'Going To Pieces In Scythia'
By Phineas Redux
Summary:— Xena accompanies Gabrielle, Amazon Queen, on the blonde's expedition to bring justice to a renegade hiding in the warlord haunted wastes of Scythia.
Note:— There is some light swearing in this tale.
Disclaimer:— MCA/Universal/RenPics, or whoever, own all copyrights to everything related to 'Xena: Warrior Princess' and I have no rights to them.
"Are we there yet?"
"Are we there yet?"
"Are we there yet?"
"Are we there yet?"
"Great Athena, Gabs, No, we ain't bloody there yet." Xena, finally losing the will to live and starting to gibber. "All the bloody way through Thrace—'Are we there yet, Are we there yet? Now we're in Dacia—"
"—wrrrph, we still in bloody Dacia?"
"Bleeding Hera." The Princess reined in Argo to twist in her saddle for a better view of her tormenter. "Listen lady, we've been in Dacia fer the last seven days, an' we'll still be in the same bloody country fer at least the next four days. Now, will ya leave off with yer constant whinin', please."
But this, in its turn, was too much for the exasperated and bored Amazon Queen.
"What, d'you think I wan'na be here, in the middle o'bloody nowhere, headin' who knows where—but it won't be civilised, y'can bet y're butt on that, lover." She leaned over and spat on the rough tussocky grass in a very unladylike manner. "I wasn't enamoured o'the mountains of Macedonia, way back, sister. I thought, an' will think fer evermore, the wastes of Thracia have nothing at all t'recommend 'em. And now we're in the Gods'-abandoned reflection of Tartarus callin' itself Dacia my only thought is—Hades—how much awfuller can bloody Scythia actually be than the sh-t-holes we've already been through. Does that answer your question, love of my life?"
It had been a long expedition so far, with a long way still to go, and Xena was beginning to feel the strain; but what was to be done when your probably excessively loved better half had caught a bee in her Phrygian cap and was determined to reach Scythia if it killed her. The Warrior Princess sighed and tried a gentler tack.
"Gabs, are ya still determined on this,—this thing?"
"Dam' straight, darlin'." The Amazon crossed her forearms comfortably on her saddle, twisted her reins in her hands, and gazed off into the distance under frowning brows. "That,—that beast Kalthius and his mob of brigands laid waste to an entire Amazon village, killing warriors and innocent children—"
"—so I'm gon'na find his sorry carcass wherever I have to search, however long it takes, and when I do you can throw all your mealy-mouthed witterings about moral codes, or following Ethical Laws an' suchlike away. What I'm gon'na give Kalthius is straight-up vengeance; hopefully over as extended a period of time as I can manage, OK?"
Xena sighed softly under her breath again, then flicked her reins and led the way on over the seemingly never-ending grassy steppes they had been crossing for the last two days. Gently rolling grassland, some low hills, hardly more than extended mounds, and a wide horizon which never seemed to change. Little rivulets and deeper streams cutting across their route every few hundreds of yards, though Xena had even lost that deep love of fishing which had sustained her over the first few days of the journey. She looking forward now more to the rabbits and deer Gabrielle brought in with her bow and arrows; the Amazon being a fine markswoman in this field, even at long range.
Because of the more northerly aspect of the country they were now traversing the women had made certain changes in their attire. Gabrielle, who normally went about in very scanty attire indeed, had now clothed herself overall in deerskin; a hip-length jerkin and leggings in the Germanic manner, with a loose pale green linen shirt. Over this she wore her old but comfortable long coat of brown leather and white wool made up in vertical lengths. The mighty warrior Princess, on her part, had allowed the cooler weather conditions to affect her insomuch as to wear a long knee-length leather and wool coat in pure black; making her, as Gabrielle swiftly pointed out, look exactly like a ravening Demon from the depths of Tartarus—which was also, as Xena allowed with a shrug, maybe not so bad an image, considering where they were headed and the nature of the journey they were on. Xena's sword and chakram were still on view and readily to hand if and when needed; while Gabrielle's sais still found their natural home on the outer sides of her short red-leather boots. Xena rode Argo, while Gabrielle rode a brown pony a head shorter, whom she had elected to name Flame, much to Xena's amusement.
They had travelled through northern Greece, with a stop-over with the Amazon tribe affected by the Brigand's attentions where they had collected all the information available about the reprobate and his hangers-on. Then they had proceeded across Macedonia, Xena having to put up the whole way with Gabrielle's near fanatical appreciation of Alexander the Great; the blonde one bending the warrior Princess's ear with tales of the Great One's battles and victories beyond comparison, or belief, come to that. Then came Thracia, with its wild open landscape variously dotted over with tussocky hillocks and goats, though very little sign of human habitation; after which they found themselves enduring the ghastly barreness that turned out to be their especial part of Dacia, where-in they were still embroiled. And ahead they had only, to look forward to, the horror which was rumoured to be Scythia. Neither had started out on the expedition in any happy frame of mind; and now Gabrielle had descended to mutterings under her breath most of the time, while Xena was sure she was developing some form of mental collapse which, if not attended to quickly, was going to end in some level of country-wide natural disaster which would be referred to by old wives for centuries to come as they sang songs to their grandchildren of an evening. And then it began to rain.
"Don't even think about askin' me t'do somethin' about it, gal, if ye value yer life." Xena being in no mood by now for light-hearted repartee. "One quibble, just one sarcastic remark, a single complaint on a personal basis, an' I'll—I'll—I'll do somethin' shockin', is all. Be warned, baby."
The wonderful thing about the wild steppes of Dacia is that, in some areas anyway, they were interspersed with deep winding gorges or dales with rocky streams flowing through them; this allowing, naturally, for the presence of rock caves here and there in the walls of the valleys. And, after a miserable rain-soaked day's riding across the knee-high scrub of the open endless grasslands, the despondent women finally came to one of these gently sloping dells. And almost at once, as they descended the slope towards the river, Gabrielle found salvation.
"Look, a cave, over there in that rock wall." The Amazon gave a whoop of joy and turned Flame's head to the gorgeous sight.
A few breaths later the women and their horses found themselves the only inmates of a large lofty deep cave; its narrow entrance holding back the horrible weather outside. As in many such caves there seemed to be a natural source of some kind of phosphorescent luminescence, seeming to come from the very rock itself—so they could see perfectly well, even though now ensconced deep in the cave, with Gabrielle crouching by a pile of dry twigs and small branches collected from the mouth of the cave where there was some light undergrowth; she attempting to show the great warrior just how easily an Amazon could start a small campfire from virtually no material at all. A few scrapes of her flint and steel block, a few sparks landing on her rough tinder made up of the pickings of undergrowth from a bush at the cave entrance, a wisp of smoke she bent low to industriously blow on, and in an instant—fire.
"Pretty good, lady, pretty good."
Half a small clepsydra later they were comfortably ensconced on either side of a fine campfire, Gabrielle frying some pieces of rabbit she had shot earlier in the day; the horses in their corner snuffling happily after their own supper of grain and meal from the available stores the ladies carried with them.
"Be ready in three and a half shakes of a lamb's tail, dearest. Stop salivating so, you're putting me off."
"Gods, ain't I hungry." The warrior Princess crouching with her knees up under her chin and arms wrapped round. "Never thought I'd ever be dry agin."
"So, what's the plan for tomorrow?"
"Same as t'day." Xena shrugged her shoulders. "We ride over endless limitless open steppe, till we're sick of grass in every direction. We stop fer a midday meal somewhere in the grass, then carry on till nightfall, when we makes our camp, in the grass, and hopes it doesn't bloody rain any more. Then, in the morning, we—"
"OK, I get the picture." Gabrielle cutting in ruthlessly, for her own peace of mind. "Look, the rabbit's ready. Here, hand over your plate. How many pieces? Two or three?"
"Four?" spoken with a quivering tone as of a young girl asking for more.
"Three, and make the best of it, lady." Gabrielle, unmoved, placing the remaining three pieces of rabbit on her own plate and reaching for her sai. "Dig in, lover. But just remember, it was rabbit yesterday, it's obviously rabbit t'day, an' dam' me if I'm wrong, it'll be rabbit again tomorrow. Just so's you know beforehand, and don't bend my ear tomorrow with unending complaints."
But Xena was too involved in eating to reply to this cold logic on the part of her very own Amazon.
The day dawned cold, cloudless, relatively dry underfoot, but not as uninhabited as the women had left their surroundings the night before. Having broken camp, put their stores away in saddle-bags, and ridden up out of the river-dell, they stopped to take stock of the rolling grasslands in the light of day—and what they immediately spotted wasn't good. Some five hundred yards to the west smoke from three campfires rose into the sky, and round these were encamped some thirty or so men with their horses. It being obvious at the merest first glance, to experts like Xena and Gabrielle, exactly what kind of neighbours they were now in far too close a proximity to.
"Yep, seems so, lover. Better loosen your sai, it's gon'na be a busy mornin'."
At first glance thirty to two would seem to any long-time gambler pretty good odds; but even the most obvious odds can be deceptive. The men, a rag-taggle crowd at the best, seemingly, took their own time to grab their horses, mount, and head in the women's direction. There were clearly not going to be any preparatory overtones of recognition and polite chit-chat—these robbers had only one single object in mind; well, two really, but first, robbery, then fun.
The first wave, of some seven riders met the two ladies in a wavering line. Xena took the head off the leader with one swipe of her sword; Gabrielle, to her left, stuck a sai in the face of another attacker, hauling it out as she passed by on Flame, the bandit holding what remained of his face and slipping off his horse to disappear in the long grass; by which time Xena had disposed of three more men, in various ways. Gabrielle, seeing two men advancing on her some way apart dug her heels in, raised her arms horizontal on each side, and rode between her attackers, sticking her sai in their chests in passing before they had any chance to defend themselves or take their attack further. Both rolled backwards out of their saddles, as the Amazon warrior rode on.
A second wave of around twenty men now approached in another straggling line of rushing horses. Xena gave a long ululating cry, swept her arm in the air as she flung her chakram skywards, then lashed her sword across the chest of a closing bandit, who had too much bravado and too little sense. A moment later he had too little life. Gabrielle, always athletic, and knowing some dirty tricks learned from her Amazon sisters, grabbed her reins as Flame swept on; then she bent forward in her saddle and, in a long curving swing raised her lower body out to her left, legs close together. Her legs and booted feet, now a major weapon in their own right, made contact with first one then another two riders, knocking them from their steeds like a hurricane taking down trees in its path, before she gracefully regained her saddle. Xena's chakram meanwhile, apparently on a course of its own, sliced first through the air then through the necks of three bandits riding in a line astern, a cloud of pulsing blood turning the air behind its flight-path red. It then took the hand clean off another rider who had been holding his sword high, bounced off the helmet of another, cutting it neatly in half, sliced across the chests of four more unwary attackers, throwing them to the ground like broken puppets, then curved high on its way back to its owner. Three breaths later the whole attack had petered out, the bandits as a whole lying prostrate in the grass, most never to rise again.
"You OK, Gabs?"
"Yeah, fine. Blood all over me, but fine. You?"
"Child's play, doll, child's play. These idiots couldn't attack a bunch of kids an' come off successful. Gods, looks like we claimed 'em all. Good work, Gab."
There were, in fact, four survivors; survivors at least in the sense of not yet being dead, but three were well on their way to the gates of Tartarus already. Only one seemed to have escaped with simply minor wounds, if losing a hand at the wrist could be called minor.
"Three dyin'." Xena waxing wholly utilitarian in the circumstances. "Nuthin' we can do fer 'em, 'cept watch 'em die. This clown, on the other hand—oh, sorry, matey, slip o'the tongue; eew, Gods, bet that hurts. Say, we got a coupl'a questions fer ye; buck up an' stop screamin' fer a while, will ya?"
"Aaargh, ya f-ckin' — —"
"Give it a rest, laddie. Or how're ya on losing the other hand too, only askin'?"
"That's better." Xena stood in the knee-high grass looking down at the sweating man, clutching the end of his arm where his hand used to be. "Better hold hard there, you're likely t'bleed t'death quick, otherwise. So, how far are we from the border with Scythia? Make it snappy, me an' my partner here are on a schedule."
"Five parasangs, dam' yer, nor-west. Here, are ya gon'na help me, I'm bleedin' like a stuck pig, here. I need stitches, or somethin'. Can't ya—"
"What ya need is divine intervention, an' there ain't any o'that available ter-day, ducks." Xena's famous disregard for the fallen on the opposite side coming to the fore. "Gabs, how's things?"
"These three are all dead now, nary a hope fer any o'them. How's that guy doin'?"
"Oh, he's with us yet; but I wouldn't make any bets about this evenin'. Come on, Gabs, we got places t'go, mount up."
"Hey, what about me, I'm wounded, an' dam' close t'dyin'. I needs help. What're ya gon'na do with me?"
"F-ck you, but only in the Sophists' sense, not literally." Xena scowled with a curl of her lip at the man lying in the grass. "Who gives a dam'."
Then she, with Gabrielle at her side, rode off across the rolling grasslands, in a nor-westerly direction.
"We'll soon be out'ta Dacia, lover."
"Yeah," Gabrielle still having a sharp eye for reality, though. "But only t'cross in'ta Scythia; which ain't, I'm reliably informed, anywhere near t'being the Elysian Fields."
"Just can't satisfy some, no matter what." Xena waxing enigmatical, because she could.
As it turned out, Gabrielle was right; Scythia, when they passed the unseen and unmarked border, was simply more of the same. The rolling green steppes, grass in every direction, carried on with no concern about human boundaries. It did, however, soon start to become much more hilly, even small mountainy, than heretofore.
"You are aware, lady, this country spreads itself about quite a bit?" Xena, riding over the tall tussocky grass beside her partner, took up the topic of most interest to both women. "So how d'ya expect t'find this moron, Kalthius?
"We stop an' ask questions, is how." Gabrielle was well up for this pathetic quibble. "We ask at the first village or camp we pass. We ask at the first town—supposing such a thing exists in this worthless barren country. We ask any and all pedlars, vagabonds, travelers, or merchants we come across, is the deal. Finally, we hit paydirt and the rest I leave to your fertile imagination, lover."
"Great Athena." Xena, being the expert judge of character she was, could easily see that what she was in the presence of was a cold determination which had only one object in view—success at all costs. "When ya makes a choice ya really goes fer it, don't ya, lady?"
"Kalthius is dead already, the jerk just don't know it yet, is what, sister."
The town, to use a generally accepted technical term, this being Scythia and all, spread itself across open grassland beneath a small range of foothills of no great height or steepness. A small shallow pebbly river, hardly more than a trickle, ran through it from north to more or less south. There may have been as many as fifty or so buildings, if a multitude of wooden shacks could so be described, and around two hundred inhabitants, mostly poor farmers or trades-people. There didn't seem to be anyone of high standing, or obviously bandit nature which suited the two women just fine. It was, of course, Gabrielle who was first to accost one of the citizens, in her forthright sharp Amazon manner.
"Hey you, yeah you, who the dam' else?" She leaned down from the great height of her saddle to pin the unfortunate man with a green gimlet eye. "Where's Kalthius? Come on, make it snappy, I ain't got all day."
Faced with a puzzle inside an enigma he wasn't prepared for the man fell back on that oft-used back-up, entire unknowing.
"What? Who's he? Never heard o'him. Y'after him fer a reward, or what? Can I get a hand-out, too?"
"You'll get a hand-off, matey." Gabrielle leaning further down from her saddle to snarl in the cit's face, making him turn green and back off hurriedly. "Hey, don't go away, I ain't finished yet. So, Kalthius?"
"Don't know of sich, ma'am." The man hoping flattery and subservience would pull him out of a tight spot. "Think I heard of a bandit o'that moniker, some time since, but he ain't been this way in, oh, years."
Confrontations, of more or less the same ilk, taking place with several other citizens over the next medium clepsydra's worth of Time resulting in the same answer, the women gave up and, finding themselves on the further outskirts of the small community, rode on into the open grassland again.
"If that was any sample of the general nature of Scythia as a whole, I ain't one bit impressed." Gabrielle snarling to herself as their steeds galloped over the wide open steppe, leaving the town far behind.
Xena kept judicial silence, knowing what was good for her.
The next group of native Scythians encountered took place the next morning, in a wide open horizon of grassland no whit different from that they had traveled over for the last fourteen days. It was, in fact a single wooden shack, with a corral to one side and a few horses standing idly about—a way-station.
"Well, at least we can stock up on the needful." Gabrielle in a wholly blue depression. "And get a drink of mead or whatever."
Xena thought it would probably take something a lot stronger than mead, but kept this hypothesis to herself as they dismounted, tied their reins to the horizontal rail outside and walked, heavy-footed in their boots, into the dim interior of the shack.
Like most such trading-posts, horse-changing stations, and drinking-holes of its kind this example held firm to the prototype. A long wooden-floored room, with a waist-high bar along the far left side; another door in the wall at the end of the bar probably leading to private rooms, and the rest of the room filled with round or trestle tables and chairs where some six or seven individuals of broken-down and dirty appearance sat imbibing the drinks of their choice. A sudden interest in the women, as they entered, quickly subsided when it became clear they were armed to the teeth, looked meaner than hill-snakes, and one was an Amazon—you didn't mess with Amazons having been something most Scythians had imbibed with their mother's milk, and rightly so. Xena, Gabrielle close on her right hand, moseyed up to the bar and made her wishes known.
"Wine, wha'ya got, bartender?"
"Red wine, white wine, rose wine, retsina, mead. Wha's yer taste, lady?"
"F-ck retsina," Xena having a clear notion of her preferred choices. "What kind'a reds?"
"Local country red, Dacian red, Scythian red," The man behind the counter going through a well-worn spiel. "We got a amphora o'Lesbos red, but its bin here fer, oh, twenty year unopened. Cost yer, umm, two drachmae a goblet, that will; havin' ter open the dam' thing, an' all."
"Three obols, an' that's my only offer." Gabrielle leaning on the counter gazing at the man with little of the milk of Human kindness in her eye. "Come on, show a leg, man; I'm dry as a Samothrace lizard, here."
Knowing when he was beat the man shrugged and walked off to rescue the said amphora from the dark of ages down in his cellar.
"Looks like we got us a wait on our hands." Xena had meanwhile been recceing the joint, as was her habit. "Customers look like a bunch of dead-beats; come on, over at this table by the wall."
Having placed herself securely in her usual position in such places—which was back firmly against the wall, giving her a clear view of the rest of the room, boots comfortably resting on another chair beside her, and arm loosely lying across the stained table-top, she deigned to relax a trifle.
"Comfy, Gabs? So what's our next step? Don't think we'll get much out'ta this bunch, lookin' at 'em."
"We'll go for the bartender, when he comes back, but not before I've sunk most of the contents of that amphora he talked about." Gabrielle, sharp as a tack, knowing when first things first was the only moral expedient worth taking notice of. "Gods, do so hope it ain't over-aged."
"The dam' wine, o'course; do open your ears, lover." Gabrielle, when thirsty as all get-out never taking prisoners. "Wine, as you very well know, if left to its own devices over the years, just turns to vinegar. And vinegar isn't on my present list of drinks I want t'sample, thank you. Great Athena, what's taking the jerk so long?"
But, as with all those women who merely wait and hope, success finally came to the parched customers. The bartender re-appeared from the subterranean depths of his cellar, somewhere in the dark reaches of the room, holding a tall jug and a couple of pottery kylix drinking cups by their handles. He placed these on the table beside the eager women and hovered the jug over Gabrielle's with a raised eyebrow.
"Fill her up, no skylights, and leave the jug, thanks." The Amazon leaning forward to watch the pouring process like a connoisseur. "I'll probably be wanting a coupl'a refills of that before long."
"A whole jugful, an' two refills?" The bartender looked at once shocked and avaricious. "That'll be—er, that'd be, oh, let's call it ten drachmae."
"Let's call it four, now get lost, I got a lot'ta lost drinking time t'make up, laddie."
Eyeing the seated Amazon the man, like most others with his high level of self-preservation, realised the battle was lost and turned to leave his customers to it, growling quietly under his breath as he went.
Gabrielle took over the hostess duties, pouring the heavy dark red wine from the jug into the wide-basined kylix' before Xena with a steady hand. Then she took the two upturned handles of her own kylix in her strong grip, looking over the wide wine-filled utensil at her lover.
"Right, Warrior Princess, here's to Love, Success, Bloody Revenge, and Happy Consequences, not necessarily in that order." She tipped the edge of the kylix to her lips, taking a mighty swig of its contents, before replacing the bowl tenderly on the table. "Mmm, that's the thing, that's the nectar of the Gods, and no mistake. Gods, I needed that. Come on, lover, drink up; I'm gon'na finish the rest of this jug in two shakes of a lamb's tail—and then for the follow-up jugs. Bet'cha anything I'll empty that amphora in the cellar, before mine Host realises what's happened to his precious old wine. Yymm, mind you, darling, it is good—oh yes."
Xena silently held her own kylix to her lips, if only to hide her rolling eyes—she knowing full-well how this situation was probably going to eventually end, if her heartmate's intended drinking took its usual course.
The thirsty Amazon's wish, a valiant determination to drink the bartender out of house and home in one extended booze-fueled binge, came to half fruition at least. Insomuch as she was halfway through the second jug of Lesbos wine, Xena keeping a close but wary second in line, when life took an unexpectedly positive turn for the preoccupied Amazon.
This being Scythia, and the weather being all one could reasonably hope for in such circumstances, cold and chilly, Gabrielle was presently enveloped in her long deerskin and wool coat; the one with the vertical strips of alternating material, white wool and light brown deerskin. So her general physique was more or less hidden from the view of the casual spectator, who only saw a young personable woman, if they didn't at first catch her eye. The door of the station opened again to reveal two more customers who made their main need clear by heading for the bar at a rate of knots.
One, the leader, was tall, around a few fingers-width shorter than Xena; his companion, older and heavier, stood a hands-breadth taller than Gabrielle, but moved with a stolidity based on his great weight. They both looked less than civilised, and no-one needed to be anything of an expert in character reading to place theirs' pretty well—bandits to the core, and of long duration.
They standing by the bar at the other end of the room Xena couldn't hear what they said to each other; but at first the silent conversation seemed to be taking a pretty well obvious course. The older heavier man nudged his partner in the ribs, leaning over to mutter something with a grin, his attention all this while on the seated Gabrielle. Xena could read the thoughts running through his head as if he were standing by her side talking plainly—and she didn't like them any one way. His younger companion, clearly well used to the suggestive even sensual nature of his mate, turned casually to glance at the source of the heavier man's desires. Having pinpointed Gabrielle in the dim light he suddenly turned to face away from the seated women in the opposite corner of the saloon, putting a hand on his companion's shoulder to make him face away also. Then they huddled low over the bar-top, backs to the women, ostentatiously taking more interest in their beakers of ale than the drink warranted. Xena mused on the subject for three short breaths.
"Don't trouble yourself, darling." Gabrielle, keeping her own gaze on her kylix, spoke softly but with a hard cold intonation Xena knew well. "Spotted them the moment they walked through the door. The heavy one's just an ape; but the other, he's one of Kalthius' lieutenants. I recognise him from the various descriptions of the leading lights of his mob we got before starting out on this expedition."
"Ya sure, lover?"
"Yep, certain." When the Amazon was sure she was always certain sure. "Name's Agrasius, a murdering sadistic swine. I'm very much afraid he's going to have to take a swift unexpected journey to the nearest portal to Tartarus for his sins. Oh yes, indeed."
Xena flickered her eyes over her own kylix to take a swift peek at her drinking-mate.
"What? Here? Now? Oh, well."
"Nah," Gabrielle reached over to grasp Xena's wrist as she began to stand up. "not here. What we're gon'na do is siddle out all peaceable like, as if they meant nothing to us. Then we wait in the hills to follow them on their way. With any luck at all they'll head straight for Kalthius' camp—and the rest, well, do I have to sketch it out, lover?"
Xena sat back down with a low sigh, it clearly heading towards being one of those kind of days.
"Well, things are looking up, and no mistake." Gabrielle took another deep swallow of her Lesbos wine. "Going to be easier than I thought. It's a dam' pity to leave the rest of this delicious wine, though; I was looking forward to soaking up the lot, but pleasure before sport, I suppose. Come on, lets get out'ta here; and, for Athena's sake, don't let them see we're interested in the mugs. Soft and easy, darling, soft and easy."
The surrounding countryside seemed perfectly adjusted to meet the needs of rampaging outlaws and bandits, being lightly scattered over with bushes and thickets of heavy undergrowth behind which the aspiring thief could comfortably watch their unsuspecting prey approach. Such was the condition Xena now found herself in two large clepsydras later as early evening duly met its contractual responsibilities in the region. Gabrielle crouched beside her, behind a thick bush, apparently quite at ease; which was more than the Warrior Princess felt, three whole hours after arriving at this place.
"Athena's Robes, how much bloody longer?"
"Take it easy, lover." The Amazon Queen wholly comfortable in this environment. "Just like being back amongst my Amazon sisters in Chalcidice, nuthin' to it. You got'ta have patience, you know; that's what it's all about."
But Xena's insidious cramp in her left leg was suddenly forgotten as, some distance off, two horse-riders could be seen taking the north-west trail away from the nearby way-station.
"Ah, there they go." Gabrielle rose to a low crouch, keeping a steady eye on her prey. "That's it, boys; off you go, straight to dear old Kalthius. My, won't he be surprised when we show up, eh, lady."
"I'm sure." Xena sounding less than enthused, even to her own ear.
"Well, you could show more willing than that, lover. Come on, lets get in the saddle, an' get after the bozos." Gabrielle rising to her full, er, height, brushing twigs from her long coat. "Come on, time's a'wasting."
The evening had turned, as was only to be expected, to dark night; both groups, hunters and prey, had made camp, though in different manners. The two bum—er, deadbea—umm, persons of low moral character, had made up a large campfire which bode well to light the surrounding area for half a stadia all round them. Xena and Gabrielle, on the other hand, had no choice but to skulk some three stadia off over a small rise behind a clump of bushy young trees well out of sight, and without the comfort of a fire themselves.
"Great Athena's Whatnots, it's bloody cold." The Princess crouching low and wrapping her arms around her chest in a foredoomed attempt to keep warm. "Can't we even have jest a titchy little fire, dear? I'm freezing my,—I'm dam' cold."
"And let 'em know we're here? Are you out'ta your mind?" Gabrielle was having no mutinying in the ranks. "Nah, we stick here all night, lover. Keep a low profile, never letting the bums know they've been spotted. Then, tomorrow, we let 'em take us straight to the centre of the known universe—Kalthius' hideout. Simple."
"Glad ya think so." Xena unwilling to be comforted. "Come over here, beside me. This blanket'll cover us both, an' keep us warm, I hope. There, that's a little better. Don't want our only Amazon freezin' t'death in the night, do we?"
"Do we?" Gabrielle being naughty, as was her nature.
"No, we don't." The Princess setting out the rules of the game imperiously. "So, ya still determined to wreak justice an' havoc on this moron, then?"
"He left a lot of agony and tragedy behind him, when he laid waste to that village." Gabrielle hunkered closer to the side of the woman she loved without restraint or borders. "So I'm making it my life's work to repay him in kind, is all."
Xena mused on this for a few seconds, shaking her head quietly.
"Lean in a little closer, lover; try'n get some sleep. I'll warn ya soon enough, if those clowns show any sign o'movin' on."
"Thanks, think I will, it's been a long day." Gabrielle's voice sounding sleepier by the moment. "That was nice wine, mind you, very nice."
"Yeah, yeah, go to sleep, darlin'."
The morning dawned early, but not so much so that the women saw their dual prey make off into the wild blue yonder. To be concise, when Xena opened her eyes after a short strategic nap, she instantly found the outlaws gone.
"Gabs, Gabs, get up, they've f-cked off, dam'mit."
"Wha'? Wha'? Wha' bloody time's it? Middle o'the bloody night, still. Gods, I'm tired."
"Wake up. Those brigands have broken camp an' f-cked off over the horizon."
Gabrielle, this news finally percolating her dulled thoughts, struggled out of the warm folds of the blanket to stand by Xena's side, taking great deep breaths to bring some clarity to her thoughts.
"They've gone? Why in Tartarus did you let that happen, gal?"
"Athena." Xena growled low in her chest with some feeling as she strode across to rescue her sword from the grass where she had left it the night before. "It ain't my fault, they jest quietly up-camped an' b-gg-red off, is the way it is. We can still follow 'em. Can't be more than a couple of clepsydras or so behind 'em."
"Oh, yeah? Glad you think so," Gabrielle herself was now busy scraping around trying to find odds and ends and generally make a start striking camp. "Well, lend a dam' hand, will you? They'll be over the border with—what's north of Scythia?—oh, yeah, the Badlands and the Northern Steppes. They'll be across there by the time we catch up with them, if you don't hurry up and help a gal break camp. Only sayin'."
"What was that, didn't catch it, lover?"
"Jest as well;—er, I said, right with ya, baby."
It only took them to noon to come up with the elusive bandits; mainly because of Gabrielle's excellent tracking skills. On reaching the abandoned camp Xena had, more from a sense of gentle understanding than any hope of ultimate success, allowed Gabrielle to take command of the task of tracking the two horses' trails across the grasslands, in amongst the numerous copses and rolling hills. As the morning went on the Princess suddenly realised that the diminutive Amazon was actually doing a good job. It was never easy to track horses over grass; the thick stubbly tussocks being strong enough to bounce back from their hooves to show little sign of the animals passing even a mere hour or so afterwards. The ground itself, being covered in a shorter but still thickly laced grass again left little sign. As they progressed, Xena keeping an eye out to make sure they were actually following the right trail though not saying anything, Gabrielle leaned over her mount's flank to gaze at the ground with sharp green eyes. Hardly the slightest nuance of the passing horses, so long before them, escaped her glance; she keeping to the trail straight and true as if born to the nature of tracking. And finally, just before noon, she reined in to put out a cautious hand to hold Xena back alongside her.
"See, climbing the low side of that rising ridge quarter of a parasang to the north? It's them."
Xena halted Argo, leaned forward in her saddle, raised her hand to shade her eyes, and whistled gently between her teeth.
"Dam' me, you're right. It is them. Well, I'll be dam'med."
"Why, lover? We've found them, is all."
"You found 'em, lady, you found 'em. Great work. Pretty nearly as good as me, in fact."
"Ha-ha. Come on, but stay vigilant, we don't want them to realise they're being followed, even at this distance."
The afternoon was again wearing on, and the women had covered some five or six full parasangs across the rolling now thickly wooded terrain, when the distant, still unknowing, brigands came to their desired destination. Under the lea of a high grass-covered ridge mostly wrapped in spreading bands of thick trees, lay an old two-storied farmhouse. It had obviously been originally built on the Roman model, of pale red bricks with a red tiled roof; though the tiles were now overgrown with green weed and covered in the grey dirt of what might well be centuries. It, in fact, seeming to blend in with its surroundings as if deliberately camouflaged so.
"Kalthius? D'ya think?"
The women sat their steeds under the protection of a spreading spinney, still some half a parasang distant from the building.
"I'd say yeah." Gabrielle had been closely examining the set-up, hand over brow for shade. "Firstly, from the amount of tents spread across the ground all round the farm; second, because you can see, at least I hope your eyes are up to it, lover, that all those characters wandering about all over the immediate terrain near the house are bandits; and thirdly, because—do you see that tall man just by the house's main entrance?"
"That's the big K himself, take my word for it." Gabrielle's voice now echoed the tone of the Fates making a decision on a particularly deserving subject. "His description, my Amazons gave me, fits exactly. That's him. So—"
"So, what?, darlin'?"
"So, what's gon'na be the best, easiest, most certain, yet also most pleasurable method of sendin' the moron to Tartarus in a wheelbarrow? Decisions, decisions."
Lowering her hand from her own brow Xena turned to look at the woman by her side, and quickly realised that this was no longer her lover, the young woman she loved above and beyond everything, anymore, but a skilled expert coldly determined Amazon warrior on a mission of revenge that would not be stopped by any barrier or defence. Gabrielle, it was quite apparent, was as angry as Tartarus and wasn't going to take it anymore.
"So, got a plan?"
"Yeah, I got a plan." Gabrielle looked at her lover, scintillating jade sparks flashing in her eyes. "Been honing it over the last month and more. Wan'na hear it?"
"Dam' straight I wan'na hear it. Let it rip, lady."
"OK, listen up, it's like this—"
So it was that Nemesis came, as she must eventually to us all, to Kalthius that same evening. Little did he know he was in the course of enjoying his very last hours of life amongst his myrmidons. He had been making plans all day with his lieutenants, a rampaging bandit's work being never done. He had also made plans for a delightful evening symposium exactly like those enjoyed by the best society in Athens; his inclining, unhappily, rather more to the drinking part than the intellectual talk, sad to say. Anyway, he was a more or less happy member of his repulsive species when dark night deigned to cover his headquarters in shadow and stygian gloom—which suited Gabrielle, and her sidekick Xena, mightily.
The great thing about being an Amazon warrior was the extensive, detailed, and professional nature of the training involved. Gabrielle, over the course of a couple of years, had been put through a stringent series of courses, lectures, and route marches designed to make of her as good an Amazon as was absolutely possible—and this training had succeeded beyond everyone's expectations. Gabrielle, finally, had shown herself to be as professional, as expert, as competent and confident an Amazon warrior as if she had been born to it. Now, as the night grew ever darker and the carousing became ever louder from the houses' interior, she showed the full level of her knowledge and capability.
To infiltrate an enemy camp, composed of innumerable tents of all sizes scattered slipshod over a wide area with their inmates wandering around amongst them, would never be considered an easy task; but to an Amazon, with the right training, such a task could turn out to be mere child's play. So it was with Gabrielle, an astonished Xena keeping close at her heels. To infiltrate past the outlying guards, placed every thirty yards or so, but not taking any real military concern in their duties, was easy as pie. Inside this security line the camp of tents spread itself higgledy-piggledy in all directions, which suited the women as the meandering alleys between the tents were all short, offering great cover as they penetrated further through the camp.
Before Xena hardly realised the fact Gabrielle put a hand on her shoulder to stop her, indicating the wall of the main building now right beside them, towering over their heads like a vertical cliff-face. Using sign language Gabrielle pointed to their left, where Xena saw an open but unguarded door which obviously led to the kitchen quarters. Keeping a close watch all round it was only a matter of a further three breaths and the women had slipped inside, into a short unoccupied corridor—the sound of the brigand's guests making hay by candlelight in some distant main room easily heard as a rising ululation, as of demons in Tartarus holding an orgy—which wasn't far from the reality.
Another few breaths, the women crouching low and moving like ghosts, saw them slip through an archway to one side of the corridor and inside what appeared to be a storage area; barrels, sacks of produce, and a few racks of bread taking up most of the space—a very nice hiding-place.
"Shh, keep it quiet, lady." Gabrielle crouching by her lover's side, behind a screen of barrels. "We're here, now we got'ta get Kalthius to come out'ta that big room, where all the jollity's going on. You understand what we're going to do, now?"
"Too true. But, all the same, is it really necessary, though?"
Gabrielle turned her head to look into the eyes of her paramour, a cold aura emanating from her whole body.
"I came this far to avenge my sisters, I ain't gon'na turn and run now." The blonde woman shook her head decisively. "Right, you take three of these; I'll take the other three. Remember, if the banqueting-room's built to the usual prototype throw at least one across the room, but let the bandits get a clear run to the door that should be at the far end of the room. They'll be too busy trying to escape to take much notice of Kalthius."
"But,—Greek Fire, Gabs?"
Xena, though acquainted with her partner's plan from the outset, had never been happy transporting several pottery flasks filled with the dangerous substance along with them over the course of their long expedition, but Gabrielle had been adamant. Greek Fire had been posited as a possible help; Greek Fire had been available, so Greek Fire was what Gabrielle had insisted on bringing with them. As they spoke she felt in the capacious canvas pouch slung over her shoulder, carefully pulling out the several flasks wrapped in thick cloths for safety.
"Too late now, lover,—cometh the moment, cometh the woman. And this is it, believe me." Gabrielle, lips tight, held the dangerous objects out to her partner. "Here, these are yours, take them; these are the fuses, already in place in the flask necks, use the steel and tinder to light them just before we go in the room—got it? Right, you first."
The be-all and end-all of a well conducted symposium, generally speaking, was enjoyment; to drink responsibly, to talk intellectually, to conduct oneself in an orderly and civilised manner before one's acquaintances and superiors; to find refreshment in good wine, good talk, and good entertainment. You, gentle reader, can imagine how many of these traits were followed by the hall full of inebriated bandits—none, in fact. What was going forward as Xena and Gabrielle made their unobtrusive, indeed un-noticed, entrance by a side-door into the hall, was a valiant attempt by those present to lower the record for unrestricted disgusting behavior to an as yet hardly conceived level—and a great job they were all doing, too.
Kalthius, being an old hand in such spectacles, had also supplied from unknown sources a horde of hetaerae; the Heavens knew from where, but there the twenty or so ladies of the night were—doing what they were renowned for; naughty things, wholly regardless of conventional morals or the fact there were several score bandits looking-on. Nobody noticed the two warrior women enter to one side of the hall—but they all noticed, a single breath later, when a burst of liquid fire, bright orange and billowing into a roaring mass of flame, erupted half-way down the hall.
As the fire rose into the air in a dense solid mass it could be seen that several of the unwitting guests had been splashed with the burning liquid. In an instant jollity, song, and the noise of a crowd enjoying themselves turned to screams and cries as the audience as a whole rose from their couches and fled for the nearby door to freedom.
Gabrielle, following her partner's action, threw one of her own flasks to the other end of the hall, frowning darkly as it too burst in fragments, releasing a further ball of intense fire into the room, exacerbating the already massive terror of the inmates to greater levels still. As the room became filled with revelers rushing in any direction to escape the roaring flames, Gabrielle and Xena kept their cool, heading for the centre of their one desire like moths to a flame, but in exactly the opposite manner.
Kalthius, shocked and unable to realise just what was happening, had risen to his feet but was doing nothing more to take command or issue orders. So it was Gabrielle grabbed his arm in a tight grip, pulling him to the side of the room where their exit lay. As he began to understand that something awful was in course of execution Xena put a strong arm round his face, her palm over his mouth to stop his cries for help. A few moments later they had stumbled down the corridor back to the rear door and made it outside again.
By this time those outside, in the encampment, had realised something mind-boggling was happening inside the house. The result being that most of those bandits still milling about amongst the tents had made their way to the front door of the building and were now helping the survivors running out, variously injured to one extent or another—mostly, of course, by the horrifying Greek Fire. In this melee it was simplicity itself for the two women to hurry their captured prisoner through the tents and out to the trees beyond. Gabrielle here made her prisoner quiet by the simple expedient of hitting him over the head with the haft of one of her sais, then bundling the inert body over her mount's back, behind her saddle. Then, Xena riding by her side, Gabrielle turned her horse's head north and rode on into the dark encroaching night. Behind them the old house was now well alight, part of the roof already going up in sheets of flame; it being obvious that by the time morning came, the building would be nothing more than a smoldering ruin. And still none of the bandits had realised their leader was no longer amongst them.
"Ya OK, baby?"
"Yeah, fine, Xena." Gabrielle's tone was now filled with a joyous delight. "We got the b-st-rd; now to take him back to the Amazons to stand trial. Worked out better than I imagined. You OK?"
"No problems, lover, no problems. Come on, if we keep riding for another three hours or so those inebriated swine'll never be able t'follow us."
Three days later, back again in the wilderness which was northern Dacia, Gabrielle was just finding out that transporting an evil morally corrupt bandit of set ways was anything but a dawdle. Kalthius, it turning out, being as miserable a specimen of humanity as could be imagined. Remorse and repentance being concepts unknown to his constitution, as the Amazon had swiftly found on trying to instill some idea of the results of his criminal actions into his head.
"Who cares a f-ck about all those Amazons? Not me." Kalthius, hands tied behind his back and sitting on a fallen tree in their latest camp, was less than contrite about his whole chosen lifestyle. "So, they tried to defend themselves against my men, so they got what they deserved. Listen, b-tch, ya better release me right now, if ya have any sense. Or else, when my men find us, they're gon'na have a spree, is all; all two hundred of 'em, ha-ha."
"Shall I wring his neck, baby, like a chicken?" Xena was in a giving mood this morning. "Solve the whole problem, an' I'm beginnin' t'get bored with his whinin', anyway."
"Nice of you to suggest it, lover, thanks. But, on hindsight, I'd still rather bring him back to face my Amazons." Gabrielle, somewhat white of face, regarded her prisoner with no gentle expression. "Not but it's still a great idea, you never know."
"Kalthius, this isn't the way to make friends nor influence people, you know." When Gabrielle started to speak in this formal manner Xena, at least, knew the fires inside were being stoked; a dangerous situation for some. "Perhaps you ought to start thinking of excuses, defences, justifications? You might be surprised; they may influence your Amazon accusers; if you're lucky."
"Why don't ya go an—"
Having crudely finished his request he only had himself to blame for its outcome. In one single heartbeat Xena strode across from the other side of the campfire, dragged the reprobate to his feet, spat in his face, then used a back-handed blow to send him flying his full length across the grass to land in a shambling heap.
"Aargh—Ares' B-lls—ya b-tch, ya broke my ribs."
"Oh, is that all? I am sorry." The Warrior Princess, a vicious expression on her cold features, making a move to approach the downed man again. "Here, let me come over, an' bloody well break something else."
"Hey, Hey, lover, easy does it." Gabrielle reaching out to grasp her protector's wrist. "Here, come over to the other side of the camp a moment; I got something to ask you. Never mind him, he'll do nicely as he is."
This morning Gabrielle had changed out of her long coat into a deerskin outfit. Tasseled jacket, long Germanic trousers with short tassels running down the leg seams, and a loose shirt, in the Germanic manner again. The pale brown clothes matched her blonde short hair and made Xena gasp every time she saw her paramour wearing the outfit. Also associated with this style of clothing was Gabrielle's longbow, an instrument she had become extremely proficient with after much practice.
"I was thinking that, after we cross the border back into Macedonia, we might engage some helpers to transport the moron." Gabrielle stood casually at ease, a gentle smile on her lips and one hand grasping Xena's. "Help us a lot, maybe; sort'a take the strain off. What do you think?"
"It's a thought." Xena rubbed her chin with one finger as she considered the question. "There ain't much agin' it, I agree. I'm gettin', as ya can fairly see, t'my limit with the clown as it is. Jest a little more an', I kid ya not, Gabrielle, I'll get up one night an' strangle the b-st-rd."
"The very reason I think my idea may well answer our difficulties." Gabrielle nodded in agreement as they stood under the trees by the edge of the camp. Then she turned to glance back at their prisoner. "I suppose he—Great Athena, he's gone."
But it was all too true; where he had been lying in the grass, after Xena's assault, only the broken grass remained to show he had ever been there; of his present position there was no clue.
"Athena, I knew it was a mistake, camping amongst this thick wood; an' all these high rolling hills all round, too." Xena ran back to the fire to glance about her. "Think he went this way, into the thickest of the trees; you take your bow an' cover the open ground over to the left, there. Give a yell if ya see the swine."
Where they had set up camp was, actually, on the edge of an outlying spinney connected to a more wide-spreading wood; high hills, with gentle grass-covered slopes, rising to the west and north a few hundred yards away. Xena spent some time beating through the spinney, thick with undergrowth, before she emerged on its far side, just in time to hear a cry from Gabrielle, in the distance.
Five breaths later she stood once more in sight of her loved Amazon; picking up her stride she soon reached Gabrielle who, seeing her coming, raised an arm to point out towards the slope of the nearby ridge.
"See him, Xena? Over there, going up the side of the hill."
"Yeah, I got him." Xena gasping for breath as she stood by her partner; only then did she fully understand what the blond woman was preparing to do. "Gabrielle, are ya—are ya—?"
Gabrielle had been crouching to fit an arrow into the notch of her longbow, an instrument tip to tip taller than herself. Now she stood again, bringing the weapon into firing position; right hand at shoulder height next to her right cheek, frowning deeply in concentration as she regarded her distant target.
"He ain't going to get away." Her tone was icy cold, as she made mental calculations of the distance between her and her prey. "He killed all those Amazons; I ain't going to let him disappear into the undergrowth, just to re-appear somewhere else and continue to murder innocent people. Generally I wouldn't think of this; but he's had his chance, and he ain't gon'na escape justice for the want of an arrow. Stand back, Xena, give me room—he's well within this bow's range; I can still get him."
Xena took a couple of paces to the side, giving her partner air to aim; as she did so she thought about all the reasons why she ought to intervene, and stop Gabrielle from carrying out this action. Then, quite suddenly, she realised she couldn't do so; this wasn't her very own innocent Gabrielle of long ago, but a mature Amazon warrior who had the respect and love of her sister warriors at heart. With a sigh Xena relaxed her hands, looking at the preparations Gabrielle was making for the long shot. This was something the Amazon simply had to do, for all sorts of reasons.
Unaware of Xena's deeply-felt worries, Gabrielle had sighted her bow, watching the moving form of her target in the distance over on the side of the hill-slope so far away. Taking a last deep breath, she half-closed her right eye, calculated the force of the wind and the length of the shot, along with the necessary high curvature in the air needed then, very gently, she released the bowstring.
Xena heard the peculiar whine of the departing arrow as it sliced through the air; for an instant of time she thought she could follow its course through the air, then it disappeared from sight. All this time Gabrielle remained standing rock-solid like a statue, herself watching the flight of her arrow; then she gave a short cry and jumped in the air, throwing her bow to the ground.
"Got the b-st-rd. Got him, he's down. Great Athena."
The dark of evening had spread over the landscape, finally turning to black night over and all round the womens' latest campfire. They had spent some time digging a long deep narrow hole and rolling all that remained of Kalthius into it, before covering him over again. Now they sat in peaceable silence beside their fire, the remains of roasted rabbit in their platters by their feet. Xena was first to speak, quietly and gently.
"How do ya feel, Gabrielle?"
There was silence for a few breaths, then the Amazon warrior replied.
"I feel fine; I had to do it, for my sisters; and I ain't the least bit sorry." Gabrielle looked up at Xena, forcing a small smile. "Don't worry about me; There's two of me, you know."
"Oh, how so?" Xena regarding her lover with interest.
"There's one woman who's the one you've always known." Gabrielle put out a hand to hold Xena's right wrist tightly. "You know, that gal who's always making a mess of everything and doing all those things that embarrass you so."
"Then there's the Amazon—the Amazon Queen." Gabrielle's tone fell to a low contralto. "There are two—things—subjects, I love in this world, Xena. One, the most important, is you—always and forever. The second is my Amazon nation—for which I would gladly give my life—I know you already know that."
"Yeah, I do."
"But I strive to keep them both separate—or, at least, as much so as I can." Gabrielle turned fully to her partner, putting both hands on Xena's leather-clad side. "Today, for the last month, I suppose, you've had to suffer the Amazon warrior without respite. And a hero you've been about it, too."
"Oh, come on, baby."
"No, respect where it's due." Gabrielle smiled more easily now, running an exploratory hand over the higher curves of her lover's clothing. "But now, tonight at last, your dear darling Gabrielle is back, in all her glory. Wan'na do something about it, lover gal,—only askin'?"
"Do ya know, I very well might."
"Well, don't hang about, thinking about it." Gabrielle grinned widely now, leaning into the warmth of her lover. "It's getting chilly, and I need my comfort, you know—you gon'na comfort me, lover?"
So Xena, nothing loth, did her best.
"Uurgh, oh yes."
The next story in 'Xena's Adventures' will arrive shortly.