HEART OF A WARRIOR
by JayBird (Jay Markle)
"Eventually we all become who we pretend to be."
(Xena - Warrior Princess)
Smoke spiraling up from the western sky is never a good sign, especially when you're headed for a village in the same direction.
"Com'n, Gabrielle." Xena held her hand out for her.
Gabrielle took it and vaulted onto Argo's back, holding onto Xena for dear life as she urged Argo into a full gallop towards another adventure.
Through dense woods and over fallen trees, the brave warhorse covered ground at an amazing pace. Soon they topped the last rise and saw the village of Basarus before them. It had been the surrounding forest land that had been ablaze. The village itself was intact... if not a little singed about the edges.
Xena and Gabrielle both breathed a sigh of relief, as did Argo as the two dismounted.
"Gabrielle," Xena said as they walked towards the village.
"It's time for you to get a horse."
"You've been saying that for months," Gabrielle replied.
"Yeah, well... Now Argo thinks so too. That makes it two to one. You're getting a horse."
Gabrielle turned and saw that Argo was giving her 'the look'. She sighed. "I'm getting a horse."
Basarus was a fairly large village with high, fort-like walls of rough-hewn split oak surrounding it on three sides, while a fast-running river protected it from the north. Some of the walls had taken fire damage. Already men from the village were cutting down timber and fixing their defenses.
Two guards stood at the main gate of the village, suspiciously eyeing the tall, well-armed woman in battle leathers and her companion, an Amazon girl hauling about a war staff.
"Halt!" one said with timorous authority. "State your business! Please?"
"I'm Xena," she replied. "We've come..."
"Of course!" the other guard interrupted. "Joxer the Mighty said that he had sent for his people!"
"His people?" Gabrielle asked incredulously.
"We received word that the Warlord Kraxis was going to attack this town," Xena said, changing the subject. "Did he do this?"
"Aye!" the first guard replied. "Kraxis and his army 'o brigands attacked at dawn... not three hours ago. Tried to burn us out of our homes, he did! Good thing Joxer the Mighty was here! He saved us all!"
"I wonder if there are two Joxers running around?"
Gabrielle whispered to Xena. Her eyes widened. "Gods! What am I saying!"
"How many men did Kraxis have when he attacked?" Xena asked, thinking that some plague might have decimated his ranks.
"We counted thirty mounted riders," Guard Two said. "At least that's how many attacked. We killed twenty-three of the bastards. Including Kraxis himself!"
"Kraxis is dead?" Xena whispered.
"Aye!" the first guard grinned. "Killed by Joxer the Mighty himself!"
"Excuse me," Gabrielle interrupted. "The Joxer we know is about... yay-tall, and wears this weird kinda..."
"Hush," Xena whispered. "And where is Joxer the... Joxer now?"
"He's being cared for at the Mayor's house," Guard One replied. "He was seriously wounded in battle, but our Healer said he would live to fight another day!"
"Where is the Mayor's house?" Xena asked. The two guards noticed their faces were suddenly serious.
"Straight down this main avenue," Guard Two pointed. "Turn left at the town well. It's at the end of that street."
"Thanks. One other thing. You say twenty-three of Kraxis' men were killed out of thirty. What happened to the other seven?"
"They managed to escape," Guard One replied. "All were on horseback, but at least three of them were wounded."
Xena nodded. Together, she and Gabrielle entered the village of Basarus, which by all appearances was quite a prosperous town. The main street was a wide thoroughfare of shops and stores -most still boarded up for protection- and even some residences, all constructed of the same split oak beams Xena had seen in the fort-like walls.
Xena noticed only a few burned-out buildings, despite the fact the battle had obviously entered the town. Most of the citizenry were still cleaning up, either dragging away the carcasses of dead horses to be burned, or raking over blood trails.
"Yeah?" Xena said warily. She knew what was coming.
"Didn't you tell me that Kraxis was this big, badass warlord who ate lightning and crapped thunder?"
"I don't think I put it that way..."
"Well didn't you tell me he almost killed you a few years ago?"
"Came damn close."
"And this guy was killed by Joxer."
"So they say."
"By the way, why would a warlord like Kraxis be running around with such a small force?"
"Cuz 'size isn't everything', as the saying goes," Xena replied. "If you're a warlord after conquest and glory... then you need an army. On the other hand, if all you want to do is loot and plunder, you need to strike hard and move fast. Besides, an army means a lot of mouths to feed and a lot of loot to divvy up." Xena smiled wistfully. "Some of my best campaigns were fought with a small force..."
Gabrielle grinned. "Sounds like you're missing the bad ol' days."
"Not really. I've learned that there are more precious things to life than either fortune or glory."
"Yeah? Like what?"
They turned left at the town well and stopped.
Laid out along a side street by the blacksmith's was a long row of dead bodies, gathering flies and beginning to smell bad. Kraxis' mighty army.
"Oh Gods, Xena." Gabrielle turned away.
"Don't look," Xena whispered. She'd seen too many battlefields -too much death- to feel anything. Gabrielle had seen death as well, from the fields of Troy to the handiwork of the Horde. But she had never allowed herself to get used to it. A mind set Xena wished her to keep.
She walked along the line of dead men, pulling Argo along by her reins in her left hand, while Gabrielle held on tightly to her right arm, eyes averted.
Xena was surprised by the number of men killed by clean arrow wounds, mostly to the face and neck, above their heavy battle leathers and armor. None had stab wounds.
She stopped at the end of the line.
Gabrielle looked. Before her on the ground was the biggest brute of a mortal she'd ever seen in her life. He was at least seven feet tall, with broad shoulders and muscle on muscle. He wore a crazy quilt of leather and armor that showed the cuts and scrapes of hundreds of battles... and he was butt ugly to boot.
"Xena," Gabrielle said as her friend knelt before the body.
"Doesn't he have kind of a... surprised... look on his face?"
Xena grinned. "Believe me, if I ever get killed by Joxer, I'll have a surprised look on my face!"
She gently reached over and closed his clouded eyes. She noticed Kraxis had died from a single sword stroke to the chest, right through the old pump.
Xena's mind flashed to the last time she had seen Kraxis.
Their respective armies had met by accident and a skirmish had ensued. Xena had found herself in mortal combat with a great bear of a man who killed her warhorse Romulus with one stroke of his sword. She had then attacked him with a raw fury that she still remembered to this day. And he had laughed at her. Parrying her sword effortlessly as he drove her back... it was at that moment that Xena realized she had met her match in battle, and would die this day at his hands.
Luckily, that's when Darfus and three of her soldiers attacked Kraxis from the back when he wasn't looking. A cowardly move that still left two of her men dead and Darfus badly wounded. But Kraxis had retreated with his men, screaming a bloodoath that the next time he saw the Great Warrior Princess he would rape and kill her... and not necessarily in that order.
Xena smiled and stood up. See you in Tartarus, Kraxis.
"Y'know, I was thinking," Gabrielle said. "Didn't Joxer say he came from a family of great warriors? Maybe his father did this. Or his grandfather..."
Her thoughts were interrupted by a chorus of children's voices, singing as they marched down the street...
"Ohhhh... He's Joxer the Mighty!
"He's really quite tidy!
"His skills are alrighty...
"He's Joxer the Mighty..."
"C'mon, Gabrielle," Xena growled. "It's time we had a little chat with Joxer the Mighty..."
In truth, Xena could've found the Mayor's house without directions. It was always the nicest house in town.
Xena had left Argo at the stables adjacent to the blacksmith's, with instructions that she be fed and watered.
Together, they now tromped up the front steps of the porch to the Mayor's house, where two small boys stood guard. One looked all of seven, the other four. Xena would've bet her last dinar they were brothers.
"Halt!" the oldest shouted, bringing a wooden sword to bear at Xena's mid-riff. "State your bizzizniz, and tell me who you are!"
"We're here to see Joxer," Gabrielle replied. She smiled at the other boy. "Hiya! What's your name?"
"None o' your bizzizniz!" He shouted back, waving his own wooden sword about.
"My," Gabrielle muttered to Xena. "What adorable children."
"I am Xena, Warrior Princess of Amphipolis," she said quite formally. "This is my partner Gabrielle, Queen of Amazonia and Bard of Poteidaia. We seek an audience with Joxer the Mighty."
"One moment!" the oldest said. He whispered into the ear of his brother who took off into the house. The little boy stared down the two women without fear.
"You really a bard?" he asked Gabrielle.
His face brightened. "Then I know why you're here! You've come to sing of the Mighty Joxer! Ohhhh... He's Joxer the Mighty! He's really quite..."
"That's okay!" Gabrielle interrupted. "You really don't..."
"But I know all the words!" he pouted. "And if I can't..."
"The Mighty Joxer has decided to grant you an audience!!!" the other boy shouted, running breathlessly through the house. Both boys latched onto Xena's and Gabrielle's hands and pulled them along through the entranceway, along a living room and down a hall to one of the back bedrooms.
Joxer was sitting up in a large bed, his left arm in a sling, being waited on hand and foot by two beautiful women. One was giving him a cool breeze with a large woven fan, while the other was stuffing his mouth with grapes.
"Xenith... Gabbith!!!" he exclaimed. He chewed and swallowed. "Gods, it's good to see you two!" He tried to get out of bed and was restrained by the two women.
"Oh, no!" one said with obvious distress. "Please, you know what the Healer said! Rest easy, my Joxer!"
"'My Joxer'," Gabrielle snickered to Xena. Xena shushed her.
"Alright... Alright, already!" He leaned back. "Uh, Xena... Gabby, I'd like you to met Drusilla and Prunilla. They're the daughters of Mayor Canolus, who was nice enough to let me use his place while I heal up." He smiled. "Girls, these are the friends I was telling you about. Xena and Gabrielle."
The two girls looked Xena and Gabrielle over with jealous eyes.
"So, you're the warrior princess?" Drusilla said. "I thought you'd be... bigger."
"I'm big enough," Xena replied.
"And you must be the bard," Prunilla said to Gabrielle. "Have you come to sing of my Joxer?"
"Uh, girls?" Joxer said quickly. "How 'bout giving us some quality time? Alone? Pretty please?"
Xena glanced around as the two girls and the two little boys left. It was a nice, airy room with open windows and drapes of white fluttering in the wind. She also noticed trays of smoked meats and cheeses, loaves of bread and bowls of fruit scattered about.
"Well, well," Gabrielle said, snagging a pear from a bowl and taking a bite. "Leave it to Joxer the Mighty to step into a pile of horse hooey and come out smelling like a rose! Some people just live right!"
"Com'n," Joxer said, his voice tight. "Lay off."
Xena sat down on the bed beside him. He was wearing bedclothes and had been cleaned up, though he still sported some colorful bruises to his face. Xena realized that without that ridiculous armor, he was quite a handsome young man.
"How badly are you injured?" Xena asked.
"Ahhhh... Looks worse than it feels. Took a sword stroke through the left shoulder... arrow wound to the right leg. The thing is, none of Kraxis' guys had bows! I think one of my own people tagged me by mistake! Can ya believe that!" He grinned, shook his head and then leaned forward and started weeping into Xena's shoulder. She held him tightly, comforting him with gentle words while Gabrielle looked on in open-mouthed surprise. She held him for long minutes as his racking sobs died down to gasps of breath.
"Hush, now," Xena whispered. "It's gonna be okay... everything's gonna be fine." She leaned him back against his pillows and wiped his tears away with her thumb as he sniffed. She handed him a bandage roll and had him blow his nose.
"Now, start at the beginning, Joxer," Xena said. "And tell me what happened."
"Okay." He sniffed and took a deep breath. "Two days ago I'm traveling on the road to Thrace when I overhear some guys in a tavern who say they're scouts for Kraxis. They were drunk, and talking about how he was going to raid all the villages along the river... then head south with his loot. Well, I knew he'd start with Basarus, so I got here as quick as I could to warn 'em.
"Only they weren't interested in staying and defending their town! The good Mayor starts talking about refugeeing to the mountains and... and just giving Kraxis what he wants!" He sighed. "That's when I gave them my... Joxer the Mighty spiel. The whole nine cubits. How I was this great warrior from a family of great warriors... How I had fought against Callisto and the Bacchae for the forces of good... Even told 'em I had fought beside the likes of Hercules and... Xena."
"So?" Xena said gently. "That's all true."
"Sure," He looked at her. "Look, you know I'm a joke and I know I'm a joke! I was just trying to buy some time while I sent messengers out looking for you 'n Gabby." He turned to her. "Sorry. Gabrielle. I... I know you hate to be called Gabby."
"'S okay," Gabrielle whispered.
"Anyway, I was hoping you'd get here before Kraxis. Til then I decided I should at least try to get these people organized. I called a town meeting and asked if anyone had any soldiering experience. Well, three guys did. Three guys out of three hundred plus! So I made them my lieutenants and put one in charge of cutting back the forest on the east side."
"Why the east side?" Gabrielle asked.
"The trees were in too close. Y'see, Kraxis liked to burn a town out. He'd just start a fire in the woods and let it drift over into town. I had the trees cut back a good two hundred paces. It worked too!"
"Smart move," Xena allowed.
"Yeah... well, I can't take credit for it. Gabrielle told me a story one time 'bout how you 'n her did the same thing to save another town..."
"Aegis," Gabrielle said.
"Yeah, Aegis... from some other warlord." He shrugged.
"Anyway, I asked the second guy to find me anyone who knew how to use a bow and arrow. Now this is where I lucked out! Fourteen experienced archers! All hunters who can hit a rabbit on the run at two hundred paces! I assigned them to the rooftops looking down on the main street into town." He looked shyly at Xena. "Gabrielle told me..."
"Another good move of mine," Xena smiled. "Go on."
"The last guy I got to organize bucket brigades out of the townsfolk. We got anything 'n everything that could hold water! We formed a line down at the river and moved around town soaking down every roof and wall we could reach! We kept at it all night long! By dawn this place looked like a thunderstorm had rolled through!"
"That's strange," Xena frowned. "I don't remember doing that..."
"I, uh... kinda made that one up myself."
"I know," Xena replied. "So, you've got the town prepared..."
"And then Kraxis hits us like a load of stones! Right at dawn. He had around thirty riders I think. Smaller group than I thought. At first they tried to burn us out by tossing torches over the wall. When that didn't work they rolled up this battering ram and popped our main gate. But we were ready for 'em.
"They came charging down the main street, whooping and hollering. The archers said it was like shooting fish in a barrel. Over half his people were dead in the street before the battle even started. Then they split up, taking the side alleys..."
"What about the townsfolk?"
"Barricaded safe in their homes. You've seen how these houses are made with these oak beams... they're hard as a rock! Kraxis' men kicked and hacked their way around but couldn't get inside... couldn't find anywhere to hide or take cover. The archers managed to pick off most of them. A few escaped..."
"But not Kraxis."
"No. Not Kraxis." Joxer blinked, staring up at the ceiling.
"Tell me what happened, Joxer," Xena said.
"I... I don't..." He sighed. "Please. Not now."
"Yes, now," Xena insisted. "It's important."
"Alright." Joxer closed his eyes. When he spoke his words were like a torrent. "Kraxis was a madman. Screaming and laughing while his men died around him. I spotted him in an alley. He was on foot, chasing down a woman and her child... swinging his sword after them... slicing into her legs... enjoying their screams. Loving their fear.
"I screamed something at him. Something stupid like, 'Hey you son of a bitch! Pick on someone your own size!' He stopped, looked at me and laughed. Then he came at me, sword swinging.
"I charged him. Keeping low, sword tight to my body. At that moment I felt no fear. No rage. No anything. Just... Just this terrible knowledge..."
"What knowledge?" Gabrielle asked.
"The knowledge of what had to be done. At that moment I could see everything so clearly. My life... and Kraxis'. We had both wandered about this earth for years... just to come to this moment. When one would live and one would die."
He struck me first. Right in the shoulder. I could feel metal scraping bone... the hot rush of my blood running down my side... The funny thing is, I wasn't even trying to kill him. Not at that moment. He just... ran right into me. Right into my blade.
"We stood facing each other for what seemed like forever. I looked into his eyes and saw his rage seep away. Til there was nothing.
"And then he fell to the ground. And that's when I saw that my sword had taken him through the heart. And that's when I knew what it felt like to take the life of another."
Joxer turned to Gabrielle, taking her hand into his. He found her eyes. "Never let it happen to you, Gabrielle. No matter what. Y'see, all my life I wondered what I would feel if I ever had to kill someone...
"Wanna hear the funny part? All I could feel... all I could think about at that moment was something that happened when I was a little kid. I was playing around the house when I tipped over this big ugly vase that was some kind of sacred family heirloom. It broke on the floor. And I remember standing there, watching my mother cry as she picked up the pieces. And that's what I felt at that moment. Like a bad lil' boy who had just done something he shouldn't. And broken something that could never be fixed. And never be replaced.
"I pulled my sword out of him. And that's when I noticed the silence. Both sides had stopped fighting... to see what I had done.
"Then three of his men came for me. I managed to hold off their blades... but I was losing blood fast. I knew I was done for. But part of me was glad. Happy that I would never have to live with what I've become.
"That's when the archers came to my rescue. They put all three of them down." He smiled. "That's also when I caught an arrow in my leg. I remember hitting the dirt, just happy that it was over and done with.
"And then I woke up here. And that's the whole story."
There was silence in the room.
"I want to take a look at your wounds," Xena said.
Xena leaned over, gently prying back the bandages at his shoulder.
"I'm in trouble, aren't I?" Joxer said.
"Your wounds aren't that bad."
"I wasn't talking about my wounds."
"I know what you were talking about." Xena pulled back the blanket and examined his leg. "Well, whoever your Healer is, he did a good job."
"It's a she," Joxer muttered. "And she's a ham-handed old... lady who doubles as the village seamstress! Stitched me together like a patchwork quilt!"
"No sign of infection," Xena said. "No muscle damage."
She stood over him. "I recommend a week of bed rest. Eat a lot of these fruits, breads and meats. After that, start exercising that arm and walk on that leg as much as you can stand."
"That's what she said."
"So what do you need me for?" Xena asked. "I could've stayed in bed today!"
"Xena." Joxer looked up at her. "What am I gonna do?"
"What's the problem?" Gabrielle asked. "Am I missing something?"
"Word's gonna get out that I'm the one who killed Kraxis," Joxer said. "And when it does every sword-for-hire and freelancer in the country is gonna wanna take me out... just to make a name for themselves. To say that they were the one who killed the man who killed Kraxis."
"That's not going to happen," Xena said evenly.
"Because I'm going to teach you the ways of the sword and the dagger, how to use a bow and arrow... and even the intricacies of hand-to-hand martial combat. And if you're a very good boy, I'll even let Gabrielle teach you the art of the staff." She glanced over at her. "Some days she can even kick my ass."
Joxer shook his head. "You... don't understand, Xena. I'm not sure I want to be a warrior. Not anymore."
"Alright, Joxer," Xena growled. She leaned over him, making him meet her eyes. "Now get this through that thick skull of yours. You have embraced the sword and spilled blood, thereby choosing the path your life will take. There is no going back. Now all you can do is make the best of it. You have the heart of a warrior, my friend. Use that to do some good in this sorry world. Believe me, you are needed."
"You're right, Xena. I know that." He sighed. "All you've done for me...you didn't have to..."
"Friends don't do for friends because the have to," Xena said. "They do because they want to."
Joxer nodded; Xena smiled tenderly.
"Now get some rest. Gabrielle's going to be staying here while I do some scouting. But I'll be back."
Joxer nodded again and closed his eyes. Xena and Gabrielle carefully eased off the bed. He was asleep before they left the room.
The Mayor's daughters, Drusilla and Prunilla, were huddled together checking their makeup in a hallway mirror. They looked up and together made a rush for Joxer's room, before being brought up short by Xena.
"Give him some time by himself," Xena whispered. "He needs it,"
The two girls looked at her funny, but then nodded.
"Also, don't call him 'Joxer the Mighty' anymore. He doesn't like it. Reminds him of a time when..." she sighed. "He didn't know any better."
The two girls frowned, looking at Xena like she had just sprouted elf ears.
"Look," Xena said. "If you're really his friends, just call him Joxer. He'll appreciate that. And spread the word to your fellow townsfolk, okay?"
Xena nodded. Together she and Gabrielle walked out of the house and back onto the street. The two little boys saluted them as they left.
"How do you know he doesn't want to be called 'Joxer the Mighty' anymore?"
"For the same reason I don't like hearing about the 'Great Warrior Princess'."
"Oh." Gabrielle looked up at her as they walked down the street. "You okay?"
"I'm fine. I just know what Joxer is going through. In a way I envy him. He's at the crossroads I found myself at not too long ago. Only it took me ten years to get there."
"Xena, do really think he has what it takes to be a warrior?"
"Anyone can be a warrior," Xena replied. They stopped at the row of dead bodies by the blacksmith's. A group of children were playing, kicking at a body and then running away amidst gales of childish laughter. "These men were warriors. Anyone can take up a sharp-edged object and hack 'n slash another person. But in order to survive, in order to last... you have to have the heart of a warrior."
"Joxer?" Gabrielle smirked.
Xena walked into the stables, where Argo waited.
"Not too long ago, Joxer came across Callisto, who was about ready to kill Argo here." She patted Argo's mane, she responded with a gentle nuzzle. "Knowing he was facing certain death, he defended the life of my horse with his own."
"Yeah, but that was when you were in Callisto's body. You were trying to save Argo yourself."
"Joxer didn't know that." Xena looked at her friend.
"Tell me, Gabrielle, under the same circumstances, would you sacrifice your life for a horse? For Argo?"
"That... That's a hard question, Xena," Gabrielle sighed.
"Hard questions have hard answers," Xena replied. "Joxer knew what Argo meant to me, and was willing to sacrifice his life for my horse. He knew he would have been killed -along with Argo- if that had really been Callisto. But he did it anyway. And that's when I knew Joxer had the heart of a warrior."
"And I don't," Gabrielle said it simply. A statement of fact.
"I'm glad you don't," Xena replied. Their eyes met. "I need you just as you are. The gentle bard who will guide me to do what's right... and show me the way."
Gabrielle grinned. "We're not having one of those... 'tender moments' again, are we?"
Xena laughed. "Anything's possible."
Xena led Argo from the stables.
"I need for you to stay here," Xena said. "Check in on Joxer, make sure he doesn't do anything stupid. Also, make sure these townsfolk don't talk him up to strangers."
"And how am I supposed to do that?"
"How do I know? I'm the strong silent type, remember? You're the chatty one."
"And what will you be doing all this time?"
"I'm going to track down the seven men from Kraxis' force that got away. At least three are wounded. That means blood trails. Shouldn't be too hard."
"And when you find them?"
"Make sure they don't talk about Joxer. The longer we can keep a lid on this, the better a chance Joxer has to get some training under his belt and survive the next few months. Word's going to get out sooner or later that he's the one who killed Kraxis. I'd just as soon it be later."
"Wait up," Gabrielle said. "How can you be sure these guys are going to keep their mouths shut when you do find them?"
Xena grinned wolfishly and mounted up.
"Gods..." Gabrielle whispered. "Xena, you're not..."
"Remember this," Xena said. "Never ask a hard question, unless you want to hear a hard answer. You know what I have to do. So do I." She smirked. "So, still gonna ask me to be careful?"
"Be careful." Gabrielle said tonelessly.
Xena nodded and nudged Argo into a fast trot that took her down the streets of Basarus and finally through the main gates.
That night, Gabrielle sat in the living room of the Mayor's house. The council meeting she had attended just a while ago had gone well. Gabrielle had explained the importance of Basarus keeping a low-profile, and not bragging that this was the town where Kraxis had finally met his doom. Tomorrow, the bodies of the dead brigands would be buried deep in the woods in unmarked graves, and no one would ever speak of what had happened here. All agreed that it was a shame that no one would know of the bravery of Joxer.
Gabrielle sighed, looking at the scroll she had just completed. She couldn't speak -or sing- of Joxer... at least not yet. But she could tell a story...
"Once upon a time, there was a young man who came from a proud family of warriors.
And more than anything else in the world, he wished to be a warrior as well.
But he learned too late, that you must be careful of what you wish for...
You might get it."
Please send any comments to JayMarkle@webtv.net
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