Iolaus' lungs were on fire and he knew could not last much longer. He had hoped to out-distance his pursuers but they doggedly remained about thirty or forty paces behind him. And now they were beginning to gain on him. The events of the past hour had happened all too quickly. How had those guys disabled Hercules like that? He and Hercules had been on their way to Philedonia when they had ran into these men. Hercules hadn't even known what hit him. One of them had just shoved a rag soaked with some evil smelling liquid into Herc's face and he had dropped like a stone
Iolaus, of course, had tried to help his friend but there had just been too many of them. The only thing he could do was try to escape and get help.
The last sight he had of Hercules was of him being loaded onto a cart that carried a- what was it? A cage. Hercules was being dumped into a cage like some animal. The pain in Iolaus' side was becoming unbearable. He looked up the road and saw that it led into a large patch of woods. If I can just make it in there, he thought, maybe I can lose them. As he reached the edge of the woods, however, his legs betrayed him. Looking back over his shoulder, he did not see the small gully in the road which had been washed out by the previous night's rain. As his left foot landed in the gully, the mud caught his toes and tripped him. Normally it would not have even thrown him off stride but now he was just too tired to keep his balance. Iolaus was still lying in the road when his adversaries caught up with him.
"Well, you scrawny little bastard," panted their captain. "You gave us a good run but now the only running you will be doing is from a hole in your guts." The man savagely kicked Iolaus in the ribs.
"You know, kicking a man while he's down is really bad form." The men had not noticed the stranger now addressing them approach from over a little rise in the road. "In fact, it is the act of a slug-lipped, scum-eating son of a bitch."
"That's mighty tough talk for one man," roared the captain. "Maybe you want to join our friend here."
"Thanks for the invitation, boys, but I don't associate much with dung heaps like you," said the stranger.
"That's too bad, friend," spat the captain. "Now I am going to have to insist on it. Get him, boys."
The four men nearest the stranger immediately began to attack. As the stranger was armed only with a staff, it looked to be a simple task to teach this bastard a lesson. But it was not such a simple task after all. With astonishing expertise the stranger brought down three of his attackers with one swipe of his staff and side stepped the fourth as he charged by. The stranger then collared him by the neck and slammed his head into a tree. Now he turned to face the next wave of combatants. These men had seen what the stranger had done to their comrades and did not charge in to attack so recklessly. The five of them tried to encircle him but the stranger was too nimble for them. Each attempt at encirclement brought down another flurry of blows on them from the stranger's staff. Finally, one of the soldiers managed to cut the stranger on the arm with his sword.
"Well, it looks like you are human, after all," said the soldier. "It's only a matter before we take you."
"Speaking of time," replied the stranger, "I think yours is about up."
With this the stranger charged the soldiers and brained the first one with his staff. Seizing the fallen man's sword, the stranger began hacking furiously at his assailants. Within a matter of seconds the man had killed another one of the soldiers. Now the men were backing away, hoping to get some signal from their captain to withdraw. Their captain, however, was no longer capable of giving commands. Iolaus had recovered enough to crack him on the skull with a tree limb.
With the loss of their leader the three remaining men began to flee. As they ran past Iolaus he slammed his fist into one of the men's face. He had no sooner bent over to finish him off when he heard a whooshing sound rush past him punctuated by a scream. The stranger had heaved his sword at one of the retreating men and had caught the unfortunate fellow squarely between the shoulder blades. Only one of the men managed to escape.
"Thank you for your help," said Iolaus. "I would have been a goner if you had not come along when you did."
"Iolaus, why is it I always seem to find you laid out in the middle of the road?" The stranger was wearing a tunic with a hood which partially hid his face. Now, the man slowly turned to face Iolaus and removed his hood.
"Darinius, is that really you?" asked Iolaus.
"Yes, Iolaus, it's me," answered Darinius. "It has been a long time hasn't it?" It was the first time Iolaus had seen his old general in over ten years.
Darinius, universally recognized as the greatest general and leader of his time, did not start out to be a soldier. He was born and raised in a rich, fertile valley known as Mymalar. As the valley prospered, word of its wealth began to spread. Naturally, this eventually brought the valley under attack by warlords. The valley, which contained several villages, decided to band together and form an army for defense. Since none of them knew anything about being a soldier, arrangements were made to send twenty of the valley's best young men to Sparta to learn the art of war. Upon the completion of their obligation to Sparta, the men would return to Mymalar and train the others. Darinius was one of the young men chosen to go to Sparta.
The young men enlisted in Sparta's army and began to acquire all the skills necessary to become good soldiers. Soon they were fighting in Sparta's battles and Darinius discovered he had a real talent not only for physical combat but for leadership as well.
Meanwhile, in the two years the men were away, their valley was hit three more times by raiders resulting in the loss of most of both the harvests. It was during the last of these raids that Lycidia, the girl Darinius was to marry upon his return, was killed.
At the end of their two year enlistment there were fourteen of the valley's men left alive to return home. They had become excellent soldiers and Sparta's officers tried to convince them to stay. They especially wanted Darinius to remain, going so far as to offer him a captaincy in their army- a great honor for one so young. Darinius, however, longed to see his Lycidia again and returned home with the others. Upon his return he was crushed to learn of his beloved's death. For a time he contemplated taking his own life but his sense of duty to the valley and it's people eventually won out and he feverishly set to work helping to train the other men of the valley for the purpose of forming an army.
Although Darinius clearly was the most effective in training and organizing the new army, when the time came to name the army's leader he has was passed over. Instead he was named commander of one of the army's four battalions. Darinius was not disappointed by this slight and threw himself into making his unit the best of the four.
At last the day came when word was received from the scouts that an army was approaching. Darinius felt that the valley's men were well disciplined and their weapons skills were very good. Of course, they had never actually been bloodied in battle but there was a first time for everything and Darinius knew they were as ready as they would ever be.
The next day the battle started and the defenders started off well. As the battle wore on, however, the experience of the invaders began to tell and the valley's army began to be driven back. It was at precisely this critical moment that Mathias, the valley's leader, froze and became incapable of command. The battalion commanders begged Darinius to take charge and he did so.
Under the cover of darkness he skillfully withdrew his forces to pre- determined fall-back postions and the next day led the army to victory. After this battle there was no doubt as to who the army's commander was--Darinius.
One day while on a routine inspection tour of the valley, Darinius happened to come upon a young man lying motionless beside the road. For a moment he thought he was dead but he soon saw the young man was merely unconscious. There were no wounds or bruises on him but he was very weak. After sending Phillip, his aide, to a nearby village for a cart Darinius tried to revive the young man. The young man opened his eyes for a second and tried to form words but only lapsed back into his lassitude. Soon Phillip returned leading two villagers who were riding in a cart.
"I would like you to take this man to your village," said Darinius. "Tell me, has Felicia returned from Athens?"
"Just yesterday, Darinius," replied the cart driver.
"Good, tell her to please attend to this man for me and I will come in a couple of days to observe his progress," said Darinius.
"It will be done."
Two days later Darinius knocked on the door of Felicia, the healer.
"So, how is he?" asked Darinius.
"See for yourself," answered Felicia. "There was nothing wrong with him that a few decent meals could not fix."
"You mean, he was starving?"
"Yes, and it was a good thing he is such a strong young man or he would not have survived." Felicia lead him into a side room where the young man was sitting up in a bed.
"Well, you certainly look a lot better than the last time I saw you," said Darinius.
"You have been very kind," said the young man.
"Tell me, what's your name?" asked Darinius.
"Iolaus," said Felicia.
Darinius cast an amused eye at Felicia and asked, "So, Iolaus, what work of the Fates caused you to almost starve to death in our valley?"
"Well, I've been just sort of wandering around," said Iolaus. "And, times being what they are, it is hard to earn money for food. Sometimes I am able to get a good meal from a farmer or a kind villager but most of the time I eat what I can find."
"Don't you have a home?" asked Felicia.
"No I don't."
"Iolaus, how would like to have a job?" asked Darinius. "It does not pay much but you will get plenty to eat."
"I am afraid I am not much good at anything," said Iolaus.
"Do you have any experience with a sword?"
"Some," answered Iolaus. "My father was a soldier. He gave me a few lessons when I was younger. After he was killed I-"
"I see. Well, it's not really vital to what I have in mind anyway.You see, I am always looking for good scouts to range out of the valley and report back any intelligence they might gather," said Darinius. "Do you think you might be interested?"
"I could give it a try," said Iolaus.
"Good. Felicia, when he is strong enough, would you please have someone bring him to my headquarters?"
"Uh, by the way, whom will I be working for?" asked Iolaus.
"You will be working for the people of this valley but you will report to me. My name is Darinius."
It soon became apparent Iolaus had a natural talent for being a scout. He always reported back on time with accurate and reliable information. In time he even began to learn the ways of a soldier. Lightning quick and very athletic, he soon became more than a match for any two or even three men. Darinius saw that with each passing month Iolaus' self confidence was growing.
After about a year Iolaus began to show signs of restlessness and Darinius guessed that it would not be long before he took to the road once again. At least this time he will be better able to handle himself, thought Darinius.
Sure enough, one spring morning Iolaus knocked on the door at Darinius' headquarters.
"Ah, Darinius, may I have a word with you?" asked Iolaus.
"What can I do for you, Iolaus?" Darinius noted how nervous Iolaus was.
"Well-ah, on my last mission I ran into this ah-bard.
"Well, uh he told me this fellow, Jason, is looking to recruit some good men to sail with him," said Iolaus. "They say Hercules is with him."
"So you want to join the quest for the Golden Fleece, is that it?"
"Uh, yeah. Darinius I hope-"
"Iolaus there is nothing to holding you here," said Darinius. "You are not obligated to us in any way. You have been of great service to the people of this valley and I am grateful. To tell you the truth, if I could, I would join you. When does he sail?"
"Very soon so I must hurry," answered Iolaus.
"I understand." Darinius reached into a chest and produced a small bag of coins, "Here, take this."
"Darinius, I can't take that." This was becoming almost too much for Iolaus. Darinius had been like a big brother to him.
"Take it. It's an order. Think of it as mustering out pay." For a an awkward moment they just stood there looking at each other.
"You know, Iolaus, I hate good- byes so get out of here."
"Thanks, Darinius, I will never forget what you have done for me."
"I'll remember you too. Good luck," said Darinius. Iolaus and Darinius shook hands, Darinius patted him on the shoulder, and Iolaus was gone.
Under the leadership of Darinius the valley successfully repelled several more invasion attempts. Darinius, noting how his army was almost always outnumbered, became a master in the tactical use of long range weapons such as the bow and the catapault. One especially feared weapon was a large, clay pot filled with a secret mixture of oils. The oils in the pot were ignited by a fuse and shot from a catapault. Upon impact, the pot would explode, spreading the flaming oil all over the ememy.
Soon, Darinius began to receive reports of a new warlord in the land. To his surprise he discovered this warlord - ruthless, cunning, and brave beyond belief was a woman. He learned her name was Xena and she was as yet undefeated in battle. He also knew it was only a matter of time before they met on the battlefield so he began to formulate a plan for her- and her alone. Darinius began to send out scouts to secretly study her movements, her chain of command, and how she deployed her army in battle.
From the intelligence gathered by his scouts, Darinius decided that although Xena was very skilled and fearless in battle, she was also relatively inexperienced at that point. Basically her tactics were to just lower her army's head and shove. His plan was to use her aggressiveness against her by baiting portions of her army into pre-set traps. By using his vaunted long range weapons and fortifying the surrounding high ground, he felt he could defeat this deadly menace.
At last, the day came when word was received of Xena's approach. Xena and a couple of her lieutenants, Darphus and Borias, rode into the village of Tumas to make their demands. Darinius was there to meet them. At once he could tell she was no ordinary woman. Tall, muscular, dark, no more than twenty or twenty-one, she was far more imposing than any of the Amazons he had met. And she was without a doubt the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He even grudgingly admitted she was more beautiful than his beloved Lycidia.
From her mannerisms it was clear Xena was used to being in command. Proud, with supreme confidence in herself, this was no conventional enemy.
Xena, Darphus, and Borias rode up to where Darinius was standing and encircled him with their horses. Usually by now their prey was already more than willing to acquiesce to their demands but Xena already saw this guy was different. He was not impressed by their little attempt at intimidation. Well, that was just too bad, thought Xena.
"What is your name?' asked Xena.
"I have heard of you," said Xena. They say you are very good. However, you cannot possibly win here. To save yourselves from destruction all you have to do is supply us with a few 'essentials' and we will be on our way. No harm will come to your people, I promise you."
"I know all about the promises you make," answered Darinius. "Somehow I don't think the word of a murdering harlot amounts to much." Darinius was playing an early mind game with his opponents. He wanted to find out how they reacted to the unexpected.
"No bastard speaks to the Warrior Princess that way," roared Darphus. "You need to be taught some manners."
"Then why don't you get down off that horse and teach me some, big man?"
Darphus immediately began to dismount but was stopped by Xena. She had been eyeing this insolent stranger intensely and she saw no fear in his eyes. Darphus would be making a grave mistake by taking on this man. It was too bad one such as this would have to die. Xena leaned over and put her face close to Darinius' and hissed, "The death of these people is on your head, not mine."
Rage only seemed to make her more beautiful, thought Darinius. He could not help but admire her. Xena jerked the reins of her horse around and, trailed by her subordinates, gallopped out of the village.
The next day the epic battle began. Despite being outnumbered almost two to one, the battle went exactly as Darinius had planned. With his army firmly planted on the high ground and his catapaults spewing their firery death, his army managed to break up Xena's assault. Darinius then ordered a massive counterattack and succeeded in driving a good part of her army into a large ravine where it was slaughtered. As Xena reluctantly ordered a withdrawal she was hit by another force which had been hidden in the forest. Only Xena's astounding personal courage and skill kept her army from becoming totally annihilated.
In the final moments of the battle, as Xena was personally leading a rear guard action to allow the remnants of her army escape, she and Darinius met again. Engulfed with rage at the one who has dealt her her first defeat, she and Darinius clashed. For a half an hour they engaged in an epic and ferocious single combat. Even in this Xena was frustrated. Although she managed to wound Darinius, it became apparent he was her equal. Xena finally cursed Darinius and left the battlefield to him.
This is the battle that cemented Darinius' fame. From this day forward the valley of Mymalar was no longer subjected to threat of attack. For five years the valley prospered and a grateful people bestowed on Darinius lands and wealth fit for a king. Being only human, Darinius did not refuse these gifts but he was really not interested in acquiring wealth. A certain restlessness was beginning to rise up in him. But he could not leave just yet.
Darinius knew even before the first battle with Xena was over that they would fight again someday. She was just too proud of a warrior to swallow the bitter potion of defeat for very long. During the five years of peace Darinius constantly kept his vigilance. He continued to train his men, send out his far ranging scouts, and perfect his plan of battle.
When Xena finally returned it was with a massive army numbering almost ten thousand men. In what was to become known as the legendary Second Battle of Mymalar, the long years of preparation by Darinius again paid off. He was again able to dictate where the battle was to be fought. Once again relying on his faithful catapaults, he was able to do considerable damage to Xena's forces before they were close enough to strike back. But Xena, being the great commander she now was, had also learned lessons from the first battle. She held off her big assault until nightfall when the deadly catapaults were not nearly as effective. Darinius had planned for this and had ordered long, deep trenches dug, filled them with sharp stakes, and then camouflaged them. With the advantage of knowing every single inch of the battlefield, Darinius's superbly trained and well disciplined army again succeeded in splitting up Xena's much larger force. Using the trenches to seal off and entrap the enemy, the Army of Mymalar was able to chop up Xena's forces piecemeal by Darinius's skillful use of archers and infantrymen armed with long lances and shields.
By daybreak it was over. At the time it is the second greatest battle fought in the entire Mediterranean area. Only Xena's titanic struggle with Tyldus and the centaurs at Corinth three years earlier was bloodier. Unlike that battle, this one was decisive. Darinius and his men had prevailed- but only barely.
For both Xena and Darinius it was an event that would forever alter their lives. After this battle Xena decided that such a huge army was not practicable and scaled back her force to one which she could command personally. This decision would eventually force her to take Hercules into account- with all the amazing developments that would result from their encounter.
Darinius' life was also changed by this battle. He now knew the valley was completely secure and he was at last free to deal with his own personal conflicts. After relinquishing command of the Army of Mymalar to Athis, his faithful and trusted second in command, Darinius bid an emotional farewell to his beloved soldiers.
But he soon found that his fame would not let him go in peace. On three occasions during his travels he was called upon to help people defend their homes against attackers and each time he was victorious. He was now the most famous soldier in all of the eastern Mediterranean. It was even rumored he was to take command of the forces at Troy. Darinius, however, would have none of it. He had had enough. He decided the only way to get any peace would be to disguise himself. He grew a thick beard and began to wear the worst clothing he could find. The only reminder of his warrior past was the long leather bag he carried to keep his weapons in as he now rarely used them. He had found that a simple staff was usually more than enough to discourage anyone foolish enough to bother him.
It was during the early part of his travels that he met a man whom would become the first non-military friend of his adult life. The man's name was Autolycus and he was a thief. Darinius knew he was a thief but it did not matter to him. Over the years Darinius had developed an ability to read people and he knew Autolycus was, in fact, a good guy. Times were hard and one had to do what they could to survive and Autolycus was no exception. Besides, he had never harmed anyone and, for the most part, tried to steal from those least liable to be hurt by it. In fact, Autolycus had taken one look at Darinius' mean dress and had offered him coins!
For about the last year or so, during his wanderings, Darinius had begun to hear about the great deeds being performed by a warrior woman. Darinius wondered if this could possibly be Xena. To his astonishment he learned that this was, in fact, the woman's name. Darinius could scarcely believe it. He felt it had to be some sort of scheme on her part. He had to see for himself. He was on his way to find her when he encountered Iolaus and his "friends" on that muddy road through the forest.
"Iolaus, why in Tartarus are you out here in the middle of nowhere about to be made into a pin cushion by these guys?" asked Darinius.
"They, they have taken Hercules. These bastards were trying to keep me from going for help," replied Iolaus, still trying to regain his wind.
"Do you know where Hercules is being taken?"
"No, all I saw was him being loaded into some kind of cage."
"A cage? How could a cage hold someone like Hercules? Well it doesn't matter. We have got to find out what is happening here. I think we should follow the one that escaped. He is bound to return to his mates and give the alarm. Iolaus, do you feel up to it?"
"I'm all right now," said Iolaus.
The trail left behind by the fleeing man was not hard to follow. The distinctive footprints his boots made in the soft earth were like a sign post pointing the way. Iolaus and Darinius trailed him to the sea port village of Cataria. By the judicious use of a few coins, they were able to learn that a group of men carrying what seemed to be a covered cage had boarded a ship and had departed not more than an hour ago after a man who was breathless and very excited had joined them. They also learned that these men had taken along another man not part of their party. It took a couple more dinars to learn the destination of the ship- Kathos, a small island southeast of Cataria.
"I have got to get ship and go after them," said Iolaus.
"Hold on, Iolaus, the two of us would not stand a chance on Kathos by ourselves. I have heard of the place and I know it will be a tough nut for us to crack."
"But we can't just let them take him," protested Iolaus.
"They already have him," reminded Darinius. "I know how you feel, Iolaus, but we have to keep our heads here. We are going to have to have a plan and we are going to have to have some help."
"Darinius, I don't expect you to help me," said Iolaus.
Darinius could see Iolaus was still too upset to think very clearly.
"Now you know I am not going to deny help to a former member of my army. Besides, I have always wanted to meet Hercules." Here Darinius paused to gather himself before he continued. "Iolaus, tell me something, have you ever heard of a woman named Xena?"
"Yeah, she and Hercules are good friends. She has sometimes helped us out of some really tough spots." Iolaus conveniently left out the details of his personal experiences with her.
"So it's true, then. She really is fighting for good these days?"
"Yeah, she has done some pretty amazing things." Iolaus was starting to feel a little uncomfortable about this discussion. "Why do you ask?"
"Well, if we are going to Kathos we will need all the muscle we can get and no one better fits that description than Xena," said Darinius.
Iolaus did not say anything but already he was having reservations about this. He and Xena had long since patched up their differences but he still did not relish the idea of calling on her for help. She always made him feel a little inferior somehow.
"Darinius, you and Xena were the worst of enemies. How come you now want her to help you- us go after Hercules?" Like everyone else, Iolaus knew of the two massive battles the pair of them had fought.
"Times change, Iolaus. People change. To get Hercules back we are going to need the best people and, believe me, Xena is the best. If she is the friend to Hercules you say she is then I do not expect any trouble between us." Darinius noted the seeming hesitation on the part of Iolaus. "Now we need to decide on the rest of the team. First, we will need someone good with locks, or picking them to be more specific."
"Autolycus," said Iolaus immediately.
"You know him, too?" asked Darinius. "Iolaus, you really have been getting around haven't you? You are right, though, he is the best man for the job. Now, if we just had somebody who was good at talking their way through stuff we would be all set. None of us are exactly bards and where we are heading I think it might come in handy."
"Who is Gabrielle?" inquired Darinius.
"Xena's best friend and companion," said Iolaus. "She can talk a harpy out of its wings.
"Then Xena certainly has changed," allowed Darinius. "She wasn't one to tolerate talkers much in the old days. Iolaus, I think it would be best if you get Xena while I go for Autolycus," said Darinius.
Why don't you get Xena and let me go after Autolycus?" asked Iolaus who was still plainly uncomfortable with all this.
"Xena's participation is critical to the success of our plan," answered Darinius. "If I go I am not sure how she will react to me."
At last Iolaus agreed.
"Good. Now, see that inn at the end of the street?" asked Darinius. We will meet there at sunset in three days time, hire a ship and go after Hercules. Remember, Iolaus, don't tell Xena about my involvement in this. We will spring it on her when you get back."
"Right. See you then," said Iolaus.
Although he was not to keen about it, Darinius knew he must buy a horse because there was so little time to reach Autolycus. Fortunately for him, Darinius already knew where Autolycus was. He was in jail in Meredia. Well, it wasn't really a jail as such or Autolycus would have probably already escaped. In truth the Meredians kept their prisoners in, of all things, a cess pool! Admittedly it was an old one and it was dry now but the stench had to still be pretty bad.
Poor guy, thought Darinius. Autolycus had had a string of bad luck lately and this had to be especially humiliating for him. Worst of all, he had not even been jailed for stealing. The authorities in Meredia did not allow weapons of any kind in their town and Autolycus, who was there casing a rich merchant, had been discovered with that spring loaded grappling hook of his up his sleeve. It was instantly assumed to be some kind of exotic weapon and Autolycus, not having the money for the 100 dinar fine, was left to cool his heels with a six month jail sentence.
Darinius didn't know if he could coax Autolycus into going with him or not but he allowed he had some points in his favor. Most obvious was the fact that Darinius would be getting him out of that cess pool. If that failed he would pose it as a challenge to his talents- he had a real weakness as far as this was concerned. If that didn't bring him around, Darinius figured he could always whack him over the head and kidnap him.
Upon reaching Meredia, Darinius made arrangements to have Autolycus released. Autolycus was grateful but he knew there had to be a catch. Sure enough, after hearing the details of the plan, he began to have reservations.
"C'mon, Autolycus," grinned Darinius. "This is Hercules we are talking about here, remember?"
"Okay, Okay, I'll go. Besides, it will be good to see Xena again. She, uh, has a thing for me, you know."
"Come on, lover boy," said Darinius, rolling his eyes. "Let's go find you a horse."
Likewise, Iolaus had no trouble locating Xena and Gabrielle. For all her good qualities, Xena was about as subtle as one of Zeus' lightning bolts. He soon learned she and Gabrielle were en route to Athens for the annual bard's competition. Obviously it was for Gabrielle's benefit but Iolaus chuckled to himself when he thought about what might happen if it were Xena who was in the competition. If the judges did not like her story- well it could be hazardous to their health.
Early on the morning of the second day Iolaus caught up with Xena and Gabrielle on the road to Agris. He quickly ran through the details of Hercules' capture. Naturally, Xena agreed to join Iolaus and then tried to convince Gabrielle to go on to Athens. Gabrielle would have none of it. Xena was still trying to change her mind when Iolaus told her it had been decided that Gabrielle would be needed. Gabrielle said that it was nice that somebody appreciated her. This dig only served to irritate Xena more until the significance of Iolaus's remark struck her.
"Decided. Decided by whom?' asked Xena suspiciously.
"Well, I can't say," said Iolaus.
Xena's irritation was now directed at Iolaus as well as Gabrielle. But she decided to drop it- for now.
Since they would now be on the road all day and they had not had breakfast yet, Xena told Gabrielle to walk back to that little clump of huts that served or a village they had just passed through and try to buy some food. Gabrielle started to protest but all it got her was one of those "looks" from Xena so she sighed and trudged back up the road.
Meanwhile, Darinius and Autolycus had entered the village from the other side. They, too, were hungry. Since it was still very early the only thing open was the inn. They tied up their horses at the water trough and walked the thirty or so paces up the street to the inn. After purchasing something that looked like meat and some dry bread Darinius turned to leave. But Autolycus, not used to riding a horse, asked him if they could eat their food at one of the inn's tables so he could work out some of his kinks. Darinius picked out a table located by the huge bar which served to partially hide it from view by most of the other tables in the room.
As they sat there choking down their sorry excuse for a breakfast the silence was broken by the arrival of six large soldiers wearing armor and armed with those short swords which were now becoming all the rage. They noisily stomped over to a table on the other side of the inn and began to demand mead. The sight of so many uniforms began to make Autolycus nervous and he was just about to suggest to Darinius that they should be on their way when a familiar voice floated through the door.
"Excuse me, are you open for business?"
Autolycus craned his neck to see around the bar and his suspicions were confirmed by the appearance of the petite form now advancing toward the innkeeper. "That's Gabrielle," he whispered.
"If nothing happens let's just mind our own business," said Darinius.
All through this the soldiers had been hooting and making lewd suggestions to Gabrielle. She had been through this many times and knew it was best to just ignore them. After putting the food she had just purchased into her bag, she turned to make her way to the door. At first she believed she was actually going to get out of there without any fuss but she had not taken four steps when she found her way blocked by three of the huge men. Gabrielle cursed herself for not bringing her staff with her but she had not expected trouble in such a run down place.
"Ah, if you don't mind, would you please let me pass?" she asked.
"Well now, cutie, I think we were here first," sneered one of the men.
"Okaaay." Gabrielle turned to try to walk around the other way when one of the soldiers grabbed her by the arm.
"What's your hurry, honey? Why don't you join us over here?
"Hey, let me go you big dumb ox," said Gabrielle, gritting her teeth. She lashed out with the heel of her foot and caught one of the men squarely on the knee causing him to howl in pain. She quickly followed this up with an elbow to the stomach of the one holding her arm but her blow was not very solid and the soldier responded by seizing her in a bear hug.
"My, but you are a spunky little thing, aren't you," grinned her captor. "That's going to make things much more interesting."
"If you don't let her go, the only thing you will be interested in is knowing many teeth you still have left," said Darinius as he stood up and faced the soldiers. Well here we go, thought Autolycus. He had on previous occasions seen what Darinius could do.
"Cutie, it looks like you have got yourself a hero here. Boys, take care of this big mouth," snarled Gabrielle's captor.
The first two soldiers rushed at Darinius . The one unfortunate enough to reach him first swung at him, hit nothing but air, and received an upper cut to the jaw for his troubles which knocked him out. Darinius then spun around in time to catch the second man in the groin with a solid kick. The soldier who had been holding Gabrielle now released her and drew his sword. As he started towards Darinius Gabrielle managed to get her foot in front of him and trip him up. The soldier stumbled sideways toward the bar and was bashed over the head with a wine bottle by Autolycus.
By now the three other soldiers had risen from their seats and were on the attack. Darinius jerked the sword out of the belt of the man lying at his feet and readied himself. He deftly dodged the first assailant's clumsy lunge and, as he passed by, Darinius whacked him hard on the butt with the flat side of his sword. Before the soldier could completely turn around Darinius caught him with a left hook and down the guy went. While Darinius was occupied with his man, the next soldier decided it might be better to try Autolycus instead. Unfortunately for Autolycus his man was the biggest and strongest of the bunch. The huge soldier grabbed him by the throat with both hands and began to savagely choke him. Gabrielle was astonished that Autolycus' eyes could bulge out that far and not burst. Autolycus now decided to take a page from Sinteres' scroll. He jabbed his fingers hard into the huge man's eyes and at once felt the pressure on his throat ease. Autolycus then head-butted the man twice and finished him off with a crack over the head from a poker. Only then did he feel the searing pain in his forehead. How come that doesn't seem to bother Xena? he wondered.
What happened next was something that Gabrielle was becoming all too familiar with. The last soldier took advantage of the confusion to sneak up behind her. Gabrielle once again found a dagger to her throat. Oh no, not again, she thought. Out of the corner of his eye Darinius saw the soldier rushing at Gabrielle but it was too late. Having taken care of all the soldier's buddies, Autolycus and Darinius now turned to face this far more serious threat.
"One more step and the girl gets a new air hole so, back off!" screamed the soldier.
"Now look, you don't want to hurt the girl," said Darinius. "You just put down the knife and we will let you walk out of here."
"Surrre you will," answered the soldier. "I think I like it better this way."
This could go on all day, thought Darinius. We can't let that happen. He wants to stall until these guys wake up. With a good partner like Autolycus to back him up Darinius normally would have been extremely confident about the situation but Gabrielle was the wild card in all this. For once he was at a loss as to what to do. Fortunately, Gabrielle solved the dilemma for him.
"Oh goodness, I'm sooo scared," she said breathlessly. Gabrielle let her knees buckle and pretended to swoon. Her unwitting abductor bent over to catch her and, as he did so, exposed the top of his head. Before Darinius could react he heard something go sprooiiing! Autolycus had fired off his grappling hook and hit the unsuspecting soldier squarely in the head. As he man sank to his knees Gabrielle rammed her knee into his forehead and he melted to the floor.
"Good work, Autolycus," said Darinius as he rushed to Gabrielle.
"If those stupid Meredians had seen that I would still be in jail there," replied Autolycus. "Gabrielle are you all right?"
"Me-oh-yeah, I'm fine. Thank you Autolycus," said Gabrielle. She turned to the bearded man with the dirty tunic. "And thank you too, sir."
"That's quite all right, young lady," said Darinius. "Any friend of Autolycus' is a friend of mine." He looked around at the lumps on the floor and said, "I think it would be best if we got out of here."
Gabrielle gathered up her bag and the three of them stepped out into the street. "Ah, I have a couple of friends waiting for me outside of town. Why don't you and Autolycus join us for breakfast? I'm sure my friend would like to thank you for your kindness."
"Hey, that sounds like a good idea," said Autolycus.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle, but Autolycus and I are in kind of a hurry," said Darinius.
Darn it, thought Autolycus.
"It's just that I'm sure my friend would like to thank you personally," said Gabrielle. For the first time Gabrielle got a good look at those pierceing eyes."You know," she continued, "You remind me of her a lot."
"I consider it an honor to be compared so favorably to the Warrior Princess," said Darinius as he bowed to Gabrielle.
This guy is no peasant, thought Gabrielle. Or thief for that matter. This guy was or is someone used to being in charge. Then it struck her. How did he know about Xena? Autolycus surely must have told him she decided.
"Uh, Gabrielle, you said you had two friends waiting?" asked Autolycus.
"Yes, Iolaus is with us," said Gabrielle. "You know, this will make a great story."
"Autolycus tells me you are a gifted bard," smiled Darinius.
"Well, I'm still learning," she said, returning his smile. What a lovely young woman, thought Darinius.
"Could I ask you something? Where did you learn to fight like that?" asked Gabrielle.
"In Sparta, a long time ago," answered Darinius.
"Where are you from?" Gabrielle knew she was being nosy but there was more to this rough-looking man than met the eye.
"I call the road home mostly nowdays," said Darinius. He turned and looked down the street to where their horses were tied up. "Gabrielle, I don't mean to be rude but we really must be going. Autolycus, say good bye to your friend and I'll get the horses."
Darinius stepped behind Gabrielle, put a finger over his lips to warn Autolycus not to say too much and started off after the horses.
Gabrielle began to pump Autolycus as to who the man with him was but she could got get him to reveal anything. Why all the secrecy?, she wondered. Autolycus decided he had to change the subject. "By the way, Gabrielle, you didn't happen to find a ring, did you?" he asked slyly. "I seem to have lost one. You know, that big one you were so interested in."
"Oh, yeah-a ring, right. Uh, no-ah well, maybe." Gabrielle decided she might as well spill the beans. "As a matter of fact, I did."
"And where is it now, pray tell?" asked Autolycus, relieved to have diverted her attention away from Darinius.
"Wellll, I uh, I sold it." answered Gabrielle meekly. "You see, I needed some new boots and we didn't have any money so I -"
"That's okay, Gabrielle," said Autolycus, now sorry for the discomfort he was causing her. "I probably would not have gotten something so useful out of it when I sold it, anyway." By now Darinius had returned with the horses.
"Autolycus, we really must be on our way," he said. "Gabrielle, I am pleased to have met you."
"Thanks again for your help, guys," said Gabrielle. She then decided to give it one last try. "It would be to your benefit if my friend knew your name. She is very good at repaying debts."
Darinius merely smiled and said, "Xena already knows me, I think." He had already decided that this young woman was someone very special. "Take care of yourself, little bard." With that he and Autolycus started out of town the same way they came in.
Gabrielle stood in the street and watched them leave. "Wow," she said to herself under her breath. Gabrielle went flying back to Xena and Iolaus and breathlessly told them of the morning's adventure. Naturally, Xena became very concerned and asked her if she sure if she was all right. Still excited, Gabrielle told her yes, but she should have seen the guy that was with Autolycus. "Xena, I'd swear by the gods he was as good as you!" she exclaimed. "And, that's not all, he said he knew you."
It was at this point a small lamp was lit inside Xena's brain. "Tell me, what did he look like?" she asked.
"Well, he wasn't much to look at. He was about your height. A big scraggly beard- I don't think he had taken a bath for a while- average build for a warrior as skilled as he was, peasant's clothes- but Xena he was no peasant."
"Just his eyes. When he looks at you it's like he can see right through you straight into your soul."
That was all Xena needed to know. "Uh huh. I know who it is."
"Who, Xena?" asked Gabrille excitely.
"Has to be Darinius. No one else fits that description. Although the beard is something new."
Iolaus, who had been busy with the food Gabrielle had brought back now began to choke at Xena's mention of Darinius. Of course, Xena recognized at once Iolaus knew more about all this than he was telling. "What's this all about, Iolaus?" she asked sternly.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Iolaus replied, his mouth still full of food.
"Don't play innocent with me. I can read you like a scroll," said Xena. She walked over to where he was standing and bored her eyes into his. Iolaus, now wide eyed and getting very nervous, tried to avoid her gaze but it was no use. Xena stood towering over him menaceingly as he desparately tried to regain his composure. "You know, Iolaus, I could make you tell me."
"But you won't, will you?" Gabrielle now worked her way in between the two of them and put her arm around Xena. "Xena, Iolaus must have his reasons. We will know all about this in due time."
"No, I guess not. Sorry, Iolaus, all this secrecy is a bit irritating to me," said Xena. "We had better get going if we want to make Cataria by tomorrow night. Xena left Gabrielle and Iolaus standing there together and went to check on Argo.
"Whew, that was close," gasped Iolaus.
"She's been in a bad mood for a couple of days. It's that time of the month, you know," whispered Gabrielle.
"Huh? Oh, yeah- I see. Ah- I think." Sheesh, thought Iolaus, the things I do for Hercules.
After leaving Gabrielle in the village, Darinius and Autolycus had ridden no farther up the road than enough to take them out of sight of the village. They then cut across country and doubled back around the village, coming out on the road well ahead of Xena's little group. Late in the evening of the second day they reached the little seaport town. For the third time Autolycus asked Darinius why he was taking such pains to keep Xena in the dark about his participation in this. For the third time he received the same reply. "I told you, the longer it takes for her to find out the less time she has to mull over our past history, said Darinius.
"Well, if you ask me, I think she would ally herself with Medusa if it meant helping Hercules," retorted Autolycus. Now that aroma which had been nagging at Autolycus for some time became too much for him. "Ah, Darinius, if we are all going to be so close together for a while I think one of us should take a bath. Body odor is not something Xena suffers lightly."
"You let me worry about Xena. Go get a room for us in the inn and I will put the horses in the stable," answered Darinius testily.
"Okay, okay, just trying to be helpful that's all," said Autolycus.
The next morning Autolycus awoke to find himself alone. Overcoming his initial puzzlement, he strode out into the street in hopes of getting a glimpse of Darinius. He saw nothing and as he turned to walk back inside he bumped into a man with what looked to be a bag of coins tied around his belt. For Autolycus this was too much. He looked to see if there was anyone watching as he ever so slowly inched his hand toward his target. Like taking candy from a baby, he thought.
"Don't even think about it, Autolycus."
Autolycus quickly jerked his hand back and spun around to find his friend. But Darinius was nowhere to be seem.
"Here I am, Autolycus."
I must be going nuts, he decided.
The man with the coins now turned to face him. "You wouldn't want to steal our passage money, would you?" the man asked.
"Is, is that you, Darinius?" asked Autolycus incredulously. Darinius had shaved his beard, washed out his tunic, and by the judgement of Autolycus' nose, taken a bath.
"Sorry about that. When you have been on the road as long as I have it is easy to forget about such things. I just sold the horses. That's where all this money came from. Let's go try to find a ship."
They spent the better part of the rest of the day bargaining with ship's captains without success. No one would take five people to Kathos for less than 1000 dinars. Even with the sale of horses they had only 228 dinars. Autolycus suggested that maybe they ought to knock off a couple of the rich merchants conducting their business down at the docks. Darinius said it was tempting but they would have to find another way.
While Autolycus and Darinius spent the night sleeping in warm cots in the inn, Xena and her companions had made camp under the stars. After eating their rough supper they sat around the fire and caught up with each other's lives. Actually, Gabrielle and Iolaus did the catching up. Xena barely said anything at all. Soon she tired of their small talk and lay down on her blanket and tried go to sleep. She lay there listening to Iolaus tell Gabrielle about meeting the Enforcer, finding his father in Tartarus, and even being mistaken for a king. Then Gabrielle asked about Hercules. Iolaus said he was the same old hero he always was. He was still slaying monsters, saving villages, thwarting evil. This was followed by Gabrielle's innocent utterance of remarks that would open up a floodgate of emotions for Xena.
"I've missed you, Iolaus," said Gabrielle. "When I thought Xena was- was dead I almost came looking for you."
Upon hearing this Xena felt an ever so gentle tug at her heart by the green-eyed monster. After a moment she became angry at herself for being so selfish. Xena's powerful intellect turned to thoughts of what would happen to Gabrielle if someday she did die. Xena knew Gabrielle was probably stronger emotionally than she was. She hoped the girl would not mourn for her too long and get on with her life. It might even be hoped she would seek out someone strong and brave and true- someone like Iolaus maybe. Xena truly believed that one day Gabrielle would spread her fledgling wings and soar higher than anyone dared imaginable. The girl had talent. Xena had seen it often enough.
But Gabrielle needed to be protected, from herself as much as anything. She trusted people too much. She liked people too much. Gabrielle did not know what a stranger was. It was too easy for someone to take advantage of her kindness. Well, not while I'm here, Xena thought.
Her grim contemplations however, were not over. Usually Xena was able to keep from dwelling on things like this for very long but lying there listening to her beloved softly converse with Iolaus made it impossible to get it out of her mind. What if the truly unthinkable was to happen? What if it was Gabrielle who was dead? That terrifying experience in the temple of Aesculapius when Gabrielle had, in fact, died had almost driven her over the edge. Of course, she had made that promise that Gabrielle's death would not make Xena revert to the old ways but who really knew?
Whatever the circumstances of Gabrielle's death Xena knew it she would feel responsible. She would not help but feel that if she had only convinced Gabrielle not to leave her home after their little run in with Draco or if she had kept that eternally damned Callisto from murdering Perdicas, Gabrielle would yet live. Xena feared it would be Gabrielle's relationship with her that would be the cause of her death.
Gabrielle, that bright young woman with a marvelous gift for words, was also Xena's soft underbelly and a lot of her enemies knew it. Not that she was helpless. She had proven her bravery more than once, like the time she had whacked Xena over the back with that ridiculous pitchfork. She had been willing to take on the fierce Warrior Princess and fight for what was right. Xena could only marvel at what an act of courage that had been. She could name the number of "brave" men on one hand who would have had the guts to do what she did.
Now Xena had long ago learned the power of her own personality and the effects it had on others. Their were few she could not dominate by force of will alone. Even Gabrielle was influenced somewhat by it. But this little wisp of a young woman had accomplished something that not even the greatest king, general, or warlord could ever do- she'd conquered Xena's soul. It had not been a quick conquest, like one of Xena's dreaded lightning raids, but a gentle seige. The weapons that Gabrielle had used to break down the embattlements of hate within Xena's heart were those which had been for so long forgotten; kindness, compassion, unswerving devotion...love. Xena had been no match for them. She wondered how much Gabrielle really understood.
Xena herself was confused by what had happened. It had never occured her that she might fall in love with another woman. She had had plenty of experience with men, of course. Men were attracted to her like moths to a flame and with them she had always been in total control. But this was different and it scared her a little. It was easier with men. It was always easy to read their little brains but Gabrielle was like one of those riddles the great Sphinx used to torment travellers.
How could a warrior, maybe the greatest, be so afraid to express her true feelings to such a gentle soul. Because, Xena knew, if she told her how she truly felt and it caused Gabrielle to turn away from her- even a little- she would not be able to bear it.
Oh, Gabrielle! thought Xena, have I not proven my devotion to you? Did I not stop an entire war because you said you could not bear to see all the suffering? Have I not defied kings and even gods for you? I even gave up my beloved brother Lyceus to save your innocence. Xena ached to take Gabrielle into her arms and tell her how much she loved her. But you don't have the guts do you, Warrior Princess? she asked herself.
"Did you say something, Xena?" asked Gabrielle.
This brought Xena out of her spell. She quickly realized she must have inadvertently said something out loud. Got to watch that, she reminded herself. "Just had a bad dream, that's all," she said. "So, Iolaus, is there anything else you can tell me about this cage?"
"Well, I couldn't see much you understand. But it had a sort of aura around it and it sort of, well hummed," said Iolaus. "And the humming noise got louder after those guys put Hercules inside it."
"The Cage of Elysis!" exclaimed Gabrielle. Poor Iolaus was so startled by Gabrielle's outburst he nearly fell backwards over the log he was sitting on.
"I take it you have heard of it," said Xena dryly.
"Of course, any bard worth their parchment has heard of the Cage of Elysis," said Gabrielle smugly.
"Tell us about it," Gabrielle."
"Oh, uh sorry."
For someone with as much self discipline as Xena had it was sometimes maddening the way Gabrielle so easily lost her focus on things.
"Right," continued Gabrielle. "Well, a long time ago their lived this queen. Her name was Elysis. Over time she began to suspect her husband, Tarax, was being unfaithful to her. So one day she summoned her sorcerer, Ebel, to determine the truth once and for all. Ebel cast his magic stones on the floor and the pattern of the stones told him that Tarax was indeed being unfaithful to her. Well, Elysis had a fit and ordered Ebel to have a cage built. After it was completed it was secretly brought to Elysis who then made Ebel put a curse on it."
"Oh that's just great," said Iolaus.
"Anyway, legend has it any man who is locked in the cage is no longer able to think for himself. He sort of becomes mindless. Elysis tricked Tarax into the cage and kept him there a month. But soon her heart softened and she finally released Tarax. They managed to reconcile their differences and Elysis ordered the cage to be placed on a ship, taken out to sea, and dumped in. The sailors say the cage's blue light can sometimes still be seen from the ocean floor." Wearily, Gabrielle sat down to rest. She just didn't tell a story she had to act them out as well.
"I think I smell Hera in all this," said Xena. "Only Poseidon could have recovered that cage off the ocean floor and only if Hera had wanted him to. She knew the cage would disable Hercules. Now, we don't know much but if I were a betting woman I would bet my sword that there is someone one that island who is in cahoots with Hera."
"Any idea who it might be?" asked Iolaus.
"Yes, Senta," said Xena.
"Who's Senta?" inquired Garrielle.
"A woman I met once at Delphi. She was a priestess there," said Xena.
"I don't see the connection, Xena," said Iolaus.
"Senta told me Kathos was her ancestral home. Her family had ruled there for generations. It was a very rich and prosperous island until a plague wiped out it's entire population. Only she survived."
"That's awful," said Gabrielle.
"So she lived on Kathos, so what?" argued Iolaus.
"Senta's dream was to return to Kathos some day and rebuild the island," answered Xena. "And one other thing. She made no bones about who she wanted to help her create a new kingdom."
"Let me guess," said Gabrielle. "Hercules."
"How demented can you get?" asked Iolaus. "This woman is crazy."
"Crazy or not it looks like she has set her plan in motion- with Hera's help, of course," said Xena.
"So Hercules' abduction kills two birds with one stone. Senta gets her dream boat and Hera gets a big thorn removed from her side," said Gabrielle.
"Verrrry good, Gabrielle," said Xena.
"But I still don't get it," persisted Iolaus. "What's to keep Hercules from just taking off once she lets him out of the cage? And she has to let him out sooner or later."
Xena and Iolaus were startled to see Gabrielle smack herself on the forehead with the palm of her hand.
"Gabrieeellllle, what's the matter with you?" demanded Xena.
"I left out part of the story. Part of the legend was that if any man was locked in the cage for three full moons their mindless stupor would be permanent. They would blindly obey whosoever possessed the key to the cage," said Gabrielle.
"Well thanks for sharing that with us, Gabrielle," said Iolaus testily. "Any other little nuggets of wisdom?"
"Iolaus." Xena's subtle shift of her body weight was all the reprimand Iolaus needed.
"Sorry, Gabrielle, it's just all this is starting to get to me."
"We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow," said Xena. "We should get some sleep." Xena returned to her blanket. Gabrielle spread her blanket out on the ground and soon Xena could hear her breathing become slower and more rhythmic. Iolaus' soft snoring from the other side of the fire signaled that he too, was asleep. But, as usual, sleep did not come to Xena so she lay there staring at the bard's lovely young face. Slowly, cautiously, Xena reached out and gently touched the tip of Gabrielle's finger. To her mild surprise, Gabrielle smiled as if having a nice dream. At last, Xena closed her eyes and Hypnos was finally able to do his work. Gabrielle, meanwhile, had not been asleep either.
Continued - Part 2
The Bard's Corner