It was almost dark out when she stopped, the sun having set almost an hour ago. Only a thin band of color remained in the west, sitting along the horizon, casting a feeble light. Gabrielle pulled Argo off the road and led him down toward a grove of trees, the both of them tired. Argo would be glad to stop tonight, as would she; but theyíd made good time today, and with any luck they would arrive in Corinth by the end of the week. She nudged Argo into the woods, stifling a yawn. Sheíd sleep well tonight, though it would likely be chilly again. Another night curled up alone by the fire, she reflected, a wry grimace on her face. Stop that, she told herself. Doesnít help.
She almost didnít hear the arrow in time; her right arm shot out, and she caught it, and the one that followed it. She slipped off Argo and hitched him to a tree, then moved away from him in case the archers werenít particular with their aim. She started circling around slowly, trying to figure out where the archer, or archers, were. She heard some grumbling, two voices back and forth, though the words were indistinct. She crouched low and started moving that way when another arrow thunked into a tree above her. How the hell many are there? she asked herself as she scampered from shadow to shadow, closing in on the first two archers.
"I donít see her," a voice hissed, near her.
"Keep looking," a deeper, raspier voice said. "She canít be far."
Gabrielle slid forward and eased her sword out of its sheath. She listened for a moment, then heard some movement in the bushes to her left.
"Is that her?" one of the men whispered. She was close enough now so that she could smell them; one, or both, of them didnít bathe often. Which Iím not going to complain about just at the moment, Gabrielle said as the second man said, "Thatís Noralus."
Gabrielle rose up softly, a blur in the dusk; her sword swept down, slicing one man across his body from shoulder to hip, and cutting into the other manís legs. The first man fell without a sound; but the second cried out. Gabrielle fell on top of him, driving her sword into his thigh. Arrows hit the trees from a few different angles, and the man struggled fiercely, spraying her with blood. Gabrielle reached up and stabbed her fingers into a pressure point on his neck, and he stopped struggling, his hands jerking up toward his throat.
She rolled off him, yanking her sword out of his leg, and wiped at the blood spattered across her thighs. She wiped her wet hand on the grass silently and moved on.
An arrow landed in a tree where the other men had been. She crawled quickly, quietly, back the way she had come, and came up behind the man. He was peering in the woods in the dim light, and Gabrielle saw him tense. He fired an arrow, and was rewarded with a basso shout as his target went down.
"Damnit," he said, but Gabrielle rose up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned, surprised, and she ran him through with the sword. His eyes shut at once, and his body fell to the ground. "Thanks for being such a good shot," Gabrielle said, pulling the sword free; but she dropped to the ground as another arrow whistled by.
"Doesnít anybody ever work in small groups any more?" she hissed as she started moving again. She headed in the general direction of the last arrow, when she heard a fight there. She moved more quickly, still staying low, and broke through the tall grass to see two men struggling. One still gripped his short, powerful bow; but the other had slipped a cord around his neck, and was strangling him.
"Wait!" Gabrielle said, standing up. "Donít kill him!"
The figure with the cord nodded, his hood obscuring his face. "Be careful. There are more of them," he growled.
As if on cue, two arrows came toward Gabrielle. She spun and caught one; its mate sped past her, embedding itself in the archer her unknown ally was strangling. The man fell back into the arms of his attacker, who let him drop.
"Get down," the hooded man hissed, but Gabrielle nodded no. She unleashed the chakram and sent it flying; it bounced off of two trees, whizzing across a small clearing, before it sank into its target, the archer who had just fired at her.
"If there are any more of you out there," she said, raising her voice, "you can leave now. If anyone else takes even one shot, then Iíll hunt you all and kill you like the dogs you are."
She heard some rustling in the woods, and the sounds of a few men running in a direction away from her. She turned to the hooded figure, who still crouched low. "Donít you go anywhere, either," she said as she jogged through the woods to collect her chakram.
She returned shortly; the man was standing, wrapping the cord into a small bundle. "Now, I donít mean to sound ungrateful," she said, "And thanks for your help, but who the hell are you?"
"Gabrielle," he said, removing his hood, "Iím surprised you donít recognize me."
"Autolycus!" she said, smiling. "What are you doing here?"
He grinned. "I heard you were in trouble and thought you might need a hand."
She gave him a brief hug. "Letís make camp-- away from here."
Autolycus gave the dead man a glance. "Agreed," he said, following her through the woods.
Their conversation had been brief-- Gabrielle had been tired before the fight, and she nearly collapsed as soon as the fire was going. Autolycus pulled out some bread, and some dried meat, and they made a small meal; but Gabrielle was drowsy, and answered his words with nods or monosyllables.
Sheís not the kid I knew years ago, he said as he stroked his mustache, his palm cupping his bare chin. Sheís all grown up and just as dangerous as Xena was...
Autolycus sighed and sat back, leaning against a tree, watching Gabrielle sleep. She was curled up inside a blanket, her body facing the flame. Like someone who always sleeps alone-- and outside- sleeps... he thought, taking a mouthful from the water skin and sloshing it in his teeth. Thatís gonna stink about tonight, he thought, capping the skin and putting it down near him. Thereís no way Iím gonna get a good nightís sleep on dirt... and Iím not a kid anymore. Tomorrow my shoulders will be sore...
The faint sound of her snoring caught his attention. Good, good, just stay asleep a little while longer... actually, a long while longer...
Silently he moved to her side, watching her breathe in the firelight, the lines of worry gone from her face for now, and he remembered the young slip of a thing she was when he first met her, hanging off Xena, tossing smart remarks in reply to his own. He remembered the time Xena had briefly possessed his body--that was fun-- he thought, and how they had stayed friends after that. Of course, they had helped him steal back Hermesí caduceus-- well, they made me steal back Hermesí caduceus-- but they had come to be good friends.
Autolycus had heard about Xenaís death, and he had come to see Gabrielle, briefly, when she was in Thebes; he was there to steal Iphiclesí sceptre, and besides, visiting Gabrielle made for a good cover. And, he was glad to see her... until he actually saw her. Sheíd been a wreck, still mourning for Xena, and Autolycus had tried to help her. Never got the sceptre, either...
He shook his head. No time to be a softie, he told himself as he reached over Gabrielleís sleeping form and slid the blanket down. She stirred, but did not awaken. Nimble fingers hovered over her waist, and very slowly, very gently, he drew open the strings on the velvet bag that hung there. With painstaking slowness, he eased the orb out of the bag, inch by inch, until the blue sphere popped out and rested in his palm. He grabbed a rock of a similar size and slid it in there, taking his time, and care, and re-tied the strings on the bag. Then he slid the blanket over her inert form and sat back, away from her, rubbing his stiff arms. Used to be, I could do slow stuff like that for hours. Guess Iím not a kid any more... He rubbed his arms some more, until they were less stiff, and then he got up and moved to the edge of the clearing. He stopped, looking back at Gabrielle, and whispered, "Nothing personal, dear, but this thing is worth more than the Golden Fleece-- to some idiot." He turned to go, but stopped again, and he watched her sleep for a moment.
"Take care, Gabrielle," he said softly, and he vanished into the woods.
She and Xena were alone, on an open plain, with nowhere to hide... they stood back to back, ready for anything... swords drawn, two warriors against whatever the world threw at them...
First came the Horde, their axes flying... there were so many... Gabrielle swung, and swung, her sword biting into them; she could hear Xenaís cry as she did the same... blood pooled at their feet, but still the Horde kept coming, and coming...
Finally they subsided, a mountain of dead, laying there in heaps...
Another couple walked toward them, a man and a woman...Gabrielle saw who they were, and swore...
"Xena, dear," Callisto said, sweetly, "I have had so much fun fighting you every day in Tartarus..." Xena swore as well, a similar profanity as Gabrielle had used.
"Youíre no match for me," Xena said. "How many times do I have to kill you to prove it? I would have thought the first two times would have been enough for you..."
Callisto laughed, a hideous shriek that sounded like a Bansheeís wail. "Youíll have to kill me over, and over, and over..." She smiled again, a rictus grin that was inhuman somehow... "Thatís your punishment dear... for all your crimes... you can never be rid of me..."
Gabrielle turned to look at the other figure. It was Draco, the dagger still stuck in his chest; but his arms were open. "All I wanted to do as love you, Gabrielle, and look what you did..."
"You were a butcher!" Gabrielle yelled at him. "You razed Amphipolis to the ground and slaughtered everyone... you deserved to die!"
Draco smiled. "Iíll be waiting for you here, dear... when you die, we can spend all eternity together..."
"No!" Gabrielle called out, trembling, "no!"
She was shaken. "Gabrielle," a voice said.
She stirred, her brow furrowed, lips bent in a frown. "No," she muttered.
The shaking grew more insistent, although the tone was still soft. "Gabrielle."
She awoke fully, her blue eyes opening. "Wha...?"
Joxer let go of her shoulder. "You were having a nightmare."
Gabrielle nodded. Was I ever...
"Wait a minute," she said, "what are you doing here?"
Joxer held the blue ball in his hand. "I believe you were missing this?"
Gabrielle reached for the pouch at her belt, felt the weight inside. She opened it, dumped it out...a smooth rock tumbled into her hand. "Autolycus," she hissed.
"Take it easy, Gabrielle," he said, and the warrior turned. Autolycus sat on the other side of the clearing, his hands and feet tied together.
"Why did you steal this?" she asked, holding the blue orb up.
"Why do you think?" he answered. "Because someone was paying me an outrageous amount of money to, thatís why."
"Do you know what this is?" she asked, her voice still hard.
"I have no idea. But itís worth fifty thousand dinars."
"What?" Joxer and Gabrielle said in unison.
"To somebody," Autolycus finished quietly. "Not to me."
Gabrielle turned to Joxer. "So how did you..."
He shrugged. "I was following you, trying to catch you," he said. "I was close, and I stumbled upon Autolycus. I thought he was an assassin out to get you."
"I was heading away from her," Autolycus called out. "Didnít you notice that?"
Joxer ignored him. "I thought he might have finished the job. So I took him out, and--"
"Never would have happened if my arms werenít sore," Autolycus piped in.
"...and when I searched him, that thing was on him. I take it thatís the thing youíre taking to Hercules?"
"Hercules?" Autolycus asked.
Gabrielle nodded. "Yes. Thanks for getting it back, Joxer."
He smiled warmly. "Of course."
"Hey," Autolycus said, "I didnít know that was meant for Hercules. I never would have stolen it if I had known."
"Yeah, right," Joxer said.
"No, really," Autolycus persisted. "Weíre old friends-- I wouldnít steal anything of his."
Gabrielle considered him. "You shouldnít have stolen anything of mine, either."
Autolycus smiled. "Iíll admit that was a mistake," he said.
"I say we leave him here," Joxer said.
"Tied up, in the middle of nowhere?" Autolycus asked. "Is that any way to treat the King of Thieves?"
Gabrielle nodded thoughtfully. "I know I probably shouldnít do this," she said, drawing Joxerís dagger and moving toward Autolycus.
"Hey, now, Gabrielle, I mean, Iím sorry, okay? Listen, please, huh? I promise I--"
She slashed quickly, in one motion, snapping the ropes that tied his wrists.
"Iím gonna let you go," she said, "for old times sake. And because I understand that even you couldnít resist fifty thousand dinars." She folded her arms. "But there is one condition."
Autolycus rubbed his wrists. "Whatís that?"
"You head south, away from us," she said.
"Not a problem," the King of Thieves replied. "Happy to oblige you."
Gabrielle cut the ropes binding his feet, and he rubbed his ankles. He eyed Joxer with suspicion, and noted that the warrior looked at him the same way. Autolycus stood after a moment and stretched. "Iíll just be going now," he said, a little hastily, and headed out of the clearing.
"Hey," Gabrielle said, and he turned, smiling. "Yes?"
"South is that way, Autolycus," she said, pointing in the direction opposite to the one he was taking.
"I know that," he said. "I was just...taking a shortcut to the road." Grumpily, he headed off in the direction she indicated. Gabrielle watched him until he was out of sight, and then she turned to Joxer.
"You too," she said, softly.
"No," he said, just as softly. "You need me."
"Joxer, I donít need you," she said. "I can handle this."
He put a hand on her shoulder. "Without me, you wouldnít have gotten that orb back. And youíd have to spend Zeus knows how long looking for that thief."
Gabrielle shrugged. "I made one mistake. Wonít happen again. Go back to Treus, Joxer. Meg..."
"Understands," he said, cutting her off. "She knows youíre on a dangerous mission, and I came to help."
Gabrielle shook her head, smiling. "This is a bad idea, you know."
"What?" he said.
"Us," she murmured.
Joxer inhaled deeply. "On a certain level, yes, I know that. But I have to help you. I want to help you. And you could use me around, admit it."
Gabrielle muttered something indistinct, then swore softly. "Alright," she said, "letís get going."
"What?" Joxer asked. "What did you say?"
She repeated the curse.
"Before that," he said.
"I said, ĎI liked it better when you were wrong all the timeí."
Joxer smiled. "No you didnít," he said.
Gabrielle softened, at last. "No, I didnít," she agreed, and they headed back to the horses.