A Xena Stroll
(Or, A Little Indigestion Goes a Long Way)
by Anon 2
Premise 1 Winner
"And stay out!" The tavern keeper yelled over Xena's shoulder as she ejected the unruly drunk who had interrupted the meal she had been sharing with Gabrielle. He yelled just as if he'd been the one doing the chuckinglong overdue, in Xena's opinion.
"You're welcome," she said, turning and lifting an eyebrow at the man.
"Oh. Right. Er, thank you, uh"
"Xena." She supplied.
"Thank you, Xena. Th-the meals are on the house." He stuttered as she gave him a look. "A-a-and th-the drinks, too," he added, mopping his brow with a towel.
"Wait, you're Xena?" one of the other patrons, a trader, looked up from his spanicopita and stood up in a sudden shower of crumbs from the flaky pastry.
"Last time I looked," The Warrior Princess agreed laconically as she strolled back to her seat at the table.
"I have a message for you," the trader said. He rummaged in his pack, bringing up first a wad of pink fabric, then a glass egg, quickly followed by a pair of leather pants, not quite two dozen pairs of baby booties, a pair of suspenders, and at last a tattered and worn piece of parchment, hardly recognizable for the fuzz of lint that clung to it. It had been wrapped many times with a red ribbon and tied in firm knot. The warrior scraped it clean and cut the knot with her breast dagger. Once opened, the scroll sported several grease spots, and had obviously been folded and crumpled numerous times, but it was still legiblemostly.
"It looks like it's been in your pack for a while," Gabrielle commented.
"Oh, er, yes," The trader said. "I've been carrying it around for well, a long time. Is it important?"
"It's addressed to both of us," Xena said as she looked it over. "Here, you read it."
"Dear Xena and Gabrielle," the letter began.
"A passing Amazon tells me that you are really alive. Through an odd set of circumstances, I am also, although I was already an old man when you knew me. It isn't something I enjoyin fact it's worse than my fear of small spaces ever was. Please visit Northopolis at the earliest opportunity, I need your help. The situation is so dire that I hardly know how to manage from day to day. I can't write more for fear of censorship, but please, please, we need your help. I'm sneaking this message out with one of the traders, I hope he can find you soon.
"Yeah, I'd say it was important," Gabrielle added with some sarcasm.
"And how long have you had this in your pack?" Xena raged at the trader
"Don't blame me! I never even knew it was in there for monthsit was buried down deep under a shipment of toys from the workshop."
Senticles workshop. They make toys; it's Northopolis biggest export. When I found it, I kept an eye out for you would you rather I hadn't given it to you at all?"
"No, no, we're happy you remembered. Thank you for not losing it in all your travels," Gabrielle jumped in soothingly.
"You're welcome," the trader said, mollified. Gathering his dignity he added, "So ladies, can I interest you in any of my fine merchandise? Perhaps you might be needing a couple of these one day?" He held up a pair of baby booties. "Or perhaps something to er, hold up your, uh, scabbard?" He tried to imagine Xena's sword held up by rainbow suspenders and even his salesmanship faltered. "Perhaps not. But maybe you'd like fabric for a new nightie? Every girl needs something a little diaphanous once in a while. Something to entice that special someone What do you say?" He tried and failed to interpret the looks between the two women. The shorter one grimaced and turned away, while the taller ones eyes teared a little. Sensing he was losing them, he picked up the egg. It had a faint design of evergreens painted on one side. "Now this is a practical thing for any householdput it under the hen when you rob the eggs and she stays happy, or use it to darn your hubby's socks and " He was losing ground again, and was just about to change tactics when the door of the inn burst open with a crash.
Eight brigands, led by the irate drunk, descended on them with a roar. Xena and Gabrielle charged into the melee and soon all were subdued and groaning in a corner. Xena finished tying up one of the drunks with the suspenders, giving the brightly colored fabric a snap to check it.
"Not bad," she commented. "Eight drunks in less than five minutes."
"We've been doing this a long time, Xena"
"True. I wonder if the trader will mind my using his suspenders on this trash?"
But when they scanned the room the trader had disappeared, ducking out when the fight began. Only a spill of merchandise beneath an overturned table marked his presence.
"He left his pack," Gabrielle was saying to the Innkeeper, as they began to put the room back to rights.
Xena was supervising the constables who came to claim the ruffians and haul them off to jail. When they put on the chains she reclaimed the suspenders, holding them up against her leather battle-dress. "Maybe I could use something a little brighter," she thought. " Something that doesn't always remind Gabrielle of killing and death. She's been so angry lately, so cold. I know she doesn't feel the same since our last fight. But maybe I can fix it. I think I'll buy these off the guy when he comes back." She sauntered over to the pile of belongings and carefully folded the bright suspenders back into their original neat shape, adding them to the pack. "This is his too," she said as the landlord made ready to tie up the bag.
"I'll give it to him in the morning," the landlord agreed, stowing the re-packed luggage behind the bar.
As they retired for the night, Xena sighed inwardly. They hadn't slept together since Gabrielle's birthday, which had begun with some confusion over the helmet of Hermes, and then looked up when she'd given her partner the Sappho scroll with the poem she'd commissioned. Then they'd taken off into the sunset for a romantic dinner on the island of Corfu. Everything had seemed perfect, just as Xena had planned itthe sunset, the best restaurant, with the small balcony overlooking the sea, the bouquet of daisies decorating the table, the wine, the dinnerbut somehow they had been served the wrong kind of mushrooms.
They'd both been hideously sick, but worse, they'd had terrible dreams. Dreams moreover which they'd both shared. And much as Xena tried to convince Gabrielle that she had never married Caesar, been in love with a conniving little geisha tramp, or stayed dead and left Gabrielle to carry on the battle for the greater good alone, the dreams had been so vivid she wasn't really sure herself. Gabrielle hadn't been the same since; sometimes she could hardly look at Xena without either bursting into tears or growling with ill-suppressed rage, or both. Neither one of them knew what the dreams meant, and Xena's suggestion that simple indigestion could have caused it all had been rejected out of hand. Xena hoped the oracle at Delphi would be able to help them. But in the meanwhile, another apology couldn't hurt. She sidled over to the other bed.
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry.'
"It's okay, Xena. I just didn't think 'many happy returns' meant the same as throwing up repeatedly."
"I've never seen quite that color purple before."
"I'm really tired, Xena."
"So lets just get some sleep okay?"
"Okay." Xena's shoulders slumped, and she turned for the other bed. She didn't notice the tears in Gabrielle's eyes; she was too busy trying to control her own.
The next morning they got up and made ready to go. As they were packing the saddlebags, the innkeeper came up to them.
"I understand you two are travelling in the direction of Northopolis."
"We were on our way to Delphi."
"But we can't ignore Senticles letter, Xena. It doesn't matter how old it was. We have to go to Northopolis."
"Then perhaps you could take this pack with you?" The Innkeeper butted in. "The Trader seems to have left early and forgotten his bag. If you could return it to him ? I know he was heading back to Northopolis It's his regular route. It's a small bag, hardly weighs a thing." Two sets of eyes glared at him. "So perhaps you could return it to him?"
"Sure, why not? I was kinda partial to those suspenders" Xena shrugged.
"Xena " Gabrielle chided.
"Well sheesh, I could buy them off him when we find him. Or maybe he could make a gift of them, since we're having the trouble of taking extra luggage."
"Do what you want. You will anyway."
Xena sighed under her breath. Gabrielle was still depressed. Xena would almost have preferred her cranky to this hopeless acquiescence. It had depressed her yesterday, the day before yesterday, and today wasn't going to be any different. It promised to be a long trip.
* * *
"Xena, are you sure this is a good idea?" Gabrielle paused on the brow of a snow-covered hill, surveying the villagemore a town, reallyof Northopolis laid out before them. Not only had it grown at least six times its original size in the decades since they'd first visited, but it appeared to be in the midst of a severe cold snap.
"Sure it is." Xena's breath hung in clouds above Argo II's back. "We ride in, help Senticles, and be on our way. Probably no one will even recognize us. Don't you want to see your old friend? Remember the last time we were here?"
"I remember. It was part of my campaign to get you to stop using violence as a solution for everything. We played a bunch of silly charades and ended up whacking a few heads anyway. Heras' teeth, I can't believe I was ever such a silly, idealistic, naive little kid."
"No, Xena, you were right. Sometimes you do just have to use force. I don't know why I didn't see that. I was just too young and inexperienced I guess."
"Lets just go get a room, stable the horses and see what we can find out. Might as well be comfortable, right?"
Gabrielle sighed and nodded.
* * *
"You're having a WHAT?"
"A Xena convention. Starts tomorrow. Haven't you ever heard of her? She died about 25 years back, but she's still one of this town's greatest heroes. Xena brought back Queen Amalia, changed King Silvus laws about Solstice celebrations, and gave commerce the biggest boost since Wilma was a pup. Every year we celebrate Solstice, Xena's birthday, and the return of love and light to the world. More and more people come every Solstice. It used to be our dead season, but now we have our biggest retail days of the year during the festival. We even raffle off a pig on Solstice Eve." The innkeeper was brusque but informative.
"And just how do you celebrate?"
"We close a bunch of streets near the center of town, build a lot of temporary outdoor booths, and makeer, let people walk around and buy stuff. There's food, story-telling, talking trees, travelling singers in traditional costumeswe call it the Xena Stroll. A lot of folks like to get dressed up like herthe way you are. Your costume looks pretty good, If I may say sonot quite like the real thing, but not bad for a home-made."
Xena's eyes bulged slightly, as she managed to get out, "JustwhatshouldtherealXena's'costume' look like?"
"Oh, much flashier. Look at you. Not a single sequin or bit of fringe on the whole thing. You'd think you'd slept in it, fought armies in it, and dragged it through the mud and rain for years."
Xena cleared her throat. "Not far from the truth."
"But even so, I'm afraid there's just no room for you in the inn. We've been booked solid since before last year. Occasionally there will be a cancellation, but the waiting list has over 300 folks on it. It's unlikely you'd get in."
"Even tonight. Three night minimum. 400 dinars a night, double occupancy," the innkeeper added as an afterthought.
Gabrielle and Xena shared a look. The inn was alright, but nowhere near fancy enough to be pulling down 400 dinars a night.
"How about the barn? We don't need any, uh, frills. We've slept in the straw before. Right, 'Xena'?"
Gabrielle had a gleam of humor in her eye, and Xena knew she was going to be in for some teasing. But she was so starved for her companion's attentions that humor, even at her own expense, looked really good to her right now.
"It's so cute the way you call her that," The innkeeper interjected. But no, I'm sorry, the barn is full too. I've put the travelling animal show there, the past 6 years. They're part of the entertainment for the week. Sorry."
* * *
"Well, now what?" Gabrielle asked as they stood in the slush outside the last inn in town. "There aren't any rooms available anywhere. We've been rejected at every place we've tried. There's no sign of the trader. I've seen 20 Xenas and seventeen Gabrielles, twelve Amphipolis floats and two Poetidea ones. And about a hundred faux Amazons. The taverns are either booked for dinner, not open yet, or so scummy we'd be better off going to back to Corfu. There are militia everywhere, and lots of carpenters putting up booths, but no sign of Senticles, the king, or the queen. My boots are wet, my feet are freezing, and I'm hungry. Shall we head out of town, build a campfire in the slush, and share a dog biscuit?"
"Gabrielle " Xena began. But she was interrupted when an enormous animal came charging down the street.
"What the Hades is that?" Gabrielle cried.
"A lion," Xena answered as she took off after the creature.
"What's a lion doing looking like that?" Gabrielle wondered to the empty air as she followed her partner.
In a very short time Xena had wrestled the beast to the ground, tied its paws, and wrapped its muzzle with the rainbow suspenders she'd taken from the trader's pack.
"I never thought these would come in so handy," she said, as Gabrielle walked up to them.
"Xena, what is a lion doing wearing a unicorn horn, a crown, and are those underpants?"
"Beats me. But it's not good to let the beast run loose."
Just at that moment a woman dressed in vaguely Amazon attire turned the corner, running as fast as she could. When she saw Xena standing over the captured lion, she slowed a little in her headlong rush and jogged up to them.
"This yours?" Xena asked as the woman tried to catch her breath.
"Yeahshebelongsme," The woman gasped out. She bent over and put her hands on her thighs, sucking in air as she tried to speak.
"Seems a bit careless of you, letting your pet go free like that," Xena commented. "Doesn't this town have a leash law?"
"Accidentcageblacksmithropebroke." The woman gasped out.
Gabrielle looked her over. The lion-owner was a stocky woman of medium height, with dark hair just beginning to show silvery threads. Her figure had begun to thicken somewhat about the middle. Fine lines bespeaking age and humor showed at the corners of her eyes and around her mouth. She was wearing an approximation of amazon leathers, with a stout whip coiled at her belt. As she caught her breath, Gabrielle introduced herself and her partner.
"My name is Morren," The woman replied. "Very pleased to meet you two. Thank you for catching my friend there. Her name is Lucy."
The lion whimpered and looked contrite, if such a thing was possible, at the mention of her name.
"Yes, you bad thing. NOW you're sorry. But I would have had to pay a big fine if the constables caught us." Morren scolded. "I can't thank you two enough."
"If you'll forgive my asking why the, er, costume?"
"It's all part of the show. You must not have been to one of these conventions before. I thought everyone knew my circus by now."
"No, we're, uh, new in town," Xena explained.
"Ah. Welcome to Northopolis. How do you like it so far?"
"Not at all," Gabrielle replied. "We're wet, cold, tired and hungry."
"No reservations." Xena explained.
"Oh, well why didn't you say so? Come on back to the Inn where I'm staying. I'll stand you a meal. In fact, if you don't mind bedding down with a circus, you can stay in the barn with me and Lucy here. It won't half repay what you've done for me."
"Best offer we've had all day. Gabrielle, what do you say?"
"I say let's go."
* * *
Things were looking up, Xena decided as they made their way toward the barn. They were full of excellent stew, their clothes had dried, and once Morren had told the innkeeper they were friends of hers, she kept plying them with cider until everything was tinged with a pleasant golden fog. Argo and Handsome were in stalls by the door, having balked at being stabled next to Lucy's cage. Now Morren was about to give them a tour of her animal show.
As they entered and torchlight brightened the barn, a scream echoed from the rafters.
Xena grabbed her chakram, and Gabrielle whirled her staff.
"What the Hades was that?"
"Relax. It's only Susan."
"ErrawwwKK! What She Said." A bright blue and yellow parrot flew down from the rafters and came to rest on Morren's shoulder, shaking its wings and sending loose feathers drifting around them.
"Susan is the really the star of the Morren travelling circus. I'm just the straight man."
"Errawk. Anything but." Susan commented. The parrot whistled a short tune, gave a very good impersonation of a belch, and enquired, "Lucy want a cracker?"
"That's amazing. Can she really talk, or does she just echo what you say?" Gabrielle asked.
"Rawkkk. What She Said," Susan replied.
"Don't let her fool you," Morren chuckled. "She's a lot smarter than she looks. Come meet the rest of the family."
Although Xena was unfailingly polite, she couldn't help but think the circus had seen better days. Most of the animals were elderly, their blankets threadbare, and the tinsel for their costumes, which were hanging on the stalls, seemed tarnished and worn. Morren herself, though enthusiastic as ever, seemed tired, so she was determined to cut the introductions short so they could all get some rest. Gabrielle needed her sleep more than ever since they'd been sick, and the nightmares that had begun to plague her again made her cranky. But she was busily chatting with Morren, entranced by a black and white creature that seemed part bird and part fish.
"Xena, come look."
"What is that?"
"It's called a penguin. They come from far North of Gaul, and eat fish. It's one of the few creatures that can really thrive up here near Northopolis. The cold bothers so many of the more interesting animals," Morren explained.
As they watched the bird dove into it's water-bucket, circled it several times underwater, grabbed a fish in its bill, surfaced, tossed the fish in the air, and swallowed it head first. It then proceeded to pad awkwardly up to the top of an overturned crate, shook itself, added another squirt of whitewash to the already well-decorated box, and put its head under its wing.
"And that's the lot," Morren was saying. "Sorry I tend to run on about these creatures. But they are my family, particularly now thater. Well. Never mind."
"Can I ask you a question?" Xena wanted to know.
"Is it personal?" Morren replied.
"Er, I don't think so. What's with the lion's, uh, clothes?"
"Oh, lion-dressing is quite a popular eventthey don't like it much, you know, but Lucy's been a really good sport about itI used to win lots of prizes with her. It's the 'king of beasts' theme, you knowand I was really lucky, I found the crown on the street just a few weeks ago."
"Really? On the street?"
"More a back alley really. No one around, so I picked it up and added it to the props. It really looks great on her."
"Morren, perhaps you know the answer to one of our questions," Gabrielle said. "We are looking for a man named Senticles. He used to be King Silvus' scribe. Do you know where we could find him?"
To their surprise, Morren began to laugh. "You are a bit simple, aren't you, then? Surely everyone knows there is no Senticles? He's a myth. Supposedly he comes down the chimney bearing expensive gifts every Solstice eve, but he's no more real than Xena."
"Senticles is a myth. A bit of imaginative nonsense. Like Xena and Gabrielle. Just a story for the children. Don't tell me you really believe they were real?"
"I " Xena was speechless, and behind Morren's back she could see Gabrielle motioning her, so she just shook her head and remained silent.
"You know, it's great the way you two keep up your roles. But I hate to break it to you, there's really no such person. C'mon, you must be tired. Here, have some of my extra blankets. The nights can get chilly here."
* * *
Quiet descended over the barn. The warm breath of the animals hung in the air, and Gabrielle snored gently at her side, but Xena remained awake in her nest of straw. Something was clearly wrong in Northopolis, and she intended to find out what.
She dozed, waiting for the inevitable. Soon Gabrielle began to stir restlessly. Before she could call out in her sleep and wake the entire barn, Xena shook her awake.
"Shhh. You were having a dream."
Gabrielle sighed. "It was a good dream, Xena. I thought we were back in Northopolis, just you and me."
"We are in Northopolis, but something's wrong. Everyone thinks we're a myth."
"I remember now. What are we going to do?"
"Well, with this convention going on we do have the perfect cover. I say tomorrow we try to find the old orphanage. Maybe there will be someone there who remembers. Try to get some sleep."
"It's I'm cold. Would you just hold me?"
"Sure, Gabrielle. You don't have to ask. I'll always hold you."
They adjusted themselves under the straw, moving together with the ease of long familiarity.
"You feel pretty good for a myth."
"Thanks. Likewise." Xena was glad that the darkness hid her tears. It was taking time, but now she was certain they'd get back to their old relationship.
* * *
After an early breakfast, they set out across the marketplace to look for the orphanage. As they were crossing the square, they met one of the carpenters. A slightly-built reedy youth, sporting long hair and a straggly beard, he was trying to drag two enormous prefab cross-beams over to the construction site while his elderly donkey, carrying two panniers of tools, limped behind. He looked exhausted, as if he'd been working all night, and his hands were bloody from scraping against the undressed edges of the wood. The donkey didn't look much better. Without a second thought, Xena took hold of the beams and despite his faint protests, carried them over to the partly assembled booth and set them into place. There were a few other tasks to be done and before the young man could protest Xena had the rest of the beams up, the shelving installed, and the awning stretched over the whole.
"Oh, lady. I don't know who you are, but thank you. My dad was going to kill me if I didn't get the booth done in time. He thinks I'm about the most worthless excuse for a carpenter he's ever seen."
" Well, just, uh, call me Xena. And you're welcome."
He laughed and said, "I get it. And you, you must be Gabrielle. I'm Jake."
"Right," the blonde smiled up at him, "Good to meet you, Jake."
"Why were you setting up by yourself? You try hard, but I could see your heart wasn't in it." Xena commented.
The young man sighed. "It's the old story. Dad's a builder, so I've got to be one too. He doesn't seem to notice I've never wanted to join the family business. Heck, as a kid the first thing I did when he showed me the workshop was put a chisel right through my hand. You can still see the scar. But no, he's convinced if he just rides me hard enough I'll turn into what he wants me to be. So he assigns me these huge projects and then yells at me when I can't get them done."
"And what do you want to be?" Gabrielle asked
"Oh, I don't know. It's silly really."
"It's not silly," The blond woman reminded him gently. "What you believed when you were younger is probably still the truth. What did you want to do?"
"I had an idea I wanted to study for the ministry. I'd go out by the river and I'd I'd sorta hear well, it was like hearing voices. And they would tell me thingsbeautiful things about peace and love for all mankind. And I could heal people. But Dad thought I was nuts. He wouldn't hear of my going. He said my no-account fishing buddies would be the death of me and to come home before I turned my mother's hair white with grief. So I did."
"But you haven't lost your dream, have you?" Gabrielle asked.
"What do you mean?"
"I think you can still hear those whispers of your former self. And I think you still have healing gifts. Look at your donkey."
Sure enough, as they had stood talking Jake had been running his hands over the beast, rubbing its nose, scratching its ears and touching little points along its joints. It was now acting much more sprightly.
"Well, what do you know? You're feeling better, huh, boy?"
The donkey brayed back at him and gave him a nudge.
"I think you should follow your dream, Jake. Even when it seems hopeless, if it's the right thing for you to do help will come along."
"Like you two did today, right?"
"But what will I tell my dad?"
Xena decided to enter the conversation. "Show him the completed booth."
"But he'll know I didn't do it. How will that help?"
"Just tell him it was the answer to a prayer," Xena suggested.
"Huh. And you know, it was at that. Good idea," Jake mused. "I think I'll just go and do that. Come on Tobias." He whistled, and the donkey brayed, kicked out with its heels, hopped once, and followed him.
Xena and Gabrielle just looked at each other.
"Do you think ?"
* * *
"This must be the place," Gabrielle said finally. "But it sure looks different."
It certainly does," Xena agreed. "Let's see what's inside. Front or back?"
'Ummm. Back, I think. I can't believe the façade on this place. It was a simple orphanage twenty-seven, twenty-eight years ago. Now look at it."
The former orphanage had indeed been re-built. It was now an imposing stone building, fronted by a colonnade of ornate columns, with huge carved lintels and ornate scenes of the town's history painted on the pediment. Above all the Royal symbol of King Silvus shone where the gold leaf caught the sun.
They walked around the edifice, trying to look like strolling shoppersan idea bolstered by the extra pack they were carrying in hopes of meeting the trader.
"This building takes up the entire block," Xena observed. ''Lets try the alley down here." After a search, they found a loading dock, but it was guarded by several stout constables.
"What do you think? Shall we take 'em?" Gabrielle whispered to Xena
"We could, but we'd lose the element of surprise," Xena whispered back. "Keep going and lets watch what happens."
An hour or so later they had a plan. Wagons full of mysterious boxes drew up at frequent intervals. They decided to hide in a couple of crates and enter the building secretly that way. They only needed to find a low arch over the freight route.
In less time that it took to tell, Xena and Gabrielle were hidden in a large box. After many rattles and bumps, at last they came to rest. They waited patiently, and when the clatter of footsteps died down they pushed up and pried open the lid.
"Whew. I know what Senticles meant about small spaces!" Gabrielle whispered as she sprang up like a Jill-in-the-box.
They were in a large storeroom of what appeared to be a warehouse. They searched the entire floor without finding a soul, but they were amazed at the goods and materials stored there.
"There's more stuff here than Salmoneus had in his entire inventory," Xena commented.
"In his entire life," Gabrielle agreed, fingering some cloth. "Oh, ugh."
"Sorry. I know that isn't your favorite color," Xena said, wrapping the bolt of purple colored fabric back up.
"Let's go up. Maybe we can find someone." It wasn't until they reached the attic above the peristyle that they finally found someone. Guided by the whir of machinery, they at last saw a glimmer of light through an open doorway. Slipping up through the shadows, they looked in. A single lamp shone over a workbench. And hunched over the bench, a lone, white-haired figure worked and sobbed to himself.
"SENTICLES!" Gabrielle shouted as she ran forward. "It's so good to see you gain!"
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle! At last you're here." Senticles wept, and hugged both women, but tried to continue working at the same time.
"Senticles, what's going on? What happened to you? And what are you doing?"
"It's a long story. Sit, and I'll tell you." Senticles resumed his work, Xena on one side of him, Gabrielle on the other. They handed him things as he worked, and he began to talk.
"Many years ago, not long after you left, King Silvus and Queen Amalia declared Solstice Eve a special holiday," he began. "They were so happy to be reunited that they wanted everyone in the kingdom to share their gifts. Each year the ceremonies got more elaborate. It was a burden financially, but the old king didn't want anyone to be disappointed. When he was too old to preside, his heir took his place. He'd adopted young Lynal the year after Amalia returned. Lynal kept up as best he could, but eventually the royal treasury was empty. They asked me if I would go back to making toys for the children. Which I did. It had always been a pleasure to me. But as the festival got bigger and bigger, I couldn't keep up with the demand. I'd start a little earlier each year, but it never seemed to be enough. Finally I worked all day, everyday, all year long, but it was never enough. One year Silvus died, and then the Queen died of grief. Lynal was supposed to take over, but Margon, the magistrate, blocked his coronation, and Mendacikles, the head of city council, let him do it. Lynal would have given away the merchandise, but they wanted to sell it, and collect taxes on every sale.
It seems an evil sorcerer had slipped in while no one was looking, and put them up to it. I tried to protest. I went right up to them, and told them I quit. No more toys; they couldn't make me. But the sorcerer, she just laughed, and dusted me with some strange-tasting golden powder. I couldn't move. They carried me in here, and set me up with my tools. It seems I've become immortal. I can't die, and I can't leave. If I set foot out of this shop, I'm paralyzed. I thought small spaces were bad, but that's nothing to being trapped in a body that won't move, knowing there's no release of death at the end. So here I sit, making toys. After a while Lynal came to help me, and he was a great comfort. As long as we made toys they brought food, and occasionally a news scroll. But just a few weeks ago Lynal disappeared. I can't even go looking for him. I miss him terribly, and I still can't keep up with the demand. And now it seems the sorcerer is affecting the weather. It's snowing, snowing in Northopolis. The oldest inhabitants have never heard of such a thing."
"What a mess." Gabrielle said. "Xena, what can we do?"
"We have to find out who the sorcerer is, and how her power works. Then we have to neutralize it. We'll look for Lynal as we go. There may be a connection between his disappearance and the sorcerer. And we'll look at the magistrate and the city council, too."
"Oh I'm so happy you are here," Senticles sighed. I kept trying to contact youI'd tuck little messages in with the export toys, hoping someone would find them and pass them along."
"That is what finally happened, Xena explained. " And now the trader has vanished also, so we'll keep an eye out for him too. I'm sorry it took us so long to get here."
"Well, what's another year among immortals, eh?"
"There, there." Gabrielle soothed. "We got here as soon as we could. Now lets get to work. Any idea where the sorcerer might be?"
"No. But Margon, the magistrate who either brought her or made her entry possible lives on Manytaxes Street. It's in the new part of town. Can you find that?"
"Don't worry, Senticles. I really do have many skills," Xena said with a smirk.
"Many Right. I remember that about you," he agreed.
* * *
"Now where?" Gabrielle had eased herself up to sit on the top of a low wall; they had been walking for hours and her feet were starting to hurt again. "And is it far? I'm not used to all these hard pavements."
Xena stopped the restless extension of her senses to look at her partner. Gabrielle was in pain, she realized. And tired. And hungry. She was being a very good sport about it. Which, come to think about it, she always had been. But it was time to stop and take care of her now before she became cranky again. "Wait right there," she said, and vanished.
Gabrielle sighed. She swung her feet and counted to 20. She was just about to think of some other game when Xena returned, with four strapping young men and a strange contraption on poles.
"Xena, what is that?"
"It's a chair, Gabrielle. It's time to check on things back at our, uh, lodging. And I thought we might try doing things the easy way for once. Hop in." When Gabrielle was in the seat next to her she said, "Inn of the Golden Apple, boys. And pick up the pace."
The chair swayed pleasantly, and Gabrielle found herself dozing. She must have been more tired than she realized. It was warm next to Xena, and she hadn't been sleeping well if she could just rearrange the pillows she relaxed into sleep.
Xena looked down at the napping Bard and felt a wash of tenderness at the sight. Gabrielle had fallen asleep across her chest, avoiding the hard parts of her armor with the ease of long practice. One hand was around Xena's waist, the other had drifted down between her legs. It was more intimate than they had been in months. Xena let her imagination loose. It was far too soon when the neared the inn, and Xena gently shifted the Bard to a less suggestive position. Wrapping her cloak around the shorter woman she leaned out and said, "Stop by the barn and let me out there. I want to check on my, uh, team. Here are your dinars and take my friend around to the front."
"No, I want to visit the horses too," mumbled the sleepy bard. "I'll come with you."
The chairman caught the coin Xena flipped in his direction, and disappeared around the corner as Xena took the half-asleep bard in her arms.
"Relax, Gabrielle. I'll carry you in, I know your feet are sore. Now just wait here. I'll be back in a moment."
Gabrielle dozed off once again, the warmth of the barn putting her back to sleep. She found herself having a pleasant dream for once. He feet were being gently bathed and massaged, and something smelled really good she woke up to find it was not a dream. She was propped up in the hay, while Xena washed her tired feet in a bucket of warm water. Her boots had been hung up near the fire to dry. On a stool next to her another bowl of the landlords excellent stew was steaming.
"Hey. Feeling better?"
"Much. I was dreaming "
"A white solstice. Snow, I guess. What's the occasion?" The bard indicated the foot-washing activity.
"I just thought I haven't paid enough attention to you lately. I mean we get so busy saving the world and all I know it's a strain on you sometimes."
"I can keep up." Gabrielle sounded just the slightest bit testy.
"I know you can. But sometimes I can't. I need you to think, Gabrielle. Where would a sorcerer go during the biggest festival of the year?"
"Umm. This is really good, want some?"
"In a minute."
"No, now. Have a bite." Gabrielle held out her spoon and fed Xena in alternate bites with herself.
When they were done she sighed and thought for a moment. "Well, a sorcerer isn't that much different from a bard, in some ways. So I think if I was casting a lot of big spells I'd want to be right where the most people are, at the biggest attraction. Maybe even part of it. What's the biggest entertainment tonight?"
"I don't know lets ask Morren. She should be back soon. I think she said her show was mostly for children, so it will be over early."
When the entertainer returned with her retinue, she looked, if possible, even more tired than Gabrielle had an hour or so before. Morren drooped and her animals drooped with her. It was as if only the parrot fluttering on her shoulder was holding her up. Still, she tried to maintain a cheerful demeanor.
"Hello, you two," she greeted them, forcing a smile to her face. "Did you have a good day?"
"Rawwkk. What She Said" the parrot chimed in, searching Marron's ear for peanuts.
"Shut up, Susan. And don't bite me." Marron grumbled
"Uh. Yes and no." Gabrielle replied as she and Xena helped the tired woman stable and feed her friends. "We were thinking of taking in a show tonight. Any recommendations? What's, er, popular?"
From her perch on Morren's shoulder Susan the parrot belched and said distinctly, "Bite me!"
Without speaking again and signaling them to wait, Morren gave the parrot a handful of fruit and put her on the branch in her cage, letting her eat a bit and then covering her with a heavy green and gold drape.
When the bird was settled Morren turned to the two women and found a genuine smile as she was being offered the seat by the fire and another bowl of stew. "Thanks. It's so nice to have help. Really a luxury. I don't know what I did without you two."
"Glad to help," Xena said. "We thought we'd see what Northopolis had to offer for an evening's entertainment. What's the, uh, biggest and best show going?"
"Not the same thing, in my opinion," Morren sniffed. "You'll find the best entertainment right here at the Golden Apple. There are some great bards, poetry readings, really high-class entertainment in an intimate setting. You can actually hear them, and even see them. But if you want noise and crowds the biggest thing going is the magic show over in front of the Inn of the Three Monkeys. In fact it's . Well, she's kind of a rival of mine, so perhaps I'm prejudiced against her. But it's a lot of slapstick, low humor why do people love schtick? Why can't they appreciate art? It's like they're bewitched, or something." Morren sighed. "Sorry. It's envy talking. And tired feet. Go see it and tell me what it's really like. Maybe I could learn something. She's certainly a lot more popular than I am."
"The magician over at the Three Monkeys"
"What do you say Gabrielle? High art or low humor? Walk softly, or carry a big shtick?"
"Uh actually I think I'm in the mood for a little low humor, Xena. We just don't spend a lot of time in big cities," she added apologetically to their companion.
"That's okay," Morren said. "To each her own. I'd come with you, but I'd really love to get out of this make-up, soak my feet, and fall asleep early. And thanks again for the help tonight."
* * *
To find the Inn of the Three Monkeys all they had to do was follow the crowd. Every other person was dressed in a costume of some sort. There were many dressed like the Warrior and the Bard, but also plenty of other charactersGabrielle noted a hydra, Cerberus, two Cyclops, a few miscellaneous gods, several bogus warlords (easily distinguished from the real thing not only by their conspicuous cleanliness, but by their lack of muscles and the fake armor, which was mostly silver-painted cloth) and an enormous number of miscellaneous Amazons. The number of visitors to Northopolis had certainly been increasing all day; Gabrielle wondered how many more people could fit within the towns boundaries, as Morren had assured them that the real crowds wouldn't arrive until the closing days of the festival. She kept her eyes out for suspicious people in the crowd, while Xena, she knew, was pretending to be oblivious, just waiting for an unsuspecting pickpocket to sidle up them.
They managed to reach the big tent without incident, bought their tickets, and went in. A series of concentric rings, with the audience sitting around all 4 sides of the tent made a playing area in the center. Xena steered them to seats about half way to the back behind a couple of large farmers. She didn't want to be conspicuous, but she needn't have worriedat least a dozen Xenas sat nearby: tall Xenas, short Xenas; Xenas with dark hair, Xenas with wigs; Xenas with armor and Xenas with leather and feathers and fringe. She hadn't been so bewildered since Meg and Leah had both staged a family reunion on the same weekend. There were a lot of Gabrielles too; she was pleased to see. They watched as a parade of animals walked into the ring. Vendors were selling bags of roasted nuts, strange little multi-colored party favors, and small candied squid packed in little boxes. It was fortunate that Xena had no need to caution her partner against them, Gabrielle's previous experience of squid having given her some protection against the chewy treats.
Xena soon turned her attention to the rafters, pretending to yawn to cover her scan of the roof of the tent. Sure enough, there was someone up there, where a platform anchored the high wire. The elephants were swaying in time to the music, when she whispered into Gabrielle's ear, "pretend to fall asleep in my lap and watch the high wire. We'll compare notes back at the barn"
"Why do I have to? I want to see the show."
"Oh, alright. I'll do it then. But I'm going to be in your lap."
"Xena!" Gabrielle hissed. "Stop that!" But the warrior had already collapsed against her, tickling her thighs. "Warriors!" Gabrielle muttered under her breath, as she tried not to giggle. Xena blew on her inner thigh, just to be fresh. She pinched the warrior's butt, making her squirm. But then she got caught up in the show and forgot to be annoyed. There were elephants, camels, and horses with trick riders who stood on their backs while balancing sand spiders on their chins. There was a lyre-player, a flame-eater who spit fire and a great many short clowns who drove around the arena in lopsided chariots, making small explosions with black powder as they collided with each other and fit impossible numbers into each small car. Despite the obvious gag as the tiny clowns ran around and pretended to 'exit' the chariots again and again, Gabrielle found herself laughing at their antics. They picked up imaginary lyres and began to imitate the musician. They stalked the elephants, imitating the movements of the lions, or the seals, or the monkeys. And they did their best to sabotage each other. Two clowns would team up against a third, one distracting him while the other put a horseshoe in his pants, or tried to set his shoes on fire. Soon all the clowns were making little bombs. Each time there was a bang as the black powder exploded and the clowns yelled, she found herself shrieking right along with them, along with most of the audience. The music, the lights, the smell of powder mixed with that of the hot oil from the torches and roasting nuts from the stands all assaulted her senses. She found she was actually having a good time.
When the music changed and the ringleader appeared, dressed as a magician and looking impossibly tall and slender in a dark, hooded cape and boots, with a Siamese cat sitting on her shoulder, Gabrielle ooh-ed and ah-ed right along with two thousand others in the audience. Actually, although she didn't know it at the time, only one thousand, nine hundred, and ninety-nine fellow listeners were oh-ing and ah-ing. Xena, feigning sleep, stayed silent, watching the action askance through tightly slitted eyes. The scent of her soulmate blocked out that of the crowd, and being so close to Gabrielle warmed her as nothing had for a long time. She felt her center shift back to its rightful place, and sighed silently in relief. But she still noticed when the magician cast her magic dust into the air at the penultimate moment of her act. Buried in Gabrielle's skirt as she was, she managed to avoid breathing in most of it, but she could feel the change in the bard's body and the tingle in her own. Glad the show was almost over, she kept her head down until it was time to leave, and then she kept her expression carefully slack as she stumbled out into the night air with her partner.
"That was great," Gabrielle was babbling, as they walked back to the inn. "Did you see the seals? And the way the clowns played air-lyre behind that guy's back? I loved that camel-and-lion act. And the trick with the dove. And when she made those empty giant's boots dance in mid-air "
Xena let the voice wash over her as she wondered how they would ever defeat the sorcerer. What a wonderful hiding place plain sight was. By masquerading as a fake, the sorcerer had perfect opportunity to study the crowd and drug them into receptivity. Of course hiding in plain sight was just what they were doing, dressed as themselves in a crowd of imposters. But they didn't need to drug their audience. Xena wondered just what the point of the drugged dust was. Everyone seemed to have had a good time, and they hadn't parted with more money than any other of the town's attractions demanded. She wondered what was going on. As the crowd thinned a little she sharpened her senses, having the odd sensation that they were being followed. Quickly she diverted Gabrielle into the nearest inn, where a rowdy game of darts was in progress. Xena quickly sized up the situation. The dartboard hung on a door. Doors go somewhere; dart-players can be very testy at having their shots spoilt. She ordered two beersno longer showing the slightest surprise that they cost at least three times as much as in any other townand handed one to Gabrielle.
"When I say go, stumble into the one who's throwing the darts," Xena whispered to her partner. "Then follow me."
Following her instructions to the letter, Gabrielle managed to get two players with one elbow, and doused another player with her beer. Xena got suds all over the dartboard, hit yet another player with her mug, bouncing it off his pate into still another player, caught the darts in mid-air, and yanked open the door. She hauled Gabrielle in after her and slammed it shut as the fight broke out.
They were in a dark, musty corridor behind the bar. Feeling their way silently down the hall the shouts receded. Xena found a window and crawled out, pulling Gabrielle behind her, as they made their way up to the roof. They hid behind a chimney and watched the street they had been walking on. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary; people were still straggling home, and in the alley behind them rats were making rustling noises in the garbage, while a solitary cat kept watch.
Xena took a beat.
A Siamese cat.
Hades mouthwash, what had ever possessed her to run and give them away like that?
"Come on Gabrielle, she whispered. "Follow me."
They slipped around to the roof in front of the inn. Xena listened for a few moments before selecting an open window on the second floor. She swung herself in easily, and extended a hand to the bard. They were in one of the guest rooms, the light of a single candle near the bed throwing most of the room into shadow, but giving them enough illumination to find their way into the room.
A moan came from the bed. They froze.
It seemed they were not alone in the room after all. Xena was trying to move carefully, silently, around to a position where she could see through the bed-curtains without being seen, when the moan was repeated.
It was followed by accelerated breathing, and as they looked about they could see clothing flung to the four corners of the room. The occupants of the room had been wearing some approximation of Amazon dress and now colorful bits of fringe and feathers were strewn about, providing a certain artistic accent to the room's decorations.
As the huffing and puffing began to pick up, interspersed with little moans and trills, to the accompaniment of squeaking bed-ropes, Xena abandoned all pretense of being quiet. She grabbed the larger of the garments and motioned her companion to take the rest. They quickly dressed themselves in the borrowed clothes, wadding up the bulkier bits of their own and tying them together on Xena's back. The couple never broke their stride, providing enough noise to cover a centaur mud-wrestling event. They never noticed as the Warrior and the Bard slipped out the door, and waited a moment in the hall, listening.
The coast was clear. They slipped down past the taproom unnoticed by the dart-players and out the front door to the street, weaving appropriately as they sauntered down the street.
"I always wondered what went on at those conventions," Xena said thoughtfully.
"Nice technique," Gabrielle commented, motioning in the direction of the involved amazons' rooms they bumped hips in an approximation of a drunken swagger.
"She'll have quite a hickey tomorrow," Xena agreed.
"Both of them."
"Oh." Gabrielle thought about it for a bit. "I didn't know that position was even possible."
"I think the handcuffs might have helped."
"Oh. " There was a pause. "OH." There was another pause. "Xena?"
"What if ?"
"Not a chance."
Xena sighed. "But if you wanted me to wear them, Gabrielle, I would."
"Only for you."
"Oh." The bard sounded more cheerful. "Would you really?"
"Yes, Gabrielle, I'd do anything for you. Don't you know that?"
"Can I put them on really tight?"
"If you want to," Xena sighed. "Shall I get you a pair as a Solstice gift?"
Gabrielle thought about it for a moment. It wasn't like Xena to offer well, yes, it was. Whatever hardness she showed the rest of the world, she had alwayswell nearly alwayssacrificed everything to be with the bard. "No thanks," she concluded. "I like your technique as it is."
"And besides, with my luck something would happen and I'd need rescuing, just when I had you where I wanted you."
"But don't think that means I've forgiven you, because I haven't."
"And if you so much as think of dying on me again"
"I wouldn't dream of it." A beat. "I mean, again."
With that they entered the barn behind the Inn of the Golden Apple.
* * *
The next morning Xena woke at her usual early hour and performed her customary routine, taking care of Argo, drilling with her sword, and since they were guests of Morren, helping her clean the stalls and cages of the small circus and petting zoo. It was still early when they finished, Xena quietly describing the show to Morren, and Gabrielle still hadn't woken. Xena decided breakfast in bed might provide some additional softening to her partner's mood, and went out to find some delicaciesnot including mushrooms. She had no desire to ever see that color purple ever again, and shuddered a little over the plums before settling on a watermelon as the fruit-du-jour.
When she returned the morning was far advanced, but still the Bard slept on. Xena and Morren had breakfast, and Morren went out to start her first show of the day, when Xena became concerned that Gabrielle still hadn't regained consciousness and tried to wake her.
"Ub gak zeep," was the most coherent of her responses. Gabrielle was still down for the count.
Xena shrugged and decided that it was true, they'd had a late night. She went out to scout the town, leaving the bard a note.
Shortly after noon she returned, this time bearing some fish for the seals and the penguin, and lunch. Gabrielle still hadn't woken; the note was still in place, and the watermelon untouched. The barn was quiet, Morren and her friends hard at work. Xena sat and sulked for a moment, annoyed because her plans called for the bard to be awake by now. But she knew how Gabrielle needed her sleep and let her snore away. Perhaps it was time to go look for the trader.
She shouldered the pack full of odd merchandise, and set out.
Several hours later, still unsuccessful, but her attire brightened by the addition of the trader's rainbow suspenders, she returned to find the Bard just beginning to stir. The sun was nearly setting, and Gabrielle yawned and complained that it was still too early to get up.
"But Gabrielle, it's afternoon. Nearly night. The sun is setting, not rising. You slept away the whole day."
"Ut?" The bard mumbled. "Ur sittin me."
"Uh, no, Gabrielle. Are youdo you feel okay?" Xena felt for fever, but found none.
"Fine. Just tired. What's for breakfast?"
She was still hardly awake, and Xena began to be really concerned. The bard's love of sleep was one thing, but she seemed really drained of energy. Xena went out to get her some tea and baklava, and when she returned Gabrielle was asleep again, and Morren was returning, herself exhausted from a day of performing.
"I'm just not as young as I used to be," she admitted. "I get through on sheer excitement, but I never have any energy to do anything afterwards."
"Perhaps you should get someone to help you?"
"Well, I used to have I used to have a excuse me." Morren left, clearly upset. Xena knew she'd flubbed yet another sensitive chat, and set about waking the bard once more.
"Hey." Gabrielle objected as she gathered consciousness, noticing the suspenders for the first time. "You took those out of the Trader's pack!"
"I'll pay him for them as soon as we find him, Gabrielle. In the meanwhile it just helps me fit in to have some, er, color with my, uh, costume."
"Very snappy," the Bard agreed, giving the elastic a slight pull and letting it rebound.
Xena grinned. "Very, very snappy," she added in a sultry tone. "Want to try that gain?"
But the bard had fallen back to sleep, and Xena struggled to wake her again. Morren returned a few minutes later, her eyes red, but her manner firmly composed. Eventually a very groggy bard, an exhausted circus performer, and a rather antsy warrior had a haphazard supper together.
"So. Are we going to check out the other circus tonight?" Gabrielle wanted to know.
"I think I've seen enough." Xena said. "I just can't understand why Oh."
"Oh?" Morren asked.
"Gabrielle, how do you feel about going to see the circus again?"
"Oh, Xena, I'd love to! Let's go early and get good seats!"
"Do you remember what the acts were like?"
"Well, there was... Uh I there must have been animals, right? And some kind of something. Well, I don't remember exactly, but I know it was great. I'm sure it was. Wasn't it?"
"Gabrielle, can you remember one thing that happened after we went to the circus last night?"
"I well er no. But I remember having a good time. Is that so bad?"
"Gabrielle, you never forget what happened. You described every detail of every play you saw at the modern drama conference in Athens thirty years ago. You remembered the color of their costumes, for Dionysus sake!"
"Yeah, well, they were awful. I've thrown up better colors!"
"Yes, I know. Me too. You got enough purple puke points for a foot-rub from me every day for the rest of your life, okay?"
"Alright!" Gabrielle grinned.
"But the point is," Xena went on, "you remember all that, and you can't remember what happened last night. And you slept away the day as if something had drained the life out you. My guess is it's the circus. She's drawing her power from the audience."
"But wouldn't people notice?"
"Gabrielle, you are totally aware of every nuance of a performance. You are a bard, you can't help but know what's going on at many levels. For you not to remember something is seriously wrong, but most people wouldn't."
"And I think between the drugs and the degree of attention you paid you were more susceptible than the average citizen."
"Drugs?" Morren asked, a bit shocked.
"What She Said," Susan the parrot agreed.
"I think so yes," Xena said as if nothing had interrupted her. "Some were in the air, and more in the roasted nuts and the other snacks. They reduce a person's normal defenses just enough and the show itself distracts them as it happens. The sorcerer is getting the life-energies of thousands of people every night."
"But that's terrible! How can we stop it?" Morren began feeding bits of watermelon to Susan, who made contented chuckling noises as she stuck her beak into the fruit.
"We need a diversion."
"What sort of a diversion?"
Xena ticked them off on her fingers. "We need to stop the dust from being dropped on the audience; we need to keep the regular show from going on, in case that's part of some sort of hypnotic pattern, we have to keep the guards out, and we need to keep the sorcerer too busy to stop us or cast her spells."
"What about keeping the audience from rioting?" Morren wanted to know
"That too." Xena narrowed her eyes, thinking.
"I can help," Morren was saying. "What if I brought my act in along with hers? You could take out the guards and keep the sorcerer busy, Gabrielle can keep the dust from being dropped, and I can engage the crowd. If they never remember what's supposed to happen, they won't notice the difference."
"Hmmm." They plotted deep into the night, while Lucy snored in her cage, and Susan nodded on her perch under the cover.
* * *
"Hey! Uh, 'Gabrielle'! Can I give you and hand with those?" Jake shouted across the marketplace as he saw the bard struggling with a barrow of fruits and vegetables.
"Sure. I'm headed for the Inn of the Golden Apple. Food for the, uh, zoo. Any help you can give is welcome."
Jake took the shafts of the barrow and they set out up the street. The donkey walked behind them.
"So, Jake, how did it go with your father?"
"Well, he was a bit flummoxed when he saw everything all ready. He and my Uncle Simon were all set to find fault and put it to rights at the last minute. But he couldn't even come up with any suggestions as to how it should have been done. He really liked the way Xena used moldings to cover the seams, too. Said it was 'very innovative'."
"She's very creative."
"She is. Beautiful, too."
"Oh, I...I mean you I mean, I'm not "
"That's okay Jake. I know what you mean."
"You do? I mean, you do."
"Hey, Jake? Can I ask where you got your donkey? His name is Tobias, right?"
"Yes. He was a Solstice gift. Someone gave him to my parents a few days before I was born."
"I wondered about that. Your father's name Is Joseph?"
"My father's name is Fred."
"Well, actually he's my step-father. I don't remember my other father."
"Oh. That explains "
"Nothing. I was just thinking how important it is to follow your dreams."
"You could take your own advice, Gabrielle."
"What do you mean?"
"What you told me the other dayabout not losing the dreams, or the idealism of your youththat's advice you ought to take yourself. You need to remember what you thought, what you felt, when you started out in life.'
"Don't be silly. I was stupid and naive."
"But you followed your heart? Didn't you?"
"Yes, and look where it led me. To killing, betrayal, death. I got a glimpse of the end, and it ended badly."
"But in spite of that you are still alive. Life isn't about getting to an end, as if it were an outcome, as if it were some sort of race. It's about living, every moment, with the ones you love. Living fully. Are you doing that?"
"No? Why not?" They came to a halt, the barrow standing in the street, Tobias quietly taking in the passing scene.
"Because I'm so mad at my partner I just can't love her right now. Not after what she did." Gabrielle explained about the failed birthday party, right down to the bouquet of daisies and the disturbing visions the purple mushrooms had brought up. In more ways than one.
"But thatthat betrayal didn't really happen."
"Didn't it? Isn't what happens in the mind real? Particularly as we both had the same dreams?" Gabrielle wanted to know.
"In a sense it is. Every moment is the child of the moment before it and the parent of the one after it. All of time contains the entire possibility of life folded within it. So it might have happened, and perhaps in another dimension it is happening, but in the vessel of your consciousness you and she are here, where you are needed, in Northopolis, in time to keep a sorcerer from unleashing eternal winter on your part of the world and enslaving not just one old man and a few clowns, but an entire city."
"How do you know about that?" Gabrielle was quite shocked, because she was sure their discussions the night before had been private.
"I don't. I just started to listen to what my voices told me to say."
"Your voices said a mouthful."
"You could listen to your own heart, Gabrielle. What is it saying?"
"It's saying that no matter what I choose to do, Xena loves me. Even if I chose to be with someone else hey. I did, once, you know. I got married, and Xena even stood up for me"
"Even though her heart was breaking at the time."
"Even so. Of course I was only married for one day. The daisies hadn't even faded from my wreath daisies. I wonder. She says they are her favorite flower."
"Because you love them?"
"And what else does your heart say, Gabrielle?"
The bard sighed and was silent for a moment. "Deep down, I still believe violence is wrong. Even though I've gotten really good at it. And killing and death only lead to more misery and suffering. But sometimes they are the only way."
"Are they? Or is it that you are too tired or too angry to imagine a better way?"
"Hey! Move it! You're blocking the path of commerce here!" an angry voice rang out, as a couple of traders shoved by in the narrow street. Gabrielle and Jake moved on, stopping outside the barn.
"You know, perhaps you are right," Gabrielle said slowly. "I used to be able to imagine a better world without so much difficulty. And Xena believed in me. I know I've hurt her too. Betrayed her. And she's always, always forgiven me. How can I do any less for her?" Gabrielle paused, thinking. "Thank you, Jake. You've helped me with a lot more than a pile of veggies this morning."
"There might be something else you could help us with."
"Sure, I'm up for it. Whatever."
"Well, come on inside. Here's what we need "
* * *
Night sunk quickly on the snow-covered town of Northopolis. Under the cover of darkness, an odd caravan left the cozy barn of the Inn of the Golden Apple, and headed toward the big tent in front of the Inn of the Three Monkeys.
It was still some hours before the show was due to start, but it was going to take a while to get everyone in place. According to the stable hands, the sorcerer never appeared until just before the show was starting. She never wasted any time feeding or grooming her animals, preferring to control them with magic. When they arrived, Gabrielle paid off the grooms and handlers, watching as they disappeared into the inn. Even if they came back in an hour or two they would be useless by then. Xena had gone to tackle the roustabouts. They might be immune to bribery, but not to competitiveness; she inveigled them into an arm-wresting contest, with distilled spirits as lubrication.
With the muscle of the circus effectively drawn off, Jake and his friendshe'd brought Peter, Ned, and few more of his fishing buddiessnuck in and stole the drugged powder that was supposed to be sifted down on the audience. They replaced it with flour which had been colored with pollen, and then slithered down to watch Xena win the arm wresting. Morren, meanwhile, had brought her animals into the barn and begun to get them ready for the show, when she noticed something peculiar. She had started to put one of the sorceress costumes on Susan, and it was having a peculiar effect. Susan was struggling to get out of the spangled outfit, and muttering curses, but they weren't coming out with Susan's usual iconoclastic flare.
"Get this friggingAhoy mateyErawwkthing offYo ho howho's a bloody pirate thenme!" She finished with a belch, and flapped her wings in distress.
"It's like there are two voices in her," Morren said.
"Take off the costume," Gabrielle suggested.
"What Sheshiver me timbersbelchSaid!" Susan yelled.
"What's going on?" A short clown poked his head out of the dressing area.
"Nothing," Gabrielle said. "New attraction for tonight."
"Not very co-operative is he?"
"No. And he's a she."
"Well wait 'til herself shows up. That'll learn her."
"Why? What happens?"
"She'll be sorry when she gets the ring put on her foot. Look at us. You don't think a bunch of dwarves from the Black Forest would get into this for fun do you? Do we look like clowns to you? We were highly skilled craftsmen, and NOW look at us. Gummed up in grease paint and these ridiculous clothes! But we can't get these damned amulets off!"
He showed a muscular forearm, a peculiarly marked bracelet on his wrist. Looking around, Gabrielle realized the sorcerers mark was subtly woven into the cloth of the costumes the animals wore, and they all had metal collars on somewhere, which the dwarf assured her gave a very unpleasant painful shock when they resisted the sorcerer's will. Both she and Morren tried to cut or pry them loose, but nothing was working.
"I'll go get Xena," Gabrielle said, leaving Morren and the dwarf to finish disentangling Susan from the costume.
She appeared at the edge of the crowd at the arm-wresting. "Can I speak with you a minute?" She smiled sweetly at her partner.
"Notreallya goodtime" Xena grunted out as an enormous roustabout bent her arm slowly backwards. But she took advantage of the distraction to slam the huge arm back down on the table, winning yet another match. "It's not really a good time, Gabrielle, " she added in a normal voice as the disgruntled roustabout roared his disappointment and downed a mug of distilled spirits to drown his defeat.
"Maybe I could help," Jake offered, sliding up through the crowd when he saw Gabrielle.
"I don't well, why not. Come give it a try, Jake. Go get 'em, Xena." Gabrielle gave her a last cheer and went back to the barn, Jake in tow.
"Ah. A simple enchantment problem," he said looking at the amulets.
"You know? It is?" Gabrielle was surprised.
"It's part of my gift to see through illusions," the young man said. He reached up to one of the elephants and took the collar in both hands. In a second it fell loose: the elephant gave a trumpet of relief and snorted a trunk full of water on him.
"How did you do that?" Morren wanted to know.
"It's simple, really," Jake said as he wiped the water from his face. "As with all magic, there's a hidden catch. You have to press and twist at the same time. But it's quite easy when you know the trick of it."
He had to show them a few times, but between them everyone in the thrall of the sorcerers was soon free. It took some doing to persuade the dwarves to put on the charade of performing one last time, but most of them agreed.
* * *
The big tent was slowly filling when Xena finally returned from arm-wrestling the roustabouts into drunken submission. She looked around for the sorcerer, but couldn't see her anywhere. Still, when the music cue came, she led Lucy into the ring, while Gabrielle carried the props and Morren, now dressed in a tuxedo with a white tie and black tails, with Susan on her shoulder, led on the penguin and the seals. When they were in place Argo II led in the horses, followed by the camels and elephants.
Susan kept muttering, "A reeeally big shew" under her little parrot breath, while Morren ineffectively attempted to shush her. The penguin waddled behind, nudging Morren's back pocket with its bill, attempting to dislodge the small fish inside.
There was still no sign of their quarry, but Xena started the lion-dressing event. The crowd was still filing in, and it looked to be a full house.
"Xena"Gabrielle asked as Xena put the finishing touches on Lucy's costume, tying the crown firmly on with a bit of red ribbon from the trader's pack.
"There are more guards on all the entrances."
"We'll deal with them when they become a problem Gabrielle"
"I don't know yet you know I like to improvise."
"I hate improv."
"I know. You stick to the plan, and I'll do the improvising, okay?"
When everyone was in place the clowns entered and began their routines. They had all agreed that Xena would let off the first black powder explosion when they were ready for the diversion to start. She waited until Jake, high aloft in the rafters gave her the nod; the sorcerer was in place. She set off the fuse for first explosion as she motioned to Gabrielle, who dropped the dumbbell that counterweighted the buckets of flour, and watched the dusty stuff come down. It was a bit more extreme than she'd anticipated; Ned and Pete had clearly gotten into the idea and the audience was about to get a thorough coating of white stuff. She wanted to throw the sorcerer off balance and hoped to have a moment to capture her when the surprise claimed her attention, but she wasn't sure she would even be able to see her at this rate.
Several things happened simultaneously: two thousand people sneezed as one; the powder explosion rocked the entire neighborhood; the audience was blanketed in white, and Morren tipped out a barrel of pumpkins and watermelon in front of the elephants. Instantly they began stomping the fruits and tossing pieces at the audience and each other, while their keepers franticly tired to wipe watermelon off their faces. Lucy escaped and startled the camels; and when they began to run she went after them, crown askew, dragging the underwear behind her. The clowns tripped over the seals, but that didn't stop the short men from rending off their costumes and makeup as they set fire to the chariot cars they hated so much. Most of the horses bolted at the sight and smell of flame. In the rush, Ned upset the basket of fish that was supposed to reward the seals and they began tossing them into the air like so many slippery missiles. The monkeys had also escaped and begun scampering up the ropes to the top of the tent, where they threw bits of fruit and roasted nuts at each other, raining them down on the audience.
It was absolute pandemonium.
The guards charged in, but there was little they could do; several disappeared as they clung to the horses and camels harnesses, one grabbed for Lucy and went down when she sat on him, licking his face where one of the fish had left a tasty smear of scales.
After the first gasp of fear, the audience became enthralled, clapping wildly. The appearance of the sorcerer, Siamese cat still on her shoulder, only increased their appreciation.
"SILENCE!" the sorcerer roared out. But without the amulets it went unnoticed. The elephants now began showering everyone with water as well as watermelon, and the flour began to form a sticky dough on the nearly bald pates of the guards. One yelled "Stop!" loud enough to be heard in Delphi, but his charge into the melee was somewhat spoilt when he sipped on a fish and went down hard, completing the effect as he slid half way across the arena on his rear end, now bright orange from having sat in the shell of a broken pumpkin. One of the orangutans caught sight of his bright orange bottom and instantly wrapped her arms around him. The sorceress' champions were now few in number. But nothing daunted the cat leapt from the magician's shoulder and went straight for Susan.
"ErrAWkk! Bite me!" the parrot screamed.
"I think that is the general idea, you feathered idiot! Get back here!" Morren yelled at her pet.
But Susan would not be denied her chance in the fight. Still repeating, "Reealy big shew," she flew twice around the inner ring and dive-bombed the cat. Fur and feathers were flying when Gabrielle came to the rescue. She swung her staff under the body of the parrot and Susan had no choice but to jump up on it, leaving the cat with one bright blue tail feather clutched between its paws. It was just about to lunge for the Bard when Jake slammed a gourd over it, effectively trapping it underneath. Weighting the top with the dumbbell, he turned to check out the fray.
Xena was standing a puddle of water, facing off with the sorceress. Just as the evil woman drew back her arm, Jake shouted, "No, Xena! Jump!" The Warrior did as ordered, and a huge bolt of lightning came crackling at her as she seized a rope and swung herself clear. The lightening just grazed her breastplates, sending out a shower of sparks, but the main bolt arched up searching for metal to ground itself. Finding none, it arched over the heads of the crowd, and swung back down. Just at that moment the bull elephant doused the sorceress with water, and the lightning, now finding itself connected to the perfect ground, surged through the witch. There was a boom! And a sizzle! And then the witch was nothing but a smoking pile of damp cinders in the center of the ring. Xena dropped to the sand and let go of the rope. Everyone was silent for a long moment, and the sound of raindrops beginning to patter on the canvass ceiling could be heard, along with the noise of rope slithering through a pulley. Then, released from its counterweight, a giant boot fell smack dab onto the center of the pile of ash. The dazed crowd began to applaud, and Gabrielle started forward to look. Xena held her back.
"Just wait a moment, Gabrielle."
With a great thud the second of the giant's boots landed right next to them.
"Reeally Big Shew" Susan squawked.
"Let that be a lesson, Gabrielle. Always wait for the other shoe to drop"
"What She Said!" Susan agreed.
The crowd was departing, eager to escape the rain which was now starting to fall in torrents. It was clear the freeze was over, and the big tent began to sag with the weight. It was not long before Xena and Gabrielle stood in the center of the ring, alone with Jake, Morren a few of her animals, and the smoking pile of ash that was all that was left of the sorceress.
"We defeated her! We won!" Morren observed, a big grin making her look years younger.
"What She Said" Susan agreed in a sleepy voice.
"Yes, and no," Xena replied. "She's dead now. It appears her spells have ended, but we have no idea what her magic was, or how it worked. We'd better check on Senticleswe don't even know if he's still alive."
"Did you say Senticles? Senticles, the master craftsman?" One of the dwarves, now in street-clothes and on his way out of the dressing room, wanted to know.
"Yes, the famous toymaker. Do you know him?" Gabrielle responded.
"KNOW him? Know HIM? Well, only by his work of course. But that was why we came here to begin with, in hope of studying with him. Then the dratted witch caught us. Hey boysboys! Guess what?" A crowd of dwarves poured out of the dressing area at his call.
"Why don't you go check on him," Xena suggested, giving direction to the warehouse. "We'll search the witches quarters and hope we can find some trace of King Lynal and find out how the magic worked. Jake? Come with us?"
"Sure. The guys wanted to go out drinking, but why not?"
They looked long and hard at the sorceress possessions, but found no real clues.
"Now, there's someone who was really into handcuffs," Gabrielle commented.
"Yes. But we knew that," Xena sighed.
"Let's call it a night," the Bard suggested. "Perhaps we can tackle Margon the magistrate tomorrow; he may know something."
"No, the sooner the better, Xena said. "He might flee the, uh, coop otherwise."
"I'll go," Jake offered.
"I think I'll head back to the barn then, Gabrielle said. "I wouldn't be much help anyway."
"I'd disagree with that, Gabrielle," Xena said. "But go rest. I'll catch up with you later."
The Bard set out through the dark and now mostly empty streets. The rain had settled down to a light drizzle. She'd declined Pete's offer to see her home, knowing that even tired as she was, taking care of herself was not a problem. She was nearing the barn when she heard her name called.
She looked around for the source of the voice; there was no one in the street, yet it seemed to be coming from right nearby.
"Gabrielle! Up here!" She looked up and sure enough there was a chubby silhouette, floating above her like a flying parchment.
"Senticles? Senticles, what are you doing up there?"
"I'm free! Heh, heh! I'm free and I can fly! Ding-dong the witch is dead, ha ha! Look at me flying! I'm not paralyzed anymore! I have the whole sky opened up! Wah-Hoooo!"
With that the elderly man looped the loop, circled the bard twice, and attempted to drop to his feet, although he ended up knocking her gracelessly into the mud instead.
"Landing needs a little work," He said as he helped her up and brushed the mud from her face. "But it's so exhilarating! I feel like a boy again!"
* * *
It was late when Xena returned to the barn, but the bard was still awake.
"Find anything?" She asked.
"Not a thing," Xena sighed. "He left for the circus early in the evening and hasn't been seen since. There was nothing at his house. I did see a herd of flying horses on my way home though."
"Oh, they must have been under the enchantment, and now they are loose! Senticles is free, and he can fly too!"
Gabrielle proceeded to fill Xena in on her conversation with the old man.
"That's great, Gabrielle, but we still haven't found King Lynal. Or the trader, for that matter. What are we going to do with his stuff if we can't find him? And what is Northopolis going to do without a ruler? And tomorrow is Solstice eve, too."
"I think it's today by now, Xena. Let's get some sleep. We can figure things out in the morning."
* * *
The morning of Solstice eve dawned fair and mild. A golden mist hung in the air, and as the light crept into the barn it gilded the thatch, the corner of a feed bucket, the handle of a hayfork. As the sun climbed higher it cast its light over the outline of two women asleep in the hay. The taller one held the small blonde's hand to her lips, and both of them were smiling in their sleep. Morren looked at them and sighed as she went to get water for the animals; it wouldn't be long before everything was right with them. She herself was getting too old to take the daily grind of life on the road with an animal show. But since her son had been lost (or strayed or stolen) she had no family left to take over.
Xena and Gabrielle split up, ostensibly to cover more ground, but in reality so they could buy each other a few gifts. About mid-morning, Xena met Jake and Tobias in the marketplace and stopped to talk. As they were chatting she suddenly caught sight of the missing trader; he was trying to sneak by unnoticed. She pounced on him, catching him by the scruff of the neck.
"Gotcha!" she exulted. "I have your pack, and I'm very tired of carrying it around, oh careless one."
The trader seemed very embarrassed. "Oh. Er. Yes. Well." He stuttered. Then he caught sight of Jake and Tobias. "Oh. It's you!" He exclaimed. "The man from my dream," he added. "I'm not really a trader, you see. I'm a thief actually. Or I was. But since I met you two at the inn, I've been dreaming of a man with a donkey who could show me a better way to live. I've come to find you."
Jake seemed unsurprised. He accepted the stranger calmly. Smiling slightly he reached into the man's pocket and removed a set of lock-picks. "You won't be needing these any more," he said, handing them to Xena. "They'll be safe with her."
"But what about your pack of merchandise?" Xena asked. "I kinda wanted to buy these suspenders off you." She plucked at the item in question.
"It was all stolen," the trader/thief said. "Keep it, give it awayit's all the same to me."
"I'll do that," Xena said.
* * *
"Why don't you watch where you're going!" A talking solstice tree said with some irritation as Gabrielle stumbled into him, shedding the packages which had obscured her view.
"Sorry," The Bard was trying to apologize, but the tree had already stormed off in a huff.
"Well. The nerve. If some people weren't eight feet wide, some other people wouldn't need to look so hard, " she added, mostly to herself as she picked up her purchases.
She had discovered that many of the merchants in town had subscribed to the pig lottery; with each purchase over a certain number of dinars they gave away a chance in the raffle. There were a lot of smaller prizes also, so the chances of winning something were not so bad as might generally be expected of that kind of thing. "And what we'd do with a pig I have no idea," she thought to herself. "I suppose we could give it to Morren in a pinch." The drawing was in the late afternoon; she and Xena planned to meet and go to Senticles workshop from there.
* * *
So, Xena, how many tickets do you have?" The Bard asked as they took their place with the rest of the townspeople.
"Just one. You?"
"Just one? Xena did you do any shopping? I've got 18. How are you going to have gifts for everyone, penny candy?"
"It's taken care of, Gabrielle. How did you get 18 tickets? That's"
"Relax, Xena, I didn't spend 450 dinars. Morren gave me a bunch from the fruit and fish store where she gets the circus food. She doesn't want to come to these drawings any more. Says they remind her too much of someone she lost. If we win on one of her tickets we'll split the prize."
Soon Mendacikles called the drawing to order, and everyone fell silent. The town's entrant to the Miss Known World pageant picked the tickets from a large wooden tub, calling out the numbers and waiting as everyone checked their tickets, or waited for someone who could read to do so for them. Xena found her mind wandering; she was thinking that the big tub would be nicer if it was full of warm water, and possibly Gabrielle. She was giving her whole mind to an imaginative washing of certain areas of the Bard when her elbow was jogged.
"Xena! That's your number! Get up there!" The Bard hissed, sotto voce.
Half in a daze, Xena went up to the steps of the agora to claim the prize. She hardly heard the words "gift certificate" before the next winner was called and she stumbled back to the bard.
"What did you win?" Gabrielle asked her, voice dripping with excitement.
"Some kind of gift certificateHush. They're doing the last drawing."
"And the lucky winner is Phocas! Enjoy your pig, young man!" Mendacikles patted the blushing, hulking youngster on his burly shoulder, while nearby Xena overheard two women discussing the outrage of fixed contests where the head of town council's son-in-law won the best prize.
"So what did we win?" Gabrielle demanded again.
Xena tore open the envelope. "It's a gift certificate for uh. Um. Maybe I can exchange it," she faltered.
"Don't be silly, Xena what could be so bad that you'd want to OH."
They had won dinner for two.
At the best seaside restaurant.
Gabrielle turned away in disgust, dropping the parchment as she did so. Xena bent to pick it up and found herself eye to eye with the pig as the lucky over-all winner of the contest tried to drag him through the crowd on a rope.
"Oink?" The pig said sadly as it looked Xena in the eye. "Oink oinky oink-oink?"
Xena took a second look at the pig. There was a tattoo on its shoulder, a symbol she recognized from her last visit. It was the royal crest. What would a pig, ring in its nose, be doing wearing the royal crest? Wait a minute ring? RING!
"Hey! YouPhocas!" she yelled. "That pig isn't too keen to go with you. How about a trade?"
"What you got?"
"Uh, dinner for two? Take your wife on vacation?"
"Nuh-uh. Too expensive."
"How about dinner plus travel expenses?"
"Xena what are you doing? What do we want with a pig?"
"We don'tthe town does. Just trust me, Gabrielle," Xena whispered back.
It took a little haggling, and Xena pledged all their savings but at last they were the proud owners of the recalcitrant pig and Phocas the city councilman's son-in-law was the unsuspecting recipient of dinner for two at Corfu's best restaurant.
"Hope he likes the color purple," Gabrielle commented dryly as he went off whistling.
Xena led them around the corner into an alley, dropped the rope, took the ring in the pig's nose in her hands, gave it a push while twisting, and suddenly a very naked king Lynal was kneeling on all fours in front of them.
"I knew those leather pants would come in handy somehow," Xena said, getting them from the trader's pack and handing them to the embarrassed young man. They turned their backs while he got dressed, as he thanked them over and over for rescuing him from the sorceress enchantment.
"But how did you know?" he asked.
"Your tattoo," Xena explained. "That, and the ring. It was just like the ones the circus animals had."
"If you hadn't found me, I would have gone to my grave as a pig," Lynal said, trying to hold up his pants, which kept slipping. "You two really saved my bacon."
"It was nothing," Xena insisted, sighing slightly as she gave up the idea of keeping the rainbow suspenders for herself and handed them to Lynal. "Now, there's someone who really wants to see you."
"Senticles! How will he have managed all the toys without me! Let's go!" Lynal took off, striding ahead of the women.
* * *
The orphanage windows glowed warmly with firelight as they approached, and the door stood welcomingly open. On the roof, the flying horses quietly chewed their oats. Inside, Morren and Susan were already there, serving hot punch, and a crowd of all 36 dwarves, as well as Senticles, were munching little sandwiches. There was a touching reunion between the de-enchanted king and his friend. Morren looked on, when suddenly she turned white, dropped her ladle and fainted.
Lynal picked her up and they settled her on a bearskin rug. As she came around she murmured, "Lynal? Son?"
"Is it you? My kidnapped boy, all grown up? What happened to you?"
"It's me, mom. Where were you? I thought you were dead. I ended up at the orphanage. King Silvus and Queen Amalia adopted me."
"Shiver me timbers!" Susan commented.
After much discussion and many tears the happily reunited family listened as the bells rang in the Solstice.
"It's time for presents!" Senticles announced, waving toward the fireplace. Sure enough, the long mantle was decorated with greenery and 42 baby booties hung from it, drooping with goodies. There was one for every one, including Susan. Gabrielle gave Xena another pair of rainbow suspenders. Xena had used the trader's fabric to make Gabrielle a pink nightie. Senticles got a set of dumbbells that balanced his tendency to drift absentmindedly for the ceiling. Lynal was promised Lucy's crown, which was really his, lost when the witch turned him into a pig. Each of the dwarves got a favorite tool made of chocolate and wrapped in silver paper.
The party lasted well into the night, but finally, one by one, the revelers went off to sleep. At last only Xena and Gabrielle were the only ones left awake.
"Good Solstice?" Xena asked.
"The best." Gabrielle replied.
"Anything else you wanted?"
"Well, perhaps one thing."
"I want to sit in Xena's lap."
"Now and every night from now on"
Xena opened her arms and the Bard melted into them. Whatever they said to each other was lost in the dim glow of the fire, but Susan must have heard it, because from her perch on the mantle where she was happily incubating the glass egg in its nest of fuzz, she echoed in a sleepy voice:
"What She Said."
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