OF GODS AND GOLD
Joxer was in trouble.
It was Xena's fault. If it hadn't been for her he would still be sitting in that pleasant, musty bar, drinking reasonably pleasant, musty beer, and contemplating which dish from the menu would be least dangerous to his health. It had been warm in there, and sheltered from the wild, furious wind, and there had been a young serving maid that he was certain had been giving him the eye. Admittedly she had had some sort of nervous tick, so it hadn't been entirely possible to see whether she was winking at him or was entirely oblivious to his presence, but he'd been enjoying the feeling of mutual attraction anyway.
And then the warrior had come in. Anybody could see that he was a warrior; one of the soldiers of some province, taking a break from one of the many wars that so often raged. He had been at least six feet tall, with a broad chest made more so by a vast shirt of mail, and he had been carrying a massive shield slung over a battle-scarred arm. Joxer had seen that some of the scars were recent, and noticed more than one sizeable bloodstain on the man's thick, heavy trousers, and had tried to withdraw into the shadows as much as possible. In his experience people like that didn't like people like him very much. When huge, towering soldiers arrived in an inn they invariably spent many happy hours tormenting the skinny souls that they found huddled around the bar; and Joxer had been the target of more than enough bullies in his time. He had learnt how to avoid them by now, and so it was that he had retreated into the shadows and settled down to an evening of remaining unseen. Let somebody else take the heat for a change.
"Give me ale." Throwing his shield down on a bar stool, the soldier sat himself on a second one and glared at the bartender. A timid sort, encased in a grease-coated apron, the bartender did as he was told.
"Been away fighting the wars?" A barmaid who could have written the book on flirtation delivered the ale, leaning so far forward to do so that she appeared to be trying to give the entire room an obstructed view down her dress. He stared up at her.
"Oh." She had obviously primed herself with questions about his exploits, and was now left without a topic of conversation. "I thought--"
"I've been fighting some warrior woman." He grabbed the tankard and drained half of its contents in one mouthful. "I'd got an army together. We were going to ride on some stronghold and carry off all the gold, but she got in the way. Sent all my men packing. Stupid bloody woman."
"Xena." The timid bartender clearly felt confident enough to add that single word to the conversation. The warrior glared at him.
"That was her name. You know her?"
"No me personally, no. She's quite a hero though." Nearby Joxer twitched, wishing that he hadn't regaled the bartender with quite so many tales of his own 'wonderful adventures' with the warrior princess. Perhaps there was a secret trapdoor beneath his feet.
"A hero?" The soldier looked unimpressed. "A hero to who? Some blasted woman who thinks she can scatter my army, and defeat me in battle? Went skipping off into the sunset with her girlfriend, warbling some damn silly yodel, and left me looking like a moron. And she stopped me getting my gold."
"Yeah, but she keeps crime down, doesn't she." The bartender refilled the tankard without needing to be asked, and then let the unnecessarily attentive barmaid hand it back to its owner. "Speak to him over there about it. He knows Xena well."
"Who?" The voice was like thunder. Joxer tried to disappear under the table, but everybody in the room was looking at him now. He managed a weak smile.
"You know Xena?" The soldier rose to his feet, oozing menace, identifying an extremely easy target who might allow him to work off a little of his frustration with the minimum effort. Joxer tried to look as inoffensive as possible.
"Well, wh-when you say 'know', I - I mean--"
"That woman left before I could have a chance at trying for a rematch. Maybe I can sort out a few details with her friend."
"I'm not a friend." Joxer was conscious of sounding rather more high-pitched than usual, and so immediately tried to compensate by dropping his voice so low that it sounded as though his vocal chords had descended on a visit to Hades. "I'm just an... acquaintance. Distant acquaintance. In passing." He shrugged, and his voice managed to return to normal. "Don't really know her at all actually."
"That's not what you said." The bartender sounded indignant. Joxer felt desperate.
"Yeah, well..." He saw the big soldier coming towards him, and blanched. "Um... Well it was nice meeting you all. Goodbye."
It was when he had gone about two miles that he finally decided he was not being chased any longer. He slowed, pulled his thin clothes tightly around himself, and breathed a hefty sigh of relief. He might be freezing cold, and buffeted by winds strong enough to tie his legs in knots, but at least he had escaped his pursuer. He pushed his unruly hair away from his eyes, and came to a disbelieving halt. Ahead, leaning against the dimly lit wall of a very familiar tavern, was the bulky shape of an even more familiar man. Joxer squeaked.
"You!" The soldier was delighted. Joxer wasn't. Cursing whichever god had had the nasty idea of sending him in a circle, he began to back away.
"You don't want to fight me." He put up his fists, trying to look as though he was a terrifying warrior in his own right. "I taught Xena all her moves."
"Then you can try them against me." The big soldier broke into a run. Joxer hesitated, wobbled, briefly considering fainting, then eventually spun clumsily on his heel and dashed away. Angry shouts echoed in his ears, but he was faster than the soldier. He was sure that he could stay ahead, at least for now.
And so he was in trouble, and it definitely was Xena's fault. As usual. With the roars of his furious pursuer only just rising above the howls of the wind, with a sudden violent downpour of freezing rain threatening to blind him, and with the increasingly treacherous ground trying to trip him up and break his neck, he was just about ready to give up and cry - that or shin up the nearest tree and refuse to come down. His angry antagonist could uproot the tree, or even burn it down, but Joxer would stay firmly glued to its branches. He was beginning to like that idea.
"Come here you little runt!" The bellowing was getting louder, which could mean one of three things. Either the wind was getting less powerful, which definitely wasn't the case, or the soldier was finding his second wind, which wasn't a nice thing to contemplate, or the distance between the two of them had narrowed, which was even less encouraging. Joxer tried to increase his own speed, but found that his legs had had enough. Thick mud clutched at his ankles, and he sighed sorrowfully to the wind. He was definitely in trouble now, and it was definitely all Xena's fault. Always supposing that he was still capable, he was going to have something to say to her, when their paths next crossed.
Autolycus was in trouble.
It was Xena's fault, which was the excuse he was sticking to. She was the one who had first told him about Scryptos, anyway, so if she hadn't been in such a chatty mood during that night in Ganides' tavern, he wouldn't be fleeing for his life right now.
Scryptos was a sorcerer of sorts, or so Xena had said. She had told the slightly drunk Autolycus all about a trip she had once made, to a ramshackle old house on the top of a hill, surrounded by huge gardens full of plants with long names, and very dark reputations. Strange things went on in that house she had claimed, and at the centre of it all was a man apparently given the gift of turning ordinary metals into gold; a reward from an unusually generous Zeus. According to popular myth his cellars were full of the precious metal, all transformed from a boring, unshiny past as simple steel or iron. From this magical place he conducted his - rather ungrateful - rebellions against the gods of Olympus, performing spells culled from the gift of Zeus, and using them to challenge the powers of Zeus's own children. There were all manners of great riches in that house by all accounts, and Xena had enjoyed teasing the thief with talk of their inaccessibility. Autolycus, half awake but fully aware, had thought that it was just a tale. It wasn't often that Xena talked so much, and even more rarely that she talked so much to him. Usually their conversations were limited to threats, jokes and a few more threats, but this time she had chatted at length. Maybe that was why the story had stuck in his mind, even though he hadn't believed for a minute that it was true - hadn't believed it, that was, until he had found himself wandering through an unfamiliar district, and had seen a large house, standing on a hill. Spurred on by the sort of innate curiosity that had nearly got him killed on more occasions than he cared to remember, he had strolled up the hill and found gardens filled with plants bearing peculiar leaves, all giving off strange smells and sheltering flowers that were in full bloom in the middle of the night. He had thought about Xena's story - and of course had been unable to resist the temptation to find out whether or not it was true. How could any self-respecting thief - let alone the King of Thieves - allow a potential cellar full of gold to pass him by? He had found an open window, climbed into the house - and had come face to face with a furious sorcerer, arms upraised in the act of throwing a spell. Autolycus had done what anybody would have done in such a situation, although he liked to think that he had done it with more style, and had promptly made his exit, fleeing back down the hill with coloured fire and whizzing stars popping in his ears as the sorcerer sent spells in pursuit. The grass crackled underfoot, and the powerful wind that raged in his ears brought the furious screeches of his intended victim horribly near. He dodged a cloud of hissing, airborne snakes, part of yet another spell sent by Scryptos, and hoped that the sorcerer would tire soon. How did he get into these messes? The answer to that was obvious enough.
It was all Xena's fault. If he made it through this without getting turned into anything nasty, he was going to have words with her the next time they met.
Although knowing her the last thing he'd get was an apology.
Joxer was running south. Autolycus was running north. It was inevitable, really, that they should eventually meet, especially given their shared propensity for trouble.
Joxer had just crested an extremely muddy hill, his pursuer now no more than a few feet behind him. He had resigned himself to the fact that he was about to be caught, and almost couldn't be bothered to run down the other side of the hill. Autolycus, attempting the duel task of clambering up the hill whilst dodging the myriad flashing, dancing stars still chasing him in clouds, didn't see the man stumbling towards him. With a squelching of mud, a squeak and an oath - the squeak from Joxer and the oath from Autolycus - they clashed headfirst and tumbled down the hill. The furious soldier - now more furious than ever, and apparently not in the least bit tired - let out a shout of triumphant glee, and seized the first of the two mud-soaked figures that he could lay his hands on. It happened to be Autolycus who, dazed and confused after his unexpected tumble down the hill, thought for a moment that the soldier was Scryptos. He wiped the mud from his eyes, blinked up at his attacker, wondered briefly why some sizeable soldier who he was fairly positive he had never stolen anything from was trying to throttle him with a mail-clad fist - and then saw the flashing fires of the sorcerer's wrath flying towards him out of the storm. He gulped. The soldier frowned and peered forwards, trying to see what the peculiar goings-on were all about, whilst beside him, having just made it back to his feet, Joxer let out another terrified squeak and flung himself to the ground. The airborne spell, hurled by an indignant sorcerer still some miles to the south, hesitated for a second when it realised that its target had become blurred, then shrugged its tiny, metaphorical shoulders, decided that it couldn't care less which of this soggy, mud-caked trio was its intended victim, and hurled itself into the melee with predictably insentient abandon. It struck the soldier a blinding blow to the top of the head, bounced off, caught Autolycus full in the chest, then showered the cowering Joxer with sparkling residue. He watched the pieces fall through half-closed eyelids, and wondered how they had all managed to miss him. Then he wondered where the other two had gone.
"Hello?" Still too scared to move, wondering what in Hades was going on, he rubbed the rain from his eyes and peered into the night. He hadn't recognised Autolycus, and looked only for a faceless man, as well as for the soldier who had been the bane of his existence for the last part of the night.
"Hello?" There was no answer. Scrambling to his feet he looked around, only as an afterthought looking back to the earth, where the last few stars of the spell were just fizzling away into nothingness. He blinked. A perfect outline of himself had been cut from the grass by the stars; a line of bare earth and wet mud, devoid of plant life as though razed by fire. The slowing rain made it easier to see the shape of his body, apparently cut by the twinkling, tumbling stars.
"Wow." He bent closer, intrigued, happier now that there seemed to be no further sign of danger. There was something else in the grass, close to his mysterious outline; something as green as the grass and as black as the surrounding night. It looked like a doll, but he knew that it wasn't his, and couldn't imagine the strangely disappeared soldier carrying such a thing. Might the second stranger have been some kind of a wandering doll salesman? He reached out for the toy, intrigued by the clever detailing; then jumped with shock when the doll stood up and stared at him.
"Joxer?" The unmistakable, though unusually quiet, voice of the King of Thieves floated upwards from the tiny figure on the ground. "What in Hades are you doing up there?" He rubbed his eyes and wobbled in mud that was practically up to his knees. "Did that spell get you? Boy, if I'd known that it was a growing spell I might have let it catch me. So what's it like being a giant, huh pal?"
"I'm a giant?" Joxer looked down at his feet, confused by the fact that they didn't seem to be any further away. "I don't feel like a--" He shook his head. "Those sparkling things didn't hit me, Auto. I can't be a giant."
"Well you've gotta be, little - I mean big - buddy. Look at you." Autolycus tried to walk towards him, but had to stop when he became irrevocably bogged down in the thick mud. "Zeus, I didn't realise how bad the storm had got. Look at this mud. Guess that doesn't bother you all the way up there, huh?"
"I guess not." Reaching down, Joxer carefully lifted the thief clear of the mud, and balanced him on the palm of his outstretched hand. Autolycus was now not even as tall as the length of Joxer's leather wrist bands.
"Where'd that other guy go?" Peering down at the ground, Autolycus could see no sign of the soldier. "He a friend of yours or something?"
"Not exactly, no. Didn't you see what happened?"
"Not really. The spell came pretty close by us. I couldn't see much for the stars. I'm telling you, that's the last time I try to steal gold from a sorcerer. He was such a scrawny little guy, too. No wonder he's supposedly got half of Olympus clamouring for his head."
"You never learn, do you." Smiling at his light-fingered friend's kleptomaniac ways, Joxer struck out in a new direction in search of shelter. The rain had slackened considerably now, and in just a few moments it had stopped altogether. He was left with the wind, more powerful than ever. Surely if he was a giant he wouldn't notice it quite so much? He was on the point of mentioning that to Autolycus when they came upon the dilapidated hut of some long departed goatherd, built out of uneven logs, and still bearing signs of a once cultivated garden now overgrown with weeds. It was, undeniably, a normal-sized house, as the nearby tree could confirm - and Joxer, equally undeniably, was the right size to use it. He held up Autolycus, and gestured at the lonely, windswept building.
"Er, Auto? I don't think it's me that's the giant."
"Huh?" Autolycus struggled to his feet, fighting to stay upright on Joxer's hand as the wind tried to hurl him from his perch. He looked up at the crazily bowing, bending trees, at the rattling door so many times greater than his own height, and then up at Joxer's huge, yet definitely normal-sized, face. He swallowed.
"Ah... Hades." He sat down, glad of Joxer's surrounding fingers protecting him from the wind. "This really isn't fair. I didn't even get to steal anything, and that sorcerer goes and does this. Where's the justice in that, huh?"
"Maybe it'll wear off." Pushing open the door of the hut, Joxer carried Autolycus carefully inside. The now tiny thief stared up at him, dark eyes no less bright now that they were so much smaller than they should have been.
"Yeah." He hopped down off the patient hand, onto the surface of a table that looked the size of a small island. "I guess." Sighing, he kicked at a clump of dust that was nearly as big as his foot, before turning his attentions to tidying up his storm-drenched person. After all, a man might be just a few inches high, but he still had sartorial standards to uphold. Joxer watched him for a moment, then set about seeing if he could light a fire in the hut's rickety fireplace. He could hear Autolycus muttering to himself as he worked, even though the thief's voice was so much smaller than usual.
"Damn it to Hades," he was saying, as he did his best to clean himself up. "Xena's got a lot to answer for."
It was nice to have a fire going. Joxer stretched out in a flimsy wooden chair beside the fireplace, and watched the steam rise from his boots. Autolycus was sprawled on the ragged remains of the hearth rug, trying to avoid scorching himself in the unaccustomed heat of a fire so many times his own size. He was clearly still expecting to return to his normal height at any moment, and kept checking his progress against the size of the things that surrounded him. So far he hadn't grown an inch.
"At least now we know what must have happened to that soldier." Drawing his knees up to his chin, Joxer stared down at the tiny figure of his friend. Autolycus turned to look back at him.
"Well he must have got the full force of the spell, mustn't he. He's probably so small now that nobody can see him. Smaller than a grain of dust. That must be why I left my outline in the grass, too. The grass itself got shrunk." He whistled softly. "Boy, I'm glad it missed me. Otherwise I'd be as small as you are."
"There has to be some benefit to being this size." Beginning to pace, Autolycus addressed his companion with as much flair and frivolity as he displayed when he was six feet tall, instead of less than six inches. "Take picking locks. That's got to be easy when you're small enough to get inside the lock itself. Autolycus the Human Key."
"Yeah, but how do you steal stuff once you've got inside the room?" Joxer shuffled his chair closer to the fire. "It won't be easy to keep your title as King of Thieves if you can only carry one gold coin at a time."
"True." The thief stroked his beard, a sure sign that he was thinking. "Oh, but it doesn't matter. It's only temporary anyway. Why, I think that I can feel myself growing right this minute." Joxer watched him expectantly, but it was clear that nothing was happening.
"Never mind." He tried to sound encouraging and supportive. "It'll probably wear off by morning."
"And if not, at least you know who did it to you, right? We could always go and look for him, and ask him to turn you back."
"Oh yeah, sure. 'Cause he's going to help out." Autolycus began to pace, clearly growing more and more agitated all the while. "Maybe there are other magicians out there. People who might try to break the spell."
"I don't know." The thief made it sound as though it was ridiculous to assume that he might. "Maybe Xena knows somebody. Or Hercules. He might pull a few strings with one of his family members. You know - a nice god who owes somebody a favour."
"Do any gods owe you any favours?" Joxer was amused, even though he was, in the main, sympathetic. "I mean, aren't you the one who keeps boasting about how many treasures he's stolen from temples?"
"And the one who stole Artemis's bow and Hermes' shoes? I know that guy's supposed to have a soft spot for thieves, but you were pushing it with that one."
Autolycus looked sulky. "It was in a good cause."
"Yeah, right. Finding a way to fix the problems caused by you stealing Artemis's bow." Joxer couldn't help grinning. "You know, you're a lot easier to tease when you're all the way down there. Usually by the time I got this far, you'd have hit me with something, or gone yodelling off into the trees."
"Yeah, well don't get too used to it, pal. I'll be back to my normal size soon enough, and then we'll see who's laughing." Autolycus toyed sorrowfully with his grappling hook, now so small, and carrying a rope so tiny, that it was unlikely to be of much use to him at all. "Do I look like I'm growing yet?"
"Great. It's no fun being this size, you know. Even a prize specimen like myself, in prime physical condition, can start feeling a little wheezy when the dust's big enough to play ball games with. And there are one or two creepy-crawlies that I swear are giving me the eye. I know I'm irresistible, but I draw the line at close relationships with anybody who's got more legs than I can count on the fingers of both hands."
"Here." Reaching out, Joxer picked up his companion and placed him back up on the table top. It was still a little dusty, although less so than the floor. The scrawny warrior-of-sorts wiped off a sizeable section of the rough-hewn wood, then turned out the contents of the pack he had been carrying. Everything inside had been a little shaken up during his flight from the irate soldier, but nothing appeared to be damaged. He laid out half a loaf of a dark, greyish bread, a somewhat floppy container of rough red wine, and a couple of wizening apples. It took several attempts to cut a piece of bread that was scaled more or less correctly for Autolycus, but it was easier to find a suitable drinking vessel. By chance the thief had recently stolen a pair of golden goblets from a wandering salesman he had met nearby - who had in turn stolen them from a farmer, who in his turn had stolen them from a smuggler from Rome - and one of them proved the perfect utensil. Even though it was now so tiny, Joxer could see the impressive workmanship, and he marvelled at the sort of price that Autolycus could demand, if and when he managed to restore both himself and the goblets to their correct size. Thievery, it sometimes seemed, could be a remarkably profitable profession, although not one that was destined to make Joxer's fortune. Although he had the enthusiasm for just about any task, and willingness to embark on almost any venture, when it came to the practicalities he was somewhat lacking. He was, in all fairness, something of a klutz - although Xena herself had often been heard to say that he was, if nothing else, certainly an extremely courageous klutz, if a somewhat timid one.
"There's something to be said for drinking wine from a jewel-encrusted golden goblet." Sprawling on the leather wrap that had contained the half loaf, Autolycus downed a large gulp of wine. Joxer poured some more for him, decanting it first into the lid of the bottle. It was almost impossible to pour anything into the goblet without spillage, but using the lid as any intermediary between bottle and drinking vessel helped minimise the mess. Anything that escaped would no doubt keep the rats happy for the rest of the night. Their frenetic scratchings in the corners of the room were beginning to sound almost threatening, but Joxer didn't think that Autolycus was likely to be in any danger, so long as he remained on the table top.
"I can't say that I've drunk from golden goblets often enough to say." Chewing the dry bread with as much relish as he could muster, Joxer made do with drinking straight from the wineskin. "And go easy with it. You might not be drinking much, but you don't know what sort of effect it'll have on you now. It's still the same strength, but you're not."
"Hey, big or small, I can still drink you under the table." Autolycus experimented with dunking the bread into the wine, and finally settled upon that as the most palatable way by which to finish the meal. "And speaking of which... do you happen to have anything planned for the next few days?"
"Don't worry, Auto. I'm not going to walk out on you. Not when you need me." Joxer had to smile, only too well aware of how much the King of Thieves would hate the idea of needing anybody. "And I meant what I said, about helping you to find the man who did this to you. Who's to say that he won't turn you back, once he's seen that his spell worked?"
"More likely he'd shrink you too for asking it." Autolycus shook his head. "I don't know little buddy. I mean, he was pretty mad."
"What were you trying to steal?"
"Steal?" Autolycus looked affronted. "I wasn't trying to steal anything. If I had, I'd have stolen it. I was just looking around, that's all. I'd heard rumours of a cellar full of gold, and I thought I'd check it out."
"For any particular reason? Nothing better to do, or were you thinking of offering free security advice?"
"You're getting mighty snippy in your old age, you know that?" Autolycus was glowering now, not impressed by the teasing. "Have you been taking lessons from Xena, or Hercules' little curly blond shadow?"
"I just know you." Joxer whistled. "A cellar full of gold, huh."
"I know what you're thinking, little buddy - and you can forget it." Leaning back with his hands behind his head, Autolycus regarded the younger man with rare seriousness. "It might sound like a quick way to get rich, but thievery is best left to the thieves. The incorrigible, long ago corrupted types like yours truly. It's not the life for you and you know it. Besides, you'd only get yourself caught, and then what'd happen? Xena would blame me, and probably wind up strong-arming me into rescuing you, and the last thing I need is to develop a reputation for being the kind of guy who breaks into prison. You just stick to what you're best at."
"I don't know. I never did get into the nitty-gritty of all the hero stuff. Wandering, helping, being nice and then vanishing without asking for credit. You know the sort of thing. Xena stuff."
"Rescuing shrunken thieves, you mean."
"Hey, don't push it." Autolycus drained his goblet again, but this time didn't call for more. "We, my little friend, have to formulate a plan. Something stunning, yet simple. Brilliant, yet basic."
"When did you ever do anything simple or basic?" Cutting some pieces of apple, Joxer handed them across. Autolycus nodded his thanks.
"Simplicity is an art form few people have truly mastered. I, of course, mastered it years ago, but choose not to use it that often. No, my loyal and trusted companion, what I mean is, that we have to come up with a plan simple enough to surprise a sorcerer that's too clever by half, and yet is also spectacularly brilliant and daring and befitting a royal personage such as myself." He gave a little half-bow, just to indicate that he truly was of royal bearing. "Just give me a minute or two. I'm sure I'll come up with something."
"Yeah, sure." Joxer rose to his feet, stretching. "I'll just check the windows and the doors. This place isn't all that strong, and that gale sounds like it's trying to send us all to Hades."
"Yeah, it is getting pretty rough. How much wood have we got for the fire?"
"Enough. There was quite a bit cut, although it was pretty dusty. Whoever cut it obviously didn't get to use very much." Heading towards the nearest window, Joxer cast a glance at the crackling fireplace. "I wonder what happened to him."
"Went off to fight a war, probably. A lot of people from this region fought alongside Jason in a couple of wars, and before that a lot more were pressed into service by one dictator or another. I guess our host wasn't one of the lucky ones who made it home."
"Yeah, I guess it is. We live in lucky times, little buddy - not that I'd let myself get pressed into war service anyway, whoever the dictator happened to be."
"I doubt they'd want you anyway. Not unless the battle plan called for somebody to run around stabbing ankles." Joxer finished tightening the first of the shutters, and turned his attention to the next. Autolycus ignored the jibe, and carried on munching apple. Being shrunk to a fraction of his normal size seemed to be giving him an appetite. He frowned. Maybe it was making him hear things too.
"Say Joxer, do you hear something?"
"I don't hear a thing except this wind." Tightening the shutter in an attempt to minimise the draught whistling through the cracks, Joxer paused to throw another log on the fire. Autolycus shook his head.
"Not wind. Listen."
"Rain?" Joxer frowned. "Yeah, actually I do hear something. At least I think I do. Shouting?"
"Yeah, shouting. People." The thief ran to the table's edge. "You'd better open the door. Whoever it is is going to need some kind of shelter from this weather."
"What about you?"
"Me?" Autolycus looked down at himself, as though just remembering that he was currently a most unusual size. "Oh, don't worry about that. I want to get some sleep anyway, so I'll get inside your bag here. Just make sure that you don't go throwing anything inside on top of me."
"Don't worry about that." The younger man headed over to the door, making a largely pointless attempt to straighten himself up a little. He was the perpetually battered type, who could not have worn the newest and most expensive clothes in all of the world without looking somewhat bedraggled and scraggly in them, and after an evening spent battling the elements he was even more mussed up than normal. "I just hope that whoever's coming in is friendly."
"In weather like this everybody is friendly." Autolycus scrambled into the neck of the battered leather pack. "Stoke up the fire, offer them a little wine, and by morning they'll be offering you their daughter's hand in marriage."
"I hope so. I mean the friendly bit, not the daughter bit." Struggling with the door, Joxer had to fight to stop it from blowing right out of his hands once he had opened it. It was hard to peer out into the raging wind, but he could just make out the shapes of two figures. Spurred on by the sudden glow of light from the opened door, they were veering towards the little hut with renewed vigour, and he ushered them quickly inside.
"Is this place a sight for sore eyes!" Helping Joxer to close and secure the door, the first of the two men held out a large, tough hand. "You, sir, are clearly a host sent by the gods."
"I'm not much of a host. We, er, I just found this place by chance. I was caught out in the storm same as you were." Remembering Autolycus's words, Joxer handed over the wine, watching as both men drank from the bottle. "I'm Joxer."
"My name is Daedus, and my companion here is Listes." The first of the soggy new arrivals held out his hand for the ritual shake. Beneath the rainwater he appeared to be about forty-five, with black hair that managed to be both shaggy and reasonably well trimmed, and several days growth of rather less well cared for stubble. His clothes were long past their best, which was nothing unusual. Autolycus was one of the few people Joxer had ever met who dressed well.
"I'm pleased to meet you." Holding his hand out to the second man, Joxer met with cold blue eyes, and no offer of a hand in return. The second man, slightly younger than the first, had a sour looking face and too much unkempt blond hair. He also had a clearly unfriendly demeanour, and the always cheerfully welcoming Joxer was rather disconcerted. He smiled nonetheless, nodded a hello, then gestured to the fire.
"You better warm yourselves through. It's a cold night."
"It is at that." The darker of the two, Daedus, pulled off a soaking cloak and threw it over the back of a dusty chair. "Thankyou."
"No problem. Um..." He glanced nervously as Listes, and decided that he didn't particularly want to spend the rest of the night trying to make polite conversation with somebody so obviously hostile. Besides, Autolycus wasn't the only one who was tired. "I'm pretty sleepy, so if you don't mind, I think I'll get some rest. Help yourself to wine and bread. There's plenty of wood for the fire."
"So I see. It's a mighty nice place you've got for yourself here." Daedus was still nodding and smiling, so that it seemed almost as though he had barely stopped since entering the building. "You get yourself some sleep, and don't worry about us. We'll be doing the same thing ourselves soon enough."
"Yeah." Listes seemed to feel that he should confirm this, and he nodded his decidedly unwashed head. Joxer hesitated, unable to avoid being suspicious, then smiled his easy-going smile and sat down in the nearest chair. It wasn't exactly the bed he had originally planned, sprawled on the rug before the fire, but he was used to making the best out of what remained to him. Resting his head on his folded arms, he turned his face towards the door and closed his eyes. The position wasn't the most comfortable one in which to sleep, but he was tired, and within minutes he was fast asleep.
"What do you think?" Listes kept his voice low and his eyes on the fire. Daedus shrugged.
"Not exactly a wealthy man, is he."
"There might be something in his pack."
"There might indeed." The dark-haired man was silent for a moment, then reached for Joxer's wineskin and downed a large gulp. "Let's wait a bit shall we? Make sure that he's out."
"Sure. I'm in no hurry." Listes leaned close to the fire, appreciating the heat coming through his soaking wet clothes. "Why don't we just kill him, and spend the night here?"
"Because there's no need to kill him. He's asleep and not resisting. And besides, he offered us shelter. He didn't have to do that."
"Whatever you say." Listes snatched the wine. "Here's hoping there's something in that bag of his that's better than stale bread. I could eat a dragon."
"We're not likely to find one of them in his bag." Daedus pulled a chair close to the fire, then sat down and stretched out his feet. "Let's give it until the fire's died down a bit. Ought to be time enough for him to get properly asleep."
In the bag, Autolycus could hear the conversation clearly, even though he was half asleep. With his thief's instincts he was attuned to noises of all description, and the leather surrounding him only dampened the sound a little. In the darkness of his refuge he groaned.
"Joxer." The voice was so tiny a whisper that he knew it had no chance of being overheard. He crawled up to the neck of the bag, discovering that his less than wily friend had chosen a chair some distance away. Awakening him without drawing the attention of the two new arrivals seemed impossible, at least without getting closer to him. He tried throwing bread crumbs, but that didn't work either. "Hades, Joxer. Wake up!"
"You hear something?" Listes, on the verge of sleep, twitched unpleasantly and peered towards the table. Autolycus froze, in the act of flicking a piece of apple at Joxer's upturned ear.
"I don't hear anything. Get some sleep." Daedus didn't bother looking, and the thief, hearing the sounds of men once more relaxing, allowed himself to breathe again. Moving very quietly, with all the ease and fluidity of movement that he had acquired over the years of long practice, he went quietly across the table. With one eye on the two men by the fire, he ran over to Joxer's resting head, and tugged sharply on the man's unruly hair. Joxer twitched. So did Listes. Autolycus froze again.
"Hmph." Moving awkwardly, Joxer gave a deep yawn. "That you, Auto?"
"Ssh!" Panicking, Autolycus dived behind the remains of the bread. Listes rose to his feet.
"He's waking up, Daedus."
"He'll go to sleep again." The older man showed no interest in leaving the fire. "Just sit down. I'm in no hurry to go back out into that storm."
"We don't have to go back out. If you don't want to kill him because of some sense of bad weather camaraderie, fine - but we can still take him out of the picture." Listes was loosening a knife on his belt, and Daedus sighed. Clearly he was going to get no sleep tonight, at least until his companion had had his way.
"Oh no." Autolycus thought fast, then slid out from behind the bread and gave Joxer's ragged hair another tug. If he woke up they had a chance, for Joxer was a fair hand in a fight, and knew more or less what he was doing with a sword. Half roused by the pulling at his hair, the sleeping man made unwilling noises in his sleep, and fluttered his eyelids.
"Go to sleep, Auto." His eyes snapped open suddenly, as it penetrated his sleeping brain that his companion's presence was supposed to be a secret. In the irregular firelight he saw the tiny figure of his friend, making wild gesticulations and mouthing urging sentences. Somehow the message got through. Joxer stood.
"Well well. Look who's awake." Listes was smiling unpleasantly. "You'd have been better staying asleep."
"I don't have anything worth stealing." Joxer reached out for his pack, picked it up, and threw it at Listes' feet. "See for yourself. Now if you want this place to yourselves, fine. I'll leave. You can even keep the wine. But there's no point fighting over things I don't have."
"We don't know what you might have hidden about you." Listes took a step closer, and Autolycus stared about the table for things that he might be able to use to help out. He had a knife, but it was now so small that it seemed unlikely to be of any use save in fighting mosquitoes. Perhaps now would be a good time to fade away into the background; except that there was something about Joxer that always made him feel bad when he did that.
"Do I look like I've got anything worth stealing?" Joxer was keeping admirably calm, but Listes didn't seem to care. He was advancing all of the time.
"You look like somebody who might lie. You've already told us that you're alone here, but you kept talking to somebody. Who's Auto?"
"My... horse. I was dreaming." Joxer winced, imagining his companion's indignation. Daedus laughed.
"I wish I could believe you, son. Now why don't you just give up, nice and easy, so there's no need of a fight. You haven't got a chance."
"I might have." Joxer backed away a little, wondering how he could pick the thief up without the others noticing. Leaving without him was out of the question. Autolycus, needless to say, had already taken this into consideration. Watching the events with a tactical eye, he saw Daedus moving around to hem Joxer in. There seemed little chance of him being able to do much more than offer the most minor of distractions, but still it had to be better to try something rather than nothing. Pulling out his knife he gave it a rueful look, rather disheartened by its obvious lack of size - then, with nothing else to do, he hurled it with all of his might. His aim was as accurate as always, even if the weapon was rather ineffectual, and Daedus let out a shout of surprise when the tiny blade struck his cheek. Joxer took the hint, and grabbing Autolycus he ran for the door.
He would have made it had he not been so zealous earlier, in battening down the hatches to keep out the wind. Fumbling with the door now he found that it would not open immediately. He struggled hard, but Listes was upon him before he could get it open. He dodged the first attack, countered the second, and struck back with as much force as he could muster. He might not have been the strongest man in Greece, but he was agile. Listes cursed as his moves were matched, but he was too stubborn just to give up and allow the other man to leave. Seizing a handful of cloth, he tried to twist Joxer around. The smaller man worked his way free, dodging with a motion that made Autolycus feel decidedly seasick. It carried the pair of them out of the reach of Listes, and only the tiny thief saw where it carried them instead. He shouted out a warning, but Joxer's course was already set. He saw Daedus's fist coming towards him, tried to duck, but found it impossible. The fist clipped his chin and he fell back.
"Gotcha!" Pouncing like a cat upon a mouse, Listes grabbed at the drooping Joxer and pushed him against the wall. Both man and midget thief grunted in tandem.
"Now let's see what you're so eager to hide from us." Holding his captive against the wall, Listes started searching through his clothing. Joxer giggled, rather inappropriately, as a ticklish spot was poked without warning.
"There's no need to be so rough with him." Coming to Listes' aid, Daedus held Joxer still. Listes scowled.
"There's no need to be so damn soft, either. Ha! What was that?"
"I keep spiders." Guessing that Listes had felt something move, Joxer came up with the first excuse that he could think of. It didn't seem to work.
"I felt something." Inside Joxer's clothing, Autolycus heard the voice and wondered what to do next. He didn't really fancy being appropriated by these two ruffians, but the alternatives were few. He considered using his grappling hook as a weapon, and also wondered about climbing to some kind of safety. Even as he thought about it he knew that it was not likely to work. Even if he reached the ground, the shuffling of feet that he could hear would very likely prove to be fatal - and even with everybody's attention fixed elsewhere, it wasn't likely that he could make it across so much wide open floor without being seen. Seeing a set of dirty fingers coming towards him, he dodged as many times as he was able, watching the hand sweep around in search of something that it knew was there - then finally there was nowhere else to back away to. A finger jolted against his shoulder, hesitated, swung around, and then descended upon him. The hand closed awkwardly around his chest.
"Got it!" Holding his prize aloft, Listes peered at it closely, the dim light of the slowing fire illuminating his tiny prisoner just enough to let him see, but not enough for him to believe at the first look. Autolycus, helpless and extremely uneasy, summoned up a rakish grin and offered the greasy blond a little wave. Listes whistled.
"Look at this. It's... I don't know. A fairy or something."
"I am not a fairy!" Incensed, Autolycus struggled to break out of the man's suddenly shaking grip. He was held too tightly to allow such freedom, but still managed to look as unfairylike as possible. "My name is Autolycus, King of Thieves; not fairy, pixie, or any other fluttering, floaty thing with wings. I just happen to be going through a... small patch right now."
"King of Thieves?" Daedus strode over, still gripping Joxer by the collar. "I've heard of somebody who goes about claiming to deserve that title. Somehow I always expected he'd be a little bigger than you are."
"Well ordinarily I would be." Taking an instant dislike to this more intelligent of his two captors, Autolycus folded his arms and managed to look sour. "But since I'm currently a little less than my usual towering self, how about letting my friend and me go?"
"Letting you go?" Daedus reached out, taking the tiny figure from his compatriot and holding him up to the light. Dangling helplessly from the fingers that gripped the back of his jacket, the thief glowered to no avail. "You may be little, but that might be just what makes it worth our while to keep you around."
"I don't like the sound of that." Autolycus searched his mind for a plan, but couldn't come up with one. Escape was his forte - well, one of his many fortes, anyway - but right now he couldn't even begin to break out of his captor's grasp.
"You don't want to take him with you, believe me." Joxer blurted the words out so suddenly that he sounded almost panicky. Three pairs of eyes turned to look at him, but he only returned the stare of Daedus. "Honestly you don't. He was cursed by a sorcerer, that's why he's so small - and we believe that the curse is catching."
"Catching?" Daedus had paled. Joxer nodded hard, his unruly hair bouncing around on top of his head.
"Do you think I'm usually this size? I mean, look at me. I'm a warrior - a feared fighter. Or at least I was. In the last day I've shrunk by nearly a third, and I can feel the curse still doing its work. In another day or two I'll be as small as Autolycus, and nobody knows if it'll stop there. He might still be shrinking. In a few days there might be nothing left of either of us."
"Catching, huh." Daedus looked from Autolycus to Joxer and then back again. Indecision fluttered its way across his face, and the thief unconsciously held his breath. The moment hung in the air, stretching onwards, everything waiting for the decision to be made. "I don't believe you."
"But it's true." Joxer no longer sounded particularly convinced himself. "Honest."
"I don't think so." Fumbling around in his pocket, Daedus brought out a small leather pouch, of the kind so often used to carry jewels. He opened it clumsily with his one free hand, then neatly dropped Autolycus inside. The thief fought to avoid the gaping, drawstring top, but it swallowed him nonetheless, and he landed amongst dark shadows and invisible detritus. Joxer's squeak of protest was cut short by a blow and a thud, and then the top of the bag was drawn shut. Autolycus felt rather than saw the loose strings at the top of the bag being tied into a knot, safely securing him inside, before the bag was swung on a bouncing, rocky ride towards a pocket. Cloth pressed in around him, but it seemed that he could still breathe. Presumably air managed to find a way through the material - if only he could do the same.
"You'll be safe enough in there I think." A hand tapped the pocket in satisfaction, and the world blurred as the thief was knocked against the hard leather of Daedus's stout jerkin. He tumbled into a heap, lying amongst fellow 'treasures' that he couldn't see.
"Ow." For some reason the King of Thieves always seemed to find himself being knocked around. You'd think, he thought to himself, as he gave up trying to struggle upright, that I'd be so used to it by now it wouldn't hurt anymore. But it did hurt, no matter how familiar the roughness was - and trapped in the darkness of his prison, disorientated and dizzy, he knew that unconsciousness was hanging not far away. He tried to clear his dazed mind with thoughts of how this was all Xena's fault, and how much he was going to enjoy pointing that out to her next time they met, but in his confused state of mind he could no longer blame her even in jest. After all, if he was really honest with himself, it hadn't been one of his better plans to try putting one over on a man who allegedly had the whole of Olympus up in arms - and if he hadn't tried to steal Scryptos' gold, he certainly wouldn't be in this fix right now. Memo to self, his mind noted whilst his thoughts were elsewhere, Don't try stealing from men with powers that make gods jealous. Well, not unless it's really worth it.
Joxer had no way of knowing how long he had been unconscious. When he awoke it was to an empty hut, the half open door showing a thin beam of reasonably early morning sunshine. Rain still fell, although with nothing like the fury of the previous night, and he didn't feel especially cold.
He was tied to a chair, with knots done more for speed than for efficiency. It took him a while to work his way free, but not so long that the day had had much chance to progress further without him. His pack had gone, but his sword had been left behind, fallen where perhaps nobody had seen it. The bread had been left too, as well as what remained of the wine, so he breakfasted quickly, and washed his face in the rainwater puddled near the door. It wasn't especially clean, but he hadn't used it for reasons of hygiene; more as a way of chasing the cobwebs from his mind, and confirming to himself that he really was awake now, and ready to go on.
"I'm coming Auto." The tracks were obvious, even with the fresh falling of rain; deep holes in the thick mud that marked the progress of both Listes and Daedus. Joxer had no real reason to follow them. His relationship with Autolycus was often prickly at best, and the thief rarely displayed any patience or real affection towards the younger man. Nonetheless Joxer didn't hesitate in setting out to free his friend. Not only was it the right thing to do, but it was the sort of man he was; and besides, whatever the peculiarities of their relationship, deep inside he knew that this was just what Autolycus would do for him.
It was a rude awakening to be swung out of a pocket, upended, and tipped onto a wooden table. Autolycus landed with a jolt, alongside an old ring, a diamond the size of his head - which excited him, until he remembered how small it must really be - and a couple of coins. So these had been his companions inside the little bag. He mentally totted up their value, and decided that they weren't worth the experience. Not by a long shot.
"What do you want?" Doing his best to brush himself off, the thief turned about to face his two captors, both of whom were seated at the table. They looked soggy and bedraggled, as though they had set off from the hut at the first sign of good weather, only to be caught out by a sudden downpour. "And where's Joxer?"
"Your playmate? He's waiting for you back at that lousy little hut." Listes loomed closer. "You reckon this guy's really worth the trouble?"
"Sure I do." Daedus was grinning, a sight that was not particularly pleasant given the noxious nature of his teeth. Broken was one thing, and so was black - but black, yellow and even green, with broken shards sticking out all over the place, was definitely something to be avoided. Autolycus wondered if it only looked so bad because he was seeing it on such a giant scale, and then decided that it would probably look pretty revolting whatever size it was. The smell of bad breath was definitely made worse by his size, though, and he made a mental note to avoid getting too close to that gruesome, over-sized mouth.
"You figure selling him to somebody? I guess he'd fetch a fair price that way." Listes still seemed dubious. Autolycus bridled. Whilst the idea of being sold was bad enough, the notion of only raising a 'fair price' was damn well insulting. Why, with every law enforcer worth their salary in Greece and the surrounding territories offering a sizeable reward for his head, an auction with him as the centre-point ought to generate an impressive amount of cash. In a rare level-headed moment he refrained from bringing this up.
"I don't plan on selling him, no. You heard what he said. This guy is Autolycus, the famous King of Thieves. Word is that there's nothing this guy couldn't steal. You ever think about how much money you'd make, and quickly, if you had the best thief in the world stealing for you?"
"He's not going to be doing much stealing when he's too small to walk off with anything bigger than a seed pearl." Listes slammed a fist onto the tabletop, and Autolycus nearly lost his footing. He was beginning to know what it must feel like to be an ant in the presence of a human. "I think we should sell him. If he's such a great thief there must be bounty hunters looking for him, surely. We can't go to the local magistrate without getting taken in ourselves, but there are other people who'll pay good money for a wanted man."
"Don't flaunt your stupidity Listes." Daedus pointed at the small, green-clad figure on the table. "He's a criminal mastermind. There's not a lock in Greece that he can't pick - and he's ours. Think about it. The vault at Castle Regis; the famous jewel collection of the Lady Menedos; all secure behind locks that nobody has ever broken. This guy can break them."
"And then we walk off with the treasure." Listes nodded. "Yeah, I get you. We make him do the difficult bit, sure. That'd work."
"Er... excuse me?" Drawing himself up to his full - if somewhat reduced - height, Autolycus managed to look as proud and as determined as he could in such circumstances. "Before you make your plans, I'd just like to point out that the King of Thieves doesn't work for anybody but himself." He folded his arms and tried to appear firm. "If you'd like a few pointers on the art of picking locks, I might be prepared to help out, but that's as far as I'll go. I don't need any partners."
"Who said anything about partners?" Listes was grinning, face looming close. "If you think you can refuse to help us, you're welcome to try."
"Ah." The essential helplessness of his position suddenly sinking in, Autolycus felt his shoulders slump. "Hmm."
"Maybe it's something you'd like to fight about?" The greasy blond head of the bully rocked from side to side with an unpleasant laugh, and the thief on the table before him winced. And he had thought it was unpleasant being at the mercy of that ham-fisted giant at the top of the beanstalk. At least there had been no halitosis in evidence there.
"Er... no. Not particularly." He took a step back, literally as well as figuratively, and let his mind race whilst his body seemed to relax. "A... treasure chamber or two you say? Sounds... interesting."
"I'm glad you think so." Daedus sounded mocking, as though he was enjoying this position of unarguable authority. Autolycus contemplated his chances of escape without letting his eyes move from their current position, which was still the two looming faces above. He couldn't think of much that was in his favour, even with his secreted hook and legendary skill. For the time being, it seemed, he was just going to have to play along.
"Beer!" Listes' voice was startlingly loud, and his fist, crashing triumphantly down onto the table, sent Autolycus stumbling against a bowl of fruit. He righted himself in time, ducking down behind the bowl as a waitress appeared. So they were in some kind of tavern. He wondered which one, and where it was.
"Fetch us two tankards of your finest ale." Daedus managed to sound extremely imperious, and the young waitress, clearly impressed by his manner, nodded and scurried off. The two men laughed to see her go, and were still chortling with merry self-satisfaction when she brought the filled tankards. She placed them down on the table, frowning in surprise when her new perspective brought the hiding thief into her line of sight.
"What-?" she began. Daedus cut her off.
"A toy, madam. A gift for my young son, brought back from lands far from here. A work of art I think you'll agree."
"Seems almost alive." She leaned closer, but Listes pushed his tankard in front of the thief, hiding him from her view.
"Almost, but not quite." His tone sounded reasonable enough, but there was just enough of something else in it to bring the conversation to a quick, unquestionable end. "One arm is shorter than the other, and he's got a stoop. The face isn't up to much either."
"Can't be easy to see to paint things on though. To something so small I mean." She smiled. "Well, enjoy your drinks."
"We will." Daedus waggled his fingers in an exaggeratedly friendly farewell, and the waitress left them alone. Both men laughed.
"So one arm's shorter than the other, huh?" Insulted, Autolycus came back out from behind the fruit bowl, glaring at his two captors with enough regal dignity to suggest that he was the one who so sorely outsized them. "Well if that's the case I'm not going to be much good picking locks, am I."
"Oh give it a rest." Daedus pushed his overflowing tankard closer to his diminutive prisoner. "Here. Have a drink. The beer here is the best in all of Greece."
"Don't mind if I do." Abandoning his wounded pride, Autolycus fished out the remaining goblet from the pair that had so impressed Joxer the previous night. The other one was lost now, back in the hut that he would probably never see again, but he still had the one. Even on its own it was worth a fortune, and despite his dire position he still felt a glow of satisfaction at the idea of drinking out of so priceless a vessel. He clambered up the handle of the tankard, leaned awkwardly over the side, and filled up his goblet from the translucent liquid within. Climbing back down again without spilling anything was harder to accomplish, but he managed it smoothly enough.
"A toast then." Listes had apparently had quite a bit to drink before Autolycus had been brought out to join the party, for he was beginning to look and sound decidedly merry. "To fortunes."
"Fortunes." Daedus raised his tankard high. Beneath them Autolycus dodged the inevitable drunken spillage, and looked down his own, rather more refined drink.
"To fortunes," he concurred, feeling some affinity with that particular goal. "And escaping." The last was an aside, so quiet that he barely heard it himself. A smile crossed his face. He'd get out of this one, just the same as he had got out of every other bad situation he had ever found himself in. After all, what was he but a genius - an artist unrivalled in his field? And feeling rather better about it all, he drained his golden mug of beer.
Joxer reached the tavern in the late afternoon, soaked through and muddy. He cut a sorry sight as he went in through the door, dripping water everywhere, hair plastered to his skull. The same waitress who had served Daedus and Listes earlier in the day came over with a smile on her lips, and asked him if he was wanting a bath.
"I was looking for some friends of mine." She looked a little disappointed at the absence of small talk - part of his mind suggested that perhaps she liked men who inspired a motherly instinct. He wasn't terribly good at handling interested women at the best of times, though, and apart from a lop-sided smile he stuck to business. "Two of them. Daedus and--"
"And Listes." She looked disappointed. "You're a friend of theirs? Don't get me wrong, hon, but you really don't look the type."
"I don't?" Her come-on was becoming more evident all the while, and he was beginning to feel a little exposed. "Um... you saw them then?"
"I saw them. Full of themselves. Noisy." She moved closer. "Are you sure they're your friends?"
"Er... yeah. I'm supposed to be meeting them." He backed off, dripping water all the while, smiling nervously. "Are they still here?"
"No, they left. Not that long ago. They were talking about getting a room at a tavern on the way to the coast."
"The coast?" Coasts meant sea. Hadn't they got wet enough already? "Okay... thanks. Um..." Autolycus would say something at this point, guaranteed to set her heart a flutter, to know that he appreciated her interest. She would be impressed by his style and his flair, and would gaze admiringly after him as he swaggered off out into the rain. Even wet and muddy he would still look like the King of Thieves. Joxer, however, didn't think he had ever managed to swagger, and try as he might he couldn't think of a single thing to say that would allow him to make a grandiose exit. Instead he waggled his fingers in a nervous wave, and backed away out of the door. "Thanks."
"Don't you want that hot bath?" She followed him, walking close. "I'll heat the water myself."
"No thanks." By the sound of things she'd be trying to join him in there, and that was something that he definitely didn't know how to handle - even if it did sound rather nice.
"Beer?" She followed him out into the light rain, her voice getting more seductive by the minute. "Stew? Fresh baked bread? Hot spiced wine?"
"No. Thankyou." It was hard to turn away from an offer like that, but for all he knew Autolycus was in serious need of his help right now. His friend needed him. He should hurry. On the other hand, a mug of hot spiced wine would be very welcome.
"Are you sure?" She was leaning closer to him, and he was sure that his face had turned a brighter, darker red than any mug of wine that was on offer. Several rough looking men seated near the door were starting to look a little unfriendly, clearly fancying their own chances with the amorous waitress. Joxer offered them one of his edgy, lop-sided smiles.
"Um... thankyou for your help. You've been very... helpful." He prised himself loose from her lingering grip, tripped over the ground and nearly ended up in a puddle. "Um... bye."
"Bye." She sounded regretful, and he heaved a sigh as he headed back out on the road. Autolycus really had better appreciate this.
They practised on the door of their room at the tavern, seeing how silently they could approach it, to put Autolycus into position. Since most locks in Greece were the large sort, operated by impressive keys that were often as big as a man's forearm, it was no difficult task for the much reduced King of Thieves to climb inside such a lock, and operate the levers with his hands. He almost found himself enjoying it, even though it was less of a challenge than to work blind using his picks. No matter how easy the task, it was always good to see the amazement on the faces of onlookers, and even though Daedus and Listes weren't his usual adoring public, they still looked impressed enough to stroke his ego. So it was that, as the door clicked unlocked for the fourth time, he leaned out of the lock with a look of insufferable glee.
"Am I a genius or what?"
"I'll answer that when you break us into that treasure chamber." Picking him up by the back of his much abused green jacket, Daedus swung him over to the table and dropped him onto its surface. Listes was sitting there, sprawled in a chair with his feet up.
"This could be the easiest money we've ever made." He was slopping beer from a jug into a tankard, unable to do so properly from his slumped position, and Autolycus only just dodged in time to prevent himself being soaked in a deluge. He glowered, to predictably little effect.
"There'll still be guards to get by, and we'll still have to get out again once we've got the goods." Daedus sat down, laboriously slicing a grape into little pieces with the point of his knife. "Just picking the lock is only a part of things."
"Yeah, well I could help you there." Swinging up onto the side of the fruit bowl that stood soaking its toes in a puddle of beer at the centre of the table, Autolycus seated himself comfortably. Leaning back against a particularly accommodating pear, he chewed on some of the grape slices like a reclining prince. Daedus regarded him thoughtfully.
"I'm a thief." Autolycus shrugged, acting off-hand. "Of course, if you don't want my help..."
"Why would you want to help us?" Clearly the man was the suspicious type. Autolycus threw aside some grape skin, and watched it float away in a river of beer, eventually disappearing over the edge of the table.
"Professional pride," he said finally, meeting the other man's gaze with as much openness and honesty as the King of Thieves was capable of - which wasn't a lot, ordinarily. "I've never been part of a botched job in my life, and I don't plan to start now. I may be a prisoner, and I may be involved in this through no choice of my own - but I am still part of it. The King of Thieves is no amateur, and he always protects his reputation." He smoothed his moustache, a sure sign that his cunning mind was fully in operation. "You never know who's going to hear of these things, after all. My loyal public, my adoring fans... women all over Greece, listening with bated breath to each new tale of my impressive exploits. I can't let those people down, Daedus. They expect great things from me, and it'd break every one of their sweet, trusting hearts if it was to get around that I'd been part of a screwed up job. Whether I'm six feet tall or smaller than one of Listes' fleas, I've still got my pride."
"Hey!" It took a moment for it to sink in that he had just been insulted, but Listes finally sat up. "I don't have fleas."
"Pal, your fleas have got fleas." Autolycus held up his hands to forestall the protests, well aware that the other man was far too drunk to be dangerous - because otherwise, naturally enough, he wouldn't have said a word. "But that's not the point, is it. Do you want my help or not?"
"We'll think about it." Clearly still stinging from the remark about fleas, but none too capable to do anything about it just then, Listes slopped more beer into his tankard and tried to hold it up straight. "I'll drink to success though, whoever leads me to it."
"Yeah. I'll drink to that too." Seizing the jug of beer, Daedus downed half of its contents without bothering to decant it into a mug first. Autolycus smiled to himself. If he could carry on getting them to drink like this, he'd have a good shot at being able to walk right past them and out of the door. His joys, however, were short-lived.
"Oh yeah, I nearly forgot." Rising to his feet, unsteady despite the fact that he had drunk a good deal less than Listes, Daedus caught up the miniature thief and carried him over to the room's sole, dusty shelf. There was a wooden box there, fitted with a handle, and bearing a door hinged by strips of obviously well-toughened leather. Apparently it was not easy to open the door with such large hands as Daedus's, and especially whilst half drunk, but the crook managed it in the end. Autolycus protested, his regal haughtiness barely diminished by the indignity of being carried about by a huge fist encasing his middle.
"I thought we were partners?" He tried to push himself free, but of course couldn't make much headway. Daedus peered down at him, bad teeth showing as he smiled.
"Not partners. Colleagues."
"Well colleagues don't usually go around locking each other up in little wooden boxes." Again he struggled, but Daedus wasn't interested. Tossing the little thief through the door of the box, he pulled it shut with a dull clunk. Autolycus heard the very familiar sound of a padlock clicking shut, and growled some most unkingly phrases. Since the padlock was on the other side of a solid door, he couldn't even try to pick his way through it.
"Oh great." Straightening his clothes and removing the creases caused by Daedus's clumsy handling, he ran a hand through his hair to ensure that it was still displaying the right degree of rakish neatness. It seemed to be okay, which made him feel a little better. Anybody could be a prisoner, after all - but it took the King of Thieves to be a bewitched, miniaturised prisoner, and still look damned good besides.
It was an uninspiring box, but not entirely an uncomfortable one. Straw covered much of the floor, and a series of small holes, about the size of his hand, let in light and air. At first glance there didn't seem to be any hope of escape; but Autolycus prided himself on being able to confound the most experienced of jailers, in the most impressive of jails. He just needed to think about it. So gathering up some of the straw, he sat himself down and gazed at the four, plain brown walls. There would be inspiration somewhere. There always was, for a man as incorrigibly devious as the King of Thieves.
Joxer was even more tired than ever when he finally arrived at the tavern. It had been all but closed for the night, but a serving girl sitting up in case of late travellers such as himself opened the doors at the first sound of his knock. She smiled at the cold, dripping figure on the doorstep, and hurried him inside, sitting him down by a roaring fire before he could even begin to ask her any questions.
"There. You'll soon be dry." She was smiling at him in the faintly mothering way that he seemed to get quite a lot from women. He smiled back, and tried to ask her if she had seen two men fitting the descriptions of Daedus and Listes.
"Don't you worry yourself about anything, dear." She disappeared before he had finished the first half of the sentence, and reappeared a moment later with a plate of stew and a mug of hot wine. "Here, this'll make you feel better."
"Thankyou." He felt the warmth of the fire beginning to do its work on his cold, wet body, and decided that Autolycus could look after himself for a few minutes longer. "I'm here to meet with some friends of mine actually. I don't suppose you--"
"We get a lot of people through here, love." Apparently determined to prevent him from finishing his question, she leaned over to stoke up the fire. Large flames billowed higher, and Joxer snatched his feet a little further away from the hearth. He was sure that his toes had begun to singe.
"There were two of them." He hurried the words out, before she could go beetling off again, or start up some other line of conversation. "Dressed quite like me. They probably weren't carrying much. One was blond and the other had darker hair, and they were called--"
"Daedus and Listes." The serving girl looked decidedly unimpressed. "So they're friends of yours are they?" It was as if she had blown out her friendship and warmth in the same way that she might blow out a candle, and Joxer hesitated before answering.
"Not... friends as such, no. I know them. A bit. A very little bit... We met, once... in passing."
"Well they're upstairs now, anyway." She watched him drink his hot wine. "You don't look likely to be a friend of theirs. I took their kind to be more of the heavy drinking, loud partying type."
"I have loud parties." As a direct lie it didn't score very highly. He wouldn't have believed it if he had been her. She gave him another motherly smile, and gave the fire another frenzied poking.
"Got business then have you?"
"Sort of. Which room are they in?"
"Top of the stairs, first on the right." She frowned at him. "You're not going to go starting any trouble, are you? We don't appreciate that sort of behaviour in here."
"I won't cause any trouble." He amused himself thinking about how Xena would handle it; how she would stride straight up those stairs and kick down the door, before shaking Daedus and Listes so hard that Autolycus would fall out of whatever pocket he was stuffed into. Xena would catch him, make a passing joke with a threatening tone, then stride out of the tavern without breaking a sweat. Either that or she would climb up the side of the building, and leap through the window to the sound of her famous, ululating cry. He, however, was Joxer - not really even a warrior, let alone a princess of such. He wondered if the twosome upstairs would respond to a polite request to give him his friend back.
"They're probably drunk by now anyway." She took his mug and plate, both already empty, and only barely refrained from giving him a pat on the head. "Best if you wait until morning, if you really want to speak to them."
"Oh. Okay." He smiled back at her; his best, most innocent expression hiding the glee that this revelation inspired within him. She smiled back, clearly taken with him.
"Would you like a lamp to find your way up the stairs? Your room can be the one next door to your friends. We don't have many guests at the moment."
"No thanks. I'll find my own way." He rose to his feet, sorry to leave the heat of the fire. "Goodnight."
"Goodnight, love." She vanished towards the kitchen, and he took this as his best chance to make a move.
The staircase, predictably, creaked as loudly as a fleet of wagons with bad wheel axles, but he persevered. Every step made him cringe, and each floorboard seemed noisier than the last, but no doors along the top corridor opened, and no ill-tempered ruffians came running out to fell him in his tracks.
Everything was quiet in the first room on the right. He pressed his ear against the wood, but couldn't hear a sound. Slowly, very cautiously, he tried the handle. The door refused to budge.
"Great." He didn't really know where to begin where picking locks was concerned, and since he had nothing to pick with save a rather ungainly sword, he didn't think that it was a terribly good idea to try. Instead he went next door, into the room that the serving woman had told him he could use. It was quite dark inside there, and he could see no sign of a lamp or candle, but the sky had cleared a little, and a faint glow of moonlight illuminated a bare wooden floor, a simple bed with several homespun blankets, and a rickety table with a distinct lack of chairs. A bowl of fruit stood in the middle of the table, but the selection of pears and grapes that it bore were getting to be a little past their best. Joxer barely glanced around at the darkened room, and instead crossed straight to the window. It seemed a lot higher than it should have been, and it was with a distinct lack of enthusiasm that he looked down at the distant ground. There wasn't even a convenient pile of straw, or even horse manure, for him to land in if he slipped.
"Think Xena." It was a mantra that had worked once or twice in the past. If he could think like Xena, maybe he could behave like her too. "Think Xena, think - very high window. No, think of something else. Think of..." He searched his mind for possibilities. "Falling? No, try again... Not falling. Yeah. Right. Think about not falling." Carefully, still trying to convince his somewhat gangly body that it could behave just like Xena's, he threw a leg over the window sill, and tried to reach over to the window of the room next door. He couldn't quite reach. Perhaps, he told himself, if he stretched a little further... He did so, and was treated to an unhappy view of the ground beneath him. "Oops. Think about not falling, think about... falling. No, no. Think Xena, think Xena, think Xena." His fingers stretched out, his legs began to slip - and just as he overbalanced and fell from his own window sill, his fingers managed to reach the sill next door. He held on as tightly as he could, and swung precariously by his finger tips. How did he get himself into these situations? Life never seemed to go easily.
Hauling himself up, trying hard not to make much noise, he managed to get his eyes on a level with the window's edge. Beyond was a lighted room, easy to see into now that it was so contrastingly dark outside. Two men were sitting at a table, bent forward and apparently asleep. Neither of them moved, and he saw a large jug standing between them. Guessing that it had been full of beer, Joxer smiled in as great a display of relief as was possible whilst dangling from a window sill an uncomfortable distance from the ground.
"Drunk. Good." He pulled himself up until he could haul himself through the open window, congratulating himself all the while on the display of clumsy athleticism. Acrobat he mightn't be, but it seemed he was competent enough. Well, sometimes anyway. Now all he had to do was find Autolycus, preferably without waking the two drunken thieves. He wondered if it would be safe to call to his friend, but decided against it.
Where, if he were a bullying, unwashed pilferer, would he put a tiny King of Thieves? He asked himself the question as he stared around the room. If Autolycus was in a pocket, he was in trouble, for Joxer was no pick-pocket, and didn't think that he could do anything so complex without waking the two men. There were other options too though, and he scanned the rough-hewn furniture. The chairs were empty, there was nothing on the bed, the table bore nothing save the empty jug, the half-empty fruit bowl, and the two slumped heads of Daedus and Listes. There was no Autolycus there.
It was to the box on the shelf that he went eventually, peering through the tiny holes in the sides. Inside he could see what looked like straw, and something else as well, sitting in the middle of it all.
"Auto?" He used the quietest whisper that he had ever heard, afraid that the two other men would awaken. Listes snored loudly, and his shoulders shuffled, but he didn't show any other signs of consciousness. Joxer did his best not to sigh with relief.
"Joxer?" Inside the box, Autolycus saw no more than a large eye swimming about above one of the air holes. The voice that had accompanied it was too quiet to be very sure of identification, but he couldn't think of anybody else who might be calling him, using that name in this place. "Can you see the key anywhere?"
"No." Joxer lifted up the box in order to get a better look at the lock. It seemed easy enough to break - thought not, obviously, in this place. "Hang on, and I'll get us out of here."
"Okay..." The doubt was obvious even in the tiny whisper. If Joxer had been of a less friendly disposition, he might have considered being rather less careful with the box, but as it was he carried it gently over to the window.
"How are we getting away?" Joxer couldn't see it, but Autolycus was peering out of one of the ventilation holes, trying to see where they were going. His rescuer put the box down on the window ledge.
"We're climbing." He felt even less optimistic about it now. How was he going to climb back to his room? It would be an almost impossible task even without the box. The only other option was to go down, something that was by no means any more easily done. If he tried it, it seemed likely that he would end up there by a rather faster, more direct route than he would have liked.
"We are?" The complete lack of faith in the thief's voice was not encouraging. Joxer straddled the window sill, and peered down at the ground. On the whole it seemed a better idea to go down, and then to make sure of an immediate escape, rather than first returning to his room.
"We are." He was trying to sound resolute, still hoping that he could pull this off with even a little of Xena's skill and competence. He didn't feel particularly skilled or competent though, especially when he thought about the climb ahead.
"I'd be happy to do the climbing myself." Clearly Autolycus's faith in Joxer's abilities was about as firm as Joxer's own faith in himself. "Just let me out of this box..."
"I can't get you out." The younger man took a deep breath, and tried to focus. "Not yet anyway. Ready?"
"Hard luck." Stealing a last glance back at Listes and Daedus, both still dead to the world, Joxer tucked the wooden box under one arm, and began to lower himself out of the window. He hung at the limit of his over-stretched arm's length, thinking very unhappy thoughts about how far away the ground probably still was - and then, as he gathered the nerve to simply let go and drop, his grip on the box slipped. The container spun in a lazy circle, falling towards the scraggly grass that grew in patches along the side of the house. Joxer blanched, gasped, and then lost his grip and tumbled after his suddenly airborne friend. He hadn't been quite as high up as he had originally thought, but he knew that such a height could still prove deadly for somebody as tiny as Autolycus.
"Auto!" Avoiding landing on the box only by the skin of his teeth, he hissed his panic-stricken exclamation as loud as he dared. "Auto!"
"I'm fine." The voice, more annoyed than worried or hurt, floated up from the slightly dented box on the floor. Joxer picked it up.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Autolycus was used to Joxer by now, and didn't really bear him any ill will. "Let's just get me out of here, okay?"
"Okay." Tucking the box under his arm, Joxer ran, listening all the while for sounds of pursuit. There weren't any, but he didn't believe that it would take long before the two men awoke. Once they had realised that Autolycus had gone, it would not be hard for them to work out what had happened, for he had left a trail of muddy footprints to and from the window, and was leaving even clearer tracks now, in the soft earth. With this in mind he didn't bother going far before he put the box down, and warned his pocket-sized companion to back away from the door.
"You'd better be careful with your aim."
"I will be." He hefted his sword in his hands, and told himself how much better he was with it than most people usually believed. "Ready?"
"Are you sure you're aiming straight?"
"Auto..." Joxer shuffled his feet, trying to ignore his own nervousness. There was no need to worry, he told himself. After all, nobody could be that much of an idiot. Before he could think it through again, and probably worry himself into lowering his sword, he brought it down with all his might onto the edge of the little box. One wall of it sheered neatly away.
"Alright!" He picked up what remained, peering inside to make sure that the thief was unscathed. Dark eyes glared out at him from beneath sawdust coated hair.
"A little tap would probably have got the job done." Brushing clouds of dust out of his clothes, Autolycus brushed little splinters from his moustache and goatee, and tried not to sneeze. "But... well, thanks I guess."
"That's okay." Happy, as ever, to have been of assistance, Joxer held out his hand for the thief to hop aboard. "Now what?"
"Don't happen to have a horse, do you?"
"A horse?" Joxer shook his head. "Sorry."
"Well then we're just going to have to get one, aren't we." Standing on the outstretched hand, legs akimbo and arms folded, Autolycus still managed to cut a dashing figure. "How d'you fancy being the King of Thieves' first and only accomplice?"
"You want me to steal a horse?" Joxer's eyes widened. "I don't know, Auto. I mean--"
"We need speed, Jox my little buddy. And lots of it." Autolycus gestured back towards the tavern. "Otherwise those two back there are gonna have you dangling by your toes from the nearest tree, and me stuffed back in that lousy pocket. So what do you say?"
"Where are we going to find a horse? I don't remember having seen any."
"There'll be a farm or two near here. Always are. We just need to find the nearest."
"But what if somebody sees us?"
"We'll think of something." Autolycus turned around, facing in the opposite direction. "This way, I think. Come on."
"Are you really sure this is a good idea?"
"You got a better one?"
"No." Joxer had to concede that travelling by horseback probably was the only sure way of staying ahead of pursuit. He didn't have enough money to buy or rent a horse, so the conclusion was inescapable. He sighed.
"I hope you know what you're doing."
"I always know what I'm doing." Autolycus pointed ahead. "Come on. Double time, little buddy. There's a horse out there waiting for us."
"I doubt that." All the same, Joxer slipped Autolycus into a pocket in his jerkin, before breaking into a run. Whatever farm they were heading for, he hoped that the owner was a heavy sleeper. Things didn't need to get any more complicated than they already were.
Listes awoke to the sound of the dawn chorus, the members of which clearly hadn't drunk as much he had last night. He groaned and tried to roll over in bed, a difficult feat when sitting on a chair pulled up against a table. He wobbled, rolled a little further, and crashed to the ground with a noise guaranteed to wake the dead. Daedus, who only just managed to qualify for remaining outside that select group, snorted, grumbled, and carried on sleeping.
"Hades." Scrambling to his feet, Listes stumbled over to the window and roared a demand for silence. The birds ignored him, although the ones that were within grabbing distance quickly vacated the area. The irate bully snatched at the empty tankard of beer, intending to hurl it after the last of the departing birds, but eventually decided against it. Now that he was awake, his sense were beginning to return to him, and with them his memory.
"Hey, Daedus." He shook his companion hard, faintly gratified to see the older man's head bounce off the surface of the table. "Come on you useless layabout. We were going to get an early start today, remember?"
"Early start?" Daedus barely managed to get the words out, but his head lifted up in the end. "You never had an early start in your-- Oh, yeah. Right."
"I'll get our little friend. How about you see if you can rustle us up some breakfast." Listes was grinning broadly. "Or maybe I'll do that. I'd like to have to go and find that serving wench we met yesterday. Maybe she's still in her bedchamber."
"There isn't time for you to play." Daedus looked for some water, but the bowl provided for washing purposes was empty, so he had to do without. Since he was not interested in personal hygiene anyway, but had merely wanted to wake himself up a little more, he made up for the lack of water by sticking his head out of the window, and taking several large breaths of the still soggy, mud-scented air.
"There's a lot of footprints down there." He was surprised, for he had not noticed them before, and had not heard anything during the night. To judge by the prints, somebody had stumbled around quite a bit right beneath the window, before eventually striking out away from the building. Whoever it was didn't seem to have come from anywhere though, since there were no tracks heading towards the tavern from that direction.
"Drunks in the night?" Listes was standing by the shelf upon which they had left Autolycus, frowning in a murky, first-thing-in-the-morning lack of comprehension at the distinct lack of midget thieves. "Say Daedus, did you-?"
"There's a hell of mess in the ivy too." Daedus leaned out of the window. He could see pieces torn out of the wiry creeper, as though something heavy had descended rapidly through it. Somehow he didn't think that the birds were responsible.
"And there's a footprint." He couldn't understand why he hadn't seen it before, save of course for the simple fact that he hadn't been thinking about such things. There, on the window sill, dark against the pale wood, was a clear imprint of a muddied boot. For some reason his eyes were drawn to the adjacent window sill, part of the room next door, where another print marked the passage of a very similar boot. "Somebody's been in here."
"And they've taken the thief." Listes was pointing at the shelf. "Where do you think they are?"
"Not next door anymore, that's for sure." With an oath that might have made Ares himself flinch in surprise, Daedus headed for the door. "Come on. We're getting out of here."
"You think we can catch up with them?"
"They won't be travelling any faster that we can. Less so." The look on Daedus's face was not pretty - or, rather, was even less pretty than it usually was. "They aren't nearly as angry as us, which definitely gives us the edge."
"Who do you suppose it was?" Momentarily flummoxed by the realisation that he only seemed to be wearing one boot, Listes struggled to pull on the other one. Daedus growled.
"Who do you think? His friend, of course. The little one with the over-eager mouth. Well he won't be so damn cheerful when I've finished with him."
"I knew we should've finished him off when we had the chance." Pulling open the door with so much force that he almost tore it from its hinges, Listes stormed out into the corridor. One of the tavern's army of serving girls was walking past, carrying a tray of morning drinks.
"Hello sirs." Her smile was a little cautious, but the welcome was warm enough. She had of course been very well trained.
"Shut up." Pushing past her, and sending her tray of drinks cascading skywards, Listes clattered his way down the stairs. The maid froze, mid-squeak, as Daedus loomed before her in his place.
"Sir?" Soaked now, in a variety of different liquids, she blinked up at him from beneath her dripping fringe. "Can I... get you anything?"
"No thankyou." He smiled at her just politely enough to make her begin to relax, then pushed her into his room, slammed the door in her face, and locked her in. The fewer people roaming about, of course, the less likely it was that he would have to pay for his night's rest. He was halfway down the stairs before she began to wail.
"This way." Battering his way out of the locked back door of the tavern, which presumably was where fresh barrels of wine and beer were brought in, Listes burst out into the pale morning sunlight. The tracks were even more obvious so close to, and he broke into a run. Less speedy, but apparently more angry, Daedus followed at his heels. Thoughts and plans were rotating through his head, bringing streams of possible tortures that could be inflicted upon Joxer's unfortunate person. Daedus just couldn't wait to begin to trying them out.
"I don't think this horse likes me very much." Joxer was riding awkwardly, which was largely due the fact that the saddle he had stolen was far too large for the horse it was fixed to. Autolycus, sitting on the horse's head, looked unsympathetic.
"The horse is fine. Of course if you'd taken another few moments to find a decent saddle..."
"Somebody was coming!"
"That doesn't matter." The King of Thieves sighed, then turned back to look ahead. "You'll never a make a great thief, Joxer. You're too damn jumpy."
"I'm just cautious." Joxer glowered at the little figure before him. "Which is probably why I'm the one that's still his proper size, and you're the one who's looking like a child's toy right now."
"I do not--" The thief scowled, and turned back to look at him. "Okay, I deserved that one. Maybe. And I won't even point out that you're certainly the one best placed to know all about how kiddies' toys should look."
"I could have left you with those two men, you know."
"Yeah, and maybe I wanted you to! At least they knew one or two things about stealing. And all those treasure chambers that they wanted my help getting into."
"Do you want me to take you back there?"
"Well maybe I do!" They fell silent, neither of them knowing quite where to take the argument next. The horse, clearly happy to let them handle things between them, slowed to a halt.
"Neigh," it said, not particularly thoughtfully, or especially relevantly, but just because it didn't often say anything else. Joxer scowled.
"I told you this horse doesn't like me. It keeps stopping."
"Probably knows you can't steer."
"Probably objecting to having somebody as conceited as you sitting on its head."
"Probably--" Autolycus broke off, for the horse, giving up on its two human companions, had decided to amuse itself for a while, and had spotted some very attractive grass. It lowered its head, and the little thief, unable to stop himself, tumbled head over heels over the creature's rapidly descending nose. He landed heavily in the grass, and only just rolled out of the way in time to prevent himself from joining the grass in the large, surprised looking mouth just above him. Joxer burst out laughing, and was still laughing several seconds later, when the now bored horse decided to sit down. The hapless wanderer rolled untidily down its back, and ended up flat on his back on the ground. It was Autolycus's turn to laugh.
"You were right. I don't think it does like you."
"I never did like horses." They looked at each other for a moment, agreeing without words to end their pointless arguing. "I'm sorry I said you were conceited."
"Yeah, yeah." Never fond of the soppy bits that liked rearing their heads unexpectedly during his adventures, Autolycus made a face. "And I'm sorry I called you... well, you know. Now let's get a move on, shall we?"
"If we can get this creature moving again." Picking up the thief, Joxer put him into his pocket, then grabbed the reins now dangling uselessly on the grass and tried to pull the horse back up onto its feet. It glared at him, still happily munching. Autolycus shouted a few encouragements at it, but it paid no more attention to him than it did to Joxer.
"Great. Now what?" Dropping the reins again in disgust, Joxer kicked at the ground. Autolycus shrugged.
"You could try singing to it."
"It works with women."
"Maybe. But this is a male horse."
"So don't try singing it a love song. How about something stirring? Something valorous? There are a lot of ballads recounting my own amazing exploits you know. We could try one of those."
"I thought we wanted to encourage him."
Autolycus sighed. "You've got to stop spending so much of your time with Xena. It's starting to have an effect on your sense of humour."
"Neigh." Not wishing to be the cause of a further argument - or so it appeared - the horse rose to its feet and looked expectantly at Joxer. He grinned.
"Maybe he doesn't hate me so much after all."
"More likely he just didn't want to have to hear you sing."
"I'm not sure that I really wanted to hear me sing either." Climbing back up onto the horse, and wishing that the damn thing came with steps, Joxer put his companion back up on the head. "Are you sure you're comfortable up there?"
"Beats being stuck in your pocket." Autolycus took hold of one of the cheerily pricked ears. "Now let's get going again, okay? I can practically feel those two creeps breathing down my neck."
"Yeah. I don't exactly plan on running into them again myself." Joxer gave the reins a twitch, encouraged when the horse started up again. "I think I'm getting the hang of this now."
"Anybody would think you'd never ridden before."
"This one's tricky." Trying to gauge the best way to convince the horse to change direction, Joxer glanced skyward. "It looks like it's going to start raining again soon. That's not going to help."
"Horses love rain."
"Well see if you can make the horse believe that." They rode on for a little longer, listening to the sounds that spoke of the coming downpour. "Say, Auto?"
"What'll you do if the sorcerer refuses to turn you back?"
"I'll think of something." Sitting down, stretching out between the horse's ears on a soft bed of its curly mane, the thief folded his hands behind his head. As usual he looked as though he could not possibly be more at ease. "You just concentrate on keeping us ahead of those two jokers. I'll worry about how to restore me to my familiar peak of unspeakable perfection."
"Well I - I just wanted you to know that if you can't get back to your proper size, you're welcome to stay with me."
"Yeah. Thanks." Sounding uncomfortable again, Autolycus shrugged and searched for something to say. His companion's gentle honesty and general niceness was a little off-putting at times. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it though, yeah? I'm still planning on being the good old big me again before much longer."
"I hope so."
"You should do. If I have to stay this size much longer, ladies all over Greece are going to be throwing themselves onto swords, and off battlements and things. You do realise that, don't you. Unable to stand the thought that the King of Lovers is lost to them forever - or at least won't be able to perform his usual services in quite the same way - they'll be killing themselves in droves. I don't want that on my conscience, Jox."
"I can imagine." Joxer had to laugh. From anybody else such conceit might have been annoying - even repulsive. From Autolycus, though, it just seemed to fit. The King of Thieves might just as easily have been the King of Big Heads, but none of his friends seemed to mind.
"I could fix you up with one of my retinue if you'd like." The incorrigible thief had that graciously regal look about him now - the glimmer of knowing humour he acquired whenever he was acting the part of true king. Granting favours to his subjects, and playing out the rôle as far as he thought he could take it. This was usually the time when Xena clobbered him of course, but Joxer just let him ramble.
"I don't want one of your fans." He quickened the pace of the horse a little, bothered by the fact that they didn't seem to be getting anywhere very fast. He wondered how far behind their pursuers were, for there seemed little point in hoping that they weren't following on.
"Joxer, my loyal little friend, I have far too many loving women to handle them all myself. Well, I have been known to try... but on the whole there are too many even for me. I could find you a nice blonde, or a brunette, or a redhead... one of each..."
"Twins, triplets? I once met sextuplets, all longing to hear about my exploits, but even I'm not generous enough to give you their address. There was this girl I met once, though, that I think would--"
"Auto listen." Bringing the horse to a rather jerky halt, Joxer listened to the breeze. He was sure that he had heard something within it, just a few moments before. Horses' hooves? Surely Listes and Daedus couldn't have got horses of their own, and covered this much distance already?
"Could be anything." Autolycus was trying to see something, which was a fairly pointless exercise. Even if he had had an unobstructed view he probably wouldn't have been able to see anything useful, but with trees, Joxer and a pair of horse's ears roughly his own height all getting in the way, he couldn't even see the ground.
"Could be the owner of this horse." Joxer kicked his heels against the mount's flanks, starting the creature forward with a leap. Autolycus almost fell from his perch.
The horse, once given an excuse to open up, unleashed the sort of speed that neither it, nor its human riders, had been expecting. The ground flew by, and it was all that Joxer could do to remain on its back. Clinging to the mane, Autolycus couldn't see anything for the wind in his eyes, and had to lie down just to avoid being snatched away by the elements. Joxer thought about trying to catch hold of him, but was certain that if he let go of the reins even with just one hand, he would wind up in an untidy heap on the ground. Broken necks weren't something he enjoyed on the whole; and falling off, particularly at speed, was definitely his least favourite bit of horse-riding. With that in mind he clung grimly on, and hoped that Autolycus would be able to do the same.
Their flight came to an end rather abruptly - predictably enough, given their luck so far during this adventure. Breaking out of the tree-lined terrain that had been their sole scenery for some time, they came without warning to the edge of a medium-sized cliff. Joxer saw what was coming before the horse did, and yelped. The horse jumped, skidded to a halt - and Autolycus, his hands already strained to their limit, was knocked free. Joxer saw the small, green figure fly in a neat curve, toppling over the edge of the cliff.
"Auto!" His voice, high-pitched with shock, startled the horse even more. With a whinny of irritation and fear, it bucked violently, suddenly determined to rid itself of the noisy, nervous human on its back. Joxer was treated to an interesting view of the world from a whole new perspective as he flew, upside down, over the horse's head. He tried to catch hold of something, but his hands managed to miss every available hold within reach. He saw the edge of the cliff coming towards him, and knew that he was going over it. His voice, still lingering on his companion's name, became a drawn out squeak that didn't end until it was choked. His mouth filled with water. So did his ears.
"Spleeuch." He tried to fight his way to the surface, but wasn't entirely sure which way that was. His body found it in the end, being rather more buoyant that he had thought it was. Daylight dazzled him for a moment, before a powerful current caught hold of him, and dragged him away. Once again he went under, and once again got an unpleasantly large mouthful of cold, slightly muddy water.
"Auto!" He broke the surface once again, struggling to remain the right way up, despite the best efforts of the current to drown him. "Auto!"
"Here!" He wasn't sure at first that he had really heard his friend, but as another rush of current spun him in a new direction, he caught sight of the tiny figure, holding onto a large leaf that was acting as a float. Joxer tried to strike out towards him, but in the end had to wait for the river to become more co-operative. He let it push him towards his friend, and managed to grab him before he was dragged away again.
"Are you okay?" It was a peculiar question to ask, given that both of them seemed about to be drowned. Autolycus was probably glaring at him, but it was too difficult to tell amidst all the spray.
"I just got thrown over a cliff." Coughing up half the river in between words, the thief tried to climb up onto a reasonably dry part of his friend. There wasn't one, so he settled for sitting on Joxer's shoulder, clinging to the wet leather. "Then I nearly got drowned. I'm floating down a river that seems determined to smash me into a million little pieces, and you ask me if I'm okay?"
"I'm fine, thankyou."
"How about you?"
"Wet." Joxer tried swimming again, but found it impossible. "I don't suppose you know where this river goes?"
"At a guess? Probably to the sea. Eventually. Other than that I don't have an clue." Autolycus frowned, head cocked on one side. "Do you hear something?"
"Is it two angry somethings called Listes and Daedus?" A powerful slap of water caught Joxer in the face, and both men nearly went under. Autolycus only just managed to hold on.
"No. More like an angry something else. Listen."
"I can't hear anything except the water." Joxer's eyes widened. "Uh oh."
"That's pretty much what I was thinking." Autolycus could see swirling wet inevitability ahead of them, and it wasn't a very nice sight. "I don't suppose you can make it to the side?"
"I can't even see the side!"
"Try swimming sideways!" Autolycus lost his footing for an instant, and wound up clinging to Joxer's hair. "Hades! If I ever get my hands on that sorcerer I'll... have to think of something really mean."
"Maybe it's not a waterfall." Ignoring his companion's futile thoughts of revenge, Joxer kept his own mind on the present. "It could just be a really excited bit of water."
"No." Joxer wanted very much to begin whimpering, but didn't think that it would be entirely fair with company present. Autolycus, still clinging madly to Joxer's hair, was also beginning to think that whimpering might be a good plan right now.
"I didn't think I'd annoyed any gods lately, but if I have I hope they're enjoying this." He watched the river's apparent end come closer, wondering if he should be using his last few minutes on the Earth to think up some suitably poetic and regal last words. Only Joxer would be present to hear them, but since they would probably be the last thing that either man heard, it might conceivably be the duty of the King of Thieves to say something truly impressive. On the other hand he could just yell. He waited a second. Joxer was already yelling. So, apparently, was the water. Autolycus saw the furious swell rising around and above him, and felt the irresistible pull of a very large waterfall. As his hands were torn free of their grip, and he was once again hurled out into space, he abandoned all thought of being poetic, inspiring or meaningful. And just yelled.
The stolen horse, which might very well have been feeling rather guilty by now, was still peering hopefully over the cliff edge when Daedus and Listes caught up. Riding astride a pair of racing horses who were both now looking decidedly the worse for wear, they found awaiting them a frozen tableau. The horse, standing at the cliff edge, was still looking at the point in the waves at which Joxer had disappeared. The approach of two more horses made it look up, surprised.
"Neigh." It might have been a greeting, it might have been an attempt to explain, or it might have been a belated curse. The horse equivalent of 'Damn, I dropped my humans'. The two horses with Listes and Daedus gave no response. Daedus dismounted.
"Has what I think has happened actually happened? Or does it only look like what I think has happened has happened?"
"I don't know." Listes fell neatly onto the ground, half-tangled in his saddle. "Is this their horse?"
"It's the one making the tracks we've been following. The guy that stole that little thief went to a stable, and this horse left that stable and came up here. I'd say that this is the right horse."
"You think they went over the cliff?"
"Yeah." Daedus edged a little closer to the brink and peered over. He could see fast flowing water, with plenty of twists and turns, and in the distance a foaming torrent that could only mean a waterfall. "If they went over there they're probably dead."
"They can't be! That little guy was worth a fortune, and I'm not going to lose him just because of some damn waterfall." Listes also peered over the edge of the cliff. "I can't see them."
"They'll be somewhere further along by now."
"Want to follow them?"
"Are you kidding?" Daedus pointed along the bank. "It won't be easy, but we should be able to make our way along here, keeping the river pretty much in sight all the way. Maybe we'll find some trace of them."
"Don't hold your breath." Listes turned about, grabbing the reins of Joxer's stolen horse as he did so. It seemed a shame to leave it lying about on top of a hill, when there was a chance he might be able to make some money out of it. The horse protested, but gave up in the end. It could sense that this human was nothing like the last one, and couldn't be pushed around nearly so easily. Head lowered, it allowed itself to be led away.
"Do you think they're dead?" asked Listes as they began their trek.
"Neigh," responded one of the horses, although it didn't really think he had been talking to it.
"Probably." Daedus was trying to see something in the river below, wondering how somebody the size of Autolycus could possibly have hoped to survive a trip over a cliff, let alone over a waterfall. "But if they're not, they'll be ours by nightfall. You have my word on that."
Joxer was used to things going wrong. It was something that tended to happen when he was around, and he had become accustomed over the years to the simple fact that, if there was anything he could possibly break, trip over, fall down, or damage, he would be certain to break it, trip over it, fall down it, and so forth. That was his life, and he had long ago accepted that things weren't likely to change. Xena had even taught him to be proud of who he was, and not to try to be anything else.
Falling over cliffs, however, was going a bit far - even he could see that. Even after years of falling down stairs, and tripping over just about anything that happened to be handily at foot height, he had been surprised by the fact that he had managed to fall over a cliff. When the waterfall had come along so quickly afterwards his first thought had been Figures. After all, if something was going to go wrong, experience had taught him that it was liable to do so with style. Now, however, he was feeling anything but fatalistic. His head hurt. So did every other bit of him come to that. He felt as though he had left all of his skin behind, and most of his bones as well - as though the relentlessly pounding water, and all manner of sharp rocks that he had encountered during his ride down the falls, had scraped him into little pieces that were currently drifting aimlessly in the bubbles and froth. It wasn't until he finally realised that he was actually breathing, that he was able to work out which way up he was; and whilst it was nice to know that he was the right way up, it didn't really help him to feel any better. This was carrying bad luck to an extreme.
"Why do these things always happen when I'm with you?" Bobbing gently nearby, Autolycus was floating on his back, looking faintly dazed. Joxer wasn't sure that the accusation was entirely fair, since he was fairly certain that he had never gone over a waterfall with Autolycus before. Besides, the thief was usually pretty good at getting himself into trouble, without needing his slightly accident-prone friend to help him out. The exhausted younger man didn't bother pointing this out, though. He was too tired, as much as anything.
"We should get to shore." He didn't bother trying to follow through with this suggestion. Maybe, if he waited long enough, the riverbank would come to him. A wave slapped him in the face and he almost choked, then groaned. Far from getting gently washed to shore, he was fairly certain that if he waited around here much longer he would simply be dragged back under the waterfall and drowned. The way his luck was going, that was likely to happen sooner rather than later, so without further ado he stared to swim. Autolycus seemed to be doing pretty well on his own, and together they reached an overgrown bank. Joxer gave the thief a lift up onto dry land, and the pair of them flopped down, exhausted.
"What a day." Autolycus threw an arm over his eyes, shielding them from a fierce sun, which had chosen an inopportune moment to crawl out from behind the rain clouds. "If I ever try to break into a cellar full of gold again, somebody better stop me."
"You mean that?"
"No, not really." With a drawn out groan, Autolycus sat up, staring up at the waterfall over which he had just been flung. "Man, am I good or am I good. Over a cliff and over a waterfall, and I still look great. Move over Hercules."
"We ought to be moving on."
"Yeah." Autolycus lay back down again, clearly not planning to do anything terribly soon. "Why can't Xena ever be around when I do something really cool?"
"Auto..." Joxer managed to persuade his legs to move, and he stood up and stretched. "I went over that waterfall too you know."
"Yeah, but you're big, big guy." Autolycus was going through a laborious process of trying to make his soaked, crumpled clothes look snappy and neat. "Even when I'm this size I'm still the king."
"We're leaving." Joxer bent down and picked him up. "Before your ego gets any bigger."
"Hey, my ego can get bigger whatever I'm doing." Autolycus smoothed his goatee, clearly still extremely pleased with himself. "By Zeus I'm good."
"Yeah, so you keep saying. I ought to throw you right back in that river."
"Oh, you're just jealous. Stick around long enough, little buddy, and you'll be nearly as cool as I am."
"If I stick around that long, I'll go nuts." Joxer shook his head. "Now I know why Xena beats you up so often."
"Jealousy, jealousy, jealousy." He sang it like a child blocking out something it didn't want to hear, and Joxer had to laugh.
"I'd probably be doing the world a favour if I dropped you on your head."
"You think that'd kill me?" Autolycus folded his arms, drawing himself up to his full, unimpressive height, and endeavoured to look as grand as he could manage. "The King of Thieves laughs in the face of such danger."
"The King of Thieves is looking to get himself thrown back in the river."
"And so is his friend." The voice came from behind them, from back at the edge of the trees. Joxer swallowed hard.
"That wasn't me." Autolycus glanced up at Joxer. "Has something happened to your voice?"
"No." Joxer turned around, looking towards Daedus and Listes, who were looming close by. How they had approached without making any noise he couldn't imagine, but to be fair his ears were still full of water. "I think it was them."
"Oh." Autolycus stared up at his two former captors. "I think I'd like to be thrown back in the river about now."
"No deal." Daedus covered the distance between them in a couple of strides, grabbing Joxer by the front of his jerkin, and shaking him like a dog with a rabbit in its mouth. Joxer's teeth rattled.
"Hey!" Autolycus waved his fists in the air, as though challenging Daedus to a sparring contest. "Pick on someone your own size!"
"And you can shut up." Snatching the thief from Joxer's hand, Daedus handed him over to Listes. "Now come on. We're all going for a little walk."
"I don't mind staying here." Offering the two men his most innocent smile, Joxer raised his eyebrows in hopeful inquiry. Daedus pushed him over towards the trees.
"I don't think so."
"Why does this sort of stuff always happen around you?" For the second time in as many minutes, Autolycus seemed prepared to blame all the day's events on Joxer, which definitely didn't seem fair. To the best of Joxer's memory, Autolycus had never been shrunk to the size of a nail and then kidnapped on any of the previous occasions when they had spent time together. As before, though, he didn't bother pointing that out. He just let Daedus lead him away.
Joxer thought that the horse looked pleased to see him. It neighed a welcome anyway, or something that sounded like a welcome. Listes ordered him up onto its back, and then, having climbed astride his own horse, took up the reins of Joxer's. Daedus took up the rear, and the three horses made their brisk way onwards, along the banks of the river. Joxer thought that he had seen more than enough of that particular river just lately, but he didn't suggest changing course. Listes and Daedus were hardly the sympathetic type, after all.
"Still thinking about that treasure chamber?" Autolycus had managed to find a way out of Listes' pocket - not that that was a surprise - and was looking out of the top of it, watching the scenery go by. Listes had considered pushing him back down, but there didn't seem to be much point. Short of stitching the pocket shut there didn't seem to be any way that he could stop the thief popping up again.
"Yes, we're still heading for the treasure chamber. The one in the castle of the Lady Menedos. It's reputed to be one of the best in all of Greece. Piles of gold coins, chests full of jewellery, weapons from wars fought centuries before your oldest relative was born." He sniffed, as though faintly embarrassed by such gushing talk. "At least that what Daedus says."
"Daedus isn't a professional." Autolycus stroked his beard, playing up the rôle of serious expert, even though Listes couldn't see his stance or his actions. "A treasure chamber like that sounds good, but that's really all that's special about it."
"What would you know?" Listes sounded decidedly unimpressed. Autolycus got the impression that Listes was not the brainiest of men, and had become used to relying on the word of Daedus throughout his daily life.
"Er, excuse me? King of Thieves, remember? Of course I know what I'm talking about. See, it's like this. The weapons, they're worth a fair bit, but only if you can take them to a dealer. A big dealer, who's used to handling that kind of thing. Anybody else wouldn't give you a fraction of their worth." He thought of Salmoneus, and smiled. "Then there's the jewellery. They're worth a lot too, but only for the stones. Well made jewellery is too easily identifiable - too hard to sell unless you can get it to another province, or better still anther country. That's the only way you'll get anything like what it's really worth. If you break up the pieces, and just sell the stones, maybe melt down the gold or silver, you'll get something, but not much. Jewels are only worth a lot to people who have a use for them, and you might find out that they're not even worth that. You'd be surprised how many rich people have false stones in their heirlooms." He grinned, rather enjoying the speedy tumble of words. Listes was hardly his intellectual match, and was being left far behind. The thief could almost hear the man's poor brain ticking and whirring away in overtime. "They want to look good without it costing them much, you see. It's always the richest people who want to spend the least. More than once I've broken into a treasure chamber - big fancy places, with lots of carvings and paintings and all that, but the actual treasure itself isn't worth as much as the boxes it's kept in. Shiny glass for the most part, dressed up to look nice."
"But the coins..."
"Oh the coins are always worth their face value, so long as it's Greek stuff. A lot of people with money get their fortunes from foreign trade. It's not much use to you if their vaults are full of Roman coins, or stuff from the East, is it. You can melt it down, but it's not all pure gold. Foreign coins are often made of mixed metals." He sighed, sounding just wistful enough to lend his words weight. "It's tough being a thief you know. People don't realise it, but you've got to put a lot of work into making it pay. It's a tough way of life."
"You don't think we should break into this place, do you." That much of the spiel at least Listes had been able to understand. Autolycus grinned.
"I'm just suggesting that you keep your options open, that's all. I don't like to see a fellow miscreant making mistakes."
"Daedus has made up his mind. He's determined we're going to break into somewhere, and he's not going to be put off by you saying it might not be worth as much as he thinks it is."
"Then we'll just have to change his mind, won't we." The glint in the eyes of the thief was a picture; the image of deviousness and duplicity; but Listes was denied it. Autolycus's face was invisible to the other man, who could see only the world before and around him. "I have heard of a place... But I don't think I should tell you about it. After all, it's not as if we're really partners."
"If you don't tell me I'll kill your friend." The threat was so casual that for a minute Autolycus was thrown, even though he had expected something in that line. He had forgotten just how unpleasant these two men were, and couldn't help thinking that perhaps it wasn't that sensible to try to fool them.
"Uh, okay." He stroked his moustache, reminding himself of his own brilliance. His plans didn't backfire. Well, not that often anyway. "There's a house, on top of a hill. Maybe a day's ride from here. The cellar is full of gold. Really full. Stacked from the floor to the ceiling."
"You've seen it?" The drool was practically dripping from Listes' mouth. Autolycus grinned.
"Yeah, I've seen it. I was going to steal it all myself, but then this... little problem of mine surfaced, and I wasn't able to go ahead with the theft. I might not get the chance to try again though, if I don't ever get back to my proper size. If that happens that gold will stay there forever, and that's a waste."
"Meaning that you'll help us to steal it?" Listes was interested, although trying to appear less so than he really was. Autolycus smirked, mentally preening. If his captor had been in the possession of an ego detector, at that moment it would have been wailing and flashing like a banshee.
"Meaning that I'll help you. I know the way, and I know the way in. Come on, Listes. Tell me - what have you got to lose?"
"You sure this is the place?" Daedus had been sulking ever since Listes had first made the suggestion that they follow the advice of Autolycus. Now he looked up at the old house belonging to Scryptos, and sniffed disparagingly. "It doesn't look like the kind of place to be full of gold."
"He's a sorcerer, not a warlord." Autolycus pointed to the window he had used to attempt entry. "That's probably the best place to try first. See how sheltered this side of the building is. He won't be able to see us coming, and the glass is mostly gone. After that we have to aim for the cellar."
"If this man is a sorcerer, how do we know that his house isn't protected by spells and... magical beasts and things?" Daedus was still trying to find fault with the plan, and Autolycus didn't blame him. After what had happened the last time he had come here, he didn't think that it was terribly safe to be within seven leagues of the place - but he couldn't think of any other way to regain his normal size than confronting Scryptos face to face. He certainly couldn't say as much though, so he shook his head.
"There aren't any alarms or creatures guarding the place. Why would there be? Nobody is supposed to know about the treasure here, and he doesn't want to draw any attention to it by turning this place into a fortress. It'll be fine." He grinned broadly, and puffed out his chest. "Trust me."
"I trust you like I trust Listes after half a flagon of wine." Clearly that was another way of saying No chance, at least to judge by the glare upon Listes' face. "You say that this guy is harmless, and that there's no reason to fear, but there's got to be some reason why you're the size you are. And don't try telling me that it's a new look you decided to try out."
"This?" Autolycus gestured to himself, as though surprised that anybody should have noticed his tiny size. "Oh, this was nothing to do with Scryptos."
"No, that was the... the other sorcerer he happened to run into." Joxer smiled uncertainly, aware that that hadn't been the best excuse he had ever used. "A man from further north. Not this sorcerer."
"No." Autolycus rolled his eyes, silently berating himself for having allowed Joxer to get a word in edgewise. "Although if we don't get a move on pretty soon, it is this sorcerer that we're going to be having problems with, because he's going to hear us arguing out here. Do we go in or not?"
"We go in." Finally deciding that the risk was worth it, Daedus headed towards the window. "But you go first."
"Fine by me." Although the reverse was strictly true, Autolycus didn't complain when he was stuffed in through the window. He waited to see if he was about to get attacked with another spell, but none came. The corridor was empty, and he grinned.
"Hey, piece of cake." He hopped down from the window sill, using his grappling hook to help him negotiate a chair leg. Seconds later Daedus climbed through the window after him, managing to complete the procedure almost silently. Listes was next, again with a remarkable display of agility. Only Joxer let the side down, tripping on something that the others had managed to miss. Autolycus watched him fall head first through the window, and winced. Still, Joxer seemed fairly indestructible.
"Where now?" Picking up his friend, Joxer held him up so that he could see the corridor. Not having got this far before Autolycus had no idea, but of course couldn't admit as much.
"Straight ahead." He pointed to the end of the corridor, where a large door stood ajar. Candlelight showed through the crack, bright enough to suggest that somebody might be working in there. "There are some steps down to the cellar up that way."
"Good." Listes moved forward to take the lead, striding in front of the others and pushing the door wide without any of his previous display of silence or caution. Daedus followed him. Clearly they felt that with the element of surprise on their side they would be more than capable of dealing with one old man, even if he was a sorcerer. Joxer and Autolycus saw them both come to a frozen standstill in the doorway, and guessed that something had happened to change their minds.
"Do we offer to help?" asked Joxer. Autolycus glanced up at him.
"Do you really want to?"
"Good." They waited. Up ahead their two companions were not moving, staring rigidly at something that was invisible to their erstwhile prisoners. Slowly however, as they watched, Daedus began to take a step backwards.
"We, er... we didn't mean to disturb... I mean... well we..." His words caught in his throat. "We'll be going now. I--" With that he turned to flee. He didn't get far. With a sound of crackling fire a bolt of blue lightning burst through the doorway, striking him full on the side of the head. His body collapsed as his legs gave way, and he hit the ground in an ungainly heap. Listes began to jabber with fear.
"You don't - I mean I won't... I can't..." He swallowed noisily, screwed up his eyes, and did nothing to avoid the second bolt, which dropped him as surely as the first had dropped Daedus. Joxer's eyes widened like saucers.
"Get the Hades out of here." Autolycus was just about ready to start running himself, even though that would only have got him further up Joxer's arm. His companion spun on his heel, but didn't even make it all the way round before a voice assailed them from the room down the corridor.
"You're not going anywhere." It was a familiar voice, but not one that either man put a name to immediately. They glanced at each other.
"Um..." Joxer was clearly undecided. So was Autolycus. The thief glanced back towards the door, and tried to remember if he had heard Scryptos speak before. The voice didn't sound as though it belonged to the irritable old sorcerer.
"Come here." The voice rang out, full of power and strength, demanding to be obeyed. "Now."
"I think we should probably..." Joxer gestured vaguely at the door to complete the sentence. Autolycus nodded. Somehow he felt sure that running would not be better than simply staying put. Very slowly, very cautiously, Joxer went along the corridor, and peered in through the door. And froze.
The owner of the voice was sitting sprawled in a large, hand-carved chair, a simple piece of furniture that his mere presence had managed to turn into a throne. He was a powerful figure, dressed in black leather, muscular arms on proud display courtesy of a sleeveless tunic that clearly had been made especially for him. His feet, encased in boots so heavy that they looked as though they could crush a man with just a gentle step, were stretched out upon the floor, giving him an air of gentle, lazy nonchalance. There was nothing nonchalant about his face though, just as soon as he laid eyes on Joxer.
"You! You little... Are you here alone? I heard you talking to somebody." He jumped to his feet, and the arms of the wooden chair broke off in his hands. "Is Xena here?"
"Er... no." Joxer looked down at Autolycus, his large eyes begging assistance. Autolycus took a deep breath, and sauntered forward on the palm of Joxer's outstretched hand.
"No, your er... your warmongering powerfulness. He was talking to me."
"You?" At first there was confusion in the loud voice, then as Ares saw the tiny figure standing before him he burst into laughter. "You! You infernal, vexing, damnable--"
"Now now." Smiling in what he hoped was an endearing yet respectful fashion, Autolycus tried to sound encouraging. "We're all friends here. I mean, I know we've had our... disagreements... but I like to think that you paid me back in full."
"Paid you back? I haven't begun to pay you back." Ares strode forward, snatching Autolycus out of Joxer's quaking hand, and holding him up in delight. "But it looks as though somebody else has completed the job for me. I should have thought of this one myself. It's so much better than buck teeth and mud." He laughed. "No, actually I don't think it is. So what happened, thief? Did you try to steal Scryptos' legendary stash of gold?"
"Me?" Autolycus winced as he realised that an act of such obviously false innocence was unlikely to cut any ice with a god. "Well, yeah, actually I did. You, er, haven't seen him around here anywhere have you? I was sort of hoping he might agree to turn me back."
"Why would he do that?" Ares tossed him onto the nearby table, sending him rolling backwards across much of its shining surface. A glass bowl eventually halted his progress, and he rose shakily to his feet.
"Um... because of my winning nature and irresistible smile?" He tried out his 'irresistible smile' upon Ares, as though by means of a demonstration, but received only a sneer in response. "This isn't going to turn out to be one of those sneaky god traps, is it, where you reveal that Scryptos was you all along, in some kind of cunning disguise?"
"No." Ares looked back at Joxer, who was doing his best to hide behind a large candlestick. "Actually Scryptos was anything but a god. He was just a stupid mortal who thought he could take us on and win. Kinda like some other mortals I've been meeting recently."
"Anybody we know?" His voice slightly higher than usual, Joxer peered out from behind his useless cover to join in the conversation. Ares glared at him, and he managed to drag up a nervous smile. Where was Xena when you wanted her?
"If I may point out, your impressiveness..." Raising a hand as though asking permission to speak, Autolycus made his way back across the table, to the edge closest to Ares. "You said 'was'. Scryptos 'was' just a mortal. That 'was' doesn't mean what I think it means, does it?"
"It means that the old fool is dead, yes." Ares folded his massive arms, and glared down at the diminutive figure on the table. "If you want to speak to him, I'm sure my dear uncle Hades could arrange something."
"Er, no. No thanks." Autolycus looked back towards Joxer. "Well, we've got things to do, haven't we Jox. Places to go, people to see. So, um, we'll just be getting along now I think. If, er, that's all the same to you. I mean, I know how busy you are, with all your... wars and... and things. We'd hate to keep you."
"We really don't mind leaving." Joxer's head protruded around the side of the candlestick just long enough to make this addition to the conversation, before he disappeared again - or attempted to disappear, since the candlestick was considerably thinner than he was.
"You two aren't going anywhere." Ares fired a quick glare at Joxer that made the smaller man flinch, before completely failing to find himself somewhere better to hide. The reaction clearly amused Ares, who had apparently been rather bored prior to their arrival. Perhaps he wasn't finding as many people to bully these days, and had decided to polish up his belligerency skills on the two hapless wanderers now before him. Autolycus would have rolled his eyes had he dared move a muscle just then. Just his luck to run into Ares of all people. It was the Joxer Curse, it had to be.
"Is there something we can be doing for you, your leather-clad thunderousness?" His tone was as light as he could persuade it to be, even though his heart was somewhere down in his boots. He tried persuading it to come back up again, but clearly it felt safer where it was. He was sure that he could feel it quivering, somewhere in the vicinity of his left big toe. Ares laughed.
"You two? Do for me? What could two pitiful little humans possibly do that I couldn't do for myself?"
"Um..." Autolycus thought hard. There didn't seem to be much, admittedly, but in his experience gods were usually after something. "Well, no, can't think actually. Perhaps we'd better be going after all." He reached for his grappling hook, wondering if its much reduced length was up to reaching down to the ground from the table top. Ares reached out, snatching the hook out of the air before it had had a chance to reach anywhere.
"Alright." His thunderous brow deepened into a rather impressive frown. "I do want your help. Just don't get cocky about it, or I'll vaporise you before you can beg for mercy. Understand?"
"Yeah. Sure." The thief allowed himself a nervous smile. "We're ready to help, right Jox?"
"Er... yeah." Joxer managed to come out from behind the candlestick, and tried not to quake too openly. He didn't tend to have a good time of things when gods were involved, and in his admittedly limited experience Ares was one of the worst of the bunch. The worst, quite probably.
"Good." The god of war dragged over the chair that he had (probably) unintentionally vandalised earlier, and sat down in it. Autolycus also sat down, his legs dangling over the edge of the table.
"So what do you want? Something I can steal for you?" Recalling the time when he had stolen Artemis's bow for Discord, his chest began to swell - until he remembered how that had worked out, and wisely chose not to bring the matter up. After all, turning a goddess into a chicken wasn't the kind of thing that tended to be well received by other occupants of Olympus, and Ares in particular had already shown just how unimpressed he had been with that particular incident. Autolycus still liked to blame Iolaus for it, but in Ares' reckoning at least their guilt had been equal.
"Like I said, I want..." Ares winced, glanced away, then looked back again, clearly angrier than ever. "I want your... help. Scryptos was a dangerous man. It's not everybody in Greece who has the power to turn base metals into gold. There are tales of alchemists, but things like that aren't the concern of the gods. Scryptos was different. His powers were granted to him by my father, during one of his less thoughtful days. Scryptos did some service for him, and dad was feeling generous. Gave him all kinds of powers and abilities, then twinkled off back to Olympus and left the rest of us to deal with the mess."
"Tsk. Parents hey." Autolycus tried to sound sympathetic, and wished that he was getting some moral support from Joxer. "Um... so where do I come in?"
"Scryptos has been interfering. Cancelling the acts of the gods. Throwing his powers around and causing havoc. Shrinking one of my favourite warriors into a speck so small that he was eaten by a fruit fly before I could turn him back." The god of war looked as though he wanted to hit something, and Joxer dived for cover behind the table. Autolycus would have followed suit if he had felt able to move so far so quickly, especially since he had a nasty feeling that the warrior in question had been the one accidentally hit by the spell meant for him. In the event, though, all that Ares did was to send a burst of blue lightning across the room, where it obliterated the candlestick that had been Joxer's ineffectual disguise earlier on. "And then there's all that gold. The alchemists understand the balance of things, that's how they're able to do what they do, but Scryptos? He turned every piece of metal he could find into yet more gold. How are armies supposed to fight, when their weapons turn into gold in their hands? How are temples supposed to be built? My own war chariot turned into gold as I was riding into battle against a Roman garrison, and gold is too soft a metal to build the machinery of war. I will not be laughed at by mortal soldiers."
"Do you want us to find you a new chariot?" That was one task that Joxer did feel up to. There were plenty of people in Greece who could make them, and he was sure that Autolycus would be able to steal something as mobile as a chariot. Ares glared at him.
"Do you think I need the help of a big-headed braggart and a flat-footed, ham-fisted mouse, just to get myself a new chariot? No, I have another task for you two. Scryptos has gone to Hades, where my uncle will no doubt make him extremely unwelcome. However the source of his power remains intact, within these walls. It's contained by a vessel, no doubt made of gold, given to Scryptos by my father. It's hidden somewhere here, and Scryptos refused to tell me where. I want to destroy it, to make sure that nobody else gets their greedy mortal paws on it."
"But you can't find it?" Autolycus stroked his moustache. "If a god can't find it, what makes you think we can?"
"You don't have to find it. I know where it is." Ares rose to his feet, caught up the thief, and grabbed Joxer by the scruff of the neck. The human felt himself being lifted unceremoniously over the table, and dumped in a heap beside the fireplace. "It's in a secret chamber down in the cellar, but a god can't go near it, and the vessel itself is enchanted by spells that I can't break. They were designed by Scryptos to prevent the interference of Olympus."
"But not of a mortal?" Despite himself Autolycus was intrigued. He stroked his goatee, thinking hard. "Oh, I see it. You think I can get inside because I'm so small. Well I don't think that I--"
"If you do what I ask..." Ares broke off, mouth twitching in distaste at what he was about to say. "If you do as I ask, I shall return you to your proper size. If you don't, it will be my extreme pleasure to blast the pair of you, just as I should have done the first time I laid eyes on you. Xena will receive the diced body parts of her scrawny little friend here, as a... a token of my affection shall we say. And you, my little thief, will discover the sort of pain that a god is able to cause." He closed his fist a little tighter around the squirming Autolycus, and smiled unpleasantly. "So do we have a deal?"
"Um..." Autolycus looked over at Joxer, who was as white as a sheet, and contemplated how similar a shade he himself had probably turned. Where were the heroes when you needed them? Hercules and Xena. Gabrielle. Even Iolaus? It wasn't fair that Ares should pick on a coward and a clown to do his work for him. They had better things to do, like hiding or running away. "Yeah, I guess it's a deal."
"Good." Ares stepped over the prone forms of Daedus and Listes, and led the way back along the corridor. They passed the window through which they had entered, and Joxer thought - very briefly - about diving out of it. He dismissed the thought quickly though. Even if he had been nimble and graceful enough to get out without being blasted, he didn't think he would make it very far down the hill.
"This is the entrance to the cellar." Ares had stopped before a large door, the kind more usually seen guarding the entrances of temples. By the look of the lock Autolycus could have fitted his whole arm inside even if he had been more conventionally sized. As it was there would be no problem climbing in and manipulating the levers. Ares pushed him in, none too gently, apparently not in the mood for merely shooting the door out of existence.
"There." He still sounded more irritable than usual. Clearly this was not the sort of thing to reminisce with him about on future occasions. Joxer knelt down beside the lock and peered inside.
"Can you pick it Auto?"
"Can I-? Joxer, what do you take me for? Some green novice out on his first robbery? Of course I can pick it." He flexed his fingers, studied the levers, then pushed the one closest to him. It took a bit of clever footwork to operate all of the levers together, but it was none too difficult given his specialist knowledge. In no time at all there was a loud click.
"Am I a genius or what?" Poking his head back out of the lock, Autolycus caught sight of the ferocity within Ares' glare. "Come on, everybody who's coming."
"Oh. Er, right." Joxer pushed the door, needing all of his strength to move it. "Um... are you, er..." He gestured at the doorway, trying to avoid looking at Ares directly. The god of war shook his head.
"No. I'll wait for you here. Just be sure that you come back, once you've found the source of Scryptos' power. Don't get any clever ideas about using it for yourself, or believe me, you will regret it."
"Who, me?" Joxer backed away through the door, almost falling down the steps in his haste to escape from the god. "I.. I wouldn't... I..." He grabbed Autolycus out of the lock and scampered away without finishing the sentence. Ares glared after him. It hurt to have to use these mortals to assist him, and it hurt even more to think of the stroke of pure luck that had brought them into his grasp in the first place. With a flash of fire deep within his eyes, he raised his right arm and vaporised a large section of the wall. Far down the stairs, the echo of Joxer's startled squeak floated up to him, but he didn't smile. Instead he turned about and headed back down the corridor. He didn't even notice the empty space where Daedus and Listes had been lying before. All that he saw was the golden statue of Scryptos that stood in one corner of the room. Growling fiercely he blasted it, then smiled as the drops of molten gold rained down onto the stone tiles of the floor. He might need the assistance of aggravating little mortals every now and again - but it was still a whole lot of fun being the god of war. And he blasted another statue, just because he could.
"Are you alright Auto?" Having fallen down the last few stairs, Joxer was feeling a little bruised. He had dropped the thief as well, but Autolycus, fortunately, had managed to use his grappling hook to snatch at the banister on the way. The little rope had proved just long enough, and he swung from the end of it about a foot above the ground.
"I suppose so." He waited for his companion to pick him up, then took his first look around the cellar. His jaw dropped. "Great Zeus. By all the gods of-- Joxer, look at this lot!"
"I see it." Gazing around at the pile upon pile of golden bars, Joxer whistled softly. "It looks like all the stories were true."
"All this gold." Autolycus couldn't keep from whistling in breathless wonder. "It'd be a damned shame not to steal it."
"If you can pick up just one of those bars, you're more powerful than Ares." Joxer wandered on through the forest of ingots, unable to drag his eyes away from them, in all their shiny glory. Autolycus scowled.
"You keep having to bring up the size thing, don't you. Still, it shouldn't be a problem. A man of my genius ought to be able to work out a way to move some of this stuff without actually needing to pick it up."
"I don't think Ares would like that."
"Ah, Ares." Autolycus made a disparaging gesture that had little to do with how he really felt about that subject. "Who cares about Ares? He's just another god with an attitude problem. Don't tell me that you wouldn't like a share of all this gold."
"What would I do with it?" Never having had a great many aspirations of the kind that required money, Joxer was a little stumped at the thought of trying to spend that much. Would he buy a new sword? Some lessons on how to use it properly? Maybe a leather outfit that would make him look as dramatic and heroic as Xena looked in hers? None of that seemed to require a cellar full of gold bars though. Autolycus smiled at the younger man's lack of ambition.
"There's got to be something you've always wanted."
"Not really." A little house somewhere might be nice, but he wouldn't spend much time in it, so there wasn't really a lot of point. He'd always rather fancied keeping chickens, but given his usual inability to carry even one egg without breaking it, that didn't seem to have much of a future to it either. Besides, who would look after them, whilst he was being a wandering almost-hero?
"Yeah, well I'm sure I could find a way to spend your half." Autolycus sighed contentedly. "Lift me up a minute could you? I can't see all my gold from here."
"It's not your gold. I think it belongs to Ares now." Joxer complied anyway, lifting the little thief high above his head. "And we did actually come down here for another reason, remember?"
"Oh yeah. The golden vessel that Scryptos used to annoy the Hades out of the gods." Autolycus scanned the cellar. "Wonder what that would be worth."
"Auto! You can't steal from the gods!" Even as he was saying it Joxer realised that it was a fruitless argument. The King of Thieves seemed to like nothing more. "Not when Ares is right upstairs. He said he'd blast us, and I don't want to be sent to Xena in little pieces."
"Yeah, fair point I guess." Autolycus sighed. "All the same though..."
"No. We find this 'vessel' and we take it straight back to Ares. He already hates us enough without you making it worse."
"I don't think doing as he says is going to make that any better, do you?" They reached the end of the cellar, and discovered an arched doorway leading into a second, identical room, with an identical hoard of gold bars. "Oh boy..."
"Don't even think about it." Trying to drag his own eyes away from the enthralling vista, Joxer kept his mind on the task at hand. "Where would you be, if you were a secret golden vessel?"
"In my safe-keeping, where else?" Autolycus sighed. "Okay. Look for somewhere secure. A trap door in the floor maybe, or a strong box built into the wall. Something fiendishly clever, no doubt."
"But not fiendishly clever enough, right?" For some reason Joxer had become largely immune to his companion's ever growing ego. The thief smoothed his lapels, and shrugged.
"Is it my fault that there hasn't been a security system yet built that I couldn't break? I'm a genius. It's a hard burden to bear, sometimes."
"No, the hard burden would be your ego." They reached the far wall, and Joxer pointed to a set of heavy velvet curtains. "How about that?"
"Looks hopeful, certainly." Autolycus began warming up his fingers, flexing his knuckles and polishing them on his shirt. "Lead the way, little buddy."
"It doesn't look very impressive, does it."
"What do you expect? Serpents and a two-headed minotaur? The fiendish stuff is probably behind the curtains."
"It won't explode will it?" Pausing with his hand on one of the curtains, Joxer looked unwilling to continue. Autolycus shook his head.
"I doubt it."
"Well... he wouldn't want to risk blowing the thing up, would he." The thief was practically bouncing up and down on the palm of Joxer's hand now, anxious to see what was behind the curtain. The younger man sighed, then screwed his eyes up tight, and pulled back the curtains. Nothing happened. He opened one eye and peered at the alcove now revealed.
A grid, made of gold, covered a deeper hole tiled with a complex mosaic of coloured stones. It was lit by a candle, magical presumably, since it seemed to drip no wax, and burned with a scarlet flame. In the centre of the space, glowing faintly in the flickering candlelight, was an urn, almost two feet in height, fashioned of gold by a master craftsman and carved with designs of intricate flamboyance and beauty. Joxer gasped.
"Yeah. My thoughts exactly." Autolycus peered at the grid that separated him from this latest treasure. "Move me a little closer, could you? Don't put me down though. It could be fixed up to a balance. Anything other than the usual weight, and who knows what might happen."
"You say these things just to shorten my life expectancy, don't you." Certain that his hair was rapidly turning grey, Joxer moved the thief closer. His hand was shaking badly, but Autolycus managed to stay upright.
"You okay buddy?"
"No." Joxer steadied his hand with the other one. "I won't be okay until I'm a long way away from this place, and I know that Ares isn't anywhere nearby. What do you see?"
"Wires. It's certainly rigged up to a system of weights. Ooh. Nasty."
"What's nasty?" Joxer took a step backwards, nearly dropping Autolycus in the process. The thief glared at him.
"If the grid is touched, a delicate balance is altered... and as far as I can see, jets of flame will erupt from just above this little alcove, and incinerate anybody within twenty paces. I think I see a couple of knives hidden away up there too, so I'm not ruling out beheading as another little welcome."
"Can you get around it all?"
"Does Ares have a daft beard?" Autolycus glanced behind him involuntarily, as though suddenly remembering the god of war's disturbingly close presence. "Of course I can do it. Just takes a little bit of patience, and a little bit of skill, and a whole lot of very impressive ingenuity." He flexed his fingers, then gestured to the grid. "Get me closer again."
"If you're sure." Looking as though he was planning to retreat to beyond the twenty foot range of the fire jets as soon possible, Joxer lifted the thief closer to the alcove, catching his breath when Autolycus jumped down. Mere millimetres from the grid, he leaned closer to it, peering carefully, then flicked out his grappling hook, and snagged it on something out of sight off to one side. He gave it a sharp tug, and with a smooth sigh of well-oiled machinery, the grid rose up and disappeared. Autolycus grinned.
"Damn, I'm good."
"Is that it?" Relieved, Joxer leant a little closer, but Autolycus waved him back.
"No, not quite. I've still got to find a way past the tripwires attached to this little platform that the urn's sitting on. Pick it up and you'll be well cooked and crispy before you've had a chance to scream." He walked around the urn, peering closely at it. "I never thought I'd say it, buddy, but it's a good thing Scryptos threw that spell of his at me, or it would have been a whole lot harder to beat this thing." He smiled to himself. "Not that I couldn't have done it of course."
"So what are you going to do?"
"Oh, you know. A little of this, a little of that... It ought to be a trade secret really, but since you're a friend... of sorts... I suppose I can show you." The thief leaned close to the urn, fiddling with something all but invisible that was attached to the base of the alcove nearby. "A little fiddle here, a little twiddle there, and the weight sensitive floor of this charming little cubby-hole ought to believe that the urn is still here, even when it's twenty leagues away, hidden in my secret cave." He caught a glimpse of Joxer's unhappy face, and shrugged. "Or in Ares' hot little hands, whatever."
"I can pick it up then?"
"Er, hang on." Autolycus performed another quick circuit, then gave the ceiling a cursory examination. "Yeah, I think so."
"You think so?"
"Hey, this isn't an exact science you know, even for a genius like me. If it's any consolation I'll be just as well roasted as you are, so go ahead and pick it up."
"It's not much of a consolation, no." Joxer took a deep breath, then with shaking hands reached out for the golden urn. Halfway to it he froze. Autolycus sighed.
"It's perfectly safe, Jox. Come on, let's get out of here. I want to get back to my proper size so I can liberate some of these gold bars."
"Actually..." The voice was smug, and definitely not Joxer's, "That's not why he's not moving."
"Huh?" Autolycus peered around the motionless Joxer, and saw two shadowy shapes beyond. "Oh no."
"It's good to see you again." Pushing Joxer out of the way, Daedus snatched up the urn, almost dropping it again immediately thanks to its great weight. "Beautiful. So this is the source of your sorcerer's powers; the thing that let him make all of this gold. The thing that made him powerful enough to worry the gods of Olympus."
"Yeah, and the thing that got him incinerated by the god of war." Autolycus looked up at the two looming bullies, and wondered just how easy it was to get the power that was hidden in the vessel. "You don't think Ares is going to let you leave here with that?"
"Ares said it was enchanted, to prevent the interference of the gods. He won't be able to do anything." Daedus was stroking the urn as though it was his first born child, a tender babe in arms that needed careful handling. "This is more powerful than the gods."
"I doubt that." Joxer flinched when his words earned the full force of Daedus's glare. "Well I only meant... well why would Zeus give a mortal that much power? It can't be any more powerful than him, can it."
"So we won't be more powerful than Zeus." Listes sounded as though that was hardly important. "Everybody knows he never gets involved anyway, so it's not going to matter, is it. He'll just sit up there on top of Olympus, and not lift a finger to stop us. The lesser gods certainly won't dare."
"I think you might be wrong there." Autolycus leaned over the edge of the alcove, watching as Daedus settled the vessel more firmly on the ground. "I really wouldn't play around with that if I was you."
"Yeah, but you're not me, are you." Daedus wrestled with the lid of the urn, but couldn't shift it. "It was my lucky day when I wandered into that hut and found you there. Maybe I'll be so grateful that I won't murder you horribly as soon as I get my powers."
"Gee, thanks." Autolycus caught Joxer's eye, and mimed walking away with the fingers of one hand. Joxer nodded, although he was so rigid that his head barely moved. Slowly, cautiously, he reached out with one hand and picked up the King of Thieves.
"Damn this thing. Why won't it open?" Daedus was shaking the urn now, causing it to rattle againt the stone flagged floor. "Give me a hand, Listes. Don't worry about them, they're not going anywhere."
"Right." Lowering the knife that he had been holding against Joxer's ribs, Listes knelt down opposite his friend. "What sort of powers do you think we'll get?"
"Who cares, so long as we can turn things into gold." Daedus tugged harder, but still the lid of the vessel didn't move. Autolycus shook his head.
"Believe me guys, you really don't want to do this. Ares was quite--"
"I don't care about Ares. Pretty soon I won't need to care." Listes didn't look up. Autolycus rolled his eyes, exasperated.
"I mean it. Ares warned us not to fool around with that thing. He also told us that the source of Scyrptos' power was safe from him because of that vessel. Once it's opened--"
"Just shut up." Daedus dashed the sweat from his eyes, and battled on with the urn. Joxer began to edge away, as quietly and as quickly as he could. With widening eyes he saw a crack begin to show around the neck of the urn. The efforts of the two men, it seemed, were beginning to pay off.
"Run." The King of Thieves spoke in little more than a whisper, but Joxer heard him. Turning his back, he fled back down the corridor between the mouth-watering piles of gold. Listes shouted, and one or other of the men hurled a knife after the fleeing pair, but it clattered harmlessly away across the floor. Joxer nearly tripped as he reached the archway into the first cellar, but he kept his feet. Behind him he heard a shout of triumph.
"Just keep running." The thief sounded grim - far more serious than was usual. Joxer did as he was told, and kept going. Ahead he saw the stairs, leading on upwards to the house above. Behind him, echoing between opposing walls of gold, he heard a scream. Startled, he tripped on the bottom step, and fell flat on his face. Autolycus rolled away across the floor.
"Auto!" He could feel heat building, and didn't need to look back to know that flames were rushing towards him. Daedus and Listes were certainly dead, no doubt obliterated by a cunning fireball. True to his word, Ares had destroyed the source of Scryptos' power, as soon as it had it had been released from the spells that had kept it safe from him.
"Over here." The thief was several paces away, watching the flames speed closer and closer towards him. Joxer made a grab for him, fumbled, dropped him again, then fell over. Autolycus groaned.
"Yeah, I know." Struggling back to his feet, King of Thieves held as securely as possible in both hands, Joxer threw himself back up the stairs, falling out through the door at the top, and kicking it shut even as he was in the act of falling over again. Both men, prostrate upon the ground, breathed a sigh of relief when the fire failed to follow them.
"I thought that was it." Rolling over onto his back. Joxer looked down at Autolycus, sprawled next to him with an expression of the utmost satisfaction plastered across his face. "If you hadn't figured out that Ares would destroy that thing the first chance he got..."
"That bit was obvious." Autolycus sat up, beginning to dust himself off. "He wasn't going to risk a second Scryptos, was he. Poor old Daedus and Listes. I tried to warn them."
"They were greedy." Standing before them, as large and as apparently displeased as ever, Ares folded his large arms. "And so were you. Don't try to make your excuses, thief. I heard every word you said down there."
"You did?" Autolycus tried to remember everything that he had said, and hoped that there hadn't been anything too incriminating. Ares glowered at him.
"I'm a god. All powerful, remember?"
"Yeah, I was forgetting that." Autolycus stood up. "So, er... how about our deal?"
"Deal?" Ares seemed amused. "I don't make deals with mortals. Especially not mortals who ally themselves with my less than beloved half-brother - and especially not mortals who think they can get away with turning Discord into a chicken."
"Um... can I leave?" Edging away across the floor, Joxer kept his head down. Ares glared at him.
"Oh... damn and blast it. It's never as much fun tormenting you two as it is having a go at Xena or Hercules. Stop quivering." He pointed at Autolycus, who contemplated hiding behind Joxer. "Alright. You did what I asked, so - be your proper height again. Just don't go stealing from sorcerers again, because believe me when I say that this is definitely a one off. I won't help you again, whatever the circumstances." There was a loud crack, and Autolycus, looking rather more rumpled than he would have liked, was suddenly fully-sized once more. He looked down at himself in delight, then edged closer to Joxer so that he could compare his height against another person.
"I'm back!" Hauling Joxer to his feet, he clapped the smaller man on the shoulder. "Look at me! Women all over Greece would be sighing with relief if they knew about all of this. So nearly deprived of my attentions forever."
"I can shrink you again any time I choose." Ares pointed at them both. "Now go."
"Er.., yeah." Autolycus wondered how best to ask his next question without getting blasted. "All that gold..."
"Is no longer gold." Ares was smirking. "It's turned back into whatever it was before. Steel, iron, whatever. If you want some of it..."
"No." Crestfallen, Autolycus stared towards the cellar door. "Are you sure it's all turned back? Every single ingot?"
"Every single one." The god of war frowned his favourite, deep frown. "Now was there something else you were wanting?"
"Er... no." Autolycus began backing away, pulling Joxer with him. The younger man, who did not need encouraging, was already tumbling out of the window before Autolycus could think about climbing through. Outside it was still raining, though not as much as before. There was less wind at least, and the day was altogether warmer. Autolycus straightened his clothing, and ran a hand through his hair.
"Well, that went well."
"It did?" Joxer glanced back at the house. "We nearly got killed by the god of war, we nearly got burnt to death, again by the god of war, and he was still thinking about blasting us both when we left. Actually he might still do it."
"He might." Autolycus frowned when the import of those words sunk in, and his expression turned a little more serious. "Yeah, good point. Come on. We'd better make ourselves scarce."
"I'm sorry you didn't get your gold." Even though he himself was glad just to escape with his life, Joxer knew how enamoured the King of Thieves was with all things bright and sparkly. Autolycus shrugged.
"No matter. I got to test myself against one of the smartest anti-thief devices I've seen in a long time. Sometimes that's better than actually doing the stealing. Besides, gold weighs so damn much anyway." He dug around inside his shirt, and produced the golden goblet he had been carrying all of this time. It had grown alongside of him, and was now restored to its full, impressive magnificence. "And I still have this. No, all in all I think it's been a pretty good day."
"I'm glad one of us does." Joxer glanced back at the house on the top of the hill. "Why do gods always make life so difficult?"
"Boredom, I guess. When you're all powerful you've got to do something to entertain yourself, even if it's creating dangerous adversaries for your children to worry over." Autolycus shrugged. "If I had a father like Zeus I'd probably be as crabby as Ares."
"Maybe." Joxer sighed. "Well, I guess that's this adventure over. I'd say it's been a pleasure, but as usual it's been anything but."
"Likewise. Whenever I run into you I wind up barely alive and facing the wrath of half of Greece." They shook hands. "You're a curse, Joxer."
"So are you."
"Yeah, you're probably right. So, um... which way are you heading?"
"North, I guess. There's a festival I was planning on attending."
"A festival, huh. Plenty of rich pickings to be had at a festival. All that money and all those wares, all begging to be stolen by the King of Thieves..." Autolycus nodded in satisfaction. "I think I might stay with you for a while."
"Even though I'm a curse?"
"Hey, we all have our burdens to bear, little buddy. Besides, I thought you wanted to know what it was like to drink out of a golden goblet? If we split up now you'll never know, will you."
"I suppose not." Joxer smiled, and reached out for the goblet, turning it over in his hands to inspect it more closely. "Okay, I guess we can go on together. But I don't want a single adventure, Autolycus. I mean that."
"Do I look like the trouble magnet here? I'm not the one who threw us over a cliff, and over a waterfall. I'm not the one who let Daedus and Listes into the hut back at the start of all this. Neither am I the one who nearly got us both fried down in that cellar."
"I did not throw us over that cliff, or down that waterfall, and it was your idea to let them into the hut." Joxer tripped on a root, and watched the golden goblet perform a picturesque arc through the sky. It vanished over the rise, and a muddy splash marked the point of its descent. "Oh. Oops."
"Joxer..." Following the direction taking by his prize, Autolycus stared down into a muddy quagmire. "What is it with you?"
"I'm sorry." Joxer looked unenthusiastically at the thick mud. "I could try to get it out."
"No thanks. Then I'd have to spend the rest of the day trying to get you out." Autolycus sighed. "You really are cursed, you know. Whenever I spend any time with you, this is just the kind of thing that always happens."
"Yeah yeah yeah." The thief sighed. "Come on little buddy. We've got a festival to go to."
"You mean you're still coming?" Hurrying to catch up with the suddenly speeded up King of Thieves, Joxer tripped and nearly sent both of them after the goblet. Autolycus steadied them just in time.
"Yeah, I'm still coming. I might pretend that I don't know you once we get there, but for the time being I'll come. Just promise me you won't trip over anything."
"I'll try. Say, Autolycus?"
"We make a pretty good team, don't we."
Autolycus hesitated, glancing over at the enthusiastic young disaster magnet beside him. "Don't push it, little buddy."
"But we do. I mean, we're alive. We went through two bad guys, plus Ares, plus a big fire, and we're not even singed. When you think about it, all the best people come in pairs. Xena and Gabrielle, Hercules and Iolaus."
"We are not teaming up."
"Not necessarily full time, no."
"Full time, any time. No."
"Joxer, we can barely stand each other. If we spent more than a couple of days in each others company, one of us would end up garrotted. And it wouldn't be me."
"Well I think we make a good team."
"Yeah, but you've always been deluded. The number of times you've landed on your head over the years, it's a wonder you can still speak, let alone think straight. Now are we going to this festival or aren't we."
"Yeah, we're going. But you've got to promise that you won't steal anything while I'm around."
"As if I would." Autolycus, as usual, managed to look affronted by the suggestion that he might consider stealing something. "Maybe I can find another set of golden goblets, which this time, incidentally, I won't be letting you touch."
"I think I can live without handling your stolen goods."
"Good!" Joxer sighed. "Xena and Gabrielle don't argue like this."
"Not when we're around anyway. We don't know what they get up to in private." Autolycus looked wistful. "Although believe me I spend quite a lot of time thinking about it."
"Are you coming to this festival or aren't you?"
"Yeah." The King of Thieves dropped an arm around the other man's shoulders "Lead on, little buddy. Lead on."
Joxer sighed. "Something tells me I'm going to regret this."
"Probably. Say, Xena isn't going to this festival, is she?"
"I think so. Why?"
"No reason. Except that whenever I run into Xena I either get beaten up, locked up, or both." The thief sighed. "It's a festival though right? I mean, what can happen at a festival?"
"Nothing." Joxer sounded absolutely determined. This, at least, was going to be an occasion when nothing went wrong. When there were no fights, no trouble, and absolutely no life threatening dangers. Just a festival. A holiday. A time for having fun. He would, of course, have thought rather differently had he known that Ares was listening in.
"So Xena will be there, will she?" Smiling to himself, the god of war thought about the possibilities that were presented by that scenario. It had been a long time since he had attended a festival. Far too long perhaps. He began to laugh, and his eyes sparked with godly fire.
Time to have some fun.
In Memory of Kevin Smith, 1963-2002