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Editor's note: This was the winning story in Becky Lutzke's "Death to Joxer" competition.
The eternal day of the Olympian heights illumined the form of Athena, the all-wise, as she sat pondering the fate of mortals. There was much to grieve her heart - the senseless brutality of the warlords, the vainglorious stratagems of princes and kings, and the cunning and manipulative evil that rules the hearts of those who seek to work their own will on others, fancying themselves like gods. She was well aware of the utility of power and the good that strength can nurture and defend, but she also knew well that these were gifts that only the wisest mortals could use well. She and Ares had often had sharp words on the matter. Their devotees were often adversaries, and each strove to frustrate the plans of the other. Athena had come to rue this state of affairs, and looked to instruct here most loyal devotees to lead, unblinded by the wiles and deceits of the ego. At that particular moment, she was Xena.
Nothing had been more welcome than the change that had come to Xena, and congratulated herself for the part she had played in bringing Gabrielle into her life. Athena was pleased that the spark of curiosity and integrity that she had planted in Gabrielle had begun to come to such fruition in their time together. Gabrielle had been, and continued to be, the conduit of much wisdom to Xena. Athena saw, however, that Xena still allowed here pride to filter out things she needed to learn. Xena still lived a life that excluded much that was good and noble and wise, because she was unwilling to look for it. Gabrielle was doing her part, but perhaps more could be done. For her own glory, and for the growth in Xena that would come from it, Athena decided a little test was in order. She needed someone to teach Xena, if she would learn it, that everyone who is true has some wisdom to impart, some trait to emulate. It wouldn't hurt if this someone had some rather irritating personality traits in order to make the lesson sharp enough to be learned well, but not to hide the essential "true"ness of the person, else Xena would rightly be wary of deeper hidden plots. Yes, perhaps even one who was seen as something of a buffoon would do. Athena smiled at the thought of using what was considered foolish to instruct the wise. She knew just such a person, and set about putting a plan into action....
Xena lay under a tree on the edge of a hillside olive grove, allowing cool breezes coming up from the valley beneath to soothe her tired body. She and Gabrielle had taken the opportunity that a lull had afforded them for some sparring practice. Gabrielle was certainly making progress, and the workout had been strenuous, though Xena, in looking over at her friend, knew that it had been significantly harder on Gabrielle. She had learned much today, some of it the hard way, and was taking a well-deserved nap. Xena was enjoying both the nearness of her companion, and the peace and solitude (and quiet!) her slumber brought. She knew that she had learned much from Gabrielle in her turn, but sometimes wondered why there must be so many words in the telling! Xena enjoyed the break for a little while longer, then decided that they ought to be moving along. They had purposely found a place away from prying eyes in which to practice, and so had a few hours' hike ahead of them before they found shelter for the night. Up here in the hills, it can get cool very quickly once the sun went down. She reached over and gave Gabrielle a gentle push. This didn't have much effect, so she gave here another, not quite so gentle, push. A few muffled noises rose from the sleeping form before her, but there was no sign of movement. As the day was bright and beautiful, Xena felt a bit mischievous. She whistled softly for Argo, then gently placed a sweet on Gabrielle's cheek. Argo had no difficulty finding this little tidbit, and the ensuing mass of arms, legs, hooves, mane, and hair was everything Xena had envisioned. The sudden roughness of Argo's tongue, the meadowsweet blasts of breath from her nostrils and the tickling of her hair on Gabrielle's cheek, were enough to bring Gabrielle bolt upright, hands swatting, feet tangling in the coverlet, and trying to find her staff. Argo, meanwhile, had brought her head up sharp, tossed her mane thoroughly, and snorted scoldingly several times. The worse luck was that she hadn't got the sweet before Gabrielle moved. Gabrielle meanwhile realized that it was Argo that had awakened her, and Xena's uncharacteristic mirth made the rest plain. Xena was nearly helpless with laughter, and earned for herself looks of profoundest annoyance from both woman and horse.
"Very funny! Very droll! Very amusing!" fumed Gabrielle. Argo was too offended by the whole incident to speak, and simply tossed her head, walked a few strides away, and began to munch on the grass. One or two disgusted looks were bestowed on Xena, but they didn't seem to be very effective. Xena was only just beginning to recover here composure, as Gabrielle picked up the few things they had unpacked and was placing them in the saddlebags. She then retrieved here staff, pausing to bestow a meaningful glance at Xena as she did so. At this, Xena jumped up and said, "I am sorry, Gabrielle!" not sounding very much as if she were. Once she caught Argo, who was not feeling particularly cooperative at the moment, she saddled her deftly. Argo was much mollified when Xena quietly slipped her the treat that had been so elusive. The three of them headed down into the valley and toward a village a few leagues away. Xena, feeling as refreshed by her laugh as Gabrielle was by her nap, hummed to herself as they walked. Xena's good spirits were infectious, and Gabrielle soon admitted that it had been a pretty good stunt.
"Where are we off to now, oh mighty warrior princess?" she asked with only the merest breath of sarcasm.
"There's a little village not too far ahead," Xena replied with a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "We'll spend the night there, then, tomorrow, we'll head north. This lull has been good for both of us, but I suspect that things have not been quite so peaceful elsewhere."
"The last couple of days have made a nice change, Xena, but I'm eager to put some of those moves you showed me today to good use," Gabrielle replied.
After a few hours' walk, Gabrielle could see the lights of a small settlement ahead, and was glad of the sight. Both woman were thinking of hot baths and good food and a comfortable rest after the exertions of the day. They came to the village gate as the sun was setting, and were stopped by the keeper. "Hold! Stand where you are! Who seeks to pass this gate?"
"I am a humble bard, and companion to Xena, the Warrior Princess," Gabrielle gestured toward Xena as she made the introductions. "We seek shelter for the night."
A silence greeted this pronouncement, then the guard responded, "We wish no trouble here. We know the Warrior Princess and her companion, the wise bard, Gabrielle. Trouble seems to follow the two of you as if it were the name of your shadow." The keeper paused, as if unsure of what to do. Refusing Xena did not always result in the happiest of consequences. Gabrielle seized the moment and assured him, "We are on no mission or quest, and are simply in quest of lodging. Please, let us pass."
"Very well. But, be forewarned. A man, who boasts of having your friendship, is staying at the inn. I do not know his name, for I wasn't on duty when he arrived. Perhaps he is indeed your friend (though he didn't seem to be one worthy of your company), and no evil will come of it." At this, the keeper unbarred the postern gate and let the companions enter. The two women hurried on their way to the inn, wordlessly wondering who this friend might be.
The inn seemed to be full of life, and , between spells of raucous laughter, a man's voice could be heard, weaving a tale of battle. "There I was, standing shoulder to shoulder with the great Warrior Princess, battling Callisto with everything we had. It was only after felling 15 of her thugs, and being jumped by 10 of them at once, that I, Joxer the Magnificent, was subdued!" An appreciative round of cheers and some not-too-well-disguised jeers ran around the room. "I took heart from the example of the Warrior Princess," Joxer continued, ignoring all but the most supportive voices, "and, even as they prepared to hang me from a rope for target practice..."
"I cut out his tongue for telling so many brazen lies." Xena said, as she and Gabrielle came through the door of the inn. The crowd in the pub was first silent at the sight of Xena, but then gathered its collective breath and howled at the wit of the Warrior Princess. There was a great deal of merriment at the expense of "Joxer, the Magnificent."
Xena motioned for the innkeeper and ordered food and drink, while Gabrielle found an empty table. Joxer followed Xena to the table, asking, "What are you doing here, Xena? I had them eating out of my hand til you came in!" A look of derision was his only answer. Gabrielle, however, had no trouble voicing her opinion.
"Joxer, you're such a liar!"
"And this from someone who plays fast and loose with the truth all the time, just like all bards!"
"Bards sometimes stretch and mold events to their need, but we don't purposely distort Truth!"
"Oh, like there's a big difference!"
"Joxer, you're hopeless!" Gabrielle had caught a look from Xena which said, "Why bother?", and so let the matter drop, at least for the moment. The innkeeper brought food and drink for three, looking at Xena questioningly. She and Gabrielle looked at each other, and Xena shrugged. Joxer gave them his very best "little lost puppy dog" look. With not a little exasperation, Gabrielle served Joxer some of their bread and cheese, and poured Joxer some wine. His obvious hunger, and subsequent enjoyment of his meal, stung Gabrielle ever so slightly. She relented some, returning to the contented state of mind from the afternoon with a little smile and a resigned shake of her head.
"To answer you question, Joxer," she said, "we've been taking a bit of a break from people. We were up in the hills south of here for a breather, and so that Xena could teach me some more tricks without interruption. It was great! I'd be happy to demonstrate on...oh, pardon me, I mean for you any time" She smiled her sweetest smile, which Joxer returned in spades. "Xena thought we should head north, and get back to work, so to speak."
"Good thing you are, too," said Joxer. "The southern warlords may be no more after that little "to do" with Sisyphus, but Ares hasn't changed all that much! I've been doing a little freelancing lately, and you'll have enough to keep you busy up north!" Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a glance over the "freelancing" idea; it was much more likely that Joxer had been tossed out of one army after another, but that did make him useful for information. The three of them finished their meal. Xena went to the stables to make sure that Argo had been well tended. The fact that she had been made comfortable indeed improved Argo's spirits completely. The two shared a quiet moment or two, before Xena went back inside. She saw that Joxer had found the more gullible minds in the crowd, and was regaling them with stories that seemed quite familiar to Xena, though not necessarily in the form that Joxer was giving them. She found Gabrielle in their room, catching up on her journal, which had been neglected a little of late. Xena didn't wish to disturb her, so she returned to the common room and began to ask a few people what they may know of the latest news of war and oppression. With Joxer's monologue buzzing in the back of her consciousness, she heard many of the same stories that she had heard so many times before. Fortunately, in the immediate area, things were better than they often were. Xena decided to take a little walk to listen to the tales the night air might bring, and replenish her healing herbs with some fresh ones that grew in the area. When she returned, the common room had cleared somewhat, and Joxer was snoring in a chair near the fire, legs splayed out, and helmet on his lap. "He really is a mess, " she thought. "Why does he think he's such a great warrior, when he's so clearly not?" She took a deep breath, exhaled heavily, shook her head, and put the question out of her mind. It was time for a good night's rest. She entered her quietly so as not to disturb Gabrielle. She found her already sleeping, so she banked the fire for the night, adjusted Gabrielle's blanket, smoothed back her hair from her face, letting her finger linger for just a moment on her soft cheek. She removed her armour, and settled down for the night next to Gabrielle.
The next morning, Xena and Gabrielle left the inn just as the sun was rising over the surrounding hills. Joxer was still asleep in the common room, and the women felt relieved that they wouldn't be subjected to endless hours of his absurdities on the road. The had, unfortunately, been a bit premature in their relief. About half an hour out of the village, they heard a crashing in the woods, and prepared themselves to fend off some wild animal or other distraction. Though not quite a wild animal, the distraction proved itself to be Joxer, flailing around, making lots of noise, and muttering away to himself. The incessant pep talk that streamed out of him was in full flow, and, upon seeing the two women, began to congratulate himself roundly for having found his quarry. There was now nothing for it but to attempt to quell the tide of his ramblings as best they could, and to bear with him until something challenging came along to scare him off. They prayed that that would happen sooner rather than later.
Indeed something did happen, much sooner, and it was more than any of them bargained for. They had been walking for about an hour when Xena turned on Joxer. "Stop! Enough! If you're coming with us, you must be silent until I give you leave to speak, or I will indeed cut out your tongue!" This seemed to have its desired effect, but Xena still felt uneasy. What could it be? Xena glanced at Gabrielle, who had come far in developing her innate intuitive abilities to sense danger, but she was clearly not sensing anything. "She's probably more annoyed with Joxer's presence than I am, as he's upstaging her!" Xena allowed herself a little smile. At that instant, an arrow whizzed by her and into a tree trunk. As one, Xena and Gabrielle prepared to meet the attackers. Joxer took a few seconds longer to figure out what was going on, but he was ready by the time 15 men rushed at the party. These men were not ruffians or highway robbers; their attack was not random, but obviously meant to accomplish a specific purpose. By the time she realized that the men were separating her from Gabrielle, she could do nothing about it. She yelled to Joxer above the noise of battle, "Stick close to Gabrielle! Don't leave her side!"
"Right, Xena! You can count on me! Joxer the Magnificent will..."
"Just shut up and stick with her!"
For the next several minutes, Xena had her hands full with 10 of the men. She knew that, individually, none of them was a match for her, but, as a group, they were able to achieve their goal. She could see that Gabrielle and Joxer were doing their best against the 5 that were attacking them, but Xena could do nothing to help them. She had to pay close attention to her work. In another few moments, just as she thought she could break free to help them, she heard Joxer cry in triumph, "You think you can get away from me, eh!" He lunged forward to press his advantage, stumbled forward as his opponent eluded his sword, was knocked unconscious, leaving Gabrielle on her own. Xena's slight lapse of concentration at this disquieting development gave one of her attackers an opening, and he was able to hit her on the back of the head with a thick branch. Just before she lost consciousness, she heard Gabrielle's call, "Xena!! Help!!!" Everything went black and the Warrior Princess fell to the ground.
About an hour later, Xena awoke. She saw Joxer, felt the throbbing at the back of her head, and remembered Gabrielle's wail. The frustration Xena had felt since Joxer joined them - the never-ending torrent of foolish talk, the stupid posturing, the disappearance of Gabrielle after the attack, and, above all, the fact that Joxer had not done the one thing she had told him to do - finally boiled over inside her. She kicked him to rouse him, and proceeded to give him the tongue-lashing of his life, liberally peppered with blows sharp enough to drive home the point.
"Wake up, you fool!" ....another kick, at which Joxer jumped to his feet, holding his head and side. "When did it ever enter your puny brain that you are anything but the most contemptible fool?! Joxer, the Magnificent??!! How about Joxer, the Clown', Joxer, the Jester', Joxer, the Fool' Listen to me, you posturing pathetic buffoon. Your life is in mortal danger. It's not enough that you follow us everywhere" ...sharp push in the chest... "It not even that you're more empty headed than a Cyclops" ....a harder push.... "But, when your pathetic attempts to play at being a great warrior dispense with what minute capacity you have to think, and puts Gabrielle in danger," ...two sharp slaps across the face... "you will either go so far away from us that there'll never be a danger of my seeing you ever again," ...Xena begins to draw her sword... "or I'll do the world the immeasurable favour of ridding it of your sorry presence!" Still breathing fire, Xena did not immediately grasp what had been happening as she spoke. During her tirade, the stupid expression usually found on Joxer's face began to drain away, but nothing replaced it. By the end of her verbal assault, Joxer seemed to have disappeared and only his body remained. He had fallen to his knees, and remained there, absolutely still, until he lifted his head. His only words were, "I'm sorry", but all Xena knew was the look in his eyes. She had seen it many times before. These were the eyes of one who had died inside. She knew she had killed something in him. She recoiled from the sight, and ran off after Gabrielle. Joxer remained in a heap on the ground.
Xena tracked the group through the afternoon, and found them in a clearing. She dispatched the guard that had been posted swiftly and silently. Then she channeled all her roiling emotions into a white hot fury at these men, which swept her through their camp like a cyclone. It was not long before 14 bodies lay strewn about the field. Xena untied Gabrielle, who had fainted from loss of blood, and tended to her wounds as best she could. She placed Gabrielle on Argo and headed toward a village from which she could see the smoke of evening fires rising. She found a room for them, and settled Gabrielle on the bed. After a short while, Gabrielle awoke. "Don't move around too much, Gabrielle. Give yourself time to recover." Gabrielle leaned back onto the bed, but continued to study Xena's face. She knew something had gone wrong. "What is it?" she asked.
"Nothing," Xena replied. "Can you tell me anything about that group?"
"There talked a lot as we moved along. They were hired by a mysterious warrior, none of them seem to know who he was, to capture me. They seemed to have been trained for the mission thoroughly, even to following Joxer to find us. They wanted to get rid of you by using me as bait."
A complex series of emotions played across Xena's face, and this time Gabrielle wouldn't take "Nothing" for an answer. Xena told her the whole story, not sparing herself in the telling. Xena felt keenly the harm she had done to Joxer. Gabrielle tried to console her friend, but Xena knew that she had to add one more "death" to her tally, the Death of Joxer.
Xena and Gabrielle were walking down a road on a fine day, when suddenly, out of nowhere seemingly, a man launched himself at the Warrior Princess. He was dressed in rags, his hair was matted, his body foul and reeking, and his face covered with bruises and scars. He wielded a sword with frenzy, but with skill. He alternated between a maniacal laugh and a sorry muttering, and pressed Xena so hard that she was taken aback at first. Gabrielle attempted to help, but Xena waived her off. Despite attempting to brush off the madman, his attacks were so unrelenting, and skillful, that she had no choice but to kill him. Xena had a strange feeling she knew this man, but had no idea how she could know him. She and Gabrielle carried the man to the nearest village, inquiring at the local inn as to who the man might be, and where his family lived. The innkeeper said that he had heard him called many names, of varying degrees of derision, but thought he remembered the man calling himself Joxer. At this revelation, Xena was torn between deep remorse for what she had done to Joxer, and a small consolation that the pain and suffering he surely must have endured was at an end, as if she'd closed some kind of circle.
Athena smiled. She had helped Joxer to recover enough to hone his skills, knowing one day that he would see Xena again. He would then challenge her to a fight to the death, and, when she killed him, he would be free of whispering voices that laughed at him day and night. It would be an honorable death, and might allow him the possibility of reaching the Elysian Fields. Xena had done him a favour by showing him what a fool he had become, and he knew he could count on her to finish the work she had started. Athena was willing to plead his case. Also, she knew that the test she had planned for Xena, though working out differently (and more harshly) than she had envisioned, had had its effect. She had killed Joxer as a last resort, and with remorse for this nameless crazy man. Humility, in mortals, was so appropriate.