Please read the Disclaimer in Part
Spoilers: Still none
Sex/naughty language: Still none
Xenite Disclaimer for Part Two: No native cultures not indigenous to ancient New Greeceland were anachronistically portrayed in the production of this fanfic.
Still keeping a watchful eye on Gabrielle, Xena straightened up and held her arms carefully away from her sides to show that she wasn't reaching for weapons. "Take it easy," she said, her voice level. The villagers watched her balefully, shooting glances toward one man who stood a little closer, inside the circle that they had created with their bodies. They all had smooth nut-colored skin and wore soft leather clothing woven with brightly colored beads. The women and some of the men had similar beads braided into their hair. "My friend just had a bit of a scare, and I was trying to calm her down," Xena added, still speaking calmly in a neutral voice. Gabrielle lifted her head.
"I'm all right, Xena," she murmured. Xena relaxed her stance ever so slightly. The villagers shifted their feet and whispered amongst themselves, some of them repeating Xena's name.
"My apologies, Xena," said the man in charge, gesturing to his people. The weapons lowered and Xena relaxed more. "I'm afraid we're all a bit on edge. We've been all day looking for a missing girl, and from afar your friend looked a bit like her."
"A missing girl?" Gabrielle repeated, getting slowly to her feet. Xena shot her a concerned look which did not escape the village leader's notice.
"Yes, she hasn't been seen since last night, and frankly we're getting rather worried," the man replied. He shifted his gaze to Gabrielle and asked, "Are you sure you're all right?"
"I'm fine," Gabrielle asserted, but her skin was pale and cold, and her heart still raced. Xena saw that the village leader believed Gabrielle about as much as she did.
"My name is Rahsee," he said, stepping forward and offering Xena his arm. When she took it, he looked her in the eye -- they were of a height -- and added, "Why don't you and your friend come back to the village and relax a little while? We need to regroup our search efforts anyway. You two look like you could use a good meal and some rest."
Xena nodded slowly. "Thank you, we will. Just give me a minute to gather our things."
Rahsee turned back to his people, who had dispersed their menacing circle around the little group and were standing around in clumps talking softly. "Everyone, let's head back home and see what the other parties found," he suggested. "Xena and...."
"Gabrielle," said Gabrielle quietly, pressing a clammy hand against her forehead, leaning on her staff for support as Xena repacked the fallen bowl and soothed Argo.
"Xena and Gabrielle can follow us back," Rahsee finished, with a nod. Murmuring softly, the villagers turned and started through the woods. Wearily, Gabrielle noticed that they were headed directly toward the mountain that she and Xena had planned to avoid.
Xena said nothing as they fell into step, pacing a few feet behind the last of the villagers, but her hand came to rest lightly in the small of Gabrielle's back, the simple touch infinitely comforting. Gabrielle felt color beginning to return to her cheeks.
"They're going to ask you to help find the girl," she said after a moment. Xena nodded.
"And we're going to do it, aren't we?"
Instead of answering, Xena shot a troubled look ahead and asked a question of her own. "Did you notice the way they look at that mountain with the light?"
Gabrielle hadn't, but now that she looked, she could see the villagers sneaking anxious glances toward the mountain, and if one of them happened to be looking at it when the mysterious light flashed, he or she winced or flinched like a horse about to shy.
"There's something going on here," Xena continued, "and I want to know what it is." She glanced sideways at Gabrielle, as if to reassure herself that she was still there. The bard gave her a small nod to say, Yes, I'm all right, and then they both fell silent, walking comfortably side by side.
The village was not far, but its appearance surprised them, hidden as it was in a sort of hollow between two small hills: a prosperous village from the looks of it, with elegant buildings surrounding a gracefully carved fountain. Other search parties were beginning to appear from the west and east, the dejected postures of the sweat-stained villagers rendering their weary head-shakes redundant. Rahsee's forehead creased with concern as he spoke briefly to the others, and they all began to disperse into their homes.
"This missing girl, how old is she?" Gabrielle asked as she and Xena approached the village leader. He turned in surprise as if he had forgotten they were following.
"Oh ... she has fifteen summers," he said. "But that can wait until you're rested. Our healer can-"
"I don't need a healer," Gabrielle protested mildly. "I'm really fine. See?" She smiled her brightest smile. Rahsee looked unconvinced.
"Just a bit of wine and maybe some stew, if there's any left from lunch," Xena broke in, "and I'll take care of the rest, thank you." He nodded acceptance.
"Right in here." He led them to the village's one inn, where, after they had seen Argo settled in the barn, a solemn but cooperative woman served them thick stew and thicker bread and then let them be. After assuring himself that they were settled, Rahsee discreetly excused himself, saying he would return shortly.
"Tell me what you saw," Xena said quietly, after she had watched Gabrielle consume the better part of a plateful of stew. The bard grimaced and stared at her food.
"No, just tell me."
Gabrielle sighed. "You were lying in my arms bleeding to death, okay? That's all there was to it. It all happened so fast."
"But it happened right there. On that spot, in these woods," Xena said grimly. Gabrielle gave her a searching look.
"What aren't you telling me?"
Xena sighed. "I saw -- well, I didn't exactly see something. But I, I don't know, *felt* something. Right before you screamed, I...."
"What? You what?" Gabrielle demanded, alarmed. Xena scowled and forged ahead.
"I felt a ... well, sort of a chill. Like-" Her voice lowered and she slowed as she tasted the words forming. "Like what you bards call 'someone walking over my grave.'"
Gabrielle felt a similar frisson crawl up her spine. "Gods...."
"It doesn't necessarily mean anything," Xena hastened to add. "You know how I feel about...."
"Visions? Well, you know how *I* feel about them," Gabrielle replied, her voice rising slightly as the panic began to return. "I've never had a vision that didn't come true. It really was -- You're going to-"
"Gabrielle!" Xena said sharply, leaning forward. "Stay calm, by Tartarus." She waited while Gabrielle swallowed tightly and took another gulp of wine, the food suddenly sitting like lead in her stomach.
"I'm calm," Gabrielle near-whispered at last, rubbing her fingers along the reassuring chill of the wine goblet.
"Good." Xena glanced over the bard's shoulder and out the window. "Listen, there's a lot going on here, and I'm not believing anything without some more facts." She got up. "And speaking of getting facts, there's no time like the present."
"Facts," Gabrielle repeated, shaking her head. She sighed and got up as well, following Xena out into the village square.
Outside, Rahsee was standing by the fountain, shading his eyes with one hand, staring with a frown at the mountain. The flashes of light seemed to be coming more frequently. Both Xena and Gabrielle, approaching, found their own gazes drawn to it as well.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Rahsee asked with no pleasure in his tone. "At noon tomorrow its light will fill this square. And if Kyla isn't back by then to be given to the Lady, well...." He shook his head gravely. "Our village might as well be ashes."
"What Lady?" Gabrielle asked. Xena folded her arms and looked at the mountain as if it had personally insulted her.
"Our Goddess," Rahsee explained. "Once a year she gives forth her light from that mountain, and we must give her a child of the village, usually a girl, but sometimes a boy."
"Uh huh," Xena said as if something had just been confirmed for her. "So this Kyla ran away because she didn't want to be sacrificed."
"Sacrificed? Good heavens, no," the man exclaimed, looking affronted. "We're not barbarians, by the Lady. No, the chosen child stands on the stool..." he indicated a low marble pedestal set in front of the fountain, "and the Lady enters her -- speaks through her," he amended, seeing the look that crossed the women's faces. "She gives us all the news of the coming year."
"She predicts the future?" Gabrielle asked, suddenly intense. Rahsee looked into her face and frowned slightly in puzzlement before answering.
"She tells us which crops to plant, which streams to fish, where to build. She blesses the couples who are betrothed and the babies to be born. She gives us news of those who have passed on, and tells us whether the coming winter will be harsh or mild. And she answers three questions."
"Any three?" Xena asked, her bland tone completing the characteristic mask of disinterest. Gabrielle didn't need to look at her friend to see through it.
"Any three of her choosing," Rahsee replied. He turned his attention to Xena. "Listen, Xena, I know we probably don't have much that can-"
"Oh, I'll find the kid all right," Xena interrupted, waving away all the niceties with a single gesture. "Just tell us what she looks like and all the details of her disappearance, and we'll have her back in time for this ceremony, ritual, whatever you want to call it. We only have two conditions," she added as the village leader opened his mouth to thank her.
"One, you leave us alone, let us do things our way. Tell your people to answer all our questions, but beyond that, no interfering." Xena looked lingeringly at Gabrielle before continuing, "And two, we get to observe the ceremony."
"Done," he agreed readily, and put out his arm again. This time he clasped arms with both of them before turning away. "Come on, I'll introduce you to her parents."
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