In 492 BCE an impromptu warrior unit was sent to prison by
an oligarchy court for a crime they didn't commit. These women promptly escaped
from a maximum security island prison fortress back to the Greek underground.
Today, still wanted by the oligarchy that imprisoned them, they survive as warriors
of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find
them, maybe you can hire...
"Unacceptable. This is absolutely unacceptable. As it stands, the Peloponnesian League is in a position to bring Athenian trade all around the peninsula to a near halt!"
"Or worse yet accept the clarion call of Persian gold and become a deadly starting point for a Persian invasion." A thin faced man with equally thinning hair glared around the little group clustered around a map. "We must break the League."
"How?" Aristophanes, nowhere near as creative as the dramatist of the same name, was one of the ten generals of Athens more through bribery than ability. The times were dark indeed when the greatest city in the world had to depend on the likes of him, Diomedes thought in disgust. Consciously keeping himself from dragging his fingers through his hair (he had decided that perhaps the habit was exacerbating his hair loss) Diomedes addressed his compatriots again.
"We send a small band of hoplites in secret out to the lands around Korinth. Disguise them in Spartan livery, then have them wipe out the nearest likely village. As long as they leave one survivor to report that Sparta is moving to take over the Dilonchos, the Peloponnesians will bleed themselves to death."
"The Spartans are a land power. They've never cared about having a navy before. Why would anybody there believe that story?" Phaedo, who came from the deme of Myrtillus looked up from his place.
"Certainly, no interest at all. Unless, of course, Persia pays for it..." Diomedes smiled, as faces suddenly cleared and eyes fixed on him. "Isn't it charming, how Persia moves to help us even as it claims to wish to destroy us?" The other nine generals eagerly fell to choosing out which deme should provide the hoplites, and Diomedes slipped out of the room.
"Not bad. I don't care much for weasel work, but this is all right." drawled Ares from where he sat in an alcove, throwing rotten olives at a statue of Athena in the opposite corner.
"What are you doing?" hissed Diomedes, rushing to clean the statue.
"Nothing. That isn't Athena anyway. And besides... if this gets a nice Peloponnesian war started, I help you become tyrant of Athens and you make me the city's patron deity. Athena's statue is besides the point."
"Which is all very well, but if we move too soon, then all of this will be for naught. I am no demagogue, and if the crowd ever caught wind that a general or someone close to a general was defiling a statue of Athena, there's no way I could undo the damage!" Diomedes hurriedly wiped down the statue and swept away the olives.
"Hmmm... don't know. Athens could use some rioting." yawned Ares, preparing to throw a fireball at the statue. He was preempted by the sound of the other generals beginning to leave the council room. "Lucky statue. Maybe later." he vanished in a splash of blue light.
The other generals found Diomedes alone, standing by Athena's statue, apparently deep in prayer. "You see? How can we doubt such a devout man?" Aristophanes asked his compatriots in a pointedly loud voice.
A faint yet paradoxically vigourous scratching emanated from a good-sized, comfortable cot on one side of a pleasant hut. The hut was round, with a domed roof, the traditional design in this part of the world. Speckles of light wended their way through the roof thatching, which would have to be redone before the autumn came. Two large windows provided the rest of the light in the space. A few trunks and cases were lined against the walls, holding mysterious junk, toiletries, books, or clothes. The exceptions were where the cot was, a small desk with a chair, a washtub, a small table for two, and a selection of screens and rugs that could be used to divide the space, stop draughts, or insulate a cold floor.
Regardless of the fact that there was a desk and it had a window right by it so the light was better, the woman on the cot persisted in working at her scroll stretched out on her stomach on the cot. Occasionally pausing to reload her pen with ink, she scribed down thoughts that other Amazons in the village wondered about. What were they? being the most obvious one. The other one was, would those thoughts make sense to anyone else?
Blowing her hair out of her eyes, Myrrhine paused and allowed her thoughts to track over to what she would say if anyone asked about her scrolls. Deciding that 'the wind is blowing northeast today' would be an unhelpful enough answer in that event, Myrrhine returned her attention to the scroll. The other Amazons would happily just give her scrolls and ink and things, but Myrrhine insisted on taking her fair share of the work. It was grudgingly acknowledged that she was a damn good worker with a real knack at horse training, despite being lame and bonkers. Pretty amazing for somebody so cracked, the head of the village guard would growl if asked. Little did they know, Myrrhine thought to herself, having wandered from the scroll topic again, chewing at the end of her quill.
A rap on the door lintel distracted her completely a candlemark later or so. Myrrhine blinked. "Who is it?" There was a slightly suspicious edge to her voice whenever someone came by, and her free hand crept down to a sword tucked underneath the edge of the cot. "It's Iphito, Myrrhine."
"Oh, okay!" Myrrhine hurriedly capped her ink and put aside the scroll and its accoutrements. She liked making time for Iphito. Iphito took her seriously. Half mashing down her tosseled hair, Myrrhine sat up crosslegged, revealing a sturdy linen shirt, loose breeches, bare feet, a vest full of oddments, and a pair of gentle, somewhat addled eyes. Her dirty blonde hair remained stubbornly askew.
Iphito stepped into the hut, carrying a tray with two steaming bowls, a pitcher, two mugs, a small loaf of bread, and a couple of spoons. "I thought ou might like some dinner." When Myrrhine didn't turn up at the food hut, it was typically a good idea to see if she had anything to eat at all. Noting that Myrrhine hadn't brought any apples for the horses that day, Iphito suspected that not only was the other woman disinclined to deal with lots of company, she had no food in her hut.
"That'd be great." Myrrhine smiled happily and bounced toward the small table, sweeping off an extraordinarily large collection of wooden logic puzzles. Carefully setting out the food and drink, Iphito considered how to approach the topic she needed to speak to Myrrhine about.
Unlike most of her compatriots, Iphito was quite sure that Myrrhine was not insane so much as eccentric. There was far too much method and skill in the things she did for madness to be playing a role. What was clear was that masquerading as a lunatic was keeping Myrrhine safe. When she had first arrived, hurt, fevered, babbling about a dark island and a sky paradise, two days behind her had arrived a bounty hunter from an Athenian colony.
"Twelve thousand oboloi if I bring her in alive, five thousand if dead. My employers are pretty sure she knows where the others are." He had spat in the general direction of the village healer, Otrere.
"I don't think you have much hope either way. She's not well... and we certainly won't let you kill her." The Amazons were putting up with the bounty hunter in hopes of learning something more about their mysterious and unexpected guest.
"You talk like I won't be taking her back with me either." the bounty hunter sneered.
"You won't." Otrere replied coldly. "Look around you." At which point the bounty hunter saw belatedly that everywhere he looked were armed to the teeth Amazons. "You try to lay a finger on her, and rest assured my people will gut you." As a general rule, Amazons deeply disliked and distrusted bounty hunters, who liked to kill and enslave Amazons whenever they had the chance. It was quite possible that this particular bounty hunter was a relative newcomer to the business, drawn by the size of the award, second only to the bounty on the warrior princess' head. Otherwise his willingness to march up to a bunch of Amazons and demand to see a sick and injured person they were caring for made no real sense.
A guard of three Amazons, one on each side and one behind with bared blades marched the bounty hunter into the hut where Myrrhine lay recovering. Her fever had broken late the night before, so she was only barely awake when they entered, fiddling clumsily with a logic puzzle. Occasionally she would stop and slowly, slowly raise the puzzle to her ear and shake it.
"Well, well, well. Look who's fooled all these idiot Amazons. Moonwolf Myrrhine." The trio guarding him, being as they could have beheaded him easily with a synchrinized flick of wrists, looked at each other in disbelief. This guy was so lunatic he should have been in a hospice. Worse yet his range of expression seemed to be limited to sneer or spit.
Myrrhine ignored him.
"Hey, you stupid or something? Where are your friends, huh? You know, those unnatural bitches who sleep with each other and act like men." He didn't seem to notice it when the Amazons surrounding him coolly raised their swords into a rather terrifying equilateral triangle pattern around his neck.
As if hearing him for the first time, Myrrhine glanced at him. "You smell bad." Which was true. "And you tell bad jokes." Which may have been true, but didn't quite fit the situation.
"That's enough crap from you. Where are your pervy friends?" Maybe the bounty hunter felt this was persuasive talk. He finally noticed the steel trap ready to snip off his head, and began to sweat.
"Hmmm... do you think I should move this one?" Myrrhine held up her puzzle, both hands wobbling uncontrollably. "No? Well, I do. You could try in the flying mat on Sparta if you were serious, I suppose."
"What? Flying Mat? A tavern is it? Wait, on Sparta?" The bounty hunter was visibly caught between excitement and bewilderment as well as three very sharp swords.
"No, no. Over there. See, that's the place." Myrrhine pointed to a large stirrup handled jar with a chunk of leather tied over it's top with a hunk of twine. The bounty hunter's mouth sagged open. "Bet you never knew that any old place could have its very own Sparta in it." the sick woman declared gravely, dropping the puzzle onto her chest.
"I did tell you she wasn't well." Otrere pointed out drily.
Contrary to what might be expected, Iphito was not the healer's assistant. Part time she was a scout, because it went with her work carefully choosing out horses for the village when it came time for it. Usually in a bad breeding season, when there were too few new foals to keep up with the needs of the village and its own small herd, that was when she picked out new horses. A healthy herd had to be a certain size.
Given Myrrhine's talent at horse training, she and Iphito worked together frequently. So on one hand, Iphito got to see Myrrhine when she was relaxed and unguarded, which was mainly when she chatted with the horses. On the other, Iphito saw the way the horses reacted to her. Not with the skittish unhappiness inspired by the dangerously disturbed or incorrigibly violent, nor the careful movements around the harmlessly bonkers like old Penelope, or the Goddess-touched like Antiope who at thirty seasons still couldn't live wholly independently.
That said, the horses certainly kept an eye out for Myrrhine. They were very good at reminding her to go for meals, or to go and get a decent cloak in cooler weather. One day, just before a storm, the alpha mare Urania had simply trotted off with the astonished Myrrhine still perched on her back, taking her all the way to her hut and insistently guiding Myrrhine toward the door until she went inside. Then and only then did Urania regally return to herd, leading it into their shelter just in time to avoid the first drops of rain.
Watching Myrrhine tear into the loaf of dark bread, humming happily, Iphito smiled herself and gave her stew a stir. "Myrrhine," she said quietly. Those gently addled greyish eyes fixed on her. "A message arrived from the border posts just before I came over here. There are three friends of yours who want to visit you, maybe take you to the Light Festival in Antioch."
"Friends of mine? Really? Gee. Which ones? It's not any of my sock puppets, I'm sure of it."
Every now and again Iphito felt just a touch unsure about Myrrhine. But when she glanced up, the telltale grin that the other woman always produced when pulling on her leg was evident, so she chuckled ruefully and replied, "Yes, friends of yours. I don't understand why they don't come to see you more often."
"Well, they don't live all that close to here. They write me lots of letters." Very true. They also sent Myrrhine blank scrolls and the occasional chit allowing her to pick up a cow at the nearest market town. As a result Myrrhine had a small dairy herd to her credit. Although, Myrrhine was pretty sure the people who had dropped a message at the border posts weren't actually her friends. Her friends would just come and get her.
"Okay," Iphito conceded the point. "Do you think you can handle a few days away from the village?"
"Sure, because I'll be with my friends." A bright, happy reply.
"And you realize Lyko the healer is going to have to vet all of this? If she doesn't think you should go or that your friends aren't safe for you, she'll keep you from going."
"No she won't. It doesn't matter what she thinks if I decide to go." Myrrhine declared stubbornly.
"But Myrrhine, the whole reason this is even an issue is because we all care about you, and we want you to be safe. These friends of yours were nowhere around when you showed up here." The toughest part was this; Myrrhine was fiercely protective of her friends.
"You don't understand. I got hurt, and they took huge risks so I could get away." Little did Iphito know they were talking about two different groups of people.
"How are we supposed to know that, Myrrhine? You've never told us anything about them. And its hard to know what to think when we're the ones who watch out for you here." Sighing unhappily, Iphito picked up the loaf.
"Don't you trust me?" Myrhinne asked in a small voice.
"Myrrhine, according to most people here, you are completely crazy and incapable of sound judgement."
"I'm not asking about them."
"That's not fair, and you know it."
"It's not fair that bounty hunters chase after me and my friends either." Iphito went utterly still. Everyone had assumed that Myrrhine hadn't been lucid enough to remember about the bunty hunter who had followed her to the village. "I'm crazy, not suicidal."
Gabrielle grimmaced in disgust. There were two choices. Sleep in the bush in the rain, getting disgustingly soggy. Or beg a night in somebody's barn in the village she was peering down at. Said village was perhaps one of the sorriest examples of its kind the bard had ever seen, and she came from Poteidaea. It had one, two, three... five pig sties. Two barns. And a scattering of bedraggled houses that made Gabrielle think of piles of kindling. Dirty black smoke emananted form several smoke holes. She couldn't call them chimneys. Behind her, Xena was leaning impatiently on Argo, rubbing at an ugly bruise just above the armour on her left knee.
"So?" the warrior sighed quietly. For her part, this was one of those rare times when anyplace that made it possible for her to avoid building a shelter was fine. She felt like an entire army had run her over. Probably she was just tired, but just in case there was more to it than that, she wanted them in a secure place. If memory served, the village below was basically an armpit, but there were two reasonable barns, actually pretty friendly people, and the place was unknown to most warlords.
"I do..." Gabrielle had stood up and turned around as she got ready to answer, and so caught a glimpse of her partner straightening up and pushing back an exhaustion that was bending her back and giving her normally olive features a sickly grey cast. "...do think we should just rent out one of those barns." She stated. The bard wanted very much to say, 'I absolutely hate the look of this place, let's go!' but that wasn't feasible.
They headed down into the narrow valley and its armpit village, greeting the first heavy drops of rain and the newest wind. A shepherd hurried down the lane behind them, and after stopping short in surprise, called down to them, "Oy, hang on!"
She ran nimbly down the rocky slope, leaping from spot to spot with the ease of long familiarity. "What do strangers like you want around here?"
"Just some shelter for the night. We're willing to pay our keep." Gabrielle answered.
"And what do you have to say then?" Casting a challenging eye on Xena even as she expertly corralled a sheep.
"Same as she just did. We're just travellers. The bridge is washed out back by the river, or we would have headed right past here and taken shelter in the mountains."
"Travellers with weapons and armour, no less." the shepherd commented drily. "Still, there's only two of you, I suppose."
"A wise traveller doesn't travel unarmed." Gabrielle pointed out.
"And a wise person doesn't travel." countered the shepherd.
"A person who never travels rarely becomes wise." They went on like this all the way down into the village, until Xena's head was aching and she felt slightly nauseous. Those last two probably had more to do with the need for a good meal, the warrior admitted to herself. But still.
At last Gabrielle had managed to wear the shepeherd down, especially with a broad hint that she and Xena might need quite a bit of food, and maybe some other supplies besides. "Well, come on then. My barn's the sturdiest one. No need to pay to stay in that, but we'll have to talk if you've got no food of your own. This place is a good one, but the life's still hard."
The barn was indeed the more sound of the two, its roof unbowed, clean, with two rather oldish donkeys to keep Argo company, although she looked unimpressed with their potential conversation skills. Moving easily into a long established routine, warrior and bard rapidly set out wet tack and gear to dry and put together a good sized pile of hay to place their sleeping furs on. Xena made several trips outside for rocks, then carefully wedged open a venting door in the roof. Satisfied she could put together a safe hearth, the warrior set herself to the task, discomforted at the shakiness of her hands.
Soon she and Gabrielle switched places, and while the bard went to work on a soup, Xena clambered stiffly out of her leathers. This was beyond tiredness now. No fever yet, but she'd have to take something. Setting out her kit, Xena began carefully sorting herbs, pausing to rub her eyes when they blurred and stung.
"Xena, could you hand me the..." Gabrielle stopped short. The taller woman had braced herself against Argo's saddle, and although at first glance she had seemed asleep, her eyes weren't closed properly. "Xena!"
The warrior roused herself with an effort. "What? Whatsa matter?"
"Why do we always have to go through this? Why don't you just say something when you're not feeling well?" scowling her frustration, Gabrielle glanced over Xena's herbs, and recognizing the combination finished composing the mixture and threw it in a mug with some hot water.
"Earlier today, we were near Korinth. We couldn't stop there, the local militia is on orders to shoot me on sight, and arrest you. Halfway here we couldn't stop because there was no shelter. A huge storm is coming, and you were already tired. How would me whining that I feel sick help anything?" Xena picked up the mug and scowled at it before choking down some of its contents.
"That's not the issue! The issue is commun..." The burgeoning argument was interrupted by voices just outside.
"And the Spartans said that if we didn't give them the money they'd burn the village."
"How are we supposed to pay them money we don't have? We don't even have Korinthian oboloi here! The most I have is an antique Kretan mina!"
"Why do they even care about us? We can barely eke out a living here."
"Ever since they built the ship road, the Korinthians have benn full of themselves. Maybe the Spartans are planning on cutting them back down." A fourth and final voice.
"We've got two ways to go besides stand by and let them burn us out." the first voice declared.
"Two? Like what, I'd like to know. Especially if it's Sparta coming around. Then I want to know how a stranger knows it and we don't, besides." snorted the third voice.
"Well you heard what Sune said... the warrior princess and her bard have wandered in here. Helping people's what they do now, folks say."
"Folks also say a three legged horse can pull a plough better than an ox! Maybe all you strangers brought those hoplites down on us." snapped the second voice.
"And if it turns out they don't help people, unless you can't sort out the difference between one and two, my cousin has friends as can help us. My cousin lives less than a day from here if I take the pass."
"Are you mad? The season is late, the pass isn't safe anymore... and these are Spartans, not some ordinary thugs."
"It's not safe here either... and I already told you, I'm certain those men weren't really Spartans. You all commented on their bad Greek and weird accents. Look, I'm willing to put myself on the line for us all here. What about you?"
A long, long silence. "There'll be no dealings with that warlord bitch by me. Nor will I try to pick a fight with Sparta. Our best chance is to let them come."
"And burn the place and probably kill us all? The Spartans don't take prisoners now, not siince the last Helot uprising."
"Seems better to fight somehow than get slaughtered like Sune's sheep." muttered the second voice.
"Be it on your own head then, you fools." the third voice said angrily.
A brisk knock on the barn door made it's three new occupants look up. "Shit." Gabrielle muttered. Xena had dozed off, and rather than interrupt something that was probably doing her friend a lot of good, the bard threw a blanket over her, then went to answer the door.
A grim faced woman stood on the other side, entirely against Gabrielle's expectations. Her voice was so gravelly Gabrielle had felt certain that all of the speakers had been men. "Weren't expecting to see the likes of me, I'll warrant." The other woman smiled.
"No." Gabrielle agreed truthfully. "Please come and have a seat by the fire."
Watching the gold haired woman thoughtfully, Chelone gave the situation another once over. From what Sune had said, the taller woman was mightily peaked, and about ready to fall down. And sure enough, the women was sprawled out on a bed of hay and furs, covered in a somewhat tattered blanket, sleeping restlessly. There'd be a fever for her before all was said and done.
"Looks to me like I'll have to chase down my cousin. I know you heard us. Dragged the conversation down there for a reason. Save some talk."
"Yeah," Gabrielle agreed softly. "But we'll both do as much for you as we can." Giving the simmering soup a stir, she added, "The others didn't seem too impressed with you."
"I came here just at the start of the planting season. They don't take kindly to strangers in a place like this. Been doing my best, but probably I'll move on in the spring. Getting old for it I am, but that's the way it is, every now and again." The woman chewed her lip and stared moodily into the flames, lips twitching oddly. "Name's Chelone, by the way."
Gabrielle grinned. "Not a very apt name at all! My name's Gabrielle."
"And yours is foreign as foreign can be... it's all very well to have a name like mine. 'Turtle' in good Greek! But unless I'm going daft in my dotage, your name comes from the people who live out between the rivers north of Egypt."
The bard's eyes sharpened. Who was this woman? She had only just learnt about that herself. The only others beside her and Xena who knew about the origins of her name were... no, there was no way this woman had anything to do with them. To old, for a start. "That's right... how..."
"Tell Xena, when she wakes up, that her luck is as amazing as always. The rest of the X-Team will be here the day after tomorrow." Then Chelone winked one eye, surprisingly clear for one so old.
Before Gabrielle could reply, Chelone had left the barn.
Today was a day of rest, so Myrrhine was sprawled on her cot, happily working on the latest logic puzzle. This one had a little ball in it, and the key was to figure out what things to move so that it could fall right out of the little wooden construction it was trapped in. A thoroughly fiendish task that Myrrhine was enjoying immensely. Her enjoyment was interrupted by a sharp hiss from the window by the clothes press. "What?" Myrrhine asked irritably without taking her eyes from the puzzle. "No laundry gets done until tomorrow."
"Quit talking to your dirty clothes and come on! We've got a job to do, Moonwolf." Chelone hissed.
"I thought you said we were finished." Myrrhine stopped poking at the puzzle and her hands stilled. "The last job went uber bad... I can't run properly anymore, not even in the Moon times."
"I know I said that, Moonwolf. But I've never claimed to be infallible. The village I've been staying in really needs our help. The colonel's there but she's sick, too sick to fight off the hoplites poking around the Dilonchos. BA is there, too. She's going to need more support than those villagers can give her."
"Why, what army or hoplites or whatever is poking around the Di-whatsis?" Myrrhine was only asking to keep Chelone around. For some reason Chelone wouldn't live in the village, instead every time the question came up she'd send Myrrhine rights to another cow. It was getting ridiculous.
"I haven't let on to the villagers... but the army looks like an Athenian hoplite group in bad immitation Spartan gear. They may be trying to break up the Peloponnesian League."
"We can't let them wipe out that village, Moonwolf. And right now, BA and the colonel won't have much chance either."
Myrrhine stopped messing with the puzzle and sighed. "I don't want to be gone too long, Iphito will worry about me. And I don't want to mess things up... it's nice here. Whenever I go to a hospice they make me stay in bed and won't let anyone talk to me. Worse yet, they take away my puzzles and my sock puppets."
"Three days, just three days, Myrrhine." Chelone was working all the angles she could now. Using a birth name instead of a nickname usually made a big impression.
"Two, and my sock puppets come too." Chelone smiled. That meant there'd be a price later, but the colonel would ante up for her.
Regardless of her limp, Myrrhine could still move silently enough for the sound of the wind to cover her steps, and for that Chelone was profoundly grateful. She knew all too well that the fact she had made it by the sentries one way was pure luck to start with. Well, that, a little sweet talk, and a nice sleeping draught that should be wearing off any moment. Now it was up to Myrrhine to get them to the pass and down to the village where the rest of the team was. They had reached the first boundary marker before Myrrhine asked, "Do BA and the colonel know we're coming?"
"Sort of. I was in disguise, Gabrielle didn't really recognize me. The colonel was asleep." Chelone had rinsed the grey colouring out of her hair and the make up off her face. The quince juice she used to help make her voice unrecognizable hadn't quite released her vocal cords yet.
"Wait, which pass did you come here by?"
"North." Chelone held her breath.
"North." Myrrhine said flatly. "Towards the city we helped fend off a Persian invasion, only to be charged with being traitors and sent out to Shark Island?" That was why the Di-whatsis sounded familiar.
"Yeah, but this village isn't Korinth."
"I'm only doing this for the colonel." Raising one of her hands, clothed in Spike the sock puppet, she added in a squeaky voice, "Yeah, that goes for us sock puppets, too!"
"How would she know about the X-Team, that's what I want to know!" Gabrielle burst out. Her partner still looked washed out and ill, but the day and a half of rest had done her a world of good. Xena was working over yet another bowl of soup now, and she picked out a piece of carrot before answering.
"She knows as much as we do, Gabrielle. That was Opa."
"Excuse me? Xena, that women sounded like a man, and she was way too old."
"Opa has a nasty mixture she uses to help make her voice sound like that. And I asked her to keep an eye on things around here whenever she could. When you told me what she said about the planting season, that's when I knew for sure." The warrior grinned. "A place like this won't stand for extra people unless it's the harvest season... that is, now. Opa always was a total city dweller."
"Hmmph." Gabrielle drew patterns in the dregs of her soup for a few moments. "Do you think Myrrhine is okay?"
"Moonwolf? Yeah. She was the best horse rustler a warlord could ask for, especially because she could hold her own whenever and wherever she needed to." The last time either woman had seen Myrrhine, she was lurching off through a break in the ranks of a squad of bounty hunters, one of her legs shattered but bound up in a rough splint, and an ugly wound in one shoulder.
"I guess." The bard was unhappy with life in general at the moment. The whole reason for taking refuge in a draughty barn was to avoid getting soaked. But Xena's feverish illness had led to the bard suffering a soaking every time a fever broke and two miserable night's sleep besides. Worse yet, her attempts to make a replacement for their miserably tattered balnket was looking a touch... holey. Twelve different versions were scattered around the barn, only the last two made of something other than twine. There was actually a good reason for this, that being Gabrielle wasn't exactly an expert weaver so she had tried tp practise first. Unfortunately the last examples were far too spider webby to retain warmth.
Daylight was struggling pallidly through the venting door in the roof on the second day after Xena and Gabrielle's arrival before Chelone and Myrrhine limped into the village. Wasting no time, they headed straight for the barn. Chelone kept looking around nervously, as she didn't want to run into the shepherd just yet. In order to pay for some needed new boots, she had made off with a couple of the other woman's sheep.
For their part, Xena and Gabrielle were curled up in their bedding. Finally defeated by the decrepit blanket, they had rearranged the bed and used one of the furs for a blanket that night.
When the barn door creaked open, Xena had her chakram in one hand and her sword in the other with the bard stuck squarely on the middle of her chest, which admittedly could have been a problem in a real emergency. As it was Chelone hurriedly put up both hands and Myrrhine held up her sock puppets a little higher. They were having a three way conversation in order to decide what to have for breakfast.
"How about you stoke the fire while Gabrielle and I get up?" Xena suggested as she let her weapons drop back into the hay.
"I am NOT getting up. Morning will just have to start some time in the afternoon." growled the bard.
"Uh huh." drawled Xena, before she yanked off the fur, wrapped it around herself, and headed for the water trough.
"Hey!" bawled the bard, who was naked and now quite chagrined.
"Now you two, you're far too young to be seeing such things." Myrrhine admonished her sock puppets, tucking her hands under her arms.
"Oh I don't believe it! Not the sock puppets again! This is almost as bad as the time you ran around pretending to be a dog! Isn't it enough that once every Moon you turn into a wolf?!" Gabrielle stood up straight and put her hands on her hips.
Xena stopped short in the process of rinsing off. The morning's energy burst was already almost gone, and the warrior could feel the ugly lethargy from whatever illness had caught her creeping up her limbs. "Ah, Gabrielle, when you're finished flashing everyone, could you come and help me with these?" She pointed toward her leathers even as she struggled to get properly cleaned up.
Breakfast consisted of dried meat and somewhat oldish cheese. Chelone was disappointed, but Myrrhine ate ravenously, alternating hands so that she wouldn't be spending unequal amounts of time with each of her sock puppets. So it was that the whole Athenians masquerading as Spartans quite badly had been gone through and plans under discussion before Myrrhine got addressed directly.
"Are you listening?" Gabrielle asked her bluntly.
"Sure. So were Spike and Milligan. Oh, wait, you haven't met Milligan yet. Milligan is a bit stuck up, but it's not her fault. Silk from Chin, you know." Myrrhine raised the rather tattered silk sock and was about to envoice it when the bard seizd her by one ear. "Oww! Oww! Hey, do I look like Joxer to you?"
They adjourned to the edge of the village where Gabrielle finally released Myrrhine's ear. Spike the sock puppet promptly threatened to bite her on the ear in retaliation. Things were getting rapidly out of hand when Xena interrupted. "A hoplite group... fifty, a hundred?"
"Probably fifty this far from home. No way for us to use the stampeding animal trick. Not enough sheep." Myrrhine peered up the road, oblivious to the mystified villagers who had gathered around with thoroughly unfriendly looks on their faces. "The Hydra! What about the Hydra?" Peering intently at Milligan the sock puppet, who had made this suggestion, Myrrhine nodded gravely.
"Oh Hades." muttered Opa alias Chelone, looking around uncomfortably at the villagers, who seemed quite disturbed by this disheveled woman talking to her own hands.
"The Hydra would work pretty well. Not perfectly, we'd need to collect the ammunition from outside of the valley. Means we'll have to convince the villagers to help us at least a little."
"Now you say this, after you've convinced them all that you're completely nuts!" Gabrielle burst out. Between a poor night's sleep, a frugal breakfast, the fact she hadn't recognized Opa two nights ago, and how ill her partner still looked, Bad Attitude was definitely an appropriate nickname for the frazzled bard. Myrrhine had applied the nickname to her in retaliation for the bard's impatience with her sock puppets during the Persian seige of Korinth however, so it didn't necessarily refer to the bard's ill will towards waking up in the morning.
It was taking some effort to bring the villagers on side, not least because Chelone aka Opa had fibbed about how far away her 'cousin' lived, and the whole old woman disguise versus young woman reality. She finally had to take a draught of her nasty quince juice to prove her identity. Well, calling it 'some effort' may be underrepresenting it a little. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as analogous to pulling teeth from a chicken, until a tightly bunched band of hoplites marched into the valley mouth, sealing off the village.
Forming up into a shield wall, swords drawn, with about ten men standing ready with arrows ready to be lit and fired, all arguments and efforts at persuasion stopped. The hoplite leader strode forward, pausing once to rub a speck off of his shiny breastplate. "So?" he shouted. "Where's the money?" In rather oddly accented Doric Greek, which was the sort of Greek people spoke in the Peloponnese at the time.
"We've already told you, we haven't got any. Best we can do is some sheep and a few bushels of wheat." Voice number three from two nights before, which belonged to a giant, bow-legged man. The villagers weren't happy with having to ally themselves with strangers, but they were solid folk at heart. Several cloaks had been offered up so that the X-Team vanished into the small crowd.
"It will do you no good to lie." the leader said in a bored tone. Great Athena he was sick of this whole thing. Why the general had insisted they go through this charade instead of just burning this pitiful excuse for a village and catching an Athenian merchanter at the other end of the Dilonchos... a sort of overland portage for ships... they were hoping the end of the Peloponnesian League would give Athens control over was beyond him. "We'll be back tomorrow at the crack of dawn. Either the money gets left at the mouth of this miserable crack you have the gall to refer to as a valley, or we burn the villages and smoke your carcasses in the ruins." Having put in his most creative speech of the entire proceedings... which was in Attic Greek, utterly blowing his cover... he gestured sharply to the other hoplites, and they marched off.
"Well," Voice Number Three declared in disgust. "Looks like you're all we've got. And you were right." This directed at Opa, who tried not to look too stuck up about it all.
"So what's the Hydra?" Gabrielle asked her exhausted partner.
"A three headed attack." Xena mumbled. "Moonwolf and Opa can explain it. It'd be best of Opa works on building things and you talk people into helping with supplies. Opa's already given herself a bad name for taking off with sheep."
"Now BA, it's not what it sounds like," Opa blurted hurriedly when Gabrielle looked over at her with both eyebrows raised so high they looked ready to escape her forehead.
Xena drew herself together with an effort. "Enough! We need to use the Hydra. What have we got to work with?" The four women looked around the barn. For once, Myrrhine forgot about her sock puppets. A major part of the reason the shepherd's barn was well taken care of was because it was a sort of communal wood store. Pieces of several wagons including their wheels crouched in one corner. Ancient tack and several coils of rope hung from a selection of hooks. Rusty but still usable wood working tools lay scattered across the one decrepit part of the barn, a shocked looking work bench. The impromptu hearth was evidence enough of the rocks available close to hand. Opa picked up one of Gabrielle's nets, "I like it, I like it. Think you can make some more of these, BA?" She turned to Xena. "It's only two kinds of ammunition, but our best bet is to prevent those hoplites from sealing off the village or getting close enough to easily set it alight."
The warrior grinned and shut her eyes. "We just need to make sure the villagers soak down the rooves and walls before dawn."
Only a half candlemark nap later and Xena had joined her partner in making nets, even as Opa and Myrrhine concentrated on putting together two of the shattered carts from the corner. Their work soon advanced to adding a thoroughly peculiar three pronged device to it, producing another argument as Gabrielle asked if Myrrhine was being allowed to design whatever the thing was.
Almost every villager had poked their head in the door or dropped off more wood, or rope, or twine. "I don't know about this." Voice Number Three muttered as he surrendered a large bunch of springy willow branches he had originally been drying to reroof his house. "We're doomed." Sune declared in a depressed tone.
For her part, Myrrhine had left the others to put the Hydra in position while she got the villagers to start the process of soaking down their buildings. Spike was a much more persuasive sock puppet than Milligan who actually preferred to tell jokes without punchlines, she assured the villagers, "So she'll explain." The resulting bucket brigade passed mutinous mutters about being ordered around by a crazy woman with the water, but Myrrhine was completely distracted by something else. The local water source was a two branched stream. One branch ran freely, providing drinking and washing water. The other had been blocked by a rock slide. In time the village would probably be swallowed by the growing swamp if the blocked water or human effort didn't make a new outlet. Myrrhine happily stuck an arm into the stagnant water up to an elbow and hauled out a handful of smelly, rotten vegetation. "Looks pretty good to me. What do you think, Spike?" Spike was the sock puppet currently on the hand holding the muck.
"Bleech!!!" declared Spike.
The village greeted the first shimmerings of dawn with stony silence. Villagers were arranged in all sorts of strategic places, ready to douse flames or hand down baskets of rocks. They waited with baited, nervous breath.
The hoplites gathered into position at the mouth of the valley, looking thoroughly bored with the whole business. The leader was ordering them into position but not to maintain their immitation Spartan accents or even attempt to speak Doric Greek. "It hardly matters. We won't be leaving any of them alive." As the Sun rose waveringly above the treetops, most of the hoplites charged, leaving the few with some skill in the bow to fire burning arrows into the village. They were rather poor shots, but fire was a deadly enemy in any settlement.
Letting the first few arrows fall, Xena signalled the villagers too young, too old, or sick like herself to put up a hail of yells and apparently alarmed shouts. Cries of 'Oh no! Fire!' and the like. Putting aside caution, the rest of the hoplites dropped their bows and went to joint their comrades.
And so they got a very short glimpse of the first shots from the Hydra, a three headed catapault, while those ahead were mainly bashed with flying rocks or tangled in weighted nets. The resulting logjam allowed the catapault to be reloaded, but the reason for three types of ammunition being desirable now became clear.
"Get those shields up!" shrieked the hoplite leader as the the laggers hurriedly cut comrades loose of nets and stepped over those who had actually been knocked out. This left nearly a hundred hoplites to bear down on the village.
"Oh, great." muttered Opa. "That worked well. Let's get this thing moving!" Villagers and the three village oxen went to work dragging the Hydra back to allow it to rain more trouble on the hoplites. Opa scolwed nervously. "If they get too close, we've had it, this thing will be useless." She looked up, and noticed Myrrhine, apparently tipping buckets of water into one of the Hydra heads. "Myrrhine, get off of there, and stop trying to wash the weapons! It can wait until after the battle!" Replacing Spike and Milligan on her hands first, Myrrhine hopped down, not at all preturbed.
Opa spun around, and was horrified to see that there was no time left to lose. "Fire!" she bellowed.
"What? We're not in position!" shouted Sune.
"Do it anyway!" bawled Opa. The Hydra wasn't braced to keep it from bouncing either, as it would have been had they had all the time they needed. The tension was released off the springy willow springs, and the arms hurled themselves forward, then the entire thing sprang horrifically in the air. Not too high, but high enough to be dangerous, so the villagers and the rest of the X-Team were too preoccupied to see not rocks, not nets, but green, smelly goop splattering all over the oncoming hoplites.
A good number of them had been screaming on their way in, so they received an unpleasant mouthful. Others were blinded or just plain grossed out, struck near nauseous by the dreadful smell of the stringy slime that had hit them. The result was chaos as hoplites blindly ploughed into each other or slipped in the stuff that had hit the ground.
"Now, get up and take a round out of them!" Xena called as loudly as she coud. This wasn't loud, but Gabrielle understood, and rounding up the others, led the grim faced villagers into the fray.
"I'll make a point of finding you in Tartarus, Opa!" Voice Number Three hissed, before moving to make cruel use of his pitch fork.
On their part, the Athenians hadn't expected any real resistance. Or gross stuff to fall from the sky. Or to be roundly cursed and hear various plagues get called down on Athens... luckily no deity tends to take those sort of calls seriously, mostly because they'd have to cause about a thousand plagues simultaneously constantly. Too much work and outside of the union contract, according to Zeus.
Seeing their leader fall under a hail of angry blows from buckets and boards let alone hoes and other more vaguely weaponlike things, the rest of the men simply began to retreat from the scene. By a quirk, there just happened to be an Athenian merchanter ready for them on the east side of the Korinthian isthmus.
Diomedes swallowed uncomfortably. It was all very well to convince the generals in a small back room. It was quite another to deal with the Athenian city council, when the sacrifice to Athena had just gone very badly. Worse yet, the high priest had come running from the Parthenon in a panic. Apparently the sacred snake had refused to eat. If he was lucky, Diomedes figured, he'd manage to get exiled rather than torn to bits by the simmering crowd outside the council building.
"Well, I've never been so glad to be so wrong." Sune declared happily as she walked with the X-Team out of the valley along with her numerous sheep.
"...I remember when it all started. At the time I was asleep in my electrified elephant hammock, when through the pigeon hole flew a carrier pigeon. There was something strapped to its leg - it was a postman." declared Spike.
"Okay, now pretty soon you need to say this: The letter was written in a disguised voice. Hurriedly strapping on a fresh pigeon I flew out of the window..." interposed Milligan.
Xena watched Myrrhine with a wry smile on her face. "So how close are you?"
"To finished? With this one? Pretty near. In fact totally. Here, the three of us will tell you the story, it goes like this..."
"Excuse me? Xena? You are going to encourage Myrrhine and her sock puppets?" Gabrielle snapped tartly.
"Why not? I humour you when you want to tell stories don't I?"
"Whoops..." Opa winced. "Slight miscue there, colonel." Something dangerously reminiscent of steam was coming out of Gabrielle's ears.
"Maybe." Xena agreed uncomfortably.
"You silly twisted boy, you. Pull up a chair!" Myrrhine sang out happily. "Thus quoth Milligan," she added, interrupting Gabrielle's tantrum. The bard glared at her. "Not the ears." Myrrhine said hurriedly when the bard began to move towards her. "And the sock puppets are sacrosanct!"
"I'll show you sacrosanct, give me those!" Gabrielle shot back, diving at her.
- The End
All Spike Milligan quotes from 'The Whistling Spy Enigma' transcript at Goon Show Analysis. (But don't bother with the psychology stuff, I didn't.)
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