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"THE BATTLE OF WARRIORS"
(A Short Story Based on "Xena: Warrior Princess")
By: Ron Gillespie
The sky was clear, and the sun was already promising it to be a hot day. Xena and Gabrielle walked along the trail heading to no place in particular. Xena was leading her horse, Argo, and Gabrielle, as usual, was carrying her trusty staff, serving its dual purpose as a walking stick.
"I could use a swim," spoke Gabrielle.
"So could I," replied Xena. "Let's find a lake."
The two walked until they heard the sounds of running water. They found a small creek a short distance off the road they had been traveling. "We'll follow it to see where it empties into," said Xena.
The two continued walking until they suddenly heard a loud cry coming from ahead of them. "Sounds like someone is in trouble!" exclaimed Gabrielle.
They started running, each time the shouts were getting louder to let them know they were getting closer.
Then abruptly, the path opened into a small clearing. In the middle of the clearing around a softly glowing camp fire was a young man. He was engaging in a series of rapid martial arts movements, stringing them together fluidly, hands blurring with the speed of his punches and blocks. As he practiced, he let out his loud yell again.
Xena and Gabrielle stopped short and stood there silently watching the young man tirelessly work. They realized the shouts had not been of someone in trouble, but of this man and his spastic choreography of movements. They watched as the stranger leaped up into the air to land on a nearby tree stump. He spun a full circle mid-air, kicking, Then just before he landed, he noticed the two ladies standing there. Startled, he barely missed the tree stump and fell to the ground. When he landed, Xena and Gabrielle heard a dull thud. They saw the man's head bounce on a rock. Gabrielle winced as she watched it. Xena tried not to laugh outright at the situation, but Gabrielle could tell she was amused.
Gabrielle rushed over to where the stranger lay. She picked his head up in her hands and brushed his dark blonde hair out of his face. There did not seem to be any indication of serious injury, so she tried to revive him.
"Sandahl?" said the stranger, as he opened his eyes. He blinked a few times to clear his vision, then said "No, you're not Sandahl... But you look a lot like her." He started to sit up and said "Who are you?"
"I'm Gabrielle, and this is my friend Xena," said Gabrielle motioning toward Xena who was standing with her arms crossed surveying the whole scene.
"Oh well, am I embarrassed now. You startled me when I saw you."
"You hit your head when you fell. Are you okay?" asked Gabrielle.
"Yes, I'm fine." He stood up. Then as if realizing something, he asked "You ladies certainly are a long way from anywhere. What on earth are you doing way out here?"
"We could ask you the same thing," replied Xena.
"I was practicing," mused the stranger with a slight grin.
"Those were very interesting moves you were doing," said Xena, "Mind if I ask where you learned them?"
"Oh, I traveled around China and some of East Asia for awhile picking up what I could here and there."
"You don't look like you're from China," said Xena. "Where are you from originally?"
"Oh, nowhere in particular. The earth is my home. I travel a lot."
"Where are you traveling to now?"
"You ask a lot of questions," mused the stranger once more. "Yet, I am on my way to Loetia. There is a big competition there. The Battle Of the Warriors, to see who the best warrior is." The stranger made a grand flourishing of his hand to emphasize the words.
"A tournament?" asked Gabrielle, "Well Xena could enter it. She could wipe the..."
"Gabrielle!" quipped Xena, cutting her off in mid-sentence. Gabrielle caught herself and hushed up.
But it was too late; the stranger had taken the bait.
"Oh, so you're a warrior I take it! Well, how would you fancy a little challenge of skill?" He smiled menacingly and picked up his sword from where it had been laying next to the tree stump. He drew the blade and pointed it at Xena.
"You really don't want to do that," commented Xena sharply.
"Oh come now! You don't want to back down from a fight do you? You can either fight me or you can die here in cold blood."
Gabriel gasped. "You wouldn't?"
"Why wouldn't I? I don't know either one of you; you wouldn't be missed."
Xena was beginning to get irritated, but she kept her cool. "Very well then," she said. "I accept and I'll make you regret those words." She drew her sword.
The two squared off around the slowly dying fire. Then with that same yell, the stranger attacked. Xena defended, and the two fought.
The fight was evenly matched. Gabrielle stood on the side watching the two suddenly feeling very nervous that this newcomer might actually win, and she would quickly find herself friendless. But the two continued to fight, thrusting and parrying with all the vigor they could muster. The stranger lunged in with a thrust, but Xena parried and hit him with a boot to the stomach. The stranger was quick and spun with the kick, bringing his sword around in a slice. Xena ducked and tripped him. But he immediately reacted and sprung his body upwards and landed on his feet. And no sooner had his feet touched the ground had he immediately brought his leg up and kicked the blade from Xena's hand, much to her surprise.
Yet Xena was also quick, and seeing that she had lost her sword, retaliated with all her effort. She struck out with two fingers and jabbed the stranger in the throat, hitting a pressure point that would stop the flow of blood to his brain. The stranger recoiled and grabbed his neck. He began to gasp for air, and Xena thought the fight was over.
She was wrong. Almost instantly, the stranger stood straight back up, and shrugged off the blow. Xena was shocked. In her daze, she was not prepared for the man's next action. He struck out in return with the same two fingers and jabbed Xena in her throat. Xena suddenly realized that she was now victim of her own attack. Immediately, she started to gasp for air.
"Xena!" yelled Gabrielle.
"Who are you?" Xena choked out.
The stranger gave that same lavishing flourish of his hand and bowed deeply. "I am Wulfric the Wanderer, of the House of Rennison, at your service!"
"Take it off!" gasped Xena slowly turning a light bluish color in the face.
"Only on one condition," said Wulfric. "You must accompany me to the tournament."
Xena, seeing she had no choice, stammered, "Okay!"
And with as fast a motion as before, Wulfric struck out again jabbing Xena in the throat releasing the effect. Xena gasped for air, but was relieved. She gazed at Wulfric with a look of mixed emotions. Gabrielle, stunned at what she had just witnessed, was speechless.
"Good," started Wulfric. "Now, with that out of the way, we can have breakfast! Who's hungry?"
He smiled amusingly as he slapped his hands on his stomach for emphasis.
Suddenly Gabrielle became animated remembering what her and Xena's purpose was for being there. "We were following the creek to a lake for a morning swim when we came across you practicing."
"Great!" exclaimed Wulfric. "There's a lake between those trees there." He pointed in the direction, then said, "You two can have your swim and I'll prepare breakfast for all of us. I'll have it ready by the time you get back."
"Great. Thank you," said Gabrielle grabbing Xena's hand. Xena was still noticeably perturbed at what had just happened and did not move. "Come on, Xena," coaxed Gabrielle. She looked at Wulfric nervously then sluggishly began to pull Xena along after her.
Once near the edge of the clearing, Wulfric stopped them. "Oh, Xena," he began, "you are right. I do regret those words. It would be a shame to kill as excellent and beautiful a warrior as yourself."
Xena very nearly cracked a smile, but then stopped herself. She would not give in to this upstart, no matter who he was or what house he came from. But once on the trail, she started to come to her senses. Gabrielle started off the conversation.
"Do you really think he would have killed you in cold blood like that?"
"Gabrielle, if there is one thing that I have learned in battle, it's to never underestimate your opponent."
"But he seems harmless enough otherwise. I wonder why he would say that."
"Obviously he is a man who has been fighting all his life. War has made him cold. He thinks not about killing. It's second nature to him."
"Do you really believe that? I mean, he just doesn't seem that way, even when he said that, I was not sure."
"I really don't know what to believe, Gabrielle."
"But I've never seen anyone best you in battle like that. Why did you accept?"
"Gabrielle, I don't fight to win; I fight because I have to, because it's all I know. That's where you are strong. You would prefer to talk your way out of a situation than to fight, but you fight as a last resort. That is something for me to learn."
"But you fight for what you believe in, and that is what makes you strong, Xena. You did not have to fight him for that."
"I had no intentions of fighting him, yet I also could not take the chance that he might actually have killed us in cold blood. And considering he shrugged off my pressure point attack, I have no doubt he could have done so had he really wanted to."
"Nobody has ever done that before. How do you think he could?"
"I don't know, but I'm going to find out."
"Who do you think this Sandahl is that he keeps mentioning?" asked Gabrielle switching the subject.
"Probably a past lover, perhaps a wife he lost. He seems to think you resemble her. Perhaps that is something you can find out for both of us, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle could think of nothing further to say. Her mind was filled with questions but no answers. Only answers that the new stranger Wulfric could answer. Gabrielle did not think he seemed too predisposed to talk about her freely. If she were to find out, she would have to go about it carefully.
The two continued walking toward the lake. The sun was still low in the sky, but the morning air felt crisp. The swim would feel very refreshing right now after their curious morning adventure. Reaching the shore of the lake, they both undressed silently, then slid into the cool blue water. The two swam around not speaking, but enjoying the water nonetheless. After an indeterminate time, Gabrielle looked up to see Wulfric standing on the shore amidst their discarded clothes. "Breakfast is ready," he called. "Better hurry before the animals get it!" With that, he quickly turned and retreated back into the brush.
Gabrielle and Xena made their way to the shore where they quickly dressed, then made their way back up the path. Wulfric was already busy packing up his few belongings into a roughsack. "There's meal in the pot on the fire, and I have some eggs and jerky too," he said continuing his work. Gabrielle bent over to look in the pot that was hanging on a spit above the already faded fire, now burnt to embers and ashes. She lifted the spoon from the pot and brought it to her lips, uncertain to taste. But she did so, and was surprised to find it actually tasted good.
"This isn't bad, Xena. You should try some."
But Xena was not amused. She was still brooding over the combat earlier. "How did you shrug off the effect of that pressure point strike?" she asked blatantly.
Wulfric stopped packing. He looked up. His face was tight with seriousness.
"I'm sorry, Xena. As much as I respect you, I cannot tell you that. If I told you, then I really would have to kill you, and I really do not want to do that."
Xena did not reply. She tried to gauge the expression on Wulfric's face to see if he would let loose with a smirk or anything else that might give him away, but his face was steady, his gaze level. He did not smile; he did not blink. Then suddenly Xena realized, "You are serious, aren't you?"
Wulfric's breath was shallow and even from where she was standing, Xena could almost feel the rapid beating of his heart. He did not speak; he merely bowed his head slightly in agreement. "I'm sorry," he said.
Xena quickly changed the subject. "Well, how long until we get to Loetia?" she asked.
Wulfric, instantly changed back to his usual animation. "It's about a day's ride. We can make it by nightfall. There is a town on the way that we will hit about lunch time. We can stop there and pick up supplies and check the latest news on the tournament."
"Well then," said Xena, "I guess we better get going."
"I need to call my horse," said Wulfric. Then suddenly he let out a loud high pitched piercing yell that would have made an opera singer proud.
Gabrielle looked at Xena and snickered. Under her breath, she muttered, "If he couldn't beat you in combat, he could kill you by screaming in your ear!" Xena tried not to smile, and failed. Then Xena whistled for her own horse.
They heard the beating of hooves approaching quickly. Then suddenly a dark brown stallion with a glossy black mane burst through the brush and came up to Wulfric.
"Ladies, meet Barion." He patted the horse on the snout. "And Barion, meet Xena and Gabrielle."
Barion whinnied and shook his head at Wulfric. "Yes, I know," said Wulfric, "That's what I thought too." Then he turned to Gabrielle and said, "Barion says you remind him of Sandahl."
Almost as if in response, Barion trotted over to Gabrielle and bowed his head down to her. "He's offering himself to you," said Wulfric. "He wants you to ride him."
Gabrielle blushed and stammered out something to say. "Hi, Barion," she finally managed. She raised her hand to stroke Barion's mane. Barion nodded as if in agreement.
Eventually, the trio were all packed, mounted, and riding along the trail. Xena mounted on Argo, and Wulfric and Gabrielle mounted on Barion, with Wulfric in the front. They rode in silence. Gabrielle was still wondering who Sandahl was, and Xena still curious as to how Wulfric avoided her strike. She thought perhaps she could get some information through casual conversation. Perhaps it was something he had learned in China. He had said he had traveled through East Asia. It seemed plausible enough. Yet, she had to work up to that; she did not want to ask him outright. She quickly came up with another line of questioning.
"So why are you entering this tournament? Is it for the fame? Or the money?"
"Personal vendetta," replied Wulfric.
"How so?" asked Xena.
"A long time ago, I met up against a warlord named Rufus. We had our differences for some petty thing., and Rufus took it to heart. He challenged me to a duel and I beat him. He couldn't accept defeat, and he sicced his army on me. I guess he was even more angered when I defeated his entire army. So he claimed that it wasn't over and that we'd meet again. When he found out about the tournament, again he sent me another challenge saying we'd meet on the battlefield and this time we would finish it to the death."
"That's a silly reason to fight. If Rufus wins, he gets back the face he has lost in front of his army."
"Not to mention the tournament prize of ten-thousand dinars," broke in Wulfric. "That's enough money to support his army for awhile."
"But what do you get if you win?" asked Xena.
"There is nothing in it for me," replied Wulfric.
"I don't understand. You are willing to risk your life in a stupid grudge match, and not for your own gain?"
"T'is true. I do not have to meet him in battle, but I have to fight. I don't fight to win; I fight because it is all I know how to do "
With this, Gabrielle looked at Xena, remembering their conversation earlier. Xena glanced back at Gabrielle, but she said nothing. Xena realized this line of questioning was not working. She decided to quit for awhile until she could regather her thoughts. One thing was for sure, Wulfric was definitely a match for her, but Xena would not give up. She would find out somehow.
Again, the trio rode in silence. This time Gabrielle broke the silence by beginning a song. It was a low enchanting melody that flowed from her effortlessly; that flowed through the trees. Wulfric and Xena listened enraptured. Gabrielle sang, telling of deep felt emotions and carrying them with her voice. Then slowly, she finished her song, the effects of her words even showing on her own face.
"That was beautiful," said Wulfric. "You remind me of when Sandahl used to sing like that. She was a wonderful singer too."
Finally Gabrielle could stand it no longer. "Who was Sandahl, Wulfric?"
"She was my wife," he said. But he offered no more.
The rest of the trip was made in silence. About lunch time when the sun was high in the sky and the heat of the day was at its peak, they came upon a small town. Many people were milling around, many of whom they recognized as competitors for the tournament. Some combatants were sparring with staves off to their left. Some were standing around with wine mugs and flasks of ale. The town was a buzz with activity.
"There's an inn up ahead," said Wulfric. "If you'd like you can wait there for me while I go buy some supplies." He pulled his horse up to a hitching post and tied the rope around it. He then helped Gabrielle down. "I shouldn't be too long."
Xena and Gabrielle made their way through the crowds to the inn while Wulfric went to the trading market. Upon entering the inn, they found it was just as busy as the outside. It was crowded and loud. Men were cheerfully ribbing each other and toasting to all sorts of things. Heads turned as they entered, and Xena and Gabrielle realized quickly that they were very out of place. The only ladies in there were bar wenches and prostitutes. One man laughed heartily and came up to them. "Well, it looks like we have another set of bar wenches boys! Let's see how much this one costs!" He looked at Xena and said, "Why don't you come back to my camp with me sweetheart?"
In response, Xena shot her hand toward his crotch and squeezed. "No thanks," she said. "I need a REAL man."
Upon hearing this, the bar renewed its uproarious laughter. The man, blushing more from anger than embarrassment, retreated.
A man standing across the room witnessed this scene and he laughed uproariously. All the men in the bar knew him as Petrus. Certainly, he could do better than that rag tailed oaf. Confidently, he strolled up to Xena and Gabrielle. "Well, well," he said, "looks like we have ourselves a couple of feisty ones. I like that in a woman." He walked up to Gabrielle. "Tell me, sweetheart. What's your name?"
Following Xena's cue, Gabrielle brought her staff up between the man's legs, stopping just short of his crotch. Petrus, seeing this, grunted, but not to be outdone, retaliated. "And dangerous! I like that in a woman, too!"
Then came a commotion near the door. Suddenly, Wulfric burst through and shouted, "Hands off the girl, Petrus!"
Petrus looked up to see Wulfric standing in the doorway. "So, Wulfric, you decided to show up after all. I thought you might have lost your nerve and not bothered. You don't know what you're up against now. Rufus and I have been waiting for this day forever."
"You'll get your chance, but you'll have to wait. The fight is between me and Rufus."
"You mess with Gabrielle again, little man, and I'll be happy to finish it right now," Xena piped up. "I'm not in the tournament."
"Well, then why don't you join the tournament, and we'll see, wench." With that, Petrus retreated, not taking his gaze off the three.
When he was gone, Xena finally asked "Who was that earthworm?"
"That was Petrus," answered Wulfric. "Rufus' brother and right hand man. And he's just as callous as his brother too. He'd slit your throat for the button off your shirt if he needed one on his own."
"And probably just as slimey," said Gabrielle. "I think I need to wash my staff now."
Xena and Wulfric laughed. Then they saw another man coming their way. He had a light gate and a goofy smile on his face.
"Oh no," said Gabrielle, "Joxer!"
"Gabrielle!" Joxer shouted. "Gabrielle, the love of my life! I've been looking all over for you. I knew you'd come!"
"Joxer, what are you doing here?" asked Gabrielle.
"I've come to prove my love for you, Gabrielle, by competing in the tournament!"
"You're WHAT?" Gabrielle asked, shocked.
"Yes, it's true! I'm going to fight in the tournament, so I can win the money and then we can run away together."
"Joxer, have you been drinking? What makes you think you can win the tournament?"
"Only my love for you, Gabrielle. You watch; I'll win that tournament!"
"This is almost sickening," muttered Xena under her breath so Wulfric could hear.
"Joxer, please," pleaded Gabrielle, "don't do this. You could get hurt, or worse!"
"It would be worth it for you, my love!"
Then, Wulfric coughed, as if trying to change the subject. Suddenly, Joxer noticed him. "Oh, hello, are you a friend of Xena's?"
"Joxer, meet Wulfric. Wulfric, meet Joxer," spoke Xena.. "He's also competing in the tournament."
"Oh really? Well, my god sir, I hope we do not have to meet in the battlefield. I plan on winning that prize for my lovely Gabrielle here."
"Oh believe me," said Wulfric, "I hope we don't have to meet either. And good luck, I hope you do get the money."
Joxer had a strange look on his face. For an instant, he thought Wulfric might try for Gabrielle himself. Of course. Was not Gabrielle the most beautiful woman in the whole wide world? Why wouldn't another man be after her? He could not bear the thought of Gabrielle with another man and his money, the prize money that he, Joxer, wanted to win. This Wulfric fellow must certainly be watched.
Wulfric, as if sensing Joxer's thoughts, spoke up. "Well, we certainly have a long journey ahead of us. We should get moving. Joxer, it was a pleasure meeting you, and I'm sure I'll see you at the tournament."
Gabrielle and Xena, relieved to be getting away, started to move toward the door.
"Sure," said Joxer, "see you on the battlefield."
The road to Loetia was sparsely covered with other travelers to the tournament. Occasionally, while riding, the trio would chat with others who were also making their way. They swapped stories back and forth about other wars, other battles, many tales of adventures long before. They also found out useful information. The tournament was going to be held in a melee at first, and then through that, narrowed down to twenty or so competitors. Then those twenty competitors would be paired off individually to fight for the final champion. In the event that teammates end up in the final draft of twenty, then the teams will battle it out to see who is the better team. The judges wanted to make sure it was a friendly tournament where no fatalities occurred, so to ensure that no one would die, each competitor was required to use a wooden sword to be given to the competitor upon registration. Competitors would be inspected just before the tournament began to make sure they were not carrying any concealed knives or other instruments of death.
Still, this information did not convince Wulfric or Xena that Rufus and Petrus would not try something tricky. They had to be on their guard at all costs.
During one of the few times that they were once again traveling alone, Wulfric decided to ask Gabrielle about Joxer.
"Tell me about Joxer," he said.
"Joxer?" replied Gabrielle. "Well, he's sweet, and he has a good heart, but he's foolish. He is quick to act without thinking, and sometimes I almost feel sorry for him. He's like a little lost puppy; you feel sorry for him, but you can't help but laugh at him at the same time. But, basically, he is a good person."
"He seems to be quite taken over you," said Wulfric.
"He always has been, though I can't imagine whatever for."
"How do you really feel about him?"
"I worry about him. He is a true friend, loyal to the end, and I don't want him to get hurt. But I know if he carries through with this harebrained idea that he may. We have to stop him from entering that tournament." She was silent for a moment. Then, "Can you help him, Wulfric?"
"I'll do what I can," he replied.
All this time, Xena had been quiet. But finally, she spoke. "Tell me about Rufus and Petrus. What happened between you two to cause this grudge match?"
Wulfric let out a deep sigh. "It's a long story," he responded.
"Does it have to do with Sandahl?" asked Xena.
Wulfric darted a glance at her, but quickly responded, "No, no! Not with Sandahl." He then took a deep breath in then heavily, he started his tale.
"A few years ago, after I got back from China, I was passing through this small village that Rufus was trying to conquer and recruit men for his army. The place was in flames, and this old lady was being abused in the town square by some of Rufus' men. They were laughing and taunting her, and I couldn't stand to watch it, so I stepped in. I dispatched the men first off, and the old lady thanked me profusely for saving her. But then she asked me if I could help save her daughter as well who was being held captive in Rufus' camp.
"Of course I agreed. So off I trotted to find the girl. The old lady had rallied the townspeople by this time exclaiming they had a new champion - me. Now I couldn't back out even if I wanted to, but of course, a lady's honor was at stake, so why should I? But there was something I didn't know at that time. The lady being held captive was actually Rufus' wife. So to defend his wife, Rufus and I fought, and I defeated him. I rode off with the girl, Celene, all the time she tried to tell me she was with him willingly against her mother's request. This caused a serious problem after I had just busted through Rufus' camp, defeated all his men, rescued the girl, and rode back into town.
"The girl put up a struggle all the way into the village. But I thought I was doing her a favor because I did not know better. So I returned her to her mother, who was eternally grateful, but then had to reckon with her own daughter. Needless to say, Rufus was quite perturbed at this occurrence and he rallied what was left of his men to attack me in the middle of the town square.
"I tried to back out of the fight suddenly realizing what I had done after reckoning with the girl, but Rufus wouldn't let it rest. He demanded his vengeance and to win back his lost face. And the girl was upset too, because it turned out her mother was a tyrannical old hag, and she just wanted to get away from the old witch. Rufus was not exactly her first choice I found out later, but it was certainly a way to get back at her wicked mother.
"So there we were in the town square. I was surrounded by fifty men and Rufus and Petrus. Rufus, being a gambling man reckoned that if I won the fight, that he would let the girl go with me, but if I lost, he got my horse and my life.
"He almost won. Everyone of his men attacked me at once and I went down in a mass of bodies and swords. It looked grim, but I bided my time. Suddenly, when they realized I wasn't fighting back, they figured I was dead. The men let off me and gathered around to see what would happen. Then, I struck. I had the chance, and I took it. With all the strength I could muster, I ran right through all of them, one...two..sometimes three at a whack, slicing through them with my sword. Bodies fell left and right, and I ran, straight to Rufus, where I dropped my blade.
"I stood there looking at him. He was in shock at what he had just witnessed. Then without saying a word, he pulled out a dagger and stabbed me in the chest. I fell to the ground, blood pouring forth. They thought I was dead. Rufus laughed. He thought he had won the battle.
"He took my horse and went back to his camp. Then later that night, when it was dark enough, and everyone had returned to their cottages, I finally woke up. The wound in my chest had stopped bleeding. So, under the cover of dark, I snuck into Rufus' camp to steal my horse back. I was about to ride off when the girl, Rufus' wife, found me. I thought I was captured, but she did not shout for help.
"Instead, she came up to me, kissed me, then said 'Take me with you.' I did not know what to say, so I said, 'I can't. You don't belong with me.'
" 'But you tried to save me', she said. 'No one has ever done that for me before. Rufus is a mean old bastard who just uses me as his concubine. I only left to get away from my mother. Certainly, being a concubine is much better than living under a tyrannical witch. But you're different, Wulfric, you cared enough to try. I know you would treat me better.'
"Her words were not in vain. I took them to heart, but I still could not give in to her wish. My life is of wandering, a rogue am I. How much good to her could I be if I am off to battle all the time? So I told her I was sorry, but I could not, and I rode off, just like that.
"Eventually, later, I found out that she had left Rufus. She had run away from the village to make her life elsewhere. So Rufus blames me for her disappearance. Therefore, he's vowed to take it out with my life.
"In a way, I know how he feels because it's the same with me and Sandahl. But I can never make him understand that. Therefore, I spend my life confronting him, and still never able to finish it because of the empathy I have for him."
Wulfric finished speaking and sighed deeply.
"That's incredible," said Gabrielle quietly.
She was about to once again ask what happened to Sandahl when they came up on more travelers. Wulfric must have sensed the question was coming because just as quickly, he shouted out, "Ho! Fellow travelers! You must be going to the tournament!"
A jolly old man with a red face and a big smile turned to call back, "That's right! Should be worth a look and a few chickens!"
The group could see the big crate of cackling chickens the man had on the back of his wagon. "I'm a chicken farmer," the man replied. "Would you like to make a bet on the outcome of the tournament? I could certainly use the money to feed my chickens!"
Wulfric laughed. "Heavens no, old man! I'd be afraid of losing all my money to you! But, if you'd like to make a wise bet, let me give you some information."
"Anything you could give me to help me out would be wonderful," said the jolly man.
"There's a warrior entering this tournament. He goes by the name of Joxer. I'd bet on him to win. He's an amazing fellow and an incredible fighter!"
"Thank you young lad! I'll keep that in mind! Look forward to seeing you in there too. Good luck to you sonny! But by the looks of your ladies, it looks like you have all the luck you need.!" With that, he started to pull away.
"Thanks to you, Old Man!" Wulfric cried out.
After he had pulled far enough away, Gabrielle said to Wulfric, "Why did you do that? You know Joxer can't fight!"
"He'll do fine!" laughed Wulfric.
They reached Loetia around nightfall as Wulfric had estimated. Many camp fires were already burning, and as usual, many people were milling around, cheerfully drinking and joking, and bemusing the next day's events. The trio found a clear spot to set up camp. They went about their duties quickly, with rehearsed motions. Then they engaged in a small dinner around the camp fire that Wulfric had built for them.
Many people were still arriving and setting up camp. Among them, unnoticed by Wulfric and Xena, had been Petrus and his men. They quickly scouted out where Rufus' campsite was located and hastily made their way to it to tell their leader of the day's events at the inn. Also, Joxer had arrived shortly after them, and he was already going about carousing with the ladies present, amusing them with his singing abilities and comedy antics.
After dinner was over, Wulfric stated, "I'm going to walk around and check the site out." He hurriedly wandered off, leaving Xena and Gabrielle to themselves.
"I'm curious too," said Gabrielle. "Shall we?"
The two women rushed off as well. They followed Wulfric, staying far enough behind him so as to not be spotted.
Wulfric found what he was looking for. The giant banner of Rufus' camp was flying above the main tent. Wulfric made his way through the various campfires. Then he heard a gruff voice saying, "You have a lot of nerve walking into this campsite, Wulfric!" It was the voice of Rufus.
Wulfric spun around to find Rufus menacingly staring down at him. He stood almost half a head taller than Wulfric, with several days worth of stubble on his chin and jaw line.
"I came to make peace with you, Rufus," said Wulfric.
"Never!" shouted Rufus. "You will not take my moment of glory! I will have that prize, and I WILL have your life."
"That's all in the past, Rufus. I don't want to have to go through this every time we meet."
"Then bow down and swear your fealty to me now, Rennison, and I'll gladly let it go."
"I cannot do that, Rufus. Had I no other mission in life, then I would gladly give my allegiance to you if it would end this mockery. But I have a quest that I must continue. Until then, I'll pledge loyalty to no one. I'm sorry."
"Then you will die on the battlefield tomorrow. One way or another, we finish it."
"Then so be it," said Wulfric almost exasperated. "We finish it tomorrow."
Just then, Petrus came rushing up. "Rufus! He has a group with him! And get this - they're a bunch of bar wenches!"
All the men laughed at this admission. Toasts were offered and glasses were raised at "The man with two women for his army!".
"Is this so?" asked Rufus. "You have two women to champion you? Have you stooped so low, that you cannot fight for yourself, but you have to get women to do it for you?"
Again, the men all laughed, harder this time.
"I did not need an army to defeat you last time, Rufus."
"My men were fresh back then. They were new to the battlefield. You defeated boys. Now I have men who are accustomed to the battle. We have conquered entire cities. I don't think you'll have such an easy task this time."
"We'll see," said Wulfric.
"And tell me, Rennison, what of these women? How about a wager? How about you give me your women right now and we call this whole thing even, or we meet on the battlefield, I kill you, then take your women regardless?" Rufus laughed first this time. The men took his cue and followed suit, the ruckus growing louder.
"I don't think that's his decision to make," said Xena stepping out of the shadows. "If you want me, be prepared to face the consequences."
Rufus turned to where Xena was standing. He was surprised to see a woman as tall as he was wearing the same expression of battle that he knew so well. She was definitely a woman to be reckoned with and not to be taken lightly. "Well, well," said Rufus, "a woman after my own heart. Yes, you'll certainly do! I look forward to meeting you on the battlefield. It should be a pleasure."
Suddenly, Petrus stepped forward. "No, brother! She is mine. She tried to humiliate me at the tavern earlier."
"Is this so?" asked Rufus. "Well then, Petrus, you have my blessing. But tell me wench, what of your friend they tell me about?"
"Right here," said Gabrielle stepping out of the shadows also.
"Well, one just as lovely as the other!" chortled Rufus. "Haha! And who might you be, young warriorette?" Rufus started laughing again, and his men laughed with him.
"I am Gabrielle, and from what I can tell, there's not a real man among you!"
The crowed "ooo'ed". "Those are strong words coming from a frail lass such as yourself," exclaimed Rufus. "I hope you can fight as well as you talk!"
"Try me!" dared Gabrielle, wielding her staff at the ready.
Then, one of Rufus' men came up to Gabrielle and said, "I like her, boss! Can I have her?" The men were virtually falling down now with laughter. With this statement, the cheers and bellows began anew. Rufus was grinning from ear to ear with amusement.
"Demetus! My poor pathetic soul! If you can beat her, you deserve to have her!"
Demetus reached up to touch Gabrielle's hair, smiling at the prize Rufus had just bestowed upon him; but Gabrielle was quick to react. She grabbed his wrist and immediately put him in a wrist lock. Upon seeing this, the laughter became even louder. Rufus was near tears himself.
Then suddenly, Wulfric reacted bringing everyone back to reality. Wulfric blindingly grabbed Demetus, punching him three times with hands so fast they were unnoticeable, and then dropping Demetus to the ground with his arms pinned behind his back. Seeing this, the men instantly acted, drawing swords and daggers and rushing forward to attack Wulfric. But Xena and Gabrielle were ready and each defended, throwing men this way and that. Wulfric was quick to react too, kicking and punching with animal ferocity. Then Rufus shouted, "ENOUGH!"
The men halted their melee and looked toward their master. "If we kill each other now, there will be no need for the prize money! We'll continue this battle tomorrow during the tournament." Then turning to Wulfric, he said, "Leave my campsite. Tomorrow it is done. You and I will meet; only one of us will walk away."
Wulfric had some poor unfortunate soldier in a headlock at the time and was about to snap the man's neck when Rufus had called stop. He slowly let the soldier go and stepped back. Saying nothing, he moved toward Xena and Gabrielle who were still standing at the ready, just in case someone were to not heed Rufus' words. The trio retreated.
After watching them go, Rufus looked to Petrus. "Follow him. Find out anything that will give me an upper hand against him. If I can't beat him hand to hand, I'll break his will some other way."
Petrus laughed. "You're evil, my brother!" He ran off to follow Wulfric.
When they had left the campsite, Wulfric asked, "Why did you follow me?"
"I had a feeling you would try something like that," replied Xena.
Wulfric did not press the issue further. Instead, he looked at the ground in front of him as he walked. Then he heard the familiar voice.
"So, Wulfric! We meet again!" It was Joxer.
"Joxer, what are you doing here?" asked Gabrielle.
"I saw what just happened. I came to see if I could be of any assistance."
"Thank you, Joxer, but we can handle ourselves," retorted Gabrielle.
"It's not you, I'm concerned about, Gabrielle, its your friend here. Wulfric. It seems like he's gotten himself in way over his head. I realized that maybe I could be of assistance to him. He's a good fighter, but he might need help taking on all of Rufus' entire army!"
Wulfric almost laughed. His face returned to its usual characteristic self. "Well, Joxer the Mighty! You warned me earlier today not to meet you on the battlefield, and here you are wanting to form an alliance! How's that for turnaround?"
"Well, you are sided with the woman I love. I can't fight against someone who is supposed to be on the same side."
"Well, Mighty Joxer, my friend, then I humbly accept your help and friendship! I would be more than happy to fight by the side of such a great warrior as yourself!"
Joxer was flabbergasted. He almost blushed and stammered for an acknowledgment. "Well...great!" he finally mustered.
"However, let me take council with you alone for a moment. There is something I need to discuss. Ladies, if I may."
Xena and Gabrielle chuckled as Wulfric pulled Joxer aside. The two began walking. Wulfric started.
"Gabrielle has told me about you. She says you're a great man with a good heart."
"Really? She said that of me?" Joxer blushed.
"Really. I wouldn't make this up to my new found friend! But, I have to wonder, there is going to be a lot of excellent competition out on that field tomorrow. What do you really think your chances are of winning?"
Suddenly Joxer's face turned down. He hated to admit it, but "I can't. I don't know how to fight! But I'm so in love with Gabrielle that I'd do anything for her!"
"Well, it is up to you. I'm not going to say whether you should or should not fight in the tournament, but if you decide so, I'll help you as much as I can. And I really do hope you win that prize money. Besides, I met a man earlier today, he was telling me he's heard all about your exploits. He says you really are a great fighter. In fact, I heard he's laying a serious wager on you to win it all! You wouldn't want to let him down now, would you?"
Once again, Joxer's face lit up. "Really? Someone said that about me?"
"They certainly did. I heard it myself. You can even ask Gabrielle and Xena. They'll tell you!"
But once again, Joxer's face turned down. "But I can't fight! What am I going to do?" he said exasperated.
"You do the best you can. That's all anybody can ever do. Give it some thought. Let me know by morning."
Joxer half nodded. Wulfric patted him on the shoulder and watched as Joxer literally sulked away. Then he watched as he passed by a lovely maiden in a flowing gown, and immediately, Joxer was animated again, back to his singing and carousing. Wulfric laughed, and headed back to his campsite.
He was waylayed by Gabrielle.
"So did you change his mind?" she asked.
"I don't know. I hope so," replied Wulfric. "We'll know tomorrow morning."
"I hope so too. But what if he doesn't?"
"Then we're all in for a treat tomorrow," mused Wulfric.
"Very funny! Seriously, what do we do if he wants to fight?"
"We help him. That's all we can do. We hope for the best."
They walked in silence, not really paying attention to their direction until they found themselves by a small pond. Wulfric found a large boulder near the shore and sat down on it.
"Wulfric," said Gabrielle, "tell me about Sandahl. Please don't avoid it any more. I can tell it's really hurting you inside. Tell me what happened."
Wulfric sighed. "Okay, I'll tell you," he began. "It is because you remind so much of Sandahl that I'll tell you." He took a few breaths, picked up a pebble, then threw it into the pond watching the ripples.
"It begins a long time ago, Gabrielle. Many, many years before you and Xena were ever born, even before your parents were ever born. I have forgotten how many years exactly. I come from the House of Rennison in a land that no longer exists. I spent my days as a youth climbing trees and fantasizing about killing the dragon, like most boys my age. Rescuing the maiden and living happily ever after in a perfect world that was dragon free.
"Little did I know, I would get my chance to live that dream. It happened that there was an evil wizard named Jerrod who had taken his wife-to-be and kept her prisoner in his castle. She was the Lady Sandahl, a poor peasant girl of unequalled beauty. Every man around wanted to wed to Sandahl, but none of them could even match up to Jerrod and his magics. So Sandahl spent her final days in misery, only looking forward to a hopeless life filled with nothing more than sorrow. So when it came to pass that wedding day, Sandahl escaped from the castle and fled to the village where I lived.
"At the time, I had not heard of her fate, yet. But, just like all other men, I was stricken by her beauty. But I could not find the courage in me to approach her. I spent all my time watching her from afar. And the more I watched her, the more I learned. I learned of Jerrod and of his magics. I saw the grief in which she lived. I also saw other men who would come to court her, but no sooner than they tried to make true their vows, then Jerrod would appear in a great blaze of smoke and flame and use his magics to strike them down. And to make matters worse, Jerrod had put a curse on her head that she would have eternal beauty, but she could wed to no man. She could not age. Destined to live eternity in her gloom, seeing all those she loved die before her.
"I was lucky that I had not tried to approach her for sure I would have ended up the same as those unfortunate souls. I soon began to devise a plan. I would sneak into Jerrod's castle and destroy the mage. Throughout this time, I had been sending Sandahl secret gifts - a flower here, candies there. I would attach notes saying that they were from a secret admirer. But all of that was for children, I needed something that would seriously show my love for her. I needed to show I was different than the rest. So I began to learn how to fight. I studied anywhere I could. I found great knights who had claimed of defeating dragons and squired to them. I was an eager young student and learned quickly. I had an aptitude for battle. When I felt I had honed my skills enough, I began to put myself in contests for money prizes, and astonishingly, I won. I saved up all the money I could until one day, I gave her my ultimate gift.
"I had found the finest tailor in all the lands, and I gave him the money. I told him to weave for me a dress made of pure golden thread. It would be the most expensive gift ever given. A dress of pure gold. I knew that no other man could top that. When the dress was finished, I finally presented myself to Sandahl, telling her that I was the secret admirer. She was overjoyed at the gift, but nothing contained her woeful lament.
"It is true, we did spend our time together courting. And the time we spent made me love her that much more, but as long as I made no vows, my head was safe. But it was too much for Sandahl. She did not want to see me die like the rest. She told me to leave her. I knew then that her love for me was genuine. I had to know, so I asked. She could not keep herself from crying, but it was true. She felt stronger to me than to any of the other men who had tried and failed. She felt there was something about me that could help end her suffering. Then I knew I had to face Jerrod. But still she protested.
" 'You must go' she told me. 'Jerrod will find you and you will end up like all the rest'. She was scared for me, but I told her that I would find the wizard and put an end to her curse. She bade me no to, that I should go and leave her be, but I could not, because it was making me suffer to see her suffer, and I knew that if we were to ever be together, that I must end the curse. So I set out one night for Jerrod's castle.
"I rode for many moons. It was at the top of a closely guarded mountain. Jerrod had goblin sentinels and other demons of his creation on constant watch. All I had was my sword, but I swore to send them all back to Hades where they came from. God must have been with me that night, for I fought long and hard. I was bloody, I was beaten, but I did not give up. I would hold true to my vow, such was my love for Sandahl.
"Then it happened. Jerrod appeared. We were at the top of his castle. There was no turning back now. It was fight or die. Immediately, I set about destroying all his articles of magic, so that he could not use them against me. I destroyed books and potions, anything that could possibly be dangerous. Then I attacked him. He was a feeble old man, not used to being attacked by force, and without his magics he knew he could not fight. But as to be expected, Jerrod had one more trick up his sleeve.
"He mumbled a spell just as I stabbed him through the heart. But it was too late. His uttered spell had created a monstrous red dragon that swooped and flapped. It shot a ball of flames at me, and I dodged. But its weight was too great, and it caused the floor to cave in underneath it. The dragon was pinned in the floorboards, but it wouldn't take long for it to free itself. It was still spouting fire and the castle was burning slowly. I did not have much time. I had to escape quick or die in the fire. There was nothing I could do about the dragon without being burned up in the process, so I ran. Jerrod had been killed; that was the main thing.
"As I was leaving, I looked up to see the dragon gliding away from the castle, his silhouette crossing against the pale moon. I wanted to rush back to tell Sandahl of my victory. But all was not finished.
"Upon my arrival back to the village, I found her cottage empty. I looked all around with no luck, only to hear in the distance the fading shriek of the dragon. I looked up just in time to see it circle overhead clutching my beloved Sandahl in its talons. Even in death, Jerrod had still won.
"The dragon had taken Sandahl away from me, but I vowed I would not rest. I would find her some how, some way. That was my goal in life. That is what I vowed that night. And that has been my quest ever since."
Wulfric stopped talking and looked out over the pond. Gabrielle looked at him with tears in her eyes. "That's terrible, Wulfric! And you've not found her yet?"
"But how is it that you are so young, yet you have lived for two generations?"
"That is another story. After many weeks of searching and having to deal with the loss emotionally, I began to lose faith in myself. Then one day, while out searching, I happened to come upon a cherubish lad of a jovial nature. He called himself Raido. He was a wanderer like me, but he was out to sell his wares, his magic cure-alls to make his way through life. He was quite a pleasant fellow and very talkative. We ended up camping together that night, and around the camp fire, he related his tale to me. He had once been involved in a mystic coven, practicing the black arts. But upon his final initiation into the group, he refused to call forth an evil demon that would have wreaked havoc on civilization.
"For this is what this cult thrived on, chaos. They believed to rule mankind, you must put them at odds with each other, then unify them under their one rule. They could control the demons. Because of that, people would look to them for protection. But Raido had a good heart and believed differently. So he was banished from the coven, forever to be hunted by them and tormented, though they would not kill him believing that a life of torment was worse than death. But Raido was not deterred. He found that the best way to battle them was through his positive outlook on life. With it, he could defeat any demon they sent.
"I really took his words to heart. When he finished his tale, he asked of my own. So I told him, just what I have told you. When I finished, Raido was very moved by the strength of my love for Sandahl. Then, in an offering of everlasting friendship, and to show that not all mystics are bad, he created for me this pendant."
Wulfric stopped talking long enough to brandish a pendant hanging around his neck that had been tucked under his tunic. It was a small rectangular piece of metal with the symbol of an "R" engraved into it. On each side of the R were the outlines of two wolves' heads facing opposite directions.
Wulfric began again. "The R symbolizes Raido and Rennison together. The two wolves heads symbolizing the ever aware watchfulness; the expectance of danger, looking to the past and the future, and also looking where you are going as well as where you have been. It is my symbol; the symbol of the wanderer.
"But it is no ordinary charm. It is blessed with one of Raido's spells. That for as long as I wear it, no harm will ever befall me; that for as long as I wear it, I will have eternal life so that one day I may hope to find my Lady Sandahl."
Again, he stopped talking. Gabrielle took a deep breath as if trying to take in all that Wulfric said. "That is amazing," she finally replied. "And is that way you were capable of shrugging of Xena's nerve strike this morning?"
"Yes, Gabrielle. That is exactly why."
"And why you didn't die when Rufus stabbed you in the chest?"
"That's amazing," repeated Gabrielle.
The two sat in silence together on the rock looking out over the pond. In the distance, they could hear the shouts and laughter of the other patrons as they continued their merriment. Gabrielle felt like she wanted to speak, but she did not want to interrupt the mood. Still, she felt like she had to say something, to console Wulfric at least.
"I had a husband once," she said, finally breaking the silence. "He was killed."
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," said Wulfric.
"There's no need to be," said Gabrielle. "Xena has helped me tremendously. I suppose I owe my life to her."
"How did you and Xena meet, if I may ask?"
"Xena used to be a warlord herself. She let the power corrupt her until she lost sight of what she was in it for. Then one day, she met Hercules, and he helped change her mind. So from then on, she has traveled trying to help others and paying for her sins."
"Interesting," mused Wulfric. "Xena and I are alike. We're both led by our feelings of responsibility to fight for what we believe in."
"I've never found a way to really cope with the loss of my husband," said Gabrielle. "I'm not like you in that aspect. I don't have the choice of knowing whether or not my husband is still alive; I don't have the option of eternal life to help me search for him even if he were."
"At least you know he is dead. You honor him by your memories. I know Sandahl is still alive; that's why it hurts so much. To know she's out there somewhere, needing me, and I can do nothing to help her. Eternal life be damned if there's no chance of ever finding her! I have been searching for so long now that I'm once again starting to lose faith of accomplishing my task."
"That is why Raido meant so much to you. Because he taught you that you cannot give up, that at all costs, you must keep looking."
"I thought I had found her in you, Gabrielle."
At this statement, Gabrielle was at a loss for words. Suddenly, she felt as if she would cry. Then she said, "If I could ease your suffering, Wulfric, I would be her."
Wulfric looked straight into Gabrielle's eyes. He felt as if he wanted to say something, but there were no words that could describe his feelings. Then, without thinking, he softly kissed her. When their lips parted, Wulfric stood up.
"You've helped me more than you'll ever know," Wulfric said. With that, he turned and walked off into the bushes back to the campsite.
Gabrielle, now alone, finally let the tears roll.
Unnoticed by neither Gabrielle nor Wulfric, in the bushes close to the pond, was Petrus. He had listened to Wulfric's entire story. His mouth turned up into a grin with the newfound information. Silently, he ran back to Rufus' tent to inform his brother of his findings. Tomorrow certainly would be an interesting day, he knew.
The morning was bright and there was much activity. Here and there, competitors were practicing and suiting up for the battle. The mood was of camaraderie all around, and Wulfric surveyed the scenery with a heavy heart. He was not looking forward to what lied ahead of him. To face Rufus in battle once and for all, and still torn by his emotions not to kill him. There had to be some solution. He fingered the pendant around his neck, and for a moment, he considered throwing it into the pond, to be forever lost. Then if he died in the battle, so be it. At least his quest would finally be over. But then the image of his lovely Sandahl came back to him. He looked up into the sky and there in the sky, in the form of a cloud was her visage. It was smiling down at him, but there were tears in her eyes. Wulfric sighed deeply as he clutched the pendant. Then slowly, the image started to change there in the sky. Just as a passing cloud morphs into some other shape, the image changed, but this time it was of Gabrielle. The expression on her face from the night before, and Wulfric remembered her words. He must go on. He would never rest until he found her. That was the quest. Carefully he placed the pendant back in his tunic and quietly went about his duties, checking what armor he had to make sure it was fit for combat.
Around the camp fire, Xena was already preparing breakfast. She tasted the contents of a pot, then sat on a log watching Wulfric quietly. He seemed different today, something more solemn about him, she thought. She wondered if it had to do with the conversation between he and Gabrielle last night. Then she thought about the events of yesterday. If Wulfric were actually better than she, he could very well win the tournament. That was not as important to her as the challenge she now faced with Petrus. And to think, she would not even be here had she not been bested by this mysterious stranger standing in front of her. She was still wondering how he was capable of defending that pressure point strike, but she knew if anyone could shrug off a blow like that, she would certainly want to be on his side in a battle.
Xena looked over to Gabrielle who was still sleeping close to the fire. Xena tried to imagine what Sandahl had looked like and why Wulfric seemed to think Gabrielle resembled her. Certainly, there was a relationship building between the two, but what would happen after the tournament? Would Wulfric leave never to be seen again? Xena's thoughts were brooding, and she felt her own heart heavy in her chest. For some reason, she did not feel as if this were going to be a very easy day. She needed something to lift her spirits.
"Sleep well?" she grinned at Wulfric.
Wulfric stopped his work temporarily to glance at her. "Yes, fine," he replied.
"I know you do not like too many questions, Wulfric, but I must know. What happens after the tournament? What will you do then?"
"I will have to leave. I must continue my quest."
Xena was silent for a moment, but she had expected that response. "I had that feeling," she responded.
"I'm sorry, Xena, but as long as there is a chance that I can save Sandahl, I must search."
"You told Gabrielle last night?"
"Yes. I must leave as soon as possible. My staying will not make things any easier for her, nor myself, for that matter."
"Do you really think you can defeat Rufus today?"
Wulfric sighed. He placed his hands on his hips and looked around. "I have to," he replied. "I don't have a choice."
Xena was silent. Her own mind was busy, and she seemed to sense the tension developing. Yes, today certainly would not be an easy day.
By this time, Gabrielle had started stirring. She sat up and yawned, her eyes still half closed. She looked to Xena and then to Wulfric.
"Good morning," said Xena. "Sleep well?"
"No," replied Gabrielle. "I think I slept on a rock again. Did I miss anything?"
"Nothing that would change the world," replied Xena somewhat sarcastically although deep inside she really knew the depth of those words.
"Good. How long until breakfast?"
Before anyone could answer, all heads turned toward the approaching figure, singing his arrival. Joxer bounced into the camp strumming his lyre.
"Good morning, Joxer," said Xena.
"Good morning!" sang Joxer. "Isn't it a lovely day?"
No one answered.
"Well, I can see we all drank a little too much last night," continued Joxer. "Tsk, Tsk, and here you know we have to battle today! That prize money calls!"
"So you decided to fight after all?" asked Wulfric.
"Anything for Gabrielle!" exclaimed Joxer. "Love conquers all!"
"Then welcome to the team, my friend," said Wulfric as he held out his hand.
Joxer took it and gave it a firm shake. Then as he released, he strummed his lyre, and said, "I must be off! Time to register!" And he bounced away singing his merry songs.
"We should be going too," said Xena.
Wulfric finished his adjustments, looked at the two women and said, "I'm ready," even though he really was not sure if he was.
The registration process had been simple and dull, most of their time spent in the line. But once on the battlefield, Wulfric seemed to return to his cheery self. Xena noticing the switch said, "Excited?"
"There is just something about the anticipation of the battle that always gets my adrenaline rushing."
"I know what you mean," she replied. "It's called nervousness where I come from."
Wulfric laughed at her joke. Xena smiled. Just then, Gabrielle and Joxer walked up, both finally getting through the registration process. Joxer was still bouncing, but he had traded his lyre for a spear. "I'm ready!" he exclaimed. "Let me at them!"
At that moment, a jolly man with a red face came up carrying chickens under each arm. "Joxer!" he shouted. "Joxer the Mighty!"
Joxer swung around to see the short fellow. "Oh, hello! Can I help you?"
"I hear you're the man to beat today! I just wanted to wish you good luck! I have a fairly large wager riding on you!"
Joxer quickly became noticeably more bouncy. "Really? Well, thank you! I hope I can live up to your expectations!"
The man patted Joxer on the shoulder, laughed, and walked off. Wulfric stepped up to Joxer's side where he noticed Joxer's jovial expression suddenly turning to that of nausea.
"I think I'm going to be sick!" said Joxer. "Oh God!"
"Don't worry, my friend. I have faith in you. Now you must only have faith in yourself."
"Then I'm doomed!" cried Joxer.
"You'll win," said Wulfric. "Trust me."
Finally, the judges had called all the competitors into a large circle where they began discussing the rules. As they had found out earlier, it was going to start out as a melee, every man for himself. To lose, a competitor had to be knocked down three times, or capitulate to his opponent willingly. A marshall of the field would be standing by to call those competitors who had received a killing blow. If a competitor received a killing blow, he must leave the battlefield immediately or risk disqualification. No one could overrule the marshall's judgements.
"Good luck to all competitors, and may the best man win!" shouted the marshall.
Soon, all the warriors had scattered to the sides of the field where they would start from. Battle would commence as soon as the marshall dropped his staff.
Xena, Wulfric, Gabrielle, and Joxer all stood together. Across from them on the other side of the field they could see Rufus' army. In terms of numbers, Rufus' army outnumbered most everyone else on the field. Wulfric knew that Rufus would waste no time in dispatching everyone between the two of them. Clear the entire field so that it was only Wulfric and himself. If that meant killing his own men, he would. Wulfric looked to Gabrielle and Xena.
"Rufus will take out as many other competitors as he can so that it is only he and I. We need to avoid him at all costs. We need to stay in until the final draft."
Then before Xena could reply, the marshall dropped his staff, and a massive rush of armor and wooden swords flooded into the field. Xena let out her war cry and ran into the frey swinging her own sword. Left and right, bodies were falling around them. The marshall had his own hands full with trying to keep up with who was "dead" and who was not. Wulfric had his own wooden sword and effortlessly went about dropping the other warriors. Gabrielle was using her staff to trip warriors up and tap them in the helmet to denote a killing blow. And Joxer, he did the best he could to avoid any contact whatsoever. He ran this way and that, moaning and grumbling, but miraculously, he was not touched. He ducked a sword that came out of nowhere, then feebly used his own sword to hit a warrior . The warrior laughed and was about to strike again when the marshall immediately showed up and tagged the man as "dead". Joxer laughed in return, and kept running.
The melee did not take very long. Within minutes, competitors had been tagged or dragged off the field. The marshall called "HALT!" and everyone quit fighting. Slowly, the looked around to see who was left. Rufus and Petrus stood together counting what men they had left. Among them were Demetus. He quickly joined them. On the opposite end of the field, Wulfric, Gabrielle, and Xena were huddled together, covering each direction. Joxer had found himself cover among a mass of fallen bodies that slowly started to get up once action had been halted. Joxer stood up and realized that he was still in the tournament. Quickly, he rushed over to the three and assumed a fighting stance in defiance.
"Glad you could join us, Joxer," said Wulfric.
"Yeah, me too!" replied Joxer sarcastically.
The marshall spoke up again. "We will have a thirty minute break for regrouping and armor inspections. During that time, the judges will draw names for pairings. You fight until you lose. Single competitors will be eliminated in the pairing matches until one competitor is left. Teams will have the options of facing off individually. Then in the finals, the winning team will pick a champion to face off individually with the winner of the single combatant eliminations. The winner of that match will decide the overall winner of the tournament."
The competitors began to break up, moving back to their campsites. When Wulfric and the rest had once again gathered, Wulfric started.
"There are no single competitors we need to worry about. It is down to Rufus' army and us four. Joxer will be our champion for the final bout if we win against Rufus."
"Me?" Joxer quipped in surprise. "What? Why me?"
"You're the only one who has nothing to lose," Xena replied. "You can do it, Joxer. You have to."
"But...I..." Joxer tried feebly with no success.
"No buts. We'll be there for you," said Wulfric.
Joxer said nothing. He only sat down on a log and put his head in his hands. "Oh boy," he moaned.
Gabrielle sat down next to him. "Remember, Joxer, you're doing it for me. Love conquers all? Remember that?" She leaned over and kissed him and suddenly Joxer's eyes lit up.
"That's right! Love conquers all! That prize is as good as mine!"
"That's the spirit, Joxer," said Wulfric.
Once back at the battlefield, Wulfric noticed that they had already started the single eliminations. They would find the overall champion from single eliminations before his group and Rufus' army would square off. They stood on the side line watching the matches. Most of them were won by sword, the marshall calling the killing blow, but in some displays of chivalry, competitors who had disarmed their opponents would drop their own swords and continue the fight hand to hand until one of them submitted. Before long, the marshall had claimed the champion of the single eliminations, a hulking brute of a man named Yorox. His hands were the size of large rocks and just as hard. Wherever there was not armor on his body, he had a heavy coat of hair. But the hair nor the armor could hide the bulking mass of muscle that set him apart from the rest.
Joxer looked at the competitor he may have to fight in the final round, and the yellow nauseous color of his face returned. He gulped. "I have to fight....that?" he asked sickened.
"Rememher, love conquers all," said Wulfric.
"Well I'm beginning to rethink this love equation."
"Joxer," said Gabrielle. She grabbed his arm and squeezed it. Joxer tried to manage a smile, but he only let out a weak laugh.
It was finally time for them to square off. Wulfric, Gabrielle, and Xena walked out into the center of the battlefield. They watched as their opponents strutted out to meet them. Rufus, Petrus, and Demetus.
Wulfric and Rufus stared hard at each other.
Xena and Petrus did likewise.
Gabrielle was almost a foot shorter than Demetus, but she did her best to maintain eye contact. Demetus had a sly look on his face. He ran his tongues over his lips.
"We do this one at a time," Rufus said. "I want you alone."
"Fine," replied Wulfric. He said nothing more but stuck his arm out to motion the others to back up. He backed up with them and brought them into a huddle.
"Gabrielle, you go first. If you beat him, then it may make Rufus nervous."
"And what if I lose?" Gabrielle replied.
"You won't lose," was all Wulfric said.
Slowly and nervously, Gabrielle stepped out onto the battlefield. Upon seeing her, Demetus let out a loud chuckle and stepped out to greet her. "So now we see if the little girlie can fight as well as she talks!" he said.
Without a word, Gabrielle brought her staff up to Demetus' crotch, hard and fast. Demetus, not expecting it, double over in pain. He fell to his knees and his eyes bulged out. But he still had hold of his own staff, and with as much as he could muster, he swung it around to trip Gabrielle. He succeeded and Gabrielle fell backwards, but she immediately caught herself, and did a back somersault out of it.
"And she moves well," said Demetus regaining his composure. "That will come in handy when I take you to my tent tonight!"
"Don't bet on it, snail face!" retorted Gabrielle. She was already in motion again, swinging her staff around as if it weighed nothing. But Demetus was quick as well. He parried her attacks and retaliated likewise. The two attacked and defended like that for quite some time.
"You are good," said Demetus. "I'm really going to enjoy beating you!"
Something clicked in Gabrielle. This fellow was more talk than anything, and she could only handle so many wisecracks. Suddenly she found herself, ducking a blow, moving her own staff down, catching Demetus between his legs, and tripping him up. Then like a cat, she pounced on to him bringing the butt end of her staff down on to his forehead. The blow rocked his head off the ground, and she saw his eyes roll back. He was unconscious.
"Shut up already," said Gabrielle. Then she huffed, looked up, and saw the audience cheering and applauding her victory. She quickly walked off the field back to where Xena and Wulfric were standing.
"That guy was such a horse's..."
"I agree!" chirped Xena.
"Good job, Gabrielle," said Wulfric.
Joxer only looked sicker.
"Your turn, Xena," said Wulfric.
"My pleasure," said Xena drawing her sword.
She walked out onto the battlefield. Petrus saw her and walked out to meet her. The two stood face to face, neither speaking. Then Xena, with her war cry, attacked. Petrus was waiting. He quickly defended and the two were at it. They moved quickly and powerfully. Neither of them wanting to give in to the other. Petrus brought his sword around, but Xena blocked, spun, and hit him with a back kick. He leaped backwards but did not fall. He instantly retaliated with his own kick that caught Xena across the jaw. She felt blood suddenly flow from her mouth, and tasting it, she felt her heart beat faster. Xena growled and came back with a vengeance. She swung her sword. He ducked. She punched, hitting him in the nose. His head jerked. Before he could defend, Xena had kicked him again. She let loose with a flurry of kicks, each one connecting with more power than the last. Petrus was taking a beating, but he would not give up.
He fell to the ground. Xena raised her sword for the killing blow, but Petrus rolled out of the way just in time. He popped back up, and blindingly fast, he grabbed Xena from behind. Xena was quick to react and maneuvered a hip throw. Petrus went flying over her shoulder, but he clung one arm around her neck. This lurched Xena forward and she immediately flipped over top of him. They both hit the ground with a loud thud. Petrus was quick to take position and tried to pin Xena, but he was met by a boot to the face. He toppled backward and Xena sprang up. She kicked him to the ribs and he staggered some more. Then from out of nowhere, she heard Wulfric's voice.
"Use the nerve pinch, Xena!"
Her motion was instantaneous. She drew her arm back, her teeth clenched, her blue eyes blazing. She struck out like a lightning bolt with her two fingers and jabbed Petrus in the throat. He fell to the ground. He clutched at his neck, his tongue hanging out of his mouth. His eyes were watering over, and he tried to gasp for air. Petrus writhed around on the ground, not knowing what to do.
"Yield!" shouted Xena to him.
Petrus writhed and gasped more, but somehow he managed to find a raspy voice. "Yield," he squeaked out.
Then just as quick as before, Xena struck out again and released the effect. Petrus, still lying on the ground, gulped for air, but he felt the pain subside. Then, with a final gasp, he passed out. Two men hurried on to the field and dragged the body away. Xena was left standing alone in the field. Then she heard the marshall say, "The winner - XENA!"
Once again, the crowd was in an uproar. They whistled, they called, they chanted. Xena gave a big sigh of tiredness mixed with relief and calmly started to walk off the field. When she reached the edge where Wulfric and Gabrielle stood, she shook her head. "Thanks," she said.
Wulfric said nothing. He only looked at Xena and drew his own sword. Xena felt like saying "Good luck" but she knew there was no need. It was Wulfric's fight now.
Wulfric stood on the battlefield, his hands on the pommel of his sword, and the tip buried lightly in the ground in front of him. This was the moment of truth. Would he be able to kill Rufus? His thoughts were jumbled, but his vision was clear. He tried not to let his nervousness and anticipation show. Rufus was slowly approaching. He had a maniacal look in his eyes. He was intending death for the wanderer. Wulfric reached one hand up and padded the pendant under his shirt as if to reassure himself it was still there.
"This is it, Rennison," said Rufus now standing before him.
"One last chance, Rufus," said Wulfric. "We can still call this off and make peace."
"Never," retorted Rufus. "I want your head."
"I will not fight you, Rufus."
"Then DIE!" Rufus shouted as he brought his sword up to strike.
Wulfric noticed something amiss about the sword. It was not made of wood as it should be. The sun glinted off the very real metal. Without hesitation, Wulfric brought his own wooden sword up to try and block Rufus' strike, but his metal sword cut right through Wulfric's own. The marshall, seeing this, tried to step in, but Rufus pushed him out of the way, then drove the sword deeply through the marshall. The marshall fell to the ground, blood already pouring out of him. Rufus laughed evilly, then returned his focus to Wulfric.
Wulfric saw the marshall fall. His heart skipped a beat, and suddenly he attacked. He ran straight at Rufus tackling him to the ground. Rufus' sword went flying. Rufus, although surprised by the attack, quickly grabbed Wulfric by the tunic and tossed him through the air. Wulfric executed a flip and landed on his feet. He spun around to face Rufus who was already struggling to regain his sword. Once he reached it, he brought it back around to point at Wulfric, but Wulfric was one step ahead of him. He kicked the sword from Rufus' hand and stepped on Rufus' wrist, pinning his arm to the ground. Rufus reacted by grabbing Wulfric's foot and pulling it out from under him. Wulfric landed on his back, and Rufus kicked him in the face.
Rufus scrambled to his feet. Wulfric tried to stand up, but Rufus kicked him again. Wulfric fell backwards. Rufus laughed and lunged in again. He jumped on top of Wulfric and clenched his hands around Wulfric's throat.
"The necklace!" shouted Petrus from afar.
"Give me the necklace, Rennison!" cried Rufus.
Suddenly, Wulfric was in shock. How did Rufus know about the pendant? A million thoughts ran through his head. If Rufus got the pendant, it would surely mean his life. Then in a very brief heart beat instant, Wulfric almost realized that might not be so bad. Then in the very next instant, he once again saw Sandahl's face, and from somewhere in his mind, he heard a voice. It was Joxer's voice. It said, "Love conquers all". Wulfric knew what he must do.
Without wasting another breath, he overpowered Rufus' grip and pushed the warlord off of him. Rufus went sprawling, but quickly regained his footing. But Wulfric was already standing.
"Enough, Rufus!" shouted Wulfric. "Is this what you want?" he cried, ripping the pendant from about his neck. "You want the secret of eternal life?" He threw the pendant on the ground. "Then TAKE IT!" he shouted. "I've had enough of it!"
Wulfric's shoulders heaved up and down with his heavy breathing. Rufus could see the look of anger on his face. He wasn't sure what to do.
"It's your fault Celene left!" cried Rufus.
"NO!" shouted Wulfric in return. "It's your own fault, but you can't accept blame for yourself. It would wound your ego, just as me beating you before made you lose face. You fight to win, Rufus! You don't fight for what you believe in!"
"I fight for POWER!" Rufus rasped out. "When you've never had it, and you get it, you want to keep it!"
"You've let that power corrupt you!" exclaimed Wulfric. "You've lost sight what life is for."
"Don't listen to him brother!" shouted Petrus from off field. "He's only trying to deter you!"
"No! Listen to me, Rufus!" Wulfric responded. "Do you think you're the only one who has ever lost anybody? Do you even know WHY I wear that pendant?"
Rufus said nothing. His shoulders were also heaving up and down, but his mind was moving rapidly trying to get the upper hand. Suddenly, he realized that he was not sure why exactly he was fighting. Then he saw Gabrielle step out on to the field. She was weaponless, and she approached stepping between the two men.
"Wulfric's right," she began in a soft voice. "He wears the pendant to honor his lost wife Sandahl. It gives him eternal life so that he may spend eternity looking for her. Do you not think he knows how you feel? That's why he does not want to fight you, Rufus, because he empathizes with you."
Rufus shook his head as if trying to clear his thoughts. "But Petrus only told me..." he tried to start. "He told me the charm gave you eternal life. That's why you can't die."
"That is true," said Wulfric now relaxing his stance and dropping his sword to his side. "My quest in life is to find Sandahl, not to spend my life looking over my shoulder always expecting to see you there. I'm tired of this quarrel, Rufus. The constant fighting has made me lose focus on my quest. But, Gabrielle here helped me to reassure my faith when I thought it was hopeless."
"So Celene did not go with you that night?"
"No, Rufus. She left because she needed somewhere she could feel love. You made your own mistake with her. I can help you get her back if you want. But we have to stop this fighhting."
Rufus shook his head a few more times. He had now relaxed his sword position. He looked to Wulfric then to Gabrielle. Then he made a decision.
"Okay," he said. "I accept your help."
Petrus, on the sidelines watching all this, let out an audible grunt. He was frustrated. His brother might have capitulated, but his hatred was stronger, and it clouded his thoughts blocking out all rationale. Wulfric must die, he thought. The charm was still laying on the ground. Wulfric was defenseless. It was now or never. Instantly, he drew his own sword and ran onto the battlefield with a loud war cry.
They all turned to see Petrus running at them. His sword was straight out in front of him.
"Petrus! NO!" cried Rufus, but it was too late.
The sword struck deep into Wulfric's chest. The blood immediately started flowing, and Wulfric fell to the ground, feeling what death must be like for the first time.
Petrus retracted his sword, and grinned coldly. "If you couldn't do it, brother," he said, "then someone had to!"
Without a word, Rufus reached up and punched his brother across the jaw, knocking him to the ground. "You idiot!" he shouted.
Petrus tried to crawl away, but Xena interceded. She pointed her sword at him, a very real metal one, and said "Going somewhere?"
Rufus and Gabrielle both leaned over Wulfric. He had blood coming out of his mouth. His vision was growing darker.
"WULFRIC!" cried Gabrielle.
"The pendant," Wulfric choked out.
"The pendant," Gabrielle repeated. Then it clicked. Put the pendant back on him.
She fumbled around, trying to hold Wulfric's head up, and with one hand searching for the pendant. But Rufus was there. He picked the pendant up off the ground. He stood over Wulfric. He smiled and held out his hand, the charm dangling from his palm.
Wulfric tried to smile. He reached up and slid the pendant into his own hand. As he did so, Rufus clutched his hand and held Wulfric's in a symbol of friendship. Then he let go, and Wulfric took the pendant. He fumbled to place it back around his neck. Gabrielle helped him and tied it back to its original position. Wulfric managed to laugh, and he feebly smiled, but the pain had now overcome him. He closed his eyes and fell unconscious.
Gabrielle began to cry, but she held a smile. Her tears were mixed with laughter filled sobs. She knew Wulfric would be all right. She leaned down and kissed him on the forehead.
When it was evident Wulfric was taken care of, Rufus went over to where his brother was cowering under Xena's boot. Xena relaxed her pressure on Petrus' chest. Rufus bent down, grabbed him by his tunic, and yanked him up to a standing position.
"Why, brother?" he asked.
"I thought...he was only trying to trick you. We.." He looked from Xena to Rufus. "We could have had eternal life."
"Brother," replied Rufus, "I'm not sure if I'd want eternal life now."
"But..." Petrus tried.
"Don't," interrupted Rufus.
Xena said nothing. She gazed hard at Petrus. Then, as she turned to walk off, she said, "If he had died, you would have been next. Be thankful I don't kill you just for the sheer enjoyment."
She walked off then, and Rufus followed after her. Petrus, left standing alone, did not know what to do. He quietly put his sword back in his sheath, turned around and walked off the field. He knew that Rufus would find some way of dealing with him later. He always had. That was the problem with big brothers.
The battle was not over yet. When the group reconvened on the sideline, Joxer was nervously pacing back and forth. He looked as if he had vomited several times, and was ready to do so again. Gabrielle and Rufus helped Wulfric into a sitting position against a log. Xena dropped her sword next to him, and reached for a canteen. She handed it to Wulfric who drank deeply. Rufus reached into his own pouch and pulled out some jerky and handed this to Wulfric as well. Wulfric took a bite then washed it down with more water. Gabrielle still had tears flowing, but she had managed to calm herself. She sat by Wulfric and tried to dress the wound on his chest.
"I can't do this!" stated Joxer. "I'm going to die out there. He's going to kill me. He's going to grab me, and squeeze me, and break me, until my brains pop out.
"I'm going to die," he reiterated.
"Relax," said Xena. "You don't have to fight, now. You can concede if you want to. The battle is over."
Joxer looked nervously from Xena to Gabrielle. He wanted to quit, but looking at Gabrielle, he could not say the words. He could not look like a fool in front of her.
"Joxer," said Wulfric raspily. "Joxer, my friend, listen to me."
Joxer looked to Wulfric who was trying to sit up.
"Out there, when Rufus had me down, when he had ripped the pendant from me, I had started to lose hope. For an instant, I thought about giving it all up, just letting him kill me, but then I remembered something, something that you said, Joxer. Something that you said, not anyone else. You helped me out there, Joxer. I could not have done it without you."
"Me?" said Joxer in surprise. "What did I say?"
"You said, 'Love conquers all', Joxer. When I remembered that, I knew I could not give up my search. I knew I had to live, just for Sandahl, and just for Gabrielle, for without her, I surely would have given up. So you must go out there now, and do it for love. Do it for Gabrielle."
At this, Gabrielle looked at Wulfric, then to Joxer. She noticed the look on his face. He was mustering up the courage. He stood straight up and tightened his jaw line in determination.
"No, Joxer!" she exclaimed. "You don't have to do it for me. I don't want you to get hurt. Please!"
But it was too late, Joxer had already made up his mind. Nothing would stand in his way now. He quickly grabbed up his spear. He turned to Gabrielle and said, "Fear not, my love! I will conquer the dragon!" With that, he marched off onto the field.
A judge had replaced the marshall who turned out to not be dead, but seriously wounded. Rufus had disqualified himself from the tournament by using live steel, and a sharp fine had been imposed upon him. He willingly paid it, plus, he made sure the marshall received his own financial stipend as an apology. The marshall was back on the field, but merely sitting on the sidelines among the other judges. He was clutching his chest, but otherwise, he seemed fine.
From somewhere in the background, Joxer heard the judge announce his name, and then the name of his competitor as the behemoth stepped out onto the field.
Joxer gulped as he stared up at the large monstrosity in front of him. He was shaking in his boots, but he tried to control his legs to no avail. His staff trembled in his hands, and he could feel the sweat starting to trickle down his face.
Yorox, his opponent, stood glaring at him. He had a snarl on his lip and a scar above his eye. He grunted at Joxer which caused the latter to jump and look around anxiously. He could see Wulfric and Xena on the sidelines. And Gabrielle. She was covering her eyes afraid to watch him get slaughtered. Then there in the audience, Joxer saw another face, a jolly red man who was holding chickens under his arms. The chickens were cackling and squirming, but the man held on to them somehow. The man had a large wad of dinars in his hand, and he was shaking them about. Joxer peered at the man almost quizzically. Then he remembered the prize, ten thousand dinars. That was a lot of money. Think of the dress that he would buy for Gabrielle.
Gabrielle. His mind suddenly clicked and he realized he was not shaking anymore. Then he readied himself holding his spear forward.
Yorox watched Joxer prepare himself. Then the marshall dropped his staff, giving the signal to start the match. Yorox immediately knocked the spear out of his way and walked straight in. He grabbed Joxer in a bear hug and started squeezing. Suddenly, Joxer was shaking again. This is exactly what he had expected. What to do now?
"Can't we talk about this?" he screamed as loud as he could.
Yorox only squeezed harder. Joxer was half-coughing, half-gulping for air.
"PLEASE?" shouted Joxer. "You're hurting me here!"
Yorox paid no heed to Joxer's words.
Joxer felt like his insides were about to be squeezed through every pore on his body. He had no choice, he had to fight now. He looked around again and once more saw the jolly man waving his dinars and chickens. If only Joxer had one of those chickens right now, he would use it to scratch this man's eyes out. That gave Joxer an idea.
He started squirming like he saw the chickens doing, but Yorox had as good a grip on him as the jolly man had on his chickens. But he only needed to get one hand free. Then he tried head butting the lummox. He quickly realized that was a mistake. His head reeled in pain, but Yorox still had not let up on his grip. If he did not think of something soon, he surely would be worm food. He continued squirming, and before he knew it, he had freed one arm. Yorox, noticing the arm was free, loosened his grip just slightly, but immediately tightened it again. Joxer gasped again at Yorox's renewed effort. His arm flailed as if it was suddenly paralyzed. However, he regained the use of it and instantly, he jabbed at Yorox's eyes, like a chicken pecking at a seed. Yorox grunted and tried to avoid the jabs, but Joxer kept pecking.
Yorox had to let loose his grip to bring a hand up to shield his eyes. Joxer recoiled weakly trying to regain his wind. Yorox, realizing his eyes were no longer being pecked at, looked at Joxer again. Joxer saw his spear and hurriedly grabbed for it. He held it out in front of him again, and waited for Yorox to advance. He thrust with the spear to try to act menacing, but mostly to keep Yorox away from him. Of course, he knew it was a foolish idea, but it seemed like a good one at the time. He did not know what else to do.
Then Yorox advanced, and Joxer, frightened, hit him in the stomach with the spear. Had it been a metal spear, it would have pierced through his skin and Joxer might have stood a chance, but since it was a wooden one, it merely bounced off. Yorox did not even acknowledge the blow. He kept moving forward, and Joxer kept moving back.
On the sidelines, Gabrielle watched. "He's going to get himself killed. Wulfric, you have to do something!"
Wulfric was sitting up on his own now; the pendant had obviously taken its effect and started to heal the wound. "There is nothing I can do, now," said Wulfric. "It's Joxer's fight. He has everything he needs, if he'll only use his brain."
"That's what I'm afraid of!" exclaimed Gabrielle. "I'm not sure if Joxer HAS a brain!"
"He fell in love with you, didn't he?" replied Wulfric.
Gabrielle let out a deep grunt in frustration. She rolled her eyes at Wulfric who merely smiled and laughed.
Back on the battlefield, the standoff continued. Each step that Yorox would take, Joxer would step away. He would wave the spear menacingly, but he could do nothing else.
"I'm going to break you, little man," said Yorox.
"Ah, please don't," stammered Joxer. "I like my face where it is."
"You're mine," taunted Yorox.
"Well, you can't have me," said Joxer. "I'm uh... already taken!"
"Then I'll finish you, and I'll take her too," said Yorox.
Joxer stopped moving. He stood straight up. "Excuse me?" he asked. "What did you say?"
"You heard me, little man," said Yorox. "I'm going to finish you off, and then I'm going to take your girl!"
"Nobody talks about Gabrielle like that," said Joxer.
Then from somewhere deep inside him, Joxer felt his hand tightening into a fist. His whole arm trembled with the tension. Yorox noticed he had stopped and he stood still as well. He wondered what Joxer was up to, the spear was still pointed at him, and he started to knock it aside.
When Joxer felt the spear fly from his hand, he suddenly reacted and swung out with his fist, tagging Yorox in the jaw with every ounce of strength in his body.
Yorox stepped back. He brought one hand up to his jaw and rubbed it. He looked at Joxer, and shook his head to lessen the effect. He started to advance on Joxer again, but Joxer was ready. He brought his boot up in a kick, connecting squarely with Yorox's crotch.
Yorox stopped in his tracks. He doubled over, and his face started turning blue. He gave a quick frenzied glance to Joxer, clutched his crotch, then fell to the ground, groaning with agony.
Joxer watched the behemoth fall, then immediately shook his hand in pain. It was throbbing red and starting to swell. "God! That hurt!" he exclaimed. But Yorox had fallen.
Gabrielle and Xena came running out on to the field.
"Joxer! Are you okay?" asked Gabrielle in disbelief.
"My hand!" replied Joxer. "I think I broke it!"
Xena walked over to where Yorox was still lying. She offered a hand, and he took it. She pulled him up, and patted him on the shoulder. "You'll live," she said.
After seeing Yorox being helped off the field, the entire audience began to rush in to congratulate the new tournament champion. The fat jolly man with the chickens threw his hands up in the air, dropping his chickens. He ran to Joxer and without a word, picked him up on to his shoulder. He began to parade Joxer around until he came to the judges' table. The flock of people crowded around waiting for the judge to speak. The jolly man put Joxer down and ruffled the latter's hair. Xena and Gabrielle stood next to Joxer. Wulfric stood between them, now fully recovered, his arms across his chest. Finally, the judge spoke.
"Joxer the Mighty!" he began. "You have proven yourself worthy on the battlefield against an admirable opponent. It is this panel's pleasure to present to you the grand prize of the tournament." Another judge handed him a small bag. "Ten thousand dinars!" continued the judge. He handed the bag to Joxer, and shook his hand.
Joxer was grinning from ear to ear. He did not know what to say. He only took the bag and raised it high above his head to show all around him. Shouts and cheers erupted, and once again he was shaken in appreciation. Then Joxer turned to Gabrielle. He was about to say something, but before he could, Gabrielle reached up and kissed him solidly. "I knew you could do it, Joxer," she said. Joxer was once again speechless.
Then, through the crowd, Rufus pushed his way through. He had a big smile on his face. He came up to Joxer. "Congratulations!" he offered. "A better man could not have won."
"Thank you," replied Joxer. He shook Rufus' hand. Then looked back to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle said nothing. She crossed her arms in front of her and looked back at him.
Joxer looked at Gabrielle, then at the bag in his hand. Then he looked at Rufus. Quietly, he handed the bag to him. "You will need this more than I will," he said.
Gabrielle smiled to show her approval.
Rufus took the bag. He looked at Joxer. "Thank you," he said. Rufus then pulled Joxer in to a friendly hug, patting him on the back. With this, the crowd once again started cheering and raving.
The jolly faced man was still standing there, smiling, with chicken feathers hanging about him. When he saw Joxer hand the bag to Rufus, he spoke up.
"Sonny, that was the best display of kindness I've seen in I can't say how many years! And you just won me a nice wager of dinars. I'd hate to see you go home empty handed after a fight like that, so I'll tell you what; to show my gratitude to you, sonny, I'm going to give you this here..." He paused to reach into his jacket. "...chicken!" he continued. He handed the chicken to Joxer who took it in astonishment and bewilderment.
"Uh, thanks," said Joxer unsure of his reponse.
Xena and Gabrielle both laughed outright, and everyone around joined them. Joxer looked at the chicken, then to Gabrielle. "Well, Gabrielle," he said. "Join me for dinner tonight?" he asked, holding up the chicken which was squawking and flailing in his hand. The crowd laughed again.
"Oh, Joxer!" exclaimed Gabrielle as she gave him a friendly push to his shoulder.
Wulfric put one arm around Gabrielle and one arm around Xena. "I think it's time for us to leave," he said.
The tournament was over. The people had started clearing out. Wulfric was packing his belongings on to Barion. Xena was walking Argo by his tether. She approached Wulfric. "So what now?" she asked.
"I suppose I'll ride to find Celene now. She sent me a message several months ago telling me where she has resettled. I had intended on using it as a last resort, just in case Rufus had not changed his mind about killing me. I think I can convince her to return to him."
"I wish you the best of luck then, and I hope you can work everything out with Petrus as well."
"Rufus is quite upset with Petrus, but I think we can work it out. It's a good thing they are brothers, otherwise I'm sure Petrus would have been dead by now. But we have a lot to talk about. Still, I have plenty of time I guess."
"Just make sure you keep wearing that pendant. Gabrielle finally filled me in on the rest of your story. I want you to know I feel for you."
They embraced. "Good luck," said Xena again.
"Do you have to leave right away?" she asked.
"I'm afraid so," replied Wulfric. "My quest continues."
"I'll miss you," she said.
"I know," he replied. "I'll miss you too."
Then Gabrielle and Wulfric embraced. Gabrielle reached up and they engaged in a long kiss. When they parted, Wulfric said, "I'll always be there for you. Just remember that."
"I hope you find Sandahl," said Gabrielle. "And when you do, please tell her about me."
"I will do that. If it weren't for you, I might have given up hope."
The three stood in silence. And just as Wulfric was about to mount his horse, along came Joxer, bouncing toward them with his lyre in his hands.
"Wulfric!" he shouted. "Wait!"
Wulfric turned to greet Joxer.
"I just wanted to say thank you," Joxer began. "Without you, I might never have been able to overcome that titan."
"You had it in you all along, Joxer," said Wulfric. "But I'd advise you to switch to something a little less dangerous. You're good with your lyre and your music. You don't always need to fight to prove your love."
"I'll keep that in mind," Joxer said. "Rufus has invited me to return to his city with him. It may be a good chance for me to hone up on those fighting skills."
"Then good luck, my friend. And whatever you do, please take care of Gabrielle."
"Oh, I will!" replied Joxer laughing.
"I must go," Wulfric said before anyone else could speak. He mounted his horse, took the reins, and gave Barion the signal to go.
The three waved as he rode off. Then Gabrielle spoke.
"Do you think we'll ever see him again?" she asked Xena.
"One can never tell," the tall warrior woman replied. "One can never tell."
And as Wulfric rode off, they could hear him singing, his words floating back to them on a soft breeze. "Oh Lovely Sandahl, where can you be? I will never rest until I have thee!"
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