Continued from Winter: Part 2 **********
The old man made certain everyone else had been served before pouring his own tea and sitting down at the roughly hewn table. He took a sip of the hot brew and ran his one good eye over his guests. I say one good eye because his left one, obviously the result of some horrible injury, was nothing but a milky white orb.
"Xena," he said finally, "you made very good time. I wasn't expecting you until later on in the day."
Xena eyed him keenly and took a long sip of the steaming liquid. How do they do that? I wondered. This stuff was so hot I was having trouble just picking up the cup.
"How did you know we were coming?" she asked casually.
"I saw it in a dream," he said matter-of-factly. He very delicately set down his cup and leaned forward. "I also know why you are here."
"Oh?" Xena asked, raising an eyebrow. "Did you dream that too?"
"One as smart as you are should know better than to underestimate what a properly focused mind can do," said Pulsipher. For a moment an uncomfortable silence filled the room and then suddenly the mystic threw his head back and began to cackle gleefully. "Come, Xena, let us as you would say, lay our cards on the table."
Xena smiled sweetly at him. "Let's," she said.
"You and your friends here want information about the Ring of Aeneas, correct? All right, I can give you that."
"How thoughtful," Xena said wryly. "But there's a catch right?"
"There's always a catch," said Pulsipher, cackling again, "you know that, Xena."
"All right, what do you want?"
The old man leaned forward again and leered at her. "You have heard no doubt of a little item known as the Blood Stone?"
I could not believe my ears! Surprised though I was I was very careful not to give away any hint of it. The last thing I wanted to mess things up. You see I had no idea how Xena wanted to play this. Cool customer that she was, she had of course not batted an eye when Pulsipher mentioned the stone.
"I seem to remember hearing something about it," she said nonchalantly.
"I'll just bet you have," he retorted. "Anyway, that is what I want from you. You lay the stone in my hand and I will tell you where the Ring of Aeneas is."
"I don't suppose you'd be kind enough to tell me where it is now and let me bring you the stone later on do you?" asked Xena.
"Fat chance," he said. "Don't get me wrong. It's not that I don't trust you, Xena. It's just that I don't trust you." He grinned evilly at her and added, "And don't even think about trying that thing you do, what is it...'cutting off the blood flow to the brain?'"
"I wouldn't dream of it," said Xena. "I know you have a crossbow hidden in the wall over there aimed at my friend Gabrielle."
Instantly I cringed but somehow I managed to stifle the urge to duck. "He...does?" I gulped.
"Don't worry, Gabrielle," she said, "nothing's going to happen here. We're all friends aren't we, Pulsipher?"
"I'd say trading partners would be a more apt term," said Pulsipher. He looked at me and said, "My apologies for any distress I may have caused you, young lady but one can never be too careful when dealing with the Warrior Princess."
I could certainly see the logic in that.
"What do you want with the stone anyway?" asked Xena. "You know it's worthless without the other three Omni Stones."
Pulsipher shrugged and said, "Hey, a guy's got to start his collection somewhere."
Xena leaned back in her chair and placed the edge of her boot against the side of the table.
"What do you say, Xena? Do we have a deal?" asked Pulsipher.
After taking another sip of her tea, Xena said, "We do. You'll have it by nightfall."
He eyed her incredulously and said, "Xena, I know you're good but even you are not that good."
Xena merely shrugged and took another sip of her tea. "You know," she said, "this tea is pretty good."
"But, are you that good?" Pulsipher asked, obviously weakening. It was amazing the way Xena could play on the emotions of even the most cynical of people.
"I told you I'd have it here by nightfall," she said. "Let's just leave it at that."
"Very well," he said. "But first you and your ah, silent partners here are welcome to stay and break bread with me."
"Can't," said Xena. "We're in kind of a hurry."
"Suit yourself," said Pulsipher.
Xena plunked her cup down on the table and Thespus, Horatio, and I took this as our cue to do the same. When she arose we did also.
"You have it, don't you?"
"What?" she asked.
"The Blood Stone, it's already in your possession, isn't it?"
"Well it's not actually on me now if that's what you mean," she said.
"But it is close by?"
"I think your crystal needs some adjustments," said Xena. "A seer like you should have known that already."
"Even mystics don't see everything," retorted Pulsipher.
Xena started for the door and naturally the three of us fell in behind. Once to the door she opened it and with a very subtle jerk of the head indicated for us to go on ahead. "When I get back I expect you to tell me what I want to know."
"A deal is a deal," said Pulsipher.
Once outside we stood several paces away from Pulsipher's hut waiting for Xena to rejoin us. I no sooner opened my mouth to speak before she held up her hand. "I know what you're going to say, Gabrielle. But I never promised Salmoneus he would get the stone back."
"But it is his," I insisted. "And anyway, why is it all right for someone like Pulsipher to possess it and not someone who happens to be a good friend of ours?"
"Two reasons," said Xena, starting back down the trail, "one of which you gave yourself. It's because Salmoneus is our friend that I don't want him messing around with that stone. Pulsipher, on the other hand, means nothing to me. If he somehow gets done in because of the stone I could care less. I'm not going to let that happen to Salmoneus though."
"All right," I said evenly, "That makes sense. What's the other reason?"
She gave me a little sly smile and answered, "If Pulsipher has the stone that means that other, far more dangerous, people don't. He'll never attain the other Omni Stones so it's like putting the Blood Stone in a vault and locking it away permanently."
"You're right of course," I said. "But even so I still think Salmoneus ought to be compensated for his loss. I mean, it's only fair, Xena."
"Horatio softly cleared his throat and said, "Xena, Thespus and I will be only too happy to provide remuneration to your friend for this stone, won't we, Thespus?"
"Of course, Horatio," said his friend. "In whatever amount he deems fit."
Xena turned to me and said, "There you have it, Gabrielle. Now everybody will be happy." Addressing Horatio she said, "Just one thing, though. I think you had better let me, not Salmoneus, decide how much the thing is worth."
"As you say, warrioress," said Horatio.
There was no secret opening mechanism on this side of the tunnel--there was no need for one--just another panel that had to be depressed and before long we were once again through the tunnel and back out on the other side. Back down the winding mountain trail we went and when we had reached the horses once more the sun was about two fists high above the horizon. Upon our arrival Xena went straight to the saddlebag on her horse and took out the small back that still held the stone. "It will most likely be dark before I get back," she said. "You guys stay here and set up camp."
"Xena, be careful," I said. "I don't trust that guy."
"That makes two of us," she said. She touched me on the arm and said, "Keep your eyes and ears open while I'm gone."
I nodded to her that I would and with that she once again started back up the trail. As I stood there watching her ascend the mountain Thespus joined me.
"She is a magnificent creature," he said quietly.
"She's okay," I said nonchalantly. This was always happening. Xena had an aura about her like no one I ever knew for an overpowering sense of dangerous but oh so alluring sexuality just oozed from her. All her life men, women, and gods alike were stirred by her minacious brand of beauty. Thespus was right, she was a magnificent creature!
While Xena was gone my two companions and I set up camp. Not knowing when she would return we decided to go ahead and take our supper. As always Thespus and Horatio were very polite, very reserved and I found myself wanting to know more about them. I wondered about the circumstances of their selection to such an obviously honored position among their people. It must have been difficult for them to have been separated from their mothers and fathers at such an early age. Had their parents even had a hand in the decision making? This and a whole lot more I would liked to have asked these men but for some reason I suppressed my old predilection for conversation and said little. While friendly enough these fellows were very hard to read and since it looked like we were going to be together for awhile, I did not want to say anything directly that might antagonize them. So I restricted myself to making small talk only every now and then inserting an innocuous question about their personal lives.
We were still sitting around the fire when, like a shadow in the pale moonlight, Xena returned.
"Did everything go all right?" I asked her.
"Could not have gone better," she assured me. "He got what he wanted..." She held up a small piece of parchment. "...and I got what I wanted."
"I do not wish to seem dubious, but how can you be certain Pulsipher told you the truth?" Horatio asked.
"Let's just say I was able to impress on him what the consequences would be for him if he tried to double cross me."
"So where is it?" I asked anxiously.
"The Ring of Aeneas, where is it?"
"Three days ride from here," she replied. She looked at Thespus and Horatio and added, "And I do mean ride. You two are going to have to get yourselves a couple of horses."
Thespus' eyes grew wide. "But, Xena, neither Horatio nor I know the first thing about riding a horse."
"That's no problem," she replied. "If we find horses gentle enough all you'll need to know is the basics. Don't worry, you'll be all right."
Poor Horatio's fears were still not assuaged. "Must we really ride?" he asked worriedly.
"Yeah, I'm afraid so," said Xena. "We can't afford to waste any more time walking. We need to get there as soon as possible. Your guys' window of opportunity it pretty limited."
Horatio nodded solemnly and said, "If it must be so then we will do what is necessary to expedite the mission."
As had happened the night before our two friends did not tarry long before turning in for the night. After a little while I figured I too might as well call it a day and so I lay down also. It wasn't very long before Xena also gave it up and ever so quietly laid down beside me. I knew what was on her mind. This would be the third straight night we had not made love and I too was aching to share a warm embrace with the one I loved. We lay there face to face just dying to feel each other's touch and I was tempted to suggest to her that we sneak off into the bushes somewhere but it would not have been right to leave our friends thus.
I reached out and, softly trailing a circle on her breast with my finger, whispered, "I love you."
Xena leaned close and kissed me not once, but twice--very softly. "Gabrielle, I love you so much." She gently stroked my cheek with the back of her hand. "Put your arms under your blanket," she said with a faint smile. "It's going to get cool again tonight."
Same old Xena, I thought happily as I complied. Always worried about me.
The next midday found us heading west northwest. Toward evening we entered a small village where we managed to secure two horses for our apprehensive traveling partners. Before purchasing the horses Xena had put them both through their paces and had determined they were docile enough for our novice equestrians. She then proceeded to impart the basics of horsemanship to the two of them. Naturally they were quite skittish at first but after practicing for a while they proved to be quick studies and soon were able to for the most part get the horse to go in the desired direction.
While we were there Xena also acquired two lengths of heavy rope.
That night we stayed in the village inn and for the first time in what seemed like ages Xena and I were able to spend a full night alone. I must confess that a great deal of it was not wasted on sleeping--if you know what I mean.
For the next two days we held our course, ever moving in the same direction. Up until now Xena had still not seen fit to inform us as to what our final destination was but I knew this area well enough to know that we were traveling in the general direction of Korsea. Our progress was not as good as Xena had hoped for so when we made camp on the evening of the third day we found ourselves still short of our goal. But it was here that Xena finally let the cat out of the bag. "Our objective," she had said, "is Mount Helikon." Her use of the word "objective" had military connotations and thus told me that whatever we going to be facing would be serious stuff indeed.
Mount Helikon lies just northwest of Korsea and stands about thirteen stadions or fifty-three hundred cubits high. >From what little I could gather from the local inhabitants it seemed to be a foreboding place with steep cliffs where rock slides were as common as flies. What the circumstances were that brought about the Ring of Aeneas being on that mountain were beyond my knowledge and Xena's too for that matter. All we knew was that it was up there. According the rough sketch Pulsipher had drawn the ring was supposed to be in a cave near the summit. Of course, I thought ruefully. It couldn't have been in some little niche somewhere near the base. Oh no, that would have been too easy.
The next morning we arose early and began our last leg of the journey to the mountain. After about an hour we passed through a small wood and once out on the other side we saw, looming not too far in the distance, Mount Helikon.
"Well, there it is," said Xena, stretching out her arm toward it. "Mount Helikon."
"It is certainly taller than anything in our range," said Thespus.
"It's just an ant hill compared the mountains on the southern border of Chin," said Xena matter-of-factly.
All I knew was it was big enough for me. By midday we were drawing nearer but we had to negotiate first a series of smaller foothills and finally ford a small river before at last reaching the sloping terrain near Helikon's base.
Here we dismounted and, as directed by Xena, tied up the horses. Xena took the two coiled up lengths of rope off her horse. "Since you guys are from mountainous country yourselves I assume you know how to scale one," she said.
"I can state in all modesty that Thespus and I are quite adept at mountain climbing," said Horatio.
Xena smiled faintly and tossed him one of the coils. "Let's hope so," she said. Turning to me she said, "Gabrielle, I don't suppose--"
"No," I said firmly. You see I had already anticipated this. What she was going to do was suggest I stay behind with the horses. She knew beforehand there was not a chance of my agreeing to it but she felt it was something she had to ask anyway. Even after all this time she was still doing this.
"I kinda figured that," she said, pulling up one corner of her mouth in that queer little smile of hers.
"Then let's do it," I said.
She nodded and said, "Right." And off we went.
Mount Helikon is not just one lone mountain sticking up out of the landscape like some pimple on a teenager's butt. Rather it sits as the tallest peak right in the middle of a formidable mountain range that runs from the northwest to the southeast. What this meant for us was we would surely have a few obstacles to deal with on our way to the mountain itself. We were not as of yet exactly sure what those might be but if my experiences with Xena over the years had taught me anything it was that nothing ever came easy. And as events would later prove, this time would be no exception.
The first real test came about an hour later as we were working our way through this very narrow canyon. When I say narrow, I mean narrow for this thing was so close in some places that even a scrawny thing me found it to be a tight fit. As always Xena was in the lead as we slowly moved along. She was followed by Horatio, then me, and finally, Thespus.
As we squeezed through yet another tight spot I heard Thespus say, "I think, Gabrielle, that I am beginning to rue the fact that I ate so much for breakfast."
It wasn't much of a joke really. In fact it was pretty lame. But this seemingly trivial comment was not lost on me for it marked the first time that either of our two friends had even attempted to make light of something. Up until now they had always been so serious. I mean, even Xena wasn't as somber as they were. Maybe there's hope for you guys yet, I thought. On this notable occasion I wish I could tell you I answered him with some snappy comeback full of wit and cleverness but all I said was, "Me too."
It was just then I heard a rumbling noise high above us. Thespus and I both looked up in the direction of the sound and what we saw was enough to make the blood run cold. Tumbling down the facing of the mountain towering over us was an absolute cascade of rocks and dirt!
"Gabrielle!" I heard someone shout. It was Xena. I turned in time to see her shoulder past Horatio and grab me by the hand. "Come on!" she barked. "All of you. This way!"
She broke into a run and, giving my arm a hard yank, pulled me after her. As we ran along the narrow gash in the earth I could hear Horatio grunting as he bounced off the canyon walls behind us. The whole thing had happened so quickly. One moment I was musing over Thespus' first halting attempt at jocularity and the next I was wondering if we going to be crushed under tens of thousands of talents of rock. Already the first rocks were starting to hail down around us, wildly bouncing off the canyon walls. To my horror I saw a rock in front of me the size of a melon careen off the opposite wall and zoom straight for Xena's head. There was no possible way Xena could have seen the thing coming but before I could yell out a warning she instinctively ducked her head at the last moment and the rock zipped harmlessly over her head. This was yet another example of those phenomenal senses of hers. Call it luck, call it intuition, call it a gift--call it whatever you want. Xena had a uncanny ability to sense things. It was like she projected this--I don't know--field, this aura, and whenever anything foreign entered it her body just naturally reacted. I had seen her do this very thing many times in the past and I would see it many more times in the future. Whenever I would ask her about it she would usually just try to shrug it off or give some mumbo jumbo about staying "focused" or whatever but truth be told, I don't think even she knew what it really was.
Down the narrow corridor we ran. By now all noise seemed to have been blotted out except for the sound of my own panting. As we rounded a corner a slim glimmer of hope presented itself to us because here where the canyon widened out considerably, Xena caught sight of a small ledge projecting out from the canyon wall. Nimble-witted as ever, she did not waste this opportunity. Yanking me forward, she grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and literally threw me up under the ledge. She then piled in heavily on top of me and wrapped her arms tightly around my head. Our two friends did not need for Xena to spell out to them what to do next because quick as a wink they both dove under the ledge with us and there we all waited for the danger to pass. For a couple more very tense minutes the rocks continued to furiously pound down outside our little haven Fortunately for us we had already so outdistanced the worst part of the slide that when the last rock came tumbling down the facing our little hole in the wall had not even been covered completely up.
When it was over we did not try to dig out right away. Instead we lay there for a moment just to be on the safe side. Finally after spitting the dust out of his mouth, Horatio said, "I believe the crisis is over."
"Are you all right, Gabrielle?" I heard Xena ask.
"I'm...ah, ah, ahhh-CHOOOOOOO...fine," I sniffed. Darn dust.
"Good." She patted me on the shoulder and then eased off me. "How about you guys?" she asked our friends.
"Aside from some slight abrasions I am unharmed," replied Horatio. "And you, friend Thespus, are you okay?"
Here again was another small surprise. I would never have thought the ever formal Horatio would use an idiomatic word like 'okay.'"
"I am okay, Horatio. Thank you."
"You two had better be careful," Xena said as she nonchalantly blasted the rocks loose with a powerful kick. "I think Gabrielle and I are corrupting you."
"You are too honorable to do that, friend Xena," said Horatio.
Xena crawled through the hole she had created and, once outside, stood up and extended her arm back in for me. I took the offered hand and eased my way out. Horatio and then Thespus quickly followed.
"Sorry I was so rough with ya," Xena said as she dusted me off.
I smiled at her and replied, "Hey, considering the alternative you can throw me around any time."
She very briefly flashed me that killer smile of hers before once again turning all business. "Let's go, she said quietly."
Before too long we found ourselves out of the canyon and up onto a long, narrow ridge. Falling away from both sides of the ridge were high, steep walls. Standing there peeking over into the blackness below, I thought Xena's warning to "Watch your step" to be rather superfluous. Fortunately the ridge only ran about a hundred paces or so and we were able to pick our way across without incident.
Once we were across the ridge Xena stopped and looked up at the steep cliff now blocking our path. "Well," she said with a sigh, "it looks like the easy part is over."
This was not what I wanted to hear. "Can't we go around?" I asked hopefully. I did not relish the thought of having scale that thing.
"'Fraid not," Xena replied kindly. "This is the only way to the top." She stuck her head through the coil of rope she was carrying and moved in closer to the face of the cliff. "I think I can climb it," she said. I was taken aback by her assessment because when it came to her acting upon something it was not very often she said words like "I think" or "maybe."
"Xena, please be careful," I said, touching her gently on the arm.
She nodded to me and then turned to our friends. Pointing to the rope Horatio was carrying she said, "I'll need that one too. When I get to the top I'll tie the rope off and throw it back down for you. Now you, Horatio, will come up first, then Gabrielle, and finally Thespus."
"If I may be so bold as to make a suggestion, Xena," said Horatio.
"What is it?" the warrioress asked.
"That I make the ascent instead."
"Why you?" Xena asked, eyeing him intently.
"As I asseverated before both Thespus and I are quite skilled at this sort of thing," Horatio explained.
"To put it plainly you are more important to this expedition than either Thespus or I," said Horatio. "It will be of little consequence if one of us is killed but you, Xena, are the one we cannot afford to lose."
"You're being very noble but don't worry about me," she said. She turned back to the cliff but Horatio caught her arm.
"Please, Xena," he said earnestly, "allow me do this. You have already done more than your share."
I was curious as to what her reaction would be to this but she merely stood there looking at him. "All right," she said evenly. "Have it your way." She removed the rope from around her neck and handed it to him.
"Thank you," said Horatio gratefully. Like Xena before he moved to the face of the cliff.
"I would advise you to be sedulous in your movements, Horatio," said Thespus. "The facing looks quite treacherous."
"Rest assured I will, Thespus," said his friend.
"Good luck, Horatio," I said.
"Thank you, friend Gabrielle," he replied quietly.
Looking up at the facing once more, Xena pushed out her cheek with the tip of her tongue and then spoke. "Try to keep to the right if you can, Horatio. It looks like the going might be a little easier there."
Horatio nodded and then, after slipping his arm through the rope, began his climb. Following Xena's example, Thespus and I backed away from the facing in order that we might better observe his progress. After watching him closely for a few minutes it was obvious Horatio the climber was every bit as good as he had said he was. After on particularly intricate and, for me, harrowing detour around a small ledge I saw Xena nod her approval. Again I cannot over emphasize to the reader just how dangerous this attempt was. The facing was practically smooth and from where I stood it seemed that Horatio's hand and foot holds were no more than mere bumps jutting out from the side of the cliff. A couple of times he paused and I found myself wanting to shout out encouragement to him but as I was afraid I might unnecessarily distract him I kept quiet. Despite our apprehension not once did Horatio ever appear to have any serious difficulty in making the perilous ascent.
Finally after what seemed like ages we saw him belly up over the edge of the cliff and disappear for a moment only to instantly pop back over and wave down to us. Naturally were all very relieved. Even normally imperturbable Xena puffed up her cheeks and blew out a soft sigh. A minute later we saw the now knotted together rope come tumbling down from up above.
"Okay," Xena said, taking the rope in her hands, "I'll go next."
What with all the tension I had up until now not given any thought to actually having to climb up that rope myself. Now that it was actually time to do it, however, the idea hit me with the force of one of Zeus' thunderbolts. You see all my life, even unto this day, I have had this ahh, "thing" about heights. I'm all right if I can feel something solid beneath my feet but put me in a situation where the footing is shaky and the old noggin starts spinning faster than Xena's chakram. I put my hand under Xena's arm and gently herded her aside. "Umm, Xena, could I uhh, speak to you for a minute?"
Xena, ever perceptive, knew exactly what was coming of course, This, after all, was not the first time we had been over this ground. "Don't worry," she said in a soothing tone of voice. "We'll fix it so you won't have to climb."
She strode back to where the rope was dangling and very quickly tied a neat loop in the end of it. "This should fit you all right," she said, once her work was finished. "Now, Thespus, Gabrielle will be going up next."
"Very well," the man replied.
Turning back to me, she said, "Once I'm up on top you slip this loop up under your arms--not your waist, understand?"
I suppressed the urge to gulp hard and nodded that I did. "Okay." I must tell the reader here that if it had been anyone but her--except I guess, Hercules--I would have told them to take a long walk off a short pier. I mean I would never have allowed myself to be hoisted up the side of that cliff like a sack of meal by anyone else. No sir. To say that I trusted Xena would be waste of words for it was way beyond that now. I knew that no matter what the situation she was always looking out for my best interest--even if I might not have the sense at the time to recognize it.
"Good." She then took the rope in her powerful hands and, after tugging on it first to verify it was secure, began her ascent. She did not even bother with bracing her feet against the side of the cliff for support. Rather she merely pulled herself up the rope hand over hand. Standing there with the gawking Thespus by my side and watching her so easily climb the rope I once again marveled at just what a truly marvelous physical specimen she was. Thespus had hit it right on the head. She was magnificent. And I am somewhat chagrined to admit to you, the reader, that I very often took this woman's greatness for granted. I did not mean to. It was just that she had this remarkable habit of making the impossible possible and after a while one gets sort of used to it when they see her do it day in, day out. By the gods, she could just do things! By now she was in her mid-thirties and as far as I could tell she was better than ever.
Soon she was up to the top. As she bellied over the edge of the cliff I saw Horatio's arm reach out to assist her. In a wink she was standing up and peeking back down at us. "Okay, Gabrielle," she shouted, "get ready!"
I did as I was told and looped the rope around my upper body. I then waved to her that I was all set. Xena picked up the rope and carefully took up the slack. In another instant I felt a jolt and suddenly I was airborne. Here we go, I thought.
"Use your legs to keep yourself from bumping into the wall," Thespus advised as I rose.
Good idea, I thought. I need not have bothered. Xena took her sweet time pulling me up so as to avoid this very thing. In fact only once did I make contact with the cliff facing and it was but a brush.
When I was about two thirds of the way up Xena loudly grunted, "You're doin' great, Gabrielle. Just hang on."
Hang on? Where was I going to go? You're the one that had better "hang on." I thought. Of course I didn't tell her that.
Before long I was at the top and there was Xena, her long legs straddling firmly over me like pillars to a temple. Horatio reached over and locked his forearm under my left arm and finished hoisting me up.
"There now," said Xena, smiling as she loosened the rope from around me. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"
Once she had the rope off she tossed it back over the cliff. In very short order we were pulling Thespus over the edge and once again we were all reunited.
"You did well, Horatio," said Thespus upon rejoining his comrade. "Your ascent was most skillfully executed."
"Why thank you, Thespus," replied Horatio cheerfully. "However I am positive you could have done it just as proficiently."
"I beg to differ, my friend," answered Thespus.
"On the contrary--"
"Okay okay," said Xena, forcefully interrupting Horatio. "Let's cut this meeting of the Mutual Admiration Society short shall we? We still have a lot of work to do."
"A most felicitous suggestion," said Thespus brightly. "Once again, Xena, you are totally correct in your judgment of the situation."
Xena started to make a reply but changed her mind mid-stream and instead just rolled her eyes and starting pulling up the rope. After some scouting around we--or rather Xena--found a route up the mountain which was neither terribly steep nor the footing particularly treacherous. This good fortune lasted for about ohh, I'd say fifteen minutes or so.
As we neared this one little rise Xena stopped and held up her hand. Turning to us she said, "Wait here." Walking on ahead, she disappeared over the rise. Although she was probably not gone for more than a few minutes it seemed longer than that and I was very relieved when I saw her head pop back up over the rise.
"Is something wrong?" I asked, walking to meet her.
"That depends," she replied tersely.
"On whether or not one of us can fly," she retorted.
Uhhh boy, I thought, here we go again. "What is it this time?" I asked as Thespus and Horatio moved to join us. "Unscaleable cliff? Bottomless chasm? A rift?"
"Don't say rift," said Xena eyeing me sharply. "I hate that word remember?"
"Okay okay," I said. "No need to get sore. I was just trying to make a joke that's all."
"Well it ain't funny," she grunted. "But as to your question it's answer number two."
"Then all is lost?" asked Thespus dejectedly.
Somehow I knew better than that. "Don't worry," I said confidently,
"Xena will think of something." I moved in next to her and mumbled, "You do
a plan--don't you?"
"Yep," she said.
"See, Thespus, I told you," I said triumphantly.
"Good old Gabrielle," Xena muttered. "Never a doubt right?"
Taking the rope off Horatio's shoulder, Xena said, "Never mind. Come on and I'll show you what we've got."
Once again she retraced her route over the rise this time with us in tow. Down the other side we veered to the right and, sure enough, right there was a deep gorge.
"What are we going to do?" I asked.
"Remember that time Aphrodite put that spell on us and Joxer thought he was an ape-man?" Xena asked with a devilish smile.
"Huh? I don't get it," I said. "Xena, what's that got to--" Then it hit me. "Oh noooo," I said, backing away. I pointed at the gorge and said, "You're not getting me to swing across that."
"Oh come on, Gabrielle," Xena goaded, "where's your sense of adventure?"
"Wherever it is you can bet your butt it's not swinging over some hole deep enough to drop Mount Olympus into," I retorted.
"Gabrieeeeelle." Xena moved in close, towering above me now.
"Whaa-at?" I shot back defiantly.
I fully expected her to give some guff about the necessity for us to complete the mission but instead she simply stared down at me and said, "I need you."
And that, as they say, was that. She had done it to me again. I mean, what was I going to say? No? I stood there for a moment gazing into those remarkable blue eyes. "I won't let you down," I said softly.
She tenderly patted my shoulder and said, "I knew I could count on you."
"Pardon my incredulity," said Horatio, "but just how is it again you propose we accomplish this?"
Xena swung her arm up and pointed to the opposite side of the gorge. "I'm going to jump this and then climb up on that ledge up there. That will give you guys a much less acute angle when you swing over."
"Let me get this straight," said Thespus. "You mean to say you are going to attempt to leap from here to that far precipice, climb up to that ledge, and then hold the rope in your hands while we swing across?"
"I'd say that pretty much sums it up," replied Xena casually.
"With all due respect to athletic ability there is no way you can leap this gorge. It is at least fifty cubits across," said Horatio.
"More like sixty," said Xena, casually correcting him. "But who's counting?"
"Impossible!" cried Horatio.
For a moment I considered offering to wager these pigeons a few coins that she indeed could make the leap but somehow I did not think Xena would have been amused. "She can jump that flat-footed," was all I said. "Can't you, Xena?"
"Well maybe not flat-footed," came her reply.
"Assuming that you can do as you say," Thespus began, still not convinced, "why don't we just secure the rope at both ends and cross hand over hand. I would think that would be less perilous. We could smack right into the side of that far wall if we miscalculate the distance."
"Look around you," said Xena. "Do you see anything on which we can secure a rope?"
Thespus swept his eyes over the place and saw she was right again. "Very well. It would appear you have the only plausible solution to our dilemma."
Xena nodded politely and said, "Then let's do it." Taking one end of the rope, she nimbly tied it around her waist. The other end she handed to Thespus. "Come on," she said to him.
We followed her to the edge of the gorge. Here she took Thespus by the shoulders and guided him into position. "Stand right here," she said. Gathering up the rope in her arms, she then dumped all the slack over into the gorge. Turning to us she said, "Now listen closely. It's just like you said, Thespus, as long as this rope is, if you try to swing across by holding the rope by the end you are going to drop down too low to clear the far edge.
"Now there's a comforting thought," I mumbled.
Xena ignored me and went on. "We'll have to compensate."
"But how?" asked Horatio.
"As you swing across I'll take up the excess length," she replied. "That means two things. First, be prepared for a jolt when I do that and second, make damn sure you're ready in case you have to jump for it. There is a possibility I might overcorrect and take up a little too much length."
"I cannot believe we are doing this," mumbled Thespus.
"Look, do you want the ring or not?" Xena asked sharply. For a moment there was an uncomfortable silence and then as quickly as it had arisen, her anger waned. "Don't sweat it," she said, tapping him in the stomach with the back of her hand. "Just think of the stories you'll be able to tell the rest of the boys when you get back home."
She walked to the edge of the cliff and gave the rope a good sharp tug in order to make certain it was not snarled in any way. She looked over at Horatio and me and said, "Stand back."
While we did as we were told Xena slowly began backing away from the edge of the cliff in carefully measured steps. Once she was about twenty paces back she leaned forward into a ready position. For a moment she dangled her arms down loosely to her side and while shaking her hands vigorously. Then, like something shot out of a catapult, she was off. Streaking toward the edge, she timed her steps perfectly and with that familiar piercing cry of hers echoing off the high walls, launched herself airborne. By now the reader must either be think me to be absolutely mad, a bald-faced liar, or both. No doubt you are thinking is it impossible for a human being to leap sixty cubits through the air but I swear to you on my mother's grave that I saw her make leaps like this not only on this particular occasion but many, many other times as well. Why once, with the aid of a supple tree limb, she leaped well over half a stadion from shore onto a ship. Call me mad if you will but by the gods she could do it!
The three of us stood watching with awe as the Warrior Princess' body first arced its way up to the apex of the leap and then began its graceful descent.
"I cannot bear to look," said Thespus, turning away. He need not have worried. Xena hit the ground a full five paces past the edge. Upon impact her sturdy legs planted solidly with her knees bending only slightly so as to absorb the impact.
I put my hand on Thespus' shoulder and said, "Okay, you look now."
He turned to see Xena on the far side already in the process of climbing up to her spot on the ledge. "I am astounded by her athletic prowess," said Thespus reverently.
"It is truly phenomenal," said Horatio.
"Told ya guys," I said simply and not without some smugness I might add.
Before long Xena had reached her goal. Once there she turned sideways to us, braced her legs firmly, and shouted, "All right. Get ready over there! Thespus, you go first!"
Thespus raised an arm in acknowledgment and then looped the rope around his left hand. "Well," he said as he took a deep breath, "here goes nil." Before I could tell him that the proper term was "here goes nothin'" he did a little hop off the edge was gone. As he started to swing across I saw Xena began to furiously pull up on the rope in order to take up the excess length.
Xena's plan could not have worked better. Once across, Thespus merely had to release his grip on the rope and drop, oh maybe, a cubit or so to find himself once again on solid ground.
"He made it," said Horatio, sighing with relief. "But--how do we get the rope back?"
"How do we get the rope back?" he repeated.
I had no clue. "I dunno," I said truthfully, "but I'm sure Xena has already worked that out." It was then I saw her pull up the other end of the rope. She then knelt down with her back to us and lay the rope on the ground. Neither Horatio nor I could tell what she was doing exactly but we could see her working her elbow vigorously. What is she doing? I wondered. We had not long to wait in order to find out for it was here she stood up and at last revealed to us the fruit of her labors. Now attached to the end of the rope was a fair-sized stone.
"Oh, I get it," I said. Xena stepped to the edge of the ledge and dropped the weighted end of the rope over the side. After letting out additional slack she slowly began to swing the rope back and forth.
"She is going to throw it back to us," said Horatio.
"You got it," I said.
We watched as she swung the rope in an ever widening arc until at last she brought it up and completely over in a full revolution. With sufficient momentum now built up she began to spin the rope faster and faster. "Get back!" she yelled at us.
By the time she had it up to full speed the rope's path of travel looked almost solid. With a grunt loud enough to be heard from where we were Xena sent the stone hurtling back across the gorge.
"Whoaaa!" I yelled, throwing myself to the ground. Horatio hit the dirt beside me and a split second later we heard the stone whiz over our heads.
"I told you two to get back!" Xena yelled. As Horatio rose and retrieved the rope she called out, " Okay, Gabrielle, you're next!"
It goes without saying that I did not at all relish the thought of doing this. But as I had already told Xena I was not about to let her down. Horatio handed me the rope and I dutifully took up my position next to the edge of the cliff.
"Friend Gabrielle, I would advise you to follow Thespus' example and loop the rope around your wrist. It will enhance your grip."
"Oh uhh, right. Thanks. As I stood near the edge of the gorge I felt a gust of air from an updraft rise up and gently push up my skirt.
"You ready?" Xena yelled.
I raised my arm to indicate that I was. "Whatever you do," I counseled myself, "don't look down." I took a deep breath to steady my nerves...then another...then another.
"Come onnnn! Xena yelled impatiently. "We don't have all day!"
"Right," I mumbled. "Right." With that I hopped off the cliff as I had seen Thespus do. I don't know if you have ever experienced the singular sensation of having your heart try to force its way into your throat but let me tell you, it's not a pleasant one. As I swung across I kept my eyes fixed upon Xena. I saw her begin to pull on the rope and a second later I felt the jolt of the rope's slack being taken up--just as Xena had warned me about. I felt myself being pulled up higher into the air which in turn caused me to swing faster. Get ready, I told myself. Way down deep a little voice said, "Just don't let go of the rope too soon, you idiot."
The little voice need not have worried. My clenched hands were not about to do that. As I crossed over the far edge of Thespus moved forward in a gallant attempt to catch me. Unfortunately he misjudged the rate of speed at which I was hurtling toward him. He was therefore unprepared for the force with which I plowed straight into him. Down we both went in a tangle of arms and legs.
"Ohhh," I heard someone groan. To this day I don't know whether it was Thespus or me.
"Are you two all right?" Xena asked, sounding somewhat irritated.
"Yeah I-I think so," I said, rubbing the bump on my head. "How 'bout you, Thespus?" I asked.
"I believe I am for the most part intact, Gabrielle," he replied.
I looked up at Xena in the hope that I might get a little sympathy but none was forthcoming. She had seen well enough that we were all right so she had already turned her attention back to the rope. In a few short minutes the procedure was repeated and once again we were all back together. Only now did Xena untie the rope from her waist and, with a neat backflip, vault off her promontory.
"Well that was certainly interesting," said Thespus as he watched his friend Horatio coil up the rope.
"All in a day's work, huh, Xena?" I said airily.
"Something like that," she replied tersely. She swept her eyes over the area
then pointed to a high ridge extending off to the right. "We'll follow that,"
she said. And so we did.
"How much farther is it, Xena?" I asked, a little winded.
"You mean to the top?"
"Right now we are about half way up," she said. She stopped and waited for me to catch up to her. "How are you holding up?" she asked.
"Me? I'm good," I lied.
"How's your head?"
Xena knew better. "You're sure?"
"Xena, I'm fine," I said, touching her arm to emphasize my assurance.
"Good," she said softly. And that was that.
Once we crossed the ridge we slowly worked our way up a section of slope that proved to be not too steep. As one would expect by now, though, our good fortune did not last very long for we had not much more than covered this particular stretch when we ran smack into another obstacle. Or so it seemed. There before us the face of the mountain now shot straight up, blocking our path like a gigantic wall. For me this was too much. "Well it looks like this sinks our ship," I said as I leaned dejectedly against a large boulder.
Without taking her eyes off the mountainside Xena replied, "Gabrielle, I don't think we have to swim for it just yet."
"Huh, what do you mean?" I asked.
"Do you have a plan?" Thespus asked hopefully.
Now unless the reader was bored and skipped the part where I previously expounded on this, he or she will know this was a needless question. However for the benefit of those who might not have been paying attention I will repeat here that Xena always had a plan.
She pointed to the facing. "See that thin line about half way up? See how it runs all the way across?"
"Yes, what do you make of it?" Thespus asked.
Xena turned to him and with a knowing little smile said, "That, Thespus, could be our ticket out of here."
"I am afraid I do not see the significance of your observation," said Thespus.
"I concur with Thespus," Horatio chimed in.
"Hey if Xena says its important then you can bet it's important," I said, bristling. "It is important...right, Xena?"
"You might say that," she replied. The gentle smile and the brief look of tenderness she then gave me were her way of acknowledging my support for her.
"What is it then?" asked Horatio.
"It's a ledge," Xena said simply.
"I don't see a ledge," said Thespus, again peering up at the facing.
"I do," she replied. "Trust me, it's there."
"If you can truly see it," said Horatio respectfully, "you are a most gifted individual."
"Hmph," I snorted, playfully nudging her, "don't be telling her that. She might get the big head."
Xena only response was a wry smile. "When this is over remind me to review the side kick's job description with you."
"Oh yeah?" I shot back haughtily. "You do that. I'm like--scared." I mean, aside from the fact that she could with one hand crush me like a wormy apple what was there to be afraid of? Seriously though, I knew I very often tried her patience. This, I think, is the thing about her that would really surprise people. Xena had an almost infinite capacity for patience--if she liked you. If she didn't well...gods help you. And one had only to hold up the inept Joxer as a perfect example of this. Ahem, I myself was much less forgiving of his buffoonery than she was. However I must admit to that I too very often gave her reason to have sighs of exasperation. And, yeah, she would occasionally take me by the ear or whack me on the rump but this was almost always because I had done something which in her mind had caused me to put myself at risk. Xena now looked at me and shook her head with amused resignation before once again turning her mind to the problem at hand.
"How do we get up there?" Horatio asked.
"We'll have to double back," replied Xena.
"How frustrating," I heard Thespus mutter.
Xena led us back down the way we had come. All the while she kept looking intently up above us. After about ten minutes she suddenly stopped and pointed upward. "There," she said. "If we climb up there we ought to be able to gain access to the ledge."
Fortunately the going was not too difficult here and soon we were up where Xena thought we ought to be. From there we carefully worked our way around to where we thought the ledge was. Sure enough, just as Xena had predicted, we soon saw a ledge jutting out from the sheer rock facing.
"This will take us right on across," said Xena, the satisfaction very evident in her voice.
As for myself there was something about it that made me...uneasy. I leaned close to the warrioress and in a low voice said, "Xena, don't you think there's something, I don't know, unusual about this thing?"
"It's man made," she replied matter-of-factly.
That was it. Once again she had cleared away my fog of uncertainty.
"Is that possible?" asked Thespus.
Xena walked over and pointed to the peculiar indentations in the facing. "See these marks?" she asked. "They're chisel marks."
"My gods," exclaimed Horatio, "it must have taken decades to cut this out!"
"Why would anyone do such a thing?" I asked.
"Who knows?" Xena replied with a shrug. "In Egypt they built huge pyramids to bury their dead kings in and most of them are broken into and robbed before the air inside them goes stale. We seem to have a very bad habit of wasting massive amounts of time, labor, and money on things that, in the end, are nothing more than glorified landmarks."
"At least this seems to have a useful purpose," I offered.
"Maybe," she said, brushing past me. She walked to the ledge and very carefully stepped out onto it. Xena was without a doubt the heaviest one of us. She was far, far from being fat, though. She was just big. She then flexed her knees a couple of times in a kind of bouncing movement. "It seems to be all right," she declared.
"Is there something that causes you doubt?" Horatio asked.
"Nothing I can put my finger on," she told him. "But we should be careful."
"Be that as it may we must risk it," said Thespus. He then added the clarifier, "Or at least Horatio and I must risk it."
"What are you talkin' about?" Xena demanded. "Gabrielle and I haven't come all this way just to quit now."
"Nnnope," I chimed in.
"Then by all means let us proceed," said Thespus, obviously relieved
As always Xena led the way. This time, however, I noticed she made sure I was the one immediately behind her. This subtle change spoke volumes for it told me she expected trouble in some form. As it turned out we did not have long to wait. We had not advanced more than fifty paces down the shoulder-width path when that chilling sound of stone grating on stone began to be heard. As it was coming behind me I quickly turned and saw poor Thespus down on his knees desperately struggling to get back on his feet. For a moment I thought he might have merely tripped and fallen but, to my horror, I then realized that the section of ledge under him was retracting back into the mountain side! In an instant I sprang forward. I had no idea what I was going to do next but I knew I had to do something--and quickly.
By now the ledge was almost gone. Had but the terrified Thespus been able to regain his feet he might have been able to leap to safety but the retracting shelf kept knocking him over.
"Horatio!" I heard myself yelling. "Grab hold!" I extended my staff over the gaping hole. The quick-witted Horatio realized what I was trying to do and, taking his end of the staff, laid it down and then dropped to his knees over it--effectively anchoring it. I did the same and no sooner were we down when the last of the ledge disappeared into the wall and Thespus fell...but, thank the gods, not very far. He just did manage to grasp the sturdy staff. When he did I saw it bend a little and for a terrible moment I feared it might indeed break but that old piece of wood that had been so faithful in the past held firm and once more saved a life. Thespus pulled himself hand over hand to us and when he was near enough Xena reached a powerful arm down and plucked him up as if he were a child.
"Are you all right?" she asked, looking him over.
The wide-eyed Thespus gulped hard not once but twice. "Quite," he croaked. "Thanks to Gabrielle's quick thinking." He turned to me and breathlessly said, "Thank you, friend Gabrielle."
It was one of those moments in the life that this seventy-five year old woman can now look back upon with some measure of pride and say, "You know, Kid, you did all right."
It was then I felt Xena's hand on my shoulder. Turning to her, I looked into those eyes. She didn't smile nor did she utter a single word--she didn't have to. For in those shining eyes I saw as clearly as one sees the stars in the heavens not only the pride she felt for me at this moment but the love as well. Of course this entire incident took place in a fraction of the time it takes to tell about it. but just for a moment I lost myself in those exquisite blue windows to the soul.
The spell was broken though when Horatio called out, "Look!"
The cause for his excitement was the fact that the ledge was now slowly returning to its original position. "Strange," I remarked.
"Do you think it safe to cross now?" Horatio asked warily.
"Hang on a minute," said Xena. Dropping down on her haunches, she began to carefully explore the area around the trap--for clearly that was what it was.
"What are you looking for?" I asked.
"Something besides mere weight activated that ledge," she explained. "Otherwise it would have gotten me."
"You mean, like a switch or lever or something?"
"Yeah." She then began to carefully smooth out the dust in front of her. It was not long before I heard her give out an "Uh huhh."
"Did you find something?" I asked.
"C'mere," she said, beckoning to me.
Thespus and I gingerly walked out to where she was still hunkered down on the ledge. "Look at this," she said. Peeping over her shoulder we saw she was pointing to a small rectangular piece of stone just barely protruding up from the ledge. "That's what did it," she said. "When Thespus stepped on it the trap was activated." She stood and dusted off her hands. "Okay, Horatio, you can come on over now."
The little fellow moved to join us and together the four of us stood there looking at the diabolical little device. "Ingenious," said Horatio.
"I think treacherous a more apt description," countered Thespus.
I turned and looked in the direction we had been going. "Gee, Xena," I wondered aloud, "do you think there might be more of these?"
"You can count on it," she answered.
By this time the shadows had lengthened considerably. Having already spent the better part of a very busy day on this mountain I came to the unsettling conclusion that night was soon going to fall and that we were more than likely going to be forced to spend it up here.
Xena's thoughts were very much along the same lines for she glanced up to a western sky already beginning to glow a faint reddish-orange. "Let's see if we can't at least get off this ledge before nightfall," she said.
She got no argument from me. I for one was not looking forward to a night on some precipice only a couple of cubits wide. But, as you might expect, even the best laid plans of beasts and bards very often go awry for this is exactly what happened. It turned out there were very many more of these "buttons" as Xena called them. This in itself made the going difficult but it was compounded by the fact that these "buttons" were not always placed in the same relative position. And when even Xena's wonderfully analytical mind could not detect a pattern to their placement it guaranteed a night on the ledge for us because she was forced to painstakingly dig them up one at a time. It is a compliment to her skill that we were able to make it as far as we did but finally the light gave out on us.
"Okay," Xena said, holding up her hand, "that's it. This is as far as we go tonight. Horatio, give me the rope." Once it was in her possession she tied the end of it around her waist and then looped it around mine. "Here," she said, tossing the remainder to Horatio, "you two do the same."
"What's this for?" I asked, idly plucking at the rope.
Xena whacked my wrist and said, "It's just in case somebody gets up in the middle of the night to answer Nature's call and forgets where they are."
I rubbed my smarting hand and replied, "Oh."
Sometime later, deep in the night, I awoke and found myself shivering. Having no idea we would be delayed so much we had not brought our sleeping gear with us and at this time of year it still got plenty cold up at the higher elevations. Don't ask me how she knew I was awake but in the perfect stillness of the mountain air I heard Xena's quiet voice. "Gabrielle, are you cold?"
"No. I'm f-f-fine," I insisted. What made me say that, you ask? The same old thing it had always been. You see my whole life I hated the thought of being a burden to her. I don't think she ever really felt that way or at least, she never told me so but still, I knew what a pain I was to her sometimes.
"Gabrieeelle." This was her "who do you think you're fooling?" tone. If I heard that "Gabrieeelle" once I heard it five thousand times. Gods! What I would not give to hear it just once more!
But I digress. Anyway, I lay there for a moment longer and said, "Well maybe a little."
I heard a faint scraping sound as she drew close and suddenly I found myself not only wrapped in her arms but practically enveloped by her whole body. "Better?" she whispered, throwing her long leg over my stubby little ones.
"Aren't you cold?"
I paused for a moment before answering. "Liar."
"Go to sleep."
"I love you too."
I felt her body shift and she hugged me tighter still. "Good night,
The morning broke crisp and clear. After dividing up the last of the food in my bag we once more began picking our way along the ledge. As a precaution Xena deemed it would be best if we left the rope attached to us. "You never know," she had said. "I might miss one." But, of course, she didn't.
At last we finally stepped off that abominable slab of rock and onto solid ground. Once there I symbolically dusted off my hands and said, "Whew! I'm glad that's over."
"It certainly was interesting," Horatio mused aloud.
Xena, though, was as pragmatic as ever. "Just remember," she warned us, "we have to go back the same way we came."
"Xena, you are the very soul of optimism, you know that?"
"It's pointless to try to sugarcoat dung, Gabrielle," she retorted.
"Nothing," she said. "Forget it."
Thespus eyed the steep slope rising up before us. Uncharacteristically wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he said, "It would seem this is where we commence the final ascent." Somehow I didn't much like the way he said the word "final."
"Gabrielle?" It was Horatio.
"Is there any water left?" I pulled out the small water bag I had brought and held it up to him. The thing was nearly empty.
"Give me that," said Xena, pointing to the bag. She took it from me and hefted it in her hand. "Each of you take one swallow," she said. "That's all there is."
"What about you?" I asked. "There is barely enough for the three of you," she said, handing the bag back to me. "Besides, I'm not thirsty."
"Oh noo," I persisted, "I--"
"Don't argue with me, Gabrielle." Whoa! This was not spoken with her usual mock exasperation. No sir. This was the Xena: Warrior Princess-commanding warlord-"don't screw with me" tone.
"Okay okay," I shot back defiantly. Still though, I did back down a little. "You don't have to get all bent out of shape over it."
"Drink..your..water," she replied forcefully.
I took my allotted swallow and handed the bag to Thespus. He in turn gave it to Horatio who then took his share. "Ahh, Xena, before we proceed I think I need to ahh..."
"Me too," Horatio chimed in.
"Well hurry up," Xena told them, still a little peeved.
Off the two men went in search of some cover.
After they disappeared behind a huge boulder I leaned close to Xena and murmured, "You know sometimes you carry this looking out for me thing a little too far."
Xena drew herself up to her full imposing height and looked down her nose at me. "You think so huh?"
"Yeah. Yeah I do. Why do you do that? After all I am pretty good at taking care of myself."
She bored her eyes in until that burning look of hers startled even me. "Why do I do that?" she asked in that menacing, throaty voice she had such command of. "Because I'm selfish, Gabrielle. Because you mean more to me than anything in the world and when you act like your welfare is no big deal--well it makes me mad. It is a big deal to me."
"Xena, I know how much you love me and I don't have to tell you I'd die for you right here on this very spot if need be. But after all the danger and hardship we've shared over the last seven years don't you think it's about time you recognized the fact that I'm a little tougher than you think I am?" Little did I know that in about three weeks she would give me all the recognition I could handle--and then some.
But for now, plainly irritated, she looked right past me and spoke. "I know what this is. It's that burden thing again right? Gabrielle, how many times have we been over this?"
The truth in her words now served to make me get a little warm. "I don't know and I don't care. But what I do know is we will keep going over this until you admit I'm not a helpless baby. Mentally I braced myself because I figured this would really set her off instead I saw her blue eyes soften.
"I know that," she said. "I know you're tough. Damn tough. But that does not make me worry about you any less." She touched my arm and softly added, "I'll never lose that, Gabrielle, so you might as well get used to it."
What could I do? Aaaand besides, having perhaps the greatest warrior of our age care that much about me did have its advantages. Smiling warmly at her, I said, "It thrills my soul that you think that way, Xena, but still--could you, you know, maybe just ease up at least a little?"
She squinted her eyes at me and simply said, "We'll see." End of discussion.
It was here that our two companions returned. I don't know if it was just coincidence that they just happened to come back at this moment or whether they had heard Xena and I arguing and decided discretion was the better part of valor and waited until we had sorted things out. Whatever the case we were now ready to go.
Even though the slope was rather steep it proved not to be a terribly difficult climb. The irregular rock formations provided for excellent hand and foot holds and within one turn of the hourglass we had advanced high enough to see the summit. We then came to a space which looked as if it had been scooped out of the rock by some giant utensil. "Okay, we'll rest here for a few minutes before going on up," declared Xena.
Without a word I wearily plopped my butt down and pressed my back against the rear of the "scoop."
"We surely must be close to the ring now," allowed Thespus. "We are almost to the top."
"We are close," said Xena.
"Do you know where to look?" I asked.
She nodded that she did and then, resting her head against the back of the scoop, she closed her eyes. A few all too brief minutes later those eyes snapped back open. "Okay," she said, rising to her feet, "let's go." Off she went with the rest of us dutifully falling in behind her.
The last leg of our trek proved to be a short one for no more than a quarter hour later Xena pulled me up on yet another ledge and tilted her head to an opening in the mountainside. "According to Pulsipher this is the place," she announced.
"At last," sighed Horatio.
"I suggest we retrieve it at once and then depart posthaste," said Thespus.
"I intend to," Xena told him. "But there's just one other thing."
Why was I not surprised? There always seemed to be "just one other thing" on these jobs. I mean none of them were ever a matter of going straight in, doing the job, and then getting the Tartarus out. Noooo, there always had to be a darn "one other thing."
"What is it this time?" I asked wearily. "Dryads? Harpies? Sand eels? Evil midgets?"
"Verrry funny," retorted my warrior. "But actually you are not that far off."
"What do you mean?"
"Snakes," she said simply.
"Sn-snakes?" I gulped. "You mean like tiny, harmless, (gulp) snakes, right?"
"Noo, I mean like big, mean, vicious ones," said Xena. "Pulsipher said the story goes that when Aphrodite took the ring from Aeneas she put a curse on it and then cast it into a viper pit."
"Then we have come all this way for nothing," I said dejectedly.
"That's where you're wrong, Gabrielle," Xena said firmly. "We came here to get that ring and by the gods we are not leaving until we do."
Even though I knew better I cried out, "Xena, you can't seriously be thinking of doing this?"
"I am and I will."
"No, Xena," said Thespus, now quietly joining the debate. "Since we are the reason you and Gabrielle are here it is up to Horatio and me to take this final step."
"It's not gonna happen," declared Xena. "I'm the one that has to go."
"But why you?" I persisted.
"I can't explain it to you right now," she said. "But trust me, that's the way it has to be."
"Xena, I assure you Horatio and I are quite capable of accomplishing this last task," said Thespus.
"I'm sure you are," replied Xena. "But nevertheless I am the one that's going in there."
"Enough!" The fierce warrioress put her hands on her hips and spread her feet wide apart. "Boys," she said menacingly, "the debate is over. Don't make me insist on it." She could not have made the message any clearer. She meant to be the one if she had to whip our two friends to do it.
Naturally Thespus and Horatio wanted no part of that. "Very well," said Thespus reluctantly. "We will bend to your wishes."
Why was she being so stubborn about this? I wondered. "There's something you're not telling us, isn't there?" I said.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she retorted. She gestured for Horatio to give her the rope.
"Is there anything we can do to be of assistance?" Horatio asked hopefully.
"As a matter of fact there is," said Xena. She tapped me on the chest with the tip of her finger and said, "See that she stays here."
"Xena, please be careful," I urged, moving to her side.
She stuck her arm through the coil of the rope and let it rest on her shoulder. "Gabrielle, don't worry. I'll be fine."
I nodded stiffly but said nothing. What could I say?
In a clear effort to bolster my sagging spirits she softly said, "Hey, with a little luck you and I will be on our way back to Tanagra by this tomorrow. Who knows? Maybe Rufus will want to do you."
"It's not funny when you say it," I said, my voice barely above a whisper.
She flashed me a very quick, but very warm smile before dropping down on her hands and knees. Just before entering the hole she looked back up at us and said, "Horatio, if I'm not back in an hour or so one I want you to come inside and pull the rope back up. Then I want all of you to get the Tartarus out of here."
"Do it!" she commanded. With that she crawled through the narrow slit in the rock and disappeared.
As there was nothing else for us to do the three of us sat down by the entrance and waited...and waited... and waited.
Presently Horatio looked over to his friend. "How long do you think she has been in there, Thespus?"
Thespus put his hand over his eyes and looked up. "Judging from the position of the sun I would estimate approximately sixty minutes, Horatio."
Gods, to me it seemed more like sixty hours! What was she doing in there? I wondered anxiously. Was she all right? What was happening?
"Then it is time for a decision as to what our next course of action shall be," said Horatio.
I stood up and dusted off my behind. "I don't know about you guys," I said resolutely, "but I'm going in after her."
"It would appear, Horatio, this is the correct move despite our warrior friend's exhortation to do otherwise," said Thespus.
"I concur," said the little man. "Besides, we must have that ring."
"You guys can stick your ring where the sun never shines," I said heatedly. "All I care about is Xena."
"I am sorry, Gabrielle, It was not my intent to sound callous," said Horatio. I already knew that but I'm afraid my fear and frustration were starting to get the better of me. Kneeling down, I stuck my head in the hole. I could scarcely see more than a couple of cubits in front of me. Gods, Xena, I thought fearfully, what have you gotten yourself in to?
"I assure you, friend Gabrielle, we will do everything in our power to assist you," said Thespus.
I backed out of the hole and stood up. "I'm glad to hear that," I said. "Now let's go get her and the ring."
"That won't be necessary," a voiced echoed from inside the crack.
"Xena!" I cried. I dropped to my knees in front of the hole just in time to get whacked in the stomach with the coiled up rope. Needless to say I could have cared less. "Xena!" I anxiously repeated. "Are you all right?"
"I'm...fine," she said with a grunt as she squeezed back out the hole.
"Did you acquire the ring?" asked Thespus the anxiety in his voice as plain as mine.
Xena's response was to ask a question of her own. "What do you think?"
"You did!" exclaimed Horatio. "Xena, you are a true hero!"
I slipped my arm around her waist and helped her to her feet. She was literally covered from head to toe with a kind of very fine dust. It was in her beautiful hair, her eyebrows, up her nose--everywhere. "Did you run into any trouble?" I asked as I dusted her off.
"A little," she replied tersely.
It was then I saw the blood on her arm. It had caked up dust covering it but I nevertheless was able to recognize it for what it was. "Xena, you're hurt!"
"Relax, Gabrielle, it's not mine," she said.
"Was it bad?" I asked.
"Pulsipher did not have the story quite right after all," she said, effectively dodging my query.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"As it turned out the ring wasn't in a pit guarded by hundreds of vipers."
"Then where, may I ask, did the blood come from?" Horatio astutely asked.
"There was just one snake," replied Xena. "One big snake. It was Python."
"By the gods, Xena," I gasped, "you had to fight a python?"
"Not a python," she corrected me, shakily wiping her mouth with the back of her hand,"The Python."
"Are you sure you're all right?" I asked, looking hard at her. It was not often that I saw her like this. She might be the very epitome of stoicism but that barely perceptible shaking in her hand spoke volumes about what she had gone through to secure that ring.
"Yeah. He just knocked me around a little that's all."
Just a little my ass, I thought morosely. Once more I slipped my arm around her waist and I gave her an extra hard squeeze. Considering the time and the place, it was the best I could do to express my feelings for her. She, of course, understood fully the message I was trying to convey. She put her hand on my shoulder for a moment in an apparent effort to steady herself but I knew the real meaning of her act.
"I thought Apollo killed Python," I said.
"Somebody lied," was Xena's terse reply.
"Where is it?" asked Horatio.
Xena reached down between her breasts and plucked out that object which had caused us to travel so far. Immediately I saw why the thing was so desirable. It was made of thick gold and beautifully crafted with large, triangular gems adorning its entire circumference.
"It's beautiful," said Horatio. "May I see it?"
Xena placed it between her thumb and index finger and held it up for all of us to see. "You can look at it," she said, "but don't touch it."
"Why not?" asked Thespus.
"There's something about this ring I didn't tell you before," she replied.
"What?" I asked. She then proceeded to tell us. When she had finished a disturbing thought suddenly came to me. "What if Aphrodite finds out we have this?" I asked.
"That bubble head?" scoffed Xena. "She's forgotten all about this ring and this place."
I leaned very close to her and murmured through clenched teeth, "You mean--you hope she has."
"You got that right," came her wry, almost inaudible reply.
"Praise Fortune," said Thespus.
"Let us depart this place of adversity," suggested Horatio.
"By all means," said Xena.
I won't bore you with the details of our descent. Suffice it to say it was more or less a reversal of our climb. We were able to make better time across the treacherous ledge because all of the "buttons" had been uncovered and all we had to do was avoid them. The only place that gave me any real cause for concern was back at the gorge. Xena had obviously been beaten up quite a bit in her fight with Python and I feared she might not have the necessary strength left to make that leap back across. But with that fierce yell of hers echoing through the canyon she ignored her pain and leaped it with ease--once again proving just how magnificently indomitable her will was. Despite our making such good time we were forced to spend one more night on the mountain.
Once or twice that evening I tried to learn the details of Xena's battle with the giant snake but to no avail. In fact it would be many months before she would relent and finally tell me of her horrific battle down in that black pit. But, the gods willing, we'll leave that for another day. Suffice it to say it was a horrific battle and only by using her deadly chakram with exceptional precision was she able to destroy the monster.
A couple of hours after dawn the next day we, at long last, found ourselves back down at the base of Mount Helikon. Unfortunately, we no sooner made it to the horses before we found out we had company. For it was then at least twenty men sprang out from their hiding places and surrounded us. Xena drew her sword and readied herself but from behind the mass of men a mocking voiced scolded, "Uh uh uh, I wouldn't do that if I were you, Xena."
Then men parted to let the voice through. "Broooosius," snarled Xena menacingly.
So Brosius had found us after all. "I thought you said we wouldn't have to worry about him," I said.
"I was wrong," she replied simply. "How did you know where to find us?" she asked him.
"That's my secret," he told her. Later we would learn that the guy who had sold us the horses had been a plant for Brosius and, after following us for a short time, had somehow managed to deduce our destination.
"So the great Warrior Princess does remember me," he said, smiling broadly.
"How could I forget a pig like you?" she purred.
"Ohhh, I'm hurt," he said. "And to think you used to like me."
"You're dreaming," she hissed. "You meant nothing to me. You were just...useful, that's all."
"You mean like that night after we laid waste to Pomphrey?" he asked with a leer. "I was useful to you that night wasn't I, Xena?"
"What do you want?" she asked, positively spitting the words out.
"Don't take me for a fool, Princess. I know you went up Helikon to get the ring." He waved with his hand and a half-dozen men loaded their bows and aimed them straight at me. "I also know that whatever you go after...you get. Now, if you don't want Gabriella here to be made into a pin cushion you'll hand over the Ring of Aeneas."
"Hey," I said sharply, "it's Gabrielle."
"Whatever," he growled at me. Turning to Xena, he said, "Well? I'm waiting."
"You know that killing her will be the last thing you'll ever do on this earth, don't you?"
"Of course I know you'd kill me, Xena," he replied. "But your friend would be just as dead now wouldn't she?"
"You always were a smart one, Brosius," Xena said with grudging admiration. Reaching down into her bosom, she pulled out the ring. Holding it out to him in her open palm, she said, "You better enjoy it while you can, 'cause you know I'll be comin' after ya."
"I'll be looking forward to it," he said. Then he looked over at me and said, "Take the ring from her and give it to me."
Xena never batted an eye. "You're the big, bad warlord," purred Xena. "Why don't you take it?"
Brosius broke into a wide grin, revealing perfect teeth. "I have not lived this long by being a fool, Xena. You want me to get close to make a play but I'm not gonna give you the chance." He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. "You, get the ring. I'm not going to tell you again."
I was in a pickle now for sure. If I hesitated to take the ring he would undoubtedly suspect something but still...
Fortunately Xena solved the problem nicely. "She's not your go-fer," she snarled. With a look of malicious contempt she tossed the ring down at his feet. "You want the ring? Well there it is. Now you can root the dirt off it like the pig you are."
"This, Xena, sums you up very nicely these days," said Brosius, bending down to retrieve the ring. "A feeble gesture from a pathetic do-gooder." With a gloating smile of satisfaction he put it on his finger. "Now would you look at that," he smirked, holding up his hand. "A perfect fit. And once I master the ring's power I will be unstoppable."
"Enjoy it while you can," said Xena, returning his smirk.
"Tsk tsk, you always were a sore los--"
Brosius stopped. Staring wide-eyed at the ring, he suddenly began to furiously tug at it. "What is this?" he demanded. "What's happening?"
"What's the matter?" sneered Xena. "You're not having second thoughts are ya?"
"You bitch!" he shrieked. "What did you do?"
"You're a dead man, Brosius," said Xena grimly.
"Get if off!" he shrilly repeated. "Get it off!"
Seeing their leader was now suffering some unseen agony, his men slowly began to back away.
"Get it off!" screamed Brosius. "Get it...arrrrrggggghhhhhhh!"
What happened next was quiet possibly the most shocking thing I ever saw. Brosius fell to his knees and screamed again. The last word he ever uttered was a tortured, "Xenaaaaaaaa!" To my horror the man's eyeballs actually blew out of their sockets. That did it for his already skittish men. Throwing down their weapons, they then beat a very hasty retreat back down the mountain path.
As the screaming Brosius lay on the ground writhing in indescribable torment, I saw his skin begin to literally melt off his bones. It was here Xena yanked me to her and forced me to bury my head into her shoulder. "Don't look, Gabrielle," she yelled over Brosius' screams.
As she put her hand to the back of my head I heard an equally horrified Thespus gasp, "Gods preserve us!"
Fortunately the end for Brosius was not long in coming. After his last shriek was through echoing off great Helikon I heard Xena tell our two friends to gather up our horses. Finally she released me and I turned to see what had been Brosius' final fate. All that was left of him now was a gray pile of ashes lying on the ground in the rough shape of a person. As Xena walked over to them they were already beginning to be blown away by the mountain winds.
Xena bent over and brushed away the ashes with the back of her hand. Picking up the ring, she once more deposited it back into her bosom for safekeeping.
"How did you know that he meant you when Pulsipher told you that only the true warrior that had conquered the most dreaded enemy of all could touch the ring and live?"
"I didn't know for sure," she replied matter-of-factly. "It was just a chance I had to take."
"But...you had some idea that it would be okay. Right?" I guess I needed some kind of assurance from her that she had known all along what to do. I just could not bear the thought of her intentionally putting herself at risk to such a horrible fate.
"Well, yes. I mean I did have a pretty good idea as to what he was talking about," she said. "You see, Gabrielle, the most dreaded enemy any warrior can face is their own conscience. No one, not even one's worst enemy, can torture them in quite the same way their own mind can. The human conscience has an almost limitless ability for inflicting misery on the soul.."
It goes without saying that here was a woman who knew whereof she spoke.
"How did you know you had conquered your enemy?" I asked quietly.
"Again, I didn't," she answered. "I won't lie to you, Gabrielle. At first I had my doubts. But as I was descending into that black hole I realized I had one very big trump card in my favor."
"Oh yeah, what was that?" I asked.
"You," she said softly.
"Me?" I puzzled. "How so?"
"Come on, Gabrielle," she said. "you know what you've done for me. How you've time and time again helped me to walk the right path."
"Xena I haven't done anything for you that you couldn't have done for yourself," I said. "In your heart you know that's true."
"We're ready, Xena," said Horatio as he and his friend let the horses out from the bushes.
"Be right there," Xena called back. Turning back to me she said, "You're wrong--more wrong than you'll ever know. Now come on."
To this day I still haven't quite figured out what she meant by that. Somehow I don't think it was the obvious bit about my representing her conscience. I think it went much deeper than that. Then again--maybe it didn't. Xena was such an enigma it was difficult to say with any certainty. Whatever the case it was now plain that something good had come from all this, something much more important than Thespus and Horatio getting their ring. It meant that my warrioress had at last found some measure of inner peace. That, my friends, was worth to me than all the stones in all the rings in all the treasure chests in all the world.
As we walked down the hill to rejoin our two companions I said, "You know, Xena, Thespus and Horatio, are pretty good guys too. What makes you think they couldn't touch the ring?"
"That's an easy one," she said.
"Well let's hear it then," I urged.
Xena stopped dead and looked me squarely in the eye. "Well in the case of our friends down there it's because they're not true warriors," she said.
"You wanna know a secret, Xena? Sometimes I still wish I was a warrior," I said wistfully.
Her answer knocked me for a loop. "What makes you think you aren't?"
Does that mean you think I am?" I asked. This was too much to hope for. To earn Xena's recognition as a warrior would be the achievement of a lifetime.
"Gabrielle," she said softly, "you were a true warrior before I ever knew you, even before you even knew which end of a sword was up."
"How can you say that?" I protested. "I was about as helpless as you can get when I first met you."
She tapped me between my breasts and said, "Because it's what's in here--in your heart--that makes you a true warrior. Sure lots of guys can wield a sword--but that doesn't make then warriors. You, Gabrielle of Poteidaia, are, always have been, and always will be a true warrior."
Once more she started down the hillside. As for me I stood there for a delicious moment basking in the glow of Xena's words. Then suddenly it dawned on me. "Xena, wait!"
"What is it now?"
"If what you say is true, that I am a true warrior, then why can't I touch the ring?"
"Remember what Brosius said just before he died, about mastering the ring's power?"
"Uh huh. So what is the ring's power?" I asked.
"It ruthlessly protects one worth enough to bear it," said Xena. "It is so potent that even if its owner is not wearing the ring it still can act as a sort of magnifying conduit for that person's emotions."
"Wait a minute," I said, interrupting her. "Are you saying that your emotions are what killed Brosius?"
"Only one emotion," said Xena, deadly serious now. "Hate. You see, Gabrielle, if you had touched the ring then by default you would have become the ring's rightful owner. And I knew you weren't capable of hating anyone enough to activate the ring or to be blunt about it--to kill them with it."
"But can a true warrior hate?" I asked.
"All I know, Gabrielle, is that I can hate with the best of 'em." She took withdrew the ring from its hiding place and held it up to me. "You can carry it now if you want. I think Thespus and Horatio will be much better served if the last warrior to touch it is a warrior of peace."
"What a nice thing to say," I said, taking the ring. Almost without thinking I slipped it on my finger and as with Brosius the thing immediately conformed to my finger size. "Amazing," I said with no small amount of wonder.
"Ain't it though," was Xena's terse reply.
We then joined up with our two friends.
Two days hence found the four of us standing at a boat dock in a little fishing village on the Aegean. To allow for the ring to be safely transported by the two of them Xena had enlisted the local blacksmith to make a iron box for it. She had then wrapped the ring in freshly woven linen, put that in a brand new leather bag, and deposited the whole thing in the iron box. She had finished it all off by putting the box in a brand new burlap sack.
"My friends, mere words can never express the gratitude Horatio and I feel for what you have done," said Thespus.
"Well, just make sure you're careful with that thing," said Xena, smiling as she pointed to the burlap bag he was holding.
"Do not worry," said Horatio, "I for one am not anxious to see it work its power again."
"I hope that by bringing this back to your people it will make your temple safe," I said.
"We will have fulfilled their condition," said Horatio. "Hopefully that will be enough."
"Hey!" a gruff voice called down from above us. It was the captain of the ship they were to take back home. "If you two want us to make the tides you'd better be boardin' now."
"Understood, my good man," Thespus said. Turning back to us he said, "Well this is it. Good-bye, my friends. I shall always treasure my experiences with you."
"And I as well," added Horatio.
"You guys take care," said Xena.
The four of us exchanged one last handshake and then it was time for them to go. We followed them to the gangplank and here Thespus turned to us once more. "Oh by the way," he said, reaching under his robes. Extracting a small bag, he tossed it to me. "This is for you friend ahh, what was his name--Salmonella?
"Salmoneus," said Xena, grinning.
"Of course, Salmoneus. As you prescribed, Xena, we have placed two hundred dinars in there for him."
"That ought to hold him," she observed.
Thespus and Horatio made their way up the gangplank. Once on board they turned and waved to us one last time before disappearing below deck.
"Well that certainly was interesting," I said cheerily.
"That's putting it mildly," said Xena, walking away from the ship. "To tell you the truth the whole thing was a big fat pain in the ass but at least we were able to help them out."
"And we made two new friends," I reminded her. "That's always interesting."
Later, after we had retrieved our horses, we stood on a hill outside of town and watched as the ship bearing Thespus and Horatio slipped over the horizon. We never saw them again. Did they fulfill their mission? Did their part of the story have a happy ending? I don't know, we never heard. But I always liked to think it did. You see, this was often how these things ended. There were many of these occasions where, in the end, everything could not be tied up into neat little parcels--not even by the gifted Xena. And this taught me a very valuable lesson. In my early days I was of the opinion that to tell a good story one must have not only a definite beginning and end, but a moral as well. Traveling with Xena, however, I came to understand that life isn't always so well defined. She taught me that the clear cut black and white of evil and good oftentimes blur into varying shades of gray. No matter how noble our intentions might be things very often as Xena said, "Don't work out the way you want." I came to know that it was not the tidy ending or the moral that mattered so much as the thrilling sense of adventure that living for the moment brought. That was the story. And as we will explore later in a tale called "The Offering" even the mighty Xena did not always win.
Oh, and one more thing. Remember the twenty dinars Xena took from my bag without telling me? Remember how she said it was "personal?" Wanna know what she spent it on? What she really, really spent it on? Now I assume we're all grown ups here so I'll tell you. It seems that during one of her early morning forays she ran across this ahh, person. Now as you know the subject of ahem, "personal protection" is a rather delicate one and various cultures go about dealing with this problem in all kinds of ways. For instance Egyptian woman are partial to using softened papyrus. Xena said in Chin they use something called paper. The savages of the plains below Nubia use rolled up grass. In Iberia they use wool. I however preferred the one invented by our friend Hippocrates. This one consisted of a special kind of lint wrapped around very soft wood. It afforded good protection and was more apt to stay in place. However it did take a certain amount of force to insert the thing. In fact Xena always jokingly referred to it as a "tamp-in."
Anyway, on this particular morning Xena ran across this healing woman. Somehow or other they got to talking about "that female thing" To Xena's surprise the healing woman had opened up her case and there inside were all kinds of these "tamp-ins" already made up. You see we normally just fashioned one ourselves out of whatever materials we might have handy but here she had dozens of them already made. Well! Xena got so giddy she bought the whole lot--lock, stock, and chalk. I am not making this up! After that we had ready made supply of these "tamp-ins" for quite a while. We kept them clean by wrapping them in fresh linen and placing them in a watertight bag. The only reason I tell you this is because I wanted to illustrate that although Xena was the greatest person I ever knew, she was a human being just like the rest of us. An incredibly brave, brilliant, wonderful human being but a human being nevertheless. And that was where the twenty dinars had gone. I had to admit it was a pret-ty darn good investment.
After leaving the fishing village Xena and I at long last were able to make our way to Tanagra where Rufus did in fact create a beautiful bust of the Warrior Princess. I still have it. However our pleasant respite did not last long for within two weeks of the vernal equinox we found ourselves up in central Greece smack in the middle of a bitter war.
End of Winter
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