Still headed home after an unscheduled 25th anniversary trip they embarked on in the story "Fifty Winters Ago," Xena and Gabrielle get the most out of their maturity when they run into trouble that underestimates "The Grandma Brigade."
"Iím not ready yet."
"Oooo, big surprise." Xena threw a wry look over her shoulder before continuing to load the wagon. "No rush. Figured I might as well take care of this, seeing as how my ëhelpí was laid out daydreaming."
Gabrielle smoothed a wrinkle on the blanket sheíd been reclining on. "I Ö um Ö donít mean right now."
"Donít mean right now?" Xena turned to raise a brow at her soulmate. "Earth to Gab-ri-elllle. Isnít that what I said?"
"I mean, why not stay out on the road awhile longer? Like you say, nothing pressing we know of at home."
Her full attention now captured, Xena leaned against the wagon with her arms crossed. Not disappointed by Gabrielleís suggestion, so much as curious about its origins.
"I know, I know. Iím the one whoís been complaining about being gone so long."
"I believe you used the term ëhomesick.í"
Gabrielle pursed her lips. "Count on you to be literal at inopportune moments."
Xena smirked. "Youíre always saying I donít listen. I do. Can I help it if your second thoughts make my ears cross sometimes?" She cocked her head. "So what was it this time? An owl? The two of you have a philosophical discussion on the as yet undocumented joys of nature?"
"I wish it were that simple." Gabrielle absently smoothed another wrinkle in the blanket. Sighing, she looked up with a wistful smile. "Itís silly, really. We should probably ñ."
"Hey Ö." Xena pushed off from the wagon and strode over to drop down in front of Gabrielle. "Whatís with the sad face? "
Gabrielle was quiet a moment, gathering her thoughts. So much had happened in the last couple of months, since the interruption of their 25th anniversary picnic by a journey that ended up transporting them to visions of their past and future. Sheíd been reminded how lucky they were to have a present filled with such love and satisfaction. A home. Family beyond the two of them. The serenity that came with putting ghosts to rest, living dreams to an extent they hadnít thought possible all those years ago. Death, near-death, coma, hibernation, time travel, amnesia ñ theyíd survived the incredible to finally achieve the "normal" life extraordinary to nomadic warriors accustomed to sacrificing themselves for the greater good. And yet Ö.
"Do you realize how many chances weíve had to be reborn?"
"What?" Xena frowned. "You mean me? Like when I ñ."
"No, both of us. The two of us. Making it through so many challenges ñ like different times Ö places Ö."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle reached across to ruffle her partnerís lightly silvered bangs. "Different bodies with the same souls. The same bodies with cleaner ñ sometimes heavier ñ souls. Always growing and changing. Searching."
Gabrielle smiled. "Yes, together." She studied Xena a moment. "Funny, I wanted so much for you to know peace. Now that weíre stable old crones with old fears behind us Ö."
"You saying youíre bored? You want a ëKill `em all!í lunatic to tame again?"
"Xenaaaa!" Gabrielle thumped her partnerís knee. "Iím not sure what Iím trying to say. I only know that being out on the road again is feeling like another of those chances to ñ you know, be Ö different Ö somehow."
"Heh, so far weíve posed as Anthrax and Meg, Eczema and Scabrielle. I must say, Iíve been dying to see you in the role of Spitunia." Xena made a frame of her hands and squinted through at Gabrielle. "Iím picturing a flaming red wig, no frumpy dress this time. Maybe Ö."
"Xena? Thought youíd gotten past that death wish. Perhaps I was wrong."
"Okay, okay. Soooo Ö. Itís not about pretending to be somebody else? Is it about missing adventures? Traveling more?íí
"Not entirely, though I suppose thatís a distinct possibility if we take up permanent residence under this tree."
"Are we talking internal journeys?" Xenaís eyes narrowed. "Lots of sensitive chats along the way?"
"That depends." Gabrielle grinned. "Spread those legs."
"Oooo, Iím likiní this already." Xena quickly complied with Gabrielleís command.
"Not yet, dear. Maybe later, if youíre a good girl." Smirking, Gabrielle scooted across to lounge against Xenaís chest. She snuggled into the arms that pulled her closer. "See, almost all our trips have had a purpose, since we settled down. Know how we used to go wherever the road took us?"
Xena nodded. "Feels like a century ago."
Gabrielle chuckled. "Almost, if your friend Ares hadnít preserved us in that ice tomb for 25 years."
"Yeah, what a guy."
"Anyway, thatís what Iím talking about. Just get up and go."
"We got a time limit on this? Weatheríll be turning in a couple months."
"Play it by ear. We should have enough sense by now to come in out the rain."
"Speak for yourself." Xena gave Gabrielle a squeeze. She rested her chin on the still-blond hair, scanning the area.
"Youíre mighty quiet." Gabrielle tilted her head back. "You think Iím nuts?"
"Oh, absolutely," Xena confirmed. She gave Gabrielle a playful squeeze. "Spry as we may be for our age, some of us have gotten pret-ty attached to soft beds and baked delicacies whenever she wants. Clean, dry boots. Socializing with social-minded people." She scanned the horizon. "Northíll take us into the mountains. East means crossing or going around Pylous Lake. Iím not as familiar with south and west. Lots of factors to consider. We canít just close our eyes and point."
"I know." Gabrielle sighed. "Told you it was silly." She started to move away.
"Hey," Xena admonished, pulling Gabrielle back. "I wasnít finished. Itíll take a little more time, the right equipment, but I have an idea that may help us decide on a course. Hold on a sec," she said, reaching for her carry bag. "I think Iíve got Ö."
"What? You have a map in there?"
"Something better. Ah, here we go." Xena pulled out a small pouch. "Iíll need that quick brain of yours for assistance," she said, digging out the required travel aide.
Gabrielle squirmed sideways, throwing her legs over Xenaís thigh. "Yeah? Does it involve my extensive knowledge of flora and fauna?"
"My superior powers of analysis?"
"My uncanny intuition about ñ ."
Xena tossed her pre-Mycenae compass in the air. "Call it. Heads or tails?"
"Heads" turned out to mean heading west. Xena vaguely recalled the area as heavily wooded, sparsely populated. Not fertile territory during her warlording days. Over half a century had passed since then, so she wasnít surprised to see a wide road now cutting through the trees and villages dotting acres of cleared land. She welcomed these changes. It meant they could continue by wagon. Though sheíd never admit it, foot travel aggravated the sundry aches and pains sheíd acquired over the years. The longer they rolled on wheels, the less acting sheíd have to do if called upon to prove her indestructibility.
"Lucky about this road, huh?"
"You thought weíd be lucky to find a decent path on this route, remember? I donít mind that we can use the wagon a little longer."
"Oh, yeah, uh huh," Xena murmured, as if that thought hadnít occurred to her. "Those legs of yoursíll have to get used to trekking around again. Might as well pace yourself."
Gabrielle cut her eyes at Xena. "Riiiight. My poor, pitiful legs. Nice of you to ride with me, as opposed to jogging alongside. You know, considering youíre impervious to age, unlike us mere mortals."
"I didnít say that. Iím just more motivated to keep in shape, I guess. You do okay." Xena smirked. "For a chief councilor who spends a lot of time on her butt."
"You got a problem with my butt?"
Xena winced. When would she learn not to mess with Gabrielle when she herself had a rather gimpy leg to stand on. "Yaaah," she urged the horses, giving herself time to hop to a reasonably safe response. Finally she threw Gabrielle her sweetest smile. "I couldnít find a problem with any part of you, if I had an eternity to try."
Gabrielle snorted softly. "Just checking. And may I add how good your ëlineí has become over the years?"
"You may. Took more work than my triple-double flip with the quadruple somersault at the end."
"Ah, love. The greatest motivator of all."
Xena was squinting up the road, as usual studying all the angles and possibilities of what, to Gabrielle, looked like a perfectly normal scene. Cloudless sky. Nothing so far popping out from behind the trees. An ordinary wagon ahead, stopped at a fork in the road.
Xena continued squinting. "Not sure. My gut says somethingís off."
As they got closer, they distinguished about six people huddled next to the wagon, deep in conversation. They began to hear snatches of an argument.
"No! Itís not safe. I donít care how long itís been, I say we go the long way."
"What sense does that make? The fairíll be over by the time we get there."
"Yeah, and nobodyíll be left to buy anything."
"Cletus is right. So we donít make a killiní at the fair. Least nobodyíll be killiníus."
"Hello there," Xena greeted them, pulling alongside. "Need any help?"
The party halted their discussion to appraise the newcomers. They exchanged glances before the man named Cletus approached.
"No, but you ladies might. Where you headed? The fair?"
"Up this road," Xena replied congenially. "Nowhere in particular. Just enjoying the sights."
"Well, if thatís the case, you might want to take one of those forks."
"Whatís wrong with going straight?"
Another man came over, scowling at Cletus. "Nothiní. Nothiní wrong with goiní straight. Same as we ought to be doiní."
Cletus turned on the other man. "Whatís the matter with you, Polinius! Why would you send unsuspecting folks into who knows what? Especially them. That one," he said, gesturing toward Xena, "could be your mother!"
"Gentlemen!" Gabrielle had heard the barely audible growl signaling trouble from her soulmate. "Perhaps someone could be so kind as to explain whatís going on? Why we might need to take another road?"
After some grumbled discussion among themselves, the party explained that travelers had reported attacks on the stretch ahead. Apparently things had been fairly peaceful until some months ago.
"Cletus is a worry wart. I knew I shouldnítíve told him. My brotherís family made it through fine. Probably a tale some merchant started to keep the competition down."
"Anybody died, far as you know?" Xena asked.
"No," Polinius answered quickly. "A little thievery, but thatís about it."
"Not true." Cletus glared at Polinius. "You admitted some bodies were found with sword wounds."
"In uniforms. Nothiní mysterious about warriors dyiní." Polinius bowed slightly to the strangers. "Ladies, some of us with guts would be happy to accompany you as far as the fair. We could make sure no two-legged hydras got a hold of you."
Gabrielle looked at Xena. Xena cocked her head as though actually considering the offer. In truth, she was trying to see if all the years with Gabrielle had rubbed off on her. How to say, "Not even if I live long enough to go completely gray" diplomatically? She decided simplicity was best.
"We donít think so, but thanks anyway."
The men stared at her.
"You donít think so?" Polinius waited for more explanation.
Xena looked at Gabrielle, who shrugged. Xena interpreted that as sufficient approval. "Right. We donít think so."
"B-b-but Ö." Cletus gaped with disbelief. "What if you run into trouble? I agree with Polinius ñ we should at least make sure the way is clear for you. Yes, I have concerns, but I canít let you ñ."
Xena smiled. Sort of. "Itís okay. Nobodylets us do anything but us. If we run into trouble, how `bout we clear the way foryou? Youíd be surprised at what we can do with a nice sturdy cane. If that doesnít work, we can always scold them to death." She flicked the reins. "Ta ta."
Gabrielle peered over her shoulder at the receding dumbstruck men. "Was that necessary? They were merely being helpful."
"Yeah, it was. Much better than what I really wanted to say."
"You know what I mean. And what if theyíre right? If trouble does lie ahead?"
"Itíll be like the old days." Xena smirked. "Just like you wanted."
"Shhh. We got company." Xena tightened her hold on her semi-sleeping companion. "Lie still," she added when she felt Gabrielleís breathing quicken.
Theyíd bunked in the wagon, having located a decent-sized clearing in the forest. A recent rainfall had dampened the ground sufficiently for the warrior to forego pretending the wetness wouldnít affect her middle-aged bones. Theyíd placed a tarp over the wagon to help keep the elements out and the warmth in. Problem was, they couldnít see what was happening outside. Xenaís practiced ears detected furtive footsteps from three sides ñ maybe six or eight visitors. The embers of their fire being examined. A torch flaring. Whispers.
The warrior shifted slightly to allow more space between herself and Gabrielle. "Get ready," she murmured, sliding her hand to the knife concealed under her waistband.
Suddenly the tarp flew off. "Move, and itíll be your last!"
The women rolled to their backs, temporarily blinded by the flaming light.
"Awww, itís just two aunties," said a somewhat disappointed young voice.
"Who you calling ëauntieí?!" Xena raised up so fast the intruders jumped.
"Shame on you!" Gabrielle sat up as well, poised to temper her partnerís temper. "Is this how you treat your elders?"
"Shut up!" An older manís face appeared in the torchlight. "Iíll tell ya when to speak." He turned away. "Solo, go help the others bring the horses."
"What about Ö. Seamus, youíre not gonna Ö um Ö."
"Iím gonna ask `em a few questions, if itís any of your concern. Then Iíll decide. Now git!" Seamus waited for the younger man to leave. He glowered at the wagon occupants. "Whatíre ya doing out here? You merchants?"
Xena locked eyes with him. "Last I knew, we were free women, taking a rest break on public land. Not obliged to answer impertinent questions."
"Why you Ö." Seamus swung his free hand toward Xenaís face.
"I wouldnít do that," Xena warned evenly, catching his wrist. "Bad manners arenít good, even out here."
Seamus bared his teeth, frustrated he couldnít pull away from the iron grip, too proud to contemplate dropping the torch so he could use both hands.
"Hey, whatís going on?" Solo ran to Seamusí side.
"Just a little misunderstanding." Continuing to hold Seamusí eyes, Xena slowly released her fingers. "Seamus and I were getting to know each other. We old folks like to do that before we give out personal information." She gazed meaningfully at the wrist Seamus surreptitiously tried to shake the blood back into. "A little courtesy can go a long way. Maybe youíre a little better at it?" she asked Solo.
Solo glanced between Xena and his sullen comrade. Hearing nothing from Seamus, he addressed the two women. "Um Ö Iím called Solo. Donít be afraid. We mean you no harm."
Gabrielle rested a hand on Xenaís arm. "Solo, thatís a little hard to believe, with those men searching our campsite. Weíre ordinary travelers. Weíre carrying only what we need for ourselves. We ñ ."
"`Ordinary travelers?í" Seamus had been rifling through the bags lying on the driverís seat. "Since when did little old aunties start toting these?" he demanded, holding up Xenaís scabbard and chakram. "This what you use for knittiní nowadays?"
"Those old things?" Gabrielle squeezed Xenaís arm. "Heirlooms from some distant kin. We keep them with us and well maintained ñ you know, to show relatives we run into."
"Yeah? Well you just ran into some," Seamus sneered. He flashed a look at Xena, backing up a little before putting the weapons in a bag and slinging it over his shoulder. "Howís that for `good manners?í"
Xena gritted her teeth. She puckered her lips at Gabrielle.
"Holding them for safe keeping isnít a bad idea." Gabrielle gestured at the other men. "They donít seem too careful about how they handle other peopleís things."
"Um, about that Ö." Solo ducked his head. "We kind of Ö collect Ö things ñ supplies mostly ñ for our Ö group. This is sort of our territory. Itís like a tax."
"I see. And your `group?í What ñ ."
"Seamus, we got the horses." The others gathered near the wagon. "Nothiní much else besides stuff for cookiní. What about those two?"
The older manís lip curled. "Leave `em here."
"Seamus?! We canít just leave them here with nothing."
"They can keep the wagon. Itíll be more trouble than itís worth anyway." Seamus glowered at Xena. "Like whateverís still in it."
"Sir?" Gabrielle smiled innocently at Seamus. "I bet you boys havenít had a good home-cooked meal in awhile."
Xenaís mouth dropped. "Gabrielllle," she warned under her breath.
Solo came closer. "Whatíre you saying?"
"We can cook, sew, clean, patch up wounds. Our kids are all grown. We wander about visiting them, but they donít really need us anymore. We could take care of you for awhile instead."
"Seamus? Maybe ñ. "
"Are you nuts?! Zeeíll have our hides for something stupid like that."
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged "no, it couldnít be" glances, silently agreeing this was Gabrielle territory.
"`Xe?í What an unusual name."
"Short for Zena. Our leader," Solo explained. "She doesnít believe in abductions."
"Or bringiní strangers into camp," Seamus added.
"Um Ö." Gabrielle rubbed her nose. Now that sheíd started the ball rolling, she was perfectly happy to let Xena decide whether to kick it or kick butt.
"Oh, we insist," the warrior said. "I canít imagine your leader wanting you to turn down a gift like this. Speaking for myself, been a long time since I was so fired up to cook, clean, sew, and patch."
"Well, this should be interesting."
"Interesting?! Finding a fishing hole where thereís not supposed to be one is ëinteresting.í Constantly bumping into people whoíre supposed to be me is downright scary."
They lay in the wagon. Their prospective employers slept or talked a few feet away, having decided to set out at sunrise. Gabrielle squirmed around until she faced Xena.
"Xenaís a nice name. Somebody couldíve picked it without any connection to you whatsoever."
"Yeah? How come the ones we meet have swords, as opposed to some village girl with no plans for an army beyond her 10 kids?"
"You have to admit, it does keep life Ö um, interesting."
Xena snorted. "Or it could be that a certain blonde attracts Xenas like bees."
Gabrielle smirked. "Can I help it if I have that certain ësomethingí they like? Besides, I didnít even know about that when I offered our assistance."
"Donít remind me. What in Tartarus were you thinking?"
"I figured this was the gang that had Cletus worried."
"And that youíd want to check it out. Sure, you couldíve kicked butt, put ëthe pinchí on Seamus and gotten the information anyway, but what fun is that?"
Xena let out a low growl. "Speak for yourself. Iíd kick Seamusí butt for any old excuse."
"Yes, you certainly gave it the old academy try."
"I know his type. Bully with a big mouth and little stomach to back it up unless he thinks heís got the upper hand. You have to challenge `em right off, before they get too confident. I made that mistake with Darphus. Never shouldíve made him my lieutenant. I counted on his ruthlessness, so full of myself I thought I could control him."
"Kind of curious how he treats Solo ñ Seamus, I mean. He could probably snap that kid in two, yet almost seems to defer to him."
Xena yawned. "Well, thanks to you weíll find out soon enough."
"I, for one, am looking forward to meeting another Xena."
"Donít suppose you gave much thought to what weíd do if she doesnít like you as much as I."
"Not really." Gabrielle gave Xena a squeeze. "Didnít you say Iím like honey? How could she resist?"
They traveled mostly through forest, the men on foot. Seamus had clearly hoped leaving the wagon behind would discourage the women from accompanying the gang. Solo insisted they ride the wagon horses, but still worried theyíd suffer discomfort and fatigue from not having saddles. Gabrielle assured him theyíd be fine. Xena stewed silently, visualizing the moment "auntie" had them over her knee.
The sun had nearly set when Seamus ordered the party to stop. "Put these on," he ordered, handing the women blindfolds.
"Please?" Solo noted Xenaís scowl. "Itíll be better for you if Ö if things donít work out."
Rolling her tongue in her cheek, Xena took the blindfold. Gabrielle did likewise. Xena sensed them circling and backtracking before going over some hilly terrain, through another wooded area and finally to an unusually cool clearing. She could pick up muffled activity not far ahead.
"Hold up." Seamusí voice. "Solo, go tell the others whatís happeniní. Weíll stay here till we get the okay."
"All clear!" Solo called out some moments later. The party moved forward.
"I think weíre a bit of a novelty," Xena whispered, noting the buzz around them. She also detected the familiar sounds and smells of a military camp. A fairly small one, from what she could tell.
"Okay, put them here for the time being."
Hands reached up to help the women dismount and direct them to some kind of shelter.
"Stay inside, okay? Iíll be back later with some food." Solo. "You can take the blindfolds off now."
"Not too bad," Gabrielle remarked after their eyes adjusted to the interior. "At least theyíre not expecting us to sleep on the floor."
A brazier highlighted the small tentís features ñ a couple of cots, crude log bench, some upside down crates ñ one with a washbowl sitting atop ñ and straw matting covering most of the grassy floor.
Xenaíd walked immediately to where their gear had been dropped. "Seamus is gonna learn about having sticky fingers," she muttered, not surprised to find her weapons still missing. "Seems like everything else is here."
Gabrielle came over to examine her bag. She held up her folding travel staff. "Heh, probably thought this was a walking stick." Her stomach rumbled. "Sure hope Solo doesnít take too long with our supper," she said, sitting on a cot. She chuckled as her soulmate began examining the tent walls for holes. "Xena?"
"You planning on breaking out, now that weíre in?"
"A little surveillance never hurts." Her inspection completed, Xena perched on a crate. "No tears to look through, but itís good to know they canít either."
Gabrielle shuddered. "Ooo, hadnít thought about that." She grinned. "Technically, weíre still on our anniversary trip. Never know when the desire to celebrate might strike."
"Mm." Xenaís mind was focused on activities of a different sort. "The men seem fairly disciplined. Afraid of not following orders. Wonder if their commander is battle hardened, a decent leader or both."
"Iíd say she has some sort of code. I mean, I donít get the feeling sheís into murder and plunder for sport."
"Theyíre not necessarily mutually exclusive." Xena got up and paced as best she could in the tight enclosure. "You donít want your men deciding that kind of thing on a whim. Breeds chaos, disobedience, lack of focus. Limits keep them in line. Common purpose keeps them invested in functioning as a unit, toward specific goals." She smiled without humor. "Even I demanded that at my worst."
"Xena? If she really is named after you, she canít be all bad. The Destroyer of Nations was a long time ago. Most people nowadays would know of the Warrior Princess as a hero."
Xena snorted. "Sure, if they believe those stories spread by a certain bard."
"And the real-life experiences of countless people saved by the woman the bard sang about."
Xena shrugged. "I suppose the fact weíre sitting in here without a scratch means something." She came over to sit on the other cot, swinging her crossed leg. "All I know is, my patience hasnít gotten much better than that stomach of yours. I wanna see something quick, and it ainít just food."
"Hello? Itís Solo. Can I come in?"
Gabrielle grinned. "Looks like one of usíll be satisfied." She turned toward the entrance. "Yes, weíve been waiting for you!"
The tent flap opened to Solo bearing a tray, followed by another man with water skins. "Venison. Probably not as good as what you can cook, but Zee wanted the best for our guests."
"Oh?" Gabrielle took the tray and set it on one of the crates. "How considerate."
Xena grabbed the water skins. "Yeah. She coming to do the honors herself?"
Solo frowned. "Do the honors? Um, donít know about that, but no, she wonít be coming."
"Surely weíll get to meet her," Gabrielle said. "Did you tell her weíre related to the famous Xena and Gabrielle?"
"You are? I didnít know that. Iíve heard of `em."
"Uh huh. Those weapons Seamus confiscated belonged to Xena. Iíd think your commander might be interested in that ñ you know, with her having that name and all."
"Sure, sure, Iíll mention it to her." Solo turned to leave. "Need anything else?"
"Yeah, some answers," Xena muttered.
"Um, no, this is fine. Thank you."
"Okay, see you in the morning then." Solo smiled bashfully. "Um, Zee put me in charge of you."
"Oh, how Ö nice!" Gabrielle couldnít help feeling pleased at Soloís grin as he went through the flap. "Xena? Isnít that Ö nice?"
Xena was sampling the venison. Chewing, she glowered up at her twinkling-eyed companion. Slowly a smirk formed.
Gabrielleís eyes narrowed. "What?"
"Yeah, nice." Xena picked up an empty mug. "About as nice as this venison," she said, spitting out what was left of her sample.
At the crack of dawn the next day, Solo came by to collect the trial "handywomen." Gabrielle thought their title "cute." Xena nearly choked. Solo said their length of service would be determined after a week of performing the required tasks satisfactorily. He took them on a tour. A forest surrounded the camp clearing, a huge rock formation looming at the back. As Xena had suspected, the tents probably housed about 30 soldiers. Most had not yet risen. She noted the neatly stacked supplies, well-groomed horses, and general cleanliness.
"That your commanderís?" Xena asked, pointing her chin at a medium-sized tent set off from the rest.
"Uh huh. She uses it mostly for meetings." Solo offered no further explanation. He concluded his tour at a shelter set up not far from a large fire pit. "Hereís your main station for cooking. The men will drop off your supplies or whatever needs repair."
"What about body parts? They fixed in there too?" At Soloís nod, Xena went inside. All sorts of material and weapons covered the tables and floor. "Iím reorganizing this," she declared when she came out. "Weíll clean and curtain off a section solely for healing. Nobody but us should go back there."
Solo scratched his chin. "Um, sure. No problem. Whatever you think best."
Gabrielle peeked inside. "Where are the cooking supplies ñ you know, like herbs, grain?"
"The guy whoís been taking care of that doesnít know much besides cutting, spitting and roasting."
Gabrielle screwed up her face. "Donít forget burning and overcooking."
Solo laughed. "Uh huh. And whatever it is better come with its own seasoning."
They discussed what might be growing in the area that they could use, what additional supplies would be helpful. Solo informed them of the campís routine. Xena indicated some adjustments might make things more efficient.
"Solo?" Gabrielle laid her hand on his arm. "Weíd rather you not steal what we need. Weíll try to find alternatives, okay?"
The young man stared at her. "I told you, itís like a tax. For protection. Thereíre some warlords out there whoíd take a lot more than us." At Gabrielleís frown he added, "Iíll run it by Zee."
Solo started to walk away, stopped and hit himself in the head. "I almost forgot! You donít like ëauntie,í" he said, cutting his eyes at Xena. "And it feels funny calling you Cook or Healer." He smiled at Gabrielle. "Whatís your names?"
"I thought youíd never ask," Gabrielle said brightly. "Iím Ella. Sheís Spitunia. I call her Spit for short." She smirked when Xenaís mouth dropped and no sound came out. "She prefers Nia ñ at least until people get to know her better."
Over the next few days, the "handywomen" set about integrating themselves into the camp. The men treated the newcomers respectfully and cooperated without complaint. They welcomed Ellaís cooking and easy-going manner. They barely noticed Niaís gruffness in light of her ability to provide relief from nearly any ailment. She did surprise them with her equally good advice about taking care of horses and battle gear. They agreed with her suggestions about a regular maintenance schedule.
Seamus monitored the womenís every move, lounging at a distance and sending someone to get Solo if they strayed too far or lingered too long away from their assigned quarters. Theyíd had little opportunity to interact with the three other female residents. One spent most of her time doing wash at a river nearby. Another would leave with "scouting" parties, apparently to act as a decoy and help with errands. The third, a tall, powerfully built warrior, certainly ranked high enough to give orders. Otherwise she kept to herself and disappeared for long stretches of time. Xena pegged her as the best candidate for the mysterious camp commander.
"Sheís sure taking her sweet time," Xena muttered on the fourth day.
"You mean meeting us? Itís not like weíre royalty, dear." Gabrielle tied a scarf around her hair and donned her apron.
"Yeah, well, Iídíve checked us out by now." Xena pulled on her leather breeches, part of an ensemble designed to be as unauntie-like as possible. "Iíd at least be curious about strangers mucking with my camp routines."
"Iím sure Seamus and Solo keep her sufficiently informed. Patience. Our trial periodís almost over. Ready?"
"Yeah." Xena put a clasp on the braid sheíd gathered her hair into. "I have a feeling we might meet her before then," she hinted, shouldering the things sheíd take to her work site.
"Oh?" Gabrielle paused at their tent flap. She raised a suspicious brow. "Dare I ask why?"
"Nah," Xena answered, smirking, as she brushed past Gabrielle. "Sheís on trial too. I wanna see if sheís as smart as her name."
The two walked out into the early morning gloom to perform their respective exercise regimens and begin their chores. A few hours later, Solo appeared to escort them to the commanderís tent. A partition bisected the interior. The side they entered was sparsely furnished ñ a large table, some chairs, fur rugs, storage crates, odds and ends of merchandise.
Solo directed the women to chairs at the side of table facing the partition. Soon the warrior woman came from behind it, followed by Seamus. He perched on a crate near the tent wall at the womenís back. Solo joined him.
The warrior stood on the other side of the table, arms crossed, silently examining her visitors. "I donít recall announcing any promotions," she finally said.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. The former blinked innocently. The latter cleared her throat.
"Um, promotions?" Gabrielle asked politely.
"One of you seems to think sheís supposed to lead the men, not take care of them."
"Begging your pardon, but we were only trying to do our best at the tasks given us. If weíve been a little too enthusiastic about efficiency ñ."
"Iím talking about telling the men they needed to work on their drills." The warrior woman put her hands on the table and leaned forward. "Unless they wanted to keep fighting like ëmamaís boys.í"
Gabrielle coughed. She kicked Xena under the table. "Oh, thereís probably been some misunderstanding. I certainly didnít ñ."
"What about you?" The woman locked eyes with Xena, neither blinking. "I hear youíre not shy about giving opinions."
Xena cocked her head. "Comes with advanced age," she said dryly. She smiled. "I donít always say things as nicely as Ö Ella. I meant no harm."
The woman maintained her position a moment, then relaxed and straightened. She clapped her hands. Another woman appeared carrying a tray with fruit and cups. Gabrielle recognized her as the one who accompanied the raiding parties. She was shorter, plumper and probably younger than the warrior woman. Up close, she reminded Gabrielle of someone, but theyíd met so many people over the years, she didnít bother trying to place this latest face.
"Stay." The warrior gestured for the other woman to sit at one end of the table. "I may need you again." She chose some fruit from the tray and indicated that her guests should do likewise. They did. "Iím curious," she resumed, addressing Xena, "about what makes you such an expert on battle skills."
"I didnít pick up my healing techniques in sewing circles. Been around a lot of armies in my time. These guys arenít bad, far as training goes." Xena shrugged. "Iíve seen better."
Seamus expressed his views on that with a loud snicker. "See, told ya she was trouble. Thinks sheís a tough old bird who can just ñ."
The warrior raised her hand to silence Seamus. "Solo says maybe your bloodlines have something to do with it. Solo?" At her nod, Solo went to retrieve some items from a crate. He laid Xenaís sword and chakram on the table, before returning to his seat. "That true?"
"Itís true we carry the blood of Gabrielle and Xena," Xena acknowledged. "Weíve learned all we can about them, tried to continue their work in our way."
The warrior woman leaned back. "From what I hear, that wouldnít mean serving warlords. Unless you had other reasons for wanting to be here?"
Gabrielle smiled at Xena. "Well, first of all, Solo says youíre not warlords. More like protectors against real warlords. Second, we like being active. You could say we were quite adventurous in our younger days. Weíre used to all sorts of people, to not judging them too quickly. Most could use help no matter who they are."
"And if they turn out to be bad after all?"
Xena smiled at Gabrielle. "Weíve learned to take things as they come. Not many situations we havenít been able to handle."
"From what weíve seen so far, you folks donít seem so bad. Right, Nia?"
Xena nodded. She turned to the silent servant woman at the end of the table. "Wouldnít you agree ÖCommander?"
"That went pretty well, dontcha think?" Xena plopped down on a stump, preparing to gut some fish deposited at Gabrielleís station during their absence.
"Define ëpretty well.í"
"We chatted, left, got escorted back here in a considerate manner."
"More like grilled and kicked out with no blood shed."
"Now whoís being ëliteral?í"
Gabrielle sat on a stool across from Xena. She began peeling potatoes from the sack next to her. "And you have the nerve to accuse me of being the one to start trouble."
"We needed information. I merely cut to the chase. She didnít deny being the commander."
"She didnít confirm it either." Gabrielle scowled at her soulmate. "What made you go there anyway? Weíre lucky your warrior friend didnít grab your sword and try beheading both of us with one swing."
"Heh. I could feel olí Seamus itching to skewer us from the back."
"But you, being so smart, knew neither of them would."
"Pretty much." Xena examined with satisfaction a neat slit sheíd cut in a particularly large fish. "Ooo, this oneís a beauty. Think Iíll talk Solo into letting me in on some of that action."
"Xena!" Gabrielle hissed. "Forget the fish! We have more important things to talk about."
"Hey, Iím just trying to help you out. If youíd rather I didnít ñ."
"What?" Xena smirked. "Youíre the one who called me ëSpit.í Gotta expect some mischief with a name like that, hmmm?"
Gabrielle studied the knife in her hand. She shouldíve known better than to mess with Xena in the realm of childishness. Better to accept defeat and move on. After gouging a rather large hole in the potato she was peeling, she forced a smile.
"All right. Spit. Why donít you tell me the method behind your mischief?"
Xena graciously limited her "gotcha" to a smug grin. She glanced around to confirm no one in earshot.
"First of all, my ëwarrior friendí didnít seem the type for chitchat ñ more ëhereís the dealí than ëletís hear your side.í I could understand the curiosity, but not from her. She also didnít strike me as someone whoíd be so concerned about refreshments that sheíd ask a servant to sit in on our little meeting. I watched that shorter one. She kept her head down, but I could tell she was tuned in to every word."
"So the questions were for her benefit?"
"Yep. Plus, she set something off in the back of my mind."
"Huh." Gabrielle frowned. "She reminded me of someone, but I couldnít Ö."
Gabrielleís eyes widened. She pictured the similar brown eyes and hair, the rather longish faces. "Yes! That might explain Seamusí deference to him. But why Ö."
Xena shrugged. "Being incognito must be important to her for some reason."
Gabrielle snorted. "Weíre fine ones to question that."
"Heh, must be contagious. Way things were going, looked like sheíd get her answers without giving herself away. I figured it was worth upping the ante. If I was right, the warrior wouldnít act unless she got the okay from her commander. I was fairly confident that wouldnít happen."
"And if you were wrong?"
Xenaís trademark feral grin appeared. "Theyíd been kind enough to put my weapons right in front of me."
Gabrielle let her hands rest in her lap. "I must say, I did expect more of a response than their stunned expressions and ëThatís enough. Get back to your work.í Certainly from the warrior."
"So what now? We rush the short one next time we see her? Wait until our trial periodís up?"
"I have a feeling sheíll make her move sooner than you think." Xena gazed into the distance. "Sheís no dummy. Careful, but intrigued. We made an impression. Wheelsíre definitely turning."
Gabrielle grinned knowingly. "Starting to like her, eh?"
The warrior rolled her tongue in her cheek. "I didnít say that. She did okay on the preliminary exam. I may be Spit, but I still know a thing or two about passing, when it comes to Xena 101."
The day ended with Gabrielle soaking her feet. Xena rubbed liniment on the shoulder that bothered her from time to time. Neither could recall feeling so beat from tromping or fighting their way across the world, as they did now. Gabrielle surmised her stamina mustíve dwindled as her wrinkles increased. Xena was arguing that boredom had more to do with their fatigue than age, when they heard Soloís voice outside.
"Ella? Nia? You decent?"
Xena smirked. "That depends. Whatcha got in mind?"
Gabrielle gave her partner a look. "Sure, Solo, come on in."
The flap opened. "What about his sister? Will she do?"
Xena eyed their visitor. "Like I said ñ that depends. You here as Servant No. 1 or Big Cheese No. 1?"
Their guest stood at the entrance studying the tentís occupants. Finally, smiling, she gestured toward the tunic and pants that replaced the peasant dress sheíd worn earlier. "Iím here as Zee, Host No. 1."
"Cool." Xena got the lone chair that had been added to their furniture. She positioned it facing their cots. "Take a load off."
"Forgive my manners," Gabrielle said. "Iíd stand in welcome, but as you can see Ö."
Zee chuckled. "No problem. Nobodyís earned their keep ñ and a little rest ñ more than you two." She gazed around the tent. "I stayed in here awhile. Kind of miss the place," she added, moving to the chair.
"It is Ö cozy." Gabrielle removed her feet from the washbowl. She smiled down at Xena, whoíd knelt to towel off the wet feet. "Especially since it comes with such excellent service."
"Yeah, I see. Too bad I didnít get that when I was here." Zee relaxed in her chair, wryly watching until Xena patted Gabrielleís feet "all done" and perched on the other cot. "So. youíre just two grandmas, traveling about seeking more excitement than babysitting."
"Something like that."
"Who happen to carry legendary weapons and have experience with military life."
"Pretty much." Xena snorted softly. "Plus a certain disregard for the good sense thatís supposed to come with gray hairs."
Zee chuckled. "Yeah, Iíve bumped into that before."
"Oh?" Gabrielle leaned forward, curiosity piqued. "Is there some group of us we should know about?"
Zee shrugged. "The example Iím most familiar with passed over some time ago. Sheís how I got my name."
Gabrielleís eyes widened. "Her name Xena too?"
"Nah. Claimed she knew the famous Warrior Princess." Zee pointed her chin at Xena. "Probably your forebear, judging from Grandmaís description. My father was her only child. She made him promise, if he had any girls, to name the first one Xena. I changed the X to Z, though, a few years ago when I turned 16. I had my own gang by then, was establishing my own reputation."
"Wanted to put some distance between you and some old ëhas been,í eh?"
"I suppose. I wanted to be known for me." Zee grinned. "Besides, I figured the Z would be more dramatic. You know Ö." Her finger slashed the letter through the air. "When I left my mark."
"Ah." Xena shook her head. "Lots to consider with names. Hadnít thought of that one."
"Iím not the imposing ëbody beautifulí Grandma says Xena was. Makes it easier for me to blend in. Folks donít know Iím there or what hit `em until itís too late. Even then, they canít remember what I looked like. Theyíre not sure itís me, unless I put my sign on it." Zee gave Xena the once over. "Heh, maybe I should hire you to impersonate me if I want to be more memorable. Put some ink on your gray, a little makeup on those crowís feet, youíd be a passable warrior in the Xena tradition."
"Um, Zee," Gabrielle interjected hastily, sensing her partnerís telltale spine straightening, "you say your grandmother knew Xena? Howíd they meet?"
"In her village, after Xena stopped warlording. Thatís when sheíd started palling around with this blond kid. Your kin, I imagine."
"Uh huh. Gabrielle."
"Yeah, Gabrielle. Not sure what that was about. She sounded kind of a sappy if you ask me."
Xena coughed. She didnít dare check to see if her partnerís cheeks had gone from pink to red. "Uh, well, I wouldnít jump to conclusions. Maybe your grandmother didnít know her as well as Xena."
Zee snorted. "Enough to know Gabrielle was partly to blame for Xena turning dull."
Gabrielle coughed. "Turning Ödull?"
"Grandma had to go on hearsay, but the Destroyer of Nations Xena was raw power and rage. She knew what she wanted and didnít let anything stand in her way. The Xena Grandma met had lost confidence in herself."
"Oh?" Gabrielleís brow furrowed. "What made her think that?"
"She didnít say that exactly, but thatís what I got. You know, always questioning her ëdark side,í worrying it might get loose. Afraid to go full tilt." Zee snorted. "Itís no wonder Gabrielleís the only ëarmyí she trusted herself with after that."
"Really." Xena studied the younger woman. "That who you want to be like? The Destroyer of Nations?"
"Nah. I mean, maybe she was more interesting, but itís not me. I have less passion, more control. I donít care about ruling the world. Iím in this `cause I got tired of marauders swooping in on our village, taking everything after all our hard work. When they killed my brother, that was the last straw. I organized those with guts. We set traps, ambushed attackers, built an arsenal from their weapons. We formed a defense from neighboring villages. Some of us decided to roam about, heading off warlords before they did much damage. We got some professionals to teach us skills and strategies."
"But not everybody welcomed your protection. They balked at continuing to provide the supplies you needed."
Zee nodded at Xena. "We started collecting a ëtaxí ñ only what we need to maintain ourselves."
"And the area youíve had to protect keeps getting wider, to make sure there are fewer and fewer villages harboring potential enemies."
"Which means more men and more Ö taxes."
"Well, sure. Fair is fair. Weíre providing a service."
"And if they refuse to pay?"
Zee shrugged. "Weíve had to slap around a few, but the only ones weíve harmed have been warlords."
"Killing, you mean." Xena casually examined her fingernails. "Taking peopleís hard-earned crops or goods, scaring them witless ñ simply the price of doing business, right?"
Zee scowled at Xena. "Itís different from marauding. Villagers have nothing to fear, if they let us do our job. Much more to fear if they donít."
"Did you know thatís how the Destroyer of Nations started out?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
"Like I said, Iím not her. I keep my ego in check. I donít get my kicks swaggering around being noticed, taking territory just to prove how big and mighty I am."
"Too bad," Xena said. "Seems like such a waste."
Zee frowned. "What? Not having more ambition? Not applying myself to something more ëusefulí? I happen to think ñ."
"No. I was thinking of that ëdramaticí Z." Xena mimicked Zeeís slashing mark. "Guess you donít get to use it much, huh?" The corner of Xenaís mouth quirked. "Being a person with such modest ego, passion and intent."
Zee bristled. "I didnít come in here for this. Youíre supposed to be telling me about your agenda, not the other way around. What do you know about my world anyway? Things are a lot different than in your day." She started to get up.
"Zee?" Gabrielle reached across and briefly touched Zeeís arm. "Weíre just trying to understand. Truth is, thatís partly why weíre here. We could tell you have a code, that youíre not just any old marauder. Forgive us if we react from our own experiences, okay? Thatís only natural. We know youíre doing what you think is right in your situation."
Zee cut her eyes at Xena, but remained seated. "Just because I give you respect, donít forget whose camp this is."
"And we appreciate your indulgence. Weíve obviously taken up more than enough of your time. If you donít mind though, I do have one more question before you go?" Gabrielle smiled as Zeeís lips pursed. "Donít worry, a much lighter topic ñ your grandmother. Sounds like quite a woman. I wonder if maybe we might have known of her."
"Doubt it. Donít get me wrong, she was strong and had more spine than 10 men put together. But kinda touched in the head. Itís not just Xena and Gabrielle she claimed to know up close and personal. According to her, she met gods, went on missions with them too." Zee grinned as her listenersí jaws dropped, suddenly looking her actual age. "Yeah, thatís what I thought. Anyway, her name was Minya."
The warrior cautiously shifted to a more comfortable position behind the bushes. She could see better in the growing daylight, not that she needed it to confirm what sheíd already suspected. The two "handywomen" were much more than they seemed. Sheíd watched them ease silently from their tent and disappear into the bordering trees. Trailed them on their fast-paced walk around the outskirts of the camp, on their hike to a small clearing.
The taller one began a grueling series of calisthenics, while the smaller one assumed a variety of poses that wouldíve crippled anyone else. Now they sparred with tree limbs, lunging and striking in intricate patterns ñ forcefully, but with the barest touch to body or wood. She shook her head in amazement. Their tirelessness exhausted even her.
"What?" Gabrielle backed off with her stick in the ready position. "You getting creative with the routine?" she asked quietly. "Or we got company."
Xena twirled her stick before resting one end on the ground. "Could be both." She turned to face the area from which something had raised the hairs on her neck. "Letís take a break. Study what Mother Nature might have in store for us over there."
The two leaned on their sticks, patiently staring at the designated spot. Some moments passed before the bushes stirred. A figure uncoiled, rather stiffly, and finally stood spread-legged, arms crossed.
"You folks could use some work on your introductions."
"You could use some on keeping your mouth shut."
"So Iíve heard. Good way to get answers though." Xena smiled at Gabrielle. "According to her anyway."
The warrior sauntered toward them, stopping a few paces away. "Nameís Masheia. Second in command."
"Guess you already know who we are. Just in case, Iím Nia and ñ."
"I know who youíre supposed to be." Masheia drew her sword and pointed it at Xenaís stick. "Hard to believe, from what Iíve seen."
Xena grinned. "Oh, you mean our little exercise routine? Hey, cooking, healing, patching and such is demanding work. We gotta keep in shape somehow."
"Oooo, which reminds me Ö." Gabrielle glanced at the rising sun. "I better get going, before breakfast turns into lunch. Um, you Ö."
Xena raised a questioning brow to Masheia, who nodded. "Iíll catch up with you later."
Gabrielle appraised Masheia a moment. Confident the womanís wry smile meant sheíd gotten the "Hurt her and Iíll hurt you" message, Gabrielle gave Xena a peck on the cheek and started back. "Donít dawdle too long," she threw over her shoulder. "You know my policy on lazy assistants."
"Thatís a feisty one," Masheia remarked, admiring Gabrielleís sure stride. "Is she always so protective?"
"Yep. A lot can come in small packages." Xena gave the other woman a knowing look. "Bet you have experience with that yourself, eh?"
Masheia studied Xena, using a warriorís measuring stick for determining trust ñ basically, "Would I want her at my back?" Finally she chuckled. "Yeah. And just as protective."
Masheia blew out a long breath, then lowered herself to the ground. Xena followed suit.
"We grew up in the same village ñ Laurel. Iím a couple yearsí older, but she always had more sense. I was wild, both parents dead from sickness. Except for Zeeís grandmother trying to look out for me, Iíd probably be dead too. I was barely 16 when I joined up with a local warlord. Couple years later, he decided to attack Laurel. I deserted, rode ahead to warn them, but Ö."
"They wanted to kill the messenger?"
Masheia nodded. "Zee jumped to my defense, said they should listen. Everybody was so busy arguing about me, they didnít prepare for Malchius. Some of the young men tried to stop him. Zeeís older brother died in the battle. Broke her heart. She vowed vengeance. Sprung me from jail, got me to teach her what I knew."
Masheia smiled with some pride. "Sheís got a good head on her shoulders. A natural leader. In a few months, weíd formed a ragtag band. We found Malchius. Didnít hit him directly, but in quick sneak attacks. We whittled his army down to a manageable size. Zee wanted to take him out herself, but I wouldnít let her. I didnít tell her he was my first kill, though I think afterwards she knew. Anyway, weíve been together ever since."
Xena silently absorbed this information. "Masheia, youíve seen I have skills you donít exactly get from farming. Itís because my early days were a lot like yours and Zeeís. I developed some bad habits. Very bad. A lot of people ñ many of them innocent ñ died because of me."
"You mean like Xena? You really do carry her blood? Her legacy?"
"Oh yeah." Xena snorted. "Even I canít believe how much sometimes."
"Then you know Zeeís only doing what anyone with guts would. You canít fight warlords like Malchius with surrender or prayers to the gods."
"I know it doesnít do any good if you become them either. How many villagers will you terrorize? How much land will you secure before itís enough? How big an army will you build to keep both friend and foe in line? How will you keep your own men in line?"
Masheiaís jaws tightened. "Zee doesnít care about conquering for the sake of it. Weíre very careful about our recruits. They do only whatís necessary to keep us in fighting shape."
Xena raised a brow. "Like Seamus?"
"Seamus?" Masheia looked away. "Heís Ö a special case. I keep tabs on him."
"Mm. That why heís in Zeeís inner circle?"
"Sheís got her reasons."
"And you agree with them?"
"Thatís not up to me. Sheís not a warrior the way I am, but like I said, sheís smart. Sheís good at strategy, at making the best of what we have. Seamus has more battle experience than any of us. Weíve learned a lot from him."
"Well, it takes all kinds." Xena allowed a concessionary smile, deciding it best to back off that particular subject. "I have to say, though ñ being so bad at keeping my mouth shut and all ñ your men are certainly softer than the Warrior Princess would have stood for."
Masheia pursed her lips. "Something else youíd know about?"
"Uh huh. Why do you think I put these old bones through the paces you saw? `Cause it feels better than rocking myself to sleep?" Xena snorted. "I learned from Xenaís success that your body is your best weapon. Maintain it, keep it primed for any situation, and itíll take out more opponents than a sword."
Masheia smiled thinly. "I need to head back." She lifted her sword from her lap and sheathed it. "Iíll make sure the drill leader considers your Ö complaints. No doubt youíd be willing to offer more advice?" She stood.
"Of course," Xena answered, also getting up. "If thereís one thing Iím full of, itís advice." She grinned. "Iíd go easy on him at first. Wouldnít want him embarrassed by a graying ëauntie.í"
"Uh, thanks anyway." Masheia sucked in her cheeks. "My drills may not meet your standards, but I donít embarrass that easy." She turned to leave. "Same time tomorrow? Iíll bring a couple staffs."
Gabrielle surveyed the piles of food supplies available for the morning. Once again her creativity would come in handy, as so far her main challenge had been devising ways to make gruel a little different than the preceding day. At first sheíd relied on mixing in berries or dried grapes. Once the men discovered they had a cook who cared about such things, small quantities of honey, cinnamon and nutmeg appeared. She couldnít quite decide how she felt about that. On one hand, she suspected these luxuries were the "tax" paid by some unfortunate traveling merchant. Sheíd admonished the men about that, reminding them that inconveniencing others would rob her food of its most important ingredient ñ love.
On the other hand, sheíd been heartened by the menís enthusiasm. Whatever she used as spice had to be stretched very thin. She doubted it changed the taste much, yet even the slightest touch went a long a way in terms of response. Instead of grumbling, elbowing, grabbing, and gobbling, the men quickly adjusted to the eating stations sheíd organized. By the third day, she found them already seated, patiently waiting for her and her helpers to bring food to their group. Theyíd nod, mumble "thanks" and afterwards diligently place their eating ware and garbage in designated bins.
She admitted to herself that she found her current situation a lot more satisfying than sheíd imagined. At home, her days often droned on in endless council debates, eked away in the minutia of running the Village or watching on the sidelines as she gave young protégées the chance to make decisions and mistakes. On the road, she looked forward to not being sure what might happen next, to moments of precious solitude with Xena. Here, she enjoyed a role of surprising power, without the stress or demands on her brain. Sheíd become a true mother hen over men for whom this represented the closest to "family" theyíd known. Except for their being armed to the teeth and raiding ordinary folk, sheíd be a little proud of her "children."
"Ella? Everything okay?"
Gabrielle blinked. She turned from staring into space to see Solo regarding her with concern. "Oh, hi. Sorry. Was I lost in the cosmos?"
"Um, ëlost?í" Solo scratched his head. "I donít think so. You supposed to be somewhere else?"
"Somewhere else? No, no, I meant Ö. Never mind. How can I help you?"
"Well, thatís what I was wondering. I thought maybe you needed something."
"Actually Ö. I am a little behind. One of my assistants got delayed. Donít know what happened to the others."
"Sure, sure, Iíve got nothing else to do. Where should I start?"
Gabrielle instructed Solo to check on the various pots filled with water being heated for porridge, tea and disinfecting utensils. Sheíd had a few small fire pits arranged in a semi-circle around her large worktable. This enabled her to monitor the food and her helpers more easily. Soon Solo sat across from her to assist with other preparations.
"We had a nice talk with Zee last night."
"Uh huh. She told me I didnít need to be secret anymore around you and Nia."
"Iím glad. Turns out weíd heard of your grandmother."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle excused herself to direct two helpers whoíd appeared. She sent them off searching for berries, mainly to have some privacy with Solo. "Minya was in some of Gabrielleís stories about her travels with Xena," she said, resuming her seat. "She really did those things Zee thought might be fantasies."
"Yeah? I was a little kid when she died. Most of what I know, I got from Zee."
"Zee said your mom died when you were a baby, that your dad traveled a lot. She didnít mention any other relatives."
Solo got up to check on the pots. "Waterís almost ready," he reported. He began measuring out the grain theyíd mix in. "I kinda remember Gramma Polly. She died before Gramma Minya." His eyes lit up. "Oh, and Uncle Howar! He visited us a lot. He was fun for an old guy."
Gabrielleís hands had stilled. "Gramma Polly?"
"Uh huh. We had two of `em. It was really their house we grew up in. Zee took it over after everybody died and Dad didnít come back. My brother was building his own place." Soloís jaws clenched. "Then those men killed him."
Gabrielle reached across and squeezed his hand. "I was sorry to hear that. Zee said he died defending the village."
"Yeah, he did," Solo said bitterly. "But Zee made them pay. She promised weíd never be helpless like that again." He lifted his chin. "And we havenít. We donít need anybodyís pity. Weíve done okay on our own."
Gabrielle nodded. "Youíve become a fine young man. Zeeís a good leader." She swept her eyes around, suddenly realizing something missing. "Solo? Whereís Seamus? Usually he watches me like a hawk."
"Um Ö." Solo glanced over to Seamusí usual surveillance post. "Donít know." He shifted uneasily. "He Ö um Ö does his own thing a lot."
"You donít like him very much, do you?"
Solo searched the older womanís eyes. "This stays between us, okay?"
"What is it, Solo? You can trust me."
"Iíve seen him do things. Things Zee forbids."
"Like hurting innocent people?"
Solo nodded. "Heís even killed a couple who wouldnít go along."
"Whatís Zee say about that?"
Solo ducked his head. "She, um, doesnít know. I think Iím the only one whoís caught him. I try to stay near when we go out, but Iím not sure it helps much."
"I donít understand. Why donít you tell Zee? Wouldnít she want to know?"
Solo sighed. "She doesnít like hearing anything bad about him. See, he and Masheia used to be with a warlord. She came to warn us they were gonna attack. Later, the warlord tried to kill her, but Seamus jumped in front of the arrow. Thatís why Zee took him in."
"Ah, so Zee overlooks his faults, because he saved Masheia?"
"Sheís very loyal if you do right by her, if you do right by me or Masheia or anybody she cares about. Sheíd think Seamus mustíve had a good reason for going against her orders." Solo got up to begin cooking the porridge. "Oh, look," he said, pointing to the woods at Gabrielleís back. "Thereís Nia."
Gabrielle shook her head free of their conversation. "About time," she muttered with feigned annoyance.
Solo grinned. "You gonna scold her? You said nobody was too old for a sound spanking."
"My young friend, fairness and consistency are the heart of good discipline. Sheíll get whatís coming to her. Count on it."
From his vantage atop the rocks, Seamus had a good view of the camp and its surroundings. Heíd used his rank as third in command to assign himself guard duty on the sunrise shift. Sure enough, those busy-body newcomers confirmed his suspicions they meant trouble. Heíd hoped the meeting yesterday would be their undoing. Instead, heíd seen Zee visit their tent that evening and Masheia getting chummy with them today. Only Hades knew what Solo might be spilling to the blonde.
Seamus gritted his teeth. Heíd be damned if heíd let those old fools spoil years of planning, of taking orders from two females nearly half his age. His mind veered back to the day heíd unwittingly become a member of Zeeís gang. A day when bad luck turned good. Malchius had finally discovered his thievery ñ keeping booty from their raids and selling it on his own. The warlord waited to confront him until a skirmish with the upstarts from Laurel. Heíd said heíd spare Seamus if Seamus killed "that traitorous bitch." Seamus had run toward Masheia fully prepared to do so, only to feel an arrow slamming into his back.
When he regained consciousness, he couldnít believe heíd become a hero, credited with sacrificing himself for Masheia, that sheíd eliminated his Malchius problem. She was skeptical about his motives of course. Zee said heíd probably seen the error of his ways. His lip curled. Young fool helped nurse him from the brink of death. Welcomed him into the fold. Promised heíd have a place at her side as long as it suited him. All she asked in return was his loyalty. Heíd gladly agreed. Much better living as a wolf among sheep than among other wolves. It cost him little to volunteer his battle experience, suck up to Zee, keep his nose clean in public. In private, he could do practically anything he wanted.
Initially heíd thought to steal from Zeeís gang as he had from Malchius. But her increasing success led him to a much grander scheme. Each victory earned a bigger bounty on her head. At least four warlords would pay dearly to learn her whereabouts, her weaknesses, her next campaign. Heíd managed to get word to all of them, with instructions on where to leave their responses. Only one had yet to make an offer. Heíd planned to seal a deal within the next couple weeks.
Until those old bats came along. Stirring things up. Talking too much. Butting into areas that might improve the gangís ability to fight. Worse yet, they were winning over key leaders. Not just because they passed themselves off as descendents of legendary warriors, but because, in their own way, they acted like them. Seamus knew better than to dismiss them, to underestimate their threat. "Fair play" was for fools who didnít bother digging beneath the surface, who believed a person to be basically "good," deserving the benefit of the doubt and a chance to prove otherwise. They let customs and codes blind them to hidden dangers standing in plain sight before them.
Seamus, on the other hand, prided himself on being a realist. He accepted his mediocrity, excelled at exploiting the strengths and limitations of others. His survival depended upon seeing things as they were. Like those women. Their age meant nothing once heíd felt that taller oneís grip, now that heíd witnessed her physical ability. What heíd seen in her eyes that first day still chilled him to the bone.
No, he didnít doubt she could probably use those weapons they carried almost as well as their original owner. It puzzled him why someone like that would act like a fair-play fool. Didnít seem as natural as with her friend. Seamusí nostrils flared. He would, as usual find a way to use their weakness to his advantage. He might not have the biggest ego, but there was no way heíd let those biddies ruin everything ñ no matter how exceptional they were.
He prepared to descend from his post when he noticed movement in the tall grass near the backside of the rock formation. A figure emerged long enough to scan the area before darting toward the rock and out of sight. Masheia. An evil grin spread across his face. Maybe Lady Luck was still with him after all.
Seamusí potential adversaries relaxed in their tent comparing notes about the dayís revelations. Xena wasnít surprised to hear about Seamusí occasional bloodletting, though she did raise a brow at the reason heíd remained in Zeeís good graces. She also didnít quite get Gabrielleís excitement about Zeeís Gramma Polly.
"You know ñ Paulina," Gabrielle explained at Xenaís blank expression. "The woman who was your character in that play of mine Zera produced."
"Xena, I swear, I donít know how that brain of yours works sometimes. She left arm-in-arm with Minya? After the show? Minya said Paulinaíd helped her recognize the feeling deep inside ñ about being a `thespian.í We chuckled about it, remember?"
"Oh, yeah. Kinda cute how theyíd bonded."
"Uh huh. They mustíve bonded all right. From what Solo says, Iíd guess Howar fathered Minyaís son, but that Minya and Paulina raised him, as well as the grandkids."
"Mm. Thatís nice." Xena steepled her fingers under her chin. "But it doesnít answer the real question."
Gabrielle grinned. "Oh, I think it does. They lived together. Solo said it was their house ñ Paulina and Minyaís. Iím so happy for ñ ."
"No, I meant Seamus. And Zee. My gut tells me ñ ."
"Oh, for the love of Ö." Gabrielle threw her hands up. "Xena, everything isnít about trouble. Weíve got a romantic interlude here, one from the past that we didnít know about. And the present too, judging from what we know of Zee and Masheia. Canít you take one moment to appreciate that?"
Xena forced her train of thought back to her partnerís track. "Sure. Itís great. Iím just sayiní it could all go for naught, if Zee doesnít get on the right path. Seamus probably senses weíre standing between him and his bread & butter. Heís liable to do something soon, before we get too close to Zee."
"Oh, all right." Gabrielle sighed in resignation. "I suppose we can get back to the romance once weíve resolved everything."
Xena narrowed her eyes. "What ëeverything?í Zeeís right. At this point sheís a better alternative than the warlords sheís fighting. We canít make her understand how it could all mushroom into something she canít control, any more than I did in her place. Best we might do is take out the rotten apple that could make everything worse. Like I shouldíve done with Darphus."
"Arenít you forgetting something?"
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. "Apparently."
"You had Hercules. Lao Ma, Cyane, MíLila, Borias."
"And you see how long it took them to get through my thick skull."
"Right. The one person you didnít have was you with hindsight. You with the wisdom you have now. Zee does."
"Arenít you forgetting something?"
"I am?" Gabrielle blinked innocently.
"I might notíve had such ëwiseí ñ not to mention relentless ñ hindsight without a certain wise, relentless burr stuck to my butt."
"A cute burr, right?"
"Absolutely." Xena bit her lip. "Youíre good, know that?"
"Apparently." Gabrielle smirked. "So, whatís our plan for resolving everything?"
Masheia crept forward, hunched sufficiently to keep her head below the tall grass. Upon reaching the cleared dirt at the rockís base, she checked to make sure no one had followed, before jogging to the secret entrance. She slipped behind a large boulder, squeezed through the narrow passage that led to a large cavern and some small caves. Carefully she picked her way through the darkness. Soon she saw faint light emanating from her destination.
She stood at the threshold of the hideaway. Zee sat at her worktable, absently running her fingers across the round weapon Seamus had confiscated from Nia and Ella. Masheia smiled wistfully. Zee looked so young in her rare unguarded moments, like when they used to sit at her grandmotherís feet listening to tales about "the old days." Her pensiveness signaled a preoccupation with practical matters that had gradually turned their place for pleasure and sharing into more of an office for war and solitude.
Masheia respected Zeeís position, empathized with the challenges she faced maintaining authority as a female of so few years and little military training. Understood her precautions about keeping their true closeness discrete, minimizing perceptions of "softness" or favoritism. Resigned herself to the public distance this required between them. Accepted that, even in privacy, it often mean approaching the love of her life as her leader. She cleared her throat.
Zeeís head jerked up. She smiled. "Hi. Was just thinking about you."
Masheia smiled back. "Yeah?" she said, stepping into the cave, striding over to sit opposite Zee.
Zee relaxed back in her chair, lips pursed. "Iím not sure what to make of those two. Iím anxious to hear your take. You got to talk to them today, right?"
Masheia snorted softly. "Right." She assumed a more formal manner. "I like them. I believe thereís truth in what they say. I watched them drill. Theyíre both very skilled ñ better than folks half their age. Nia seems honorable and speaks from experience."
"Iíd like to think that." Zee picked up the chakram. "But why are they really here? Why bother with us, when theyíre obviously competent enough to be useful somewhere else?"
Masheia tilted her chair back and propped her feet on the table. "I believe it has something to do with their kinship to Xena and Gabrielle. Seamus claims they got interested after they heard your name."
"So maybe they came to stop me? Because they thought Iíd fashioned myself after the ëoldí Xena?"
"Maybe." Masheia gazed into the distance. "Theyíre not afraid. Theyíre not nosey types ñ at least not for the sake of it. Like you say, they probably have better things to do if they wanted. Whatever reason they came, I think now they want to help."
"Help?!" Zee snorted. "Reorganizing the cooking fires? Making sure the swords shine?"
"You have to admit, moraleís improved. Iím Ö um Ö considering some of Niaís ideas for toughening up the men."
Zee shook her head. "Weíve done fine so far. What if theyíre spies? Can we really trust them not to sabotage us in some way? Because theyíve decided weíre bad or because theyíre in cahoots with somebody worse?"
"I donít think theyíd work so hard if they really thought you were bad." Masheia looked down at her hands. "I think Ö. I think they want to help make sure you donít become bad."
"Masheia?" Zee waited for her friendís attention. "They donít know me. You do."
The warrior sighed. "I know whatís in your heart. I know youíd never set out to be like Malchius. But sooner or later youíll have to be satisfied with what we can do as we are now, or be forced to resort to some of his tactics, to do more."
Zee folded her hands on the table. "Is that Nia talking, or you?"
Masheia swung her legs down. She leaned forward. "Zee, thereís nobody I admire more than you. I know where you come from. Iíll go wherever you go. Itís just Ö. I feel weíre at a crossroads. Iíve felt it for a while now. Like we could go down some unknown path, accidentally lose our direction. I guess Iím wondering if these women are a sign." Taking a deep breath, she reached across and covered Zeeís hands. "My gut tells me theyíd lead us the right way."
Zee studied Masheia a long moment. "In all the time weíve known each other, youíve doubted me only once before. Seamus. Do you still feel I was wrong about him?"
Masheia withdrew her hand. "You know I donít question you on such matters. I was only trying to ñ ."
"Iím asking your opinion."
"I donít have proof, Zee, just a feeling." Masheia pushed her chair back. "Letís drop it, okay? Weíve got more important things to discuss. From what the scouts report, three warlords have banded together. Seems weíd better prepare for something in the next few days."
Zeeís eyes hardened. She got up and began pacing behind the table. "Alert the unit leaders. Weíll meet tomorrow after breakfast."
Masheia stood. "Aye, Commander. Iím on it." She turned to leave.
"Ashi?" Zeeís expression softened. "I know whatís in your heart too. I trust it with my life. Iíll think about what youíve said. See you in the morning."
Masheia saluted. "In the morning." When she reached the narrow passageway, she paused, pressed against the cool damp wall and took in several shaky breaths before pushing her way through to yet another lonely night.
The next few days proved pivotal for the campís inhabitants. Key players made moves designed to change the course of their own or otherís lives. None knew exactly how their piece of the game interrelated with anotherís, or to what extent the outcome depended on someone elseís strategy. All sensed that soon things would either fall into place or fall apart, and that theyíd better do whatever might most likely leave them standing, whole.
Masheia threw her lot in with the one person whoíd already knocked her down and nearly taken off her head. Sheíd meant to give Nia some slack when they sparred ñ maybe hold back a little, let the older woman get in a few blows. Nia simply stood her ground, relaxed stance, head cocked, a confidently patient "Come to mama" grin on her face. Masheia moved in and lunged. Nothing but air. She gradually increased her speed and intricacy. Nia bobbed, sidestepped, turned with such quick ease she hardly seemed to move at all.
Masheia clenched her jaw and attacked full force. Nia finally raised her staff, first to block and push, then to strike in a flurry that set Masheia back on her heels and on her butt. Drenched in sweat, chest heaving, Masheia scowled up to see Nia leaning calmly on her staff, damp silver-streaked bangs the only indication she mightíve exerted herself. "Canít afford to waste energy," sheíd said, bending over to help Masheia up. "Or aggravating my bad shoulder. Easier to let my opponent do all the work." Sheíd grinned. "The one time I donít mind doing clean up."
Theyíd spent the remainder of their session with Nia giving tips on how to anticipate blows, exercises to improve balance and body control, using defense to improve offense. Masheia gladly spent the hours soaking up nearly 60 wintersí worth of observations, short cuts, techniques for mental and emotional discipline that Nia had acquired from all over the world. At one point, Masheiaís eyes welled ñ not from shame at being bested by such a woman, but because she wouldíve been proud to call her "Mother."
Sheíd always known Malchius, Seamus and others of their ilk did not represent true warriors. Maybe it was Minya and her stories about Xena. Whatever, Masheia felt sheíd been blessed. Nia would be the one to teach their men the right path, no matter how dark the future might prove. And so, for a few hours each day, she had Nia drill men not occupied elsewhere. They nearly revolted at first, but one look into those steel-blue eyes changed most minds. If it didnít, Nia would invite them to show her they knew better. The few who tried ended up skulking to the healing hut later on so she could patch up the damage sheíd done.
Zee spent time studying the other member of the senior duo. Secretly, she was intrigued by Ellaís ability to use even gruel as an instrument of persuasion. Though a decent warrior when she had to be, she preferred to rely on her natural proficiency at leadership. Until recently, sheíd personally chosen each member of her gang. Sheíd looked beneath their wildness or sullenness for some spark of decency, some desire to fight back against bullies. It didnít surprise her that theyíd responded to Ellaís maternal kindness or sternness. But somehow the older woman had made them respond to each other more as a unit, rather than individuals who happened to live and fight together.
"Something I can do for you?" Gabrielle called to the figure whoíd been watching her from the shadow of a tent nearby. "Wanna put your stamp of approval on todayís menu?"
Zee puckered her lips, not sure she liked her inconspicuousness penetrated. Apparently sheíd underestimated Ellaís eyesight and hearing. Or mother wit. She strolled toward the cooking area, nodding toward men who seemed surprised to see her.
"I make rounds every now and then." She leaned against the supply hut. "When something seems out of order."
"Oh?" Gabrielle glanced up from preparing a serving platter. "Something wrong?"
Zee shrugged. "`Out of orderí means a different order than I thought. Doesnít have to be wrong."
"I hope not." Gabrielle smiled. "Considering the effort I put into this particular order."
Zee came over to sit on the bench at Gabrielleís work table. "Care to share your secret recipe? Or is that another family heirloom?"
Zee gestured toward the tables of men quietly conversing, enjoying their meal.
"Ah." Grinning, Gabrielle leaned close to whisper conspiratorially, "Cheese."
"I mix some in, when I donít have much else to give the stuff flavor. Theyíre just happy it tastes different from what theyíre used to."
Zee snorted. "Um, I didnít mean your gruel. I meant the way the meníve been acting. More relaxed, like brothers or something. I used to think that might take their edge off, but it hasnít. When we Ö go out, they actually seem more alert. More careful about watching each otherís backs."
"I see." Gabrielle appraised the young woman a moment. "How about we take a walk when Iím finished here?"
Thus began a series of conversations about what Gabrielle had learned from her famous kinís scrolls about life as an Amazon queen, from her own experiences as a council leader, mentor of young women and connoisseur of customs from a variety of cultures. She shared her personal philosophy about avoiding poison when honey would be more effective. Zee absorbed this information intently. Sheíd had to rely on her own instincts, along with examples of warlords she didnít particularly respect. Now she began to appreciate a much wider array of command methods that suited her style. She recognized sheíd probably need them as her span of control expanded.
The various lessons taught were not lost on Seamus either ñ the content maybe, but not the fact that they were occurring. Heíd have to move fast. Heíd had his eyes on quite a few possible internal allies. Thanks to those old biddies, he didnít dare trust more than a handful of recent recruits less familiar to Zee. Fortunately, being a realist, he had a back-up plan. Heíd stepped up his surreptitious looting of villagers they "taxed" and the booties of warlords theyíd struck. Heíd decided to go with the trio whoíd banded together, had managed to get word to them of his terms. A couple more days, Zee would be unseated, and heíd be sitting pretty. Now, if could just teach those "goody two shoes" a lesson of his own ñ that fair play was for fools.
"Xena, I donít know whatís going on, but somethingís not right."
Xena pretended she needed Gabrielleís help in the healing hut. "Yeah," she agreed, once inside. "I feel it too."
"Itís not just a feeling. The men are coming by as usual, but most of them wonít look me in the eye." She peered out the door. "See how some have their heads together? And that table there, where theyíre not saying anything, just pushing their food around? I tried talking to a couple, but they mumbled something about being in a hurry."
Xena leaned against the doorframe, studying the scene outside. "Masheia didnít work out with me this morning. Said she, Zee and Solo were taking a scouting party out. Something big must be brewing."
"Did she mention Seamus? I thought it was creepy when he was staring at me all the time. Itís creepier now that Iíve seen so little of him."
"Not sure what we can do about it before the others get back." Xena pushed off and headed for Gabrielleís workstation. "Letís stay together. Anybody needs one of us, we both go."
"Think weíre in danger?" Gabrielle asked, trailing behind.
"Maybe not at the moment. Theyíre trying to act like business as usual. Seem to be waiting for something. Letís hope we get to Zee first."
A few hours later, various sentries shouted the return of the scouting party. Xena and Gabrielle quickly realized they werenít the only ones anxious to see Zee. The entire camp soon waited restlessly at the entrance.
Seeing the crowd, Masheia spurred her horse ahead of the scouting party. "Whatís going on here?" she asked as she passed through the gates. She threw her hand up for those behind to halt, but Zee rode up beside her.
Seamus emerged from a group near the front. "Nothing much. Just curious how things went."
Masheia and the others remained mounted. She shot Zee a warning look, but the commander casually swung her leg over and jumped down.
"Iíve never seen everybody so excited about a briefing." Zee cocked her head, noting how few eyes met hers, the nervous shifting among the men she could see. "Everything went fine. Iíll meet with the unit leaders. As usual. Youíll hear from them soon enough." She started forward, obviously expecting the men to part and allow a path through. They didnít.
Masheia drew her sword. "The commander is done for now. Make way."
"No need for threats." Seamus glanced at his apparent allies. "See, we got a few other things to talk about. Things itís best everybody hears at the same time."
Masheia dismounted and leveled her sword at Seamus. "You dare disobey Commander Zee?"
"Hold up, Masheia." Rykan, the most respected unit leader, stepped forward. He saluted Zee. "Commander, some rather serious charges have been made. Iíd think youíd want to deal with them immediately."
"Is that so." Zee studied Rykan a moment. She turned to Masheia and gently, but firmly, pushed the other womanís sword hand down. "Tell me more."
Rykan sighed. "Iím sorry, Commander, but the charges involve you Ö." He glanced apologetically at Masheia. "Your second in command, Solo and Ö." He searched the crowd. "Those two," he concluded, pointing at Xena and Gabrielle.
Masheia was livid. "Wh-what Ö. Who Ö. You!" She jabbed a finger at Seamus. "Itís you, isnít it? What have you Ö. I ought to ñ."
"No!" Zee focused on Rykan. "Let him speak. Who accuses us of what?"
"Sheís right." Rykan scowled at Seamus. "He says youíve been hoarding loot. That all of you planned to take off with it and side with those warlords against us."
"And you believe him?"
"I ñ and most of the others ñ believe the best thing is to let you prove him wrong."
Zee regarded her men, the majority of whom looked uncomfortable and not particularly eager for a hanging. She lifted her face, expressionless, to the sky, almost certain the thoughts zinging around in her brain could be heard in the hush that fell. Returning her gaze to Rykan, she slowly unsheathed her sword and held it out to him. She turned to the scouting party.
"Solo, you and the others dismount. Hand over your weapons. Nia and Ella?" She gestured for the women to join her. "Rykan, if youíll be so kind as to lead the way to my tent? Perhaps we can clear this up before Seamusí drool floods the camp."
The crowd flowed toward the camp center, but at Seamusí direction detoured to the tent which housed Xena and Gabrielle. Two men went inside. When they emerged, one carried a sack. He emptied the contents. A couple of ornate candleholders, some expensive jewelry and a few coins clinked to the ground.
"Figures," Xena muttered, rolling her eyes.
"Not yours, eh?" Seamus sneered at the older women. "Recognize these?" he asked Rykan.
The unit leader crouched down to examine the items. "Look like they came from those traveling merchants we taxed a few days ago." He narrowed his eyes at Xena. "Whereíd you get this?"
Xena sucked in her cheeks. "Itís his show," she answered, crooking her head at Seamus. "He knows more about it than we do."
"See?" Seamus puffed up. "They donít even bother denying it."
Zee, Masheia, Xena, and Gabrielle exchanged knowing looks but otherwise remained silent. Not Solo.
"Seamus! Why are you doing this?" The young man pushed forward. "You know they didnít steal that."
Seamus snorted. "You think anybody believed that crap about why they were carrying around those fancy weapons? ëFor our kin,í they said. ëWeíre related to Xena,í they said." He spit next to the loot on the ground. "More likely they took `em. Whoíd suspect old aunties?"
"No!" Solo defiantly confronted Seamus. "More likely you put that stuff in their tent. You had more chance than them to take it. How did they even know about it?"
"Good question." Seamus smirked at Zee. "Ask your sister."
Zee ignored the accusatory stares. "Like Nia said, itís your show. Iíve got nothing to say until you play out your hand." She gave him a cold smile. "No doubt Iím your next card."
Seamus nodded. He willed himself to appear sufficiently disappointed in his commander, throwing in for good measure a bit of regret that heíd had to blow the whistle.
"To my tent then?"
Seamus shook his head. It was all he could do not to crow. "Everyone, follow me."
Zee and Masheia dared not look at each other when, with shock, they guessed the destination. Everyone else wondered why they headed, single file, through trees and vegetation toward the back wall of rock. When they reached the edge, Seamus stopped and turned toward those clustering around as best they could in the narrow border of soil.
"Their secret hideout. I caught `em sneakiní in behind that boulder." He couldnít help a slight sneer. "Masheia and Zee."
Rykan edged forward. "Nobody cares about that. Whereís the proof you promised?"
"In there. Thatís where I found their stash."
"We need to see."
"Sure. Tight squeeze through the passage in though. Their caveís too small for all of us. I say you and I go in. Bring the five accused." He glanced around as though assessing the situation. "Maybe those six," he added, indicating his cronies. "For security."
"No. Three of them and Ö." Rykan glanced at Masheia, then beckoned to men from his unit. "Those three."
Seamus scowled. "I donít see what dif-."
"Good. Letís get this over with."
Seamus checked the faces of those watching. He shrugged. "No problem."
"You four go first. Weíll bring up the rear behind Zee and the others."
Not to be upstaged, Seamus played his status card. "I guess Iím in command," he reminded everyone, "while the first and second are under suspicion. Weíll go inside, see whatís what and report back to you soon as we can. In the meantime, go back to your assigned duties."
Most of the men checked with Rykan. He nodded. Some began to disperse, while others waited until the last guard had disappeared behind the boulder.
Those inside stood around the table piled with sundry valuables Seamus claimed heíd found scattered throughout the cave.
"That it?" Zee pulled a chair out, sat and propped her feet on the table. Masheia and Solo took positions behind her. She gestured for Gabrielle and Xena to sit.
"Thatís all I found. I didnít check the rest of ñ."
"She means is that all your `proof,í" Rykan said. "What about the alliance with those warlords?"
Seamus sauntered to the end of the table opposite Zee, turned a chair backwards and straddled the seat. "See, thatís where I reckon those two come in." He tilted his chin toward the older women. "Mighty convenient we ran into `em like that. Perfect cover for spyiní, carryiní messages between Zee and the warlords. We mightíve been attacked already, if I hadnít kept such an eye on those bit Ö um Ö biddies."
Xena ground her teeth but kept her tongue.
"Thatís it?" Rykan asked with some incredulity. "You `reckoní theyíre in on it? You show us some stuff anybody couldíve planted? And thatís supposed to do it? Make us take your word against Zee?"
"I ainít heard her say otherwise." Seamus narrowed his eyes at Zee as the truth in his statement dawned on him. In fact, she appeared surprisingly calm. She had a temper on her and didnít like being challenged. Heíd counted on her outrage to make her look guilty, maybe cause a ruckus, giving his guys an excuse to mix it up with her and Masheia. Much easier winning an argument with a dead woman. He decided it time to play his last card. He reached into his vest and withdrew a small piece of folded parchment. He laid it with a flourish on the table.
"Whatís that?" Rykan ran a finger across the insignia stamped on the outside of the note. It was used by a local warlord, Balthedes.
"Read it. Youíll see."
Rykan picked up the note and handed it to one of his men. "Read it. Out loud."
"`Your terms are acceptable. Half when you give the okay to attack. Half if things work out okay. If you agree, give me the usual sign.í" The man swallowed. "It has Zeeís mark, in red."
Zee took her feet down and rested her arms on the table. "Mind if I see?" At Rykanís consent, the man placed the note in front of Zee. She glanced at the message and let out a soft snort. "Interesting."
Seamus frowned. "`Interesting?í That your defense? `Interesting?í"
Zee relaxed back. "Iíve let you get away with a lot, Seamus, because of what you did for Masheia. I hoped it meant youíd gotten fed up with warlords like Malchius. I wanted to believe your service all this time wasnít a cover for anything worse than taking advantage of the freedom and authority I gave you. I donít like being wrong." She glanced over her shoulder apologetically at Masheia. "I got enough warnings lately to make me question myself. I asked Solo to be honest with me about why he didnít trust you. He told me what you did to those merchants and villagers."
Seamus felt everyoneís eyes and a trickle of sweat on his face. "Who cares what he did or didnít say?" he retorted with false bluster. "Heís in on it too."
"I followed you a couple days ago, when you were supposed to be scouting. I see why you disappear for so long sometimes." Zee enjoyed the increased moisture and redness that belied Seamusí pretense at confidence. "First you had to check on that spot way off in the woods. You know, where you keep your valuables for a rainy day? This mustíve been the day," she said, sweeping her hand across the table, "since most of it isnít there anymore."
"Why you Ö." Seamus jumped up from his chair. "Thatís a lie! You canít turn this around and blame me for ñ."
"Shut Ö up."
Seamus froze, caught off guard by the quiet, emotionless tone in Zeeís command. Being a realist, he recognized he was in trouble. The question was, how much?
"You went farther, to those ruins a few miles west of the forest. You put something under a charred log. I found it ñ a note listing what it would take for you to betray me."
"No! You couldnítíve. Otherwise they wouldnít have known Ö." Seamusí eyes bulged at his mistake.
"I put it back."
"P-put it back?" Seamus stared at her in disbelief.
"Yeah, not like me, huh?" Zee shrugged. "Seemed I had enough time to learn more about what you were up to, how much youíd revealed." She glared at the men whoíd sided with Seamus. "Who was in on it with you."
"I wouldnít," Rykan warned as Seamusí allies seemed preparing for flight or fight. He handed Zeeís sword to Masheia. "Seamus hasnít moved. If youíve got any smarts, this is one time you ought to follow his lead." He signaled for the turncoats to disarm. After some hesitation, they complied.
Zee stood. She accepted her sword from Masheia and sheathed it. "Seamus?" She picked up the note disdainfully and sauntered over to her former third in command. He backed up as she pulled out a knife. "If youíre gonna forge my mark, at least do it right." She slashed a zigzag line across his vest. "My Zís have more flair."
Having settled the camp back down and put the saboteurs under guard, Zee called a meeting of her brain trust ñ which now included Xena and Gabrielle. Seamus had grudgingly cooperated, figuring he had little to lose besides whatever remained of Zeeís debt to him for "saving" Masheia. Heíd produced other notes received from the warlords. Xena knew a way to make the Z nearly invisible on Balthedesí message, which now bore Seamusí mark. All that remained was devising a strategy.
The unit leaders favored attacking the warlord alliance immediately. They counted on the element of surprise and that the warlords assumed theyíd be easy pickings after Seamusí intended sabotage of unity and weapons. Masheia cautioned about taking on an enemy without more knowledge of their capabilities. Solo offered to infiltrate their opponentsí camp, perhaps posing as Seamus, who hadnít planned on revealing himself to them until certain he had a deal.
Zee listened to the options proposed with minimal comment. Though her guests hadnít said anything, she could see the wheels in their heads turning.
"What do you think, Nia? Youíve got a bit of battle lore to draw on, right?"
Xena glanced around the table. Those present had all observed or participated in her drills. None appeared disturbed by Zeeís question. She leaned on the table.
"Well, I think everyoneís points have merit. I agree theyíll probably underestimate what theyíre up against. I agree itís best not to count on that too much. Wouldnít hurt to assess their strength first. I also agree thereís a lot to be said for doing the unexpected. We can combine all those elements in our strategy."
Zee and her colleagues smiled at Xenaís enthusiasm and use of "our" and "we." Some thought it a little "cute," coming from someone her age.
"Do you have a plan?"
Gabrielle snorted. "Oh, she always has a plan. Usually sort of a ëwork in processí where youíre not sure whatíll happen until it does." She smiled fondly at her eye-rolling partner. "She likes being creative."
"Do they usually work?"
"You could say that." Gabrielle smirked. "Only gods or supernatural creatures could cause her problems."
Zee smiled. "Hopefully we wonít have to worry about that. So, Nia, whatís your plan?"
"For starters, we watch out for folks with loose lips," Xena muttered, cutting her eyes at Gabrielle. That got a few chuckles. "Iím thinking we lure them into the forest, where your men are best striking with a small force. But first we make sure Seamusí agreement gets delivered and have a closer look at whatís what."
"A spy? Do I get to go?"
"Iím sure youíd do fine, Solo, but this situation could use more experience and cunning. Whoever goes could deliver the note, do some reconnaissance and report on the best way to deal with what theyíre likely to throw at us."
The commander regarded Xena wryly. "I take it you have someone suitable in mind?"
"Uh huh." Xena grinned. "The Granny Brigade. Many victories, no defeats."
Zee smirked at the othersí confusion. "I believe sheís referring to herself and Ella."
"What?!" Solo jumped up. "If itís too dangerous for us, how can they go?"
Masheia shook her head. "I donít like it either. Certainly with no backup. We canít let you put yourselves at risk for us like that."
"I like it." Gabrielle rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "Whoíd suspect us? Weíd be no obvious threat to them, so could probably move around at will. Weíre too Ö seasoned Ö for them to get frisky with. I doubt theyíd kill us just for the sake of it."
"Precisely. Way I see it, we ride right up, ask if we can rest our tired old bones a spell, get a little something to eat, before heading out." Xena smirked at Gabrielle. "Perhaps even offer to cook it ourselves. With any luck, theyíll have us return with another note."
Zee leaned back, studying the two women. "And youíd do this why?"
"Oh, I can answer that," Gabrielle piped up. "Nia loves trouble. Canít you tell? Trust me, sheíll be like a fish in water."
The sentries leaned against trees beside the road. They noticed a wagon approaching but paid it little mind. Couple of peasant women, showing some years on them as they got closer.
One of the men glanced casually at the women. "Yeah?"
"Do you know Sir Balthedes?"
The sentry straightened. "Why? What business you got with `im?"
"We Ö we have a message for him." Gabrielle fluttered her hand against her chest. Seemed sheíd gotten a lot of practice with that lately.
The first man came closer, as the other one began circling the wagon, surveying it and its occupants. "Yeah? What kind of message?"
"We donít rightly know. A merchant ñ we think he was a merchant ñ stopped us and said his folks were in trouble. He couldnít leave them. He said only Sir Balthedes could help. He asked where we were headed and begged us to get word to Sir Balthedes. Youíre the first people weíve seen who look like Ö." Gabrielle brought her hand to her mouth. "Oh, I donít mean any insult. You look like you could be Ö warriors Ö and the merchant said ñ."
"Look okay to me," the second sentry interrupted, shrugging.
"Letís have it, then," said the first, sticking out his hand. "Weíll take care of it for you."
"Oh, I donít think Ö." Gabrielle looked with concern at Xena. "Nia, didnít he say we had to give it to Sir Balthedes himself?"
Xena nodded vigorously. "Yes, he said those were the rules." She blinked in consternation at the sentry. "He said only Sir Balthedes would understand."
The sentries huffed. "Iíll take `em," the first one eventually offered. "Couldnít hurt. Heís been waitiní for somethiní. Could be it."
"Oh, thank you soooo much! We thought weíd never find him."
"Youíll have ta walk. Not that far, but ñ ."
Gabrielle stood. "We still do our own plowing and planting," she retorted indignantly, reaching her arms out for help down. "Bet we could show you younguns a thing or two."
The sentry chuckled as he helped the women to the ground. "Probly. My mama never cottoned ta being coddled neither."
The three left the road, walking a mile or so through a lightly wooded area until they came upon a small group of warriors at a makeshift guard post.
"Ho there. Got some visitors for Balthedes."
"Visitors?!" One of the warriors detached himself from the others and stood importantly before the three.
"Yeah, they got a message for `im. Could be important."
"What? One of his women drop a brat?" He turned to the others and snickered. "Litterís so big already, he donít know one from the other."
"No, might be a message from Ö about Ö. You know."
The important man narrowed his eyes. "Yeah? Tell it to me. Iíll give it to him."
"Said they had ta give it personally."
"Too bad. Nobody gets in without ñ."
"Nia?! I told you we shouldnít get involved with Ö with Ö." Gabrielle paced in small circles, flailing her arms. "We shouldíve kept on going!"
"Now, now, Ella." Xena tried to catch hold of her "distraught" companion.
"Theyíll probably kill us!" Gabrielle screamed, snatching her arm away. "Weíll never see our grandchildren again!"
The guards gaped at the women, not sure what to do. Suddenly the hysterical woman clutched at her chest and wouldíve crumpled to the ground immediately, if not for the taller woman. She sank down cradling her friend.
"Nia!" Xena shook the limp body. "What is it?! Speak to me!" She looked frantically around, finally focusing on the important man. "Please! She needs help!" When the man continued staring, she began wailing, "Oh gods oh gods oh gods" over and over.
"Oh for Ö. Enough! Somebody get that woman and carry her in, before she alarms the whole countryside!"
"Feeling better, dear?" Xena placed a cold cloth on her patientís forehead.
"Mmm." Gabrielle grinned up from her cot. "Perhaps a back rub?" she asked weakly. "Might help whatever it is that caused my collapse." She studied the ample bosom peeking out from the peasant dress of the woman leaning so close to her. "Or, maybe you could use one of those to sooth my poor head?"
"What? Weíre still celebrating our anniversary, right? We got a cot, privacy, a little time, maybe ñ."
"Not yet, Miss Letís Go On An Adventure Like In The Old Days. In case itís slipped your mind, weíre in a warlordís camp, on a mission."
Gabrielle raised up on her elbows. "You gave Balthedes the note, had a chance to scout around a bit. Soon as Iíve `recovered,í weíre outta here."
"First of all, somebody could pop in any moment, which is why youíre gonna lie there until your healer says youíre okay to travel." Smirking, Xena pushed her patient back down and lightly stroked her throat, ostensibly checking for a pulse.
"Xena?" Gabrielleís breath caught as her healerís hand strayed further down. "If youíre trying to determine whether Iím fine, thatís not helping."
"Have to monitor your heart too. Canít be too careful with fainting spells." Xena gently lifted Gabrielleís left breast, grinning at Gabrielleís gasp. "Sensitive spot? So sorry," she drawled huskily, continuing her exam. "Uh huh. Just what I thought. Beating more rapidly than normal. I may have to ñ." Xenaís head jerked up. "Crap. Someoneís coming. Lie still."
"Lie still?!" Gabrielle hissed. "Easy enough foryou to say."
The tent flap opened to Leolaus, the sentry whoíd been their escort. "Howís she doiní?" He frowned, noting the patientís flushed face and heaving chest. "Still haviní problems?"
Xena chewed her lip. "Uh, no, sheís better," she said, repositioning the cloth on Gabrielleís forehead. "Had a bit of a relapse, but I think the worst is past."
Leolaus came over for a better look. "Whyíre her eyes rolled up like that? And her teeth clenched? Sure sheís not haviní a seizure or somethiní?"
Xena coughed. She covered her mouth. "The hots," she mumbled through her fingers.
"`Thots?í" Leolaus backed up a little. "Can you catch it?"
Xena laughed, glad for an excuse to do so. "No, no, donít worry. Itís Ö itís like an Ö aftershock." She glanced down at Gabrielle, pretty sure she could feel steam emanating from that direction. "You know ñ when the main thing is over and the bodyís kind of throwing off Ö tremors."
"Um Ö okay." Leolaus continued scowling, not particularly reassured by what he was seeing.
Sensing sheíd better let her murderous thoughts go, Gabrielle relaxed her face and body, moaning a little. She blinked her eyes and gradually focused on Leolaus. "Oh, hi," she murmured.
Leolaus blew out a breath. "Hi. Was kinda worried about ya. Feeliní better?"
"Yes. Now." Gabrielle slid her eyes Xenaís way. "Touch and go for a minute."
"Leolaus? You just visiting? Was there something else?"
The sentry stared at Xena. "Oh, yeah." He grinned sheepishly and held out a note. "Balthedes wants ya ta take this ta Ö that merchant."
Xena feigned dismay. "Oh, my. We thought we were finished with this. We hoped to resume our course."
Leolaus shook his head. "Sorry, but thoseíre his orders. Iím ta take ya back to yer wagon." He looked apologetically at Gabrielle. "Sooner the better."
Sighing, Xena took the note. She helped Gabrielle sit up. "Ella, you feeling strong enough?"
Gabrielle inhaled deeply and rolled her head a few times. "Nia, I swear, youíre a miracle worker. Iím more ready than I expected. How can I ever thank you?"
Xena pursed her lips. "Iím sure youíll think of something." She turned to Leolaus. "Once we deliver the note, then what?"
Leolaus clenched his jaws. "If ya know whatís good for ya, yaíll ride away like Hades as far as ya can get."
Zeeís camp bustled with activity. Seamus had written a second note to put inside the one delivered to Balthedes. It explained that, though he was having difficulty sneaking away to meet the warlords, his allies had significantly undermined the opposition. The warlords were to advance to the edge of the forest behind Zeeís camp. A flaming bolt shot into the sky at dawn would signal time to attack. Balthedes had responded that he would give the women a day to return, then set the plan in motion.
Xena estimated the combined warlord troops at about 150. While they were well armed, most, like Theolaus, seemed young peasants whoíd joined because they had nothing better to do. She figured theyíd be sent to the front as disposable, in case anything went wrong, while the more seasoned would follow. Zee accepted Xenaís recommendation to strike after the second wave had entered the forest. Many of Zeeís warriors would use the Amazon tactics Xenaíd taught them ñ swooping down from the trees on the middle of the enemyís lines. They would split their efforts to fight the second wave in the forest, while driving the first toward the rock wall behind Zeeís camp. The remainder of Zeeís men would wait camouflaged near the rear, cutting off any retreat.
Masheia would lead the larger contingent, with Gabrielle along as advisor. ("Ellaís studied the Amazons a lot," Xena explained. "Try to make her stay out of harmís way once the battle begins." "Sure," Masheiaíd agreed at Gabrielleís innocently cooperative smile.) The rear force was assigned to Rykan. Zee and Xena would oversee the small force defending the camp, which included the erstwhile traitors Zee had pardoned. Xena wanted to keep an eye on them. Though so far theyíd thrown themselves into their duties with apparently genuine zeal, she didnít share Zeeís confidence in their change of heart.
At dawn on the appointed day, Solo carried a torch to the top of the rock wall. When he heard the series of bird calls indicating his comrades had settled into their posts, he lit the bolt in the launch heíd brought up earlier. He took a deep breath and fired it into the sky. He couldnít see the enemy from his perch, but he did note the peace and beauty of the land his sister dedicated herself to protecting. He swelled with pride, grateful as always that heíd been raised by someone with such heart. And so smart too. After a while, the flapping wings of frightened birds disturbed the stillness. He straightened his shoulders and called down to let Zee know her greatest battle had begun.
Seamus made sure not to stray too far from Niaís sight. He knew the old bat didnít trust him. His lip curled. Maybe her smarts came with age. Whatever, heíd be a good boy until the opportunity came to do otherwise. It had to. No way Zeeís pitiful crew would defeat Balthedesí alliance. Heíd been freed after the main forces left, so wasnít sure what fancy plan theyíd come up with. It puzzled him how they expected to defend anything with the relatively few who stayed behind. Zee and Nia calmly strolled about checking on things, giving quiet instructions. Well, theyíd get their comeuppance soon enough.
Meanwhile he diligently worked on helping with the high barricades where prisoners would be penned, amusing himself with the thought of Zee and her cronies inside instead. Sometime later he heard voices and metal clanging. Ah, his reinforcements had arrived. He looked up, smirking when he saw the uniforms of Zeeís enemies. Except Ö. He scowled, realizing they carried no weapons, instead straggled in with heads bowed.
Mouth open, Seamus moved aside as a handful of Zeeís men directed the dejected warriors toward the large holding area. They shuffled inside, most immediately dropping to the ground. He took heart from his observation that they were young, probably raw recruits and easily subdued. But soon veterans came limping in, some carried on stretchers to the healing hut, once again followed by a small number of guards. Ordered not to talk, they sullenly scattered around inside the pen to lean against its walls.
Nia came over. "You finished?" He nodded. "Get the water buckets and set them outside."
Seamus hurried off to begin his task, anxious not to miss anything important. When he returned with his first load, Nia was silently studying the prisoners. She picked out one of the young ones, said she needed assistance. The chosen man seemed perplexed, but finally came forward and passed through the gate. The two came back sometime later with trays of bandages and other healing supplies.
"All right, hereís the deal," Nia told the prisoners. "You see makeshift latrines at the back. Some of youíve got bad injuries. Youíre thirsty. Probablyíll be hungry soon. The commanderís not sure what to do with you yet, but her code is to treat you like humans. Anyone got a problem with that, say so now, and weíll leave you be."
The men glanced at each other. Some glared and shook their heads. Most shrugged. "Iím in," said one, raising his hand. Soon the majority agreed.
"Good. Weíre coming in. Try anything funny and Ö." She gestured toward archers on risers around the pen. "They have orders to shoot, even if it means going through me. Weíre outnumbered. Theyíll do whatever they need to prevent a break. Understand?" The prisoners nodded. "Guards, open the gate. Seamus, start putting those water buckets in. Bring whatever ladles and cups we can spare."
Seamus followed Nia and the young warrior inside. He watched them head over to a man whose slide down the barrier had left a red trail. When Seamus left to fetch the items ordered, he saw more prisoners arriving. Nia, the water and their comradesí behavior apparently gave them a clue about the rules. They sat, lay or stood quietly like the others. Nia soon asked him to help her and the young warrior with splinting. By the time sheíd thanked her helper and led Seamus out for the time being, the sun had nearly reached its peak.
Exhausted, Seamus dropped down on a keg near the pen. It now held roughly half the force Balthedes had promised. Zee continued monitoring the back trail alongside the men not guarding the prisoners. Seamusí heart quickened when he realized the flow of vanquished warriors had stemmed. And that Masheia, Rykan and Ella were still missing. As if in answer to his silent plea to Lady Luck, Solo came stumbling in breathless and covered in blood.
"Zee! The tideís turned!" Solo dropped to one knee before his sister. "Masheiaís not sure we can hold them back!"
Zee pivoted slowly, surveying the camp with concern. The unit leaders present rushed to her. After some discussion, they began ordering men, including the archers, to reinforce the perimeter. Except for a couple of distracted guards positioned a few feet away, the barred gate to the pen had suddenly lost priority in the confusion. Seamus swallowed. It was now or never. Holding his breath, he sidled over to one side of the barricade. He found an opening in a slat against which leaned one of the potentially rebellious veterans.
"Psst. Donít turn around. Iím Seamus, the `insideí guy working with Balthedes. I got squelched, but thatís about to change. Spread the word. All those interested in takiní these fools out, gather in front." The man nodded. "Be quiet, careful. Wait for my command."
Seamus hadnít been armed, but it was easy enough picking out weapons among the piles taken from the prisoners. He added a bow and quiver of arrows for good measure. Now, if only he had Ö. His eyes gleamed. Count on that dunderhead to be where he shouldnít ñ Solo, hunched off to the side, groggily trying to clean blood from a long gash in his arm. Seamus deposited the weapons behind the keg heíd been sitting on. He walked over to the young man.
"Solo, that looks bad," he said, helping Solo up and bracing him. "Címon over here and let me tend it." He deposited Solo on the keg and bent down to retrieve a sword and knife. When he straightened, he discovered heíd been spotted.
"Hey! Whatíre you doing there?" shouted one of the guards across from him. Zee and the others whirled around.
"Wha Ö." Solo protested feebly at the sharp point pressed against his back.
"Seamus!" Grim faced, Zee took a few steps forward. She halted when Seamus raised the knife to Soloís throat.
"Nuh uh ÖCommander. Your boyís not lookiní so good. If his wound donít kill `im, I will."
"Just what do you hope to accomplish with this?"
Seamus glanced at the prisoners through the barbed wired posts on either side of the barred gate. Several engaged in hushed debate, while a few already stood defiantly in front. He winked at them before addressing Zee.
"You like fair play, right? Well, Iím giviní these fellas a fightiní chance to have a go at the game they want ñ yours or the one they had."
Zee shook her head in disgust. "You know, the one thing I depended on was that youíd never be stupid enough to bite the hand that fed you. I wonít make that mistake anymore."
"Got that right," Seamus sneered. "Half your inner circleís missiní. From what Solo said, Balthedesí alliance is stompiní `em on their way here. Might as well let his men out now, save him the trouble. Maybe even some of your gangíll want to sign with a winner." He shrugged. "If you surrender, Balthedes might go easier on ya." He tightened his hold on the slumping Solo. "And youíll save this stupid bastardís hide."
"How about my hide? Will it do?"
Seamus blinked at the tall woman who seemed to have appeared out of thin air.
"Nia, no! This is our fight. I canít let you keep risking yourself like this."
"Síall right, Zee," Xena assured, keeping her eyes on Seamus. "My pleasure. Iíve longed to let the air out of this blowhard since I first smelled his stink."
"You old Ö." Seamusí face contorted in an almost humorous combination of trepidation and rage. "Your moldy hide ainít worth nothiní in trade for her own flesh and blood."
"You may not be very bright, Seamus, but youíre not stupid." Xena smiled at his growl. "All that stands between you and an arrow is a kid whoís already dead weight." She smiled again as Seamus adjusted his hold on the nearly doubled over Solo. "You gonna drag him to the pen and try holding him and the knife while lifting that big chunk of wood locking the gate?"
"I donít have to. I can make you go unlock it. Or I can sit here and hang on to Solo till Balthedes gets here. Shouldnít be that long."
Xena scratched her chin. "Only one problem with that. Solo could bleed to death. Not much use to anybody then. Could be worth taking you out right now, if heís gonna die anyway."
"So whatíre you offeriní thatís supposed to be better?"
Xena smirked. "More fun? Since youíre so keen on fair play for anyone who wants to jump ship, how `bout you and I duel for all the marbles? Solo goes free to get treated. We let you unlock the gate. If you win, the riffraff can escape and take their chances. If I win, they stay inside and wait for Balthedes. Not a bad deal, far as I can see."
Seamus made a quick assessment of various moods. The prisoners appeared mildly intrigued ñ or amused. Zeeís folks seemed a hair away from rushing him regardless of the consequences. He glared at his prospective opponent, a little unnerved by her cockiness. Her believing she could beat him was one thing. What was to stop those men from storming through the gates if she did? But what if they didnít? Too many "ifís!" Where in Tartarus was that blasted Balthedes?
Seamus tightened his grip on Solo. "Howís it good for me? Iím holdiní all the cards. So I beat up some crazed olí biddy. What do I gain?"
Xena allowed a feral grin. "The question is, if you back down from a `crazed olí biddy,í how do you prove to your new buddies youíre more than a gutless slime ball?"
Seamus heard enough "ooooís" from the prisoners to know what that meant. It didnít matter anymore if sheíd been a gnarled crone on two canes. Sheíd challenged him convincingly enough that laughter could be his only reward no matter what he did. "You heard her!" he snarled to the prisoners. "Remember this was her idea, when itís done." He let Solo slump to the ground.
A couple warriors ran over to collect Solo and carry him to Zee. Seamus stuck the knife under his belt, strapped the sword on and stalked over to the pen. He winked again at the men in front as he removed the bar. Xena lifted her arms out to the side in a sign of good faith moments before Seamus whirled and flung his knife.
Gabrielle monitored the action until confident Zeeís forces were holding their own. She wanted to get back to camp, not so much because of Xenaís concerns for her, but because of her own desire to keep an eye on Xena. Like many of the warriorís "two for one" ideas, the "good to do" part was much sketchier than the "have to do" part. Alarms had sounded in Gabrielleís head at her partnerís vague, "I got some thoughts. Nothing real specific until I see how things develop. Give me some room to work. Iíll fill folks in as needed." Xenaís assigning her away to the battlefield also gave Gabrielle pause. She hadnít argued. If the silly warrior hadnít learned anything about surprises after all these years, Gabrielle had no compunctions about springing a surprise of her own.
When she reached the back of the rock wall, she didnít take the usual route around or up the south side. The day before, Solo had shown her a secret way to enter via the right, where multiple obstacles discouraged access. She squeezed through an obscured opening and into a series of various-sized tunnels that eventually brought her to an exit about a quarter of the way up the northwest side. Here, sizeable juts and pits enabled fairly easy maneuvering. She worked her way over to a ledge offering a somewhat distant but comprehensive view of the main camp area.
She focused immediately on two figures at the center of everyoneís attention. Her mouth dropped as Seamus stalked over to unbar the prison gate, while Xena simply stood there with her arms out, not bothering to unsheathe the sword resting against the back of the thigh-length tunic she wore over her leather breeches. In a flash ñ barely a heartbeat before it registered in Gabrielleís brain ñ the warriorís hand flew in front of her to catch the knife aimed at her chest. From her side view, Gabrielle couldnít really see her partnerís face well, but she knew it sported an evil smirk.
Seamus yelled to the prisoners. Gabrielle waited anxiously for their response. To her surprise, they stayed put, gawking like spectators at a sporting event. No one else moved either. It was as if they were all a bit worn out from their stressful morning. What better to do besides lose themselves in the suspense, not worrying about their next move until later, since a lot depended on the outcome of this one anyway. Hunched like a fugitive with nowhere to run, no place to hide, Seamus drew his sword and assumed a defensive posture. Xena beckoned him with his knife. He slowly advanced.
If sheíd been any other grandma, if the woman confronting the burly veteran had been any other grandma, Gabrielle mightíve envisioned a funeral pyre. Well, that could be the result, but not with Xenaís body on it. Gabrielle shook her head as Seamus closed the gap, his adversary still regarding him as if he were merely a scarecrow blowing toward her. She was actually happy for Xena. The warrior rarely got to use her prodigious physical skills like this anymore, except in practice. Once sheíd hung up her signature battledress, upstarts didnít feel compelled to challenge her just because they passed her on the street. Plus, the older sheíd gotten, the more she grudgingly relied on her quick mind to resolve things. She wasnít slower or more afraid. She simply couldnít help using her years of accumulated wisdom if that seemed more effective than spilling blood.
Gabrielle watched her partner pivot slowly, maintaining eye contact with the man circling her. Gabrielleís proud, admiring smile gave away another reason the current situation didnít upset her. She loved watching Xena ñ sleeping, sitting, eating, talking, thinking, working, fighting, fishing ñ whatever. She didnít see much difference from the old Ö the young Ö Xena and the one before her moving like a cat, as lithe as ever, more muscle than fat, raven hair gleaming even more with its silver highlights. Gabrielle accepted that her heart would always quicken with concern about the possibility that Xena could be hurt. But it quickened even more simply soaking up such magnificence, knowing the soul of it was forever hers.
Seamus lunged. Gabrielle could tell from Xenaís response that she meant to enjoy this excuse to strut her stuff. She did have her pride. Lots of it. If he had any sense, Seamus would appreciate that, at the moment, Xena preferred him alive. If he didnít, he would probably end up dead. He scrambled to his feet, scowling at the ground as if he blamed it for tripping him. He brandished his sword at Xena, apparently trying to taunt her to pull hers, probably hoping that would make him look less foolish. She refused. He attacked again. She dropped to the ground, tucked and rolled into him, grabbing his legs and tossing him heels over head before springing to her feet. Gabrielle grinned. "Show off."
She could hear "ooooís" and "aaaahs" along with barbed jibes directed at Seamus. Obviously enraged, he hurtled toward his smirking opponent, who effortlessly blocked his sword arm and jabbed her fingers into his neck. He slumped. She held him, sinking to one knee and letting him flop face down over the thigh of her other leg. She bent to whisper something in her ear, then raised her hand high above his butt. The onlookers gaped, not believing what they were about to see, still not believing when the hand came down hard and back up, three times. Now even the prisoners roared with laughter. All Gabrielle could do was silently thank the gods that Xena had turned good.
Xena pushed Seamus off her knee, whispered to him again, and took off "the pinch." He sprawled gasping. Seeing Xena preoccupied with him, his potential allies decided to make a run for it. A handful stormed through the gates before Xena could stop them. She reached under her tunic. Next thing the escapees knew, a circular metallic blur was shooting splinters and sparks from various structures around them, before veering straight for their heads. They ducked, tracking the weaponís return to Xenaís hand. She pointed it at them as if to say, "Want another taste, this time cutting it closer?" Muttering, they retreated back into their confinement. Xena strolled over to bolt the gate.
Gabrielle prepared to descend now that things were under control. Her eyes widened as Seamus staggered to his feet, sword in hand, intent on attacking Xena from behind. No sooner had the wind swallowed her scream of the warriorís name, than Xena whirled and returned Seamusí knife to its owner. He clawed at the handle protruding from his chest, teetered and fell lifeless on his back.
Xena raised her head, seeming to stare a moment at Gabrielleís rock ledge, while the magically revived Solo came running toward the victorious warrior. They spoke briefly. He jogged off and disappeared down the path alongside the rock wall. When he returned a few minutes later, he had company ñ Balthedes and his surviving men, sandwiched between Masheia, Rykan and their remaining force.
Part 7 (Conclusion)
"Let me get this straight." Zee relaxed with Masheia, Solo, Gabrielle, and Xena in the command tent. Theyíd just concluded the post mortem with unit leaders about the battle. She glanced wryly at the taller of her new mentors. "So there wasnít one mysterious additional phase to your plan, but two?"
"Not quite." Xena grinned. "Three."
"Nia has a penchant for being cryptic," Gabrielle offered at the expressions on the othersí faces. She glowered at her partner. "Not to mention a rather narrow view of who needs to know what."
"Hey, I said I wasnít sure how things would play out. No need for folks to get bogged down in worrying about a course of action that might not happen."
Zee snorted. "You mean `folksí like the commander? Whose officers and little brother knew more than she did?"
"I only knew for sure to keep the last group out of camp until Soloís signal," Masheia said.
"She let me in on everything," Solo piped up proudly. "Um, I kinda came up with the hostage thing," he added with a sheepish look at Xena. "But Nia said we might need to be creative. I did good, huh?"
Xena chuckled. "You couldíve gotten yourself killed. But, yeah, ya done good. Forced Seamus and the rest to show their allegiances, once they thought Balthedes might arrive to bail `em out."
"What if all the prisoners had revolted?" Zee asked. "The ones Masheia was guarding mightíve joined in. Couldíve been a blood bath."
"Iídíve aborted that plan. Thing is, I had a spy."
Zeeís brows shot up. "A spy?! In the warlordsí camp?"
"No and yes." Xena smirked at Gabrielle. "See, we got to know a guy. Young warrior who ñ ."
"Theolaus?!" Gabrielle squinted at Xena. "You turned him while we were there?"
"Not then. I noticed all the green, decent kids like him. I wanted to spare as many as we could. All I needed was Balthedesí cooperation."
"Sending them in first, right?" Masheia nodded approvingly. "That way he wouldnít lose his best men if it was a trap. Meanwhile, we could save more of our own forces for the toughest fighting."
"The prisoner you had helping you tend wounds? That was Theolaus?"
Xena nodded at Zee. "I took him to the healing hut, told him he and the others might have a chance to serve under a better leader. He was impressed that we treated them so well."
"Not to mention we reminded him of his mother."
Xena snorted. "Yeah, he got a kick out of how Gab Ö um Ö how gabby Ella was and that sheíd tricked everybody with her fainting spell."
Gabrielle rolled her tongue in her cheek at Xenaís save of her near slip. "Yes, those drama lessons I took so long ago do come in handy sometimes."
Zee narrowed her eyes at the two women, not for the first time swearing she detected a hint of mischief in their eyes. "So Ö he agreed to work with you."
"Uh huh. He had a pretty good idea about which prisoners we could trust. I talked to a few while I was with them. Theolaus continued spreading the word after." Xena smiled. "Which laid the groundwork for phase three."
Zee drummed her fingers on the table. "And that would be?"
"I believe I can answer that one." Gabrielle smirked at her partner. "See, on our way back from Balthedesí camp, we ran into some merchants weíd encountered a few days ago. Theyíd heard you were the one terrorizing everyone. We explained that you were actually fighting the real enemies, because no one else could or would. We suggested they consider hiring you as a militia, so you wouldnít need to `taxí them."
"Oh, sure, I bet they loved that idea."
"Well, not at first. We said weíd gotten to know you, how weíd seen firsthand your preparations to fight the warlords. We proposed they hide in the valley during the battle. We offered to send you to negotiate with them after. They agreed."
Xena nodded. "Another reason I let Theolausí group pass through unharmed. Potentially less future marauders, more recruits to fight for an honorable reason."
Zee rolled her tongue in her cheek. "Which puts me in a stronger position to explore that militia idea of yours."
"If you want." Xena shrugged. "You got quite a few survivors to deal with. Either way, serving with you is probably a better option than what they face now."
Zee leaned back with a wry smile. "Youíre good, know that?"
Xena grinned, flashing a look at Gabrielle. "Apparently."
"Guess weíll turn the others over to the authorities. Lucky we gave you back those `heirloomí weapons to keep them from storming us."
Solo leaned forward excitedly. "Wasn't that somethiní? The way Nia took out Seamus? And that Ö ëchakramí Ö is it? Wow. I've never seen anything like it!"
"Me neither." Masheia gave Xena an admiring smile. "It was great watching you work. Iíve learned a lot."
"Yes, sheís something else," Zee agreed cryptically. She flicked her eyes at Gabrielle. "Both of `em."
Masheia smiled at her commander. "Maybe you learned a couple things too?"
Zee thoughtfully swept her eyes around the table. She got up and picked out one of the rolled parchments stored in a cabinet. She spread it out on the table, gesturing for Solo to anchor the ends.
Masheia stood and leaned on the table for a better look. "Thatís a map of all the provinces. This Z shows our current territory." Her brow crinkled. "Whatíre the others for?"
Zee exchanged a knowing glance with Xena. "They mark where I planned to go after I had a big enough army. I needed to go here," she said pointing to a Z beyond the one Masheiaíd indicated, "in order to secure what we had. And here, here, here, and here to widen the protective perimeter."
"I see." Masheia gave Zee a long stare. "Seems Niaís not the only one with a narrow view of who needs to know what."
Zee straightened, observing that Masheia did too ñ apparently expecting the usual terse "Iíve got my reasons" dismissal from her commander. Zee walked over and put her hand on Masheiaís now crossed arms.
"Iím sorry, Ashi."
"Huh?" Masheia blinked, certain she mustíve misheard.
"Iíve kept a lot to myself, trying to seem strong, like I always know what Iím doing. It seemed to make sense." Zee gestured toward the map. "I never let anybody in to say otherwise. My goal wasnít conquering the world," she said, glancing again at Xena, "but I look at it now and see thatís where I was headed. Wouldnít hurt to follow up on the militia proposal with those folks."
"Wow." Masheia stood motionless, sensing a welcome change in Zee. "I suspected something like that. I just didnít want to Ö."
"To set off your hot-headed commander?" Zee shook her head. "Bet you were surprised when I didnít have Seamus flogged on the spot for his accusations."
"Um Ö" Masheia ducked her head. "A little."
"I heard recently that sometimes honey can be more effective than poison." Zee glanced at Gabrielle. "Itís true, patience has its uses. I learned some valuable information, playing along with Seamus ñ like who I can really trust." She took Masheiaís hand. "Iím gonna share more with those people. Not push them away, when itís just an excuse to hide." She smiled at the women across the table. "Seems to work pretty well for a couple folks Iíve met."
For the first time in nearly five years, Masheia hugged her commander in public. She gazed gratefully over Zeeís head at Xena and Gabrielle. "Used to work okay for us too."
Solo, Gabrielle and Xena grinned at each other, but their only other form of communication was the "thumbs up" sign.
Zee cleared her throat. "Okay, enough of that," she said with mock gruffness, disentangling herself. "Well, there is one other thing." She returned to her chair and reached into a bag underneath. She placed an item on the table, looking casually at Xena, surreptitiously catching the barest glint of pleased recognition.
"Isnít that the whip Gramma Minya had? The one she claimed she got from Xena?"
"Uh huh. I figured since our guests collect Warrior Princess souvenirs, they might be interested in adding this."
"Oh, Zee, that is so thoughtful." Gabrielle avoided looking Xenaís way. "But we couldnít possibly take it. It belongs in your family now."
"Maybe. Still, I think nobody deserves it more than you." Zee picked up the whip and offered it to her dark-haired guest. "Wouldnít you agree ÖXena?"
"You were right. Turned out to be interesting after all. Whoída thought spanking butt could be as satisfying as kicking it."
"Do tell." Gabrielle slid eyes at her insufferable companion. Soloís escort party had just left them at their abandoned wagon. Theyíd decided they might as well camp there. "Really generous, giving us these supplies," she continued, joining Xena in examining the gift sacks.
"Uh huh." Xena grinned, holding up some leather pieces she could use to repair a couple rents in her breeches, acquired during some of her recent activities. "That Zeeís something else. Talk about payback. Calling me out like that? Never saw it coming."
Gabrielle laughed. "Been a long time since Iíve seen such a stunned expression on that stoic face."
"Donít know why. You sure put one there often enough."
"Well, yes, but thatís different." Gabrielle bumped her head against Xenaís shoulder. "Iím supposed to. One of the perks of being me."
"Mm. Thought you were supposed to bemy perk." Xena carried some things from the wagon to begin setting up their site.
"I am, I am. And I had such fun sharing that with Zee and Masheia. Something else we havenít done in awhile ñ you know, talk about the old days as our real selves. Not with strangers anyway." Gabrielle began gathering sticks for their fire. "How we survived so much, why we look so young ñ well, 25 or so years younger than we should ñ itís so incredible, just seems easier being somebody else."
Xena snorted. "Sure, unless maybe youíre `Spit.í" She paused in her chores, pensive. "Thatís the first time Iíve used the chakram in Ö ages. For some reason, I didnít think twice. Felt Ö natural."
Gabrielle relaxed against the wagon. "Yeah, kinda surprised me. I figured you might hold back more. You know, so they wouldnít suspect too much. I mean, no way your ordinary grandma could fight like that, know so much about warfare. Except for the fact that we should be dead or gumming our gruel, itís little wonder Zee caught on to us."
Xena lowered herself to the ground. "A part of me didnít care," she said thoughtfully, reviewing their recent adventure. "Reminded me so much of myself at that age. I hated seeing her make the same mistakes." She shook her head. "I wouldnít listen. No matter how smart somebody else was, I always knew better. Figured Iíd really have to impress her to get anywhere."
Gabrielle nodded. "Probably not many people could tell her what she was thinking, even before she knew it."
Xena fiddled with a blade of grass. "The other reason was more Ö."
Xena looked up, but as usual saw only fond wryness in Gabrielleís smile. She chuckled. "I was gonna say `selfish,í but I like your version better."
"I like when you do things for you. Especially the physical. Sure, I like that you take better care of yourself too. But sometimes .Ö"
"Sometimes Ö what?"
Gabrielle absently rubbed her nose. "I used to wish youíd do that more ñ not put so much of yourself at risk. Zee was wrong about you holding back. You always went full out, as if every time might be your last ñ not worried if it was."
"I found so much to live for." Xena held her partnerís eyes. "The more years I enjoy it, the less I want to mess it up."
Gabrielle nodded. "Me too. Thing is, sometimes I wonder if we save ourselves too much. And for what? Tomorrow? Some moment winters from now?" Hugging herself, she looked off into the distance. "Iím watching you toy with a warrior young enough to be your son. Facing down a bunch of insurgents behind an unlocked gate. Know what I felt?"
"Like taking me over your knee?"
"Heh, that crossed my mind." Gabrielleís eyes misted. "Mostly I felt so happy for such a moment. As usual, you made it worth risking future moments to save that one. Maybe thatís why every moment Iíve spent with you seems as good as it gets."
Xena swallowed, a little misty eyed herself. "Like this one."
"Like this one. I donít want us getting obsessed about saving ourselves for rainy days. Not yet, anyway. Not while weíve still got something to say about it." Gabrielle snorted. "Gods know plenty enough folksíre champing at the bit to do that for us. I say we stay a step ahead of `em long as we can."
"Works for me, old lady." Xena relished the moment in her partnerís eyes a little longer, then got to her feet. "Still lots of sun left. Whaddya say we spend some of ourselves on that next moment?"
"Probably a good idea." Gabrielle resumed collecting wood. "Nice of Zee to offer us her cave, when we told her about our anniversary. Heh, probably helped that you let her keep your whip. I must say, your sensitivity truly has blossomed over the ages." Instead of the typical noncommittal, "Mmhm," she heard humming from Xenaís direction. She glanced over to see the warrior smoothing their bedrolls over some cushy vegetation. "Um Ö isnít it a bit early for that? Thought you were gonna search for herbs with me."
"Oh, I am, I am. This way weíll have something comfy to relax on when we get back. Although Ö." Xena summoned a huge yawn. "The trip here did tire me out a little." She rotated her head, stretched her back. "Not getting any younger, you know."
"Excuse me?" Gabrielle studied her partner suspiciously. "This, from the woman who mere hours ago was dancing around, rolling on the ground, spanking butts and such like a 30 year old?"
"You enjoyed that, right? So Ö." Xena assumed what she considered her most alluring warrior pose. "Did watching me in action stir up anything?" She lowered her voice. "Fan some flames?"
"You mean, besides reminding me I was lying on a rock ledge, spying because someone neglected to mention sheíd evenbe in action?" Gabrielle got up to pull a grain sack from the wagon. "Iíd say youíre lucky I saw anything to fan that kind of flame," she threw over her shoulder. "Luckier still that nobody heard me screaming the name of yet another Warrior Princess wannabe."
"I sensed your stubborn butt among my audience anyway. It was for your benefit too." Xena grinned appeasingly. "Doesnít that count?" Not receiving the desired response, she plopped down on the bedrolls. "What about those next moments weíre not supposed to worry about saving? You know, like the anniversary celebration you were so anxious to resume? Itís about a zillion moments past due."
"Not yet," Gabrielle answered, dropping the sack.
"Hey, I said I was sorry. Youíre not really mad ñ."
"No Ö. I think I Ö." Gabrielle fell against the wagon, rubbing her lower back.
"Gabrielle?" Xena rushed over in time to help her partner to the ground. "I told you about lifting those by yourself."
"Iíll be Ö all right. Just feeling a littleÖ." Gabrielleís voice trailed off as her lashes fluttered closed.
"Hey Ö." Xena carried her limp partner to the bedrolls. She grabbed a water skin and sprinkled cool liquid over Gabrielleís face. A faint moan, then the green eyes blinked open.
"Mmm. What happened?"
"Not sure. You grabbed your back and passed out." Xena rubbed Gabrielleís temples. "You pull a muscle?"
"Mm, possible. Massage might help."
"Sure." Xena started to help Gabrielle roll over.
"Or," Gabrielle continued, resisting, "could be my heart."
"Your heart?! You having pains in your chest?"
"Not pain exactly." Gabrielleís eyes closed again. "Palpitations. Might need to check my pulse. Here. And Ö here. Perhaps Ö there."
Xena stared down at her insufferably suffering companion. "Oh, you think so, do you? Widen the perimeter, so to speak, so we donít miss anything?"
"What about shortness of breath? Any trouble with that?"
"Some, but not from lung problems."
"Mmmm. Definite throbbing. More Ö in a general sense."
"Ah. Mouthís probably dry too."
"Hmmm. So maybe what you needís some good Ö old Ö hot Ö Spit?"
"Mmhmm, and maybe Ö. " Gabrielleís eyes shot open to a smugly grinning warrior. She added a low growl to her symptoms. "Letís put it this way Ö. Whatever remedy you have in mind? I suggest you get on with it."
"You sure? Remember, lots of factors to consider. Timing. Whether Iíve been a good girl. If marauders might be ñ."
"Now. And this time, Warrior Quick Spit? How about you stick to your code of not letting anything stop you from finishing what you start."