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Scarlet Cadence: A Xena tale
© December 6, 1998 by Ann Logan
Greetings from the eastern regions of Ancient Greece. I'm Tasha Malone Fidelli, a transplanted New Yorker who often plays wizard, here. Considering my twentieth-century savvy, it's an a prestigious occupation. Wish I could whiz my way back to New York.
It's good to wear many hats. Occasionally, I write stories as an imaginary male Bard. Most of the lax citizens enjoy knee-slapping folk hymns and mind-absorbing stories. With this tale, I have to be careful. Xena, warrior pest, is incredibly clever and vindictive.
Last summer, a muggy night dangled a rain we desperately needed. I've been earning my daily drachma, bailing brown hay and plucking miniature vegetables from starved soil. Mom always said, if you can't get going, get strong for the day you do. God knows I've tried. My sights are on ancient America where Xena doesn't exist. Every morning, I praise the knowledge that I've survived.
As other workers stroll for home, I lug a bushel of plum-size potatoes to the farmer's hut. It was odd, not seeing bright lamps glowing in the window. Putting the bushel down, I spotted a shapely shadow. Xena, a leather-clad Amazon-reject, waltzed closer.
She was a six-foot warrior with long raven hair and arms the size of my thighs. Golden vine-like shielding covered her leather uniform. It was a clever protection, light and strong. Often, men remarked of Xena's stunning beauty. I think they meant her alluring hazel eyes which could charm a snake to slough its skin.
Xena scared the daylights out of most people. Perhaps the farmer was among them. In Xena's palm, I spotted my travel satchel and two shiny drachmas.
"Crete," she casually said. "Time to payoff your debt."
Opening my satchel, she tucked my money inside. Xena never valued a coin when she could bleed a favor.
Rubbing my shoulder, I asked, "Why Crete?"
"The Oracle," she said. "Most merchants believe it's wiser than Delphi." She waltzed across the clay earth which looked like the moon; dry, cracked, and growing much of nothing useful. "It's good to see you're keeping out of trouble."
"Do I have a choice?"
"Come," she said.
As Xena strolled to the barn, I scurried to follow. Inside, three empty stalls made obvious the horses stolen by nameless hungry neighbors. In normal times, the penalty was death. My friend, the farmer, ignored the law. Five seasons back, he lost his son to starvation.
In all likelihood, Xena left Argo in Amphipolis with her mother. The northern towns enjoyed kinder weather. Pity their hearts wouldn't share wealth.
On the hay-lined floor, I spotted two spread blankets. No more soft cots in the farmer's home. Shutting the barn door, Xena kept hold of my treasured satchel, secretly enjoying my progressive anxiety. Besides my pocket-knife, a compass, and a clean set of deerskin togs, all my earned dinars and drachmas dangled in her grasp.
"The people need hope," she said.
I asked with caution, "Is this another serial killer?"
"Get some sleep." She dropped my satchel on the edge of her blanket. "You look beat."
Damn-it, she's doing it, again! Cordially, I asked, "Where's Gabby?"
As I laid down, Xena used my satchel as her pillow.
"Relax," Xena said. "She made me promise not to kill you."
"If you can wait a week, I'll pay 50 drachma to settle the debt."
Xena grinned like a jackal finding new prey. "Sweet dreams, New York."
A week later, I jogged up a desert sand dune. There's been so many, I wonder if this trip will ever change. A wooden arrow pierced the top, Xena's second marker in a half-mile challenge. She liked stretching my endurance with her sick warrior follies. Except for a crossbow competition, I successfully lost.
Slowing to a stagger, I reached the arrow and yelled, "Coffee break."
A dry gust seemed to swallow my voice. Staring at the next dune, I saw Xena's footprints clearing the top. It was not wise to get lost, especially when Xena held all the provisions. With rubber legs, I moved the arrow to the higher hill then collapsed on my back. The dry air was very thin. Taking deep breaths, I held my heart till it calmed.
It was strange how the skies never bothered raining. Even here, in the gentle west, four woolly nimbus collided into a dark languid mess that refused to storm. I closed my eyes burning from the scorching sunshine.
I yelled, "I'm dying, Zee!"
Xena didn't answer. In the waif of a northern breeze, I caught the scent of sweet-grass and pine trees. Rolling on my side, I unbuttoning the top of my deerskin togs and gazed at a fulsome blur of kelly green. Finally, the end of this desert!
Wheat and grapes and other successful crops quilted a mild mountain of villages. It was a welcomed change to the brown lots of Athens. Along the backs of a valley stream, I spotted fat cattle feeding on green haystacks. If the families are this lucky, I hope roaming warlords never blaze this way.
A few dunes over, I spotted Xena wearing a light gray tunic with ankle-high rabbit-skin boots. She was scouting several northern passages and jaunt to the next hill. Over her left-shoulder, she wore a single-action crossbow and a quiver of my future motivational-seminars.
I yelled, "Some of us are human!"
Xena ducked down and stood with her satchel, ignoring me. Without Gabby at her side, she strolled like a dejected school girl heading for class. I chuckled at the irony then wondered if she could handle my peculiar situation. At least, she had Gabby. No matter what I did, I always knew my family, old friends, and planned future were 2,000 years out of grasp.
Xena reached the top of my dune, glaring at me. "Well?"
I stood, patting silt off my deer-skin togs. "Is this Crete?"
"No." She passed my canteen and watched as I guzzled several swallows. Then she sipped, delicately adding, "We need to bypass the mountain."
I gazed ahead, miles of winding terrain. "That's a full-day's hike!"
"Or several hours run," she said.
Marching in a mini-circle, I yelled, "Damn-it, Xena."
"Time is crucial, New York." She packed my canteen and nudged my shoulder. "Come on," she said.
"Cram your oracle, Zee!"
Swiftly, Xena kicked my legs and stood over me. As I struggled to inhale, she planted her foot on my chest. "Get a grip," she said. "I know you're hungry."
"Freakin Dick Tracy." I slapped her calf refusing to move.
"There's a army hidden, below." She yanked me up, barely allowing my feet on the ground. "Try to trust me, next time."
I thought, up-yours, and lowered my eyes, saying nothing.
"Stay here." Dropping me, she stepped back and pulled her broadsword. "Maybe I can find a weak point to pass." Eyeing the green fields, Xena pointed to an apple orchard. "If I'm not back by sunset, head for that target."
"Is Crete nearby?"
"You'll find Gabrielle on the other side."
As Xena jogged over a sand dune, I sat on the ground, reflecting on the debts I've paid. With Xena and Gabby, I toured Amphipolis, Corinth, Delium, Cyprus Island, and worse - - the temples at Thebes. All I wanted was to pay Xena's stupid debt and live a life according to MY will.
In the past six months, my luck was awful. Three times, I've completed the tasks Xena demanded. It was terrific saying goodbye. But, after Gabby and Xena left, I'd experience a kidnapper or mugging or some personal medical tragedy. Of course, Xena would ride to the rescue. And, bing, I'd have a larger debt to pay.
It was an hour before sunset. Several male voices lightly carried in an eastern wind. Without water, I crept quickly between dunes. Xena's footprints were long faded.
In the distance, Xena yelled, "Yi-Ya."
I hurried closer, keeping in the valleys of sands. Many swords clashed and men screamed. Then, the noises hushed.
The ghostly desert gusts were unnerving. Every cloud of sand seemed a danger till it settled. Taking my short-sword from its sheath, I crept up for a peek. A strong hand yanked me down.
As she offered a filled canteen, Xena snatched my short-sword. "Change of plans, New York."
Opening the canteen, I sipped slowly. Xena packed my sword in its sheath and limped uphill. Though the sun was almost gone, I spotted a saber-nick across her left-arm.
She said, "We'll head west."
Studying my eyes, she grinned.
"I don't mean your leg," I said. "Why not cross at night?"
"A better mission." Setting her satchel down, Xena pulled out two apples. "I'll hunt later. We've got to get moving."
As we marched from the desert, Xena found a rocky road heading into a valley of plush foliage. Without her lead, I'd be lost in the darkness. I hated that!
As I sweat, the salt irritated sunburns. Though I wanted to ask details, I knew it was pointless. Xena treated most information on a need-to-know bases. Reaching an abandoned cave, she left me to hunt. God, how I loved the chance to sleep.
In the morning, I lead a march into a docile woods, chewing my share of fresh-barbecued squirrel. (If your hungry enough, you'll eat dirt.) Xena mentioned that the woods were formerly a kingdom. Occasionally, we passed a few statues of female nudes covered with centuries of vines.
As the sun set, Xena marched by my side. "You cried out in your sleep."
Subtly, I hurried forward. "Sorry to wake you."
She whispered, "Can you see a muddy footpath?"
"Barely, to the north."
"Ignore it," she said. "Summer flooding is common for that region."
"How much further," I asked?
Staring over a pond covered with lily pads, Xena spotted a curiosity. "Stay here."
"Why, fans of yours?"
She cupped my mouth and whispered, "Count ten then make your diversion." She rested her satchel and a water canteen.
I whispered, "Good luck."
She grinned and whispered, "Don't get killed."
As she dashed away, I pulled my short-sword and crouched to the ground. With little effort, I plucked-up several stones. When the time was right, I tossed them into the pond, splashing like plodding footsteps.
"Yo," I shouted, "Larry, Joe, Curly, over here!"
Xena knew my routine to the last detail. Taking dry twigs from my belt, I stacked a small teepee, whistling a ditzy 60's tune. Then, I scrounged for dry leaves and sparked two flint rocks.
A young campfire burst from smoke. If they were close, my figure could barely be seen.
I spoke in a high-pitch, "Larry, could you gut that deer?"
I deepened my voice, "I hate venison."
In my normal tone, I yelled, "Better do as she asked. No work, no loving."
I lowered my voice, again. "Don't even think of forgetting the deal."
I wrapped a wax-cloth around my sword. When Xena gave a three- hoot signal, I poked the cusp into the campfire. Soon, the wax dripped onto the dry wood, creating a sustaining blaze. It's a technique my Uncle Matt favored.
I tossed my sword on the ground to cool. Using the light, I collected dead branches and large stones. As the fire grew stronger, it would be easier to convince Xena that this was a nice spot to camp.
I was visible and a harmless target, acting like a country bumpkin. Inside, I was petrified. Opening Xena's satchel, I sat by the flames and snacked on a variety of smoked meats. It was better than eating my fingers but not by much!
A few moments later, Xena helped a young blond walk into our camp. Dressed in a crush-velvet blanket, the woman looked twenty in the eyes and ninety in the stride. Her cheeks were unnaturally thin and her shoulders were shivering.
Laying the woman by my fire, Xena said, "Pass your canteen," then opened a medicine pouch, removing a pinch of herbs.
"Who is she?"
"Now, New York." Xena's stern glance glistened with a held tear.
Giving Xena my canteen, I watched in amazement. The woman guzzled every drop, looking for more. I rushed to the second canteen then calmly unpacked our camping gear. Maybe Xena knew this woman. It was peculiar, Xena showing a tear.
Spreading out Xena's wool blanket, I helped the woman recline on her side. Sun blisters covered her shoulder. The poor kid was so pale and frazzled.
I whispered to Xena, "What happened?"
"Keep the fire-high," Xena said, then crept into the darkness.
Raising the woman's head, I helped her drink the last of our water. With Xena around, I never worried about provisions. She was a dynamic scavenger. What worried me most was strangers.
On the woman's wrists, I noticed rope burns, recent and gouged. If she were a slave there would have been a brand on her forearm. As I set an empty canteen aside, I spotted a crude tattoo of an ancient Diana-dagger.
I asked, "Are you Amazon too?"
Her eyes opened, gazing with promise. She spoke, raspy, "I'm Lilla of Mira."
I shook her hand. "Call me Tasha."
A twig snapped and I reached for my sword, gone.
"Easy, New York," Xena said. "I've brought dinner."
She meandered into the amber light carrying three trout skewered on my sword.
"You could have asked."
"That's no fun." Lying the fish across the fire, Xena matched Lilla's grin. "I'm Xena. Nice to meet you."
For me, the introduction was a farce. Lilla seemed to know more of me than a stranger should. With Xena watching, I played along. All these simpletons give it up, eventually.
After dinner and an uninterrupted nap, pinkish tones returned to Lilla's dimple cheeks. She arose with a smile, sampling the last morsels of a field mouse breakfast. I didn't know what to say.
Returning from a swim, Xena sat beside Lilla. "Who did this to you?"
"Lord Passion," she said.
Xena nodded. "I've heard of him."
"So many have died."
"I know," Xena said. "Where is he?"
Slapping my thighs, I got up, gathered my belongings, and estimated the fastest route, southward. Demigods are not my department.
A jewel handle boot-knife stabbed a tree limb hovering over my shoulder. Even Lilla stopped breathing. You'd think the poor kid had been through enough. Dropping my belongings, I turned to Xena, naive to my error.
She stood with her arms, akimbo. "Forget your debt?"
Fuck you, I thought then said, "Gee, Zee, can't you handle this alone?" It's best to bait her with challenges.
"Okay," I said, rolling open my sleeping blanket. "What if you scout ahead while I bring Lilla to a village for safety?"
"And miss the rendezvous?" Strutting to my side, Xena yanked her dagger out of the tree. "We stick together."
I faced her, chin to chest. "Lilla can't make it!"
"Which is why I sent a signal to Gabrielle." She enjoyed having the upper hand. Lucky for me, it wasn't as often as she liked.
A clanking noise startled all of us. Hurrying from the woods, a clumsy warrior waved as he caught his breath. It was odd seeing Joxer sustain a moment of silence. Normally, his rants lead to the most embarrassing misadventures. Perhaps his unusual tendencies might make a plausible distraction.
Tying back her raven hair, Xena said, "Come here, Joxer."
With his pathetic helmet, He ran like a puppy dragging its long ears. "Gabrielle said you needed me," he said. "My horse isn't far."
I said, "Good, Xena has a mission for your brave heart." Moving aside, I inhale a clean breeze. "I'll use Joxer's horse to bring Lilla to Gabby."
"No, Joxer will take Lilla to Gabrielle," Xena corrected. "Tell her, New York and I will meet you in Crete."
I yelled, "Why do I get all the shit jobs?"
Stunning everyone, Xena slapped my face and I fell to the ground. She was flushed with anger, glaring at the trees as if to refocus hidden strength.
Quietly, Joxer helped Lilla to her feet. "See you later, guys."
"Sure," I said, carefully.
As I rose, I checked for loose teeth and stepped to the pond to see my reflection. All this marching, starving, and conniving was aging me, fast. Already, Xena's palmprint was turning purple around my eye.
Xena stepped by my side, carrying both satchels in opposite hands. From the pond reflection, I could see her gaze judging my reaction.
She offered no apology and said, "Time to go."
As I turned, I snatched her sword and shouted, "Up yours!"
She dropped the satchels. "You'd kill me, New York?"
"Damn-it, Zee, just walk away."
She screamed, "Yi-Ya," and kicked her sword from my hand.
With a roundhouse kick, she knocked me into the pond which was too shallow to swim. As she leaped forward, I rolled toward the shore. Maybe if I could reach deeper water, I'd have a chance.
Xena grabbed my hair. "No, no, no," she said.
I went limp. What was the point? "I can't live like this," I said. "Kill me!"
I felt her fingers pinch a painful pressure point on my shoulder. The lights went out.
When I stirred from an unexpected nap, morning birds flew past a cave overlooking a marshy field. It was dank and my joints were aching. As I stumbled out, a whistling piece of wood flew into the sky. It was a trigger mechanism, typical Xena. I started running.
When I reached a dead-end in the swamp, a lasso slipped around my neck and tightened. As I turned, Xena jumped from an Arabian steed, keeping the hemp-line taut.
Xena asked, "Feeling wiser?"
I walked forward, keeping my eyes low. "More like a fool."
"Good." She removed the noose. "We've a long march, ahead."
"What about the horse?"
"He's part of plan B," she said.
"Do I get a last meal?"
"Show a little muster." Xena grinned. "You could lose a few inches, here and there."
"I can't handle much more."
Xena pushed me. "Failure isn't allowed, New York. Get used to it!"
With both satchels on my back, Xena lead the way through a narrow marshy path. Even if I had the funds, a successful assassin is impossible to hire. By reputation, Xena found favor from Demeter - -the moon goddess and Zeus - - a godly pain-in-the-ass. Personally, I think Xena is the chief of a hidden syndicate; a princess of cons.
I stumbled over a plank of driftwood. "What's in these bags?"
Xena pulled me up and took mine. "Move it."
A few paces more, I fell again.
Xena chuckled. "You're really out of shape."
I stood up. "It feels like a ton."
"Not quite." She opened the satchel on my back then tossed out three large stones. "Better?"
I glared at her. "Sure."
For over a decade, Xena terrorized kingdoms in all directions. Right? According to legends, any warriors who tried for her treasure lost their favorite body part. (At least, I hope it's just a legend!) When I talked with Gabrielle, she mentioned distant villagers shipping charity for Xena's eyes-only. See where I'm going?
Reaching a dried riverbed, Xena dropped her satchel. "Help yourself to the water."
I finished the last swallows from our two canteens. "How much further?"
She squinted to a ridge with a weeping willow. "Stay put."
"Where are you going?"
"For water," she said, snatching the canteens.
"I'll come with you."
"No," Xena demanded. "Follow orders, New York. It's less painful."
Taking a chance to rest, I watched Xena jog the riverbed like a gazelle dancing across a prairie. It didn't make sense for me to be resting under the hot sun. Was I a target again? No, Xena could have killed me, last night.
When Xena returned, I was dying of thirst. She quickly handed a filled-canteens and marched in a methodical circle, surveying the terrain for witnesses. As I lifted the canteen to my lips, I smelled the faint odor of mildew. It wasn't like the stuff one would find in a stagnant pool.
As Xena passed in front of me, I noticed her fingers stained in a rusty clay. Then, I noticed an extra bulk in her satchel.
She turned and stared at me. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." I smiled, capping the canteen.
"Good," she said. "Move out."
It finally hit me. Xena never paid taxes, housing-expenses, or wages. Whenever she hoofed-it, Argo stayed in the finest stables and received the best of care. If we needed travel passes, Xena always found the best forgeries. Where did she get the funds? Her growing warlord fortune. Now, I know where it is!
Since summer nights came slow, Xena shoved through the thickest part of a misty swamp. It was stupid, I thought. Then again, I didn't know how much money she might be carrying on her back. We reached a dark jungle infested with lurking shadows. As Xena ran, I swung my arms numb, trying to keep up.
Sometimes, I feel Xena is a half-god. She seldom loses her breath and never suffers from insect attack. Once, she went three days without water, then killed a titan to boot. If she is a god, I hope I never know it. My daydreams, of defeating her, are among the only drive keeping me smiling.
Reaching sandy terrain, Xena lagged, watching me pass. I'm supposed to believe she cares for my health. I don't! It must be her burdensome pack wearing her stamina.
Rubbing my shoulders, I shifted the weight of my light satchel and kept strolling. Maybe Xena expects me to beg for a break. Let her give in for a change.
"Straight through?" I asked.
"Good." She followed closely.
As I cleared a hill, a cool mountain breeze dried my sweat. We must be close to the mission. Xena seemed ready to drop. Starting a descent, I felt gravity aiding me. There's always a first.
Xena shouted, "Slowdown, New York."
I wouldn't. Seeing rich black soil was great! As I passed a patch of thin yellow-grass, Xena's arrow whiffled by, killing a copperhead snake. I stopped.
Xena shoved me. "What's wrong with you?"
"I'm sorry," I said. "I just want this mission to end."
Raising her nose into a breeze, Xena grinned. "Wild boar, New York. Flush the leftside."
"All right, real food!"
As Xena crept uphill, my right heel caught on a strange dip by a boulder. I rocked sideways and snagged a shoulder strap on a tree limb. You march with Xena and see how steady you are!
I slipped off my satchel getting in my way. From the depths of the boar's grunt, my stomach knew this ham was big. All I needed was to move a little closer. My job was to bring him out. No problem.
Xena gave an owl-call. I pushed from the rock, creeping closer. There was a double-coo which meant Xena cocked an arrow. Now, it was my turn. I crossed a small clearing to get into position. But on route, my left foot snagged.
Xena gave another double-coo.
"I'm stuck," I said.
As I wrestled to free my legs, the boar raced around the corner, heading for me. I pulled with all my might. He was 500 lbs of fury.
Xena screamed, "You in my shot, New York!"
Terrific! As much as I struggled, the boar kept coming. Then, the soil swallowed the boar like a sponge and returned to a harmless sandy surface. I jerked hard and something jerked back. When I tried to move my other foot, I landed face first, almost breaking my nose. A massive crack gave little warning.
I screamed, "Xena!" God only knows why.
The ground parted for a hundred yard fall. In pitch darkness, I hit the edge of smooth spiraling path and slid into a sloping underground canal. It was terrifying.
Round and round, I kept falling and twisting like a helpless rag-doll. I smashed through a thin barrier leading into a ride of rose-scented smoke. It was awful.
Trying to keep from vomiting, I closed my eyes, turning my mind to my soul. How was I going to get out? Xena's all right, keep calm.
I shouted to myself, "I'm going to die!"
My soul spoke, "No. Someone built this trap for the living." Oh, God. "Go limp, kiddo, until it's prudent to act otherwise."
As the slide straightened, I peeked to see an azure cave shellacked with gelded stones and millions of glittering rubies. Then, the slide spat me onto a soft clay platform.
At first, I caught my breath. Somehow, I was alive. I moved my arms, achy but working. Climbing to my feet, I tested my legs, good to go. I slapped off dirt and twigs, looking around. No bears, boars, or Bacchae.
All over the platform, human footprints marched up and down a straight dirt trail which lead to a collection of torch-lit catacombs. In the distance, exotic clarinets played a chorus of seductive tunes. People down here?
I stepped a few feet from the platform and began to smell barbecued beef and boar. Only fools run to a stranger's freebie. I backed up the ledge and glanced at the slide, too sleek to climb.
At the base of the cavern was a bubbling black pool surrounding fifty-foot stalagmites. If I had a raft, it might be worth the risk. There was nothing floatable in sight. Peering at the catacombs, I spotted a dozen sneaking soldiers.
Ducking down, I reached to my sword-sheath, empty. Damn-it, Xena! Two soldiers marched up the platform. I had no choice.
Drawing a deep breath, I dove into the viscous pool. It felt like a cool lake of gelatinized blood. As I paddled, the murkiness pushed me down, like watery palms smothering a rodent.
I wanted to live, kicking and paddling to follow lost air bubbles gliding upwards. The progress was slow and the pressure pressing all the oxygen out my nose. Suddenly, I caught the end of a shimmering crimson rope. It was knocked and tightly secured. Using fist over fist, I pulled toward a bright fuzzy portal. Safe, maybe.
Clearing the surface, I saw a 3 x 3-foot crater and climbed onto a small dry bank. Immediately, I puked pink gelatin and gasped cool gulps of air.
It was a strange crater. The short walls were granite, carved by straightedge instruments. Toward the top, I saw a pictogram of a headless bird. As I stood, the weird blood-like gelatin dribbled into the hole. Rubbing my arms, I realized I was completely dry.
The roof was a canopy of lead-colored rock. I felt a warm daisy-scented breeze enter the crater. Maybe it was a trap. At least, I felt free. Cautiously, I climbed up and gawked in amazement.
A jungle of tall silky ferns leaned toward a crimson sun in a navy sky. The smallest ferns swayed seven-feet long with a one-foot widths. Some even grew from the ceiling.
As I pushed forward, the warm feathery leaves caressed my skin like a tactile lover. Essentially, I strolled the equivalent of a building-size bird turned inside out.
The more I pressed forward, the higher the roof slanted. I studied the subterranean sky. Phosphorescent couldn't cover that. It was slightly pulsing with pink and purple hues, alluring in many sensual ways.
Clearing the fern-jungle, I found a white-marble ledge overlooking another world. A quarter-mile below, six rainbow-bridges extended a passage into an ocean-size grey haze. The sun changed to a light blue and the haze parted.
Along a high perimeter of granite walls, reptilian centaurs, with polished shields of silver, patrolled like robots. I dropped to my belly, hiding from site. This wasn't Kansas!
Crawling forward to peek below, I spied an enormous cavern of honeycomb chambers locked in a split-level labyrinth. Four doves flew over, dropping golden packages to pitch corners. It was so weird. Most of the trapped residents were two-legged humans.
I saw a portly group swimming in a pond of cream. Their laughter was zealous. But for what? I couldn't tell. Love-making seemed everywhere in every cultural style. Should this be the historical "passion-pit"? I kept watching to take notes.
A one-armed warrior wrestled four blindfolded women in a vat of sanguine wine. His eyes rolled in ecstasy mixed with a hint of pain. For a moment, it seemed as though, one of the women stayed down too long. She emerged and another woman dipped below. In a short time, the man was rocking back and forward with groans of desire. Guessing his 'affliction', I grinned and looked elsewhere.
In another room, a playful woman sensually explored the length of a sleeping titan. Reaching his lion-cloth, she shed her clothes and climbed inside. Sure enough, I watched Barnum and Bailey's rise to the occasion. There was a brief scream that startled none of the centaurs. Then, I heard the woman giggle, still under the loin cloth. Turning on his side, the giant depriving the remainder of my platonic curiosity.
In the next chamber, three half-dressed Amazons whipped six Herculean males crawling in homage to a cubical statue. None seemed interested in a dynamic sensual dancer, waving her arms of long scarlet veils. She was taller than the other women, powerful in the legs, and performed striptease - -accent on the tease.
For a moment, I thought, Zee?
A cold gust replaced a dome of smoke, hiding the labyrinth. I peeked up. Uh-oh. On the edge of one of the rainbows, I spotted a reptilian centaur cocking a silver arrow. Oh shit! I charged into the ferns for cover. The first arrow missed.
As I ran, several more silver arrows cut very close. There must be another exit. Keeping low, I pushed deeper. As the ferns got thicker, I had to slow down. It was too much work.
Thunder growled from the skies to my left. Perhaps they thought I was dead. Spotting a brief clearing, I hushed my panting and glanced to the skies.
A bright white moon welcomed two blue suns. Then, it changed into a solar system of seven planets. I crawled to a shadow overlooking the haze. A misdirected meteor collided with a small orange comet.
Below, all the centaurs ran for safety. Rainbow bridges retracted. Planets faded into rich purple clouds. From a hidden source, I spotted a small yellow glow, soon illuminating into a massive sun. I backed away and stood. A twig snapped.
I whispered, "Zee?"
A flickering light showed an exit. Strolling through the playful ferns, I enjoyed a wonderful tingle charging up my spine. Then, a big shadow raced by.
I froze and whispered, "That's not funny, Zee."
The ferns rested flat on the ground, leaving no cover. Sunlight poured like a searchlight. I turned to see a huge beautiful male silhouette. As he took a step closer, the sunlight dimmed to a crimson moon.
From his face, I saw a brawny warrior of forty years. A curt smile illuminated his charcoal gaze. I looked down and noticed his broadsword dripping with blood. Four-finger claw-mark on his right-shoulder. On his belt, I saw a silver chakram.
I inhaled deeply, then said, "Help me to the surface and I'll pay you fifty-dinars."
He tossed his sword and ripped off his shielding. Studying me, he pulled off his top, exposing a bare chest pulsing with muscles. I watched him stalk a step closer and stop.
I stepped back and asked, "Have you seen my friends?"
Casually, he tossed the chakram at my feet. It was Xena's nicked weapon.
"Keep away, fella."
He spoke seductively, "I am the Lord of Passion. Tell me your desires."
I scrambled toward the flickering light and collided with fern of stone. Pushing me down, Passion pinned me under his hot body. His eyes crazed like a mad animal. As I struggled, pointlessly, a masculine scent arousing my feminine lust. I started licking dry lips and looking away. It was so hot, so wonderfully roasting.
He lowered his lips on my neck while his hands proceeded to my thighs. As I rocked to get free, he shorn my clothes with Xena's chakram. Then, he held it to my eyes. It was exciting and terrifying.
"Don't," I said.
He tossed the chakram and grinned. As he kissed my lips, I hurried a reply. The floor undulated, the winds whirled in our wild torment. It's been so long, I almost gave in.
"No, no," I said, pushing his shoulder. This is the real enemy.
Tenderly, he caressed my face and said, "You've no need to fear me."
I knead his thigh, missing a shot for better target. Passion rolled in anger, standing to my side.
I flipped to my feet. He grinned.
"Leave me, alone," I shouted.
He grinned, wider, grabbing my arms and flipping me around. His master touch stirring an excitement I couldn't hide. With his suckling kisses, my body panged for more. I wanted more. I needed more. Oh God! I clenched my thighs, fighting my own swelling ache. Give me strength.
He moaned in my ear, whispering, "Kiss me."
God, I wanted to. Suddenly, a memory helped me to laughter. My Mom knocked at my bedroom door while I was making-out with Jimmy.
Passion let me go, amazed.
I recalled my Mom jostling the doorknob and poor Jimmy pulling a muscle as he dove beneath my bed.
I held my stomach, laughing louder.
Passion shoved me, in anger. "Give me your desire."
"I want Xena," I said.
Opening his left-hand, Passion summoned his broadsword. "Your frigid-will won't last."
I yawned, enjoying actual steam billowing from his ears.
"Beg for my forgiveness."
He snapped his fingers, causing the ferns to form a jocular prison. As I stood, Passion strolled about me.
He shouted, "My touch delights all."
He pierced his sword, holding the cusp, a whisper from my throat.
Gazing at his tortured brow, I asked, "Are two women, too much?"
He lowered his sword, chortling. "A new game." He stormed to the flickering light, opening a lime-green passage. "It is you who will be tested, Mortal. Farewell!"
His feathery ferns retracted, leaving a smooth granite cave and small pieces from my deerskin togs. Crossing my arms to warm my chest, I stepped into the lime-green passage.
It was cool then warm, anything to raise my tension. Billowing yellow smoke grew to my waist. As long as it didn't smell of rotten eggs I didn't freak. The passage sloped upward then turned for a small exit.
Cautiously, I crawled into an airy room that was rich with see-through purple shears. A short table held a wheel of goat cheese and an unopened magnum of burgundy. I kept moving to the first column of mixed purple shears. No matter how, I pulled them aside, several always managed to stroke my bodice.
In the center, I found a kingsize bed with tree-size posts. Apparently, Passion's weapon was raw lust. It was tough but any real woman can shut that down.
Using a pillow case as a belt, I wrapped a bed-sheet to cover myself. Then, I stepped from the bed and surveyed the area. Barely visible through the shear curtains, was another exit on the far side. If Lilla got out, so could I.
Slowly, I walked, enduring the annoying caresses that wouldn't affect me like the sensual ferns. All I did was picture Joxer making wild love to Xena. Chuckling, I kept my cool.
Passion's voice echoed from the floor. "Very clever, Mortal."
"Thank you, Pee."
A howling gust blew through the room, ripping most of the drapery from the ceiling. Out of a dark corner, a tall feminine shadow waltzed closer. I wasn't certain of my new danger.
When Xena reached the light, she strut like a lion on the prowl. Her normally hazel eyes were dilated to a watery pitch.
I asked, "Are you okay?"
A fermented fruity odor grew strong as she closed in. I tightened the pillow case about my waist.
"Nice outfit, New York." Xena kissed my cheek. "We know one better."
Oh, shit! Folding my arms, I stepped aside. "You've been drinking."
She almost sang my name, "Join us, Tasha."
No way! "Why me, Zee?"
Gazing lovingly into my eyes, she peeled the sheets off my shoulders. "Passion wants to be with you."
I stood like a statue. "Really?," I said. "I wonder why he suggested a threesome, with you."
Moving my hair aside, she massaged gentle swirling strokes with her long firm fingers. "What did you tell him?"
I forced a belch. "After Gabby and Autolycus, it's ridiculous to settle for less?"
Spinning me around, Xena almost snarled, "You're lying!"
I yawned. "Face it, Xena. Nobody likes a reptilian touch."
Her fingernails drew blood from my arms as she tossed me across into a hidden cave. I landed on a sandy floor, finding a small Amazon bracelet. Just over my head was a passage into a valley stream. I glanced to Xena, dressed in her silver-vine leather tunic, running close, fully ready for battle.
She pulled me to my feet. "That's Lilla's."
"Lay-off," I cried.
As I tried to take a swing, she forced my arms to my side.
She whispered, "Calm down. Anything broken?"
Gazing at myself, I stroked my trusty deerskin togs covering my chest. "Was this only a dream?"
"No," Xena said and let go. "Backtrack to last night's camp."
I grinned. "Passion's that good?"
She glared at me. "Now."
"Yes, Mom." I crawled into the cavern and ran for my life.
Four hours later, I awoke to an owl that was cooing three times. I tossed more wood into my campfire, waiting and watching. It was easy to find my satchel and lucky. Xena made sure that it held several days' provision. In the morning, we'll be leaving for Crete.
I glanced at a full-moon, wondering about the warrior-pest. She didn't need to be so hostile. I guess I didn't give her much choice. Considering Passion and Xena, I felt it odd to be betting on Xena's win. Wouldn't her death solve my immediate problem?
It was a large moon, blue and beaming. Caught in my thought, I almost ignored Xena's strolling silhouette heading for my campfire. To protect my hide, I trekked an extra three miles. It was higher ground and a chance to catch some sleep.
Tossing an extra piece of kindling into the campfire, I bit my lip and gazed at the flames. No point in saying howdy. The first one, who talks, loses.
Crouching beside me, Xena warmed her palms in the fire. "Did you eat?"
"I'm not hungry."
"Same here." She sat beside me, exhausted. "I confined Passion to his caves."
"You made him Catholic?"
"Funny, New York."
"That's me." Getting up, I said, "Sorry about the reptile thing."
Xena lightly held my forearm, stopping me from leaving. "You saved my life."
"Whatever." I shook free, waltzing to my spread blanket.
"Another day, I'd like to talk to you about this."
I reclined with my hands cradling my head. "My lips are sealed."
She blushed, watching from the corner of her eye, then she grinned. "You're a liar, New York."
I closed my eyes. "Add it to my debt."
"Oh yes," she said. "Sweet dreams . . . and thanks."
Under a noon sun, I awoke, feeling greatly refreshed. My missing short-sword sat beside a filled water-flask and pouch of freshly smoked venison. Xena was gone, leaving no footprints to follow. On a tree trunk, Xena's boot dagger pinned a small a note: "Paid in full."
I shouted to Olympus, "Yeehaw!"
With my latest freedom, I gathered my things and turned east - - too many slave traders, west - -too many miles to find the sane, south - - Finally! Poor Bidowra and the Amazons have waited so long to continue my training.
As I pulled Xena's dagger from the tree, I peered north for the Oracle at Crete. It's a fool who believes in Xena's kindness. This was too easy. Looking around, I realized my incredible vulnerability. I didn't know the swamps, couldn't see in the dark, and really didn't deserve to die so young.
Heading north, I jogged, overjoyed. There is only one reason Xena is treating me like a liability. She suspected that I might know the location of her treasure. And she was right!
While I find a guide to get me south, Xena will tell Gabby that I'd escaped to Bidowra. Even if Gabby doubted Xena, she'd never look for me. Oil and water could take lessons from the hatred between Bidowra and Gabby.
Whenever I reach Athens, again, Xena will surely be surprised. It's the least I could do for lifting half her treasure. After all, it's my right to collect.
THE END FOR NOW