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by Tom Simpson
The next dreadful thing to a battle lost is a battle won.
- Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (1769-1852)
The sun rises slowly and gracefully over the land. Birds sing their praises to the morning and butterflies flit about in the bright yellow shafts of sunlight which pour down in gay columns through the empty clearings in the dense woodland. The silhouette of a strange creature passes over each of the pools of light. As it blots out the sunlight in each pool, stillness follows. Birds cease their merriment, the butterflies land and shiver on the trees, each creature trying to avoid the shadow's notice, trying desperately to stay alive.
From above, Greece spreads out like a green blanket. The gnarled olive trees and vineyards give way to the occasional farm and village, patches in the quiltwork. The land rushes by as the dark figure exults in its freedom. A lone rider on horseback gallops along the coastal road ahead, his long hair swept back by the gentle morning breeze. His black horse is heaving with the effort of running, eyes wide with determination. The dark shadow smiles...
There were many postulations as to what happened to Andreois that morning. The first villagers to arrive after hearing his screams insist that it was some sort of daemon, loosed from Hades, a giant beast with bat-like wings and glistening fangs. Others, sheepherders who arrived after the slaying thought that it must have been wild animals, such as a pride of lions or a pack of wolves, and cautioned the townsfolk to begin watches over their flocks. Others felt that it was the Furies Alecto, Tisiphone and Megarea, sent by Hera to punish the arrogant Andreois. In a way they all were right...
Gabrielle always knew that one day her glib tongue would get her in trouble, but she never suspected that an execution would be the result. "Listen, I can explain everything," she assured the bloodthirsty mob warily eyeing the flailing pitchforks and rakes. "You see it's all just a big misunderstanding..."
"Misunderstanding? My Eucal has disappeared and you're to blame!" "Burn the witch!" "Make her pay for what she's done!" came the cries from the angry villagers.
Looking over the crowd Gabrielle sighed. How in Hades had I gotten myself into this mess, she thought to herself. I was just trying to help Queen Melosia and find the lost Amazons...
"Now look,'" Gabrielle began, "I know you're angry but I want to assure you that I had nothing to do with their disappearances. I'm just a traveling bard who happened to walk into the wrong place at the wrong time..." The crowd didn't look too sympathetic, but Gabrielle had never backed down from a challenge in her life and wasn't about to start now. Especially since she wouldn't have to face any more challenges if she couldn't convince the mob to let her go. Funny how the threat of execution really helped get those creative juices flowing...
"Let me tell you a story..." she began.
Passing the totems and signs Gabrielle felt a strange sensation. Not fear or concern that she was entering Amazon territory, very sensible feelings for any wary traveler. Rather she felt an inner peace, a calmness... The weight of the world seemed to pass from her shoulders as she entered the village. Gabrielle had come home. She looked fondly around at the tents and caves that sheltered her Amazon sisters, and looked up nostalgically at the platform where she had become an Amazon princess. But there were changes here, little things that set off the alarms and bells in her head and made her fingers twitch on her staff.
Guards still stood in the sentry towers, Amazons still trained in the clearing, sparring with staves, chobos and swords, but something was wrong. When Gabrielle had last been here there had been a sense of purpose, a self-determination that made her sisters strong. What Amazons she could see now all walked with downcast faces, and eyes that had lost the bright glint of inner strength. Something had drained the strength out of these warriors and made them afraid.
Looking over towards the armory Gabrielle saw Alcestis, one of Ephiny's warrior-sisters. Alcestis was dressed in a soft leather skirt with an armored halter. Metal bands curved up her arms and legs to offer some protection in combat. Alcestis had a large curved blade on her hip counterbalancing a quiver of arrows on the other side. An intricately carved bow was slung across her shoulders. She raised a hand in greeting to Gabrielle.
"Have you news of Ephiny and Phantes?" Alcestis asked. "We urged them not to travel, but they insisted that their child be born in Athens. Have you seen them?"
Gabrielle swallowed. Tears began to well. "Alcestis, Phantes--" She could say no more. She rushed up to Alcestis and held her tight, sobbing. "I'm so sorry. Xena and I were too late to help Phantes."
"And Ephiny?" asked Alcestis, her eyes flat and her voice cold.
"She's fine, just fine. Xena is taking her to Athens as we speak. She had a boy, a Centaur boy." Gabrielle looked with concern at Alcestis.
"That's wonderful news," replied Alcestis, her face changing between joy at hearing of her warrior-sister's child and the anger at Phantes' death. "Has Phantes been... avenged?"
Gabrielle gazed into Alcestis' eyes. "He has. There is no need for more killing. Let his spirit rest."
Alcestis fought hard to accept this. Gabrielle watched as the battle took place in Alcestis' eyes, changing from flaring sparks to wounded and hurt. Finally with a sigh Alcestis seemed to slump in place. Her eyes filled with tears and she wept. Gabrielle held her tight and soothed her. "There, there. There, there..."
A few moments later Alcestis' grief had passed. Wiping her tears from her eyes she looked up at Gabrielle gratefully. "It was good to hear this from a friend. But where are my manners? Come, you must see Queen Melosia. A feast will be organized for your return! " Alcestis lead Gabrielle back into Melosia's tent. "We've been having a few problems of our own, Gabrielle, but I'm sure that Melosia will explain everything to you." Alcestis reached forward and pulled back the tanned hide that covered the entrance into Melosia's audience chamber.
Inside the small room was a wooden throne decorated with bones and feathers, totems for luck and skill in battle. On it rested a proud warrior. She was dressed in skins and leathers like her followers, an eagle mask rested near her. She sat disconsolately, with a listlessness that Gabrielle had never seen before. Upon their entrance Melosia looked up to Alcestis. As she began to speak, to reprimand her for entering without announcing herself she saw Gabrielle come in behind her. Melosia stood up straight and stalked up to Gabrielle. Gabrielle looked at her hard features, trying to divine what Melosia's mood might be. Melosia looked at her for a few seconds, eyes boring into Gabrielle's, then her hard face broke into a smile. Laughing she swept Gabrielle up into her arms and spun her around.
"Dear, dear sister, how I've missed you," she managed through her tears. "It hasn't been the same here without you."
Gabrielle laughed back and returned the hug. "I've missed you as well, Melosia. I have some sad news for you..."
"After your feast, Gabrielle, after your feast. I fear that we have been undergoing some bleak times of late and your presence might just raise the spirits of all. Alcestis, get Kalyca and Damaris and prepare our welcome for Gabrielle. We must thank the gods for Gabrielle's safe return." Alcestis bowed with a smile and rushed off to make the preparations.
Gabrielle turned to Melosia and smiled. In a very special way she had just come home.
As the sun slowly settled into the horizon, the bonfires were lit and the Amazons gathered. A ring of painted women danced about the largest fire, expressing their gratitude to the gods for another day on this wonderful earth. The drums beat a cheerful rhythm and other Amazons sang a joyful tune to accompany it. Gabrielle remembered a night much like this one, nearly a year before when she was made a princess here. Then the Amazons were celebrating the memory of Tereus, Melosia's true sister and the next Amazon Queen. Tereus had been slain by minions of Krycus the warlord, and as her dying wish she had given Gabrielle the right of caste. This gave her all of Tereus's possessions and titles, making Gabrielle an Amazon Princess and Melosia's sister. At the time of Tereus's death, Gabrielle had wondered how a funeral could have had such a festive air, but later she learned that to weep and mourn for Tereus on her funeral night would have been a final insult to her memory. Tereus had passed on, but other Amazons were still alive, and they must look to the future and survive. The world had not been kind to the Amazons, and so they had learned to live alone in the secluded woods, fiercely self-reliant.
If the funeral had seemed a festive occasion, then tonight was a party without equal. The hopelessness and weariness that Gabrielle had seen upon arriving in the camp was replaced by determination and joy. The Amazons had been given back hope. But what, Gabrielle wondered, could have stolen that hope from them, these the fiercest and bravest fighters in all of Greece. What took their pride?
Queen Melosia strode up to the lectern and turned to the waiting Amazons. All of them dropped to their knees to honor her. She looked at Gabrielle and smiled. "Truly the gods have favored us tonight. Just when we thought we had reached our bleakest hour Gabrielle returns to us to help us regain what we have lost. Let tonight be a night of feasting, for on the morrow we ride into battle and glory!"
"Battle?" asked Gabrielle. "Now hold on just one second here, what battle? Nobody said anything about a battle..." Gabrielle's cries were lost in the exultant shouts of the Amazons. They raised their weapons and cried out pledges to Gabrielle and to Melosia. Pledges to vanquish their foes. Gabrielle looked at Melosia who only shrugged.
A playful shaft of light burrowed happily through the crack in the tents ceiling to strike Gabrielle squarely on her face. Her mouth twitched into a snarl as she raised her hand and tried to swat the offending light away. Strange words were mumbled, almost the words "henbane" and "hangover" could be heard, but Alcestis wasn't certain. Gabrielle raised an arm to protect herself from the offending rays.
"Gabrielle," called Alcestis. "It's time to get up, you have a busy day before you."
"Busy day... hmm.. ? No I don't have the trout yet Xena... Oh, THAT'S where you hid the trout..."
"Gabrielle!" cried Alcestis more insistently. "You must wake up. We have to prepare for battle!"
"Battle? That's nice Xena. Have fun stopping the war..."
With this Alcestis stepped back out of the tent. A few moments later the tent flap opened again. A sloshing was heard from outside. "Gabrielle... It's time for your bath."
"Oh, there's a lake nearby Xena? Ok, let's go..." mumbled Gabrielle.
With a mighty heave that would do Achilles proud Alcestis launched the bucket of water fetched directly from the cold spring in the main cave. The water sailed overhead, each individual droplet catching a miniature rainbow pattern as it flew through the sunbeam and landed on Gabrielle. With a startled cry she leapt up, fighting staff at the ready.
"What? Who? I'll protect you Xena, don't worry! Hee-ya!" Gabrielle spun her staff looking for enemies, her hair wet and sopping into her face. She was trying her best to look fierce and menacing, no mean feat with only one eye visible beneath her reddish locks.
"It's me, Princess. I've come to bathe you and prepare you for battle. I've finished the bath, so I guess we need to get you some gauntlets and armor."
"Battle? Oh I knew I shouldn't have had so much nutbread last night. Melosia said something about that. Um, could you refresh my memory a bit, I must have fallen asleep quite early last night and missed what she said."
"Early? You were the life of the party! There are few Amazons that know the Dance of the Three Veils, let alone Amazons who are willing to go past the first veil, but you..."
"But I..." Gabrielle looked up at Alcestis with concern. "I...?"
"Well, all I can say is that you definitely have gotten in much better shape than last we met. Hardly an ounce of fat on your whole body."
"My whole body? Oh my!" Gabrielle blushed.
With a sly wink Alcestis led her to the washstand. "Here, let me help you dress," Alcestis continued. "You must be prepared for the opening melee."
"About that melee... what happened here? Last night (from what I remember!) no one wanted to 'disturb' me with the bad news. What's going on?"
Alcestis sighed. "It's a long story," she began as she brushed out the tangles in Gabrielle's hair. "It all started about a month ago. Amazons started disappearing from patrols along our eastern border near the shore. First Celandine and her party, then Iola's band. These were scouting groups of ten Amazons, Princess. There's not an army left in the field that could stop all ten from reporting, and these were two separate scouting groups. Needless to say we became very concerned.
"Tyldus sent some of his Centaurs to scout the area with six of our best fighters. They went in there fully expecting ambushes, hordes of barbarians and the very Gates of Hades to stand in their way. Only one returned, a Centaur named Leander. That was two days ago."
Gabrielle reached back and grasped Alcestis' hand. She turned to her and looked up at the older Amazon. "What did he see?"
Alcestis looked past Gabrielle, imagining some horrible vista. "A black castle, surrounded by lava and fire. Dark jagged spires jutted up into the sky, seeming to drain the sky itself of light and life. Clouds boiled overhead and dark shapes flew between the spires. The lava was only spanned by a single bridge, an obsidian structure that was covered with dark runes and symbols. There were two dark towers guarding the entrance to the bridge, each with a grotesque carving of a leering daemon face, their sharp fangs smiling in the perpetual twilight.
"Leander and his group approached the castle, but before they even reached the towers he heard a cry from above. Dark shapes tore into the party, screaming and hissing. Leander tried to lead a retreat, but he was the only one to make it to the tree line. He was pursued for the rest of his return by the flying creatures, who only stopped pursuing him once he entered Centaur territory."
"What were those flying things Alcestis? Did he say what they were?"
"It took a day before Leander was coherent enough to speak. He did, however bring back a clue as to what the creatures were. Come with me."
Alcestis had finished dressing Gabrielle and she was now dressed in Tereus's battle gear, leather top and skirt with dark brown gauntlets and Tereus's war-mask pulled back over her head. She gently ushered Gabrielle out of the tent. Outside Amazons were preparing for battle. Some were working forms with their weapons, others were tightening laces and straps to secure their gear. A hostile air lay over the camp, a sense of impending violence. Gabrielle wouldn't have dared to poke someone in jest for fear of a sudden and deadly reprisal. Alcestis led her to a large cave back near the supply area, opening the flap for Gabrielle.
Inside the cave were a few boxes and crates. Gabrielle noticed a large table had been set up in the middle of the room and a dark sack of some sort was resting on it. A fetid stench rose, causing her nostrils to recoil. Flies buzzed about the sack in a dance of ecstasy. Alcestis walked up to the bag and lifted it, bringing it back to Gabrielle. She looked up at Gabrielle, who nodded. Alcestis opened the bag, reached in and removed it's grisly contents. A greenish brown thing was pulled out. Gabrielle took an involuntary step back and covered her mouth to suppress the rising bile. It was a head, but not a human one. Sightless eyes over a too-large mouth filled with razor sharp teeth. Brown and green patterns swirled on the reptilian skin. She appeared to still be hissing at Gabrielle. Even though it was obviously not human, something about it suggested its sex to her. She.
Gabrielle took a step back. "What is it?" she asked, trying to keep the fear from her voice. "What are they?"
Gabrielle looked up at Alcestis wide-eyed. Xena had told her about these creatures from her visit to Hades. Nearly impervious to pain, harpies fought on even when limbs and organs were hacked from their bodies. They had enormous strength, just one being able to carry a stout man for leagues without tiring. Ever-ravenous, they consumed vast amounts of flesh to sustain their powerful bodies. Some of the most feared of all of the gods' creations, they had been banished to Tartarus for eternity. Or so people had thought.
"How did they get here? I thought that they were bound in the Underworld for eternity. How did they get free?"
"We don't know, and we don't have time to find out. We must stop them before they come for us. So far they have remained in their castle, but they might strike at any time! We must attack!"
Gabrielle stepped back out of the cave and looked at the Amazons preparing in the clearing. Each making their peace with the gods as they prepared for their deaths. That was what was so somber about the Amazons, that was what had robbed their hopes... they were preparing to die. Gabrielle searched the faces of her sister Amazons around her and couldn't find that most necessary item for a successful battle: hope. As she was looking at the camp Queen Melosia stepped out of her war room and walked up to the podium. No one bowed, there was no time for genuflections this close to a battle. All grew quiet as she slowly looked through her ranks, trying to catch each Amazon's eye. Gabrielle watched as the Amazons visibly straightened under Melosia's gaze, each gaining a bit more confidence, a small belief that they might just survive this mission. After a few moments more of powerful silence Melosia spoke.
"My fellow sisters. We are preparing this day for the most dangerous battle we have ever fought. I fear that many of you might not return this sunset, and this grieves my heart. Amazons have always believed in freedom, in equality, in choosing our battles. I will not look down upon any of you that choose not to enter this battle. We will be fighting our most powerful enemy that we have ever faced. The honor of Celandine and Iola is at stake, but not all of us must avenge their deaths. No matter how the battle fares, some Amazons must escape, the Amazon nation's ideals and culture must be passed on to a new generation. Xanthe! Odelia! Leda! You and yours must stand down from this battle." The Amazons mentioned by Melosia stepped forward with angry cries. "No! I will not hear it. You and your warrior-sisters must carry the honor of the Amazons far from here. Future generations must know of our peril and courage. You have your orders." The three Amazons looked angry at the news, but complied, gathering their warrior-sisters and preparing to leave to the west.
"And now my sisters, to battle!"
All looked around for the source of the interjection. A small figure dressed in a warrior's leathers stepped forward holding an eagle staff.
"What is it Gabrielle? The mission is clear, we must leave now to meet our Centaur allies."
"There's got to be another way! We can't just go to war!"
"Do you know another way? If so Gabrielle, please tell us, otherwise prepare yourself for battle."
Gabrielle thought furiously. And thought, and thought... "I have an idea!"
"Well Gabrielle," asked Melosia with a hint of impatience, "what's your idea?"
Thinking fast and furiously Gabrielle tried to think of a way to delay this battle, to save the lives of her sister Amazons. "Well, it's uh, secret," Gabrielle said with rising conviction in her voice. "We really should be discussing this privately, Melosia." Smiling now. "This is a matter to be discussed by the royal family."
"Oh very well, Gabrielle," came Melosia's terse response. "But hurry, we have a war to win. Phila, you and Semele go and advise Tyldus that we shall be delayed in reaching the rendezvous. Are you planning to plant roots child? Move!" The two Amazons disappeared into the forest, only the swaying branches revealing their passage through the thick underbrush.
"Thanks Melosia," Gabrielle began as she stepped close to the Amazon Queen. "I -- hey!"
Melosia grabbed onto Gabrielle's shoulder and squeezed firmly, sending jolts of pain arcing through her spine. She glared disapprovingly at Gabrielle and led her sharply into her chambers.
"Now for what reason did you just undermine my authority?"
"I...," Gabrielle began.
"Do you no longer recognize my authority? Are you going to challenge me again after yielding the throne to me?"
"Then why did you interrupt my orders? I am your Queen, and in battle any hesitation in obeying my dictates could lead to the death of all of us. Is that what you want?"
"Well no, I--"
"That's not the impression I got today. When will you learn your duties as Princess? You have been away from us for too long, Gabrielle. We must see to your proper education..."
Imagining just what that education might be sent chills down Gabrielle's spine. She was being washed over by the verbal torrent from Melosia, but Melosia never figured on an Athenian-trained bard when she started this debate. Now how would Homer handle this situation...?
"... and once you've been raised from your diapers then we can see if you are fit to handle that oversized stick of yours--"
"STOP RIGHT THIS INSTANT!" exclaimed Gabrielle with a stomp of her foot. "I will NOT listen to your derision for ONE INSTANT MORE!"
Gabrielle expected a lot of things to happen when she interrupted Melosia like that, but she never would have expected Melosia's reaction. Not angry, not bitter, nor hurt, but she was... smiling?
Melosia walked up to Gabrielle and put her hands on either shoulder looking deep into her eyes. "I knew that there was a reason Tereus passed on her right of caste to you, you have the makings of a true Amazon in you."
"You aren't mad?" Gabrielle would never be able to relate how overjoyed she felt when she was able to say that without a quaver in her voice.
Melosia smiled. "Far from it. Nothing is worse than a person who expresses a contrary opinion then backs down from her position. I don't care whether or not you agree with me, Gabrielle, but I do care if you defend yourself and your beliefs. That is the true mark of an Amazon, and I respect you all the more for it."
"Then you aren't mad?"
Gabrielle swallowed. "I knew that."
"So what is your great plan?"
"Let me explain. You see it all has to do with the story of Cormac and his ten thousand fishes..."
Melosia's smile grew wider and wider and her eyes began to glitter with a dangerous light.
"So it's settled then?" Gabrielle asked as she and Melosia stepped out of Melosia's chambers.
"Yes. Let me organize the troops before you go. Are you sure you don't want any more help?"
"No, Alcestis is all the help I'll need. Don't worry, we won't fail you."
Melosia looked at Gabrielle, pride gleaming in her eyes. "You have the heart of an Amazon, if not yet the stature." Gabrielle looked up at that, a quick reply ready to leap forth. "Just a joke, Gabrielle, just a joke. Go with Athena's blessing." Melosia drew Gabrielle in for a brief hug. "I am very proud of you."
Wiping back tears Gabrielle turned to Alcestis. "Are you ready?"
"Yes, Gabrielle," replied Alcestis, "let's go."
Gabrielle led Alcestis back to her quarters to gather her fighting staff and war-bag. Xena had once asked her what was in her pouch, and, feeling a bit peckish, Gabrielle had responded that it wasn't a pouch, it was a "war-bag" and it should be accorded all due respect. After Xena had stopped bowing to the pouch and pledging her undying loyalty to the mighty war-bag, she and Gabrielle had had a storm of laughter. Her sides still ached whenever she remembered the mighty war-bag.
Thoughts of those happy times reminded Gabrielle of Xena's absence. She could only remember a handful of occasions when she had to enter battle without her companion by her side. But this time she was glad that Xena was not with her. There was a very real chance that Gabrielle would not survive the next few days, and it would hurt her more than she thought possible if she knew that she was the cause of Xena's death. Better that she remain in Athens with Ephiny.
"So where are we headed, Gabrielle?" asked Alcestis. "Can you tell me now?"
Wiping back tears that she hadn't realized were flowing Gabrielle turned to Alcestis. "To Sparta. To meet the gladiator Patrin."
"Patrin? The gypsy? Why do we need to associate with his ilk?"
Gabrielle looked around the tent. "We'll speak of it on the road. We mustn't let this secret be heard by anyone else. Let's get some supplies and leave. Are you ready to go?" Alcestis just stared at Gabrielle. "Oh, I uh guess that you're always ready. Well, I'm ready now, let's go."
Gabrielle and Alcestis gathered their gear and supplies, shouldered their weapons and started down the road to Sparta. The Amazon camp still bustled with activity as people prepared for the oncoming battle. All hands were busy in the preparations, with the exception of a lone figure carefully sheltered from view high in the protective bows of an oak tree. One hand carefully slid a branch back to provide a better view of the pair's departure, then slid the branch back into place.
Of all the changes that had taken place in Gabrielle's life in the past year since she started traveling with Xena, perhaps the most disgusting was her calluses. Before meeting the Warrior Princess, Gabrielle had lovely feet, wonderful feet, feet that were of the stuff of legends. Once she and her sister had composed a song of praise to her feet, they were so beautiful. Not any more. Now her feet were covered with thick calluses, forged from her and Xena's Great Trudge across Greece. They never had a destination in mind, they just went where the gods led them, which was rarely to a good place. Just once she'd love to walk into a town, have everyone jump up and say "Xena, Gabrielle? We've been preparing this feast for your arrival for days! We heard that you were coming down this road and wanted to thank you for all the good work you've been doing. Gabrielle? Have some nutbread..." Now THAT would be a welcome greeting... Nutbread...
The Amazon that leapt out of the brush in front of Gabrielle was almost able to snap her out of her reverie and to concentrate on the present. Almost. What really got Gabrielle's attention though was the figure hovering behind her. Long green bat-like wings swept up from a dark shape, hands and feet ending in sharp talons and the tail ending in a wicked barb, its point glistening with some sort of toxin. Acting without reacting, Gabrielle leapt directly towards the Amazon, her staff upraised, a scream on her lips. The Amazon quickly reacted to Gabrielle's charge, lowering her sword to meet the advance. Alcestis screamed and threw her sword at the Amazon. Gabrielle watched it all as the world slowed down to a crawl. The unnamed Amazon's sword swung into position over Gabrielle's sternum as Gabrielle's staff was spinning to hit the harpy. Just as the point touched Gabrielle's skin she felt a tearing as Alcestis' sword knocked it away from her, the Amazon's sword cutting a shallow gash across her stomach. Gabrielle's warstaff finally connected with the harpy, slamming its head sharply to the side. The world slammed back into regular speed.
"Ooof!" grunted Gabrielle as she doubled over, clutching her side where the mysterious Amazon had cut her. Red slowly trickled out between her fingers. She looked down at them as a blur sailed over her head.
Alcestis was like an enraged falcon finding her chicks under attack by a vulture. She leapt over the dumbfounded Amazon, pressing Gabrielle safely to the ground while she pulled two daggers from under her clothing and proceeded to eviscerate the harpy. At least that was her plan when she jumped onto the harpy and wrapped her legs around the harpy's waist. The harpy had other ideas however, screaming and rearing back, it slashed at Alcestis with the talons on either hand, first one then the other. Alcestis rapidly shifted from attack to defense, as she struggled to parry the rapid swipes, the talons flashing sparks each time they contacted the dagger.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle had managed to regain her footing. Shaking off her daze she looked around for her fighting staff. Hands slippery with blood she raised it and looked up at the two struggling figures. Her erstwhile attacker seemed to come out of her shock and glanced worriedly at Gabrielle, an unspoken apology on her lips. Gabrielle shook her head and ran at the harpy, shouting at the top of her lungs. The other Amazon reached behind her for her crossbow and knocked the bolt into place, raising the weapon.
"Alcestis!" shouted Gabrielle as she fumbled in her war-bag. "Drop off of the harpy! I know how to kill it!"
Not needing further excuse Alcestis jumped down. The harpy hissed at losing her prey and swooped down to follow, her tail quivering in anticipation of the kill. Alcestis landed in the pathway, rolling to one side as the harpy swept lower.
THWANG! THWANG! The harpy was knocked backwards and crashed into a tree as first one and then another crossbow bolt flew into it, the first opening a hole in its abdomen while the second pinned its shoulder to the tree. Just as Gabrielle started to pull out whatever she had been looking for, a third bolt flew true, landing squarely between the harpy's eyes. It still struggled on, being to stupid to know when it should be dead, until Alcestis managed to finish the job by decapitating her with her newly-recovered sword. The harpy's body still twitched on the tree, hands clawing at the air, but the movements were already becoming more feeble. Gabrielle let out a long sigh and released whatever she had held in the bag. With a final look at the harpy Alcestis turned to the other Amazon and spoke in a voice filled with fury and outrage.
"Just WHAT are you doing here, Lysandra? You were to wait with Melosia and the other Amazons for further orders! Yet here you are, waiting for us on this path, and you even had the temerity to draw arms on your Princess and wound her!" With each exclamation Lysandra seemed to wilt further and further, until she seemed to actually be cringing. Gabrielle rubbed her eyes with her bloody hands to try to clear her vision. Surely no Amazon would cringe so.
"I just wanted to help, Alcestis-" came Lysandra's weak reply.
"You almost got all three of us killed Lysandra! After you apologize to the Princess you will return to Queen Melosia immediately and tell her of your crimes."
Gabrielle looked up at Lysandra and tried to picture herself in Lysandra's situation. "So you followed us to help out, Lysandra?"
Lysandra looked hopefully over at Gabrielle. "Yes, that's all, I just wanted to help you save the Amazons. I knew that Melosia would never allow me to follow you and help, so I just made sure I wasn't around when she started giving orders. I'm just relaxing here in the forest is all, not disobeying any orders to stay..."
Alcestis snorted at this flimsy excuse and Lysandra became engaged in a furious study of her boots. Gabrielle looked from one Amazon to the other and made her decision.
"Lysandra," she began, "I believe you. It's too late now for you to head back and to be any use to Melosia, and frankly I'm not sure if you could make it back alone." Lysandra stiffened at that last comment. Gabrielle put on her most winning smile. "But you could surely help us out. We are on a very dangerous quest and could use any help that you could give us." Very vulnerable innocent look. "Would you help us?"
Alcestis looked scandalized as Lysandra stammered out a grateful acceptance. Gabrielle looked from one to another, pleased at her diplomacy. Pleased that was until Alcestis stepped next to her and pinched her right hip out of sight of Lysandra. "Will her Princess be good enough to speak with me for a moment?" she asked while she led Gabrielle behind some trees. Gabrielle had no choice but to follow, making occasional "ouch" sounds while trying to smile at Lysandra all the while.
"NOW what do you think you are doing?" Alcestis thundered. "Our plan was dangerous enough with just the two of us, now you're dragging her along with us? Has what little good sense that was still left in your dangerously fragile head been finally knocked loose? Lysandra is the most impetuous, headstrong, foolish Amazon in the entire camp! Hardly a second goes by without someone yelling out her name at some misdeed that she has done, some joke she has played. Always wanting adventure, she says, and when she can't find it she makes it wherever she can. Nothing but trouble!"
Gabrielle glanced at the fuming Alcestis. "Surely she can't have done anything that bad, Alcestis," she reasoned. "What is the real reason that you don't want her on this mission?"
Alcestis stopped her ranting to gaze shrewdly at Gabrielle. "You are much more perceptive than I would have thought, Princess," she smiled. "Very well, if you must know Lysandra is my sister." Gabrielle nodded as Alcestis continued, "I have tried my best to raise her since our mother died, but I fear that I have been largely unsuccessful. If I die she must carry my right of caste, and our family's honor. If both of us die then there is no one to carry on our name. For this reason I ask you to send her back." Imploring eyes looked at Gabrielle. "She must carry our family name."
"I'm sorry, Alcestis," Gabrielle soothed, "but each Amazon must go her own way. I could order her to leave, but I believe that she would just return again to follow us. At least this way we know where she is and we can try to protect her. As my mother always said, 'You attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.' Who knows, she may even help us complete our mission."
Alcestis sighed. "Very well Gabrielle, very well. I may not like it, but I can see your reasoning. She can stay, but don't say that I didn't warn you about her."
Gabrielle grinned. "Warning noted. Now, if you could just fetch me some water, clean rags, a needle and some thread and I'll attend to this minor scratch here," said Gabrielle as she gestured at her bloody stomach with her red hands.
Alcestis looked at Gabrielle and remembered her wounds. "Princess! Here you are wounded and I was rambling on about familial squabbles! Let me help you dress that. I never knew that you knew how to stitch wounds."
Gabrielle smiled. "I have many skills." She looked over in Lysandra's direction. "I'll let you tell her. Once I'm stitched up here we'd best be moving on to Sparta. We have a date with a gypsy..."
Gabrielle shoved the rake out of her face. "Do you mind?" she thundered at the angry farmer. "You could hurt someone with that thing!"
Half a day's travel had brought Gabrielle, Alcestis and Lysandra to the small village of Brienus, a quaint cluster of homes gathered together on a rocky hillside. Being this close to Sparta, there were a few differences between this village and a similarly sized one near Poteidia. The stone wall that surrounded Brienus was one difference, as was the armed watch at its gates. Another difference that Gabrielle had heard of before but never credited, was the surly nature of all Spartans. Gabrielle had always believed in giving people the benefit of the doubt, to not judge a scroll by its parchment (well, almost always she thought with a giggle), but the Spartans seemed to think that everyone had an ulterior motive, that every traveler must be suspicious. Here was this simple farmer and his 20 simple farmer friends, and they were for some reason suspicious of three women traveling together, women dressed in fighting leathers with bracers, swords, bows and quivers bristling with arrows... Ok, maybe they weren't being overly suspicious, Gabrielle conceded. But still, a rake?
"Now there's no need for that good sir. We'll just be on our way now and leave you alone here. Yes sir, we'll just head on out of town here and you'll just go back to doing your farmer thing." Gabrielle started to move back from the farmer. Along the city wall bowstrings hummed as archers drew and prepared to fire. Alcestis looked at Gabrielle, obviously seeking permission to spread some serious mayhem, with Lysandra looking all too eager to join her sister. Gabrielle sighed. "OK, we'll go with you and meet your mayor. What was his name again? Julian? Let's go"
The farmers formed a tight circle around the three Amazons and led them into the village. No, Gabrielle thought, fort was a much better term to describe this place. A fort, or outpost. By the gods, is there anyone in Sparta that doesn't like to fight?
Gabrielle's brooding was interrupted as they arrived at what appeared to be the town's stockade. The town's very large, very secure stockade. Large, secure, and from the looks of it, rather full stockade. Gabrielle sighed. It was going to be one of those days.
Only a few hours before they had noticed the signs of inhabitation and against Alcestis' wishes Gabrielle had decided to stop by the village to see if they could learn anything more of the lost Amazon party, or of the harpies. Big mistake. They had been quickly surrounded, and were it not for the archers, they could easily have fought their way clear. Still, they could have run, but Gabrielle had learned that she must face her fears. Of course facing her fears had nearly made her lunch for a Titan, flattened by thieves, a bride to Morpheus... maybe Autolycus did have the right idea about choosing his battles... oh well. Too late now.
The mob led Gabrielle and Alcestis to the opening of the stockade, flinging open the metal door with a far too solid sounding thump. The two were led into an especially new-looking cell with shiny bars, shoved inside and the door was locked behind them. The two...? Wait a minute, thought Gabrielle. Where was Lysandra?
"She escaped into the trees, Gabrielle."
"What? Oh, I hadn't asked you anything yet."
"You looked like you were about to ask me where Lysandra was and I told you. Didn't you see her escape? Ephiny really must have neglected your training."
Her cheeks coloring, Gabrielle replied, "I've too been busy saving the world to do more than train with my mighty staff."
"Your mighty stick?"
"Mighty staff!" Gabrielle started to gather herself for a retort when she saw the mirth in Alcestis' eyes. "Oh, I get it. You're trying to cheer me up, aren't you? Keep my mind off of our predicament?"
"Something like that," Alcestis responded dryly. "Is it working?"
"A little bit," responded Gabrielle. "So when is Lysandra going to free us? We really have to get going quickly here."
"Oh, sometime after dark. You ought to get some rest while you can Gabrielle, so we can move further tonight towards Sparta."
Gabrielle looked out the window at the slowly descending sun. "Just a few hours-"
"And you'll be quite a lovely little bonfire. Hello, witches, pleased to meet you."
Gabrielle and Alcestis turned with barely noticeable whooshing sounds to see who the new arrival was. He was dressed in a black robe with soft gray folds, a soft pleated hat on his head. He wore soft black boots, a wide silver belt with various pouches dangling from it, and a dark cape secured by silver brooches etched with skulls. His frame was gaunt and skeletal, and a dark fervor shone in his eyes.
"Witches? What are you talking about?" exclaimed Gabrielle while Alcestis eyed the newcomer warily. "We aren't witches!"
"Oh, that you are, my pretties, and we'll see you burn before moonrise tonight. It was you and your friend Circe that's responsible for all of our townsfolk disappearing, and we mean to punish you for your crimes. We Spartans know how to deal with criminals in our midst."
Gabrielle stammered, spluttering for words. "You... you!"
The dark figure smiled. "I think we'll take you first. You must of course stand trial before we burn you. We'll come back for your friend later. Come with me. Guards!"
With that a number of armed men entered the cell and dragged Gabrielle out roughly. Alcestis moved forward to help her, but another five guards with crossbows dropped to one knee and took aim at her. Gabrielle beat frantically on the guard's chest, elbowing one in the face and kneeing another in the groin. However it was not enough to free her from the men. They carried her out into the village square where two large pyres had been erected. An angry mob had gathered, some holding torches, others with pitchforks and other weapons raised. She was led onto a small platform and tossed there.
Rising up and dusting herself off Gabrielle turned to face the angry mob. She looked about for a sympathetic eye but only saw cold fear and terror looking back. The villagers were angry, shouting out curses, but they appeared to be just a hair below the rioting level. The dark figure that brought her here was walking the crowd, spreading dissension. Wherever he passed pitchforks were raised higher, shouts were louder and faces once hesitant became hard and cold. He looked up to Gabrielle and smiled, and gave her a mischievous wink. He looked familiar somehow...
"Citizens of Brienus, hear me!" cried out the dark figure. A hush settled over the crowd as all eyes turned to their leader. "An evil cloud has settled over our fair city. Men, women and children have been disappearing into the forest, never to return. Your friends, your neighbors, your family. All of you have lost loved ones to this darkness, this creeping doom, and I tell you that this woman stands at the heart of it!" He had picked up a black staff tipped with a skull from somewhere and now gestured at Gabrielle with it. "I foresee that great turbulence and destruction will come from this woman and her companions. She is in league with the witch Circe and must be stopped now before she can kill again! Burn the witch! Burn the witch!" The dark man, Julian, Gabrielle reasoned, smiled and waved his arms, ecstatic in the rising shouts of the mob. His eyes shone with an unholy fervor as his body shuddered with pleasure with the tension building in the air. As he started to raise his staff to lead the mob towards Gabrielle, a lone arrow whistled through the darkness, quivering as it struck his staff. The mob was stunned into stillness as Julian looked at the arrow disbelievingly.
Behind the crowd Gabrielle saw a figure clad in leathers dart across the clearing into the stockade. Lysandra. Gabrielle watched the two guards before the doors drop slowly in their posts as the door to the jail opened. Julian meanwhile had recovered from his brief shock enough to start ordering his guards to protect the perimeter. He darted off to better organize his men at the wall. The mob looked at each other, then looked up at Gabrielle. She smiled and waved back to them. They looked at each other in confusion, not sure what to do, then somewhere from the back of the crowd came the shout "Burn the witch!" Hands tightened on pitchforks and torches and the crowd took a half step towards her.
Gabrielle knew that she had to start talking and start talking quickly. Maybe she could convince the crowd to let her go... (not too likely) or perhaps she could delay them long enough that Lysandra and Alcestis could escape. She didn't hold too high of hopes for her own retreat, but hopefully she could delay the crowd long enough that her fellow Amazons could escape.
"Let me tell you a story..." she began.
Meanwhile, Lysandra had just finished dispatching the guards on the inside of the jail, kicking one so forcefully that the keys on his belt sailed high in the air and into her outstretched hand. Rapidly spinning the keys her fingers settled on one and she rammed it home into the lock, spinning it open. Alcestis was out of the door in a flash, nodding to her sister as she kicked a fallen guard's sword up, catching it as it spun in mid-air. She whipped the sword around in a few practice moves to feel its weight, then nodded to Lysandra. The two proceeded to open all of the cells, silencing the eager prisoners as much by their cold demeanor as by the fingers placed on their lips. The final cell held their supplies, weapons and Gabrielle's staff. Collecting all of their gear, the two Amazons opened the door and waved the prisoners out, sending them behind the stockade and towards the forest. Alcestis looked towards the podium and saw Gabrielle relating a story of some sort. The once angry mob had quieted, pitchforks and scythes resting easily by their sides. A few people even had their children riding on their shoulders to better see the bard.
"And then Xena said to Cerebrus, 'You'd better watch where you stick that!'" related Gabrielle as Alcestis approached, the crowd roaring with laughter. Some were even wiping tears of laughter from their eyes. Alcestis passed easily through the crowd, as they stepped back from the heavily armed Amazon. Gabrielle had her hands outstretched and said "And then Cerebrus said-oh, hi Alcestis. What are you doing here?"
"I'm here to rescue you, remember?"
"Oh yeah, right," said Gabrielle. "Well, we'd best get going then."
Alcestis eyed the crowd while Gabrielle hopped down from the platform and snatched up her war-staff to the accompaniment of various wooshing sounds. "Let's go!"
"Burn the witch!" came a faint cry from the back of the mob, but the villagers turned back and some thumping sounds could be heard. The villagers in front gestured for the trio to leave. Gabrielle turned with her fellow Amazons to face the gate and leave. There in front of her was Julian and 20 of his best guards. All clutched swords and were dressed in ill-fitting cast-off armor from the Spartan army. Not exactly the sharpest crayons in the box, thought Gabrielle, oblivious to her anachronistic thoughts. Julian crooked a finger at Gabrielle and smiled. "Little girl, want to play?" he sneered.
"Come get some," replied Gabrielle as she whipped her staff into position. Alcestis stepped to her right spinning her sword while Lysandra spun two daggers in her hands on her left.
Julian looked at Gabrielle and snarled. "Attack!" The guards rushed at the Amazons. Five ran for Gabrielle, swords outstretched. Gabrielle crouched low, extended her staff and spun, the dark wood of her staff smashing into the first pair's swords, sending them spinning into the woods. The next two approached Gabrielle from either side, circling her slowly. She dropped the left side of her staff low, the point just barely between the soldiers legs and whipped the staff around. The soldier on the left was knocked off of his feet, the staff pulling up his leg while the other end of the staff slammed home into the other soldier's head, small chirping sounds being the last thing he remembered as he dropped to the ground.
Lysandra had thrown her first two daggers just as Julian shouted. Two soldiers on either side of Julian dropped, daggers in their throats. A blur and another two soldiers fell in identical fashion. Just as she pulled another set of daggers a group of soldiers fell upon her. She backed into the ring they made around her. Each of the soldiers held his sword out, waiting for their companion to attack. Lysandra seized the initiative and spun a quick roundhouse kick in front of her, connecting with two of the soldiers' soon to be bruised faces, sending them sprawling. In the same motion she continued spinning, one arm lowered and the other high as she spun faster and faster in the circle, her arms making a windmill motion. She spun for a few seconds then stopped, as all of the soldiers around her dropped, clutching various parts of their bodies trying to stop the bleeding.
Alcestis spun her sword in anticipation as the wave of guards struck. She spun and disarmed the first guard, following up with a quick elbow to the nose to send him to the ground. The second and third were quick to follow. As fast as they approached her they fell, until there were no more guards to attack. She looked over to Gabrielle who had just finished smashing her staff down into a guard. Gabrielle nodded and looked at Lysandra who was retrieving her daggers. Looking behind Gabrielle, Alcestis saw Julian approaching her with a wickedly curved dagger gleaming with some sort of liquid. He raised the dagger as Alcestis prepared to scream a warning. Just as he was about to plunge it into Gabrielle's unprotected back there was a metallic clang and he slumped over. Gabrielle turned and looked with Alcestis at the motherly figure holding a heavy black skillet. The grandmother smiled at the two.
"Now you three had best be on yer way now. There be guards from Sparta coming quick, and ye had best be long gone before they do arrive," said the kind figure with the slightly dented cookware. "Go, now!"
Gabrielle touched her hand on the woman's arm. "We'll be back to help you. I promise. We won't leave you in the clutches of this man."
The grandmother chuckled. "Now don't ye be worrying about us, lassie. We can handle ourselves when needs be. The king of Sparta will hear about Julian here, don't ye worry. Now go! And try to bring us word of out lost loved ones."
"I will," replied Gabrielle. "I promise. Whatever we find out we'll come back and tell you."
"Thank ye, missy. Ye be a mighty fine bard, and a better person. Fare ye well."
The old woman led the other villagers around as they gathered up the guards weapons and started to drag them back into the stockade. Gabrielle watched them work with a moistness in her eyes.
"They are a hard people, Gabrielle," said Alcestis who had come up behind her and rested a hand on her shoulder. "But a strong one. They'll survive. Now we must hurry on to Sparta, we lost valuable time here tonight."
Gabrielle looked at Alcestis and nodded, wiping her eyes. "Let's go." The trio shouldered their weapons and disappeared down the path to Sparta.
The colorful pennants and flags whipped gaily over the jutting towers and palisades of Sparta. Gabrielle could have better made out what the flags were for if it weren't for the five armed men who had leapt from the bushes on either side of the road to bar the Amazons' path. All were dressed in mismatched armor and clothing, obviously trying to frighten people with their appalling fashion sense. They held their swords a bit uneasily, clearly not used to women warriors who paid them nearly no attention. Gabrielle turned to Alcestis, arching one eyebrow. Alcestis nodded and the trio unlimbered their weapons. As Gabrielle began to step forward a long yodeling cry rang out in the forest and another man swung into view on a long rope, a small dagger clutched in his teeth. He snarled as he swung past her... and right into a tree on the side of the road. He was suspended in mid-air clutching the tree as he slowly peeled off and landed on the road with an audible "whump".
The bandits looked askance at their leader's entry, but moments later he sprang to his feet, his head "whooshing" from side to side. He was a sickly looking man dressed in oversized clothes. On his chest was a large metal circle which dangled freely. He wore a curved helmet and various metal objects clanged about as he moved. He had ridiculously waxed and curled mustachios with a pointed goat-beard. Seeing the Amazons he straightened and walked towards Alcestis with a cocky stride.
"So, Amazon, you dare enter the realm of Coaxer Reampocket? I, the King of Thieves?"
"You'd better not let Autolycus hear you use that title," said Gabrielle. "He might take offense."
All of the thieves looked around at the woods at the mention of Autolycus' name. Coaxer swallowed with a noticeable gulp.
"We don't fear Autolycus, he's old and out of shape, why he hasn't done any capers since that island one. No, I am the new King of Thieves! Coaxer Reampocket!"
Gabrielle had been staring at him for the longest time, sure that she knew him from somewhere. If she took of those mustachios and beard he'd look just like-
The thief looked around the woods and slowly shifted his gaze back to Gabrielle. "No, no Joxer here, just Coaxer Reampocket and his mighty men. Right men?" Mumbled assents could be heard from his henchmen, but the two on the fringes were already starting to back away.
"No, it is you!" Gabrielle stepped forward and snatched the ends of either mustachio. Coaxer hollered while she yanked and both came off in her hands. Coaxer slapped his hands to his face feeling where the skin had come off with the glue.
"Ouch! Hey, that's not very nice! Irritating blonde-"
"What was that you called me?" asked Gabrielle in a dangerous tone as Alcestis and Lysandra stepped up to flank her. "What was that you said?"
"Um, I said, um interesting frond, that's an interesting frond behind you," he stammered as he fingered a leaf on a tree behind her. "Yes, that was it, what an interesting frond this is-Yipe!"
The last came as Gabrielle swung her staff at Coaxer's head stopping just a half-inch short of sending him back to unconsciousness. "What happened Joxer? Why are you a thief now? I thought you were going to become a fisherman."
"Well," began Joxer/Coaxer as he watched his men slip quietly into the forest, "do you remember our conversation? You asked me what I liked to do, and I said that I liked to steal. You then asked if I liked anything else and I said that I liked to fish. You never asked me if I was going to become a fisherman, I guess you just assumed that I would, but now I'm a thief, and a really good one, too!"
Alcestis laughed at the last statement. "You, a thief? Ha! Have you actually stolen anything yet?"
Joxer's face reddened at her remark. "Stolen? Loot? I have tons of it. I have so much gold that I bathe in it every morning. If a day goes by that I don't bathe in gold I get irritable and you would not want to see me then!"
"Or smell you then," replied Lysandra and the two Amazons laughed.
Joxer started to swell up to retort then he seemed to deflate. Gabrielle thought she heard him mutter "Oh, what's the use" under his breath.
"OK, so I'm not the greatest thief in Greece." More Amazonian laughter. "All right! I'm not even a good thief!" The two Amazons were slapping their thighs with mirth. "OK, I'm not a thief! Sheesh! I can't do anything right. First I'm not a warlord, now I'm not a thief, can't a guy just practice a career in peace without all this mocking! Women!"
The laughter stopped and three sets of eyes glared at Joxer with that last comment. His speech faltered and he stepped backwards.
"Boy, I just can't say anything right... Well, I'm sure that you girls have a full day ahead of you so I'll just be on my way here-"
Gabrielle snagged him by the folds of his shirt just below his neck, twisting it and pulling him close. "You're going to help us get into Sparta, Joxer."
Alcestis looked over at Gabrielle. "Surely we don't need his help in entering the city, we can manage on our own." Lysandra nodded her agreement.
Gabrielle looked at the Amazons. "We could get in, but being able to speak to Patrin might be difficult. He knows the city and could lead us to him."
"Yeah I know the city-wait a minute! No, I don't know my way around Sparta at all. No sir, never been there in my life. You'd best listen to these Amazons, little girl, and just leave me here. Just leave me alone in these woods..."
Looking from Joxer to the Amazons Gabrielle sighed. "As much as it pains me to say this, I think Joxer could be useful. My mother always used to say 'don't blame the hammer for it's rust'. I think he could help us, despite his larcenous tendencies. We'll take him with us."
Alcestis and Lysandra looked at each other then nodded. "It's settled then," responded Lysandra. "The thief will come with us."
"Now listen here," exclaimed Joxer. "I'm not going anywhere, um, I mean that I'm not going with..." Three very hard stares served to quiet the aspiring thief. He hung his head. "OK, let's go."
"Great!" came Gabrielle's enthusiastic reply. "On to Sparta!" She and the Amazons led Joxer down the road towards the fabled city.
The gaily colored pennants were a sharp contrast to the dark walls and jutting spires of the city of Sparta. Everywhere that Gabrielle looked were walls, armored men and javelins. The city itself was vast. All around it for about a league the forest had been completely cleared of all vegetation to provide better sight-lines for the ballistas and catapults. The wall was a good 40 spans high with archers and javelin throwers walking the walls. Outside the city was a vast encampment of men, the world's most dangerous army neatly divided into divisions and troops. Each troop was in a precisely arranged camp, white canvas tents aligned perfectly in rows. There was a sense of order about the place, like that of a spider neatly arranging her traps. A steady flow of merchants entered the city in a long line that snaked its way back towards the party. Most were selling foodstuffs, as it took a lot of rations to feed such a large army. Each and every wagon was searched as it entered the town. The merchants themselves were carefully observed, hoods thrown back by the guards to reveal their faces. A little ways back in the line a man suddenly darted away from the caravan, running towards the woods. Alarm bells rang out and archers ran to position themselves along the wall. A hail of arrows slammed down along either side of the man but he ran on, oblivious to the danger, just wanting to reach the safety of the woods.
On the wall Gabrielle noticed the guards had rotated a ballista into position. They cranked the javelin back into position and it was loosed, screaming as it flew through the air. She turned away before it struck, hearing the man's awful screams as he was pinned to the ground. She looked at Alcestis and Lysandra, then all three turned to Joxer.
"Um, I guess you want me to get you in past that, huh? Well, um, let me see, how to get in," mused the sickly youth. "I think I know how to get in... hey, what are you guys looking at? I know I'm not the best looking thief on the block, but still-"
"Behind you," replied Gabrielle softly.
Looking up Joxer saw what had caused the three Amazons to stare. Six men on horseback looked down on the prone figures, all dressed in dark armor etched with silver. They had helmets decorated to look like a snarling dragon's face. Their leader rode a few steps closer as his men lowered their javelins.
"Well, what have we here?" said the leader in a raspy voice. "Amazons and a tin salesman displaying his wares. And all spying on Sparta. You do know what we do to spies here in Sparta, don't you?" The man gestured to the field where four soldiers had been required to dislodge the javelin that pinned the corpse to the ground.
Gabrielle looked nervously to Alcestis. She glanced over at Lysandra who nodded. Gabrielle looked back at the soldier. "I don't believe we've been introduced yet Captain..."
"Lieutenant actually, Lieutenant Darius. And you are?"
"Pleasure to meet you, Gabrielle. Guards!" he roared. "Kill Gabrielle and her friends for me."
The men moved their horses around until they circled the group. All of them raised their javelins and prepared to throw. Lieutenant Darius threw his head back and laughed.
The soldiers dispersed as they charged towards the party. Two men charged directly towards Gabrielle, one flanking her on either side. They lowered their javelins to use them as short lances and rode down at her. Gabrielle spun her staff and awaited their charge. As the two neared she shouted and leapt into the air, one leg drawn up close to her chest. She held the staff parallel to the ground as she spun, the front connecting with the right rider's chest as the other end slammed into his companion's back. Both crumpled under her attack, falling off their horses and lying on the ground. Her staff spun again as she landed, knocking both men into unconsciousness.
The next soldier rode hard at Lysandra, a sadistic grin on his face. Setting his lance he bore down on her, anticipating the easy kill. He galloped harder and she merely stood, calmly awaiting the charge. Just inches before the glistening javelin point could pierce her skin, Lysandra knocked the point upwards with her gauntleted fist and caught the javelin with her other hand, yanking it quickly to the side, smashing the end of the javelin into the soldier's sternum. She released the javelin as his horse slowed to a canter, the soldier lying atop the saddle gasping for breath. Lysandra glanced at Gabrielle who nodded.
Alcestis used a different tactic to deal with her Spartan. As the soldier bore down on her she raised her arms above her head and proceeded to do a series of backflips towards the trees. The man grinned, sensing what he believed to be fear. He slid his javelin into a quiver on his saddle and drew his sword, eager for the kill. Alcestis flipped all the way back until she was resting against a large oak tree. As the soldier rode forward she smiled. At the last moment possible, Alcestis yelled and flipped backwards, her feet planting on the tree as she flipped upwards into the branches. The soldier swung at where she had been, his sword smashing into the tree, the force traveling back into his hand. He dropped the sword with the shock as Alcestis swung back from the branch behind him, sending him sprawling to the ground. Standing with one boot firmly planted on his chest Alcestis looked over towards Joxer.
The fifth man rode hard at Joxer, grinning in anticipation of the kill. As he approached, however, Joxer lifted his left hand in an imperious gesture and motioned for the soldier to stop. Sliding to a halt with a cloud of dust rising the soldier stopped, looking down at Joxer curiously. Joxer buffed his fingers on his breastplate and smiled.
"Now you don't actually think that it's fair for you to be attacking little old me with that big nastly lance while I haven't got a sword to defend myself with, do you?"
The soldier looked at Joxer quizzically. "What's that on your belt? That's a sword. Draw it, coward!"
Joxer looked down at his belt. "Oh, that sword. No, I can't use that one, you see I just sharpened it, and uh, I wouldn't want to wound you unnecessarily when I kill you. I only have your best interests at heart, friend, and I'm looking out for you, that's all."
The soldier looked at Joxer, looked at his sword and then shrugged. "You are a strange one, lad, but no matter. May the gods have mercy on your soul." He swept his arm back and swung down hard. The sword flashed as it cut an arc across the sky, the sun gleaming as it dropped. Joxer flung up his hands, his eyes rolled back in his head, and he fell. Gabrielle screamed and ran over, her staff blurring as she rapidly knocked the sword from the soldier's hands, cracked him on the side of the head and sent him slumping. She turned towards Joxer and bent over him, lightly touching the side of his face.
Lieutenant Darius wheeled his horse around as his men were being dispatched and rode off towards Sparta. Lysandra picked up a javelin and prepared to throw, but Alcestis grabbed her arm and stopped her.
"No, Lysandra," she said. "Let him go."
"I'm sure we'll have to face him again," said Lysandra with a grimace. "Those types always turn up again."
Alcestis looked at Lysandra and nodded. The two turned back to look at Gabrielle, who was bent over Joxer.
"Joxer?" asked Gabrielle worriedly. She started to feel his chest to find the sword wound. "Are you all right? Joxer!"
Joxer's face was white and pale, but his eyelids started to flutter open and closed. He drew a raspy breath. "Gabrielle? I don't think I'm going to make it. Please," he said, coughing, "please carry on the fight. Sing of my name on lonely nights when the moon is full and people turn to remembrances of lost heroes. Tell them of Joxer..." He sighed and lay still.
Gabrielle started to shake him, trying to arouse him as Alcestis walked over. She looked at Joxer, looked over at the unconscious soldier lying next to him and then looked back. Suddenly she laughed.
"Why are you laughing, Alcestis? Joxer's dying!" Gabrielle said tremulously.
"No he's not, Gabrielle. He's not even wounded. Look at the soldier's sword."
Gabrielle looked over and saw that it was clean and shining, freshly oiled. Not a stain could be seen on the blade. "Then Joxer is-"
"Fainted. He just fainted when he was attacked, and now he's hoping that we'll leave him for dead here so he can get away from us."
Joxer cracked an eye open. "I did NOT faint, I'll have you know. It was all a VERY cunning tactic that the Greeks applied to the Trojans. I'm deceiving the enemy so that I can, um, so that I can, well..."
"So that you can what?" asked Gabrielle in a dangerous tone.
"Nothing." Joxer did his best to look innocent, his eyes wide and with a look that Gabrielle supposed was an attempt at being pitiful.
"Just shut up, Joxer."
"Consider my mouth shut. Not a word. I'll just sit here quietly and not say anything. Not a peep. Joxer the silent, they call me. Don't worry about a thing."
Alcestis was studying Darius' progress back towards Sparta. She turned back to the group. "We'd better move and try to get in some other way. Darius will be back with more soldiers hunting for us in just a few more minutes."
"Alcestis is right," said Gabrielle. "Let's move."
The four gathered themselves and moved back into the woods. On their abandoned battleground the Spartan soldiers started to roll around and moan, slowly returning to consciousness. On the plain below Lt. Darius rode into the gates past the line of peasants. As he approached horns blared and the gates of Sparta slowly swung shut, the merchants and peddlers left outside of the town. Men started to fill the battlements, banners were raised and the defenses were organized. On the plain the soldiers left their tents and arranged themselves around the town in a defensive wall, shields interlocked and javelins pointing outwards from the phalanx.
Gabrielle watched the mounting defenses from the treeline, safely away from Spartan scouts for the moment. She looked over at her motley band.
"Don't worry guys, we'll get in. I'm sure of it. OK, so they have ballistas, archers and men surrounding the city. Sure they have gates that are 3 feet thick, but we can do it guys. Really we can. All we have to do is believe in ourselves..."
Joxer started to sniffle.
A Dark Castle
A chill breeze swept across the plains, pressing down the flowing grass and swaying the branches of the short, gnarled trees. Rising above the forest it headed deeper inland, soaring faster and faster along. Ahead was a dark castle, twisted spires jutting upwards, battlements jagged like the sharp fangs of some wild beast. A hot torrid updraft blew from about the castle, a moat of red, flowing lava surrounding the castle. The wind rushed into the warm air and was devoured, its energy spent.
Galen walked down the passageway and halted before entering the throne room. His master was not an easy one to serve, and this administration was definitely of the "Kill the Messenger" philosophy of management. Never mind the fact that he was immortal, Galen knew perfectly well of the wonderful torments that would await him if he did not present everything just so. He sighed. Why, he thought, did I always have to be the one to tell him these things? The woes of being talented in one's profession...
Gathering himself together Galen looked at the heavy doors that barred his way. Made of polished hardwood the doors appeared to have withstood a century of weathering, not the brief six months since their creation. The wood was carved with twisted figures writhing on a sea of flames, a particular favorite of his master. The doors were banded with large metal straps of polished bronze. It would take at least four men to open this door, Galen mused as he waved his hand and they swung open, invisible forces rushing to do his bidding. Four very large men...
The throne room was straight out of one of Homer's more imaginative stories, every detail presented to awe and terrify. Heads of strange beasts were attached to the wall, dragons, genny-beasts, the fantastic Ut from Macedonia. All of them swiveled to watch his entrance. While no longer fully alive, these beasts were also not quite dead yet. None required feeding, yet each had a form of life left to it. Galen wondered if the dragon could still muster a fireball to defend his master if needs be. He wasn't quite sure as to the answer, one never was when dealing with sorcery.
Strange furs and skins covered every inch of the floor, oranges and browns, even greenish scales. Galen turned and approached the dias. A large black circular platform filled the center of the room, its edges engraved with mystic runes in solid silver. Floating above it was the throne, a massive collection of animal bones assembled into a giant sprawl. The throne most resembled a spider web, horns and claws fanning out from the center like a peacock. At the center of this web of death sat the Master.
Galen knew the Master's name, but wisely chose to never utter it, even in his most private thoughts. One of the powers that sorcerers gained after a long association with magic was the ability to listen to other people's thoughts when their name was spoken, sometimes even when it was merely thought. Galen had lived for three hundred years so far, and planned to keep on living forever, or die trying. The Master, however, had been alive longer than even Galen could find out, a mammoth immortal from the time when the gods walked the earth with men.
The Master stood over seven feet in height, his shoulders as broad as an ox. Almost every inch of his skin was covered with thick black hair, a thick mane running down his shoulders. He wore loose, baggy black trousers and criss-crossing leather straps on his chest. He was powerfully muscled, a mountain of a man. The most disturbing thing about him though was his eyes. Galen had learned that it came with mastery of the magic, that the more one practiced the dark arts the more it would happen. His eyes were completely black, dark voids in his face. There was no white to his eyes, no discernible pupils, nothing. Just a dark midnight void where his eyes should have been. Galen had only just noticed a few flecks of black appearing in his own eyes, and this after three hundred years. Once again he shuddered at the massive amount of arcane might that stood before him. Forcing back the involuntary fear that clutched at his throat Galen spoke.
"Good evening sir," he began with a very calm voice. Galen was very proud of his ability to hide his fear. "The situation still has not been resolved with the Amazons to our satisfaction. Rather than surrendering, or attacking us forthright, they have banded with the centaurs and retreated to an unknown location." The Master looked stoically on while Galen spoke. Not a good sign.
"Our spies also report that some were able to escape our harpies and presumably call for assistance. We are not too worried, as the Amazons have few friends in this region, but we had hoped to contain all word of our presence until we were ready to begin. What worries us is tales that Patrin has resurfaced in Sparta. He could-"
The Master turned towards Galen, his dark gaze freezing the words in his throat. Galen stopped his prepared speech and waited. The mammoth figure lifted his hand, pointing it towards Galen. The black orbs fixed on Galen and he felt a pounding in his head.
!HIS ACTIONS DO NOT CONCERN ME. THE PLAN SHALL CONTINUE. YOU MUST...!
The instructions continued long into the night. Galen finally emerged from the throne room at dawn, his face beaded with sweat, his hands shaking. It was like that sometimes with the Master. There had been years of preparation for this campaign, and he didn't feel that a lone Amazon, even with the help of Patrin could derail their plans. Still, after all these years... Patrin was alive.
Galen walked down the hallway quicker than before, unbeknownst to him his hands were nervously clenching and unclenching. His forehead beaded up with more sweat and he hurried back to his room. Also unknown to Galen were his eyes, small black motes inside them swirling in anticipation of the vast destruction to come...
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