The warrior tugged on the horseís reins gently as she neared the castle. Though the message had said that the situation was urgent, she didnít want to alarm the guards-- and sheíd learned through long experience that charging the gates of a castle full speed tended toward misunderstandings...
The guard looked up at her, his eyes widening slightly with recognition.
"Warrior Princess," he said, bowing his head. "We were not informed youíd be coming. It is an honor."
Her blue eyes remained calm.
"Iím here on personal business," she said. "I wonít be in the city long."
"You may stay as long as you wish in Treus," the guard replied. "As well you know, King..."
"Iím not here to see the king," she told him. "Iím here to see an old friend."
The guard motioned for her to pass. "Certainly."
She pressed Argoís flanks lightly with her knees, and the horse moved slowly into the city.
It had been a few years since she had been here, but not much had changed. There were fewer beggars in the streets-- Diana had made good on that promise-- but other than that, the city looked pretty much as it always had.
The few times sheíd been here, sheíd pretty much stuck to the palace. Sheíd never really ventured out much in the city proper, and even then it had been merely to re-stock supplies and move out.
Too many memories here, she thought as she slid off of Argoís back, landing on the pavement. Things I donít like to recall.
She led the mare down a side street, one given over to taverns and cheap inns and street merchants. Trust him to find the busiest street in town...still, his message did say it was urgent...
She found the place-- a two story inn with yellow pillars in front named The Golden Centaur. As if any of these people had ever seen a centaur... the warrior snickered and hitched Argo to the post on the side of the inn. She moved inside, her blue eyes taking a second or two to adjust to the dimness inside after the bright afternoon sunshine. She moved to the bartender and spoke in low tones; she ignored the stares she got, the way some of the men regarded her; sheíd long ago stopped caring what most men thought of her. Few of them were stupid enough any more to approach her, and those that did... well, some of them lived to talk about it.
The bartender jerked a thumb upward; the warrior tossed a dinar on the bar and moved with quick grace up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
She rounded the corner quickly, her senses alert that this might be a trap; she patted the chakram hanging on her hip and moved on. Once, she might have feared an ambush in a place like this, but now she almost welcomed it.
The door was marked with a black piece of felt, just as the barkeep had said, and she took it down as she knocked.
"Come in," a feeble voice said from within.
She tried the door; it was open. Not very smart, she thought as she entered, closing the latch and lowering the bar behind her.
She turned around quickly, tossing her long hair over one armored shoulder. "Now what was so urgent that it..."
She stopped as she saw him there, pale, sweating, lying on the bed. Most of his hair had fallen out, leaving a large bald area. What little hair there was had all gone white, and his beard was long and a little unkempt. His breathing was shallow; she could tell that he was not well. His robes were stained with sweat, stuck fast to him, and as she moved toward him, she could see that he was wounded-- the amber robe he wore was stained with blood.
Leather creaked as she sat down. "Salmoneus," she said, a look of pain and sympathy coming over her face, "what happened to you?"
He took a short breath. "Glad you got...my message.." he said, and he reached feebly for a pitcher of water. The warrior leaned over, one bronzed arm grabbing the pitcher and pouring him a glass; he drank a little, making a slurping noise, and collapsed back on the bed.
"Salmoneus," she said, shaking him gently. "What happened?"
"Ambushed," he said, his voice raspy. "Didnít see them... tried to run..."
Skilled hands slid his robe open to inspect the wound; he had another bundle of cloth over it on his chest, and this one was soaked through with blood.
"Salmoneus," she admonished, "why didnít you see a healer?"
"Couldnít," he gasped as she removed the cloth... the wound was deep, and festering, and blood oozed from it slowly.
"This isnít healing-- itís infected," she said, her voice grown hard. "It might even be poisoned. We have to get you to the palace. Dianaís physician can help you..."
"No!" Salmoneus managed. "Canít!" He took as deep a breath as he could. "Listen..." he pleaded with her. "I canít be found..." He coughed, aggravating the injury, and the warrior grabbed a towel and placed it over the wound.
"If you wonít go," she said, "Iíll bring him here."
"Listen!" Salmoneus said. "You canít! They canít know...Iím here!"
"Salmoneus," she said firmly, "you will die if I donít get you help."
"Iím dying anyway," he said, gasping another breath. "Even you canít stop that."
She closed her eyes for a moment. So much death, so much pain...
"Then why did you call me here, if not to save you?"
His eyes met hers. Tears were in them-- he was in terrible pain, she could see. "There are only two people I trust," he said, his voice weakening. "You... and Hercules. You have to see that he gets... this..." Salmoneus rasped, grabbing a small sack that was hidden underneath the pillow.
"What is this?" she asked, holding up the dark velvet bag.
"Heíll know," Salmoneus said, and coughed; a drop of dark blood dribbled out of the side of his mouth.
"Salmoneus," she said, gripping his hand, "I wonít lose you. Iíve lost too much already..."
His eyes began to haze over. "Goodbye, proud warrioress... you have been good to me...better than I deserved..."
"Salmoneus," she hissed through gritted teeth, "no!"
His hand went slack, and he sighed, softly, almost in relief. The life was gone from his eyes, and she reached up and closed his eyelids, callused hands gently pressing the lids shut.
She tied the pouch to her belt, and looked down at him on the bed.
"Goodbye, Salmoneus," she said, wiping back a tear. "Goodbye."
It was spherical, glasslike, and it was blue, and it was heavy; beyond that, it seemed to have no function. It had no seams, and it was neither cold nor warm. It was slightly smaller than an apple, and it fit in her hand nicely. Salmoneus died trying to get this to Hercules, she thought, putting it back in the bag. Must be pretty damned important.
"Alright," she said to herself, hitching the bag to her belt, making sure it was secure. "Iíll honor the request of a dying friend. Iíll take it to him." She moved toward Argo, her thoughts far away, when suddenly she noticed that half a dozen armed men stood between her and the horse.
"What do you want?" she asked.
"Easy now, princess," the lead man said, smiling at her. "We just want whatís in the bag. You give it to us, and weíll let you go. You donít..." the man shrugged and drew a dagger. "Well, then thereís the hard way."
A wicked grin crossed her tanned face. "Oh, I think Iím gonna like the hard way," she said as she drew her sword. She leapt forward with a loud cry and thrust it into the lead man; he collapsed at once, his sword falling from his lifeless hands. "And thereís more where that came from," she hissed to the five remaining men.
They charged her. They drew their swords as they came, and the warrior blocked two of them with her sword, meeting theirs and throwing them off. She kicked a third as he closed in, sending him spinning, and she spun and parried the thrusts of the fourth and the fifth men.
With another loud cry she leapt straight up, her legs lashing out, and she kicked two of the men in the shoulder, knocking them over. She turned to the other three and did a backflip, over the two she had knocked down. Now all five faced her again, rather than surrounding her. She weaved her sword in a figure eight and backed up a little, trying to get better position; the men charged, all at once, and she was hard pressed to defend against them. Her sword slid below the parry of the lead man, running him through in the stomach, and he fell; but unfortunately, he pulled the blade from her grasp as he did so, and she was left to face four armed men without a weapon.
"Just give it to us," one of the men said. "We donít even want revenge for the loss of our buddies. We just want the orb."
"Youíre not gonna get it," she said, tossing the chakram; it bounced off of a nearby pillar, ricocheting back across the square, and clanged as it hit a metal pole that held one of the torches that lit the city at night. It sped straight for the men, and it zig-zagged between them, hitting two on their helmets, before it returned to her hand. The men stood motionless for a second, and then they sagged against one another and slumped to the ground.
The other two backed away from her, slowly, but they didnít notice the other warrior coming up behind them. He tapped them on the shoulders and they turned, surprised that anyone was there. It was a town guardsman, and he threw a right cross that connected with both of their chins, knocking them out at once. They fell on top of their comrades, all four of them unconscious.
The female warrior smiled grimly as she returned the chakram to her belt. After all this time, youíd think someone would learn... but they never do.
She stepped over their bodies and moved to the man who lay impaled on her sword. She was only a step away from him when the guard reached over and plucked it out of the corpse. He wiped the blood off on the dead manís tunic and reversed the sword, holding it to out to her.
"I believe this is yours," he said, handing it to her. Then he took off his helmet.
Her blue eyes softened when she saw who it was. "You," she said simply.
He bowed slightly. "At your service, as always."
She slid the sword over her shoulder into its sheath and folded her arms. "What are you doing here?"
He gestured to his uniform. "Iím captain of the guard for King Philemon." His brown eyes grew warm as he gazed at her. "I knew youíd be coming sooner or later when I found out Salmoneus was headed this way." He took a step toward her. "Itís good to see you again, Gabrielle."
She nodded. "Itís good to see you too, Joxer."
* * *
"Why here, of all places?" Gabrielle asked him as they sat by a lake just outside the city.
Joxer shrugged. "After what happened..." he trailed off. "I knew you wouldnít want to see me often. So I went to the one place I figured you would hardly ever go."
"Treus," she said, nodding, looking out at the lake. "That was pretty thoughtful of you."
"Well, I try," he said.
Gabrielle smiled faintly, the memories of their time together coming back to her. Almost the only good times Iíve had since... She shook her head. "What has it been, five years?" she asked.
"Almost six," he replied.
They sat in silence for a spell, both remembering. Joxer closed his eyes in the late afternoon sun and inhaled. "Did you ever find anyone else?" he asked her, his voice soft.
"No," she said. "I was always too busy." She leaned over and picked a blade of grass, twirled it between her fingers. "You?"
He shrugged, his face showing his embarrassment. "Meg," he said. He squinted into the sunlight. "Itís not the same. Itíll never be the same for me."
Gabrielle closed her eyes, the memories too painful for the moment... he had held her back, when she wanted to follow. She had strained against him, wanting to save her friend... but Joxer had held firm, and in doing so, heíd saved her life. And then, he had been there for her... that whole terrible time, when all sheíd wanted to do was die...
A tear rolled down Gabrielleís cheek. "I still miss her, Joxer. Youíd think Iíd be over it by now. But I still wake up once in a while and wonder where she is." Gabrielle brushed the tear away. "Hades, sheís been dead almost as long as I knew her..."
"Gabrielle," Joxer said, sliding an arm around her, his eyes still fixed on the lake, "some people become a part of us in ways we never expect. We never stop missing those people, no matter how long itís been." He turned to her, his face close to hers. "Trust me, I know what Iím talking about..."
Gabrielle glanced over at him and smiled. "You always were good to me, Joxer."
He shook his head. "You deserved every bit of it."
She closed her eyes. "I have to go," she said. "Salmoneus gave me something that I have to deliver to Hercules. He said he was being chased, so itís a good bet I will be too." She stood up. "The sooner I go, the sooner the trouble will leave Treus."
Joxer stood. "Do you need any help?" he asked.
Gabrielle shook her head, her strawberry blonde mane swaying. "No," she said, "you stay here with Meg. At least one of us will be happy."
He moved closer to her. "Gabrielle, I..."
She pressed her fingers to his lips. "Donít say it. I know. I know how you feel..." She closed her eyes. "And if you do feel that way, stay here and be happy-- for me. Take care of Meg, and the city-- and live your life. That would make me happy."
He narrowed his eyes. "If thatís what you really want," he said.
She nodded. "It is. One of us deserves some joy... and since I canít have any, it might as well be you."
He grabbed one of her hands in both of his. "You can stop by any time, you know. You donít have to be such a stranger."
Gabrielle smiled, and for a second Joxer saw the Gabrielle he had fallen in love with a dozen years ago, the bright-eyed young woman full of life, and light, and joy. "Yes I do," she said, "and you know it. We tried this once, remember? It didnít work."
He shook his head, "Well, yeah, but..."
Gabrielle stood on her tiptoes and kissed him, softly, briefly, her lips meeting his. "Good bye, Joxer."
"Good bye, Gabrielle. Good luck."
She nodded. "Same to you." She turned away from him, walking up the narrow path by the lakeside to the tree where Argo was hitched. Joxer watched her as she unhitched the horse and mounted it in one swift motion. He felt his eyes go moist as she nudged Argo up the track away from the lake and back toward the road, never once looking back.
When she was gone, he turned to watch the sun set on the lake, the tears flowing freely down his face. "I will never," he said softly, "never, love another as I love you."
His head hanging low, he turned and walked up the path, back toward the city, and his home.