Shortly after Season Oneís THE PATH NOT TAKEN, Xena becomes the topic of conversation in a tavern where sheís waiting for Gabrielle.
SHADOW IN THE SUN
"There's always another point of view." -- Xena in THE CONVERT
Tyus glanced up from wiping the bar to see a young couple enter with three children. They stood at the threshold uneasily surveying the clientele. No doubt theyíd have steered clear of the place were it not for the big village festival that attracted folks from miles around, filling the coffers of local establishments. Tyus smirked. Even his bare-bones tavern looked appealing if you couldnít find hospitality elsewhere.
Already most of the seats were taken. Drifters and mercenaries had gravitated toward the front, near or at the bar. Some drank in stony silence. Others played cards or swapped war stories. A collection of peasant types conversed quietly in a back corner near the door. They waved at the newcomers, who smiled in relief and moved quickly to occupy the space made for them in the "family" section.
Of two small tables on the other side of the door, one was unoccupied. Tyus feared it would remain so, given the customer seated next to it - a big, weapons-laden man who dominated the space around him, heavy lidded eyes a "do not enter" sign. Heíd already polished off one jug of ale. Tyus hoped the second would put the man to sleep before the snarl on his lips signaled more than a warning. Tyus was bending down to check on the club he kept close for tricky situations, when he felt the atmosphere change.
A figure had filled the entrance, its formidable shadow stretching across the floor in the afternoon sun. Gleaming shoulders towered over the swinging doors held open by gauntleted arms. Dark hair draped an equally dark bodice. Swirls of coppery armor protected the full breasts beneath. A dark skirt layered the powerful thighs of long legs partially covered by high dark boots. The sword ended any speculation. A warrior. Waiting for her eyes to adjust to the room, just as the room waited for theirs to adjust to her. Tyus hoped they wouldnít see trouble looking for trouble.
No one moved or talked while the dark woman scanned the room. Breaths caught when she finally pushed through and sauntered toward the one available table. She barely glanced at the big man seated nearby, though she paused before sitting just long enough to make sure he noticed her. He did. Gave her the once-over before losing himself in his drink again. She got comfortable, chair tilted against the wall, legs out and crossed at the ankles. Staring ahead in Tyusí direction as if they were the only ones in the room. Conversation revived in hushed tones with furtive glances at the warrior woman.
Tyus beckoned his serving girl. "Iíll handle this one, Laeda. Take these mugs over there." He pointed his chin at the mercenaries. "After, see to the new folks." He casually made his way to his latest customer. "Afternoon. Whatíll it be? Food? Drink?"
"Aleíll do for now."
"Almost out of stew, you planning on somethiní hot later."
The woman measured him, the corner of her mouth quirking. "Put some aside? Enough for two."
"That a problem?"
"Um Ö no, no problem. Two it is. Just say when."
"Uh Ö. Okay then."
Tyus arrived back at the bar to find Laeda and some of his regulars huddled around one of the corners.
"You know who that is?" Laeda whispered.
"Yeah, a customer," Tyus answered, picking up a jug. "You know, like the ones youíre supposed to be waitiní on?"
"No, no, listen ta the girl, Tyus. Thought I recognized `er, but wasnít sure."
"Yeah, those warriors confirmed it. Tell `im, Laeda."
"Look, Iím busy." Tyus continued with his work. He scowled at the barflies. "Oughtta try it sometime. Worseín a gaggle of old gossips."
"Sez you. Damien knows `er firsthand. Iím telliní ya, yaíd better listen."
"Fine. In a minute." Tyus shouldered past to deliver the warrior womanís order. He ignored the eyes on his back. "Here ya go," he said, setting the mug down. "Wanna pay now?"
"When you bring the stew, if you donít mind. Moneyíll be here by then." The woman snorted. "Should be enough left."
Tyus hesitated. He noted the womanís relaxed posture. No nervous twitching or shifty eyes. "Sure. You look good for it." They exchanged nods. He headed back, once again strolling as if it was business as usual. Snickers greeted his return.
"You giviní stuff away now?" Damien nudged Necron. "Or you finally seeiní the light?"
"Whatíre you babbliní about?"
"Didnít notice no money pass hands. Your ëpay as you goí policy donít apply ta her? Like it did ta even olí big, bad and ugly?" Necron crooked his head toward the other lone warrior.
"Oh, for Ö." Tyus huffed in exasperation. "Go on, get it over with. Laeda, you first. Before you explode and I have to do everything myself more than usual."
Laeda hazarded a quick glance at the back corner. "Xena," she said softly.
Laeda sidled closer. "Xena. You know - Destroyer of Nations Xena?"
"Calls herself Warrior Princess now." Damienís lip curled in a sneer. "Pfft. Was plain olí Xena when I knew `er. Riled folks up with her talk about defendiní against some warlord. Got a lot of her kinsmen to fall in behind."
Tyus snorted. "I take it you werenít one of `em."
"Nah, too smart for that. Wasnít from Amphipolis no way. Stayiní there with my uncleís family while Pop was on a merchant ship. Two of my cousins died fightin` in her ragtag militia."
"But later she got real good at fighting," Laeda chimed in eagerly. "Built a real army. Took over a lot of land before the warlords got it." She ducked her head. "Um, least thatís what those guys said. Said they had the scars to show it." She grinned. "From fighting against her."
"So whatím I supposed to do about it?" Tyus took a peek at the woman. He discovered her calmly observing them. "Sure, Iíve heard a few things. All I know for sure is, sheís the only one here minding her own business. Waitiní for somebody. Giving me business while she does."
Necron hunched forward. "You say sheís waitiní fer somebody? What if itís `er army? Or some goons? Maybe ta rob yer precious business. Or - ."
"Drink your ale." Tyus shook his head. "All of ya talk such foolishness sometimes, itís no wonder you look better to me with your heads on the bar."
The next half hour or so passed uneventfully - at least in Tyusí view. People still surreptitiously glanced at the Warrior Princess. She sipped her ale apparently unconcerned about the attention. The big man next to her continued finishing off his second jug with surprisingly little indication he felt his space invaded. Tyus wondered if maybe the man knew Xenaís reputation. The little heíd heard certainly didnít contradict his associatesí warnings she was somebody not to cross.
The tavern owner got a lot of secondhand information in his line of work. He half listened to most of it. Except for the festival, his village offered little of interest to most violent types. If they came, it was to shop, hook up with old comrades or be entertained like everyone else. They might use the reunion to plan mischief, but somewhere else. Xena didnít strike him as the sort to be keen on any of those activities. Maybe she was just passing through. Whatever, he found himself more curious about her than he let on.
Tyus considered himself a pretty good judge of character, able to size folks up quickly. Of the motley range heíd dealt with over the years, he hadnít encountered anyone quite like her. On one hand, he trusted his instincts about her as basically decent, not the heartless marauder Laeda and the others painted. On the other, he couldnít deny the hint of danger about her and in those penetratingly sharp eyes. Not a threat perhaps, but a little too much mystery to ignore.
Nodding to himself, Tyus instructed Laeda to oversee the kitchen and bar. He got a broom and walked over to the tables filled with mercenary types. Some had clumped together in animated discussion.
"You gentlemen need anything else?" When no one bothered to answer, Tyus took his time clearing off the tables and sweeping up bits of debris around them. He didnít miss much of the conversation either.
"Iím telliní ya, sheís scoutiní for recruits. Her gang didnít want no parts of goiní up against Hercules."
"Pfft. Old news. Last I heard, she joined up with him. Against her own men!"
"Yeah, well, sheís betterín most others Iíve fought under. No harm in askiní."
"If Iím gonna get stuck, I wanna know what itís for. You hear of her lootiní since her army broke up? Lookiní to build another? Canít nobody figure what sheís after anymore. If it ainít gold or guttiní somebody, might as well be just another broad named Xena."
"Hey! Pipe down! No sense invitiní trouble. Anybody wanna be her buddy, know whatís in her head, go overín ask. Me, Iím here for the R&R."
"Yeah, I donít care one way or t`other. And if ya decide ta chat with `er, donít count on cominí back here talkiní `bout it. Bitchíll cut out your tongue for not gettiní permission ta breathe. Ask her man Darphus - in Tartarus, where she sent `im."
Tyus snorted to himself, fairly certain he wouldnít gather much more than hot air. He decided to check on the "family" section. Several of the adults conversed with quiet intensity. As he got closer, he overheard an older woman hiss, "Xena."
"You folks doiní okay? Need more milk for the kids?"
The older womanís head jerked up. She glowered at Tyus. "Milk? Concerned about their welfare, are you?" She tilted her head toward the subject of discussion seated in the shadows by the entrance. "What about her?"
"What about `er?"
"You donít know who she is? What she is?"
"Iíve been finding out a few things. Whatís your version?"
"My version? A bunch of people could back me up - if they werenít dead." The womanís face contorted. "By that monsterís hand!"
"Shhh. Please! Not so loud." The wife of the most recently arrived couple beckoned Tyus closer. "Bella lost some friends in one of Xenaís raids. She Ö." The young woman glanced apologetically at Bella. "She doesnít believe Xena mightíve changed."
"Believe?!" Bella addressed Tyus, whoíd crouched down next to them. "Care, is more like it! A hydra may change its spots, but itís still a hydra."
"Change its spots?"
"This naïve soul doubts that murderer is evil through and through. Because she did a couple of good deeds for no reason anybody can figure."
Tyus turned to the other woman. "Whatís she talking about?"
"Meletus Valley. Some of my relatives settled there. They said Xena came through alone. Got wounded stopping some warlords from destroying everything. She stayed to drive them out, even though the settlers didnít exactly welcome her or her help."
"And why should they?" Bella sneered. "So she likes killing. Maybe it was over territory she had designs on."
The young woman shook her head. "My husbandís brother took care of her when she was hurt. Darius believes in peace, but heís fought wars. Heís no fool. He said she was nothing like people thought. Even his kids liked her." She stuck out her chin. "Well enough to replace the mother theyíd lost."
"Oh, please. She didnít care about the children in Partheon Province. I saw what was left of a village she attacked. Nothing! Everything burned." Bellaís eyes closed. "Bodies charred beyond recognition. No one survived."
"Not totally," a man corrected softly. "Friend of mine was away at the time. Returned to find Ö." The man swallowed. "What Bella saw. His wife dead. Baby boy gone. He set out to avenge them. Actually had a chance at Xena."
"But she got him first."
"No. He ended up fighting beside her and Hercules against her old army."
"Hercules?! You lie!"
"Spiros said Hercules told him to give her a chance. That she was trying to change her ways."
Bella rolled her eyes. "You men are such Ö. If she looked like that brute sitting next to her, would you believe such nonsense? Be so willing to forgive she slaughtered your family?"
"Seems sheíd left to scout. Was furious at what theyíd done, against her orders. Kept them from killing a child theyíd overlooked. They turned on her, banished her. Spiros found out the baby she saved was his son." The man sighed. "Iím not saying that excuses anything. Iím only saying Spiros had every right to want her dead anyway. Said he looked into her eyes and saw someone whoíd suffer a lot more if she lived."
The parents listening reluctantly imagined their agony and rage at losing a child, the joy and gratitude theyíd feel at learning someone had protected the child from harm. The dark woman they silently scrutinized gave few clues to which of their emotions she deserved.
"Sheís a mystery all right." Tyus stood. "Sorry it bothers some of you, her being here. Hope you understand, I donít throw folks out for no reason I can see. If she gives me one Ö." He surveyed the other tables. "Sheíll be one woman against just about everybody inside," he said, holding up his broom. "Probably outside too. Yell if you need anything." He smiled. "Milkís on the house."
Tyus could feel the warrior womanís gaze as he headed back to the front. Instead of joining those at the bar, he ended up in the kitchen area putting some fruit and fresh rolls in a basket. He again walked the gauntlet of eyes following him to her table.
"Looks like you might be waitiní awhile. This could hold you till your Ö company gets here," he said, setting the basket in front of her. At her raised brow he added, "No charge."
She tilted her head. "You this generous with all your customers?" Her lips pursed in a wry smile. "Orím I special?"
Tyus shrugged. "Depends." He gave her a meaningful look. "On the customer."
"Ah." She glanced around the room, smirking a little as most of the eyes she met quickly shifted away. "Should go over big with your other customers."
"They can leave, theyíre not satisfied with the service. A benefit of runniní my own show. Never did so well under somebody elseís rules."
"Troy. Served with a guy from there named Darius. Lost track of him after the war."
"That right," she responded with a slight rise of her brow. "Spent time in Troy myself. Believe I met your Darius. But not there." This time her smile transformed her face. "At his new home. A settlement in the Meletus Valley. Nice man. Three kids. Little Saritaís a real sweetie."
Tyus grinned. "Yeah? Glad to hear it. He wasnít much into soldiering. More cut out for family life."
Something flickered in the womanís eyes. "Some folksíre lucky that way." She extended her hand. "Nameís Xena." She snorted. "On the slim chance the introductionís necessary."
Tyus shook her hand. He noted out the corner of his eye that the big warrior nearby suddenly appeared more aware of life beyond the mug he held. "Tyus. I like knowiní who folks are firsthand."
"Mm. I admire that." Xenaís eyes dropped to her mug. "Not always easy," she said softly, as if talking to herself. "Even for the folks themselves."
Tyus felt a chill. "Uh, yeah. Guess everybody canít be Darius. Or me. Takes longer for some." He shifted as uncharacteristic awkwardness crept in. "Um Ö enjoy the snacks. Better get back to my work."
"Tyus?" Xena allowed a world-weary smile.
Tyus let out a breath. "Youíre welcome. Xena." He retraced his steps, this time sensing a bit of awe in his wake.
Tyus drummed his fingers on the counter. Not much more than an hour had passed since Xenaís arrival, but it seemed like a day. Everyone else appeared more anxious than she about who or what she awaited. It didnít help that the menacing warrior next to her had gotten up, exchanged a few words with the mercenaries, stumbled back to his chair, and proceeded to stare at her. Sheíd spared him one expressionless glance as if he were a hovering fly and she wasnít worried whether her swatter would do the trick.
As if to heighten the tension, a young redhead pushed hurriedly through the swinging doors. Xena, the big warrior and nearly all the mercenaries watched her quick review of the room and breezy pace to the front.
Necron suddenly sobered enough to jump up to greet the newcomer. "Hey, there, missy. You lost?" He winked. "Lookiní for some fun? Iím just the -."
Tyus shoved Necron away. "Sit your ass back down. I need help with hosting, Iíll ask." He turned back to the girl. "Sorry about that." He searched behind her in hopes of seeing her boyfriend or father. "You by yourself?"
"Actually, I was -."
"Listen." Tyus nudged her away from prying ears. "This might not be the best place for you right now." He crooked his head toward the mercenaries. "Cute little thing like you could start a riot. Not to mention another situation weíve got brewing in the back. No," he warned when she turned in that direction. "Donít look. Thatís -."
"Xena! I missed her when I came in."
"You know her? Way sheís staring at you - ."
"Sheís gonna kill me. I knew I shouldnítíve - ."
Tyus grabbed her shoulders and turned her to face him. "Sheís been pretty tame since sheís been here. I donít think sheíll hurt you. If she tries anything, weíll -."
"Oh, sheíll be okay, once I explain things." The girl gently disengaged Tyusí hands. "Iím pretty good at gab." She grinned. "Iím Gabrielle. I appreciate your concern, but I gotta go fix this before Iím in deeper trouble." With that, she nearly skipped to the table in back, oblivious to the stir this created among the other patrons.
"Xena, I am so sorry," Gabrielle said breathlessly, plopping down in the other chair.
"Mm. What was it this time?"
"Itís a great excuse. Really. Can I eat first? Have you eaten? Iím famished!"
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. "Of course." She searched out Tyus. The shell-shocked man held out his hands in question. Xena nodded. "Coming right up."
"Now, I know thisíll sound silly, but Ö." It dawned on Gabrielle how quiet the room had become. She glanced around. "Xena," she whispered, hunching forward, "donít look, but everyoneís staring at us. Whatís going on?"
"Theyíre waiting to see if I kill you."
"I told that nice man not to worry." Gabrielle giggled. "At least, I hope thatís true. See Ö. Xena? Whyíre you Ö." She put her hand to her mouth. "Wait. You mean really kill me? Surely they donít think - ."
"That an innocent young woman such as yourself would be hanging out with the likes of me? Unless it was at her peril?" Xena smirked. "Or maybe wasnít as innocent as she looked?"
"They think youíre still bad? Pfft. Like youíd be sitting here minding your own Ö." Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. "You didnít happen to get into any trouble while I was gone?"
"Gods. Why canít they Ö. Hadnít occurred to me - ."
"Give `em some slack. Iíve only been ëgoodí a few months. Thatís nothing compared to years of Ö. To my reputation."
Gabrielle slapped her hand on the table. "Well, weíll just have to fix that." She popped up. "Starting with them," she said, indicating the "family" section.
"Gabrielle! Let it go." Xena tried to grab a suddenly elusive arm. "Whoís making a scene now? Our foodíll be here in a minute. Thought you were so hungry?"
Gabrielle stuck out her chest. "First things first. I wonít be long."
Gritting her teeth, Xena let Gabrielle go off without more debate. Although she did momentarily consider that adding one more body to her record wouldnít make much difference. Whatever relaxation sheíd felt earlier vanished, replaced with a new foreboding she hadnít quite gotten used to yet.
Sheíd expected suspicion, anger or disgust. Sheíd expected the confusion about what her presence meant, now that she traveled without an army, arrived without demands. She could handle that. The problem was handling Gabrielle. Keeping her from getting hurt or sullied by everything rightfully due a former warlord. The girl was bound and determined to plunge in anyway, sometimes dangerously heedless of the possible consequences.
Xena sighed and leaned back against the wall. At least now everybody had their sights somewhere other than her. Gabrielle was cooing over one of the babies. Xena could imagine the thoughts of an older woman whom Gabrielle hadnít managed to charm yet. Sheíd charmed the other side of the room though, judging by the leers. Xena wondered if it was too optimistic to hope sheíd get to eat before she had to fight.
"So, itís really you."
Xena shook her head. "Donít you hate that?" she said, not bothering to look at the big warrior.
"Being right all the time. For once, couldnít my luck be on the side of a peaceful meal?" Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. "Yeah, itís me. Want my autograph?"
"All the talk about Xena, Iíd never had a personal acquaintance. Figured weíd cross paths, what with our similar interests." The manís lip curled. "Didnít think itíd be in a place like this. Her lazing all harmless and friendly-like."
"What can I say? Happens to the worst of us."
"Checked it out with the boys over there. They confirmed it. ëRuthless,í they said. ëBloodthirsty. Deadlier than a snake. Sly as a fox. Aresí right arm.í"
"They leave out ëhas many skills?í Iím hurt."
"Half of `em wanna join you, half to fight you. Acted like I was chopped goose liver."
"Oh? Maybe I should be askin` for your autograph?"
"By rights. Nameís Costas. Known as Hadesí - ."
"Messenger." Xenaís jaws clenched. "Youíre right again. Same league as me. The worst of the worst."
"You can see why you had me fooled. Didnít bother kickiní you out of my territory. Donít waste time on anybody but the best."
Xena finally turned his way. "Your ëterritory?í What Ö." Her mouth dropped. "You mean here?" She stretched out her arms. "This little patch of floor?"
Costas sneered. "No territoryís too little for a true conqueror. But maybe you got a new line of work, eh? Little slave girls more your speed now? Not that I blame you. Lot easier than runniní an army."
Xena glanced at the "family" section. Everyone was staring at her, including Gabrielle. She smiled to herself. Sometimes the girl did have sense enough to stay put. Xena nodded to confirm Gabrielle had chosen wisely. Next she sought out Tyus. Sure enough, he was preparing a tray with their stew. She caught his eye and shook her head. His deep sigh told her he understood. She studied the room. Satisfied with her calculations, she propped her feet on the table with exaggerated casualness, gazing straight ahead.
"Apparently not as easy as whatever youíre doiní."
"Whatíd you say?"
"Use your head, man. Ya got two ill-reputed warlords nursiní their ale. Oneís alert, capable of coherent speech. Looks in pretty good shape. Clean even. A cute redhead at her beck and call. The otherís a big olí smelly bump on the log. Nothiní to show for his efforts beside a mustache of foam." Xena snickered. "Does give your face a certain Ö character." She spared him a disdainful once-over. "If you were a mercenary, which would you choose?"
Costas had leaned on his table, prepared to jump up at "big olí smelly." But the haze in his head muffled the words that followed. He couldnít be sure he was hearing them, let alone that theyíd be delivered like a report on the weather. Finally his instincts took over. With a roar, he upended the table, forcing her to move out the way of falling furniture.
"You challenging me?!"
Xena stood with her arms crossed. "Your call Ö." Her lip curled. "Messenger."
Without taking his eyes off her, Costas raised his fist. "All right, boys! Any of you wanna ride under a real legend, stand with me. Iíll let ya have a piece of this has-been when Iím done."
"Nuh uh uh." Xena held up her hand to the six or so men whoíd started to rise. "Lemme `splain how this is gonna work. Costas here canít use his sword. A bit too much ale. Heíll try to smother me with his flab. Iíll sidestep, give `im an elbow to the ribs." She snickered. "Assuming I find them." She moved backwards as Costas slowly hulked her way. "Eventually Iíll get `im on the ground." Theyíd now moved to a clear spot and begun circling each other.
"When heís out, some of you may want some action. See the rope Tyus was kind enough to leave hanging from that beam?" She pointed to the ceiling. "By the time youíve taken eight steps, Iíll be swinging from it. Know why?" Xena smirked at the blank expressions. "So I can take you all on without breaking a nail." She screwed her mouth up, examining her hands. "If I had any nails to speak of. Ah, the things a girl has to sacrifice defending her reputation."
Completely undone, Costas hurled himself at his insufferable foe. She sidestepped, elbowed, tripped, and bonked. Four wannabe recruits fanned out, figuring to make her change her strategy. She jumped atop a chair, sprang up to the rope and swung in a wide arc. To their dismay, the men discovered their path blocked by tables when they tried to avoid the ramming boots. She took two out immediately. The other two dropped to the floor. One crawled for the exit.
"Let him go!" Xena ordered to customers who tried to stop the man. "Heís not worth any of your blood." She swung back and forth above the man scrabbling toward the families. "Ayiyiyiyiyi!" She let go, flipped through the air and landed upright on his back. "Anybody else wanna try?" she asked over her shoulder. Nobody did. "Tyus? Weíll have that stew now. Better make it four helpings. No doubt Gabrielleís worked up quite an appetite."
The patrons had tossed the unconscious troublemakers outside, figuring theyíd be too embarrassed to try a repeat. The remaining mercenaries watched the clean-up without interference. Xenaís demonstration of her skills made some of them even more eager to join up with her. Unfortunately for them, theyíd received no indication whatsoever she desired their services. They resumed their argument over her intentions. Some thought the fight with Costas proved her continuing competition in the warlord arena. Like Costas, others figured the redhead signaled a change to specializing in human merchandise. That Xenaíd given up her old ways for doing good deeds remained at the bottom of their list.
That possibility had moved up higher among those considered in the "family" section, thanks largely to Gabrielle. Sheíd eaten part of her meal there, enlightening everyone on Xenaís new mission and recent efforts on behalf of those in need. Naturally folks first wanted to know how on earth such a nice young woman had come to be with a notoriously brutal warlord, unless sheíd been forced.
Not everyone accepted Gabrielleís explanations or the reformed Warrior Princess she described. Even if that person was real, so was the greater weight of crimes sheíd have to spend years trying to balance. Still, some smiled Xenaís way. A few even let their children go over to touch their new hero. They watched her bounce them on her lap, admonishing them about glorifying violence. Many found it difficult to merge that image with the one of her swinging from the rafters knocking men senseless.
"I donít get those two." Laeda had just taken dessert to the puzzling strangers. One had bubbled her gratitude for the surprise addition to their meal. The other smiled, but more at her companionís pleasure. "What could they possibly have in common?"
"Xenaís playiní `er," Damien surmised. "Just like she did those fools in Amphipolis. "Soonís she gets somethiní for the girl, the lil redheadíll be decoratiní some rich guyís bed."
"Hmmm. Not so sure about that. Seems they really like each other. See that?" Laeda crooked her head toward the two. "The way Gabrielle touches her, argues with her - no fear? No way Iíd do that, less I knew for a fact Xena wouldnít bite my head off."
"Pfft. All a ya makiní way too much of it. If yaíd spent as much time on the road as me, yaíd know itís hard by yerself. Rough, boriní. Xenaís the muscle. Gabrielle probíly cooks." Necron snickered. "And Ö entertains."
"Kinda surprising she didnít break the place up." Laeda frowned. "I mean, she coulda mopped the floor with all those guys. She loosing her yen for fighting? Now that sheís trying to be better? Have to admit, I was hoping Iíd see some of that action those mercenaries talked about."
"In yer face?"
Necron waved his hand at the room. "Takiní `em out like she did kept anybody else from gettiní hurt. Even Tyusí precious furniture. Wouldnít have expected consideration from her like that." He shrugged. "Or she coulda been showiní off. Whoíd mess with somebody can do that to vetírans? In the blink of an eye, without ever drawiní her sword?"
"Yeah, bet olí Costas loved evíry moment." Damien cut his eyes at the Warrior Princess. "His ribs, back and headíre probíly ringiní `er praises `bout beiní goodín ëconsiderate.í"
"What about you, boss? Whatís your take?"
"Hold on a sec, Laeda." Tyus caught a signal from Xena. He grabbed a small sack and walked quickly to their table.
"Weíll be heading off." Xena stood. "Wanted to thank you again for your hospitality."
"Mmmm, yes." Gabrielle finished the last bit of her sweet roll. "Everything was wonderful. Itís been awhile since I tasted Ö." She winced and snuck a peek at Xena. "Um, food on the road can be kinda Ö. Well, you have to -."
"Sometimes depend on somebody whose cooking isnít the best of her many skills."
Tyus chuckled. "No complaints from me. I depend on that for a living."
"Sure you donít want anything?" Xena cut her eyes at Gabrielle. "My friend here might have enough left to pay for my ale."
"Xena," Gabrielle huffed. "I told you -."
"Itís okay. You more than made up for it." Tyus smirked. "Canít remember the last time I had a packed house where everybody stayed this long. Between wantiní to see what youíd do and Gabrielleís stories about you, some folks ordered twice as much."
"Really?" Gabrielle got a gleam in her eye. "I do have aspirations of barding. Maybe we could hang around here longer? I could - ."
"Gabriellle. We detoured for the festival. You got to do most of what you wanted." Xena pursed her lips. "Like having your fortune told for the next 20 years."
"Yours too. Donít forget that." Gabrielle grinned sheepishly. "A two-for one bargain."
"And here I thought warlording would be a challenge." Xena winked at Tyus. "Maybe I should catch up to Costas. See if he still has a job opening."
"Xena! Donít even joke about that." Gabrielle picked up her bag and stood. "Only a week ago, some of her old buddies tried to tempt her back into that life. No, weíll go on as we were. Stick to the plan for proving to people youíve changed." She extended her hand to Tyus. "I second Xenaís thanks. Now, if the two of you will excuse me, Iím going to say goodbye to my new friends." She pivoted, head high, and went to the "family" section.
"Feisty little thing, eh?"
Xena laughed. "Sheís gotten rather protective of my reputation. The reformed one, that is. Has no idea what sheís in for."
"Oh, I donít know." Tyus held Xenaís eyes. "Could be sheís like me. Knows a ëspecialí customer when she sees one."
Xena swallowed. "Appreciate that. Ordinary people and places like this can be Ö."
"Yeah. Not like the battlefield. Hard to know whoís the enemy. Whether heíll be one when the fightinís done."
Xena glanced at Gabrielle. "Those old buddies she mentioned? I had to fight them to do a good deed. One was a close friend. I treated him like a means to an end. Hoped to persuade him away from all that. He couldnít see himself beyond it. Just when I thought maybe he was right, he died going against his gang." She smiled sadly. "Hard to know whatís really inside until it shows itself."
"And even then, you canít say for sure what somebody elseíll see." Tyus gave Xena the bundle heíd brought over. "A little something for the road." He stuck out his hand. When she took it, he held it a moment. "Iíd say Gabrielle sees good. Believe her, if she sees it in you."
Xena sighed. "Iíll try. She deserves that."
"Take care of yourself and her."
"I will. You too. If Costas or his ilk bothers you, tell `em I have eyes and ears everywhere. That I can fly like I did today."
Xena joined Gabrielle. She patted a few small heads before trailing her young friend out into the late afternoon sun. The atmosphere changed again. Clearer for some, cloudier for others.
"Okay, so what do you think?"
"About Xena and her Ö ëfriend.í"
Tyus cocked his head. "You know me. What do I usually say?"
"Depends on whether they pay."
"Got me there. Letís say they settled their bill."
"Yeah? Then youíd say ëjust another customer.í Youíd be tossing coins in the till box with a big fat smile." Laeda rubbed her chin, quizzically regarding her dinar-pinching employer. "Thing is, I never saw those two give you anything worth that grin on your face."
Tyus gazed at the doorway, still feeling the brightness and energy that had passed through. Intrigued at how the edges of the dark warriorís shadow seemed less sharp in her sunny companionís glow.
"Hmmm. Goes to show ya." He shrugged. "Always another point of view."