“What a blowhard!” Leah fumed.
Gabrielle gave into the fit of the giggles she had been holding off.
“I’m…I’m sorry,” she gasped, “it’s just that I kept wanting to stick a pin in him and see if he would collapse.”
Xena’s smile was tight. “I just hope he doesn’t lose the focus for this jaunt. We’re looking for Eudore, not a monster.” The other women nodded at this wisdom.
They entered the library and Leah led them quickly into the archives. She pulled several scrolls down and set them upon a flat surface. “Here are other records of Gorgons and underground temple grottoes. We’ll start with these.”
Each woman grabbed a scroll and started to jot down notes. In a short while they had amassed quite a variety of lore and knowledge. They were interrupted by Tereus, leading Marcus.
Leah jumped at the sight of the boy. “Oh, Demeter’s paps! Tereus, I am so sorry…” She took the boy by the shoulders and gave him a hug. He looked a bit listless, but he shook his head to alleviate her concern.
“It’s OK. I could see you were all preoccupied with finding Eudore.” He had returned to his formal manner in the presence of a guest. “This is Marcus,” he introduced the young guard, mostly for Leah’s benefit. “He has been sent by the Captain of the Guard to see what your requirements are.” He stood aside to let the soldier through.
“Ladies,” He nodded at Gabrielle and Xena, “Ma’am.” This to Leah. “Pontes asks what you might need by way of arms. I’ll send the message, Lycurgus will come here with the equipment, or whatever.” Marcus stood, as always, relaxed, but with an underlying excitement that was visible.
Xena nodded. “Good. Tell Lycurgus we’ll need three large bronze shields. that should be all. I think I’ve got enough here to work with.” She indicated the table and the scrolls in front of her.
Marcus nodded, his eyes alight. He began to turn away, but thought better of it and turned back. For a moment he hesitated. “Are you sure…? Is it…? Are you sure you want to take Lycurgus? ” He finally asked. “I mean, he tried to hurt you, after all. And I could do whatever you need.” His desire for adventure warred openly with his concern for them.
Xena shook her head. “You don’t have a damaged reputation, Marcus. He needs this, you don’t.” The disappointment was plain on his face. She placed a hand on his shoulder. “You’ll see enough excitement for a lifetime, I guarantee it. Don’t rush it.” He colored a bit at his own lack of subtlety. Salvaging some of his dignity, he crashed into a proper salute and turned on his heel. His footsteps were audible all the way out the door. Xena turned to see Tereus staring with derision at the receding figure.
He noticed her gaze and glared openly at her. “Well, he is!” He said. Xena laughed and raised her hands.
“I never said he wasn’t…” She began, but the boy had stormed out indignantly. She looked at Leah and Gabrielle and shrugged.
“Cocky popinjay?” Leah suggested.
“Arrogant pretty boy soldier?” Gabrielle shot her suggestion out with a lopsided grin.
They all smiled at the boy’s jealousy of the soldier’s armor and demeanor.
When Lycurgus arrived, in full uniform with official gold fittings and carrying three full sized bronze shields, Gabrielle and Xena were armed and ready to go.
The soldier leaned the shields on the ground and looked the women over. “Where’s your armor? Your weapons?” He asked rudely. “That it?” he pointed to Gabrielle’s staff. “You’re gonna kill a Gorgon with a stick?”
Xena placed a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder to stop her. The bard shifted her grip on the staff, but backed off. Lycurgus’s eyes widened very slightly at the competence and calm the young woman revealed. But he looked up into Xena’s eyes as she approached and didn’t flinch when she stood directly in front of him.
“I don’t need your charity. I can handle things myself.” He growled at her.
Her smile did not reach her eyes as she said, in a tone that brooked no discussion, “I didn’t do this for you. I did this for me. You may need to kill a monster, but I just want to find a lost girl. You know the area and you’re a veteran. You won’t run away and you can take orders. If you weren’t so angry and blind right now, you’d have the decency to say “thank you,” so I’ll just act like you did. You’re welcome.” Her tone was quiet and steady, not accusing. For a moment there was silence, then Lycurgus backed down. His eyes dropped in regret.
“You’re right.” He admitted. “I’ve been a cur since…since I was taken for a fool. I didn’t want this to be a favor. But I see that its not. In which case – thank you. You’ve picked the right man.” He held out an arm haltingly, afraid he may have done irreparable damage to this woman’s opinion of him. She took the arm gladly and the smile became sincere and warm.
“I expected as much. You’re a damn good soldier I’ve heard, and quick thinker – and a good man. And I believe I owe you an apology as well…”
He cut her off quickly. “That was the past. This is now. You’re different , I’m different. No need to open old wounds…” He tapered off. “I was drunk. You were a stranger with a reputation. It’s no excuse, I know.” He sighed heavily. “A man can grow heavy with carrying the past.” He shook his head.
“I know it.” Xena admitted quietly.
Gabrielle stepped up next to her partner and offered her own arm. Lycurgus took it and apologized for insulting her.
“We’re glad for the help, Lycurgus.” She said shrugging off the comment. “But don’t ever underestimate the power of the stick. It could be the lever that moves the whole world.” She smiled winningly and got a grin in return.
“I’ll give you that, then. And I’d be glad to have you handling that thing behind me in a fight. I can see you can use it.” Lycurgus’s praise meant more to Gabrielle as it was said simply and honestly.
Xena briefed them on her plan and they made ready to go. Lycurgus insisted on carrying the shields, and they distributed the few other supplies evenly between them, to minimize any loss.
“The temple is only a few miles from here, out towards the Northwest. It shouldn’t take us more than an hour at most to reach it.” Lycurgus set the pace as they moved towards the gate.
“Great. We’ll finalize plans as we walk. Gabrielle is used to me, Lycurgus, so I’ll say this for your benefit. We’ll have a plan, but be ready to improvise, if necessary.”
The soldier laughed. “Sounds like you do this kind of thing often.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Well, it is our job, after all.”
It was as Lycurgus had said, it took nearly no time at all when they found themselves at a ruined temple. The three rescuers took a silent walk around the site. They withdrew and compared observations. The temple lacked a roof, but was by no means a pile of rubble. Many of the columns still stood and the floor paving was still in good condition. There were no trees or weeds in or near the marble, a fact which bothered Xena quite a bit.
“There’s something wrong here. It’s ruined, obviously, but not in ruins.” Xena gazed past her companions, looking for patterns in the surroundings. Lycurgus moved past her, scanning the site.
“It’s almost,” Gabrielle murmured, “as if someone is trying to take care of the place, without making it obvious.”
Lycurgus glanced at the bard with surprise, then looked abashed at her amused stare. “I’m sorry,” He apologized “I’m just not used to one so young and … being so good at this kind of thing.”
Gabrielle waved his apology away. “It happens all the time – forget it.”
Xena returned her focus to the two in front of her. “You’re right, Gabrielle. There has been some care taken here. And then the footprints were wiped away.” she pointed to some wavy lines in the dirt. She turned to the veteran with finality.
“Okay, Lycurgus, here’s where you take over. Where would a “monster,” or more likely, a thief or warlord, hole up in this place?”
The soldier stood a moment in thought. “They say there used to be an oracle here. That would mean a grotto or cave, right?” He said with hesitation. “It’s too flat for a cave…” He began to walk the perimeter of the temple, looking for signs of a passage, but Xena called him back.
“First, we’d better not separate, from now on we stay within sight of each other.” The other two nodded. “Second, I think I know where the passage down would be.” She waved for them to follow and proceeded, not looking back.
Lycurgus looked like he wanted to argue, but Gabrielle watched him until he shrugged and followed the warrior. He looked at the bard walking next to him questioningly.
“Is she always like this?”
Gabrielle nodded, “Focused, intense, you mean? Yeah. She’s been meaning to get out here and look the place over, anyway, but this takes precedence.”
“Hunh. I guess I’m surprised at her tone of command, actually. It’s not often a woman tells me what to do. No offense, of course.”
“None taken. Remember, she’s given orders before. Some of her warriors would have frozen your blood to look at them. She’s not new to this, Lycurgus. Don’t forget it or it might cost you your life.” Gabrielle’s tone was serious.
The soldier met her gaze evenly. “I think I’m learning it, even as we speak.”
They saw Xena pause at the far point of the inner chamber. Two of the walls remained and a pedestal that would have held a statue in earlier years. Behind the pedestal Xena stood over a broken marble tile, half out of the floor.
“There looks to be enough room to get in. I’ll go down first. When I call, Lycurgus, you hand down the shields, then Gabrielle will follow, then you. Got it?” Xena looked at them long enough to register their nods, drew her sword then disappeared quickly down the hole. A moment later her voice called the all clear and Gabrielle breathed again.
“I gotta stop doing that.” She muttered as she stood aside to let Lycurgus hand down the shields. Then the bard took a good look at where she was going and leapt down the hole. Gabrielle flexed her knees in preparation for impact, but Xena swiftly intercepted her plummeting form and the landing was light. While Lycurgus lowered himself, Gabrielle glanced around.
The grotto was dim, but not pitch dark. She could see a flickering light reflected from the passage to her left. The air was cool, not musty, but it had a bitter aroma, as from some smoking herb. She sniffed.
“Artemisia.” Xena commented. as she handed the younger woman a bronze shield. “It’s used as a guard against evil, a mild narcotic to bring dreams or to help soothe a sore muscle.”
“Smells pretty bad, if you ask me.” Lycurgus commented.
“It’ll make your eyes water for sure. But it confirms one thing – there is, or was until recently, someone here. Follow me – and keep your heads down.” Xena lifted her shield high and signaled the others to do the same. “Watch your feet so you don’t trip. Keep your shield up. When I give the signal, we’ll turn our backs and try to take the creature down. Use the reflections in the shield and don’t look her in the eye.
“I thought you didn’t believe the old tales, Xena?” Gabrielle asked.
“I don’t. But the tales come from somewhere. So keep your eyes down – and your shields up.”
They made slow progress down the passage until the air shifted. Gabrielle could feel the warmer air, see that the light had gotten brighter. The bitter smell was stronger, the light of torches or candles adding smoke to the thick atmosphere.
Xena held her hand up. “We’re not alone.” She whispered. Then waited. Nothing.
Then a slow, slithering noise could be heard, like metal over rock.
Tears came to their eyes in the acrid air. The light was dim and flickering in the warm draft. It was hard to see their own feet, much less anything ahead or to the side.
Xena held her shield up, wiped her eyes and spoke.” We do not come here to harm you. We just want the girl back. If you do that, we can leave and we won’t return.”
A harsh voice, sibilant and metallic sounded. “Go back now! The girl is mine! Leave now – or die.” The slithering sound stopped, then began again. Gabrielle couldn’t focus on her own reflection in her shield. The visage in the bronze swayed and moved in the flickering light. This isn’t going to work, she thought. I look like a monster in this shield. I can’t see a thing.
Gabrielle’s arm was aching. It began to shake and her shield was slipping. Lycurgus grabbed its edge with his free hand and held it up. Gabrielle smiled her thanks at him. He stood, eyes watering, but firm.
“We come in peace…” Xena began, but the harsh voice cut her off.
“There is no peace here – leave. Now!” and the scraping noise grew louder. Whatever it was, it was coming nearer.
Several things happened at once then, and Gabrielle had a hard time following them all. It seemed to her that Xena stooped, as if dropping her shield, and she vaguely recalled crying out. Lycurgus pushed his way past the bard, knocking her to the ground, then bowled over the warrior as he passed her, drawing his sword and yelling.
“Lycurgus, no!” Xena exclaimed, as she rolled from the push and came to her feet.
Gabrielle, dazed and without a shield, saw Lycurgus near the creature – for creature it was, half serpent, half woman, with serpentine hair. The strands of hair writhed in the dim light, the many arms moved with deadly grace and beauty. The creature’s scales looked metallic in the dully reflected torchlight.
Gabrielle saw the soldier raise his sword, but the creature made a motion with her arm and his shield dropped. he looked right at the creature and for a moment he stood paralyzed, his gaze locked on the Gorgon’s. The Gorgon made a second gesture and with a yelp, the soldier collapsed on the ground, stiff as a board.
The bard cowered, waiting her turn to be killed, but instead felt a warm hand on her arm. Xena knelt next to her.
“It’s alright, Gabrielle. It’s okay. Trust me.” And Xena stood to face the creature.
Gabrielle screamed. Tears, from the air or from fear, ran down her face now. “No, Xena! No!” but the warrior stood, sheathed her sword and locked her gaze on the deadly face.
For a long, still moment, the two stared, neither moving. The air stilled, the flames from the torches ceased to move. Gabrielle thought time may have stopped.
“You can take the mask off now. I know your secret. We won’t hurt you. If you hurry we can still save him.” Low and urgent, Xena’s voice sounded hollow in the cavern.
Gabrielle wiped the tears from her eyes. “You’re…you’ve…it’s… ” She grabbed Xena by the arm. “Let’s get out of here, Xena. Lycurgus is dead and…”
“He’s not dead.” Xena spoke firmly. “Will you help us? Or will you kill us?” This last to the Gorgon, who had remained still and silent as the grave.
Slowly an arm was raised to the pale face. The hand touched the face and came away, taking the serpentine locks and the deadly white glare with it. Instead was revealed a ruddy, blonde woman, with blue eyes, casting inquisitive glances at the two intruders.
“How did you know?” The woman asked Xena.
The warrior shrugged. “I did my homework. I knew there had been an oracle at this temple. I realized that the “monster” stories started just when the temple fell into ruin. I guessed that this,” she knelt and pulled something out of Lycurgus’s leg; it was a small thorn, darkened with some substance, “was the source of the Gorgon’s powers. Mistletoe?” She looked at the woman in front of her.
The strange woman nodded.
“Hmph. Causes convulsions so strong they look like paralysis. We need to help him.” Xena gestured to Lycurgus. “What’s the antidote?”
“No. That is the fate of those who would kill us – death. It is death to touch an oracle. I will not save your friend.” The woman sounded troubled, although her words were firm.
Gabrielle appealed to the blue eyes looking out at them. “He didn’t know you were an oracle! He’s here to save a young girl – he’s a good man. Please?” she wasn’t coherent, and she wasn’t terribly bard-like, but Gabrielle’s plain words had a pronounced effect on the woman.
“Rosemary, ginger, sage. Bring them to me and I will heal him. But you must be quick – the poison spreads fast.”
“I can give us some time.” Xena said. She knelt by the supine figure and looked him over. Her hand passed up his leg, striking several pressure points as she went. “This can slow it for a while, but not too long.”
She turned to the bard. “Gabrielle, go get Leah and bring back the three herbs – and some passionflower if you can get some.” Gabrielle stood, swaying slightly, trying to get her bearing. When Xena spoke again, her tone chilled the bard to the core.
“And Gabrielle, hurry. If you and Leah don’t come back quickly, there won’t be any reason to hurry anymore.”
With this, the bard took off for the entrance. All thoughts of her own pain and discomfort were gone. She had only one thought – to save Lycurgus.