A middle-aged Xena and Gabrielle find themselves reprising roles from their past, after receiving a mysterious invitation from Cleades, the baby-to-man monarch of season fourís "Key To The Kingdom."
FIFTY WINTERS AGO
"F ifty winters ago. Hard to believe, eh?" The tall, distinguished speaker grinned. "Technically, itís been a little longer than that for me, but - at our age - whoís counting?"
The handful of men and women chuckled. All felt lucky to be alive, let alone quibbling over a few yearsí difference in their experiences.
"Ha, whoever made that threat shouldíve caught me back when I still had my figure." The stout woman in her 60ís pinched the flesh hanging from her arm. "Then I mightíve cared."
"Me, I wouldnítíve passed this up for the world. Hades himself couldnítíve stopped me, even with this bum leg of mine."
"Yep, ainít often I git ta laze around in a fancy place like this." The sturdy male speaker glanced around the banquet hall they lounged in. "I got ta give it ta Cleades for buildiní this guest compound. That castle of his was fine when he had ta worry more about keepiní people out, but it sure werenít that comfy for folks inside."
An expensively attired matron brushed nervously through her silver-blond hair. "Thatís why I was so surprised by the threatening note. Itís been ages since weíve had to worry about attacks in my realm. I felt transported back to the days when warlords ran amuck."
"It is strange," agreed the stout woman. "Robbery I could understand." She smiled at the matron. "We do have a few notables among us worth kidnapping or something. But killing? What possible harm could we pose to anybody?"
"I wonder if itíll keep the others away. Cleades said heíd found a couple more members during his travels," added the tall gentleman. "I was looking forward to meeting them. Iím always curious to see if anybody can break my record as the oldest - well, `firstí to be more accurate."
The man with the bum leg nodded. "We could use some new blood. Another 10 years and most of usíll probably be gone."
"Fine with me. I ainít had it as easy as some of the rest of ya. The next few days Iíll have a big, soft bed and all the food I kin eat. No roosters gettiní me up afore I want or leaky roof calliní my name."
"I hope the others arrive soon," the matron said with concern. "Otherwise, Iíll worry some thugs really did attack them."
"Ah, I wouldnít worry too much." The man with the bum leg awkwardly pushed himself to his feet. "Probably somebodyís idea of a joke. Knuckleheads with nothiní better to do than try and scare a bunch of old folks grayer than we already are." He yawned and stretched. "Well, Iím ready for that nice, soft bed. If somebody kills me in my sleep, Iíll die a happy man."
"Fifty winters. Thatís about how long thisís been gnawiní at me. Evertime I thought I had it licked, thereíd be somethiní to remind me." The burly white-haired warrior paced in front of the campfire, his eyes burning into the motley "army" heíd assembled. "Most of youíre too young to remember, but I do. Those old buzzards do too."
"I hear the warning didnít work too hot, least not on the couple I know about," said the only woman in the group. She flicked her finger against her knife blade. "Guess Iíll get to use this after all."
"You said we wouldnít have to kill nobody," a youngish man piped up. "Allís we had to do was scare `em, keep `em away and run off the few who showed up."
A grizzled warrior in black snickered. "Whatís a matter, boy? Donít have the stomach for a little bloodletting?" He searched out the approval of others dressed in tattered battle clothes like himself.
"Yeah," another older man said. "Not much action anymore like in the good old days. My Pop could take whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. If we donít fight for our traditions, who will?"
The gang murmured among themselves, with varying levels of enthusiasm for going beyond a few scare tactics. Finally a man with scars on his face stalked over to stand with their leader.
"Enough! We didnít come all this way to cluck like a bunch of chickens! Areus knows what heís talkiní about. He spent years planniní this. When itís over, weíll have rid ourselves of the blot on our heritage. I say we cut the crap and get on with why weíre here."
The woman brandished her knife. "Yeah!"
"I want my revenge!" declared another member.
"Blood will have blood!"
Areus raised his sword. "What about the rest of you? Ya want your seed to live on in shame?"
"No!" several voices shouted in unison.
"Do we let a bunch of sorry old wimps defeat us without even lifting a hand?"
"Do we march on Cleades and take our due?"
"Excellent." Areus smiled grimly. "This is my destiny. Follow me and reclaim yours!"
"Fifty winters." Xena rested her head on the tree behind her, gazing into the distance. She exhaled a long breath. "Whoídíve thought?"
Xena absently stroked the fine blond hair splayed across her lap. "Hmmm?"
"Weíre supposed to be celebrating the time weíve actually spent together."
"Oh, yeah. Right." Xena shook her head and grinned down at Gabrielle. "Though, technically, we were together the 25 years Ares had us frozen - just in separate coffins."
"`Technically,í we might as wellíve been dead." Gabrielle smirked. "I donít recall you ever hopping up to wish me ëgood morning.í"
"How do you know I didnít in my dreams?"
"Because, if you did, Iíd know. If you did and I didnít know, that doesnít count as ëtogether.í"
"Ah." Xena looked out again. "I do wonder sometimes about those lost years. Not just missing Eve grow up, but whether I mightíve been able to do more good. You know?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes. "Not really. I figure we did well enough the most important years."
"Yeah? Which ones? The battles with the gods? Saving humankind from Dahak? Making sure Chin and Egypt and Rome and other places got a chance to get out from under tyrants? Being involved with -."
"Ahem." Gabrielle scowled up with a "could you be so dense" expression.
"Um, being with you, which I was saving for last, because those have been the best 25 years of my life?"
"Good save. Though technically itís 24. You keep forgetting the year I spent comatose in that ring of fire - ëtechnicallyí making me another year younger than you, since I donít seem to have aged then either."
"I still had you inside, despite my amnesia. That doesnít count as ëtogetherí?"
"Not until you actually popped up to wake me. Quite nicely, I might add. Certainly one ëgood morningí kiss Iíll never forget."
"Heh. You shouldíve seen what it took to get there. Fending off that slob Hrothgar. Fighting those Valkyries. Literally leaping through fire, not to mention -."
Gabrielle sat up. "Look around." She swept her arm to indicate the lovely scenery, the tablecloth-covered blanket laden with dishes of fruit and cheese, a basket of breads and pastries, the goblets and pitcher of wine, centered by a vase of wild flowers. "Are you trying to take the romance out of this?"
Xena blinked, then grinned sheepishly. "Sorry. Guess from my standpoint, thatís not possible." She waited for Gabrielleís response with the slight smugness of someone whoíd managed to say the right thing and win at the same time.
Gabrielle stared back with the graceful resignation of someone defeated by irrefutable love. "You know, this little celebration of ours was to remind us why weíve tolerated each other so long. Perhaps I shouldíve been more precise in my wish."
"Címere." Xena pulled Gabrielle next to her and wrapped her arm around the smaller womanís shoulders. With her free hand, she picked up a goblet to give Gabrielle. She poured wine into it and then into a goblet for herself.
"As someone who once believed herself destined to be alone, I salute the one person who tolerated me enough to prove me wrong. I pray itís my destiny to be with you another 50 Ö um Ö 25 Ö 24 years." She clunked goblets with Gabrielle.
Gabrielle wryly shook her head. She raised her goblet. "As someone who once doubted sheíd meet anyone fascinating enough to spend eternity with, I salute the one person who tolerated me enough to prove me wrong. I pray itís my destiny to be with you forever." Her eyes twinkling with just a wee bit of smug one-upwomanship, Gabrielle clunked goblets with Xena.
The two sealed their toasts with a kiss. They sighed contentedly and enjoyed the palette of spring colors that seemed especially ordered for that moment.
"This is nice."
"Things have been pretty hectic lately. Didnít realize how long itís been since we had time to ourselves like this."
Gabrielle chuckled. "So much for our ësemi-retirement.í We forgot to schedule in some peace and quiet. Maybe if we Ö." Gabrielle felt the familiar tensing in her partnerís body. "What?"
"Someoneís coming." Out of habit, Xena pulled her chakram closer. "Too noisy to be a real threat, but Ö." She turned her head toward the sounds of underbrush crunching. She relaxed when she saw the tall, slim figure of Daracles, one of their younger neighbors.
"Gabrielle! Xena!" Daracles puffed a little from what must have been a rather fast-paced trek. "Eve told me where youíd probably be." He walked over and stooped to catch his breath.
Xena scowled at him. "Did the sky fall in over the Village?"
Daracles frowned nervously at what sounded like a trick question. With Xena, any answer might be wrong. "Um, ësky fallí?"
"I thought my instructions were pretty clear. Everybody keep away unless the skyís falling."
Daracles ducked his head. "Blame it on Eve. Iím just the messenger." He peered at Xena hopefully. "Okay?" He turned to Gabrielle for support.
"Itís all right, Daracles. Donít pay Xena any mind. If Eve sent you, it must be important."
"Whew!" Daracles dropped down beside the blanket. "I understand this was supposed to be a special day for you," he said, indicating the spread of goodies. "Eve said youíd want to know."
Xena blew out a prolonged sigh. "We might, if maybe we knew what it was weíd want to know."
It took Daracles a moment to realize heíd been asked a question. "Oh, y-y-yes, yes, of course," he stammered, fumbling at the pack on his back. "Eve said it had something to do with King Cleades. An invitation to a party, I think." Finally he found what he was searching for. "She sent a note." He offered the message to Xena, who crooked her head, none too happily, in Gabrielleís direction. He handed the note to Gabrielle.
"Hold on," he said, reaching back in the pack. "Got a couple more Ö. Ah, here they are." He gave Gabrielle two small, rolled pieces of parchment. His mission now accomplished, Daracles looked longingly at the basket of baked goods.
"Help yourself," Gabrielle said absently. She studied with mixed emotions the three missives sheíd placed in her lap. She fingered the one with King Cleadesí seal affixed. "Xena," she began, not daring to look at her partner, "You havenít seen him since Ö. Gods, he must be in his 70ís now. Might be the coronation of one of his heirs, or a wedding." She finally glanced at Xena, whose dour expression hadnít changed.
"Peachy. You know how much I love pomp and circumstance." The warrior cut her eyes at Daracles, then Gabrielle. "Talk about taking the romance out of things, I think Iíve been trumped." She stretched and rose. "Iíll let you handle this. Iím going for a swim. Join me when youíre finished." Her voice softened. "Please?"
Gabrielle smiled, knowing they were all better off with Xena in the lake than discussing party arrangements. "Sure. Iíd like that."
She watched her partner stroll away, the sunlight glancing off the dark, shiny mane. Except for the silver at her temples, a few more lines on her face, maybe some added thickness around the slender waist, Xenaís appearance hadnít changed much over the years. Gabrielle chuckled, recognizing that she wouldnít have noticed anyway. To her, Xena would always be the ageless goddess in white who magically appeared to rescue her with feral grin and breathing fire. Who even now Ö.
Xena had stripped down to nothing and was running to dive in the lake, as fluid and powerful as ever.
"Is there anything else?"
Gabrielle focused blankly on the man facing her, having completely forgotten about him. "Iím sorry. What?"
Daracles licked his fingers of the glaze from the sweet roll heíd eaten. "You want me to take a message back to Eve or anything?"
"Um Ö." Gabrielle glanced down at the notes. "Have another pastry. Let me read these first."
Daracles grinned, happy to oblige.
Gabrielle unrolled the first note, smiling bemusedly as she read it. She frowned at the second note and hastily opened Eveís to see if there was an explanation. When sheíd finished it, she rolled and tapped it against her chin.
"You can go back whenever youíre ready," she instructed Daracles. "Tell Eve weíll let her know what weíre going to do." She got up and took a few steps toward the lake. "Thanks for bringing these," she said over her shoulder. "Take whatever youíd like to nibble on during your walk back."
"Thanks!" Daracles palmed an apple and headed home.
Xena floated peacefully in the middle of the lake. Gabrielle smiled to herself when she saw the dark head rise, as though sensing the bardís presence. Gabrielle waved and beckoned the warrior closer.
"You coming in?!" Xena shouted. She plunged under and came up grinning through the streams trickling down her face. "Waterís great!"
"Iíd love to, but we need to talk first!"
"Do we have to?!" Xena tread where she was, stubborn reluctance oozing from every exposed pore.
Gabrielle laughed. "Weíre old enough not to have to do anything!" She batted her eyelids seductively. "I want to!" She heard "Crap!" even though Xena hadnít voiced that sentiment. They both knew the warrior couldnít resist the eye bat. Xena swam slowly to the bank.
"This better be good!"
"You saying Iím not good enough just standing here with nothing to say at all?"
Xena appraised the pleasingly rounded figure. It amazed her how much Gabrielle still reminded her of the cute, feisty girl whoíd stood protectively in front of her kinspeople, boldly stating, "Take me!" to the slavers whoíd threatened to swoop them up. Little did Xena know sheíd be the one to obey that audacious command. Wondering if Gabrielle had been born knowing how to get her way, Xena glowered as she stalked through the shallow water toward her smirking partner.
"Didnít anybody ever teach you to play fair?"
Gabrielle gathered Xenaís clothes and walked up to grab her wet partner around the waist. "Youíll have to take that up with my mentor. I learned to play by her rules."
"Maybe by her next life, your ëmentorí willíve learned to keep her mouth shut," Xena muttered as the two strolled back to their blanket.
"Heh. I didnít notice she had a problem with that in this life." Gabrielle took a cloth from their bags and helped Xena dry off. "Sit."
Xena sat. Gabrielle knelt behind her and began rubbing her shoulders.
"Kinda tense there, old girl."
"Mmmm." Xena lowered her head, swinging her hair forward. "You oughtta know, Miss Give It and Take It Away."
"Iím sorry." Gabrielle kissed the back of Xenaís neck. She resumed her massage. "I know how much you wanted us to relax today. I wouldnít have let a little olí party invitation ruin that, unless there was a good reason."
"Yeah," Xena sighed. "I know. Might as well get it over with. Iíll either be mad or make you mad. Whichever, youíve got your hands around my throat anyway."
"Xeenaa!" Gabrielle rapped the warrior on the head, laughing. "Such a cynic." She handed Xena her clothes. "All done. For now. Put those on before you catch a chill."
The warrior rolled her eyes. "As if. Quit stalling. Iím as relaxed and pliable as Iím gonna get." She started dressing, expecting to endure Gabrielleís gentle persuasions. She didnít hear any. Xena narrowed her eyes. "Exactly what kind of party is this?"
Gabrielle ducked her head. "Um, not sure. One where we have to wear costumes?"
"Costumes?! Oh, for Ö."
"Give me that!" Xena snatched the Kingís note with an exasperated sigh. "`My dear friendsí Ö blah blah Ö ëlong timeí Ö blah blah Ö ëin two weeks at the guest compoundí Ö blah blah Ö." Xena brought the note closer to her face. "`Please conceal your true identities, as your attendance is to be a surprise for both you and the other guests.í"
"It gets better." Gabrielle handed Xena a second note. "I donít think this oneís from Cleades."
Xena took the note suspiciously. "`To who it may be concerned. You go, you DIE.í" She rubbed at a red smudge on the note. "Whatís this supposed to be? Blood?"
"It would seem so." Gabrielle studied her partner, not sure she really wanted to see the telltale feigned neutrality that meant Xenaís curiosity had been piqued. "According to Eve, that was concealed inside the Kingís invitation. Sheís pretty sure the messenger wasnít aware of it. He said he had several others to deliver."
"Mm." Xena set the mystery note beside her. This party might not be so bad after all. Feeling Gabrielleís probing eyes, she casually slipped into her shirt. The trick was to appear neutral - gracious about the Kingís invitation, but not too enthusiastic about the threat that came with it.
"Donít even try it. "
Xena looked at her partner, all innocence. "Beg your pardon?"
"I can already sense your ëjuicesí going, so letís not waste time pretending youíve developed a sudden yearning to indulge a possibly dying kingís last wishes."
Xena scowled, but didnít bother disputing this accusation. "Talk about cynics," she mumbled. "Youíd think I didnít have a social bone in my body."
"I didnít say that. Itís the people you like ësocializingí with thatís the problem." Gabrielle sighed. "For once, why couldnít a party just be a party? A little gaiety in luxurious surroundings wouldnít kill us." She snorted. "I take that back. In this case, maybe it would."
Xena grinned. "Nah. Weíve got more lives than a cat. Besides," she added with a gleam in her eyes, "maybe Cleades is the one in danger. Maybe he needs our help. Hmmm?" She waited, confident she had a few tricks in her bag that still worked.
Gabrielle knew full well what Xena was up to, but she acknowledged that the insufferable warrior might have a point.
"Okay, Princess I Hate Parties Except When I Might Have To Risk My Not So Young Butt. Whatís your theory on all this?"
Xena picked up the second note, waving it with barely restrained excitement in Gabrielleís face.
"First, Iíd say this is an inside job. Whoever wrote this had access to the Kingís invitations. Second, the threat wasnít addressed specifically to us. Itís very possible others got it too, which could mean it has nothing to do with us. If thatís so, somebody doesnít want this party to happen at all. Finally, Iíd say itís a good bet the potential party poopers would be news to Cleades." Xena pointedly added the finishing touch. "Heíd be a sitting duck."
"Youíre enjoying this, arenít you?"
"Enjoying someone elseís possible misfortune?" Xena assumed an indignant expression. "Iím devastated, simply devastated, that you think so little of my social graces. I donít know how youíve stood me all these years."
Gabrielle ignored Xenaís pitiful act. She sighed as she once again surveyed the remnants of their romantic getaway. In truth, she was more than a little intrigued by the intrigue surrounding the Kingís party. It could end up adding some spice to their anniversary - intrigue for her, mayhem for Xena. She could feel Xenaís eyes calculating how long it would take her to give in. Gabrielle leaned forward.
"We follow the Kingís instructions about disguising ourselves."
Xena nodded vigorously, her lips pressed in a ridiculously serious line.
"Whatever we do, itíll be by mutual decision. No sneaking off on your own."
Xena nodded again.
"One more thing." Gabrielle scowled wryly at her cautiously rejuvenated companion. "Happy anniversary."
T he covered wagon bumped along, a cloaked figure on the driverís bench. A voice drifted from inside.
"I still canít decide which is best."
"Flip a coin."
"Thereís more than two, Xena. Thatís the problem."
"Then ëeenie meenie mynie moí oughtta do the trick."
Gabrielle didnít bother gracing that suggestion with a response. She scowled at the clothes spread from one side of the wagon to the other. It had seemed so simple at first. At least, thatís what sheíd assured Xena. "Lemuelís trading shop should have everything we need. Weíll pop in, pop out and be on our way in no time." That was before her cursed imagination started working overtime.
Once inside Lemuelís, she discovered that nearly every garment she examined reminded her of one of their old adventures. Silks and linen. Fur coats and kimonos. Theater and specialty costumes. Sheíd figured sheíd reprise one of her old roles - maybe the "ghost" when theyíd saved the orphanage, Xenaís "sponsor" at that beauty contest, or the unfortunate "queen" sheíd been forced to portray the time she got kidnapped and Xena blinded.
Sheíd eliminated outfits like the one sheíd worn in Chin. Too many bad memories. The Egyptian style evoked mixed emotions, since theyíd saved Cleopatra the first time, but not the second. Gabrielle chuckled recalling the get-ups sheíd worn when pulling that con with the casino owner, getting the gold statue back for Autolycus or freeing Xena from Shark Island Prison. Maybe a sari from India?
Next thing she knew, Xena was breezing by with her packages, snickering, "See you outside?"
Gabrielle had quickly gathered up almost anything not battle related, promising to pay Lemuel when they returned. Bless him, heíd said he wouldnít charge for what she didnít use. Unfortunately, that hadnít solved her problem. Sheíd hoped to get a hint from Xena, but the warriorís only response was a smirk. Gabrielle refused to beg, instead huffily packing every possible choice.
"See if I care. Probably going disguised as herself." Gabrielle snorted. "Just older."
"Make up your mind yet? Weíll be camping soon. Should get to the compound sometime tomorrow."
Gabrielle could hear the "told ya so" in Xenaís voice. "Old know-it-all." To Xena she called out, "Iím working on the subtleties. Some of us took this more seriously than others of us." Sometime later, she felt the wagon stop. "Curses," she said, hastily moving everything into semi-neat piles. She pushed back the tarp and stepped down to help Xena set up camp.
"So whatís the plan?" Gabrielle asked when theyíd finished their evening meal.
"Not sure yet. Have to see what the compoundís like, how protected it is."
Gabrielle began clearing away their eating utensils. "Wonder who the others are?"
Xena shrugged. "Cleades must think theyíll recognize us, but I canít imagine whoís left to care."
"Xena!" Gabrielle knelt next to her partner with some excitement. "Do you suppose he knows about our anniversary? Maybe itís a surprise party for us?"
"Hmmm." The warrior frowned pensively. "Why would he want the guests of honor disguised?"
"He said everybody would be surprised. Maybe they donít know theyíre celebrating us."
Xena snorted. "And here I thought battle strategy was complicated."
"Well, weíll find out soon enough." Gabrielle shook out her bedroll. She glanced around as though having misplaced something. "Hmmm, now where did I put that comb?" she asked, casually reaching for Xenaís travel bag.
Xena pulled the bag into her lap. "Not in here. Didnít see it when I took stuff out to make room for my costume." She flashed Gabrielle a "youíll have to do better than that" look. She patted the bag. "Itíll make a nice pillow, donít you think?"
"Why, yes," Gabrielle agreed sweetly. She got up and climbed inside the wagon. Mumbling to herself, she grabbed up the first clothes she came to. She stuffed them inside her carry bag and came out to plop down next to Xena. "But not as nice as mine."
Gabrielle wasnít particularly surprised to find Xena gone the next morning, but ground her teeth nonetheless. It irked her that the warriorís energy to spring up at the crack of dawn hadnít lessened one iota over the years. Normally that wouldnít have bothered her, as it had been a long time since some sneak attack on them had necessitated Xenaís waking her with gushes of water. But her instincts told her the warrior was out there putting on her disguise, that sheíd stroll back expecting Gabrielle to be unprepared.
Gabrielle threw back her cover. "Weíll see whoís so smart, Miss Smarty Pants." She strode over to the wagon. "Sometimes I work best under pressure." Sighing at the mess sheíd have to choose from, she spread everything out again, pursed her lips and closed her eyes. "Eenie meenie Ö."
Xena sauntered quietly from behind a tree, a huge grin plastered on her face. As hard as sheíd worked on her dark side, she just couldnít seem to let go of irritating Gabrielle. Sheíd told herself there were some sinful pleasures that made life worth living - like watching the blush spread across her partnerís face, the heaving of her bosom, those luscious lips press together, that foot that tapped in displeasure. Xena sighed. Gabrielle truly was beautiful when angry.
"Gabrielle? You in there?"
Gabrielle froze momentarily. "Hades." She quickly began changing into whatever she had in her hand. "Yes, Iím in here. Um Ö putting the finishing touches on my costume. You have a nice walk? Bring back something for breakfast?"
Xena smirked. "Donít even try it. Fortunately, Iím in the mood to help you out." She jiggled something she had hidden behind her back. "I think the simplest thing is for you to be my Ö."
Gabrielle threw open the tarp to pose in her costume.
Xenaís brows shot up. "Ö Senior concubine?"
Gabrielleís mouth dropped open. If she hadnít known any better, she might not have recognized her soulmate beneath the turban, goatee, mustache, and pronounced paunch hanging over flowing pants.
"Anthrax? From when you pretended to be Genaiaís father and we got Hermesí helmet back?"
Xena bowed with a flourish. "At your service, little lady."
Gabrielle reluctantly admitted that Xena had chosen well. Nobody would guess that "Anthrax" was actually Ö. Suddenly it dawned on her what Xena had said. Concubine?! Gabrielle glanced down at herself. She touched the top of the bodice that came down unexpectedly low over her breasts, the split that nearly dissected the front of the short skirt. She forced a smile.
"You donít think this is appropriate? This ëlookí worked well enough that time we helped Ares with his farm."
Xena sucked her lips in, enjoying the moment, but not suicidal enough to show it too much. She stroked her goatee, as though truly giving Gabrielleís choice consideration.
"Fine. If this shows a little too much imagination for your tastes Ö."
"No, no, nothing wrong with not leaving too much to the imagination, when youíre trying to fool somebody."
Gabrielle folded her arms across her exposed chest. "Okay, letís hear your idea."
Xena held up a dark wig. "Um, well, maybe this, a peasant dress, big floppy hat."
"Oh, thatís imaginative. And just who am I supposed to be?"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Oooo, and so original too."
Xena shrugged. "Suit yourself." She turned to kneel beside their bedrolls, mainly so Gabrielle wouldnít see the grin on her face. "Give me a good excuse for some exercise. You know, fending off any guests who mistake you for the party favors." Xenaís shoulders started shaking despite her best efforts to be good.
Gabrielleís cheeks reddened. Her bosom heaved, lips pressed, foot tapped. "Tell me again why it is I tried in vain to get you to redeem yourself?"
Xena gazed over her shoulder at the beautifully irritated love of her life. "`Cause youíre a sucker for lost causes and couldnít help yourself?"
The elevated road offered a view of the castle above, as well as of the guest compound nestled among the trees at the small mountainís base. The four wings of the main structure formed a rectangular shape. The lush grassy area in the middle featured a flower garden, canopied area and archery range. A large stable stood outside near the main entrance, presumably already hosting some of the horses to several wagons.
"I donít like it."
"Whatís not to like? Too peaceful and quiet for you?"
"That, and the fact that I donít see any guards. A whole army could be in those woods, and you wouldnít know until they were partying in your face."
The horses shifted restlessly as Xena held them steady while studying the situation.
"Xena, we canít sit here all day." Gabrielle pointed to the wagons. "Iíd say quite a few guests decided to come despite any threats."
Xena longed for the days she could burst in, shimmy down walls or otherwise arrive unannounced. She peeked at Gabrielle out the corner of her eye.
"Absolutely not. Either we camp here until trouble actually appears, or we go down and figure out what to do then."
Xena cut her eyes at her partner. "I mightíve said that, if youíd given me a chance."
"Good. Then weíre agreed. So which is it?"
Xena snapped the reins. "Didnít realize youíd become so fond of ambushes or getting jumped inside," she groused as they continued down the road to the compound.
"Deny you a chance to show your stuff? Nah."
Xena raised a brow. "What about the danger to my ëpoor, old bodyí? You suddenly not concerned about that either?"
"Nothing wrong with your senses." Gabrielle smirked. "No doubt you noticed the absence of smoke or flocks of frightened birds indicating the gathering of many humans nearby. At least, not the kind whoíd probably use farm wagons and old mules. Or forget to post sentries around." She chuckled at the reaction this provoked. "I figure youíve decided we have a little time to scope things out and devise a plan later."
"You know, if youíre gonna be my `good little wife,í you could use some practice. A person could get the wrong idea about who really wears the pants."
Gabrielle reached over to tweak Xenaís mustache. "You forget, Iím a fast learner. Howís this?" She blinked her eyes and fluttered her hands. "Besides, what else could I be, with this virginal dress you talked me into?" She disgustedly flicked the brim of the floppy hat that partially covered her primly knotted brunette wig. "I look like a puppet," she groused, brushing her hand disdainfully over the rouge on her cheeks.
Xena coughed. She carefully formed her next words. "We had to do something drastic. That hair Ö those abs Ö and shoulders, triceps, thighs. Why, if weíd let any of those legendary body parts show, itíd be a dead give away." She smiled sweetly.
"You know, if youíre gonna be my handsome - if overweight - husband, it would behoove you not to do anything that might make whatís under this dress a mere memory."
Xena swallowed, wisely sending her retort back down with all the others that might not be good for her health. She couldnít do anything about the grin, though, so hunched forward, screwing her face up in concentration on their surroundings.
"Iíll be Anthraxís wife, but I refuse to use that silly name from last time."
Xena studiously kept her eyes on the road. "Spitunia?"
"Ugh. Donít remind me."
"Aphrodite didnít mind using it."
"Whatever, itís time to get in character. Somebody might be watching."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Sure, if theyíve got a telescope." Still, they were close enough not to take any chances. Sheíd let Xena win this round.
No one seemed to notice when they pulled up to the stable.
"I look okay?" Xena asked as she helped Gabrielle from the wagon.
Gabrielle patted Xenaís unusually soft - and shifty - paunch. "Yeah, long as you donít let anybody but me hug you."
"Crap." Xena stopped a few feet from the entrance to examine herself. "You think I should - ." Her head jerked up as she heard a scraping sound. A large peephole opened in the door, soon revealing an eye.
"Got an invitation with the Kingís seal on it?" a masculine voice asked.
The two visitors exchanged glances.
"Um, sure." Gabrielle fumbled around in her carry bag. "Here Ödear," she said demurely, quickly deciding to let Xena do the honors.
Xena suppressed a smirk and took the invitation. She handed it through the hole. A few moments later, the door swung in.
"Canít be too careful," the man stated. He limped backwards. "Come on in. Nameís Lynal. Iíve got the escort shift for now."
Xena and Gabrielle unpacked their things in their nicely appointed bedchamber. Lynal had dropped them off at their door, hastily explaining that most of the other guests had retired to their rooms until supper, that heíd be back when everyone assembled in a couple of hours. He obviously wasnít accustomed to playing host. Except for a brief exchange of pleasantries with Xena, he hadnít encouraged much conversation.
"I think we can safely say heís not one of the Kingís servants." Gabrielle tossed her hat in a corner and walked around the room, inspecting the small tub draped with towels, sliding her hand across the fine linen on the huge bed, smelling the flowers in a silver vase on the nightstand. "But somebody sure knows how to spoil their guests." She sampled the fruit and cheese from an ornate platter which, along with wine and metal goblets, set atop a small table.
Xena stood frowning out a window that opened onto the center garden. "The question is, why no sign of Cleades? Are the guests running the show?"
"Mmm, who cares?" Gabrielle luxuriated contentedly on the bed. "Iíd be fine staying right here, ordering in. Our own Anniversary Suite."
The warrior turned and leaned against the wall. "And the possible assassins? We just forget about them?"
"Xena, Xena, Xena." Gabrielle sat up and adjusted her wig. "What do you have against romance that makes you want to stomp its little head whenever it pokes up?"
"As I recall, youíre the one who thought we should come."
"But not just for the mayhem, much as I look forward to that, of course." Gabrielle got up and went over to lean against her partner. "I pictured something like this waiting for us. I hoped thereíd be moments to relax - you know, before, in between or after the mayhem."
Xena sighed. She wrapped her arms around Gabrielle. "Iím sorry. Itís just Ö. Weíre not much closer to knowing whatís going on than we were yesterday." She rested her chin on Gabrielleís head. "Whatís Cleades got in common with somebody like Lynal? Is everybody like him? Have they done something worth being killed? His caution about letting us in suggests he knows about the threat. Why isnít somebody doing more about it, instead of napping like everythingís peachy?"
"Is it likely thereíll be mayhem before Lynal summons us?"
"Not unless the bad guys are already inside." Xena smiled to herself. "And are sneaking around picking folks off as we speak." She reached up, took off her turban and spun it into the corner on top of Gabrielleís hat. "Which might make senseÖ." She plucked the pins from Gabrielleís wig and sent it flying over to join the other head coverings. "If they hadnít already poisoned supper. Or," she continued, guiding Gabrielle backwards, "maybe hidden big, sharp blades for us to impale ourselves on if we move too much in our beds." She gently pushed Gabrielle down on the potentially deadly piece of furniture. "But since you feel so brave, I suppose we could test that out."
Gabrielle batted her eyes at her seductively unredeemable soulmate. "Have I mentioned your talent for Ö practically Ö squeezing romance out of almost anything?"
L ynal pushed open the door to the banquet hall and ushered the latest arrivals inside. The spirited conversation died down among the 25 or so guests.
"Everybody? This is Anthrax and his wife Ö." Lynal realized heíd learned the name of only half the new couple. He stared questioningly at Gabrielle.
Gabrielleís mouth worked, but nothing came out.
Xenaís eyes twinkled. She cocked her head at Gabrielle. "Um, honey?"
Lynal nodded and turned back to the room. "Anthrax and his wife, Honey." He failed to notice the two behind him nearly choke.
A tall man strode toward them. "Welcome, Anthrax and Honey. Iím Spiros, self-appointed vice-host. We heard of your arrival. We were waiting for you to join us before we got on with dinner. Please, follow me."
Spiros led the couple to one of the front tables. Xena and Gabrielle nodded and smiled as they passed through the room, quickly noting that everyone was at least 50 or older. Some vaguely familiar. Gabrielle seated herself. Xena stood next to her, wide-legged, arms akimbo, grinning genially as the others gathered round.
"Winston said you looked a little familiar," Spiros began. Others nodded in agreement. "Tell us about yourselves."
Gabrielle smiled deferentially up at Xena.
"Um, well, first let me say itís mighty fine to meet you all. If some of you good peopleíre from around Ö Thessaly Ö we mightíve crossed paths." Xena rested a hand on Gabrielleís shoulder. "Honey originally hails from Athens."
"Athens?!" A silver-blond matron leaned forward excitedly. "I love Athens! What plays have you seen?"
"Hold up." A burley man pressed forward. "Afore we git inta chitchat, we best take care a serious business first."
Glad for the lead in, Xena nodded. "Iím with you there, mate. We got a very disturbing note with the Kingís invite. Wasnít sure if the missus would be safe."
"What kind a note?"
Xena rubbed her goatee. "Sorry, friend, didnít catch your name."
"Well, Winston, I figured from Lynalís caution that maybe some of you got a warning too."
"We did," confirmed the matron. "Threatening us not to come."
"But most of us did anyway," a stout woman chimed in.
"Uh huh. Thatís what I thought. Whatís Cleades said about that? Whereíre his guards?"
"Cleades had to leave," the matron said. "He doesnít know - ."
Winston put his hand up to interrupt her. "Whatís the passwords?" he asked Xena.
Xena noted the suspicion in his voice. She moved behind Gabrielleís chair and rested her arms on her partnerís shoulders. Gabrielle got the hint.
"Passwords?" Gabrielle echoed innocently.
"Yeah, what ya síposed ta say to git in." The big man scowled at Lynal. "Ya didnít ask `em, did ya?"
"Hey, I said I wasnít cut out for -."
"Gentlemen!" The matron straightened regally. "Please, mind your manners." She smiled apologetically at Xena and Gabrielle. "Forgive my friends. That note made us a little nervous. You seem like perfectly nice -."
"Nobodyís ëperfectlyí nice." Winston refused to budge. "Like ya said, we got reason ta be nervous. The rest of us know each other. How do we know these twoíre who they say?"
Gabrielle batted her eyes, "We take no offense. Cleades must have forgotten to tell us about the passwords. Iím sure he can clear all this up."
"Howíd you meet him?" Winston asked.
Xena gave Gabrielleís shoulders a little squeeze. She leaned against the table behind her. "The King and I did some business awhile back. I sell fancy wear like this," she said, gesturing at her silky robe-like garment. "I kind of Ö dropped in Ö on him."
The room got very quiet.
Spiros had been sitting at the end of the table listening. He stood and folded his arms across his chest. "The King said he met some new members during his travels." At his nod, the other men slowly formed a circle around the table.
Xena maintained her relaxed position. "Fellas, youíre barking up the wrong tree. The wife and I are simple folk, here to enjoy ourselves at the Kingís expense."
"I canít say Iím convinced of that." Spiros looked at the others. A few of the women seemed chagrined by the hostility in the air, but most appeared willing to err on the side of caution. "Perhaps weíll have to apologize later, but for now it might be best if you stayed in your room. Weíll make sure youíre treated well until we can straighten this out."
Gabrielle gracefully pushed out of her chair. She moved to stand next to Xena. "Anthrax, dear, theyíre right to take precautions. You said as much yourself."
Xena gazed down at the imploring eyes that only she knew disguised a command. She put her arm around Gabrielle. "All right Ö Honey. I know how spats upset you. Wouldnít do for you to get the vapors and miss out on the party when Cleades returns."
Areus paced angrily in front of his dwindling "troops." Five more had deserted on the march to the outskirts of Cleadesí property. Heíd decided to forge ahead, even though his "inside" man, Balthus, hadnít shown up as planned. Balthus apparently succeeded in his ruse to divert the Kingís guards away. At least from Areusí vantage point some distance from the front, the compound seemed undefended. But Balthus was supposed to come out the day before, to report on the situation and confirm which entrances he could leave unlatched. Dusk was descending with no Balthus in sight.
Areus hefted his battle-ax and flung it into a tree. "Stand down. Weíll wait till nightfall. No fires. Iíll be back before then with your orders." He turned and stalked through the trees in the direction of the backside of the compound. Heíd gone a few feet when he whirled to confront whoever was following him.
"Hey, itís just me. Monlika." The knife-enthusiast put her hands up. "I figured you could use some backup. Somebody who wonít run off with their tail between their legs at the first sign of trouble."
Areus studied her a moment, before turning to continue on.
"Iím still in, even if your guy bugged out."
Areus stopped. "He didnít ëbug out.í You see any guards?"
"No, but you said - ."
"I know what I said! Heíd of been here if he could."
Monlika leaned against a tree. "You think they caught `im? Maybe they know and set a trap?"
Areus frowned. He hadnít considered that. "Balthus is smart. Maybe he couldnít get away without making `em suspicious." He furtively looked around for something to sit on, irritated at the aches and weariness of being on his feet too long, or the stiffness that beset him if he sat on the ground.
Monlika suppressed a smirk. The old guys in the group had their share of big talk, peppered with tales about past exploits. But judging from their physical condition, they mustíve figured hard drinking and fantasies of revenge would keep them in shape if opportunity ever knocked. She gestured toward a good-sized fallen limb.
"Might as well take a load off. Review the options."
Areus nodded. He sank down in relief on the limb.
"Whatever happened to Balthus, Iíd say we need another plan. Thereís enough of us younger Ö." Monlika saw Areusí nostrils flare. "Um, enough of us to storm the place."
Areusí lip curled. "Shows how much experience youíve got. Ever try burning through slate? Thatís whatís on the outside of those walls. Weíd need a battering ram for the heavy doors." He snickered. "Unless you wanna waste that youthful energy tryiní to hack your way through."
Monlika snorted. "So we make some noise. No guardsíre gonna come runniní to the rescue." She chuckled. "Worst we could do is scare half those old folks to death before we had a chance to kill `em."
Areus kept the scowl on his face. It wouldnít do to let this female upstart think she was smarter than her leader. "I was gettiní to that. Another day wonít matter. Weíll make the ram before nightfall, attack tomorrow."
"I donít see why we canít just -."
"Any scum can be a ragtag mob, screaming and hacking." Areus glared at her disdainfully. "Weíve got traditions to uphold. Weíll go in there professionally. You got different ideas, go find yourself somebody else to do it with."
Monlika pushed off from her tree. "No, I wanna do this right." She waited for Areus to start back.
"You go ahead. Tell the others. Iíve got some more planniní to do."
"Yes Ö sir." Monlika walked away, not for the first time wondering if the grandfather sheíd never met was worth joining up with a bunch of idiots.
"`Honey.í `Vapors.í Iíll show you some ëvaporsí all right."
Gabrielle paced about their room, occasionally glancing darkly at Xena. The warrior sat at their table, eating the dinner that had been sent with them.
"Better get some of this before itís too cold."
"Bunch of old idiots. About to be attacked and they lock up the only two people with wits enough to do anything."
"Hey! Watch who youíre calling ëold.í Iím right up there with many of them. Besides, the ëbrainsí of this ëgolden duoí insisted we not reveal ourselves."
Gabrielle stopped pacing. "Oh, so now Iím fodder for the ëbuttí of jokes?"
"No, no. Things didnít work out so bad. Thereís a bright side."
"Oh?" Gabrielleís glower turned to hopeful skepticism. "Like what?"
"Well, weíre confined to the Anniversary Suite, with room service no less." Xena batted her eyes. "Isnít that what you wanted?"
Gabrielle regarded Xena as if the warrior had suddenly morphed into Callisto. "I donít believe this."
"What? That I can Ö ëpracticallyí Ö squeeze romance out of anything? I thought you admired that particular skill."
Gabrielle chewed her lip. Sighing, she dropped into a chair across from Xena. "Gods know I hesitate saying this, but thereís a time and place for romance." She ate a couple of bites. "Mmm, not bad." She took a few more bites, before remembering her train of thought.
"Xena, this is serious. Weíre no closer to knowing whatís going on than we were yesterday. Whatís Cleades got in common with these people? What could they have done worth being murdered?"
Xenaís eyebrow rose. "I donít believe this."
"What? That I can be ëpracticalí too?"
"That youíre using my own arguments against me."
"Thatís beside the point." Gabrielle grinned. "As my mentor always says, ya gotta be flexible."
Xena glanced up at the ceiling with a "why do I even try" smile. She wiped her hands, stood and went to perch on the edge of the bed.
"Has anybody been killed in their sleep, poisoned or sliced to death with bed blades?"
Gabrielle shook her head.
"No. There are two doors to the outside and two to the garden. Between getting to our chamber and the dining room, we passed all the doors. Were they unlatched?"
"No. Very solid, I might add. And the exterior is slate. Itíd be hard to break in here quietly."
Gabrielle leaned back in her chair, pondering this information. "But we donít know for sure thereís no inside person. He could open the doors after everyoneís retired."
"True, but I doubt it. My gut says itís not one of the guests."
"What about the servants?"
"I didnít sense anything suspicious about them. Besides, I had in mind someone at a higher level." Xena hunched forward. "See, I think whoever it is managed to convince Cleades to assign his guards elsewhere. I think he - or she - is with Cleades."
"So we donít need to worry until they get back?"
"Nope. Well Ö and yes." Xena slid off the bed and began pacing. "Does an attack depend on the inside person? Is Cleades the real target? Will we have a chance to warn him?" She sighed in frustration. "Howíre we going to convince these people to listen to us without revealing who we are?"
"Sooo," Gabrielle began, getting up, "youíre saying weíre probably safe for a few more hours, if not the night?"
"That weíll probably hear if someoneís breaking in."
"And even if the spy is with Cleades, there are probably some guards protecting the King, right?"
Xena stopped pacing. "Right." Her eyes followed her partner, who had sauntered over to perch on the bed.
"Which means it probably wouldnít hurt if we waited awhile before figuring out how to talk to the others." She punctuated her conclusion with an eye bat.
"Probably." Xena folded her arms across her chest. "But what would we do in the meantime? Weíve pretty much finished dinner." She lowered her voice suggestively. "Maybe have dessert?"
"Uh huh. Iíd say that sounds like an excellent probability."
Part 04 - 07 (End)
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