The moon lay low and heavy in the sky like a ship full of wares. It cast ghostly pale light over the town. The stone walls seemed to glow with it. Dew glistened on the ground. A horse and cart broke the silence. The horse's hooves were bound with heavy cloth. The air was soft and fragrant from the night herbs. Gabrielle stepped away from the window and returned to the bunk. Xena sat quietly, eyes closed as they waited. Gabrielle touched her arm and found her hand caught in a grip of iron. It hurt and she hissed in pain. Instantly, the grip loosened. Confused blue eyes fluttered open. They paused on the red mark for a long second before lifting slowly to Gabrielle's face.
"Gab..." Xena sounded exhausted. "Did I hurt you?" Her eyes were dark with some unknown emotion. She searched Gabrielle's face as she waited for an answer.
"No. I'm fine." Gabrielle smiled. "We're leaving. The cart just arrived."
"Thank the gods for that!" Xe glanced around the cell in disgust. "I can't wait to be out of here."
"Won't be much longer, Xe." Gabrielle gave her friend a pat on the arm, then moved to gather their saddlebags. Aeson had offered to ride Argo and Xena had reluctantly accepted. Nothing on earth would make her leave the mare behind.
Xena tugged the soft wool tunic tighter around her shoulders. She felt chilled, despite the warm wool. Her body ached like she'd taken a beating. Only the thought of a private campsite, a hot fire and a cup of mint tea had persuaded her to move from the nest of warm blankets. Gabrielle had left her boots by the bunk, and she cursed silently as she bent to put them on.
That was a very bad idea, she berated herself a moment later as pain tore through her. Silver stars danced at the edge of her sight. She closed her eyes and willed them away. A warm hand on her shoulder made her blink.
"Want me to do that?" Gabrielle offered. Her green eyes were soft with compassion.
Xena gave her a wan smile. "Think you might have to, Gab."
She got a gentle pat on the knee in return as Gabrielle knelt and eased the boots onto her feet. The cool leather warmed quickly.
"We got everything?" Xena looked around the cell. All of their belongings had been gathered into the saddlebags.
"I think so." Gabrielle chewed her lip. "I don't care. I just want to get out of here."
"Then let's go." It was an easy decision to make. Xena slid off the bunk. The world span around her for a moment. Her ears buzzed. The sound of approaching footsteps snapped her eyes open. Her balance came back as adrenaline flooded her body. Her pain vanished as her body responded to the threat.
"What's wrong?" Gabrielle looked pale as she watched Xena's reaction.
"Where is my sword?" Xena forced herself to relax. Her hands shook and she clenched them into fists.
"Why?" Gabrielle watched the door carefully. "Is someone coming?"
Xena studied her. "Gaius," she used his name like an insult. "I've had about enough of him."
"Xe, what are you going to do?" Gabrielle sounded worried. She searched Xena's face for an answer. "You can't kill him."
"Why not?" Xena snarled. Her eyes were wild with anger and something akin to fear. "He's a waste of air." Her eyes had turned the colour of the sea just before a storm. "Damn place would smell better without him."
"Xena, please." Gabrielle dropped the saddlebags and went to stand by her friend. Her hands itched for her quarterstaff.
The door swung open. Gaius, dressed in scarlet robes, strode in. "What do we have here?"
"We're leaving." Xena took a step towards him. A coldly satisfied smile crept onto her face as he flinched. "Now get out of the way or I'll get you out of the way."
Gaius laughed. "I beg you to try."
Xena altered her posture ever so slightly. "Are you that stupid?" she snapped.
He smiled coldly. With a twitch of his hand, he produced a knife. "You think you can beat me? You forget..."
"No, you forget." Xena's voice was like ice. "I should have killed you the first time we met."
Dusk clung tightly to the land. The clouds were heavy and hung close to the hills. The air was damp with the threat of rain. Xena pulled the waxed cloak more tightly around her shoulders as she rode. She was alone on the road, riding her trusty grey mare. She'd always liked mares better. They had more sense than stallions. Her army was camped a few towns away, eating their fill of good food and drinking ale. It was the first time they had stopped to rest for over six months, and they had all been feeling the strain. Supplies and tempers had been running low.
The town had been a godsend. They elders had welcomed them as a protection force, more than happy to pay Xena's asking price if it stopped them from being robbed clean. Dis-satisfied by the long nights spent in camp, Xena had taken to roaming the roads by herself. Her short bow and a quarrel of arrows hung from her saddle. She fed herself rather than trust the camp food.
Her sharp eyes caught movement up ahead, and she spurred the mare on. A handsome man walked by the side of the road. The mud clung to his feet with each step her took. He looked up as she rode along side of him.
"Lady, you shouldn't be riding alone!" he cried. "It's not safe. Let me walk with you." He displayed a sharp sword. "I will protect you!"
She laughed, a low sound that carried over the sleeping fields. "I don't need your protection."
"I beg to differ, lady. There is a warlord in these parts."
Another laugh, this time for a different reason. "How do I know you're not that warlord?" She played his game.
He stopped and spread his arms wide. "I'm no warlord. When was the last time you saw one dressed in rags?"
"What are you, then?" She halted the mare and watched him with a coldly amused eye.
"I am a wise man's son, far from his home and wandering these lonely roads to get back home." He bowed to her.
She grunted. "Have a way with words, don't you?"
"Yes, lady, I do." He started walking again. She let him get in front. Her hand strayed to the short bow, then she reconsidered and she nudged the mare into walk. A few strides and they had caught up.
"Do you have a name?" She asked without looking down.
"Gaius, son of..." He stopped, as she glared at him.
"I know who you're the son of," her voice had turned cold, "Want that city all to yourself without pops?"
Xena blinked, and a cold smile edged onto her face. "I was going to put an arrow through you on that road."
"Why didn't you?" He twirled the knife.
She shrugged "Figured it was a waste of a good arrow."
Gabrielle watched both of them from her spot by the wall. She had backed away to give Xena room if she was going to fight. The dark haired warrior looked almost painfully tense to her eye.
"Xe?" She asked.
The warrior answered without taking her eyes from Gaius. "Get our bags. We're leaving."
Gaius laughed coldly. "Oh, I beg to differ."