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COPYRIGHT DISCLAIMER:

All of the characters mentioned in this story that have appeared in the syndicated series "Xena: Warrior Princess" are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended. This story may be freely distributed in unaltered form, provided that no profit is gained from such distribution. Of course, it is polite to ask my permission first.

VIOLENCE WARNING/DISCLAIMER:

There is a bit of violence here (this is Xena, after all). No one dies, though.

JOXER DISCLAIMER:

This story has Joxer as an important supporting character. The author wishes to extend his apologies to all who are irritated by this.

 

SPECIAL ACKNOWLEDGMENT:

My heartfelt thanks to Susan Steinike for her invaluable assistance and encouragement. Itís people like you who make writing these stories worth the effort.

 

 

 

A Small But Significant Difference

by Ukki

 

 

 

Chapter I - Of War and Love

Ares did not easily suffer from revulsion. As a God of War, he could easily stomach the most horrific bloodshed or mutilation, suffer any display of cruelty and indifference. It was his job, after all. Yet, some things made the hairs stand on his back. One thing that had such an effect on him were the decorations and furnishings inside the Halls of Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. Ares could not have in his worst nightmares imagined such pathetic combinations of soothing purples and seductive pastels.

The second thing that irritated the god was the naïve, dreamy smile that seemed to be permanently sculpted into the face of Aphrodite. The goddess stood in front of Ares, her arms ready to receive an embrace that was not forthcoming.

"Welcome, Ares," Aphrodite said with that inane expression on her face. "You are a rare sight in my halls."

Ares smirked at the goddess, throwing back his cape. "Our fields of influence rarely overlap," he replied.

"True," said Aphrodite coyly. "But opposites attract, as you well know. Besides, where would passion be without obstacles? How could the loyalty of a maiden be proven if her hero wasnít going to a far away land to fight one of your wars every once in a while?"

To his great surprise, Ares found himself admiring the keen observations of the frivolous god. There never was a more mismatched pair that nevertheless coupled so well, as were Love and War. Enjoying a good drama as much as the next god (unless the next god was Apathos, of course), Ares was always eager to mix these two extremities of mortal activity when an opportunity presented itself. And even if Aphrodite and Ares rarely did cross each othersí paths, when they did, things larger than life usually began to occur. To remind himself of this, Ares had erected a great statue of Helen of Troy in his throne room.

"I have a request for you," Ares said slyly. "Well... not a request, but a suggestion really. Call it an invitation to a game that we may both enjoy."

The moment the words left his lips Ares regretted them. There was really only one way to go in innuendoes with Aphrodite.

"Oh, Ares... I never knew youíd have something like this in you! I accept of course!" Aphroditeís voice echoed more rapture than excitement, but then again, it usually did.

"NO! You misunderstand me, my amorous colleague. The game I wish to play has mortals as its pieces. We will merely observe it." To his relief, Ares saw slight disappointment and growing interest on Aphroditeís face.

"Hmmmm... I wish to know more of this. I see no point in doing anything for you unless it is something we can both appreciate. Everything is so much more pleasurable when both parties have their hearts in it, donít you agree?"

"Oh, I do agree," Ares said gleefully. "It takes two to tangle, both in war and love."

"You have my interest," Aphrodite said. "Name your wish."

- - - - - -

That same night in eastern Thessaly, not far from the mountain of gods, a solitary figure was lighting a small campfire by the shore of a small lake. It had not rained that day, so the wood the man had was as dry as desert sand. The flint he had was new, with lots of spark. Despite all of that, fire persisted in its absence, ignoring the furious efforts of the man. He cursed to the gods up on their mountain, but in a voice that was still quiet enough to escape the ears of any passing deities, before finally giving up. As he threw down his flint and raised his eyes slightly, he saw three pairs of feet on the grass next to him. Two of them were hoofed, the last pair was wearing boots.

"Good evening, Joxer", a teasing voice said.

Joxer adjusted his helmet a bit and looked up at the two arrivals.

"Why... Gabrielle and Xena!" Smiling, the warrior rose to stand up.

The coal-haired woman dismounted. "Why bother with the fire?" she asked. "The night is warm, the moon at its brightest."

"Oh well," Joxer replied. "You would suggest that the mighty Joxer eats raw fish?"

"I donít see any fish here, Joxer," Gabrielle said with a taunting smile.

Taking off his helmet, Joxer turned towards Gabrielle.

"Oh, Gabrielle... nice to see you again," he said shyly. "No reason to worry. Where thereís a lake, there are fish. I was just waiting for them to go to sleep before I go and catch them by surprise."

Both women laughed at this, walking up to the pile of twigs gathered on a patch of sand.

"Thatís not a lake," Gabrielle said. "More like a pond. The fish in there canít be very big or very tasty. Besides, I think we can spare some of our wheat cakes and cheese."

The three sat down by the unlit fire and relaxed. After the usual compliments and small talk over supper, they started to exchange stories about their recent experiences.

"So, what brings you to these parts?" Xena inquired from Joxer. "Youíre pretty far from Sparta. I thought you were still with the guards there."

Wiping a few white crumbs from his tunic, Joxer switched to his pompous manner.

"Garrison duty in Sparta is far too safe for an adventurer such as me. So I left there and started to wander again. In Edutheripolis, I met Autolycus, and I travelled with him for some time. We went up and down the coast, collecting some of his old debts. He needed a mighty-looking warrior for intimidation purposes, see."

"Debts to collect, eh?" Gabrielle said in disbelief. "Did you ever see the people he was collecting from?"

"Well, not really," Joxer answered. "Mostly I stayed outside and watched over the horses as Autolycus went inside."

Xena and Gabrielle glanced at each other. "Figures," they said in one voice.

"Anyway," Joxer continued, "After a while Autolycus wanted to continue alone again, as he usually does, so he paid me a decent share of his collections and we went our separate ways. Then I heard that there was some trouble with bandits in Torrentia and so, here I am, on the way there to help the poor people in their hour of need."

"Actually, we are just coming from Torrentia," Xena said, too late to notice Gabrielle holding a finger in front of her mouth.

"Oh Zeus," Joxer sighed. "Donít tell me you sorted out the trouble already."

Xena looked at Joxer apologetically.

"But of course, thereís still some trouble left," Gabrielle said. "Lots of houses to rebuild..."

"I donít like building houses", Joxer said with a disappointed voice.

"Burned crops to replant..." Gabrielle kept on.

"Warriors donít work the fields."

"Walls to fortify..."

"Iím no good in masonry."

"And Iím sure that some of the bandits that escaped with their lives will seek revenge," Gabrielle finished.

"Hmmm... that might be worth it", Joxer said. "Iíll think about it in the morning. But hey, I can always travel with you for a few weeks. Never hurts to have an extra sword along, right?"

Gabrielle was about to say something clever, but decided to spare Joxer. Instead, she just nodded.

"Well, as you said, weíll decide things in the morning," Xena said. "Right now, Iím feeling unusually sleepy."

"Youíd better get some rest, then," Joxer said. "I can keep watch while you two sleep."

"I donít think weíll need a watch," Xena replied. "The locals have these parts quite well patrolled. Besides, nothing surprises me in my sleep."

Despite these assurances, Joxer did not change his mind. As the two women prepared for the night, he made sure that all his weapons were handy and sharpened, and when the others went to sleep, he stayed up.

Sitting with his back against a boulder, Joxer watched the serene, calm face of Gabrielle as she slept. Determined to earn the young girlís respect and love, the warrior really tried to stay awake and alert. That night, however, his efforts were in vain, for there was a subtle enchantment upon the land. It wasnít long before Joxerís dreams of himself and sweet Gabrielle turned into real dreams brought by sleep. It wasnít his fault, really. Even Zeus himself dozed off that night.

- - - - - -

"I still have my doubts, Ares. You have an ulterior motive in this."

"Should you care if I do?" Ares asked. "You still owe me a favour after that Lysistrate affair."

Aphrodite laughed, but soon turned serious again.

"That was a good one, was it not? All right, Ares, I agree that it might be interesting. But, you realise it will create confusion. Everyone will see what is happening to them."

A confident, satisfied smile appeared on Aresí lips. "No, my dear. Tonight I have called in a favour from someone else as well. Morpheus will see to it that no mortal soul will be awake while you do your work. When the morning comes, everything will proceed as if it has always been so. No one will notice the change. It will be like things have always been different."

"This must be something important for you to go to such great lengths to make it work. But Iíll play your game, Iíll turn my wheel around. For three days. When the sun again rises after that, I will turn it back."

The two gods turned around a corner and came to a small chamber, decorated with the same sensual style as the rest of Aphroditeís halls. On the far end, a large alabaster disc was embedded into the pale marble wall. The disc was largely undecorated except for two deep holes near the rim, opposite each other. From each of these holes grew a vine. The vine on the left was brown and stiff, with strong, thick tendrils that had an occasional thorn. The one on the right was more slender but also more entangled, with lush green limbs. In the centre of the disc, these vines met each other and were entwined together.

"Here it is," Aphrodite said. "You know, when Zeus hears of this heíll get one of his fits again."

"If he hears of it. He has so little interest in mortal affairs these days. And besides, itís not like I havenít faced his fury before." Ares smiled to himself. "Do it."

Aphrodite stepped in front of the disc and placed her hand on the stone.

"The trick with this wheel is that it can not be budged by force," Aphrodite said, gently caressing the alabaster surface, moving her fingers along nearly invisible relief patterns that Ares only now noticed. "It resists if you resist it. Yet a slightest touch can make the wheel spin."

And truly, the large disc began to rotate clockwise, so slowly that it was hard to see it move. Then in picked up speed, following the slow motions of Aphroditeís hands. Ares looked at this and tried to memorise every gesture made by the goddess.

A muted sound, like an echo of the sighs of a thousand lovers, came from the disc just as it turned a quarter. Otherwise, it made no sound at all. The room stayed absolutely quiet as the disc spun around. When it had made a half turn, Aphrodite stopped it with nothing more than a slight touch of her index finger.

"Thatís it?" Ares wondered.

"Nothing to it really," Aphrodite replied. "A simple alteration. But I warn you, strange things may come of this, things even you or I cannot predict."

"What do you mean?" Ares asked. "What could possibly go wrong?"

"We shall have to wait and see. I think Iíll go and have one of my walks among the mortals now. I have to see this up close."

With these words, Aphrodite snapped her fingers and transformed into a young, dashing man.

"You go then," Ares said with a laugh. "I think I shall watch the events unfold from up here."

"That is your option. In three days, Ares, if not sooner, we will meet again!"

Then Aphrodite vanished in a swirl of mist that soon dissipated, leaving the God of War alone.

 

 

 

Chapter II - The Way Things Werenít Before

The sun opened its eye slowly that morning. Bright rays shone their light to a quiet world, one that was enjoying a sleep deeper than ever before. Slowly, the sun rose higher, to allow its radiance to cross mountain ranges and reach even the deepest valleys.

On the calm lake shore, Gabriel was the first to wake up. After a quick check to see that his companions were all right and still in deep sleep, Gabriel stood up and stretched his muscles, breathing the cool air.

His eyes fell upon the small woman resting against the stone, in a seated position but still in deep sleep. "Your neck must be awfully sore when you wake up", Gabriel whispered to himself.

Picking up Joxineís flint from the ground, Gabriel knelt in front of the stick pile and started to light it. With a few tries, he succeeded in getting a good spark to produce fire. A thin trail of smoke rose from the wood that had been slightly dampened by the dew.

"Thatís better", Gabriel said to himself and started towards the shore. "Now letís see if I can find anything for us to cook." Walking away from the campsite rubbing his chin, he noticed that he could use a shave as well.

Hardly a moment had passed after Gabriel was out of sight, when the dark haired man woke up. Rising on one elbow, he ran his fingers through his coarse, black beard. Slowly, the muscular but slim warrior prince stood up into his full height, looking over the plains into the horizon. He drew his lungs full of fresh air, watching as the clouds rolled over the sky.

The warrior quickly strapped on his suit of leather armour and picked up his trusty weapons - the long double-edged sword and the deadly throwing axe. With a short glance, he made sure that his horse, Agarath, was okay. After seeing that the ash-grey Arabian stallion was happily munching grass where he had left it the previous night, the warrior prince turned his attention to the freckled woman. With a disdainful smirk, he gave the girl a sharp kick on the sole of her boots. She was up in seconds.

"Zeus!" cried Joxine. "Iím awake! Iím awake!"

The diminutive woman stumbled up in her armour, dispersing her weapons and helmet on the grass while doing so. "By Hades, Xener, I am sorry."

"Worry not, my good woman!" the warrior prince replied after a hearty laugh. "In fact, I am glad that you are well rested this morning. We have a fast, arduous march ahead of us if we wish to reach Nadera before nightfall."

Joxine gathered up her arms and checked her own horse, a thin, nearly skeletal nag that resembled a mule more than a steed. Joxine hadnít owned it for long, and did not know whether it had a real name, but she called it Peppers.

"Nadera, eh?" Joxine said. "Why were you going there, again? Something you need me for?"

"Not really, my dear," Xener answered. "Weíre just stopping there for a bit of rest. Besides, thereís nothing around these parts I canít handle with Gabriel."

"Oh, come on Xener, I could help you out."

Xener gave Joxine a doubting look and grinned.

"No offence, Joxine, but this is a job for men. You could get hurt travelling with us."

Something flared inside Joxine, without her actually knowing why. For some reason she was infuriated by the warriorís words.

"Sooo... thatís been the problem all along!" Joxine screamed. "For all this time, youíve ridiculed my fighting skills, but never have you gone this low! You just want me out of your way because youíre a man and Iím just a... woman?"

Xener scratched his beard and paused to think about it. "Well, to be honest, Joxine, you may be right. I canít figure why I never really thought about it before. You are a woman, and need the protection of men to survive in this hard world."

"But Iím a warrior!"

"Maybe you should consider a change of career. There are many duties a woman is more suitable for than a man, you know."

Joxineís face was crimson red with fury, and she had quite unwittingly moved her hand on the pommel of her sword.

"Like what, prince?" she asked, her voice bubbling and hissing like molten lava.

"Well, you know... nursemaid, midwife... like that. Think about it for a minute and youíll see it makes sense."

- - - - - -

Soon afterwards, Gabriel was walking back towards the camp with his catch. He considered himself fortunate, for even though the two fish he had caught were small, he had also stumbled upon a birdís nest and found some good-looking eggs in it, seemingly freshly laid.

The first sign of trouble he heard was the repeated sound of metal striking metal. There was swordplay going on at the camp! Gabrielís first thought was that Joxine and Xener had been attacked by bandits, but from the absence of death screams, he deduced that this could not be. In a brisk pace, he continued over the last ridge between him and the campsite.

What he saw surprised him. It was obvious that Joxine and Xener were fighting each other. Or, more accurately, Joxine was attacking Xener, who was blocking her blows.

"Good morning!" Gabriel said cheerfully. "Are you trying to teach her a few of your moves, Xener?"

The dead serious stare Gabriel received from both warriors told Gabriel that his first guess had been incorrect.

"He started it!" Joxine shouted.

"What did I say?" Xener asked, trying to appear innocent.

"Oh, you insensitive brute! Calling me more fit to be a wife than a warrior!" Joxineís stare was so cold and full of anger that Gabriel actually thought that the staunch warrior prince retreated slightly under it.

"I said Ďmidwifeí."

- - - - - -

Back in the halls of Aphrodite, an eye inside the mind of Ares watched these events unfold. He thought it was a good start, but was not completely satisfied. Turning to look back at the alabaster wheel, he began to wonder if he could speed up the process further. Three days was a short time, after all.

- - - - - -

"Thatís it!" Joxine screamed. "Iíll show you both what a woman is capable of! Youíll see, and youíll be sorry!"

She gathered up her belongings and hastily started to pack them on Peppers.

"Please, Joxine," Gabriel pleaded. "Do come to your senses!"

"Not until that stupid ox apologises to me!" Joxine yelled.

Gabriel glanced at Xener.

"Iíll do no such thing!" Xener bellowed. "This foolishness comes from your head, not from my tongue." In truth, Xener wanted to apologise, but his pride was too strong.

"So be it!" Joxine shouted back, accentuating every word. "See you later, suckers!"

She mounted Peppers and rode off in the direction of the road, soon disappearing into the distance.

"Donít look at me like that, Gabriel," Xener snapped at his companion. "You wanted to get rid of the wench more than I did."

"Well, I donít know. In all her clumsiness and ineptitude, sheís really rather cute." Gabriel sighed. "Do you think sheíll be all right?"

"I could not care less," Xener said rudely. "What interests me at the moment is: whatís for breakfast? I canít stomach another bite of those dry wheat cakes."

Gabriel held up his goods. "Fresh eggs and some fish."

"Sounds good."

Gabriel knelt by the fire and started working. "How strange!" he uttered as he broke the first egg. "I wonder if these eggs are spoiled?"

"I thought you said they were fresh," Xener said.

"I know... but these eggs donít seem to have any yolk in them. Just the whites."

Xener leaned forward to look, and noticed that Gabriel was right. They broke the rest of the eggs, and they were all alike.

"This day is looking better all the time," Xener said sarcastically. "First Joxine loses her head and splits, and now this. Well, get the fish fried quickly so that we get something to eat before moving on."

"Cook your own, you lazy slacker," Gabriel taunted, but with a smile. "Iím not your maid."

Xenerís brow wrinkled. Grudgingly, he picked up the smaller fish (Gabriel had already taken the bigger one) and put it on a stick to roast it over the fire.

- - - - - -

After the less than delicious breakfast, Xener and Gabriel put out the fire and moved on. They returned to the road and began following it south, towards Thessaly and Nadera. The road was in good repair and the weather favoured the travellers.

"Joxine has gone this way too," Xener noted, looking down.

"How can you know?" Gabriel asked. "This roadís too hard for hoofprints."

"Iím following the hair her horse has shed. The poor beast must be near death."

Gabriel laughed at Xenerís unconventional form of tracking. Then he glanced behind them and saw several figures moving in the horizon.

"Xener, we have company."

The taller man turned his head to see for himself. Squinting his eyes, he could make out four riders coming towards them, closing fast.

"Hmmm... four of them, it seems. Wait... this is odd."

"What is it?" Gabriel asked.

"Well, they all seem to be women. In battle armour, too."

They waited for a while as the riders got closer and closer, and they could make out more detail. The riders were most definitely female, wearing crude but effective-looking armour and weapons.

"Do you think these could be some of those Amazon women of yours?"

"I donít think so," Gabriel replied.

"Shouldnít you know? You are their King after all."

Gabriel snorted. "Are you serious? Whoíd ever think of something so ridiculous as the Amazons having... a King..." He stopped in mid-sentence. There seemed to be an empty place in his head where his relationship to the Amazons should have been.

Xener noticed the puzzled look on the face of his companion. "There seems to be a logical incongruity in this conversation," the warrior said.

"You can say that again," Gabriel agreed.

They had no time to think about this further, for at that moment the first rider, a plump, scar-faced brunette, stopped her horse a few paces away from Xener and Gabriel. She seemed to be the leader.

"Travellers! Hand over your dinars and you wonít be harmed!" the woman hollered in a smooth but menacing voice. "Resist and you will die this day!"

Xener could not help being amused by the eccentricity of the situation. Putting his hand to his hip, conveniently close to his throwing axe, he began to laugh, first as just a chortle that soon grew to a roar.

"HA HA! Why, arenít you the prettiest bandits Iíve ever seen!" Xener bellowed. In fact, none of the bandits could in full honesty be called beautiful, except for a blonde one riding in the rear, who was clearly much younger than the others. They all had scruffy, tangled hair, dirty faces and wrinkled hands. Two of them, including the leader, had some nasty scars as well.

Gabriel smiled too, but at the same time looked and felt worried. Slowly, his hands moved closer to his spear.

"You laugh at us?" the leader of the bandits snapped. "You should know that we are not to be trifled with! Weíve been pillaging and raping our way through half of Thrace!"

Xenerís smile narrowed, while Gabrielís expression became bewildered.

"Excuse me, ladies... are you quite sure about that Ďrapingí part?"

It was the banditsí turn to be mystified. They exchanged a few glances with each other, nervously fidgeting with their reins.

"Well, I just meant it like... a figure of speech," the scarfaced woman replied, angry towards Gabriel and her own hesitation. "Would Ďpillaging and flaying arrogant foolsí suit your ears better?"

"I grow tired of this," Xener said. "You harlots shall not have our dinars or our lives. Throw down your weapons and ride back where you came from, otherwise prepare to taste my blade!"

The leader of the women drew her sword as a signal. "Letís cut them down, girls!" she cried.

Before the four had even moved, Xenerís throwing axe was already spinning through the air. It hit one of the bandits in the shoulder, making a horrendous wound and toppling the woman off her horse. The others charged towards Xener and Gabriel.

"AYIYIYIYIYIYIYIYIYI!"

Leading Agarath against the three remaining riders, Xener swept his sword above his head in a deadly arc, perfectly timed to end in the throat of the bandit leader. The scarred woman managed to block much of the force of the strike, but the tip of Xenerís blade still drew blood. As a natural continuation to the rotation of his upper body, Xener brought his left hand around, slamming his fist on the womanís face. The brunette was knocked out cold.

Xener was just in time to parry the sword of the second woman. Both of their horses slowed down as they started circling each other, exchanging quick blows. It did not take Xener long to overcome his opponent. With a sharp kick, he forced the woman off balance so that she had to drop her guard, allowing Xener to take her out with a quick slash right below the womanís ribs.

The last bandit, the young blonde, had been stopped by the sudden realisation that she was alone. She watched in horror as Xener turned his horse towards her, raising his sword. Without hesitation, she let her weapon fall to the ground. This did not stop the berserking warrior, though, who continued his charge.

Then, Gabrielís spear suddenly appeared in front of Agarath. Rising to its hind legs, the horse broke its charge, coming to an abrupt halt nearly within reach of the young bandit.

"Hold it, Xener! She no longer has her sword!" Gabriel commanded sharply.

Gabrielís words had the desired effect. After a short moment of bewilderment, Xener snapped out of his frenzy. Looking oddly disappointed, the warrior sheathed his weapon. Catching his breath, he eyed the terrified blonde sternly.

"Smart move," Xener said to the woman. "Now help your sisters. With lots of luck and a good healer, they may even all survive. After youíve licked your wounds, leave this province without looking back. If our paths ever cross again, I will not be so merciful."

"Yes, warrior! You have our promise," the blonde replied, her voice shivering.

Gabriel went to retrieve the throwing axe, wiped it clean of blood against the grass and walked back to Xenerís side, returning the weapon. The warrior prince hung it on his belt again. Then the two turned back to their original direction and continued their journey.

"Now what was that all about?" Xener asked Gabriel when they were out of earshot. "You know better than to come in front of me like that."

Gabriel turned his face to Xener and gave him a harsh look. "For a moment, it seemed you were enjoying that a bit too much. It looked like you would have happily struck down the poor girl."

Xener flinched, looking a bit guilty for a moment. Then, lifting his arm in the air in front of him, he turned defensive.

"It was just the heat of the battle, dear fellow. Besides, they were asking for it."

Gabriel knew that he should have argued further. It had really unnerved him to see Xener in battle, once again controlled by his instinct rather than good sense. This time, though, Gabriel let the issue alone, for some reason he could not really identify himself. It just felt that it would have been disrespectful of him to judge the actions of the great warrior.

"Well, I wasnít really worried anyway," Gabriel lied. "There is one thing, though."

"Speak your mind," Xener said.

"That battle-cry of yours..." Gabriel spent a moment to look for the right words. "It sort of... sounds a bit... silly."

"WHAT?"

"Wait, wait... I donít really know why it hasnít occurred to me before, but donít you think itís a tad unsuitable for a great warrior such as yourself... itís so high-pitched and all."

"Of course! Itís supposed to strike fear and confusion into the hearts of my enemies!"

"Confusion is right," Gabriel quipped. "I just thought that a more... manly scream would be better."

"What gibberish is this?" Xener growled, although in his mind he was already thinking that Gabriel had a point. "What should I shout then?"

"Well... try, for example, Ďhraaah!í, or maybe... Ďyoo hooí or Ďwaaaaaagh!í"

"WAAAAGH?!?!" Xener tried, not really happy with the tone of it.

"Or maybe a yell that actually means something?" Gabriel hurried to continue. "Like Ďby the power of Zeus!í or Ďitís a good day to die!í"

"Iím glad you didnít suggest Ďblood, valour, victory!í"

"Well, do you have a better idea?"

"Actually I do, listen to this," Xener said, taking a deep gulp of air. "SLASH AND BURN!"

Gabriel straightened his back and smiled. "There you go. Much better."

They continued along the road, both extremely pleased with the new yell.

"Strangest thing, Gabriel. The old yell always worked before. I really donít know why it sounds so different now."

"Things change, Xener. Maybe youíre getting old."

They both laughed. Xener didnít laugh quite as loud as Gabriel, though.

- - - - - -

Joxine had made good speed along the road, and the sun was still a good way above the horizon when she spotted the first glimpses of the rooftops among the hilly countryside. Leading Peppers over the last hill, she could see the entire village of Nadera in front of her.

It wasnít large, but seemed prosperous, and as the times dictated for prosperous villages, had a wooden fence running around it. There were three tall wooden towers, two of them located at the opposite sides of the village, and one standing above the gate. Joxine rode down along the road, joining the throng of people coming to and from the village.

As she rode through the gate, she heard a quiet whisper calling out to her from the alley between the wall and the first building.

"Hello."

Joxine looked to the direction of the voice and saw a small, slender man standing at the corner of the house, beckoning her to approach. Joxine dismounted and walked up to the man.

"What do you want?" she asked.

"No, whatís important is what you want." the man said, running his hand through his dark brown hair and then placing it on Joxineís shoulder. She was quick to brush it off.

"Keep your dirty hands off me!"

"Please, you could have a wonderful time with me," the man said with a sickeningly mellifluous voice. "Just twenty dinars and I will take you to... new heights of pleasure."

Now Joxine understood, yet she could not believe it. This man was a... courtesan. And the saddest part was that he wasnít even very good at it. It was the way he said "new heights of pleasure" just like other people would say "two loaves of bread."

"Youíre new at this, arenít you?" Joxine asked, giving the young man a sympathetic stare.

"Yes... but Iím not completely inexperienced..." the man continued, moving closer to Joxine. "Let me caress those lovely..."

His sentence was cut short by a mighty slap in the face.

"Look at you!" Joxine shrieked. "Arenít you the least bit ashamed, harassing defenceless young women in broad daylight!"

"But... you carry a sword... well, knife... and wear armour, too!" the prostitute protested.

"Looks arenít everything, you know! I could be totally, utterly helpless and you wouldnít be able to tell the difference!"

While speaking, Joxine had been poking the young man on the chest with her finger, forcing him to retreat so that his back was against the wooden wall. Completely at loss for words, the manís expression sank into such sorrow that Joxine could not help feeling slightly sorry for him.

"Now go, and donít let me catch you doing this again! Amend your indecent ways!"

"Yes..." the man started sadly. "I guess youíre right... sorry I bothered you."

"Donít worry," Joxine said encouragingly. "Just set higher goals for yourself from now on." She patted the man on the shoulder, and was turning to leave, when a thought occurred to her. "But before you go, could you tell me where the local tavern is?"

- - - - - -

"Barkeep! A mug of your strongest ale!"

The innkeeper, a stout, clean-shaven man, stood up from his stool near the other end of the bar table and stared at the small woman wearing a sword, armour and a funny-looking helmet.

"You want ale?"

Joxine looked back at the innkeeper.

"Yes. Any problem with that?"

Starting to giggle almost hysterically, the innkeeper snatched a large pint from the table and placed it under the tap with shaking hands.

"No, maíam! No problem whatsoever! Hihihi! One ale coming up!"

The man topped off the pint and placed it in front of Joxine. When she tried to move for her coin pouch, the innkeeper put up his arm in refusal.

"Donít bother with that, this oneís on the house." The manís mouth was stretched into a smile that reached almost from ear to ear. "Enjoy."

"Thank you," Joxine said suspiciously. "Just donít try anything funny, I can use this sword you know."

Joxine tasted the foul-smelling brew, and only her current need to blur from her head the dayís events prevented her from spitting it out.

"Slow night, is it?" Joxine asked, scanning the empty bar room with her eyes.

"Slow day. Youíre my first customer."

Joxine was surprised. "What? Donít the men in Nadera drink beer anymore?"

"Apparently not! Oh, Iíve had visitors today, all right, but all they want is milk! Which, unfortunately, I havenít got today."

"No milk?"

"Not a drop! The farmer that usually brings the stuff to me said today that she didnít have any to spare. Then she told me a silly story of her having sixteen bulls and one cow in her pen this morning."

Some of the ale stuck to Joxineís throat, partly due to her amazement and partly on its own accord. Coughing viciously, she stumbled up from her stool and banged herself on the chest.

At that moment, two more visitors entered the tavern.

"Joxine!" Gabriel greeted her from the door. "Good to see youíre all right, we were worried about you!"

Joxine looked at Xener and Gabriel for a moment. Then, without saying a word, she picked up her pint and took a long swig.

"Wisely spoken!" the innkeeper laughed, pointing at Joxine. "Now, whatíll you have?"

"I think weíll have two flagons of wine," Xener said, but Gabriel interrupted him.

"Actually... Iíd prefer a pitcher of milk."

- - - - - - -

Ares was partly pleased but still uneasy. A change was taking place, but not quickly enough. He had to do something.

Turning back to the wheel, Ares recalled the moves Aphrodite had used to make it turn. That was easy. What he was unsure of was whether he had to repeat them upside-down, as the wheel was already inverted. Besides, he did not want to turn the wheel around completely. That, he assumed, would have just returned things back to normal. He only wanted to tilt the disc so that the thorny vine, representing masculinity, would be higher, stronger. Again, that is how Ares assumed it would work.

The God of War cursed at himself. It was not for gods to be so uncertain. Doubt was for fools and mortals; gods did not have to bother with it. With grim determination, he placed his hands against the alabaster surface and turned.

Or, tried to turn. He was certain he was touching the correct places, but the disc did not budge. Ares thought about Aphrodite, and the manoeuvres made by her hands as she had so effortlessly rotated the wheel. Aresí imitation was perfect, yet he failed to affect the disc at all.

It can not be budged by force. It resists if you resist it.

"Weíll see about that," Ares hissed under his breath.

Ares altered his stance and concentrated for one final attempt. Once more placing his hands on the cool alabaster, the God of War summoned his strength. Standing on Olympian ground, Aresí powers were practically limitless. The amount of force he was using on the disc could have crushed a mountain.

A blaring screech rose from the disc, as if it had suddenly gained a will of its own to defy Ares. But while the divine in it could resist, the mundane material it was made of could not. The God of War felt triumphant as he felt the stone move under his palms.

But the disc still did not turn more than a fraction of a degree. It cracked. A narrow but clearly visible rift appeared on the surface, a bright light radiating through it. And the delicate vines connecting the two halves withered and curled away from each other.

 

 

 

Chapter III - Problems of Men, Problems of Gods

"Thirty-seven," Gabriel said.

"Youíre counting?" There was undisguised indifference in Xenerís inflection.

"Yes. There must be a trail forming in the grass outside."

Gabriel listened as Joxineís stomping footsteps moved around a corner again and began to follow the northern wall.

"I do wish youíd apologise," Gabriel sighed. "She really is upset, you know."

"She is acting like a fool," Xener barked back, taking a quick sip of his wine. "It can hardly be my fault if she refuses to accept the facts of life."

Gabriel stepped away from the bar and towards the fireplace.

"And what, in your opinion, are these facts of life? Do you really think that a fighting profession is something a woman is unsuitable for?"

Xener emptied his cup and gestured the barkeeper to fill it up before he answered.

"Not necessarily. But... Joxine? Can you honestly see her as a warrior?"

Gabriel raised his eyebrows slightly. "You may be right. She does have plenty of enthusiasm, but there are areas where she is severely lacking."

"I couldnít have said it better!" Xener declared. "Now, I do not mean to generalise, there are many men as well without the necessary qualifications, donít you agree?"

Gabriel turned away from the fire and fixed Xener with his eyes. "Qualifications?"

"The usual... love of a good battle, a taste for the sport, so to speak..."

Gabriel was shocked, maybe more by the casual tone of Xenerís voice than his choice of words.

"Sport?! Fighting and killing? You see them as a sport?"

Xener noticed that his companion was serious, and could not understand why.

"No other sport like it," Xener affirmed. "A contest to the death... how could anything compare? It is the ultimate test to judge the measure of a man."

Gabriel could not believe what he was hearing. Looking deep into the eyes of the dark warrior, he could see that Xener was speaking in earnest. Was this the person who had so often stressed that the sword was the worst solution to any problem?

"Xener? What has happened to you?" Gabriel asked, or rather demanded to know.

"I donít understand what you mean," Xener replied.

"I mean that you of all people... youíve seen the way of the warrior all too well. You know where that road leads. Youíre the one who decided to turn away from it."

"I know, Gabriel, believe me. And I am not regretting that decision. Iíve just grown tired of the role, giving every cut-throat and lowlife we meet a second chance... better just to let them hang."

"You... you make me sick," Gabriel said slowly.

"Oh please, not you too!" Xener moaned. "First Joxine and now you!"

With a swift move Gabriel approached the bar, snatched the cup of wine and threw its contents on Xenerís face.

"You know, Joxine is right!" Gabriel shouted at Xener. "You are a callous brute, with no regard for the feelings of others! You think all your skills make you so superior to everyone else around you! Well, warrior prince, pretty soon youíll find out thereís no one left!"

Gabriel ran out of the tavern, grabbing his spear from beside the door. Xener stared at the empty doorway for a long time, wiping his face dry. As much as he wanted to run out after Gabriel, Xener had his self-respect. He faced the bar again, noticing the barkeeper eyeing him.

"What are you looking at? Pour me another one!"

- - - - - -

Outside, Gabriel soon stumbled into Joxine. She gave him a questioning look, but did not seem to be angry anymore. Of course, her anger had not been directed towards Gabriel in the first place.

"Look, Gabe," Joxine began before Gabriel could say anything. "I know you mean well, but he really has to come out here and apologise to me personally."

"Iím not here on his behalf," Gabriel huffed. "He can come out here to apologise to us both."

"You too?" Joxine wondered. "I thought I heard shouting."

Joxine resumed his steady pacing, and Gabriel followed her. They proceeded through the main street, toward the gate.

"This has been a weird day," Gabriel said. "Everything seems somehow different. You know, after travelling with Xener for so long, I thought I knew him better."

"That doesnít make sense. You know Xener better than anyone. There is something wrong, and not just with the three of us." Joxine glanced at Gabriel, who was looking at her inquisitively. "Iíve had a chance to do some thinking out here. For example, I realised that I am remembering things that could not have happened the way they did."

Gabriel nodded. "So am I. They are like those dreams where you see yourself doing things you wouldnít normally do."

"Exactly. Now, letís try an experiment I just thought up." Joxine grabbed Gabrielís shoulder and turned him so that they faced each other.

"What kind of experiment is this?" Gabriel inquired.

"Just a simple question," Joxine explained. "Describe, in ten words or less, only the good things that come to your mind about your mother."

Gabriel stared blankly at Joxine for a moment. Had the person he was looking at been anyone else, he would have classified her as insane. But Joxine did not give that appearance. In a way, she seemed more lucid and rational than ever, for once devoid of her grandiose demeanour.

"My mother?" Gabriel said. "Well... she is a farmer, and a skilful hunter. She taught me how to fish when I was a child..."

"Thatís more than ten words," Joxine interrupted. "But I think I made my point."

She had indeed. "Mothers arenít like that," Gabriel thought out loud. "This... I donít know why it didnít occur to me before."

"Well, imagine my surprise when I conjured up a memory of being breastfed by my dad," Joxine said.

- - - - - -

Ares paced around nervously in the inner hall of Aphroditeís palace. He had observed the mortals, but could not see any direct consequences to the breaking of the wheel. It was, after all, just the physical shape of the wheel that had been damaged, and everything that was divine about it was still intact.

Suddenly, the God of War felt a presence in the room. It was like something or someone was shouting at him from beyond the walls, with a voice too weak to be consciously heard. Looking around the room to find the source of this disturbance, Ares saw a faint cloud slowly forming a shape by the passage that led out of the chamber. As he watched, the cloud transformed into a human figure, that of a woman.

Suddenly, Ares was filled with a sense of recognition. "Aphrodite?"

He was correct, for soon the Goddess of Love was there, looking dreadful. Her hair was tangled and seemed dirty, her skin was white as snow and covered in cold sweat. She almost seemed too weak to stand.

Ares jumped forward just in time to receive the falling goddess on his arms. Gently putting her down on the marble floor, Ares crouched over Aphrodite.

"Ares..." Aphrodite murmured weakly. "What have you done?"

Ares could not say anything. Kneeling beside Aphrodite, he just stared into her eyes, his face heavy with guilt.

"Please, Aphrodite, I am sorry. What can I do to repair the damage Iíve caused?"

Aphrodite reached out and pulled Aresí ear close to her lips. "Damaging the disc... broke the link between the world of mortals and the domain of immortal love... If it isnít repaired, mortals will soon cease loving each other... and at that moment I die."

"But what can I do?!" Ares asked. "Can Hephaestus do it, can he reforge the halves back together?"

"No, Ares... this isnít a labour for gods," Aphrodite whispered. She was becoming weaker, her eyes fixed still, seeing nothing. "You must find two mortals who feel deep love for each other... but cannot fulfil their devotion. They can fix the disk."

Ares grinned. "Eh, thatís Xena and Gabrielle, right? You mean them, donít you?"

"Under normal circumstances, that might work... but... Xena and Gabrielle are not in this world. Only Xener and Gabriel."

"Whatís the difference? Wonít that work as well?"

"No, Ares. It will not. But... oh, Ares, I think Iím fainting."

"Aphrodite?!" Ares bellowed, taking Aphroditeís face between his hands. "You are a goddess! You canít pass out!? Gods donít do that!"

But Aresí attempts were in vain. Aphrodite was lying on the floor, her breath shallow and her skin cold, and for the first time since creation, her eyes were not watching over the world.

- - - - - -

It had been a curious conversation. Gabriel was used to being the soul and spirit of any discussion, but this time, it had been Joxine who had led them to the only sane conclusions that had been waiting to be found.

"So, the only thing left is to decide how weíre going to tell him," Gabriel voiced.

"Her," Joxine corrected.

"Not for the moment. By gods, he will be hard to convince."

Joxine nodded. "I know. I can hardly believe it myself. But thereís no other way to see it."

"I guess I believed it as soon as we reached the conclusion. I have felt so different today. My memories, my emotions..."

And then Gabriel did something unexpected. He grabbed Joxine by the arm and spun her around, capturing her in his embrace. With a relentless fervour, he began smothering her with kisses. After a moment of unmitigated panic and confusion, Joxine eventually responded to this sudden onslaught of affection.

"Wait," Gabriel said abruptly, pushing Joxine away from him.

"Wait? WAIT?" Joxine retorted. "I was just getting into it!"

"That wasnít like it should have been. It didnít feel like much anything."

"What do you...," Joxine began, until a look of sudden comprehension appeared on her face. "You know, youíre right. It didnít produce... well, the desired effect."

They looked at each other for a moment, suddenly feeling nervous and uneasy. "Maybe we should try it again," Joxine suggested. They did.

"Sorry," Gabriel said. "It isnít your fault... but I just donít..."

"Well, maybe it is because... youíre really a woman and Iím really a man."

Gabriel grimaced and rubbed his chin. "No, I donít think so. You see, this morning, when I saw you sleeping, then fighting Xener, and riding away, I realised something. I need you, Joxine."

The female warrior was stunned. "You do?"

"Yes," Gabriel replied, trying to keep his voice hard and manful. "Your vulnerability, clumsiness, and that adorable ineptitude are all things I find terribly attractive in a woman. Yet, when I touch you now, my heart will not beat harder, the earth wonít move."

"That... thatís too bad," Joxine said with mixed emotions.

"Something else has gone awry, besides what we already know."

"Yes, I guess so."

"Well, whatever is wrong, Xener must be informed of it at once. He must be made to realise that he is not himself."

"What are we waiting for, then?" Joxine said impatiently. "Letís go."

"One thing, Joxine. I think it is better if I talk to him alone," Gabriel said. "His reaction may be... unpredictable."

 

- - - - - -

"A princess?" Xener mumbled incredulously.

Well, at least he did not laugh or shout this time, Gabriel thought. But, then again, he had obviously downed an awful lot of wine to soften the blow.

"You are deranged," the warrior said. "Out of your mind. Several gods short of a full pantheon."

"Let me explain," Gabriel continued. "If Joxine and I are correct, our memories have not changed completely. Therefore, you are still also a warrior."

"Oh, so Iím not just a princess, Iím a warrior princess?"

Gabriel nodded, suddenly becoming painfully aware that the barkeeper was looking at him just as sceptically as Xener.

"What was it you said before, Gabriel?" Xener wondered. "That this has happened everywhere, to everyone?"

"Yes! Thatís why the farmer had so many bulls, and the bandits were all female! You must admit, that did seem unusual."

"Oh yes. But if this has happened to all of the people, then that means that you too are a... woman... and Joxine is... a man."

"Yes, that is our conclusion," Gabriel affirmed.

Having slightly sobered from his stupor, Xener now seemed to be thinking about this. Looking sternly into Gabrielís eyes, Xenerís brow formed lines. Then, his grim look turned into a wide smile and his mouth opened to release a hearty laugh.

"Oh, Gabriel," Xener managed to say between his chortles, "You almost got me to believe you. This is some sort of a joke between you and Joxine, right? Youíre trying to get back at me!"

Gabriel took a deep breath and quickly counted to ten in his head. "No, Xener, I am serious. This is not something I would joke about."

Xener continued laughing. "Donít be silly, Gabriel. This has gone far..."

He was interrupted in mid-sentence by Joxine, who raced in through the doorway, looking pale and agitated.

"Xener! Gabe! Come quickly, there is..." Joxine paused to catch his breath. "There are fearsome-looking riders on the clearing outside the gate! It looks like they might attack us at any moment!"

Without a momentís hesitation, Xener stood up from his stool.

"How many did you see? What did they look like?" The warrior prince asked.

"I counted five. Four on horseback and one on a chariot. But the way they look, I donít think they feel outnumbered in any way."

"Gabriel, go and saddle Agarath," Xener ordered. "Letís go and see whatís out there."

- - - - - -

Xener looked at the figures on the opposite side of the clearing from his high vantage point on Agarathís saddle, and immediately saw that these five were not ordinary warriors. Their horses, for starters, were not docile animals; they were fierce steeds trained for battle, yet their riders had complete control over them, making them follow every small gesture they made. Even the beasts in front of the chariot were calm and stood absolutely still.

The four horsemen drew their weapons, each a different one: a battle-axe, a charging spear, a spiked mace and a broad scimitar. Finally, the one in the chariot, a tall man wearing a mask, pulled out a strong whip, striking the air above him producing a crack that sounded like the gates of Tartarus slamming shut.

"Uh," Xener grunted, shaking the inebriation off his head. "I may be good, but..."

"Who are these demons?" Gabriel wondered aloud.

"I wish I knew," Xener said, turning to face Joxine and Gabriel, who were on his left. "They do seem to mean business. Maybe you should retreat to the village, you are no match for them." Xener paused and added, "Without horses."

"You canít fight them alone. Iím not going anywhere," Gabriel protested with a voice that made any further argument futile.

"Well, I will not be the only one to leave," Joxine said.

The four horsemen charged. With the precision of skilled dancers, their steeds formed a disciplined battle line, advancing like a storm front. Slowly, the chariot moved forward, following the riders.

Wanting to stay close to Gabriel and Joxine, Xener did not let Agarath move until at the last moment. Being barely able to pick up speed before the four were upon him, he decided to save his throwing axe for later, to be used when the riders had made their first pass.

With a skilful parry, Xener managed to strike the incoming spear sideways, deflecting it just enough for it to scrape his shoulder instead of piercing his stomach. His face did not even flinch at the pain as he crouched close to Agarath, avoiding the second horsemanís blade.

The rider with the battle-axe started to harass Joxine and Gabriel, while the other three continued to attack Xener. Gabriel made a sweeping strike for the legs of a horse, jumping away from its route as she felt the spear connect. The black charger was unaffected, its rider swinging his battle-axe downwards. Gabriel fell flat on the ground avoiding it.

Joxine rushed at the rider threatening Gabriel. While not faring any better against the mounted aggressor, she provided enough distraction for Gabriel to get back up on his feet.

Xener was also having difficulty. While the rider with the spear was having difficulty fighting at close quarters, the swordsman was one of the best Xener had ever seen. Blocking Xenerís every blow and making deadly attacks of his own, the rider still managed to control his steed so that he continually had the advantage of perfect striking angles. Agarath seemed like a wild pony compared to the midnight-black warhorse.

The situation was not helped by the arrival of the chariot. The masked warrior behind the reins did not enter the battle, but turned to the right, towards the spot where Xener was surrounded by three riders. With unbelievable speed and accuracy, the charioteer brought out his whip and struck. Like an attacking snake, the whip uncoiled and flew towards Xener. Acting like a thing with a will of its own, the end of the whip wrapped around his waist.

"Joxine!" Gabriel shouted as he saw the warrior prince being dragged away, towards the chariot. This scream almost got Joxine killed, if a sudden instinct had not made her crouch slightly. The horsemanís battle-axe struck the top of Joxineís helmet, sending it flying.

Xener hardly touched the ground as he was pulled to the chariot, so strong and quick was the man holding the whip. He landed roughly against one of the wheels, and was instantly picked up and pulled inside by the man. Xenerís weapons landed on the grass as the masked warrior shook him.

Gabriel was running towards the chariot, ignoring the rider behind him completely. He had not made it halfway when the charioteer gave a signal to the horses, and the chariot jumped forward. It raced across the battlefield with unbelievable speed. Upon reaching the edge of the river, the chariot did not even slow down. It went over the bank, without touching the ground, and rose up towards the sky.

Joxine ran up to join Gabriel as he stood there panting, staring after the shrinking chariot.

"That guy must have had the strength of a titan!" Joxine cursed. "Handling Xener like that..."

"Iíd go one better," Gabriel said. "Try a god. If the man in that chariot wasnít Ares himself, Iíd be very surprised."

They were interrupted by the sound of horses behind them. As they turned to look, they saw the four riders assembled around them in a semicircle. Without a momentís delay, Gabriel stepped protectively in front of Joxine.

But the riders did not attack. Instead, they remained motionless, as if waiting for something. And then two of the warriors disappeared, fading into the darkness of the night, leaving their horses behind, the saddles empty. Only the riders with the mace and the sword remained.

"I think weíve just been invited to take a ride to Mount Olympus," Gabriel said.

 

 

 

Chapter IV - On Divine Ground

The jet black charger screamed through the night air, moving with the speed of a gale. It was obviously not distressed a single bit by Gabriel, who was clenching its mane inside his fists. The reins were wrapped around his forearms, and he kept his eyes fixed to the back of the horseís head.

In the bright moonlight, the ground far below was all too clearly visible. The forests and fields and the lights in the windows of farmhouses were all so tiny and unreachable. Merely glancing at them made Gabriel feel dizzy. But the worst part was looking at the three mounts alongside him, one on his left and two on his right, galloping over empty air. The horse closest to Gabriel on the right was carrying Joxine. She had her eyes closed and her arms in a stranglehold around the neck of her steed.

Neither of them noticed the massive rock face rising up into the clouds in front of them until they were already quite close to it. For a moment, it seemed as the horses would ride straight into the wall, but at the last moment a Gabriel noticed the outline of a tunnel entrance, almost hidden by the long shadows. Darkness enveloped them as they flew inside.

There was a brief moment of weightlessness, as Gabriel felt the horse disappear from under him. With nothing to see and nothing to touch, it was like falling down into a lightless well. The drop did not end violently, but with a gentle thud against a marble floor, in a chamber.

"You took your time," an impetuous Ares said, standing in front of them.

After a quick glance to become familiar with his surroundings and to see that Joxine was all right, Gabriel concentrated on Ares.

"The God of War... you know, why canít you just send a letter or something when you wish to meet someone?"

"This is Ares?" Joxine yelped.

"In the flesh," the god replied.

Gabriel took another look around the room, a bit confused by the imagery on the walls.

"I must admit that this place is nicely decorated," Gabriel said. "Not too sure how well it suits you, though... all those hearts and flowers..."

"We are in the halls of Aphrodite, so you can blame her taste."

"Iím not complaining," Gabriel said, focusing on the most prominent feature in the room, a large stone disc set to the rear wall. The disc was split in two, and a pulsating white light emanated from the crack.

"That is the wheel of Aphrodite," Ares explained, noticing Gabrielís attention. "It is the emblem of human love and duality of gender."

"Whatís that crack in it?" Gabriel asked, pointing at the narrow rift in the middle.

"Donít interrupt," Ares snapped. "Last night, there was a terrible accident while Aphrodite was working with the wheel. Here it is as you see it now, damaged and dysfunctional."

"Is that why all the men are suddenly women and vice versa?" Joxine inquired.

Ares grinned. Well, no need for them to know it was my fault, he thought. "Thatís right. Now, what I want is that you help me repair it."

"Us? What can we do?" Joxine inquired.

"Come now, you two. I was watching you tonight, during that adorable moment behind the tavern."

Gabriel would have felt embarrassed, but the contemptuous tone of Aresí voice made him angry rather than bashful.

"And what would you have us do, pray tell," Gabriel responded with equal disdain.

"Well, I donít think it can be very complicated," Ares postulated. "If you could just step in front of it and touch it with your hands and weíll have this trouble sorted out in no time."

Aresí obvious impatience seemed suspicious to Gabriel. The god was standing beside the disc, his hand gesturing Gabriel and Joxine to approach. Joxine took a few steps forward, but was stopped by Gabrielís hand.

"Wait," he said. "What kind of an accident?"

Ares bit his lip and tried to think of something quick. "Well... she was cleaning it and... you know how careful one must be with these godly powers... there was this sudden and unexpected moment of rapture, you see, and Aphrodite just underestimated herself for a minute."

Gabriel took a good look at Ares. It was unusual for the God of War to lie this badly, but somehow there seemed to be no malice hidden behind his gaze. He was practically begging for their help.

"Okay, whatever," Gabriel said. "But weíre not making a move before I see Xener."

Pointing with his finger, Ares directed their attention to a large brass mirror on the wall. On it appeared the familiar figure of the warrior prince. No background detail could be discerned, only Xener with his sword in hand, warily examining his surroundings.

"Very good," Gabriel said. "Bring him here."

Ares shook his head. "No. You do this first."

"Absolutely not," Gabriel refused. "Your reputation does not inspire that much trust."

"I understand. You donít want to do this for my sake, but would you do it for Aphrodite?"

Joxine suddenly stiffened and faced Ares, who was leaning against the far wall of the chamber. "What about Aphrodite?" she asked.

"She is dying," Ares replied with a pained voice. "Becoming weaker by each passing moment. If that wheel is not repaired, she will wither and ultimately die. And without her, love will die from the world."

Joxine grabbed Gabriel and turned him towards her. "We must do this," she said. "If Aphrodite... you know..."

"All too well."

While Gabriel did not like the idea of letting Ares have an advantage, his intuition was telling him that the god was, at least for the most part, telling the truth.

"You really think we should?" Gabriel said uncertainly. His question was answered when Joxine took his hand into hers.

"I go first, then," Gabriel said. "Donít do anything until we see itís safe."

"Forget that," Joxine retorted. "I will go first."

"I canít let you do that. We donít know what might happen, and I couldnít live with myself if something happened to you."

"Oh yes, you men always get to play the hero, right?"

Gabriel rolled his eyes. "Look at it this way, Joxine. If this works, you can have the phallic privilege for the rest of your life."

Upon finishing his sentence, the bard reached out with his hand and slammed it on the cool alabaster, followed seconds later by Joxineís, who touched the other half. They immediately felt vibration deep inside the stone. The bright light radiating through the crack became more brilliant, making it hard to behold.

The ragged edges of the two alabaster crescents began to glow like incandescent metal, as if expecting to be reunited. Without a warning, the two parts crashed together. There was a huge boom, and tiny droplets of molten rock sprinkled from the seam like sparks from a forge, raining on Joxine and Gabriel.

And as the two halves joined, the disc began to revolve around its axis, moved by no conscious effort from either Gabriel or Joxine, who withdrew their hands. The withered vines sprouted out again as fresh as new, reaching to join each other in the center. And then the disc stopped, being whole once more.

"Well, I donít really see if that was worth all the fuss," Joxer said as he finally opened his eyes. "What do you think, Gabrielle?"

But Gabrielle wasnít at his side. She had run to the mirror, where she could still see the image of Xener. Not Xena.

And now Ares was in there with him.

- - - - - -

"Welcome to my halls, warrior prince," Ares said to Xener.

The God of War was sitting on an unadorned marble throne near the wall of a circular chamber. Tar flames were burning on braziers all around the room, giving it a flickering, yellow illumination. The floor was covered with coarse sand.

"What is this place?" Xener asked, scanning around the room for an exit. None was visible.

"This is my training room. Only a select few of the mightiest of warriors have had the chance to test their skills here. Even fewer have left alive."

Xener turned his attention to Ares. The god had his eyes locked on Xener, like the eyes of a hawk watching his prey.

"Is it true, Ares?" Xener demanded to know. "That thing Gabriel tried to explain to me? Am I a prince or a princess?"

Ares leaned back and thought about this. He knew he had to be careful with his words. This was not a battle that could be won by strength or agility.

"Should you not ask that another way? Are you a warrior... or a woman?"

Ares motioned with his hand, and two ghostly images appeared beside his throne. One was a woman whose face was strangely familiar to Xener. The other image was Xener himself.

"Letís see..." Ares murmured. "Here we have you... and the other you. On the left, a warrior of might and skill, a defender of his allies, the doom of his enemies. Glory and fortune await him wherever he goes."

This was so easy for Xener to see, so obvious, so believable. The other image, though...

"And who is this?" Ares asked rhetorically. "A woman, a mother. Strong in love but weak in faith, carrying her infant on her lap, desperately trying to hide herself! She wants nothing more than to protect the child, but she knows she is powerless against the swords of her enemies."

No, Xener thought. There was something so wrong in that image... yet it wasnít completely foreign to him. Did he know this woman?

"I... I donít know..." Xener mumbled.

"Yes you do!" Ares bellowed. "You know the fire in yourself... the spirit of combat!"

Ares raised his hand and pointed at the image of the woman.

"Strike! Strike it down, now! You see it is false, donít you?"

Xener drew his sword, but did not move towards either image yet.

"Why should I trust you, Ares? You are making this decision for me!" Xener shouted, but knew that he would probably not have chosen otherwise himself.

Ares motioned with his hand again, and the images changed shape. The woman became younger, until she was but a childlike girl on the brink of adulthood. The man retained his age, but his face altered. It became a face he knew very well.

"Lyceus..." Xener whispered.

Suddenly, the two images moved forward from Aresí side and turned to Xener.

"Brother," the ghost of Lyceus spoke. "You follow my footsteps, you fight like I did. You were my avenger, you made me proud..."

"Lyceus... I am what I am because of you..." Xener said to the ghost, tears in his eyes.

The manís image changed back to Xener.

"No, Xener. I am you."

The ghostly image stepped back. It was the womanís turn to speak.

"Death..." it wailed. "My brother is dead!"

Xener looked at the girl and felt a bitter taste in his mouth.

"I could do nothing..." the girl continued. "I can do nothing! Hear my prayers, warrior... slay the man who did this... get the warlord who killed my brother..."

Xener wanted to say something. But she did not know the woman as who she was, it was not Lyceus she was talking about, it could not be.

"Remember, warrior," Ares spoke from his throne, "when your brother died. There was only one thing that you wished, when you came to me and prayed for my guidance. What was it?"

Xener flinched. There was no memory in her mind that was as clear.

"To be stronger. To be faster. To fight better than anyone."

Ares smiled to himself. He was winning and he knew it.

"I grant your wish. You want to be stronger? You want to defeat your enemies, to be a warrior more courageous than any other? THEN BE IT!"

- - - - - -

Gabrielle and Joxer watched the conversation between the warrior and the god through the mirror. She could only watch in horror as she saw Aresí arguments sink deeper and deeper into Xenerís... Xenaís... soul.

"Why is she still him?" Gabrielle wondered. "Why hasnít she changed back?"

"Because he believes," a melodious voice said from behind them. Joxer and Gabrielle turned around to see Aphrodite in her full glory.

"Aphrodite!" Joxer and Gabrielle cried out together.

"We heard you were dying," Gabrielle said.

"I was," the goddess affirmed. "Without your help, I would now be dead." Aphrodite stepped further into the room, to take a good look at her wheel. "Oh my, you did a grand job. Ares couldnít have made a better choice."

"Enough about Ares, please," Gabrielle pleaded. "What about Xena? What is wrong with her?"

"His masculine side, known as Xener, is acting on logic rather than feeling."

"Care to explain that?" Joxer said, realising too late how bluntly and informally he had addressed the goddess.

"He was told what he really is and he disregarded it, he saw it as false. He is still lost in that delusion."

"You donít mean... permanently?" Gabrielle asked warily.

"Oh no. Left on his own, he would sooner or later see or feel something to remind him of his true self and revert to it. Revelations like that are taking place across the world even as we speak."

"But he isnít on his own," Gabrielle reminded Aphrodite.

"Thatís the bad news. Ares is not playing with him for fun. He is attempting to convince Xener to abandon her female half for good."

Gabrielle swallowed. "Is that as bad as it sounds?"

"Yes."

"Isnít there anything you can do?" Gabrielle pleaded from Aphrodite.

"I cannot go against Ares. I canít challenge him or his authority directly. There was a war among the gods a long time ago, and there is no soul in the world that would wish that to happen again, not even Ares. So, we have laws in place against that."

"Aphrodite! I must get there. I must talk to her.. him.. ahhh, you know what I mean!"

The Goddess appraised Gabrielle with her eyes. "You want to join your friend in the Halls of War? It will not be easy. His demesne is guarded by powerful demigods, capable of defeating any mortal in battle.

"What about you? Youíre a goddess, after all," Gabrielle said.

"In this case, that is more an obstacle than a benefit. I can only enter Aresí fortress if he invites me. That place is his own, and his authority within its walls absolute. We would not even be able to see inside his fortress if he wished otherwise."

"Well, fortunately there is one among us who isnít afraid of any undefeatable guardians!" Joxer shouted.

Gabrielle turned towards him. "No there isnít. Iím very afraid."

"But I meant..." Joxer started, but was stopped by Gabrielleís fingers on his lips.

"I know," she said, turning back to Aphrodite. "Iíll go."

"Very well," Aphrodite said. "As you have never killed, you may have a chance. Remember, for Ares, Anger means power, and Fear is a weapon. These are the two emotions he uses most. If you can purge yourself of hatred and cast away your fears, you will be invisible to any of his minions."

"How do I do that? I mean... the anger part I can hold back... but..."

"It will be difficult, make no mistake," Aphrodite said soothingly. "But your devotion to your friend can overcome that, if you let it take over."

Gabrielle nodded. "Iíll try. Now, how do I get to the Halls of War?"

"I can take you as far as the gate," Aphrodite said. "It is against the rules, but... you did repair the wheel and bring me back to life. If I didnít repay that debt somehow, Iíd really be a bad example of a goddess, wouldnít I?"

- - - - - -

"No, Ares", Xener said tenderly. "You are wrong, you must be."

The God of War was displeased.

"What is there to doubt, Xener? You see everything so clearly but still you are irresolute. Which of these images mirrors you? Are you so blind to your own desires, your own feelings, that you cannot see it? Make your choice!"

Ares regretted his own words even before he had finished the sentence. Neither Xener or Xena had ever, and would never be susceptible to threats and coaxing. He would need to be subtler.

"Iím just wondering," Xena said, "whether there is any choice for me to make? These ghosts of yours are both wrong, both incomplete somehow... yet thereís a part of me in both of them."

"Why, a loving mother and a dauntless warrior inhabiting the same soul? Water and flame boiling happily together in the same vessel? I donít think so."

Almost unconsciously, Xener gripped his sword tighter. "I... I think I do," he said blandly, without effort or belief.

"Really? But how could that be?"

Suddenly, the tar flames surrounding the circular chamber grew stronger and brighter. A low rumble echoed through the stone, and from the reverberations grew a strong, masculine voice. The voice of Xener, speaking his own words.

There are many duties a woman is more suitable for than a man...

Xener flinched at the sound of his own voice. Staring deep into the eyes of Ares, his sword arm went limp, and the point fell to rest against the sand.

...this is a job for men.

"I said this to Joxine," Xener realised. He was utterly lost within himself.

You are a woman, and need the protection of men to survive...

Ares was squirming with delight, hardly able to remain seated on his throne. "Believe it now, Warrior Prince? Believe it now?"

...more fit to be a wife than a warrior!

This last phrase was uttered by the distorted, blaming voice of Joxine. Xener collapsed to his knees, listening to the truth about himself. It was over now. Ares was right.

"Strike down that which is weak and pathetic in you," the God of War ordered. "Accept your destiny. Become my strong ally. Become my relentless fury!"

 

 

 

 

Chapter V - The House of War

On the bottom of the long stair leading up to the Halls of War, Gabrielle was looking up towards the fortress of Ares. By the front entrance, she could see two bronze statues standing watch.

"I canít go any further without alerting Ares of our presence," Aphrodite said to her. "Just remember what I told you."

Gabrielle nodded and started up the steps, her mind filled with awe by the enormous vastness of Aresí stronghold before him.

Wait now, Gabrielle thought to herself. Here I am, Gabrielle of Potedaia , on the highest peaks of Mount Olympus, making my way up to the halls of the War God. Am I completely nuts? Despite everything her senses were telling her, she forced herself to move on, step after step, watching the huge guardian statues grow more massive with every step she took.

The two statues stood up straight, as tall as ten men. Both were holding a sword the size of an oak tree in their hands, pointed downwards. There were no faces or features visible under their full helmets, merely an evil pale glow emanating through the eye slits. There was no way to avoid them, the only way into the structure was through a wide open passage between the guardians.

The last section of the stair was flanked by huge pillars reaching up to the sky. Gabrielle wanted to stop for a moment there, to calm herself down, but she feared she would not be able to move again.

No fear and no anger... at that moment, Gabrielle was blissfully short of anger but woefully overloaded with fear. Quietly she began to hum a sweet lullaby she had learned in Treus. It helped a lot, but brought Gabrielle yet another cause for worry. Aphrodite had said that while devoid of anger or fear, she would be invisible to the guardians, but would they be able to still hear her? As this thought struck her, she stopped humming. A wave of terror ran over her as she noticed that she was already within the reach of the guardians. The gigantic statues would not even have to move to splat her like a bug.

Her heart jumped up as she heard the statue on her left move. The tip of the bronze sword was scraping against the marble stairs, as if looking for something. Gabrielle made a mistake in looking up.

She could see the statueís head was turned straight at her, the eyes glowing with cold blue light clearly visible through the eye slits of the helmet. But the eyes werenít fixed on her. The guardian did not know exactly where Gabrielle was, it just seemed to be... sniffing the air.

Gabrielle could feel her breath turning more rapid, her heart racing like a scared pony. This seemed to make her Ďscentí stronger to the statue. She wanted to scream and run back down the marble steps, back to safety.

Closing her eyes, Gabrielle tried to take short, careful steps forward, but she was frozen in place. Fear creates fear creates fear, she thought to herself, biting her teeth together in terror. She could feel the gigantic guardian get closer and closer. A warm gust of air, the guardianís breath, fell at her from above, reeking of blood and scorched flesh.

So, this is it, Gabrielle. Here it ends.

For a moment she wondered what was coming for her. Would the guardian cut her in twain with its sword? Or maybe she would be eaten. Did the statue have a mouth? This thought brought slight revulsion to her, but it subsided quickly.

Well, at least Iíll be slain by a demigod. Not just anyone can claim that. She imagined how she would boast with it in the Underworld. She pictured in his head all those she had loved and lost, who would be there waiting for her. Perdicas? Would he be there? In a few moments Iíll be with you, my love...

But the she took a deep breath of air, one she believed to be her last, and noticed that the stench was gone. Without much thinking, she opened her eyes and looked up.

The statue was back up, standing in attention, ignoring her. Trying to move her feet again, Gabrielle noticed that she could. She turned slightly towards the bronze guardian and looked up at its face.

"Youíre... not... so... tough," Gabrielle whispered, each word spoken slightly louder and with more confidence than the one before it.

There was no reaction whatsoever.

Shrugging her shoulders, Gabrielle allowed herself a sigh of relief and strolled confidently into the Halls of War. There was no stopping her now.

- - - - - -

Xener had his sword up again, ready to strike. His mind was clear now, his heart resolute, as he approached the ghostly image of the young woman. The girl was kneeling on the ground, quietly sobbing.

"Do I have to strike her down?" Xener asked with desperation.

"That is the only way to remove from your soul that which does not belong there," Ares replied. "Let your sword be a surgeonís blade, removing an infection."

The girl made no attempt to retreat, not a single move away from the approaching blade. She just looked Xener in the eyes, not blaming, not begging for mercy.

"You are not real," Xener said, trying to convince himself. "You donít belong in me. There is no room in my soul for your virtues... or weaknesses."

He brought the sword up high above his head, let it hang there for a moment. Then, with a mighty sound of slicing air, the blade swooped down.

- - - - - -

"NO!" Gabrielle shrieked from the doorway. The bright, clear voice echoed through the circular chamber, mixing with the fluttering of the flames as hot air escaped from the room into the passage outside.

The course of Xenerís blade was altered very slightly, but enough for the edge to pass the young girl without touching her. The warrior prince turned to look at a bright rectangle of light that had appeared onto a spot where there had previously been only a wall.

"Who are you?" Xener asked.

Gabrielle stepped forward, and her profile against the lit doorway gained features. "I am Gabriel," she said. "Or, as I am known in this form, Gabrielle. Heís fooling with your mind, Xena." the bard said, her voice filled with despair. She continued her slow trot across the sandy floor.

"Donít call me that, girl!" Xener snapped back. "I am a warrior, a hunter, not that weak princess!"

Gabrielle came to a halt in front of Xener, eyeing the sword in his hands.

"You donít need that, Xena," she said. "The only ones you can hurt in here are me... and yourself."

"I am NOT XENA!" the warrior prince shouted. "I am a warrior prince, mighty in battle, swift in my justice! Wherever your idea of me came from, I am not that person."

Ares was watching the two argue, still sitting on his throne. "Your pleas are futile, little one. He knows what he is now, there is no turning back for him anymore."

Gabrielle was close to tears now, but she refused to give up.

"Do you trust him?" Gabrielle asked Xener. "Donít you remember all those times he has tricked you before? All the troubles weíve had because of him?"

"I do not know what you talk about when you say Ďweí," Xener said to Gabrielle. "My companion is Gabriel. You I donít even recognise. And even if Ares has deceived me in the past, I know he is telling the truth now. It was confirmed by my own lips, not his."

Something started brewing in Gabrielleís head, as she let the warrior princeís words sink into her.

"He is using you against yourself," Gabrielle whispered to Xener. "He is showing you that part of yourself that youíve become to despise... leaving out all those things that made you leave all that behind you."

"Those things donít belong in me," Xener said. "They have no place in a warriorís heart."

"You are more than just a warrior," Gabrielle replied. "You have many talents and many qualities. If you allow them to be taken from you, your soul will be crippled forever."

"I am complete. I have all in me that I need."

"Complete as a soldier, filled with nothing but the passions that Ares wants you to have, what you need to have to serve him. But there is one thing that Ares would never have left in you."

"What do you..." Xener began.

Suddenly, without any warning, Gabrielle caught the front of Xenerís armour with her hand and pulled herself close to the warrior. Nailing the man with one passing glance from her ocean green eyes, she pressed her lips upon his.

The kiss lasted for what seemed to be an eternity. Xener was too surprised to resist it at first, and as it continued, he did not want to. Eagerly, the warrior embraced Gabrielle and lifted her up from the sand floor.

At that moment, Xener felt something move inside him. He thought of all that Ares had said to him about his soul, his nature. Now that he was holding the young woman in his arms, receiving the most passionate kiss from her, he felt what had been missing in Aresí picture of him.

But something felt wrong. He felt sudden love for the small foolish bard, began recognising memories about her as the kiss lasted and lasted. Then, the warrior was struck by a sudden revelation.

And as suddenly as it had begun, the moment was over. Gabrielle felt a sharp but gentle shove, as she was lightly pushed backwards. It wasnít the push that made her fall onto the sand, it was her own amazement. She looked up at the face of the warrior, and saw her.

There, in front of Gabrielle, eyes wide open with amazement and a hand over her half-open mouth, stood Xena. The Warrior Princess.

"Gabrielle!?" Xena uttered.

The bardís mouth widened into a happy smile, and slowly, Gabrielle began to giggle like a lunatic, unable to say anything.

Ares had stood up from his throne, his features devoid of any expression. The God of War looked at Xena and Gabrielle with glassy eyes, realising that one of his finest disciples had once more escaped from his grasp.

"Excellent," Ares said with some effort. The two ghostly images had vanished from his side. "How this whelp managed to penetrate my fortress is beyond me, but I must admit she has spirit in her."

Xena helped Gabrielle stand up as she turned back towards Ares.

"I donít know why I didnít see it before," the dark-haired woman said. "Those two images... I was them both. I AM them both."

"Yes," Ares said. "How does it feel? To be burned by the flames of battle, and to be drowned by the flood of emotion?"

"Donít listen to him," Gabrielle said to Xena. "You need both of your halves to be complete. The warrior and the woman."

Ares tilted his head backwards, seemingly staring at an empty spot of air above his head, listening to something Xena and Gabrielle could not hear. Then he brought his hands together so that his fingertips touched.

"Very well," Ares spoke. "You may come now."

And at that moment, Aphrodite and Joxer appeared in front of them out of thin air.

"Ares!" Aphrodite beamed. "If thereís one thing I truly like about you, it is your ability to lose gracefully."

"No point in whipping a dead horse, is there?" Ares said under his breath.

Joxer walked up to Xena and Gabrielle, his hands on his hips. "We did it again! We do make quite a team, donít we?" Then Joxer took out Gabrielleís staff and offered it to her. "You forgot this at Aphroditeís."

After Gabrielle had taken her staff, Joxer turned to face Xena. "Well, letís hear it."

"Hear what?" Gabrielle wondered, but Xena knew what she had to say.

"Iím sorry, Joxer," Xena said. "Iím sorry I ridiculed your fighting skills and insulted you."

Joxer smiled and beamed at Xena. "You are forgiven. Besides, I know you werenít exactly yourself back then."

"And I want to apologise to you too, Gabrielle," Xena continued. "I should have trusted you better."

Gabrielle shook her head and placed her hand on Xenaís shoulder. "You donít need to beg for my forgiveness. The person you are... who you are now... wouldnít have said or done the things Xener did. It should not be you whoís apologising."

Xena gave the bard a hug and whispered softly into her ear. "Thank you, Gabrielle."

Joxer looked at the two women for a moment and then turned towards the God of War, who was sitting on his throne looking morose. "Hey, Ares!" Joxer called out to the god as the others turned to leave.

Ares turned to look at Joxer and pierced him with his iciest stare.

"What?"

"Well, you see," Joxer said, "I kind of feel that youíve been a bit cheap with me in the past!"

Aresí eyebrows rose an inch, but he did not reply, so Joxer continued.

"Yes, actually, I think you owe me. Giving me a bit of extra punch in my battles wouldnít kill you, you know. Of course Iím already pretty mighty, but a drop or two of more might never hurt anyone, right? Hey, I think that rhymes."

A wicked grin appeared on Aresí lips. "You want me to give you strength and skill?"

Joxer nodded carefully, no longer so sure that this was such a good idea.

"Now that might be interesting," Ares said sarcastically, "but as youíve observed tonight, even the powers of the gods have their limits."

Ares snapped his fingers. Joxer, Xena and Gabrielle disappeared, leaving Aphrodite alone with the God of War.

"Nice try, Ares," Aphrodite complimented.

"I canít believe youíre not even angry at me,"Ares puzzled, standing up from his throne and walking next to the goddess. "I abused your hospitality and powers, sabotaged your wheel, almost caused your death..."

With a mean, chastising expression, Aphrodite reached to pull Aresí beard. "Oh yes... and if you ever try anything like this again, I will personally lob your wretched carcass into the Void and sing a jolly tune afterwards." Then, her voice smoothened. "But I forgive you this time."

"Why?"

"Because I know that any punishment I could offer would be insignificant compared to what good old Zeus has in store for you. And also because I know that what you did, you did out of love."

Ares stumbled a few steps backwards as Aphrodite released her hold. "Well, thatís quite an assumption," he said, trying to look insulted. "Me and a mortal? Please!"

"You must admit sheís quite a mortal," Aphrodite noted.

"That she is, without a doubt. I almost had her this time."

"No you didnít. Had you won, the warrior in your command would have been just a shadow of Xena, no stronger or fiercer than any of your other puppets."

"I donít understand," Ares said. "She has so much potential to be one of the mightiest mortal warriors I have ever seen. How could removing her weaknesses do anything but strengthen her?"

"The things you regard as weaknesses may not actually be so. You really should learn more about passion and devotion, Ares."

Still puzzled, Ares walked up close to Aphrodite. "Maybe I should. Farewell, Aphrodite."

The last words were said with softer tones than Ares had intended, but somehow he was warmed by the smile Aphrodite gave him in return.

"Farewell, Ares." And the goddess disappeared.

Ares wandered out from his training hall and through the vast corridors onto a balcony overlooking his grounds and demesne. He thought about Aphroditeís words. Not totally a stranger to the emotions she suggested him to explore, Ares still could not comprehend how recognising them could be of his benefit. His thoughts were interrupted by the sudden sound of rolling thunder emanating from the top of Mount Olympus.

"I am coming, father," Ares said with a sigh.

 

 

 

Epilogue - A Thing that Never Was

A new day was already dawning when Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer reappeared on the open field outside Nadera. It seemed like it would be a beautiful day, with the few errant clouds posing little threat to the radiant sun emerging from the horizon.

"Everyone all right?" Xena asked the others, receiving reassuring nods from both of them. "Well, thatís good. Just wait here for a moment, I think thatís Argo I just spotted at the treeline."

Xena walked off towards the forest, where the palomino was indeed waiting for her. Once Xena was out of earshot, Gabrielle had to open her mouth to respond to the funny stare Joxer was giving her.

"Okay, Joxer. Hereís how it is... I... what we did last night..."

Joxer smiled expectantly. "Yes?"

"Look, there was this guy called Gabriel who for some reason found a girl called Joxine very attractive. Maybe he was feeling protective for her, or he had a weak spot for fighting women... I donít know."

Gabrielle looked at Joxer, who seemed to have no notion of what she was going to say next.

"The point is, Joxer... those two people donít exist anymore. They were created by the gods for their game, and although they had a lot in common with us, they also were in many ways different."

"Oh yes, I understand," Joxer said innocently.

Gabrielle wasnít sure how to handle Joxerís calm reply. He was either being smarter than usual, or so far out that he did not have a clue.

"Anyway, I hope you wonít feel sad over this, but I... I donít love you, Joxer."

The warrior shrugged his shoulders and sighed. "Oh well, one canít have it all, right?"

"Of course, I still respect you as a friend," Gabrielle said. "We can still be friends, canít we?"

"I suppose," Joxer replied. "I still wish it could be more than that, but if friendship is as far as you want to go, then what can I do?"

Gabrielle felt relieved as well as slightly surprised. This wasnít the usual Joxer. Of course, the events of the previous day had changed Gabrielleís view on some things, and so she assumed that Joxer had gone through a similar change. Maybe he would be more mature, maybe not.

"Iím glad youíre taking this so well," Gabrielle said. "Iíll go and see if we can get rooms at the inn, after a sleepless night I think we could all use some rest."

Gabrielle walked away towards the village, leaving Joxer to receive Xena, who returned soon afterwards, riding on Argo.

"Rejected again?" Xena assumed sympathetically.

"How do you know that?" Joxer asked. "Even your ears arenít that sharp."

Xena smiled and urged Argo into a slow trot. "Eyes are often more accurate than the ears. True, I did not hear the words, but it wasnít hard to guess what your conversation was about."

Joxer grinned. "Very clever, warrior princess. Someday, you must teach me that trick in exchange for one of mine."

They fell silent for a moment, Joxer walking alongside Argo towards the village gate, Gabrielle still visible a short distance in front of them.

"Donít be so glum," Xena said finally, noticing how Joxer was unusually quiet. "Gabrielle still likes you, I think."

"Yes..." Joxer mumbled in a daze, barely aware that he was speaking aloud. "All good things to those who wait..."

"What?" Xena said, stirring Joxer up from his stupor.

"Oh, nothing. Just something Aphrodite said after Gabrielle left to rescue you. We had a very interesting talk, you know."

"What about?" Xena inquired.

"Oh... just things. You know we have a history."

Xena nodded, feeling a bit unnerved and deciding to leave the subject alone.

Joxer sank deep in thought again, looking fondly upon the bard in the distance, and again whispered to himself, "All good things to those who wait..."

 

 

THE END

 

If you made it this far, please send me email to voice your critique. As English is not my first language, I'd be especially grateful for grammatical corrections. Mail me at :

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