Xena: Warrior Princess and all its characters are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. The story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author.
This story contains mild violence. If this disturbs you, you may wish to read something else. Then again, how do you stand to watch the show?
Spoiler Warning!This story takes place during the fourth season, after "Family Affair" and before "Crusader." If you have not seen through these episodes, you may want to discontinue reading.
I would love to hear from you. Write to me (OfcrRipley@aol.com) and let me know what you think about the story, or just chat about Xena stuff in general. I can never talk too much about my favorite show!
How many lives have been ruined by the notion that they are destiny bound? How many souls saved by the truth that they are bound by destiny?
Xena Red Scrolls
Twist of Fates
Part 1 of 4
"Xena, Im not saying we should spend the rest of our lives here, just enjoy the sights a little, thats all."
The comment barely carried above the cacophony of the busy market street. Vendors on either side of the cobblestone pavement hawked their wares and argued with potential customers. Small puffs of dust stirred beneath the feet of the many people walking in the center of the thoroughfare. Nearby, a thin man in a loincloth and a turban appeared to be swallowing a flame from a torch and then spewing it out, to the amazement of several children gathered around him.
Two women came to a halt just in front of him.
"Nice form," the taller of the two muttered as she watched him breathe fire. Her shorter companion stared at him briefly and then cut her eyes over at the woman quizzically. She shook her head as if to clear her thoughts and then continued the conversation.
"Look, were in Lycia, one of the most interesting and wealthy lands in all of Greece. Once we locate the King of Cenchreaes son and tell him to go home, why dont we take a little time to soak up the atmosphere?"
The taller woman turned to her as if hearing her for the first time. "Soak up the atmosphere." She turned in the direction they had been heading and began striding up the road. The girl hurried to catch up.
"Yeah. Itd be like a little vacationa break. Joxers in Tiryns waiting to see if Bellerophon shows back up there. Once we locate the boy, I could go to the theater, and you could " She frowned. "Well, you could shoe Argo or something . . ." Her voice trailed off and the horse that her friend was leading whickered behind them. "Anyway, itd be great fun. Whadaya say?"
The other woman stopped completely. "Gabrielle, did I mention that I had been here before?"
"Well, no, but if you thought it was boring Im sure theres something you could do while I look around"
"No, Gabrielle, I mean before." She nodded toward her right and for the first time the other woman noticed a small group of people who were staring at the two of them in a less than friendly manner.
"Uh, you mean, like when . . ."
"Like when I was more interested in that tale that this was a wealthy city and not that it was a cultural center. I relieved Xanthos and a few other Lycian cities of their goods and took out quite a few people along the way." Her jaw set and she looked off in the distance, seeing something in her dark past that would never quite go away.
Her friend sighed and they continued up the street.
"Okay, but look, could we at least get something to eat here? Ill be glad to cook once we get out of the city, but you should give me a decent meal before we go back to rabbit stew."
"Agreed." Her companion smiled briefly, something that appeared to be rare with her, and pointed to a building just ahead on the right. "Thats a good place, if I remember correctly. Several of my men nearly left me permanently just so they could spend their nights there."
"Doesnt sound like such a bad idea," her friend quipped, but there was a smirk on her face as she muttered it.
The older woman tied the horse to a post and stepped into the darkened tavern. A burly man glistening with sweat was wiping off a long wooden counter that had been polished to a shine by the mugs of wine and bowls of stew that had slipped across it over the years. He glanced up at the two women briefly, then completely stopped what he was doing and just stared at the taller of the two. She was at least as tall as most men that he had seen, and dressed in a dark brown tunic and skirt that were covered with bronze armor. Armored bands protected her wrists and arms, and across her back she carried a broadsword. The look in her clear blue eyes said she knew how to use it, too.
Her companion was a less intimidating figure, standing a head shorter than the warrior, and carrying nothing more than a staff and wearing no armor at all over her short Amazonian skirt and tunic. The tavernkeeper did notice, however, that the stomach and arms that were well exposed by this clothing appeared to be quite muscular for one so small. The warrior did not surprise him. He had seen her before; her choice of companions did. He decided it was best to beard the Nemean lion in its lair.
"Xena. Been a long time. Wheres the rest of your crew? Youre takin em rather young and small these days, arent you?"
Xena strode over to the man. "She is my crew, Atraxis." She slid onto a stool. "And dont judge a scroll by the paper its written on. She could flatten you in a heartbeat." The young woman sidled up to the counter as well.
"Gabrielle, meet Atraxis, a fine tavern owner and great cook, when hes not passing judgement on his customers."
"Nice to meet you," Gabrielle smiled, and shook his hand.
Yes, Xena had definitely changed in her choice of company.
"Whatll it be?" he asked. Enough of the pleasantries. The sooner he got Xena out of here, the better off hed be, no matter what kind of company she was keeping. Any moment, he might have half his possessions destroyed and all of his dinars resting in her satchel, if the warrior princess took a notion in that direction.
Gabrielle spoke right up. "I want a loaf of that bread I smell baking, a plate of whatevers on the spit, and a tall cup of cool water from your well out front."
Atraxis glanced at Xena and she cocked an eyebrow and shrugged.
"Now I see where all that muscle comes from," he muttered, as he reached behind him and pulled out a mug. He handed it to the girl. "Do you mind going to the well yourself? Ill get the food ready."
"Sure." She took the mug and strode out the open door.
Xena watched Atraxis as he slid a board with a large loaf of bread on it out of the hearth. He put it on the counter with a thud and slid a knife out of his belt with which to cut it.
"And what do you want?" he asked as he cut.
"Same thingexcept I want a cup of that wine youre so famous for."
"Right." He finished the bread and grabbed a cup and wineskin from the wall behind him. "So, Xena, what brings you back to Xanthos?" He was trying to sound casual. Her reply told him it wasnt working.
"Dont worry, Atraxis. Im not here to relieve you of your valuables. Were looking for a young man that might have passed through herea boy, really. His names Bellerophon. Hear anything of him?"
Atraxis stopped in the midst of pouring the wine and looked at her suspiciously.
Her voice softened somewhat. "No, Atraxis, Im not here to kill him. His father wants him back in Cenchreae where he belongs. Were helping out."
He set the cup in front of her and crossed his arms. "Yeah, Id heard some things about you beinchanged and allbut I didnt believe it."
Xena took a large swallow of the liquid. "Aah, just as I remember it." She took another long drink. "I dont blame you for not believing it. Once I wouldnt have believed it myself."
"This got anything to do with her?" He nodded at the door.
"Its got a great deal to do with her."
The tavernkeeper grunted and began to slice large slabs of juicy meat off the pig roasting on the spit. He didnt quite believe her and Xena knew it. But she also didnt much care. It wasnt her duty to try to convince him that she had changed. Hed either figure it out or he wouldnt. She just had to do what she thought was best along the way. She decided to change the subject.
"So, is Iobates still ruling these days?"
"As far as we know. Your guess is as good as mine."
"Still the hermit in that old castle of his, I guess."
"We never see him. But theres been no funeral, and the city prospers, so what do the people care?"
"So all this talk of that creature roaming the countryside, the Chimaera, thats not true?"
"All I can say is Ive never seen it."
"Hmm." Xena took a gulp of her wine. "Do they still say the kings under a curse?"
"Nobody talks of it much anymore. Were so used to never seeing him that no one even thinks about it."
Xena shrugged and looked around the tavern at the dark walls and small tables. She had been to Iobatess castle onceand only once. It had been enough. She had planned on stripping the entire thing and maybe holding the ruler for ransom, but she never made it past the lower main hall. It was one of the few times from her warrior days that she had been really and truly frightened, especially for no apparent reason. When she had given the order to turn around, none of her men had questioned her. They had felt it, tooan eerie quiet, like a heavy blanket, rested on the place. A large unkempt rose garden, but no birds. And most everything in it had been black and dead. A large castle, but no sounds emanating from anywhere within. It looked and smelled like a tomb. Like death.
Xena shook herself and looked back at Atraxis as he set a huge plate in front of her. Suddenly, there were some shouts from outside and the distinct sound of a female voice saying, "Back off!"
In one lithe movement, Xena was up. "You just had to send her for water," she said.
Atraxis leaned over the counter to try and see out the open door. "I thought you said she could take care of herself."
"She can," Xena muttered casually; but he noticed she unhooked the sharp metal disc at her side as she stepped through the door.
Great. Just great, Gabrielle thought to herself. All I wanted was some water. Why do these things always happen to me? Xenas going to kick my---
"Askin fer trouble, arent ya, little lady?" The speaker was a burly man with long unkempt hair and the odor of one who had not bathed in a very long time.
Gabrielle balanced her long staff on her thumbs, her fingers curled gently around the top of the weapon. As she turned her body, she twisted each end of the staff alternately, turning her head to see where all her opponents were.
Two other toothless thugs, who couldnt be anything other than the first ones sons, were trying to get behind her. She turned to the old woman at the well behind her.
"Go on into that tavern. I have a friend in there. Youll be all right."
The woman started to obey, but was frozen by the sound of one of the boys calling for his dog to give chase.
"Go on!" Gabrielle called, then turned back to the dog. He was already limping from the bruised ribs she had given him just a moment ago. It was the sight of this dog nipping at the old womans heels and the guffaws of its owners that had prompted her to interfere in the first place.
The old woman began to hobble quickly toward the tavern. The dog began to follow.
He rolled over twice in the dirt with howling yelps of agony, then got up and limped off with his tail between his legs.
Now, if only its stupid masters would be as easy.
The bigger of the two boys yelled out in a fit of rage and ran straight toward her. Gabrielle tilted her staff and caught him hard in the knee with the right end. As he reached down to touch his wounded leg, she brought the other end around and hit him squarely in the jaw. He stared at her stupidly before tumbling to the ground like a large tree. Bringing the staff up and over like a wood chopper, she poked him firmly in his ample stomach for good measure. The wind sailed out of him like an empty wineskin.
She turned and stalked toward the puffing father, her jaw set and fire in her eyes.
"Whats the idea of setting your dog on a defenseless old woman like that? she said through clenched teeth.
The father backed up and wiped the sweat from his dripping eyebrows with his shaking hand. "Shes just an old witch who thinks shes a seer. Besides," he added as he pulled a knife and tossed it from one hand to the other, "I dont see as its any of your business, you little dwarf."
She knew she should wait until mid toss of that knife before she struck. Thats when he would be at the greatest disadvantage. But that crack about her size had done it. There was something about traveling around the countryside with a statuesque warrior princess that made you a little sensitive about your diminutiveness. She charged toward the buffoon, arching her staff as she did so. He was smarter than he looked, however, and had already decided that he wasnt going to let her get too close to him with that destructive stick. With a grunt, he hurled the knife at her as hard as he could. It spun through the air, and Gabrielle realized with a great deal of regret that she should have waited to charge until that thing had been out of his hands.
Suddenly, there was a high-pitched singing noise, as if a bird of prey were diving toward them, and she saw sparks fly right in front of her face as something round and sharp knocked the knife to the ground and whirred out of sight.
"What in Tartarus?" muttered the father.
Gabrielle didnt bother to look. She knew exactly what it was before she heard the familiar female voice say, "Son of a Bacchae!"
"Xena, I am handling this just fine, thank you."
"I can see that." The warrior princess was ten steps behind her, her hand clutching the object called a chakram that had just kept the bard from getting her face cleaved in two. Xena took a threatening step forward.
"But if that pile of dirt tries knife-throwing again, he may not have a hand to throw it with."
The mans eyes widened to the size of plates.
"And that goes double for you, sonny!" she called toward a recessed doorway where the other son was cringing. Gabrielle stepped toward the older man, staff in the ready position, but he stared at her now like a dumbfounded animal, then suddenly lifted his hands, palms up, and waved them.
"Look, we dont want no trouble." He directed his gaze to the conscious son. "Ethan, get Othan and lets get outta here!"
Ethan made a sniffling sound and ran to grab the body of his brother. The older man, still waving his hands, walked slowly to where they were, never taking his eyes off Xena. He grabbed a limp arm and began to drag the heavy burden down an alley.
Gabrielle frowned after them.
"And let that be a lesson to you!" she called out lamely.
She tossed her staff into one hand and spun toward Xena. The warrior had already hooked the chakram on her belt and was turning back toward the tavern.
"I was doing just fine, you know," Gabrielle said as she stepped alongside of her.
"You should have waited until"
"The knife was between hands, I know," Gabrielle finished for her. "It was a mistake. But Xena," she stopped and put her hand on her companions arm to halt her. "It was my mistake. Ive made plenty and Ill make plenty more."
"Not like that one, you wont. That son of a goat was going to split your head in two. Gabrielle, you cant make mistakes in battle, or you wont get a chance to make another one. And I may not always be there to help you out next time."
"Im counting on it!"
The minute Gabrielle said it she knew it had been a mistake. The warrior princess drew up to her full height and pursed her lips in that way she had when her bitter or cynical side took over. Her blue eyes grew icy, but not before Gabrielle had seen the hurt there, too.
"Maybe youll get lucky. They dont like me much here in Lycia." She turned and stepped through the door.
"Xena, wait. I didnt mean that. Its just that"
"Atraxis!" Xena yelled. "Get me a new plate of food! I want it hot! And another mug of that wine!"
You stupid idiot! Gabrielle chastised herself as she stepped through the doorway. I did make a mistake, but sometimes Xena makes me so mad pointing them out and then talking about saving me.
Well, she has saved your butt a number of times, as I recall.
The bard was arguing with herself. She did it quite often. When she wasnt thinking out conversations in her head, she was thinking up stories and improving the ones she had written in her scrolls. It was a natural product of her love of words and the constant presence of someone as quiet as Xena.
She continued as she stepped toward Xena and the counter. Yeah, but that crack about always being there to save me was totally uncalled for. Im pretty good in a fight, and I have saved her just a few times myself.
Shes just looking out for you.
Yeah, but shes gotten so much worse since she thought she lost me in the Temple of Dahak.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, but was halted by the touch of bony fingers on her arm. She spun around.
It was the old woman from the well. She had forgotten about her.
"Are you all right?" the woman asked breathlessly.
"Oh, Im fine. What about you?" Gabrielle gently urged her into a nearby chair. "How about some food? Atraxis! How about a bowl of that soup over here?" She sat down across from the woman. "Whats your name?"
"My name is Hadara. I was born in the East, but Ive spent a good many years here."
Gabrielle could tell that she had spent a good many years somewhere, because her face was deeply wrinkled and her hair was completely gray.
"Why were those thugs tormenting you?"
"Im a seer." In spite of herself, Gabrielle inched closer to the table when she heard this.
"Im very good at seeing the future for people, and they pay me to do so."
"And that frightens those oafs out there?"
The old woman chuckled, a strange rasping sound that came from deep in her throat. "Them? Oh no! They just didnt like what I predicted for their immediate future."
"And what was that?"
"A severe beating from two strangers."
Gabrielle looked at the twinkling eyes of the old woman, then laughed out loud. Xena turned to look at her, and the girl suddenly felt guilty, remembering their unresolved argument.
"You are troubled about your friend?"
Gabrielle stared at the old woman. She hesitated for just a moment, then shook her head. "Just a little. We had a small disagreement, thats all. We have them often. Just the natural result of always being together with someone."
Hadara turned to look at Xena. "She is troubled about you as well. There is great fear in her heart over youan ache she has had for some time."
The girl stared at the old woman in amazement, then pushed back her chair and stood up. "Excuse me for just a moment." She strode toward the counter and Xena turned back toward her food. Gabrielle slid up on the stool next to Xena and sat facing her friend.
"Xena, Im sorry about what I said out there. I wasnt thinking. I wasnt thinking the entire time. I let my anger get the better of me and we both know that a person cant focus when they do that. Thanks for saving my neck." She held her breath and kept her eyes on Xena. Suddenly, her friends shoulders sagged from a relief of tension and Xena turned to face her. Her eyes held that soft look that Gabrielle liked best and she let out a breath before Xena even spoke.
"Look Gabrielle, Im the one who should be apologizing. I overreacted and made some comments I shouldnt have." She placed her hand on Gabrielles and smiled. "And we both know you dont have any temper to speak of." The smile disappeared and she swallowed. "Its just that when I saw you in danger I kept reliving that moment when you saved me from Hope and Dahak and jumped into that pit. I cant live through that again. Not ever." She frowned in discomfort. That moment when Gabrielle made the ultimate sacrifice wasnt the only tragedy she had been visualizing. When Xena had gone to search for Gabrielle in the Amazon Land of the Dead, an evil witch named Alti had shown her a vision of another death for Gabriellethis time on a Roman cross. The vision also included Xena being crucified, but Xena had been disturbed by that fact only in that it meant she wouldnt be around to save Gabrielle. She hadnt told the bard about the disturbing prophecynot yet. She was hoping somehow to change their destiniesif indeed Alti had even shown her that. She hadnt worked up the courage to tell Gabrielle about it, and she had to admit she didnt have it now.
Gabrielle smiled and squeezed Xenas hand. "You wont have to live through it. Ill be very sensible, I promise. No more stupid moves." The two friends looked at each other a moment, then realized that Atraxis was standing there gawking at them. Xena turned toward him.
"Atraxis, I believe we asked for soup for that woman over there. Would you like to get it, or should I?"
The tavernkeeper hurriedly filled a bowl with the steaming liquid and handed it to Xena. She grabbed it and headed towards Hadara, Gabrielle following close behind. She set the bowl down in front of the old woman and leaned up against the wall with her arms crossed. Gabrielle took the chair she had vacated before.
"Eat that," Xena commanded. "Itll make you feel better."
"Thank you," Hadara murmured, then took a sip of the soup. "Thats good, but I already felt better when I noticed you two resolve your problem. I wouldnt want to be part of something that is causing two friends heartache."
Xena sent a glance toward Gabrielle, who looked up and shrugged.
"Dont blame her for telling me. Im a seer, but anyone with eyes could see the two of you were upset when you came in here."
Xenas voice softened. "Well, were okay now. Eat that soup and then well take you to your home in case those boys are still waiting around somewhere."
Hadara closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. "No, they are gone." She looked up at Xena. "Now you must sit down and let me repay you for what you have done."
"No, Hadara," Gabrielle shook her hand at the old woman. "We dont need any payment. We were just helping out someone who needed it."
The old woman smiled. "Its not much, so dont be too stubborn about refusing it." She reached into a satchel she had slung over her shoulder and pulled out a stack of brightly colored cards with strange symbols and drawings on them. "Ill tell you your futures."
Gabrielle looked up nervously at Xena, who rolled her eyes in exasperation behind the womans back.
"No, really, Hadara," continued the girl. "We must be going. You just eat. We dont need our fortunes told."
The woman began to spread the cards on the table. "Dont worry. Im very good. Gabrielle already knows this." Her eyes twinkled at the young woman. "Even you might agree, Xena, if you give me a chance." As she said this, her eyes never left the cards, and Gabrielle and Xena exchanged surprised glances at how she had picked up on their names in the first place. Xena uncrossed her arms and stepped into Hadaras view.
"I appreciate your wanting to thank us, but to be honest, Im one of those people who believes that your destiny is decided with these--" she knotted her hands into fists, "and this." She pointed at her head. Even as she said it, Xena felt a pang of guilt. She wanted to believe it fully, but that vision of Gabrielles death had begun to consume her. She was beginning to wonder if one could change destiny, or if it was as inevitable as her old enemy Caesar seemed to think.
Hadara smiled. "Ah, but youve forgotten the most important thing that decides our destinies, Xena, especially yours."
"This." Hadara laid her palm over her chest and looked up at the warrior. Xena cocked an eyebrow. Gabrielle raised both brows and stuck out her lips as if to say, "Shes got you there."
"Fine." The warrior princess pulled up a chair and sat down at the table. "But this cant take long," she added gently. "Weve got to be moving on soon."
"It wont," the old woman replied as she began to shuffle the cards. "Im good and Im fast." She handed the deck to Xena and told her to shuffle them. Xena looked surprised.
"I think Gabrielle should go first."
"Oh, no," the old woman replied. "It doesnt take a seer to know that if she goes first, you wont go at all." Gabrielle grinned at Xena, who flashed her teeth in disgust at her friend and then grabbed the cards. She moved them quickly and adeptly, then handed them back. Hadara took a deep breath and placed the top card face up on the table. It showed a warrior on a galloping horse with his sword drawn.
"The warrior," Hadara needlessly murmured. "You will soon go on a mighty quest."
"Umm hmm." Xena stifled a yawn.
Hadara ignored her and turned the next card. It showed one sword pointing up.
"This indicates your desire for truth and your inclination to help those in need. That desire to help others will determine your immediate destiny."
"It always has before," Gabrielle piped in. Xena could tell that the young bard was excited by all of this mystery, but she felt unfazed. Hadara had told them nothing that didnt come down to common sense. Still, if it pleased Gabrielle and the old woman, why not go along?
The next card involved swords yet again. Xena decided that neither one of them had shuffled very well, or the old woman was trickier than she seemed. This image was slightly disturbing, for it showed a picture of a heart being pierced by three blades.
"Thats not very encouraging," quipped Gabrielle.
"It indicates great heartache and sorrow." Hadara looked up at Xena. "You will experience a great loss very soon." The old woman looked very sad, and Xena shifted in her chair in spite of herself. She was beginning to not like this. Gabrielle, too, was glancing from one to the other of them nervously, obviously afraid that Xena was going to have had enough of this game.
The old woman turned the next card.
On it was a single overturned goblet. One small drop of liquid lay next to the cup. Both women looked expectantly at her. "This, too, speaks of loss," she said, frowning. Xena crossed her arms and Gabrielle sighed disappointedly. "But the emptiness of the cup indicates an empty life, an unknown sorrow." She looked again at the warrior princess. "Something irreplaceable in your life that you cant quite fathom. Something missing." She sighed as well. "I can tell you no more about this one. It is very strange."
"Are we finished?" Xena nodded at the remaining cards. The sooner this was over with, the better. There was something very unnerving about it. She must be on edge from that incident with Gabrielle in the street.
Hadara slowly turned another card. A very detailed picture of a woman with two goblets in either hand was on it. The woman stood with one foot on dry land and the other planted firmly in a stream. Liquid of some sort was being poured from one cup to the other. "Ahh," breathed the old woman. "Temperance."
"Balance, Xena. The woman has one foot in water, the other on earth. She is leveling the liquid in the two cups so that they will be even. This card indicates balance, harmony. I also sense that it is the most important of the five. Here," she said abruptly. "You must take it."
"What? No." Xena shook her head. "Dont give those away."
"Normally I dont. But I know that you must have this card, Xena. Keep it and study it. Your destiny will depend on its meaning one day."
"Here," said Gabrielle, holding out her hand. "Ill keep it for her. Shell just lose it."
With a reluctant glance at Xena, Hadara handed the card to Gabrielle, who promptly tucked it in her tunic with a superior.
"Now me," the young woman said breathlessly.
"Lets hope yours is more uplifting than mine," murmured Xena.
Hadara shuffled the cards and then handed them to the young bard, who did the same. When they were finished, the old woman turned the first card. It showed a young man walking along a path holding a staff.
"A bard," Gabrielle smiled.
"The Fool," said the old woman with a nod of her head. Xena smiled wickedly.
Hadara patted Gabrielles hand. "Its not like it sounds, my child. The Fool is a traveler who learns and is willing to learn a great many things as he journeys through life. Xenas warrior learns the lesson at journeys end; your fool learns on the way."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle still didnt sound convinced, and Hadara noticed that she glanced at the still smiling Xena. She decided to move on quickly. The next card was similar to Xenas Ace of Swords, except that a lone staff occupied the space.
"This shows inspiration," she said with a smile at the bard. "Your one true inspiration will determine your destiny." Gabrielle nodded and smiled. Now this was better.
The third card was more foreboding, however. It was similar to Xenas in that it, too, contained overturned cups, but this time there were three of them. Facing these were two cups that were obviously brimming with liquid. "The overturned cups indicate"
"Loss," Xena broke in rather cynically.
"Yes," Hadara continued. "But the two remaining cups tell of something to be salvaged. " She looked intently at Gabrielle. "You will suffer a loss, but you musnt dwell on it. You will have to find what can be saved from the wreckage and concentrate on it." Gabrielle nodded.
Just then all three women jumped as a town bell began to ring nearby. In the distance, other bells could be heard pealing wildly. Many people in the tavern scurried out the door, and Atraxis began to put away items and hide bottles of wine. Xena was immediately on her feet.
"Atraxis! Whats going on?" She strode over to the counter. She noticed that the mans hands were shaking, and she didnt think it was because of her.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle glanced guiltily at Hadara. "Can you do the next one?" she asked sheepishly. Whatever was going on, Xena would find out and tell her. In the meantime, she just had to see the rest of those cards. Hadara shook herself and smiled. She turned the next card and frowned. It was probably one of the most detailed they had seen.
Across the room, Atraxis hurriedly continued hiding things as Xena awaited an answer. "You want to know about the bells? Well, Ill tell you, Xena." There was now a definite note of hostility in his voice and she instinctively put her hand on her chakram. "Its actually something we can thank you for. Its a system the town came up with not long after we saw you last. Bell towers were put up all over the city. They are rung for one reason onlyraiders. Those pirates down in the sea caves have to have supplies, but I guess you know that already. Anyway, they come storming up here every once in a while and wreak havoc on Xanthoslooting, stealing, raping, whatever. We put a watchman on the west road. When he sees the cloud of dust such a party raises, he rings his bell and then they all go off throughout the city. Gives us a little time to hide our best valuables and send the women and children into the woods. We leave out enough food and wine and dinars to keep them satisfied, and then they go back to where they came from."
"How many usually show up?"
"I dont know. Thirty maybe?"
"Do they stick together or split up?"
"Oh, they split up. That way they can cover more ground and get more goods."
Xenas jaw set and she looked hard at the bright sunlight coming through the doorway. If Gabrielle had seen that look, she would have already been up with staff in hand, but she was staring at the card that Hadara was explaining to her.
"The blindfold and the eight staffs surrounding the woman show entrapment. Of course, shes bound as well." Gabrielle nodded, biting her lip.
"You will soon be in a situaton where you find yourself feeling trapped, with little hope."
"Gabrielle!" Xenas voice broke in on her thoughts. She glanced up, startled. "Lets go! Theres trouble with raiders in town. Looks like well have to knock some sense into their heads." Gabrielle nodded and plucked up her staff. Suddenly, she felt Hadaras hand on hers.
"My child, notice the winding river in the mountains in the background. There are three bridges. You will have to cross three bridges or rivers of some kind and perhaps you will escape this sense of being trapped." Gabrielle nodded and started to ask a question.
"These rivers, are they"
"Gabrielle, NOW!" Xena was already outside as she called back.
"Goodbye, Hadara!" Gabrielle yelled breathlessly. "Ill look for you again when we clean up this mess!" She ducked out the bright doorway and Hadara stared at the card she had shown her. Suddenly she realized that there were only four cards on the table. She had forgotten Gabrielles fifth in all of the distraction. "I cant believe I did such a--" she murmured as she flipped the last card. The look of disgust on her face turned to one of horror as she stared at the last card. A skeleton with a scythe sat astride a donkey. The grimace on the skull was a gruesome sight, and even one inexperienced in reading fortunes could not mistake what the card meant.
"Death," Hadara breathed out. Panic-stricken, she glanced out the door, but it was too late. Gabrielle was gone.
Xena crept along the edge of the city wall, keeping her eyes open for signs of any more raiders. She had already taken care of seven at the city fountain and eight more at a tavern. The last villagers she had been able to speak to had told her that the men often came out here to a place called the Lions Tomb. This didnt make much sense to her, but she thought it was worth a try. She just hoped that Gabrielle was taking care of just as many thugs on the south end of the city. It had been Gabrielles suggestion to split up, and despite the fact that she didnt like it, Xena had decided that it probably made the most sense with these mercenaries all over Xanthos. Besides, it gave her a chance to show the younger woman that she trusted her after that problem with the knife-thrower.
She found herself muttering, "I till dont like it."
Suddenly, she stopped and held her sword in the ready position. Laughter was coming from just up ahead.
At least that means theyre not expecting me, she thought gratefully.
Before her she could see an enormous sarcophagus, something the city of Xanthos had an abundance of. When she had been here before, in her dark past, she had pointed these out to her men and joked that this was the perfect place for them to accomplish what they needed to do.
"Theyre already ready for us, boys. Just throw their bodies in there if you want. Theyve made it very convenient for us to do a little killing!" Her troops had roared at this, and then they had proceeded to do just that. What a monster she had beenand could still be. That thought was never far from her mind.
The Lion Tomb was a magnificent sarcophagus that connected directly with the city wall. Xena could hear the laughter, but she still couldnt see anyone. Obviously they were directly below her, perhaps in the tomb itself. She placed her sword in its scabbard and flattened herself on the hot stone wall. She then began to inch her way on her stomach towards the edge of the roof of the tomb. When she had just reached the edge, she lifted her head just enough to peek over.
Two men stood at the entrance to the tomb. She supposed that they were guards, but this was in name only. One was using his finger to draw in the dirt at the base of one of the pillars, and the other one was pacing back and forth, swallowing large mouthfuls of wine from a skin. The pacing one was attempting to whisper, but like most drunks, he had lost the capacity to judge sound and coordinate himself, and Xena could hear him quite well.
As can everyone else within the city walls, she thought.
"I don like it," he slurred. "Don like it at all."
"Whats not to like? said the one on the ground. "Weve probly got more loot than anyone else in the band, including the captain."
"Yeah, and them two lugs is in there hidin it. How do we know that they aint tuckin it away in their pockets?"
The other man drew his finger across his throat. "Cause well slit their throats if they are."
"And what about the captain?" Pacing man took a deep swig of his wine. Little drops of it spewed forth from his mouth as he continued to speak. "If he finds out whats going on, hell slit our throats!"
The other warrior stood abruptly. "He wont find out if you keep your trap shut. Gimme that!" He snatched the wine skin. "Its gonna make your tongue as loose as a sail, and then were all gonna get it!"
You sure are, thought Xena, as she pulled herself into a squatting position. She placed her fingers along the edge of the wall and launched herself forward, turning a flip as she did so. This landed her with a soft thump squarely behind the two men.
"What the" the phrase remained incomplete. Xena grabbed both of their heads and cracked them into one another. She let go of one, who slumped to his knees. The other man she held onto long enough to push a short distance away. As he staggered there, she let go with a scissor kick that hit him squarely in the jaw. He spun around, his legs twisting around each other, then fell with a moaning thud to the dirt. She turned just in time to see the other raider struggling to his feet. Jumping towards him, she grabbed her wrist with her right hand and battered him on top of his head with her elbow. He went to his knees again, and a quick palm to his nose finished him off.
Good, she thought with a look towards the entrance to the tomb. Obviously the men inside hadnt heard a thing. She could still hear their voices and they didnt sound agitated.
She crept up to the large doorway and braced herself against the stone. As the men continued their conversation, she began to inch her way into the shadows of the sarcophagus. When she was completely submerged in shadow, she knelt down. There was no need being spotted early, and she didnt know how this thing was laid out. Besides, it would let her eyes adjust to the gloom.As she crouched there in the shadows, she listened to the conversation of the thugs inside, which was quite clear now.
"Hurry up! Youre takin too long!"
"Whats a matter, Trinicles? You scared?" Xena heard a snicker. She ventured a look around the pillar she was hiding behind. The sarcophagus was dim, lit only by the sunlight breaking through the door and a torch being held by someone towards the back. The entire room was large, maybe twenty five paces, and there were six stone caskets lined up evenly in two rows, with a seventh set up in the back on a stone step. One of the men was struggling to pull the cover back over this particular box, sweating and cursing as he did so. He looked in disgust at the other man, who was frantically letting his eyes wander over the tomb.
"Could you get your carcass up here and help me and stop spookinyourself?"
The other man, Trinicles, put his torch down on one of the nearest tombs and stepped up to help the other with a sigh.
"Im not spookinmyself. You gotta admit this place is creepy." They both grunted as they struggled with the lid.
"Yeah, and thats why were hidin this loot here. Everybodys too scared to come check this out, and this way we dont have to share it with the entire ship."
So it was just those two, Xena thought. No Gabrielle to worry about, nothing immediately pressing.
Time for a little fun.
On the far wall, just above the two raiders, there was a statue of Payava, the once wealthy Lycian who was buried here. His arm was raised in a gesture of authority, as though he were delivering a moving and powerful speech. Obviously the old man had commissioned the sculptor before he died, thought Xena. She had heard him speak once. Just thinking about it made her sleepy. She shook her head and removed her chakram from her belt. Taking careful aim, she flung it as hard as she could and ducked. The screaming sound it made caused both men to drop the lid with a thud and turn around . The weapon glanced off of the statue and ricocheted towards the back of the room. Hearing the ching behind them, Trinicles and his companion turned around just in time see the cracked arm of Payava fall to the stone floor and shatter. They also turned just in time to miss Xena reach up and retrieve the flashing weapon.
"What in Hades?" muttered the braver of the two thugs. Trinicles simply began to shake. The eerie screaming sound was heard once again, and suddenly the torch fell to the floor behind one of the stone containers, making the back of the sarcophagus very dim.
"Im gettin outta here!" whispered Trinicles.
Xena began to crawl amongst the stone tombs. Raising her voice, she spoke in a sing-song tone.
"I am Pavless, Payavas wife. Who dares to disturb our slumber?" She flung the chakram again for good measure. This proved to be too much for poor Trinicles. Screaming, he bolted for the entrance. Xena sprang to her feet and let loose with a war cry. Flinging her chakram, she caught Trinicles in the back of the head. He fell with a groan. Running to the fallen body, Xena kicked him hard in the skull, rendering him even more useless than he had been before, if such a thing could be possible. Placing her hands on the tomb before her, she launched herself in the air and landed on the stone box just in front of the other man. He, however, was not as incompetent as his companion. His sword was drawn, and he took a frantic swing at Xenas legs. Flipping again, with that unnerving cry, Xena landed on the upper step with Payavas tomb and statue. The pirate stumbled toward her, swinging wildly. Xena started to draw her sword, but the broken arm of Payava caught her eye.
I could use a helping hand, she thought with a grin. Leaping over the clumsy sword of the thug, she reached down and grabbed the statues arm. Turning, she used the stone limb to block the blows coming from the frantic man. Sparks flew as the metal hit the stone, and Xena knew that it wouldnt be long before her newfound weapon would be chipped to pieces.
Funs over, she thought somewhat reluctantly as she knocked the weapon from her opponents hand and then thumped him on the head with Payavas arm. He groaned and staggered backward. Xena jumped down from the stone platform and backhanded the man, so to speak. He fell up against a wall. Using the pointed fingers of the statue, she hit him hard in the throat. He gasped and slid to the floor.
"Ive just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. Youll be dead in seconds if you dont tell me what I want to know."
"Whwhwhat do you want to know, mighty Pavless?
Mighty Pa--? Xena shook her head. This fool actually thinks Im a ghost. Well, it didnt matter, as long as he told her what she wanted to know.
"How many of you are there in this town?"
"Thirty," he wheezed out.
"Wheres your captain?"
"I ththink he was going to the castle."
"Right." Xena raised her hand in a threatening position. Even in the darkened room, she could see the terror in his eyes as he rolled them towards the ceiling, gasping for air.
"Remember to stay out of this tomb, this town, and this country!" She emphasized this threat with another blow to the mans throat. Before he even realized that she had just restored him to the living, she hit him hard in the jaw and he was completely unconscious.
Xena walked back out into the sunlight and surveyed the two bodies lying near the entrance. Dusting off her hands she breathed a sigh of contentment. So this was what it was like to not have someone to worry about or some enormous quest to pursue. It had been years since she had this. Shed almost forgotten how good it felt.
So this is what its like to be completely on my own, thought Gabrielle as she leaned on her staff. She looked with satisfaction at the three men scattered in the street. Their bodies were bruised and battered, and they werent moving, but Gabrielle knew this wouldnt last forever.
"Hey, you!" She motioned to a heavyset man staring out from a nearby cottage. "Get some rope and tie up these thugs!" The man hastened to comply, and the young woman reveled in the fact that for once someone was rushing to follow her orders.
"That was fabulous!"
Gabrielle turned toward the voice. It belonged to a young boy who had crept out from somewhere. The admiration in his face matched his tone, and Gabrielle blushed. She didnt get this very often, particularly when Xena was around. She shrugged her shoulders and rolled her eyes. "Oh, it wasnt much. They were pretty slow and heavy."
"Next to you they were," grinned the boy.
Gabrielle waved her hand at him in dismissal, but it was quite obvious that she was enjoying all of this.
"Are you the warrior princess, Xena?"
Gabrielles shoulders sagged and the smile fell from her face. "No, Im Gabrielle."
The boy stared at her.
She continued. "Gabrielle, the Bard of Potidaea. . ." He raised his brows and continued to stare.
"Amazon Queen. . ." No response. She sighed. "I travel with Xena."
The boy smiled. "Oh, that explains it."
"Right." Gabrielle turned and went to oversee the binding up of the pirates. The boy trotted along behind her.
"Whats it like traveling with Xena?"
Xena, Xena. Always Xena. "Its great," she replied flatly.
"Did she teach you all that stuff? Can she teach me? Ill bet shes even faster, right?"
Gabrielle chose to ignore him. "Do that knot tighter," she told the villager. "We dont want them getting away."
"How long did it take her to teach you that stuff? Do you th"
"Look." Gabrielle spun around. "How would you like to meet her?"
The boys jaw dropped. "Me? Meet her? Meet Xena?"
"Yeah, yeah. See here" She paused and put her hand on his arm. "Whats your name?"
"Right. Appollos. Do you want to meet her?" All he could manage was a vigorous nod. "Okay. I want you to head north. It should be pretty safe. Xenas up that way and Ive been coming from there. Still, be on the lookout for more of these bullies. When you find Xena, tell her that Ive taken care of six men on this end. Thatll help her know how much work we still have to do." The boy nodded and turned to run off down the street, but Gabrielle kept her grip on his arm.
"Wait! You know what to look for, right? Tall, dark hair, dressed in leather. You cant miss her."
"Sure," he grinned. "Everybody knows about Xena."
"Sure," echoed Gabrielle with a smile that didnt reach her eyes. She let go of his arm and he began to run down the road. In a moment, however, he turned back towards her and called out, "Where will you be? She might want to know."
Theres no" might" about it, she thought grimly. She addressed the villager at her feet. "Do you know where any more of these men might be?"
The man stood up and frowned in thought. "I wouldnt be surprised if some of them didnt at least check out the castle. Theyve avoided it so far, but their last time in town a few of them were boasting that they were going to risk the curse and visit King Iobates."
"All right." She turned towards the boy, who was jogging backwards in his eagerness to get going. "Tell her Ill be at the castle!"
The boys eyes widened at this statement, as did the villagers, but Gabrielle didnt notice any of this. The messenger nodded and disappeared down the cobblestone path. When he rounded the corner, he paused for just a moment. Of course he couldnt wait to meet Xena and deliver his important message, but opportunities like this didnt come by very often. Xena might need him to run more errands, and in that case, he wouldnt be home for a long time. At least, he hoped so. If that happened, his mother, who was hiding in the woods, would need to know. Besides, the rest of the children were there and he would be able to mention to them what he was doing. He might as well get as much enjoyment out of it as he could. It wasnt very often a warrior princess came to town. A few minutes more wouldnt make much difference.
Xena walked down the side of the Xanthan street. Her sword was drawn, but she no longer hugged the walls as she had done earlier. She would be cautious, but the need for absolute stealth had diminished since she had taken out more than half of the raiders. And if Gabrielle was doing her part on the south end of the city, then she might be able to even put the sword away in a matter of moments.
If Gabrielle is doing her part. What if . . . Xena shook her head and tensed at the sound of laughter up ahead. She was coming near the town square where Gabrielle had helped old Hadara. They had said they would meet back at Atraxiss tavern, but it sounded like somebody else had decided to meet there first. Bracing herself against a stone wall, she peered around the corner into the open square. Three large men were stalking down the street with their weapons drawn. They were passing around a wineskin. It was evident they were looking for trouble. It was also evident that they were in no condition to meet it, Xean noted with a smile. She took a good look around the square. No people, no Gabrielle. Good. Time for a little more fun. And this time she could be as loud as she wanted. She placed her sword in its scabbard and flexed her fingers.
The three men staggered to a halt and stared in amazement as someone clothed in black literally spun end over end across the ground towards them. The limber creature stopped its movement about ten paces off. It wasnt until then that they noticed it was a very tall woman dressed in leather armor. This seemed too good to be true.
"I get her first," slurred one of them to his companions as he passed them the wineskin and his sword.
"Be my guest," growled Xena, crouching in a ready position.
All three of the men laughed at this uproariously as Drunken Fool Number One stumbled towards her. Xena drew back her arm for an easy blow, but was stopped suddenly by the sound of an unfamiliar voice.
"Halt, you ruffians! Do not harm that lady!"
"Huh?" The thugs voiced Xenas thoughts exactly as they all looked across the square. Stepping out from a westbound street was a young well-built youth with golden locks and a shortsword.
"Pick on someone your own size, brigands!" This was said with great bravado, in spite of the fact that Xena was possibly taller than the young man. He stalked towards them. Xena decided to use the element of surprise he had added to her advantage. Drawing her sword, she simultaneously kicked the unarmed thug just in front of her and swung at the one just behind him. This second fool now had two swords, but was obviously too inexperienced or inebriated to use either one. With one swing, Xena sent one of the weapons flying across the square. Drawing back for another blow, she struck at the sluggish mans upraised sword. It was a weak block, and he went down on one knee. By this time, the third raider had dropped the wineskin and drawn his own weapon. Xena kicked her right leg and popped the middle man right on the chin. He went from one knee to two. One more kick should do it. She blocked a blow from the remaining fighter and placed her boot on the chest of the kneeling man. Suddenly there was someone else next to her.
"Be careful, fair lady. I am here to help you!" It was the golden youth, who began striking the third man with his sword. He drove the raider with a series of well-struck blows, and Xena made a mental note of the fact that he was pretty good, despite his ridiculous chatter. She used the butt of her sword to finish off the second man, then pulled on her chakram just in case this boy got into trouble. It turned out to be unnecessary. Within moments, the last of the men lay bleeding in the square and some of the villagers were creeping out to truss them up.
Bronze Boy began issuing orders to the people, then turned toward Xena with a quizzical look on his face.
"You were doing well, my dear lady, but you must be more careful in the future. Someone like me may not always be around to help you."
Xenas jaw tightened. "And just who exactly are you?"
The young man bowed slightly at the waist. "My name is Bellerophon, and I am at your service."
Xenas face relaxed and she sheathed her weapons.
"Well, good, Bellerophon, because Ive been looking for you for days."
The young man eagerly joined the warrior princess as she walked toward the tavern.
"How can I be of service?"
"You can go back to Cenchreae and your father."
Bellerophons face tensed and he stopped walking.
"You mean he sent a woman to fetch me back after he sent me running in the first place?"
"I mean he sent someone to bring you back after he realized he was mistaken."
Bellerophon continued to stand rigidly in the same spot.
"And to kick your butt if you refused." Xena entered the tavern. Bellerophon followed right behind her, just as she knew he would. She made no effort to cover the smile spreading across her face.
Gabrielle stared in awe around her as she moved through the garden in the courtyard of King Iobatess castle. It wasnt only the size that was fascinating, but the way it looked and felt. It had obviously not been cared for in some time. All of the plants and trees were overgrown and wild-looking, and the statues of gods, goddesses, and heroes were chipped and even blackened in some spots. Gabrielle paused and stared in confusion at a large tree in the very center that had been dead for some time. It was absolutely black from the tip of its branches down to the exposed roots. There were other trees and bushes spaced throughout the courtyard that had the same appearance. Gabrielle found it odd that these dead plants were spaced at intervals around the area, and many of them still had leaves dangling from them, but in all of the cases the plants and their flowers and leaves were as black as a pit in Hades. It was then that she noticed how absolutely still it was. There were no birds or wildlife. Not even a breeze disturbed the absolute silence of this deadly garden. She felt an involuntary shiver run down her spine. Clutching her staff tightly, she moved on to the wide wooden doors that would lead her into the castle.
One of the doors was cracked open, and she cautiously peeked through. As her eyes adjusted to the change in light, she could see that there was a huge foyer just beyond the door. It appeared to be empty, and she stepped inside. To her left and right, at the far ends of the cavernous room, there were open doorways that led into other large rooms. To the right and just ahead, there was a stone staircase that led up to a balcony bordered by marble pillars. She could see several doors up that way, but she decided that she would check out the lower level first.
If I were looking for loot, thats what I would do, she thought. Then Id move upstairs.
Cautiously moving to her right, she began to systematically move through the structure, her staff clutched tightly to her side and every nerve straining to hear the slightest sound. All at once, she heard somethinga shuffling, a muttering. Definitely another human being. And it was coming near her. She backed up against the wall and gripped her staff in both hands. The footsteps came closer and she held her breath. In a moment, a large man passed through the doorway. He was dressed in common clothes, and he was talking quietly to himself. He didnt look like much of a pirate.
"Psst," she whispered, raising her weapon. The man wheeled around, clutching his heart. His eyes were as wide as plates, and Gabrielle thought that he looked rather like a rabbit that was about to be skewered by Xena for dinner.
She raised her finger to her lips to indicate silence. The large man nodded vigorously.
"Who are you?" she whispered, slightly lowering the staff.
The man wiped sweat from his brow with a shaky hand. "My name is Polyeidus. Im just a servant here. I have no belongings that would be of any worth, but I will gladly show you anything in the castle that you may find of value."
Loyal guy, she noted to herself. "Im not here to steal anything," she whispered, lowering the staff even more. "Someone in town told me that some of those thieves might be here. Ive come to help."
The big man heaved a sigh and slumped slightly. "Theyre here all right. I thought you were with them. They havent found me, and I want to keep it that way. I was just going to make my way out of the castle."
"Do you know where they went?"
"I think one headed toward the kitchens." He pointed the way she had come. "The other went upstairs."
"Where are the other servants?"
The man looked taken aback. "There is no one else. Im it."
Gabrielle rested one end of the staff on the ground. "You mean to tell me that youre the only servant in a castle this large?"
"What about Iobates and his family and friends?"
"He has no family and friends. Hes the only one here."
Gabrielle snorted in frustration. "Well, where is he then? He might be in danger."
Polyeidus shook his head and turned to walk away. "Not him. He can take care of himself. Im leaving while Ive still got my hide."
Gabrielle quickly grabbed his flabby arm. "Wait a minute. You just cant leave the old man to fend for himself."
"Like Hades, I cant, young lady! Believe me, we dont need to worry about him. Lets just go. Theyll leave after awhile. Theres nothing here to hold their interest for long."
Gabrielle clenched her teeth. "Where is the king?"
Now it was Polyeiduss turn to snort. "Hes upstairs, but hell be fine. Havent you heard about the curse?"
Gabrielle shook her head and headed quickly back toward the foyer.
By the gods. Curses, fire-breathing creatures. This country had more imagination churning than the Athens Academy for Performing Bards.
Polyeidus waddled along behind her. "What are you going to do?"
"Im going to help the king." She reached the bottom of the stairs. The old man made a whimpering sound behind her, and Gabrielle felt some pity for him.
"Look," she said, her voice softening. "I dont need any help. Give me a few minutes and Ill signal you if everythings all right. If you dont see me in a bit, go to town and look for my friend Xena."
"Xena! Youre with Xena?"
"Yes, yes. Like I said, go tell her if you dont see me in a little bit."
"Rright," he stammered as he turned and rushed out the front doors. Gabrielle watched him disappear, then began making her way up the wide stone staircase. When she reached the top, she grasped her staff in both hands and glanced to her right and left. The hall seemed to stretch endlessly in both directions, with numerous wooden doors and several corridors along either side. She was just going to go left when she thought she heard a voice in the opposite direction. She crept down the hall toward her right. Pausing again in front of a corridor to her left she noticed two huge wooden doors at the far end. One of these was slightly ajar, and now she could definitely hear a voice issuing from within. Staying near the wall and ducking under the torch holders, Gabrielle was able to get within several paces of the open door. The voice was that of a man, and not a friendly one by all accounts. He was yelling at someone.
"Look, old man. Youd better tell me where you hide all your goods. I know you got some around here. It doesnt look like anybodys touched this placeor you, for that matterin years. Now tell me or youre gonna wish you had."
That was all Gabrielle needed. Kicking the door with her right foot, she jumped inside with a yell and held her staff in the ready position. A quick glance showed her that this must be the kings private chamber. There were a few chairs, a large open window, and a pretty big thief standing about ten paces away, near a bed. There appeared to be someone rather small and withered in the bed, but Gabrielle didnt have time to ponder this much before the thief had drawn his sword and was coming at her. At first his attempts were clumsy and weak, with lots of yelling and cursing as he rushed headlong towards her. She was able to dodge out of the way quite easily, and give him several whacks on the behind with her staff. After the third such spanking, however, he turned slowly and began to pace in a circular pattern around her. She turned her body with him, always facing him and keeping her weapon in the ready position.
"And who might you be?" he panted heavily.
"Im Gabrielle, Bard of Potidaea, and traveling companion to Xena. And Im here to teach you not to pick on old men." There was a strange sound from the bed and the person there sat up suddenly.
"Xena," it croaked, and Gabrielle saw two haunted eyes in a face that was monstrously disfigured. Her enemy saw, too, but was not as distracted as she was. With a heavy swing, he struck Gabrielles staff with his sword, sending it spinning across the room.
"Now Ive got you!" he bellowed, then began swiping playfully at her with the weapon. He was grinning at her with brown encrusted teeth, and the young woman knew that she had better get away from him one way or the other, or she was going to be in big trouble. Backing up with her palms raised towards him, she decided to see if she might be able to distract him with talking.
"Now, look. You know I was just playing around, dont you? I mean, only a fool would think they stood a chance against a strong guy like you."
"Thats right, sweetie, and were going to do a lot more playing around in just a minute."
Uh-oh. Gabrielle felt something touch her foot and realized that it was a large candlestand near the entrance to the bedchamber.
Hmm, she thought. Long, thin, metal.
Scummy Gums licked his lips.
Good enough. Reaching back and grasping the stand with both hands, she brought it around just as she would her staff and let the oaf have it with the candle end. The swing snuffed out the candles, but the sharp decorative pieces holding them in made quite an impression on his faceliterally. He staggered backward and reached up to feel the blood trickling across his cheek. His eyes opened wide in shock and rage, and he came at Gabrielle with a cry of animal fury.
This time Im not taking my eyes off him, she thought, as she raised the candelabra to block his blows. He seemed to come at her endlessly. High, middle, low. She jumped as his sword whooshed under her feet. He swung overheard toward her face, and she held up the stand.
Sparks flew off as the two metals touched, and Gabrielle was forced to turn and back towards the balcony as the powerful man continued to swing. He wasnt fast, but he was strong, and Gabrielle was beginning to wonder how long she could continue to fight with him. Her arms were starting to feel like weights. Suddenly, she felt a breath of air behind her and realized that the balcony bannister was at her back. The pirate halted for just a moment and wiped sweat from his brow.
"Where ya gonna go now? he growled. " No way but down for you, girlie." He rushed towards her with one final cry and raised his sword high overhead. Raising the candelabra to block the blow, she did something shed seen Xena do a million times. She sidestepped at the very last minute, then swung her weapon around and hit him in the back as hard as she could. The man realized his mistake just as his head and shoulders hurtled out over the balcony rail. The blow from Gabrielle was all the rest of him needed to follow. Flapping his arms like a bird, he flipped over the rail and crashed through a tree and a thornbush before hitting the ground with a sickening thud.
Gabrielle leaned out over the balcony and surveyed her handiwork. He was moaning slightly and barely moving, but he wasnt going anywhere for quite some time. All in all, shed done pretty well. Lots of maiming, but no killing. She didnt like killing. It was something she hoped shed never like. She would always look for other means when possible.
She heard a wheezing sound behind her and turned to see the old king struggling to sit up in the bed. Stepping back into the shadows of the bedroom, she placed the candlestand back on the floor and scooped up her staff.
"Are you all right, Your Highness?" she said as she slowly stepped toward the canopied bed. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she stifled the gasp that rose in her throat at the sight of the old king. His robe hung off his arms and shoulders as if it clothed a skeleton, and his hands were shriveled and drawn up as if forever clutching something tightly. It was his face, however, that was the most horrific. Two blue eyes, as blue as Xenas, stared out of sunken sockets that were underlined with deep shadows, and his mouth on one side was drawn down in a perpetual grimace from the scars that covered that side of this face. Even his strands of white hair were completely gone on the right side of his head. Gabrielle had seen enough to know that these couldnt possibly be sword wounds, but were evidence that the old king had been burned, and burned severely, at one time.
Despite the repulsion his visage inspired, Gabrielle took a deep breath and smiled, repeating her question.
"Can I help you, Your Highness? Are you all right?"
The old man stared at her with his mouth agape as she approached the bed, then suddenly crinkled up his frightening eyes and smiled a toothless grin.
"Oh yes, my dear. Did you say you were a friend of Xenas?"
"Yes," she said a little reluctantly as she continued to step towards him. What if Xena had done some terrible atrocity to him or his family back in her wilder days? It was definitely a possibility. "Shes in the city, driving out the rest of the pirates. Shes been a changed person for many years now."
"Oh, I know all about Xenas changed ways and all her good deeds," he croaked. "And youre her friend, are you?"
Gabrielle smiled. She could afford to brag a little. Shed done well just now. "Her best friend. " She paused long enough to let that sink in and the old king nodded. " But enough of that. Can I get you anything? We cant breathe easily just yet. Polyeidus tells me theres another raider in the castle somewhere. Ill have to take care of him."
"Oh, I understand," the king practically cooed, "But will you just step close to me here, dear, so I can take a good look at you? My eyes arent what they used to be, and I never get to see pretty girls anymore." At this, he experienced a fit of coughing that racked his entire frail body. Gabrielle rushed to the side of the bed and filled a cup with what appeared to be water from a pitcher next to the bed.
"Oh, thank you, my dear," he wheezed as he reached out for the cup with his withered hands. "Thank you so much indeed." Something about the way he said it made Gabrielle shudder.
Xena grabbed the cup Atraxis set in front of her and stared coolly across the table at the young man. "Atraxis," she called without lifting her gaze from Bellerophon. "Has Gabrielle checked in?"
"Youve got until I finish this to tell me why you shouldnt head right back to Cenchreae."
The young man swallowed his wine and clenched his jaws in obvious anger. "Forgive my rudeness, dear lady, but I do not see that I have to explain anything to you."
Xena took another sip from her cup. "You do not have to see anything at all, dear boy, and you do not have to explain anything, but unless you come up with some pretty good reasons, you are going back with us."
"And how is that?" he said, leaning forward and involuntarily touching his sword hilt.
"I will make you," Xena said simply and finished off her cup. She stood. "Now lets go."
"My friend said she would rendezvous with us here, but I dont like waiting around. The way I see it, there are still about eight of those warriors unaccounted for, and if Gabrielle hasnt taken care of them, we will. Maybe well run into her."
Bellerophon jumped up and followed her out of the tavern. "Where do you propose we start hunting for all these people?"
"Well head south, where she was, finishing our sweep. Then well head east towards the castle. Two of those thugs supposedly went there."
"Why dont we split up?"
Xena glanced over at his eager face."Oh, no," she said. "Youre sticking with me."
Bellerophon planted his feet in the dirt of the road. "I have enjoyed meeting you, princess, but I feel I must decline your invitation to accompany you. I will take out the raiders myself, and then I am going about my business." Turning, he made it about three steps before he was thrown forward by a knock on the head.
"And Im going about mine," he heard her say in a raspy voice.
Instinctively, he drew his sword and turned to face her. He had no intention of harming her, just scaring her a little. This ruse about returning home had gone on long enough.
Xena rolled her eyes and drew her sword as well. Why did people always make things so hard? Why couldnt he just go without having his head knocked around a bit?
"I do not wish to hurt you," he said.
"Well, theres where we differ. I have no problem with hurting you a little bit." With that, she let out a yell and swung her sword overhead at him. He blocked the blow, as she had intended, but she continued with a barrage of strikes that actually drove him backwards across the square. When she could see that he was puffing a little from his exertions, she swung her foot in a wide arc and knocked his feet out from under him. He fell to the ground with a thud and even bit his tongue. Xena swung her sword and nicked him on the shoulder. To his credit, he made no sound, but the look of shock on his face was quite evident. Scrambling to his feet, he came at her with several well-timed blows. Xena parried them fairly easily, waiting until he was in quite a fury before deftly sidestepping out of his way. His momentum carried him forward, and Xena helped him to the ground again with a boot to his backside. As he lay there, she placed her foot on the back of his neck and nicked his other shoulder. Then she let him get back to his feet. She almost hated doing this. He was obviously a good kid and a pretty good fighter, but she was going to have to show him that her skills were not attributable to luck, and that it would be best for him to do what she said.
Bellerophon wiped the blood from his newest wound and stared at Xena hatefully. "Youre gonna get it!" he screamed, charging toward her. Xena found it interesting that all of his courtly manners were gone. He had totally lost his cool, and she knew now that she had him completely.
Sidestepping once again, she yanked her whip from her side and tossed it out as he flew past. It wrapped itself around his ankles and brought him to the ground as neatly as a little calf. As he hit the dirt once more, his sword broke loose from his grasp and slid across the ground until it was out of reach. Xena quickly walked over to him and prodded him onto his back with her sword. He lay there bleeding and panting, and Xena felt a great deal of pity for him. Even the anger had departed from him.
"Please, Xena," he murmured hoarsely. "Dont make me go back."
"Why not? Its for the best. You need to make amends with your father." She offered him her hand.
"I know," he said, taking her wrist and struggling to his feet, "But Ive made a promise to King Iobates and I cannot break it."
"What kind of promise?" Xena asked suspiciously.
The young man hesitated for just a moment. "To take up a quest," he said finally. "To kill the Chimaera."
As King Iobates grasped the cup she was holding, Gabrielle felt another shiver go down her spine. This feeling of uneasiness increased when she looked at the king. There was a look of complete disbelief on his face as he stared at her. The cup fell to the floor, spilling its contents across the rough stones.
"Im so sorry," Gabrielle murmured, and bent to reach for the cup. Suddenly, she felt the old kings hand at her throat, clutching it tightly like a bird of prey. His fingernails dug into her soft flesh, and Gabrielle was surprised at how much strength was in them. She grabbed his wrist and went down on one knee, hoping to break his grasp, but the more she struggled, the tighter his grip became. She stared at him with a question in her eyes, and realized that she was staring into a face of absolute hatred. His blue eyes were practically glowing with an unnatural fire, and his lips were pulled back in a toothless grimace. Using her other hand , she knocked his forearm with all her might and felt his fingers pull away from her throat. Dropping her staff, she scrambled backwards until she was out of his reach and then stood up quickly, her breath coming in great gasps.
Now the old man was staring at her, but not with the false kindness he had shown earlier, or even the look of hatred she had just witnessed, but a look of utter amazement. "It cant be," he was muttering, staring at his hands and then back at her. "It cant be."
Gabrielle checked her hands to see if there was any blood from her throat, then ran to the balcony and began to shout for Polyeidus. Obviously the old king needed more than just physical help. He was cursed with madness. Maybe his servant could do some
She heard a noise behind her and thanked the gods that the old servant had been so quick.
"Great! Polyeidus! Look, something is wrong with the king and"
"So this is how the old crone occupies his time!"
Gabrielle looked up to see an armed warrior stalking into the room--obviously the last raider. She had forgotten about him in all the hubbub. He was oilier and meaner-looking than any she had encountered thus far, if that were possible.
He turned his gaze from Gabrielle to the old king, shaking his bald head. "I thought you were supposed to be cursed, but it looks like youre doing fine, old man." In a moment, he was at the kings side, holding a knife to the monarchs throat. "Now tell me where your other goodies are, and I might let you and the girl live."
"No!" Gabrielle cried out. She dove across the room for her staff and the pirate turned his attention away from the king for a split second. It was enough. Iobates reached up and struggled to grasp the pirates throat in that parasitic grasp. This time, however, he had tried it on someone who did not have the respect for life that the girl had. Without a thought, the warrior let out a curse and plunged his knife deep into the old mans chest. Gabrielle cried out and hit the man in the back as hard as she could. Letting go of the knife, he turned and grabbed the staff with both hands, yanking it from her grasp quite easily. Gabrielle turned and ran to the balcony. If she could try what she did before, she might be able to toss him over. But this man was not like the other. He was quick and lithe, and by the time she reached the banister, he was only a step behind her. Trying to step aside, she knew it was too late. He grasped her arms and pulled her to him in a vice-like grip.
And then he made a croaking sound.
Even in her state of panic, Gabrielle stopped her struggling and wheeled around to look at the mans face. His tongue pushed out of his mouth and he suddenly released his grip on her. Rolling his eyes toward the ceiling, he staggered backward and clutched his head as if in great pain. Gabrielle stepped cautiously toward him. Was there a knife in his back? Was Xena somewhere in the room? These thoughts and all others immediately left her mind as she stared at the man before her. Starting in his fingertips and spreading upward, his skin began to turn a horrific shade of black. The blackness continued to spread all over his body, and he fell to the floor convulsing in agony and making small shrieking sounds and choking noises. When the black color had reached his face, he kicked his legs simultaneously, and then lay very still. Gabrielle stepped over to him and leaned down to look at his chest. There was no movement whatsoever. The man was dead.
A strange sound issued from across the room, and it took her a moment to realize that it was laughter. She tore her gaze from the blackened corpse at her feet and looked at King Iobates. A chuckling sound emerged from his throat as he stared at her. His hand rested on the knife hilt sticking from his chest, and she wondered how he was still breathing. She stepped over to the bedside and reached for the knife.
"Youve got it," he whispered. "Youve got the curse." He reached up and touched her arm. "Give my regards to Xena!"
The skin on his hand began to change immediately to black, spreading up his arm and over his neck. As the darkness spread, he began to take big gulping breaths and release them in fits of screeching laughter that got louder and louder. Gabrielle began to back away. Her foot hit something and she looked down to see the blank gaze of the blackened raider. She tripped and fell against the far wall. It was covered in ivy that had spread from the balcony, and Gabrielle leaned against the stone structure for support. The leafy foliage felt good against her skin, and the wall helped steady her trembling body. She stood there panting, staring at the carnage that lay before her, until her attention was diverted by a slight sucking sound behind her. She noticed dark leaves falling softly around her and turned to see blackness like a disease spreading quickly over the vine. Hearing a shriek from the bed, she wheeled around. The king was entirely black now. He pointed his finger at her and smiled.
"What have you done to me?" she screamed. King Iobates let out one final chuckle and fell forward in his bed.
Now there was nothing but silence. Gabrielle slumped against the wall and slid slowly to the floor. "What have you done to me?" she said again. But this time it was nothing more than a weary whisper that went unanswered in the chamber of death. Gabrielle placed her face in her hands and sobbed as the eyes of the dead men continued to stare blankly towards the heavens and the blackened leaves of the plant she had touched fell like rain on her golden head.
"So when exactly did the king give you this task?" Xena asked as she and Bellerophon walked down the street.
"Just this morning," he replied as he headed toward an inn on their left. He had asked Xena if they could stop by there as they swept the southern end of the city, and she had granted him a few minutes. If they hadnt seen Gabrielles handiwork along the way, they wouldnt have been stopping at all, but Xena had to admit that it looked as though the young woman was doing quite nicely at taking care of her share of thugs.
Still, Ill feel better when we actually run into her, she thought. She turned her attention back to Bellerophon. "And you delivered the letter from King Proetus of Tiryns over ten days ago?"
"Thats right. I dont know what was in it. I gave it to the king. Well-- to his servant, Polyeidus, whos evidently the only one allowed to see him. I went back today and politely asked for a response, feeling I just couldnt hang around in Xanthos doing nothing. There was quite a bit of yelling and shouting, and the old servant came out and said that the king wanted me to take on the task of killing this Chimaera that has been plaguing the country for years."
He stepped through the doorway of the inn and Xena followed. The innkeeper, a jolly-looking soul, greeted him with a loud shout, but it was a young woman serving drinks that made the most of his entrance.
"Bellerophon!" She rushed across the room and threw her arms about his neck. They hugged briefly, and then clasped hands and stood back to gaze at each other. "Ive been worried about you with all of these pirates about."
Bellerophon glanced sheepishly at Xena. "Well, you should have known that theyd be no match for me. Besides," he added, "I had Xena to help me out a bit."
Xena decided to let this slide. Hed been through quite a lot at her hands. Let him show off in front of his girl. In a moment, though, she was shocked to find the young woman clasping her hand and holding it to her face.
"Hey!" Xena quickly withdrew her hand and cut her eyes at Bellerophon with an embarrased half-smile. He too was looking quite shocked. The young woman quickly recovered her composure.
"Forgive me, Xena. Its just that I owe you so much."
Xena stared at the pretty blond in front of her. She looks familiar. Still . . .
"You see, I was one of the Bacchae that you released from the spell when you killed the god Bacchus."
"Philonoe!" This came from Bellerophon, who was looking in shock at the young woman.
"Im sorry, Bellerophon, but I just couldnt bear to tell you before, although it wasnt my fault that I fell in with Bacchus." She looked up at Xena. "However, I also couldnt let this woman be present and not thank her for releasing me from that awful life."
Xena swallowed and nodded her head. "Im glad I was able to help you. My friend was under that curse as well."
She turned to Bellerophon. "Speaking of which, if everythings all right here, Id like to see if we cant find her."
"Oh, right," the young man nodded. "Ill be ready in just a moment, Xena. Philonoe," he said, grasping her hand, "Guess what the king has asked me to do? He wants me to kill the Chimaera!"
"No!" Philonoe broke free of his grasp and stared in shock at him.
He frowned. "Look, dear, its the opportunity of a lifetime, and I need this to clear my name back home. Just think"
"No!" she cried again and turned to Xena.
"Dont let him do it, Xena. If the king gave him the task, then nothing but evil can come of it."
"Now how do you know that?" Bellerophon questioned petulantly.
"Because hes my father," she said quietly.
"What?" her two listeners replied in unison.
"Gabrielle! Gabrielle!" Polyeidus burst into the kings chamber huffing and puffing from his run up the stairs. "Oh, there you are. I heard you call and came-- " He stopped in the center of the room and stared in shock at the body on the floor. "By the gods!" Then he turned towards the bed. "You didnt," he said, clenching his teeth. He approached the huge canopy. "You stupid old fool! I thought I" His eyes opened wide at the sight of the blackened corpse in the bed, its teeth bared in a grisly smile. "This cant be," he whispered.
"Im sorry," he heard from across the room. Looking over, he saw the young Amazon warrior sitting with her back against the wall and her arms across bent knees. The plant behind her had turned black, and she had obviously been crying.
"Hey, its all right," he said softly as he stepped towards her. She jumped up.
"No! Get away!" She backed out onto the balcony.
"Gabrielle, " he said, holding out his hand, "theres nothing to be sorry about. You couldnt help the actions of the king. I couldnt either, but now that hes gone, hes much better off. And so are we. Believe me. Lets just get you out of this room and you can tell"
"Polyeidus." She said it so quietly that he found it more disturbing than if she had shouted. "Look."
Slowly she reached for a rose that had grown up the outside wall and wound its way around a column on the balcony. She grasped it, and Polyeidus watched in amazement as the petals quickly turned black, curling up and falling to the stone floor. At the same time, the rest of the plant began to wither up, death spreading across its vines like an invading army across an open field.
He stopped where he was. "This cant be," he said yet again.
"What, Polyeidus?!" She flung the rose to the floor. "What cant be? Ive killed two men, including your master. Tell me what is going on here!" Her voice quivered , and her eyes were brimming with tears.
Polyeidus felt an overwhelming sense of pity for the girl. Pity and hopelessness. "I dont know whats going on, my dear, but I will tell you what I do know." He took a deep breath. "Ill tell you of the curse of King Iobates."
Xena and Bellerophon both stared in shock at Philonoe.
"Hes my father," she repeated.
"But, Philonoe" Bellerophon took a step toward her, but she stopped him with an outstretched hand.
"Listen to me. I havent lived there in years. Zeus, I barely lived there growing up. I spent most of my time in town. Waylon and Apphynia looked after me." She nodded at the innkeeper and his wife. She reached out for Bellerophons hand. "But I did live there long enough to know that nothing my father could tell you to do would possibly be the right thing."
"But wouldnt it be right to help your country and rid it of this curse?"
"Not if it means your death!"
Xena broke in. "Bellerophon, you say the king gave you this task after you had delivered a message from King Proetus?"
"Do you have any idea what might have been in that message?"
"Not really," he said nonchalantly. But he released Philonoes hand as he answered.
Xena grasped his arm and nodded at the young girl. "Excuse us just a moment." She pulled him into a corner and shook him. "Now look. If you know something youre not telling me, youd better let me know, because as things stand right now, youre getting closer and closer to heading straight back to your father."
Bellerophon clenched his jaws for a moment and then blushed. "When I was in Tiryns, I had a little trouble with the queen."
Xenas eyes narrowed. "Uh-huh."
He waved his fingers at her and blinked in embarrassment. "Now, Xena, its not what youre thinking. She wasnt my type, but she liked me a lot. I turned down several uhfriendly invitations, and then she dropped it. She seemed mad, but I never heard any more about it."
"And then suddenly her husband sends you with an unknown message to her father King Iobates."
The young man swallowed. "Wellyes."
"Im thinking Philonoe is right. Theyre both up to no good. However," she added, as they walked back to the young woman, "Im not sure how the Chimaera figures into all of this." She addressed Philonoe. "I mean, youve never seen the Chimaera, am I right?" Philonoe shook her head in disappointment. Xena continued thinking out loud. "Perhaps the king meant to ambush you on your way to fight this thing and make it look as though you died in battle with it. "
"He wouldnt have to do that. " They heard the sound of a chair scraping across the floor. "They could just let the creature kill him."
Xena turned towards the speaker--an older man, a farmer, from the look of his dark skin and rough hands.
"Assuming, of course, that it exists," she said, crossing her arms.
"Oh, it exists," he snorted.
"How do you know?"
"Because Ive seen it."
The other occupants in the room made slight noises and shuffled about in excitement, but Xena remained unmoved.
"Where and how?"
"On my farm. It destroyed my crops, my livestock, and" He paused and took a deep breath. "Several people I loved."
Waylon the innkeeper spoke up. "Its true, Xena. We all heard about it. We mourned the loss of his family. And hes not the only one to lose land and people to that awful thing."
"It set my house on fire and slaughtered several of my cows," said another man who was eating in the far corner of the room.
"And it singed the clothes off my back," added another man.
Xena softened a bit and uncrossed her arms. "All right," she finally said. "Those of you who have actually encountered this thing, tell me everything you know."
Several men and women gathered eagerly around her and each in turn told their stories of the Chimaera. They all seemed sincere, and sincerely terrified at that. Still, Xena was having a hard time with this one, even after all she had seen in her lifetime.
As the last of the villagers finished, she held up her hands for silence. "So youre telling me that its been around for some time, no one whos tried to stop it has succeeded, and that it stays in the foothills just north of here?"
Xena leaned on a table and looked intently at all of them. "This is what I really want to get straight. Its got the head of a lion, a goats body" She looked around the room and received nods of assurance as she spoke. "A serpents tail, and it can breathe fire."
A young man spoke up. "But the tail has a serpents head."
Xena walked to the doorway and stood looking out. Bellerophon came up behind her and whispered in her ear. "What do you think, Xena?"
"I think they saw something, " she said, turning to him. "Im just not sure what it was. " The young man stood there expectantly. She sighed. "I do think its worth checking out, though." Bellerophon practically ran back to Philonoes side.
"Xena thinks its worth checking out!" Philonoe bowed her head in dejection, but the rest of the people began to talk excitedly. All except the first man who had spoken--the farmer who had lost his family.
"Xena!" he called out, and the rest of the crowd went silent. "Just remember that yesterday there were people in this town who doubted whether or not the warrior princess really existed, or if she was just some tale parents had come up with to frighten their children." Xena shifted uncomfortably as he continued. "And everyone doubted the idea that she was now a champion for good." He stepped toward her. "And yet, here you are, with all of us willing to trust you to help us." The silence was deafening as every person in the room stared at the dark warrior.
"I believe you about this thing," she finally answered quietly. "And Ill help you."
The celebratory shouts were cut short by the entrance of a young boy into the tavern.
"Xena!" he called as he stared at her in awe.
"Ive got something to give you." He reached into a satchel at his side and pulled out a card. Taking it from him, Xena saw a grisly picture of a skeleton riding on a donkey. "Its from Hadara," the boy continued. "She said it was Gabrielles last card, but she left before she could give it to her. It means--"
"Death," Xena finished for him. She was trying to remain calm as she looked at it. After all, she didnt believe in these things. Yet. . .
The boy continued. "Ive also got a message from Gabrielle."
"Where is she?"
"She said to tell you she was going to the castle."
Xenas face fell. That awful place. "How long ago was that?"
The boy looked sheepish for some reason. "About midday."
"That was hours ago," she said frowning. Xena turned to Bellerophon. "Are you familiar enough with the castle from your stay there all this time?"
He coughed. "Well, I didnt really stay there. I stayed here. Uh, I didnt find it to my liking encroaching on the kings hospitality."
You mean you were scared in that old place, she thought to herself.
" Its been years, Xena, but I remember everything about it," Philonoe piped in.
"Then lets go." Xena strode out into the afternoon sunlight and turned south towards the castle. She was doing her best to appear calm. After all, there was nothing specific to worry about. She was probably just being overprotective and jumpy. Probably.
"I first met Iobates," Polyeidus began, "when I was little more than a boy." He was pacing back and forth where the room opened onto the balcony, and Gabrielle, who was feeling weary and stunned, was seated on the floor with her back against the rail. All of the ivy that covered it had already turned black, and she at least felt assured that she could harm nothing else for the moment in this position.
"My father Melampus was advisor to King Proetus of Tiryns, and he felt I was of an age that I could develop the skills of healing and seeing in someone elses service. He sent me with the kings blessing to the neighboring country of Lycia, hoping I could serve King Iobates, Proetuss father-in-law. I traveled alone, because I had a special way with animals, and my father had complete confidence in my sense and abilities. After I crossed the border, however, I ran into a hungry giant that had been terrorizing everyone on the road. He caught me and was playing some rather cruel cat-and-mouse games when a man rode up and demanded that he stop. There was a fearsome battle, but the warrior won. You can imagine my gratitude. I told him I was on my way to serve the king, but I would gladly serve him instead. He told me to go on to the king and rode away. Of course, when I reached the capitol of Xanthos, it was only to find that my rescuer was indeed the ruler of Lycia.
"At first they had me doing menial tasks, but my healing abilities soon became evident, and my insight into the welfare of the country intrigued the king. We soon became inseparable, and Iobates did many good things for Lycia. Not long after that he married again, having lost his first wife to illness many years before. Nothing much changed except that there were three of us to look after the kingdom and have adventures." Polyeidus sighed.
"Ahh, Senoba was a lovely girl. And sweet-natured, too. Iobates adored her, and despite the difference in their ages, she felt the same way. After a few years, she became pregnant. She gave birth to a beautiful little girl, but in spite of my efforts, I couldnt save the queen. She died giving birth to the child. Iobates was devastated. I tried to draw him out of his shell with the girl, but he grew to despise her and she knew it. She spent more time in town than she did here, and the gap between them grew ever larger.
"In the meantime, Iobates had become obsessed with the concept of life and death. I guess it was because his wife lost her life bringing forth a new one. He used to sit in front of the fire at night and talk about what it would be like to have the power of a god and control whether people lived or died. He began to push me to search for herbs and roots that had strong healing powers.
Lets find a way to bring back the dead, Polyeidus, he would say. Of course, such powers were beyond me, and he soon turned to the gods. He started off traditionally, with Zeus, Hera, and Athena. But as he grew older and more bitter over the loss of Senoba, he began to plead with the more stringent onesAres. . .Artemis. It was at this time that he heard about Bacchus and his group of immortal followers. He built a temple to him, and begged to be given special powers. As he told me later, the god did appear to him one night, and actually promised the power of life and death. But there was a price."
Polyeidus stopped and Gabrielle looked up. "No," she whispered.
Polyeidus nodded. "He willingly handed his daughter Philonoe over to the evil god in exchange for what he thought would be immortal powers."
Gabrielle didnt even try to hide the look of shock and disgust on her face. "Why did you stay with him?"
"I owed him my life. And I had seen the good there once, remember? I kept thinking if I only tried hard enough, it would come to the surface in him again. Do you know what Im saying?"
Gabrielle nodded. More than youll know.
"After he had Philonoe, Bacchus told Iobates that he now had the power of life and death. There was an injured horse on the side of the road as the king walked back from the temple. He placed his hands on it and told its owners it would be healed, but the poor creature turned completely black and withered up. It was dead in seconds. The villager was livid and reached out after the king, but soon he met the fate of his horse. It didnt take us long to realize that what Iobates had was simply the power of death."
"No, my dear. Hadess sister can kill with a touch, but she is sent to get those who have been called to the other side. It is their time to go. Iobatess curse took any living thing that crossed his path. When he realized this, he ranted and raved at the temple of Bacchus, but the god had what he wanted. He had no intention of humoring a mortal.
"One night I entered the kings chamber to find that he had plunged a dagger
into his side. The wound was such that nothing could be done for it, even if I could touch
him. He seemed to lay near death for days, then weeks. Miraculously, he recovered. When he
was strong enough, he began to get up and about again. One morning I heard screams coming
from the kitchen. He had actually set himself on fire. He should have been dead, but just
like before, his wounds closed up and he went on living. He even jumped off the cliffs
near the sea caves, but he washed back up on shore very much alive. The poor soul that
found him actually touched him, and turned as black as tar."
"Is that why the king had all those scars?" Gabrielle broke in.
"Yes, my dear. He must have tried a dozen times to end his life. Each time he experienced the pain and suffering, but not the release. And anyone unfortunate enough to touch his skin died immediately. You see, Gabrielle, Bacchus had kept his promise. Iobates had the power of life and death. Death for others, endless life for himself."
The living dead, Gabrielle thought and shuddered. "But couldnt the curse be broken?" she asked aloud.
Polyeidus shook his head. "We tried. Nothing worked. Eventually we turned to the gods. Athena finally appeared and told us that the only way to reverse a curse is for the god who gives it to take it back. Iobates spent almost all his time in the temple of Bacchus. He didnt even eat. He didnt have to.
"Then one day we heard a bard spreading the story that Xena, the warrior princess, had killed Bacchus and freed the cursed Bacchae. There was no hope after that, and the king knew it. He hated Xena from that point on."
Of course. "Are you a friend of Xenas?" Gabrielle could still hear the old mans voice purring in her ear.
"But Polyeidus, how could the curse have been transferred to me?"
The healer looked at her pityingly. "I dont know, my child."
Gabrielle swallowed and took a big breath. "How long did he have this, Polyeidus?"
He clenched his jaws and looked away.
"Please," she whispered.
"Forty years," he finally replied.
"Forty yea" Gabrielle was cut short by the sound of the heavy castle doors swinging open in the foyer far below.
There was the echo of scuffling feet, and then a familiar voice.
Xena had arrived.
Xena surveyed her choices, then turned to Philonoe. "Wheres your fathers chamber?"
"Upstairs and to the right."
"Bellerophon, I want you to cover the lower levels. Watch your step and be on the lookout for those thugs. We still have two unaccounted for."
The young man nodded and started into the room to the right.
Xena started towards the stairs. "Philonoe, take me to your fathers chamber first, and stay behind me and keep your eyes open."
The young woman looked at her hesitantly, and Xenas expression softened. "Look, I know this is hard for you, and you dont want to see him. But weve got a job to finish up, and I need to find my friend."
The young girl took a deep breath. "Right." Then she followed as Xena crept up the stairs.
Polyeidus clutched at his chest. "Whos that?"
"Its Xena!" Gabrielle replied. Relief flooded over her.
"Wonderful! She can help us. Im sure of it!"
Something about the old mans tone annoyed Gabrielle, in spite of her distress.
"Now how could she do that, Polyeidus? You have healing gifts and you lived with Iobates for years, and nothing you did helped him. Isnt this the same curse?"
"I dont know, but they say she can do anything."
She can do plenty, but she cant solve every problem. Ive got to solve some of my own problems every once in a while, and I know Xena wont understand this any more than I do.
"Up here!" the servant called. Gabrielle reached out to snatch his arm, then caught herself just in time. A wave of nausea swept over her as she thought about what had almost just happened.
And could happen any time. To anyone.
"Sshh!" she said instead. "Is there another way out of here?"
He stared at her in disbelief. "What are you doing? Dont you want to see your friend?"
"Ive got to have some time to think." She could hear booted feet pounding up the stairs. "By myself."
Polyeidus stared at her momentarily, then nodded in resignation. "Here," he said, scuttling towards the far wall of the bedroom. He pushed against the stone, and a large section of it slowly swung open. "That will take you to the lower level. The door at the end opens onto the outside east wall of the castle." They could hear Xenas voice and footsteps as she raced down the hall towards the chamber. Garielle stepped in and Polyeidus began to shut the panel. "Be careful of the stairs. Its dark, but theres only one way to go. No side entrances."
"When there was just a crack left, Gabrielle stopped the movement of the wall. "Polyeidus, come to me at the east wall when you get the chance. Come alone, and dont tell Xena anything thats happened to me. Not yet."
The old man looked at her hesitantly.
"Please." Gabrielle could hear voices at the door. The old servant finally nodded and leaned up against the stone, leaving her in complete blackness.
Xena burst in with her sword in hand and surveyed the sight before her: An old man cowering against the left wall, and two corpsesone in the bed, the other on the floor. She heard Philonoe gasp behind her, and she couldnt blame the girl. She had never seen bodies like this. They were blackened and shriveled, but not in the way that burned corpses might be. It was as if they had been unearthed from some ancient tomb and placed here. She glanced toward the balcony. No Gabrielle.
She addressed the old man. "Are you all right?"
He nodded and rushed toward them. "Xena! You dont know how glad I am to see you!" Xena held her sword at arms length. He seemed harmless enough, but she didnt know who he was. She felt Philonoe move from behind her.
"Polyeidus!" She rushed into the arms of the old man.
He looked nervously toward the bed. "My child, my child, you shouldnt be here."
She pushed away from him and wiped tears from her eyes. "What happened here, Polyeidus?"
He swallowed and led her away from the two bodies. "Well, as you probably know, the castle was invaded by a couple of those pirates. I was in the process of leaving when I ran into a young Amazon."
Xena strode up to him. "Where is she?"
He swallowed and blinked.
Nervously, thought Xena.
"Well, I dont exactly know. She told me to wait around and she would take care of the thieves. I believe she knocked one off the balcony." Xena walked over the to the rail and confirmed that this was true. The man down there wasnt in good shape, but he wasnt a charred piece of wood like the other two.
The old servant continued. "She waved at me and I came up here, only to find that she was gone and that the other thief and your father were dead. Evidently, the king took care of the one on the floor, and then he took care of himself."
"But Polyeidus, you always led me to believe that he could never do that," said Philonoe.
"I cant explain it, my dear. But he was dead when I arrived. Im sorry."
"Im not," she replied bitterly.
Xena stepped back towards them. "Wait a minute. Youre telling me that Iobates did this to both of them? How?"
"It was his curse. Surely youve heard of it?"
"Yeah, yeah," Xena said and turned away. "I just didnt believe it," she finished muttering.
Her eyes scanned the room. "So you dont know where Gabrielle is?"
"No. But she knew you were in the city. Perhaps she returned there."
"Maybe." Xena was silent a few moments longer, and the other two, obviously lost in thoughts of their own, left her alone. Finally she turned to them. "I believe thats all of our raiders. Philonoe, help Bellerophon tie up that man down in the garden. Then go to town and send back some people to help with" She stopped. Shed almost said "bodies," but by the gods, one of those was that of the girls father. "To help Polyeidus," she finally said.
"I just need two or three strong men," he said softly. Philonoe nodded and Xena gently took her arm and led her toward the chamber door. "Well meet at Waylons Inn in town. You know it?"
Polyeidus nodded. "Ill be there later. Where will you be, Xena?"
"Im going to look for Gabrielle. When I find her, well meet all of you there and discuss this Chimaera business."
"Chimaera!" the old man repeated in a startled voice.
"Later. At the inn. Take care of this for now," she said as she ushered Philonoe out of the room.
Polyeidus nodded and breathed a sigh of relief when the two women left. It had been painful to see Philonoe so grieved and shocked, and he had the feeling that Xena didnt quite believe his story. And she was definitely someone he did not wish to anger. He would wait on the villagers, so they could safely dispose of the king, then he would find Gabrielle and hope she had come up with something. He didnt know Xena, but he had a feeling that a person couldnt hide from her for long.
Gabrielle sat just inside the secret entranceway that led out onto the slopes on the east side of the castle wall. Far away, she could hear the waves of the Mediterranean washing against the cliffs. She had been too afraid of venturing out and harming some creature or person out of ignorance; or running into Xena. She couldnt deal with that just now.
How did this happen? She placed her forehead in her hands and felt something chafe underneath her tunic.
Confused, she pulled it out. They were the cards that Hadara had given to Xena and her. She stared at her own card, but for a while she didnt really focus on it. She was too busy thinking about this horrible change that had come over her. Gradually, however, the card came into view and the images on it began to make an impression. Hadaras words floated through her mind.
"You will soon find yourself in a situation where you feel trapped, with little hope." Gabrielle stared harder at the young woman on the card. She was bound, blindfolded, and surrounded by eight staffs. About as hopeless as one could get. But oddly enough, the woman on the card had her head turned, as if she could see or hear something behind her in spite of her situation. In the background were several mountains, with a river winding in and out of them. Three bridges could be seen high above the river and nestled amongst the mountain passes. "You will have to cross three rivers or bridges of some kind and perhaps you will escape this sense of being trapped."
Three rivers. Gabrielles head shot up. Of course. Mnemosyne. She had been to the Temple of Mnemosyne once before when she was haunted by disturbing memories from her past. She had had to cross three rivers that represented the sad moments in her life. It had been a grueling experience, but the goddess of memory had been able to help her. Perhaps she could again.
Gabrielle sat up straighter. Things were by no means good, but at least she had a plan now.
Polyeidus huffed and puffed as he carefully made his way down the secret stairs with his torch held before him. He certainly didnt need to accidently bump into Gabrielle at this point. He thought he heard a movement at the bottom of the steps and called out her name.
"Here I am," came the reply. "Be careful."
He crept down the last few steps until he could see her in the torchlight. Poor child. She looked as if she had been weeping again, and she was leaning against the doorframe for support.
"What took you so long?" she asked.
The old man explained that he had been left in charge of taking care of the bodies in the kings chamber. He hated mentioning it, but there was no need softening things for her now. She knew what kind of situation she was in.
"Listen," she said. "Ive got a plan." She tossed what appeared to be a card towards his feet. "Take that to Xena and tell her that Ive gone to the Temple of Mnemosyne. When she sees the card, shell know the message is from me."
Polyeidus ignored the card. "Mnemosyne! But why? I thought you were going to tell Xena whats happened."
Gabrielle felt the blood rushing to her face. "Look Polyeidus, I know what Im doing. Xena cant solve this problem, but Ive been helped by the goddess there before. Perhaps she can help me again."
The old man stooped and picked up the card. It pictured a woman pouring liquid from one goblet to another. "This is one of Hadaras cards, is it not?"
"Yes. Its one she gave to Xena, but I took it for safekeeping. Ive also got my own card. Maybe you think its crazy, but I got the idea about Mnemosyne from that. Hadara seems to be a wise old woman."
"You dont have to defend her to me, Gabrielle. I admire Hadara." He contemplated the card for a moment, then tucked it away in his robe. "I guess I just dont understand why you wont tell your friend. Shes still out searching for you. I dont think shell let up."
"She wont," Gabrielle murmured, and slid into a sitting position with her back against the wall. "Thats why I want you to give her my message and the card." Her head shot up suddenly. "And Polyeidus?"
"Tell her to meet me at the temple in four days and then well go get Joxer the Mighty."
The old mans eyes widened somewhat. "Joxer the Mighty?"
Gabrielle smiled, though Polyeidus thought it was a bittersweet one. "Yes. Make sure you say it just like that. Shell know your message is from me. Tell her nothing is wrong. I just wanted to go there to work some things out."
"All right, my dear. May the gods be with you." He turned and started up the stairway, but was stopped by the young womans voice.
"If things cant be helped at Mnemosyne, I will tell her. I learned a long time ago that it doesnt work to lie to your friends."
"Its none of my business, Gabrielle."
But she wasnt willing to let him go just yet. "Polyeidus, do you remember hearing about the attempt by the Persians to invade Greece and conquer Athens?"
Polyeidus leaned against the wall and braced the heavy torch. "I most certainly do. As I recall, the stories were that Xena stopped them singlehandedly at Tripolis." There was no answer from the girl, and he decided to add, "But Im sure you were there doing a great deal as well."
Gabrielle slowly shook her head. "No. No, I wasnt. I was wounded with a poison arrow and lay near death the entire time. It took all my persuasion just to get Xena not to drop everything and try to get me to safety."
"Shes a devoted friend. Ive learned that just in this short time."
"Shes devoted to anything she pursues, Polyeidus. Thats one reason I admired her in the first place. But I learned something particularly special then." She looked up at him. "You see, I had always known that Xena was willing to die for me, but I didnt fully realize until that battle with the Persians that she was ready to die with me. Do you understand?"
The old man shook his head.
"You see, Polyeidus, you and I both know that this curse makes me totally worthless to mankind. A walking corpse."
"Now, now," he started, but she held up her hand for silence.
"If it turns out" She took a deep breath. "If I get to Mnemosyne and they cant help me in some way, then I wont be able to travel around like I do now. It would be too dangerous. And Xena wouldnt travel without me. Wed both just sit around withering up, outside and in. If it turns out that my life is wasted, I cant let her do the same thing. Theres far too much good left for her to do."
"But you told me that youre going to tell her when she gets there anyway. What if you find that they cant help you?"
"Then at least Ill have tried. And Ill have had four days to figure out how to convince her to go on with things."
"I understand, my dear. And I wont let you down."
"I know you wont," she smiled. Now if only I wont.
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