My Soul's Imaginary Sight
Autolycus was carefully picking the lock to Baratus' treasury. He inserted a thin metal rod into the keyhole and was rewarded with the click of the cylinders unlocking.
Easing the door open, Autolycus crept into the treasury. Liberating a torch from its holder on the wall, Autolycus searched the glittering stacks for a glimmer of red stone. Finally, he saw the object of his search. "Come to Papa, baby," he whispered as he reached out to take the glittering pendant.
Just about the time Autolycus was ready to close his hand around the pendant, Baratus' guards burst into the treasury. Grabbing the pendant, Autolycus jumped up onto the table.
"Stop him, you idiots!" yelled one of the guards.
"Bye-bye," said Autolycus, hopping from table to table, searching for a window, a way to get out. The guards were chasing after him, and out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a window that he might just barely reach, if his luck held out. Staying one step ahead of the guards, he leapt from table to table, crossing the room to reach the window. He used the treasure to delay the guards, kicking piles of it down, sending gold and valuables cascading into the paths of the soldiers, and giving him precious moments to grab for the sill and pull himself out of the room. Autolycus made it out of the window and from the window ledge he shot a grappling hook into the far wall. Pausing to don gloves, Autolycus slid down the rope and towards freedom.
Unfortunately, Baratus' archers had been alerted and were waiting for him outside the window. One arrow severed the rope several inches from the wall, and Autolycus plummeted to the hard-packed earth. The last thing he remembered was the rope breaking and wondering how he was going to get out of this mess.
He awoke in a pit. He was lying on a pile of filthy straw, and his green tunic was ripped. "That was my favorite shirt," he said in disgust. He winced when the cover to the pit was slammed back and the bright sunlight streamed in. "Hey, take it easy, would ya? I'm a sick man."
Rough hands yanked Autolycus to his feet, and they dragged him to Baratus' throne room. "What is this you bring before me, Xanon?"
"A prisoner, milord. We caught him breaking into and out of your treasury room."
Baratus got up from his throne and walked over to Autolycus. "You were trying to steal from me, thief. What is your name?"
"I'm Hercules." One of the guards cracked him in the back of his knees and Autolycus fell to the floor. "Okay, so I'm not Hercules."
"Ah," said Baratus. "I know you, don't I, thief? I know who you are."
"Nope, I don't think so. Never saw you before in my life. And a face like yours, I'd
"Yes--you're the one that the people call the King of Thieves. Only one as good as you could make it through to my treasury. What did you come for?"
The guard handed Baratus the ruby pendant they'd taken off Autolycus while he was unconscious. "I've never seen that before in my life. I'm being framed."
"The Eye of Phoebus. There's a bounty on this piece, no? The owner will pay well for its safe return? Well, I am its owner now." He motioned to his guards. "Put him to death. A slow death. Then hang his head and hands from the walls."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. You got your Eye back, I've learned my lesson. What's the harm in letting me go?"
"I never let anyone go. I want my treasures safe. If I keep your head and hands, you can't tell or write anything for anyone."
The guards dragged a protesting Autolycus back down below, and bolted him onto a wooden wheel and left him there alone. "This can't be good," he said to himself. "I gotta get outta this mess." Autolycus eased the slipcase of lockpicks out of his sleeve and into his nimble fingers. A few moments, and Autolycus had his right arm free.
Quickly, he picked and unfastened the rest of the bolts, and dropped lightly to the floor. Creeping down the corridor, Autolycus ran into one of the same guards as before. After feeling the guard's hands on his neck, he asked, "I bet you're wondering what I'm doing here. You tell me, and we'll both know."
The guard dragged him back before Baratus. "He escaped from the Wheel, milord."
"Did he? Tie him to that column." Baratus watched as a yelling Autolycus was tied to the central column in the throne room. He called out, "Archer!! Give me your bow!" Baratus took the bow from the bowman and strung an arrow. But before he could let it fly, a voice stopped him from behind.
"No--don't kill him."
"Ares!! My lord!!" Baratus and everyone else in the courtroom knelt before the god.
"Get up." Ares looked from Baratus to Autolycus. "I have a proposal for you."
"I'm too young to get married right now. Besides, I'm not in love with you," said Autolycus.
"That tongue may yet be the death of you. One more comment like that, and I will kill you myself."
"You have no sense of humor." Ares gave him a look that said, 'you're pushing it,' and pointed at him. "Okay, okay, I'm shutting up."
"Good. Now here is the deal. You steal Xena's chakram and bring it back here to me. When you've done that, I'll renounce the claim on your life. If you fail, I'll kill you."
"Gee, this is tough. Get killed by Ares, get killed by Baratus, or get killed by Xena."
"Well?" asked Ares, "Are you going to do it or not?"
Autolycus thought to himself for a moment. "Well, if I'm going to die, might as well have fun. Sure, I'll do it."
"Untie him," Ares ordered. Baratus' men hurried to obey Ares. They freed Autolycus and he stood still a moment, flexing the circulation back to normal. "So what are you waiting for? Get out there and get the chakram!"
Autolycus left Baratus' castle and made his way to the nearest town, Shalin. As soon as he entered Shalin, he went to a home on the edge of the town and knocked twice on the heavy door.
"Who's there?" asked a gruff voice from behind the door.
"Who wants to know?" replied Autolycus.
The door opened enough for Autolycus to slip in then was bolted shut behind him. Autolycus collapsed into a chair and slender arms wrapped around his neck. He put his hand on the arms to keep them there. "Meravin?"
"Who else?" she asked, from behind him. "What's wrong, Autolycus?"
"I'm in trouble, baby. Big trouble."
"What kind of trouble?" asked Dagnus, the gruff-voiced man who'd opened the door earlier. "How big?"
"Baratus and Ares."
"Ares? How did you get on Ares' bad side?" asked Meravin.
"I was trying to get the Eye of Phoebus out of Baratus' castle treasury, and I got caught. I broke out, but I got caught again. Baratus was ready to kill me but Ares said that if I stole Xena's chakram he'd let me live."
"Are you going to do it?" asked Dagnus.
"Yes. I'm going to steal the chakram, I'm gonna take it to Ares, and I'm leaving there with my head intact."
"Why don't you just ask Xena for the chakram? It'd be safer," suggested Meravin.
"Yeah, right. "Oh, Xena, hi. Remember me, The King of Thieves? Look, I need your chakram, if you don't mind." I can just see her laughing now."
"Then explain the situation to her, tell her why you need the chakram, and then you ask her for it."
"And she says no, so I'm right back to having to steal it. So I might as well go ahead and take it. Thanks, Meravin, but no thanks."
"You like this, don't you?" Meravin accused. "The danger, the risk, the high stakes? It excites you, doesn't it?"
"Yeah, in its own way, I guess that it does thrill me." Changing the subject, "I need to know where Xena is," he said to Dagnus.
"Don't tell him, Daddy. Make him do this by himself."
Dagnus quieted Meravin with a look. "Word has it that Xena is camped three days ride south of here. But it's dangerous for you to travel tonight. Wait until morning. Meravin and I will pack you food and prepare a mount for you. You'll leave at first light."
Dagnus left to prepare a bed for Autolycus, which left Autolycus and Meravin alone.
Autolycus tried to speak to Meravin. "Meravin, I--"
"Don't even speak to me. You come in here, tell us that you're risking your life for an unnecessary thrill, with a total disregard for your own safety and well being. You aren't immortal, Autolycus--you can be killed just as easily as the rest of us."
"Meravin, listen. I don't want to do this, but I don't want to die, either. And I'm not doing it for the thrill. I'm doing this because I can't hide from a god. And until I do this, everyone around me is going to be in danger. So if you can't believe me, then you think whatever lets you sleep at night."
"Autolycus, I'm--." This time it was Autolycus who turned away from Meravin and left her alone there. Meravin was upset, but only for a moment. Then she had an idea. She wrapped herself in one of Dagnus' hooded cloaks and snuck out of her house. Quickly slipping into and out of the shadows, she made her way to their stables and mounted her black mare. She thundered past her home on the way to the road.
Dagnus heard the horse ride by. He called to Autolycus, "Is Meravin with you, Autolycus?"
"No, I left her in the other room. Isn't she with you?"
"She's not. I heard a horse ride by just now," said Dagnus. "You don't think--"
"Yeah. I've got a bad feeling about this, Dagnus. Do you think she's gone to Xena or to Baratus to face down Ares?"
"I'd bet my last dinar she's gone to see Xena."
"Yeah," Autolycus said, feeling queasy on the inside. "You said south?"
"Yes. Take my stallion--he's faster, you'll be able to overtake her mare." Dagnus led Autolycus to the stable and situated him with the spirited horse. "She'll have about fifteen minutes head start on you. Stay on the main road--enter the woods and you'll get lost. If Meravin enters the woods, stay on the road and you'll arrive at Xena's camp a little while after she does."
Spurring the horse forward, Autolycus chased after Meravin. After galloping at full speed for about half an hour, he saw a cloaked rider up ahead, and he slowly began to catch up to him.
Meravin slowed enough to look behind her when she heard hoofbeats. She recognized her father's horse, and veered off into the woods, staying out of sight but parallel to the road.
Autolycus started to follow her but remembered Dagnus' warning: Stay on the main road--enter the woods and you'll get lost. If Meravin enters the woods, stay on the road. Meravin knew the woods--he didn't. She would make it to Xena before he did, he hoped. "Then I'll kill her for running off like this."
Meravin burst out of the woods about a hundred yards in front of him, her mare flying down the road. Autolycus tried to keep Meravin in his sights. He knew sooner or later the horse would tire and she'd have to stop. He'd catch her then.
After about an hour all together, Meravin's mare began to tire and slow. She didn't want to let her slow down because she knew her father was behind her. She'd get yelled at for running out by herself in the middle of the night. But the mare wouldn't cooperate with her. Desperate to reach Xena's camp before either Autolycus or her father did, she veered off into the woods again, letting the mare slow to a canter while staying below the tree line, out of sight.
Autolycus immediately slowed the horse when Meravin disappeared again. This time, Autolycus didn't hear the rapid pounding of hooves so he allowed his horse to slow down. He stared hard through the woods, trying to see some glimpse of something to let him know she was still close. But she was wearing a dark cloak, on a dark horse in the black of night—what was there to see? He was about to spur the horse on when Meravin's horse came out of the woods and pulled up beside his.
"Don't 'Hi, Dad' me, young lady."
"You're riding my father's horse! I thought that you were my father!"
"You better be glad that I'm not,baby. If I were, I'd beat you for running off like this and I'd beat you again for scaring me."
"You were scared for me?" asked Meravin as the horses trotted on together.
"Of course. You go out in the middle of the night on a black horse in a black cloak, almost kill your horse, and then you don't tell anyone where you're going or what you're doing. I want you to go back home, Meravin. I want you to go back home where you'll be safe."
"I'm not going home. I'm going to talk to Xena."
"She doesn't know you from Hercules. Why is she going to listen to you?"
"She will because she'll have to. I'll make her listen."
"Yeah, right. The only thing you're going to make Xena is mad. Go home."
"Autolycus, I'm not the same young woman you met the last time you left Dagnus' house eight months ago. I can take care of myself now, my father saw to that. I can fight. And I remember what you taught some of the children--I can steal. What you taught them was magic, was slight of hand, but I figured out the method behind it."
"Meravin, I don't care. I want you to go back home to Dagnus' house right now. I told you before, until I do this, no one around me is safe from Ares."
"Autolycus, you are going on a dangerous mission, and you're going to need help. Why not me? And don't say it's because I'm a woman. If you do, I swear to the gods that I'll tell Xena you said that women don't know how to do dangerous things because they're women."
"You wouldn't," he said. Then, seeing her mulish expression. "I take it back. You would. And you'd enjoy it, wouldn't ya? Look, baby, I don't want anyone's help, okay? I don't need it. I'm Autolycus."
"Yeah, and that'll be what they carve on your tombstone after Xena gets through with you."
He pretended to ignore her, knowing that wouldn't work for long. "It's time to camp for the night. Or for what's left of it."
"You rest. I'm going to keep riding ahead."
"No, you're not. You're going to stop so I can rest and keep an eye on you."
"Yes, I am. I'm not stopping. I'm going to talk to Xena, and I'm going to make her give you the chakram. And if that doesn't work, I'm going to steal it."
"Meravin, I'm hungry. I'm tired. I don't want to argue. I need to rest."
"Why can't you stop without me?"
"I can't let a woman get the best of me. I'll never live it down. I'll never be able to show my face among men again."
"With some of the company you keep, I'd say that's one problem you don't have to worry about."
"Was I mistaken or did you just try to insult me? Was there an insult somewhere in that statement? I didn't hear one."
"The gentlemen doth protest too much, methinks."
"Methinks? I don't think so. Besides, I can't stand the thought of letting you out of my sight."
"Why? Is it just because I'm just so beautiful?" she asked, wishfully.
"No, it's because your father would kill me. Then again, he'd have to get in line and take a number. Please, can we stop now?" he whined. "If not for me, for the horses at least?"
Meravin sighed. " Okay. Fine. I'll stop. But just remember I'm doing it for the horses."
"My horse thanks you,"he said snidely.
"I've got some food in my bag. There's enough for us to share and have enough for the next two days left over. But after we've eaten and the horses are rested, we're back on our way."
Autolycus knew better than to argue when she was like this. He felt in the bag to make sure that the length of rope he thought he'd seen earlier was still there. "Sure, baby. Whatever you say."
"Come on. I know where there's a clearing in the woods ahead. We can build a fire and cook there, and we can't be seen from the road. It's also flat enough that you can sleep comfortably there. For a while." Meravin moved into the lead. "Follow me closely. It's dark in the woods, and you can get lost if you don't know the way."
Autolycus followed Meravin to the clearing she'd promised. It was a beautiful place, he thought, bathed in moonlight from the break in the trees. Meravin went to her mare and took one of the bags off and threw it at him. "Here. There's food in here. I'll go get wood for a fire, if you'll get the food together." Meravin walked out into the darkness and Autolycus opened the bag. In the bag there was all kinds of traveling food. Dried meat, bread, vegetables, and a water skin was slung over Meravin's saddle. Underneath the bread was some kind of sweet apple cookies, which were his favorite, and some dried spices in plain paper packets. He took the food out and laid it on top of a blanket he took off one of the horses, along with the length of rope. Meravin came back with an armload of kindling and a load of wood dragging behind her, tied with her belt. "I'll start the fire if you'll get the bedrolls put down for the night. Put them close to the fire--it's starting to get cold tonight. We'll have to get started at first light."
"How did you manage to get all of this together?"
"Are we disparaging women again? Are you saying that a woman can't do something like this by herself?"
"No, I'm just asking a question."
"Well, we keep packs like this made up for the people who come to us for help. This was the pack that we were going to send with you--that's why the apple cookies are in the bottom, because we know that you like them." Meravin seemed embarrassed by that admission, so she busied herself setting the wood about for the fire and getting it lighted. "I got enough wood so that it should last us through the night."
Autolycus came up to her and handed her some food. "Here. You got camp set up, so I cooked."
Meravin took the plate from Autolycus. "You didn't cook. I did."
"You made this?"
"With my own two hands. Why do you sound surprised? What do you think I do all day, knit? I cooked the meat, set it in the drying shed, baked the bread and the apple cookies, picked and cleaned the vegetables. I even bought the spice--the salt and the sugar, and packeted them myself. Dad helped me put the bags together. I put the apple cookies in the bottom of one bag and put it at the very back in case you came back to us again. When my father saw that it was you who needed help, he set the bag out for you. But I took it with me when I left." The campfire was casting shadows, so Autolycus couldn't tell if Meravin was flushing or not. It sounded like she was.
They finished the meal in silence, and while Meravin took the plates and put them away, Autolycus felt under his blanket for the rope. Slowly he pulled it out and coiled it loosely in his hands. He stood up and hid the coil behind his back. When Meravin walked back into camp, he asked, "Meravin, would you come over here a moment? There is something that I'd like you to look at."
Meravin walked over to Autolycus, and he dropped the coils of rope around her. She started struggling while he tightened the ropes around her. "What are you doing to me!!!"
"Making sure that you're going to be here in the morning." Autolycus tightened the rope around her wrists and made sure they were tied around her back. He tied her feet together and made sure the rope secured her arms to her sides.
"Autolycus, I can't move!"
"That's sort of the idea." He picked her up and tossed her over his shoulder. "This way, I can get some sleep and not have to worry about you running off." He carried over to her bedroll and laid her down on it. "There you go." He put a blanket over her.
"I hate you, Autolycus!! Let me out of these!" she screamed, struggling vainly against the ropes.
"No you don't. You don't hate me. You love me. Everybody loves me." He lay down on his own roll. "Now, my advice is for you to get some sleep. First light comes early." He pulled his blanket over himself and went to sleep.
Meravin arched her back and inched her hands to pull out the dagger she had strapped to her thigh. Rolling onto her side, she pressed the tip of the dagger into the dirt, and began to rub the rope tying her hands together on the side of the dagger. In less time than it had taken Autolycus to tie her, she was free of the ropes that had held her, and she thought to herself, "After this is over, I've got to teach that boy how tie people up."
She took a piece of the rope over to Autolycus' bedroll, and tied one end around his hands and the other end around his feet. He was sleeping so soundly that he didn't even feel it when she tightened the knot around his wrists. She left him sleeping like that by the fire and led her horse out of the camp and onto the main road. When she reached the road, she laughed to herself. "I kind of wish I could see the look on his face when he wakes up." Mounting the horse, she rode off into the darkness.
The next morning, a pain in his shoulders woke Autolycus from his sleep. The first thing he noticed was the fire was out. The second thing was that Meravin was not where he'd left her last night. As he tried to roll onto his feet, he discovered what she'd done to him. "That's it," he said. "No more Mr. Nice Guy. The next time I see her, I'm gonna murder her. Killing her is much too easy on her." Fortunately, she hadn't been trying to make a point when she tied him up, so it was relatively easy for him to free himself. The problem that still remained was , how far ahead had she gotten. "Okay. Dagnus said it's three days south of Shalin. We've been traveling for a day, and she's been gone longer. She's probably got six hours or more on me, which means she's only got another day and a half or so, while I've got two days. That makes sense. Now, how can I make that time up? I can cut through the woods. No, no, let's be real here, Dagnus says I'd probably get lost. But my horse is faster than hers and he's fully rested. Her mare is slower and she's still probably tired. If I run full speed for another day, I might be able to catch her."
Then, in a moment of exasperation, "Why do I want to catch her? I mean, I get nothing but verbal abuse from her every time she opens her mouth. Let her go on ahead. Let her try and talk to Xena. Let her get her butt kicked. Let her see what I've known all along. Then let's see what she has to say." That resolution lasted as long as it took Autolycus to saddle and prepare the horse for riding. "I can't do that. I can't let her face Xena alone. Xena will kill her. For some demented reason, she's worried about me. Besides, I can't let her succeed when it'll make it look like she's better than me. I have my reputation to consider."
Autolycus got on the horse and rode off down the road, determined to find her. About six or seven miles down the road, he saw Meravin and her horse sitting under the shade of a tree. Meravin was drinking water from her waterskin.
"Took you long enough to get here," she said. "I've been waiting all morning for you."
"Why you little--" Autolycus took a deep breath. "How did you--why--"
"One complete question at a time, and please, no name calling. It's not polite."
"How did you get out of the ropes?"
"You don't know how to tie a knot. No, actually, it's a trade secret."
"I know all the trade secrets, remember? I invented most of them in the first place. How did you get out?"
"I'm not tellin'. Next question."
"Why did you tie me up?"
"To make a point. You need me. You slept through my escape, my tying you up, and my taking the horse out. The first sound that I made should have awakened you. But it didn't. It didn't even faze you. You slept through it like you've not got a care in the world. You could've slept through your own slaughter. You need someone's help, Autolycus. And since I'm here, you're stuck with me. Next."
"I don't suppose that there's anything that I can say or do to make you go home?"
"No, there isn't. Next."
"Why did you leave?"
"Because you tied me up, ignored me when I asked you to untie me, and put down my ability to do anything because I'm a woman. I wanted to show you that I am not only capable of doing things better than you can but I'm also deserving of your respect. Next question."
"Why do you want to come with me?"
"You didn't answer me."
"And I'm not going to. Next."
"Pertains to the same question, but I'll allow it. I don't want to tell you right now. It's not the right time." She sighed. "Have you had breakfast yet?"
"No. I didn't take the time to eat. I went riding off after a stubborn little witch who tied me up during the night."
"Here. Have some of my breakfast. Its good--I made it myself." As she handed him his food, she said, "I'm sorry, Autolycus. I did some rotten stuff, and I apologize. It was wrong of me to do it. Now, is there something that you want to say to me?"
"Yes, it was, and no, there isn't." Autolycus quickly finished his breakfast. "Is there any way that we can take off some of the time that I've wasted this morning?"
"Yes. There's a path through the woods that only us local girls know about. I'll take you there, but we have to hit the main road again when it begins to get dark. And when we camp tonight, I won't tie you up if you don't tie me up."
"Why do only girls know about it?"
"Because only girls can see it. You won't be able to see it--you'll just have to trust me that it's there and you're on it." She pointed to the path in the woods. "Do you see those two largest trees there? Where they form a sort of V shape?"
"The path is there. It runs between the trees there. I can see it clearly, yet all that you see is brush and brambles."
"My best friend told me that this was a path enchanted by Aphrodite once. It's said that when a woman walks this path, it will eventually lead her to her one true love. I don't believe it. My best friend says that she walked this path one day, and she had a dream on it about the man that she married. I followed it and I dreamed of--"
"Dreamed of what?"
"Nothing," she lied. "I didn't dream of anything."
Autolycus studied her as they saddled the horses. "You're lying to me."
"So what if I am? Now, are you ready to go?"
"Follow me, stay right behind me. If you feel like you're falling behind, let me know. Don't stray from behind me, not at all. If you do, you'll be lost in the woods where not even I can find you."
"I'm not sure that this is such a good idea anymore."
"You're not scared, are you?"
"Not much. But the idea of following a path I can't see bothers me. I like to see where I'm riding."
"You don't trust me, do you? Well, I can't blame you, not after last night. We'll stay in the main road for now. Maybe later we'll use the path."
"How much time will it save us?"
"Half a day, possibly more."
Autolycus pondered his limited options. It came down to did he want to take her along with him. Maybe if she thought he didn't trust her, she'd get hurt or angry enough to leave. "Okay, fine. We take your invisible path."
"The path is wide enough for two horses if you want to ride beside me. If that would make you feel better, that is." Meravin hurried her horse into the woods.
"I'll ride behind you for now, at least until we get onto the path good. Then I might move up."
"Whatever works for ya." Meravin led the way onto the path, and Autolycus followed her. Meravin kept looking behind herself to check to see that Autolycus was still following closely. He was silent, giving her time to think to herself, and she didn't like what she was thinking. Eight months ago, he came. He still sees me as the young girl I was then. He hasn't noticed how I've changed. He hasn't acknowledged what I've learned. I want to help him, but I can't keep fighting with him like this. He's still as handsome as he was before. Bethia was right--then again, she always is, that's why we're best friends--he is far too handsome for his own good. He's probably got women hanging off of him in every town he's gone to. And he's met so many people— Hercules, Iolaus, Gabrielle, Xena, even some of the Olympians. Xena was actually inside his body for a while. Why would he notice someone like me when he's met and worked with demigods and legends?
Autolycus was lost in thoughts of his own. I can't believe how she's changed in only a few months. She's picked up so many different things, I don't believe she's the same kid I met before. She cooks, she helps pack packs for runaways and people in trouble, and she has escape skills that are almost as good as mine. And she says that she can fight. I don't doubt it--Dagnus would have seen to that, especially with her working with people like me. She's not the type of person I normally meet--Meravin is well, normal. She's not someone I have to worry about bodyslamming me, or throwing me across the room, or beating me up with a staff. She's like me. She's got a wicked tongue. And now, she's following me--well, I'm following her at the moment--well, I know what I mean, at least-- on the most dangerous thing I've ever undertaken to do. How do I get her to go home? How do I convince her that the King Of Thieves can take care of himself just fine? She thinks that she can just slip in there, grab the chakram, and slip back out again. That's like ringing a bell in the temple and not waking the god. Xena would kill her before she got out of camp. And I don't have the heart to break it to her. Autolycus spurred his stallion up beside of Meravin's mare. Seeing her fierce expression, he decided to try and tease her a moment. "Do I even want to know who you're thinking about?"
When Meravin first heard the question, she jumped slightly. "You."
"Me? Whatever I did, I'm sorry for it."
"Well, you just looked like you were angry with whomever or whatever you were thinking about, and if you were thinking about me, I'm sorry for whatever I did to make you that angry. You're not still mad about that rope thing last night, are you?"
"Nah. I got over that when I got loose."
"You're mad that I didn't compliment your apple cookies, which did make an excellent breakfast, by the way."
"Ah. You're mad because I think that you should go home."
"Not really, but that's part of what I'm thinking about."
"So you'll go?"
"Yes," she sighed. "I'll go back home as soon as I get you off this path, if that's what you want."
"It's what I want you to do. You'll be a lot safer there than you would be with me."
A thought suddenly occurred to him. "What brought this on?"
Meravin tried to look innocent. She failed. "What do you mean?"
"I've been badgering you ever since I caught up with you to turn around and go home and you've been stubborn as a mule about it. Suddenly, you pop up without argument and say, sure, I'll go home if you want me to. I ain't buying it, baby."
"There's nothing to buy, Autolycus. I figured that if you didn't want me around, then there was nothing that I could do about it, and I might as well go back where I'm wanted."
Oh, no. She's trying to pull a guilt trip on me. Well, it ain't gonna work, not with this man. "Okay, you can come along. But only if you do exactly as I say."
That'll get her to go home. She'll never listen to me.
"You're the boss, Autolycus."
"You're serious. You're going to do exactly what I tell you to do?"
"That's what I said."
"I don't believe it, not for a second. All right. The first time that you don't listen to me, I'll tie you to the horse and send it running for home. Got that?"
"Yes, SIR!" she said, giving him a bow from the waist. Meravin smiled when she heard his teeth gritting. "That's bad for your teeth, grinding them like that."
"Now I know how Mother felt. She said that if I ever met someone just like me, they'd drive me as crazy as I did her."
"Autolycus, surely you didn't drive your sweet mother crazy!"
"Sure I did. I drove her just as nuts as you're driving me. I disagreed with her all the time, I did everything she told me not to do, I pulled tricks on her, I ran away from her when she called me...everything that I did to her, you're doing to me. This is my mother's revenge on me. Straight from Hades, it is. When I did this to Mother, she told me that some time it would come back to me in spades. And boy, was she right. Mother, if you can hear me, I'm sorry for everything that I ever did to you."
"You know something? If this is how I'm going to turn out, I think that it's time I changed my ways," she said. "If this is the way that I'm going to turn out, a major U-turn in the road of life is in order. And the sooner I get started, the quicker I get done."
"Are you trying to insult me? Again? I thought we established that you couldn't."
"If I had insulted you, you wouldn't have had to ask me if I did. You'd know it, or at least your colossal ego would. Then again, as big as it is, it might not feel a bruise. It'd take the hammer of a Cyclops to pound it through to you, because you've got a skull as hard as the swordmaker's anvil."
Autolycus got fed up with taking her stuff. Impulsively, he steered his horse off the path and into the brambles to the side. Meravin pulled back the horse's reins so hard she reared. "Autolycus, don't!" She fought her mare down and got her turned around. The stallion was far outracing the mare. She screamed his name again, but he didn't slow down. When he rode out of sight, Meravin stopped the horse and began to cry. "Oh, ye gods, what have I done here? I didn't mean to drive him away, I just didn't want him to know how much I like being around him. Please don't let him die. I've got to find him. If anything has happened to him, it will be my fault. Ye gods, please don't let anything happen to him."
She reached into her other bag, and pulled out a small bow and a quiver of arrows. She slung the bow over her back and rode off in the direction Autolycus had gone.
Meanwhile, Autolycus was riding as fast as he could. He was trying to outrun Meravin's insulting words. He couldn't understand why she didn't worship him as many other women did, the way that she used to. She used to think I was a hero, one of the good guys. What happened? he asked himself. She grew up, that's what happened. If you'd been around more--Autolycus stopped himself. "I should have been around more. Dagnus has always been a friend to me, but I've only gone to him when I needed something. Meravin--"
What about Meravin? Didn't notice her, did ya? asked a mouthy part of his mind. "No, I didn't," he said aloud to himself. "I didn't notice her. Not even this time." Not even when she came up behind you and put her arms around you. Didn't notice that, did ya? Just thought that it was your due? Something that you were entitled to? "No, I didn't think anything about it." Maybe you should have. "All right--no, I am NOT talking to myself anymore." Are you sure about that? Autolycus didn't answer the question, but he did think some more. I haven't been fair to Meravin. I've been treating her like a child. No wonder she's angry with me. I'd be mad, too. I shouldn't have run off like this. Now I'm lost, he thought, switching gears. And I've got no idea where I am or where I'm going. She told me not to leave the path, that if I did, I'd be lost beyond her ability to find me. I'm not going to be able to complete my mission. Ares is going to kill me.
Autolycus stopped the horse. He'd ridden so far into the woods that he couldn't see the path or the road. He got off the horse and tied the reins to a branch beside him. He took a couple of steps away from the horse, and promptly fell into a hole dug near the base of the tree. The hole was only deep enough to reach up to his calf, but it pitched him headfirst into the tree trunk. He felt a sickening wrench in his ankle and heard his head crack against the wood. Autolycus refused to let himself pass out. Take it easy, Slick, he told himself. You don't know how bad it's going to be. He used the tree to pull himself up and tried to stand. A nauseating pain shot up his leg and into his stomach as the ankle buckled under him. He pushed himself against the tree trunk. It's worse than I thought. Not going to be able to move for a while. At least I've got water. Despite his efforts to stay awake, he fell asleep.
Meravin rode off in the direction she'd seen him take earlier. She rode slowly, looking to either side, praying to the gods for some sign of him. But for the longest time she saw nothing and heard less. Night was falling, and Meravin was beginning to despair of finding Autolycus when she heard a horse whinny. "Tenias?" She heard the horse whicker in response to hearing his name. She urged her horse forward, toward Tenias' soft neighing. "Come on girl, we got to find them." She rode for about another five minutes or so, then when she saw Tenias, then Autolycus slumped against the tree, her heart choked in her throat and she got off and ran to him.
"Autolycus? Autolycus, no." She knew he was still alive, but other than that she couldn't tell. When he didn't wake up when she shook him, she knew that something was wrong. Then she saw the mark on his head where he'd hit the tree. "I did this to you. This is all my fault." She tugged Autolycus down to a prone position. She folded her riding cape into a sort of pillow under his head. She then started checking him for more injuries. She stopped when she got to his leg. "Oh, Autolycus." The ankle and part of the calf was swelled to almost twice its normal size. He hadn't taken the boot off yet. She slid her hand under her skirt and pulled out her dagger.
"So that's how you got out of the ropes," he whispered.
"I think so. And, please, don't yell."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean any of the things that I said about you."
"No, it's not. I sometimes let myself get carried away, and I took some of my frustrations out on you." She touched his swollen flesh, and he hissed. "This is going to hurt."
"I mean it, Autolycus. This is really going to hurt. I'm going to be as gentle as I can, but when I cut the boot off, the pressure is going to be off of it, and the pain is going to come rushing from ankle and up the leg. Have you eaten anything?"
"Only a little water."
"Good, then you won't have to worry about being sick." She put the tip of the knife to his boot, then stopped. "No. I saw a small pond back a few paces." She took one of her blankets off her horse. She tore it into strips, and looked around a moment. She saw a rock nearby and drug it over to Autolycus. "Here, prop your foot up on this. It'll alleviate a little of the pain. Now, I'll be right back." She walked over to the pond she'd passed earlier. She looked around the pond and saw a bird taking a drink. She watched the bird to make sure that the water wasn't poisonous. It wasn't and the bird flew off. She dipped her hand in it and put it to her lips. It was safe. And cold, as she'd hoped. She soaked the strips of blanket in the cold water, and looked for something to carry them back in. She saw one of the trees had large fruits. She saw one of them on the ground and picked it up. As luck would have it, it was a hard shell split in two halves, and one half had been hollowed out by a hungry animal. It made a perfect bowl. She scooped some of the cold water into it, and left the strips in it to soak while she went back for the water skins.
"It's good water," she told Autolycus. "I'm going to fill the skins, too." She took them back with her and filled them in the pool. She carried the bowl and strips back to where Autolycus had struggled to sit up. "Lay back down!"
"Whatever you say," Autolycus said. "My head's still down there. I might as well join it."
"Take a deep breath, sweetheart. This is going to hurt."
"Sweethe--aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaart!!!" Autolycus screamed as she slit the boot and relieved the pressure on the swelling.
Meravin dropped the knife and took his head in her lap. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. I didn't want to hurt you."
"I know," he gritted out. "I just wasn't ready for it."
"You don't have to be brave, Autolycus. I know how much it hurts. I did this one time, and I cried for two days because it hurt so much."
"You?" he asked, gasping. "I'd have thought you'd be too tough."
"Me. Cried like a baby."
"Then you won't mind if I pass out now, will you?"
"Not at all. Go right--ahead," she finished, as his head drooped. She gently laid his head on her cape and took the strips out of the fruit shell. Carefully, she wrapped the cold strips around his ankle. She slowly eased the rock under his knee and let his foot rest in the makeshift bowl of cold water. She checked to see if her ministrations had woken him, but he was still out. She went to her horse to get the food out of her bag. She sat down beside him and made herself a quick snack of some of the vegetables in the bag. She saved the meat and the bread for him--he'd need it to get better quickly. It was getting cold, so she gathered some of the fallen branches and made a small fire. She was staring into the flames thinking when Autolycus spoke to her.
"Is it just me, or is it cold out here?"
"A little of both. You're colder than me because of the water."
"Move the fire closer."
"I can't. Any closer and I'll spook the horses. Tenias doesn't like to be so close to fire." She got up and got her other blanket, and then his bedroll off his horse. She draped the blankets over him. "Better?"
Meravin laid down beside Autolycus and wrapped her arms around him. "How about now? That feel any better?"
Oh yeah, that feels good. "Mmm. Much." Autolycus sighed. "That feels warm." Meravin shifted away to get back up. "No--don't go."
"Please?" Don't leave me, he thought. It sounded half questioning, and half pleading.
She moved back closer to him. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Meravin said.
"Talk to me. Like you did before. Tell me a story--anything to get my mind off the pain."
Is it that bad?"
"I feel like my heart's beating in my ankle."
"Let me change the water."
"No--any colder and I won't be able to feel it."
"I thought that was the idea."
"Numbness is one thing. Frigidity is something else. I don't know if can take being much colder." Or much more of your remedy for it.
"Okay, okay, forget it. What do you want me to talk about?"
"I don't care. Just talk to me about something."
"Okay. Uh, have you ever met Bethia? My best friend?"
"No, I don't think so."
"She doesn't like you very much. She thinks that you think too much of yourself."
"You share her sentiments?"
"Sometimes, but not really. I think you're a fine man, Autolycus. Did you know that when I was a little girl, I wanted to be like you? I did. I wanted to be a master thief, the Queen of Thieves, even. I'd always see you at the house talking to Daddy, and you'd always bring me a little something. Bethia used to tease me that you were spoiling me for good men. I still have the things you brought me. Remember the time you robbed the galley ship? You brought me a gold necklace with a lion's head on it." Meravin slipped a chain out from under her hair and showed it to him.
"I remember that. I got that out of a lady's chest in the hold. I thought of you when I saw it."
"You helped me to put it on when you brought it to me, and I haven't taken it off since. I've also got the different coins you'd bring home." I've kept everything, every word you've ever spoken to me, every look you've ever given me.
"I didn't know that they meant so much to you."
"It's not so much the individual piece; although each one was beautiful, it was the story that you told me about each piece that made it special. Like the story you told us about the necklace. Daddy used to tell me afterwards not to believe a word that you said. He said that you were a good man, but not to listen to you closely. He said that you'd puff me up giving me presents."
"You were always a special kid, Meravin." I just didn't notice it before.
"Nice of you to finally notice."
"I noticed. Why do you think that I brought you the presents? I didn't bring presents to anyone else. I just haven't thought about it lately." Autolycus shifted position and gasped.
"Bethia laughed at me one time. It was the last time that you were here. I'd just had a birthday--you didn't know, but you brought a present anyway, just like you always did. But this time it was something different. It was a small ivory leopard. Handcarved. You said that you carved it, but I knew you didn't."
"I took it from a chest of gold I stole from a tax collector."
"I showed it to Bethia, like I did everything else. That was the only thing that you gave me that she liked. The other things were too gaudy, or too plain, or they had something wrong with them. But the ivory leopard she liked. She said that she couldn't believe that you had chosen something that beautiful to give me."
"So what did she laugh at?"
"What I said after that." When I said that a man only gave presents like that to his lover. And that I was going to be that someday.
"What did you say?"
"I ain't tellin'. But Bethia said that my imagination was running wild with me in tow."
"Well, I'm glad that you liked it."
"I did. I love it. I think that it's my favorite piece. I still have it. It's still unbroken, in a padded box in my bedroom. I take it out when I get lonely. I even named him. His name is Sobra."
"That's a beautiful story. Is that what you meant about the story making it special?"
"Yeah, that's what I mean. And it's not just a story, it's the truth."
"Tell me about the magic path."
"It's something of a local story. Aphrodite came to Shalin long ago disguised as a mortal. The path was visible to everyone then. On the path, she came across a pair of lovers having a fight. The man was furious with the woman because she was threatening to bring their association out into the open and tell his wife. The lover truly did love the man, and she wanted to wed him. The man had chased her down this path and was trying to kill her, to keep their affair secret. That's when Aphrodite intervened. She struck the man senseless temporarily and set the woman on the path. She told her to follow it and not to look behind her. So when the man regained his senses, he knew that there was a path there, but he could not see it. He tried crashing through but it was no use. The woman stayed straight and did not look back. She came out to where the path meets the road. She met a man there who asked her where she'd come from. She turned to point out the path, but he couldn't see it. From that day on, no man has been able to travel that path without a woman to guide him. He must depend on her good will to get him through there. There have been a few women who have taken advantage of this and deliberately lost their men in the woods, but they have been few. Most women don't do that. It came to pass though, one night two girls were walking on the path and a storm came. They sought shelter under one of the trees, and they
fell asleep there, waiting for the storm to subside. While they were sleeping, both women had dreams of meeting a stranger whom, in the dream, they ended up wedding. When the women left the path, each went their own way. Within a month, both women had met the men that they dreamed of, and married them. It happened to Bethia, too. She and I had been to a wedding celebration, and we'd cut through the path on our way home. We were tired, and we both took short naps under the trees. Bethia dreamed of Carius, the man she's married to. Me, I didn't dream."
"I think you did dream," Autolycus said, half asleep. "I think you did."
"Okay, I did dream."
"Who did you dream about?"
"I can't tell you."
"You wouldn't believe me."
"I dreamed of three men. They were in the same dream. One of them was you. I dreamed of you first. The second man was a tall man, dark, dressed in black leather with long black hair. He had terrible eyes. But he was handsome, too, but in a dangerous way."
"Sounds like Ares," he said.
"It is. I found that out later. The third man wore a dark brown cloak. He was handsome, but in a frightening way. And there was a woman with him, a beautiful blond woman in a white dress, carrying a torch."
"A torch? And a white dress?"
"Yes. It's Celesta, and I think the man is Hades."
"You dreamed of the God of the Underworld and the Carrier of Souls?"
"Yes. I dreamed first of you. We were in a dark place together, and we were working and then suddenly a bright light broke through into the darkness, and the second man stepped out of the light. He reached out to me, tried to pull me to him, and I didn't want to take his hand, but suddenly you were gone--he'd sent you away somewhere, and I was falling. I took his hand to keep from falling, and he pulled me up onto the rim of a great chasm. He spoke to me, but I don't recall what he said, then he pushed me in, and Celesta caught me and carried me to Hades, who wrapped his cloak around me. And that's when I woke up. I didn't tell Bethia that. I haven't told anyone about my dream before, not even my father."
"I don't like it," Autolycus said. "I don't like this at all. You dreamed of me, then Ares, then of Death."
"Not exactly a logical procession, is it? I was happy when I dreamt of you, frightened when I dreamt of Ares, and content when I dreamt of Celesta and Hades. I don't know what it means. I wanted to go to an oracle, but since I didn't tell my father about my dream, I didn't think that he'd understand my sudden desire to visit an oracle."
"Did you talk to anyone else about it?"
"No. I didn't tell anyone. You are the first person that I've told of it." She sighed.
"It frightens me sometimes to think of it. I don't really know what to think of it, so I tell people that I didn't dream. I don't care if they think that I am lying or not. But now, do you see why I was determined to come along with you, when I found out Ares was involved?"
"Aren't you scared?"
"No. Because of two things. One is that you're with me. Nothing happened to me while you were with me. And two, I won't let myself be afraid. I won't be ruled by my fears."
"Meravin, I'm scared for you if you're not scared for yourself."
"Sssh. Don't be. Go to sleep. You need your rest, Autolycus."
Meravin stroked Autolycus' hair and hummed a wordless melody. "Sleep, my sweet, sleep."
"I won't. Now go to sleep!" She laid down closer to him and put her arm on his waist. "See, I'm here. I'm not going anywhere." She put her head on her other arm and went to sleep herself. She was awakened later by some slight thrashing and muttering by Autolycus. She only heard one thing--'you can't have her'--before he dropped into a whisper again. She tried to calm him, but he only got more agitated when she tried to hold his arms down to still him. She let him go, and the first thing that he did was reach out blindly for something, and feel frantically for it. When one of his hands chanced to brush her arm, he grabbed it and pulled her back down. She was on top of him, and his arms were locked behind her back. She couldn't move, but he seemed to calm immediately. She tried to loosen his grip and scoot out, but she couldn't. Beneath that handsome exterior lay muscle, she realized. She didn't know why she'd previously thought of him as physically weak, but she had. And then, in a moment of clarity, she realized what her dream might mean. She knew that she might die, and that both Autolycus and Ares would play a part in it. That's why she'd dreamed of both men. Troubled, she couldn't sleep for the rest of the night.
In the morning, Meravin peeled the strips of blanket off his ankle and looked at it. It was purple, but not as swollen as it had been the previous night. She dumped the water and set the strips to warm by the fire. "Keeping something warm on it all the time now will help with the pain and the swelling." She handed him a plate of meat and bread and vegetables. "Have something to eat," she said, snacking on the remainder of her breakfast. "I'm going to get you out of here. I'll help you on Tenias, and I'll put Daria's reins on Tenias' saddle, and I'll lead them both. And when we get back on the path, we'll be at Xena's camp in no time."
"I'm not going."
"You heard me. I'm not going. I'm not going because I can't do it without you, and I'm not willing to put you in that kind of danger, not after what you told me last night." And not after the dream I had.
"Autolycus, listen to me. Last night, I had a realization about my dream. I realized that it could hold me back, or it could free me. I've decided that I'm going to let it free me."
"I really don't like the way that you're talking this morning. You sound like you've made some kind of decision."
"I have. I've decided that I'm going to live my life the way that I want to, and not be held back by anything."
"What kind of realization did you have last night, exactly?"
"I realized that I might die. Soon. That's what my dream was trying to tell me. And I decided, armed with that knowledge, I can either hole up and wait for it to come get me, or I can go out and face it, and live until it comes. It was last night when I realized that I had started on a certain path when I came on this adventure with you, and I'm too far on it to stop now. You can go back--I'll put you on the road and you can go back to my father's house. He'll protect you there. But I'm going on. I'm going to Xena and I'm taking the chakram. And I'll take the chakram to Ares myself, and force him to relinquish his claim on your life."
"I can't let you do that," Autolycus said. "You know I can't."
"So you'll come with me?"
"Good. Then we had better get moving." She picked up the hot cloths from the fireside. "This is going to hurt again at first, but the heat will make it feel better." She carefully wound the hot strips over the swollen flesh. "Come on. Lean on me, and we'll get you onto the horse." She lead Tenias over to where Autolycus was struggling to stand by the tree. She slipped his arm around her shoulder, and her arm around his waist. "Don't put your weight on the foot--put it on me." She slowly helped Autolycus hobble over to Tenias. "Pull yourself into the saddle."
Autolycus did so and situated himself on the horse's back. "What are you doing?"
"I'm closing up camp," Meravin replied, packing the rolls up and stamping out the last embers of the fire. She tied the packs to Daria and took the reins of both horses. "Come on," she said, leading the horses back the way she'd came yesterday. "We ought to intersect the path up ahead about two hundred paces or so."
"You're determined to do this, aren't you? You're determined to die?"
"No. I've determined to follow my destiny. And if my destiny includes death, then I won't be afraid to embrace it." She looked back over her shoulder at him. "I want you to make me a promise, Autolycus. Actually, I want you to promise me two things."
He looked at her eyes and saw how serious she was. "All right. What do you want me to promise?"
"That if I don't come through this adventure or whatever this is we're on together, I want you to go back to my home and tell my father everything. About the dream, about my decisions, everything. If he doesn't believe you about the dream, which I know he won't, I want you to tell him to look in my bedroom in the box with the leopard. In the box there is a piece of rolled parchment, detailing my dream the night that I had it."
"All right. And what is the second promise?"
"It will come later. But when it comes, you won't have time to argue with me. You'll have to promise it to me then."
"Meravin, you're talking like this second promise is going to be a deathbed--" Seeing her face, "By the gods, that's it, isn't it? This second promise is going to be something on your deathbed. That's why you won't tell me what it is, so I can't refuse it? Let me tell you this--I don't take deathbed promises, sweetheart."
"Then things shall be as they may."
Autolycus was beginning to lose patience with this attitude Meravin has. "It's like you've accepted death. You can fight it, you know. Tell it you're not ready to go, that you have more things to do, things to see, people to know."
"The Fates work for a reason, Autolycus. They spin the Tapestry, of which my life is a single strand. My strand touches few others--it's not a main part of the design. So an early removal is necessary for the continuity of the whole."
"I can't believe you're acting like this. If you won't think of yourself, think of the people around you. What do--how do you think Dagnus will feel, burying his only child? And Bethia--do you want to desert your best friend? And me--" Autolycus stopped before he could finish the thought.
Meravin mistook what Autolycus didn't finish. "I'm not going to leave you before you're back on your feet, Autolycus. Everyone that you mentioned, they have someone to care for them when I leave."
I don't, Autolycus thought to himself. "That's not what I meant. I meant for you to think of their feelings, their hearts." My heart, he realized. "You said the Fates spin a Tapestry. Fine, let's talk textiles. Look at your personal Tapestry, the tapestry of your life. You say your thread hasn't touched many others. Let's take a look at that. Start with Dagnus. He brought you with him from Corinth when your mother died. In Corinth, you have a family there. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, all of whom love you. When was the last time you saw them or spoke with them? When you came to Shalin with your father, you've made friends, Bethia foremost among them. Then, from the time that you were old enough, you've helped Dagnus help many people escape from Baratus' tyranny. You've nursed several of these people back to good health before sending them on their way. You've taken care of their children. You've fed them, clothed them. You want to talk about making difference in someone's life, CHANGING THEIR FATES, look at all those people. Look at ME. If not for you, I wouldn't be here now. I--"
"No, you're right. You wouldn't be here. You'd be on your way to steal the chakram on your own, safe and healthy. But because of me, look where you are. You're behind in your mission. You're hurt. And you're arguing when you should be saving your strength."
"You're right. I'm hurt. Who's to say that I wouldn't have been injured going another way? You can't say everything's your fault. If you hadn't been here, maybe I wouldn't have gotten hurt. Maybe if you don't brush your hair tomorrow the earth will swallow you up. Maybes will drive you crazy. At least this way there's someone here who'll keep me from killing myself. And let's face it, this isn't the first time that you've nursed me when I've needed you, is it?"
"No," she whispered.
"No, it isn't. The Diomedic Arrow. The poison on the arrow. You got me through that. I don't remember much about it, but you were there, with a cold cloth and homemade meat broth. The apple cookies in the pack you packed before. Before this time, I mean. The second time I came for Dagnus's help, they were in the bag. Another time I found a poultice of herbs for a wound I thought I hid. This time, when I came into your house, I needed serious sympathy. Who did I get it from? You. Did I know I needed it? Not at the time. Did you know? Yes. You came to me and you put your arms around me. It's what I needed and I didn't know it but YOU DID. This time. Every time. You are willing to risk your life for mine. I bet that you either haven't eaten since I got hurt or you've been saving the best of it for me."
"Saving it for you. You need it more."
"Do you see what I mean? You're being so accepting, like this is the way things have to be, or else. And it's because of a dream that you won't admit to having on an enchanted path."
"You want to talk about dreams, Autolycus? Then you tell me about your dream last night. And don't say that you didn't dream, because I know that you did. Let me refresh your memory. 'You can't have her,' you said, and then you grabbed me and wouldn't let me go. Most of the night you held me so tight I couldn't breathe," Meravin said, choked with emotion. And I enjoyed every second of it, my love--but you can never know that.
"You really want to know? All right. I dreamed that I fought Ares for your life. When I took the chakram to him, he wanted you, too. He wanted your life because of how good you are. He wanted your goodness gone from the world. It wasn't about the chakram at all, it was about you. He almost had you, but you ran from him and back to me. Then everything went dark. I couldn't see anything but then I heard you crying my name. He had you. Then I saw you--there was light radiating out from you, and I ran to you. I pulled you back to me--that's when I told him that he couldn't have you--and held you close. That's all I remember. But it's not all I have to say. Let me tell you something about your dream. I know about it now, as much I know about mine. Your dream is not about your death. It's about your life."
"How did you figure that?"
"You said that we were together. You're right. We are together. I don't know why, I don't know how, I don't know who, but there is someone or something telling us that we need each other. In both our dreams, the bad things happen when we are not together. As long as we are in this, we are in it together. And there's something else that I've figured out. Ares is afraid of us together. Every time, he's trying to separate us. That's what your dream is telling you. Not that you are going to die, but that we have to stay together to do this. That's your dream. And mine."
Meravin stopped the horses for a drink. She took one of the skins and handed it to Autolycus. "Here. Take a drink, you haven't had water for a while. Neither have I. Did you realize we've traveled most of the day? We should be almost to Xena's camp. We'll stay here tonight, and tomorrow, I'll scout out where she's camped. How's your leg?"
"Painful, but tolerable. And now that you mention it, I am thirsty. I've been talking so long," Autolycus said, uncapping it and sipping the cool water from the container.
"And I listened. I know that you don't think that I listen to you, but I did today. I heard everything that you said." And some things that you didn't say, my friend... "But as much as I want to believe you, and ye gods, I want to believe it more than anything, there is one thing that you've forgotten to account for. And that is Hades, or the man that I believe is Hades, from my dream, and Celesta," she said. "Thanks," as she took the skin back and drank from it herself.
"No. I think that they're there as a warning. This is what will happen if we allow ourselves to be separated. Think about it. They didn't come until we were separated."
Meravin helped Autolycus slide down from Tenias and hobble over to a log. "Here. Sit. I'll get the camp ready for tonight, and then we need to talk."
"You want to talk some more?" Autolycus leaned back. "I'm ready."
"I'm not. I've got some things to gather. Will you be all right here alone?"
"I think so," but when Meravin pulled out her dagger he said, "Uh-uh. I am not taking your knife. I'm not leaving you defenseless."
"Yes, you are. This is unfamiliar territory to me. With your ankle like that, you're the one who's practically defenseless. I'm not. I'm still able-bodied. Take it." She threw it at him and it lodged in the wood beside him. Then she smiled, and reached down into her boot. "Besides, I've got another one," she said, pulling out a stiletto dagger. She walked out of the area.
"Boy, you are FULL of surprises," he said into the empty air.
Meravin walked out into the woods. She began to pick up wood, when she caught sight of a patch of herbs that shouldn't have been there. She went to examine them closely, and they were exactly what they looked like. "These shouldn't be here, but since they are..."
Meravin chose the herbs that she needed, and tucked them into a pocket of her dress. She continued to gather enough wood for the night when she next saw a bright white light. It was like the light she'd seen in her dream, and it frightened her. She ran back to the camp and Autolycus was nowhere in sight, and her knife lay discarded on the ground. She dropped the wood and bolted toward the horses. Both were still there. She was in such a panic that she didn't notice a woman calling her name.
"Meravin! Meravin, wait!"
The woman's voice came in closer to her. She slid off the saddle and whipped the dagger out of her boot. She held it defensively before her, ready to jump onto the invader. She saw a flash of blond hair and green cloth, and pounced. She ended up on top of a small woman, briefly, before being bucked backwards. The women circled each other warily for a moment until Meravin heard Autolycus call her name,
"Meravin! Stop it!"
"Autolycus?? Who's--what's going on?"
Autolycus limped into sight, on the arm of a well built woman in leather battle armor. "Xena!"
Meravin breathed. "You're Xena." Then a realization hit her. "Gabrielle? You're Gabrielle?" she asked the blond.
"Oh, gods. I didn't--I'm sorry--"
"It's okay," Gabrielle said. "We didn't give you much of a chance to ask anything."
"I didn't give you much of a chance either."
"So you're both guilty," said Xena. "What are you doing here?"
"Autolycus?" Meravin asked.
"Go for it," Autolycus said. "I don't feel like it."
"We're here to steal your chakram and take it to Ares."
"What?" Xena said, dropping Autolycus' arm. Meravin hurried over to help him sit.
"What did you just say?"
"It's a long story. I gave you the short version. We're here for the chakram."
"And you think I'm just going to give it to you?"
"I think you will after you hear the whole story."
"Well, I'm all ears," Xena said. "Start talking."
Meravin sat down beside Autolycus and began to tell the story. "Autolycus was trying to get the Eye of Phoebus out of Baratus' treasure chamber to return it to its original owner. Baratus captured him twice. The first time he got out, but the second time, Baratus was going to kill him. Ares appeared and said that if Autolycus would steal your chakram and bring it to him, Ares would spare Autolycus' life. If he failed, Ares would kill him. Autolycus wanted to go ahead and steal it, but I told him that he ought to tell you the truth, and see what you had to say about it. I've heard the stories about you, Xena. I know that you're a good woman. And I know that you like Autolycus. Please, Xena, for his life..." she trailed off, then plunged off into a new thought. "If you don't want to give it to him, I'll fight you for it. I'll take it by force."
"I'd kill you."
"You've never seen me fight. You don't know me. I could be the most dangerous warrior that you've ever faced. But I'm not. I'm the daughter of a Corinthian named Dagnus. I've learned to defend myself, and to take care of business. I'd have no hope of defeating you. But I swear by the gods that I will take it by force if necessary."
Xena looked from Meravin to Autolycus and back again. "I'll think about it. Come on, let's go."
Meravin looked warily at Xena. "Go? Go where?"
"Back to my camp. We've got hot food there for both of you. We're camped over the rise there."
"No thanks. But Autolycus, you go."
Autolycus looked at Meravin like she was out of her mind. Have you forgotten already? his eyes seemed to ask her as he said, "We don't split up." Then something in his eyes changed a moment, softened. "Please come."
Meravin sighed. "I'll meet you there, after I gather our things together." She turned back to face Autolycus. "I'll help put you on Daria; I need Tenias to pack our things on."
Meravin walked over and led Daria to Autolycus. It was easier for him to mount the smaller horse--she kicked herself for not thinking of that earlier. Xena took the reins from Meravin and led Autolycus over the rise. Meravin watched Autolycus go, and when she turned back to their camp, she was startled to see Gabrielle still standing there. "I thought you left," she said, rudely.
"You have the Gift, don't you?" Gabrielle asked her.
"The Gift?" Meravin asked.
"Yeah. You--do you often have feelings about people or objects?"
"Why, yes, especially when I'm really close to the person or object, or if I know them very well. With strangers, it's just a general sort of feeling." Meravin was amazed. "How did you know?"
"It was just the way you were with Autolycus and then with Xena. Like you were unconsciously reacting to them the way they expected you to. Here, let me help you," Gabrielle said, watching Meravin struggle with everything in haste. Gabrielle helped Meravin pack the camp to move over the rise to join Xena and Autolycus.
"Gabrielle, do you ever have strange dreams? Of people you've never met before, or of the gods?"
"No, why? Do you?"
"Sometimes. And they're frightening too, because I almost never know who these people are, or I'll meet them later after my dream, in the same situation that I've dreamed about them in," said Meravin, packing the last blanket on Tenias.
"Tell me more, please. If you're comfortable, that is."
"Gabrielle, do you have it?" Meravin asked, starting to slowly walk the horse in the direction of Xena's camp.
She laughed. "Depends on who you ask. If you ask my sister, the answer is no. If you ask Xena, it's maybe. I have strange dreams, but they're not really predicting dreams."
"I don't understand."
"Well, one time in particular, I had a dream of a drought, right before it flooded my hometown of Poteidaia. So it wasn't a predictive dream, but it did have to do with water events."
"You are a writer, aren't you? A bard?"
"Yes," Gabrielle replied, unsure of what that had to do with anything.
"That means that you have a different perspective on things than most people?"
"Gabrielle, if I tell you something, can it stay just between us?"
"If you like."
"A while back I had this very strange dream..." and Meravin proceeded to tell Gabrielle about her dream, and then she told her about Autolycus. "I thought that it meant that I was going to die on this trip, but Autolycus says differently. He says that it means that we must stay together, because in both our dreams, the only time that anything happened to us was when we were separated. So he believes that if we stay together, work as a duo, we won't be in any kind of danger."
"What do you believe?"
"I don't know anymore," Meravin said. "Looks like we're almost to your camp. Gabrielle, please, don't tell anyone what I've told you."
When they got to the camp, Autolycus was sitting down with a plate of steaming food in his lap. "You're here," he said, when he saw them come into camp leading Tenias.
"Yes, we're here," Meravin said. She tied the horses to a tree and walked over to him. "How is she treating you?"
"Like a king."
"A King of Thieves?" she teased. He smiled, and so did she. Xena looked at Gabrielle in surprise. She didn't seem like the teasing type. "Wait, I have something for you." She reached into her pocket and pulled out the herbs she'd found earlier.
"Weeds? Thanks so much."
"Not weeds," she said, taking them back from him. "Herbs. You make them into a tea. You drink it."
"Weed tea? Sounds delicious."
"Just trust me on this, all right?" She poured some water from their skins into the bowl, and crushed the herbs in it. She sat it in the ashes of the fire to warm and brew. Soon, the pungent aroma of the herbs was drifting around camp.
"If that tastes as bad as it smells, you ought to throw it out."
"It actually tastes worse. Terribly bitter, like burnt sand and rotted grasses. But by the time everything is cooked to the right consistency, it's so hot that it scorches your tongue and you don't taste anything. And it curdles in your stomach so badly that it makes you ill," she said, bringing the bowl over to him.
"So what's this supposed to do? Kill me?"
"Make you feel better."
"How? By making me feel so terrible that there's nowhere to go but better?"
"Exactly so," she said. "Here. Drink this."
Autolycus took the bowl and sniffed it. "Ugh."
"I said drink it, not sniff it." She smiled. "It's not as bad as I made it out to be."
She watched as he tilted the bowl to his lips. And as he was drinking, she said, "It's worse."
Autolycus choked on the liquid, coughing and spewing the tea everywhere. "You did that on purpose!"
"Of course I did. I warned you, I have a terrible sense of humor."
"What was that?"
"Poison. It's the only way I could get rid of you so you wouldn't be hanging around me all the time. It's a pain tea. It'll help with the pain so it doesn't hurt as much."
He wagged a finger at her. "Now you're trying to be funny," he said. "Sit."
Gabrielle and Xena watched from the other side of the fire as Meravin talked and teased with Autolycus. She smiled so often that seemed so different from the woman who had challenged Xena, that Xena found it hard to believe this was the same woman.
"See? Didn't I tell you she was nice?"
"Nice isn't what I'd call her, Gabrielle," Xena said, although she couldn't deny what she was seeing. She was seeing a different side of Meravin. But she knew better than to assume that she had only one side. Someone like Meravin could be dangerous, especially if she knew what she was doing, and the knife incident earlier had helped establish that she did.
"Gabrielle, you had a chance to talk to her, didn't you?"
"She has a Gift, Xena. A real Gift. She knows about people and she has prophetic dreams."
"Do you know that, or did she tell you that?"
"I asked her. I had a feeling abut her myself, so I asked. She'd never heard of the Gifts before, until I told her what they were. Then later, she asked me about the dreams. Technically, she'd got two Gifts, but they seem to work together. She says she gets senses of people. It's like she reads people and then reacts to that, to how people see her."
"I guess that's your subtle way of saying she reacted to me in the way that I reacted to her."
"Something like that, yeah," Gabrielle said.
On the other side of the fire, Meravin looked at Autolycus. "She's watching me--she doesn't trust me."
"No, I'm not."
"They're sitting over there talking quietly, just like we are."
"Xena is watching me. She's trying to figure out what kind of person she's dealing with here. And Gabrielle is telling her....about my Gift," she finished after a pause, "and that I'm really a nice person."
"My Gift. Gabrielle calls them predictive dreams, because they sometimes predict what's going to happen."
Autolycus searched her eyes for a brief moment. "Are you frightened again? Afraid you're going to die?"
"No," she said. "Not anymore. Not since you told me your dream." And not since I know I love you. "I'm not afraid of anything anymore."
"You need your sleep. I'm willing to bet that you haven't been sleeping much, or if you have, it hasn't been very well. Last night, for instance. I woke you up--I didn't mean to, and you were trying to take care of me. Then you've been doing most of the work. It's not fair to you, and it's probably tired you out."
"I am a little tired. Are you sure you don't need anything right now?"
"I'm fine. Go to sleep."
"Did the tea help? And don't start grinding your teeth again--it can damage them."
"Yes, the tea helped. And if you'd cooperate with me and go to bed like a good little girl, I can quit grinding my teeth instead of saying something."
"Okay, I'm going." She walked over to Tenias and took their rolls off him. She brought them back over near where he was sitting. "I'm laying yours out; if you need anything, wake me." She stretched out on her blanket and was sleeping almost instantly. But it was a light sleep. When Xena saw that she was asleep and moved over to Autolycus.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Autolycus, dragging a young girl with you like this on a trip this dangerous."
"Look who's talking. And I didn't drag her, I got dragged BY her. She hasn't given me a moment's peace since this thing started."
"Was she telling the truth earlier? About Baratus and Ares?"
"Of course she was," he said, a little defensiveness creeping into his tone. "She doesn't lie--she has no reason to."
"I never said that she did," Xena answered, catching the tone. "So what in Hades were you doing trying to steal the Eye of Phoebus? Need another trophy?"
"No." He sighed. "If you repeat this, I swear I'll deny it. I was trying to get it to return it to Dakran, for the reward. I know of some people in Baratus' villages that could use the money. I was going to take it, give it to Dakran, and give the gold to the people who need it. Don't tell on me, Xena."
"You were doing something nice?"
"Don't sound so amazed."
"So Baratus captured you?"
"The first time, they bolted me to something called the Wheel. I got out of that one fairly easily, and the second time Baratus tied me to a column in his throne room and was about to plug me with an arrow when Ares stopped him. And that's when Ares said that if I stole your chakram and brought it to him, he'd spare my life."
"I still don't see where Meravin fits into all this," Xena said. "How did she get involved?"
"She involved herself, basically. I went to her father, Dagnus, for help--"
"Wait," Xena interrupted. "Her father is Dagnus? Dagnus of Shalin?"
At Autolycus' confirming nod, "I don't believe it. That harpy is Dagnus' daughter? But he's one of the best men on earth. She said her father's name was Dagnus, but that he was from Corinth."
"I don't know why you're persisting in treating her like she's your enemy," said Autolycus. "Meravin is one of the kindest people I've ever met. She helps Dagnus get people away from Baratus. She nurses the sick and cares for the children. And she would lay down her life for someone close to her. And that's really how she got involved."
"I went to them for help--to get out of Baratus' castle and into a safe place. She was there. I told them what was going on, and Meravin got upset. She wanted me to contact you right away and ask you for help. I refused, and she got even more upset. So she ran out on Dagnus and me, determined to find you first and take on Ares to boot. But I caught up to her, tried to convince her to go home and she wouldn't. When I wanted to stop the first night, she didn't want to. I tied her up keep her in camp. Not only did she get out, but she tied ME up." Gabrielle snickered and Autolycus went on. "She left me there and was waiting by the road for me the next morning. She told me next about the enchanted path so we got on it to make up some time. Then I got off the path and got hurt. She's come the whole way on her own. The past day or so, she's been taking care of me at the risk of her own health. So whatever you think about her, unthink it."
"So what about these dreams Gabrielle said she has?"
"She had one several years ago. She had a dream that Ares kills her."
"Explain that one."
"No, don't," Meravin said from her roll. "Don't tell her."
"How long have you been listening over there?" Gabrielle asked her.
"Long enough. Look, I thank you both for your kindness, but I think that I should be leaving now. I won't stay somewhere that I'm not welcome."
"We never said that you weren't welcome," protested Gabrielle.
Autolycus limped over to where she was sitting up. "Look," he said quietly so the others couldn't hear. "We're right where we need to be. We're near Xena. We're in her camp. She feels safe here--here's where she'll let her guard down. When she does that, we can get the chakram and get out," he told her, hoping to calm her down.
"You're pacifying me. I don't like it."
"You look like you're ready to fight someone. I have to do something to calm you down."
Then just hold me, she thought. "I'm angry. I've been listening to someone tear me down for just about long enough, and I've had it. I'm either going to leave, or I'm going to hit someone."
"Hit me, then, if you want to hit someone."
"I can't hit you, and you know it. I don't want to hurt you."
"Then just lay down and go to sleep. If you can't sleep, I'll gladly hit you over the head so you can. It would give me immense personal satisfaction," Autolycus said gently.
"I can't get to sleep," Meravin confessed.
"Because I'm worried about you, and I've got some other things on my mind."
"What else do you have on your mind?" he'd asked her.
"I'm worried that we won't be able to finish this. You're injured. Let me do this for you, please. If I take Xena's chakram, I can get out of here just fine. You could get hurt again. You could aggravate your ankle or Xena--please, let me do this."
"No, it's too much of a risk. Just go to sleep. I'll think of something in the morning. Trust me."
"Of course I do," she'd said, and snuggled her back against him.
Xena looked at Gabrielle. "I don't think we're going to get anything more out of him tonight," Xena said.
"Not when he's laying down to go to sleep, I think you're right," said Gabrielle.
Xena watched Autolycus lay down beside the woman and pull her close to him. The woman snuggled against him, and Xena saw her body relax visibly.
"What is with those two?" Xena asked. "You seem to get through to her, you tell me."
"I promised her I wouldn't tell anyone."
"It's okay, Gabrielle," floated over the breeze. "Go ahead."
"Meravin had a dream on Aphrodite's path. She dreamed of three men in the same dream. First she dreamed of Autolycus and she together, working. Then she dreamed of Ares coming to them in a bright light, and getting rid of Autolycus and pushing her into a chasm. Finally she dreamed of Celesta catching her in her fall and carrying her to Hades, who wrapped his cloak around her. And that's when she says she awoke. She believed that it was dream signifying her death, but also that she had some part to play in this drama. She believed that until Autolycus had a dream last night. He dreamed that Ares was trying to take Meravin away from him but together they prevailed and Ares didn't get her. So Autolycus believes that both their dreams are a sign that they must stay and work together to succeed. He's tried to convince Meravin of that, and she believes it, but she's also aware that there's another possibility. She's just pushing that to the back of her mind and not thinking about it. Last thing, she's so in love with him that she doesn't want to do anything that might endanger him or cause him to risk his life, so if Autolycus thinks they need to be together, she's going to be there."
"You seem to know an awful lot about this woman--how do you know she's in love with him?"
"Please? Come on, Xena. We've both seen the way that she acts toward him. And the way he acts toward her. She's in love with him. We've also both seen her fight. She as much as said that she'd have no chance of taking you on, and she's right, but she's still willing to do it for him. So he doesn't have to. And weren't you listening when he told us earlier that she was going to go on this whole quest by herself? ALONE, if you didn't catch that, to face down Ares and make him leave Autolycus alone. Those are the actions of a fairly stupid person, if you ask me, or of a person who loves another so much they are willing to make the greatest sacrifice possible. And that's why she's acting the way that she is toward you, Xena. She sees you as a threat and an obstacle, and she's reacting to that. All she wants is the chakram, and then to go on her merry way. You're not helping, so you must be hindering her."
Autolycus was listening to the two women whisper over there. He could hear random bits when the wind blew right: "...no chance of taking you on..."; "....by herself..."; "...fairly stupid person..."; "...threat and an obstacle...". He tuned out on the women and started listening to himself. She tried to tell me they were talking about her. How did she know that? Because of her gifts, he answered himself silently. She said she had them, but—But what? You didn't believe her, did ya? Didn't think that she could have it? It wasn't that. I just didn't believe it. I also didn't want to think that Xena could do something like this, talking about someone, not being open minded. Or maybe you're just spoiled by Meravin being so understanding of you and everyone else, and when someone doesn't measure up, you're disappointed. That's not true. Isn't it? the mouthy brain asked him, and then it was quiet. Is it true? He looked at the woman sleeping beside him.
"What else do you have on your mind?" he'd asked her.
"I'm worried that we won't be able to finish this. You're injured. Let me do this for you, please. If I take Xena's chakram, I can get out of here just fine. You could get hurt again. You could aggravate your ankle or Xena--please, let me do this."
"No, it's too much of a risk. Just go to sleep. I'll think of something in the morning. Trust me."
"Of course I do," she'd said, and snuggled her back against him.
Now, how do I follow through? I KNOW Xena won't let us have her chakram, and we can't steal it, either--she's too good for that. Autolycus was still thinking when a light hand fell on his shoulder.
"Sssh. It's Gabrielle. Xena wants to talk to you alone," she whispered. Autolycus carefully eased his arms out from around Meravin and slowly pulled away from her.
Gabrielle helped him ease up and step carefully from Meravin.
"About what?" he asked in a low tone.
"She didn't tell me, she just asked me to bring you to her. She's out in the trees there. She didn't want to wake Meravin."
"All right, Xena. I'm here. What did you want to talk to me about?"
"This," she said, as she held the chakram up in the moonlight. "Now, I'm going to give this to you. But I'm not going to let you leave here alone with it. Gabrielle and I are going to be following you, out of sight about an hour behind you. When Meravin realizes we're behind the two of you, convince her that she can't make a big deal about it. Pretend like you don't know we're there. We'll follow you all the way back to Baratus' castle. When you hand over the chakram, the claim on your life will be lifted. Then you and Meravin get out, and I'm getting my chakram back, okay?"
"Whatever you say, Xena," he said, accepting the chakram as she gave it to him. "I won't let anything happen to it."
"You better not, or it will be your life."
Gabrielle helped Autolycus back to the camp and left Xena standing alone.
"You know she won't accept this, don't you, Autolycus."
"I was just thinking of that myself."
"Tell you what. I'll get Xena to lie back down, pretend like she's asleep. You wake Meravin up, tell her you got it and you've got to leave right then."
"That should work," Autolycus said. "But wait," he said, stopping and forcing Gabrielle to do the same. "Why are you concerned about her? Xena certainly isn't."
"Well, I've had a chance to talk to her and get to know her a little. I think that she's a really nice woman, and that--well, I like her, and I want to help her."
Autolycus felt in his shirt for the chakram. "I can't believe Xena gave it to me."
"She's a lot like you, Autolycus. You should know that. You've both got hard exteriors under which lies--"
"--A heart of gold. Yes, so you've told me before." Autolycus hobbled over to where Meravin still lay sleeping. So this is what you look like when you're quiet. I don't think I've seen this side of you before. All right, baby, this is it. This is the time. He looked over to Gabrielle but she and Xena weren't in place yet. Not quite yet, then. Gods, I hope this works. But I have a feeling that it will, as long as I've got you by my side. Tell me--when did you become so important to me? Important to what I'm doing, I mean. And why? When Xena and Gabrielle were in place and quiet, he shook Meravin.
Meravin awoke instantly. "What?" she whispered.
"I've got it," Autolycus said, opening his shirt and showing her the chakram. "We've got to get out of here. Now."
"How--never mind." Meravin's mind clicked onto the situation. "We'll have to leave most of our things here. Grab your blankets, and I've got the food and water on the horses. How's your leg?"
"Okay. The tea helped." The two worked in silence, and in a few minutes, they were ready to go. "We'll lead the horses out. When we get to the road, we'll ride."
"Okay. I know where we are. The road isn't far." Meravin took the lead and pulled Daria behind her. Autolycus followed with Tenias.
When the two had gotten out of camp, Xena poked Gabrielle. "They're gone. Let's go."
"That didn't take as long as I thought. They must have pulled up stakes pretty quickly."
"They did. They left most of their bedding here. They only took the blankets and whatever was on the horses. Wait--what are you doing?" Xena asked Gabrielle.
"I'm packing up their stuff to take with us. They'll need it, and we can get it to them later."
Gabrielle finished picking up Meravin and Autolycus's things. She tossed them onto Argo, and Xena took the reins.
"Come on, Gabrielle. We're going to ride after them. But not too close." She helped the smaller woman mount in front of her. "Hold on to the saddle."
Ahead of them, Meravin and Autolycus reached the road. "Do you need any help?" Meravin asked.
"No, I think I got it," Autolycus said. "I'm feeling better now that we've got the chakram."
"How did you get it?" Meravin asked as she swung into Daria's saddle and urged her back toward Shalin. Tenias followed at Autolycus' urging.
"I heard what you'd said earlier when you said that they were talking about you and I didn't believe you. Well, they were. I couldn't hear a lot of what they were saying, but what I did hear I didn't like. So I decided that you were right, when you said that we shouldn't stay there. So I waited until Xena was asleep, and I lifted the chakram from where it was laying beside her and crept away. That's when I woke you and we got out of there."
"Let me see it," Meravin asked.
"Be careful," Autolycus said. "I've seen what it can do."
As soon as Meravin touched it, she gasped. Autolycus heard her and asked, "Meravin, are you all right? What is it?"
"No. I'm not all right. Stop here. I need to talk to Xena, and we need for her to catch up to us."
"How do you know she's back there?" Autolycus asked.
"I just have a feeling, that's all. She left about five or ten minutes after we did. She and Gabrielle have been trailing us on their horse ever since we left. Xena wants to make sure that she gets the chakram back, but she doesn't know why. I do."
"Meravin, what are you talking about?"
"You know I told you about my Gift? Well, it just told me something about this weapon that I think Xena needs to know. I know why Ares wants it, and I know why he can never have it."
"I'll ask you again. What are you talking about?"
But before she could answer, Ares appeared in front of her horse. Daria reared, and she was thrown from the saddle. Still holding onto the chakram, she got to her feet. "Go get Xena! Hurry!!" Autolycus dug his heels into the stallion and raced back to where Xena was behind them.
"Oh, no, you don't," said Ares. He lifted his hand to stop Autolycus when the chakram came sailing out of nowhere and clobbered his arm.
"GO!!!" Meravin caught the chakram as it careened back towards her. "You can't have this, Ares."
"You are a meddlesome little mortal, do you know that? Now, give me that before I have to hurt you."
"You can't hurt me, Ares."
"Oh, yeah, I can." Ares flung a fireball at her, and with a shocking agility, she rolled under it and back onto her feet in one fluid movement. "Oh, you are full of surprises, aren't you?"
"I'd like to think so," Meravin said. She tucked the chakram into her belt. "I know why you want it."
"Do you? Then you know I will have it, whatever the cost."
"I won't let you have it unless you make me a promise."
"No deals, little girl. Give it to me and I may spare your life. Otherwise, you're both dead. Oh, yes, I've seen the way that you look at him. Give it to me or he'll be the first one to die. You'll be the last."
"You just made a big mistake, Ares. Threatening the man that I love isn't the way to get my cooperation."
"You're nothing without him, do you know that?" He sneered. "You're a weakling, a nothing. You've got nothing."
"Don't bet on it," she said. Autolycus was right. He wants us apart. I can't let him win. Gods, Autolycus, where are you? "I have what I need to take care of you."
"Prove it," Ares said, as he moved in close to her. He reached and grabbed her dress. Flinging her into the nearest tree, he said, "I thought you had what it took."
Meravin reached into herself while he was advancing on her. In her mind she saw an image from her dream of Autolycus and her together. Drawing strength from that, and using the powers of her Gift, Meravin rose to her feet. "I do," she said.
Ares paused. That should have taken care of her. "Well, you do surprise me again. That would have killed anyone else. No matter. But don't get too comfortable," he said, advancing once more. Meravin stood her ground and waited for Ares to come to her. When he did, she did something totally unexpected, as far as Ares was concerned. She hit him. Hard. His head snapped to the side. "You hit me. You dared."
"You hit me first. My father always said never to let a man hit me. Or if he did, to make him regret it," she said, unafraid.
"Now you've made me angry."
"Join the club," she said. Ares hit her in the stomach and tried to take the chakram. Meravin turned just enough to keep the chakram out of his reach and elbowed him in the ribs. "Get outta my space." She paused for a moment and then backed away from him.
"How in Tartarus are you doing that?"
"I'm stronger than I look."
"Not for long, you're not." Ares pointed his finger at her and sent a cracking energy bolt hurling toward her. It was white hot, and Meravin barely had time to duck from it. In one swift motion, she drew the chakram and threw it as she rolled out of the way. It caromed off a tree, and then it hit Ares' arm again.
"AAAH!!" he growled as the chakram struck him and flew back to Meravin. He looked at his arm. "What did you do to me?" The arm was oozing with blood from a wide gash the chakram had inflicted.
"That's why you want the chakram, isn't it, Ares? Because you forged it, it's the only thing that can draw your blood." Ares lunged at her, and tackled her, pinning her beneath him.
Meravin was crushed by his weight pressing down on her. "Get off of me."
"No. I want the chakram. Give it to me, or you'll die right now," he said, unsheathing his sword and holding it at her throat.
The vision of Autolycus swam in front of her again, but this time it filled her with sadness because she knew she had failed him. "Fine. You want it, you got it," she said.
"That's more like it. Give it to me," Ares said, smiling. It wasn't a nice smile at all.
"You're going to have to get up off me. I can't move."
"Deal with it. I think I kind of like this," he said.
"I don't care," Ares said, looking at her speculatively.
Meravin's arm holding the chakram was trapped under Ares' weight. She slowly began to work it loose. Ares tried to kiss her, but she moved her head and avoided his lips. "Forget about it," she said.
Ares laughed nastily. "Oh, I don't think I want to forget about it." He shifted his weight to cover her more completely. That shift freed her arm enough for her to whip the hand holding the chakram out.
Meravin held the chakram to Ares' throat. "Tables are turned. I said, get off me. Now." Ares complied and Meravin kept the chakram pressed to his skin. "Not fun, is it?"
"You can't kill me."
"No, but I can do a lot of damage," Meravin said. Just as she was as about to pull back her arm and slice, a whip wrapped around her wrist and jerked her back.
"Don't," Xena said. "Give me the chakram."
Meravin turned to see Xena holding the other end of the whip on Argo's back. As she watched, Xena slid off Argo, followed by Gabrielle. Autolycus was on Tenias behind Argo. Autolycus climbed down off Tenias and walked over to Meravin. Xena got there a little before Autolycus did. "No. Not yet."
Autolycus came up to her and pulled her into him while Xena unwrapped the whip from her arm.
"Are you okay?"
"No. No, I'm not, but it's something that I have to deal with. I need to talk to all of you, but I need to say something to Ares alone first. Please, don't argue," she said when Autolycus was about to start protesting. "I know what I'm doing." She walked toward Ares and said, "Follow me." She led him a few paces away from the others. "Release your claim on Autolycus' life."
"Not a chance. We had a deal, and he didn't live up to it."
"That's not his fault. He had every intention of giving it to you. I'm the one who messed up those plans. You can't fault him for something that I did."
"Sure I can. He could've held onto it and given it to me, not you."
"He didn't know my Gift would reveal the chakram's secret to me. He saw no harm in letting me see it. He didn't know anything about it."
"If I do release my claim on his life, what do I get?"
"What do you want?"
"Out of the question."
"I want you dead," he said, thinking of his pride.
"Fair enough. A trade then. My life for his life."
"You'd be willing to do that?"
"Yes. Because of something you'd never understand. Love."
"You love him?"
"I do. More than anything. Kill me if that will make you feel better, but I won't die, not completely. I'll live on in the hearts of the people that love me. You'll lose, ultimately."
"ARGH! I hate you, mortal," Ares fumed. "I can't get rid of you!! I can't kill you!! But I can torment you," he said, a thought coming to him. "I can tell you that I've released my claim on his life but I can get my followers to execute him at any time. I can make you live in pain for the rest of your life."
"Same problem, Ares. You can't kill him completely. A part of him will live forever through me, just as I would in people like my father, and my friends. Yes, it would hurt me if you killed him. But then everyone would know they couldn't trust their god. I'd spread the word, Ares. I'd tell everyone that you made me a promise then you broke it. How do you think your followers would accept that?"
Ares had an inspired thought. "I want a promise from you. A blood promise. I want you to swear that if ever I ask you to do something for me, you will do it, without question."
"I swear," she said, taking the chakram and slicing open her palm. Ares pressed it against the still-oozing gash in his arm. When her blood touched the gash, it healed. She looked at her hand, and there was a white line of a scar there.
"I renounce my claim on his life," Ares said, and winked. "I'll see you later." He vanished.
Meravin took her dress hem and wiped the blood from the chakram. She walked back over to her friends and handed the chakram to Xena. "This belongs to you." She turned to Autolycus. "He's renounced his claim to you, my sweet. He doesn't want your life." No, he's got mine to play with now. "Xena, there is something that you ought to know about your chakram. It was forged by Ares himself, not Hephastus."
"I always thought that Hephastus forged it and Ares gave it to me."
"No, that's only what he wanted you to think. Ares forged it for you, for his Warrior Princess. When he gave it to you he didn't expect you to turn against him. But now, you have the only weapon that can draw the blood of the God of War. That is why he wanted it back. Keep it close to you at all times, Xena. It is most possibly the most valuable weapon that you will ever have."
Xena looked at her chakram and was speechless.
"How did you get him to renounce his claim to my life?" asked Autolycus.
"I simply pointed out some things to him, like it wasn't your fault that you weren't doing what he'd told you. That if he killed you, I'd kill him because I was in possession of the one weapon that might make it possible."
"Self-preservation is a strong incentive to make a deal," said Xena.
"Whatever you want to call it, it worked. He's renounced his claim to you," she said to Autolycus. "Xena, I want to say thank you. I know I haven't been the easiest person to like lately, or get along with, and I owe you everything for taking a chance with me. I know that you gave Autolycus the chakram--that's one of the things I saw when I held it. If you hadn't done that--well, again, thank you. I owe you." Then she looked at Gabrielle. "I don't know how much of this is your doing Gabrielle, but thank you, also. Without you, I wouldn't know about my Gift." She looked at both of them. "Come back to Shalin with me. Be my guest at my home for a few days. We could all use the rest, don't you think?"
"What do you think, Xena?" asked Gabrielle. "I think it's a great idea."
"All right. We'll come to your house."
"I'm glad. It will give us a chance to start over," Meravin said to Xena.
"I'd like that."
When Xena and Gabrielle went to mount Argo, Meravin found herself being pulled back against Autolycus. "Hi."
"Hi yourself," he said against her ear. "Are you all right?"
"No. I'm not all right."
"What happened? What's wrong?"
"Isn't that usually my line?" Meravin turned her head to look at him. "Come on, we need to get going."
"Okay." They walked over to where the horses were waiting. When Meravin picked up the reins on Daria before she could mount her, Autolycus reached down from Tenias' back and picked her up. "But you don't get away that easily," he said, situating her in front of him. He led Daria over to Gabrielle and Xena. "Gabrielle, if you want to ride Daria, you're welcome to."
"She's calm and sure," said Meravin. "She's mine. I raised her to be gentle. She'll follow Tenias and Argo."
"All right," Gabrielle said, and she got off Argo and mounted Daria.
Autolycus moved Tenias in the lead. "Let's go," he said, leading the other two horses. When they got onto the road, he looked down at Meravin. "Okay, so what's bothering you?"
Meravin ran her fingers over the scar on her palm. "It's Ares."
"What happened after I left? Last thing that I saw was you using the chakram."
"Well, a lot happened. He tried to kill me. Then he threatened to kill you if I didn't give him the chakram. He said that I was a weakling without you, a nothing." He just didn't know how right he was. Then again, maybe he did. That's why I was able to surprise him. "He fought with me. He threw me against a tree, hit me, trying to get the chakram. But I wouldn't let him have it. Then he was about to try and hit me with another fireball, and that's when I used the chakram to slice his arm open. Then he jumped on me, pinned me down. Tried to take the chakram like that. Then he tried to kiss me. He wouldn't get off of me, and he was crushing me..." she buried her face in Autolycus' chest for a few minutes, crying softly and listening to his heart. He just wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly.
"Sorry," she said after a moment. "Finally, I got the chakram out from under him, and I made him let me up. Then I was going to--well, that's where you came in. Xena stopped me with her whip and that's it."
"What did you really say to Ares? Maybe they couldn't tell it, but I could tell that you were lying through your pretty white teeth."
"I asked him to renounce his claim on your life. When he refused, I tried to convince him that this wasn't your fault, that it was mine. He said in that case, I would die."
Autolycus' arm tightened around her waist. "But I told him that killing me wouldn't get rid of me because I would live on through the people that loved me, like my father and my friends."
What about me, Meravin? Didn't you think of me? Autolycus thought to himself. "So what did he do then?"
"He got even angrier when he knew he couldn't get rid of me. He threatened to have his worshippers kill you. I pointed out to him then that no one would follow a god who was false to his word. I said I would tell everyone that he had promised to let you go but still had you killed."
Meravin sighed. "Autolycus, what I'm about to tell you, you can't tell anyone else. Swear to me that you won't tell anyone else what I'm about to tell you. Swear to the gods."
"It's that bad?"
"Swear, Autolycus, or no matter how much I lo--trust you, I won't tell you this."
"I swear to the Gods on Olympus that I will not reveal to anyone what you are about to reveal to me." He looked down at her. "Good enough?"
"Just perfect. Ares and I made a blood promise. I promised him that in exchange for his renunciation, I would do whatever he asked me to do when he asked me to do it, without questioning it."
"I did." She held up her scarred palm. "There's the proof. That's where I cut myself with the chakram. When Ares' blood and my blood mingled, both our wounds were healed. He was without a scratch, and all I had was this thin white scar."
"Why did you agree to that?"
"Because I didn't want you to die, and I didn't want him to have the chakram. It's Xena's. She trusted me with it. But most importantly, from the time you left the chakram in my hands and rode off to find Xena, you left your life in my hands. I wasn't going to lose your life for a god-forged piece of metal." I love you too much. "I did what I had to do. And when the time comes, I'll do what I have to, no matter how painful it is. Because knowing that I was the cause of your death, having your blood on my hands isn't something that I could live with. Because I love you, Autolycus. I can't take it back, though later I might wish to. I couldn't stand the thought of you being sacrificed. I wouldn't let it happen, so I took the steps necessary. I know that telling you what I did may well drive you away from me, but even if you aren't with me, I will know that you are alive."
Of all the things that he could have asked her, that was one she didn't expect. "Why what?"
"Why do you love me?"
"I don't know why, I only know that I do. I don't know when I realized it, but I know it. I know it as much as I know I'm sitting here."
"You love me enough to die for me," Autolycus said. "That's what Ares got angry about. You told him that you'd die for me, and he didn't want a willing victim, a martyr."
"What do I do with you, Meravin? You've been driving me so crazy ever since we left on this adventure! I could swear that at the mildest you disliked me and at the most you despised me!"
"Then I did better than I thought." Well, what were you expecting, a return declaration? Might've been nice. "I didn't want you to know."
"I've realized that much. But why didn't you want me to know?"
Because of this, she thought to herself. I didn't want you to know because it would be too painful if you didn't love me back. "I didn't think it was the right time."
"When would be the right time?" Autolycus asked, anger creeping into his voice. "When? When one of us was dying? When you were challenging Ares without me? When I had broken my heart waiting for you? When?"
"What did you just say?" she whispered.
"I said that I love you," he whispered back. "Didn't you know? Couldn't you feel it?"
"No. I was so busy hiding from you I didn't think to look at you."
"Silly girl." Autolycus pulled her close against his chest. "What will your father say?"
"I don't care. I don't care what Daddy says. I love you." It felt good to say that. She laid her head back against the hollow of his shoulder and went to sleep, soothed by the steady beating of his heart.
Autolycus looked down at the woman in his arms. How could you not know that I loved you, when I was screaming it from every piece of my being? And how could I not see you loved me, when everything that you did said it. We were both too blind to see, mused Autolycus. I never used to think this much.
Meravin was having a dream. In the dream, she was back in the clearing with Ares. "It's time," he said. He turned her hand palm up and it was bleeding. "I have a gang of raiders through the path." She looked where he was pointing and she saw the V of trees at the enchanted path. "Bring Xena through there. I'm waiting. For her, and for you." He winked at her in the dream, and she woke with a start.
"Hey, what is it?" asked Autolycus.
"Nothing. Nothing. I'm fine, I just didn't realize I'd dozed off," she lied. "It's getting dark. It's time to stop for the night." Meravin turned and called to the women behind her. Together, they made a camp near the road. All through the evening, her palm itched where the scar traced it.
After they'd eaten, Meravin and Autolycus were sitting on one side of the fire, and Xena and Gabrielle were on the other. Autolycus was stretched out on the ground and Meravin was leaning back against him. "We could make better time if we took the other path," Meravin said. "It took half a day off our trip to find you. I know we're not in any big rush, but I'd like to get home and let my father know that I'm all right."
"Where is this other path?" asked Xena.
"It's off the road about thirty paces, and it runs parallel to it, kind of. But it doesn't curve off as much to link up to the other roads, so it takes less time. It's more direct."
Meravin shifted. "It's a prettier trip, more scenic."
"All right, fine. In the morning, after breakfast." Xena laid out her bedroll. "I'm going to bed. Good night."
"Good night," Meravin said as Xena lay down beside an already-sleeping Gabrielle. She rolled into Autolycus. "Hold me," she said to him.
He obliged. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her back against him. "You know something? I think I like this," he said.
"I liked it from the first time you ever held me," she said. "And I was still a young girl then. Do you remember, about five years ago? There was a thunderstorm, and Dagnus had gone out to the stable to check the animals. There was a very close crack of thunder and I was terrified. I ran looking for Daddy and I ran into you. You looked like the storm had woken you, and when you saw that I was frightened, you hugged me close and told me that everything was going to be all right. It felt good then. I like it more now." She moved in even closer to him, as close as she could get. "I like being with you like this."
"So do I. At least we won't have to deal with any nasty rumors popping up," he said. "Not with Xena travelling with us. But I wouldn't care if there were. As long as we're together."
Meravin suddenly felt guilty about what she had to do. She ached to tell Autolycus about it, but she couldn't. A sick feeling grew in the pit of her stomach, and she stared into the cruel flames as Autolycus slept peacefully behind her.
In the darkest part of the night, Meravin heard a soft whispering voice crooning her name.
"Meravin," it sang. She eased out of Autolycus' arms and followed the voice. She followed it to a moonlit glen beside a still pool. A figure in the shadows was the person calling her there. At the same time she stepped into the circle of moonlight, the figure moved also.
"Ares," she breathed. But it was different Ares. In the moonlight, with the silvered reflections playing on his glossy-black hair and in his deep eyes, he seemed almost seductive instead of cruel. Dangerous, but still seductive.
"Meravin." He spoke her name like a song. His voice was deep, mesmerizing. "Did you get my message?"
"Lead Xena through the entrance of the enchanted path. You have a band of warriors there waiting to meet her," she said, sounding remote and detached.
"You should have dealt with me before, Meravin." Ares smiled, and a sudden warmth seemed to course through her body.
"Why? Why should I have dealt with you, Ares?" she asked, almost choking on every word. She wanted to run but seemed rooted to the spot.
"Because now I have the upper hand," he said, moving slowly towards her. "And I don't intend on letting it go this time." He stopped and ran his fingertips up the inside of her arm. She shivered. "Rejoice, Meravin. You won't be forgotten. You'll be the woman who led Xena to her death," he said, running his hands over the back of her neck and then her shoulders and down her arms. "Just think. When it gets out that you helped rid the world of Xena, you'll have men like me flocking to your side, thanking you and showering you with their gratitude."
Meravin was unable to speak or move. She wanted to run, back to Autolycus where she felt safe, but it was as if her body belonged to someone else. It wouldn't obey her when she wanted to tell him to stop.
"They'll bring you riches, wealth and power," Ares continued, not noticing her distress. "You'll be honored. But it will be hollow, all of it, because you won't have anyone to share it with. Your beloved thief will turn away from you when he sees what you've done when he should be one of the ones worshipping you." He paused in his litany to place a searing kiss on her neck. "You'll be alone. Except," and he spun her around, "for me. I can be a friend to you, Meravin. When all your other friends turn away from you, I won't. I'll be there for you when no one else is, and when you'll want your revenge. I can help you with that, when the time comes. All you have to do is swear yourself to my service." He touched the scar on her hand, and it burned. "You're already mine, Meravin. You just have to make it formal. Swear yourself to me, now."
Meravin's mind was racing. She was spinning with everything that he'd told her. He was insidiously persuasive, and his reasoning was overcoming her good sense, everything. And every time she thought of Autolycus, she heard Ares' voice saying, Your beloved thief will turn away from you when he sees what you've done. She wanted to hear Autolycus' voice, but Ares' seemed to overpower everything. She searched inside herself for something to help her escape, but everywhere she looked, Ares' voice was there, taunting her, seducing her, ridiculing her and mocking her. She wanted to scream but she couldn't make her voice work. She was frozen, tormented by his hard words and soft voice. His touch and his kisses were sending her thoughts into an overload. She was almost ready to swear allegiance when a random thought passed through her mind: Ares wants us apart, Autolycus said. He's afraid of us together. Meravin thought that and it broke the spell a little. "No," she said. "He won't leave me."
"Really? Let's have a look, shall we?" Ares led her over to the pool. "Look."
Meravin saw a vignette unfold in the still reflection. She and Autolycus were standing over Xena's still body and a weeping Gabrielle. Autolycus turned to comfort Gabrielle and turned his back on Meravin. He and Gabrielle walked away from her, leaving her alone and crying. Ares threw a rock in the pool and the scene shattered into ripples.
"So he won't leave you? That's your future, Meravin. But there's a choice. Look again." The ripples resolved themselves into another scene. Everything happened as it had before. Autolycus walked off with a weeping Gabrielle and a crying Meravin was left alone. But this time, a dark arm and a leather clad leg stepped into the picture, and pulled Meravin up. Ares took Meravin into his arms and held her and comforted her. The scene shattered into ripples again. "So what's it going to be? Are you going to risk ending up alone at the time you'll need someone the most, or do you want to assure yourself that you'll never be alone again?"
She wanted to cry. "Why are you doing this to me? I'm doing what you asked. I'm leading Xena to your ambush. What more do you want from me?" she asked in a whisper.
"I want you," he said. "I want you to serve me. I want you to be my worshipper, not the worshipper of a two-dinar common thief. I want your talent on my side."
"No. You want my soul."
"Whatever it is you want to call it, it's mine already. It's just waiting for you to realize that. Come with me, Meravin. Let me show you all the things that I can do for you if you swear yourself to me."
"I don't want to know. I don't want any of this. I want to go back to Autolycus and do what I have to do and then go home. I don't want to be the woman who helped kill Xena. I don't want people coming to me because of that. I just want to be with the man that I love."
"Will he love you after what you've done?" Ares whispered. "Think of the way he reacted when you told him about the deal that we made. What will his reaction be, do you think, when he sees that you've helped me kill Xena. And no matter that you didn't want to do it, you did it anyway. Will he understand that you were honor-bound by your oath? Will he care? No. All he'll see is that you cooperated with me to kill someone. What will he think of you then?"
"I hate you," she whispered back.
"No, you don't hate me. You hate that you know I'm right, aren't I? You hate the fact that I'm telling you nothing but the truth. But you don't hate me. Join me, Meravin, and I'll make sure that nothing will ever trouble you again."
"I don't want to join you. I don't want to be one of your flunkies."
"You want a higher position? I'll make you a priestess in my temple. I'll make you the head priestess of my worship. I'll put you in charge of an army. I'll be your advisor, your mentor and teacher, and together we'll be unstoppable."
"I don't want to be your flunkie. I don't want to be your priestess or your pupil. I don't want to lead your army, Ares. I want to be me. I want to be free of you. I want things to go back the way that they used to be."
"That can never happen, and you know it. You know that you can't change things."
"Show me again, in the pool."
Ares said, "Look." Meravin watched Autolycus turn his back on her and leave with Gabrielle. She was left there, crying, by Xena's body. Ares lifted a hand to abolish the image.
"No, wait, let me see more. Please."
"As you wish," he said, and let the image play on. Autolycus came back to get Xena's body. Meravin saw herself try to speak to him, but he was ignoring her. She tried to touch him but he flinched away. Finally, she saw Autolycus push her away from him and carry Xena's body away. "Seen enough?"
"Yes." Meravin turned away from the pool so Ares couldn't see her tears. "I've seen too much." She sighed inwardly, a painful sigh. "I swear myself to you, Ares. My talents are at your disposal, I am at your service."
Ares smiled. "That's my girl. Here's what I want you to do. I want you to go back to camp and pretend like nothing has happened. In the morning, I want you to lead the line. I want you on your own horse. When my men see you coming, they'll be prepared for attack. You won't be harmed."
"Spare Autolycus' life, Ares. Please."
"Why should I?"
"So he can spread the word that you killed Xena. So everyone will know how it happened."
"You can do that."
"But I'm one of your people now. They won't believe me. Let it come from someone who is totally unassociated with you in any way."
"Very well. I'll spare his miserable life once again. But you owe me." Ares reached out to Meravin and pulled her into a passionate kiss, with his lips bruising hers and his hips moving against hers. Then he vanished and Meravin was left alone by the pond.
It seemed she had been sitting there for a while staring into the still waters when she was startled to see a reflection in the water behind her.
"I woke up and you weren't there," Autolycus said.
"I couldn't sleep, so I went for a walk," Meravin replied, not looking at him. "I found this place, and it was so beautiful, so I stayed to watch the moonlight on the water." She looked at the sky. "It's almost dawn, isn't it? I didn't realize I'd been out for so long."
"I was afraid that something had happened to you. I couldn't bear to think of it," he said, turning her face to meet his. He lowered his head to kiss her for the first time. Her lips were sweet and soft, and met his shyly at first then she gave herself over. After the kiss, he held her for a moment, then pulled her up to her feet. "It's time we get back and get ready to leave."
"I know," she said. She followed Autolycus back to camp. She was quiet, contemplating what she was about to do. Autolycus himself was lost in thoughts. When they came into the camp, Gabrielle and Xena were both awake and making a quick breakfast. When Autolycus offered some to Meravin, she said, "No, thanks. I'm not hungry." If I eat anything, I'll be sick, she thought to herself.
"Are you all right?" asked Gabrielle, concerned. "You look a little pale."
"I'm fine. I always look like this."
"If you say so," Gabrielle said.
Meravin started packing up her stuff and tying it onto Daria. Autolycus' hand on her wrist stopped her. "I thought you were riding with me," he said.
"Not today. I thought that since we were going on the path, and this is the first time for Xena and Gabrielle, I thought it might be best if I led us in, because I'm the only one of us who's familiar with it and can see it."
"If it's something I did..."
"You didn't do anything." Meravin reached up and kissed him quickly. "You're fine." She mounted Daria, and Autolycus got onto Tenias. Gabrielle and Xena were already on Argo. "Are we ready?" Meravin led the caravan onto the enchanted path.
"You're right--it is beautiful," said Gabrielle.
"I always thought so," replied Meravin. They rode the rest of the day without incident. That night, they made camp beside the path. Meravin couldn't sleep, because she knew that tomorrow was going to be the day. She could already see the trees ahead, and she imagined that if she listened, she could hear the rustling of the men waiting for them. She didn't sleep at all that night, though Autolycus and the others did. Several times during the night, she turned over to search Autolycus' face for some sign of what Ares had shown her, but she could find nothing. But then she'd hear Ares say when he learns what you've done, and realize that she wouldn't know until it was too late.
The next morning everything in the forest seemed dark and subdued. The sunlight seemed muted coming in through the trees, and the birds didn't seem to be singing as loudly or as cheerfully as they had been yesterday. Meravin was jumpy and irritable, and Autolycus was worried. Xena and Gabrielle were mystified, because they thought that they had missed something.
Midday came upon them, and Meravin saw the V in the trees marking the end of the path. "Up there is where we rejoin the main road," she said. Meravin slowed Daria down and let her walk through the V. As soon as she crossed the border of the path, a troop of armed men swung down from the trees and cut her off from the rest of the group.
"I'm proud of you, my sweet," Ares said from behind her.
"I'm not. I'm a traitor. I betrayed my friends and I betrayed the man that I love. How could I be proud of that?"
"You kept your word," Ares said. "No matter what it cost you, you kept your word."
"A word that I should never have given!"
"But you did. You gave it, and you lived up to it. For that reason, I'll kill him quickly."
"But you said you'd let him live!!"
"And I have. For a time. I didn't say how long."
"You bastard!! You lied to me!"
"No, I misinformed you. I never lied," he said smugly.
"In that case, I never said I wouldn't help them!!!" Meravin jumped down from her horse and flew into the melee.
"Meravin!!! I order you to stop!!!" yelled Ares, but she ignored him and entered the fray.
Autolycus and Gabrielle were helping Xena fight off six of the twelve men that had come after them. The other six broke off when they saw Meravin enter the fight. The first one drew a sword and charged at her, intending to cut her down and turn back to the fight. Meravin saw him coming and dropped to the ground, kicking upwards with her feet. She caught the man in the midsection, knocking the air out of him and leaving him senseless for a moment. She took the man's sword and cracked his head with it, taking him out for a while. She turned to face the other five men, who were circling her. Meravin let out a yell that rivaled Xena's, and she flew at the men. She spun like a dervish, slashing and cutting left and right. One unfortunate man came to attack her and she sliced his arm from his shoulder to his elbow. Another she ran through the stomach. The third man that came at her came at his sword raised. His blade rang out as she parried the blow. This man was more adept with the sword, and she spent many moments exchanging blows with this man. The soldier scored a lucky hit on her arm, and she faltered for a moment. He took advantage of it, and stabbed her through the chest.
Autolycus saw Meravin fighting. He saw her pick up the sword of the first man and take care of the second. He left Xena and Gabrielle fighting the last three men alone and tried to make his way to Meravin, but he didn't make it in time. "Nooooooooooooo!" he screamed as he saw the soldier pull a bloodied sword out of Meravin and let her fall to the ground. In a rage, Autolycus raised his sword and charged at the soldier, who had turned to meet his rush. Autolycus raised his sword to block a blow from the sword, and when he saw the blood on it, his arm seemed to fly on its own when on the downstroke he sliced the man's neck and sent his head flying. The headless body fell in a heap and Autolycus vaulted over it to get to Meravin. He picked her up in his arms and cradled her. "Meravin?" he said, stroking her hair and rocking back and forth. "Meravin, don't die on me."
"Autolycus?" she said, whispering through the blood in her mouth.
"I'm here, everything's going to be all right."
"No--my fault," she struggled to say. "Xena--my fault. Ares--"
"No, this isn't your fault," Autolycus said.
"Yes--my fault. The promise--ambush. Tell Xena." Meravin forced her hand to lift.
"Ares planned this ambush and you led Xena here? That was his promise?"
She nodded. "Didn't want you--" she coughed, and more blood came out of the corner of her mouth. "Didn't want you dead--made deal. Then later--in the woods by the pool--swore myself to him." Her body was wracking itself with coughing, and Autolycus' heart felt like it was going to burst. "Lied to me--thought that you wouldn't love me when you found out--"
"How could I not love you no matter what you do? I love you, Meravin, more than even I knew. You can't leave me now, not now that I've found you," he cried.
"Love me?--I was wrong--better to die than be so wrong about you--I never stopped loving you, Autolycus--promise me--you'll never stop loving me."
"I promise! I swear it! But how can I love you if you're gone?" He kissed her desperately, tasting the blood staining her lips red. He sobbed. "Meravin?" he asked, as he felt her body go limp. "MERAVIN!!!!!!!"
Xena looked up from her last victim. "By the gods," she whispered, hearing the pain and rage mingled in Autolycus' scream. She pulled Gabrielle up from where she'd fallen. "Come on."
Xena pulled Gabrielle over to where Autolycus was cradling Meravin's body. Xena laid her hand on his shoulder. "Autolycus--"
He looked up at her. "Xena. She wanted me to tell you--"
"I know. She led us into an ambush."
"You knew? And you followed her?"
"I knew that something was wrong. I knew that Ares wouldn't have settled that easily. When she was tending the fire last night I saw the white scar on her hand and I knew what it meant."
"She did it because of me. Ares convinced her that I wouldn't love her when I found out what she'd done. So she swore herself to him. Then, she came in and fught for us. She helped us."
"Because she loved you, Autolycus. No matter what Ares told her, she saw that you loved her. And when she saw that she was wrong, she went to make it right. And she did. She saved the rest of us."
"She wanted to die. She said better to die than to be so wrong. She asked me to promise to never stop loving her. How can I love her when she's gone?"
"I know it's hard, Autolycus," Gabrielle said. "But when you love someone, they are forever a part of you. You won't forget them. And if that person dies, they live on through you. Perdicus lives in me, and not a day goes by that I don't think of him, just as Meravin lives in you, and you'll think of her every day. Look inside of yourself, Autolycus, and you'll find her there. She'll always be with you."
"I don't want her to be inside of me. I want her to be with me, really and physically. I need her here."
"Autolycus, listen to me. She loved you very much. Remember what time you did have with her instead of wishing for more."
"I only kissed her once. And I never got to hold her enough."
"Think of what you did get to do," said Gabrielle. "Don't cheapen what you did have by comparing it to all of the things that you didn't get to do."
Autolycus turned his back to the women and hugged Meravin's body closer to his. His tears fell on the fabric of her dress, staining it a deeper red. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean for this to happen. I wanted to take care of you, but you wouldn't let me in until it was too late. And I didn't say anything, either. My I-don't-need-anyone attitude is partly to blame for this. I'll never forget you. You didn't have to make me promise that. From the first moment I met you when you were a little girl I knew then that you were special. I shouldn't have let you come along. I should have tied you up and carried you back home to your father where you would still be safe and alive. But I guess that there was some part of me even then that was selfish and wanted you with me. But look where my selfishness has brought us." He lowered his forehead to touch hers.
Gabrielle and Xena watched Autolycus carefully. Thus it was Xena who first saw Ares approach Autolycus and it was Xena who stopped him. "Don't even think about it," she hissed.
"The girl is mine, Xena. Dead or alive, she pledged herself to me, and I want her."
"Don't you think that you've done enough to that poor child? She's barely old enough to be a woman and you took advantage of that! You manipulated her! You confused her until she didn't know what she was doing. Forget it."
"I can bring her back to life."
"Do it." That was from Autolycus. "I don't care what the cost is. Bring her back."
Gabrielle knelt in front of Autolycus. "Don't ask him for that. Don't you see that's what he wants? He wants her to see that everything she did, she did in vain. She'd still love you, but she'd be honor bound to leave you and go with Ares. She'll be his servant forever, and I mean forever, Autolycus, because she'll be immortal until Ares decides to take his gift back. She'll be miserable because she'll be in love with you and she won't be able to go to you, and she'll be even more miserable because you'll be in love with her and won't be able to go to her. Do you want her to live like that? Live every day in constant pain and suffering knowing that she can't end it? Knowing that when she goes to sleep every night, she'll wake up every morning with the same burden until it's unbearable? And then to think of her begging that man for a release you know he'll never give her, not till long after you're dead?"
"Stop it!!" Autolycus screamed. "I don't know what to do!!" A bright light suddenly appeared and blinded everyone, including Ares. A figure inside the pillar of light dropped something on the ground in front of Autolycus and vanished. "The Dagger of Helios!" he breathed. "I'd know it anywhere." Then he noticed something different about the handle. "There's a clasp here."
Autolycus gently laid Meravin's body down on the ground and picked up the dagger. He lifted the clasp, and his nostrils were assailed with a sweetly familiar odor. "Ambrosia! There's ambrosia in the Dagger!"
"That's not all," Ares said. "I smell Hind's Blood."
"Look, on the side there," said Gabrielle. "Another clasp."
Autolycus opened the smaller compartment on the Dagger.
"That's the Blood, all right. I can smell it from here."
Autolycus didn't look at Xena--he kept his eyes on Ares. "Xena, give me the chakram."
"What--" Xena was about to protest when Gabrielle laid a cool hand on her.
"Do it," Gabrielle said. Xena handed Autolycus the chakram without further comment.
Autolycus took the chakram from Xena and without taking his eyes off Ares, he poured the Blood on the edge of the chakram. He coated it. "Get out of here. But before you do, you renounce the claim on her life. Before, she didn't have the power to kill you, only to harm you. I have the power to kill you here in my hands. I won't hesitate to use it. So, if self-preservation is an instinct you possess, give up your claim on her."
"Fine. I give up my claim on her. For now. But you haven't heard the last of me. There will come a time when you will regret ever crossing me."
"I'm already there. Now get out." Autolycus took the shirt from a nearby soldier and wiped the chakram clean. He tossed the cloth on a nearby pile of wood, and used an ember from the soldier's firekit to burn the cloth.
"I don't understand. What good will the Dagger of Helios do us if her spirit isn't here?"
"Who says my spirit isn't here," said Gabrielle. Autolycus turned to stare at Gabrielle. "You just never asked."
"I'm here. When I died, I heard you calling my name. I wanted to come back but my body was too badly damaged at the time. When I saw Gabrielle was temporarily down, I borrowed a part of her. When she came back awake, I retreated. She knew that I was here, but she didn't say anything because of Ares. But when you asked him to bring me back, I knew that I had to stop you. Gabrielle let me use her body to stop you."
"What was her, and what part was you?"
"The only thing that I did was stop you from asking Ares to bring me back. Gabrielle did the rest on her own." Gabrielle's body moved close to Meravin's. Autolycus and Xena saw a golden orb leave Gabrielle's body and hover over Meravin's. Autolycus quickly poured the ambrosia from the Dagger into Meravin's mouth and the orb sank into Meravin's body. She lay still for a moment, then Meravin's eyes opened.
"Autolycus?" she asked weakly.
"Meravin? Meravin!!" he shouted. "You're alive, it worked!!"
"Yeah, if you can call this alive," she said. "I'm beat."
"Gabrielle, I don't know--" Autolycus began, but Gabrielle interrupted her.
"But I do." She smiled. "You're welcome."
Autolycus stood up and swept Meravin up into his arms. "If you ever go chasing off after me again, I'm tying you to the doorpost. No, I'm gonna CHAIN you to the door post."
"Autolycus, put me down!"
"Nope. Not until I've got you somewhere safe and alone. Meravin, I love you."
"I love you, Autolycus."
Autolycus mounted Tenias, and held Meravin close in front of him. "Come on, let's go home," he said. He led Xena and Gabrielle towards Shalin, where the sun was setting in front of them.