When The Bough Breaks
By Pink Rabbit Productions
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
That comment managed to do the unusual, and catch the warrior
princess by surprise. Both brows lifted, and a faint frown line creased
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
He caught her arm supportively. "You can't seriously be
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"That's right," Rhiannon said grimly, hard gaze locked with
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,
"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
"Where?" she clipped.
"It's in the hills, just south of here. Not far away."
"All right," Xena murmured. "I'll need spare
"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
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
"You won't go at all," she disagreed without looking up.
"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
"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.
"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.
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
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
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
"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.
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
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
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
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
"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
Gabrielle shrugged. "You didn't start killing anything. I took a
gamble." She tried her question again. "So, why are all the
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
"This is getting very creepy," Gabrielle whispered
"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
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
Three more corridors branched away no more than ten yards up the
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
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
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
"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
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
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
Rhiannon fought for balance, swinging her sword to back him off.
"Dammit, Gabrielle, climb," Xena's voice floated up from
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
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.
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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.
The warriors readied to move on the next barrel on up the corridor.
"Uh...guys..." Gabrielle's soft voice broke in. "We
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."
"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
His eyes lifted momentarily, but never focused on her. "I have
Xena's hand landed on her shoulder. "Get out of here," she
"You go," the warlord whispered back.
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
A smile flickered across the young woman's mouth. "You be
careful too...turning good farmland into good farms is a lot of
He smiled and nodded.
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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,
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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