Convert this page to Pilot DOC Format
by Jessi Albano
Disclaimer: No virgin sacrifices were actually necessary in the writing of
this story. Dang it.
Genre: Xena: Warrior Princess
Mush factor: Character dies (sort of) alert.
Gore factor: Minimal.
Smut factor: Sorry, none of you are invited. Rating: PG13
"She wants to go that-a-way," Gabrielle said, pointing to the west, towards the sea.
"Well, I want to go this way," Xena said, pulling a little on Argo's bit. "And what I want goes."
"Why?" Gabrielle asked, "I mean, it's not as if we have an actual destination in mind. We're just traveling the countryside as we always do, hoping to run into people to help or warlords to fight. I hardly think it really matters if we go through a field for once. Forests always mean trouble. Remember the Bacchae?"
"Exactly." Xena said, pulling just a little bit harder on Argo's reins.
For once Argo lost her temper, catching her rider off-guard and throwing Xena off. "Are you alright?" asked Gabrielle.
"She's never done that before," said Xena wonderingly, still winded by the fall.
"Let's just take it as a sign and choose another way, okay? There's a sign pointing to a village that way," Gabrielle said, pointing to the same direction Argo had wanted to go in the first place. "Let's just go there. I'm starving, I could really go for a home-cooked meal."
"Might as well," said Xena, gingerly picking herself up. "There's no use reasoning with an unreasonable horse."
They were almost to the seaside village when they spotted a crowd, moving with great energy towards them.
"Maybe it's the welcome wagon," Gabrielle said. "It could happen," she protested to Xena's cynical gaze.
"Well, don't count on it," said Xena from her lofty position on Argo's back. "Get on and get ready," she ordered lowly.
"Look," Gabrielle said as she scrambled up Argo's back. "That looks like Joxer the villagers are chasing."
"Why aren't I surprised?" grumbled Xena.
"He hasn't seen us yet," Gabrielle urged. "I say we run for it."
For a moment Xena was tempted, but at that particular moment Argo whinnied and the question became purely academic.
"Xena!" screamed Joxer as he spied the two. "Help!"
"Traitor," whispered Xena to Argo before urging the war-horse forward. "Come on, we might as well."
Joxer was running for his life. He usually made better time but at the moment his speed was greatly hampered by the young woman he was dragging along. The woman, in turn, was greatly hampered by her long white dress and flimsy leather sandals. Joxer, he thought to himself for the millionth time, what is it about you that calls out to these beautiful needy women? It's a curse. He sighed. Okay, so it had probably been the greatest night of his life. Maybe even better than that night with Meg. But at least then an entire village hadn't shown up to defend her honor. This, he thought grumpily, is what comes out of being a gentleman, as well as a mighty warrior. Can I help it if I'm irresistible?
"Stop this!" he shouted to the crowd out for his blood. "You don't know who you're dealing with!"
In answer the crowd roared even louder and surged nearer. A wrong turn led them to a dead-end alley. Joxer turned back and drew his sword, thrusting the woman behind him protectively.
"Yi yi yi yi yi yi!" came a battle cry as Xena hurled herself into the mass, punching one man in the face and simultaneously delivering a kick to the stomach of another one. Gabrielle and her staff weren't far behind.
"No!" the young woman protested. "Don't hurt them!"
"Yeah," Joxer growled, brandishing his sword menacingly. "Don't make me hurt you!" The crowd refused to be reasonable.
"How could you do this?" screamed a woman with white hair. "What would your father have said? After I endured unimaginable pain, for _hours_, to bring you into this world? How could you?"
"This is your mother?" Gabrielle asked.
The girl gave an unhappy nod.
"Gabrielle," ordered Xena, "put the girl on Argo and leave. Joxer and I will handle this."
"Leave you here? With _him?_" Gabrielle asked, aghast. A glare from Xena changed her mind. "I could do that," she agreed.
"Bye Mom!" cried the young girl as Gabrielle urged her up on Argo's back. "I'm sorry! I'll write! Don't forget to feed the cats!" Argo reared and the crowd fell back, giving Argo and her riders time to get
"Now then," said Xena, smiling at the crowd. "Do you want to talk about this, or do you want to do this... the _hard_ way?"
"Kill him!" screamed one man, thrusting a hoe threateningly towards Joxer. "Kill that randy goat!"
"Spoiler of innocents!" shouted another.
"Debaser of virgins!"
Xena looked at Joxer in disgust. "You didn't," she accused. Joxer blushed guiltily.
"My poor daughter," moaned the girl's mother. "A future priestess of Artemis!"
Xena looked even more disgusted. "Don't you ever stop?" she asked.
"I didn't know, okay?" protested Joxer. "I got to this village last night. She met me coming down the road and threw herself into my arms. She begged me! She said she couldn't live without me! What was I supposed to do?"
"Used your brains instead?" Xena suggested dryly.
The crowd, in the meantime, seemed to have lost their steam. They were standing around, shuffling their feet and looking unhappy but relieved as well. The girl's mother was conspicuously blowing her nose into her sleeve.
"Maybe it's just as well," stated one man. "I don't think we could have gone through with it anyway."
"Yeah," said a young pregnant woman. "Marina and I played together as children. I don't think I could have done that to her either."
"But now what are we going to do?" asked a young villager.
"Maybe we should move," suggested another man. "I hear Troy needs new citizens."
"Stop this!" ordered a man who Xena decided was the chief, judging from the size of his headdress. "You think moving away will fool Poseidon, great god of the ocean? He'll destroy us all for disobeying him! You can't hide from the gods, you know that."
"I'm sorry," wailed Marina's mother. "I should've raised her better. I should've beaten her more." She burst into noisy tears. "But she was such a _good_ little girl!"
"There, there, Cora," soothed another old woman. "It's not your fault. We'll think of something."
"What?" asked the chief irritatedly. "We're running out of time! It's almost the summer solstice! Where will we find another virgin sacrifice?"
Xena gave Joxer a sardonic look. "Couldn't live without you, huh?"
Marina and Gabrielle were seated under a tree, peacefully waiting for Xena and Joxer to catch up. This time around Argo had exhibited no reluctance whatsoever at going into the forest, and at the moment, in fact, was happily munching on a patch of sweet grass.
"Are you sure your friends will know how to find us?" asked Marina. "It's a pretty big forest."
"Sure," answered Gabrielle complacently. "Xena _always_ finds me."
"That's nice," Marina said absently, letting the conversation trail off.
"Can I ask you a personal question?" ventured Gabrielle after a few moments.
"Sure," Marina shrugged.
"About Joxer..." she began, then, unable to help herself, blurted out, "how could you?" Her disgust was written plainly on her face.
"Joxer?" Marina asked with a small smile. "Is that is his name?"
"You didn't even know his name?" asked Gabrielle, now even more disgusted.
"We really didn't have time for introductions," shrugged Marina.
"You're just the slightest bit impulsive, aren't you?" Gabrielle commented dryly.
"I am now," agreed Marina heartily. "All those years being a good girl. Missing out on all the fun, all the adventures I could have had, and for what? _I_ wanted to be a priestess of Artemis. _They_ wanted to feed me to a sea serpent."
"What about death before dishonor?" asked Gabrielle dryly.
Marina gave a disdainful sniff. "Forget it," she said. "I'd rather live."
"Why would they want to feed you to a sea serpent anyway?" queried Gabrielle. "What did you do?"
"Nothing!" Marina protested. "That was the whole point! I've never done anything! Oooh, I could just _strangle_ Malver!"
"Dark guy, tall hat." said Marina dismissively.
"The one that was screaming 'Kill that randy goat'?"
"I kinda liked him," said Gabrielle wistfully. "He made so much sense."
"Hmp," snorted Marina, flicking away a mosquito with a too-long sleeve. "If there's a randy goat around it's him. They should feed _him_ to a sea serpent. I bet the sea serpent wouldn't ever come back."
"What is this about a sea serpent anyway?" Gabrielle asked.
"Long story," answered Marina, shrugging.
"Well," said Xena as she and Joxer came into the small clearing, "I suggest you start then."
"Maybe we should start a fire and get comfortable first," suggested Marina brightly. "Maybe catch dinner? It's getting dark." With studied casualness, she grabbed Joxer's hand. "You find some wood, Joxer," she ordered. "I'll go find us something to eat. Can I borrow your knife?"
"But," protested Joxer, "Xena..."
"Shame on you, Joxer," scolded Marina. "These women save us and you want them to work for their dinner? Come on, it's the least you can do." She
pulled Joxer off his feet, deftly taking possession of the knife in his boot. "Don't worry," she winked and patted him consolingly. "I'm, or rather I _was_, a future priestess of Artemis. I know what I'm doing." With that she dragged him further off into the forest.
"You think we should go after them?" asked Gabrielle worriedly.
"Why?" asked Xena. "If we're lucky we never have to see either one ever again."
"You don't really mean that," said Gabrielle. "Do you?" Xena gave another sardonic smile. "There's no telling what could happen to them out there."
"You heard her," said Xena, flattening a patch of grass and lying down. "She knows what she's doing."
"Are you sure you know what you're doing?" Joxer demanded.
"Will you be quiet?" hissed Marina. "This is my first night in a forest. If I can make a kill I'll pass the first test."
"Kill?" Joxer squeaked, nervously backing away. "What kill?"
"Shush!" said Marina. "Why don't you go get the wood and bring it back to the camp? I'll return after I catch something." With that she turned and disappeared into the darkness.
"Come back here!" shouted Joxer. "It's dangerous out there!" He looked around. "You never know what you'll find in a forest like this. Wolves. Boars. Lions. Blood-sucking Bacchae," he said with a shaky smile. "Oh boy." A sudden sound startled him. "The wind, it was just the wind," he told himself, placatingly. "Now, where was I? Oh, yeah. Wood. I was getting wood. Okay," he looked around him and hurriedly gathered the twigs and branches that lay scattered at his feet. "Not much wood here," he mused, "we need more. Bound to be a long night. Not to mention a dark one." He looked around consideringly, and his eyes fell on a particularly large beech tree. "Wood's wood," he shrugged and drew his sword.
The sudden scream that shattered the calm disturbed everyone except the two women peacefully camped under a huge olive tree.
"That sounded like Joxer," commented Gabrielle sleepily.
"Yes it did," agreed Xena noncommittally. "You think we should go see what the matter is?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena looked at her askance. "You're starting to like the idiot, aren't you?" she asked.
"He grows on you," admitted Gabrielle weakly. "Like one of those yappy dogs."
"Like a callus," corrected Xena. "Springing from a constant irritation." With a long-suffering sigh she stood up. "Come on," she said again. "We're already up, we might as well."
They found Joxer lying on the ground, with Marina using her sleeve to fan him back to consciousness.
"What happened?" Gabrielle asked.
"I don't know," Marina shrugged. "He mumbled something about being attacked by a tree and then passed out."
"Attacked by a tree," snorted Gabrielle. "Yeah, right."
"That's what _I_ said," agreed Marina.
Xena, on the other hand, was eyeing the beech tree suspiciously. "Come out," she ordered, to the surprise of the two women. "Come out _now._" To their surprise the tree shifted, and from within its trunk the a shadowy shape slowly took form. In moments, a young, startlingly beautiful girl with brown hair and silver-green eyes stood apart, cloaked in young leaves.
"I'm sorry," the girl said in a small voice. "I just wanted him to stop. Did I kill him?"
Joxer groaned. "Unfortunately not," stated Xena mournfully.
"Did you have to hit me so hard?" grumbled Joxer, nursing his aching head.
"You're lucky _I_ didn't have a sword," snapped Talia, the hamadryad. "Didn't anyone ever tell you not to cut living wood? Just wait till I tell Pan about you!"
"Settle down, children," Xena said, stirring the fire and testing the roasting roots.
"I can't believe I didn't catch anything," complained Marina. "I bet his scream scared all the game away."
"Warlords, I can handle. Blood-sucking Bacchae, I can handle. A dozen crazed centaurs, I can handle. Moving trees -- sorry." returned Joxer sarcastically.
"You wouldn't have caught anything anyway," added the nymph. "This is Pan's forest. You can't hunt here."
"Oh, wonderful," said Marina, ironically. "My first night in a forest and it has to be one where there's no hunting allowed. How am I supposed to make my first kill?"
"I'm sure all the poor forest animals are beside themselves with woe," answered Talia.
"Why don't you act like a tree and leave?" said Marina. Joxer laughed and was rewarded by three icy stares.
"Well, that was very witty, what she said," he protested.
"I can't," said Talia, pouting. "I harmed a living thing, I have to make reparation. Believe me, I'm not too thrilled about being tied to a human either."
"Why don't you just kiss it and make it better?" suggested Marina eagerly. "Then you can go back to your tree and we can go back to our peaceful lives."
Xena snorted softly but didnŐt comment.
"I can't," Talia said, looking both disgusted and wistful at the same time.
"Why not?" asked Joxer, eyeing the beautiful nymph. "A kiss would certainly make me feel a lot better." Another trio of glares shut him up.
"I... promised someone I never would." Talia explained lamely.
"You?" asked Marina disbelievingly. "But you're a nymph! You kiss every man and god that comes your way!"
"That's a lie!" growled Talia, her fierce demeanor completely at odds with her fragile appearance. "Nymphs are people too, you know. We have feelings, we have needs, but we have taste, too. And even if every other nymph went around kissing everything in tights or togas what makes you think _I'd_ be so desperate?"
"Hey!" protested Joxer. "You can't talk about me like that. _I'm_ Joxer the Mighty! Entire villages of beautiful women have been known to run after me. Princesses, even."
"Sorry," said Talia, though not very sincerely. "I didn't know."
Joxer looked a little put-out and proceeded to sulk.
"Who did you promise?" asked Gabrielle, who always loved a good story.
"It was a long time ago," Talia said wistfully. "He was so tall, and handsome, and his wings were really powerful."
"Wings?" asked Joxer curiously, his earlier annoyance forgotten.
"Calais," supplied Xena quietly.
"You know him," Talia said happily. "He landed here one day, he said he was looking for his brother."
"Zetes," Xena again furnished the name.
"Yes. He stayed the night. He sang to me. We talked." Talia smiled reminiscently. "He said he had to go on this adventure but that he'd be back. He said he wished he hadn't promised to go first."
"And you believed him?" asked Marina, snorting at the nymph's naiveté.
"He promised," repeated Talia, solemnly. "And I promised I'd wait."
"Well, I'm sure he'll be back soon," said Joxer cheerfully, sending a meaningful glare in Gabrielle's direction.
"What about you, Marina?" asked Gabrielle, skeptically. "What's this about a sea serpent?"
"Well, I guess I might as well tell you. You already know everything else anyway." She sat down more comfortably. "You see, every year Poseidon sends us this huge storm that completely wipes out our village..."
"That's terrible!" interrupted Joxer.
"Not as terrible as being eaten by a sea serpent," commented Xena dryly, passing around the cooked roots to the others. Talia refused with a smile.
"You said it," agreed Marina emphatically, biting into a root with a grimace. "Anyway, we were pretty much used to it, you know, as a way of life. We'd work, get wiped out, rebuild, get wiped out..."
"That's terrible!" interrupted Joxer again.
"Not really," said Marina, shrugging prettily. "You have to be philosophical about these things. We always had plenty of time to leave and save the most of our belongings. It was pretty much the most exciting thing that ever happens in our village." She gave a sentimental sigh. "Then Malver had to go and panic everyone with his stupid sea serpent announcement."
"What do you mean?" prodded Gabrielle.
"Well, we've been having a pretty bad year, that much is true. But then Malver announces that Poseidon told him that he - Poseidon - was going to send a sea serpent to our village during the summer solstice and if we sacrifice a virgin -- and guess who he pointed to at this particular moment in time? -- our village would be spared the storm this year."
"And the villagers believed him?" asked Gabrielle.
"Well, Malver _is_ a priest of Poseidon, not to mention a halfway decent sorcerer." Marina shrugged. "At first some of the elders decided that we'll just have to take our chances with the storm, as usual, but then Malver convinced them that if the sea serpent came and there was no virgin it would be the serpent that would destroy the village and kill everyone besides." She sighed. "Okay, I know what you're thinking... I should just let the stupid serpent eat me and save my village, right? Well, forget it. If my mother couldn't guilt-trip me into being eaten alive, neither can you."
"And even if you did change your mind," commented Xena caustically, "it'd be too late anyway."
"I can't believe this," said Joxer, appalled. "You _used_ me!"
Marina grinned. Talia blushed.
"Listen," said Gabrielle suddenly, looking around her. "Do you hear that noise?"
"What noise?" asked Marina.
"That strange noise," said Gabrielle, still listening intently. "No, it's not a noise, exactly. It's like... music."
"I hear it, too," said Joxer. "Like a humming."
"You can hear it?" asked Talia excitedly. "Not everyone can. Calais could," she said, remembering. "It takes a certain kind of heart to hear it."
"I don't hear anything," said Xena. Marina seconded.
"It's the greensong," explained Talia.
"The greensong?" asked Joxer.
"The song of life. Of the forest. The trees are singing it."
"Trees can sing?" asked Marina skeptically.
"In their own way," explained Talia. "All living things can. And remember,
this is Pan's forest. The greensong is strongest here."
"It's gone," said Joxer after a few moment, disappointed.
"No," said Talia. "It's just gone deeper. The greensong never stops, not while one tree lives."
"Funny, for a while there I thought I understood what they were singing." mused Joxer.
"Maybe someday you will," said Talia, looking at Joxer with a strange light in her eyes.
"I wish Hercules was here," commented Joxer, after a few moments of silence. "I know for a fact that he's killed a few sea serpents in his day."
"Who needs Herc?" Gabrielle asked cheerfully. "We've got Xena!"
"You're not suggesting..." started Joxer warily.
Xena grinned. "Oh, Joxer?" she asked sweetly. "Can you swim?"
"I still don't believe we're doing this," grumbled Joxer, as they tramped their way back to Marina's village. "This is _not_ a good idea. I mean, Herc, I can understand. But you... Say, you're not half-goddess, are you? You haven't been holding out on us or anything?"
"Will you just relax, Joxer?" said Marina irritatedly. "There's five of us and only one sea serpent. How bad can it be?"
"And it's the least you can do after robbing that village of their last virgin," commented Gabrielle slyly. "Maybe if we do this they won't draw and quarter you."
"I would just like to say again" stated Talia, "that I am against our planning to hurt this poor misunderstood sea serpent. It has a right to live just like any of us, and for all we know maidens are a necessary part of its diet. Maybe it had a terrible childhood and can't help itself."
"Are you sure you don't want to go back to your tree where it's nice and safe?" asked Marina too-sweetly.
"I'd like to," admitted Talia. "But I told you, I need to make reparation for the harm I did Jokester here."
"Joxer," snarled Joxer. "The name's Joxer!"
"Yeah," said Talia. "Jockster."
"But what about your tree?" asked Gabrielle. "I thought you weren't supposed to leave it?"
"Well, were not _supposed_ to," agreed Talia, "but that doesn't mean that we can't. Anyway, I put a spell of protection on it. It should be fine for a few days -- barring idiots with swords, that is."
"Look, I didn't know, okay?" protested Joxer.
"Don't you have trees where you come from?" asked Talia. "You _never_ cut living wood." The rest of the group nodded solemnly.
"Okay," surrendered Joxer. "_Now_ I know. I'll never do it again, okay?"
"Good," said Talia happily. "I made a convert! Pan would be proud. Will you also promise to always write on both sides of paper?"
"What?" Joxer asked, perplexed.
"Just promise," Talia pleaded, "it's very important." Joxer shrugged and did as she wanted.
"Are you sure you won't go back to your tree?" asked Xena seriously. "You don't owe Joxer anything. He was trying to cut your tree down."
"I'm sure," said Talia, meeting Xena's eyes squarely. "I always wanted to see more of the world. And I've always wanted to see the ocean. That's where Calais went, you know. He went to sail the ocean on this great boat."
Xena seemed to want to say something more but changed her mind.
"Xena," interrupted Marina, "you've traveled all over Greece, haven't you?" Xena nodded. "After we kill this serpent, would you give me directions to the nearest temple of Artemis? Maybe give me a recommendation?"
"Sure, why not," agreed Xena distractedly.
"My chances would be better, though," mused the young priestess-wannabe, "if I could say I had already passed the tests."
"And what tests would those be?" asked Gabrielle.
"Well," explained Marina, "there are three. You have to be able to hunt - that means making a kill. You have to best a man in something that he prides himself -- that means beating him at a contest of his choosing. Lastly you have to be able to call on the powers of the moon." She sighed heavily. "I still haven't figured out that last part yet."
"And don't you have to be a virgin?" added Gabrielle.
"I plan to plead self-defense," stated Marina. "Besides, they say it doesn't count if you didn't enjoy it."
"Hey!" protested Joxer, "just what is _that_ supposed to mean?" Marina just grinned wickedly and winked.
"I think that's sick," commented Talia. "Having to kill a poor defenseless animal just so you can be part of some snobby sorority, some clique! Just wait till I tell Pan about you!"
"There's a thought," Gabrielle suggested brightly to Marina. "You could be a priestess of Pan instead. Your lack of virtue would be a plus to the old goat."
"I'm telling him you said that!" warned Talia peevishly.
"Too bad she didn't kill him with that blow," whispered Gabrielle to Xena. "Then we could just have buried him and be rid of both of them."
"We'd still be stuck with the other one," said the warrior woman.
"Do you think it's a good idea, going back to the village like this?"
asked Joxer. "What if they want to continue what they started yesterday and..."
Argo's whinny alerted them to the sight of the village people coming up the path to meet them.
"Uh oh," said Gabrielle. "Deja vu."
"Okay, folks, the summer solstice is two days away," began Xena, as the group and the villagers gathered at the traditional meeting lodge. "What we need is a plan."
"What we need to do," suggested Gabrielle, "is to lure the serpent with a false maiden and kill it when it comes after her."
"Would that work?" asked Talia. "Won't the serpent be able to tell whether the maiden is false or not?
"We put some girl in a white dress, who's going to tell?" shrugged Gabrielle. "All we need is a volunteer." All eyes fell on Marina.
"Oh no," protested Marina, vehemently shaking her head. "This is how all this began in the first place. There is no way I'm letting myself be chained to a boat and sent out to sea. I get seasick!" All four looked at Marina strangely, while the villagers had long-suffering looks on their faces.
"It won't work," growled Malver. "You think Poseidon, great god of the ocean, will be deceived by such childish tricks?" A murmur of agreement swept through the villagers.
"We're not trying to deceive Poseidon," explained Joxer patiently. "We're trying to stop a sea serpent from leveling your village."
"Splitting hairs," grumbled Malver.
"Marina," suggested Xena, "why don't you take your Mother and the rest of the villagers home and the rest of us can figure out a plan?"
"But--" protested Marina, but was silenced by a meaningful glare from Xena. "Okay," she agreed. "But I'll be back. Come on, Mom, folks, let's leave them alone so they can make plans."
"But," protested Malver, "this is _our_ village. Shouldn't we stay?" The villagers murmured an agreement.
"It's better this way," reasoned Talia innocently. "If Poseidon gets angry at you you can say you had nothing to do with it. Just point to the rebellious ex-virgin ex-sacrifice and her evil cohorts. Be sure to mention that I had nothing to do with hurting the poor thing either, will you?"
"That _does_ make sense," admitted Cora, shooing the rest of the villagers out of the door. "Come on folks, let's leave this to the professionals."
After the crowd had left Xena turned to survey her 'troops.' One Amazon princess, one once-and-future priestess of Artemis, one high-strung hamadryad, and one, uh, _Joxer._ She winced. At least I have Gabrielle, she thought. As for the rest, well, they were better than nothing.
A plan, she thought again. What they needed was a plan.
*The Summer Solstice, dawn,* thought Gabrielle. *In other parts of the known world this day was greeted by great joy and revelry. However, in this tiny fishing village the dawn was greeted by an unnatural hush and an impending sense of doom. Whereas an ordinary dawn would be greeted by a rush of fishing boats and a sudden explosion of activity, only five pairs of eyes greeted this dawn, and all of them were focused on the figure on a lonely fishboat at sea.*
*Their commander stood alone, separate, bearing the weight of responsibility on her beautiful, proud shoulders, while her soldiers stood at attention -- brave, vigilant, ready to battle the direst threat, the greatest enemy if she but gave the command. They stood ready, awaiting the slightest change, the merest hint of battle. They stood poised at the edge of danger, ready to risk life and limb --.*
"Anything happening?" asked Joxer.
*When the idiot destroyed the mood,* thought Gabrielle.
"Shush Joxer," said Gabrielle. "I'm trying to concentrate."
*The Summer Solstice, midmorning,* thought Gabrielle. *The cool winds blew in from the sea, bringing with it songs from distant lands and the promise of new beginnings. The birds flew against a cloudless sky the exact shade of a peacock's egg and the waves tumbled cheerfully like carefree ---.*
"How's our sacrifice holding up?" asked Joxer.
*Idiots,* thought Gabrielle.
hush Joxer," said Talia. "Gabrielle's trying to concentrate."
*The Summer Solstice, noon,* thought Gabrielle. *The hot sun beat mercilessly upon their --.*
"Lunch anyone?" asked Joxer, cheerfully bringing in a plate full of roasted fish.
*Lunch,* thought Gabrielle. *Yes, that would work.*
*The Summer Solstice, half past bored,* thought Gabrielle. *The courageous warriors had been beaten back by the tide, by the sun, by the sheer, utter uselessness of their stupid quest. A sea serpent my foot. There is no such thing --.*
"Heads up, people!" ordered Xena as the waters surrounding the boat began to stir and churn. Faster than anyone could follow, a great draconian head broke out from the waves and attacked the boat. One blow from its great
tail reduced the vessel to splinters, and the figure in white, still chained to the mast, bobbed helplessly in its path.
As Xena and her companions watched in quiet fascination, the serpent transferred its attention from the boat and went after the figure in white. A hush followed as the serpent opened it's great maw of a mouth and swallowed the white shape in one impressive gulp.
"Did it work?" asked Marina. "We stuffed that dummy with the most lethal mushrooms and herbs we could find."
"Wait and see," advised Xena.
he serpent faltered once, and the group waited with bated breath for it to fall, for it to stop. It didn't. It now cast its gaze upon the shore, upon the tiny village and started towards it.
"It didn't," decided Xena, shouting, ""places everybody!"
Like a well-trained army responding to the voice of its commander Gabrielle, Joxer and Marina assumed their set positions on the beach.
Their first line of defense. Arrows. Joxer had momentarily put aside his crossbow for a longbow, opting for the greater range and faster reload speed of the more primitive weapon. "Remember," Xena cautioned, echoing the instructions she had repeated over and over again the day before. "Shoulders back, wrists turned flat inwards. Keep both eyes open, don't blink. Aim for the eyes." In perfect syncronicity, Marina, Joxer and Gabrielle let lose a deluge of arrows. Talia, reluctant to get involved in such violence, nevertheless helped her friends by supplying them with a fresh supply of arrows each time their quivers emptied.
The serpent thrashed and roared each time an arrow found its mark and imbedded itself its hide, but it didn't seem to be greatly affected.
"Aim for the eyes!" Xena ordered again, but the serpent moved too swiftly, too unpredictably.
"Talia," Xena instructed grimly, "time for the fire arrows."
"Do we have to?" protested Talia. "The fish will die."
"Do as I say," Xena gritted, and Talia, looking decidedly unhappy, handed her a quiver of special arrows whose heads were covered in cloth and soaked in oil.
"I hate fire," said Talia. gloomily. "Fire destroys everything. It's ever so much worse than sea serpents who at least only harm virgins. And you can never reason with it. Prometheus should be chained up for giving it to humans."
"Uh," said Joxer, momentarily distracted by the conversation, "He was. Xena and Hercules freed him."
"Oh," said Talia, deflated. "Too bad."
Lighting her first arrow, Xena took careful aim and let it loose. It landed near the serpent and the sea was suddenly ablaze. The oil that the companions had poured near the waters surrounding the boat burned hotly, quickly and for a moment they were unable to see the serpent as it dove beneath the waters to escape the inferno. Their hopes were quickly dashed to pieces as it reappeared a moment later, away from the boat and a great deal nearer the beach.
"Come on," said Xena, running towards the water. "We can't let it get to the village!"
Gabrielle and Joxer responded immediately to her command, running down the beach to where the serpent was coming nearer. Xena took out her sword dove into the water. The waves beat her back but she forged on -- cutting through the smaller ones, going under the bigger ones. On and on she, strove. Gabrielle and Joxer tried manfully to get to Xena and help her but the waves seemed to drive them back harder with each foot they gained.
Marina and Talia held back. Marina looked as if she were rooted to the ground while Talia wrung her hands helplessly.
Xena and the serpent met in waist-high water. The warrior woman, weighed down by sodden clothes and fighting the waves tried to swing her sword at the serpent's head. Its tail it struck Xena full on the body and she disappeared beneath the waves. Joxer and Gabrielle battled harder against the waves, frantic to reach her.
"You have to help them," Talia hissed to Marina. "They're doing this for you."
"I can't," said Marina guiltily, whispering something under her breath.
"What?" asked Talia, "what did you say?"
"I'm afraid of the water," Marina confessed, head down, tears in her eyes. "I fell off a fishing boat when I was a little girl. My father saved me but he drowned. I'm afraid of the water," she repeated.
Joxer and Gabrielle had reached Xena. Gabrielle was now trying to pull Xena to shore while Joxer made ineffectual stabs at the beast with his sword. The serpent, now madly annoyed, again knocked Joxer down and held him under the water with the weight of its tail. From the shore Talia and Marina could see his hands flailing wildly, helplessly out of the water as he struggled to get loose.
"Great Pan, it's killing him!" shouted Talia, running towards the water. "Help Xena and Gabrielle!" she ordered Marina. "I'll go help Joxer!"
"You?" shouted Marina disbelievingly after Talia. "What can _you_ do?"
"I can be a virgin sacrifice," answered Talia grimly to herself.
Determinedly, the young hamadryad marched up to the water towards the serpent. She waved her hands in the air, shouting at the serpent, then ran up the beach, away from the village. The reptile saw her, immediately released Joxer and went in Talia's direction with dangerous intent.
"What's Talia doing?" demanded Gabrielle as she and Xena finally made it to shore. Joxer followed, gasping and wheezing for breath.
"I don't know," said Marina, helping Xena back on her feet.
"It's going after her!" said Joxer, also getting on his feet. "Come on, we have to help her!."
"We can't fight it in the water," said Xena. "It's too strong and it moves too fast."
"It's slippery, too, " said Joxer, picking off some slime from his armor, then disgustedly throwing it all off. "I hope I don't rust."
"We have to get it out of the water, but how?" asked Gabrielle.
"Of course!" exclaimed Xena, pointing to Marina. "You can do it!"
"Me?" asked Marina, confused. "What can _I_ do? I can't even go into the water."
"You want to be a priestess of Artemis, right?" asked Xena. "Well, here's your chance. You can prove you're worthy by calling down the powers of the moon."
"What? I don't understand."
"The tides," explained Joxer. "The moon controls the tides! You've been training, right? You know the prayers, the incantations. You can do it!"
"But," protested Marina, "there's no moon."
"There is, you just can't see it. There!" said Xena, pointing to a thin sliver of white against the red sky. "Now, listen carefully, you don't have much time. Close your eyes and feel it, the power is within you. Pray, pray as hard as you can to Artemis. If you're worthy she'll help you. She'll help us."
The three then picked up their weapons and ran to the direction. "I believe in you," shouted Joxer, even as he ran towards the water. "You can do this!"
Marina looked helplessly after her friends. "I have to help them," she thought. "They're doing this for me."
Talia, not used to such activity, was rapidly tiring. But she couldn't stop. The serpent seemed to have fixated upon her and followed her every step. She didn't dare go further inland and risk the village. She didn't know what else to do but to keep running.
A particularly big wave came out of nowhere and swept her off her feet. She went down and stayed down, choking on the silt and the sand. Each time she tried to get up another wave knocked her back down, and each ebb of the tide pulled her deeper and deeper into the water. Deeper and deeper, until her feet could no longer touch the sand, carrying her helplessly forward, delivering her into the jaws of the serpent.
Whoosh! A bright circle flung through the air, neatly striking the serpent on the nose just before it could harm Talia. Xena neatly caught the chakram as it zipped back to her and continued fighting the waves, desperate to reach the dryad. Joxer and Gabrielle followed closely behind.
A strange humming sound started from the beach and Joxer took one hurried look behind him. Marina was now on the beach, weaving strange designs upon the sand and singing songs to the sky. He also cast a quick prayer skyward that Marina's calling would work, or that the three of them -- Gabrielle, Xena and he could stop the serpent and save their friend. "You have to save her," he thought to himself. "You're Joxer the Mighty and it's your fault she's here. If you hadn't tried to cut down her tree..."
Xena grabbed Talia away just as the serpent made another lunge, thrusting her back to Gabrielle. "Take her back to shore," she ordered and faced the serpent once more. Once more the water seemed to be on the serpent's side, the waves rolling and foaming with intense animation.
"I'll distract it," said Joxer grimly. "You go at him from behind."
Xena nodded. Gripping her sword she stood very still while Joxer once again poked at the serpent with his sword. Annoyed, the serpent turned to Joxer as they had hoped and Xena slashed her sword down on the exposed neck with deadly force. She cut deep, deep into the vertebrae, releasing blood and slime, turning the water crimson. But not deep enough. Wounded, the serpent thrashed and writhed and turned its attention back to its tormentor. It's deadly tail lashed once again, twice, knocking the two heroes down.
But not for long.
Joxer landed heavily, grimacing at the pain in his back. Surprised, he realized that all of sudden the water had become shallow, barely a few inches deep, the tides receding back into the ocean. He turned to grin at Xena only to find that the though now virtually helpless in the absence of water, the serpent had coiled itself around the inert body of Xena. Joxer took a few steps forward and the serpent hissed, tightening its embrace.
"Xena!" shouted Gabrielle running back after she had helped Talia back to
the shore. "Xena!" She would have run past Joxer and into the reach of the serpent if he hadn't caught her and held her back.
"Let me go!" she demanded. "We have to help Xena!"
"Don't get any closer," he warned. "If he squeezes any tighter Xena will die."
"Well, we can't not just do anything," Gabrielle hissed, desperate to reach and help her friend. The serpent remain on guard, glaring suspiciously but unmoving.
"Back up slowly," instructed Joxer. "Maybe he'll be less angry and release Xena."
A sharp whizzing sound flew past their ears. Then another. The serpent's head snapped and fell back, it's body thrashing weakly. Then it lay still. Two large arrows now protruded from its eyeball sockets.
They looked back and saw Marina on the beach, holding her bow.
"Good girl," whispered Xena weakly from where she lay. "She aimed for the eyes."
The victors had hardly time to catch their breaths when a dark shadow loomed overhead.
"What's happening?" demanded Joxer.
"I never saw a storm come up so fast," commented Gabrielle.
"Oh -oh," said Talia, chewing her lip. "I _knew_ this would happen."
"What?" asked Marina.
"What's going on here?" boomed an outwordly-loud voice. "What have you done to this poor creature?" Poseidon, great god of the ocean, had arrived.
Joxer, Marina and Gabrielle cringed at the anger in the god's voice and remained silent. However, Xena was more used to dealing with irate gods than her friends. "Us?" she demanded. "_You_ were the one who sent this serpent to destroy this village! Did you really think the villagers would just sit by and watch that happen? Maybe sell tickets?"
"I did no such thing," roared the god. "this bay is this serpent's usual fishing ground. It never harmed the villagers before, why would it harm them now?"
"Because we wouldn't sacrifice a virgin in your honor," supplied Marina.
"A virgin sacrifice?" asked Poseidon, clearly surprised and disgusted at the notion. "You think I don't have enough problems with those silly heartbroken fools throwing themselves off cliffs and into my ocean? You think I don't have enough garbage down there with you people always throwing your dead bodies off your boats or those floating funeral pyres? You think I would actually want another rotting corpse in my kingdom?"
The group, with the exception of Talia, were starting to look very confused.
"But," began Marina, "Malver said --."
"Malver!" roared the ocean god angrily, "is he the one behind this? I knew I should have drowned that old goat a long time ago. Pretending to be one of my priests.. Well, he's gone too far this time!."
"But the serpent went after Talia," protested Marina. "It wanted to eat her."
"Well, of course it wanted to eat her," exclaimed Poseidon. "You wave a virgin in front of a sea serpent's nose what do you expect? Virgins are a favorite treat for serpents. They're very rare these days you know."
Both Marina and Talia blushed, but for different reasons.
"But what about the storms?" demanded Xena. "Those yearly storms that wiped away their village? Are you telling us you didn't send those?"
"Oh, I sent those, alright." he agreed. The god gestured with one hand and a great rock rose from the ocean, the shape of a throne. Poseidon sat down and made himself comfortable.
"Why don't you people ever stop to think?" he asked ruefully. "There are so very few of these creatures left. Why can't you people understand that there's a purpose to every life? That thereŐs a balance to everything, a harmony."
"A song," supplied Talia.
"Yes, a song," agreed Poseidon. "Life and death, light and dark, give and take. There can't be one without the other or the balance will be destroyed."
"What does that have to do with the storm?" asked Gabrielle.
"These people live off the ocean. They take from it. Their food, their trade, their treasures -- and yet they give nothing back. And because they won't give I have to take."
"So you took my father?" asked Marina angrily.
"Your father gave himself to me," answered Poseidon gently. "There's a difference. Because he gave himself freely he has no regrets and has passed on to the Elysian fields. He's very proud of you," he added to Marina.
"He is?" asked Marina eagerly.
"Yes." Poseidon nodded. "Now, your father, he understood the balance. He understood that everything affects everything else, and that each person is responsible for everything and everyone else. That each person must do his part, do what he can, all he can, no matter how little." The god sighed. "There are so few like him left," he mourned. "Now men grab and crash through everything without thought, without care."
The god rose from his throne and moved closer to the friends, carried by the water.
"The problem with people," he said very deliberately, "is you never use
the brains Prometheus gave you. If you'd just stop to think about the consequences of your actions you wouldn't keep getting into trouble and then blaming everything on the gods. And you know what's worse? Your impetuousness is catching. Just look at her," he said, pointing to Talia. "She left her tree in search of adventure, even knowing the consequences."
"Consequences? What do you mean consequences?" Joxer asked. "Sir," he added belatedly.
"Dryads can only live away from their trees for three days," explained Xena quietly. "As soon as the sun sets on the third day both the dryad and the tree die."
All eyes went towards the west, towards the horizon where the sun shone red, too red as it began to sink into the sea. Then the same eyes turned to Talia, who smiled weakly, sweetly, then slowly crumpled to the ground.
Joxer caught her before she actually hit the sand and the distressed group hurriedly clustered around her.
"Why?" Joxer asked Talia angrily. "Why did you do this?"
"I owed you a reparation," answered Talia softly.
"A reparation," he protested, "not a life! And you," he bit out to Xena, "you knew this would happen, why did you let her do it?"
"Shhh," whispered Talia to the grieving man, laying one cold hand against his cheek. "It's not her fault. And it's not yours. It was my choice. I could have gone back if I wanted to. I didn't want to."
"In the name of Zeus, why not?" Joxer demanded.
"I never had friends before," she said, smiling weakly at the group. Marina was crying on Gabrielle's shoulder and the bard was conspicuously wiping at her eyes. "And I was so tired of waiting." She turned her silver-green eyes to Xena and the warrior-woman felt a strange mist cloud over her own eyes. "Calais is dead, isn't he?" Talia asked, already knowing the answer.
"Yes," Xena nodded solemnly. "He and Zetes fell together, in battle."
"Did you see it happen?" Talia, asked, her voice getting weaker.
"A friend of mine did. Hercules was with them when it happened." Xena answered.
"Good," Talia whispered. "I won't die alone either."
"Stop saying that," said Joxer, weeping openly. "You're not going to die!" Talia smiled again and closed her eyes.
"No!" shouted Joxer, shaking her still body. He turned to Poseidon, his fear of the god lost in the face of the impending loss of his friend. "Help her," he hissed. "You're a god, how can you stand there and let this happen?"
"She made her choice," Poseidon answered calmly, "there's nothing I can do."
"There's _always_ something you can do," argued Joxer. "That's what you just told us, wasn't it? Maybe little things but _something._"
Poseidon smiled at his courage, and at his concern. "You're right," the god agreed, "that _is_ what I said, wasn't it?" The god lifted one massive hand and made a beckoning gesture. The wind blew and from the west, seemingly from out of the setting sun flew two silver egrets. One landed on Poseidon's shoulder while the other one landed on the sand, near Talia. Another gesture from Poseidon and the egret shimmered and grew until it was the size and shape of a man with huge silver wings upon his back.
"For their courage and service the gods rewarded Calais and Zetes by changing them into birds after they were killed in battle," explained Poseidon.
Joxer and the rest stood back as Calais made his way to where Talia lay and tenderly took the dryad into his arms. He bent his head down and Joxer heard him whisper brokenly "I've been looking for you. I was coming back. Why didn't you wait?"
The dryad's eyes remained closed.
"Please," Joxer begged Poseidon. "_Please,_ you can't let it end this way."
Poseidon stared at Joxer, looking deep into the man's eyes, and then smiled. "Give and take, warrior. That is the law, the balance. What will you give me in return?"
"Anything," promised Joxer recklessly.
"Anything," echoed Xena, standing beside Joxer and placing her hand on his shoulder.
Anything," repeated Gabrielle, joining the two.
"Anything," also affirmed Marina, completing the group.
Poseidon was amused, and greatly impressed by the regard displayed by the friends. "Only one vow is necessary," he answered, turning to Joxer. "Yours. You have a great heart, warrior, and I see that you and your antecedents will become staunch guardians of my kingdom. So I will give you this gift -- to one of your blood will I reveal its secrets. As for your friend," he continued, turning back to Talia and Calais, "no payment will be necessary, She has already proven her worth to me." A strange high piping music sounded as if from a great distance and Poseidon smiled. "And to her god Pan. For her faith and courage, this shall be her reward -- as long as the greensong lives, so shall the love of Calais and Talia."
He waved his hand and both Calais and Talia's body started to shimmer. Through the brilliant light the friends saw Talia's arms
move and return Calais' embrace. When the light died down, two silver egrets stood on the sand, soon joined by the one on Poseidon's shoulder. Then they spread their wings and took flight. One circled around the delighted group and landed briefly on Joxer's shoulder, rubbing her head to his cheek before finally flying away.
"Thank you," said Joxer, turning back to Poseidon after he lost sight of the birds. "And I'll keep my promise. If you ever ask me to do anything, I'll do it. Whatever it is. I always keep my promises."
"I know, warrior," nodded Poseidon solemnly. "And so do I."
"You're the first god I've met who made any sense," said Xena to the god. "Who showed any compassion." She saluted with her sword. "And I keep my promises also. If you ever need my service, my sword is yours to command."
"No," Poseidon shook his head. "You belong to another, far more great than I. You will find your destiny soon enough." He turned as if to leave, the storm winds rising up to his call.
"Uh, Poseidon? Sir?" interrupted Marina who had recovered nicely from her recent emotional upheaval. "Are you close friends with Artemis? Could you put in a good word for me?"
"Ah, yes, the ex-virgin sacrifice," laughed the god. "I think you'll be pleased to know that you've got your goddesses a little mixed up. Athena and Hestia require their priestesses to be virgin. Artemis is a little more open-minded about it after that Endymion incident."
"Really?" Marina asked, excitedly, then sobered. "But I still haven't passed the tests." she said mournfully.
"Of course you did," answered Gabrielle. "Look, you made your first kill," she pointed to the serpent's body. Poseidon frowned and Gabrielle hastily added, "you beat Malver at his own game."
"How did I do that?" Marina asked, disbelievingly.
"He tried to trick you and your villagers," Xena explained. "You wouldn't let him and now everyone will know what a charlatan he is. You're a far better priestess than he is a priest."
"That's true," agreed Joxer. "And you called down the powers of the moon! Now _that_ was really impressive!"
"Xena showed me how." said Marina, humbly. "I could never have done it by myself."
"But you still did it. Nobody ever said you had to pass your tests alone." pointed out Xena.
"I was afraid," said Marina in a small voice.
"We're all afraid of something," said Xena. "The point is not to let that stop you from doing what has to be done."
"Did I really pass the tests?" Marina asked Poseidon, wanting desperately to believe and seeking validation from a higher authority.
"Yes, priestess, you did," agreed Poseidon. "I'm sure that if you go to the nearest temple of Artemis the other priestesses will welcome you with open arms. Now I truly must go. Live well, brave warriors, and may you always be as true as you were today."
With another gesture the body of the serpent and the god disappeared , leaving only the sea foam that broke upon the sand, leaving no trace that either was ever there.
"It's really nice of you to come with me to the temple," said Marina, as they tramped back through the forest, "but really, I think I could have found it on my own."
"We're happy to go with you," said Gabrielle. "Besides, you might need witnesses. You don't exactly have the head of that serpent to show as proof.
"We didn't really have any solid plans anyway," added Xena. She looked at Joxer, who was being uncharacteristically silent. "What's wrong, Joxer?" she asked.
"I've been thinking," he began. Xena's eyebrow lifted but she stifled the caustic remark that rose almost instinctively. "What he said, Poseidon I mean, about give and take, about balance and responsibility, it made sense didn't it?"
"Yes it did," agreed Xena.
"He said he'd reveal the secrets of the ocean to one of my blood someday. I wonder what he meant?" he mused.
"Who knows what gods mean?" snorted Gabrielle. "Being cryptic is one of their rules, I think. You never can get a straight answer from any of them."
"Look!" Marina said happily, pointing excitedly. "Talia's tree! It's alive!" The great beech tree was indeed alive, it's trunk shining silver in the bright moonlight.
"What did Poseidon say again?" Joxer asked as he looked up at its lush branches. "As long as the greensong lives... And Talia said that the greensong lives while one tree lives." The warrior's eyes brightened. "I'm going to do it," he told Xena, his eyes sparkling. "I'm going to do as Poseidon said. Be responsible. Keep the balance. I'll be a guardian of the ocean and the forests, and when I have kids I'll teach them to be responsible, too. To not cut living wood, and be careful of fires, and write on both sides of paper, and stuff. Maybe even take care of the animals."
"Talia would have liked that," Marina said approvingly.
"She would, wouldn't she?" said Joxer happily, looking back at the tree.
"She'd be very proud of you." said Xena quietly, placing her hand on Joxer's shoulder.
"And so are we," added Gabrielle softly, taking his hand in hers.
And the greensong rose clear and strong in the hearts of the four friends, and lived forever.
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