her hold supportive. "I'll see you to the rope ladder, then go back," she decided out loud. With Rhiannon nearly useless, she had no intention of allowing Gabrielle to go anywhere in the caverns without an escort.

They moved quickly through the dimly lighted chambers, and Xena noted that the oil was already burning down. She took one of the candles from Gabrielle's bag and lit the wick on one of the last oil lamps, using the faint illumination to lead them into the darkest part of the caverns.

Rhiannon was already starting to come out of the brief stupor, struggling gently as she stumbled along beside Gabrielle. Xena knew from past experience that different people took the suggestions when they were in a dazed state with varying degrees of success. Instinct told her the warlord wasn't likely to be a great candidate. Involved in a dozen different worries, she didn't notice, the faint blood spots that marked the rocks beneath her boots. Several times, they passed offshoot tunnels, and she glanced down them, but didn't spare the time to do much moret.

The warrior princess was just beginning to believe they were going to get out without further incident, when she sniffed the air, startled by a musky smell. She pulled up short, ducking to brush her fingers against the slick rocks beneath her feet. They came away wet with oil, not water.

"Xena...what?" Gabrielle whispered almost inaudibly.

"Lamp oil," the warrior exhaled by way of answer. She heard her companion's soft gasp. Standing in a pool of flammable oil, they were sitting targets.

Xena's chin snapped up, hunting the darkness for any sign of Dayne. Not wanting to risk lighting the fuel running beneath their feet, she snuffed the wick on her candle between thumb and forefinger. "Wakey, wakey, rise and shine," she hissed near Rhiannon's ear as she tapped her neck with two fingers. She was rewarded by a soft groan, and tensing of muscles. "Time to get out of here, and fast." She ordered as she stepped ahead of the other two.

Rhiannon blinked rapidly, throwing off the daze with effort.

She was still leaning against Gabrielle, while Xena was a few steps ahead in the point position. The tunnel curved and widened out only a few yards ahead. Xena could just make out the turned over silhouettes of two oil barrels, undoubtedly used by the peasants to keep the lanterns full. One was about ten yards away, the other, another twenty up the path. Both were still spilling the thick substance onto the floor, while burning candles rested on the curved sides, casting a dull light into the corridor.

Xena reached up and back, drawing her sword in one smooth motion. She couldn't see any sign of Dayne, but there was no doubt in her mind that he was near. "Rhia?" she whispered.

"Yeah," the warlord mumbled as she shrugged free of Gabrielle's support to draw the weapon strapped across her back. They approached the first barrel cautiously, fully expecting to find Dayne hidden somewhere near them.

Nothing.

The warriors readied to move on the next barrel on up the corridor.

"Uh...guys..." Gabrielle's soft voice broke in. "We have company."

Xena and Rhiannon pivoted at the same moment, and froze.

Dayne stood in the corridor, perhaps a dozen yards back, his face oddly illuminated by the dully glowing candle he carried. He had his crossbow in hand, the tip of the loaded bolt wrapped in rags stolen from a dead man's shroud, and dipped in lamp oil. "You think you're the only warriors," he muttered, his eyes unfocused, as though he wasn't entirely there.

Xena eased Gabrielle behind her with the softly spoken order. "Run for the rope ladder."

"But--"

"Go." Xena pushed the girl down the corridor, and was satisfied to hear the soft patter of footsteps moving away.

"Dayne," Rhiannon spoke very softly, her voice low and coaxing. He was standing in the middle of a pool of the flammable oil. Any mistake and they'd all be feeling the flames. "Please don't do this."

His eyes lifted momentarily, but never focused on her. "I have to."

Xena's hand landed on her shoulder. "Get out of here," she hissed.

"You go," the warlord whispered back.

"Blast it--"

"I can't climb with this hand, and your friend can't lift me out... I'll delay him as long as I can. Now go."

Dayne's eyes lifted, momentarily focusing. "No more delays," he whispered and held out the candle in his hand, touching the flame to oil soaked rags.

"Run!" Xena shouted, and twisted, shoving Rhiannon ahead of her as she broke into a run. She heard a rush of air, and was all too aware of the dart of flame that rushed past her head. It arced into the gathering puddle of thick oil at the base of the farthest barrel. Almost instantly, flames spread outward in widening circles, rushing straight toward the two running women.

Xena dug a hand into the back of Rhiannon's shirt. "JUMP!" And leapt, dragging the smaller woman with her as she leapt straight into hell.

Gabrielle heard and saw the burst of flame behind her and spun. "XENA!" She threw her arms up to ward off the sudden influx of heat and light. Her eyes went wide a heartbeat later as her lover burst through the flames, shoving Rhiannon ahead of her. "GABRIELLE, GO!!" she shouted. Above the highest of the barrels, they were clear of the spreading fire, but not the heat and smoke.

Rhiannon abruptly broke away from the warrior princess' hard hold, twisting back toward the rising flames. "DAYNE!" she screamed.

For just a moment, the boy was visible amid the blaze. As the warrior watched helplessly, the flames reached him, spreading up the oil soaked fabric of his clothes. Within moments, he was part of the inferno. His head tipped back and an unearthly howl ripped through the tunnels as he stumbled toward them.

Xena stumbled backward, yanking her chakram free from its place on her belt. She flung the sharp edged weapon and the bright ring of metal skittered off of a dozen heavy stones before whipping around and returning to her hand. At the same instant, Rhiannon hurled her scimitar like a javelin. The curved blade plunged through the screaming boy's chest, driving him to his knees.

Soft rumbles began to vibrate through the rocks.

Rhiannon would have gone to her brother, but Xena caught her, and held her back. "We have to go...now!" she bit out impatiently. She caught the younger woman's chin, forcing her head up until their eyes met. "There's nothing you can do for him...now go!"

Behind them, the ceiling began to shatter into the tunnel.

Rhiannon stumbled into the exit chamber only a few paces ahead of the warrior princess. Gabrielle was already halfway up the ladder. Smoke was beginning to cloud the air, forcing them all to fight for every breath. The warlord fell against the wall gasping, her face streaked with tears. "I can't climb that," she gasped.

"I'll climb and then pull you up. All you have to do is hold on," Xena snapped, and tugged the warlord over to the ladder, waiting until Gabrielle was safely through the hole at the top, before beginning the climb. She moved fast, her movements sure and confident. Below her, Rhiannon managed to struggle up the first few rungs by the time Xena climbed out into the fresh night air.

"I was beginning to wonder about you two," Magda muttered with a faintly disapproving note.

"Later," Xena snapped and reached back, muscles flexing as she hauled the ladder up, rung by rung. "Gabrielle, help me," she called out, as she drew the warlord into reach.

The bard leaned into the open hole, digging a hand into the back of Rhiannon's shirt as she helped haul her up. Still holding the ladder with one hand, Xena grabbed for her arm, and between them they helped pull her free. The woman fell into the small cave, and lay gasping for air.

"What about the boy?" Magda questioned Xena.

"Dead." The warrior answered simply. She twisted, flashing a hard look at the young soldier sent to guard Magda. "Go back to the castle. Warn Purgamon there's a fire under the castle. I don't think it can spread, but he shouldn't let anyone down there. Then tell him where we are."

The young man seemed uncertain, but Rhiannon waved him on.

He took off at a run.

Rhiannon rolled to her knees, and moved to peer back into the cave. Xena curved a hand to her shoulder, tugging her back. "It's over..."

The warlord staggered to her feet, and outside into the night air. She turned back, gaze meeting Xena's when the warrior princess followed her. "It's over..." she husked, her voice thick with smoke and emotion. "I killed him."

Xena was still standing there when Gabrielle followed her out, slipping her arms around her waist to hold her close. Xena leaned her chin against her lover's hair as she responded. "No...you ended his suffering," the bard disagreed. "He couldn't go on like he was."

Rhiannon sank down on a nearby boulder, folding in on herself as pain and exhaustion caught up with a vengeance.

Xena started to speak, only to change her mind.

"Are you all right?" Gabrielle asked gently, and carefully wiped a smudge away from her lover's cheek.

"I'm fine," Xena lied.

Gabrielle didn't bother to confront her about the obvious untruth, just held onto her that much tighter.

Rhiannon rose suddenly, wincing in pain as she moved. Magda moved as if to help her, but she waved the old woman away, turning to stare out at the dark silhouette of the castle she ruled. In the distance, torches could be seen moving on the walls, and she heard the distant shouts of men. "Xena," her voice was soft, almost haunting in its uncertainty.

"What?"

She glanced back, her good eye gleaming in the faint moonlight. "What I said down there...it wasn't true...You didn't create Dayne. He was always...wrong...somehow...even when he was a child he...liked...causing...pain..." She swallowed hard against her rising gorge, sick over the sights and smells of the past few hours. "I just couldn't...face...what he was..."

"That doesn't absolve what I did," Xena sighed.

Rhiannon neither argued, nor agreed, just stood staring into the night. She was still standing like that when Purgamon and a small troop of soldiers arrived. The fire had nearly burnt itself out, and she made no attempt to argue when he took control of the situation.

Magda quickly took charge of the injured woman, ordering a wagon to ferry her back to the castle. Rhiannon started to argue, but was quickly overwhelmed by everyone involved.

Xena watched the cart carry her away with an odd look. Purgamon caught her arm, tugging her back when she would have pulled away.

"Thank you," the captain of the guard said simply.

Xena nodded, but didn't speak.

"You're welcome to stay as long as you like," he offered.

Xena's eyes swept from him, to the disappearing figure of the wagon, then back. "I don't think that would be a good idea," she murmured sadly.

"Maybe not," he admitted.

"We'll leave in the morning...be gone from your valley within a day or two."

"I'll see that you have any provisions you need," he assured her.

Xena nodded, and started back down the hillside. She and Gabrielle had gone no more than a few yards when she turned back. "Purgamon."

He turned to face her, his expression curious.

"Tell Rhia..." Xena hunted for what to say, and finally fell back on the wholly inadequate. "Tell her I'm sorry...I didn't come here to...hurt her...she won't see me again." She started to walk again, but his deep voice brought her back around.

"Xena...good luck...finding whatever...peace you can." His eyes shifted to the slender figure at the warrior's side. "And you, Gabrielle...be careful...make sure the world gets to hear your tales."

A smile flickered across the young woman's mouth. "You be careful too...turning good farmland into good farms is a lot of work."

He smiled and nodded.

EPILOGUE

Two days later, Xena sat staring into a softly crackling fire, while the low forest noises echoed around her. In the valley far below, lights undoubtedly burned on the walls of Ajanus, but she couldn't see them from that distance. Two short days of easy travel, and a night of sleep had erased most of the exhaustion, but her mood remained a combination of depressed and introspective.

Gabrielle curved an arm around Xena's waist, resting her chin on her shoulder. "You want to talk about it?" she questioned. Her lover had barely spoken since they left Ajanus, and she was beginning to worry.

Xena pressed her head against Gabrielle's, eyes flickering down to note the way chestnut and strawberry blond strands of hair blended together on her shoulder. She lifted a hand to brush it over her lover's hair. "Not really," she sighed.

Gabrielle pressed a light kiss against the curve of her shoulder. "Why didn't you at least stay and speak to her?" she questioned.

Xena was silent for a long moment, considering her answer carefully. Finally, she murmured, "It seemed kinder to just leave...I didn't want to be a ...reminder...of everything that's happened."

Gabrielle petted gentle fingers through her lover's thick hair, consciously soothing turbulent emotions. "It wasn't your fault," she insisted.

Xena sighed raggedly. "I just wish...." she trailed off, uncertain how to continue.

"You didn't kill him," Gabrielle reminded her.

Xena didn't speak for a long moment. "Maybe not," she allowed. "But, when he hurt you...I wanted to."

Gabrielle pressed her forehead against a muscular shoulder, taking comfort from the warmth of her skin. There were no easy answers, no simple words that could erase pains, both past and present. Her lover was an enormously complicated woman. "He was a murderer, Xena...taking pleasure from killing."

"And how much of that is because of what I allowed to be done to him?"

"You heard Rhiannon. There was something wrong with him...some part of him that was born twisted."

"I wasn't so much better," the warrior whispered in a self-lacerating voice.

"No," Gabrielle snapped and brought her chin around with the tip of one finger. "Whatever you did, it wasn't like that...slaughtering the weak for your own pleasure..."

"I was on that road," Xena breathed, terror gleaming in cut-crystal eyes.

"But you turned away," Gabrielle whispered intently. "You aren't that woman anymore..."

Xena looked over. "That's too simple...I've changed, but it's always a part of me." She stared down at her twined fingers for a long moment. "Remember when I threw that rock in the water?" she whispered hoarsely. "And watched the ripples..."

Gabrielle nodded silently.

"Sometimes I forget I was the rock for so many others ... how many ripples I sent through the water..."

Gabrielle reached out to brush her fingertips along the underside of her lover's chin, tugging her head around until their eyes met. "Ripples can be for good or ill...they can drown a man, or wash him to shore." She skimmed Xena's bangs back with a comforting hand. "Yes, you've done things that were wrong, but you've also done so much good."

"Have I?" came back the uncertain whisper. "Sometimes, I don't know..."

"If you ever have any doubts," Gabrielle whispered intently. "Just look into my eyes....do you think I could love the woman you were...the way I love you?"

Xena was silent for a long moment, before she finally murmured, "No."

"Do you have any doubts about my love?"

Another soft sigh. "No." She ruffled Gabrielle's hair again, and turned her head to press a kiss to the bard's temple. "I cling to it," she acknowledged huskily. "I don't know what I'd do if I lost it...."

Gabrielle feathered light kisses along her jawline. "You won't," she breathed. "I'll always be with you." Her lips brushed the corner of Xena's mouth. "Always love you..." Xena turned her head into her lover's lips, and they shared a slow kiss. "Always trust you," she whispered against a pair of warm lips. The bard fumbled with the laces that ran up the back of Xena's leathers, freeing them enough to slide her hand inside. Fingers spread over the warm skin of her back, massaging powerful muscles with soothing strokes. After several minutes, she tugged the supple leather free and tossed it aside, hands sliding over smooth skin as she urged her lover onto her back.

"No," she whispered, when Xena started to push up on one elbow. Gabrielle arched over her, pressing her back into the blankets. When Xena lifted her hands to remove Gabrielle's blouse, the bard caught her wrists, angling forward to press them into the blankets. "Not yet," she breathed, kissing her lover very slowly. "Do you trust me?" she questioned when the kiss broke.

Xena blinked in confusion. "You know I do."

Gabrielle lifted her left hand to trail it down Xena's face, exploring the rises and hollows of bone and muscle. "Then let me," she breathed. Her hands and mouth slid over warm flesh, tasting, teasing...hips, breasts, stomach, then up across Xena's chest, and down the outer curve of her arm. She moved on, spreading the tantalizing sensations as she explored every inch of her lover's body without stopping.

Blood drumming in her veins, Xena mindlessly arched to meet the soft brush of pleasure, without knowing where it would touch next. Groaning softly, she reached up, hands gliding over slender shoulders, then under the rough cotton of Gabrielle's blouse. "Please," she begged.

The bard sat back on her heels, movements luxurious as she peeled her clothes off and tossed them aside. She dropped a hand to cup the wet heat at the apex of her lover's thighs, then bent forward again, fingers still tangled with Xena's as she put her weight on her hand. Her mouth found her lover's, kissing her with slow driving hunger, as she thrust with a lazy rhythm that matched the soft flicks of her tongue. She tasted every pleading groan, drank in every throaty moan, Normally, Xena was the more aggressive of the two, but this time, it was Gabrielle who controlled every thrust, and tantalizing slide of flesh on flesh. She could feel Xena getting closer, muscles pulling taut as she climbed higher, nearing the precipice. She abruptly broke her mouth from Xena's, lips dancing near her lover's ear. "Come," she commanded almost inaudibly.

Xena gasped, eyes widening as the softly uttered demand rippled through her. The warrior princess bucked helplessly against her lover's body. Powerless to do anything else, she whimpered softly as pleasure flared through overstimulated nerve endings. The sensations continued for long minutes before finally dying away, leaving the warrior in an exhausted sprawl. She opened her eyes as the bard's trailed up her abdomen, drawing erotic patterns with the sweet moisture, before ducking her head to wash it away from her lover's skin again.

Xena's brows lifted. "Where did you learn all those little tricks?"

Gabrielle looked up from a full breast and grinned. "You."

"Hmmm...that's okay, then..." She lifted a gentle hand to settle it on damp flesh.

The bard gasped, her breath catching. She was already so close to coming that it wouldn't take much to push her over. "Not for long," she groaned, eyes fluttering closed as she thrust her hips against those teasing fingers. Their lips met again, bodies writhing together as the bard made her final ascent.

"Love you," the redhead moaned against the warrior's mouth, fingers digging into muscular shoulders as she reached her pinnacle.

Xena ran kisses down Gabrielle's throat, fluttered a hand over her back and hips, teased the curve of her ribs, then up to mold her warm breasts.

The bard suddenly collapsed against her, her breathing deep and unsteady. Xena pressed a light kiss to the younger woman's temple. "Feeling your oats tonight?" she murmured with a teasing grin.

She shrugged, and nuzzled Xena's throat for a moment, before pushing up on her elbow to stare down into sky blue eyes. "I just wanted you to know how much...I love you...I wouldn't be here if I didn't."

Xena tucked the girl tighter against her body, and couldn't quite conceal the smile that played about her full lips. "Get some sleep," she instructed completely deadpan.

"You know you love me too," Gabrielle teased gently.

"Yeah." Xena tugged a blanket over both of them. She pressed her cheek against the top of Gabrielle's head, enjoying the soft feel of her silky hair. "I do love you...and I owe you so much."

Already sliding into sleep, Gabrielle smiled happily. "I'm I can think of a way for you to pay me back," she mumbled.

"I'll bet you will."

And she did.

THE END

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