Shortly after events in the story "Not Yet," Gabrielle questions Xenaís perturbing response to perceptions the legendary duo are too dead or too old to aid a village in distress.
SOMETHING NEW, SOMETHING OLD
"You have to learn to smell the flowers... enjoy the peaceful moments in life. You know, everything canít be an adventure all the time." ñ Gabrielle to Xena in ULYSSES
"So, where to next?"
"No place neediní a long-in-the-tooth ëgirl with a chakram,í thatís for sure."
"Why, Xena, Iím surprised at you. Weíve only been gone ñ what? ñ a couple months? You sayiní youíre tired of the road already? Tsk tsk. And here I thought a few gray hairs couldnít slow you down."
"Gray hairs have nothing to do with it. Your idea of a ëromanticí 25th anniversary getaway wouldíve done me in when I could still fit in my old leathers."
"Oh, I donít know about that." Gabrielle slid her arm around the warriorís trim waist, leaned back against the wagon seat and closed her eyes. "You pace yourself better now," she observed, enjoying their leisurely ride in the early morning sun. "Even between escapades you were always fidgeting, always smelling trouble. At least we got some relaxation in when we left King Cleadesí party, after fighting alongside our future selves and since you spanked butt for Zee."
"Yeah, it has been nice ñ the quality time. Iím just lookiní forward to spending it as ourselves for a change. Between playing Anthrax, Exzema and Spitunia, Iím beginning to feel like the Furies."
Gabrielle laughed. "I thought it was kinda fun. Sure beats being Gabrielle, Chief Councilor."
"Yeah?" Xena studied her partner. "You donít miss it yet ñ home?"
"A little," Gabrielle admitted, resting her head on Xenaís shoulder. "But I like this too. You know ñ seeing that we havenít lost the old fire. Solving the worldís problems with the right word here, a good kick in the pants there." She smiled contentedly. "Gets my juices going."
Xena shook her head. "Iíve often wondered why I kept you around all these years. Itís certainly not predictability."
"Good." Gabrielle gave Xena a squeeze. "Boredomís about the only thing you might not survive. I plan to keep you alive for another 25 years, seeing as how we slept through that many the first time around."
"Gabrielle, Iíd be over100."
"But youíll look like a spry 70-something, just as cute as you are now."
Xena sucked in her cheeks. "Time was, I figured I wouldnít make it past 20. Gotta be more careful what I wish for."
Gabrielleís head lolled back. "What do you wish for now?" she asked, peering up sultrily.
Xena gazed down with hooded eyes. "Something I could get out here in the wild, without leaving the wagon. But Iíd prefer a quiet room with a big soft bed. Although...," she added, smirking, "I suppose a few screams wouldnít hurt."
"This oughta be sleepy enough for ya."
Gabrielle surveyed the collection of thatched structures and sparsely stocked market stalls. The lone villager in sight paced around the drinking well mumbling to herself. "What? You expecting trouble from her?"
"Where is everybody?"
"In the fields? Doing chores?"
"There." Xena pointed to several wagons and horses outside the largest structure.
"So? Looks like an inn. Probably where we should go too, if weíre gonna find that soft bed you wished for."
Xena cocked her head, continuing to study the situation. "Boredom," she muttered, finally urging the horses into motion.
"Boredom. Somehow I donít think thatís an experience Iíll ever get to test."
Just as Xena suspected, it appeared most of the villagers had gathered inside the inn. They huddled at tables or in clumps around the walls, heatedly discussing some subject Gabrielle bet wouldnít be boring, even though she hadnít a clue what it was. Few gave much notice to the two middle-aged women seating themselves side by side near the door, except a serving girl. She ambled over to the newcomers.
"You here for food?"
"Need a room?"
"Whew! Papaíll be glad to hear that." The girl cut her eyes at the other patrons. "Everybody else acts like weíre runniní a meetiní hall. All that yammeriní, youíd think their throatsíd be dry or their bellies grumbliní. Youíre my first real customers in hours. So," she said, grinning at the dinar-paying patrons, "whatíll it be? Still early enough for breakfast, if you want. Otherwise, we got lamb or beef stew. Maís specialties."
Gabrielle ordered breakfast, Xena the lamb.
"Ale for me. The usual for you?"
"Tea for her."
"Excellent. Plenty of rooms left. Whatís your pleasure?"
"A big one with a big, soft bed."
The girl grinned. "I hear ya. Been on the road awhile visitiní your relations?"
Both women snorted. "You could say that," Gabrielle answered. "More than we ever thought possible."
"Got any here?"
"I hope not." Xena shrugged. "Way thingsíve been going, you never know."
"Heh. Take a look around. Just about everybodyís here. Make yourselves comfy. Iím Jenna. Iíll be back with your drinks in a minute."
"What do you think?" Gabrielle asked as she watched the girl walk away.
Xena stretched out her legs and relaxed back in her chair. "Her ma looks like she might know what to do with lamb."
"Xeenaa." Gabrielle swatted her soulmateís midsection. "You know what I mean." She strained to catch snatches of conversation. "I think I heard ëarmyíÖ. Oooo, and ëfight.í"
"Could be talking about ants. Hope none of `em get in my lamb."
Gabrielle scowled at her studiously relaxed companion. "Youíre determined to make this boring, arenít you?"
"Uh huh. Try something new for a change. See if youíve underestimated my ability to survive even staring at dust balls."
Suddenly the arguments in one group of townsfolk verged on turning violent. The room grew hushed as two men got in each otherís faces, shouting the rightness of their positions.
"Youíd let them walk over us like spineless wimps? Take everything, maybe even our women? I say we fight!"
"With what? Tomatoes? Weíre outnumbered, outclassed. How do we know they wonít negotiate, unless we try? Weíll all be wiped out otherwise."
"Iím with Pontius!" A third man raised his fist. "Itís time we acted like men!"
"Yeah!" declared a few others. The majority remained silent, some glowering stubbornly at Pontius, others looking anywhere but at the erstwhile rebel leader.
"Thetis is right." A woman came up beside the second speaker. "We have the children and elders to think of. What harm could there be listening to what General Galates has to say? He sent an emissary didnít he? He couldíve squashed us like bugs already."
"Exactly." Thetis sensed the crowd with him. "Fighting among ourselves will only weaken us. Instead we should be figuring out our terms, showing him a united front."
"No! Donít fall for that!" Pontius scanned the room, searching in vain for defiance on the faces of his neighbors. "Men like Galates donít care about ëterms.í Itíll only make things easier for him, huddled together like sheep. Our only hope is surprise. Convincing him we might not be worth the trouble."
"We have until tomorrow to decide." Thetis squared his shoulders. "I propose we vote now, between resistance or negotiation. If itís the latter, I stand ready to serve as your spokesman. If itís the former, Pontius, do you stand prepared to take command?"
Thetis addressed a large man sullenly observing the proceedings in the background. "Micah, as the owner of this establishment, would you be so kind as to do the honors?"
Micah sighed heavily. He lumbered slowly to the center of the room. "All those in favor of fighting, raise your hands." He snorted at the results. "All those in favor of yakking some more, raise your hands." He snorted again. "Okay, Thetis, looks like your show."
Pontius shook his head in disgust and pushed through the crowd out the door. A handful of men followed him. Thetis began directing everyone in rearranging the furniture into long rows of chairs facing the front. Soon all the townsfolk except Micah, his wife and daughter sat or stood prepared to hear Thetisí instructions for how they would proceed.
"Sorry you had to wait so long." Jenna had finally woven her way over to the lone occupied table. "Had a few interruptions, as you can see. Foodíll be up soon," she said, setting down a couple of mugs. "I got your room ready. Will you be neediní anythiní else?"
"Um...." Gabrielle looked at Xena. "Isnít there something weíd like to ask Jenna?"
Xena swished ale around in her mouth. "Ahhh, hits the spot. I do have one question." She stretched, adding a big yawn for emphasis. "You got a jug of this we can take upstairs?"
Gabrielle scowled surreptitiously at her soulmate. The insufferable woman sat in front of the mirror, carefully braiding her hair, an infuriatingly smug grin on her face. Theyíd spent a quiet, intimate evening ñ most of it sharing their appropriately-sized bed. Of the few words spoken, not one had been about the goings-on downstairs. Sheíd been bursting at the seams to discuss that, of course, but refused to give Xena the satisfaction. Stubborn old thing wanted to pretend disinterest? Fine. Two could play that game.
"I notice you didnít spring up at the crack of dawn. Does that mean weíll be lazing around in here awhile longer?"
"Why? Last night we found plenty to do by ourselves. That not enough for you?" Xena turned with just the hint of a smirk. "Not bored are ya?"
Gabrielle willed her eyes not to roll. "Me? Bored with romance? With taking it easy?" She gritted her teeth. "With minding our own business? Pffft. Just asking. Trying to pace my stomach for a later than usual breakfast."
"Ah." Xena resumed gazing in the mirror. "I suppose we could have Jenna bring us something."
Gabrielle suppressed a growl. "Yes, we could."
"We might even order something for later at the same time. That way we could stay up here. You know ñ romancing, taking it easy. Keeping our noses out of anything that might distract us from doing practically nothing at all." Xena cocked her head. "Shame to waste this braid, though. Canít remember when I last took this much time getting it just so. Takes quite a bit of patience you know." She put her fingers to the pulse point on her neck. "Huh. And Iím still alive." She glanced at Gabrielle again. "Wouldnít you say?"
"Yes, I would," Gabrielle agreed sweetly. "For now," she muttered under her breath. "And, yes, that braidís a work of art. Definitely deserves public viewing."
"Assuming, of course, thereís anyone besides Jenna and her folks to view it."
"True. If not, thereís always me." Gabrielle smiled with the hint of a smirk. "And youíve already more than proven Iím enough."
Xena raised an "ooo, good one" brow. "Quite right." She inspected her braid, nodding approval. "I think youíre right about this too. Could be just the thing to perk up anybody down there who might be bored."
The bleary-eyed patrons in the main room gawked at the women descending the stairs as if theyíd beamed in from Mt. Olympus.
"Braid must be working," Xena mumbled.
Gabrielle snorted. "Or they were too busy yesterday to miss us. Looks like they stayed all night."
The two nodded as they passed through to sit near the door again. Nearly all the tables were occupied and littered with used utensils. Micahís big frame moved with surprising speed around the room as he tended his customers. The smile on his face suggested the meeting had paid off after all ñ at least for him.
"Morniní," Jenna said cheerily, once the women had seated themselves. "I wondered when youíd be down."
"Good thing we didnít come earlier." Gabrielle gestured toward the others hunched over the remains of their breakfast. Unable to help herself, she asked, "They get everything settled okay?"
Jenna shrugged. "I guess. I turned in around my usual time. When I came in here, the ones not sleepiní werenít sayiní much. Whatever they decide wonít matter much to me and my folks anyway."
"Nah. We figure this Galates character wonít be much different from all the other thugs whoíve come through here. Weíre sorta like furniture to `em. Long as we stay out of their way, do the dirty work with no complaints, keep `em full and comfortable, they donít pay us much mind. We serve `em same as we do anybody. Sometimes they act like kings ñ throw money around, brag how they can pay for the best. ."
"Galates, huh?" Gabrielle glanced at Xena out the corner of her eye.
Xena snorted. "Go on. You know youíre dyiní to. Just remember who caved in first, while I, on the other hand, managed to survive boredom quite fine, thank you very much."
Gabrielle gritted her teeth, forcing herself to swallow the questions on the tip of her tongue. "Jenna, Iíll have the same as yesterday. Except I may want cheese, too. Is it moldy?"
"Oh, no. Very fresh."
"Too bad. I was gonna have you bring it for her."
"You want.... Oh, I get it. Youíre teasiní, right?"
"Only partly," Xena answered. "She used to be quite deadly, before I reformed her. Still has urges every now and then."
"Oh, she looks pretty harmless to me, like a very nice lady." Jenna grinned at Xena. "Now you.... I bet you were quite the devil in your day."
Gabrielle nearly choked. "My, what a good judge of character, for someone so young. Quite the devil indeed."
"Iíll have the same as her." Xena glared at her partner. "And you can mix the cheese in my eggs."
Jenna shook her head. "You two are funny, know that? Sure a lot more lively than that bunch. Weíll see how they are after Galates gets here." She frowned. "Shouldnít scare good customers away, but you might wanna go while you can. Things could get ugly. Iíd hate to see nice ladies like you caught in it." She turned abruptly to leave. "Iíll tell Ma to make it quick," she threw over her shoulder hustling away.
Gabrielle rolled her tongue in her cheek. "So, whatíll it be? Hang around to see if you can make Galates boring? Or more fun and excitement with little olí me?"
Gabrielle and Xena had nearly finished eating when Thetis arrived with an important air, bearing scrolls as if they were peace treaties to end the Trojan War. A gaggle of folks trailed him.
"All right, everyone, your attention please. Galates should arrive soon. Letís get in position."
Those already seated rose tiredly, pushed together a couple tables in front and positioned seven chairs on each side. Thetis took the middle chair facing the door, joined by six of his neighbors.
"Pontius has formed an escort. When they bring Galates in, I will welcome him and introduce our negotiation team. Micah will serve our guests as usual. We want to communicate right off that this is our territory and we intend to deal with matters civilly. I suggest we relax until he gets here."
Xena noted the slumped postures of nearly everyone except Thetis. "Look more like sitting ducks," she muttered to Gabrielle.
"You have a plan, since weíre staying?"
"Hmm." Xena puckered her lips. "Iím thinking itíd be good to order one of those sweet rolls Jenna tempted us with. Could be a long morning."
"Arenít you taking this a little too far?"
"Donít give me that innocent look. Weíre about to be invaded by who knows what. Unless Galates is nothing more than a bumbling con artist, these folks could be in real trouble."
"Iím sittiní here being contented, contrary to certain assumptions. The Trimeans got a plan. Galates has his. Mine is worrying about what we oughta be worried about until we see whatís what. Speaking of which...."
Xena waved her hand to get Jennaís attention. She rubbed her stomach and smacked her lips. The girl grinned and signaled sheíd gotten the message. She grinned even more when Gabrielle held up two fingers.
"Devil," Gabrielle muttered, cutting her eyes at her soulmate. "Both of you."
Xenaís snarky retort got cut short by a commotion at the door. "Crap," she muttered, guessing Galates had arrived. "So much for satisfying my sweet tooth."
Sure enough, some uniformed types swaggered in bristling with weapons. The first six or so stopped, surveyed the room, then lined up on both sides of the entrance. The inn patrons could easily see the white-haired man who sauntered through, a head taller than those he passed. He waited, wide-legged, arms crossed.
Thetis stood. "General Galates, I presume? On behalf of Trimea, welcome. I am Thetis, the ñ."
"This your place?"
"Um, no, sir. I am the ñ."
"Whereís the innkeep?"
"General, weíve already made the necessary arrangements with him. First, we thought weíd ñ."
"I want the innkeep! Now!"
Micah came up beside the flustered Thetis. "This is my place. What can I do you for?"
Galates approached the front tables. "Ale for me. The others donít need anything right now. How many rooms?"
"Six. Five empty."
"Sixíll do for me and my top men. Some can double up."
The two big men locked eyes for a moment. "Jenna," Micah said without looking away, "get the man his drink." He gestured for Galates to sit, and himself took Thetisí chair. "What else will you be neediní?"
Galates got comfortable. "Starting tomorrow, thisíll be our headquarters. Till I finish my business in the area. When Iím here, Iíll want a hot breakfast for me and the others lodged here. The rest of the town can take care of the others."
Galates glanced around, sizing up the place. He ignored the Trimeans silently listening to his exchange with Micah. When Jenna brought his ale, he drank half before setting down his mug.
"Iíve got about 50 men in this unit. Looks like you can handle `em in a couple shifts for supper. May need some provisions packed for when we... make trips."
Micah braced his elbows on the table and rested his chin on clasped hands. "Pretty tall order. Wonít leave much for the town to use or sell."
"All you need worry about is me and my men. If business works out, youíll get your due."
Thetis cleared his throat. "Thatís all well and good for Micah. Perhaps we can discuss the rest of us? As I started to say, Iíve been...." He paused and indicated the people on either side of Micah. "Weíve been chosen as the negotiation team to ñ."
"Negotiation?!" Galates snorted in disbelief. "Who said anything about negotiation?"
Thetisí jaw dropped. "Your representative said.... We thought this meeting was so we could mutually ñ."
"I like to give folks time to adjust. Things tend to go smoother that way." Galates pushed his chair back and stood. "Now Iím telling you how thingsíll be. I had special orders for him." He pointed his chin at Micah. "Weíre done. Iíll finish briefing anybody else tomorrow." He downed the rest of his ale, turned and strode out with his men.
"See, told ya he wasnít the negotiating type." Pontius scowled disdainfully at his neighbors, most of whom continued sitting in stunned silence as they had since Galatesí departure.
"And where were you and your so-called ëfighters,í huh?" Thetis scowled back. "We didnít see you rushing in to the rescue."
"What for? So you could sell us out? Maybe trade us for an extra day wallowing in self-pity?"
"Hush!" Jennaís mother wedged her ample frame among those crowded around the "negotiation" table. "Blaming each otheríll get us nowhere."
"Sure, Efthimia, easy enough for you to say," Thetis threw at her. "Your husband took care of his own. Left the rest of us hanging out to dry. Whereíd he go? Fetching food for his new master?"
"As a matter of fact, heís squirreling stores away for the ingrates he left ëhanging out to dry.í At least he made sure weíre no worse off now than before."
"Yeah, well, that ainít sayiní much," someone in the crowd tossed out.
"Got that right," another added. "All these mouths, not one full brain cominí up with anythiní besides gettiní killed or walked over so much we might as well be dead."
"Excuse me?" Shushing Xenaís warning growl, Gabrielle had gotten up and now edged her way toward the front.
"One of those strangers."
"Whatís she got to do with this? They wonít be here no way after tomorrow."
"Iím someone whoís seen a lot of situations like this. Someone who doesnít like to sit by when innocent people might be hurt." Gabrielle faced Thetis and Pontius. "Someone who wants to help however I can."
Pontius snorted. "Maybe you can help Thetis and the other women kiss Galatesí butt."
Thetis turned red. "Why you ñ."
"Enough!" Gabrielleís authoritative command surprised everyone into stillness. "It just so happens you do have someone here with a brain. Someone with more experience dealing with warlords than all of you put together."
"Who? You?" Pontius snickered. "No offense, maíam, but we donít send our mamas into battle for us." He gave Gabrielleís small frame a dismissive once-over. "And mineís got a better chance of standing up to Galates than you."
Gabrielle chuckled. "You may be right. Iím not one to underestimate the strength of a woman whoís weathered many seasons. But I donít mean myself." She turned and locked eyes with the woman sitting in the shadows by the entrance. Xena finally responded with an "itís a little late to consult me now, so you might as well see what happens" shrug.
Thetis rolled his eyes. "Great. Someone with even more seasons?"
"Yes." Gabrielle squared her shoulders. "Someone who happens to be named... Xena."
The townsfolk stared at Gabrielle, waiting for her to say more. Gabrielle waited for the expected response. It didnít come.
"íXena?!í Thatís it?" Thetis regarded Gabrielle as if sheíd been possessed by the Furies.
"The name means nothing to you?"
"Iíve heard the legends. You think weíre gonna scare anybody off with a name?" Pontius cut his eyes at Xena. "And carried by someone like... her? My friends here might not show much spine, but theyíre not idiots. Donít know what game youíre playing, but ñ."
"Itís no game. Sheís not any Xena. Sheís the Xena. Iím Gabrielle."
"Theyíre dead, woman! Stop wasting our time with nonsense," someone yelled.
"Weíre not dead. Certain circumstances preserved us for 25 years as if we hadnít aged, to live on now for another 20 or so. Weíll prove it. Ask us anything."
Pontius and Thetis huddled with a few others, while the rest of the onlookers whispered among themselves, not certain what to make of this new development. Eventually the two informal leaders finally reached agreement on something.
"Listen... Gabrielle." Thetis reached across the table and patted the strangerís shoulder. "Weíre glad to hear these heroes might be... uh... are alive. We appreciate your concern. Thing is, you seemed to be out of action for quite awhile."
"Which is good," Pontius hastened to add. "Everybody has to lay the old sword or plow down some time. I hear Xena led a hard life. With that and all the good she came to do, she deserves time off."
"Didnít she have a daughter?"
Gabrielle sighed, having a pretty good idea where Thetisí questions were headed. "Yes."
"See? Bet thatís where you were going, before you got caught up in this."
"Actually, weíve been on the road ñ."
"And thatís where you should return tomorrow morning. You heard what Galates said. Heís taking your room."
"We canít protect you." Pontius remembered to glower at Thetis. "We canít even protect ourselves. You best take this time to pack. Go back to your peaceful life. Weíll deal with this in our own way."
Gabrielle checked the faces surrounding her. They reflected a mixture of solicitude, pity, skepticism, and impatience. She took a moment to weigh enduring more of that, versus eating crow at the table occupied by the expressionless semi-retired Warrior Princess. She gathered herself and smiled ruefully. "As you wish. Besides, I suspect Xenaís already reached the same conclusion "
Much to Gabrielleís annoyance, her taciturn partner exhibited complete disinterest. Even "told ya so" wouldíve been preferable to, "I need some air. Meet you back here for lunch." Whereupon Xena got up from the table and exited the inn without so much as a backward glance, leaving Gabrielle frozen in open-mouthed perplexity. When she finally ventured outside, the tall warrior was nowhere to be seen.
Gabrielle stayed downstairs, half listening to the on-going debate about Galates, her brain preoccupied with wrapping itself around something else. She couldnít remember the last time sheíd had so little sense of her soulmateís inner workings. Did Xena truly not care about Galates? About the hapless Trimeans? Was she convinced the two of them couldnít do much anyway? Would they ride off as though theyíd never been there?
Gabrielle began pondering her own role in the situation. She didnít like nagging her partner, certainly not questioning what ñ on the surface ñ seemed perfectly logical. After all, no one had summoned them to Trimea. The villagers pretty much scoffed at the notion two middle-aged strangers had much to offer, even if one of them purported to be the legendary Warrior Princess. What did she expect Xena to do? Force them to listen to her? Single handedly defeat Galates? And if she tried, could she be ñ.
Gabrielle looked up, startled to discover Xena standing there. "Um, hi. Didnít realize youíd come back."
"Apparently." Xenaís mouth quirked. "Found a really nice spot not far from here. Interested in some peace and quiet in the great outdoors?"
Gabrielle blinked. "Uh... sure. Now?"
"Nowís as good a time as any. Iíll have Jenna pack us a basket. Why donít you grab a blanket and our bags?"
"A picnic? Weíre... not leaving?"
"Weíll be back before nightfall. See you in a few." Xena headed for the kitchen.
Gabrielle stared at the tall back. "Right," she muttered, shaking her head. "Got some nerve, calling me unpredictable."
As promised, Xena treated her partner to a glorious day in the countryside. They spent much of it on horseback exploring the marvelously varied terrain in the shadow of a nearby mountain. Neither mentioned the soldiers camped on the outskirts of the village. They returned to the inn at dusk. Xena picked up some wine and fruit to carry to their room. Once again she paid scant attention to the villagers who continued squabbling over what to do about Galates. Once again Gabrielle felt torn.
"Hmmm?" Xena sat brushing her hair as they prepared for bed.
"You do realize youíre acting very strange."
"You think?" Xena studied herself in the mirror. "How so?"
"As if you donít know." Gabrielle lay on the bed and propped on an elbow. "Am I supposed to go along with it? ëJust dessertsí for opening my big mouth? Daring you to relax and smell the roses for a change?"
Xena smiled at Gabrielleís reflection. "You disappointed? Want me to run up the walls, beat some sense into those folks with the pommel of my sword?"
"Funny. No, Iím not disappointed. More like... curious."
"What difference does it make?" Xena resumed her brushing. "You challenged me to try something new. I am. Long as youíre happy, Iím happy."
"I wonít be happy if Galates throws us out of our room."
"We could leave before then." Xena smirked. "You know ñ before it gets too exciting."
Gabrielle sat up and leaned forward. "Seriously, Xena, I canít believe youíd simply walk away from this. Certainly not to prove a point."
"And why not?"
"Pride, for one thing. Those folks acted like weíre useless crones. Swept you and your reputation into the corner like dust. You telling me that didnít get your juices going even a little?"
Xena set the brush down. "Gabrielle," she said, turning to face her partner, "Like you said, I pace myself better. Iíve enjoyed our time together. Why waste it on people who wonít listen? If they choose Galatesí way over sticking up for themselves, thatís their right."
"So tomorrow weíll pack our bags, high tail it out before he returns?" Gabrielle shook her head. "Nuh uh, I canít believe youíd do that. Whatever the reason."
"I didnít say that."
Gabrielle brightened. "So you do have a plan? Could you just tell me, so I can get some sleep tonight?"
"You know I like being flexible, seeing what the situation presents. Not much I can tell you right now." Xena gazed at her reflection a moment. "Other than maybe, if you canít beat `em, join `em."
"Maíams?" Jenna rapped on the door. "Maíams? You awake?" She raised her fist to knock again, when the door opened to a fully dressed figure.
"Morning, Jenna. Whatís up?"
"Galates! Our sentries say heíll be here any moment."
"That for us?" Xena asked, indicating the sack in Jennaís hand.
"Uh, yeah, it is. Some bread, fruit, cheese. So you can get an early start." Jenna leaned sideways attempting to peer around her tall guest. "You know, for the road."
Xena smirked. "Wanna come in?" She moved aside. "Youíre right on time. Someoneís stomach was beginning to rumble."
Jenna stepped over the threshold.
"Ah, room service." Gabrielle took the sack from Jenna. "Thanks. I suspect weíll need all the energy we can get."
Jenna watched the smaller woman reach into the bag and begin laying out some of the contents on the dressing table. She also noted with some dismay that the two hadnít packed.
"Maíams, you donít have much time. I can help you get ready. If we all move fast ñ."
"For starters, you can call me Xena and her Gabrielle. Have a seat. Share some of this with us."
"I reckon weíll know when he gets here," Xena said, slicing the cheese and bread. She handed a few pieces to Gabrielle, cut some for herself and joined her partner on the bed. She gestured toward the chair at the table.
"B-but...." Jenna seemed rooted to the spot where she stood. "Youíre not leaving?"
"With hospitality like this?" Xena grinned at Gabrielle. "We like it here, donít we?"
Gabrielle snorted softly. "It would seem so."
"B-but.... Youíve got to!" Jenna finally perched nervously on the edge of the chair. "You heard what he said, didnít you? How can you sit there.... I donít understand."
"Whatís the best room here?"
Jennaís mouth dropped. "What?"
"You got a better room than this? Bigger? Bigger bed?"
"Nnnno. Itís probably the one Galates ñ ."
"Uh huh. Weíve already got our stuff here." Xena shrugged. "Not our fault we booked it first. Iím sure we can work something out."
"Work something out? With Galates? Why would he ñ ."
"Because weíre Xena and Gabrielle."
Jenna sighed in frustration. "I mean no disrespect, but even if you are, youíre not...." She took a deep breath, summoning the patience sheíd learned to use with certain elders and small children.
"Look, I donít know much about Xena and Gabrielle, except they were supposed to be great warriors. A long time ago." She narrowed her eyes for emphasis. "A long, looong time ago. Whatever good deeds they... you... did is history. You donít have to prove anything anymore. Iím honored to say I met you. Wouldnít it be better to live on, to inspire other girls like me?"
Gabrielle cocked her head. "Sheís good."
"Mm. Almost like sheís already been inspired by a certain bard."
"Argghhh!" Jenna jumped up. "Whyíre you being so stubborn?! Donít you see we have enough problems, without worryiní about you too?"
"You mustnít worry about us," Gabrielle assured, going over to the distraught girl. "Thanks, though." She gave Jenna a hug before resuming her seat. "Like I tried to tell everyone the other day, nobodyís better at handling trouble than Xena. Sheís never stopped doing that. In fact, sheís gotten even better over the years." She smiled at her soulmate. "You gotta trust she knows what sheís doing. Whatever it is," she added, cutting her eyes at Xena. "I do."
Xena returned the smile. "Go on back to your work. Weíll be down in a few minutes. And Jenna?" She stood and drew herself up to her full height. "Whatever happens, have faith in us. I promise, none of you will be hurt."
Jenna looked deep into the commanding blue eyes. She searched the face of the smaller woman and saw the same confidence and truth. At that moment she believed whatever certainty they had was ageless, more rock solid than the confusion sheíd witnessed among the adults supposedly leading Trimea.
"On our names and ëhistory.í"
The girl stared at the presumed dead heroes, biting her lip. "Okay. Enjoy your breakfast." She picked up a slice of cheese and headed out. "See ya soon."
Galates strode through the door in full regalia ñ sweeping his cape behind him, removing his red-plumed helmet with a flourish that included shaking out the long white locks framing his deeply tanned skin. He planted himself in the center of the room. He lived for this part of conquest. The chase, the slashes and punches still felt good, but not so much anymore on the receiving end. Nearly 60 winters of that had taken their toll on the towering frame heíd worked hard to keep muscled and lean. Heíd learned to rely more on the reputation heíd earned, the physical assets heíd been born with and the soldiers heíd molded to his will.
Ah, the gasps. Galates closed his eyes. He didnít need them to hear womenís hearts fluttering in a mixture of fear and attraction. To see the resentful awe among men who dared not oppose him. To smell another victory won without even breaking a sweat. To enjoy such moments that supposedly withered away with the bloom of youth. No, he was too smart for that. If he kept playing his cards right, he could go on like this forever.
Galates slowly opened his eyes. A thin man stood in front of him, one of the yakkers from the other day. He held out a mug of ale. Galates smiled, taking the mug. Now he could taste victory.
"Remember me? Thetis? Iíve been chosen to represent Trimea in this matter."
Galates raised a white brow. "Matter?"
Thetis swallowed. "The... um... relationship... between you and Trimea. How we can best... host... you during your stay. We didnít get to the... specifics... the other day."
"Ah, yes, the... ëspecifics.í" Galates nodded to the guards accompanying him. They fanned out around the room in pairs, some taking up positions in different sections. "Itís simple, really. Letís see what weíve got." He scanned the room. "I want the young men over there." He gestured toward one pair of guards.
"General?" Thetis reflected the trepidation of his neighbors as he watched roaming guards steer individuals to the designated spots. "Whatíre you ñ ."
"Theyíll travel with us. Some may make decent warriors. The others can do the heavy work around our camps." Galates smirked at Thetis. "You older men will tend our needs here. All of you assemble...." He pointed to another corner of the room.
Thetis saw a hint of rebellion flit across a few faces, notably Pontiusí, but soon his more mature brethren had gathered as ordered. Shoulders slumped, he joined them.
"As for the females, I want the young ones, kids and their mothers on that side. The rest of you go over there."
The innís proprietors had remained near the door of the kitchen, understanding Galates would probably consider them as their own group. Jenna startled her parents by heading for the group of younger women. She stopped in front of Galates with her arms crossed.
"So whatís your plan for us? ëEntertainment?í"
Galates snorted. "A spirited one, eh? Why should you care? Donít you come with this place?"
"Maybe. First, I wanna know what youíre gonna do with my friends over there."
Galates smiled indulgently. "Theyíll be confined to their own section of the village. I run a disciplined army. Hard to do that with temptations and distractions. Whatever tasks or... other services... we need, they can do here. Weíll take some of the older women with us for the cooking and light chores at our camp. Satisfied?"
"Yeah, she is." Micah had come up beside his daughter. He grabbed the would-be rebel and steered her back toward her mother.
"All right, then." Galates rubbed his hands together. "Theseíre good numbers. Not too many, not too...." Something struck him as out of order. Everyone was standing or sitting in the proper groups except for two older women at a table tucked away near the door. "You, there! You belong with them." The women continued staring at him. Galates searched out Thetis. "Whatís the matter with them? They deaf?"
Thetisí instincts warned him things were about to go from bad to worse. "N-no. Donít mind them. Strangers, just passing through." He scowled pointedly at the women. "Perhaps youíll see no harm letting them get back to their grandkids?"
Galates narrowed his eyes, trying to pinpoint what about those two made his palms itch. They dressed differently than the usual women ñ long tunics, leather breeches, boots ñ though perhaps to make traveling more comfortable. They seemed harmless enough. Surprisingly calm. Too calm, compared to everyone else. And the dark-haired one.... Was that a hint of insolence in her eyes? He sauntered closer, a wordless threat. She cocked her head, as if studying the approach of a poisonous snake. Good sense told him to leave her alone. His pride detected a subtle challenge he simply couldnít let pass.
"I ordered them to move. Theyíre under my command until or unless I say otherwise, whoever they are."
"She claims sheís Xena!" Pontius blurted out, eager to start trouble he might not have to finish.
"Shut up!" Thetis hissed.
"Xena?!" Galates snickered. "So thatís whatís wrong with her? A little...." He circled his index finger around his head.
"The other one says sheís Gabrielle," someone else chimed in. "Says they can prove it."
Galates focused on the smaller of the two strangers.
"Donít ask me. Iím just the sidekick in all this."
Galates stared into the other womanís ice-blue eyes. Heíd been a boy when tales of the Destroyer of Nations thrilled him. Heíd been disappointed to learn sheíd died, heartened by rumors she could overcome even that. But sheíd be ancient by now, not a few years younger than....
"General?" Thetis risked inching away from his assigned place. "We donít know for sure who she is. Sheís got nothing to do with us anyway. Canít we just forget about her? Let them ñ."
"No." Galates refused to accept the message in the womanís silence. He brought his hands together, unconsciously scratching his palm. "I want to hear it from her."
The dark-haired woman glanced at her companion, pushed back her chair and slowly rose. She stuck her hand through a slit in the side of her tunic and pulled out a metallic disk. "Heads up," she warned, then launched the disk into the air.
The disk ricocheted off the ceiling, walls and beams. It wouldíve whacked Galates in the head, had he not ducked. It returned like an obedient pet to the womanís hand. She hooked the disk back under her tunic.
"Anything else you wanna know?"
Jenna had heard about the plays staged in Athens. She couldnít imagine theyíd be better than the drama building between Galates and Xena. Apparently everyone else thought so as well. They watched transfixed, most in the same place the General had assigned them. His men shifted uncertainly. Some stared with their mouths open, as intrigued as those they guarded. Others scowled, clasping the handles of their weapons in case called upon to... to... to do whatever required to put that gray-templed biddy in her place.
Jenna pulled out of Micahís protective grasp and hustled behind the bar.
"W-whatíre you doiní, girl?!"
"Just takiní care of business, is all." Jenna filled two mugs with ale. "Like you taught me," she threw over her shoulder, making a beeline for the main attraction, where Galates was doing his best to recover with as much dignity as possible from near beheading.
"Ale?" Jenna held up the mugs. "The kind you both like."
"Sure." Xena gave Jenna an approving grin. She took a mug, sat and crossed her legs. She cocked her head at Galates. "Not afraid of a little drink with a washed up Destroyer of Nations, are ya?"
Ordinarily the wily veteran wouldíve ordered such behavior punished. Not this time. Not at the risk of tacitly acknowledging she was the irritant sheíd become, or making her seem the threat she implied. Besides, half the art of being successful was knowing when to put on a good show. He turned to wink at the onlookers, took the mug, sat, and crossed his legs. "Not at all. We can swap stories about our campaigns. If," he snickered, "you remember back that far."
"Um, Xena?" Gabrielle got up and laid a hand on her partnerís shoulder. "Iíll leave you two to your reminiscing. Okay?"
Xena squeezed Gabrielleís arm. She smiled at the silent understanding that passed between them. "Youíd probably be bored anyway."
Gabrielle snorted. "Weíll see." She nudged Jenna toward her parents.
"So. Youíre really the former Destroyer of Nations, eh?"
"Look good for... however old you are."
Galatesí cheeks reddened. He prided himself on his quick mind. It wasnít often he met someone his equal. He decided to shift gears. "Mustíve been hard. You know ñ giving that up."
"The conquest? Taking whatever I wanted, whenever or however it suited me? Bending legions to my will? Answering to no mortal or god?"
"Nothing like it, eh?" Galates smirked. "Oh, yeah, I almost forgot ñ you found doing good more to your liking."
"Actually," Xena said, gazing at him thoughtfully, "I kinda miss it." She smiled wryly at his obvious surprise. "Been a long time since I felt that kind of freedom. The rush of fighting with no limits, no worries about who got hurt." She blew out a long breath. "Using all my skills to the fullest."
Despite himself, Galates felt his blood stirring. He leaned forward. "The ones whoíd seen you in action? They all said you were the best. Iíd sit at their knees, soaking it all up. How you whipped your armies into line. Used your wit and words, when weapons wouldnít work." He straightened and ran his hand through his thick silver mane. "Not to mention making the most of height and good looks."
Xena shook her head. "I set the standard for ya, huh."
"You could say that. I set out to be as good as you."
"Sorry to hear that."
"No, worked out fine. Iíve outlasted everyone I came up against ñ some half my age. Lot more fun than sucking up to wimps."
"Uh huh. But you failed your main mission."
Galates frowned. "Like I said ñ."
"Being as good as me."
"What?" Galates blinked, realization dawning that he mightíve stepped into a trap. "Whatíre you ñ ."
"Not now," she stated matter-of-factly, "not ever. Even when Iím not around to prove it."
The angry hiss of Galatesí breathing filled the otherwise absolute silence. He jumped up so abruptly his chair crashed to the floor. "Thatís it! Now youíve gone too far."
"Hmmm." Xena rubbed her chin. "You got an army, right? Trimea, some other villages?" She stood, her face now a hard mask that frightened even Gabrielle. "Your life? When I have all that, it still wonít be far enough."
Galates had experienced a lot over the years. Considered himself lucky to make it so far with only a scar on his cheek ñ a scar both men and women admired for different reasons. His corpse could easily have lain among the many heíd pushed off his sword. Yet never did he imagine facing this particular ghost from his past. To think heíd wished her alive, fantasizing himself battling with ñ or against ñ the infamous raven-haired beauty with a body deadlier than any weapon.
Oh, she still looked the part all right. From a distance she could be half her years. Closer, the streaks of silver, some lines on her forehead disarmed her. Until you felt the cold steel of those eyes. He felt them penetrating his armor, slicing through the supremacy heíd come to take for granted. Heíd offered her armor from one of his men. Sheíd disdained it. Stood there all confident in her ordinary clothes, except for the scabbard sheíd put on her back and the chakram now visible at her waist. If heíd removed his own protection, heíd look like he took her seriously. Leaving it on reminded everyone of us status, of the ridiculousness of her challenge. He had another reason as well.
A less experienced warrior would see a crazy woman past whatever prime she once claimed. Theyíd probably miss what decades observing opponents revealed to him ñ the way she balanced herself while appearing to be relaxed. Her refusal to get caught up in the circus atmosphere, instead keeping her focus on him. Not on his body, but his eyes. He could see his every thought reflected in the barest hike of her brow, a slight twitch at the corner of her mouth. A thinking manís warrior, like him.
Heíd also noticed something else. When they shook hands, her palm was soft, not calloused like his from hours of handling weapons. No matter how good she was, rustiness could make her responses a hair too slow. Not so slow she wouldnít seem a decent adversary, but enough to give him an edge. Heíd need that, to make her look foolish without appearing to take advantage of someone others deemed a crazy woman.
"General? I say, are you ready?"
Galates shifted his gaze from her to Thetis. The skinny "negotiator" stood at a safe distance with the others circled around the combatants. Theyíd moved Xenaís "winner take all" proposition outside to a grassy area behind the inn. The two would fight until one died or surrendered.
"One more thing." Galates smiled unpleasantly at his foe. "Letís say I trip, accidentally fall on my sword. You get to be the big hero anyway. More likely that wonít happen, so whatís in it for me when I win?"
Xena shrugged. "Bragging rights? Only a few can say they beat me in single combat or otherwise."
"Might be worth something to young bucks. Not to me." Galates pointed at the blond woman positioned a few feet from Xenaís back. "What about her?"
"What about `er."
"I could use an attractive, mature woman for a change." Galates pictured not having to pretend youthful stamina, not enduring giggly teasing about the white fur covering his chest. "I donít need permission, of course, but Iíd prefer her willing, for as long as it suits me."
"Gabrielle? Man wants to know if youíll be his little love slave. Assuming he wins. You up for that?"
Gabrielle snorted. "Not really. However, I give my word, if itíll make him happier about the spoils of victory."
"It does." Galates leered appreciatively at his prize. He straightened. "Letís get this over with."
"Hold on a sec." Xena unhooked her chakram and handed it to Gabrielle. "We agreed to swords, right? Wouldnít want to forget in the heat of battle and take your head off unfairly."
Not to be outdone, Galates made a show of removing several knives from his person. "Hold these until Iím done," he said, giving them to Thetis. The General drew his sword. "Ready now?"
Xena drew her sword. "Thought youíd never ask."
Neither made a move, each waiting for the other to reveal any preferences, weaknesses or strategy. The onlookers became restless.
"Whatíd you expect?" muttered someone in the crowd. "Both of `emíre too old for this nonsense."
"You hear that? They think weíre too old." Xena took a step toward Galates. "Thatís not nice."
"And not very smart." Galates closed in on Xena. "Iíll deal with them later. After I deal with you," he snarled, making his first test lunge.
Xena parried, surprising Galates with her quickness. She made a few thrusts of her own, not surprised when they were easily deflected. Both increased their speed, soon dancing in and out, spinning, blocking in lightning blurs. As if on cue, they backed off. They nodded to each and began again in earnest. Now the air crackled with excitement. The crowd cheered ñ the villagers when Xena nicked Galatesí previously unscarred cheek, the soldiers when their leader cut Xenaís arm.
A few grueling minutes into the fight, Galates blinked the sweat out of his eyes, now regretting the extra weight of his armor. Xena moved as lightly and looked almost as fresh as when theyíd started. It occurred to him she meant to draw the battle out, attack more fully when he tired. Whatever ideas heíd had of toying with her vanished with his ebbing energy. Miraculously, he saw the opening he needed to end things quickly. He put everything he had into his final lunge, glimpsing too late the smirk that warned heíd been outfoxed. He couldnít stop himself from thrusting into the empty space she left when she dropped to the ground and swept her leg to send him sprawling.
The downed General scowled up the length of blade pointed at his chest. "We agreed to swords," he gritted out. "Not brawling."
"Whatever. Iím holding a sword on you now. Give and weíre done."
Galates held the cold blue eyes long enough to see another opening. "Itís not done until one of us finishes it." He stuck out his chin, daring her to kill him where he lay.
"Weíre smarter than that," Xena responded evenly, one veteran to another. "Nothing to prove, remember?"
"Like you donít?" he sneered. "Otherwise put your sword down and walk away."
Xena regarded him a long moment. "Guess even wisdomís got an expiration date." She shook her head and backed off, still holding her sword at the ready. "But maybe youíre right. Maybe Iím not done yet either."
"Thought so." Galates congratulated himself on calling her bluff. He got up and dusted himself off. "Only this time Iíll know its no holds barred."
The two went at it again, Galates adding punches and kicks to his swordplay. At one point they locked together and fell to the ground, their swords awkward at such close range. But the General had an alternative up his sleeve. Literally. As they wrestled he released into his hand a dagger hidden above his wrist. Heíd use that to wound her, then finish her off with his sword for public view. Except that, once again, she anticipated his intent. She grabbed his hand before he could jab the blade into her side. They rolled over. The knife sunk in below his armor.
The onlookers stared at the motionless tangled figures, at a bloody rivulet beginning to flow from where they lay.
"Xena!" Gabrielle ran to her partnerís side. She pulled the warrior off Galates and gasped at the red stain covering Xenaís tunic.
"Itís not mine," Xena assured woodenly.
"General!" The soldiers gathered around Galatesí body. "General?" One looked over at Xena in disbelief. "What happened?"
The warrior shrugged off Gabrielleís assistance and forced herself to sit up. "Like he said. Accidents happen. He died on his own blade."
The crowd shifted nervously in anticipation of what would happen next. While most had placed their bets on one or the other opponent, few expected Xena to prevail, let alone to see Galates dead. The victor had gotten to her feet and now watched stonily as the men hovering over Galates whispered among themselves. Finally a soldier detached himself, raised his chin importantly and addressed the gathering.
"I am Linus, second in.... Uh, I suggest you go on with your business while I confer with my lieutenants. Weíll let you know when to reassemble for further instructions."
"Nobody moves unless I say." Xena pinned everyone in place with her iciest warrior scowl. "The agreement was winner take all."
"W-well...yes, but surely youíre not.... You got what you wanted. You defeated him. Played the hero like he said. You can leave here as that, which is more than ñ."
"You disappoint me, Linus. I was hoping you had potential. Now Iím not so sure."
Linus turned red. "Listen, gameís over," he blustered, laying his hand on the sword at his side. "Iím not Galates. Iím three-times younger, faster. Youíre no more than a myth to me, so donít think thatíll carry any weight."
Xena backed up a few paces and held her hand out for the chakram Gabrielle gladly returned. "True, I donít do this kind of thing twice in one day anymore unless I have to. This," she said, dangling the chakram from her finger, "is my equalizer. Try something stupid, Iíll give you another demonstration of why itís so much better than a cane."
"Let me!" A soldier came up beside Linus, itching to shut that woman up. "She wonít hurt us. Got lucky with Galates. Nothiní but a sack of old air."
"Yeah," said another. "We canít let her order us around." He nodded to a few of his comrades to fan out. "Letís see how good her ëequalizerí is with us."
"Stand down!" Linus glowered in disgust at the threatening soldiers. "Sheís one woman. Iíll handle this."
"By lettiní her make a fool of us?"
"No, Iíll handle this." Xena kept an eye on the half dozen men slowly advancing from three sides. "Thatís my first order, Linus. Obey and you just might live to leave a better impression on me."
Linus hesitated, half his attention on the men he was supposed to be commanding, the other half on the woman planted with her knees slightly bent, the round weapon held cocked near her ear. His gut advised that this ësack of old airí could blow them all away. Grim faced, he nodded slightly and stood at ease. The soldiers behind him took that as a clue to do the same.
Everyone silently watched the six potential attackers creep toward Xena. Theyíd been among those inside whoíd seen the round weapon flying around the room. The closer they got, the more confident they became that either she wouldnít throw it, or she wouldnít have enough space to do so with much effect.
"Now!" the ringleader yelled.
The men rushed, caught completely off guard when the woman suddenly pivoted with her arm stretched out in front of her. Silver slashed through their ranks so fast men on one side of its arc felt it at about the same time as those on the other. They crumpled almost as one to the ground and mightíve been mistaken for sleeping except for the line of blood circling their throats.
Xena gazed down at them a moment, then bent to wipe the chakram clean on one of the bodies. She straightened and surveyed the scene around her. Everyone else stared back with varying degrees of fear. Waiting.
Linus finally approached. "What now?"
"Do what you will with Galates and the others." Xena gestured toward the bodies.
"Go back to your camp, inform the rest whatís happened. Tell `em to relax, stay out of trouble and await further orders. While youíre at it, send some guards to replace the ones I... dismissed."
Linusí surprise mirrored that on the villagersí faces. Tense murmuring swept through their ranks. Their self-appointed leaders stepped forward.
"Why do we need guards anymore?" Pontius crossed his arms. "What with Galates dead."
"Are... are you expecting trouble from the rest of the army?" Thetis asked.
Xena regarded the two coldly. "And Iím the one whoís supposed to have a hearing problem. Let me repeat: ëwinner take all.í"
"B-but... we thought.... Now that you have ñ."
"Galatesí life. His army. Trimea and whatever other villages he controlled."
Pontius was nearly beside himself. "You canít mean.... Surely you donít intend ñ."
Xena sauntered up to Pontius. "Not listening is why youíre standing here, me replacing Galates." She leaned in, radiating menace. "If youíd rather be with him instead, donít think for a minute I wonít grant your wish." She addressed the dumb-struck crowd. "That goes for anyone who feels the same."
No one challenged the steel-blue eyes. A few soldiers risked smiling at this unexpected turn of events. Most of the Trimeans huddled in resignation, wondering what had happened to their hero, if she might turn out worse than what they had before.
"All right then. Go on with your chores until you hear otherwise from me. Linus, station guards around the village. Make sure none of these good people strays too far without an escort."
Linus saluted smartly. "Yes, maíam.... Um... General."
"`Commanderí will do. Oh, and Linus? Inform the other officers Iíll want to meet with you tomorrow morning. Iím interested in learning what ëallí Iíve won."
Gabrielle found a shady spot across from the inn. Far enough to have a good view of the surroundings. Close enough to keep an eye on her elusive soulmate. She could see a few tents in the distance, some farmers bundling wheat in nearby fields. Others hustled about doing some chore or another, occasionally stopping to speak briefly with a neighbor. Except for the thick smoke billowing from the area where the bodies had been carried for disposal, Trimea looked like any other village. Xena had seen to that.
After giving assignments to the soldiers, their new commander had made inspection of village supplies, including those Micah had hidden. Sheíd basically grouped folks along the same lines as Galates. The young men toted supplies to the soldiers and chopped wood. Their elders fished, gathered vegetables, cooked, repaired equipment. The older women did domestic work in the camp, while the younger ones and mothers took care of their families and neighbors as they had before. The only person without a job was Gabrielle.
The night before, Xena had surprised Gabrielle by announcing sheíd be sleeping at Galatesí camp. "I need to be ëhands oní right now," the warrior had said. Sheíd packed a few items quickly without conversation. "Hang around here. Pitch in where you can. Iíll be back tomorrow afternoon." No "You okay with that?" or "Iíll explain later." Not even a peck on the cheek. It was as if the new Commander had nothing on her mind but her troops.
Xenaíd returned the next afternoon, accompanied by guards. They strode hither and yon, never staying still long enough for Gabrielle to catch Xenaís eye. Gabrielle felt she needed an appointment to greet the woman from whom sheíd been inseparable for over 25 years (not counting the ones when they were frozen, in a coma or suffering from amnesia). Sheíd finally stormed from the inn in frustration. Someone noticed, all right, but it wasnít Xena. Gabrielle cut her eyes at the guard whoíd followed her out, now lounging against a nearby tree.
"Give some people an inch, they take a mile." Gabrielle muttered to herself, imagining what sheíd say or do to Xena when she got the chance. "I donít care what sheís up to, sheís gone too far." She shivered, her mind flashing back to that time theyíd had to fight the Horde. "The Pomira," she amended. Xena seemed almost as closed and hard as she had then. "No, no way. Sheíd never...." And yet.... It had been a long time since Xenaíd looked more focused and energized, more... in her element. A leader free to lead. But how? More importantly, why?
Gabrielle got up. She marched toward the inn, completely ignoring the guard trailing her. She stood inside the entrance, eyes blazing, hands on hips. She knew better than to challenge Xena publicly. No, sheíd wait until the warrior deigned to notice her. Even if it took all day.
"See if the suppliesíve been loaded," Xena instructed her guards. "Iíll be out in a minute." She led Gabrielle to a quiet corner behind the bar. "Yeah? Whatís so important you had to interrupt me?"
"I didnít interrupt you."
"Fine. You got my attention. You want it or not?"
Gabrielle glared at her partner. "Know what? If you gotta ask, Iím wasting my time. Go back to whatever in Tartarus youíre doing." She started to walk away.
"Hey, whereíre you going?"
"Upstairs, to pack. Or am I under house arrest."
Xena pursed her lips. "Gabrielle, this is no time to get coy. These first days are critical. I canít show weakness or indecision. I canít lose focus just because you need attention I canít give right now."
"Attention?!" Gabrielle glanced around. She lowered her voice. "This isnít about ëattention.í Itís about you and what youíre doing. Surely you didnít expect me to fall in line without question, like those troops or villagers."
"I expected you to give me space, to do as I asked."
"And whatís that exactly, Xena? Youíve barely said two words to me."
"Why do I have to? You see the situation. Youíre not some babe in the woods about this. I asked you to pitch in here, make sure things go smooth. Whatís so hard about that?"
"Curses, Xena! Weíre a team!" This time Gabrielle didnít care who heard. "Howím I supposed to read your mind, when you shut me out?"
Xena steered Gabrielle farther away from any eavesdroppers. "Look, I have to restore order ñ to the troops here and in the other villages. I need to be in the field, so I can see what Iíve got to work with. I need you to work with the Trimeans. At some point weíll compare notes. Itís not like we havenít done this before."
"This feels different." Gabrielle studied Xena a moment. "You feel different. One minute, weíre simply passing through. Suddenly you decide to take over everything for gods know how long." She shook her head. "I donít like it. I donít like you sticking me here, while you go off alone among a bunch of goons whoíd just as soon stab you in the back."
Xenaís eyes darkened. "Who do you think youíre talking to?"
"You heard me."
Gabrielle stared at her partner. "Xena, Iím ñ ."
"Thatís right. ëXena.í One of us better know who I am. Youíre not sure, then yeah, do what you think best until you figure it out." The Commander turned on her heel and swept out the door.
Jenna didnít bother hiding her feelings as she brought the tray of drinks over to Xena and her lieutenants. She set each mug down with enough force to slosh liquid on the table, not to mention a few unfortunate laps.
"Hey! Watch it, you clumsy ñ ."
"Leave her be. Little wetness wonít kill ya." Xena grabbed Jennaís arm before the girl could make the same mistake with the Commander. "You fine gentlemen probably make her nervous. Right, Jenna?" She waited for the girlís sullen nod, then released her arm.
Jenna set a mug in front of Xena with exaggerated care. "Your Highness want the mutton now or later?"
The men at the table held their breath, along with everyone else in hearing distance.
"What `Your Highnessí wants is those spills wiped up and more ale in the mugs."
Lips poked out, Jenna stalked away. She returned with a cloth and jug. After swiping the table, she prepared to top off the mugs. She felt Xenaís hand again.
"Pour that in there." Xena pointed to a cup on a nearby table. "Now, take a sip."
"Take a sip. Tell me if itís cold enough."
"Um...." Jenna stared at the cup, then at Xena, as if weighing which was worse. "Weíve got colder." She grabbed the jug and rushed off. "This oneís better," she said when she came back. "Want me to test it?"
"No," Xena answered, the corner of her mouth quirking, "Iím sure itís fine now. Leave it here. Bring our food in a few minutes. And Jenna?" she added as the girl turned to leave. "Lose the attitude. Iíll not have it spoiling your motherís fine mutton."
Jenna glowered at Xena just long enough to see ice beginning to form in the Commanderís eyes. She let her head dip in an acceptable semblance of obedience and headed for the kitchen. Once inside, she slumped against a wall.
"Mama, she knew!"
"Uh huh." Efthimia ladled out some gravy. "Hmmm, still a little thin. Jenna, get me.... Girl, whatís the matter with you? I got no time for your moods now."
"I couldíve been killed!"
"What?" Efthimia paused to glance at her daughter. "Whatíre you talking about?"
"Xena. Somehow she knew...."
Efthimia narrowed her eyes. "Knew what?"
"UmÖ." Jenna gathered herself and pushed off the wall. "Whatís that you wanted me to get for you?"
"No, you tell me first. All of it. Donít make me pry it out of you."
"Iím sorry, Mama. I wasnít thinkiní. She just makes me so mad sometimes, and nobody elseíll ñ ."
"Now, Jenna. Spit it out."
Jenna grimaced. "Um... I already did." She ducked her head. "In their ale."
Efthimia gaped at Jenna. "You spit it out in...." Her befuddlement turned to incredulity. "You spit? In Xenaís ale?!"
"You couldnít tell it from the foam! But somehow...." Jenna shook her head. "She couldíve made me drink it. Whyíd she let me off the hook? I just donít get her."
Efthimia sighed. She grabbed Jenna by the shoulders, firmly but with maternal concern. "Listen, child, I know youíre disappointed in her. We all are. But whatever sheís got planned, I donít believe itís our deaths. We gotta keep going like we always have. Do the best with what weíve got. We donít serve spit. Never have, never will ñ no matter whoís eating it."
"But, we canít just sit by and ñ."
"Honey, prideís a funny thing. Your pa and me donít have much, besides this place. When we die, it goes to you and your brother, if he ever comes back. You spit on our food, you spit on our pride. You spit on our hard work and reputation, on your heritage. Understand?"
Jenna sniffed. "Yes, maíam. You know Iíd never hurt you and pa."
"I know. We tolerate that smart mouth of yours `cause thatís your pride." Efthimia lifted her daughterís chin. "Youíve got spirit. Just need a little more sense to go with it. Xena seems to know that. Respects it even. Believe me, if she tried to break it, youíd see a lot more than spit out of your old ma and pa."
"They donít call me ëthe best woman with a skilletí for nothing. Thereís a reason folks donít act like fools in this place, and not just because of the food or your país size."
Jenna grinned. "Wish Iíd seen you in action."
"Maybe way back when. If it comes to that now, could be one of the last things any of usíll see."
The fresh smell of laundry blowing in the breeze reminded Gabrielle of home. She closed her eyes, visualizing the chores sheíd taken for granted. The routine drudgery that structured a "normal" life and made the freedom to roam more special. Appreciating moments like that now gave her a feeling of suspension from present concerns. Reminded her of what sheíd come to count on. Faith. Sometimes it was as simple as filling a tub with water and expecting to wash a soiled shirt clean.
Gabrielle opened her eyes to see Jenna hustling her way. Each day the girl came to find Gabrielle whenever Xena arrived at the inn. Each day Gabrielle smiled and continued whatever she was doing. She much preferred being active somewhere else, than standing in the same room with the partner who treated her like a tent post.
"Hand me some of those clothes pins, will you?"
Jenna sighed. Sheíd gotten accustomed to Gabrielleís puzzling behavior. She grabbed a handful of pins. She handed them to Gabrielle and plopped down on a crate, determined to pry out some answers.
"I donít get you two. Itís been a week, and still you act like nothinís wrong."
Gabrielle hung some socks on the line. "Define ëwrong.í"
"Come on, Gabrielle. You know what I mean."
"Tell me from your perspective."
Jenna fiddled with a clothes pin. "You seemed so cool ñ you and Xena. Iíd never met anybody like you before. I thought you were brave and good. I thought you loved each other." She snapped the pin in two. "Now one of youís turned into a warlord, the other into a mouse and you act like you donít even know each other."
"A mouse, eh? My." Gabrielle patted her behind. "Didnít realize my tail showed through this dress."
"Gabri-elllle. Iím not a stupid kid! I thought you saw that." Jenna stood. "Forget it. Guess I was stupid, to think ñ."
"Wait." Gabrielle pulled over a crate to sit on. "Iím sorry. I donít mean to make light of you. Itís the situation. Iím trying not to let it get to me."
Jenna plopped back down. "Whew! So you do see a problem."
"Of course I do."
"Then why wonít you talk sense into her? You donít even try."
Gabrielle gazed at the laundry she hadnít hung yet. She picked out an undershirt worn by one of the warriors. "See this?"
"That old thing? Donít know why anybody bothers with it."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle poked her finger through one of the holes in the frayed garment. "Looks worse for the wear, but somebody wants to keep it anyway. The owner can probably tell it from all the others, describe what fights itís survived."
"So? Flimsy thing like that wonít do much good, even new, once you get past the armor. Whatís that got to do with ñ."
"Itís what he wears next to his body. Maybe as protection against cuts or rashes. For warmth. Maybe itís comfortable ñ an especially good fit, feels good on his skin. Could be like a good luck charm. Whatever, heís used to it ñ trusts itíll do the job, tears and all."
Jenna squinted at the older woman. "You sayiní thisís got somethiní to do with Xena? Sheís like an old shirt you donít have the heart to get rid of? You canít see her as maybe good for nothiní but a rag?"
Gabrielle winced. "Oooo, harsh. But, yeah, even at her worst she cleans messes like nobody else." She smoothed the damp cloth over her knee. "I know she has flaws. Plenty of rough edges."
"It doesnít bother you? You donít care if she swipes up a bunch of innocent people with her ëcleaning?í"
"You know, I was just thinking about faith, about why sometimes itís so hard and sometimes itís as easy as breathing." Gabrielle got up. She shook out the shirt and carefully pinned it to the line. "All I can say is, Xenaís mine. Weíve endured everything there is together, for longer than youíve been alive. Sheís closer than my skin. Even when I donít know what in Tartarus sheís up to, I believe Iíd feel it if she wasnít worth keeping around anymore."
Jenna gazed at Gabrielle a long moment. "But what if you felt it? What if you had proof? Could you do what was right? Against her?"
"Trust me, Jenna, Iíd be the first in line."
"Everything is proceeding according to plan. The tradesmen have constructed the targets and completed half of necessary repairs to equipment. That includes work required for Planos and Gidea."
"Excellent." Xena paced behind her desk in the nicely appointed tent sheíd inhabited since defeating Galates. Except for periodic meals at the inn, sheíd spent most of the last two weeks at this main camp near Trimea. "And the villagers? Theyíve been organized?"
Linus nodded. "Exactly as Trimea. Planos gave us a little trouble at first, but not since your visit. Gidea prefers our presence to the raids theyíd been experiencing from roving bandits."
"Iím pleased with the response here to my drill regimen. Whatís your assessment of the other troops?"
"Theyíre doing very well. Remyís a good man. Maintains both morale and tightness." Linus shifted in his chair. "One-Eye... does not have the same respect for discipline."
Xena leaned against a post. "You mean, for my discipline."
"Who should replace him?"
Linus mentally reviewed the second lieutenants. Only one, Melton, had the leadership and military skills required to maintain stability at Planos. But he wanted Linusí position. This command would give Melton a chance to shine, perhaps a little too much. Linus glanced up at Xena. Even as her right hand man, he couldnít figure out her intentions. Did she really mean, at her age, to build an army? To conquer and rule provinces? If so, how would she repay the loyalty heíd given her so far? If not, was he a fool to aid potential competition for her replacement? Linus had grown to admire the woman, but being around her was a constant test, with failure not an option.
"Iíd go with Melton."
Xena nodded. "Iíll take him with me on my next review."
"One-Eye probably wonít like being pulled."
Xenaís smile chilled the air. "Heíll like my chakram in his chest even less." She pushed off from the post. "Iím ready to begin phase two. Youíve identified potential recruits?"
"About 20 from each village. Mostly young men. All raw."
"Good. Less bad habits to break. Have those from Planos and Gidea brought here. Iíll train them all myself."
"And if they donít wish the training?"
"Iíll leave it to you to come up with a worse alternative."
Xena detached her cape and reluctantly removed her armor, leather breeches and jacket. This new "uniform" reminded her how much simpler the world had been when she thought herself a god. When her will had been supreme, her mind unfettered by niceties or other peopleís rules. Sheíd rise each morning certain the day was hers to plan, shape, guard against, lose, win. That the people she encountered would either bow to her or die.
She eyed with mixed emotions the simple outfit she was donning this day. On one hand, it would assist her surveillance activities. One the other, it conjured up images of another life ñ one of complexities, compromise, consideration, conscience. Service to othersí needs. Love. As seductive in its own way as her warlord past, but much harder to control. She had faith in control. Needed control. Galates was right ñ there was nothing like it. Now that she had it again, sheíd be a fool to squander it on the unknown.
"Linus? You out there?"
"Aye, Commander. Everythingís ready."
"Good. Proceed as usual. Iíll be there ñ incognito unless I say otherwise."
"Understood. Iím on my way."
Xena pinned her one long braid beneath a scarf. She picked up the basket of fruit Linus had left and peeked out her tent flap. Hunched over, she shuffled toward the training area.
Linus already stood before a motley crowd of mostly fresh-faced, nervous villagers. He raised his hand. "All right! Attention!" He waited for quiet. "You know why youíre here. Youíre candidates for the army now led by Commander Xena. She will personally oversee your rigorous training exercises. Those who do not qualify will return to their normal duties. I will be dividing you into groups with members from each village. Before then, I will ask you to swear allegiance to the Commander."
Linus swept has eyes across the potential recruits. "The fate of your villages depends upon you. By serving under Commander Xena, you can protect your kin and bring glory to yourselves. Refusal may result in no longer having anything to protect." He paused at the gasps of confusion and horror. "The choice is yours. I will give you a few minutes to decide." He turned to confer with some of his aides.
Xena had begun weaving her way through the recruits, offering fruit. No one paid her any attention.
"This is crazy!" A young man spoke in hushed tones to his neighbors. "Weíre no soldiers. If we agree, we die. If we donít agree, our folks die ñ by her hand or somebody elseís. What kind of choice is that?"
"So whatís your idea? Be heroes? Me, Iíd just as soon live to see what the next day brings."
Xenaís sampling of conversations revealed similar reactions. Her interest piqued at a familiar voice a few feet ahead.
"Donít kid yourself. Old or not, she can beat the tar out of the lot of ya. Shouldíve seen what she did to Galates and his goons. Thatís why I volunteered for this."
"You what?! Iíd rather die fighting her, than die fighting with her."
"Thatís what Iím talkiní about. Let her teach us what she knows. Nothiní stoppiní us from usiní it how we want later, right?"
"Lucas, the girl makes sense. Live to turn this to our advantage."
"Quiet!" Linus faced the crowd. "Time to choose. Those prepared to join, remain where you are. Those who refuse, step to the front."
Heads turned to see what others would do. Despite some grumbling, no one moved. Including Jenna.
Xena relaxed on the hilltop overlooking Trimea. At her camp, one group of veteran soldiers and recruits practiced sparring, archery and the martial-arts moves sheíd taught them. In only two weeks, theyíd made excellent progress physically and in melding together as units. She snorted softly, recalling the mistakes sheíd made as a young commander. If only sheíd known then what she did now, she mightíve been called Builder of Nations, rather than Destroyer. Not that sheíd really been interested in ruling. No, it hadnít mattered whether those she conquered were breathing, only that they didnít get in her way. It took awhile to appreciate how much farther she could extend her reach with live bodies than dead ones.
She saw Linus look up to her position. He began walking that way. She smiled. He certainly had a knack for being at the right place at the right time.
"Seems to be going well." At Xenaís nod, Linus sat next to her.
"You sound surprised."
Linus noted his Commanderís neutral expression. "I wouldíve expected more resistance from the men ñ you know, being put on the same level as the captives."
"And ëthe captivesí?"
"Theyíre adjusting better than I thought. Some even seem eager." Linus pointed to a slender figure at the archery range. "That girl? Sheís held her own in several areas. Some problems taking orders, but otherwise has potential."
"Mm." Xena observed the girl with a wry grin. "With more manpower, weíll need some good unit leaders. Work with her. See how she does. Pick out a few others and do the same."
"Iíll begin tomorrow."
"Thereís something else. I want the regulars helping with supply and maintenance duties."
Linus frowned. "You mean... labor? Menial tasks?"
"Linus, when you occupy an area, whatís the biggest thing you have to worry about?"
Linus shifted around to face Xena. "Galates didnít care about ëoccupation,í only what we could take ñ food, booty, weapons, horses. Once we got what we wanted, weíd move on."
"Iím not interested in being a petty warlord. Scrounging around for something to loot. Trying to keep my men from killing each other over a piece of gold. Conquering some village one day, having to win it back the next. Been there, done that. No future in it. Troops get restless with the same olí same olí, going nowhere in circles."
Linus pondered this. "But weíd have to spread ourselves too thin. Some of usíd have to stay behind. Weíre not cut out for that. Itís in our blood to fight, to go wherever the smell of riches takes us."
"And you still could." Xena smiled conspiratorially. "If you had somebody guarding your territory for you. Somebody you could half-way trust."
"Like those villagers?"
Xena nodded. "We get to know them. Work side by side ñ planting, reaping. We learn their weaknesses, the benefits we can exploit. They decide it might be better to throw their lot in with the devil they know."
"Huh. Ambitious. Iím not sure the men ñ ."
"The meníll be fine. Those with ambition...." Xena smiled knowingly at Linus. "Letís just say thereíll be more opportunity for growth. Any of `em who donít like where Iím headed can leave ñ walking or on a stretcher."
"Youíd let them choose?"
"Sure." Xena fingered her chakram. "Long as they understand, either way, first they gotta go through me."
Gabrielle felt like that "flying parchment" her soulmate had fashioned all those years ago. Sheíd struggled to stay "up" during Xenaís initial takeover of Galatesí forces. After all, sheíd urged the warrior to "do something" to help the Trimeans. She understood they couldnít exactly leave the villagers to the whims of a potentially fractious army. Accepted Xenaís rationale for establishing firm leadership and order, for not wanting to divide her attentions. Tolerated Xenaís bedding down with the troops and acting as if the supposed love of her life didnít exist.
Her confidence had taken a nose dive when Xena began conscripting villagers for "her" army. Gabrielle offered herself, hoping to get closer to the Commander. Linus politely informed her he had orders not to take in "any middle-aged green-eyed blondes with moles on their bellies." Sheíd been heartened a couple weeks later at sight of troops pitching in with the drudge work. Xena had even given the three villages permission to hold small festivals, which the soldiers could attend in shifts. Then yesterday a grim-faced Jenna came to the inn with the supply runners. Sheíd pressed a note in Gabrielleís hand. "Meet me in storeroom during festival. Come alone."
"Alone." Gabrielle smoothed her hand across the bed sheíd hoped to share with her partner for their stay in Trimea. She surveyed the room, keying in on traces Xena had actually been there. A hairclip. A long night shift draped over a chair. The knife Xenaíd used to cut fruit and cheese. Rather than reassuring her, they reminded her how much sheíd lost sight of the owner ñ what Xena was doing, thinking, feeling. Whatever it was, Jenna didnít seem pleased.
The sounds drifting up suggested the festival had begun. Gabrielle decided it best to go down early. She spent awhile making small talk in the main room and helping Efthimia in the kitchen, before easing away to the storeroom. The door wouldnít open.
"Micah?" Gabrielle hesitated a moment. "Um, itís me, Gabrielle."
The door opened enough to reveal Micahís big frame. He checked outside before beckoning for Gabrielle to enter. When she did, her eyes widened at the others in the dimly lit room ñ not just Jenna, but Thetis, Pontius, and a young uniformed man she didnít know. They sat on large grain sacks, staring at her.
"Jenna? Whatís going on?"
Jenna exchanged glances with the others. "I told `em we could trust you. You gotta promise not to tell Xena."
"You also said Xena gave her word none of us would be hurt." Thetis scowled at Gabrielle. "What makes you think this oneís any better?"
Gabrielle lifted her chin. "How many of you have died?" Silence. "Been beaten or attacked?" More silence. "Starved, had your homes torched?"
Pontius crossed his arms. "So sheís smart. Fatteniní sheep for slaughter. Couple more parties like this, weíll be pranciní into her trap like it was a field of sweet grass."
"What makes you think ñ ."
"Gabrielle? Weíve heard some things. Me and Lucas. Heís from Planos." Jenna tilted her head toward the stranger. "About Xenaís big plans for after the festival. Iíve about given up on her, but not you. We could use your advice."
"Then youíll have to trust my judgment. If you believe I donít want innocent people hurt, tell me whatís going on. If not, Iíll walk out that door now as if this never happened."
"Once she knows, weíre stuck," Pontius warned. "Just because Xena hasnít been too friendly to her lately doesnít mean sheíll take kindly to any ëaccidents.í"
Thetis jumped up. "I told you, this isnít the time or place anyway. We shouldnít be discussing... what weíre discussing... among ourselves, let alone with her."
"Then go." Micah continued relaxing against the doorframe. "Just remember, Xena wonít notice if you go missiní."
"Are... are you threatening me?"
Pontius snorted. "Heís saying everybody in here better keep their mouths shut."
Gabrielle held up her hand. "Weíre wasting time. Whatever this is, you risk raising suspicion. Talk to me or let me go."
"Iím countiní to three." Micah lifted the door latch. "Anybody wants to go, go." He counted. No one left. "Okay, Jenna, shoot."
The Commander propped her feet on her desk. Sheíd reviewed the situations at Planos and Gidea. Morale and operations were good. The festivals had gone over well. One-Eyeís reports had been reassuring. After some initial blustering, heíd plunged into his reassignment as reconnaissance chief with gusto. Riding around searching for potential rival warlords suited him just fine. Sheíd become aware of missing inventory from their arsenal, but had expected as much. All in all, she felt everyone was prepared for the next phase. She had only one big question mark ñ Gabrielle.
Xena could only imagine what her partner must be thinking. What sheíd heard. What sheíd decided to do about it. With any luck, Gabrielle would resist her natural tendency to try turning back a tide already surging to its crest. Sheíd ride it out, deal with the aftermath when the waters calmed. If so, sheíd probably be at Xenaís side regardless of the outcome. If not.... Xenaís jaws clenched. First things first.
"Aye, sir." Linus pushed open the tent flap and stood at attention.
"The representatives from Planos and Gidea are here?"
"Waiting at the inn."
"Send runners to the village. Spread word that everyone is to gather on the east side of the training field after the noon meal. I have an important announcement to make."
"Um, Commander? The men have been asking questions. They wonder.... Will you be briefing us before ñ."
"No." Xena allowed a small smile. "I prefer everyone hearing at the same time. When the villagers begin arriving, assemble the troops on the west side of the field. Dismissed." She cocked her head when Linus didnít move. "Problem?"
Linus steeled himself. "If youíre planning a big campaign, it might be wise for me ñ for all the officers to ñ ."
"I learned a long time ago, Linus, too much talk can weaken a good strategy. What happens today could teach you a thing or two about commanding. If, of course, youíre interested in moving up."
As he had on many occasions during the past few weeks, Xenaís second questioned continuing to give his new Commander the benefit of the doubt. True, he couldnít have asked for a better example. Her vast experience, her superior skills and mind far surpassed what Galates offered. But Galatesí simple needs and goals made him an easier person to decipher. Each time Linus thought heíd figured Xena out, sheíd surprise him with something new. What did she get from all this? What more did she want? Would her announcement finally reveal that? Linus shrugged. Better safe than sorry.
"Yes, sir." Linus saluted. "As you will."
Gabrielle headed for the training field with the first wave of villagers. She shared their anxious anticipation of Xenaís announcement. From the snippets of conversation she heard, rumors had spread far beyond the conspirators sheíd huddled with a few days ago in the storeroom. The army massed across from them fueled conjecture about what the rumors might mean. Some guessed Xena would continue business as usual ñ looting or demanding "protection" taxes like Galates. Others believed she intended to establish herself as governor of Trimea and the other communities in territory she conquered. Whatever, they primarily worried about what would become of the relatives and neighbors pressed into her service.
The middle of the field certainly suggested the presence of royalty. A purple-decked podium sat on an ornate gold rug extending to Xenaís tent. A large black and purple flag fluttered near the podium, the gold "X" in its center shining in the early afternoon sun. When the last of the villagers straggled to the area, an honor guard marched from behind the command tent to form lines on both sides of the entrance. A couple raised horns to their lips to blare everyone into attention. Gabrielle smiled wryly. Her soulmate could put on quite a show when she wanted.
The Commander emerged resplendent in black leathers, plumed helmet and flowing purple cape. She sauntered down the gold runway to pose regally before the podium and scan those assembled as if she owned everyone there. She bowed slightly, apparently satisfied that the hush connoted deference to her position. She went behind the podium and removed her helmet. Her loose silver-flecked dark hair seemed to add more height to the tall frame. Gabrielle swallowed. Potential warlord or not, Xena looked magnificent.
"Trimeans, Planosians, Gideans, soldiers." Xena paused, her rich voice sounding what could have been welcome, warning or both. She raised her palms to the sky. "Isnít it a beautiful day?" She smiled at the expressions of surprise.
"A short time ago you lived in fear, torn between giving in and suicidal resistance. Your only hope was a reportedly dead ex-warlord turned hero, ancient enough to remember when the gods reigned supreme. That is, before I ëpoofedí them into air and Mt. Olympus into a molehill."
Some in the crowd chuckled, Xena along with them.
"You wondered if this old ëhas beení would be good enough to defeat Galates. I was. When I took over his army, you wondered if Iíd be good enough to protect you from rape and pillage. I have. Now you wonder about the future. Will I be good enough to leave you better off than before I came." Xena gazed a moment at the expectant faces. "That question I cannot answer for you."
Murmurs rippled through the crowd. Once again, Gabrielle thought of Xenaís flying parchment, of how quickly what started out well could dip towards trouble.
"What I can do is tell you what I see. I see an army of villagers and professionals securing the land ñ some locally, some in surrounding territory. I see most of you going about your daily lives free of worry about anything other than your harvests, getting your children to bed, whether to go fishing or dancing. I will do all the tough worrying for you. In return, I see loyalty and cooperation. Supplies, assistance, new recruits when I need them. Obedience to any rules I establish for maintaining order. I see the same for the leaders I appoint. Ah, and one more thing." Xena smiled. "The best room in your inns reserved for my stays. I donít see these old bones bedding down in tents unless they have to."
Xena put her helmet on and walked in front of the podium. "In two days, I will accompany the representatives from Planos and Gidea back to their homes. When I return, I will begin mobilizing the main army for travel to the other four villages in the province. I trust by then you will see things as I do. Go now. Enjoy the rest of this beautiful day." With a swirl of her cape, she disappeared inside her tent.
"We have a problem," Linus said, finally catching up with his Commander.
"Handle it," Xena threw over her shoulder. "I want to be in Planos before noon."
"Uh, perhaps you should check it out first." When Xena turned, Linus pointed to a group of villagers at the edge of the practice field. "They demand an audience with you. Your... um... Gabrielle is their spokesman."
Xena glanced casually at the familiar figure impatiently tapping a foot. "You told her I was busy, preparing for my trip?"
"I did. In no uncertain terms."
"She asked me if I knew who I was talking to. I said, ëYes, Gabrielle.í"
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. "And she said...."
"`Right. ëGabrielle.í Tell your Commander somebody ought to know who I am, or thereíll be Tartarus to pay.í"
Xena barked some orders to the traveling party, then strode over to the villagers with Linus trailing. She crossed her arms. "Yes?"
Gabrielle stepped forward. "Some of us donít share your vision of the future. You should know that before you leave."
"Oh really." Xena noted several faces she recognized, including the representatives from Planos and Gidea. "Perhaps we should talk privately."
"No. What we have to say is of interest to everyone."
"Commander?" Linus warily watched the mixture of civilians and soldiers gathering round. "Should I summon your guards? In case things get out of hand?"
"Whose hand?" Xena smirked, patting her chakram. "One of mine should do fine with these folks."
Jenna came up alongside Gabrielle. "Donít count on it. Weíre not the pushovers we were before."
"Hush, girl," Micah said, laying a hand on his daughterís shoulders. "Let Gabrielle talk, like we planned."
Xena cocked her head. "Yes, let Gabrielle talk. She hasnít said much lately. Thisís gotta be worth waitiní for."
Gabrielle put her hands on her hips. "Sorry, but itís pretty straight forward. They donít want your army, your rules or your generous offer to do their thinking for them. Not just here, but the other villages as well."
"I see. I take it they have a counter offer."
"Leave and take with you the soldiers who wish to go with you."
"Who says this is up for negotiation?"
"We do!" Jenna shrugged free of her fatherís hand. "Thanks to you, a lot of us know how to fight." She pointed her chin at the swelling crowd. "And weíve got weapons for any of `em that want to join us."
Xena sauntered closer. She singled out one man in particular. "Thetis, you seemed to have sense. You realize I could order all of you killed on the spot."
Thetis shifted nervously but held his ground. "Gabrielle says youíre not a fanatic, that you might change your mind when you hear everything."
"Is that so." Xena sidled up to her partner, gazing down at the shorter woman with hooded eyes. "Finish it."
Gabrielle calmly held the blue eyes. "The recruits want to protect their homes, beginning with you. They expect some of the regulars to stand with them."
Xena whirled to confront Linus. "Is this true?"
"I... uh...." Linus searched out his lieutenants. They stood off to the side waiting to see what happened. Some of the soldiers did the same, while others mingled with the villagers. "I hadnít thought ñ ."
"Begging your pardon, Commander, but itís your fault." One of the regulars stepped forward and stood at attention. "You shouldnítíve had us mix in like you did. It leads to... fraternizing." At Xenaís frown, he added, "You know ñ attachments."
Xena snorted. "A few rolls in the hay? Since when did that ever cause mutiny?"
"Tíainít just that." A second man came forward. "Only reason I joined with Galates was ëcause I didnít see much else. Iíve met somebody I could settle down with. Worked with her pa in his fields. Darn sight betterín gettingí míself killed soís some general kin wear more finery."
"Not me!" One of the guards brandished his sword at his comrades. "Iím a warrior through and through. Soíre a lot of the other fellas." He gestured toward a group who looked ready to pounce on the renegades. "Whyíre you lettiní `em get away with this crap?"
"Shut up and move back." Xena retreated a few paces from the villagers and indicated for the threatening soldiers to do likewise. "Jenna, you seem to be the ringleader in all this. That so?"
Jenna glanced at Gabrielle. Gabrielle shot her a warning look. Jenna drew herself up and stalked forward anyway. She frowned when she felt someone else come up beside her.
"No! It was my idea. I urged this from the beginning."
"Good for you. Now step back. Jennaís the one Iím interested in."
"Do like she says, Lucas. She made a promise to me and I wanna see if she keeps it."
Xena waited until Lucas grudgingly moved away from Jenna. She strode over to one of the archers and took his bow and a couple of arrows. "No, I wonít hurt you myself." She held out the bow and arrows to Linus. "Shoot `er."
A gasp went up. Like everyone else, Linus seemed paralyzed.
Xena put the bow in Linusí left hand and an arrow in his right. "Shoot... her."
Linus glanced in consternation between his Commander and the girl planted defiantly a few feet away. "B-but.... In cold blood?"
"See, Linus?" Jenna glared at Xena. "Nothiní but disappointment."
"Oh dear." Xena put her hand over her mouth in mock dismay. "Donít tell me the two of you have become an item? I said `work withí the girl, Linus. I see I shouldíve been more specific."
"I am not a ëgirl!í" Jenna poked her chin out. "Iíll be 18 next month. Old enough to choose whoever I want. Woman enough to take you on," she threw at Xena, "if you were woman enough to do your own dirty work."
The tension that had been building verged on the point of eruption. The villagers and their allies readied themselves to protect Jenna, led by the skillet-armed Efthimia. Soldiers loyal to Xena or as yet uncommitted awaited her command.
"Interesting. Letís review what weíve got." Xena assumed a relaxed stance, rubbing her chin. "ëEasy pickingsí villagers arenít such easy pickings anymore. Not much profit trying to squeeze a dinar out of that. A good number of my army wants to play house. Donít want soldiers with their hearts someplace else. Linus can figure out what to do with warriors who prefer defending hearth and home. The plundering types can form their own army or scatter to somebody elseís. Trouble for another day, another place."
Xena scanned the faces gawking at her. She honed in on the one that meant the most. "Hi there," she drawled, sauntering up to her partner. "Iím Xena. You must be Gabrielle."
"Nice of you to notice."
"Thisís gotten kinda old, donítcha think? Friend of mine once said everything canít be an adventure all the time." Xena offered her hand. "Care to go somewhere new with me? You know ñ smell the flowers?"
Gabrielle gave her soulmate the once-over. She lightly grasped Xenaís middle finger and held the larger hand up to examine it. "Your friend may have a blind spot when it comes to thorns."
"She does." Xena wrapped her fingers around the smaller hand, her eyes shining gratitude and love. "We wouldnít be who we are without it."
Gabrielle allowed an "ooo, good one" grin. She withdrew her hand and inserted it under Xenaís arm. Turning to the crowd, she announced, "It seems you no longer need Commander Xena. She will be retiring now ñ first from her position, next to that room where her ëjust dessertsí await. Disturb her without permission and you risk wrath from the half of her you havenít heard much from ñ Gabrielle."
The reputedly out-of-commission legendary couple strolled away, keenly aware of the mystified, awed eyes glued to their backs.
"Feel better now?"
"Yeah, I do. Thatíll teach `em to treat us like useless crones."
Gabrielle swatted Xenaís midsection. "I meant, teaching `em to stand up for themselves. I was really hoping they wouldnít actually have to do it ñ not against you anyway."
"Had you worried, huh?"
"Confused maybe. Irritated for sure. Although.... You did look mighty ëat homeí parading about in those fancy duds, barking orders."
Xena laughed. "I had a good supporting cast." She planted a kiss on her partnerís head. "Figured if anybody knew what to do with righteous indignation, itíd be you. Sorry I was so hard on you. Both of us needed to be convincing in our roles."
"Heh, youíll pay for that with a lot more than ësorry.í"
"Oooo, I can hardly wait." Xena caught hold of her cape swirling in the breeze. "Guess I can get rid of this now. Wonít exactly go with my tunic."
"Oh, I donít know. Gives you a certain flair."
"Yeah? You like?"
"Mm. Fashionís tricky." Gabrielle caressed the satiny purple the wind molded to her partnerís body. "Iíve learned ñ with the right person ñ whatís ëoldí can still wear just like new."