Usual disclaimers apply.
Xena lay in the quiet cave with only the gentle snores of her friends to keep her company. Cyrene had sent them all to bed and Xena had been surprised at the amount of sniffling she had heard coming from Ephiny and Eponin's bedrolls. She knew that it was probably more from the embarrassment of being punished rather than the severity, as her own bottom was already down to a gentle throb, but she couldn't help wondering what it would be like to be an adult and be subjected to her mother's wrath. She hoped never to find out.
Sighing, Xena grabbed her sword and chakram quickly pulling her boots and clothing on as well. She needed to use the bushes, and figured she might as well do a perimeter check while she was at it. Moving quietly, she left the cave and was glad to see a full moon join her outside.
She had just rounded to the entrance of the cave, when her eyes caught two shadows closing in on the opening. The light of the moon allowed her to make out two men carrying swords, and sneaking into the cave. Slowly making her way toward them, Xena decided to wait and see what happened before deciding what action to take.
Watching the men closely, she noticed them going towards the saddle bags, rifling through them as though looking for something. Taking a deep breath she waited for what she knew would be next. Not finding what they were looking for, both men made their way towards Ephiny and Eponin, just as they had reached the women Xena's battle cry rang out through the cave, and her small chakram managed to disarm one of the men, cutting the back of his hand deeply.
Xena's cry had woken all but Gabrielle, and Ephiny and Eponin immediately grabbed their weapons and were able to successfully subdue the intruders. Tying the men up, Xena woke Gabrielle as they led them toward the once again roaring fire.
"Who are you?" Ephiny demanded. "What do you want?"
Getting no answer other than a grunt Eponin was ready to backhand the man closest to her when Xena stepped in. "May I?" she asked sweetly.
Grinning, Eponin bowed to her as Xena successfully put the pinch on the man who seemed to look just a bit smarter. "I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You're dead in seconds unless you talk."
Yawning Gabrielle made her way to the group. "One, two, three, four…" she began counting as Ephiny looked at her strangely.
"What? I wanted to see how long this one lasts before he spills his guts, I usually get to about 8 but some break sooner. Had one hold on until 15, once."
Returning to her counting she stopped when the man finally tried to answer. "Seventeen, nice, you hold the record," she told the man patting him on the shoulder. "Now tell us what we want to know so I can go back to bed."
Looking surprised at Gabrielle's casual stance, Cyrene and the Amazons stood back and watched as Xena took over the interrogation. "Okay, why are you here?"
"We heard the statue was with a group of women and two small kids," The bearded man answered. "Nobody told us you could fight," he sputtered.
"Yeah, we're full of surprises." Xena answered in a bored tone. "So who told you about us and why are you after some statue?"
The men looked at each other and once again stopped talking. Turning to Gabrielle, Xena shrugged.
"Does she really need to put the pinch on you again?" Gabrielle asked. "Personally I find it a bit dull as it's the only thing she does more than once, well that and blowing fire, but you know you haven't gotten her juices flowing yet and she may want to take a more creative approach to get you to talk." Gabrielle nodded as Xena took out her boot dagger and began playing with it. "Between you and me, the pinch is easier, but she has a lot more fun using that dagger."
The dumber looking man finally spoke. "Like Gyles and me are afraid of two little kids and a few women."
Smiling easily Xena looked once again at Gabrielle. Gabrielle shrugged and shook her head. "It always has to be the hard way, why is that?" she commented as Xena slid the dagger down the man's collarbone drawing just enough blood to make him wince.
"That's just for openers," Xena hissed. "You start talking or you and Gyles here might leave missing a few parts you came in with," she finished looking toward the men's pants.
Gulping, the other man sat up as straight as he could, "For the god's sake Linus, well, just tell her."
"She's bluffing," the blonde man spoke again. "That didn't cause no real pain did it?" he bragged.
Scowling, Xena lifted his hand and looked closely at his fingers. "Pick a finger," she demanded.
"Pick the finger you want to say goodbye to."
"Xena!" Cyrene's voice was both warning and panicked at the same time.
Once again the bearded man spoke. "Xena, as in Xena, THE Warrior Princess?"
"I thought you'd be taller," the blond man said trying to pull his hand away from her.
"Linus let's just tell her!" Gyles shouted in panic.
Xena looked at Gabrielle and grinned, "Too much?"
"Maybe just a little bit," the bard responded grinning.
She turned her attention back to the men. "You going to talk or are we going to start counting body parts?"
"We'll talk," the blond man finally acquiesced.
Letting the man's hand drop Xena continued to play with her dagger. "Speak," she commanded.
"Some guy in Rodopi gave us 100 gold coins to come after you. Said you had the statue and if we brought it back to him, he'd give us 100 more."
"This guy have a name?" Xena asked slowly.
"No," the bearded man answered. "Dark guy though, bald, a scar running down his face, and a longer scar in the shape of an X on his arm."
"What color were his eyes?"
Narrowing her eyes for a moment, Xena said a name slowly. "Andrus." "Well now at least we know who we're dealing with."
"Why did he want the statue?" Gabrielle asked.
"Didn't say now did he?" the blond man took up again. "Just that it was worth our while to bring it back to him and not let it anywhere near the oracle or seer at the temple.
Nodding Xena looked once again at Gabrielle. "I'll explain later," she said as she proceeded to knock Linus and Gyles cold with the hilt of her sword.
The Amazons had dragged the intruders toward the back of the cave and tied the men together preventing any type of escape. Returning to the fire they noticed Gabrielle and Xena in deep conversation while Cyrene watched.
Sitting next to Cyrene, Ephiny put a hand over the older woman's, "Are you alright?"
"Honestly, I'm not sure."
"So what do we do?" Eponin asked drawing Xena and Gabrielle's attention. "Who is this guy they were talking about?"
Xena ran her fingers through her hair. "That's what I'm trying to figure out. The description they gave me is of a warlord named Andrus. He and I had a collaboration once upon a time."
"What happened?" Ephiny asked.
"He thought the collaboration included things that it did not," Xena grimaced. "He tried to take what he wanted from me after a battle one night. I took exception to that and made an example of him. Carving an X on his arm and giving him that scar on his face." She shook her head. "The thing is, when I left him, he was dead."
"How can a dead man be doing this?" Gabrielle answered.
"What do you mean left him Xena?" Cyrene's voice was soft. "How did you leave him?"
Looking into her mother's face Xena lowered her eyes. 'You don't want to know, Mom, trust me."
"Then we have to find out how he came back from the dead or if somebody else sent those thugs," Ephiny stated.
Rising, Xena headed to their prisoners. Slapping the bearded one until he woke up, she looked down at him. "How old was this guy who sent you here?"
"I don't know a little over twenty two or twenty-three summers I'd think," he answered before Xena once again knocked him out again.
Returning to the fire Xena sat next to Gabrielle and took a deep breath. "We're not dealing with Andrus, we're dealing with his son."
"His son?" Cyrene's voice was confused. "I don't understand."
Xena shrugged. "While I made an example of the father some of my men decided they would follow my example and have the same fun with the boy. I stopped it as soon as I found out and had the men responsible punished, but I didn't get there before they marked him as I had marked his father."
"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle put her head on Xena's shoulder and held her hand tightly.
"How old was he?" Cyrene asked.
"Fourteen or Fifteen summers," Xena answered. "Old enough to hold a sword and pretend he was a warlord."
"You allowed your men to do that do a child?" Cyrene's voice had risen and Ephiny squeezed her hand.
"No Mother, I did not allow my men to do that. That's why I had them punished. The boy had done no wrong. They thought they would impress me by copying my lead. They were wrong."
"How were the men punished, Xena? What could have been done to them that matched what they did?"
Xena glared at her mother and brushed Gabrielle's hand away as she stood. "Do you really want to know?"
"Yes, Xena, I do."
"I whipped them mother. I had them tied to a pole and whipped them until their backs were a bloody mess. Then I made sure to have it treated properly, recovering from that was probably more painful than the whipping itself."
Xena stormed off toward the mouth of the cave and Gabrielle began to follow but was stopped by Cyrene. "Let me, dear heart," she said softly. Reaching her daughter Cyrene pulled the reluctant warrior into a hug and held her as the sun rose.
Xena and Gabrielle were walking Argo in the open field beyond the cave discussing their next step. "We have to go alone, Gabrielle, I can't expose mother to this kind of danger."
"I know you think that, Xena, but how are we going to solve this? He's a warlord and we're a couple of kids."
"We'll get the statue to the oracle and get turned back into ourselves." Xena stopped to pet Argo. "Then we'll take care of Andrus's son."
"Are you sure about this, Xena?"
"Of course, nobody is going to be looking at two kids to have the statue let alone to be the ones to return it to the oracle. Besides, we can fight if we need to."
Sighing Gabrielle took Xena's hand. "I'm ready to get this over with, what's the plan?"
Entering the cave, Xena noticed her mother stirring a wonderful smelling stew over the fire. "When did the Amazons hunt?" Xena asked joining her.
"They didn't," Cyrene grinned. "I did. You aren't the only one that can hunt you know."
"So when did Ephiny and Eponin leave?"
"About a candle mark ago, I'm expecting them any time now," Cyrene answered allowing Xena a taste of the rabbit stew.
"It's great, Mom," the little warrior commented. "I always did love your cooking."
"So, care to tell me what Gabrielle is doing over there?" Cyrene pointed with her spoon and raised an eyebrow at Xena.
"She's just getting things ready for an early morning ride when we leave tomorrow. She hates doing it at the last minute."
"I see, and taking some dried meat, cheese, and bread with her is normal as well?"
"Mom, this is Gabrielle, you're lucky we have any left. You know how she snacks on the trail. It'll save time to have it in Argo's saddle bags we won't have to stop and ask you for it," Xena said laying her head on her mother's shoulder.
"Okay, little one. I'm sure you're up to something but I'll let it go this once." Cyrene made sure to bring the spoon back to the pot slowly as Xena's eyes followed it.
Xena was packing weapons while Gabrielle distracted her mother with a sparring session outside. Hearing footsteps she turned as Eponin and Ephiny entered the cave looking no worse for the wear considering what they had done.
"How did it go?" she asked.
Eponin grinned. "Just fine. We rode for almost a candle mark north of here, tied them to a tree and headed back."
"Eponin told them if they tried to come back we'd let you use your dagger to cut off anything you wanted," Ephiny added grinning.
Laughing Xena finished her packing and started to join the Amazons as they headed outside to watch Gabrielle and Cyrene.
"Just a minute, Xena, I'd like to know why you're packing your big chakram." Ephiny said as she stopped Xena and turned her to go back to her sleeping roll and the bag of weapons.
"I'll need it Eph, I mean, I plan on getting big again and I need the chakram."
"Then let one of us carry it until you can handle it."
"Not a chance, Ephiny. The chakram is special there's not another one like it. The fact that it can break changes forged by Hephaestus is one of the reasons I never let it out of my sight."
Sitting down, Ephiny grabbed the bag and motioned to Eponin. "Let's just see what's in here."
"Nothing you need to worry about, Ephiny," Xena said grabbing the back from the regent.
Looking down at her friend, Ephiny sighed. It was times like this that really hated the fact that Xena was still a six year old. Acting like an over protective Amazon mother to the little warrior as well as her queen had bothered her more than she let them know. She knew it had to be done though and tried again.
Trying to grab the bag back, Ephiny missed but Eponin took the opportunity to reach out for it.
"Give that back!" Xena demanded lunging for the bag.
Holding it over her head Eponin shook her head and just got it out of Xena's reach when she back flipped into the air and made another grab for it. Sweeping her leg under Eponin, the Amazon started to fall and Xena took the opportunity to grab for the bag once again, it had no sooner reached her outstretched hands than she felt herself being pulled down rather forcefully. Finding the motion had stopped she tried to move and was chagrined to find herself pinned over Ephiny's lap face down as Eponin took the bag once more.
"Dump it, Eponin," Ephiny instructed as Xena tried to maneuver herself to an upright position.
Xena squirmed again had almost gotten out from under Ephiny's leg when she felt herself being pushed down a bit more forcefully, one had on her back and one hand on her backside. "Xena if you don't calm down and let us do this you are going to find me taking advantage of the position you're in," Ephiny threatened as the little warrior finally started to calm down.
Emptying the bag in front of her Eponin whistled as the assortment of weapons fell in onto the bedroll. "Geesh, Xena, what exactly are you planning us to run into in Rodopi?" the weapons master asked.
Not answering, Xena squirmed again and found herself at the receiving end of a very hard swat to her backside. "I told you to stop moving. Now, answer Ep's question, why the arsenal?"
"I want to be prepared for anything and I wanted weapons I could use when I get big again as well as now."
Ephiny held up an intricately carved pair of chobos. "Don't you think you're still too small for these? You'd have to get way too close for them to do any good."
"They'll be fine for when I'm bigger, put them back please." The little warrior bucked hard and almost succeeding in getting out of Ephiny's grasped but rather than being successful she was held down once again and Ephiny delivered half a dozen stinging swats to her still tender backside.
"Move again and the leggings are coming down," Ephiny informed her smiling when Xena finally stopped struggling.
Eponin had laid out all the weapons and looked at Ephiny. The regent nodded and slowly let Xena go. "Sit next to me and don't go anywhere," she instructed. "We still need to talk about this."
"Fine, I won't go anywhere," Xena promised as she was allowed to sit up next to the regent.
Pointing the weapons Ephiny looked at her hard, "Explain."
"Well, those are chobos, a fan from Chin, a hair pin, my chakram, some bread, a waterskin, some cheese, a knife, a dagger, and a boot dagger."
"Xena we know what they are, why do you have so many weapons, and food?"
Xena sighed. "I told you I want to be prepared. We don't know how it's going to be once we get to Rodopi or when Gabrielle and I get big again, we need to be ready for any possibilities. The food is so we don't have to stop on the road tomorrow. We can just snack on the way and eat once we get there."
Ephiny and Eponin looked at Xena's relaxed form. "I think there's something more to it than that, but I'll let it go tonight. We'll figure out who is carrying that bag in the morning." Ephiny stood up and shook her head. "Go ahead and repack it, Xena."
Nodding, Xena quickly packed the bag and watched as Eponin and Ephiny retreated once again from the cave toward the sparring going on outside.
Gabrielle and Xena had gone to bed early and were now awake once again. Seeing the moonlight from the entrance of the cave and hearing only the sounds of sleeping from within the cave, Xena smiled to herself. Giving Ephiny and Eponin that wine skin full of her special stuff had worked just as she wanted. It had relaxed them enough to sleep, but still be able to wake if there was a true emergency.
Nudging Gabrielle, Xena stood and waited as they gathered their bags and bedrolls and quietly left the cave.
Argo waited patiently in the moonlight, saddle already on her and Xena looked at Gabrielle. "How?"
"Told mom that we would be up early and it would save time if Argo was already saddled so we didn't have to try and do it," she whispered as Xena grinned once again.
"Good idea," Xena carefully packed Argo and vaulted onto her back. Leading the horse to a large rock where Gabrielle waited, Xena extended her arm as the bard climbed on behind her. They then started a slow walk away from the cave. Once on the road Xena allowed Argo a little more head, but not much, she didn't want the horse to be injured because she couldn't see well.
"Thank Artemis for the moon tonight," Gabrielle muttered as it moved from behind a cloud and illuminated the road for them with ease.
"Yeah, makes this a lot easier. Where's the statue?"
"Hanging in that bag to your right, nothing else is in it and I don't want us to touch it at all." Gabrielle responded.
"You'll get no arguments from me about that. I just hope the oracle and seer can help us." Xena responded as they continued on their way to Rodopi.