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The Intent To Kill
In her later days, as Gabrielle would recount her experiences with Xena to young bards, she would remember when her path crossed with many evil people, but if asked to recall a time when her path cross with an evil thing, one story would inevitably spring from her lips. Things are not good or evil, she would begin. Only how we use them defines what they are. But that is not how it appeared when her path first crossed with a particularly peculiar thing.
The sun was setting when Gabrielle walked down the trail following Xena and Argo, unaware of where the path was heading either physically or metaphysically. Gabrielle peered ahead for a proper clearing to make camp, but the forest here was remote, deep, and tangled, the trail narrow, rough, and twisted, and there seemed little chance of finding anything passably hospitable.
"Is this really the best way to Iolcos?" Gabrielle called up to Xena. The surrounding forest seemed to swallow up her words as they left her mouth.
"It's the shortest," Xena replied.
Gabrielle slipped on the slanted face of large stone in the middle of the path, and stumbled, catching herself with her staff. "Yeah, but shortest isn't always the best. Where are we supposed to camp, for example?"
Xena looked back over her shoulder while still walking, and utterly failed to slip or stumble. "We'll stop just a little bit further up."
Gabrielle thought she could make out a slightly mischievous smirk on Xena's face. The thick flora appeared endless, and Gabrielle suspected she was joking.
Xena clearly knew exactly where they were heading, and lead Argo confidently into the gathering night, like someone who had been through this territory before. Xena had been quiet --more quiet that usual, the way she would get when her mind turned to her old days, and Gabrielle wondered what could have brought Xena down this trail in her past. She also had difficulty imagining that anyone, even Xena, could lead an entire army through this wilderness.
Abruptly, Xena led Argo off the path into the thicket, and stopped. There was the sound of wood upon wood, as if Xena decided it was a good idea to bang on the trunk of a tree with a stick. Gabrielle came up behind Argo, but not too close, and tried to see past the horse to what Xena had come to.
There was an unknown woman's voice, cautiously: "Xena?"
"Hello, Oenone," said Xena peacefully. "The years have been good to you. My companion and I need a place to stay for the night."
Gabrielle bent down to look though Argo's legs to try to see something, but found herself unable to take her eyes off the horse's hooves, as usually happens whenever she found herself within kicking range.
Oenone spoke with some apprehension, "Have you come for the-- Have you come for it?"
"No," Xena said almost soothingly. "Just a place to stay."
Oenone now seemed almost gleeful. "Come in!"
There was a sound of a latch, and a creak of hinges, and Gabrielle was surprised to see warm torchlight pour out through the branches, silhouetting Argo's body. Xena led her horse into the light, and Gabrielle followed passing through a threshold large enough for two oxen to pass through. The door was of massive thick wood bearing a large wooden knocker, and, above that, a small window through which people within could inspect potential visitors. Inside was a large open courtyard surrounded by walls of stone constituting a spacious temple to Artemis. Lying hidden in the deep forest, it was surely known to but a few.
Crossing the threshold, Gabrielle looked to her left to see Oenone, a tall, yet unimposing woman whose age you could not guess by looking at her. "Hi," Gabrielle said, trying to suppress her surprise at this island of civilization in the sea wilderness. "I'm Gabrielle."
Oenone looked back trying to suppress surprise herself, as if this were not the companion she expected to accompany Xena. She bowed her head respectfully. "My pleasure." She led the way to a chamber on the west side of the courtyard, where, among the hay for Argo, Xena and Gabrielle made their beds for the night.
When she was a child in her home village, Gabrielle always thought being a heavy sleeper was an asset. Family members could talk in the next room, neighbors could argue, her sister could snore, young men could return home from a night out drinking, her mother could bang pots in the kitchen making breakfast, and Gabrielle would sleep through it all and awake well-rested for the day's work. But since she began traveling with Xena, it appeared that heavy-sleeping at best meant she would miss out on some of the excitement.
And such was the case this night when Gabrielle awoke to a loud heavy thud of stone upon stone far off in the altar room in a structure near the opposite side of the courtyard. Xena was already gone. She had awakened to the not-quite-right sound of sandled feet scrambling over walls, and immediately charged into the courtyard to engage three thieves at the front door. They were well armed and well trained, but not enough to represent a serious threat, and Xena was endeavoring to take them alive, if for no other reason than to learn what drew them to this obscure and remote temple.
She disarmed one thief as he lunged with a spear that Xena parried, grabbed, then twisted from his hands while side-kicking him hard enough in the ribs to send him on his backside. Swinging the butt end of the spear behind her head, she took out another attacker coming up behind her with a knife, and was preparing to reduce the fighting force to nil, when she heard the deep thud that awakened Gabrielle, and realized at once that she had fallen for a diversion. These were no ordinary temple thieves.
Sweeping the spear at knee level, Xena tripped the remaining opponent clearing an escape path for herself, then sprinted toward the origin of the sound, drawing her sword for what had become serious business.
She arrived in the altar room just as Gabrielle arrived.
Oenone was there, frantically saying, "They got it! They got it! They knew where it was!" In the center of the room, a large floor stone had been pried up and flopped to the side, exposing a long thin hiding space below.
"Where did they go?" Xena demanded urgently.
"I-I don't know!" Oenone sputtered. "I didn't see them!"
Xena scanned the roomed. The only way out was the way she had come in, except for... the window! She lunged for it, then quickly clambered out. Gabrielle followed her as far as the windowsill where she saw Xena had leaped a large gap to the roof of another an auxiliary building. In the starlight, Gabrielle could make out Xena bounding over the rooftop, closing in on a more distant figure now sliding down the gable to the top of the outer wall of the temple. Once on the wall, the figure turned towards Xena and held up what appeared to be a some sort of weapon or tool and reached for its handle.
To this, Gabrielle saw Xena do something she had never seen her do before: she hesitated.
In the next instant, the figure leaped off the wall into the trees, disappearing beneath the waves of the forest ocean.
Gabrielle met up with Xena back in the courtyard, the accomplices having long since slipped back outside. Xena walked backed to their sleeping quarters, staring straight ahead, wearing an expression of both gloominess and disgust.
"We don't chase after them now?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena did not answer, but she had already weighed the tactical pros and cons. Chase after superior numbers in the darkness where one could be ambushed? No, not when she saw a face she recognized and knew where he must be going.
Sometimes, the gods will send a mortal a sign. Sometimes, they even send you a vision in your sleep. Sometimes, they sit you down and provide a half hour detailed lecture complete with charts and diagrams covering the subject matter from top to bottom with truly divine clarity. And sometimes, the message still does not get through.
Case in point: one Itys, a young man (more young than man) with the ambition to become the most feared warlord in the Aegean. If the Fates were at all cooperative, he would be well on his way, climbing the bloody ladder of some army of marauders somewhere. He was strong for his age and size, and practiced his fighting skills daily with glee, but most important, he had carefully cultivated within himself a complete disregard for the suffering of others, a characteristic he called "toughness."
But for reasons we mortals can only wonder, the Fates were not cooperative, as was apparent to Gabrielle after she first came across Itys a week before the eventful night at the forest temple of Artemis. The frogs were a big clue. It was evening and Gabrielle had found an inn for the night, a luxury Gabrielle justified with the fact that the innkeeper had promised to let Xena and Gabrielle stay for free in exchange for some work in the cellar.
"Iíll take care of the cellar," Gabrielle said explaining the deal.
Xena had reasons other than cost for avoiding inns, but agreed on seeing Gabrielleís enthusiasm for an actual bed to sleep in. "Alright. Iíll tend to Argo while you do that."
Reporting for duty to the innkeeper, Gabrielle discovered that this particular inn had an inexplicable infestation of frogs in its cellar. Her job was to remove them by any means necessary. Gabrielle, who used to catch frogs for fun as a child, had no intention of bludgeoning the harmless and innocent frogs with her staff. Borrowing a heavy wooden chest from the innkeeper, she would take them alive and release them to a nearby lake. Catching the frogs was easy and enjoyable, and Gabrielle's childhood skill and memories returned to her quickly. Getting the frogs in the chest was another matter. After the first 20 or so were in, she could not add one without two others jumping out. One bounded off her chest and shoulder, and it tickled. Once Gabrielle started laughing she couldnít stop herself. She laughed at how the frogs looked. She laughed at how they jumped. She laughed at how they croaked. She laughed at how they felt in her hand, struggling to escape. Finally, after packing as many frogs as she dared in the chest, she heaved it up and carried it up the stairs, giggling the while.
She came into the innís entrance hall with a big smile on her face. The innkeeper was there along with two men, evidently guests who had just arrived. There was something else there too, a certain nervous tension in the room, although Gabrielle, still flush with frogs, did not notice it until she thought back later. "Hey," she called to the men cheerfully as she walked into the room. "Iím Gabrielle. Who might you two be?"
One of the men stepped forward. His face was very young. His body had the muscles of a well-exercised adult. Under his nose, he had a feeble attempt at a mustache. He wore a sword and black chain armor. His hair was long and brown and soft. His eyes were pale and he stared with practiced intensity. "I am Itys," he said as if that name should mean something. He held his black gauntleted hand towards the other visitor. "And this is Polydectes."
That did mean something. Polydectes was a ruthless warlord and ruler from decades ago. He was reputed to leave no survivors from the villages he pillaged. He was also reputed to be dead.
"Itys!" the man hissed in suppressed fury. "When you persuaded me to come out of retirement and lead you on this enterprise, one of the conditions I gave was that my name not be used until the time is right! I have many enemies!"
Gabrielle paused to look more closely at him. He was the right age, that is, quite old. He was also armed and armored with equipment of high quality but old style. Could this really be the monster of whom so many songs have been sung? Where had he been hiding all these years?
Gabrielle opened her mouth to ask the old man a question but Itys cut her off. "So, you seem awfully pleased with what you have in that chest," he said, walking up to Gabrielle, his eyes smoldering.
"Oh, this," Gabrielle replied with a grin, "you wouldnít believe how long it took me to get this far."
"Is that so?" Itys nodded as he stood in front of her. His next motion was so sudden and violent, that it took Gabrielle by surprise: With both arms he quickly wrenched the heavy chest from Gabrielle with such force that it hurt her hands.
"Hey!" she cried. "Where did you learn your manners?"
But Itys had turned away from her and was ignoring her. "What do you think, Polydectes?" he smiled as he set the chest on a table before the old warlord. "Perhaps enough right here to start our army." He undid the chestís latch.
"No! Donít open that!" Gabrielle protested.
In the tales the bards tell, it is said that Polydectes had only one weakness: a morbid and entirely irrational fear of frogs. In the next moment between 20 and 30 frogs leaped at once at Polydectes, ricocheting off his chest, arms, and face. He let out a hoarse howl. His eyes bulged like they never had in battle. He reeled backwards wildly, his face turning a sickly yellow. Then he fell to the floor with a crash, frogs scattering in all directions to avoid getting crushed. He was dead.
Upon hearing the crash of Polydectesís fall, Xena was in the hall in an instance. She saw the innkeeper and a young warrior standing over the body of an old warrior. Gabrielle was at his side futilely searching for a pulse. No weapons were drawn. No blood was evident. The young warrior stood frozen as if stunned. The innkeeper somehow managed to combine fear and annoyance into one facial expression. Dozens of frogs hopped hither and dither all over the place. It didnít add up to any known sum. "Alright, Gabrielle," Xena said evenly. "What happened here?"
Itys looked to Xena with recognition and undisguised awe. "Youíre Xena!" he gaped.
The innkeeper gave a look of increased fear and annoyance. "Polydectes, and now Xena?" he mumbled and then turned to Xena and said, "Look, please, I donít want any trouble. I just run an inn."
Itys suddenly threw himself face down on the floor before Xena. "O mighty warrior princess," he said to the floor. "I, Itys, humbly swear my allegiance to you! May I slay a thousand for the glory of Xena!" He lifted his head to listen for a response and found himself eyeball to eyeball with a particularly fat frog.
A look of disgust crept across Xenaís lips. "Get up," she said quietly to him. "Perhaps you havenít heard. I no longer wage wars of conquest."
"Oh, but you could again. I sincerely believe," Itys said oily as he pulled himself to his knees, "that your greatest days are yet to come. But youíll need the best warriors. Ones who will sacrifice everything for victory. Start with me! Iíve served Sciron valiantly at Cnossus. I was an invaluable scout for Sinis. I fought bravely with Procrustes at the Battle of Paphos. I can kill in cold blood without so much as blinking. Countless have met gruesome ends because of me."
Xena looked toward the body of Polydectes. "Tell me, did you say the same things to that warrior over there?"
Itys shrugged. "Well, yeah, but he just croaked."
Xena had heard enough, "Címon, Gabrielle. Weíre leaving. Now." She glowered at Itys. "Donít try to follow us."
Gabrielle walked passed Itys with staff and sack in hand, then paused and turned to him gently. "Yíknow, you just killed your own leader with a chest full of amphibians. Perhaps thatís a sign you should be in a different line of work. Think about it, okay?" To the innkeeper she said, "Sorry about the frogs--"
The innkeeper interrupted, "Just go. Please."
As Gabrielle and Xena walked out to Argo, they could hear Itys calling after them: "I canít believe youíre turning your back on me like this! Youíll regret it! We will meet in battle sometime, and youíll remember and regret! Youíll see! Iím going to be the most terrible, most feared, the worse--" He almost sounded like he was going to cry.
"Empty threat," Gabrielle said, mostly to herself. "Weíll probably never see him again."
Now, a little over a week later, as Xena and Gabrielle entered the coastal town of Iolcos in search of the mysterious thief from the temple in the forest, they were about to meet Itys again. And do battle with him.
The thief sat on a barrel on the wharf looking out over the water, the midafternoon sun beating down on him. Across his lap, wrapped in canvas was the object he stole. Behind him was his gang of ruffians who were responsible for the diversion at the temple. They were a not particularly savory lot, and they milled about bored, poking around at hanging fishing nets, stacks of crab traps, coils of ropes, and pails of fish guts used for bait. Whatever fishermen own this paraphernalia had the good sense to stay away.
Xena and Gabrielle approached from the marketplace adjacent to the wharf, making no attempt to be inconspicuous.
"Weíll try this the easy way first," Xena said quietly to Gabrielle. "But if things get difficult, stay away from the one on the barrel. Iíll take care of him."
"Hm. Itís not like you to have a personal grudge," Gabrielle observed.
"Itís not personal," Xena corrected. "Itís... tactical. Just keep clear of him."
They were now almost within earshot. The band of ruffians stopped to watch, making nasty sounding comments under their breath. They looked like they would fight just to have something to do. The thief on the barrel kept his back to Xena pretending not to notice.
One of the ruffians stepped directly in front of Xenaís path. It was Itys. "So youíve come to look for me," he said to Xena, his chest swelling. "Well, Iím afraid you are just too late. I joined up with these guys this morning. Weíre all with Otus and Ephialtes."
Xena glanced his way, but then brushed by him without breaking stride. Itys turned and watched her walk up to the thief. Gabrielle, staying behind, leaning on her staff, saw the back of Itysís neck flush red with embarrassment or anger or both. Xena swung a leg over a crate and sat beside the thief and faced him.
"Hello Xena," the thief said with mock civility.
"Hello Sinon," Xena replied in the same tone.
"So it was you I saw on the rooftops," Sinon said capriciously. "I thought so, but then I wasnít so sure, for certainly Xena would catch up with me before noon. Are you slipping in your old age?"
Xena knew successful negotiation against an adversary often meant getting one up on him. "Youíve come down a few notches in the past years. Used to be one of my best lieutenants. Now youíre just a temple thief for Otus. Well, you never were much of a warrior when you were in my army."
Sinon turned and smirked. "Thief or warrior, whatís the difference? Both just go about taking things from other people. A warrior is just a thief that's taken so much and become so strong that people respect him. You're not a criminal, you're an honorable warrior, or a most royal king, --or a mighty princess."
Xena smirked back. "Iíve never been particularly interested in philosophy. I am interested in what you have on your lap."
"It wasnít easy to track down. You didnít leave many clues on where you hid it. That wasnít the first place I broke into. Fortunately, Otus was willing to finance a very exhaustive search. But my big break was--"
"How much is Otus paying you to get it for him?" interrupted Xena.
Sinon looked to Xena with a raised eyebrow. "Are you serious? You donít really think you can outbid Otus, do you?"
"Why donít you try me? Perhaps it means more to me than Otus. Youíre aware that I have a certain Ďsentimentalí attachment to it."
"Iíll trade it for an army. One greater than Otus and Ephialtes have now," Sinon offered.
Xena drop her smirk. Her eyes went icy. "You have no intention of giving it to Otus, do you? You want it for yourself."
"You have to admit, itís a neat plan. Dispatch him, then Ephialtes, and then I get their army. Something I could never get from you."
In the next instant there past an almost telepathic exchange between Xena and Sinon, the sort of exchange that can only occur between old warriors who know each other too well: Xena now knew she had no other option but to attack at once before Sinon could react; Sinon knew that Xena knew this. As a result, both moved simultaneously. Xena snapped a knife-hand strike towards Sinonís throat while snatching at the canvas in Sinonís lap with her free hand. But Sinon had already spun off his barrel, and was now standing away. From its canvas wrapping, he now exposed the stolen object to daylight: a scabbard, and from it, a sword, which he held high pointed at Xena. The blade was of metal but not ordinary iron. It was black and glassy as if it were constantly wet with fresh blood. The edge was irregular and jagged, like fragmented obsidian. It seemed to writhe slightly, the point quivering as Sinon held it, as if it were seeking a target.
Sinon whispered, "This time, Xena, it looks like itís for you."
Xena eyes focused on the tip of Sinonís sword. But then refocused on Sinon himself, and she smiled and drew her own sword.
Sinonís ruffians, seeing a chance to escape their boredom, all lunged at Xena. Xena took out the first with a back kick to the groin, and then knocked down two more with single flying hook kick.
Sinon waved them off. "Stay back! Youíll only get killed!"
The only one now standing to heed this order was Itys. Not about to miss out on any fun, he immediately turned around and attacked Gabrielle.
Xena capitalized on Sinonís distraction and lunged in swinging her sword up from below, but Sinon parried her sword with his and whip his blade around to strike Xena at the neck. Xena dodged and faded back to avoid the strike, slashing sideways with her sword defensively. Sinon had been practicing. No more trying to disarm him. This has to be all-out.
Gabrielle, meanwhile, responded to Itysís charge by snapping the ground end of her staff up and catching Itys cleanly under the chin. The impact surprised and hurt Itys, but did not stop him. He drew his sword and slashed fiercely at Gabrielle. He was clearly physically tougher and stronger than Gabrielle --she would not be able to defeat him, but Gabrielle was faster and more nimble, so maybe she could tire him out. She dodged and parried left and right, and struck at his body and head but this seemed to have too little affect on Itys. It was not going good. Out of her peripheral vision, Gabrielle could see the other ruffians had picked themselves up and were coming after her too. Worse, Itys was beginning to predict her dodges, so Gabrielle tried something new but desperate. As Itys cut sideways with his sword, Gabrielle dropped to one knee and swept out his back foot with her staff. Itys stumbled sideways and backwards. He dropped his sword and it skittered off the edge of the wharf and into deep murky water. Trying to regain his balance, Itys caught his heal in a rope coil and he fell back into a large pail of bait knocking it over. Smelly fish guts poured across the wooded planking.
At about this time, Xena caught Sinonís sword at the hilt with hers and pushed it aside, opening Sinon up for a full force side kick that caught Sinon in the abdomen. Sinon flew back from the blow but landed against a fishnet stretch over pilings to dry, which bounced him right back at Xena. He let himself go airborne, leg extended in a low flying side kick, sword swinging to his right to catch Xena as she dodged. Xena spun to the opposite side, escaping the leg and blade. Sinon twisted around in midair and landed squarely behind Xena. Squarely, that is, on a particularly slimy specimen of fish entails. Sinonís feet slip clean out from under him. He lost his grip on the sword and it sailed into the air. Sinon landed hard flat on his back knocking his wind out, and looked up just in time to see own sword plummet point down upon him. With a bright blue spark it pierced his chest armor, drilled cleanly through his heart, poked through his back armor, and then, for good measure, drove completely through the dock planking, the hilt coming to rest on his still chest.
Xena turned to see a tired Gabrielle, still on one knee, frantically trying to fend off all three ruffians, who were unaware of the state of their leader. Letting loose a battle cry, Xena charged in. In less than two seconds, one ruffian was unconscious, another doubled over in pain, and another was running away.
Xena helped Gabrielle to her feet. "Are you okay?"
"No...," Gabrielle gasped for breath, "...problem." She raised a shaky hand to direct Xena to what was behind her.
A largely unscathed Itys had crawled over to Sinonís body, and had forcibly pulled the sword from his chest. He was appraising the bloody blade. "A bit crude looking, but it works," he said to himself. In one motion, he slid it into his own empty scabbard.
"Itys!" Xena cried as she heard the sound of metal sliding on leather.
Itys looked up at her with a confused expression. "What? This?" He reached to draw the sword to show it to Xena.
Itys found that his new sword appeared to be stuck in his scabbard. He pulled at it harder. Then harder still. He clawed at the belt buckle of the scabbard to take it off to get better leverage. It would not unbuckle. Frustration clutched him He pulled a knife from his boot and began to saw frantically at the belt. It would not cut. He thrashed his arms about wildly alternating between sawing, unbuckling, and pulling. With a roar, he threw his knife down, and stood akimbo, scowling. He looked to Xena. "This is one of those divine things, isnít it?"
Xena sighed, "It's the Sword of Iphigenia"
Gabrielle looked to Xena, "Thatís the Sword of Iphigenia? Forged by Hephaestus himself centuries ago?"
"Whatís the Sword of Iphigenia?" asked Itys.
"It kills every time itís drawn," Gabrielle replied.
Xena answered sternly, "Every time."
Itys looked down at the hilt with new appreciation. "It's the ultimate weapon."
Xena ignored this comment. "Sinon was obviously waiting to meet Otus and Ephialtes here. We should move on now." She pointed to Itys. "You are coming with us."
"So," Itys said with satisfaction. "It looks like you need me after all."
"Donít push it," Xena warned.
Itys responded with an exasperated huff.
As they were clearing the town limits, approaching the point where Xena had left Argo, Itys suddenly stopped. "Now wait a minute!" he called. "You said this sword kills every time, but you werenít killed. In fact, the only person whoís dead is--"
Xena stopped and looked at Itys.
"Oh. I see. Never mind."
As the sun sank low, the war-galley cruised into the harbor under the steady strokes of the oarsmen. It was not a large ship by most accounts, powered by a mere eight slaves, but it carried a fighting capacity greater than galleys four times it size: Otus, his first lieutenant Ephialtes, and seven other hand-picked warriors from Otus and Ephialtesís army. Otus stood aft beside the helmsmen, stripped to the waist, thrusting his well-scarred chest forward into the wind. He was a big man, as tall as Hercules, but stouter. He kept his head completely shaved except for a dark downward-turned mustache that gave him a perpetual frown. Ephialtes sat on the gunwale to Otusís right. In his hands he held Otusís bronze breastplate, which he was lovingly polishing to a mirror-like finish with a strip of sheepskin. Ephialtes was shorter and slighter than Otus, but still powerfully built. He also kept his head shaved save for a mustache, but, being blond, it never looked right sitting there alone under his nose.
Otus called to the lookout in the bow. "Is Sinon there?"
"No," the lookout called back. "I donít see him on the wharf."
Otus called to another one of his men. "Are you sure he said heíd be here today?" he growled.
"Absolutely. And he said heíd have the Sword."
Otus huffed. "That unreliable little...."
"Perhaps he ran into some delays. A bit of extra resistance," Ephialtes offered soothingly as he caressed the pectorals hammered into the breastplate.
"He shouldíve counted on it," Otus snapped. "He wanted me here personally, and now heís going to keep me waiting." Otus huffed again and ordered, "We wait one day. In the meantime, I donít expect to waste my time completely. Centering exercise. Put a plank off the stern."
"Now?" Ephialtes asked. "You want to do it while we are still underway?"
Otus glared at Ephialtes. "You doubt that I can?"
"Absolutely not," Ephialtes replied jumping to his feet. "I donít doubt the you can do anything." He gently laid the breastplate on the deck and fetched a heavy plank from amidship which he lashed securely to the aft gunwale so that its end was cantilevered four feet over the water. Otus climbed out on the plank and stood with his back to the water in a well-braced forward stance. The plank bowed and bounced a little under his weight and he swayed slightly to the gentle rocking of the galley. Then he breathed out forcibly from deep in his chest and dropped his center of gravity. He had become motionless, solidly locked on the plank like he were a bronze statue firmly bolted down. This was his favorite drill, not because it gave him good practice --which it did not --but because he was better at it than anyone else in the Aegean and he knew it.
Ephialtes climbed up on the plank facing Otus, but having more trouble balancing even though he was on the relatively steady end. Then he began. He started with simple front kicks, full force, directly into Otusís chest. Otus made no effort to block the attack but absorbed the blows like a mountain.
Otus grinned tauntingly. "Enough warm-up," he hissed. "Get serious now."
Ephialtes switched to side kicks, hopping in on Otus to drive all is body weight into Otus. He targeted the shoulders, trying to twist Otus off balanced. The raw smacking sound of sandal on skin beat like drum. Ephialtes breathed each time with increasing audibility as he stepped up the tempo and force, but Otus still remained firmly planted to the plank, his only sign of effort being the beads of sweat that began to break out on his forehead. And he coaxed and taunted Ephialtes in a hoarse whisper that built to a bellow: "Címon, show me what you got. Give it to me! Give it to me! Is that all you can do? You call yourself a man? Harder! Harder!" Ephialtes was thrashing savagely at Otus now screaming out as he slammed his left and right leg into Otusís body. Bruises began to appear on Otusís chest. He closed his eyes and entered a sort of trance, but continued to shout, "Big One! Give me a BIG one! Ephialtes hopped off the plank to do the grand finale. With a running start he hurled himself into the air, leg extending into a flying front kick.
The lookout suddenly called out, "I see Sinon! Heís flat on the dock!".
Otus instantly snapped out his trance. "What?" He hopped diagonally to the shipís deck and ran forward. Ephialtes, much to his own surprise, sail gracefully off the stern. A loud splash was heard by all aboard.
The lookout continued his report as Otus arrived by his side. "I think heís dead. Thereís blood everywhere."
"Never mind him. What about the sword?" Otus snapped, peering over the bow with the lookout.
The helmsman called from the stern, "Do you want to turn around and pick up Ephialtes?"
"Oh, let him swim," Otus yelled in annoyance.
"There, to the right, by that canvas," the lookout pointed. "It looks like a scabbard. I think itís empty."
Otusís face fell. He turned away in silence.
"Oh this is... so weird," the lookout continued to whoever was still listening. "Thereís all this.... It looks like a basket of fish exploded, or something."
After dark, as the galley lay tied to the dock, Otus stood far out on jetty alone with Ephialtes and he looked back across the harbor at the setting crescent moon. The rest of his soldiers stayed away from them, but the soldiers knew what Otus and Ephialtes were saying to each other. Otus thought he hid his feelings well from his men, but they knew how he reacted to setbacks however minor, and to be around him would only embarrass him --which was dangerous.
"Otus," he sighed. "I screw it up again."
"It was Sinonís fault," Ephialtes tried to console. "He wasnít up for the mission."
"I sent him on the mission. I shouldíve given him better men. Itís like everything else I do. It never amounts to everything." Otus was almost whimpering.
"Otus. Otus, Otus, O-tus!" Ephialtes chanted.
"Stop it!" Otus voice turned sharply to anger.
Ephialtes continued, "Donít you know what that name means? Everyone knows it! Everyone trembles to it! How many men have you slain? How many villages have you sacked? How many women have you taken? There is no one greater. Thatís you! And everyone knows it!"
"They know nothing!"
"I know it."
"Well, then, youíre an idiot!"
There was a long pause. Then Otus spoke, his voice high and gentle. "Ephialtes?"
"Youíre not going to quit on me now, are you?"
Ephialtes glowed to his shred of acknowledgement that he had some importance. "Nothing can make me quit on you," Ephialtes promised as he had often promised before. "We will always fight together. We will die together."
Otus turned around toward Ephialtes with his eyes closed tightly.
"Youíre not going to regret this, Xena," Itys said to her, as the sun came down upon the horizon.
Xena walked on. "I already do."
Itys kept pace with Xena. He tried to ignore her reaction, but his voice betrayed irritation. "With this sword, think of what we could do. No one would dare oppose us. I could take a town single-handedly with it."
"Youíre not taking anything."
"You underestimate me. Ask Gabrielle about my fighting. Ask anyone. Iíve served Sciron valiantly at Cnossus. I was an invaluable scout for Sinis. I fought bravely with Procrustes at the Battle of Paphos. I can kill in cold blood without so much as blinking. Countless have met gruesome ends because of me."
Xena glanced down on him, "And thatís supposed to impress me?"
Itys turned angry, "Aw, what more do you want? Iím strong. Iím deadly. What else counts?" He stomped off ahead of Xena, brushing past Gabrielle as he went.
Gabrielle watched him for a moment, then replaced him beside Xena. "You carried the sword of Iphigenia in your old days?" Gabrielle asked. They were now on a narrow straight path through a flat grassland, with Xena leading Argo. As darkness crept up from the east horizon and the trail seem to fade off to infinity before and behind them. Xenaís eyes remained fixed on Itys who walked ahead a score of paces.
"I had it for a short while. I forgot who we got it from." Xenaís voice acquired its far-off tone it usually did when she spoke of her old days. "It was some warlord we killed in a dawn surprise attack. He was sleeping. He never got a chance to draw it."
"What was it like to use it?"
"It was... very effective. Itís not like it would seek a victim. Itís just that if you pointed it at someone it would tend to go through him. It would take your own intention, and exaggerate it until it became something tangible."
"So thatís why Itys canít remove it? It needs a violent intention?"
"I donít really know. I donít think I ever drew it without intending to use it."
"So you hid it when you turned to good."
"No, I hid it long before that."
"Why? I mean if it were so effective...."
"Two of my own men stole it once, then they got into a fight over it. By the time I got to them, one had killed the other with it."
"What happened to the survivor?"
"I executed him on the spot."
Gabrielle felt a chill up her back. She had no trouble accepting Xenaís past, but she could not help but have an emotional response when confronted with how common brutality had been for Xena.
"I lost two of my own men to it. It was too dangerous to keep around. So I hid it," Xena offered as an explanation.
"So now what?" Gabrielle asked, shifting to the relatively kinder present.
Xena lowered her voice. "Now we do what I shouldíve done back then but was afraid to do."
"You? Afraid?" Gabrielle gave a chuckle, then immediately regretted it. She knew Xena would not admit a weakness to just anyone.
But Xena took no offense to Gabrielle honest reaction. "I was afraid of losing an advantage. I thought I might need it some day."
In the gathering dark, the trail made a gentle bend along a small river that stretched around a low knoll topped by a cluster of trees. Gabrielle paused to look up at the knoll top and appraise it for its supply of firewood, water, and protection from the elements. Xena looked up to appraise it for its defensibility, capacity to provide advanced warning, and fodder for Argo. They looked knowingly at each other. Xena spoke, "It looks about as good as we can get around here."
Gabrielle called up to Itys, "Come back. Weíre camping here."
Itys walked back to them, "Camp? Why do we have to camp out? Thereís a village I know of only a couple miles up ahead."
Xena answered coolly, "Because Iíve been through this land before. I would not be welcomed at that village." She and Gabrielle began unloading Argo and carrying their gear to the top of the knoll.
"Well, I'd think that would be their problem," Itys said, not moving from the trail. Then he acquired an uncharacteristically silly smile. "Hey, Gabrielle, where does a fully armed warrior princess sleep?"
"...On the ramparts?" Gabrielle guessed.
"No! Anyplace she wants!" And then Itys laughed, a high-pitched giggly laugh. An earnest fully uninhibited laugh. And he kept laughing, bending over and holding himself up at the knees.
Gabrielle didnít laugh, but she walked back to Itys and smiled at him in appreciation of his effort. "That was a good one. Címon," she invited, touching his elbow. "Why donít you help me set up camp?"
Itys straightened up and collected himself, looking around as if there were any hope that anyone missed his little emotional display.
Xena spread their gear among the trees. "Weíll have a fire tonight," she said.
Gabrielle acknowledged then commented, "Iím sure you realize that Otus and Ephialtes will be after us now."
"Otusís men can track us almost as easily without a fire as with," Xena replied. "But they donít know exactly what Sinon told us. I want them to think we donít know theyíre out there."
Gabrielle knew there would be an explanation, and began gathering dead branches from around the tree cluster and carefully stacking them on a bare patched of ground.
Itys joined Gabrielle in the work, and whispered to her genuinely impressed, "Oh, sheís good."
Gabrielle smiled. "So," she said in the tone of small talk, "why do you want to be a warrior?"
"Easy," Itys smiled. "Respect."
"People know your name, and know what youíve done. They get out of your way on the street. You get quick service in inns. They call you Ďsir.í People respect a great warrior. Because they know if they donít, Nchk!" He made a quick cutting gesture across his throat.
"I donít think thatís respect."
"Sure it is."
"Fear brings respect." A hint of hostility appeared in Itys voice.
Gabrielle decided to shift the topic. "So what do your parents think about you becoming a warrior."
Itys shrugged, "My fatherís been dead since I was one. Killed by a passing army while he was out hunting for our dinner."
They had finished arranging the firewood, complete with a scrap of papery bark at the core of the pile. Itys pulled out a piece of flint and his boot knife and struck them together to ignite the bark. Blowing on it carefully he nurtured a flame to life.
"And your mother..." Gabrielle probed.
"Well, we were never rich to start with." Itys recounted with cool detachment. "My mother moved to Cnossus, and eventually had to take to whoring to support me and my four brothers and sisters. I did what I could to help."
In Gabrielle mind, she envisioned a brave woman willing to compromise anything to keep her family alive. Her reverie was broken by Itys, speaking quietly to himself in another voice from long ago:
"ĎSon of a whore. Canít have him working here. Wouldnít look good.í" He leaned toward the fire and blew again. Flames quickly spread to the rest of the pile. The heat was intense. Itys stared into its core. "ĎSon of a whore. He wonít amount to anythingí.... Heh! Theyíll see! Iíll be the greatest, most merciless warrior theyíve ever known." Fire reflected in his eyes.
"Do you really think your mother would want you to become like the men who killed your father?" Gabrielle asked.
At first Itys continue to stare into the fire, and then Gabrielleís question registered. "My mother?" he glared and snapped at Gabrielle. "To Tartarus with her, if sheís not there already! Sheís a whore!" He rose abruptly, strode off to his sleep roll, and threw himself down on it.
Gabrielle tended the fire for awhile wondering if she pushed too hard. She turned to look at Itys. He had fallen asleep. Xena was down at the base of the knoll securing the perimeter with tripwire alarms. Gabrielle left the heat of the fire and waded down through the cool tall grass until she found Xena in the dark. She was squatting down, weaving grass strands together into a long line.
Gabrielle kneeled down beside Xena. "Weíll be having company tonight, huh?"
"Actually," Xena answered softly, "Otus is the type to use ambush rather than sneak attack. But you can never be too sure." Xena finished one tripwire, shifted position, and began weaving another line. Gabrielle shifted with her.
"This is the last one," Xena said, anticipating Gabrielleís question.
"It would go faster if you show me how to do it," Gabrielle offered.
It was as good of a time for a lesson as any. "Use three strands at a time, and weave them like youíre braiding hair."
Gabrielle started to work on the other end of Xenaís line and found she could get a good length in little time. "Yíknow, you shouldnít be so hard on Itys. I donít think heís such a bad guy inside."
"Gabrielle, the first time you met him, he tried to rob you, and the second time he tried to kill you."
"I know, but I think thereís someone else in there too."
Xena continued weaving the line at her end. "Iíve seen his type plenty of times before, and I really donít need being stuck with one like him now."
"You know what he told me he wants? Respect. Thatís all he wants. Is that too much to ask for?"
Xena answered as if she already knew this. "If he ever does something respectful, then Iíll respect him." She leaned over and appraised Gabrielleís work. "Good." She laid a delicate willow leaf in Gabrielleís hand. "Tie this on the end like this." With another leaf, she made it into a loop and tied it on her own end of the line.
Gabrielle tried a couple times but each time the leaf came undone. "Canít you just cut him a little slack? Heís had a tough life."
"So have I."
"Can you show me how you did that again?" Gabrielle rested her chin on Xenaís shoulder and watched as Xena undid her own leaf and retied it. "Is that why you donít like him?" Gabrielle asked inquisitively. "Because he reminds you of you? The old you?"
"Over, now curl it, without pinching, okay?" Xena instructed. She looked to her friend at her shoulder. "There are maybe a dozen reasons why I was the way I was, but his reason was never mine."
"I donít think I can see what youíre doing in the dark." Gabrielle looked up at Xenaís face. "But what about how you changed? Donít you think he can change like you?"
"Here, let me have your hands," said Xena. Gabrielle felt Xenaís strong but precise hands on her own as she guided her fingers through the motions of tying the leaf. "What I found on the dark side is that for whatever reason you go there --wealth, fear, revenge, hate, whatever --you find itís never enough. You have to go further and further. And, if youíre lucky, you reach a line you cannot cross. And thatís when you learn you have to give up on it."
"That could happened to Itys," Gabrielle mused. The leaf was now tied on. "Oh, I see how to do it now."
Xena kept a hand on one of Gabrielleís hands. "Keep tension on the line. It keeps the knot from pulling out." She reached behind her for a couple of stiff reeds she had gathered from the riverbank. She stuck them into the ground, one in front of herself and the other beside Gabrielle. "It could happen to Itys too," Xena agreed. "But you canít just tell him. Itís the kind of thing heíll have to find out on his own --if he ever does. And how many will he kill before that happens? Now be careful not to tear to leaf as you slip it over the reed. Lick it to make it slippery." Xena bent over and licked the inside of the leaf loop at her end and gently worked it over the reed before her.
Gabrielle licked her loop then stretched the line to her reed. Under the tension of the line, the reeds bent like little bows. The slightest pressure on the line from any angle and the leaf loops would break making the reeds to spring back and vibrate. The intruder would not feel or hear it. Gabrielle, sleeping by the fire would not feel or hear it. But Xena, resting with an ear to the ground would feel and hear it and know from which direction it came. Yes, she is good.
Xena still had a hand on Gabrielleís. Gabrielle returned her chin to Xenaís shoulder, and looked into the night sky. "Thereís a crescent moon setting tonight," she said idly.
Xena shook her head. "I still donít expect Otus to attack us here."
"I meant itís pretty."
Xena sighed slowly, and Gabrielle felt tension leave Xenaís shoulder. "Yes, it is," she finally said.
Heavy clouds moved in overnight. In the gray morning, they left Argo in a grove not far from the campsite and then proceeded with Xena in the lead. From there, the trail followed the river into a valley of black rock lushly overgrown with green. The water flowed white and fast and the trail became steep and rocky. Progress was slow. Then it began to rain, light but steady. Then Itys began to complain. "Where are we going, anyway?"
"Up ahead Otus and Ephialtes will be waiting for us," Xena called back.
"Then we fight."
Itysís spirits seemed to lift immediately.
Xena paused, then turned around and looked directly at Itys for the first time. "Come before me." She said in a martial tone that she had never used with Gabrielle.
Itys shot a glance at Gabrielle then climbed up to Xena, trying to hide his apprehension at the sudden attention.
Xena look him hard in the eyes. "Once you swore allegiance to me. Do you stand by that vow?"
Itys hesitated, perhaps considering the options. "I do."
Itys dropped to one knee.
"Swear complete allegiance and obedience to me."
It was far from clear to Gabrielle what Xena was trying accomplish with this unusual order. For one thing, it seemed unlikely that Itysís word would be worth much of anything. For all she knew, he had sworn allegiance to Otus who they would now fight.
"I, Itys, swear complete allegiance and obedience to Xena, Warrior Princess, until death claims me."
It sounded good.
Xena now crouched down putting her face up to Itysís. "Now these are my orders." She gripped his chin firmly. Itys appeared in awe. Or paralyzed by fear. "When the battle is joined, I will give you my sword and you will draw the Sword of Iphigenia and give it to me. Is that understood? You will not under any circumstances re-sheath it after drawing it. You will give it to me unsheathed. Even if the battle is over by the time you get to me. Is that clear?"
"I understand and I will obey," Itys said solemnly.
Xena released her grip on Itysís chin and rose, then she did something Itys didnít see. She looked to Gabrielle, and for instant her hard look disappear and she shrugged, more with her eyes than her shoulders, as if to say "Well, worth a shot." Then the hard look returned and she said to Itys, "Arise now and be ready for battle."
He stood and turned to Gabrielle and flashed her a glowing smile.
They resumed walking, Xena leading by a good distance, Itys and Gabrielle walking together.
"She is really depending on me, isnít she?" he said proudly to Gabrielle.
"I think sheís relying on you to do exactly as she says," Gabrielle acknowledged.
"Well, she can trust me. You want to know how much she can trust me? Let me tell you about when I served Sciron at Cnossus. He was the first warlord I swore allegiance to."
"Arenít you from Cnossus?"
"Yeah, I grew up there. Sciron had laid siege to the city. Food was running low. Everyone was getting despondent. But I saw an opportunity to get out of that lousy town and get on the road to glory. I remember it was a rainy night. Heavy rain --much more than this. I slipped out of the city walls through a secret way I know and made my way right up to Scironís feet as he surveyed the siege from atop of a bluff. He stood like a lion, ignoring the wind and weather, conferring with his lieutenants. There I swore complete loyalty to him. I remember him looking down at me, rain water pouring over the rim of his helmet. ĎAnd how shall you prove your loyalty to me?í he asked. I replied ĎI shall open the gates of Cnossus for you!í--"
"You promised to open the gates of your own city to an invading army?" Gabrielle interjected.
"Exactly. My word of loyalty meant so much that I would betray my own home."
Gabrielle still failed to see how this act of treachery was a good example of trust.
"ĎAll I need is long pike with a strong iron head,í I said to Sciron. You see, the gates of Cnossus are specially weighted so that a person cannot open them single-handedly. But I had figured out a way to use a pike as a lever. Scironís lieutenants told him not to do it. ĎDonít trust one of the enemy,í they said, but he brushed them aside and personally brought me a mighty pike. So clearly I remember him wordlessly holding it out to me. It was heavy --a thick shaft rising twice as high as he stood, but he held it out in one strong hand, gripping it firmly as the rainwater ran down over his fist."
"Youíre a pretty good storyteller, you know that?" Gabrielle said. The rain had soak through her clothes, and she welcomed any diversion.
Itys did not seem to notice the compliment. "The point Iím trying to make is that I really wouldíve open the gates for Sciron. Thatís how much my allegiance means."
"But you didnít."
"Well, you see, just has he held the pike out to me, a tremendous bolt of lightning struck the tip of it and shot right through him. Yíknow, it literally knocked his boots off. So with the leader dead, the whole siege just kinda fell apart. They packed up and left the next day. For some reason they wanted nothing to do with me."
"You didnít take Scironís death as an omen or sign of something?"
"Noooo. Why should I?"
They came to an overlook of the river a good ways below. Xena had stopped and was peering through the rainy murk. "A ford," was all she said.
Gabrielle followed her gaze and saw where the trail came to a muddy end at the riverbank. A thick rope was strung across river to provide travelers some support for fighting against the rushing water, a nontrivial safety feature as just three hundred paces downstream, the river poured over a high waterfall. "Well, Iím all wet anyway," Gabrielle quipped.
"I donít like it," Xena said ominously. Then she proceeded down the trail.
Gabrielle and Itys followed. The path worked its way slowly down to the riverbank, making tight zig-zags through dense foliage.
Gabrielle wanted to hear the end of Itysís story. "So you went home? After the siege broke?"
"Oh, no," Itys said, picking up from where he left off. "Iím no quitter. I wandered for days, and finally, I joined up with Sinisís army. They made me a scout. On my first assignment I found this great shortcut. We needed to cross the River Alpheus but it lay within a great chasm with shear unscalable walls, but I found this big bridge a mile upstream of where we camped. There I was, standing right beside Sinis himself as he sat on his horse, just me and his top staff. And we watched as our army marched across the bridge, spear and shield gleaming in the sun. It was an awesome sight. And Sinis says to me --in front of his staff, mind you --he says, ĎThis will save us at least three dayís march. Well done, Itys.í I figured I had it made in that army."
"So why did you leave it?"
"Well, you see, right after Sinis said Ďwell done,í the bridge collapsed. Almost the entire army plunged into the chasm. I donít think anyone survived. And then Sinis accused me of sabotage. He was going to draw and quarter me. I barely escaped."
"Do you see any pattern here to your history as a warrior?"
"You mean you havenít notice that every warlord youíve joined up with has met with some sort of disastrous, and, might I add, extraordinarily improbable fate?"
"Iím just unlucky, I guess."
"Did this sort of thing happen before? I mean, while you were living in Cnossus?"
"Well, no, but war is dangerous. People get killed."
Gabrielle gave Itys an entirely unconvinced look.
"What are you saying? I didnít order the whole firking army to march over the bridge at the same time."
"Youíve also mentioned you were at the Battle of Paphos."
"Yeah, I fought bravely there along side Procrustes himself."
"This is the same Battle of Paphos in which Procrustes got demolished by a motley band of farmers armed with pitchforks and hoes?"
"Look, I can explain--"
"Whereís Xena?" Gabrielle stopped abruptly. They were at the riverbank. The rope that stretch across the rapids was before them, and Gabrielle was glad it was there. The water positively roared over the rocks, appearing considerably more powerful up close.
"She must already be on the other side," Itys said, and plunged immediately in the river, holding the rope loosely as he waded casually into knee-deep water.
"Itys, wait!" Gabrielle called.
"Címon! Itís not that bad!" Itys invited.
That was not what worried Gabrielle, but she did not think it was a good idea to get separated from Itys. She tucked her staff into her belt behind her and proceeded into the cold river water with both hands on the rope. At first, it was, indeed, not so bad. But before they even got to the middle of the stream, the water was chest deep and it took all of Gabrielleís strength to keep a hold. Itys was not having it any easier. He struggled along slowly, pulling himself hand over hand on the rope.
A small splash to the side. A black arrow was instantly swept past Gabrielle by the current. Her blood ran cold. "Itys! Archers!" she screamed above the thunder of the river. Itys looked up to see another arrow whizzing straight for his eyes. Gabrielle saw it coming and threw herself on Itys dunking him underwater as the arrow shot over both their heads. Keeping his grip on the rope, Itys thrashed violently to the surface and franticly, but futilely, tried to speed up his pace through the water. Gabrielle released Itys and regained her hold on the rope. Another arrow landed in the water coming from behind. She whipped her head around, scanning both banks. There they were. A pair of archers in the trees on each side of the river. They were surrounded. A series of thoughts swept through Gabrielleís mind in that split instant: that Xena said she "didnít like it"; that she let Itysís story distract her; that disaster befalls everyone Itys joins up with; that she couldnít run; that she couldnít even try to catch an arrow; that the only chance was to let go and let the river carry her off --maybe, maybe, she could swim to shore before being swept over the waterfall or slammed into a rock or just plain drowned.
Gabrielle locked eyes with an archer on the side from where she had come. An arrow was drawn and aiming dead at her. And then suddenly the archer, rather than his arrow, was airborne. Xena was in his place in the tree having just swung down from a higher branch and kicked him off his perch. He fell noisily to the ground. Letting loose a battle cry, Xena sprang through the air, somersaulted and landed on the branch of the second archer. He dropped his bow in surprise. A back fist sent him earthward.
Gabrielle turned back to Itys who was now flailing his way straight into enemy fire. "No! The other way! The other way!" she called, then started back on her own. As soon as they had moved from their spot in the river, the remaining archers had stopped shooting for some reason, but now two soldiers with swords drawn were waiting for them on the bank. So was Xena, however. She jumped down from the trees and landed behind them.
"Hey, little boys," she taunted. "You like mud pies?"
The soldiers turned and lunged at her simultaneously. Xena shuffled to one side then in on one of them catching his sword arm at the wrist and striking up at his groin with the ridge of her hand. A quick pull on the sword arm and a lift at the crotch, and she flipped the soldier over her back. He landed on his face in the mud. The second soldier turned and swung his sword down, but Xena again stepped in, catching the sword arm at the elbow and delivering a spear hand poke deep into his solar plexus. Drawing his arm down and lifting him from under the rib cage, Xena threw him bodily over her head. He likewise mashed his mouth into the muck.
Now in hip-deep water and almost able to run, Gabrielle looked back to verify that Itys was indeed following her when directly behind Itys an enormous warrior lunged out of the water sword in hand towards Itys like a breaching whale. Clad in a bronze breastplate that shined brightly even on this rainy day, it could only be Otus himself. Somehow he had planted himself underwater in the riverbed where they had been standing waiting to snag Itys if he let go the rope for any reason. Itys looked back to see him. He did not dare let go of the rope to draw his sword. With wild look of surprise on his face he leaped forward clean out of the water to escape Otusís sword swing and landed directly on top of Gabrielle. She lost her grip on the rope and fell into the current, but the flow was not nearly so strong here and she quickly regained her footing and stood with the help of her staff.
Otus made another lunge at Itys but Xena jumped from the bank, hopped off Itysís head, and landed balanced on the rope immediate above Otus. She kicked him in the head like a child kicking a ball and he fell backward into deeper and faster water. Astonishingly, he rose from the water, somehow able to stand against the current, and took a sword swing at Xenaís legs. Xena jumped back to escape the strike and landed with two feet on the rope, keeping her balance.
Gabrielle and Itys meanwhile had run the remaining short distance to shore. The two soldiers in the mud were uninterested in fighting, but one of the archers, a tall man with a shaved head and blond mustache, came charging out of the woods swinging a sword menacingly in front of him in a figure-eight pattern.
"Itys!" Xena called with an outstretched hand.
Itys looked back at her and forward at the charging Ephialtes in indecision. Otus was coming at her again. Itysís hand went for The Sword of Iphigenia. Gabrielle was not sure what Itys had decided to do, but a vivid image appeared in her mind: It was of the thief Sinon, dead on the dock with the Sword through him thanks to Itys, only it wasnít Sinon. It was Xena. She did not think before she acted. As Itys turned his head yet again, Gabrielle swung her staff at full force at the base of Itysís skull, knocking him out cold. It surprised Xena. It surprised Ephialtes. Itysís body rolled forward toppling Ephialtes as he ran in. He landed hard, but the mud was soft and he quickly sprang to his feet. Gabrielle stood defensively over the prostrate Itys.
But Ephialtes was distracted by Xena and Otus. Otus was swiping his sword futilely at Xena who jumped to dodge each stroke, giving Otus a kick each time she landed. His nose and eyes were bloody from the hammering of Xenaís boots, but he kept attacking. Ephialtes ran as far as he could into the river and with one sword swing severed the rope. But Xena seemed to have anticipated this and had jumped on Otusís shoulders, clamping his head between her thighs. She seemed about ready to snap his neck. In panic, Ephialtes dropped his sword and threw himself over the water at the two. Grabbing Xena at a leg and arm, he tore her from Otusís head with his falling body weight. All three fell in the rapids and were carried off.
All Gabrielle could see were heads popping up now and then, one or two at once, each time getting further downstream and closer to the waterfall. Underwater, the three wrestled desperately between gasps for air as the rapids rolled them over and around each other. Otus still had his sword. Ephialtes had pulled a knife. Xena grappled their arms and legs, tossing their weightless bodies into each other to avoid the blades. Once she capitalized on the powerful eddies to send one of them into a large stone. Nearing the falls, Xena let fly her chakrum but not as a weapon. It arced gracefully in a steep trajectory out of the water and then sliced back in lodging itself in a rock fissure not far downstream.
Timing was everything now. The current would slow just before the rock with the chakrum but then accelerate around it. On her downstream side, Otus had grabbed one of Xenaís ankles, and was trying to drag her into his sword point. Ephialtes was on her upstream side, having just whipped himself out of whirlpool and was now sailing toward her head. As feint, Xena first fought against Otusís pull, then suddenly reversed direction, rushing straight at him and breaking his grasp. She kicked Otusís sword blade down and porpoised out of the water over Otusís head. Entering the water just downstream of Otus, she dove for the bottom and lay flat on her back, watching Otus and Ephialtes glide by overhead in the faster current. Now downstream of her, Xenaís opponents were quickly swept out of reach by the fast current around the rock. In the slowed current in front of it, Xena swooped for the surface grabbing her imbedded chakrum just as she flowed up to it. She dragged herself up on the rock in time to see the heads Otus and Ephialtes disappear over the falls.
Victory was theirs. But no one celebrated. The survivors of Otus and Ephialtesís band drifted down the trail leaderless. With the help of an abandoned bow and arrow, Xena strung a new rope across the ford, and the three victors cheerlessly resumed their march. All were cold and wet and miserable by the day of rain followed by immersion in the cold river, Gabrielle more so than the other two. Xena and Gabrielle were following Itys from well behind again. They talked in low tones.
"You may have been right not to trust Itys to hand me the Sword," Xena said, "but I need to get it off him if Iím going to do what I have to do."
"Thatís not really why I knocked him out," Gabrielle explained. "Actually, I think we can trust him."
Xena made a little sneer.
"But thereís something you need to know about Itys. Iíve been talking to him. Everyone he fights for is destroyed. Heís dangerous just to have as a scout. Think what could happen if the Sword of Iphigenia were loose."
"Are you saying the Gods are at work on him?" Xena asked skeptically. "What for? Why him?"
"I donít know if itís the Gods, or a curse, or if heís just a jinx. But the facts are that Sciron, Polydectes, and Sinon are all dead because of him. Sinis and Procrustes lost their armies."
"I still need to get that sword off him. A battle may be the only way to do it. Unless...." Xena voiced trailed off in thought.
Gabrielle waited, and when it seemed Xena would not continue on her own, she asked, "What do you want to do with it? Where we going anyway?"
Gabrielle lowered her voice. "Mount Porfirion. Where the Sword of Iphigenia was created."
Gabrielle lowered her voice more. "Where it will be destroyed."
Xenaís silence was tacit acknowledgement.
"I donít think heís going to like that."
"I know. Thatís why I have to get it off him before we get there. It wonít be easy. Especially now that you clobbered him a good one."
"Oh, well, I told him a soldier hit him with a rock from a sling," Gabrielle smiled. "I think he bought it. I donít think he remembers much from the attack."
Xena gave Gabrielle a smile that showed she was both pleased and amused.
They walked some more, then Gabrielle said facetiously, "If you want my opinion, I say let him have it. The way heís going, heíll have the entire Aegean depopulated of warlords before the winter comes."
Xena seemed to give this serious thought. "No," she finally said, "The Sword has itís own powers. It will change his luck. Or if it doesnít, someone will get it from him. The Sword is havoc. I just canít let it exist out there any more."
The trail worked its way out of the narrow river valley and up on a high plateau of rolling meadow. In the distance was the unmistakable conical profile of Mount Porfirion. The rain had stopped but it remained cloudy. It was windy and noticeably cooler. Gabrielle shivered more and more as her clothes dried in the breeze.
"Are you okay?" Xena asked. "Do you need to stop and warm up?"
"Iíll be okay. I just need to walk faster." Gabrielle picked up her paced and began to pull away from Xena. Soon she was up to Itys, and starting to pass him. Itys accelerated to match her speed. Xena followed immediately behind them.
Itys tried to strike up a conversation. "Nice place here, isnít it?" he said in all seriousness.
"Itís cloudy, damp, and Iím freezing," Gabrielle answered with uncharacteristic bluntness.
"But donít you think itís beautiful? Itís so green. And that mountain in the distance. So perfectly formed."
Gabrielle sighed and appraised the surroundings. "Yes. Itís beautiful in itís own way," she agreed.
"I never got see places like this when I was growing up. Being on the road is great."
"I love it too," Gabrielle acknowledged. "Thatís why I left home, you know. To see new things, have new experiences, be a part of the world."
"Adventure. Thatís what I want too." Itys looked at her. "So, I guess we have a lot of things in common."
Gabrielle looked back. "Maybe we do." She was trying to be kind.
Itys gave a shy smile, then looked away. They walked some more. "So."
"So," Gabrielle echoed.
Itys appeared to be trying to think of something cool to say. Finally, the best he could come up with was, "So. Some battle, huh?"
"It was a bit hairy," Gabrielle replied.
"Yeah.... You didnít get hurt, did you?"
"Not a bruise," she assured him. "Thanks for asking." Actually, her shoulder was sore from when Itys jumped on her.
They walked some more.
Itys spoke quickly in a low voice. "Thanks for, you know, pushing me out of the way of that arrow."
"So I guess you kind of care about me, donít you?" His pale eyes took a soft look.
"I wasnít about to just let you get killed."
"Well, I wouldnít just let you get killed either."
Gabrielle thought he needed to work on his charm a bit, but at least he was trying. "Thatís... sweet of you. I think."
Itysís blushed. He suddenly became self-conscious. "I mean... I mean, a warlord protects his women, right?"
That definitely rubbed Gabrielle the wrong way. "I am no warlordís woman. I never will be."
Itys frowned. "You? I didnít say was talking about you. Fine. I wouldnít have you anyway. Do you think I care?"
Gabrielle tried to return to a more pleasant subject. "Thereís a rise to the right. We could get a nice view of the valley from there."
But Itys would not let it rest. He raised his voice, "A girl is a girl. You know what Iím saying? Any would do. And when Iím a great warlord, theyíll be begging to be with me. Youíll see Iíll get the respect I deserve."
Gabrielle was becoming annoyed and she lashed back, "You know, maybe you wouldnít need other peopleís respect if you just respected yourself. Hasnít that ever occurred to you?"
"You got it backwards. You become great first. Youíll see. Women will flock to me. Pretty ones. Iíll be a king. Canít you see that?"
"The only kind of woman I see with you is someone so down on herself, so pathetically needy for someone, that she can tolerate being around you for more than a day. And you know what? It still wonít make any difference in how you feel about yourself."
"Yeah? Will at least I wonít be some weak little blonde wandering the country collecting and distributing stories. I will have done something with my life. I wouldíve kill innumerable foes. I wouldíve burned countless villages. I--"
Gabrielle turned her head back towards Xena and said to her, "You remember what I said about him being not so bad? Well, forget it!" Gabrielle stomped off the trail, crossing the meadow to the rise over the valley.
Itys turned to Xena and directed his diatribe at her. "You understand, donít you? Itís about being strong. Strong is good. Once youíve killed, youíre different. Itís not something everyone can do. And when people know what youíre capable of, they know youíre a real man."
Xena could not let this one pass. "A real man?" she smirked.
But Itys was on a roll. "You should know what I mean. What itís like. How people treat you. And the further youíre willing to go, the more you get. Look at you. Look at how people are around you. And how many have you killed?"
Xena glared at him, but retained her self-control
"You see? That means something. It means strength. It means accomplishment. I means--"
"It means nothing," Xena interrupted. "Nothing at all."
Itys fell back to regroup, then returned the glare. "What is with you? Youíve been treating me like pond scum from the moment you met me. Itís because you donít think I can do it, do you? You donít think I can kill. You donít think Iím a good enough warrior, do you? Itís because I got knocked out back at the ford. Itís because Gabrielle got the better of me back at Iolcos."
"Buy a clue, Itys," Xena said quietly through clenched teeth. He was becoming increasingly hostile
"Well, maybe she wonít be so lucky next time. I have the Sword of Iphigenia now."
Xena maintained her glare and paced carefully around Itys, putting herself between Itys and Gabrielle on the far rise.
"Or you?" Itys challenged. "Iíd take you on. Iím not afraid of you. Think what that would do for my reputation. I could start my own army." Itys began circling around Xena menacingly. Xena circled him back and gave a smile. It was not her friendly smile. Itys continued, "You just got lucky fighting Sinon. I can take you. I have the Sword. I have the advantage." His hand reached for the hilt. Xenaís hand reached back for her own sword. Her eyes concentrated on Itysís eyes.
"Xena!" Gabrielle called from the rise.
"Not now Gabrielle!" She called back not shifting her gaze from Itys.
"But he could be dying!"
Gabrielleís words disrupted the battle tension between Itys and Xena. Xena immediately turned and ran towards the rise. Itys followed. When she and Itys got there, Gabrielle was already running down the grassy slope to a plain below. Down there was a single tree. Hanging from the tree was a human body, its back to them preventing them from seeing if it had any signs of life. In one swift motion, Xena scooped Itysís knife from his boot and bounded down the slope. She quickly passed Gabrielle who seemed to be having trouble running straight for some reason. When Xena had closed to within 50 paces of the tree, she raised the knife to throw at the noose around the bodyís neck. But then she lowered her hand, and slowed to a walking pace. It was not a figure of flesh and blood, but an effigy of straw and rags. It was partially burned, but the straw was damp from the rain and the fire could not get very far. The grass about the tree had been trampled into the mud by a crowd.
Gabrielle and Itys caught up with Xena. Gabrielle approached the grotesque tree ornament. "Xena, what does it mean?"
She paused. "It means... dawn of this morning was the fifth year anniversary of the last time I came through this way. The town over that hill," she pointed, "they made their last stand against my army on this plain. Unsuccessfully."
Gabrielle reached up to the effigy and turned it to face her. It was meant to represent a woman warrior with long dark hair and dressed in black armor. From her hip hung a crude ring of tin.
Xena handed Itys his knife back. "Is this what you mean by getting peopleís respect?"
Itys turned and walked away from the disturbing image. "Well... maybe someone ought to teach that town a lesson... or something."
"Címon, Gabrielle," Xena said softly. "Letís go."
Gabrielle was still looking towards the effigy, but did not seem to be seeing it.
"Huh?" Gabrielle looked at Xena, with a disoriented look on her face.
A very serious look fell on Xenaís face and she walked up to her. "Gabrielle, youíre lips are blue." Xena placed her hand on her forehead.
Gabrielle pulled it away. "No, no, Iím fine...." Her speech was slurred. "I think that run down the hill did the trick. I suddenly donít feel cold at all anymore."
Gabrielleís memory of what happened next was scanty. She remembered being carried in Xenaís arms to a large tent at the foot of Mount Porfirion. Itys held her hand, as if he thought he could warm her up that way. Inside the tent was an old man. He laid a hand on Gabrielleís forehead. "Sheís lost much warmth. Quickly. Out back are rock slabs heated by volcanic activity. Wrap her in blankets on top of one." Gabrielle remembered the feel of hot stone radiating through an animal hide covering and having thick blankets heaped on top of her. Xena was sitting beside her. Then Gabrielle felt herself fall into a deep sleep.
When Gabrielle awoke, it was the next morning. She felt weak, but well. The sky was clear above her. Looking up the slope of Mount Porfirion, she could see white clouds of venting volcanic gas contrasting against the deep blue mountain air. Looking beneath the blankets, she could see she was completely naked. She did not remember anyone undressing her. She got up, wrapping one of the larger blankets about her. She poked her head into the tent. No one there. There was some noise from around the other side of the tent. It was the old man. But now Gabrielle could see he was not really old at all. He just was not the most handsome man, to put it charitably. He was standing beside a wide, deep fissure in the solid rock ground. On his other side was a wooden table with various tools on it.
"Good morning," he looked up at her cheerfully. "I see youíre feeling better."
Xena and Itys were nowhere to be found. Gabrielle was alone with the man. Her eyes automatically looked about for her staff.
The man seemed to read her mind. "Oh, you donít have to worry about me. Iím faithfully married. You should eat something. Thereís some fruit in that sack there." He pointed to a burlap sack.
Gabrielle realized that she was starving and sat by the sack and began to devour its contents. The man was inspecting a long chain, at the end of which as a large crucible made of a strange dark green stone. Within it was some plain gray rocks, apparently hacked from the mountainside several paces beyond the fissure. "What are you doing?" Gabrielle asked.
The man waved his hand at the crucible of rock. "Mining for gold."
Gabrielle gave a short laugh. "Thereís no gold in that rock."
"Actually, it has some of the finest gold on this side of the sea. You just have to know how to get it out." He lowered the crucible deep down into the fissure by the chain. Steam and a sulfury smell wafted up.
"Where is everyone else?" Gabrielle asked.
"Itys and Xena? They were gone before I got up."
Gabrielle wanted to be there for the destruction of the Sword but perhaps Xena was just out on a scouting mission. Gabrielle did not want to be missing if she returned to get her. "Are they coming back?"
The man looked up at Gabrielle. A dark expression fell upon his face. "I donít know." He now raised the crucible back up, coiling the chain neatly as he went. When the crucible appeared again, the rocks within it had disappeared. In their place was a small puddle of glowing orange liquid metal at the bottom. The man dragged a ceramic mold across the table from a stack of them at one end. Then, using tongs, he poured the contents of the crucible into the mold. He began to carry the crucible back towards the mountain wall to fetch more rock.
Gabrielle could see that he was limping, as if he had injured himself recently. She put down her half-eaten fruit and walked over to him. "Here, let me do that for you."
The homely man appeared genuinely touched. "Youíre too kind."
Gabrielle took the chain from the manís hands, and the crucible immediately crashed to the ground. It was impossibly heavy. Gabrielle smiled in embarrassment. The man sat down at a bench before his table. Gabrielle grabbed the chain in both hands and lifted with all her strength. It did not budge.
"I wouldíve helped Xena if I could," the man said lifting an enormous hammer testing its weight in his hand.
Gabrielle tucked her blanket more tightly around herself, and tried to drag the crucible over the ground. It still would not move. She sat on the rock ground facing it, braced her heels in some footholds, and pulled with her arms, legs, and back. She only succeeded in rocking the crucible.
With a single precise stroke, the man smashed the mold to tiny fragments with the hammer, revealing an incredibly beautiful gold goblet with a startlingly intricate lacey pattern running up and down it. It shined as bright as the sun. He eyed it critically. "She asked me to remove a certain sword from Itys. You might think with all my tools and skill I could do that."
The goblet was literally breathtaking to Gabrielle. "Wow. Thatís fit for Zeus himself."
"Think so?" the man raised an eyebrow. "The thing about the Sword of Iphigenia is that it has powers beyond what the Gods have bestow upon it. Now that it is in the hands of mortals, itís up to them to let the Swordís own logic play out to its conclusion."
Gabrielle stared at the man. "You know they have the Sword of Iphigenia."
The man put the goblet down and looked at Gabrielle. "Thatís what everyone seems to be calling it these days."
"Sheís gone off the destroy it. To take it from Itys any way she can." Gabrielle stood. "I have to go. Where are my clothes?"
"You know Xena doesnít want you there. Anything could happen."
"Yeah, but Xena knows I have to be there."
The man stood and limped over to the crucible, easily picking it up with one hand. "In the tent," he said with a tone of sadness.
Gabrielle ran into the tent while the man carried the crucible to the rock wall and began knocking off chunks of rock with a large pick. "The Sword of Iphigenia wasnít always the way you see it today," he continued. "Once it was bright, smooth, and graceful, a beautiful piece of workmanship. Do you know what it was made for?"
Gabrielleís clothes were folded neatly in a corner beside her staff. She threw the blanket off and began dressing quickly. "No. What was it made for?"
"Sacred offerings. Sacrifices."
"Sacrifices of what?" Gabrielle emerged from the tent, staff in hand.
"Of whatever it took. Nothing good ever comes without sacrifice. But it fell into the hands of Man. And Man confused sacrifices of himself for a better tomorrow with the killing of his fellow man for a better today. That transformed the sword. Made it into something ugly."
"I have to go now. Thank you. For everything." She began up the mountainside trail.
The man looked up from his labors with warm eyes. "Be careful, Gabrielle."
As she walked away, she asked one more question without turning back. "May I just ask who told you that story about the Sword of Iphigenia?"
The man laughed. "No one told me. I was there. I made it."
Gabrielle stopped dead and spun around to look at the man. But everything --the tent, the table, the crucible, and Hephaestus himself --had disappeared.
The logic of the sword was this: it had to be destroyed, and in order for it to be destroyed, someone must die.
The trail up the side of Mount Porfirion led to a large fissure. The fissure led to a lava tube. The lava tube led to the heart of Mount Porfirion where the mountain was slowly eating itself away from the inside out. There, an enormous natural chamber held a great lake of lava that slowly turned in a relentless fiery whirlpool. It burned away at the shear walls of the chamber occasionally breaking large chunks of the lighter stone off the walls. These chunks drifted like icebergs in the lava gradually spiraling towards the center, gradually dissolving, so that by the time they reached the center, little remained to be sucked down. A tremendous wind howled up through the lava tube to the red-hot interior where the air swirled and blasted up through the open crater above. The mountain seemed to give a continuous loud moan of self-destruction as a nearly continuous series of slabs of rock slid into the lava and melted away to nothing.
Xena led Itys to this place at a leisurely pace, not wanting to alarm him prematurely. As such, Gabrielle, running the entire distance, had nearly made up the separation by the time Xena and Itys had walked out on a large wide ledge in the chamber wall overlooking the inferno below.
"Alright. Weíre here," Itys said. "Now tell me what this is all about."
"The lava you see here is more metal than stone," Xena lectured solemnly. "Hundreds of years ago this lake was just a small spring. It was from this spring that the Sword of Iphigenia was made. It is only in this same fire and metal that it can be destroyed."
"You mean-- no! You canít be serious! This is the ultimate weapon. Donít you understand the power that can be harnessed here? We could be all but invincible. You canít destroy it!"
Xena stood blocking the path off the ledge to lava tube and slowly drew her sword from her back and looked up and down both of its edges. "The Sword is going in the lava lake. The only question is will it still be in your scabbard when it does." The rock immediately behind Itys abruptly gave way. Itys ducked against the chamber wall as the rock slid into the lava lake kicking up a great splash of fire. He now stood between a battle-ready Xena and oblivion. From behind Xena came a most unwelcomed sound of Gabrielleís footprints. "Gabrielle get back," Xena shouted. She deliberately looked over her shoulder at Gabrielle in an attempt to draw Itys into pulling the Sword. Instead, he took advantage of the opportunity to do something entirely unexpected. He jumped.
Gabrielle and Xena watched in alarm as Itys plummeted towards the lava but then he landed on the very floating stone slab that had just broken off the chamber wall. The slab rocked and rolled precariously like a rowboat under the impact of his landing, but he kept his balance and began to run to its opposite end. When he got there he leaped to another slab further into the lake. Xena looked up to see the method to his madness. At the opposite end of the chamber was a second lava tube halfway up the wall. It was the only other way out and the only way to it was across the lava lake.
Xena gave a battle cry and went after him, jumping down on the first slab then leaping to the next one. By now Itys was on a third one. He turned to look at Xena, his face a mix of confusion and fear. Xena looked back with a mix of confusion and frustration. This was not the plan. "Whatís the matter with you?" she yelled at him. "Yesterday you couldnít wait to get a piece of me!" Itys just turned and leaped to the next slab. Xena resumed chase.
Gabrielle looked back over the ledge to see if there was a way to the second lava tube so that she could cut off Itysís escape. Instead she saw none other than Otus and Ephialtes, both very much alive and arriving at the first lava tube. They came rushing out on the ledge towards her but they had not seen her because they were transfixed by the chase on the lake. Gabrielle had nowhere to go but up. Using her staff as a makeshift shimmy pole, she climbed up to a tiny ledge immediately above the wide one and squatted there against the wall. Otus and Ephialtes parked themselves right below her oblivious to her. Otus had a sword. Ephialtes only a bow and arrow. He took aim with it. "No. No. Not him," Otus said to him. "He could fall in the lava and weíll lose it. Take her out. Sheís a greater threat." Ephialtes re-aimed at Xena.
With the roar of wind and burning rock filling the chamber, Gabrielle could not be sure Xena was even aware Otus and Ephialtes were there. She swung her staff down and caught Ephialtes neatly on the side of the head. The arrow shot off harmlessly into the lava. Ephialtes spun around in a daze and looked up at Gabrielle. He lost his balance. Otus tried to grab his arm but he fell off the ledge. Gabrielle felt an awful pit in her stomach as she watched his terrified expression and heard his mortal scream as he fell towards the lava. Then she felt a surprising sense of relief as a small slab miraculously floated beneath him and caught him.
Otus looked up to Gabrielle. "You shall not be so lucky." He drew his sword and swung at Gabrielleís feet. Gabrielleís ledge left no room to go either left or right. She deflected the sword with her staff and struck full strength at Otusís head. He shook off the blow unmovingly, his feet perfectly planted. "It will take more than that to knock me off," he growled. He swung again at Gabrielle. Gabrielle blocked it, but barely. This is not good she thought. Then, she saw a small crack in the rock at Otusís feet that she had not noticed before. Then she saw the crack grow larger. Otus sensed something and looked down to see but too late. The entire ledge with Otus firmly attached slid gracefully down the chamber wall and into the lava lake. When the lava splash cleared, Otus was a bit burned but still standing on the now floating rock.
By now Xena had out flanked Itysís escape path to the second lava tube, but the slow swirl of the lava had carried him closer now to the first lava tube. Otus and Ephialtes had floated in between Xena and him.
"You stop him," Otus order Ephialtes. "Iíll take care of Xena. Itís personal." Otus leap to Xenaís slab to intercept her. She engaged him immediately. They fenced energetically, giving and parrying blows left and right. Otus was big and fast, but Xena was faster, and it would only be a matter of time before her blade would find its mark. But then Otus saw an opportunity. Blocking one of Xenaís overhead strikes at close range, he quickly snapped his arm over as if to give a right hook. The end bulb of his sword slammed painfully into the nerve bundles at the bottom of Xenaís wrist, and her sword sailed from her hand, arching high over the lava lake, and impaling itself in a crack in the chamber wall not far below where Gabrielle stood. Disarmed but hardly defenseless, Xena capitalized on the awkward position of Otusís sword hand to catch it in a high scissors kick. The quick double impact broke Otusís grip on his sword and it fell, bounced off the slab, and dropped into the lava. Otus had not expected his advantage to disappear so quickly. He jumped back to avoid a sidekick from Xena, then turned and leaped to an adjacent slab to regroup. He had chosen an especially unsteady slab. On landing, it rocked down under his weight, threatening to inundate his feet in molten rock. As he ran forward, it seesawed the other way under the transfer of load. Xena leaped through the air, somersaulted, and landed on Otusís slab. Again the stone rocked back on Xenaís landing, and again it rocked forward as she charged in on Otus to attack him hand to hand.
Ephialtes meanwhile had sent one arrow landing at Itysís feet, cutting off his path to the first lava tube. Itys jumped and rolled right then jumped to the next slab crossing in front of Gabrielleís perch. Before he could make it to another slab, an arrow again stopped him short. Ephialtes was not trying to hit Itys just yet. He was just trying to get him isolated on a nice large slab so he could finish him off without risk of the Sword falling into the lake. Itys ducked behind a small outcrop that gave feeble cover. Ephialtes nonchalantly hopped onto Itysís slab, and walked along its perimeter to get a clear shot at Itys.
"Why is everyone out to kill me?" Itys called to him from behind the outcrop.
"I donít know," Ephialtes quipped. "Maybe itís just your personality." He now had a clear shot at Itys barely twenty paces away. He casually strung his final arrow.
"Okay! Okay! I surrender!"
Ephialtes smirked and cocked his head to one side. "You what?"
"I give up. You can have the Sword. Iím on your side now."
"Is that so," Ephialtes nodded. "Well, in that case, you would have no objection if I knocked off that annoying blonde that nearly killed me." His next move was deliberate and deadly. He pulled the bow back and aimed over Itysís head directly at Gabrielle as she stood on her ledge. Gabrielle let her mind go blank. She had no room to dodge. Her only chance was to catch the arrow. It would have to be purely intuitive.
"NOOOOOO!" Itys howled and he sprung straight up high in the air into the arrowís path. He threw his arms and legs out spread eagle to make himself the largest possible target. The arrow caught him in his midsection, but, astonishingly, the point had struck his belt bucket splitting it; the spent arrow penetrated no further. But now Itys fell, the still-sheathed Sword of Iphigenia dropping away from his body and to one side. Itys landed partially on the jagged volcanic outcropping. His leg bent back then snapped brutally sending blood gushing everywhere. He landed in an immobile heap.
Seeing the Sword of Iphigenia fall and bounce across the slab, Ephialtes rushed forward and caught it. With little ceremony, he drew it. It slid out easily, the wicked blade looking even more blood soaked than before in the red light of the glowing lava. He strolled with it over to Itys and looked down at him, waving the sword around to get its feel in his hand. Itys looked up in agony and mortal fear.
At first, it appeared Ephialtes would make Itys his first victim, but then something else caught his eye. Otus was at the far end of his slab with Xena. Under both of their weights, the slab tilted down at an extreme angle. Otus was in his front stance, his back to the slabís edge. Xena was pummeling him with kick after kick to the body and head, but Otus was unyielding and unfazed. It was not the fighting Xena liked, brute force against brute force, but she was only stalling. She could see that as the slab dissolved in the lake, the lava was creeping slowly up to Otusís back heel. When it touched it, she expected a response.
Ephialtes seemed to see this coming, and he deserted Itys, bounding across slab after slab coming towards Xena. Gabrielle yelled to Xena, but her voice was lost in the din of the chamber. Ephialtes jumped high and landed on the opposite end of Otusís slab. The force abruptly tilted the slab back. Otus was unmoving, but Xena was caught by surprise, and stepped back to regain her balance. Ephialtes lunge forward, thrusting the Sword of Iphigenia at Xenaís back. A lesser warrior than Xena might have fallen right back on the Sword, but Xena saw Ephialtes there, reflected in Otusís bronze breastplate. She leaped up and back, high over Ephialtesís head, and landed in a handstand on Ephialtesís shoulders. He was too startled to react. Xena immediately sprang off, and, giving a battle cry, flipped through the air over to Otus, landing with her feet on his shoulders. Her hard impact sent the slab rocking forward so violently that it catapulted Ephialtes into the air. Xena sprang off Otus and escaped to another slab. Otus watched her go over his shoulder and turned his head back in time to see the flying Ephialtes slam into his body.
They stood pressed together for a moment. Then as they began to pull themselves away from each other, they looked down in horror to see the Sword of Iphigenia completely impaled through Otusís heart, the bloody hilt still in Ephialtesís hand. Ephialtes fumbled with his hands. He looked desperately at Otus. Otus only looked back with fire in his eyes. With both mighty hands he clutch Ephialtes by the throat in a death grip. And there the two stood, as the lava flowed in around their feet and quickly immolated them.
The next day began as brilliant as the last. Gabrielle and Xena walked across the courtyard of the local temple of Hermes to the back room where Itys was recuperating.
"I did all I could for him," Xena said. "But it was a very bad break. Heíll keep his leg, but heíll always need a crutch to walk. Itíll make it hard for him to make a living."
"Heíll have more trying times, Iím sure," Gabrielle agreed. "But I think that at least he wonít be doing things to make it worse."
They walked into the shade along the templeís inner wall.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked.
"You couldíve just pushed him into the lava lake sword and all, but you tried to get him to draw it instead."
"Then either of you could have died with it."
"Yes. I didnít destroy the Sword before when I had the chance. That wasnít his fault. I had to bear some of the risk."
"But then he wouldnít fight you."
"Yes," Xena said with a slight puzzled expression. "I donít really know why. You know when I was talking three nights ago about that line you cannot cross? Maybe when you are as young as he your line moves around a lot. Maybe I just caught it at the right time. I guess you were right about him. Heís not too far gone."
"I would like to think we had a positive influence on him too," Gabrielle added.
They came into Itysís room. He was lying back on a bed with his injured leg propped up on a cushion. He seemed in remarkably good spirits, or maybe it was the painkilling herbs Xena had given him. A temple handmaiden was just leaving the room.
"Sheís going to get her two sisters. She wants them to hear the story of how I injured my leg too," Itys said proudly. "Thatíll will be the third time Iíve told it already."
"Tell it well, and I think youíll be telling it plenty more times too," Gabrielle said. "And, Itys, itís time I return your thanks. Thank you for jumping in front of that arrow."
Xena interjected, "That was a very brave and very noble thing you did, Itys." She gave him a smile, a warm, friendly smile this time. Itys could tell the difference. He positively beamed.
"We have to leave now," Gabrielle said. "Get well, and take care of yourself."
"You too, Gabrielle. Iíll never forget you."
Gabrielle and Xena turned to the door to go.
"What about you Gabrielle," Itys stopped them.
"Oh, I wonít forget you either."
"No, I mean, about what I did for you. Did you think I was brave and noble too?"
"I think it was brave and noble too," Gabrielle assured him.
"And at the time I did it? What did you think then? Did you feel anything for me?"
"You can tell me the truth. Itís okay."
"To be honest, my exact thought was ĎOh, no, not another one,í" Gabrielle answered.
Itys rolled the words over in his drug-fogged mind. He looked to Xena puzzled. "What does that mean?"
"Letís just say," Xena replied, "that we all have our curses to bear." And she and Gabrielle left.
Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea, images, and the story itself are the sole property of the author, c. Copyright 1997. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
No frogs were harmed in the writing of this fanfic. Xena is a professional warrior princess. Do not try these fighting techniques at home, or while visiting Mauna Loa, for that matter.
I'm trying to get better at this. Comments and critique are always welcome. Critique citing specific passages even better.emzed, firstname.lastname@example.org