The two friends entered the healer's hut. Phintias was just finishing the meal that Claris had provided for him.
"Get yourself rested up tonight, Phintias. Tomorrow we start for Athens to rescue your parents," the dark-haired warrior promised. "I've got the answer to your puzzle."
The philosopher's mouth dropped open in amazement. "You have the puzzle figured out already? I can't believe it. I worked on it for hours and got nowhere. What's the answer?"
Gabrielle added her voice to Phintias's, "Yes, O Warrior Princess of Great Puzzle Solvers, tell us the answer."
The taller woman tilted her head back and looked down her nose at the bard. "Do I detect some skepticism here? Just for that, I won't tell you until tomorrow."
"Aw, c'mon, Xena, tell me now," her friend begged.
"No, no, Gabrielle, you know you would like to figure it out yourself. You have all evening and part of tomorrow. Let's see how you do," Xena teased. She turned back to Phintias. "If you think you can be ready to travel at first light, I'll get you a horse and we can get on the road right away. You don't have much time."
"I don't know how to thank you! I am most grateful that you are willing to help me. I can pay you for your time and trouble when we get to Athens," the appreciative man offered.
"No payment is asked for or wanted," the warrior assured him. "You need help and we offer it to you freely. Try to get some rest; we'll be in the Queen's hut if you need us for anything. We'll come by right after dawn to pick you up for the journey."
The two women nodded to the philosopher, waved to Claris, and left. They stopped by Ephiny's hut to let her know they would be leaving in the morning, and that they were escorting Phintias to Athens. "Pony has my staff, Ephiny," Gabrielle informed her. "I've asked her to hold onto it for me until I return. With these ribs, I can't use it anyway. We'll stop for it when we get back."
Ephiny promised to lend them a horse and saddle for Phintias and told them to pick up, from the Amazon stores, whatever provisions they needed for the journey.
"Ephiny," Gabrielle smiled, "thank you for everything. Tell Pony and Solari and the rest that we said goodbye and we'll be back this way before you know it. Just keep taking as good care of the Amazons as you have been. I'm grateful for that, too."
"You're welcome, Gabrielle," the regent answered. The two blond women gave each other a great hug.
Ephiny turned to Xena. The Warrior Princess stuck out her arm. "This is your last chance, Eph. Do you want to break it?"
Ephiny grasped the arm in a warrior handshake. "I'd probably break my other arm, trying," she grinned wryly. When the handshake ended, the Amazon reached back out with her one good arm and pulled the surprised warrior into a hug. "That's for having the courage to come back to us," she explained in a husky voice.
"Gabrielle's the one who's good with words, Ephiny, but I hope you know that I, too, thank you for everything," Xena declared warmly. The two women nodded as one warrior to another.
True to her nature, Xena was up and about before first light. The air was cool and crisp, and faint smudges of pink and yellow in the eastern sky promised another good day.
The warrior removed the wrappings from her thigh and discarded them. The wound was completely healed; the sutures had fallen out, and only a faint white line gave evidence of the harm her leg had suffered.
The Warrior Princess woke Gabrielle, then went to the stables. Argo's welcoming nicker could be heard as her beloved owner approached. Xena wrapped her arms around the big Palomino's neck and the warhorse nuzzled her in return. "Hey, girl, ready to hit the trail?" the tall woman asked, in anticipation, as she forked some hay into Argo's feeding trough. It was difficult to tell who was more anxious to get underway, the warrior or her golden mare.
She packed the saddlebags with the provisions she had obtained the night before. The Amazons also had given her the promised horse and saddle for Phintias. Because time was so critical, they would have to ride. The warrior knew that Gabrielle, with her ribs cracked, couldn't handle a horse, so she would ride double on Argo. Xena prepared Argo and the borrowed horse for the journey and went to get the bard and Phintias.
The three travelers made good time on the trail and decided to stop near a stream for a short lunch break. Phintias's left knee was still badly swollen; it was a severe sprain. He had managed to pull himself up onto his horse at the beginning of the trip, but getting down was a little more awkward. Xena dismounted and lifted Gabrielle down from Argo's back. Then, recognizing the philosopher's plight, she walked over to assist him.
"Let me help you down" the dark-haired woman offered.
"Uh... Xena, I saw you lift Gabrielle down, but I'm a lot bigger. We'll both get hurt if I fall on you," Phintias pointed out as he hesitated. The Warrior Princess gave a little shrug and stepped closer. Her hands closed on both sides of Phintias's waist. She bent her legs at the knees and tightened her hands. Before he realized what she was about to do, Xena thrust up with her arms and her knees, heaved the philosopher clear of his horse, swung him around and settled him gently on the ground. About six inches from an exquisite face with the most luminous blue eyes he had ever looked into.
He was flabbergasted. For a moment, they just stared into each other's eyes. Finally, "By the gods, you are a strong woman," he exclaimed. "When Ephiny stopped to see me last night, we talked about our journey. She told me I was in the safest hands in Greece. Maybe she should have said the strongest!"
"That, too," advised the bard, smiling at her friend's discomfort at the praise.
"I'll... ah... see if I can find some berries, and... er... get you a crutch," the brave warrior stammered and disappeared into the forest.
The next two days passed uneventfully. Phintias made a number of attempts to engage Xena in trivial discussion but wasn't successful. Finally, exasperated, she blurted, "Phintias, I'm trying to get us safely to Athens. To do that, I need to stay focused. If you want to carry on a conversation, that's Gabrielle's department. She talks, I fight." The three were just entering an area where the trail widened.
"Sorry, Xena, I meant no harm, I just..." Phintias's words were cut off as Xena leapt from Argo's back, sword in hand.
"Gabrielle," she urged quietly, pointing, "take Phintias off to the side into the trees. Hurry!"
"But, Xena, I can help... " the young Queen objected. She could hear hoofbeats and knew it was more than one or two coming.
"Just DO it," Xena hissed. 'You're in no shape for an extended fight. And you might have to protect Phintias." The bard frowned, but whirled Argo toward the philosopher's horse.
Just as Gabrielle and Phintias entered the protection of the forest, a band of twelve brigands appeared. They came to a halt when they saw a lone woman, sword drawn, standing in their path. "Well, well, what have we here? Are you going to fight us all, lady?" As he spoke, the leader's eyes were searching the area around them.
Who is he looking for? "I'm no lady, and if you fellas have any sense, you'll go quietly, and leave me in peace," the dark-haired woman advised. She didn't look very threatening and the gang was laughing and joking among themselves.
"Can't do that, LADY, we have to earn our wages, now, don't we?" the leader sneered.
"Wages? For fighting me?" Xena asked.
"Maybe, maybe not. We're looking for a guy who's traveling with two women, one's a warrior. His name is Phintias. Have ya seen him? Or them? LADY?" he jeered.
A sudden and scary transformation occurred before the group's eyes. The woman grew taller, darker and more threatening as her relaxed stance changed abruptly to warlike readiness. The ex-warlord's lowered brow and stone face exuded menace. Electric blue eyes gleamed with a terror-invoking light and her lips slowly pulled back against her teeth in a feral grimace. "I guess I'm the one you're looking for, after all," a slow, deceptively soft, voice drifted across the open space.
The laughing and joking stopped. The humor had turned to dread. Every brigand there had been in enough fights to know when someone was bluffing, and they all knew this was no bluff. This woman was ready to fight. Whispers of the name, "Xena," could be heard and three of the bandits turned their horses and ran off. The other nine charged.
Xena whipped out her chakram and flung it to her right. The death-dealing weapon hit a tree, ricocheted straight across the trail through the throats of three outlaws, bounced off another tree, and returned to the warrior's hand. She hooked it back onto her side.
The Warrior Princess ducked the sword thrust of the leader, the first man to reach her, and grabbed his arm with one hand. Allowing his momentum to carry him, she unseated him with a vigorous yank and threw him against a tree, breaking his neck. I told you I was no lady. The second arrived just in time to be impaled on her sword. Placing one hand on his saddle as a pivot point, Xena extricated her sword from his chest, thrust her body up horizontally in the air and took out the third bandit with a mighty kick to his throat. In the same motion, she used his chest to propel herself into a flip even higher in the air and kicked out with both powerful feet to the heads of the next two riders. The last rider was knocked off his horse with the flat of her sword as the warrior was returning to earth.
Rushing to the outlaw lying in front of her, she applied pinch points to his neck. "Who sent you?" she growled. "You have about thirty seconds to answer before all the blood will rush out of your head, and you'll be dead."
"Someone all dressed in black leather, with black hair and a black beard, kinda creepy," the brigand answered in an agonized voice. "Paid us to find and kill a man named Phintias. We were told he would be coming this way with two women, one a warrior. He didn't say the warrior was Xena. We've been patrolling every day watching for him."
Ares. Why doesn't that surprise me? Xena released the pinch on the man's neck and slammed a fist into his jaw, knocking him out. What does Ares have to do with all this? Something beyond this cousin and property stuff. There's no gain for him in that.
Gabrielle and Phintias were approaching from the trees. The bard started out with a big smile on her face but when she got closer to the carnage, and realized only a few outlaws still lived, the smile wavered. Xena noticed the change and was troubled by it. The golden-haired woman noticed that Xena's face had not yet shed its stone warrior mask. "Xena, are you all right?" she asked.
"Yeah, I guess," was the warrior's short reply as she stared into space. Then she looked up toward the bard and fixed her with those intense blue eyes. "No, I'm not. Look, Gabrielle, I didn't start out to kill anyone but we don't have any time for finesse. I had to get rid of them quickly, and I did it the fastest way I know how. It's hard to protect us from harm and worry about killing the attackers, too. But there wasn't any vengeance in it, OK?"
'I understand, Xena. It's just... killing bothers me, especially when it may not be necessary. You know that. And I know it sometimes is part of this life we lead. I'm working on learning to live with it when it happens. I don't mean to upset you. Forget it?" The bard asked.
"Forgotten," answered the warrior, and her stony expression finally softened. She turned to the philosopher, "You know, Phintias, these outlaws were hired to kill you. Do you have any idea why?"
"No, I can't think of an answer to that. My cousin wouldn't want me dead. His scheme will work only if I'm alive. He's not in the line of inheritance from me or my parents."
"Another puzzle to solve," the Warrior Princess murmured, as she rubbed her chin in contemplation.
"Speaking of puzzles," piped up the bard. "When are you going to tell us the answer to the graveside tablet? I haven't been able to figure it out," she admitted.
"As soon as we reach Athens," the dark-haired woman answered with a small grin. "That'll give you some motivation to keep moving. So let's get outta here. Oh, and just in case there is an emergency, I wrote the answer on the parchment that's still under my bracer." Xena swung up onto Argo, behind her friend.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, "You know, Phintias, she just loves to keep us guessing."
"I rather like mysterious women," Phintias smiled.
"I never did get that smelly wolfskin," muttered Xena in Gabrielle's ear. "Or stop bathing, thank the gods," the bard smothered a giggle.
Finally, they were approaching the city. "You are both welcome to stay in my parents' home," offered Phintias. "There is plenty of room and the servants keep it open all year round. There are stables on the grounds, too, where the horses can be taken care of."
"Right," agreed Xena.
Gabrielle smiled to herself. Real beds, table food, servants, personal stables, and all Xena says is, 'Right.' Maybe the Warrior Princess was pampered sometimes, but I never have been. Sounds like a nice treat.
They traveled around the outskirts of Athens until they reached a luxurious estate. Servants rushed out to greet Phintias and his companions and to relieve them of their horses. The three crossed a colonnaded portico into an ornate, well appointed home. Phintias had a woman servant show Xena and Gabrielle to adjacent bedrooms, connected by an adjoining door. Xena removed her armor, including her sword and chakram. She laid her armbands and bracers on a table with the parchment. The servant, Posea, informed them that there was an enclosed bathing pool at the rear of the home that they were free to use.
Welcoming the opportunity to refresh themselves after three days of traveling, the two friends followed Posea to a huge, marble room with a large pool. Several marble benches were placed around the perimeter of the pool and nearby tables held soap, towels, washing cloths, robes and jars filled with perfumed crystals.
"Gabrielle, you better keep the binding around your ribs. I'll put a fresh one on for you after we bathe," Xena suggested.
The two women disrobed and walked to the edge of the pool. Xena was relieved to see that the terrible bruises on her friend's body were healing well.
"Wow!" breathed Gabrielle as she dipped a toe in the water.
"What?" The warrior teased. "Doesn't your family have a pool like this?"
"Well," the bard wrinkled her brow in mock seriousness, "our pool doesn't have heated water." With that remark, she gave the Warrior Princess a shove into the pool. Of course, being the Warrior Princess, she didn't hit the water alone. At the same time that Gabrielle's hand pushed her, Xena's bronzed hand closed around the bard's wrist, and they went in together.
When their heads bobbed back to the surface, Gabrielle spluttered, "No fair, I have cracked ribs. You're supposed to take it easy on me!"
Xena put on one of her nastiest warrior looks. "Remember, bard, if you're going to live dangerously, you gotta take the consequences." And promptly got splashed in the face. "Now you're in REAL trouble," she growled, reaching her long arms to her friend's shoulders, and dunking her.
While the two women were cavorting in the water, Posea placed some washing cloths, towels, jars of fragrant crystals, and a dish of soap within reach at the side of the pool. She took their discarded clothing and boots, leaving clean shifts for the women to wear. She left the room for a short interval then returned bearing fresh bandages for Gabrielle's ribs. She placed those on a table and retired from the room.
When they had finished their play, the friends made good use of the scented soap, covering themselves from tip to toe in its pleasant aroma. Xena unbraided and washed her own hair and then did the same for Gabrielle. "Xena," Gabrielle asked, "what do you think the crystals are for? The soap already makes us smell pretty good."
Xena started removing the tops of the crystal-bearing jars and sampling them with her nose. "I'm not sure, Gabrielle, maybe a special perfume for your hair. Each person could choose her favorite. Here's one that smells like spices from the east, one like a flower garden, one like sweet berries, and this last one kinda like the forest after a rainstorm. Maybe I'll try the forest rainstorm."
Gabrielle began checking each one out, too. "Xena," she coaxed, "You can smell like a forest rainstorm anytime. Why not be daring and try something different? The flower garden is more my style, but how about trying the sweet berries for you? It smells scrumptious."
The Warrior Princess rolled her eyes. "Leave it to you to pick something that reminds you of food," she gibed. "OK, I'll give it a try." She dipped her head completely under the water. When she lifted it back out, Gabrielle took a handful of crystals and rubbed them through her friend's hair. The crystals dissolved immediately and left behind their sweet berry fragrance.
"Ummm... that does smell nice," the bard assured her. "Now, do my hair with the flower garden crystals."
When they were finished, they got out of the pool and donned the robes. Xena wrapped the fresh bandages around Gabrielle's ribs then towel dried her own hair and Gabrielle's. When they both were completely dry, they exchanged the robes for the clean shifts.
"I wonder if our clothes will be cleaned when we get them back," Gabrielle speculated.
"I just hope they're not wet," the warrior said. "We don't have time to sit around waiting for them to dry."
Returning to their rooms, they were startled to see their outfits laid out on their beds, cleaned AND dry. Xena's leathers and all her armor gleamed with a fine sheen of oil. Even their boots had been cleaned and buffed.
"Xena!" the bard came rushing into her friend's room with one of her boots in her hand. "Smell this! You won't believe it... it actually smells fresh!"
"Well that's a first," the warrior said dryly. "Smell one of mine, if you dare. That'll be the true test."
The golden-haired woman leaned over one of Xena's boots and took a large sniff. "Arrrgh," spouted from her mouth and she grabbed her throat. Tossing her own boot in the air, she slowly collapsed onto the floor, her eyes closed and her face twisted into an agonized mask.
"I thought only horses could lose by a nose," the warrior drawled. Gabrielle started giggling and the Warrior Princess couldn't keep a straight face either. They both had a good laugh.
"Ohhh, it hurts to laugh with cracked ribs," the bard gasped, "but I needed that."
"Me, too," seconded Xena. "Now let's get dressed and go find some food. Then we'll have to talk strategy with Phintias."
The noon meal had been a feast. Gabrielle had been in her glory, out-eating Xena and Phintias combined. After eating, the three had moved to a conference room and sat at the end of a large table. "Phintias," Xena remarked, "before we do anything else, I want to thank you for your marvelous hospitality. Gabrielle and I have been through a lot these last few months, and this was a very welcome change. Now we feel refreshed and ready to get back to business."
"Xena," the philosopher answered, with a sad, sweet smile, "I'm happy you both had an opportunity to enjoy yourselves. If I could, I would choose to have us stay here for a while so we would have the chance to get to know each other better." Phintias's eyes were locked on Xena's fascinating blue ones.
The philosopher began to shake his head. "Sadly, for me, I don't have any extra time. The business I must attend to in Syracuse is extremely serious. Until that is settled, if it even can be, I am living under a death sentence."
Gabrielle reached out and touched Phintias's hand. She looked over at Xena. The Warrior Princess sat almost impassively; the only movement on her face was the quirking of an eyebrow.
Phintias wrenched his eyes away and took a deep breath. "But that's a tale for another day. Let's see what can be done for my parents, please."
Xena, glad for some action, produced the puzzle parchment and read it aloud to refresh everyone's memory.
"The following words were written on a tablet at a gravesite:
Two grandmothers, with their two granddaughters;
Two husbands, with their two wives;
Two fathers, with their two daughters;
Two mothers, with their two sons;
Two maidens, with their two mothers;
Two sisters, with their two brothers.
Only six lie buried here,
There was no incest, never fear.
If you know how this can be,
Both your parents will be free.
ANSWER THIS PUZZLE AND YOUR PARENTS GO FREE. IF YOU CANNOT ANSWER IT BEFORE THE NEXT FULL MOON, YOU MUST GIVE ME THE VALUE OF ONE-HALF OF YOUR ESTATE, OR NEVER SEE YOUR PARENTS AGAIN.
I SWEAR IT. Signed: "Eldred of Athens"
Xena looked at her two rapt listeners.
"Think of two married women who each have a son: Two mothers with their two sons.
Then their husbands die and they are widows.
They each marry the other woman's son: Two husbands with their two wives.
A daughter is born of each marriage: Two maidens with their two mothers; Two fathers with their two daughters and Two grandmothers with their two granddaughters.
And each husband is also a brother to the other couple's daughter: Two sisters with two brothers.
"Now if you count the people, there are only six. But all the relationships mentioned in the puzzle exist," said the warrior.
"Xena, how did you figure that out so quickly?" demanded the bard. "It only took you a few minutes, but Phintias and I never did get the answer."
"I have many sk... " the taller woman caught the exasperated look on her friend's face and broke into a big smile. "But this time, I have to admit, I just got lucky. Believe it or not, there was a widow in Amphipolis who married her best friend's son. Everyone used to kid them about their relationships. There were other children in both families and when grandchildren started coming, it got really mixed up. So, when I read the puzzle the first thing that occurred to me was that a widow who remarried was involved. It took me a minute to figure out that there were TWO widows. As soon as I realized that, the rest of it fell into place."
"That's wonderful, Xena. Now if you will accompany me to my cousin's house, perhaps we can secure the release of my parents," Phintias requested eagerly.
Eldred was stunned that his cousin had secured the answer to the puzzle. All his dreams of being wealthy evaporated. But, true to his word, he returned Phintias's mother and father to him. They had not been mistreated and were only mildly confused as to why their nephew had invited them to his home and then refused to let them return to theirs. Phintias greeted them warmly, then made arrangements to have them escorted safely home.
Phintias was filled with joy that his parents were unharmed and free. He knew he had Xena to thank and he did this profusely. "Tell me what you want, Xena, and if it is in my power, it will be yours. Please, I am so grateful, I want to do something for you." Just looking into those magnificent blue eyes made him want to give her the world. But his time in this world was sorely limited.
"Well, maybe you can do something for your cousin, instead. He really didn't hurt your parents. Perhaps you can find it in your heart to tell him you forgive him. And you have so many possessions-maybe you could settle something on him. It just might change his life, make a new man of him. Everybody deserves a chance at forgiveness," Xena suggested.
Phintias gazed at the imposing woman and his small smile kept growing and growing. "So, our magnificent warrior has a heart even more powerful than her sword," he beamed. "Consider it done. I'll give him the olive grove near Amphipolis, and hope that the gift will soften his resentment. And, I'll forgive him," he made a small bow to the Warrior Princess, who smiled her thanks to him.
The philosopher sent a message to the keeper of his accounts to have his promises carried out, and the three travelers began the next leg of their journey. This part would be a short one to the seaport of Piraeus adjacent to Athens. From there it would be a journey by boat to Syracuse.
"Xena," the bard confided, after Argo had carried them through the streets of Athens for a while, "I think that was a surprising suggestion you made to Phintias about his cousin. I mean, it was surprising to me. I mean... I was surprised you thought of it... I mean... you know what I mean," the bard finished lamely. For someone who's supposed to be good with words, I sure butchered that thought.
"Yeah, well, maybe I've been around you long enough to have learned the power of forgiveness. Maybe I'm finally starting to catch on," Xena answered softly.
Raising her voice, she continued. "I know something else I've learned. No more flower garden crystals on your hair. I didn't consider that you'd be riding with your head right beneath my nose. Sometimes even a good thing can drive you crazy!"
"Hahaha," the bard rejoined, "are we talking about me or my hair? Anyway, flower garden is better than Carrion Number 4," she suggested.
"Number 4?" Xena queried, with a quirked eyebrow. "What's that?"
"Four days deader than Carrion Number 1, of course," the golden-haired woman laughed. "Gotcha!"
"You know, my bard, people with cracked ribs shouldn't try to put one over on the person who has two elbows right next to those ribs," the warrior warned.
"Yes, my dear. Anything you say, my dear," Gabrielle said with mock fear. But her heart was singing. That's the first she's called me 'my bard' since...
"And don't you forget it," the bronzed woman growled.
The golden-haired woman reached behind her for a handful of the warrior's hair and sniffed it. "Well, this berry aroma is very pleasant," she remarked saucily. "Only...it makes me hungry."
"Figures," chuckled Xena.
Phintias, riding just behind Argo, smiled as he listened to the friendly banter. The closeness of these two women made him long to see his own best friend, waiting in Syracuse. His friend would die if Phintias didn't reach him in time.
The three were approaching the docks of Piraeus. "Xena, nobody said anything about a boat trip," the green-eyed woman remarked worriedly.
"Sorry, Gabrielle, I didn't realize you didn't know where Syracuse is. It's on an island off the coast of Italia. You just can't reach it without a boat," the warrior explained. "It's not a long trip, though, just a few days."
Phintias nudged his horse alongside Argo. "My father owns a shipping line here. I'll commandeer one of the ships to take us to Syracuse right away. I'll try to get one that trades in horses, Xena, that way we can take your warhorse with us."
"That's very thoughtful of you, Phintias." She reached back and patted the big palomino, "Argo here is a member of the family. I'm glad I won't have to board him somewhere. Will you need the mount you've been riding?"
"No, I live in Syracuse," the philosopher assured her. "I have horses there. I'll find a place here in Piraeus to stable the animal and you can pick him up when you return. Why don't you and Gabrielle take a look around the docks while I make travel arrangements?"
Xena nodded and dismounted. She reached up and lifted Gabrielle to the ground. She turned to Phintias, raised her hands, and quirked an eyebrow. "No, no," he raised a restraining hand and laughed. "I need to ride further down the dock. I'll get help there, thank you. I'll meet you along here in about twenty minutes," he said as he turned away.
The docks were laden with a wide variety of goods either being loaded or unloaded. The friends strolled among them with interest. "I have a question for you, Xena," the bard laid her hand on the warrior's arm to stop her progress. Xena stopped and looked down with a slight lifting of her eyebrows. Gabrielle looked up into those remarkable cobalt-blue pools. As occasionally transpired, her friend's overwhelming beauty made her heart lurch a little. I never know when that's going to happen, but it's such a nice, warm feeling when it does, the bard thought blissfully. She doesn't even know how beautiful she is. Or how happy it makes me sometimes, just to look at her.
"Yes?" Xena prodded.
Gabrielle took a moment to pull her thoughts back together. "Mostly in the past, you never offered to help someone, like Phintias, who obviously could hire people to assist him. What was different this time?"
The warrior pursed her lips and frowned. "Funny you should ask that, Gabrielle. From the first moment I saw Phintias, in the healer's tent, I felt some sort of attraction. I'm not talking about physical attraction, though he is good looking," the dark-haired woman smiled. "No, I'm talking about some outside force that seems to be drawing me to help him."
Xena's demeanor became more intense and she grabbed both of Gabrielle's arms. "Think a minute. Doesn't this all seem a little strange? Phintias needs to get to Syracuse to save his friend. First, he's slowed down by a ridiculous kidnapping of his parents; second, he's beaten and deliberately disabled--someone purposely twisted that knee of his; third, he was attacked on the trail and the danger escalated into intent to kill. That change seems to have occurred because we offered to help him. And, as I said, I think somehow I've been LED to help him."
The warrior was deep in thought. "I believe Ares hired those outlaws, probably both times. For some reason, he doesn't want Phintias to reach Syracuse."
"But why?" the bard asked, confused.
"I haven't figured that out yet," the warrior dropped her hold on her friend's arms. "But, until I do, I just have to keep following wherever I'm being led."
Xena reached again and grasped Gabrielle's shoulder. "Gabrielle, you don't have to come on this trip. Maybe... "
"NO!" the golden-haired woman stated emphatically and stomped her foot in irritation. "Xena, when we talked things out in the cave and agreed to try to straighten out our troubles, I should have put this on the list of major complaints. You will FORGET trying to leave me behind 'for my own good.' We are partners. 'Where you go, I go' is still in effect! So, FORGET it!"
The penitent Warrior Princess put her hand up to ward off the bard's annoyance. "OK, OK," she soothed, "It's forgotten."
"That's better," muttered Gabrielle, mollified. Looking past Xena's shoulder, she saw Phintias approaching, still on horseback. "Here comes Phintias," she told the Warrior Princess unnecessarily. But the momentary diversion gave her a chance to calm down.
"Everything's all set," the philosopher called. "Follow me. We'll get Argo aboard and stabled and find our cabins. The ship will leave in about an hour, so we'll have an opportunity to eat while still at port," he smiled at Gabrielle.
She smiled back up at the considerate man, "Sounds great to me." Xena picked her friend up and put her on Argo's back then swung up behind her. The travelers set out to find the ship.
Even on shipboard Xena arose before daylight. Each morning, she donned her leathers and gear and climbed topside. The deck in the stern of the ship was deserted so she used the empty space to perform the regimen of exercise that kept her in top condition.
This morning, as usual, she started out slowly, brandishing her sword in all possible directions as she moved with agility about the deck. Thrusts and twirls and leaps and kicks were added as she warmed to the task. Suddenly, her skin began to crawl and she came to an abrupt halt. "Show yourself, Ares, my crawling skin knows you're here," she challenged.
With a burst of light, the God of War appeared. "I just can't sneak up on you anymore, Xena, our connection is growing too strong," he taunted.
"I'd like to connect you with my fist," the Warrior Princess jeered contemptuously. "What are you doing here, Ares?"
The god put a hurt look on his face, "I'm just looking out for you, Xena. I want you to turn around and go back to Greece. You're getting mixed up in something that doesn't concern you and you might get hurt. Or your little friend might get hurt," he scowled.
"You know your threats have never stopped me before, Ares, and they won't stop me now. Besides, I feel drawn to help Phintias. Almost like it's my destiny to be here." The dark-haired woman tried a more intimate tone, "Who's been leading me here, Ares? Some god you've made an enemy of?"
"Oh, this is 'precious,' Ares sneered. "You've been leading yourself here, Xena, and you don't even know it. You have some kind of extra sense that tells you when I'm involved in something and an unconscious urge seems to compel you to stop me. You've led yourself into this mess, just because you love to interfere with my plans," the dark God of War complained sarcastically.
The handsome god's voice changed and he reached for a handful of the warrior's hair, "Those unconscious urges used to lead you TO me, not against me," he purred. He lifted the hair to his lips but stopped, wrinkled his nose and, with a comical expression on his face, snorted, "Berries? Oh, mighty Warrior Princess, how you've changed! That irritating little blonde is turning you into a softy." He waved his arm and was gone.
Softy, huh? You just keep on believing that, Ares. We'll see who the softy is. Xena smiled to herself in anticipation of going head to head with the God of War. She resumed her exercises with renewed vigor.
Later, Xena informed Gabrielle and Phintias of her run-in with Ares. "Phintias, when we disembark make sure you stay close to me. Ares sent those other assassins and he may try again to have you killed. For some reason, he wants you dead."
Gabrielle was used to the eerie relationship between her friend and the God of War, but the philosopher's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "You know the God of War?" he asked incredulously.
"Yeah, Phintias, I used to work for him. I'm an ex-warlord," Xena confessed tersely. "That's how I learned most of my fighting skills."
"But now you fight on the side of good." The philosopher understood at once that the warrior had changed her path.
"Maybe someday you can persuade Gabrielle to tell you all about it," Xena smiled. "She is an accomplished bard, you know."
"I'd like that," the philosopher enthused, then his countenance darkened. "But I've just about run out of tomorrows. I can't figure why Ares would want to kill me. I'll be dead by this time tomorrow, anyway."
Phintias knew it was time to tell his companions the full information about his situation. "Xena, Gabrielle, let me tell you MY story about this journey to Syracuse. Perhaps you know that the ruler of Syracuse is a man named Dionysius?"
The bard looked at her dark-haired friend who nodded in agreement. "He's the Dionysius who first used the catapult in a battle, isn't he? I heard he invented the idea," the ex-warlord stated.
"That's correct," the philosopher said. "My best friend and I were visiting his court and I was falsely accused of spying. Dionysius was so angry with me, he sentenced me to death. My friend offered to stay in Syracuse in my place, under sentence of death, if the ruler would let me return to Greece to settle my substantial affairs. Dionysius finally was persuaded to do this, but he was adamant that my friend would be executed in my place if I didn't return at the appointed time. And tomorrow at midday is the appointed time."
Phintias' brow furrowed. "We'll be docking at Syracuse near first light tomorrow. If Ares makes another attempt to stop me, that could very well prevent me from saving my friend's life. Xena, please," Phintias reached down, took one of Xena's long hands in both of his and pleaded, "you and Gabrielle know how important a good friend is. Help me get to the palace in time to save mine."
A very slight tremor passed across the warrior's sculpted face. She gently extricated her hand from Phintias' grasp. "Phintias, we agreed to help you. We're not leaving until your friend is saved. If Ares sends you any further trouble, it'll have to get past me."
Phintias knew he himself was no fighter. "Thank the gods for having sent me to you, Xena."
Xena smiled to herself at the ironic truth to that statement. If Ares hadn't sent brigands to waylay Phintias, he would not have been brought to the Amazon camp where he met Xena and Gabrielle. I guess you could consider that being sent by the gods! she mused.
"Let's all get some sleep. Tomorrow could be an active day," the warrior suggested.
Xena was up predawn readying Argo for disembarking. "Hello, girl, ready to leave this moving stable?" The golden mare nickered in welcome. Xena led the warhorse out of the stall and took her out onto the deck. She walked Argo several times around the deck, as she had done each day of the journey over the water. Then the warrior took her steed back to the stall, brushed her down, then saddled and bridled her. She gave the mare a hug and the horse nuzzled her owner's back. "I'll be back to get you soon, girl," Xena promised.
The Warrior Princess went forward toward the bow of the ship and could see the approaching dawn outlining the houses and docks of Syracuse in the east. As she passed Phintias' room, she knocked on the door. Phintias, fully dressed, popped his head out. "All ready, Xena," he greeted her.
"Great," Xena returned. "Now let me check on Gabrielle," she smiled. She knocked on Gabrielle's door and entered. The bard was dressed and sitting on her bunk, slapping her wrist. "Are you still doing that?" Xena laughed.
"It's NOT funny, Xena, just because you never get seasick," grumbled her friend. "Thank the gods, we'll be on dry land soon," she breathed.
"Looks like we'll be docking in about 15 minutes," the dark-haired woman informed her. "C'mon out on deck with Phintias, you'll feel better. I'll go get Argo."
The ship pulled into the dock just as Phintias finished expressing his gratitude to the captain. The three shipmates walked down the gangplank with Xena leading Argo. Phintias' knee was almost as good as new, so he was no longer limping. As soon as they hit the dock, Xena lifted Gabrielle onto the golden mare and climbed on behind her. It felt good to wrap her legs around the familiar warhorse's flanks.
"The palace is on the northern side of the city," Phintias said. "It will take a while to get there. We'll have to stop at a stable to get a horse for me but we won't need to stop for food. I've brought us some cakes to eat as we travel."
"My stomach is very grateful," Gabrielle smiled. "I can eat again now that we're on land. I have a little trouble keeping anything down when the ground shifts every time I take a step!"
"I own a stable behind that shipping office just ahead. I'll get a horse there," Phintias explained and turned in to the doorway. The two women surreptitiously exchanged raised-eyebrow looks. "I knew that," Gabrielle nodded sagely.
"Keep it up, my bard, and your ribs are going to be screaming, 'Elbow alert,'" the warrior warned.
The golden-haired woman snickered and thrust her elbow back into Xena's stomach. Of course, the only thing that resulted was a sore elbow for the bard. She was saved any retaliation from her friend by Phintias' quick emergence on the back of a beautiful black horse. "Follow me," he prompted and they fell in behind him.
They were making pretty good time through the city even though the people seemed to be unusually restless. Xena, who picked up quickly on dangerous situations, was uneasy with the discontent she felt in the atmosphere. "Phintias, do you have any idea why the people seem so upset," she called to him as they approached the center square.
"I haven't a clue, Xena," he replied. Just then, the Warrior Princess spurred Argo forward and pulled next to Phintias' mount. The hair on Gabrielle's arms stood on end as she could feel the tension flowing through the body of the woman behind her.
Xena stood up in her stirrups, grasped the bard on both sides of her waist, picked her up and swung her over behind Phintias before either of those two realized what she was doing. Without a word, she pulled Argo forward and loosened her chakram. By this time all three of them could hear hoofbeats crashing down the street toward them. "Stay here!" Xena ordered and urged Argo forward into the square. "Yiyiyiyiyiyi," came the war cry that injected paroxysms of shock into those who recognized it. Unfortunately for these attackers, they did not realize it was a death knell.
Eight men, in two groups of four each, were coming toward her at full gallop, their swords raised. Xena cast her chakram against a side building. It bounced off a post, struck a door lintel and swerved into the first two riders' helmets, putting them out of commission. The lethal weapon then returned to the dark-haired woman's upraised and waiting hand and she rehooked it at her side.
The other horsemen split into two lines attacking on either side. The warrior caught the first rider on the right with the edge of her sword, cleanly taking off his head. The second received a thrust to his chest. She kicked out to her left and unseated the first one on that side with a blow to his neck. She ducked the second one's sword swipe and delivered an unexpected punch to his nose, driving the bones into his skull. The last two riders hesitated just long enough for Xena to sheathe her sword, stand on Argo's back, bend her knees and thrust up into a mighty leap. "Yiyiyiyiyiyi," spouted forth again from the warrior's mouth. She kicked one rider from his mount like knocking over a toy soldier, bounced on his horse's saddle back into the air and took out the other outlaw by landing on his face with both feet. Then she backflipped to the ground, pulled her sword and looked around for any further attackers.
The people in the square who had witnessed this incredible show of warrior skills burst into applause, led by Phintias and Gabrielle. The Warrior Princess nodded her head in recognition of their adulation and a flush brushed lightly across her cheeks. "C'mon, Phintias," she growled, "we have to get to the palace." She leapt aboard Argo.
"Did you say Phintias?" queried one of the bystanders.
"Yes, I'm Phintias," the philosopher admitted.
"Well then, Phintias, that's your scaffold they've built over there," the bystander informed him, pointing to the contraption across the square. "But we all thought Dionysius was going through with his threat to execute the philosopher, Damon, in your place. Everyone is fed up with the way Dionysius has been jailing and executing the very people who brought him to power, us. Then, on top of that, we've been appalled that he would actually kill an innocent man if the condemned one didn't show up in time. We are prepared to rise up against him."
"No, no," Phintias remonstrated. "Please give me a chance to talk to Dionysius, first. Perhaps I can make him see reason. A lot of good people could get hurt if you fight."
"All right," the man promised. "I'm one of the leaders of the revolt. We will wait to see what success you have. But if Dionysius continues to unjustly jail people, we will revolt no matter what happens here today."
"We're on our way to the palace now," Phintias informed him. He turned to Xena. "Are you ready?"
"Lead on," the Warrior Princess directed.
The palace was one of the grandest buildings Gabrielle had ever seen. They passed through a huge grass-lined colonnade at the end of which servants waited to tend to their horses. Xena dismounted and handed Argo's reins to a young man. She moved to Phintias' horse and lifted Gabrielle down from behind him.
Phintias swung his leg across his mount and slipped down. The same young man took the reins of Phintias' horse and moved away.
"Tell Dionysius that Phintias is here to redeem the philosopher, Damon," Phintias said to another servant. The young man disappeared into the vast building and returned shortly. "Follow me, sir, I will take you to our ruler." Phintias and the two women trailed after him.
They were led into a huge room where Dionysius was ensconced with several of his courtiers. Damon was being held off to one side of the room, in preparation for his imminent execution. When he spied Phintias, his whole expression became one of joy, but this was followed in short order by one of regret. When Xena saw his reaction, she recognized that this must be Damon. Phintias longed to go to him, but, as the returning prisoner, he first had to pay homage to Dionysius. He approached the ruler with deference and bowed. "Hail, Dionysius. I, Phintias, have returned as promised. And I have brought with me two visitors from Greece, Xena, the Warrior Princess, and Gabrielle, a renowned bard."
When Dionysius heard Xena's name his face paled. "I have heard of the mighty Warrior Princess and her title, Destroyer of Nations. Are you here with your army, Xena?"
"No, Dionysius, I come in peace. If there is a war here, it won't be because of me, but rather because of you," the warrior pulled herself up into her most imposing stance, her cobalt-blue eyes sending a barely veiled threat. "Your people are prepared to revolt against you because of your unjust jailing and executing of the very ones who brought you to power, the common people."
"How can you know this?" Dionysius demanded, frowning.
"We have just spoken to one of the leaders of the revolt," Phintias claimed. "He said that your threat to execute Damon, even though he was innocent of any wrongdoing, was one too many twigs in a bundle of injustices."
"But, you are here now. Damon won't be executed, you will be," Dionysius said.
"NO!" Damon broke loose from the man who was holding him. He ran to Phintias and threw his arms around him in a bear hug. "I won't let you kill Phintias. If he is guilty, then so am I. Kill me as you planned and let him go free."
Phintias returned the hug of his friend then stepped back, holding his shoulders. Tears welled in the eyes of both friends. "No, Dionysius, I am the one who was condemned. I am the one to be executed."
"I won't allow it, Phintias. Your death, to me, would be the same as my death. My dear friend, I can't imagine life without you beside me," Damon agonized. "Please, Dionysius, take me."
"Never, Damon," Phintias began, "you...
"WAIT!" Xena's commanding growl brought dead silence and a snapping of every head toward her piercing glare.
She stepped to within two feet of Dionysius' raised dais, putting him at eye level with her, and fixed him with the floodlight brilliance of her electric eyes. "May I speak?" more a demand than a request. The ruler dipped his head in permission.
Xena stood for a moment gazing into Dionysius' rapt eyes. "I have traveled with Phintias, from the Amazon Nation in Greece, to your city. I will vouch for his honesty; and I do not believe he is guilty of spying."
The ex-warlord's whole demeanor softened perceptibly. "You're an intelligent man," she caressed Dionysius with her enticing voice. "Surely you can see that executing either one of these innocent men could trigger the uprising that has been threatened. An uprising that will remove you from power and may even lead to YOUR execution." Dionysius frowned at the implications of what she was saying.
The beautiful Warrior Princess continued, stroking the ruler's ego with her alluring tones, "On the other hand, if you pardon Phintias... and let it be known that it was because you were touched by the remarkable friendship of these two comrades... you save face and make yourself look good again to your people." The ruler started to nod slowly as he began to see the worth of what Xena was suggesting.
"And..." the gorgeous blue eyes and sweet smile recaptured the ruler's complete attention, "if you go one step further... and pardon those in your jails who were unjustly put there... you will be a HERO to your people again... Instead of an uprising, you will have a celebration."
Dionysius sat turning all this over in his mind for a full minute of silence. Then he rose and stepped down directly in front of the extraordinary woman, face to face. "Xena," he smiled, "you missed your calling. You should have been a diplomat." Then he shocked everyone there, and especially Xena, by seizing her shoulders, kissing her full on the lips and pulling her into a big hug. As his mouth came alongside her ear, he whispered, "You owed me that, my dear, for allowing you to seduce me into this." Dionysius and Xena were both smiling broadly as he pulled back and stepped up to his throne.
"I choose to do what Xena has suggested. I hereby decree that Phintias is pardoned and all prisoners, except those who have committed major crimes, shall be set free. Tomorrow we will have a great banquet here and the whole town will be given food and drink to join in the celebration. And Xena will sit with me at the banquet," he directed, with a bow in her direction. With a raised eyebrow, and quirked smile, the Warrior Princess nodded acquiescence.
Applause rang out through the huge room.
Damon and Phintias hugged each other again, then Phintias turned to Xena. "May I give you a thank you kiss, also?" he smiled inquiringly. "Hey, join the crowd," laughed the warrior and she allowed the friendly philosopher a hug and a kiss.
"My heartfelt gratitude, Xena," murmured the philosopher, "for saving my life and the life of my friend. I will always be in your debt. I..."
The Warrior Princess' eyes glinted and she put a bronzed hand on Phintias' lips. "You don't owe me anything, Phintias," her husky voice assured him. "Now, how about introducing us to your friend."
After the introductions, the four friends left the palace and made their way to Phintias' home. The two women were shown to their rooms where they had an opportunity to bathe before eating. Phintias had one of the servant women leave a choice of several comfortable silk shifts in their rooms to change into after washing.
"Xena, look at this pattern," Gabrielle enthused as she picked up a shift splashed with a variety of colors.
"That one's definitely for you, Gabrielle," the warrior smirked. "It's a perfect match for your flower garden hair."
By now, the smaller woman was tired and a little out of sorts. "Look, Xena, so far, you've had all the fun on this trip. You solved Phintias' puzzle, you took care of all the fights, you persuaded Dionysius to free Damon AND Phintias, and you got to kiss two good-looking men," the bard itemized. "I feel totally unneeded. At least let me look and smell good without giving me a hard time about it."
To Xena's surprise, Gabrielle was obviously upset. The bronzed warrior walked over to her friend and wrapped her long arms around her. "Gabrielle, you know it's my fault you couldn't do any fighting. With that battered body and cracked ribs, your job was to heal. But remember, as long as I am on this earth, you will never be unneeded. I couldn't accomplish all these things--solving puzzles, winning fights, freeing Damon and Phintias--if you weren't here to anchor me. A few weeks ago we went through a terrible time. But we got through it together. If you hadn't been there to help me out of the depths, I would never have made it. I need you-always. And forever. Right?"
The mist-green eyes looked up into the intense blue ones and the bard nodded. "Forever," she whispered, then smiled through a sniffle as the warrior rejoined with her usual growl, "And don't you forget it!"
As they parted, Xena said with a wry grin, "And the next time, YOU can kiss the good-looking guys! That's a promise."
"And don't you forget it," Gabrielle growled in imitation of the warrior and then, laughing, gave her friend another quick hug.
"Xena, I kinda thought there was a little spark there when Phintias kissed you," the golden-haired woman teased.
"Yeah, Gabrielle," the warrior admitted, "but we come from totally different worlds and we both know there's no future for us together. So, the kiss was nice, and a little exciting, but that's the end of it." The dark-haired woman scowled, "And that IS the end of it, right?"
"OK, OK," the bard conceded. She could tell that Xena was getting a little testy. I guess she's tired, too. It's been a tough day. "Which shift do you want, Xena?" the bard held up a lustrous blue one and a pastel lavender one. Xena pointed to the lavender shift.
The two women washed and changed. "I have to admit, these loose clothes are more comfortable," Gabrielle smiled.
A servant appeared at the doorway to invite them to join the gentlemen in the lounge for a small repast.
In the course of the evening's conversation, shortly before retiring, Xena asked a question she had been wondering about for some time. "Phintias, when we were at your parents' home, we used the bathing pool. Not only was the water warm, but it was in continual motion. Soap suds moved out of the pool almost as fast as we produced them. Where did the water come from and how was it heated?"
"That is unique, isn't it?" Phintias enthused. "Even I haven't come across anything like it anywhere else except where there are natural hot springs. My father purposely had the house built just above the foot of a mountain that contained the mouth of a large creek. He had the builder put in a huge room suited to building and maintaining fires. Then he had some of the creek water diverted through channeling into the bottom of a large, tipped cistern in the "fire" room.
"The cistern was placed over a constant fire that heated the water. The warm water flowed out of the tipped top of the cistern and was channeled into the pool that was built in the room below. A large hole to receive the soiled water was dug in the ground near the pool. That water filters through the earth and is reclaimed at the very bottom of the mountain and is used to irrigate the lower olive groves. Because the creek always flows, the water is always in motion."
"Ingenious," marveled the dark-haired woman. "And they hung our clothes in there to dry, right?"
"Yes, that is an extra luxury for the household servants. They never have to go outside in bad weather to hang clothes," Phintias elaborated.
"Well that solves that mystery. The next mystery is what to wear to the banquet tomorrow," reminded Gabrielle. "I apologize for presuming on your hospitality, Phintias, but do you think you could lend us some dinars to purchase something suitable to wear?"
Xena looked askance at her friend. "Don't look at me like that, Xena. We can't go in our everyday clothes. Our warrior costumes are not banquet material," the bard scolded.
Phintias laughed at Xena's frown. "Gabrielle's right, Xena. I'll be happy to provide the gowns for you. Dionysius will expect something a little fancier than your usual costume. Especially for the Warrior Princess who is sitting with him."
Xena scowled irritably, "Did you have to remind me? I don't enjoy being on display."
"Well if you're going to go around kissing rulers, you WILL be on display, you know," Phintias teased. Xena curled her lip and snorted and Phintias and Damon laughed out loud. Xena's eyes narrowed.
Gods, thought Gabrielle, amazed, they don't even have the good sense to be afraid of making fun of her. Hope the Warrior Princess makes allowances for their lack of respect and doesn't knock them across the room. Philosophers!
"Uh... Xena," the bard intervened quickly. "I think maybe it's time to retire, now. We've all had a tiring day."
All agreed that was a good suggestion, said their goodnights and left for their individual rooms.
The next day, after an early lunch, the women went into town. There was bustling activity as the people prepared for the celebration Dionysius had promised them. He was providing free food and drink, and the townspeople were arranging their own entertainment.
The two friends made a search of the shops and purchased their gowns for the banquet. Gabrielle's was a soft yellow and she insisted that Xena get one that was blue and made of a material that changed tint as the wearer moved. "It's perfect, Xena. Your eyes are always changing color from light to medium to dark blue and now your gown will, too!" the bard observed.
"Right," the impatient warrior observed dryly. "Now that we have our gowns, let's get back. I want to take Argo out into the countryside for a good run before she has to go back on that ship. I've told Phintias that we plan to leave tomorrow. This morning, he made arrangements for our passage with the ship's captain."
The two friends returned to Phintias' home with their packages. Xena changed into her leathers and armor and took Argo out for an extended run while Gabrielle hung their gowns up and then rested.
The Warrior Princess was in her glory. She took Argo into some newly turned fields for a warm-up canter then opened her up into a full gallop. The golden horse and rider flew as one being into the wind. Past the fields into the forest they soared with the warrior's heart singing as the wind whipped her loosened hair across her face. For one short moment in time, Xena could let down the defenses she had to constantly maintain for self-preservation. She was free. The beloved horse and her majestic rider were both exhilarated.
She slowed her warhorse to a stop in a small glade near a stream. While Argo drank from the brook and chewed on the tasty grass, Xena enjoyed the serenity of her surroundings. Unfortunately, the serenity didn't last. She suddenly felt nauseous and her skin got creepy.
"What a way to ruin a lovely day. Show yourself, Ares," she muttered. "I know you're here." With a flash of light the God of War appeared.
"Well, Xena, I guess you're happy now," the god sneered. "You've spoiled all my plans for a civil war in Syracuse. I spent months preparing the scene," he complained, "and you upset the whole scheme in fifteen minutes. You convince Dionysius to settle for... PEACE." He spit the word out as though it were rotten.
"Stop your whining, Ares," Xena snorted. "I have more right to complain than you have. First, you try to get me to kill my mother, and then you try to get me to kill Gabrielle. Maybe, if you left me alone, I'd leave you alone. Did you ever consider that?"
"Fat chance of that," the God of War countered. "That nicey-nice friend of yours wouldn't let you ignore me and you know it."
"You're probably right," Xena admitted. "Her heart is always in the right place. And she's teaching me how to get there."
"Why do you think I wish you were rid of her?" Ares confessed. The God of War's voice became charged with passion, "I want you back, Xena. You were special to me and I want that feeling again. I watched you riding Argo just now. You looked as you used to look when leading your troops into battle. That same freedom of spirit. You didn't care whether you lived or died... you weren't afraid of anything. You were... relentless. Come back to me," his sensuous lips pleaded. "I can give you the world. You know you still have some feelings for me."
The Warrior Princess steeled herself to ignore his entreaties. That dark side of me does still have feelings for him, but I would never admit that to him. "Go away Ares, give it up. I can be just as relentless in denial. I will NEVER come back to you. I like my life now and I like myself better for it."
"What if I do get rid of the bard?" Ares threatened. "How great would your life be then?"
Xena sneered darkly at the God of War. "If you thought you could get me back by killing Gabrielle, you would have done it a long time ago. You know that wouldn't work. I would hate you too much to ever turn to you." She stuck her face right into Ares' face. "And you better keep remembering that," she hissed.
She is the boldest, most aggravating woman I know, Ares scowled in frustration. And the most desirable.
"Some day, some way... You WILL return," the God of War disappeared in his usual flash of light.
Some of the brightness had been stolen from the day. Why won't he leave me alone? Xena lamented to herself. The warrior climbed on Argo's back and returned to the stable at an easy gallop, walking Argo for the last mile.
She arrived back at the stable, brushed Argo down and left the rest of her care in the capable hands of the stable boy. It was time to clean up for the banquet. And try to get rid of this nasty mood. Why do I let him affect me like this? the dark-haired woman berated herself.
As soon as Xena entered their rooms, Gabrielle sensed a change in her. "What's wrong, Xena?" she asked, frowning. "Did something happen out there?"
"Nothing that you need to worry about," the warrior snapped and flopped down in a chair.
Gabrielle flinched as if she had been slapped and Xena was immediately contrite. She rubbed a long hand across her face and stared into space. "Gabrielle... I'm sorry... I didn't mean to snap at you like that. Yes, something happened out there. Ares showed up... but I don't want to talk about it. I don't want you to know that he's still threatening you... and me.
"Xena, sometimes it's better to talk about something that's bothering you," the bard pressured persuasively.
Xena seemed to be dragging her words out of her mouth. "Gabrielle... you know we are two very different personalities.... You seem to want to talk out... everything that bothers you.... But I don't... I sorta have a secret door... locked away in the darkest, coldest part of my heart... where I put every hateful, nasty thing... that has happened so far in my life."
The bronze face was very still, with only a slight tremor of the chiseled lips. The warrior's fingers began unconsciously tying and untying a leather knot on her body armor. She was silent for so long, Gabrielle thought her friend was finished with her revelations. The bard quietly went about laying their gowns out on one of the beds, half afraid to break the silence.
Xena was obviously struggling with some deep emotions. After a long time had passed, the warrior spoke again. "When something awful happens... I take a look at it, to see if I can fix it or change it... If I can't, then I open that door, toss the awful thing inside... and slam the door shut. I don't want to see it again, don't want to dredge it up again, and most of all... don't want to talk about it.
"Back in the cave, when we were both trying so hard to reconnect with each other, I pulled out everything that concerned our relationship... I did this because I knew that YOU needed to hear and examine them. It was very, very hard for me to do that... but I did it for us. Examining them didn't help me; it helped you. But by helping you... I helped myself.
"There are a lot of terrible things that have happened in my life that have no connection with you... and it wouldn't help you OR me to talk about them... I know you believe hurtful problems would be better if exposed to the light of day, even scrutinized. And maybe that works for you. That's fine... But it doesn't work for me... Every time I re-examine or try to talk about something terrible from my past, I hurt all over again, even worse than the first time. If you can understand... and accept... that this is a part of me that's very different from any part of you... maybe you won't be so upset when I won't let you open that door." The somber woman finally turned her cerulean eyes on her friend, beseechingly. "OK?"
"I don't really understand, Xena, how anyone can solve a problem by burying it. But, you're right, we ARE very different personalities and I'll accept that how I handle difficulties isn't the same way you handle them. I don't understand it, but I will try to respect it. If I knock too hard on your secret door, just let me know... and I'll try to back off." The bard walked over to the disturbed Warrior Princess and laid her hand on her friend's hands to still the restlessly tying fingers.
"This thing with me and Ares..." Xena hesitated.
"Yes," Gabrielle prompted.
"You need to back off," the warrior stated softly.
"All right, Xena, I will... for now," Gabrielle gave a tiny worried smile. She laid her palm on a bronzed cheek. Leaning down she kissed the dark head, then dropped her hand and raised back up. "You know, I've been wanting to do that for the longest time, but I can't usually reach the top of your head," she grinned, in an attempt to lighten the warrior's mood. "And, by the way, I can still smell the berries!"
Relieved that her best friend was not seriously upset by her words, Xena worked at shaking off her foul frame of mind and forced a grin in return. "Well, now that your ribs are getting better, you can ride behind me to the docks tomorrow," she drawled, " and you'll get another chance to smell the berries. And MY nose will get a rest from your flower garden." The two friends smiled gently at each other in unison.
"Now," Gabrielle took a deep breath, "let's get ready for the banquet."
Phintias had arranged for a carriage to take the four friends to the banquet hall. Just as they were preparing to enter the carriage, a messenger arrived with a note from Dionysius to Xena. Xena broke the wax seal and opened the parchment. She looked up, with raised eyebrows, at the others. "He wants me to bring my sword. Says he has a special use for it." She turned to one of the ever-present servants. "Will you bring it, please. It's hanging on the clothes rack in my room." The sword was brought and Phintias took charge of it.
"Xena, Gabrielle, you ladies look absolutely stunning," Phintias complimented them. Damon added his agreement. Gabrielle slanted a mischievous look at her friend, half expecting her to come out with her, "I'm no lady" line. Xena just quirked an eyebrow, gave a little shrug and looked back at her with a totally innocent smile on her face. The Warrior Princess swung her head back to Phintias and Damon, smiled sweetly and thanked them for their gallant words.
When they arrived at the reception room adjacent to the banquet hall and were announced, Dionysius himself came to greet them. He bowed to the women and complimented them on their beauty. "Xena, did you bring your sword?" he questioned eagerly.
"Here it is, Dionysius," Phintias answered and handed him the unique weapon.
"What do you want it for?" Gabrielle inquired, knowing Xena would not ask.
"One of my courtiers, a sometimes pompous man named Damocles, has constantly belittled the difficulties of being a ruler. When I try to explain to him just how precarious the power and rank of a ruler can be, he disparages my every attempt to convince him.
"So, I thought I would teach him a little lesson. He is here at the banquet and will be seated in a certain chair. I intend to hang a sword, held only by a hair, over his head. The sword will represent the various dangers that a ruler has always hanging over HIS head. We'll see if he is able to eat his dinner with no loss of appetite," Dionysius rubbed his hands together with glee.
"I thought it would be even more appropriate to hang the sword used by an actual warlord since they cause problems for so many leaders. Hence, my request for YOUR sword, Xena, by your leave," the ruler inclined his head toward the dark-haired woman.
"I kinda like the idea," smiled the ex-warlord. "Here, you might as well use my hair, too," she offered. She reached to the crown of her head and pulled out a single long hair.
Dionysius was delighted. He called over the servant who was supposed to place the sword and handed the weapon and hair to him. The servant went off to set the sword in place as instructed.
Dionysius folded Xena's arm into his and took her off to introduce her to some of his friends, including Damocles. Damon, Phintias and Gabrielle mingled until dinner was announced. Each person was called by name to enter the hall and be seated.
Because Syracuse was a busy and wealthy port, many exotic viands were available. And plenty of drinks. Different wines were obtainable from huge, spouted tureens placed every five feet along the spacious banquet table. Gabrielle was suitably impressed. She was also impressed when she and Phintias and Damon were led to seats at the head table with Dionysius and Xena. In fact, to her pleasant surprise, she was seated next to the warrior, who was sitting beside the ruler.
The room became quiet as Dionysius rose to speak. "My friends, first of all, I wish to admit to a small prank I have played on a friend of the court. Damocles," he called, "look at the ceiling above your head. What you see suspended there is the sword of Xena, the Warrior Princess." A murmur went around the room.
"Yes, this beautiful woman seated next to me is the warlord, Xena." He nodded in the warrior's direction. "And I will have more to tell you about her in a few moments."
"You remember, Damocles, the discussions we have had on leadership. Whenever I tried to explain how every leader always had to worry that at any moment his power and authority could be torn from him, that he had a symbolic sword constantly hanging over his head, you laughed and disparaged the notion. Well, Damocles, now you have a real sword hanging over your head, and it is held only by a hair. This will give you just a taste of every ruler's predicament. Enjoy your dinner, if you can," he finished. The crowd laughed and clapped.
"And now, I want you to meet the four people I am sure all of you have heard about by this time. Next to me, as I said, is Xena, Warrior Princess. To her right is her best friend, Gabrielle, the bard. Next to that lovely lady is Phintias, the philosopher, who was wrongly accused of spying and almost executed. To his right is his very good friend, Damon, also a philosopher, who pledged his life in place of Phintias." The ruler nodded and smiled to each of them.
"I have been so impressed with the outstanding friendship shown by Damon for Phintias, and Phintias for Damon, each of whom was willing to die for the other, that I have pardoned Phintias, thus canceling his execution.
"I have ordered all prisoners not accused of major crimes to be freed. And, in honor of this beautiful friendship, I have had two rings fashioned from gold with the letters P and D carved on them, entwined with the words, 'Friends Forever.'" A servant brought the two rings in on a satin pillow. The two men rose and Dionysius placed a ring on each man's finger.
The two men were beaming and Xena and Gabrielle were smiling broadly. A round of applause started, but Dionysius held up his hand for silence. "I asked Phintias, yesterday, if there was something I could do for him, to make up for being unjustly accused and almost hanged. He answered that the people who were responsible for his getting here in time to avert terrible tragedy were the two ladies seated here beside me.
"He said that they also were joined in a close and loving friendship that rivaled his and Damon's. Phintias asked if I could somehow honor them. So, I had two similar rings fashioned for these two dear friends. Theirs have the letters X and G engraved on them, entwined together with the words 'Friends Forever.'" Another servant brought these two rings in on a satin pillow, Xena and Gabrielle rose and Dionysius placed the rings on the fingers of the stunned women. Xena and Gabrielle turned and gave each other a big hug. Then they hugged Damon and Phintias.
Now a huge round of applause greeted all four friends. At a signal from Dionysius, the four rose again and bowed, first to the ruler and then to the crowd.
Dionysius was gratified that his friendship token had been so well received by the crowd. Xena was right, I can be a hero all over again, he smiled to himself. Thank the gods she showed up with Phintias in time to save me from a horrible mistake. What a woman!
"Now, let's eat!" he shouted, to another round of applause.
The banquet was a huge success. Everyone, except Damocles, thoroughly enjoyed it. Dionysius did take pity on the courtier. About halfway through the dinner, he had the sword removed and returned to Xena.
Up to then, Damocles had not eaten one bite. He could not take his eyes off the weapon hanging over him. It was a hard lesson, but Dionysius knew Damocles would never forget it.
The townspeople made merry at their celebration, also. Men, women and children ate and drank their fill from tables of food and vats of mead set up in the town square. They played games and danced in the streets, and at the end of the evening, cleaned up and went home, satiated and happy. Dionysius, by following Xena's suggestions for reform, had reinstated their faith in him as their leader.
The four friends returned home by carriage, discussing the success of the banquet and the beautiful rings Dionysius had presented to them. Shortly after they arrived home, the women excused themselves for the evening and went to their rooms. Xena and Gabrielle would be leaving in the morning to sail back to Greece, so they wanted to retire early.
Once the women had changed into their sleeping shifts, Gabrielle held out her hand to admire (for the umpteenth time) her new ring. "I think it is so wonderful to have a ring that is dedicated to our friendship. Don't you, Xena?"
The Warrior Princess put both hands on the smaller woman's shoulders and gazed deeply into her happy green eyes with magnificent blue ones. Her impassioned voice that could move armies or hearts spoke with intense feeling, "It's nice to have the ring, yes. But I don't need a ring to tell me how much we mean to each other. Your heart is beating right next to mine, every moment. That's how I know."
Tears welled up in Gabrielle's eyes and she moved into the warrior's arms, where she always felt safe and protected. She can be so eloquent, sometimes. She wrapped her own arms around Xena's waist and laid her head on her chest. "I love you, Xena."
"I love you, too, Gabrielle... forever," came the longed-for reply. This trip has been good for both of us, the dark-haired woman contemplated, gratefully. The strong friendship between Damon and Phintias mirrors our own. That will help us as we continue to renew our faith in each other and in our future together.
The next morning dawned clear and bright at the docks, as the two travelers made their goodbyes and were profusely thanked by both men for their invaluable assistance.
"I have enjoyed your company, Phintias, and I wish you and Damon all good things. Thank you for everything." Xena lightly kissed the philosopher and shook hands with his friend, Damon.
"If we can ever do anything for you and Gabrielle, Xena, anything at all, just send word to us and it is yours. And, please, come again to Syracuse; you are always welcome in my home," Phintias assured them both.
Gabrielle kissed each man on the cheek, hugged them and said goodbye.
The two friends turned and walked up the gangplank, trailed by the golden warhorse. They were returning home, to whatever adventures awaited them.
Author's Note: Many people are familiar with this pair of gentlemen friends as Damon and Pythias. One encyclopedia makes reference to the fact that Pythias is more correctly Phintias, so I used that name to, hopefully, conceal the plot for awhile. In the stage play, "Damon and Pythias," by Richard Edwards, originally performed by the Children of the Chapel Royal, Pythias is the one who stays as hostage for Damon, but two encyclopedias have it the other way around. Take your pick. Nothing is absolute in the Xenaverse!
Sorry Gabrielle didn't have more action; she doesn't heal as quickly as the magical Warrior Princess.
Battle on, Xena!
I hope you enjoyed the story. Comments are welcome!
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