Building A Mystery
The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess are owned by MCA Pictures and used here without permission. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this story.
This story contains the expression of love between a man and a woman and between two women. It also includes a nongraphic account of rape, violent fighting, and blood. If any of these concepts offends you, don't read any further.
Special thanks to those who kindly offered editorial comments after reading the first draft of this tale.
Feedback regarding this story is welcome at Danae121@aol.com.
"It happened the summer before Cortese's attack. My family was attending a festival on Skyros. It was just another summer solstice festival... nothing out of the ordinary. I sang in a competition there. From the platform, I saw her in the audience, staring at me. I couldn't tear my eyes away, and she didn't avert hers."
"What did she look like?"
"Blonde... beautiful... soft... I don't know. It wasn't her appearance I remembered so much as how she made me feel."
"After the competition, she lingered until only a handful of people remained near the stage. She approached and told me she enjoyed my voice. I thanked her. She gave me the most expressive smile I'd ever seen, then walked away. I wanted to call after her. But, I wasn't so bold back then."
"THAT'S hard to believe."
"Do you want to hear this, or not?"
"Sorry. Please go on."
"The next day, I ran into her, literally, at a fishcake vender's booth. And, I don't know if it was because she winked at me or because I'd been hoping to see her again, but a rush surged through me the moment I realized it was her. I suppose my body perceived what my mind did not."
"Your body is very good at that."
"Sorry. Please continue."
"Before I knew it, we were on horses, heading away from the village. We rode far down the coast and up onto the cliffs overlooking the ocean. We collapsed into the grass and talked while the horses rested. I don't recall our exact conversation, but her spirit reached into my soul. At least a hundred times over the next seven days, I lost myself... in her eyes... in waves of emotion and desire that were new to me. She made me feel so comfortable... so..." The Warrior Princess let her glistening eyes fall upon her red-headed companion. "It was only young love... It doesn't compare to what you and I share, but..."
Gabrielle lay a gentle hand on her lover's arm and blinked affectionately. "I know."
Xena sighed contentedly. "Anyway, the days we spent together were... wonderful. We had too little time to be with one another. We shared quiet picnics alone in the countryside and dinners at dimly lit tavern tables. At one pub, a boy played a pan flute. He happened to play my favorite tune. I told her it was, and she said, 'Forever, when I hear this music, I will think of you.'"
"Xena... how sweet." Gabrielle smiled warmly.
"Yes, it was." The warrior paused and then went on. "One evening, we walked along the bluffs as the sun was setting over the sea. When we came upon cows grazing in a field, she took my hand and asked if I was thirsty. My knees almost gave out at her touch. She dragged me to the middle of the pasture and insisted I lay down under a cow."
The bard choked on a laugh. "What?!"
"That's what I said. But, I couldn't refuse her. She flopped down next to me, grabbed hold of the udder, pointed a teat at me, and said, 'Open up.' She squirted a few swallows of milk into my mouth and then skewed her aim so that milk hit my eye, my cheek, my neck."
"I probably laughed too. I know I became serious when I saw the look in her eyes. I felt curious and captivated. With her finger, she caught the dribbles of milk which ran down my cheek. She offered the liquid on her fingertip to me. I couldn't help myself. Her mouth followed her finger to my lips, but just as we were about to kiss, someone called out. We peered over the tall grass. A man was walking toward us... the landowner... upset with us for trespassing. We ran as fast as we could to the horses and rode back to the shore. I suggested we return to the village. She said she wanted to remain and watch the stars come out; that she would show me the pictures in the sky. The sparkle in her eye told me she wanted to do more than watch the stars. I longed to stay with her, but I knew my family would be anxious about me. Also, I suppose I was shy."
The warrior shot a look at Gabrielle. "Don't say it."
The bard raised her eyebrows innocently.
Xena continued. "I'd not been intimate with a woman before. Somehow she knew that. She took my hand and said, 'You've never done this, have you?' I shook my head. She whispered, 'It's okay... I have.' She kissed my cheek, then grinned and said, '...I learned at school.' She smiled at my confusion and told me she'd explain later. Before I left, I made her promise she'd meet me there the next day. She brushed a lock of hair from my face and said she would. She didn't. Each day until my family departed for Amphipolis, I returned to that spot and waited for her. She never came." Xena sighed and refocused her eyes. "And, that, Gabrielle, was the first time I was in love."
"That was lovely, Xena... and sad." The bard smiled compassionately and stared into the distance for very long moments. Then, she gazed into the warrior's eyes and said tentatively, "But, Xena... I wanted you to tell me about the first time."
"What are you saying, Gabrielle? I just did."
"No... the first TIME. You know..." Gabrielle's voice was low and suggestive. "You haven't forgotten, have you?"
Xena bent an eyebrow. If she answered 'no,' she'd have to explain. It was a good story... one which would probably rival the bard's best tales. She could say 'yes,' but that would be a lie. And, besides, Gabrielle wouldn't believe she didn't recollect something like that. Xena finally sighed and responded. "No, Gabrielle, I haven't forgotten. It was long ago, but I remember it well."
The bard propped herself up on an elbow and looked down at Xena with anticipation. "So, tell me about it!"
"Some other time." The warrior concentrated on the stars which were starting to stand out against the darkening sky.
Gabrielle touched her fingertips to Xena's forearm. "Come on, Xena, tell me. Now. ...Please?" Her bright eyes gleamed and pleaded.
Xena gave her a blank look. She tried to fight the wonderfully hypnotic effect of the bard's smile and the temptation to melt under her caress. At last, she rolled her eyes at herself. There was no way she could deny Gabrielle when she wore that expression. There were very few times she could deny Gabrielle period. The truth was, she prayed she'd never be forced to refuse the bard anything she desired.
"All right. But, it's a rather long account."
"I love long stories." Gabrielle loved almost ANY story and was glad to know she'd be able to listen to Xena's deep, velvet voice for a while. "Wait, let me put more wood on the fire first. I don't want to interrupt to do it later." She jumped up, grabbed two large logs, and carefully laid them in the fire. The bark popped and crackled upon coming into contact with the heat. Reclining again on their blanket, she laid her hand lightly on Xena's shoulder and said anxiously, "Okay. Begin."
Xena grinned at the excitement in her precious lover's voice, then took a deep breath. "Gabrielle, do you know the tale of Caeneus?"
"Yeah! What an intriguing stor... Xena! Now, hey, don't change the subject!"
"I'm not, Gabrielle."
The bard frowned. "Huh?"
The warrior gazed at her solemnly.
Xena's meaning registered, and Gabrielle's mouth fell open. "Ohhh! Xena!!" she breathed. "Then, the stories of Caeneus are true?!"
"Some are, some aren't. What have you heard?"
"Well..." Gabrielle sat up so she could use her hands while she talked. "They say that Caeneus was one of the warriors who participated in the Calydonian boar hunt and the great fight between the Lapiths and the Centaurs. He was a hero especially among women, whom he protected at all costs. And, they say..." Gabrielle hesitated and stared at Xena.
"Yeesss??" the warrior prodded. A twinkle danced in her eyes.
Gabrielle went on to explain the remainder of the tale as she knew it. When she finished speaking, she saw that Xena's eyes had glazed over. "Xena?" she said softly.
The warrior emerged from her thoughts. "Yeah?"
Gabrielle's voice was even, with a hint of insistence. "Tell me about Caeneus."
Xena glanced up at her and inhaled deeply. The bard nodded for her to begin. The warrior fixed her gaze on a brilliant star and smiled. "From the very first, there was something about him. It all started the day I heard Meleager's petition for help. I left Sparta as soon as..."
Xena held up a hand. "Different Meleager, Gabrielle. Same name, different guy. Anyway..."
"Oh, you mean Meleager of Calydon."
"The same Meleager who killed the boar and gave the hide to..."
"Gabrielle. Didn't you say something about not wanting to interrupt?"
The bard blushed. "Sorry." She leaned back down on an elbow and watched Xena intently.
The warrior smirked affectionately. "As I was saying..."
Xena stood up and listened closely to the crier's words. His tinny voice rang out. "Hear ye, all: The great Meleager, heir to the throne of Calydon, sends urgent word to the boldest and the bravest... Come, take part in the hunting of the Calydonian boar. Whoever kills the enormous beast will be awarded its pelt and tusks and will be recognized as the mightiest warrior in the known world."
This was challenge enough for Xena, but she wanted more information. She shoved her way through the bustling crowd to the thin, little man who continued to sing out his news. She jabbed his arm, shutting him up mid-sentence. "Just why is Meleager having so much trouble with a mere wild boar?"
The bearer cowered under her stare and backed up a pace. "Um... the boar is sent by the gods. It is ten times normal size. Fifty men have already lost their lives trying to get near the creature. It is ravaging the land surrounding our city... all our crops. We'll starve soon if the animal isn't destroyed. Meleager has sent runners to the far reaches of Greece asking for help."
Xena returned to her lieutenants who had been drinking with her outside a tavern. She grabbed one of them roughly. "I'm going to Calydon. Take the men to Thessilonica and wait for me there." Before the man could acknowledge her order, she was astride her coal black horse. She trained her eyes on the road ahead and kicked the mare's sides.
The summer sun was still high when Xena arrived in Calydon two days later. Unfortunately, she'd been in Sparta when she'd heard Meleager's plea and had to ride all the way around the Gulf of Corinth rather than wait for the next boat, which wasn't crossing for three more days. Riding through the streets, she could tell she was too late. The atmosphere was one of relief, not panic. She pursed her lips and cursed her bad luck. At least this hog chase had taken her north, toward her next destination.
Ordinarily, she dismounted when she entered a city. But, Calydon was still full of warlords and would-be heroes who lingered after the hunt. She'd already exchanged insults with a few of them. A position above the crowd was prudent. Chances were she'd meet up with an enemy in this horde.
Or... a friend. She jerked her head toward the familiar voice. There stood Pirithous, king of the Lapiths: the people of Northern Thessaly. She and Pirithous had once formed an unlikely alliance against the Centaurs and fought them to a standstill. Xena flared her nostrils at the memory of the bloody battle. Pirithous was an outstanding warrior, well known for his courage. Though she still considered the Centaurs her enemies, she knew Pirithous had established a truce with them at his home in Thessaly. Their peoples now lived in harmony.
Xena swung down and grasped his forearm. "Hello, Pirithous."
Two men stood next to him. "Xena, this is Ladon and Caeneus." Both men nodded a greeting. The one called Ladon held a drink. Pirithous raised his eyebrows at her. "I suppose you're here for the same reason we were." Turning his head toward his comrades, he continued, "We all came here to slay the boar." He paused and grinned. "...And, we all failed!"
Xena sized them up. Ladon, she'd heard of... A so-called mighty warrior. She wasn't impressed. Of Caeneus, she knew nothing. His disposition and stance gave away little. He seemed to have the proud bearing of a warrior, but he wore no armor... only a sword. He was staring at her. Xena straightened her shoulders and raised her chin. "The pig is dead then. I figured as much."
"Yes, at Meleager's hand."
"With a little help from another," Caeneus added.
Pirithous looked amused. "Yeah, with a little help." He motioned toward an inn. "Xena, have a drink with us, and we'll tell you about it."
Xena agreed and led her mount to a hitching post. Pirithous and Ladon disappeared inside the tavern. As Xena slung the reins over the log, she noticed Caeneus waiting outside the door. He seemed to be keeping an eye out for trouble, observing those who passed near. She saw him leer at a man who had come unnecessarily close to her. 'What's this?' she wondered as she approached the pub. Didn't he know Xena Warrior Princess could take care of herself?! He gave her a perfect smile as she stepped past him into the building. 'Maybe this is the beginning of a come-on,' she thought.
The warrior was pleased to see many heads turn her way when she strode into the busy public house. Having led her army all these years, people now knew her as a force to be reckoned with.
"Xena! It has been a long time!"
The Warrior Princess turned to see Tullius, one of her former lieutenants. Once, after too much drink, she had slept with him. Repulsed the next morning, she immediately sent him to Mantinea to oversee her troops there... at least that's what she'd told him. Basically, she'd wanted him out of her sight. This had angered him so much that he quit her army. She kept walking past him and spat, "Not long enough, Tullius. Get away from me."
Tullius grabbed her arm. "Aw, Xena. Don't you wanna talk about old times?"
Xena spun around. She saw Caeneus take a step toward Tullius. Before Caeneus could lay a hand on the man, Xena punched Tullius so hard he crashed into the bar and landed on the floor, unconscious. Noting the surprise on Caeneus's face, she gave him a satisfied smirk and resumed her strut through the room.
Xena and Caeneus sat with Pirithous and Ladon at a table against a wall. Over mugs of strong port, Pirithous began to relate the adventure he and his companions had just lived through. He explained how they had joined Meleager, many strong men, and one woman to try to slay the Calydonian boar.
"What woman?!" Xena was shocked and annoyed. What female had been able to join the chase ahead of her?!
"Atalanta," Caeneus said with what sounded like pride.
The warrior's eyes narrowed. Atalanta. Xena had never encountered the huntress, but she'd heard tell of her abilities. Pirithous went on to describe the how Atalanta's presence had caused problems among the men from the beginning.
"Why?" Xena questioned.
Without thinking, Ladon blurted out, "Cause men don't wanna fight with a woman!" Pirithous and Caeneus tried to inconspicuously shake their heads at Ladon. Realizing his blunder, Ladon cautiously moved his eyes to meet Xena's icy stare. "Sorry," he mumbled.
Xena sneered wickedly at him and resisted the urge to rip his tongue out. If he weren't Pirithous's friend, she would have shown him then and there exactly WHY men don't wanna fight with a woman.
Pirithous quickly resumed talking. "Anyway, Meleager has a fancy for Atalanta, so he prevailed upon us to allow her to join the hunt." With spirited detail, the Lapith told how the group managed to corner the boar and how several men were killed before anyone could even wound the tusker.
Xena listened with ebbing interest as Pirithous and Ladon took turns bragging about the moments they had ALMOST injured the animal. Her eyes drifted and met Caeneus's. He held her gaze for an instant before he pointed to her mug and raised his eyebrows. She nodded. Catching the attention of a barmaid, he circled a finger in the air to order another round. Then, he returned his attention to his friends. Xena was surprised to see him roll his eyes at their dramatizing. Did he find them as tiresome as she did? She wondered why he wasn't boasting too. Perhaps he hadn't gotten near the boar... Without armor, he wouldn't have dared to. Maybe he wasn't a true warrior at all. He looked strong enough, but he didn't have that blood lust in his eye. Xena could instinctually detect that savage spark, and he didn't have it.
When the barmaid arrived with the drinks, Caeneus stood and helped her pass them across the table. Thrilled by the unexpected civility, the girl rewarded him with a beaming smile. He winked at her and pressed some money into her palm. "You bring a sweet smile with your wine," he praised.
Xena thought she might gag. She watched him give the girl much more than a customary tip. The barmaid's eyes widened appreciatively at the extra dinars. Caeneus grinned at her and sat down. Xena wasn't able to tell if his intention had been kindness or seduction. She presumed the latter.
"Xena, I tell ya, I coulda speared'm through the heart if Jason had'na tripped me as I drew back m'arm." Ladon spattered saliva on Xena's cheek as he blubbered.
"Uh-huh," the warrior muttered, wiping her face with her right bicep. She saw Caeneus suppress a chuckle. Then, she saw him all of a sudden become very still, and she watched his brown eyes become dark as they settled on someone behind her. He leered, just as he had outside the tavern. Xena didn't turn around.
Caeneus said forcefully, "She's NOT interested!"
The warrior couldn't believe her ears. 'He's doing it again! He can't be serious!' She grabbed Caeneus's shirt, yanked him up, and thrust him against the wall. Leaning her forearm into him, she hissed, "Look! I am perfectly capable of standing up for myself. I don't need you... or any man to protect me! Ya got that?!"
Caeneus's wide eyes softened. "Yeah... thanks for sharing." He pointed behind her. "Now, do you mind if I try to protect HER?"
Without letting go of his shirt, Xena twisted around to see their barmaid unhappily squirming in the aggressive arms of a lustful patron. The warrior's lips parted slightly, and she turned her head back toward Caeneus.
He quickly removed her hand from his chest and went to the overzealous man at the next table who was now patting the girl's shapely backside. Caeneus stood directly in front of them and put his hand flat on the table. The man glowered up at him.
"As I was saying..."
Though his head didn't move and she couldn't see his face, Xena could feel Caeneus pause sarcastically at her over his shoulder.
Caeneus glared at the man. "She's NOT interested." He took the girl's wrist and pulled her to a position of safety behind him. He stepped closer to the man. The others at the table encouraged the man not to resist, and he promptly yielded to Caeneus's imposing presence. Caeneus formed his hand into a fist and left it resting noticeably on the table. "Do try to be civil next time you come in here."
The man nodded weakly.
"I'm sorry," the man grumbled.
"Not to me..." Caeneus tossed his head toward the barmaid. "...to her."
"I apologize," the man said without meeting her eyes.
Caeneus escorted the girl a few steps away, said something to her, then returned to his companions. He waited for Xena to sit before he did. Caeneus calmly picked up their conversation as if nothing had happened. "So, we were talking about the boar, weren't we?" He looked at Pirithous and tilted his head toward Xena. "Did you ever tell her who actually drew first blood?"
Pirithous looked at Ladon and Xena and then burst out laughing at his friend's nonchalance. Ladon did too. Xena smirked.
Caeneus blinked at them indifferently.
Pirithous became serious as he remembered the question. "Caeneus, YOU would've drawn first blood!... if you hadn't stepped aside at the last minute."
"Damn right!" Ladon chimed in. "YOU, of all men, coulda slain the brute. Why'd ya pass up the chance?!"
"What happened?" Xena asked, baffled that anyone could be so daft as to give up the glory of being known as the greatest warrior in all Greece... and intrigued by the possibility that Caeneus might truly be a formidable warrior.
Pirithous poked a finger at the man sitting across from him. "Caeneus, here, was within striking distance, but he withdrew and gave Atalanta a clear shot at the boar. Her arrow drew first blood."
Xena stared at Caeneus.
"That's not how it happened." Caeneus looked away, pretending to be interested in the on goings at the bar.
"That's exactly what happened! Ya toyed with the pig until ya lured it directly into Atalanta's line'a sight. She could'na missed her target if she tried!" Ladon smacked a hand on the table.
In a very stern manner, Caeneus said, "Be fair, Ladon. It took skill to hit the charging beast precisely in the meat of the hind quarter. Atalanta did that deliberately. No doubt, she knew a single arrow would never kill the boar. She purposely crippled him so we could finish him off."
"Perhaps, Caeneus," Pirithous stated. "But, you still haven't explained why you stepped away at the last minute. You could've run your sword through and killed the creature."
"I didn't just step aside, Pirithous. I simply didn't have the right angle to strike."
"Yeah, whatever!" Ladon said. After several moments, he sighed and punched Caeneus's arm. "Why ya always so blasted hard to figure out?!"
Caeneus didn't answer. He raised his chin and looked into the crowd. Xena thought she saw the corner of his mouth turn up ever so slightly. The warrior had always prided herself on being a quick and accurate judge of character. So far, she'd not been able to nail down any perception of Caeneus.
Xena and the three warriors stepped out of the tavern into the early night. Ladon was drunk. He pointed at Pirithous and focused bleary eyes on Xena. "So, ya see, he's to be married at the full moon."
"Married, huh?" Xena was running out of patience with the repugnant idiot. If she hadn't so been roused by her conversation with Caeneus, she would have departed long ago.
Caeneus cleared his throat. "I'll get the horses." He disappeared around a corner.
Pirithous watched Ladon stumble toward four women who stood outside an inn nearby. He nodded toward his friend. "Don't mind him, Xena. He's a different man when he's not drinking."
"Of course... then, he's a sober idiot," Xena mumbled under her breath.
"I said, 'So, you're going to tie the knot.'"
"Yes..." Pirithous looked at her. "Like Ladon said, at the full moon... Four days from now."
"Congratulations," Xena said without enthusiasm.
"Thanks." Pirithous again looked at Ladon, who was trying to convince one of the women to leave with him. Pirithous shook his head and turned back to Xena. "Where're you going from here?"
"Thessilonica. I'll meet my lieutenants there, and we'll head to Thrace. I want to make sure my troops are strong and no trouble is brewing near Amphipolis."
"You'll be traveling through Thessaly then."
"Yeah." The warrior picked a shred of meat from her teeth.
"In that case, you must do me the honor of being a guest at my wedding."
Xena's eyebrow arched.
"If you're worried about the Centaurs, don't be. They will respect my choice of guests at my own wedding. Besides, it will only delay your journey one day."
Xena deliberated. She owed Pirithous this much for his part in their battle against the Centaurs. Besides, this might be an opportunity to assess the Centaurs' strength in that area. "All right," she said reluctantly. She heard a whinny and turned to see Caeneus in the distance, leading three horses toward them. Without taking her eyes off Caeneus, she asked, "Is he going to your wedding?"
Pirithous frowned at her uncharacteristic question, then grinned. "Yeah, he'll be there."
Xena heard the smile in Pirithous's voice and fired him a look. She returned her eyes to Caeneus. "Does he fight for a warlord or kingdom?"
"No, Caeneus is pretty much a loner..." The Lapith chuckled. "He keeps busy saving maidens in distress."
Xena started to reply but hesitated when she saw Caeneus stop in his tracks. His attention was riveted on Ladon. Ladon was becoming demanding with the woman he'd been trying to entice. He had a tight hold on one of her arms.
Caeneus shouted at him. "Come on, Ladon! We're leaving!"
Xena noticed Caeneus's fists were clenched, and she heard the bitterness in his voice.
Ladon let go of the woman and swayed to Caeneus. "Awright, awright. I was jus havin fun."
Flinging Ladon's horse's reins at him, Caeneus said evenly, "Didn't look like SHE was having fun."
Pirithous sighed and walked to his mount. He looked up at Xena who had by now already leaped onto her steed. "Since you're coming to the wedding, you might as well ride with us to Thessaly."
Xena curved an irked eyebrow. She had no desire whatsoever to be in Ladon's company. But, she had to admit, the journey to Thrace would be easier if she only had to travel half of it alone. She nodded at Pirithous.
Ladon struggled to free his boot which had become tangled in the stirrup. Hopping on one leg, it was all he could do to keep himself upright. He swore profusely. Still half inebriated, he lost his balance and tumbled to the ground. His foot remained suspended in the stirrup. "Hang it all!" he wailed, making no move to get up.
Xena and Caeneus traded looks of disgust as they descended from their horses. After traveling for a short time, Pirithous had suggested they stop for the night. At the edge of a field near a grove, Xena had spotted a deserted barn which proved to be suitable shelter.
"I'll get some wood," Xena said to no one in particular.
Caeneus grunted as he pulled the saddle off his horse. "I was just about to do the same thing."
Xena ignored him and weaved through the trees.
When she returned, Pirithous and Caeneus were rubbing down their horses. She went inside the barn and dropped her armload of wood. The barn had obviously not been used recently. There was no evidence that animals had been kept there and no hay or feed on the ground. She used her foot to clear a spot in the dirt near the center of the barn. There were no doors on the structure, so enough air would circulate for them to have a fire within.
"He's out cold."
Xena looked up to see Pirithous carrying Ladon's limp body over his shoulder. Pirithous lowered him so that he lay propped against a wall. He reeked of booze.
"He doesn't always drink this much." Pirithous shook his head and brushed the dust from his hands. "He's upset about the boar. He told everybody at home that he would be the one to draw first blood."
Xena rolled her eyes and muttered, "He's lucky Atalanta didn't mistake HIM for the boar."
Pirithous didn't hear her. He picked up a log and said, "Xena, I'll start the fire. Go ahead and tend to your horse."
Outside, Xena found that Caeneus had already removed the saddle from her horse, attached a feedbag to her bridle, and was now brushing the animal. "Thanks," she grunted, surprised and a little offended at his presumptuousness. She failed to understand why this man was being kind to her... She'd certainly given him no reason.
"No problem. Thanks for getting the wood."
Xena stroked her horse's nose.
"What's her name?"
"Clio," Xena responded as she grabbed a skin of port from her saddlebag.
Caeneus smiled broadly. "After the muse?!"
Xena wished he quit flashing those pearly teeth at her. "Yeah, and don't start with me," she said tersely. 'This guy is unreal,' she thought. 'A male warrior who defends barmaids AND knows the names of the muses?!' She took a swig from the skin.
"I wasn't going to make fun." Caeneus slapped his own horse affectionately and exclaimed, "This is Euterpe!"
Xena almost choked on a swallow of port. "You're kidding." She stared at him with disbelief.
Xena smirked skeptically and wiped the sputtered wine from her chin with the back of her wrist.
"You don't believe me? ...Watch." The mare perked her ears and whinnied when Caeneus called her name.
Xena couldn't believe the coincidence. "You named you horse after the muse of music?!"
Caeneus shrugged. "I like music. Why did you name Clio for the muse of history?"
"Because I'm going to make history," Xena proclaimed coolly. She gulped the last of the wine from the skin and then belched.
Caeneus raised his eyebrows and gave her a sidelong glance. He rubbed his horse's ears. "The next name I bestow to a horse will be 'Argo.'
"You're gonna name your horse after a boat?" Xena snorted.
"Yeah. That name signifies strength and support... The Argo protected its crew... against something even so powerful and destructive as the sea and the foul god who rules it!"
"I take it you're not real keen on the ocean."
"I care more for Ares's hideous dog of war than I do for Poseidon," Caeneus spat.
"Graegus would be flattered, I'm sure." Xena narrowed her eyes, studying him as he ran his hands over Euterpe's neck. His comments were strange, and she was having trouble reading between them. She remembered the skin in her hand and held it up. "There's a stream through the woods."
"Wait." Caeneus retrieved the skins from his and the other two saddles. "I'll come with you."
Xena led the way through the bushes and down over a ridge. When they reached the stream, Caeneus sat on a boulder and unbuckled his boots. Xena was puzzled but didn't say anything. She crouched over the bank and dipped her skin. As it swelled with water, she watched Caeneus wade to the middle of the stream where the water ran more quickly. The water came up just above his knees. He dunked the first skin.
"There's a ring around the moon tonight... Artemis must be in residence."
Xena raised her head from the skin she held. She didn't give a pile of steaming centaur shit about the goddess. She aimed a mocking eyebrow at Caeneus. He looked ridiculous standing in the water, gazing up at the sky. The Warrior Princess always had thought Artemis's followers were all wet. She rolled her eyes and said, "A ring usually means rain." She waited for him to next prattle about the stars or some such meaningless rot.
"Hmm. Hope not... The horses won't have it easy plodding up muddy hills in Thessaly."
"Thessaly is your home, too?" Perhaps she could get some information out of him about the Centaurs.
"Yeah, I'm a Lapith. Although, I haven't been home in a long time." He corked the full skin and started to fill another. "And, your home is Amphipolis."
Xena peered at him. "It WAS my home. How'd you know that?!"
"Your reputation precedes you, Xena."
The Warrior Princess took this as a huge compliment.
"Besides, there a so few female warriors in Greece... it isn't difficult to remember their stories."
Xena hooked the full skin over her shoulder and flung the water from her hands. She noticed Caeneus's inquisitive glance and pursed her lips. "Yeah... then you probably know I'm no longer recognized in Amphipolis."
"It's something we have in common," Caeneus said casually.
"What is?" Xena cracked her knuckles and gave him a disinterested look.
"No one welcomes me in my village either."
Taken aback by this conversation, Xena stepped a few paces from the stream's edge. She didn't like to talk about Amphipolis... especially with someone she barely knew. She used to grapple with why her mother and others in the town so vehemently objected to her efforts to protect Amphipolis, but she didn't care anymore. They would never understand why she did what she did. In the beginning, it was about defense. She may not have been able to bring back what Amphipolis lost... what she lost... but she could make damn sure no one else ever took from her or her village again. However, it wasn't about protecting Amphipolis anymore. Now, it was about revenge. The word itself made her blood boil and whet her appetite for the death of her enemies.
Xena sat down on the boulder as Caeneus reached for the last skin. "Why won't you be acknowledged in your village?"
Pressing the air out of the vessel, he seemed to hesitate. He leaned to fill the skin but kept his face lifted toward her. "Long ago, I traded my..."
Xena silenced him with an upheld hand and assumed a guarded stance. She'd heard footsteps.
"There you two are!" Pirithous stepped out of the shadows.
"Yeah... here we are," Xena said wryly, annoyed by his untimely appearance. She had wanted to hear what Caeneus would say.
Pirithous laughed at Caeneus standing in the water. He bumped Xena with his elbow. "Did he tell you why he does that?"
"Fills the skins from the middle of the stream."
Xena watched Caeneus wade toward them. "No."
"He thinks the water tastes better from out there."
Caeneus sat down on the rock and reached for a boot. "It IS better, Pirithous. The water in the swift of the stream is the freshest... the current carries the newest rain water down from the mountains. The water near the edge of the stream is usually stagnant... It's like drinking Poseidon's polluted backwash!"
Xena grimaced down at her own waterskin. "Great."
Caeneus grinned at Pirithous, took his boot back off, stepped over to Xena, and held out his hand. She apathetically turned her skin over to him. He uncorked it and let the water drain out before he walked into the stream again. Pirithous rolled his eyes and dropped down impatiently on the boulder. Xena watched Caeneus. It was too dark to tell, but she thought she saw him wink at her.
The Warrior Princess lay on her side next to the fire. Caeneus's words echoed in her mind. Though she was loath to talk about Amphipolis, she half-heartedly wished they'd been allowed to continue their discussion about their homes... What was his story?
She remembered their conversation over dinner in the tavern. He'd told her how Atalanta's feminine intuitiveness had given her advantage over some of the men who competed against the boar. With a tip of his mug, he'd complimented Xena on her own wily utilization of her womanly faculties. Xena had never heard a man so readily admit that women possess attributes superior to men's. Reflexively, she warned herself that Caeneus might be spinning some sort of seduction web... some men would say absolutely anything to bed a woman. A stronger instinct told her this man was different.
If he was trying to seduce her, he certainly was going about it in the most unassuming manner. When they'd returned from the stream, he'd simply bid her and Pirithous a good night and fell asleep with no more than a glance in her direction.
She adjusted her head on her arm and looked at his sleeping form on the other side of the fire. He lay on his back with his legs crossed at the ankles. His tanned skin glowed in the dancing light. She guessed he was a winter or two older than she was. He had removed his vest before he retired and, to Xena's amazement, had also taken off his boots. Xena had never known a warrior to sleep in the open without boots. The chances of being jumped in the night were too great, and one couldn't fight or run long without footwear. He had not moved his sword next to him before he fell asleep either. He didn't seem stupid, but, for a warrior, this was foolish behavior. It was inconceivable that Caeneus had dared to venture within three paces of the Calydonian boar. She sighed, frustrated by the mixed impressions she'd gotten from this man.
Xena studied him more closely. The fire brought out golden tints in his blonde hair, which he wore longer than most men did. Not for the first time, she thought he was one of the most attractive men she'd met. His features were fine and distinct, but his appeal was more than that. It was something about his countenance... his bearing... something in his eyes.
The warrior focused again on Caeneus when he turned to lie on his side, toward her. The light was dimmer now, and the shadows seemed to transform his face into what she could only define as softness... but that didn't adequately describe it. Not only did his skin appear softer, but his essence did as well. He seemed... what? Xena fell asleep trying to come up with the right word.
The Warrior Princess awoke to a strange aroma. She lifted her head and surveyed her surroundings. Pirithous was still asleep on his blanket, and Ladon was curled up against the wall, snoring. Caeneus's blankets were no longer by the fire. Xena sat up, ran her fingers through her hair, and stretched. She wished she could bathe but knew she wouldn't have the privacy for that here.
With her bedroll under her arm, Xena stepped out of the barn and squinted into the daylight. Caeneus was squatting next to a fire, poking a knife at raw flesh in a frying pan. Cheese, figs, and a loaf of bread lay on a flat rock near him. Tea herbs steeped in a pot of water at the edge of the fire. Caeneus's hair was wet, but his clothes weren't. 'He must have bathed,' she thought begrudgingly. Xena envied that a man could strip down to nothing without a care. As a woman, she practically had to strap on her sword and chakram when she went into the water.
"Good morning," Caeneus said pleasantly
Xena wrinkled her nose. "What's that smell?!" She watched Caeneus crumble a weed and sprinkle it over the contents of the frying pan.
"Fish, of course... trout... seasoned with my secret blend of fruit juices and dill weed."
"I don't care much for fish... with or without secret juices."
"Uh-huh." Caeneus grinned at her.
She walked to Clio. The horse neighed at her touch. "I'm going to take Clio to drink," she stated over her shoulder.
Caeneus stood. "Xena... if you want to bathe, I'll see that Ladon and Pirithous remain up here until you get back."
Xena narrowed her eyes. "You do that," she said, ensuring he heard the sarcasm in her voice. She led Clio through the trees.
While the horse drank, Xena kneeled on the bank and rinsed her face and the parts of her body which weren't covered by her leathers. She wished she could believe Caeneus. A bath would be wonderful. But, she couldn't be sure the three of them wouldn't sneak down here and...
No doubt, she could resist them, but she wasn't in the mood for trouble. Pirithous was a friend, but he hadn't earned her complete trust. He was also a man... a man about to be married. Those were the most dangerous kind. She had no doubt Ladon would try to take her, as if he could. She didn't know what to think of Caeneus... After last night, seeing him defend that barmaid, she wanted to think he was safe, but she couldn't risk it. Gods, she detested this bother! Why couldn't men keep their cocks in their breeches?! Sometimes, she was tempted to take her chakram and...
Xena thought she saw disappointment on Caeneus's face when she returned so quickly. Ladon and Pirithous now sat with him. They were all eating.
Pirithous called to her. "We're very lucky this morning, Xena. Caeneus has treated us to his world famous cooking!"
She blinked as she realized Caeneus had meant what he said about keeping them up here. How better to do it than with a mighty breakfast? Could this man be as decent as he led her to believe?
"Here, Xena... dig in." Pirithous handed her a plate on which lay two fillets of trout and some bread and cheese.
Xena saw Caeneus look up at her expectantly. She shook her head at Pirithous. "No thanks... I don't like fish." She started to walk away.
Pirithous frowned. "YOU don't like fish?!"
Xena stopped in her tracks, raised her eyebrows, and turned back toward her friend. "Why's that so surprising?"
"I assumed you'd be the kind to like a little variety in your diet." Before she could respond, Pirithous laid the plate down next to the fire and spoke again. "You don't know what you're missing, Xena." He stood and headed off toward the stream.
The warrior arched her eyebrow at the fish and then at Caeneus. He was busy stowing his cooking supplies. Sitting down on a weathered tree stump, she stared at the trout and then leaned over and took a whiff of it. It appeared and smelled different than any fish she'd tried before. She was suddenly very hungry. She glanced at Caeneus again. He was still preoccupied with his box of utensils. Snaking her hand out quickly, she broke off a moist piece and popped it in her mouth. Her eyes widened as it melted deliciously on her tongue. She had never tasted fish like this. Just as she was about to sneak another bit, she noticed Caeneus walking toward her.
He bent down and picked up the plate. He handed her the bread and then pointed at the fish. "Guess you won't be eating this. Sorry, Xena... I'll catch you a rabbit for dinner this evening. You do like rabbit, don't you?"
Xena rolled her eyes, nodded, and tried to inconspicuously swallow the mouthful of fish. She watched him scrape the plate's contents into a bush and felt her stomach growl.
Caeneus kept talking while he cleaned her plate. "I do hate to kill rabbits though. Xena, maybe you can pick up some dried meat in the next village we come to... Or, maybe a nice pork sausage... that should tide you over, hmmm?"
The warrior grumped an acknowledgment, narrowed her eyes at him, and crossly chomped her teeth into the bread.
"You were right."
Without looking at Caeneus, Xena stated, "I'm always right."
He chuckled and pointed to the overcast sky. "We're going to have rain today." He cocked his head. "You know, I've heard rumors about your many skills, Xena, but I didn't know predicting the weather one of them."
Xena stifled a grin and assessed the weather as they rode along. Thick clouds loomed above. She guessed they were in for a shower but not a storm. She looked at Caeneus out the corner of her eye. They had been riding side by side since they'd set out that morning. Pirithous and Ladon rode several lengths ahead. Caeneus had asked about her battle with Pirithous against the Centaurs, and she had described their strategy. Xena raised her face to the sky again. "It won't rain much."
"Hope not... Euterpe hates the rain." Caeneus rubbed his mare's neck.
Xena suppressed a chuckle. She was still astounded to know a warrior had named his horse after a muse.
As if he had heard her thoughts, Caeneus asked, "You like music, Xena?" Before she could answer, he continued. "I studied music during my youth. I play the flute... and the lyre, and... well, a few other instruments. And, when I was young, I sang."
A pang of sadness vibrated within Xena as she remembered that she used to sing too. When had she last sang? She couldn't remember... Wait, yes she could... It was when M'Lila died. But, when had she last really sang... in response to something besides death? It had probably been at a festival many years before. Happy memories of her youth pricked her mind like sharp needles. She yanked herself back to the present. She glanced again at the man beside her. "You don't sing anymore?"
"No... My voice changed," he said matter-of-factly. "I'm no good at it now... sound like a harpy in heat."
Xena gave him a crooked grin.
Before she could say anything, he went on. "Do you still sing?"
The warrior stiffened. "What do you mean 'still?'
"Did I say that? I meant, 'do you sing?'"
"I used to." She hoped he would drop the subject.
On cue, Caeneus's voice became playful. "USED to. Hmm... Your voice changed too?!"
In spite of herself, Xena broke into a chuckle which became a genuine, white smile.
"Well... At least ALL the rumors aren't true."
"What are you saying?" She quickly became somber again.
"You DO know how to smile!" Caeneus waited for her to look at him. "...And beautifully at that."
She smirked and returned her eyes to the path.
He leaned over toward her and said in a low voice. "You can add smiling to your list of many skills."
Fortunately, they'd been near a village when it started to sprinkle. It was early afternoon. They rode to an inn, dismounted, and ducked under an overhang. Pirithous volunteered to take their horses to a stable. The other three entered the inn. Without delay, Ladon headed to the bar. Caeneus and Xena both canvassed the large room. Given the early hour, there were few people inside.
As they approached the bar, Xena hooked her thumb toward Caeneus and said, "Barkeep, get him whatever he wants."
Caeneus's eyebrows shot up. "You buying?!"
"Don't make a big deal of it."
"Okay. I'll have milk."
Caeneus confirmed she'd heard correctly and walked away. Xena rolled her eyes and turned to the barkeep. After she'd ordered, she watched Caeneus stroll around the room. He nodded a greeting to three elderly men near the end of the bar and said 'good day' to the barmaid when she came through the kitchen door. He spoke to a very scruffy, very young man who sat alone at a table. Xena thought the boy looked ill. After a few moments, Caeneus sank down in the seat across from him and continued their conversation. Xena noticed the tension on Caeneus's face. Shortly, he returned to her. She pointed toward his mug which was sitting on the bar.
"Thanks." He picked it up and leaned out to look at Ladon on the other side of Xena. Ladon was already on his second pint of ale. "Ladon, go easy on that stuff today, okay?"
"Yeah, yeah." Ladon waved him off and resumed joking with the barkeep.
Daylight lit up the room when Pirithous opened the door. His clothes were damp from the rain. He immediately sat down at a table and wiped wet hands on his shirt. Caeneus went to him and set his drink down. "As long as were stuck here, I'm going to pick up some supplies from the market place next door," he stated and hurried off.
Xena watched him exit and looked back to see Pirithous observing her. "What?!" She narrowed her eyes and sat down across from him.
"You're... um... wondering about him, aren't you?" Pirithous grinned in jest.
"Should I be?"
"Xena, I think I've spent enough time with you to know when your... curiosity is piqued."
The warrior looked at him blankly and took a swig from her mug. After a pause, she asked, "How long have you known him?"
"A long time. I am lucky to have his friendship. He's a gallant warrior and a remarkable man... with an extraordinary story, by the way."
"Can't be much of a story. I've never heard it... But, then, I don't give a fig about blabbering bards and their tales..." Xena grinned smugly into her mug. "...unless the tale is about me." She took another long swallow.
"I'm not surprised you've never heard his story. Not many people know it. He has only told a few, and those haven't broken his confidence." Pirithous raised his eyebrows at her. "Maybe he'll share it with you."
Xena didn't respond to that. She took another drink of port. Pirithous was toying with her, and she was in no mood for it. She set her mug down, scratched her armpit, and gave Pirithous a bored look. "How much of a warrior can he be?... He doesn't even wear armor." Xena actually hoped Caeneus would turn out to be a true warrior... she was beginning to like him, but she wouldn't respect him if he couldn't fight worth a dinar.
"He doesn't need to wear armor."
"He's THAT good?" Both of the warrior's eyebrows extended upward.
"Well, it's not that exactly..."
"Uh-huh..." Xena interrupted. "He seems as soft as a blood innocent, if you ask me."
"Soft?!" Pirithous thought for a second. "Yeah... I can see how you might think that. But, Xena, believe me, that man is NOT soft. He's the most resilient warrior you'll ever meet. And, when something sets him off... he's extremely dangerous."
Xena knew Pirithous had no reason to lie about this, but she'd seen nothing which confirmed Caeneus was a 'dangerous' warrior. Far from it. If anything, he was reserved and in control when he stood up for the barmaid the night before. And, besides the other peculiarities she'd already noted, what dangerous warrior cooked with juices and worried if a rabbit died.
Caeneus stepped back inside the inn and walked over to them.
"That was quick," Pirithous said.
"Well, I didn't go to shop. I knew exactly what I wanted."
Xena and Pirithous traded confused looks.
Caeneus opened a small package and withdrew a vile of powder. "Be right back," he declared. He went and sat at the table where the sickly young man was slouched.
Neither Pirithous nor Xena could hear what Caeneus was saying to the boy. They shrugged at each other.
Caeneus called for the barmaid. He spoke a few words to her, and she disappeared into the kitchen. When she returned, she carried a steaming mug and a bowl of soup. Xena saw Caeneus give her the same sincere smile he'd flashed at yesterday's barmaid, and she wasn't surprised when, true to form, he tried to slip the woman a few extra dinars. The woman refused them. She placed her hand on the young man's forehead and nodded at Caeneus. She leaned over and said something to the boy, then pointed toward the kitchen. The young man nodded, and the barmaid left them alone.
Caeneus opened the vile and emptied the powders into the mug. He swirled it a few times before he pushed it toward the boy. "Drink it," he ordered loudly enough for Xena to hear. The young man obeyed. A contorted expression crossed the boy's face, and he brought the mug down quickly. Caeneus crooked his forefinger upward, indicating that he should drink again. The boy finished the drink and set the mug down on the table. Caeneus then poked a finger at the bowl. The young man proceeded to eat. While he did, Caeneus spoke to him quietly. Several times, he brushed hair out of the boy's eyes. The young man kept nodding while he slurped spoonfuls of soup. Finally, Caeneus stood, reached into his pocket, and withdrew some money. He gripped the boy's shoulder and handed him the dinars. The young man's eyes were wide. Xena saw him say 'thank you.'
Pirithous and Xena looked expectantly at Caeneus when he sat with them. "What was that all about?" Pirithous inquired.
"The kid's sick. The powders might help." Caeneus took a large gulp of his milk.
"Doesn't he have family to care for him?" Xena asked.
Caeneus stared into his mug. "No. He's just come from burying his parents."
Pirithous and Xena both dropped their eyes.
"He was with them on a ship crossing the Aegean from Adramyttium. The ship went down in a storm only a few leagues from its destination. He's one of the few survivors... He's on his way to his home in Aetolia to break the news to his sisters." Caeneus continued to glare into his drink. "Damn you, Poseidon!!" he murmured.
Xena caught this, but before she could remark, the barkeep called to them.
"Hey! You'd better get a hold of your friend out there!" The barkeep was looking out the door which he'd just opened for another patron.
Pirithous, Xena, and Caeneus all looked to the bar. Ladon was no where to be seen. Caeneus leaped up and rushed through the door. The other two followed and stood beside him under the overhang. It was still raining.
Xena glanced at Caeneus. She started to look for Ladon, but her eyes snapped back to Caeneus when his expression abruptly changed. His body froze. He was like a statue. Xena could see fire suddenly blaze in his eyes. She started to followed his stare. Before her eyes found his target, however, she jumped at a strident scream.
Xena was startled to realize the bellow had come from Caeneus. He was now charging across the street like a stallion out of the race gates. Cold rage darkened his face. She looked to where he was headed. Ladon had a young woman pressed against a wall on the porch of a tavern across the way. The girl didn't cry out, but it was obvious she was trying desperately to resist his advances. One of his hands groped her breast. With his other hand, he held her head back by a fist full of hair. Just as he neared his lips to a slender, exposed neck, Caeneus pounced on him. Both men flipped over the porch railing and slammed to the wet ground. Caeneus landed on top of Ladon and began pounding his face relentlessly.
"Caeneus! No!!" Pirithous dashed toward them.
Xena ran after him. When they reached the tavern, Xena's eyes darted around, looking for the woman. Not surprisingly, she had vanished.
Pirithous grabbed Caeneus by the collar and, with substantial effort, dragged him off Ladon. Caeneus started to lunge at Ladon again, but Pirithous kicked him hard in the chest, knocking him straight back into the mud. The blow hardly seemed to phase Caeneus. He sprang up, practically foaming at the mouth. He leaped into a somersault and landed behind Pirithous, directly on top of Ladon. He kicked Ladon onto his back and began pummeling him again.
Once more, Pirithous pulled Caeneus away, then scrambled to get in-between the two men. Caeneus jumped up again. The rain almost seemed to turn into steam as it ran down his reddened face. Xena was astonished by the fury he'd become. In a heartbeat, she recognized the blood lust in his eyes. It seemed to have consumed him. Her own mind sizzled, and her breathing quickened. She knew exactly what he was experiencing! She could literally feel his delirious anger course through her, and she loved it!! NOW she respected this man! In fact, she was captivated!
Pirithous remained in front of Ladon. "Stop it, Caeneus!! Stop it!! He's had enough!! Killing Ladon won't avenge anything!"
Caeneus blinked several times. His muscles relaxed somewhat as he looked down at Ladon's groaning figure. He took a deep breath and wiped the water from his face with his sleeve. As quickly as he had unleashed his hostility, he seemed to harness it and regain his previous calm. "I won't forget this, Ladon." Turning slowly, he squared his shoulders and headed toward the stables.
Pirithous kneeled next to Ladon and slid an arm under his shoulders. "Xena... Will you help me get him up?"
The Warrior Princess squinted down at the moaning, pathetic fool crumpled before her. She chuckled sardonically. "I'll help you get him up... on top of a cremation pyre." She stepped over Ladon and strode across the street.
Xena ran right into Caeneus when she stepped into the stable. She gripped his arm and looked into his brown eyes which seemed larger than ever. There was no trace of the explosion that ignited there only moments before. She saw that he held his horse by her tether. "Where are you going?" she demanded. She didn't want him to get away. Lying to herself, she rationalized that it was because she might want to recruit him into her army.
"I'm going to ride ahead."
Pirithous appeared behind Xena. "You're still coming to the wedding then?"
Caeneus took a deep breath. "I promised I'd be there, didn't I?"
"Lucky for me, you're a man of your word," Pirithous said. "Look, it probably IS better if you go ahead, Caeneus. Ladon won't be riding anywhere tonight. The little bastard... If I hadn't promised his wife I bring him back alive, I'd leave him here to suffer the next mess he gets himself into."
"He's married?!" Xena shook her head. "That figures."
Pirithous continued. "Caeneus, when you get home, go to Hippodamia. She knows everything, and she'll look after you until I arrive. All right?"
Caeneus nodded and started to leave. Xena grabbed his arm again. "Wait. I'll ride with you." She twisted her head toward Pirithous. "Sorry, Pirithous, but if I have to spend one more day with Ladon, I..."
Pirithous held up a hand. "I get the idea. Sure, fine, go on. I'll see both of you in a couple days." He turned to walk back to Ladon.
When Xena looked again at Caeneus, he was gazing at her hand on his arm. She quickly took it away. "Let's go."
"You don't mind riding in the rain?"
"What? You think I'm gonna melt?" She spit onto the ground next to him and stepped to Clio's stall.
Caeneus raised his eyebrows at the spot of saliva in the dirt. "Yeah, I did..." he said under his breath, "...but, I'm beginning to wonder."
It was almost dusk when they stopped. The rain had ceased, and the low sun was shooting its colorful rays through the clouds. They'd found a clearing not far from a wide stream. Caeneus hopped down and hastily tied Euterpe to a tree. He grabbed a pot which hung from a saddlebag. "Xena, I need to get to the stream and catch some dinner before the sun goes down. It'll be hard to see the fish now, as it is."
"SEE the fish?"
Continued - Part 2