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by L. Fox
Iolaus' lungs were on fire and he knew could not last much longer. He had hoped to out-distance his pursuers but they doggedly remained about thirty or forty paces behind him. And now they were beginning to gain on him. The events of the past hour had happened all too quickly. How had those guys disabled Hercules like that? He and Hercules had been on their way to Philedonia when they had ran into these men. Hercules hadn't even known what hit him. One of them had just shoved a rag soaked with some evil smelling liquid into Herc's face and he had dropped like a stone
Iolaus, of course, had tried to help his friend but there had just been too many of them. The only thing he could do was try to escape and get help.
The last sight he had of Hercules was of him being loaded onto a cart that carried a- what was it? A cage. Hercules was being dumped into a cage like some animal. The pain in Iolaus' side was becoming unbearable. He looked up the road and saw that it led into a large patch of woods. If I can just make it in there, he thought, maybe I can lose them. As he reached the edge of the woods, however, his legs betrayed him. Looking back over his shoulder, he did not see the small gully in the road which had been washed out by the previous night's rain. As his left foot landed in the gully, the mud caught his toes and tripped him. Normally it would not have even thrown him off stride but now he was just too tired to keep his balance. Iolaus was still lying in the road when his adversaries caught up with him.
"Well, you scrawny little bastard," panted their captain. "You gave us a good run but now the only running you will be doing is from a hole in your guts." The man savagely kicked Iolaus in the ribs.
"You know, kicking a man while he's down is really bad form." The men had not noticed the stranger now addressing them approach from over a little rise in the road. "In fact, it is the act of a slug-lipped, scum-eating son of a bitch."
"That's mighty tough talk for one man," roared the captain. "Maybe you want to join our friend here."
"Thanks for the invitation, boys, but I don't associate much with dung heaps like you," said the stranger.
"That's too bad, friend," spat the captain. "Now I am going to have to insist on it. Get him, boys."
The four men nearest the stranger immediately began to attack. As the stranger was armed only with a staff, it looked to be a simple task to teach this bastard a lesson. But it was not such a simple task after all. With astonishing expertise the stranger brought down three of his attackers with one swipe of his staff and side stepped the fourth as he charged by. The stranger collared him by the neck and slammed his head into a tree. Now he turned to face the next wave of combatants. These men had seen what the stranger had done to their comrades and did not charge in to attack so recklessly. The five of them tried to encircle him but the stranger was too nimble for them. Each attempt at encirclement brought down another flurry of blows on them from the stranger's staff. Finally, one of the soldiers managed to cut the stranger on the arm with his sword.
"Well, it looks like you are human, after all," said the soldier. "It's only a matter before we take you."
"Speaking of time," replied the stranger, "I think yours is about up."
With this the stranger charged the soldiers and brained the first one with his staff. Seizing the fallen man's sword, the stranger began hacking furiously at his assailants. Within a matter of seconds the man had killed another one of the soldiers. Now the men were backing away, hoping to get some signal from their captain to withdraw. Their captain, however, was no longer capable of giving commands. Iolaus had recovered enough to crack him on the skull with a tree limb.
With the loss of their leader the three remaining men began to flee. As they ran past Iolaus he slammed his fist into one of the men's face. He had no sooner bent over to finish him off when he heard a whooshing sound rush past him punctuated by a scream. The stranger had heaved his sword at one of the retreating men and had caught the unfortunate fellow squarely between the shoulder blades. Only one of the men managed to escape.
"Thank you for your help," said Iolaus. "I would have been a goner if you had not come along when you did."
"Iolaus, why is it I always seem to find you laid out in the middle of the road?" The stranger was wearing a tunic with a hood which partially hid his face. Now, the man slowly turned to face Iolaus and removed his hood.
"Darinius, is that really you?" asked Iolaus.
"Yes, Iolaus, it's me," answered Darinius. "It has been a long time hasn't it?" It was the first time Iolaus had seen his old general in over ten years.
Darinius, universally recognized as the greatest general and leader of his time, did not start out to be a soldier. He was born and raised in a rich, fertile valley known as Mymalar. As the valley prospered, word of it's wealth began to spread. Naturally, this eventually brought the valley under attack by warlords. The valley, which contained several villages, decided to band together and form an army for defense. Since none of them knew anything about being a soldier, arrangements were made to send twenty of the valley's best young men to Sparta to learn the art of war. Upon the completion of their obligation to Sparta, the men would return to Mymalar and train the others. Darinius was one of the young men chosen to go to Sparta.
The young men enlisted in Sparta's army and began to acquire all the skills necessary to become good soldiers. Soon they were fighting in Sparta's battles and Darinius discovered he had a real talent not only for physical combat but for leadership as well.
Meanwhile, in the two years the men were away, their valley was hit three more times by raiders resulting in the loss of most of both the harvests. It was during the last of these raids that Lycidia, the girl Darinius was to marry upon his return, was killed.
At the end of their two year enlistment there were fourteen of the valley's men left alive to return home. They had become excellent soldiers and Sparta's officers tried to convince them to stay. They especially wanted Darinius to remain, going so far as to offer him a captaincy in their army- a great honor for one so young. Darinius, however, longed to see his Lycidia again and returned home with the others. Upon his return he was crushed to learn of his beloved's death. For a time he contemplated taking his own life but his sense of duty to the valley and it's people eventually won out and he feverishly set to work helping to train the other men of the valley for the purpose of forming an army.
Although Darinius clearly was the most effective in training and organizing the new army, when the time came to name the army's leader he has was passed over. Instead he was named commander of one of the army's four battalions. Darinius was not disappointed by this slight and threw himself into making his unit the best of the four.
At last the day came when word was received from the scouts that an army was approaching. Darinius felt that the valley's men were well disciplined and their weapons skills were very good. Of course, they had never actually been bloodied in battle but there was a first time for everything and Darinius knew they were as ready as they would ever be.
The next day the battle started and the defenders started off well. As the battle wore on, however, the experience of the invaders began to tell and the valley's army began to be driven back. It was at precisely this critical moment that Mathias, the valley's leader, froze and became incapable of command. The battalion commanders begged Darinius to take charge and he did so.
Under the cover of darkness he skillfully withdrew his forces to pre- determined fall-back postions and the next day led the army to victory. After this battle there was no doubt as to who the army's commander was-Darinius.
One day while on a routine inspection tour of the valley, Darinius happened to come upon a young man lying motionless beside the road. For a moment Darinius thought he was dead but he soon saw the young man was merely unconscious. There were no wounds or bruises on him but he was very weak. After sending Phillip, his aide, to a nearby village for a cart Darinius tried to revive the young man. The young man opened his eyes for a second and tried to form words but only lapsed back into his lassitude. Soon Phillip returned leading two villagers who were riding in a cart.
"I would like you to take this man to your village," said Darinius. "Tell me, has Felicia returned from Athens?"
"Just yesterday, Darinius," replied the cart driver.
"Good, tell her to please attend to this man for me and I will come in a couple of days to observe his progress," said Darinius.
"It will be done."
Two day later Darinius knocked on the door of Felicia, the healer.
"So, how is he?" asked Darinius.
"See for yourself," answered Felicia. "There was nothing wrong with him that a few decent meals could not fix."
"You mean, he was starving?"
"Yes, and it was a good thing he is such a strong young man or he would not have survived." Felicia lead him into a side room where the young man was sitting up in a bed.
"Well, you certainly look a lot better than the last time I saw you," said Darinius.
"You have been very kind," said the young man.
"Tell me, what's your name?" asked Darinius.
"Iolaus," said Felicia.
Darinius cast an amused eye at Felicia and asked, "So, Iolaus, what work of the Fates caused you to almost starve to death in our valley?"
"Well, I've been just sort of wandering around," said Iolaus. "And, times being what they are, it is hard to earn money for food. Sometimes I am able to get a good meal from a farmer or a kind villager but most of the time I eat what I can find."
"Don't you have a home?" asked Felicia.
" No I don't."
"Iolaus, how would like to have a job?" asked Darinius. "It does not pay much but you will get plenty to eat."
"I am afraid I am not much good at anything," said Iolaus.
"Do you have any experience with a sword?"
"Some," answered Iolaus. "My father was a soldier. He gave me a few lessons when I was younger. After he was killed I-"
"I see. Well, it's not really vital to what I have in mind anyway.You see, I am always looking for good scouts to range out of the valley and report back any intelligence they might gather," said Darinius. "Do you think you might be interested?"
"I could give it a try," said Iolaus.
"Good. Felicia, when he is strong enough, would you please have someone bring him to my headquarters?"
"Uh, by the way, whom will I be working for?" asked Iolaus.
"You will be working for the people of this valley but you will report to me. My name is Darinius."
It soon became apparent Iolaus had a natural talent for being a scout. He always reported back on time with accurate and reliable information. In time he even began to learn the ways of a soldier. Lightning quick and very athletic, he soon became more than a match for any two or even three men. Darinius saw that with each passing month Iolaus' self confidence was growing.
After about a year Iolaus began to show signs of restlessness and Darinius guessed that it would not be long before he took to the road once again. At least this time he will be better able to handle himself, thought Darinius.
Sure enough, one spring morning Iolaus knocked on the door at Darinius' headquarters.
"Ah, Darinius, may I have a word with you?" asked Iolaus.
"What can I do for you, Iolaus?" Darinius noted how nervous Iolaus was.
"Well-ah, on my last mission I ran into this ah-bard.
"Well, uh he told me this fellow, Jason, is looking to recruit some good
men to sail with him," said Iolaus. "They say Hercules is with him."
"So you want to join the quest for the Golden Fleece, is that it?"
"Uh, yeah. Darinius I hope-"
"Iolaus there is nothing to holding you here," said Darinius. "You are not obligated to us in any way. You have been of great service to the people of this valley and I am grateful. To tell you the truth, if I could, I would join you. When does he sail?"
"Very soon so I must hurry," answered Iolaus.
"I understand." Darinius reached into a chest and produced a small bag of coins, "Here, take this."
"Darinius, I can't take that." This was becoming almost too much for Iolaus. Darinius had been like a big brother to him.
"Take it. It's an order. Think of it as mustering out pay." For a an awkward moment they just stood there looking at each other.
"You know, Iolaus, I hate good- byes so get out of here."
"Thanks, Darinius, I will never forget what you have done for me."
"I'll remember you too. Good luck," said Darinius. Iolaus and Darinius shook hands, Darinius patted him on the shoulder, and Iolaus was gone.
Under the leadership of Darinius the valley successfully repelled several more invasion attempts. Darinius, noting how his army was almost always outnumbered, became a master in the tactical use of long range weapons such as the bow and the catapault. One especially feared weapon was a large, clay pot filled with a secret mixture of oils. The oils in the pot were ignited by a fuse and shot from a catapault. Upon impact, the pot would explode, spreading the flaming oil all over the ememy.
Soon, Darinius began to receive reports of a new warlord in the land. To his surprise he discovered this warlord - ruthless, cunning, and brave beyond belief was a woman. He learned her name was Xena and she was as yet undefeated in battle. He also knew it was only a matter of time before they met on the battlefield so he began to formulate a plan for her- and her alone. Darinius began to send out scouts to secretly study her movements, her chain of command, and how she deployed her army in battle.
From the intelligence gathered by his scouts, Darinius decided that although Xena was very skilled and fearless in battle, she was also relatively inexperienced at that point. Basically her tactics were to just lower her army's head and shove. His plan was to use her aggressiveness against her by baiting portions of her army into pre-set traps. By using his vaunted long range weapons and fortifying the surrounding high ground, he felt he could defeat this deadly menace.
At last, the day came when word was received of Xena's approach. Xena and a couple of her lieutenants, Darphus and Borias, rode into the village of Tumas to make their demands. Darinius was there to meet them. At once he could tell she was no ordinary woman. Tall, muscular, dark, no more than twenty or twenty-one, she was far more imposing than any of the Amazons he had met. And she was without a doubt the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He even grudgingly admitted she was more beautiful than his beloved Lycidia.
From her mannerisms it was clear Xena was used to being in command. Proud, with supreme confidence in herself, this was no conventional enemy.
Xena, Darphus, and Borias rode up to where Darinius was standing and encircled him with their horses. Usually by now their prey was already more than willing to acquiesce to their demands but Xena already saw this guy was different. He was not impressed by their little attempt at intimidation. Well, that was just too bad, thought Xena.
"What is your name?' asked Xena.
"I have heard of you," said Xena. They say you are very good. However, you cannot possibly win here. To save yourselves from destruction all you have to do is supply us with a few 'essentials' and we will be on our way. No harm will come to your people, I promise you."
"I know all about the promises you make," answered Darinius. Somehow I don't think the word of a murdering harlot amounts to much." Darinius was playing an early mind game with his opponents. He wanted to find out how they reacted to the unexpected.
"No bastard speaks to the Warrior Princess that way," roared Darphus. "You need to be taught some manners."
"Then why don't you get down off that horse and teach me some, big man?"
Darphus immediately began to dismount but was stopped by Xena. She had been eyeing this insolent stranger intensely and she saw no fear in his eyes. Darphus would be making a grave mistake by taking on this man. It was too bad one such as this would have to die. Xena leaned over and put her face close to Darinius' and hissed, " The death of these people is on your head, not mine."
Rage only seemed to make her more beautiful, thought Darinius. He could not help but admire her. Xena jerked the reins of her horse around and, trailed by her subordinates, gallopped out of the village.
The next day the epic battle began. Despite being outnumbered almost two to one, the battle went exactly as Darinius had planned. With his army firmly planted on the high ground and his catapaults spewing their firery death, his army managed to break up Xena's assault. Darinius then ordered a massive counterattack and succeeded in driving a good part of her army into a large ravine where it was slaughtered. As Xena reluctantly ordered a withdrawal she was hit by another force which had been hidden in the forest. Only Xena's astounding personal courage and skill kept her army from becoming totally annihilated.
In the final moments of the battle, as Xena was personally leading a rear guard action to allow the remnants of her army escape, she and Darinius met again. Engulfed with rage at the one who has dealt her her first defeat, she and Darinius clashed. For a half an hour they engaged in an epic and ferocious single combat. Even in this Xena is frustrated. Although she managed to wound Darinius, it became apparent he was her equal. Xena finally cursed Darinius and left the battlefield to him.
This is the battle that cemented Darinius' fame. From this day forward the valley of Mymalar was no longer subjected to threat of attack. For five years the valley prospered and a grateful people bestowed on Darinius lands and wealth fit for a king. Being only human, Darinius did not refuse these gifts but he was really not interested in acquiring wealth. A certain restlessness was beginning to rise up in him. But he could not leave just yet.
Darinius knew even before the first battle with Xena was over that they would fight again someday. She was just too proud of a warrior to swallow the bitter potion of defeat for very long. During the five years of peace Darinius constantly kept his vigilance. He continued to train his men, send out his far ranging scouts, and perfect his plan of battle.
When Xena finally returned it was with a massive army numbering almost ten thousand men. In what was to become known as the legendary Second Battle of Mymalar, the long years of preparation by Darinius again paid off. He was again able to dictate where the battle was to be fought. Once again relying on his faithful catapaults, he was able to do considerable damage to Xena's forces before they were close enough to strike back. But Xena, being the great commander she now was, had also learned lessons from the first battle. She held off her big assault until nightfall when the deadly catapaults were not nearly as effective. Darinius had planned for this and had had long,deep trenches dug, filled them with sharp stakes, and then camouflaged them. With the advantage of knowing every single inch of the battlefield, Darinius's superbly trained and well disciplined army again succeeded in splitting up Xena's much larger force. Using the trenches to seal off and entrap the enemy, the Army of Mymalar was able to chop up Xena's forces piecemeal by Darinius's skillful use of archers and infantrymen armed with long lances and shields.
By daybreak it was over. At the time it is the second greatest battle fought in the entire Mediterranean area. Only Xena's titanic struggle with Tyldus and the centaurs at Corinth three years earlier was bloodier. Unlike that battle, this one was decisive. Darinius and his men had prevailed- but only barely.
For both Xena and Darinius it was an event that would forever alter their lives. After this battle Xena decided that such a huge army was not practicable and scaled back her force to one which she could command personally.This decision would eventually force her to take Hercules into account- with all the amazing developments that would result from their encounter.
Darinius' life was also changed by this battle. He now knew the valley was completely secure and he was at last free to deal with his own personal conflicts. After relinquishing command of the Army of Mymalar to Athis, his faithful and trusted second in command, Darinius bid an emotional farewell to his beloved soldiers.
But Darinius soon found that his fame would not let him go in peace. On three occasions during his travels he was called upon to help people defend their homes against attackers and each time he was victorious. He was now the most famous soldier in all of the eastern Mediterranean. It was even rumored he was to take command of the forces at Troy. Darinius, however, would have none of it. He had had enough. He decided the only way to get any peace would be to disguise himself. He grew a thick beard and began to wear the worst clothing he could find. The only reminder of his warrior past was the long leather bag he carried to keep his weapons in as he now rarely used them. He had found that a simple staff was usually more than enough to discourage anyone foolish enough to bother him.
It was during the early part of his travels that he met a man whom would become the first non-military friend of his adult life. The man's name was Autolycus and he was a thief. Darinius knew he was a thief but it did not matter to him. Over the years Darinius had developed an ability to read people and he knew Autolycus was, in fact, a good guy. Times were hard and one had to do what they could to survive and Autolycus was no exception. Besides, he had never harmed anyone and, for the most part, tried to steal from those least liable to be hurt by it. In fact, Autolycus had taken one look at Darinius' mean dress and had offfered him coins!
For about the last year or so, during his wanderings, Darinius had begun to hear about the great deeds being performed by a warrior woman. Darinius wondered if this could possibly be Xena. To his astonishment he learned that this was, in fact, the woman's name. Darinius could scarcely believe it. He felt it had to be some sort of scheme on her part. He had to see for himself. He was on his way to find her when he encountered Iolaus and his "friends" on that muddy road through the forest.
Chapter 4 Allies
"Iolaus, why in Tartarus are you out here in the middle of nowhere about to be made into a pin cushion by these guys?" asked Darinius.
"They, they have taken Hercules. These bastards were trying to keep me from going for help," replied Iolaus, still trying to regain his wind.
"Do you know where Hercules is being taken?"
"No, all I saw was him being loaded into some kind of cage."
"A cage? How could a cage hold someone like Hercules? Well it doesn't matter. We have got to find out what is happening here. I think we should follow the one that escaped. He is bound to return to his mates and give the alarm. Iolaus, do you feel up to it?"
"I'm all right now," said Iolaus.
The trail left behind by the fleeing man was not hard to follow. The distinctive footprints his boots made in the soft earth were like a sign post pointing the way. Iolaus and Darinius trailed him to the sea port village of Cataria. By the judicious use of a few coins, they were able to learn that a group of men carrying what seemed to be a covered cage had boarded a ship and had departed not more than an hour ago after a man who was breathless and very excited had joined them. They also learned that these men had taken along another man not part of their party. It took a couple more dinars to learn the destination of the ship- Kathos, a small island southeast of Cataria.
"I have got to get ship and go after them," said Iolaus.
"Hold on, Iolaus, the two of us would not stand a chance on Kathos by ourselves. I have heard of the place and I know it will be a tough nut for us to crack."
"But we can't just let them take him," protested Iolaus.
"They already have him," reminded Darinius. "I know how you feel, Iolaus, but we have to keep our heads here. We are going to have to have a plan and we are going to have to have some help."
"Darinius, I don't expect you to help me," said Iolaus.
Darinius could see Iolaus was still too upset to think very clearly.
"Now you know I am not going to deny help to a former member of my army. Besides, I have always wanted to meet Hercules." Here Darinius paused to gather himself before he continued. "Iolaus, tell me something, have you ever heard of a woman named Xena?"
"Yeah, she and Hercules are good friends. She has sometimes helped us out of some really tough spots." Iolaus conveniently left out the details of his personal experiences with her.
"So it's true, then. She really is fighting for good these days?"
"Yeah, she has done some pretty amazing things." Iolaus was starting to feel a little uncomfortable about this discussion. "Why do you ask?"
"Well, if we are going to Kathos we will need all the muscle we can get and no one better fits that description than Xena," said Darinius.
Iolaus did not say anything but already he was having reservations about this. He and Xena had long since patched up their differences but he still did not relish the idea of calling on her for help. She always made him feel a little inferior somehow.
"Darinius, you and Xena were the worst of enemies. How come you now want her to help you- us go after Hercules?" Like everyone else, Iolaus knew of the two massive battles the pair of them had fought.
"Times change, Iolaus. People change. To get Hercules back we are going to need the best people and, believe me, Xena is the best. If she is the friend to Hercules you say she is then I do not expect any trouble between us." Darinius noted the seeming hesitation on the part of Iolaus. "Now we need to decide on the rest of the team. First, we will need someone good with locks, or picking them to be more specific."
"Autolycus," said Iolaus immediately.
"You know him, too?" asked Darinius. "Iolaus, you really have been getting around haven't you? You are right, though, he is the best man for the job. Now, if we just had somebody who was good at talking their way through stuff we would be all set. None of us are exactly bards and where we are heading I think it might come in handy."
"Who is Gabrielle?" inquired Darinius.
"Xena's best friend and companion," said Iolaus. "She can talk a harpy out of it's wings.
"Then Xena certainly has changed," allowed Darinius. "She wasn't one to tolerate talkers much in the old days. Iolaus, I think it would be best if you get Xena while I go for Autolycus," said Darinius.
Why don't you get Xena and let me go after Autolycus?" asked Iolaus who was still plainly uncomfortable with all this.
"Xena's participation is critical to the success of our plan," answered Darinius. "If I go I am not sure how she will react to me."
At last Iolaus agreed.
"Good. Now, see that inn at the end of the street?" asked Darinius. We will meet there at sunset in three days time, hire a ship and go after Hercules. Remember, Iolaus, don't tell Xena about my involvement in this. We will spring it on her when you get back."
"Right. See you then," said Iolaus.
Although he was not to keen about it, Darinius knew he must buy a horse because there was so little time to reach Autolycus. Fortunately for him, Darinius already knew where Autolycus was. He was in jail in Meredia. Well, it wasn't really a jail as such or Autolycus would have probably already escaped. In truth the Meredians kept their prisoners in, of all things, a cess pool! Admittedly it was an old one and it was dry now but the stench had to still be pretty bad.
Poor guy, thought Darinius. Autolycus had had a string of bad luck lately and this had to be especially humiliating for him. Worst of all, he had not even been jailed for stealing. The authorities in Meredia did not allow weapons of any kind in their town and Autolycus, who was there casing a rich merchant, had been discovered with that spring loaded grappling hook of his up his sleeve. It was instantly assumed to be some kind of exotic weapon and Autolycus, not having the money for the 100 dinar fine, was left to cool his heels with a six month jail sentence.
Darinius didn't know if he could coax Autolycus into going with him or not but he allowed he had some points in his favor. Most obvious was the fact that Darinius would be getting him out of that cess pool. If that failed he would pose it as a challenge to his talents- he had a real weakness as far as this was concerned. If that didn't bring him around, Darinius figured he could always whack him over the head and kidnap him.
Upon reaching Meredia, Darinius made arrangements to have Autolycus released. Autolycus was grateful but he knew there had to be a catch. Sure enough, after hearing the details of the plan, he began to have reservations.
"C'mon, Autolycus," grinned Darinius. "This is Hercules we are talking about here, remember?"
"Okay, Okay, I'll go. Besides, it will be good to see Xena again. She, uh, has a thing for me, you know."
"Come on, lover boy," said Darinius, rolling his eyes. "Let's go find you a horse."
Likewise, Iolaus had no trouble locating Xena and Gabrielle. For all her good qualities, Xena was about as subtle as one of Zeus' lightning bolts. He soon learned she and Gabrielle were en route to Athens for the annual bard's competition. Obviously it was for Gabrielle's benefit but Iolaus chuckled to himself when he thought about what might happen if it were Xena who was in the competetion. If the judges did not like her story- well it could be hazardous to their health.
Early on the morning of the second day Iolaus caught up with Xena and Gabrielle on the road to Agris. He quickly ran through the details of Hercules' capture. Naturally, Xena agreed to join Iolaus and then tried to convince Gabrielle to go on to Athens. Gabrielle would have none of it. Xena was still trying to change her mind when Iolaus told her it had been decided that Gabrielle would be needed. Gabrielle said that it was nice that SOMEBODY appreciated her. This dig only served to irritate Xena more until the significance of Iolaus's remark struck her.
"Decided. Decided by whom?' asked Xena suspiciously.
"Well, I can't say," said Iolaus.
Xena's irritation was now directed at Iolaus as well as Gabrielle. But she decided to drop it- for now.
Since they would now be on the road all day and they had not had breakfast yet, Xena told Gabrielle to walk back to that little clump of huts that served or a village they had just passed through and try to buy some food. Gabrielle started to protest but all it got her was one of those "looks" from Xena so she sighed and trudged back up the road.
Meanwhile, Darinius and Autolycus had entered the village from the other side. They, too, were hungry. Since it was still very early the only thing open was the inn. They tied up their horses at the water trough and walked the thirty or so paces up the street to the inn. After purchasing something that looked like meat and some dry bread Darinius turned to leave. But Autolycus, not used to riding a horse, asked him if they could eat their food at one of the inn's tables so he could work out some of his kinks. Darinius picked out a table located by the huge bar which served to partially hide it from view by most of the other tables in the room.
As they sat there choking down their sorry excuse for a breakfast the silence was broken by the arrival of six large soldiers wearing armor and armed with those short swords which were now becoming all the rage. They noisily stomped over to a table on the other side of the inn and began to demand mead. The sight of so many uniforms began to make Autolycus nervous and he was just about to suggest to Darinius that they should be on their way when a familiar voice floated through the door.
"Excuse me, are you open for business?"
Autolycus craned his neck to see around the bar and his suspicions were confirmed by the appearance of the petite form now advancing toward the innkeeper. "That's Gabrielle," he whispered.
"If nothing happens let's just mind our own business," said Darinius.
All through this the soldiers had been hooting and making lewd suggestions to Gabrielle. She had been through this many times and knew it was best to just ignore them. After putting the food she had just purchased into her bag, she turned to make her way to the door. At first she believed she was actually going to get out of there without any fuss but she had not taken four steps when she found her way blocked by three of the huge men. Gabrielle cursed herself for not bringing her staff with her but she had not expected trouble in such a run down place.
"Ah, if you don't mind, would you please let me pass?" she asked.
"Well now, cutie, I think we were here first," sneered one of the men.
"Okaaay." Gabrielle turned to try to walk around the other way when one of the soldiers grabbed her by the arm.
"What's your hurry, honey? Why don't you join us over here?
"HEY, let me go you big dumb ox," said Gabrielle, gritting her teeth. She lashed out with the heel of her foot and caught one of the men squarely on the knee causing him to howl in pain. She quickly followed this up with an elbow to the stomach of the one holding her arm but her blow was not very solid and the soldier responded by seizing her in a bear hug.
"My, but you are a spunky little thing, aren't you," grinned her captor. "That's going to make things much more interesting."
"If you don't let her go, the only thing you will be interested in is knowing many teeth you still have left," said Darinius as he stood up and faced the soldiers. Well here we go, thought Autolycus. He had on previous occasions seen what Darinius could do.
"Cutie, it looks like you have got yourself a hero here. Boys, take care of this big mouth," snarled Gabrielle's captor.
The first two soldiers rushed at Darinius . The one unfortunate enough to reach him first swung at him, hit nothing but air, and received an upper cut to the jaw for his troubles which knocked him out. Darinius then spun around in time to catch the second man in the groin with a solid kick. The soldier who had been holding Gabrielle now released her and drew his sword. As he started towards Darinius Gabrielle managed to get her foot in front of him and trip him. The soldier stumbled sideways toward the bar and was bashed over the head with a wine bottle by Autolycus.
By now the three other soldiers had risen from their seats and were on the attack. Darinius jerked the sword out of the belt of the man lying at his feet and readied himself. He deftly dodged the first assailant's clumsy lunge and, as he passed by, Darinius whacked him hard on the butt with the flat side of his sword. Before the soldier could completely turn around Darinius caught him with a left hook and down the guy went. While Darinius was occupied with his man, the next soldier decided it might be better to try Autolycus instead. Unfortunately for Autolycus his man was the biggest and strongest of the bunch. The huge soldier grabbed Autolycus by the throat with both hands and began to savagely choke him. Gabrielle was astonished that Autolycus' eyes could bulge out that far and not burst. Autolycus now decided to take a page from Sinteres' scroll. He jabbed his fingers hard into the huge man's eyes and at once felt the pressure on his throat ease. Autolycus now head-butted the man twice and finished him off with a crack over the head from a poker. Only then did he feel the searing pain in his forehead. How come that doesn't seem to bother Xena?, he wondered.
What happened next was something that Gabrielle was becoming all too familiar with. The last soldier took advantage of the confusion to sneak up behind her. Gabrielle once again found a dagger to her throat. Oh no, not again, she thought. Out of the corner of his eye Darinius saw the soldier rushing at Gabrielle but it was too late. Having taken care of all the soldier's buddies, Autolycus and Darinius now turned to face this far more serious threat.
"One more step and the girl gets a new air hole so, BACK OFF," screamed the soldier.
"Now look, you don't want to hurt the girl," said Darinius. "You just put down the knife and we will let you walk out of here."
"Surrre you will," answered the soldier. "I think I like it better this way."
This could go on all day, thought Darinius. We can't let that happen. He wants to stall until these guys wake up. With a good partner like Autolycus to back him up Darinius normally would have been extremely confident about the situation but Gabrielle was the wild card in all this. For once he was at a loss as to what to do. Fortunately, Gabrielle solved the dilemma for him.
"Oh goodness, I'm sooo scared," she said breathlessly. Gabrielle let her knees buckle and pretended to swoon. Her unwitting abductor bent over to catch her and, as he did so, exposed the top of his head. Before Darinius could react he heard something go SPROOIIING. Autolycus had fired off his grappling hook and hit the unsuspecting soldier squarely in the head. As he man sank to his knees Gabrielle rammed her knee into his forehead and he melted to the floor.
"Good work, Autolycus," said Darinius as he rushed to Gabrielle.
"If those stupid Meredians had seen that I would still be in jail there," replied Autolycus. "Gabrielle are you all right?"
"Me-oh-yeah, I'm fine. Thank you Autolycus," said Gabrielle. She turned to the bearded man with the dirty tunic. "And thank you too, sir."
"That's quite all right, young lady," said Darinius. "Any friend of Autolycus' is a friend of mine." He looked around at the lumps on the floor and said, "I think it would be best if we got out of here."
Gabrielle gathered up her bag and the three of them stepped out into the street. "Ah, I have a couple of friends waiting for me outside of town. Why don't you and Autolycus join us for breakfast? I'm sure my friend would like to thank you for your kindness."
"Hey, that sounds like a good idea," said Autolycus.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle, but Autolycus and I are in kind of a hurry," said Darinius.
Darn it, thought Autolycus.
"It's just that I'm sure my friend would like to thank you personally," said Gabrielle. For the first time Gabrielle got a good look at those pierceing eyes."You know," she continued, "You remind me of her a lot."
"I consider it an honor to be compared so favorably to the Warrior Princess," said Darinius as he bowed to Gabrielle.
This guy is no peasant, thought Gabrielle. Or thief for that matter. This guy was or is someone used to being in charge. Then it struck her. How did he know about Xena? Autolycus surely must have told him she decided.
"Uh, Gabrielle, you said you had two friends waiting?" asked Autolycus.
"Yes, Iolaus is with us," said Gabrielle. "You know, this will make a great story."
"Autolycus tells me you are a gifted bard," smiled Darinius.
"Well, I'm still learning," she said, returning his smile. What a lovely young woman, thought Darinius.
"Could I ask you something? Where did you learn to fight like that?" asked Gabrielle.
"In Sparta, a long time ago," answered Darinius.
"Where are you from?" Gabrielle knew she was being nosy but there was more to this rough-looking man than met the eye.
"I call the road home mostly nowdays," said Darinius. He turned and looked down the street to where their horses were tied up. "Gabrielle, I don't mean to be rude but we really must be going. Autolycus, say good bye to your friend and I'll get the horses."
Darinius stepped behind Gabrielle, put a finger over his lips to warn Autolycus not to say too much and started off after the horses.
Gabrielle began to pump Autolycus as to who the man with him was but she could got get him to reveal anything. Why all the secrecy?, she wondered. Autolycus decided he had to change the subject. "By the way, Gabrielle, you didn't happen to find a ring, did you?" he asked slyly. "I seem to have lost one. You know, that big one you were so interested in."
"Oh, yeah-a ring, right. Uh,no-ah well, maybe." Gabrielle decided she might as well spill the beans. "As a matter of fact, I did."
"And where is it now, pray tell?" asked Autolycus, relieved to have diverted her attention away from Darinius.
"Wellll, I uh, I sold it." answered Gabrielle meekly. "You see, I needed some new boots and we didn't have any money so I -"
"That's okay, Gabrielle," said Autolycus, now sorry for the discomfort he was causing her. "I probably would not have gotten something so useful out of it when I sold it, anyway." By now Darinius had returned with the horses.
"Autolycus, we really must be on our way," he said. "Gabrielle, I am pleased to have met you."
"Thanks again for your help, guys," said Gabrielle. She then decided to give it one last try. "It would be to your benefit if my friend knew your name. She is very good at repaying debts."
Darinius merely smiled and said, "Xena already knows me, I think." He had already decided that this young woman was someone very special. "Take care of yourself, little bard." With that he and Autolycus started out of town the same way they came in.
Gabrielle stood in the street and watched them leave. "Wow," she said to herself under her breath. Gabrielle went flying back to Xena and Iolaus and breathlessly told them of the morning's adventure. Naturally, Xena became very concerned and asked her if she sure if she was all right. Still excited, Gabrielle told her yes, but she should have seen the guy that was with Autolycus. "Xena, I'd swear by the gods he was as good as you!" she exclaimed. "And, that's not all, he said he knew you."
It was at this point a small lamp was lit inside Xena's brain. "Tell me, what did he look like?" she asked.
"Well, he wasn't much to look at. He was about your height. A big scraggly beard- I don't think he had taken a bath for a while- average build for a warrior as skilled as he was, peasant's clothes- but Xena he was no peasant."
"Just his eyes. When he looks at you it's like he can see right through you straight into your soul."
That was all Xena needed to know. "Uh huh. I know who it is."
"Who, Xena?" asked Gabrille excitely.
"Has to be Darinius. No one else fits that description. Although the beard is something new."
Iolaus, who had been busy with the food Gabrielle had brought back now began to choke at Xena's mention of Darinius. Of course, Xena recognized at once Iolaus knew more about all this than he was telling. "What's this all about, Iolaus?" she asked sternly.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Iolaus replied, his mouth still full of food.
"Don't play innocent with me. I can read you like a scroll," said Xena. She walked over to where he was standing and bored her eyes into his. Iolaus, now wide eyed and getting very nervous, tried to avoid her gaze but it was no use. Xena stood towering over him menaceingly as he desparately tried to regain his composure. "You know, Iolaus, I could MAKE you tell me."
"But you won't, will you?" Gabrielle now worked her way in between the two of them and put her arm around Xena. "Xena, Iolaus must have his reasons. We will know all about this in due time."
"No, I guess not. Sorry, Iolaus, all this secrecy is a bit irritating to me," said Xena. "We had better get going if we want to make Cataria by tomorrow night. Xena left Gabrielle and Iolaus standing there together and went to check on Argo.
"Whew, that was close," gasped Iolaus.
"She's been in a bad mood for a couple of days. It's that time of the month, you know," whispered Gabrielle.
"Huh? Oh, yeah- I see. Ah- I think." Sheesh, thought Iolaus, the things I do for Hercules.
After leaving Gabrielle in the village, Darinius and Autolycus had ridden no farther up the road than enough to take them out of sight of the village. They then cut across country and doubled back around the village, coming out on the road well ahead of Xena's little group. Late in the evening of the second day they reached the little seaport town. For the third time Autolycus asked Darinius why he was taking such pains to keep Xena in the dark about his participation in this. For the third time he received the same reply. "I told you, the longer it takes for her to find out the less time she has to mull over our past history, said Darinius.
"Well, if you ask me, I think she would ally herself with Medusa if it meant helping Hercules," retorted Autolycus. Now that aroma which had been nagging at Autolycus for some time became too much for him. "Ah, Darinius, if we are all going to be so close together for a while I think one of us should take a bath. Body odor is not something Xena suffers lightly."
"You let me worry about Xena. Go get a room for us in the inn and I will put the horses in the stable," answered Darinius testily.
"Okay, okay, just trying to be helpful that's all," said Autolycus.
The next morning Autolycus awoke to find himself alone. Overcoming his initial puzzlement, he strode out into the street in hopes of getting a glimpse of Darinius. He saw nothing and as he turned to walk back inside he bumped into a man with what looked to be a bag of coins tied around his belt. For Autolycus this was too much. He looked to see if there was anyone watching as he ever so slowly inched his hand toward his target. Like taking candy from a baby, he thought.
"Don't even think about it, Autolycus."
Autolycus quickly jerked his hand back and spun around to find his friend. But Darinius was nowhere to be seem.
"Here I am Autolycus."
I must be going nuts, he decided.
The man with the coins now turned to face him. "You wouldn't want to steal our passage money, would you?" the man asked.
"Is, is that you, Darinius?" asked Autolycus incredulously. Darinius had shaved his beard, washed out his tunic, and by the judgement of Autolycus' nose, taken a bath.
"Sorry about that. When you have been on the road as long as I have it is easy to forget about such things. I just sold the horses. That's where all this money came from. Let's go try to find a ship."
They spent the better part of the rest of the day bargaining with ship's captains without success. No one would take five people to Kathos for less than 1000 dinars. Even with the sale of horses they had only 228 dinars. Autolycus suggested that maybe they ought to knock off a couple of the rich merchants conducting their business down at the docks. Darinius said it was tempting but they would have to find another way.
While Autolycus and Darinius spent the night sleeping in warm cots in the inn, Xena and her companions had made camp under the stars. After eating their rough supper they sat around the fire and caught up with each other's lives. Actually, Gabrielle and Iolaus did the catching up. Xena barely said anything at all. Soon she tired of their small talk and lay down on her blanket and tried go to sleep. She lay there listening to Iolaus tell Gabrielle about meeting the Enforcer, finding his father in Tartarus, and even being mistaken for a king. Then Gabrielle asked about Hercules. Iolaus said he was the same old hero he always was. He was still slaying monsters, saving villages, thwarting evil. This was followed by Gabrielle's innocent utterance of remarks that would open up a floodgate of emotions for Xena.
"I've missed you, Iolaus," said Gabrielle. "When I thought Xena was- was dead I almost came looking for you."
Upon hearing this Xena felt an ever so gentle tug at her heart by the green-eyed monster. After a moment she became angry at herself for being so selfish. Xena's powerful intellect turned to thoughts of what would happen to Gabrielle if someday she did die. Xena knew Gabrielle was probably stronger emotionally than she was. She hoped the girl would not mourn for her too long and get on with her life. It might even be hoped she would seek out someone strong and brave and true- someone like Iolaus maybe. Xena truly believed that one day Gabrielle would spread her fledgling wings and soar higher than anyone dared imaginable. The girl had talent. Xena had seen it often enough.
But Gabrielle needed to be protected, from herself as much as anything. She trusted people too much. She LIKED people too much. Gabrielle did not know what a stranger was. It was too easy for someone to take advantage of her kindness. Well, not while I'm here, Xena thought.
Her grim contemplations, however were not over. Usually Xena was able to keep from dwelling on things like this for very long but lying there listening to her beloved softly converse with Iolaus made it impossible to get it out of her mind. What if the truly unthinkable was to happen? What if it was Gabrielle who was dead? That terrifying experience in the temple of Aesculapius when Gabrielle had, in fact, died had almost driven her over the edge. Of course, she had made that promise that Gabrielle's death would not make Xena revert to the old ways but who really knew?
Whatever the circumstances of Gabrielle's death Xena knew it she would feel responsible. She would not help but feel that if she had only convinced Gabrielle not to leave her home after their little run in with Draco or if she had kept that eternally damned Callisto from murdering Perdicas, Gabrielle would yet live. Xena feared it would be Gabrielle's relationship with her that would be the cause of her death.
Gabrielle, that bright young woman with a marvelous gift for words, was also Xena's soft underbelly and a lot of her enemies knew it. Not that she was helpless. She had proven her bravery more than once, like the time she had whacked Xena over the back with that ridiculous pitchfork. She had been willing to take on the fierce Warrior Princess and fight for what was right. Xena could only marvel at what an act of courage that had been. She could name the number of "brave" men on one hand who would have had the guts to do what she did.
Now Xena had long ago learned the power of her own personality and the effects it had on others. Their were few she could not dominate by force of will alone. Even Gabrielle was influenced somewhat by it. But this little wisp of a young woman had accomplished something that not even the greatest king, general, or warlord could ever do- she'd conquered Xena's soul. It had not been a quick conquest, like one of Xena's dreaded lightning raids, but a gentle seige. The weapons that Gabrielle had used to break down the embattlements of hate within Xena's heart were those which had been for so long forgotten; kindness, compassion, unswerving devotion...love. Xena had been no match for them. She wondered how much Gabrielle really understood.
Xena herself was confused by what had happened. It had never occured her that she might fall in love with another woman. She had had plenty of experience with men, of course. Men were attracted to her like moths to a flame and with them she had always been in total control. But this was different and it scared her a little. It was easier with men. It was always easy to read their little brains but Gabrielle was like one of those riddles the great Sphinx used to torment travellers.
How could a warrior, maybe the greatest, be so afraid to express her true feelings to such a gentle soul. Because, Xena knew, if she told her how she truly felt and it caused Gabrielle to turn away from her- even a little- she would not be able to bear it.
Oh, Gabrielle!, thought Xena, have I not proven my devotion to you? Did I not stop an entire war because you said you could not bear to see all the suffering? Have I not defied kings and even gods for you? I even gave up my beloved brother Lyceus to save your innocence. Xena ached to take Gabrielle into her arms and tell her how much she loved her. But you don't have the guts do you, Warrior Princess? she asked herself.
"Did you say something, Xena?" asked Gabrielle.
This brought Xena out of her spell. She quickly realized she must have inadvertently said something out loud. Got to watch that, she reminded herself. "Just had a bad dream, that's all," she said. "So, Iolaus, is there anything else you can tell me about this cage?"
"Well, I couldn't see much you understand. But it had a sort of aura around it and it sort of, well hummed," said Iolaus. "And the humming noise got louder after those guys put Hercules inside it."
"The Cage of Elysis!" exclaimed Gabrielle. Poor Iolaus was so startled by Gabrielle's outburst he nearly fell backwards over the log he was sitting on.
"I take it you have heard of it," said Xena dryly.
"Of course, any bard worth their parchment has heard of the Cage of Elysis," said Gabrielle smugly.
"Tell us about it," Gabrielle."
"Oh, uh sorry."
For someone with as much self discipline as Xena had it was sometimes maddening the way Gabrielle so easily lost her focus on things.
"Right," continued Gabrielle. "Well, a long time ago their lived this queen. Her name was Elysis. Over time she began to suspect her husband, Tarax, was being unfaithful to her. So one day she summoned her sorcerer, Ebel, to determine the truth once and for all. Ebel cast his magic stones on the floor and the pattern of the stones told him that Tarax was indeed being unfaithful to her. Well, Elysis had a fit and ordered Ebel to have a cage built. After it was completed it was secretly brought to Elysis who then made Ebel put a curse on it."
"Oh that's just great," said Iolaus.
"Anyway, legend has it any man who is locked in the cage is no longer able to think for himself. He sort of becomes mindless. Elysis tricked Tarax into the cage and kept him there a month. But soon her heart softened and she finally released Tarax. They managed to reconcile their differences and Elysis ordered the cage to be placed on a ship, taken out to sea, and dumped in. The sailors say the cage's blue light can sometimes still be seen from the ocean floor." Wearily, Gabrielle sat down to rest. She just didn't tell a story she had to act them out as well.
"I think I smell Hera in all this," said Xena. "Only Poseidon could have recovered that cage off the ocean floor and only if Hera had wanted him to. She knew the cage would disable Hercules. Now, we don't know much but if I were a betting woman I would bet my sword that there is someone one that island who is in cahoots with Hera."
"Any idea who it might be?" asked Iolaus.
"Yes, Senta," said Xena.
"Who's Senta?" inquired Garrielle.
"A woman I met once at Delphi. She was a priestess there," said Xena.
"I don't see the connection, Xena," said Iolaus.
"Senta told me Kathos was her ancestral home. Her family had ruled there for generations. It was a very rich and prosperous island until a plague wiped out it's entire population. Only she survived."
"That's awful," said Gabrielle.
"So she lived on Kathos, so what?" argued Iolaus.
"Senta's dream was to return to Kathos some day and rebuild the island," answered Xena. "And one other thing. She made no bones about who she wanted to help her create a new kingdom."
"Let me guess," said Gabrielle. "Hercules."
"How demented can you get?" asked Iolaus. "This woman is crazy."
"Crazy or not it looks like she has set her plan in motion- with Hera's help, of course," said Xena.
"So Hercules' abduction kills two birds with one stone. Senta gets her dream boat and Hera gets a big thorn removed from her side," said Gabrielle.
"Verrrry good, Gabrielle," said Xena.
"But I still don't get it," persisted Iolaus. "What's to keep Hercules from just taking off once she lets him out of the cage? And she has to let him out sooner or later."
Xena and Iolaus were startled to see Gabrielle smack herself on the forehead with the palm of her hand.
"Gabrieeellllle, what's the matter with you?" demanded Xena.
"I left out part of the story. Part of the legend was that if any man was locked in the cage for three full moons their mindless stupor would be permanent. They would blindly obey whosoever possessed the key to the cage," said Gabrielle.
"Well thanks for sharing that with us, Gabrielle," said Iolaus testily. "Any other little nuggets of wisdom?"
"Iolaus." Xena's subtle shift of her body weight was all the reprimand Iolaus needed.
"Sorry, Gabrielle, it's just all this is starting to get to me."
"We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow," said Xena. "We should get some sleep." Xena returned to her blanket. Gabrielle spread her blanket out on the ground and soon Xena could hear her breathing become slower and more rhythmic. Iolaus' soft snoring from the other side of the fire signaled that he too, was asleep. But, as usual, sleep did not come to Xena so she lay there staring at the bard's lovely young face. Slowly, cautiously, Xena reached out and gently touched the tip of Gabrielle's finger. To her mild surprise, Gabrielle smiled as if having a nice dream. At last, Xena closed her eyes and Hypnos was finally able to do his work. Gabrielle, meanwhile, had not been asleep either.
The next morning found them well on their way to Cataria. They were no more than a couple of leagues out of town when they rounded a curve in the road only to see four men beating the stuffing out of some unfortunate fellow.
The poor man was knocked into the weeds beside the road. One of his assailants, a huge, fat, man drew his sword to finish off his victim. He no sooner raised his weapon before he heard a chilling roar. He looked in the direction of the roar and saw a silver blur hurtling toward him. His sword was smashed is his hand before he could even blink.
"Didn't your mother ever tell you it's not nice to make monkey faces at people?" Xena purred. "Oh, I am sorry, you are just naturally that ugly aren't you."
"Stay out of this woman," growled the fat one. "This bastard tried to kill us."
"Oh, he doesn't look dangerous to me," said Xena, raising an eyebrow.
"Well he is. He sold us an elixer that he said would protect our skin from the sun but when we tried it- look!" The fat man raised his shirt and his entire chest area was a dark purple! Gabrielle began to giggle and received a soft elbow in the ribs from Xena.
"You know, compared to the rest of you I consider that an improvement," chortled Iolaus.
"Nobody asked you, runt," said the fat guy.
"Runt, who are you calling a runt, you fat pig." Iolaus hated it when people made light of his small stature. He started to go after the fat guy but Xena caught his arm.
"The only thing this man is guilty of is being a bad salesman," said Xena, pointing to the man in the weeds. "Last time I heard that was not a capital offense."
One of the fat man's partners pulled out his dagger and smirked, "Well, he is going to die just the same."
Xena gave him an amused smile and replied, "No, he's not."
"And who is going to stop us, you?" sneered the fat one. "I don't think two women and a midget can do much damage to warriors like us."
"That's it!" yelled Iolaus. At that point all Tartarus broke loose. Iolaus charged his tormentor, Xena took a running leap and somersaulted over the two men standing in the middle of the road, and Gabrielle readied her staff to face anyone who might slip past her friends. It was over in seconds. First, the fat one took a swing at Iolaus with the broken sword- missed- and received a crack on the elbow from Iolaus which forced him to release the sword. Swiftly, Iolaus followed up this blow with a hard back hand to the man's face, stunning him. A straight right hand to the chin from Iolaus sent the man sinking to his knees.
"Who is the midget now, porky? taunted Iolaus. A knee to the face and the fat one was finished.
Xena didn't even have to break into a sweat. As soon as she had completed her leap she simply turned and drilled her two targets with a vicious sweeping kick.The fourth man panicked and started running down the road toward Gabrielle. Xena readied her chakram but she need not have bothered. Gabrielle skillfully brought him down with three swift strokes from her staff.
"I see you don't just watch anymore," said Iolaus admiringly.
"I told you I was going to learn, didn't I?" smiled Gabrielle.
Xena walked over to the weeds to check on the intended victim. "Why am I not surprised?" she asked.
" Who is it, Xena?" asked Gabrielle.
"Salmoneus," sighed Xena.
"Salmoneus, what in the name of Zeus are you doing here?" asked Iolaus.
"Well, I WAS on my way to Agris. Some traders are due there this week and they are rumored to be carrying some of that fine Egyptian cloth that everybody wants nowdays. There's a lot of money to be made from that stuff."
Gabrielle pointed to the fat man out cold on the ground. "How did you get mixed up with these losers?" she asked.
"Aw, I sold them a bottle of a special elixer I picked up in Pluris. It was supposed to protect the skin from sunburn," replied Salmoneus.
"Hah," snorted Gabrielle. "There will never be a market for something that stupid."
"Let me guess," said Xena wryly. "Something went wrong didn't it?"
"Nooo," protested Salmoneous. "Instead of applying it to their skin like they were supposed to these morons DRANK it. Sheesh."
Again Gabrielle began to titter and even Xena had to smile at Salmoneus' plight. With all the dignity he could muster Salmoneus picked himself up out of his mud hole. "Awww, would you look at this," he whined, looking down at his robes. "Well, that's 100 dinars shot to Tartarus."
"Just be glad you are alive," said Xena.
Salmoneus vainly tried to brush the dirt out of his hair and said, "You're right, of course. Thanks for saving my hide, guys."
"Anything for a friend," said Xena.
"Friend? You called me friend!", cried Salmoneus.
"Well of course you are," said Gabrielle. "Even though you are a little shaky sometimes you have always stood by us when it counted and that's the mark of a true friend."
"Thank you, Gabrielle," said Salmoneus.
"Enough of this mushy stuff. We are losing time," said Xena.
"What's up, anyway?" asked Salmoneus.
"Hercules has been taken prisoner," said Iolaus.
"But how, wha-"
"It's a long story and we don't have time to tell it to you right now. We have to be going." said Xena. "See you around Salmoneus." Xena whistled for Argo and the beautiful horse came trotting to her side as they started up the road. For a moment Salmoneus stood there watching and then began to run after them.
"Ah, hey- wait. Can I go with you? Maybe I can do something to help," he said.
"What about Agris?" asked Xena.
"Who can think of money when Hercules is in trouble?" replied Salmoneus.
"Well now that would be a first," said Gabrielle.
Salmoneus pretended to ignore her and turned to Xena. "Let's be off," he said resolutely. Iolaus and Gabrielle looked at each other incredulously while Xena could only shrug her shoulders.
Darinius and Autolycus, meanwhile, had spent the same morning racking their brains trying to come up with some way to raise the money necessary to hire a ship. Autolycus was not used to such heavy thinking and it was starting to make his head hurt.
"I thought you were supposed to be rich," he said finally.
"Autolycus, you of all people should know it's stupid to carry that kind of money around. It only invites trouble and I seem to find enough of that without asking for more."
"Then what are we going to do?" Autolycus asked. "I still say you should let me use my 'talents' to get the money."
"I don't know. I had not counted on a ship's passage costing so much. And I told you we can't get the money that way. It just would not be right," said Darinius.
"You and your sense of honor," sighed Autolycus."You sound like Hercules"
"We were lucky to find anybody at all to agree to take us there. Most of those captains were too terrified to even discuss Kathos," reminded Darinius.
"But not for long if we don't get some dinars. Remember what that captain told you, noon tomorrow and he is sailing with or without us," said Autolycus.
"Yeah yeah, I know I know," growled Darinius.
"How about, when Xena and Iolaus get here, we just take the ship? Those clods would not stand a chance against us- I mean, you guys," said Autolycus.
"Oh, and I suppose you know how to navigate a ship, huh?" asked Darinius.
"Uh, nooo," replied Autolycus.
"Well, neither do I and neither do any of the others," said Darinius.
"Well tell me this, smart guy, once we get to the island how are we going to get back? Remember, we're only hiring this guy for a one way trip- if we can come up with the money that is," said Autolycus. Frustration was beginning to eat at him. Why does he always have to be so damn logical, thought Autolycus. Why can't he go more with his gut, like Hercules?
"Calm down, Autolycus, grinned Darinius. "I'm counting on Hercules to get us back. Remember, he sailed with Jason and the Argonauts. I know he is an excellent sailor."
" But so did Iolaus, didn't he?" reminded Autolycus.
"At that point in his life Iolaus was looking for adventure, not how to be a sailor," said Darinius.
"It's not going to make any difference if we-"
"Will you knock it off? I still have a die to cast. Trust me, okay? We will wait for Xena and Iolaus to get here and then we'll sort things out," said Darinius.
"Darinius, I hate to be a nag but even with Hercules to guide us what are we going to use for a boat?" persisted Autolycus.
"We will use the same one they used to carry Hercules there in the first place," snapped Darinius. He then poked his finger into Autolycus' chest.
"You wouldn't be trying to back out on us now would you?" he asked, scowling.
"NO, I was just exploring all the options, that's all," pleaded Autolycus. The look Darinius gave him was chilling. Immediately Darinius regretted being angry at his old friend. He knew every point Autolycus had made had been valid. The hard countenance softened and he grinned, "Sorry, it's just that we can't do this job without you. We need you."
"Hey, no problem," said Autolycus, regaining his composure. "You know I always was a worrier."
Phoebus had almost completed his daily journey across the heavens when Xena and her party reached Cataria. Iolaus reminded her they were to meet the others at the inn. As they approached the inn Gabrielle spotted Autolycus and waved to him. Xena, too, was pleased to see the King of Thieves again but she remained as as stoic as ever. Autolycus stepped out into the street to meet them and immediately came under interrogation from Xena.
"All right, Autolycus, where is Darinius?"
"Well, uh he's..."
"Right here, Xena," came a voice over her shoulder. "Iolaus, you never could keep a secret," chided Darinius.
"Don't blame Iolaus," said Xena, turning to meet her old nemeses. "He didn't tell me. After Gabrielle told me about her little run in at the inn and gave me your descripton, I knew well enough who you were."
"But Gabrielle could not have described me as YOU remembered me," said Darinius with some amusement. "After all, I did not much look like the leader of a great army in that inn."
"And I must say you certainly look much more presentable now," Gabrielle blurted out.
"Why thank you, Gabrielle," said Darinius, bowing from the waist. "Autolycus said the crew might jump ship if I came on board smelling like a dead horse. "So, Xena, how did you know it was me?" he persisted.
"I just put two and two together," said Xena.
"Well, I guess it's nice to be remembered," said Darinius.
"Oh, I have never forgotton you," said Xena dryly.
"I have not forgotten you either, Xena," said Darinius softly. For what seemed an eternity to the others the two great warriors just stood there, boring holes into each other. To everyone's obvious relief Xena finally broke the silence.
"So what are your thoughts about handling this?" she asked.
"First thing we should do is get off the street," said Darinius eyeing Salmoneus suspiciously. "We have a room in the inn. We can talk there."
"It's all right," said Xena. Salmoneus is a good friend of Hercules."
"Yes, Hercules and I go back a long way," squeaked Salmoneus.
"Sorry about that, Salmoneus. I didn't know. We can't be too careful about this. For all we know someone might have been left behind to make sure Hercules wasn't followed.
"Darinius, did you find a boat?" asked Iolaus anxiously.
"Oh yeah, we found a boat,'" said Autolycus glumly. "We just haven't found enough dinars to charter it, that's all. I offered my uh, 'services' but Darinius here says it's a bad idea."
"So do I," said Xena.
" How much do they want?" inquired Gabrielle.
"One thousand big ones," answered Autolycus slowly.
"Ouch," winced Iolaus.
"Let's pool our money and see how much we are short," advised Xena. Gabrielle, how much do we have?" Gabrielle reached into her shoulder bag and retrieved a small leather pouch.
"Thirty-six, thirty-seven, thirty-eight, looks like thirty-nine dinars, Xena," answered Gabrielle.
"Is that all? I thought we had close to 300," said Xena.
"Well we did before a certain somebody decided they needed yet ANOTHER dagger, remember?" retorted Gabrielle.
"Oh yeah, right," said Xena somewhat sheepishly. "How about you, Iolaus?"
Iolaus ran his hand into his pocket and pulled out six dinars.
"Six dinars?" growled Gabrielle. "Six... dinars?"
"Wellll, when you travel with Hercules you don't have much need for money. Everybody is always giving you free meals," protested Iolaus.
"We are not exactly the Athens mint here now, are we?" allowed Autolycus.
"So, counting ours, that makes 273," said Darinius. "If only we had more time I could raise 1000 times that. We're not dead yet though. Maybe there is another way."
"What?" asked Gabrielle. "We can't borrow the money and we don't have anything valuable enough to sell."
"Yes we do," said Xena quietly. "Petracles' bracelet."
"Oh no, Xena, it means too much to you," said Gabrielle. It meant something to Gabrielle too. After all, Petracles had given his life to save her.
"Not when it comes to Hercules," said Xena, putting her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.
"Xena won't have to sell her bracelet," said Darinius.
"You got a better idea?" asked Xena testily.
"As a matter of fact I do. Follow me," replied Darinius. Darinius lead the group into the inn and up to their room. There he opened up his long leather bag and produced something wrapped in an oilcloth. He gave the object to Xena and said, "We will sell this instead."
Xena unwrapped the oilcloth revealing the most beautiful sword she had ever seen. It was made of the finest polished metal with inlaid gold in the hilt and two large rubys implanted on each side just below where the hilt met the blade. It did not have a nick or even a scratch on it. Obviously, it had never been used.
"Ohh, Xena it's even more beautiful than the one you and Hercules used to free Prometheus," gasped Gabrielle. "I' ve never seen anything shine like that."
After scrutinizing it with a professional's eye, Xena allowed herself to appreciate it's inherent elegance.
"So this is the die you were talking about," said Autolycus.
"Yep. It was given to me by king Demantheus in gratitude for my assisting him to raise and train a force to repel invaders."
"I'll bet you did more than train," leered Xena.
"Weelll, I did kind of lead them in their first couple of battles. You know, to let them get the hang of it. Most of those raiders were just amateurs anyway. It wasn't anything quite like what you and I are used to, Xena, but the king was very grateful and insisted I take this sword as a token of his appreciation," said Darinius.
"But is there anyone around here who can afford to buy it." wondered Iolaus. "It must be worth 10000 dinars."
"We don't need 10000 dinars, Iolaus. All we need is 727," replied Darinius.
"Darinius, I can't let you do this," said Xena firmly. "We will sell the bracelet instead."
"Are you going to try to stop me?" asked Darinius.
"I might," said Xena. It seemed the moment that everyone had dreaded had arrived. Darinius reached out to take the sword from Xena's hand but she did not let go. They silently stood there toe to toe, both gripping the sword, eyes locked on each other.
"HEY, HEY were are all on the same side here, remember?" Gabrielle had actually ducked down and forced her way up in between the two proud warriors.
"You are right, Gabrielle," agreed Darinius.
"Now I want you two to stop testing each other," said Gabrielle. "Xena, Darinius, I want you to shake hands." It was evident to Xena that Gabrielle really wanted Darinius and her to be friends. Xena raised one eyebrow only to have Darinius do the same but with much more exaggeration.
"Okay, wise guy," said Xena, offering her hand. "But only for Gabrielle's sake." Xena and Darinius shook hands with Gabrielle still wedged between them.
"And Hercules', remember?" reminded Darinius.
"That's more like it," Gabrielle said triumphantly. Iolaus and Autolycus only now allowed themselves the luxury of breathing again. Salmoneus, meanwhile, had came to a decision while he watched this potentially explosive situation unfold.
"No one will have to sell anything," he declared.
"What are you talking about?" asked Xena.
"I can give you the money for the ship. I have 1200 dinars in my purse," answered Salmoneus.
"You do?" asked Iolaus suspiciously.
"Of course, I do," said Salmoneus, irritated by Iolaus' doubt. "I was going to buy Egyptian cloth, remember? They don't give that stuff away you know."
Xena walked over to where Salmoneus was standing and put her hand on his shoulder. "This is very kind of you. I know this is a big sacrifice," said Xena.
"Hercules, and you too Xena, have pulled my fat out of the fire more times than I care to remember. This is just my small way of repaying a very big debt," he stammered. "If I did nothing to help you guys I would feel like a traitor. I am glad to give them to you."
"Tell you what, Salmoneus, let's just call it a loan, said Darinius. "I'll make a deal with you. Loan us 800 dinars and you can keep the sword for security. How's that?"
"But, but you might need it," protested Salmoneus.
"Nah, I've still got my trusty old one. Besides, if we don't come back I won't need it anyway, will I?" answered Darinius.
"Now there's a cheerful thought," said Gabrielle brightly.
It was at this juncture Xena resolved to try again. "Gabrielle, I need to speak with you, alone."
Gabrielle at once knew what Xena was up to and set up her own defense. "Oh no, if you have something to say to me, say it right here."
"Very well, said Xena slowly. "I think you should stay here with Salmoneus and wait for us."
"But what about needing someone who is good at talking their way through things,"asked Gabrielle. "Remember?"
"I am sure Autolycus can handle whatever we run into," said Xena gently. "Gabrielle, I would feel a lot better if you stayed here."
"Hmmph," snorted Gabrielle. "Autolycus couldn't talk his way out of a papyrus bag."
"Heeey," protested Autolycus.
"Quiet!" commanded Gabrielle. "Now, where was it that Darinius found him? In a cess pool? Autolycus must have done some real smooth talking there."
"I was a victim of circumstance," said Autolycus.
"Well at any rate, you are not going," said Xena.
Darinius could barely hide his amusement as he saw the fire start to build in Gabrielle's beautiful green eyes. Here was someone who could give as good as she got. Even to Xena. His unfailing sense of perception told him Xena was clearly uncomfortable with this confrontation. As for Gabrielle, even though he barely knew her, he could see she was something special. The courage, loyalty, and compassion she had already exhibited were only a scratch on the surface of this remarkable young woman.
"Look, Xena, you are treating me like a kid again. I thought we were past that." said Gabrielle. "Why can't you trust me?"
"Gabrielle, I would trust you with my life. You know that. But you know what a hard time you have on boats and who knows what we will run into on that island?" Xena asked. "Gabrielle, listen to me. There is a good chance we won't be coming back. I can't risk that."
Darinius could not help but notice that although Xena was doing her best to be forceful, tenderness kept escaping through that stern countenance.
"Let's just ask Darinius and see what he thinks," snapped Gabrielle.
"Whoa, Gabrielle, this is between you and Xena. You two will have to work this out on your own. After all, no one is charge here," said Darinius.
"Maybe there should be," suggested Gabrielle.
It wasn't really anger, Darinius decided. The force behind Gabrielle's rebellion against her powerful friend was something closer to panic. It wasn't so much Gabrielle wanted to go to that island, who did? She HAD to go. Good for you, little warrior, he thought.
"You are not going and that is final," declared Xena. Darinius had heard that tone of voice before on a long ago battlefield in Mymalar. A voice that had chilled the spine of many a brave man, his included. For most it was the last voice they had ever heard.
For her part it was breaking Xena's heart to speak to her beloved this way but she just could not be certain she would be able to keep Gabrielle safe. There was sure to be a rough bunch on that island- Zeus only knew how many. Much better to hurt her feelings than to have her dead. Even so, she was proud of the way Gabrielle was standing up to her.
Gabrielle sensed her cause was being lost so she cut loose with her heavy ammunition. She pulled herself up to her full height, stood toe to toe with the Warrior Princess, and fired her final salvo. "You don't have the right to order me around, Xena. I am not some soldier in your army and I am not a slave, either." By now Gabrielle was almost shouting.
She then composed herself and added softly, "I am not someone that walks the path of life with my friends only when it is level and straight. I walk the hills and valleys with them too."
Xena just stood there blinking. She really has changed, thought Darinius. The old Xena would never have tolerated a verbal assault like that. Now he decided he could, indeed, trust her in her completely.
Damn it, she's right, thought Xena. I don't have the right to give her orders. If she wants to come I have to respect that, like it or not. I'll just have to protect her come Tartarus or high water. "Okay, Gabrielle. You win. But if you get yourself killed- well I'll never speak to you again," said Xena with her trademark half grin.
All this time, Autolycus and Iolaus have been again been having trouble breathing. An irate Xena was hard on the respiratory system. For the love of Zeus, wondered Autolycus. Is it going to be like this the whole way?
"Thank you." Despite having won her case, Gabrielle did not feel very triumphant. In fact she felt down right nauseous. Much more arguing and she would have been sick.
"Now that the passenger list has been finalized, we need to get on with the business at hand," reminded Darinius. "Iolaus, you and Autolycus take 250 dinars and go see that captain. Tell him 250 tonight, 250 more when we board ship, and 500 when we get to our destination. Got that?"
"Right," said Iolaus. Salmoneus opened his purse, counted out 800 dinars and gave them to Darinius. Darinius added these to the 273 he already had and stacked them up on the table. He then counted out 250 and gave them to Iolaus.
"Hey, how come he gets to hold the money," protested Autolycus.
"It's not that we don't trust you,but-" Xena was cut off by a huge grin from Autolycus.
"Hmmm. I see. Well let's be off Iolaus, I'll take you to our brave captain," he said.
Darinius watched them leave and turned to Gabrielle. "If it's all right with you, could you keep the rest of this money for us.? asked Darinius. "I don't have any place to carry it and I don't see any pockets on that get-up of Xena's either."
"Sure, no problem," said Gabrielle. Gabrielle scooped up the coins and deposited them in her shoulder bag.
With the preliminaries now out of the way, Darinius and Xena were now free to fully concentrate on each other for the first time. "Ah, Xena, I think we need to talk," said Darinius.
"Okay," said Xena. "Gabrielle, we are going for a walk. Stick close to the inn, okay?"
"I'll be here," replied Gabrielle. She watched Xena exit the room and turned to Salmoneus. "Now, let's see what we can do about that gash in your head."
Xena and Darinius walked down the street that led past the docks. There they cut across the beach and stopped under a large pier that extended far out into the water. Neither spoke as they stood watching the pelicans diving for fish out in the bay.
Darinius was the first to break the silence. "Xena, before we go any farther with this I need to get some things off my chest.You may not know it but I have been just sort of wandering around for the last couple of years. When I heard of the good you were doing I didn't believe it. I thought it was some sort of scheme you had hatched out. But the more I heard, the more impressed I became. I learned about how you helped Hercules free Prometheus, how you were able to keep the Amazons and Centaurs from slaughtering each other, and even how you bested Hyperion."
"That was mostly Gabri-"
"Let me finish," Darinius cut her off. "Now, you and I were about as hated as two enemies could be. How we regard each other now- well that's another matter. The gods only know I am not one who can pass judgment on anyone. I have made enough mistakes of my own. You did what you felt you had to do to survive and so did I. Who was right and who was wrong is for others to decide. Like you, I am not the same person now that I was then. I just want you to know that, from the first time I saw you on that hot day in Tumas, you have always had my respect. The way you led your army into battle and the way you handled that rear guard action- I have to tell you, that was the greatest single act of courage I have ever seen. I could not help but admire you, you know? And when you and I fought I thought I was battling Ares himself. I had never seen anyone handle a sword like that!"
"As I recall, you did all right for yourself," said Xena dryly.
"Well maybe I did," grinned Darinius "But I'll say this; I can truly say I have never feared any man but I'm not so sure about a certain woman. Anyway, my point to all this is regardless of our past and our attitudes toward each other we need to cooperate and put all our energies into the work ahead of us.
You and I both know Hercules is a real beacon of hope in this dark world and we have to do all that's humanly possible to make sure that beacon stays burning. If we fail... well, the world will not be a very nice place to live in. Especially for people like Gabrielle."
Why did he mention Gabrielle?, wondered Xena.
"The reason I'm telling you this is I don't wan't you to have to worry about having to watch your back once we get there. You will need all your concentration for the job ahead," said Darinius. "And so will I. I uh-well..."
"Okay, since we are being honest here, I have got a few things to say, too," said Xena. "For a very long time I never hated anyone as much as I hated you. After that first battle all I could think of was revenge. I even forbade my men to mention your name. You became all consuming to me. Of course we continued to raid all over the place but every thought I had, every move I made was with you in mind. But I got sucked into that terrible battle with Tyldus at Corinth so I was delayed in returning to your valley. When I did I thought by then had the power to crush you. I believed I had all the answers to your tactics but, damn you Darinius, you tricked me again.
When it was over I was devastated. I three years time I had fought the two greatest battles in history and what did I have to show for it? Nothing but a lot of dead bodies For the first time in a long time I actually began to feel something. And later when I ran up against Hercules, well it changed my life. I was ready to give up and die but then I met Gabrielle. She saved me, Darinius. But it's still a struggle, you know?"
Xena seemed to pause and gather herself. "Darinius, I am glad you are coming," she said. "You are the greatest leader of men I have ever seen. Next to me, of course." She then leaned over until their faces were very close and added, "And you're not so bad with a sword either."
Xena paused again. Why am I rambling like this? she wondered. Something about him... "Gabrielle must be rubbing off on me," she continued. "She likes you, you know. Usually I don't say this much in a week. My jaws will be sore tomorrow. Darinius, I think you know me better than any man alive so I am sure you are aware of how I feel about Hercules. And to successfully complete our mission there can be no suspicion between you and me," said Xena. She paused briefly and added, "Oh, and Darinius?"
"I don't hate you anymore."
For once the great general seemed to be at a loss for words. Finally he spoke, "I think we had better get back. Iolaus should have returned by now."
"Yeah, they probably think we are trying to murder each other," said Xena.
Back at the inn Iolaus nervously paced the floor. "You don't think they are trying to kill each other, do you?" he asked.
"Of course not," said Gabrielle.
"I don't know, the way they were staring each other down I would not be surprised," said Iolaus. Salmoneus burst into the room, panting heavily from running up the stairs.
"They're coming!" he exclaimed. He had been watching for them from the front door of the inn.
"See, I told ya," said Gabrielle smugly. "Well did you two have a nice chat?"
"We cleared the air a little," said Xena.
"Iolaus, did you get the boat?" asked Darinius.
"Yep, we sail at noon tomorrow," said Iolaus.
By now it was dark outside and activity in the village was beginning to wane.
"I suggest we all try to get some rest," said Xena. "It may be the our last chance. Gabrielle, have you had anything to eat?"
"Yeah. I went to the market and bought some food. I got some fish cakes, apples, and some bread," said Gabrielle. "The rest of us have eaten so help yourself."
"I'm not hungry," said Xena.
"Well, I am. That fish looks pretty good to me," allowed Darinius. "Mmm, I always did like perch."
"Umm, Darinius, I uh, had Salmoneus take Argo to the stable," said Gabrielle. "Our food and the hay for Argo cost 30 dinars. I hope that's okay with you."
"That's why I let you keep the money, Gabrielle. You spend it as you see fit. Besides these muttonheads have to eat." said Darinius.
" I resemble that remark," said Autolycus, looking up sleepily from the floor.
"Oh, that's very funny," added Iolaus.
"By the way, Iolaus, did you find a sword?" asked Darinius.
"Nah, I imagine I'll have my pick of swords once we get to Kathos," said Iolaus.
After a furtive inspection of the room Darinius saw that the sleeping arrangements were going to be very cramped.
"It's going to be a nice night," he yawned. "I think I will sleep out back of the stable."
"It's going to rain and you know it," said Xena. Gabrielle never failed to marvel at this. Xena was almost always correct when it came to predicting the weather.
"C'mon Darinius, Gabrielle and I are big girls. We won't hurt you. So stop trying to be so noble."
"You, promise?" laughed Darinius. He threw his bag in the corner, pulled out an old blanket, doubled it, and spread it out by the bag. "Okay, Xena and Gabrielle get the bed."
"I don't need the bed," said Xena.
"Well in that case maybe-", Autolycus, who had been crawling toward the bed, was cut off in mid sentence by the furious look on Xena's face. "As I was saying, maybe I should sleep by the door. In case someone tries to do us in during the night."
"Uh Huuh," scowled Xena, her withering glare still evident.
"Xena, you take the bed. You'll rest better," offered Gabrielle. "I will be okay on the floor."
"Forget it, Gabrille," said Xena.
"No buts. Take the bed," repeated Xena. "I'll be okay."
It was a wonder to Darinius to see how swiftly Xena's demeanor could change. It was but a heartbeat from the rage at Autolycus to the gentle forcefulness with Gabrielle.
"Oh, all right, said Gabrielle. "I'm getting too sleepy to argue. But if you change your mind-"
"I won't. Now go to bed," said Xena.
Reluctantly Gabrielle reclined on the bed. Xena posted a chair at the foot of the bed and propped her feet upon the end of it. How odd, thought Darinius.
Before long the others had drifted off to sleep. I wonder what these guys dream of?, thought Darinius. With Iolaus there was a good chance it was about a woman. With Autolycus it was probably making a big score. Salmoneus? Who knew? Why had Xena refused the bed? What was she afraid of? All these thoughts swirled around it his head until, finally, sleep came.
"Damn it, Iolaus, will you knock off that snoring?" whispered Autolycus loudly. "For the love of Zeus, you sound like a herd of ibex"
"Huh?, ssnnxxx, oh sorry." Iolaus rolled over on his side and quickly dropped back off to sleep.
Darinius, awakened by this little exchange, looked over and saw Xena in the same position as before. Arms folded. Feet on the bed. For the most part her eyes were closed but at regular intervals they would open and at once lock on Gabrielle. Xena seemed to be looking for any sign of discomfort or disquiet.
She's guarding her!, though Darinius. All the interaction he had observed between Xena and Gabrielle in the last few hours now came rushing back to him. For his analytical brain there was only one conclusion to draw. Xena was in love with Gabrielle. To him it was now as plain as the nose on one's face. So, the mighty Warrior Princess had been conquered after all!
Even the great bards of Athens wouldn't dream up a tale such as this, thought Darinius.? It was not really all that surprising, though. In the short time he had known Gabrielle he could sense she was extraordinary. She DID have a way about her. At times she seemed flighty and unfocused but he knew there was a depth to that her few people had.
For most of his life Darinius had relied on his ability to size up people quickly. In his line of work one did not always have a lot of time to separate friend from foe. In this he rarely failed. In Gabrielle's case he had no doubt. She was kind, loving, smart, brave, and funny. What more could any man- or woman- want? But what were Gabrielle's feelings concerning Xena? He decided to leave that for another time. Darinius finally fell asleep to the tune of Iolaus' returned snoring and with the haunting image of Xena's silent vigil still stuck in his mind.
Off to the west, the slowly approaching rumble of thunder signaled that Xena's prediction would soon be fulfilled.
"C'mon you guys, time to get up," said Xena as she prodded each of the men on the floor with her foot.
"Oh, for the love of Zeus," growled Autolycus, "I'm as tired now as when I laid down. It's hard to rest with a lion roaring in your ears all night."
"You have nothing to complain about," said Iolaus."I wasn't the one who kept grinding his teeth."
"Cut it out you two," snapped Xena. "We have got things to do."
"Yeah. Yeah. Yeah," sighed Autolycus, rubbing his eyes.
"Time to get up, Gabrielle. Gabrieellle, waaaake uuuup," teased Xena.
"Huh? Oh, yeah, right. Good morning, Xena," said Gabrielle, rubbing her eyes.
Xena loved to see her wake up each morning. To see that face come to life each day was so much more beautiful than a plain old sunrise.
"So, how did you sleep, Xena?" asked Gabrilelle. "That chair couldn't have been all that comfortable."
"I slept well enough," said Xena.
Gabrielle had long been aware of Xena's insomnia. She had awakened many times to find her just sitting there staring into the fire of silently pacing the camp. Gabrielle did not know how Xena was able to function so effectively on the pitiful amount of sleep she got.
For his part, Darinius had been awake since well before daybreak. The old soldier's habit of rising early had stayed with him. This day he had not risen but had just lain there on the floor Iistening to the light rain falling on the roof. Just before dawn he heard that deep regular breathing that could only have Xena's and was glad she had finally dropped off. But it had not been for long. Just after daylight she had carefully risen and replaced the blanket Gabrielle had managed to kick off. She then silently padded to the door and after a quick look outside, returned to her post beside Gabrielle's bed.
Like a restless leopard, thought Darinius.
Not more than hour later she was up for good. "C'mon you guys, time to get up."
By now everyone was awake and slowly beginning to shake off the spell of Hypnos.
"I wonder where the ah, well- you know- is?" asked Autolycus.
"Same place as always," said Gabrielle. "Out back."
"Right," yawned Autolycus and he headed off to perform his morning ritual.
"Wait up, I'll go with you," said Iolaus.
"Now, Iolaus, I'm perfectly capable of doing this by myself," leered Autolycus. "I don't need any help."
"Funny. You should have been a comedian," growled Iolaus. "Come to think of it, as a thief you are pretty humorous."
"Oh, for the love of Zeus," sighed Autolycus as he and Iolaus started for the door.
"Once those guys get back we need to start sewing things up here," said Xena. Gabrielle, I want you to see about buying some more food for our journey.Get enough for about three days. You know what to look for; stuff that will keep well.
Gabrielle picked up her shoulder bag and started for the door.
"Make sure you eat something now, while it's still early," said Xena.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes at Salmoneus and slowly shook her head. She hefted her bag upon her shoulder and had almost gotten away before Xena called out to her as she descended the stairs.
"Oh, and Gabrielle?"
"Make sure it's nothing too greasy or you will be sorry," reminded Xena.
"Okay, okay," replied Gabrielle. For the love of Zeus, she thought. Oh great, now I'm starting to sound like Autolycus.
Xena stood in the doorway shaking her head in amusement as she watched Gabrielle mumble her way to the bottom of the stairs.
"Do you really have to remind her to eat?" asked Darinius.
"Of course not. But she's as liable as not to give her food to some poor soul she thinks needs it more that she does," said Xena. "Well, we might as well clear out. Salmoneus, I need to speak with you."
As the three of them descended the stairs, they heard Iolaus and Autolycus at it again. "I swear, Iolaus, I don't see where a little guy like you stores so much water," grinned Autolycus."I thought you had sprung a leak or something."
"Aw shut up, Autolycus," barked Iolaus. "And..don't..call..me..little..again.., you hear."
Xena had heard enough. "Now look, you two," she snarled, "I have had enough of this, you understand? ENOUGH! The next time I hear so much as a peep from either one of you," she poked each of them hard in the chest, "I may do something I will regret later." She brushed past them and stomped down the stairs.
Darinius had been watching all this from behind her with a big dung- eating grin on his face. "I'd lay low for a while if I were you, boys. Looks like she's in a baaaad mood today."
Autolycus waited until Xena was safely out of sight. He shook his fist in her direction and whispered, "Peep."
Xena stepped out into the street and could see Gabrielle talking to the woman in the market. Presently, Gabrielle picked up what looked like a small basket and started back up the street towards the inn.
Turning to Salmoneus, Xena said, "Salmoneus, while we are gone I would appreciate it if you would see to it that Argo is taken care of. Make sure the man in the stable is giving her enough hay. And give her a couple of apples every day. She loves apples. Now, we should not be gone more than a couple of days, three at the most. If we are not back in a week- well we won't be coming back at all. If after a week you have not heard from us I have one final favor to ask of you"
"Anything for you, Xena," said Salmoneus.
"I want you to take Argo to the Olympic Plain and turn her loose. Tell her I'm not coming back and to remember me. I know it sounds stupid but she'll know...she'll know."
"I don't think it sounds stupid, at all," said Salmoneus.
"Thanks, Salmoneus," said Xena. With that, she walked down the street to meet Gabrielle.
"Salmoneus, I too, need a word with you," said Darinius.
"If we don't make it back you can have this bag and everything in it. Keep it, sell it, whatever you want. I know it doesn't look like much but looks can be misleading. As for the sword, a deal is a deal. If we do manage to return I am willing to kick in an extra 1000 dinars for your trouble," said Darinius.
"You don't have to do that," said Salmoneus. "I am a man of my word."
"Then let's just call it a reimbursement," said Darinius. "You know, for Xena's horse's upkeep at the stable and your room and board at the inn while your are waiting for us."
"You are an honorable man, Darinius," said Salmoneus. "Hercules will be glad to have met you."
"So Gabrielle, what did you find?"asked Xena. "Anything good?"
"Well, I got some more fish cakes, and some pears, and look, Xena, nut bread!"
"You remember what happened the last time you ate nut bread, don't you?" asked Xena slyly.
"Well, yes-but, I don't think this bread has any hen bane in it," said Gabrielle.
"I hate to break this up but don't you think we had better start for the ship?" asked Autolycus.
"Right, lets get going," said Darinius. "Salmoneus, thanks for your help. I won't forget it. Gabrielle, count me out 250 dinars to give to the ship's master." Gabrielle quickly counted out the money and gave it to him. He then turned and started for the dock.
"Hey, anything to help the Big Guy," called out Salmoneus, watching Iolaus and Autolycus hurry to catch up to Darinius. "Good bye, Xena, take care of yourself."
"I always do," she smiled.
Salmoneus nodded in the direction of the three men and added, "And watch out for those guys, okay? They ah, they..."
"I know. They kind of grow on you, don't they? But don't you dare tell them I said so," warned Xena with mock severity.
"Xena, you know if I thought I could be of any help at all I would go with you," said Salmoneus.
Xena touched the man on the shoulder and smiled, "I know, good bye, Salmoneus."
Gabrielle offered her hand to Salmoneus and said, "See you around."
"Gabrielle, are you sure you want to go?" asked Salmoneus. " Not to scare you but I have heard stories of all kinds of things on that island. And not many of them human, either."
"Salmoneus, you know me," smiled Gabrielle, "I go where Xena goes. "Somebody had to watch her back."
"Then be careful. Let the others be the heroes," pleaded Salmoneus.
"Good bye, Salmoneus." Gabrielle then turned and ran up the street to catch up with Xena.
"Good luck," said Salmoneus softly. It must be wonderful to have so many brave friends willing to risk their lives for you, he thought, as he headed for the stable to check on Argo.
By the time Xena and Gabrielle arrived at the ship, Darinius was already speaking to the captain. "My friend, Iolaus, here has already given you 250 dinars. Here is 250 more and, as agreed, there will be 500 more when we reach Kathos. A word of caution. I have heard about how some of you sea dogs like to rob their passengers and toss them overboard. Not to say that you would do such nasty thing, you understand, but just so there is no misunderstanding..." Darinius snatched up the dagger in the captain's belt and drove half of it's blade into the foremast 20 paces away.
"Show off," said Xena.
"Captain, these are your other two passengers," announced Darinius.
"Well now, things are startin' to look up 'round here. This here voyage might not be so bad after all," leered the captain. Maybe you and I can spend some time together, blondie. I might even knock off some of the price of your trip."
The captain extended his arm and had no sooner touched Gabrielle's elbow when an incredibly strong hand locked itself onto his nose.
"Maybe what you better do is learn some manners," hissed Xena. She was squeezing the captain's nose so hard he had sank to his knees, the tears streaming down his face. "You just keep your filthy mind on piloting the ship and don't worry about giving any rebates." Xena knelt down beside the captain and as she gave his nose one last vicious twist she purred, "Be nice."
With as much dignity as he could muster the captain rose and began to give orders to his crew. "All right quit cher gawkin', you scurvy dogs. Make preparations for gettin' underway!" What kind of demons are these? the captain wondered. Especially the big woman and that Darinius guy.
An hour later the passengers were settled in below and the ship was well underway. Darinius had transferred his weapons from his long bag to an old bag made of sailing cloth. For the first time Xena got a look at them. The sword, and Xena believed it was the same one he had fought her with so long ago, was nothing special to look at. No engraving, no ornamentation of any kind, but obviously very well made. What really fascinated Xena was the bow. It was longer than any she had ever seen. Beside it lay a bundle of arrows with the ugliest war heads imaginable on them.
Xena sat down beside him and fingered the arrows. "Where did you get these beauties?" she asked.
"I designed them myself," said Darinius.
"And the bow?"
"I call it a long bow. It has a much greater range than a crossbow and not nearly as heavy. I only string it when I need to use it. I guess that's now," said Darinius.
A couple of hours later the wind picked up and the seas began to get choppy. Poor Gabrielle, thought Xena. Sure enough, it wasn't long before Gabrielle began to turn very pale.
"C'mon let's go up on deck," offered Xena.
"No, Xena- I'm fine- really," croaked Gabrielle.
"I'm sure you are. But all the same a little fresh air will be good for you," smiled Xena.
"I hate to be a nag but I'm getting hungry," said Autolycus.
"Yeah, me too," said Iolaus. "Gabrielle, where did you put those fish cakes?"
The words 'fish cakes' was all it took. Just before clapping her hand to her mouth Gabrielle managed to gasp out, "I gotta go," and bolted up the steps and out onto the deck.
"What's the matter with her?" asked Autolycus as he munched on his fish.
"I knew she would," sighed Xena. "Boats are like the plague to her." Xena started to get up but Darinius put his hand on her shoulder .
"Stay here and rest. I'll take care of her," he said.
"No, I really should-"
"Look, I know you didn't get much sleep last night," Darinius cut her off. "And we are going to need a fully rested Xena on that island. Now, you can trust Gabrielle to someone else for a little while can't you?"
"Okay, you win," said Xena.
"Just try to rest okay?" Darinius called out over his shoulder as he bounded up the steps.
OOOWWWAAAHHHH! OOOOOWWWWWAAAAAHHHHH! By the time Darinius got top side poor Gabrielle was heaving her guts up over the ship's railing. Beside her stood the captain with his arms folded in triumph. "What's the matter, Cutie, can't ya take it?" he sneered.
"If you don't get out of here right now," raged Darinius, "I am going to slice up your fat ass and feed it to the fish."
For some strange reason the captain decided he had had enough interaction with the passengers for one day and retreated to the bow of the ship.
"That's it, Gabrielle. Get it all out. You'll feel much better when you do," soothed Darinius. Gabrielle gave him a quick glance and he was surprised to see tears in her eyes. "Aw now, Gabrielle, it's not that bad. You're just a little sea sick, that's all."
"You don't understand," gasped Gabrielle. "I try. I try so hard not to be a burden to her. OOOOWWWWAAAAHHHH! But it always seems like she has to make allowances for me. "I hate," Gabrielle coughed up some snot and spit it over the railing, "I hate it when she has to do that. And then something like this is always happening to make me look like a fool." By now she had vomit all over her mouth and chin.
"Hey, YOU," barked Darinius at a nearby sailor. "Bring me some drinking water and a clean cloth. NOW!"
Having gotten most of it up by now, Gabrielle began to dry heave. "Why won't she let me share more of the load? GUUUAAAAHHHH!"
The sailor returned with a bucket of water and a large cloth. Darinius began to gently wash her face. "So, you think you're a burden, huh?"
"You don't know what it's like, Darinius," sputtered Gabrielle. "She doesn't sleep. It's like she feels she has to constantly watch over me, you know? I- I am pretty good at taking care of myself now but- GUUAAAHHH!- but even in a fight she always keeps one eye out for me."
Gabrielle gave one last good heave and a little bit of vomit landed on Darinius's shirt. "I- I'm sorry," she sniffed.
"Don't worry about it. I have had a lot worse than a little puke on me," Darinius assured her. "Now sit still and let me clean you up." Darinius finished washing the beautiful young face. He rinsed the cloth in the bucket, wrung it out, and emptied the water over the side.
"Thank you, I do feel better now," said Gabrielle.
"Well let's just sit here for a little while to make sure," he said. He took the cloth and gave her mouth one last wipe and gave the cloth to her.
"Xena is fine, Gabrielle. I was able to convince her to try to get some rest, that's all," said Darinius.
"See? That's what I mean. Sometimes I- I don't know what she sees in me," she said.
"That's an easy one," smiled Darinius. "A pure heart and a clean soul." He was gratified to see her blush a little. "There, you see. You must be feeling better. You are beginning to get some color back."
Gabrielle's face turned very sad. "I live in fear, you know that?"
"With someone like Xena around?" he asked.
"Not for myself, for her," said Gabrielle. "You would not believe some of the risks she has taken for me. I'm so scared that one of these days I'm going to do something really stupid and it's going to cost her her life." I just- I just don't know what I'd- I'd ...."
"Little bard, let me tell YOU a story," said Darinius. "Once there was a fierce warrior. One of the greatest the world had yet seen. The countryside trembled at this warrior's very name. But for all the power, all the wealth, all the fame, the warrior felt empty inside. This warrior was feared and respected but it meant nothing. The warrior had known true love once but now it was gone.
One day the mighty warrior left the army behind and began to search for answers to help to ease the pain which extended down to their very soul. In time the warrior made a friend. Soon the warrior realized the friend was more than a companion. This 'friend' is really the warrior's redemption. The rock on which a new life might be built.
Now this warrior is still brilliant in battle but not so brilliant at expressing feelings. Afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing, unsure of their self for the first time, the warrior does nothing. All the warrior can do is protect the 'friend' and care for them. The warrior hoped the day would come when the world will not need warriors anymore but until then the warrior did what they could to help. The warrior was still very much torn by the past and was sometimes plagued by doubt. One thing this person new for sure was that without the 'friend's faith and loyalty nothing could be accomplished."
"Well," he grinned, "What do you think?"
"That's an interesting story- for an amateur," said Garbrielle. "Funny though, you didn't specify a gender." She cocked her head to one side and squinted, "Is there any special significance to that?"
"Oh, I don't know, it's just a story," said Darinius.
"It's easy to see you were describing Xena," she said. "Weren't you?"
"Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps I was talking about... me," he replied.
"Oh, uh, mmm- I see," stammered Gabrielle.
"Look, Gabrielle don't ever feel like you are a burden to Xena or anyone else. All that stuff about how many times she has come to your rescue is a very small weight on the scale compared to what you have given her," he said.
"How can you say that?" she protested.
"Gabrielle, you are so perceptive when it comes to others why not when it comes to Xena?" Perhaps you are too close. Let me just say this. She needs you a lot more than you think. So the next time you worry about coming up short in her eyes, forget it because you could never, ever do that."
"Gabrielle, are you all right?" Xena stood on the steps with her head just visible above the deck.
"Yes, I'm fine. I feel much better. Thanks to Darinius here," she answered. Gabrielle began to rise and found herself still a little woozy. Darinius slipped his arm up under her shoulder and helped her up. "Thank you, mighty warrior," she smiled.
"Yeah, riiight," he groaned, rolling his eyes.
"I'm coming, Xena." Still clutching her cloth the wondrous young soul- no longer a child but not yet really a woman reached the top step and, as she started down, Xena stretched out an arm to steady her.
"I was beginning to think you might have fallen overboard," grinned Xena.
"Oh, Xena," sighed Gabrielle.
Up on deck Darinius looked far to the southeast and saw a very small, black object protruding out of the sea. Kathos Island! You know, he thought to himself, that wasn't such a bad story- for an amateur.
Darinius softly stepped to the top of the steps and gestured for Autolycus and Iolaus to join him. He waited for what he thought was an appropriate amount of time for Gabrielle to get below and get comfortable before he summoned the guys. Of course, Xena did not fail to notice their stirring but she merely laid her head back down on Darinius's bag.
Darinius pointed to the island and said, "Fellows, we'll be there before we know it. Once we land we will be completely isolated. That means we have got to be ready for anything. Autolycus, I hope your lock picking skills are up to the task."
"Hah," snorted Autolycus. "There's not a lock on that island less than fifty years old. I can pick those old ones in my sleep."
"Well let's hope so," said Darinius. "I just wish we knew more about this cage."
"Oh, I forgot about that," said Iolaus. He then related Gabrielle's story to Darinius and Autolycus.
"Do you think it's really true?" asked Autolycus. "I mean that this thing is really enchanted or something?"
"Cursed would be a more appropriate word, I think," said Darinius. "It has to be true or it would never hold Hercules.
"Well cursed, enchanted...whatever. If it has a lock on it I'll pick it," boasted Autolycus.
"Guys, again I want to stress once we hit that beach we are going to have to be extra careful. We do not know the lay of land, where Hercules is, or even what we are up against. We'll just have to play it by ear. But if we work together and get some luck, we just might pull this off," said Darinius.
"Well I for one am going to take a nap," said Autolycus. "A certain person kept me up half the night and I am sleepy."
"Get out of here," grinned Iolaus.
"Come to think of it forty winks wouldn't be bad," said Darinius. "Iolaus, if you stay up here keep your eye on that weasel of a captain." Darinius followed Autolycus down the steps.
Iolaus stared at the black lump growing perceptively larger in the distance. He began to think about the past few years of his life. Everyone was always telling him how great it was to be Hercules' friend, and it was, but there was a down side to it as well. He knew that in a fight he was just about as tough as they came. Many times he had taken care of as many guys as Hercules, sometimes more, but it was always "Thank you for saving our ...whatever... Hercules, oh- and you too." It was disheartening to always be a follower and never a leader. In truth Iolaus was not envious of Hercules he was very proud of him and that they were best friends. But it is only human to want to feel appreciated and Iolaus knew this was not always the case. He sometimes felt he was forever fated to be a "sidekick." Iolaus detested that word. He had heard it many times, of course. And whether it was uttered by from some monster he and Hercules might be fighting or a drunk in a tavern, the effect was the same.
Leader. What makes someone a leader? he thought. Hercules had once said it was someone who could provide inspiration and instill confidence in others. Iolaus also was aware that he was good friends with undoubtedly three of the best leaders of his time. Maybe THE three best. There was Hercules, of course. He would be a great leader even without those awesome powers. His courage and inner goodness would not be diminished by possessing the strength of an ordinary man. And Darinius, his old commander, he was the same whether has talking to two or ten thousand. One always had the feeling that everything was going to be all right if he was around. And then there was Xena. She had honed her leadership skills in a different school than the others. Hercules and Darinius had based their leadership on trust and friendship while Xena had used fear and hate. But as a leader she had been no less effective. Iolaus had seen how dominating she could be.
Well maybe this time it will be different, he thought. Since rescueing Hercules was the objective of this mission maybe I will get some recognition this time. Probably not, he decided. Xena and Darinius would get most of the credit. The big names usually did. Especially with someone like Gabrielle around to sing Xena's praises. Iolaus wasn't really bitter. He was just affected sometimes in the same way any normal person would be. And when one got right down to it that's what Iolaus was, a regular guy. A good and decent man who did his best to help others. And besides, he really did like all of his them even the nutty Autolycus.
"Well, mateys this is as far as you go. Load yer gear into the boat and old Zepheus and Tubilis here will take you on into shore," The captain was not sorry to see this bunch go. "I can't say it's been fun but good luck to ye anyway."
Darinius gave him the 500 dinars that was due him and he also gave him a piece of advice. "See you around, Captain, and if I were you I would be careful the next time I put the move on somebody. You never know when those sinuses will act up again."
"Very funny, matey, now off with ye," growled the captain.
"Gabrielle, don't forget the food," reminded Xena.
It took a half an hour of hard rowing by Zepheus and Tubilis to bring the boat into the beach. After their party had unloaded themselves and their gear, the sailors wordlessly left them and began the hard fight with the surf on their way back out. For a moment the five on the beach watched them battle the waves.
"So, what do we do first?" asked Autolycus.
"Get off the beach and find cover," said Xena, surveying the shore line.
It was already late evening when they made the tree line about a quarter league from the beach.
"What do you think, Xena? Want to set up here for the night?" asked Darinius.
"It's as good a place as any," she replied.
By now it is almost dark and for the first time Darinius put on his sword. Across the back, just like Xena, noted Gabrielle. He then produced a small dagger and fit it neatly into a slot in his right boot. Lastly, he pulled out an object that made Autolycus laugh.
" A sling?" What do you use that for, battling ten year olds?" he smirked.
"Don't show your ignorance," said Darinius evenly. "A sling is more than a kid's toy when used properly. In the right hands it can be very deadly."
"I can attest to that," said Gabrielle, remembering David.
"Really it's just a back up," continued Darinius. "You never know when you might get in a jam without some other weapon. With a sling you just fold it up, put it your pocket and if you do need it it's there. Aaand you can use just about anything small and round for ammunition. It's saved me more than once."
"No wonder this guy is such great soldier, thought Xena, he leaves nothing to chance.
"Hmmm. Do you think you could teach me to use one. In my line of work it might come in handy someday," allowed Autolycus.
Darinius took a fish cake and a pear out of Gabrielle's basket and started walking into the woods.
"And just where do you think you are going?" asked Xena.
"Well," he replied, "it's dark enough now and the moon will be up soon, I think I will do a little reconnaissance work."
"I'm going with you," said Xena, matter -of- factly.
"Could I speak with you over here for a moment?" asked Darinius. They walked to the edge of the clearing and he continued, "Xena, I meant to speak to you about this before but I don't think you and I should get too close to each from now on."
"You're afraid that if we are both killed the others won't make it, aren't you?" asked Xena.
"What about Iolaus, he is an experienced soldier," offered Xena.
"Iolaus is a good man and there is no doubt he can take care of himself but you and I both know it's a different game when others have to be considered," countered Darinius.
"Meaning all of them," said Darinius. "If one of us gets it the other can still do the job but if both of us are taken out then this mission has no chance."
"So how do we work it," asked Xena.
"Any way you want, just keep your distance as much as possible. Now I know if we get into a fight we could end up anywhere but at least this way we lessen the chance of some clod getting lucky," said Darinius.
Xena raised an eyebrow and for the first time showed him a breathtaking glimpse of another facet of her beauty. "Maybe you just don't want me around," she teased.
Like an academy girl, thought Darinius. Why did she do that?
Then as quickly as it came it was gone. Those stunning blue eyes reset to their former mode and she was all business again. "Well, I agree. We should try to keep our distance." She turned and walked back to the camp.
So the village girl is still in there, mused Darinius. The raging demon and the noble warrior were not alone. He followed her back to the camp.
"Sit tight, everyone I'll be back later. Remember, no fires." warned Darinius.
"If Xena's not going maybe I should go with you. That used to be my job, remember?" asked Iolaus.
"Yes, I do," said Darinius. "You were the best scout I ever had. Well, let's be off."
The two of them melted into the darkness.
"Why didn't you go?"
"Let's just say it was a mutual decision," said Xena.
"Well I don't know about you two," said Autolycus, yawning "but a man of my talents has to get his rest. He looked up at the night sky and added, "I hope it doesn't rain." Soon Xena and Gabrielle were serenaded by Autolycus grinding his teeth.
"Why don't you try to rest too, Gabrielle?" suggested Xena.
"Ah that nap I took today on the ship did me a world of good," said Gabrielle. I won't sleep a wink all night." She paused and added, "Xena?"
" I wonder about Darinius. He seems to be able to look inside someone and see everything. Have you noticed that?"
"Yes, I have," said Xena.
"Do you think, maybe, he is a god?" asked Gabrielle.
"No Gabrielle, he is not a god," answered Xena. "I badly wounded him in battle once. He bleeds like everybody else."
"Oh, Xena!" gasped Gabrielle.
"It was a different time, Gabrielle," said Xena softly.
"Today- on the ship- I felt safe with him, you know? Just like I do with you."
Xena blinked and put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder. "Just doing my job," she said.
"That's what he said about you, more or less," said Gabrielle.
"Yeah, he said I shouldn't feel like I was a burden to you," said Gabrielle.
"And do you?" asked Xena.
"Sometimes. I mean- here you have to face all these dangers and keep an eye on me too," answered Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, didn't I tell you I couldn't do any of this stuff without you? Didn't I tell you you meant more to me than family? Does that sound like someone who thinks you are burden?"
"I never said YOU thought I was," said Gabrielle. "I'm just saying that I can't help but feel that way sometimes." Her eyes began to glisten.
Xena knew she had to change her tack if she wanted to assuage Gabrielle's fears. "Look, she said, every day you improve with that staff. You keep it up and maybe soon you can be the 'big hero'," laughed Xena.
"Oh, riiight, sniffed Gabrielle, wiping a tear from her cheek.
"Why sure," continued Xena, hey- then you could be the 'Warrior Princess' and...and I could be the bard."
"Now that's a disturbing thought," giggled Gabrielle.
There it is, thought Xena. Even the glum Xena can't keep her depressed for long.
"I can just see you telling some story to a big crowd. If no one liked it you would just crack them over the head," said Gabrielle.
"Hey, what better way to get their undivided attention," said Xena with her best dead pan face.
"What do you say we just keep things the way they are, okay?" offered Gabrielle.
"I don't know, Gabrielle, the more I think about it the more it appeals to me."
"Will you stop it," groaned Gabrielle. "I swear, you're getting to be more like Autolycus all the time."
At the mention of his name Autolycus rolled over and asked, "So ladies, dreaming about me again?"
"No, that would be a nightmare," smirked Gabrielle.
Xena knew this precious moment would soon slip away so she did what she could to prolong it just a little longer. She bent over and whispered in Gabrielle's ear, "Autolycus huh? Maybe I ought to crack YOU in the head."
"Yeah? Well, just you try it, Warrior Princess. Remember what I did to you with that pitchfork?" asked Gabrielle defiantly.
"I remember," answered Xena. Gabrielle had spoken in jest, of course, but Xena DID remember it and all the evil implications of that incident. It never ends, she thought.
Gabrielle had been so brave.
And the moment was gone.
They sat together for a very long time in the blackness until Xena felt Gabrielle's head begin to loll and slowly slide down to Xena's breast. Oh, sweet gods!, she thought. With powerful arms far more accustomed to terrorization than tenderness she gently lowered Gabrielle's head into her lap and waited for Darinius and Iolaus to return.
The rising moon had not yet reached it's full luminance but Darinius and Iolaus did not care. Their long years of soldiering and living outdoors had made them experts at night movement. The additional light, however, would become helpful in discerning the lay of the land. They had not moved very far inland before they realized most of the area was swamp land. This would serve to severely impede their progress unless they could find some kind of road or levee.
With stealth achieved by years of practice, they made their way eastward. They operated about thirty paces apart and had agreed to use the old scout whistle if either found anything important. After about an hour of slogging through the marsh- slowly so as not to blunder into a sink hole- Darinius heard a low, three note whistle to his front left. He answered with a different three note whistle and began to work his way toward the direction the signal had came from.
"Look, a road," whispered Iolaus. "Do we risk taking it?"
"Got to," replied Darinius. "We' ll never make any time in this slop. Take the left side and I will take the right. We ought to stagger ourselves by about twenty paces. You take the point. The moon is bright enough to cast shadows now so we need to watch that. Stay low, be careful, and don't get in too big of a hurry."
As Iolaus began moving up the left side of the road, Darinius eased out onto a section of the road bathed in moonlight. He bent down to examine the road. It was about five good paces across and was constructed of a very good grade of crushed stone. Obviously someone had went to a lot of time and expense to build such a fine road through this swamp. He looked up the road and saw that Iolaus has already disappeared into the gloom.
About a half hour later, Darinius again heard the signal from Iolaus. He was crouched down beside the road poking at something with a small stick when Darinius joined him.
"What do you make of that?" asked Iolaus.
"I know it's dung," said Iolaus. "But from what? I mean, look at it. See how lumpy it is?"
Something white sticking out of the dung caught Darinius' eye and he bent over and picked up the still warm lump in his hand.
"Are you crazy?" asked Iolaus.
Darinius pulled apart the dung until he found what he was looking for.
"See that?" he asked, holding up the small sliver of white. "That's bone. Unless I miss my guess, this came from a minotaur."
"No way," said Iolaus. "Even a minotaur couldn't pass that. I mean they do have the body of a man, you know."
"Iolaus, legend has it there are two kinds of minotaurs. The kind we normally think of are the ones with the body of a man and the head a bull. But there is a species that has the body of a bull and the head of a man."
"So what does it mean?" asked Iolaus.
"Well my guess is where you find one kind, you find both," said Darinius.
"That's just great," said Iolaus through gritted teeth.
"Do you feel like going on a little farther?" grinned Darinius.
"Me? Oh yeah-sure."
"Move out then, same as before. Just be extra careful," said Darinius. "We don't want any surprises."
After an unevenful league and a half the road made a sharp turn to the right. By now the moon was starting to make it's slow descent in the clear night sky. They saw the terrain was beginning to make a slow, general slope upward. After a couple of hundred paces more they began to hear something else.
What is that roar?, wondered Iolaus. Water? After a reaching another a turn in the road he could now definitely make out the roar of rapids. If there's a road there must be a bridge, thought Iolaus. Moving very carefully, he crept around another turn in the road and there it was. And there was something else too. A huge, dark figure standing so still Iolaus thought it was some kind of grotesque tree. But he then noticed the top of the tree kept swiveling from side to side. That is a head! That thing is too small to be a giant so it must be a cyclops
Iolaus crept back down the road toward Darinius as quickly as he dared. Darinius saw the way he was hurrying back and knew something was wrong.
"What is it," he asked.
Iolaus did not answer, he just gestured for them to continue their retreat down the road. After they had gone some distance they finally stopped.
"It's a cyclops," explained Iolaus.
"Are you sure," asked Darinius.
'Of course I'm sure," hissed Iolaus. "The darn thing was just standing there beside the road. I almost blundered right into it. For a minute there I thought it smelled me."
"Well, I think we have covered enough ground for one night," allowed Darinius. We can't risk having that thing giving some sort of alarm just yet. We might as well head back."
The moon was no more than a fist's width above the horizon when the two of them finally reached the coast. They followed the road all the way back out to the beach and began to hunt for the spot where they had landed. They would surely have missed it if Iolaus had not spotted the old broken jug Zepheus had cast out of his boat upon their landing.
By the time they returned to the others the eastern sky was already beginning to lighten. Xena was not pleased.
"A little reconnaissance huh?" she scowled. "You two could have been to Athens and back by now." She gently lifted Gabrielle's head off her lap and lowered it onto her shoulder bag. Gabrielle moaned a slight protest and resumed her slumber.
"If it wasn't for Hercules I would BE on my way to Athens right now," said Iolaus.
"What's he talking about?" demanded Xena, turning to Darinius. Those blue eyes had already forming that "I'm ready, whatever it is" look.
"Xena, we have got big trouble," replied Darinius, placing emphasis on the last two words. "We found strong evidence of minotaurs. And one more thing, there's a cyclops up there, too."
Xena was not worried about the cyclops, she had dealt with them before. Minotaurs...that was another thing. Damn you, Xena!, she raged, why didn't you force Gabrielle to stay behind. "It's going to be light soon," she said. "You guys ought to try to get some sleep. It looks to be a long day."
"I hope it is a long day," sighed Iolaus, lying down beside Autolycus.
"And how much rest did YOU get, Xena?" asked Darinius.
She saw he was genuinely concerned. "I got enough," she replied.
She had softened her voice only barely but Darinius caught it. He grinned and lay at the edge of the clearing.
Two hours later found the group preparing for the day's business.
"I must say," allowed Autolycus, the accommodations I've had the last few nights have certainly not been up to my usual standards." He was fighting a seemingly losing battle trying to get the sand out of his hair.
"Oh, and I suppose the cess pool was more to your tastes," teased Gabrielle.
"Not exactly, but at least it was safer," said Autolycus.
"Hah, some adventurer you are," snorted Gabrielle.
"Well," said Autolycus, striking his trademark pose and stroking his mustache with his index finger, "The King of Thieves lives by his wits and not by developing calluses on his back side."
"By your wits, eh?" retorted Gabrielle. Then it's a miracle you are still alive."
"Hey muscles, do you mind?" protested Autolycus. "Your friend is killing me here."
"Knock it off, you two," ordered Xena. She knew, however, it was merely playful banter between good friends. Just a way to take one's mind off the grim work ahead. She makes friends so easily, thought Xena. Once they get over the initial shock of her forthrightness, she just reeled them in like fish on a line. Even the cynical Autolycus.
"For crying out loud will somebody wake up the human fog horn here," pleaded Autolycus.
Iolaus had been in especially fine form. Xena walked over to where he was sleeping. Poor guy, she thought, he's worn out. I should have made Darinius let me go instead. Well, none of us are getting any younger. Her mind then wandered back to the hot tub she and Iolaus had shared and a deliciously wicked smile came over her. He's not over the hill just yet, she mused, as she nudged him with her foot. "C'mon Iolaus, time to get up."
Dainius woke with a throat as dry as the great desert to the south.
"Did anyone manage to find any water?" he asked.
"Yes," said Gabrielle, "I forgot to tell you, I brought some with us."
Gabrielle reached into the basket and produced two flasks with some kind of stopper in them. She handed one to Darinius.
"Here," she said, "have a pear and one of these. Sorry about the food but it was cheap and it won't spoil very quickly."
"Gabrielle, you can be my quartermaster any day," smiled Darinius.
"Well, times a wasting," said Autolycus, returning from his morning ritual.
Xena gave him a wry smile and said, "So it is."
They retraced the route Darinius and Iolaus had used to return to camp; walking straight down the beach to the road two leagues away. When they got to the road, Darinius stopped them.
"Okay we need to organize some sort of column" he said. We can't just go blundering down this road. Iolaus, all right for you to take the point?"
"Sure," Iolaus nodded.
"Don't set too fast of a pace," Xena reminded him, "We don't want to be worn out when we reach the bridge."
"Xena who gets the two spot, you or me?" asked Darinius.
"Me," answered Xena. "I want to be in front of Gabrielle, not behind her."
"Good enough. Gabrielle, you follow Xena. You next, Autolycus, and I'll take the back door," said Darinius.
The tense journey up the road proved to be uneventful; enabling Iolaus to set a consistent pace. Finally, they reached the series of sharp turns that signaled the close proximity of the river. They now moved much more slowly, each wrestling with his thoughts:
Iolaus: "How are we going to get past that thing?... I wish Herc was here... Of course if he WAS here, we wouldn't have to go up this road at all, now would we?...We'll do what we have to do."
Gabrielle: "What a great story this is going to make...My sister will never believe it...I'll call it 'The Rescue of Hercules'...I just hope I get to tell it to her...So comforting to have such powerful friends, especially Xena, of course...Hope she doesn't see how scared I am."
Xena: "I must discuss a plan of attack with Darinius...The only way we are going across that bridge is over the cyclops' dead body...The minotaurs, well, as the old saying goes we will cross THAT bridge... No matter how wild it gets, must not forget Gabrielle...It will be good to see Hercules again."
Autolycus: "Hercules is going to owe me big time for this...Maybe I can persuade him to rip off the doors to a couple of treasury buildings... Nah, I can just hear him, 'It's wrong to steal, Autolycus', ...Too bad... I hope these guys are in top form because we are going to need it."
Darinius: "Must talk to Xena about tactics...She's much more adept at this small unit stuff than I am...Need to swallow your pride, here and listen to her...No room for error at all...Wonder how many there are...I enjoy your company, Gabrielle, but I wish you weren't here."
Upon hearing the crashing thunder of the rapids, the little group realized that they had reached the real start of their mission. They slowly took the inside side of the last turn just before the bridge.
"There he is," said Iolaus.
"He's bigger than that other one I met," observed Gabrielle.
"Some get even bigger," said Xena.
"That's plenty big enough for me, thank you," said Autolycus.
Suddenly Gabrielle turned to Xena with that gleam in her eye that always spelled trouble as far as Xena was concerned.
"I have a idea," said Gabrielle.
"You haven't even heard it yet," protested Gabrielle.
"I don't have to, I know I won't like it," said Xena.
"C' mon, let me talk to him. Maybe I can get him to reveal what we are up against. You know, how many guards there are, where the cage is, that sort of thing," said Gabrielle.
"No, Gabrielle, I forbid it."
"You forbid it? You forbid it?" whispered Gabrielle hoarsely. "I thought I was an equal partner in all this. So maybe I can't handle a sword. There are other ways I can help and this is one of them.
Those flashing green eyes are something to behold, thought Darinius. That old joke about women being beautiful when they are angry certainly rings true for Gabrielle.
The anger in those eyes lasted but a moment and was replaced by hurt and sorrow. Scanning the whole group Gabrielle spoke, "I guess you guys just think I'm a pack animal, huh? You know, someone to carry the food."
Even before finishing she was sorry she had said it. The expressions on all their faces, even Autolycus, told her how they really felt. As for Xena...
"I- I'm sorry," sputtered Gabrielle. "I know you guys don't think of me that way. It's just that I want to do something to help.
Xena stepped in front of her Gabrielle, placed a hand on each of her arms and locked onto her with those remarkable blue eyes.
I have really done it this time, thought Gabrielle. She then saw just a bare hint of a half smile on Xena's face.
"Don't get too close," said Xena.
"Don't get too close. Give him some reason not to want to eat you right away.Try to find out how many human guards there are," said Xena.
"Human guards?" puzzled Gabrielle, "what other kind of guards are there?"
"Better tell her, Xena," said Darinius.
"Minotaurs, Gabrielle," said Xena.
"Holy Demeter! Oh, sorry," whispered Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, try to find out as much as you can but don't ask any direct questions. He might get suspicious," said Darinius.
"Right, um-well, here I go," said Gabrielle.
Just before Gabrielle stepped out from the cover of the trees and into the middle of the road, Xena gave her arm an extra squeeze.
"Remember, we are right here," she reminded her.
"I know. See you soon. Better hold this," grinned Gabrielle, handing Xena her staff, " I might scare him."
"Be careful Gabrielle," said Iolaus.
Autolycus eased over to where Darinius was watching the girl making her way to the bridge. "That thing's not going to let her come back down here, you know," he whispered.
"Doesn't matter," said Darinius. "At the first indication of something going awry I am going to drop him."
Gabrielle was now within thirty paces of the bridge keeper.
"Darinius, nobody said anything about minotaurs," said Autolycus.
"That cess pool is starting to look pretty good to you right about now, isn't it?" grinned Darinius.
"Well, it did have it's charms now that I think about it," replied Autolycus.
Darinius eased up to where Xena stood intently gazing at Gabrielle.
"I still don't like this," she said, gritting her teeth.
"Me either, but we do need to know what we are facing," said Darinius.
"Ah, hello there."
"Who are you?" roared the cyclops. He WAS much bigger than the other one Gabrielle had seen.
"My name is Gabrielle and, ah, I'm kind of lost. Could you help me please?"
"Lost? You surely are lost. No one comes to this place."
Stupid girl, he thought. Well, the stupid ones taste just good as all the rest.
"Well, um, you see the mast on our ship broke and we had to land here to try to replace it," said Gabrielle. "I was sent out to try to find fresh water and, like I said, I got lost."
"Now that's just too bad," scowled the cyclops. His huge eye looked past the small morsel before him in greedy anticipation of more. "Tell me, how many more of you are there?"
He had not eaten a whole human in a long time and he was sooo hungry. What few deer he could trap and the scraps they brought him from the castle were never enough.
"Oh, about twenty," answered Gabrielle. That ought to get his attention, she thought. "Tell me, doesn't it get lonely here? I mean, it must be really hard on you not to have anyone to talk to." I know it would be for me because I really like to talk."
"I can see that."
Iolaus sidled up to where Xena and Darinius were bent down, watching. "You know, Xena, she really has changed," he said.
"How so?' she asked.
"Look at her. It took a lot of guts just to walk up to that thing like that. Some of you must have rubbed off on her."
"That's where you're wrong, Iolaus," said Xena. You are confusing confidence with courage. When you two first met she might not have had as much self assurance as she does now but she has always been very brave."
The monster returned it's gaze to Gabrielle. "I get enough company to suit me. More that enough."
"Really. I have not seen any signs of habitation around here. Where do they live?" asked Gabrielle innocently.
"In the castle beyond those hills."
"Hmmm. Do you think I could talk them into helping us?" There are only four or five sailors on our ship and I heard them say that if only they had about ten good men to help them they could put the mast up in no time at all. Do you think there are ten good men over there? We could pay them to help us. Here look. Gabrielle reached into her shoulder bag and produced some of the dinars Darinius had given her.
"How do I know they're real?" asked the cyclops.
"Here, see for yourself," said Gabrielle. She began to slowly approach the monster displaying the coins in her outstretched hand.
"What is she doing?" Xena whispered. It was plain to see she was alarmed.
"I don't know," replied Darinius. "I can't hear a thing for those rapids."
"She's too close," said Xena.
"Listen, this could get out of hand real fast," said Darinius. "Iolaus, if he tries to grab Gabrielle I want you to jump out in the middle of the road and do your best to distract him."
"Xena, can you hit him from here with your chakram?" asked Darinius.
"Yes," she replied, "but I need to close the range some to do real damage to him."
"Okay, but if you charge him be sure to keep to the right side of the road," said Darinius. "I want a clear shot at HIS right side."
Xena nodded at his bow and asked, "You are not going to aim for his eye?"
"No, he might still be able to flail around and hurt Gabrielle" said Darinius. "I want him to drop straight down if at all possible."
"They look real enough." A cyclops did not normally have much use for money but maybe the humans in the castle would give him more food for them.
"Well, are there ten good men over there who can help us?" ask Gabrielle impatiently.
"Oh, there's twice that, little girl," said the monster. "I don't know if they will want to help you, though. "Aren't there any men sailing with you to help the sailors?"
"Well no, just women and children," said Gabrielle.
Sefticles, for that was the monster's name, could not believe his good fortune. Women and children! They were so much tastier than men. So much more tender.
"If they won't help us," persisted Gabrielle, " is there anyone else around who can?"
"There's others. There's others," said Sefticles. "But your dinars would not interest them. Those blasted minotaurs are not going to get their stinking hands on these prizes. Not if he cast his dice right, he thought.
"What's this world coming to when helpless women and children can't hire assistance?" wailed Gabrielle, wiping away a tear. Oh, Gabrielle, you are soooo good, she thought. "These 'others' you spoke of what are they, centaurs?"
"You got the 'taurs part right," smirked Sefticles.
This imbecile thinks he is being clever, thought Gabrielle. "Well if they won't take our money we have other -uh, assets."
"Assets?' What do you mean?" asked Sefticles.
Gabrielle hit him with her best seductive smile and said, "C' mon, you know."
"I see." If this stupid little harlot is not going to ask ME I'll have to bring it up myself, raged the monster silently. "Little one, I can help you if you lead the way," he offered.
"I told you I am lost," said Gabrielle. "And besides, I don't think you are strong enough to help us all by yourself."
"Why you insolent harlot, I am stronger than all of them combined," roared Sefticles.
Xena did not like this at all. It was clear the cyclops was becoming agitated.
Gabrielle, why do you always have to try to prove yourself to me?, she wondered. That's what this is really all about isn't it?
Darinius, too, felt the situation was becoming dangerous. He pulled the bow off his back and removed the arrows attached to it. He selected three with the biggest warhead and aligned them on the bowstring. I haven't used this in a while, he remembered. For Gabrielle's sake I hope the bowstring is still strong. I must remember to check it more often. He brought his bow, half drawn, to the ready position and waited.
Faced with the possibilty of a long walk, Sefticles began to have second thoughts, There may not even be any others. Maybe the wench is lying. Or maybe- Hercules!
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to insult you," said Gabrielle smoothly. "It's just that I am really anxious to find help for my friends."
"YOU'RE NOT LOST!, screamed Sefticles. You have come to rescue Hercules! Where are the others? TELL ME!
"There isn't anyone else here. I told you I am lost," answered Gabrielle. She began to slowly back away.
"You lying little harlot," swore Sefticles. "You are trying to trick me! Well, you'll pay!"
With surprising speed the monster lashed out at Gabrielle. Realizing the danger, she managed to elude enough of the blow to just be grazed by it. Still, it was enough to render her unconscious.
"And now, my tasty little morsel." Sefticles was already drooling in greedy anticipation as he picked Gabrielle up by the back of her neck, her legs dangling like limp rags under her.
"Hey, you fat bastard! ,screamed Iolaus. "Why don't you pick on someone your own size!"
Brought out of his reverie by Iolaus' challange, Sefticles lone eye began to register more movement than it could keep up with. To his right the little man who had screamed at him had picked up a large stick and was running toward him. To his left a powerfully built woman was also advancing quickly. Straight ahead still another man was stepping out of the treeline. Confused by the flurry of activity before him, Sefticles was indecisive about what to do.
The humans, however, were not. Seizing her chakram, Xena unleashed the destructive power of this unique weapon. As she finished her follow- through, Xena heard Darinius' arrows ripping past her on the way to their target. The chakram tore into the back of the monster's left hand, burrowing itself almost two thirds of the way in. As he released Gabrielle, the three arrows found their mark. Their pattern had ran true. One struck the monster in the kneecap and shattered it, another dug itself deep into his thigh, and the last one bored into his hip.
Roaring in agony, the cyclops collapsed. As Darinius had hoped, the arrows had the desired effect of forcing the monster to fall on his right side and expose his juglular vein.
While Xena rushed to her beloved, Darinius cast aside his bow, pulled his sword, and with a purposeful stride, advanced toward Sefticles. Drawing even with the monster, Darinius saw the sword was unnecessary. The cyclops had crashed his head into one of the bridge abutments while falling and was dead.
"Gabrielle. Gabrielle!" Xena had already gathered her up in her arms and was apalled at the results of Sefticles' blow to her head. The whole left side of Gabrielle's face was swelling and she was bleeding from her left ear. Autolycus tore off a piece of his shirt off and soaked it with the water from Gabrielle's bag.
"Here, Xena, use this," he offered.
By now Darinius and Iolaus had joined them.
"Is she going to be all right?" asked Iolaus. He had long felt that Gabrielle shared a part of his soul and the sight of this lovely young woman lying limp as a rag in Xena's arms was almost too much to bear.
"Her pulse and breathing are good," answered Xena, carefully wiping Gabrielle's face with the rag. "I'm worried about that ear, though."
For a few anxious moments the rest of them help their collective breaths while Xena worked to revive Gabrielle. "C' mon Gabrielle, you have been hurt worse than this." She gently slapped Gabrielle on the cheek. "C' mon wake up."
"Ohhhhhh." Slowly Gabrielle's eyes began to flutter and then open.
"Gabrielle, it's me, Xena. Talk to me.
Gabrielle could only see the misty outlines of those standing above her.
"My head. Oww. Can't see. Xena?"
"I'm right here, Gabrielle. You're going to be all right."
"Twenty guards. Don't know about- about..."
"Don't worry about that now," said Xena. She took the water flask from Autolycus and held it up to Gabrielle's lips. "Here, drink this."
Gabrielle managed to drink some water but then became choked and most of what she had swallowed came streaming back out of her nose.
"I can't see a thing," coughed Gabrielle. The left side of her face felt like a millstone was hanging from it. And that ringing in her ear! Gabrielle felt like her head was going to explode.
"It's going to take a little time for her to pull herself together," said Xena.
"Why don't Iolaus and I use the time to scout up ahead?" asked Darinius.
"NO!, Xena answered forcefully. "Enough of that. We either all go or nobody goes. We will find Hercules together." Darinius saw she really meant business.
"Okay," he said. "We'll all wait together." Darinius walked back down the road to fetch his bow. He knew Xena was not really angry at him. It was just that she had to vent her anger on something and she had chosen him. She jumped me because she knows I can take it, he thought. The others might not hold up so well against those raging blue eyes. Even now she is always thinking.
"A castle...a castle beyond those hills," moaned Gabrielle.
"Shhhh. Don't worry about that now. Just lie here and rest."
Gabrielle's left eye was now almost completely swollen shut. Xena was relieved to see her ear had, for the most part, stopped bleeding.
"I'm here, Gabrielle."
"Xena, you know I don't ask much from you but I- I want you to do something for me... please?"
It was true, thought Xena. It was always I lead, she follows.
"Name it, Gabrielle."
"Don't fight with Darinius any more. He's a good man. He was just thinking of us."
"I know," said Xena.
Darinius had returned to the group in time to hear this exchange.
"I- I like him," continued Gabrielle. "He is so much like you."
Not since his beloved Lycidia had crossed over the river had anyone said that about him. Sure, he had received much praise and adulation for his exploits but is was as nothing compared to what this young woman with the battered face had spoken of from her heart. For the first time since learning of Lycidia's fate so long ago, Darinius felt the tears well up.
"It would be a tragedy if two people so noble and brave could not be friends," said Gabrielle.
"Don't worry, Gabrielle," soothed Xena. She fixed her gaze on Darinius and continued, "We are friends."
Darinus gave Xena a half smile and a barely perceptible nod to signal his assent.
"I' m so lucky to have such friends- all of you. I mean people who-"
"That's enough Gabrielle," said Xena gently. "Don' t talk anymore. Try to rest." Even in pain the girl loved to talk.
"Am I going to die?"
"No, Gabrielle, you are not going to die. You just feel like you are," replied Xena.
Darinius and Autolycus walked over to the edge of the bridge and began to look over the cyclops.
"He's certainly a big one," observed Autolycus.
"Bigger that most of his kind," agreed Darinius. They continued to stare at the huge form for some time before Darinius spoke again, "I believe they day will come when all these creatures will cease to exist. Centaurs, minotaurs, cyclops, dragons, all of them. Humans will eventually crowd them out."
"Well it won't be too soon for me," said Autolycus.
"I guess you are right," said Darinius. "Still, it will be sad in a way."
A half an hour later found Gabrielle sitting upright and somewhat returning to her old self. Supported by Xena's strong arm on one side and by Iolaus on the other she managed to stand although her legs were still a bit rubbery.
"Bend your head down, Gabrielle," said Xena. She placed the fingers of both hands on the back of Gabrielle's neck and began to probe for the proper spot. Upon finding it she gently but firmly applied the right amount of pressure. For a split second Gabrielle thought she WAS going to die. Soon, however, the pounding in her head eased considerably and the ringing in her ear stopped completely.
I can handle this, she thought.
"Better?" asked Xena.
"Yes, thank you," sighed Gabrielle loudly.
"Why did you wait until now to do- whatever it is you did?" asked Autolycus.
"I had to be sure she was coherent before I could do anything," said Xena. Gabrielle, I don't want to seem unfeeling, but..."
"I know, we have to go," Gabrielle cut her off. "I'm all right, really."
"Darinius, we're ready," announced Xena.
"Okay, let's move out the same as before except Autolycus, you walk with Gabrielle and keep an eye on her.
They formed up their column and started over the bridge. For what seemed to be very ancient construction the bridge was in remarkably good condition. The little group quickly crossed over the river and started up the long slope on the other side.
Their progression up the road was not unobserved.
"Senta, you have intruders."
"Most revered Hera, who would dare to desecrate ground which has been pledged to you?" asked Senta.
"It is the murdering harlot Xena and that blood thirsty slaughterer, Darinius."
"But why are they here?"
"They have come to take your love, Hercules, from you," hissed Hera.
"They have already murdered Sefticles."
"By your most powerful name," vowed Senta, "I will punish these evil meddlers. Thaddeus! Thaddeus!"
The captain of her guards burst into her chamber.
"What is it, my princess?" he asked. "Are you in danger?"
"Yes,Thaddeus, I am. The island has been invaded. They are approaching on the west road. Already Sefticles is dead. Seek them out and destroy them," ordered Senta.
"Mighty Hera, I will crush these vermin," said Senta.
"You should have sent the others as well," said Hera.
"Most feared one they are almost blind in daylight. It is better if they remain here and guard Hercules," said Senta.
"Very well, but be warned these murderers are very formidable."
"Thaddeus and his men will not fail me," Senta assured her.
We have company. Xena's uncanny ability to sense danger had rung the alarm bell inside her head. She was about to warn the others when Iolaus suddenly stopped. He stared up the road for a moment and eased his way back to the others.
"There is some movement up there," he said. "It might mean trouble."
"Do you think it's our welcoming committee?" asked Darinius.
Xena nodded her confirmation.
"Then let's not disappoint them," said Iolaus.
Thaddeus and his men were now in sight and beginning to advance.
"Looks to be about twenty of them," noted Xena.
"Told ya," said Gabrielle.
With a professional's eye Darinius studied the oncoming men. "A bunch of clods," he allowed. "They don' t know anything about deployment and half of them don't even have the proper weapons. Those short swords are not made for fighting out in the open like this."
"Maybe they think they don't have to be so careful," said Autolycus, "After all, they do have us outnumbered."
Darinius caught Xena's eye and with a sly grin said, "I have been outnumbered all my life."
Xena arched her eyebrow in mock anger and replied, "If you ask me, I'd say we have THEM outnumbered."
The guards were now within fifty paces.
"Here, Iolaus, take my sword," said Darinius. "I'll 'requisition' one from one of those guys. Xena? What do you think?"
"We need to take down as many as possible before they close on us," she said. " How many arrows do you have left?"
"See how bunched they are? I figure I can hit three or four with the chakram," allowed Xena. They are not going to do anything fancy. They are just going to mass up and charge us."
Darinius turned to Gabrielle and Autolycus and said, "Okay, you two stay back and take care of anyone who tries to flank us."
"Don't worry," said Gabrielle, "we'll take care of the bastards, won't we Autolycus?"
"Gabrielllle!" Gabrielle's swearing had startled Xena. "You hush that."
"Sorry." Hmph, thought Gabrielle, here we are about to fight twenty men and she is worried about my language.
"Here they come!"
In quick succession Darinius's four remaining arrows screamed through the air toward the guards. The men were so bunched together it was impossible for the missles not to find a mark. Simultaneously, the deadly chakram struck home and downed three more. Darinius picked up a couple of smooth stones from the road and readied his sling.
"I told you this came in handy, Autolycus," he said.
"Iolaus, don't rush out to meet them," warned Xena. "We want to hit them three abreast."
Senta's men were now within ten paces as one, then two more of them fell- courtesy of Darinius's sling. The battle was now joined. In the blink of an eye Xena broke the neck of one man with a monstrous kick, ducked under another's sword slash, and nearly cut him in two with her own sword. Iolaus, meanwhile, took down two more with a rolling block and, before they could rise, were dispatched by Gabrielle and her staff. The odds were now seven to five.
The battle was as good as over. Darinius pulled out his knife, deftly dodged a sweeping slash at his knees, and planted it into his assailant's neck. He relieved the dead man of his sword and ran it through one of the two men battling Iolaus. In the meantime Xena had killed another two and was locked in on the next one.
Relieved of his double team, Iolaus quickly dispatched his man with a series of hard elbows to the stomach. Again, Autolycus had the bad luck of drawing the biggest of the bunch. This man, with arms the size of Autolycus' legs, had him embraced in a huge bear hug. Try as he might to free himself, Autolycus could not manage it. Soon he was turning as purple as Xena's old battle cape.
Gabrielle's work with her staff had once again made her light- headed but she still managed to give Autolycus' antagonist a solid whack to the head before her knees buckled. This result of this was that the huge man loosened his grip just enough for Autolycus to separate himself and drive his knee into the man's groin. Autolycus then clamped his hands together in a double fist and hit him with everything he had. Like a huge tree the guard teetered briefly and fell crashing to the ground.
Autolycus's eyes registered a myriad of scenes as they began to refocus. Xena was chasing the last man up the road, Iolaus was bent over Gabrielle, and Darinius was checking out the downed men.
Darinius knew he could not take the chance of letting one of these men sneak off and warn their master so he utilized a lesson he had learned in the Spartan army so long ago. No matter how adept a man was at holding his breath no one could remain motionless after receiving a solid kick to the groin. He did not have to test all of them as most were obviously dead. It was a dirty job and he did not relish doing it but he had to be sure. All but three were dead.
"Iolaus, can you give me a hand?" asked Darinius.
"There are three of them still alive. Let's tie them to those trees over there so they can't get in our way anymore," said Darinius.
Here, thought Gabrielle, is the difference between my friends and all those marauding bastards who call themselves 'warriors'. Hercules, Xena, Darinius, always fought for good and only killed in the heat of battle. When it was over they once again became the examples of the heights humanity could attain. If we had lost here...well she had no illusions about that, either. None of us would have been left alive to be tied to trees that's for sure, she thought.
This brief, but very bloody, conflict had been a perfect illustration of the very different fighting styles of Xena, Iolaus, and Darinius. Iolaus tended to rely on his amazing quickness and agilty to avoid blows and deliver vigorus counterattacks to his foes. Xena, on the other hand, was the ultimate warrior. She was not really that quick but she was capable of performing stunning, almost gravity- defying maneuvers. Her real assets were her incredible raw power, aggressiveness, intellect, and courage beyond description. But what really made her so memorable was flair with which she utilized these assets. She exhibited a certain style which, once seen, was forever burned into one's memory- if they lived. A breathtakingly beautiful warrior woman in the prime of her life; she was a vision to behold.
To best describe Darinius' abilities one needed only to ask the ultimate authority on warriors, Xena. She had fought many battles, large and small, and had seen many warriors but only two whom she considered her equal. One was Hercules, of course, and the other was the quiet, confident man from Mymalar. Darinius might have been Xena's equal but their fighting styles were not much alike. His methods and been learned in Sparta's bloody coastal wars and over time he had refined those methods to something close to technical perfection. Because his army had been so often out numbered, he had developed combat techniques that required less physical exertion than normal. As a result he was not stylish or creative in combat; only deadly efficient. Another difference between the two was Darinius, like Hercules, mainly had a "lets get if over with" attitude when it came to fighting while Xena clearly relished a good fight.
Xena was having more trouble catching Thaddeus that she had expected. I should have sent Iolaus, she thought. Running was the only chink in Xena's armor and it was but a small one. After all, it was not something she was called upon to do very often. While she did not have anything like a sprinter's speed she made up for it by being able to maintain a very good pace for a very long time.
Thaddeus was doing the best he could but he was steadily losing ground to the demon- woman. He had never seen anything like it! Twenty men defeated by this woman and her companions in less time than it took to tell about it. Now the woman's measured breathing and heavy foot steps were coming closer...closer. Suddenly, two powerful arms were around his legs and he crashed to the ground. He felt himself being hoisted up to a sitting position. The woman was now behind him and she had locked a forearm under his chin. It's not possible for a woman, ANYONE, to be this strong, he thought. Struggle as he might, he could not break free.
"No, no, no. You are not going anywhere," panted Xena. "I have had enough road word for today. Now, why don't you tell me what I want to know and maybe I'll let you live."
"You will get nothing from me, harpy," spat Thaddeus.
"That's too bad." Thaddeus felt the shock of his head being snapped back and what felt like a couple of fingers being pressed sharply into the junction of his neck and shoulders. Soon he could neither move nor breathe and blackness was enshrouding his vision.
"I've cut off the flow of blood to your brain, the she- devil told him. "You have less than a minute to tell me what I want to know. Otherwise I walk away and you die. So let's not beat around the bush, shall we? Where is Hercules?"
"In- in the dungeon at the castle," gasped Thaddeus.
"And where is this dungeon located?"
"By the- the south wall of the palace."
"How many minotaurs?" demanded Xena. Here Thaddeus hesitated. Xena locked her hands around his neck and tried again. "How many!"
"Twelve," he answered, finally.
"Any other surprises I should know about? Well?"
"No," he croaked.
The fingers once more were jabbed into his neck and he found himself able to fight for air now.
"Thanks," cooed the she- devil.
Thaddeus rolled back his eyes in time to catch sight of the oncoming fist.
The cage had performed it's job well. Hercules was indeed powerless just as Hera said he would be. This, however, was not quite the way Senta wanted it. After all, as long as he was in the cage his mind was unable to comprehend anything. What good was it, she thought, if she could not hold him close or feel his lips on hers. This way he was nothing more than an exotic pet. I love him so much, she thought. I don't dare release him now but once the three moons are passed we will be together forever. Senta turned her gaze to the two minotaurs silently watching Hercules from their post in the corridor. Such filty creatures!, thought Senta. She did not trust them despite the fact they were under orders from Hera to obey her. Thaddeus and his men should be returning soon, she thought, I will have one of them watch Hercules for a while.
"There she is!", shouted Iolaus. "Xena!" Iolaus was greatly relieved to see her. The possibility of her being led into a trap had occured to him. Now she strode back down the road to meet her comrades.
"I didn't think you would have to chase him THAT far," teased Darinius. "You must be getting slow in your old age."
"I didn't see you chasing him," retorted Xena. "And you are a fine one to be calling someone old."
"I prefer to call it 'maturity'," said Darinius airily.
"Did you find out anything, Xena?" asked Iolaus.
"Yes. Hercules is being held in a dungeon by the south wall of the palace." Xena paused before delivering the really bad news. "There are also twelve minotaurs roaming around in there."
"Uhh boy," groaned Darinius.
"Gabrielle, are you all right?" asked Xena.
"Yeah," replied Gabrielle. "But I am starting to know how cyclops feels."
Poor Gabrielle was right. Not only was her left eye completely swollen shut but the whole left side of her face from the jaw to the temple as well.
"Just be thankful you were able to avoid the worst of it or...," Xena's voice trailed off.
"I know, I would be crossing the river Styx right about now. Right?"
"'Fraid so," said Xena.
"So what do we do now?' asked Autolycus.
"Good question," said Darinius. "What do you think, Xena. It's going to be dark before long. Do we risk a night attack or do we wait until morning?"
"If we attack at night we will be at a clear disadvantage," said Xena."They say minotaurs don't see very well in daylight but do very well at night. On the other hand, if we wait Senta is going to know something is wrong. There is no telling what she might do. She might even be crazy enough to harm Hercules in some way."
"Okay, what about you guys?" asked Darinius.
The idea of fighting minotaurs in the dark did not appeal to any of them.
"We will do whatever you and Xena want," said Gabrielle.
"What I want is to be fishing on a beach somewhere," grinned Darinius. "How about you, Xena?"
"Make mine a good hot bath," answered Xena.
"I hate to break up this little moment," said Autolycus, "but are we going to hit them tonight or not?"
"If we wait Senta might send a couple of those things out to look for us," said Xena. "We might be able to set up some sort of ambush."
"Can we risk letting Hercules staying in there another night?" asked Iolaus.
"That's what we are trying to decide, Iolaus," said Xena.
"Well I have had enough," said Iolaus. "You can stay here and 'decide' all you want. I am going to do something." He had not gone two steps before Xena caught him by the arm.
"Calm down," she said softly. "We are on your side, remember?
"Iolaus, we all want to help but we can't just go rushing in there," reminded Darinius.
"I knowww. It's just-"
"Iolaus we will get him out of there," said Gabrielle.
Xena planted herself squarely in front of Iolaus and put her hands on his shoulders. "I owe my life to Hercules," she said. "Iolaus, I swear to you on my brother's grave if we are not successful I will not be leave this island alive."
As far as Iolaus was concerned this was what amounted to an emotional outburst for the usually stoic Xena and he was somewhat embarrassed by it. Fortunately, his discomfort was interrupted by Gabrielle mumbling to herself.
"What did you say?" asked Xena.
"I was just thinking. If these things don't see very well in daylight why don't we take advantage of what time we have left today and get inside the castle? I mean- they won't be out on the battlements or anything; they will be inside, won't they? And, and if we get inside maybe we could sucker some of them into a trap out into the open and even the score a little."
Gabrielle caught herself. Stupid!, she thought, who are you to try to tell these great military minds their business. She reminded herself that Xena was almost infallible at overcoming obstacles like this. Gabrielle, you will be lucky if they don't chase you clear back to the beach, she thought.
For a long moment Xena and Darinius just stood there staring at her.
I got a bad feeling about this, thought Gabrielle. She then saw this "look" come over Xena's face. It was hard to read her but she seemed to be pleased.
Darinius's face was not so hard to read. The delight was very plain to see.
"Well, Xena, the wrong ones have been leading this little expedition," laughed Darinius. "I think she has got something."
"I told you she was something, didn't I?" she replied proudly.
"Well, what do you say, General Gabrielle? Shall we get to it?" asked Darinius.
This guy sure has a way about him, thought Gabrielle. "Lead the way, private," she laughed. It felt good to her to be making a tangible contribution. "Oh and, by the way, you don't have to salute if you don't want to."
Darinius bowed deeply from the waist and Xena could only shake her head in amusement.
"There it is."
There was no more than hour or so of daylight left when they reached the castle. Xena studied it with interest and noted it was not especially a big one. It had been designed more as a residence than as protection from invasion. She could see the gates were closed and assumed they were locked. They probably left one or two men behind to watch the gate, she thought.
"I think maybe we should try that northwest corner," suggested Xena. "There's a good chance only one or two men are manning the gate so our best bet is to go to the opposite corner."
"You read my mind," agreed Darinius.
The little band quickly worked its way down the slope of the hill and skimmed along the walls of the palace until they reached the northwest corner.
"Okay, Autolycus," said Darinius, "this is where you earn your keep. Think you can scale that wall?"
"No wall is too tough for the King of Thieves," assured Autolycus. "Stand back."
Unfortunately for Autolycus the battlements had been shaped to form a sharp ridge on the top and there was no place for the grappling hook on Autolycus' on of a kind device to attach itself to. On the first attempt the hook came bouncing back down the wall as it fell to the ground.
"No wall is too tough, huh?" chided Xena.
"Well, ah, it's just a temporary setback," said Autolycus.
But twice more he tried the hood and twice more he failed.
"Maybe we should just throw you over the wall," growled Xena.
"Do you think you can put that thing through there?" asked Iolaus, pointing to a window in the watchtower.
"It's worth a try, I guess," answered Autolycus.
It took a couple of minutes for him to rewind the mechanism.
"It's going to be a long swim home for you if you don't hit that sill," warned Xena. She was becoming very impatient. We're wasting time, she thought.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," said Autolycus.
Although he was sure Xena was only kidding- wasn't she?, he was nevertheless relieved when his hook shot squarely through the tower window. His anxiety was further eased by the solid feel of the hook setting itself in the ledge. Soon he was up the cord and through the window, making the cord more secure.
"Okay, Iolaus, you're next," said Darinius.
Ioluaus quickly and neatly scurried up the cord to join Autolycus.
"Xena, I don't think I can make it up there," said Gabrielle.
"You don't have to, we will pull you up," assured Xena. "Go on Darinius, I will go last."
Darinius quickly hauled himself up the cord.
"Here, put this around you," said Xena, putting a loop in the cord. "How are you feeling?"
"I'm a little tired, but don't worry about me," said Gabrielle.
Xena made sure the loop around her was secure and added, "I want you to know I am proud of you. You really showed these guys what you are made of today."
"Thank you. Okay guys, I'm ready."
"Watch your head, now," warned Xena.
Gabrielle was quickly pulled up to join her friends and soon Xena was with them also.
Silently the made their way down the tower steps and toward the main gate, Iolaus, as usual, leading the way.
"There's only one that I can see," said Iolaus, peeking around the corner and eyeing the gate.
"Get his attention, Iolaus," said Xena. "It's not polite to arrive unannounced."
"Hey, stupid! Your mother wears army boots!" yelled Iolaus. He stuck his thumbs in his ears and wiggled his fingers.
"Who are you?" bellowed the guard. "Come back here! When I get my-" the guard rounded the corner where Iolaus had been and ran headlong into a straight right hand from Xena.
"Army boots?" laughed Darinius.
"It was all I could think of," shrugged Iolaus.
"Now that we are close," said Autolycus, what do we know about our 'friends' in there?"
"Big. Strong. Vicious," answered Xena.
"But also slow and stupid," reminded Darinius.
"And one more thing," added Iolaus, "they stink."
"It will be dark soon," said Xena. "Let's get to work."
Quickly they made their way to the south wall of the castle. Xena saw that the place where Hercules was being held must have been used for some kind of ceremonial, probably religious, purpose at one time. A solid slab of what looked like marble supported by four columns formed a kind of portico over the entrance. On top of the stoa were two rather large statues of griffins. The columns and the door facing were heavily engraved with symbols Xena had never seen before. The door opened into a hallway of at least twenty paces in length and faded into the darkness beyond the palace walls. To Xena the place had obviously been one in which its users had wanted to easily restrict whom could enter.
"You know, those griffins don' t look very stable," observed Xena.
"You're thinking if they were to 'accidently' fall someone could get hurt?" asked Darinius. "Like a minotaur maybe?"
"Oh, wouldn't that be just terrible," purred Xena.
Iolaus thought he could see what was next. "Do you want me to go in there and try to draw them out so that you can play 'mash the monster'?" he asked.
"That's what I was thinking except you are not going in there, I am," said Darinius.
"Why you?" asked Xena. "Iolaus is obviously a faster runner than you are."
"Because," said Darinius, "from here on there are no leaders and followers. We just go in there. It's going to be a dog fight, plain and simple. No battle plans, no tricks, we just slug it out. Nobody is in charge now. No, I cannot ask Iolaus to do this. It is my turn."
"Then maybe I should be the one to go," suggested Xena.
"Nah, somebody has to get up on top of the stoa," said Darinius. "None of us but you can make the leap up there sooo..."
"Okay, okay, I get the message," said Xena dryly.
"One last order from me," said Darinius. "Autolycus, you and Gabrielle hide behind these front columns and stretch that cord from your grappling hook across the bottom of the doorway. Don't worry, our friends will be concentrating on me and not you. After I pass by pull the cord up just high enough to trip them. That will make it easier for Xena and Iolaus to hit them with the griffiins. Iolaus, care to trade swords? I believe you still have mine."
Iolaus traded swords with him and asked, "Darinius, what's to keep all of them from following you out here?"
"Nothing," said Darinius. "Whether they all follow me or not is irrelevant. This still has to be done."
"Iolaus, we can't fight a battle of attrition here. These things are too strong. Minotaurs can fight all day and all night and not get tired. We have to try to take some of them out not only quickly but with as little exertion as possible. Now, once we get in there, I am hoping Hercules can give us a hand but we have got to reach him first." He paused and looked at Xena, "You ready?"
"Let's go then."
Without her usual war cry, Xena executed a leaping back flip and landed up on top of the portico. She immediately lay face down on the slab and reached one arm over the side. Locking Iolaus' arm with hers, she easily swung him up to join her on the slab.
The woman is amazing, thought Darinius. "Are you ready?" he asked Autolycus.
Darinius took a hard swallow and entered the hallway. He had not gone ten paces before the stench greeted him. It's even worse than I remember, he thought. Poor Hercules! Now it was to dark too continue much farther. Well, here I go, he thought.
"HERCULES! HERCULES, WHERE ARE YOU!"
Darinius immediately detected sounds of movement directly in front of him. There! No more than a few paces away and about level with his waist, Darinius could see two- no three pairs of red glowing embers boring in on him out of the darkness. Get ready, he told himself. Then another pair of eyes appeared and with them, a roar loud enough to wake the dead. The eyes were now closing on him!
Darinius almost waited too long to make his escape. He felt the whoosh of a sword stroke not more than a hand's width away from his head. He ran down the hallway and out into the open with the monsters hot on his heels.
As soon as Darinius passed them, Autolycus and Gabrielle yanked up their cord and tripped up three of the minotaurs. The fourth one managed to elude the cord and continued straight for Darinius. The three minotaurs were no sooner on the ground when the two griffins came crashing down on them. And after the statues came Xena. With a savageness she rarely let Gabrielle see, Xena rammed her sword into each of the prostrate minotaurs bellies.
"Keep an eye on the door," she told Gabrielle, "and yell out if you see any more of them coming."
By now Darinius had turned to face his pursuer. This one did not wield a sword but a battleaxe. The monster swung his weapon in long sweeping arcs, aiming mainly at Darinius' legs. Darinius deftly eluded each of his foe's attacks and, using his sword with deadly efficiency, scored two solid hits on the monster's left arm. As the minotaur began to make his next sweep at Darinius his knees buckled and his weapon fell heavily to the ground.
Due to his intense concentration on the minotaur Darinius had not seen Iolaus close in from the right and ram his sword into its ribs.
"Are you all right?" asked Iolaus.
"Yeah, I'm okay. Thanks, Iolaus," said Darinius.
Iolaus was having trouble removing his sword from the monster's ribs. Finally, by planting his foot on the minotaur's back and pulling with all his might, he was able to remove it.
Xena, meanwhile, returned to Gabrielle and Autolycus after seeing that Iolaus was on his way to help Darinius.
"Stay close to me from now on, Gabrielle," she said.
"For a moment there- I mean, with the minotaurs, it was like you were someone I didn't know," said Gabrielle.
"I was," said Xena. "You caught a glimpse of the past, Gabrielle. I guess with so much at stake here I lost a little self control." Seeing the apprehension in Gabrielle's eyes she smiled, put a hand on her arm and added, "Don't worry about me, I'm all right. Really"
"I''ll be glad when this is over," said Gabrielle.
"So will I," smiled Xena. "So will I."
"Hey guys, look what I found."
Autolycus had been searching for a place to relieve himself when he noticed a large box with a lid held on by leather straps. He looked inside and found a small bag of grain, a jar of some unknown liquid, and three torches.
"These torches will come in handy," said Iolaus.
"What's this stuff for?" asked Gabrielle.
"My guess it is some sort of religious offering," allowed Xena.
"Well, it's time," said Darinius.
Making their way to the entrance, Xena asked Gabrielle, "Have you got your flint?"
She reached into her bag, produced the flint, and quickly lit the torches.
"Here," said Xena, giving Gabrielle and Autolycus the torches. "Gabrielle if they get too close to you I want you to put this right between their eyes, understand?"
Gabrielle merely nodded.
Darinius gave his sword a quick inspection and said, "Friends, here is where we succeed or fail. Let's not fail."
They slowly entered the hallway. Xena, Iolaus, and Darinus led the way, walking three abreast down the corridor with Autolycus and Gabrielle following close behind.
"Ugh! That odor is awful," said Gabrielle.
The steps were now just ahead and Darinius stopped for a moment to listen for that scuffling noise he had heard before.
Nothing. Just the hiss of torches.
Carefully they descended the steps. Still nothing. The bottom of the steps ended in another hallway which ran perpendicular to theirs.
"There's more than room down here," said Xena.
"So which way do we go?" asked Darinius. "Left or right?"
"We go right," said Xena.
"Okay," agreed Darinius, "Autolycus, keep a sharp watch behind us to make sure we don't get any surprises."
This passageway was much longer than the one leading outside. The little band advanced down it for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, they saw a faint light filtering out of the left side of the corridor.
"It's got to be a room," said Iolaus.
"Get ready," said Xena.
Darinius carefully inched up to the door of the room and peeked inside. The light was coming from a small, barred window high up on the opposite wall. Although it was now completely dark outside, a full moon was beginning to peek over the battlements of the castle and cast its rays through the window.
The room was not very big and, as far as Darinius could tell, nearly empty. He took the torch from Gabrielle and eased into the doorway and stuck the torch into the room. A small table in one corner, some old rags in the center of the room, and what looked like a bigger pile of rags in the corner under the window were all he could see.
"Nothing here," he whispered, turning back.
"Wait! It moved!" whispered Gabrielle.
"What moved?" asked Xena.
"Over in that corner, whatever that is, it moved I tell you," said Gabrielle.
Holding her sword with both hands, Xena stepped toward the big pile of rags. She closed to within a couple of paces before she realized it was a man. His hands were manacled to the wall and a hood had been placed over his head. She knelt down and could hear him softly moaning.
"What is it. Xena?" asked Iolaus.
"Is he- dead?" asked Gabrielle. She found it hard to believe anyone could survive here.
"No," replied Xena. "He is just unconscious."
Gabrielle's compassion over came her fear and she moved to join Xena. She was halfway there when Xena removed the man's hood.
"Ohhh nooo," groaned Xena.
"What is it?" asked Gabrielle.
The others moved in closer to see what had given Xena such a start. By now Gabrielle's line of vision was no longer blocked and she could see the man's face.
"Joxer! What in Tartarus is he doing here?" demanded Gabrielle.
"One can only guess," said Xena.
Gabrielle soaked Autolycus' old rag with water from her bag and placed it to Joxer's lips. Xena, however, decided on a more direct approach to revive him. She placed her thumbs on Joxer's eyelids and gently pushed them up.
Joxer awakened to see Xena and Gabrielle kneeling over him and was too stunned to believe what he was seeing. What a wonderful dream, he thought, My two favorite people in the whole world.
"Joxer, Joxer, snap out of it," Gabrielle whispered as she gently slapped his cheek.
Still, Joxer could not quite clear the fog in his head. "Xena. I knew you could not resist me forever," he said dreamily.
With a smile that revealed more amusement than annoyance, Xena reached over and gaver Joxer a firm pinch on the nose. "Wake up, you moron," she said.
"Owww! Not the nose. It hurts enough already. Finally, reality came to Joxer. "Hey, it is you guys! Hiya Gabby. Ugh. What happened to you?"
"It's a long story," growled Gabrielle.
"You know this man?" asked Darinius.
"I am afraid we do," said Xena dryly. "Darinius, this is Joxer, Warrior Idiot."
"Yeah I...huh?...I sometimes help out these two when the going gets too tough for them," boasted Joxer.
"What ARE you doing here anyway?" asked Gabrielle.
"Well I was in Cataria minding my own business when these guys came running by me carrying this cage on long poles," said Joxer. "As they passed by me one of them tripped and dropped his pole. The cage tilted over and the cover came halfway off and I saw, you will never believe it, Hercules inside it."
"We can believe it," replied Gabrielle.
"Wellll, the mighty Joxer saw his duty at once and attacked these cretins. I would have taken them, too, if this one sneak had not gotten in a lucky punch," he said.
"Don't tell me, let me guess," said Xena. "He broke your nose, right?"
"Yeah. How did you know?"
"Just a hunch, I guess," said Xena.
"Well, anyway," continued Joxer, "the next thing I know I'm here. I have been working on an escape plan but I am sure glad to see you guys."
"Autolycus, can you get those off him?" asked Darinius.
"Hmmm, let me see, yeah- no problem," said Autolycus. He produced his tools and in less that a minute had Joxer free. "There you go," he said.
"Joxer, do you know where Hercules is?" asked Xena.
"I don't even know where I am," bleated Joxer.
"Can you stand?" asked Xena.
"I don't know. I think so." Joxer placed his hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and managed to rise. "Just give me a minute and I'll be okay."
"Looks like it's back the other way for us," said Iolaus.
Joxer picked up the sword Autolycus had laid down and asked, "Can I borrow this? I want to get even with those cowardly bastards."
"Tell you what," said Xena, "why don't you let Autolycus keep the sword and you carry the torch?"
Joxer sadly took the torch from Iolaus and unsteadily began for the door.
What is it about that guy that makes it impossible for me do dislike him, Xena asked herself. Yes, he is totally inept but he does mean well.
Iolaus crept to the door and sneaked a peek down the hall. "I don't see anything," he said.
"Let's move out," said Darinius.
"Do me a favor?'
"Keep an eye on Gabrielle for me?" asked Xena.
"You got it," beamed Joxer.
"I don't- he..." Gabrielle was cut short by the little wink Xena gave her. Oh, so that's it, she thought. Typical Xena. Always rock hard on the exterior but ever compassionate to the lucky ones she counted as friends. And Joxer was a friend.
They began to retrace their route back down the corridor and stopped when they reached the steps once again.
"Wonder where they are," said Iolaus. "Do you think they could be setting a trap for us?"
"Probably," nodded Xena.
They group slowly made its way past the steps and on down the passageway. Xena, Iolaus, and Darinius led the way with the others behind. The torches were not as bright as before and the dim light made it impossible to see the very thin crack in the wall of the passageway which was the only clue to the presence of a hidden door. Xena and Autolycus, in fact, looked straight at it but passed on oblivious to it. They had proceeded about ten more paces when the grating of stone upon stone was heard behind them.
"Uh ohh," said Iolaus.
They no sooner turned to face the noise when a tremendous roar filled the corridor. It seemed to be all around them.
"Run!" exclaimed Xena.
With her sword in one hand and Gabrielle's hand in the other, Xena followed Ioluaus, Autolycus, and Darinius down the corridor. Joxer, meanwhile, never knew he could run so fast. After about thirty paces the corridor made a sharp turn to the right. The warriors rounded the corner and ran straight into four more minotaurs.
"Don't stop!" yelled Darinius. "Just keep going!"
Holding his sword at arm's length and across his body, Darinius charged straight into the minotaurs. Iolaus and Autolycus hit them a split second behind. The momentum of the charging men was enough to knock down all four of the minotaurs.
The monsters had been standing in a doorway of a large room lit by torches. Xena and her companions were too occupied at first to notice the blueish glow emanating from the corner of the room.
"If we can keep them bottled up in the corridor," said Xena, "we might be able to hold them off."
"But for how long?" asked Autolycus.
Xena, Darinius, and Iolaus rushed to where the corridor opened into the room just in time to do battle with the minotaurs and prevent the minotaurs from entering. As Gabrielle turned to look for another exit she saw it.
"Xena! The cage. It's Hercules!" she shouted.
"Autolycus, open the cage," said Darinius.
Autolycus produced his tools, hurried to the cage, and began to the inspect the lock.
"Hercules, it's me," said Autolycus. Hercules did not reply. He merely sat there, staring. Well, this doesn't look too hard, thought Autolycus. Autolycus inserted his pick into the key hole and a gray fog began to cloud his eyes. In a matter of seconds he could not remember what he was doing there or even who he was.
"What's the matter with you?" demanded Gabrielle.
Autolycus did not reply. Like Hercules he simply stared. Instantly Gabrielle saw the meaning of it.
"By the gods, it's true. Xena! Remember the story about the cage?" asked Gabrielle.
"I'm a little busy here, Gabrielle," replied Xena. "I don't have time for stories." She, Darinius and Iolaus were now being pressed very hard by their enemy.
"The story," persisted Gabrielle, "said that any MAN who comes in contact with the cage becomes mindless."
"Well it's true. Autolycus can't open the cage. He touched the cage and it zapped him."
"If a man can't do it then a woman will have to," said Darinius.
So far the minotaurs had been content to crudely hack away at the humans with their swords. They were very much restricted in their movements by being bottled up in the narrow corridor. Darinius knew it was only a matter of time, however, before they regrouped and charged the way he and his friends had done.
"I see what you are getting at," said Xena. "Gabrielle, you will have to open the cage."
"ME? protested Gabrielle. "I don't know anything about picking a lock."
"JUST DO IT! screamed Xena. "We can't hold on here much longer. Joxer, we need your help!"
"Coming, Xena." Despite being very frightened, Joxer felt somehow exhilarated by the scene unfolding around him. The Warrior Princess and her friends were calling on HIM for assistance! He took the sword from the still comatose Autolycus and rushed to the aid of his comrades.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle returned to the cage and timidly began to jiggle the pick in the lock. To her relief she found that the cage, indeed, did not affect women. Desparately she began to work the tools into the lock in every position she could think of but nothing happened.
"Autolycus! Autolycus, you have got to help me!" Gabrielle was screaming at him but his demeanor did not change. She felt the anger and frustration begin to rise up inside her. Did we come all this way only to fail now? she thought. NO!
"Autolycus, snap out of it," pleaded Gabrielle. That's it! she thought.
Gabrielle reached back as far as she could and came forward with looping round house right and caught Autolycus squarely in the jaw.
"Owwww! My hand." Gabrielle was sure it was broken. That was a stupid thing to do, she thought. The last thing we need is for me to become hysterical.
But she had finally gotten a reaction from Autolycus. Waking from his drunken stupor, he blinked his eyes several times and began to shake his head as if he was trying to clear out the cobwebs. Then his brain began to register the pain in his jaw. He turned to Gabrielle, "Thanks, I needed that...I think."
Suddenly the minotaurs retreated a few paces and began to seemingly communicate among themselves.
"I was afraid of this," said Darinius. "They are going to rush us."
"Quit jabbering, you two, and get that cage open!" yelled Xena.
"Right. Autolycus, you are going to have to tell me how to do it," said Gabrielle.
"Well, first you place this one in here..."
With a huge collective roar the minotaurs charged down the hallway.
"Stand back!" yelled Xena.
The four defenders waited until the last possible moment and stepped out of the way of the onrushing monsters. Caught up in their own momentum, they burst right past the defenders. Xena on one side and Darinius on the other both managed to ram a lethal thrust into the side of a minotaur as it ran past. The fight now degenerated into individual battles all over the room.
"Now holding the first one in place, just stick the other one in here and slowly twist it until you feel a click," continued Autolycus. He sized up the situation around him. We're goners, he pronounced to himself.
"I don' t feel any..." CLICK! Gabrielle felt the door loosen and she pulled it open with a fierce yank.
"We did it!" Xena, it's open!"
Xena knew Gabrielle was not nearly strong enough to remove Hercules from the cage by herself. "Darinius, I have got to help Gabrielle get Hercules out of there."
"Go on," he replied. "We'll try to hold 'em off. Form a wall in front of the cage door, boys!"
Rushing to the cage, Xena stopped for a moment. "Here, take this," she said, giving Autolycus her sword. Autolycus quickly joined the others on the human wall in front of the cage.
"C' mon, Gabrielle, we have got to get him out of there," said Xena, entering the cage. "You take his feet and I'll take the shoulders"
"Uhh, he's a lot heavier than he looks," said Gabrielle.
"Hang on, we are almost out," said Xena. "Hercules..."
The superior strength of the monsters was beginning to make a difference. Joxer received a blow to his left shoulder and collapsed. Darinius, too, was cut but managed to keep his feet. Iolaus had managed to wound one of the enemy but the fierce fighting was taking its toll.
Autolycus took a vicious two- handed swing at a minotaur with Xena's sword and, as the monster ducked, hit the cage with it. To his horror the sword simply shattered. Even more surprising to him was the contact with the cage had not affected him.
Suddenly two huge arms ran past each side of Autolycus' head, caught a minotaur in each hand, and savagely crushed them together. Simultaneously, Darinius rammed his sword into another one's guts . Autolycus threw the hilt of Xena's sword at another and cracked it right between the eyes. As the monster stepped back to shake off the pain, it found itself being hoisted into the air. Hercules had picked it up like a rag doll and, turning to face the rest of the enemy, threw him on top of them.
Hera or no, the minotaurs realized they were outmatched. They scrambled to their feet and disappeared into the gloom of the corridor.
"Herc, it's good to see you again," said Iolaus.
"You too, Iolaus. Ah where are we, by the way? What are all of you doing here?"
"We came for you," smiled Xena.
"I don't understand," said Hercules.
"It's a long story," said Xena. "Gabrielle can tell it to you on the way home."
Hercules then noted Gabrielle's battered face. "Who did this to you?" he asked.
"He's been taken care of," said Xena.
"Well it's good to see all of you again," said Hercules. He then spotted Darinius helping Joxer to his feet. "I don't believe I've had the pleasure."
Xena made the introductions. "Hercules, this is Darinius."
"Darinius?" Not the famous general Darinus?" asked Hercules.
"The same," said Xena. "Believe me, I ought to know."
Hercules shook hands with Darinius and turned to Joxer.
"And this is Joxer," said Xena.
Poor Joxer was so overwhelmed at meeting the great hero he was unable to be coherent. "I'm mad to gleet you," he stammered. "I mean, I'm meesed to pleat you... I mean-"
"Joxer, he gets the idea," said Xena.
"I hate to spoil the reunion," said Autolycus, "but shouldn't we get out of here?'
"You're right, Autolycus," said Hercules. He made for the door and stopped. "Uh, could someone show me the way?"
"Sure thing, Herc," smiled Iolaus. "Just stay close, okay?"
"Autolycus, where is my sword?" asked Xena.
"Wellll, uh, Xena, it's like this- it's ahh, well I broke it," said Autolycus meekly.
"You WHAT?" In all the confusion of the battle she, indeed, had not seen what the cage had done to her sword. And now for a moment Xena felt a powerful urge to wring Autolycus' neck- but only for a moment.
"It was not his fault, Xena," protested Gabrielle. "It must have been the force in the cage. When your sword made contact with it it just exploded."
"Okay, okay," muttered Xena, still very angry.
"C'mon, Xena, let's get out of here," said Darinius.
The night sky was now blanketed by clouds an they stepped out into the fresh air of the palace courtyard.
"It looks like you have been very busy tonight," said Hercules, stepping over the dead minotaurs by the portico.
"Busy enough to last me for a while," said Iolaus.
A soft voice beckoned to him from the blackness of the courtyard.
"It's Senta," said Xena. "She's the one who brought you here."
"Hercules, please stay with me."
"I can't do that," said Hercules. "I don't belong here. And besides, kidnapping is not the way to make friends.
"I only wanted to love you," said Senta. "I knew I could never win your heart fairly so I decided to have you any way I could. When Hera told me of the cage-"
"Hera!" interrupted Hercules. "I should have known."
"She said we belonged together and that after a while you would grow to love me and help rebuild my island."
Hercules noted the very real pain in Senta's voice and it made it impossible for him to be angry with her. He could only pity her now. "I'm sorry about what happened here," he said, "but Hera only used you to do harm to me. She is always trying new ways to destroy me and she will use any amount of treachery and deceit to accomplish her goal. She does not care who is hurt in the process."
"I cannot believe the great Hera would-"
"Listen sister, Hercules never lies, okay?" snapped Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, calm down," whispered Xena.
"I have heard the great Hercules always tells the truth," said Senta. "I see you and your friends have defeated my guards. It must be wonderful to have such powerful friends.
"It's nice to have friends whether they are powerful or not," said Hercules. "It only matters that they like you for who you are."
"Then take your friends and go. The ship that brought you here is moored not far from here. You can use it for your voyage home," said Senta.
"Why don't you come with us? This is no place for you," said Hercules.
"This is my home, I cannot leave it again," said Senta. "Go now and, Hercules?"
"Try not to think too unkindly of me. Loneliness is a bitter enough potion to swallow without having the one you love hate you."
"I don't hate you, Senta. You are the real victim in all this," said Hercules
"We have some of your men tied up in the forest," said Xena. "We will release them before we go."
The rising sun found them already well out to sea. Hercules was at the tiller, Iolaus and Autolycus were working the sails, and Xena was attending to Joxer's and Darinius' wounds while Gabrielle slept.
"Looks like you are going to have a nice scar there to go with the one if the other one, Joxer," said Xena.
"Really? That's owww! great. Boy, wait till I tell everybody I helped to save Hercules."
"Joxer, a good warrior doesn't need to boast," said Xena. "His deeds will always will speak louder than words."
"Well maybe I could just tell a couple, like Meg maybe?" he asked.
"Won't do any harm, I guess," said Xena. "Now why don't you try to get some sleep?"
Xena watched Joxer stumble up to the bow and lie down. "Well, she said, turning to Darinius, "you don't seem to be too badly hurt."
"Nah, I have had a lot worse. You know that," said Darinius.
"Yes, I know," said Xena.
"That Joxer, for a guy as inept as he is, has got guts," said Darinius.
"He always means well," said Xena.
They were interrupted by Gabrielle stirring slightly in her sleep.
"You know, I have never met anyone like her. From the moment I saw her I knew I liked her," grinned Darinius.
"Gabrielle is a special person. I don't know what I would do without her," said Xena. "So, what's next for you?"
"Me? Ahh I don't know. I might go home. You know, check on the old homestead. I haven't been to visit Lycidia in a while."
"She must have been something to have caught you," smiled Xena.
"No, Lycidia was the one who was something," said Darinius. "What about you?"
"There is still time to make it to Athens for the bard's competion so that's where we will go. Gabrielle doesn't let on but it means a lot to her. She is very good, you should hear her sometime," said Xena.
"I'd like that."
For a few moments neither of them spoke. Finally, Xena broke the silence. "Darinius?"
"Gabrielle thinks you can see inside a person's heart. She's very perceptive about things like that."
"Well can you? I have seen people do some pretty amazing things in my time," said Xena.
"Not really, of course," said Darinius. "I do make it my business to know people, though. I found if I studied their body language and how they react to certain stimuli I could indeed learn a lot about them. Remember that day in Tumas when I called you a murdering harlot?"
"Yeah, I remember," said Xena dryly.
"Well, that was just a test. I wanted to see how well you were in control of your emotions," he said. "A commander who can't control his emotions is not a winner.
Xena did not answer and Darinius knew something was eating at her. Finally, it dawned on him. "I know what is," he told her."You want me to tell you what I see in YOU. You want me to compare the Xena of today to the Xena I knew in the old days, don't you?"
"I won't even speak of the past but I will tell what I see in the Xena of today. I see strength and courage beyond comparison but, you always had those. But I also see integrity, loyalty, and, yes, compassion. I also see a tolerance now for those less gifted. I also see pain, sadness, and regret. The little voice inside you that beckons for a return to the old ways. But I know now that little voice will one day die and you will find your peace, Xena," said Darinius. He turned to gaze at the petite form lying beside him. "And I see something else, too. Love."
"You know, don't you?" asked Xena.
Darinius closed his eyes and nodded, "Yes. That night at the inn, the way you watched over her. I knew."
"I would die for her, Darinius. She means more to me than life itself. You know, there are those who say it's not- well...you know what I mean."
"It's nobody's business but yours and hers. The Xena I know would not give a damn what anybody thought as long as she was happy. Let me tell you something. I have traveled just about everywhere and met almost everyone of any importance and I will tell you to straight out you are the most remarkable person I have ever met."
"I mean it, Xena."Now if the most remarkable person I have ever met doesn't deserve love, then who does?" Darinius broke into a silly grin and looked down at his hands. "Aww, I talk too much. Gabrielle has the right idea. A good nap is just the thing for a wounded hero."
Xena put her hand in the hand of her greatest enemy of all time, squeezed it, and said with a wry smile, "Then don't let me stop you, 'hero'." She turned to leave, looked over her shoulder at him, and added, " Oh, and Darinius?
"Thanks. I'm glad I didn't kill you all those years ago," smiled Xena.
Darinius scratched his ribs and yawned, "Me too. I kind of like this breathing thing."
Xena left Darinius and Gabrielle lying on the foredeck and walked back to where Hercules was manning the tiller. "So, how are you feeling?" she asked.
"I'm fine. I just can't believe what happened," said Hercules.
"Well, it shocked all of us when we heard about it," said Xena.
'Thank you for coming so quickly," he said.
"What would the world do without the Hercules?" asked Xena.
"I'm serious, Xena. No one else could have done it and I am grateful to you."
"It wasn't just me, Hercules. Look around you. Everyone here had a hand in it."
Hercules let his eyes wander over the ship and the remarkable people on it. Iolaus and Autolycus- trading good natured insults by the mast. Iolaus, my great friend. Xena's friend Joxer- sleeping up in the bow, a strange fellow but Xena saw something in him. Gabrielle- as true a friend as anyone ever had. Darinius- the great warrior. A man whom he would certainly have to get to know better. And Xena- what could he say? A stunning beauty with the heart of a lion and the awesome skills to match. Was there anything she couldn't accomplish? Hercules doubted it. It made him feel proud to know these people...his friends.
As Salmoneus stood by the dock looking out to sea, the lengthening shadows of the evening sky were like a manifestation of his growing apprehension. Tomorrow morning will be three days, he thought, I wish I knew what was happening. Could the five of them really do it? Salmoneus knew what Xena and Iolaus could do and the respect that Xena obviously had for Darinius meant he must be tough too. But was it enough? What if it wasn't? The thought of Xena, Gabrielle, maybe even Hercules being dead was something that made him shudder. What would the world be like without them?
Well, he thought, I'll give it a week. Xena said they ought to be back by then. If not... Salmoneus turned to go back to the inn. He had already checked on Argo and his stomach told him it was time for some supper. Without thinking, he took one last peek over his shoulder. A small black dot on the horizon caught his eye. A ship. Could it be them? Probably not. Oh well, he thought might as well stick around to make sure.
An hour later the ship was close enough for Salmoneus to make out individuals on board. It was not long before he saw the unmistakable outline of Xena standing in the bow. It was them! Salmoneus didn't know when he had felt relief like this.
"Hey there, Salmoneus." It was Gabrielle. "We got him!"
"I never doubted it," lied Salmoneus.
A half an hour later the ship had moored and had discharged its brave cargo.
"Hercules! It's so good to see you."
"You too, Salmoneus," said Hercules. "Xena told me about your help. Thanks."
"I was glad to be able to contribute in some small way," said Salmoneus. "Oh my- Gabrielle, what happened to you?"
"She hit a cyclops in the fist with her head," said Autolycus.
"Wait til I tell you about it, Salmoneus," said Gabrielle, "you won't believe it."
"Is Argo okay?" asked Xena
"Fine. I just saw her a couple of hours ago," said Salmoneus.
"Could you lend me twenty dinars?" asked Autolycus. "I'm getting mighty hungry."
"Forget that, Autolycus," said Salmoneus. "We'll have a feast fit for a king."
Salmoneus was as good as his word. That night they celebrated the return of Hercules. Needless to say, Iolaus and Autolycus had a little too much to drink and wound up on the floor. Gabrielle related the story of their adventure three times and each time embellished it a little. Even Xena was less stoic than usual. Soon the good food combined with her happiness and, yes, relief worked to make her drowsy. For the first time in many a moon Xena got a good's night sleep.
Soon Gabrielle joined her on the floor and, before long, she too was asleep. Joxer and Salmoneus were the next to fall to Hypnos' charms. But Hercules and Darinius talked well into the night.
The next morning found all of them preparing to go their separate ways.
"Xena," said Gabrielle, "it's sort of sad isn't it?
"I mean, all the things we have shared and then, just like that, we all separate go our separate ways."
"We are only separated physically, Gabrielle. They are always with us."
"I'll still miss them," said Gabrielle.
"We'll see them again. Who knows, there even might not be any trouble around when we do," said Xena.
"Yeah, right. If there is one thing I have learned it's that you hero types aren't much for making social calls," allowed Gabrielle.
The two of them were joined by Darinius and Salmoneus approaching from opposite directions. Upon meeting, Salmoneus gave Darinius his leather bag.
"Here, you forgot this," said Salmoneus.
"Thanks," said Darinius. "Remember, be in Athens in ten days. Be at the magistrate's office at noon and someone will be there with your money,"
"I'll be there."
"Gabrielle and I are on our way to Athens ourselves. If you fetch Argo from the stable for me you can go with us," said Xena.
"That would be great," squealed Salmoneus. "I'm on my way," And he hurried off in the direction of the stable.
Now Joxer saw his chance and he took Salmoneus' place in the group. "Well, warrior pals, I've got to be going."
"Take care of yourself, Joxer," said Xena.
Darinius pulled out Joxer's sword and said, "If you are really serious about learning how to use one of these, come up to Mymalar in a couple of months and I'll give you some lessons."
"Wow! Would you? I mean do you mean it?" sputtered Joxer. "Say do you think you can show me how I can be like be Xena and make a dagger pop out from between my-"
"Let's not get carried away, shall we," chided Gabrielle.
"Sorry, Gabby, it was just a thought," said Joxer.
"Get out of here, you idiot," smiled Xena.
"Well, until next time farewell, fellow adverturers," boomed Joxer. He replaced his sword and started down the street.
Gabrielle could only shake her head, "What an idiot."
"You know, ah, Xena, maybe you could show me that trick with the dagger," grinned Darinius.
Xena gave him a nonchalant smile and replied, "Maybe."
"Sure." Darinius opened his bag and produced the sword, still wrapped in the oil cloth. "Here, Xena, I want you to have this."
"I can't take this, Darinius"
"Sure you can."
"Something like that is too valuable to give away," protested Xena.
"Xena, this is quite possibly the finest sword in the world. I can think of no one more worthy that you to carry it. Don' t think of it as a gift, think of it as a token of respect and admiration from one old warrior to another."
"In that case, I accept," said Xena.
Xena removed the oilcloth and for the first time, saw the true measure of the sword's beauty.
"It's about the same size as your old one, so it should fit you scabbard well enough," said Darinius.
For a fleeting moment her emotions are almost too much for even the stoic Xena to control. "Darinius, I will never forget this," she said softly. Quickly, Xena kissed Darinius lightly on the lips.
Gabrielle smiled to see the sight of the great Hero of Mymalar finally lose a little of his composure.
"I uh,ahem, I uh, better be off," sputtered Darinius. "Gabrielle, good bye. Xena, you are amazing." Darinius shook hands with the two of them and turned to leave. "Oh, I almost forgot." He reached into his bag and pulled out a small leather sack. "Here, little bard, this is for you. Don't open it yet! Wait til I am gone. It belonged to Lycidia but you are the first one I have met since her death that this seemed to be perfect for."
"What is it?" asked Gabrielle.
"Remember our little talk on the ship?" he asked. "You know when you were sick?"
"Well, whenever you look at this think about what I said," said Darinius. "Good bye friends."
"Aren't you going to wait for Hercules?" asked Xena.
"Hercules and I said our farewells last night and Iolaus, well he already knows how I feel about him. He will understand," said Darinius. "Until then." Darinius turned and started down the street leading out of town.
"Hey, Darinius!" yelled Autolycus. "Mind it I join you? After all this excitement I don't much feel like traveling alone.
"Sure, c' mon. Only no funny stuff okay? You know, no wandering fingers in somebody's pocket," admonished Darinius.
"Okay, okay. Sheeesh. If I keep hanging around with you guys I might revert to an honest man again," said Autolycus.
"Have no fear, Autolycus," laughed Darinius. "Besides, most 'honest' men are not as trustworthy as you are anyway."
This little exchange was the last Xena and Gabrielle could hear before Autolycus and Darinius were out of hearing. Gabrielle open the sack and removed its contents.
"Oh, my," she gasped.
" It's beautiful, Gabrielle," said Xena.
In her hand was a solid gold rope chain. Attached to the chain was image of a balance scale.
"Just what did you two talk about on the ship, anyway?" asked Xena.
"Oh, nothing. Just stuff."
Despite Gabrielle's reticence, Xena saw that she had, indeed, gotten the meaning of Darinius' gift. "Well, anyway it IS beautiful, " repeated Xena.
"Isn't it though?" Gabrielle looked up to see Autolycus and Darinius disappear among the trees that lined the road out of town. Good bye, warrior, she smiled to herself.
"Where is everyone?" asked Iolaus. He and Hercules and been inside the inn settling the bill.
"They've gone," said Xena. "Darinius said you would understand."
Iolaus looked down the street and smiled, "Yeah, he hates good byes."
"Hmph, for someone who hates good byes he is pretty good at it," said Gabrielle.
"Nothing, Iolaus," smiled Gabrielle.
"So, Hercules, what's next for you?" asked Xena.
"Well, Iolaus and I were on our way to Philedonia before we were ah, interrupted. So I guess that's where we are off to," said Hercules. "What about you?"
"Athens. Gabrielle's contest."
"Yeah? Well good luck to you, Gabrielle," said Iolaus.
"Xena, Darinius and I were talking last night and he has some good ideas about how to stop Malaneus and his men from raiding those villages up north after each harvest," said Hercules.
"He always was good at that," said Xena wryly.
"Well, yeah. He said we should be able to stop them without too much trouble if we work together."
"We?" asked Xena.
"Yeah, you, me, him, all of us," said Hercules. "What do you say?'
"Count us in," blurted out Gabrielle. "Oh, uh, sorry, that is if Xena-"
"You heard her," said Xena. "Count us in."
"You know, Xena, for someone who once was a hated enemy, he sure thinks a lot of you," teased Hercules.
"Sounds familiar, doesn't it," retorted Xena.
"Yes, I guess if does," allowed Hercules.
"Well, good bye, you two," said Xena.
"Be safe," said Hercules.
"Good bye, guys," said Gabrielle.
Xena turned and looked up the street toward the stable. "C' mon, Gabrielle, let's see what's keeping Salmoneus."
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