The Path

by Michael Dobler

Merry Meetings

It had been a quiet day to travel. The seventh in a row, which for David and Gabrielle was an uncommonly rare and wonderful event. They had said farewell to Sindis and Yania only a few days back and headed off towards their own home. David was eager to begin building their permanent dwelling in earnest, and after the adventures they had shared up to that point, something like the act of coordinating a major building project seemed like a welcome and relaxing diversion.

They were just beginning to look for a suitable place to camp when the sound of voices drifted to their ears from further up the road.

"Just when I thought we'd caught a break," David sighed. He unslung his bow and strung it, notching an arrow to the string.

From ahead, they heard a voice say.

"Don't be stupid, old man. Just give us whatever money you have and you'll get to live a little longer!"

Another voice, deep and rich, tinged with grim certainty replied.

"You boys really don't want to do this."

David looked at Gabrielle, feeling his adrenaline begin to flow.

"What do you think?" he asked. "Bust em, or bluff em?"

Gabrielle listened. There were only two voices. Three if they counted the deep one that had just refused.

"Bluff em," Gabrielle replied, a sly smile playing on her lips.

"Standard bluff number three?" David asked.

"Sure," Gabrielle nodded.

"Right." David grinned.

He gave her a quick kiss and then vanished into the trees, moving to circle around to the opposite side of the confrontation.

He found a position on the crotch of a tree, ten feet up, and peered down at the situation that was unfolding.

Two elderly men stood at the side of the road, their hands held up in surrender while two more men, obviously robbers, held drawn swords at their quarry.

The victims had to be in their late sixties or early seventies. The taller one had a thick mane of silver white hair and a thick white beard, while the smaller man had pale hair that may at one time have been blonde, and the whisper of whiskers on his chin and upper lip. Both of their faces were wrinkled with the passing of years and dark in color, like old leather.

In spite of their advanced age, they stood tall and straight. The shorter one clutched an old walking stick that was nearly as gnarled as the branches of the tree in which David concealed himself.

The taller one spoke again.

"Boys," he said calmly, trying a disarming smile. "This isn't necessary. We don't have any money to give you. Or weapons either."

"When I was your age," The shorter one added. "I had a little more respect for my elders."

David cupped a hand against his cheek and did an almost perfect imitation of a sparrow hawk call.This caught the attention of the four men below and also alerted his wife that he was ready. Then he drew back on his bow and sighted the ground at the feet of the nearest assailant and waited.

Gabrielle's reply was the sound of a robin singing. Then David let the arrow fly.

The arrow imbedded the ground right next to one of the robbers' feet. He jumped back in surprise and looked about, trying to spy where the shot had come from.

A second arrow had a similar effect on the other would be thief and he also jumped back, dropping his sword in the process.

The two old men took the chance, and the shorter one knocked the remaining blade aside before thunking the man hard on the head with his walking stick.

The taller one simply stepped up and landed a perfect jab into the first robber's nose.

A third arrow slammed into the dirt in front of the second robber's feet as he reached to recover his blade.

With a cry of fright, the two men ran down the path and vanished.

David laughed out loud and then dropped to the ground below. He nodded in greeting to the two elderly men.

"Sorry if we startled you," he said sincerely through his laughter. "But we thought it was a better way to get out of the situation without bloodshed. I hope you didn't mind?"

"Not at all, young man," The taller man said gratefully. "I wasn't sure how we were going to get out of that one before you showed up?

David bowed his head. "Happy to be of service, sir."

The shorter old man was smiling in appreciation while the taller one just stood still and watched as David stepped over toward them. Then they heard another figure coming out of the forest from the opposite side. They both turned.

"May I present Gabrielle, and I am," his voice trailed off when the two men turned and faced his wife in surprise.

"Gabrielle?" The shorter man said in amazement.

"And my name's David," David finished weakly.

Gabrielle's eyes widened in disbelief as she looked at the two men. The taller one looked back at her with gentle brown eyes, while the shorter one stared open mouthed in wonder, his blue eyes sparkling.

The taller man brushed some of his white hair out of his eyes, and Gabrielle saw the old gauntlets wrapped about his forearm, beneath the long sleeves of his tunic.

"Hercules?" Gabrielle asked, barely daring to hope. "Ioulas?"

Ioulas smiled. "Gabrielle?"

In a moment, Gabrielle was in Ioulas's arms, laughing.

"I never thought I'd see the two of you again!" Gabrielle cried in joy.

Ioulas held her for a long time and then stepped back, holding her at arms length.

"Look at you," he said, smiling. "You've barely changed at all!" Then he hugged her again.

Hercules smiled a little uncomfortably. "Okay, Ioulas," he said, and he pried his friend away from the young woman. "My turn."

He swept Gabrielle off the ground as he hugged her. Even in his advanced age, his strength seemed hardly diminished.

David looked at them, mildly confused. "Did I just become invisible, or something?" he asked.

Hercules finally set Gabrielle back down, still smiling broadly through his thick whiskers.

"What's this?" Gabrielle asked, playfully tugging at the beard. "You look like your father."

Hercules smiled. "It grew out and I just left it." He turned and looked back at David.

"I'm sorry" he said smiling. "I don't think we caught your name?"

"Oh," Gabrielle laughed. "David, this is Hercules and Ioulas, two of my closest friends." She gestured to David. "Hercules, Ioulas, this is my husband, David."

"Husband!" Ioulas blurted in surprise. He turned and stared at Gabrielle. "You're married?"

"That's what it usually means when a woman introduces a man as her husband," Hercules smiled.

Ioulas looked over at David, his blue eyes suddenly sharp. "To him?"

David held his hands out and shrugged.

Hercules saw the stiffness in Ioulas's posture and cleared his throat loudly.

David kept his hand extended, offering it to Ioulas. The elder man seemed stuck in place. He stared at the extended hand, and then at David with disapproval.

David's warm smile seemed to fade slightly. Reluctantly, he drew his hand back and clasped them both at his waist.

Hercules stepped forward and offered his hand.

"Nice to meet you," he offered sincerely. "And, I suppose, congratulations are in order?"

David took the hand and shook. "Thank you."

"We were going to set up camp pretty soon," Gabrielle offered. "Would you care to join us for the night? We have so much to catch up on!"

"We were kind of in a hurry," Ioulas blurted. Hercules slapped his shoulder.

"That sounds great," he said. He looked sternly at Ioulas. "Since we don't have to be back at the Academy till tomorrow?"

"You sure?" David asked. "We don't want to keep you, or anything?" He glanced at Gabrielle, his entire face a question about Ioulas's icy reception. Gabrielle only shrugged subtly in response.

Ioulas simply sighed impatiently and looked back at Hercules. He seemed about to say something, but then he stopped. After a long pause, he nodded.

Gabrielle frowned at his strange behavior.

"There's a small clearing about a mile up the road, this way," Hercules offered quickly. "It's next to a small stream. Ioulas and I found it years ago."

"Sounds great," Gabrielle nodded.

"Follow me," Hercules gestured.

They set up camp before the shadows were long.

Hercules watched in amusement as David set up his two tripods with their small cooking kettles and began preparing a meal.

The entire time, Ioulas had said, maybe three words in David's general direction and none to David directly.

It wasn't from lack of opportunity. As they made small talk, it was obvious that David was going out of his way to ask Ioulas his opinions on things, or simply open the floor for him to talk. It was something that Gabrielle could never remember Ioulas not doing. Tonight, however, he merely watched David with an air of polite tolerance.

Gabrielle watched this for a long as she could endure, occasionally looking at Hercules, her entire face a question. Hercules only glanced at Ioulas and then shook his head.

Finally, Gabrielle reached the end of her patience.

"Ioulas?" she asked. "May I speak with you, alone?"

Ioulas shrugged and got slowly to his feet.

They went to the edge of the river.

"What's on your mind?" Ioulas asked innocently.

"I was going to ask you the same question?" Gabrielle shot back. "What's the matter?"

"Nothing?" Ioulas answered quickly.

Gabrielle looked in his eyes and saw the lie. "Ioulas?"

He shuffled over to a fallen tree and seated himself stiffly. When he looked back up at her, she stood there, arms crossed and an expectant expression on her face.

Ioulas's mouth moved a little and then he blurted out. "I don't like him!"

Gabrielle's expression went from expectation to surprise. "Who?"

"David!" Ioulas said. "Your husband." He seemed to have trouble saying that last word, as if it left a bitter taste in his mouth.

"You've only just met him," Gabrielle replied. "And you haven't said more than three words to him since you met him!"

"I - he just rubs me the wrong way, that's all!" Ioulas got to his feet and turned away, staring at the stream as it burbled before him. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. A faint smile touched his lips.

"Do you remember when we freed Prometheus?" he asked.

"Yes?" Gabrielle asked, wondering if this sudden shift in mood and tone was something to get them off subject, or perhaps something that she might attribute to his advanced age.

"I think about that all the time, and the story that you told me," He turned and looked at her and his blue eyes shone in the moonlight. "And then, when I found you, dragging Xena's casket back to Amphipolis." It seemed for a moment, his voice caught.

"I wanted to tell you then. I wanted to tell you for years, but we never really had the chance. You and Xena were off doing your thing, and Herc and I were always doing our thing. Then you disappeared and everyone believed that the two of you were dead." He stopped again, but Gabrielle could see the emotion in his eyes. It surprised her to learn that Ioulas had felt that way about her. "Even I finally began to believe it."

Ioulas stopped again and studied her for a long moment. Then he sighed and smiled a little wistfully. "Then it gets to a point where it doesn't matter what you say, because everything's changed. You're an old man-" he stopped again and looked back at her.

"Are you happy?" he asked suddenly. "Does he make you laugh?"

Gabrielle smiled and stepped up to him. He put his wrinkled hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes.

"I am happy, Ioulas," Gabrielle admitted. "And yes, he makes me laugh, and cry and want to kill him sometimes, just like another person I know?"

Ioulas smiled and looked down for a moment. When he looked back into her eyes, she saw understanding and resignation in equal measure.

"Then I'm happy for you," he said, though it sounded a little forced. "And I'm jealous at the same time." That part sounded genuine.

Gabrielle embraced the old man fondly.When they parted, Ioulas smiled. "So, where did you find the big lout anyway?"

Gabrielle laughed. "Now, that is a long story."

When they rejoined David and Hercules, David was already part way through the story. Apparently, Hercules was also interested in how the two of them had met.

Ioulas settled down near the fire while Gabrielle seated herself next to David and listened. The moon was high in the sky by the time David finished the tale.

When it was over, Ioulas stared at David with a new respect.

"You used the Chronos Stone?" he asked. "To come all the way back to here?"

David shrugged. "Seemed like a good idea at the time?"

Ioulas smiled, remembering when he had been forced to use the stone. "I only used it to jump back a short distance. I didn't come sailing back - what - two thousand years?"

David nodded as he added some ingredients to the meal he was preparing.

"And you're lucky too," he said. "By the time I finally got where I wanted to be, and when I wanted to be, I was shot."

"Not too tired to come running after me and save the day, though?" Gabrielle added, smiling at him.

"Wasn't that big of a deal," David shrugged uncomfortably.

Gabrielle raised her eyebrows and then launched into a detailed explanation of how she had been captured by the bounty hunters of Gurkhan. How they had finally decided to kill her because she had been giving them so much trouble. Then she described how David had come leaping in and rescuing her in the nick of time.

As Gabrielle told the tale, David simply sat there, turning several shades of crimson from the neck up and shaking his head.

Both Hercules and Ioulas looked at David in wonder, and Ioulas actually smiled when he saw David's discomfort at his exploits being told with such romantic flourish by his wife.

When she finished, David looked at her critically for a moment. Then he held up one finger.

"Just so we all understand," he said. "There were only six of them, and I shot three from the dark. And I don't leap!"

"You don't leap?" Gabrielle replied. "What was that move back home, when Valcis tried to ambush us?" She grinned as David dished out the stew he had been simmering. "If the way you came down off the roof of that stable wasn't a leap, I don't know what is?"

"Well," Ioulas asked, looking at Gabrielle. "What did it look like?"

Gabrielle stood up and stepped over to a tall tree stump. She jumped up and then executed a flying leap back to the ground imitating the move David had executed that evening.

"Now, granted," Gabrielle smiled. "It was much more dramatic with him all dressed in black, and his coat flapping behind him like a pair of gigantic wings.

Hercules looked over at Ioulas. "I think he leaps?" he said.

"No," Ioulas replied with a shake of his head. "That type of form and motion would be more consistent with a swoop, than a leap. If Gabrielle's representation was accurate?"

"Ioulas," Hercules countered. "Men don't swoop."

"I don't leap!" David added. "I don't swoop! I advance. And I didn't have the duster on that second time!"

Ioulas and Hercules both looked at him and at the same time said, "You leap."

"Excellent stew, by the way," Hercules commented. Ioulas nodded his head enthusiastically in agreement
They passed the night cheerily, exchanging tales of their adventures. It was late into the night when they all finally stretched out on their bedrolls and drifted off to sleep.

The next morning passed easily. They had a decent breakfast and continued on their journey. This time, it was Ioulas who began, slowly to speak with David about various unimportant subjects.

Gabrielle and Hercules held back a way, watching as Ioulas and David talked.

"I never knew," Gabrielle finally said.

"What?" Hercules replied. "That Ioulas loved you? Sure you did." He smiled.

"I saw it in your face when the two of you left after we freed Prometheus. And I think you were falling in love with him as well."

Gabrielle smiled a little wistfully. "Maybe. But I was just a kid then."

"And what are you now?" Hercules asked, smiling in amusement.

Gabrielle looked up at him and he was surprised to see a grim light in her eyes that he never remembered seeing before.

"A lot has changed since the last time you saw me, Hercules," She said. "Losing Xena was really just the beginning."

Hercules sighed as if the mention of her name had hurt him somehow. "I always thought that, somehow, she might come back." Then he smiled. "It would have been interesting to see her at my age."

Gabrielle nodded knowingly. "You loved her too, didn't you?"

Hercules nodded.

Gabrielle looked up at him and saw the pain in his eyes.

"She loved you too, you know?"

"I know," Hercules nodded. "But we both had our paths to travel and they weren't the same. That's the way it is sometimes."

Gabriele nodded and then decided to change the subject.

"So what is this Academy that you mentioned last night?"

At that, Hercules smiled with pride. "You'll see."

As they progressed throughout the day, Gabrielle was relieved to see Ioulas lightening up where her husband was concerned.

By the time they stopped for the mid day meal, Ioulas was won over. He and David sat by the small fire, while David, once again, prepared the meal, listening as Ioulas discussed the finer points of trapping rabbits and other aspects of hunting game in the wild.

By the time the sun was beginning to set in the western sky, they had reached a land of gently rolling hills, covered in grass, dotted here and there with clusters of thick forest.At the top of the largest mound stood an ancient keep.

"There it is," Hercules gestured proudly.

David could see figures standing posts on the battlements, and the sounds of voices drifted over the hills to meet them.

As they approached the gates, a single figure leaned over and called.

"Open the gate! They're back!"

The massive wooden doors creaked outwards as they approached. Within the main courtyard, David could see training equipment. A lot of training equipment. He suddenly realized that the gate wardens were no more than young boys in their teens.

Another boy of about nineteen years came out to meet them.

"Hello, Quintis," Hercules greeted. "How are things going?"

"Welcome back, Head Master," Quintis replied. He was a tall, lanky young man, with a touch of dark stubble on his chin. His frame had only begun to fill out, but he showed the signs of being well built within the next year or so.

"How was everything in Athens?"

"Call everyone together and I'll make the announcement," Hercules replied.

Quintis turned sharply, with military precision and raised a small horn to his lips. He blew three quick blasts on it and then turned back. Instantly, all the activity in the courtyard ceased and trainees came running, assembling in three groups.

David looked about in amusement. The ages ranged from eight or nine years, all the way up to late teens or early twenties.

"Head Master?" Gabrielle asked, looking sidelong at Hercules.

He merely shrugged and strode into the courtyard, his hands behind his back.

Ioulas smiled and followed.

"I'm happy to see that you didn't abandon your training while we were gone!" Hercules said loudly. "Now, we have a lot of work to do, because in two weeks, I need to take a team with me back to Athens for the Grand Argosy Martial Tournament!"

Cheers erupted from the assembled trainees.

As David watched, he spied a single figure not sharing in the excitement of the moment. She was a young woman, about eighteen years old, small and petite, only a little over five feet tall. Her auburn hair shone in the sunlight like fiery copper, and her eyes were a dark hazel color. She listened to the announcement dutifully, but did nothing else.

David slid up next to Ioulas.

"What's with her?" he asked.

Ioulas followed David's gaze and then sighed.

"Antonia?" he asked. "She's upset because she probably won't be on the team that goes to Athens."

"Why not?" David asked. "Is she too new, or something?"

"No, she's been training here for five years," Ioulas replied.

"What? Not getting it?"

Ioulas shook his head. "No, that's not it. She trains as hard, if not harder than most."

"Then what?" David asked. "Is it technical or personal?"

Ioulas frowned, framing his words. "A little of both, you might say."

David nodded and resumed his polite attention to Hercules going over the schedule for the next two weeks. However, his eyes kept drifting back over to the young woman standing at the back of the enthusiastic crowd, her eyes dark with grim resignation

It was his plan to have a competition within the Academy, in order to choose the best students for the tournament. The trial would start in one week, and go through the following week until he was left with his five best people.

David listened to him thoughtfully and then his eyes glanced back over to Antonia.She hovered about for a few more moments, and then she made a discreet exit.

A gentle nudge in his side brought his attention back and he looked down at Gabrielle.She was studying him with that 'knowing' look.

"You're plotting something already," she said. "Aren't you."

David smiled, sealing Gabrielle's suspicions into hard certainty.

"Maybe?" he replied. "I'll fill everyone in at supper."

The supper was held in an old study on the upper floor of the castle. It had been converted into a cozy dining lounge for the faculty of the school.

Several other instructors were already at table when Gabrielle and David joined them.

Hercules rose and came around the table. He pulled a chair out for Gabrielle and then gestured to the next seat for David.

They got comfortable and Hercules made the introductions.

First was a middle aged man with thinning alt and pepper hair and a wiry build. Philios was the head instructor for the academic lessons, Philosophy and literature. Melindis was a woman, about David's age, medium height and build with a cheery disposition and happy brown eyes. Whenever she spoke, it seemed to lighten the mood of the others. Laughter flowed from her like water and infected the entire gathering. She was the mathematics' teacher and also supervised the care of the younger students.

There were several others in attendance, and they each included something in the discussion. Eventually, the topics drifted into the realm David was hoping for. The upcoming selection of Hercules's team for the tournament. The discussion covered everything, including the academic performance as well as the physical conditioning of the prospective team member.

"How's Quintis?" Hercules asked.

A short, powerful man, Paulo nodded. "Physically he's as ready as he can be."

Paulo was the man in charge of the day to day physical training. He and a small staff of other instructors mostly retired soldiers from various neighboring kingdoms.

"I know about his fighting skills," Ioulas asked from his side of the table. "What about his academics?"

At that, Melindis sighed. "They could be better. He is passing his examinations, but just barely in some subjects."

Philios folded his hands before him. "If applied himself, academically, with the same zeal and passion as he does the physical program, his standings would improve greatly."

"Is he in danger of failing?" Hercules asked.

Melindis thought for a moment. "Not that I am aware of?"

Hercules considered for a moment. "I'd like to have Quintis on the team," he mused. "I was hoping to make him the team captain, but if his academic studies are lacking, then I don't think I should reward that."

Philios nodded. "What if he were to show a marked improvement over the next two weeks? That position might be adequate incentive?"

Hercules looked over at Ioulas, who merely shrugged and nodded.

Hercules also nodded a few moments later. "Fine, I'll have a talk with him."

In this manner, several other possible candidates were considered. As the discussion progressed, David looked intently at Gabrielle.

"What about the young lady we saw when we arrived?" she asked when the conversation paused. "I believe her name is Antonia?"

Ioulas shrugged again. "Your husband and I were discussing her earlier." Gabrielle was mildly surprised when the word came out naturally, not laden with the previous spite. She smiled at that.

"I think most of us are in agreement when I say that she simply doesn't have the skill, or - to be honest - the stature to compete in this tournament?"

That statement brought a subtle scowl to Paulo's face. He was, after all, one of the smallest members of the faculty and probably one of the few dissenting voices in the group.

"How is she in her other studies?" Gabrielle asked. Her eyes flicked to David who sat motionless, his hands before him, fingertips barely touching. His eyes were focused inward as if he were listening with his whole being.

Melindis smiled. "She's very sharp. An intelligent young woman to be certain, though not much of a sense of humor."

Philios nodded. "I concur. A quick witted and adaptable mind."

"What about her physical conditioning?" Gabrielle continued.

Paulo smiled. "She trains harder than many of the other students. She's in excellent condition. Very dedicated."

"What's her problem?" David asked slowly, his fingers tapping. "Technique? Discipline?"

Paulo frowned. "Not that I've seen. She's very well disciplined. Again, better than most."

"Forgive me for being blunt, sir," David continued deliberately. "You wouldn't be pumping her up for us, would you?"

Paulo took no offense to the question. Rather the reverse, he smiled in appreciation. "I respect what you're asking, sir. No. She is as I have described. Well disciplined and conditioned."

"Then the issue is more technical?"

Ioulas shook his head. "Sort of." He frowned as he tried to frame his words. "Her technique is very good, it's just that-" he shrugged. "When she gets into a competitive situation - it seems that her ability is less fluid. More forced than it should be. The more astute students pick up on that and she usually ends up with more than her share of bumps and bruises." He shrugged helplessly. "I'm not saying hat she doesn't have a lot of potential, it just seems like she needs something to get her to apply it more - I don't know - naturally?"

Gabrielle looked over at David who nodded his head subtly.

"If we can help her, would you give her a chance at getting on the team?" she asked.

Hercules sat back and scratched at his beard thoughtfully. "I don't know what more could be done? But, if she can show some improvement within the week, then I will consider allowing her to compete."

"No," David said quietly. "In one week, she competes for the spot on the team, regardless."

Ioulas looked at Hercules, who slowly shook his head. "I'm sorry. But some of these kids are pretty big compared to her. After some of the beatings she's endured in the past, I can't promise I'll allow her to compete if I think she'll get hurt."

"What kind of challenge would Gabrielle present to you?" David asked suddenly. "You'd probably mop the floor with her, or me, for that matter? But I think we'd show you something in the process, yes? I think the same potential is there for Antonia as well, we just need to bring it out?"

That statement brought the entire room to silence. Hercules looked over at Gabrielle, who merely raised an eyebrow expectantly. Then Hercules looked at David. "You seem adamant that she at least compete. Why?"

"Because to be the best," David explained. "You have to be willing to face the best. I saw the fire in that kids eyes. Even if she's not that adept, she's hungry for an opportunity."

"If you give us permission," Gabrielle added. "I promise that we'll have her ready to compete in a week."

Then she saw that smile pull at David's lips. "Uh oh," she thought.

"Compete, hell," David said with a wry grin. "If she's got as much heart as I think she does, you might have yourself a new team captain?"

No one said a word. Hercules looked at Gabrielle and then at David thoughtfully. They could see the smile playing beneath his thick white beard.

"Alright," he finally said. "She gets to compete. But I reserve the right to pull her if it gets too rough, agreed? We'll see about the team captain part?"

Gabrielle fixed David with an intense stare while he merely smiled and nodded.

"Done and done," he rapped his knuckles on the table twice.

After dinner, while they were walking through the grounds, Gabrielle pushed him up against the wall.

"You really know how to pour on the pressure, don't you?" She hissed. "We haven't even met this girl yet, and you've got her set up as the new team captain!"

"Pretty ballsy, huh?" David smiled.

"You're crazy!" Gabrielle shot back.

"Meet the girl," David suggested. "Then decide if I'm off my rocker, or not?"

They continued their meandering walk around the grounds, exchanging words about various other subjects.As they entered the courtyard, they saw their objective. Antonia was going through a complex series of calisthenics in the darkened main yard.

David jumped up onto a low platform and sat, watching. He looked at Gabrielle expectantly and then nodded.

"Well," he said. "Go introduce yourself?"

"Why me?" Gabrielle asked.

"Two reasons," David replied, smiling. "One: You're a girl. Two: You're smaller than I am."

One eyebrow rose at that comment, then she turned and walked out towards the young woman.

"Antonia?" she asked as she approached. The young woman stopped her exercises and stood up straight.

"Yes ma'am?" she asked politely.

"My name's Gabrielle," She introduced herself. "I was wondering if I could talk to you about something?"

Antonia remained rigid and stone faced. "Yes ma'am?" she asked.

From his perch on the platform, David watched with amusement as the young lady remained hard lined as a professional soldier. It was a tactic that had Gabrielle completely out of sorts.

Finally David began to laugh out loud.

At the sound of his laughter, both girls turned and looked at him.

"What's so funny?" Gabrielle asked, a little annoyed.

"You are!" David shot back. "Trying to talk to little Miss Granite there!"

Then he leaned forward and fixed Antonia in a stare of equal intensity.

"You want to go to the Tournament, kid?" he asked.

"I've already been told that I can't, sir," Antonia replied stiffly. David barely caught the hurt in her voice.

"Ah," David dropped to the ground and walked forward, his long coat flapping in the breeze. "That was before we came to town."

"I don't understand, sir?" Antonia asked, staying as rigid as a statue.

"Okay," David held up his hands. "First thing's first. Someone calls me sir and I expect them to be wearing a badge and checking my liscence and insurance paperwork. I'm David, this is Gabrielle, not 'sir' and 'ma'am', clear?"

"Yes sir," Antonia replied and David saw the momentary confusion in her eyes.

He held his hand against his chest. "David and Gabrielle?" Then he extended his hand. "Pleasure."

She said nothing, but shook his hand. Standing next to David, Antonia looked like a small child.

She looked at the two of them, her entire face a question.

Gabrielle smiled. "What's on your mind?"

"How did you get permission for me to compete?" she asked.

"At least she didn't say 'sir' or 'ma'am'," David thought.

"Oh," Gabrielle shrugged. "I guess you could say we have some pull with the Head Master?"

David nodded.

"But," Gabrielle continued. "That's if we can get you ready in time?"

At that, the two of them saw her sag, ever so slightly. "I'm sorry you've wasted your time, ma- Gabrielle," she said sincerely. "Every instructor in the academy has tried to help me and none of them have been able to do it."

"Everyone but us?" Gabrielle replied.

Antonia was unconvinced. The two of them read it in her face, even though she didn't say anything.

"Look," Gabrielle offered. "Maybe we'll fail, maybe not? You've got nothing to lose by trying, right?"

In the end, Antonia reluctantly agreed.

The three of them headed out of the main courtyard and through the main gates.

Their departure did not go unobserved. A single figure hovered near one of the archways leading from the courtyard to the dormitory. That figure watched the trio leave and then ran back into the main hall.

Quintis sat in his room, his legs crossed and resting on the small desk. Several scrolls and other assignments lying neglected around his feet. His expression was one of quiet satisfaction. He was as good as in for the competition, which was what he wanted.All these lessons in philosophy and mathematics were for soft, peace loving twerps, not for a warrior of his caliber. He heard the footsteps long before his visitor reached his doorway.

"Come in, Rasten," he said.

"Quintis," Rasten said quickly. He was a slim boy of fifteen years, with a lanky mop of unkempt brownish hair and nervous brown eyes.

"I thought you should know," Rasten said in a quick, nervous voice. "She's got those two strangers talking to her."

Quintis smiled. "So what?"

"I overheard what they were saying," Rasten continued. "They said something about having her ready to compete in the tournament!"

Quintis laughed. "So what if they do? She's nothing but a target in the circle, you know that. Even you can beat her!"

He sat still for a while, contemplating the scrolls on his desk before him. "I'll worry when I have something to worry about." He finally said. "In the mean time," He sat up and grabbed the scrolls "I need an essay on lateral thinking for Master Philios by the end of the week."

Rasten took the scrolls, albeit a little reluctantly, but he took them.

"No problem," he said nervously. "What about Antonia and the Head Master's friends?"

"Let them waste their time," Quintis said casually. "I don't care."

Rasten paused at the door, his dark eyes shifting nervously. He seemed to be in a constant state of mild agitation.

"Um, boss?" he said. "I think you want to worry about these two."

Quintis looked back at him questioningly. "You've been snooping again?"

Rasten shrugged. The action seemed more like a nervous tick than an actual shrug.

"I was poking about like I normally do," he admitted in a hush. "And I overheard a conversation in the faculty dining room."

"Crawling in the walls like a rat," Quintis smiled coldly. "That's what I'll call you from now on. Rasten the Rat."

Rasten seemed to digest that for a moment and nodded.

"Whatever. As I said. I was poking about and I heard them talking about Antonia. Actually I heard a lot more about who those two are first. Anyway, they were discussing the upcoming team to go to the tournament."

"Rasten!" Quintis said sharply. The thin boy froze like a spooked elk.

"Pick a subject, please." Quintis said more quietly. "The Head Master's friends?"

"Okay," Rasten said. "Remember all the stories Master Ioulas told about the Warrior Princess, Xena, and her Amazon Companion, Gabrielle?"

"I remember," Quintis sighed. "Fairy stories designed to get us thinking. Bed time stories for the newbies, nothing more."

Rasten shook his head nervously. "I-I-I- don't think so, Boss. The woman that arrived with them today?"

"What about her?" Quintis's patience was just about gone.

"That's Gabrielle! The one that used to travel with Xena!" Rasten said, flinging one finger towards the outside.

Quintis looked at him blankly for a moment and then burst out into a soft fit of laughter.

"Oh, man, Rasten," he said after he regained control over himself. "You really need to learn how to relax. There's no way that she could be Gabrielle! The Amazon Nation was wiped out at the Battle of Helicon, two years ago! Even if she lived that long, there was no way she survived the battle! Military History is one subject I don't sleep through!"

Rasten shrugged again. "Whatever you say."

"What about the other stranger?" Quintis asked.

"He's an even bigger enigma," Rasten replied. "All I can tell you is that he intends to have Antonia ready to take your place as team captain, if all goes well."

At those words, Quintis's amused expression went cold, and his eyes went dark.

"Well, we'll have to keep an eye on her then, won't we?" he said in a voice that was more of a hiss than a whisper.

Rasten saw the murder in Quintis's eyes and nodded nervously.

"Um, Quintis?" Rasten asked. "You won't do anything to hurt her, will you?"

Quintis fixed him with a frosty stare that encouraged him to withdraw without an answer to his final question.

David, Gabriele and Antonia found a small clearing a short distance from the academy.Antonia looked about with a touch of confusion.

"Why are out here?" she asked.

"Because," Gabrielle replied with a sly smile. "I don't want anyone seeing what we do."


David was also smiling. "Because, I assume we're going to show you a few tricks that your fellow students have never seen before."

Gabrielle nodded. "First though, I want to see what you already know. So, we'll go through some of the basics, okay?"

Antonia nodded and settled smoothly into a combat position.

The two women began slowly, moving through a series of strikes and blocks as David settled on a fallen log and watched the young woman intently.After a while, David began to notice a few small things, and one very large and dangerous issue.

"Pick up your feet," he said sharply as the two girls moved about the clearing. Antonia glanced quickly over at him and then back at Gabrielle, just barely blocking a half speed kick by his wife.

"Stay focused!" David chided. "She almost took your head off!"

Gabrielle saw the building frustration in the young woman's eyes. Hey grappled quickly and the two women looked over to see David sitting, watching the two of them intently, his fingers stroking his goatee.

"Does he always do that?" she asked, breathing a little hard.

"Only when he sees something that isn't right," Gabrielle replied, smiling. They parted and resumed.

After a few more minutes, David got to his feet and began jogging back towards the keep.

The girls stopped.

"Where are you going?" Gabrielle called after him.

He turned, back pedaling. "Just keep working! Show her some of your stuff! I'll be right back!"

The two girls stared after him and then looked at one another.

"Is he always like this?" Antonia asked.

Gabrielle smiled and looked back after her husband. She shook her head. "Not all the time. But whenever he is, something amazing usually happens." She stepped back and dropped into a fighting stance. "Come on. Let's keep going."

part 2

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