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By: Dan A. Payne
Disclaimer: This story contains low level violence. If you are offended by this please read another story.
"Weíll fight for you Xena! Weíll die for you Xena!"
This was the chant of the soldiers, repeated over and over, until the passion and fury were hypnotic. Ten thousand voices... ten thousand swords thrust in the air. Xena, daughter of a common villager from Amphypolis in northern Greece, just south of the Kingdom of Macedonia. Conquerors had come out of these cold, windswept lands since the dawn of the Age of Bronze, and now even more so with the advent of iron and steel. This was a time and place of great myth and magic. The Universe changes in ways that we cannot fathom, and we become unaware of what has come before. But, there was once a time so unlike that of today that we can scarcely imagine it. This was the time of Xena, a great and mighty warrior princess.
This was also a time of gods. These gods were real and powerful, and, when it pleased them, they took notice of the affairs of men. There was Great Ares, bloody god of war. There were Zeus and Hera, the aloof and distant king and queen of the gods. There were Aphrodite, goddess of Eros, Athena, goddess of wisdom, Artemis, goddess of the hunt, and Apollo, god of the sun. There were also many others. No one knew just where these gods came from, or what sustained them in their immortality. Perhaps they were of a race far older than mere man, or perhaps they came from some other dimension or maybe out of the stars... The intervention of the gods was widespread throughout the land, and many wonders arose from their influence. There were creatures such as giants and centaurs, minotaurs and cylopses. In our feeble age such things would be impossible, but in this long ago time, the gods made them so.
The great hero of this time was Xena... she was a warrior of necessity, and very good at being such. It was not uncommon for women of that age to be warriors. There were the Amazons, a tribe dedicated to female dominance in battle. There were Orders, such as the Warrior-Priestesses of Gaia, dedicated to the service of the ancient and almost forgotten goddess known as "Earth Mother". There were also the "free-booters", great warrior women who raised their own armies, motivating them with visions of power and plunder. Xena was of the latter group... and was the best. She began her career as a youth, leading her townspeople in defense of Amphypolis. Xena, however, was not one to be content with simple defence, and she went on to raise bands, then cohorts, and finally whole armies. She led these against the kings and warlords that coveted Amphypolis, defeating them all and seizing their lands. With each victory her armies grew, and Xena went forth in battle against more distant kings.
Xena was like a blazing star in the firmament, outshining all she challenged. The long-haired Persians, the black-bearded and ringlet-haired Assyrians, the blue-eyed Medes, the Egyptians, the Macedonians and Thracians, and all the tribes of Greece felt the might and fury of Xena. She was well on the way to creating a great empire when, in a moment, it was all gone. It occurred when Xena was leading a band of her men against a recalcitrant village... in short, a very minor affair. Some incident... perhaps, it is speculated, involving an infant... turned Xena away from her bloodlust. She no longer led armies, but instead trod the highways and byways of the ancient world, accompanied only by her faithful companion Gabrielle, doing not evil, but good...
This is the story of the greatest adventure of Xena. It was time for the world to change. This is the story of how Xena changed the world...
The story begins in Corinth, which, in Xenaís day, was no more than a large village on the Greek isthmus north of the Peloponesus. In this town lived a man known throughout the area as a man of gentleness. He was a strong man, who earned his bread as a builder... a hewer of stones and shaper of wood. He was also a learned man who under-stood the nature of many things. This manís name was Mithres. It was not known whether Mithres was of the Greeks or not, although his command of Greek was excellent. He was a tall man, with dark, blond hair and blazing blue eyes, more appropriate to the Northern Tribes than the folk of the wine-dark seas. No one knew from where Mithres came, and he never told. But, it was well known that he was a traveler, and that he had spent many years on the roads and seas prior to his settling in Corinth ten years past.
Many was the night that Mithres would entertain the children and youth, and those not so young, with tales of distant lands. His listeners would sit enthralled as Mithres told of journeys to kingdoms both to the east and the west. He told of mighty Carthagia, with its fish-god Dagon, and of trips with the dusky and coarse-bearded Phonecii beyond the Gates of Hercules into the great, Unknown Sea. Over the dragon-invested Unknown Sea Mithres had traveled to the fabled islands of Atlantius, where a gigantic kingdom was governed by wizards and philosophers of incredible power. Mithres even hinted of lands farther to the West, where pyramids rose to the sky as tall and massive as those of time-lost Aegypt, and where millions were ruled by a dark and bloody warrior caste devoted to unspeakable, blood-thirsty gods. The people of Corinth could hardly believe the tales of such a far-Western land, and as Mithres never confirmed that he had actually visited such a place, many felt that such tales were myths. But everyone agreed with him that bewitched Atlantius was a powerful and mysterious realm...
The lands Mithres had visited to the East were just as impressive and colorful as those to the West. Some of these lands were known to the Corinthians, including fabled Aegypt, the harsh and cruel Assyriam, and mighty Persia. Some had even heard of the Desert Tribes, dark-hued Semitic warriors with massive curly beards. These peoples lived in fortresses built high on desert hilltops, and bowed only before the mysterious, upstart God of No Name. Mithres had trod the paths of all these lands, and many others far greater. Beyond the Great Eastern Desert were kingdoms of vast wealth and power, including Indus, home of the Aryans and the gods of Krishnu. Beyond the land of Indus were the Lands Beyond the Clouds, where the wisdom of the mages was said to rival that of the gods themselves. It was said that the gigantic, unscaleable mountains of these lands were in fact the Old Ones, awaiting rebirth to cleanse the World of both gods and man.
Mithres had gone even further than this, traveling to an Eastern kingdom that dwarfed all of the nations of the West, where great emperors wore silk and lived in palaces carved of solid jade. Great walled towns of this distant land would have swallowed the city-states of Greece whole, with room to spare. He even told of mysterious islands, still further to the East, a land of magnificent cherry blossoms...
The people of Corinth marveled at these tales, and respected Mithres for his deeds. Mithres, himself, in his many travels, had been many things. He was a sailor, and a fisherman, and a teacher and healer. The one thing that Mithres had not been, however, was a warrior. His strong arms had never lifted a sword, nor had his broad chest worn a breastplate. He had never so much as struck another in anger. Mithres was a man of peace, who found violence as abhorrent as the submission to violence. He often talked about the Temple of Gaia across the Great River in the Land of the Dacians, where the mighty Warrior-Priestesses had developed means of combat that did not permanently injure or take life. Mithres had visited the Great Temple of Gaia, one of the very few men to do so, and had learned the philosophy of Gaia. But, maybe the World was not yet ready for such teachings. Wars and rumors of wars still crossed the land...
The weather was cool and clear, and the sky was a crystalline blue. On the road leading south into the Peloponesus were two travelers, one riding a mare. The rider was Xena, tall and magnificent in her bronzed breastplates and blackened battledress that ended several inches above her knees. Xena was born to be a warrior... her long limbs were clean and well-muscled, and about her was an air of absolute dominance. Her hair was of raven black and her eyes of cobalt blue, and her features were so fierce and beautiful as to be astounding. She carried on her back a broadsword of the finest Damascene steel, and hooked to her waist was a chakram. This was a razor-sharp "throwing ring", also made of hardest steel, and in the hands of a master such as Xena, a killing weapon without equal. Xena, leader of armies, had killed with her sword and chakram more times than she could remember, and the faces of the slain were now no more than a recurring blur. Her killing days were not over, and might never end, but she now used her weapons only against those who would oppress and destroy. She might lead another army... but for what cause?
Xenaís companion was the irrepressible Gabrielle, far shorter than Xena, red-headed, and as sunny and laughing as Xena was determined and strong. Gabrielle was attired in a short skirt with exposed midriff, the costume of an Amazon. Gabrielle was an unlikely Amazon, but, more than that, was a Queen of the Amazons. She had earned that right through bravery, and Gabrielle could fight very well. She, unlike her friend Xena, had, however, never spilled blood or taken a life. Gabrielleís ambition was to be a bard, and she had faithfully chronicled the adventures she and Xena shared. As was her wont, Gabrielle was busily talking away...
"Xena, we have to stop in Corinth. I heard last night, from that villager in Ostia, that there is a storyteller there of great experience. This man... I canít remember his name... has supposedly traveled all over the world. Weíve barely gotten around all of Greece, and, okay, to Troy and the Amazon lands of Asia Minor, but, anyway, itís the calling of a bard to challenge other bards, and I want to see what this fellow is about."
"The manís name is Mithriates... or something like that," replied Xena, "and like all men, Iím sure his exploits are more likely than not just made-up tales. Besides, we donít have the time."
Gabrielle seldom got petulant with her friend. This, however, was one of those rare occasions when nothing less would do. "Xena!" exclaimed Gabrielle, "I cook for you, I wash your linens... in a creek on my knees... I even oil your leather dress to get all the creases out from your riding on Argo all day long. And speaking of Argo - who grooms her and brushes out her tail? Thatís right... Gabrielle. Of course, I do it for her, but thatís not the point. All you do is sit on a rock and sharpen your sword. A little appreciation - please!"
Xenaís head was spinning... if she didnít care as much as she did for the some-times fiery little redhead she would be tempted to apply the flat of her blade to Gabrielleís backside. Hard. And more than once... a delicious vision of a well-spanked Gabrielle, unable to sit down for a day, crossed Xenaís mind... she smiled at the thought.
"I know what that smile means, and I know what youíre thinking... and donít even think about it," said Gabrielle. "A rap on the butt with a staff will sting just as much as one with a sword."
Xena guffawed. There was a time when such a threat would have been preposter-ious. But Gabrielle was not the just-matured child she had been when theyíd first met. Xena had trained Gabrielle well in the ways of fighting, and Gabrielle was fast to learn. Xena had to admit that she knew of no one who could handle a battlestaff quite as well as Gabrielle could now. Not that she would be a match for Xena in a Battle of the Back-sides. Well, life was short. If Gabrielle wanted to match tales with this supposed wonder-bard of Corinth, so be it.
"Okay, Gabrielle. Weíll stop in Corinth. But just for one night. I want to get on to Athens."
ĎWhatever for?í, thought Gabrielle, but she left the thought unspoken. Gabrielle broke into a big smile. A victory over Xena was something few people ever achieved... or at least lived to tell about.
It was getting over into late afternoon by the time Xena and Gabrielle got to Corinth. It was also market day, and the road was choked with farmers with their families and flocks of sheep, goats, cattle, and an occasional gaggle of geese. The dust raised by so many hooves and feet left a gritty haze in the air... Xena had dismounted from Argo, and was leading the mare around the obstacles of man and beast. Xena also had one hand on Gabrielleís shoulder.
"You picked a fine time to go bard-hunting, Gabrielle," quote Xena, "And, by the way, there are bards by the bushel-load in Athens. Thereís that bald-headed one that scowls all the time - you know, Plato or Platonius, I canít remember their names. And Socratus, the one with all those ridiculous questions that nobody can make heads or tales of. And that smart ass kid, Aristotli, you know, the one who thinks he knows it all."
"Whatís this with Athens? Youíd think you had a hot da... oh, never mind. And, just for your information, those guys are not bards. Theyíre, well... philosophers. They, um, philosophize. Thereís a big difference between a bard and a philosopher..."
"Is not. Theyíre all just babbling windbags with big bellies and scrawny legs."
"What!? In case youíve forgotten, Iím a bard, too. Does it look like a have a big belly and scrawny legs?"
"Iíll admit you donít have a big belly. Iím not so sure about the legs."
Gabrielle aimed the bottom of her staff at the toe of Xenaís boot, and brought the staff down with a resounding thump. Xena, however, was far too quick, and the staff only hit the ground where the toe had been a half-second before...
... The crowd of humanity and livestock wound its way slowly through the gates of Corinth. Gabrielle was darting in and out between the cows and goats, looking for someone who might have knowledge of the Corinthian bard, flashing her winning smile and asking repeatedly... "Excuse me, do you happen to know where I can find a man, I think his nameís Mithriates, who is a teller of stories?"
Finally, Gabrielle found a young woman, pushing a cart heavily loaded with vegetables, who indeed had the information Gabrielle needed. The young women told Gabrielle that, yes, there was a teller of stories, but named Mithres and not Mithriates, and that on market day evenings he could be found in the town agora, usually surrounded mainly by children and youths. The agora was straight up the road. Gabrielle thanked her for her help, and then returned to Xenaís side.
"Got it," Gabrielle said, "heís just ahead. Weíre going the right way."
Xena seemed a little bit less than completely enthused. "Did you ask her how weíll know who he is? Did she tell you to look for a fat-bellied, skinny-legged bald man who bellows like a mule?"
"Enough with the bard jokes, already" replied Gabrielle, "Any way, I bet you he is not fat with skinny legs."
"He will be. Youíre on. Two dinars. And I noticed you didnít mention anything about him not being bald."
"Well, the best bards are... with one very important exception, of course."
... Gabrielle and Xena entered the agora. Corinth had grown since Xena had last been there, and the bustling marketplace was proof of that. In addition to the ubiquitous sheep, goats and other livestock, the walls of the square were lined with many stalls, where vendors noisily hawked their wares. The agora was crowded with folk, of all ages and dressed in all manner and color of costume, buying and selling every imaginable form of produce. There were large bolts of linen, and cloth of wool, flax and leather. There were pots, pans, and swords. There was jewelry of silver, gold, and stones of flashing brilliance. There were also vast quantities of pungent spices and unguents, and large vats filled to the brim with eels and giant carp. It was almost enough to make Gabrielle forget momentarily about her bard quest...
Then the two companions saw a small crowd in the far corner of the agora, gathered round the entrance to a public meeting house. Pulling Argo after them, Xena and Gabrielle made there way toward the crowd, assuming this to be a gathering of listeners to an orator. Then they saw the speaker. Gabrielle gasped and even Xena had a momentary look of surprise on her face. The man was not as either Gabrielle or Xena had possibly imagined. He was late middle-aged, and tall... several inches taller than Xena... and had the massive arms and chest of an Olympic wrestler or lifter of great weights, but had no fat on his frame. He was also dressed unlike any philosopher or bard, who normally are adorned in snow white togas of elaborate folds and drapings. The man - it was Mithres - wore only the short, beltless tunic of a laborer, made of coarse cloth. His sandy blond hair was short, and his face had the rough handsomeness of a man who works hard outdoors. He had large, work-worn hands that seemed surprisingly gentle, but the most remarkable thing about Mithres was his eyes. They were blue, but were not piercingly blue like Xenaís eyes were. Instead, they were tinged with a little sadness, but mostly kindness. They were so incredibly gentle for a man as massive as Mithres...
"Wow," whispered Gabrielle.
"Not your common bard," said Xena.
"No indeed," replied Gabrielle, "You owe me two dinars..."
Xena reached into her pouch and handed Gabrielle two coins. Usually when she lost bets to Gabrielle, which was not often at all, she would slap the money into Gabrielleís palm with enough force to sting. This time Xena slowly put the money in her hand, and kept her fingers on those of Gabrielle for a few seconds. Both of their eyes were still glued on Mithres.
Mithres was indeed surrounded by children. Mithres, who was standing, sat down on the top front marble step of the meeting house, and two little ones, a boy and girl, ran up and jumped on his lap. He reached over with an arm to support them, and then continued his story. There were also youths and maidens listening, as well as older folk, and a surprising number of the very old, all giving him their utmost attention. Gabrielle moved up closer to where Mithres sat, being careful not to get in anybodyís way, and sat down cross-legged, with children on either side. She put her arms around the two nearest, and they all sat there, eyes wide open and raised up. Xena stayed at the edge of the crowd, as she still held onto Argo by her reins, but Mithresís voice, strong and reassuring, reached out to her with no problem.
Mithres was telling a tale about a time he had been to the great and mighty city of Babylon. He described the wonders of Babylon, the acres of hanging gardens, the lofty ziggurats, and the towering walls, wide enough for four chariots to pass abreast on the top, and one hundred cubits high, or the height of twelve tall men, each on the shoulders of the one below. But the main part of the story was about a young man, whose name was Dan-Yael, who was very wise and humble. He was so wise that the king, by name of Bel-chazzar, made Dan-Yael his counsel. The mages and wizards of Babylon were very jealous of Dan-Yael, and through treacherous means, convinced Belchazzar to test Dan-Yael. Instead of opposing the mages and wizards, Dan-Yael accepted any challenge that they could think up. So they convinced Belchazzar to put Dan-Yael in a pit with lions. If Dan-Yael were alive after a night with the lions, he would be set free.
Dan-Yael went into the pit, in which were kept ten ferocious lions, great beasts up to twelve feet long from nose to tail. A great rock was rolled over the entrance to the pit, which was then lit only with guttering torches. Dan-Yael accepted his fate with peace and serenity... some would say with the peace and serenity of a god. Or maybe it was from a god - only Dan-Yael knew for sure. The lions paced and roared, growling at this intruder. But Dan-Yael did not challenge the lions any more than he had the mages and wizards, and, inexplicably, the lions quieted. Perhaps they felt his serenity. But they did not bother him. In fact, they lay their great heads in his lap, while he gently stroked their fur. In the morning Dan-Yael was found asleep, flanked on either side by a great, slumbering lion. He was set free, and given the chance to have his enemies thrown to the lions. This he refused, as the lions were his friends, and he would not have them become part of an evil. Also, the mages and wizards knew no better...
...Gabrielle sat spellbound. She felt like a little girl at story time herself, and not at all the great and self-important bard she considered herself to be just a scant hour before. Finally, Mithres ended his tale, and the listeners slowly got up to leave. Gabrielle instinctively reached into her pouch for a coin, as a bard is worthy of his or her pay, but, seeing the people leave, realized how foolish her near-gesture was... although there were many handshakes, and children hugging his legs, not a person offered Mithres money. Mithres was helping the last of the old people up from their seats, hugging them gently before they tottered along on their way. With the crowd disappearing, Gabrielle, too, got to her feet. Xena had come up front by then as well, still trailing the ever-faithful Argo...
Feeling not a little self-conscious, Gabrielle somewhat shyly approached her fellow bard. Extending her hand, she said, "Hi, Iím Gabrielle..."
Whereupon Mithres reached under her arms, picked her up, and effortlessly twirled her around himself in a circle, like one would do a small child. He then set her carefully back on her feet.
"Whoa," said the slightly dizzy Gabrielle. "What..."
"You just looked like you could use a twirl," said the softly laughing Mithres, "Everybody needs a good twirl now and then..."
Xena approached Mithres with a something akin to a little wariness, even if she would never admit it. She definitely did not think that she needed a good twirling. Not that Mithres looked unable to do it. Not even Hercules looked as strong as Mithres, and certainly Hercules would not have been so if he were mortal. "Iím Xena," she said, with hand outstretched but with the rest of her body safely, if unconsciously, out of twirling reach...
Mithres looked into Xenaís eyes with the slightest twinge of pain. He took her hand and held it, solemnly, for a few seconds. "Iíve seen you before... from afar," he said.
"When was that?" Xena queried.
"It was at the Battle of Aleppo, where you led your ten thousand against the Persians. I was there on that fateful day."
Xena was a bit confused. She did not remember Mithres being one of her warriors, as much as he could have helped her cause. But, he surely wasnít among the Persians, although she knew they used foreigners in their ranks. "It was a great battle," she said, "and the slaughter was horrific. It makes sense that you would be a warrior in such a fight."
"I was no warrior."
Xena thought back. There was something familiar. The Battle of Aleppo was one of her greatest triumphs. She had led her cavalry into the center of the Persian line, cracking it wide open for her heavy infantry. The losses among her armored warriors were few, and that of the long-haired Persians very great indeed. It had rained after the battle, and the dead and dying enemy were left to become part of the mud. Then, she remembered... There was a man, a very large man, with nothing more than a brace of water bottles, walking across the battlefield, giving comfort to the wounded. He gave them water, and carried them to shelter out of the storm. Usually her victorious warriors would loot the injured, slitting their throats if their victims gave the slightest show of resistance. But, on that day, not one of her men went near this big man, nor interfered in the least with his work...
"It was you..." exclaimed Xena.
"It was..." she began to say, but held her tongue. The words she didnít say were... Ďthe bravest thing Iíve ever seení.
Mithres did not reply. He gave Xena a small smile. Then he turned to Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle... Gabrielle. Of Poteidaia. Of course. You were selected as the "best bard" in a competition in Athens. You were chosen over both Homer and Euripedes. Thatís an astonishing accomplishment. Youíre really making a name for yourself."
Gabrielle almost blushed. Maybe she did. She didnít consider herself even in the same agora with Mithres when it came to story-telling. Even now... incredible for her... she felt tongue-tied.
"But, I am being so incredibly inconsiderate," continued Mithres, "You have come a long way, and it is past the supper hour. The two of you must be hungry. Please join me at my home for a meal. And there is an extra room if you have no place to stay. I would be greatly honored."
Gabrielle and Xena quickly agreed. Both, for their own separate and personal reasons, wanted to talk further with this strange and highly unusual man...
Mithres hurried on to begin supper, after giving Xena and Gabrielle directions to his home outside the cityís Eastern Gate. To give him time for his preparations, the two companions strolled leisurely to their rendezvous through the thinning market day crowds.
"Well, Xena, what do you think of the bard profession now?"
"What I think is that you, Miss Athens Academy for Performing Bards of the Seventeenth Year of the Reign of Pericles, have now been dethroned."
"Better dethroned that deflowered. Oops, too late for that. Hum... what I really think is that Mithres and I need to start a very close and intimate bard-to-bard relationship."
"Gabrielle!!! The manís old enough to be your father. Probably even your grandfather."
"Made ya jeal-ous!"... and Gabrielle lifted her staff to again threaten the toe of Xenaís boot. Xena deftly removed her foot from the path of the impending blow, whereupon Gabrielle butted Xenaís upper arm with the top of her head.
"Oww," exclaimed the surprised Xena, and she rubbed her arm. "Your headís so hard that I ought to rent you out as a battering ram. Weíd get rich."
"With a head as hard as yours, whole cities would throw open their gates in despair. Weíd be showered with shekels, drachmas, and dinars."
"Thatís the second joke youíve made today, Xena. Keep this up, and Iíll make a bard out of you yet."
"Great Zeusís Overworked Gonads!" Xena rather seriously blasphemed, if not untruthfully, "A fate worse than the deepest, darkest pit of Tartarus. The only thing more horrible that the gods could do to me would be make me an advocate - and even my sins donít merit that. But... be a bard? Iíd rather... face forty cyclopes."
"Would you rather... fight fifty furies?"
"Iíd rather slay sixty sorcerers."
"How about... satisfy seventy satyrs?"
"Gab-ri-elle!!! Since when did you become so worldly?"
Xena placed her arm around her friendís shoulder. "This is ridiculous..."
"Yup," replied Gabrielle, rubbing her head up and down Xenaís battered arm like a cat, "but, oh, so wonderful."
Xena and Gabrielle found the modest, thatch-covered cottage which Mithres called home. Out back was a small stable, with oats, hay, and fresh water already laid out for Argo. Xena unsaddled her mare and took care of her needs, and then she and Gabrielle entered the small house. Mithres was waiting for them, and had prepared a fine meal of cooked vegetables, both plain and spicy, fresh bread steaming from the oven, and many types of fruits and cheeses. There was, however, no meat.
Xena and Gabrielle reclined on the simple low couches that Mithres had arranged for them, placed in a horseshoe around the small table on which the meal was served. They began to dine, with both Xena and Gabrielle displaying healthy appetites, as this was the first real food that theyíd eaten all day. After carefully attending to all the needs of his guests, Mithres joined them. As was usually the case, Gabrielle began the conversation.
"Mithres, your performance in the market place was, to say the very least, one... one of such brilliance. Youíre the greatest bard, by far, of any that Iíve ever met."
"Bard?" replied Mithres, with an obvious look of embarrassment, "No, child... I am no bard. Iím nothing at all like a bard... Just an old man who tells stories to children on Market Day. Nothing more."
Gabrielle did not mind Mithres calling her Ďchildí. In some way... an important way... it seemed very reassuring.
Mithres continued... "I truly could never be a bard like you, Gabrielle. Iím no bard... more like - a great donkey braying in the town square."
"Same difference..." quipped Xena, "and your legs are far too good looking for you to be a bard."
Gabrielle gave Xena a dagger-laden stare. But Mithres laughed... a genuine, deep throated laugh that came straight from both the heart and soul. It was infectious, and in a matter of seconds, Gabrielle joined in... and, surprisingly, even Xena.
The conversation, after a moment, continued...
"Mithres," asked Gabrielle, "if not a bard, then what do you do?"
"These last few years Iíve been a builder... a cutter of stone."
"What have you built?" asked Xena.
"The walls of Corinth... the town meeting hall. The pantheon and the Governorís house. A few things."
Xena was suitably impressed. Corinth had grown significantly since she had last been this way, and it seemed that most of the improvements were the work of this man.
"With all those commissions, you must be very rich," added Gabrielle.
Mithres, again, looked embarrassed... "It was very foolish of me to boast that way. No... there are many needs for the money that the rich and aristocratic pay for such things. There are so many children who are hungry. Even here in Corinth... and there are others, too, whose paths have not been easy. Most of the money goes for food."
"You donít eat meat," said Xena.
"No," said Mithres, "I could not look in the eyes of an innocent creature, and use it in such a way. But, I did eat meat, at one time."
Gabrielle nodded. She asked, "Are you married?"
"Gabrielle..." interjected Xena, "thatís none of our business..."
"Itís all right," said Mithres with a smile, but it was a sad smile nonetheless, "No. Iím now celibate. But, I was married once. My wife... died. She was killed in the raid of a warlord."
Xena felt a tendril of dread. ĎPlease let it not have been meí, she thought.
It was if Mithres had read her mind... "It was a very long time ago, when I was much younger," he said.
"I understand," said Gabrielle, "I lost my husband, Perdicus, as well... and it was after a marriage of a single night. Mithres, did you ever think of remarrying?"
"No," he said, "but thatís because Iím such a coward. Itís easy to serve, at a distance, the needs of the many. Itís often far, far harder to be responsible for the one."
Xena gave Gabrielle a knowing smile. Gabrielle ignored it.
Xena then asked, "Those that killed your wife... did you take revenge?" It was a difficult question, but one Xena wanted answered.
"No," Mithres replied slowly, "I was young then... and very much wanted to. But... I forgave them."
"I have always avenged the deaths of those I love," said Xena.
"And maybe thatís why some of them have died," Mithres replied, but not unkindly.
"Forgiveness is very hard for me," said Xena.
"Forgiveness is not an easy thing at all," replied Mithres, "but if repentance is genuine, forgiveness is mandatory. Even for Gaia... or God, if you prefer. But, too often, we mistake arrogance for forgiveness. Too often, we demand repentance from our transgressors, and then continue to rage if its not forthcoming. Perhaps... we can only forgive ourselves."
"Some things Iíve done are beyond forgiveness," said Xena, and she thought of a burning village, and the soul of a young girl sheíd destroyed.
"There are also some things for which only those who have gone into the abyss and returned, are worthy," replied Mithres... Xena pondered this.
There was a momentary pause, and then Mithres continued...
"... Itís fortunate we met today. In the morning I must leave on a long journey. Iíve been called to come to the Temple of Gaia."
"I thought the Temple of Gaia was for only the Warrior Priestesses," said Xena, "Iíve never known of men being allowed there."
"I have known the High Priestess, Cirice, for a very long time," replied Mithres, "We have a bond... through Gaia."
"Youíve mentioned Gaia three times now," said Gabrielle, "I know of her as the Earth Mother."
"She is that, Gabrielle... and much, much more besides," said Mithres, "Gaia is known by many names, and in a great number of ways, to many people. She is the Sustainer... Gaia is the Force that binds us all together. She is our Essence, our Oneness. To the Persians Gaia is known as Ahura, to the southern desert tribes, Allas. In the land of Indus she is Krishna, or Karm. In Cathay... a land far, far to the East, she is called the Tao, or the Way. Among the Hebrews, they do not utter a name. Gaia is that which underlies and combines all things. She is the essence of our atoms and the forces that hold them together..."
"Atoms?" said Gabrielle.
"You know, Gabrielle. Democritus of Abdera...," said Mithres, "the bald fellow, skinny legs, big belly... I think he was a bard before he got into Natural Philosophy."
"Oh, no," groaned Gabrielle. Will the bard jokes never end?
...Then Xena said something totally unexpected. "I want to go with you to the Temple of Gaia."
"Xena?" said Gabrielle.
"Twelve years ago I visited the Temple of Gaia. I was young... and arrogant... then. I demanded of the Priestesses the knowledge that makes them the finest warriors in the World. I was offered hospitality, but nothing else. The parting... was not pleasant. It is time I offered an apology."
Mithres consented. It was well to have companions on a journey.
... And the next morning, they set out.
Xena, Gabrielle, and Mithres were walking through the woods on their way north to the Temple of Gaia, with Mithres and Gabrielle talking.
"Mithres," asked Gabrielle, "why are the Gaian Warrior-Priestesses considered the best warriors in the World?"
"Child," he answered, "it is because they must overcome their adversaries not only without killing, but also without doing harm. That is why they wear the symbolic, unsharpened swords... But, it is a very difficult discipline to learn indeed..."
... Suddenly, and with no warning, three men jumped out of their hiding places from behind the trees. These men were huge and fearsome, wearing battered, filthy armor and brandishing wicked looking swords.
Xena instinctively reached for her own sword, and had it nearly out of its scabbard when Mithres gestured for her to hold... which she did, but only with the utmost reluctance. Mithres, placing himself in front of Gabrielle and Xena, addressed the men.
"Is there something we can do for you?"
The largest of the highwaymen, a giant, ugly brute, chortled at this, to him, mad suggestion. He replied with a sneer.
"Why, yes there is, you dumb ox of a man... you can give us your money. Or you can give us your lives."
Mithres pulled a small bag out of his robe.
"If you are this desperate, then surely you are in need of this more than I. You are welcome to it with all my blessings."
The three outlaws found this offer incredibly funny, and broke into loud and mocking laughter.
Their leader replied, saying to Mithres, "I was wrong, you overgrown court-jester. We want both your money and your lives."
And with this the villains raised their swords, and advanced on Mithres...
Xena again reached over her left shoulder for her blade. But before she even had it unsheathed, a most amazing thing happened. Mithres shut his eyes as if in the commencement of meditation. Then, faster than the eye could follow, he, with one mighty swipe of the back of his hand, knocked all three swords out of the grasps of the outlaws. The swords went soaring through the air like twigs in the wind, landing a good twenty yards away.
The highwaymen stared at their empty fists with the greatest of astonishment. Then they stared at Mithres with looks akin to absolute terror. Mithres reached over, and placed his money bag in the still open hand of their leader, saying "Here, this is still yours."
The man looked at the sack as if it contained the head of Medusa. It fell through his nerveless fingers to the ground. Then he and his fellows turned and took to their heels as if pursued by Cerberus, the many headed hound of hell...
Xena, too, was astonished. Never had she seen such a fine fighting maneuver as that. She turned to Mithres, and, with not a little admiration, asked, "Where in Hades did you learn such a move?"
...This was followed by sardonic laughter, coming from behind Xenaís back, and the slow, sarcastic clapping of a pair of hands. Xena whirled around... to see nothing less than the unmistakable and unbearably handsome features of her old nemesis, Ares, the great and bloody God of War.
"Not in Hades at all. Instead, in the ramshackle and broken-down Temple of Gaia. That was nothing more than a pathetic piece of Gaian flummery, my dear. The trick of a fool. A self-castrating, self-important, hopeless, worthless martyr, no better than a eunuch."
Gabrielle, incensed with this vile characterization of her new-found friend, was the one to reply.
"Youíre wrong. Heís a good and kind man."
Ares turned his gaze to Gabrielle. "A good... and kind... man? How insignificant. But you... Gabrielle? Yes, Gabrielle. Xenaís little side-kick. Come here. I have something to share with you."
Gabrielle felt a power in her mind. It was like a thick and all-encompassing fog, descending over her consciousness. She turned toward Great Ares, and, unsteadily and at first unwilling, stepped toward the God of War. Xena tried to move between them, but Ares threw her a glance, and then she felt as if she had run into a wall of tar... Ares redirected his gaze to Gabrielle.
"Yes" he said, " Thatís a good girl. Itís distressing to me that Xena has so sadly neglected your education... at least in the things that really matter."
Gabrielle now stood right in front of Ares, and he placed his hands on both of her upper arms.
"Look into my eyes, little Gabrielle. Itís time that you learned the facts of life. Tell me. What do you see?"
Gabrielleís eyes were as glazed as her mind was cloudy. She looked up at the god, unblinking.
"Iíll tell you what you see, precious Gabrielle. You see unlimited power. You see unimagined glory. You see... you understand... that the world must be ruled with no less than a fist of iron. Ruthlessness, Gabrielle. There can be no other way. Order can be had only by application of the utmost ruthlessness."
Gabrielleís lips were parted and she breathed heavily. There was sweat streaming down her brow. She was straining her neck, gazing up into the visage of an almighty god. She began to whisper, in a low and husky voice.
"You... are... so... desirable."
...Then there was a hand on the arm of Great Ares. The god glanced back with a look of supreme annoyance. The hand belonged to Mithres.
"It seems that I have a worm on my arm. Nothing but a worm. Such impudence... for a worm to touch a god."
"I challenge you for Gabrielle. Surely a god would not fear a challenge from a worm."
Aresís look of annoyance changed to one of high amusement. "Very well," he said, "I accept your challenge."
Mithres took Gabrielle by the arms, much as Ares had, and gazed into her eyes. "Look, Gabrielle," he said, "look deeply. Look very deeply. Iím going to show you the true and only face of Ares."
Gabrielle did exactly as she was told. The fog and lust in her brain began to slowly give way to other sensations. First there were swirling colors, and then there were images. Then... there appeared to Gabrielle the vision of a huge cloud... a gigantic, unbelievable, dirty, filthy cloud, which arose from the ground and extended to the top of the sky. The cloud was filled with unholy light... more a parody of light, filled with obscene colors and the flashing of a thousand unclean lightening bolts. There appeared to be a face... a hideous, horrible, twisted, inhuman face amidst all the dust and corruption... and the face was laughing. Then the scene changed, and Gabrielle was looking at the ground. It was fire-blasted, and nothing but flames and cinders remained where there once had been a great city. And the children... the poor children... burned black, hands and feet gone, and covered with ungodly, oozing blisters - screaming, dying. The men and women had fared no better... burned beyond recognition, without faces, but yet living. There was suffering and madness beyond any possibility of normal human comprehension...
Gabrielle screamed and fell into Mithresís arms. And there was a flash of light, and Ares was gone.
... Gabrielle had come to her senses, but continued to tremble. She held tightly to Mithres, her eyes still tightly closed.
There were tears in Mithresís eyes. He spoke.
"Iím sorry Gabrielle. I truly am. I did something to you that is unforgivable. But I couldnít let Ares claim you."
Gabrielle slowly released her grip, but still held tightly to Mithresís hand. She opened her eyes, looking up at the tall man.
"Mithres... you have already taught me about forgiveness... But... are you a god?
"No child. Iím not. But sometimes itís far harder to be a man than a god."
"The vision," Xena interjected, "or whatever it was Gabrielle saw. How?"
"Simple mesmerism. Nothing more than more Gaian Ďflummeryí."
"Did," asked Gabrielle, "what I saw... did it ever really happen?"
"It will. And the greatest tragedy of it all, is that what you saw, in all its horrors, will be the work of decent and honorable men who were simply caught in the thralls of Aresís ways."
"Can you see the future, too?" asked Xena.
"Only very rarely. And then just as glimpses in the darkness... again, through the discipline of Gaia."
...The threesome, with Argo, continued down the trail.
The scene of our story shifts to the frozen peak of Mount Olympus. There... or someplace, beyond understanding, like there... is where the gods make their home. Ares had returned to Mount Olympus, and he was in a fine rage. Boiling with the righteous anger of a god, he called out to Hera, Queen of the Gods. Lord Zeus may have been King of the Gods, but there was no doubt upon Olympus which of the two of them was the more powerful. Hera was by far the greatest of the gods, the most feared, and without question the most wicked. She even disdained the taking of human form, and appeared to others, on those rare occasions when she deemed it to her pleasure, as a pair of menacing, discolored eyes. This is the way she now appeared to Ares.
"What disturbs you, Ares?"... It was a harsh, dry voice, incapable of pity.
"Those accursed, damnable Gaians. Sects of them, all sorts and sizes, are popping up everywhere. In Dacia, Palestine, Aegypt, Indus... even in faraway Cathay! Those worthless, interfering do-gooders are spreading over the Earth faster than fleas on a mongrel. And worse... theyíre getting powerful. Theyíre resisting us. We have to stomp on them. They need to be exterminated."
For a moment, there was no answer from Hera. Finally, and with what seemed be a note of hesitation, she spoke.
"Gaia... is powerful. Sheís strong in ways you, fair Ares, could not possibly understand... even if you are a god. I could kill her people, but she would only raise up more. I have so far ignored her, but I see that wonít be possible any more... But... there is a way."
"We must do it, Great Hera."
Again there was silence. It was if Hera had paused to consider... And, again, she spoke.
"The answer lies in the Mountains Beyond Time. There is a Portal there. Bound behind this doorway is a Force greater than Space and Time... a Force that can provide us all the power in the Universe. We shall unleash this Power, and then Gaia, and all her works, will be swept away."
Ares blanched, if it is possible for a god to blanch. "The YyíGoth?" he asked.
"Yes," answered the haughty, ice-cold voice that was known as Hera. "The Yyígoth."
... Ares materialized at the entrance of a massive, hell-blasted tower, carved entire from the side of a craggy, cloud-shrouded mountain. The wind howled like the torment of demons, the snow whipped by in tempestuous flurries, and there was darkness upon the face of the Earth. Ares gave an offhand gesture, and the great entrance to the tower yawned open. Whereupon he entered, and the image that was Hera... the two eyes... there appeared beside him. The two of them continued into the stygian blackness, presently coming to a massive wall of unbroken rock. In the rock was a giant iron door, covered with forbidding glyphs that would have crumpled the mind of a mortal. This door was sealed with seven great seals.
Hera lit the chamber with an unearthly, disturbing glow. She spoke.
"The seals must be broken. Only then can we summon forth the YyíGoth, and add its power to our cause."
"How, Great Hera?"
"I am mighty, but I cannot break them alone. You must give me your strength. I shall call forth the power of all the dark gods... of Moloch, my favorite after you, and of ancient Set and Dagon, of Shettin and all the others. Even those of the far Western lands. I can channel this power... it will be sufficient to break the seals."
Hera did as she said... the Call went out, and the Call was answered. Unimaginable, titanic forces, each and every one unspeakably evil, flowed into the essence of the Being known as Hera. She reveled in the madness and the power... and then began to work her way with these malevolent, incredible forces.
The first great seal seemed to distort, then stretch, and finally tear. Then the second seal snapped open, and after that the third. The fourth, fifth, and sixth seals followed. And lastly, but ever so reluctantly, the seventh and final seal was rent asunder, falling to the floor with a resounding crash.
Hera had triumphed. This was her greatest, finest hour... Then, with the seals broken, she applied her will, and with it that of all the dark gods, to the door. It slowly opened. And then... Hera screamed.
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