The Living Dead

by Ripley

 

Xena: Warrior Princess and all its characters are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. The story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author.

This story contains mild violence. If this disturbs you, you may wish to read something else. Then again, how do you stand to watch the show?

Spoiler Warning! This story takes place during the fourth season, after "Family Affair" and before "Crusader." If you have not seen through these episodes, you may want to discontinue reading.

I would love to hear from you. Write to me (OfcrRipley@aol.com) and let me know what you think about the story, or just chat about Xena stuff in general. I can never talk too much about my favorite show!


 

How many lives have been ruined by the notion that they are destiny bound? How many souls saved by the truth that they are bound by destiny?

Xena Red Scrolls

Author Unknown

Chapter I

 

"Xena, Iím not saying we should spend the rest of our lives here, just enjoy the sights a little, thatís all."

The comment barely carried above the cacophony of the busy market street. Vendors on either side of the cobblestone pavement hawked their wares and argued with potential customers. Small puffs of dust stirred beneath the feet of the many people walking in the center of the thoroughfare. Nearby, a thin man in a loincloth and a turban appeared to be swallowing a flame from a torch and then spewing it out, to the amazement of several children gathered around him.

Two women came to a halt just in front of him.

"Nice form," the taller of the two muttered as she watched him breathe fire. Her shorter companion stared at him briefly and then cut her eyes over at the woman quizzically. She shook her head as if to clear her thoughts and then continued the conversation.

"Look, weíre in Lycia, one of the most interesting and wealthy lands in all of Greece. Once we locate the King of Cenchreaeís son and tell him to go home, why donít we take a little time to soak up the atmosphere?"

The taller woman turned to her as if hearing her for the first time. "Soak up the atmosphere." She turned in the direction they had been heading and began striding up the road. The girl hurried to catch up.

"Yeah. Itíd be like a little vacationóa break. Joxerís in Tiryns waiting to see if Bellerophon shows back up there. Once we locate the boy, I could go to the theater, and you could Ė" She frowned. "Well, you could shoe Argo or something . . ." Her voice trailed off and the horse that her friend was leading whickered behind them. "Anyway, itíd be great fun. Whadaya say?"

The other woman stopped completely. "Gabrielle, did I mention that I had been here before?"

"Well, no, but if you thought it was boring Iím sure thereís something you could do while I look aroundó"

"No, Gabrielle, I mean before." She nodded toward her right and for the first time the other woman noticed a small group of people who were staring at the two of them in a less than friendly manner.

"Uh, you mean, like when . . ."

"Like when I was more interested in that tale that this was a wealthy city and not that it was a cultural center. I relieved Xanthos and a few other Lycian cities of their goods and took out quite a few people along the way." Her jaw set and she looked off in the distance, seeing something in her dark past that would never quite go away.

Her friend sighed and they continued up the street.

"Okay, but look, could we at least get something to eat here? Iíll be glad to cook once we get out of the city, but you should give me a decent meal before we go back to rabbit stew."

"Agreed." Her companion smiled briefly, something that appeared to be rare with her, and pointed to a building just ahead on the right. "Thatís a good place, if I remember correctly. Several of my men nearly left me permanently just so they could spend their nights there."

"Doesnít sound like such a bad idea," her friend quipped, but there was a smirk on her face as she muttered it.

The older woman tied the horse to a post and stepped into the darkened tavern. A burly man glistening with sweat was wiping off a long wooden counter that had been polished to a shine by the mugs of wine and bowls of stew that had slipped across it over the years. He glanced up at the two women briefly, then completely stopped what he was doing and just stared at the taller of the two. She was at least as tall as most men that he had seen, and dressed in a dark brown tunic and skirt that were covered with bronze armor. Armored bands protected her wrists and arms, and across her back she carried a broadsword. The look in her clear blue eyes said she knew how to use it, too.

Her companion was a less intimidating figure, standing a head shorter than the warrior, and carrying nothing more than a staff and wearing no armor at all over her short Amazonian skirt and tunic. The tavernkeeper did notice, however, that the stomach and arms that were well exposed by this clothing appeared to be quite muscular for one so small. The warrior did not surprise him. He had seen her before; her choice of companions did. He decided it was best to beard the Nemean lion in its lair.

"Xena. Been a long time. Whereís the rest of your crew? Youíre takiní Ďem rather young and small these days, arenít you?"

Xena strode over to the man. "She is my crew, Atraxis." She slid onto a stool. "And donít judge a scroll by the paper itís written on. She could flatten you in a heartbeat." The young woman sidled up to the counter as well.

"Hi."

"Gabrielle, meet Atraxis, a fine tavern owner and great cook, when heís not passing judgement on his customers."

"Nice to meet you," Gabrielle smiled, and shook his hand.

Yes, Xena had definitely changed in her choice of company.

"Whatíll it be?" he asked. Enough of the pleasantries. The sooner he got Xena out of here, the better off heíd be, no matter what kind of company she was keeping. Any moment, he might have half his possessions destroyed and all of his dinars resting in her satchel, if the warrior princess took a notion in that direction.

Gabrielle spoke right up. "I want a loaf of that bread I smell baking, a plate of whateverís on the spit, and a tall cup of cool water from your well out front."

Atraxis glanced at Xena and she cocked an eyebrow and shrugged.

"Now I see where all that muscle comes from," he muttered, as he reached behind him and pulled out a mug. He handed it to the girl. "Do you mind going to the well yourself? Iíll get the food ready."

"Sure." She took the mug and strode out the open door.

Xena watched Atraxis as he slid a board with a large loaf of bread on it out of the hearth. He put it on the counter with a thud and slid a knife out of his belt with which to cut it.

"And what do you want?" he asked as he cut.

"Same thingóexcept I want a cup of that wine youíre so famous for."

"Right." He finished the bread and grabbed a cup and wineskin from the wall behind him. "So, Xena, what brings you back to Xanthos?" He was trying to sound casual. Her reply told him it wasnít working.

"Donít worry, Atraxis. Iím not here to relieve you of your valuables. Weíre looking for a young man that might have passed through hereóa boy, really. His nameís Bellerophon. Hear anything of him?"

Atraxis stopped in the midst of pouring the wine and looked at her suspiciously.

Her voice softened somewhat. "No, Atraxis, Iím not here to kill him. His father wants him back in Cenchreae where he belongs. Weíre helping out."

He set the cup in front of her and crossed his arms. "Yeah, Iíd heard some things about you beiníchanged and allóbut I didnít believe it."

Xena took a large swallow of the liquid. "Aah, just as I remember it." She took another long drink. "I donít blame you for not believing it. Once I wouldnít have believed it myself."

"This got anything to do with her?" He nodded at the door.

"Itís got a great deal to do with her."

The tavernkeeper grunted and began to slice large slabs of juicy meat off the pig roasting on the spit. He didnít quite believe her and Xena knew it. But she also didnít much care. It wasnít her duty to try to convince him that she had changed. Heíd either figure it out or he wouldnít. She just had to do what she thought was best along the way. She decided to change the subject.

"So, is Iobates still ruling these days?"

"As far as we know. Your guess is as good as mine."

"Still the hermit in that old castle of his, I guess."

"We never see him. But thereís been no funeral, and the city prospers, so what do the people care?"

"So all this talk of that creature roaming the countryside, the Chimaera, thatís not true?"

"All I can say is Iíve never seen it."

"Hmm." Xena took a gulp of her wine. "Do they still say the kingís under a curse?"

"Nobody talks of it much anymore. Weíre so used to never seeing him that no one even thinks about it."

Xena shrugged and looked around the tavern at the dark walls and small tables. She had been to Iobatesís castle onceóand only once. It had been enough. She had planned on stripping the entire thing and maybe holding the ruler for ransom, but she never made it past the lower main hall. It was one of the few times from her warrior days that she had been really and truly frightened, especially for no apparent reason. When she had given the order to turn around, none of her men had questioned her. They had felt it, tooóan eerie quiet, like a heavy blanket, rested on the place. A large unkempt rose garden, but no birds. And most everything in it had been black and dead. A large castle, but no sounds emanating from anywhere within. It looked and smelled like a tomb. Like death.

Xena shook herself and looked back at Atraxis as he set a huge plate in front of her. Suddenly, there were some shouts from outside and the distinct sound of a female voice saying, "Back off!"

In one lithe movement, Xena was up. "You just had to send her for water," she said.

Atraxis leaned over the counter to try and see out the open door. "I thought you said she could take care of herself."

"She can," Xena muttered casually; but he noticed she unhooked the sharp metal disc at her side as she stepped through the door.

 

Chapter II

 

Great. Just great, Gabrielle thought to herself. All I wanted was some water. Why do these things always happen to me? Xenaís going to kick my---

"Askiní fer trouble, arenít ya, little lady?" The speaker was a burly man with long unkempt hair and the odor of one who had not bathed in a very long time.

Gabrielle balanced her long staff on her thumbs, her fingers curled gently around the top of the weapon. As she turned her body, she twisted each end of the staff alternately, turning her head to see where all her opponents were.

Two other toothless thugs, who couldnít be anything other than the first oneís sons, were trying to get behind her. She turned to the old woman at the well behind her.

"Go on into that tavern. I have a friend in there. Youíll be all right."

The woman started to obey, but was frozen by the sound of one of the boys calling for his dog to give chase.

 

"Go on!" Gabrielle called, then turned back to the dog. He was already limping from the bruised ribs she had given him just a moment ago. It was the sight of this dog nipping at the old womanís heels and the guffaws of its owners that had prompted her to interfere in the first place.

The old woman began to hobble quickly toward the tavern. The dog began to follow.

THWACK!

He rolled over twice in the dirt with howling yelps of agony, then got up and limped off with his tail between his legs.

Now, if only its stupid masters would be as easy.

The bigger of the two boys yelled out in a fit of rage and ran straight toward her. Gabrielle tilted her staff and caught him hard in the knee with the right end. As he reached down to touch his wounded leg, she brought the other end around and hit him squarely in the jaw. He stared at her stupidly before tumbling to the ground like a large tree. Bringing the staff up and over like a wood chopper, she poked him firmly in his ample stomach for good measure. The wind sailed out of him like an empty wineskin.

She turned and stalked toward the puffing father, her jaw set and fire in her eyes.

"Whatís the idea of setting your dog on a defenseless old woman like that?í she said through clenched teeth.

The father backed up and wiped the sweat from his dripping eyebrows with his shaking hand. "Sheís just an old witch who thinks sheís a seer. Besides," he added as he pulled a knife and tossed it from one hand to the other, "I donít see as itís any of your business, you little dwarf."

She knew she should wait until mid toss of that knife before she struck. Thatís when he would be at the greatest disadvantage. But that crack about her size had done it. There was something about traveling around the countryside with a statuesque warrior princess that made you a little sensitive about your diminutiveness. She charged toward the buffoon, arching her staff as she did so. He was smarter than he looked, however, and had already decided that he wasnít going to let her get too close to him with that destructive stick. With a grunt, he hurled the knife at her as hard as he could. It spun through the air, and Gabrielle realized with a great deal of regret that she should have waited to charge until that thing had been out of his hands.

Suddenly, there was a high-pitched singing noise, as if a bird of prey were diving toward them, and she saw sparks fly right in front of her face as something round and sharp knocked the knife to the ground and whirred out of sight.

"What in Tartarus?" muttered the father.

Gabrielle didnít bother to look. She knew exactly what it was before she heard the familiar female voice say, "Son of a Bacchae!"

"Xena, I am handling this just fine, thank you."

"I can see that." The warrior princess was ten steps behind her, her hand clutching the object called a chakram that had just kept the bard from getting her face cleaved in two. Xena took a threatening step forward.

"But if that pile of dirt tries knife-throwing again, he may not have a hand to throw it with."

The manís eyes widened to the size of plates.

"And that goes double for you, sonny!" she called toward a recessed doorway where the other son was cringing. Gabrielle stepped toward the older man, staff in the ready position, but he stared at her now like a dumbfounded animal, then suddenly lifted his hands, palms up, and waved them.

"Look, we donít want no trouble." He directed his gaze to the conscious son. "Ethan, get Othan and letís get outta here!"

Ethan made a sniffling sound and ran to grab the body of his brother. The older man, still waving his hands, walked slowly to where they were, never taking his eyes off Xena. He grabbed a limp arm and began to drag the heavy burden down an alley.

Gabrielle frowned after them.

"And let that be a lesson to you!" she called out lamely.

She tossed her staff into one hand and spun toward Xena. The warrior had already hooked the chakram on her belt and was turning back toward the tavern.

"I was doing just fine, you know," Gabrielle said as she stepped alongside of her.

"You should have waited untiló"

"The knife was between hands, I know," Gabrielle finished for her. "It was a mistake. But Xena," she stopped and put her hand on her companionís arm to halt her. "It was my mistake. Iíve made plenty and Iíll make plenty more."

"Not like that one, you wonít. That son of a goat was going to split your head in two. Gabrielle, you canít make mistakes in battle, or you wonít get a chance to make another one. And I may not always be there to help you out next time."

"Iím counting on it!"

The minute Gabrielle said it she knew it had been a mistake. The warrior princess drew up to her full height and pursed her lips in that way she had when her bitter or cynical side took over. Her blue eyes grew icy, but not before Gabrielle had seen the hurt there, too.

"Maybe youíll get lucky. They donít like me much here in Lycia." She turned and stepped through the door.

"Xena, wait. I didnít mean that. Itís just tható"

"Atraxis!" Xena yelled. "Get me a new plate of food! I want it hot! And another mug of that wine!"

You stupid idiot! Gabrielle chastised herself as she stepped through the doorway. I did make a mistake, but sometimes Xena makes me so mad pointing them out and then talking about saving me.

Well, she has saved your butt a number of times, as I recall.

The bard was arguing with herself. She did it quite often. When she wasnít thinking out conversations in her head, she was thinking up stories and improving the ones she had written in her scrolls. It was a natural product of her love of words and the constant presence of someone as quiet as Xena.

She continued as she stepped toward Xena and the counter. Yeah, but that crack about always being there to save me was totally uncalled for. Iím pretty good in a fight, and I have saved her just a few times myself.

Sheís just looking out for you.

Yeah, but sheís gotten so much worse since she thought she lost me in the Temple of Dahak.

Apologize.

Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, but was halted by the touch of bony fingers on her arm. She spun around.

It was the old woman from the well. She had forgotten about her.

"Are you all right?" the woman asked breathlessly.

"Oh, Iím fine. What about you?" Gabrielle gently urged her into a nearby chair. "How about some food? Atraxis! How about a bowl of that soup over here?" She sat down across from the woman. "Whatís your name?"

"My name is Hadara. I was born in the East, but Iíve spent a good many years here."

Gabrielle could tell that she had spent a good many years somewhere, because her face was deeply wrinkled and her hair was completely gray.

"Why were those thugs tormenting you?"

"Iím a seer." In spite of herself, Gabrielle inched closer to the table when she heard this.

"Iím very good at seeing the future for people, and they pay me to do so."

"And that frightens those oafs out there?"

The old woman chuckled, a strange rasping sound that came from deep in her throat. "Them? Oh no! They just didnít like what I predicted for their immediate future."

"And what was that?"

"A severe beating from two strangers."

Gabrielle looked at the twinkling eyes of the old woman, then laughed out loud. Xena turned to look at her, and the girl suddenly felt guilty, remembering their unresolved argument.

"You are troubled about your friend?"

Gabrielle stared at the old woman. She hesitated for just a moment, then shook her head. "Just a little. We had a small disagreement, thatís all. We have them often. Just the natural result of always being together with someone."

Hadara turned to look at Xena. "She is troubled about you as well. There is great fear in her heart over youóan ache she has had for some time."

The girl stared at the old woman in amazement, then pushed back her chair and stood up. "Excuse me for just a moment." She strode toward the counter and Xena turned back toward her food. Gabrielle slid up on the stool next to Xena and sat facing her friend.

"Xena, Iím sorry about what I said out there. I wasnít thinking. I wasnít thinking the entire time. I let my anger get the better of me and we both know that a person canít focus when they do that. Thanks for saving my neck." She held her breath and kept her eyes on Xena. Suddenly, her friendís shoulders sagged from a relief of tension and Xena turned to face her. Her eyes held that soft look that Gabrielle liked best and she let out a breath before Xena even spoke.

"Look Gabrielle, Iím the one who should be apologizing. I overreacted and made some comments I shouldnít have." She placed her hand on Gabrielleís and smiled. "And we both know you donít have any temper to speak of." The smile disappeared and she swallowed. "Itís just that when I saw you in danger I kept reliving that moment when you saved me from Hope and Dahak and jumped into that pit. I canít live through that again. Not ever." She frowned in discomfort. That moment when Gabrielle made the ultimate sacrifice wasnít the only tragedy she had been visualizing. When Xena had gone to search for Gabrielle in the Amazon Land of the Dead, an evil witch named Alti had shown her a vision of another death for Gabrielleóthis time on a Roman cross. The vision also included Xena being crucified, but Xena had been disturbed by that fact only in that it meant she wouldnít be around to save Gabrielle. She hadnít told the bard about the disturbing prophecyónot yet. She was hoping somehow to change their destiniesóif indeed Alti had even shown her that. She hadnít worked up the courage to tell Gabrielle about it, and she had to admit she didnít have it now.

Gabrielle smiled and squeezed Xenaís hand. "You wonít have to live through it. Iíll be very sensible, I promise. No more stupid moves." The two friends looked at each other a moment, then realized that Atraxis was standing there gawking at them. Xena turned toward him.

"Atraxis, I believe we asked for soup for that woman over there. Would you like to get it, or should I?"

The tavernkeeper hurriedly filled a bowl with the steaming liquid and handed it to Xena. She grabbed it and headed towards Hadara, Gabrielle following close behind. She set the bowl down in front of the old woman and leaned up against the wall with her arms crossed. Gabrielle took the chair she had vacated before.

"Eat that," Xena commanded. "Itíll make you feel better."

"Thank you," Hadara murmured, then took a sip of the soup. "Thatís good, but I already felt better when I noticed you two resolve your problem. I wouldnít want to be part of something that is causing two friends heartache."

Xena sent a glance toward Gabrielle, who looked up and shrugged.

"Donít blame her for telling me. Iím a seer, but anyone with eyes could see the two of you were upset when you came in here."

Xenaís voice softened. "Well, weíre okay now. Eat that soup and then weíll take you to your home in case those boys are still waiting around somewhere."

Hadara closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. "No, they are gone." She looked up at Xena. "Now you must sit down and let me repay you for what you have done."

"No, Hadara," Gabrielle shook her hand at the old woman. "We donít need any payment. We were just helping out someone who needed it."

The old woman smiled. "Itís not much, so donít be too stubborn about refusing it." She reached into a satchel she had slung over her shoulder and pulled out a stack of brightly colored cards with strange symbols and drawings on them. "Iíll tell you your futures."

Gabrielle looked up nervously at Xena, who rolled her eyes in exasperation behind the womanís back.

"No, really, Hadara," continued the girl. "We must be going. You just eat. We donít need our fortunes told."

The woman began to spread the cards on the table. "Donít worry. Iím very good. Gabrielle already knows this." Her eyes twinkled at the young woman. "Even you might agree, Xena, if you give me a chance." As she said this, her eyes never left the cards, and Gabrielle and Xena exchanged surprised glances at how she had picked up on their names in the first place. Xena uncrossed her arms and stepped into Hadaraís view.

"I appreciate your wanting to thank us, but to be honest, Iím one of those people who believes that your destiny is decided with these--" she knotted her hands into fists, "and this." She pointed at her head. Even as she said it, Xena felt a pang of guilt. She wanted to believe it fully, but that vision of Gabrielleís death had begun to consume her. She was beginning to wonder if one could change destiny, or if it was as inevitable as her old enemy Caesar seemed to think.

Hadara smiled. "Ah, but youíve forgotten the most important thing that decides our destinies, Xena, especially yours."

"Whatís that?"

"This." Hadara laid her palm over her chest and looked up at the warrior. Xena cocked an eyebrow. Gabrielle raised both brows and stuck out her lips as if to say, "Sheís got you there."

"Fine." The warrior princess pulled up a chair and sat down at the table. "But this canít take long," she added gently. "Weíve got to be moving on soon."

"It wonít," the old woman replied as she began to shuffle the cards. "Iím good and Iím fast." She handed the deck to Xena and told her to shuffle them. Xena looked surprised.

"I think Gabrielle should go first."

"Oh, no," the old woman replied. "It doesnít take a seer to know that if she goes first, you wonít go at all." Gabrielle grinned at Xena, who flashed her teeth in disgust at her friend and then grabbed the cards. She moved them quickly and adeptly, then handed them back. Hadara took a deep breath and placed the top card face up on the table. It showed a warrior on a galloping horse with his sword drawn.

"The warrior," Hadara needlessly murmured. "You will soon go on a mighty quest."

"Umm hmm." Xena stifled a yawn.

Hadara ignored her and turned the next card. It showed one sword pointing up.

"This indicates your desire for truth and your inclination to help those in need. That desire to help others will determine your immediate destiny."

"It always has before," Gabrielle piped in. Xena could tell that the young bard was excited by all of this mystery, but she felt unfazed. Hadara had told them nothing that didnít come down to common sense. Still, if it pleased Gabrielle and the old woman, why not go along?

The next card involved swords yet again. Xena decided that neither one of them had shuffled very well, or the old woman was trickier than she seemed. This image was slightly disturbing, for it showed a picture of a heart being pierced by three blades.

"Thatís not very encouraging," quipped Gabrielle.

"It indicates great heartache and sorrow." Hadara looked up at Xena. "You will experience a great loss very soon." The old woman looked very sad, and Xena shifted in her chair in spite of herself. She was beginning to not like this. Gabrielle, too, was glancing from one to the other of them nervously, obviously afraid that Xena was going to have had enough of this game.

The old woman turned the next card.

On it was a single overturned goblet. One small drop of liquid lay next to the cup. Both women looked expectantly at her. "This, too, speaks of loss," she said, frowning. Xena crossed her arms and Gabrielle sighed disappointedly. "But the emptiness of the cup indicates an empty life, an unknown sorrow." She looked again at the warrior princess. "Something irreplaceable in your life that you canít quite fathom. Something missing." She sighed as well. "I can tell you no more about this one. It is very strange."

"Are we finished?" Xena nodded at the remaining cards. The sooner this was over with, the better. There was something very unnerving about it. She must be on edge from that incident with Gabrielle in the street.

Hadara slowly turned another card. A very detailed picture of a woman with two goblets in either hand was on it. The woman stood with one foot on dry land and the other planted firmly in a stream. Liquid of some sort was being poured from one cup to the other. "Ahh," breathed the old woman. "Temperance."

 

"What?"

"Balance, Xena. The woman has one foot in water, the other on earth. She is leveling the liquid in the two cups so that they will be even. This card indicates balance, harmony. I also sense that it is the most important of the five. Here," she said abruptly. "You must take it."

"What? No." Xena shook her head. "Donít give those away."

"Normally I donít. But I know that you must have this card, Xena. Keep it and study it. Your destiny will depend on its meaning one day."

"Here," said Gabrielle, holding out her hand. "Iíll keep it for her. Sheíll just lose it."

With a reluctant glance at Xena, Hadara handed the card to Gabrielle, who promptly tucked it in her tunic with a superior.

"Now me," the young woman said breathlessly.

"Letís hope yours is more uplifting than mine," murmured Xena.

Hadara shuffled the cards and then handed them to the young bard, who did the same. When they were finished, the old woman turned the first card. It showed a young man walking along a path holding a staff.

"A bard," Gabrielle smiled.

"The Fool," said the old woman with a nod of her head. Xena smiled wickedly.

"Huh?"

Hadara patted Gabrielleís hand. "Itís not like it sounds, my child. The Fool is a traveler who learns and is willing to learn a great many things as he journeys through life. Xenaís warrior learns the lesson at journeyís end; your fool learns on the way."

"Uh huh." Gabrielle still didnít sound convinced, and Hadara noticed that she glanced at the still smiling Xena. She decided to move on quickly. The next card was similar to Xenaís Ace of Swords, except that a lone staff occupied the space.

"This shows inspiration," she said with a smile at the bard. "Your one true inspiration will determine your destiny." Gabrielle nodded and smiled. Now this was better.

The third card was more foreboding, however. It was similar to Xenaís in that it, too, contained overturned cups, but this time there were three of them. Facing these were two cups that were obviously brimming with liquid. "The overturned cups indicateó"

"Loss," Xena broke in rather cynically.

"Yes," Hadara continued. "But the two remaining cups tell of something to be salvaged. " She looked intently at Gabrielle. "You will suffer a loss, but you musnít dwell on it. You will have to find what can be saved from the wreckage and concentrate on it." Gabrielle nodded.

Just then all three women jumped as a town bell began to ring nearby. In the distance, other bells could be heard pealing wildly. Many people in the tavern scurried out the door, and Atraxis began to put away items and hide bottles of wine. Xena was immediately on her feet.

"Atraxis! Whatís going on?" She strode over to the counter. She noticed that the manís hands were shaking, and she didnít think it was because of her.

Meanwhile, Gabrielle glanced guiltily at Hadara. "Can you do the next one?" she asked sheepishly. Whatever was going on, Xena would find out and tell her. In the meantime, she just had to see the rest of those cards. Hadara shook herself and smiled. She turned the next card and frowned. It was probably one of the most detailed they had seen.

Across the room, Atraxis hurriedly continued hiding things as Xena awaited an answer. "You want to know about the bells? Well, Iíll tell you, Xena." There was now a definite note of hostility in his voice and she instinctively put her hand on her chakram. "Itís actually something we can thank you for. Itís a system the town came up with not long after we saw you last. Bell towers were put up all over the city. They are rung for one reason onlyóraiders. Those pirates down in the sea caves have to have supplies, but I guess you know that already. Anyway, they come storming up here every once in a while and wreak havoc on Xanthosólooting, stealing, raping, whatever. We put a watchman on the west road. When he sees the cloud of dust such a party raises, he rings his bell and then they all go off throughout the city. Gives us a little time to hide our best valuables and send the women and children into the woods. We leave out enough food and wine and dinars to keep them satisfied, and then they go back to where they came from."

"How many usually show up?"

"I donít know. Thirty maybe?"

"Do they stick together or split up?"

"Oh, they split up. That way they can cover more ground and get more goods."

Xenaís jaw set and she looked hard at the bright sunlight coming through the doorway. If Gabrielle had seen that look, she would have already been up with staff in hand, but she was staring at the card that Hadara was explaining to her.

"The blindfold and the eight staffs surrounding the woman show entrapment. Of course, sheís bound as well." Gabrielle nodded, biting her lip.

"You will soon be in a situaton where you find yourself feeling trapped, with little hope."

"Gabrielle!" Xenaís voice broke in on her thoughts. She glanced up, startled. "Letís go! Thereís trouble with raiders in town. Looks like weíll have to knock some sense into their heads." Gabrielle nodded and plucked up her staff. Suddenly, she felt Hadaraís hand on hers.

"My child, notice the winding river in the mountains in the background. There are three bridges. You will have to cross three bridges or rivers of some kind and perhaps you will escape this sense of being trapped." Gabrielle nodded and started to ask a question.

"These rivers, are theyó"

"Gabrielle, NOW!" Xena was already outside as she called back.

"Goodbye, Hadara!" Gabrielle yelled breathlessly. "Iíll look for you again when we clean up this mess!" She ducked out the bright doorway and Hadara stared at the card she had shown her. Suddenly she realized that there were only four cards on the table. She had forgotten Gabrielleís fifth in all of the distraction. "I canít believe I did such a--" she murmured as she flipped the last card. The look of disgust on her face turned to one of horror as she stared at the last card. A skeleton with a scythe sat astride a donkey. The grimace on the skull was a gruesome sight, and even one inexperienced in reading fortunes could not mistake what the card meant.

"Death," Hadara breathed out. Panic-stricken, she glanced out the door, but it was too late. Gabrielle was gone.

 

Chapter III

 

Xena crept along the edge of the city wall, keeping her eyes open for signs of any more raiders. She had already taken care of seven at the city fountain and eight more at a tavern. The last villagers she had been able to speak to had told her that the men often came out here to a place called the Lionís Tomb. This didnít make much sense to her, but she thought it was worth a try. She just hoped that Gabrielle was taking care of just as many thugs on the south end of the city. It had been Gabrielleís suggestion to split up, and despite the fact that she didnít like it, Xena had decided that it probably made the most sense with these mercenaries all over Xanthos. Besides, it gave her a chance to show the younger woman that she trusted her after that problem with the knife-thrower.

She found herself muttering, "I till donít like it."

Suddenly, she stopped and held her sword in the ready position. Laughter was coming from just up ahead.

At least that means theyíre not expecting me, she thought gratefully.

Before her she could see an enormous sarcophagus, something the city of Xanthos had an abundance of. When she had been here before, in her dark past, she had pointed these out to her men and joked that this was the perfect place for them to accomplish what they needed to do.

"Theyíre already ready for us, boys. Just throw their bodies in there if you want. Theyíve made it very convenient for us to do a little killing!" Her troops had roared at this, and then they had proceeded to do just that. What a monster she had beenóand could still be. That thought was never far from her mind.

Concentrate, Xena.

The Lion Tomb was a magnificent sarcophagus that connected directly with the city wall. Xena could hear the laughter, but she still couldnít see anyone. Obviously they were directly below her, perhaps in the tomb itself. She placed her sword in its scabbard and flattened herself on the hot stone wall. She then began to inch her way on her stomach towards the edge of the roof of the tomb. When she had just reached the edge, she lifted her head just enough to peek over.

Two men stood at the entrance to the tomb. She supposed that they were guards, but this was in name only. One was using his finger to draw in the dirt at the base of one of the pillars, and the other one was pacing back and forth, swallowing large mouthfuls of wine from a skin. The pacing one was attempting to whisper, but like most drunks, he had lost the capacity to judge sound and coordinate himself, and Xena could hear him quite well.

As can everyone else within the city walls, she thought.

"I doní like it," he slurred. "Doní like it at all."

"Whatís not to like?í said the one on the ground. "Weíve probly got more loot than anyone else in the band, including the captain."

"Yeah, and them two lugs is in there hidiní it. How do we know that they ainít tuckiní it away in their pockets?"

The other man drew his finger across his throat. "Cause weíll slit their throats if they are."

"And what about the captain?" Pacing man took a deep swig of his wine. Little drops of it spewed forth from his mouth as he continued to speak. "If he finds out whatís going on, heíll slit our throats!"

The other warrior stood abruptly. "He wonít find out if you keep your trap shut. Gimme that!" He snatched the wine skin. "Itís gonna make your tongue as loose as a sail, and then weíre all gonna get it!"

You sure are, thought Xena, as she pulled herself into a squatting position. She placed her fingers along the edge of the wall and launched herself forward, turning a flip as she did so. This landed her with a soft thump squarely behind the two men.

"What theó" the phrase remained incomplete. Xena grabbed both of their heads and cracked them into one another. She let go of one, who slumped to his knees. The other man she held onto long enough to push a short distance away. As he staggered there, she let go with a scissor kick that hit him squarely in the jaw. He spun around, his legs twisting around each other, then fell with a moaning thud to the dirt. She turned just in time to see the other raider struggling to his feet. Jumping towards him, she grabbed her wrist with her right hand and battered him on top of his head with her elbow. He went to his knees again, and a quick palm to his nose finished him off.

Good, she thought with a look towards the entrance to the tomb. Obviously the men inside hadnít heard a thing. She could still hear their voices and they didnít sound agitated.

She crept up to the large doorway and braced herself against the stone. As the men continued their conversation, she began to inch her way into the shadows of the sarcophagus. When she was completely submerged in shadow, she knelt down. There was no need being spotted early, and she didnít know how this thing was laid out. Besides, it would let her eyes adjust to the gloom.As she crouched there in the shadows, she listened to the conversation of the thugs inside, which was quite clear now.

"Hurry up! Youíre takiní too long!"

"Whatís a matter, Trinicles? You scared?" Xena heard a snicker. She ventured a look around the pillar she was hiding behind. The sarcophagus was dim, lit only by the sunlight breaking through the door and a torch being held by someone towards the back. The entire room was large, maybe twenty five paces, and there were six stone caskets lined up evenly in two rows, with a seventh set up in the back on a stone step. One of the men was struggling to pull the cover back over this particular box, sweating and cursing as he did so. He looked in disgust at the other man, who was frantically letting his eyes wander over the tomb.

"Could you get your carcass up here and help me and stop spookiníyourself?"

The other man, Trinicles, put his torch down on one of the nearest tombs and stepped up to help the other with a sigh.

"Iím not spookinímyself. You gotta admit this place is creepy." They both grunted as they struggled with the lid.

"Yeah, and thatís why weíre hidiní this loot here. Everybodyís too scared to come check this out, and this way we donít have to share it with the entire ship."

So it was just those two, Xena thought. No Gabrielle to worry about, nothing immediately pressing.

Time for a little fun.

On the far wall, just above the two raiders, there was a statue of Payava, the once wealthy Lycian who was buried here. His arm was raised in a gesture of authority, as though he were delivering a moving and powerful speech. Obviously the old man had commissioned the sculptor before he died, thought Xena. She had heard him speak once. Just thinking about it made her sleepy. She shook her head and removed her chakram from her belt. Taking careful aim, she flung it as hard as she could and ducked. The screaming sound it made caused both men to drop the lid with a thud and turn around . The weapon glanced off of the statue and ricocheted towards the back of the room. Hearing the ching behind them, Trinicles and his companion turned around just in time see the cracked arm of Payava fall to the stone floor and shatter. They also turned just in time to miss Xena reach up and retrieve the flashing weapon.

"What in Hades?" muttered the braver of the two thugs. Trinicles simply began to shake. The eerie screaming sound was heard once again, and suddenly the torch fell to the floor behind one of the stone containers, making the back of the sarcophagus very dim.

"Iím gettiní outta here!" whispered Trinicles.

Xena began to crawl amongst the stone tombs. Raising her voice, she spoke in a sing-song tone.

"I am Pavless, Payavaís wife. Who dares to disturb our slumber?" She flung the chakram again for good measure. This proved to be too much for poor Trinicles. Screaming, he bolted for the entrance. Xena sprang to her feet and let loose with a war cry. Flinging her chakram, she caught Trinicles in the back of the head. He fell with a groan. Running to the fallen body, Xena kicked him hard in the skull, rendering him even more useless than he had been before, if such a thing could be possible. Placing her hands on the tomb before her, she launched herself in the air and landed on the stone box just in front of the other man. He, however, was not as incompetent as his companion. His sword was drawn, and he took a frantic swing at Xenaís legs. Flipping again, with that unnerving cry, Xena landed on the upper step with Payavaís tomb and statue. The pirate stumbled toward her, swinging wildly. Xena started to draw her sword, but the broken arm of Payava caught her eye.

I could use a helping hand, she thought with a grin. Leaping over the clumsy sword of the thug, she reached down and grabbed the statueís arm. Turning, she used the stone limb to block the blows coming from the frantic man. Sparks flew as the metal hit the stone, and Xena knew that it wouldnít be long before her newfound weapon would be chipped to pieces.

Funís over, she thought somewhat reluctantly as she knocked the weapon from her opponentís hand and then thumped him on the head with Payavaís arm. He groaned and staggered backward. Xena jumped down from the stone platform and backhanded the man, so to speak. He fell up against a wall. Using the pointed fingers of the statue, she hit him hard in the throat. He gasped and slid to the floor.

"Iíve just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. Youíll be dead in seconds if you donít tell me what I want to know."

"Whówhówhat do you want to know, mighty Pavless?

Mighty Pa--? Xena shook her head. This fool actually thinks Iím a ghost. Well, it didnít matter, as long as he told her what she wanted to know.

"How many of you are there in this town?"

"Thirty," he wheezed out.

"Whereís your captain?"

"I thóthink he was going to the castle."

"Right." Xena raised her hand in a threatening position. Even in the darkened room, she could see the terror in his eyes as he rolled them towards the ceiling, gasping for air.

"Remember to stay out of this tomb, this town, and this country!" She emphasized this threat with another blow to the manís throat. Before he even realized that she had just restored him to the living, she hit him hard in the jaw and he was completely unconscious.

Xena walked back out into the sunlight and surveyed the two bodies lying near the entrance. Dusting off her hands she breathed a sigh of contentment. So this was what it was like to not have someone to worry about or some enormous quest to pursue. It had been years since she had this. Sheíd almost forgotten how good it felt.

 

Chapter IV

 

So this is what itís like to be completely on my own, thought Gabrielle as she leaned on her staff. She looked with satisfaction at the three men scattered in the street. Their bodies were bruised and battered, and they werenít moving, but Gabrielle knew this wouldnít last forever.

"Hey, you!" She motioned to a heavyset man staring out from a nearby cottage. "Get some rope and tie up these thugs!" The man hastened to comply, and the young woman reveled in the fact that for once someone was rushing to follow her orders.

"That was fabulous!"

Gabrielle turned toward the voice. It belonged to a young boy who had crept out from somewhere. The admiration in his face matched his tone, and Gabrielle blushed. She didnít get this very often, particularly when Xena was around. She shrugged her shoulders and rolled her eyes. "Oh, it wasnít much. They were pretty slow and heavy."

"Next to you they were," grinned the boy.

Gabrielle waved her hand at him in dismissal, but it was quite obvious that she was enjoying all of this.

"Are you the warrior princess, Xena?"

Gabrielleís shoulders sagged and the smile fell from her face. "No, Iím Gabrielle."

The boy stared at her.

She continued. "Gabrielle, the Bard of Potidaea. . ." He raised his brows and continued to stare.

"Amazon Queen. . ." No response. She sighed. "I travel with Xena."

The boy smiled. "Oh, that explains it."

"Right." Gabrielle turned and went to oversee the binding up of the pirates. The boy trotted along behind her.

"Whatís it like traveling with Xena?"

Xena, Xena. Always Xena. "Itís great," she replied flatly.

"Did she teach you all that stuff? Can she teach me? Iíll bet sheís even faster, right?"

Gabrielle chose to ignore him. "Do that knot tighter," she told the villager. "We donít want them getting away."

"How long did it take her to teach you that stuff? Do you thó"

"Look." Gabrielle spun around. "How would you like to meet her?"

The boyís jaw dropped. "Me? Meet her? Meet Xena?"

"Yeah, yeah. See hereó" She paused and put her hand on his arm. "Whatís your name?"

"Appollos."

"Right. Appollos. Do you want to meet her?" All he could manage was a vigorous nod. "Okay. I want you to head north. It should be pretty safe. Xenaís up that way and Iíve been coming from there. Still, be on the lookout for more of these bullies. When you find Xena, tell her that Iíve taken care of six men on this end. Thatíll help her know how much work we still have to do." The boy nodded and turned to run off down the street, but Gabrielle kept her grip on his arm.

"Wait! You know what to look for, right? Tall, dark hair, dressed in leather. You canít miss her."

"Sure," he grinned. "Everybody knows about Xena."

"Sure," echoed Gabrielle with a smile that didnít reach her eyes. She let go of his arm and he began to run down the road. In a moment, however, he turned back towards her and called out, "Where will you be? She might want to know."

Thereís no" might" about it, she thought grimly. She addressed the villager at her feet. "Do you know where any more of these men might be?"

The man stood up and frowned in thought. "I wouldnít be surprised if some of them didnít at least check out the castle. Theyíve avoided it so far, but their last time in town a few of them were boasting that they were going to risk the curse and visit King Iobates."

"All right." She turned towards the boy, who was jogging backwards in his eagerness to get going. "Tell her Iíll be at the castle!"

The boyís eyes widened at this statement, as did the villagerís, but Gabrielle didnít notice any of this. The messenger nodded and disappeared down the cobblestone path. When he rounded the corner, he paused for just a moment. Of course he couldnít wait to meet Xena and deliver his important message, but opportunities like this didnít come by very often. Xena might need him to run more errands, and in that case, he wouldnít be home for a long time. At least, he hoped so. If that happened, his mother, who was hiding in the woods, would need to know. Besides, the rest of the children were there and he would be able to mention to them what he was doing. He might as well get as much enjoyment out of it as he could. It wasnít very often a warrior princess came to town. A few minutes more wouldnít make much difference.

 

 

 

Xena walked down the side of the Xanthan street. Her sword was drawn, but she no longer hugged the walls as she had done earlier. She would be cautious, but the need for absolute stealth had diminished since she had taken out more than half of the raiders. And if Gabrielle was doing her part on the south end of the city, then she might be able to even put the sword away in a matter of moments.

If Gabrielle is doing her part. What if . . . Xena shook her head and tensed at the sound of laughter up ahead. She was coming near the town square where Gabrielle had helped old Hadara. They had said they would meet back at Atraxisís tavern, but it sounded like somebody else had decided to meet there first. Bracing herself against a stone wall, she peered around the corner into the open square. Three large men were stalking down the street with their weapons drawn. They were passing around a wineskin. It was evident they were looking for trouble. It was also evident that they were in no condition to meet it, Xean noted with a smile. She took a good look around the square. No people, no Gabrielle. Good. Time for a little more fun. And this time she could be as loud as she wanted. She placed her sword in its scabbard and flexed her fingers.

"Alalalalalalalalala!"

The three men staggered to a halt and stared in amazement as someone clothed in black literally spun end over end across the ground towards them. The limber creature stopped its movement about ten paces off. It wasnít until then that they noticed it was a very tall woman dressed in leather armor. This seemed too good to be true.

"I get her first," slurred one of them to his companions as he passed them the wineskin and his sword.

"Be my guest," growled Xena, crouching in a ready position.

All three of the men laughed at this uproariously as Drunken Fool Number One stumbled towards her. Xena drew back her arm for an easy blow, but was stopped suddenly by the sound of an unfamiliar voice.

"Halt, you ruffians! Do not harm that lady!"

"Huh?" The thugs voiced Xenaís thoughts exactly as they all looked across the square. Stepping out from a westbound street was a young well-built youth with golden locks and a shortsword.

"Pick on someone your own size, brigands!" This was said with great bravado, in spite of the fact that Xena was possibly taller than the young man. He stalked towards them. Xena decided to use the element of surprise he had added to her advantage. Drawing her sword, she simultaneously kicked the unarmed thug just in front of her and swung at the one just behind him. This second fool now had two swords, but was obviously too inexperienced or inebriated to use either one. With one swing, Xena sent one of the weapons flying across the square. Drawing back for another blow, she struck at the sluggish manís upraised sword. It was a weak block, and he went down on one knee. By this time, the third raider had dropped the wineskin and drawn his own weapon. Xena kicked her right leg and popped the middle man right on the chin. He went from one knee to two. One more kick should do it. She blocked a blow from the remaining fighter and placed her boot on the chest of the kneeling man. Suddenly there was someone else next to her.

"Be careful, fair lady. I am here to help you!" It was the golden youth, who began striking the third man with his sword. He drove the raider with a series of well-struck blows, and Xena made a mental note of the fact that he was pretty good, despite his ridiculous chatter. She used the butt of her sword to finish off the second man, then pulled on her chakram just in case this boy got into trouble. It turned out to be unnecessary. Within moments, the last of the men lay bleeding in the square and some of the villagers were creeping out to truss them up.

Bronze Boy began issuing orders to the people, then turned toward Xena with a quizzical look on his face.

"You were doing well, my dear lady, but you must be more careful in the future. Someone like me may not always be around to help you."

Xenaís jaw tightened. "And just who exactly are you?"

The young man bowed slightly at the waist. "My name is Bellerophon, and I am at your service."

Xenaís face relaxed and she sheathed her weapons.

"Well, good, Bellerophon, because Iíve been looking for you for days."

The young man eagerly joined the warrior princess as she walked toward the tavern.

"How can I be of service?"

"You can go back to Cenchreae and your father."

Bellerophonís face tensed and he stopped walking.

"You mean he sent a woman to fetch me back after he sent me running in the first place?"

"I mean he sent someone to bring you back after he realized he was mistaken."

Bellerophon continued to stand rigidly in the same spot.

"And to kick your butt if you refused." Xena entered the tavern. Bellerophon followed right behind her, just as she knew he would. She made no effort to cover the smile spreading across her face.

 

 

Chapter V

 

Gabrielle stared in awe around her as she moved through the garden in the courtyard of King Iobatesís castle. It wasnít only the size that was fascinating, but the way it looked and felt. It had obviously not been cared for in some time. All of the plants and trees were overgrown and wild-looking, and the statues of gods, goddesses, and heroes were chipped and even blackened in some spots. Gabrielle paused and stared in confusion at a large tree in the very center that had been dead for some time. It was absolutely black from the tip of its branches down to the exposed roots. There were other trees and bushes spaced throughout the courtyard that had the same appearance. Gabrielle found it odd that these dead plants were spaced at intervals around the area, and many of them still had leaves dangling from them, but in all of the cases the plants and their flowers and leaves were as black as a pit in Hades. It was then that she noticed how absolutely still it was. There were no birds or wildlife. Not even a breeze disturbed the absolute silence of this deadly garden. She felt an involuntary shiver run down her spine. Clutching her staff tightly, she moved on to the wide wooden doors that would lead her into the castle.

One of the doors was cracked open, and she cautiously peeked through. As her eyes adjusted to the change in light, she could see that there was a huge foyer just beyond the door. It appeared to be empty, and she stepped inside. To her left and right, at the far ends of the cavernous room, there were open doorways that led into other large rooms. To the right and just ahead, there was a stone staircase that led up to a balcony bordered by marble pillars. She could see several doors up that way, but she decided that she would check out the lower level first.

If I were looking for loot, thatís what I would do, she thought. Then Iíd move upstairs.

Cautiously moving to her right, she began to systematically move through the structure, her staff clutched tightly to her side and every nerve straining to hear the slightest sound. All at once, she heard somethingóa shuffling, a muttering. Definitely another human being. And it was coming near her. She backed up against the wall and gripped her staff in both hands. The footsteps came closer and she held her breath. In a moment, a large man passed through the doorway. He was dressed in common clothes, and he was talking quietly to himself. He didnít look like much of a pirate.

"Psst," she whispered, raising her weapon. The man wheeled around, clutching his heart. His eyes were as wide as plates, and Gabrielle thought that he looked rather like a rabbit that was about to be skewered by Xena for dinner.

She raised her finger to her lips to indicate silence. The large man nodded vigorously.

"Who are you?" she whispered, slightly lowering the staff.

The man wiped sweat from his brow with a shaky hand. "My name is Polyeidus. Iím just a servant here. I have no belongings that would be of any worth, but I will gladly show you anything in the castle that you may find of value."

Loyal guy, she noted to herself. "Iím not here to steal anything," she whispered, lowering the staff even more. "Someone in town told me that some of those thieves might be here. Iíve come to help."

The big man heaved a sigh and slumped slightly. "Theyíre here all right. I thought you were with them. They havenít found me, and I want to keep it that way. I was just going to make my way out of the castle."

"Do you know where they went?"

"I think one headed toward the kitchens." He pointed the way she had come. "The other went upstairs."

"Where are the other servants?"

The man looked taken aback. "There is no one else. Iím it."

Gabrielle rested one end of the staff on the ground. "You mean to tell me that youíre the only servant in a castle this large?"

He nodded.

"What about Iobates and his family and friends?"

"He has no family and friends. Heís the only one here."

Gabrielle snorted in frustration. "Well, where is he then? He might be in danger."

Polyeidus shook his head and turned to walk away. "Not him. He can take care of himself. Iím leaving while Iíve still got my hide."

Gabrielle quickly grabbed his flabby arm. "Wait a minute. You just canít leave the old man to fend for himself."

"Like Hades, I canít, young lady! Believe me, we donít need to worry about him. Letís just go. Theyíll leave after awhile. Thereís nothing here to hold their interest for long."

Gabrielle clenched her teeth. "Where is the king?"

Now it was Polyeidusís turn to snort. "Heís upstairs, but heíll be fine. Havenít you heard about the curse?"

Gabrielle shook her head and headed quickly back toward the foyer.

By the gods. Curses, fire-breathing creatures. This country had more imagination churning than the Athens Academy for Performing Bards.

Polyeidus waddled along behind her. "What are you going to do?"

"Iím going to help the king." She reached the bottom of the stairs. The old man made a whimpering sound behind her, and Gabrielle felt some pity for him.

"Look," she said, her voice softening. "I donít need any help. Give me a few minutes and Iíll signal you if everythingís all right. If you donít see me in a bit, go to town and look for my friend Xena."

"Xena! Youíre with Xena?"

"Yes, yes. Like I said, go tell her if you donít see me in a little bit."

"Róright," he stammered as he turned and rushed out the front doors. Gabrielle watched him disappear, then began making her way up the wide stone staircase. When she reached the top, she grasped her staff in both hands and glanced to her right and left. The hall seemed to stretch endlessly in both directions, with numerous wooden doors and several corridors along either side. She was just going to go left when she thought she heard a voice in the opposite direction. She crept down the hall toward her right. Pausing again in front of a corridor to her left she noticed two huge wooden doors at the far end. One of these was slightly ajar, and now she could definitely hear a voice issuing from within. Staying near the wall and ducking under the torch holders, Gabrielle was able to get within several paces of the open door. The voice was that of a man, and not a friendly one by all accounts. He was yelling at someone.

"Look, old man. Youíd better tell me where you hide all your goods. I know you got some around here. It doesnít look like anybodyís touched this placeóor you, for that matteróin years. Now tell me or youíre gonna wish you had."

That was all Gabrielle needed. Kicking the door with her right foot, she jumped inside with a yell and held her staff in the ready position. A quick glance showed her that this must be the kingís private chamber. There were a few chairs, a large open window, and a pretty big thief standing about ten paces away, near a bed. There appeared to be someone rather small and withered in the bed, but Gabrielle didnít have time to ponder this much before the thief had drawn his sword and was coming at her. At first his attempts were clumsy and weak, with lots of yelling and cursing as he rushed headlong towards her. She was able to dodge out of the way quite easily, and give him several whacks on the behind with her staff. After the third such spanking, however, he turned slowly and began to pace in a circular pattern around her. She turned her body with him, always facing him and keeping her weapon in the ready position.

"And who might you be?" he panted heavily.

"Iím Gabrielle, Bard of Potidaea, and traveling companion to Xena. And Iím here to teach you not to pick on old men." There was a strange sound from the bed and the person there sat up suddenly.

"Xena," it croaked, and Gabrielle saw two haunted eyes in a face that was monstrously disfigured. Her enemy saw, too, but was not as distracted as she was. With a heavy swing, he struck Gabrielleís staff with his sword, sending it spinning across the room.

"Now Iíve got you!" he bellowed, then began swiping playfully at her with the weapon. He was grinning at her with brown encrusted teeth, and the young woman knew that she had better get away from him one way or the other, or she was going to be in big trouble. Backing up with her palms raised towards him, she decided to see if she might be able to distract him with talking.

"Now, look. You know I was just playing around, donít you? I mean, only a fool would think they stood a chance against a strong guy like you."

"Thatís right, sweetie, and weíre going to do a lot more playing around in just a minute."

Uh-oh. Gabrielle felt something touch her foot and realized that it was a large candlestand near the entrance to the bedchamber.

Hmm, she thought. Long, thin, metal.

Scummy Gums licked his lips.

Good enough. Reaching back and grasping the stand with both hands, she brought it around just as she would her staff and let the oaf have it with the candle end. The swing snuffed out the candles, but the sharp decorative pieces holding them in made quite an impression on his faceóliterally. He staggered backward and reached up to feel the blood trickling across his cheek. His eyes opened wide in shock and rage, and he came at Gabrielle with a cry of animal fury.

This time Iím not taking my eyes off him, she thought, as she raised the candelabra to block his blows. He seemed to come at her endlessly. High, middle, low. She jumped as his sword whooshed under her feet. He swung overheard toward her face, and she held up the stand.

Ching!

Sparks flew off as the two metals touched, and Gabrielle was forced to turn and back towards the balcony as the powerful man continued to swing. He wasnít fast, but he was strong, and Gabrielle was beginning to wonder how long she could continue to fight with him. Her arms were starting to feel like weights. Suddenly, she felt a breath of air behind her and realized that the balcony bannister was at her back. The pirate halted for just a moment and wiped sweat from his brow.

"Where ya gonna go now?í he growled. " No way but down for you, girlie." He rushed towards her with one final cry and raised his sword high overhead. Raising the candelabra to block the blow, she did something sheíd seen Xena do a million times. She sidestepped at the very last minute, then swung her weapon around and hit him in the back as hard as she could. The man realized his mistake just as his head and shoulders hurtled out over the balcony rail. The blow from Gabrielle was all the rest of him needed to follow. Flapping his arms like a bird, he flipped over the rail and crashed through a tree and a thornbush before hitting the ground with a sickening thud.

Gabrielle leaned out over the balcony and surveyed her handiwork. He was moaning slightly and barely moving, but he wasnít going anywhere for quite some time. All in all, sheíd done pretty well. Lots of maiming, but no killing. She didnít like killing. It was something she hoped sheíd never like. She would always look for other means when possible.

She heard a wheezing sound behind her and turned to see the old king struggling to sit up in the bed. Stepping back into the shadows of the bedroom, she placed the candlestand back on the floor and scooped up her staff.

"Are you all right, Your Highness?" she said as she slowly stepped toward the canopied bed. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she stifled the gasp that rose in her throat at the sight of the old king. His robe hung off his arms and shoulders as if it clothed a skeleton, and his hands were shriveled and drawn up as if forever clutching something tightly. It was his face, however, that was the most horrific. Two blue eyes, as blue as Xenaís, stared out of sunken sockets that were underlined with deep shadows, and his mouth on one side was drawn down in a perpetual grimace from the scars that covered that side of this face. Even his strands of white hair were completely gone on the right side of his head. Gabrielle had seen enough to know that these couldnít possibly be sword wounds, but were evidence that the old king had been burned, and burned severely, at one time.

Despite the repulsion his visage inspired, Gabrielle took a deep breath and smiled, repeating her question.

"Can I help you, Your Highness? Are you all right?"

The old man stared at her with his mouth agape as she approached the bed, then suddenly crinkled up his frightening eyes and smiled a toothless grin.

"Oh yes, my dear. Did you say you were a friend of Xenaís?"

"Yes," she said a little reluctantly as she continued to step towards him. What if Xena had done some terrible atrocity to him or his family back in her wilder days? It was definitely a possibility. "Sheís in the city, driving out the rest of the pirates. Sheís been a changed person for many years now."

"Oh, I know all about Xenaís changed ways and all her good deeds," he croaked. "And youíre her friend, are you?"

Gabrielle smiled. She could afford to brag a little. Sheíd done well just now. "Her best friend. " She paused long enough to let that sink in and the old king nodded. " But enough of that. Can I get you anything? We canít breathe easily just yet. Polyeidus tells me thereís another raider in the castle somewhere. Iíll have to take care of him."

"Oh, I understand," the king practically cooed, "But will you just step close to me here, dear, so I can take a good look at you? My eyes arenít what they used to be, and I never get to see pretty girls anymore." At this, he experienced a fit of coughing that racked his entire frail body. Gabrielle rushed to the side of the bed and filled a cup with what appeared to be water from a pitcher next to the bed.

"Oh, thank you, my dear," he wheezed as he reached out for the cup with his withered hands. "Thank you so much indeed." Something about the way he said it made Gabrielle shudder.

 

Chapter VI

 

Xena grabbed the cup Atraxis set in front of her and stared coolly across the table at the young man. "Atraxis," she called without lifting her gaze from Bellerophon. "Has Gabrielle checked in?"

"Nope."

"Youíve got until I finish this to tell me why you shouldnít head right back to Cenchreae."

The young man swallowed his wine and clenched his jaws in obvious anger. "Forgive my rudeness, dear lady, but I do not see that I have to explain anything to you."

Xena took another sip from her cup. "You do not have to see anything at all, dear boy, and you do not have to explain anything, but unless you come up with some pretty good reasons, you are going back with us."

"And how is that?" he said, leaning forward and involuntarily touching his sword hilt.

"I will make you," Xena said simply and finished off her cup. She stood. "Now letís go."

"Where?"

"My friend said she would rendezvous with us here, but I donít like waiting around. The way I see it, there are still about eight of those warriors unaccounted for, and if Gabrielle hasnít taken care of them, we will. Maybe weíll run into her."

Bellerophon jumped up and followed her out of the tavern. "Where do you propose we start hunting for all these people?"

"Weíll head south, where she was, finishing our sweep. Then weíll head east towards the castle. Two of those thugs supposedly went there."

"Why donít we split up?"

Xena glanced over at his eager face."Oh, no," she said. "Youíre sticking with me."

Bellerophon planted his feet in the dirt of the road. "I have enjoyed meeting you, princess, but I feel I must decline your invitation to accompany you. I will take out the raiders myself, and then I am going about my business." Turning, he made it about three steps before he was thrown forward by a knock on the head.

"And Iím going about mine," he heard her say in a raspy voice.

Instinctively, he drew his sword and turned to face her. He had no intention of harming her, just scaring her a little. This ruse about returning home had gone on long enough.

Xena rolled her eyes and drew her sword as well. Why did people always make things so hard? Why couldnít he just go without having his head knocked around a bit?

"I do not wish to hurt you," he said.

"Well, thereís where we differ. I have no problem with hurting you a little bit." With that, she let out a yell and swung her sword overhead at him. He blocked the blow, as she had intended, but she continued with a barrage of strikes that actually drove him backwards across the square. When she could see that he was puffing a little from his exertions, she swung her foot in a wide arc and knocked his feet out from under him. He fell to the ground with a thud and even bit his tongue. Xena swung her sword and nicked him on the shoulder. To his credit, he made no sound, but the look of shock on his face was quite evident. Scrambling to his feet, he came at her with several well-timed blows. Xena parried them fairly easily, waiting until he was in quite a fury before deftly sidestepping out of his way. His momentum carried him forward, and Xena helped him to the ground again with a boot to his backside. As he lay there, she placed her foot on the back of his neck and nicked his other shoulder. Then she let him get back to his feet. She almost hated doing this. He was obviously a good kid and a pretty good fighter, but she was going to have to show him that her skills were not attributable to luck, and that it would be best for him to do what she said.

Bellerophon wiped the blood from his newest wound and stared at Xena hatefully. "Youíre gonna get it!" he screamed, charging toward her. Xena found it interesting that all of his courtly manners were gone. He had totally lost his cool, and she knew now that she had him completely.

Sidestepping once again, she yanked her whip from her side and tossed it out as he flew past. It wrapped itself around his ankles and brought him to the ground as neatly as a little calf. As he hit the dirt once more, his sword broke loose from his grasp and slid across the ground until it was out of reach. Xena quickly walked over to him and prodded him onto his back with her sword. He lay there bleeding and panting, and Xena felt a great deal of pity for him. Even the anger had departed from him.

"Please, Xena," he murmured hoarsely. "Donít make me go back."

"Why not? Itís for the best. You need to make amends with your father." She offered him her hand.

"I know," he said, taking her wrist and struggling to his feet, "But Iíve made a promise to King Iobates and I cannot break it."

"What kind of promise?" Xena asked suspiciously.

The young man hesitated for just a moment. "To take up a quest," he said finally. "To kill the Chimaera."

 

 

As King Iobates grasped the cup she was holding, Gabrielle felt another shiver go down her spine. This feeling of uneasiness increased when she looked at the king. There was a look of complete disbelief on his face as he stared at her. The cup fell to the floor, spilling its contents across the rough stones.

"Iím so sorry," Gabrielle murmured, and bent to reach for the cup. Suddenly, she felt the old kingís hand at her throat, clutching it tightly like a bird of prey. His fingernails dug into her soft flesh, and Gabrielle was surprised at how much strength was in them. She grabbed his wrist and went down on one knee, hoping to break his grasp, but the more she struggled, the tighter his grip became. She stared at him with a question in her eyes, and realized that she was staring into a face of absolute hatred. His blue eyes were practically glowing with an unnatural fire, and his lips were pulled back in a toothless grimace. Using her other hand , she knocked his forearm with all her might and felt his fingers pull away from her throat. Dropping her staff, she scrambled backwards until she was out of his reach and then stood up quickly, her breath coming in great gasps.

Now the old man was staring at her, but not with the false kindness he had shown earlier, or even the look of hatred she had just witnessed, but a look of utter amazement. "It canít be," he was muttering, staring at his hands and then back at her. "It canít be."

Gabrielle checked her hands to see if there was any blood from her throat, then ran to the balcony and began to shout for Polyeidus. Obviously the old king needed more than just physical help. He was cursed with madness. Maybe his servant could do someó

She heard a noise behind her and thanked the gods that the old servant had been so quick.

"Great! Polyeidus! Look, something is wrong with the king andó"

"So this is how the old crone occupies his time!"

Gabrielle looked up to see an armed warrior stalking into the room--obviously the last raider. She had forgotten about him in all the hubbub. He was oilier and meaner-looking than any she had encountered thus far, if that were possible.

He turned his gaze from Gabrielle to the old king, shaking his bald head. "I thought you were supposed to be cursed, but it looks like youíre doing fine, old man." In a moment, he was at the kingís side, holding a knife to the monarchís throat. "Now tell me where your other goodies are, and I might let you and the girl live."

"No!" Gabrielle cried out. She dove across the room for her staff and the pirate turned his attention away from the king for a split second. It was enough. Iobates reached up and struggled to grasp the pirateís throat in that parasitic grasp. This time, however, he had tried it on someone who did not have the respect for life that the girl had. Without a thought, the warrior let out a curse and plunged his knife deep into the old manís chest. Gabrielle cried out and hit the man in the back as hard as she could. Letting go of the knife, he turned and grabbed the staff with both hands, yanking it from her grasp quite easily. Gabrielle turned and ran to the balcony. If she could try what she did before, she might be able to toss him over. But this man was not like the other. He was quick and lithe, and by the time she reached the banister, he was only a step behind her. Trying to step aside, she knew it was too late. He grasped her arms and pulled her to him in a vice-like grip.

And then he made a croaking sound.

Even in her state of panic, Gabrielle stopped her struggling and wheeled around to look at the manís face. His tongue pushed out of his mouth and he suddenly released his grip on her. Rolling his eyes toward the ceiling, he staggered backward and clutched his head as if in great pain. Gabrielle stepped cautiously toward him. Was there a knife in his back? Was Xena somewhere in the room? These thoughts and all others immediately left her mind as she stared at the man before her. Starting in his fingertips and spreading upward, his skin began to turn a horrific shade of black. The blackness continued to spread all over his body, and he fell to the floor convulsing in agony and making small shrieking sounds and choking noises. When the black color had reached his face, he kicked his legs simultaneously, and then lay very still. Gabrielle stepped over to him and leaned down to look at his chest. There was no movement whatsoever. The man was dead.

A strange sound issued from across the room, and it took her a moment to realize that it was laughter. She tore her gaze from the blackened corpse at her feet and looked at King Iobates. A chuckling sound emerged from his throat as he stared at her. His hand rested on the knife hilt sticking from his chest, and she wondered how he was still breathing. She stepped over to the bedside and reached for the knife.

"Youíve got it," he whispered. "Youíve got the curse." He reached up and touched her arm. "Give my regards to Xena!"

The skin on his hand began to change immediately to black, spreading up his arm and over his neck. As the darkness spread, he began to take big gulping breaths and release them in fits of screeching laughter that got louder and louder. Gabrielle began to back away. Her foot hit something and she looked down to see the blank gaze of the blackened raider. She tripped and fell against the far wall. It was covered in ivy that had spread from the balcony, and Gabrielle leaned against the stone structure for support. The leafy foliage felt good against her skin, and the wall helped steady her trembling body. She stood there panting, staring at the carnage that lay before her, until her attention was diverted by a slight sucking sound behind her. She noticed dark leaves falling softly around her and turned to see blackness like a disease spreading quickly over the vine. Hearing a shriek from the bed, she wheeled around. The king was entirely black now. He pointed his finger at her and smiled.

"What have you done to me?" she screamed. King Iobates let out one final chuckle and fell forward in his bed.

Now there was nothing but silence. Gabrielle slumped against the wall and slid slowly to the floor. "What have you done to me?" she said again. But this time it was nothing more than a weary whisper that went unanswered in the chamber of death. Gabrielle placed her face in her hands and sobbed as the eyes of the dead men continued to stare blankly towards the heavens and the blackened leaves of the plant she had touched fell like rain on her golden head.

 

Chapter VII

 

 

"So when exactly did the king give you this task?" Xena asked as she and Bellerophon walked down the street.

"Just this morning," he replied as he headed toward an inn on their left. He had asked Xena if they could stop by there as they swept the southern end of the city, and she had granted him a few minutes. If they hadnít seen Gabrielleís handiwork along the way, they wouldnít have been stopping at all, but Xena had to admit that it looked as though the young woman was doing quite nicely at taking care of her share of thugs.

Still, Iíll feel better when we actually run into her, she thought. She turned her attention back to Bellerophon. "And you delivered the letter from King Proetus of Tiryns over ten days ago?"

"Thatís right. I donít know what was in it. I gave it to the king. Well-- to his servant, Polyeidus, whoís evidently the only one allowed to see him. I went back today and politely asked for a response, feeling I just couldnít hang around in Xanthos doing nothing. There was quite a bit of yelling and shouting, and the old servant came out and said that the king wanted me to take on the task of killing this Chimaera that has been plaguing the country for years."

He stepped through the doorway of the inn and Xena followed. The innkeeper, a jolly-looking soul, greeted him with a loud shout, but it was a young woman serving drinks that made the most of his entrance.

"Bellerophon!" She rushed across the room and threw her arms about his neck. They hugged briefly, and then clasped hands and stood back to gaze at each other. "Iíve been worried about you with all of these pirates about."

Bellerophon glanced sheepishly at Xena. "Well, you should have known that theyíd be no match for me. Besides," he added, "I had Xena to help me out a bit."

Xena decided to let this slide. Heíd been through quite a lot at her hands. Let him show off in front of his girl. In a moment, though, she was shocked to find the young woman clasping her hand and holding it to her face.

"Xena!"

"Hey!" Xena quickly withdrew her hand and cut her eyes at Bellerophon with an embarrased half-smile. He too was looking quite shocked. The young woman quickly recovered her composure.

"Forgive me, Xena. Itís just that I owe you so much."

Xena stared at the pretty blond in front of her. She looks familiar. Still . . .

"You see, I was one of the Bacchae that you released from the spell when you killed the god Bacchus."

"Philonoe!" This came from Bellerophon, who was looking in shock at the young woman.

"Iím sorry, Bellerophon, but I just couldnít bear to tell you before, although it wasnít my fault that I fell in with Bacchus." She looked up at Xena. "However, I also couldnít let this woman be present and not thank her for releasing me from that awful life."

Xena swallowed and nodded her head. "Iím glad I was able to help you. My friend was under that curse as well."

She turned to Bellerophon. "Speaking of which, if everythingís all right here, Iíd like to see if we canít find her."

"Oh, right," the young man nodded. "Iíll be ready in just a moment, Xena. Philonoe," he said, grasping her hand, "Guess what the king has asked me to do? He wants me to kill the Chimaera!"

"No!" Philonoe broke free of his grasp and stared in shock at him.

He frowned. "Look, dear, itís the opportunity of a lifetime, and I need this to clear my name back home. Just thinkó"

"No!" she cried again and turned to Xena.

"Donít let him do it, Xena. If the king gave him the task, then nothing but evil can come of it."

"Now how do you know that?" Bellerophon questioned petulantly.

"Because heís my father," she said quietly.

"What?" her two listeners replied in unison.

 

 

 

"Gabrielle! Gabrielle!" Polyeidus burst into the kingís chamber huffing and puffing from his run up the stairs. "Oh, there you are. I heard you call and came-- " He stopped in the center of the room and stared in shock at the body on the floor. "By the gods!" Then he turned towards the bed. "You didnít," he said, clenching his teeth. He approached the huge canopy. "You stupid old fool! I thought Ió" His eyes opened wide at the sight of the blackened corpse in the bed, its teeth bared in a grisly smile. "This canít be," he whispered.

"Iím sorry," he heard from across the room. Looking over, he saw the young Amazon warrior sitting with her back against the wall and her arms across bent knees. The plant behind her had turned black, and she had obviously been crying.

"Hey, itís all right," he said softly as he stepped towards her. She jumped up.

"No! Get away!" She backed out onto the balcony.

"Gabrielle, " he said, holding out his hand, "thereís nothing to be sorry about. You couldnít help the actions of the king. I couldnít either, but now that heís gone, heís much better off. And so are we. Believe me. Letís just get you out of this room and you can telló"

"Polyeidus." She said it so quietly that he found it more disturbing than if she had shouted. "Look."

Slowly she reached for a rose that had grown up the outside wall and wound its way around a column on the balcony. She grasped it, and Polyeidus watched in amazement as the petals quickly turned black, curling up and falling to the stone floor. At the same time, the rest of the plant began to wither up, death spreading across its vines like an invading army across an open field.

He stopped where he was. "This canít be," he said yet again.

"What, Polyeidus?!" She flung the rose to the floor. "What canít be? Iíve killed two men, including your master. Tell me what is going on here!" Her voice quivered , and her eyes were brimming with tears.

Polyeidus felt an overwhelming sense of pity for the girl. Pity and hopelessness. "I donít know whatís going on, my dear, but I will tell you what I do know." He took a deep breath. "Iíll tell you of the curse of King Iobates."

 

 

 

Xena and Bellerophon both stared in shock at Philonoe.

"Heís my father," she repeated.

"But, Philonoeó" Bellerophon took a step toward her, but she stopped him with an outstretched hand.

"Listen to me. I havenít lived there in years. Zeus, I barely lived there growing up. I spent most of my time in town. Waylon and Apphynia looked after me." She nodded at the innkeeper and his wife. She reached out for Bellerophonís hand. "But I did live there long enough to know that nothing my father could tell you to do would possibly be the right thing."

"But wouldnít it be right to help your country and rid it of this curse?"

"Not if it means your death!"

Xena broke in. "Bellerophon, you say the king gave you this task after you had delivered a message from King Proetus?"

"Thatís right."

"Do you have any idea what might have been in that message?"

"Not really," he said nonchalantly. But he released Philonoeís hand as he answered.

Xena grasped his arm and nodded at the young girl. "Excuse us just a moment." She pulled him into a corner and shook him. "Now look. If you know something youíre not telling me, youíd better let me know, because as things stand right now, youíre getting closer and closer to heading straight back to your father."

Bellerophon clenched his jaws for a moment and then blushed. "When I was in Tiryns, I had a little trouble with the queen."

Xenaís eyes narrowed. "Uh-huh."

He waved his fingers at her and blinked in embarrassment. "Now, Xena, itís not what youíre thinking. She wasnít my type, but she liked me a lot. I turned down several Ėuhófriendly invitations, and then she dropped it. She seemed mad, but I never heard any more about it."

"And then suddenly her husband sends you with an unknown message to her father King Iobates."

The young man swallowed. "Wellóyes."

"Iím thinking Philonoe is right. Theyíre both up to no good. However," she added, as they walked back to the young woman, "Iím not sure how the Chimaera figures into all of this." She addressed Philonoe. "I mean, youíve never seen the Chimaera, am I right?" Philonoe shook her head in disappointment. Xena continued thinking out loud. "Perhaps the king meant to ambush you on your way to fight this thing and make it look as though you died in battle with it. "

"He wouldnít have to do that. " They heard the sound of a chair scraping across the floor. "They could just let the creature kill him."

Xena turned towards the speaker--an older man, a farmer, from the look of his dark skin and rough hands.

"Assuming, of course, that it exists," she said, crossing her arms.

"Oh, it exists," he snorted.

"How do you know?"

"Because Iíve seen it."

The other occupants in the room made slight noises and shuffled about in excitement, but Xena remained unmoved.

"Where and how?"

"On my farm. It destroyed my crops, my livestock, andó" He paused and took a deep breath. "Several people I loved."

Waylon the innkeeper spoke up. "Itís true, Xena. We all heard about it. We mourned the loss of his family. And heís not the only one to lose land and people to that awful thing."

"It set my house on fire and slaughtered several of my cows," said another man who was eating in the far corner of the room.

"And it singed the clothes off my back," added another man.

Xena softened a bit and uncrossed her arms. "All right," she finally said. "Those of you who have actually encountered this thing, tell me everything you know."

Several men and women gathered eagerly around her and each in turn told their stories of the Chimaera. They all seemed sincere, and sincerely terrified at that. Still, Xena was having a hard time with this one, even after all she had seen in her lifetime.

As the last of the villagers finished, she held up her hands for silence. "So youíre telling me that itís been around for some time, no one whoís tried to stop it has succeeded, and that it stays in the foothills just north of here?"

"Thatís right."

Xena leaned on a table and looked intently at all of them. "This is what I really want to get straight. Itís got the head of a lion, a goatís bodyó" She looked around the room and received nods of assurance as she spoke. "A serpentís tail, and it can breathe fire."

A young man spoke up. "But the tail has a serpentís head."

Xena walked to the doorway and stood looking out. Bellerophon came up behind her and whispered in her ear. "What do you think, Xena?"

"I think they saw something, " she said, turning to him. "Iím just not sure what it was. " The young man stood there expectantly. She sighed. "I do think itís worth checking out, though." Bellerophon practically ran back to Philonoeís side.

"Xena thinks itís worth checking out!" Philonoe bowed her head in dejection, but the rest of the people began to talk excitedly. All except the first man who had spoken--the farmer who had lost his family.

"Xena!" he called out, and the rest of the crowd went silent. "Just remember that yesterday there were people in this town who doubted whether or not the warrior princess really existed, or if she was just some tale parents had come up with to frighten their children." Xena shifted uncomfortably as he continued. "And everyone doubted the idea that she was now a champion for good." He stepped toward her. "And yet, here you are, with all of us willing to trust you to help us." The silence was deafening as every person in the room stared at the dark warrior.

"I believe you about this thing," she finally answered quietly. "And Iíll help you."

The celebratory shouts were cut short by the entrance of a young boy into the tavern.

"Xena!" he called as he stared at her in awe.

"Yes."

"Iíve got something to give you." He reached into a satchel at his side and pulled out a card. Taking it from him, Xena saw a grisly picture of a skeleton riding on a donkey. "Itís from Hadara," the boy continued. "She said it was Gabrielleís last card, but she left before she could give it to her. It means--"

"Death," Xena finished for him. She was trying to remain calm as she looked at it. After all, she didnít believe in these things. Yet. . .

The boy continued. "Iíve also got a message from Gabrielle."

"Where is she?"

"She said to tell you she was going to the castle."

Xenaís face fell. That awful place. "How long ago was that?"

The boy looked sheepish for some reason. "About midday."

"That was hours ago," she said frowning. Xena turned to Bellerophon. "Are you familiar enough with the castle from your stay there all this time?"

He coughed. "Well, I didnít really stay there. I stayed here. Uh, I didnít find it to my liking encroaching on the kingís hospitality."

You mean you were scared in that old place, she thought to herself.

" Itís been years, Xena, but I remember everything about it," Philonoe piped in.

"Then letís go." Xena strode out into the afternoon sunlight and turned south towards the castle. She was doing her best to appear calm. After all, there was nothing specific to worry about. She was probably just being overprotective and jumpy. Probably.

 

 

Chapter VIII

 

 

"I first met Iobates," Polyeidus began, "when I was little more than a boy." He was pacing back and forth where the room opened onto the balcony, and Gabrielle, who was feeling weary and stunned, was seated on the floor with her back against the rail. All of the ivy that covered it had already turned black, and she at least felt assured that she could harm nothing else for the moment in this position.

"My father Melampus was advisor to King Proetus of Tiryns, and he felt I was of an age that I could develop the skills of healing and seeing in someone elseís service. He sent me with the kingís blessing to the neighboring country of Lycia, hoping I could serve King Iobates, Proetusís father-in-law. I traveled alone, because I had a special way with animals, and my father had complete confidence in my sense and abilities. After I crossed the border, however, I ran into a hungry giant that had been terrorizing everyone on the road. He caught me and was playing some rather cruel cat-and-mouse games when a man rode up and demanded that he stop. There was a fearsome battle, but the warrior won. You can imagine my gratitude. I told him I was on my way to serve the king, but I would gladly serve him instead. He told me to go on to the king and rode away. Of course, when I reached the capitol of Xanthos, it was only to find that my rescuer was indeed the ruler of Lycia.

"At first they had me doing menial tasks, but my healing abilities soon became evident, and my insight into the welfare of the country intrigued the king. We soon became inseparable, and Iobates did many good things for Lycia. Not long after that he married again, having lost his first wife to illness many years before. Nothing much changed except that there were three of us to look after the kingdom and have adventures." Polyeidus sighed.

"Ahh, Senoba was a lovely girl. And sweet-natured, too. Iobates adored her, and despite the difference in their ages, she felt the same way. After a few years, she became pregnant. She gave birth to a beautiful little girl, but in spite of my efforts, I couldnít save the queen. She died giving birth to the child. Iobates was devastated. I tried to draw him out of his shell with the girl, but he grew to despise her and she knew it. She spent more time in town than she did here, and the gap between them grew ever larger.

"In the meantime, Iobates had become obsessed with the concept of life and death. I guess it was because his wife lost her life bringing forth a new one. He used to sit in front of the fire at night and talk about what it would be like to have the power of a god and control whether people lived or died. He began to push me to search for herbs and roots that had strong healing powers.

ĎLetís find a way to bring back the dead, Polyeidus,í he would say. Of course, such powers were beyond me, and he soon turned to the gods. He started off traditionally, with Zeus, Hera, and Athena. But as he grew older and more bitter over the loss of Senoba, he began to plead with the more stringent onesóAres. . .Artemis. It was at this time that he heard about Bacchus and his group of immortal followers. He built a temple to him, and begged to be given special powers. As he told me later, the god did appear to him one night, and actually promised the power of life and death. But there was a price."

Polyeidus stopped and Gabrielle looked up. "No," she whispered.

Polyeidus nodded. "He willingly handed his daughter Philonoe over to the evil god in exchange for what he thought would be immortal powers."

Gabrielle didnít even try to hide the look of shock and disgust on her face. "Why did you stay with him?"

"I owed him my life. And I had seen the good there once, remember? I kept thinking if I only tried hard enough, it would come to the surface in him again. Do you know what Iím saying?"

Gabrielle nodded. More than youíll know.

"After he had Philonoe, Bacchus told Iobates that he now had the power of life and death. There was an injured horse on the side of the road as the king walked back from the temple. He placed his hands on it and told its owners it would be healed, but the poor creature turned completely black and withered up. It was dead in seconds. The villager was livid and reached out after the king, but soon he met the fate of his horse. It didnít take us long to realize that what Iobates had was simply the power of death."

"Like Celesta?"

"No, my dear. Hadesís sister can kill with a touch, but she is sent to get those who have been called to the other side. It is their time to go. Iobatesís curse took any living thing that crossed his path. When he realized this, he ranted and raved at the temple of Bacchus, but the god had what he wanted. He had no intention of humoring a mortal.

"One night I entered the kingís chamber to find that he had plunged a dagger into his side. The wound was such that nothing could be done for it, even if I could touch him. He seemed to lay near death for days, then weeks. Miraculously, he recovered. When he was strong enough, he began to get up and about again. One morning I heard screams coming from the kitchen. He had actually set himself on fire. He should have been dead, but just like before, his wounds closed up and he went on living. He even jumped off the cliffs near the sea caves, but he washed back up on shore very much alive. The poor soul that found him actually touched him, and turned as black as tar."

"Is that why the king had all those scars?" Gabrielle broke in.

"Yes, my dear. He must have tried a dozen times to end his life. Each time he experienced the pain and suffering, but not the release. And anyone unfortunate enough to touch his skin died immediately. You see, Gabrielle, Bacchus had kept his promise. Iobates had the power of life and death. Death for others, endless life for himself."

The living dead, Gabrielle thought and shuddered. "But couldnít the curse be broken?" she asked aloud.

Polyeidus shook his head. "We tried. Nothing worked. Eventually we turned to the gods. Athena finally appeared and told us that the only way to reverse a curse is for the god who gives it to take it back. Iobates spent almost all his time in the temple of Bacchus. He didnít even eat. He didnít have to.

"Then one day we heard a bard spreading the story that Xena, the warrior princess, had killed Bacchus and freed the cursed Bacchae. There was no hope after that, and the king knew it. He hated Xena from that point on."

Of course. "Are you a friend of Xenaís?" Gabrielle could still hear the old manís voice purring in her ear.

"But Polyeidus, how could the curse have been transferred to me?"

The healer looked at her pityingly. "I donít know, my child."

Gabrielle swallowed and took a big breath. "How long did he have this, Polyeidus?"

He clenched his jaws and looked away.

"Please," she whispered.

"Forty years," he finally replied.

"Forty yeaó" Gabrielle was cut short by the sound of the heavy castle doors swinging open in the foyer far below.

There was the echo of scuffling feet, and then a familiar voice.

"Gabrielle!"

Xena had arrived.

 

 

 

Xena surveyed her choices, then turned to Philonoe. "Whereís your fatherís chamber?"

"Upstairs and to the right."

"Bellerophon, I want you to cover the lower levels. Watch your step and be on the lookout for those thugs. We still have two unaccounted for."

The young man nodded and started into the room to the right.

Xena started towards the stairs. "Philonoe, take me to your fatherís chamber first, and stay behind me and keep your eyes open."

The young woman looked at her hesitantly, and Xenaís expression softened. "Look, I know this is hard for you, and you donít want to see him. But weíve got a job to finish up, and I need to find my friend."

The young girl took a deep breath. "Right." Then she followed as Xena crept up the stairs.

 

 

 

Polyeidus clutched at his chest. "Whoís that?"

"Itís Xena!" Gabrielle replied. Relief flooded over her.

"Wonderful! She can help us. Iím sure of it!"

Something about the old manís tone annoyed Gabrielle, in spite of her distress.

"Now how could she do that, Polyeidus? You have healing gifts and you lived with Iobates for years, and nothing you did helped him. Isnít this the same curse?"

"I donít know, but they say she can do anything."

She can do plenty, but she canít solve every problem. Iíve got to solve some of my own problems every once in a while, and I know Xena wonít understand this any more than I do.

"Up here!" the servant called. Gabrielle reached out to snatch his arm, then caught herself just in time. A wave of nausea swept over her as she thought about what had almost just happened.

And could happen any time. To anyone.

"Sshh!" she said instead. "Is there another way out of here?"

He stared at her in disbelief. "What are you doing? Donít you want to see your friend?"

"Iíve got to have some time to think." She could hear booted feet pounding up the stairs. "By myself."

Polyeidus stared at her momentarily, then nodded in resignation. "Here," he said, scuttling towards the far wall of the bedroom. He pushed against the stone, and a large section of it slowly swung open. "That will take you to the lower level. The door at the end opens onto the outside east wall of the castle." They could hear Xenaís voice and footsteps as she raced down the hall towards the chamber. Garielle stepped in and Polyeidus began to shut the panel. "Be careful of the stairs. Itís dark, but thereís only one way to go. No side entrances."

"When there was just a crack left, Gabrielle stopped the movement of the wall. "Polyeidus, come to me at the east wall when you get the chance. Come alone, and donít tell Xena anything thatís happened to me. Not yet."

The old man looked at her hesitantly.

"Please." Gabrielle could hear voices at the door. The old servant finally nodded and leaned up against the stone, leaving her in complete blackness.

 

Chapter IX

 

 

 

Xena burst in with her sword in hand and surveyed the sight before her: An old man cowering against the left wall, and two corpsesóone in the bed, the other on the floor. She heard Philonoe gasp behind her, and she couldnít blame the girl. She had never seen bodies like this. They were blackened and shriveled, but not in the way that burned corpses might be. It was as if they had been unearthed from some ancient tomb and placed here. She glanced toward the balcony. No Gabrielle.

She addressed the old man. "Are you all right?"

He nodded and rushed toward them. "Xena! You donít know how glad I am to see you!" Xena held her sword at armís length. He seemed harmless enough, but she didnít know who he was. She felt Philonoe move from behind her.

"Polyeidus!" She rushed into the arms of the old man.

He looked nervously toward the bed. "My child, my child, you shouldnít be here."

She pushed away from him and wiped tears from her eyes. "What happened here, Polyeidus?"

He swallowed and led her away from the two bodies. "Well, as you probably know, the castle was invaded by a couple of those pirates. I was in the process of leaving when I ran into a young Amazon."

Xena strode up to him. "Where is she?"

He swallowed and blinked.

Nervously, thought Xena.

"Well, I donít exactly know. She told me to wait around and she would take care of the thieves. I believe she knocked one off the balcony." Xena walked over the to the rail and confirmed that this was true. The man down there wasnít in good shape, but he wasnít a charred piece of wood like the other two.

The old servant continued. "She waved at me and I came up here, only to find that she was gone and that the other thief and your father were dead. Evidently, the king took care of the one on the floor, and then he took care of himself."

"But Polyeidus, you always led me to believe that he could never do that," said Philonoe.

"I canít explain it, my dear. But he was dead when I arrived. Iím sorry."

"Iím not," she replied bitterly.

Xena stepped back towards them. "Wait a minute. Youíre telling me that Iobates did this to both of them? How?"

"It was his curse. Surely youíve heard of it?"

"Yeah, yeah," Xena said and turned away. "I just didnít believe it," she finished muttering.

Her eyes scanned the room. "So you donít know where Gabrielle is?"

"No. But she knew you were in the city. Perhaps she returned there."

"Maybe." Xena was silent a few moments longer, and the other two, obviously lost in thoughts of their own, left her alone. Finally she turned to them. "I believe thatís all of our raiders. Philonoe, help Bellerophon tie up that man down in the garden. Then go to town and send back some people to help withó" She stopped. Sheíd almost said "bodies," but by the gods, one of those was that of the girlís father. "To help Polyeidus," she finally said.

"I just need two or three strong men," he said softly. Philonoe nodded and Xena gently took her arm and led her toward the chamber door. "Weíll meet at Waylonís Inn in town. You know it?"

Polyeidus nodded. "Iíll be there later. Where will you be, Xena?"

"Iím going to look for Gabrielle. When I find her, weíll meet all of you there and discuss this Chimaera business."

"Chimaera!" the old man repeated in a startled voice.

"Later. At the inn. Take care of this for now," she said as she ushered Philonoe out of the room.

Polyeidus nodded and breathed a sigh of relief when the two women left. It had been painful to see Philonoe so grieved and shocked, and he had the feeling that Xena didnít quite believe his story. And she was definitely someone he did not wish to anger. He would wait on the villagers, so they could safely dispose of the king, then he would find Gabrielle and hope she had come up with something. He didnít know Xena, but he had a feeling that a person couldnít hide from her for long.

 

 

 

Gabrielle sat just inside the secret entranceway that led out onto the slopes on the east side of the castle wall. Far away, she could hear the waves of the Mediterranean washing against the cliffs. She had been too afraid of venturing out and harming some creature or person out of ignorance; or running into Xena. She couldnít deal with that just now.

How did this happen? She placed her forehead in her hands and felt something chafe underneath her tunic.

Confused, she pulled it out. They were the cards that Hadara had given to Xena and her. She stared at her own card, but for a while she didnít really focus on it. She was too busy thinking about this horrible change that had come over her. Gradually, however, the card came into view and the images on it began to make an impression. Hadaraís words floated through her mind.

"You will soon find yourself in a situation where you feel trapped, with little hope." Gabrielle stared harder at the young woman on the card. She was bound, blindfolded, and surrounded by eight staffs. About as hopeless as one could get. But oddly enough, the woman on the card had her head turned, as if she could see or hear something behind her in spite of her situation. In the background were several mountains, with a river winding in and out of them. Three bridges could be seen high above the river and nestled amongst the mountain passes. "You will have to cross three rivers or bridges of some kind and perhaps you will escape this sense of being trapped."

Three rivers. Gabrielleís head shot up. Of course. Mnemosyne. She had been to the Temple of Mnemosyne once before when she was haunted by disturbing memories from her past. She had had to cross three rivers that represented the sad moments in her life. It had been a grueling experience, but the goddess of memory had been able to help her. Perhaps she could again.

Gabrielle sat up straighter. Things were by no means good, but at least she had a plan now.

 

 

 

Polyeidus huffed and puffed as he carefully made his way down the secret stairs with his torch held before him. He certainly didnít need to accidently bump into Gabrielle at this point. He thought he heard a movement at the bottom of the steps and called out her name.

"Here I am," came the reply. "Be careful."

He crept down the last few steps until he could see her in the torchlight. Poor child. She looked as if she had been weeping again, and she was leaning against the doorframe for support.

"What took you so long?" she asked.

The old man explained that he had been left in charge of taking care of the bodies in the kingís chamber. He hated mentioning it, but there was no need softening things for her now. She knew what kind of situation she was in.

"Listen," she said. "Iíve got a plan." She tossed what appeared to be a card towards his feet. "Take that to Xena and tell her that Iíve gone to the Temple of Mnemosyne. When she sees the card, sheíll know the message is from me."

Polyeidus ignored the card. "Mnemosyne! But why? I thought you were going to tell Xena whatís happened."

Gabrielle felt the blood rushing to her face. "Look Polyeidus, I know what Iím doing. Xena canít solve this problem, but Iíve been helped by the goddess there before. Perhaps she can help me again."

The old man stooped and picked up the card. It pictured a woman pouring liquid from one goblet to another. "This is one of Hadaraís cards, is it not?"

"Yes. Itís one she gave to Xena, but I took it for safekeeping. Iíve also got my own card. Maybe you think itís crazy, but I got the idea about Mnemosyne from that. Hadara seems to be a wise old woman."

"You donít have to defend her to me, Gabrielle. I admire Hadara." He contemplated the card for a moment, then tucked it away in his robe. "I guess I just donít understand why you wonít tell your friend. Sheís still out searching for you. I donít think sheíll let up."

"She wonít," Gabrielle murmured, and slid into a sitting position with her back against the wall. "Thatís why I want you to give her my message and the card." Her head shot up suddenly. "And Polyeidus?"

"Yes?"

"Tell her to meet me at the temple in four days and then weíll go get Joxer the Mighty."

The old manís eyes widened somewhat. "Joxer the Mighty?"

Gabrielle smiled, though Polyeidus thought it was a bittersweet one. "Yes. Make sure you say it just like that. Sheíll know your message is from me. Tell her nothing is wrong. I just wanted to go there to work some things out."

"All right, my dear. May the gods be with you." He turned and started up the stairway, but was stopped by the young womanís voice.

"Polyeidus?"

"Yes?"

"If things canít be helped at Mnemosyne, I will tell her. I learned a long time ago that it doesnít work to lie to your friends."

"Itís none of my business, Gabrielle."

But she wasnít willing to let him go just yet. "Polyeidus, do you remember hearing about the attempt by the Persians to invade Greece and conquer Athens?"

Polyeidus leaned against the wall and braced the heavy torch. "I most certainly do. As I recall, the stories were that Xena stopped them singlehandedly at Tripolis." There was no answer from the girl, and he decided to add, "But Iím sure you were there doing a great deal as well."

Gabrielle slowly shook her head. "No. No, I wasnít. I was wounded with a poison arrow and lay near death the entire time. It took all my persuasion just to get Xena not to drop everything and try to get me to safety."

"Sheís a devoted friend. Iíve learned that just in this short time."

"Sheís devoted to anything she pursues, Polyeidus. Thatís one reason I admired her in the first place. But I learned something particularly special then." She looked up at him. "You see, I had always known that Xena was willing to die for me, but I didnít fully realize until that battle with the Persians that she was ready to die with me. Do you understand?"

The old man shook his head.

"You see, Polyeidus, you and I both know that this curse makes me totally worthless to mankind. A walking corpse."

"Now, now," he started, but she held up her hand for silence.

"If it turns outó" She took a deep breath. "If I get to Mnemosyne and they canít help me in some way, then I wonít be able to travel around like I do now. It would be too dangerous. And Xena wouldnít travel without me. Weíd both just sit around withering up, outside and in. If it turns out that my life is wasted, I canít let her do the same thing. Thereís far too much good left for her to do."

"But you told me that youíre going to tell her when she gets there anyway. What if you find that they canít help you?"

"Then at least Iíll have tried. And Iíll have had four days to figure out how to convince her to go on with things."

"I understand, my dear. And I wonít let you down."

"I know you wonít," she smiled. Now if only I wonít.

 

Chapter X

 

"Xena?"

The warrior princess put down the card that Polyeidus had given her and looked up at Bellerophon. After the old servant had given her the message, they had all gathered around a table in Waylonís Inn to discuss the Chimaera. Even the farmer that had lost his family was present, along with a few other villagers. Xena was happy to have them. The more information they had, the better off theyíd be. Still, sheíd found it hard to concentrate without Gabrielle there. Based on the card and the "Joxer the Mighty" reference, she knew the message was from Gabrielle. And she felt she could trust Polyeidus. Still, why did her friend feel the need to return to the Temple of Mnemosyne? It disturbed her, and yet she had no basis for chasing Gabrielle down. Sheíd left her free to travel there once before, and things had worked out for the best. Gabrielle was her own person, and obviously this was something Xena was going to have to get used to. Besides, maybe she could take care of this supposed monster without her friend. It would give her much more freedom without someone to worry about.

Xena noticed that the room was silent, except for the crackling of the fire.

"Xena, do you think itís hopeless?" Bellerophon stated.

"What? Destroying this Chimaera?" She shook her head. "Nothingís impossible. We just have to find its weaknesses and capitalize on them."

"They say it has no weaknesses," said an older villager.

"Describe it to us in every detail. Everything you can remember," she said.

The farmer, whose name was Telion, spoke first. "Itís very largeóabout the length of four men. The head and front legs are those of a great lion, with a mane, and very large fangs. It can spew fire from its mouth."

"How far?"

"Iíd say at least ten paces."

"You say the rest of the body is that of a goat?"

"Yes," answered another man. "With the hind feet as well. Itís fast and surefooted. The mountain rocks donít give it any trouble."

"This snake tail. Itís got a head?"

"Yes, and itís full of deadly poison. I watched it paralyze an ox in a matter of heartbeats."

Xena leaned forward on the table. "Well, it looks as though it will take a lot of strategy to hit this thing in the right spot. However, I assume like any other goat, itís heart should be in the same place. Itíll help that there will be two of us."

"Three," said Telion.

"Four," added another villager.

"It wonít help how many of you there are. Thereís only one way to really take care of that thing." This came from Polyeidus, who had not spoken the entire time.

Bellerophonís eyes opened wide. "And how is that?"

"From the air," said the old man calmly.

There were several murmurs heard throughout the room, and even a few snickers, but Xena stared unperturbed at him. "How would we go about doing that?"

"On the back of Pegasus, the winged steed."

Telion and his companions burst out laughing, and even Xena smiled indulgently. "Polyeidus, no offense, but no one knows if he even exists anymore. There havenít been any stories of him for years."

"Oh, he exists, doesnít he, my boy?" He turned to Bellerophon, who looked distinctly uncomfortable. "I told you when the king gave you this quest that this is what you would have to do, and you agreed. After all, Pegasus visits the Fountain of Pirene, which is in your home of Cenchreae. It was the only way I thought I might not have your blood on my hands, having given you the kingís task in the first place."

"Speaking of which," broke in Xena, "Why did Iobates give Bellerophon this job at all? You must have some knowledge of his reasoning."

"Why wouldnít he?" questioned the youth. "Iíve done my share of fighting and killing, and Iobates knew it!"

"Shut up," Xena said without taking her eyes off of the old man. "Answer me, Polyeidus."

He looked apologetically at Philonoe, then at Bellerophon. "The letter the king received from King Proetus mentioned that Bellerophon had made some unwanted advances towards Antia."

Bellerophon slammed his fist on the table. "Thatís a lie!"

Xena placed her hand on his. "I told you to be quiet," she said gently. "We know itís a lie. Right, Philonoe?"

"Yes," answered the young girl quietly, and grasped his other hand in hers. He calmed down somewhat, although his face was flushed in embarrassment.

"Now go on," said Xena.

"I knew it was a lie," Polyeidus continued. "But it wasnít my decision. Proetus was demanding that as his father-in-law, Iobates kill you himself. Proetus obviously had some problem with killing a guest under his roof that he didnít think would apply to Iobates."

"I knew Proetus couldnít be trusted," Xena murmured. "Thatís why I left Joxer there in case Bellerophon returned. At least it sounds like Joxerís safe, though, as long as heís Proetusís guest."

Polyeidus continued. "I hate to say it, but I canít honestly say that Iobates would have thought twice about disposing of you, Bellerophon. However, I convinced him of the folly of this, and told him to at least pierce two sparrows with one arrow, so to speak, by sending you after this unstoppable Chimaera that had been plaguing Lycia."

"Polyeidus!" Philonoe cried.

The old man looked heartsick. "Iím sorry, my child, but your father could have killed him instantly. At least this way I thought he stood a chance--especially if he took my advice about attacking from the sky."

"But my father is dead. The task can remain unfulfilled. No one is asking you to do this thing now, Bellerophon."

"I have to, Sweet. Donít you see? I gave my word."

"To a crazed old man who wanted you dead, and who is no longer king! Xena, talk some sense into him." She turned desperately to the warrior.

Xena was silent for several moments, and everyone there was beginning to think she was lost in her own thoughts again before she finally spoke.

"Bellerophon, I understand about giving your word, but this isnít some theater drama or boysí game that weíre playing."

"Look," he said, growing red, "I donít have toó"

Xena raised her voice, and her blue eyes grew steely. "What you do have to do is think like a man. If you really feel that itís important to keep this task from the king, then you must take it."

"I do."

She continued. "But youíll be receiving help from me and anyone else that offers it. And we are going to think about all our options, including taking some time to check out Polyeidusís idea. Do you understand?"

For a moment, she thought he was going to protest, but after heaving a great sigh, he nodded. "I understand."

"Good."

"But Xenaó" started Philonoe in a hurt tone.

"And you, Philonoe. With your father gone you are the queen of Lycia."

Several people gasped, including Philonoe. Evidently this thought had not crossed their minds.

"But Iím not qualified toó"

"Youíre the daughter of the king and you seem to have a kind heart and a good head on your shoulders. In those last two respects, youíre overqualified compared to most of the rulers Iíve met. Youíre also not plagued with some curse. Now this country will need a leader. Are you up to that? Or do you want to watch a lot of people get killed trying to take over an empty throne?"

Philonoeís shoulders slumped. "I donít want that. I suppose youíre right." Her eyes brightened. "But as queen I do not wish for this young man or anyone else to risk their lives chasing after this creature."

"Philonoe!" cried Bellerophon.

"Fine," said Xena quietly. "But you do know, I suppose, that many of your subjects will lose theirs as this monster gets bolder and bolder. With no one to stop it, itíll wreak havoc all over Lycia, including this city. This is probably the best opportunity to get rid of it, while youíve got all of us working together and itís still out near the mountain range and away from people. As queen, however, itís up to you." Xena stood and walked over to the fire. "Waylon, how about some of that cider youíve been talking about?"

Waylon shook himself out of his daze and scurried to get her what she wanted. Bellerophon stalked outside into the cool night air. The tension in the room was palpable. Finally, the new queen spoke.

"You will look after everyone, wonít you Xena?"

"I canít promise that everything will be perfect, but Iíll do my best to destroy this thing without getting us all killed."

Xena saw Bellerophon peeking over the inn doors.

"All right. But you must go to Cenchreae first and do your best to capture this Pegasus creature."

"We will," Xena promised. Bellerophon strode back into the inn and embraced the young girl. Then, suddenly conscious of the other people in the room, he tried to kneel to the new monarch.

"Oh, get up," she said blushing, and everyone burst into laughter.

"Polyeidus," Xena called. He bustled over.

"The Fountain of Pirene at Cenchreae, you say?"

"Itís still his favorite haunt, Iíve heard."

"All right. I want you to go to Mnemosyne and tell Gabrielle to stay put until we get there. You do the same. We should be able to pick you both up in ten daysí time, whether weíre successful or not."

The old man coughed nervously. "So you intend to take her with you to face the Chimaera?"

Xena raised a suspicisous brow. "Of course. She can provide a lot of help. Besides," she added with a smile, "sheíd kill me if I let her miss a good storytelling opportunity like this."

"Right, right," the old man muttered, and asked Waylon for a large mug of ale. For some reason he looked as if he needed it.

 

Chapter XI

 

 

Gabrielle leaned back and bathed her face with a cool cloth. It had been a hard trip from Xanthos, with no human contact, and it felt good to actually have someone nearby. The priestess had commanded her servants to keep their distance, but she herself had proved to be a great source of comfort since Gabrielleís arrival. The young bard allowed herself to stare at the priestess for a moment. Everything about her was sleek and reassuring, from her smooth blond hair, to her flowing robe, to her soothing voice.

Gabrielle was grateful for the calming effect. The journey here had been grueling. After Polyeidus had left her, Gabrielle had scrounged through the castle until she had been able to find a large hooded cloak and some rags. She had made sure that every inch of her body was covered, including her hands, and had found that this had helped. With her hands wrapped tightly, she had grabbed hold of several plants outside the castle, and found that none of them were affected. However, on the last leg of her journey, a tree branch had torn a hole in her cloak and her exposed arm spread a path of death over any plants it touched. This incident made her more determined than ever to seek help from some quarter. Even if she wrapped herself up like a mummy, she knew there would always be the chance of an accident, and she couldnít bear the thought of that.

"You have painful memories once again, Gabrielle." The soft voice of the priestess broke into her thoughts.

She sat up. "Yes."

"But the help you seek is not the same as last time."

Gabrielle shook her head uncertainly. "No, no. . . I donít think so. I mean, last time I had the choice of discarding my painful memories, but I would lose precious ones as well."

"That is correct," replied the priestess. She stepped back to contemplate the young woman. "But if you lose these new memoriesó"

"Iíll forget that I have the curse and possibly cause the deaths of many people."

The priestess said nothing, but Gabrielle could tell that she agreed. Gabrielle stood up and began to pace.

"So there is nothing that you or the goddess Mnemosyne can do to remove this?"

"Only the god who gave the curse can remove it. And Bacchus wasó"

"Killed by Xena. I know." Gabrielle sighed and leaned against a cool stone pillar that supported the temple. "I know."

"You havenít told Xena. Why not?"

"Because I wanted to spare her the pain right now until I found out a few things." And I wanted to solve one of my own problems for once. Without seeing that look of suffering on her face.

"Gabrielle, are you sure that keeping this from her is the best for both of you?"

Gabrielle bit her lip. Thatís what I get for coming to a place where they can read your mind.

"I just wish to help you."

This time Gabrielle snorted in frustration. She turned from the pillar and after a few moments, her eyes focused in on the hundreds of clay bowls at the front of the temple. Each one was filled with liquid, and she knew from past experience that they contained the memories of each person that had ever entered this place. She stared at them momentarily, and then walked slowly up to them. Walking past the rows of bowls, she suddenly stopped and touched one of them.

"This oneís mine," she said, surprised that she was so assured of it.

"Yes."

She looked harder, then ran her finger gently along the edge of another one. "And this oneís Xenaís."

"Yes."

"I never knew she entered the Temple."

"She had been to us before. That is how she knew of its healing powers for you."

Suddenly, Gabrielle felt a ray of hope. Turning, she walked quickly up to the woman.

"Priestess, if this curse canít be lifted, what about Xenaís memory of it when I tell her? Couldnít she erase it by drinking her bowl?"

"She could."

"So all of her painful memories, including that one, would disappear."

"That is true, but her joyful ones would be gone as well."

Gabrielle set her jaw and turned away. "Well, yes, but she wouldnít have to deal with all this pain."

After a momentís silence, Gabrielle felt the presence of the priestess just behind her. "Gabrielle, do you actually think that Xena would be willing to give up all of her memories just to spare herself the pain?"

The young womanís shoulders sagged. "No." But within moments, she was excited again. "But couldnít we just pour out her bowl and spare her that? Do whatís best for her own good?"

"Do you honestly think that would be the right thing to do?"

Gabrielle didnít answer.

"Besides," the priestess continued, "Only the individual can make the choice about his or her memories. It wouldnít work even if I allowed you to do it."

"So thereís no hope then," Gabrielle stated, and her voice was low and hoarse.

"You can always tell her the truth and see what happens."

Gabrielleís temper flared. "I intend to tell her the truth! I just thought that you could rid me of this curse, or spare both of us this painósomething. . . " Her voice trailed off. She suddenly felt very tired. More so than she had ever felt in her life. "I just wanted to stop existing for a while. Itís obvious that my bodyís already done that. It canít die, and it canít help others live."

The priestess looked at her for several minutes, and her expression softened. Very quietly, she spoke.

"There is a way, Gabrielle, but it is very drastic. And it will be extremely painful for you."

Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat as she looked up at the woman.

"Show me," she said softly.

 

 

 

Bellerophon let out a great sigh as he stared at the fire.

"Missing someone?" Xena asked quietly as she sharpened her sword.

She and Bellerophon were camped just outside of Cenchreae, not far from the Fountain of Pirene. They had decided to camp close to the fountain in order to keep an eye out for Pegasus. Word was that the winged horse only came in the dead of night. Besides, Bellerophon had wished to avoid the city crowds for fear of being recognized, and Xena agreed with him. Nevertheless, she had made sure a message had been sent to King Glaucus telling of her success at finding his son, and that she would bring him home soon. At least she hoped to.

The young man blushed at her question. "Just a little," he said, and tossed a stick into the fire.

Xena was quiet for a few moments, but after hearing him sigh again, she spoke up. "Really, Bellerophon, I know you miss Philonoe, but itís for the best that she isnít here."

" I know that," he replied.

"Sheís got a job to do as queen, and youíve got something to accomplish here." Xena grimaced as she worked harder at what she was doing. "Believe me, sometimes itís best when the people we care about arenít around to distract us. Weíre better at doing our jobs." Bellerophon looked doubtful for a moment, then raised his brows and nodded his head in reluctant agreement. For a long while both of them were silent.

"I didnít mean to kill him, you know."

Xena looked up momentarily, but said nothing. She continued to hone her blade.