A fan fiction story by Melpomene based on the characters and backstory of "Xena: Warrior Princess" and composed without permission. No copyright infringement is intended and no monies have been earned.
:Chapter 1: :Chapter 2: :Chapter 3: :Chapter 4: :Chapter 5: :Chapter 6: :Chapter 7: :Chapter 8: :Chapter 9: :Chapter 10:
The senior archaeology lecturer took the stage and slowly looked around the lecture hall at the mass of nameless faces before him. Clearing his throat to both quiet the din and steady his voice enough to speak, he braced his hands against the podium. "We have a guest speaker with us today. She is well known for the work she has conducted in Macedonia, Persia and the Agean beginning earlier this century," the professor paused briefly. A slight movement drew his attention to his star pupil.
She sat near the front of the room, her pen poised in mid air. At the mention of Macedonia, Persia and the Agean, she had tilted her head slightly, questioningly, and as he had completed the sentence a single eyebrow arched. It was the most emotion he had seen her express in three very long years.
Shaking his head to clear his thoughts he continued, "Dr. Janice Covington."
Silence descended on the room like a curtain as the elderly lady tottered to the stage, a wooden cane in one hand and a battered old felt hat in the other.
Deep resonant laughter drifted from the seats and the professor scanned the audience, appalled by the breach of courtesy. Most of his students were also looking for the source and were likewise surprised to see a genuine smile light the face of their dark and quiet classmate.
"That's enough of that!" For such a tiny, frail-looking woman, the aging doctor had a voice that could still chill hearts.
"When are you going to get rid of that hat? It's hideous!"
Dr. Covington had to hide her chuckle when the senior lecturer visibly blanched at the comment. "Don't know what you're talking about," she crammed the shapeless lump of felt onto her head, "it's as good as new."
"Uh huh. That's why Gran-Mel tries to throw it out every time she sees you."
Dr. Covington wagged a gnarled finger toward the voice. "She tried to burn it with the leaves last month!"
Another tumble of laughter followed the remark, quieting with as much ease as it had begun.
More than an hour later, Dr. Covington's talk was finished and only a small contingent of curious students lingered.
Janice caught up her cane and gingerly descended the stage, advancing on her heckler. She wagged her finger at the woman again. "Imagine! Complaining about my hat before you even give me a hug hello!"
With a broad, warm smile that crinkled the corners of her eyes, the younger woman rose from her seat to wrap strong, tanned arms around her honorary grandmother.
"It's good to see you, Granma Janice, even with the hat. Where's Gran-Mel?"
"Gone to see that boy of yours. Did I see you taking notes, girl?"
The young woman laughed again, "I'm not really into autobiographies." Tucking blank paper into her knapsack, she hefted its weight onto her shoulder, "I practically grew up at your sites."
"You did grow up at our sites."
Curious eyes watched the greeting and followed as the two women entered the hallway, amazed by the exchange they had witnessed. More than one joke had made the rounds about the anthropology departments star pupil and her lack of emotion. She never expressed joy or sorrow or even boredom, just all-encompassing stoicism.
"Help me over to the table, Xe Xe. I'm an old lady after all." Janice glanced around the anthropology study lounge, deciding on the best place to rest her weary bones. Standing in front of a class for such a long time was wearing on a person's body. She ought to have sat down and let Xe give the speech in her stead, she thought. The girl knew it all by heart anyway.
Xe flicked a long, dark lock behind her shoulder, "Old my foot! I've finally stopped waiting for you to get old." She reached out a steadying hand and took the elder woman's arm, "I think both you and Gran-Mel will still be getting into mischief when Enki has grandchildren."
"Of course I remember Brie. We just saw her a few months ago." Xe brushed a stray lock of hair out of her eyes. "I also remember that you and Gran-Mel used to tease us about our names rhyming."
"Xe and Brie found a tree, skinned a knee and had some tea."
"You never were much at creative rhyming, Granma Jan."
The elderly woman chuckled and tapped the floor tiles with her cane. "She's not Brie any more."
"She was Brie this summer."
"Apparently she's tired of all the cheese jokes."
Xe raised an eyebrow, grinning broadly. "It really wasn't my fault, besides that was a long time ago, back when we were both still kids." --You were never a kid, Xe Xe. Mel's warm drawl registered in Xe's memory-- "I merely mentioned that her complexion reminded me of the cheese therefore making it easier for me to remember her name."
A comfortable silence fell as Xe looked up and saw a small group of eager-looking students staring at their table. Grinning again, she nodded toward them. "Looks like you've got a regular fan club brewing over there."
Janice looked at the young people and grimaced. Xe knew how much she hated all the attention she got from the young hopefuls. Janice looked back at the young woman sitting across from her.
The girl was a mystery to all but a very few; even her own parents weren't allowed too close to her heart. To look so like her grandmother but not have inherited and of the elder's tenderness was very perplexing. Then again, as much as Xe resembled Mel she was also completely different. The girl had taken the best aspects of both her parents and had melded them together into a form that could nearly be heart stopping. Hair and eyes such a deep, dark brown that they seemed nearly black and skin tanned golden from afternoons spent in the sun. Tall and willow slender with just enough curve to turn heads everywhere she went and fine features which created a countenance to rival Helen's.
"I think I'll leave you to your adoring fans."
But a personality, Janice thought, to rival Ares.
Xe moved to stand and caught the faint glint of wariness in the elder's eyes. "Just long enough to collect Enki and Gran-Mel from the early learning center." Xe walked a few paces before turning to face her oldest friend. "You never said what name Brie's using now"
"You're joking!" Xe gaped at her grandmother. All were seated at her kitchen table, enjoying a less than thrifty meal of take-away chinese food. Xe had made a mad dash through her tiny rent house when they had arrived home at last, piling Enki's toys and treasures against the walls and into baskets to clear a path for her duo of elderly guests.
"Gran-Mel! I've got to agree with the site manager on that one. You have no business traipsing up the steps of that ziggurat, you're eighty-five-years-old!" Xe continued to stare at her grandmother. "But you went anyway, didn't you?"
"You sound just like your mother." Janice hid her smile in her tea cup when Xe shot a glare at her from across the table.
"Now Xe Xe," Mel stated in her delicate southern drawl, "I didn't go alone."
"Oh, well that's not so. . ."
"Janet was with me."
Xe shook her head. "I give up!" She looked over at her son and tousled the youngster's fair hair. "I'm tellin' ya Enki, you've got to watch these two like a hawk. They're bad enough alone, but when you put them together? It's nothing but trouble." She paused as happy childhood escapades mingled with memories of her grandmother's forced retirement. "Lots of fun but trouble all the same."
Enki giggled and cast enamored eyes around the table. Already five-years-old, he'd been involved in a number of adventures with his great-grandmothers and always relished the expressions that crossed his mother's face as he retold each tale, in all its brutal glory; her tiny bard, his mother called him.
"Anyway . . ." Janet cleared her throat, trying to bring the conversation back around to her own grandchild.
"Oh yes." Mel smoothed the napkin in her lap. "There is one more thing, Darlin'"
Wary of her grandmother's tone, Xe resigned herself to an unpleasant surprise somehow involving Brie, the most annoying part of her childhood, worse even than her brothers.
"You see," Gran-Mel's voice dripped honeyed tones, "we only just heard about Gabrielle."
"And well, " Mel paused to cast pleading ice-blue eyes at her favorite grandchild, "well, it seems that she could use some. . . assistance."
"Yeah." Xe rose and began to clear the table. "I hope she finds the help she needs, I've got Ea to think about."
"He can stay with me."
"No, he can't. He's almost too much for me to handle, and I'm just twenty-seven, not eighty-five."
"Janice will be staying out at the house for a while and Enki is more than welcome to come too. Janice has a new exhibit opening up in town and has to be near the museum to over-see the work. You know how much little Ea loves the museum." Mel's gaze followed Xe as the younger woman continued to stack dishes in the sink.
"I'll be real good Mama."
"Xena Alexandria! I hope you're not trying to say that we're too decrepit to care for a sweet young boy such as your Ea." Janice managed to keep a straight face until Xe turned back to the sink.
"No Ma'am, of course I'm not saying that. It's just that . . . " Xe looked over her shoulder at the trio of silently pleading eyes. "Oh fine! Where is she and why does she need help?"
"She's in Anatolia? Where precisely? Anatolia isn't exactly included on maps anymore."
"Well, the last we heard . . ." Mel drawled, drawing a linen handkerchief from her pocket and dabbing the corners of her mouth, "she was working at the site at Catalhoyuk."
"That's where she's supposed to be, I know that already. She told me when we met with her in Macedonia." Xe waited for the catch.
"She seems to be missing."
"Missing? So she's gone missing in Turkey, Catalhoyuk is in Turkey somewhere isn=t it?"
"Yes Dear, it is."
"You'll speak with my professors?"
"Yes Dear, we will."
"It's a good thing my passport's still valid."
"Yes Dear, it is."
Gabrielle stared intently at the locked door, willing it to open. Her onslaught of mental power had yet to work but she refused to let her faith dampen. She had been kept in the room for what had seemed like centuries although she knew it could have been no more than a few weeks since she had last seen daylight.
Her stomach grumbled angrily, she was ravenously hungry. The regular meals with which she had been supplied hadn't remotely appeased her appetite and now she was beginning to wonder just how much weight she would have to lose before her captors would notice.
Singing, she had discovered, seemed to draw attention to her cell. "Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten," her voice warbled loudly even as she heard footsteps hurriedly approaching her door. "Look away, look away, look away" The door slowly swung open. "Hi!" she called cheerfully as the man entered the room.
Huge as a mountain, he shoved a tray of food toward his captive. He was willing to do nearly anything to cease her singing, if you could call it that. The child couldn't carry a tune to save her soul.
"Be good for Gran-Mel and Granma Janice. All right Enki?" Still unsure how wise it was to leave her son with the two elderly women, Xe knelt down to envelop the child in a fierce hug. "Ea, are you listening to me?"
Enki was too enthralled in the bustling airport to pay his mother very much attention. "Uh huh, I will." A departing jet snatched his eyes away and soon he was plastered to one of the terminal's observation windows.
"You'll call Lyall if Enki proves too much for you, right?" Xe searched her grandmother's eyes.
"Of course, Dear."
"Of course, Dear," she mimicked. "Gran-Mel, you know how much I hate flying."
"I'll be back with Brie in no time, she's probably just taking a break or something."
"Of course she is, Dear. And remember, she's not Brie any longer, she's Gabrielle now."
"I remember, but Xe and Brie was bad enough, what's it going to be next, Xena and Gabrielle? It's just a little too, I don't know, too strange I guess." Xe cocked her head. "Did you hear about all of that Xena Vigilante stuff that was going on in California?"
Mel smiled benignly at her granddaughter.
"I'll call you as soon as I find her."
"Janice would appreciate that, I'm sure."
Turning to her son she waved goodbye, he never turned away from the window. Handing her boarding pass to the attendant, she boarded the plane.
The Turkish airport was hot, stiflingly hot. Xe leaned against the wall, staring blindly ahead and wondering exactly how Janice had managed to secure an emergency visa for her with just a few phone calls and less than 24 hours notice. The night prior to her departure, the grandmothers had busily placed calls and dispatched e-mails, assuring her that all would be ready for her upon her arrival in Turkey. Xe had kept up a pretense of faith for both the old women's sakes, secretly sure she would be put back on a plane heading home as soon as she arrived at her destination
"Xe Xe darlin', we have…"
"Many talents. I know Gran-Mel, you have many talents."
She grinned inwardly at the recollection. The women never failed to amaze her. What would she do when they, the only confidants she had ever known, passed on from this life? Often she had asked herself that same question; they wouldn't live forever, regardless of what they said, regardless of all the jokes she had made. One day they would be gone and would take with them the tenuous hold she maintained on sanity and light. Then what would become of Enki and herself?
Shaking the disturbing thoughts from her head, Xe slid down the wall, crossed her long legs, and allowed her eyes to drift closed. She could still hear everything around her: the rush of people as they brushed past, the anxious immature voices of children exhausted from traveling, the shallow breathing of the pickpocket who had slid up next to her.
She felt the small hand slip furtively into her knapsack.
The pickpocket gave a startled yelp when the sleeping woman's hand shot out and clamped onto his wrist in an iron fist. His eyes flew up from the woman's hand to cold, calm eyes as black as pitch.
Xe watched the emotions warring in the child's own dark eyes, he could have been no more than seven-years-old, so close to Ea's age. But as slender as her son was, this child was even more so. Bones jutted out beneath sallow skin and his eyes held a desperate, starved look. Rising to her feet but not releasing the child's hand, Xe grabbed her knapsack and, pulling the child in her wake, set off through the bustling crowd.
"Lady?" The child's voice quivered slightly although Xe was relatively sure it was simply a well-rehearsed act. His eyes, though hungry, belied not fear but thinly veiled exasperation. His expression changed to one of confusion as she drug him past the security post. He had been sure of her intentions up until they left the security deputies behind. "Lady?" he spoke a bit louder, sounding more convincingly worried.
Xe looked down at the child. "Your name."
He hadn't expected her voice to be so forceful but it was as strong as the grip on his hand and as cold as the eyes that pierced through his carefully constructed façade. His mouth was suddenly dry, too dry to speak coherently. Staring up at the stern woman did nothing to ease his discomfort.
"Your name," she again demanded as she stepped up to a food kiosk. Briefly glancing at the menu, she controlled a shudder, the airport couldn't manage to maintain the air-conditioning but it could inundate people with bad American fast food. "Do you want to eat?"
The little boy's dusky head rapidly bobbed up and down.
"Then tell me your name."
"Well Ravi, this must be your lucky day." She took the bags of food the cashier offered her and handed them to the child. "Now I need you to do something for me." She raised an eyebrow in question.
"Yes Lady, anything at all." The child's grasp of English surprised Xe.
"At the university there's a man by the name of Dr. Ancher Eban, he's an archaeologist. Tell him that Xena Cadmus is at the airport and needs to know if he's heard from or seen Gabrielle Baird. Can you remember all that?"
Again the dusky head bobbed in agreement.
"Good. I'll pay you for your trouble and I'll double it if you can get Dr. Eban back here within the hour." The boy was gone before she had finished speaking. Returning to her position near the customs desk, she sat down again and leaned against her knapsack, waiting for the officials to finish her paperwork and for young Ravi to reappear with Janice Covington's successor.
She lay on the cot, unmoving. Even when the guard carried in the tray of fruit and cheese she remained motionless. For two weeks the guard had dealt with an uncommonly cheerful, chatty captive, the lack of vivaciousness left him wondering about the girl's condition. His employer would want to know if the child fell ill. Placing the tray on the small table that stood at the foot of the cot, he leaned closer to the oddly quiet form.
"Ha!" Bolting upright, Gabrielle tried to swipe the keys from the guard's belt, missed her target, and ended up sprawled across the linoleum, the man having side-stepped her attack.
"Stop that. You're only going to injure yourself," he admonished before he turned and left the room, securing the door behind him.
Gabrielle stuck her tongue out at his retreating back but her attention soon shifted to the platter of food.
The guard watched in amazement, thanks to a tiny window carved high in the door, as the child's face brightened at the sight of the food. After weeks of being held prisoner she had been pleasant, almost happy. Periodically she would ask why she was being held or where she was, and once she had even requested a leave of absence, laughing when he sputtered a denial, claiming it had been worth a shot. She had only tried a few small attacks and he had spoiled them without any difficulty. He was beginning to feel slightly guilty about his part in her abduction.
It took Gabrielle little time to finish off the last of her dinner and she stretched out on the cot, staring up at the ceiling overhead. Needing something to occupy her mind, she went over everything she knew concerning her present situation.
Being given a position at the Catalhoyuk site had been a graduation present from her grandmother, the near-legendary Dr. Covington. She had left almost as soon as her winter graduating class had exited the stadium, diplomas in hand and green gowns flapping in the wind. Granma Janice had been there, as well as Gran-Mel, cheering loudly for the tiny blond they had watched grow out of childhood. Her father had not been pleased with the gift but Granma Janice had made up her mind and simply ignored his protests. Gabrielle had even skipped out on her own graduation party.
She had spent four uneventful months assisting at the site, gaining quite a bit of good work experience but not finding anything bigger than pottery shards for all the excavation work she'd done. After receiving a strange call from her grandmother, she had taken a short trip into Macedonia to meet both the grandmothers and Xena Alexandria for an impromptu vacation; Granma Janice had said something about kidnapping Gran-Mel and Xe being furious with her family but wouldn't elaborate any further. She had stayed with them for a week, feeling just as incompetent as ever she did when Xena Xandria was present; she returned to Turkey with high hopes of at last proving herself to the woman she had always idolized.
The last few weeks she had spent at the site had been somewhat different; a new team member had shown up asking lots of nosy questions about the grandmothers' work in Macedonia.
It had been the site manager who had suggested she make the run into town to replenish their supplies. She hadn't gotten more than ten kilometers down the dirt road before she came across a stranded motorist on the roadside. Stopping to lend a hand had been her biggest mistake. Initially the man had seemed to genuinely need help, but once she got within a meter of him he swung a tire iron through the air straight at her. Ducking the blow and spinning around behind the man she had looked around desperately for a weapon of some kind; stupidly, she had managed to give her attacker the advantage by putting him between her and her only means of escape, the site's jeep. She had been frantically trying to figure out a way to turn wildflowers into lethal weapons when the second man had come up behind her. She didn't make a sound as she slipped to the ground, unconscious.
She had woken up in the same room she had been in ever since. The room itself was modern and rather nondescript. Florescent lighting fixtures in the ceiling came on each morning, at least she supposed it was morning, and were turned off each night. There were no windows and she couldn't even find any drafts. The only furniture: a cot, small table, and what looked like a milking stool had been painted bright white and matched the walls. A privacy screen hid a functioning toilet and shallow sink. All in all, it was quite a disappointment as far as dungeons went. No rats, chains, or tortured screams to remind her of her peril; worse yet, not inquisitors to shed light on she was being held, just a guard who seldom spoke and visibly cringed each time she launched into song.
Ticking off the things she didn't know on pale, callused fingers, the girl felt the first vestiges of despair creeping into her thoughts. She was getting cabin fever, locked up in the tiny room. Not knowing how long she would be kept locked away or if anyone would come to her rescue was eating away at her determinedly cheerful disposition.
An image suddenly jumped to the forefront of her memory.
She had been nine years-old the summer that Xena Alexandria had graduated from high school and had traveled to Macedonia to spend a whole year with the grandmothers. At seventy-two, Granma Janice refused to relinquish control of the site to anyone else and Brie's father had been glad when Xe had agreed to go and keep an eye on both the older women. Brie had tagged along for the summer months, anxious for adventure far from the watchful eyes of her father.
She had gone off looking for Xe one afternoon, finally finding her in the middle of a temple that had been excavated on a previous expedition. She had been sitting perfectly still, her long, tanned legs folded awkwardly in front of her, her hands loosely fisted and suspended in front of her abdomen, and her eyes lowered and unfocused. Brie had sat off to the side, watching the slight rise and fall of Xe's chest. Waiting to be acknowledged had been a trying experience; Brie had never been good at being quiet and sitting still for long periods of time.
After observing Xe's meditation, Brie had worked on it herself, finally coming up with a technique that worked. She hadn't tried it in years though.
Anything was better than sitting around worrying.
Ravi darted out of the terminal building. First he would take the food to the alley where his sister would be waiting. At least they would get to eat finally, and it would be more than the little they might be able to scrounge from the rubbish bins.
He wondered where the man he had spoken to earlier had gone. He had tried to snatch the lady's bag as the man had asked, but she was too quick and too sneaky. Now he had the promise of real money if he could find the professor the lady wanted to see.
The child took off into the maze of alleys and narrow streets, searching for the tiny girl who looked so terribly much like their mother.
Xe softly banged the back of her head against the wall. Patience was a virtue she sorely lacked, except when it came to Enki. When the officials had handed over her passport, moments after Ravi departed, she could have torn someone in two. She would be stuck in the terminal until Ravi showed up again, and sitting around idly twiddling her thumbs was not helping locate Brie.
"Xena Xandria? Speak up, I can barely hear you!"
Xe strained to make out her baby brother's voice through the static of the pay phone. "Lyall," several heads turned to gaze questioningly at her as she shouted into the receiver, "Lyall, Gran-Mel has Ea."
"Check in on them for me, will you?"
"Sure, but where are you? I didn't think the semester was over yet."
"I'm in Turkey, it's a long story. Ask Gran-Mel and Granma Jan."
"Ms. Cadmus?" Xe turned to face a short, squat man peering at her through thick spectacles. She held up a hand and turned her attention back to the phone.
"Just go and make sure they're okay, I'm worried about them. And knock it off with the Xena Xandria business, it's worse than Xe Xe." She replaced the receiver and turned back toward Dr. Eban.
"You look very like her."
"Gran-Mel? Yes, I've been told that I do, but I'm not nearly as sweet." Handing a fistful of bills to Ravi she granted the little boy a radiant smile that nearly reached her eyes.
"My grandmother and Dr. Covington sent me because they're worried about Gabrielle Baird, Dr. Covington's granddaughter. She has apparently disappeared from the Catalhoyuk site. I was rather hoping you had heard from her."
"Heard from her?" He mopped his glistening brow with a crumpled handkerchief. "I didn't even know she was in Turkey. Dr. Covington should have let me know she was coming."
"Catalhoyuk? What's that?" the little pickpocket asked.
"It's an ancient Anatolian city, part of a very old civilization," Xe answered automatically and shot a curious glance at the child; she had expected him to flee as soon as the money was in his hand.
"I haven't heard any news from the site; however, the site manager is an old student of mine. We must leave immediately, my car is just outside." He took hold of Xe's arm and hurried her through the crowded terminal.
Ravi stood on the curb, waving goodbye as the professor's car pulled away. It was gone from sight when the man who had approached him earlier appeared at his side.
"Her name's Xena and the professor's taking her to her friend.
"And the friend's name?" The man rested a heavy hand on the child's head.
Ravi carefully considered what he should say. He knew well the dangers that lurked in the shadows of the city and found himself curiously drawn to protect his recent patroness. He remembered everything she had said to the professor. "Janet," he said, smiling sweetly, "Janet Green."
The ride to the site took several hours and they didn't manage to arrive until well after the lunch hour. Sweltering heat radiated up from the ground, rippling the horizon and weighing down the air. Thick clouds periodically moved to block the sun but did nothing to aleviate the summer warmth. The air itself was still; even the breeze that coursed in through the car's open windows offered no relief.
Xe shifted uneasily in her seat, she had never seen this particular site but had been to countless others under the same conditions. Memories of prickly heat, swarms of pesky gnats, and silent suffering flooded her thoughts.
"Your grandmother has told me that you too are a student of archaeology."
"That's wishful thinking on Gran-Mel's part. I'm working on an MA in social anthropology."
"And your geographic area of specialization?"
Xe plucked at the shirtsleeves that clung to her arms and wondered how professors managed to carry on conversations in an ordinary setting. "Not here; much to the dismay of both Gran-Mel and Dr. Covington my focus is on New Zealand and the South Pacific."
"More pleasant conditions?"
"At least there's a relatively constant breeze."
The cloud of dust, which the car kicked up in its wake, drew a crowd of curious onlookers and all progress at the site had halted by the time the doctor's car had pulled to a stop.
Xe scanned the tired anxious faces, wondering if any of them expected a certain blond to exit the vehicle.
From a tent near the excavation itself, a tall lanky man emerged, his brow knitted with concern. Once Dr. Eban stood and shut the car door behind him, the younger man pushed through the small congregation.
"Dr. Eban! Thank you for coming, I've contacted the authorities and the embassy. I'm not sure what else to do. When I called the university your secretary didn't know where you'd gone. I'm so glad you've come," the man gasped for breath.
"Franklin, slow down boy. I haven't seen my secretary yet today. Now what is all this talk of the authorities?"
"It's Gabrielle, Dr. Covington's granddaughter."
"Yes, I have heard something about that." He looked over the car at his dark companion. "Can you tell us what's happened?" Steering the younger man back toward the tent, he gestured for Xe to follow.
Once inside the tent, the site manager collapsed into a chair, propped his elbows on his knees, and covered his face with callused hands. "Two weeks ago I could tell Gabrielle was restless, she needed a break. I asked if she wanted to take one of the jeeps into town to get some supplies. When she didn't show up by the next afternoon, I went into town to see if there was a problem. No one had seen her and it isn't as if she could have blended in with the locals. I hoped she had just gone off for a short holiday but when she hadn't returned after a week," he stopped and cast pained eyes at both Dr. Eban and his quiet companion, "I contacted Dr. Covington and she hadn't heard from her either."
Xe dropped to the ground to sit with crossed legs across from the young man. As annoying as Brie could be, she'd never cause Granma Jan undue worry and she'd never just walk away without leaving word.
"When we got here this morning, I found this in the tent." He handed Dr. Eban a sheet of paper.
After reading it silently he handed the note to Xe. She recognized the majority of writing as a form of ancient Sanskrit that Gran-Mel had taught her years ago. Whoever had Gabrielle promised to do her no harm as long as they were given the information they wanted. And they wanted it from her, Xena Cadmus, descendant of Melinda Pappas and one of the most knowledgeable students of Macedonian antiquities.
"You've read it?" Dr. Eban questioned the distraught man.
"Bridgid, one of our excavators, was able to decipher most of it."
"Then let me introduce you, " The professor indicated, with a flourish, the dark, silent woman seated on the rug. "Franklin Dupree, meet Melinda Pappas' granddaughter, Xena Cadmus. Dr. Covington asked her to find Gabrielle."
She sat stock still, allowing the all-encompassing silence to envelop her. Her breathing slowed perceptively, deepening and relaxing. She tried to let her mind ease, to allow all thoughts to blur and dissipate. Slowly, she envisioned her mind emptying, willing herself deeper into the meditation process.
"Go away!" The old words jarred her, ringing in her ears again as they had so long ago.
"Just go away, Brie!"
Meditation forgotten, memory flooded her soul. "But I just…"
Full of ire and ice, and all the more beautiful because of it, a younger Xe stood before Gabrielle's mind's eye. Had it really been so long ago- 6 years- that she had brought the woman's anger so forcibly to the fore?
"What?!" the word had shot like a dagger across the dusty tell where she had tracked her idol, her hero, the woman who had never attempted to fit society's mold, who challenged even the commands of her parents. "Just say it and be gone!"
"Congratulations," the word was so low, she was unsure it had even reached Xe's ears.
"How old are you, Brie?" the soft words, tinged with remorse, still carried an angry edge.
Cold eyes continued to study her. Brie watched as Xe unconsciously placed a hand to her abdomen, a telling move to protect the child soon to come.
"And," Brie continued with a sudden burst of courage, "I brought you some water. Gran-Mel was worried." Extending the bottle, the girl was inordinately pleased when Xe accepted the small token.
"Thank you." She clutched the water in a white-knuckled fist. "You can go away now," although her tone had lost some of its bite it remained wholly unfriendly.
Brie turned as if to leave, but suddenly changed her mind. "Granma Janice told me about your parents. I'm sorry."
"You're still a little girl, what do you know?"
Understanding, but not caring, that the question was rhetorical, Brie spun back around. "I'm not that little! Besides, I read, I watch the evening news reports…" Her burst of anger threatened to falter under the rage-filled eyes that bored into her.
"Brie, go find someone worth while to idolize."
So she had known all along. "But you're so strong."
"So was Eleanor Roosevelt."
"As will you be if you don't back off."
"I don't care! Your parents shouldn't have tried to make you give the baby away. Who cares who the father is. The baby will have you, who could want a better, stronger mother than you? I know what everyone thinks, that you're no good," Brie paused at the shadow of grief that swept across Xe's face, "but Granma Janice and Gran-Mel don't believe it, and neither do I. Granma Janice says you're better than all of them put together."
"Go away, Brie," her tones were soft but filled with unleashed anger.
"No! I won't leave you out here all alone. The grandmothers are worried about you."
"I came out here specifically to be alone. The grandmothers are well aware that I can take care of myself, and you know what I can do to you if you don't leave."
Brie was suddenly filled with trepidation. Xe was right, she did know, she remembered all the martial arts lessons Xe had undertaken, and hadn't Gran-Mel said she had started kick boxing too… "But you wouldn't. You don't mount the offense, you only defend."
"Remind me of that when you're picking yourself up off the floor, little girl. Believe me, you don't want to make me any angrier."
"Get up!" Gabrielle jerked out of her musings; she hadn't even heard the guard come into the room.
"Come on." The door was held open, Gabrielle ushered out.
"So, don't tell me, let me guess. You've finally realized that it's all been a big misunderstanding and you're going to let me go now, right?"
Xena Cadmus, unofficial Macedonian antiquities expert, slammed her hands down on the steering wheel; there was nothing to do but wait for the goats to clear out of the road. She only hoped the herdsmen were more competent than they appeared.
The jeep was unbearably hot; lack of air conditioning and the immobile windows intensified the morning's stagnant, stifling heat. After her introduction the day before, once the site manager had regained his composure over his initial shock, Xe had been shown to the tent where Brie's possessions had been left. She had been left to her own devices to decide what had happened to the girl. The two men had wandered back to the group still gathered around Dr. Eban's car, everyone would need to be questioned before any decisions could be made.
Xe however, had already decided on a course of action. If they wanted Xena Cadmus, so be it. Making certain Brie was out of danger would be the hardest part of her plan.
In the morning's pre-dawn hours Xe had risen and dressed in the loose tank top and khaki shorts that had been her trademark at the grandmothers' sites. She supposed anyone who knew of her knowledge in Aegean antiquities would have seen her in association with one of those sites in Macedonia or Greece with the grandmothers. Dressing the part only made sense.
Sitting in the jeep she had 'borrowed' from the Catalhoyuk excavation, a virtual island in a torrential sea of goats, she pulled the note from her pocket. If the circumstances weren't so dire, she would find a lot of humor in the way the abductors had dealt with the missive. The ancient script was punctuated here and there with English terms they couldn't translate: her name, Gabrielle's name, and the grandmothers' names, as well as terms such as 'Chinese consulate' and 'no police involvement'.
She tugged the mass of hair up off the back of her neck and shoulders and plied it into a rough twist secured with a wooden pick she found in the glove compartment. She'd have to back track, she knew. The meeting was to take place in Antalya, three blocks from the airport.
Gabrielle struggled to free her hands of the rough twine that bound them; her efforts had managed to only slick down the knots with sweat she hoped, rather than blood.
"You won't escape." The voice came from somewhere beyond the glaring light in whose pool she sat.
"Can't blame a girl for trying," she muttered, squirming in the metal chair. "I don't suppose you'd consider untying me…" she queried, "if I promised to stay put?"
"What if I told you that I have difficulty breathing if my hands are bound? Even when I was a little girl and would get my arms caught up in my winter sweaters I'd have to scream for help before I'd hyperventilate."
"I'll take that as a no."
"It will soon be over."
"What will be over? Why am I here? What do you want? Why are you doing this?" Her carefully constructed façade of pleasantness was rapidly giving way to the real fear she had managed to push into the back of his mind. If only she knew what this was all about, then she'd be able to fight.
Footsteps echoed off to her right and she peered into the darkness.
"What's going on?" Blind, illogical terror won control and Gabrielle's voice raised to an unnaturally high pitch.
A blessedly familiar voice cut through her anxiety. "It doesn't matter, Brie. You're safe now."
"Xena Xandria?" Her childhood idol stepped into the ring of light, her somber features clouded with concern.
"Yeah, it's me. You all right?" Kneeling in front of Gabrielle, Xe reached up to brush away the tears she hadn't realized were there.
"I guess so, but I don't…"
"I know," Xe cut her off with a frown and swiveled on her knee to confront the voice within the darkness. "I'm here, she can go now." The resulting silence only served to bring Xe's anger closer to the boiling point. "The deal was…"
"Oh, I'm well aware of our agreement, Ms. Cadmus. I'm afraid there's been a change of plans."
A cold smile curved Xe's lips. "What a surprise," she drawled in a voice steeped in sarcasm.
Deep laughter emanated the darkness, sending an involuntary chill down Xe's spine as she glanced again at the blonde with whose welfare she had been entrusted.
"'S okay. You're going to be just fine." She laid a comforting hand on Gabrielle's knee.
"But what about us?"
"Sorry, poor choice of words." Black eyes met hazel ones as the elder rephrased her assurance, "We'll be all right, the both of us."
"How touching." Xe rolled her eyes at the bodiless voice and directed a glare into the darkness.
"Show our guests to their room, I'm sure there is much they wish to discuss."
Xena studied her surroundings, lost in an ocean of thought. She had hoped to see Gabrielle freed but had not been fool enough to expect anything so positive. She was however, thrilled to see the girl relatively unharmed.
"It's not exactly the Hilton but I haven't seen any critters or creepy-crawlies, and it's so clean you can smell the bleach."
Xe turned to face Gabrielle. "What have they said to you?"
"Nothing." Xe's questioning look was all it took to launch the younger woman into a flood of words. "Almost every day I'd try to get the guard to say something, to say anything, but he never would. I don't even know how long I've been here. All I've been able to find out is that the guard doesn't like my singing. No one else ever comes here besides the guard and he's so anti-social…"
"And I-- what?" She had been so caught up in the joy of conversation, Brie had almost missed Xe's gentle words.
"You've been gone for two weeks. The site manager contacted Granma Jan a couple of days ago."
"My father must be furious! And that's why you're here." A heavy silence fell between the two women. "I'm sorry, Xena. This whole situation is so stupid. What about little Ea?"
"Ea's with the grandmothers, probably having a grand time and wrecking havoc with Granma Jan's new exhibit. How did they catch you?"
After Brie described the events leading up to and including her abduction, Xe slowly shook her head. "Being abducted wasn't stupid. You didn't know they were up to no good. I probably would have done the same thing. Once I finally made it to Catalhoyuk a note had been left. Brie, none of this has anything to do with you. They only took you because they knew I would come looking for you."
"They abducted me to get to you?" A nervous giggle escaped as Gabrielle turned the idea around in her mind. "That's actually kind of funny. Who would have thought of kidnapping the person who tormented your holidays for most of your life as a means of getting your attention?"
"Someone with a very sick sense of humor to be sure." Xe drew herself closer to Gabrielle, taking the woman's hands into her own to examine the raw, torn skin at her wrists. "Let's see what we can do about this."
Gabrielle watched silently as Xe bathed her wounds with cool water from the sink. The gentle, sympathetic sounds she murmured reminded Gabrielle of her late mother when she had treated her childhood scrapes and scratches. "Are we going to get out of here?"
"Yeah, we're getting out. I'll see to that." Xe nodded to emphasize her assurance when she saw the doubt in her companion's hazel eyes. "I'm working on a plan, I just don't have the specifics yet."
"Gran-Mel! Granma Jan! The door!" Enki raced down the stairs of his great-grandmother’s house, sliding across the polished foyer to land at the door with a heavy thud. The bell continued to chime as he turned the knob and threw open the door. "It’s Uncle Lyall!" he cried over his shoulder before he threw himself into the tall man’s outstretched arms.
Lyall laughed at his nephew’s exuberance; Xe might be the epitome of austere reservation but her son was the embodiment of gleeful abandon. He lifted the little boy to his shoulders and ducked into the house.
"We're in the kitchen, Lyall dear." Mel's voice drifted through the foyer as the pair crossed to the adjoining room. Flooded with afternoon sunlight, the kitchen was crowded with stacks of wooden crates. Passing the framed picture of Merrick Hughes, Mel's late husband, Lyall signaled a cocky salute, "Hiya, Gramps!"
The grandmothers might have been hidden among the boxes somewhere, but Lyall couldn't see either one of them. "So I heard you had a visitor and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see him." He set Enki back on his feet and at last spied the pair of grey heads behind a teetering stack of crates.
"More likely Xe called and told you to check on us." Jan's muttered response was muffled by the packing materials she lifted from an open crate.
Ignoring the comment, Lyall winked at Enki and edged around the stack of crates. "Wouldn't it have been simpler to have shipped all this directly to the museum?"
"Janice never does things the easy way, Dear. How was Xe's flight?"
"She didn't say. Is this the new Xena exhibit?"
Janice's grey head bobbed as she continued to unpack the crate. "I've been trying to figure a way to get that sister of yours to come to the opening."
"Just don't tell her what the exhibit's about. If you tell her it's Xena, you won't see her for a year." Lyall knew that his sister had difficulty being taken seriously. Growing up with an unusual name had been bad enough, but after a grandson of one of the grandmothers' old acquaintances had sold some of the scroll translations to a production company… He shook his head, poor Xe. "What's she doing in Turkey? I know the semester isn't over yet."
"Janice spoke to her professors and they've agreed to let her marks stand as they are, there are only two more weeks of classes anyway."
"What'd she get?"
Lyall cut her off, "Her grades," he explained.
"Oh, why A's of course. Anyway, as I was saying," Mel rested her arms on the kitchen table, smoothing the wrinkles from a crumpled inventory list. If the truth were to be known, at least two of her professors had been pleased to have Xe out of their lecturers, almost giddily agreeing to allow her to forego their final exams. "We both asked her to go to Turkey to check on Gabrielle."
"Okay, so what's up with little Brie? I know ya'll shipped her off across the ocean last spring." Lyall grabbed Enki and swung him up into the air as the little boy tried to dart past.
Before either Mel or Janice could respond, the phone rang. "Just a moment, Dear." Mel reached for the tiny cell phone Janice had buried beneath the packing materials. Jan had been avoiding phone calls all day but refused to turn the contraption off; out of sheer desperation Mel had adopted the role of secretary. "Dr. Covington's phone." Mel's gentle smile melted into anxiety as she listened quietly, at last setting the phone back down on the table, eyes blank and brow furrowed.
"What's wrong, Gran-Mel?"
"Mel?" Janice's head popped up in response to the concern in the young man's voice. "Melinda, who was on the phone?"
Icy blue eyes searched the room, at last coming to rest on Enki's tousled head. "It was Dr. Eban from the University of Antalya."
Lyall shot Janice a questioning look. "Turkey," she replied solemnly.
Mel looked across the table to her best friend of the last several decades. "We've lost them both."
"We've got to get outta here!" Gabrielle paced the confines of their cell.
Xena remained seated on the floor, Gabrielle's roiling anxiety had repeatedly foiled her attempted yoga routine; meditation had proven impossible as well. At last admitting defeat, she simply watched as the younger woman careened along an emotional roller coaster ride. It seemed that Gabrielle was as sure of their eminent death as she was of their salvation, not to mention the thousand other possibilities that had passed her lips since they had been reunited.
"Xena!" The small blond threw up her hands in despair for the hundredth time.
"I know," Xe tried to make her voice as soothing as possible, quelching her irritation, "really I do. I'm trying to work on a plan to get us back home. But Gabrielle, I'm finding it incredibly difficult to concentrate. I need you to at least try to calm down for a while, just long enough for me to think of something."
Xena's voice had been calm but Gabrielle was able to pick up on the faint edge of desperation in her tone. It had never occurred to her that she could be hindering their escape. Immediately filled with shame and self-reproach, she perched on the foot of the bed and hung her head, silent tears of fear and embarrassment hidden behind the glossy curtain of golden hair.
"Don't cry," Xena's voice was whisper-soft and achingly sincere.
Gabrielle sniffed. "How did you…"
"After reducing you to tears for so many summers, how could I not know?" Xena watched Gabrielle, waiting for her head to rise, to see sparkling eyes again. "I'm sorry. I just don't feel comfortable around people, I never have. At least not until after Ea was born."
"You liked being with the grandmothers," Gabrielle countered with lonely resentment.
"You're right, in a way. I preferred their company but only as the lesser of several available evils. They didn't try to change me into something I wasn't. But I never felt comfortable confiding in them, and then when Ea came along…" Xe's voice caught as she remembered those first few months and what might have happened. "Ea was only a week old when I met with Gran-Mel. By the time I returned, her was rolling over and trying to crawl, I barely recognized him."
Gabrielle's brow furrowed. "I don't understand."
Shaking her head, Xe tried to explain, "Yes you do. I was terrified of the effect I would have on a child. I didn't want that responsibility. In the end, I realized that I couldn't just walk away from him."
"I didn't know you…"
Xe cut her off, "No one does, just the grandmothers, and now you." She combed long fingers through her hair, untwisting the tangled strands with little care. The wooden pick that she had used to hold the lank locks in place, she slipped into the cot's thin, lumpy mattress.
The door swung open, startling Gabrielle and drawing a mildly curious look from Xe's black eyes. The guard entered with the usual fare, setting the tray on the table, and reached for Xe's arm.
Reading the fear in Gabrielle's eyes, Xe grinned. "Don't worry, Brie. Save me some food!"
The international flight was cramped; even the supposedly roomier business class seats were terribly snug, allowing little space for movement but much opportunity to become better acquainted with those sitting nearby. Attendants paced the aisles, pots of tea and pitchers of lemon water at the ready.
Mel slipped the headphones from her ears, patting her hair back into place and leaning further back into the padded seat.
"When do you think Lyall will figure out what we've done?" Janice, who had given up on the in-flight movie early on, looked over at her loyal traveling companion.
"I would imagine," Mel drawled, "he'll know as soon as he wakes from his nap and Enki tells him we took suitcases with us when we went to the A&P." She smiled at the thought of Xe's son, the sweet beacon of light in all of their lives. He was old enough, she imagined, to retain memories of his mother if something vile had happened to her. Mel knew that if that were the case, if something loathsome had befallen her favorite girl, she would never be able to forgive herself.
"She's all right, you know she is." Janet could read Mel's expressions as easily as a book. The worry that weighed so heavily on her friend's brow also affected her; memories of both of their granddaughters flooded her thoughts. She was not as worried about Xe as she was Gabrielle; not that Xe's disappearance hadn't sent panic coursing through her old bones, she simply understood Xe's abilities and trusted her to be able to take care of herself. She trusted her to take care of Gabrielle too, if only Xe had been able to find the younger woman, Janice felt she would be able to rest easy.
"I only wish I did know that she was safe." Mel turned in her seat to look fully at Janice. "But what if she isn't? What would we tell Enki?"
"Don't even think about it. They can't be gone forever, who would carry on our traditions? Besides, Gabrielle would say that we need to remain positive; negative thoughts only damage the psyche."
"And since when do you take you grandchild's advice?"
"Since it started to make sense."
Gabrielle spent the rest of the day fretting and pacing, pacing and fretting. Worry gnawed at her gut, sending tentacles of fear to curl around her heart. Every sound sent the young woman racing to the door, pressing her ear against the wood in a vain attempt to determine the origin of the noise. She was still alone when the light clicked off; she crawled onto the cot, heart-wrenching sobs wracking her body.
She woke with a start, realizing she must have cried herself to sleep. The room was lit and deathly quiet, except-- She leapt off the bed, crouching next to Xena Xandria who lay still and silent on the floor. Xe's back was to the wall, knees drawn up to her chest with one arm wrapped around them, her other arm pillowed her head. Gabrielle was relieved to she her apparently unscathed and resting peacefully. She could almost envision her napping beneath a shade tree at Gran-Mel's home in Georgia, not that she'd ever seen Xe take a nap, or admit weakness. Sighing, she decided to wait until her companion woke on her own.
Xena roused long after the guard came with their dinner that evening, sitting up stiffly and silently refusing Brie's offer of assistance.
"I never heard you come back. Are you okay?"
Xe raised an eyebrow. "You sleep like the dead, Brie. I didn't want to disturb you, and I'm fine, just stiff from sleeping on the floor." She was quite pleased with her fabrication. It had been a long time since she'd blatantly lied to anyone and she had been certain that Brie wouldn't buy it but the girl merely nodded, a flicker of a grin in her eyes.
"You want something to eat? I saved you some dinner." Gabrielle set the tray on the floor next to Xe but snatched it away again when the elder woman's complexion turned a vivid green. "You're not all right, are you?"
"I'm fine," Xe insisted. Knowing that Brie would be more likely to believe her if she were obviously ambulatory, Xe shifted slightly. Standing would be a very bad idea, she decided, not only was she now certain that any movement would betray her actual condition, she knew her lies wouldn't prevent Brie from seeing the blood that had soaked through the back of her clothes. Eventually Brie would discover her condition, but hopefully it wouldn't be until after she'd devised an escape plan.
"Did they say why they're holding us?" Gabrielle's voice quavered with a combination of worry, fear, and exhaustion, all of which were mirrored in the cloudy hazel of her eyes.
"They want the Ixion Stone."
"And they think you know where it is?" Brie's eyes betrayed her ignorance although Xe couldn't decide if the girl didn't know what the stone was or if she thought Xe was refusing to divulge its whereabouts.
"To be honest, I only read about it once and even then it was mentioned merely in passing. It was in one of Granma Jan's Xena Scrolls. The scroll didn't really say what happened to it. For all I know the fool thing was destroyed long ago." Xe crossed her legs with exaggerated care, trying to find a less painful sitting position.
Gabrielle stared at her, noticing the grimace Xe tried to hide. Rising, she placed the tray back on the table. When she turned back around, she caught a glimpse of the back of Xe's blouse: damp and sticky and darker than its original cranberry shade.
"You never did like admitting that you needed help, did you? I remember when I was a little girl and you fell down the side of a cliff, you hobbled around on that leg for three days before the grandmothers prevailed and carried you into town to have it reset. And then the next year you dislocated your arm and wouldn't let anyone near enough to help you, insisting you could take care of it yourself."
"If you'll remember, I did take care of my arm on my own," Xe fumed.
"But not easily, and it probably hurt a lot more than it would have if you had let someone else look at it. I've changed a lot from that intimidated little girl who wouldn't dream of trying to second-guess your decisions. I have finally come to realize that you don't know the first thing about taking care of yourself." Gabrielle paused for a breath and emptied one of their dinner bowls, filling it with cool water. Ripping away the hem of her tee shirt, she knelt again by Xe. "You're good at looking out for other people, especially Enki; that probably irks you terribly. I mean, as a mother you're supposed to take care of your son, but you can't stop there can you? You feel obligated to protect the world all the while you're pretending to hate it and everything associated with it. And you're good at being self-sacrificing."
She laid a gentle hand on Xe's shoulder, moving her away from the wall so that she would have an unobstructed view of her injury. Lifting the shirt as delicately as she could from Xe's back, she braced herself.
"Oh my…" Nothing could have prepared her for the sight. Welts and cuts played across her tanned skin in a criss-cross pattern of damaged flesh. The bleeding had abated somewhat, leaving the area awash with sticky blood. "What did they do?"
Steeling herself against the jolt of the cooling cloth Gabrielle placed to her skin, Xe tried to relax slightly, focusing on the girl's voice. "A whip."
"Ancher! It's so good to see you again!" Mel enveloped the squat man in a warm hug before reaching to snatch Janet's hat from her head. "I thought I'd gotten rid of this thing before we left the farmhouse," she muttered, watching as Janice jerked the hat from her grasp and attempted to mold it back into some semblance of its original shape.
"You should hide it better. I found it in the incinerator when Enki and I took out the garbage the other day." Janice's grumble faded as she caught sight of her successor's agitated expression. "So tell us Ancher, what's happened to Xena Xandria?" Janice brought out her cane and began to wind a path through the throng of people who filled the airport.
"I only wish I knew. I took her to Catalhoyuk, to meet with Franklin Dupree. She was shown to the tent where your granddaughter's things were and we were to meet the next morning to decide what to do." Dr. Eban huffed his way through the terminal, attempting to keep up with the aging Dr. Covington. The lady might look more ancient than the mountains, and she might walk with a cane but he was still hard pressed not to lose her in the bustling crowd.
"There's the answer," Mel commented from behind him.
"Where?" Ancher Eban turned and looked expectantly around the building.
"No," Mel replied, suppressing a laugh. She forgot how literal most of her colleagues could be. "I only meant that leaving her alone for the night when she's concerned about Gabrielle isn't the best way to keep my Xe Xe in one place."
"Yes, I see that now." Ancher struggled to find the right words to continue. Unsure how his news would be received, he decided to simply launch into the topic headfirst. "We've received two messages now. Miss Baird was abducted just over two weeks ago and a note was received the day your granddaughter arrived to look for her, the note that arrived this morning claims that whoever has Gabrielle now also has Ms. Cadmus."
Janice stopped once she reached the glass doors that led out of the building. The crush of bodies was significantly less, so close to the exit, and she was able to focus on individual people as opposed to great masses of moving forms; a child stood on the curb outside, his face pinched with hunger and smudged with grime. Something in his expression caused her to pause and study him more closely.
The child watched the elderly lady warily, edging further from the door in case he needed to dash away to the safety of the alley. He recognized the man with the two women; it was the professor the young woman had sent him to fetch right after he'd tried to pick her pocket a few days earlier. Ever since that day, he'd kept a closer eye on movements at the airport; if he could find the young woman again long enough to run another errand for her, he would be able to feed his sister for a long while.
A vaguely familiar form caught his attention away from the two old ladies and the professor; the mysterious man from his last visit inside the airport was walking down the sidewalk, heading away from the terminal. He hadn't seen him again since that afternoon when he had stood on the curb waving goodbye to Xena Cadmus and the professor. Despite the sweltering weather, the man was dressed in dark, heavy clothes. Curious, Ravi cast one last look at the old ladies, and set out after the dark man.
He wound through the alleyways with ease, dropping behind boxes and crates whenever the man turned around; Ravi blended in with the rubbish so well even the rats didn't run away from him anymore. At a barred door, the man stopped, removed a key from his pocket, and slipped soundlessly into the building. Ravi examined the door once he felt it was safe to do so. The lock and bars seemed terribly secure to his untrained eyes, but having lived on the streets for so long, the child was truly blessed with the ability to get into any building, although only rarely through the doors.
Looking around the outside wall, he noticed a rusted fire escape ladder halfway up the gratified brick wall. It appeared to lead to the roof. If he could get to the ladder itself he could get in from the roof and find out who the strange man was. The only question was how was he going to get to the ladder; a good four feet over his head, it seemed almost impossible.
"All right, Gabrielle," Xe's voice threatened to reveal her distress regarding her pain and the younger woman's ministrations. She pushed herself into a sitting position, wrapping the bed's blanket around her shoulders; the room's chill sent goose flesh crawling up her arms and warred with her already too cool blood.
"But I'm not finished yet, Xe. There's still dirt and," Gabrielle searched for the right term, "I don't know what else, but I'm not finished yet. I don't want you to get an infection in here. If that happened you could die."
Xe shook her head. "Just give me a minute to defrost my fingers, will you?"
"Oh, okay. But I will get my way before I'm done with you." Satisfied she would be allowed to complete her doctoring, the slight blonde rose from the bed with the bowl to pour out the bloody water, returning with a cup for Xe. "It's not as cold as the other water was, maybe it'll help."
Xe accepted the cup gratefully and sipped the tepid liquid.
"Have you come up with a plan yet?"
The hope that radiated out from Gabrielle's face tempted Xe to lie, to claim that she had indeed discovered a means of escape. The truth was that up until they'd mangled her back, she had been sure she'd be able to get them both out of their prison, now she was less than optimistic. She had tried to fabricate a story for their captors, anything to spare her more pain, but they hadn't accepted her tale. Now she just wanted to escape home and see Enki again. She knew she was being less than heroic but couldn't summon the strength to care anymore. She considered telling her companion, imagining how nice it would be to topple off the pedestal the girl had placed her on years before; but Brie needed to believe in a idol, even if that belief was misplaced. And sadly, she was the only one available.
"I'm working on one."
Ravi stole quietly through the dim hallways. From the depths of the building, he could hear the muffled sounds of movements although nothing distinct reached his straining ears. He knew the strange man was probably below but curiosity drove him to examine each floor he reached.
The upper most level of the old building had held nothing more than empty, open rooms. The next floor down had more of the same, but as he slunk down yet another flight of stairs, the scene had changed. Panic had flooded his mind when the overhead lights had dimmed, until he had reasoned they were on a timer of some kind and not a sign that his entrance had been detected.
Slipping along the wall in the dim light, he quietly opened the numerous doors. With all the rooms darkened, he could only make out vague shadowy forms and could detect no noise and nothing of immediate interest. The last door before the next flight of stairs was different than the others.
A dead bolt gleamed against the dull wood, the key still in the lock. He eyed the door suspiciously. Why would this, of all the many rooms in the building, be the only one protected from intrusion, and why would the key be left behind, foiling that protection?
As he stood pondering the door in the hallway, running dark fingers through even darker hair, he heard an almost hysterical burst of laughter.
"I swear it's true." Xe grinned in spite of the pain she was enduring thanks to the actions of her companion turned nurse.
"No!" Gabrielle's laughter continued to bubble over.
"While Granma Jan and Gran-Mel were making all the arrangements just before I left, Gran-Mel had tuned into the Tonight Show, you know how well she likes Jay Leno. And I promise, he said that Lucy Lawless gave birth to a baby boy. I didn't know she was pregnant and I am a bit curious as to how they incorporated it into the program."
Gabrielle giggled. "Well, it isn't like they've stuck all that close to the translations whose-it's grandson sold them."
"So I've heard. Anyway," Xe paused to draw a shaky breath, "he said that not only did she handle the delivery herself but she also bit off the umbilical cord and then she and the baby ran off into the woods." Glad to see the smile return to Gabrielle's eyes, Xe wished she could come up with more humourous dialogue.
"How awful!" Gabrielle wiped a tired hand across her eyes in a futile attempt to erase the strange mental picture Xe's words had painted. Changing the subject, she rose from the bed, "well, I've done all I can. Anything else will have to wait. Some of these need stitches…"
"I understand." Xe pushed herself up and gently swung her legs over the edge of the bed. "Thank you."
"It's my fault that you're here, Xe."
The elder woman started to argue when they both heard the lock turn. Xe steeled herself for another round of interrogations, taking in the terror that flooded Gabrielle's eyes, sure they were a mirror of her own. She feared that an attempt to fight back would cause harm to Gabrielle; as long as their attentions were centered away from the girl, Xe hoped she could buy enough time to formulate a plan of some kind.
Indescribable shock replaced their terror when a small dark head poked around the corner of the door. "Hi!"
Once Xe had redressed in the stiff, blood-clotted blouse she had discarded earlier, she turned back to the unlikely duo seated on the cot.
"Well, we know something's up," she stated matter-of-factly.
"How so?" Gabrielle looked away from the boy momentarily.
"We've still got lights. The hall is darkened and Ravi said that the other rooms are as well. I don't know what it means though." Gently stretching her arms above her head, she added, "I'm not so sure I want to stick around to find out either. That being said, let's get out of here."
The hall was still filled with shadows as the trio slipped through the door.
"Ravi," Xe paused long enough to gain the child's attention, smiling at the dusky face that tilted up to hers, "get Gabrielle out of here the same way you got in." She grasped Gabrielle's hand in her own, placing it firmly in the young boy's grip.
"What do you think you're doing, Xe?" Anger mingled with concern in the shadow-rimmed hazel eyes that darted across Xe's body, taking in shoulders slumped with fatigue and a stoic expression that almost masked the woman's pain.
"Exactly what the grandmothers sent me here to do. I'm protecting you."
Before Gabrielle could manage a retort, Ravi tugged on her hand, pulling her back down the dim corridor.
Xe carefully crept down the stairway, listening to the sounds of commotion from the floor below. Ravi had been correct, it was definitely men speaking, or rather yelling, but their words were indistinct and Xe wasn't even certain what language they were using; the men who had questioned her had been English, but the guard and the other brutes she had seen were locals, their speech broken and unsure.
If only she could find out who these people were, or who they were working for…
The stresses of university life and motherhood, nearly a world away, sounded like a gift from heaven itself as she struggled to make it down the dark stairs without falling flat on her face. Her mind flew in a thousand directions; Enki's face, the predominant feature of her thoughts, stood out, a blessedly pleasant contrast to the memory of her interrogation. She would have liked nothing more than to curl up on her ratty old couch in her minuscule house, reading story books and mythologies with her son; even a mother-son power struggle sounded more appealing than her current adventure. Trust the grandmothers to inadvertently plunge her right back into the sort of lifestyle she was trying to leave in her past.
Shaking her head free from thought of home, she focused on her present situation, her need to protect the grandmothers from this unknown and very dangerous entity that threatened their well being.
The door at the base of the stairs stood ajar and she listened intently to the rising voices. The hall itself was empty, the sounds coming from a room near her position by the stair. Slipping silently into an empty room crammed full of crates and boxes, she pressed her ear to a ventilation grate. Stilling her breath, she strained to make out the conversation being conducted in the next room.
"Any further questioning is pointless, she doesn't know anything."
"She doesn't know anything! She proved that when she fabricated that ridiculous story about the stone being in the Delphian Oracle's temple when Zeus destroyed it. She was trying anything to stop the beating. If she had known, she would have said so at that time."
"Of course she knows where it is! The story was clearly her attempt to protect the girl. If we offer to release the girl, she may well give us the location."
"You'd let the girl go?"
"You idiot! Of course not, just how many times did Mother drop you on your head in your infancy? We would offer to let the girl go free and then continue with the interrogation. She wouldn't discover our dishonesty until she was returned to the cell, and by then it would be too late to save either one of them."
"If you beat her to death before…"
"Cease!" A loud crash filed the air, punctuated by stony silence.
Long moments later, the conversation continued.
"Uncle is due to arrive today, is he not? It was he who was sure she knew the location of the stone. Has it occurred to you that he's just trying to get back at Dr. Covington for earlier injustices?"
"It is because of her that he's spent all of these years in a wheelchair, Byron! Of course he wants vengeance. And Xena and Gabrielle, pardon me, Ms. Cadmus and Miss Baird, are his best attempt to exact his revenge. Those two old hags, what is it they call them…the grandmothers? They left him for dead. If it hadn't been for the locals who found him and nursed him back to health…"
"But they are innocents in all of this. Just as we ought to be."
"Smythe should be the name scholars associate with Aegean antiquities, Byron, not Covington and Pappas, and definitely not Cadmus!"
"It sounds as if Uncle is not alone in his quest for vengeance…"
Smythe. Xe tried to place the name. Nothing came to mind but at least she had a name to work with. There was something else, something about the voices, a dim familiarity she couldn't place. Trying to ignore the unceasing, fiery pain of her back, she straightened from the wall and turned to exit the room.
She saw the box only a moment before it toppled to the floor with a reverberating crash. All conversation ceased as cries and shots rang out through the hallway.
Adrenaline egged Xe on as she bolted up the flight of stairs, blessing the providence that knocked out the power supply and plunged all into darkness. Relying on Ravi's hurried description of the floor plan, she breathed a sigh of relief when she surged headlong into daylight on the roof, only slowing her pace to vault over the railing. She slid haphazardly down the railing and landed with a heavy thud in the alley below the half-ladder. The sounds of shouting high above her forced her legs into a sprint until she ended up in the bustling crowd of the market.
The street was filling with people forced outdoors by the citywide power outage and Xe pushed her way through the milling crowd. She stopped meters from the airport entrance, gasping for breath and noticing, for the first time, a searing pain in her shoulder. Before she could investigate this new pain, a host of gratefully familiar voices filled her ears.
"Xe's gonna kill you herself once she finds out you're here."
"Well dear, we couldn't very well let you both disappear without coming to investigate." Mel patted Janice's shoulder as the other elderly lady watched Brie intently.
"You're sure that you're okay, Brie? You wouldn't be fool enough to try to pull the wool over my eyes now, would you?"
Gabrielle glared at her grandmother. "I'm fine, I've told you that already. It's Xena who's hurt…badly." She looked around the street, trying to decide on the best place to wait for the missing member of their group.
"Miss?" Ravi's quiet voice drew all eyes and refocused them in the direction the child was pointing.
Xena, alive, but most certainly the worst for wear, stood among the throng of people. Her complexion was rapidly becoming more pallid and she only met Gabrielle's gaze for a moment before crumpling to a bloody heap on the pavement.
Hushed voices mingled with the roaring confusion in Xe's fuzzy understanding. Nothing seemed to make sense. The vague awareness of pain gnawed at her unfocused thoughts but nothing solid materialized. She knew that she kept fading in and out of consciousness and although her eyes remained shut and she remained quiet, the other people in the room seemed aware of her changing state of awareness too, halting their whispered conversation periodically.
Slowly, very slowly, Xe sorted through the events of the past few days. Once she had managed to catalogue her experiences, filling in the blank places in her memory with assumed periods of unconsciousness, she concentrated on forcing her eyes open.
Gabrielle perched on the edge of the chair nearest the bed, listening to the soft conversation Gran-Mel was having with the doctor. Xena would be fine once she awoke, he assured her. The bullet had passed through her shoulder and she had lost a great deal of blood from both the gunshot and the trauma to her back, but she would suffer only scars.
She would suffer only scars, Gabrielle thought solemnly, but how deep would those scars be?
She allowed memories to flood her thoughts again, as she watched the steady rise and fall of her comrade's chest.
Xe stood at the summit of the highest of Messene's ziggurats, eyes closed against the brilliant rays of a deepening sunset. It was their last day in Messene, the last time Brie would see Xena Xandria until she would reappear in Macadonia, years later, angry with her parents and their strong-arming techniques. But on this evening, she was content, at last at peace with her life.
The reenactment of an ancient civilization had been Gran-Mel's idea, a way to build up the waning interest in classical archaeology. It had gone well, their audience of students and the general public still lingered, inspecting various aspects of the site and speaking with those who had taken part in the performance, still dressed in costumes of a time long past.
Xe had been the star of their production, the regal Hestian priestess; a role in stark contrast to the child she cradled in her arms. The baby gurgled happily at the splash of colors created by the sunset as his mother gently swayed back and forth, humming an old lullaby from her childhood.
Gathering up her skirts, Gabrielle ascended the steep steps, slowing when she reached the top to admire both the sunset and the lovely picture Xe and the baby created.
Xe's gown billowed around her legs and danced about her shoulders in the gentle breeze that blew across the platform, swirling dust and yellow pollen in the golden evening light.
"The gown is white," Gran-Mel had said, "unsullied, like those who served Hestia."
"Unsullied, huh? And you're sure you want me to play this part?" Xe had laughed as she lifted her son from his bassinet, swinging him through the air and back down to her shoulder. Looking down at the infant, she laughed again. "If this gown's going to stay unsullied, someone else had better feed Ea."
"It's a good thing we're just play-acting," Granma Jan had chuckled, plucking the baby from his mother's embrace. "We could always change the roles around, you could be Xena…"
"I think I'll stick by Hestia thank you, I get myself into enough trouble all on my own without tempting the fates…or Ares."
"Yeah, it is." Xe shifted her son to her shoulder and the baby grinned toothlessly at Brie, his eyes huge and already full of mischief as he snagged a fistful of his mother's hair, shoving it into his mouth.
"I'm leaving tonight with Father." The young girl turned to look down at the site behind her, her father and grandmother stood a distance away, obviously arguing.
"Don't worry, they're not talking about you."
Surprised that Xe could know her concerns, Brie spun back around. "How do you know?"
"Because they're talking about me, or rather Ea."
Brie looked again at the baby, Xe still faced the sunset and its rapidly dimming glow. "Why would they be talking about Ea?" She walked around to stand in front of Xe. "Can I hold him?"
"Sure." Smiling, Xe handed the child to the girl, marveling at how much she was growing up. Already thirteen and still so inquisitive, still so damned adoring of her idol…"Gran-Mel failed to mention to your father that Ea had ever been conceived. He's concerned you might start getting ideas into that crazy head of yours."
Brie shook her head over her father's foolish, over-protective streak, wondering if he would ever learn to trust her. She was a teenager after all! She returned her thoughts to the drowsy baby she held. "How old is he now?"
"Nearly six months."
"You know, you never did explain his name…" she hinted, wanting to delay their return to the ground regardless of the darkening landscape.
"I forgot…Ea was a Mesopotamian god, the son of Anu, the sky god. He was also called Enki and Nudimmud and had control of the underground sweet waters and of powerful magic. He ultimately became master of all the Mesopotamian gods, even his father, Anu." Xe smiled and brushed a gentle finger across the baby's smooth brow.
Brie grinned up at Xe, "that's some reputation for such a tiny guy to live up to."
Xe arched an eyebrow, "you should try being Xena for a while."
Gabrielle returned her thoughts to the present, reaching out to take Xe's hand as she lifted it from the bed.
"You were smiling," Xe murmured, "I'll take that as a good sign."
"Seeing those eyes of yours is an even better one," Janice said, walking across the room to stand next to Gabrielle. "How do you feel, girl?"
Narrowing her eyes at the elderly woman, Xe growled, "You really don't want to know. I thought I left you two with Enki…in Georgia?"
"He's with Lyall, Dear. Safe and sound." Mel stepped away from the doctor and cupped Xe's chin in her hand. "We promised to bring him Mommy home in one piece. I fear we've failed in that respect."
"I'm still…in one piece. Albeit a mangled piece…but still holding together." The pain that had been a blessed vagueness was regaining strength and Xe fought to ignore it.
"I'll get you something for the pain." The doctor left the room, oblivious of Xe's denial.
"Gran-Mel, does the name Smythe mean anything to you?"
"Smythe?!" Janice swiveled to look at Mel, an old fear and understanding filled faded hazel eyes. "Where did you hear that name, girl?"
"It can't be, Janice. He died a long time ago, when we first met."
Xe related all that she had over-heard, listening in turn to the grandmothers' tale of Smythe's demise.
"I remember that story." Gabrielle refused to relinquish her hold on Xe's hand.
"So do I…now. I need to get out of here."
The unanimous chorus failed to stay Xe's movements as she sat up, she decided to use logic to persuade her protectors. "You admitted me under my name, right?" All heads nodded. "They know who I am, they know I'll need medical attention. Even if they aren't aware of the gunshot, they are aware of…" she allowed her voice to trail off, silence filling the void.
"Miss?" Ravi stepped out of the corner he had occupied since they arrived.
"Ravi, my favorite thief! I guess I owe you even more now, eh?'
The child blushed over Xe's attention and shook his head. "No, Miss. I'm glad I could help you."
As she began to formulate a means of repaying the little boy, a thought came to her. "Ravi, do you have any family?"
"Who's that, your mother?" Janice glanced back down at the child.
"No, Altair's my little sister. She was named for our mother though..."
"Where is she?" Worry ate at Mel's reserve, now that she knew Xe was more or less safe, her concerns could focus on other matters.
"In our alley."
Xe smiled suddenly, at last forming a plan. She couldn't help the grandmothers yet, but she could help this child. "You see? Now I have to get out of this place."
"And why is that, Dear."
"Because there's a little bird out there who's waiting for her brother, and I have a plan."
"I want Mama!"
Taran stared at his nephew, the child was adamant. He stood on his grandparent’s front steps, arms akimbo, his foot tapping impatiently.
"How about paying a visit to Grandma and Grandpa? Mama will be home soon," he reassured the little boy, silently praying he was right.
When Lyall had shown up at his apartment, trailing their sister’s child, Taran had known something must be wrong. His little sister, regardless of her wildness, wasn’t the sort to leave her son with anyone without several months warning. According to Lyall, Xe was out of the country and missing in action, so to speak, and the grandmothers had run off to bring her back home, unexpectedly leaving Enki with him.
"You’re always complaining that you don’t get to see Ea often enough," Lyall had said, "here’s your chance. Besides, I’ve got to get back to my classroom, I got a frantic message from the principal this morning that my kids are terrorizing the sub."
Enki, although generally pleased to see his uncles and grandparents, had had enough and wanted…"Mama!"
The front door opened, revealing Mel's oldest child, Xe's mother. Her gaze traveled from her eldest son, to her grandchild, and back again to Taran, an unspoken question in her eyes.
"Mom…" Taran began.
"I want Mama!" Enki again bellowed, demanding their undivided attention.
Janice Cadmus raised an eyebrow at this child whose personality so mirrored his mother's. "And where is your mama, Possum?"
Xe stood in the hospital foyer, the doctor still sputtering his disbelief that the woman could possibly be in her right mind. She had been beaten nearly to death, shot, and had lost too much blood, she was still incredibly weak; she had no business checking herself out of the hospital. He was tempted to have her admitted to the psychiatric ward, just to keep her off her feet. He had even threatened to do so.
"Doesn't this hospital receive much of its funding from sources at the university?" Mel had questioned. She too was concerned about Xe but knew better than to try to stand in her way.
"Then unless you wish to lose that funding," Janice had taken up the battle, "I suggest you let us deal with the patient."
Xe had ignored the entire exchange, discussing her plan with the young pickpocket.
"No, I've already made up my mind," motioning toward the grandmothers she finished, "even they know better than to argue with me."
Still wary, Ravi hedged, "I'd need to talk to Altair. I won't if she says no."
"Of course not. And yes, Altair needs to be in on the decision; it will affect her as well as you. But I do want you to think about it, all right?"
The child slowly nodded.
Gabrielle stepped up behind Xe and peered over her shoulder at the little boy. "You learn a lot faster than I do. I still can't remember that arguing with her is useless, especially when she has a plan."
Xe grinned until she heard Brie's final statement.
"And it's taken her such a long time to finally come up with one."
"You let her escape?!" Smythe beat his fist against the hand rest, glaring pointedly at the pair of men who stood before him.
"No one let her escape, Uncle. They were both under close guard. How they got away is a mystery." The explanation sounded weak even to Byron as the words crossed his lips.
"What do you think happened, boy! The Olympian gods decided to cast lightening bolts and free her? Ares owed her a favour? You let her escape!"
Byron nudged his brother, urging him to speak in their defense.
"We'll get her back, Uncle. I'll get her back."
"That girl's our best option, boy. With her we can find the stone. And once I have the Ixion stone," Smythe paused briefly, "well, then you can do with her as you see fit. This is your quest as well as mine."
Byron, in an unexpected fit of bravery, grabbed his brother's arm, spinning him around to face him. "Why is this your quest? How?" Byron's faith in his brother began to wane as the possibilities tumbled through his thoughts. "Just how personal is this grudge?"
"Your brother," Smythe continued, "has his own reasons for wanting to capture Xena Cadmus, Byron. You'd do well to stay out of his way. He has his own score to settle."
Byron shuddered in disgust. His guilt in the entire ordeal weighed heavily on his conscious. He has disliked befriending Gabrielle at Catalhoyuk, knowing she was going to be live bait: the means of bringing Xena to Turkey. The girl had been extremely likable and he had only followed through with his directive because he had been promised she would remain unharmed. But he had also been assured of Xena's safety…
Although it would have been suicide to admit it, Byron was silently thrilled the women had escaped their neo-dungeon. Now, he hoped, they could lie long enough to return to their families.
"Granma Jan, why don't ya'll go back to Dr. Eban's office at the university?" Xe grabbed Ravi's shoulder to pause his journey; the sudden movement sent her head spinning and she shut her eyes, hoping her condition would go unnoticed.
"Because, Dear, we came to find you and now that we have, we're not letting you out of our sight." Mel wasn't about to lose the child again, not in her fragile condition. They could tramp all the way to Hades and back and it wouldn't make any difference to her.
"Be reasonable, Gran-Mel. Ravi said that Altair's near the airport, that's half way across the city. The two of you have no business walking that far, at least not so soon after all the worry you've been put through. The university would be a reasonable mid-point. I'll come back as soon as I find Altair." She watched Mel's eyes lose their warmth and turn icy, filling with familiar warning. She knew the woman was worried, angering her wouldn't help her case at all.
"We can't walk that far? Have you taken note of how tightly you're clutching young Ravi's shoulder? You can barely stand on your own," Mel insisted.
"I'll be fine. I'll take Brie with me," she offered. Mel's eyes thawed a bit and Xe breathed a quiet sigh of relief.
"You can't even remember my name, Xe Xe! What makes you think I would want to go with you?" The old irritating Brie of Xe's youth emerged for a moment, pushing aside the concerned, mature woman Xe had spent the last few days with.
"Don't start with me, girl. This is neither the time, nor the place." Xe's patience with these people was wearing remarkably thin. Injured or not, she was going to act on one plan, regardless of whether her companions were in agreement with her. Changing the topic of conversation, she decided, would not be the worst idea.
"Have you called Lyall to let him know everything's all right?"
"Yes, Dear." Mel thought for a moment before continuing, "they're all very much relieved to know you're safe. I, of course, neglected to inform them of your medical condition. Janice would have been rather upset."
"Janice? You called my mother?!"
"I had to, Dear. Taran and Enki were visiting your parents when we found you."
Xe stared blankly at her. She must have been worse off than she thought; nothing was making any sense. "But you left Enki with Lyall, at the farmhouse, in Georgia. Right? Why would he be with Taran now?"
"You keep mentioning Georgia, Xena Xandria. You wouldn't still be angry with us for being here, rather than there, would you?" Janice commented, hoping to dispel some of the tension in the air.
Ignoring her friend's interjection, Mel answered Xe's query. "Lyall's students needed him. Don't worry, Dear, Enki's fine."
"Yeah, he fine all right. He's being passed around like some little foundling that no one wants!"
"Xena Alexandria!" Mel was taken aback by the vehemence in her granddaughter's voice. However, she did understand Xe's anger. The girl had to be in terrible pain and here she was running about a foreign city with more worries than anyone should be concerned with. And she and Janice had foisted it all on her: were responsible for the whole mess.
"Enki is not a foundling, nor is he unwanted, you know that. He'll be back with his own mother soon. And then the two of you can forget all about this little escapade and slip back into your normal, boring life." Hope, more than conviction, filled Mel's words. A prayer that Xe would be able to pull herself through this atrocity and go on with her plans.
Mel hadn't considered the vastness of the intrusion she had forced on the girl by sending her off on this rescue mission. Normalcy was something Xe had a tenuous grasp of at best. Only now, after all was said and done, did Mel regret her decision.
"So he's okay?" Gabrielle hadn't seen Ea in more than a year although she'd pawed through a sheaf of recent photos of him the last time she'd visited Janice's apartment.
"He's quite well," Mel responded, "I believe Janice said that he and the baby were immersed in a giant box of leggos."
"The baby," Xe drawled, "wouldn't appreciate the fact that you still call her that."
Mel smiled. Little Melinda, the youngest of her grandchildren, would soon be a teenager and was as different from her sister as night and day. But the child was most probably her sister's biggest fan, more so even than Gabrielle was. It was a constant worry that plagued her parents. One black sheep was more than enough for the conservative Cadmus household.
Is it agreed then?" Xe questioned. "Gabrielle and I will go with Ravi to locate Altair and we'll all meet back at the university?"
"All right, Dear."
Byron kicked at the stones in the side street as he slowly wandered toward the car his brother had acquired. He was to check the hospitals and clinics, searching for the escaped Xena. His heart wasn't in the quest though and he hoped he could drag his feet long enough for her trail to disappear. The amount of blood they'd discovered in the alley had been proof enough that she wouldn't get very far without medical assistance of some kind and his own guilt in the matter caused the bile to rise in his throat.
He didn't understand the hatred his uncle and brother harboured for the women. He knew his uncle's spite stemmed from decades earlier, when a much younger pair of adventurers had left him for dead in the ruins of Ares' temple. But they had, after all, assumed he was dead. Who could have imagined he would survive with five, or was it six, daggers embedded in his chest and buried beneath a mountain of stone?
His brother's hatred he couldn't understand. He seemed to want only to cause Xena Cadmus as much physical pain as possible. If only he could buy the women enough time to escape the country, he prayed the hunt would have to be called off. His uncle couldn't risk flying to the States due to his failing health and his brother couldn't secure a visitor's visa to save his soul.
Xe looked first at the blonde who walked at her side and then at the heavy grey clouds overhead that were pelting them with icy droplets.
"And your point?"
Gabrielle shrugged, "just an observation."
Winter had arrived and brought with it cooler temperatures. The sudden change was almost as miserable as Texas weather, Xe mused. That's what she got, she decided, for complaining about the heat, even if her complaints were only internalized.
They continued trudging through the littered streets and alleys, retracing their steps back to the university.
Ravi and Altair, who, it turned out, was a near duplicate of her brother, had been left in the hands of the government's child welfare organization; the clerk in charge of their paperwork typing furiously to complete the mandatory stack of forms before Xe's plan could be realized.
"What do we do now, Xena?"
"First we get the grandmothers and you onto a plane headed home."
"Look, I need you to prepare Ea for me; he deserves some kind of warning don't you think? You can tell him that Christmas is coming early this year. Santa's finally acquiesced to his plea for a sibling."
Brie remained silent, watching the cracked pavement beneath her feet and forming a plan of her own.
"You know what she's going to try to do." Janice tapped her cane on Ancher's desk to emphasize her point.
"And what's that?" Mel's good nature had been sorely tested ever since they'd received word of Xe Xe's abduction. She didn't feel like playing word games with Janice any more than she felt like abandoning her grandchild to the wilds of a foreign nation.
"She's going to come up with some wonderful plan to send us packing, to get us out of Turkey."
"And we'll listen to her reasoning," Mel replied firmly. "The girl's no fool, Janice. It would probably be best for us to both remember that."
"And when have I ever ignored the girl, when has she let me? She's got a mouth on her, that one. And when she chooses to use it, heaven help anyone who tries to stand in her way." Janice rubbed a wrinkled cheek with an aged hand. She wasn't nearly so young as she'd like to be, somehow old age had managed to sneak up and catch her unaware. Her bones ached at the very thought of sleeping on a hard, lumpy hotel mattress for even one more night. And she did miss American food, she had never expected that.
"I'm pleased that your grandchildren were recovered so quickly," Ancher said, entering the room with a tea tray and doling out its contents to his old acquaintances.
"Yes, and thank you so much for your assistance," Mel sipped the tea thoughtfully. "I'm sure they'll be back soon. Then we'll leave you to your thoughts."
"Oh ladies, you've been no trouble at all. I only wish the incident had been avoided altogether."
At last the university buildings loomed into view: dark and ominous in the hazy, fading light of late afternoon. Exhausted and shivering, Xe and Gabrielle wrung rainwater from their clothes and hair, and stomped water logged boots on the slate floor tiles, leaving slick puddles in their wake. The Social Sciences building was no warmer than the chilling gusts outside, but it was decidedly drier. The lusty sounds of the grandmothers' familiar bickering did more to warm the younger women than any stove or radiator might.
"Those cigars are worse even than that sorry clump of felt you insist on calling a hat!" Xe shoved open the office door, exposing Janice and her greatest vice.
"The girl can't seem to say hello to me these days, Mel. She's always got something to complain about. Bicker, bicker, bicker! You sound more like your mother every day, girl!"
Mel rose from her chair and reached for her granddaughter's arm to lead her to a seat.
"I'm fine, Gran-Mel. Really, I am. We're just soaking wet is all."
"You're white as a sheet, Dear, and with those smudges under your eyes you look as if you were on the losing end of a cat fight."
Yeah, thought Xe, a cat fight with a whip.
"Xe has another plan," Gabrielle offered.
All eyes turned expectantly to gaze at Xe, her complexion paled further. Seeing that she wasn't in a talkative mood, Gabrielle decided to elaborate, "We're all to return home and she's going to take care of everything, all by herself."
The noise level in the office intensified and Xe had to shut tight her eyes against the throbbing pain in her temples. "I need to rest before I do anything." Squinting her eyes against the achingly bright office lights, she located Dr. Eban. "Is there a sofa or something around here that I could borrow for an hour or two?'
"Of course, if you ladies will excuse me, I have an appointment I must keep." Dr. Eban directed Xe to the adjoining, unoccupied lounge before rushing out into the chilling rain.
Grinning foolishly, Byron pushed past the exit of the last clinic. No one had seen either the elusive Xena or her blonde companion; they had somehow managed to slip safely back into oblivion. He would wait another hour or so before checking the airports, he decided, just to give them plenty of time to make their departure for parts unknown, or at least parts far distant from ancient Anatolia, Catalhoyuk and Turkey.
Xe stretched languidly, enjoying the induldgement of the movement every bit as much as Enki's ginger colored kitten did when he roused from his naps. Listening through a haze of weariness, she heard a few lines of Enki's favourite storybook, recited in his sweet, singsong voice.
"…Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all. So he gave up being king of where the wild things are…"
"…Loved him best of all…" she repeated, reaching out to stroke Enki's silky hair.
"Mama?" Hazel eyes bored into her, brimming with excitement, "Mama!"
"Ea?" She rose uncertainly, perching on the arm of her ancient sofa. Something wasn't quite right but she couldn't pin point what it was that was wrong.
"Mama, your show…I taped it for you while you were gone. Uncle Lyall showed me how and everything." Ea grinned and drew a cassette from behind his back.
"What are you talking about? I don't watch television except after you've…" her voice trailed off as she looked down at the crudely formed letters scrawled across the label. "Ea, how did you know that I watch this?"
Shrugging noncommittally, Enki's eyes brightened. "Can we watch it together?"
"No, absolutely not. Sweet Pea, La Femme Nikita's not appropriate for someone your age, it's too dark, too violent, there's no clear-cut division between good and bad. No; maybe in ten years but definitely not now."
Her mind was so foggy: thoughts whirled and churned in an endless stream of nonsense. The violence of her television obsession blended with flashes of Turkish captivity. The grandmothers…they had asked her to do something…something dangerous…something involving Brie. That was it; she had gone to Turkey to bring Brie back home. She and Brie had been held prisoner…yes! She remembered…her rescue mission had turned sour and she'd been captured…she'd been tortured. Xe raised a hand to her shoulder: the skin was smooth, unmarred by the crack of a whip. Confusion clashed with understanding. A dream? But it had seemed so…
Realization struck. "Enki!"
The child whirled back around to face her.
No, please no...
His eyes…gone were the icy blue depths he had inherited from Gran-Mel. They were green now, an exact replica of Brie's…
"You have information for me?"
The professor nervously fumbled in his pockets until he at last extracted a sodden handkerchief, using it to dab at his streaming face. "Well, that is… yes…I do," he stammered.
"And how did you come by this information?"
His anxiety unabated, Dr. Eban cast a worried glance over his shoulder to the younger man who was lounging against the wall behind him. "I can't say really…no, I truly can't. I give you my word the information is correct. But I require an assurance that the two elder ladies will remain unharmed."
"Of course, Doctor. The young Ms. Cadmus will prove more than sufficient for our purposes. However, we will require some information which is available only in your beloved Dr. Covington's coveted scrolls. See to it that we gain access and the rest we will be taken care of. It is beneficial to us that we acquire the information from as few persons as possible. It decreases the likelihood of a compromising situation."
She opened her eyes to darkness and a returning awareness of blinding pain. Closing her eyes again, she tried to remember…where she was, what was happening, where her son had disappeared to, anything useful. She couldn't pin anything down; memories whirled in an endless parade of possibilities. Panic set in for a moment until she recalled running out of the building in which she and Brie had been imprisoned; they were free of their tormentors. With agonizing slowness, the events of the last week returned with crystal clarity.
Muffled voices drifted in the otherwise stiflingly silent air. Standing slightly ajar, the heavy door let dim light filter into the room, illuminating it enough to allow safe movement but not so much that it would disturb the blistering headache which had begun to blossom in her temples. The grandmothers and Brie were talking softly in the adjoining room.
God's in his heaven and all's right with the world, she mused, smiling over the hushed albeit argumentative tones of the next room's conversation. Maybe that should be the gods are on Mount Olympus and all's right with the world.
"Humph. I think I'd better stop tempting the fates…"
Slowly pushing herself up onto her hands and knees she swayed slightly and almost considered plopping back down on the sofa's musty cushions. The scratchy upholstery and lack of suitable padding put an end to her indecision. The sooner she pried herself away from her nap and got out there to find their abductors, the sooner she could go home.
"And I'm supposed to be conducting my research next week, damnit!" muttering seemed to help lessen the pain that threatened to overtake her thoughts and she continued swearing and complaining softly all the way from the sofa to the adjoining room, stopping only long enough to grasp the knob and pull the door toward her.
"How am I supposed to do participant-observation field work when I'm running around the wrong part of the globe? These people don't have any opinions about elder ethnic relations in Auckland!"
Brie was relaying her plan to the grandmothers, despite their initial disapproval, when Xe staggered into the room.
"Man, Xena Xandria. Umm, I mean…wow…" Brie was shocked at how much worse the woman looked after her nap. The circles under her eyes were darker and her complexion had become even pastier, a stark contrast to the dark hair that hung limply about her shoulders and the huge coal colored eyes that still held their usual smoldering animosity. "Well, you look just awful!"
"Thanks," Xe had to force her voice above a whisper. Clearing her throat, she continued, "We need to get to the airport as soon as possible. I probably shouldn't have wasted the time with that nap…"
"Xe Xe." Mel at last recovered from her shock. "Dear, Janice and I have agreed to fly back home, but only if you keep Gabrielle here with you."
"She's in danger here."
Janice stepped forward to join the argument, "No more so than you are. And besides, she now knows what the dangers are, she can protect herself. But heaven only knows what that father of yours will do if he ever finds out about this little adventure." She pointed her cane at her grandchild in a failed attempt at menace.
Brie nodded her head, she understood how much her grandmother worried over her, but she couldn't let Xe risk life and limb alone. She had a whole household to take care of now. "We'd better get going. The last flight to Atlanta leaves in an hour and I've already switched your return flights."
They had almost made it to the airport before the hair on the back of Xe's neck began to stand on end; she was relatively certain it wasn't due to the cold gusts of wind that buffeted them across the hazy streets, nor was it from the icy rainwater that continued to trail rivulets beneath her blouse, uncomfortable though it was. Danger lurked somewhere nearby, call it a warrior's instinct, women's intuition, or just a reasonable guess considering the reason for their presence in eastern Europe in the first place.
Hurrying her charges along the sidewalk and pushing Brie and the grandmothers into the terminal building, Xe ducked back out into the downpour. If she could draw out whoever it was that was following them, she just might be able to get some answers; observing an unoccupied recessed doorway, she tried to blend in with the deepening shadows of evening.
Gabrielle stood sputtering her dissent at being left behind to an inattentive audience of reservation clerks and customs officials. The grandmothers stood close to the ticket counter, seeming to enjoy the scene the girl was making. The young woman's eyes were blazing with unfathomable fury. Janice smothered her chortle in a fist, masking it with a half-hearted cough.
"She just left me behind," the livid blonde demanded, "didn't she?!"
"Indeed she did, Sugar." Mel was curious to see what the girl would do next and stood beside her old friend eager to watch the fireworks begin.
"Well, I never…yes I…she used to…of all the nerve…"
"You sure you're alright, Brie? You seem to be having trouble forming a complete thought." Janice tapped out a syncopating rhythm on the grungy linoleum. "Maybe that hit she took to the head was worse than we thought, Mel."
"I'm fine!" Gabrielle slammed her fist down on the counter, "Give me that damned trench coat that I know you brought," she insisted, indicating the travel bag at the women's feet. Snatching the garment from her grandmother's proffered hand, she spun around to face the exit, and stomped back across the room, a telltale trail of rainwater pooling behind her. She turned again to face the pair of elderly women before returning to the inclement weather. "If I'm not back, if we're not back, before your flight departs, you two had better be on it anyway. No waiting around here, changing flights and risking mortal harm." she demanded angrily, "agreed?"
"Yes, Darlin'. We understand and agree."
"Humph!" Gabrielle's grumbles faded into the rain as she departed the terminal in search of Xe, a string of inventive curses trailing in her wake. The street was devoid of her companion, the street was pretty much empty of all pedestrians, and Gabrielle nearly began to shout out the woman's name when she caught a glimpse of a tanned arm, bare to the inclement weather. She reached Xe's side just as Byron also stepped into the alcove.
His eyes widened at the pair of women standing before him, they resembled drowned rats more than anything else, and he had to shelve his desire to offer them drier accommodations. He was baffled however, at the reasons for their presence in the street. He had hoped they would be airborne, peacefully crossing the Atlantic. Why were they still hanging around? And how could he manage to get them on a plane without revealing his own guilt in their danger?
"I'm sorry, I didn't see you here. The rain has made me a bit single minded, I'm afraid." He tipped his head slightly, and looked into startled hazel eyes. "Gabrielle! I didn't recognize you. You must be freezing."
The blonde grinned up at him, her eyes sparkling with recognition and delight. "Byron! What a surprise! What are you doing here?"
"Sadly, the rainy season has deposed us from the site. But you, how are you doing? They wouldn't really tell us anything other than you were missing. Did you opt for a holiday and dump the site jeep to throw us off your trail?" Byron teased as he watched unnamed emotions soar across the young woman's face. He regretted his continued deception but it would have to persist until both the women were safely gone.
"Brie!" Xe hissed through teeth clinched in anxiety.
"Kinda," she ran her free hand through dripping hair. Byron had been so kind and helpful during her first weeks at Catalhoyuk and she felt herself warming again to his outgoing personality, it was such a stark and pleasant contrast to that of her brooding companion. "This is a friend of mine." She offered, pointing toward Xena even as she draped the loose coat across the woman's shoulders. "Xe, Byron was at the sight before all that other stuff happened." Xe's expression caught her off guard. At Byron's initial appearance she had been surprised, but then something darker had crossed her eyes. Gabrielle couldn't pin point the emotion but was aware it wasn't pleasant.
"Well, I'm in a bit of a hurry, I'm afraid." Byron bowed slightly to the two women. Xe's expression was making him incredibly nervous. If he didn't know better, he'd swear that she was perfectly aware of his part in their abductions. Smiling at Gabrielle, he turned and walked back out into the rain.
"Who was that?" Xe's voice sounded strained, nearly drowned out by the noise of the downpour, it was so soft.
"That was just Byron," Gabrielle turned to watch his slowly retreating form. "Like I said, he was at the site, at Catalhoyuk. He was probably the nicest person there, very attentive." A slow smile spread across her lips, followed by a crimson blush when she noticed Xe's close scrutiny. "I'm young!" she exclaimed, exasperation once again encroaching on her temperament, "I'm supposed to behave foolishly! You did!"
"Yeah, you've got that right, I did behave foolishly." Xe rounded on her, "I believed a man's lies because I was physically attracted to him. I didn't want to delve any deeper into our relationship than was absolutely necessary. And for my youthful transgressions I nearly cost Granma Janice a lifetime of research, Gran-Mel almost lost her life altogether and I have a son who can never see his father!" Xe's anger bubbled over into the heavy air in the alcove, oppressive as the rain-laden skies.
"What are you talking about?"
"Byron. I know his voice." Xe leaned wearily back against the wall, suddenly more exhausted than she had been in a long while. Memories of her long pregnancy on the grandmothers' site flooded her senses; fear, panic, unwavering animosity: they all waged war against her senses yet again. The voices, why had she not been able to recognize them when she'd first heard them? How could she have blocked the memory so thoroughly from her mind?
"Xe?" Gabrielle's concern broke through her musings. "What is it? What's going on?"
"I never met his brother." The rest was long in coming, Xe was still having difficulty comprehending the entire situation. "He spoke about him periodically, but his brother was away at school when I knew him. I should have remembered his name though…" She shook her head to discourage the questions Gabrielle wanted to pose, continuing instead with her rambling half-explanation. "I know who they are. And I know what they want and why they're trying to use us to get it."
"Don't leave me in the dark."
"They want to claim the grandmothers' accomplishments as their own, expose them as some kind of fraud."
Gabrielle was confused, "but how can they do that?"
"I'm not sure. I wasn't sure six years ago either, I just knew what their intentions were. Now though, we have a slightly bigger problem."
"Byron's brother and Ea's father."
"Byron is not behind this!" Gabrielle planted her feet solidly in front of Xe, refusing to allow her an escape.
"Fine, Byron's a wonderful person. His brother however, must have taken after a sadistic uncle or something." Xe pushed her head back against the glistening brick and stone alcove. She didn't want to fight, a nearly overwhelming exhaustion had settled in her chest, pushing heavily against her determination to keep going. "Just trust me, Brie. This one time trust that I know what I'm talking about. I know it's going to be difficult but try."
Gabrielle knit her eyebrows together in an attempt to sort through her emotions. She was just so tired of making the wrong choices, and to learn that Byron had only befriended her so that he could use her to lure Xena to Turkey… A sudden thought occurred to her. "Does this Liam person know about Ea?"
"I don't know."
"What do you mean you don't know? Either he knows or he doesn't. Did you ever tell him?"
"I told him; I doubt he remembers. He even signed the papers terminating his parental rights but he probably doesn't remember that either."
Gabrielle sighed. "I hate it when you're cryptic."
"It was a long time ago, Gabrielle, a very long time ago."
"So we'll have a lot to talk about tonight in the grandmother's hotel room." Gabrielle's face broke into an angelic smile as she wrapped an arm around Xena's waist. "Come on, their flight is gone by now and I'm freezing!"
"So what do we do now?" Janice's voice crackled with emotion.
Wallace looked away from his grandson and up into his wife's curious eyes.
"Oranges and lemons say the bells of St. Clemmons…"
He had handed over his current caseload to an unencumbered law partner so he could spend some time with his grandchild. Sitting on the sun porch in the streaming sunlight with the Wall Street Journal unfurled in his hands he was as lost as his lovely bride as to what their next move should be.
"…You owe me three farthings say the bells of St. Martin's…"
Shrugging broad shoulders he turned his attention back to smile at Ea.
"…When will you pay me say the bells of old Bailey…"
The boy was the very image of his mother, even down to the fire that lit in his eyes whenever he sensed an injustice. The re-embodiment of that same passion that Wallace had admired, had encouraged even, in his elder daughter. And they had been surprised by her reaction to Melinda's retirement… they should have easily anticipated her behaviors; they never should have let her further isolate herself from the family.
"…When I grow rich say the bells of Shore Ditch…"
"She knows what she's doing, Janice. Let's just give her the benefit of the doubt this time at least."
"…When will that be say the bells of Stepney…"
"I don't see how we're supposed to sit idly by, Wallace. Why, she deserted-"
"Janice!" Wallace jerked his head toward the child, anger flushing his face and seething behind the wire rims of his reading glasses. "We've effectively ostracized our eldest daughter, don't include her son in that category."
"…I do not know say the great bells of Rowe…"
The insistent ringing of the telephone called a temporary halt to their argument. Janice, in an attempt to distance herself from Enki's impromptu but forceful recital as well as her husband's building ire, shook her head and left the room.
Ea continued to tinker with the leggos little Melinda had produced upon his arrival. He was determined to complete the castle they had begun the day before, preferably before his youngest aunt returned home from school.
"…Here comes a copper to put you to bed, here comes a chopper to cut off your head."
Wallace chuckled over the boy's choice of songs. "So tell me, Ea, did your mother teach you that song?"
"Uh huh. Mama taught me lots of songs." Ea's concentration was centered on his creation and he answered his grandfather's questions without looking up.
"How about the 'Tattooed Lady'?"
Ea raised his eyes and grinned devilishly. "No, will you?"
Xe stood at the window in the hotel room the grandmothers had evacuated. The rain continued to pound against the plate glass in an endless torrent of icy sheets. She absently dried her hair with a crisp towel, hoping to rid her body of some of its chill. She could hear Gabrielle moving around the room behind her, pacing, sitting in the over-stuffed armchair, rising and pacing again.
"You're wrong about Byron, you know."
Xe leaned her forehead against the glass. "So you keep telling me."
"You are wrong. There's nothing more to it than that. Byron's simply not like that." Gabrielle whirled around to face Xe. "Are you ever going to tell me about this brother of his, this Liam?"
Xe shut her eyes, relishing the feel of cool glass against her skin. Choosing to disregard her companion's last question, she whispered, "I'm going to bed. I'll see you in the morning." She was too tired to argue; too exhausted to take a convincing stand even when she knew she was sadly correct in her opinion. Oh, what she would pay to be proven wrong…
She pushed herself away from the window, catching the curtain tie in a lethargic hand and pulling the draperies closed. The bed met her as she fell toward it, pillowing her body in its soft depths. This simple little rescue mission had turned into a living hell, and promised to worsen, especially if she ended up having to come face to face with Liam.
Gabrielle spent the night watching Xe sleep, hovering over her when nightmares claimed her, bathing her forehead with a cool cloth when her temperature rose. She was concerned; she knew that under normal circumstances the doctors would never have released her from the hospital in the condition she was in. She was much more ill than she would want to admit to anyone, no matter how serious her condition became. Slumped in the armchair, Gabrielle drifted in and out of a fitful sleep, conscious of every movement Xe made on the bed.
e's sudden outcry sent Gabrielle back to the bedside, reaching out to try to gently wake her. Xe's head tossed against the pillow as she fought the unseen attacker of her dream, her cries muffled against the linens and her movements jerky and uncoordinated in the throes of her terror.
"Hey, shhh, it's okay now, Xe. You're safe now," Gabrielle murmured softly, brushing dark hair from Xe's face. "Xe, come on, wake up." She shook her shoulder lightly, she hated to wake her but nightmares were not a productive form of sleep.
"No, stop… Liam…"
"Okay, Xe, you really need to get up now." Gabrielle took Xe by both shoulders, trying to avoid her injuries, and pulled her forward to sit up among the rumpled nest of blankets she had been cocooned in. "Xe?"
She slowly opened her eyes, struggling against the force that was holding her until she realized that it wasn't an assailant but was Brie instead. Shaking her head to dislodge the nightmare, she smiled tremulously at the blonde who was so obviously worried. "I'm okay now, Gabrielle. It was just a dream."
"I'm supposed to be the one telling you that," she admonished. "Are you alright now?"
"Yeah, I'll be fine."
"Good, then you can tell me about it. You can tell me how Liam can scare you so much." Gabrielle reached out to smooth the blankets across Xe's legs. "I didn't think you were scared of anything."
"Everyone's scared of something, Brie."
Liam stared at his brother, icy hatred brimming in his eyes. "I fail to understand how you could lose two incompetents such as Gabrielle Baird and Xena Cadmus, Byron. Xena must have gone to a hospital or clinic somewhere in the city, why is it that you couldn't locate her?"
"She was gone by the time I got there. The nurses were still upset over her departure, they didn't think she was ready to leave." Byron was having difficulty handling Liam's disapproval; anticipating it was not nearly as difficult as receiving it.
"It's a good thing we have alternate ways of keeping track of the women then. Our… informant, has practically delivered them into our hands." Byron glared at the surprised man who stood facing him in the musty warehouse. "I'm not a fool, little brother. I know you've been deliberately stalling in an attempt to allow them to flee back to America. I wanted you to know that your plan has failed. Not only are they still here, I know exactly where they are."
"Liam, I don't know what…"
"Cease this. You fell for that irritating little blonde when you met her on the site, and you've been trying to protect her ever since," Liam spat the words across the room, finding the very thought distasteful. "But regardless of your best efforts, I will still get Xena. She will pay."
"Why do you hate her so much? How do you know her? You said we were doing this for Uncle, when did it become your own personal vendetta against Xena Cadmus?" Byron stopped his torrent of questions as he ducked the chair that suddenly became airborne. Fleeing the room to allow Liam to calm down, Byron decided to do some investigating of his own.
"You said that you were unsure whether Liam knew about Enki. What did you mean by that?" Gabrielle snuggled into the armchair, a cup of steaming tea clutched in her hands to ward off the night chill. The external temperature was still continuing its downward plunge and both women were struggling to stay comfortable.
"Just that, I don't know if Liam knows I had a baby or not. I got him to sign the papers and never saw him again." Xe ducked her head at the memory.
"Explain it to me, Xe. Please…"
"It was a long time ago, Brie…" Xe began, her voice remained steady but her hands shook with the resurgence of memory.
The street had been quiet when the church bells tolled the midnight hour. No one was about in the dark little town and only one shop's windows were still lit from within. The pub sat mid way down the small town's main thoroughfare, a beckoning beacon in the chilly night.
Xe continued toward the building, she had tried to find Liam at his family's home and had been informed that he had not yet returned. It was suggested that she might be able to locate him at the local pub, and that if she were successful she was to relay to him that he should return home. And so Xe had pulled the scarf tighter around her neck and shoved her hands deep into her coat pockets, plodding into the midst of town.
Once she found herself standing outside the pub, she was unsure whether she wanted to enter after all. She drew herself up, straightened her shoulders, and lifted her chin. If she were to survive this, she would have to adopt the right attitude. The thick wooden door pushed open with surprisingly little effort, sending a flood of warm light into the street.
The bartender paused, a glass and towel suddenly immobile in his hands. Xe nodded to him as she walked straight back to a dim table in the far corner of the room.
Liam slumped in the chair; the table was littered with sticky pint glasses, mostly set upright, and sitting as testimony to his level of inebriation. His head lolled forward in drunken sleep. Slowly edging closer to the table Xe patted the rumpled forms she had tucked safely in her pocket. They had remained close at hand throughout her intercontinental trek to find Liam.
She stood opposite him when he raised his head to call out to the bartender for another round. It took his bleary eyes a few minutes to focus on the reason for his drunken stupor. "You walked out on me, Xena Xandria. You walked away and didn't even tell me you were leaving," he slurred. Raising a finger to point menacingly at her, he continued, "I had to find out you'd left from that bitch Irene. She laughed in my face."
Xe refused to react, that was what he wanted. How in the hell had she gotten into such a relationship to begin with? What had happened to her sensibilities, her reason? Shaking off her doubts, she claimed one of the chairs. "Liam?"
"What brings you to this bloody little hell hole, Xe? Crawling back for what you gave up?" Liam's voice was so slurred Xe had difficulty understanding his words.
Deciding to ignore his poor attempt at speech, Xe persisted, "Liam, there's something here that I need your signature on." She drew from her pocket the packet of papers she'd been carrying. "Here, I even brought a pen…"
"Now, now, dear one, not so quick." Liam leaned across the table to cup Xe's cheek in his hand. "What ever happened to your idea of quid pro quo, eh? Tit for tat? I'll sign your bloody paper, but first I think you owe me something…"
"Liam, I really don't have time for this…"
"Then I don't have time to sign your little paper." He snatched the pint from the bartender when he approached, spilling the dark liquid on himself and the table in the process.
The proprietor turned to Xe. "And what about you, Dearie?"
She shook her head a bit too forcefully. "No thank you." Straining against her better judgment she faced Liam again. "What sort of payment?"
"It's been a long time, Xe," his voice faded as he stared more intently at her.
"No, Liam, anything but that." She would have continued her disagreement had his hand not returned to her face. He gripped her neck with tight fingers, sending tendrils of pain down her spine. "You'll sign the paper then?"
He cocked his head at her. "After."
The bartender watched the pair with saddened eyes as Liam tossed a handful of bills down on the table and jerked his companion to his side with a drink-numbed hand. She had to hold him up as he swaggered toward the door.
"Xena…" Gabrielle was at a loss for words. She couldn't even imagine Xe allowing someone else to have so much control over her.
"I was a different person when I was around Liam, a much different person. I finally wizened up when I found out about Ea was the way." She shook her head slowly, remembering how difficult it had been for her to admit she had allowed herself to fall into such an abusive relationship. "In the end, I had no alternative if I wanted him to sign those papers. Had I approached him when he was sober, he never would have released custody of the baby. I just didn't see any other options."
"What do we do now?"
"Tomorrow I track down Liam. I know what he wants, I also know that he's not going to get it."
The doorbell sounded loudly through the house, followed by a wild scurrying of sliding feet and raucous giggles.
"I beat you!"
The wooden door muffled the latter cry but the voice's owner was unmistakably one very young boy. Surprise and excitement lit his eyes when he peered through the window before throwing wide the door to allow the grandmothers entrance to his grandparent's home. Little Melinda grinned up at the pair of women from behind her nephew, just as excited as Enki about their unexpected visitors.
"Gran-Mel! Granma Janice! Where's Mama? Is she here, did she send me a present? Do I get to go back home with you now and see the museum?"
Janice laughed at the youngster's enthusiasm and tousled his hair with her stiff fingers. "So many questions for such a tiny thing!" she exclaimed. "You're just like your mama was when she was your age, always prattling on about whatever struck her fancy."
Enki beamed at the comparison to his adored mother, but his young aunt had difficulty imagining her solemn quiet sister ever being overly vocally inquisitive… dark, brooding, and protective were better adjectives to describe Xe. Little Melinda's grin broadened when her own beloved Gran-Mel shook her finger at her old friend.
"My Xena never prattled on like that, you're mistaking her with your Gabrielle." Smiling down at Enki to soften the statement, she added, "but you are the very image of your mother, little one. Sometimes I forget you're not my little Xe Xe come back to me as a child."
Little Melinda watched the exchange with an unfazed smile and welcoming eyes, amazed by both the elder women. The whole of her family accepted the women's unwavering devotion to her older sister, even if they didn't quite understand it, with the possible exception of her mother, Janice, who worried over the chance that any one of her children feeling slighted. The woman's fears were unfounded. There had never been any question as to which the favorite grandchild was, but regardless of their unabashed affection toward Xe, the rest of the children knew they too were loved. There was just something about Xe that drew a certain amount of attention. It was almost as if her very solemnity and usual silence created some kind of inescapable magnetic attraction, people were drawn to her like so many moths to a flame. But it was the people Xe let get close to her that intrigued Little Melinda since they were so very few.
"Mom will be glad to see that you both made it back okay."
"Come here, Little Mel, and give this old lady a hug," Janice demanded, pounding on the front steps with her cane.
The child enveloped both Janice and her little nephew in a ferocious embrace and smiled at her true grandmother. "You left Xe behind to take care of matters, didn't you?"
"So smart you are, little one. Yes, as a matter of fact we did leave her behind to take care of things. But she asked us to come and tell Enki about the wonderful surprise she has in store for him." Mel cupped her youngest granddaughter's cheek in her wrinkled hand and bent down to be at eyelevel with Ea. "Your Mama said to tell you that you finally get your wish."
The little one looked questioningly at his young aunt but Little Melinda was just as much in the dark as he was. Turning back to Janice's embrace he looked up at his great-grandmother. "Which one?"
"The one for a brother or sister. And guess what, your Mama's bringing home one of each."
At the sound of her mother's voice, Janice had followed Little Melinda and Ea's path to the front door. She reached the foyer just in time to hear the specifics of Xena Alexandria's surprise for Enki. "So just who has that fool-child of mine saved this time?"
The early morning sun was just beginning to send out a golden glow across the eastern sky when Gabrielle stretched in her sleep and, forgetting that she had fallen to sleep in the chair to be closer to Xena as she battled her nightmares, fell unceremoniously to the carpeted floor. Xe grinned, waiting for her companion to rouse from her deep slumber. Sleeping heavily was one thing but this was ridiculous.
"Brie," she whispered, knowing full well that her hushed tone would have no effect. "Brie," a little louder. She reached out to shake the girl's shoulder but still got no reaction. "Gabrielle, come on now. Aren't you hungry?" That got a response and Xe shook her head in wonder.
"Hungry…" the muffled word drifted up from the disheveled lump that still lay unmoving on the carpet.
"Then get up. We've got things to get accomplished this morning, sleepy head."
It hadn't been as hard to convince Gabrielle to trek to the child welfare center as Xe had expected. Why the girl believed a word she said, she would never know. 'No, no, I'm just going to stay here and rest. Of course I'm not going to run off after Liam half-cocked, I'm not that much of a fool. I promise I'll be right here when you get back. Don't worry.' She did at least wait until she was sure Gabrielle was a good distance from the hotel before she set out to track down her antagonizer, decked out in the excruciatingly touristy clothes she'd found for sale in the hotel's gift shop.
Resplendent in fringe and stereotypic Mediterranean embroidery, she had almost made it to the corner before the almost forgotten cold chill of near hysterical terror gripped her. Standing in front of her on the sidewalk only an arm's length away and oblivious to the drizzling rain was Liam. He had the upper hand for the moment, surprise was on his side.
"Hello, love. What brings you to Antalya? You wouldn't be trying to help those two old women steal any more of my rightful discoveries, would you?" A sneer spread across Liam's handsome face as he taunted his former lover.
"Not bloody likely, that sounds like it would be more up your alley." It had only taken Xe a moment to tamp down her old fears. She was a wholly different person than she had been when she had thought she loved Liam; the weaknesses she had once possessed were as foreign to her new personality as a Ming dynasty vase would be in a temple of Zeus.
Liam's gaze shifted slightly, drawing Xe's attention to the two men who were trying to unobtrusively slip up behind her to block her only egress. She circled slowly around Liam, a starving cat on the prowl that had just found its prey, causing him to turn so that all three men were in front of her and stared pointedly at him, raising an eyebrow in silent question.
"You didn't really think you could catch me a second time, did you? I mean, really now Liam, you didn't even catch me the first time, I gave myself over to you quite willingly. And now," she raised her hands in mock surrender, "you don't have anything with which to bargain." Her voice seethed with illicit fury still outraged that he would dare threaten Gabrielle's safety just to get her attention. The girl deserved to keep her innocence intact for as long as she could manage to do so, she'd no doubt loose it all on her own before too much longer without the help of scum the likes of Liam and his grubby henchmen.
Xe's mind was racing for an easy way out of her circumstances. She had changed the bandage on her gunshot wound that morning and found it heavily spotted with blood, her shoulder burned and ached with fiery consistency and, on top of it all, her fingers were beginning to feel numb and tingly, definitely not a good sign. She was also still much too weak for her comfort level. Regardless of how much she wanted to end the confrontation all together and as soon as possible, it would be difficult enough when she was in top form. If she could just get Brie on a plane with the children, then she would be able to focus entirely on the situation without having to worry about her young companion.
"You're mine Xena Xandria, I've marked you now."
"I was never yours, Liam, nor will I ever be."
"Come now, Xena… Never?" He leered at her, his gaze raking across her body and fully taking in the figure that had filled his dreams for so many years. It didn't bother him in the least that the dreams had turned from purely adoring and obsessive to murderous, she was always in his thoughts.
She refused to be taunted; it would do her no good to lose her temper and therefore her focus. "So tell me Liam, just what exactly have you been up to since I last saw you? Still trying to drown your sorrows in cheap swill? Or have you just gone back to your crazed idea that you've been cheated out of fame and glory?" She watched the fury play across his face, he still had not learned how to control his emotions, and it was so easy to get him worked up into a frenzy. One word, a single comment was enough to unleash the tempest.
Irene reached out and grabbed a much younger Xe's arm as she walked past the tent flap, dragging her into the stifling dim interior. She let go as soon as it was evident Xe wasn't going to try to flee. Irene liked the girl in spite of herself. When the young woman had shown up at the site accompanied by not only Melinda Pappas but also Dr. Covington, Irene had written her off as just riding on their shirttails. She didn't care how much the girl was supposed to know about Aegean antiquities and she didn't care that she could read Sanskrit as well as most of the team could read English, she hated the fact that just because she was related somehow or other to two well-known archaeologists, she was deserving of such special consideration. Irene had begged and pleaded to secure a place for herself on the team and then almost lost her spot due to a paperwork error.
Grey eyes studied her intently. Xe waited patiently. She knew how most of the team felt about her and was thankful that once the grandmothers had left she proved to at least be able to hold her own among the rest of the group.
Irene finally spoke, "Look, I know it's none of my business but it's Liam…"
"You're right, it's none of your business." Xe, none too comfortable to begin with, began to step toward the tent flap.
"He's using you to get to Dr. Covington's discoveries. I overheard him speaking with someone on the phone when we went into town yesterday." Irene rushed through the rest of the explanation fearing Xe would leave halfway through and miss part of it.
Xe stared at the other woman for a long moment and then turned to leave. "Thank you for telling me." Irene almost missed the words she spoke and suddenly wished she hadn't been so swift in her initial judgment of the young Xena Cadmus.
When Xe mentioned Irene's suspicions to Liam an hour later, all hell broke loose. Within minutes Liam's usually tidy tent was turned upside down, his shouts had been heard from all areas of the site, and Xe was left staring at him, mouth agape. His reaction had been like quicksilver and the violence had startled her. She didn't think he would have been able to control himself even had he tried, and she wondered what would happen if he ever felt the need to direct his anger specifically at her…
Slowly she began to back along the sidewalk. If she could lure them in front of the alley, maybe she could incapacitate Liam's goons and get some much-needed answers out of the swine that stood before her. Just a few more feet, that's it boys, keep coming. Just a little more… Come on… The alley opened up beside her littered with useless rubbish. Quickly glancing to left she glimpsed a discarded length of lead pipe. An evil grin lit her features, she couldn't have asked for a better weapon if she had prayed to Ares himself.
Once she took her chance and darted into the alley, she surprised even herself with the speed she was able to manage. Her attackers, thinking she was trying to escape, came up short as she grabbed the pipe and swung it at them. The heavy metal met with one goon's temple, sending him crashing to the filthy ground. She grinned as his body crumpled into a motionless heap and taunted the second man. Liam, she knew, would let them risk bodily harm before he so much as raised a finger. Proving to be as stupid as he looked, the second man approached her. She feigned a swing, changing the path of the pipe's momentum just as the man went to lunge for it, as he lost his balance she brought the pipe down on the back of his head.
Not even winded, she turned back to Liam who stood a safe distance away, rich laughter bubbling forth. "That's the best you could find?" She gestured to the pitiful men. "Come now, you're losing you eye for brute strength and moderate intelligence. Then again, you never were a very good judge of character. After all, you thought I would stay with you forever." Circling the now wary man, Xe lunged toward him, dropping down on one knee and sweeping his feet out from under him before he could react.
Liam's head hit the pavement with a dull thud that reverberated off the surrounding brick walls with sickening clarity. He blinked once before Xe straddled his chest, gripping the pipe in both hands and holding it against his windpipe. "This is really just too easy, no challenge…" she muttered softly.
"Now, dearie, you are going to answer a few questions or I might just have to give into temptation and end your miserable little life right here and now." A sadistic grin curved Xe's lips as she stared into Liam's eyes.
"You'd never…" his argument was cut off when Xe pressed the pipe against his neck effectively lessening his oxygen supply. His eyes bulged and he tried to claw at the offending piece of lead until she repositioned herself so that his arms were pinned beneath her as well.
"You've no idea…" She leaned back slightly and eased the pressure she was exerting on his throat. "Now, for my questions. I know you're in on this little scheme with your brother and your uncle. I know that your uncle is supposed to be dead; at least the grandmothers were relatively sure he was dead when they left him behind so long ago. I also know you seem to feel that everything the grandmothers have done is rightfully yours, I've never understood that… Anyway, you sent Byron to the site at Catalhoyuk once you discovered Gabrielle was there, you knew that if I thought she was in danger, I'd come after her. To make sure your little plan worked you left the notes. Once you had me in your possession you lost it, you weren't able to get the answers you were searching for and so you tried to destroy me. Your plan didn't work by the way. It took me a while but I finally figured out why you're showing so much interest in a stone that probably never existed to begin with. You're running scared, I'm not sure from what though." Xena sat heavily on his chest as she ran through her monologue.
"You don't know what you're talking about," Liam wheezed.
"Oh, sure I do." She nodded impatiently, ignoring the stabbing pain in her shoulder and across her too-tender back where the fabric of her blouse was pulled taut. Her speech was becoming more animated as she continued. "I've been asking myself why a slug, such as yourself, would specifically ask for the location of the Ixion stone if you were so concerned about the grandmother's research and discoveries being rightfully your uncle's? You see, they never found the Ixion stone, as a matter of fact, the only thing they ever found that so much as mentions it, doesn't say all that much about it. Granma-Jan thinks it was just thrown into the story as creative license, just a storytellers' device to add some action to the plot."
Liam's expression seethed hatred as he watched Xe, waiting for a moment of weakness to allow him to escape from her control. He had relied too much, he realized, on the old fear she had held for him. "I don't need to explain anything to you," his words were strained and he bit off his comment before he said anything to change her light hold on the pipe.
"Hmm? I can't totally agree with you on that one. You see, I've still got the upper hand if you'll notice." Xe's face glowed with an almost too cheerful smile, her eyes dancing as they watched Liam squirm beneath her. "Now tell me, why do you want the Ixion stone?"
Liam turned his face from her, refusing to answer her query.
Xe sighed, this was going to be a very long day.