No, No, No.
Joxer trudged along wearily, planning on how to spend this year's cold months. He hated to travel when it was so cold. Especially since Xena wanted to head for the mountains after going through Corinth. He felt something brush against the back of his neck and waved a hand back there to make whatever bug go away. He continued to walk behind the women, contemplating signing onto a fishing boat for a season. The brushing happened again and he grunted in annoyance.
Xena turned around, frowning at the sight of a horse following along behind Joxer, trying to eat his hair apparently. "Is he a friend?" she asked dryly.
Joxer turned, frowning when he saw the horse. "Where did you come from?" He stepped away from it and the horse followed. He moved to the horse's side so it turned and followed him. They did a few circuits before the man stopped. His frown darkened when he saw the brands marking the leather. "Xena, can you block him so I can run away?"
Gabrielle stepped closer, trying to grab the reins of the strange beast.
"I wouldn't," a low female voice suggested. "He's trained to only do things for me." She stepped into sight and smiled at Joxer. "I had to stop so I told him to slow you down," she explained in a semi-apologetic tone of voice.
Xena looked this woman over. She stood confidently, her feet spaced just under her shoulders' width apart. The form-fitting medium brown leather looked well worn and was clearly not new. The studs around the slightly open collar nearly made her frown, but the open sleeves didn't match the rest of the design. She caught sight of the woman's hair, a few shades darker than her leathers with leather strips braided into it that shined in the weak sunlight like they had metal attached to them. Her sword was on her right side, and the wrist guard was on her left arm. Her boots, dusty with worn spots, came up to just under her knees. This woman was obviously a warrior of some sort. The only question was, what did she want with Joxer? She raised an eyebrow but didn't dismount her own horse, Argo was a good point to launch herself from.
"Oh, bodily functions," Joxer sighed as he sat down.
Xena looked down at him. That was a new expression. "Bodily functions?"
"Father told him they were vile to mention in mixed company," the woman said as she walked closer. She clucked and her horse stepped up to her side. "You're wanted at home. It's time."
Joxer glared at her. "I'd rather die."
"Mother suggested that was an option," she admitted. "But you'd still have to come home because she'd want to do it herself."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Joxer only has two brothers."
The woman laughed, a throaty sound. "Well, Mother prayed not to have any more after pushing out the triplets, and there *is* a five-year gap between the triplets and the next child, but Father made sure there were more of us. He always said a warlord without children was one who was only fighting to please himself." She patted her horse's neck. "Get up, we'll get you a nag at the next village. We have to be home in fifteen days."
"I'm not going," Joxer stated firmly.
She laughed again. "You can try, but the army's coming next." She leaned down to get closer to his face. "I doubt you want your friends to die over such a trivial matter." She stood up then sighed and grabbed him, hauling him to his feet. "Get on, you can ride behind me."
"No." He pulled away from her. "Let him marry off Jace." Joxer stormed off into the surrounding woods.
She looked at her horse. "Follow him." The horse trotted off after Joxer, making him yell and run. "He's too well trained!" she yelled after him. She nearly sighed as she turned to look at the two women. "We've managed to train a few horses to follow specific commands from certain people so they can't be taken during a war and used, or just stolen."
Xena frowned down at her. "Joxer's father is in jail. We put him there."
She laughed. "Really? The same as Jett is?" She crossed her arms. "I wanted to meet you. I wanted to have a *talk* with you about that. Care to dismount so I don't hurt your horse? It's probably an innocent and Joxer could use her."
Xena slowly climbed down. "I'm always happy to beat warlords," she said calmly. The woman laughed again. "Not claiming that right?"
"Not until Father dies. Until then, I'm one of his top Generals." She drew her sword with her left hand, her right having a long scar down the inside of her forearm, holding it confidently. "You ready yet?"
"Hey!" Gabrielle said, stepping between them. "There's got to be a better way. Joxer wouldn't appreciate you trying to kill us, or us killing you."
The woman looked the annoyance over. "You've got a great pet, but maybe she should be tied up with your horse before she gets hurt."
Joxer stepped back out of the woods. "Fight them and I'll kill you in your sleep," he warned. "Xena, we're leaving." He started up the road again, the horse still following obediently behind him. "Terion, get your warhorse before I offer it to the next person I see!" he called back, not turning around. He stumbled slightly and the horse reached out, biting his shirt collar. "Ow!" He swatted at it, trying to get away from it.
"What's this about?" Xena asked, nodding for Gabrielle to go stop Joxer. "Joxer's free of his family's influence."
"Joxer's been contracted to marry a neighbor's child for the last ten years. It's time for him to come home. The neighbor needs the match now to cement his position because his second son's trying to take over." She slowly put her sword away. "Now, you can either help me, or face my army, which is a day behind me. Your choice, Xena." She whistled and the horse grabbed Joxer's collar again, tugging on it to make him turn around. "Let him go." The horse obediently trotted back to her side and let her mount. "All up to you." She gently tapped the stallion with her heels so they could follow her brother. As she pulled up alongside him, she reached down and pulled him up, laying him over her lap. He struggled but she slapped him on the back of the head. "Stop it or you're going to be dragged for a few miles," she warned, picking up the pace. Her horse could handle both of them for a while, long enough to get away from the two women.
Xena remounted and took off after the woman, only stopping to let Gabrielle climb up behind her. She wasn't going to let this happen, Joxer needed her protection.
"Do you think she was telling the truth?" Gabrielle asked as they rode. "He never mentioned other siblings."
"Would you?" Xena asked. "After we met Jace and Jett?"
"Probably not. He didn't tell us about them either though. We had to find out about them the hard way."
"And now we've found a few more," Xena agreed. "We'll stop this travesty of a marriage. Joxer obviously doesn't want it."
Through the day, they tracked Joxer's sister, heading closer to Corinth with each hour. When their trail veered off onto a small path, they followed it, not knowing if it was a trap or not. A little after dark, they found the camp and climbed down, setting up blatantly beside Joxer's sleeping body.
"Good," Terion said with a nod. "Bear? It's dried." She held out some meat.
Gabrielle took a small piece and ate it. "Interesting spices," she gasped as she reached for her canteen.
Terion smiled. "My Mother likes her spices. She taught Jace very well." She ate some more of the meat herself. "So, you're the infamous Xena." She looked the other woman over. "Not much are you."
Xena frowned. "I've been doing this longer than you've been alive."
"Probably," Terion agreed. "That doesn't make you better, just older." She glanced at her brother's drugged form. "He will have to go through with it, Father will make sure of it." She ate another piece, holding out a longer piece for Gabrielle. "Want some more?"
"No thanks. We've got some deer." She pulled some jerky out of her pack and held it out. "It's bland," she warned. "We don't carry many spices with us."
Terion took a small piece. "Thanks. It gets boring eating the same food for a month." She ate it, nodding. "Subtle, but the spices are there." She looked at Xena again. "You could say something."
"I'm going to follow Joxer and heed *his* wishes," she told her.
Terion shrugged. "That's fine. I've sent a rider ahead to warn Father that you might be coming. He's promised not to kill you until after the wedding because it would upset Joxer." She glanced at him again, he had rolled over. "Then all bets are off and he's sending Jett after you." She smiled at the darkness. "Speaking of which. Featherhead, get out here."
Jett stepped into the weak light. "I told you not to call me that," he growled. He stared at the back of Xena's head. "Are you sure I can't hurt her yet?"
"Father said I could clobber you if you tried," she offered. "If you *really* want to fight, we can do that. Joxer will get over it eventually. A new wife or husband will cure him of his grief quickly." She held out some of the bear. "Food?"
"I already ate. Mother made chicken stew tonight." He sat down beside his younger sister. "So, Terion, why did Father send you? He thought he sent your husband."
"You're married?" Gabrielle asked. "I've never heard of a female warrior fighting after marrying."
Terion looked her over. "Have a lot of experience with that?"
"She's the head of the Amazons," Xena said quietly. "She's right though."
Terion did a one-sided shrug. "He's my second in command. We work well together. I chose him for his skills and he quit demanding husband's rights long ago." Jett touched her knee. "I'm fine. I'm over the loss." She stared down Xena. "My husband so brilliantly decided I should bear him a child and forced the issue. I didn't quit fighting. When I lost it, I made sure he knew it was his fault because he knew I had a duty that came before my duty to him. He's given up on the idea until we're both settled down." She ate the last of the bear meat. "Does that satisfy your curiosity?"
Xena nodded. "More than I needed to know actually." She looked down at Joxer. "What did you give him?"
"A stronger version of what we used when he was younger and had nightmares," Jett told her. "We *do* know our brother, Xena," he sneered.
"He's developed an allergy to some roots recently," Gabrielle told him. "He said he's been given them before but they made him break out in a rash and scratch for days."
"We have a healer with the army," Terion told her, pointing behind her. "I think we can handle it." She stood up. "If you're coming with us, you might want to sleep. We're leaving at dawn so we can be home before the day gets too warm." She went to her things and spread out the blankets, settling in beside her horse's warm body.
Jett stared at the women. "Why are you coming?"
"Because Joxer obviously doesn't want this," Gabrielle told him, her voice starting to become frosty. "He asked us to save him from your sister."
Jett snorted. "He has to do his duty the same as we all do. He'll get over it by tonight." He stood up. "Father's being nice and giving him the choice of which child he wants to marry, but he will be married. Come Tartarus, flood, or fire. Or an invading army," he added, looking at Xena. "Not that I think you could get one up in a week's time." He went to sleep beside his brother. He looked at the non-moving women. "Don't worry, I gave my word I wouldn't hurt you until *after* the wedding. Father said I could hunt you then so I'll wait. You'll be fun then." He snuggled into Joxer's back, stealing the thin blanket for himself.
Xena nodded for Gabrielle to set up their bedding. She would sleep lightly that night.
Joxer was dragged into the manor house in chains, kicking and screaming the whole way. "Father!" Terion yelled. "He's here."
Joxer's father walked out, looking his son over. He sneered at the supposed armor. "No wonder we couldn't find you. Get him bathed and dressed," he told the soldier standing behind him. "Have Jace help." The soldier grabbed the chains from the General's hands and dragged Joxer toward the back of the house. "The women?"
"Right behind us," she said with a grim look. "Jett's watching over them." She smiled suddenly. "He even followed orders. He's learned self-control since I last saw him."
Joxer's father laughed. "Yes, he has. You'd be surprised at how much he's grown up since he left home." He patted her on the shoulder. "Was it true?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. I forgot to ask him which he preferred. I'm sure he's going to say neither to spite you, but he'll get over it. I did." She looked behind her. "I'm going to go bathe then do drills with the cadets. Did you have any orders for me?"
"Get the cadets to do the climbing exercises again. They slacked off while you were gone. Put on a good show for our guests." She nodded and headed to the back of the house to bathe. He sat down to wait for their guests. Maybe he'd have some fun with Xena's little friend before he released them for Jett to hunt, she'd probably be good for a few hours entertainment.
Out in the barn, Xena was sending prayers out to her former boss. Maybe she'd get some help. Being surrounded by a hostile army was not her idea of good odds. She's win, but it would get messy by then and someone would probably die on their side. She smiled when she found a small pendant on her saddle, giving it to Gabrielle to hold. "We've been heard."
Gabrielle handed it back. "You know I'll never touch anything from him," she reminded her companion. "I refuse to help Ares."
"You'd rather do this alone?" Xena asked her. "A little help is better than none sometimes."
Gabrielle smiled and looked up. "I think I can pray to my Goddess; after all, I am an Amazon first and foremost. An aberration will be excused for now."
Xena nodded. "I'd start now." She wiped her horse's side down gently, putting it into the stall the head groom had told her was hers. "There we are." She turned and found Jett leaning against a pillar. He took the pendant from her hand and looked it over, then tossed it back. "Don't like it?"
"Hypocrite." He walked away. "I'm heading up to the house if you'd like to follow."
Xena and Gabrielle followed behind him, aware that everyone was watching them.
"They're here to stand up for Joxer at the wedding!" someone shouted from the main house. "Leave them be!"
The warriors went back to what they had been doing, watching less obviously.
Ares smirked as Artemis walked into his hall. "Get one too?" he asked cheerfully.
She nodded, looking cross. "Hypocrite." She glanced around, then turned her attention back to him. "Are you supporting this?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. The son trying to take over the neighbor's family is quite strong. Not who I'd want to lead that force, but definitely strong willed." He stood up. "Are you going to help the little mouthy creature?"
Artemis sighed. "I have to. She's one of my Queen's and I've pledged my help to them when they needed it. Of course, if a battle were to occur, I'd have to go there instead." Ares shook his head. "Nothing near?"
"Not a thing. The closest is over two days walk away and they're paring down a valley that's about to be flooded. Demeter demanded that I force the people to move because they all pray to her but she couldn't force them herself." He walked down to stand next to her. "So?"
"Hera?" she suggested. "She could intervene."
Ares snorted. "She'd probably support it if we asked."
"Not necessarily," Athena noted as she walked in. "Zeus sent me. He wants to talk to you about this army and the marriage. He doesn't like it."
"Neither does the groom," Ares agreed. "Why is he interested?"
She sneered. "Because the eldest daughter has consented to meet him later and he figures this Joxer creature will choose her."
Ares shook his head. "Not a chance. He'd never stand her." He sighed and straightened his clothes. "Shall we go plan on whether to stop this travesty or not?"
"I thought you'd want that army?" Athena asked. "It's going to be a help."
"It's going to be too large," Ares told her. "Too many Generals, and the forces won't integrate for a while. It'll weaken them both in the long run and they'll end up losing some important battles." He followed her out, going to talk to his parents. Maybe they'd be decent this time and step in to help.
Joxer was forced into the room with the children of the neighboring warlord and the door was locked behind him. "Hi," he said weakly.
The tallest of the males looked him over. "Why were you chosen?"
"I'm one of the first born," Joxer told him. "I don't want to be here, you don't want to be here, so can you please just tell your parents this?"
The three children all laughed. "Duty is our life," the daughter told him. "The only reason we three are here is because my sister is already married and my younger brother is too young. Now choose. I have something I need to do tonight." She pushed her black hair over her shoulder. "Well?" she asked when he hadn't said anything.
Joxer sat down in a chair, looking them over. "You're free to go," he told her. "I don't like any of you and I find you all not to my liking." That got another laugh. "Sorry, but I already have a love and I refuse to cheat on them. I'll die first."
"They'll just force your brother Jace," the male reminded him.
Joxer shrugged. "I'll be dead. What will I care?"
"Choose!" was yelled from outside the door.
"I refuse!" Joxer yelled back. "None of them are what I want. I already have someone!"
Joxer's father walked in and the door shut and locked behind him. "I asked her, she refused knowledge of your union."
"Who said I meant her? I *do* have friends outside those two."
"Her name?" his father asked.
Joxer's father looked over his shoulder. "Find this Meg and bring her here. Let her tell us herself that they're joined."
"I, um, haven't asked her yet. I haven't seen her in a few weeks," Joxer admitted. "But I have a handfasting ring for her in my pack and I was going to ask her when I saw her next time." He stood up. "I won't marry them, Father, and you can't force me. You can kill me, but you can't force me to marry them. I won't vow to them."
Joxer's father backhanded him. He looked over the assembled group and pointed to the oldest son. "You. You're chosen. You'll keep him in line."
The oldest son looked at him distastefully. "I may live to do my duty to my parents, but I won't touch him. It's obvious he's not willing to touch me."
Joxer's father shrugged. "Who cares? That's what mistresses are for. He'll be your ambassador, not your fuck toy." He kicked his son's side. "We'll get him cleaned up and start the preparations tonight." He knocked on the door and it opened. "He chose the oldest son," he announced as he walked out. "Someone go pick him up and take him to his room. Lock him in there."
Two of the soldiers ran in and grabbed Joxer's limp body, carrying it away.
The oldest son looked at his siblings. "Well, this is distasteful," he noted, sitting down on a couch.
His sister smiled at him. "Maybe Father will protest," she said cheerfully as she walked away. "I have to meet my lover." Her brother mimicked her words as she walked away. "Tell Mother I'll be bearing a great hero when I come back." She walked out and closed the doors after her.
The sons looked at each other. "This is your fault," the oldest one told his younger brother. "If you hadn't made a move on Father, we'd still be free." The younger brother laughed. "Laugh now but remember, there's another marriage contract left to fill and that warlord is much more powerful than this one - one of Ares' chosen warlords. I doubt you'll be on top in that relationship." He stood up and walked out, going to give his parents the *wonderful* news. Then he had to tell his lovers.
The second brother seethed as he walked away. This warlord hadn't even seen his merit. He walked outside, but stopped when he heard the laughter coming from inside the temple. He walked that way, looking around cautiously in case this was a trap. As he walked closer to the altar, the laughter came closer, until its owner was sitting in the throne. "Lord Ares," he said, immediately falling to his knees.
"You're upset that *Joxer* didn't chose you?" Ares said between guffaws. "*Joxer*?" The warrior looked up at him. "Surely you've heard of Joxer the Mighty?" His laughs tapered off.
The warrior sneered. "Is that who my brother's marrying? That fool?"
Ares nodded. "Yup." He looked at his nails. "I guess it *could* be worse. Jace is still free." He smiled down at the warrior. "Have I mentioned yet that I'm displeased at what you've done?" The warrior shook his head, turning pale. "Hmm. I should correct that." He sent a small fireball down, letting it hover in front of the warrior's face. "Never displease me again," he warned. "I only give one chance." He disappeared, the fireball going with him.
The warrior stood up with a sigh of relief. He started to smile again, going to his house to tell his brother who his future spouse was. He would be so *pleased*.
Joxer woke up on a bed, staring up at a ceiling, and knew he was in trouble. His father had chosen for him, and it was a man. A smelly, pompous man who had nothing in common with him. They didn't even know each other. How were they supposed to marry when they didn't know anything about each other? His new husband would probably expect him to fight or something and he knew he wouldn't be able to live up to his expectations. He forced himself to sit up and look around the room, noticing the food on the chair beside the bed and the clothes hanging from a bar next to the door. His pack was under them, but that wouldn't help him.
He leaned over and grabbed the tray, looking over the slabs of meat and congealed gravy, wincing when he smelled how spicy it was. "Mother cooked," he told himself. He slowly choked down the food, even the greasy vegetables, then got up to look in his pack. Maybe there was something in there to help him. He found a small book of prayers given to him by one of Apollo's servants in payment for a day's work. It gave him an idea. He rummaged through his pack, coming up with a single small piece of candle. It would have to do. He lit it off one of the room's tapers and knelt before it, praying as hard as he could. "Please, Great Hermes, hear me and help me. I know this isn't your thing, but I really need your son Autolycus to save me. If anyone can get me out of this camp, it'd be him."
Hermes buffed his nails on his tunic as the prayer hit him. "Dude, I'm a Godly messenger," he snorted. He laughed when he heard the reason. His mirth was interrupted by Artemis. "Hey, got something for me?" he asked.
She sat down beside him. "Was that Joxer?" Hermes shrugged. "Begging to get out of a marriage?" Hermes nodded, buffing his other hand. "Ares and I both want him out of that union. What did he want?"
"My son to come rescue him." He chuckled. "Autolycus may have been corrupted by Hercules, but not that much. He'd never walk into a warlord's camp to try and save someone. It'd get him killed and he's very aware of that."
She grimaced. "Can we send Hercules in to save him?"
"He's got this whole 'family' thing going. He'd probably stick up for the poor guy's father."
"But his father's a warlord, he wouldn't like that," Ares pointed out as he flashed in. "What did he want?"
"Auto to go save him." He saw the frown. "This is really a big thing?"
"It'll weaken the area and let Corinth take it over."
"Which will lead them to march on the nearest group of Amazons," Artemis added. "They're only a week's march from this warlord's domain."
"Besides, I have plans for this army," Ares said, looking around the room. "When did you get the time to redecorate?"
"Aphrodite did it. She was *bored*," Hermes said, and they all shuddered. A bored Aphrodite was a dangerous Aphrodite who wanted to do everything to *help* somebody, usually to their detriment. "We could sic her on this Joxer guy's case."
Ares shook his head. "She likes him too much and has been looking for a love interest for him. Cupid's been warned not to interfere. Even Strife won't go near it."
"Have Discord make an announcement that if that man ever marries a warrior, she'll destroy that man's army."
"Which will *thrill* Joxer's father," Ares reminded her. "He'll still take it over and it'll still destabilize the area." He sat down, one leg going over the armrest. Then the other leg following it so he could get comfortable and stretch. "What we need is someone to intervene that won't point back to us. If any God interferes it'll just cause problems."
Zeus flashed into the room, staring at his three children. "Are you still working on that problem?"
Ares nodded. "It'll destabilize the area if we interfere or if we don't. Which would you rather have? A Corinth that's spread too far to support itself or the whole area going to Tartarus in a few years?"
Zeus frowned. "Why can't you just forbid it, Ares. He's *your* follower."
Ares looked up at him. "And say what? That I forbid my warrior to marry anyone? That'd bring Hera down on me. You know how she can be."
Zeus hummed deep in his chest. "Yes, I do." He looked at Hermes. "Go find my son and route him that way. Have him start something or whatever." Hermes stood up and hopped up, flying out on a thermal stream. "Ares, demand that the wedding not go off for a while. Stall it." He looked at Artemis. "Your Amazons, are they ready to fight?"
"That's one of my few farming villages. Women who have been widowed and pulled together to live. They're not fighters, Zeus," she said calmly. "I can send some of my better warriors their way, but it'll probably be too late. My Amazons are spread pretty thin."
He frowned. "I wish I had known that before that last war."
Ares coughed. "They weren't involved in that war. They jumped in to help the losers." He looked at Artemis. "I tried to warn you." She nodded. "What do you want me to do? I can only stall it for a month and they won't like it."
"Do whatever you have to," Zeus said with a wave of his hand. "Make sure this marriage doesn't happen. The consequences are too broad to allow it." He disappeared.
Ares sighed and stood up. "I guess I'm heading there. Going to your Amazons?"
"With a stop," she said, disappearing from the couch.
Ares flashed out, heading to the small temple. He rang a gong, bringing people running. "I will talk with the Warlord," he said in his most bored tone of voice. "NOW!" he yelled when no one moved. They all ran out, looking for Joxer's father.
Jett walked in first. "Going to stop this?" Ares shrugged. "Why?"
"Because the ramifications of these two families uniting will destroy the area in a few years. I don't need the headache." He smiled at the assassin. "Ask your God, he'll tell you to help your brother. Or he will if he knows what's good for him."
Strife appeared on his right side, nodding hard. "No marriage," he told his follower. "You can't let it happen." He stopped when Jett's father walked in. "Hey, how ya doin'?" he asked, sounding pleasant.
"Lord Ares," the warlord said, kneeling down in front of him with a small grunt of pain. "What do you need me to do?"
"I need you to stop this marriage," Ares told him, staring down at him. "To join these two armies means annihilation in five years. Then Corinth will take over all you presently own." The warlord grimaced. "You will not marry your son off to your neighbor's children."
"The pact is signed," the warlord reminded him. "I can't back out now, there'll be a war." Ares raised an eyebrow. "I'm sure it will be against your will, but they will attack."
Ares leaned down. "If you do as I say and they do attack, you'll win. If you don't do as I say, your whole family will die within five days of the marriage. Your daughters will become prizes of war for Corinth's army. Your sons will become slaves to that same city. All of your lands will be forfeit and you will be put to death in the most horrible manner known. Choose."
The warlord swallowed. "Yes, my Lord. Will you tell them also? To back up my claims?" Ares leaned back, then nodded. "Thank you, my Lord." He stood up. "If I may ask, may I make another contract with this son?"
Jett swallowed. "Maybe you shouldn't. Joxer will defy you," he reminded carefully when his father turned to glare at him. "He's too strong willed to do your bidding anymore and it'll dishonor the family."
The warlord frowned. "Then he'll die." He looked at Ares again, but the God of War was gone, leaving only Strife. "Lord Strife, would that be acceptable?"
Strife shook his head. "I agree with Jett. Joxer's one'a mine and he won't do it. He'll kill himself first and dishonor your house." He hopped into his Uncles' throne, lounging. "Tell ya what, I'll make sure he's got a good deal that you guys'll like. How's 'bout that?"
The warlord nodded. "Thank you, Lord Strife. Should we turn him out to find this mate?"
Strife shrugged. "Leave 'im here. I can find him anywhere now." He looked at Jett. "Let the annoyin' bits go though. Artie's got her panties in a twist about her Amazons that're near here." He disappeared too.
"Shoot, no fun," Jett mumbled as he walked away.
Joxer's father was thoughtful as he walked out of the temple. His Generals were all waiting on him in front of the temple, all but his daughter. "Where's Terion?" he demanded.
"She's out on border patrol with her people," another General told him. "She won't be back before dawn day after tomorrow."
The warlord nodded. "Ares has demanded that we break the upcoming union. Prepare to be attacked." He walked past his Generals. "I'm going to tell my son his fate." He walked into the house, slamming the door behind him. His wife rushed out. "Ares refused to sanctify the union. It seems Corinth's going to take advantage of the time it takes to merge our armies and take us." She gasped. "His nephew is finding Joxer a more suitable mate that won't leave us vulnerable." She nodded, biting her lip. "What?" he barked.
"What about him? Will he go along with it?"
"Do you think I care?" the warlord sneered. "He'll do his duty or die." He headed up the stairs to his son's room, rapping hard on the door before unlocking it and walking in. "You've got a reprieve," he ground out. "Ares demanded that you not marry him. I won't risk everyone for that union. Another will be chosen for you. You will be staying here." He backed out and slammed the door before his son could react. He relocked it and turned to find Xena standing behind him. "You're going to leave tonight," he told her. "He'll be safe until a new mate is chosen for him. We'll call you back then, for the ceremony." He walked away, trusting her to know what was good for her. He could *play* with them after the ceremony took place. He grabbed his wife and shoved her into their bedroom, locking the door so they wouldn't be disturbed.
Xena went to pack her and Gabrielle's things. They'd wait outside the lands. Maybe in Corinth, where they could get Iphicles into it.
"Doubt it," Strife said as he appeared. "Joxer'll get married to suit the family's ambitions, whether or not ya want it." He grinned when Gabrielle looked up at him. "At least it won't be that one." He disappeared with a giggle. "I'd leave," he called down to them. "Jett's comin'."
Xena shoved Gabrielle's pack at her and they left through a window before Jett could come in and try to kill them. She didn't want to face an entire army that night. Better to retreat and come back with a stronger force.
Jett opened the door and smiled at the empty room. "Too bad I can't hunt them yet." He closed it, getting out of the way of the maids who would clean it. "Give anything they left to Joxer to remind him he's here alone," he ordered as he headed back to his own room. It was the middle of the night and he wanted a nap.
Joxer paced his room. He'd been here for a week and there wasn't any help coming. He had figured that out after the second day when Jace had strolled in with a nice outfit for him to wear when someone finally chose his intended mate for him. He had protested and thrown it into the chamber pot, but his brother had simply shrugged and told him he could wear it that way if he wanted. The door had remained locked all the time and there wasn't any way out of his window. The only thing he could land on down there was either a few soldiers or a manure pile, or the forge right behind it. Jumping into the forge was his last resort move. He'd have to break the window, but he'd do it. He wouldn't allow himself to be married off like some farmer's daughter!
He turned and found his mother in the doorway. "What?" he asked coldly. "Come to torment me?"
She walked in and the door closed behind her. "I'm here to instruct you in your duties as a dutiful spouse," she told him. "I figure you've forgotten a lot while you were traveling around and playing a fool." She sat down in the lone chair and pointed at the bed. "Sit!" He sat, glaring at her. "You will not give me that look, Joxer. It will get worse if you do." She looked him over. "Be thankful your father has determined that you're going to your marriage bed an innocent."
Joxer snorted. "I'm not an innocent mother, not with women and I won't let a man touch me." He crossed his arms. "If one happens to come near me, I'll kill one of us."
She laughed. "Oh, really?" She lunged at him and he moved out of her way, but she still managed to pin him to the bed. "Do you think you can fight now, little boy? Someone bigger and stronger than I am?"
He kicked at her, making her get off him. "Like I said, *one* of us will die." He got away from her, rubbing his shoulder where she had pushed too hard. "I won't marry anyone, not for this family and not at all. I won't vow to anyone and no priest will allow a man to marry without a vow."
She shook her head. "You're going to be the weaker party," she reminded him. "You'll have the same benefit as a wife."
He shook his head. "I won't marry without one of my own God's priests there either. Even if Ares himself comes down and tells me I'm to marry his nephew, I won't marry."
She smiled. "Good. That'll make it so much more fun." She stood up. "I'll be back when you're less childish." She walked to the door and tapped on it, and it opened. "Think about it, son, you won't get out of this. No one will save you." She walked out and the door closed and locked again.
Joxer looked at the small, dull blade that had been laying in his pack. No one had found it yet, and it was another method of last resort. Even if he had to open his wrist with his teeth, he'd get out of this marriage.
Xena frowned at Iphicles. "Why won't you help?"
"Because it would destabilize the area," he patiently explained, again. "Going against that army would be easy for Corinth, but holding the lands wouldn't. We have no interest in the area. The farming's bad, the woods are thin, and there's no reason to do this to save one man. You wouldn't have risked your army to save one man, not even a friend."
She grunted her acknowledgment of that point. "True, but this can't be the only reason. Haven't they raided on Corinth's lands?" He nodded. "Then why not stop them now?"
Iphicles leaned forward. "Because I'd still be risking too many men for so little of a gain. Think like a general, Xena, not like a friend. No warrior in their right mind would go against them for those reasons."
"I would," Hercules said as he walked in. He patted Xena on the arm and smiled at his half- brother. "How have you been?"
"Better," Iphicles admitted. "And no, you wouldn't. That army is too large to go against for a petty reason. Not even you, Hercules, will beat them over a small matter of pilfering and one man wanting to not be married."
"Married?" Hercules asked.
Xena looked at him. "Joxer's family is forcing him into a political marriage to increase the size of their army. He asked me to save him."
Hercules frowned. "Father sent me here for this?" She nodded. "How large an increase?"
"Depends on the family," Xena admitted, turning to look fully at him. "The first one fell through when Ares intervened. They've got it narrowed down to two prospects. Carmanis from the north, or Tyladar from Crete. Both are willing to relocate and bring their armies. Both have medium sized forces. Both are bloodthirsty people who'd kill everyone in their path."
Hercules' frown got deeper. "Can we stop the armies from coming?" She shook her head. "Why not?"
"Because it'd take an army to stop them and no one's willing to help Joxer." She shrugged. "You know how he can rub some people the wrong way."
"Isn't Carmanis a female?" Iphicles asked. Xena looked at him and nodded. "I always thought Joxer liked men."
"He's vowed to not touch anyone," she told him.
"This is still a family squabble," Hercules sighed. "Unless the army that's coming starts to cause problems on the way, I shouldn't interfere."
"Hercules, this is your friend," Xena reminded him coldly.
"Who has a duty to his parents, the same as we did," he reminded her in the same tone. "I'm sure he can run away or something."
She shook her head. "He'll be dead before then." She walked out of the throne room. Maybe she could hire some mercenaries to go break him out.
Hercules looked at the King again. "Why is this such a big deal? If Mother had agreed to marry you off, you would have gone. The same as I would have."
Iphicles shrugged. "I don't know. You know Joxer though." Hercules nodded, rolling his eyes.
"Maybe he has a valid worry," Iolaus said from the doorway. He walked in to join them. "Think about it. Joxer's really weak and nice. He's going to be married off to a warlord? Will he survive?" Hercules started to frown again at the sense the quiet reasoning was making. "I know this is a family matter, but if I were Joxer, I'd want a hero to save me too." He nodded at Iphicles. "I'm going to go see if I can find some more information. Maybe it'll clear up the doubts we all have." He walked away, heading for the kitchens. Servers always heard things because no one paid any attention to them.
"He's right," Hercules sighed. "Joxer won't last long. That makes it intentionally murdering his own child." He ran a hand through his hair.
"You're not getting any of my army," Iphicles said quietly. "I won't send my men to their death against that army. Not unless they start committing mass murder or something that I can rouse the troops with. They won't go."
Hercules nodded. "I wasn't going to ask. We can handle it on our own."
"Be careful," Iphicles warned as his half-brother started to walk away. Hercules gave him a smile and a nod, then left him alone. Iphicles knew he was doing the wrong thing, but he had more people to worry about than himself. Corinth had to come first.
The warlords presenting themselves frowned when Joxer's father walked in. They nodded but refused to bow to him.
"What news?" Joxer's father asked.
"Jonus, we refuse," Carmanis said, straightening up a little. "I won't risk my army for a piece of tail and an alliance."
"Risk your army?" he sneered. "Joxer?"
"No, his friends." Tyladar glanced around the well-appointed room. "They've put out word that anyone coming to join with this son of yours would face the wrath of Xena and Hercules, plus all of their friends."
Carmanis nodded. "It's said that they'll destroy any army marching this way. King Iphicles won't support them, but just those two heros can, and have, destroyed whole armies. It's not worth it." She smiled brightly. "Though, if you could find a way to sneak him to Cyprus, there's a warlord down there that would brave anything to be aligned with you."
Jonus frowned as he sat down. "You're sure?"
Carmanis nodded. "We thought it best to tell you in person, but yes. Not even the strength of your army would be enough of an incentive."
Tyladar stepped closer. "Even if this son of yours was the best warrior, personally blessed by Ares' own hand, it isn't worth losing my whole army. My people would rebel."
Jonus waved a hand. "Thank you for telling me this." He smiled at them. "Will you stay for dinner tonight?" Both of them made a face. "I promise my wife won't cook," he suggested quietly. They both nodded. "Good. I'll have you set up in a room." He clapped his hands and a servant appeared. "Give them rooms and a bath, they're to stay for dinner. And make sure my wife stays out of the kitchen." He cleared his throat. "Send Terion to me as soon as she's found."
The servant nodded and waved at the hall. "Follow me," she said quietly, leading the way up the stairs. She only stopped to pass the message along.
Terion appeared a few minutes later, bowing to her father. "You summoned?"
"His friends are blocking anyone coming for him," he growled. "Fix it!" He stood up and stormed out, going out to train with the cadets.
Terion sighed and headed upstairs. "Jett?" she called. Her brother stuck his head out of his room. "Is Almandas in there with you?" Jett pulled back and a younger boy walked out to stare her down. "Good try," she said with fond amusement. "Both of you, I need your opinions." She walked away, heading to the room the Generals used to take visitors. Both of her brothers followed her after a few moments.
"What's up?" Jett asked, sitting down next to her.
"Joxer's *friends* have threatened any warlord coming this way to join with us. Father said they're to die."
Jett smiled. "Really?" She smiled and nodded. "Does that mean I can...play?" She nodded again. "All right," he purred. "Where are they?"
"Not a clue," she admitted. She looked at her younger brother. "I want you to find them for us while we plan. You'll leave tonight and we'll follow tomorrow." She stopped talking as the door opened, admitting Carmanis. "Yes?" she asked.
The older warlord smiled down at them. "Jonus suggested I come tell you what I heard from Xena's bard." She sat down beside the younger brother. "Is this Joxer?"
Jett snickered. "No, Joxer's one of my triplets. The more diplomatic one."
Carmanis frowned. "Why would your father marry him off? Can he fight?" Jett shrugged. "Is he good in bed?"
"Probably," Terion told her. "We've never had him so we wouldn't know." The older warlord looked at her. "Joxer's the only one not spoken for, expect for Almandas there." She pointed at her younger brother. "He's about the right age and I'm sure Father will find someone for him soon enough."
Carmanis looked the boy over again. "What do you do?"
"I'm an excellent archer, have studied strategies for small group combat, and am a follower of Hecate. Her blessing is coming on my birthday." The older woman looked impressed. "I am also only sixteen."
She smiled. "That's an acceptable age." She smiled at Terion. "Are there any others like him?"
Terion chuckled. "Yes, but most of us are already married. Though, if you'd like, I'd gladly send my husband with you. He's recently stared to become boring again, he's not paying attention to the army at all."
Carmanis licked her lips. "A woman could appreciate an offer like that." She patted the young man on the head. "I'll go talk to your father after this."
Almandas bowed to her. "If it pleases him, I'll be yours. My duty is my life." He nodded at his sister and brother. "What has Xena threatened?"
"Just that she's got spies watching for traveling armies and any that head this way will be stopped by her, Hercules, and their friends." She grimaced. "I saw Hercules personally and he warned me to not accept the proposed union. Apparently he believes that your brother won't do his duty."
Jett shifted. "He doesn't want to, but he will. He knows it's his life if he doesn't."
She nodded. "Good." She stood up. "Let me go talk to your father." She smiled at Terion. "It was a true offer?"
She waved a hand and relaxed. "His family's all dead and he's become more of a liability to us recently. You can have him if you want him. He bores me with his talk of children and settling down."
Carmanis' smile got brighter. "Good. I could use another good commander under me."
"Watch out, he's got these funny notions about women," Terion warned.
Carmanis laughed. "He won't keep them for long where we're going. Our women are stronger and will quickly beat it out of him." She walked away.
Terion smiled at her younger brother. "An excellent match. Father favored her for Joxer's hand."
Almandas shrugged. "If my Goddess wills, I'll go to her side." He stood up. "Let me go pray then I'll leave to track them for you." He left them alone.
Jett looked at his younger sister. "I'm impressed," he told her finally. She smiled. "You're good at getting rid of annoyances."
Terion laughed. "Why would I want to settle down? There's only two Generals between me and Father's job."
"Let me know if you need my help," Jett told her as he stood up. "I'll get ready to go hunt them down." He walked away.
She smiled and licked her lips. This house and everything surrounding it would be hers when her father died. She would make sure of it. A new alliance marriage would cement her promotion, her father liked such initiative. She stood up and went to her room to pack also. It would be a long week to track them down and kill them.
Jonus walked into his daughter's room. "I liked your union," he said plainly.
She smiled at him, stopping her packing. "He has strange notions, Father. He wanted to settle down." Her father glared at her. "You know I've vowed to never bear another child until I can no longer fight. Ares witnessed my vow and accepted it." He nodded, crossing his arms. "Besides, you were going to lose him anyway. He was planning on running away." She sat down on the foot of her bed. "I'm sorry if it disturbs you, but he wasn't worthy of your pleasure." She snorted. "He's not worthy of your displeasure. He didn't want to fight anymore and was trying to force me to settle down like my younger sisters. Warlord Carmanis has said that her women are strong and will teach him his lessons very quickly. She even seemed pleased with the present I gave her. Hopefully she'll stay happy with him even after traveling with him for a few days." She looked at her hands, then at her father again. "Father, you'll never marry off Joxer. People know who he was and they're not going to want him. Carmanis herself looked unhappy when she heard that he's not good for much in a war camp."
Jonus glared. "He's good enough to do a few things."
"Besides breeding?" she asked. She swallowed when she saw the anger on his face. "I know we need him, but he shouldn't be here. He'll only bring us dishonor and ridicule. Can't we give him to Apollo?"
"No, he's to stay. Ares said so."
"But, Father, when he fell on his head, it damaged him. He'll never be a worthy warrior, especially not one worthy of Ares' name and banner like you are. He dreams, he reads, he even talks about *love*!" Jonus grunted, but he looked more accepting. "Can't we use one of his daughters or force him to breed instead? His seed ran true."
"Jace's seed ran true," he reminded her. He didn't want to think about how they had *arranged* for their sons to prove their virility, especially not Jace and having to do it the Spartan way. "We could do that."
She allowed herself to sound a little more excited. "There's this new priestess of Apollo's in town. We could get her and convince her to carry his seed. She's supposed to be nearly as tough as Xena was when she was a warlord."
Jonus shrugged. "We'll think about it." He took a deep breath. "It's a very good match you encouraged today. Almandas prayed and got a very positive answer in return. Hecate will allow him to go learn from Carmanis' people. As for your husband, I don't like it. It stinks of breaking your vows."
"He was going to leave anyway," she reminded him. "We can say he left us, or that we unjoined willingly so he could have a better union with the fierce Carmanis. It is a step up for him."
Jonus smiled. "Good. Do you have any plans?"
"I was thinking of trying for that new priest of Ares'. He's a great warrior, an excellent strategist, and manages to have most of the skills I'd need in a second-in-command. He's probably even follow Ares' orders so I wouldn't get pregnant."
Her father chuckled. "Good idea. Try for him, and if it won't happen, for Tyladar. He'd make you a good match."
She shuddered. "I hate the cold. I'd never warm up again if I went with him." She smiled. "Besides, he likes men. I don't fit his idea of a mate."
Jonus shrugged. "You can have a sexless marriage. You'd never breed."
She shook her head. "I have others in mind. Even a few of the more blessed ones. I'm sure Ares would approve of my union." Her father shrugged and left her alone. She slowly relaxed back onto the bed, listening to the house gear up for a celebration worthy of visiting warlords.
Carmanis stood up and held up her goblet. "To Jonus, who has gifted us with an enjoyable present and a new mate." She smiled at Almandas. "We will be wed before I leave."
Tyladar smiled at her. "Congratulations. How old is he?"
"Sixteen," Almandas told him. "But my Goddess has agreed to the marriage too." He sipped his wine, looking at the empty seats. "Father, may I tell Joxer myself?"
Jonus frowned. "Yes, you may. Gloat about how someone's still going to have him anyway." He looked at Tylandar. "Are there any here who please you?"
"Your son Jace, is he a fighter?"
"No, I'm an actor," Jace told him. "I did train, but I'm not any good at it so I left." He glared at his father, who was holding him hostage too. "I would like to get back to my troupe."
Jonus smiled and shook his head. "Not until either you or your brother are married."
"Let Joxer breed," Jace said with an effeminate hand-wave. "He's built for it and he would probably enjoy it more. At least he'll add something to the family."
"He's proven able to breed?" Carmanis asked, sitting back down.
"We made sure of all of our son's virility early in their lives," Jonus told him. "Almandas' child will be born this year and we'll check on his then." He took a bite of his deer steak. "Joxer's daughter was quite good until she died of that fever. Very strong, but a bit delicate for real battles."
"But she would have done excellently in my field," Jett reminded him. Jonus laughed and clapped him on the back. "My own sons are twins and coming along quite well in their training. Solid warriors without much imagination."
Tyladas smiled. "Good. Any army needs more of those. Will you have more?"
"If Father demands it, I have to obey," Jett reminded him. "I wouldn't do it of my own free will though. As an assassin, it's a liability that someone can use against me."
Jonus smiled at his son. "Yes, it is. I had no plans for you to produce more. If you get to retire, I'll expect some when you settle down." He turned his smile on Jace. "You will have at least one more to make up for your lack of skills and ability to follow the family trade." Jace dropped his fork. "I don't care how, but you will."
"Fine. If I do, may I leave?"
"When your brother is joined," Jonus reminded him calmly.
"That may take forever," Jett put in, slowly moving onto his brother's side. "Let him go, he's only distracting the cadets with his flashy dresses."
Jonus frowned at his oldest son. "Indeed?" Jett nodded. "Then yes, I'll let him breed and then leave, for good if he wants." Jace smiled and relaxed. "I'll even send him out with what his dowry would have been as he'll never make a good political marriage with anyone." He looked at his other guest. "Unless you want him that is."
Tyladas shook his head. "I need a mate who can ride hard and keep up with the army, not someone to entertain my troops." He smiled at Jace. "Though I'm sure you're quite stimulating."
Jace smiled back. "I am," he said with a faint lick of his lips. "You should stop by and see my show sometime."
"Maybe on my way back. I'll gladly escort him if he's done by the time I'm ready to leave."
Jonus laughed. "Good, good. I'm sure Jace would appreciate the company. His friends were in Corinth last I heard." He looked at his youngest triplet. "You will comply?"
"Tonight if I have to," Jace said sullenly. "At least I can leave then."
His father nodded. "Good. General Forynth, go find someone who would like to bear for the army." The general got up and left them alone, after a short bow to his father. "We'll see if you're ready to leave in the morning."
Jace picked up his fork and mentally started preparing himself to do his duty. It would be worth it to leave his family for good. He ate a bite of the surprisingly good food, wondering who had managed to lock his mother out of the kitchen.
Joxer knelt down beside his bed, praying with all his might to the patron Goddess of Marriage. "Lady Hera," he whispered. "Please, help me. I know you are over marriages and you can stop any of them. Please, don't let me be married off by my family. If you do, I'd have to dishonor any vow I was forced to take. I would rather go live as some horrible hermit-like monster in the woods than marry whomever Father has picked for me. I'd rather die than marry someone who doesn't know and appreciate me. Please, hear me. I can't take this anymore and I just want to leave." He wiped his eyes and sat on the bed, pulling over the small plate of food. Downstairs, the party raged on and he knew it meant his time was coming closer.
Strife leaned on his Uncle's shoulder. "Jett and Terion may have just come up with the perfect idea," he told his Uncle, who hadn't found anyone better to marry Joxer to either. Ares looked up at him. "They're disowning Jace after he gives tha family at least one more child." That got a snort. "Whaddabout doin' that ta Joxer? Maybe demand that he breed for the temples?"
Ares shrugged Strife off him and thought about it, getting comfortable. "How was his earlier child?"
"Weak constitution but a willin' fighter," Strife reminded him, creating a picture of the small girl. "Picked up her first dagger at four and threatened her Ma with it if she ever fed her beans again."
Ares smiled and started to laugh. "At least it's interesting."
"And hey, we can always get one'a 'Pol's guys to come too. Joxer's more one'a theirs these days."
Ares slowly nodded. "Also a good idea, but I doubt Apollo would agree to it."
"Artie'd get him to," Strife offered. Artemis had wanted this standoff to end too.
Ares smiled and stood up. "Find out who. We'll need to get strong women to breed him too. If his warrior nature can be passed on, we'd best compensate for his weaknesses."
"He hit his head durin' his vowing," Strife reminded him. "You demanded he stay in your service." Ares glared at him. "What?" Strife asked, backing off. "You did. He fell and hit his head durin' his promisin' ceremony ta ya at the age of ten and now we're payin' for it. If ya'd let him go ta Apollo, none'a this woulda been goin' on."
Ares sighed. "Good point. I was going to let him go, but the Fates said to keep him." He ran a hand through his short hair. "They never told me why."
"Maybe it's because he breeds true," Strife suggested. "It'd be a help. You've got a temple that's fallin' behind."
Ares grunted. "Fine. Go find me some women. He'll do it or I'll let his father have him." He disappeared, going to tell his parents and Artemis that the problem area was solved without any destabilization.
Hera appeared in Ares' temple beside her son and the warrior at the door went running. "Are you sure?" she asked quietly. "He won't mind?"
"When he figures out this is the only way to save himself from a political marriage that will kill his whole family, and him? He shouldn't. If not, I can make him see sense. He will follow orders, he's very devout."
Jonus came running. "Lord Ares," he said, falling to his knees in front of him. "Lady Hera?" he asked, sounding surprised.
"I have looked in on the issue of your second son's marital state," Hera said formally. "Bring him here so I can pronounce my sentence."
Jonus looked behind. "Drag my son down here!" he ordered. "Don't keep her waiting!"
Carmanis walked in, bowing to Hera. "As you're both here, may we hold my vows now?"
Ares smiled at her. "You finally settled on someone?"
"Yes, his youngest son is quite what I wanted." She tugged Almandis and Terion's husband forward. "Also, I was given this man to finish his training."
Hera looked him over with a frown. "He's already married."
Terion walked in with Joxer. "He has broken our vows with my consent," she told the Goddess. "He can go to her with my blessings."
Hera nodded. "All right. I will do your vows after this." She looked at Joxer, who was on his knees before her, silently praying for her to kill him if he had to be married. "Joxer, son of Jonus, you will not be married." His father's mouth opened. "Hear me. The Fates have said that he will not marry now as it will kill his whole family, and him. Instead they have shown me many threads from his line." She smiled at him. "To Ares you are bound, so you will gift him with warriors."
Joxer swallowed, looking at Ares. "With whom, my Lord Ares?" he asked quietly.
Ares walked down and patted Joxer on the head. "Each year, you will come to my temple in Tians. It's a small temple near the southern coast. There will be at least three warriors for you to mate with. Until the Fates decide that you won't kill people by marrying someone, this is your sentence."
Jonus swallowed. He hadn't expected that. It would be an honor for his son to serve Ares in that way, but it might not look good on his family. "Lord Ares, will the children be sent back here? We'd gladly train them."
"It depends on who their mothers are," Ares told him. "All will know who their father is, and some may come looking for you, but I won't promise that any of them will come to you." He looked Jonus over. "Does that suit you and your ambitions?"
Jonus nodded quickly, there wasn't any other possible answer, he wasn't going to tell a God no. "Truly, my Lord Ares, it pleases me quite well. Joxer's reputation was quite a problem in finding him a mate." He glared at the back of his son's head. "If you will him to breed for you, then so be it. I'll give him money to travel to you each year and an escort if you will it."
Ares smirked. "No, I think his friends will be happy enough to do that. It'll keep them out of trouble." He looked at Terion, whose mouth was open. "You don't agree?" he asked mildly.
"No, Lord Ares, it's a brilliant plan. I'm sure his sons and daughters will make you proud. It was the choice of temples."
"He doesn't like cold either," Ares said with a smirk. "Just like you."
She blushed. "Lord Ares, as you're here, may I ask you for a boon?" The God of War waved a hand. "I would like your permission to court one of your priests. He's being coy and demanded that you had to give him your permission." She ran a hand over her stomach. "I would like to make him mine, with your favor."
Ares frowned as he walked back to his throne and sat down. "Which one?"
"The dark-haired one that just traveled through here. He refused me his name."
Ares raised one eyebrow. "Not him," he said finally. "I have one in mind for you. He'll do just as well. I'll send him this way soon." She nodded and stepped back. "Good. Carmanis? Step forward."
Joxer and his father quickly moved out of the way, Joxer blending into a shadow. He felt his arm be grabbed and jumped, but it was only Jett. "What?"
"You can't escape. I'll personally escort you to your *friends*." He got a nod from his father. "We'll send you out tomorrow." Joxer relaxed under his hand. "Baby," he sneered.
"You heard him, the Fates said I couldn't marry without killing all of you. Do you really hate our brothers and sisters that much?"
Jett shrugged. "They're human, they'll die sometime." He turned to face the throne as Carmanis and his brother kneeled before the Gods. "He'll be out of the way."
Joxer smiled, sniffing as his brother spoke his vows in a clear and firm voice. He wiped his eyes. "They make a good couple," he whispered. Jett sneered at him and moved away. As soon as the final words were spoken, Hera disappeared, and most everyone went back to the main house to celebrate.
"Joxer," Ares called.
Joxer walked back and knelt before him. "Yes, Lord Ares?"
"You owe me." He disappeared.
"Anything, Lord Ares," Joxer whispered. "Thank you. Anything I can do for you, all you have to do is tell me." He stood up and went to join the festivities. If he was allowed.
Hercules stood up as the door to the inn slammed open and Jett walked in. Obviously Jett because of the leather he was wearing. "You have a message?" he sneered.
"No, I have a present." He smirked down at Xena. "Time's up," he said sweetly. "We'll be meeting soon." He turned and waved Joxer in. "They're all here."
Joxer walked in, pushing his cloak hood back. "Hi, guys!" he said happily. "Hera said that if I married, everyone in my family would die." He pulled Xena up for a hug and whispered something in her ear. He smiled at Hercules, holding out a hand. His friend shook it.
"What do you have to do instead?" Iolaus asked.
"He has to breed for the family," Jett said happily. "He breeds true and he'll have people picked for him. Hera said so." He turned and walked away. "We'll be seeing each other soon, Xena."
Joxer sat down beside her. "Don't worry, he's going to escort my younger brother and his new wife back to her army. The Warlord Carmanis was really impressed with him."
Hercules sat down, staring at Joxer. "You have to breed?"
Joxer nodded. "It's a wonderful compromise," he said happily. "No one has to die and I only have to be there during a month in the winter."
Gabrielle looked faintly ill. "If you say so," she said finally.
Joxer smiled at him. "Trust me, it's much better than it could have been." He stood up. "Anyone want something to eat?"
"You don't want to do that," Iolaus warned him. "It's not the best food."
Joxer grinned even brighter. "My mother sent me away with a full pack of food. I'm willing to share." Gabrielle's eyes widened and she covered her mouth. "What's wrong with my mother's food?" he asked in his most hurt tone.
"It's a bit spicy," Xena said diplomatically.
Joxer waved a hand. "Nah, it's good for you. Our army marches on the stuff." He jogged out and came back with his saddle packs, both sets, and his backpack. "Here we are," he said, opening one of the bags. He pulled out a cloth bag, holding out the jerky. "It's rabbit," he offered.
Iolaus took a piece and nibbled carefully on it. "'S good," he said through the mouthful, grabbing Gabrielle's full ale to gulp. "They march with this?"
"Yeah, it helps toughen us up," Joxer explained with a fond smile. "None of us ever get sick or have stomach problems when we travel. There's nothing that will stop my family's army."
Hercules took a piece to take a small bite out of. He finished off his own ale and waved a hand in front of his mouth. "Maybe we should give some to Iphicles. I'm sure his army could use the toughening up."
"You'll have a small adjustment period," Joxer warned him, "but it eventually stops and you're fine again. Give it a month and the whole army won't be stopped by anything." He nibbled on a piece of the jerky himself. "Hey, she made it weak," he said with a frown. "She must think I'm getting weak."
Gabrielle looked at Xena. "No wonder he can eat anything and keep going."
Xena smothered her laughter. "Yes, I think it does explain some things." She took a piece of the jerky and tucked it into her pouch. "I'll eat it later."
"Want to come with me to Thian?"
"Near the seacoast?" Iolaus asked. Joxer nodded. He looked at Hercules. "Sound good to you?"
"Yes, it does," Hercules agreed. "I'd like to hear more about this forced breeding."
Joxer patted him on the arm. "It's okay. Father tested our virility when we were younger. My daughter was good until she caught a fever. My father was so proud when she threatened her mother over the amount of beans they were eating." He sniffed. "Now I'll have more and everyone will be safe. It's a good compromise," he repeated when Hercules didn't look impressed.
"It'll keep the area stable," Xena agreed. "No wars will come out of it."
Hercules continued to frown, but he dropped the subject. "Did your father give you a horse?"
"Yup, my very own warsteed," he said proudly. "Not as well trained as Terion's, but it likes me. It doesn't even try to bite me like the others did. It's very gentle."
Xena smiled. "I'd like to look over this horse later. I was very impressed with your sister's horse."
"Terion is his sister?" Iolaus asked. Everyone nodded. "Wow, she's becoming famous. A lot of warlords won't go against her." He looked at Xena. "She's coming up on your old reputation, Xena."
Xena shrugged. "She was quite tough. We nearly fought but she saw the stupidity of it."
Joxer tapped her on the arm, making her look at him. "Xena, if you attack my sister, I'm going to have to back her up. She is my sister after all," he said sadly. "Please don't try to fight my sister, she's much better than you think. She's been training since she was three. She tried to castrate Jett for picking on her when she was eight; Mother was so proud she gave Terion her very first horse and taught her how to train it." He grinned. "So please leave her alone."
Xena patted his hand. "I will unless she tries to attack us." She looked at Gabrielle, who was looking like she agreed. "Let's go look at this horse."
Joxer hopped up, tucking everything back into his packs as fast as he could. "You'll like her, she's really pretty." He led her out to the stables, showing off his pretty red, medium sized mare. "She's had a few colts so my father gave her to me. My mother trained her. She does all of our animals." He patted his mare's side, making her wiggle her hide. "She's very placid and calm."
Xena let the mare out, looking her over. "She's very finely conformed, Joxer. I'm sure she'll do you well." She put her back into the stall and stepped away, watching as she nibbled on the hay. "How old is she?"
"About ten. She's getting to retirement age, but she's still good for slow walking, which is what we do a lot of. Right?"
Xena nodded. "Definitely. Just don't rub Gabrielle's nose in it. She's been wanting a horse." She wrapped her arm around his shoulders. "Let's go inside. It's hot out here." She led him inside, watching as the mare watched them. "What's her name?"
"Strife's Daughter. My mother thought she had that sort of temperament when she was younger." He grinned. "Lord Strife was really pleased when he heard about her. Came to look her over and everything. He told my mother she was really great." He sat down again. "Even Ares was amused when he saw her in training. He laughed and agreed she was just like his nephew." He checked the knots on his bag then brought back out his rabbit jerky. "Are you guys sure you don't want some? It's really weak compared to how she usually makes it." No one took him up on it. "Okay, I guess that means I get to eat it all." He shrugged and started to nibble again. "So, who's going with me?"
"I think we all are," Xena told him. "I could use a small vacation and the seacoast sounds wonderful."
"Cool." Joxer smiled happily.
Strife rushed into Ares' temple, frowning at him. "I can't find anyone. Not once they heard who it is."
Ares looked up at him. "Well, I guess your daughter goes then, doesn't she?" Strife glared at her. "You offered the solution. I'll have a talk with some of the priestesses though." He went back to his reading. "We'll figure it out but have her standing by."
"Unc!" Strife whined.
"Your solution, you pay for it," he said simply, turning a page. "And go get the rooms ready."
"Yes, sir," Strife sighed, going to tell his daughter the bad news. She would laugh!
Joxer walked into the temple, smiling at the elderly priestess waiting on him. "Ares told me to come here," he explained. "I'm Joxer."
She smiled and pulled him toward a door behind the altar. "We've heard about you and your dilemma. The women are waiting."
"Women? More than one?"
"This time, to make sure that something takes," she agreed.
"Did anyone tell them that I'm a triplet? One of my brother's had twins."
She shrugged. "What will happen, will."
Joxer put his packs down in the corner of the room she led him to. "Is this my room or is everything going to happen in here?"
"No, this is your room. I thought you'd like a bath first. You'll meet the women tonight." She walked away, leaving him alone.
Joxer knelt to pray. "Thank you, Lord Ares, for this chance. I hope to live up to your expectations." He stood up and headed for the small basin of water, stripping off his shirt so he could bathe. He didn't want to disappoint the women by smelling like he had traveled for the last week.
Strife watched as Joxer made all the women laugh. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all? He caught his daughter's eye and she nodded. She'd take her turn first. He watched as she walked up to Joxer and nipped him on the neck, making him groan, then pulled him up to make him follow her. He listened in to make sure Joxer wasn't hurting his little girl, but her screams were only of pleasure and laughter. He finished his mug of wine and called for another one. He was sorry he had suggested it now.
Hera appeared in the temple the next morning, checking over the women. She smiled when she felt the children, saving her great-grandchild for last. "My, quite strong twins," she told Strife's daughter. Who passed out. "Strife?" she called. He flashed in immediately. "She's pregnant with twins." She smiled at the women she had noted. "There's six of them so far."
"How did he do five women since last night?" Ares asked as he appeared. He looked down at his grand-niece and sighed. "Is she okay?"
"She's fine, just shocked. She's carrying twins." Hera smiled at Joxer as he weaved out of his room, a woman slipping past him. She caught the woman, checking her too. "Seven," she announced.
"He's great," the woman said with a dreamy smile. "He actually told me a bedtime story." She bowed to her Lords then hurried off to the baths.
Ares shook his head. "At least it worked."
"It worked?" Joxer asked, smiling at Hera. "Good morning, Lady Hera. I didn't see you before. Please excuse my lack of a shirt."
Hera pinched his cheek. "Joxer, you are going to make me a very happy woman."
Joxer blushed and looked down at his unshod feet. "I'm flattered, but I don't think I should sleep with a married woman, Lady Hera. It would upset not only your rules, but your husband and I really don't want to die."
She laughed. "Not that way," she said, pinching his cheek again. "You've done very well creating new children to repopulate this temple, my boy. I'm very proud of you." She smiled at her son and disappeared.
Ares looked Joxer over. "How did you do six women last night?"
Joxer's blush got brighter. "I ate only my Mother's jerky for the last week and a half, Lord Ares. She always said it made us stronger and better." He ducked back into his room and came out with a small cloth bag. "There's a little bit left if you'd like to try some. It's weaker than she usually makes."
Strife and Ares both took a small piece to nibble on, and Ares quickly created a mug of water to drink and some bread to cool the heat. Strife grinned. "I like this," he announced. "I always knew your mother was neat." He finished his piece and the rest of Ares' piece, then looked down at his crotch. "She wasn't kidding!" he said when he noticed he was getting hard. "Man, this rocks! I gotta go try this out, I've never been this hard."
"I've got the recipe," Joxer offered.
"Yeah, Cupe'll want a copy of that," Strife said before he disappeared.
Ares finished off the bread. "Your family's whole army eats this?"
"Every day," Joxer agreed. "Only stronger. You have to adjust for about a week, but then nothing will stop you again. The whole army has laughed off food poisoning, lead poisoning, and even minor injuries because of my mother's jerky." He leaned closer. "That first week is really nasty, but if you live, it's great afterwards."
Ares' eyes got wider. "I bet it is." He cleared his throat. "I'd like that recipe too, Joxer. I think I can find a use for it." With the way his body was reacting, and Joxer's body was reacting, he could create a super army with that stuff. No one would ever stand in their way. And Aphrodite would leave him alone for a while too because they'd be horny forever! Even Hera would love the side effects. "Is there more than one recipe?"
Joxer shrugged. "I don't know. You'd have to go ask my mother. She learned the recipe from a spice trader from India." He grinned. "Xena, Gabrielle, and Hercules hated it."
Ares smirked. "Good." He flashed out. "Go rest!" he ordered. He appeared in front of Joxer's mother, giving her a smile as he wrapped his arm around her shoulders. "Your son just fed me some very interesting jerky," he told her, making her beam. "I'd like the recipes. If your army is any indication, all of Greece will become invincible within a few years." She hurried away to write down the recipes for him, planning on bragging to all the warlords. Especially her husband.
Joxer walked out of the temple a month later and ran into his little brother. "Hey, Jace," he said happily, giving him a hug. "How did you get out?"
"The same way you did," Jace said with a sniff. "I only had to create one though."
Joxer looked back at the temple, then at his brother. "Yeah, but I get the better job." He walked toward the stables where his horse was. "Where are you headed? I could travel with you for a while. Mom sent me more jerky."
Jace smiled, following behind him. "Of course you can! My troupe is just out of town. We're heading back toward Corinth to perform for the King."
"Cool. Maybe I'll run into Xena and Gabby again." He walked his horse out of her stall, grabbing his tack to put on her. "Yeah, we'll go for a long walk," he told her as he saddled her, getting it done and walking her around to see how she was. He tightened the girth again, then climbed up. "Want a lift?" he asked his brother.
"No, I can walk. It's not that far." He handed up the packs, helping his big brother hitch them to the saddle. "Did father give you your dowry too?"
Joxer shook his head. "Just some traveling stuff. A little money, some food, some clothes." He clicked and his horse started to slowly walk away. "Which way?"
"That way," Jace called, pointing the opposite direction. As Joxer walked past, he forced his way up, hugging his brother tightly. "I think I should ride," he told him. "Your mare is too fast."
"She's getting older," Joxer told him. "That's why I got her." He moved his mare a little faster, trotting past the temple. He waved at the older woman standing on the stairs. "She was really nice."
"I bet," Jace agreed. "How many did you sire?"
"A set of twins and nine others. Ares was going to talk to Artemis about some of her Amazons and their desire for daughters." He sat up proudly. "Do you think Jett's caught up with Xena yet?"
"No, he's playing with them," Jace told him. "Appearing and disappearing."
"Head games," Joxer said with fond remembrance. He remembered those lessons. They came up to the theater's camp and slowed down, letting Jace climb off first. "Do you need help setting up the kitchen?"
"No, they can't stand any of Mother's recipes," Jace told him, leading him to his cart. "Park her here and we'll go have tea." Joxer climbed off and followed him into the tent, closing the door behind them. "How did you know?"
Joxer grinned. "Jett, you forget, Jace has this really great accent when he's working." He hugged his brother anyway. "Still want me to travel with you? I can pretend to be Jace."
"He'd kill you." Jett sat down, letting Joxer take the comfortable pile of pillows. "Where are you going now?"
"I don't know. I was thinking about doing some leisurely traveling, or maybe running into one of my friends and going with them for a while, but I'm not sure where they are."
"Xena's in the mountains. Hercules is back near Corinth. Ares has been seen dancing around his main temple, happily laughing and scaring people. Some of his armies are dropping like flies, but the rest are getting much harder." He scratched his forehead. "I'm guessing Mother gave him her recipe."
"I suggested it," Joxer said proudly. "He wanted to know how I slept with seven women in that first night."
Jett snickered. "I bet. So, nine kids?"
"Nine and a set of twins. Hera congratulated me personally." Joxer reached for the pail of water, sipping gently at the ladle. "It's not such a horrible fate."
"No, it's not," Jett agreed. "Jace is off with his boyfriend. I'm relieving him so I can travel around and look for my next target. He's supposed to be a performer too."
Joxer shrugged. "I don't want to hear about it. That way I don't have to admit that I knew if someone finds out."
Jett smiled. "Good boy." He punched his brother on the arm. "What's Ares going to do with the kids?" Joxer shrugged.
Jonus looked up from his invalid chair as his daughter walked in with a skinny, shaking little creature. "Who're you?" he grumped.
"This is your grandchild, Father," Terion told her. "One of Joxer's line."
The girl whooped and pulled out a dagger, planting it in his chest. "From Father," she sneered as her grandfather died. "He said you deserved it for hurting Jett." She looked up at her aunt, straightening up to her full height. "Warlord Terion, are you going to pray to Ares in thanks or shall I call my Grandfather?"
Terion smiled down at the girl. "I like you," she declared. "Let's go pray together." She walked the girl out of the house, holding her up on the stairs. "My father is dead!" she announced. "You're my army now!" A cheer went up. She pointed at the temple. "We will hold a festival in Ares and Strife's name to celebrate for three days!" She walked her niece to the temple. "Which one are you?"
"I'm Arthusia. Strife's favorite daughter is my mother. I'm one of the first born." She skipped into the temple, walking right up to the altar. "I did it!" she called. Her grandfather appeared and gave her a hug. "I have a really neat family," she told her grandfather.
Strife grinned down at her, then over at Terion. "Yup, you sure do. And just wait until ya meet Jace." He winked at the new Warlord. "Ares is comin', be patient. Thanks for the party!" He took his grandchild away in a flash of light.
Ares looked over his new war force, smiling at the greatness he could see in them. Much greater than their father. Much greater than any member of their father's family. Much greater than even Xena, who he missed sometimes, even after two years. Jett's final present to him had been beautiful, he had returned her to her former glory before killing her. He looked across his Mighty Ones and felt some pride. Yes, this had been a wonderful idea. He looked at their father, who was wiping off an eye. "You're not proud?"
"I'm very proud," Joxer told him, turning to smile at him. "I never thought I'd see all my babies fighting together instead of with each other." He hugged Strife and his other daughter as they appeared. Strife and he had become more than friends and this was the only daughter who took after his brothers, both of them. "I love you guys!"
Ares nodded once, then disappeared to celebrate with his newest warlord. Strife looked out across the army, grinning at the solid soldiers they had created. "Yeah, you did good," he purred to his lover, who had latched onto his nipple. "Wanna reward?"
Joxer looked up with his naughtiest grin. "Reward? For what?"
"For makin' beautiful babies that make Unc happy. I haven't seen him smile this much since my munchkin here killed her first temple thief." He cuddled his granddaughter close. "You gonna give him some more?"
"Hera told me I should marry," Joxer told him, giving him puppy dog eyes. "She said I should keep you out of trouble and make Ares' happy for many more years."
Strife giggled. "I accept!" he said happily. "Unc! Joxer just asked ta marry me!"
Ares flashed back in. "Really?" Joxer nodded, still grinning. "As long as he does his duty, it's all good with me." He patted Joxer on the head. "We'll start a whole sect of your family. Jett's kids, your kids, Jace's three. In a few years, the world will be run by your family." He disappeared again.
Hera appeared, smiling at them. "I heard my nature mentioned?"
"Joxer asked and I accepted," Strife said happily. One of her eyebrows went up. "You don't like?"
"I do like," she corrected. "I thought he'd take more time." She pulled out a cup, a cord, and a knife. "Joxer, do you take this piece of mischief to be yours?"
"Definitely," Joxer agreed, grinning at his lover. "'Cause he keeps me outta trouble."
"Mischief, do you take your follower as yours?"
"Sure, 'cause he's always been mine." He nipped Joxer's nose. "We'll do it tagether from now on."
Hera handed over the cup, watching as Joxer drank it. She wrapped their hands with the cord and nicked their hands gently, watching as they bled into each other. "Good, you're married. Have a party." She took the cord and left, going to announce the short version of the ceremony.
Strife let his granddaughter go and took his new husband to do some celebrating of their own.
Three Hundred Years Later:
The next to last Mighty One laid her robes in the special chest with a sigh. "Ares, I'll do your bidding," she called. He appeared behind her, giving her a hug. "As you wish it, I will bear children to keep the sect going. Forever will there be Mighty Ones to do your dirty work."
"And to be the world's best assassins, and train whole armies, and even to make that special jerky," Ares rumbled happily. "But don't worry. You'll have some help." He turned her around, giving her a bright smile. He liked this one a lot. She amused him in ways he hadn't felt since Xena's betrayal. "We've managed to get your father back from Hades and he's agreed to restart his breeding once he's remade immortal." She shuddered. "Not with you, little one. You're mine." He gave her a squeeze. "You'll have to help with the brothers and sisters though."
"By the time they're old enough, we should have some more help," she said with a smile. "I'm already pregnant." He crushed her to him. "More Mighty Ones."
"For the future," Ares agreed. He'd never run out of worshipers, no matter what turns Fate created. Yes, the legacy would live on.