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YELLOWED LIKE OLD PARCHMENT
BY JASON DREVER, A.K.A. THE HISTORIAN...
Disclaimer: This story contains violence, shows the aftermath of said violence, and contains scenes that display sexual innuendos. If you are offended by any of this subject matter, then I recommend that you should search for entertainment elsewhere. The characters Xena, Gabrielle, Glyphera, and Argo strictly belong to MCA/Universal. No copyright infringement is intended. All other characters in this story belong to me. All characters, settings, and situations in this story are fictitious, any similarity to persons, living or dead, settings, real or imaginary, and situations, true or false, is purely coincidental. Any usage of this narration is not permissable without written or e-mailed permission that has been granted to the party who wishes to use said documentation by the author of said documentation. Any questions, comments, or concerns are welcome. Please feel free to send them to me without fear or risk of retribution. I will veiw any and all submissions with an open mind. Please include a return e-mail address to which I can send a reply. Please, enjoy the story.
© Copyright 1997, 1998 by Jason Drever.
The old man looked around and smiled at the gathering of children that sat on the floor, circling his aged frame and bedraggled rocking chair. The man was about sixty years or older, and he looked it. Again, he smiled at the children, for it was Sunday afternoon, story time. He had been telling the children stories for over twenty years now, ever since his daughter, Gabrielle, had given him his first grandchild.
Gabrielle, a stern woman of about thirty-nine, was named after the first woman that the old man had ever truly loved. And now, she wasn't here to hear the story.
She had gone out with her husband, and that means that he, the old man, could tell the story that he'd been waiting to tell for a long time. He felt that the children were old enough now, ranging from eight to twenty, to hear the tale, his tale, the tale of him.
He knew that Gabrielle would never let him tell this story, because she thought it was all made up, garbage for the senses. But he doesn't care, he'll tell it anyway.
He smiled again, and looked at the expectant faces of the eight children around him. He leaned back, took a breath, and began...
Life Before Death
My story starts when I was nineteen. Nineteen and selfish. The son of a wealthy merchant, I always had everything I had ever wanted. That made me arrogant, selfish, and no fun. Then it happened.
Our village was attacked, and my family killed. All the wealth and power I had once had was gone. Many of our townsfolk had defended valiantly, but to no avail. Most of the able bodied were killed, and the attackers didn't want any crippled, so they were killed as well. They were slavers, and by the time they were done forcing their way into our town, there were only a few able bodied people left. I was one of them, mainly because I had hidden in a pile of hay. Another was the town blacksmith, Phylipidus, and the last, a local midwife named Nera.
The slavers had chained us all hand and foot, and the three of us were marched north, where we met up with another group of slaves, numbering about sixty. Then, four of the slavers were given the task to take us to the port town to the west for transit to our 'new homes'. That was when it happened.
We were camped in a clearing, several miles east of the port, and it was difficult for me to get to sleep. And let me tell you, with twenty pound iron shackles, it's difficult to get comfortable. I was trying unsuccessfully to nestle my head into the mossy ground when I heard it.
It was nothing big, or noticeable, a faint snap, like the sound of a twig breaking. So I dismissed it as such. Little did I know, that was what a breaking neck sounded like. Then I heard it again, farther to the left, and I wasn't the only one who heard it, too.
"Darius?" one of the guards called. There were only four of them in total, and one lost would leave three. However, as I'd learn later, there were two gone, leaving two. "Darius, answer you fool, I'm not playing around he-" he stopped suddenly, perhaps to take a breath, but probably because of the silver ring of metal that had imbedded itself in his throat. I can smile about this now, but back then, I knew not what was happening. I barely moved, fearing that the clank of my chains would attract whatever it was that was slaughtering the guards. That was when I saw...her.
Yes, the most beautiful woman that I had ever seen, walking towards me from the mist. She was no older than me, or at least she didn't look older than me. She had long strawberry blonde hair, and brilliant emerald green eyes. She was strong yet supple, and she had the most finely developed pair of hands that I had ever seen. However, I probably felt that way because in those finely sculpted appendages she carried an iron ring with the key to my chains hanging on it.
She smiled and put a finger to her lips, motioning me to remain silent. I nodded and she knelt beside me, unlocking the chains on my wrists. She put her head next to mine as I rubbed the blood back into my hands and whispered in my ear.
"How many are there?" She asked.
"Guards or slaves?" I asked back, partially to find out but mostly to hear her melodious voice.
"Guards, silly." She replied, smiling.
"Oh, uh four"
She sat back for a moment, a puzzled look on her face. If there were four, and three were 'neutralized', then where was the one that was left...
Suddenly a shadow appeared behind her, a large hand reaching from the darkness to grip her shoulder and throw her roughly to the ground. She grunted with the impact, then the fourth guard was atop her, one hand pinning her to the ground, the other searching for a dagger.
What happened next, I cannot explain, only recount, for it was as if I had stepped from my body and my muscles took over. My instinct gained control and all my mind could do was watch, frustrated. My arm reached out, grasped the end of my chain, and heaved it at the guard's head. The heavy iron shackle caught him in the head, throwing him aside.
The noise of the struggle had awakened most of the others, and soon the clearing was thriving with cold, tired and confused would-be slaves. I stood and ambled over to the woman on the ground. I looked down on my rescuer and extended my hand, smiling.
"You all right?" I asked.
She smiled and took my hand, nodding. "Yeah, thanks."
"No problem," I said, helping her to her feet. "I'm Saranus, and, boy, am I glad you came."
"Gabrielle, it's a pleasure to meet you."
"You have no idea." I muttered, then continued aloud. "I wish it had been better circumstances, not every day I meet someone new in chains and iron shackles."
She smiled and turned to the group. Everyone was awake and free, and I didn't know how. Gabrielle was with me, so who had freed the others? Gabrielle looked at me, and seeing my puzzled look, took my hand and lead me through the crowd. Soon she produced an accomplice, a warrior woman named Xena.
"You knew Xena?" Asked one of the old man's younger granddaughters. The old man hushed the child, nodding, and continued with his narrative...
Yes, it was the Xena, but at that time, I had not heard of her. Nor did I care. Gabrielle was the one for which I yearned, being purely physical to start, but I had little idea how deep it would become...
FOUNDATION OF A NATION
The morning found us rested, and restless. The majority of the freed prisoners were grouped together, talking.
"She's really something," I said to Phylipidus, smiling, "isn't she?"
"Yeah," he answered, "those blue eyes, that black hair, and the leather, whew, don't get me started!"
"Not her, you dolt, Gabrielle!"
"Oh," he said hesitantly, "uh, sure, her too."
Disgusted, I turned and searched the crowd for her face. After the freed slaves spent the rest of night sleeping, we had all gathered to discuss what we were going to do, now that we were free. Ah, there she was. I made my way for her, pushing through the crowd. Then she was on the move as well, heading towards the front to stand beside that Xena person. I paused, waiting.
"People," she said, flashing her great smile, "good morning, hope you slept well." There were murmurs of agreement and catcalls of gratitude. She kept grinning and continued. "You all should know why you're here. To decide what to do with you new freedom." She cocked her head to the side. "Any suggestions?"
"Let's go home!"
"What home, those bastard slavers burnt it to the ground."
"Yeah, mine too!"
"Then build a new one!"
"What? You're crazy!"
I could clearly see that Gabrielle was overwhelmed. The tower of a woman beside just smiled and stepped back. I stalked over to her side, and called out to the group.
"Yeah, why not?" The crowd quieted down, actually willing to hear me out. "I mean think about it, how many of you have homes to go back to?" A few hesitant hands were raised in the back. "Then you can leave now if you wish. As for the rest of us, we need a place to stay, right?"
"Right!" Someone called.
"So why don't we built a new town, one that represents freedom."
"A town named... Emancipation!" I called. Dead silence. There was a cough in the back.
"What's mantipation mean?" someone called.
"Freedom from slavery." Gabrielle answered, winking at me.
"Then why don't you call it Freedom?" It was the first time that Xena had spoken. She was calm, almost bored, as she said it. Immediately, the name was caught up, being said over again and again. I smiled.
"For the township of Freedom!" I yelled, and a resounding cheer came up from the crowd.
LORD OF THE RING
So that was how I became the mayor, of sorts, of the town of Freedom. The first thing we needed were tools. You cannot harvest lumber and built houses with iron shackles.
Xena had offered to go to a nearby kingdom and ask for some supplies, the king there having owed her a favor. We had plenty of iron, so the first thing we did was construct a hasty blacksmith shop. I appointed Phylipidus as head blacksmith, mainly because he was the only one with experience.
Xena returned within the week with a caravan of coke, steel, provisions, weapons, tools, tents, and a contingent of soldiers to protect us until we had a garrison built. Then we could train our own soldiers for protection. However, until then, we had to do with the group that came with Xena.
Within the following weeks, we had built a full fledged town hall, basically a large room with pews in it. There were four rooms bordering each wall: the treasury, empty now; the library, I had asked Gabrielle to be the head of that, because she was a bard and all; a conference room for me and my headmasters; and the granary, a place in which to store our food. Also, a well had been dug just outside the front door. There were farming warrens, run by a man who was the best farmer there, Democratis. And a makeshift hospital, run by Nera, the midwife from my home town.
By the end of the season, we were a thriving town. Xena had lost interest in our little village, and had left on some adventure or another, but I was surprised to find that Gabrielle wished to stay with me, rather than her best friend. "She'll be back." is all she'd say about it. Not that I was complaining. The time that I spent with her was time well spent, and we were forging quite the relationship. We never left each other's sides, during the day, or the night.
One day, Gabrielle, Andmattic, the head of the garrisoned troops, and I were walking though the courtyard. We were on our way to where the stables were being built, to see how they were doing. As we walked to the outskirts of Freedom, where the stables were being built, Andmattic gazed at the clearing.
"We should really put a wall around this place, and maybe some guard towers." He said.
"Perhaps," I answered, "but, then we'd need a stonemason to construct one. Unless you'd build it out of wood?"
"Why not?" Gabrielle said, then she saw our stares, "Well, I mean what if they were wood, at least we'd have some defenses that can still be upgraded to stone later. Whereas, if we wait for a stonemason, we risk jeopardizing our safety."
I smiled, not being able to resist. She always had to have the last word. I turned to Andmattic.
"Perhaps you should go tell Bruno that we need his services." Bruno was my head carpenter, and he had eleven apprentices under him, eight of whom were building the stables.
"Right away!" Andmattic said, coming to attention and then departing.
When he was out of sight, I looked to make sure no one was watching us. I grabbed Gabrielle's arm and steered her towards the cover of the woods. My motion caught her by surprise and I clamped my hand down on her mouth to stifle her cry. When we were in the trees, I removed my hand from her mouth and she leveled a gaze full of mock disgust on me.
"Just where do you think you are spiriting me away to, Saranus of Saleson?" She asked.
"I need to talk to you for a minute, Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
She reached out to tickle me. "I've got a better idea. We can talk anytime, and there's no one around." she said.
I backed out of her reached, grinning, "I really need to talk to you, but your offer is appealing." I reached out my hand, and took hers in mine. She smiled as I lead her deeper into the woods.
"Ready now?" she asked, draping her arms around my neck and planting a soft kiss on my cheek. I smiled in spite of myself, and hugged her close. The I released her and stepped back. I reached into my pocket and withdrew a small pouch. This had peaked Gabrielle's interest.
"What's that?" she asked, peering into my hands. I opened the pouch and upturned it. A single, finely woven piece of iron fell into my hand. I dropped the pouch and held the metal up in the light for Gabrielle to see.
It was three rings, braided and interwoven together in a fashion that I had designed myself. They were intricate and delicate yet strong and secure, like Gabrielle herself. I saw her eyes light up.
"I had Phylipidus make it special for me." I said.
"It's beautiful." It was Gabrielle could say. She reached out for it but I pulled it back. Instead, I took her hand and knelt.
"It is made from the iron in my chains. From the bonds of slavery," I looked up in her eyes, and saw the joy there, "to the bonds of marriage. If you'll have me, Gabrielle, will you be my wife?"
All she did was cry, and hug me close.
THE PERFECTION THAT IS HER
In the fall of that year, we were married. Xena had returned just in time for it, and with her she brought a gift from the king that had helped us so greatly. Five thousand dinars was his wedding gift to Gabrielle and I. I asked Xena to convey our deepest gratitude to him the next time she was there.
"Thank him yourself." She answered, coldly. Gabrielle was shocked.
"Xena, what's gotten into you." she asked her friend.
"Thank him yourself," she repeated, then smiled. "when you see him. You've been invited to his castle for a spell. He wishes to speak with you two about possible trade routes and such."
Gabrielle squeaked with joy. I had never seen her do that before. Well, once, back when we first started... Uh, anyway, she was jumping around and laughing, finding this all so exciting.
"We get to go to his castle," she paused, "you know, I don't even know his name."
Xena smiled, "Owlen, his name is Owlen."
Gabrielle turned to her friend. "You'll be coming with us, won' t you?"
"Of course." She turned to me, "besides, I don't want to trust you with my best friend, alone, in a room..."
Gabrielle giggled, "It's, uh, little late for that, Xena."
"How late?" she asked, her eyes darting to Gabrielle's stomach.
"Oh, not that late."
"Oh really?" She arched an eyebrow at me. "You're being gentle with him, aren't you? After all, he is only a man."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Xena, you sound more and more like Glyphera every day."
"I try," she replied, with mock distress, "I really do." Then she laughed and walked off.
Both Gabrielle and I watched her go. Then a bell tolled, signifying the beginning of the ceremony. I turned to Gabrielle, took her hand, and walked with her to the courtyard.
Late in the summer, a cleric had come to Freedom, and she asked if she could set up practice. I agreed and since then, Adria had been the spiritual half of Freedom. She was also here today, to marry the two of us under the eyes of the gods, particularly Cupid, and his mother, Aphrodite.
We were stood side by side, each in our traditional marriage dress. Gabrielle in a cloak fashioned from leather and furs, the dress of an Amazon Princess, and I, in a long red and silver cloak. Adria smiled at the two of us and began.
"Now," she said, motioning to the crowd, "we all know why we're here, but does the groom?" The crowd laughed, and Gabrielle smiled widely, reaching out to grasp my hand. Adria waited for the noise to settle before continuing. "I believe that you two have written a letter or something that describes to the other why he, or she, should marry you. Saranus, do you have yours?"
I sheepishly patted my pockets, knowing full well that I'd forgotten. Perhaps I could bluff my way through. I scratched my head and looked at the crowd. I spotted Phylipidus in back, grinning ear to ear. "Phylipidus," I called, he perked up, "have you finished writing my speech yet?" He turned bright red and tried to hide under a table. "Good thing I memorized it, I knew I couldn't trust a blacksmith." More laughter. Then I saw Gabrielle, she was not laughing. Hastily, I cleared my throat and began.
"Ahem, mi, mi, mi, miiii! Okay. Gabrielle, from the first day I met you, I have felt a need. A need to be around you, your vibrance, your wit, your great hair, and this is the only way that I could think of to maintain that closeness. From the tallest trees to the deepest ravines, I'd go anywhere for you, with you, or after you. A brilliant diamond cracks next to your beauty, a razor sharp blade dulls next to your wit, a cloud hardens next to your soft voice. The rain should stop if you want to go for walk and the rivers freeze if you'd rather not get wet. The sun can die and burn out and the flowers and grass will still thrive in your glow. In my heart, you come first. I love your fragrance, your shining eyes, your bright smile. I love you attitude, your morals, and your good nature. I love you. You are kind, generous, funny, attentive, humble, beautiful, cheerful, happy, beautiful, funny and beautiful. And I want to be with you all my life.
"So, Gabrielle," I smiled, "what do you say?"
Obviously, what I had said had struck a cord in her heart, because all she did was wipe her eyes of the tears and smile.
"Ditto!" She said softly, so only I could hear. And with that, Adria said we could kiss, and we did just that.
After that, our lives became our life. Together, one plus one equaled one. It was the best time of my life, being with her. And I was glad for it. After the wedding, we had exchanged gifts, I giving her a brilliant silver bracelet studded with green stones that mirrored her eyes, and she giving me a ring, a thick bronze one decorated with the phrase 'FREEDOM' inscribed on the face.
Then came the fact that King Owlen had invited us to his castle. We packed all our things that we'd need, and prepared to depart Freedom. I was seen off by Phylipidus, Nera, Andmattic, and Democratis. I asked the four of them to take care of the city while I was away, appointing Andmattic as my head of state. I gave him the plans of what I wanted accomplished in the city while I was gone, and he was to carry them out.
"I shouldn't be gone more than a week, but please make sure that the garrison is started. Oh, and train some archers for those guard towers. I don't want to return to a section of charred earth."
"Aye, milord," he said, smiling, "and you have yourselves a good time. If you need to, look up my mother. She'll give you a meal that the king cannot."
"Thanks Matt," I said, clapping him on the back, "I know I couldn't leave the town in more capable hands."
"Thank you, milord." He stated. And with that we set off. Through the wooden gates and down the trail to the land of King Owlen.
Gabrielle and I walked along side Xena, who was perched atop Argo, her white mare. I wore my ceremonial armor and sword, a red cape billowing out behind me. Gabrielle stepped lightly on my left, using her staff as a walking stick. And Xena, well Xena was...Xena. That's the only word I could find to describe her, she was Xena. She was on my right.
It was just stepping into winter, so there was a tiny bit of snow on the forest floor. Gabrielle and Xena had snowball fights while I just walked with Argo and watched. Yes, Argo. That horse didn't like me. The first time I reached for the bridal, she nearly bit my hand off. So I usually stayed in front, so she wouldn't plant a horseshoe on my face.
We made it to the castle within three days. Good time considering that Gabrielle and I both walked, and all the frolicking the three of us had done. We were met at the gates by a page, a young boy hoping to be a squire someday, and then a knight. He showed us to our rooms, one for Xena and one for Gabrielle and I. When we were heading to our rooms, I noticed that Xena tried to enter the same room as Gabrielle, then caught herself before she made a fool of herself.
"Would you like to stay in our room?" I asked her. "We can always drag another cot in there."
"Yeah," she answered, "I've never slept away from Gabrielle since I met her. I don't know, I just feel more comfortable when I know she's nearby."
So that's what we did. Soon, we were all nestled in nice and tight, and sleep descended.
DECEPTION AND BETRAYAL
The morning came quickly, and both Gabrielle and I woke simultaneously. We yawned and stretched together, and rubbed our eyes together. I looked over at her as she looked at me, then we both looked at Xena. Or where she should have been. Quickly, I turned and put my feet on they floor. Hastily I pulled my boots on, and turned to see that Gabrielle had done the same.
"Good morning." I said, as I rushed to the door.
"Hiya." She said back, following me to the door.
In the hallway, I grabbed a hold of a boy that was running down the corridor.
"Hey there," I called, "have you seen Xena, son"
"Yeah, tall, black hair, blue eyes, wears a perpetual scowl."
"I do not scowl."
We three turned to see Xena standing behind us. The boy scurried off, and Xena scowled. She was all unkempt, hair mused up, dirt smudged on her face, and more noticeably, a bloodied sword in her hand.
"We've been betrayed, Owlen has no intention of opening trade routes. He wants Freedom."
"What?" Gabrielle asked.
"I was just waylayed by five of his personal guard." She grabbed Gabrielle's hand, and turned to me. "Let's go, we're leaving!"
And who was I to argue with the Warrior Princess herself. We made our way to the stables, and got Argo. Xena rode her, and I took a stallion that I found suitable. Gabrielle was having the worst of it, seated in front of me.
"Too high, too high, too high." she kept saying, over and over, "too high."
I reached around her slender waist with one hand, and rested my chin on her shoulder.
"It's all right, Gabrielle, it's OK." I whispered, and she calmed down slightly. She did, however, keep a death grip on my arm. We thundered past the guards at the gate to the castle and rode hard for Freedom.
Several hours later, we came in sight of Freedom. The horses were tired, exhausted from their great trek. Xena dismounted quietly, and I helped a terrified Gabrielle down from the big black's back. Then Xena and I scanned the city. The standards of Freedom had been replaced with the standards of Owlen's army. I stood to go to the gate, but Xena stopped me.
"What, are you crazy? They'd kill you."
"No they wouldn't, not with Phylipidus there." Then we heard Gabrielle gasp in horror. We both went running to her side and all she could do was point and shudder. When I saw what she was pointing at, I shuddered as well.
A makeshift gallows had been set up outside the walls and from the three nooses hung the dead bodies of Phylipidus, Democratis, and Adria. I turned away, sickened.
"We need to get inside." I said to the others, Gabrielle had recovered from her shock and she was in with us.
Xena looked at Gabrielle, then at me, and smiled, "I have an idea!"
FROM CRIPPLE TO MARTYR
The plan was simple, I would disguise myself and try to get an audience with Andmattic. We assumed that he, being a loyal subject of Owlen, was the one who had taken the city. I was kicking myself for not seeing it earlier. Owlen obviously wanted Freedom, because it was an outpost that he'd wanted set up out here. When he learned that I was having one built, he let me and my followers do the work, then stole it when it suited his needs.
So, dressed as a elderly cripple, leaning heavily on a walking stick that Gabrielle had fashioned, with dirt smeared on my face, and draped in a dark cloak that Xena made from one of her blankets, I headed to the gate. The guards, of course, didn't recognize me, mainly because they were not the same guards that were stationed here when I left. Owlen must have sent a contingent out after we had entered his castle. As I approached the gate, one of the guards stepped out from the wall and addressed me.
"Halt right there, you vagrant!" he shouted, "What is your business here?"
"I've come to see Saranus," I said, my name feeling foreign on my tongue, "I was told that he would help me, you see."
The guard paused, and looked at me weirdly. "If you just hold on a minute, I'll go get the lord right now." He hurried off. I stole a glance at the copse of trees that served to hide Gabrielle and her tall friend. I could barely see them, but when I did spot them, Gabrielle flashed me her bright smile.
"Can I help you?" Andmattic was standing right there! I turned my gaze away from the grove and hid in my cowl. "I am Saranus."
I grimaced in the shadows of my hood, and answered, "Strange, I never thought that you wore armor."
"Things change," he growled, "what do you want?"
"Oh, I really doubt that you are Saranus," I said calmly, "so if you'd be so kind as to take me to him, I'd like to see him now."
He scowled at me and reached up to his chin, massaging it. "Why do you think that I'm not Saranus?" he asked.
I looked up at him, and caught his gaze. "Because I am Saranus!"
His face contorted in rage as he recognized me. He reached for his sword, but I was quicker, slashing up with the dagger I had concealed within my cloak. The attack took him be surprise and it cost him his life. As I pulled back my hood, the other guards come to life. Shouting commands, another man turned the corner, running right into the blade of my knife. Then, I saw five men armed with crossbows line up in front of me. I turned to run, shrugging off my cloak. I saw Gabrielle yelling and she came running out of the trees, brandishing her staff with vigor. I started to run to her, but then pain exploded in my back. I looked over my shoulder, seeing several arrows protuding from my back.
I stumbled, heard Gabrielle cry out my name, and rose again. 'Must get to her,' I thought, 'with her I'll be safe, with her, it'll be OK.' Again, my shoulders and back erupted in flame as another volley of arrows lanced into me. I fell, tried to rise, and failed. I started to crawl towards her, and looked up. I saw Xena rise from the ground, grab Gabrielle, and drag her back into the bush as arrows began to rain down on them as well. I saw Gabrielle take one in the arm, crying out. Then the impossible happened.
I got up, impervious to the pain, and strode toward the city. More arrows thundered into me, but it didn't hurt. I broke into a run, planning on destroying those who threatened my wife. Again, I heard Gabrielle call my name, and turned to see her struggling against the stronger grip of her friend.
"Get her out of here," I yelled, spitting blood, "get her to safety!"
She nodded and dragged Gabrielle back into the forest. Then she stopped, and froze. Gabrielle did as well. I turned back to the city and saw the most unbelievable thing ever.
A large reptilian head rose above the wall of the town. It settled it's gaze on Gabrielle and Xena, and inhaled. Remembering stories that I had thought were folklore, I yelled at Xena, breaking the overwhelming fear that held her. She realized what was happening, and dodged into the trees as the first tendrils of the dragon's fire hit the spot she was just in. I watched as she dragged Gabrielle into the bushes and smiled.
She was safe.
Then I fell, and rolled onto my back. I saw the dragon in the city look at me. Then I saw the young woman on it's back. So, the dragon was domesticated. That information would come in handy later. But later never came, for the dragon's fire lanced out, and I burned to death.
The old man smiled, seeing the shocked looks of disbelief on the faces of those around him. Then the looks turned from shock to confused, and finally amusement.
"You're goofin'," said one of the older boys. There were words of agreement from the group.
"Perhaps," the old man grinned, "perhaps not. You need to decide that for yourself." He looked up at the ceiling. "But now, it's time for bed."
There were disagreements all around, particularly from the younger ones. But the old man was persuasive, offering them a biscuit if they went to bed, and a spanking if they didn't. Needless to say, they went to bed.
The old man leaned back in his chair, and pulled out a pipe. He turned his chair to face the fire in the hearth, pulled a pouch from his robe pocket, and filled his pipe. That done, he lit the pipe, smoking contentedly.
"You didn't really die, did you?"
The old man turned in his chair, seeing Marcus, one of the older boys, standing there. He smiled and motioned for the lad to sit. He took a piece of the floor between the dying fire and the old man's chair. Then he looked up at the man expectantly.
"Yes, I did." The old man said. "I did indeed."
"But how? You're here now," the boy arched an eyebrow, "aren't you? I mean, you're not a ghost or spirit."
"No," the elder agreed, "no, not any of those, just a very lucky man who was cared for by the Gods." He reached out and rustled the younger man's hair.
The old man smiled, leaning back and continuing his tale.
Death After Life
I awoke in a small clearing. It was early morning, the birds were singing and the sun shining. I sat up, peering around at my new surroundings. Then I remember what had happened. I had died, burned to ashes by dragon's fire. Then where was I now?
I remember standing, wobbling around a bit, and then falling again. I just lay there, trying to get the fog to clear from my head so I could stand properly. Until then, I would need help.
"Can I help you?"
I looked up, across the ground at my head, at a pair of feet standing a few yards away. Actually, they were upside down feet, of that's the way I saw them, due to my position on the ground. I followed the feet up strongly muscled calves, thighs, the leather skirt that followed, the steel belt and sword, the well defined chest, and finally the grinning face of a blonde man. I reached up to grasp his extended hand. He helped me to my feet and helped me brush myself off.
"You know, that was a very noble thing you did." He said, "I mean, you shouldn't be mine already."
"Yours?" I asked cautiously.
"Yes, welcome to the Elysian Fields." He extended his hand, "I'm Hades."
"What?" I said, "I can't be dead, they're still in danger!"
"That's none of your concern now, Saranus, they're alive, and you are dead."
I reached out and grabbed Hades' tunic, pulling him brusquely. "You've got to send me back!"
He stepped out of my grasp as if I hadn't had any hands. "I can't, I'm in charge of your coming, not your leaving."
I stepped back, looking at the ground. Despair over took me. I fell to a seated position on the soft grass. The other man, no, god, sat beside me.
"But Gabrielle still needs me, Freedom still needs me." I turned to Hades and stared directly into his face. "I don't want to, er...didn't want to die. Can't you send me back, can't you do something." I placed what I assumed from his guilty look as a pleading stare on his face. He smiled and took my hand.
"It's alright. But I can't do anything but make you happy here."
I pulled my hand back, angered. "I don't want to be happy here. I want to be happy there." Then I stared at the ring on my finger, the iron one that had 'freedom' inscribed on it, twirling it around and around my finger as I talked, subdued to a whisper. "I want to be happy with her. With that brilliant vibrance that is her. The gods given perfection that is her. I want to be with her." I turned my gaze from the ring to Hades. "At least tell me she's alright."
"She's alright." he lied.
"Oh, don't patronize me. I can tell when someone is lying, god or not. You have to send me back!"
"There is nothing I can do." He said simply.
"But I can." Both Hades and I turned to see a beautiful young woman float from the forest's edge.
"Aphrodite!" Hades exclaimed, "How did you get past Cerebus? You're not allowed in my realm."
"Oh, cool it, lover boy." She said, pushing past Hades to kneel by me.
"Saranus, I can send you back. Gabrielle has been praying and asking for your return for days. If you can prove your love for her to me, then I will let you return."
"What do you want me to do." I asked, suddenly energized.
"You must pass three trails that will prove to me that you and Gabrielle share body, mind, and heart. Therefore, each of the tests will represent one of these three facets of mortal life."
"When do I start?" I asked eagerly.
"Right now if you wish." She replied.
"Whao, hold on there a minute." Hades interjected hastily. "Don't go running off just yet. I have some advice. First, do it quickly, time passes far quicker here than in your realm. You've been dead for almost a week, their time. The longer you stay, the farther ahead time runs.
"Second, be yourself. Don't try to outmaneuver the tests. Aphrodite is often very thorough. If she sees anything false, she'll deny you life.
"And lastly, don't let her kill you. If you die here, you cease to exist. There is no second chances after you're dead the first time." He smiled and then turned me to the goddess. "He's all yours."
"Thanks," she said, reaching out her hand. I took it in mine and she lead me out of the forest.
We came to a stream, a swift babbling brook that was cold, clear and deep. In it swam many fish, all different breeds and colors. Here, we stopped.
"It is time for your first trial." She said, and she waved her arm in the direction of the stream. Suddenly Gabrielle, no, a facsimile of Gabrielle appeared on the far side. She seemed oblivious to us, and she walked around, humming and picking flowers.
"What do I do here?" I asked, but Aphrodite just smiled.
"Watch, and decide for yourself."
I turned back to Gabrielle, unsure of how to proceed. Do I call out to her, or do I cross to her? A little further downstream there was a bridge of rocks that lead across the river. I could cross to her, but what would I do then? Hug her close?
I, however, didn't get to choose. The pseudo-Gabrielle, still innocent and naive, had decided to try and catch herself a butterfly. It was a bright red one, with large wings that fluttered softly and slow. Pseudo-Gab gave a squeal of joy, and rushed after her quarry. The butterfly lazily wound it's way downstream. I paralleled her movement down stream as she stalked the butterfly. I watched as the insect landed on a flower by the first rock of the path that lead across the fast flowing water. She sprang at the butterfly, but it alighted just as she reached it. It flew across the water, right above the rocks. She followed it, extending her arms like a trapeze artist to keep her balance. I, too, took across the rocks, pinwheeling my arms to keep from toppling into the water.
The butterfly continued on it's merry way, flying toward me and pseudo-Gab followed close behind. Then the butterfly swerved out across the water. Gabrielle, intent on catching that caterpillar turned bird, reached out for it. She lost her balance, and toppled into the deep brook with a resounding ker-splash.
I dived after her, trying to reach her before the current swept her away from me, and reached for her flailing hand. I caught hold of it and tried to get my other hand on something solid. My hand grasped only air as the swift stream pulled us both under and away. I used my free hand to pull Gabrielle close to me, getting a better grip on her struggling body.
With one arm around her waist, I tried to feel the bottom of the river with my feet, to push up if it was there, but it was not. I reached up with my free hand, feeling for the air. I was about a foot under that surface, so I kicked and struggled to reach the top. The effort was even greater, because Gabrielle was struggling against me, thrashing about and kicking. Then my head broke the surface, into the cool morning air. I tried to haul Gabrielle into the air as well, and succeeding only in pulling myself back down.
Again, I broke the surface, and, with horror, heard the sound of an approaching waterfall. I pulled Gabrielle close, wrapping both arms around her slim figure, and kicked with all my might. Gabrielle's struggling lessened, then finally stopped, and I found myself clutching the limp form to my chest. That fact that she had stopped struggling was both good and bad. Good because it would be easier for me to haul her to the shore, it was bad because it showed how little time I had left to save her in.
I gripped the back of her skirt's waistband with one hand, and reached out for a branch with the other. The large limb was low over the water, extending far out into the air above the water. I reached out and caught the branch as we passed it. Suddenly I felt like I was being torn apart. With one hand grasping the branch, and the other holding my dearest, it was like having a horse pulling on each arm. The current fought to either pull Gabrielle from my grasp of break my hold on the branch. I allowed it to do neither.
Pulling until my arms were sore, I hauled Gabrielle closer to me, wrapping both legs around her. This freed my hands, and I grasped the tree even more. Maintaining my hold on the Gabrielle, I pulled until my arms were numb. I had pulled myself onto the branch. I hooked my elbow around the limb and reached down with my other arm, grabbing the back of Gabrielle's skirt. Then I pulled again, until I had Gabrielle laying over the branch beside me.
Arms numb and joints bleeding, I pulled myself up onto the branch, in a sitting position. Again I grabbed Gabrielle and dragged her limp form to the edge on the river. There, I put her down on the bank and rolled her onto her back.
Her head lolled to one side, eyes closed. I put my ear to her breast, listening for either a heartbeat or breathing. I heard neither, due to the roaring of the river. I watch for the rise and fall of her chest, evidence of breath. None.
"Damn!" I swore, "what to do, what to do?"
I leaned down and straightened her head. I leaned down, placing my lips on hers. Slowly, I breathed into her, then I sat back. Her chest fell, but did not rise. Again, I breathed into her, and again she failed to respond. I tried a third time, leaning in and giving her the kiss of life. She sputtered into my mouth, coughing out gouts of water. I sat back, and helped her sit up. She rolled over onto all fours, choking out what seemed like gallons of water. She coughed again, retched, then looked up at me.
She smiled and vanished. Puzzled, I looked around. There sat Aphrodite, on the tree branch that had saved our lives, lazily kicking her feet in cold water. She smiled and floated over to me.
"One down," she said, reaching for my hand, "two to go."
The scenery had changed around us, metamorphosing from the brilliant greenery to a dank dungeon. On my left was Gabrielle, strapped to a guillotine. On my right, two ropes dangled from the ceiling. Beside each rope stood a man.
"This is the test of Mind." Aphrodite said. "There are two ropes, one that will release Gabrielle, and one that will release the blade. These men, they are the key. You may ask one question directed at only one of the men. One will always lie, the other will always be truthful. The problem is you don't know which is which. You have one question to ask. Release Gabrielle."
I thought for a minute. One of the ropes is connected to the blade, while the other is hooked to Gabrielle's bonds. The thing was, I didn't know which was which. The men, Aphrodite had said, were the key. One always lied, the other told the truth. If I asked the man on the right which rope released Gabrielle, he'd tell me the true one, if he was the speaker of truth. If he was the liar, then he'd point me to the false rope. What a revolting development this was.
What about the men together, if I asked a question of one about the other, what would happen then? That was it! If I asked the right man which rope the left man would say is the true one, then the other rope would be it. If the truth teller was asked, he'd say the false rope, because that would be the one the liar would choose, whereas if the liar was asked, he would choose the rope the truth teller would not, again the false rope.
Smiling, I pointed to the right man. "You," I said, and he looked at me, "which rope would the man beside you say is the rope that released Gabrielle?"
"The left one." He said.
I reached for the right rope and pulled it. The sound of snapping metal came to my ears and I turned to see that the restraints on Gabrielle's arms had popped open. Again, she smiled and vanished. Aphrodite came to my side.
"Two down, one to go."
The dungeon had melted away to reveal the forest once again. Gabrielle was there, standing at my side. Aphrodite faced us and spoke.
"Here is all you'll need for the test of Heart," she said, handing me a bundle, "now just the two of you walk into the forest and the test will begin."
We did as she bade, walking into the forest. We walked forever, it seemed, and it gave me time to reflect. The first thing I thought was the three pieces of advice that Hades had given me. One, do it fast, two, be yourself, and three, stay alive. Well, I thought I was doing it rather quickly. It had only been about a ten minutes since I started and already I was two thirds finished. As for being myself, I wasn't pretending in anything, was I? I truly loved Gabrielle, and I'd do anything for her. I thought that I was showing that. Actually, I knew it. I had been dishonest about nothing.
A sharp cry from Gabrielle snapped me out of my reverie. I turned and saw a large viper latch onto her arm, sinking it's fangs deep into her flesh. I reached out, grabbed the viper's head, and pried it off Gabrielle. Then the serpent swung it's tail around, striking me in the head. I dropped it and it slithered off to my right. Then it spun around and sprang at my face, biting into my left eye, pumping venom into my blood. Then it let go and hissed at me, and was gone.
The venom was fast acting indeed, for I was already dazed. I saw Gabrielle sprawled out on the forest floor, unconscious. I didn't know what to do. The bag! I pulled the bag off my shoulder and opened it. Blood from my damaged eye streamed down my face as I struggled with the knot, finally prying it undone and dumping a single object on the ground.
It was a vial, a small glass vial. Inside it was a pearly white liquid that looked almost magical. On the vial was a label. It read:
SNAKE VENOM ANTIDOTE
So, this was the test. Do I take it or do I give it to Gabrielle. Instinctively, I went to Gabrielle but stopped. The poison was affecting my movement, as I was stumbling around, so I had little time. Hades said that if I die, I cease to exist. I uncorked the vial and put it to my lips. I stopped, and lowered the vial. If I took the elixir, then Gabrielle would die. How would that show my love for her? But if I died, again, I would not be there for her, not now, not ever. What was a boy to do. If I took the elixir, I'd live, but Gabrielle would die. I would not return to life, to her. But if I got Gabrielle to drink the potion, I'd die and not be able to be with her anyway.
Then I thought for a moment. Why am I here. To prove my love for Gabrielle, right? There is no way the Aphrodite would sucker me in so low. How does me letting her die show my love for her? Then it was decided. If Gabrielle died, there would be no reason for me to live.
"Gabrielle," I whispered, lightly tapping her cheek, "come back to me, my sweet." Again, I slapped her, and her eyes fluttered, flashing strips of bright green at me. My eye unfocused and I grew woozy, nearly falling over. I was running out of time. If I died before she drank the potion, then all would be lost. This time I slapped her hard, tears welling in my eye.
"Come on Gabrielle, come on." I slapped her again, trying to get her to focus on me. Blood from one eye and tear from the other mixed on my chin, falling to the ground. "Let's go Gabrielle, wake up. Please wake up!" I pleaded, crying openly now. That was something I had never done, cried. Ever since I was a child, I had never cried. Not once, until now.
Suddenly Gabrielle's eyes flew open, and focused on me. She murmured something incoherent, and drifted back. I slapped her again, bringing her out of the daze. I opened her mouth, and poured the vial into it. She swallowed, then fell back into oblivion.
I held her close, crying into her unconcious body, until darkness came and I died.
Suddenly, the lock on the front door was turned. Both the old man and the young man looked at each other, exchanging glances that said, 'If that's mother/Gabrielle then I'm in for it.' Unfortunately, she and her husband were the only two that had a key, aside from the old man that is.
In strode Gabrielle, the daughter, and when she saw that two of them were still awake, she stopped, mouth hanging open. Quickly, the boy scurried off to bed, leaving the old man with the fury of this woman.
"You might want to roll in you tongue dear," the old man said, smiling, "someone may step on it."
Gabrielle snapped her mouth shut, and her husband smiled at that and went to hang their coats. "What do you think you doing," she said finally, "having my children up 'till all hours of the night. Shame on you!"
The old man smiled and got up from his chair. "Ow, quit your nagging," he said, thrusting out his jaw in the most defiant look he could muster, "you old hen!" He ambled off to his room, not hearing what she said, if anything, to his comment.
The old man smiled and went to sleep.
The next morning, Marcus had asked him to finish the tale outside, where he was busy chopping wood. It was a bright, sunshiny day, so the man agreed. He chose a large level log to sit on, and watched the lad work. And, of course, he told his tale.
Life After Death
Again, I awoke in a clearing. It was early morning and the sun was just rising. The air was chill, but not cold, and a cool breeze blew, giving me goose-bumps. I sat up, only to have a brisk chill blow over my back. My shirt was wet!
Quickly, I jumped up. I had been lying in a half melted snowbank, a bed of slush. The entire posterior area of my body was soaked, but soon the sun would rise over the trees, drying me off. Quickly, I started moving, intent on staying warm. I jumped around, punching and kicking at the air, not only to warm up, but to stretch as well.
"That's no way to get warm." I turned int he direction of the melodious voice. There stood Aphrodite, smiling. "Perhaps you should build a fire." She said.
"I have no flint, no steel," I answered, eyes downcast, "I have nothing."
"You have life."
Yes, I had life. If I had life, then I passed her tests! "I assume that because I'm here, talking with you, that I passed your tests."
Again she smiled, "Yes, you did. Even the doubt that Hades placed in you mind didn't stop you. Your love for Gabrielle over came him. I congratulate you."
I nodded to her. "Thanks," I said, then a thought hit me. "How long have I been...you know, dead?"
"Just over four months now. It's nearly spring."
"And where am I?"
"In the clearing where Gabrielle had hidden when you were killed."
Gabrielle, I needed to find her!
"And where is she now?" I asked, suddenly fretful.
"Whoa, slow down. You're forgetting some things."
I looked at her. "Like what?"
"Like supplies for one. Here." She said, waving her arm. On the ground beside her, a bag appeared. "I had Hephaestus make these special for you."
I stopped, stunned. The blacksmith of the gods had made something for me? Hurriedly, I went to the bag and opened it. The breastplate inside was perfect. Properly built for my frame, strong and light, and decorated with the representation of a hammer and anvil. Beside the armor was a broadsword. the sword, too, was strong and light, phenomenonally well balanced. Also, there was a pack, filled with provisions, herbal salves, a heavy pouch of dinars, and a flint and sleet. And beside them all, with a full quiver and extra strings, was the most finely crafted longbow that I had ever seen.
"And one more thing," Aphrodite smiled, "the quiver is magic. It will always hold arrows."
I turned to Aphrodite in awe, astounded at the items that had just been givin to me. "Thank Hephaestus for me," I said, "these, uh, implements should be very useful." But then I gained control over my shock, once again having composure. I stared the Goddess of Love square in the face. "Where is Gabrielle?"
Indecision flashed on her face. "I...I can not tell you." She said simply.
"What?" I asked, disbelieving her, "I came back to life, and now I can't find her?"
Obviously, my shock had an impact. Quickly, she looked around her before leaning in close. "I shouldn't be telling you this, and if I get caught, I'm dead. Go west."
"West?" I asked aloud, but Aphrodite was already misting out of our realm.
"Head west." She said, and was gone.
"West," I mumbled, tunring around in circles in frustration, my voice raising as I spoke, "head west she says, west! That could be any where from Athens to Delphi." I grew quiet, whispering. "Where are you, Gabrielle, where are you my love."
Then, I grew in determination. West. It was as good a direction as any, and I had all day. Quickly, I strapped the breastplate on over my leather tunic, followed by the fine blade, tying irt to by back. Over the sword, I slung the pack so only the hilt and handle of the great weapon was visible. Then, after attaching the quiver of arrows to my right calf, I picked up the bow and prepared to depart. Turning so that the rising sun was to my back, I set out, breaking into a jog and dashing into the underbrush.
ASHES TO ASHES, A DRAGON'S RETURN
As I left the clearing and ventured into the woods, the faint sounds of battle reached my ears. I stopped, listening to the sounds breaking through the chirping of birds. There was shouting, and screaming, and, even fainter, the crying of an infant. The sounds were in front of me, to the west. If it was westerly, then it was my destiny to deal with it.
I broke into a run, dodging through the trees and leaping over deadfall, a gazelle in the forest. The branches and leaves slapped me in the face, but I didn't care. I ignored the many cuts and welts that my face and neck had developed and drove harder through the bush. Then I broke from the forest, and stopped, a most distressing sight assaulting my eyes.
There was a town, a small village, perhaps quaint and amiable had it been under other circumstances. Now, the town was aflame, with both people and dwellings burning. Children ran and women screamed, and died in the horrible heat that was rising in waves from the ground to the air. Then I saw the men, the would-be defenders of this folksy village, frozen in terror, their gazes upward, into the morning sky. I followed their looks, and gasped.
Above all the death, the carnage and destruction, and screaming in glee, was a dragon.
I was not sure as to whether or not it was the same dragon that had cost me my life in the first place, but it was a dragon nonetheless. Then, confirming my belief, I saw the figure atop it's back, directing it in it's attack. If Gabrielle was there, in the town, she was either dead, or soon would be if I didn't act fast. The dragon paused to roast an old man, who had been trying to hobble to safety on his ancient legs, and I saw my opening.
Quickly, almost without thinking, I retrieved an arrow from my quiver and nocked it in the bow of the gods. I sighted along it's gleaming shaft, drew back the string, and loosed the projectile with tremendous force. The arrow lanced from my bow with the speed of Hermes himself, covering the several hundreds yards between me and the dragon in a straight line, and punched though an outstrached wing, causing a hole to appear that would only get bigger.
Immediately, the dragon faltered, confused by this sudden onslaught, and gave a shrill cry of pain and anger. It shook it's head this way and that, searching for he who had hurt it so. The hole in it's wing grew larger, tearing as the dragon's struggles to remain airborne increased.
Again, I released an arrow at the creature, but this time, the dragon had sensed it's approach, and it twisted in midair, trying to dodge the screaming death that hurtled at it. The arrow defied the dragon's manuevers, however, and lodged firmly in it's back.
The dragon showed no pain or even a response to the foot long arrow that had pierced it's hide. It's head orienteered on me, somehow figuring out that it was I who had attacked it. The damaged wing finally gave out, forcing the dragon to tuck it's wings and dive down, landing on the ground running. The dragon recovered almost instantaneously and galloped for me, closing the distance from me to it with lightning swiftness. I backpedalled from the charging death that beared down on me, and released another of Hephaestus' arrows. At the same time, the dragon let lose with a blast of fire, and heat intense enough to melt steel. I dodged to the side, felling the groung beside me vaporize in the powerful flame. The arrow, being forged and tempered by the God of Fire himself, sailed through the dragon's fire and was lost from my sight.
Then, the dragon tripped, and recovered, sitting back on it's haunches like a cleaning barnyard feline. It brushed at it's face with a clawed forearm, trying to dislodge the arrow that had sunk deep into it's right eye. Smiling, I discarded my bow and drew my sword, relishing in the soft scrape it made when sliding from it's sheath. I reversed my grip on the blade, grasped it with both hands, and prepared to drive it deep in the beast's neck, killing it while it was still preoccupied with it's eye. Grinning, I held the blade over my head and...
"Stop," the dragon said, it's gaze laying placidly on me, "please, don't kill me."
Startled, I stumbled back, falling to my back and dropping the sword. The...the thing had spoken. It stared at me blankly, one eye pinched shut and bleeding, the feathers of my arrow protuding form the lower eyelid. "What?" I stammered.
"Don't kill me...please" the dragon begged, lowering it's head and skulking back. Shakily, I regained my stance and retrieved my sword.
"You can talk?" I asked, brandishing the sword threateningly. The reptilian face flinched.
"Yes," It said, peeking one eye open. "please don't kill me."
Then, a feeling of pity came over me, like I was watching a soaked puppy whimper in the rain,and not the ruthless butcher it was. I rolled my eyes and sheathed my sword. "I'm not going to kill you, but I should." I waggled an accusing finger in it's face. "You killed me."
It was the dragon's turn to blink, starled. Both eyes popped open and the head perked up. "I..I killed you?"
"Yes," I answered, and then seeing the puzzled look, I continued, "about four months ago, at the gates of Freedom." I smiled and leaned back, staring up at the face that dwarfed my own. "You cooked me good!"
A look of recognition passed over the lizard's face. "Oh, yes," It said, almost remorsful, "I'm sorry, but my mistress made my do it."
"Her," It motioned to the limp figure on it's back, an arrow sticking trough the armor. So that is why the second shot had no effect, it had struck the rider. Then the dragon looked back at the burning reckage of the destoyed town adn shuddered. "I know I've done some terrible things, but it's not my fault. You see, I must obey the commands of he who rides me. It is a curse, my curse as a dragon. We should rule this land but instead we are forced to bend a knee to others, just because of our nature." It looked back at me with what could have been tearfilled eyes. "I just don't know what to do."
This dragon is a servant? I'd have expected it to do what it wished, but if this was true, that would explain why it had joined with Owlen. This could just work to my benefit. "First," I said, "tell me your name."
"Zephyr, my name is Zephyr."
"Hello, Zephyr, I am Saranus." I said. Then I paused, an odd question comming to mind, odd, and uncomfortable to ask. "Uh, don't take this the wrong way, but of what, uh, gendre are, uh, you?"
Zephyr smiled, revealing long white teeth. "Am I a boy or a girl, you mean." It laughed.
I blushed, and looked around nervously. "Uh, yes, I, uh, mean that, uh, I, you know, would've, kinda, checked for myself, but, uh, you've kinda got a personality, and, uh, that'd be, rude. Besides, I wouldn't know what to look for."
Zephyr was still smiling. "I am a female, a girl dragon. That help?"
"Uh, yes, much."
"Now, on to business," it, no, she said, "if I killed you, what are you doing here?"
"Serching for my wife, Gabrielle." I replied, eyes downcast.
Zephyr looked up. "She wouldn't happen to be one of the two young ladies who were with you when you died," she asked, "would she?"
Puzzled, I answered slowly. "Yes, the short one with the stick. Uh, why?"
The dragon looked away. "Well, because I, sorta..."
Suspecting the worst, I interupted. "You, you killed her?"
Zephyr was shocked by my reply. "What, no!" She said, "They were, uh, captured."
"Xena, the Warrior Princess, was captured?"
The dragon looked at me, hurt in her eyes. "Well, I am a dragon."
"Oh, right, sorry." If any one could capture the Lady in Leather, it would have to be a dragon.
"They are being held in Owlen's castle." A sly smile appeared on Zephyr's face. "If you pull this dastardly arrow from my eye, I'll help you rescue them."
"You'll help me?"
"Sure, so do we deal?"
Do I trust this dragon, who had killed me once and would've done so again, or do I slay her and go rescue Gabrielle myself. Well, a dragon would come in useful in an attack on a castle, but it would give Zephyr the chance to betray me, if she truly wanted to. On the other hand, if I went to rescue her, it would mean stealth, cloak and dagger business. That wasn't me. I looked up at Zephyr and grinned.
"We deal!" I said.
BLOOD, SWEAT, AND TEARS
Using the salve given to me by Aphrodite, I had removed the arrow from Zephyr's face and had dressed the wound. Almost immediately, the cut had scabbed over and healed, as if by magic, leaving nothing but a faint scar in the otherwise flawless ebony scales. Well, it was the salve of the Gods. I had also stitched her wing together, and using the balm, had healed it as well, because a dragon who could not fly was hardly a dragon at all. Besides, it would be easier to fly to the castle than to gallop on the back of a huge reptile.
Soon we were roaring above the feilds, travelling at the speed of a spurred dragon, a speed that may have rivaled that of Apollo himself. The farms and cottages below screamed past beneath us as we sliced through the air. The feeling was wonderful, a feeling of freedom, of being without restraints. With the wind rushing through my swept back hair, I smiled, the sun in my face. I did, however, maintian a firm grip, because the hide of a dragon is slippery, smooth more than slick, and it would be unfortunate if I were to tumble off, being so close to Gabrielle as I was. We headed east, towards the castle, and I could almost see it's battlement rising on the horizon.
Then it burst through the bright sunlight, Owlen's castle. The home of he who betrayed friends, destroyed lives, and stole whole cities. My lip curled up in a sneer. King Owlen indeed.
Zephyr pulled into a climb when we were still miles away. Beating her powerful wings, she propelled us upward with great strength and seemingly endless endurance. Soon we were high above the clouds. Then she tucked her wings, pointed her nose down, and my stomach leaped into my head. I fought off the initial nausea, and instead, relished in the feeling. It was powerful, a feeling that let you feel immortal yet reminded you that you were still a frail creature. We lost altitude very quickly, and again the battlements rushed up to meet us. But this time, Zephyr blasted them with a torrent of flame, and flew over leveled out over the ashes that were the soldiers on guard.
She circled around the castle, and slowed to hover above the courtyard. Quickley, she released another torrent of flame, incinerating every living and most inanimate things there. Then she landed and urged me to dismount.
"Go get your wife," she called over her shoulder, "I'll hold them here."
"Alright." I said, beginning to dismount, but then a thought hit me. What would happen if someone were to mount her while I was inside, then I'd no longer have an ally. I straightened in the saddle. "As your rider," I commanded, "I order you to take instructions from no one other than myself, Gabrielle, or Xena. Do you understand?"
At the nod of the reptilian head, I slid off her back and ran to the wall. I turned back to Zephyr.
"Good luck finding you wife." She said winking. She turned, roasted a building, kicked an attacking soldier, slicing him in half with her razor claws, and took to the air. I ducked inside and drew my sword. I had left my bow with Zephyr, tucked under the saddle she wore, because a bow in a castle is somewhat consricting. So I drew my sword and followed the wall to a doorway, and ducked into the hall.
Inside, it was quiet, to quiet for a castle that was being attacked by a dragon. There should be soldiers running every wich way, but there wasn't. Then my thoughts were answered. A slodier popped out from a door to my left. Startled, he stopped, looked at me, and sighed with relief. He didn't know that I was not with him. I sheathed my sword to show him I was.
"Is it true?" He asked, leaning against the wall, out of breath. He must have been running. "Are we really being attacked by a dragon?"
Quickly, I nodded, then added, "The Captain of the Guard told me to go check on the prisoners, he believes that this may be an attempt to rescue them. But I've been so turned around, I've lost my way. Where are the dungeons from here?"
Either he was very stupid or enexperienced, because he gave me the directions and I was off. I turned a corner here, went down a staircase there, past the armory, through a hall, and soon found myself at a closed door. There was a grizzled man who stood beside it, leaning on a pike. He suddenly straightened up when I came into veiw, pulling the weapon to his side.
"I've come to see the prisoners." I stated as confidently as I could, hoping he would believe I was someone of authority.
The guard smirked as he answered. "Which one?" He asked. "The dark haired butch or the red headed ditz?"
That was when I snapped. Something inside me just gave, and for some reason, all the hatred, anger, and frustation from these past few days had directed itself squarely on this man. My hand lashed out, grabbing the man by his throat, and I pinned him to the wall. He let the pike go and reached up to grasp my wrists, attempting to release some of the pressure. I only squeezed harder, lifting him several inches of the floor.
"Her hair is not red," I spat, "It is strawberry blonde!" He just gurgled in reply, and his neck broke, shattering under the crushing pressure my hand had placed there. Disgusted, I threw the body aside, and opened the door.
Behind it, a dark hallway grew away from me. The sputtering torches on the walls gave off almost no light. Along the hall were doors of iron, and there was one open, down at the far end. There was the sound of dripping water echoing through out the hall, making it difficult for one to locate the source. But who cares, I was here for Gabrielle. Suddenly, the sound of the water was broken by the faint sound of a slap followed closely by a very feminine cry of pain. It came from the open door.
I broke into a run, sprinting down the hall, the rage inside me taking over. I turned into the room just as a very large man backhanded a gaunt and beaten Gabrielle who was chained to the wall by her hands. Filled with white hot hatred, I rushed in, grabbed the man by his hair, pulled him away from Gabrielle, and smashed his face into the wall beside the shackle to which she was chained. Again, I threw him face first into the wall, pleased to see it slick with blood.
He pushed away from the wall, spit some blood and a couple of teeth, and tried to turn and face me. Before he could turn around complete, I kneed him in the stomach, and watched him fall to all fours, coughing. I kneeled beside him, pulled his ear to my mouth, and whispered harshly to him.
"So," I hissed venomously, "big strong man needs to beat on a chained woman for kicks, huh?" I drove his face into the floor, and stood back. "This is how I get my kicks!" I said, lashing out with my foot and catching him in the ribs. He flipped over, sprawled out on his back, groaning. I walked over to his head, lifted my leg, and brought my foot firmly down on his skull, reveling in the sickening crunch of his head shattering.
The I was at Gabrielle's side, no longer a blood thirsty killer but a concerned nursemaid. She was incoherent, barely conscious, but I still talked to her as I unlocked her chains.
"Hey, there, sunshine," I said, stroking her cheek. Her eyes fluttered open and almost focused on me. "It's me, Saranus."
"Saranus?" She muttered, as I unlocked one chain. "I...I thought your were dead." A second arm.
"I was," I whispered back, picking her up like a child. "I was, but I came back for you."
"Oh, Saranus." She said softly, draping her armes around my neck and falling into a deep slumber. So that was how I carried her from there, her legs around my waist, her arms around my neck, supporting her weight with my left arm, leaving my right arm free. Her swollen, bruised face rested on my shoulder, her regular, steady breathing in my ear.
SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY
Quickly, I found Xena, and seeing that she was awake and coherent, I tossed her the keys and she freed herself. I gingerly stepped over the body of the man who had been beating Gabrielle, nimbly jumping over the spreading pool of ichor that was his head. Xena was right behind me, she had also been tortured, but she seemed to have taken it better than Gabrielle had. She still carried herself with that icy cold determination that she was renown for. We dodged around the body of the guard at the door at the entrance, the one I had throttled to death, and I saw Xena look at the body, then at me with what looked like admiration in her eyes. But still she said nothing, as taciturn as ever. That was one thing that differed between Gabrielle and the Warrior Princess, Gabrielle was often loquacious, whereas Xena was quiet, only talking when something needed saying. She was obviously a woman of few words.
I followed my footsteps to the armory, Xena right behind, and we entered. We exited moments later, Xena having collected her sword, her hollow discus thing, and Gabrielle's staff. We wandered the castle, heading towards the courtyard. the halls we strangly deserted, all the soldiers must be fighting Zephyr. I hoped she was alright. She was our ticket out of here. Then we turned a corner into the bright sunshine of the inner pavilon.
The entire area was littered with burnt corpses, charred buildings, and discarded weapory. In the middle of it all, sat Zephyr. She smiled to herself as we came into view.
"Oh, hi Saranus," she said, "ready to go?"
Xena had stopped at the doorway, eyeing the dragon suspiciously. Slowly, I turned to her. "Xena, I would like it if you could take Gabrielle and go with Zephyr, here, to a glade or river someplace nearby. Then send Zephyr back for me. I have some unfinished business with the former monarch." I went to hand Gabbrielle' inert for to Xena.
"No." Xena said flatly.
"This thing," she motioned to Zephyr with Gabrielle's staff, "it killed you."
"Yes, I know." I said, exasperated. "Just trust me alright, for Gabrielle!"
Xena nodded, hooked Gabrielle's staff into the saddle on Zephyr's back beside my bow, and turned to take Gabrielle from me. "I'm doing this for Gabrielle," her eyes narrowed to gleaming blue slits, "but if you've lied to me, I'll hunt you down and skin you myself."
I smiled in spite of myself and handed Gabrielle to her. The went behind Xena and stared into Gabrielle's sleeping face. "You make it through this, alright." I said to her, "Because if you die on me, I swear to Zeus, I'll kill myself and come on after you!"
Then Xena and Gabrielle were atop Zephyr and she winged away, promising to return for me after she had dropped off her passengers. I stood watching them grow smaller as the dragon flew west. Then, when I could no longer distiguish them from the sky, I turned and stalked into the castle, intent on revenge.
PRETENDER TO THE THRONE
I made my way to a staircase and took it up a level. Remembering from when I was here as a guest, I turned corners and took stairs that lead me to the throne room. Then I was there, striding past the two letharigc guards so fast, they couldn't rise to stop me. I pushed open the door and faced the king. The guards followed me into the room and grabbed my arms, intent on removing me. Owlen, however, held up a restraining hand, and they released me and stepped back.
"So," he said, all pompous and arrogant, "who might you be?"
Who might I be? WHO MIGHT I BE? Rage filled my vision. "You lied to me, betrayed and murdered me, you took my city and beat my wife and you DON'T EVEN KNOW WHO I AM?!" I was openly yelling now, all my anger coming to bear on the tiny man in front of me. "I am Saranus, mayor of Freedom, and I have returned from the dead to exact my vengance!"
Owlen's face turned deathly white. "S...Sara...Saranus returned...from the dead?" He stuttered, "I...I can't believe it!"
"Believe it!" I hissed and I was atop him, hand groping for his throat, crushing the life from him. Just as I got a good grip, the guards grabbed me and dragged me from their king. Owlen massaged his throat as I stuggled with the guards.
"Well," he said, "let's see if you can come back from the dead twice!" Owlen drew a dagger and advanced on me. I lifted my left foot and brought it down hard on the foot of the guard on my left. He let out a yell and released me, backing away and grasping his foot. With my left arm freed, I punched the other guard in the throat, and he released me as well. I turned to the first gurad, who was just recovering, and advanced. Seeing the rage in my eyes, he fled, limping heavily on his right foot. Quietly, I drew my sword and faced the second soldier. He attacked with vigor, but I just stepped aside and let him run into the wall. He stumbled back, stunned, and I finished the job, bringing the hilt of my sword down on his head. Un conscious, he slumped to the floor. I turned to Owlen, who cowered in a corner.
I sheathed my sword, reached down, and took the dagger from his hand. Then I grasped his hair, pulled him to his feet, placed him against the wall, pushed his head back, and held the dagger against his neck.
"This is for Phylipidus, Nera, Democratis, me, and any other poor soul who you have murdered." Then I slit his throat, and watched him slide to the floor, the life draining from him. Then he slumped, dead. Grimly, I strode from the room, intent on making my meeting with Zephyr.
TO BE DEAD...
When I emeged into the courtyard, the dragon was there, waiting for me. Silently, I climbed atop her back and sat.
"Let's go." I said. She didn't move, she just sat there. I nudged her with my knees. "Come on, take me to Gabrielle."
"I can't." She said.
"What? You're supposed to listen to any who ride you, correct?"
"Yes." Zephyr replied softly, eyes downcast.
"Alright then," I said, feeling that the debate was over, "let's go."
Perturbed, I slid down her forearm to stand on the ground beside her head. I looked her square in the eye. "Why not?"
"I was told not to."
"By whom?" I asked.
"Well," Zephyr started, "you said to listen to only you, Gabrielle, and, uh..."
"Xena told you, didn't she?"
The dragon nodded. "She felt that to Gabrielle, you were dead. She has already lost one husband, and you were the second. Xena wanted to spare her the pain if you were to return to her life. She told me to drop them off but to not take you there. Gabrielle will awaken, thinking that you were a dream or a phantom when you rescued her." Zephyr blinked slowly at me. "Gabrielle has accepted your death, maybe you should too."
Somehow, I disagreed with her. How could Gabrielle be hurt if I were to return to her, wouldn't she be happy? "No," I said, "I'm not dead. Gabrielle is...was...no, is my wife, whether she knows it or not. I love her, and I will not let go that easily." I looked at the dragon through tearfilled eyes. "I don't know if I can live without her."
Suddenly, the dragon took aflight, circling in the air above me. Her repliy was cold and harsh. "If you really love her," she said, "you'll let her go." The she banked and winged away.
"NOOOO!" I yelled after her, screaming until she was out of sight. Then I collapsed, sobbing to myself weakly in the burnt out carcass of the castle, the fires alone hearing my cries.
"Now I am truly dead." I whispered.
THE BATTLE WITHIN
For monthes after, I searched for Gabrielle, following stories of their sightings, and the deeds they did. During this time, I thought of what Zephyr had said, her words of steel still echoing in my memory. 'If you really love her, you'll let her go.' I wanted to be with her, that was why I married her in the first place. She was so much fun to be around, she was bubbly and vibrant and happy and quirky, she was almost perfect.
'If you really love her, you'll let her go.'
Then, I lucked out. I was walking through a marketplace on Slostice Eve. You couldn't tell fron the city itself because the loser of a king had banned Solstice. There she was, arguing with some guy about the price of a donkey. I was just about to call out her name, but something inside me stopped me. I just stood there, watching, Zephyr's words in my mind.
'If you really love her, you'll let her go.'
I saw her smile, and laugh. And how I longed to be there, by her side. I wanted to be with her, at her side. I wanted to reach my arms around her, smell her hair, hold her close. I wanted to kiss her, hug her, to love her.
'If you really love her, you'll let her go.'
Then her gaze flashed to me and our eyes met from across the square. Our eyes locked for a few moments and I smiled at her. But then a look of doubt passed over her sweet face and she shook her head, and continued on her way. I was about to follow her, but again I stopped.
'If you really love her, you'll let her go.'
Instead, I turned and walked the other way.
The old man stood, stretching his aged legs. Marcus had finished chopping the wood and a high pile of tinder now stood in the spring grass.
"So that's your story, huh?" Marcus asked.
"Do you have any proof?"
Marcus shook his head, smiling, "Then, I find it a little hard to believe." He turned and walked into the house, leaving the old man with his thoughts. The old man thought about it. Perhaps it was a little farfetched, after all, it may have happened differently, the memory being yellowed like old parchment in the halls of his mind.
The old man smiled to himself, and reached inside his tunic. He withdrew a small leather pouch that hung on a string around his neck, and loosened the draw strings. Then he upended it, causing an object to fall into his hand. The man smiled as he fondled the bauble. It was a ring, a bronze one. He turned in over and gazed at it in the light.
On the face was carved one, single, solitary word.
"Freedom," the oldman whispered, then he returned the ring to the pouch and the pouch to his neck. Then he followed the younger man inside.