Convert this page to Pilot DOC Format
by Tim Boothby
GENERAL DISCLAIMER:The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, and Argo are the property of MCA/Universal. Anything else in this story is, for better or worse, a product of my imagination and not intended to infringe on their rights. This story is strictly a non-profit endeavor. Any reproduction or other use of the story without my consent is prohibited.
VIOLENCE WARNING/DISCLAIMER:This story depicts scenes of violence and/or their aftermath. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.
CREDITS:Thanks to Kim for picking away at the large number of typos, and preventing my thoughts from straying into left field! Another LARGE thank-you to M Parnell for persuading me to try this in the first place, and for continued support along the way.
ANOTHER BLATANT PLUG:If you haven't read any of M Parnell's work, go do it and quit wasting your time on my stuff!
Snow blew in sheets across the rocks of the high mountain pass, cursing bitterly he pulled the thin sash from over his eyes. "Fine choice," He mumbled. "Suffer snow blindness or become lost." He searched for the trail that would take him through the high passes, but could find no evidence of its presence. He sighed with frustration pulled the sash back over his face. 'There are more ways to search that by using your eyes,' He chided himself. Calmly he concentrated upon his surroundings and guided his horse with his knees, unerringly following the trail.
It would be comic understatement to say that he felt irritated. He carried a keg of fine ale and an entire boar on his pack horse. He hated to visit with empty hands. Now both were going to take at least a flaming week to thaw. The snow drifted higher about him, it presented no real problems for his mount, but his pack horse was beginning to founder. He vented his frustration by a long string of silent curses. He concentrated carefully, using his second sight to search for shelter. There, of course, was none. It was time to get out of here.
His destination was another week of hard travel, by conventional means, but he was a man of many talents. He pushed out with his consciousness, he found the village that he was looking for, but when he sought the individual home in question the aurora high in the skies above him skewed his vision. He grumbled and cast out his thoughts again, and he had it. His body tingled and flickered, then his horse began to fade, and with a slight flash all three vanished. As his journey began, he realized with a slight sensation of panic that he had again lost his hold upon his destination. "Well," He sighed. "This could be an interesting trip."
Xena carefully surveyed the hills around her campsite. There could be no doubt about it, they were surrounded and completely isolated. She had chosen her site with typical care. They had a deep stream to her back, a pond to her left, and broken rocks and thick brush formed a perimeter around the small glade that they had spent the night. They'd been followed for several days, forcing Xena to push hard to attempt to elude them. Late the previous afternoon Argo stone bruised a hoof. They found this place just before nightfall. Any thought of outrunning them had disappeared when the warhorse went lame.
Gabrielle stood beside her, looking to the low hills several hundred yards to their south. "I don't see them," She commented.
"They're up there," Xena reassured her. "Trust me."
"What do you think that they want?"
"Good question," Xena murmured. "It could be some little pissant that wants to make a name for himself."
"Or some little pissant that doesn't know what he's in for?" Gabrielle suggested brightly. She quickly hid her smile at Xena's look of disapproval. She hated the Bard's occasional ventures into profanity. "So what do we do," Gabrielle quickly changed the subject.
"We wait them out, for now." Xena shaded her eyes from the sun. "They'll get stupid and rush us when the sun gets hot, or if they have discipline they'll wait for nightfall. Until then, what's for breakfast?"
"Fish and frying pan bread," Gabrielle looked to the meal growing cool by the fire. She shook her head in amazement. "You pick now to get hungry."
"Nothing better to do," The warrior shrugged. Despite her outward show of calm, she was very worried. Argo would need a few days to heal, time that they didn't have. She was temperamentally unsuited to take the defensive. It simply wasn't in her nature to surrender the initiative to anyone. Not that these defenses were all that great anyway. She ached to slip out and thin the odds, keep them scared and off balance, but that left Gabrielle alone. She swore bitterly beneath her breath.
"Did you say something?" Gabrielle looked up from the frying pan.
"It smells good," Xena covered her quiet outburst.
"I'll lose too many men if we rush her," Aeneas grumbled. "We're talking about Xena, after all." He didn't care for the scene before him. She was secure in one flank and to her rear with a wide belt of cover and tanglefoot across her front and remaining flank.
"Idiot," Berated his companion. "Put archers to her rear, we'll wait her out, time is on our side."
"Yes, My Lord Ares," Aeneas bowed contritely. "How long do you expect this to take?"
"As long as it takes," Ares grumbled. 'Some Spartan I've saddled myself with' He thought with disgust. 'Still,' He conceded. 'This idiot does command the services of sixty Persians, all experienced men. Much better than the bad-boy wannabes that I've dealt with lately.' He returned his attention to the nervous Spartan. "It's hot, we'll let them sweat it out today. Move your archers up tonight and keep them under cover. If we keep the pressure on them they'll get no sleep. Even Xena will tire eventually, and then we'll have them."
"We could rush them in the morning," Aeneas felt his courage return.
"No," Ares commanded. "I want her, and that brat alive. If we're patient, and careful, She'll break."
"It would be better if we could have kept them from water," Aeneas commented.
"Yes," Ares grumbled. "I intend to deal with that oversight, later. Bring them to me, alive and broken, perhaps I can overlook your past incompetence's."
"I won't fail you," Aeneas promised. He knew that he'd just wagered his life upon that vow.
Xena tested the edge of her blade, then continued sharpening. She sat back-to-back with the young Bard, Gabrielle watched beyond the river as Xena maintained her vigilance upon the hills to the north. The day passed quietly, and grew into late afternoon and still no overt signs of movement. Xena was sure that they had circled a group around to the rear. They were quiet, that much she would concede to them. Their movements and discipline both indicated that she was against professionals. 'So much for pissants looking for a reputation,' She thought wryly.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
"Hmm," Xena answered absently.
"This doesn't look good does it?"
"What do you mean?" Xena asked cautiously.
"Xena, we're surrounded and you're stuck with me, and a lame horse." She sighed. "Without me you could get out of here."
"Gabrielle, I'm not stuck with you," Xena turned to face her. "What's gotten into you?"
"I think that you'd call it war nerves," Gabrielle smiled weakly. "That and a sore butt from riding for a week to lose these fools."
"We'll get through this," Xena promised.
"You don't have to say that just to make me feel better, Xena." Gabrielle sighed.
"Gabrielle, have I ever let you down?"
"No," She admitted without hesitation.
"Have we been in worse situations?"
"Yes," Gabrielle admitted. "I guess that we have."
"Then quit worrying about it." Xena smiled. She turned and both leaned back into the other. Xena's ears sounded a mental alarm a few seconds later. A very faint crackling sound caught her attention, it was somehow familiar. 'What now,' She thought with irritation.
Both flew to their feet as a flash of light blazed a few yards to their left. Xena drew her sword, with a quick flick of her foot she tossed Gabrielle's staff to her. A heavily cloaked figure rode a cantering mount, leading a pack horse from the light. They seemed to appear from thin air. Snow swirled around the horses and blew from the rider's cloak. A huge gust of cold chilled them both for a moment. Xena extended her sword and stepped between the newcomer and Gabrielle.
He pulled the sash from over his eyes and swore. He had no idea where he could be. Wherever it was, it was hot. He cast aside his cloak and examined his surroundings. He was pleasantly surprised by what he could see: lush green hills, a tranquil stream, a beautiful pond, tall hills and two attractive ladies. It was hard to tear his eyes from them, obviously they were clad only in their undergarments... no, one of them wore a form of body armor. Perhaps this manner of dress was in style here. 'Well now,' He thought. 'This bears some investigation.' Then he felt the eyes from the hills, and to his rear.
He slid from his saddle and walked slowly toward the woman in leather. He examined both her sword and stance with an experienced eye, both appeared first rate. Carefully he removed the heavy glove from his right hand and raised it to show that he was unarmed. He extended it toward her carefully. She eyed him coolly, then sheathed her sword and copied his gesture. They clasped at the forearms, warrior style. He smiled warmly and nodded.
Xena examined him carefully: Tall, but not extremely so, perhaps two inches taller than herself, large in the shoulders and chest with a neck like a bull. He wore a large sword at his hip and a studded leather jerkin peeked from beneath his heavy woolen tunic. She forced herself to return his smile, though it appeared a bit stiff. "I'm Xena and this is Gabrielle," She announced. The look upon his face spoke volumes, nearly screaming his complete lack of comprehension. "Perfect," She sighed when she realized that he couldn't understand a single word that she said.
"He doesn't speak Greek," She told Gabrielle.
"Where do you think that he's from?"
"How should I know?"
'Uh-oh,' He thought, unable to follow the conversation. 'This can't be good.' He spoke thirty languages fluently, and smatterings of a few dozen more, but this was a completely unfamiliar tongue. He motioned with his hands for them to keep talking. They looked at him strangely, the tall one amused but the young blond appeared offended.
"Is he saying that I talk too much," Gabrielle fumed. "Honestly Xena, what is it with you strong, silent warrior types? A person can't engage in simple conversation without being accused of being chatty."
Xena carefully suppressed a smile. "No, Gabrielle, I think that he wants you to keep talking."
"Oh," Gabrielle giggled. "What should I say?"
"Say anything, just keep talking to him, I've never known you to be lost for words."
He carefully concentrated upon the words of the small blond, she continued at great length saying whatever came to mind as he patiently signaled her to continue talking. 'This language must be a fair jaw cracker,' He thought after a few moments. 'Even ogre came quicker than this.' Slowly words became comprehensible, scattered words became clearer to him, then groups of words. The poor girl was obviously getting desperate as he implored her to continue.
"How ---- ----- say ------- in your -------." She saw his face brighten, was he beginning to understand? She waited for a second and spoke again. "Where ------ ------ ----- ?" Another pause. "Xena, I don't think that this is working?"
"There," He smiled in relief. "I'm getting the hang of it, that's better."
"You can understand me?"
"In a matter of speaking," He acknowledged carefully.
Xena's eyes widened. "Gabrielle, watch his lips when he speaks."
"Very good," He congratulated her.
"His mouth, it doesn't form the words that he is speaking." The girl called Gabrielle marveled. "How does he do that?"
"Sorcery," Xena regarded him with new suspicion.
"That is one term," He acknowledged. "I suppose that it is as good as any other." He mopped at the sweat pouring down his face and neck in sheets. "How can you stand this heat?" He complained, then remembered their attire. "Oh," He grinned sheepishly. "I suppose that fewer layers would be more appropriate." He pulled at the laces that held his winter tunic closed, eager to vent the growing heat trapped below. "Could either of you be so kind as to tell me where I am?"
"Greece of course," Gabrielle smiled.
"Greece," He repeated. "Where in the world is Greece?"
"Gabrielle," Xena smiled at the spectacle of the man's discomfort. "Could you get the map?"
The Bard dutifully fetched a map from her scroll bag and unrolled it for him.
"Uh-oh," He sighed again. Both regarded him strangely. "Now that we know where Greece is, I suppose that we should clarify what world this is."
They shared a dubiously look at each other. "What are our choices," Xena asked carefully.
"Well," He looked puzzled. How to explain this one? "I suppose that can wait, for now, at least until after we all know why we are currently surrounded?"
"Hard to say," Xena scanned the hills. "Someone probably wants to make a name for themselves."
He pulled the thick woolen cap from his head and scratched vigorously at short white hair that stuck out at several angles, then started attacking the laces on his heavy leggings. "You are a person of some eminence, then?"
"Just a reputation," Xena replied modestly. "I'm Xena and this is Gabrielle," She repeated her introduction. "And you are..." She prompted.
He considered it briefly. He was still a bit wary, and the power of a name could be useful to others with his abilities. "Garen," He lied.
"Really," She smiled, not believing him.
"No, but it is close enough, and I will answer when you call." He triumphantly removed the last layer of cold weather gear and stood in a sweat stained tunic and pants tucked into tall boots. "You have called me a sorcerer, that may not be strictly accurate, but if you know of sorcerers there must be more. It is best that I do not give them the power of my true name."
Xena considered this carefully. "Very well, Garen, welcome to our camp, and to our siege."
"Thank-you, My Lady." He bowed slightly at the waist.
"I am neither yours, nor a lady." Her tone was half teasing.
His dark gray eyes seemed to penetrate her mind, a warm pleasant wave brushed across her consciousness. When it passed she felt as if he could read her like one of Gabrielle's scrolls. "You must pardon my manners," He smiled. "Obviously my customs are different from yours. My Lady is a simple term of polite address. I obviously lay no claim of ownership upon you, but you are a lady whether you will it or no."
"You can tell that at a glance?" She teased.
"That and more, Warrior Princess," He replied confidently.
"How could you know that?" She shifted her stance to a fighting position.
"You, yourself called me a sorcerer." He answered. "And I ask your pardon for my intrusion into your thoughts. I ask that you understand that I'm the stranger here. You're surrounded, I had no idea why, and I didn't know your character, now I do." He gathered his cold weather gear and rolled it into a neat bundle and carefully tucked it into a compartment on the heavy pack that burdened his second horse. "You've welcomed me into you camp, and I admit that I have abused your hospitality, but does the offer of your camp still stand?"
"Yes," Xena answered carefully. She relaxed her stance and stood aside for him to pass, though she still stood between Garen and Gabrielle.
He led his horses near Argo and stripped their gear with an efficiency that suggested years of practice. He picketed them, cleaned and brushed them both, and left then to enjoy the cool grass and clean water. He turned his attention to his gear. He carefully suspended the boar's carcass from a tree to thaw. The keg sat nearby upon a folding stand with three large tankards set by the tap. That done he found himself drenched in sweat again. "I smell like a goat," He plucked distastefully at his soaked tunic. "I think that we would all appreciate it if I used that stream." He pulled off his boots and removed a bundle from his packs. "If you'll pardon me for a moment," He walked to the river bank and straight into the river. He immersed himself in the warm water, methodically stripped his clothes and tossed the sodden garments onto the bank.
"He's not very shy," Gabrielle noted.
"Nope," Xena smiled. "And he doesn't look like any of those 'so-called' sorcerers that we've seen before. They all reminded me of little weasels with bean stalk necks and heads wider than their shoulders."
Gabrielle laughed delightedly at the image that the description painted. "With long, dark robes, pointy little beards, and funny hats," She agreed.
They turned at the sound of a large splash. He'd just dunked himself and burst back from beneath the slowly flowing current. Both felt a bit guilty, but neither completely turned away from him as he lathered happily, standing waist deep in the water, neither could resist the temptation to peek. His hair and beard were both cut very short. What body hair they could see, head, face, chest and arms, was pure white. His arms and torso were heavy with muscle, finely toned and defined. He bore many scars, evidence of battles in his past. Despite his wrinkles and white hair his movements were fluid, graceful and betrayed no signs of age.
"How old do you think he is," Gabrielle asked.
"I don't know, under all of those clothes he looked like an old man, but his muscle tone, he looks too firm to be all that old."
"No fair," Gabrielle smiled at him. "You got a better peek than I did."
"GABRIELLE!" Xena elbowed her in the ribs. She looked at the smug grin on her friends face. "Behave yourself, or is this one of those 'it's not easy being chaste' things?"
"XENA!" Gabrielle's mouth fell open. She blushed to the roots of her hair.
Garen turned quickly at the tone of Gabrielle's voice. Seeing her blush and Xena's wicked expression he decided that it was a private joke and returned to his ablutions. He dunked himself again to rinse off the suds and reached over to the bank and shook out a large bathing sheet. He emerged behind it and dried and dressed himself beneath its privacy. Obviously He was used to living rough in the field.
He dressed simply: soft leather pants tucked into tall boots and a leather jerkin over a light shirt that left his arms exposed. He inspected a short, sleeveless hauberk of fine chain mail before carefully pulling it over his head. He bounced slightly to settle it into place and belted on his sword. "That's much better," He sighed. "Just one thing to make it perfect." He poured a large ale for and offered it to each, neither accepted. He shrugged and toasted them silently before he drained half of the tankard at a single draught.
Xena sat and resumed polishing the nicks from her blade. Garen saw the practicality of her actions and drew his sword and examined it quickly. It was easily a yard and a half long, wider at the base but tapering slightly toward the point. Double edged, and finely engraved with characters from a language that neither could read. The hilt was of rich leather, inlaid with gold.
"Very nice," Xena admired the workmanship.
"Thank-you," Garen inclined his head toward her.
"You forged it?"
"I have many talents," Garen acknowledged. Gabrielle choked as she suppressed a giggle. Xena shook her head and smiled at her fondly. He shrugged and decided not to pursue what was obviously yet another inside joke. When her gaze returned to his sword he saw the question in Xena's eyes, knowing that she would not ask he reluctantly extended the sword, hilt first toward her.
Xena hesitated, then carefully accepted the weapon. She could feel some strange power in her fingertips, a feeling of uneasiness washed over her. She looked quickly at him. He smiled comfortingly. "Behave yourself," Garen scolded the weapon. "We are among friends." The look of concern vanished from Xena's face as the tingling faded from her arm. She carefully tested the weight and balance of the weapon.
"You talk to your sword?" Gabrielle exclaimed.
"She can be truculent," He regarded the weapon with some affection. "But we've been together for a long time."
"She?" Gabrielle laughed with disbelief.
"Yes, everything takes a personality of some sort. She behaves in a very female fashion, so I consider her a 'she'."
Xena tested the blade's balance. It was a touch awkward to her but she realized that her body's center of balance was different from it's... her... owner's. Without a doubt this blade was intended to be carried by one, and only one. "It's a little heavier than I'm used to," She worked through a few simple movements from the manual of arms.
"Almost six pounds," Garen acknowledged. "If I'm not mistaken your weapon is probably close to half that weight." He thought for a second. "If I guess correctly, most of your opponents probably wear leather or chain. Most of mine are clad, head to toe, in steel plate. It's all a matter of fighting style and opponents rather than strength or ability."
"That would explain it," She continued her fluid movements. Her movements became more complex, as she quickly adjusted to the weapon. "Wrapping yourself in steel doesn't sound like a comfortable way to make war though."
"War should be uncomfortable," He sighed. "Lest we fight too often."
Xena nodded and returned the blade to him. Unable to resist he demonstrated a few movements from his personal manual of arms, culminating in a blow that shattered a large rock. He held the sword up for their examination. There was not a single blemish along its edge. "We make a fair team," He acknowledged, then gracefully saluted them with the blade before sheathing it with a flourish.
He ignored the glance that his companions shared and returned to his gear. He hefted a large sack well filled with provisions. "Is anyone hungry," He asked. "Personally I'm famished." Gabrielle's stomach growled and answered the question for all.
"They have company," Aeneas reported.
"How did this happen," Ares growled. "I thought that you had them surrounded."
"He just appeared, out of thin air."
"Impossible," The god of war fumed and climbed the small hill, careful not to profile himself along the skyline he studied stared the camp. "You let a warrior into their camp, with supplies."
"As I have said, My Lord Ares, he just appeared."
Ares scowled and stared into the camp, gathering his will he probed the stranger. He could feel a stern rebuke as his probe was slapped aside. "Well now," He smiled fiercely. "This could be interesting."
"Do you know him," Aeneas wondered.
"No, but I will very soon." Ares dismissed him with a flippant gesture. "Very soon."
He cursed silently. "Try a simpler plan," Strife had suggested, and he'd actually listened to that little twit. Not that he had much choice in the matter, his involvement of the furies in his last plan had nearly pushed the family too far. The irritated mob that confronted him at Olympus made it clear that they would no longer tolerate his fascination with Xena. His domain was war, and he should restrict his actions to that.
He would have to maintain a low profile for a while. He could have no personnel involvement of any kind with Xena. He could use mortals, but no direct hand in matters. The notion of using these mercenaries to drive them relentlessly had appealed to his sense of style. Xena by herself could lose them, easily, or she could even turn on them and discourage their pursuit. But, with that little piece of fluff tagging along she could do neither. He could run her for months, if need be.
"So much for proving to her what a burden that brat can be," He grumbled. "Strife you are an idiot." He cursed, then sighed in frustration. Who's the bigger idiot, the idiot or the idiot that listens to him. Not only did she not lose the brat, she found a companion... a companion with at least a hint of magic ability. "Well," He consoled himself. "At least he will give me the opportunity to nose around. After all, who could blame me for investigating the limits of his power?"
Garen looked up from his plate of meat pastries, cheese and sliced apples. "Do you know a man, about my height, of medium size, dark hair, a cute little beardish thing, and dressed in dark leather with little decorative designs?"
Xena turned and saw the figure strolling casually across the field. "Ares!" She hissed. "I might have known."
"And who is this Ares," Garen grasped his ale tankard.
"The god of war," Gabrielle answered as she rose and grasped her staff.
Garen broke into a fit of laughter. "A god you say," He finished off the contents of his tankard. "Well, this might be interesting."
"That's hardly the word that I would choose." Xena growled.
Garen smiled at her then drew two heavy bracers from his gear bag. They were highly polished, inlaid with gold and engraved with an unreadable fine script. "I've always had a way with words," He admitted modestly as he slid them over his forearms. He rose and refilled his tankard.
"Careful with that," Xena warned. "Now would be a very bad time to get drunk."
Garen chuckled and looked to her fondly. "I haven't been drunk in... well, many years. I think that I may have forgotten how."
She raised and eyebrow at him, but let the comment pass. Gabrielle watched him carefully, he stood with an air of casual indifference, but there was a tightness around his eyes. The tankard was held in his left hand, his right flexed slightly and rested lightly upon his hip. He felt her scrutiny and winked at her lazily. Gabrielle smiled in spite of herself. He held her gaze for a moment before returning his attention to the approaching figure. His eyes fascinated her. They were deep, dark and surrounded by laugh lines. Normally warm and friendly they considered the approaching god with coolness.
"Xena," Ares greeted her. "Who is your friend?"
"Oh," Garen interrupted. "I'm sorry, you haven't met Gabrielle?"
Ares turned his full attention to the stranger. "We've met."
"Charmed, I'm sure." Gabrielle smiled brightly. Ares glared at her, he drew a deep breath and released it impatiently.
"Ares, meet Garen," Xena smiled at the newcomer.
"The pleasure is mine," Garen nodded in greeting. "You certainly know how to make a man feel welcome." He glanced to the hills.
"What is your game, old man."
"Darts," Garen answered thoughtfully. "But, I'm told that I have some skill at dice."
The look that passed between them was deadly. "You play at more dangerous games, old man."
"And I play to win." Garen sipped at his tankard. "So, we've played the staring game, the word games, what have we missed? Who can lift the biggest rock, urination for distance and accuracy, or who's parts are bigger. My boyhood was too long ago, I'm out of practice at children's games."
"You can be very offensive," Ares' voice grated from between clenched teeth.
"One tries one's best," Garen answered, his tone light and deprecating.
"What are you, old man?"
"A soldier," Garen answered. "I also make a fair blade, good armor, and occasionally I even bring a blush to a fair maiden's cheek." He bowed slightly to Gabrielle, then returned his attention to Ares. "I am a man of many talents."
"Does any of these talents involve a straight answer?"
"Yes, but only to a straightforward question," He replied.
"Why are you here?"
"I seem to have temporarily misplaced my navigational abilities." Garen answered. "But after meeting these delightful young ladies perhaps that is more my gain than loss."
"You are not wanted here, old man," Ares stepped forward. "Be on your way."
"Now we are up to flexing muscles," He smiled and winked again at Gabrielle. "I'd forgotten that one." He sipped again at his ale. "No, I believe that I'll remain, at least until these ladies tire of my presence. The trick to being a good guest, old boy, is to know when one's exit would be most appropriate."
"Well, obviously you've missed that bit of etiquette." Garen interrupted him.
"Don't tempt me, old man." Ares' temper clearly stretched to it's limit. "Leave this place, now."
"Leave?" Garen scratched his beard. "How could I look at myself in the mirror knowing that I'd left these two ladies confronted by a man that needs five dozen armed men to fence them in for him."
"I don't need anything," Ares protested.
"Then send them away."
"That isn't part of the plan, old man. I do things at my own pace."
"Convoluted logic," Garen thought aloud. "You don't appear to be a very straightforward kind of man."
"I am not a man..."
"Obviously," Garen agreed.
"I am a god," Ares shouted.
"Well, good for you," Garen smiled at him. "It must be a bit of a let down though, after all as a god you must be right up there at the top. It must be disappointing to know that there's no room for advancement."
"What is there that is more than a god?"
"In your case, a man," He looked apologetically at his spellbound companions. "For Xena or Gabrielle, a woman. Not the simple declaration of gender, but a person that exemplifies the standard that others reach toward."
Ares screamed in anger and frustration and lashed out at the old man with his fist. Garen tossed his tankard to his right hand and pulled his sword half from the scabbard. His elbow rested against the blade, using it to block the blow. Ares' fist drove into the flat of the blade, but his knuckles caught the edge. To the amazement of Xena, Gabrielle, and most especially Ares, it cut his hand deeply.
Garen let his sword fall back into the scabbard. "Nasty cut, old boy, You should have it tended to, quickly."
Ares stared at the wound and willed it to close, but it remained. He tried again, but still it defied his abilities. A thin layer of blood welled up across the surface, defying Ares' attempts at staunch the flow. "What are you old man?" He asked again.
"I'm called many things: sorcerer, soldier, armorer, smith, writer, poet, and even a fool. I am, above all, a knight of the crown and a champion of my nation."
Ares wrapped his fist with a piece of cloth. "You are more than a man," He studied him intently.
"Flattering I'll admit, my vanity wishes for me to agree, but I don't think so." Garen again sipped at his tankard. "More than a man infers that I am inherently better than those around me. I have no more inherent value than this brave warrior, or this charming bard, or even a god." He smiled slightly as Ares stiffened at the comment. "Now, we have spoken, and I'm sure that we have both enjoyed it in some small way, but I was enjoying a light meal with very fine company. This is accomplishing nothing, you know little more of me than before you arrived. Shall we adjourn until morning?"
"You have not heard the end of this, old man."
"Of that I am certain," Garen smiled. "And a good evening to you as well."
Ares contained his rage and vanished in a flash of light.
"You taunted a god," Gabrielle exclaimed. She was slightly breathless.
"And lived to tell of it." Xena regarded him carefully.
Garen laughed and returned to his plate. "You make too much of a small thing." He dismissed their astonishment.
"A small thing," Gabrielle shook her head. "You practically threatened a god."
"Well, if you look at it that way, it does sound a bit foolhardy." He admitted. "But I probably have a bit more practice at things like this than you might suspect."
"Then you are as strong as he is?" Xena asked with interest.
"In some ways, perhaps, he is very strong. I'm just a man. I have strengths, weaknesses and am as flawed and imperfect as the next." Garen smiled at some secret joke. "I have played out similar scenes in the past, and I doubt that he has."
"You said that you were a knight of the crown," Gabrielle ventured. "What is that?"
He considered the question for a moment. "I belong to an order, a society if you will, of soldiers chosen for service and sacrifice. We have sworn oaths to defend those that are in need. I am bound to place my life in defense of those that cannot defend themselves or those in great need."
"Which do you consider us," Xena asked carefully.
"You're surrounded by at least sixty men, and one that you call a god. I personally consider that great need." Garen answered simply. "What did you think that I meant?"
"I was hoping that you didn't see two women in need of a big, strong man to protect them."
Garen laughed until tears came to his eyes. "Xena, through the years I have served proudly with several thousand women, many of them members of the same order as I. I do not view any as helpless due to their sex."
"That's a refreshing attitude," Gabrielle announced.
"Thank-you," He bowed his head toward her. "Now then, I have some lovely fruit pastries that I was bringing to a friend. Since my visit is postponed indefinitely, would you care for dessert?"
Ares fussed over the slice along his knuckles. "Why won't the damned thing close?" He fumed. The old bastard had sensed his uncertainty, and used it against him. He considered the exchange between them. As the old man said, he'd gained nothing in exchange. "Well," He admitted aloud. "I learned that his sword can harm a god." That thought preyed upon his mind. It was impossible. Admittedly, he could feel pain but he'd never received a wound from a mortal that wouldn't heal with a thought. Was he immortal, a god? Impossible, the old ones were cast down and he was related to all of the others. He would keep the morning appointment with the old man, but he would definitely change his approach. The old man had won the first round, but he would soon learn that the gods of Olympus played the best games, and laid the best plans.
Garen sat with his back to the carefully shielded fire. His eyes were closed as Gabrielle carefully crafted yet another story for his enjoyment. Xena had lost count of how many that he had patiently listened to, several times she'd thought that he'd fallen asleep but at the conclusion of each he'd asked several questions. Gabrielle grandly finished her tale, Garen's eyes snapped open as he applauded with a huge smile. "Incredible!" He raved.
"Thank-you," Gabrielle's smile lit her face.
"One question," Garen scratched his beard.
Xena smiled, she'd expected that but seriously doubted that he'd settle for just one question.
"Callisto and Velasca," He thought his question through completely. "They gained the power of... goddesses... by eating a bit of jelly."
"Ambrosia," Gabrielle corrected. "The food of the gods."
"But, these gods of yours just leave this... ambrosia... laying about. You'd think that they'd keep better track of it than that."
"I see your point," Gabrielle agreed. "But, however it got there, it brought Xena back to life and made Callisto and Velasca goddesses."
Garen smiled gently at Xena. "Then this jelly has given good service, but only once." She returned his smile, but he saw more bitterness than humor behind it.
"Do you know any stories," Gabrielle pressed, always eager to hear new tales.
"A very short one, perhaps." He saw the moon beginning to rise over the hills. "And then we should get some sleep." He thought for a moment, his eyes took a far away look before he returned his attention to his audience.
"Many years ago a soldier rode a long and lonely road home. He'd soldiered through thirty years of the bloodiest war imaginable. His homeland had been invaded, and those that he swore to defend were slaughtered by the thousands. Throughout the war he'd held command of several legions and had served in more than a hundred battles. At first he'd witnessed the deaths of friends and strangers alike with the callused heart of a soldier.
"When, he lost his oldest son the cool detachment of a soldier was lost to him. Too many deaths haunted him and this was the final bitter blow. Where before his campaigns were designed to win objectives, his later sorties were for the sole purpose of the wholesale slaughter of his enemies, nothing but their deaths would appease him now. "In the end the war was decided by two bitter battles, one to slow the enemy and the second to break them. He held the passes that his sovereign might rally his forces behind them. They held to the last, in the fighting he'd cut down the Emperor that threatened his nation, before his wounds overcame him. He had led the finest of his nation's warriors upon the field, and in his wrath he led them to their slaughter. But, he had survived, one of only a handful.
"He was long on the mend, and long upon the road home, for his wounds were grievous. All that had sustained him, kept him upon that road was the knowledge of home at journey's end. His heart was torn, joy at the prospect of seeing his family and horror at the harm that he had done. They had seized victory that day, and the war had come to a bloody conclusion. He didn't know how he could ever return to the man that he once was. Where others saw a great hero, he saw nothing but a butcher.
"Finally he rode through the small gate of his home, and his beloved wife ran to meet him, but when he reached for her he could only see the blood upon his hands. His wife saw his pain, and came to him all the quicker. He fell to his knees and wept, she met him and held him tightly. He confessed to her the horrors that he'd committed and she held him even tighter. 'Dear husband,' She spoke the words that he would forever carry in his heart. 'You have acted from your heart, not from your soul. Whatever you have done may have left its mark, for a time, upon your heart but a raging heart cannot change a gentle soul.'"
He cleared his throat and looked up, his eyes glistened. "Well," His voice was thick. "The hour is late, I'll go check on the horses and take a turn around the perimeter. That should give you ladies the time to prepare for bed." He raised his right hand solemnly. "I promise, no peeking." He joked weakly.
"That was a sad story," Gabrielle took Xena's offered hand and came easily to her feet. "But the ending was very nice."
"Yes," Xena agreed. How much had he seen of her in that short glimpse into her thoughts?
"His technique is a bit rough, but the story itself was good," Gabrielle thought aloud. "I wonder if he'd mind if I wrote it down?"
Xena nodded. "I don't think that he would."
"That is the kind of story that should be told and retold," She watched Xena for a reaction. "Though some need to hear it more than others, several times until it finally sinks in."
The warrior quietly unrolled her ground sheet and blankets. She considered removing her armor, but decided that anything could happen and left it alone. She pulled the blanket over her and rolled to her side, facing away from the camp, and Gabrielle's questioning eyes.
"'Whatever you have done may have left its mark, for a time, upon your heart but a raging heart cannot change a gentle soul.'" Gabrielle repeated the end of the story to the stars in the sky. "I'm glad that he had someone to tell him that." She sighed.
"I'm glad that I have someone to tell me that." Xena said softly, still staring into the darkness.
Gabrielle smiled and rolled her head to look at her friend. "And I'll keep telling you until you believe it."
"I hope so," A tear traced its path down her cheek.
"Count on it," Gabrielle growled. She saw her nod silently in the pale light of the fire. "'Night, Xena."
Gabrielle was asleep when Garen finished with the horses. His face now composed, he walked quietly to avoid waking them. He saw Xena's watchful eyes and nodded to her, a hint of a smile teased the corners of his mouth. He sat again at the edge of the fire, facing away from its light, minutely examining the hills around them.
"Nice story," Xena commented as she sat beside him.
"Thank-you," He answered with a quiet voice.
"How long ago?" She looked at him, but he stared ahead, unable to meet her eyes.
"It was a very long time ago."
"Please," She urged him. "How long ago?"
"More than seven hundred years," He sighed. "Some nights it seems like yesterday."
"Yes," He nodded.
"How long were you together?"
"We were married for seventy years," His eyes were distant. "But I was gone for nearly half of them. The life of a soldier, nothing quite like it."
"It takes someone special for that life," Xena comforted him.
"The love of your life comes only once, Xena." He finally met her eyes. "When it happens, learn a lesson from a man that has had too long to dwell on his mistakes, never let go. Life is too short to be apart from the one that you love. Body or soul, there are many kinds of love."
Xena nodded and willed herself not to look toward the sleeping bard. Garen, on the other hand, glanced back toward her. "If they come tomorrow, it will get ugly." Garen sighed.
"She shouldn't see this." Xena agreed.
"She doesn't have to, you know." His eyes again found Xena's. "You can get her out of here, if I provide a diversion."
"I can't leave you to fight my battles," She shook her head. "Admit it, you wouldn't leave either."
"No," Garen agreed. "I suppose I wouldn't at that."
"Can you get us out of here?"
"That is a tricky question," He considered it carefully. "Normally, yes, I could. The problem lies in how I arrived here." He noted her look of confusion. "I was going to move myself from a mountain peak to a valley several days away. When I released my will I passed through a layer of energy, great ribbons of light in the sky. This energy surged through me, and left me here. Since then it as though part of my mind is asleep. I'm waiting for it to wake, but it could be a very long time."
"You taunted Ares, knowing that?"
"Yes I knew, but he didn't." Garen shook his head, smiling slightly. "I am not completely without resources, but many of my more... flamboyant... abilities are unavailable to me. I thought that it was best that he not know."
"And you thought that it was best that we didn't know either." Xena spoke sternly, glaring at him.
"Xena, you know that I can see into your thoughts, can Ares do the same?"
"Probably," She admitted.
"If Ares became aware that I was weakened he would have come down on us immediately. All that he knew was that he couldn't see my thoughts, and yours would only show that you considered me a sorcerer with enough power to travel from another world. Consider it more of a tactical diversion than a lie or omission."
"I see," She thought for a moment. "But I do know now, and he may still read my thoughts."
"Telling you is a gamble," He admitted. "But you deserve to know. Besides, he is too interested in figuring me out. He'll probably leave you alone, for now."
"I thought that my life was complicated, you have problems that I am happy to be without."
"Happy to be of service," He smiled.
They sat together for a long, quiet time. Xena contemplated her companion as much as her surroundings. "Garen?" She asked finally. "How long have you been a soldier?"
"I joined the cavalry as a scout when I was thirteen," He replied thoughtfully. "That would make it very close to twelve centuries ago."
"An impressive number," Xena admitted. "I presume then that you have seen many battles."
"More than anyone should," Garen sighed. "I would guess more than five thousand, probably many more"
"You said that you..." She searched for the right words.
"I turned into a butcher," Garen provided.
"Is that the only time that it happened?"
"It was the longest time," He admitted. "But, no it wasn't the only time. When the blade is drawn it can be used for good or evil. Soldiers are much the same, but we balance the evil of killing against the good that it does. I've led men into battle, and in battle I was forced to make a great compromise. I had to balance the lives in my command against the objectives that I had to take. But, this is a strange balance, it has another arm. The third balance was the people that we fought for. There were times when I lost that balance. I slaughtered forces where defeating them was all that was required. I destroyed cities where capture was possible. I squandered the lives given into me in trust to maintain a very delicate balance. Too often the sword drawn under the best of intentions can reap the bitterest results."
Xena listened intently to him. "I started to save my home from a warlord, and in order to beat them I became them. But you already know that don't you."
Garen nodded. "Yes, you became what you beheld and now rue the results," He sighed.
"Accurate, but a bit flowery."
"I borrowed it," He admitted. "It's rather amazing, the fantastic lengths that some writers will go to when describing the simplest things." He checked the position of the moon. "You should get some sleep."
"Yes, Grandfather," She teased him gently.
"Ouch," He winced.
"I've enjoyed this," Xena thanked him. "You have given me a lot to think about."
"It's been my pleasure."
"Wake me in four candlemarks," She rose and stretched. "I'll take the watch until dawn."
"Four candlemarks," He repeated carefully. She nodded and returned to her blankets, after replacing the blanket that Gabrielle had kicked off in the night.
He listened to the night noises, his melancholy retreated as he continually searched his surroundings. They were still out there, paired off, half of them asleep. Earlier that evening a small band of archers had crept to within three hundred yards of the river at their backs, but a messenger arrived in time to pull them back. "Change of plans then," He murmured.
Xena stirred and sat up quietly. She checked the position of the moon, he should have awakened her some time ago. She raised an eyebrow at his broad back and shook her head. "You should have called for me three candlemarks ago," She commented as she stretched before the warmth of the fire.
"We never quite got around to defining a candlemark," He smiled. Mischief twinkled in his eyes.
She returned his smile in spite of herself. "The sun will be up in less than one candlemark." She explained carefully.
"Oh," He looked to the horizon and then verified the position of the moon. "An hour then."
"Whatever," She growled at him.
He had the good grace to look at least slightly ashamed of himself, for a moment at least. "Did you know that your mare had a stone bruise?" He changed the subject.
"Had?" She asked.
"I'm good with horses," He answered modestly. He rose and stretched, wincing at a kink in his back from leaning against the saddle. Xena smiled wickedly and jabbed three points near his spine.
"Oh," He groaned happily. "Much better, thank-you."
"I have many skills," Xena matched his earlier modesty.
He finally caught their earlier joke. He grinned at her and checked the position of the moon again. "I'll tell you what, I'll take a bit of a nap and be up in two candlemarks." He strolled to the far side of the camp and rolled himself up in his cloak. He appeared to be asleep in a few moments.
She had actually been awake for some time. She was fairly sure that he knew that, but waited for her to make it known. All things considered she had met some unusual people recently. 'First Asinius the Healer, and now Garen the Sorcerer or Soldier... or whatever both he and his name really are. What is it about me and old men lately?' She thought. 'Is he really that old? Ares has been kicking around for centuries and he doesn't look old.' She smiled at the thought. 'Then again, his vanity wouldn't allow him to show age. Garen looks old: white hair and wrinkles, but his muscle tone is very good. Judging by the damage done to the rock at the edge of the camp he obviously has great strength.' She swore silently, she hated puzzles, and this had the appearance of being another one. 'Then again,' She considered. 'He could very well be exactly what he appears. A sorcerer and soldier of some ability, and so comfortable with himself that white hair and wrinkles don't effect his self-worth.' She placed a kettle by the fire. 'Maybe I spend too much time worrying about what he might be. Maybe I spend too much time talking to myself.'
Gabrielle rose with the sun, a bit early for her, but she was uncomfortable with the thought of armed men watching her sleep. "Morning," She greeted Xena groggily as she sat by the fire.
"How did you sleep?"
"I think that I tossed and turned all night, how can I sleep with all of those men in the hills. I'd get more sleep, or privacy, on a tavern stage."
Xena nodded sympathetically. She'd heard the soft snoring from her blankets but diplomatically chose not to mention it to her. Gabrielle saw her peek toward Garen before preparing the morning tea. He had told them both to make full use of his provisions, and the selection of teas, herbs and spices had teased her. She had selected a sweet smelling tea and enjoyed its spreading aroma as it steeped. "What do you think of him?" Xena asked.
"He's handsome, kind, polite, and brave past the point of sanity," Gabrielle smiled.
Xena nodded at the description. "He has Ares worried."
"Well," Gabrielle thought aloud. "At least he has taken Ares' attention away from you."
"I don't think that he knows what he's getting into." She poured the tea for both. "But, if he did I don't think that it would change his mind."
"What do you think that Ares will do?"
"He'll be back today," Xena sighed. "Garen has his full attention. Especially over that cut on his hand."
"What can wound a god," Gabrielle looked to the sleeping figure. "And what can create a wound that a god can't heal?"
"I'll make a point of asking," Xena murmured. "A weapon like that could come in handy. Come to think of it, so could breakfast." She passed Gabrielle a heavy iron skillet.
"Xena, do you think that he could kill Ares?"
"I don't know, but I think that he believes that he can."
"That may be what it takes," Gabrielle sighed.
"Xena," She interrupted. "Think about it, he has had his hand around your heart. You blame yourself for your life but how much of what you have done was his bidding. Even if you didn't know it, you were serving his ends." She carved several thick slabs from a pork haunch as she spoke, the knife sawing with anger. "You broke free, and that was a blow to his godliness, or whatever you call it. Now he is obsessed with getting you back. His pride won't let him rest until he gets you back, or one of you is dead." She tossed several slabs into the pan. "I don't want you to die, Xena, so that leaves us with a question: Can Garen kill Ares, and would it be so terrible if he did?
"Gabrielle, we don't know if it is possible to kill a god." She watched her carefully. "And we don't know what would happen if it could be done."
"Xena, he's tormented your life, forced you to do things that give you nightmares," Her voice quivered with anger. "He took made the furies take your sanity, persecute you and nearly tricked you into killing your mother. How could anything be worse than that?"
"I don't know," Xena admitted. "But what would the other gods do to protect themselves if they found that they could be killed?"
Gabrielle had no answer. She stared at the frying meat hope, fear and frustration created a chaos of emotion in her mind. Xena knelt behind her and softly laid her hand on the Bard's back to calm and reassure her. Gabrielle removed the pan from the fire and leaned back into Xena, who unconsciously wrapped her arms around her. They sat quietly for a long, silent time. "Feel better?" Xena asked finally.
"I think so," She answered. "It feels good to get that off my chest."
"Good," Xena smiled. "Now, lets get something into your stomach."
Garen's head poked out from his cloak, he slowly savored the air. Breakfast would involve fried boar, he decided. He rose and shook out his cloak before stowing it away for the day. He nodded his greetings his bemused comrades before ducking into the brush for his morning requirements.
"Well," Gabrielle smiled. "He's definitely a normal man in some regards."
"Which do you think that tries for," Xena raised her eyebrow wickedly. "Distance or accuracy?"
"You are so bad," Gabrielle slapped her leg playfully.
Xena was relieved to see her playful nature return, the tension gone from her face.
"Neatness," Garen yawned as he returned from the brush. He smiled at their laughter and stretched as he studied the hills.
Gabrielle set a the pan, piled high with fried pork on a ground cloth and laid out fruit, a sliced loaf and fresh kettle of tea. "Breakfast," She announced and piled her plate quickly. Xena watched Garen eat with at his appetite. He ate long after even Gabrielle could hold no more. He finally leaned back against his saddle. "That was excellent," He congratulated the Bard. He noticed Xena's expression. "Well," He looked defensive. "I'm expecting a busy day."
"No wonder you travel so well stocked."
"Eat when you can, sleep when you can, and enjoy the cooking of others whenever possible," Garen mustered his dignity as he looked to the hills. "And it appears that he didn't intend to interrupt my meal today."
They followed his gaze, Ares was walking toward the camp. Garen refilled his tea and removed a fourth cup from the pack. "Join us," He poured a cup and indicated an open spot, nearer to himself than his companions.
Ares considered it for a moment then sat gracefully. "What are you, old man?" He immediately pushed the issue.
"First, a question of my own," Garen corrected him. "How old are you?"
"A few thousand years," Ares conceded.
"Well now," Garen said thoughtfully. "That far along and you call me old?"
"I am immortal," Ares informed him haughtily. "What does age matter to me?"
"I've long since lost track of my hair color. I have, to date, lived a long and fulfilling life with no end in sight. Yet I see no need to conceal the fact that I am old."
"Then you are immortal," Ares again pressed the issue.
"Well, certainly long living. Immortal implies that one cannot die. I don't subscribe to any theories or claims of immortality. Everything that lives, dies. That which does not die naturally can die unnaturally. Therefore, nothing is immortal."
"You know so little of gods," Ares laughed.
"Tell that to my father," Garen smiled enigmatically.
"Your father was a god," He scoffed.
"He was as confident of it as are you. He believed it for eight thousand years of his life, he believed it when I split his skull with the same blade that you were introduced to yesterday."
"Your sword can kill gods?" Ares shook his head in disbelief. "You are fantasizing."
"And you bear a mark that will long remind you that I don't exaggerate."
Ares again tried to probe the mind of the old man before him, and was again rebuffed. 'He has strength,' he conceded. One thing was certain, he could feel the truth in Garen's voice. Normally he would attribute it to madness, but the strength of his mind concerned the god of war. If he could, and perhaps had, killed a god then he was no one to play with. It was time for his underlings to earn their keep. He poured the tea out, untouched. Garen smiled knowingly at the gesture, an insult. "I tire of this," Ares rose and turned to leave.
"When you send your fodder to claim my sword," Garen stared intently at him. "Make sure that you come along with them. You might enjoy the novelty of mortality."
Ares was deeply disturbed, but he showed no sign of it, had his thoughts been that clear to the old man, or was he just that clever? He walked, with forced bravado, back to the camp of his followers.
"You do live on the edge," Xena smiled at him. She was truly enjoying the spectacle of Ares' discomfort, and his fear.
"Call it the folly of age," Garen looked to the hills. "They'll be coming soon. We'd better be ready to receive company."
Xena retrieved several extra pieces for her armor. Gabrielle wordlessly buckled them on for her friend. Both warriors could see the tightness around her eyes. They were used to the waiting, but it hit Gabrielle hard. He opened a pack and rummaged for a moment. Wordlessly he unrolled a shirt of beautifully crafted chain. She looked at him with some surprise. "I don't wear armor." She smiled weakly.
"Mail," Garen corrected gently. "Would you wear it this once, for me."
She saw the concern in his eyes, it was far more intense in Xena's. "For you both," She held her arms out and Xena tied the laces of a padded tunic that came to her mid-thigh. Garen held up the mail shirt. "More?" She groaned. Garen smiled warmly and draped it over her. "It's so light," She marveled. Bouncing as she had seen Garen do the day before to settle it. "I thought that it would pinch or something."
"I have never made armor that pinches," He protested. "The armorer has been accused of it, upon occasion, but never the armor."
"Mail," Gabrielle corrected him sweetly.
Garen smiled, sharing her small victory. "Would you prefer a different weapon?"
"No, I have my staff."
"Gabrielle won't use a killing weapon," Xena touched the arm of her friend fondly. "Even if she had trained with any other, she has never taken a life. It is part of who she is."
"So gentle, yet so strong in character," He murmured. "I, unfortunately, can not claim the same." He regarded Gabrielle seriously. "I know only one way to fight, and I do not show any consideration to an enemy that stands armed before me. All that I am, mind body and spirit is thrown into the fight. I hope that you understand what I have to do."
"I understand," Gabrielle assured him sadly. "I don't claim to like it, but I understand."
Garen nodded sadly. "I would expect nothing less. Well then Xena, shall we give your Bard new songs to sing?"
In truth he was concerned, despite his outward show to the contrary. Battle nerves had little to do with it, in the past he'd faced odds easily as daunting, and prevailed. He tried again to reach the sleeping part of his mind. It was reawakening, he tested the limits of his power and found that though he was not completely restored, he was recovering with incredible speed. He would soon be able to avert disaster.
"Xena," He called to her. "I'm coming up with something of a plan. Details aren't important, but we need to prepare our horses for travel."
She looked at him carefully, the confidence radiated from his every movement. She nodded and quickly saddled Argo. Garen worked with equal speed preparing his warhorse, his pack saddle went onto his draft horse. He took the keg and his equipment bags, but left the boar.
"What is this plan?" Xena pressed him.
"Soon," Garen promised "First, where is the nearest large city to us."
"Athens," Xena answered, she was clearly confused. "It's a few weeks that way," She pointed over the horizon. "Does that mean..."
He nodded and turned to face the direction that she'd indicated. He cast out his thoughts. 'There,' He exulted. He found the large city, quickly he searched its surroundings and carefully selected the proper spot. Marking it in his memory he returned to himself.
"Here they come," Gabrielle shouted.
"Shall we get mounted?" Garen laughed. His spirits soared, finally able do something, anything. "It's time to ride." He vaulted into the saddle and rode next to Xena and Gabrielle. Concentrating carefully he gathered his strength, holding the point that he'd marked firmly in his mind he released his gathered power. Xena and Gabrielle saw their surroundings fade for a second. The blink of an eye later they looked out over a carefully plowed field next to a road.
"They're gone," Gabrielle exclaimed.
"No," Garen smiled. "We are."
"That's a great time saver," Xena pointed toward Athens, a league or less away.
"It's served me well in the past," Garen admitted. "Now, what would you say to a few days in the city. I could use the time to fully recuperate."
"I'd say, yes." Gabrielle smiled at the thought of a soft bed and hot bath.
"I'd say, we're broke." Xena sighed with regret.
Garen pulled a heavy purse from his belt. "I believe that we can manage." He nudged his horse and rode toward the city. Xena shrugged and followed, Argo slowed as they drew abreast of him.
"I see a bit of a problem," Xena commented.
"Oh?" Garen responded. He looked to her with a puzzled look.
"Where is your money from?"
He reined in, and grinned sheepishly. "I see your point," He conceded. "Well, do you have a coin or two?"
Gabrielle fished two lonely dinars from a pouch. "That's it," She said. Her visions of baths and beds fading to a cold stable and a muddy stream.
He took them and dropped them into his heavy purse. "It will do," He replied enigmatically.
"Two dinars won't feed even one of us in Athens," Xena sighed.
"Perhaps not," He allowed carefully. "But we are a bit better off than that." He passed the large pouch to her. She looked inside and saw that it contained several hundred dinars.
"Did you make them?" Gabrielle stared with joyous avarice into the small well of coins.
"Certainly not," He sounded offended. "I decided to forgo the expense of a money-changer. I don't travel without sufficient funds, he smiled. I have more, should the occasion call for it."
They rode at a leisurely into the city, Xena led the way to a large and familiar inn. "Oats, grain and a good rubdown for all three," She ordered a hostler, she fished a few coins from the pouch. Garen cleared his throat smiled at her. She doubled the amount and sent them on their way. "Your goods will be brought up," The boy promised.
"Now then," Garen said quietly. "Shall we sample someone else's cooking?"
"Its your dinar," Xena shrugged.
Garen pushed open the door and stepped into the common room. The ceiling was low with thick beams, the main light for the room was the sunshine that poured through the windows. He stepped to one side and allowed Gabrielle to choose a table. She selected a spot in a corner and took the seat that placed her back to the room, slowing the warriors to sit with their backs to the wall. Garen smiled and sat to her left. Xena signaled to the barmaid and took her seat.
"Ale for two, and cold cider," Xena ordered. "What do you recommend for lunch?"
"Lamb stew?" The barmaid suggested.
Xena nodded. "And fresh bread," She continued. "And while we are at it, we'll need two rooms, large rooms with baths."
"I'll tell the innkeeper," She promised.
Garen surveyed the surroundings, relatively clean, the barmaids were attractive, if the food and ale were good he would be completely happy. "You've been here before?"
"Once or twice," Xena nodded. "The food is good and you don't have to worry about unexpected company from the mattresses."
Garen nodded. "Excellent," He approved.
"You've been quiet," Gabrielle noted.
"Just learning the customs," He explained.
Their meals arrived quickly, Garen smiled warmly to the barmaid. "I'll need another ale," He commented.
"Is their something wrong with this one?" She asked.
"Yes," He answered. "It'll be empty when you get back."
She returned his smile and hurried off to get another tankard.
"Well now," Xena teased. "She has your attention."
"Perhaps," Garen allowed. He drained his tankard in a long, steady draw. "My, that is fine stuff." He sighed.
"The ale or the girl," Xena smiled.
"Take your pick," Garen shrugged indifferently.
"The ale," Xena decided quickly.
"Good, if worse come to worse I already have a keg in my room." He said thoughtfully.
"You are so bad," Gabrielle shook her head over the exchange.
They straightened up their acts as the barmaid returned. "You were right," She replaced his empty tankard. "Shall I draw you another?"
"That would be fine," He returned her smile. "What is your name? 'Barmaid' hardly does you justice."
"Corissa," She answered.
"Corissa, very nice," He toasted her with the tankard. "Another would definitely be in order, Corissa."
She smiled prettily and left with the empty tankard. "Another talent," Gabrielle teased him.
"Common courtesy," He protested. He tasted the stew and smiled broadly at Xena. "You choice of inns is excellent."
Garen polished off several tankards during his meal. His conversations with Corissa began with compliments and ended with outrageous flattery. Gabrielle and Xena rolled their eyes as he plied her into friendly conversation, her tips to the tap became much quicker, and her conversations more extended. Finally he rose from his seat and nodded to her as he crossed the commons to the stairs. She presented him with a tankard before he climbed the stairs two at a time.
"I'm going to soak until bedtime," Gabrielle promised. She found the door to the room that she would share with Xena. "And then I'll sleep for a week."
Garen smiled and sipped his ale. "You have an incredible tolerance for that stuff," Xena regarded him suspiciously.
"I love ale, I cannot abide being drunk," Garen explained simply. "Therefore I take steps."
"Garen," Xena smiled wickedly. "Have you ever been in a drinking contest?"
"That would be cheating," He protested.
"For wagers," Gabrielle thought aloud.
"Well now," He considered it. "That could be interesting, couldn't it?" He raised his tankard to drink again.
"What's that," Gabrielle asked.
"Drinking contests," Garen answered with confusion.
"No, silly," She pointed to the side of his mug.
"Ale, of course," He wiped the foam from his lips.
"Garen, on your tankard." She pulled a small piece of parchment from wedged into the lip around the base of the mug and presented it to him. He unrolled it and looked with interest at it.
"Oh," He looked at it with confusion. "It's a note," He answered.
"What does it say," Xena asked.
"Good question," He answered. "Its all Greek to me."
Gabrielle peeked at the scrap. "She works until dark," She smiled.
"Well now," He tucked the scrap into his bracer. "Well, well, well." He entered his room and closed the door behind him.
"Many talents," Gabrielle concluded her friend's thought.
"They have vanished, My Lord Ares," Aeneas reported uneasily.
"I have eyes," Ares growled. "Congratulations you twit, you've spent half of the morning setting an ambush on a half chewed boar."
"Where could they have gone?"
Ares searched, his senses spreading wider until he found Xena's presence. "Athens," He answered. "The old bastard took them to Athens." He thought for a few moments. "Rest your men," Ares ordered. "We'll go round them up in the morning."
"I think that I feel insulted," Gabrielle mumbled as she settled into the large tub.
"How," Xena asked. "By who?" She was seated on a low stool combing the tangles from her hair.
"He didn't even try," Gabrielle protested. "It wouldn't have gotten him anywhere, but he could have at least tried. We're both much more attractive than that barmaid."
Xena laughed, delighted at the outrage of her friend. "Would you listen to yourself?" She set aside the comb.
"Gabrielle, we're his companions, I don't think that he feels that it would be proper to make advances toward either of us."
The Bard considered this. "That makes sense," She admitted.
"Or," Xena smiled. "Perhaps he's already read our minds and knows that he'll get nowhere." She unlaced her left boot.
"Xena," The Bard called tentatively.
"Yes?" Xena looked up at her.
"Do you think that Ares knows where we are?"
"What do you think that he'll do?"
"I don't know," Xena answered truthfully.
"Xena, we need to talk to Garen," Gabrielle said quickly. "We need to know if he can kill Ares."
"Gabrielle, this is unlike you. Why are you suddenly advocating killing?"
"And why are you the voice of reason?" Gabrielle rose from the tub and wrapped herself in a large bath sheet.
There was an uncomfortable silence, neither quite willing to discuss the subject, or to let it go. Xena took her turn in the tub, carefully watching her friend. Gabrielle finally came over and sat by the tub.
"Xena, if you are willing to listen to reason we can continue this."
"If I," Xena caught herself. "If I'm... yes, I'm ready to listen to reason."
Gabrielle gathered her thoughts. "We're never going to be rid of him," She finally spoke. "He'll never accept that you are free of his... poison. He'll keep tormenting you, and pushing you, and one day he'll finally figure out that he cannot have you. Then he'll kill you. I'd do anything to stop that, if I could I'd kill him myself. I can't, so lets see if Garen can, and we'll end all of this, once and for all."
"Gabrielle, you can't believe that?" She watched her friend carefully.
She looked the warrior squarely in the eyes. "Yes, I do."
"Gabrielle, do you know what I've learned?" She spoke gently. "I believe Garen when he told Ares that his father had the power of a god. He has power and strength, but I don't believe for a moment that the sole source of Garen's power is immortality. His strength is his willingness to fight and die for what he believes in. The gods deny mortality, they deny themselves his strength, they have power but no commitment."
Xena thought about it for a moment. "You can't blame Ares for everything that I've done. Some of it, but nor nearly all. I went to Ares, by then I was blinded to all but my anger, I embraced his teachings and training. I embraced him. You can't blame Ares for granting me what I asked for, and you can't blame him because I paid his price... without question."
"You can't possibly be excusing Ares for what he has done," Gabrielle protested.
"No, he played a part in it, maybe even an equal part, but he can't take all the blame for everything." Xena rose and wrapped herself. "I've heard too many claim that their lives went wrong because of the fates, or the gods. If I deny what I have done wrong in my life, how can I claim what has gone right? It wasn't fate that drove me to Ares, it was blind hatred. No matter how much I want him out of our lives, permanently, I can't use Garen to as a solution." She rose from the tub and wrapped herself in a large soft robe.
"If Ares is killed," She continued. "What will the other gods do? How many people do you think would die if the gods became desperate and took action to prevent anyone from being able to harm them. They could return the world to a time before civilization."
Gabrielle sat quietly, thinking over what she had said. "No matter what he does to you?"
"What happens to me is not worth what could happen to thousands," Xena replied. "We may find a way to keep Ares out of our lives, but not that way."
There was a knock at the door, Xena cautiously cracked open the door, then opened it wide. "I'm sorry," Corissa apologized. "I brought Garen another tankard."
Xena smiled at the young lady. "He is the next door down the hall," She pointed to his room.
"Thank-you," Corissa smiled brightly.
Xena closed the door, she and Gabrielle laughed long together, both relieved that the tension was broken. They dressed for bed, Gabrielle slid under the covers as Xena checked the room for the night. She pulled and latched the shutters and slid the lock on the door before climbing into bed. She blew out the candle and lay back into her pillow. "Good-night, Gabrielle," She whispered.
"Night, Xena." She answered softly. She stared at the wall for a few minutes. "Xena," Her voice was soft and unsure.
"Are we okay?"
"Yes, Gabrielle, we're just fine," Xena smiled.
"Good," Gabrielle's voice gained confidence. She scooted across the bed until her back rested against her best friend. Xena rolled onto her side and wrapped a comforting arm around her, and things really were once again right between them.
They were starting to drift off when they realized how thin the walls in the inn really were. Faint words and sounds that left no doubt in their minds. Gabrielle giggled faintly, Xena knew that if there was any light in the room she would see a beautiful blush.
He awoke with the realization that he was alone. Hardly uncommon for him, he rarely took any form of companionship. In his long years he had made thousands of friends, only to see them age and die. 'Hardly a comfortable thought,' he pulled himself from the brink of melancholia. It was nearly dawn, he noted and rose to face the day. His bath was cold and filled with the dirt of travel. He stirred the water with his hand until it was hot and clear, he settled into the water for a short soak before he truly started his day.
A quarter of an hour... candlemark... whatever... he strolled down the stairs. The innkeeper himself stood behind the bar, taking orders for those that broke their fast at this hour disdained even by the gods. Garen ordered a large breakfast, and seeing the disgruntled expression the landlord's face he helped in the kitchen and badgered him with good-natured banter until his mood improved. A few gold coins for his trouble put his hosts rising spirits over the top. He ordered meals to be delivered to his companions as he attacked his plate. He left as quickly as he arrived to see the city.
He had a specific place in mind. His host recommended whom he felt was the finest smith in the city. Garen bantered with the burly smith, already sweating from his work at the forge. He met Garen's suggestion with skepticism, until the tall knight slipped him enough to match a full week's earnings. Now he worked the bellows as Garen, stripped to the waist hammered rhythmically at a block of fine steel. He lengthened and widened and rolled the cherry-red metal. Folding it layer-by-layer he shaped it into a blade.
"I've never seen that technique," The smith marveled.
"Then I hope that you are watching carefully," Garen smiled at him.
"You can bet on it," The smith found his humor infectious.
He continued to work the metal until the size and shape matched the pattern in his head. Finally he quenched the steel and tested its temper and found it to his liking. It was noon when he finally set aside the last tool, he tested the weapon and found it to his liking. He polished it to a high gleam, admiring the detail work that he'd carefully worked into the blade. He thanked the smith for his help. He was genuinely grateful to him for writing out the inscription that he'd requested on a scrap of parchment. He wrapped the blade in an old cloak and walked out into the city.
Xena woke eager to face the new day. There were too many things that they were forced to do without that she could finally get for Gabrielle. She contemplated the heavy purse that Garen had left with her. She had tried to return it to him during the meal and for the first time she saw him irritated. "I did not give that as a gift, nor did I ask you to hold it for me, we are companions on this journey and we'll share alike."
A knock at the door interrupted her reverie. She cracked the door to and was greeted by the aroma of breakfast. The innkeeper placed a large tray on a chest at the foot of the bed. "Your friend Garen's compliments," He announced grandly. "He regrets to inform you that he is about the city and will be unable to join you."
Xena reached for the purse. "Not necessary, My Lady," The innkeeper stopped her. "He was most generous already." He bowed slightly and disappeared from the room.
She regarded the closed door for a moment, then drew the bolt. The tray was heavily laden, filled to overflowing with every breakfast delicacy ever conceived. There was enough food for an army, or even for Gabrielle. She picked out a large slice of bacon and waved it over Gabrielle's nose. The Bard rose sleepily, following her nose. Xena smiled as she bit into the morsel and fell back into her pillow, still chewing. It took several minutes of affectionate bullying got her out of bed and eating.
"We know then inn where they are staying," Aeneas considered his words carefully. "Why don't we move in after them?"
"We have found Xena, and her brat," Ares snapped at him. "You haven't found the old man for me, yet. I don't want anything done until he has been found."
"I have men looking," Aeneas offered. "They'll find him soon."
"See that they do," Ares grumbled. "Just see that they are discrete about it."
Garen discovered Aeneas' men first. He considered the situation with a wicked smile and disappeared into an alley. Moments later a young girl left the alley with a large bolt of cloth under her arm. She smiled sweetly at two of the searching Persians and walked casually down the street toward the market. They admired her figure for a moment before continuing their search.
He walked through the stalls of the market. Occasionally he saw more of the Persians, one had even taken a fast liberty with his hind-quarters. He carefully willed himself not to tear his arm off and beat him to death with it. Finally, after making several small purchases he found Xena and Gabrielle at a tanner's booth. Still in female form he joined them. "This is lovely," He/she admired a roll that they were inspecting. "But it will clash with your hair."
Xena raised an eyebrow at the newcomer. "Thanks," She answered neutrally.
"Now, Xena," Garen chided her in a strange woman's voice. "Can't a man take off his beard and still be greeted as an old friend?"
Gabrielle turned quickly and looked into the young woman's eyes. "Garen?" She whispered.
"Did you enjoy breakfast?" She smiled at the disbelief in the Bard's eyes. "The marketplace is swarming with Ares' bully-boys." Garen warned. "I think that they are waiting for you to lead them to me."
"So, what do we do?" Gabrielle asked.
"We go to a dressmaker," Garen smiled.
They looked at him strangely, he smiled and led the way. They entered a small private shop. Garen passed a small handful of coins to the seamstress and whispered a few words in her ear. She nodded eagerly and watched the generous young woman lead her two friends to the back room. Once the curtain fell he restored his normal appearance. He was clad, head to toe in gleaming steel. Xena admired the exquisite engraving that decorated his armor.
"Xena," He regarded her gravely. "Do you trust me?"
"Yes," She answered without hesitation.
He withdrew the sword that he'd forged that morning from the bundle of cloth. Xena's eyes were instantly drawn to the weapon. It was the same size as her own, but it had been polished until it nearly glowed. "Place you hands upon the blade," Garen ordered. "And repeat what I say."
"I, Xena, Warrior of Amphipolis... swear by all that I hold sacred... that I will only draw this weapon... in the cause of justice... I will aid all, no matter how humble their station... and fight only for the benefit of my people."
Xena repeated the oath after him. As she spoke she could feel the metal of the blade warm to her touch. When she finished speaking she withdrew her hands, Garen solemnly passed the blade to her, hilt first. She examined it carefully, it was the same weight as the sword upon her back, but its balance was finer, perfect to the hand that held it.
Gabrielle also examined the sword, but her attention was captured by the engraving. "'Draw me not, without reason; sheathe me not, without honor.'" She read aloud.
Garen returned to the guise of a young woman. "It is a special blade," He explained. "It will serve no hand other than yours, it will not dull and cannot break. You may will it to resemble you old sword, or you may allow its true appearance to be seen. I would suggest that you save it only for your times of greatest need."
"It is... incredible," Xena whispered. "I can feel it, like it is alive."
"To some extent, it is." Garen agreed.
"Can it do the same things as your sword?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
"No," Garen considered her words carefully. "It is designed for Xena, just as mine is for me alone. What it can do will be determined over time, as they grow together into a team. Our blades, over time, may share similar abilities but hers will grow into her differently than mine did with me."
They heard a man's voice in the shop. "I'm looking for an old man," He announced with a thick accent.
"I don't sell dresses for men," The small shopkeeper explained. "I cater only to women."
The curtain was pulled aside, Garen was holding a dress in front of Gabrielle. The intruder saw only three women shopping. "This one brings out your eyes," Garen noted. He missed his larger as he used this much smaller form. Garen boldly pushed aside the Persian and paid the seamstress for the garment as they left the shop.
"That is an unusual look for you," Xena smiled at the camouflaged soldier.
"I thought that she was rather cute," Garen protested.
"Well," Gabrielle contemplated. "You do make an attractive woman."
"Thank-you, now, if you will excuse me I have a godling to irritate." Garen smiled wickedly. "Why don't the two of you continue shopping, I'll warn you if anything happens."
Late that afternoon Aeneas again found himself facing an extremely irritated god of war. "I have chased down at least thirty false sightings," He snarled. "What is wrong with your people?"
"My Lord Ares, we are hunting a sorcerer," Aeneas protested. "How can we run down a man that appears everywhere at once."
"Where is Xena?"
"At the inn, they returned this afternoon."
"Move your men around the inn," Ares ordered. "He'll come back if they are threatened." Suddenly he froze, looking around wildly. "Someone has defiled my temple," His voice grated. Aeneas watched as his god vanished in a flash.
Continued in Part Two
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