Several years after settling down in the story “Enough,” Gabrielle decides revisiting her early journeys with Xena might provide more accurate directions for a new generation of heroes.
Xena took the last nail from between her teeth. She spaced it precisely as she had the others already in position, flipped the hammer, caught it, raised it high and brought it down with sufficient force to finish the job in a single blow.
“Ahhhh. Now that’s what I call a thing of beauty.” She sat back on her haunches. “Whaddya think?” she asked one of the few creatures lofty enough to appreciate her work. The bird cooed and flapped its wings. “Uh huh. Got that right.”
Approval granted, the bird flew off. Xena’s eyes followed its path. “Whoa, almost noon,” she observed, suddenly aware of the sun’s position. Perfect day, plenty of time left to enjoy it. She surveyed an equally perfect setting. Colorful village structures. Scenery vibrant with nature’s bounty. Girls sparring on practice fields. Yes, it was good sometimes to rise above it all. Take everything in. Remind herself why a hammer could feel just as good as a sword.
The door to the library swung open. Gabrielle emerged, as usual surrounded by adoring Xena Scouts. They chatted awhile before the girls went one way and their mentor another, head down in contemplation.
“Gabrielle … Gabri-el-lle … Gabrielle? Gabri-elle!”
Green eyes finally noticed the figure perched atop the meeting hall. Gabrielle waved absently and resumed her course toward their home. Xena cocked her head. They were supposed to meet in the hall for lunch. Either her partner’s legendary appetite had suddenly waned, or something was up.
“Xena? What are you doing here?”
“I was gonna ask you the same.”
“Oh?” Gabrielle noted her partner’s raised brow. “Oh. We had a date, didn’t we?” She glanced sheepishly at the pile of scrolls at her feet beside their rocking chair. “Sorry. Got distracted.”
“So I noticed.” Xena leaned against the desk. “Not like you to forget to eat. Or fuss.”
“You don’t remember waving at me? Before you came in?”
Gabrielle frowned. “Um, sure. You were up on that ….” Her eyes widened. “Roof?! Xena! Didn’t I tell you to let the carpenters do that?”
“Uh huh.” Xena pulled the hammer from her work smock and blew on it. “Another of my many skills.”
“Alone, no doubt.”
Xena lifted her hands. “You were busy.”
“I see. I’ve only myself to blame.”
“Now, now. You have your skills. Not exactly your cup of tea anyway.”
“I mentioned the loose boards up there. Tricky footing. That someone could slip, fall and break her neck.” Gabrielle rolled her tongue in her cheek. “Just your cup of tea.”
“Which I drank with no problem.” The warrior examined her fingernails. “To any of my body parts. I’d show you the fruits of my labor ….” She snickered. “If you were up to the added … fuss.” She waited for the usual glare reaffirming her legendary insufferableness. Instead, Gabrielle once again seemed lost somewhere else. “Gabrielle?” Xena crouched in front of the rocking chair. “Everything okay?”
Gabrielle fiddled with one of the scrolls in her lap. “Funny, this is just the sort of thing I was thinking about.”
Xena tapped her partner’s knee. “Hey, you know me. Hard headed. Addicted to danger. If I went too far –.”
“I meant, connected to you, but really more about me. Challenges I’m having with some of the more advanced Scouts.”
“Yeah?” Xena got comfortable on the floor. “Wanna tell me about it?”
“It’s kind of …. Not sure I can explain.”
“You saying there’s something too complicated for that bard brain? No words to capture it? Wow. I suppose even the best go dry at some point.” Xena chewed her lip. “Maybe let Marta help you? She’s gotten pretty good at explaining things.”
Gabrielle stared at her soulmate. The innocent expression belied by twinkling blue eyes. “You know, I truly am grateful you didn’t break your neck.”
“`Cause then you couldn’t?”
“Precisely.” Gabrielle huffed before relaxing against the back of her chair. “Theory isn’t enough for some of the girls. Or more practice. They feel ready to test themselves. In ‘real’ situations. Opponents beyond straw dummies or each other. Even you or me.”
“What do they want you to do? Import warlords for `em to beat up on?”
“Mm. That’s where you come in.”
“Me? What? Revert to my old ways? Form a group of troublemakers? Teach them dirty tricks?” Despite her sarcasm, Xena found herself intrigued by this line of thought. “I have gone pretty light on them. Suppose it wouldn’t hurt if I –.”
“That’s not what I meant. Maybe the ‘revert’ part. In a different way.”
Xena stared at her partner. “I’m not getting your drift.”
Gabrielle picked up a scroll. “They’ve read practically everything I’ve written about you. But it’s just that – a story. They didn’t witness it. Experience it. Sure, they’ve progressed physically. Some quite skilled with weapons. Martial arts. I don’t think they understand the mental aspects. The heart. The mistakes. How you used all that to transform from a village girl into a great warrior.”
“Isn’t that in the scrolls? In your lessons? About courage and honor and all that stuff?”
Gabrielle sighed. “I thought so. It’s what I hoped to capture. Beyond your prowess, I mean.”
“Okay, then focus more on what’s missing. Connect the dots for `em.” Xena smiled encouragingly. “Worked for me.”
“See, that’s the problem. I’m not sure I can anymore.”
“Come on, Gabrielle. You taught me things about myself I wouldn’t’ve known otherwise. Things that showed me the difference between aiming at being a warrior for good and actually hitting the mark.”
Gabrielle leaned forward. “It was fresh then. I was witnessing it. Experiencing it. Living it. Seeing it through different eyes. When I try to go back now …. Honestly?” She snorted softly. “I’m stuck on the character in my stories. How you got there …. The trials? Doubts? Minute by minute adjustments?” She sighed. “Lost in years of talking about the Warrior Princess like she poofed into a hero. Mixed in with who you are now.” She grinned wryly. “A settled pillar of village life. Who baby sits, gardens – .”
“Traded her sword in for a hammer?”
“Mm. Who’s comfortable at least pretending so.”
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. “That ‘reverting’ thing? It’s startin’ to grow on me. Could be worth a shot.”
Gabrielle laughed. She patted Xena’s head. “Be careful what you wish for, dear.”
“Yeah?” Xena had the distinct impression Gabrielle was, as usual, one step ahead. About to take a latent bad girl in a direction more suitable for good ones. “Does my dark side get to come out and play or not?”
Gabrielle relaxed back with an enigmatic smile. “Oh, she’ll get to do a lot more than that.”
Xena hummed while she packed. They were going out on the road. She hadn’t realized how much she missed that until Gabrielle’s suggestion. True, it wouldn’t be ideal, but she figured she could get around the … challenges. Those three Scouts they’d be lugging along for “real world” adventure. Up close and personal revisiting of Xena’s journey from novice to professional. Herself and Gabrielle reprising their interactions, their behaviors when encountering trouble and troublemakers. No doubt involving a bunch of chats and homework as well. Xena intended to stay true to her early self –solitary, taciturn and as conversational as the fish she expected to spend more time with than Gabrielle’s students.
“You’re in a good mood. I must say, I’m a little surprised.”
“Tsk tsk tsk. Why wouldn’t I be supportive? Besides, it’ll be good getting away for awhile.”
“Mmhm.” Gabrielle searched through a pile of clothes she’d dumped on the bed. “Well, I certainly appreciate it. I was all set for a few days of pouting. You truly have matured.”
“You can say that again.” Xena carefully folded the re-sized replica of her signature battledress. “Judging by my extra poundage.” She glanced over at Gabrielle. “What about you? Any trouble fitting into that old peasant skirt?”
“Peasant skirt?” Gabrielle gaped at her partner. “It’s long gone. Why would I need that?”
“We’re supposed to start from the beginning, right? When we met?”
“Well, yes. That’s why I had your outfit made.”
“Yup. In my bag. Armor too.” Xena sat in their rocking chair. “All done.” She snickered. “I don’t envy you. Lots more ‘signature’ outfits than me.”
“We’re not talking about me, silly.” Gabrielle finally selected a couple of long dresses and pairs of breeches. “I’m taking my Amazon leathers. In case we run into trouble. That should suffice.”
“Hmm. Someone doesn’t seem to be getting into the spirit of this. I must say, I’m a little surprised.”
“Xena, what are you talking about?”
“As I recall, two people shared my journey. How is that accurate? If only one of `em dresses the part?”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Your commitment is touching. Misplaced in this instance. I’m writing this lesson plan for the girls. You worry about your part. I’ll take care of the rest.”
“Okey dokey.” Xena waited until Gabrielle resumed packing before allowing a smirk. “You talk. I’ll listen. Run around kicking butt. Just like old times.”
The chosen waited near the library entrance. They’d arrived at the crack of dawn. Sooner than Gabrielle had said to meet. “On time” for the less patient mentor who might not mind an excuse to leave them in her dust. Celestine sat on a step, hugging herself, barely able to contain her excitement. Isis leaned against the door wryly observing the pacing Lysia.
“I still can’t believe it. Can you? I mean, of all the girls …. To think Gabrielle would pick us for such a great honor.”
“Pfft. Why not?” Lysia whipped an arrow from the quiver at her back, notched it in her bow and let it fly at a target propped against a crate across from them. Even the still dim light didn’t hamper anyone’s vision of a shaft sticking out from the bull’s eye. “Maybe you two have doubts. Not me.”
Isis cleared her throat. “I do have doubts. About your … reasoning. I’m sure Gabrielle considered more than fighting skills.”
“Yeah? Like what?” Lysia snickered. “Talking about `em? Telling stories? About how good you’d be? If you ever had to prove it?”
“Gabrielle says it takes a lot to be a good warrior.” Celestine cut her eyes at Lysia. “Which you’d know. If you ever paid attention.”
“Humph. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have these badges. Especially this one.” Lysia pointed to the little gold chakram sewn onto the top of the purple sash each girl wore.
“Exactly. That signifies leadership. Mastery of many qualities. We’re not the only ones who earned it, you know. We are the oldest. Looked up to by a lot of our sisters.” Isis gazed into the distance. “I want to be like Gabrielle. A Scout Leader. Teach what I’ve learned. This trip will be perfect for that.”
“Uh huh. Except I wanna be a warrior like Gabrielle. You know, more to defend. When I have to. Try to solve things peacefully, with my wits, if I can.”
“Yeah, yeah, Gabrielle’s cool. Nobody better with a staff. Not too shabby at hand-to-hand either. But the chance to shadow Xena? Be in on the action? Get good enough for the militia?” Lysia smacked her fist into her palm. “I’d tolerate 50 chat sessions for that.”
The three argued amiably about the merits of their field trip. They failed to notice Gabrielle approaching. She paused, smiling. She’d watched these protégés mature from children to their late teens. All had ended up in the village because they had no one to take care of them. Families adopted them and entrusted much of their development to the program Gabrielle developed in Xena’s honor after the warrior’s death in Japa. They grew to share independent natures, willingness to serve the village and respect its principles. To strive towards the high standards set by their mentors. Otherwise their personalities were distinctly their own.
“I say it’s a test. Are we good enough to do what we want to make of ourselves.”
Gabrielle chuckled. In her own blunt way, Lysia was partly right. But this would also be a test for her and Xena. If anyone could push them to reconnect with their early days – the roots of who they’d become – it was these three. Yes, they would probably uncover clay feet, experience disappointment, voice contrary opinions in the process. Leading their mentors to do the same. Hopefully giving new life to her words about a legend they had all come to take for granted – possibly as mundane now as a hammer and nails.
“Gabrielle! We didn’t see you!”
“Good morning.” Gabrielle walked up to give each girl a hug. “You’re early. I have a few more things to do. I suggest you enjoy yourselves while I’m gone.” She grinned. “Don’t worry. You’ll see more than enough of me in due time.”
Xena had some acquaintance with her partner’s warrior wannabes. She recalled them as fairly competent during various drills. Lysia in particular. Naturally gifted. Fearless. Prone to recklessness and impatience, a hard head. Xena pegged her as an ally. Celestine tended to focus on the irrelevant – keeping her outfit clean, what girls next to her might be doing, the proper name for some move. Isis? Serious, a hard worker. Could make mountains of molehills. Both more likely to side with Gabrielle. Best to get a sense of the odds. See how they did on their first exam.
“Ready to head out?” Gabrielle stood with the girls, waiting for Xena to come from the stables. She frowned as her partner rode up. “Where’s my horse?”
“I assumed you’d get mine too.”
“I thought …. I mean, if we’re going ‘by the scroll,’ figured you’d prefer ….” Xena placed her hand on her chest. “Must’ve misunderstood. Sorry.” She started to turn Argo. “I’ll go back and – .”
“Gabrielle? Maybe she’s right?”
“Isn’t that how it was? Xena on Argo? You, walking?”
Everyone gaped at Celestine. Except Xena. She regarded the girl with new appreciation.
“What’re you talking about? If Xena’s riding, so should the rest of us. How else we gonna keep up with `er? Do what she does?”
The others looked at Lysia, a bit surprised her observation seemed so reasonable. Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. Practicality had its place. Obviously Lysia needed work on her timing.
“Maybe an extra horse? Just in case?” Isis shrugged. “Might give us more options. You know, depending on the situation?”
“Gabrielle?” Celestine assumed the formal tone when seeking wisdom from the Scout Leader. “What do you think?”
Gabrielle studied her partner, belatedly suspicious of the warrior’s rather quick acquiescence to this grand plan. Fearing that, as usual, Xena was one step ahead. Realizing she’d given way too little thought to details and that the biggest devil might well be the point of it all, sitting oh-so innocently above the fray.
“I believe Isis’ idea has merit. Xena, dear? Mind fetching the other horse?”
Xena saluted. “As you wish.” She trotted off and returned with an oldish stallion they sometimes borrowed for their wagon team.
“Xena, that’s – .”
“Hades. Good all around fella. Figured he’d be just the trick.”
“Now we’re talkin’.” Lysia started toward the animal, confident she alone matched the woman destined to ride, more than the one who traditionally followed on foot. She hesitated when Xena dismounted and began collecting their carry bags. “Um, Xena? You’re not gonna ….”
“Use him for a pack horse?” Xena loaded their gear on Hades. “Remember, with Argo, it was just Gabrielle and me. There’re five of us. This kinda balances it out. That’s fair, dontcha think?” She smiled benignly, seeking confirmation.
Lysia scowled. Celestine and Isis nodded. Gabrielle studied with what she hoped was a neutral expression the horse she apparently couldn’t ride as she’d planned. She reminded herself why she’d saved and resurrected the Warrior Princess so many times. How much better it was to have her soulmate alive. And that breaking her neck in front of these girls wouldn’t exactly teach them the desired lesson. She summoned a smile.
“Bravo. Both practical and in the spirit of our trip. You see, girls, what I’ve been saying? About different perspectives? Complementary gifts? We’ve had our first test and passed. I believe we’re ready to begin.”
And so the group set out. The Warrior Princess in front on horseback, the others trailing behind – reminiscent of a certain young woman from Poteidaia with dreams, spunk and not a clue where she was going.
The five prepared their campsite at the end of an uneventful first day. They’d eaten travel rations and were laying out their bedrolls when Lysia decided she’d like a clearer understanding of their course.
“So. What’s next?”
Gabrielle glanced up from smoothing Xena’s sleeping furs. “What’s next?”
“Yeah.” Lysia sat cross-legged on her bedroll. She cocked her head at Xena, who had returned from tending the horses. “You scope out where there’ll be trouble? Any idea when we’ll run into it?”
Xena nodded her thanks to Gabrielle and dropped down on her bedroll. “Nope.” She rolled her tongue in her cheek. “Don’t have to. Trouble usually found us.”
“Whoopee. S’pose this’s the part where we practice twiddling our thumbs?”
“Noooo.” Celestine giggled. “I believe this is the part where Xena sharpens her weapons, while Gabrielle ponders the meaning behind … twiddling thumbs.”
Gabrielle rubbed her nose. This would be a test all right. She could tell from the three pairs of eyes she could see and imagined in the pair she studiously avoided. “In a way you’re both right.” She chuckled. “Our early days were often a balance of thumb twiddling and me talking to myself.”
Four pairs of eyes widened in surprise. And anticipation.
“You make it sound like the conversation was totally one way.”
“I was referring more to what Celestine said. The pondering of deep issues, while you –.”
“Shared some pretty deep stuff myself.”
“Well, sure, about your past. Your guilt at – .”
“Deeper.” Xena leaned back on her arms. “Feelings.”
“Feelings?!” Gabrielle’s brows hiked. “What kind of feelings?”
“Like being alone.”
Gabrielle frowned, thinking back. “In the beginning? At Lyceus’ tomb?” At Xena’s nod, she said, “You were talking to him. I overheard.”
“Same thing. First time I said it out loud.”
Gabrielle pursed her lips. “As I recall, you soon thereafter pontificated about strongest trees standing alone. Proceeded to dump me on a moment’s notice.”
“I said I’d come back for you. I did.”
Gabrielle gazed thoughtfully at her partner. “Yes, you did.”
“Even that first day. When we set out together? You’d met Draco. About as close to my definition of ‘affection’ as anybody came. He tried to win me back by destroying my home village. ‘Be with’ me in a duel. You said friends stuck with each other through thick and thin. I accepted your version.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I never really …. I liked you right off. It was easy …. I mean, sharing. Expecting things to work out. Of course I was happy you let me stay. Showed more patience than I felt I deserved.” She regarded Xena with new appreciation. “Guess I took what you say as … normal … between friends. Figured it just came – . ”
“Naturally?” Xena tousled Gabrielle’s hair. “You would.” She raised a brow at their silent audience. “Okay, you’ve had your ‘pondering’ for the night. I suggest you turn in.” She snickered. “I’ll try not to keep you awake with the other part.” She held up her sword and pumice stone. “Sharpening my weapons?”
The next day Xena donned her battledress and the girls put on their Amazon sparring leathers. Gabrielle wore a skirt, though less cumbersome – or “peasanty” – than when she’d initially started her travels with Xena. Once on the road Gabrielle revealed they were heading toward her childhood village – not at her choice. She’d assumed where Xena grew up would be more appropriate, given the purpose of this particular journey. Lysia, of course, agreed. Celestine saw merit in Xena’s position the “true” story began where she’d decided to continue being the Warrior Princess in order to save a spunky peasant girl.
“Technically, Xena, the ‘new’ Warrior Princess took form with Hercules. She was shaped by experiences all over the known world. Amphipolis gave birth to her, regardless of everything else.”
“So? You said this trip was about spiritual origins, not just physical. Amphipolis might not’ve met the ‘new’ me, except for us bumping into each other outside Poteidaia.”
“What about the main peasant girl? Where she played and got the notion to defend against bullies. That’s an important part of the story too.”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?”
“No bard. No bard, no story. It begins with her. Outside Poteidaia.”
“Your logic astounds me. As usual. Though I do appreciate the sentiment.”
“Even ‘early’ Gabrielle would’ve run out of energy for another
round of this.”
The girls raptly listened to this debate like flies on a wall, the principals seemingly oblivious to them. A relatively quiet hour or so later, the party paused at the outskirts of a modest village. Gabrielle suggested they stop to refresh themselves and sample whatever might be of interest. Lysia rolled her eyes. The others surveyed the handful of market stalls and clumps of people.
“Hmm. Might not be as peaceful as it seems,” Celestine remarked softly.
Lysia brightened. “Hey, you could be right.”
Gabrielle smiled wryly. “Potential trouble?”
Celestine pointed her chin at a man and woman engaged in a heated exchange near the drinking well. “Wonder what they’re arguing about?”
“Pfft. Not them.” Lysia indicated a handful of armed men surrounding one of the vendors. “Now that could be worth checking out.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Boy, does this bring back memories. My idea of ‘trouble’ was pretty expansive way back when. Silly and shallow, compared to thwarting evil warlords.” She bumped shoulders with her partner. “Xena kindly indulged me.”
“So we’re looking for something bigger?” Isis sucked in her cheeks. “More ominous than domestic spats?”
“Not necessarily.” Xena crossed her arms, soaking in the intrigued responses she was beginning to rather like. “Pain is pain. Not so little to the person experiencing it.” She smirked at Gabrielle. “I learned that by ‘indulging’ a certain someone intent on fixing the world.”
“Yeah, well what about pain from a sword? That’s all I wanna fix. I say those guys over there take priority.”
“Mm. Tell ya what. Why don’t you take that situation. Think I’ll … indulge … Celestine. Gabrielle, I assume that’s your pleasure as well?”
Gabrielle studied both choices. “Actually, I believe I’m with Lysia on this.” She got behind Xena and pantomimed duking it out with someone, as she used to do when she watched her partner from the sidelines. “You always did underestimate my desire for action.” Smirking, she nudged Lysia in the direction of the potentially endangered vendor.
Lips pursed, Xena watched the two stroll away. She noted Isis stood frozen, not sure which way to go. “Why don’t you stay with the horses?”
Isis frowned, until she realized she’d have a good view of both scenarios. She grinned. “Sure, that’ll work.”
As Xena and Celestine headed toward the arguing couple, Isis found her attention wandering over to where her other friends hovered within striking distance of the potentially threatening warrior types. Though Lysia leaned forward, primed to jump in, Gabrielle discreetly held the girl’s arm.
Not sensing imminent action, Isis shifted her gaze to the drinking well, surprised to discover Xena now a party to the couple’s discussion – mostly listening. A few moments passed before the warrior nodded to the woman, shook the man’s hand, and beckoned to Celestine that they should leave. When they did, the couple resumed their argument. Isis turned to see Gabrielle and Lysia also on their way back.
Lysia snorted. “All of `em wanted the same knife. Vendor had them draw straws. If they fight, it’ll be with each other.”
“Xena?” Isis chuckled. “You end up their marriage counselor? Seems they may need more work.”
“He wanted to buy her a new spinning wheel. She said they couldn’t afford it.”
“Figures. So much for our first stabs at trouble.” Lysia disdainfully surveyed the material they had to work with. “What now? Sit awhile drinking cider? Twiddling our thumbs?”
“We could.” Gabrielle smiled at Xena. “You up for that?”
“Celestine? Think we’ve done all we can? With our … counseling?”
“Hmmm.” Celestine mimicked Xena’s chin scratch. “The husband seemed pretty set on that spinning wheel. Might consider helping him with his money problem.”
“Riiight.” Lysia snickered. “You bring a pot of gold we don’t know about?”
“Noooo. We could eliminate one of his bills.” Celestine smiled smugly at Lysia. “The one he owes the town bully?”
Gabrielle, Isis and Celestine huddled together over their plates at the inn, discussing what the current situation might lead to. Xena and Lysia sat facing the door. The latter scrutinized every rough man who entered, pretty clear about what she envisioned happening. The former lounged with her legs stretched out, seemingly more interested in cobwebs on the ceiling.
“So we’re gonna just sit here? Waiting until he shows?”
“Uh huh. Xena can be quite creative.” Gabrielle followed her partner’s upward gaze. “Might not look like it, but she’s no doubt strategizing even now.”
Like the others, Lysia glanced above. She snorted. “What? Praying gods’ll come to the rescue? Since when did she count on them?”
“She didn’t. She took things as they came. Scoped out the best course of action. Depended on her wits and what she had to work with, before busting heads.”
“Not according to your stories.”
“What’re you talking about?” Isis propped her arms on the table. “Even in the beginning. Remember when she fought Draco? That was to keep other heads from getting busted.”
“Sure, after she’d already whomped his men outside Poteidaia.”
“The main thing is, she avoided killing.” Celestine gave Gabrielle an admiring glance. “Probably because a certain presence changed her.”
“Or because a certain bard saw it that way.” Xena maintained her relaxed posture but focused on Gabrielle. “She tended to see through rose-colored eyes in the beginning.”
Gabrielle pursed her lips. “I recall minimal bloodshed. You recall something different?”
“I killed a warlord in front of his son. Killed a highwayman before Morpheus’ priests snatched you. Killed Nemos when we fought over that orphaned infant. Killed Mezentius for causing Marcus’ death. Killed King Xerxes after – .”
“All right, all ready. Still, you did it because – .”
“I wanted them dead. Not saying I liked it.” Xena shrugged. “Best, fastest way I knew for disposing garbage.” She snorted. “Didn’t have much experience with recycling then. That was your department. Took awhile to get the hang of it.”
“Ha!” Lysia slapped the table. “So much for your ‘sweetness and light’ Xena. If we’re gonna learn from what really happened, we gotta stick to all of it.” She snickered. “Like Xena’s version of ‘recycling” – bodies turnin’ into fertilizer.”
Gabrielle scowled at the Warrior Princess. The Warrior Princess let her head fall back. She resumed observing a wasp, now thoroughly wrapped in silken threads. “Funny thing about strategy. And stories. Kinda like spider webs. Once spun, can’t always predict what you’ll get.”
The sun had barely risen when a line of villagers began forming in front of a canopy erected at the far end of the courtyard. Underneath were a few chairs, a desk and several large bins. A couple of the warriors from the day before stood outside throwing their newly purchased knives at a target in the dirt. They quickly straightened at the sound of a bell and assumed positions on either side of the canopy. A wagon soon entered, accompanied by a large man on horseback and more guards.
The wagon driver pulled around to the back of the canopy, stepped down, walked to the desk and lay on it items from a sack he carried – bound sheets of papyrus, ink wells, quills, a scale, measuring stick. Upon arranging everything to his satisfaction, he sat and nodded to the man on horseback. The rider sat tall in the saddle, his considerable frame made even more imposing by a military-style outfit replete with elaborate chain mail and flowing satiny cape, slit to reveal swords at both sides of his waist.
The rider surveyed the villagers, some of whom carried pouches, others sacks and baskets. “All right,” the man boomed. “You know the drill. Those with precious metals, check in with Mitteoles. Those with goods, deposit them in the bins. Make sure your name’s on what you bring. Otherwise you won’t get credit.”
“Okay, we’ve seen enough. Now what?”
Lysia scowled at the others lounging with her on the porch of the inn. She drummed her fingers on her thigh. Xena was turning out to be much like Gabrielle when it came to studying too much. “The bully. Sentorius. We’ve got `im in our sights. I count maybe a dozen of his goons. Between us, we oughtta be able to take `em.”
“Mm. Puzzle’s complete, far as you see? Nothing missing to trip us up?”
Before Lysia could respond to Gabrielle, a slight, well-dressed older man appeared beside them.
“You new in town?”
Gabrielle gave him a polite smile. “Just passing through. Seems we’ve lucked up on a fascinating custom. Some type of communal yard sale?”
The man chuckled. “First time I’ve heard that description of it. But no. It’s tax time. Everybody pays. Dire consequences if they don’t.” He leaned closer. “Even visitors.”
“Oh, my.” Gabrielle placed her hand on her chest. “Why ever for?”
“You used the road in, right? The water? Maybe had a meal? You’re relaxing in front of this establishment, enjoying the sights.” The man shrugged. “Gotta consider the cost to provide that. Maintain it. Protect it. Not fair the locals bear the full burden of extra wear and tear.”
Lysia bristled. Either missing or ignoring Xena’s warning look, she blurted out, “Not us. We’re gonna fix it so nobody has to pay.”
The man tensed. He gaped at the women, especially Lysia’s bow and quiver. “You Amazons?”
Gabrielle playfully spanked Lysia’s arm. “Don’t mind our young friends. They tend to get carried away.”
“Yeah? Well, it could get them killed. Some innocent people as well.” The man started backing away. “I’d heed my warning, if I were you.”
Xena was up with her arm around his shoulders before he could leave. “I’d heed hers, if I were you.” She cut her eyes at Lysia. “Big mouth and all.” She pressed her fingers to the man’s neck. “Me, I don’t talk so much. But I think you get my drift.”
“W-what do you want?”
“Smile like we’re old buddies.” Xena glanced casually at the big man on horseback, who stared at them curiously. She winked and pantomimed raising a cup to her mouth. The big man smirked. “Now walk with me inside.” She tightened the arm around his shoulders. “Twitch funny, and it’ll be your last. Understand?”
The man nodded, as did the women who trailed behind – in truth, everyone but Gabrielle wondering if the tall woman had lost her mind.
The party had no trouble finding a table in the nearly empty dining room. Celestine and Isis sat next to Gabrielle, staring across at the mystery man wedged between Xena and Lysia. A server came over to take their order.
“We’ll have cider,” Xena said.
“The usual for you?” the server asked the man.
“Make it a double.”
Lysia rocked back and forth as the server walked away. She glowered at those across from her, hoping one of them would summon enough nerve to inquire what in Tartarus the supposedly brilliant Warrior Princess had in mind. Instead, they followed Xena’s example of sipping their drinks and … waiting.
“Okay. I’m missin’ the point here.” Lysia peered around the mystery man as if he weren’t there. “We’re leaving Sentorius to rob those folks pretty as he pleases. We take somebody in his place. Who is this guy anyway? He wasn’t even part of it. A snitch maybe. Bet he’d’ve run right over to squeal on us.”
“Hmm, you’re right. He had no role, far as I could tell.” Isis narrowed her eyes at the man. “Not in that line either. Just popped up out of nowhere.”
“Yeah, that server’s familiar with him. He knew the rules.” Celestine studied the man. “If he’s from around here, he should’ve been more worried about his taxes, than us.”
“Ya gotta be kidding.” Lysia contemplated the profile of the man sitting silently next to her. “Him?” Mouth open, she checked Xena’s and Gabrielle’s faces. “You saying he’s one of `em?” She growled. “We’ve had him all this time? Drinkin’ with `im? Waiting with him `til his merry band’s done?”
Gabrielle laughed. “You’ve grasped an under-appreciated aspect of strategy. I suspect your next lesson will involve another key aspect.” She smiled wryly at Xena. “Improvising.”
Their assignments for the day completed, the gang began filing into the dining hall. Though in high spirits, they gathered at the bar and tables with relatively little disturbance. The big man who followed them stood imperiously in the doorway surveying the room before honing in on the strangers who’d managed to avoid the tax line. He strode over and crossed his arms.
“I see you lovely ladies decided to keep my man.”
“Our apologies for taking him away from his duties.” Xena gave the man’s shoulder an affectionate squeeze. “Been a long time since we’ve seen each other.”
“Um, yes.” The smaller man summoned a smile of sorts. “Quite a … surprise … bumping into Xena like this.”
“Xena? The Warrior Princess?” The big man’s eyes widened. “She’s not dead?”
The other man grimaced. “Far from it.” Her chakram had convinced him, along with the knife point pressed against his side. “Xena, I’d like to introduce you to … my boss.” He held the big man’s eyes. “Lord Sentorius.”
“Nice game ya got goin’ here,” Xena put in quickly. “He told me about your little secret. Thinks maybe there’s a place for me and my girls.”
“Yeah?” The big narrowed his eyes, not quite sure he was on the same scroll as everyone else. “Doin’ what?”
“We didn’t get that far. Except for your role.” Xena chuckled at his expression. She inclined her head deferentially. “You’ll still be Lord Sentorius.”
The big man relaxed. “Took awhile, but I’m okay with it now.” He smirked. “Ladies really go for the cape. Their men don’t like it, I got these fancy swords.”
“I hear ya. Bed lust and blood lust. Best of both worlds.”
The man snickered. “You’re Xena, all right. Least ways, from what I heard.” He shook his head. “Never can tell what Theocrates’ll come up with next.” He noted the other man’s pained sigh. “S’okay. Works for me. Could mean more time off.” Grinning, he bowed his head. “Lord Xena.” He gave Theocrates a thumb up. “I’ll be over with the boys, if you need me.”
Theocrates watched Sentorius saunter away. The big man had his merits. Could flatten a bull with one punch. Too bad he couldn’t catch a clue fluttering right in front of his nose.
Given that Xena had already guess as much, Theocrates admitted he was the brains behind the tax business. He’d grown up the brunt of bullies himself, partly because of his undersized frame, partly because he preferred intellectual pursuits over physical. Eventually he’d found a kindred spirit in Mitteoles, who had just lost his job clerking with a successful merchant. The two would amuse themselves deriding others who squandered their riches or talents, conjecturing how much better they could do in any of those idiot’s shoes, if only they had more impressive boots.
They found those boots on Sentorius, a brawny wannabe warlord. Theocrates proposed a partnership to exploit the weaknesses he’d perceived all around him. Starting with the home village that had treated him like an insignificant toad. He focused on developing Sentorius into a suitable front man, as he personally preferred being in the background. Observing his victims. Knowing they were mere puppets in his plan. Sitting unobtrusively among them listening to their fears. Hearing how they hoped to cheat him, their dismay at somehow being discovered.
“Well, Theo, my man, I got good news for you and bad,” Xena said after being brought up to date. “Which would you like first?”
Theocrates glanced forlornly at the big man too dumb to be of any immediate help. He brightened when he glimpsed Mitteoles finally enter, look around and head toward the table.
“Hey.” Mitteoles studied the women seated with his partner. “Wondered where you disappeared. What’s up?”
“A little fun. A little business. Name’s Xena.” At Mitteoles’ expression, she confirmed, “Yep, that Xena.” She gestured toward a chair at the end of the table. “Theocrates was just telling us about you.”
“That so.” Mitteoles remained standing. “Wouldn’t mind hearing it myself.” He noted the sheen on the other man’s face. “From him.”
“Mmm, that could be a problem.” Xena stretched the arm resting on Theocrates to tap Lysia’s shoulder. When the girl peered around, Xena nodded slightly. “My young Amazons here prefer action. Too much talking, they get restless.”
Mitteoles stiffened. “Not my problem.” He glanced over to the men lounging near Sentorius. “Although maybe my friends could help yours with their … itch.”
“Lysia? You up for that?”
“Nah.” Lysia discreetly positioned her bow against her side. Grinning, she notched an arrow pointed at Mitteoles. “I’m good where I am.”
“Huh. Never can tell about young folks. Seems your company’ll do.” Xena’s eyes pinned Mitteoles where he was. “You can join us. Start a new conversation. From that chair. Or be silent on the floor.”
Mitteoles shifted his gaze between the cold blue eyes, the trigger-happy Amazon and a resignedly mute Theocrates. He glowered once more at the totally oblivious Sentorius. “Fine,” he concluded, moving toward the chair. “Can’t be any worse than listening to the dummies I have to work with.”
“So.” Theocrates rolled his tongue, finally able to use it to speak, having heard he might no longer control all his words. He glanced around the now filled room. Few seemed to notice the strange collection of diners at his table, unaware their fates depended on a man they dismissed as a joke and the ghost made flesh at his side. “You would have us end our … taxes. Abandon months of work. Resume pursuits of little worth in comparison.”
“Yup. Just walk away.”
“Or ….” Mitteoles folded his hands on the table. “We could stay. Our men as village guards. Under our direction. For a reasonable fee, of course.”
“Negotiated with the villagers?”
Mitteoles nodded. “We could assist them price their goods better. Devise a tax for improving common elements like the roads or festivals.”
“Xena?” Gabrielle leaned forward. “That’s actually not a bad idea. A win-win for everyone.”
“Except justice.” Isis scowled at the two men. “What about all they’ve taken from the town? They go unpunished?” She gaped at her mentors in disbelief. “Rewarded – trusted even – with the money they used to steal?”
“Let’s say we turn the gang in. Somebody has to arrest them. Try cramming them into whatever little room the town uses for the occasional troublemaker. Or cart `em off to somewhere else.” Xena cut her eyes at her protégés. “We already have enough luggage as it is.” She shrugged. “Might as well give Mitteoles’ proposal a chance. Worse comes to worst, I could always … revert … to another option.” She smirked at Gabrielle and patted her chakram. “Kill `em all.”
Theocrates, Mitteoles, Sentorius, Xena, and Gabrielle sat inside the gang’s covered wagon, while the girls stood guard. Sentorius had taken the change in direction surprisingly well. Turned out he preferred a more legal route to leadership, with a potentially steady income that did not require constantly watching his back.
The real test would be the men. Whether they could be satisfied as stable, law-abiding town folk. “Those from today haven’t been paid yet. Shall I fetch them then?” Sentorius looked to Xena for an answer. He might be slow at catching subtleties, but knew real power when he saw it. At her nod, he entered the inn, soon returning with his men trailing. They stood waiting with various degrees of suspicion and impatience.
“Don’t see any money pouches,” one of the men finally ventured. He leered at the women behind Theocrates. “Not thinkin’ of settling this with them, are ya?”
Xena restrained Lysia. “Why?” She sauntered in front and crossed her arms. “You don’t find us good enough?”
The man acknowledged the others’ snickers. “Didn’t say that. Me? Wouldn’t mind … spending … that little firebrand,” he said, leering at Lysia. “But I got a big bar tab. Too bad she’s not worth that.”
“Mm. I had a different ‘settling’ in mind.” Xena gestured to Sentorius to hand her one of his swords. “Nice,” she said, inspecting it. “Almost like new. Doubt I’ll muss it up too much,” she added, sneering at the man.
“What? You gonna fight me with that?”
Xena pulled out her chakram. “I could use this.” She lightly ran a finger along the edge. “Kinda pointless though.” She waited a beat. “No fun fighting a dead man.”
“Listen, you ….” The man unsheathed his sword, slowly enough to give himself time to figure out why the woman’s eyes made his go mouth dry. “Better put that toy away. Tell Theocretes to cut the crap and pay up, before you get hurt.”
“Betros. Hold up.” Another man edged forward. “I’ve heard tales about a weapon like that. Belonged to a legendary warrior ….” He studied the one in front of him. “Woman. Tall. Dark hair. Blue eyes. Took on Ares himself.” His eyes slid to Gabrielle. “Traveled with a smaller blonde. Friendly with Amazons.”
“Pfft. Xena? The Warrior Princess? You got ale on the brain? She’s long gone.” Betros nodded as if to convince himself. “That thing’s a fake. So is she. I tell ya, it’s some kinda hoax to cheat us.”
“One way to find out, hmmm?” Xena extended the sword. “Knock this from my hand. You could be doing me a favor. Saving a crazy crone from embarrassment.”
Betros gawked at the gang’s silent brain trust. “You all tired of the tax business? Movin’ on to some other con? With these … women?”
“This really is Xena. She gave us a choice. Stay with the tax collecting and be put out of business. Or work out a protection deal with the town.” Sentorius drew himself up. “And keep our skin.”
“No!” Betros backed up to join the other men. “We want our money! We’ll decide what to do after for ourselves.”
“Decide now. Stand with me. Or fall with Betros.”
The men looked at each other. Half straggled over to Sentorius. The rest took out weapons and leveled them at the tall woman.
“Well? You gonna stand there like sticks in the mud?” Xena waggled the sword. “Or meet my challenge?”
Betros spit on the ground. “I’ll handle this. Rest of ya’ll owe me for shuttin’ `er up.” He lunged forward, amazed to discover his sword sailing over his head and himself on the ground. He stumbled to his feet and grabbed another man’s sword, this time advancing with a flurry of powerful strokes. The woman didn’t try to parry, but simply blocked, moving more in circle than backwards. He paused, heartened he still had the sword and that the woman wasn’t putting up much of a fight. “Had enough?”
Xena twirled her sword. “Have you?”
Betros resumed his attack with even more vigor until – red-faced and drenched in sweat – he let his weary sword arm drop a little too low. It was the last mistake he would ever make.
Xena pushed Betros off her blade, expressionless as he crumpled to the ground. She patted her barely damp bangs. “Next?”
Those who’d stood with Betros didn’t seem inclined to fall with him. A couple backed away and ran for safety from a spanking by the she-demon old enough to be their mother. The others opted for obedience and saluted her.
“So we’re agreed then? You’ll listen to the new plan?”
“With you in command? We’d be fools not to.”
“Oh, I won’t be in command. Sentorius will.”
“Sentorius?! But you …. You’re --.”
“Merely a hired sword. Somebody he used to get your attention.” Xena snorted. “So as not to muss up that fine outfit of his. Gotta look presentable for business meetings, ya know.” She picked up Betros’ sword and handed it to Sentorius with a slight bow. “They’re all yours. They give you any trouble?” She crooked her head toward Lysia. “We’ll sic ‘the little firebrand’ on `em.”
The young Amazons relaxed under a shade tree near the dry goods store where the elder members of their party picked up supplies. Isis and Celestine sat cross-legged comparing notes on what they had learned so far. Lysia paced, occasionally glowering impatiently at the store.
“I swear. You two could squeeze ‘lessons’ out of a turnip.”
“Why, thank you.” Isis smiled wryly at her companion. “It’s called ‘maturity.’ Wouldn’t hurt you to try it sometimes.”
“Oh, yeah?” Lysia crossed her arms. “You think that makes you better’n me? Being satisfied looking for the good in mud holes? Pfft. Kids do that. Entertain themselves for hours. Don’t know when to quit. Miss supper. Or a wolf sneaking up.” She smirked with a hint of challenge. “I say ‘maturity’ is keeping your head up. Being able to spot bad in sunny spots. Moving before it’s too late.”
“Well, yes, there’s that too. Both approaches can – .”
“Aw, come on. Who needs more practice at your versions?” Lysia began pacing again, muttering, “Mud holes. Plenty of those back home. And thumb twiddling. Listening to pros and cons.”
“But this has been real. Experiencing how Gabrielle’s lessons apply in actual situations.” Celestine shivered. “Life and death situations.”
“Heh. The highlight being Xena’s ‘lesson.’ The real point of learning weaponry. Something we’ll probably never see at the compound.” Lysia caressed her bow. “Or get to do. Maybe on this trip ….”
“I’m suggesting we’re experiencing what they did. Lots of ‘mud holes.’ Finding the good in them. On the lookout for ‘the bad in the sunny spots.’ Unusually motivated to do something about it.” Isis checked to see if Lysia was listening, not surprised to see her focused elsewhere.
“Yeah, yeah. While you two were busy yammerin’. …” Lysia pointed to a tavern near the village entrance. A handful of ruffians had pulled a merchant from his wagon, apparently intent on picking it clean. Passersby shouted at the men but made no move to stop them. “Come on.”
“Lysia, wait!” Celestine jumped up to restrain the other girl. She looked longingly at the dry goods store. “Shouldn’t we get – .”
“No time.” Lysia pulled out an arrow as she trotted toward the trouble. She didn’t bother confirming whether her friends had followed.
Gabrielle smiled at the proprietor and put several coins on his counter. She turned toward where her partner stood sniffing the contents of various containers. “You almost done rifling through those herbs?”
“Hey, to each her own. Never can tell when we’ll need ….” Xena stiffened, senses on alert.
“What is it?”
“Not sure.” Xena walked to the door and looked out. “Crap.”
“Crap?” Gabrielle peered around the warrior’s shoulder. “Oh, crap.” She started to push through.
“Xena, we can’t let them – .”
“Get hurt? How else are they gonna learn?”
“The stuff you wrote about. Being a hero.” Xena hugged her agitated partner close. “They can’t just experience it through me, you know. Isn’t that the point of this trip?”
They watched Isis take out two thugs with expertly executed punches and kicks, while Celestine disabled a couple more with her staff. Xena noticed Lysia kneeling in front of a man face down on the ground, seemingly unaware of another coming up behind. The warrior reached for her chakram, surprised to feel Gabrielle’s hand on her arm. A moment later, Celestine whacked Lysia’s would-be attacker in the head. Soon thereafter, the ruffians either lay immobile or fled to safety.
“Now we go?”
“Now we go.” Gabrielle locked arms with Xena and the two strolled toward the crowd gathering to cheer their heroes. Past the prone form with an arrow in its back.
The camp atmosphere that evening was one of tempered excitement. Celestine added humor with her narration of events in what she purported to be the “Gabrielle style” – accompanied by her own brand of sound effects. Though credited as leader of the impromptu mission, Lysia remained surprisingly quiet.
“Well, my young friends, I don’t know about you, but today has certainly provided the highlight of this trip for me.”
“Ditto that.” Xena noticed the glances between the three girls. “What? You figured it would be skewering Betros?”
“Um, not all of us. You can probably guess which one.”
“Funny.” Lysia responded to Celestine without looking. “Go ahead. Laugh.” She stood abruptly. “I earned it,” she mumbled, heading into the forest.
“Lysia?” Gabrielle started to rise.
“I’ve got it.”
Gabrielle watched Xena trail Lysia. “What’s that about?”
“She’s … um ….” Celestine chewed her lip. “I’m not sure we should tell.”
“I can.” Isis shook her head. “Ego. All this time spoiling for a ‘real’ fight. Putting us down for being content to experience it second hand. She finally gets her way. Is right to do so. I’d rather she rub it in. Crow as usual.”
“She’s ashamed.” Celestine sighed. “Because of me.”
“Mind if I join you?”
“It’s a free forest.” Lip curled, Lysia flicked a bug off her arm. “I’m fair game anyway.”
Xena lowered herself across from Lysia. “He was your first.”
“The guy you shot.”
Lysia stared at Xena a moment. “Um, yeah. Aimed for his butt. Got ‘im higher than I meant. He must’ve tripped or something. Before the arrow hit.” She shrugged. “Wondered if I could do it. What it would be like. Now I know.” She forced a grin. “Can’t predict live targets like those practice dummies.”
“He’s not dead.”
Lysia blinked in confusion. “Not dead? But – .”
“You did get him pretty good. You try pulling the arrow out?”
Lysia nodded. “I thought ….”
“Good you didn’t. Would’ve been a real gusher. I took care of it during all the hubbub.”
“Yeah? Good. Good. That’s a relief.” Lysia started to get up.
“It’s not always the kill itself that gets to you.”
Lysia froze. “Celestine. Just couldn’t keep her mouth shut. Now everybody’ll know – .”
“She didn’t have to. I saw enough during the fight.”
“You … saw?” Lysia’s head dropped. “Some wannabe Warrior Princess, huh?”
“Still got my vote.”
Lysia bristled. “Listen, I don’t need you going Gabrielle on me, okay? I’m not the tough girl I thought, but I can take the truth.”
“And what’s that.”
“Come on, Xena. This trip was a test. I flunked. Just say it, okay?”
“Seems you’re who’s grading. You tell me.” Xena raised a brow. “You don’t want me ‘going Gabrielle’ on you, right?”
Lysia met the penetrating blue eyes, grateful for the absence of condemnation. “Fine. I’m a fraud. Second to even mush ball Celestine. Pfft. She hit her guys and kept going. Blood, broken bones, didn’t matter. Ends up saving my hide.” She blew out a disgusted breath. “Me? Sittin’ there like a stone. Can’t get past the …. First and only blood I spill. Puking when I oughtta be helping my sisters. ‘Grade A’ warrior? Ask Celestine and Lysia. They deserve that now more than me.”
“Mm.” Xena stretched and rose rather stiffly. “Right now I’m more interested in warmth and my furs,” she said, extending her hand to Lysia.
“Not sure I can face them.”
“Sure you can. Pretend you’re a true warrior, even if you don’t believe it. I guarantee better results than seeing yourself as a rock.”
It was clear those returning to camp had discussed similar topics as the three who greeted them. Lysia stoically brushed off attempts to engage her as they prepared to turn in. Once in their bedrolls and about to wish each other good night, they heard softly spoken words that seemed to come from a ghost.
“My brother Lyceus and I practiced for the day we would defend our village against a warlord. When it came, I fought well. No hesitation. If I killed, I wasn’t aware. Just swung and kept moving. Until my blade sliced open a man’s belly. I knew that was the end of him, which was fine by me. The blood and guts …. I wasn’t quite prepared for that. Not from a piece of garbage. I froze. Fascinated and sick at the same time. And then I heard my name screamed. Turned just in time to block a strike. A split second before Lyceus went down. His voice still in my ears. His eyes still on mine.
“I killed a lot more that day. No number of bodies could make up for the one that mattered. Maybe I could’ve been more at peace if Lyceus had fallen the way we imagined – him focused on the battle. Me focused on the battle. It haunted me a long time. The shame, the guilt, my sense of betrayal. I know now it was futile blaming myself for being human. For being struck by evidence of the death I had taken for granted. Of life I’d been so determined to take.
“I’ve accepted Lyceus died focused on what mattered most to him. That I was lucky to be so loved. That dishonor isn’t so much about failure, as using it as excuse to stop caring, to stop fighting. To give up trying to do better every next time until my last breath.”
Dawn had not quite broken yet when Lysia’s ears picked up the sound of furtive movement. She put her hand on the small knife stuck in her waistband before opening her eyes to see dim shapes – not interlopers, but the women who’d presented her the knife to commemorate her passage from junior Scout to senior. They carried something over their shoulders as they disappeared into the trees. Lysia snorted softly. Good. Gave her a chance to take care of a few things herself.
“Mmmmm.” Celestine smelled breakfast cooking. She stretched and rolled over to greet Gabrielle. “Lysia? Is that you?” She rubbed her eyes. “You’re … cooking?”
“As if. More like Hades, stokin’ the fire for your sorry butts.”
“My.” Like Celestine, Isis now sat up in her bedroll staring at Lysia. “Miracles do happen. Sure hadn’t pictured this.”
“Yeah? What about the one where you two get up to do something useful. Just enough leftovers for us. Could need more.” Lysia snickered. “If our guardians ever come back.”
“Huh. Where are they?” Celestine plopped across the fire from Lysia. “You think we ran them off?” She ducked her head. “Um, you know, with our … drama?”
“I seriously doubt that,” Isis said, joining her friends. “I’m sure Gabrielle considers it an important part of this journey together.”
“Probably wished to go with them, huh?” Celestine peered up shyly at Lysia. “Drama’s not exactly your thing.”
“No. It’s not.” Lysia pulled up her knees. “Guess I gotta get better at that too.”
“You’re not sore at me anymore?”
“I wasn’t. More … embarrassed.” Lysia glanced up with more vulnerability than her friends could remember her ever showing. “You know what happened. What I did.” Her lip curled. “Or didn’t do.”
“It’s about team, Lysia, not just individual glory.”
“That sounds good, Isis. If I’d done my share. All my talk about mud holes. Look who got stuck staring into one. Putting my sisters in danger. No getting around I let you down. Face it. I have.”
“You got us moving. Took out the first enemy. He had a sword, headed straight for the merchant.”
“Uh huh. Left up to us, we would’ve run to get Xena and Gabrielle. The merchant could’ve been killed in the meantime. You were right not to risk it.”
“Absolutely. We learned we really do have it in us to be warriors. Not just talk about it or dream about it, like some of us tend to do.” Isis exchanged a wry smile with Celestine. “We have you to thank. You have to take our opinion into account too, when you’re grading yourself. The question is, can you face that.”
Lysia let out a long breath. “Yeah, I guess so. You’re saying my hard head isn’t so bad. We got to do a mission on our own. Which might not’ve been, if we’d waited for Xena to jump in.” She raised her chin. “A little late, but thanks for coverin’ my butt. Both of you.”
“Uh huh. Gabrielle would say – .”
“Yeah, yeah. We know. I’m thinkin’ she’s not the only one.”
“You mean, Xena? Mmhm. Our Scout Leader’s had quite an influence on – .”
“Nuh uh. Can’t put all the blame on her. The sensitive chats? Xena’s little speech last night? Talk about excuses. Humph. I’m seeing the so-called tough one can ‘go Gabrielle’ on you her own way, all by herself.”
Midmorning had arrived when the young Amazons finally heard familiar voices. They prepared to chastise their elders for being gone so long, but found themselves speechless at the sight they beheld.
“Hi, girls.” Gabrielle grinned bemusedly. “Surprised to see us?”
“Yeah, what’s with the big eyeballs? You’d think this was the first time we’d met.”
“Isn’t that the point?” Isis responded dryly. “Another … lesson … in store?”
“You mean this?” Gabrielle adjusted the brown battle dress she wore before perching on a log. “And this?” she asked, fingering the chakram at her side.
“Or this?” Xena twirled a staff. She smoothed the fabric on her peasant skirt and joined Gabrielle.
“You changed clothes! I mean, exchanged clothes!”
“We can all see that, Celestine. Question is, why?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“Maybe to you, Amazon Brain. To me, the joke’s on us.”
“I believe they mean to give us a different perspective.” Isis contemplated their mentors. “Walk in each other’s boots, so to speak.”
“Very perceptive.” Gabrielle bestowed a proud smile on the girls. “You’ve all grown, just as we’d hoped. We’ve decided to head back home. We think we can squeeze a wee bit more insight from our past experiences. Lysia is also right. No reason we can’t have fun doing so.”
“Are you sure about this?”
“As sure as you, when you plunge headlong into something.”
“I have some clue where it could lead. An idea of the traps. Ways around them.”
“Is this so different? I’m sure you’ll rise to the task as usual.” Gabrielle smirked. “You can also count on my customary creativity.”
In truth, neither had anticipated role playing her partner. They’d snuck off for quality time alone, ideally providing the same opportunity for their charges. Gabrielle happened to tease Xena about turning bard, making Lysia feel better with the anecdote about Lyceus. Xena said the story was true, that she simply hadn’t shared it before. Gabrielle commented they’d discovered quite a few things about themselves and each other “through the eye of the beholder,” which Xena sarcastically suggested they could enhance by posing as the “beholder” – an idea they decided amusing enough to try awhile before setting out.
Celestine loved the prospect, even proposing the partners take it another step – not only act like the “early” other, but remain “in character” the whole day. Isis agreed this would certainly add another dimension to what they’d so far gleaned from the scrolls. Lysia said it would sure beat listening to the two simply “gush” about each other.
“We’ll be part of it too!” Celestine had enthused. “You know, treat you like you’re the other? We can rename you so it won’t be confusing. Gabrielle, we’ll call you ‘GabXena.’ Xena, you’ll be ‘XenaGab.’ How’s that?”
And so the mentors found themselves snared in the web they’d unwittingly spun. But not so restricted they couldn’t make the best of this unique situation – a development the girls walking behind did not fully appreciate.
“Pfft. This is worse than the gushing.”
“Hearing the ‘between the lines’ moments? I think it’s cute.”
“I believe Lysia’s referring to the sameness. The … obsessions. Even I can’t glean much useful there.”
“Got that right. ‘Oooo, I’d sure like to throw my line in that stream.’ ‘Is that salmon I smell? Eel?’ The way Gabrielle’s playing her, you’d think all Xena cared about was fish.”
“Okay, I admit, I didn’t picture Xena going on about practically every flower we pass. I know Gabrielle likes them, but she couldn’t’ve been that bad.”
“If so, they’d’ve never gotten anywhere. So much for ‘fun.’ Told ya. More like the joke’s on us.”
The party had stopped to rest, its senior members chatting congenially, the younger ones muttering among themselves.
Gabrielle swiped the sharpening stone against Xena’s sword a few more times. Without looking at Celestine she said, “Yeah?”
“We … uh … need to talk to you.”
“This … lesson. We’re not sure it’s working out like – .”
“Not my department. Talk to her.”
“B-but ….” Celestine glanced at Xena, who was fashioning a necklace of daisies. She decided to stick with Gabrielle. “Just for this?” she pleaded. “Sort of like a time out? You know, you as yourself?”
“Celestine?” Xena offered her most welcoming smile. “GabXena’s busy right now.” She patted the ground beside her. “If it’s talking, maybe I can help.”
Celestine looked longingly at Gabrielle before plopping next to Xena. “We thought this would be different. You know, what we’re doing now.”
“You’re not happy with it?”
“Well, see, we usually don’t hear everything you’re saying. I mean, between the two of you. When you’re being … normal.”
“Are we talking too loud? We assumed you’d want to overhear.”
“Oh, we do. It’s just …. When we do hear you? It’s usually … different.”
”Well, not just about fish or flowers.”
“Ah. She and I haven’t known each other that long, remember?” Xena winked. “We really don’t have much in common. Well, except we both want to do good in the world. I ask her a lot about being a warrior. About the big, wide world. So much is new to me. Fascinating. Practically everything – people, places, which things grow where. She’s already been there, done that.”
“Huh. So it’s boring to her?”
“Oh, no. Not at all. It’s kind of like a rusty sword. Um, or pot. You carry it around and forget how it used to be. One day you rub it until it shines. I think my questions, my observations do that for her. Help her appreciate what’s underneath the … grime … she’s become accustomed to.”
“Do you talk about that? What she sees in the … shine?”
Xena chuckled. “Well, it’s mostly me. But she’s very attentive. Likes getting a fresh perspective. I believe that, even if she doesn’t always say so.”
Celestine turned to Gabrielle. “Is that how you see it, GabXena?”
Gabrielle had begun using a rag on Xena’s sword, to better hear the conversation next to her. “I don’t always see the luster at first. I consider the problem may be my eyes. The times I misjudge somebody? When she saw what I didn’t? I tell her. I hope she knows how it changed me, even if I don’t always say so.”
Celestine nodded. “See? That’s more like it. Could you maybe keep that up?”
Xena grinned sheepishly. “We’ll try to do better. But understand, the meaningful chats happened when they happened. The right mood or situation. Mostly, we passed the time with what was easier. Predictable. Comfortable. Interesting to at least one of us.” She shrugged. “Often that was fish or flowers.”
The young Amazons chuckled as “XenaGab” recounted some of the resourceful methods she used to help an abandoned baby boy. “GabXena” evoked compassionate “awwwws” acknowledging the layers of emotion she felt during that mission – some because she’d saved the child by drawing upon rumors she was capable of killing one, some connected to the infant son she’d secretly given up years before.
“Excellent work. The conversations are 10 times better.”
Celestine beamed. “Thanks, Isis. Have to admit, I thought it was a mistake sending me. Gabrielle didn’t buy my pitiful act. When she pushed me on Xena, I figured your logic had a better chance.”
“No, they stuck to what we’d argued for – pretence no matter what. It would’ve made my head swim. You’re more open to … fantasy. Going along with it actually brought out what we wanted.”
“Pfft. Seemed you were all nuts. Next thing, I’m caught up in it same as you. Crap. Guess it’s true I gotta look at more ways to skin a cat.” Lysia snickered. “Or rely on my … team … for that.”
“Yeah, Amazon Brain?”
“Could you maybe try both?”
“Sure. I’ll take my cues from you.”
“Listening to reason more?”
Lysia grinned evilly. “Uh huh. When I see you prancin’ around all bubbly, like Amazon Airhead.”
The three argued good naturedly awhile until Celestine happened to look ahead. “Huh. They’ve stopped.”
Lysia turned her attention to the women they’d momentarily lost track of. Xena had her foot in Argo’s stirrup, over Gabrielle’s apparent objections. “Oooo, something’s up! Bet that’s worth talking about!”
“Xena,” Gabrielle said, looking over her shoulder, “they’ve dropped back, talking.”
“We can give the play acting a rest? Thank the gods. Um, not that I don’t treasure this stroll down Memory Lane.”
Gabrielle laughed. She thumped Xena’s head. “Must be dizzying inside there, trying to think like the young me.”
“Gotta warn ya, not sure how much longer I can.” Xena hazarded a glance back. “Think they’re on to a better topic than us?”
“Let’s hope so. My so-called lesson plan notwithstanding.”
The two walked awhile enjoying the silence between them. Until Xena’s ears perked up.
“What? Are the girls closing in on us?”
“Around that bend.” Xena pointed ahead and led the horses off the narrow road. “Could be a rider coming. Fast.” She started to get up on Argo. “I’ll go see.”
“Gabrielllle. Enough with the role playing. It’s time – .”
“I don’t care about that. If you go, I go. Like usual. Too much to unload off Hades.” Gabrielle grabbed the warrior’s arm. “Pull me up behind you. Or we wait to see what it is together.”
Xena gritted her teeth. They’d know soon enough anyway, but what better excuse would she get to leave a now torturous charade in the dust? To make matters worse, the torturers had caught up, eagerly anticipating what might happen next. Growling under her breath, she removed her foot from the stirrup and faced the girls.
“Move to the side.”
“Trouble coming?” Lysia asked hopefully, doing as instructed.
“Don’t know yet.”
A horse came charging by a short time later. Its rider pulled up and came back to the travelers.
“Road’s not safe for you ladies right now.” The rider noted the older blond woman in battle gear. “You a warrior?”
“You could say that. We’re Amazons,” Gabrielle said, indicating the others. “Maybe we can help.”
“I was escorting wagons to a new settlement. Got ambushed not far from here. Settlers are holding the bandits off pretty good, but could use reinforcements. That’s where I’m headed.”
“Oooo. Trouble! We can fix anything! It’s your lucky day!”
The man stared at the tall, bouncing older brunette whose attire seemed less suited to trouble than that of her companions. He gave her an indulgent smile before addressing the blonde again. “Ma’am? Are you in?”
“Evidently. Wouldn’t hurt if you brought back protection, just in case. In the meantime, we’ll do our best to handle the raiders.”
The man saluted and rode off. Gabrielle turned to see her partner’s smug grin replicated on the younger faces. Once again she’d been outmaneuvered in her own game. But, she remembered, smiling sweetly, not necessarily defeated.
The settlers had managed to steer their covered wagons onto a grassy area and into a circle. It appeared they’d held off the dozen or so raiders with pitchforks, shovels or accurately thrown vegetables and utensils. The raiders sat making balls of cloth and dry grass, no doubt to toss flaming from the small fire they’d started.
Those observing behind nearby bushes had come up with a plan of their own. The first part dealt with luring the marauders their way. The second involved rules of engagement for the primary defenders. Gabrielle and Xena would continue portraying early versions of each other, with minor modifications. The former could use her staff to simulate a sword. If pressed, the latter could employ fighting skills acquired by “later years” Gabrielle. The young Amazons were not to intervene unless granted permission.
As Gabrielle started off, Xena came alongside. “No, get behind me, XenaGab. Stay here. I’ll tell you when the coast is clear.”
Xena growled but huffily did as ordered. She dropped to the ground, soon joined by the girls.
“Ouch. I feel for ya,” Lysia said, patting Xena’s shoulder.
“She was green back then. And I don’t remember being that mean.”
“You mean ‘I’ was green? And ‘she’ wasn’t that mean?”
Xena pursed her lips. “No, Celestine. I was giving commentary. As me. XenaXena.”
“It is now. Anybody got a problem with that?”
No one did. They focused on Gabrielle sauntering her way toward the bad guys.
“Hey there, fellas. Wanna party? With me?”
One of the men rose, holding the stick to a lighted firebomb. “Maybe later. Gotta finish this one first.” He gasped when a metallic blur lopped the top off his stick. “What the …?”
Gabrielle caught the returning chakram. “One of my special party tricks. Still not interested?”
“Wow!” Celestine clasped her hands. “I didn’t know she could do that!”
“First time was after I died in Japa. Last time, far as I know, until now.”
“Look, lady, you’re askin’ for a lot more trouble than you can handle.”
“Name’s GabXena. A warrior who’s handled bigger trouble than this.”
“Yeah? Like your outfit? You shrink from all the years on ya?”
“Even swimming in it I can move well enough to smack the sass out of you.” Gabrielle twirled her staff. “Wanna prove me wrong, hmmm?”
Three men stalked toward Gabrielle, one of them yelling, “Time to shut you up. Get on with the real party.”
Grinning ferally, Gabrielle parried and danced around. Eventually her staff dislodged swords, swatted butts and cracked heads. Seeing their buddies on the ground, three more came running. This time she thrust the end of her staff into each one’s belly before knocking them out cold. She got the last one, who’d come up behind her, with Xena’s no-look backward strike, her face contorted in a ferocious sneer.
Isis snickered. “Well, that’s not very attractive. The expression alone could kill you.”
“She’s tried to describe it to me. Now that I see it ….” Xena grinned. “Cool.”
“That’s at least three kills,” Lysia observed. “If she had a sword.”
“Yup. Accurate if it was XenaXena. Accurate that most would really be alive if left up to Gabrielle. Whatever her role.” Xena got to her feet. “Seems the rest want a piece of her.” On cue, Gabrielle turned and pointed to her soulmate. “Finally! My turn!” One attempted long stride later, she was ripping the sides of her skirt and racing freely toward her partner.
“Okay, XenaGab, let’s see what ya got.” Gabrielle handed over the staff as they passed each other. “Whistle if you need me.” She jogged to where she’d spotted the girls.
“Hey! Where ya goin’? What’re we s’posed to do with this one?”
“I’m here to offer a peaceful choice. Leave these people alone. Go back where you came from. No more blood need be shed.”
The men hesitated, gawking. “What is this? A grandma convention?”
“Mm, more a warrior convention. Except I don’t enjoy fighting, like my friend.” Xena twirled the staff. “But I’ll hurt you if I have to.”
“This’s nuts! Get that crazy fool!”
“Heeyah!” Xena swung the staff in wide loops above her head, then batted bodies into the air as if they were children’s balls.
“Pfft. That looks more like Xena than Gabrielle.”
“How so, Lysia?”
“Way she’s lighting into those baddies. Thought you favored restraint.”
“I do. Sparring isn’t the same as …. Oops. Sorry. Forgot I was supposed to be –.”
“It’s okay. We amended the rules. You can be yourself for now. Give commentary like we heard from …XenaXena.”
“I see. Thank you, Isis. In that case I’ll point out that XenaGab’s approach is accurately serious, methodical. And while I did avoid killing, I also wanted to ensure they didn’t get up right away.”
“Ah. What about hopping up on that boulder? It can’t be for leverage. She’s two inches taller than that guy.”
“Yes, she is.” Gabrielle pursed her lips. “No doubt another nod to authenticity.”
“A charitable interpretation of her veiled reference to my smaller stature. I occasionally used chairs or steps to overcome any height disad …challenges.”
“Hey! Is it over? The ones who can move are slinking off.”
“Gabrielle? Is that authentic too?”
Gabrielle watched her soulmate survey her handiwork with a self-satisfied smirk, casually brushing hair from her forehead as though standing in the middle of a peaceful meadow, basking in the sun. “It is if we’re talking XenaXena.”
“Welcome back, Scout Leader GabXena.”
“Hi, XenaXena. We missed you!”
It quickly became apparent to the couple strolling arm-in-arm the morning after returning home that their younger traveling companions had wasted no time sharing with their sisters highlights of the journey. The compound literally hummed with small groups chatting, giggling or sparring along the path from the village’s most esteemed residents’ home to a relaxation spot near the river.
“How long you figure they’ll keep this up?”
“With you? Maybe a day or so. I’m who’s doomed. Facing class after class of ‘innocent’ inquisitions. Generations will pass down ‘insights’ from my ill-conceived experiment.”
“Mm. That ‘together for eternity’ thing has its drawbacks. Hopefully our reincarnations won’t be look-alikes.” Xena stroked her chin. “Now there’s a thought. Do that GabXena sneer. You know, when I skewer an enemy behind me? According to witnesses, your version oughtta scare away the overly curious.”
Gabrielle sucked in her cheeks. “I take it you gave that particular impersonation a good review?”
“Five stars.” Having reached their destination, the warrior pulled a blanket from the bag slung over her shoulder. “I think we’ll get some privacy now. They wouldn’t dare bother us here.” She checked to ensure no one hovering too close. A gaggle of approaching girls turned on their heels and scurried off. “See?”
“Heh. I’d attribute that more to your … domestic … sneer.” Gabrielle laid out picnic items from a basket she carried. A few moments later she reclined across from Xena, surveying the arrangements. “Amazing how fast we do this. Must be the eternity we’ve already had synchronizing our habits.”
The partners enjoyed their quiet moment, as well as favorite foods they missed out on the road. They smiled affectionately at three recent interruptions holding court on the practice field, apparently re-enacting some of their own favorite moments – from a different angle. Celestine demonstrated Isis’ kicks and punches. Isis shot an imaginary arrow at a straw dummy, while Lysia attacked an invisible opponent sneaking up on Isis.
“Nice how they learned to appreciate each other.” Gabrielle chuckled. “At least the spot-on mannerisms.”
“Speaking of which, what about your earlier review?”
“My interpretation of your habits. That last … portrayal.”
“As XenaGab? During the fight?” Gabrielle sampled their grapes. “Reasonably authentic. Perhaps overplayed a bit during that scene in the middle. And at the end.”
“My in-joke? About overcoming your height … challenges?” Xena snickered. “Yeah, kind of a … stretch … for me.”
“As opposed to the smug finale?”
“Eh, an ad-libbed layer to my modest Gab characterization.” Xena shrugged. “Two purported has-beens had just wiped the grass with goons half their age. I figured it deserved a shout out from her XenaXena side.”
“True. Our successors acquitted themselves well. Might as well recognize we’d done the same.”
“I do have one quibble,” Xena acknowledged, stretching out on her side. “That, ‘Get behind me’ thing.”
“Tsk tsk. Possibly my best line.” Gabrielle rolled to her back. “I so anticipated that moment, soon as the escort guy deferred to me. Sure, he probably did it because of your leathers. In a way, that made it even more fitting. Um, because of the role playing, I mean. A great excuse to take charge.” She ducked her head. “I knew you’d be champing at the bit. Sorry if I put you down in front of the girls.”
“Eh, my ego’s pretty tough.” Xena chewed her lip. “Seemed kinda mean, though. Your portrayal. Was that … accurate? In your view?”
Gabrielle repositioned herself to face Xena. “Yes and no. The words. Maybe the tone. I don’t think I conveyed the caring.” She chuckled. “Raised swords? Scrungy warriors racing towards us? My main defense back then my mouth? Xena, my only criticism would be that your warning wasn’t necessary. I would’ve gotten behind you on my own. No future otherwise. All my optimism for naught.”
“Huh. And I might’ve been stuck in my past. No view of a better future.” Xena rolled to her back. “Didn’t fully understand it then – all the reasons I needed you behind me.”
“A life to protect. One that reminded me every moment of everything worth protecting. Joy, faith, dreams. A concrete purpose for my own life. Forcing me to look for better options. For opportunities to make small differences of value to someone else.” Xena turned to smile at her partner. “Most of what you like about me now? My heightened sensitivity? Awareness of my power to do good? You can thank that naïve little peasant girl who tried to turn Titans into pussy cats.”
Gabrielle raised a brow. “Mm. Your compliments could stand improvement.”
Xena laughed. She scooted over snare her soulmate. “With you now beside me? Out in front? Gotta leave some work for ya.”
“Humph. What about you? Protecting my back?”
“These hare-brained ideas I get. You never were very good at nipping them in the bud.”
“Awwww.” Xena kissed the top of Gabrielle’s head. “You’re welcome.”
“Your ‘we can fix anything or anyone’ attitude. Nudging folks out of their comfort zones. Obliviousness to looking hare-brained. Don’t those traits help define who you are? The woman we love and admire today? Hmmm?”
Gabrielle scowled at her soulmate. “I once thought trading your sword for a hammer would make you less insufferable.”
“I have many skills. You learned that from the start.”
“True. One of the problems with hindsight.” Gabrielle patted Xena’s arm. “Just when you see how you got somewhere? You end up tripping over something in front the whole time. Right,” she concluded contentedly, nestling into the warrior, “where you put her.”