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This story contains mild violence. If this disturbs you, you may wish to read something else. Then again, how do you stand to watch the show?

Spoiler Warning! This story takes place during the fourth season, after "Family Affair" and before "Crusader." If you have not seen through these episodes, you may want to discontinue reading.

I would love to hear from you. Write to me OfcrRipley@aol.com and let me know what you think about the story, or just chat about Xena stuff in general. I can never talk too much about my favorite show!

 

How many lives have been ruined by the notion that they are destiny bound? How many souls saved by the truth that they are bound by destiny?

---Xena Red Scrolls, author unknown

 

Twist of Fates

By Ripley

 

BOOK I

~~ Chapter I ~~

 

"Xena, Iím not saying we should spend the rest of our lives here, just enjoy the sights a little, thatís all."

The comment barely carried above the cacophony of the busy market street. Vendors on either side of the cobblestone pavement hawked their wares and argued with potential customers. Small puffs of dust stirred beneath the feet of the many people walking in the center of the thoroughfare. Nearby, a thin man in a loincloth and a turban appeared to be swallowing a flame from a torch and then spewing it out, to the amazement of several children gathered around him.

Two women came to a halt just in front of him.

"Nice form," the taller of the two muttered as she watched him breathe fire. Her shorter companion stared at him briefly and then cut her eyes over at the woman quizzically. She shook her head as if to clear her thoughts and then continued the conversation.

"Look, weíre in Lycia, one of the most interesting and wealthy lands in all of Greece. Once we locate the King of Cenchreaeís son and tell him to go home, why donít we take a little time to soak up the atmosphere?"

The taller woman turned to her as if hearing her for the first time. "Soak up the atmosphere." She turned in the direction they had been heading and began striding up the road. The girl hurried to catch up.

"Yeah. Itíd be like a little vacationóa break. Joxerís in Tiryns waiting to see if Bellerophon shows back up there. Once we locate the boy, I could go to the theater, and you could Ė" She frowned. "Well, you could shoe Argo or something . . ." Her voice trailed off and the horse that her friend was leading whickered behind them. "Anyway, itíd be great fun. Whadaya say?"

The other woman stopped completely. "Gabrielle, did I mention that I had been here before?"

"Well, no, but if you thought it was boring Iím sure thereís something you could do while I look aroundó"

"No, Gabrielle, I mean before." She nodded toward her right and for the first time the other woman noticed a small group of people who were staring at the two of them in a less than friendly manner.

"Uh, you mean, like when . . ."

"Like when I was more interested in that tale that this was a wealthy city and not that it was a cultural center. I relieved Xanthos and a few other Lycian cities of their goods and took out quite a few people along the way." Her jaw set and she looked off in the distance, seeing something in her dark past that would never quite go away.

Her friend sighed and they continued up the street.

"Okay, but look, could we at least get something to eat here? Iíll be glad to cook once we get out of the city, but you should give me a decent meal before we go back to rabbit stew."

"Agreed." Her companion smiled briefly, something that appeared to be rare with her, and pointed to a building just ahead on the right. "Thatís a good place, if I remember correctly. Several of my men nearly left me permanently just so they could spend their nights there."

"Doesnít sound like such a bad idea," her friend quipped, but there was a smirk on her face as she muttered it.

The older woman tied the horse to a post and stepped into the darkened tavern. A burly man glistening with sweat was wiping off a long wooden counter that had been polished to a shine by the mugs of wine and bowls of stew that had slipped across it over the years. He glanced up at the two women briefly, then completely stopped what he was doing and just stared at the taller of the two. She was at least as tall as most men that he had seen, and dressed in a dark brown tunic and skirt that were covered with bronze armor. Armored bands protected her wrists and arms, and across her back she carried a broadsword. The look in her clear blue eyes said she knew how to use it, too.

Her companion was a less intimidating figure, standing a head shorter than the warrior, and carrying nothing more than a staff and wearing no armor at all over her short Amazonian skirt and tunic. The tavernkeeper did notice, however, that the stomach and arms that were well exposed by this clothing appeared to be quite muscular for one so small. The warrior did not surprise him. He had seen her before; her choice of companions did. He decided it was best to beard the Nemean lion in its lair.

"Xena. Been a long time. Whereís the rest of your crew? Youíre takiní Ďem rather young and small these days, arenít you?"

Xena strode over to the man. "She is my crew, Atraxis." She slid onto a stool. "And donít judge a scroll by the paper itís written on. She could flatten you in a heartbeat." The young woman sidled up to the counter as well.

"Hi."

"Gabrielle, meet Atraxis, a fine tavern owner and great cook, when heís not passing judgement on his customers."

"Nice to meet you," Gabrielle smiled, and shook his hand.

Yes, Xena had definitely changed in her choice of company.

"Whatíll it be?" he asked. Enough of the pleasantries. The sooner he got Xena out of here, the better off heíd be, no matter what kind of company she was keeping. Any moment, he might have half his possessions destroyed and all of his dinars resting in her satchel, if the warrior princess took a notion in that direction.

Gabrielle spoke right up. "I want a loaf of that bread I smell baking, a plate of whateverís on the spit, and a tall cup of cool water from your well out front."

Atraxis glanced at Xena and she cocked an eyebrow and shrugged.

"Now I see where all that muscle comes from," he muttered, as he reached behind him and pulled out a mug. He handed it to the girl. "Do you mind going to the well yourself? Iíll get the food ready."

"Sure." She took the mug and strode out the open door.

Xena watched Atraxis as he slid a board with a large loaf of bread on it out of the hearth. He put it on the counter with a thud and slid a knife out of his belt with which to cut it.

"And what do you want?" he asked as he cut.

"Same thingóexcept I want a cup of that wine youíre so famous for."

"Right." He finished the bread and grabbed a cup and wineskin from the wall behind him. "So, Xena, what brings you back to Xanthos?" He was trying to sound casual. Her reply told him it wasnít working.

"Donít worry, Atraxis. Iím not here to relieve you of your valuables. Weíre looking for a young man that might have passed through hereóa boy, really. His nameís Bellerophon. Hear anything of him?"

Atraxis stopped in the midst of pouring the wine and looked at her suspiciously.

Her voice softened somewhat. "No, Atraxis, Iím not here to kill him. His father wants him back in Cenchreae where he belongs. Weíre helping out."

He set the cup in front of her and crossed his arms. "Yeah, Iíd heard some things about you beiníchanged and allóbut I didnít believe it."

Xena took a large swallow of the liquid. "Aah, just as I remember it." She took another long drink. "I donít blame you for not believing it. Once I wouldnít have believed it myself."

"This got anything to do with her?" He nodded at the door.

"Itís got a great deal to do with her."

The tavernkeeper grunted and began to slice large slabs of juicy meat off the pig roasting on the spit. He didnít quite believe her and Xena knew it. But she also didnít much care. It wasnít her duty to try to convince him that she had changed. Heíd either figure it out or he wouldnít. She just had to do what she thought was best along the way. She decided to change the subject.

"So, is Iobates still ruling these days?"

"As far as we know. Your guess is as good as mine."

"Still the hermit in that old castle of his, I guess."

"We never see him. But thereís been no funeral, and the city prospers, so what do the people care?"

"So all this talk of that creature roaming the countryside, the Chimaera, thatís not true?"

"All I can say is Iíve never seen it."

"Hmm." Xena took a gulp of her wine. "Do they still say the kingís under a curse?"

"Nobody talks of it much anymore. Weíre so used to never seeing him that no one even thinks about it."

Xena shrugged and looked around the tavern at the dark walls and small tables. She had been to Iobatesís castle onceóand only once. It had been enough. She had planned on stripping the entire thing and maybe holding the ruler for ransom, but she never made it past the lower main hall. It was one of the few times from her warrior days that she had been really and truly frightened, especially for no apparent reason. When she had given the order to turn around, none of her men had questioned her. They had felt it, tooóan eerie quiet, like a heavy blanket, rested on the place. A large unkempt rose garden, but no birds. And most everything in it had been black and dead. A large castle, but no sounds emanating from anywhere within. It looked and smelled like a tomb. Like death.

Xena shook herself and looked back at Atraxis as he set a huge plate in front of her. Suddenly, there were some shouts from outside and the distinct sound of a female voice saying, "Back off!"

In one lithe movement, Xena was up. "You just had to send her for water," she said.

Atraxis leaned over the counter to try and see out the open door. "I thought you said she could take care of herself."

"She can," Xena muttered casually; but he noticed she unhooked the sharp metal disc at her side as she stepped through the door.

 

~~ Chapter II ~~

 

Great. Just great, Gabrielle thought to herself. All I wanted was some water. Why do these things always happen to me? Xenaís going to kick my---

"Askiní fer trouble, arenít ya, little lady?" The speaker was a burly man with long unkempt hair and the odor of one who had not bathed in a very long time.

Gabrielle balanced her long staff on her thumbs, her fingers curled gently around the top of the weapon. As she turned her body, she twisted each end of the staff alternately, turning her head to see where all her opponents were.

Two other toothless thugs, who couldnít be anything other than the first oneís sons, were trying to get behind her. She turned to the old woman at the well behind her.

"Go on into that tavern. I have a friend in there. Youíll be all right."

The woman started to obey, but was frozen by the sound of one of the boys calling for his dog to give chase.

 

"Go on!" Gabrielle called, then turned back to the dog. He was already limping from the bruised ribs she had given him just a moment ago. It was the sight of this dog nipping at the old womanís heels and the guffaws of its owners that had prompted her to interfere in the first place.

The old woman began to hobble quickly toward the tavern. The dog began to follow.

THWACK!

He rolled over twice in the dirt with howling yelps of agony, then got up and limped off with his tail between his legs.

Now, if only its stupid masters would be as easy.

The bigger of the two boys yelled out in a fit of rage and ran straight toward her. Gabrielle tilted her staff and caught him hard in the knee with the right end. As he reached down to touch his wounded leg, she brought the other end around and hit him squarely in the jaw. He stared at her stupidly before tumbling to the ground like a large tree. Bringing the staff up and over like a wood chopper, she poked him firmly in his ample stomach for good measure. The wind sailed out of him like an empty wineskin.

She turned and stalked toward the puffing father, her jaw set and fire in her eyes.

"Whatís the idea of setting your dog on a defenseless old woman like that?í she said through clenched teeth.

The father backed up and wiped the sweat from his dripping eyebrows with his shaking hand. "Sheís just an old witch who thinks sheís a seer. Besides," he added as he pulled a knife and tossed it from one hand to the other, "I donít see as itís any of your business, you little dwarf."

She knew she should wait until mid toss of that knife before she struck. Thatís when he would be at the greatest disadvantage. But that crack about her size had done it. There was something about traveling around the countryside with a statuesque warrior princess that made you a little sensitive about your diminutiveness. She charged toward the buffoon, arching her staff as she did so. He was smarter than he looked, however, and had already decided that he wasnít going to let her get too close to him with that destructive stick. With a grunt, he hurled the knife at her as hard as he could. It spun through the air, and Gabrielle realized with a great deal of regret that she should have waited to charge until that thing had been out of his hands.

Suddenly, there was a high-pitched singing noise, as if a bird of prey were diving toward them, and she saw sparks fly right in front of her face as something round and sharp knocked the knife to the ground and whirred out of sight.

"What in Tartarus?" muttered the father.

Gabrielle didnít bother to look. She knew exactly what it was before she heard the familiar female voice say, "Son of a Bacchae!"

"Xena, I am handling this just fine, thank you."

"I can see that." The warrior princess was ten steps behind her, her hand clutching the object called a chakram that had just kept the bard from getting her face cleaved in two. Xena took a threatening step forward.

"But if that pile of dirt tries knife-throwing again, he may not have a hand to throw it with."

The manís eyes widened to the size of plates.

"And that goes double for you, sonny!" she called toward a recessed doorway where the other son was cringing. Gabrielle stepped toward the older man, staff in the ready position, but he stared at her now like a dumbfounded animal, then suddenly lifted his hands, palms up, and waved them.

"Look, we donít want no trouble." He directed his gaze to the conscious son. "Ethan, get Othan and letís get outta here!"

Ethan made a sniffling sound and ran to grab the body of his brother. The older man, still waving his hands, walked slowly to where they were, never taking his eyes off Xena. He grabbed a limp arm and began to drag the heavy burden down an alley.

Gabrielle frowned after them.

"And let that be a lesson to you!" she called out lamely.

She tossed her staff into one hand and spun toward Xena. The warrior had already hooked the chakram on her belt and was turning back toward the tavern.

"I was doing just fine, you know," Gabrielle said as she stepped alongside of her.

"You should have waited untiló"

"The knife was between hands, I know," Gabrielle finished for her. "It was a mistake. But Xena," she stopped and put her hand on her companionís arm to halt her. "It was my mistake. Iíve made plenty and Iíll make plenty more."

"Not like that one, you wonít. That son of a goat was going to split your head in two. Gabrielle, you canít make mistakes in battle, or you wonít get a chance to make another one. And I may not always be there to help you out next time."

"Iím counting on it!"

The minute Gabrielle said it she knew it had been a mistake. The warrior princess drew up to her full height and pursed her lips in that way she had when her bitter or cynical side took over. Her blue eyes grew icy, but not before Gabrielle had seen the hurt there, too.

"Maybe youíll get lucky. They donít like me much here in Lycia." She turned and stepped through the door.

"Xena, wait. I didnít mean that. Itís just tható"

"Atraxis!" Xena yelled. "Get me a new plate of food! I want it hot! And another mug of that wine!"

You stupid idiot! Gabrielle chastised herself as she stepped through the doorway. I did make a mistake, but sometimes Xena makes me so mad pointing them out and then talking about saving me.

Well, she has saved your butt a number of times, as I recall.

The bard was arguing with herself. She did it quite often. When she wasnít thinking out conversations in her head, she was thinking up stories and improving the ones she had written in her scrolls. It was a natural product of her love of words and the constant presence of someone as quiet as Xena.

She continued as she stepped toward Xena and the counter. Yeah, but that crack about always being there to save me was totally uncalled for. Iím pretty good in a fight, and I have saved her just a few times myself.

Sheís just looking out for you.

Yeah, but sheís gotten so much worse since she thought she lost me in the Temple of Dahak.

Apologize.

Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, but was halted by the touch of bony fingers on her arm. She spun around.

It was the old woman from the well. She had forgotten about her.

"Are you all right?" the woman asked breathlessly.

"Oh, Iím fine. What about you?" Gabrielle gently urged her into a nearby chair. "How about some food? Atraxis! How about a bowl of that soup over here?" She sat down across from the woman. "Whatís your name?"

"My name is Hadara. I was born in the East, but Iíve spent a good many years here."

Gabrielle could tell that she had spent a good many years somewhere, because her face was deeply wrinkled and her hair was completely gray.

"Why were those thugs tormenting you?"

"Iím a seer." In spite of herself, Gabrielle inched closer to the table when she heard this.

"Iím very good at seeing the future for people, and they pay me to do so."

"And that frightens those oafs out there?"

The old woman chuckled, a strange rasping sound that came from deep in her throat. "Them? Oh no! They just didnít like what I predicted for their immediate future."

"And what was that?"

"A severe beating from two strangers."

Gabrielle looked at the twinkling eyes of the old woman, then laughed out loud. Xena turned to look at her, and the girl suddenly felt guilty, remembering their unresolved argument.

"You are troubled about your friend?"

Gabrielle stared at the old woman. She hesitated for just a moment, then shook her head. "Just a little. We had a small disagreement, thatís all. We have them often. Just the natural result of always being together with someone."

Hadara turned to look at Xena. "She is troubled about you as well. There is great fear in her heart over youóan ache she has had for some time."

The girl stared at the old woman in amazement, then pushed back her chair and stood up. "Excuse me for just a moment." She strode toward the counter and Xena turned back toward her food. Gabrielle slid up on the stool next to Xena and sat facing her friend.

"Xena, Iím sorry about what I said out there. I wasnít thinking. I wasnít thinking the entire time. I let my anger get the better of me and we both know that a person canít focus when they do that. Thanks for saving my neck." She held her breath and kept her eyes on Xena. Suddenly, her friendís shoulders sagged from a relief of tension and Xena turned to face her. Her eyes held that soft look that Gabrielle liked best and she let out a breath before Xena even spoke.

"Look Gabrielle, Iím the one who should be apologizing. I overreacted and made some comments I shouldnít have." She placed her hand on Gabrielleís and smiled. "And we both know you donít have any temper to speak of." The smile disappeared and she swallowed. "Itís just that when I saw you in danger I kept reliving that moment when you saved me from Hope and Dahak and jumped into that pit. I canít live through that again. Not ever." She frowned in discomfort. That moment when Gabrielle made the ultimate sacrifice wasnít the only tragedy she had been visualizing. When Xena had gone to search for Gabrielle in the Amazon Land of the Dead, an evil witch named Alti had shown her a vision of another death for Gabrielleóthis time on a Roman cross. The vision also included Xena being crucified, but Xena had been disturbed by that fact only in that it meant she wouldnít be around to save Gabrielle. She hadnít told the bard about the disturbing prophecyónot yet. She was hoping somehow to change their destiniesóif indeed Alti had even shown her that. She hadnít worked up the courage to tell Gabrielle about it, and she had to admit she didnít have it now.

Gabrielle smiled and squeezed Xenaís hand. "You wonít have to live through it. Iíll be very sensible, I promise. No more stupid moves." The two friends looked at each other a moment, then realized that Atraxis was standing there gawking at them. Xena turned toward him.

"Atraxis, I believe we asked for soup for that woman over there. Would you like to get it, or should I?"

The tavernkeeper hurriedly filled a bowl with the steaming liquid and handed it to Xena. She grabbed it and headed towards Hadara, Gabrielle following close behind. She set the bowl down in front of the old woman and leaned up against the wall with her arms crossed. Gabrielle took the chair she had vacated before.

"Eat that," Xena commanded. "Itíll make you feel better."

"Thank you," Hadara murmured, then took a sip of the soup. "Thatís good, but I already felt better when I noticed you two resolve your problem. I wouldnít want to be part of something that is causing two friends heartache."

Xena sent a glance toward Gabrielle, who looked up and shrugged.

"Donít blame her for telling me. Iím a seer, but anyone with eyes could see the two of you were upset when you came in here."

Xenaís voice softened. "Well, weíre okay now. Eat that soup and then weíll take you to your home in case those boys are still waiting around somewhere."

Hadara closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. "No, they are gone." She looked up at Xena. "Now you must sit down and let me repay you for what you have done."

"No, Hadara," Gabrielle shook her hand at the old woman. "We donít need any payment. We were just helping out someone who needed it."

The old woman smiled. "Itís not much, so donít be too stubborn about refusing it." She reached into a satchel she had slung over her shoulder and pulled out a stack of brightly colored cards with strange symbols and drawings on them. "Iíll tell you your futures."

Gabrielle looked up nervously at Xena, who rolled her eyes in exasperation behind the womanís back.

"No, really, Hadara," continued the girl. "We must be going. You just eat. We donít need our fortunes told."

The woman began to spread the cards on the table. "Donít worry. Iím very good. Gabrielle already knows this." Her eyes twinkled at the young woman. "Even you might agree, Xena, if you give me a chance." As she said this, her eyes never left the cards, and Gabrielle and Xena exchanged surprised glances at how she had picked up on their names in the first place. Xena uncrossed her arms and stepped into Hadaraís view.

"I appreciate your wanting to thank us, but to be honest, Iím one of those people who believes that your destiny is decided with these--" she knotted her hands into fists, "and this." She pointed at her head. Even as she said it, Xena felt a pang of guilt. She wanted to believe it fully, but that vision of Gabrielleís death had begun to consume her. She was beginning to wonder if one could change destiny, or if it was as inevitable as her old enemy Caesar seemed to think.

Hadara smiled. "Ah, but youíve forgotten the most important thing that decides our destinies, Xena, especially yours."

"Whatís that?"

"This." Hadara laid her palm over her chest and looked up at the warrior. Xena cocked an eyebrow. Gabrielle raised both brows and stuck out her lips as if to say, "Sheís got you there."

"Fine." The warrior princess pulled up a chair and sat down at the table. "But this canít take long," she added gently. "Weíve got to be moving on soon."

"It wonít," the old woman replied as she began to shuffle the cards. "Iím good and Iím fast." She handed the deck to Xena and told her to shuffle them. Xena looked surprised.

"I think Gabrielle should go first."

"Oh, no," the old woman replied. "It doesnít take a seer to know that if she goes first, you wonít go at all." Gabrielle grinned at Xena, who flashed her teeth in disgust at her friend and then grabbed the cards. She moved them quickly and adeptly, then handed them back. Hadara took a deep breath and placed the top card face up on the table. It showed a warrior on a galloping horse with his sword drawn.

"The warrior," Hadara needlessly murmured. "You will soon go on a mighty quest."

"Umm hmm." Xena stifled a yawn.

Hadara ignored her and turned the next card. It showed one sword pointing up.

"This indicates your desire for truth and your inclination to help those in need. That desire to help others will determine your immediate destiny."

"It always has before," Gabrielle piped in. Xena could tell that the young bard was excited by all of this mystery, but she felt unfazed. Hadara had told them nothing that didnít come down to common sense. Still, if it pleased Gabrielle and the old woman, why not go along?

The next card involved swords yet again. Xena decided that neither one of them had shuffled very well, or the old woman was trickier than she seemed. This image was slightly disturbing, for it showed a picture of a heart being pierced by three blades.

"Thatís not very encouraging," quipped Gabrielle.

"It indicates great heartache and sorrow." Hadara looked up at Xena. "You will experience a great loss very soon." The old woman looked very sad, and Xena shifted in her chair in spite of herself. She was beginning to not like this. Gabrielle, too, was glancing from one to the other of them nervously, obviously afraid that Xena was going to have had enough of this game.

The old woman turned the next card.

On it was a single overturned goblet. One small drop of liquid lay next to the cup. Both women looked expectantly at her. "This, too, speaks of loss," she said, frowning. Xena crossed her arms and Gabrielle sighed disappointedly. "But the emptiness of the cup indicates an empty life, an unknown sorrow." She looked again at the warrior princess. "Something irreplaceable in your life that you canít quite fathom. Something missing." She sighed as well. "I can tell you no more about this one. It is very strange."

"Are we finished?" Xena nodded at the remaining cards. The sooner this was over with, the better. There was something very unnerving about it. She must be on edge from that incident with Gabrielle in the street.

Hadara slowly turned another card. A very detailed picture of a woman with two goblets in either hand was on it. The woman stood with one foot on dry land and the other planted firmly in a stream. Liquid of some sort was being poured from one cup to the other. "Ahh," breathed the old woman. "Temperance."

 

"What?"

"Balance, Xena. The woman has one foot in water, the other on earth. She is leveling the liquid in the two cups so that they will be even. This card indicates balance, harmony. I also sense that it is the most important of the five. Here," she said abruptly. "You must take it."

"What? No." Xena shook her head. "Donít give those away."

"Normally I donít. But I know that you must have this card, Xena. Keep it and study it. Your destiny will depend on its meaning one day."

"Here," said Gabrielle, holding out her hand. "Iíll keep it for her. Sheíll just lose it."

With a reluctant glance at Xena, Hadara handed the card to Gabrielle, who promptly tucked it in her tunic with a superior.

"Now me," the young woman said breathlessly.

"Letís hope yours is more uplifting than mine," murmured Xena.

Hadara shuffled the cards and then handed them to the young bard, who did the same. When they were finished, the old woman turned the first card. It showed a young man walking along a path holding a staff.

"A bard," Gabrielle smiled.

"The Fool," said the old woman with a nod of her head. Xena smiled wickedly.

"Huh?"

Hadara patted Gabrielleís hand. "Itís not like it sounds, my child. The Fool is a traveler who learns and is willing to learn a great many things as he journeys through life. Xenaís warrior learns the lesson at journeyís end; your fool learns on the way."

"Uh huh." Gabrielle still didnít sound convinced, and Hadara noticed that she glanced at the still smiling Xena. She decided to move on quickly. The next card was similar to Xenaís Ace of Swords, except that a lone staff occupied the space.

"This shows inspiration," she said with a smile at the bard. "Your one true inspiration will determine your destiny." Gabrielle nodded and smiled. Now this was better.

The third card was more foreboding, however. It was similar to Xenaís in that it, too, contained overturned cups, but this time there were three of them. Facing these were two cups that were obviously brimming with liquid. "The overturned cups indicateó"

"Loss," Xena broke in rather cynically.

"Yes," Hadara continued. "But the two remaining cups tell of something to be salvaged. " She looked intently at Gabrielle. "You will suffer a loss, but you musnít dwell on it. You will have to find what can be saved from the wreckage and concentrate on it." Gabrielle nodded.

Just then all three women jumped as a town bell began to ring nearby. In the distance, other bells could be heard pealing wildly. Many people in the tavern scurried out the door, and Atraxis began to put away items and hide bottles of wine. Xena was immediately on her feet.

"Atraxis! Whatís going on?" She strode over to the counter. She noticed that the manís hands were shaking, and she didnít think it was because of her.

Meanwhile, Gabrielle glanced guiltily at Hadara. "Can you do the next one?" she asked sheepishly. Whatever was going on, Xena would find out and tell her. In the meantime, she just had to see the rest of those cards. Hadara shook herself and smiled. She turned the next card and frowned. It was probably one of the most detailed they had seen.

Across the room, Atraxis hurriedly continued hiding things as Xena awaited an answer. "You want to know about the bells? Well, Iíll tell you, Xena." There was now a definite note of hostility in his voice and she instinctively put her hand on her chakram. "Itís actually something we can thank you for. Itís a system the town came up with not long after we saw you last. Bell towers were put up all over the city. They are rung for one reason onlyóraiders. Those pirates down in the sea caves have to have supplies, but I guess you know that already. Anyway, they come storming up here every once in a while and wreak havoc on Xanthosólooting, stealing, raping, whatever. We put a watchman on the west road. When he sees the cloud of dust such a party raises, he rings his bell and then they all go off throughout the city. Gives us a little time to hide our best valuables and send the women and children into the woods. We leave out enough food and wine and dinars to keep them satisfied, and then they go back to where they came from."

"How many usually show up?"

"I donít know. Thirty maybe?"

"Do they stick together or split up?"

"Oh, they split up. That way they can cover more ground and get more goods."

Xenaís jaw set and she looked hard at the bright sunlight coming through the doorway. If Gabrielle had seen that look, she would have already been up with staff in hand, but she was staring at the card that Hadara was explaining to her.

"The blindfold and the eight staffs surrounding the woman show entrapment. Of course, sheís bound as well." Gabrielle nodded, biting her lip.

"You will soon be in a situaton where you find yourself feeling trapped, with little hope."

"Gabrielle!" Xenaís voice broke in on her thoughts. She glanced up, startled. "Letís go! Thereís trouble with raiders in town. Looks like weíll have to knock some sense into their heads." Gabrielle nodded and plucked up her staff. Suddenly, she felt Hadaraís hand on hers.

"My child, notice the winding river in the mountains in the background. There are three bridges. You will have to cross three bridges or rivers of some kind and perhaps you will escape this sense of being trapped." Gabrielle nodded and started to ask a question.

"These rivers, are theyó"

"Gabrielle, NOW!" Xena was already outside as she called back.

"Goodbye, Hadara!" Gabrielle yelled breathlessly. "Iíll look for you again when we clean up this mess!" She ducked out the bright doorway and Hadara stared at the card she had shown her. Suddenly she realized that there were only four cards on the table. She had forgotten Gabrielleís fifth in all of the distraction. "I canít believe I did such a--" she murmured as she flipped the last card. The look of disgust on her face turned to one of horror as she stared at the last card. A skeleton with a scythe sat astride a donkey. The grimace on the skull was a gruesome sight, and even one inexperienced in reading fortunes could not mistake what the card meant.

"Death," Hadara breathed out. Panic-stricken, she glanced out the door, but it was too late. Gabrielle was gone.

 

~~ Chapter III ~~

 

Xena crept along the edge of the city wall, keeping her eyes open for signs of any more raiders. She had already taken care of seven at the city fountain and eight more at a tavern. The last villagers she had been able to speak to had told her that the men often came out here to a place called the Lionís Tomb. This didnít make much sense to her, but she thought it was worth a try. She just hoped that Gabrielle was taking care of just as many thugs on the south end of the city. It had been Gabrielleís suggestion to split up, and despite the fact that she didnít like it, Xena had decided that it probably made the most sense with these mercenaries all over Xanthos. Besides, it gave her a chance to show the younger woman that she trusted her after that problem with the knife-thrower.

She found herself muttering, "I till donít like it."

Suddenly, she stopped and held her sword in the ready position. Laughter was coming from just up ahead.

At least that means theyíre not expecting me, she thought gratefully.

Before her she could see an enormous sarcophagus, something the city of Xanthos had an abundance of. When she had been here before, in her dark past, she had pointed these out to her men and joked that this was the perfect place for them to accomplish what they needed to do.

"Theyíre already ready for us, boys. Just throw their bodies in there if you want. Theyíve made it very convenient for us to do a little killing!" Her troops had roared at this, and then they had proceeded to do just that. What a monster she had beenóand could still be. That thought was never far from her mind.

Concentrate, Xena.

The Lion Tomb was a magnificent sarcophagus that connected directly with the city wall. Xena could hear the laughter, but she still couldnít see anyone. Obviously they were directly below her, perhaps in the tomb itself. She placed her sword in its scabbard and flattened herself on the hot stone wall. She then began to inch her way on her stomach towards the edge of the roof of the tomb. When she had just reached the edge, she lifted her head just enough to peek over.

Two men stood at the entrance to the tomb. She supposed that they were guards, but this was in name only. One was using his finger to draw in the dirt at the base of one of the pillars, and the other one was pacing back and forth, swallowing large mouthfuls of wine from a skin. The pacing one was attempting to whisper, but like most drunks, he had lost the capacity to judge sound and coordinate himself, and Xena could hear him quite well.

As can everyone else within the city walls, she thought.

"I doní like it," he slurred. "Doní like it at all."

"Whatís not to like?í said the one on the ground. "Weíve probly got more loot than anyone else in the band, including the captain."

"Yeah, and them two lugs is in there hidiní it. How do we know that they ainít tuckiní it away in their pockets?"

The other man drew his finger across his throat. "Cause weíll slit their throats if they are."

"And what about the captain?" Pacing man took a deep swig of his wine. Little drops of it spewed forth from his mouth as he continued to speak. "If he finds out whatís going on, heíll slit our throats!"

The other warrior stood abruptly. "He wonít find out if you keep your trap shut. Gimme that!" He snatched the wine skin. "Itís gonna make your tongue as loose as a sail, and then weíre all gonna get it!"

You sure are, thought Xena, as she pulled herself into a squatting position. She placed her fingers along the edge of the wall and launched herself forward, turning a flip as she did so. This landed her with a soft thump squarely behind the two men.

"What theó" the phrase remained incomplete. Xena grabbed both of their heads and cracked them into one another. She let go of one, who slumped to his knees. The other man she held onto long enough to push a short distance away. As he staggered there, she let go with a scissor kick that hit him squarely in the jaw. He spun around, his legs twisting around each other, then fell with a moaning thud to the dirt. She turned just in time to see the other raider struggling to his feet. Jumping towards him, she grabbed her wrist with her right hand and battered him on top of his head with her elbow. He went to his knees again, and a quick palm to his nose finished him off.

Good, she thought with a look towards the entrance to the tomb. Obviously the men inside hadnít heard a thing. She could still hear their voices and they didnít sound agitated.

She crept up to the large doorway and braced herself against the stone. As the men continued their conversation, she began to inch her way into the shadows of the sarcophagus. When she was completely submerged in shadow, she knelt down. There was no need being spotted early, and she didnít know how this thing was laid out. Besides, it would let her eyes adjust to the gloom.As she crouched there in the shadows, she listened to the conversation of the thugs inside, which was quite clear now.

"Hurry up! Youíre takiní too long!"

"Whatís a matter, Trinicles? You scared?" Xena heard a snicker. She ventured a look around the pillar she was hiding behind. The sarcophagus was dim, lit only by the sunlight breaking through the door and a torch being held by someone towards the back. The entire room was large, maybe twenty five paces, and there were six stone caskets lined up evenly in two rows, with a seventh set up in the back on a stone step. One of the men was struggling to pull the cover back over this particular box, sweating and cursing as he did so. He looked in disgust at the other man, who was frantically letting his eyes wander over the tomb.

"Could you get your carcass up here and help me and stop spookiníyourself?"

The other man, Trinicles, put his torch down on one of the nearest tombs and stepped up to help the other with a sigh.

"Iím not spookinímyself. You gotta admit this place is creepy." They both grunted as they struggled with the lid.

"Yeah, and thatís why weíre hidiní this loot here. Everybodyís too scared to come check this out, and this way we donít have to share it with the entire ship."

So it was just those two, Xena thought. No Gabrielle to worry about, nothing immediately pressing.

Time for a little fun.

On the far wall, just above the two raiders, there was a statue of Payava, the once wealthy Lycian who was buried here. His arm was raised in a gesture of authority, as though he were delivering a moving and powerful speech. Obviously the old man had commissioned the sculptor before he died, thought Xena. She had heard him speak once. Just thinking about it made her sleepy. She shook her head and removed her chakram from her belt. Taking careful aim, she flung it as hard as she could and ducked. The screaming sound it made caused both men to drop the lid with a thud and turn around . The weapon glanced off of the statue and ricocheted towards the back of the room. Hearing the ching behind them, Trinicles and his companion turned around just in time see the cracked arm of Payava fall to the stone floor and shatter. They also turned just in time to miss Xena reach up and retrieve the flashing weapon.

"What in Hades?" muttered the braver of the two thugs. Trinicles simply began to shake. The eerie screaming sound was heard once again, and suddenly the torch fell to the floor behind one of the stone containers, making the back of the sarcophagus very dim.

"Iím gettiní outta here!" whispered Trinicles.

Xena began to crawl amongst the stone tombs. Raising her voice, she spoke in a sing-song tone.

"I am Pavless, Payavaís wife. Who dares to disturb our slumber?" She flung the chakram again for good measure. This proved to be too much for poor Trinicles. Screaming, he bolted for the entrance. Xena sprang to her feet and let loose with a war cry. Flinging her chakram, she caught Trinicles in the back of the head. He fell with a groan. Running to the fallen body, Xena kicked him hard in the skull, rendering him even more useless than he had been before, if such a thing could be possible. Placing her hands on the tomb before her, she launched herself in the air and landed on the stone box just in front of the other man. He, however, was not as incompetent as his companion. His sword was drawn, and he took a frantic swing at Xenaís legs. Flipping again, with that unnerving cry, Xena landed on the upper step with Payavaís tomb and statue. The pirate stumbled toward her, swinging wildly. Xena started to draw her sword, but the broken arm of Payava caught her eye.

I could use a helping hand, she thought with a grin. Leaping over the clumsy sword of the thug, she reached down and grabbed the statueís arm. Turning, she used the stone limb to block the blows coming from the frantic man. Sparks flew as the metal hit the stone, and Xena knew that it wouldnít be long before her newfound weapon would be chipped to pieces.

Funís over, she thought somewhat reluctantly as she knocked the weapon from her opponentís hand and then thumped him on the head with Payavaís arm. He groaned and staggered backward. Xena jumped down from the stone platform and backhanded the man, so to speak. He fell up against a wall. Using the pointed fingers of the statue, she hit him hard in the throat. He gasped and slid to the floor.

"Iíve just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. Youíll be dead in seconds if you donít tell me what I want to know."

"Whówhówhat do you want to know, mighty Pavless?

Mighty Pa--? Xena shook her head. This fool actually thinks Iím a ghost. Well, it didnít matter, as long as he told her what she wanted to know.

"How many of you are there in this town?"

"Thirty," he wheezed out.

"Whereís your captain?"

"I thóthink he was going to the castle."

"Right." Xena raised her hand in a threatening position. Even in the darkened room, she could see the terror in his eyes as he rolled them towards the ceiling, gasping for air.

"Remember to stay out of this tomb, this town, and this country!" She emphasized this threat with another blow to the manís throat. Before he even realized that she had just restored him to the living, she hit him hard in the jaw and he was completely unconscious.

Xena walked back out into the sunlight and surveyed the two bodies lying near the entrance. Dusting off her hands she breathed a sigh of contentment. So this was what it was like to not have someone to worry about or some enormous quest to pursue. It had been years since she had this. Sheíd almost forgotten how good it felt.

 

~~ Chapter IV ~~

 

So this is what itís like to be completely on my own, thought Gabrielle as she leaned on her staff. She looked with satisfaction at the three men scattered in the street. Their bodies were bruised and battered, and they werenít moving, but Gabrielle knew this wouldnít last forever.

"Hey, you!" She motioned to a heavyset man staring out from a nearby cottage. "Get some rope and tie up these thugs!" The man hastened to comply, and the young woman reveled in the fact that for once someone was rushing to follow her orders.

"That was fabulous!"

Gabrielle turned toward the voice. It belonged to a young boy who had crept out from somewhere. The admiration in his face matched his tone, and Gabrielle blushed. She didnít get this very often, particularly when Xena was around. She shrugged her shoulders and rolled her eyes. "Oh, it wasnít much. They were pretty slow and heavy."

"Next to you they were," grinned the boy.

Gabrielle waved her hand at him in dismissal, but it was quite obvious that she was enjoying all of this.

"Are you the warrior princess, Xena?"

Gabrielleís shoulders sagged and the smile fell from her face. "No, Iím Gabrielle."

The boy stared at her.

She continued. "Gabrielle, the Bard of Potidaea. . ." He raised his brows and continued to stare.

"Amazon Queen. . ." No response. She sighed. "I travel with Xena."

The boy smiled. "Oh, that explains it."

"Right." Gabrielle turned and went to oversee the binding up of the pirates. The boy trotted along behind her.

"Whatís it like traveling with Xena?"

Xena, Xena. Always Xena. "Itís great," she replied flatly.

"Did she teach you all that stuff? Can she teach me? Iíll bet sheís even faster, right?"

Gabrielle chose to ignore him. "Do that knot tighter," she told the villager. "We donít want them getting away."

"How long did it take her to teach you that stuff? Do you thó"

"Look." Gabrielle spun around. "How would you like to meet her?"

The boyís jaw dropped. "Me? Meet her? Meet Xena?"

"Yeah, yeah. See hereó" She paused and put her hand on his arm. "Whatís your name?"

"Appollos."

"Right. Appollos. Do you want to meet her?" All he could manage was a vigorous nod. "Okay. I want you to head north. It should be pretty safe. Xenaís up that way and Iíve been coming from there. Still, be on the lookout for more of these bullies. When you find Xena, tell her that Iíve taken care of six men on this end. Thatíll help her know how much work we still have to do." The boy nodded and turned to run off down the street, but Gabrielle kept her grip on his arm.

"Wait! You know what to look for, right? Tall, dark hair, dressed in leather. You canít miss her."

"Sure," he grinned. "Everybody knows about Xena."

"Sure," echoed Gabrielle with a smile that didnít reach her eyes. She let go of his arm and he began to run down the road. In a moment, however, he turned back towards her and called out, "Where will you be? She might want to know."

Thereís no" might" about it, she thought grimly. She addressed the villager at her feet. "Do you know where any more of these men might be?"

The man stood up and frowned in thought. "I wouldnít be surprised if some of them didnít at least check out the castle. Theyíve avoided it so far, but their last time in town a few of them were boasting that they were going to risk the curse and visit King Iobates."

"All right." She turned towards the boy, who was jogging backwards in his eagerness to get going. "Tell her Iíll be at the castle!"

The boyís eyes widened at this statement, as did the villagerís, but Gabrielle didnít notice any of this. The messenger nodded and disappeared down the cobblestone path. When he rounded the corner, he paused for just a moment. Of course he couldnít wait to meet Xena and deliver his important message, but opportunities like this didnít come by very often. Xena might need him to run more errands, and in that case, he wouldnít be home for a long time. At least, he hoped so. If that happened, his mother, who was hiding in the woods, would need to know. Besides, the rest of the children were there and he would be able to mention to them what he was doing. He might as well get as much enjoyment out of it as he could. It wasnít very often a warrior princess came to town. A few minutes more wouldnít make much difference.

 

 

 

Xena walked down the side of the Xanthan street. Her sword was drawn, but she no longer hugged the walls as she had done earlier. She would be cautious, but the need for absolute stealth had diminished since she had taken out more than half of the raiders. And if Gabrielle was doing her part on the south end of the city, then she might be able to even put the sword away in a matter of moments.

If Gabrielle is doing her part. What if . . . Xena shook her head and tensed at the sound of laughter up ahead. She was coming near the town square where Gabrielle had helped old Hadara. They had said they would meet back at Atraxisís tavern, but it sounded like somebody else had decided to meet there first. Bracing herself against a stone wall, she peered around the corner into the open square. Three large men were stalking down the street with their weapons drawn. They were passing around a wineskin. It was evident they were looking for trouble. It was also evident that they were in no condition to meet it, Xean noted with a smile. She took a good look around the square. No people, no Gabrielle. Good. Time for a little more fun. And this time she could be as loud as she wanted. She placed her sword in its scabbard and flexed her fingers.

"Alalalalalalalalala!"

The three men staggered to a halt and stared in amazement as someone clothed in black literally spun end over end across the ground towards them. The limber creature stopped its movement about ten paces off. It wasnít until then that they noticed it was a very tall woman dressed in leather armor. This seemed too good to be true.

"I get her first," slurred one of them to his companions as he passed them the wineskin and his sword.

"Be my guest," growled Xena, crouching in a ready position.

All three of the men laughed at this uproariously as Drunken Fool Number One stumbled towards her. Xena drew back her arm for an easy blow, but was stopped suddenly by the sound of an unfamiliar voice.

"Halt, you ruffians! Do not harm that lady!"

"Huh?" The thugs voiced Xenaís thoughts exactly as they all looked across the square. Stepping out from a westbound street was a young well-built youth with golden locks and a shortsword.

"Pick on someone your own size, brigands!" This was said with great bravado, in spite of the fact that Xena was possibly taller than the young man. He stalked towards them. Xena decided to use the element of surprise he had added to her advantage. Drawing her sword, she simultaneously kicked the unarmed thug just in front of her and swung at the one just behind him. This second fool now had two swords, but was obviously too inexperienced or inebriated to use either one. With one swing, Xena sent one of the weapons flying across the square. Drawing back for another blow, she struck at the sluggish manís upraised sword. It was a weak block, and he went down on one knee. By this time, the third raider had dropped the wineskin and drawn his own weapon. Xena kicked her right leg and popped the middle man right on the chin. He went from one knee to two. One more kick should do it. She blocked a blow from the remaining fighter and placed her boot on the chest of the kneeling man. Suddenly there was someone else next to her.

"Be careful, fair lady. I am here to help you!" It was the golden youth, who began striking the third man with his sword. He drove the raider with a series of well-struck blows, and Xena made a mental note of the fact that he was pretty good, despite his ridiculous chatter. She used the butt of her sword to finish off the second man, then pulled on her chakram just in case this boy got into trouble. It turned out to be unnecessary. Within moments, the last of the men lay bleeding in the square and some of the villagers were creeping out to truss them up.

Bronze Boy began issuing orders to the people, then turned toward Xena with a quizzical look on his face.

"You were doing well, my dear lady, but you must be more careful in the future. Someone like me may not always be around to help you."

Xenaís jaw tightened. "And just who exactly are you?"

The young man bowed slightly at the waist. "My name is Bellerophon, and I am at your service."

Xenaís face relaxed and she sheathed her weapons.

"Well, good, Bellerophon, because Iíve been looking for you for days."

The young man eagerly joined the warrior princess as she walked toward the tavern.

"How can I be of service?"

"You can go back to Cenchreae and your father."

Bellerophonís face tensed and he stopped walking.

"You mean he sent a woman to fetch me back after he sent me running in the first place?"

"I mean he sent someone to bring you back after he realized he was mistaken."

Bellerophon continued to stand rigidly in the same spot.

"And to kick your butt if you refused." Xena entered the tavern. Bellerophon followed right behind her, just as she knew he would. She made no effort to cover the smile spreading across her face.

 

~~ Chapter V ~~

 

Gabrielle stared in awe around her as she moved through the garden in the courtyard of King Iobatesís castle. It wasnít only the size that was fascinating, but the way it looked and felt. It had obviously not been cared for in some time. All of the plants and trees were overgrown and wild-looking, and the statues of gods, goddesses, and heroes were chipped and even blackened in some spots. Gabrielle paused and stared in confusion at a large tree in the very center that had been dead for some time. It was absolutely black from the tip of its branches down to the exposed roots. There were other trees and bushes spaced throughout the courtyard that had the same appearance. Gabrielle found it odd that these dead plants were spaced at intervals around the area, and many of them still had leaves dangling from them, but in all of the cases the plants and their flowers and leaves were as black as a pit in Hades. It was then that she noticed how absolutely still it was. There were no birds or wildlife. Not even a breeze disturbed the absolute silence of this deadly garden. She felt an involuntary shiver run down her spine. Clutching her staff tightly, she moved on to the wide wooden doors that would lead her into the castle.

One of the doors was cracked open, and she cautiously peeked through. As her eyes adjusted to the change in light, she could see that there was a huge foyer just beyond the door. It appeared to be empty, and she stepped inside. To her left and right, at the far ends of the cavernous room, there were open doorways that led into other large rooms. To the right and just ahead, there was a stone staircase that led up to a balcony bordered by marble pillars. She could see several doors up that way, but she decided that she would check out the lower level first.

If I were looking for loot, thatís what I would do, she thought. Then Iíd move upstairs.

Cautiously moving to her right, she began to systematically move through the structure, her staff clutched tightly to her side and every nerve straining to hear the slightest sound. All at once, she heard somethingóa shuffling, a muttering. Definitely another human being. And it was coming near her. She backed up against the wall and gripped her staff in both hands. The footsteps came closer and she held her breath. In a moment, a large man passed through the doorway. He was dressed in common clothes, and he was talking quietly to himself. He didnít look like much of a pirate.

"Psst," she whispered, raising her weapon. The man wheeled around, clutching his heart. His eyes were as wide as plates, and Gabrielle thought that he looked rather like a rabbit that was about to be skewered by Xena for dinner.

She raised her finger to her lips to indicate silence. The large man nodded vigorously.

"Who are you?" she whispered, slightly lowering the staff.

The man wiped sweat from his brow with a shaky hand. "My name is Polyeidus. Iím just a servant here. I have no belongings that would be of any worth, but I will gladly show you anything in the castle that you may find of value."

Loyal guy, she noted to herself. "Iím not here to steal anything," she whispered, lowering the staff even more. "Someone in town told me that some of those thieves might be here. Iíve come to help."

The big man heaved a sigh and slumped slightly. "Theyíre here all right. I thought you were with them. They havenít found me, and I want to keep it that way. I was just going to make my way out of the castle."

"Do you know where they went?"

"I think one headed toward the kitchens." He pointed the way she had come. "The other went upstairs."

"Where are the other servants?"

The man looked taken aback. "There is no one else. Iím it."

Gabrielle rested one end of the staff on the ground. "You mean to tell me that youíre the only servant in a castle this large?"

He nodded.

"What about Iobates and his family and friends?"

"He has no family and friends. Heís the only one here."

Gabrielle snorted in frustration. "Well, where is he then? He might be in danger."

Polyeidus shook his head and turned to walk away. "Not him. He can take care of himself. Iím leaving while Iíve still got my hide."

Gabrielle quickly grabbed his flabby arm. "Wait a minute. You just canít leave the old man to fend for himself."

"Like Hades, I canít, young lady! Believe me, we donít need to worry about him. Letís just go. Theyíll leave after awhile. Thereís nothing here to hold their interest for long."

Gabrielle clenched her teeth. "Where is the king?"

Now it was Polyeidusís turn to snort. "Heís upstairs, but heíll be fine. Havenít you heard about the curse?"

Gabrielle shook her head and headed quickly back toward the foyer.

By the gods. Curses, fire-breathing creatures. This country had more imagination churning than the Athens Academy for Performing Bards.

Polyeidus waddled along behind her. "What are you going to do?"

"Iím going to help the king." She reached the bottom of the stairs. The old man made a whimpering sound behind her, and Gabrielle felt some pity for him.

"Look," she said, her voice softening. "I donít need any help. Give me a few minutes and Iíll signal you if everythingís all right. If you donít see me in a bit, go to town and look for my friend Xena."

"Xena! Youíre with Xena?"

"Yes, yes. Like I said, go tell her if you donít see me in a little bit."

"Róright," he stammered as he turned and rushed out the front doors. Gabrielle watched him disappear, then began making her way up the wide stone staircase. When she reached the top, she grasped her staff in both hands and glanced to her right and left. The hall seemed to stretch endlessly in both directions, with numerous wooden doors and several corridors along either side. She was just going to go left when she thought she heard a voice in the opposite direction. She crept down the hall toward her right. Pausing again in front of a corridor to her left she noticed two huge wooden doors at the far end. One of these was slightly ajar, and now she could definitely hear a voice issuing from within. Staying near the wall and ducking under the torch holders, Gabrielle was able to get within several paces of the open door. The voice was that of a man, and not a friendly one by all accounts. He was yelling at someone.

"Look, old man. Youíd better tell me where you hide all your goods. I know you got some around here. It doesnít look like anybodyís touched this placeóor you, for that matteróin years. Now tell me or youíre gonna wish you had."

That was all Gabrielle needed. Kicking the door with her right foot, she jumped inside with a yell and held her staff in the ready position. A quick glance showed her that this must be the kingís private chamber. There were a few chairs, a large open window, and a pretty big thief standing about ten paces away, near a bed. There appeared to be someone rather small and withered in the bed, but Gabrielle didnít have time to ponder this much before the thief had drawn his sword and was coming at her. At first his attempts were clumsy and weak, with lots of yelling and cursing as he rushed headlong towards her. She was able to dodge out of the way quite easily, and give him several whacks on the behind with her staff. After the third such spanking, however, he turned slowly and began to pace in a circular pattern around her. She turned her body with him, always facing him and keeping her weapon in the ready position.

"And who might you be?" he panted heavily.

"Iím Gabrielle, Bard of Potidaea, and traveling companion to Xena. And Iím here to teach you not to pick on old men." There was a strange sound from the bed and the person there sat up suddenly.

"Xena," it croaked, and Gabrielle saw two haunted eyes in a face that was monstrously disfigured. Her enemy saw, too, but was not as distracted as she was. With a heavy swing, he struck Gabrielleís staff with his sword, sending it spinning across the room.

"Now Iíve got you!" he bellowed, then began swiping playfully at her with the weapon. He was grinning at her with brown encrusted teeth, and the young woman knew that she had better get away from him one way or the other, or she was going to be in big trouble. Backing up with her palms raised towards him, she decided to see if she might be able to distract him with talking.

"Now, look. You know I was just playing around, donít you? I mean, only a fool would think they stood a chance against a strong guy like you."

"Thatís right, sweetie, and weíre going to do a lot more playing around in just a minute."

Uh-oh. Gabrielle felt something touch her foot and realized that it was a large candlestand near the entrance to the bedchamber.

Hmm, she thought. Long, thin, metal.

Scummy Gums licked his lips.

Good enough. Reaching back and grasping the stand with both hands, she brought it around just as she would her staff and let the oaf have it with the candle end. The swing snuffed out the candles, but the sharp decorative pieces holding them in made quite an impression on his faceóliterally. He staggered backward and reached up to feel the blood trickling across his cheek. His eyes opened wide in shock and rage, and he came at Gabrielle with a cry of animal fury.

This time Iím not taking my eyes off him, she thought, as she raised the candelabra to block his blows. He seemed to come at her endlessly. High, middle, low. She jumped as his sword whooshed under her feet. He swung overheard toward her face, and she held up the stand.

Ching!

Sparks flew off as the two metals touched, and Gabrielle was forced to turn and back towards the balcony as the powerful man continued to swing. He wasnít fast, but he was strong, and Gabrielle was beginning to wonder how long she could continue to fight with him. Her arms were starting to feel like weights. Suddenly, she felt a breath of air behind her and realized that the balcony bannister was at her back. The pirate halted for just a moment and wiped sweat from his brow.

"Where ya gonna go now?í he growled. " No way but down for you, girlie." He rushed towards her with one final cry and raised his sword high overhead. Raising the candelabra to block the blow, she did something sheíd seen Xena do a million times. She sidestepped at the very last minute, then swung her weapon around and hit him in the back as hard as she could. The man realized his mistake just as his head and shoulders hurtled out over the balcony rail. The blow from Gabrielle was all the rest of him needed to follow. Flapping his arms like a bird, he flipped over the rail and crashed through a tree and a thornbush before hitting the ground with a sickening thud.

Gabrielle leaned out over the balcony and surveyed her handiwork. He was moaning slightly and barely moving, but he wasnít going anywhere for quite some time. All in all, sheíd done pretty well. Lots of maiming, but no killing. She didnít like killing. It was something she hoped sheíd never like. She would always look for other means when possible.

She heard a wheezing sound behind her and turned to see the old king struggling to sit up in the bed. Stepping back into the shadows of the bedroom, she placed the candlestand back on the floor and scooped up her staff.

"Are you all right, Your Highness?" she said as she slowly stepped toward the canopied bed. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she stifled the gasp that rose in her throat at the sight of the old king. His robe hung off his arms and shoulders as if it clothed a skeleton, and his hands were shriveled and drawn up as if forever clutching something tightly. It was his face, however, that was the most horrific. Two blue eyes, as blue as Xenaís, stared out of sunken sockets that were underlined with deep shadows, and his mouth on one side was drawn down in a perpetual grimace from the scars that covered that side of this face. Even his strands of white hair were completely gone on the right side of his head. Gabrielle had seen enough to know that these couldnít possibly be sword wounds, but were evidence that the old king had been burned, and burned severely, at one time.

Despite the repulsion his visage inspired, Gabrielle took a deep breath and smiled, repeating her question.

"Can I help you, Your Highness? Are you all right?"

The old man stared at her with his mouth agape as she approached the bed, then suddenly crinkled up his frightening eyes and smiled a toothless grin.

"Oh yes, my dear. Did you say you were a friend of Xenaís?"

"Yes," she said a little reluctantly as she continued to step towards him. What if Xena had done some terrible atrocity to him or his family back in her wilder days? It was definitely a possibility. "Sheís in the city, driving out the rest of the pirates. Sheís been a changed person for many years now."

"Oh, I know all about Xenaís changed ways and all her good deeds," he croaked. "And youíre her friend, are you?"

Gabrielle smiled. She could afford to brag a little. Sheíd done well just now. "Her best friend. " She paused long enough to let that sink in and the old king nodded. " But enough of that. Can I get you anything? We canít breathe easily just yet. Polyeidus tells me thereís another raider in the castle somewhere. Iíll have to take care of him."

"Oh, I understand," the king practically cooed, "But will you just step close to me here, dear, so I can take a good look at you? My eyes arenít what they used to be, and I never get to see pretty girls anymore." At this, he experienced a fit of coughing that racked his entire frail body. Gabrielle rushed to the side of the bed and filled a cup with what appeared to be water from a pitcher next to the bed.

"Oh, thank you, my dear," he wheezed as he reached out for the cup with his withered hands. "Thank you so much indeed." Something about the way he said it made Gabrielle shudder.

 

Continues here...


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