Disclaimers: You know we dont own them, and you know who does. Nuff said.
This story is written in response to the Academy of Bards challenge: Must Xe TV.
Some of the more intelligent ruffians were bolting the scene as their less brilliant cohorts continued to throw themselves into the frenzied attacks of the warrior princess. They had heard the stories about her skills, and now they knew those stories were true.
Xenas fist crunched into the first brutes nose, and blood spewed forth. Sensing someone behind her, she lanced her elbow outward, connecting her bone to the fleshy eye of a second. As they surged toward her, she would rely upon her legs and feet to double men over in an instant. As always, she was infallible in her technique; until she missed the one mercenary and accidentally clobbered Joxer into unconsciousness. She muttered a quiet, "Sorry about that, Joxer," and then turned and slipped on her own feet and crashed into a stand laden with clay pottery. In fact, Xena realized that she had made quite a few mistakes since the fight had started with the thieves. She had no explanation for it, but she was feeling more than a little off today.
Gabrielle clumsily swung her staff in wide arcs, but she did manage to take down more than a few of her own assailants. She also clobbered a few pedestrians, to whom she immediately blurted apologies before calling Xena for assistance. Even the bard knew that something wasnt right if the warrior princess was having such difficulty with these simpletons. Gabrielle brought her staff down on top of a final thiefs skull, and then watched as her friend fended off the last of her brigands.
With a brandishing of tempered steel, Xena dispatched the final thief, then grinned as she twirled the sword in hand with the intention of sheathing the blade. Only, she slapped herself with its flat side and then clumsily dropped the weapon into its harness. Xena frowned, "Ouch."
There came rather suddenly a solitary applause from behind her. She did not need to turn to see him standing there, with his stupid smirk. "Ares. To what do we owe the dis-pleasure?"
Still applauding, the god of war stepped forward until he was just in the corner of her vision. "Beautiful, as always, my dear. But well, I did notice something a little different about you. New hairstyle? New armored bustier?"
Now Xena did turn and face the god. Of course, he was devilishly handsome in his sadistic, dark fashion. She often wished that she could slap that smirk off of his immortal face. "What are you talking about this time, Ares? No. Never mind," she added hastily. "Id rather you didnt tell me."
Gabrielle was busy tending to Joxer while the two adversaries continued to stare at one another. Xena had indeed knocked the bumbling warrior-wannabe senseless. The bard knew that her friend could not have meant to do it, but then again
"By the way," Ares crossed his arms and grinned fully. "What did happen to poor Joxer, there? It looks as though he got the warrior kicked out of him."
"All right, Ares," Xenas voice was a harsh whisper. "Whats your game here?"
"Its quite simple, Xena. I want my ruthless warlord back. I miss the carnage of your name, the sheer atrocity that you committed. And, maybe, I want a little something more?"
"Get real," Gabrielle spoke in her friends defense. "Xenas become the most noble heroine these people have seen since Hercules. Theres no way that she could ever hurt the innocent again."
"Well put, Blondie," the war-gods smile grew wider and more sinister. "But allow me to pose a riddle for you. What good is a heroine if she doesnt have her skills?"
Xena came to within a pace of him and narrowed her icy eyes. "What are you saying?"
"Ive taken all of your skill and your power away," smirked Ares. "But not all at once, you see. With each fight, youll grow clumsier and weaker until youre just as effective as the warrior wannabe," he nodded in Joxers direction. "Your only alternative is to join me, and I will reverse the curse. Youll be restored to normal."
"It takes more than skill and power, Ares. It takes heart."
"Yeah," Gabrielle intruded, "you may have trained her, but it was because she had the ability. And she works hard to be what she is. You have no right to take her skills."
Joxer was beginning to come around, and Xena turned her back on the god and helped the man to his feet. His eyes opened. "Did anyone get the name of that centaur?"
"Come on," Xena frowned. "Were leaving."
Ares chuckled. "I bet that in a few days youll be begging to get back into my bed. Just wait."
His smirk doubled as he concentrated to teleport back to Mt. Olympus. Only, he went nowhere. He remained in the middle of dozens of limp bodies, and Xena and company were still leaving. He willed himself to leave yet again. Nothing happened.
Ares was feeling strange. In fact, he was feeling quite mortal. He frowned. "This cant be good. My powers gone."
"Brilliant deduction, Ares," Hermes taunted, appearing before him. "This time youve gone and ticked the Big Man off. Youve interfered one time too many, and Zeus has taken your powers. Youre mortal now." With that, he blinked out.
His worst fears confirmed, the god of war realized something else as well. He immediately sprinted towards the leaving party, calling after them, "Xena! Perhaps I was a bit hasty overzealous. Hey! Ill make you a deal. Xena!"
Just sit right back
And youll hear a tale,
A tale of an ancient myth.
That started from this Grecian port
Aboard a tiny ship.
The bard was always cheerful
And the warrior princess sure,
Five passengers set sail that day
To find Xenas cure
To find Xenas cure
The god of the seas was being rough;
The tiny ship was tossed.
If not for the courage of the warrior true
The Argo would be lost
The Argo would be lost
The ships aground on the shore
Of this uncharted ancient isle,
And Xena, too
Salmonius, and his Amazon bride
The god of war,
Gingerus, and Joxer, too,
Here on Gabrielles Isle!
It was a modest island, one filled with lush vegetation, sandy beaches, and an assortment of wild birds and insects. At a steady pace, once could walk around the island in a day and return to camp for a late evening meal of fish and fruit. There was a lagoon on the other side for bathing purposes, and the trees provided comfortable shade when the sun was just unbearable. It was a virtual paradise.
But to the stranded party of cursed adventurers, its wonder had quickly worn, and the past three months had convinced them that it was a prison. Thanks to an irritated sea-deity and a mutinous crew, the sailing vessel Argo had sustained hull damage and was only barely set aground by Xena and Ares combined efforts. And they had no way of knowing that this was the island that they sought for the ambrosia.
Once word got around about the war-god being mortal, many ousted warlords decided that it was time for revenge against a cruel deity. This only worked to increase the rate of Xenas decrepitude in battle, and by the time of the crew mutiny, she only barely managed a victory.
Now they were stranded on an island a band of hapless misfits on a quest for ambrosia to cure Ares so that he would cure Xena. That had been the deal.
Despite the lack of her warriors prowess, Xena could still think clearly, and she soon had everyone under shelter with fire and food. As the months progressed forward, they used the broken hull of the ship to construct huts and rudimentary tools. They learned to live together, but neither were they comfortable with or agreeable to one another.
The sun was beginning to fall from its apex of the sky, and Xena sat on the beach only a few paces from the huts with a pole in her hands. Her ability to catch fish by hand was a skill she really missed. This pole thing was just too iffy. She had been fishing for a midday meal for anyone who wanted it. They had their fruits as well, but she wanted some kind of meat, and fish would have to do despite the fact that she had been eating fish for some time now. And she didnt particularly like fish.
With her raven hair in a loose braid, garbed only in her leather because her armor was weighty and useless here, Xena no longer felt like a warrior princess. Somehow, she felt at peace with herself despite her loss. And yet, she also wanted off this island. She missed the high she got reaping the thanks from people she had helped and wanted to feel like she used to.
"Xena!" called Gabrielle as the bard sprinted the short distance to her friend. Gabrielles hair was done in similar fashion, and her skin was equally bronzed. She knelt beside the warrior. "Caught anything yet?"
"Not a bite," breathed Xena over the swelling surf. Her icy gaze was fixed upon the coarse line as it rose and fell into the sea. She was using fruit, having tried worms and bugs with no success.
Nodding once, the bard then looked to her bared toes. "How are you feeling today?"
Xena could not help her tiny smile. "You ask me that every day, Gabrielle. You know how Im feeling. I feel as if my very soul has been ripped out of me. The fires still there, but I cant harness it anymore. But," now she did face her young friend, "thanks for asking. At least you havent changed much."
"I dont know if thats such a good thing. I dont have any papyrus or ink left, and the boys are "
There came a crash as something fell out of the skeletal remains of the ship. Ares was hell-bent on finding a dingy or anything left in the boat that could get them off of the island, and though he never did find anything he never stopped looking. The crash was Joxer falling through some rotted wood on deck and into the debris field below. The sudden noise was followed by a sarcastic apology from the god and some feeble retorts from the bumbling warrior.
Of the others, there was Salmonius and his Amazon "wife"; the former having acquired a fair amount of funding for the expedition in a con game the same instance in which he had acquired his bride. She was an Amazon true, and she neither slept in his hut nor gave him respect. He was a man after all.
There was also a beautiful wench from the Argo that had appeared just as the crew jumped ship. Xenas still somewhat deadly fists in part inspired their abandonment. Gingerus was rather quiet, and she remained apart form the others, but she obviously had lead some kind of glamorous existence abroad. She spoke little, but when she did, her voice was thick and luxurious.
Gabrielle sighed quite languidly. "Do you think well ever get off of this island?"
Xena placed a hand atop her friends shoulder. "I "
The pole jerked forward suddenly, dragging the warrior up to her feet and then knee-deep into the surf. She gave her war cry. "Come to Momma! Dinner at last."
Laughing while Xena struggled valiantly with the meal, Gabrielle imagined for an instant that nothing was wrong with this scenario. But the bard knew well that they were indeed stranded upon this island, possibly forever. They had no idea as to their location, nor any way back to the mainland. The last of her papyrus had been used as a plea for rescue and sent floating away secured in a hollowed plank with Xenas mark engraved upon the side.
That had been weeks ago.
From the couples hut, there came some new squabbling, and Gabrielle released yet another sigh.
"No, I mean it," Salmonius could be heard plainly. "Is it so hard for you to stitch my cloak? Cook a meal? Do some hut-work for a change?"
"If youre so concerned," said the Amazon in a thick tongue, "then attend to those matters yourself! I am an Amazon warrior. I should hunt and fight. You are a man; make yourself useful!"
He managed to squeak, "Im the one who got you, even deal. You are my wife. Havent you heard of being subservient?"
Gabrielle could only laugh as the entrepreneur fell backwards out of his own hut and onto his rear. His arms were laden with his treasures, the junk he had somehow secured in the rough ride.
As he came to his feet grumbling, the bard called to him. "Salmonius. You should know by now that Amazons dont bow to any man. Your wife wont be any different."
"Just keep reminding me," he grimaced as he sat beside the beautiful young woman. His graying beard was haggard now, but he had lost some weight from their new diet. "And remind me why I got involved in this expedition, while youre at it."
"Because Xenas helped you out before and youre such a good friend, you returned the favor."
"Besides all of that," he looked to the sea. "And to think that I had paid the crew so very well. The only things I have left are these trinkets and her."
His "wife" had emerged from the hut to chuck his blanket at him before returning inside. She had an olive complexion, and thick dark curls for hair. Her build was that of a lean warrior. Apparently, her first husband had been more than pleased to part with her. Gabrielle thought she was elegant and fierce.
A very large and wet fish resounded with a slap at their feet, spraying them with slime and sand, and Xena stood over it half-soaked and smiling as well. She squeezed sea and salt out of her hair and skirt. Then, she said with an even wider grin, "Whos cooking dinner?"
It was not until the sun had started to sink into the western horizon that the fish was cleaned and speared over a contained fire, and then they waited longer for the fresh meat to cook. Xenas sword was still useful as a tool if nothing else, and it made short work of filets. They also chopped wood with it and drew out maps in the wet sand, which was not good for a metal blade. Even now, with Gabrielle slowly turning the spit and the rest eagerly waiting, Xena dragged a smooth stone down the length of her steel time and again to keep the edges sharp and even, and as an apology for the mistreatment of the blade. Her senses were dulled; she did not need her sword as dull.
One thing that Ares particularly disliked while being mortal was the fact that he was always hungry. His deeply tanned and well-toned belly seemed to be making up for his lack of eating as a god. Were he still a god, then he could instantly repair his fraying vest and pants and his leaking boots. He would not be on this island, either.
"This is ridiculous," Ares muttered for the umpteenth time. "Im the god of war! I inspire people to battle and carnage. I dont dine on half-raw fish meat with mortals."
"In case youve forgotten," Xena frowned, pausing in her work. "Youre just as mortal as the rest of us, Ares. I suggest that you get used to it."
"Never. As soon as we find the ambrosia, Ill be a god again. Then, Ill be off this island, youll be free of the curse, and everyone can return to his and her normal routines, as mundane as they are. Father is going to have some explaining to do about this little prank."
"How can you say that so callously?" Gabrielle raised a curious brow to the deposed god. "Does that mean that you think all mortals lives are jokes? There are good mortal people suffering because of the gods. And now you are one of those mortals."
"Dont remind me," he scraped up sand into his palm and squeezed. "And dont think that my helping you out after I get my powers back means anything. I just hate owing debts."
Joxer had been busy staring at Gingerus pair of luscious melons while Ares was speaking. Now that there was a brief moment of silence, for he still feared repercussions for interrupting someone on a quest to regain his godhood, he timidly asked her, "Are you going to eat both of those melons?"
"Not at all," she purred.
One tender melon-fruit she brought to her full lips, and perfect teeth bit carefully into exposed flesh. Some clear juices dribbled down the length of her elegant neck and into the crevice of her bosom, gently mashed together by her corset of leather. The other she handed coyly to Joxer with a tempting and knowing wink.
Ares smacked the lanky warrior with his own helmet to snap him out of his daydreams.
Joxer rubbed his sore skull and groaned, "Whyd you do that?"
"I was asking you a question," said the god. "Youve been studying the map. Is this the island or not?"
"Well, as Ive been saying, its hard to say. If I had some clear references to engravings or markers, something to give me a cross-referenced location "
Ares frowned. "Well, arent you the master of geography? Isnt that in your song?"
"Yes, I am," Joxer took a very deep breath. "Joxer the Mighty, / Master of Geography/ "
His reward was to be smacked again over the head by the god, to which Salmonius replied, "Thank you. His singing is worse than my wifes hospitality."
The Amazon responded to her husbands comment by imitating the motion of what Ares had just done to Joxer. All of this caused Gingerus to giggle for a few seconds, and in turn forced everyone to stare at her.
"What?" she started in her sultry voice. The wench then hid half of her face behind a melon fruit and toyed with stray red locks.
"You know," Ares leaned closer to her. "You seem very familiar to me. Have we met before?"
While the others bantered back and forth, Xena suddenly ceased her sharpening and cast a quick glance behind the huts. Though her senses were dulled, they were not completely gone, and the warrior princess knew that she had heard something, felt something, in the overgrowth shading their abodes. She stood. Everyone else ceased speaking.
"What is it?" Gabrielle kept the spit turning, but followed her friends gaze into the wood. "Xena?"
"I thought I heard something," she replied. With much concentration, Xena managed to slip the sword into her braided leather belt without cutting herself. "Ill go and check it out."
Before the bard could voice her protest, Xena jogged forward into the nearest clump of trees. Several moments later, Ares came to his feet with the intention to follow.
"Dont worry," he smirked. "I wont let anything happen to her. Remember. If Xena dies, then Im dead."
"You cant just " the bard never finished.
Ares began jogging after the warrior, she having already disappeared into the darkness. He called back, "Im sure you and the Amazon can keep Joxer the Mighty safe."
Joxer passed a pathetic glance between the two women, and then looked to his own feeble physique. "Do I really look that defenseless? Come on, this is the build of a warrior."
No one voiced a protest to his thinking.
Xena was forced to draw her blade before long to hack her way into the thicker underbrush, and she had accidentally nicked herself when releasing her tool. "Damn!" The cut was small, and it stung only a little, but it was there. "I hate being like this," she grumbled.
There was always some noise that she heard from just a few paces ahead of her, and so she pushed on. She could not help but wince at the amount of noise she made with her difficult progression, but thanks to her condition it could not be helped. Xena wondered if jungle gardening equated to a fight. She wondered if with each down stroke of her arm she was losing more of her skill, more of herself.
Now there was a sound steadily approaching from behind, and she stopped. For several minutes she remained motionless as insects poked at her flesh and sweat beaded on her skin until it dripped freely from the end of her nose. Something was following her. She was certain of it.
Ares barely had time to duck as tempered steel sang in a wide and deadly arc. Then, leaping forward and rolling, he caught her just before she tumbled backwards and into a jagged spike of stump, which would have meant their deaths. Hers would have been instantaneous, while his would have been drawn and tortured from the mercenaries bound to find him.
His weight was heavy upon her as Xena tried to sort out what had just happened. "You can get up any time now, Ares."
"Can I?" he breathed. He didnt know what she was after, but it had to be something to give her reason to do it. "You could get killed wandering out here chasing some damn nonsense, you know."
She made an effort to push against him, but he had the advantage for now. "I was doing fine until you showed up. I dont need your help."
"Face it, Xena," he said, carefully brushing away stray hair from her lips. "Right now, you need me as much as I need you. I made a deal, and I keep those deals. I get my powers back, and you get yours. Until then, we are partners, and I will not allow you senselessly risking your life like this."
"You must be delirious from your extended mortality," Xena whispered. They were so close that she could see the individual roots of his whiskers. "You almost sound like you actually care about me."
He smirked again, and grinned devilishly. He suddenly seemed all too human. "You think I dont care, Xena? I invested a lot of time and effort into making you the perfect warlord. I shivered with delight every time you torched a village or took a life. You have a fire inside of you that is unquenchable, and I miss that."
"Thanks to you that fire is going out."
Ares shook his head. "I know now that I was wrong for taking away your power. I hate seeing you like this."
Before either one was aware, they had locked themselves into a powerful embrace. Where this sudden burst of passion sprang from was beyond Xenas comprehension, but she had not expected him to initiate it. Her hair became tangled in his hands; she raked his back with her nails, and they indulged in extremely powerful and hungry kissing.
"Excuse me," Gabrielle stood over the scene just a few paces away. They looked to her just as shocked as she looked to them, but they did not have tears welling upon their lashes. "Forgive me for interrupting," she apologized sarcastically.
"Gabrielle," Xena called after her as she turned and bolted back through the path that had been cleared. The warrior princess then managed to push the god from her and clumsily headed after her friend.
Ares sat a few moments more before picking up Xenas forgotten weapon and passing a hand through his own tangled hair. What had he just admitted? " Women "
Unknown to the three below, someone else had spied upon the scene and overheard everything that had been said. She had been hiding in the thick branches only a few paces away, and she was as surprised as Gabrielle had been to witness the passionate display.
"Poor little Xena," Callisto harmonized to herself. "Youre not behaving like the warrior princess Ive come to know and loathe. No matter. If youve lost your powers, then that makes it all the easier to kill you."
Callisto had found the message the castaways had sent in the hollowed plank and had taken her own ship to follow her nemesis on the quest for ambrosia. She had been prowling the island for days now to assess the situation. It was too perfect. Soon enough, they would be lead to what they were seeking by her hand, and her trap that had been planned so perfectly would be sprung at last. Callisto would kill Ares, Xena, and the rest and become a god herself.
She had all the patience that she needed to wait only a little longer.
Yet another warm night was spent upon the island. The salty breeze pushing through the coarse fabric of torn sails covering the crude windows, and the wash of the shore was constant and peaceful. Xena lay in the hammock, staring at the dark ceiling while Gabrielle was curled beside her and asleep. After the incident with Ares, the bard had been hysterical and inconsolable for a few hours. But, after a very sincere conversation and apologies were made, not to mention a rather intense romp in the sand of the hut, Gabrielle felt better about Xenas explanation and had forgiven her lover and friend.
The warrior princess was unable to sleep simply because there were far too many thoughts jumbling through her mind. Why had she kissed Ares? She couldnt stand his demeanor, his ego, and yet today he had spoken things to her with a genuine concern. He was so calm and tender and
Stop it, she mentally commanded herself. Ares doesnt care about you. He only wants to use you as a weapon for his wars. Thats all.
Gabrielle stirred slightly with a quiet whimper. Strong and elegant fingers trailed through golden tresses until the bard was quiet again. She always did look like the most beautiful angel while she slept.
It took more than a few seconds for Xena to realize that Gabrielle was staring at her with a drunken smile and half-dreaming eyes.
"Cant you sleep?" the bard whispered.
"Not really," Xena returned. "Im still bothered by a few things."
Carefully lifting herself to one elbow, Gabrielle better faced her companion and sighed. "Not still about Ares? I already forgave you for that, Xena I understand. Well, not really, but it doesnt matter. Youre feeling vulnerable. Confused."
"Maybe," the warrior princess frowned. "But I know that there was something in those woods today. Something suspicious."
Gabrielle was quick to take her lovers mind from such thoughts by changing the subject to their more immediate predicament. "Do you think anyones found our note?"
"If the winds havent been working against us. Dont worry, Gabrielle. Im sure someone will find that note. Well be off this island soon enough."
Something crashed in another hut. "Dammit, Joxer!" Ares grumbled loudly.
"Well, if there wasnt all this stuff laying around "
"Hey, thats all I have left," whined Salmonius. "All the dinars I spent on this trip. The boat, the sailors "
"You and this junk should be in your own hut with your wife," Joxer retorted.
"Will you all just shut up!" the Amazon screeched from her hut. "Men. Pieces of gods-be-damned, centaur dung, smelly " and her voice faded into the night.
The only person that did not complain was the wench, Gingerus. She said next to nothing, interacted with the group even less, and slept through this racket every evening. But she could get the men to do anything for her with the simple bat of her eyes and some lyrical inflection of her voice. Gingerus held the attitude of a theatre player of some recognition.
With a sudden rise in commotion and then silence, Xena released her own guttural sigh. "At least, I hope that we get off of this island soon. I dont know how much longer I can keep from killing our fellow castaways."
Gabrielle giggled and entwined her arms around the warrior princess. "How about I take your mind off of that "
Beautiful as always, morning arrived pouring sunlight through the open portals. Xena was awake well before dawn, and she had been staring out into the beach for some time. She didnt like what she saw there.
Gabrielle awoke with a start when she did not feel the comfortable weight of her lover pressing against her. Through blurred vision, she saw Xena not far away and the bard smiled and stretched before rising. She sauntered to the stunning brunette and wrapped tanned arms around stoic shoulders, then lightly pecked that salty flesh. She could tell that something was amiss from the lack of reaction. "What is it? Xena?"
The warrior princess remained motionless. "Someone else is on the island."
Taking up her sword, Xena eased out of the hut with Gabrielle in tow. The fire had been scattered in a great circle, the kindling pile disorganized, and there were dozens of footprints everywhere. Someone had been in the camp, close enough to wake the others with some commotion. But nothing had been heard. This was evident by the sleepy yet startled expressions on their faces as they emerged from their huts.
"You know, Xena," Ares said with his usual smirk. "If you had wanted to reorganize our supplies, you could have asked for help."
"Very funny, Ares. Wed better look around and see if anythings been taken."
For the next hour they wandered around the camp and the wreck to ascertain their standing. It wasnt so bad. The kindling had only been scattered, not stolen in fact, nothing seemed missing, and what little remained of the wreck itself was left unscathed. The prints had emerged from the forest and disappeared back into it.
The only other clue that they found was a large arrow pointing into the forest where Xena had started her trimming, drawn in the sand and scrolled beneath it with Greek letters stating "this way".
"Maybe someone did find our note?" Joxer brightened. "They want us to meet them this way. Someones here to rescue us at last."
Ares smacked the mighty warrior over the head. "Use your brain, little buddy. If they were here to rescue us, they wouldnt have trashed our camp. I smell a trap."
"Which is why I vote we stay in camp," Salmonius readily interjected. "Were safe during the day, and we can set watches at night."
"Not a good idea," Xena frowned. She studied the soft prints a few seconds more. There was something familiar about them. "Whoever did this is good enough to have done so without alerting any of us."
"That isnt so hard," Ares smirked again. "With all of the noise we made last evening, a giant could have tromped through without us knowing about it."
Both Ares and Salmonius stared at Joxer, who replied with, "There was a spider in my hammock. And Joxer the Mighty spares no justice for such ilk."
"Spares no dignity, you mean?"
The warrior princess rested the flat of her blade over her shoulder. "Enough already. It doesnt matter. What does matter is that we need to find them before they decide to do more than just trash our camp."
"You dont think that they might," Salmonius gulped, "kill us?"
"Its a possibility. They evidently arent friendly. And they may indeed have a way off this island. Lets get some supplies together and get going. We dont need to be caught in the forest at night."
As the others parted to gather their things and get ready, the entrepreneur turned to his "wife" and sighed. "If it isnt too much of a bother, would you mind if I stuck close to you? I mean you are such a powerful warrior and all."
The dark Amazon snorted. "Do as you will."
With the couple now departing to attend their affairs, Gingerus stood alone to stare at the crude markings. She did not like this. She had thought it unfair of Ares to take away Xenas power, but then unfair of her father to make Ares himself powerless. And a mortal as well. Well, she was here to make certain that nothing happened to him. This was a trial of humility, and so long as she didnt interfere that much then Zeus didnt care if she accompanied them.
Besides, she was partially thrilled by all of this danger and excitement. The goddess of love did not often get to do such mortal things. What would she bring that would assist them in their journey through the dark forest? Herself, of course.
The further in the party moved, the thicker the foliage became. They encountered several large leaf-plant varieties with veinous heads; brush thicker than they had ever seen it, tangling vines and even briar patches. Xenas sword was ever as deadly in Gabrielles steady hands as she hewed through the brown and green, and the warrior princess closely followed her. They had all agreed that it was better if Xena not exert herself in the chance that their excursion would become dangerous.
Ares was just behind Xena and always darting his eyes to every sound that was not their own. He would be safe in the pack, but he would also provide some cover for her. So long as the ambrosia was on this island, which he now fervently prayed it was though the chances of that were slim, he could suffer some slight indignation such as injury on her behalf. The mere thought of dying as a mortal pushed him on, and gave him sudden fear of this path.
Then came Gingerus and Joxer and Salmonius holding a close pattern to one another. Nothing was known about the first person because she offered no explanation as to her fighting skills; but the second could take a few blows while the third had actually succeeded in delivering a few for slight victories. Under normal circumstances, Salmonius had no problems traveling into the unknown with Xena. But, the situation being what it was, the entrepreneur sorely wished that Hercules or Iolas, or both, were walking on either side of him now. And towing the line was the Amazon, his "wife" being the only adequately skilled fighter at the moment, and she guarded the rear with fervor.
Joxers eyes were glued to one particular rear as they marched along. He couldnt explain why, but he could not keep his mind on the job at hand. This woman before him, whoever she was, was so hypnotically attractive that he likened her to a goddess. And every now and again, he did catch a glimpse of flashing light from her hut. Was he so desperate for Gabrielle that he substituted any woman in her place?
He accidentally bumped into the woman, and he jerked his gaze in all directions. "Whyd we stop?"
Everyone hissed with a finger over his and her lips.
Salmonius whispered harshly, "Are you certain that being a warrior is your calling?"
There was another hiss, and both men made apologies to the reprise of a third hiss for silence.
Xena had urged the bard to stop and sprinted a few paces ahead. She found that if she concentrated enough, Xena could make use of her senses. Squatting to the ground in her tarnished armor and leather, she ran her fingers over the soft dirt and listened to the wood. Her warriors sense was tingling with some unnamable sensation.
Gabrielle crept forward and was followed closely by Ares. Both knelt beside the brunette. The bard was the first to speak. "What is it, Xena?"
"These tracks are fresh," Xena sniffed the air. It was musky and reeked of sweat, but she could discern nothing else. "They arent ours either. Im beginning to believe that Ares was right about the trap."
"If thats the case," said the god, "then perhaps we should think about doubling back? If someone came to the island, they came on a ship. We can find it, take it, and leave this place."
"And leave the ambrosia and your godhood? That isnt like you at all, Ares."
He smirked. "Maybe being a mortal has dulled my thinking. I dont know about you, but our little crew isnt up on battle skills just now. I much prefer being alive, and I would rather you didnt walk into a trap, thank you."
Gabrielle gave her own wicked smile. "Funny. I never thought that the god of war was a coward."
"Coward?" Ares spitted out through gritted teeth. "I was only concerned about your safety, but since youre so anxious to get killed, lets get moving."
The god stood and took the lead out of pride and embarrassment. Perhaps being a mortal had dulled his thinking. It was true that they had no idea as to whether the ambrosia was here or not. If they should find it, then he would embrace his godhood once again and repay his debts immediately so that he didnt owe these people anything. And there would be many turncoats who would learn to fear his wrath once more.
The two women waited but a moment more, smiling to one another in congratulations of this small victory. They had made a deal. It was their intent to see it made good, no matter what he thought.
They pressed on.
It was after midday and a short meal and some rest when the castaways reached a clearing in the interior of the island. For a time, they had gotten themselves entangled in the thickest bush they had seen yet, and they had nearly stumbled into a few pits, but through some chance of luck they had reached this spot.
There was a large and ancient temple here as well, worn from time and covered in dark clinging vines and other growths. Ornate carvings in dedication were eroded into undistinguishable lumps on smoothed stonework. It was beautiful and pitiable in the same instant. And, dangling high above them on a sturdy plant protected atop a broken stone column was the golden glow of the prize. Ambrosia.
"See, I told you," Joxer smiled. "I told you this was the island. Didnt I say that this had to be the island?"
"You were right," said Ares. "Congratulations. Now, tell me your song says that you are a master column-scaler as well."
Passing a hand over the surface of the column, Xena frowned. "Its pretty slick. No way to climb that. Perhaps if someone hadnt taken away all of my skills, I could make a running leap for it."
Ares smiled rather sheepishly. "Yeah, Im beginning to regret that more and more."
"Youll regret much more than that before Im through with you," came an all-too familiar voice.
Xena looked about with a wild eye. "Callisto."
There was an automatic formation of a tight circle around Ares and Gingerus, he because he was supposed to get them off the island, and she because they didnt think that she was capable of defending herself. Xena reassumed command of her sword and brandished the steel in the afternoon light. She had no clue as to where her nemesis was, but she knew that nothing good would come of this.
"So," the heroine started. "Youre the one that trashed the camp and made the noise that I heard in the woods."
"Give the girl a prize," Callisto giggled from everywhere it seemed. "Whats the matter, Xena? Cant you find me by my voice? Or are you feeling a little dull and weak?"
A careful glance was passed between the warrior and the god, both knowing that he may yet have doomed them to death. And still, she took the lead and stepped clear of the others. Xena had a plan, if it worked.
"Come on, Calysto," she smiled. "You dont want them. You want me. Well, here I am take your best shot. Just leave them out of it."
"You dont understand me," the maniacs voice was closer stronger. "Not only do I want you, but I want to crush everything that you care about. You took everything from me! And before you die, you will see me take everything from you."
Xena was pacing a steady figure eight in front of the others. As much as she concentrated, she still could not find Callisto. This wasnt going very well. "Well, youve still got to get through me."
A form fell from the nearest tree, landing perfectly in a kneeling posture with head bent forward. Beneath blonde tresses and a beautiful Amazonian figure lurked the deadly and homicidal malice of Callisto. She raised her face to smile at Xena, eyes smoldering embers and dark as coals set into her elegant face. She had lived her life for this coming moment.
Xena raised her blade and took her stance. It was unnecessary to take her own determined gaze from the madwoman to know that Callisto had not come alone. In the partys current status, the few men accompanying their crazed leader were comparable to an elite army.
"Believe me, Xena. Im going to enjoy every moment of my getting through you," the killer came to her height, hands upon her hips, and said matter-of-factly. "A powerless god, a defanged warrior princess, and a bunch of idiots to back her. Im really going to have to hurt you if I intend to get any pleasure out of this."
Before she could be warned against it, Xena leapt forward and landed a backhand full force into delicate curve of cheek. Callisto stumbled a few paces, but had a pleasant expression despite the coming bruise. Xena stood her ground.
"Well, Xena. Maybe this will be more fun than I thought." To her men she cried, "Attack!"
The fight came from all sides as the adventurers did what little they could to defend themselves. Gabrielles staff kept a few at bay while Ares fists met flesh time and again with minimal discomfort.
"I may be mortal," Ares grinned, "but I still know how to fight."
Joxer had taken it upon himself to guard Gingerus with his sword, and he was holding decently so far, mainly because no one bothered with them. Salmonius "wife" was thoroughly enjoying the punishment she rained upon the mercenaries. It had been so long since she had tasted battle that she had nearly forgotten the flavor.
Xena could not afford a moment to glance at the progression of her friends in the battle, because she was using everything that she had left to keep pace with Callisto. Sparks flew as sharp edges touched repeatedly, though the warrior princess was losing ground as the battle progressed. Her handicap was most definitely slowing her, and the other woman was taking advantage of that.
Dodging to one side, Xena brought one knee to Callistos gut, and then barely moved away to keep from being impaled. The swords were singing in a sharp staccato of tones, a dissonant aria as the two she-warriors competed for supremacy.
One mercenary managed to put his hand upon the Amazons shoulder, and her dark fist crunched into his nose twice as a reward. Another two came from behind and took hold of her arms. They were then rewarded for their valor by being unceremoniously crowned by Salmonius with a thick branch he had pulled free. It was ungainly and clumsy, but it was a weapon. He was then clobbered to the ground, and a third attacker readied a finishing blow on the older man.
The Amazon was quick to pounce, and the would-be killer was flung several feet away. She stood shamelessly and protectively over the entrepreneur. "Keep your hands off of my husband."
At last, with a stinging clash, their swords were flung in opposite directions far from them; Xena and Callisto then forced to trading physical blows with one another. The battle, however even it appeared, was still decidedly one-sided as Callisto made more connections than did Xena.
The warrior princess doubled back, her left hand straying to her chakram. No, it was too dangerous. Even if she did manage to throw it correctly, it was more likely to do harm than good. She couldnt risk injuring the others.
Leaping up, Xena did manage to catapult over Callisto and kick the warlords knees from beneath her. Given this brief respite, the warrior princess shouted, "Ares! Go for the ambrosia!"
It was a moment that she should not have wasted. Callisto had recovered almost instantly after her fall, and was now furiously handing Xena the rich beating that she thought the warrior deserved. One fist sent Xena sprawling backwards, while a kick doubled her over at the gut. A precise roundhouse spun her around a full turn, only to have another blow hammer her to the dirt. An unstoppable rage overtook the zealot as she continued pounding her enemy into a dull grave.
Joxer had lost sight of Gingerus, but he assumed that she had fled into the broken temple. He and Ares were back-to-back fending off assailants in a dizzying circle. It worked to the war-gods advantage because he was mostly defended while Joxer unwittingly took the blows.
But the tactic was soon forgotten when he heard Xenas cry and then saw the incredible beating she was taking trying to defend him. Even though her body was being sorely bruised, her spirit was not being broken, and this spurred him into action. He suffered more than a few cuts as he leapt for a thick vine just behind the column, one that had not been there previously. He did not question it. It was sturdy enough, and so Ares began to climb. He could not allow Xena to die here like this.
Gabrielle took a position beneath the vine and swung her staff furiously, even if she missed her marks. She was exhausted, and the warm air seared her lungs as she gulped in every breath. Joxer was at last overwhelmed and knocked to the ground. He wasnt killed, probably because Callisto wanted to enjoy torturing them to death first. She hated the warlord, more now than ever. Her staff brought down another mercenary. Two more took the fallen soldiers place.
Ares was nearly there, his muscles straining and hands threatening to loosen their grip. He could smell the sweet nectar of the fruit, could almost taste it.
He did feel the reality of something sharp piercing through his right shoulder blade, and the flow of his own warm blood against his back. He had never felt such pain before. But he dare not stop.
The Amazon saw the archer and launched herself at him. He had no time to turn and aim as the warrior-woman crunched him to the ground. She could do nothing to defend herself as a dozen more men leapt onto her and weighed her down.
Callisto giggled as she brought Xenas face to her own. She so enjoyed looking into the bloody mess. "Do you see what I see, Xena? I think that this island is going to be your burial ground."
Callisto raised her fist for the blow that would end Xena, the warrior princess. She smiled.
Ares was light-headed and numb, but he was nearly to the ambrosia. Just a few more inches and he would have it. His sweaty palm slipped on the vine, and he began to fall.
A slender hand took hold of his wrist, and immeasurable strength was in that hand. Ares looked up with failing sight to witness Gingerus transform into the ever-lovely visage of Aphrodite.
The goddess hoisted her brother to the column head and held the ambrosia in her other hand. She offered him a piece. "I think that youve learned your lesson. I dont care what Daddy says."
As Callistos fist came forward, its progression was instantly halted by Xenas steady palm. And then, the warrior princess came to her feet with a smirk. "Guess what, Callisto? Play time is over."
The warlord flew backward from one rejuvenated fist, and then was followed by a series of kicks and elbows. A solid head-butt put her down, and Xena was free to work.
With her screeching war cry, the chakram whined through the air as it sprang from stone to tree to mercenarys face. Those that ducked were quickly waylaid by a combination of aerial kicks and power-punches. Without taking a breath, she somersaulted through the air, retrieved her fallen blade and rammed the steel through a final, desperate attacker. He slid to the ground just as the chakram returned to her expertly awaiting hand.
Callisto was just managing to come back to her feet when she felt warm steel at her throat. "Go on, Xena. Finish me."
The warrior princess looked to her injured friends, and then the self-satisfied smirk of Ares. She whispered. "Im not like you. Not anymore."
Instead of finishing the warlord, Xena flipped the sword, and using her grip on the blade, slammed the hilt into Callistos head, knocking her senseless. With an easy twirl, the weapon was sheathed. "Get us out of here, Ares."
Nodding once, the god of war pulled the arrow free of his back and replied, "With pleasure."
After a day on the mainland with some proper food, medicines, and rest, the castaways walked together along a dirt road leading away from the village Ares had transported them to. And then, the two gods had remained with them until they were ready to travel.
"Its nice to be back," said Gabrielle, guiding Argo along as the horse was laden with supplies and papyrus and ink. "Im going to write all of that down, turn it into an epic. And Ill call it Gabrielles Island."
Xena smiled. "Sounds like a great idea."
"I knew that you were Aphrodite, you know," said Joxer to the goddess. "I just didnt want to blow your cover."
Giggling, she returned with, "And you defended my Big Bro like a mighty warrior, Joxer. Im certain hell be forever in your debt."
"Dont hold your breath," muttered Ares. He noticed someone was missing. "Wheres your wife, Salmonius?"
"Oh, I had to let her go," the entrepreneur spoke with a mist in his eyes. "I loved her enough to release her back into the wild. Besides, Ive got some deals to take care of and shed probably be bored with it."
"You know, its strange," said the bard again. "I feel like weve all grown closer together. Maybe nearly getting killed on the island wasnt such a bad thing?"
They all stopped at the gate and stared at one another for several seconds. "Nah," they replied in unison.
The awkward silence that followed was broken by Salmonius stating, "Ill see you around. Ive got business to attend to."
Joxer nodded. "Yeah. I think Ill go with him. Salmonius will need a bodyguard." They began to walk away. "Joxer the Mighty does receive compensation for his services, correct?"
"Ill pay for your lunch, hows that?"
"Sounds good to me."
This left the gods alone with the two travelers. There was a rather long and unbroken silence between them, even awkward as they looked to one another.
Aphrodite tugged on her brothers tunic. "Well, Big Bro, I think that we should be going, too. It was fun, gals."
Though she had vanished from sight, he remained. He nodded to the two women and paused. "You know, Xena. My offer still stands. When I said that I wanted you back, I meant it."
"Sorry Ares," the brunette smirked. "But Im not that person anymore. And thanks."
"Dont thank me yet," he returned the smirk. "I always get what I want, Xena. Youll be hearing from me again."
The god vanished in a flicker of light.
The air was frigid here, and both women shivered a little. It would take some time to get reaccustomed to this climate, and the people surrounding them, but they were glad to be back. They started walking once more.
"So," Xena smiled. "Gabrielles island, huh?"
"Yeah, isnt it great?" the bard smiled. "Im thinking of a series of comedic scrolls. I can even open them with a lyrical poem." Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Just sit right back and youll hear a tale, / a tale of an ancient myth / "
"Why cant it be Xenas Island?"
Gabrielle mocked an expression of shock on her face. "Youre interrupting my muse. Its my story, and Im calling it Gabrielles Island."
The warrior princess smile grew more devilish. "But Im your skipper, and youre my little buddy."
"Keep it up, skipper, and Ill write in a torrid love scene between the warrior princess and a powerless god."
"On second thought," Xena added hastily. "Gabrielles Island is more than fine."
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