Whether it was the scream itself that woke Xena from her deep, refreshing sleep, or whether it was the answering, triumphant cry that disturbed her slumber was immaterial. Whatever the cause, she was awake; and she definitely didn't want to be. She stretched her long, lithe muscles, and tried to convince herself that she was still asleep. What was a little present mayhem, after all, when you had been fighting heroic battles in distant and far-reaching places for the past season? She stared up at the sky through half-closed eyelids, and waited for the screaming victim to fall silent. Maybe she would eventually get the message that nobody was coming to her assistance; and then everybody could get some sleep. Any second now, she told herself. Any second now and the wretched woman would take the hint, or lose her voice, or surely, in the name of all the gods of Olympus, would at least have to pause to take a breath? The moment never came, however, and mumbling curses that might have been more in keeping with her long departed warlord days, Xena opened her eyes and sat up. Around her the half dozen other would-be sunbathers and resting locals were looking attentive; and they were all, she now realised, waiting expectantly for her to do something. She scowled.

"Xena?" Gabrielle was already alert and ready for action, and her companion smiled in fond amusement. Her young friend might not get the recognition and honours that the warrior princess herself commanded, but she was at least as much of a hero.

"Yeah, I know. Due north. That tower over there." She had pinpointed the sound of the loud, long, and superbly echoing scream when first it had burst forth upon the hot summer air, Such things were second nature to her, which was undoubtedly why, in the midst of that first scream, she was now able to discern something else; something separate and distinctive that nobody else seemed to have heard at all. It was a long, ululating cry that she knew well, which led her eyes, immediately upon opening, to the mass of green leaves that filled the sky to her right; a mass that formed the massive canopy of a vast forest that started on the opposite bank of the river upon whose bank she had been so peacefully sleeping. The forest led away from town, stretching far out into the distance, criss-crossed with pathways that led to a thousand different villages and settlements. It was a labyrinth; and a perfect means for a perfect getaway. She had thought that even before she had seen the bright blur of an altogether different green that chased momentarily across the tops of all those towering trees.

"Damn." She rose to her feet, keeping one eye on the place where that telling flash of colour had disappeared, and keeping the other on her anxious companion. So much for rest and recreation. The screaming of the woman in the tower had finally abated, but the locals were looking extremely restless, and she knew that she had to do something. No matter how inviting sleep was, she owed it to her hosts not to let this instance pass by unmarked. The people of this small, prosperous town had been good to her, inviting her in amongst them, giving her and her companion a place to sleep and food to eat, in gratitude for the help she had given them in defeating a seemingly indefatigable flying monster. Now they needed her help again, and she was not the sort of person who was able to stand by and do nothing. More's the pity, she thought with a wry smile. Maybe it would be nice to be a little less heroic, at least once in a while.

"Did you see something?" Gabrielle was looking towards the tower, where the figure of one of the town guardsmen was now visible in the window, signalling to his comrades down on the ground. "It looks like the local guards are handling it, but I can't make out if that one in the tower has found anything."

"He's telling the rest of the guardsmen to look out for a thief." Xena did not have to see or recognise the arm movements to interpret what the soldier was saying - the message was clear enough to her through the evidence she had already long identified. "They'll probably be heading east. That's where the Lady Theora will be saying that the culprit was headed." She turned her head to face south, into the trees. "But she'll be wrong."

"Lady Theora?" Gabrielle frowned up at the tower, wondering for the thousandth time how Xena managed to see so much so quickly. She had been in town barely three days, and already she seemed to know who lived in each of the white-painted houses. "The poor woman. What do we do?"

"In an ideal world, nothing at all." Xena sighed, stretching her long legs and rising to her feet. "But I suppose we should probably to do something." She turned her eyes back towards the trees, now apparently empty, each one still in the unmoving air. "Come on."

"Shouldn't we tell the guardsmen that they're heading in the wrong direction?" Gabrielle did not sound as though she was especially anxious to report this new development, and was clearly perfectly happy to follow on in her companion's wake. "They'll want to catch whoever's responsible."

"I know." Xena drew her sword, apparently ready to use it at a moment's notice. "But the thief isn't dangerous, and I very much doubt that he'll prove to be more than we can handle. Besides, you know how protective the locals are of their aristocracy. I'd rather like to fix this without any bloodshed."

"Do you really know all this from one scream?" Gabrielle looked as though she was not sure whether to be confused or impressed. Xena's words suggested a remarkable feat of detection, and her reckoning had left her friend floundering. The warrior princess smiled, taking pity on her long time companion.

"The lady screamed, certainly - but that was only one of the sounds that I heard. The other was a certain shout of triumph that I'm almost positive was originally designed to irritate me immensely." She nodded towards the trees that lay ahead of them. "The man responsible was making a rather hasty escape, heading upwards; and there's only one person I know of who uses trees and ropes in preference to the ground."

"Autolycus?" Gabrielle had brightened, although Xena's grim countenance brought a certain gravity back into her voice. "Oh. Okay. In that case we should probably catch him." She frowned, clearly uncertain about exactly what they were planning to do. "Shouldn't we?"

"I came here to rest." Xena was looking increasingly determined. "And somebody just spoiled that. I have every intention of catching him, and disembowelling him at the very least. Nobody ruins my holiday and gets away with it."

"We could ignore it." It was hard to be certain whether Gabrielle was honestly suggesting that they turn a blind eye to the theft, or whether she was merely voicing some wishful thought. Xena nodded.

"We could." She gestured back towards the milling townsfolk. "But none of them have got a chance of catching up with you-know-who, even if they were likely to look in the right place. I like these people, and I like Lady Theora." She sighed. "Besides, if they do catch him - and admittedly it's unlikely, but it could happen - the local law is pretty harsh. Autolycus is a pain in the neck, and there are times when I'd happily feed him his own grappling hook, but I don't really want to see him beheaded. We'll catch up with him, get back whatever he's stolen... and maybe pull off a few non-essential body parts while we're at it. After that we can all go our separate ways, and nobody need be any the wiser."

"Sounds good to me." Gabrielle gave a light laugh, already scanning the towering trees for any sign of their quarry. She almost felt sorry for him, for it was fairly clear that he was not going to be getting away with any hard won riches this time. Given the amount of times that Autolycus had wound up out of pocket after a run-in with Xena, it was a wonder that he didn't just give up and go straight. "Where do we start looking?"

"Up ahead." Xena pointed with her free hand towards the place where the trees began to grow more thickly; a place far out of earshot of the river, with its throngs of noisy people. "I went for a walk out this way yesterday morning before you were awake. There's a path just over there that leads back out to the main thoroughfare. I'd say it's just the place for an escaping thief trying to make a quick getaway." She quickened her step, heading towards the indicated path. Behind them the shouts of the irate guardsmen in the town faded and died, and the town itself vanished from their sight and their hearing. They were alone. Despite the reasons for their excursion Gabrielle smiled in contentment, enjoying the stroll, the weather and the scenery. The trees were a mix of lush greenery and colourful blossom, and the sky that was visible in snatches between the tree tops was a deep and breathtaking blue. Xena glanced across at her, amused by the younger woman's obvious calm.

"We are here for a purpose, you know. The holiday can come later."

"I know." She sighed, tipping her head back to watch the blossom in the trees. "But that doesn't mean that I can't enjoy myself. It's a beautiful day, and--"

"Ssh." Xena's body language had changed so suddenly that Gabrielle did not feel the need to ask why she had been so suddenly hushed. She froze, turning around in response to her friend's own abrupt spin. A figure burst out of the undergrowth behind them; a tall man dressed in the livery of the local guard. He skidded to a clumsy halt at the sight of Xena's drawn sword, then seemed to recognise both women, and breathed a little more easily.

"Xena!" He hurried forward, his own sword clanking at his knees. "Grave news from the town. Lady Theora has been robbed, and all her jewels taken. The guard is out in full force looking for the thief." He took a moment to catch his breath, clearly nervous about being in the forest alone. "He's not thought to be heading in this direction, but if you should happen to see him, we'd be much obliged if you'd sound the alarm. He's tall, apparently, of an athletic build, and is wearing a green jacket. Lady Theora mentioned a small beard and moustache, and--"

"We haven't seen him." Xena pointed towards the place where the path met with the road. "We're heading that way though, so if we see him we'll let you know. You'd best concentrate on the area back that way. I doubt that he'll head towards the road with so much loot to carry. There'd be too big a risk of being spotted."

"As we thought!" The guard looked delighted to have one of his own theories backed up by a great warrior. "And thankyou. Lady Theora, I'm sure, will add her own thanks once she knows of your involvement in this. My gratitude to you both." He bowed. "Ladies." With that he was gone, the elegance of his farewell somewhat spoilt by his clumsy run and obvious lack of natural grace. Gabrielle smiled at his departing back.

"I feel guilty now. Maybe we should have told him the truth." She hadn't expected Xena to agree, and her friend's response confirmed that suspicion.

"Whatever that light-fingered fool might deserve, a lynch mob is a little excessive. Justice will be served just as well if we give our incorrigible friend a chance to come clean and return everything." She scowled, looking more than ready for some physical action. "Not that I'll ever understand why I waste so much time on the man. You'd think I'd have learned by now. Once a thief, always an untrustworthy, low down, repellent piece of--" She delved her hand deep into the thick greenery of a nearby bush and dragged forth a startled, green-clad frame. "Well what do we have here?"

"Repellent?" The figure now standing before them, strangely immaculate in a jacket of bright green material, dragged itself up to its full height. Apparently choosing to ignore the unbreakable grip now crumpling the material of his flamboyant clothing, he glared with all the dignity that he could muster. "Low down?" His voice took on an air of even greater outrage. "Why of all the--"

"Save it, Autolycus." Xena didn't release him, despite his token attempt to shrug off her hold. "Now hand over those jewels."

"What jewels?" A certain sulky reticence had now replaced his outrage, and his dark eyes were a mask of perfect innocence. "I don't know anything about any jewels."

"And I don't believe you." Xena lifted her sword in her other hand, waving the point close to her prisoner's face. "How would you like a shave? I'm sure that I could do something fairly original with that daft beard of yours."

"This is not a daft beard." The outrage rushed back, sparking off the natural conceit of the increasingly irate thief - which was exactly what Xena had been counting upon. "This is a carefully grown masterpiece of a beard, favoured by a thousand girls right across Greece. Why Lady Theora herself complimented me upon it, right before she decided to let loose with a scream loud enough to wake all the sleeping heroes of Hades." He scowled. "Quite why she needed to scream at all is anyone's guess. You'd think that she'd have recognised the renowned King of Thieves. And is it not known that his regal self never harms a lady?"

"Undoubtedly." Xena gave her sword another flourish. "Now hand over those jewels before I decide to hand you over to the local guard. And I'm sure you know what the penalty is for theft around here."

"You wouldn't." His eyes narrowed as he looked from one woman to the other, before finally he sighed. His shoulders slumped. "You would, wouldn't you."

"Like a shot." She sheathed her sword as a minor concession to their friendship, but made no attempt to release him. Letting go of Autolycus was like releasing the captured winds of Aeolus; it was impossible to know which direction he would flee in; for flee he most definitely would. There was a very good reason why nobody had as yet managed to keep him imprisoned for longer than a couple of days. "Now. The jewels."

He scowled. "I won these fair and square, you know."

"No, you sneaked into somebody's house and stole them. It wasn't at all fair." She clicked her fingers. "Come on, let's see them. Either that or I'm going to have to shake them out of you." She made a move as though to carry out this threat, and he held up his hands in surrender.

"Okay! Alright." He delved his hands into the hidden pockets inside his jacket, coming up with two leather bags, each a little bigger than his hands. He shook them, setting the stones inside rattling furiously. "You're going to put me out of business, you know. Forget Lady Theora; it's me that's the injured party around here."

"Aw, Autolycus. I'm so sorry." Rolling her eyes, Xena snatched the two bags and tossed them to Gabrielle, then held out her hand once again. "And the rest of it."

"That's the lot." He looked affronted; incensed that his honesty was being held open to question. Xena knew him too well, however, and clearly he realised as much. He sighed. "I'm going to get my own back for this. One day. You'll see."

"I won't hold my breath." She watched him delving for another pair of bags, and snatched them neatly from him, just in case he had some further trickery planned. With Autolycus, the idea of having something up a sleeve was more than just a metaphor. "Now, was it really worth all the bother?"

"For the King of Thieves, my lady, the challenge is the greatest part of the endeavour. The spoils are a mere trifle in comparison." He attempted a flamboyant bow, which was rather curtailed by the firm hand still gripping his collar. "Now are you going to be letting me go any time today? I can understand your desire to keep me around, of course, but I'd like to be out of here before those dim-witted guards realise that they're looking in the wrong place. The women of Greece would be heartbroken if my fine head were to be removed from my shoulders, and I'm too much of a gentleman to risk putting them to so much grief." He smoothed his small moustache, straightening his already erect figure in an fair approximation of regal glory. "Besides, I should hate to get blood on this jacket. These things aren't cheap you know."

"Fine. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see you heading off into the distance." Instead of releasing him, Xena gripped his jacket all the tighter. "But before I let you go, I want your word that you'll keep going until you reach the edge of this territory - and that you won't come back for at least a week. I plan on taking a holiday here, and I don't want that interrupted every time you decide to get light-fingered. Next time I'll tell the guards which way you went. Understand?"

"Perfectly." He gave her a gracious nod. "Xena, I swear to you on..." He searched for a suitable item of value. "I swear on my favourite telescopic lock-pick that I won't steal another thing from this region until seven days have passed." He flicked the lock-pick in question from the depths of one trick-filled green sleeve. "If I break that promise this delightful little tool is yours, and never again will I be able to break open a double-barred, quadruple levered multi-lock. Treasure chambers across the land will be closed to me forever." He offered her one of his incorrigibly cheerful grins. "Is it a deal?"

"Just get out of here." She let him go, watching with a certain sense of fondness as he smoothed out the material of his jacket. "And next time I see you, try to be doing something nice."

"The King of Thieves is always nice." He bowed low, offering Gabrielle one of his most charming smiles. "As most of the ladies of Greece will be quick to confirm. Now, one little thing before I leave..."

"What?" Xena's tone, despite her continuing wish to be very angry with the likeable crook, was light and friendly. Autolycus was evidently heartened by this, and his eyebrows lifted up in an expression that was just that bit too innocent.

"I'd like my jewels back." His dark eyes strayed to the four leather bags in Gabrielle's hands. Xena scowled.

"Don't push it, Autolycus." He shrugged, something about his indifference looking faintly studious.

"If that's the way you want it..."

"What do mean if--" A sound from behind alerted her suddenly to the presence of some third party, and she whirled around. In the same moment Gabrielle let out a squeak as the acrobatic King of Thieves, in one of the moves for which he was famed, neatly twitched the jewel bags from her hands and fled the scene. Xena glanced back to watch him go, but did not bother giving chase. She had more pressing matters on her hands. Standing before her, forming a rough semi-circle that somehow seemed even more threatening in the green light of the forest, was a band of rough-dressed men. Some of them were heavily built, although for the most part they seemed to be designed more for agility than strength. There were seven of them, and they did not seem about to back away. She hefted her sword. Seven against two weren't the best of odds - but then they weren't the worst she had ever encountered either.

"Keep back Gabrielle." As usual her first thought was for her friend; even though, these days, Gabrielle needed a lot less looking after than had once been the case. Taking a firm grip upon her weapon, the warrior princess let her free hand fall to one of the chakrams hanging on her belt. It would not be easy to use such weapons at such close quarters, but if the need arose for it, she would try. Muscles apparently relaxed, stance to all appearances casual, she took a carefully judged step forward - only to be hit from above by a blossoming, ballooning net. It fell down around her, enfolding her in its tightly woven mesh. A yell escaped her, and from nearby she heard a shout of surprise that could only have meant that Gabrielle was trapped too. The realisation caused her to erupt into a furious fit of struggling that succeeded only in further entangling her in the grip of the net. Her sword was too tightly wrapped to be of any use, and she had lost her grip upon her chakrams indefinitely. Recognising the sense that lay with discretion, at least for the time being, she forced herself to relax. From somewhere far above her, she thought that she heard Autolycus's familiar, and usually welcome, voice.

"You weren't supposed to hurt them."

"They're not hurt." It was a woman's voice, confident and even faintly amused. "We'll get them back to the camp and give them time to calm down. Don't worry about it, Auto. Everything's going to be okay." Xena might have disagreed, but for the time being she decided to let it go. There would be time for violence later - when she took Autolycus apart piece by piece. In the meantime she would wait and see what happened next. If nothing else, the unexpected turn of events had piqued her interest. Just what exactly was the King of Thieves up to this time?


The merry crackling of a huge and colourful campfire did little to soothe Xena's fractious temper. Having been carried to a cart, she and Gabrielle had been transported by - she thought - three people and a single horse, before being deposited in a rowdy and annoyingly cheerful camp. Autolycus had not been present during the cart ride, suggesting that either he was no longer present, or that he had chosen to travel by some other means. Perhaps he had feared the results had Xena somehow managed to break free. She didn't blame him if that was the case, for she had spent much of the intervening hours dreaming up all manner of unpleasant tortures to inflict upon the thief's wily person. She had just thought up a new and particularly pleasing one when the King of Thieves himself made his appearance. He was carrying a rather attractive bone-handled knife, and the ever-present spring in his step seemed somehow subdued. Xena growled at him, and he winced.

"Now now. If you're good there's lots of stew cooking on the fire, and Maiandra has made some fresh bread. It's good stuff."

"Just tell me what this is all about." Manoeuvring herself about, hampered by the clinging mesh of the net, Xena managed to glare at him with all of the force she could muster. He flinched.

"It's not what it looks like. Honest."

"Autolycus, I rather doubt you even know the meaning of the word." Having been quiet for so long, Gabrielle now added her own anger to Xena's. The thief looked positively hurt.

"There's no need for that. Aren't we friends? Comrades? Companions in adventure and intrigue? We've been through thick and thin together, defeated evil--"

"Shut up." Xena sat as upright as her pinioned body would allow, and stared straight at the knife. Despite her anger, and the suspicious nature of her apparent captivity, she really didn't think that he would threaten to use it on her; and he certainly wouldn't threaten to use it on Gabrielle. That left only one reason for its presence, and she hoped that he wouldn't put it off any longer. "All that I'm interested in hearing about is why we're here, why we're tied up, and what in Hades' name is going on? Is that too much to ask, if we're really such great comrades? I don't think that I need to remind you that I've saved your life more than once in the past."

"Yeah." He lowered his eyes. "Truth is, ladies, that your friend Theora isn't the paragon of virtue everybody in these parts holds her up to be. She stole a lot of money from some friends of mine, and I promised to help them get it back. Now, I might have got a little carried away... maybe charged her some rather excessive interest... but at the end of the day it was nothing more than she deserved. I didn't know you two were in town, or I'd never have done the job - not until you were on your way again, anyhow. And I'm sorry about what happened to you, but my friends were anxious to get their money back, and they were a little worried about your interference." He held up the knife. "Now if you'll hold still I'll cut you free, and we can talk about this like civilised human beings. Is it a deal?"

"Just get us out of this." Xena's voice was like the edge of a finely sharpened blade, but Autolycus seemed to sense something in it that he could trust; either that, she reasoned, or he simply did not have it in him to leave them imprisoned any longer. He bent over the net and began cutting away the twisting fibres with the edge of the sharp knife. Xena felt the binding mesh unravel, and sensed the slackening of tension in the net. Her arms could move again, and the last of the woven rope fell away. Gabrielle stretched.

"That feels wonderful!" She jumped to her feet almost immediately, testing each of her limbs in turn, almost as if checking that they were still attached to her. Clearly she found them all in order, for she slowed her delighted antics and turned back to her silent companion. "Are you okay Xena?"

"Oh yes." Xena stood up, letting the last strands of the net fall to the ground at her feet. She stretched her agile body, letting the powerful muscles of her arms and chest flex in the heat of the nearby campfire. From her new position she could see a number of people standing and sitting about; men and women mostly, with one or two children. There were not very many of them, whoever they were.

"So, er... can we talk?" Autolycus sounded nervous, which gladdened her heart. She turned back to him, staring him down with a haughty glare that noticeably ruffled his feathers. He had already discarded the knife, and stood with his hands away from his sides; a universal gesture of peace and goodwill.

"Yeah, we can talk." She took a step forward; still glaring; still letting him see just how angry she was. "But first of all there's something that I've got to say to you."

"Yeah?" Trepidation coloured his tone. "And, er... what's that?"

"Just this." She took another step towards him, halving the distance between them with one carefully measured stride; then hauled off and delivered a punch that sent him crashing to the ground. He landed hard, clearly dazed, and blinked up at her through bleary eyes. "If you ever pull a stunt like this one again, all the gods of Olympus won't be able to save you from me. Is that understood?"

"Sure." He sat up rather slowly, rubbing his jaw. "Ow. Remind me never to get on your bad side."

"Oh you're pretty close to that right now, believe me." Xena looked towards Gabrielle. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine." She seemed almost jaunty, which was nothing new. Xena smiled at her. Her friend's capacity for optimism and jollity never ceased to amaze her, but in this situation at least it did not appear to be out of place. None of the other people in the camp had made any move to strike back at the women after the attack on Autolycus, and certainly none of them appeared to be armed. Instead, just as though she had been summoned by some unseen landlord, a woman appeared at Xena's elbow. She carried a carved wooden tray bearing bowls of stew and chunks of bread, and as she offered the food to the warrior princess, her face showed nothing but smiles.

"Please be our guests." She had a warm, lilting voice; soft and attractive; and she moved with an easy grace that reminded Xena of the acrobats she often saw entertaining the citizens of the many towns and cities that she passed through. The clothes that she wore seemed to suggest that an acrobat was exactly what she was, for beneath the white wrap that covered her shoulders in its silken embrace was a tight black jerkin that did little to mask a set of sleek biceps. She wore sky-blue trousers that clung to her skin, further outlining the athletic shape of her body. There was definitely something vaguely showbizzy about the outfit; something of the carnival or circus.

"Thankyou." Her anger for now spent, Xena took one of the bowls of stew, handing it, along with some bread, over to Gabrielle. As soon as she had taken a further serving for herself she smiled her thanks at the unorthodox waitress, before sitting down beside the large campfire. The woman with the tray crossed over to Autolycus, bending down to offer him some food as well.

"She got you good, Auto." Her tone of voice was one of marked amusement, and the still dazed thief glared up at her, without reproach.

"You wouldn't be so damn chirpy if it was you sitting down here." He eased himself to his feet and crossed over to the fire. "I'm not altogether sure that my lower jaw is still attached to the rest of my face." He waggled it as though making sure, and Gabrielle could not avoid laughing at his comically injured expression.

"Sit down, Autolycus." She moved over so that he could sit down next to her. "I've seen you getting hit harder than that before."

"I'm glad you think it was so minor." He looked as if he was contemplating a sulk, but eventually he sat down. The young woman in the white silk wrap materialised next to him, this time bearing mugs of wine.

"Here." She handed them around, unable to hide her amusement at Autolycus's continuing rueful expression. "We're pleased to have you both here as our guests, and we appreciate you agreeing not to return Lady Theora's jewels. She really does owe us that money."

"I don't remember agreeing any such thing." Xena glared daggers at Autolycus; not through any real malice, but merely to make sure that he was still aware of her earlier displeasure. She wondered if these as yet unidentified 'friends' of the irrepressible thief were aware of the true worth of all that he had stolen from Theora, or whether he had kept the lion's share of the treasure back for himself. "Now if it's not too much bother, everybody here seems to know me, but I don't seem to know anybody. Who are all you people, and how does Lady Theora come to owe you so much money?"

"Ah." The young woman looked down at the ground, before shooting Autolycus a questioning glance. He shrugged.

"The truth is simple enough, Xena." The mock hurt and the jokes had vanished from his voice, and she could see that he was having one of his rare, down-to-earth moments. "These people are members of an acrobatic troupe; the best in the land as it happens. They travel around the countryside, putting on shows for townspeople or estate owners, or anybody who's prepared to pay to watch them. Lady Theora asked them to perform at a huge festival in honour of Hera, but then she refused to pay. They put on three performances - real death-defying stuff - and then didn't get a single dinar for it. They've been waiting for her to pay them for weeks now, but she keeps refusing. So when I ran into them a few days back, and heard about their little problem, I decided to offer my services." A trace of his usual showmanship began to return to his voice. "The King of Thieves likes to perform the odd service for his subjects... a good deed done; a strike against the rich and heartless in the name of liberty and fairness for all. A reputation can always do with a little harmless bolstering, and even a man such as myself, renowned for his greatness throughout the land, isn't adverse to gaining a little more positive publicity for himself." He made an expansive gesture, and struggled to look vaguely humble. "It's nothing less than my adoring public expects, after all."

"You never change, do you." The young woman in the silken wrap was smiling in amused disbelief. "Even as a kid you had the biggest ego I'd ever seen. It doesn't seem to have shrunk any as you've got older." Gabrielle giggled, and spurred on by her audience's appreciation, the young woman shook her head, feigning exasperation. "You think he's bad now? You should have seen him back in the old days. You'd think he was the first person ever to turn a somersault, the hullabaloo there always was when he did one right. And when the guy who ran the troupe back in those days decided to make him the centrepiece of the show..." She shook her head. "He was impossible."

"I was not." Vaguely affronted, Autolycus put on a haughty expression. "I was just the best. It's not my fault that I couldn't be bettered. I didn't ask to be the greatest acrobat Greece has ever known. I just had to live with the talents that the gods saw fit to throw my way."

"So this..." Gabrielle gestured around at the small group spread around the camp. "All you people... you're some kind of a travelling circus. And this is where Autolycus learnt all his moves?"

"He joined us one day when he was a scraggy little kid with barely any meat on his bones." The young woman smiled as she told the story, spurred on by the embarrassed flush rising upon the thief's scowling face. "He'd run away from his widowed old aunt or something, and he'd decided that he wanted to be in a circus. We took him in, trained him up, and - though it pains me to say it - he was the best we've ever had. There was nothing he couldn't do." She caught sight of Autolycus basking in the reflected glory of her praise, and threw a piece of bread at him. "Will you stop that? All these years and you're still an incorrigible big head."

"I simply fail to see the point in hiding the truth of one's greatness." He shrugged, stretching his agile body like some lazy cat sprawled on a warm hearth. "And since that is my only failing..."

"Anyway..." His old friend glared at him, before breaking into a smile. "We trained him up, he did his stuff, and we pulled in the crowds all over Greece. Then one day he decided that there were bigger challenges elsewhere, and we never saw him again." She shot another glance his way. "We certainly heard about him often enough though. If ever anybody put their schooling to use in later life, it's Autolycus." She put an affectionate hand on his shoulder. "It was so good to run into him a few days back. We've had a wonderful time catching up, and now we've finally got the money we were owed."

"It was a pleasure." He put his hand on top of hers. "Anyway, in answer to your earlier question, Xena - I would like to present to you, with all due flourishes and fanfares, Maiandra the Magnificent, acrobat, high-wire artist and dancer. This is her troupe these days, and she's almost as good as I was, so it's well worth catching a show if you've got nothing better to do."

"Thanks." Maiandra sounded dryly appreciative. "That started off well, at any rate. At least the first sentence managed to be a genuine compliment."

"Well you know me, sugar." He grinned over at her, the gesture both affectionate and teasing. She smiled back.

"Yeah, too damn well. That's half the trouble." She took a salutary swig of wine. "But it was good of you to help us out with the Lady Theora situation. I really do appreciate it."

"The King of Thieves is always good to his subjects." He gave her a remarkably deep bow, apparently unhampered by the fact that he was sitting down. "And, er... can I assume that my impressive act of great generosity is going to go unpunished?" He glanced sideways at Xena and waggled his eyebrows. She glared at him.

"Yeah, okay. This time I let it go." She shook her head, clearly exasperated by her own sense of justice. "But one of these days I'm going to see you paying the consequences for some of your antics." She scowled at the fire, lowering her voice to a hushed whisper that only Gabrielle heard. "Even if it takes me until doomsday." Gabrielle laughed. The sense of warmth and friendship emanating from their little gathering had dispersed her uneasiness and the memories of her earlier fears; and now that the net had been removed, and the atmosphere lightened, she was ready just to relax and enjoy herself. It was curiously like an extension to their holiday.

"So what happens now?" Nibbling on her bread, which had been pleasantly warmed by the fire, Gabrielle turned towards Maiandra. "You've more than got back the money you were owed."

"I know." She flashed Autolycus a warm smile, which he responded to by a faux casual shrug and an expression of apparent indifference. "It's going to be a huge help. We have some friends - most of the troupe actually - who are in trouble in the next province. With the money that we now have, we should be able to help them out."

"They need fines paying?" Autolycus, stretched out before the fire like some reclining god, was now speaking with his eyes shut. He looked on a the verge of sleep, and was clearly feeling very much at home. He had already finished his stew, and his empty mug was being refilled by a scantily-clad young girl barely out of her teens. Gabrielle could see that he was watching her appreciatively from beneath his eyelids, and she had to smile. It certainly hadn't taken him long to make himself at home.

"Not exactly." Maiandra glanced at the ground, apparently wondering how much of this latest story she should tell. In the end she gave a shrug, just a shade too casual to be genuinely so. "We were performing in this little village, and everything seemed to be going fine. Everybody loved us, and we made quite a bit of money. We were thinking of staying on for a few days, maybe putting on another couple of performances." She frowned, toying with her mug and watching the wine swirl about inside. "Then that night, when we were camped just outside of the village, we were attacked by a gang of men. We tried to fight them off, but we're performers, not warriors. Some of us got away..." She gestured around at the few people scattered about the camp. "They got most of the men, though. All the strongest. There was nothing we could do."

"You think it was some kind of press gang?" Xena was frowning, taking a definite interest. Maiandra seemed comforted by this, and brightened a little. She shook her head,

"They were no press gang. We were miles from the sea. In the morning we went back to the village and asked around, and there were enough scared people to tell us part of what had happened. We moved on to the next settlement and got a much better answer there. Seems that the men who attacked us were working for a local landowner. He keeps slaves. Lots of them. Apparently we weren't the first strangers in the area to walk into one of his little ambushes." She shrugged. "It'll probably turn out to be futile, but we have to go back there and try to get our friends free. Maybe this landowner will agree to sell them to us. We can offer him a lot of money thanks to Autolycus."

"You shouldn't have to buy their freedom." Xena's frown suggested a growing anger, directed at this faceless stranger in another province. "He's got no right to enslave anyone, much less to go around kidnapping innocent people." She looked across at Gabrielle. "If I hadn't promised you a holiday..."

"Don't worry about that on my account." Gabrielle sounded incensed. "This guy needs to be stopped, and if you want to go after him, I'm right behind you."

"Good." The warrior princess gave a brisk, firm nod. "In that case, I think we can do something about your friends without having to resort to economics." She flashed Maiandra one of her unexpectedly bright smiles. "If Autolycus really gave you all of Lady Theora's jewels, you might as well keep them. I don't feel much inclined to take them back to her. But I don't want you giving them to some corrupt landowner who thinks he can force your people into slavery. I'm going to deal with this my own way."

"Really?" Maiandra was flushed with pleasure. "I-I can't ask you to do this. I mean... I can't ask either of you to put yourselves in danger for our sake..."

"You're not." Xena glanced across at Gabrielle as though checking that they were in agreement. "This is just what we do, that's all."

"Championing the innocent." Autolycus rolled his eyes. "Yeah, trust me. This is what they do. It's all depressingly heroic."

"Shut up." Gabrielle threw the last of her bread at him, and he smiled.

"You're just trying to out do me." He sat up, brushing away breadcrumbs. "I do something brilliant and breathakingly daring to help out these good people, and you just have to go one better. Really, ladies. I'm hurt."

"Good." Xena stood up, crossing over to stand above him. "Because you're going to come with us."

"I am?" He looked unconvinced. "Why would I want to do that?"

"Firstly because these people are your friends. Secondly, because you might be useful." She leaned down, hauling him to his feet. "And thirdly because you owe me a really, really big favour for not handing you over to the local guard."

"Oh." He stroked his goatee, clearly trying to think of an excuse, then shrugged. "Well since you put it that way..."

"This is great." Jumping to her feet, Maiandra seemed about to dance with glee. "I can't believe that Xena is going to help!" She blushed. "Well... and you others of course. Ganar won't know what hit him."

"Huh?" Autolycus, in the middle of an indignant pout at being named as a mere second to Xena, looked up rather sharply. Maiandra threw her arms around her old friend's neck.

"Ganar." She leant her head against his shoulder. "I really appreciate this, Auto. I know this sort of thing isn't exactly in your line, but it's great to have you helping out. Sort of like old times." She frowned. "Only with less acrobatics and rather more violence... but you know what I mean."

"Yeah." He looked uncertain. "Listen guys, I really think that you're best handling this on your own. I'd only get in the way. Like Mai says, it isn't really my line, and I'd hate to screw things up." He disentangled himself from Maiandra's hug, straightening his jacket where her body had creased it. "Tell you what - you go ahead and do the heroic bit, and I'll... go somewhere else. There's a lot for me to do this time of year."

"Autolycus..." Using her exasperated tone once again, Xena folded her arms. "We need your help. It might be necessary to break these people out, and if that's the case we'll find it a lot easier with you around. You can pick locks much faster - and more quietly - than I can break down the doors."

"Well that's true." He smiled, clearly pleased with this hint of praise. "But the answer's still no. I'm sorry guys. Much though I'd love to risk my life... fight lots of men with big weapons and hefty armour... risk life and limb without any reward... I'm just going to have to give it a miss." He offered a deep bow. "Bye."

"Autolycus--" Gabrielle took a step towards him, but before she was within an arm's length he had thrown his secreted grappling hook into the trees above. He jumped even as she was reaching out for him, and her fingers gripped empty air. Xena also made a grab for him; and with her better reactions and greater strength, she caught his wrist just before he could swing away. He fell back to the ground, looking rather less than his usual sprightly self.

"Ow!" He leapt to his feet, somehow managing to make the rough tumble seem like part of a fluid routine. "That hurt!"

"Good. You're not going to get out of this. Now we need your help - your friends need your help. This isn't like you. You may be a thief; you may be a pain in the neck; but I didn't think you were a coward."

"Maybe you don't know me very well." He looked from one to the other of the three women, and shook his head. "You don't need my help. You think you do, but you don't." He gave his wrist a flick, and his grappling hook fell to the ground. With swift, practised hands he began to gather up the rope. "I have places to go. Things to steal. Woman to visit. My fans need further escapades to breathlessly discuss in taverns and market squares. It's my duty to fulfil those obligations."

"And you don't think that your first obligation should be to your friends?" Xena's words apparently fell upon deaf ears, and she deliberately planted herself in his way. "Autolycus..."

"Forget it." Having finished coiling up his rope, he slung it over his shoulder. "I don't want anything to do with this Ganar guy. He's trouble - and not my brand. Go after him if that's what you want, but don't assume that everybody else shares your goals and aspirations. We don't." He stepped past her, eyes fixed ahead. Gabrielle moved as if to stop him, but he pushed past her as though she were invisible, striding off into the forest. They all stared after him.

"Are you okay?" Worried for Gabrielle, Xena moved towards her. Her friend brushed off her concerns.

"I'm fine." She rubbed her arm, where Autolycus had knocked against her as he left. "But I don't think that he is."

"No." Xena was frowning, although apparently not through anger. "He didn't seem like himself, did he. I mean, he was just as irritating as normal, but there was definitely something wrong."

"Very wrong." Maiandra shrugged. "Unless he's changed a lot in the past twenty years."

"It's not that." Xena rubbed thoughtfully at her chin, staring at the place where the thief had disappeared. She was thinking back over her previous encounters with the cheerful crook. He liked to protect his own interests, sometimes hinting at a level of cowardice - but in all honesty it was little more than an act. She knew him as somebody who was a good deal more courageous and a good deal more helpful than he would ever have admitted even to himself. "I'm going after him."

"He might not talk to you. Maybe I should go." Gabrielle looked worried, her pretty features drawn into a much more serious expression than seemed natural to them. "We get along so well usually."

"If you go after him he'll only act up. You'll get nothing but a come-on and a whole lot of overblown bravado." Xena shook her head. "You stay here, and get some details about this guy we're going up against. I want to know everything about him. Talk to everyone. I'll be back in a little while." She shouldered her sword. "And I'll either bring Autolycus back with me, or an interesting assortment of his limbs." She shrugged, flashing a smile. "I already know which option I prefer."

"Surely you're not going to hurt him?" Maiandra was wide-eyed, but Xena offered her a smile that was at least partly reassuring.

"Not unless he really, really asks for it." She winked. "Although come to think if it, he's usually pretty good at that."


She found him strolling along a tree branch, already some distance out into the forest. He was whistling a happy little tune that was backed by a chorus of birds, and singing occasional snatches of a song that she didn't recognise. In between periods of bright whistling she caught faint words - something about an actress and a high priest of Hera. She smiled to herself, almost wanting to stick around long enough to hear the end of the song.

"Autolycus!" She moved a little ahead, then stood in the middle of the forest path with her hands on her hips. She still held her sword in one fist, and with her face set in a hard expression she looked like a force to be reckoned with. Far above her the thief slowed to a halt. Xena weighed her sword in her hand.

"I think somebody just called my name." Autolycus glanced down, deliberately failing to see Xena. "But maybe I was mistaken. Nobody here but the trees." He gave a shrug and leaped lightly across to the next branch. "I must be hearing things."

"Hear this." As he stepped lightly by, Xena drew back her arm and hurled her sword like a spear. It struck the bough just in front of his feet, sending down a shower of leaves and small twigs that made him wobble. He glowered.

"Hey! No fair! That thing coulda hit me."

"Well maybe next time I'll aim a little better." She held up one of her chakrams, ready to throw it after the sword. "Now come down here and talk to me before we find out how much your fans still like you without your head."

"Xena, my fans would like me no matter what I was missing." He frowned as her threat sank in. "But having said that, I'd really rather not find out."

"Then get down here." She brandished the chakram, looking evil. "I'll count to ten. One... two..."

"Okay, okay, okay. Can we cut out the misbehaving kid routine?" He flipped backwards, spinning neatly through the air, coming to a soft and erect landing an arm's length from the warrior princess. "Now. What can I do for you?" He seemed proud of his landing - even though it had, for him, not been a particularly difficult feat - and was stroking his moustache in his favourite flirtatious fashion. "Couldn't live without me, huh?"

"You left rather suddenly." Xena was in no mood for jokes. "Rather rudely. There was no cause for pushing past Gabrielle the way you did."

"She can look after herself." He was frowning now, the flirtation gone. "She's a big girl now, as I'm sure you've discovered. She doesn't need you running around fighting her battles for her."

"It's what I do." Xena was now scowling openly, determined to keep him from changing the subject. Her chakram was ready in her hand in case he tried to make one of his unpredictable breaks for freedom, and her temper was stretched by the need to be looking in a thousand possible directions at once. "I was hoping for an apology - in person."

"You don't want an apology. You want me to go with you to rescue the rest of the troupe from Ganar. Thing is, I don't work for nothing. It's not my scene."

"He's sure to have plenty of money lying about the place. If he deals in slaves he'll be rich. It's always been a good source of income, and it doesn't sound as if he's wasting much cash on paying fair wages."

"I don't want his money." Autolycus was watching the chakram, no doubt trying to judge the timing of his escape by the skill of Xena's throw. He didn't much fancy his chances. "I wouldn't touch a brass dinar of it. It's just that I... sort of know him. I've had the dubious pleasure of meeting him before, and I'm not anxious to renew our acquaintance. Taking me with you might not be a very good idea."

"Let me guess - you met his daughter, stole her honour, and left the house several thousand dinars lighter." Xena's expression did not show any great measure of amusement; but to her surprise Autolycus actually looked hurt.

"I wouldn't touch any daughter of his. Besides, it wouldn't be like him to care. The last time I was anywhere near his place, the only thing I stole was a loaf of bread." He sighed. "Look, Xena - I want to help Maiandra. Of course I do. But I just don't want anything to do with Ganar. The man is trouble. Big trouble. Bad luck follows him around like a cloud, but it's not the kind of bad luck that hurts him - just others around him. It's like Discord has made him her special pet project. Discord and Strife and a hundred other nasty little gods. I'm not going near him."

"That's your final word?" She was surprised, despite the low opinion in which she generally professed to hold him. If he had crossed paths with this Ganar before, it was quite likely that he would be unwilling to do so again - but she had not expected him to be so firm in his refusal to help. Usually he offered up resistance for a limited time only, before throwing in his all and doing his best to help out. This was something very new.

"That's my final word." He glanced up at the treetops. "Can I go now?"

"If you think your reputation can handle it." She toyed with her readied chakram, watching him carefully. "I mean, I get around a lot, and I meet a lot of people on the way. I wouldn't need to tell many people about what a coward the King of Thieves is, before they changed their opinions so fast you couldn't even be a Lord of Thieves, yet alone anything vaguely regal. But if that's what you want, who am I to stand in your way?"

"You wouldn't." He saw the hardness in her eyes and groaned. "You would. You're a hard woman, Xena."

"Like I said before, you owe me for this one. Not only could I have turned you over to the local guard, but I should at least have paid you back for that stunt you pulled with the net. You're still in one piece, and that's only because I let you stay that way. The way I see it, your reputation is mine to do whatever I want with."

"And the only way I can save it is to go with you to handle Ganar?" He was clearly thinking, and she nodded slowly.

"Come on. How hard can it be? We break in, we free the slaves, we break back out again. He can't exactly have a whole army guarding his homestead, can he? He's a farmer. I don't see what there is to be so scared of."

"Who says I'm scared?" He stroked his goatee in thought, watching her all the while, still trying to judge how far she had meant her threat to sully his beloved reputation. He knew that she was counting on his legendary conceit, assuming that he would not risk his reputation for anything. The problem was, as he very well knew, that his reputation really did mean that much. It was one of the few things that he genuinely was not prepared to lose. Xena began to smile, looking insufferably smug.

"We'll be in and out of there before he even has a chance to see your face. He won't recognise you - and if he does, then I'll see that he doesn't get a chance to do anything about it. It'll take more than a slave driving landowner to beat me." There was no conceit in her words; no hint of a boast. Somehow her calm stating of the facts was beyond such things. She merely spoke the truth, in her usual measured tones.

"He won't recognise me." Autolycus turned away, leaning on the nearest tree trunk, watching a pair of rabbits fight together in the dirt nearby. If they were aware of his presence it did not bother them, for the King of Thieves moved so quietly that few animals considered him a threat. Xena also moved forward, although still she kept her distance. Before she had wanted to stay back because the chakrams worked better as long distance weapons, and she had wanted to be ready should she be required to put one of them into use. Now it was merely through a sense of respect for whatever it was that the thief was feeling.

"Won't recognise you? But I thought you said--"

"I said that I knew him, not that he knew me. I could walk in and out of there without him giving me a second glance. The last time that I was anywhere near that place, I was just a little kid."

"A kid?" She took a few more steps towards him, and the rabbits froze in a startled tableau. Autolycus froze too, his shoulders visibly tensing. Xena got the impression that he was fighting some instinct to leap away into the trees. "I don't understand. I didn't think you were a thief back then."

"I wasn't." He shrugged his green-clad shoulders. "I was just hungry, and I decided he probably owed me some bread. As far as I know nobody even noticed that I took it."

"So what were you doing there?" She moved closer still, and this time the rabbits bolted, leaping away over a pair of fallen trees and a scattering of large stones. The warrior princess expected Autolycus to bolt too, but instead he merely turned around to face her.

"I was leaving," he told her simply. "I used to live there, and I decided that I didn't want to live there any longer."

"You used to live there?" She was frowning, the chakram forgotten in her lowered hand, her eyes no longer watchful and alert. "Did your father work on his estate?"

"No." The King of Thieves turned away again, looking off into the leafy distance. "Not exactly."

"Then what--"

"My father didn't work for Ganar." Autolycus was staring at her now, his eyes fiercely intense. "There's just a chance that Ganar is my father. My mother used to work for him, years ago."

"Your... father?" She stared at him, no longer quite seeing him, trying to work out how that could be true. Of all the people that she knew, Autolycus seemed the least likely to be related to anybody unpleasant. She had always imagined him to be the son of an acrobat, or a loveable rogue much like himself. Certainly not a rich landowner given to kidnapping unwary strangers, and adding them to the ranks of his enslaved workers. "But Maiandra said that you used to live with your widowed aunt. Surely if you ran away from your father, your aunt would be the last person that you'd go to?"

"She wasn't my aunt. After my mother died, when I left Ganar's place, I ran into her on the road. She was a lonely old woman who wanted somebody young to keep her company. Actually she was one of the Acolytes of Hermes. It was quite an honour."

"The... Acolytes of Hermes?"

"A legendary band of thieves." The king of that particular fraternity had a wistful look in his eyes. "They were the greatest in their day. Eleven women, unsurpassable for their beauty, their intelligence, and their skill. They were rumoured to be the daughters of Hermes himself, although there's no telling how much truth there was in that. These things have a tendency to become a little exaggerated over time." He sighed. "Boy, those were the days. The King of Thieves could have had eleven queens..."

"Yeah. Well." Xena shook her head, amused at the ability of her friend to cheer himself up so quickly. "So how did your mother come to be working for Ganar? Was she in the wrong place at the wrong time, like Maiandra's friends?"

"Not exactly. It's a long story actually."

"I'm not in any particular hurry. Are you?"

"Not just now. You really want to hear the full story?"

"Right from the very beginning." She leant against the tree just beside him, returning the now unnecessary chakram to her belt. She was beginning to feel rather bad for having drawn it in the first place. "Anything you know just might turn out to be useful, if we're to going to have to face this man in battle."

"True I suppose." He cocked his head on one side, eyeing her with faint amusement. "So long as that's the real reason you want to hear about it. If you're just trying to be nice... do you think you could stop it please? It's a little odd."

"I'm not trying to be nice. I don't do things like that."

"So long as we're clear on that." He folded his arms, and rested his back against a fork in the tree's lowest branches. "Well since you ask, it all starts a long way away, in a land I don't even know the name of."

"Go on." She settled herself, ready to hear the rest of the tale, with barely a passing thought for the others waiting for her back at the camp. They would keep, and nobody was going anywhere until she returned. Autolycus nodded slowly.

"It was far to the east of here; a hot country, near two big rivers, where the cities were supposed to be as old as the gods." He shrugged. "Different gods, I think. Maybe it's too far away even for Zeus to be able to see it."

"I've heard of places like that. They say that there are ruins there that were old before Atlantis sank into the sea. That before the first bricks of the oldest cities of Greece had even been laid, those ruins were already ancient." She smiled. "There must be a lot of treasures buried in places like that."

"Yeah." He dusted his fingernails on his jacket, and looked studiously casual and cool. "I've thought about that from time to time. Must be any number of gold statues and pretty little necklaces buried with long dead kings. And long dead kings don't need treasure." He brightened still further. "And if the tributes have been left to different gods, that means that that crowd of fun-stoppers on Olympus-" he glanced his eyes skywards, as if checking for signs of displeasure- "can't get cross about it. Yeah. Maybe I should think about taking a holiday."

Xena laughed. "Then I hope you have more luck with it than I'm having with mine. Now carry on with your story."

"Yeah." He was silent for a moment, as though gathering his thoughts. "Well like I said, it all starts a long way away from here, in a land far to the east, with a warrior by the name of Aresh. He was a hero - one of the greatest warriors of his land. And he was married to a woman named Arianne..."


Aresh dismounted whilst his horse was still heading towards the stables. A servant boy grabbed the ropes that served as reins, leading the animal away to be unsaddled as Aresh himself turned towards the house. It was a small building, made of mud bricks and local stone, surrounded by a few fields tended by hired hands; old men mostly, now too old to join the younger generation in their battles and feuds. They spent their days weeding and hoeing, or seeding or harvesting, offering their libations to gods who sometimes heard, and sometimes merely chose to ignore them. That was the way that it had been for generations, and the way that everybody who thought to imagine such things assumed that it would always be. Aresh, however, was beginning to suspect that things might be about to change.

"Aresh!" The musical sound of his wife's sweet voice came to him as he crossed his threshold, and he turned to greet her. She was a tall woman, almost as tall as her husband, with long, flowing tresses of black, and a pair of sparkling eyes of a similar shade. They were dangerous eyes; sharp and deadly, yet just as likely to laugh as they were to flare up. Aresh had fallen in love with them the moment that he had looked into them for the first time, when he had been nothing more than a boy barely old enough to hold the reins of his father's horse.

"Arianne." He took her hand, drawing her close for a kiss. "How has the house been?"

"Everything has been fine. Just boring without you." She leant against him as they went to their seats on the back porch of the house. "Did the battle go well?"

"The battle went very well." He reached inside his jerkin and produced a golden bracelet, decorated with a row of shimmering blue jewels. "As a matter of fact, my opponents were kind enough to donate this, once they heard that it was you I was married to." He fastened it about her wrist. "Do you like it?"

"I love it." She held it up to the light, watching the stones sparkle. "But I'd like it more if I'd been able to help you win it. You know that I can handle a sword as well as anyone else, and plenty of the other men take their women into battle with them."

"I know." He leaned back into his seat, staring out across the fields. "As I used to take you."

"Precisely. I want to know what's changed, Aresh. Why do I have to stay here now, with the old men and the serving women? It might be different if we had children; but we don't. I spend my days here, watching the work going on in the fields, or riding the horses from homestead to homestead... It's boring. I want to be of some use to you."

"You are." He turned his head slightly, looking towards her, then glanced back again out over the fields. "Arianne... Khoimia fell yesterday. The whole village was taken - buildings destroyed, people killed. So many of them were carried away, and nobody knows where they went."

"Khoimia?" She stared at him, uncomprehending. "But Khoimia is a city of peace. They're scholars, scribes, teachers, philosophers - they don't have an enemy in the world."

"Or so we thought." He stretched his legs out, staring at his knee-length boots with their finely worked leather, and their decorations in gleaming metal. They were spattered in dust and dried mud, but still the excellence of the workmanship showed through. He was thinking, involuntarily, of the craftsman in Khoimia who had made them for him, and the three beautiful daughters who even now were being dragged away to an unknown fate. It seemed insane, for such things simply did not happen in this fertile place. They fought their traditional enemies, and faced their traditional foes, but nobody ever destroyed whole settlements, or carried away whole families. Recently, however, Aresh had heard of such things happening more and more. Suddenly news was coming in of many villages and settlements being attacked by superior forces; well trained men who came in packs, and attacked en masse; soldiers with superior training and great force of arms who could not be stopped by enthusiastic young men armed with spears and short swords. The defending armies, self-trained and experienced only in fighting those enemies who were similarly armed, were cut to pieces in moments by men in strong armour, on bigger and stronger horses; horses that wore armour themselves. Nobody had as yet managed to defeat one of these attacking armies, and nobody had managed to free any of those taken prisoner by them. Nobody even knew where the prisoners were being taken; what distant land they were spirited away to, or what foreign gods they were sacrificed to. Nobody had ever seen them again.

"What do you think is happening?" Arianne was staring away now, looking across the fields into the middle distance. People had wondered for generations what lay beyond the distant horizons, but in the past it had never been of great concern to anybody to actually find out. Now it seemed that somebody from far away, in one of those unimagined lands, was preparing to conquer them all. It was a strange thought; like some distant fear that had no proper focus. Aresh didn't even know what it was that he was so afraid of.

"I think that we have to prepare for the worst." He said it in his usual soft, strong voice, and he felt his wife's hand tighten its grip upon his clenched fist. "Life has to go on, and even if we are attacked by these enemies, it might be years from now. We still have our crops to grow, our own battles to fight, our own enemies to conquer. There are the bandits in the hills, the tribes that try to steal our grain and our horses; there are still the old feuds that need to be fought; but perhaps we have to think about defending our homes, too."

"And that's why you want me to stay here." She stared at the ground. "You think that I can stir up a few old men to turn their rakes and their hoes against an entire army, that might come to attack us at any moment?"

"I think that we have to do the best we can. We've been making plans, on how best to defend the region. We feel that it's for the good of us all if our armies are ready to defend the plains. Whoever these people are who keep attacking all these settlements, they're unlikely to come from the mountains. They were last heard of in Khoimia, which lies to the south. That means that it makes sense to put our main line of defence in the south, ready to fight back in case these people come at us from across the plains." He gestured out across the fields of their friends and families. "But there's a chance, however slight, that they might come from that way. That's why I want you here, no matter where I've gone, or who I'm fighting. There's nothing I want more than to have you by my side in battle, but I think our cause would be better served if you were to be here, leading the men that stay behind. Many of them are old, or not trained for battle - but that doesn't have to matter. You only have to hold the enemy off until a message can get through for us to return." He gave her hand a squeeze. "And anyway, it's not likely to happen. If we are attacked, the attack will come from the south."

"Who are they, Aresh?" She didn't look at him, and he didn't look at her. "Where have they come from, and why are they destroying our lands? Our people?"

"I have no idea." He forced a smile. "I hear that they come from some land far out to the west, and that they come from a place near the ocean. It's near the end of the world, or so the seers say. I suppose it's a sign from the gods, telling us that we've been complacent for too long. Beyond our borders the world is changing, and we haven't changed with it."

"But why do the gods have to destroy us to tell us that? We can change. We can go out into the world, and see what's happening in it. We don't have to have our houses burnt down, and our families murdered, just to show us that we aren't living the way that the gods want us to."

"Perhaps it's a lesson that we're not supposed to understand." He shrugged, then released her hand and stood up. "Perhaps we're never meant to understand what the gods tell us. Perhaps these foreigners serve different gods altogether, and that means that none of this makes any sense." He pulled her gently to her feet. "It doesn't matter. We'll survive, Arianne. Our families have lived in this land for longer than any one family can claim to recall. None of our tales tell us how we came to be here in this place, and none of our great histories can tell us who we fought, and who we conquered, in order to take this place for ourselves. All we know is that we are here, and that we've always been here. And here is where we will always be."

"Of course." She reached up to the hook above the door, and lifted down the wineskin that hung there, twisting slowly on its leather cord. The wine was young and sharp, warmed by the sun and flavoured by the waters of the nearest stream. The recipe had been unchanged for as long as the vines that grew by the water's edge had been bearing their small, round fruit. Nobody could remember a time when it had not been so.

"To victory," Aresh announced, lifting the wineskin high above his head. He drank the first mouthful to the god of the sun, and the second mouthful to the goddess of the moon; then one last swallow for their child, the great god of war, who would lead his people to victory against these foreigners from their land in the west. When he had finished he handed the wineskin back to Arianne, who copied his libations, and drank just as heartily to the same governing deities. Far above them, however, in the cloudy palaces where the gods of the region lived their godly lives, things were beginning to change - for just as the settlements on the ground had been over-run by mortal enemies, so the settlements of the gods had been over-run by immortal foes. The gods that Aresh and Arianne had offered their prayers to had gone, and their own great and powerful god of war lay crushed beneath the feet of a new master. For high in the skies above the hopeful young couple on the ground, Ares was playing his latest cruel game. As nothing more than a passing whim, he had already decided who was to be the victor; and as he watched the young mortal pair beneath him, and listened to their heartfelt prayers, he laughed at their optimistic foolery, and sent his servants crashing down upon them.


The fields were in ruins across the land. In every settlement it seemed that somebody had lost a father, or a brother, or a son to the foreign marauders who still came thirsting for blood. Now crops lay smoking, burnt to blackened ruin in the ground, beside flattened houses and murdered servants, whilst gangs of men speaking foreign tongues dragged the women and children and the few surviving men away to unknown places. Months had passed since the fall of Khoimia, and still the foreigners came; as strong as ever; as well-ordered as ever; as determined to take and destroy. It was with weary feet that Aresh wandered towards his homestead, carrying the weapons that should have been carried by his horse. The horse itself was dead, cut from under him by a faceless warrior in a helmet that protected his head and defied all attempts to knock it aside. Aresh had been torn from his dead animal, battered and beaten by men too numerous to fight again; and had finally been hurled, exhausted and defeated, onto the pile of bodies that had once been his army. Now he walked home alone, his thoughts on the dark future that seemed to be awaiting them all.

He knew as soon as he drew near his house that something was wrong. Smoke still drifted from the chimney, and the smell of bread and meats cooking still filled the air - and yet something was definitely wrong. He sensed it; heard it; felt it; like a curtain hanging heavily in the air. Desperate, he broke into a run.

When he was a hundred paces away, he realised that there were no men working the fields. Twenty more paces, and he could see that the crops themselves had been torn up. Another twenty paces and he could see the bodies that lay amongst the mangled plants. He didn't slow. There was one body that he couldn't see; that he needed to see, before he could slow down or turn away. It wasn't there.

"Arianne!" He gave no thought to discretion or stealth, and ran on as though he were merely returning from a simple trip to another town. He didn't hear her answer, and didn't see her smiling face in any of the windows. He ran on, past the well in the garden; past the body of the stable boy lying draped upon the steps that led to the main door. Only when he was half way through the door did he finally see his wife, hanging limply in the grip of two armoured men, each holding a long and well wrought sword. He took a step towards them.

"Release her." He had no idea if they understood him, since they certainly did not speak the same language. They stared back at him, making no move to obey, nor any move to attack him. He stepped forward.

"That woman is my wife. Release her. I am Aresh, and I own these lands. I'm an important man in these parts, and I have great riches. If it's a ransom that you want, I'm prepared to pay you. But first you must release my wife."

"Great riches?" The voice was mocking, even though it was thick with an accent that Aresh could not identify. Somehow it hurt more to be mocked by a man who could barely speak the language, let alone be fully fluent in its better insults. "Then you make a mistake in offering them to us as a ransom, Aresh. They're already ours for the taking."

"Who are you?" He moved closer to the man, seeing that he did not appear to be a fighter. Instead he looked more like a businessman or a crook; a large man, built more from fat than from muscle, although certainly not lacking in strength. It appeared that his talents lay in brute force rather than in speed; or perhaps in luck rather than skill. Aresh knew that he could defeat the man, if only he was allowed to fight him one on one.

"Aresh?" He had thought that Arianne was unconscious, but she raised her head now to look at him. She looked tired and shaken, and he imagined that she had given a good account of herself in whatever battle had taken place. He cursed himself for not having been there to protect her, even though his own position, and his own battle, might have been just as important.

"What is it Arianne?" He knew that she had guessed his thoughts; that she knew his desire to fight this strange man, with his big shoulders and powerful looking arms. It made sense of course, since this man was evidently the leader. Perhaps he was even the leader of all the attackers; the man behind all of these well organised raids. Arianne smiled.

"I'm going away," she told him simply. "Into the horizon, to see the lands we talked about, and the people and the gods that live there. I'll see how the world has changed beyond our borders. They won't take you. Please... please don't do anything to make them kill you. If you agree to let them take me, they might let you live. I want that. You can't help me. Just turn around and walk away."

"Walk away?" Of all the things that he might have expected her to say, this was the last that he would have imagined. He couldn't believe the gentle way that she had said it; the soft pleading in her eyes. Well he would be damned if he was going to turn around and let these strangers walk away with his wife; with who knew how many other wives and husbands, from who knew how many other homesteads. He shook his head.

"I won't let them take you." He gestured around, at the white walls of the strong old house. "This is our home, Arianne, and I decide what goes on in it. My great-great-great grandfather built this house, in the place where his crops grew best. This is the house that I had planned to hand down to my son one day - a son that I have every intention of having with you. We were married in this house, and we met for the first time here, when you came visiting with your father to a banquet in honour of the gods. I won't turn around and let these people take you away from here. My father is buried just outside the garden. My brother and my grandfather, and the ashes of twelve generations of my family are outside these walls, resting in the ground. I say what goes on here, not a gang of foreigners who attack us when the warriors are away." He drew his sword, stained with the blood of men that he had not been able to sway; so many men that he had cut down, and yet had not seemed able to deplete the numbers of. He remembered how they had kept coming, and he tried not to shiver. So many enemies, and so few friends.

"Please Aresh." There was a quiver in Arianne's voice that he did not think he had ever heard before. It hurt him to hear it now. He smiled at her.

"I won't let them take you." It was a strong promise, firmly made but softly spoken. Arianne held his eyes, and he looked deeply into hers. He saw the dark blackness of them; the smiles and the fires of them; the laughs and the scowls and the tempers of them. He remembered the first time he had seen the laughter in them, and the first time that he had seen them filled with tears. He remembered the happiness in them on the day he had brought Arianne to live in the house. He remembered the laughter that had lighted that beautiful blackness, when he had first asked her to be his wife. He didn't see the fear in them now, as he looked into them for the last time.

"Leave my wife, and leave this place." He heard his voice, determined and strong as always, mingled with the sound of mocking laughter, and the soft cries of his anguished wife. The big man who spoke with so strong an accent shook his head.

"No. You have no way to defeat us, Aresh. You can't win."

"Then I'll die trying." He lifted the sword above his head. Arianne let out a shout of warning that he heard even as he felt the pain in his chest. He looked down. The point of a sword erupted through the skin between his ribs, even as he was looking down at it. He saw it burst forth in a shower of red spray, and for the first time he felt the presence of the man who had crept up behind him. He frowned. Somehow he had never expected an attack from behind. Perhaps that was why his people were losing to these newcomers. Perhaps that was the way in which the world had changed, leaving his own world behind it. If attacking from the rear was what it took to be victorious in this new and changing world, he didn't think he wanted to be a part of it. Perhaps it didn't matter anymore, since he no longer had any choice. He fell to the ground.

"Let's get out of here." Switching back to the Greek that was his native tongue, the big man who had led the expedition gestured to his followers, and together they moved out of the building. They carried Arianne with them, along with half a dozen other women, dragged from some of the other estates. They moved past Aresh in a group; a stampede of feet that took no care to be gentle. He didn't hear them; didn't feel them; was not aware of their trampling presence. All that he heard was the sobbing of his wife as she was taken far away from him, never to return. After that, he never heard anything again.


They walked for many days, across lands that were familiar, and lands that no man of Arianne's race had ever before seen - lands where huge statues stood watch over the countryside; lands where strange beasts roamed; lands where men in strange clothes spoke in indecipherable tongues, and prayed to gods with unfamiliar names. Arianne and her fellow captive wandered through it all in awe, amazed by everything that they passed by. They did not travel through the cities, although they saw enough of them to marvel at the architecture, and to see something of the life going on within the walls. Arianne stared open mouthed at vast buildings of white marble, and patterns of coloured brick that stretched high up into the air. She wished that Aresh was there to enjoy the sights with her, and felt a pang of deepest regret every time she remembered that he was not. Somehow it was not possible to feel grief, even though she had loved him utterly, for she knew that his death had been his own choice. Certainly he must have preferred death to captivity. She thought about him every night as she lay under the stars; familiar stars, shining down on unfamiliar places; and she wondered where he was now. Was he with their gods, or with the gods of the men who had taken his life? Somehow it was easier to think of such things than to worry about whatever lay in her own future. She had gathered enough from the little she had been told to know that she and her friends were to be sold. That did not scare her as much as it might perhaps have done, in her closeted days before the sacking of her settlement. Now all that scared her was the uncertainty of where they would eventually settle; of what civilisation, barbaric or otherwise, that they would be thrust into. It scared her that there was seemingly no way to return to the world in which she had always been so comfortable.

They walked from one full moon to the next, and then for nearly as long again. Temperate climes gave way to dry and dusty winds; dry and dusty winds gave way to fertile lands and broad, warm rivers. Arianne smelt salt in the air; felt a quick freshness in the breeze that stirred her senses. She had never seen the sea before; had never heard of it save in the strange tales of the few strangers who had ever come to her sequestered homeland. It was a strange feeling to stand upon a ragged, jagged cliff top, and look down into a frothing, seething mass of foamy waves. She felt the spray on her face and the wind in her hair, and gasped a loud breath of surprise, before the guards pushed her on again, and she stumbled back on her way along the cliff path. Strange birds wheeled in the air above her head, crying loudly in warning to these strange human trespassers. They had nests that needed protecting, and they dived at the impudent humans that dared to walk through their breeding grounds. Arianne and her companions stared up at them in wonder, marvelling at these huge, white birds with their mad and raucous cries. The guards ignored the spectacle and the noise, just as they had done all through the voyage. Either they had made the trip many times before, or they were immune to all that was strange and unknown. Arianne had not yet decided which it was, but she knew that the guards were not the inquiring kind. Perhaps their minds were closed to new experiences, or perhaps they simply did not want to know about anything that they did not understand. She smiled to herself, thinking how she and all her people had once been almost the same. Odd how the passage of a moon and a half could change one's outlook. She had seen enough new things during the course of her enforced march to know that her old, insular life was something that she didn't want to return to. Freedom, yes - an existence cut off from the rest of the world, no. She almost felt grateful to her captors, for giving her the chance to see the world afresh.

The voyage of discovery ended on a cold morning just before dawn, three days' walk from the fascinating sea. On the other side of a vast forest filled with trees that Arianne didn't know - yet another new discovery, she noted, with more than a touch of unexpected excitement - was a view of purple mountains and glowering skies, and a tiny, cheerful village filled with people speaking yet another indecipherable dialect. Arianne had thought that she was immune to such wonders by now, and yet still she gazed upon this latest sight with wide and hungry eyes. The low buildings, with their white-washed walls and straw covered roofs, were filled with people who came out to stand and stare at the unruly procession marching by. Arianne saw more people gathered together than she had seen at any time during her voyage; children gathered around their mothers; men conducting their business, or working in the town square. There was a market in full swing, and people dressed in all the colours of the rainbow gathered together to buy and sell. Arianne saw strange fruits and vegetables, and bolts of fabulous cloth; animals that were startlingly familiar; and tools, weapons and any number of other things that were not.

"Still enjoying the view?" His voice filled with mockery, the one man amongst her captors who seemed able to speak her tongue laughed unpleasantly in Arianne's face. She turned aside, not enjoying the close proximity of the large, fat man, with his hot breath and sickly scent.

"What do you care?" She looked past him, to a place where a stage had been erected near the centre of the marketplace. Already there was an audience gathering, and she did not need to ask to know what was to be the main attraction. The big leader of the expedition smiled down at her.

"We'll sell you for a good deal of money. All of you. You'll never see your homeland again." A few of the prisoners whimpered at this statement; a confirmation of all their fears. Arianne ignored the threat. She had long ago abandoned any hope of returning home, and had succeeded in conquering her fears. Aresh would have expected nothing less.

"I would hope that you intend to get the highest price possible." Smoothing out the now ragged material of her clothes, Arianne threw back her long black hair and stared haughtily at her repulsive captor. He smiled back at her, appreciating her show of bravado. There was a certain conceit to the woman that he liked; a lack of modesty that was strangely becoming. He would almost be sorry to part with her, but for the money that he knew he would make from her sale. He gestured towards the stage.

"Get moving." He herded them all together, gathering his men about him so that they formed an impressive parade. When he spoke again, to address the assembled locals and merchants, he spoke a different tongue. It was one that Arianne had heard on occasions, particularly during the course of the past few days. She was beginning to suspect that she would soon have to come to speak it well.

"Up on the stage." At the end of whatever long speech he had delivered, the leader of the band turned back to his bedraggled prisoners. They obeyed him without struggle; too tired now to do anything save clamber up the steps onto the broad platform. A sea of eager faces looked up at them; rich merchants and aristocrats, all well dressed in silks and satin; more conservatively dressed villagers, who clearly did not possess nearly enough money to do anything other than look. Arianne stared down at them all, scanning the many upraised faces, trying to decide which one of them looked most interested in her. Some of them seemed kindly, in as much as anybody who was prepared to buy a slave could possibly be so. One or two men caught her eye, but she saw nothing that made her feel at ease. She knew then that she was looking, however vainly, for another Aresh. She wasn't going to find him, and she didn't want to find anybody else. Abruptly the sparks in her eyes turned to fire, and she glared down at the assembled crowd. One or two of them actually flinched. Only one seemed to display an increased interest in her, now that she was showing signs of fighting back. She let her gaze linger on him, judging him carefully. He was a tall man, with an athletic build; hard muscle and intelligent eyes adding extra flair to a handsome face and cocky stance. There was something unpleasant in his eyes, though, despite the intelligence; something cold and ruthless. For some reason he chilled her, although at first she had felt a moment of attraction.

"Let the bidding begin." She didn't understand the words, although she guessed what they meant. A heavy hand pushed her forward, and she nearly tripped over the edge of the stage. Below her the handsome man with the bright, cruel eyes smiled a tight little smile. He raised his hand into the air, and she heard a sharp retort from somebody to her right. She imagined that the bidding had begun, and wondered how much of the local currency she would fetch. It was a strange thing to think about, but she was curious nonetheless.

It was easy to see who was bidding for her, and easy to see which of them was winning. She didn't need to understand the words being spoken around her; didn't need to know how much was being offered for her person; didn't need to understand anything save the look of growing triumph pressed onto the hard face below. She felt her shoulders beginning to sag. Handsome this man might be; strong and powerful he certainly was; but she had no desire to spend the rest of her life anywhere near him. She could see danger in his aura, and threats in his smile; and she knew instinctively that the game was already lost. Somewhere nearby a voice shouted something that sounded like the end of the bidding. A hammer crashed against a small gong. The handsome man standing before her smiled a cold, triumphant smile.

"So this is it." She knew that none of the people within earshot could understand her words, and she wasn't afraid to speak them. "All this way to be given to that." Her mind travelled back to Aresh, through great distances in space, if not in time. She compared his laughing eyes with the cold ones of her new lord and master; compared her dead husband's broad, warm smile with that deadly, icy smirk. For the first time since her capture, she felt that she wanted to cry; but not for Aresh, or for the others who had died. She wanted to cry for herself. Hands gripped her arms and pushed her towards the steps at the back of the stage. She tried to hold her head up high, but it wasn't easy.

"Take care." The big man who had brought her all this way; who as far as she knew was the one person in the whole of this country, save for her fellow captives, who spoke her own language, was smiling at her in his usual mocking way. "Have a good life."

"If my gods will it." She looked nervously towards the man now approaching; the man who was going to take her away to her new life. "Do you know him?"

"He's a landowner. Name's Ganar." Her former captor pushed her ceremoniously into the arms of her new gaoler; and she felt her skin crawl with revulsion where his cold fingers brushed against her. She focussed hard on trying not to flinch.

"Your gods won't protect you here, Arianne." The big man was smirking at her, his eyes bright with lasciviousness and amusement. "They can't even see you."

"Then I suppose I will have to get to know new gods instead." She glanced up at a building just across the street; a building that, even to an outsider, had clearly been built as a temple. There was a statue standing outside it, of a young man wearing winged boots. His flowing hair was chiselled from solid marble, carved so that it appeared to be blowing in a gentle breeze, and his handsome face was bright with the joy of an exceptionally cocky smile. She gestured towards him. "That one perhaps. Do you think he would take pity on a foreign visitor?"

"A foreign slave." Her former captor shrugged his meaty shoulders. "That's Hermes - messenger of the gods, and some say also the god of thieves and thievery. He's not known for taking pity on anyone. None of the gods are."

"But I'm not just anyone." She smiled at him, and her eyes flashed with a playful conceit that masked her growing fears. A hand tightened on her shoulder.

"You'd better come with me." She didn't understand the words, but she guessed their meaning. Behind her the man who had just bought the rights to her life was eyeing her with an expression that she did not like one little bit. She considered an angry retort, and then wondered at the point of it, since he would not have been able to understand. In the end she merely followed him away. The sounds of bidding faded into the background, and she looked her last on the comrades who had come with her to this new land. Her future lay ahead of her, and she wondered where it would lead. The hand on her shoulder tightened.

"It's good to meet you." She had no idea what he was saying, and merely smiled.

"Get your hands off me you revolting creep." She spoke the words in a soft and friendly tone, secure in the certainty that he couldn't understand a word. He laughed.

"Oh I'm afraid I can't do that." His words bore the faintest trace of an accent, but other than that he spoke her language perfectly. "After all, we're going to be spending the rest of your life together." He pulled her close, and despite her own considerable strength, she found herself unable to pull free. She thought that he was going to kiss her, and felt helpless to prevent it. In the end, however, all that he did was to laugh in her face. When he released her she stumbled back a step, upset and disgusted by his actions.

"There's no getting away from me." He gestured around, and she saw that they were being followed by a group of armed men. "Not now that I own you. Nobody ever escapes from my homestead." With her heart already breaking into a thousand pieces, Arianne found herself believing every word. There was no escape. There was no hope. All that remained now was fate, which lay in the hands of a group of gods she couldn't even name. Perhaps praying would help; a prayer to her old gods in the hope that these new ones would be merciful and kind. Somehow, though, she already knew that they were not. No god could be kind in this world. If they had been, she wouldn't have been here now.


They rejoined the others a little before it grew dark. Autolycus had finished his story shortly before, and they had travelled back together by unspoken agreement. It had been with his usual jaunty athleticism that the agile thief had swung up into the trees to retrieve Xena's sword, and after that they had merely headed off back to the camp. Neither of them spoke to the others about the events that had transpired between them, and none of the others asked. Gabrielle knew that Xena would tell her everything in her own time, and Autolycus also seemed to understand that. If he minded the sharing of their secrets, he gave no sign of it; but then, reasoned Xena, of all people Autolycus knew the true depth of her relationship with Gabrielle - had done so since the occasion when she had been forced to inhabit his body in order to save her own life. He probably wasn't expecting there to be any secrets. Maiandra and her companions didn't ask any questions either; but they, presumably, were used to keeping to themselves.

"What's the plan?" As the night began to deepen, Gabrielle curled herself up into a ball to watch the flames. Xena, seated beside her, was also staring at the fire - although her companion was sure that they were not both seeing the same sights.

"We leave as soon as the sun begins to rise. I'd go now if it was just the two of us, but I'm not sure how many of these others might want to come too."

"And is Autolycus coming with us?"

"I think so." She stirred at the ashes with a stick, watching white and red tumble and glow in the heart of the fire. "When we get to Ganar's place we'll have a look around, and then see about rescuing the other members of the troupe. If there are other slaves we'll rescue them too." She smiled rather unpleasantly. "And then I'll see about dealing with Ganar himself."

"Do you know how many men he has working for him? Loyal men rather than slaves?"

"Nobody really seems to know. I'd imagine that there are quite a few, because by all accounts this guy has a big spread of land to look after. So long as we're careful, and don't lose the element of surprise, it should be nothing that the two of us can't handle alone. Autolycus can fight well enough to improve the odds some way at least, but I'd rather not take these acrobats with us. A small group would probably have more chance of getting away clean."

"I suppose." Gabrielle remembered the apparently fearless way that the acrobats had confronted them in the woods. "Although these people certainly don't seem to be lacking in courage. It might be handy to have a few of them with us."

"They stood up to us well enough in the forest, but they did know that we were about to get netted. I'm sure they know how to look after themselves, and they've probably had to fight more than one rough audience in their lives, but all the same..." Xena hesitated, frowning. "That doesn't necessarily make them ideal warriors, does it."

"Maybe not. Some of them are pretty big, though. One punch from a big guy like that one over there with the heavy beard, and Ganar's men will think they're fighting Hercules." She grinned. "Or you of course."

"Nice recovery. But thanks." They shared a smile. "No, I still think it's best to take a small group. Ideally we'll be handling this without any need for large scale fighting, so we shouldn't need any backup. Not that things generally go according to plan, of course..."

"Especially this time, when Autolycus will be tagging along. He'll probably catch sight of a treasure room through one of the windows, and that'll be the last we'll see of him." Gabrielle glanced about. "Where is he, anyway?"

"He went for a walk." Xena smiled. "Or at least that's what he said. I rather think he's gone back for a second look at Lady Theora's... riches. I shouldn't worry about him though. He doesn't seem to be interested in whatever Ganar has hidden away."

"You think?" Gabrielle didn't sound convinced, but was willing to accept the assurance. She pulled her borrowed blanket closer around her shoulders, and smiled happily. "This is nice, isn't it. I always wanted to travel with a circus."

"Doesn't everybody?" Xena threw her stick into the flames, then lay back on the ground to stare up at the pale moon. "I remember going to see a circus when I was about seven. There was a boy who performed with a pair of horses, and he can't have been any older than I was. I was so jealous I felt like running away that very night. I thought nothing was more exciting than the idea of travelling around the countryside putting on shows." She grinned. "Boy was I wrong."

"Me too. Didn't begin to imagine, did we. Although having said that, some of the things we've been through are pretty much beyond anybody's imaginings. Rescuing a few slaves seems almost tame in comparison."

"But no less important." Xena reached for the nearby wineskin. "Fancy drinking to our success?"

"Good idea." They each took a mouthful, enjoying the strong, rough taste. "This is one fight I'm looking forward to."

"It's always worth fighting a slaver." Xena took another swig of wine, thinking about all that Autolycus had told her that night. "Now you'd better get some sleep. We're leaving early."

"I suppose." Feeling safe and relaxed, even though Xena herself was so tense, Gabrielle rested her head against the soft, warm earth beside the fire, and closed her eyes. A murmur of voices faded in and out of clarity around her. She heard Xena's breathing close by, and the crackling of the flames; the muted conversation of the carnival people, and the cry of some distant beast. Hours later, or so she thought, she heard Autolycus return. He was whistling, and she smelt a familiar tavern scent on his clothes. Clearly he had been making use of whatever surplus there had been after giving Theora's riches to Maiandra. Xena's hushed voice called to him in welcome, and Gabrielle heard the sloshing of the wineskin.

"Everything still on for the morning?" Autolycus was keeping his voice down, but it was still easy to hear him in the midst of all the stillness. Xena gave no verbal answer, and Gabrielle assumed that she was nodding.

"Fine." There was a pause before the thief continued. "I don't think he'll go down without a fight. Don't expect this to be easy."

"I'm hoping it won't be." Xena sounded rather cold, although her tone of voice did not seem to be directed against Autolycus. "People like him don't deserve to go down easily. I just wish that we knew more about the set up there."

"I can't remember much." He was silent for a while, and the sounds of the wineskin explained that silence. "I just remember the place as being very big. There were a lot of people."

"Your perspective was rather different back then." Xena's clothes rustled as she shrugged. "But it tallies with what Maiandra has been able to tell me. Are you sure that you still want to come with us?"

"I'm sure. Or as sure as I'm ever likely to be." He tossed the wineskin to the ground. "I take it that we're starting early?"

"It's a long walk."

"It certainly is." Strangely subdued, at least to Gabrielle's way of thinking, he moved away a short distance, and lay down on the ground. Gabrielle let her eyes flicker open, and she stared across through the fire-lit camp to where the green-clad figure now lay. She wondered what was bothering him, and why he did not seem quite himself. She tried to think about it as she lay there, warmed by the fire and the wine she had only recently drunk. It was no good. Sleep returned to her before she could come to any conclusions; and when morning came she was no longer sure that the night-time interlude had ever happened at all.


It was a long journey to Ganar's land, but Arianne was in no hurry. Slavery was a condition that came slowly to a person, and she felt that as long as she was still travelling, a part of her at least could still be free. Ganar had other ideas, and his powerful presence kept her wandering mind anchored firmly. Ignoring him did no good at all, for his grinning, leering face was always in her thoughts. It had been a long time since Arianne had truly been afraid, but she felt that way every time that she was near the man who now owned her life. He watched her and the other recently purchased slaves constantly, although he seemed to reserve a special kind of look for her. There was more in his eyes than a simple desire to protect his investment; and she recognised the raw desire in his body language even though he had as yet made no attempt to touch her. She had no idea what she could do if he made any such attempt, for even though she was able to give more than a fair account of herself on a battlefield, this was an entirely different situation. Ganar was not only a good deal larger and stronger than was she, but he was also backed up by several men armed with swords and spears. She knew that she would not stand a chance if it came to a fight. She thought about the rest of her life, drawn out into years and years as a slave on some godsforsaken piece of farmland in an equally depressing country. She had seen little enough of Greece so far, but what she had seen had failed to impress her. The climate seemed unpleasantly cool in comparison to her own homeland, and there was altogether too much greenery; too many trees, too many rivers, pools and lakes. The sea disturbed her too, with its fresh winds, and the salty tang it left in the air. Even the animals were alien to her, and she missed the familiar breeds that had been her friends in her old life. The goats looked different, the horses were a different size and appearance; the birds were different colours, and they sang different songs. The only continuity came from the stars; familiar constellations; familiar lights; all shining down onto a place that was so very unfamiliar. Strange that the same stars shone down on two such very different places. She wondered how many other places there were, where so many other people could look at these very same stars. Countless places, perhaps; countless lands and cities. Countless languages and animals and varying types of scenery, from here to... to wherever the world ended. The legends of her own people were a bit vague about that, although they hinted at a gigantic foaming waterfall where the sea toppled into a mighty abyss. Perhaps Greece was on the very edge of that abyss. It certainly felt like it.

They reached Ganar's land on the fifth day of their walk, cresting a rounded, green hill just as the sun reached its zenith. It was a warm day, filled with silence and greenery, and the lazy buzzing of insects. Ganar appeared at Arianne's right elbow, gesturing down the hill.

"That's my house." He was pointing to a large white building surrounded by olive bushes, all set in the midst of a mighty expanse of farmland. Tiny figures toiled in the sun, tending crops and busily scurrying to-and-fro. Everything was too far away to give any indication of how many of the figures were slaves, and how many were ordinary workers, but Arianne suspected that the former greatly outnumbered the latter. Somehow she could not view Ganar as a just employer handing out wages at the end of the week.

"What do you think?" It took a moment to realise that he was asking her opinion. She frowned, refusing to look at him.

"Does it matter what I think?"

"No." He laughed, stroking her shoulder with a gentle hand. "But it seemed polite to ask." His hand drifted further along her arm, and she stepped away.

"We'd better be going then, hadn't we." She kept the ice from her voice, experience telling her that it only seemed to intrigue him. He smiled.

"I suppose so. Are you eager to begin your duties?"

"Perhaps." Maybe it would keep her mind off other things. She doubted it, but she could hope. The face of her late husband kept floating into her mind, and she was having to struggle to keep him at the back of her thoughts. It hurt too much to think of the man that she loved, when she was having to wage a constant psychological battle against a man whom she detested utterly.

"Then who am I to stand in the way of enthusiasm?" He gestured onwards, and she followed meekly on, head bowed, watching the green, green grass at it bent and rose under the passage of his feet. He had large feet; powerful and unhesitating; encased in leather boots that stretched up beyond his knees. They crushed every blade of grass that they stepped upon; every flower and leaf; and left broad imprints in the soft ground. She wondered if there was any chance that she could push him over on this steeply sloping path, and use the moment to furnish her escape. She knew that it would be impossible. Those large, striding feet gave him a rock solid base that would not waver; and if she tried to push him over, she knew that she would only fail.

It took a long time to make their way across the arable land. The workers had proved almost exclusively to be slaves; poorly dressed men and women, clearly underfed, working with a strange kind of diligence under the oddly disinterested scrutiny of a scattering of guards armed with swords and crossbows. Arianne scanned their faces; all the pasty, exhausted slaves; all the dour, sleepy-looking guards; looking for any sign of friendship; any hint of hope. There was none. Nobody met her eyes save for one of the guards; a huge, powerful man with a mighty black moustache that seemed to cover much of his face. He grinned at her, showing surprisingly strong, white teeth set in a face that had seen a good deal of weather. Ganar nodded at this big guard, and the guard nodded back; then whirled about and strode forward, leading the way towards the distant buildings. As they went he shouted something in the language that Arianne had come to know as Greek, apparently announcing the return of the lord of the land. She decided that she would have to learn it, even though she had no desire to cease speaking the language of her ancestors - the language she had shared with all her family and friends. The old ways would do her no good now though; that much at least she could see.

An old woman greeted them at the gate of the house; a robust yet bent woman with a heavily wrinkled face and a graceless tumble of snow white hair. She was dressed in threadbare clothes, once colourful yet now worn pale, and her feet were covered only by a pair of sandals that looked almost as ancient as their owner. She smiled at the little group as they passed by, ignoring the obvious jibes of the guards, bowing as deeply as her bent back would allow to Ganar, and nodding in brief salutation to Arianne.

"It's good to see you back, Master Ganar." She took his hand. "May I take the new slaves whilst you rest?"

"I don't think so. I should speak to them first." He reached out, gripping Arianne by the arm. "And I think one or two of them have things that they've been wanting to say to me." He laughed, and Arianne frowned in confused response. She had no idea what the pair were saying in their strange, barbaric tongue, but she was fairly sure that she had no wish to go wherever Ganar was trying to pull her.

"Pardon me, master, but Delerios is waiting in your office. He said that he needed to speak to you the moment you got back." She shrugged. "He didn't say what it was about, sir, but he sounded as if it was important. I'll see that the new slaves are settled, and you can speak to them another time."

"Delerios?" Ganar hesitated, torn between wanting whatever entertainment he had been hoping for, and needing to see what his acquaintance wanted. Business won out, although pleasure lost without grace. He let go of Arianne and nodded sharply.

"Fine. I'll go." He smiled lasciviously, switching back to Arianne's own language. "But we'll finish this conversation another day, my dear. Be sure of that." Leaving this as a parting shot, he turned and strode away. The guards also dispersed, heading away to rest or to eat. The bent old woman stared after them, and most particularly after Ganar.

"You don't understand a word, do you dear." She had seen the lack of comprehension in Arianne's eyes, and she recognised it. It was not the first time that captured foreigners had been brought in as additions to the workforce. She doubted that it would be the last. "Well let's just hope that you learn enough Greek to protect your own interests. He meant what he said, you know. He will come back to see you another time."

"I don't understand you." Still speaking her own language, Arianne looked sadly at the little old woman. She appreciated the kindness in the words, but beyond that they meant nothing to her. Her would-be saviour nodded in comprehension.

"I know. I know." She took Arianne's hand, and began to lead the small, sorry group towards the slaves' quarters. "My name is Sorenia. Sorenia." She emphasised the introduction by pointing to herself in an exaggerated fashion. "I try to look after the female slaves, and help them to look after themselves." Her sharp little eyes swivelled to stare after Ganar. "Because there's no leaving here, once you've been brought in through the gates. You'll be here for the rest of your lives."


Arianne took a deep breath, and tried not to scream. The pain was strong and heavy, and it was coming in increasingly frequent bursts. She tried to control her breathing, and to focus on the many thoughts in her mind; anything save the discomfort and the fear. She felt a wet cloth on her forehead, and forced open her eyes.

"How are you doing?" The face of Senna, the woman who had become her closest friend since her arrival at the farm, was smiling gently down at her. "Is it very bad?"

"You've... had six... children." Arianne had to break the sentence into pieces, in order to incorporate a gasp in response to another wave of pain. "You tell me."

"It looks about normal." Senna took her hand. "You're doing okay."

"I'm scared." She struggled to smile, and forced herself to keep the expression steady. "What... do you think... Ganar will do?"

"What can he do?" Senna's voice was just a shade too casual. "I thought it was his child?"

"I know that... you know that." Arianne focussed on a point in the middle distance, and waited for the pain to subside again. "But he... won't admit it. It's almost as if he doesn't remember... But then why should he? It's not like we're..." She forced a bitter smile. "Not like we're close."

"If he forced himself on you, I doubt you're the first. How can he deny that the child is his? Question is, will he want to raise it?"

"I... don't know how I feel about... about that. I... I don't want my child to be a slave... but to be raised by Ganar..." She gasped. "Although at this rate I'll be so glad to get it out of me that I... I don't know that I'll care what happens afterwards." She felt a strange urge to laugh, and Senna noticed her amusement, smiling as well. "Ow! Don't... don't make me laugh." She drew in a very deep breath. "Remind me again why... why so many women want to do this?"

"Because there doesn't seem to be a better way. Or if there is, we haven't found it yet." Senna squeezed her hand. "Not long now. Just try to keep it up."

"Another few minutes should do it." Sorenia, attending the two young women just as she had attended them ever since Arianne's arrival, nearly three years previously, was watching everything with her usual expert eye. "You'll be fine, my dear. Just fine."

"I wish..." It was the first time that she had allowed herself to voice the thought in a long while. "I wish that Aresh was here now. This should be... his child."

"Pretend it is." Senna sounded as though she was speaking from experience. "Maybe then it'll hurt less."

"Maybe." She drew in another deep breath. "Maybe."

"And maybe just thinking about him works just as well." Sorenia was busy, looking as though she was doing a hundred things at once, and yet doing them all with her usual practised calm. "One more push now Arianne. Ready?"

"No." She laughed weakly, and felt Senna's hand press down on her own. "Okay. I'm ready." She breathed in deeply once again, and tried to do whatever it was that her friends were expecting her to do. She still wasn't sure that it came at all naturally, but nonetheless it seemed to work. She heard soft sounds of movement, and then the sudden, hoarse cry of a new born child. She blinked.

"Did I do it?" It didn't seem possible, somehow. Senna laughed at her.

"It's a boy." She was speaking to Sorenia, reaching out for a tiny pink thing that was wrapped in a jumble of rags. "Look."

"I have a son?" She blinked up at the baby, too exhausted to be more than mildly pleased with herself. Senna handed the child to her, and she frowned down at it. "It's... not particularly endearing."

"Don't be mean." Senna sounded as though she was scolding her, and both women laughed. "I think he's sweet."

"Yes. Yes, he is." Arianne stroked the faint wisps of black hair on the boy's tiny, wet head. "Noisy though."

"That means he'll be strong." Sorenia paused in the midst of washing her hands. "Or possibly just difficult." This time all three of them laughed. In the midst of their amusement, none of them noticed the door opening.

"So much good humour. Did I declare a holiday or something?" Ganar was standing in the doorway, framed against the light from the outside. There was a pale looking woman standing next to him, dressed in blue and white. She was wearing an apron, and had a frilled cap covering her greying hair. Senna paled.

"We were just--" she began, but a poisonous stare caused her to fall silent. She looked back to Arianne, who gave her a faint smile.

"You'd better leave," she said gently. Senna did not look sure.

"Let me reiterate that." Ganar's voice was quiet, but it crackled with an evil undercurrent. "Leave now, or regret it. Don't forget who you are, 'ladies'. Don't forget what you are."

"That's not necessary." Arianne pressed Senna's hand. "I'll see you later."

"Alright." Her friend glanced across at Sorenia, who shrugged her crooked shoulders, picked up her various apothecarial belongings, and scuttled off through the door. The aproned woman moved aside to let her pass, and the aged retainer shot her an unfriendly glare. Moving slowly, clearly unwilling, Senna followed on the old woman's heels.

"Do you want to see your son?" Aware that she was treading on egg shells, Arianne lifted her baby slightly, so that her hated enemy could see the boy's face. He remained indifferent however, and merely glared.

"That's no child of mine. If you've been carrying on with some slave, that's your affair. I'll find which of them it was, and see that he's dealt with." Jealousy flared up in his eyes. "As for the child... it's of no interest to me."

"How can you say that? I haven't been with anybody else. I've never been with anybody else in my life save for my husband." She closed her eyes, remembering. "You were so gentle that night, Ganar. I thought--"

"Never mind your stupid lies." Ganar drew himself up to his full, impressive height, his towering, athletic body seeming larger and more powerful when she was lying down. "Right now you have work to do. The fields need attending, and I can't afford to lose so much as a hand right now. You certainly can't waste your time looking after a child." He snapped his fingers, and the woman in the cap and apron stepped forward. Arianne blanched.

"No. No you can't. You can't take him to the nursery." She tried to hold on tightly, but Ganar was far, far too strong - just as she had always known that he would be, since the long ago days when she had first contemplated running away from him. "He's your son! The least you can do is give him to somebody who'll look after him properly. You can't intend to have him raised with the slave children."

"I've already told you." Ganar's handsome, cold face loomed large. "He's no son of mine." He pulled the child away from her, and handed it to the pale faced nurse. "Here."

"Master Ganar." She gave a bobbing little curtsey, then turned and scurried away. Arianne tried to get up, but Ganar held her down.

"You can see him later," he told her, face as unpleasant as she had ever seen it. "But I won't have you wasting your time on him now." He moved closer to her, his thick dark hair falling across her face. "And if you ever, ever repeat the accusation that that child is mine, I'll sell him immediately. You'll never see him again. Is that understood?"

"Yes." She turned her head, staring out of the door, already too late to catch a last glimpse of the woman who had taken her child. She had hoped - even prayed - but even though she had long since learned their language, it seemed that the gods of this sad and sorry land were still not prepared to grant her their mercy. She watched Ganar stride away, and tried to fight back the tears, but couldn't stop them beginning to flow. Curling herself up into a ball, trying to think of anything but the child she wanted to be with, she felt all of her old sorrows welling forth. Just as on the other occasions when her new life became too much, she thought back to the old days, and the happiness she had once known. The tears began to flow freely, and she let the misery pour forth. Shoulders shaking helplessly, she turned her mind to her old home, her old country, and last and most painfully of all, she cried hot tears for Aresh.


"This it?" They crested the hill just before noon, as the hot sun sent its rays down with its most vigorous force. The little group up on the hillside - an eclectic mix of coloured clothing and varying build - stood in an uneven row looking down into the broad valley. Autolycus, the fourth and final member of the group, shaded his eyes with his hand.

"I think so. It's changed a bit, but I'm fairly sure it's the place. There are more people in the fields than I remember."

"He can afford to expand when he doesn't pay his workers any wages." Xena glared down at the scene of rural prosperity. It irritated her to think that there were places such as this still in existence, despite the combined work of both herself and Hercules to eradicate slavery completely. It didn't help to know that Ganar was far from being alone. No matter how many people like this she put out of business - no matter how many slave traders she fought, or how many slaves she set free - there was always somebody else to carry on the vile trade elsewhere. At the end of the day, somebody always seemed to think that it was a good idea.

"What's the timetable?" Gabrielle was also staring into the fields, her mind travelling along much the same lines as that of Xena. Maiandra frowned down at the tiny figures.

"First of all we get down there and find my friends." She sounded angry, as though seeing the place for herself had finally made it clear to her just what had really happened to the kidnapped members of her troupe. Xena nodded.

"More or less." Her eyes ranged across the fields. "There are two main goals I want accomplished. Firstly we have to get the slaves out of there. The plan is to spread the word; get them to run, or to fight with us if it becomes necessary. Direct Maiandra's people back towards the camp, but the others can go wherever they want. After that I want to hit those barns. Chase away any livestock, but the stores get left to burn. That has to come second, of course, when stealth is less of a necessity. I want this farm brought to its knees, and I want to hit our friend Ganar right in the heart of his fortune." She folded her arms, letting the full weight of her determination wash over her companions. "When all of that's over, I want to have a little word with our friendly neighbourhood slave dealer. I'm going to persuade him that if he plans to get the farm up and running again, he'll have to use a different kind of labour to do it. We could have a good case for handing him over to the authorities, even though slavery isn't strictly against the law; and we can use that as a threat whether we decide to send him for trial or not."

"Sounds good to me. I'm right behind you." Maiandra was speaking with such a rigid determination that Xena broke into a warm smile. She had at first thought that the woman was not the fighting type, for she had spent much of the journey talking incessantly. There was something bright and breezy about her; nothing that suggested a hidden warrior waiting to get out. Now that there was action afoot, however, she seemed an entirely different person.

"Good." The warrior princess turned to her two other companions. "Anything to add?"

"Nothing that I can think of." With barely a moment's display of apology for this inability to help, Maiandra began to lead the way down the hill; perhaps with rather a little too much enthusiasm. Xena turned back to Autolycus. He was staring down at the fields and the buildings, having been uncharacteristically quiet for some time; but he glanced up in response to her question.

"Yes." There was a glint of familiar fire in his eyes, as his unique brain ran over the task before them. "The last time I was here, when I left, security wasn't great. I remember it being very easy to slip out. Okay, so I didn't exactly stick out back then - except for being a particularly attractive child of course - but I don't remember having to try too hard to get past the guards." He scowled, although with more humour than ill-feeling. "I should have gone through his money bags instead of just making a break for it. It would have been a fittingly heroic start to an awe-inspiring career."

"It would, huh." Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "All that quiet introspection on the way over here, with hardly a peep out of you. I should have known it was too good to last. What a shame I didn't enjoy it a little more fully at the time."

"Why enjoy my silences when you could just be enjoying me?" He offered her a cocky grin, stroking his moustache and visibly preening. Xena rolled her eyes.

"Let's just get going shall we?" She started off down the hillside, with Gabrielle by her side. Autolycus kept pace with them all the way. "Keep low as we get closer to the buildings, and keep an eye out for guards. There's always a chance that there might be some hiding, on the look out for escapers."

"Surely they won't be looking our way." Gabrielle, feeling unduly cheerful thanks largely to the glorious weather, gestured towards the ranks of hardworking slaves. "The guards might be expecting people to break out of there, but they won't be expecting anyone to break in."

"Maybe. On the other hand, we don't know what kind of possessions Ganar might have that would be worth somebody trying to break in. He must be rich, and rich men are always worried about thieves. Especially these days." She cast an accusing stare at Autolycus, who polished his fingernails on his jacket, and admired the sheen with an innocent expression.

"Can I help it if the public loves to spread the word about me? Besides, every rich man secretly longs to be robbed by the King of Thieves. And who wouldn't? If I was a rich man, I'd given anything to be robbed by me. Imagine the glory and fame that might rub off. Every person that I steal from might lose out in the materialistic sense, but they gain so much more. A piece of immortality, through mere association." He bestowed a benevolent smile upon the two women. "My reputation might cause rich people to fear for their fortunes, but the truth is, I honour them greatly in deigning to steal their treasures."

"And some day they're going to honour you in return, with your own impenetrable cell, or a suitably impressive execution." Xena pointed meaningfully at the homestead. "Now keep focussed. We're here to rescue slaves, not to build on your reputation."

"Of course." He offered her a flourishing bow. "Although if anybody should happen to ask who has won them back their freedom, then--"

"We'll tell them it was Hercules." She took over the lead from Maiandra, smirking to herself at the vaguely outraged expression her interjection had elicited from the thief. He opened his mouth as though to make some reply, but as their little group grew increasingly close to the outermost fields, everybody lapsed into a necessary silence. There were quite a few guards on the perimeter, all staring resolutely at nothing in particular. They were larger than the slaves, better fed and better clothed, and they all carried weapons. Xena looked thoughtfully towards them, trying to work out how many of them she might be able to overpower, before one of them had a chance to sound the alarm.

"There's five of them that might be a problem. They have too good a view of the land from here, and they might see rather too much." She was frowning, thinking things through as she spoke. "Gabrielle and I will take the three on the right. Autolycus, you and Maiandra deal with the other two. And try to be quiet."

"Stealth is my middle name." He grinned, already on his way, waving his confederate along with him. Xena glanced back towards Gabrielle.


"Of course." She stretched, as though warming up ready for battle. "When you say the word."

"No time like the present." Casting a quick glance towards the others, to check that they were getting into position, Xena gave her companion a nod. "Let's go."

They moved smoothly, acting like the practised pair that they were. Xena caught the nearest of the guards around the neck, hauling him backwards off balance whilst Gabrielle took on the second man. By the time that she had laid him flat with a few of her favourite moves, Xena had already dealt with her first opponent, and had moved on to the next. Gabrielle turned away from her own, defeated assailant to watch as the warrior princess performed a series of fluid manoeuvres, dealing out three solid punches and a powerful high kick that sent the third guard tumbling backwards. He tried to get to his feet to make a second attempt to defend himself, but Xena was more than ready for him. Delivering a stunning blow to his head with the flat of her sword, she left him lying in the freshly tilled earth. Nearby a lone slave gave a faint cheer, but seemed too afraid of possible consequences to offer any greater signs of joy. None of the other workers watched as the two women dragged their three foes into the nearest undergrowth.

Up ahead, Autolycus had had similar luck. The two guards had put up a good resistance, but neither of them had tried to sound the alarm. Before either of the pair had been aware of the approaching danger, the King of Thieves had taken on the nearest, dazzling him with a fine display of footwork that left the hapless guard unable to fight back. Autolycus let loose with a punch that, whilst not especially powerful, was still strong enough to make his opponent stumble, then performed a neat back-flip out of the man's reach, landing behind him. He tapped the guard on the shoulder, nipped swiftly to one side, then hit him again. By the time the unfortunate soul had realised that Autolycus was not planning to stand still long enough to for him to hit back, it was too late to worry about losing the fight. He opened his mouth, perhaps intending to warn his colleagues, only for the swift thief hit him again - this time rather more forcefully. The guard collapsed in a heap.

"What's going on here?" Alerted by the sounds of a struggle the other guard stormed up. He looked particularly large and angry at such close range, and as though to steal away his ire, Autolycus flashed him a typically brilliant smile.

"Good day to you sir." He bowed low, then ran a hand through his hair and checked his jacket for creases. "My name is Autolycus, famed King of Thieves - you've probably heard of me - and I'm proud to announce that you, sir, have been chosen from thousands of applicants to have the very great pleasure of being robbed. By me." He held up his hands as though to stave off protest. "Now I know what you're going to say - this is a surprise, and quite frankly no, you don't deserve the honour. But who does?" He shrugged. "Any questions?" The guard opened his mouth to speak, his furious expression suggesting that anything he said was not going to be particularly friendly. In the event he did not get the chance to say a word. Snatching up the fallen crossbow of the first victim, Maiandra brought it down hard on the guard's head, dropping him to the ground in a sorry looking heap. Autolycus raised his eyebrows. "No? Nothing at all that you want to say? You're missing a great chance here you know. The King of Thieves rarely gives interviews."

"Nice work." Coming up behind him and making him jump, Xena looked down at the unconscious men. "Now let's get moving. We'll keep together for the time being, and spread the word amongst the people in this area first. Tell them to make a run for it, but if they seem too scared, fine. Leave them here, and don't waste time trying to convince them if they don't want to be convinced. I don't want to risk losing the advantage of surprise trying to help people who don't want to run away. Understood?" There was a muted chorus of agreement, and she gave a sharp nod. "Right. Then let's get moving."

They crept forward cautiously, listening closely to every sound. The guards seemed unaware of the presence of intruders in their midst, and even though Xena was forced to remove one or two of their number, with the aid of a swift blow to the back of the head, there remained an air of comfortable relaxation all around. The workers were harder to deal with than a group of such lazily uninterested guards. When the sword-wearing, leather-clad Xena reared up out of the undergrowth, whispering urgent messages of freedom and flight, the slaves reacted with amazement, and not a little fear. Several times the alarm was nearly sounded by a toiling worker who glanced up from his rake or spade only to see a variety of strangers creeping about nearby. A startled and desperate Maiandra leaped furiously onto one such potential alarmist, bearing him to the ground beneath a flurry of enthusiastic blows. Gabrielle crawled over to her whilst Xena and Autolycus kept startled watch, and in the quietest of frantic hisses she struggled to tell the battling slave why she was there. He listened opened mouthed, fighting for breath beneath the hand clamped over his mouth, before nodding stiffly and clearly not believing a word. Maiandra slid off him in the end, letting him rise cautiously back to his feet, glancing about to see if anybody had witnessed his odd disappearance; and only when Xena threatened him with her sword did he finally agree to run. They watched him flee, all the while displaying no particular desire to be secretive about it, and breathed a collective sigh of relief when his eventual escape went unnoticed. Autolycus whistled under his breath.

"Do these people want to be rescued?!"

"Ssh!" A guard had glanced up at the sound of his ill-timed comment, but the general stillness clearly lulled him into a false sense of security. He turned his back again, folding his arms and going back into a sort of a doze. Xena frowned.

"This is almost too easy."

"Don't be such a killjoy." Inspired by the lack of interest displayed by so many of the guards, Autolycus took it upon himself to spread the word further - and rather predictably he headed in a decidedly feminine direction. Six or seven women, all young and attractive, were busily hoeing a broad patch of land near to a small stream, and it was to them that the King of Thieves naturally gravitated. Maiandra rolled her eyes.

"He never changes." She headed after him, her body lithe and fast despite her lack of experience in matters of stealth. Naturally acrobatic due to her work, she seemed to find it easy to silently traverse the rough ground.

"Ladies!" Emerging from the row of bushes that had provided him with cover, Autolycus dropped into a deep bow. His green jacket caught the sun, and Xena groaned.

"Get ready to run." She glanced about for the best direction, taking careful note of the positions of the guards. The thief, however, was apparently all but invisible.

"Please accept my forgiveness for interrupting you in your work." Still bent double in his bow, Autolycus glanced up at the women, his eyes dancing all the while. "My name is Autolycus, and I have the very great honour of being your liberator, saviour, and - I hope - your very dear friend." He straightened up. "You are free to leave this place, ladies. The guards will be prevented from stopping you. Ganar is going out of business."

"You're here to rescue us?" The closest of the women, a particularly beautiful brunette, was gazing at him with wide, adoring eyes. Maiandra shook her head.

"Autolycus, we really don't have time for a full scale meeting of your fan club." She rose up out of her own cover, and offered the women a faintly apologetic smile. "We're very pressed for time, ma'am. Please leave as soon as possible. Keep very low and don't make a sound." She glared at her old friend. "Now come on. We have hundreds of people to spread the message between."

"Precisely why we should be splitting up. It'll get the job done so much faster." Autolycus ran a hand through his hair, "I'll just escort these ladies to the--"

"Get a move on!" Her voice coming from surprisingly close by, Xena popped her head up momentarily. Everybody jumped.

"You're really going to help us to escape?" Another of the women, a statuesque blonde, looked much as though she had been plucked from a raging torrent, and hauled to safety from the jaws of imminent death. Autolycus grinned broadly.

"My intention, my dear, is to rescue everybody from the clutches of the evil Ganar." He gave a small, modest shrug. "Saving the exploited masses from evildoers is a small hobby of mine. On this occasion I've agreed to let a few admirers tag along... Xena for instance... So if you ladies would follow me, I'd be happy to--"

"Get back over here and shut up." Xena practically dragged him back under cover, before offering the women a very strained smile. They responded with a shared terror that was almost comical. "Ladies, my compliments. Now get out of here before we all get captured." Autolycus moved as though to make good on his offer to escort them, but the warrior princess grabbed him by the back of his jacket to prevent him from going.

"I think they can do without your assistance, Autolycus." One or two of the women looked as though they were going to object, but a glare from Xena changed their minds. Glancing about as though they expected to be stopped at any moment, they hurried away. Autolycus sighed.

"Such a wonderful opportunity, lost forever."

"Shut up." She let go of his collar, and turned away. "From now on, I'll handle the women." She caught sight of a gleam in his eye and scowled. "And you know exactly what I mean, so don't even bother saying it." He closed his mouth with a snap.

"He did have a point though." Flinching slightly as though expecting an outburst, Maiandra offered a few words in defence of her old cohort. "About splitting up I mean. We could cover more ground."

"Very likely." Xena glanced about at her little group, wondering exactly why she had decided to come to this place with so many people accompanying her. Life was so much simpler when it was just a question of Gabrielle and herself. "I suppose we would get things done more quickly, but I'd feel a lot safer if I could still keep an eye on everybody."

"Xena, I manage perfectly well on my own every day of my life." Sounding more amused than insulted at her lack of confidence in him, Autolycus let his eyes stray over to Maiandra. "Mai can always look after me. I wouldn't mind."

"Thanks, but I'd rather you kept your mind on the job." Xena sighed. "Okay, we'll split up. One team heads towards the main buildings, the other towards those barns over there. We'll meet up by that big barn back up at the other end of the fields. No dawdling, no unnecessary talking, no boasting, no showing off and no posing. Understood?"

"Understood." Gabrielle was wearing a mock serious expression, acting as though the order had been given for her benefit. Xena flashed her a glare.

"Good." She scowled, thinking hard about how best to divide her resources. Her immediate instinct was to stay with Gabrielle, since they worked so well together; but in the end, anxious to curb the more aggravating impulses of the unpredictable King of Thieves, she sent the young woman with Autolycus, and herself accompanied Maiandra.

She soon found that without the - as she saw it - constant necessity of checking up on the thief, she worked much more quickly than before. The further they moved from the outer boundaries of the farm land, the fewer guards were posted, and the easier it was to convince the slaves that they should run away. Maiandra seemed to be growing to enjoy the work, and was soon scurrying ahead, dodging from tree to tree and post to post as though she had been doing it all of her life. Xena, who tended to show her enjoyment and happiness in means more subtle than grins and excessive bouncing, began to find it faintly annoying.

"This is too easy." They had got some distance from the perimeter, and were within sight of the large barns near to the main farm buildings. Maiandra flashed a cheerful smile in her direction.

"You're looking for problems. Everything's fine."

"No it isn't. If it's this easy to rescue a whole army of slaves, why haven't they all run away before now?"


"Yes. Very likely. But they can't all be that afraid." She peered over the nearby fence, to where a large house towered over its surrounding buildings. It was an impressive dwelling-place, and clearly the property of a man of great means. "One rich farmer, a huge army of slaves, and a disproportionately small number of particularly unobservant guards. I'd think it was a trap, except that the signs are all wrong."

"It would be a pretty convoluted trap. All these people... and for what? To capture you?"

"Well maybe it is a little bit over the top." She shrugged. "It's just that something obviously isn't right, that's all."

"You don't think you're just being paranoid? Surely some things go right just because... well just because they do."

"Maybe." She glanced around, searching for Gabrielle, but was unable to see her. "Maybe I'm just being paranoid. After all, if this was a plot, the chances are that you would have to be involved in it."

"Good point." Maiandra's expression turned terribly serious. "And I'm not involved in it. Honest."

"I'm glad to hear that." Xena pointed ahead. "We should try over there next."

"Good cover behind those barns." Maiandra nodded, her enthusiasm once again becoming a palpable thing. "You know, I think I could take this up as a new profession, if the performing opportunities ever dry up. Maiandra the Emancipator. That actually sounds pretty good."

"Don't get carried away. We still have to get ourselves out of here."

"Then you still think it's a trap?"

"Not necessarily." She sighed. "Well okay, not at all. I'm just used to worrying." She frowned back towards the impressive house. Why were there not more guards around it? Why were there not more guards all over the place? This many slaves would have no reason to obey so few men, no matter how afraid they were.

"You can be a real downer at times, you know that?"

"I'm really sorry." Sarcasm laced Xena's tone with its heavy touch. Maiandra smiled.

"Something tells me that you don't really mean that." She pointed ahead, to where a pair of slaves were striving to remove a large tree stump. "Do your reservations extend to leaving those two struggling, or shall we rescue them as well?"

"We rescue them." Xena glanced about, clearly increasingly suspicious that something was soon to go wrong. "But if they turn out to be soldiers of some angry army, don't blame me if everything starts to go wrong."

Maiandra rolled her eyes. "Are you always this optimistic?"

"Not, not usually." Xena started forward, not bothering to look back at her companion. "Most of the time I'm downright suspicious."

"Somehow I don't find that very hard to believe." The actress moved forward to catch her up, smiling at Xena's rigid back. "Next time I decide to rescue a thousand enslaved unfortunates, I think I'm going to do it alone..."


Gabrielle and Autolycus were progressing rather less speedily than their confederates. Slowed by the King of Thieves' incessant preening, and his inability to speak to anybody without telling at least one tale of his infamous exploits, they progressed at a much slower rate. Whilst Gabrielle tried to impress upon the slaves that there were few guards, that the great warrior princess Xena would back them up if there was any fighting to be done, and that the days of their overbearing master Ganar were numbered, Autolycus was also addressing the assembled masses. Rather than encouraging them to flee for their lives, however, he was telling them about the time that he had stolen the jewels of Gerda from under the very noses of the feared Guardians of Royal Artefacts in the Traxian province. After hearing the tale of the legendary encounter of the King of Thieves with the feared King of Assassins for the third time in what seemed to be as many minutes, Gabrielle was beginning to consider drastic action. Needless to say, her repeated entreaties fell on deaf ears, for Autolycus, having found an audience that was, in the main, unfamiliar with his name, title - even his existence - was extremely anxious to redress the balance. He seemed to consider it of primary importance to spread the word of his thieving genius amongst the bemused and bedraggled groups of men and women, and the few squeaked - and improvised - phrases that Gabrielle hoped would divert his attention proved useless. As he bowed yet again to a group of enthralled slaves, she shouted almost too loudly that there were guards approaching; but his response, a casual upward flick of one eyebrow and a slightly condescending smile, was disappointingly lacking in concern. Apparently he could see through her 'urgent' performance just as easily as she could see through his thin veneer of hastily applied modesty. The female slaves, needless to say, were lapping it up. Perhaps a lifetime of slavery removed a person's ability to tell honesty from overblown, unapologetic fantasy. It was a theory, anyway.

When at last they moved on again, beginning to make some progress, Gabrielle began to enjoy herself. She liked her work and, despite certain drawbacks, Autolycus was good company. In many ways it was almost like working with Xena, in the way that he insisted on taking the lead, under-estimating her abilities somewhat, and always taking the initiative himself. Perhaps he was the more experienced in matters of stealth, and for that reason she chose not to assert herself more; although privately she almost hoped that they ran into trouble. Faced with a swathe of armed men she was sure that it would be her that led the way then, for despite the King of Thieves' swiftness, and his fair capabilities in matters of self-defence, she was sure that she could more than equal - probably in many ways better - his fighting abilities. He wouldn't under-estimate her then.

In the event, however, they met with no resistance. The guards were almost comically disinterested in their presence, as though they were all asleep at their posts. Once or twice Autolycus, acting either through suspicion of some dastardly plot or just plain boredom, tried to attract their attention with some unnecessary antics, but in every case they failed to show any interest in what he was doing. One or two proved, on closer inspection, to actually be fast asleep. At least one more was drunk, an earthenware vessel lying empty at his feet as he himself stood slumped against a spreading fruit tree. The strong smell of a powerful alcoholic beverage filled the air around him, and one or two very confused flies flew in unsteady circles just above the fallen jug. Gabrielle began to feel a sizeable measure of Xena's own deepening paranoia.

"Does something seem wrong to you, Auto?" As they sent another large group of newly liberated slaves heading away from Ganar's land, apparently unobserved by any save more of their own kind, Gabrielle finally slowed to a halt. He turned to look at her, his face showing, beneath its usual apparent carelessness, that he was certainly beginning to feel decidedly uneasy.

"Let's just say that my internal alarm bells are ringing in overtime, sweet cheeks." He shrugged his green-clad shoulders. "Are you thinking that this is a trap?"

"Not necessarily. I mean, it'd be hard to think that without implicating Maiandra, and I should hate to do that."

"Good. I may not have seen her in a year or two, but she's a good kid. Anybody can see that." He folded his arms, leaning against a fence post in an area that was exposed to the view of several guards. Gabrielle almost shrieked at him, before she realised that he was doing it on purpose. "No, there's definitely something fishy going on around here, but it doesn't have anything to with Mai."

"What then? I can't see any reason that Ganar would have for wanting to capture Xena. She's never met him so far as I know, and there's no way that he could have expected her to come here. Is there?"

"After his men happen to capture a few unsuspecting strangers in the region?" Autolycus shook his head. "Why would that suggest to anybody that Xena would get involved? There's a chance of course. She and Hercules are both forever leaping into situations like this. But if you really want to grab yourself a warrior princess, there are far more direct ways of doing it."

"Like hanging around in a forest with a big net?" Gabrielle was gratified to see her companion looking faintly humbled by her passing shot, and she smiled to herself. "So what could it be?"

"I have no idea." He seemed to be running several ideas through his mind, shaking his head from time to time as though to consign one or more theories to his mental rubbish pit. All too clearly he was unable to think of anything.

"Maybe we should find Xena, and tell her what we suspect." Gabrielle was looking about, almost as if she expected to be able to spot her friend straight away. Xena, however, was apparently paying far greater attention to their original brief to remain unseen. Unlike Gabrielle and Autolycus she was keeping close to the undergrowth, not allowing herself to be seen by anyone.

"There's no need to be so quick off the mark, sugar." Clearly still in swagger-mode, Autolycus offered the young woman one of his favourite grins. "I'll tell you what. Hang on down here and I'll have a quick look around. See what's happening a little further afield. If I can see any gatherings that don't bode well, we'll make a break for it sharpish. Okay?"

"Okay." She was still doubtful, but his easy confidence could not help but put her at ease, even if it was only to a measured degree. "How long are you going to be?"

"About as long is takes Ares to count his friends." He grinned at her, gave his hands a sharp clap, then leapt up into the branches of the nearby tree. The drunken guard beneath showed no sign of responding to the sudden movement, but merely wobbled slightly as the tree vibrated beneath the sudden weight. The wobble turned into a topple, which soon became a tumble, and the guard, still dead to the world, fell soundlessly into the grass. He gave a loud snore, but did not so much as twitch. Gabrielle breathed out heavily, realising only then that she had been holding her breath. Above her Autolycus was leaping further up into the branches with as much grace and agility as the most supple and fluid of dancers. She watched him climb until the sun began to shine into her eyes, and then she settled herself down on the ground to wait.

Far up in the branches, Autolycus had a tremendous view over the surrounding area. He was surprised, for it was only a simple apple tree that held him, and as a rule they did not grow to such heights. This one was as tall as any full-grown oak, or so it appeared; and its branches, the higher he climbed, seemed to be filled with a stunning density of thick green leaves and growing fruit. He wondered distantly why the slaves had been preparing the ground for seeding when the apples were beginning to grow, and then realised that it was not the season for growing apples anyway. Shouldn't the trees still be in blossom? He frowned then, uncertain, suspicious in an odd way that owed more to instinct than to certainty. He climbed a little higher, seeing more things that seemed to add further credence to his growing discomfort. In one section of land there were slaves harvesting a golden yellow crop, and yet adjacent to that was a further group engaged in hoeing between the rows of a new sprouting of green seedlings. Autolycus was no horticultural expert, but he knew corn when he saw it - so why was the same crop in two such different stages of growth within a few paces of each other? Surely that couldn't be a normal phenomenon? He turned his head, searching for similar occurrences elsewhere in the great stretch of farmland - and his eyes rested instead upon something else. He froze, and for a sudden, startling moment, he almost lost his balance.

"Gabrielle?" Either he had forgotten about the unconscious guard beneath him, or he just didn't care. Gabrielle hurried to the foot of the tree, carefully avoiding the sprawled figure, peering up into the green and leafy heights in an attempt to spot her friend.

"Yes?" She kept her own voice hushed, more through habit than real thought. "What is it?"

"Trouble." He jumped lightly down to a lower branch, annoying her faintly with the lack of effort that the manoeuvre seemed to require. If that had been her up in the tree, as she had to admit, she would have missed her footing and fallen flat on her face, had she attempted such a buoyant leap.

"Yes...?" Faintly frustrated she tried to push for more, but his attention was once again diverted. "Autolycus..."

"Allow me." He leaned down before she was really aware of his intentions, holding out his arms to her. She looked up at the dizzying heights, blanched, then swallowed hard and reached up. He caught hold of her, somehow managing to keep his balance as he hauled her up alongside him. He grinned at her, and she frowned.

"What?" Her frown puzzled him, until she tapped his arms rather demonstratively.

"You can let go of me now." She gestured at her torso, which was firmly wrapped in his strong arms. He grinned.

"Sure? You don't want me to hold on just in case you get a touch of vertigo?"

"I don't suffer from vertigo, Autolycus. Maybe you should start to worry about suffering from motion sickness though."

"Motion sickness?"

"What you'll be suffering when I hit you, and make you fall all the way down to the ground."

"Oh." He let go of her, and she smiled her thanks. "Fair enough."

"I'm glad you see it that way." She adjusted her clothing, and looked around. "So what was so important?"

"Important?" She scowled, and he dragged his eyes away from the curves of her body, which in her opinion at least, was altogether too close to his. "Oh." He turned slightly, swinging back up into the higher branches, and once again offering her his assistance. This time she swatted his hands aside, and found her own way up. It was hard going, for she had to struggle and fight, unable to copy the thief's easy moves. Eventually, however, she was standing beside him, near to the top of the tree. There was a good view, over a grand expanse of cultivated land, to the wild and distant mountains beyond. She saw the gently rolling hills over which she had come, and a thin strip of forest that led towards regions with which she was entirely unfamiliar. She also saw something else. At the edges of the land belonging to Ganar, moving steadily back towards them, was a huge band of men and women; raggedly dressed, thin figures, overworked and underfed; clearly the slaves that they had spurred on to liberty just a short time ago. Wherever it was that they had gone during the short moments of their freedom, they were coming back from there now, moving as one gigantic body back towards captivity.

"What the-?" She shook her head. "That can't be - I mean - can it?"

"It sure is." His sharp eyes spied something else, and his frown deepened. "And that isn't all."

"What?" She didn't really think that she wanted to know, but she asked anyway. He nodded downwards, and she followed the direction of his gaze. The unconscious guard, previously dead to the world, was awakening. He stretched, stood up, straightened his clothing, and then took from under his jacket a large horn. He blew upon it three times, the sound loud and clear. Gabrielle swallowed hard.

"Now what?"

"Over there." He took her hand, gently turning her around. A short distance away, where the farm's main buildings were constructed, another group of slaves was beginning to gather. These were ones who had so far not been galvanised into escaping, and until the summoning blasts on the horn had still been toiling in the fields. They came now though, laying aside their tools, moving as one great mass to meet up with the others. Gabrielle thought that she saw a quick movement in the hedges close to the biggest of the barns, and was positive that she recognised the sharp actions of Xena. Apparently the warrior princess was aware of this new event, and was making some form of tactical retreat.

"We should get back to the others." She made a move to begin a descent, but Autolycus caught hold of her wrist.

"Not so fast, Gabs. Think about it. We're just a little outnumbered, don't you think?"

"There's still time to get away before we're cut off."

"And you don't think that there's a little something strange in what we're witnessing here? Something has to have made all those people come back here, and whatever it is, I'm willing to bet a whole lot of dinars that it can stop us in our tracks if it feels like it."

"You think that there's something magical going on?" She thought about the returning slaves, and began to wonder. Why else would they give up their freedom and come back? And why else would they have stayed for so long with only a token number of guards to keep them? "Maybe even the gods?"

"Maybe." He shrugged. "Can't think of any of the usual crew having a reason to be behind this. It's hardly old Ares' scene, and Hades is more into dead things than things that are still growing. Hera's still out of the picture, Zeus is being all mellow just lately. Aphrodite can't be behind it. If she was, the slaves would all be wearing colour co-ordinated gear, and the guards would be a whole lot better looking."

"A genie maybe? I mean, what else would a guy like Ganar wish for? Even a warlock. Could Ganar be a magician himself?"

"Maybe." Autolycus didn't sound convinced. "I think maybe you're right though. We probably should make a break for it. If this is something magical, or if the gods are involved, I'd rather be somewhere else. I don't know about you, but I really don't think that the gods like me very much."

"Maybe if you stopped stealing their treasures..."

"Yeah yeah yeah." He turned about, looking for the best escape route. "Ah."

"Ah?" That didn't sound too hopeful to her. "What's wrong?"

"Er..." He didn't answer immediately, which made her heart sink even further. "Look over there."

"Where?" She followed his gaze. To their right, heading swiftly towards the tree, were six heavily armed guards. They were all stout and strong looking, and they seemed to be spoiling for a fight. "Oh. Well then we try another direction."

"Like to the left?" He pointed, and she turned in that direction. Coming towards them from that way was a sizeable group of slaves. None of them were armed, but by sheer force of numbers they were a foe to be reckoned with.

"Oh." She wavered, indecisive. "Can you see Xena?"

"Over by the house. She's okay for the time being. I don't think she's been spotted, but there's a crowd of slaves bigger than our bunch doubled, and I think they might have her cut off. Looks like they've all switched sides."

"But why?"

"If I knew that I'd be a clever man." He frowned. "Actually I am a clever man, but I'm still drawing a blank. Some kind of magic is the only idea I can come up with."

"Well we're going to find out pretty damn soon. Do you think they've seen us?"

"I doubt it. If we stay up here, we might stay unnoticed."

"Or we might get neatly hemmed in."

"Exactly." He waggled his eyebrows, apparently deep in thought. "Can't seem to choose one or the other."

"I can. We have to get down, and try to regroup."

"It'll blow our cover. They're sure to see us."

"Then we'll have to move fast." She took a deep breath. "Ready?"

"And willing, and able." He grinned. "Especially if you want me to catch you when you jump."

"That won't be necessary." She let her hand fall to her sword, wondering if it would be necessary to use it. She didn't really want to fight slaves, at least if they had somehow been bewitched. "Ready when you are."

"Then let's get cracking." He ran a hand through his hair, moved further along his branch, and seemed to let his body suddenly relax. "I'd yodel, but that might be a bit of a give-away."

"No more so than suddenly leaping out of a tree, and running away across the fields."

"True." He shrugged. "And since you put it that way..." He burst into a full-throated yell, voice rising and falling in his trademark ululating cry, at the same time that he leapt neatly from his branch. He fell easily, spinning in the air with the practised nonchalance of a born acrobat, landing with precision on the narrow railings of a nearby fence. Nearby the previously drunken guard let out a yell, and executing a perfect, no-handed cartwheel, Autolycus spun through the air, kicking out as he did so. Felled by a hefty blow to the chin, the guard dropped to the ground. Autolycus landed softly, and glanced back up into the tree.

"And now, ladies and gentlemen, the Lady Gabrielle, hero of all the realms of Greece, will attempt the--"

"Shut up, Autolycus." She stumbled and slipped down to earth, missing her footing and landing with a heavy thump at the foot of the tree. "Let's just get out of here."

"My pleasure." He waited for her to join him, showing a rare streak of chivalry that she doubted she would be seeing again any time soon. "I'm right with you."

"So are all the bad guys." She gestured behind them. Alerted by Autolycus's impressive descent, the guards and their unusual allies were racing forward with ferocious speed. "Come on!"

"Good call." He broke into a run at the same time as did she, although his longer legs soon caused him to leave her behind. He hesitated momentarily, apparently torn between wanting to escape, and not wanting to leave her behind. In the end, alerted by what seemed to be a warning cry from Xena, he spun about - straight into the waiting arms of a row of guards. He froze, then grinned at the little band. If there was one thing that Autolycus had a great deal of experience with, it was bands of guards waiting to make a capture; and he had developed more than one way in which to deal with them.

"Hi boys." He wondered how Gabrielle was doing, and at the same moment saw Xena coming to his assistance. She had lost her cover when she had cried out to warn him, and was now abandoning any and all pretence of subtlety. He wondered where Maiandra was. He couldn't see her anywhere.

"Surprise." The voice was loud, forceful, and it came from right behind him. He gulped.

"Er, can we talk about this guys?" Heavy hands seized him, and behind him the sounds of scuffling suggested that Gabrielle had been similarly waylaid. He winced. "I guess not."

"Gabrielle!" Xena was speeding to the assistance of her friend, sending would-be assailants flying in every direction. Silently Autolycus willed her to succeed, even though he knew that she wouldn't. It would only take one threat to Gabrielle's person to make the warrior princess surrender in an instant; and in the event that was exactly what occurred. He saw the formidable hero slow to a halt; saw her eyes widen and her hands raise; and he knew immediately what had happened. He didn't need to see the knife at Gabrielle's throat to know that it was all over. Moments later he saw Maiandra being pushed out into the open, a large man holding her wrist in a gigantic, callused hand. She was struggling spiritedly, albeit entirely uselessly.

"You are all prisoners of Ganar." Stepping forward to disarm Xena, one of the guards surveyed all of his prisoners with a supercilious eye. Gabrielle was silent, necessarily frozen in the threatening grip of her captor. Xena was icy and distant, her expression speaking a thousand threats with one glint of her coldly expressive eyes. Maiandra looked hot and bothered; angry and afraid and uncertain. Her hand was rapidly turning white as the blood supply diminished under her guard's powerful fingers. Autolycus, putting up a token struggle, was perhaps the least angry in appearance of the lot, for he seemed to find the experience faintly amusing. It was an act, of course, but a convincing one; and one that had unnerved plenty of captors in the past. On this latest enemy, it had no effect at all.

"Bring them along." The guard clicked his fingers, and the band of sentries and slaves moved together to seal off any possible route of escape. As one they began to move towards the farm buildings. Xena scowled.

"I knew there was something weird about all this." She glared at the nearest slave, a young man that she was positive she remembered speaking to just a short time before. "I thought it was a trap of some kind."

"No trap." Their head guard, the only one of the enemy to have spoken to them so far, directed them into a sturdy building that was clearly to be their prison. "Just necessary justice. You'll see, in time."

"That so?" Xena's voice was as cold as her eyes, although in the darkened interior of the building her icy expression went largely unseen. "Perhaps you'd like to explain."

"I don't think so." He pushed her towards a heavy looking wooden door, the entrance to a small room that bore all the hallmarks of a sturdy dungeon. "Just wait here. If you're lucky we'll come back and talk to you later."

"And if we're not lucky?" There was a touch of defiance in Maiandra's tone as she spoke. The head guard did not look at her, but merely smiled to himself in frosty amusement.

"Then it won't matter anymore." The guard shoved her through the doorway after Xena. "You'll be dead." Maiandra swallowed hard, nodding with a faint, uncertain rhythm.



"Great." Slamming the palm of her hand against the wall, Xena stormed across the room, scowling fiercely all the way. "Next time I tell you to keep your head down, Autolycus, do just that. Creeping about and not being seen is about being subtle. It's not about cartwheeling over fences."

"Hey!" Wounded, Autolycus pointed at Gabrielle. "I wasn't alone out there, remember? It wasn't just me that got noticed."

"That's true..." Gabrielle blushed slightly. "Neither of us was exactly as subtle as we might have been." She looked at the ground, clearly feeling rather sheepish. Xena sighed.

"Whatever. I doubt that it would really have made any difference anyway." Never able to remain angry with her closest friend, she offered the pair a vague smile of apology. "Whether it was anybody's fault or not, we have to get out of here."

"Well that's no problem." The swagger back once again in his body language, Autolycus stretched his arms, crossed to the door, and bent to examine it. "Hmm. Interesting." He stroked his goatee, clearly building up his part as far as he could take it. Xena scowled, and he instantly became more businesslike. "Okay, we've got your basic Trojan triple action lock here. It's complicated, but it's basically fairly easy." He shrugged. "And I am of course being extraordinarily modest, but that's the kind of guy I am. Actually it's pretty tough to break one of these things, but I'm not called the King of Thieves for nothing." He waggled his fingers in the air as though to warm them up, flicked something that the others could not see from the cuff of his jacket, and bent to the lock. A series of little scratching sounds echoed in the confined space, before the thief, beaming all over his smug face, gave the door handle a quick twist. With a loud screech of protesting hinges that sent Maiandra's heart leaping into her throat, the door swung open. Autolycus folded his arms.

"I think that's a personal best. I didn't think it was possible to improve on perfection, but I must be getting better all the time." He shrugged. "Actually I don't know why that should surprise me. I'm always proving my genius one way or another..."

"Auto, let's just get out of here while the going's still good okay? Maybe while we can still fit your head through the door." Pushing him encouragingly, Gabrielle stuck her head around the door. There was nobody in sight, but nonetheless Xena moved out ahead of her, her body tense and ready for action. She had moved some way ahead before she waved the others forward, and as a threesome they then approached the main door.

"What's the plan?" Peering through the square-cut hole that served as a window, Maiandra could see nobody. "There don't seem to be many guards."

"They don't know whether or not we're alone." Xena's face was grim as she calculated risks and formulated plans. "They'll have doubled the guard out on the perimeter to check for further attempts to break in. They might even have sent out some patrols in case there's somebody who didn't come faithfully marching home."

"In which case now's the perfect time to make our own escape." Autolycus was quite obviously champing at the bit, eager to be out of the dark little prison. Xena glared at him.

"That could be exactly what they want. Perhaps they're watching this place, waiting for us to escape so that they can follow us back to our camp. We have the rest of that acrobatic troupe to consider, remember? They'd very likely be sitting ducks."

"But Autolycus said that that door lock was complicated. Surely if they'd wanted us to escape, they'd have used something that would be easier to break?" Gabrielle was also anxious to escape, and her voice carried a tone of definite hopefulness. Xena did not look convinced.

"Our less than subtle friend here is always showing off about just how famous he is. It's quite possible that the guards here know all about the King of Thieves." She caught sight of Autolycus automatically smoothing out his clothing and straightening his posture in response to the reference to his fame, and she glared. "Sometimes fame isn't such a great thing. If they knew who he was, they'd have know that a Trojan triple whatever wasn't strong enough to hold him in. That means we can't rule out the possibility that we may be followed. No, I think it's best if we take this slowly. We shouldn't leave just yet. I admit that I may be sounding a little paranoid, and these precautions are probably unnecessary, but nobody can deny that there's something very weird going on around here."

"Well that might be true, but you don't honestly want us to stay in here?" Autolycus sounded incensed rather than shocked. "No prison can lay claim to holding the King of Thieves, and I won't let this little backwater jail take the honour of being the first one."

"Calm down." Xena sighed, for he annoyed her in a manner that was almost unique. "I'm not saying that we should stay in this building, just that we shouldn't leave the farm yet. I want to take a look around as much as anything, and I want to find out what in Hades' name is up with this place."

"Like why all those slaves came back." Maiandra shivered. "It was weird. Like they didn't have minds of their own or something. Remember how pleased they seemed to be, when we told them they should leave? Like it had never occurred to them just to go, or that it just hadn't been possible before. And then a short while later they came marching right back. It's got to be some kind of magic."

"Well let's see if we can find one of them and persuade him or her to speak to us." Determined as ever, Xena strode towards the main door. Whatever reservations she might have had evidently did not prevent her from putting this latest plan into action, for she barely seemed to glance about for any sign that she was being observed, before walking straight out of the prison building. Gabrielle ran to catch her up.

"Aren't you being a little bit obvious? I thought you wanted to be subtle."

"I did. I do." She glanced about. "But there's nobody watching us. They didn't take our weapons away, they didn't post a guard outside the cell... Security is obviously an alien concept to these people."

"They locked us up."

"But that was all that they did. I don't think the possibility of our escape has even crossed their minds."

"Because the slaves always come back if they ever attempt to leave?"

"Perhaps." The warrior princess glanced back to Autolycus and Maiandra, trailing along in their wake. "Come on you two. We're never going to do what we came here for if you move at that speed."

"Maybe not, but this way we're sure to let you handle the dangerous stuff." Autolycus quickened his pace nonetheless. "We should head for the house. There are sure to be a lot of good places to hide in somewhere that big."

"Yeah, and a lot of treasure to keep you distracted, which is not what we want." Xena pointed towards a large and roomy looking stable that backed into a fenced yard of trodden earth. A few bedraggled looking plants provided a negligible cover, but the building itself looked as though there would be space enough inside for all four of them to hide themselves safely. "I think that's the place we're after."

"A stable?" Autolycus scowled. "Charming. You know, this jacket is made of the finest--"

"A few bits of straw won't hurt it." Gabrielle smiled at him. "You must have hidden in worse places."

"Maybe. Usually, however, the rewards were rather greater. On this occasion I'm risking sartorial meltdown for no fee, no ill-gotten gains... not even for the kiss of a beautiful woman." He raised his eyebrows as though in question, and Gabrielle made a face.

"Definitely not. Sorry."

"Yeah yeah, I know. I wait months for a kiss from you, and when it does come it's because somebody else has stolen my body. An experience never to be repeated. Cast away like--"

"Shut up." Xena had held up a hand for silence, listening intently to something borne towards her on the wind. The playfulness of the thief's actions vanished in an instant, and he crept up to join her by the fence around the yard.

"What is it?" He was listening as well, but could not hear anything. She frowned.

"I don't know. I thought that I heard something, but... maybe I was mistaken."

"I doubt it." He swung himself over the fence, landing softly and silently on the other side. "The horses are too quiet. My instincts want to find somewhere else to hide, and that's not just because of the smell inside that stable. Something's not right."

"I know." She climbed up the fence, than landed quietly beside him. "People?"

"Close by, I'd say." A squeal from behind them prevented him from saying anything further, and both warrior and thief froze. "Or maybe even closer than that."

"Turn around very slowly." The voice was not loud, but it carried a great deal of force. The pair turned as one, looking back over the fence to where Gabrielle and Maiandra still stood. The latter was immobile in a guard's tight headlock, a knife dimpling the skin at her throat. A second guard, large and powerful looking, had caught Gabrielle by one arm, and she was frozen in mid-struggle with a sword pressed into her side.

"Let them go." Xena's brow was creased in a mighty frown, and her lips were tight white lines of fierce disapproval. A light laugh, mocking and patronising in its sibilant softness made the frown deepen abruptly.

"I have no intention of letting any of you go. Why would I? You came here to steal my livelihood; to destroy my work. I should have the lot of you killed."

"Yeah? And who exactly are you?" Turning around to face the owner of the voice, Xena found herself looking at a man of indeterminate age, athletically built in a manner that was falling to fat, yet still retained a fair amount of muscle. His clothes were of good quality, and there were numerous gold bracelets around his wrists. A naked sword hung at his waist, the wicked-looking point reaching to his knee. He showed no inclination to draw this weapon, and instead kept his hands by his sides.

"My name is Ganar." He was smiling in a matter that, whilst not exactly warm, was certainly not unfriendly. "I own this place, and everything within it." His lips twitched, and a sense of real humour entered his eyes. "Everyone within it, as well as every thing."

"Then you must be the guy we've come here to see." Xena let one hand rest gently against the chakram on the right hand side of her belt. She could feel the touch of the cold metal against the very tips of her fingers, but for now at least she did not lay any more firm a hold upon it. "I'm Xena."

"Really?" He didn't sound as though the name meant anything to him. Given that so many of the slaves had never before heard of Autolycus, Xena found that she was not too surprised to discover her own relative anonymity. It seemed to her that this place was isolated in ways beyond mere geography. "And what exactly has brought you here... Xena?"

"I consider it my special duty to deal with slavery." She glanced past him, to where three guards had suddenly appeared. "We don't like it very much."

"Does anyone?" He shrugged lightly. "Unsavoury business. Necessary sometimes."

"If you want to make a quick profit." Gabrielle, never one to remain silent for long, was standing shoulder to shoulder with Xena. Ganar flicked his eyes across to her, letting his gaze linger for a moment. He seemed to like what he saw, and Xena bridled. Her fingers took a better hold upon the chakram.

"Money is certainly a consideration, my dear. I can't deny that." He smiled at her. "I like money. Actually I like it rather a lot."

"So you've turned to magic to help you get more of it?" It was Maiandra's turn to speak; Maiandra's turn to be scrutinised by the coolly appraising eyes. Again he seemed to appreciate the view. He smiled at her, eyes glinting unpleasantly.

"Magic, my dear? Not at all, although I suppose that rather depends upon your point of view. What is magic, after all?"

"You're denying that you're up to something here?" Gabrielle moved forward slightly, although Xena prevented her from stepping any closer to Ganar. "Those people that we rescued. They just turned around and came right back here. You can't say that that's normal."

"Probably not." He held up a hand as the guards came forward, stilling them in their tracks. "But then stranger things have happened."

"Like when?" Maiandra's tone was derogatory; forceful in her disbelief. "I can't--"

"The gods." Autolycus spoke very quietly, moving forward from his previous position in the background. It had become clear to him just as it had become similarly clear to Xena. His eyes flicked upwards momentarily; involuntarily; as though looking for the beings in question in their godly dwellings high in the sky. "They're behind this."

"I thought we'd ruled them out?" Gabrielle glanced back at him, although Maiandra and Xena remained looking fixedly ahead. Ganar smiled.

"Perhaps you weren't thinking of the right ones, my dear." He let his eyes drift past her, staring instead towards Autolycus. "Good day to you. I almost didn't notice you back there, with your delightful companions blocking the view. May I take this moment to congratulate you on your excellent choice of travelling companion."

"They consider it an honour to be seen with me." Autolycus glanced towards Xena, who was evidently planning her next course of action. He trusted her to be able to take out the few guards that were nearby, and Ganar himself did not look as though he would be that much of an obstacle. "So which god is it?"

"Attis." Ganar swept an arm around in an expansive gesture. "He keeps everybody here. The guards are a mere precaution, to be honest. A largely unnecessary extravagance, here merely for my own peace of mind."

"Attis?" The thief's eyes had shot up almost to his hairline. "Can't say that I've ever heard of him. What's he the god of? Irritating big heads?"

"I think you'd have heard of him if that was the case." Xena drew the chakram that she had been considering for so long. "Attis is the god of vegetation; or one of them at least."

"Oh." Autolycus shrugged. "We didn't really do much in the way of religious studies at my school." Maiandra raised her eyebrows.

"You went to school?"

"Ladies... and gentleman." His eyes flickering sharply from the chakram to the other members of the group, Ganar took a small step forward. "Fascinating though your attempts to distract my men and myself are, I'd really like to talk about some more mundane matters, such as you not annoying me anymore."

"Guess again." Xena raised the chakram, at the same time reaching for her sword. She was holding it in her left hand, but she knew that she could give a good account of herself even with the weapon held in such an unfamiliar manner. The balance of her weight had changed perceptibly. "We're going to have a talk, and then you're going to pass on our words to Attis. We don't like it when the gods interfere down here. They have a habit of making life unpleasant for those of us who have to live down here permanently, and we don't appreciate their input."

"Well that's unfortunate, because I do appreciate it. It's made me a very rich man. Attis grants me continuous fertility and continual growth. He prevents my slaves from escaping, and causes my riches to grow as fast as my crops. It return he takes a share of the crops. I don't bother to ask what he does with them, but he seems happy enough with the arrangement, so I presume that he's getting what he wants. He takes a share of the gold as well sometimes, but for the most part he's happier with things that are a shade more green." He gestured with one hand, to a place some distance behind Xena and her companions. "And he's very good about sending me reinforcements if he thinks I need them."

"Reinforcements?" Alone of the foursome, Maiandra glanced back. What she saw made her eyes widen. "Oh."

"First rule of confrontations. Never believe the other guy's bluff." Autolycus was still looking ahead. "There's nobody back there."

"Actually..." Maiandra glanced back once again, this time with noticeable discomfort. Drawn by the sincerity in the other woman's tone, Gabrielle also looked back.

"Oh." She smiled rather uneasily. "Er... Xena?"

"Not now." The warrior princess was staring ahead, planning her assault on the three guards standing alongside Ganar. She raised her chakram, and chose its best trajectory.

"But Xena..." Gabrielle looked back once again, and, after a moment, so did Autolycus. Ganar chuckled.

"I don't think she's prepared to listen to you, my dear. Perhaps you should surrender. If she wants to fight, we might as well let her get on with it."

"There are a lot of people behind us, aren't there." Still ready to fight those opponents that she could see, Xena was rather beginning to suspect that there were a good deal more foes that she could not see. She did not try to look at them, however, for fear of being over-run by the three men now before her. Autolycus hesitated.

"One or two." It was all that he would say upon the matter, although the tone of his voice said rather more. Xena frowned.

"Oh." She didn't really know what else to say; and certainly had no idea what to do. She had faith in her own abilities to fight off a good many attackers, and she knew that Gabrielle was also more than able to fight; but in order to successfully tussle with any great number of people she knew that she would need a good deal more in her favour. Successful warrior though Gabrielle had become, she was no match when pitted against a foe that was sure to succeed through sheer weight of numbers: and Autolycus and Maiandra would improve their chances by only a negligible amount.

"I personally would suggest surrender, my dear." Ganar was smiling at her in a manner that made her long to behead him, or at the very least perform some drastic surgery with her chakram. She made do with mere glowers however, before, slowly but surely, lowering her readied weapon. The three men ran forward, disarming her with barely a struggle. Only then did she turn around, to see some twenty-five men that were ranged against her. They had come up so silently that she would never have known about their presence had the others not turned to look.

"Now what?" She addressed the question to Ganar, although she did not use any of the respect that he so clearly seemed to consider his due. He glared at her.

"That's up to Attis. He might agree to let you live, and to join our forces here. Otherwise the penalty is death. You've chosen to stand against one of the gods of Olympus, and you show no regret for having done so. The gods are not known for their mercy."

"You can say that again." Autolycus could think of numerous occasions when he had seen that little truth proved, usually at the expense of some unfortunate and hapless mortal. Ganar eyed him sourly.

"What little mercy the gods do deign to show us is best prayed for. Throw yourselves at their feet and they may agree to grant you your lives."

"I doubt that." Gabrielle sounded angry, and not a little sullen, glaring at the men who were attempting to force her and her companions into a little group. One of the men let a hand lie for too long upon her body, and she gave him a swift, albeit surreptitious, kick. He yelped, then backed away at an entirely understandable speed.

"If you are resolved to die, then so be it." Ganar showed no signs of any remorse or pity. "I can't claim to have any sorrow as regards your fate, when you have chosen to come here and steal from me what is rightfully mine. I was given this land by Attis, and have entered into an agreement with him to our mutual benefit. You had no right to come here and attempt to release my slaves."

"We had every right." Xena did not bother trying to keep her anger in check. "You can't claim to own these people. You can't say that what you're doing here is right. We came here because you kidnapped some friends of ours, and brought them here against their will. We decided to rescue them, and in the process to rescue everybody else that you've dragged here and bewitched. Others will come, and no matter how determined you and your pet god are, you won't keep this place running smoothly in the face of other attackers."

"Yeah." Maiandra couldn't help putting up her own display of resistance. "You just wait until Hercules has finished with you."

"Hercules? I've never heard of such a man. But if you think that one person on his own has any hope of defeating me then you're sadly mistaken. No one man can hope to stand against the gods."

"You might be mistaken." It hurt Xena's pride to concede that Hercules might be a greater warrior than was she, but she pressed the point nonetheless. "When he comes here, neither you nor your heavenly protector is going to know what's hit you. Your days here are numbered."

"Perhaps they are." Ganar almost sounded as though he believed her, although he did not sound worried or afraid. "But if that's the case, I shan't fall alone. None of you will ever see the world outside my land." He clicked his fingers, and a pair of guards each seized one of the foursome, holding them tight by the arms. "In fact you won't even live to see another sunset."

"That's it? You're just going to kill us?" For the first time Maiandra sounded a little afraid. "What happened to getting the chance to speak to Attis?"

"I changed my mind." Ganar made a sharp gesture with one hand, and as the majority of his waiting army dispersed, four more of them advanced upon the struggling prisoners. Clearly these four were executioners, for each of them was armed with a huge, curved sword. The first of the four drew his weapon, raising it high into the air, and a struggling Gabrielle was forced to her knees before him.

"No!" Xena struggled violently, breaking free from her two guards and leaping to the assistance of her friend. The guards fell back upon her, and although she fought off the first of them, soon she was dragged down to the ground. Her eyes spat fire and fury, and she shouted in rage at her captors. It was all to no avail. Ganar stared down at her, eyes cold.

"Kill them quickly," he told his men, no sign of emotion in his voice. "Then burn the bodies. Attis can use their ashes as fertilisers for the fields. He may perhaps then be mollified, and allow Hades to take pity on their souls." He took one last look around the tableau before him, then spun about on one heel. "I shall be in my chambers."

"Running away?" His voice surprisingly steady for one who was so devoutly opposed to personal injury, Autolycus stared at the broad back of the self-possessed slaver. "What's wrong, Ganar? Not got the guts to face us?"

"I have things to do." The big man started to turn, but his eyes, which were filled with contempt, showed that he did not really consider it necessary to look at so lowly a prisoner. "A farm to run. The word of Attis to preach amongst my guards and my slaves. I have tributes to prepare, and merchants to greet."

"You really think you're something, don't you." Knowing that he was unable to pull free from his captors, Autolycus did not even try; but somehow he didn't need to. Taller than both of his guards, and clad as he was in his bright green jacket and shining boots, he cut a more dashing figure that any of the others present, save perhaps for Xena, in her leather armour with its shining ornaments of metal. "You think that killing us will solve all of your problems, and that you don't have to worry about your slaves making any more attempts to escape - but they heard us today. We told them that they could leave you, and they nearly made it."

"But they didn't." Despite his airs and graces, Ganar turned around now, facing the prisoners fully once again. Autolycus shrugged, as far as he was able.

"This time they didn't. But maybe they got far enough to believe that they might be able to make it the next time, or the time after that. You think that they can't get away from you, but you're wrong. People can escape from here, no matter what barriers Attis thinks he's put up. He's wrong if he thinks this place is secure."

"Attis is never wrong." Ganar sounded incensed, too amazed at this implied blasphemy to be angered by it. "He does not fail. No man, woman or child has ever left this place. None ever will."

"You're sure about that?" The self-styled King of Thieves, who somehow managed to appear properly regal even in such dire straits as these, tried out one of his famed sardonic smirks. Had he had his hands free, Xena was positive that he would have stroked his goatee, and struck a suitably heroic pose. "Maybe you should think again. I was born here, thir-- well, some years ago, anyway. I left, and even though I have to admit to being a man of considerable genius and expertise, I don't think it's beyond the abilities of all these other people to do likewise. It's just a matter of time before one of them discovers the way, whether it's a breach in your magical barriers, or just downright determination." This time he did manage to strike a pose, despite still being considerably hampered by his guards. He cocked his head at an angle, as though trying to favour Ganar with his best side. "I've told them all of that, and sooner or later one of them, or all of them, will think to try again."

"I don't believe you. Nobody has ever escaped from my land." Despite his apparent certainty, Ganar came a little closer, eyeing Autolycus strangely. The King of Thieves drew himself up to his full height, squaring his jaw and trying to look impressive. The effect was largely comical, or at least Xena found it so. Gabrielle smiled to herself, but Maiandra was watching transfixed.

"Guess again, Ganny. I was born here. My mother's name was Arianne, and you brought her here. She always claimed that you were my father, although looking at you now I'm kinda led to thinking she was mistaken. You're honestly just not good looking enough. Where's the jutting jaw, the adorable sparkle in the eyes? Where's the reckless smile, the roguish good humour? Where's the grin that makes ladies everywhere go weak at the knees? Sorry Ganny, but even my hair looks heroic and irresistible. You just don't cut it on the father front."

"What is this?" Obviously angry now, Ganar moved closer to the posturing thief. "You dare to suggest that I would lie with my slaves?"

"I think I'm suggesting that you did a little more than lie with them." It was in the back of Autolycus's mind now that this last ditch attempt to avoid death might easily backfire, but he persevered nonetheless. Ganar's face changed colour several times, settling finally on an enraged shade of red that made his eyes stand out almost as if they were inflamed.

"You'll pay for that." The veins standing out on his forehead and neck, Ganar advanced still further. Gabrielle could not help rolling her eyes, the imminent downfall of her friend not reason enough to stave off an attack of ill-advised humour.

"Yeah. If you won't die quietly, he'll have to kill you." She stole a glance towards her own intended executioner as she spoke. Incredibly he was still holding the massive sword above his head, although his attention had been diverted elsewhere. She made a silent, very surreptitious attempt to move, and found that the grip on her arms had slackened considerably.

"Silence." Ganar rounded on her, eyes flashing. "You'll all get your turn. Death might be too good for you, but I don't have the time or the inclination to think of anything worse."

"Maybe we can suggest something." Xena had been greatly heartened by the departure of so many of the guards, and now that there were only twelve of them left, plus Ganar himself, the odds seemed to her to be greatly improved. Ganar did not look her way, despite the insolence of her tone.

"You can try to distract me all you like." He stared rather hard at Autolycus, as though perhaps to gain some insight into the truth of the thief's claims. "It won't change anything." He raised his hand as though to order the executions to proceed - but before his fist could fall, Xena's famous battle yell made the first of the waiting executioners spin around in confusion. The warrior princess, taking full advantage of the few precious seconds that his surprise had gained her, tore her arms free, swung back her hands, gripped her two guards by the back of the neck, and swung them forcibly into one another. Their heads cracked together, and they fell to the ground. Before anybody else had a chance to react, the powerful warrior leapt forward, seizing the executioner by the wrists, tearing his huge sword away from him. One of the other executioners began to draw his own weapon, but Xena swung her captured sword, slicing his trousers open at the waist. He stumbled and fell, tripping over his fallen clothing, his sword clattering away across the ground. Even as he was suffering this clumsy indignity, Xena was swinging the sword once again. The flat of the blade caught the first of the executioners across the head, and he went down like a tree sliced by a woodsman's axe. His colleague, struggling to right himself amidst the tangling obstacle of his fallen trousers, made it to his knees, only to be kicked hard in the face by an enraged warrior princess now just getting into her stride. He fell down.

"Excellent!" Delighted at her companion's manoeuvres, Gabrielle threw herself forward, dragging her arms free from her captors before they were truly aware that they had let their grip fail. She threw herself onto her hands, kicking backwards and upwards with her feet, catching both of them neatly on the jaw. They fell down, grovelling in the dirt, showing no sign of righting themselves. With a whoop of delight, the young woman made a grab for the sword that the second executioner had so clumsily dropped, catching it up and holding it firmly in both of her hands. She moved quickly to stand next to Xena, ready to face the onslaught.

"Stop them!" Furious, Ganar spun around to face his men, turning his back on Autolycus as he focussed instead on the two women. Inspired by their actions, Autolycus let loose a cry of his own, throwing his whole body backwards so that he flipped neatly over the heads of his own two guards. Startled by his acrobatic move, the men released their hold on his arms, the first of them turning around just in time to receive the most powerful blow that the thief could muster. It caught him on the side of the head, sending him reeling into his associate. The pair both sprawled on the ground, struggling to right themselves, but in the process only entangling themselves further in each others wildly flailing extremities.

"Now that was cool." Performing a flawless flying somersault over the fallen pair, Autolycus delivered a neat kick to the nearest of Maiandra's guards, giving his old friend freedom enough to drive a fierce, powerful blow into the second man's groin. He doubled up, gasping, and Autolycus winced in sympathy.

"Remind me not to get on your bad side, sugar." He pulled her to her feet, and leaning into his embrace she swung her feet up off the ground, knocking down the two recovering guards who were rushing towards them. Ganar let out a yell of impotent rage, at which moment the two executioners still armed and on their feet, threw themselves violently towards Xena and Gabrielle. The former leaped aside, slicing low with her sword, disarming the first of the pair with one easy blow. She pulled the sword back, swinging around behind the man, slamming the hilt of her weapon into the back of his head. Another of the guards, recovering some of his senses, attempted to rush her whilst she was thus engaged, but she side-stepped him as though she had seen him coming from miles away, and had had ample time to prepare. He felt her foot connect with his stomach; felt the sir driven from his lungs, and then felt nothing else save the ground rushing up to meet him. This time he stayed down.

Gabrielle meanwhile had not been able to deal with her own foe quite so easily, but was instead leading him a merry dance, as they fenced together somewhat frenetically. Her small size and greater speed were both in her favour, and although she was unfamiliar with so large and curved a sword as that now in her hands, she used it well enough. Xena was content to leave her to fight her own battle, turning her attentions instead to those guards who might still be inclined to cause problems. Maiandra had recovered both of the other swords, and was wielding them in a fierce, if clearly inexperienced manner. Autolycus preferring to go unarmed, the other guards were faced instead with a target that, whilst not much inclined to fight back, would not stand still long enough for any sort of fight to begin. Breathless and exhausted those amongst the guards that were still conscious seemed unwilling to put up any real resistance. Ganar roared at them, but those few that were still on their feet merely turned tail and ran. Shortly afterwards Gabrielle's opponent capitulated, worn down by a campaign of fast sword work and even faster feet. She finished him off with a swift, spinning kick to the jaw, and he collapsed in a heap on the ground.

"Nice going Gabrielle." Xena offered her a quick hug, and her friend grinned back at her.

"It was nothing." She turned towards Ganar. "Now what do we do with him?"

"Any preferences, Autolycus?" Xena handed her captured sword to Maiandra, who seemed to have taken a liking to the large, curved blades, before retrieving her own weapons. The familiarity of her sword and chakrams was a source of great satisfaction.

"None at all." The King of Thieves was brushing imagined dust and dirt from his clothing, and showed no interest in anything save his personal appearance. "Maybe we should ask Attis what to do with him."

"You should show a little more respect to the gods." Speaking between clenched teeth, Ganar glared around at the little group. "He could tear off your heads with one blow, or--"

"He's the god of vegetation, Gan." Smoothing his goatee, and ensuring that his hair was neat and tidy, Autolycus shrugged his green-clad shoulders. "What's he going to do? Throw ripe corn at us?"

"Maybe so." A pillar of green light flashed skyward, before resolving itself into the figure of a man. "Or maybe I'll just behead you with my spade." He drew a short sword, green-bladed and broad. "Or with this."

"Attis!" Ganar sounded delighted, and not a little relieved. "These people. They came here and they--"

"I know what they did. I've been watching." Attis regarded the foursome with some considerable irritation. "Mortals. You're a damned annoying bunch, aren't you."

"We do our best." Xena moved closer to him, acting cautiously, aware of the dangers inherent in dealing with gods. He followed her with his eyes all of the time, apparently finding it easy to watch all four of them at once, even though each was standing at a different point of the compass around him. "So you're Attis? I don't believe we've met before."

"I don't believe so." He frowned at her. "And you must be Xena. Self-styled saviour of the masses, despite a promising start to the contrary. My brother Ares used to think the world of you, until you changed sides and allied yourself with that long-haired do-gooder Hercules." He glanced about at the rest of the group. "The little blonde will be your friend Gabrielle, I suppose; and the poser with the daft beard has to be Autolycus."

"Hey!" Incensed, Autolycus tried to protest, but Xena glared him into silence.

"What are you going to do with them?" Excited and anxious, Ganar had turned from self-possessed leader of men to grovelling idiot in the blink of an eye. Attis looked towards him, his green eyes bright with contempt.

"I should persuade them to replace you, is what I should do. You're useless, Ganar. Hopeless. Look at you wasting your time with these people, when you should be making sure that the slaves are properly cowed. I want to make sure that we don't get any repeats of today's little episode. The thief is right. Next time the barriers around your land might not hold, and then we'd have to begin all over again." He ran a hand through his thick, earth-brown hair, shaking out the curls so that they fell backwards onto the long green cloak in which he was wrapped. He had a farmer's hands; big and strong; and they looked odd when used for so vain a purpose. "My name grows in strength on Olympus, with every piece of gold that this place earns, and I have no intention of being reduced back to the status of immortal joke amongst my fellow gods. They thought that they could laugh at me, with my dominions amongst the ripening corn, but I've won my place now. I won't lose it."

"You haven't won anything." Xena's voice dripped with scorn. "All that you've done is to build up Ganar's reputation, on the backs of a lot of innocent mortals. It's hardly the same thing as winning yourself the respect of the people. Aphrodite helps people, Hephaestus makes wonderful things, Athene amasses great libraries of knowledge. Even Ares has won some respect for himself. He may be a warmongering maniac, but he's won that reputation by his own hand. What have you done? The slaves here probably don't even know about your involvement, and beyond this place your name is hardly known. God of vegetation? You might just as well be the god of anonymity."

"Er, Xena? Making the immortal guy angry isn't usually the best plan." Autolycus was backing away slightly, looking decidedly nervous. "Gods have powers. Powers hurt. Things go zap."

"You should listen to the thief." Attis rested his large hands on his waist. "I could kill the lot of you with one sweep of my hand."

"You're the god of vegetation, not the god of war. If you could kill us so easily, you'd have done so. You like to make big entrances, and swan about the place looking regal, but I bet you don't even know how to use that sword." She smiled, straightening her shoulders and making herself look as big as her limited height would allow. "Why don't we find out how much of you is just talk?"

"A duel?" He sounded interested, weighing his sword in his hand and eyeing her with sparkling eyes. "Perhaps. I like the idea, I have to admit. Me and you, together... at close quarters... It definitely has promise. On the other hand..." He shrugged. "What can I say? I have a very short attention span. I'd probably get bored too soon, and go and do something else instead." He twirled his sword between his large fingers. "Sorry."

"Then let me fight Ganar, or the best of his men. If I win, my friends and I get to go free."

"Hmm." Attis looked from her to Ganar, then at each of the others in turn. "I'm still interested."

"No!" Ganar sounded desperate. "You didn't see her fight! You can't make a deal with her, and let her leave. She'll come back, and then this place will be finished."

"But she won't win." Attis stuck his sword back into his belt, and folded his arms. The powerful muscles of a farmer rippled beneath his skin. "I tell you what. If we stage a little fight, and you win, I'll let you go. I'll remove my boundaries around these lands, and all of the slaves can go free. How does that sound?"

"No!" This time Ganar sounded truly desperate. "Are you insane?!" Attis snapped his eyes around to glare at him, and the slave dealer blanched. "I - I mean... well it sounds like madness, my lord Attis. She's the greatest warrior I've ever seen. Her skill at dealing with my men was--"

"Quiet." Attis turned back to Xena. "Do we have a deal?"

"What happens if I lose?" She sounded forceful, as though she were the one holding all of the cards. To infer any kind of weakness on her part was alien to her, no matter how bad things might turn out to be. Attis smiled.

"If you lose, you stay. All of you. Your bodies can fertilise my northern fields, where the soil is sweetest, and the corn grows best of all. I might even mince you up and spread you over the ground myself. That'd actually be quite an honour."

"Yeah. It really sounds like it. Just what exactly do you have in mind?" Xena was suspicious, incapable of bringing herself to trust one of the gods. Attis in particular was easy to disbelieve, with his ready smile and his annoyingly friendly demeanour. If he was planning some form of deal, it was not the kind that she felt much like being a part of. Attis smiled yet another big, broad smile.

"Combat, like I said. A little one on one, to decide who wins here today. Think about it - I could strike you all down with one blow, or call down my brothers and sisters to do... anything. But I'm willing to give you a chance."

"If you're expecting me to be grateful, you're going to be disappointed." Xena shared a worried look with her friends. "I don't really find myself feeling very enthusiastic about any kind of a fight that you've dreamt up."

"I'm offended." He didn't look it, which somehow made her feel even less at ease. There was something very off-putting about this strangely jovial god, especially given the unpleasantness of which he was so obviously capable. His involvement with Ganar served as a reminder of just how unreasonable he truly was. She found herself searching for likely motives; reasons he might possibly have for suggesting such a battle. She could think of nothing, however. Maybe sometimes, when you were a god, the only reason you needed was whimsy. He smiled at her, clearly guessing her thoughts, and waved a hand in a faintly dismissive motion. "Of course if you're not interested in my little game, I'll kill you now and have done with it."

"You know there's really no need to be hasty." Autolycus, hovering anxiously nearby, glared at Xena. "She's just having you on."

"She'd better not be." Ganar started forward, although a sharp look from Attis stopped him. "You can't go making deals with these people. What will happen if they win?"

"They won't." The god shrugged. "And what does it matter if they do? I've got what I wanted from this alliance. I've proved to my fellow gods that I can play the same games that they do, and pull the same strings. I've acquired gold, and used it to build shrines and temples in my own name. I'm not a nobody on Olympus anymore."

"And me? What about me? I need you."

"But he doesn't need you." Gabrielle spoke with the faint traces of malice that could only come from one who had trusted the gods in the past, only to learn the truth about them in her more recent travels. "He's a god, and you're a farmer. You're dispensable."

"Should have read the fine script, Gan." Autolycus glanced around, his sharp eyes searching for a possible escape route even as his voice suggested that he was amused by, or even disinterested in, the proceedings. Maiandra was moving closer to him, clearly very much disturbed by the current state of affairs. It was very likely, he imagined, that she had never seen one of the gods before, let alone been in such close company with one. Her fear was obvious.

"It's your choice, Xena. The choice of all of you I suppose, since it applies equally to you all. Do you accept my challenge, and let us all have a bit of fun, or do we have a pleasant little execution right now? The slaves can go back to doing what they've been doing all along, and Ganar here can collect a few hundred more of those little golden coins that he likes so much. I'm a god. I don't care."

"Oh wonderful." Xena looked around at her friends, searching their faces for any sign of their thoughts. Gabrielle did not look afraid, although there were traces of a mild apprehension in her eyes. Autolycus looked very much as though he wanted to be somewhere else - and very much as though he was planning on being there at any moment. She was sure that she could see his fingers stroking upwards into his cuff, reaching for where his grappling hook was secreted. Maiandra, moving steadily closer to his - in her way of thinking at least - apparently reassuring presence, looked terrified. The unmistakable lights of a very unnecessary respect were in her eyes as she stared fixedly at Attis. She didn't look as though she would easily be persuaded to make a run for it, even if it did turn out to be possible to escape.

"A fight." It sounded simple enough. She fought every day of her life, or near enough. It was something that she was good at; something that people respected her for. Even the gods saw her as a force to be reckoned with, whether or not she was armed. She had given Ares cause for concern once or twice; and surely the god of war was a greater foe than a god of vegetation? Although she was decidedly apprehensive, it was hard to be truly scared of a man whose every movement caused tiny shoots of green to rise from beneath the sweeping hem of his cloak. Perhaps, if he was planning to catch her out, she could play him at his own game, and turn the tables. Since the alternative was death, there really didn't seem to be a whole lot of choice.

"Okay." She looked at Gabrielle as she said it, almost as though she were looking for the young woman's approval. "I'll fight you." It was hard to trust a god, but he had given good reasons as to why he would not care if she succeeded. Perhaps he truly didn't need Ganar's slaves anymore. Perhaps he really didn't mind conceding victory to her, and letting all of the prisoners go. He had sounded genuine, and even though that was reason enough to make her hackles rise, it was all that she had to go on. He smiled, and she knew that she had made a mistake.

"Fight me? Whatever gave you the idea that you would be fighting me? I get to choose the opponent. Didn't I tell you that that was a part of the deal?"

"You know you didn't." Gabrielle started forwards, almost as if she was planning to confront him directly. Xena moved quickly to intercept her.

"It's alright, Gabrielle. I was expecting something like this. Anyway, there isn't really all that much choice."

"But he might choose anything!"

"He probably will. Look, maybe we could escape right now, and not have to do this, but we'd never be able to get the slaves out as well. If I win this battle we all get to leave." She looked sharply at Attis. "Right?"

"Right." He was smirking now, and not in a way that inspired confidence. "You win, everybody goes free. You lose... well you'll be dead anyway of course, so it won't matter much to you. It probably won't matter to you what happens to your friends either, since you won't be here to see it." He shrugged happily. "So shall we get things moving?"

"You don't have to do this, Xena. We could find another way." Gabrielle was worried, and was not hiding it well. Xena smiled at her, her expression warm and gentle.

"It'll be okay." She turned about, cutting the eye contact with her friend before the younger woman could protest further. "So let's get it over with."

"Great!" Clearly excited, Attis almost jumped towards her, his cloak making new flowers blossom at his feet. "In that case, I want you to meet Hyteria. She's the most beautiful woman I know." He bent over, brushing the ground with his fingertips, causing trails of green moss to blister the surface of the dry earth. In the midst of them, something began to grow.

"The most beautiful woman you know is a plant?" Intrigued despite his self-preservation streak, Autolycus moved closer. Attis glared at him.

"She's not a plant." He caressed the budding greenery. "She's a creation of my own. Not plant, not being. Just Hyteria." His voice had taken on a loving tone, and as though in response to his gentle advances, the growing plant life beneath his fingertips took a mighty leap upward. He moved aside, gazing up with an adoring expression as a towering pillar erupted from the ground. In moments it had acquired a human shape; that of a willowy, shapely young woman in the bloom of youth; before suddenly the horticultural aspects of her creation came into their own. Her legs became roots; her body became trunk-like, though clearly still flexible; her arms became branches, became tentacles, became snaky, stretching creepers that reached out in every direction. One brushed across Maiandra face, and she smelt moist earth. A large green head, beset with huge oval eyes of a bright earth-brown, stared down at the watching mortals.

"Isn't she wonderful?" Attis laid a hand on her trunk, and she turned her head to look down at him.

"Why have you called me here?" Her voice was stiff and dry; almost exactly how Xena found herself imagining that any tree might sound, if it suddenly happened to acquire the power of speech. The god of vegetation pointed about him, excitability bubbling forth through his previous superior airs.

"These mortals have challenged me. They think that they can beat me. That they can come here and fight a god, and get away without a scratch. You're to fight one of them."

"Which one?" The large eyes scanned the group, drifting over each of them in turn. Xena stepped forward.


"So be it." The creature inclined her head slightly, and her several root-like feet splayed out on the surface of the earth. "Then we shall fight."

"Just my kind of language." Quick as a flash, Xena pulled her sword from her belt, slashing low and hard to one side of the creature's massive girth. She struck home, and felt the sword cut deeply into the green figure before her. Hyteria gave no reaction to the blow other than to move aside. A little clear liquid, much like a kind of sap, bubbled from the wound for a second, before the greenery rushed to close the gap and heal the injury. Hyteria seemed to consider for a moment, then the lines of her green face moved into something resembling a frown.

"Ow." She lashed out with her many arms, causing Xena to leap and flip aside. In a whirlwind of arms and legs she bounded clear, dodging one flailing limb only to meet with another headlong, and have to dodge away all over again. She heard Gabrielle shout a warning, but ignored it. There was no time to listen to outside contributions; this had to be solely between her and the enemy. She let out a yell and cartwheeled to safety, bringing her sword up for another blow.

"Come and get me, you overgrown garden weed." She brandished the sword, dodged a swipe from one of the large feet, then brought her sword down hard, slicing away the end of the foot even as it was moving away from her. It hit the ground, writhing and shivering before withering away to nothing. Black moss remained, crackly and dry. With a wail, Hyteria swung around for another assault.

"I don't like that." She lashed out with two of her tentacles at once, and although Xena tried to amputate the first, the second caught hold of her sword by the hilt. She clung on, feeling her feet lifted clear of the ground as the huge green beast attempted to drag her weapon from her grasp. Hyteria swung the sword back and forth, growling all the while in a manner that sound like wind through densely growing treetops. Her strength was remarkable, and as another tentacle came to the assistance of the first, Xena knew that she was fighting a losing battle. The second tentacle twitched her aside as though she were a pesky caterpillar looking to eat the choicest leaves; and helpless to prevent it, Xena was flung aside. She landed well, rolling in the air to be sure of a cat-like landing on her feet. Almost before she touched the ground she had snatched a shining chakram from her belt.

"See how you like this, sister." She flung the weapon with a mighty battle cry, watching its trajectory as it soared away from her, arced in the still air, and severed three of the tentacles. It came back to her in a perfect curve, and she leapt into the air to catch it. The familiar sting of the speeding metal as it met her fingers gave her a burst of triumphant glee.

"Go Xena!" Gabrielle was positively radiant with joy, leaping up and down on the spot and waving her hands in the air. Maiandra had recovered her spirits a little as well, and was beginning to look very hopeful. Even Autolycus offered the warrior a congratulatory punch to the air. Attis spat furiously, and this time as his cloak swung about the flowers it created were all blood red. They smelt of fire and smouldering earth, and they shrivelled almost as soon as they had grown.

"Get that weapon away from her!" His fists were beating a useless tattoo on thin air, his feet stamping the newly born flowers of earlier into little more than leaf mulch. Hyteria growled again, and her body bent and waved as she moved closer and closer to Xena. Unperturbed the warrior princess leapt clear, spinning through the air to the accompaniment of her famous cry. She landed beside Gabrielle, hurled the chakram again, then rolled to one side pushing her companion with her as one of the huge green roots swung by them. The chakram embedded itself in one of the uppermost tentacles, severing it almost completely before sticking fast. Hyteria shook the offending limb, furious at the irritation still fixed within it. The tentacle fell to the ground, and so, moments later, did the chakram. Attis snapped his fingers and it turned into a garland of flowers.

"Hey, that's not fair!" Autolycus started forward, indignant at this interference. Attis snapped his fingers again, and this time Hyteria swung around to face the thief. He backed away almost instantly, wondering if it was too late to pull out his grappling hook and think about a getaway.

"There is no 'fair'." The dry voice of the giant green creature almost deafened him. "Perhaps Xena thinks it fair to fight with weapons when I am unarmed?"

"The odds aren't exactly even either way." Xena's eyes trailed up the gigantic bulk before her. Hyteria laughed.

"So? Perhaps I should make my own weapons? Or how about a particularly novel defence?" She snapped out one of her tentacles, and before Gabrielle could move aside, had caught her up and snatched her far up into the air. "Now perhaps you'll be a little less free with your blades."

"Put her down." White with fury, Xena moved forwards. Hyteria laughed.

"I don't think so." She lashed out again, this time catching up Maiandra. "Throw down your other weapon, or next time you use it I'll make sure it's your friends that you hit."

"Don't do it Xena!" High up in the air, Gabrielle was struggling furiously. Xena exchanged glances with Autolycus. The thief shrugged, unable to offer her any worthwhile assistance, and the warrior princess simply nodded. She knew that the choice had to be hers; and with that in mind, she pulled the second chakram from her belt, and tossed it onto the ground. Just as its predecessor, it turned instantly into a circlet of garlanded flowers. Blue and pink fluttered forth from a lacy frothing of green, and the smoothly bent boughs seemed almost to be living, as though they were still sending out new shoots.

"Happy now? Let the others go."

"No. They might help you." Hyteria moved back a little, making a grab for Autolycus as she did so. He leaped aside with ease, cartwheeling neatly through the air, and reaching the relative safety of a piece of ground beyond her reach. Xena took advantage of what she thought was the creature's distraction to make an attack on its apparently unguarded left, but a huge limb moved instantly to block her assault. A heavy tentacle caught her on the back of the head, and she fell heavily. Almost immediately a snaky arm had wrapped itself around her waist.

"Now that's just not nice!" Performing a series of flips that might have impressed Xena, had she been better placed to witness them, Autolycus flung himself forward. He leapt upwards even as he was moving forwards, spinning with reckless ease through the air, lashing out with his secreted dagger as he came in for a predictably perfect landing. His small blade sank up to its hilt in the tentacle still wrapped around Xena, and with a quick twist he had freed the warrior princess. The huge creature let out a scream of pain and fury, and with a fierce rushing of wind, brought all of its tentacles together in an attempt to crush the impudent pair before it. Both mortals leapt side, Xena spinning though the air to the right, Autolycus flipping neatly to the left. His manoeuvre was almost perfect, save that it had failed to take Ganar into account. The mortal landowner, desperate to ensure Hyteria's victory, had snatched up one of the tools left lying nearby by one of his workers. As Autolycus landed, ready to face a further attack either from Hyteria or from Attis, the one person that he had not considered swung his improvised weapon with a grim kind of glee. The heavy iron end of a heavy spade crashed into the side of the thief's head, and he stumbled and fell. Not quite unconscious, but far from fully awake, he was powerless to prevent himself from being snatched aloft by a triumphant green arm. Xena groaned.

"I never really believed he could see where he's going when he back-flips everywhere..." She looked around for his fallen dagger and snatched it up, then stuck it into her belt. It might not be an ideal weapon, but if it was the best that she could hope for, she would use it where it would count the most. Above her Hyteria was laughing, clearly pleased with her series of psychological victories.

"Ready to quit yet? I can kill all of your friends in an instant." She brandished Maiandra like a weapon, causing the woman to shout out in indignant rage. Xena smiled at the impotent display of courage.

"I'm not quitting yet." She judged the distance between herself and the creature, then leapt out of the way of a twitching foot, vaulted over a swinging arm, and cartwheeled over a second stamping foot. Attis was laughing at what he thought was her approaching defeat, and she scowled. If only he had been a mortal, she would greatly have enjoyed hitting him where it would hurt the most. If it hadn't been for the likely result for her friends, she might have considered doing so anyway. In the event she shut him from her mind, and concentrated instead on his horticultural emissary. At last a strategy was beginning to form in her mind. She dodged yet another attempt by the creature to capture her, feignted to the left, and then darted back to the right. A tentacle was waiting for her; but that was exactly what she had wanted. As the snaking green arm wrapped itself around her, and she felt her feet lose contact with the ground, she heard Gabrielle yelling out far above her, clearly scared for her friend's obvious danger. A large green face loomed in her vision.

"Gotcha." Deep brown eyes glowed before her, and a gaping crack of a mouth opened wide. "Say goodbye to your friends."

"Goodbye." Xena felt for the small dagger in her belt. Her senses were screaming Last chance! and her lungs were beginning to shout their own warnings. It was hard to breathe with the tentacle pressing so close against her chest. Her fingers fumbled on the dagger's smooth hilt.

"I'm almost sorry to see you go." Hyteria was pulling her closer, until she could smell the moist earth of her breath, and the fresh greenery that was thick all over her giant body. "You fought well."

"Glad you think so. But it isn't over yet." Xena felt the pressure increase around her chest, and knew how it was supposed to end. Breathing was harder, and her ribs ached furiously. She raised the knife. Hyteria laughed.

"What do you hope to do with that tiny blade? You couldn't skin a rabbit with it."

"I don't want to skin a rabbit." She lifted the knife as high as she could, then brought it plunging down. Hyteria watched it moving towards her, but only at the last instant, when its direction was clear, did she try to flinch aside. It was too late. With a cry of horrified disbelief from Attis echoing in her ears, Xena thrust the knife between Hyteria's eyes. It sank up to the hilt, and with a wail that tore through the still air right across the wide reaches of Ganar's land, the giant plant creature died. Her limbs folded up and shrivelled, and one by one Xena and her friends were lowered to the ground. With surprising gentility they landed on the hard earth, rising to their feet almost as one. Gabrielle grinned rather shakily.

"Wow." She leant against Xena, and the pair began to catch their breath. "That was different."

"But very successful." Xena turned to Attis, who was clearly bemoaning the loss of his favoured creation. "Isn't there something that you should be saying to us about now?"

"Yeah. You're... you're free to go I suppose." He glared at her. "But don't think that this is the last time we're going to meet. Just because you've won out this time doesn't mean a thing."

"The gods always make the most gracious losers." Xena tossed Autolycus back his dagger, then brushed the last of the leaves and assorted greenery from her clothing. "I think it's time that we communicated the good news to the slaves."

"Don't worry." Attis still sounded sulky. "That will all be done. By the time you leave this yard, they'll be on their way home."

"Nooooo!" Ganar's cry was a wail of desperate misery. "You can't do this to me!"

"She won." Attis was scowling, but showed no sign of going back on his word. "This time at least, the game is in their hands."

"I'm really not into rematches." Xena was in no mood to hear talk of unsettled scores. "Just forget it."

"Rematches come in many different shapes and forms, and at many different times. Nowhere in Greece is save from the powers of Olympus, Xena, and I'd recommend that you don't forget that."

"So that's it? You just leave now?" Gabrielle sounded as though she couldn't bring herself to believe that it could all be over so quickly. Attis glared at her.

"All's fair in love and farming. When I make a deal, I always stick by it."

"Well what do you know." Autolycus looked faintly impressed. "An honourable god. Wonders never cease."

"Don't push it." Attis swirled his long cloak about him, causing a swathe of tiny green plants to erupt from the ground wherever the material brushed the earth. "Like I said, there's sure to be a next time. And next time I won't be making the same mistakes. Good day to you all."

"No! You can't just leave like this! What about our deal? Our plans? My plans? I'm not some god who can start again somewhere else. I need you!" Ganar ran forward, tumbling to his knees at the god's broad, flat feet. He grasped the trunk-like legs, gazing upwards imploringly. "Please!"

"Sorry Ganar." Attis shrugged, and a peppering of silver flowers blossomed forth from the plants strewn around the ground at his feet. "Deal's off." He reached down, hauling his erstwhile partner to his feet, tutting when the touch of his hands caused moss to spring up on Ganar's clothes. "We had a good run, you and I, and I can't deny that it was enjoyable. But everything's got to end." He smiled encouragingly. "It's not so bad. You're a rich man now, after all."

"But they'll take my riches!"

"Well you've got the land... There might be a few slaves left..."

"Not for long! And the land won't be mine anymore!"

"Ah well..." The god shrugged. "That's life, I suppose. Sometimes the seeds you sow just don't fall on fertile ground."


"Look on the bright side. You haven't done anything illegal, have you? Not strictly speaking, anyway."

"Just kidnap. Some of these slaves might have been traded for legitimately - if you can call it that." Xena stalked over, pulling Ganar away from Attis and taking a firm hold of the landowner's now quivering shoulders. All trace of the man's previous conceit and self-certainty had vanished, and he quailed at her touch. "The rest were taken by force, and that is illegal. Wandering strangers waylaid late at night. Innocent wayfarers hit over the head and carried away. Bands of travellers abducted by armed gangs. You're going to prison for a long time, Ganar."

"Oh." Attis gave another shrug. "Well that's just the way it goes, I guess."

"And you can stop crowing." The look that Xena gave him was cold enough to make many a god flinch. "You're just lucky that you can take refuge on Olympus. If you were anything other than a god, it would be a very different story."

"But I am a god." He smiled and bowed low, his trailing cloak causing more greenery to leap into life. "And so I shall remain. Goodbye to you all." A green light flashed, and he disappeared. After a moment, so too did the twisted remains of the plant creature. In its place, scarlet flowers bloomed.

"I'm ruined." Ganar's legs no longer seemed strong enough to hold him, so Xena let him fall. She gestured to Autolycus.

"Find some chains. Strong ones. And nothing else."

"Chains. Right." Casting Ganar a decidedly unimpressed look, the King of Thieves turned on his heel and headed away. Gabrielle stared down at Ganar.

"What's the plan? Where do we take him?"

"Athens. Where else? At least there we can be sure that he'll get a fair trial, which is more than the departing slaves are likely to grant him. Speaking of which, you'd best go off with Maiandra, and see if you can round up her friends from the circus. I want to move out as soon as possible, and we'd best find them before dark."

"Can you manage with him?"

"Easily." The warrior princess smiled reassuringly. "Go on."

"I'll see you soon." Gabrielle turned and left, hurrying off in the opposite direction to that taken by Autolycus. Maiandra followed in her wake, her enthusiasm and excitement apparently going through something of a rebirth as she went. Xena vowed to do all that she could to spend the return journey apart from the ebullient acrobat. She had had enough exposure to so much cheerful excitability during the initial attempt to free the slaves, and she wasn't sure that she could handle it again.

"I could give you a great deal of money, you know." Staring up at her, eyes wide, Ganar looked pathetic. Xena did not bother to waste her energies in looking at him for too long.

"I'm not interested." She seized him by one shoulder, and hauled him to his feet. "To think that Autolycus believed there was a chance you might be his father. He may be irritating and untrustworthy, but he's ten times the man you are."

"I was a great man once." Apparently trying to pull himself together, Ganar made a vague attempt to straighten the folds and the creases of his clothing. Xena eyed him sourly.

"You could have been a king once, but it still wouldn't matter. Once doesn't count for anything. All that matters is what you are now."

"This time yesterday you wouldn't have dared speak to me like that." Fire burned in his eyes for a second, but it vanished as soon as it had arrived. Xena raised an eyebrow.

"Oh yes I would. You were worthless then too. You just didn't know it yet."

"I was the confederate of a god. We worked wonders together."

"Tell it to somebody who cares." She gave him a hard push, sending him stumbling over to the row of large wagons that rested outside the stables. "Because all that I care about is getting you somewhere where you can pay for your crimes. That's all that you count for now."

"I could persuade your friend to help me. I need only tell him that his suspicions are correct, and that he is my son, and he--"

"Will laugh in your face and turn away." Xena pushed her prisoner up against the side of the nearest cart. "Now shut up for a while. I want to sharpen my sword."


They rendezvoused back in the yard some time later, finding Xena still stiff and glaring, and Ganar still cowed and subdued. He made no attempt to resist as Xena began to fix the chains to his wrists, and instead merely drooped still further. Xena eyed him grimly.

"If you think you're going to win our sympathy, you've got another think coming."

"Xena doesn't do sympathy." Autolycus watched the pair, finding himself feeling decidedly glad that it was not he that was on the wrong side of the warrior princess. Xena glanced back at him.

"Maybe I do. Occasionally. Are you going to be okay?" The thief smiled at her, appreciating the concern despite the vaguely frosty wrapping in which it came.

"I'm fine. Oh, I was a bit uncertain at first I guess, but I'm not the kind to dwell on these things, you know that. It's all changed now, anyway. Look at this guy. He's nothing without Attis pulling his strings, and as for the possibility that he could be my... well, you know. I really don't believe that anymore. Can you see anything to support it?"

"No." She considered the jovial, roguish thief, and the deflated, sorry-looking farmer. "But then it doesn't really matter anyway. Does it?"

"Nope." He grinned at her in his usual, and almost annoyingly cheerful, way. "The only interest I have in this guy is the contents of his house. There's one almighty load of gold sitting in one of the back rooms, all lonely and miserable, and the sight of it is already making me feel a whole lot better."

"You said that you'd leave anything like that alone, remember?" Snapping the last of the chains around Ganar's wrists, Xena checked them over before moving aside. "If that lot belongs to anybody, it's to the slaves that earned it all in the first place."

"Ouch. You know it really hurts when you get all honest and worthy." Autolycus shook his head. "All that gold, and you'd think there'd be enough there for all of us."

"We don't do the things we do for payment, Autolycus. We do them because they need doing."

"That may be why you do them, Xena." He pointed his finger at her, then at himself. "I tend to veer in a slightly different direction, morally speaking."

"I'd noticed." She knocked her fist against his ribs. "But you leave that gold alone, understand?"

"Ow." He rubbed his chest, scowling all the while. "Yeah yeah yeah. I'll leave it alone. It wouldn't be any fun anyway, with it just lying there waiting to be taken. I prefer more of a challenge."

"I'd noticed." The warrior princess walked on by, beginning the task of harnessing a pair of horses to the front of one of the carts that stood nearby. "But I'm keeping my eye on you all the same. Make sure that you stay away from those buildings."

"Xena, I'm hurt. To think that you don't trust me, after all that we've been through together." Displaying his best expression of almost wholly believable innocence, he turned his attentions back to Ganar, checking the man's chains over even though Xena had so recently done exactly the same thing. The big man was watching him curiously, and it seemed that he was considering whether or not to say something that was clearly on his mind.

"I know what you thought when you came here." Trying to get comfortable despite the chains around his ankles and wrists, Ganar looked up at Autolycus. "But I'm not your father. I couldn't be."

"Somehow I don't find that hard to believe." The King of Thieves glanced around at those slaves that had not yet departed. "The kids here aren't exactly all carbon copies of you. In fact there doesn't seem to be a single one of them that looks even remotely like dear old dad."

"That's because I haven't fathered any of them." He turned his head, looking out across the fields. "When I first came here I had nothing. Not a penny to my name, not a scrap of earth, not so much as a cave to live in. I wanted land, and I wanted crops. I wanted money, and I really didn't care what I needed to do to get it. I was prepared to make any kind of a deal. When I met Attis he offered me everything I was after. A fortune waiting to be gathered, and a sure way to escape the drought that was plaguing the countryside at that time. But there was one little thing that I had to do first. In exchange for the unending fertility of the land in this valley, I gave up any and all fertility of my own. It was a deal Attis did with Pan, so far as I know. That guy always did have a nasty sense of humour." He shrugged. "So there's no way I could be the father of any of the children that were born here." He frowned, clearly recalling some little detail. "I remember your mother though. She was one of the ones who made me sorry for everything that I had given up. Sometimes riches were no substitute for... well, you know. For what might have been." He sighed quietly, his expression suggesting fatalism and sorrowful acceptance. "But I didn't touch her. I couldn't."

"Then who...?"

"I don't know." He shrugged once again, this time with what seemed to be a genuine apology written across his face. "She always claimed that it was me, so I can only assume either that she had some reason to lie, or that she was fooled. Beyond that, you can think what you like. I do know that she never paid any attention to the men here, though. She remained faithful to her dead husband, back in whatever country it was that she was taken from. The only man's name I ever heard upon her lips was that of Hermes. She seemed to have adopted him as her patron god. To her dying day I think he was the only one of our deities whose name she bothered to learn. A strange one to choose, but then strange options present themselves when you're in a strange situation."

"And being uprooted from your home after watching your husband die, and then being dragged halfway across the world and sold into slavery probably qualifies as a pretty strange situation." Autolycus climbed up into the cart and dragged Ganar up after him. Xena and Gabrielle climbed up to the front of the cart, the former taking up the reins. Maiandra and her newly liberated fellow performers had taken a second cart for themselves. One of their number was clearly familiar with horses, and he snapped the reins to bring the second cart in line with the first.

"Maybe Hermes isn't such a strange choice." Gabrielle, clearly in one of her helpful moods, glanced back over her shoulder as the cart began to jolt its way along the roughly beaten track. "After all, he is the messenger of the gods. Perhaps if you pray to him, it's sort of a short hand way of praying to all of the gods at once."

"Plus there's a certain irony to it." Although Xena's face was not visible, for she was looking straight ahead, it sounded as though she was smirking. "He is the god of thieves, after all. And if your mother prayed to him, Autolycus, maybe he's been looking after you all these years. It might explain your annoyingly good fortune. Might even explain how you managed to escape through the barriers around this place when you were a kid."

"I prefer to put that down to simple genius." The thief lay back on the floor of the cart, folding his hands behind his head. Above him was a cloudless sky, blue and bright and clear. Good weather was always good news in his line of business, and a day such as this one was always a joy to behold, for reasons beyond mere aestheticism. It would be a good night tonight, and he resolved to leave Xena and the others as soon as the moment was right. They didn't need his help anymore. Besides, he still had a sizeable proportion of the Lady Theora's jewels hidden back in the forest where he had met with Xena and Gabrielle. It was probably about time that he retrieved them. He certainly had no desire to go to Athens. It was too hard to be a legend in a city of so many people; too hard to stand out from the crowd, when the crowd was so very large. Better to stick to the quiet roads; to the smaller towns and the isolated castles and temples. Better too just to slip away. Goodbyes were only for people who were never going to meet again.

It was some while before the others noticed that the King of Thieves was no longer in the cart. Gabrielle looked about as though she expected to see him somewhere in the distance; perhaps vanishing into the cloudy horizon, or leaping with his usual agility through the nearby trees. Xena just smiled. The second cart had vanished as well; the performers obviously having chosen to head off in their own direction, without waiting to discover the fate of their former captor. Left alone under the broad Grecian skies, the warrior princess and her comrade listened to the tracks of their wheels, and tried to ignore the faint grumblings of their sulking prisoner.

"I wonder where Auto's gone." Gabrielle leaned back, staring up at the blueness above. Xena made a face.

"I'd rather not know; especially if it involves somebody else's money." Gabrielle laughed.

"You're never going to convert him you know. You can try all you like, but no matter how often you coerce him into doing the right thing, he'll never change. It must be in his blood."

"Must be." Xena gave the reins a quick twitch, to increase the speed of the jolting vehicle. The horses snorted in response. "But I suppose that's something that we're never going to find out."

"Probably not." Gabrielle stretched lazily. "And to be honest I don't really care. I just want to go to sleep."

"Go ahead. Ganar's not going anywhere."

"Maybe." She yawned contentedly. "Weren't we supposed to be in the middle of a holiday?"

"I did hear a rumour along those lines." Xena smiled. "Once we've dropped this guy off we'll go somewhere quiet."

"No adventures?"

"No adventures. There's this little island that Iolaus told me about. Great fishing apparently, if you're in to that kind of thing. The scenery is supposed to be quite nice too."

"Great. In that case, wake me when we've finished our business in Athens. How long will that be exactly?"

"A week or so I should think."

"Good." The young woman closed her eyes, and listened to the rhythmical sound of the wheels. "That'll do nicely."