"Ha! Full tavern. Beat that." Charon said, laying his cards on the table. The other men threw their cards down in disgust while the ferryman scooped up the pile of dinars. Charon decided that Axes and Hammers was beginning to bore him so he walked over to another table. A large wheel marked off with red and black numbered spaces spun rapidly, causing a thin strip of wood to clack against the pegs that protruded from it. "Place your bets" the barker said. A flurry of activity followed as several gamblers placed their dinars on the different numbers. Charon put his dinars down, not paying any particular attention to which number he chose. The barker spun the wheel. "Damn." the ferryman said when it stopped. He placed more dinars down and lost again. After a dozen straight losses he had enough and went in search of another game of chance. Before he could get to another table, however, a large crashing sound drew his attention to the door. A dozen guards burst in. "By order of the King you are all under arrest!" the captain said. Mass pandemonium broke out as the patrons tried to escape. Armed with clubs, the guards quickly took control and within moments Charon found himself being escorted along with two dozen other people to the city jail.
"Nice place. Who does your decorating?" the ferryman quipped as he was led into the musty cell.
"Get in there and shut up, you freaky looking thing." the guard snapped, shoving him with a club. While the burly jailer wouldn't admit it, he was quite frightened of the pasty white man with the black lips.
"Freaky looking? Oh, and I'm sure you'd look better after six hundred summers, huh? We don't exactly get a lot of sunshine in the Underworld, you know." Charon said as the cell door slammed behind him. He turned around to see that he was in a large cell with about a dozen of the men that had also been arrested for gambling. "Anyone have a deck of cards?"
Sysiphus had just finished dropping off three more souls to head for the Overworld when he saw the soaked form of Celano approach. "Didn't I just send you out two candlemarks ago?"
"You didn't tell me the portal led to the Alconian Lake." the little weasel of a man grumbled. "I can't swim."
"Of all the...it's no wonder Xena killed you. You're too stupid to live." the former king said angrily.
"Look, just send me back and I'll find her. I owe her for interfering with my plans to help Krykus destroy the Amazons and Centaurs. I'll teach her not to mess with me."
"I can't send you back. Once you crossed through the portal you became mortal again. Now you're just another dead soul awaiting transport to be judged by Hades. Until you're sentenced to Tartarus again and come back through the tunnel there's nothing I can do." Sysiphus clutched his walking stick tightly. This was not going as well as he had planned. So far none of the souls he released back to the Overworld had been able to kill his nemesis. If they didn't find her and kill her before she found Charon...he pounded his walking stick hard against the bottom of the boat, causing a spark of fire to appear from its hollow tip. "Go over there with the rest of the souls waiting to go back across." he dropped his walking stick down and angrily grabbed the pole to push the boat across the river. "I've got to find someone who's strong enough to defeat that infernal warrior princess."
Gabrielle woke to see Xena already dressed and looking out the window. "Hey, sleepyhead." the warrior said without looking.
"Morning." she replied groggily as she sat up and wiped the sleep out of her eyes. "How long have you been up?"
"About two candlemarks. You want a cup of tea?"
"No, I want to go back to sleep." she yawned, flopping back down onto the bed. Xena walked over and pulled her back into a sitting position.
"Oh no you don't. We've got too much to do today. Besides..." her tone became more serious. "...I've already seen at least three men wandering around town this morning."
"You mean the undead?" Gabrielle asked, now fully awake.
"Well, they're not really undead, they're mortal now, just like us. The only difference is that they were once dead and sentenced to Tartarus." she handed the bard her boots. "Get dressed. I'm sure there's more out there."
"Do you have any idea where we should start looking for Charon?" Gabrielle asked as she pulled on her boot and began tying the laces. Xena sighed.
"No, not a clue. I don't know anything about his life before he went to the Underworld or anything that might give us an idea about where he would have gone."
"I heard a story once about him. The legends say that he was one of the first people to come before Hades for judgment. He was neither evil enough for Tartarus nor good enough for the Elyssian Fields. In the end Hades made him one of his workers and gave him control of the ferry over the River Styx."
"Well, that makes sense." Xena said. "Unfortunately it still doesn't help us figure out where he is." she picked up the saddlebags and flung them over her shoulder. "You ready?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle replied as she adjusted her top. "So what's first, returning those men to the Underworld or looking for Charon?" at that moment the bard's stomach decided to make itself known.
"I think the first thing is to feed you before that monster in your belly protests again." the warrior said with a smirk.
They had just settled down to eat when the doors to the inn flung open with enough force to rattle the hinges. "Xena! I know you're here." Dagnine said angrily, club in hand. "I'm here to take you to Tartarus, you bitch!"
"I'll be back in a moment." the warrior said before getting up and walking calmly to the bar. "Strongest drink you have, make it a double." she turned her attention to the fuming warlord standing in the doorway. "Dagnine." she said sweetly. "Now why don't you come and have a drink with me. I'm sure we can work something out."
"There's nothing to work out." he said, slamming his club on an empty table as he stalked toward the bar. Xena picked up the tankard of liquor and took a sip.
"Hoo gods!" she exclaimed as she grabbed her throat. She looked at the barkeep. "You actually serve this to people?"
"Only those with a strong constitution." the bartender replied before ducking under the bar. Xena blinked twice, took a deep breath, then poured as much of the strong brew as she could into her mouth. Just as Dagnine reached her, the warrior grabbed the torch off the wall and held it in front of her face. The warlord looked at the half empty tankard, her bulging cheeks, and the brightly glowing flame.
"You wouldn't." he said uncertainly as he took a step back. He swore he saw her smile and nod her head before she released a spray of the flammable liquid. Dagnine turned to run away but wasn't quick enough to avoid the fireball. Xena threw the rest of the contents of the tankard at him, the liquid soaking his clothes and immediately spreading the fire all over his body. With a quick thrust of her blade, the warrior put him out of his misery. Two men came over and within heartbeats put the fire out. "I think the trash pile is a good place for him." Xena said before rejoining her companion at their table.
"You know, Xena, if you keep killing all the men that are interested in you, you'll never find a mate." Gabrielle joked as the warrior picked up her cup of tea to rinse the taste of the gods awful drink out of her mouth.
"Hey, I showed him a hot time." Xena protested in jest. "Besides, he wasn't my type."
"No? Let's see, he was a warlord, mean, ruthless, breathing..."
"Ha ha, very funny." the warrior said as she reached over and took a pastry off of the bard's plate.
"Serves you right for picking on me." she popped the small treat in her mouth and grinned. "Tasty." she reached for another one but pulled her hand back before Gabrielle's fork could connect with it.
"Keep your eyes and hands on your own plate or Sysiphus won't have to worry about sending a warlord after you." she warned, doing her best to look menacing. There was a momentary pause before both women burst out laughing. Gabrielle broke the remaining pastry in half and split it with Xena. The pair managed to finish their meal without further interruptions.
Charon stepped out of the jail and grinned. The king had given the gamblers a choice of paying thirty dinars as a fine or spending half a moon at hard labor. It only took a few moments of pulling coins out of his pouch for Charon to pay not only his fine, but the fine of another man who promised that in exchange for his release he would show the ferryman another secret location where games of chance and dancing girls could be found. As he walked along the crowded street he bumped into a small boy. "Watch it, mister." the youngster said before looking up. His eyes grew wide and his mouth opened in shock at the frightening figure before him. Charon grinned wickedly.
"Ahh! Mommy!!" the little boy wailed, turning around and running back the way he came, silently promising whatever gods were listening that he would never wander around alone again. The ferryman laughed so hard his body shook. "Kids, they're so easy." he walked along a short distance before he felt a firm tap on his shoulder. He turned to face a large and rather angry looking woman, the little boy peeking out from behind her skirt.
"What's the idea of scaring my little boy half to death?" she demanded, not at all caring that the man in front of her looked like he was the walking dead. "Why, I have half a mind to knock some sense into you."
"Half a mind and twice the ass." Charon replied. "What'd ya do, eat a whole cow for breakfast?"
"Why you..." she raised her pouch above her head in a threatening manner. "You apologize right now!"
"Okay, I'm sorry you're larger than a hut. Is that better?"
"I'll have you know that I happen to retain water." she said defensively.
"Yeah and Medusa is only a little bit ugly."
"What? Just who do you think you are?" she demanded, wagging her finger.
"I'm the person who'll be more than happy to transport you across the River Styx when your time comes."
"You're an evil little man, you know that? My husband says that I'm all the woman he needs."
"Then he must need a lot."
The jailer could only laugh when he turned the key and opened the cell door. "That'll teach you to insult the mayor's wife." he said, shutting the door behind the ferryman.
"Well at least I'm safe here. What does she carry in that pouch of hers, lead weights?" Charon said, still rubbing his bruised temple.
"Actually she likes to bake. Most likely she had a rolling pin or two in there." the guard chuckled.
"Great, I make one innocent little remark, she decides to play 'beat the dough' on my head, and I'm the one who ends up in jail." the ferryman shook his head. "Mortals, I just don't understand them."
"Over there with the rest of them." Sysiphus said as the charred remains of Dagnine approached. "I don't understand how one woman...ONE WOMAN can give you so much trouble."
"Hey, if I remember correctly you couldn't beat her either." the burnt warlord said.
"Bah...there has to be someone who can defeat her." the former king replied as he pushed off and guided the boat to the other side of the river.
Once on the other side Sysiphus looked at the large crowd of mercenaries, warlords, and other riff raff that had scores to settle with Xena. "Isn't there one man among you who can defeat the Warrior Princess?"
"The problem is that you're sending a man to do a woman's job." a feminine voice from the back yelled. The crowd parted to reveal a brown haired woman who stood as tall or taller than most of the men and looked like she could easily beat any of them in hand to hand combat. Sysiphus motioned for her to come forward.
"What is your name, my dear?" he said solicitously.
"I am Abrama. I made the mistake of underestimating Xena once, I'll not do it again." she said firmly.
"And what makes you think you'll succeed where so many others have failed?" One of the men asked. The brown haired woman reached out and grabbed his hand, twisting his arm up behind his back.
"Because I know her. I know how she thinks, feels, acts." she pressed harder, delighting in the squeals of pain coming from the man. "She destroyed my village seven summers ago when I was home recuperating from a battle. I took down thirty of her men before she killed me." she shoved the whimpering man away from her. "If it wasn't for Xena I would have been the one they called the Destroyer of Nations. She cut me down in my prime. I had plans, big plans. But her army came through and I was killed before I could rejoin my own army. Send me back and I guarantee you that the next person you see entering the Underworld will be her."
It was late the next day when Xena and Gabrielle entered Laconia. "See if you can find us a room. I'll go take care of Argo."
"Okay." the bard replied. She took two steps toward the nearest inn, then stopped. "Uh Xena?"
"What?" the warrior turned and saw the small group approaching them. She dropped the reins and drew her sword. "I don't think they're going to ask us to dance." she said grimly.
"They're people you've killed before, aren't they?" Gabrielle asked, although the look on their faces was enough to have told her that much.
"Uh huh. Get ready."
The battle was fiercer than Xena had expected. Although she didn't know their names, she knew they had belonged to an army she had destroyed long ago during her reign of terror. Unable to go for the quick kills, the warrior was forced to parry and exchange blows, slowly wearing each man down. Gabrielle held her own against the two men that decided to go after her but was unable to land anything solid. All she could do was keep them occupied until Xena was able to step in and take over. The last one to go down proved to be the toughest, matching the warrior at every turn. Xena faked a move to the right but the man had been expecting it, moving to his right and catching her with a broad sweep of his sword. The tip of the blade found a spot on Xena's left side that wasn't protected by her armor. It sliced through the leather until it found the soft skin underneath. The wound wasn't deep, but it was enough to force the warrior to go on the defensive, blocking blows rather than exchanging them.
Gabrielle had been standing back out of the way when she saw the tide of the battle change. Fear for Xena's safety forced her to take action. Stepping forward, she slipped both hands down to one end of her staff and swung as hard as she could. Her blow landed on his shoulder but apparently causing no damage. The man turned his head to see who dared interfere with his victory over the warrior princess. It was all the opening Xena needed. Her booted foot smashed against his groin. It was enough to startle him into lowering his guard. With one well aimed thrust of her sword, he finally went down.
Xena got to her feet and looked around for any more attackers. Seeing none, she let her hand slip to her side to check on her injury. As soon as her fingers touched the sticky wetness she knew that stitches were in order. Gabrielle approached and did her best to stifle a gasp at the sight of blood covering the warrior's fingers and running down her side. In as calm a voice as she could muster, she said "Let's get you inside and take a look at that."
"It isn't as bad as it looks, Gabrielle." she said reassuringly. "It just needs a couple of stitches."
"Uh sure." she said unconvincingly. "Let's just get inside, okay?" the bard knew she was in danger of losing the tenuous control she had on her emotions and desperately needed to be somewhere private. Xena heard the shakiness in Gabrielle's voice and squeezed her hand.
"I'm okay, Gabrielle it's not a deep wound." the bard nodded but said nothing, afraid that she would in fact lose the battle to keep her feelings in check. Xena handed a bystander a dinar and asked them to take Argo to the stable before the two women walked in silence to the inn.
Once inside the privacy of their room, Xena allowed the bard to help her off with the armor and leathers. "It needs stitches." Gabrielle said softly as she pulled the cloth away from the gash.
"I can get it if it's too much for you." the warrior offered.
"No I'll do it." she said resolutely, reaching for the needle and thread. It took longer than it should have and the stitches weren't quite as neat and straight as Gabrielle would normally have done, but it was better than she hoped considering how badly her hands were shaking. She carefully cleaned the area and covered it with a bandage. "All done."
"Thanks." Xena went to sit up but was met with the bard's hands pressing forcefully on her shoulders.
"No. Stay there. Whatever you want, I'll get."
"Gabrielle, it's not that bad, really." she said, but gave up her attempt to sit up. She relaxed visibly and felt the bard's hands leave her shoulders.
"It's bad enough that you're not moving. What do you want?"
"Well, a clean shift, my sword, and the whetstone would be good."
Gabrielle pulled the stone from its compartment in the saddlebag and brought it and the sword over to the bed before looking for the shift. Xena watched as every piece of clothing was removed from the saddlebags. "There's no clean ones. I guess it's been a while since we did laundry."
"That's all right, just bring me the cleanest of the dirty ones."
"No way, they're all too dirty to wear." the bard said firmly. She looked at the fireplace, the curtain rods, and the chair backs, mentally figuring out how many places she could hang clothes to dry. "I'll be right back." she said, grabbing her pouch and heading out the door before the warrior could protest. She returned a few moments later with two buckets of water. Xena had wisely covered herself with the blanket when she heard the door open and was glad she did. Two young men followed Gabrielle in, both carrying buckets. They left just as two more carried in a small tub. The bard helped the four men carry in more buckets until there was more than enough.
Gabrielle kept herself busy washing every piece of clothing that they weren't wearing, hanging them to dry in various areas throughout the room. Doing the laundry was supposed to keep her mind off Xena's being hurt, but it didn't. Only the steady scraping sound of the whetstone against the warrior's sword kept the bard from constantly looking over to check on her. Gabrielle couldn't remember ever being so scared for Xena's safety. The nightmares were just so vivid, so frighteningly real. It didn't help that she had to wash the blood off the warrior's leathers before repairing them. When they went to sleep that night, Gabrielle was wrapped so tightly around Xena that the warrior was certain that their bodies would melt together. Every time the older woman shifted during the night, the bard instinctively tightened her hold, sighing contentedly when she felt the warrior's body relax again.
"Fifty dinars?" Charon asked incredulously.
"You want to go for seventy-five?" the judge, who also happened to be the mayor, asked. The ferryman shook his head and quickly pulled out the required money, four coins at a time. "Next time you might want to watch your mouth around the ladies of this city."
"No sense of humor, none, I tell ya." he shook his head in disbelief. "Maybe next time you can give me a softer mattress. That one I had last night was full of lumps. For fifty dinars I could have the honeymoon suite at the best inn in Athens. Service these days sheesh."
"I can help you with that." Xena said as she watched the bard fill the buckets with water from the tub, then empty them out the open window.
"I've got it. You relax." she poured another bucket out the window. "After I finish this I'll run downstairs and order us up some breakfast."
"Gabrielle, I'm not an invalid. We can go downstairs and eat, you know."
"I know, but with all the people out to get you, don't you think it's a good idea if you kept a low profile? At least until you find Charon?" she reasoned. "Besides, you don't like crowds and it sounds busy down there. Wouldn't a nice relaxing meal up here sound better?" when she saw the blue eyes roll and heard the sigh, Gabrielle knew she had won. "Good, then it's settled." she scooped up another bucketful of water and headed for the window, smiling to herself over her victory.
Hoping to avoid any more reasons to be thrown in jail, Charon decided to walk through the alleyways and avoid the main street. It would only take a few moments for him to reach the Blue Bull. Hopefully there'd be dancing girls at this early candlemark, or at least a good card game, he thought to himself. Suddenly he found himself drenched with tepid water. "What the..." he looked up to see an open window. Before he could move another bucketful was tossed out the window, catching him right in the face. "Oh come on now." he sputtered. "I didn't need a shower that badly. At least you could have let me take my clothes off first."
The soaked ferryman entered the inn and took a seat near the fireplace. "Port." he said to the serving girl, who from past experience kept a respectable distance from the odd looking man. "And a towel." he yelled to the retreating figure. He looked around the room and spotted a young woman coming down the stairs. "Oh la la." his eyes lecherously followed the green eyed woman to the bar where she ordered two breakfasts. Her green half-top left little to the imagination, not that Charon needed any encouragement. He smoothed out his soaked hair and wandered over to the bar. "How much, little lady?"
"Excuse me?" Gabrielle replied, only giving him a passing glance. The smell of fresh baked pastries had her attention focused on the door to the kitchen instead of on the man standing next to her, much to the ferryman's dismay. This little beauty was too good to pass up.
"How much for a candlemark, sweetie?" he said as he reached over and planted his hand firmly on the bard's rear. Gabrielle's hand immediately connected with Charon's face while her other hand removed his hand from her body. "Ooh, a feisty one. How's about a kiss, hmm?" he put his gnarled hands on either side of her face and pressed his black lips against hers. After she got over the initial shock, Gabrielle's knee found its mark and the ferryman bent over in pain. "Ow ow ow...jeez, you could have just said no." he moaned. "Was it something I said?" he yelled as the bard stormed up the stairs, breakfast completely forgotten.
Xena knew something was wrong by the way Gabrielle stomped up the hall, not to mention the look on her face when she threw open the door. "What's wrong?"
"What's wrong? What's wrong?" the bard ranted, pacing back and forth. "Xena, men are pigs. You know that? Real pigs." she wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. "Uggh..." she poured some wine from the skin on a cloth and wiped her mouth again.
"What happened?" the warrior reached out and put her hands on the bard's shoulders to stop the relentless pacing. "Gabrielle, did someone bother you?"
"Bother me? Oh, he bothered me all right. Do you know what he did? He...he grabbed me!" Xena reached for her chakram. "And that's not the worst of it." the bard continued. "That creepy little man kissed me!" she was in full fury and her hands moved about with each word. Xena fastened her scabbard and reached for her sword. Gabrielle reached out and grabbed the warrior's arm. "Where are you going?"
"Show me who he is. I'll teach him to lay a hand on you." the warrior said, her mind thinking of the different ways she would punish the slug who dared try to take advantage of her friend.
"Uh, no Xena, that's okay." she said hesitantly. "I mean, it's over now and there's no harm done. You don't need to go downstairs."
"Gabrielle, he needs to be taught some manners." she said angrily.
"But what if there's some of those undead people down there?"
"I've told you they're not exactly undead..."
"I know, I know, but that's the easiest way I can think of to identify them. What if they're down there?"
"If they're down there then I'll take care of them." she gently gripped the bard's upper arms. "Gabrielle, I can't hide. You know that. Now, come show me who this idiot is."
Charon was just finishing his drink when they came down the stairs, Xena practically dragging the reluctant bard behind her. "Where is he?"
"Uh..." Gabrielle looked around the room as if searching for him. "I don't see him. He must have left." she deliberately avoided looking at the creep sitting at the table and positioned herself between him and Xena. "Come on, let's go back upstairs." she reached for the warrior's wrist to guide her back before someone recognized her.
"Oh, so that's why you weren't interested." the ferryman said. "You already had a customer. Too bad, toots. You know, three's company too." he licked his black lips suggestively. "I'll pay extra."
That was all it took for the bard to lose her temper. He deserved whatever he got, she decided. "That's him. That's the one. Get him, Xena." she released her grip on the older woman's wrist and crossed her arms in front of her, fully expecting the warrior to pummel the strange looking man senseless. Xena looked at the man and smiled. One part of the problem solved, she thought to herself.
"We've been looking for you." she said as she pulled out a chair and sat down at his table, much to the bard's astonishment.
"Xena, what a surprise." the ferryman said with a smile. "I have to admit I thought I'd see you much sooner than this. I guess working for the side of good must agree with you. You certainly send less customers to Hades now. Can't say I mind that a bit. Why, during your battle with the Centaurs I had to work four days straight with no breaks and let me tell you, he may be a nice god to work for but Hades doesn't pay overtime. That's what I get for not having a union."
"What are you doing?" Gabrielle asked furiously. "Xena, he...he kissed me. Aren't you gonna beat him up? Put the pinch on him? Anything?" she looked at her friend in disbelief.
"Relax Gabrielle. This is Charon."
"Excitable little lady, isn't she?" the ferryman asked.
"Where have you been? Don't you know Hades is looking for you?" Xena pulled out a chair and motioned for the bard to join them.
"You're just going to sit there? You're not going to do anything? Xena, perhaps you didn't understand me. That freak kissed me. He...he grabbed my butt!" the outraged woman said.
"Why does everyone want to call me a freak? I'm a nice guy." he said defensively.
"You're a creepy little pervert is what you are." the bard corrected.
"Oh, I'm so wounded." Charon said sarcastically. "Don't forget that I'm the one who has to transport that cute little butt of yours across the Styx eventually." he grinned. "You really should be nice to me."
"Xena...." she said in a warning tone.
"All right you two. Gabrielle...sit. Charon, apologize." the warrior said in a tone reminiscent of a mother scolding her children. The highly miffed bard slumped into the chair, alternating her glare from the ferryman to her friend and back again.
"How was I supposed to know she wasn't for hire? After all, look at the way she's dressed. I've seen more clothes on the street walkers in Athens." he said as he looked around for the serving girl. "Hey toots! How's about a little service here, huh?" he pulled a cigar out of his pocket and lit it off the table candle, the pungent smoke going directly at Gabrielle. "So what were you looking for me for?"
"You know exactly why, Charon. You have to go back to the Underworld."
"Where you belong." the bard added, waving the smoke out of her face. "And put that stinking thing somewhere."
"Oh, and I'm sure you'd just love to tell me where to put it too, huh?" he said sarcastically. "This happens to be a ten dinar cigar. Finest tobacco in all of Greece."
Gabrielle went to tell him exactly where she thought he should stick it when a strong hand clamped around her mouth. "Now Charon," Xena began. "Perhaps you could just move it so the smoke isn't going directly in her face?" she felt the bard's mouth open and felt teeth touching her fingers. "Don't even think about it, Gabrielle." she whispered into the smaller woman's ear. Immediately the teeth withdrew but the daggers coming from the bard's eyes continued. Xena ignored the angry glare and turned her attention back to the ferryman. "Charon, you need to return. Without you there's no one to transport the souls across the river for Hades to judge."
"Let him find another ferryman. I'm on vacation." he said. The serving girl arrived with three mugs of port. Xena released her grip on the bard's mouth and handed her one of the mugs. Gabrielle took the offered drink but continued to scowl at her companions.
"You're not on vacation. We know Sysiphus somehow got you out of the Underworld. We have to get you back, and soon." the warrior said.
"No, I'm not going. I quit. I like it here better. There's no dancing girls in the Underworld, you know."
"You don't have a choice." Xena said firmly. "Now tell us how Sysiphus managed to get you out of there so we can help you get back."
"Ah, it's no use." he sighed. "I tried to get back but he's done something to the portal."
"What about the Alconian Lake?" the bard asked. "Xena, you got through once, maybe we can send him back that way."
"Uh, nope, won't work. Sorry." he said. "That path will only work for mortals."
"But you're here in the Overworld. Didn't you turn back into a mortal when you crossed through the portal?"
"Ah, there's the rub, my dear half-naked girl." he smirked. "When Hades decided to make me his ferryman, he also made me immortal. Of course time has taken it's toll on my rugged good looks, but hey, I can still make heads turn."
"More like stomachs." the bard said, causing Xena to almost choke on the port she had been drinking.
"Ha ha, very funny. How could I have possibly mistaken you for a floozy? Obviously you're a stand up comic."
"I happen to be a bard." Gabrielle said defensively. "Not to mention an Amazon."
"An Amazon? Ah, no wonder you tried to make me a eunuch. Xena, I remember you being rather cozy with Marcus. When'd you jump over the fence?"
"You're treading on dangerous ground there, Charon." the warrior said, casting him a warning glare. "The important thing right now is getting you back to the Underworld."
"I told you I'm not going back and you can't make me." he finished his drink and stood up. "Now if you two will excuse me, the dancing girls are starting at the Blue Bull in a few moments."
"Oh, I think you'll miss the dancing girls today, Charon. I have other plans for you." faster than the ferryman could move, Xena had his arm up behind his back. "Let's go."
"Ow ow, hey! Easy on the merchandise, sweetie if you wanted it rough all you had to do was ask." he let out a yelp as the warrior increased the pressure on his arm another notch and guided him to the stairs.
Once inside their room, the warrior released her grip on the ferryman's arm. "You know, immortals do feel pain and I'm not into pain." he grinned. "Unless you are, my dear." he added lecherously. Xena rolled her eyes.
"The only interest I have in you is trying to get you back to the Underworld, Charon." she sat down on a chair while the bard flopped onto the bed. "Is there any other portal you can think of that you can pass through?"
"Nope, there's only three portals one is for mortals, that's the Alconian Lake one, the one I went through for immortals, which Sysiphus did something to so I can't get back, and the one the gods use to visit Hades."
"What about that one? Can't you use it?" Gabrielle asked, hoping for a way to get rid of the ferryman as quickly as possible.
"Do I look like a god, sweetie?" the ferryman replied. "The only way back for me is through that one portal." he walked over to the table and helped himself to some port. "And since that way isn't working, I'm guess I'm stuck up here." he said, feigning disappointment. "So, now that that's settled, if you'll excuse me there's some girls at the Blue Bull I need to go see." he headed for the door only to find the warrior quickly moving to block his way.
"Not so fast, Charon. You're going back. One way or another you're going back." she turned him around, marched him over to one of the chairs, and made him sit down. "I have to go take a look at that portal and see if I can break whatever spell Sysiphus has put on it. You two stay here."
"Xena, you can't go. What if you run into-"
"Gabrielle, I have to. You try and keep him out of trouble." she turned to face the ferryman. "And you don't even think about making another inappropriate comment to her."
"Oh, like I'd give her another opportunity to make me a eunuch. I'll behave."
"I doubt that." the bard said wryly, reaching out to place one hand on her staff.
"Have fun." the warrior said as she reached for the door handle.
"Xena, wait." she left the bed and went to her friend's side. "Please be careful." she made no attempt to hide her concern.
"I will. I should be back by tonight." she reached down and gave the bard's hand a gentle squeeze. "Try to get along with him."
"That's like trying to get along with a hydra."
"Naw, hydras are easier." the warrior grinned. She opened the door and was surprised to feel the bard's arms wrap around her neck, pulling her down to place a kiss on her cheek.
"Be careful." Gabrielle said as she released her hold and took a step back. She watched Xena until she disappeared from sight before closing the door. Neither woman noticed the brown haired woman watching the exchange from the other end of the hall.
"I'm going downstairs to get the breakfast that I missed because of you." the bard said. "Stay here."
"And what makes you think I don't want something to eat too?"
"You're immortal. Immortals don't get hungry."
"Just because we don't get hungry doesn't mean that we don't like to eat anyway. Why, in my time I used to be quite the chef." he said. "I specialized in pastries and cakes."
The mention of tasty treats caught the bard's attention. "You're a real chef?"
"No, I'm a pretend one." he said sarcastically. "Do you want something edible or do you want whatever slop they try to serve downstairs?"
"I'm afraid that we don't have a choice. I don't have the ingredients to make anything." she looked at the remains of their belongings. "I don't even have any pots or pans anymore. We lost them all when we ran from some of those undead thugs."
"And this is a problem? Just buy new ones." he said as if it was the obvious answer.
"Sorry, dinars don't grow on trees. We barely have enough to pay for this room."
"Well then you're in luck. Dinars happen to be something I have an unlimited supply of." he grinned. "I'll buy whatever you need. Despite the fact you tried to make me a soprano."
Against her better judgment, Gabrielle agreed and they headed to the marketplace. The area was little more than a street with booths set up on both sides. The bard tried to head to the booth that had the cooking supplies but the ferryman was like a little child, insisting on looking at each and every shop and everything they had to offer. They stopped at one booth full of bolts of cloth and clothes. Charon held up a top that was even more revealing than the green one the bard wore. "Now what would it cost me to see you in this?" he said.
"Your manhood." Gabrielle replied, causing the ferryman to drop the garment immediately and head for the next booth. The bard smiled to herself and followed.
Despite the fact that money wasn't an object to the immortal, Gabrielle insisted on haggling down every merchant until they got prices that she felt were fair. They passed a shop selling herbs and Charon insisted on stopping. He spoke quietly and conspiratorially to the owner, who disappeared into the back and returned with a leather pouch filled with dried green leaves and a smaller pouch containing a crushed red powder. The ferryman dropped several coins into the man's hand and left, smiling to himself. "You ready?" the bard asked.
"Oh yes. I'm all set now." he grinned.
"What's in the pouches?"
"Oh, this? Just some herbs that I like to add to my cooking. It makes everything taste better. Trust me, you'll like it." he said. "Can we check out that shop over there?" he asked, pointing to one booth adorned with leather whips and straps. One look from the bard was enough to stop him from pursuing that idea. At that moment her stomach grumbled its complaint about her not feeding it yet.
"Oh, there's a charming sound. Must go over well on dates." that comment earned him another glare. "Oh, sorry, I suppose you don't get to go on too many dates, what with the way you like to disable every man you see."
"Funny, I don't see a man here." she said sweetly.
"Ouch, that hurt not." he replied. They continued to look about the market, unaware that they were being followed.
Xena followed Charon's directions and soon found the portal. She pounded her hand on the stone in frustration. Whatever method Sysiphus used to seal it was done on the inside and there was no way she could disable it from the outside. She thought briefly about going to the Alconian Lake and entering the Underworld but quickly nixed that idea. It was bad enough that there were untold numbers of former residents of Tartarus looking for her in the Overworld. She knew exactly how many were waiting down there for her should she dare enter the realm. One or two or even a half dozen at a time she could handle. There was no way she could handle all of the people she had just sent back down there. Xena growled in disappointment at the predicament. She was caught between the Scylla and Charibdes. The dead souls couldn't be sent back to the other side of the Styx without Charon to guide the boat and she couldn't break whatever seal was on the portal to get him back as long as the souls were waiting there.
Xena turned to head back to Laconia. As she passed one rise she found herself surrounded by several men. "Well, it looks like we have you now, don't we, Xena?" Toxeus said evilly.
"Looks can be deceiving." the warrior said evenly, drawing her sword.
"There's two dozen of us and only one of you. Just what kind of fool are you?"
"My own special variety." Xena said with a feral grin, her right hand reaching for her chakram. "You gonna talk or fight, Toxeus? Oh, I forgot, you can't fight. That's why I was able to kill you so easily before." she taunted.
"Get her!" the warlord yelled.
By mid afternoon, the room was filled with the smells of fresh baked goods. True to his word, Charon was an excellent baker and made several trays of treats, from brownies to pastries to even nutbread. Of course when the bard wasn't looking he added his special ingredients. The first thing she dived into was the nutbread, which was reduced to crumbs in a matter of moments. "Gods, I can't believe how good it tastes. You really are a good cook." she exclaimed as she shoved a large brownie in her mouth. Charon smiled and sat back, nibbling on a much smaller piece.
"It gets even better the more you eat. Shall I make another loaf of nutbread?"