Darinius softly stepped to the top of the steps and gestured for Autolycus and Iolaus to join him. He waited for what he thought was an appropriate amount of time for Gabrielle to get below and get comfortable before he summoned the guys. Of course, Xena did not fail to notice their stirring but she merely laid her head back down on Darinius's bag.
Darinius pointed to the island and said, "Fellows, we'll be there before we know it. Once we land we will be completely isolated. That means we have got to be ready for anything. Autolycus, I hope your lock picking skills are up to the task."
"Hah," snorted Autolycus. "There's not a lock on that island less than fifty years old. I can pick those old ones in my sleep."
"Well let's hope so," said Darinius. "I just wish we knew more about this cage."
"Oh, I forgot about that," said Iolaus. He then related Gabrielle's story to Darinius and Autolycus.
"Do you think it's really true?" asked Autolycus. "I mean that this thing is really enchanted or something?"
"Cursed would be a more appropriate word, I think," said Darinius. "It has to be true or it would never hold Hercules.
"Well cursed, enchanted...whatever. If it has a lock on it I'll pick it," boasted Autolycus.
"Guys, again I want to stress once we hit that beach we are going to have to be extra careful. We do not know the lay of land, where Hercules is, or even what we are up against. We'll just have to play it by ear. But if we work together and get some luck, we just might pull this off," said Darinius.
"Well I for one am going to take a nap," said Autolycus. "A certain person kept me up half the night and I am sleepy."
"Get out of here," grinned Iolaus.
"Come to think of it forty winks wouldn't be bad," said Darinius. "Iolaus, if you stay up here keep your eye on that weasel of a captain." Darinius followed Autolycus down the steps.
Iolaus stared at the black lump growing perceptively larger in the distance. He began to think about the past few years of his life. Everyone was always telling him how great it was to be Hercules' friend, and it was, but there was a down side to it as well. He knew that in a fight he was just about as tough as they came. Many times he had taken care of as many guys as Hercules, sometimes more, but it was always "Thank you for saving our ...whatever... Hercules, oh- and you too." It was disheartening to always be a follower and never a leader. In truth Iolaus was not envious of Hercules. He was very proud of him and that they were best friends. But it is only human to want to feel appreciated and Iolaus knew this was not always the case. He sometimes felt he was forever fated to be a "sidekick." Iolaus detested that word. He had heard it many times, of course. And whether it was uttered by from some monster he and Hercules might be fighting or a drunk in a tavern, the effect was the same.
Leader. What makes someone a leader? he thought. Hercules had once said it was someone who could provide inspiration and instill confidence in others. Iolaus also was aware that he was good friends with undoubtedly three of the best leaders of his time. Maybe the three best. There was Hercules, of course. He would be a great leader even without those awesome powers. His courage and inner goodness would not be diminished by possessing the strength of an ordinary man. And Darinius, his old commander, he was the same whether has talking to two or ten thousand. One always had the feeling that everything was going to be all right if he was around. And then there was Xena. She had honed her leadership skills in a different school than the others. Hercules and Darinius had based their leadership on trust and friendship while Xena had used fear and hate. But as a leader she had been no less effective. Iolaus had seen how dominating she could be.
Well maybe this time it will be different, he thought. Since rescueing Hercules was the objective of this mission maybe I will get some recognition this time. Probably not, he decided. Xena and Darinius would get most of the credit. The big names usually did. Especially with someone like Gabrielle around to sing Xena's praises. Iolaus wasn't really bitter. He was just affected sometimes in the same way any normal person would be. And when one got right down to it that's what Iolaus was, a regular guy. A good and decent man who did his best to help others. And besides, he really did like all of his them even the nutty Autolycus.
"Well, mateys, this is as far as you go. Load yer gear into the boat and old Zepheus and Tubilis here will take you on into shore," The captain was not sorry to see this bunch go. "I can't say it's been fun but good luck to ye anyway."
Darinius gave him the 500 dinars that was due him and he also gave him a piece of advice. "See you around, Captain, and if I were you I would be careful the next time I put the move on somebody. You never know when those sinuses will act up again."
"Very funny, matey, now off with ye," growled the captain.
"Gabrielle, don't forget the food," reminded Xena.
It took a half an hour of hard rowing by Zepheus and Tubilis to bring the boat into the beach. After their party had unloaded themselves and their gear, the sailors wordlessly left them and began the hard fight with the surf on their way back out. For a moment the five on the beach watched them battle the waves.
"So, what do we do first?" asked Autolycus.
"Get off the beach and find cover," said Xena, surveying the shore line.
It was already late evening when they made the tree line about a quarter league from the beach.
"What do you think, Xena? Want to set up here for the night?" asked Darinius.
"It's as good a place as any," she replied.
By now it is almost dark and for the first time Darinius put on his sword. Across the back, just like Xena, noted Gabrielle. He then produced a small dagger and fit it neatly into a slot in his right boot. Lastly, he pulled out an object that made Autolycus laugh.
"A sling?" What do you use that for, battling ten year olds?" he smirked.
"Don't show your ignorance," said Darinius evenly. "A sling is more than a kid's toy when used properly. In the right hands it can be very deadly."
"I can attest to that," said Gabrielle, remembering David.
"Really it's just a back up," continued Darinius. "You never know when you might get in a jam without some other weapon. With a sling you just fold it up, put it your pocket and if you do need it it's there. Aaand you can use just about anything small and round for ammunition. It's saved me more than once."
"No wonder this guy is such great soldier, thought Xena, he leaves nothing to chance.
"Hmmm. Do you think you could teach me to use one? In my line of work it might come in handy someday," allowed Autolycus.
Darinius took a fish cake and a pear out of Gabrielle's basket and started walking into the woods.
"And just where do you think you are going?" asked Xena.
"Well," he replied, "it's dark enough now and the moon will be up soon, I think I will do a little reconnaissance work."
"I'm going with you," said Xena, matter-of-factly.
"Could I speak with you over here for a moment?" asked Darinius. They walked to the edge of the clearing and he continued, "Xena, I meant to speak to you about this before but I don't think you and I should get too close to each from now on."
"You're afraid that if we are both killed the others won't make it, aren't you?" asked Xena.
"What about Iolaus, he is an experienced soldier," offered Xena.
"Iolaus is a good man and there is no doubt he can take care of himself but you and I both know it's a different game when others have to be considered," countered Darinius.
"Meaning all of them," said Darinius. "If one of us gets it the other can still do the job but if both of us are taken out then this mission has no chance."
"So how do we work it," asked Xena.
"Any way you want, just keep your distance as much as possible. Now I know if we get into a fight we could end up anywhere but at least this way we lessen the chance of some clod getting lucky," said Darinius.
Xena raised an eyebrow and for the first time showed him a breathtaking glimpse of another facet of her beauty. "Maybe you just don't want me around," she teased.
Like an academy girl, thought Darinius. Why did she do that?
Then as quickly as it came it was gone. Those stunning blue eyes reset to their former mode and she was all business again. "Well, I agree. We should try to keep our distance." She turned and walked back to the camp.
So the village girl is still in there, mused Darinius. The raging demon and the noble warrior were not alone. He followed her back to the camp.
"Sit tight, everyone I'll be back later. Remember, no fires." warned Darinius.
"If Xena's not going maybe I should go with you. That used to be my job, remember?" asked Iolaus.
"Yes, I do," said Darinius. "You were the best scout I ever had. Well, let's be off."
The two of them melted into the darkness.
"Why didn't you go?"
"Let's just say it was a mutual decision," said Xena.
"Well I don't know about you two," said Autolycus, yawning "but a man of my talents has to get his rest. He looked up at the night sky and added, "I hope it doesn't rain." Soon Xena and Gabrielle were serenaded by Autolycus grinding his teeth.
"Why don't you try to rest too, Gabrielle?" suggested Xena.
"Ah that nap I took today on the ship did me a world of good," said Gabrielle. I won't sleep a wink all night." She paused and added, "Xena?"
"I wonder about Darinius. He seems to be able to look inside someone and see everything. Have you noticed that?"
"Yes, I have," said Xena.
"Do you think, maybe, he is a god?" asked Gabrielle.
"No Gabrielle, he is not a god," answered Xena. "I badly wounded him in battle once. He bleeds like everybody else."
"Oh, Xena!" gasped Gabrielle.
"It was a different time, Gabrielle," said Xena softly.
"Today- on the ship- I felt safe with him, you know? Just like I do with you."
Xena blinked and put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder. "Just doing my job," she said.
"That's what he said about you, more or less," said Gabrielle.
"Yeah, he said I shouldn't feel like I was a burden to you," said Gabrielle.
"And do you?" asked Xena.
"Sometimes. I mean- here you have to face all these dangers and keep an eye on me too," answered Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, didn't I tell you I couldn't do any of this stuff without you? Didn't I tell you you meant more to me than family? Does that sound like someone who thinks you are burden?"
"I never said you thought I was," said Gabrielle. "I'm just saying that I can't help but feel that way sometimes." Her eyes began to glisten.
Xena knew she had to change her tack if she wanted to assuage Gabrielle's fears. "Look, she said, every day you improve with that staff. You keep it up and maybe soon you can be the 'big hero'," laughed Xena.
"Oh, riiight, sniffed Gabrielle, wiping a tear from her cheek.
"Why sure," continued Xena, hey- then you could be the 'Warrior Princess' and...and I could be the bard."
"Now that's a disturbing thought," giggled Gabrielle.
There it is, thought Xena. Even the glum Xena can't keep her depressed for long.
"I can just see you telling some story to a big crowd. If no one liked it you would just crack them over the head," said Gabrielle.
"Hey, what better way to get their undivided attention," said Xena with her best dead pan face.
"What do you say we just keep things the way they are, okay?" offered Gabrielle.
"I don't know, Gabrielle, the more I think about it the more it appeals to me."
"Will you stop it?" groaned Gabrielle. "I swear, you're getting to be more like Autolycus all the time."
At the mention of his name Autolycus rolled over and asked, "So ladies, dreaming about me again?"
"No, that would be a nightmare," smirked Gabrielle.
Xena knew this precious moment would soon slip away so she did what she could to prolong it just a little longer. She bent over and whispered in Gabrielle's ear, "Autolycus huh? Maybe I ought to crack you in the head."
"Yeah? Well, just you try it, Warrior Princess. Remember what I did to you with that pitchfork?" asked Gabrielle defiantly.
"I remember," answered Xena. Gabrielle had spoken in jest, of course, but Xena did remember it and all the evil implications of that incident. It never ends, she thought.
Gabrielle had been so brave.
And the moment was gone.
They sat together for a very long time in the blackness until Xena felt Gabrielle's head begin to loll and slowly slide down to Xena's breast. Oh, sweet gods!, she thought. With powerful arms far more accustomed to terrorization than tenderness she gently lowered Gabrielle's head into her lap and waited for Darinius and Iolaus to return.
The rising moon had not yet reached its full luminance but Darinius and Iolaus did not care. Their long years of soldiering and living outdoors had made them experts at night movement. The additional light, however, would become helpful in discerning the lay of the land. They had not moved very far inland before they realized most of the area was swamp land. This would serve to severely impede their progress unless they could find some kind of road or levee.
With stealth achieved by years of practice, they made their way eastward. They operated about thirty paces apart and had agreed to use the old scout whistle if either found anything important. After about an hour of slogging through the marsh- slowly so as not to blunder into a sink hole- Darinius heard a low, three note whistle to his front left. He answered with a different three note whistle and began to work his way toward the direction the signal had came from.
"Look, a road," whispered Iolaus. "Do we risk taking it?"
"Got to," replied Darinius. "We'll never make any time in this slop. Take the left side and I will take the right. We ought to stagger ourselves by about twenty paces. You take the point. The moon is bright enough to cast shadows now so we need to watch that. Stay low, be careful, and don't get in too big of a hurry."
As Iolaus began moving up the left side of the road, Darinius eased out onto a section of the road bathed in moonlight. He bent down to examine the road. It was about five good paces across and was constructed of a very good grade of crushed stone. Obviously someone had went to a lot of time and expense to build such a fine road through this swamp. He looked up the road and saw that Iolaus has already disappeared into the gloom.
About a half hour later, Darinius again heard the signal from Iolaus. He was crouched down beside the road poking at something with a small stick when Darinius joined him.
"What do you make of that?" asked Iolaus.
"I know it's dung," said Iolaus. "But from what? I mean, look at it. See how lumpy it is?"
Something white sticking out of the dung caught Darinius' eye and he bent over and picked up the still warm lump in his hand.
"Are you crazy?" asked Iolaus.
Darinius pulled apart the dung until he found what he was looking for.
"See that?" he asked, holding up the small sliver of white. "That's bone. Unless I miss my guess, this came from a minotaur."
"No way," said Iolaus. "Even a minotaur couldn't pass that. I mean they do have the body of a man, you know."
"Iolaus, legend has it there are two kinds of minotaurs. The kind we normally think of are the ones with the body of a man and the head a bull. But there is a species that has the body of a bull and the head of a man."
"So what does it mean?" asked Iolaus.
"Well my guess is where you find one kind, you find both," said Darinius.
"That's just great," said Iolaus through gritted teeth.
"Do you feel like going on a little farther?" grinned Darinius.
"Me? Oh yeah-sure."
"Move out then, same as before. Just be extra careful," said Darinius. "We don't want any surprises."
After an unevenful league and a half the road made a sharp turn to the right. By now the moon was starting to make its slow descent in the clear night sky. They saw the terrain was beginning to make a slow, general slope upward. After a couple of hundred paces more they began to hear something else.
What is that roar? wondered Iolaus. Water? After a reaching another a turn in the road he could now definitely make out the roar of rapids. If there's a road there must be a bridge, thought Iolaus. Moving very carefully, he crept around another turn in the road and there it was. And there was something else too. A huge, dark figure standing so still Iolaus thought it was some kind of grotesque tree. But he then noticed the top of the tree kept swiveling from side to side. That's a head! That thing is too small to be a giant so it must be a cyclops
Iolaus crept back down the road toward Darinius as quickly as he dared. Darinius saw the way he was hurrying back and knew something was wrong.
"What is it," he asked.
Iolaus did not answer, he just gestured for them to continue their retreat down the road. After they had gone some distance they finally stopped.
"It's a cyclops," explained Iolaus.
"Are you sure," asked Darinius.
"Of course I'm sure," hissed Iolaus. "The darn thing was just standing there beside the road. I almost blundered right into it. For a minute there I thought it smelled me."
"Well, I think we have covered enough ground for one night," allowed Darinius. We can't risk having that thing giving some sort of alarm just yet. We might as well head back."
The moon was no more than a fist's width above the horizon when the two of them finally reached the coast. They followed the road all the way back out to the beach and began to hunt for the spot where they had landed. They would surely have missed it if Iolaus had not spotted the old broken jug Zepheus had cast out of his boat upon their landing.
By the time they returned to the others the eastern sky was already beginning to lighten. Xena was not pleased.
"A little reconnaissance huh?" she scowled. "You two could have been to Athens and back by now." She gently lifted Gabrielle's head off her lap and lowered it onto her shoulder bag. Gabrielle moaned a slight protest and resumed her slumber.
"If it wasn't for Hercules I would be on my way to Athens right now," said Iolaus.
"What's he talking about?" demanded Xena, turning to Darinius. Those blue eyes had already forming that "I'm ready, whatever it is" look.
"Xena, we have got big trouble," replied Darinius, placing emphasis on the last two words. "We found strong evidence of minotaurs. And one more thing, there's a cyclops up there, too."
Xena was not worried about the cyclops, she had dealt with them before. Minotaurs...that was another thing. Damn you, Xena!, she raged, why didn't you force Gabrielle to stay behind. "It's going to be light soon," she said. "You guys ought to try to get some sleep. It looks to be a long day."
"I hope it is a long day," sighed Iolaus, lying down beside Autolycus.
"And how much rest did you get, Xena?" asked Darinius.
She saw he was genuinely concerned. "I got enough," she replied. She had softened her voice only barely but Darinius caught it. He grinned and lay at the edge of the clearing.
Two hours later found the group preparing for the day's business.
"I must say," allowed Autolycus, the accommodations I've had the last few nights have certainly not been up to my usual standards." He was fighting a seemingly losing battle trying to get the sand out of his hair.
"Oh, and I suppose the cess pool was more to your tastes," teased Gabrielle.
"Not exactly, but at least it was safer," said Autolycus.
"Hah, some adventurer you are," snorted Gabrielle.
"Well," said Autolycus, striking his trademark pose and stroking his mustache with his index finger, "The King of Thieves lives by his wits and not by developing calluses on his back side."
"By your wits, eh?" retorted Gabrielle. Then it's a miracle you are still alive."
"Hey muscles, do you mind?" protested Autolycus. "Your friend is killing me here."
"Knock it off, you two," ordered Xena. She knew, however, it was merely playful banter between good friends. Just a way to take one's mind off the grim work ahead. She makes friends so easily, thought Xena. Once they get over the initial shock of her forthrightness, she just reeled them in like fish on a line. Even the cynical Autolycus.
"For crying out loud will somebody wake up the human fog horn here," pleaded Autolycus.
Iolaus had been in especially fine form. Xena walked over to where he was sleeping. Poor guy, she thought, he's worn out. I should have made Darinius let me go instead. Well, none of us are getting any younger. Her mind then wandered back to the hot tub she and Iolaus had shared and a deliciously wicked smile came over her. He's not over the hill just yet, she mused, as she nudged him with her foot. "C'mon Iolaus, time to get up."
Dainius woke with a throat as dry as the great desert to the south.
"Did anyone manage to find any water?" he asked.
"Yes," said Gabrielle, "I forgot to tell you, I brought some with us."
Gabrielle reached into the basket and produced two flasks with some kind of stopper in them. She handed one to Darinius.
"Here," she said, "have a pear and one of these. Sorry about the food but it was cheap and it won't spoil very quickly."
"Gabrielle, you can be my quartermaster any day," smiled Darinius.
"Well, times a wasting," said Autolycus, returning from his morning ritual.
Xena gave him a wry smile and said, "So it is."
They retraced the route Darinius and Iolaus had used to return to camp; walking straight down the beach to the road two leagues away. When they got to the road, Darinius stopped them.
"Okay we need to organize some sort of column," he said. We can't just go blundering down this road. Iolaus, all right for you to take the point?"
"Sure," Iolaus nodded.
"Don't set too fast of a pace," Xena reminded him, "We don't want to be worn out when we reach the bridge."
"Xena, who gets the two spot, you or me?" asked Darinius.
"Me," answered Xena. "I want to be in front of Gabrielle, not behind her."
"Good enough. Gabrielle, you follow Xena. You next, Autolycus, and I'll take the back door," said Darinius.
The tense journey up the road proved to be uneventful; enabling Iolaus to set a consistent pace. Finally, they reached the series of sharp turns that signaled the close proximity of the river. They now moved much more slowly, each wrestling with his thoughts:
Iolaus: "How are we going to get past that thing?... I wish Herc was here... Of course if he was here, we wouldn't have to go up this road at all, now would we?...We'll do what we have to do."
Gabrielle: "What a great story this is going to make...My sister will never believe it...I'll call it 'The Rescue of Hercules'...I just hope I get to tell it to her...So comforting to have such powerful friends, especially Xena, of course...Hope she doesn't see how scared I am."
Xena: "I must discuss a plan of attack with Darinius...The only way we are going across that bridge is over the cyclops' dead body...The minotaurs, well, as the old saying goes we will cross that bridge... No matter how wild it gets, must not forget Gabrielle...It will be good to see Hercules again."
Autolycus: "Hercules is going to owe me big time for this...Maybe I can persuade him to rip off the doors to a couple of treasury buildings... Nah, I can just hear him, 'It's wrong to steal, Autolycus', ...Too bad... I hope these guys are in top form because we are going to need it."
Darinius: "Must talk to Xena about tactics...She's much more adept at this small unit stuff than I am...Need to swallow your pride, here and listen to her...No room for error at all...Wonder how many there are...I enjoy your company, Gabrielle, but I wish you weren't here."
Upon hearing the crashing thunder of the rapids, the little group realized that they had reached the real start of their mission. They slowly took the inside side of the last turn just before the bridge.
"There he is," said Iolaus.
"He's bigger than that other one I met," observed Gabrielle.
"Some get even bigger," said Xena.
"That's plenty big enough for me, thank you," said Autolycus.
Suddenly Gabrielle turned to Xena with that gleam in her eye that always spelled trouble as far as Xena was concerned.
"I have a idea," said Gabrielle.
"You haven't even heard it yet," protested Gabrielle.
"I don't have to, I know I won't like it," said Xena.
"C' mon, let me talk to him. Maybe I can get him to reveal what we are up against. You know, how many guards there are, where the cage is, that sort of thing," said Gabrielle.
"No, Gabrielle, I forbid it."
"You forbid it? You forbid it?" whispered Gabrielle hoarsely. "I thought I was an equal partner in all this. So maybe I can't handle a sword. There are other ways I can help and this is one of them.
Those flashing green eyes are something to behold, thought Darinius. That old joke about women being beautiful when they are angry certainly rings true for Gabrielle.
The anger in those eyes lasted but a moment and was replaced by hurt and sorrow. Scanning the whole group Gabrielle spoke, "I guess you guys just think I'm a pack animal, huh? You know, someone to carry the food."
Even before finishing she was sorry she had said it. The expressions on all their faces, even Autolycus, told her how they really felt. As for Xena...
"I- I'm sorry," sputtered Gabrielle. "I know you guys don't think of me that way. It's just that I want to do something to help.
Xena stepped in front of her Gabrielle, placed a hand on each of her arms and locked onto her with those remarkable blue eyes.
I have really done it this time, thought Gabrielle. She then saw just a bare hint of a half smile on Xena's face.
"Don't get too close," said Xena.
"Don't get too close. Give him some reason not to want to eat you right away.Try to find out how many human guards there are," said Xena.
"Human guards?" puzzled Gabrielle, "What other kind of guards are there?"
"Better tell her, Xena," said Darinius.
"Minotaurs, Gabrielle," said Xena.
"Holy Demeter! Oh, sorry," whispered Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, try to find out as much as you can but don't ask any direct questions. He might get suspicious," said Darinius.
"Right, um-well, here I go," said Gabrielle.
Just before Gabrielle stepped out from the cover of the trees and into the middle of the road, Xena gave her arm an extra squeeze.
"Remember, we are right here," she reminded her.
"I know. See you soon. Better hold this," grinned Gabrielle, handing Xena her staff, " I might scare him."
"Be careful Gabrielle," said Iolaus.
Autolycus eased over to where Darinius was watching the girl making her way to the bridge. "That thing's not going to let her come back down here, you know," he whispered.
"Doesn't matter," said Darinius. "At the first indication of something going awry I am going to drop him."
Gabrielle was now within thirty paces of the bridge keeper.
"Darinius, nobody said anything about minotaurs," said Autolycus.
"That cess pool is starting to look pretty good to you right about now, isn't it?" grinned Darinius.
"Well, it did have it's charms now that I think about it," replied Autolycus.
Darinius eased up to where Xena stood intently gazing at Gabrielle.
"I still don't like this," she said, gritting her teeth.
"Me either, but we do need to know what we are facing," said Darinius.
"Ah, hello there."
"Who are you?" roared the cyclops. He was definitely much bigger than the other one Gabrielle had seen.
"My name is Gabrielle and, ah, I'm kind of lost. Could you help me please?"
"Lost? You surely are lost. No one comes to this place."
Stupid girl, he thought. Well, the stupid ones taste just good as all the rest.
"Well, um, you see the mast on our ship broke and we had to land here to try to replace it," said Gabrielle. "I was sent out to try to find fresh water and, like I said, I got lost."
"Now that's just too bad," scowled the cyclops. His huge eye looked past the small morsel before him in greedy anticipation of more. "Tell me, how many more of you are there?"
He had not eaten a whole human in a long time and he was sooo hungry. What few deer he could trap and the scraps they brought him from the castle were never enough.
"Oh, about twenty," answered Gabrielle. That ought to get his attention, she thought. "Tell me, doesn't it get lonely here? I mean, it must be really hard on you not to have anyone to talk to. I know it would be for me because I really like to talk."
"I can see that."
Iolaus sidled up to where Xena and Darinius were bent down, watching. "You know, Xena, she really has changed," he said.
"How so?' she asked.
"Look at her. It took a lot of guts just to walk up to that thing like that. Some of you must have rubbed off on her."
"That's where you're wrong, Iolaus," said Xena. You are confusing confidence with courage. When you two first met she might not have had as much self assurance as she does now but she has always been very brave."
The monster returned its gaze to Gabrielle. "I get enough company to suit me. More that enough."
"Really. I have not seen any signs of habitation around here. Where do they live?" asked Gabrielle innocently.
"In the castle beyond those hills."
"Hmmm. Do you think I could talk them into helping us?" There are only four or five sailors on our ship and I heard them say that if only they had about ten good men to help them they could put the mast up in no time at all. Do you think there are ten good men over there? We could pay them to help us. Here look. Gabrielle reached into her shoulder bag and produced some of the dinars Darinius had given her.
"How do I know they're real?" asked the cyclops.
"Here, see for yourself," said Gabrielle. She began to slowly approach the monster displaying the coins in her outstretched hand.
"What is she doing?" Xena whispered. It was plain to see she was alarmed.
"I don't know," replied Darinius. "I can't hear a thing for those rapids."
"She's too close," said Xena.
"Listen, this could get out of hand real fast," said Darinius. "Iolaus, if he tries to grab Gabrielle I want you to jump out in the middle of the road and do your best to distract him."
"Xena, can you hit him from here with your chakram?" asked Darinius.
"Yeah," she replied, "but I need to close the range some to do real damage to him."
"Okay, but if you charge him be sure to keep to the right side of the road," said Darinius. "I want a clear shot at his right side."
Xena nodded at his bow and asked, "You are not going to aim for his eye?"
"No, he might still be able to flail around and hurt Gabrielle" said Darinius. "I want him to drop straight down if at all possible."
"They look real enough." A cyclops did not normally have much use for money but maybe the humans in the castle would give him more food for them.
"Well, are there ten good men over there who can help us?" ask Gabrielle impatiently.
"Oh, there's twice that, little girl," said the monster. "I don't know if they will want to help you, though. "Aren't there any men sailing with you to help the sailors?"
"Well no, just women and children," said Gabrielle.
Sefticles, for that was the monster's name, could not believe his good fortune. Women and children! They were so much tastier than men. So much more tender.
"If they won't help us," persisted Gabrielle, " is there anyone else around who can?"
"There's others. There's others," said Sefticles. "But your dinars would not interest them. Those blasted minotaurs are not going to get their stinking hands on these prizes. Not if he cast his dice right, he thought.
"What's this world coming to when helpless women and children can't hire assistance?" wailed Gabrielle, wiping away a tear. Oh, Gabrielle, you are soooo good, she thought. "These 'others' you spoke of what are they, centaurs?"
"You got the 'taurs part right," smirked Sefticles.
This imbecile thinks he is being clever, thought Gabrielle. "Well if they won't take our money we have other -uh, assets."
"Assets?' What do you mean?" asked Sefticles.
Gabrielle hit him with her best seductive smile and said, "C' mon, you know."
"I see." If this stupid little harlot is not going to ask me I'll have to bring it up myself, raged the monster silently. "Little one, I can help you if you lead the way," he offered.
"I told you I am lost," said Gabrielle. "And besides, I don't think you are strong enough to help us all by yourself."
"Why you insolent harlot, I am stronger than all of them combined," roared Sefticles.
Xena did not like this at all. It was clear the cyclops was becoming agitated.
Gabrielle, why do you always have to try to prove yourself to me?, she wondered. That's what this is really all about isn't it?
Darinius, too, felt the situation was becoming dangerous. He pulled the bow off his back and removed the arrows attached to it. He selected three with the biggest warhead and aligned them on the bowstring. I haven't used this in a while, he remembered. For Gabrielle's sake I hope the bowstring is still strong. I must remember to check it more often. He brought his bow, half drawn, to the ready position and waited.
Faced with the possibilty of a long walk, Sefticles began to have second thoughts, There may not even be any others. Maybe the wench is lying. Or maybe- Hercules!
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to insult you," said Gabrielle smoothly. "It's just that I am really anxious to find help for my friends."
"YOU'RE NOT LOST!, screamed Sefticles. You have come to rescue Hercules! Where are the others? TELL ME!
"There isn't anyone else here. I told you I am lost," answered Gabrielle. She began to slowly back away.
"You lying little harlot," swore Sefticles. "You are trying to trick me! Well, you'll pay!"
With surprising speed the monster lashed out at Gabrielle. Realizing the danger, she managed to elude enough of the blow to just be grazed by it. Still, it was enough to render her unconscious.
"And now, my tasty little morsel." Sefticles was already drooling in greedy anticipation as he picked Gabrielle up by the back of her neck, her legs dangling like limp rags under her.
"Hey, you fat bastard! screamed Iolaus. "Why don't you pick on someone your own size!"
Brought out of his reverie by Iolaus' challange, Sefticles lone eye began to register more movement than it could keep up with. To his right the little man who had screamed at him had picked up a large stick and was running toward him. To his left a powerfully built woman was also advancing quickly. Straight ahead still another man was stepping out of the treeline. Confused by the flurry of activity before him, Sefticles was indecisive about what to do.
The humans, however, were not. Seizing her chakram, Xena unleashed the destructive power of this unique weapon. As she finished her follow- through, Xena heard Darinius' arrows ripping past her on the way to their target. The chakram tore into the back of the monster's left hand, burrowing itself almost two thirds of the way in. As he released Gabrielle, the three arrows found their mark. Their pattern had ran true. One struck the monster in the kneecap and shattered it, another dug itself deep into his thigh, and the last one bored into his hip.
Roaring in agony, the cyclops collapsed. As Darinius had hoped, the arrows had the desired effect of forcing the monster to fall on his right side and expose his juglular vein.
While Xena rushed to her beloved, Darinius cast aside his bow, pulled his sword, and with a purposeful stride, advanced toward Sefticles. Drawing even with the monster, Darinius saw the sword was unnecessary. The cyclops had crashed his head into one of the bridge abutments while falling and was dead.
"Gabrielle. Gabrielle!" Xena had already gathered her up in her arms and was apalled at the results of Sefticles' blow to her head. The whole left side of Gabrielle's face was swelling and she was bleeding from her left ear. Autolycus tore off a piece of his shirt off and soaked it with the water from Gabrielle's bag.
"Here, Xena, use this," he offered.
By now Darinius and Iolaus had joined them.
"Is she going to be all right?" asked Iolaus. He had long felt that Gabrielle shared a part of his soul and the sight of this lovely young woman lying limp as a rag in Xena's arms was almost too much to bear.
"Her pulse and breathing are good," answered Xena, carefully wiping Gabrielle's face with the rag. "I'm worried about that ear, though."
For a few anxious moments the rest of them help their collective breaths while Xena worked to revive Gabrielle. "C' mon Gabrielle, you have been hurt worse than this." She gently slapped Gabrielle on the cheek. "C' mon wake up."
"Ohhhhhh." Slowly Gabrielle's eyes began to flutter and then open.
"Gabrielle, it's me, Xena. Talk to me.
Gabrielle could only see the misty outlines of those standing above her.
"My head. Oww. Can't see. Xena?"
"I'm right here, Gabrielle. You're going to be all right."
"Twenty guards. Don't know about- about..."
"Don't worry about that now," said Xena. She took the water flask from Autolycus and held it up to Gabrielle's lips. "Here, drink this."
Gabrielle managed to drink some water but then became choked and most of what she had swallowed came streaming back out of her nose.
"I can't see a thing," coughed Gabrielle. The left side of her face felt like a millstone was hanging from it. And that ringing in her ear! Gabrielle felt like her head was going to explode.
"It's going to take a little time for her to pull herself together," said Xena.
"Why don't Iolaus and I use the time to scout up ahead?" asked Darinius.
"NO!" Xena answered forcefully. "Enough of that. We either all go or nobody goes. We will find Hercules together." Darinius saw she really meant business.
"Okay," he said. "We'll all wait together." Darinius walked back down the road to fetch his bow. He knew Xena was not really angry at him. It was just that she had to vent her anger on something and she had chosen him. She jumped me because she knows I can take it, he thought. The others might not hold up so well against those raging blue eyes. Even now she is always thinking.
"A castle...a castle beyond those hills," moaned Gabrielle.
"Shhhh. Don't worry about that now. Just lie here and rest."
Gabrielle's left eye was now almost completely swollen shut. Xena was relieved to see her ear had, for the most part, stopped bleeding.
"I'm here, Gabrielle."
"Xena, you know I don't ask much from you but I- I want you to do something for me... please?"
It was true, thought Xena. It was always I lead, she follows.
"Name it, Gabrielle."
"Don't fight with Darinius any more. He's a good man. He was just thinking of us."
"I know," said Xena.
Darinius had returned to the group in time to hear this exchange.
"I- I like him," continued Gabrielle. "He is so much like you."
Not since his beloved Lycidia had crossed over the river had anyone said that about him. Sure, he had received much praise and adulation for his exploits but is was as nothing compared to what this young woman with the battered face had spoken of from her heart. For the first time since learning of Lycidia's fate so long ago, Darinius felt the tears well up.
"It would be a tragedy if two people so noble and brave could not be friends," said Gabrielle.
"Don't worry, Gabrielle," soothed Xena. She fixed her gaze on Darinius and continued, "We are friends."
Darinus gave Xena a half smile and a barely perceptible nod to signal his assent.
"I'm so lucky to have such friends- all of you. I mean people who-"
"That's enough Gabrielle," said Xena gently. "Don't talk anymore. Try to rest." Even in pain the girl loved to talk.
"Am I going to die?"
"No, Gabrielle, you are not going to die. You just feel like you are," replied Xena.
Darinius and Autolycus walked over to the edge of the bridge and began to look over the cyclops.
"He's certainly a big one," observed Autolycus.
"Bigger that most of his kind," agreed Darinius. They continued to stare at the huge form for some time before Darinius spoke again, "I believe they day will come when all these creatures will cease to exist. Centaurs, minotaurs, cyclops, dragons, all of them. Humans will eventually crowd them out."
"Well it won't be too soon for me," said Autolycus.
"I guess you are right," said Darinius. "Still, it will be sad in a way."
A half an hour later found Gabrielle sitting upright and somewhat returning to her old self. Supported by Xena's strong arm on one side and by Iolaus on the other she managed to stand although her legs were still a bit rubbery.
"Bend your head down, Gabrielle," said Xena. She placed the fingers of both hands on the back of Gabrielle's neck and began to probe for the proper spot. Upon finding it she gently but firmly applied the right amount of pressure. For a split second Gabrielle thought she was going to die. Soon, however, the pounding in her head eased considerably and the ringing in her ear stopped completely.
I can handle this, she thought.
"Better?" asked Xena.
"Yes, thank you," sighed Gabrielle loudly.
"Why did you wait until now to do- whatever it is you did?" asked Autolycus.
"I had to be sure she was coherent before I could do anything," said Xena. Gabrielle, I don't want to seem unfeeling, but..."
"I know, we have to go," Gabrielle cut her off. "I'm all right, really."
"Darinius, we're ready," announced Xena.
"Okay, let's move out the same as before except Autolycus, you walk with Gabrielle and keep an eye on her.
They formed up their column and started over the bridge. For what seemed to be very ancient construction the bridge was in remarkably good condition. The little group quickly crossed over the river and started up the long slope on the other side.
Their progression up the road was not unobserved.
"Senta, you have intruders."
"Most revered Hera, who would dare to desecrate ground which has been pledged to you?" asked Senta.
"It is the murdering harlot Xena and that blood thirsty slaughterer, Darinius."
"But why are they here?"
"They have come to take your love, Hercules, from you," hissed Hera.
"They have already murdered Sefticles."
"By your most powerful name," vowed Senta, "I will punish these evil meddlers. Thaddeus! Thaddeus!"
The captain of her guards burst into her chamber.
"What is it, my princess?" he asked. "Are you in danger?"
"Yes, Thaddeus, I am. The island has been invaded. They are approaching on the west road. Already Sefticles is dead. Seek them out and destroy them," ordered Senta.
"Mighty Hera, I will crush these vermin," said Senta.
"You should have sent the others as well," said Hera.
"Most feared one they are almost blind in daylight. It is better if they remain here and guard Hercules," said Senta.
"Very well, but be warned these murderers are very formidable."
"Thaddeus and his men will not fail me," Senta assured her.
We have company. Xena's uncanny ability to sense danger had rung the alarm bell inside her head. She was about to warn the others when Iolaus suddenly stopped. He stared up the road for a moment and eased his way back to the others.
"There is some movement up there," he said. "It might mean trouble."
"Do you think it's our welcoming committee?" asked Darinius.
Xena nodded her confirmation.
"Then let's not disappoint them," said Iolaus.
Thaddeus and his men were now in sight and beginning to advance.
"Looks to be about twenty of them," noted Xena.
"Told ya," said Gabrielle.
With a professional's eye Darinius studied the oncoming men. "A bunch of clods," he allowed. "They don' t know anything about deployment and half of them don't even have the proper weapons. Those short swords are not made for fighting out in the open like this."
"Maybe they think they don't have to be so careful," said Autolycus, "After all, they do have us outnumbered."
Darinius caught Xena's eye and with a sly grin said, "I have been outnumbered all my life."
Xena arched her eyebrow in mock anger and replied, "If you ask me, I'd say we have them outnumbered."
The guards were now within fifty paces.
"Here, Iolaus, take my sword," said Darinius. "I'll 'requisition' one from one of those guys. Xena? What do you think?"
"We need to take down as many as possible before they close on us," she said. " How many arrows do you have left?"
"See how bunched they are? I figure I can hit three or four with the chakram," allowed Xena. They are not going to do anything fancy. They are just going to mass up and charge us."
Continued - Part 4 (Conclusion)
The Bard's Corner