Edited/Augmented by Roo

Whispers in the Dark by Becky Lutzke (deanlu)

"Did you hear?"

Straining to discern what her fellow captive was saying, a young woman moved closer to the door, but the iron shackles on her feet didn't have much slack, and previous attempts to remove them had left her ankles raw and bleeding. Disgusted with her situation, she wrinkled her nose at the dank walls, the urine-sodden floor of her cell and her own filthy clothing.

She desperately wished for a warm bath, or even a cold soak in a stream to cleanse the accumulation of four week's filth from her body. But some things go to the bone. She stretched, testing her shoulder which was all but healed. She had vague memories of her capture; she'd been ill, poisoned by a Persian arrow. Xena had battled a contingent of Persian scouts to bring her the antidote. As she lay recovering in the loft, Xena asleep at her side, the same Persians who had minutes earlier fled for their lives, set the barn ablaze. She remembered thick, acrid smoke, and Xena lifting her over her shoulder...and then she remembered no more.

She'd awoken later, sprawled on the haystrewn floor of this same cell, bootless, staffless, with Xena nowhere to be found. XENA. SHE MUST BE DEAD, thought Gabrielle. SHE'S DEAD...OR SHE WOULD HAVE COME FOR ME. She shook herself from this dangerous introspection. Once again, she appealed to the unseen companion in the adjoining cell. "Ezra? What did you say?" she whispered a little louder, desperately hoping the guard would not hear. When he caught her talking with Leonidas earlier in the month, he had beaten her, squeezing her throat so badly that she'd been unable to utter a sound for two weeks.

Patiently, with cold fear running down the length of her spine, the woman waited for Ezra's response. Ezra was her latest companion, arriving in the early morning hours while she slept just a week earlier. As far as she knew, he was just another prisoner, another casualty in the ongoing war between the Persians and the Athenians.

That first night, as they spoke in the dark, she from her cell, he from his, he recounted his capture on the front lines during a particularly bloody campaign. He had been a nameless soldier then, one among hundreds, wounded, although by no means badly; a lucky blow to the head had taken him down.

Upon awakening, he had been tortured by Persian soldiers whose specialty involved extracting troop movements, battle strategies and other important information from unwilling captives. Before they both fell into an exhausted sleep that evening, he'd sworn to her, on Artemis' head, because she understood that pledge, that he would die before the Persians learned anything from him.

Ezra coughed violently for several minutes, his breathing wet and labored. Two nights ago, he had caught a chill, which wasn't unusual in the depths of this dark, dank prison. Putrid water drained down the inner walls of the cells year long. The sentries passed out blankets, but a single, thin blanket was scant protection against the bitter cold bleeding through the thick stone walls. Spring was coming now, hard on the heels of a brutal winter, and yet this spring, which typified new life and hope, went all but unnoticed by the inhabitants sealed in the bowels of a Persian prison. Ezra cleared his throat. "I suppose you've heard the rumors..."

"No," she answered, somewhat impatiently. "I haven't heard. You know I'm the last one to hear anything, Ezra." She shifted again, and stopped when she heard a slight squeak in the corner of her cell, just out of her reach. Maybe, if she was lucky and the gods were kind, there would be meat for dinner -- insects, rats -- she'd dined on it all since her imprisonment, supplemented only occasionally by a thin, watery gruel supplied by the guards.

Her stomach rumbled and Ezra's voice and whatever information he was imparting to her was a static buzz lost in that rumble. She cursed that she was so easily distracted. "I'm sorry...what was that, Ezra?"

"I said that there are rumors among the guards that the Athenians will breach the outer defenses before midnight tonight. Imagine it, Gabrielle...you and I and the others may all be free by sunrise." Ezra coughed hard and then fell silent again.

Gabrielle shook her head; Ezra was new to the cells, unfamiliar with the guards' emotional cruelty. She'd fallen victim to the rumors herself -- a half dozen times before allowing natural cynicism to surface. As if the constant threat of physical abuse wasn't bad enough, the prisoners were subjected daily to emotional and mental abuse in the form of rumors leaked intentionally to raise false hopes. She could stand the beatings...the rumors were the worst because, as a bard, her imagination was fertile ground -- Persian victory became horrible slaughter.

Hundreds of Athenian casualties translated to Xena...dead...hacked into pieces as she attempted a rescue. It was only recently, since Ezra's capture, that such images were supplanted by more positive material...Xena coming for her, scaling the walls, busting heads in inimitable Xena-style...Xena throwing open the door of her cell and taking her in a big bear hug. She continued to indulge in such fantasies, her gaze fixed on the black corner where dinner bided its time, while she half-listened to Ezra. She couldn't afford to give his words too much credence.

Hope cost dearly in the confines of her world and rumor had it the guards had orders to kill all the prisoners should the fort be overrun. "You shouldn't get your hopes up, Ezra," she cautioned at last. "The guards like to lie, raise our hopes, only to crush them." If he needed proof she was prepared to elaborate; she could recount a half dozen such incidents.

"You're too young to be so cynical, Gabrielle."

"I could be a wizened old woman over here, Ezra. You don't know for sure," she replied, and there was just a hint of playfulness in her voice.

"No..." his response was broken up by another coughing jag. "No...I can tell...I got ears...you can't be much older than my sister...20 summers or so..."

Gabrielle nodded, and smiled. "It's not the years, Ezra..." her ears picked out movement in the corner of her cell. "...it's the mileage." She picked up a loose brick and as the rat made tentative progress into the dim light, she hurled it at him. It connected with a satisfying thunk and a squeal.

"Did you get it?" Ezra called out, excited for her. He hadn't seen a rat in days. The cockroaches weren't too bad -- kind of nutty flavored -- but the crunching sound still bothered him when he ate them.

"Oooh, Ezra...we eat tonight," Gabrielle crooned happily.

"You don't have to share, Gabrielle...you need your strength."

"Trust me, Ezra," she said, squinting at the little gray lump turned belly-up on the floor. "I'm not doing you any favors. You know, they wouldn't be so bad turned on a spit, covered with gravy..." Her mouth watered. "Gods, can you believe it? I'm salivating over a rat!"

She heard Ezra's warm chuckle from the other room. "What do you miss most, Ezra? If you could have one kind of food right now, what would it be?"

"Oh, I don't even have to think about that...my wife's havilah....flaky dough, stuffed with three kinds of meat..." He coughed, and moaned. "What about you?"

Gabrielle thought about her mother's crusty sourdough bread, piping hot from the oven, slathered in seasoned olive oil. Salty tears stung her eyes, and she was again amazed that food took on such importance when a body was denied everything else. "My mother's bread..." she replied finally, a choke in her voice. But she had to admit that even chicken charred over a spit on an open campfire by the Warrior Princess herself would taste good right now.

The distant sound of clinking keys echoed down the corridor to her cell and she shuddered involuntarily in deep fear. She was one of three female prisoners that she knew of and it was accepted procedure for the guards to pick a favorite and make nightly visitations. She had escaped this fate so far. She didn't know how, but she had thanked whatever god had smiled upon her.

When she'd first arrived in the prison, a burly dark-haired guard had taken an interest in her but had, as yet, not made good on his crude promises. Shuddering deeply, she shook her head, pushing aside the dark thoughts that threatened to snuff the tiny flicker of hope within her. She could hear the guards making their slow but steady progress down the corridor, stopping at each of the cells to portion out food and a heaping helping of abuse.

Some prisoners were made to beg for their rations while others were simply denied food altogether because a guard didn't like their face or their attitude, or the timbre in their voices when they howled in pain. Torture here could be as arbitrary as the flip of a dinar. Sensing they were close, she quickly wrapped the rat in a piece of cloth torn from her skirt and stashed it against the wall where it looked just like another piece of the foul garbage that littered the room.

"All right, you animals," sneered a guard peering into the cell beside her. "It's your lucky night!"

"Bread!" Ezra exclaimed. "Gabrielle, I smell bread!"

Gabrielle said nothing, but prayed fervently the guards would ignore Ezra's outburst. To her relief and surprise, they did.

The prisoner in the cell adjacent Ezra's was not as fortunate. An involuntary gasp of delight at the discovery of fresh bread elicited a "Shut Up! You damn dog!" The cell door was opened and the man was heard to beg for mercy, to no avail. He was struck a half dozen times, clear bone crushing blows that echoed throughout the corridors. Together with the man's screams they acted as a warning to the other prisoners.

As the door was slammed shut, leaving its occupant wailing in pain, a small chunk of bread was forced through the bars of Gabrielle's cell door and a face, unshaven and grimy, loomed into view.

"Hello, girlie." He smiled, probably his best feature thought Gabrielle, which was a shame considering it was the most grotesque parody of a smile she'd ever seen. "You're looking mighty good to these eyes..."

Gabrielle backed away, hugging the far wall, a length of chain gathered discreetly in one hand, but she was so terrified by the prospect of time alone with such a man that she was speechless. "You and me...later," the guard leered. "That's a promise, little girl," he said with a wink and moved away from the door.

Gabrielle's heart sank into her stomach and she choked down the bile rising in her throat. She wondered if this man was as good as his word. She sighed in relief when she heard diminishing footsteps, and then the outer cell door slamming shut. As the reverberations died into the night, she could hear the man in the cell next to her, groaning. She didn't know his name. He had never seen fit to respond to her inquiries.

Even now, as she hugged the wall and whispered encouragement to him, he again ignored the only human compassion shown him in weeks and appealed instead to the gods, any gods, to take him. His sobs soon died away to silence and so perhaps the gods had taken pity on him after all, or he might simply have fallen unconscious. Whatever the case, the room was quiet enough now so that she could hear Ezra in his cell, weeping softly.

"Ezra?" she whispered, paying out the length of chain as she moved towards her cell door; again she was forced to stop just inches from it. "Ezra, come on," she pleaded, but her entreaties only seemed to make him wail louder. "What is it? What can I do?" She tugged impotently on her shackles which only accentuated her sense of powerlessness. "Talk to me, Ezra."

"Gabrielle...I'm going to die here..."

"No. No you're not!" she retorted ferociously.

"They didn't feed me again...nothing...not even a crust of bread..." He was weeping openly now, and his voice was lifeless, defeated. "I'm a dead man."

Gabrielle had no doubts that if circumstances did not change and soon, Ezra's first and last prophecy would come true. And she might follow him in short order. "Ezra, I have bread..." She anxiously scanned the floor for the bread the guard had shoved through the bars. "Scat! Scoot, damn you!" she whispered fiercely, dislodging the creepy crawlies who had so quickly taken up squatter's rights on her supper. "Bread, see? We can share." She tore the already small ration in two and, holding out the smaller half for herself, prepared to pitch the remainder through her door and into Ezra's call. "Heads up over there!"

"No..." he said in a voice barely a whisper. "Don't bother. I couldn't eat it, Gabrielle..."

Gabrielle halted in mid pitch...winced as she heard a wet, raucous cough rattle around in his chest. Wordlessly, she considered the fist-sized lump of dark bread in her hand -- an infinitesimal installment on everything she felt she owed him. How many times had his voice been her lifeline from the deepest depression? How many times in the last days had he soothed her tears with his own, or distracted her from certain self-defeating behavior by his seemingly genuine interest in her life with Xena. She owed him at least that level of compassion. Setting her jaw, and taking careful aim, she pitched the bread successfully through the barred window of her door... she didn't see where it fell. "You take it...and eat it. I insist...and I don't take ‘no' for an answer. Ask anyone who knows me -- they'll tell you I could give a mule lessons in stubborn." She cocked an ear, listening for a response, movement...anything. "Ezra...we're going to get out of here. I'm sure of it."

He coughed. "Xena...again?"

"Yes, Xena...Xena will come for me..." she replied with all the confidence she could muster. Did anyone really know or care that she was here? Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazon Nation...rotting away in a dark, foul hole. Bard. Queen. Titles meant nothing at all inside prison walls. She found she had to laugh.

"What's so funny?" Ezra asked.

His voice, coming to her across the corridor, had to rise, struggling to reach her, and she knew he was seated on his floor. "Nothing, Ezra...everything..." She wished she could see him, but try as she might, there simply wasn't sufficient light to make him out among the shadows. Giving up the attempt as fruitless, she dragged over one of the sacks she slept on and sat down heavily. She looked at the bread lying on the floor, inches from her fingers, and made no move to touch it. Instead, she leaned back against the wall, more weary than words could convey. She closed her eyes and felt another wave of fear and hopelessness wash over her like a cold, bone-chilling rain. Before long, tears were streaming down her dirty cheeks, leaving clean little trails as they fell.

"The bread's just horrible by the way. Thank you. How's your supper? Still struggling?" Ezra was pressing the conversation, making the small talk he seemed so good at making. "Now you've got bread, you could have a rat sandwich..." he chuckled, fought back a coughing spasm. He cleared his throat and spat. "Gabrielle...I know you're there...room service hasn't come to change the linens yet." He could hear her laughing softly from her cell and knew that he had reached her somehow.

"I like the little mints they leave on my pallet after they make it up, don't you?"

Gabrielle laughed a little more loudly, irrespective of the guards outside the cells. She turned her face to Ezra and quipped, "You get mints?" They laughed together...brazen and bold...an unspoken dare. Feeling slightly invigorated, Gabrielle reached for the bread on the floor, wiped it clean. "Thank you, Ezra..." Gabrielle sniffed and wiped a filthy hand over her face. "You always seem to know what to say...how to approach me..."

"I'm just returning the favor...say, Gabrielle...tell me about Xena..."

Gabrielle didn't need any further coaxing. "Xena..." she crooned, stuffing a small piece of bread into her mouth; it was coarse and cold, but it was ambrosia. She held it there a moment, wanting to make it last. "Xena...where to begin..." Between bites of bread she told of her first meeting with Xena, and how a persistent bard had made herself an invaluable ally to the Warrior Princess.

She rattled on for some time, relating all the little details of their exploits together until her voice grew ragged. She leaned over pressed her lips to a depression in the stone floor where the water had collected and drank just enough to wash down the dry bread in her mouth. Wiping the back of her hand across her lips, she said, "I'm tired, Ezra...we should try to sleep."

He grunted in reply and she heard him moving about, stretching on the floor until he found a comfortable position. From her own pallet, one hand beneath her head as a pillow, she stared up at the ceiling, gray and featureless, with nothing to engage her interest...it was the perfect inducement to sleep.

She hadn't been in Morpheus' arms but a few minutes when she was abruptly awakened by the sharp sounds of yelling and the heavy-footed approach of the prison guards rushing in a mass into their cell block. Doors were flung open and the unmistakable sounds of a pitched battle resounded from the outer quarters and flooded into the cell block. Punctuated by the clashing of steel and the screams of the dying, Gabrielle could make out words, and they terrified her. "Orders are orders! You have to kill them!"

"What's the use!? We're dead ourselves, Tarsus! Why make it worse?!"

Gabrielle began to shiver uncontrollably. The fort was being overrun and the prisoners were to die...were being killed even as she stood cowering in a dark corner of her cell. It wasn't just a vague rumor or a threat. It was policy. Suddenly, a key rattled in the lock and the door to her cell burst open. The same man who had earlier promised her special attention approach and to both her surprise and dread, she was being unshackled. "Wh..what's going on?" she found the strength to ask.

"Gabrielle?!" It was Ezra and his tone was decidedly panicked.

"Gabrielle, what's happening over there?!"

"They're coming! I hear them!" exclaimed the guard who stood perched at the door, his hand on his sword and his eyes on the corridor. He turned at the waist to address the grimy guard who was even now tossing the shackles to the floor. "No, Tarsus! Don't unshackle her. Kill her where she stands and let's move on!" As Tarsus turned to acknowledge his superior, Gabrielle clapped her hands on one of his arms, drawing him into her while at the same time driving her knee forcefully into his groin. He collapsed to the stone floor, distilled to a groaning, quaking mass of flesh by the well-placed knee of an underfed bard. Before Gabrielle was aware of it, the second guard was halfway across the room. He stepped over the writhing form of his associate and, muttering some obscenity, struck Gabrielle hard across the face with the back of his hand. She fell against the wall and sank slowly to the floor; she knew that in her weakened condition, and without her staff, she couldn't hope to defend herself. As if to ram home that point, the attendant shouting and screaming from the guards and prisoners rose in a deafening crescendo while the guard drew his sword from the scabbard at his side.

"You! Guard!" Ezra yelled as loudly as his aching lungs would allow. "Get away from her!"

The guard froze, arm on the lethal downswing, inches away from teaching an insolent prisoner one last lesson. He turned at the waist to see which walking corpse had the unforgivable temerity to give him orders. Upon first consideration, he thought the voice had come from the cell across the corridor, a cell he had believed empty, but all the furious squinting in the world wouldn't yield the identity of the wretch in the adjoining cell.

Frustrated, and running short of time, he said, "You're dead, slag," and turned again to discharge his duty. He could not have foreseen the next interruption: a blood curdling battlecry reverberated off the prison walls. He dashed to the door of the cell and paled visibly at what he saw there: a demon, leather-clad, wielding a mighty blade, cutting a swath of death through his compliment of guards. Behind her, working cleanup, was a stocky, but well-muscled warrior who preferred brute strength to weapons. The guard didn't know whom to fear most. Again, the startling warcry and the guard's indecision disappeared in a fast heartbeat. Without hesitation, he used his key to unlock Ezra's cell. He let himself inside, pulling the door shut behind him. Trembling, and stuffing the key down his pants, he backed into the shadows..frightened...humiliated...he had soiled himself.

Gabrielle prayed to the gods that this was not another cruel dream that offered salvation only to yank it away. As the sounds of the fighting diminished, and footsteps grew nearer, her breath stuttered in her throat, no more than a series of soundless exhalations. There wasn't enough wind left in her lungs to call out. Tears coursed down her cheeks and she sank fully to the stone floor, her head buried in her hands. She heard voices calling for a healer and soft words falling like a welcome rain upon her head. A pair of hands grasped her gently, turning her face carefully into the glow of a newly-introduced torch. This unfamiliar light temporarily blinded her, but there was no mistaking the touch...or the voice.


The bard opened her eyes and once again found herself falling into the gaze of the most remarkable blue eyes she had ever seen. "Xena..." she choked back tears and tried for a cavalier attitude. "...what kept you?"

Bursting with relief, Xena gathered the bard into her and held her there on the stone floor, quietly rocking as the girl cried softly against her shoulder. "Shhh, it's okay...it's okay..." she crooned.

Without breaking her embrace, Xena directed two of the men who had accompanied her into the prison to remove the guard on the floor. "Get him out of here...and keep an eye open for others." Momentarily, Xena held the girl at arm's length and did an examination by eye, prospecting for injuries -- what she saw left her sick with guilt. The bard's arms and legs were a mass of cuts and bruises, her ankles left chafed and bleeding from the shackles, and living off a starvation diet, the girl's formerly trim physique had lost valuable muscle mass. Xena could only wonder at the suffering Gabrielle might have suffered at the hands of her captors.

At last, she studied the bard's face, which was bruised and bleeding. "These guys play rough." She pursed her lips and looked at her seriously. "How are you?"

"I'm okay, Xena," replied Gabrielle, attempting to reassure her friend. "Beyond some bumps and bruises, they didn't hurt me." She squinted at the warrior's face and traced a finger down a vivid pink scar at Xena's hairline. "Ouch," she said sympathetically. Typically, Xena shrugged.

"Ouch indeed!" agreed a male voice above her head. Shielding her eyes, Gabrielle looked up at the torchbearer, and broke into a big smile. "Iolaus?"

He passed the torch to the man standing to his left and squatted down. "Hi ya, Gabby."

Gabrielle's heart was pounding in her chest; it was almost too much for her. She squeaked out, "I'd hug you but I'm filthy."

He kissed her dirty face and drew her into a big hug, and finally to her feet where he yielded possession to Xena. "You look pretty good to me, all things considered."

Xena inquired of Gabrielle. "Can you walk?"

Gabrielle nodded and took Xena's proffered hand, but her legs, lean and strong from hundreds of hours spent walking at Argo's side, refused to bear her weight and she buckled at the knees. Only Xena's quick actions kept the bard from falling on her behind. "I think I need to sit for just a while longer..." the girl said, sheepishly, and allowed Xena to assist her back down to her place on the floor. "I'm okay, Xena, it's just...well, it's almost more than I can bear right now..."

Iolaus nudged Xena in the ribs good naturedly. "Suppose we should have sent word we were coming?"

"What're you doing here? How did you find me?" Gabrielle asked, bursting with questions.

Iolaus folded his arms across his chest and said, "Herc and I were re-enforcing the Athenian troops at Marathon."

Gabrielle strained for a look over Xena's shoulder. "Where IS Hercules?"

"Mopping up," grinned Iolaus. "On the east side. We heard the Persians overran Tripolis, so we took a small Athenian contingent and headed there only to find the village razed to the ground and the barn ablaze..." He jerked a thumb at Xena. "...with Xena inside half-dead...before we could locate you in the smoke, the Persians re-grouped. We had wounded... injured...we couldn't fight and adequately protect them so we were forced to fall back."

Xena, chagrined, shifted on her feet. "Gabrielle, you got left behind because of me..."

"Xena, don't blame yourself," said Iolaus, putting a hand on Xena's shoulder.

"Iolaus is right," agreed Gabrielle with her eyes on Xena. "You were hurt. I knew there had to be a good reason you didn't come for me."

"She was out of it for almost 10 days," elaborated Iolaus and he could see that Xena was uncomfortable with the details. "When she finally got on her feet, and the Persians had been beaten back, we returned to Tripolis, to sift through the rubble, but we didn't find anything but some charred weapons."

Xena gathered the girl in another hug, tucking her beneath her chin. "I never believed you were dead."

"Yep," retorted Iolaus. "And her intuition was proven right when one of the new Athenian militia came to our camp one night two weeks ago demanding to see our commander. He told us he'd escaped from a Persian prison and that he'd left behind hundreds of Greek and Spartan prisoners; he came armed with information about the fortifications inside the prison...he knew troop movements, and the chain of command..." Gabrielle lifted an eyebrow, begging elaboration, though she had a feeling she knew what was coming.

Xena said, "But more importantly, he said he knew that I would be particularly interested in one of those prisoners...a girl in the cell adjoining his...a woman who upon discovering his plans to escape shared half her rations with him to help build his strength."

A young man's face loomed into view; he was well-fed and clad in Athenian armor. "You never laid eyes on me before tonight, didn't know me from the worst kind of scum, but you fed me... your words encouraged me...you gave me hope..."

"Leonidas..." breathed Gabrielle, and his voice brought back memories of many nights spent conversing in whispers; she remembered how he had offered to take her with him and how, because of a badly-sprained ankle, she had been forced to decline. "I'm glad you made it."

Leonidas, his eyes brimming with tears, lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. "Because of you." He gave her hand a squeeze and turned to Iolaus. "I'd like to have a look round for some other friends...see if they made it. That okay?"

"Sure, but take Trakus and two or three others. You're bound to run into pockets of resistance." With a backward glance, Leonidas left them to their reunion.

"Well," said Xena, gesturing around the cell -- dirty sleeping mats, foul water, insects, rats -- "You about ready to say goodbye to all this luxury?"

Gabrielle grinned. "In a heartbeat, and I promise, you will never hear me complain about sleeping on the ground, or eating the dinner you cooked or --"

"Hey!" Xena retorted in mock distress. She clasped arms with the bard and pulled her to her feet, where she tottered unsteadily. "Huh. No more wine for you," she quipped, taking Gabrielle by the elbow.

Iolaus held out his arms and grinned mischievously. "I could carry you if you like?"

Gabrielle laughed. "I must be out of my head to turn down such an offer, but I think I want... I think I NEED to walk out of here on my own two feet."

Xena nodded, threading her arm around Gabrielle's waist. "Soon have you back at camp," she said, moving slowly from the cell in deference to the bard's weakened state. "Good food, clean clothes, a hot bath..." She wrinkled her nose for effect. "Maybe not in THAT order."

"I've been living in that cell for almost a month, Xena," replied Gabrielle. "You were expecting roses?" As she set foot outside the cell for the first time in 28 days, Gabrielle turned to regard the place that had been her home during that time: dank, squalid and dark ...looking somehow smaller and more cramped from this side of the bars. For the rest of her life, for however long that was to be, she knew she would always prefer sleeping under the stars to sleeping indoors. Xena followed the girl's gaze and squeezed her mildly around the waist.

"Gonna miss it?"

"Like the plague," retorted Gabrielle, but then, as if just recalling something, she said, "Wait... Ezra."

"Who?" Iolaus inquired.

"Ezra. He's one of the prisoners...that's his cell..there. I wouldn't be alive if not for him."

"This is someone I have to thank," said Xena, approaching the cell. A cursory scrutiny of the cell did indeed reveal it to be occupied. She tried the door, and found it locked.

"Locked," Iolaus announced unnecessarily. "I think Acteus took the key off one of the guards we captured." He turned and called up the echoing corridor for Acteus.

"Ezra?" Gabrielle called into the cell, her face pressed against the bars. "Ezra!" Gabrielle leaned her head against the cool steel bars in frustration. "...answer me...please...Xena, he could be hurt..."

"Stand back," Xena commanded, drawing her sword. Once Gabrielle had complied, tucked neatly into Iolaus side, Xena raised her sword and brought it down on the lock with a grunt. The lock shattered into three pieces under the force and dropped to the stone floor.

Young Acteus jogged down the corridor, his sword hanging limply along his side. "Iolaus... you need something?"

"Not anymore." Iolaus gestured to the broken lock and grinned impudently. "Xena: Warrior Locksmith."

Gabrielle broke away from Iolaus and placed her hand on the cool iron handle. "Wait a minute, Gabrielle," interjected Xena. Gesturing with her chin, she said, "Call to him."

Gabrielle didn't understand Xena's caution, but she had always had a healthy respect for her intuition. "Ezra..." she called, squinting into the darkness at the far end of the cell. "It's me...Gabrielle...it's happened, Ezra...just like you said...we're free..." In the ensuing silence, the trio could hear breathing -- fast, thready -- and the unmistakable jangle of steel against steel. Gabrielle turned back to Xena, who still clutched her broadsword. "I don't understand," she whispered.

Spreading out her free arm in a protective fan, Xena gathered Gabrielle behind her and turned her finely-tuned senses to the unseen occupant of the cell. "You got about five seconds to show yourself..." she warned in a dangerous tone. Although the rattling of steel increased in volume and speed, no one stepped into the light. Xena was plainly irritated. "Trust me: if I have to come in there after you, one of us is not gonna like it." Again, no response. "Iolaus...gimme a torch." To no one's surprise, Xena's words had the desired effect.

"No! Wait!" A voice called. "I'll come out!"

"Throw your weapon out first, where I can see it..." said Xena. A moment later, a bloodied broad sword was thrown into the light. "Now you."

Slowly and with some effort, as if mired in treacle, the frightened man emerged, his hands held high above his head. "D..don't kill me..."

Xena retrieved the man's discarded weapon and re-sheathed her own. "Right here," she ordered, pointing the blade at a spot on the floor.

The guard moved quickly on shaking legs to the designated position and locked his fingers behind his head. "I don't wanna die..." he moaned, sniveling.

Xena grimaced; cowardice on any level disgusted her. She glanced at Gabrielle. "Something tells me this isn't your friend."

Gabrielle shook her head vigorously. "Where's Ezra?" The guard merely looked at her, perplexed. "The man who was in this cell FIVE MINUTES AGO...where is he?!?"

"I don't know what you mean..." stammered the guard. He fell to his knees unbidden as Iolaus moved towards him, carrying the torch. "I swear by the Gods! I don't know what you're talking about! This cell's been empty for a week!"

Iolaus stood at the back of the cell, illuminating the area with the torch he carried. There was a bucket, and a grimy sleeping palette, some unidentifiable animal bones and a man's leather shoe... but there was no Ezra. "Are you sure this was his cell, Gabrielle? I mean, they do all look alike."

"He was here, Iolaus," replied Gabrielle. "Not five minutes ago...I threw him some bread..." She picked up the hunk of bread from the floor to illustrate. "See? He was here. If he hadn't distracted this man..." she gestured with an accusatory finger; the kneeling guard cringed. "...you would've found me a corpse."

Xena observed the confiscated blade in her hand, the blood not yet dry on its gleaming surface. She gazed at the blade and then at Gabrielle and the inference was unmistakable.

Gabrielle looked from Iolaus, and the singular emptiness around him, to Xena, and back again. At last, she turned again to the guard who had only minutes earlier held dominion over her life. "Where is he?" she demanded. "What did you do to him?"

"I d..don't know who you mean..." the guard stuttered, his wary eyes on Xena as she approached and circled him, wielding his sword.

"The man who was in this cell," repeated Gabrielle. "The one who called to you...who warned you when you came at me with the sword..."

"You'd better answer the question" Xena drawled, dragging the flat of the blade along the man's shoulders. She squatted behind him and spoke into his ear. "Don't be misled by her size; my friend here is an Amazon, and you know what they're capable of...and Iolaus..." She used the sword point to identify Iolaus. "Well, let's just say that death would be preferable after two minutes alone with Iolaus." Xena rose and came around to stand before the captured guard, the flat of his sword resting on her shoulder. "But it's nothing to what I'll do to you...y' got me?" The man gulped, audibly. "Now, where is the man who was in that cell?" The guard shook his head numbly.

"His name is Ezra," interjected Gabrielle, hoping to jog the man's memory. "He was Athenian infantry...captured at the first battle of Marathon..."

"I don't know from names," the man replied, refusing to meet the bard's questing gaze. "All I can tell you is what happened to the last occupant of that cell."

Gabrielle knelt down in front of the man and patiently waited for him to meet her eyes. When at last he raised his head, and his dark eyes fixed upon her she said, "Tell me where Ezra is and you have my word that no one here will harm you."

Truth was implicit in the girl's youthful face and so the guard found himself confiding, and confessing the worst. "He's dead. He died during interrogation eight days ago."

"No," breathed Gabrielle. "Xena...he's lying."

The guard shook his head violently. "Why would I lie?"

Gabrielle stood slowly, gaping at this man who had handed her the worst possible news. "It can't be the same man..." The guard rummaged through his memory for details that would validate his story. As he'd only ever participated in one interrogation, it wasn't hard to recall the specifics. "Athenian...um...he came in with a head wound...a little pressure with the thumb screws and he spilled what he knew, which wasn't of any value to us... mostly he just talked about his family...his sister in Parma... useless shit like that..."

"How did he die?" Xena asked the guard, although her gaze was concentrated on Gabrielle who appeared justifiably dumbfounded.

"He got sick...in the holding cell...it's damp and wet...prisoners get sick...and he, uh...he just kind of coughed up a lung one night..."

Gabrielle backed away from the man, all the while shaking her head. Although the details fit together like puzzle pieces, she was very much in denial. "It can't be...Xena?" She turned to face the warrior, confusion written across her face. "I don't...I'm lost here..."

"That's it. I got no more to tell," said the guard, rising to one knee. "Please, can I get outta here?"

Iolaus snorted. "What's wrong? Don't these accomodations suit you?" He grabbed the man by the arm and hauled him roughly to his feet. "You need anything more from this one, Xena?"

Xena surveyed the man from head to toe, her disgust plain. "No, get him outta my sight..."

Iolaus and Acteus, one on either side of the prisoner, marched him from the cell and down the corridor. Without saying a word, Xena wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and moved her out of the cell. They were up the corridor and at the foot of a set of stone steps leading to the courtyard when Xena spoke. "Hey...you okay?"

Gabrielle looked at her for a long moment, turned to look back down the corridor and then once again into the serious face of her friend. "What just happened, Xena?"

Xena shrugged. "If you don't know I can't tell you."

"Did I dream it all?"

"Would have to be one heck of a coincidence if you did," retorted Xena.

Gabrielle squinted into the pale sunlight as it cascaded down the cold, gray steps. Chewing her bottom lip thoughtfully, she said, "It seemed real enough..."

"If it seemed real to you, then it was."

"I could've hallucinated it..." said Gabrielle.

"That's a possibility, too," agreed Xena.

Gabrielle shook her head at Xena. "You're not gonna take sides, are you...? One way or the other. I need answers, and you're walking the line."

Xena threaded her arm through the bard's and coaxed her up the steps. "You're always telling me I'm too rigid in my thinking."

"When did I ever say that?"

"You have a convenient memory," replied Xena, feeling the bard lean heavily into her. "Am I going too fast for you?"

"No, no. I'm fine."

"Because if I am, I'll slow down..."

"Are you implying I can't keep up with the Warrior Princess?"

"Perish the thought!" retorted Xena. Gabrielle nudged Xena in the ribs and gave her a quirky smile, and Xena was reminded again how very much she had missed that smile. As they approached the top of the stairs leading to the courtyard, Xena left Gabrielle leaning against a wall and, sword drawn, took the last four steps two at a time.

Gabrielle's eyes were on Xena's back as she gracefully moved up the stairwell, taking up a position dead center of the landing. In the next instant, the sword came over Xena's shoulder and slid into the back scabbard. Despite her injuries and weakened state, Gabrielle's body hummed with anticipation. As Xena turned smiling for her and extended an arm she took her first tentative steps into a freedom so long denied her.

Xena wrapped her fingers around the bard's, supporting her, pulling her to her side and said, "I still owe you a pair of boots, don't I?" Gabrielle stared into the pale yellow disc just rising over the battlements and called any debt Xena had ever owed her, paid in full.