Chapter 15: Sky Driver

Strings of red clouds hastened past the ragged stands of beech, cypress and sycamore that lay to the east of the centaur village. A mere turn of the sandglass after sunrise, the day was already dry and granulated with the heat. The centaur children rose with the sun as they did each morning during the long, hot, northern Aegean summer. They washed their faces in the village's large, communal water trough, then gathered for an early breakfast along the mews, their coltsí or filliesí coats having been curried smooth by parents' loving hands. Blonde, floppy-headed Xenon led the pack that cantered over to the stables for another look at the most curious sight the young centaurs had ever seen: an immense white horse, as large as a wind wheel, with powerful withers, bulging fetlocks, a huge flowing mane, immense eyes and Ė wings! Indeed, a wing span that was wider and more astounding than that of the fiercest eagle, wings that flapped with a roar mightier than that of the nearby waterfall where the centaur children went to bathe and fish and frolic in foaming, crystal pools. A white stallion that could leap from cliffs and soar to the very heights of heaven.

Who would have dreamed that such a miraculous beast could exist? Yet here he was, a guest in their village, feeding not on straw and oats as a normal mare or stallion might but on wildflowers from the meadow and dew from the damp downs. So regal was Pegasus, even when looking sleepy and grazing calmly by the paddock, that no tack could harness him, no bit or bridle restrict him. He bore the weight of his rider and submitted to commands of his own free will. No man or god would ever master him.

"Will we ever get to have wings and fly like Pegasus?" Xenon had looked expectantly at Bellerophon when the powerful horse and his equally muscular rider had arrived on the previous day for a brief stopover to confer with their old friend, Tyldus.

"I wouldn't count on it, young one," Bellerophon had chuckled as heíd tousled Xenon's golden locks. "Horses don't grow wings. And neither do little centaur children."

"This horse did," Xenon had said, staring at Pegasus, his young centaur eyes aflame with wonder. "Grandpa says Pegasus can fly as high as the sun."

"Perhaps not that high," Bellerophon had smiled, "but yes, Pegasus can range far into the blue."

"As high as the moon?" Xenon had said, not taking his eyes off the brilliant white steed.

"Let's say as high as... those fluffy white clouds up there," Bellerophon had pointed at the sky.

"Really?" Xenon had looked up in amazement. "Wow, that's as high as forever!"

Then Xenon had raced off to gather the children to come have a look at this strange and magnificent creature.

"And Bellerophon gets to ride him!" Xenon had cried as the children had stood by the stable, marveling. Xenon had looked with admiration at Bellerophon, who wasn't much bigger than a man, not as tall as Tyldus or Chiron and certainly not as strong, fast and mighty as Xenon was sure that Xena was. Still..., "He really lets you fly with him?"

"Yes, he really does," Bellerophon had assured young Xenon.

"Awesome!" Xenon had cried and, bubbling with excitement, he'd reared up on his hind legs and had nearly toppled over backwards.

Tyldus had invited Bellerophon to consult with the faculty about the equestrian component of the Academy's training program. Tyldus was hoping that Bellerophon might be available to teach advanced riding and jumping skills to the warriors in training and to work with the older centaur youths on developing their fighting skills; specifically, how to maneuver, with weapons in hand, on open fields and in close, wooded quarters so as to avoid being disabled by the favorite tricks of their opponents, a rope strung low between the trees to trip them up or the blow from a stick leveled at their forelegs where they were most vulnerable to serious injury. Bellerophon had spent the night as a guest at the village, remaining behind to entertain the children by letting them curry Pegasus' mane and brush his broad back while Tyldus and Chiron had gone down to Poteidaia to put in an appearance at last nightís thesmophoria.

The Amazon village was located to the east of the centaur village, the two settlements separated by a dense stretch of woods that sloped along either side of a wide, spindly ridge. In the past, the Amazons and Centaurs had disputed the use of the woods and, during Queen Melosa's reign, the two villages had nearly come to blows when Krykus, a local warlord, had nearly succeeded in perpetrating a fraud on Amazon and Centaur alike. Thankfully, Xena had exposed the fraud in time, and the two villages, after teaming up to rid the world of Krykus and his gang, had entered into a truce whereby each village was to enjoy exclusive use of the woods on their own side of the ridge; the Amazons primarily for hunting, the Centaurs for agricultural and forestry purposes. The truce had become an alliance when Phantes, Tyldus' son, and Ephiny, the ruling Amazon regent, had united to give birth to Xenon in whom title to the woods on both sides of the ridge might one day vest should the current alliance hold. Phantes had subsequently been killed in battle, leaving Ephiny, now widowed, to entrust their young son to the care of his grandfather, Tyldus, much as, some years before, Xena had entrusted the care of her son, Solon, to the kindly ministrations of the late Kaliepus, Tyldus' kinsman.

But trouble between the two villages had lately been ignited by the fire of discord. Ephiny's regency had been challenged by Velasca, who claimed that she, not Gabrielle, ought to have been proclaimed Melosa's successor. Velasca had appealed her claim to Queen Penthesileia, the ultimate authority in matters of Amazon succession. Melosa's putative heir, her sister, Terreis, had predeceased Melosa, and, just before her death, Terreis had bestowed the Right of the Amazon Caste of Royal Succession on Gabrielle in whose stead Ephiny was now exercising titular leadership. Yet Velasca, having challenged and defeated Melosa in hand to hand combat, held a claim to the queenship validated by Amazon tradition. As matters stood, neither claim had the clear advantage of the other. Some Amazons even claimed that Xena ought to be proclaimed queen as Xena, doing battle as Gabrielle's champion, had defeated, though had not killed, Melosa in combat in the days when the conflict between the Amazons and the Centaurs had come creaking to a boil.

However these claims might ultimately be resolved, Velasca's supporters, to Ephiny's chagrin, had recently begun making incursions on the Centaur side of the ridge; for hunting game in the spare, late summer season, they'd said. Ephiny and the Centaurs suspected that these encroachments were intended to be provocative, a test of the Centaurs' resolve, though Velasca denied that these occasional forays were motivated by any hostile design.

With Latrinus' goons now skulking about the woods, stirring up trouble and, in line with their mischievous endeavors, looking to aggravate any potential for local conflict, relations between the Amazons and the Centaurs were again becoming dicey. More than ever, for this reason, Tyldus kept a wary eye on his grandson, Xenon, whose existence was a testimony to the bond of peace and friendship which had been forged, with great difficulty, between Amazon and Centaur. Hence an added incentive to hope that Bellerophon might affiliate with the Academy and, as part of the generous stipend that the Academy was prepared to offer him, would undertake the defensive training of the young, inexperienced centaurs.

The quiet of the morning was broken by the sound of galloping hooves. A cloud of dust on the dirt road winding upward from the south receded behind the distant but determined figure of Chiron who came racing toward the village with great speed and urgency.

"No time for proper greetings!" Chiron came thundering through the village as he sought out the stables on the heath to the west of the large centaur huts. "I've been hoofing it through the night on a most unpleasant errand. Quickly, children, where's Bellerophon? For it's he who must run the next leg of this day's rough relay."

"Bellerophon's in the stall, brushing Pegasus' coat!" Xenon cried. "Where's grandpa?"

"Taking care of business in town. He'll be home in time for dinner. Bellerophon! Thank the gods Iíve found you! You must depart at once!"

"Who calls my name with such ardor?" Bellerophon cried from within the stable where he stood beside Pegasus' royal mane.

"Chiron, your friend and ally, and, hopefully, soon to be your partner and colleague," Chiron shouted from the open bay behind the stalls.

"Well, you're in quite a pique this morning. What seems to be the difficulty?" Bellerophon, tall and broad-shouldered with long, flowing, light brown hair, emerged from the stable with a golden horseshoe in his hand.

"Yestereve, at the hailing of the equinox, the young adepts had just completed their obeisance to Demeter and had convened in the market square for a night of feasting and merriment," Chiron, trying to catch his breath, informed Bellerophon. "It was then that Latrinus' ungallant henchmen, clad in hideous gear, swooped down upon the revelers and bore away, to the venal pleasures of their lair, the lovely Lila, Gabrielleís sister, and Lila's dear friend, the feisty Alexis, whose stout right arm, I daresay, can match a man's blow for blow. The girls' parents are in a frightful state, not knowing what's to become of their daughters who were treated most foully by their captors within sight of the entire company.

"Hecuba, Lila's mother, bade me, via the Felafel Man and Tyldus, bear this signet unto you," Chiron exhibited the medallion, "with the plea that you mount winged Pegasus and fly forthwith the hundreds of leagues to Tiryns' golden shores where the Warrior Princess and her companion, the Bard, have gone in search of Hippolyte's belt now in possession of Queen Admete, daughter of the late King Eurystheus. Convey this precious token unto them that they might know your plea to be genuine and so may ride, with proximate haste, to the rescue of these fair damsels. Delay not in your charge but fly as a hawk that soars above the corn, resting not until you've spied the objects of your search high upon the slopes and crests of Tiryns' rocky cliffs. The worried parents are quite beside themselves with fear, anguish and shame."

"A cowardly deed, the seizure of innocents for the purpose of rapine and ransom," Bellerophon shook his long, wavy locks.

"Most cowardly," Chiron nodded. "No doubt their motive lies in the furtherance of a yet ranker and more unwholesome scheme."

"You'll tell the young ones that our lessons must be postponed for the day?"

"Leave the little ones to me. If there's disappointment in the offing, I'll be the one to bear the brunt of it. You'll serve us best as our soaring seneschal. For warlords, like the deadly nightshade and the running rue, spread their contagion best when their leafy tendrils glide without encumbrance on the shady ground 'til they've strangled the roots of many a blooming bush and sheltering shrub."

"I'm off to Tiryns, then," Bellerophon hefted the golden horseshoe. "In the far reaches of sunny Argolis. Nearly to the borders of old Theseus' kingdom, he that captured and wed the Amazon queen, fair Antiope, who bore him a son, Hippolytus, then paid the forfeit of her life when her outraged Themiscyrans nearly overran the Acropolis and came close to defeating the Athenians in battle. Mistaking loyalty to the marriage bed for a life of ease and pleasure, Molpeidia, the great Amazon war queen, slew Antiope; felled her with a mighty blow from the fierce labrys. You'd best watch your flanks when disporting with these ladies of pluck and passion, my friend. Love you half to death though the long, limpid night and leave you lowing like a stuck pig with a dagger in your gut come the first dint of day. Then they'll return to their encampments with your child new-formed in their bellies, though you'll never get word of it, not if the child be a maid whom they'll bear and raise as their own. Ephiny's allright, though. No hunger for the taste of men's blood braces the roof of her victual palate."

Bellerophon cupped Hecuba's medallion in his hand and led Pegasus out to the open space behind the stables where the centaur gardens were laid out in long, parallel plots. "Off we go to Tiryns, birthplace of Diomedes, one of the seven Argive generals who serve at Agammemnonís pleasure; land where the bluest of salty waters lap gracefully on the whitest of sandy shores."

Bellerophon leaped on Pegasus' back and, using the long strands of the winged horse's gleaming mane for reins, he posted to a trot toward the far fringe of the village until horse and rider arrived at a little rise not far from the entrance to the woods.

"Practice your pirouettes! Buck, rear and turn on a dinar! I want to see those changes of direction executed as perfectly as a ballerina's arabesques when I get back!" Bellerophon cried to the children who'd come to see him off. Then Pegasus flapped his vast, powerful wings and the two together, steed and knight, lifted off the ground to veer out and away until they gradually disappeared from view into the azure ocean of the far-flung sky.

"Don't you wish we could soar into the heavens like that?" Xenon shouted at his playmates who were as stunned as he was to see Pegasus' graceful flight. "Not even Xena can spread wings and fly, and Xena can do just about anything!"

Under a dazzling sun whose glare was barely softened by the passing of high, thin wisps of streaking mare's tales, Bellerophon and Pegasus lofted high above the southern cliffs of the Pallene peninsula some forty leagues west of Poteidaia, then leveled out across the northwestern gulf of the Aegean, the tips of whose smooth, warm waves, more than a thousand footlengths below, jingled like silver bells in the bold, vermilion sunlight. Winging south by southwest, the pair shortly spied the snow-capped peak of Mount Olympus rising in a sharp crest from the plains of eastern Thessaly. Otherwise, their passage was blue on blue, cobalt sky above turquoise water limned only by a slight variation in hue which marked the southern horizon. Time which lunked and gritted its way, by choppy turns of the sandglass, on the plodding earth, luffed and feathered in the heavens such that the day's hard-earned passage might seem an instant's squandered detour under Helios' patient rise, arc and sink, his chariot troubled by no rut or rill or jagged, stony brake.

And the swift wake of the headwind, otherwise frigid, was warmed by Pegasus' snorting whinnies as he glided, in response to the slightest pressure of the knee, elbow or fingers grazing his mane, southerly along the eastern coast of Magnesia and then Euboea, making landfall north of Eritrea and passing, in a twinkle, above the harbor at Aulis where the Argive fleet, ten sunmarks earlier, had set sail for the dazzling walls and resplendent towers of Ilium, their murderous venture drenched in a royal daughter's blood. Their flight then took them further south over the hill country of Boeotia and the stubbly mountains that snaked along the northern border of Attica until the great port of Salamis came into view, the heart of the Athenian League's commercial shipping lanes and the transit of the greater portion of its tribute, booty and wealth.

Westerly across the straits the winged pair now flew with the crowded streets and busy byways of Corinth visible on the northern isthmus while, to the south, the beautiful, sandy coves and inlets of Mycenae gleamed forth their profusion of columns and capitals, traves and spandrels, as though the entire province were one broad panoply of squares and plazas, open air markets and shaded arcades. Then south again, across the green, balmy, leaf-clustered Argolis peninsula and the richest hectares of Arcadia, until, with the belching armories and stoked smithies of brazen Argos in view to the northwest, the pair began their descent to the lapping waves and silver beaches of Tiryns on the eastern shore of the bay across whose wide inlet sailed or rowed, to and from Sparta, the riggers and triremes that had made of the Peloponnese, in ages past, the most formidable sea power in the Aegean, from Etruscan Sicily in the northwest to Minoan Crete in the southeast.

"Down we go, big fella," Bellerophon guided Pegasus closer toward the cliffs whose brinks hovered precariously above the sparkling bay, gradually leveling to the coastal plain some two hundred footlengths above the rocky outcroppings. "We'll set our sights on Argo. She's most likely grazing somewhere in these leafy hills, awaiting Xena's shrill summons."

Meanwhile, down on terra firma, in the buttes that rose beyond the shining, white villas of Tiryns, above oceanside boulevards and winding boardwalks, plumed shops, awninged cafés and zigzagging streets through which the tang of the salt air floated like invisible smoke up the steep hillside to the grand limestone castle where Queen Admete held court, the dark Warrior Princess and her bright companion had already summoned Argo to their campsite; and, after rising unusually late and lingering over the remains of last night's supper purchased at the inn, they were stowing their gear and preparing to begin their long, northerly trek home.

"Iím disappointed in you, Xena; youíre getting soft in your old age," Gabrielle chided as she slipped the thin straps of her gold-spangled halter top over her bare shoulders. Gazing down at the bay whose sleek boulders, washed by the tide, were stippled with the sharp shells of crusted snails and hollow barnacles, Gabrielle added, with a trace of petulance in her voice, "I still don't see why we didn't grab the foolish thing and go. Did you see the way Admete had it mounted on the wall over her throne, flouting it as though it were a war trophy or some kind of an ancient museum piece?"

"I didn't like seeing it displayed that way either," Xena said curtly, adjusting Argo's tack, "but we couldnít just snatch it and run."

"Why not? What was stopping us?" Gabrielle looked quizzically at Xena who was dressed in her customary brass and leathers with her sword sheathed at her back. "It's not as though Admete needs the thing or even wants it very badly. Didnít you hear her say how she'd be willing to part with it if the right person approached her in the right way? 'My wedding day has long since past,' she said. 'This gift, brought by Hercules to my father, is of no lasting significance to me.' I say we go bombing back in there and grab it. Or have Autolycus sneak in there and grab it for us."

"It's not that simple," Xena tightened Argo's halter. "If it were, we'd be on a ship bound for Troy right now, with Hippolyte's belt burning holes in our hot little hands."

"I donít see what's so complicated about it," Gabrielle borrowed Xena's whetting stone to sharpen the tips of her sais. "We get the belt, we bring it to Penthesileia, we tell her that Ephiny's loyalty has never been in question; and then, as a bonus, maybe Penthesileia will give up this crazy notion she has that sheís somehow obligated to go one on one against Achilles in order, at the cost of her life, to prove some kind of a point. Not even Joxer is nutty enough to try pulling off a suicidal stunt like that."

"Gabrielle," Xena said, patiently, "when we stopped at Delphi to check things out with the Oracle, don't you remember what she told us? She was very clear about it. Admete has to part with the belt willingly. Whoever tries to take it by force will either get fried on the spot or will live to see their worst nightmares come true. We took our best shot, and Admete said no. We're going to have to live with that result for now."

"Since when do you pay heed to what oracles say?" Gabrielle finished her sharpening and stuck the sais in their holsters on either side of her short, brown, leather skirt. "With Krishna, okay, that was different. You needed his help to take on Indrajit. But when else have you ever permitted gods and oracles to influence your decisions?"

"This timeís a rare exception, Iíll admit," Xena hooked the chakram onto her belt. "But Ares had Hephaestos forge that belt, and Ares' vibes are all over it. Couldn't you feel them radiating down from the wall?"

"Nope," Gabrielle picked up Argo's brush. "All I could feel was Admete being catty and coy. I noticed the belt has quite a display of gems on it, though. Red, green, blue Ė and those two huge diamonds at the buckle? All I can say is that if Hippolyteís belt is an Amazon treasure, Admete's got no business hanging onto it."

"I expect she'll give it up when the right person comes along," Xena inserted the bit into Argo's mouth. Argo whinnied and shook her head up and down.

"So what do we do now? Head home with our tails between our legs while Penthesileia pulls the rug out from under Ephiny, makes Velasca queen, then rushes off to impale herself on the shaft of Achilles' sword?"

"Penthesileia's always been fairminded. I think we can count on that much."

"I had no idea that being an Amazon involved so much in-fighting," Gabrielle handed the brush to Xena and reached for her staff. "To tell the truth, I thought it was mostly dancing, chanting, beating on drums, camping out, running around in those skimpy, two-piece, leather pasties and trouncing the occasional warlord."

Xena shrugged. The art of diplomacy wasn't high on the list of her many skills.

Gabrielle dawdled over to Xena who stood by Argo's side. "So donít I get a hug this morning?"

"C'mere, you," Xena enfolded Gabrielle in a warm embrace. Then Gabrielle looked up into Xena's ice-blue eyes and, with a twinkle in her own blue-green eyes, she poked Xena in the ribs, darted away and let go a light laugh.

"I remember the day when a certain Warrior Princess of my acquaintance would have gone barreling into that palace, ripped that belt off the wall, then fought her way out, corridor by corridor, and may the gods have mercy on any bonehead who might have been loony enough to get in her way."

Xena rolled her eyes and shook her head. Leading Argo by the reins, she said, "C'mon, if we hustle, we can make it most of the way to Corinth by nightfall. I know a shortcut through the Nemea pass that my army once stumbled on."

"In the war against the Centaurs?"

"Mm. Maybe we'll find a chink in the cliff where we can hole up for the night."

Just as Xena and Gabrielle were about to break camp above Tiryn's sheltered harbor, unsuccessful in their attempt to persuade Queen Admete to part with Hippolyte's belt, Argo shied and reared.

"What's the trouble, girl?" Xena held tight to the reins.

"Xena, look!" Gabrielle pointed to a disturbance out over the ledge whose slope pitched some fifty footlengths down to the tidewater. "Can you see it? It looks like some kind of a great white bird circling around up there."

Argo nickered as Xena and Gabrielle stared at the flying figure swooping down to its aerie among the crags.

"Pegasus," Xena whispered as Argo let out a loud neigh. "Stand back, Gabrielle! One stroke of those massive wings can smash a body flatter than an Aeolian cyclone!"

Gabrielle scooted behind Xena as Pegasus, with a great fluttering of his mighty pinions, came to rest on the brink of the windy slope. Bellerophon dismounted and looked at the ladies with a smile.

"Hello, Xena," Bellerophon made a slight bow.

"Bellerophon," Xena nodded and held her ground. Though the two of them had never crossed swords, those with whom they'd been allied in the past hadn't always seen eye to eye.

"Itís a pleasure to connect with you again," Bellerophon continued to smile. Short of Hercules and Marcus, few men of Xena's acquaintance possessed such low-key, masculine self-assurance.

"Likewise," Xena returned the smile.

"Though I regret to say that my errand's hardly conducive to the exchange of pleasantries," Bellerophon straightened to his full height, half a head taller than Xena and as powerful in limb and girth. "You must be Gabrielle," Bellerophon addressed Xena's semi-sheltered companion.

"You've heard of me," Gabrielle stepped out from behind Xena and scrutinized, with an approving eye, the skyrider's taut but pliant physique.

"I believe this will be familiar to you," Bellerophon produced the medallion.

Gabrielle looked quizzically at Bellerophon, then at the item he held in his hand.

"Go on, take it," Bellerophon said. "Xena, you have a look as well."

Gabrielle tentatively lifted the object from Bellerophon's hand and turned it over with a frown. Then a look of alarm came to take the place of her initially hesitant doubt.

"Where did you get this?!" Gabrielle stared at Bellerophon's handsome, composed face. "Xena! Do you know what this is! It's my moth... How did you come by this? I've never seen you before. I've heard of you, of course... Well, I've heard of Pegasus but... Xena, this is Mom's. It's the charm that Mom wears around her neck. Ever since me and Lee were litt... see how it's got these two different faces on it? One's for Artemis and one's for Dem... How did you get this? Where did it come from and why have you brought it here? And how did you know where to find us?"

"Sad news, I'm afraid," Bellerophon said. "I didn't see what went on so I can only repeat what Chiron told me a bare few candlemarks ago at the Centaur village..."

"By the gods," Gabrielle recoiled and a look of anguish spread across her pert, pretty face. "What's happened to my mother? Almighty Zeus, what's happened to my mom!? Xena, Mom had this made just after Lee was born and she's worn it around her neck ever since. What terrible thing has just happened to my mother?!"

"Not your mother," Bellerophon said, softly.

"Ssh, let him say what he came to tell us," Xena reached out a tender hand that sought to calm Gabrielle's fears.

"It's your sister," Bellerophon said.

"Lee!" Gabrielle cried, heartstrung. "What's happened to Lee? Is she sick? Is she hurt?"

"Sick, no; hurt, possibly."

"How? Where?" Gabrielle's eyes lit up in a fury. "Did she get into an accident? A rockslide? A rope bridge that gave out from under her?"

"I've been a guest at the Centaur village," Bellerophon said. "I'd gone to consult with Tyldus about matters having to do with the Academy. Last night was thesmophoria. Residents from the surrounding villages were attending the celebration in town."

"Do you see these?" Gabrielle showed the medallion to Xena. "See how on one side there's an engraving of Artemis and on the other side there's one of Demeter? It's meant to stand for me and Lee. Leeís the chief Demetoid who heads up the enaretes kores. So whatís happened to my sister?"

"I take it youíre familiar with Latrinus, the warlord," Bellerophon said.

"The shyster who runs a small-time, hit and run operation," Xena said in a low voice that had little affection in it. "I remember Latrinus. He got his start with Mezentius, then joined up with Talmodeus after Marcus got killed and Mezentius' gang disbanded."

"It seems that Latrinus' lackeys crashed the party and made off with Gabrielleís sister and one of her friends."

"Lee? Got kidnapped?" Gabrielleís eyes got very big.

"So it seems," Bellerophon said.

"Along with a friend, you say?"

"That's right."

"Probably Lexie," Gabrielle said to Xena.

"Iím afraid I didn't get the name," Bellerophon said.

"So what happened next?" Gabrielle wanted to know.

"Presumably, the gang took them back to their hideout. Your father and some of the men are out searching for them now. Your mother gave that neckpiece to whomever it was that passed it along to Tyldus and Chiron, hoping it might reach you... and Xena. She begs you to come as quickly as possible. 'Only the Warrior Princess can help us now...,' is what I believe she said."

"You see how you're the one they turn to when the chips are down," Gabrielle said to Xena. "My mother did the right thing," Gabrielle looked at Bellerophon. "Thank you for seeking us out."

"They say, Xena," Bellerophon reflected, "that if one were to live long and travel widely enough, one would eventually come full circle and find that one's enemies had since become one's friends."

"One would need to live long and travel widely, then," Xena said, her eyes on Bellerophon.

"I admire you, Xena," Bellerophon smiled. "You could live like a queen in a palace. Instead, you choose to board with peasants in their hovels."

"Thanks for bringing us the message," Xena said with pale blue eyes and a seductive, sphinx-like half-smile. "Tell Tyldus and Chiron we're on our way."

"There's a boat in the harbor that could trim days off your journey," Bellerophon looked, without flinching, into ice-blue, ambiguous, Warrior Princess eyes. "Captain's a Dutchman. They say his ship can fly like the wind."

"Thanks, we'll look into it," Xena said.

"Gabrielle...," Bellerophon extended a hand.

Looking hesitantly at Bellerophon, Gabrielle reached out her hand. A surge of power flooded her senses as Bellerophon gave her hand a gentle squeeze. This was not a man easily to be put off by Ė nor crudely to brook Ė a woman's defenses.

"Thank you," Gabrielle said. "I'm sure this errand must have taken you quite a distance out of your way."

"If your sister and her friend might be helped to return safely on account of it, the slight inconvenience will have been well worth the effort," Bellerophon bowed slightly. "And now if you ladies will excuse me, I have matters to attend to."

At a nod from Xena, Bellerophon retreated to the steep pitch of the bluff, mounted Pegasus and, amid a great beating of equine wings, the pair leaped from the precipice and ascended into the heavens for their return trip north and west.

"I've seen cyclopses and centaurs, hydras and dyads, bacchae and sirens," Gabrielle mused as she watched Bellerophon and Pegasus vanish into the aether, "but this is the first time I've seen a flying horse." Gabrielle turned to look at Xena whose eyes were on her and not on the man in flight. "And the guy who's riding him is no slouch either."

"Guess we've had a change of plans," Xena climbed up in the saddle. "Wanna hop on?" Xena dipped her hand down to hoist Gabrielle onto Argo's back.

"Nah," Gabrielle declined the offer. "Hiking down hilly trails is good for the glutes."

With Gabrielle in the lead, the threesome made its way down to the lane which led past the shining limestone buildings of Tirynsí commercial district, then wound its way down to the docks where cargoes were being unloaded from as far away as Spain and the Levant.

At one point, Gabrielle turned around and called up to Xena, "Why would they bother to kidnap Lee and Lexie? Of what use could they be to Latrinus and his gang?"

"Ever go fishing for bass and trout?" Xena said as Argo loped along the stony path.

"Yeah, me and Serafin sometimes, when we were kids."

"What'd you use for bait?"

"Flies, worms, whatever."

"What about sunnies?"

"Yeah, when we could catch 'em."

"So you might want to bait your hook with a little fish in the hope of luring a bigger fish."

"Who do you think the bigger fish might be, you? Us? You think they might be using Lee and Lexie to get to you and me?"

"It's a thought."

Hmm, went Gabrielle, and she hmm'ed a few more times until they'd arrived on the docks.

Continued in Part 16

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