DISCLAIMER; Meleager, Xena and Gabrielle are subject to copyright. No infringement intended. X+G make guest appearance strictly within the roools J
The initial idea was surely born of madness, had become therapeutic yet was returning to the state of its conception. The wizened warrior viewed Mt. Parnassus with more confusion than awe.
His life had never been straightforward, but seeking the wisdom of Apollo right now rated as one of his less insightful decisions. Of course he had been drunk at the time, the therapy of a long journey away from temptation now meant he had gained thirty seven days without alcohol.
Resultant sobriety caused his present mental unrest.
Meleager joined a group of pilgrims gathered around a brown cloaked monk who seemed to be issuing a well practised speech.
"Now please listen carefully" the holy man managed to keep his face hidden in shadow, even when raising his head to address the throng.
"Parnassus is the abode of Apollo, but is no place for just any mortal to visit"
His tone was suitably severe.
"So who is the oracle?" a voice from the crowd questioned.
"Where do we meet them?" a different voice enquired.
The warrior fancied that he heard a sigh.
"At Delphi, just down the road, lies the temple dedicated to Apollo"
The monk used his most forceful voice.
"At that place, you may pose a question to the priestess"
Meleager noted that the throng was attentive.
"The oracle is not a person, it is the wisdom of Apollo as described by the priestess"
The warrior himself was aware of this, but many in the crowd still remained confused.
"But what if?"
"How do we know?"
Meleager chose to take the Delphi road, leaving the monk to clarify, if he could, what to many remained somewhat obscure.
Being a life-long soldier/warrior did not mean that Meleager was devoid of wisdom. Indeed his very longevity proved not only his fighting skills, but a certain sharpness of mind.
Staying at an inn in Delphi may have shown a strength of mind, a confidence that he could resist the dreaded, but much-loved bottle.
He was finally settled that a vague, probably ambiguous oracle from Apollo was not the thing he really needed. Unfortunately he was not wholly convinced that an Albanian brandy which teased the throat like a sirens tongue would do any harm. Or some Macedonian wine, or good old-fashioned ale that quenched the dry mouths of decent folks everywhere
Thirty seven days. It had to be repeated. Out loud if necessary.
"Thirty seven days"
Meleager pulled a hand through his white hair, eyed the water and fruits provided by the inn-keeper and was almost settled to take a much needed soak in the freshly drawn tub when the knock came
"Meleager? Meleager the Mighty?"
The messenger had been a mere youth, he carried not a weapon but a scroll.
So why was the battle-hardened warrior now trembling, sweating, feeling more in turmoil than he could ever recall?
The message in itself was innocuous enough. He was required to visit Orlandopolis and do so in good haste. The source of the message was the reason that a seasoned warrior found the need to sit down lest his legs buckle. It had be signed by The Komitet
Furthermore, each individual name appeared.
Steph. Ruth. Cadryn. The Great Oz.
In a land of centaurs and Cyclops, Gods who sometimes took mortal form to wreak havoc, of warriors such as Xena it was not uncommon for rumours, exaggerated tales to create beasts and beings of less certain foundation.
Meleager himself had long benefited from stories of his kill counts way beyond the facts.
The Komitet was such a force, spoken of in whispers, in reverential tones.
Of course Meleager had never encountered these people, yet the names on that scroll fitted with the names he had previously heard mentioned.
Heard from trustworthy sources, not bar room drunks or village blow-hards.
He had no reason to worry that The Komitet were malign, only that when they spoke - you listened.
Be it the words of Apollo or his priestess, an oracle was often a riddle.
The Komitet spoke with authority and clarity. Only a fool could misunderstand their words, and Meleager was no fool.
Anticipating that Apollos wisdom would only be delivered at a high price, the warrior had at least brought a goodly cache of dinars to Parnassus.
His first requirement was a decent horse, and again years of experience meant that Meleager found the proper mount.
"Ghost" was not the tallest equine available, but it had all the proper attributes that he sought. Stamina, a swift turn of pace over the short distance, and the ability to wheel quickly.
A warriors horse.
As he talked calmly to his new friend, Meleager had one flash of doubt.
"How did they know where to find me? I had only just arrived at Delphi.
I had barely arrived at that inn, gone to that particular room "
The old campaigner laughed at himself. Who was he kidding?
These people knew everything!
With Ghost acquired, Meleager stocked up on a little food and water, purchased a decent map and apologised to Apollo.
"Sorry old son, more powerful people request my presence" and with that he kicked off on his way.
The uneventful nature of the initial journey would come back to haunt him, but for the moment Meleager was pleased to make good speed.
It seemed he was one of the few folks travelling south. The warrior wondered aimlessly at how many of these northbound pilgrims would find genuine help, or even hope at Delphi.
His thoughts finally turned to Orlandopolis. He doubted that he had ever been there, yet the name sounded oddly familiar. Of course drinking be it full time occupation or just some time hobby did little for ones recall, but at last it fell into place. It fell into place because Meleager had a memory of a certain remarkable woman that could never be erased.
The name of her village was a blur, but Gabrielle had made an impression upon him like few before or since. She had in truth saved him from himself.
Hired to protect her village from a thug called Damon and his band of thieves, this "farm girl" had proved to be the genuine saviour.
The fact that she was a companion of Xena explained a lot about her military skills, yet Gabrielle was more. A poet, philosopher, she had compassion and insight.
Meleager warmed at the memory of that time when an innocent looking
"farm girl" had taught him about battles. He then grinned as he fully recalled
what she had told him of Orlandopolis.
It so happened that two men were vying to be supreme ruler of all Orlandopolis. Dubi and Algor both claimed to be men of the people and in the tradition of that place, a ballot was to be held to allow said people to choose their leader.
After the initial tally, it appeared that Algor had gained the most votes.
But then, Dubi and his allies complained that the marks on some of the ballot scrolls were "imprecise"
The arguments raged as ballots were scrutinised, neither camp would yield.
The existing council of Orlandopolis decided that a magistrate must make the final, definitive decision. It so happened that the only available magistrate was a relative of Dubi, but he assured the people that his high office guaranteed impartiality.
The case was found in favour of Dubi who was duly elected.
"A new word was then born" Gabrielle had told him.
"From that day forth, any controversial decision was said to be Dubious"
Yes sir, there was no doubt that Meleager would ever forget Gabrielle.
Pleasant memories aside, Meleager was not given to great thought.
His main concentration had been on making good haste, as had been bidden.
He had avoided towns and villages for the most part, stopping off only to restock on food and one time to allow Ghost to be re-shod.
The map had allowed him to avoid certain places where his past may have caused problems.
Still a formidable fighter, Meleager was aware that his advancing years meant that his reactions were not just as sharp, his instincts not quite what they once had been. Not given to introspection, particularly when sober, he yet understood that he never quite had been the warrior that his legend proclaimed.
Perhaps most of all, his appetite for battle had waned. Whilst regarding anyone in their teens as a child, he himself had first taken to the battlefield at aged only ten. Too many years, too many deaths. Yet he still enjoyed that moment when he walked into a bar and people who recognised him, or just his name, took a step back in fear.
Life never was straightforward.
"I need your horse old man, and any food that you have"
The fact that he had been taken entirely by surprise was an embarrassment that he would have to consider later. For the moment his senses were being bombarded by what could only be considered as an apparition.
A previously idle mind was now reeling with too many thoughts, too much information to digest and make coherent. Only later could Meleager properly assemble his first impressions
She was young and tall. Very tall.
Shoulder length hazel coloured hair matched exactly the hue of her eyes.
That alone would make for a striking appearance, add a slightly sallow skin entirely free of blemish and he would not blame himself for initial wonderment. But there was more, much more.
She wore a red blouse of pure silk, topped by a leather bodice.
Sturdy leather warrior boots allied with the bodice suggested shopping straight from an Amazon surplus store the silk blouse meant money, serious money, but the real kicker was the skirt.
Clearly woollen, it was indecently short and did nothing but draw the eyes to those endless, immaculate, endless legs.
Incongruous fashion aside, Meleager also had to consider that she was armed. Sword slung down her back, she was holding a dagger.
Briefly at least, the warriors expert eye told him she looked the part.
The dagger was properly held, her arm not over-stretched and the other arm acting as counter balance. Her stance too was text book. Feet planted in such a way that allowed sudden defensive movement or indeed affording a lunge designed to wrong foot the opponent.
For a man of Meleagers experience however, the give-away was obvious.
Made more obvious by her next words.
"Dont mess with me old man, I am a student of Xena!"
The warrior slowly dismounted, all the time showing no aggression.
"Lets talk, I will share what little food I have" Meleager led his horse to a tree and tied him up.
"By the way, if you were a student of Xena, I would be dead by now"
Sharing his limited rations, Meleager had gained that her name was Orchid but little else. Though concerned that she was too keen on talking of military matters, he had been flattered that she recognised his name, if not his face.
"Look child, you just held that stance too long. Sure it was impressive at first, but you really had no idea what to do next, did you?"
Clearly stung, Orchid could only retort.
"I am not a child! I am sixteen and can take care of myself"
Meleager attempted small talk, but the girl was evasive.
Preferring conversation to sullen silence, he offered this.
"When I first started out, it was the common wisdom to look your enemy directly in the eye"
"The window of the soul, you can see their fear" Orchid agreed.
"But experience told me otherwise"
Meleager was happy that she was clearly attentive.
"I met many foes with eyes so devoid they were unreadable.
Others had perfected a granite stare that was immovable regardless of their predicament. Looking them in the eye garnered no advantage"
Meleager looked Orchid in the eye to indicate he had more to say.
"What you could try if you must, is to glance at your opponents mouth"
Orchid was clearly hooked. She implored he continue.
"A good warrior, certainly a great warrior has supreme confidence.
They quite literally laugh at danger. They smile at a challenge.
The fact is, young Orchid, it is impossible to fake such a smile"
So happy was Orchid that she ignored the pointed young reference.
Meleager allowed himself an inner smile. Had his imparted wisdom gained him a friend?
The wailing noise which pierced the air from the deeper forest seemed so unnatural that Meleager fancied it may have been Apollo himself, voicing his frustration at yet another mortal entreaty.
Youthful impetuosity had Orchid running towards the source. Paternal like feelings of responsibility meant that Meleager was soon following.
Having finally attained the girl, he commanded she stay put while he investigated alone. On his return, his face was not just grim but quite ashen.
"A bear caught in a trap. Quite a big one, certainly not a cub"
Orchid instantly withdrew her sword.
"How many trappers?" she asked.
The warrior put a restraining hand on her shoulder.
"Those cowards wont be back for days. They simply wait for the beast to starve to death" His voice was flat.
Orchid heard his tones and her eyes flared.
"We must do something"
Meleager chose to sit on a fallen log.
"I despise such people as much as anyone. That animal is in pain, distress.
It will likely kill anything that even considers approaching it"
The girl clearly remained unconvinced.
Meleager tried again.
"Bears are immensely strong. They have claws like mini daggers.
Just one swipe and you could play catch while my head flies off.
Of course if mummy or daddy bear come to visit, well then I offer you the task of burying my remains in about four hundred different locations "
If only Meleager had avoided her imploring face.
He briefly wondered if it was beauty, not power that corrupted.
"There is one tiny chance" he conceded.
"The trap has a quick release mechanism. Hitting the plate with a heavy object will spring the jaws and the beast can hobble free"
Orchid had already picked up a suitable rock.
"Just to get that close means a likely death" the warrior was resigned.
"I will try if you dont" Orchid stated boldly.
As he accepted the rock, he saw the girl grin.
"I see what you mean about that fake smile thing" Orchid teased
"You are scared, arent you?"
"That was truly magnificent" Orchid gave her most radiant smile.
"You are now my favourite warrior! Oh, except for Xena, of course"
"Of course" Meleager was still shaking, but quietly delighted.
"I am taking you to the best inn in Thisbe, no expense spared"
Effusive was surely better than evasive, Meleager reckoned.
He pulled out his map. Thisbe? Had he really journeyed so far from Parnassus?
Whatever. The girl seemed to have taken control of their new partnership
She even had taken control of Ghosts reins, leaving the warrior to cling very gently to her waist. Raging emotions gave him a feeling of some discomfort.
To suggest that he did not find her outrageously attractive, would be an even more outrageous lie. Yet he had more paternal instincts too
"Did the bear actually escape?" he asked to divert his thoughts
"I was too scared to even look" he added with candour.
"Yes, and it was a glorious sight"
With that, Orchid kicked on and further conversation was halted.
The "best inn in Thisbe" turned out to be a large building just on the outskirts of the town. All of a sudden, Orchid had the demeanour of the adult that she insisted she was. She was remarkably composed in dealing with the blacksmith at the adjacent stables.
Composed, not to say authoritative. The smith was a man of bear-like proportions, Meleager himself would have probably approached him with some caution, yet just watching and listening as the girl-woman negotiated there was no doubt in any of their minds
that Ghost would receive the very best of care.
"Now, for you my friend" Orchid kept her authority and her smile.
"A sumptuous meal, fine wines, the best room and I promise, an explanation from me"
Meleager was somewhat overtaken, he echoed her smile. It was all too good
It struck him as a thunderbolt.
"Thirty seven days" he said almost inaudibly.
But it was wrong, and he knew it.
All that time with so little happening, sleeping outdoors rather than in taverns. How many days? Thirty seven was his magic number way back at Mt. Parnassus, that may have been yesterday or an eternity ago.
It was not something that was explicable, unless you also were afflicted
Knowing the number, the count was vital. It had to be precise, a close approximation was no good.
If you met a fellow member of that unspoken club, you did not ask his name, you merely enquired "how long?"
Everyone had a number. No-one said "I think its "
"Are you coming old man?" Orchid teased and did not wait. She was headed straight indoors.
Meleager drew a deep breath.
Thisbes finest was certainly popular.
Startling enough in the forest, amongst this crowd of people Orchids attire, the skirt to be exact, was positively alarming. To be honest it was the attention of the clientele, surely not Thisbes finest, which caused alarm.
The girl seemed oblivious, and again Meleager could silently bless his reputation. As he strode purposefully to join Orchid, he could hear whispers
"400 men at Corinth Pass" "675 at the siege of Thebes" and space was magically created. Would be suitors of the beauty found other targets.
Orchid seemed perfectly at home, still upbeat and still very much in command.
"The room is sorted. I ordered both venison and boar, we can mix and match. I know boar can be a bit tough, but cooked properly it is exquisite.
Now I chose the wine, but if you prefer ale just get some. Dont worry, this is
my treat, cost is not an issue here"
The warrior knew that any excuse was no excuse at all but he had lost his count
The first few gulps merely left him wondering if ale had always tasted so bad?
By the end of his second mug, he just began to get that pleasant glow.
It was fine. It was only really port or brandy that affected him so badly
The girl was right, this boar was just the best!
Better than that, Meleager felt right at home. Look around, men and woman out enjoying a few social drinks, it was all perfectly normal.
Orchid must have had taken a few cups of wine by now, he had consumed maybe six or seven ales? The only stupid thing was that he had ever worried about it before. Actually he was slightly worried that he was apparently destined to stay in the same room as this most attractive female
He briefly considered that she may be seducing him.
That thought only resurfaced when he noted that their room was also well-stocked with both wine and ale. Hades! The girl was in command, so let her lead on.
Orchid had perched herself on the edge of the bed. Meleager chose a chair.
Both had filled their vessels with drink and the appreciations of the food had ended.
"I promised you an explanation" Orchid began "I must have looked so foolish trying to steal your horse, perhaps I just need to justify it to myself, if not to you"
"I have misjudged people before" Meleager had Gabrielle in mind.
"I enjoy a good story"
"I come from the north side of Athens. My family are wealthy and on the fringes of power. My father is wealthy enough that he seeks more riches, just powerful enough to make him crave greater power."
Meleager nodded to indicate his comprehension.
"You have knowledge of battle. Perhaps I can teach you of the politics and social mores of the not so great and less than good of Athens society"
"Not really a world familiar to me" Meleager agreed his ignorance.
"One method of opening doors is marriage. To be more exact, marrying off your daughters" Orchid explained quite flatly.
"A wealthy suitor will pay handsomely, a powerful or well-connected man can offer the potential of great influence. By custom, a girl must be all of aged twelve before she is bride material. Hence by practice, a twelve year old is the biggest prize" Now, her tones were of ill-concealed disgust.
It was one of those things that Meleager knew, but chose not to think about.
Orchid sipped then gulped her wine before continuing.
"I was lucky. At twelve I was an awkward, ugly, freak of a child. Suitors were not queuing up to take my hand, or any other bits"
"Hard to believe" Meleager interjected.
"No better at thirteen, but sometime beyond my fourteenth birthday I just changed. My legs that had been mere sticks, fleshed out. Breasts sprouted.
My face found cheek bones and suddenly people were taking notice.
Daddy was delighted"
The warrior felt uncomfortable, yet Orchid it seemed had to tell this.
"All manner of visitors were being invited to dine, and I was on display.
Indeed when a few of our guests decided they wanted to sample the goods
daddy dearest did little to discourage them. At least to a point.
Not being Virgo intacto would make me bargain basement, but a goodly grope of my buttocks or breasts was apparently perfectly acceptable"
"Zeus! What did your mother think?" asked a horrified Meleager.
"Mother remained distant. To be honest I think she just accepted that this was the system, the way things were. Of course mother never once strayed beyond the reach of a flagon of wine "
He accepted that this was not a barb aimed at himself, but Meleager winced hard at the latter comment before downing his ale.
"One disgusting old man too many, one slobbering kiss too far, a squeeze of my bosom as if it were fruit at the market, I was out of there"
Orchid allowed herself a brief smile.
"You can travel far, quite quickly when you are armed with daddys stash of gold. I had no idea where I was going, just not back home"
"Poor child" was all Meleager could offer.
"I am not a child!" Her tone was bordering on angry.
"Listen up old man, I havent finished yet"
"I was probably just lucky, but the dangerous road proved not so dangerous.
Of course my cash meant that I could stay in taverns and inns, eat well and travel easily. In one town I met a group of actors. They spent their time just touring the countryside putting on plays and such, so I joined them"
She paused to check his interest, but Meleager seemed to be an attentive audience and he was happy for her to continue.
"It was a mixed group. A few families with children, poets, singers you name it. Mimes and jugglers excluded! Magda was the one. She just exuded confidence, charm. She dressed appallingly. Always in bright colours, you got a headache just looking at her. Yet she did not care. She also took me under her wing, taught me about plays and poetry, treated me as part of the group"
Meleager noted that Orchid was smiling distantly. Clearly these were happier memories than those of her home life.
"They often slept outdoors. I still was not accustomed to this and while laying awake I could not avoid hearing nocturnal activity
On one very clear night with a full moon illuminating all, I not only heard but witnessed.
It was Magda and Alishe."
Meleager reached for a refill. Something in his gut forewarned him.
"Alishe was the star of the company. Where Magda was striking in an unconventional way, Alishe was full on beautiful. She really did have everything. The talent to act and a body that would put Aphrodite to shame.
I could not take my eyes from them. I could have watched them all night but my own body was doing things to me that demanded attention"
"Child!" Meleager repeated, unwisely.
Orchid seemed caught up in the passion of her memory. And that word rankled.
"I really was unsure of how much to say, but you just will not listen!
Some time later, maybe a few days, I joined them. Yes, both of them.
I kissed and caressed and writhed and screamed, I moaned and whimpered.
They used me and I used them. And let me tell you old man, it was fantastic!"
Meleager closed his eyes. Orchid remained animated.
"You will not shut this out. Bodies entwined, passions given and taken for pleasure, not political gain! Not for money but for enjoyment. Absolute sheer bliss if you must know"
A certain calm descended. Meleager could not find words, so Orchid finished.
"It finally ended when Magda and Alishe decided that they were to be a couple. Each became jealous. When Alishe was rehearsing I would bed Magda, if Magda was busy I would bed Alishe. After one final night as a threesome, they told me of their decision. I had no choice but to leave the group"
By this point, the only count Meleager slightly worried about was the number of ales he had consumed. It actually aided him that any previous carnal thoughts of Orchid were now effectively drowned.
When the girl, woman indicated that she had further revelations, he was actually pleased that it meant more drinking time. A few more could do no harm. Tomorrow would be tough, so why not postpone it? Without sleep it would only be a one day lapse.
Orchid for her part seemed almost immune to sleep. She still took wine, but her mission to explain her life had taken precedent. Meleager was just about attentive enough to provide the required audience.
"And so to the Amazons" she intoned.
Meleager wondered if this really was a good idea. His face must have shown it.
"I will skip the gorgeous details, though if I were a man you would doubtless marvel at my many conquests" she said accusingly.
"At first I was surprised how many were not of genuine Amazon origin. But we provided basic services, I became one of the cooks. And yes I felt right at home. True Amazon or not, when it came to party time, we all did our share"
Orchid gave him a wink.
"In fact I did many peoples share! So my friend, forget any ideas of this bed." She was teasing and he knew it.
"Call me a stud or call me a slut, but I am crazy about you know what. Girls only of course!"
Meleager attempted a grin. He reckoned the wine was finally getting to her.
She then grew more sombre.
"I stayed with them a long time. I didnt tire of partying, I simply found myself getting attached to one person. Her name was Vittoria. She was a genuine Amazon, but more quiet and studious than most. I never really viewed her as a warrior"
The pause this time was to compose herself.
"I always like to learn things, and Vittoria would tell me of Amazon traditions, her own upbringing. She recounted battles, perhaps even mentioned you Meleager! Of course like all Amazons she was in love with Xena, though she had never met her, and I simply did not notice that I was spending more and more time in Vittorias hut."
Meleager saw just the trace of a tear developing.
"The tribe Princess who was so insatiable she made me seem like a Hestian virgin had arranged the greatest Amazon party ever and I declined the invitation! Vittoria had promised to tell me of some peasant girl who had been saved by Xena then began
stalking her or something, and I had promised to cook a special supper "
The tears were noticeably flowing, yet Orchid kept her voice composed.
"I have to backtrack just a little. For ages a petty dispute between the Amazons and the neighbouring village had brewed. Some mindless madness over a tiny strip of land, the sort of feud that probably occurs in every village or town in Greece. It rarely amounted to much"
The girl drained her wine. Her hands were now visibly trembling.
Meleager assisted by pouring the wine, and ale for himself.
"Anyway. My supper was excellent, Vittoria told her tale. It was sweet though probably not true. Somehow I dont see Xena allowing this Gabrielle character to bother her like that. Vittoria and I made passionate love all night. She even got so frisky she joked we could join the others in the Princesses extravaganza, but that night was to be ours alone"
Now openly sobbing.
"I wouldnt have dreamed of anyway. I loved that girl."
Some composure returned. Perhaps even defiance.
"The next morning there was an archery class for the younger Amazons.
The mass goings-on of the previous night meant that the genuine warriors were either too tired, or indeed too still involved Vittoria volunteered to take the class.
As a non-Amazon, I could not go to the training grounds"
Meleager did not need to guess the conclusion.
Orchid was now dry of tears, her voice as stone.
"No details. The youngsters who returned were so distressed that accounts were garbled. Drunken, abusive farmers, argument. One fourteen year old trainee with broken arm, one beautiful soul, my love Vittoria dead in the field"
Meleager felt tears in his own eyes. He was helpless to offer comfort.
Orchid lay back on the bed, her eyes squeezed shut as if to expunge the picture in her mind. Soon, she was sleeping.
He awoke not feeling entirely refreshed by sleep.
After the briefest of washes, he noticed with a slight horror that all the ale, all the wine in the room had been consumed.
The girl was at slumber but not peacefully so.
The tavern seemed very different devoid of customers.
There was only one other in the whole expanse. The barmaid.
Though any excuse was no excuse he did have a particularly trying night.
Habitually, when he was drinking, Meleager preferred to stay at the bar.
Now, he took his ale to a table by the window. Maybe the sunlight would help clear his head. Again, the first mug was no nectar, but the second was a decent pick-me-up. Dwelling on the girls sorry tale did not seem a sound idea. He cast his gaze around the room, watched the door to see when the local guzzlers would make their first appearance.
He even began to eye up the barmaid. Not for himself, but he considered she might be the type for Orchid. Was he going mad?
Not much later, the girl herself descended the stairs. She looked refreshed, probably having bathed more thoroughly than he, and the indecent woollen skirt was replaced by an equally indecent leather one.
She approached the table with a mug of ale for him and a wine for herself.
Wine at this hour? At her age? Meleager almost choked on his own hypocrisy.
"I returned to my hut and wept for three days" Orchid simply resumed where she had left off as if sleep had not intervened.
"Some time later, the Princess visited me. The Amazon council had been dithering, talking about evidence and proof and basically doing nothing.
The Princess had decided to gather a small group and simply exact revenge.
She even invited me to watch, though that was strictly forbidden."
Orchid lowered her eyes.
She then lifted her head and stared Meleager fully in the face.
"As the Princess left, I yelled send every one of them to Tartarus!"
Meleager grasped her hand as if to indicate he understood the rage.
"I didnt stay to find out. I simply walked away. I spent goodness knows how many days on the road, sleeping in barns or the forest. Barely eating. Certainly not thinking straight. Then I met a kindly man and I tried to steal his horse!"
He grinned. Meleager was not glad that her tale had reached its end. He was glad that she clearly needed the catharsis.
A period of silence followed. Both were fighting inner demons.
The tavern was slowly beginning to gain its early customers. Other than the fact he was sitting with Miss Known Universe, this might have been an average sort of day for the warrior. Orchid too had shaken off her vulnerability and regained the cool and composure of the previous evening.
She happily wandered to the bar to get refills, indeed Meleager had to insist that he too had dinars and could stand to buy the odd drink.
He hadnt even noticed when he had switched from ale to brandy.
They found an easy rapport, speaking of nothing in particular, though with Meleager slightly wary of certain topics. But she wasnt.
"You like the look of the barmaid?" Orchid asked with a grin
"Or do you like boys? Or maybe Centaurs?"
"Zeus! Child!" the warrior gasped, it seemed now that Orchid was used to the child remark.
"The barmaid is most attractive. Though I think my courting days are over" he said.
"Mine arent. I think she is pretty hot stuff"
"Just maybe she is not inclined to the nature of Sappho" Meleager chided.
"Only if she hasnt tried it yet" Orchid retorted wickedly.
It was actually while Meleager was watching as Orchid had the barmaid engaged deep in conversation that a jolt went through his brain.
He beckoned the girl over with some urgency.
"I know whos face Im sleeping on tonight" She seemed to relish in shocking him, but Meleager barely heard.
"Listen, this is important. Think back to Athens, your father"
"Must I?" Orchid was disappointed that her quip had missed.
"You said important people visited your home. Influential people"
"Sure. Especially for my older sister. She was snapped up at twelve.
Poor Chloe. She was just as cute as a wood nymph. Didnt stand a chance"
Orchid began waving at the barmaid, mostly to annoy Meleager.
The warrior showed a grim face and pulled the girl close.
He spoke quietly.
"Did you ever hear talk of something called The Komitet?"
"Sometimes" Orchid only accepted his gravitas when she properly viewed his expression.
"All right. They are a powerful group. So sage that the Gods themselves seek their wisdom. Mention that name to a corrupt law-maker and he will soil himself. Personally, I believe they run the whole country, but no-one will admit it as they are women"
Meleager adopted that false confident smile.
"They want me to go to Orlandopolis"
Orchid stood up.
"Apart from the obvious, why you? I think we had better move."
Waiting while the blacksmith fetched a refreshed Ghost, Meleager spoke.
"I really do like you. Yet we cannot journey together forever. Maybe you would be safer staying here" Her plight was a genuine quandary to him.
"Are you safe to ride alone?"
This response was totally puzzling, his expression showed it. Orchid contrived an even tone.
"My mother thought it lifes greatest injustice. Some, most people can drink three goblets of wine then stop. Walk away. She could not. Three became four became a cask"
The warrior was dumbfounded. Hurt and annoyed, but he knew for the wrong reasons.
"I watched you drink last night, then this morning first light you are drinking again.
Ale became brandy, and those were disappearing faster still. I dont think you even noticed.
I did, I have seen it before"
Her voice had not contained accusation or malice or judgement.
"You were drinking early" Meleager observed, flatly.
"Im sorry. It is perhaps unfair. I can stop."
Maybe it was the motion of the horse that caused Meleager to feel quite so unwell.
In truth, he knew it was the booze. A full-time drinker can function to remarkable levels, the body and brain became accustomed, and the warrior knew that he had fought many a successful battle while fuelled with drink.
The problem now was the thirty seven plus something days he had survived sober.
His system had been cleansed and now was not coping with the sudden influx of the previous night and this mornings top-up.
Orchid was clinging tightly to him. Comfort and literally support.
She had chosen the road, Ghost was capable of self-steering, it would not have been too bad if only they had remained unmolested. If only.
A narrow forest track, fallen log in the distance, Ghost seemed spooked.
Meleager felt the girl behind physically tense up. He just felt sick, helpless and to be honest, ashamed.
Six men stepped out, swaggered out.
Either pleasantly sozzled or stone cold sober, Meleager would have dispatched them with little thought. Right now, his co-ordination was so poor he could barely find the handle of his sword. Actually, he felt so ill that a quick death did not seem so unpleasant, but he had Orchid to consider.
"I have five gold pieces. Take them and let us be"
"Id rather take the girl" One man sneered.
The apparent leader took a step forward. His grin was sickening.
"I have a feeling we will all be taking the girl"
Orchid attempted defiance.
"I have friends, Amazon friends. Can you not hear them approaching?"
Oddly, there was a brief rustling from the undergrowth. But then silence.
Meleager found himself praying to every God he knew as the bandits drew closer.
Cruelly taking their time, a collection of leers and lascivious grins.
"Despite your constant barbs about my great age, I have never been on a ship before"
"Youll need one to reach Orlandopolis, this will be good practice"
"Not much of a ship though, for a rich girl like you"
"We got on the first one to leave, you are supposed to be in a hurry"
Meleager found this woman astonishing. He had vowed never to call her child again.
She was still a girl in his eyes, but absolutely no child.
"I cannot believe that my drinking nearly had you killed, yet you sit with me, sharing wine and being as kind and friendly as you are."
"Listen Meleager. Supposing you had abandoned me in Thisbe. I wouldnt have stayed there. I would have bought myself a horse, rode off into those woods and been gang raped by those six scumbags. I think you are doing well. We are sharing a civilised drink, you are not going overboard, so to speak, and you are excellent company"
The warrior felt truly humble.
"One step at a time my friend" Orchid added.
The time passed and without really meaning to, they were both getting tipsy.
"I just saw this great paw crashing down, it went straight through his skull, then that massive arm came across and just crumpled his face. I mean it just crumpled!"
"That one that was limping, Hades! It was still fast. It sent four of them flying in one go"
They were giggling together like school-children.
Orchid held up her hand. Tears of laughter streaming down her face.
"Did you see the big ugly guy on the far left? He had his thingy in his hand! He was tugging on it like a madman and grinning at me " She had to pause to catch her breath.
"Then that paw swiped across and it went flying off! His whole hand still grasping his thingy!!"
Orchid fancied she had wet herself with laughter, but did not care.
Meleager was banging his hand on the table trying to control his convulsions.
Arriving at Sicyon was like a disappointment. If that was sea-travel, then Meleager could not wait for his next trip. It also meant a further decision.
For Meleager, it was straightforward in that he had the basic goal of reaching Lerna where he should easily find a ship heading to Orlandopolis. But what of Orchid?
He was growing very fond of her. Most of his life had been either fighting, drinking, or both.
Certainly in his youth, physical relations had been obtainable, but not perhaps genuine intimacy. The friendship, the bonding, dare he say love?
It had probably never occurred to him that he had missed out, except maybe that he could have been blessed with a daughter such as her. Or that "farm-girl" Gabrielle.
He saw many parallels between them, though many differences too.
The harsh fact was that he would swap all of his acclaim as the hero of a hundred battles, just to have a small fraction of the joy that fatherhood must bring.
Perhaps not to Orchids father he had to remind himself.
He knew not what Orlandopolis was to bring, but assuming he would eventually leave, he had half a mind to visit north Athens and seek out that miserable wretch who had intended to sell Orchid to the highest bidder
"Yeah, I miss Ghost too. Well get another horse around here"
He hadnt even heard her approach. They had to talk, maybe just not right now.
"Listen, it wont do any harm to stay here overnight. However it is they learn these things, The Komitet knew I was in Delphi. They must also know that I couldnt reach Orlandopolis in a day or two. Why dont you go off shopping or something, I will get us a room. I promise not to get drunk"
Orchid gave him a sideways look, but agreed.
Meleager did not actually know why he had made the suggestion. Well, not exactly.
He knew that they must part at some time, and he was determined to get her a gift.
The whole thing lay heavy on his heart. He simply was not good company right now.
Orchid suspected she knew the problem. She had similar though not identical emotions.
Particularly given their ignominious first encounter, the man had turned out to be quite a gem. Kind, protective and with the bare minimum of lustful stares.
Certainly never an inappropriate touch or grope.
He had taken her cheeky earthiness with reasonable grace, and was clearly genuine in his concern. He had a drink problem, yet remained a large slice above Athens so called high society. It would be a wrench to leave him, she hoped somehow they could keep in contact.
She really must get him a decent gift.
Meleager had found what he hoped would be a suitable memento.
He had also obtained the promised room, and decided that he could probably handle a goblet of wine or two while he waited. To make things complete, he had purchased a new horse. Sentimentally, he chose the one that most resembled the trusty Ghost.
Orchid too had found a present, then had stumbled upon something else.
Something that she decided Meleager need not hear about.
It may have been Amazon wisdom, or perhaps something said by Magda or Alishe.
Women who worked as prostitutes, often took their pleasure with their own.
Orchid had not been actively looking, but when the opportunity appeared
Time truly did pass quickly while you were having fun. In one odd way the girl felt as guilty about the wine that had flowed, especially with poor Meleager promising restraint in that particular department.
She felt giddy and elated as she wandered back to the pre-appointed inn.
It was now quite dark, she worried that Meleager would be annoyed or maybe she didnt worry that much. It had seemed a very long time since she had enjoyed smooth female flesh.
"Bearskins, get your bearskins" The voice was quite hushed, aimed at only those passing near by. Orchid almost did not believe what she had heard.
"We buy, we sell. Only the best quality, the best prices"
The man was stepping in and out of the light of a burning torch.
"Bearskin coat for the lovely young lady?" he ventured.
Meleager was concerned. The gloom outside was growing. He cursed himself for allowing Orchid to be alone. Sicyon was considered a pleasant place but that did not make it safe. He had been pretty good about the wine, maybe just a goblet or two more than intended, but now he really should go try to find her.
"You sell genuine bearskin?" Orchid asked the vendor in conspiratorial tones.
"Only the best, sweet cheeks" He winked.
"And you buy too?" She was smiling, politely.
"Whole skins, heads, paws you name it. Pay good prices too"
"Excellent" said Orchid "I have just the very thing for you"
She gave him a wink and her most alluring smile.
Meleager scanned the virtually empty streets. Just for a moment he saw something illuminated in torchlight oddly familiar legs?
"Here, just here" Orchid stepped back.
The vendor followed.
"Where? I cant see" he complained.
"Oh look! Its in your stomach."
The man emitted barely a squeak.
He had a curious expression of almost wonderment as he caught her laughing gaze, then looked down to see the dagger handle protruding from his belly. The man managed to raise his head one final time to catch her gleeful grin, then Orchid pulled the dagger out and he simply keeled over.
By now, Meleager had reached the scene. Orchid stood frozen. He grabbed her by the arm, scurried her away to the newly acquired horse and they rode like fury out of town.
The new mount was given an almost merciless introduction. The warrior of course allowed it pause for water and feed, reasonable rest time. In such gaps, the two companions exchanged nary a word. He surmised she may be in shock.
His original plan had been to take the coastal route. Perhaps he would be fortunate and find a vessel without the need to journey as far as Lerna. Circumstances had caused him to wheel inland, he reckoned Nemea now to be the best haven for Orchid.
There would be no bar room stays this time. Straight to the acquired room, Meleager ordered that food be delivered. He agonised over wine, finally deciding that she may need it more than he.
"We must get one thing straight. I killed that vendor. You and he squabbled, he moved to assault you and I stabbed him. Do you understand?"
"I hear, but dont understand" Orchid was flat.
"Better give me the dagger" Meleager was purposeful.
Orchid handed over the blade.
"It was to be my gift to you anyway. I was going to get something really expensive, but this seemed more fitting. See the bear motif on the handle?"
He looked in near disbelief. His eyes flooding with tears.
"Only used once" Orchid added with a hollow smile.
Meleager reached inside his tunic. He handed over a small package.
"I bought you this"
It was a simple silver necklace and pendant. The pendant in the form of a bear cub.
Orchid placed it around her neck, looked at Meleager.
It seemed a contest as to who could sob the loudest.
For a while they just clung to each other. Finally Orchid fell asleep.
Meleager knew only mental turmoil.
That it had been an act of murder was reasonably plain. An act that he understood, given all the circumstances.
His main concern was for her mental state.
The warrior, having slain so many was not really placed to claim a moral high ground.
In battle, it was not viewed as murder, yet deep down he was aware that he had not mostly killed cruel tyrants or those deserving of death. Just simple soldiers, probably family men trying to gain a dinar for their wives and children.
Reviewing all the events since that first pitiful wail of distress from the forest, through to some street vendor still looking bewildered as he lay lifeless, Meleager concluded that only the bears themselves could properly claim unblemished nobility
The morning mood was solemn. Both knew this was parting time.
"This is of no consequence, but I feel obliged to tell you" said Meleager.
"You said that you did not believe the truth of Vittorias story of the peasant girl Gabrielle who was rescued by Xena, then pestered her until Xena relented and let her travel"
"Im amazed you remember me talking of it, you were drinking heavily that night"
He coughed awkwardly.
"It is a true story. I actually met Gabrielle. She was beautiful and wise, and I understand she became Xenas best friend"
"Good" Orchid replied. "I like the idea of Xena travelling with a woman. I do hope they are lovers"
Meleager had never known before the need to fight back so many tears.
"More seriously. Travel deep into Arcadia. It is the most pleasant and safest area of all Greece. Stay out of trouble, my lovely friend"
Orchid too was lachrymose, but chose not to hide the fact.
"I will. I intend to reach Sparta. I always have. In Sparta, women are treated as near equals to men, and besides, they positively encourage same sex relations!"
Meleager could finally grin.
"I really should have known, that you would know of the sinful ways of Sparta"
He added a wink.
"You are not a child. I certainly have learned that. But I sure wish you were my daughter "
Orchid became the more composed of the two.
"After this mission that you are on is complete. You had better come visit your daughter in Sparta"
Real or imagined, travelling without a heavy heart was just so much easier and quicker.
Soon he could both smell, even taste the sea air of Lerna. Meleager tried to inhale all possible sights and sounds after all, such things were what a father should properly describe to his beautiful daughter.
Quickly though, he was doubting that this particular sea-port had been a wise choice.
On the crossing to Sicyon he had confessed that maritime travel was new to him.
Newer still was the downright sullen nature of those who commanded the type of transport that was essential for the final leg of his voyage.
"Orlandopolis. Why would I want to go there?"
"Egypt or nothing, take your pick"
"Sure buddy, jump aboard. Ill just re-arrange my whole life to suit you"
It wasnt just that common civility was lacking, these people seemed to relish in the dismissive put-down.
Strange then that human nature could kick you in the teeth in the best possible way.
Utter desperation had caused Meleager to approach a man dabbling about on the smallest of craft.
"Do you by any chance sail to Orlandopolis?" he asked the odd looking man.
"I sail everywhere, I am a sailor"
This most straightforward of replies took the warrior by surprise.
"Should I give you five gold pieces, would you take me to Orlandopolis?"
The man on the boat shrugged his not insubstantial shoulders.
"If I were to sail there and take you along, you wouldnt have to pay me anything because I would be going to Orlandopolis anyway"
The simplicity of this logic was quite baffling to the warrior.
"When would you want to leave?" Meleager felt strangely out of his depth.
Were they negotiating, or was this character just teasing him?
"Sorry, but that cant just happen" the sailor said.
Meleager felt his inner rage grow. He had half a mind to draw his sword and cut this smart mouth down to size.
"You see. When the tide goes out, and I am still tied up, the boat just flops into the mud. It doesnt matter when I want to leave. The sea basically decides"
Meleager was in no doubt that when steeped in ale, he must have had more bizarre conversations, yet surely none so ultimately productive.
The man apparently had no name other than Sailor. His conversation skills were to be kind, not great. Better than the fact that he somehow could control a small boat with little more than a gentle word, he was utterly oblivious to greed or self-interest.
"Im fairly sure that we have reached Orlandopolis" said Sailor.
If he was "fairly sure" then Meleager was absolutely positive.
As he stepped ashore, Meleager knew this.
He had been given one mission that remained mysterious.
He had now attained another that was perfectly clear.
To quickly be re-united with Orchid. With fortitude, he would be sober too.
His daughter would surely like that.
Though it was not essential, he quietly hoped to meet a few bear-trappers along the way.
No point in allowing his sword to get too rusty
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