Xenaís disappearance between SACRIFICE 2 and A FAMILY AFFAIR creates new heroes to carry on in her image.
NO, IíM XENA
"Help! Help! Somebody, please! Theyíre robbing my husband!"
Suddenly a dark-haired woman in leather appeared. She approached some ruffians accosting a man in the village square.
"Cease, infidels! I am Xena, the Wahwiah Pwincess. Unhand him or I shall smite thee with the wath of Hestia!"
The gang did stop, but more from momentary incredulity at the womanís audacity. One started sniggling.
"Yeah, right. And Iím - ."
"No, Iím Xena. Defender against the scourge of the Little People. Do not force me to hurt you with my Round Killing Thing."
The menís heads swiveled. Open mouthed, they blinked at a second dark-haired woman in leather. Before any could respond, they heard another female voice.
"Nah, Iím Xena. See this?" She brandished a metallic disk. "Itís my trusty shamrock. Breathe funny, Iíll take your heads off."
The ruffians shifted their gaze uncertainly between the triplets all claiming to be the deadliest warrior around. The apparent ringleader narrowed his eyes.
"I seen Xena once. Yíall may look like `er. But if you was, my bloodíd be turniní cold. It ainít. Matter a fact," he said, leering, "itís gettiní hot. Think weíll take all three a ya when weís done here."
"Oh, yeah, Mr. Smarty Pants?" The third Xena crouched and put up her fists - one still holding the round weapon. "Just try it. I got more moves for that kinda stuff than all a ya put together. Bring it on."
A crowd had gathered `round. Emboldened by the womenís bravado, they began closing in on the gang.
The leader put up his hand in warning. "Donít do nothiní stupid. Thisís between us and these fool fakes. Get in the middle, donít expect no help from `em."
"No problem." A large bearded man stepped forward. "Figure we can handle the likes of you on our own." He glanced over his shoulder at the other townsfolk. "Right?"
"You tell `em, Mal. Weíre with ya."
"Yeah, we donít need women fightiní our battles. Even if they are the legendary Xena."
The women in question kept a wary eye on each other, but seemed content to let the town take over.
"Well?" Mal moved closer to the ruffians. His neighbors did as well. "You gonna let him go? Get yourselves outta here? Or you wanna take your chances with us and the Xenas?"
The leader considered the situation. "Let `im go," he finally commanded. "Didnít have nothiní worth the trouble no way."
Grumbling among themselves, the men followed orders. Their victim joined his family. The gang backed away toward the road out. When theyíd put sufficient distance between themselves and the potential defenders, they set a fast pace toward safety.
"Oh, thank you so much." The victimís wife smiled gratefully at all her saviors. "Not everyone would do that for strangers. And you," she said to the warrior women now standing side by side, "whoever you are, we are in your debt."
The most aggressive of the three blew on her fingers and rubbed them against her leathers. "No problem, lady. We do this for nothiní, `cause itís what we do." She grinned. "Course, if you insist, wouldnít mind a few - ."
"Apples!" The first Xena gave the third one a sharp jab. "A few apples to take on the woad."
Mal cocked his head. "Just who are you anyway? One of you really Xena?"
The three exchanged looks. They shrugged.
"If I may speak for all, Xenaís pwesence is definitely among us."
The warrior women had accepted Malís hospitality at his inn, though one initially protested she had more than enough dinars to pay. They now eyed each other in their large room.
"All right. I certainly know who you are, Meg." Xena number two sat primly scowling at the fidgety Xena number three. She addressed number one, who stood mumbling unintelligibly toward the ceiling. "I donít believe Iíve had the pleasure of meeting you before."
"Pfft. I can answer that. Sheís Priestess Leah. Me and Xena let her work a caper with us. See, these Hellions or Demions or -- ."
"Yeah, whatever. Anyways, they tricked me into a plot against the Hestians. Switched me with Priestess Leah." Meg snorted. "Like we had anything in common besides looks. I had a nice little entertainment bar going. Xena sent her to my place as me. Almost ruined my business. Giviní my girls sermons like they was those virgins in her temple. Poor Joxer - ."
"Joxer?! Oh, Leah, you endured him too?" Xena number two shook her head in sympathy. "Let me introduce myself. I am Princess Diana. Some nefarious gentlemen tried to use Meg for similar purposes in my kingdom. If it wasnít for Xena - ."
"Hey! Not my fault I got the features of so many high falutiní females. Believe me, I didnít ask for that kind of trouble."
Diana glanced fondly at Meg. "No, but your heart spoke well of you nonetheless. My family will never forget your courage and generosity."
"Quite wight." Leah smiled. "I luhned much about the outside wohld from you. Not all of it so bad."
Meg ducked her head. "Yeah, well, you girls taught me a few things too."
Diana looked doubtful. "Oh?"
"Uh huh." Megís eyes twinkled. "Like how to cross my legs proper." She grinned at Leah. "An` why I should keep `em closed."
Leah stared blankly at Meg, then at Diana. The princess raised a brow at Meg. Leahís eyes widened. "Ohhhh." Her cheeks reddened. "Meg! You ah such a tease."
More comfortable with each other, it occurred to them they hadnít yet gotten to the most important topic. Each simultaneously leaned forward to ask, "How Ö?" "Why Ö?" "What Ö?"
"Hold on." Meg assumed her "take charge" demeanor. "Bet I know. Heard about Gabs, right? And Xena?"
Diana nodded solemnly. "Shocking news. My lady-in-waiting was visiting some relatives. Zealots swept her up among those to be sacrificed for that horrible god Dahak. Xena and Gabrielle saved them."
"Yes, same with one of my acolytes. She wetuhned distwaught, saying Gabwielle had pewished in a pit of flames."
"Yeah, and Xenaís gone missiní. Least thatís the message Joxer sent. Guy said he ran into Joxer at a bar, drinkiní himself silly." Megís mouth puckered. "Probly pining over Blondie. Like sheíd ever be his type. Now me, Iím more - ."
"Meg, please! Thatís not why weah heah, is it? Weíve lost our fwiends. I suspect you came to help in some way."
"Yeah," Meg agreed sheepishly.
The three compared notes on how theyíd ended up in Plythoga, a town north of the site where Gabrielle died. All felt a particular connection to Xena beyond the physical likeness. Sheíd helped each achieve a new level of respect for herself, an appreciation for personal gifts of benefit to others. Having experienced the soft heart beneath the armor, they imagined how Gabrielleís death must have devastated the usually stoic Warrior Princess. Somehow theyíd been drawn to the last place sheíd been sighted, riding away like a woman possessed.
"Perhaps I thought to find her. Convince her my son and other children still needed her. Father and my husband attempted to dissuade me of course. Because of Xena I had the courage to venture out on my own." Diana demurely straightened the layers of her leather skirt. "I wore this costume when I pretended to be her. Seemed only natural to don it now."
Leah glanced down at her breastplates. "I was twicked into wehwing this the fuhst time. I didnít even know of Xena. I meant to seek huh out and be of some comfuht. I thought I would feh bettah outside the temple walls in these wough gahments."
"Heh, I dressed to kick butt. Maybe pick up where Xena left off. See how those guys werenít so tough when they got a gander at us? Guess itís true - the clothes make the woman."
"They certainly made me do something extraordinary. What was I thinking?" Diana shook her head "It seems I was not thinking at all."
"We couldíve been killed! If Meg hadnít come along Ö. Pwaise Hestia."
"Pfft. Hestia?! You two need more Ares or somethiní, you gonna go around posing as the Warrior Princess."
Leah lifted her chin. "I beg yoh pahdon. I believe I did a pwetty good imitation."
"`Cease, infidels?í ëSmite?í" Meg snickered. "Xena wouldnít talk like that with six mugs of ale in `er." She scowled at Diana. "And she sure doesnít prance around with any ëround killing thing.í"
"Well, itís not a ëshamwock,í eithuh," Leah huffed. "I distinctly hud Gabwielle wefuh to it as a `chakwum.í"
"Ladies! Ladies! So itís a chakwum. Surely we have more important matters to discuss? I suggest we relax, become better acquainted, avail ourselves of a good nightís sleep. Perhaps we can determine our next course of action tomorrow."
Mal watched the women file in. Dressed in civilian garb, they certainly looked different than the previous day. He noticed he wasnít the only one mesmerized by their statuesque beauty. One wouldíve caused stir enough. But three? Aware of his wifeís critical gaze, he shook his head and strode businesslike toward the womenís table.
"Morniní, ladies. What can I get for you?"
"Do you have any quail eggs?"
"Uh, no, `fraid not. Will hen eggs do?"
"Yes, thank you. And ham, please."
"That will do for me as well."
"Yeah, me too. Throw in a mug of ale ta wash it down."
"Iíll do my best." Mal headed for the kitchen.
Meg slouched in her chair. "Still donít see why you have ta leave."
"It doesnít seem Xenaís coming back. I canít stay away from the castle - my family - on a whim."
"Sheís wight, Meg. Diana and I have wesponsibilities. People depending on us."
"Thatís what Iím sayiní." Meg leaned forward. "What if Xenaís off her gourd for good? Whoís to keep things on the up and up? What about protecting the ëlittle people,í puttiní folks in Hestiaís good graces. You scared to get your pretty nails dirty?"
"Leah and I didnít come here to fight. We had no business posing as Xena. We canít stop you from doing it. I donít see why you need us."
"Hereís your ale." Mal sat a mug down in front of Meg. He brought trays with the other orders. "Mind if I ask you something?"
Meg snorted. "Let me guess. You still wanna know if one of us is Xena."
"May I?" Mal pointed to an empty chair. He sat when the women nodded. "Who cares, long as thugs think one of youís Xena?"
Leah stared at Mal. "You canít mean that. Iím weally a Hestian pweistess. Sheís a pwincess." She cut her eyes at Meg. "That one perhaps has the Ö expewience Ö to be a thweat."
"All we need is somebody to throw `em off balance. Didnít you see how people got behind you? Couple more victories like that, ruffiansíll think twice about coming `round here."
"These guys been here before?"
"Sure. Nobody stood up to `em till you."
"You propose Ö." Diana paused a moment to delicately remove a speck of something unidentified from her eggs. "You really believe we should continue impersonating Xena? For your village?"
"Why not? Weíll feed and board you while youíre here. Get everybody to go along. Wordíll spread soon enough. Maybe try it for a couple weeks? See how it goes?"
Everyone turned to Meg as the most likely leader. She picked her teeth in contemplation.
"Tell the truth, I didnít have much of a plan, `cept puttiní on the battle stuff if I saw trouble. Thisís a real job." Meg slid her eyes Malís way. "Think you could throw in some dinars too?"
"Meg! Their offer is quite sufficient. I will be happy to compensate you further if thatís required."
Meg scowled. "Donít need your charity. Just askiní is all."
Mal smacked his hand on the table. "Sounds like we have a deal." He ducked his head. "Um, which is good, since we got your first job for you."
"Alweady?" Leah asked apprehensively. "Shouldnít we Ö pwepeh Ö fuhst?"
"Whatís to pwe Ö prepare? We dress, do the ëeye yiyií thing and look mean. If we gotta do more than that, I can teach ya all you need to know."
"Mm." Leah raised a brow. "Let us pway that wonít be necessawy."
The look-alikesí new assignment turned out more complicated than they anticipated. The setting wouldnít be the town, but on the road leading there. Bandits had been attacking travelers a few miles out. "All" the women had to do was convince the bandits to go away. Mal and some of his neighbors would follow out of sight and provide back-up if Xenaís reputation didnít do the trick.
There was also a factor the townsfolk hadnít anticipated. Only Diana could be considered an equestrian. Meg and Leah had journeyed via wagon, so would have to continue using that means to a point some distance from the banditsí camp. The party had reached a suitable site. Malís group camped a discrete distance from the three women.
"I must say, I am certainly glad we brought this wagon." Diana smoothed out the pile of furs sheíd laid on the floor. "I donít know how people get used to sleeping on the ground."
"Diana?" Leah visually measured the wagon bed. "I am not accustomed to that eithuh. May I join you?"
Diana smiled. "Of course. It will be like a slumber party I had when I was younger." She chuckled. "With more room for the party and less for the slumber."
Meg glared at the other women. "Whatím I? The maid? Iím used to rough places, but they all had beds in `em."
"Oh, Meg. Iím sorry. I didnít mean - ."
"Forget it." Meg threw some blankets on the wagon seat. "Thisíll do. Unless you ëladiesí snore too loud."
Their sleeping arrangements decided, the women sat near their fire to enjoy the food Mal had provided.
"We need a stwategy. Which one of us goes? What does she do? I myself believe we should appwoach them peacefully." Leah stood with her hands clasped in front, her lips pressed together in imitation of Xenaís disapproving expression. "Xena gave people a chance to wefohm when she could."
Meg rolled her eyes. "What? You gonna try converting `em to virgins?"
"No, silly. Xena would say something like, ëOkay boys, thatís not nice. Change yoh ways, as I do not wish to smite Ö um Ö stwike you." Leah grinned proudly. "You see how I lowahed my voice? What do you think?"
Before Meg could say anything snarky, Diana responded, "That was actually quite good, Leah. If I might inquire, did Xena give you lessons on how to be her?"
"Well, no. Gabwielle gave me lessons on how to be someone else." She cut her eyes at Meg. "Someone quite the opposite of Xena."
"Ah. You see, Xena herself, as well as Gabrielle, taught me how to walk, talk and ride like the Warrior Princess. I believe my experience ruling others might also be an advantage." Diana rose, straightened her shoulders and raised her chin. "Gentlemen," she began in a commanding tone, "you are committing serious crimes against people of meager means. Promise to stop, and I will give each of you five gold coins to start a new life within the law." She relaxed and smiled with a touch of superiority. "I find that works well in my kingdom."
"Well, hoity toity to you, too, Your Highness." Meg got to her feet. "First of all, these ainít your subjects. You try buyiní `em off, theyíll wanna go after a lot more than youíre offeriní." She cut her eyes at Leah. "Preachin` at `em wonít work either. And believe me, Xenaís nothiní like one of your choir girls. Yeah, we can both fight with the best. Like me, sheís got more weapons than her shamÖ her chakwum. Her body beiní the most dangerous."
"Yes, I did see her do amazing things." Leah frowned. "You mean to imply something else?"
Meg sauntered over to lean against a tree. She folded one arm against her chest and propped her other arm on it, the hand stroking her chin. She tilted her head, winked and drawled sultrily, "Hiya, boys. Youíve been bad. If youíre good, mommaíll take each of ya into the bushes. Kiss or spanking? Your choice."
"Ye gods on Mt. Olympus! Have you lost yoh mind?"
"Hey, I might sleep around, but I ainít stupid. First I get `em away and into Ö a compromisiní position. Then I whack `em on the noggin. I go back to the rest with a silly grin on my face, like it was soooo good. Theyíll think the guyís lying there conked out like they usually are afterwards. Pretty soon Iíve got `em all laid out."
"Twue, Meg, Xena did not seem suited to Hestiaís ways. But she had knowledge of difwent customs. Wespect for mowal values she huhself might not follow. I believe she would appeal to that befoh wesohting to violence and Ö feminine wiles."
"Not to mention her dignity. Certainly she had sufficient bearing and acquaintance with noble society to pose as me. I agree with Leah. Xena would not stoop first to -."
"Who cares? So sheíd go as high or low as she had to. Right now weíre talkiní whatís gonna work."
Diana sighed. "Letís say we consider your plan. We render the men unconscious. And when they awake? What then?"
"You kiddin`? Think theyíll stay around bragginí about it? Nuh uh. Theyíll run off aní tell their friends to stay away. Lie how Xena was like a mad woman and nearly killed `em."
The three argued awhile longer about what the Xena they knew would do or say. Finally they agreed on someone to represent the merits of all their ideas.
A handful of men sat around their morning campfire plotting the dayís mischief. Suddenly one hissed, "Shut up! Somebodyís comin`." They were diving for their weapons when a horse trotted into the clearing. The leather-clad rider pulled up a few feet away - ramrod, stern blue eyes summoning their attention.
"Good morning, gentlemen. My name is Xena. Are you aware of who I am?"
Frowning, the men exchanged glances.
"Iíve heard the name. Whaddya want?"
"Are you the spokesman of your group?"
"Itís my gang, if thatís what youíre askiní."
"Good. I have some business to discuss with you. Alone. Follow me," the woman ordered imperiously. She turned her horse and headed the direction sheíd come without a backward glance.
The men gaped at each other.
"What the Ö?"
"Business? What kinda business she got with us?"
"Yeah, sheís sposed toíve turned do gooder. Think sheís on to us?"
"Maybe sheís back to her old ways. Wouldnít be surprised, from the tales about her warlord days."
"Either way, my gut donít say sheís here ta kill us. Blaed, you up ta goiní on yer own?"
"Tales get mighty tall over the years. Itís one woman, whoever she is. I can handle it."
Blaed strapped on his sword, hid knives under various items of clothing and hefted a club for good measure. He swaggered after the woman, whoíd dismounted some yards into the forest. When she saw him, she led the way to a stand of trees in the middle of a small clearing. After tethering her horse, she planted herself with a disapproving scowl.
"So whatís the business you wanna discuss?"
"Yohís. I cannot abide people who pwey on the innocent. I always give them a chance to do wight. I pwefuh to do so peacefully." She unhooked a round weapon from her side. "But I will use fohceful means if I must."
Blaed swung his club back and forth. "You gotta be kiddiní."
"I am quite sewious. I pway you go back and convince the othuhs to lay down theh weapons, cease theh evil ways."
"Donít know what you been drinkiní, lady, but only person `round here laying down anything is you." Blaed began closing in. "Startiní with your weapons and any coins ya got. Could always use an extra horse too."
"Stop!" The woman put her hand out in front. "I see my wohds have not touched you. If you will please give me a moment, I will offuh you something to bettuh suit yoh tastes."
Before Blaed could move, the woman quickly vanished into some nearby bushes. When she emerged, Blaed wondered why he hadnít noticed before how attractive she was.
"Like what ya see?"
Blaedís eyes fixed on the mounds she cupped where her breastplates used to be. He secondarily noticed her weapons were missing as well.
"I got a thing for bad boys," she purred, sauntering closer. "I want ya ta lay your weapons down. I was testiní to see if youíd know how to do it right."
"Oh, I know," he said, licking his lips.
"This way." She turned toward the bushes. "Fixed up a nice cushy spot," she said over her shoulder. "Just for you."
Blaedís eyes lit up when he saw a jug sitting on layers of fur, soon joined by the reclining woman. He dropped his club and snatched off his other weapons. He fumbled at the knotted twine securing the scabbard to his leg.
"Let me help ya with that."
Grinning, he plopped down next to the woman.
"Whatís your name, handsome?"
"Blaed." His hand was reaching toward her cleavage when suddenly his creamy destination burst into stars, then went black.
"Thought you priestesses were nonviolent."
"Humph. Not when it comes to my sistuhs. Xena taught us we cannot always wely on faith in the gods." Leah disdainfully examined the club wielded against its owner. "One must occasionally take distasteful things into oneís own hands."
Meg grabbed Blaedís legs. "Help me drag `im into the clearing. Loosen his belt. Sprinkle some water on his hair and face like I told ya. Make `im look like heís sleeping."
"Wait." Diana joined them. "Would it not be faster if I did all the luring here? I could ride there and have each follow me on horseback."
Meg snorted. "Weíre lucky your royal routine worked the first time."
"No, no. I shall be your Xena. I believe I have the essence of her now." Diana stripped off her armor and weapons. She struck an alluring pose. "Hi, boys," she drawled seductively. "Iíve finished my Ö business Ö with Blaed. I tired him to exhaustion. I am a powerful woman with powerful needs. Which of you seeks to fill them next?"
Meg and Leah looked at each other in surprise. They shrugged.
"Stay on the horse. And donít forget the boobs bit. Gets `em every time."
The bandits regained consciousness to find themselves bound, sitting propped against each othersí backs. The previously enchanting warrior woman towered menacingly over them. Some villagers relaxed quietly in the background.
"I am vewy disappointed in you. I had hoped you would wespond to highah methods."
"So what now?" Blaedís lip curled in disgust. "You leaviní us here like this? Turniní us over to them?"
"We could let you go."
"Let us go?!" Blaed narrowed his eyes. "Why?"
"Yoh weputations? What would yoh fellow cwiminals think? If they knew how I defeated you. Would they not laugh you fwom theh wanks?" She gestured toward the grinning villagers. "Like these people?"
The men grumbled and growled.
"We could keep this little incident to ouhselves. You could pwomise not to pwey on this wegion again."
"Whatís ta stop us from doiní it somewhere else?"
"That is a chance we take." She folded her arms across her chest and bared her teeth. "The chance you take is wunning into me again. Next time I may not be so nice."
Blaed held the womanís eyes. They werenít as hard as he wouldíve expected in the Warrior Princess, but he didnít detect any weakness either.
"Cut the ropes. This areaíll be off limits from now on."
The Xenas saw little action during the next few days. When they did, they took turns, depending on the situation. Leah (whom Mal dubbed "Preacher" Xena) liked popping up at the tavern. Sheíd scare away louts intent on heavy-handed treatment of the "ladies" there. Or try persuading the ladies to investigate other pursuits. Diana ("Proper" Xena) preferred strolling the streets, encouraging both men and women to mind their manners. Mal eventually found himself in the curious position of encouraging his guests to lighten up a little. Not only had they discouraged bad elements, but the everyday folks hesitated having a good time.
Meg of course couldnít have cared less about dispensing career advice or proselytizing. In fact, she wouldíve been one of those targeted, were it not for the burden of her new responsibilities. She reserved her Xena moments for breaking up serious fights or attempted crimes. She was mumbling to her colleagues over breakfast about how bored she was, when Mal approached her.
"`Fightingí Xena, we got a situation outside. Seems right up your alley."
"Ooo, excellent!" Meg was off and running to get changed before Mal could add anything else. Shortly thereafter she appeared in her Xena garb ready for duty. "Címon, get some fire under those feet," she ordered, pushing Mal in front of her and out the door.
"Over there. Stranger in town, aiming to show what a big man he is. Poking folks in the butt with his sword, challenging `em to a duel."
The man in question had finally provoked one of the merchants into borrowing a sword. Obviously outclassed, the hapless victim already sported several cuts.
"Hey, you! Big ugly guy in the black shirt!"
The man glanced Megís way, continuing to toy with his opponent. "You talkiní to me?"
"You see any other big ugly guys in black shirts?"
Intrigued by the womanís brashness, the man flicked his opponentís sword away and unto the ground. "Get lost. Iíve got bigger fish to fry." He turned to give Meg his full attention. He leered at her ample bosom. "You lookiní for a fight or to bed me? Either way, Iím game."
"Better be careful what ya ask for." Meg unhooked the disk at her side. "This chakwum?" She pointed it at her chest. "And these? Know who they belong to?"
The man snickered. "Iím guessiní the woman Iím about to get a piece of. One way or another."
"Wrong and wrong. Maybe dead wrong if ya never heard of Xena, the most deadliest, fiercest, invincible Warrior Princess."
"Xena?! Iíve been waitiní half my life for her." The man studied Meg from head to toe. "Way folks talk, figured sheíd be bigger. Scarier."
"Maybe thatís because sheís not Xena. I am."
Everyoneís mouth dropped as a dark-haired woman strolled from the shadows of the inn.
The man gawked at her in amusement. "Yeah? Kinda thick for somebody supposed to do flips, leap over trees and such."
She spread her legs and put her hands on her hips. "I bulked up, working out more."
"Heh. Shouldíve spent more time workiní on that uniform. Didnít wanna waste the scraps from an old tent?"
"My good oneís at the cleaners. Where Iím taking you if you do anything stupid."
"With what? You got one of those chakwums too?"
"At the blacksmithís. And itís called a `chakram.í" The woman cut her eyes at the stunned Meg. She unhooked a whip from her side and expertly slashed a big X in the dirt. "Iím using this today. Wanna see how well it works on you?"
The man gave her the once over. She could probably snag his sword from two feet away. Looked strong enough to wrestle a bull to the ground. Xena or not, this wasnít quite the fight heíd pictured. Win or lose, he doubted heíd increase his stature by taking her on. Being labeled a bully was one thing, not so bad at that. Looking ridiculous was quite another.
"Iím picky about my battles. If itís Xena, I want her at her best." The man sheathed his sword. "You got lucky. Next time, maybe youíll be in `fightiní trim.í Your gear wonít be from a trash pile." He backed away and over to his horse. He mounted, gave a mocking salute and rode away.
The woman watched him until he disappeared. She puffed out her chest and turned to scowl at Meg. Her eyes bugged when she saw not one but three tall figures bearing a remarkable resemblance to the Warrior Princess.
The look-alikes had unceremoniously ushered the latest Xena wannabe to a secluded area within walking distance of the village. Theyíd learned her name was Minya and that she had also been inspired by a couple of experiences with the Warrior Princess. In fact, she informed them Xenas had been popping up all over the place, apparently trying to fill the void left by their missing hero. The look-alikes shared how they had come to do the same.
"No offense, Minya, but we can fool people with our similar appearance. Whatever made you think you could pass yourself off as Xena?"
"Hey, at least Iíve got something thatís really hers." Minya proudly patted her whip. "I bartered Gabrielle for it. Besides, itís the spirit that counts. The attitude. Xena told me all about how to use that. I donít have the blue eyes or buffness, but I can do a pretty mean Xena otherwise. I even decked one of her old enemies. With one punch!"
"Speaking of spiwit, isnít it stwange weíve only talked about Xenaís? How each of us saw it? What of Gabwielleís influence? Huh moh open and idealistic natuh. I do wonduh how things will be without huh."
Meg snorted. "Not me. Maybe Joxerín I can finally hook up. Anyways, weíve done okay so far. Unless," she added, smirking at Leah, "ya wanna play the Goody Two Shoes in the group?"
"Vewy funny." Leah leaned forward and lowered her voice. "I donít mean to be unkind Ö. Gabwielle was a kind, bwave young woman. She could be a bit Ö iwwitable. Bossy. Even when she believed me to be Xena, she fussed and dwagged me awound like a child."
"She did become rather impatient with me. When she was teaching me how to be like Xena? It was quite clear she thought me a silly, spoiled, useless ornament who could never measure up." Leahís head bowed. "It was true. I know she didnít intend to, but it still Ö hurt."
"Yeah, for being so sensitive, she had a blind spot when it came to the Warrior Princess. Kinda sanctimonious even. Sure, I had a haze about Xena at first. Worshipped the ground she walked on." Minya snorted. "Till I realized how much my boyfriend did too. Gabrielle kept talking about Xena would fix it. Read me her stories about how Xena could do most anything."
"And did she? Fix things with yoh boyfwiend?"
"Well, yeah." Minya grinned. "Except by helping me fix myself instead."
"I donít get it. All the mush about Gabrielle being so good and innocent. Miss Diplomatic. Sure was hostile and snippy with me. Had me on the floor about ta wring my neck. Shoot, scares me worse than Xena. Way she beats up on folks with that staff? `Peacefulí my eye." Meg dropped her head. "We get along okay now. Deep down, she still thinks sheís betterín me. I can feel it."
"I wouldnít be too sure of that, Meg. If she could see the good in somebody like Xena, she can see the good in anybody." Minya sighed. "They made a good team. We can pretend all we want, but nobodyíll ever replace Xena. Leah has a point. Gods only know what will become of the Warrior Princess without Gabrielle."
"Why not ask her?"
The womenís heads whipped around at the low, velvety voice. A tall, dark-haired, leather-clad woman had appeared only yards away. She looked like Xena. Sounded like Xena. Yet something about her didnít seem right.
Leah strained to see dark circles under the blue eyes. She could swear she saw a light in them instead. "You look almost Ö happy."
"Not Ö." Diana searched for how to explain the sense of purpose she perceived. "Ö Lost."
"More like the person I saw throwing that silly flying parchment at the sky."
"Yeah. Whereís the rage? The revenge? The snarl? If itís really you, somethiní happen to your brain?"
"What? You disappointed?"
"No, no. Itís simply Ö. Aftah what happened Ö. We imagined you consumed with gwief. Hopelessness."
"How do we know you ainít another look-alike? Sure donít act like you lost your best gal pal in a pit of flames."
Smirking, the newcomer unhooked and flung a round object. Its circular flight whooshed uncomfortably close to the women.
The women nodded.
"Went on a long journey. Learned some things. About myself. About Gabrielle. I believe sheís alive. Iím on my way to find her." Xena smiled with a hint of pain. "I know now I could be good enough on my own. My heart tells me weíll all be much better if I get her back."
"HowÖ." Minya glanced around the group. "We didnít mean to - ."
"I was headed to where she fell. To look for clues." Xena raised a brow. "I heard I was actually here. Not to mention some other places."
"Yoh not angwy with us?"
"Iím proud and grateful. I couldnít ask for better doubles. Or friends. The world was in good hands while I was away. It needs hands like that no matter if Iím here."
"So, youíre sayiní we can keep beiní you if we want?"
"No, Iím Xena. I wanted you to know Iím alive and well. Youíll do fine too. As yourselves." She turned to leave. "Oh, and try not to do anything I wouldnít do." Smirking, she trotted off into the forest.
"Well, that was quite a supwise."
"Now what? You think I should retire my whip or not?"
"Suit yourself. Iím gonna be Meg. Sheís due for some fun right about now. I say we drop by the tavern, toast ourselves a few rounds ."
Minya laughed. "Sure beats figuring ways to be thinner, taller and better dressed."
"Ooo, I have so few opportunities to really be with the Little Ö um Ö nonroyal people. I believe I can fit in."
"Um Ö I donít know, Meg. We pweistesses must be cahful of ah image. What if - ."
"I got an idea." Meg snickered. "Be Xena awhile longer. You can come, but ya have to stay outside. Iíve seen what you do to a good party."
"Humph. Then I have an even bettah idea."
"Yeah? You gonna come as the low-life version Xena?"
"Not quite." Leah let her legs sprawl on the blanket. Spread the top of her blouse to reveal more cleavage. Pulled the corner of her mouth back to wedge her fingernail between a couple molars. "Should anyone inquiah, I shall say, `No, I am not Xena. Nameís Meg, Wahwiah Stwumpet."