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All characters in H:TLJ and X:WP belong to Renaissance Productions and MCA/Universal. This is strictly a fan story. I'm not making any money off it, trust me.
This story takes place early in the fourth season of X:WP and the fifth season of H:TLJ (presumably after Xena has fetched Gabrielle from the fiery hellhole in "Sacrifice").
Story rating is probably PG-13 for minor violence (battle scenes). There is no overt gore, sex, or profanity, but young children should *not* read this story.
"It's a kind of arrogance to be so certain you're past redemption."
--Brother Cadfael, A Morbid Taste for Bones, by Ellis Peters
by E.A. Week
"Are you sure you dont want to come with us?"
Xena smiled. "No thanks, Gabrielle, its really not my thing."
"So whatre you going to do?" asked Joxer.
"Stretch my legs, get something to eat, get Argo re-shod..." Xena shrugged. "Ill keep busy, dont worry."
Gabrielle grinned. "Im not worried," she said.
"Enjoy the play," said Xena. "And if Im not here when its over, meet me back at the tavern near the blacksmiths shop."
"What blacksmiths shop?" said Gabrielle, rolling her eyes slightly. "Corinth is a big city."
"Nikos the Blacksmiths shop," said Xena, affecting exasperation, as if this should have been common knowledge. "I wouldnt trust Argo with anyone else."
With Gabrielle and Joxer gone to the play, Xena strolled through the market stalls around the arena. Vendors hawked a mind-boggling variety of goods under the bright Corinthian sun. She made a lazy circuit of the entire marketplace, pricing the food stalls, before settling on a couple of lamb-and-vegetable kebobs, which she washed down with a beaker of spiced mead.
Walking through the crowds, Xena mused that her own life had been far more fantastic than any poet or playwright could possibly create in his imagination. And she had no interest in sitting for two hours in the roasting heat listening to an exaggerated story of gods, monsters, or famous people. Worse, authors too often wrote their works to flatter a royal patron, or to preach about the futility of battling fate, while exhorting mortals to submit to the will of the gods. Xena snorted impatiently.
Gabrielle, on the other hand, lived for such fare. And today, shed suddenly taken it upon herself to "educate" Joxer about the cultural merits of contemporary theater. The two women had run across Joxer in the city market, alone on his birthday. Gabrielle had offered to take him to the play as a present. Xena, pleased at her friends generosity towards the lovestruck young man, thought the invitation a perfect excuse to avoid the play herself. Joxer might learn something, Gabrielles estimation of Joxer might improve, and Xena would be spared the tedium of sitting through Alcestis, the latest work of Euripides.
Xena completed another circuit of the market stalls. Most of the other people had gone into the amphitheater. Only a few stragglers, and the vendors themselves, remained outside.
As she turned in the direction of the track that led toward the city, Xena heard a commotion. She rounded a fabric merchants stall and saw two dusty, disheveled men, standing with a woman. All three seemed highly distraught. The woman wept, and the first man tried to bind a nasty gash on the second mans upper arm.
"Here, let me help you with that." Xena strode over to the trio. She put a strong, comforting hand on the womans shoulder. "See if you can find me some water," she said, taking a look at the injury. A knife or sword wound, Xena surmised, long, but not deep. It wasnt gushing, so the blade had not severed an artery.
"Heres some linen; you can use it for a bandage if you need." The cloth merchant came out from behind his booth, holding a length of undyed fabric.
"Thank you," said Xena, ripping off a section of the material. When the woman returned with a skin of water, Xena gently cleaned the gash with the smaller piece of linen, and bound it snugly with the larger piece. While she worked, she asked the threesome what had happened.
"Were from Brauron," the uninjured man explained. "We were on our way here to sell our olives, and these bandits attacked us-- took everything we had. We tried to fight, but they were armed--"
"How many of them?" interrupted Xena.
"About a dozen," responded the injured man, wincing as Xena flushed his wound with the cold water. "Some had swords, some had staves. A couple had longbows. They took our entire cart-- both donkeys--"
"Whatd they look like?" she went on.
"One of them hit me," said the woman, outraged. "He was big and ugly, with pock marks all over his face, and a nose like a pig."
"Leader seemed to be a redheaded fellow," the uninjured man speculated. "About my age and height, very lean. Wore better clothes than the others. Leather tunic and gauntlets, the rest of the men wore homespun cloth. A fighting man-- he had scars on his arms and face. Carried a sword, and knew how to use it."
Xena absorbed all these details. She finished binding the second mans injury, and made sure the bleeding had been stanched.
"The man who did this to me had a sword, too," said the injured man. "I was trying to keep him from taking the donkeys." His sun-browned face tightened. "I dont know how were going to replace them, now that weve lost our crop to those bastards. Well have to borrow money--"
"Ill find them," Xena promised. "Did you notice anything else about them? Where were they headed?"
"Hard to say," the uninjured man responded. "I was in such shock-- but they looked to be going northeast. Towards the highlands."
"The man who got me was missing fingers," the injured man suddenly recalled. "He held the sword in his left hand, and he had two fingers gone. I think he must have been a soldier once, as well. He had that look to him, and scars on his arms."
"Im glad you noticed so much," said Xena. "Thatll make them easier to identify when I track them down. You should go to the city and report this at the palace. If these men are raiding farms around the countryside, the king should know about it."
The trio nodded, looking impressed. "Who are you?" the woman asked.
"Im Xena," said the warrior.
"Xena!" The uninjured mans gratitude dissolved, replaced by an expression of acute hostility. "I lost my father and my older brother at the Battle of Corinth, thanks to you! And you have the nerve to come here and--"
"Attis!" exclaimed the woman, looking mortified. "Shes helped us, and offered to get our crop back! At least give her the benefit of the doubt!"
The man-- the womans husband, Xena guessed-- calmed down, but his eyes remained guarded.
"I know an apology wont bring your father and brother back," she said, "but I am sorry, and Id like to help you find your olives, if youll let me."
Xenas humility and candor worked. All the tension went out of the trio, and they suddenly seemed exhausted.
"Thank you," said the injured man. Judging by the resemblance, he must be the womans brother. Most likely they had a small farm outside the city somewhere, raising just enough livestock and produce to feed themselves, and selling the surplus for whatever profits they could gain. Not an easy existence, and a loss such as the one theyd suffered would set them back indefinitely. Xena silently vowed to recover their property, no matter the cost.
Xena rode northeast, after the bandits. The city receded behind her, then the small villages surrounding it. The countryside opened out into gently rolling hills. Cypress and olive trees swayed and bent in the hot, strong wind. Here and there, Xena glimpsed signs of a farm or other holding: goats and sheep grazed, villagers tended crops, workers gathered fruits and grains. The summer had seen plentiful rains, resulting in an abundant harvest-- a boon to farmers such as Attis and his kin.
And a tempting target for thieves and bandits, who found it easier to prey on the labor of others than to put their own backs to the plow.
She found the place where the olive-growers had been attacked. From there, she easily picked up a trail left by a large group of men, a wagon, and mules. The cart would slow the bandits. Xena urged Argo into a faster trot and followed the trail.
A short while later, she came across fresh mule droppings. She'd catch up to the brigands quickly at this rate. As she rode on, she mentally rehearsed her plan of attack. Take down the leader and the more experienced fighters first, then the lackeys. Tie them all up somehow, and march them back to Corinth. Return the wagon, mules, and olives to the farmers, and let the king's men deal with the outlaws.
A shout in the distance broke into her thoughts. Xena kicked the mare into a run. She crested the top of a hill and looked down at the sight of perhaps twenty skirmishing men. A large wagon with a broken wheel sat on the right side of the road, hitched to a bony old horse. The olive-growers' wagon sat to the left, baskets intact, mules still hitched to the front of it. Xena discerned the bandits, eyed their leader and his two sword-wielding accomplices. The rest of the dirty ruffians fought with staves. Their opponents-- eight of them-- all used swords. And skillfully.
Time to even up the odds.
Xena galloped down the hill at a furious pace. She loosened her feet from the stirrups, and with an ear-shattering scream, launched herself sideways into two of the bandits. The men toppled over, breaking Xena's fall. She rolled off them, and when they struggled to rise, she dropped one with a kick in the gut, the other with a stunning blow to the temple.
Two more men with staves rushed her. Xena jumped up and kicked both men backwards, landed, and drew her sword. Another man came at her from behind; she spun to meet him. He wielded a sword in his left hand, gripping the weapon surprisingly well, despite missing pieces of two fingers. He fought passably, but still no match for Xena's skill and dexterity. She disarmed him in half a dozen parries, delivered a spinning roundhouse kick to the solar plexus, and when he doubled over, knocked him unconscious with the hilt of her sword.
She spotted the leader, a lean fellow with a cruel, feral face beneath a cap of faded red hair. He battled a man that Xena judged immediately as an experienced warrior, clearly skilled with a sword. The soldiers comrades methodically overpowered and subdued the staff-wielding ruffians. Over near the olive cart, the pock-faced, pig-nosed bandit fought the tallest of the swordsmen. Xena put herself to work, dispatching one brigand after another.
When her last opponent had fallen, Xena spun about at the sound of an outraged curse. She watched the pig-nosed man's sword fly up into the air so hard that it became impaled in the bough of a tree. The tall man who'd disarmed the outlaw delivered a knockout punch. The pock-faced bandit dropped to the ground without a whimper.
The tall man turned to face his fellows, then eyed Xena. With a surprised expression, he strode toward her. "Where'd you come from?" he asked. "Glad to have your help--" He broke off abruptly when Xena put the tip of her sword to his throat.
"I don't know what kind of game this is," she spat, outraged, "but if you think I'm going to--"
She stopped speaking. She saw trepidation on his face, fear in his eyes, and he instinctively drew his head back from her blade. The other swordsmen sprang to his side, weapons at the ready. Xena barely regarded them; she had her gaze fixed completely on the man before her. She withdrew her weapon fractionally, her eyes flicking down, then back up, with a dawning expression of incredulity.
A tall man with a broad build. Wide shoulders, tapering down into a narrow waist. A well-shaped head, long brown hair drawn back in a tail. A handsome face, graced with high cheekbones and a full, emphatic mouth. Hazel eyes-- green-flecked brown-- fringed by long, almost feminine lashes. Suntanned skin beneath a day or two's growth of stubble.
Xena knew the face, knew the body, knew the voice. But everything else about him was so different, most notably the lack of supernatural energy. A mortal man, without doubt.
Careful to make no threatening moves, Xena withdrew her sword completely and sheathed it. The tall man made a subtle gesture, and his men-- for they were clearly his men, under his command-- likewise returned weapons to their scabbards.
"Who are you?" asked Xena, a slight note of bewilderment in her voice.
"I'm Iphicles," he said. Sure enough, dimples winked in his cheeks when he smiled. "The King of Corinth."
Xena exhaled and returned the smile. "I'm Xena," she said. "My apologies," she added. "I thought you were someone else."
His smile broadened into a grin. "No offense," he said easily, clasping her offered arm. Then, "I've heard about you."
Xena couldn't get over his voice. "Hercules is your brother," she said, fighting the sudden urge to laugh at the unintentional irony.
"Yeah, you know him, right?"
"He's an old friend," Xena responded warmly.
"I'm glad you came along when you did," said Iphicles. "Not that we couldn't have handled these scum, but you made it easier and a lot faster for us." He nodded to his men. "Get them tied up and into the wagon."
From the corner of her eye, Xena watched as the soldiers-- the king's men-at-arms, disguised as ordinary peasants, like Iphicles-- swiftly replaced the broken wagon wheel and began to truss up the outlaws.
"You planned this," said Xena. "Did you know about these men?"
"Yeah," said Iphicles. "We knew they'd been raiding the area, so we set an ambush for them. A prize they couldn't resist."
Xena laughed softly. An easy target, indeed. She spotted straw strewn on the ground near the wagon. What could be more tempting to a group of lawless opportunists than a couple of farmers and their broken-down wagon? No doubt the other soldiers had lain hidden beneath the straw. And when the thieves surrounded the cart, imagining an easy steal, the swordsmen had sprung their trap. A masterfully simple plan.
"I ran into the farmers who own those olives at the amphitheater market," said Xena. "I came out here to see if I could find the thieves."
"Great timing," said Iphicles.
"Do you know these men?" asked Xena as they strolled towards the wagon.
"Yeah," said Iphicles, his face tightening with anger. He approached the leader of the bandits, who jerked and twitched furiously as the king's lieutenant bound him.
"Hello, Nasamon," said Iphicles casually, cocking his head to one side. "I've been looking for you."
Nasamon spat, but missed the king by a foot. "And what does your majesty plan to do with us?" he asked. The outlaw leader had pale, washed-out blue eyes. Xena saw in his face and gaze the look of a vicious man, a sadist, one who would kill not only for gain but for pleasure. Darphus had been like that. "A life sentence to Golgoth, maybe?"
Xena saw the king's face darken, but he responded in an even voice. "Not prison," he said. "You're going to hang for murder."
"Just like you murdered my friends, you bastard?"
Iphicles turned even darker. "I made amends for what I did," he said in a dangerous voice. "If you chose not to accept my apology, that's your decision."
"I won't be like those other dogs, catching the bones you lower yourself to throw out at us!" Nasamon jeered. "Oh, now you've settled a nice piece of land on them, they're your pets, eating right out of your hand!"
"The land in Phlegra was enough for the other men," said Iphicles. "But you thought you were too good for it, and turned against them. I was up there a month ago, and they told me you murdered Lampus in cold blood, because he wouldn't go along with your plan to rebel against me!"
"That's a lie!" Nasamon hissed. "Where's the proof?"
Iphicles withdrew something from his tunic. Xena saw that the king held an earring between his fingers, a silver double-headed ax. She spotted dried blood on the thing. Nasamon looked astonished, then infuriated when he realized that his facial expressions had betrayed his guilt.
"He pulled this off you when you were fighting him," said Iphicles. He nodded to his lieutenant. The soldier lifted the red hair that covered Nasamon's left ear. Xena could plainly see the still-raw scar where Lampus had pulled the earring clear through the outlaw's earlobe. In the heat of the fight, Nasamon had probably not even noticed the pain or the loss of his jewelry until much later.
"You bastard!" screamed Nasamon. The king ignored him.
"Put him in the wagon with the rest of them." Iphicles turned his back and walked away.
Eumelus, the king's lieutenant and the man whod subdued Nasamon, retrieved his own horse and the kings from a nearby thicket in which theyd hidden the animals. Xena whistled for Argo.
One soldier hopped onto the seat of the wagon and gave the horse a command to move. Two more foot soldiers flanked the cart on either side, and two men walked behind it. The youngest of the soldiers took the olive-growers' mules, and led the animals by the reins behind the cart full of outlaws. Eumelus brought up the rear of the party, his horse moving at a slow, easy walk.
Iphicles took the lead of the procession, and gestured for Xena to ride beside him. The king rode one of the finest horses that the warrior had ever seen, a pure white stallion with small feet, graceful lines, and a beautiful gait. Iphicles had no difficulty controlling the powerful animal. Xena openly admired the king's skill in the saddle; Iphicles was an excellent horseman.
For a while, they rode in silence. Xena could see tension in the king's shoulders, and even in profile, the anger and chagrin in his face. She suspected that Nasamon's words had cut deeper than Iphicles would openly admit. Xena had heard about the Golgoth tragedy, of the Trojan War soldiers who had been unjustly imprisoned at the king's order. But she also knew that Iphicles had made amends for his wrongdoing, and settled a valuable piece of land on the soldiers, a rugged, fertile swath in the Phlegran valley. Nearly a year had passed since the incident; the soldiers were now loyal king's men, jealously defending the Corinthian border from the Parthian clan in neighboring Megarid.
Despite the reparations, Xena sensed the kings lingering guilt. Men had died in Golgoth, men who'd committed no crime. Iphicles would never forget that, despite all he'd done by way of apology. Nasamon was in the wrong here: he'd murdered one of his own war comrades, and had plundered defenseless villages. Nevertheless, Iphicles felt some sense of responsibility for these crimes, too. The king turned his face toward Xena, and for an instant she felt as though she'd glimpsed her own reflection in a mirror. The look of shame was unmistakable.
"Don't let him get to you," Xena found herself saying. "You've admitted what you did was wrong, and you made amends for it. Nasamon's crimes are his, not yours. Don't torture yourself by taking the blame for something you didnt do." Xena wished she had learned that lesson with Callisto; she'd have saved herself a lot of anguish-- not to mention scores of innocent lives, including her own son's.
Iphicles shot her a grateful expression.
"Did all those men fight at Troy?" the warrior asked dubiously.
"No, only Nasamon," Iphicles responded. "The rest are local thugs he recruited around here. Troublemakers, just looking for a leader," he added with a scowl.
They rode in comfortable silence for a pace. Xena glanced frequently over her shoulder, to assure herself that the outlaws did not attempt an escape.
"Thats a beautiful horse," she heard Iphicles remark, and turned her attention back to the king. "How old is she?"
"Five years," said Xena with pride. "What about him?" she asked, nodding towards the white stallion.
"Xanthus is four," said Iphicles, glowing. "Best horse I ever owned."
They fell quiet for a while longer. Xena looked behind herself again, then asked, "How are things up on the border?"
"Good," said Iphicles. "The Parthians are staying out of Phlegra, now that Ive got men up there to keep an eye on things." Like Xena, he cast one swift glance backwards. "Not an agreement that set well with everyone."
"Thats their problem," said Xena. "And its not an excuse to murder, or to incite rebellion, or to attack unarmed peasants."
The king sighed inaudibly, the troubled look returning to his face. Xena refrained from saying more. Iphicles could achieve inner peace over the situation only through a long process. And hed have to make the journey himself; no amount of reassurance from Xena, or anyone else, would speed him along the way.
"Have you seen Hercules lately?" asked Xena, to change the topic.
"Not for a few months. Last I knew, he was in Thessaly somewhere."
"I heard about your mother," said Xena. "Im sorry."
"Thanks." The kings shoulders hunched slightly, as if with pain. "I wasnt there when it happened. I was at sea, on my way to Krisa, when I got the news. By the time I got back to Corinth, it was too late..." He trailed off.
"Thats too bad," said Xena softly.
"Yeah," said Iphicles, sounding listless. "I seem to be making a habit of it lately."
The warrior couldnt deduce the meaning of that last comment. Shed heard that Iphicles had lost his wife about a year earlier. Xena didnt know what had caused the queens death, but she could guess well enough: childbirth, or late summer sickness. She seemed to recall a child, but hadnt he died also? Perhaps Iphicles had not been present at his wifes or sons deathbed. Xena didnt know, and she didnt care to badger the king with personal questions.
Iphicles leaned forward to brush something from his horses mane, and as he did, a chain that hung about his neck swung forward. Xena spotted two plain gold bands on the chain, one large, one small. Most likely the wedding rings that Iphicles and his wife had worn. A moment later, Iphicles sat back in the saddle and the chain disappeared inside his tunic.
Idly, Xena watched him ride. He had beautiful hands: large and strong, with long, graceful fingers. Iphicles wore a gold ring on his right hand, the ring of office that would identify him as the King of Corinth. Despite the peasants garb, Iphicles carried himself well; his posture alone proclaimed his status. If Xena had encountered him in passing, she would have taken him for a prosperous landowner. Looking more closely at his face, she found it difficult to believe Iphicles the older of the two brothers. He seemed younger, his looks more boyish. She could see a ghostly resemblance to Hercules, mostly in coloring. The similarity in height and build was pure coincidence. The two men had had different fathers.
"Wherere you from?"
The question startled Xena. "Amphipolis," she responded.
"Really?" The kings face crinkled in surprise. "Youre a long way from home," he remarked.
"My home is anywhere I go," said Xena.
Iphicles laughed then, a warm, pleasant sound.
"You mustve traveled a lot," he said. "I can hear a bit of Thrace in your accent, but not much."
"Ive been around," said Xena evasively.
"What brings you to Corinth?" asked Iphicles.
"My friend Gabrielle wanted to see the latest play by Euripides," said Xena.
"And you didnt go with her?" Xena heard the teasing note in his voice.
"Shes taking someone who needs more cultural education than I do," said Xena laconically. Iphicles rumbled with laughter again. "Im afraid itd be money wasted on me."
"Dont you like theater?" Now he really was teasing her.
"Its all right," said Xena cautiously. Provided I have absolutely nothing better to do, and someone drugs me beforehand. "Gabrielle knows Euripides. Shes biased."
"I havent seen it," said Iphicles. "He wrote Hercules as one of the characters. Watching a bad actor try to play my brother is something Id rather avoid." Xena burst out laughing. She glanced at the king, and he grinned back at her. A palpable spark of energy seemed to pulse between them. Xena felt her face turn rosy and looked away for a moment.
"You think it would be that awful?" she asked when she found her voice again.
"Embarrassing, more like. Theyd never find anyone tall enough. And the story is completely made up. For one thing, I hear Euripides has Herk chumming around with Apollo."
"He doesnt get along with Apollo?" Xena had yet to encounter the sun god.
"Hates him. Called him an arrogant buffoon."
Xena felt tempted to respond that the same could be said for most of the Olympian deities, but she held her tongue.
The two riders passed an intersection with an east-west road. Without realizing it, theyd moved ahead of the procession. The cart full of prisoners moved slowly, as did the mule-drawn olive cart. Xena paused on Argo and looked backwards. The men-at-arms seemed to be doing fine. The warrior curbed her impatience. She would have liked a fast, invigorating ride out in the open, preferably with the king at her side. Xanthus would easily keep pace with Argo.
"How long will you be in Corinth?" asked Iphicles. The two nudged their horses into a walk.
"A few days, probably," responded Xena.
"Do you have plans? Im going to ride up to Phlegra tomorrow or the next day and tell them about Nasamon. On the way there, Ill be seeing to the villages he robbed. If you want to come along, Id enjoy the company."
He must have read her mind. Xena thought of the day-long ride to Phlegra, over the wild, beautiful terrain of the Corinthian countryside. It sounded like a wonderful idea.
"Id like to do that," said Xena, perhaps too eagerly. She met the kings eyes, and the same spark jumped between them again.
"Great." Unconsciously, the riders had both signaled their horses to move faster, as if anticipating the exhilarating ride. Xena glanced back again. The rest of the procession had reached the crossroads.
Then next moments changed everything. Xena heard the thunder of approaching hoofbeats, and more faintly, the sound of an outraged bellow.
"THIEF!" The voice carried on the hot wind. "Stop him!"
A cloaked, hooded rider on a chestnut horse tore along the east-west road at a breakneck pace, heading straight for the wagon full of prisoners. The foot soldier walking alongside the cart scrambled to get out of the way. The soldier on the wagon snapped the reins to urge the horse forward more quickly. The two soldiers behind the wagon froze, as if not certain what to do, then one bolted to the left. The other turned back, but ran into the youth leading the donkeys, becoming tangled in the leather reins. Frantically, the young soldier tried to free his comrade and draw aside the beasts and wagon. Eumelus horse, startled by the sudden commotion, reared up on its hind legs, and the soldier struggled to bring his animal back under control.
Iphicles and Xena had turned their own mounts and galloped back towards the party, but too late. The concealed rider approached the crossroads, then suddenly slowed his horse and veered toward the unguarded rear of the wagon. An arm shot out from beneath the anonymous brown cloak. Xena saw the metallic flash of a dagger.
"NO!" she screamed, kicking Argo into a run. But the horseman had already freed three of the prisoners, then resumed his eastward flight, leaving the dagger to pass among the wagon full of brigands.
Xena drew her sword and charged at the outlaws, seeing to her horror that most of the prisoners had now freed themselves, and had jumped out of the wagon to attack the kings soldiers. She saw the wagon-driver fall, blood gushing from his neck; she saw two other men topple. In the next instant, a second rider, who had evidently been pursuing the first, galloped at full speed into the crossroads.
Nasamon pulled down the rider, horse and all, and the gray mare added her terrified screams to the uproar. Xena saw the bloodied dagger strike down at the riders neck, then Nasamon helped himself to the sword at the dead mans waist.
Xena rushed to engage the outlaw leader in combat, dodging to avoid the flailing hooves of the downed mare. Iphicles added his own sword to the fray, on the other side of the wagon. In her state of anger, Xena might easily have overcome Nasamon. But something struck her from behind, and she staggered forward, unable to stop herself. The last thing she saw was Nasamon, laughing, as another, far stronger blow fell on her head, and the world went black around her.
"Here, dont move too fast."
The voice seemed to come from far, far away. Pain gripped her, seeming to explode in her head, and nausea twisted in her stomach.
Cautiously, Xena opened one eye, wincing as her head spun. She lay on the dirt track. She wiggled her fingers and toes, relieved to find she could feel her appendages. And she could see and hear. Good signs, all. The damage wasnt permanent.
Strong, assured fingers probed the large lump on her head. Xena let forth a colorful expletive.
The voice chuckled. "Oh, I know what these are like," it said. "Youll feel wretched for a while, but I think youre all right."
Xena found the voice tremendously comforting. She felt an arm about her shoulders, gently easing her up into a sitting position. Fighting dizziness, the warrior stared at the carnage around her.
The bandits had all vanished. Xena could see the bodies of five men on the ground, four of them the kings soldiers. The driver of the cart slumped dead on his seat, blood encrusting his clothes. Not far from Xena lay the gray mare, with its throat slit. The warrior heard a quiet cry of pain, then a familiar voice comforting the first. Eumelus. Xena could see his legs through the wagon-wheels. A moment later, the lieutenant emerged, an arm around the young soldier. The youth limped badly, the left leg of his trousers soaked through with blood. Eumelus had tied a crude tourniquet about the boys thigh.
"Weve got to get Cephus back to the city," said Eumelus.
With effort, Xena looked to the right, relieved to see Argo unharmed at the side of the track.
"Wheres Iphicles?" she whispered.
"Gone," said the man beside her. She could hear the despair in his voice. "They took him hostage."
"We have to go after them," she said, but when she tried to rise, agony exploded in her head again, and she sank back to the road.
"Dont try to move. Well get him, dont worry. Eumelus," the man called to the lieutenant, "hitch your horse and Xenas horse to the wagon. Well leave the nag at my farm. Well put Cephus and Xena in the wagon. Ill take the mules." Xena stared at the olive-growers cart, still mercifully intact.
Surprised at the efficiency with which the man gave orders-- and the alacrity with which Eumelus obeyed him-- Xena turned her head to the man whod helped her. Despite a middle-aged paunch, he had the unmistakable strength of a warrior in his arms and shoulders. Gray hair framed a round, good-humored face. His eyes were warm and brown. He wore a well-made blue tunic, black trousers, and leather boots of excellent quality. Xena had never met this man before, yet she felt strangely that she ought to know him.
"Who are you?" she asked, swallowing back nausea.
"Im Jason," he said with an ironic smile.
"Jason," she repeated. "Im Xena."
"So I gathered," he said dryly. "Not many can fight the way you did. I wish Id gotten here sooner. I might have prevented that bastard from getting you on the head."
"Im glad you came when you did," Xena responded. She looked at the dead man lying near the gray horse. "Whos that?"
"His names Diodorus" said Jason. "A local silversmith. Im guessing he was robbed, trying to chase the thief, when he ran into you. Bad luck for him. The horse couldnt be saved, it had three broken legs. So I..." he trailed off, unable to finish.
Xena smiled, despite her pain. She liked that Jason felt grief at having to put down a horse.
"I named my horse Argo," she said. A trivial detail, but it seemed to give Jason a moment of tranquillity.
"Did you?" he laughed softly. They watched as Eumelus hitched the two horses to the cart and lifted the boy into the back. Jason left Xenas side long enough to help the lieutenant get the bodies of Diodorus and the slain soldiers into the wagon. Then Jason helped Xena to her feet and supported her weight as she staggered on unsteady legs to the cart. She crawled into the straw and sat beside the injured Cephus. Her head spun so badly that she could barely look around herself without her stomach churning.
"They took Xanthus?" she said.
"They threw Iphicles right over him," said Cephus. His voice cracked when he spoke; he could barely be more than fifteen. "They were going to kill you, but Iphicles--"
"He surrendered to keep them from killing me?" Xena interrupted, horrified at the thought.
The boy nodded. Xena felt as though her bones would cave in with dejection.
Eumelus climbed onto the wagon seat and snapped the reins over the two horses. Jason followed along behind, leading the mules with one hand and the old nag with the other. The sad party detoured long enough to leave the older horse at Jasons farm, then picked up the southbound road to Corinth.
Xena drifted in and out of consciousness on the way back to the city, glad to travel in the cart. She rubbed her head with a grimace. Shed seen enough of these injuries-- and gods knew, had suffered plenty herself-- to know that the nausea and disorientation would pass, given time. But every moment increased the threat to the kings life.
At the city gates, Jason took command, ordering the guards to bring a message to Acarnan, the general of the Corinthian army. An escort swiftly bore the wagon to the palace, where somber-faced guards saw to the removal of the slain men, and servants saw to the injuries of Xena and Cephus. Jason even dispatched a messenger to the tavern, to fetch Gabrielle and Joxer. Attis and his kin had joined the two theater-goers in the tavern, and accompanied them back to the palace. The farmers thanked Xena vociferously for returning their animals, their wagon, and their olives.
"Xena, what happened?" asked Gabrielle, sitting on a chair opposite the sofa on which Xena reclined, her head propped up on pillows.
"We were making an arrest, but the prisoners escaped and took the king hostage." Xena tried to sit. "We have to go get him back."
"Where dyou think they are?" asked Joxer.
"They could be anywhere," said Xena. "I have a few ideas, but--" She clutched her temples.
Gabrielle came to sit beside her friend. She looked at the lump on Xenas head and gave the warriors shoulder a sympathetic rub.
A few moments later, Jason appeared, accompanied by Eumelus and Acarnan.
Xena struggled to keep her attention focused. "Jason, these are my friends, Gabrielle and Joxer," she said.
"Jason!" breathed Gabrielle, awestruck. The former king grinned at her.
"Acarnan, this is Xena, who--"
"Xena!" spat the general, glaring at Jason in disbelief. "This woman would have destroyed Corinth, if--"
"Silence!" Jasons voice cracked like thunder, quieting Acarnan immediately. "Yes, its true that Xena once attacked Corinth. But its also true that the king was drowning himself in wine and self-pity, and didnt organize a proper defense. The blame for the Battle of Corinth is equally mine." Jason gave the general a long, level stare. "A tribe of Centaurs took it upon themselves to defend Corinth, and they might have succeeded if theyd gotten help from the army. But as I recall, the army refused to support a bunch of filthy animals."
Acarnans face pinched with anger, but he remained silent.
"Everyone makes mistakes; everyone does things theyre not proud of," said Jason evenly. "The difference is how you make amends for your vices."
Xena glanced gratefully at the older man. She didnt think anyone had ever come to her defense so eloquently. Acarnan didnt look happy, but he held his tongue.
"Instead of bickering about the past, we need to think about how to get Iphicles away from those thugs. Ive sent a messenger to find Hercules, but it may be days before he gets back to the city, and we dont have a lot of time. We should--"
A guard appeared in the doorway, looking hesitant. "My lord," he began.
"What is it?" asked Jason curtly.
"Theres a man here to see Xena."
"Were busy," said Jason.
"He said its very important. He said to tell Xena--" the young man paused, as if trying to recall the exact words-- "he said, Tarsus may have made a thief, but he didnt make a murderer."
A silence descended over the room as if all the air had suddenly gone out through the doors and windows. Jasons face grew dark, and his mouth closed in a hard, unforgiving line.
For a moment, Xena could not breathe for her outrage. It seemed to vibrate in every drop of her blood. But the anger worked a marvelous spell: her head stopped spinning, her stomach settled down, and the pain in her head receded to the far corners of her consciousness.
"Let him in," she said through her teeth.
A few moments later, the guard reappeared, a tall man behind him. The newcomers face wore an expression that managed to be contrite, angry, defiant, and miserable all at the same time.
He spoke without preamble. "I know where they took him."
"Do you, now?" said Xena, unclenching her jaw just enough to speak. "What a lucky break for us. Why dont you come on in and tell us all about it?"
Not daring to look either Jason or Xena directly in the face, Autolycus stepped down into the room and sat.
"Diodorus is dead."
Jason practically spit out the words.
Autolycus winced, his face creasing with guilt. He actually hung his head for a moment. He did not try to defend himself.
"Why did you think those men were tied up?" said Xena, trying to keep her anger in check. "Did you think theyd been arrested for stealing chickens?"
Joxer managed to keep a straight face.
"Save it," Xena barked. She stood, swinging her arms slightly.
"Whered they take him?" asked Jason, wasting no more time.
"Theres a fortress to the northeast of here," said the thief. "Its up in the highlands, in the cliffs. You can only get to it through a canyon--"
"The fortress faces east, and the back overlooks a cliff?" asked Xena, twitching with excitement.
"Yeah," said Autolycus. "The whole place is fortified, surrounded with a fence. Theres even a lookout tower; they can see whos coming for miles. Youd have to go almost single-file through the canyon. Theres a patch of woods when you come out of it, but the fortress is right in the open. Theres no cover anywhere."
"I know the place," said Xena.
"You do?" asked Jason.
"Yeah, I captured it from another warlord," she said. Taking the fortress had been part of her plans to conquer Corinth in those days. But the Centaurs had fought her to a standstill, and Xena had withdrawn, after losing half her army. Shed abandoned the fortress and never returned to it, but she remembered the place quite well.
"Howd you capture it?" asked Autolycus.
"I had time," said Xena. "I had one of my men infiltrate the place. It took months. We dont have that long. A day, maybe, before Nasamon decides what he wants in exchange for Iphicles."
"We have the entire army," Acarnan pointed out.
"The army wont be any good for a frontal attack," said Xena, her mind working rapidly. "Theyll see you coming and shoot down half your men before you even reach the walls. The only thing we can do is try to get inside the fortress and create a distraction. Then the army can attack. But we have to draw the guards off the walls."
"So how do we get inside if the place is unreachable?" asked Acarnan skeptically.
Xena grinned. "Its not unreachable," she said. "The fence only surrounds the front and sides of the fortress. Theres no fence in the back."
"But the back faces over a sheer cliff," protested Autolycus.
"No cliff is sheer," said Xena. "We can climb it." She looked directly at the thief.
"We?" he echoed.
"Thats right," said Xena. She went and gave the thief a none-too-gentle slug on the shoulder. "For this job, I need an expert."
"Its your funeral," said Autolycus, a resigned expression on his face. He plainly recognized Xenas plan as a chance to redeem himself for freeing the bandits in order to cover his own escape. No doubt hed thought that Xena could recapture the outlaws without any problem. Hed only intended to create a scuffle that would allow him time to elude the angry silversmith. Instead, hed caused the deaths of six men, and plunged an entire kingdom into crisis.
Xena gave the thief a smile that chilled him to his bone marrow. "And if we fail, itll be your funeral, too."
"Xena, I want to go--"
"No!" said Xena fiercely. "Gabrielle, its too dangerous--"
"--and I havent faced danger before--?"
"Not like this." Xena was deadly firm. "Its going to be a siege-- a fast, hard fight against desperate men in a confined space. Were only taking the most experienced soldiers for the raid." Xena put hands on her friends shoulders. "I dont want you to get hurt, or worse, taken prisoner and used against us."
Gabrielle looked angry and insulted. "Oh, so Im still stupid little Gabr--"
"Stop it!" Xena roared. "Gabrielle, you are not coming with us, and thats final! If you try to follow, Jasons men will take you right back here. Its more than just the kings life at stake. Its the whole state. With the king captive, Nasamon has Corinth on its knees. We have one shot at getting him free, and if something goes wrong, every man, woman, and child in Corinth will suffer."
Gabrielle seemed to accept Xenas reasoning, although obviously with reluctance.
"What should I do?" she asked after another moment had passed.
"Stay here and get an infirmary ready. Talk to Domesticles. Hell help you do whatevers necessary. Youll need bandages, water, splints for broken bones, food-- everything. Theres going to be a lot of injuries when we get back. Talk to Falafel, the kings cook, and see if he has anything in his herb garden we could use." Gabrielle nodded. Xena could see her making a mental list.
"Joxer could help you," said Xena, almost as an afterthought.
"Him?" laughed Gabrielle.
"Yes, him," said Xena, trying not to lose patience. "He can run errands for you, he can cut bandages, he can help get food ready-- if nothing else, hes an extra pair of arms and legs. He wants to be a hero. Give him a chance."
"Yeah, maybe seeing a few battle injuries will change his mind about being a warrior," said Gabrielle under her breath.
Gabrielle gave her a strong hug. "Good luck," she said. "Come back in one piece."
"I will." Xena returned the embrace gladly. "Thank you."
Autolycus had stolen a brown mare from Diodorus, but the horse was too exhausted for him to ride now. Xena speculated that after tracking the bandits to their lair, the thief must have ridden like thunder to reach the palace so quickly. Jason said that Autolycus could take another mount from the royal stables, and after some consultation with Xena, he chose a spotted gelding that Eumelus described as sure-footed.
Xena quickly reviewed their attack strategy with Jason. Timing would be critical, as would the need for the men-at-arms to remain completely concealed in the woods outside the fortress. Once lost, the element of surprise could never be regained. Xena knew that Jason and Acarnan would select the most experienced warriors from the ranks of the army for this raid. One false move from an untried soldier could mean disaster for the rescue mission.
Autolycus and Xena mounted up and headed out of the city. Once beyond the city walls, they set a hard pace towards the northeast. Xena didnt talk; this wasnt an occasion for idle chatter. She did not want her anger at Autolycus to interfere with her ability to think rationally, so she pushed it to the back of her mind. In the past, the thief had helped her. Shed helped him. She knew Autolycus had a decent heart. He would never deliberately hurt anyone, or attack out of malice or spite. He even confined his robberies to those for whom a loss of property would not prove ruinous. But in this case, his selfish interests had produced tragic results. Xena shuddered to think of all Corinth at the mercy of a man like Nasamon.
The terrain began to grow gradually steeper and more rocky. In the distance, hills loomed-- not wooded mountains, such as the ones in Xenas homeland of Thrace, but sharp, jagged peaks of rock thrust up by some long-ago earthquake. Rough, uninhabitable, infertile ground. Very few people scratched a living from this desolate place. A perfect location for a secret fortress.
Eventually, the track narrowed down to a mere thread in the tough grass. The two riders reached the point at which the track began to curve around the highest crag. That track, Xena recalled, followed the most navigable terrain, spiraling up the tor in a complete circle, ending at the entrance to the narrow canyon that led to the fortress. The canyon entrance faced east; the back of the fortress faced west.
Xena led Autolycus off the track and across the rocky field toward the west face of the peak. When they reached the stretch of meadow that lay beneath the cliff-- the only area in which they might be seen from the fortress-- they stopped and dismounted, then hid the horses where the animals could graze. Xena knew that from the fortress, they would not be visible at the foot of the cliff, nor while they climbed.
The pair finished crossing the meadow on foot, running swiftly, dodging from boulder to boulder. Looking up, they could dimly see the rear wall of the fortress, barely distinguishable from the surrounding rock. Xena thought it unlikely that anyone would be watching the rear of the fortress. Only a fool would try to scale such a cliff; why waste the manpower to guard such an unlikely approach? Nevertheless, she insisted on moving with all possible stealth. One could never be too cautious in a situation such as this.
They reached the foot of the cliff.
Autolycus stared up. At this range, the task looked too formidable to even contemplate. The stark gray rock seemed to rise straight up towards the sky. But upon closer examination, the thief spotted all manner of irregularities in the stone surface: pitted holes, jagged outcroppings, the occasional stump of wood surviving as a remnant from some long-dead tree. These features would provide Autolycus and Xena with their finger- and toe-holds.
Xena wasted no time. She briskly removed both boots, tucking her knee guards inside them. For this task, shed donned a sturdy leather belt, to which shed attached whip and chakram. Now, she laced her boots snugly to the belt. Shed left her breastplates on Argo, fearing they might prove too cumbersome. She carried her sword in its back-mounted scabbard, leaving her hands completely free.
Autolycus handed her an extra grappling hook, and three different lock picks. Xena hid the picks in her cleavage alongside her bodice dagger. The thief removed his own boots, tucking them securely into his belt so that the tops folded over. He carried his usual assortment of tools, as well as a small waterskin on his belt.
Both silently stretched their hands and arms, rolling up and down on the balls of their feet to limber up their arches. Foot cramps might prove fatal. Xena flexed her shoulders and turned her head from side to side. This task would require every ounce of agility, stamina, and concentration that both of them possessed.
Xena had climbed cliffs in the past, and knew the risks. To a certain height, they could fall and only risk scrapes and bruises. To a distance beyond that, they could fall and perhaps break bones, but survive. But they would eventually reach the point of no return, from which a fall would mean certain death. On a cliff as high as this, the point of no return would come about two-thirds of the way up. From there, they would either succeed or die.
"Ready?" asked Xena, her question short and perfunctory. The two had not tied themselves together, as Autolycus had suggested. Xena had been adamant on that point. If one of them fell, the second would have to complete the journey alone.
"As Ill ever be." Autolycus shot up a grappling hook. It caught on a jagged rock, some twelve feet up. He tugged; the hook held firm. Autolycus grabbed the line and began pulling himself up.
He reached the small crag and carefully felt at the rock face for finger and toe holds. Xena watched every move he made. Clinging by his toes and one hand, the thief again shot up his grappling hook and tugged. Then he waited.
Xena shot up the spare hook and caught the same rock. She pulled herself up. When the top of her head reached her partners feet, Autolycus began his next ascent. Xena scaled the remaining distance, using the finger and toe holds Autolycus had discovered. Once hanging securely, Xena looked up and observed the thief as he moved into his next position, so that she would know where to follow.
The pair proceeded thus, slowly and with utmost care. Speed and blind, unthinking action would be their greatest foes. They would gain more by conserving their strength and energy.
Xena had to admire the skill of Autolycus. Lithe and agile, with muscles made hard from constant use, the thief was in his element on the treacherous rock face. If anyone on earth could scale this perilous cliff, he could.
They ascended the cliff measure by measure. Neither looked down. Up, always upward. Before long, theyd passed the point where a fall would result in mere bruises. After their next four measures, they passed the point where a fall would break bones. The sun slanted down the western sky, warming them as they worked. Thankfully, the cliff faced west, giving them the full benefit of daylight and warmth.
They reached the point of no return, and kept climbing.
Autolycus shot up his grappling hook, wrapping it snugly about the stunted remnant of an old tree-trunk, some pitiful sapling that had taken root ages ago, but died from want of nourishment. The tree had grown out from a small ledge in the cliff. Autolycus carefully drew himself up. He grabbed the gnarled root with his right hand, and hauled himself over the stone ledge.
With a sigh of relief, he noted the ledge would be wide enough for him and Xena both. Crouching, he called, "Come on up. Theres a little shelf here; we can take a break."
Xena shot her own grappling hook and tugged it firmly around the tree-trunk. Gripping the wire in her hands, she braced her feet against the cold stone of the cliff, "walking" her way up. She reached the ledge, and like Autolycus, took hold of the root. But the poor wood had taken as much weight as it could bear and cracked, the root pulling right out of the rock in a little shower of falling pebbles. Xena heard the stones clattering down the cliff in the same instant that Autolycus grabbed her left arm with his right hand.
The warrior hung suspended in midair, not permitting herself to look down. She could feel the cool air innocently caressing her bare legs, and knew what a fall from this distance would mean. She concentrated fully on Autolycus, on his hand gripping her wrist by the gauntlet.
His face strained with the effort of holding onto her. Veins bulged in his temples. Xenas right arm flailed, her feet seeking non-existent toe holds. Autolycus did not have the strength in one arm to pull her up. He lay flat on his belly, feet braced against the rear of the ledge. He had no room to maneuver. If he tried even to kneel, Xenas weight would pull him over. And with each passing instant, their strength abated, drained by exhausted muscles.
Xena thought of Nasamon laughing at her, of Iphicles surrendering to the rebels to save her life.
The surge of anger did its trick. Xenas right hand shot out and found a jutting rock near where the root had grown. The rock held true. She swung her body toward the rock face and groped with her feet. The feeling of nubby-textured stone beneath her toes rewarded her. When shed braced her feet, and tightened her right hand securely about the jagged rock, Autolycus loosened his grip fractionally, allowing Xena to slide her hand up so they could clasp each other securely by the forearm.
Autolycus heaved back, pulling the warrior with him. Xenas head and shoulders rose over the edge of the rock shelf. The thief snatched her by the armpits and dragged her up. Xena helped him with her legs, pushing herself by the feet. At last, she crawled onto the ledge beside him.
They both began laughing at once, hysteria ringing in their voices. Swiftly, they clamped hands over their mouths to stifle the noise. They ventured a look down and shuddered simultaneously. The six and seven-foot high boulders in the meadow below now seemed mere pebbles.
The two sat resting, backs firmly against the wall of the cliff. Xena studied the surrounding crags and canyons, then examined the rough stone behind her. She guessed that once, many years earlier, this cliff had been a waterfall that had long since dried up. The narrow canyon through which Jason and his men would pass had probably been gouged out by a river. And the smooth bowl of rock in which the fortress had been built must have held a lake.
The ledge that provided their respite sat approximately three-quarters of the way up the cliff. Xena felt a twinge of hope, especially when she observed the multitude of pits and crags from this point on. In terms of finding finger and toe-holds, this part of the climb would be easier.
After theyd both caught their breath and rested sore muscles, they began again, in the same methodical fashion, Autolycus taking the lead and Xena following.
They made good time on the final stretch of their ascent, moving steadily upward. The final measure proved tricky, and Autolycus had to shoot his grappling hook several times over a bulge of smooth boulder before it caught. With infinitesimal care, he hauled himself up over the stone and onto a precariously narrow ledge. When Xena threw her own hook, Autolycus caught it and wrapped it securely about the sharp rock, adding his own weight to the wire. The warrior drew herself over the boulder, then the two flattened themselves against the rear wall of the fortress, lest they be seen from a lookout window. Theyd made it.
Autolycus passed Xena the waterskin. She took a grateful swallow, and handed it back. He fortified himself with a gulp, and returned the skin to his belt. Xena nodded toward the right. The two slid along the ledge, taking tiny steps, until theyd reached the end of the high wooden fence. They heard a soft snorting, smelled hay and manure. The stables.
By this time the sun had nearly set, and Xena knew an evening meal would probably be under way. A strong scent of cooking food confirmed her guess. She listened carefully and heard the faint sounds of voices and rough laughter from deep within. Good. With any luck, the outlaws would celebrate their capture of the king, and drink themselves into a stupor.
Cautiously, Xena peered around the corner and into the stables. A young lad mucked out stalls, a resentful expression on his face. Xena watched him with distaste. She thought of Cephus, much the same age, who had borne a deep, painful gash in his leg with only a single cry of pain. And this boy thought himself unlucky because he'd been set to perform a menial task.
Xena spotted Xanthus in one stall, evidently unharmed. Good. She prayed the same would be true of the stallion's owner.
From the stables, an open door led into the fortress proper. So near, and yet so far. The boy concentrated on his work, but Autolycus and Xena would simply not be able to make it from their hiding place to the door without attracting his notice.
Xena slipped back behind the wall and quietly told Autolycus what she'd seen. "We need to get him out of the stable," she murmured.
"No problem," whispered Autolycus.
The thief peered around the corner into the stables. Xena ducked under her partner's arm and watched the boy work. The next instant, Xena heard what sounded like a man's deep, rough voice coming from the courtyard outside the stables-- opposite from where she and Autolycus hid.
The lad started at the angry sound. "Who's there?" he called sullenly.
"Come out here now, you lazy whelp!"
The boy hastened to the courtyard. Xena grinned at yet another skill of Autolycus-- the ability to throw his voice. The pair sped silently into the stables and slipped through the open door a heartbeat later.
Xena's excellent memory served her well. Nasamon and his men had not altered the interior of the fortress; she found her way readily enough. After pausing to don their boots, she and Autolycus crept silently through a dim corridor. Daylight lingered outside the fortress, and only a few torches had been lit. The warrior could hear voices and laughter more clearly now. A banquet, well under way.
This rear corridor would most likely continue on to a kitchen at the other side of the fortress. At the center of the building a short corridor opened to the right-- the base of the tower. Xena and Autolycus paused, hugging the wall, and listened. They could hear two men laughing and arguing as they guarded the stairs that rose to the upper levels of the tower.
Xena took her chakram off its clip on her belt. She tossed the metal ring up, bouncing it off an overhead beam not far from where the guards stood. Her weapon made a loud thok when it hit the wood. Xena snatched the chakram on its return flight. The two men stopped talking abruptly and emerged from around the corner to investigate the strange noise. Without a sound, Autolycus and Xena jumped the two men. Xena felled one guard with a single blow to the temple; Autolycus grabbed the other man and slammed his head into the wooden wall. The pair bound the guards with laces removed from the men's own boots, and gagged them firmly with fabric ripped from their own shirts. They neatly tucked both inert bodies beneath the staircase.
Treading the stairs silently, Xena led the way up. The steps had been built from new wood, which thankfully lessened the chances that a loud creak might betray them. The stairs rose up along the walls of the square tower, to a platform. A ladder led from the platform to a closed and bolted trapdoor. Xena could hear pacing footsteps, and voices. Silently she held up two fingers to Autolycus: two men. Xena checked to make sure the ladder had not been nailed to either the platform or the ceiling.
Autolycus nimbly scaled the ladder and banged on the trapdoor.
"Whaddaya want?" an impatient voice called.
Using the same coarse voice with which he'd tricked the stable boy, Autolycus yelled, "Well, do you want your supper or not?" He pushed back the metal bolts.
Autolycus and Xena heard muttered profanities, suggesting the tower guards thought it about time someone relieved them of their watch. The thief hastened back down the ladder as the guards slid back their own set of bolts and lifted the trapdoor.
Xena and Autolycus worked in perfect synchrony: the warrior slamming the ladder up into the face of the guard who peered down through the trap, the thief shooting a grappling hook an instant later to catch in the open frame.
Before the second guard could replace the door, Autolycus hauled himself up and onto the tower's top level. Xena could hear him fighting the second guard as she scrambled up the ladder and drew it through the trapdoor behind her. The first guard rushed her with an enraged holler, but Xena struck him squarely across the torso with the ladder. Autolycus threw the second guard down through the open trap; Xena did likewise with the first, then they replaced the door and slid the bolts home.
Xena ran to the east-facing wall of the tower. Beneath her lay the entire fortress. She could see the courtyard and rooftops of out-buildings, all enclosed within a high wooden fence. Xena heard voices emanating from what must be the great hall. As she remembered, a platform for the lookout guards ran along all three walls of the outer fence. The rear of the main fortress formed the fourth wall, which overlooked the cliff. The main building housed the stables at the north corner, the kitchens at the south corner. The tower rose from the center of this fortress, high enough to give an excellent view of the surrounding crags.
Half a dozen men armed with longbows stood guarding the east-facing wall of the fence-- the longest part of the rectangle-- with three men on each of the shorter two walls facing north and south. The guards looked out through arrow-holes in the fence. From her vantage point, Xena could look down at the main gate in the east wall directly opposite her. The stout wooden doors stood closed and barred.
Beyond the eastern wall lay the open, exposed bowl of coarse grass, and further, the strand of woods that concealed the opening to the canyon. Xena could detect no movement among the trees, no sign of life, yet she knew the kings men must be there.
The warrior took in all this in just moments. A couple of guards posted along the lookout platform stared at the tower, no doubt wondering about the brief holler they'd heard. Most of the men seemed to dismiss it, perhaps imagining nothing more serious than the two guards having an argument or a scuffle.
Xena picked up a longbow and quiver and tossed both to Autolycus, then picked up the other guard's weapons. Now, they just had to wait...
On the platform beneath them, the stunned guards came around.
"Intruders!" they yelled, running loudly down the wooden stairs. "Intruders in the tower!"
Barely moments later, Autolycus and Xena heard an infuriated uproar beneath them. Xena watched as ruffians streamed from other buildings into the main fortress. The floor beneath her and Autolycus began to shake as the men tried vainly to break through the trap. Autolycus had lain the ladder across the trap, and now stood on top of it, his weight helping to pin down the door. By now, it seemed as though half the men in the fortress had swarmed into the base of the tower, all of them angry, confused, and more than slightly drunk. She could hear another voice trying to roar commands, without much success.
Autolycus removed a pouch from his belt and tossed it to Xena. From the leather bag, the warrior extracted a piece of pitch-soaked cloth and a small, thin lace. She swiftly wrapped the cloth about the shaft of one arrow, using the lace to tie it just beneath the pointed metal tip. The leather bag also held a small flint and a piece of metal, which Xena used to ignite the pitch-soaked cloth. She went to the east wall of the tower and shot the flaming arrow up into the air at a steep angle. The missile flew in a wide, strong arc over the fortress and vanished out of sight beyond the eastern wall.
A moment later came the unmistakable thunder of horses' hooves. The guards along the lookout platform reached into their quivers. But Xena had already nocked another arrow to her bow and let it fly. One of the men posted over the door dropped. Xena loosed a second arrow before the other sentries noticed the death of their comrade. A third man fell, then a fourth. The surviving guards panicked. Two leaped from the lookout platform, three fired arrows blindly at the tower, but missed their marks by a wide distance.
The sound of wood splintering filled the air. Those of Nasamons men not storming the tower rushed to the main gate. Xena dropped the men in their tracks. She could see metal ax-heads splitting the wooden doors. The gates bulged inward once, twice, then the cross-bolt snapped with an ear-shattering explosion. The doors flew open. Under the lead of Eumelus and Acarnan, the cavalry of the Corinthian army burst into the courtyard, followed by a mass of foot soldiers.
The noise in the lower levels of the tower suddenly ceased as the men rushed out to confront this new threat. Xena used her remaining arrows to drop as many of the bandits as she could safely target. To her surprise, Autolycus ran to the southern wall and began shooting arrows also. Xena didn't know if he aimed to kill or maim. She didn't ask and she didn't go look.
From the courtyard, the noise of the battle rose up with an angry din. The outlaws had forgotten about the intruders in the tower. Autolycus pushed aside the ladder, slid back the bolts, and opened the trapdoor. After a quick check, they lowered the ladder to the platform and climbed down.
"Now we find Iphicles," said Xena.
Ten years earlier, Xena recalled, one of the out-buildings on the north wall had been set up as a crude prison. She and Autolycus re-traced their footsteps to the stable. No sign of the petulant boy now. The horses shifted nervously in their stalls. The warrior grabbed a torch from a nearby sconce.
She led Autolycus out of the stable, and they dashed into the next building. Not that they had to worry about being detected: the battle for the fortress occupied every one of Nasamons minions. The small hut held nothing save supplies for the horses. The pair carefully exited the hut, dodged a barrel, and let themselves into the next building.
This hut had been far better-constructed than the first, more solid, clearly intended to hold men rather than supplies. Unlike the stable and the storage hut, which both sat on dirt floors, this building stood on a wooden platform. Xenas memory proved true once again: the interior was divided into half a dozen crude cells, separated by strong wooden bars. A brief corridor ran from the door of the building to the rear wall, with three cells on each side.
Xena took the precaution of bolting the door behind herself, then cast the torch all about the room. Long, parallel shadows fell everywhere, revealing nothing except broken wooden benches and old straw. These cells had not been used in a while. "Hes not here," she said. Perhaps the outlaws had decided to hold Iphicles in some less obvious place.
"Look." Autolycus had been giving the room his own shrewd-eyed examination, and he pointed to something Xena had missed. Her gaze followed the direction of his pointing finger and saw a trapdoor near the rear wall of the corridor, almost indistinguishable from the wooden floor.
They went swiftly to examine the door. Xena tried the bolts. Though rusty, they slid back with ease, suggesting recent use. She lifted the door.
The stench hit them both at once. Autolycus gagged. Xenas heart began to pound with sick fear.
"Give me that torch."
She peered down into the hole. No ladder, but she could see the floor easily enough. Handing the torch back to Autolycus, Xena said, "Im going down there."
She lowered herself through the trap until she hung by her hands, then dropped the remaining distance to the dirt floor.
"Hand me the torch," she called, trying not to breathe. Autolycus carefully gave the flaming torch to Xena, then lowered himself through the trap after her.
Xena turned about, holding up the torch. A filthy, stinking hole in the ground had been gouged out beneath the prison-hut.
A scream tried to escape her throat; Xena choked it back.
"Mother of Zeus!" Autolycus cried out. "Oh, gods!" He twisted away and retched uncontrollably.
"Autolycus!" Xena snapped, fishing a lock-pick from her bodice. "Help me!"
The thief pulled himself together and went to her aid.
"Is he-- is he--?"
"Hes alive," said Xena, checking the kings pulse. "Hold him for me while I get these manacles off him." The warrior forced herself to concentrate on picking the locks on the manacles by which Iphicles hung from an overhead beam. The prisoners body dropped with a hideously heavy weight. Autolycus lowered him to the floor. Xena unlocked the iron cuffs around the kings ankles.
"We have to get him out of here," said Xena. "Ill go first; you push him up to me." She went to the trap and sprang up, catching the frame with her hands and hauling herself through it. Autolycus handed her the torch, and Xena put it in a sconce on the wall. She could hear Autolycus breathing hard as he shifted the kings weight onto his shoulders. Lying on her belly, Xena reached down through the trap and took hold of Iphicles beneath his arms. With Xena pulling and Autolycus pushing, they worked the king out of the ghastly dungeon, then dropped the wooden door back into its frame.
Up here, with light from the courtyard streaming through chinks in the wall, and the torch illuminating the room, they could clearly see the extent of the kings injuries. Xenas worst fear had come to pass. Shed hoped Nasamon would merely hold Iphicles for ransom; instead, the outlaw had decided to settle a personal score.
Autolycus went pale and vomited again. Xena could hardly blame him. She fought back nausea with every breath.
From outside, someone banged wildly on the door of the hut. "Xena! Are you in there?"
"Jason!" Gasping with relief, Xena ran to open the door. Outside, the battle still raged, but the tide had turned perceptibly in favor of the kings army. Jason, too old to participate in the first thrust of the siege, had come in with the second party of men.
His gaze fell upon Iphicles. "No," he said hoarsely, springing to his stepsons side. "Gods, is he alive?"
"Barely," said Xena. "We need a blanket or a cloak, something to wrap him in. He needs to be taken back to the palace, now. You brought the wagons?"
Jason nodded. Part of their plan had included leaving wagons outside the narrow canyon to carry the wounded back to Corinth.
"Xanthus is in the stable. Have one of your men hitch him to a cart." Once off the rocky tor, the stallion would run faster than any other horse. "Find another two men to carry Iphicles through the canyon. They should take him back to the palace as quickly as they can. Gabrielle will know what to do."
Jason left with alacrity, returning several moments later with two men and a rough wool blanket. The soldiers blanched at the sight of the kings wounds, but wrapped Iphicles and carried him out of the hut. "Leucus has already left with Xanthus," Jason reported. "Hes Acarnans best horseman, and hell ride as fast as Hermes once they get out in the open."
"Good," said Xena, striding from the prison-hut. She pulled her sword from its scabbard. "Now lets deal with these bastards."
Most of Nasamons men had either been killed or captured by the Corinthian soldiers. The more experienced among the rebel fighters held their ground, but clearly in a losing battle. Xena stalked through the courtyard like a harbinger of death, pushing past the men still afoot, and stepping over fallen bodies.
Darkness had settled over the mountain top. Torchlight and fires illuminated the courtyard, casting eerie shadows upon the tableaux of the fighting, the injured, and the dead.
Xena spotted the back of Nasamons ginger hair and advanced upon him, her eyes smoldering in her face. The outlaw leader dueled fiercely with Acarnan. The Corinthian general saw Xena coming, saw her expression, and swiftly backed away. Nasamon took this for surrender, and lunged forward. The next instant, Xenas whip coiled around the bandits ankles, and she yanked backwards, pulling him to the ground.
As Xena dragged the man towards her, he twisted up and around, vainly trying to cut through her whip with his sword. Xena spied a familiar object about the rebels neck: a gold chain with three rings hanging from it-- the wedding bands of Iphicles and his wife, and the kings gold ring of office.
Xena bellowed with fury, her outrage seeming to expand until it filled every corner of her mind. She loosened her whip from Nasamons ankles and lashed out savagely, striking him across the face, leaving an open red welt from the corner of his right eye down to his left shoulder.
The outlaw tried to scramble up to his feet, but Xena went after him as if possessed by a demon, lashing him again and again, until a latticework of bloody welts criss-crossed his legs and torso. Shrieking every obscene epithet in her extensive vocabulary, Xena whipped him raw, then began kicking him in the ribs. She heard his bones crack. Nasamon started screaming, a dreadful, single shrill note of pain and fear.
The sound went to the warriors bloodstream like an aphrodisiac. She threw down her whip and sword, leaped on top of Nasamon, and caught his left arm. She twisted and yanked brutally, dislocating the limb from its socket. She jabbed her fingers into every pressure point she could find, until the outlaw convulsed with muscles spasms. By now, Nasamons screams rang off the wooden walls, and the kings army stood staring at Xena with abject horror, as if Ares himself had materialized amongst them, "the destroyer of men, reeking blood."
Xena pulled her long dagger from its sheath in her right boot, but in the next instant, something grabbed her from behind. A steely-strong arm snaked around her ribs; a hand locked onto her arm at the wrist.
"Xena!" The voice of Autolycus rang in her ear. "Dont do it!" Xena tensed and prepared to fling off the thief. She could kill him in a heartbeat if she chose; her left arm was still free. But his next words stopped her. "Dont be like him!"
Her perspective seemed to suddenly snap back into place. Xena stared at the knife in her hand and dropped it with a violent shudder. She looked up and saw a ring of men standing about her, their faces expressionless with fear. Nasamons other men had been subdued. Only the sound of burning wood broke the silence. The battle was over.
Xena looked down at the bleeding, twisted hulk of Nasamons body. She jabbed her fingers into him to release the pressure points, then slowly reached out and took hold of the kings rings. She yanked, breaking the gold chain. The jewelry lay in her palm, gleaming faintly in the firelight. The ring of office bore a rams head to honor Jasons famous capture of the Golden Fleece. Lettering edged the flat circle around the rams head. The words read: Iphicles, King of Corinth.
"Upstairs," said Joxer, winding a length of bandage about a soldiers ankle. Hed abandoned his ill-made armor, and worked in his tunic and trousers. Like the other helpers in the infirmary, he wore a linen apron to protect his clothes.
"Im right here." Gabrielle emerged from a stairwell, face pale, eyes dark. Blood stained her makeshift smock. "Xena-- we need you upstairs. I dont know what to do about Iphicles. Weve cleaned him up, but..." Her arms moved in a gesture of futility. From her face and her voice, Xena could tell her friend was horrified at what Nasamon had done to the king, but her eyes held a look of bitter resignation. Shed seen the worst of human brutality in her travels with Xena; little could really shock her.
"Ill be right up," Xena promised, looking about the room. Gabrielle and Domesticles, a former Argonaut and now the kings seneschal, had set up their infirmary in two spacious rooms on the first floor of the palace, not far from the kitchens. Wounded men lay on straw pallets. Some sat up having their injuries tended, or eating, or talking. Falafel and his helpers moved briskly back and forth between the kitchen and the infirmary, bringing food to the hungry soldiers.
"Joxer, how is everyone?"
"Theres nobody really hurt. Cuts mostly, scrapes, sprains, a couple of broken bones..." He finished binding the soldiers ankle and gave it a look of satisfaction.
Xena nodded. "Theres more injured in the dungeon," she said.
"You want us to take care of them, too?" asked Gabrielle.
"Yeah," said Xena. "Do you mind?"
"Not at all," said her friend. Then she asked frankly, "Do you think Iphicles will live?" Concern shadowed her eyes.
Xena exhaled in a gusty sigh. "I dont know," she admitted. "Ill go see to him now. Send someone up to the kings room if you need me for anything."
Xena faced a hopeless situation with the king. The servants had washed him, cleaning the grime from his wounds. Gabrielle had rubbed him with a special ointment shed acquired from an apothecary in the city who had come to the castle to attend the injured soldiers. Iphicles burned with fever, but his hands and feet were cold as ice. He did not regain consciousness, so Xena could not give him food, water, or medicine. She could only bathe his face in cool water in a futile effort to bring down his fever.
At some point in the night, the warrior dozed off in a chair beside his bed, too exhausted to maintain her vigil any longer. In the darkest hour before dawn, she snapped awake, startled by an abrupt exhalation. She recognized the all-too-familiar sound: the final breath leaving the dying mans body. Xena touched the kings wrist and found no pulse. She double-checked his neck just to be certain. Nothing. Silently, Xena leaned down and kissed the kings forehead, then his mouth. She drew the linen sheet over his head, her heart torn by an acute sadness. Shed lost something precious, something shed never had a chance to appreciate.
Somewhere outside the palace, in the darkened countryside, Hercules was now a king, and didnt yet know it.
Xena picked up the three rings that lay on a table near the bed. She left the two wedding bands and the broken chain on the table, but picked up the ring of office, which would now belong to Hercules. The wedding bands would most likely be buried with Iphicles.
She stared at the shrouded body a moment longer. She imagined Iphicles in the Elysian Fields with his mother, his wife, his young son, and the babe who had never lived to draw breath. On the ride back from the fortress, Jason had told her about Rena dying in childbirth the previous year, after struggling for hours to deliver a stillborn infant. The former king said he was glad Alcmene had not lived to see this terrible day.
The image of a bucolic reunion with loved ones displeased Xena, and she instead envisioned Iphicles recklessly galloping on horseback across an open, sunlit meadow. Holding onto that thought, she quietly left the room.
Down the corridor, a door to another room stood open. Xena listened and heard Jason snoring. Hed told her to waken him if necessary, but the warrior did not have the heart to disturb his slumber with such sorry news. Best to wait until he awoke in the morning.
Restlessly, Xena wandered down the stairs to the main floor. In the infirmary, she saw the men all sleeping on their pallets. Gabrielle curled up on another pallet against a wall, her head cradled on an arm, face half-concealed by her fair hair. Joxer sprawled out on another pallet, not far away. His thin chest rose and fell with each breath.
Idly, Xena followed a flight of stairs down a level and found herself in a wine cellar beneath the kitchen. From there, another corridor took her to the royal catacombs. In a small room to the right, she found the tombs of Jasons mother and father. In another room to the left, she found a newer tomb-- Rena, the late queen. The candles on her sarcophagus had blown out. Xena re-lit them, studying the crypt. The queen must not have been a very tall woman, judging by the size of the tomb that held her remains-- perhaps about Gabrielles height. Xena wondered if theyd buried the stillborn infant with her. In a day or two, a larger sarcophagus would rest in here as well.
In a niche carved into one wall, Xena found a small crypt, adorned with three unlit candles. Her hand reached out to touch the pale wood. The boy could not have been more than two or three when he died. The diminutive tomb held an eloquent sorrow about it, a tiny, mute cry to the heavens. Xena leaned against the cold stone wall, tears rolling down her face. Finally, with a resigned sigh, she re-lit the votives and left the catacombs.
She found Autolycus in the courtyard.
As in most homes, the palace courtyard served as a private shrine for the family. An altar sat at the center of the garden, surrounded by artificial ponds, beautiful statuary, and a multitude of flowers. Byzantine roses blossomed in full glory, lifting their dewy heads to greet the first gray light of dawn.
Autolycus must have fallen asleep while praying at the altar. He slumped over the smooth marble surface, snoring faintly.
The warrior approached him silently, then put a gentle hand on his shoulder. He jolted into wakefulness, snapping his head from side to size, gazing about himself wildly.
He saw the look on her face, and knew.
"Oh, no," he said, dropping to sit at the base of the altar. "Why?"
"There was nothing we could do for him," said Xena woodenly.
Autolycus rubbed between his eyebrows with his fingers. "I asked Hades to take me instead of Iphicles," the thief admitted ruefully. "It only seemed fair. But I guess he wasnt listening."
"Or maybe Hades has other plans for you," Xena countered.
Autolycus sighed. "Whats going to happen now?" he asked quietly. "Iphicles didnt have any kids, did he?"
"He had two, but theyre both dead," said Xena. "Now theres only Hercules."
"Hercules?" the thief said blankly. "Why him?"
Xena stared at Autolycus, astonished. He didnt know?
"Iphicles was his brother," she said.
"What?" The question came out in a whistle of breath.
"They were half-brothers," she explained. "Through their mother."
"No," groaned Autolycus. "Oh, no, no, no!" He dropped his face into his hands and broke into horrible, racking sobs of guilt. Xena hesitated, then hunkered down and slid her arms around him. She rocked him back and forth slightly while he vented his grief, rubbing his back and shoulders.
At last, the tears stopped. Autolycus pulled his composure together in stages. He lifted his exhausted face and met Xenas unwavering gaze. "What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to spend the rest of your life helping other people." The words seemed to come from nowhere, and surprised even Xena. "You have a lot of good qualities, Autolycus. You proved that yesterday. You could make a difference. But I think it should be Hercules, not me, who decides exactly what it is youll do."
The thief nodded, seeming to accept this penance. After a moment or two of silence, he said, "Theres one thing I could do to start."
"Whats that?" asked Xena.
"This." He fished into his tunic and withdrew a leather drawstring pouch. Holding the thing in his hand, he said, "I stole this from Diodorus. Id heard he had a valuable amulet, something he was selling for five hundred thousand dinars."
"Half a million dinars?" Xena said, astonished. One could ransom an empire with that kind of money. "What is it? Cleopatras diamond?"
"I dont know," Autolycus admitted. "I broke into his shop and looked around, but I didnt find much. I opened a chest he had locked. The bag was at the bottom of some ordinary stuff. I heard him coming and grabbed the bag, then ran out and took one of his horses." He lowered his gaze. "I havent had the heart to look at the amulet. But Ill sell it for as much as I can get. Hercules can do whatever he wants with the money."
Xena nodded. A good beginning.
Autolycus opened the bag and shook the pendant out into his hand.
For a moment, the two of them just stared at the thing, stunned. An unremarkable yellow stone in an even more unremarkable silver setting. The pendant had been crafted to look vaguely like a flower. It hung from a cheap-looking chain.
"What--?" Autolycus whispered. "What is this? This is junk!" His eyes filled with anger and dismay. "This isnt worth half a million dinars!" he exclaimed. "I couldnt get twenty for it on the open market!"
Xena studied the pendant, inclined to agree with him. The stone was smooth, most likely a piece of polished amber. It would have been attractive in a better setting, but the metal showed signs of crude, clumsy workmanship. In a delicately-crafted setting of fine silver, the piece might have fetched perhaps fifty dinars. As it was, the amulet would probably sell for ten or fifteen. Xena would not have given a bronze penny for such a common thing.
"I dont believe it!" Autolycus fumed. He cast the pendant into a nearby rose bed. "All that for nothing!" He seemed close to tears again. "Im a fool, did you know that?" he asked Xena.
Quiet footsteps crunched on the path behind them. A servant stood with a weary look on his face. "Hercules just arrived," he said.
Autolycus blanched with fear.
"Stay here," said Xena, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Ill talk to Hercules and tell him everything that happened." She hesitated, then picked up the pendant from the rose bed. Best not to leave Autolycus with this reminder of his folly.
Hercules paced the great hall, his large body visibly taut as a rope. He heard Xenas footsteps and turned. She approached him, her face inscrutable. Silently, she held something out to him. Hercules extended a hand. Xena dropped the kings ring of office into his outstretched palm.
For a moment, he had no reaction, then his face broke and he wept silently.
The tears stopped as abruptly as theyd begun. "Where is he?"
Xena led her friend up to the kings living quarters, softly shutting the door behind them. Hercules went to the bed and turned back the sheet. Xena heard an abrupt intake of breath as he beheld his brothers tortured remains. Then he spun about, and with a grunt of impotent fury, slammed his fist into the stone wall. Xena felt the entire palace shudder.
"Who did this?" he hissed.
"Come here and sit down," she said, suddenly weary beyond measure. "Ill tell you."
Hercules re-covered his brothers body, then lurched over to the window. He took a seat opposite Xena. Outside, a lovely dawn had broken. The palace sat right on the seaside; the kings room had a wonderful view of the Gulf of Corinth. Xena could see the rosy sky reflected in the ocean.
She began speaking mechanically. She told Hercules the entire story, beginning from when shed encountered the olive-growers in the marketplace. Hercules nodded periodically as she talked. His face grew angry when she mentioned the role of Autolycus in the kings capture, but the anger faded when Xena recounted the thiefs bravery in scaling the cliff and infiltrating the fortress.
"Hes in the courtyard now," Xena concluded. "I dont think he should be punished, Hercules. I think he deserves a lot of credit for tracking the outlaws, then coming back here and facing us with what hed done. He could have run away, and wed never have known it was him. I couldnt have gotten up that cliff without him to help me. I think he should be made to work for you, to help people in whatever way he can. Let his sentence be a life of service to others, and far more people will benefit than if you hang or imprison him."
Hercules nodded. "Youre right." Then he glanced down at her hands. "Whats that?" he asked curiously.
Xena smiled, a tired and ironic expression. "Its an amulet that Autolycus robbed from Diodorus the Silversmith," she explained. "Hed heard rumors it was worth half a million dinars." She held up the pendant for Hercules to see. "Pretty exaggerated rumors."
Her friends face remained expressionless, but Xena could easily read his eyes. My brother died because of this?
Then Hercules reached out and abruptly took the pendant from her hand. He turned it over and over, examining it carefully in the ray of light that now streamed through the open window. Xena could not tell what held his attention so rapt.
As she watched, he snapped the chain and let it drop to the floor. Then he began to bend and twist the silver setting. The metal yielded easily in his strong fingers. The setting broke and the cheap silver fell to the floor with an unheard ping.
Xena now saw that the amber stone was in fact a small round phial of some sort that had been cleverly concealed in the setting of the pendant. The twist of silver where the chain ran through had hidden a tiny cork. Hercules deftly plucked this out of the phial. A powerful scent hit Xenas nose, a scent she recognized. Her heart began pounding.
Hercules took his feet. As if sleepwalking, he crossed the room to the bed and drew back the sheet that covered Iphicles. Xena followed. While she watched, Hercules opened his brothers mouth and poured the priceless golden fluid down into it.
In the first instant, nothing happened. Then a rush of color crept into the kings gray skin. The bruises and welts and scorch marks vanished. They heard a deep sigh as Iphicles drew in breath. Then his lashes fluttered and his eyes opened.
The king looked up uncertainly, his gaze focusing first on Hercules.
"Herk?" he said, sounding surprised. "Whatre you doing here?" Then his gaze shifted to Xena. He said nothing, but his eyes told all. Quietly, Xena left the room and closed the door, to allow the brothers their reunion in private. She briefly leaned against the wood, trying to get her hammering pulse back under control. Finally, she found the strength to walk again, and headed for the stairs.
"I was dead, wasn't I?"
Hercules couldn't see any point in trying to pretend otherwise. "Yeah, you were," he answered.
Iphicles carefully pulled himself up into a sitting position. Hercules dropped into the chair beside the bed.
"Did someone in your family owe you a favor?" asked Iphicles.
Hercules handed him the phial. His brother took a sniff, eyes going wide.
"Ambrosia?" he asked. Hercules nodded.
"Where'd you find it?"
"It was in a necklace Autolycus stole."
"Autolycus?" said Iphicles with a frown. "Is he the guy who kept saying 'I'm sorry?'"
"What!" laughed Hercules.
"It was so weird," said Iphicles. "I was in the Elysian Fields with Mother, and Rena... I was trying to talk to them, but I kept hearing this voice in my head. He kept saying, 'I'm sorry, it should have been me.'"
"It's a long story," said Hercules.
"What happened?" asked Iphicles.
"What do you remember?"
The king closed his eyes, trying to piece together events. "I remember Nasamon breaking free... I let them take me because they were going to kill Xena... she's okay, isn't she?"
"She's fine," Hercules assured him.
"They took me up this mountain... they had a fortress..." Iphicles shook his head. "I don't remember anything after that, until I woke up in the Fields... Mother had my head in her lap... strange."
Not strange at all, thought Hercules. Those who passed to the Other Side often lost their memories of their deaths, especially those whose deaths had been violent and painful. He hoped that his brother would never recall what Nasamon had done.
Iphicles looked pensive. "I talked to Mother, told her how sorry I was..." He trailed off again and sighed, looking troubled. "She said it was all right, she knew I couldn't help being away."
Hercules studied his hands, unable to meet his brother's gaze. He couldn't bring himself to mention that on her deathbed, Alcmene had not once mentioned her older son.
Iphicles, however, seemed lost in his own thoughts. "I talked to Rena, too," he said. "But she couldn't remember dying, and she didn't understand what I was trying to apologize for. She showed me the baby." Iphicles curled a fist against his mouth, eyes filming with tears. "It was a girl."
Hercules didn't trust himself to speak.
"But it's weird, you know, because she's never going to grow up. She'll always be a baby."
Hercules nodded, thinking of his own three children in the Fields. So strange, to see them when he could, and know that theyd be children for all eternity. He raged inwardly when he thought of the lives that had been stolen from them, but part of him felt a resigned acceptance. They would never grow old, never lose their innocence, never know pain or suffering, never become disillusioned with the world, never have their hearts broken. Only this thought could give him comfort.
"Alector's there, too... I played with him." Hercules smiled sadly, recalling his young nephew, who had died of the same illness that had taken Rena. "Even my father was there. That was the weirdest part."
"Really?" Hercules felt a spark of interest. Amphitryon had died before his own birth.
"Yeah... gods, that was so strange." Iphicles scrubbed his face with his hands. "You know, Mother always said I was like him. But this guy couldve been my twin." The king shook his head. "Like looking in a mirror."
Iphicles gazed about the room, as if still unable to believe himself back among the living. "I was talking to him, and everything sort of faded around me... and there you were. Then I thought maybe you'd died, too." He looked out the window and observed the sun. "How long was I gone?"
"Not long," said Hercules. "Xena said you died right before dawn."
"Huh. Felt like days." Hercules nodded. Time ran quite differently in the afterworld.
Silently, Hercules handed the ring of office back to his brother. They briefly squeezed hands, a rare gesture of affection between them. Theyd always been like oil and water. Hercules thought for a moment of their childhood, growing up in the small house with Alcmene, three stubborn, strong-willed individuals always seeming to rub each other the wrong way. Ever the peace-maker, Hercules had often sided with his mother in family quarrels, leaving Iphicles the odd man out. Finally, the older sibling had left home at sixteen to seek his own fortune. Hercules wondered how his own life, and his brothers, might have been different if Amphitryon had lived.
Despite their differences, Hercules would not hesitate to come to his brothers assistance, and if that meant taking the crown of Corinth, so be it. But now such would not be necessary, for which Hercules felt profoundly grateful.
"This is still yours," he said, relief evident in his voice.
Iphicles examined the ring, then put it back on his right hand. Hercules hoped that perhaps after having had the opportunity to make his peace with Alcmene and Rena, the burdens of the crown would rest more lightly upon his brother.
"I need to ask you a favor," said Hercules.
Hercules grinned. "This is what I need you to do..."
It seemed as though half the morning had passed before Xena reappeared, with Hercules at her side. Autolycus had long since gotten over his fear of being executed for his role in the king's death. He knew he could trust Xena to keep her word, and for that matter, he could probably trust Hercules to be merciful.
They both looked tired and solemn as they approached him in the courtyard, but the thief immediately sensed something different in Xena's demeanor. Nothing overt in her posture or expression-- the warrior masked her innermost thoughts completely-- but gut instinct told Autolycus that something had changed.
"Hi," said Xena. "I told Hercules what happened, and he agreed to my suggestion."
The pair paused in front of Autolycus.
"Well, Hercules," said Autolycus. "What do you want me to do?"
"You can be one of my men," said Hercules. "Xena told me what you did yesterday. It took a lot of courage."
Autolycus grimaced. "Do you... want me to stop stealing?" he asked cautiously.
"No, of course not," said Hercules with a completely straight face. "There's plenty of times when something gets stolen from its rightful owner, and needs to be stolen back." He clapped Autolycus on the shoulder. "You'll still be climbing walls, breaking and entering, hanging from rafters, practicing sleight-of-hand, and stealing, but it will all be for a good cause. You have too many talents I could use, to let them go to waste."
"Fine," said Autolycus. "What's the first order of business?"
"First," said Hercules, "I want you to take an oath to serve me."
"Oh, my word isn't good enough?" asked Autolycus, sounding injured.
"I won't answer that," said Hercules.
"Okay, okay. What do you want me to swear it on?"
Hercules seemed to hesitate. Then Xena suggested smoothly, "What about the Golden Fleece?"
The thief's eyes lit up. The Golden Fleece... what that would fetch on the open market...
"That's a great idea," said Hercules. Autolycus swore he saw a muscle twitch in the big man's face. "It's in the throne room." He made a gesture for Autolycus to precede him. The thief walked down the path and out of the garden. Hercules and Xena followed.
A few servants went quietly about their morning work, but the doors to the throne room stood closed. Autolycus put a hand on the carved wooden door handle. The heavy, ornate doors swung open without a sound.
Autolycus stepped into the throne room, then stopped short, blinking. Morning sun streamed into the room through the east-facing windows, setting off every piece of furniture and ornamentation in exquisite detail. Banners hung on the walls: the gold rams head of Corinth, on a royal blue field. The Golden Fleece itself hung prominently on the far wall, displayed in such a way that all eyes in the room would be drawn to it. But Autolycus barely noticed.
The throne sat in the center of the room, and in the throne itself sat Iphicles. The rays of sunlight glinted on his crown and picked up golden threads in his chestnut-brown hair. He wore a handsomely tooled tunic of pale brown leather over a short-sleeved white shirt. Splendidly-made trousers of black leather showed off his long, muscular legs to their best advantage. Autolycus would have given his eye teeth for the king's boots alone. Iphicles remained motionless in the seat, his face as aloof and mysterious as the Sphinx. When his right hand twitched, almost imperceptibly, sunlight flashed on his ring of office.
Autolycus reminded himself to keep breathing. Finally, he took refuge in wit. Making a deep, exaggerated bow, he said acerbically, "Your majesty is looking very well for a dead man."
Iphicles cracked a grin. He stood and hopped down from the throne in light, easy steps. When he approached Autolycus, the thief just looked at his feet.
"You must be Autolycus," the king said.
The thief's head jerked up. For a moment, his eyes went wide, then he glanced back at Hercules and Xena who stood with smug, enormous grins on their faces.
"Is this a joke?" he wheezed.
"No," said Xena. "That stone you thought was worthless was a phial full of Ambrosia."
"No, no," said Autolycus. "I mean him, he's just like..." He trailed off, looking the king up and down through narrowed eyes. "Do yourself a favor, Iphicles," he said, rubbing his chin. "Never grow a beard."
"Why?" asked Iphicles with a smile. "Wouldn't I look good with a beard?"
"Ah, no," said Hercules. "I think it would make you look too..."
"Old," said Autolycus.
"Serious," said Hercules.
"Sinister," said Xena.
"Okay," said Iphicles. "No beard."
"Does this mean that I'm, ah... off the hook?" asked Autolycus hopefully.
"For now," said Xena, still smiling. "You've earned your keep, and a few more years of freedom."
Autolycus began edging his way towards the door. "Well," he said, "now that's settled... I'll be seeing you--"
Hercules grabbed the thief by the back of his shirt and lifted him clear off the floor. "Keep in mind you do owe me something."
"And what might that be?" said Autolycus, managing to keep his dignity, even suspended in mid-air.
"I just can't remember the word," said Hercules with an exaggerated effort at concentration, "but I think it was 'fa--'"
"Oh yeah," said Autolycus with a weak laugh. "A favor."
Xena would have quietly slipped out also, but Iphicles wouldnt hear of it. Hed obviously taken in her grimy, dirt-smeared body and exhausted face; the laws of good hospitality would not permit him to let her leave without at least offering a place to rest and wash herself.
The warrior protested, but in the end, allowed a servant to escort her to a room in the guest quarters, where she disrobed and soaked herself in a tub of hot water. She hadnt realized, until she sank into the tub, how badly every muscle and bone in her body ached. She seemed to have grit everywhere, even in her mouth. And her head throbbed with pain. Soap and hot water felt like paradise. When Xena emerged from behind the screen that hid the tub, she found that the servant had set out a generous breakfast on a table. She hadnt eaten since her lunch in the marketplace the previous day, and fell upon the food ravenously. After she ate, she wandered over to the large bed with a languid stretch, planning to sleep for perhaps a few hours. When she woke up again, the light of a new dawn glowed on the east wall of the room. Shed slept an entire day and night.
Another surprise greeted her when she went to dress. Her breastplates and weapons lay on the table, gleaming and polished, the sword sheathed in a brand-new scabbard. Her battle dress, gauntlets, and arm bracelets had been expertly cleaned, the leather soft and supple. A new under-tunic had been draped over the back of the chair, to replace her sweaty, grimy old one. Even more incredibly, a handsomely-made pair of new boots sat beneath the chair. The kings servants had been busy while she slumbered.
The new under-dress fit perfectly. Xena laced up the boots, marveling at the craftsmanship. Iphicles must employ the best tanner in the state of Corinth, she thought enviously. She fastened her knee guards, also cleaned and gleaming, donned her weapons, then went to find some breakfast, and Gabrielle.
Downstairs, most of the soldiers had gone back to their barracks. Only a few, whose wounds needed attention still, remained in the improvised infirmary. In the kitchen, she found breakfast; she also found Joxer, talking happily with Cephus and the young soldier with the sprained ankle.
"Wheres Gabrielle?" asked Xena, munching an apple.
"In the library," said Joxer, rolling his eyes a little. "With Jason. I think shes writing his life story."
Xena smiled. "What about Hercules?"
"He and Iphicles left as soon as it was daylight. Theyre bringing back stuff to the villages that got robbed."
"Hmm." Xena sat down at the wooden table.
"If you want to say good-bye to Autolycus, hes in the stable," Joxer added.
"Hes still here?" asked Xena, surprised.
"Yeah, he was going to go yesterday, but he came back and stayed the night."
Xena stood. She didnt think Autolycus would press his luck, but she wouldnt put it past such an opportunist to size up the palace security. He might easily intend to relieve the king of his valuables at some point in the future.
In the stables, she found Autolycus leading the chestnut mare to the door.
"You know," she said, blocking his way, "that horse does belong to the kin of Diodorus."
"He didnt have any," said Autolycus. "He never got married, he never had kids, his parents are both dead, and his siblings all live on Crete."
"How do you know?" asked Xena, folding her arms.
"Because I went yesterday with Jason to Diodorus house. We cleaned out his workshop and brought back everything he had. Iphicles said hell make sure all of it gets to Crete, but he said I could have the horse."
Xena studied the thief and decided he spoke truth. And the horse plainly carried no bags, so Autolycus hadnt helped himself to the kings treasury on the way out.
Autolycus shifted uneasily from one foot to another. "I guess I ought to thank you," he said. "For everything."
"Yeah," said Xena, grinning. She genuinely liked Autolycus, and felt glad that this mishap had turned out all right in the end. She just hoped hed learned something from it.
They stood very close to each other. Xena could see the lovesick look in the thiefs eyes that shed seen in so many other men. Autolycus took Xenas hand and gave it a gallant little kiss. "I, uh," he said. "I, uh... um, Xena, I just wanted... Oh, damn," he sighed. "Gods help me, I really lov--"
Xena put a finger to his mouth. "Dont say it," she said.
"Why not?" said Autolycus. "Its true."
"Dont confuse love with gratitude," she said. "Theyre not the same thing."
Autolycus regarded her face, then his expression grew cynical. "I know, I know," he said. "I guess the King of Thieves is no match for the King of Corinth, huh?"
Xenas eyes narrowed, but her voice held no resentment when she asked, "Are you calling me a social climber?"
Autolycus laughed. "You? Never." He made the same slightly mocking bow hed given Iphicles the day before, led the brown mare out of the stable, mounted, and rode off.
On Xenas way back inside the palace, she found Joxer outside the kitchen with his new friends, who endeavored to show him some basic sword-fighting skills. Not a bad thing, she thought, mounting the steps to the library, and it might prevent Joxer from killing himself. She stood in the open doorway, watching Gabrielle scribble furiously as Jason recounted his adventures with the Argonauts. At another table, Archivus, the kings record-keeper, devoured Gabrielles stories avidly.
Jason broke off when he saw Xena in the doorway. Gabrielle looked up.
"Can we please stay a while longer?" the bard pleaded. "Jason has so much more to tell me about."
"And Id like to finish these," Archivus piped in eagerly, lifting up a scroll. "Gabrielle has a wonderful eye for a story."
"All right, all right," said Xena with an exasperated, affectionate smile. "Well stay."
Xena roamed about the palace for a while, looking at the public rooms on the lower level. Bored, she decided to check on Argo. But the kings grooms had been as efficient as the rest of his servants: the mare stood brushed and perfectly groomed. Xena noticed that the horse wore a beautiful new bridle. When she went to find the saddle, the groom came over with one newly-made.
"This is really too much," she sighed.
"Just following orders," the groom responded with a smile.
Xena saddled Argo and adjusted the new leather straps. As she straightened up, a voice behind her said, "Leaving so soon?"
She turned. "No, I was going to get some exercise."
Iphicles looked like hed just come back. Xena could see another groom leading the kings white stallion by the reins.
"We never did get that ride to Phlegra," said Iphicles.
"No," said Xena.
"Would you be up for it tomorrow?" he asked.
"I... think I may be leaving tonight. If I can peel Gabrielle away from Jason."
The king smiled. Xena found herself returning the smile, almost in reflex. "Too bad," he said. "I was looking forward to it."
"Yeah," said Xena, carefully keeping her voice neutral. Then, "Thank you for the new boots," she said. "And the new tack for Argo. You didnt have to do that."
"It was the least I could do," Iphicles responded. "I owe you a debt I can never pay back."
"No, you dont," said Xena.
"I do. If theres anything I can ever do for you--" Iphicles held out his arms, as if putting the whole of his kingdom at her disposal-- "just ask."
"Thank you," she said. "But you owe me nothing. Cephus told me you surrendered to Nasamon to keep him from killing me."
Iphicles looked uncomfortable. "Ive heard about the things youve done," he said. "The world needs you more than it probably needs me."
"Thats not true," said Xena vehemently. "Corinth needs you, the people need you. Ive seen lots of bad rulers, Iphicles. Youre not one of them. Dont sell yourself short."
A silence settled between them, leaving the air tense. Iphicles asked, "Will you be back some day?"
"I dont know," said Xena.
"Id like to see you again," he said. "Maybe under more happy circumstances."
"I dont know," she repeated.
Iphicles took a step closer, leaned down, and softly kissed her on the mouth. His boldness startled Xena, and pleased her.
"I love you," he said.
"I wish you didnt," she responded.
She smiled. "You barely know me."
"I love what Ive seen."
"Im not an easy person to love," she grumbled.
"Neither am I." Iphicles grinned.
Xena reached out and stroked his face. He was lonely, in mourning still, and emotionally adrift. He was young, a childless widower, and very beautiful. She felt sorely tempted. But romances founded on such shaky grounds often faltered. He needed time. They both did.
"Kings arent supposed to marry commoners," said Xena, teasing. "Wont your counselors advise you to find a royal wife?"
"My counselors," said Iphicles, "havent been able to make me do anything."
Xena could believe that. "I have no dowry," she added slyly.
"You dont need one." He kissed her hand. "Youre more precious than rubies."
Shameless flattery, but Xena blushed like a girl. Recovering, she said, "We can always have Autolycus steal one for me."
Iphicles burst out laughing. Then they embraced, holding each other tightly.
"Come back to me, warrior-princess," said Iphicles, kissing her on the mouth again. "When you find what it is youre looking for, come back." He brushed her nose with his own. "Ill be waiting for you."
The crypt lay in cool silence, heavy stone walls muffling sounds from the rest of the palace. His boots barely made any noise as he entered the room and went to stand by Renas casket.
In his right hand, he held their wedding bands, still wound about with the broken length of gold chain. Hed been holding onto them all during the perfunctory trial for the brigands whod attempted to murder him, and during the hangings that had followed.
Now the last of the outlaws were dead, their bodies consigned to a common pyre. Their ashes would be scattered in an unmarked grave.
Nasamon had escaped the scaffold. Hed died several days before the trial began, from infection in the wounds that Xena had inflicted upon him. But hed lived long enough to know that the man hed tortured to death had mysteriously revived, and returned to life completely unscathed.
Iphicles thought of how Nasamon had screamed in fear, no doubt believing the kings resurrection to be some act of divine retribution. Babbling like an idiot, hed confessed to his crimes: inciting rebellion; the murder of Lampus; pillage and robbery; kidnapping and torturing the king. Nasamon hadnt lived to face the court of justice, but hed named all his fellow-conspirators, sealing their dooms.
Only the rebels young stable-hand had not been put to death. The boys father had taken his son to the fortress when hed joined Nasamon. The youth had no other kin, so Iphicles sent him north to Phlegra, to live with the Trojan War soldiers in their border settlement.
Iphicles inspected the candles on his late wifes tomb, re-lighting a couple that had blown out. He turned the wedding rings over in his hand several times. At last, he loosened the bands from the chain and set them in among the candles, the small ring resting inside the larger one.
He then went to Alectors tiny sarcophagus and stood for a few moments, thinking about his son. He caressed the pale wood briefly, and made sure the three candles-- one for each year of the boys life-- remained lit. Finally, Iphicles left his dead in peace and went back upstairs to the palace.
Continues in Blood Loyalty.
Special thanks to Ed Baker and Suzanne Klerks for their input and inspiration. Id also like to acknowledge the late, great Ellis Peters, whose wonderful novel The Virgin in the Ice provided the basis for a large piece of this story. "Consequences" is dedicated to Bruce Campbell and Kevin Smith, with much affection. Letters of comment are welcome! Send to firstname.lastname@example.org
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