Continued from Winter: Part 1
The Last Competition
"How much farther is it now, Xena?" I asked. I was hoping she had not noticed how excited I was. But of course she had.
"Oh, about a league or so," came the reply.
"But that's what you said the last time," I told her.
"Weeeell, that could be because it hasn't been more than ten minutes since the last time you asked me that question," she retorted.
"Oh." Gee, could that possibly be right? I wondered. It had sure seemed a lot longer than that to me. After our little adventure with Salmoneus was done Xena had been true to her word and here we were now closing in on one of the great cities of Greece. I must say my sense of anticipation had been growing exponentially over the last seven days or so we had spent in transit to Thebes. We had arrived just in time for the twentieth annual Winter's Bard Competition was to begin the very next day.
Although my main concern centered around just what my entry in the competition would be, I also had to worry about just how this tale would be presented. You see, the judges took into account the bard's style and ease of delivery as well as content. Indeed many of the more experienced bards will tell you that the delivery is at least as important as the actual story.
As we strolled along with our horses in tow my thoughts returned to this problem. Just which one should I tell? One of the rules of the competition was that the bard's entry had to be original so "Latona and the Rustics" was out. Naturally for me this meant only one thing--a Xena story. But which one? Great Cadmus, there were so many! But after much deliberation I had finally pared it down to two, one which I called "The Rescue of Prometheus" and another I had dubbed "The Cage of Elysis." Both were essentially rescue stories which happened to involve our good friends Hercules and Iolaus. Both of these stories were favorites of mine but by now I was rather leaning toward "Prometheus." I had even ran it by Xena and she too thought "Prometheus" was the better story. When I asked her why she had told me she thought my rendition of "The Cage" was a little bit stiff and you know what, she was absolutely right. I had known there was something not quite right with it and it had fallen to my warrior to point out what it was. It was another example of how just remarkable Xena was. It seemed there was nothing she was not knowledgeable about. That, of course, had clinched it--"Prometheus" it would be.
Toward evening we topped a little rise and there, sprawled out below us in the lengthening shadows, was Thebes.
I stood up on my tiptoes and kissed her lightly on the cheek. "Thanks."
"For what?" she asked.
"For this," I replied, sweeping my arm toward Thebes. "I know we were supposed to have been in Tanagra right now."
Xena wrapped her strong right arm around my waist and gently squeezed. "Screw Tanagra," she grinned, "our business there can wait. I know this is important to you, Gabrielle, so that makes it important to me too. I'm only sorry you haven't had an opportunity to do this before."
I laid my head to her breast and gently nuzzled her. "Oh, Xena, I love you."
As she was wont to do when we were this close she laid her chin on the top of my head. She then stroked my arm and tenderly whispered, "I love you so much, Gabrielle." With her arm still around my waist she lifted me up off the ground and gently jostled me. "Come on," she said, setting me down. "We only have a couple of hours of daylight left."
An hour later found us standing looking up at the eagle painted above the commanding archway that lead into the courtyard of the huge estate of that great patron of the arts, Eteocles, king of Thebes. We passed under the arch and into the crowded courtyard. This event was obviously something close to King Eteocles' heart for the place was decked out all over in colorful bunting and streamers and even a large banner welcoming the participants. As we made our way through the courtyard Xena eyed the surroundings with her usual exact attention to detail.
"Isn't this something?" I asked.
"It's some spread all right," she said. "So uh, who do you see about entering this thing?"
"I dunno," I said. "I guess maybe we ought to ask someone huh?"
I saw two men approaching who were deep in conversation. "Excuse me," I said to the one nearest me. "Can you--" They did not even look sideways at me but just kept right on walking. "Hmm, that's funny," I said with a shrug.
It was then I spotted two soldiers checking out the apples at a fruit stand. "Those guys ought to know," I said. I walked over to where they were. "Ahh, sir, I was wondering if you could tell me--"
One of them looked at me like I had three heads and snarled, "Go away, wench, ya bother me."
Well! What's with these people? I wondered.
"Find out anything?" Xena asked upon my return.
Xena said nothing but I saw her narrow her eyelids to mere slits as she intently eyed the two men. It was then these same two guys came toward us. Xena put her hand on my shoulder and said, "Tell you what. Let me try." When they were near enough she shot her arm out and seized one of them by the throat. Spreading her legs for balance, she grunted and lifted the soldier completely up off the ground. His buddy tried to intervene but one good backfist to the nose from Xena convinced him this was a private conversation.
"Now listen," Xena said in that low, throaty, and very menacing voice she used so effectively. "I gotta tell you, I really, really don't like it when slugs like you are rude to my friend, ya know? Now normally I'd be tempted to crack your heads open like an egg but you still might be able to convince me not to do that."
"Howww?" the man gasped.
"Tell my friend here how she goes about registering for the bard competition."
"Aggg. Aggg." The poor fellow feebly pointed to Xena's hand.
"Oh I'm sorry," Xena said sweetly. She released her grip and the man tumbled to his knees.
The fellow coughed and gagged for a few seconds until Xena knelt down beside him and said, "She's waaaiting."
"You...you go to the end of the...street," he wheezed. "Take the stairs on the left. There's a...sign. You can't miss it."
Xena smiled and patted him on the back. "Why thank you," she purred. "It's always nice to meet such helpful people. She stood up and said, "Come along, Gabrielle." As she serenely led the way the crowd that had gathered round respectfully parted to make room for us.
"Did you have to do that?" I asked.
She smiled that little half-smile of hers and replied, "You found out what you wanted to know, didn't you?"
"Yeah." I shook my head once and said, "Well at least you didn't put the pinch on him." When we reached the end of the courtyard we saw three large sets of steps leading into the palace.
"He said take the left set," Xena informed me. "Look for a sign. He said you can't miss it."
"Aren't you coming?" I asked.
"Nahh. You go on up and register and I'll see about putting the horses up, okay?"
I nodded my assent and started up the steps.
"Gabrielle," she called out. When I turned back she said, "I'll meet you right back here in half an hour. I nodded again and resumed my ascent.
Although I did not always approve of Xena's methods, I had to admit there were times when it was so very helpful to have someone so adept at cutting through all the bullshit we had to deal with. I reached the top of the steps and, sure enough, there was a sign that read, "Register For Bard Competition Here." Under this was an arrow pointing to a room off the hallway that extended off the steps. I began walking toward the room and as I neared I began to acquire a pretty good case of cold feet. "Are you sure you want to do this?" a little voice was asking me.
I reached the door and there I stopped. I reached out to knock on the door and just before my knuckles hit the wood the little voice said, "Do you really think you are as good as all those others?"
"I don't know" I whispered under my breath. "But I've got to find out."
"Come in!" a gruff voice beyond the door ordered.
I cracked open the squeaky door and stuck my head in. "Umm, my name is Gabrielle," I said. "And I've come to--"
"Register for the competition," said the man, cutting me off. He was a stout fellow with a balding head and a trim salt and pepper beard. He was very dignified looking and I could tell he took his job very seriously.
"Yes. Yes, that's right," I answered.
"Of course I'm right," he said. "Why else would you be here?" He pulled out a large sheet of parchment and dipped his quill in the inkwell. "Name?"
"Place of birth?"
"Name of story?"
"The Rescue of Prometheus."
The guy sort of rolled his eyes as to say "oh brother." As he was writing I stood up on my tiptoes to get a look at the parchment. He was entering my name well down toward the bottom of the sheet. My best guess was there were at least seventy-five names above mine. When he finished writing he laid the big surprise on me. "That will be fifty dinars please."
"Huh?" No one had said anything about this.
"Everybody pays a fifty dinar entry fee," he explained. "We then pool this money and the winner gets half the pot."
"Oh yeah?" This was getting better all the time.
"Yeah. Last year the winner received almost two thousand dinars," he said.
Wow! Nobody had said anything about that either. Boy, the things I could do with two thousand dinars! "I, I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't know."
However there was one small problem. "Just a minute," I said. I took my bag off my shoulder and began digging through it. As for actual cash money, Xena and I never had very much. From time to time I managed to pick up a few coins spinning yarns and every once in a while Xena would relent and accept monetary remuneration from some wealthy individual for whatever good deed she happened to have performed. While this might not fit one's idea of the noble, disinterested-in-money hero, well--as the philosopher once said, "life's a bitch." Even heroes (and sidekicks for that matter.) need new boots, the occasional bridle mended or just a decent meal in an inn sometimes.
Sometimes, when things were really tight, Xena would disappear for a couple of days and then come back with a couple of hundred dinars or so. A sum like this was enough to fill our simple needs for quite a long time. At first I would ask her about where she had gotten the money but all I ever got for my efforts was a vague, evasive answer. I don't think for a minute she ever did anything illegal to obtain this loot--she didn't have to. As she often said, she had many skills. I finally came to the conclusion it was gambling winnings. In all the years I knew her I never saw her lose at one of these so-called "games of chance." Cards, dice, war table, roulette...you name it, she never lost. It was uncanny.
I dug into every nook and cranny of my bag and came out with a handful of coins. "Well, let's see..." I laid down two rials and a piaster on the table.
"Sorry, miss," said the man, "we can only accept dinars."
Uhh boy. "Okaaay," I said aloud. I sorted through the coins and began separating the dinars. I counted them out ten at a time and stacked them on the table. Soon I had four stacks and six, seven, eight...nine...ten! "There you are," I said smugly as I set the fifth stack on the table, "fifty dinars."
"Verrrry good," the man retorted. He raked the money into a bag and then turned the parchment around facing me. "Can you write your name?" he asked.
"Hmph," I snorted, "of course I can write my name."
He pointed to a blank space beside my place of birth and said, "Then sign it there."
When I finished he rolled the parchment back up and stuck it under the table. "Okay, Gabrielle of Poteidaia, you are duly registered. Now the competition begins tomorrow morning in the Great Hall of the palace but, because of the large number of entrants, it will be well nigh noon before your turn comes."
I nodded and replied, "Thank you." I turned to leave and when I got to the door he called out my name. "Yes?" I answered.
For the first time he allowed himself a faint smile and in a gravelly but kind voice he said, "Good luck."
I returned his smile and then retraced my steps through the hall, down the steps, and out in the courtyard. Fifty dinars! My goodness, I thought, what will Xena say? All I had left was four rials, two piasters, a couple of rupees, and one lonely dinar.
Xena had not yet returned when so I sat myself down on the bottom step and waited for her. But unbeknownst to me at the time she had a little encounter of her own. She had put the horses up in the stable and, after talking with stable boy for a few minutes, had then begun to leisurely make her way back to our rendezvous point at the steps. She had not gone far when she noticed a man who seemed out of place among the others milling around the courtyard. A man of about forty years of age was very keenly eyeing everybody who passed by. Of course she recognized right away this man was no local yokel. There was something about him that made Xena think she had seen him before. Studying his face intently for a few moments it came to her.
At first the beard and the fancy robes had thrown her off a bit but soon enough she identified the man as Cletus of Doriscus. Instantly her suspicions were aroused for it seems this particular fellow had a rather unsavory way of turning a dinar. Cletus, you see, was a hired killer, an assassin if you will, and Xena knew well enough he was not in Thebes to judge the bard competition. No, he was here on business. To complicate matters Cletus and Xena were not on what one would call speaking terms and if he spotted her there in the courtyard he would undoubtedly be spooked. Naturally this would have made an already meticulous operator like Cletus even more careful making it more difficult for her to find out what he was up to. Luckily, before he could spot her, Xena was able to duck behind a passing wagon and follow it up the street away from his watchful eyes.
When she met me at the steps I saw the look of concern on her face. "Is something wrong?" I asked, already knowing there probably was.
"We've got a rat in the corn crib," she replied tersely.
"Huh?" Normally Xena was not one much for such abstruseness so her answer threw me back a little.
"It's Cletus," she explained. "He's here." She noted the look of puzzlement on my face and added, "Oh yeah, I forgot. That was before your time."
"So who is he?" I asked eagerly.
"He's an assassin," she replied.
"You mean like Thersites?"
"Right. Only Cletus is about ten times better at plying his trade," said Xena.
I was almost afraid to ask. Had she and this guy been allies at one time; specifically--had Xena herself made use of his particular "talent?" Had they combined to work some terrible scheme on some poor, unsuspecting victim(s)? I had to know.
"From where do you know him?" I asked quietly.
Xena smiled ruefully at me and said, "No, Gabrielle, it's not what you think. In fact, he was once hired to assassinate me."
"I find that a little hard to believe," I said.
"I don't see why," she said. "You don't do what I did without making a whole lot of enemies."
"That's not what I mean and you know it," I told her.
Xena's only reaction was a raised eyebrow. "Oh? Just what do you mean?"
"Well, you say this guy was hired to rub you out right? But obviously he didn't. And knowing how you were in those days it's just that..."
"Go on, Gabrielle," she prodded.
"If you knew about the attempt at the time I don't see how he got away unscathed."
"He didn't," said Xena. "When Borias and I returned from China we were determined to establish our domination as quickly as possible. So we began to move in on these little local warlords. One of the little plums we especially coveted was a region in the valley of the Haliacmon River. It was controlled by a man named Amphereon and naturally he didn't exactly welcome us with open arms. To make a long story short he hired Cletus to eliminate Borias and me. Unfortunately for Cletus, we had spies in Amphereon's camp so we knew all about the plot."
"But if you didn't kill him..."
Xena set her jaw and for a moment returned to those dark days of so long ago. "As Borias liked to say, 'You can't terrorize people if they're dead,' so I first ordered Cletus spread-eagled over hot coals. Then after the skin on his back was nothing but blistered shreds I had him..." Here she paused and looked me squarely in the eye. "...castrated. After that we dumped him front of Amphereon's camp. It wasn't too long after that Amphereon caved in just like all the rest."
I guess it was the way she said it, so dispassionate, as if one were describing what they had for breakfast. "Gods, Xena," I gasped. "How awful."
"Oh yeah," she smiled bitterly, now letting the emotion through. "Some piece of work huh?"
I quickly strove to redirect her focus back to the present. "What do you think he's doing here?"
"What else? He's here to kill somebody," she said.
"Gabrielle, a man doesn't need his balls in order to murder someone," she said matter-of-factly.
"Could it be you he's after?" I asked.
"No. He would have had no idea we were coming here."
"So what do we do?" I asked.
Xena looked at me and said, "The first thing we do is find a place to spend the night."
Obviously I could not delay the inevitable any longer. I had to tell her. "Ahh, Xena? I don't think we have enough...money." She started to speak but I quickly continued, "It cost me fifty dinars to register for the competition."
Xena again flashed that amused little half-smile of hers. "Don't worry about it," she said as she touched my arm.
I fully expected the end result of this would be another night spent sleeping out under the stars. No big deal there. I mean it wasn't like we had never done that before. But then I saw her sniff the air. "It's gonna rain tonight," she said. "Say, Gabrielle, how would you feel about a night in the hay?"
I wrinkled my nose and quizzically looked up at her. "You mean...now?" I asked. Don't get me wrong, having sex with Xena was a subject that was never very far from my mind but right now did not seem like the time.
"Why, Gabrielle," she said, grinning evilly, "such licentiousness." She licked her full lips and explained, "No. What I meant was I think the stable boy would be amenable to us spending the night there."
"Really?" The choice between snuggling into some soft, dry hay instead of flopping on the cold, wet ground was a no brainer as far as I was concerned.
"I don't see why not," my ever resourceful warrior answered. "I think he kind of likes me."
"What a surprise," I snorted. "Xena, show me someone, especially male, that hasn't fallen in love with you."
A downright lecherous leer came across her face and she said, "Now, Gabrielle. You be nice and we might do that other thing people do in the hay."
"Xena, you are positively evil sometimes," I told her. Not that I minded this kind of wickedness, of course.
"I knoooow," she purred.
Once again Xena's instincts had been proven right. The stable boy had no problem with the two of us staying there for the night especially after I plunked down my two remaining piasters into his hand. We had taken a roundabout path there because Xena wanted to make certain we were not espied by Cletus. By the time we had settled with the stable boy it was pretty much dark outside so we took a couple of lit candles and climbed up into the hayloft where we would spend the night. While Xena set about the task of insuring the candles would not be a fire hazard, I spread out our blankets out upon the soft hay.
"Ahhh, this feels soooo good," I sighed as I nestled into my bed. With the coming of darkness the bustling activity of earlier in the day had for the most part subsided. Now only the occasional voice or whinny of a horse could be heard outside. Already the tired stable boy had retired to his little cell off the stable and from the lack of a light in it we judged he had gone straight to bed.
We were alone. I put the palms of my hands up under my head and looked up at the roof of the stable. As she always did Xena unclipped her chakram and placed it within easy reach. She rolled over on her side facing me and propped her head up on her left arm. "Are you nervous about tomorrow?" she asked.
"A little," I admitted. "But not as much as I thought I'd be."
"You're going to be great, Gabrielle," she assured me.
"You know, Xena, winning isn't really that important to me. I, I just want to able to do my best. I just want to see what I can do."
"Doing our very best is all that any of us can hope for," she said.
Xena took the tip of her finger and trailed it along my arm. "So, you wanna tell it to me?"
"Your story I mean. 'The Rescue of Prometheus.'"
Now Xena had heard me tell this thing at least fifty times. Very often she would just roll her eyes and shake her head at me because sometimes I got a liiittle carried away and would make her role in the tale even more crucial than it already was. Tonight, however, she was eager to allay any fears I might have about the next day and if that meant hearing it for the fifty-first time, then so be it.
This was so typical of her. Xena might get irritated with me sometimes and bluster and bitch like a harpy in heat but I always knew she never regarded me or my love of words as inconsequential. That was comforting to know during those times when she was pulling my ear or the like.
"If you'd like," I replied, taking her finger in my hand. She nodded and so I was off, "It was a time of great peril for mortal man. The evil Hera, bitter about Prometheus' love for them..."
"...and so, with the world again safe from Hera for the moment, brave Xena bade farewell to the mighty Hercules, each resuming their own unique path toward an undeniable destiny. A destiny of greatness." I looked at her expectantly and said, "Well, what do you think?"
"It's good," she allowed. "In fact that was your best rendition yet. But Gabrielle--"
Uhh boy, here it comes, I thought. "Yeah?"
"Do you have to make me sound so...heroic?"
"And what's wrong with that?" I demanded. "Xena, you are heroic. And besides, that's what these guys like to hear. You know, hero stuff. Those judges eat this kind of thing up."
Xena tilted her head slightly back in acknowledgment. "Well, you're the expert," she said. Suddenly her smile faded and I felt her hand high up on my inner thigh. In a totally reflex action I drew my knees up and spread them wide apart. Her hand lingered there on my thigh for a time, gently stroking the soft skin. Already the thrilling anticipation over what would follow was building within me. After seven years and countless times making love the touch of her strong hand there was still enough to make my body quiver with excitement. For me it was always such a sense of elation, no...ecstasy, to know this stunning, forceful, magnificent woman--a woman who undoubtedly could have had anyone she wanted--wanted...me. And I wanted her--needed her.
Just before her lips pressed against mine I breathlessly whispered, "Take me, warrior."
"Shut up, wench," she murmured harshly.
That was how it was going to be this time. She was going to play the part of the ruthless oppressor. Looking back now I think, no I know, this was one of the major reasons our relationship never became stale. Starting with the endlessly deep love we had for one another, we built on that solid foundation by ensuring our sex never degenerated into just your basic flat-on-the-back-head-between-the-legs stuff. Xena deserves most of the credit for this. As I stated before she would sometimes be very aggressive, handling me roughly (though not too roughly) and growling orders with that fierce, demanding warlord scowl of hers. If you had ever seen Xena you would understand what I mean when I say it was something of an oddity that the more fierce and menacing she looked, the more beautiful she became. It was true! No wonder all those other warlords, and a certain God of War as well, were so mesmerized by her. At other times she could be incredibly tender and, dare I say the word--submissive?! But whatever her mood she seemed to know every erotic technique in the book and never hesitated using them on the ready and oh so willing girl from Poteidaia. Even now, when I have one foot in the river Styx, I can still evoke those old passions buried deep within me just by remembering those countless nights in her arms.
I thought my whimpering body was going to explode. Once again, as only she ever could,
Xena had sent me plunging headlong into that deep lake of ecstasy. I will not even attempt
to describe to you how it was for puny words could never do justice to those pounding,
pulsating, glorious sensations. Damn! She was sooo good at this. By now we
knew each other so well we rarely had to resort to words to express what we wanted. Xena
had only to part her legs a certain way or position her body just so and I would know
right away if she wanted my tongue, or my finger, or even, I almost blush at saying it,
the handle of her whip. Whatever she desired I was more that ready to give because I did
so want to please her. Sometimes when she came it was as if Mount Ossa had blown its top
off. I remember a couple of times when she even broke our bed down in this inn we happened
to be staying at. Likewise she seemed to just be able to sense what I wanted when I wanted
it. It was as if we were as one; one heart, one mind, one soul. That night, as I lay so
safe and contented in my lover's arms, I dreamed of Prometheus and Hera, of grumpy clerks
and Hercules. And I dreamed of Xena.
Daylight the next morning found me wide awake and eagerly looking forward to the day's big event. As was her custom, Xena had risen well before me and was at the moment peeking out the window that overlooked the courtyard.
Without turning around she said, "Good morning, sleepyhead."
"How did you know I was awake?" I asked, stretching my arms above my head.
"I just knew," she replied.
How did she done that? I wondered. Of course, she must have heard that little groan I gave when I stretched. Boy, she didn't miss a trick. "So how long have you been up?"
"'Bout two hours," came the reply.
"Yeah. I had a couple of things to do before your contest begins," she said.
"Well, like finding out where Cletus is holing up for one," said Xena.
"Did you?" Now that was a dumb question. Of course she had.
"Yep. He's camping just outside of Thebes with a couple of other guys."
"Are they cohorts of his?" I asked.
"They might be but I doubt it," she said.
"Any idea who he is after?"
"Nothing solid," Xena said, "but I have my suspicions." She placed her the palms of her hands to her temples and smoothed her hair back. When her palms reached the back of her neck she tilted her head back and moaned softly.
"Are you all right?" I asked.
"Just a little stiff, that's all," she replied. She left the window and waded through the straw toward me. "Are you hungry?" she asked.
Me? Hungry? Whatever gave her that idea? I was merely a healthy young woman with a body as hard as a rock leading a very active lifestyle. To top it off I had been tossed around in bed like a rag doll the night before by this very amorous lioness of a woman. To put it mildly I was starving! Naturally all I said was, "Yeah, I could eat something."
Now, fifty years later, when an extra biscuit for breakfast means another notch in the belt for me, I look back and marvel at how much that little wisp of a girl could eat. Oh my, Gabrielle, but could you pack it away! We climbed down the ladder and went out into the courtyard. We walked up the street and entering an inn, went over to a table in the corner of the room. Three boiled eggs, two hunks of bread, and a big slab of bacon later, I burped softly and then finished off my apple juice. As I ate Xena sat there watching me with no small amount of amusement.
When I finished she shook her head slowly and said, "Honestly, Gabrielle, I don't see where a skinny thing like you puts it all."
I tapped my temple and said, "Hey! It takes a lot of food to power all the heavy thinking a bard has do to, you know."
"Oh puh-leeze," Xena scoffed.
"It does," I insisted.
As for herself Xena had been satisfied with a couple of the eggs and a mug of that damned old bitter herbal tea she liked so well. Ugh! When we finished I reached for my bag in order to retrieve our few remaining coins but Xena said, "I got it, Gabrielle."
So this was the "other" thing she had been up to that morning. Xena had obtained money from some source. "Where did you get that?" I asked as she untied the bag of coins from her chakram clip.
"Oh, here and there," she replied. She wasn't going to tell me, I could see that. I liked to call this her "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
I decided to let it go. "We've got a few hours to kill before the competition," I said, watching her count out six dinars and lay them on the table. This done, she then tossed the bag to me. I dropped it into my shoulder bag for safe keeping and said, "Maybe by then we can figure out who Cletus is stalking."
"We are going to do no such thing," Xena said matter-of-factly.
"Huh? But Xena--"
She leaned over and poked a long finger against my chest. You are going to spend the morning practicing your story."
"But what about Cletus?" I protested.
"You let me worry about that bastard," she said.
"But I don't need to practice. I want to go with you," I bleated.
And that was that. Her mind was made up. End of conversation. Now I don't want to give the impression that Xena was some kind of control freak because she wasn't. She was not forever ordering me around. It was just that she possessed such confidence in herself and her ability to get things done. Granted, she did have a pretty good stubborn streak in her but in her defense I have to say she usually was open to any alternatives I might offer--especially after we had been together for a few years. I know she trusted my judgment. And she took my advice more than one might think. But not today.
"Oh all right," I snapped at her. "We'll do it your way, again."
"You know, Gabrielle," she said, smiling faintly, "you're beautiful when you're angry."
"Oh yeah?" I shot back. "Well you keep excluding me like this and I'll end up simply gorgeous." What can I say? I was pissed. But then she flashed that killer smile at me and my little snit faded like cheap cloth. "I'm sorry I said that," I said softly.
"Forget it. It's just that I know how much this means to you, Gabrielle, and I don't want to see it spoiled for you," she said.
"I know," I said. "But I just want to help you. You know that. Xena, I'd rather be with you than win a thousand dumb old contests."
Xena studied my face for a moment and then surprisingly said, "I tell ya what. You can come along but you've got to promise me you will work on your story. Deal?"
"Deal," I replied happily, not believing my luck.
"Good." She scooted her chair back and stood up. "Let's get moving," she said.
"Right. And, Xena?"
"We started for the door but then she stopped so suddenly I almost bumped into her. "What is it?" I asked.
"I just had an idea," she said. She walked over to the innkeeper's wife who happened to be sweeping the floor at the time and asked, "Do you have any charcoal?"
The woman looked up at her with puzzlement. "I believe we do," she said.
"Could I have a piece?" Xena asked.
"I guess so," said the woman. She set her broom aside and disappeared into the back.
"What in the world do you want charcoal for?" I asked.
"You'll see," she answered.
When the woman returned with the charcoal Xena picked up one of the serving trays stacked up on the bar. "Can I use this?"
I think the innkeeper's wife was as curious as I was because she quickly nodded her assent. Flipping the tray over, Xena took the charcoal and proceeded to sketch the most lifelike drawing I have ever seen.
"My gods, Xena!" I gasped when she was finished, "that's amazing. I didn't know you could do that."
Without batting an eye she said, "Gabrielle, I have--"
"Many skills," I blurted out, finishing the sentence for her. She certainly did. From the cruel, close-set eyes to the faint hint of a sneer on the lips, the image on the tray was one that seemed to leap out at the viewer from the lightly tinted wood. The poor innkeeper's wife put her hand to her mouth and looked at Xena with leery astonishment.
"Is that Cletus?" I asked.
"Uh huh." She picked up the tray and studied it with a frown. "I can't really do him justice though just working from memory. In actuality he's a much bigger asshole than how is portrayed here."
Once again my warrior had succeeded in astounding me. Was there no end to her talents? I wondered. I had never seen her so much as draw a line before and here she had in a few short moments, with nothing more than charcoal and wood to work with, made a human face come to life. I could only speculate with awe at the wonders she might achieve with paint and canvas.
Xena turned to the still amazed woman and said, "I'll bring this back." The gaping woman nodded feebly and we were off. As we were walking a disturbing thought came to me.
"Xena, aren't you worried that Cletus might see us?" I asked.
"He won't be here until later," she replied.
"How do you know that?"
She smiled mischievously and said, "Because old Cletus never was much of a morning person."
For the next couple of turns of the hourglass we canvassed the area up and down the agora showing Cletus' likeness to merchant and tradesman alike. Per Xena's condition, I dutifully recited "The Rescue of Prometheus" between stops. As we expected, most had not remembered seeing Cletus but we kept at it and we finally learned the carpenter and the wheelwright had indeed seen him. The carpenter recalled seeing him talking to one of the palace guards. The wheelwright told us he thought it most odd that such a seemingly humorless man would be so interested in the bard competition. Apparently Xena did too for when she heard this our investigation ended abruptly.
"What do you make of it?" I asked anxiously.
"It's worse than I thought," she replied. Quickly turning to me, she said, "Gabrielle, I need you to do something for me."
At last! I thought gleefully. A mission! But then, to my utter chagrin, she held up the tray and said, "Would you return this to the inn for me?"
"That's it?" I sputtered. "Take the stupid tray back to the inn?"
"Well we did promise," Xena reminded me.
"You promised," I shot back.
"Now, Gabrielle," she said soothingly, "don't be like that."
"And just what are you going to be doing while I'm gone?" I demanded.
"I'm gonna speak with the carpenter again," she said. She looked up and checked the position of the sun and added, "It really will save us time, Gabrielle."
"Oh all right," I huffed, snatching the tray from her hand. "I'll take the darn tray back."
"Atta girl," she smiled. "And while you are at it you might as well settle up our bill for the room too. I don't think we'll be needing it anymore." With that, she affectionately patted me on the butt. "You run along now and I'll meet you right back here."
I shot her an annoyed glance and then stomped off toward the inn. All the way I kept mumbling my displeasure. "Hmph. What does she think I am? A go-fer?" Mimicking Xena's husky voice, I said, "Take the tray back to the inn for me, Gabrielle. I gotta talk to the carpenter again, Gabrielle. Atta girl, Gabrielle." Sheesh, I thought, seven years now and still she does this to me.
I knew well enough Xena was up to something. While I felt she had not come right out and lied to me she nevertheless had been, shall we say, miserly with the truth? Oh well, I sighed, there's no use being persnickety about this. Xena knows what she's doing.
I hastened back to the inn, did my errands, and returned to the wheelwright's shop. Still, it took me almost half an hour to make the round trip. When I got there I saw Xena, arms folded, casually leaning up against one of the wagons that was waiting to be repaired. Lying at her feet was a well stuffed burlap sack. Upon seeing me approach, she leisurely walked out to meet me.
"You made good time," she said.
"Was the carpenter any help?" I asked, knowing full well she had not gone there.
"Nah." She checked the sun once again before turning to me. "It's gonna be your turn soon. We might as well start for the palace."
I decided it was time to lay my cards on the table. "Xena, I think we ought to forget about the contest and concentrate on foiling Cletus."
"Why, Gabrielle, I think we can do both," she said.
"What do you mean?"
"I now have reason to believe someone at the competition is going to be Cletus' intended victim," she explained.
"Who?" I asked excitedly. I knew she had a handle on all this.
"Eteocles," she said simply.
"The king?" I gasped.
"Yep. None other."
"But, who would want to see the king dead...and why?"
"I think that's plain enough," said Xena. "You see, Gabrielle, it's like this. When Oedipus, the former king, was driven from Thebes it was agreed that his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, would share the kingdom between them and each would reign alternately year by year. Eteolces' year is almost up now and from what I can gather he is none too keen about giving up the throne."
"And you think Polynices has enlisted the services of Cletus to help persuade him?" I asked.
"Maybe, maybe not." Xena said. "Somebody has though. Actually I don't care which one of these guys reigns as king but it ought to be decided fairly and openly, not by the point of an assassin's dagger."
Fifteen minutes later we entered the palace through the north entrance and after negotiating a veritable maze of twists and turns, found ourselves in the Great Hall. Being the hopelessly curious individual I am, I had tried mightily to learn the contents of Xena's bag but to no avail. As we entered I observed dozens of people seated in front of the large stage located at the far end of the hall. A table had been placed upon the stage and seated behind it were five people, all elderly men. These, of course, were the judges and at the moment they were intently listening to the young man standing before them. Upon seeing this fellow up there in front of them judges the butterflies in my stomach returned with a vengeance.
"Uhh boy," I muttered nervously.
Xena slipped her arm around my waist and whispered, "You're going to be great, Gabrielle."
She then walked over to a palace attendant. "Say, is there anyplace a can girl relieve herself around here?" she asked.
"Come on, I'll show you..."
Xena moved to follow him but I caught her by the arm. I knew well enough she did not have to relieve herself. "Xena, what is all this?" I asked.
"No time to explain now," she told me. "Cletus will be here soon."
"What do you want me to do?" I asked hopefully.
She squeezed my arm and said, "I want you to go up there and tell a kick-ass story."
"But--where will you be?"
"I'll be near, Gabrielle, I promise," she said. She winked at me and, bending over, whispered in my ear, "Kill 'em all." Then she and the guard were off--soon disappearing through one of the side doors to the hall.
I sighed in resignation and, after a weak shrug of the shoulders, began to cross the Great Hall.
"Oh there you are," a voice from off to my right whispered urgently. It was the clerk. "I was wondering if you were going to show up." He looked down the list of names on the parchment. "Let's see, it's Gabrielle, isn't it?"
Looking up from the list, he said, " You're just in time. Two of the competitors scheduled just ahead of you dropped out. That means you will be the contestant after next."
I nodded weakly and said, "Thanks."
The clerk smiled sympathetically at me and said, "You nervous?"
"Ohhh yeah," I admitted.
He turned toward the stage and said, "Not to frighten you but I have heard some very good stuff here this morning."
"I'm sure you have," I said. I motioned toward the people sitting in front of the stage. "Are they competitors?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "Because the competition is closed to the public it has become kind of a tradition for each bard to remain in the hall after taking their turn on the stage. It's a courtesy thing."
"I see." At that moment the young man on the stage finished, evoking what I thought to be polite but not particularly enthusiastic applause from his colleagues.
"Well, I gotta go," the clerk said hastily. "I have to announce the next contestant." But before departing he turned to me and again said, "Good luck, Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
"Thanks," I mumbled. What a nice man. I thought. I found a seat on one of the near empty benches in the back and quietly sat down.
The clerk climbed up on the stage and consulted his parchment. "The next entrant is...Antius of Megara."
By the time Antius was half-way through his presentation those darn butterflies in my stomach were running wild. I mean I felt down right ill. "Oh gods," I silently pleaded, "not this. Not now." I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and tilted my head back in the silly hope that it would somehow make me feel better. Alas, poor me, it didn't work. The next thing I knew someone was calling out "Gabrielle of Poteidaia." It was the clerk announcing me. Numbly I stood up and slowly began to make my way up the aisle. I could feel all those dozens of pairs of eyes boring in on me as I passed but I resolutely pressed on, my eyes fixed on the steps leading up to the stage. The last thing I needed was to do something stupid like trip on one of those small steps. Fortunately I was able to make my ascent without incident.
Following Antius' example, I turned and nodded to the grim faced judges before beginning. "Today I will speak of the rescue of Prometheus," I said. And I was off. As you might expect I was quite jittery at the start but, to my great relief and utter delight, I found that the deeper I got into the story, the more relaxed I became. Xena had been right--practice did make perfect.
"...as Xena exited the cave she was met by none other than the great Hercules himself who promptly demanded she hand over the magic sword of Hephaestus which she had just retrieved. When Xena refused the two great heroes clashed briefly and indecisively, each not wishing to harm the other. Xena, thinking quickly, then resolved the standoff by..."
The words were now flowing off my tongue as freely as water over the great falls on the river Nestus. As Xena would say I was on a roll.
"...and so brave Xena, believing with all her heart that it was she who had to cut the chain binding Prometheus thus ensuring her own destruction, struck Hercules in the back of the head with the hilt of her sword..."
I gazed out over the illustrious members of the audience. When I began they had been idly whispering amongst themselves and not really paying attention to the petite woman up on the stage. But they weren't whispering any more. Now I now saw all eyes were locked on me! I must admit it was a very exhilarating feeling. You've got them! I thought giddily. Stay calm, Gabrielle, I chided myself. Remember what Xena always says, "Focus. Focus."
Well I was focused. It was as if my tale were an extension of my soul. I recounted Xena's battle with the Green Egg Men, her thrilling ride on the Stymphalian bird, and how Hercules, while simultaneously fighting the same Green Egg Men, first seized up a large boulder and diverted the earthward bound sword into Prometheus' chain thus severing it, then deftly plucked Xena from the air as she came hurtling down out of the sky.
"...and so, with the world again safe from Hera for the moment, brave Xena bade farewell to the mighty Hercules, each resuming their own unique path toward an undeniable destiny. A destiny of greatness."
When I finished there was no reaction from the audience at all, only silence. For a brief moment panic seized me by the throat. My gods, I wondered, had I screwed up somehow? But then a bearded, solemn-faced man in the front row stood up and slowly began to clap. He was followed by another, then another, and then...
Great Zeus! The entire audience was now up on its feet in thunderous ovation. I must tell you this was one of the great moments of my life. I didn't want it to end. Finally I bowed to the audience and glanced over to the judges. While their faces were as impassive as before, I could see in their eyes they were pleased. The clerk mounted the steps and gave me a very subtle wink. Taking this as my cue to leave the stage, I smiled at him and descended the steps. As I started back down the aisle toward my seat, I was surprised when I felt someone grab me by the arm. I turned and saw those occupying the front row squeezing closer together in order to make room on the bench.
"Please," said the one holding my arm, "sit with us?"
Well! This is as good as it gets, I thought. "Of course," I said, nodding politely.
The clerk checked his parchment. "The next entrant is...Hedra of Vescus."
"Who's that?" I heard those about me whisper. For a few moments no one stirred.
The clerk looked out over the audience, cleared his throat and repeated, "Hedra of Vescus."
"I'm here. I'm here," I heard a voice croak. We all turned to the voice and there, mincing her way up the aisle, was an old woman. Her hair was snow white and the poor thing was forced to walk stooped over, leaning heavily on a crooked staff. Except for her eyes her entire face was covered by a dirty red scarf. Her long, ankle length dress and the shawl draped over her shoulders were extremely soiled and just one step above being rags. The entire crowd gasped at the sight of such a pitiable apparition.
As she laboriously made her way up the aisle, I wondered why in the world she would put herself through such obvious torture. I also thought it odd that a person so apparently poor would be able to cough up the fifty dinars necessary to be here. Then I realized this was extremely hypocritical on my part because just a few minutes before I had been the outsider. Mentally I kicked myself in the butt for taking such a smug attitude.
When the old woman got to the steps she slowly placed one foot up on the bottom one. "I, I can't," I heard her whimper. Immediately I jumped up out of my seat and went to her.
Taking her by the arm, I gently said, "Here, let me help you."
For some reason the old woman would not look at me but when we reached the top of the steps she patted me on the arm and rasped, "Thank you, love. You are most kind."
Just then I happened to glance down at her hand on my wrist but, with surprising speed, she withdrew it back under her shawl. I returned to my seat and watched the old woman as she nodded stiffly to the judges before turning to face us.
Then in a voice barely above a whisper, she began. "The name of my story," she said, "is 'Elias and Selena.'"
"Speak louder!" someone called out from behind me.
The old woman cleared her throat and began again. "The name of my story is 'Elias and Selena.'" She then proceeded to relate the most tender, heart-rending tale I had ever heard. She spoke of a man named Elias who although rich, powerful, and seemingly blessed in every way, was nevertheless very unhappy. It seemed Elias had desperate need of a commodity that cannot be bought or sold or traded on the open market. Elias yearned for love. One day, alone in the black depths of his despair, he wandered into a nearby wood. There he came to the grim conclusion that without someone to love his life was no longer tenable. He took out his dagger and was about to drive into his heart when he heard a beautiful voice begin to sing his name. Puzzled by this, he put away his dagger and scrambled up the small knoll from where the voice seemed to be emanating. When he reached the summit he saw a lovely wood nymph sitting under a birch tree. Immediately he was enraptured by the sight of her. Upon spying him the nymph turned to flee but her long hair became entangled in a thorny bush and so she was trapped.
"Fear not," Elias told her. "For I will not harm thee. Nay, I will render thee assistance."
True to his word, Elias ever so carefully freed her tresses from the thorny bush. When she was free the nymph said, "Thank you, Elias."
The rich man was stunned that the nymph knew who he was. "We have never met. How is it you know me?" he demanded.
"Often have I watched you as you traveled the road from Porthos to Marathon," she said shyly.
"But this explains not how you know my name," he told her.
"One day as you passed by the wood I heard a companion address you as Elias," she explained.
"But...why spy upon me?" Elias asked her gently.
The nymph blushed and whispered, "Because I love thee, Elias."
At first Elias did not know what to make of this. Could it be possible that one so fair should love him? "What is your name?" he asked.
"Selena," she said softly. "Many years now have I prayed to the gods that one day you might come to the wood."
"But why did you flee at the sight of me?" he asked suspiciously.
"I was sore afraid," she said.
"Because I thought you were yet another one of those ruffians that come here hoping to catch me and carry me away from the wood."
Elias could understand why men would be tempted to kidnap her. She was so beautiful. However, because she was a wood nymph, departure from her forest home would mean certain death for her. As he gazed deeply into her soft green eyes he saw an incredible loneliness there. It was as if he was looking in a mirror for many was the time he had seen the same look in his own eyes.
Then and there Elias knew he had found his soul mate. From then on he came to the wood every day. There he would stroll with her down the cool, dark forest paths and she would laugh at the funny stories he told about when he was a sailor. In turn Selena would sing to him and tell him of great deeds done by mighty heroes. No longer were the lonely. Instead each of them saw the other as the answer to their heart's prayer. Over the coming months the bond between them grew so close that by the time the vernal equinox came each of them was thinking of the other with every step, every breath, every beat of the heart.
The old woman's delivery was incredible. By now even the judges were staring at her in open-mouthed wonder. As for myself, I knew I was in the presence of an absolute master. Her timing was exquisite. She made skillful use of very subtle inflections in her raspy voice and her characterizations were so richly drawn I almost felt I knew Elias and Selena personally. It was amazing. I know it is such a trite thing to say that someone made a story come alive but she did. By the gods! She did.
She spoke her next line, "It seemed too good to be true," and then deftly paused for one...two...three counts before slowly uttering, "And then one day..." I swear hers was like the voice of doom itself. Immediately an ominous sense of foreboding settled over all of us. Again she paused for a three count. "As was her custom now when the sun was high over head, Selena was waiting at the very edge of the wood for her beloved Elias to come to her. This had come to be their appointed time and not once had Elias missed it or even been late. Today was no exception. When the nymph saw him approach her heart, as always, leapt with rapturous joy. Then, to her utter horror, she saw two bandits rush out from behind their hiding places in the rocks and attack Elias.
Armed with only a dagger, Elias was no match for the two brutes and their swords. When Selena saw one of them strike Elias down she screamed with rage. Without thinking of the consequences she snatched up a fallen tree limb and rushed out to defend her love. With blind fury she assailed the much surprised bandits and pummeled them with such heavy blows the flung down their weapons and fled in terror. Selena rushed to Elias and sorrowfully saw he was mortally wounded. She took him up in her arms and as the blood gushed forth from the wound in his chest, Elias gasped and with his dying breath whispered, 'Seleeeenaaahhh.'
'I am here, beloved. I am here,' she sobbed. But Elias heard her not for he was no more. Selena cradled her dead lover's head to her chest filled with the knowledge her own fate was sealed as well. She already could feel herself weakening. With her tears raining down upon Elias, Selana slowly bowed her head and caressed his face for one last time. Not one of the tears she shed was for herself. Nay, they were all for her poor Elias.
When the end came for her she was still sitting there with Elias in her lap. After her death mighty Zeus, who prized the wood from whence the nymph came, took pity on the two lovers and turned them into toadstools and placed them in the forest so that they might forever dwell in the cool, dark place they loved so much."
There was not a dry eye in the place. All about me I heard unabashed sobbing and even the judges were discreetly wiping away tears. The clerk now bounded up to the stage and reverently helped the old woman to descend the steps. There was no applause for her, only an air of profound respect and admiration. As had been done with me the people on the bench opposite the aisle parted and offered her a seat. She, however, declined and slowly, laboriously, made her way back to her former place.
I restlessly sat through the last two stories offered up. They were both tired, uninspired versions of old well-known legends and I'm afraid no one paid much heed to them. How could they? When the last tale had been presented the clerk again mounted the stage. "The competition is now closed," he announced.
While the judges consulted with one another on the stage an expectant hush fell over the crowd. Then, from the rear of the hall, we heard a flourish and all eyes turned. On the stage, the clerk boomed out, "All rise for Eteocles, King of Thebes!"
"What's he doing here?" I whispered to the man next to me.
"It's a tradition for the king himself to award the prizes to the winners," the man answered.
I nodded my understanding and watched him stride purposefully toward the stage. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, was a little taller than average, and possessed a face that could best be described as unremarkable. He mounted the steps leading to the stage and walked over to the judges table where a gold-backed chair had been brought out for him. After a few more very tense moments I saw one of the judges write something down on a small piece of parchment and hand it to the clerk. A guard brought out a tray upon which there had been placed three bags of varying size. King Eteocles stood up and he, the clerk, and the guard all moved to the center of the stage. By now one could have heard a pin drop in that cavernous hall. The clerk drew himself up to his full height and then cleared his throat.
Consulting the piece of parchment, he said, "The third place prize goes to...Stennetius of Naupactus!"
To my surprise my benefactor beside me stood up and to generous applause mounted the stage. King Eteocles shook his hand and handed him the smallest of the three bags on the tray. Stennetius remained on the stage and took up a position beside the king.
Again the clerk cleared his throat. Clearly he was loving this. Who could blame him? It was probably his one hour in the sun during an entire year of thankless toil at an otherwise tedious job. "The second place prize goes to...Gabrielle of Poteidaia!"
I am not lying when I say I actually turned to see who this was. It was a couple of seconds before I realized that it was me they meant! Forgetting my embarrassment, I put both hands to my cheeks and gasped, "I don't believe it!"
The rest of it was a blur--the trip up the steps, the applause, the bag of money, and the handshake from the king--I barely remember any of it. My poor brain was simply reeling too much from all the excitement to register much of anything. I do remember Stennetius giving me a big grin and discreetly motioning for me to take my place between him and the king.
What happened next, though, I remember as vividly as if it occurred this morning. The clerk smiled and said, "And now the moment we have all been waiting for." He glanced over to the judges one last time and was met with approving nods. "The winner of the twentieth annual Winter's Bard Competition is...Hedra of Vescus!"
I cannot say I or anyone else present there that day was surprised. Once more, but this time to a rousing standing ovation. The old woman slowly made her way down the aisle and upon the stage. At first the king seemed somewhat taken aback by her mean appearance. With a fixed smile he handed her the largest bag and took her hand. To my complete shock and dismay, I saw her pitch the bag to the floor. As she did I heard a faint, familiar whoosh. In a move quicker the lightning the old woman's free hand shot out up and nimbly plucked something out of the air while the other simultaneously threw the stunned king to the floor.
The old woman pivoted gracefully and right before my eyes seemed to grow taller...and taller...and...
"Xena!" I squalled.
Xena ripped off her wig and with disdain threw down the assassin's arrow she still clutched in her hand. She pointed to a previously unnoticed shadowy figure up in the balcony. "Give it up, Cletus, ya got no chance!" she yelled angrily.
Cletus the Assassin ignored her call to surrender. Instead we saw him start to reload his bow. Xena snatched her chakram from underneath her rags and, with a slight grunt, sent it hurtling toward the figure lurking in the dim light of the balcony. Once again I heard the familiar whine that beautiful but oh so very deadly weapon produced. Up on the balcony we heard a guttural "Arrrrggghhhh!" followed by a muffled thump.
I rushed to Xena's side and took her by the arm. "Xena, are you all right?"
"I'm fine," she said, anxiously looking me over. "You?"
"Mee? I'm good."
By now the flustered King Eteocles had regained his composure somewhat for he had rose to his feet and was fussily straightening his robes. Turning to the shocked audience he said, "It's quite all right, everyone. I am unharmed. There is no reason to panic. Everything is under control." He turned to Xena and said, "I don't know who you are but it seems I owe you my life."
"My name is Xena," the warrioress told him. She gestured to me and said, "This is my friend, Gabrielle."
Eteocles turned his gaze up to the balcony and the guards now swarming all over it. "Who was my assailant?"
"A man named Cletus." Xena told him.
A man who turned out to be the captain of the palace guard approached and saluted his king. "The assassin is dead, your majesty." He turned to Xena and handed her the bloody chakram. "I believe this is yours," he said.
Without batting an eye Xena took the chakram and nonchalantly wiped the blood off on her ragged clothes.
"I want to speak to you further about this matter," Eteocles said. "Please meet me in the throne room in an hour."
Xena nodded and said, "All right. We'll be there."
He extended his arm and said, "Thank you for saving my life." After gripping arms with Xena he wheeled and, now surrounded by guards, exited the hall.
"Sorry about being so secretive, Gabrielle," she said, "but I couldn't take the chance of letting you in on what I was going to do."
"But...why?" Although it was not unusual for Xena her to be tight-lipped about her plans, she almost always let me in on them sooner or later. But not this time. I have to admit I was a little hurt by this.
Xena sensed it and, with a gentle voice said, "Because I did not want you distracted."
"You mean, the competition?" I asked.
"Yeah. I wanted you to be at your absolute best."
That was when the realization of it hit me full force. "But...you won."
Xena smiled at me sympathetically and said, "Actually I had no idea of winning. The best I was hoping for was to do well enough to be brought up on the stage. I knew this was where Cletus was going to make the attempt and I had to be up here on stage when he made his play." Then, in something completely out of character for her, she looked at her feet in a girlish sort of way and said, "You're not...mad, are you?"
"Ohh, Xena, nooo." I said quietly. It was not anger I felt but pride. Pride in my fierce warrioress and her apparently limitless abilities. Was there nothing this great woman could not do? In an odd sort of way I also felt a little sad for her. I mean, here was one of the great--maybe the greatest-- talents of our age and no one knew this nor I suppose would they ever know. This sort of thing was simply not something she was passionate about. These artistic gifts of hers were something she could just do. It seemed a shame no one would ever be able to appreciate her brilliance.
I took her arm in the crook of my elbow. "Xena, that was a lovely story. Where did it come from?"
Xena grinned sheepishly and said, "To tell you the truth, Gabrielle, I just sort of made it up as I went along."
If anyone but her had told me this I would have doubted their sanity but with her all things seemed possible. We watched as Cletus' body was carried down the balcony stairs and out of the hall. "That's why you sent me back to the inn, wasn't it?" I asked, plucking at her rags. "So you could procure a disguise."
"Well I already had the disguise," she confessed. "I'd gotten it earlier that morning and left it back at the stable just in case. What I really wanted to do here was try to warn the king but I had second thoughts when I considered what the carpenter had told us about seeing Cletus talking to one of the guards. I had to factor in the very real possibility that Cletus might be tipped off. So I decided to use my backup plan."
"I had to make sure I was in that hall one way or another so early this morning, while you were still asleep, I walked over to the palace and registered for the contest myself. That was when I realized I needed the disguise because Cletus would have bolted like a rabbit he had seen me here."
"You sneak," I smiled, poking her in the arm. I wrinkled my nose at her. "But, Xena?" I asked, "Where did you get the money?"
"I won it," she replied with an impish grin.
"Weeel, without going into details, let's just say it involves a horse, a rope, and some wax."
Uhh boy. "But I still don't see why you didn't tell me," I said stubbornly.
"Like I told you before, I wanted you to be at your best for the competition," she explained. Xena then flashed that brilliant smile of hers and added, "And I must say you were too. That was some story." She looked at me tenderly and softly said, "I really wanted you to win, Gabrielle."
"Oh but I did win, "I told her with a loving smile. "I got to see a different side of you. A side so incredibly wonderful."
Xena playfully rolled her eyes. "Yeah, right," she said wryly.
"One more thing, why did Cletus wait until the very end before making the attempt on the king's life? It seems to me he could have tried any time after Eteocles mounted the stage."
"An assassin wants to live like everybody else," Xena explained. "He waited until the end because that was the one time when he could be sure everyone's attention would be focused on the stage and thus away from him. Any other time there was a chance a wandering eye might spot him."
"Ohhhh, I see."
Just then the clerk walked up to us. "Congratulations, ladies," he said warmly. He leaned close and with a conspiratorial whisper said, "You two really accomplished something here today...I mean, besides saving the king."
Upon hearing this Xena raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"Yes. You see never before have two females finished one--two in the bard competition."
"Really?" I asked.
"That's right," he said. He bent down and picked up Xena's bag which was still on the floor and handed it to her. "By the way, you'll be happy to hear to there was a record purse this year. First prize is twenty-five hundred dinars, second prize--fifteen hundred."
Holy minotaurs! I thought. We're rich! I should have known better for, you see, Xena would have none of it.
She hefted her bag up and pressed it against the clerk's chest. "I want you to take this money and distribute it among the needy okay?"
The clerk looked at her with an even deeper sense of respect than before and replied, "I would be honored, Hedra, uh...Xena. You may rest assured I will see to it."
Well what was I going to do? Keep mine? Yeah right. Handing him my bag, I said, "Take this one too."
The clerk took the bags and bowed deeply from the waist. "You ladies are rare jewels," he said grandly. "Thank you."
Watching the clerk descend the steps I shook my head and said wistfully, "Well at least we were rich for a little while."
"That are others that need that money a lot more that we do," said Xena.
"Yeah, I know," I sighed.
"Besides," she added, "we already are rich."
Fully understanding her sweet comment, I smiled at her and said, "Here, let me help you out of this nasty thing."
An hour later, as requested, Xena and I were shown to the throne room. There King Eteocles again thanked Xena and offered her a generous reward which, of course, she declined saying if he really wanted to show his appreciation he should do more to help the poor. I think this angered the king somewhat because he made some crack about not wanting to incite civil unrest. I don't know who he thought he was talking to because it was here Xena laid it on the line for him. She bluntly told him this was only the beginning of his troubles if he continued to ignore his promise to alternate rule of Thebes with his brother.
And so, even though he owed his very life to her, the tension between King Eteocles and Xena was as thick as paste by the time he coolly thanked her one more time and subtly indicated our presence was no longer required.
As it turned out the ungrateful bastard should have listened to her because, as usual, Xena was right on the money with her prediction. Indeed Eteocles' brother Polynices had been the hand behind the murder plot and after it failed he fled to Argos where Adrastus, the king, provided him with an army to enforce his claim to the kingdom of Thebes. This led to the celebrated "Seven against Thebes" which provided a mountain of material for the epic poets of Greece. It would not be my place here to recount all the acts of heroism or atrocity that occurred during the resulting siege. I recommend my friend Hershel's "Siege of Thebes" if you want to delve into that tragedy in minute detail.
For our purposes it is enough to say this siege continued long with varying degrees of success and at last it was decided that the only way to settle the quarrel was for the two brothers to engage in single combat. During the subsequent fight both Polynices and Eteocles were felled by the other's hand. With nothing decided the armies renewed the fight and at last the invaders were forced to give way. They retreated, leaving their dead unburied.
Creon, the uncle of the fallen brothers, now became king. He had Eteocles buried with great honor but allowed poor Polynices to lie where he fell. Incredibly, he forbade anyone on the pain of death to bury him.
Antigone, the sister of Polynices, pleaded with Creon to allow her to retrieve the body but he remained unmoved. So she stole out onto the battlefield with the intent of burying Polynices with her own bare hands but alas, she was discovered. Creon, enraged at her disobedience, ordered her buried alive.
This was a tragic affair all the way around. Of course by the time all this occurred Xena and I were long gone from the place. For a long time afterward we debated what was the motive behind Creon's antipathy toward Polynices but in the end it was an exercise in futility. We never did find out. For me personally the final outrage came when Creon decreed that the bard competition be discontinued. It was a senseless act by an ignorant, petty tyrant. Though Xena would never come right out and say so, I think there were times she regretted stopping Cletus. By all accounts Polynices was a good and decent man and he would have undoubtedly been a far more benevolent ruler than Creon. But hindsight, as the philosopher once said, is perfect.
And so this is how it came to pass that Xena, the greatest bard no one ever heard of, my Warrior Princess, won the very last of the great Winter's Bard Competitions held in Thebes. Even today, fifty years later, it makes me smile to think of it.
Thespus and Horatio
During my travels with Xena I met many individuals that could only be described as unique. Their station in life may have ran the gamut from king to clown but each one of them possessed a rare set of qualities that served to set them apart from everyone else. Now, the qualities I refer to here are not the ones you might be thinking of like courage or honesty. No, what I am talking about are those things often seen by others as "strange." When she was in a generous mood Xena would often refer to these types as "characters." In blacker moods they were "idiots,"--or something worse.
Whatever they were called they all seemed to look at life from a slightly different angle than the rest of us did. From royals to rascals, gods to geeks, they were just different. And of all the people I have met in my lifetime none were more "different" than a couple of guys by the name of Thespus and Horatio.
The first time I ever laid eyes on them was on a muddy, rain swept road a couple of leagues outside Tanagra. Xena and I were supposed to have been here ten days before but that was before my warrior had surprisingly rerouted our trip through Thebes so that I might participate in what turned out to be a very memorable bard competition. With that adventure now behind us were riding along the sloppy road ignoring the inclement weather in an effort to reach Tanagra before the road was washed out altogether. It was early morning and in some of the low places in the road a light fog was still lingering on. We had just passed through one of those misty banks when Xena pulled her horse to a stop.
"What is it?" I asked. Reading the look on her face I could only assume one thing--trouble
"Somebody's fighting," she answered, her hand to her ear. "Up ahead." Digging her heels into her horse's flanks she yelled, "C'mon!" The big stallion bolted off down the road and by the time I had my little chestnut mare up to speed they were long gone.
The remarkable Argo had been dead for almost a year now and still sometimes found myself missing the way her tail streamed in the wind whenever she and her mistress raced along. I for one cried my heart out at her death and even the stoic Xena had not been able to keep the tears from welling up in her eyes. At the time a I knew her heart was breaking for she and that beautiful animal were almost as one. For a long time Argo had been the only one she trusted--her only true friend. While many times I had seen the horse risk her own life for her mistress the cause of her untimely death had been purely an accident.
We had been encamped just north of Aechea when during the night a great storm blew up. It came up so quickly even Xena was caught by surprise and hit with such power the we were forced to take any type of shelter we could find. It was bad luck that we were in a heavily wooded area because when the high winds and lightning hit trees began to fall all over the place. I was frightened out my wits but fortunately for us Xena kept hers and her quick thinking saved us. After using her sword to cut loose the horses' tethers she yanked me up by the scruff of the neck and half-pulled, half-dragged me to a tree already felled by the storm. There she threw me down along side it and then covered me with her own body.
The combined rain and, for a time, hail pounded the trees--and us--with a vengeance. All around us heard the crash of trees and tree limbs as the toppled to the forest floor. I do not exaggerate one iota when I say that this was one of the longest nights of my life. I don't know how long I lay there squeezed between Xena and that tree but towards daybreak the storm finally abated. Aside from looking like drowned rats and a few welts caused by the hail he had emerged largely unscathed. Poor Argo, however, had not been so fortunate. After a prolonged search we found her pinned under a huge beech tree. She was still alive but only barely. There was nothing Xena, for all her powers, could do but sit beside her horse on the rain soaked ground and gently stroke her neck. For once the proud, resourceful warrioress was helpless. When the end came about an hour later Xena buried her head in Argo's long mane. I saw her chest heave and I heard a couple of muffled sobs but that was it. She then scratched Argo's left ear one last time and silently stood up.
As for me I said nothing. What could I say? That I was sorry? Besides, Xena knew how I felt. In my early days with Xena the horse and I had not always been on the best of terms. Mostly we had just tolerated each other. But in our love for Xena we both shared a common bond and after a time became friends. Now she was gone. It did not seem fair somehow. She had fearlessly borne her mistress into countless battles and to die like this, under a tree of all places...
It was as if we had lost one of our family. Indeed we had lost one of our family. This was driven home by what Xena did next. She went to the nearest village and hired several men and a wagon. She led them back to the wood where they chopped up the tree that had killed her horse and then loaded the horse into the wagon. Xena then selected a spot on a hillside overlooking the River Aous and there she had Argo buried. She even carved out a marker and positioned it among the rocks covering Argo's grave. And you know, as of last year it was still there.
The big Arabian she now rode was bigger and stronger than Argo ever was but in my
humble opinion he was not a tenth the horse Argo had been. This was later borne out
because about a year after this story Xena traded the big horse for another mare, one she
rode for the next twelve years.
By the time I arrived on the scene Xena was already dismounted. In the middle of the road were five men, all unconscious. Xena was talking to two guys each of whom had an arm around that of a third fellow.
"It's all right, Gabrielle," Xena called out over her shoulder upon my arrival.
Joining her and the others I looked down at the men strewn about and said, "Well that certainly didn't take long."
"I didn't do this," said Xena. She nodded toward the men and said, "These two did."
"Those ruffians were attempting to despoil this unfortunate individual's resources," said the short, pudgy one on my left.
"Yeah, and they were trying to rob me too," said the one in the middle.
"Hooligans," snorted the other, much taller man. "They deserved their reprobation."
As for myself I found it a little hard to believe this unlikely looking pair could have done such damage. And they were an unlikely looking couple of guys. One was tall and very dignified looking and the other was short, well about my height anyway, and a little on the pudgy side. Oddly enough they were dressed exactly alike although they would never have been mistaken for soldiers. You see their dress was much ahh, refined in manner--kind of like something you would have seen on Salmoneous.
"Looks like you did a little more than that," Xena observed wryly. She eyed them curiously and asked "Just who are you guys?"
"Ohh, I am such an imbecile," said the taller one. He looked over to the shorter man on the other side and said, "Where are our manners?" Back to Xena he said, "My name is Thespus. The diminutive fellow on my extreme right is Horatio."
Well! I didn't need a philosopher to tell me these two were a couple of odd ducks. I mean, who talked like that?! I casually cast a glance over at Xena to see how she was reacting to these two but she was just standing there with a kind of bemused expression on her face.
"If it's not too presumptuous of me to ask, who might you be?" asked the one known as Horatio.
"My name is Xena," said my friend, "and this is my friend, Gabrielle."
"We are delighted to know the both of you," they both said in unison.
"Hello," I said.
Horatio furrowed his brow and looked up toward the sky. "Xena...Xena, now where have I heard that name?"
"You remember, Horatio," his friend prompted, "Xena was the conqueror of Antioch. She later drove the Mycians back across the Ida Mountains." He looked Xena in the eye and added, "And now she has renounced her nefarious habits and serves as a champion of those oppressed."
"Of course," said Horatio, snapping his finger, "how utterly stupid of me. Yes I should have known who you were by just looking at you. My apologies for being so dense, madam."
Again I stole a glance at Xena out of the corner of my eye. These guys were too weird!
"Who's your friend here?" Xena asked, nodding to the one in the middle.
"Good citizen, what is your appellation?" Thespus asked the man.
"Huh?" the man said, looking warily at him.
"He means what's your name," explained Xena.
Who are these guys? I wondered.
"Oh, uh, it's Gellis. My name is Gellis. I was on my way into town when these guys jumped me. I don't know what would have happened to me if these two had not come along."
"It is not necessary for you to express your gratitude to us, good sir," said Thespus. "We were merely doing our duty."
Gellis again looked at the men oddly for a moment before finally saying, "IIIIIII think I ought to be going now. My wife will be wondering what happened to me."
"Very well, Gellis," said Horatio. "Proceed then posthaste to your spouse. But henceforth I highly recommend that you refrain from traversing this thoroughfare without employing the proper precautions."
Poor Gellis looked somewhat helplessly at Xena obviously hoping for another translation. He got one.
"He said to be more careful from now on when traveling alone on this road," said Xena.
"Oh. Well I will, I surely will," said Gellis gratefully. "Well, good bye now." He backed away from his benefactors and began to edge his way up the road. A short distance away he gave one last half-hearted little wave and then began to walk away at a rather brisk pace.
"A delightful fellow, don't you think, Thespus?" Horatio asked, watching Gellis' figure get smaller and smaller in the distance.
"Most assuredly, Horatio," said Thespus. "You don't suppose he was a foreigner do you?"
"Why do you ask, friend?"
"Well he seemed to be having a bit of trouble with his native language don't you think?"
Who wouldn't the way you two apply it? I thought.
"Ohhhhh." The four of us turned in the direction of the groan and saw one of the would be assailants waking.
"Ahh, one of our adversaries stirs," said Horatio.
Xena walked over to the man and, taking a fistful of his shirt, yanked him to his feet. "Come on," she said, walking him over to us.
"Your friend is very well endowed physically," Thespus said to me. At the time I wasn't quite sure whether he was referring to Xena's strength or her "other" attributes.
Once Xena brought the man to us I could see he was still a bit groggy. However Xena quickly remedied that. A stinging slap to the face and his eyes were wide open and alert.
"A most effective technique," remarked Thespus. "We must remember that, Horatio."
Xena glanced at Thespus out of the corner of her eye and then returned her attention to the thwarted bandit. "I think you outta be looking into another line of work," she said. "'Cause you and these other clods ain't cut out to be robbers."
"You should harken well unto what she says," said Horatio. "It's manifest that you and your cohorts are neither skillful enough nor intelligent enough to make a life of crime profitable."
"Tell your fellow knuckleheads there that if they try this again they won't get off so easily," said Xena. "Because I'll know about it and I'll find you."
"Y-y-yes, ma'am," the guy sputtered, his eyes bulging.
Xena released the man but not before administering a good swift kick to his butt. "Now get out of here," she snarled, "and take your pals with you." With that she began walking toward her horse her step, as it often was, was that peculiarly bouncy one so characteristic of her. Once she had retrieved her horse she led him back to where we were standing. Paying no heed at all to the bandit now desperately trying to rouse his mates, Xena said, "You guys did a nice job here. Keep up the good work."
"Must you go so soon?" Thespus asked.
"Yeah," she replied, "we really ought to be on our way."
I looked around for her horses but saw none. "Are you guys on foot?" I asked.
"Yes," said Horatio. "Both Thespus and I have an aversion to horses."
"Oh. I see. Where are you headed?" I asked.
"Tanagra for the moment," said Thespus.
Leaning close to Xena I murmured, "The least we could do is walk them into town."
She darted me a slight glance of annoyance but did not balk at my suggestion. "All right," she said with sigh. "If that's what you want."
"Thanks," I said, gently nudging her. I must admit my motive here was not purely a hospitable one. I was curious about these two characters and wanted to learn more. It was plain they were well educated--perhaps too much so--and they were no doubt quite adept at taking care of themselves. Still it was apparent to me these two were very much out of place here. They were so stiff, so polite; it was as if they were not accustomed to interacting with ordinary folk. "I'll get my horse," I said.
Upon my return we pushed on toward Tanagra, Xena and I with our horses flanking either side of the two men. For about the first stadion or so little was said so naturally I took it upon myself to initiate the conversation. "So, where are you guys from anyway?" I asked.
"A place you have probably never heard of," replied Horatio.
"Oh? And where might that be?"
"Garnet," answered Horatio.
"That explains it," I heard Xena say.
"Huh?" I asked. "What's that, Xena?"
"I said that explains it," she repeated. She stopped and said, "You two are Troasian Guards, aren't you?"
"You know of our order then," said Thespus, his surprise evident.
"Humph," I snorted, "she knows practically everything.
Xena eyed me in a gently reproachful manner and said, "Not everything, Gabrielle." To Thespus she said, "Yes I do."
"Then maybe you could tell me," I said.
"The Troasian Guards are just that--guards," said Xena. In Garnet there is a temple with priests dedicated to preserving the ancient ways that have handed down through the generations by their ancestors. This temple contains one of a kind manuscripts and priceless artifacts that are sacred to the people there. The Troasian Guards are the sworn protectors of this their most hallowed of places."
"I am impressed," said Thespus. "Very few outside our native land have even heard of our temple. For obvious reasons we do not propagate its existence."
"But where is Garnet?" I asked.
"High up in the Ida Mountains," said Horatio.
"That's how they knew about my war against Lescan," said Xena.
"Yes," said Horatio. "We followed your campaign against the Mycians very closely. And if I may say so your tactics were quite brilliant."
Xena's only response was a slight nod of the head. Right away this put a curious thought into my head but I decided this was not the proper moment to be seeking an answer for it. That would come later when Xena and I were alone. Instead I said, "The Ida Mountains are clear across the Aegean Sea from here. What brings you to Greece?"
Immediately both Thespus and Horatio's faces turned very solemn. "A most arduous task awaits us here," said Thespus.
"Most arduous," echoed Horatio.
"Almost two full moons ago, by means we are still not certain of, the temple was penetrated by person or persons unknown."
"So what did they steal?" Xena asked.
Thespus smiled ruefully and said, "Your assumption that these people practiced thievery is a logical one. However the reason we are so many leagues away from our home is not because of something they stole, rather it is because of what they left behind."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
I had to admit this was a new one on me. In a way though I was relieved to hear of this unusual result of the unwelcome visit to their temple because whenever the topic of temple defilements arose the name "Autolycus" was one very often linked with it. Though personally a great guy and a dear friend he nevertheless had an ahhh, "affinity" for religious--precious religious--objects. One could call it a character flaw I guess. I mean, he wasn't known as "The King of Thieves" for nothing.
"Just what was it they left behind?" inquired Xena.
"An ultimatum," replied Horatio. This is getting stranger and stranger, I thought.
"What do they want?" asked Xena.
"We were told to seek out and obtain something called the Ring of Aeneas and have in it Budea by the commencement of the Festival of Ghan," replied Thespus.
"The Festival of Ghan. That's only about three weeks away if I'm not mistaken," said Xena.
"Three weeks and two days to be exact," said Thespus. "It starts with the next new moon."
"Aeneas? I've heard that name before," I said.
"You should have. Aeneas was the son of Aphrodite and Anchises. He was at the siege of Troy," explained Xena. "When he returned home after the war he was given a beautiful ring by his king to commemorate his years of service. However when Aphrodite, who if you will remember sided with the Trojans in that tragic struggle, heard of this she became enraged and stole the ring. She was then supposed to have hidden the ring away and caused Aeneas to be banished to the western lands."
"Oh yeah," I said, nodding. "I remember now."
"What are they threatening to do if you fail to comply?" asked Xena.
"They said they would return and plunder the temple. All the ancient writings, all the sacred relics would either be destroyed or carried off."
"What makes you think this isn't just some kind of elaborate hoax?" asked Xena.
"We were given a small demonstration of their earnestness," said Horatio. "Because one week later a small, relatively minor manuscript was found to be missing from under our very noses."
"You should have beefed up your security," chided Xena.
"But we did," said Thespus.
"Threefold in fact," Horatio chimed in. "And still someone managed to enter without being detected. I myself was on duty at the time and I must confess it was a most humiliating incident."
"You are not to blame, good Horatio," said Thespus. "Those persons were as phantoms."
Xena stuck her the tip of her tongue against her cheek. "Maybe they weren't 'persons' at all," she said.
"A god maybe?" I asked, trying to be helpful.
"Possibly," she answered. To the two men she said, "I take it from your presence here that you think this ring is around somewhere nearby."
"That is a valid assessment," said Thespus. He cast an involuntary glance over his shoulder and added, "It took some effort on our part but we have gained at least partial knowledge of the location of the object in question."
"One of our agents overheard a warlord's drunken fletcher boasting in a tavern about how his master would soon be gaining possession of the ring," said Horatio. "Naturally our man made the fellow's acquaintance and, after treating him to a goodly number of additional rounds of beer, managed to secure the general location of the ring from him."
"General but not specific," Xena noted.
"Exactly," said Horatio.
"Does this warlord have a name?" Xena asked.
"Brosius," said Horatio. "Our agent said the warlord's name was Brosius."
"Do you know him?" I asked her.
"No," she said.
"Now there's news," I said.
"I told you I didn't know everything," she reminded me.
"Once this intelligence was received several of us were dispatched along various routes by the elders to attempt to retrieve this ring before it could fall into our competitor's hands," said Thespus.
"You mean there are others like you roaming around out here looking for this thing?" I asked.
"That is correct, young lady," replied Horatio. "Besides Thespus and myself there are at least four other two man teams in this general vicinity."
"This Brosius guy, I take it he doesn't know the ring's exact location either," said Xena.
"That was our agent's assessment, yes," replied Thespus.
Xena nodded in approval and said, "Then we still have a chance."
"We?" both Thespus and Horatio asked simultaneously.
My warrior looked at them incredulously and said, "Well you don't think I'm going to stand by and not do anything to help do you?" Call me crazy but for some reason I had already rather figured she would not. She raised an eyebrow and added, "You guys have any problem with that?"
"On the contrary," said a beaming Thespus, "the accompaniment of the famed Warrior Princess and her charming friend will be most acceptable to Horatio and myself."
"Most acceptable," said Horatio.
"I'm glad to hear that," said Xena. "However there is one other thing."
"We'll do this my way," she said.
Now there's a surprise, I thought.
Thespus and Horatio looked at each other for a moment and then nodded in agreement. Thespus then bowed from the waist and said, "It will be as you wish, madam."
"Good," said Xena. "Because I think I know how we can get that ring for you."
"You know where it is then?" Horatio asked excitedly.
"Not exactly," replied Xena. "But I do know someone who might be able to help us find it."
"Who?" I asked.
Xena's eyes widened and she darted me a knowing little grin. "Pulsipher," she said.
"Never heard of him," I allowed. "Who is he?"
"Well he's ahh, I don't know, seer, mystic, prophet, wizard--whatever you want to call him, I guess. He has been of help to me before," she said.
"This Pulsipher, is he close at hand?" asked Thespus.
"Not very far," Xena replied. "About a day from here in fact."
"Then let us proceed to him at once," said Horatio, picking up his bag.
"We can't just yet," said Xena. "Gabrielle and I are expected in Tanagra."
"Rufus is going to be pretty disappointed to find out he's been put off--again," I said.
"He'll get over it," Xena said.
"But what if someone else interviews this Pulsipher person before we have an opportunity to do so?" asked Thespus. "Perhaps Brosius too knows this man could be of assistance and is already en route there."
"We don't have to worry about that," Xena assured him.
"Why?" I asked.
"You'll see," came the reply.
An hour or so later found us about three stadions outside Tanagra. Everything seemed peaceful enough but all of a sudden Xena stopped. I had been witness to this enough to know something was up.
"Trouble?" I asked.
"We've got company," she answered.
No sooner had she spoken when, sure enough, men suddenly began spilling out of the adjoining wood and the road ahead quickly became filled with darkly clad figures. I did a quick count and found there to be no less than fifteen men, all of whom were now slowly advancing toward us.
"What do these gentlemen want?" asked Horatio, cautiously eyeing the approaching mob.
"From the looks of them I'd say everything we've got," Xena replied coolly.
When the men got to within about twenty cubits of us they stopped and the one I assumed to be their leader stepped forward. "Give us your horses and your money and you won't get hurt," he sneered.
"This land is simply full of miscreants," Thespus remarked in exasperation.
"Oooh, the leader snickered, "didja hear that, boys? This here pansy called us miscreants."
"I'm soooo aggrieved," one of his cohorts sniffed.
Here Xena took a step forward. "You must forgive my friend here," she said to the leader after glancing back at Thespus. "You see he's new to our land and has not yet learned that we have plenty of guys like you who are too stupid to be anything so sophisticated as a miscreant." Again she glanced back at Thespus and said, "Nahh, what we've got here, Thespus, is just your basic, ordinary, run-of-the-mill maggots, that's all."
The men's snickering now stopped and, following their leader's cue, they all drew their swords. "You're a funny woman," the leader said to Xena, his snarl revealing his rotten teeth. "Let's see how much you laugh once I'm between your legs."
So this was it then. Yet another in a seemingly endless line of scraps with moronic buffoons who could never quite grasp beforehand the awesome power behind that set of cool blue eyes so intently studying them. There were fifteen of them and four of us. They had muscles and swords and clubs and the advantage of numbers. Our side had a petite young woman with a staff and two unarmed guys who looked incapable of beating an egg much less some crazed man with a sword. And, oh yes--we had Xena. You guys, I thought smugly, don't stand a chance.
"Get 'em!" the leader roared.
"Oh bother," I heard Thespus mutter.
Xena did bother waiting for the men to reach her for in the blink of an eye she had that big sword of hers out and was rushing headlong at her prey. Naturally she made straight for their leader and with a fierce, piercing cry, assailed him. By now the battle was joined. Their leader fared better than most because he managed to parry three of Xena's strokes before her blade found its mark in his side. This was the last I was able to observe of her in action because for the next little bit I had my own skin to worry about.
When I saw them charging I had brought my staff up the ready position and set my feet accordingly. Two men came straight for me with their swords raised high. I waited until they were just about to strike and then sprang forward, my staff held parallel to the ground before me. As I hoped I hit both of them just above the ankles and managed to bring them down. >From here on things became kind of fuzzy. When one is in a fight such as this you really don't have time to think. All one can do is trust their instincts and remember their training. Everything else is just blurs of colors and snippets of sounds. I do remember whacking the two guys with the end of my staff and then pivoting just in time to block a blow from a heavy club. I also vaguely remember out of the corner of my eye seeing Thespus almost spin a guy's head completely around with a marvelous round house kick.
Within a matter of seconds our adversaries number had been reduced to half. Little Horatio had taken up one of the fallen men's swords and was now driving an increasingly desperate opponent ever backward with a series of amazingly rapid thrusts. I looked to my right just then and saw Xena grab two guys by the neck and crack their heads together. From the sound of it I was sure she had broken their skulls.
It's going well, I thought. Suddenly I heard someone, I believe it was Thespus, yell, "Look out, Gabrielle!" My mental lapse had almost cost me my head. Instinctively I dropped to the ground. I heard an ominous whoosh and I felt the breeze of a sword as it sliced through the air no more than a couple fingers width above my head. I rolled over onto my back and saw a huge man holding his sword with both hands high above his head. I pointed my staff straight out before me in an attempt to fend off his attack but it never came. Instead I heard a familiar whine followed by a heavy whang! I saw Xena's chakram ricochet off his helmet, a nearby tree, and back to its owner. Before the slack-jawed man had even hit the ground the deadly weapon was back in Xena's possession. It was too late to nod my thanks to her for immediately both of us had our attention turned elsewhere.
Xena had long ago taught me that, contrary to what you might have read or been told, most swordsmen with any experience do not simply hack and slash away at their opponents' arms and torso. While these are choice targets it is considered much more advantageous to go for the less easily defended legs. The reasoning is simple enough--one can't fight if they can't stand. This was in the back of my mind as I rolled to my feet to meet my next attacker. He did indeed take a long, looping swipe at my legs but as I had anticipated this I was able to easily leap up and avoid him. Landing on my feet I came down upon him hard between his shoulder blades with my trusty staff and drove him to his knees. Before he could arise and before I could finish him off a rock zipped past me and bounced off the guy's ear. Out he went like a snuffed candle. Turning to ascertain just who my benefactor was I saw Thespus dust off his hands and give me a little wave. "Thanks!" I yelled.
By now it was almost over. Oddly enough, the only one of us still fighting was Xena. But not for long. With one last good straight right hand to the jaw her foe, the last one standing, was taken out. "Well," she said, dusting her hands off as she looked about her, "that was fun. Gabrielle, are you all right?"
"Yeah," I answered back. "I'm good."
"Thespus, good friend, are you well?" asked Horatio.
"Quite, thank you," his friend answered. "And you, Horatio?"
"I am unharmed," said Horatio.
The four of us then gathered in the middle of the fallen men. "Xena," said Thespus, "your reputation does not do you justice. You are even more amazing than they say."
"You guys are not so bad yourself," she replied eyeing our new friends with approval.
"Hey, what about me?" I asked.
"You were most helpful, Gabrielle," said Thespus.
"Yes, most," echoed Horatio.
I glanced at Xena and saw her put a hand to her lips in order to stifle a chuckle. Helpful indeed!
"As with those other fellows these ruffians are too ill disciplined to fight effectively," sniffed Horatio. "They really will need to maintain some semblance of order to their aggression if they want to continue these scurrilous endeavors."
"Are all of them still alive?" asked Thespus.
"If you two didn't kill any of them they still are," replied Xena.
I quickly looked down at the leader of this ravaged mob and said, "But, Xena, I thought I saw you--"
"Nah," she said, reaching down to pull up his tunic. "his wound is not bad enough to kill him. It might, however, make him think twice before he tries to pull another stunt like this."
I know it sounds crazy but even though these men had tried to kill us I did feel a measure of relief upon hearing this. It was here I heard a moan and saw Horatio with a big frown on his face. "What's the matter?" I asked. "Are you hurt after all?"
"Worse," he answered. "Look at this." He took hold of the side of his robe and held it up for me to see. There I saw a good sized hole.
"It must have been that cretin there," he sighed, pointing at one of the men.
"You mean that's it?" I asked incredulously. "A hole?"
"As a matter of fact it is not," Horatio replied. "As you can plainly see my garments have been soiled also."
Oh brother! I thought. What a pair these two are. They act like creme puffs and fight like lions.
Xena threaded her way through the pile of bodies and took up the reins of her waiting
horse. "Come on," she said.
A little under an hour later we entered the town of Tanagra. "Here," Xena said, handing me the reins to her horse. "You see what you can dig up to take with us on the road while I go see Rufus."
She nodded to the well in the middle of the agora and said, "I'll meet you there in half an hour."
"We'll be there," I assured her. After she had gone I turned to Thespus and Horatio and offered up the reins to Xena's horse. "Okay, which one of you wants to help me out?" I asked.
Thespus cleared his throat softly and said, "Uhh, it's like we said before, Gabrielle, Horatio and I have an ahh, aversion to horses."
"You mean you're scared of 'em," I said.
"Well not so much scared, as you put it. A more apt term would be ahh..."
"Unaccustomed," said Horatio, completing the sentence for his friend.
"Yes, that's the word--unaccustomed. Thank you, Horatio."
This seemed a little odd to me for a couple of guys who were supposed to be some kind of elite guard to be uncomfortable around horses. These guys are so strange, I thought. "Come on," I said, "help me out. I don't want to have to tow both of these animals around." I held up the reins again and said, "How about it?"
Thespus stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Weeeelll...." I could see he was beginning to waver juuust a little.
"Hey," I said, not allowing him time to change his mind, "I used to be uncomfortable around horses too." Here for just a moment my mind drifted back to the wonderful Argo. "But I got over it. Now what do you say? I promise Xena's horse won't bite."
Reluctantly the tall man took the reins from my hand. "Very well, Gabrielle," he said, "I shall assist you."
"Good boy," I said, patting him on the shoulder.
So off we went up the street. It being late winter there was not much of a variety as far as food went. Mostly it was fish cakes, cheese, bread, dried fruits, things like that. After looking around and comparing the quality of the offerings I finally settled on this one stand run by a man whose left arm was missing from the elbow down. Yet another veteran of some war or another, I thought. I then proceed to pick out what I thought would be enough food to last for the four of us for two days.
"Anything else, young lady?" the one armed man asked, piling up my order on the wide plank that served as his counter.
Actually there was--or least I wished there was. For piled high in a basket behind him were some of the nicest looking sugar beets I'd seen in a long, long while. "How much are the sugar beets," I asked.
"Two for a dinar," came the reply. "How many do you want?"
I nodded to the pile on the plank and said, "I guess you'd better tell me how much this is going to cost me first."
"Ten dinars," the merchant said.
"That's quite a lot for such a small amount of food," I said. "I'll give you eight."
"If I had wanted eight I would have asked for eight," said the one armed man with a little irritation. "Now it's ten dinars or nothing."
"All right all right," I said. "Sheesh," I muttered, opening up my little bag. "Haven't you ever heard of bargaining?" As I dumped the bag's contents into my hand I realized the bag felt awfully light but I was not prepared for what I saw. To my surprise there was only five dinars and a rial there. Uhh boy, I thought. My impression was that we were supposed to have more money than this but for the life of me I could not imagine what had happened to it. Where had it gone? I wondered. Later I would but at the moment I found myself wishing we had kept at least a little of that prize money from the bard's contest in Thebes.
"Well?" the man asked. "What's it going to be?"
"I ah, I seem to be a little short," I said sheepishly.
Hearing this, the man began to put the food back. "That's too bad," he said.
"Hold, good sir," a voice said.
I turned and there was Horatio standing next to me.
"You got ten dinars, shorty?" the one armed man asked him. "If ya do maybe you can loan 'em to the little lady here." He looked me up and down and then added, "She looks like she could use a good meal."
"Hey!" I said, sharply.
"For one who makes his living from dealing with the general public you certainly are a surly fellow," said Horatio serenely.
"Surly fellows seem to be ubiquitous in these parts, friend Horatio," Thespus added.
"Look I don't give a damn if you twerps think I'm ubit...ubita ...what you said...or not," the man growled. "All I wanna know is do ya have the ten dinars or not?"
Horatio removed the bag slung over his shoulder. Reaching down into it, he gave something a sharp yank and out came a fair sized pouch which seemed to be literally bulging with coins. "Now, sir, the correct total was ten dinars was it not?"
The one armed man rubbed his chin and stared wide-eyed at the bag. "Yeah," he said absently.
Horatio turned to me and said, "Gabrielle, would you be so kind as to inform this gentleman how many of those sugar beets you would like to purchase?"
"Umm, six!" I said happily. "Yeah six ought to do it."
"That makes the sum due you to be thirteen dinars I believe," said Horatio. He counted out thirteen and stacked them up on the plank. "There you are, my good man, thirteen."
I took the fish cakes and wrapped them up as best I could in a thin cloth. I then placed them along with the beets and the other stuff in the bottom of the old sack I used for just such a purpose. As we walked away I could feel the one armed man's eyes still on us. "That was very kind of you guys," I said.
"Think nothing of it, Gabrielle," said Horatio. "After all what are friends for but to help each other?"
"Tis true," said Thespus. "You have so kindly offered to help us and it is only fitting that we should pay the necessary expenses."
"Well you really shouldn't go flashing that kind of money around you know," I cautioned them.
"It is imprudent?" Horatio asked.
"I think you could call it that, yeah," I replied.
"Then we will do as you advise, Gabrielle," said Horatio. "In the future we will show more discretion when making purchases."
Soon we were back at the well where I took the time to fill up our own water bag. Before long I saw Xena sauntering down the street toward us. "How'd it go with Rufus?" I asked, once she had rejoined us.
"Pretty well actually," she said. "I told him to just hang in there for a little while longer, that once we'd taken care of this matter he would have my undivided attention."
"Is your friend Rufus in some sort of difficulty?" asked Horatio.
"Rufus is a famous sculptor," I explained to him. I swelled up my chest proudly and added, "He wants to do Xena."
"He what?" Xena asked, with a chuckle of amusement.
"That is to say he wants to make Xena's bust."
"Oh all right then," I huffed. "He wants to do a sculpture of her."
"That's better," she said, smiling faintly. She turned her eyes westward for a moment. "There's still a couple of hours of daylight left. If we have everything I see no reason for us to hang around here any longer."
"I agree," said Thespus.
So off we went, taking the north road out of town. After a time I found myself wishing we could mount the horses and ride for awhile but after making a couple of subtle offers to give one of them a ride I gave up and resigned myself to walking the entire way. There was a time when I could and did walk all day and not so much as blink but that time was long past. Once you get used to riding that horse pounding the ground with your own two feet seems, I don't know, primitive.
Gradually the shadows lengthened ever further until finally the light began to fade. "We'll camp there," Xena said, tilting her head toward the small stand of cypress trees just ahead. She handed me the reins to her horse and said, "Set up the camp. I'll be back in a little while."
"Right," I answered. She nodded to me and soon had disappeared among the trees.
"Where is she going?" asked Horatio.
"Just to look around a bit," I said. "Xena doesn't like surprises."
While I tied up the horses and laid out the food Horatio was kind enough to gather up some wood. Soon I had a fire going. Before too long Xena returned and together we all took our supper. By now it was dark. After we had eaten Thespus and Horatio, as if acting on some unseen cue, each dug into their bags and pulled out one single, meticulously folded blanket.
"Considering the apparent infestation of rapscallions in the vicinity don't you think we ought to stand watch tonight?"
"That won't be necessary," she assured him. "If somebody's so stupid as to come nosin' around I'll know it."
"Very well," he replied. He unfolded his blanket and very carefully spread it out upon the ground. With the same painstaking manner he positioned his bag at the head of the blanket as a pillow and only then did he lie down upon it. Horatio, too, made his pallet in this same manner. "Till the morrow," said Thespus.
"Wha--you mean you're going to sleep now?" I asked. "So soon?"
"Why yes, friend Gabrielle," said Horatio. "We think it a most sagacious policy to attain ample rest. One never knows what sort of circumstances the morrow will bring."
"Good night, friend Thespus," said the little man.
"Good night, friend Horatio," his companion answered.
For a time Xena and I sat there by the fire, speaking little but expressing much. Just being with her during these quiet moments was enough. Finally when I was sure our two new friends were asleep, I nodded toward them and asked "What do you make of those two?"
"They're good men," Xena allowed.
"I can see that," I said. "But they're so odd.
"No they're not," she gently corrected me. "They're just different, that's all. There's nothing wrong with being different."
I leaned very close to her and whispered, "Do you think they're lovers?"
"Now whatever gave you that idea?" she asked.
"I don't know," I replied, "they just seen awfully close that's all."
"As close as you and I?" she asked.
"Possibly," I said. "In their own way."
Xena cocked her head and looked at them. "I suppose they could be," she said, "but I doubt it. I think the bond between them has more to do with what they do in life rather than who they are."
I wrinkled my nose and looked up at her. "Huh?"
"They're Troasian Guards, remember? And Troasian Guards are trained as a group from the time they are mere boys. From the time they are ten years old they study, train, eat, work, and yes, sleep together. They consider themselves to be defenders of a sacred trust so naturally over time they would grow to be very loyal to one another."
"They're taught to fight pretty well too," I mused aloud.
"That they are," Xena said.
We sat there for a while longer until at last I felt my eyelids getting heavy. "I think I'm going to turn in," I said to her. Stretching up as far as I could, I lightly kissed her on the cheek. "Good night, friend Xena," I said softly.
She responded with a very warm smile and took my hand for a moment. "Go to sleep...friend bard," she murmured.
I stretched out on my pallet and it wasn't very long before Hypnos came to carry me away to that land where dreamers of the night dwell. As to how long Xena sat there--alone with only her thoughts one can only guess. The next thing I knew I was awakening to a very familiar hand on my shoulder.
"Gabrielle, you sleepyhead--wake up." It was Xena of course.
With a big yawn I sat up and treated myself to a marvelous stretch. I then looked about me and saw Thespus and Horatio were also already up and about. "Good morning, friend Gabrielle," said Thespus. "I trust you slept well?"
"I sure did," I replied cheerily.
"A bit cool if you want my opinion," said Horatio.
He was right, it was a little cool on this particular morning. As you well know winter nights in Greece are usually not that cold, especially near the coastline. Once one gets away from the warming sea breezes and goes to the higher elevations inland it can indeed become quite cool. It had not been that bad the night before but Xena said the wind changed during the night. "Yes it is, come to think of it," I said.
I arose and after folding up my bedding, went to my horse. I put my blankets back in the saddlebag but not before I reached in and retrieved my old beat up woolen pullover. Xena always referred to the thing as a "sweater" because whenever I wore the garment I would invariably begin to perspire and so off it would come. But on this morning it felt very comfortable.
Soon we had broken camp and were ready to go. "This Pulsipher, we will see him today?" asked Thespus.
"We will," Xena told him, "barring any trouble."
All that morning we stayed on the road. About an hour after midday Xena stopped and pointed to a peak off in the distance. "That mountain is where we're going. That's where Pulsipher lives."
Here we left the main road and began to travel cross country. Fortunately the going was not particularly hard and so by that evening we could see we were nearing our goal. "Xena," I said, when we had reached the mountain's base, "that thing looks awfully steep."
She shaded her eyes with her hand and replied, "Relax, there's a trail that winds around the mountain sided. It's long and roundabout but it makes the ascent a whole lot easier."
After leaving the horses tied up in amongst some heavy bushes we started up the trail. About a third of the way up the mountain the trail literally disappeared into a solid wall of rock. "This," Xena said, "is why we didn't have to worry about anyone beating us to Pulsipher."
"But--this is impassable," said Thespus.
Xena shook her head and with a sly little grin said, "It only looks impassable. Come on, I'll show you."
We followed her over near the facing to where there stood a small statue of one of those local minor deities that used to dot the countryside. "Give me a dinar," she said.
"Give me a dinar," she repeated.
"Okay." I fished in my bag and pulled out the puny sack. "That reminds me," I said, handing her the coin, "I thought we had more money than this."
"Oh uh, sorry 'bout that. I meant to tell you," she said.
"Tell me what?" I asked.
"I spent twenty dinars," she said.
"I'll tell you later," she said, whispering in my ear. "It's kind of personal."
"What in Zeus' name is that supposed to mean?" I asked.
"Get off it, Gabrielle," she whispered. "I said I'd tell you later."
"Okay okay," I muttered. "Sheesh you don't have to bite my head off." I waited until she turned away and then grumbled, "But you could have at least told me."
Taking the coin from me she held it up before us. "Watch this," she said. She then placed the coin in the statue's mouth.
"Xena," I gasped with alarm, "you know that's bad luck."
"Not in this case," she retorted.
To my amazement I saw the mouth snap shut. "What the...?" I heard a loud whooshing sound, as if air were escaping through some hole. This was almost immediately followed up by the unmistakable sound of heavy stone grating on heavy stone.
"Come on," Xena said.
We again followed her, this time back to our where we had been standing originally. There we now saw a large, gaping hole opening up in the ground. It was being formed by the retraction along two huge guides of a large, flat stone that had been previously covered by a layer of dust.
"Extraordinary," said Thespus.
"Astounding," marveled Horatio.
"Gee," I said. For now plainly visible to us was a set of steps leading down into the darkness.
"Let's get going," said Xena. Naturally she led the way. As we descended she said, "Have your flint ready, Gabrielle."
I did as she told me and after going down about twenty steps or so we found ourselves at the bottom. There Xena plucked a torch from off the wall and thrust it in front of me. "Light it," she said.
I had to strike the flint twice to get the job done but I had it lit soon enough. Xena held the torch out in front of her, its flickering light almost reluctantly edging its way down a long, narrow passageway.
"It's a tunnel!" said Horatio excitedly.
"Yep," said Xena.
"I assume you have been through this before. How far does it extend?" asked Thespus, somewhat apprehensively.
"About half a stadion," she replied.
Just then we again heard the grinding of stone on stone. What little sunlight there was streaming into the hole began to wane. "Xena, the door," I cried. "It's closing!"
She caught me by the arm. It's all right, Gabrielle," she said in a soothing voice. "It's supposed to do that. It closes quickly to keep anyone from following."
"Oh. Uhh, sorry."
"Don't worry about it," she said.
I stared down the darkened passageway. "Well," I said, trying to sound buoyant, "at least we don't have to crawl." Indeed the tunnel was about five cubits high--high enough to allow Xena and even the taller Thespus to easily stand erect in it.
"Okay, now listen," Xena said. "It's a straight shot down this corridor but even so I want everybody to stay close, understand?"
"Got it," I said.
"We will comply with your instructions," said Thespus.
Xena was right. Walking through it was a piece of cake but all the same it was a little unnerving. I sort of reminded me of that time all of us were on Kathos looking for Hercules. It was so quiet all that could be heard was our own breathing and the hissing of the torch.
"Who constructed this?" Horatio asked, finally breaking the silence.
"I have no idea," said Xena. "I don't think anyone, even Pulsipher, knows. Whoever did it's been here a long, long time."
"Why would anyone go through such trouble?" I wondered aloud.
"There's an old, dilapidated temple on the other side," said Xena, "but whom it was dedicated to or what it was used for is a secret that died with the builders. No doubt this tunnel was a part of that somehow."
"Perhaps they were some persecuted religious sect that was desirous of a location where they could practice their beliefs in peace," offered Thespus. Obviously this was something he felt he could identify with. After all this was exactly the reason why his own temple had been situated so high up in the Ida Mountains.
"Maybe," Xena replied.
We passed over the hundred or so paces that made up the length of the dank, musty tunnel until, looming up out of the darkness, we saw another set of steps. Xena held up her hand and said, "Wait here." She moved to the right side of the tunnel and began to trail her fingers along the wall. Presently I saw her flash a faint smile of satisfaction. She had found the opening mechanism. "Get ready to move quickly," she said. "When the door is opened from the inside it closes even more quickly."
She pushed on the wall and I saw a small panel retreat back into the wall. Again we heard the same blast of air escaping and as the huge covering slowly retracted the sunlight once again poured down into the hole. "Get moving," Xena said.
As ordered we began to scramble up the steps. Xena smothered the torch out by means of a violent two-handed swing and, pitching it down beside the steps, jogged up to join us. It was not more than a few seconds after this that the huge stone again began to slide laboriously back to its original position.
"I wonder how that thing works," I said, glancing at Xena.
"Don't look at me," she said, shrugging. "I'm a warrior, not an engineer." With that she began to move up the trail that had how started up again.
Thespus moved in beside me and, watching the commanding stride gracefully up the trail, said, "The great warrioress is not one to waste words is she?"
"Hmph," I snorted in reply, "she's been an absolute yakker the last couple of days. You ought to see her when she's really reticent. You can't get a word out of her with a pry bar then."
Thespus nodded thoughtfully and together the three of us started up the trail after our leader.
Continued in Winter: Part 3
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