The barricade stretched wide to deep gullies bordering either side, its walls high enough to impede scaling. Though in the middle of nowhere, it blocked passage of wagons and mounted groups seeking the most convenient route to several popular port towns. A few guards lolled outside the narrow structure, another five or so behind the open gates. Their behavior suggested that – if not for card games and confiscated wine – they had a greater chance of perishing from boredom than an arrow.
“Ho, what’ve we got here?” One of the guards lurched to his feet, shielding his eyes at a traveler approaching. “It’s a woman!”
His colleagues joined him, intrigued by this interruption in their routine. The woman rode with confidence, wore a frock displaying her cleavage, dark hair framing an attractively mature face. She pulled up a few feet away.
“You boys having a good day?”
The guards grinned at each other. An older man sauntered in front of them. “As good as any. You here to make it better?”
“Well, if it’s a toll you’re after, I’m afraid I’m low on dinars.” The woman smiled. “Unless you’d consider something else in exchange?”
The captain smirked. “I’m sure something could be arranged.”
“Sure, for you,” one of the others groused. “What about the rest of us?”
“Not to worry.” The woman winked. “I have friends. On foot. They should arrive shortly. I’m sure they won’t mind … paying … in similar fashion.” She gestured toward the barricade. “Someplace we can relax? Perhaps have a drink, a few laughs before our … transaction?”
“Yeah, yeah, we can fix things up for ya.” The guard speaking checked his captain for confirmation before dashing inside with most of the others.
The captain gallantly helped the woman dismount. “You’ll be my special guest.” He grinned. “I have my own quarters.”
“Lovely. I’m not as comfortable roughing it anymore.” The woman squeezed the arm he offered her. “I’m sure you understand.”
The two strolled inside. All but two guards stationed at the gates busied themselves setting tables with food and drink or tidying the tight enclosure they used for barracks. At the woman’s suggestion, they’d taken off their weapons and gathered around the tables to make things “more like a party.” They were telling jokes and singing bar songs when the other women arrived.
“Help is here, boys. Close your mouths and make my girls feel welcome.”
Awhile later, the men lay on the ground exhausted. Trussed hand and foot. The women gathered supplies, weapons and whatever money they could find.
“What about them? Should we untie one? Give him a knife to free the others?”
“No.” The dark-haired woman’s lip curled. “Kill `em all.”
“I’m so glad we did this.” Gabrielle closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. “Nothing like the ocean. I didn’t realize how much I missed it.”
Xena chuckled. “Better late than never.”
“Hey, being on the ocean’s one thing. I don’t miss heaving up my innards, thank you very much. Lollygagging beside it – that’s what I call a nice trip.”
“Wanna hang around a little more? Doubt anybody’ll be surprised if we’re a couple weeks late.”
“True.” Gabrielle stretched. “But with that Alliance meeting coming up …. Quite a few new members. We still haven’t hashed out who should – .”
“Yeah, yeah. All that hot air going to waste without you fanning it the right way.” Xena smiled good-naturedly and began clearing their dishes from the cloth they’d laid on the grass. “We can take another way back. Not as scenic, but more direct.”
“Sounds good.” Gabrielle got to her knees to begin rolling the cloth. “Besides, I’ll have with me the scenery I like best.”
“Mm. See how long that lasts.”
“`Xena, must you look like you’re in pain when I ask you to make a presentation?’ ‘Xena, the fish will be there tomorrow. Why do you disappear whenever the delegates come? I miss you.’”
Gabrielle scowled. “I do not sound like that. Maybe the words, but not that whiny voice.”
“Point is, better enjoy me while you can. Even we domesticated cats need to chase something in the wilderness every now and then.” Xena cut her eyes at Gabrielle. “Especially when blow-hards ’re in the house.”
The two fussed congenially until Xena busied herself loading their horses. Gabrielle walked once more to the shoreline. Glanced up at the call of a seagull. Smiled when soon wrapped in wings of a different sort. Leaning into the solid body that had come up behind her. Sharing the tranquility in their closeness, of the blue-on-blue horizon and sound of waves lapping a safe distance away at the water’s edge.
“Been awhile since I came this way.” Xena squinted at the barrier ahead. “What’s up with that?”
“A guard post? Out here?” Gabrielle frowned. “But no guards?”
Xena indicated they should dismount. She made a quick inspection of the grounds. “Somebody was here. Not long ago.” She unhooked her sword from the saddle and retrieved the chakram from her bag.
“Um, should I arm myself too?”
“Just being careful. Not sure if the quiet’s good or bad.” Xena slowly opened the gate.
“By the gods.” Gabrielle started toward the scattered bodies. “Do you think any of them are – .”
“Wait.” Xena pointed toward the sheltered areas. “Could still be here.” She scanned the top of the walls. Satisfied no one lurked there, she began checking inside the barracks.
Gabrielle trotted past an older man. He lay with his eyes open, throat slit. Her heart made her go to the other victims, even though they too looked past hope. Finally she found one still breathing. She cradled his head.
“How’s he doing?” Xena knelt beside them.
The man’s lashes fluttered. He struggled weakly. “Shhh. It’s okay.” Gabrielle tried to calm him. His eyes blinked open, focused on Xena and widened in fear. “We won’t hurt ….” He fell back, limp. Gabrielle sighed. “He’s gone.”
Xena rested her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “All of `em?”
Gabrielle nodded. “Xena, they were helpless. No sign of struggle. Who would do such a thing?”
Xena was staring at the footprints in the soft dirt. Swallowing back the bile rising to her mouth. She had an idea all right, but not one she felt like sharing until she was sure.
“Xena? What is it? Do you know who did this? How to find them?” Gabrielle raised Xena’s chin. “I’m with you, if you believe we should. The Alliance business can wait.”
Xena’s jaw tightened. “I do,” she said. And prayed she was wrong.
The tavern bustled with activity reflecting the town’s reputation as a place to do business of almost any kind. Xena adjusted the sword on her back before striding through the swinging doors. She’d surprised Gabrielle by fastening on the old armor she carried “just in case” – wanting to present herself as a warrior. She’d said this might help elicit information about the mystery they’d decided to pursue. Gabrielle didn’t quite understand her partner’s cryptic explanation about that or how she’d determined this as their first stop. She hadn’t pressed, sensing Xena needed a certain amount of distance to deal with whatever answers they might learn.
They seated themselves at a table near the entrance. Xena did her usual scan. Gabrielle followed suit, searching for likely unsavory types, until she realized the warrior seemed more interested in the serving girls. The blue gaze honed in on one in particular – a young brunette dressed in the same revealing outfit as the others but weaving among the patrons with less chitchat, more adeptness at fending off unwelcome interruptions.
“Hey!” Xena waved off another server, instead beckoning the brunette. “Been on the road all day,” she said when the girl came over. She threw a look at the server she’d dismissed, now flirting with a customer. “Might not eat for an hour, if one of those others takes our order. My gut says you’ll be quicker.”
The girl studied Xena a moment. “I reckon. Very observant.”
“Have to be, in my business. We’ll take a mug of ale, cup of port and whatever’s hot, filling and most edible.”
“Coming right up.” The girl started back toward the kitchen.
“Before you go ….” When the girl turned, Xena picked up an empty mug that hadn’t been cleared away. She tossed it to the girl, who caught it neatly. “Good reflexes too, eh?”
“Uh, yeah, I guess.” The girl cocked her head, chewing her lip. She finally smiled. “Comes in handy in my business.”
“Xena?” Gabrielle slid her eyes between her partner and the retreating girl. “Mind telling me what you’re up to?”
“Just playing a hunch. Bear with me, okay?” Xena patted Gabrielle’s knee. “Oh, and my name’s … Lycea.”
“I see. The plot thickens.” Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. “And I’m …?”
Xena grinned. “Whoever you want.”
“How generous. I’m finally getting a say in this.” Gabrielle lightly kicked Xena’s foot. “Hmmm.” She drummed her fingers against her chin in exaggerated contemplation. Before she could respond, the girl returned with their drinks.
“Food’ll be up soon. The house specialty – beef stew.” The girl pointed her chin at Xena’s armor. “Don’t have to be observant to see you’re a warrior.”
Xena chuckled. “Yup.”
“Haven’t seen too many like you. Alone, I mean. You a mercenary? Bounty hunter?”
“Used to ride with a gang. Long time ago. The leader in fact.” Xena shrugged. “Got tired of male … excesses. Women, drinking, pillaging for the sake of it. I’m pickier about my battles now. Since I saved my friend here from slavers. Felt good. I jump in when I see bullying going on, especially if it’s women and children.”
“Yeah?” The girl came closer. “Wish we had more women … um … people like you around here. Somebody with spine. Seasoned. You staying long?”
Xena leaned back in her chair. “Got a problem needs solving?”
The girl glanced around. “I’d like to talk some more,” she said quietly. “Rooms’re all filled. If you don’t mind roughing it a bit ….”
“My cousin Danae manages the stables. She lets folks bunk there sometimes. I can check while I’m waiting on your food.”
“Sure. See how we feel after we eat.”
“I’m Tasha, by the way. Glad to meet you.”
“Lycea. My friend here is ….” Xena turned to Gabrielle with barely concealed humor. “I’ll let her introduce herself.”
Xena kept it together until Tasha’s and Danae’s footsteps faded away.
“G-G-Gab.” Xena had fallen back on a haystack, tears streaming down her face.
“Ga-Ga-blilla,” Xena finally got out. “Bwahahahahaha!”
“S-sorry.” Xena hiccupped. “It’s just …. Ga-blilla? Ya gotta admit ….” Though she held her sides, she couldn’t keep her body from shaking.
“How fortunate for you you’re so easily amused.” Gabrielle stood over her insufferable soulmate with folded arms. “Too bad I’m not sharing the moment. And for your information, it’s Gab-lilla.”
Xena cleared her throat. “Oh …. Gab-lilla,” she echoed, trying desperately to be serious. “That’s so much bet – bwahahahaha!”
“I borrowed from my sister’s name, like you borrowed from your brother’s. I had to think fast.” Gabrielle discovered a smile threatening despite her pique. “Sounded better in my head.”
Xena took in some deep breaths. Biting her lip, she sat up and scooted against the stall that would serve as their accommodations for the night. “C’mere,” she invited, patting a spot beside her. “Please? Pretty please with molasses on top?”
“You’ll have to do better than that, missy.” Gabrielle took her time plumping down next to the warrior. “Not sure this is where I wanna be paid, but I will get what’s due me.”
Xena grinned. “With pleasure, I’m sure.” She draped her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulder. “That’s nice – honoring Lila. Didn’t realize it at the time. Kinda caught me off guard.”
“Yeah, I know.” Gabrielle chuckled. “For a so-called bard, you’d think I’d do better with names.”
“Well, Lyceus was a little easier to work with.” Xena rested her head against Gabrielle’s. “If it helps, I needed a good laugh.”
Gabrielle repositioned herself to see Xena’s face. “I know. I’m trying to be patient.”
“And I appreciate that.”
“Does this have to do with the past?”
Xena sighed. “Doesn’t it always?”
“You know you can tell me anything.”
“Yeah.” Xena fiddled with a piece of straw. “This is … different. Something even I wouldn’t expect. Right now it’s just a bad feeling in my gut. If I’m right, my gut also says we may need you to go in … fresh. No preconceptions.” She tapped Gabrielle’s nose. “Your usual open, forgiving self.”
Gabrielle considered how accustomed she’d become to surprises, to mysteries that took years to unfold. Her soulmate being the biggest. But Xena always came through. Had failed Gabrielle less than her own breath. She trusted her partner’s instincts. Her silences, especially after so many years of revealing to each other their deepest secrets. What mattered most was dealing with it together.
“I’m in this the whole way? No solo missions?”
“Where I go, you go. And vice versa.”
“Humph. We know how creative you can be about that. I’ll need some reassurance.”
Xena smirked. “A deposit on what’s due you?”
“Exactly. You can settle the balance later. For now, I’ll be satisfied with you glued to me like your hands on a fishing pole.”
The feet carefully picking their way through the darkness didn’t surprise Xena, who’d been dozing in alert mode. She squeezed Gabrielle’s shoulder. “Shhh. Company. Don’t resist.”
“She said they were over here,” someone whispered.
“Lookin’ for us?” Xena squinted in the direction of some gray shapes. Their movement stopped at her words. “I’m Lycea.”
“Tasha sent us. We’d like to talk with you.”
Xena sat up. “We?”
“Friends of hers. We’ll take you to her.” The speaker shuffled closer. “Here.”
Xena felt a piece of cloth brush her face. “What’s this?”
“Tie it around your eyes.”
“Um, we got a problem.”
“Look, if you want to come with us – .”
“There’s only one.”
“One blindfold. We need two.”
“Two? Tasha didn’t – .”
“Maybe she got the wrong impression about my sweet-looking friend. We’re a team. Where I go, she goes.”
After some whispering, a voice said, “Fine. Use my scarf.”
Xena handed the first blindfold to Gabrielle and tied the scarf around her eyes. “Now what?”
“We’ll lead you out. You can ride double on the horse we got for you.”
“Works for me.” Xena stood, pulling Gabrielle up with her. “Ready when you are.”
“We seem to be the only ones riding,” Gabrielle noted softly out the corner of her mouth.
“You’re not surprised.”
“Has anything surprised you yet?”
Xena tightened her arms around her partner. “Afraid not.”
It occurred to Gabrielle that Xena hadn’t been angsty about her past in a long time. What hadn’t changed was the warrior’s getting angsty when something might affect a certain soulmate. Gabrielle couldn’t imagine what that could be this time. Everyone who’d been a threat was long gone. As far as she knew, no recent enemies would be connected to Tasha and her friends.
“Just go with the flow, okay?”
“Be yourself. Even if I’m not.”
“Xena, what in – .” Gabrielle’s question got cut short by another voice.
“We’re here. Hold on. We’ll help you – .”
“I got it.” Xena deftly dismounted from the back of the horse, felt her way to Gabrielle’s side and gave her partner a lift down. She smirked when she felt a light “Show off” swat to her midsection.
“Tasha had a feeling you were good.” One of the welcoming party grasped Xena’s elbow. “You good enough to find your way inside blindfolded?”
Xena rolled her hidden eyes. Amateurs. Judging by the terrain, “inside” probably meant a building of some sort – not a cave or tent in the middle of a forest. She’d already sniffed the scent of farm animals. She swept her right foot wide from side to side, then her left. Just as she figured, they stood on ground more trampled than the bordering area. A path of some sort. And from the crackling and heat, someone in front of them held a torch.
“Mm. Why don’t we see?” Xena pulled away from the hand on her elbow but kept her arm around Gabrielle. She chuckled to herself at the murmurs as she walked confidently straight ahead. Finally her foot stubbed against smooth stone. “Careful,” she warned Gabrielle. “Probably a step,” which led to a flat wooden surface. She moved forward slowly, one arm stretched in front, until she touched more wood. She ran her hand up and down it, confirming a doorframe. Turning partially, she addressed the others as if she could see them. “Wanna announce us? Or should we just go in?”
Once seated and their blindfolds removed, the visitors casually scanned the common room of a middle-sized home. Gabrielle was particularly interested in gleaning anything that might be a factor in her partner’s curious behavior. In reality it seemed they’d joined a typical village sewing circle. Six mostly youngish women in peasant dresses appeared to be working on pieces of fabric draping their laps. They nodded at their guests. Only one aspect departed from the norm. Except for Tasha and Danae, the others had hats, scarves and/or masks concealing their faces.
Tasha stood and smiled. “Ladies, I’d like you to meet the woman … um, women … I told you about. This is Lycea,” she said, pointing at Xena. “And her companion … uh …. Sorry.” She looked apologetically at Gabrielle.
“Call me ‘Lil.’” Gabrielle rolled her tongue in her cheek. “Easier to remember than … my full name.”
“And pronounce,” Xena added under her breath. She focused on Tasha, mainly to avoid a pair of cutting green eyes. “I take it you won’t be introducing the rest of this gathering?”
Tasha sat on the edge of a chair. “My friends’re taking a big risk. We’re all part of something our families and neighbors don’t know about. We could be in big trouble if they did.”
“Far as they know, I’m just the stable keeper.” Danae leaned forward. “You might bump into some of the others at the market or walking with their kids. We gotta know first if we can trust you. Tasha and I think we can. If we’re wrong ….” She shrugged. “We’ll be the only ones to pay.”
“You’re vigilantes,” Xena stated matter-of-factly. “I already figured out that much.”
“H-how …?” Tasha spread her hands. “I didn’t tell her anything about us,” she said to the others. “Honestly. I just said I wanted to talk with her.”
“Like you said, I’m very observant.” Xena relaxed back and crossed her legs. “Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? What’s your game? How do we figure in?”
Tasha checked with the others. At their nods, she explained how certain developments had gotten worse over the years. Developments that put the womenfolk at more risk or lessened their stature. Like warlords being replaced by self-described “governors.”
“They promise peace and protection,” one woman said. “They come to us all civilized like. Tell us we can go on as usual. ‘All’ we have to do is contribute to the expenses for maintaining their forces. It’s up to our husbands and sons if they want to join. And they get paid for doing it.”
“Yeah, our men think it’s a good deal. The governors have rules to keep women in our ‘place.’ They say we’re safer not being in positions of authority. Staying inside unless it’s to do chores. Pfft. I don’t wanna run nothin’, but I’ll be damned if I’m takin’ orders from some idiot I wouldn’t marry if he was a god.”
“And that’s another thing. In the old days, we had strong female gods like Athena. Great warriors like Xena. Leaders like Gabrielle of the Amazons. Our mothers and grandmothers used to talk about them. Now it’s forbidden. Or they claim our heroes were the lackeys and handmaidens of men called the ‘true’ power or whatever.”
The women complained how their men turned a blind eye to corruption, dissenters disappearing, “peace keepers” who did and took what they wanted when it came to weaker families. How mysterious attacks occurred, with no one brought to justice.
“Excuse me?” Gabrielle raised her hand. “Sorry to interrupt. We passed through a barricade on our way here. The guards had been slaughtered like animals. Is that the kind of thing the women have organized against?”
Silence fell. The women shifted and exchanged glances uncertainly.
“Um ….” Tasha took a deep breath. “We don’t …. We’re newer to all this. We have sisters who are more … active. You know, going out on missions. They’ve been teaching us how to protect ourselves. Letting us know how and when we can help. What you saw …. We haven’t been briefed about that yet.”
“These ‘others.’” Xena cocked her head. “You interviewing us for them? If we pass, will we meet them?”
“Possibly.” An older dark-haired woman entered from another room. She also wore a mask and peasant dress, but had the bearing of someone used to being in charge. She stood behind Tasha. “What are your thoughts so far?”
Gabrielle turned to Xena, who stared at the newcomer as if she’d seen a ghost.
“Do I seem familiar? I thought from Tasha’s description we might have met before.”
Gabrielle frowned, trying to place that voice. “Maybe so. I just can’t ….”
“I recognized the signs.” Xena’s jaw tightened. “Didn’t exactly expect it’d mean you.”
“Commander?” The confusion on Danae’s face mirrored that of the other women. “Is everything …. Did we do wrong? Bringing them here?”
“We’ll know soon enough.” The older woman moved from behind Tasha. She waited for another woman to get her a chair. She seated herself across from the visitors. “It’s been awhile. About 15 years would you say?”
Xena nodded. “Already starting to feel like yesterday.”
The woman relaxed back and crossed her legs in similar fashion as her dark-haired guest. “Same here. Although I probably thought a lot more about you than you did about me.”
Xena shook her head. “I thought about you. Just not like this.”
“You were my mentor. It’s what we do.”
Gabrielle had been shifting her eyes between the masked woman and Xena. At that last comment, old memories kicked in. She suddenly recalled footprints at the guard post, had a flash of another time she’d come across bound soldiers with arrows in their backs. Finally understood Xena’s reluctance to talk about her hunch.
The woman noted the comprehension dawning on Gabrielle’s face. She chuckled. “My other mentor. Seems it’s like yesterday for her too now. Yes,” she said, taking off her mask, “it’s me. Varia.”
Those gathered were disappointed not to learn more about the puzzling interaction between their leader and guests. Varia had explained the trio fought together many years ago to save the Amazon Nation, in large part successful because of Lycea’s battle experience and Lil’s negotiation skills. She’d been interrupted by loud singing from someone stationed outside, signaling the earlier than expected return of the husband of the house.
By the time he stumbled in, those inside had removed their masks, picked up their sewing and were gossiping about a neighbor. The man paid them scant attention. He wove his way to the sleeping quarters, apparently too drunk to question the late-night carryings on of women’s business. The circle broke up shortly thereafter.
Varia indicated the visitors should go with her. She mounted one horse while they doubled up on another to trail her into the forest. The three rode without conversation, their route in the darkness off the beaten path requiring their full attention.
After about an hour, Varia pulled up. “One of my camping spots. We’ll leave the horses here.” She pushed through an opening in some large bushes surrounding a small clearing. “I keep extra supplies here,” she said, digging up an oil-clothed package. She unwrapped it and handed Gabrielle a blanket. “This should do. You’ll have each other for warmth.”
“Don’t wanna risk it. We’ll set out early in the morning.”
“Where?” Xena asked.
“Appreciate the hospitality, but we have our own stuff at the stables.”
Varia lay her blanket on the ground. “We can stop there on the way.” She snorted. “I figured you’d want to catch up on old times. See how the other half lives. Gabrielle anyway.”
“Yes, of course.” Gabrielle gave their blanket to Xena, nudging her partner to take care of their sleeping arrangement. “Obviously things have changed since we saw you last.”
Varia dropped down to her blanket. “Yeah. They have. And some others’ll always be the same.” She stretched out and got comfortable. “Good night.”
Gabrielle stared at the lump she could vaguely make out. “Good night.” She joined her reclining soulmate. “Good night to you too.”
“Mm.” Xena pulled Gabrielle in. “Wonder if tomorrow’ll be as good.”
Late afternoon the next day, Varia stopped at the outskirts of a wooded area in front of a huge rock formation. A couple of women in breeches appeared and saluted her. They removed a barricade camouflaged with various greenery to reveal a narrow path. The party on horseback took that route to the rock formation. A large slab opened. They passed underneath a long ceiling of stone to emerge into a large grassy area with trees and other vegetation, encircled by a wall of rock. A waterfall pooled at the base of one side.
Huts and other structures gave a human touch to the otherwise natural scene. Thirty or so women in battledress were engaged in drills or chores. To the experienced eye, the settlement looked very much like a miniature Amazon village.
“You can stay in there.” Varia indicated a small hut. “I’ll send for you shortly.”
“Well.” Gabrielle watched Varia ride to a large structure in the middle of the compound. “This gets more interesting by the moment.”
“Mmhm.” Xena dismounted, helped her partner down and began unloading their things.
“You’re not surprised by this either?” Gabrielle asked once they’d entered the hut.
“Not particularly.” Xena tested one of the two cots. “Yup. Hard as an Amazon’s head.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “They do have a reputation to maintain.” She cut her eyes at her partner. “You know that’s not what I meant.”
“Uh huh. Good thing we got our sleeping furs. That oughtta help.”
Gabrielle rolled her tongue in her cheek as Xena blithely pushed the cots together and layered them with their furs, before taking out a few items from their bags – her sharpening stone and comb, Gabrielle’s brush and writing supplies – and arranged them neatly on a small chest.
“You planning on moving in?”
“Same as if we were camping. `Cept for the four walls and something to rest on besides logs or the ground.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle sat on the lone chair and crossed her legs. “I’m this close to making myself a widow. I suggest you share whatever’s going on in the most legendary hard head before I lose the little patience I have left.”
Xena blew out a long breath. She perched on the side of a cot. “She called us by our made-up names.”
“So? Most of those women probably believe we’re dead. You really think that was the time to try explaining the truth?”
“I’m not sure time was the problem. She had enough for a half truth.”
“Okay, so what was the problem?”
Xena scooted back against a wall. “As who they think we are, we could be more recruits. As who we really are, we could be … a complication.”
“I’m not trying to be difficult, okay? I hafta see how this plays out. Can you wait until we talk with her? I suspect it’ll be clearer to both of us.”
Gabrielle studied her partner a moment. “You afraid we won’t see it the same? That I’ll take their side against – .”
“Gabrielle,” Xena said, leaning forward, “I count on you seeing things differently. What I said before? About you having a fresh perspective? I feel it even more now. Especially if I’m right.”
Gabrielle leaned forward. “Xena, we work best as a team. You know that. Why can’t you at least tell me – .”
“It won’t change being a team.” Xena got off the cot and knelt in front of Gabrielle. She took her partner’s hands. “I trust your gut as much as I do mine.” She smiled. “Remember how I said we’re like my chakram? Two halves of a whole? Sometimes splitting apart, coming from different directions? Whatever happens, you have to believe it’s for the same purpose. That we’ll come together in the end.”
“You’re scaring me, you know.”
Xena grinned sheepishly. “Not buyin’ the chakram thing, eh. I thought it was pretty good.”
“Oh, it was. Any other time I’d be melting in your arms. Under these circumstances? Not particularly reassuring.”
Xena batted her eyes. “But you’ll go along anyway?”
Gabrielle sucked in her cheeks. “Old habits do die hard.”
Xena grinned. “That’s my girl.”
“I wouldn’t get too cocky. There’s a particularly bad old habit I still might kick before this is over.”
The woman who came to fetch the visitors wore a long frock, as did several others exiting from the compound. Those inside the main building had on traditional Amazon leathers. Most conversed and ate at long tables. Varia sat by herself at a smaller table, above which hung an elaborate ceremonial headdress. When her guests approached, she signaled for trays of food and drink.
“I see Amazon hospitality hasn’t changed,” Gabrielle said, seating herself.
Varia shrugged. “I tried to keep the best of what we had.”
“Had?” Xena got comfortable, stretching her legs under the table.
Varia cocked her head. “Right to it, eh? Same ol’ Xena. In that respect anyway.” She gazed at the warrior. “The years have been kind to you. You too, Gabrielle.”
Xena nodded. “Look pretty good yourself. A few more battle scars,” she noted, pointing her chin at a diagonal red line on Varia’s upper chest. “Another beauty mark to a warrior.”
“For some, I guess. How about you, Gabrielle? You earned any more since Helicon?”
“I suppose.” Gabrielle chuckled. “Unlike some people, I’m not in the habit of counting them.” Her expression grew serious. “Especially since many are on the inside. Or were acquired those years Xena was dead.”
“So it’s true?” Varia glanced between her two visitors. “About you getting killed? Fighting hundreds of soldiers in a land far to the east?”
“Yep. Would’ve been the last of many deaths.” Xena smiled fondly at her partner. “If not for a certain blonde.”
Varia studied Gabrielle. “Once an Amazon, always an Amazon?”
Xena snorted. “If you go by hard heads, she’s still the queen.”
Varia snapped apart the bones of a chicken wing. “Too bad most of her subjects bit the dust.”
Gabrielle braced her arms on the table. “What’s happened, Varia? The Amazons in our part of Greece still thrive, not far from a village I started. They have cooperative arrangements with an alliance of other villages.”
“They stay in their own little place? Intermingle on somebody else’s terms?”
“It’s mutually beneficial to everyone. We share our resources. Band together when threatened. We’ve worked so people don’t have to kill each other over territory. Sure, there are still those who – .”
“Some of us are from the old school. We liked having our own place. Our own ways and rules. We tried the ‘cooperative’ route. Ended up with the short end. Settlements popping up on our land. ‘Etiquette’ for how we should act if we went to town. Losing our young women to so-called luxuries and protection from men. Forced to wander further and further away from decent areas for growing or hunting or water.” Varia’s jaw clenched. “I haven’t been north in a while, but I hear we’ve dwindled there as well.”
Gabrielle frowned. “Are you saying this is it? What you have here?”
“Those Amazons over there?” Varia indicated a table of about a dozen older women. “Far as I know, they’re the last of our force after Helicon. A few returned to their homelands. The rest of us have traveled together searching for somewhere we could survive and protect our traditions.”
Xena raised a brow. “And recruit new Amazons?”
“We’ve had to … compromise. Do whatever it takes. It seems domesticated woman aren’t always happy with their lot. If their lives are more comfortable, it’s because they do most of the work. And sometimes husbands don’t protect them from the dangers outside their homes. Or inside.”
“Mm. So you decided to do it for them.”
“Like a certain legendary Warrior Princess.” Varia pointedly stared at Xena’s silver-streaked bangs. “When she still had her youth and fire.”
“Varia?” Gabrielle held the eyes of the woman she’d once fought in hand-to-hand combat over how far the Amazons should go to preserve their nation. “We passed through a barricade on the road here. The guards had been bound and killed.”
Varia relaxed back in her chair. “So?”
“We didn’t see signs of a mounted attack. The footprints inside could’ve been made by Amazon boots.”
Varia snorted softly. “Must’ve been disappointing. Nobody to talk things over with. As I recall, you preferred –.”
“Cut the crap, Varia.” Xena leaned on the table, eyes unrelenting. “Did you or didn’t you?”
Varia’s lip curled. “What’s it to either of you? Gabrielle says you have a whole new life now. Settled in a nice, peaceful village. Model Amazons on exhibit nearby. ‘Preserved.’” She pushed back her chair and stood. “I have business to take care of. You’re welcome to tour the place. We’ll decide tomorrow how best to get you back where you belong.”
Xena sat on a cot sharpening her weapons. Gabrielle paced around the guest hut, not sure whether to be more disturbed by what they’d found or Xena’s apparent lack of concern.
“Clearly we can’t leave yet.”
Xena peered up at her agitated partner. “Clearly.”
“It’s not just about me, Xena. You saw it. You’re not the least bit disturbed?”
“I saw a lot. Anything in particular?”
Gabrielle stopped pacing and crossed her arms. “Why does everything have to be a riddle? I swear, Xena. You can be so maddening sometimes.”
Xena snorted. “My middle name. ‘Maddening.’”
“It’s not funny. These women could be headed for big trouble. With Varia leading the charge. Maybe a lot of innocent people caught in the crossfire. They need guidance. Who else is there, besides us?”
Xena let the knife she was working on rest in her lap. “She doesn’t want our help.”
“Clearly.” Gabrielle sat on the chair across from Xena. “When has that ever stopped us? When we knew it was right?”
“Right.” Xena raised a brow. “And exactly what is that?”
“Oh, for the love of – .”
“What’s ‘right,’ Gabrielle?” Xena blew out a breath. “You’ve got maybe the last of the Amazons, threatened with extinction. How’re they to survive without new recruits? Nothing worth defending?”
“What about the women they’re recruiting? The families torn apart? The sons and husbands they might be forced to kill?”
“It’s their choice. You want `em subjugated? Little choice at all? Not able to see another way, let alone to do anything besides accept they don’t deserve better?”
“And if she attacks? They’ll be better off? Accepting violence as the answer?”
“They may have to. The men started this. Accepting violence to defend their ‘right.’ Their way. Even the most reasonable will feel they have no choice, if Varia threatens their homes.”
Gabrielle stared at Xena. “Just whose side are you on?”
“Haven’t made up my mind yet.” The corner of Xena’s mouth quirked. “I’m only saying, ‘right’ isn’t always as simple as it seems. Maddening, huh?”
“So, whaddya think?” Tasha had come with Danae, ostensibly to accompany the newcomers away from the compound, in actuality hoping that wouldn’t be necessary.
Xena glanced at Gabrielle. The latter gestured toward their bed. “Sit a moment.” When they did, she asked, “What do you think?”
Danae blinked. “Us?”
“You’re a part of this, right?” Gabrielle smiled. “Amazons in training, so to speak?”
“Well, sure. We’re still green and all, but we think you should stay.” Danae looked to Tasha for confirmation. “Even we can tell Lycea knows her stuff.”
“Exactly what of her ‘stuff’ do you believe you’ll be needing?”
Tasha glanced between the two guests, perplexed. “Her warrior stuff. Like I said at the inn. Teach us what she knows. How she’s survived this long.” She frowned at Xena. “Didn’t Varia say you fought together?”
“She say anything else about me?”
“Um … well … not much. Only that maybe you’d changed.” Tasha grinned. “I said I didn’t think so. Not from what I got at the inn.” She cocked her head. “Almost like you already knew. Wanted in on the action. Checking to see if we were worthy.”
“Mm.” Xena studied her fingernails. “Not sure Varia’s on board with that. Gotta respect the chain of command.”
Tasha brightened. “Why don’t we see? We’re having a big gathering tonight. Stay. We’ll tell her we trust you, to give you a chance. If she agrees, will you?”
Xena raised a brow at Gabrielle. Gabrielle nodded.
“Sure. Not much waitin’ for us at home, besides a bunch of blow-hards.”
The meeting hut hummed with women packing every inch – all ages, a small group in Amazon leathers, some in make-shift warrior garb, many dressed as ordinary villagers. Varia stood behind the head table observing it all, particularly the entrance. When she finally saw the two figures she’d been waiting for, she gestured for them to join her.
“Looks like a party,” Xena observed dryly, coming up beside Varia. “Somebody’s birthday?”
Varia gave Xena a long look. Her mouth quirked. “In a way. Another milestone for the Amazon Nation. We’re celebrating its growth and strength. Its future.”
Gabrielle stood beside her partner, surveying the room. “It’s good to see.”
Varia gave Gabrielle a long look. “No doubt Xena knows there’s more to it. You should too.” She pointed her chin at spears, masks and other items adorning the room, which usually accompanied battle rituals. “Judging by the … ‘party’ … decorations.”
“Yes. That’s why we stayed. To help if we can.”
“You may change your mind. Once you hear, I can’t let you leave. Not before … we’re ready. You can still go now. Back to your peaceful life. Remember us as we are now – a roomful of women celebrating … whatever we can still celebrate.”
Xena leaned down, her mouth close to Varia’s ear. “We already know who you are and what’s worth celebrating. You, on the other hand, know squat about who we are now. If you remember anything about who we were, you know this whole place couldn’t stop us from leaving whenever we damn want.”
Varia stared defiantly into ice-blue eyes as unwavering as ever. She smirked. “So you do have some of the old fire. Let’s see if it burns for the Amazons.” She nodded to servers to begin bringing out trays of food. “Eat first. Stomach what you can. See about the other when it comes.”
“All right, everyone. Your attention please.” Gilda, one of the older Amazons, waited for quiet. “There’s a few of us left who have looked forward to this night for many, many moons. We feared it would never be. Commander Varia will now fill you in on why it is so special.”
Varia rose, as everyone else did as well. Finally she put up her hand to quell the clapping that erupted. The women assembled seated themselves, faces beaming with anticipation. Varia moved to the podium behind her chair, accentuated by the queen’s mask above her and the step that added to her height.
“So. You want to become ‘real’ women.”
“Yes! Like you!” someone shouted. “Amazons!”
Varia nodded, smiling before her expression became serious. “Know that I was not unlike many of you. Even though raised an Amazon, I too was once innocent. Gentle. Trusting my feeling of safety came with the territory. Until men invaded it.” Her eyes hardened. “Led by a woman.”
“She killed my sister. I had the chance to kill that woman, but didn’t. I learned betrayal comes in many forms. I vowed I would not be fooled again.” Varia paused, staring at the back of Xena’s head as though simply gathering her thoughts. “I met that woman later.”
“You killed her then?”
“I wanted to. But Livia had become someone else. Now known as `Eve.’ Someone who sought to protect us from an enemy. Someone under the protection of other women I respected. Who taught me that sometimes the true enemy is within. Guilt, fear or duty that keeps us from seeing clearly. One must be strong to vanquish that. It may mean hard choices between being comfortable or being free. You will soon have the chance to decide for yourself which it will be.”
Varia paused again, this time to recognize the tense stillness produced by her words. Once again her eyes grazed the rigid back of the mentor whose own decision might determine what happened tomorrow.
“As you know, ‘Governor’ Lapedus has taken tighter and tighter control of this area. He is conscripting more of your men. He established a barricade in hopes of preventing his ‘subjects’ from leaving or help from coming in.” Varia drew herself up. “Some of us responded to that. In no uncertain terms. He did not like our answer.”
“You?!” a woman near the front gasped. “Those guards found dead …. Unarmed and bound. Amazons did that?”
“My nephew was one of them!”
“And my brother!”
Varia raised her hand. “I am sorry for your loss. But they too made a choice – to become instruments of those who would defeat ‘real’ women. Lapedus is gathering forces to march against the Amazons soon. No doubt he will sweep up more of your men.”
“But ….” A middle-aged woman near the back jumped up. “They don’t know about us! If they did –”
“They’d do everything in their power to put you back in your ‘place.’”
“You expect us to take up arms against them?”
“I expect you’ll make a choice. Stand with the Amazons. Stand against the Amazons. Or stand on the sidelines and let the victor decide for you.”
“But … I’m not ready! Handling weapons is one thing. How many of us are prepared to kill?”
Others nodded, obviously stunned by the potential reality of their romanticized notion of independence.
“I’m ready.” Tasha walked in front of the queen’s table. “Did you really think we’d change anything by whining or wishing it so? Becoming secret warriors who’d never have to fight? I’m through fending off drunks, being at the beck and call of any dolt in pants. Even if there was no battle, I’d rather die cramming a mug down one of their throats!”
“She’s got a point. Maybe all of us can’t use a sword, but we have the power to weaken in other ways. As cooks. Spies. ‘Accidentally’ leaving wagons in their path.”
“And what makes anybody think our men will be better than us?” a stout woman challenged. “I’m the one does all the heavy work. I slaughter our food, `cause my husband can’t stand the sight of blood.”
“Yeah, mine’s gotten fatter and lazier, since Lapedus made him ‘king of the castle.’ It’s easy to bluster when you got no opposition. How many of `em’ll wanna go up against Amazons?”
The mood began to shift from incredulity to cautious consideration.
“Lapedus still has more seasoned soldiers than we do true Amazons,” a woman finally pointed out. “Are we talking sneak attacks? Sabotage? All-out combat?”
“Our strategy depends on many factors. You – your numbers and willingness among them.” Once again Varia gazed at the back of her dark-haired guest. “On the collective wisdom of those with experience in similar situations.”
This time Xena turned around. She raised a brow. Varia nodded. Xena’s brow remained arched, but she nodded back.
“Fortunately, we have among us a stalwart of the Amazon Nation. Thought dead by many, but actually retired and still quite formidable. She was introduced to you by another name. I will let her introduce herself as one of the finest battle strategists the world has ever known.”
Xena hadn’t needed Varia’s eyes piercing her back to figure she’d be sucked into both their pasts. And Gabrielle’s. Xena finally had to acknowledge to herself the mixed emotions she’d carried about her partner’s Amazon sisterhood. Yes, she was proud of Gabrielle’s status, grateful it had given her a role and recognition apart from the Warrior Princess. But it had also been another source of conflict – not just between them, but within Gabrielle.
It didn’t matter that Gabrielle had become a warrior herself, able to command Amazons in battle, that she accepted the consequences. Even now, years later, she still viewed the violence as sometimes necessary but nearly always evil. She’d managed to help the Amazons in Thrace achieve a delicate balance between their traditions and peaceful co-existence with neighboring villages. But in the back of Xena’s mind lurked Amazons like Varia who defined themselves by their warrior spirit and the battles they fought to preserve it. Something Xena understood all too well.
She’d wondered what she’d do if this moment came. In truth, her breath had quickened a few days ago at putting on her old armor, striding into that inn and being identified as a combat veteran. Testing Tasha as she had recruits long ago. Determining her options, weighing their practicality and itching at the chance to be personally involved. Something she hadn’t gotten to do much of in the 10 or so years of settled life in Gabrielle’s Village of Dreams.
And Gabrielle? Xena would’ve wondered what was going on in her partner’s head as well. If she hadn’t already decided to choose for both of them. Aware of expectant murmuring, Xena prepared to stand, to deliver words of encouragement that wouldn’t be too specific. She needed time first to find out more about the situation – both the enemy and potential “troops.” Just as she was about to rise, the person next to her beat her to it.
“I am Gabrielle, proud to have worn the mask of Amazon queen. And, yes, the woman beside me is none other than my champion and yours – Xena.” Gabrielle smiled at the gasps this evoked.
“No one has higher regard for my legendary partner than I. No one is more grateful for her support, which I’m sure she would willingly give my sisters. Whether already initiated or considering it, you are my sisters. I took an oath long ago to be and do whatever necessary for your well-being.” Green eyes swept the room, lingering momentarily on Varia and Xena. “With all due respect to your current queen and the Warrior Princess, I stand ready to provide guidance during the trying times ahead.”
The sentry cocked her ear toward a sound that seemed out of place. She heard it again, further away. She picked up the torch positioned beside her, casting it about in the darkness. It revealed nothing unusual. Still, she walked a few paces to her left and shone the light on the rock wall behind her. Not easy footing for someone sneaking in, but worth checking just in case. It didn’t occur to her someone might be sneaking out.
Quick and quiet as a ghost, Xena slipped behind vegetation camouflaging exit from the compound. She prepared herself for more sentries she figured would be lining the passageway and on the other side. The war mask and Amazon leathers would help. She strode purposefully toward the first guard and saluted.
The guard looked puzzled. “You’re going out?” She looked behind Xena. “Alone?”
“Varia doesn’t completely trust the information she received.” Xena leaned toward the guard. “Not everyone in our sewing circle has become accomplished at reconnaissance.” She drew herself up. “I am honored she believes me now capable of such a mission.”
“But ….” The guard frowned a bit skeptically. “What if you run into ….”
“My mask will hide me, if it’s someone from the village. I know these woods like the back of my hand. Once I’m through ….” Xena patted a sack she carried. “I’ll change and blend right in.” She steered the guard to walk with her toward the end of the passageway. “If I’m lucky, I’ll find out exactly how many of our men have joined with Lapedus.”
As they reached the end, the guard motioned to other sentries. “Our new sister is going out to scout. Let us wish her well.” The women saluted Xena.
“Thank you, my sisters. I am honored to be counted among you. With your spirits supporting me, I am confident I will return safely.” Xena began jogging away, turning to give the Amazon salute before disappearing into the forest.
“Not sure which one that was. Didn’t really get a good look at her, but she must’ve done something to earn Varia’s trust.”
“Oh, I’m sure it was Bethelme. The height, confidence. Figured she had the right stuff when I heard how she wielded a knitting needle.”
“A … knitting needle?!”
“Funny, huh?” The guard snickered. “Sure left her husband in stitches.”
Things had moved pretty quickly following Gabrielle’s pronouncement at the celebration. The room cheered the former queen who had become almost as legendary as the Warrior Princess. Older Amazons had told of Gabrielle’s command during devastating battles against the Romans and at Helicon. How she’d resisted suicidal strategies, even in a physical challenge against their current queen – which Gabrielle might have won had Varia not benefited from Ares’ assistance. Despite what they’d heard about Gabrielle’s preference for negotiation and compassion, the most enduring stories portrayed a fierce, brave, loyal defender of the Amazon Nation.
Only Varia knew of Gabrielle’s true mixed emotions about all that. But what could she do? Appear egotistical or disrespectful by challenging Gabrielle’s reputation? Dismissive of wisdom that might be useful? Urge them instead to seek inspiration from a Warrior Princess who had sat like a stone during Gabrielle’s little speech – no indication whatsoever she should, could or would be the military mind they needed?
Varia had swallowed her pride, clapped along with everyone else. Urged the celebrants to continue enjoying themselves while a council of the elders convened to hear Gabrielle’s perspective. Hoped Xena would talk sense into Gabrielle during the break. If not, the council would soon see for themselves their esteemed queen of yesteryear was now a relic better relegated to the shelf. Which would leave Xena as a bit of question mark. Would she go along with confining Gabrielle to the sidelines? Become a dangerous irritant in their midst? Go her own way as she had in the past? Whichever, they’d both bear watching.
“We’re at a critical juncture. I don’t want to risk intruders or … loose lips. Find Laeken for me, will you? Tell her to seal the camp.”
Varia listened to the whispered report. She dismissed the guard and glanced around the table before honing in on Gabrielle. “Seems Xena’s gone missing.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle relaxed back in her chair. “A habit of hers. She’s not one to hang around long doing nothing.”
“That wasn’t my choice. Or hers.”
“She’s used to playing the hand dealt her.” Gabrielle snorted wryly. “It’s when she’s at her creative best.”
Varia leaned forward. “It changes everything. I’m not liking the odds. As you say, it’s not likely she’s off twiddling her thumbs.”
“Gabrielle?” Gilda cleared her throat. “Could she be doing reconnaissance for us? Surely she wouldn’t join with Lapedus.”
“I’m not worried about Xena.” Gabrielle cocked her head, exuding confidence. “Would her presence change the situation that got us to this point? Or her absence?”
“Does it change the need to take a stand? The Amazons’ vow to do so?” Gabrielle held Varia’s eyes. “The choice for how?”
Varia’s jaw tightened. “No.”
“If there’s one thing I learned from Xena, it’s focusing first on where you have most control. Yourself. Your goal. Your resources. What you’re prepared to do given the various scenarios you face. Which options might mean the greatest loss or gain.”
“Let’s say you’re right – we shouldn’t worry about Xena. Aren’t you forgetting something?”
“What’s that, Varia.”
“You. You’re here. A voice of authority that came out of nowhere.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Not sure about the ‘nowhere’ part. But yes, I am a new voice at the table.”
“That doesn’t change anything either?”
“I certainly hope it does.”
Gabrielle entered the guest hut still in a daze from the council meeting. A quick survey confirmed her partner’s personal items and carry bag gone. That didn’t surprise her nearly as much as her own actions. What possessed her, after all these years, to claim her mantle of Amazon leadership? To stick her nose where Xena’s rightfully belonged? To risk so much to temper the bloodlust of a woman who dismissed her as irrelevant, if not a troublesome substitute for the Warrior Princess?
As for Xena, it was if she’d regressed 20 years, not counting the 25 they lay frozen in that ice cave. All the secretiveness and concern. Gabrielle traced it back to the barricade where those men had been slaughtered, suspecting even then it had to do with her. Protecting her somehow. Preparing her for potential danger. As if she needed that anymore. Yes, she knew it was partly because of Xena too. Like Ares said, trouble would always draw the warrior like a moth to a flame. Especially a moth cocooned for too long in domestic bliss. Gabrielle gritted her teeth. Still no excuse for unilaterally deciding to stick her nose where Gabrielle’s rightfully belonged.
They hadn’t had much time to talk during the break before the council meeting. They’d gone to their quarters without conversation, each lost in her own thoughts. Once inside, Xena seemed uncertain what to do next.
“Gabrielle, you sure about this? I doubt Varia’d object if I came with – .”
“I should go alone. Don’t worry. Tradition’s on my side. They’ll have to at least listen to what I have to say. They need to accept me as – .”
“Gabrielle, you’re long past needing to prove yourself.”
“Or needing you to protect me.”
“Gabriellle …. It’s not about …. Listen, Varia seems intent on a fight. We don’t know for sure who’s in with Lapedus. What about those innocent folks who might be caught in the middle?”
“I’ll do my best to keep that from happening on this end.”
“What about the other end? Do we risk them being left defenseless?”
They’d stood in the middle of the room gazing at each other, finally coming together for an embrace that communicated reassurance words could not. When they broke apart, Gabrielle smiled wryly, squared her shoulders and headed out to fulfill what she hoped was her rightful role, trusting Xena would do the same.
Now, surveying the empty guest quarters, she acknowledged to herself how much they’d been kidding themselves, how little the years had changed who they were. Two warriors – one driven to protect however necessary, accepting it could be wrong. The other dedicated to proving it possible her way could be right.
Xena shucked the Amazon outfit she’d asked Tasha to find her so she could “fit in” better. Their conversation had also given her a description of the town’s head honcho, who liked to hold audience at a corner table at the inn. She wasn’t interested in him at the moment. Instead she’d strapped on her warrior gear and headed for the opposite corner. She got comfortable and waited for her primary target. She didn’t know for sure what he looked like, but felt confident she would when she saw him.
A couple hours later, a handful of uniformed men came in. They roughly pushed their way through to the bar. While most stood drinking and laughing, one sat nursing his ale alone. Xena beckoned a serving girl and whispered in her ear. The girl went to the lone soldier, tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to Xena. He squinted at the older woman indicated, said something to the girl and turned back to his drink. After a while, he lifted his mug to get the barkeep’s attention, nearly falling off his chair when something whooshed past his ear and sliced the bottom off his mug.
The soldier whirled in time to see a metallic blur miraculously miss several ducking heads in its path to the older woman’s hand. He and everyone else gawked as she rose and leaned casually against the wall with a strange disk dangling from her finger.
“What the …?” The soldier waggled his mug. “You did this?”
“I asked nice. Maybe this is more your language?”
“You must be new around here.”
“New ….” She brushed the graying hair at her temple. “And not so new. You know what they say about judging a scroll by its – .”
“You’re playing with fire, lady.” The soldier drew himself up. “I work for Lapedus. In case you don’t know, he’s the law in these parts. Whoever you are – .”
“Name’s Xena. In case you don’t know, I once conquered nearly the whole known world.”
The soldier put his hand up to quell the murmurs. “I heard of Xena. She bit the dust years ago.”
“You really wanna rely on hearsay?” She cocked the metal disk. “Or on what my chakram already told ya?”
“Let’s say you are. What’s your game?”
“Like the girl told you – a little chat. You, me and ….” Xena pointed to the head honcho’s table. “Him. Not here. You kinda blew the privacy bit.” Xena pushed off and sauntered toward the exit. She turned to check on the two men, who hadn’t moved. She waved the chakram. “Coming?”
A few weeks had passed when a scout burst into Varia’s hut. “Oh, good. You’re both here,” she said, leaning over to catch her breath. “I have word from the village. Nearly all able-bodied men have been practicing with weapons. It seems they may move on us soon.”
“What about Lapedus and his men?”
“There’s been little sighting of them.” The scout’s lip curled in disgust. “The one leading the drills is … Xena. There’s little doubt she will give the orders.”
“Ah. No surprise there. Never known her to be the mediating type.” Varia turned to Gabrielle. “Unless you believe facing you will make a difference.”
“Xena will do what she believes she has to. Whatever that is, I have to do the same.”
“We’ve put our trust in your wisdom, Gabrielle. You’re still committed to the plan?”
Xena finished showing a young man the proper way to parry a sword strike. “Yes? What is it?”
Cretus, the head honcho, fidgeted nervously. “It’s the Amazons. Under cover of night, they assembled on the high ground at the end of the north plains.”
“They … ‘assembled.’ Anything else?”
“Well, nothing. No war cries or drums. Just standing there.”
“Sound the alarm. We’ll take position a little south of the center.”
“Um, Commander, this isn’t how …. I mean, I thought we’d make the first move.”
Xena shrugged. “The men’re ready. They can do this. They just need to stand firm. I’ll join them shortly, give ‘em a little pep talk.”
But what if – .”
“Nothing’s changed, Cretus. You have your orders.”
Gabrielle accompanied Varia to meet Xena and Cretus in the middle of the plains between the Amazons and the village. She raised a brow at her soulmate. “Well, this is a bit awkward.”
“Awkward?!” Varia gaped at the village men behind Xena, lined up shoulder to shoulder. “Gabrielle, they’re armed with … with rakes and brooms! You said Xena – .”
“Likes being creative in situations like these.” Gabrielle rolled her tongue in her cheek. “Apparently she’s held true to form.”
“You’re Gabrielle? Well, you sure didn’t.” Cretus scowled at Xena, then at the women behind Gabrielle bristling with weapons of every sort. “Thought she was supposed to be so peaceful?”
“That’s usually her way. Didn’t say it was always so.”
“What’re we supposed to do now?” Varia shook her head in disgust. “Where’s the honor in fighting those …those …. We could defeat them with a couple of hard breaths.”
“At least you came prepared,” Cletus groused, all pretense at confidence draining along with the blood in his face. “You,” he snarled at Xena, “would turn us into warriors! Sitting ducks is more like it. Shoulda known you were in with those … women … all along.”
“Cletus?” Xena blew out a long breath. “I think it best you waddle on back to the others. I’ll handle this.” At Cletus’ hesitation, she growled, “Now!”
Gabrielle bemusedly watched Cletus ‘waddle’ off. She turned to Varia. “If you don’t mind, I’d like a word with Xena in private. Maybe the two of us can sort this out.”
Varia snorted. “Yeah, can’t do much worse than you already have,” she threw over her shoulder as she stalked back to the Amazons.
“Guess this is one time you miscalculated, huh?”
“About what I’d do.”
“Not really. Thought mediation was right for the situation.”
Xena cleared her throat. “Bit of symbolism.”
“Showing solidarity with their women. Too subtle?”
“I never thought I’d be saying this, but it’s all too subtle for me. Please, educate me.” Gabrielle lowered herself to the ground. “But not standing up. Even you can’t do it that fast.”
“I’ll do my best.” Smirking, Xena sat. “So, what’s most confusing that little bard brain?”
“We’d heard you were training the men. Maybe gotten buddy-buddy with Lapedus.”
“I was. I did.”
“Hey, you wanted brief.”
At Gabrielle’s scowl of irritation, Xena quickly explained her strategy of positioning herself as a key player in whatever transpired at the village. First she’d had to prove herself truly the legendary Warrior Princess. “I put on a little demonstration for Cletus and one of Lapedus’ lieutenants.” That led to a meeting with Lapedus, during which she convinced him she could whip the villagers into shape for his army.
Her regimen included having them do maintenance tasks critical to well-prepared troops – ensuring adequate food supplies, cooking, keeping things in order, patching, healing. They’d been forced to do a lot of that anyway, with many of the women sealed off at the Amazon compound. “Let’s just say they gained a new respect for ‘women’s’ work.” But she’d given them a taste of their own medicine when assigned those duties – belittling them, dismissing their efforts, confining them to the stables with no privileges.
“They came whining to me about how I’d said those tasks were important. Soon they came to the point of mutiny. They admitted they’d have a hard time being loyal to someone who treated them like dirt – unless they saw no other option. I told them the Amazons provided an option. It didn’t matter whether the women really wanted to leave their families or fight their men. Who else did they have to defend them from bad treatment, if their men were too cowardly, selfish or lazy to do it?” Xena snickered. “That really got to `em.”
“Amazing.” Gabrielle shook her head. “Xena Warrior Marriage Counselor. You actually talked them into negotiating with their women? With the Amazons?”
“I’ve seen it work. You forget how often I’ve watched you in action at those council meetings.”
“I believe you refer to it as ‘yammering on and on.’ I’ve caught you dozing. Love may be blind, but not necessarily in both eyes.”
“It’s not necessarily deaf in both ears either. I kept one open. Picked up a thing or two.” Xena cocked her head. “Surprised ya, huh? Figured I’d be my typically unsubtle, butt-kicking self?”
“Sorry, dear, but you weren’t the center of my attention. I had enough problems with my own creativity, let alone worrying about the twists and turns yours can take. I borrowed from your scroll because I thought the situation called for it. The Amazons and village women had already given enough ground. They both needed to bolster their confidence – in ability and heart to defend their dignity, their rights.”
“Bet that surprised Varia.”
“Especially after we learned we might have to go up against you. She’s never really understood me. Never understood how you and I are alike. That it’s about what’s right. Not killing if you don’t have to, or doing nothing when it could mean more harm.” Gabrielle regarded Xena thoughtfully. “Speaking of which, what about Lapedus?”
“He thinks this is a trap. Lulling you into a false sense of security. When everybody’s drunk with wine and Amazonhood, we’re supposed to drop the boom.”
“Instead, we join against Lapedus.”
“That’s the plan.”
“Works for me.” Gabrielle suddenly remembered they were chatting in the middle of a field, the Amazon contingent waiting restlessly on one side and village men shifting on the other. “Um, I think we’d better tell our troops something before we truly do have mutinies to worry about.”
“Yeah.” Xena got to her feet and helped Gabrielle up. “Out of curiosity, what if I’d had the men ready to kick Amazon butt?”
“It crossed my mind. We both knew I’d have a hard time dissuading Varia.” Gabrielle shrugged. “We’ve been to the brink before. Heh, we live on the brink. As long as one of us is involved, anything can happen. It can change everything.” She smiled. “Isn’t that what we do?”
Gabrielle bemusedly watched her partner order the two sides to meet in the middle and bluntly explain the consequences if they failed to cooperate.
“So, in sum, here’s what ya got. You men can go back to your old ways, in which case I help the women. The women can decide to attack even if the men reform, in which case I help the men. Either way, Lapedus’ll win. Heck, I may join `im. No point wasting my time on a losing proposition. But if you choose good sense, you may all come out of this better off than before.”
Each side argued among themselves. Finally one issue emerged as a possible deal breaker – how grievances would be resolved if and when they’d defeated Lapedus.
“Oh, that’s easy,” Xena assured. “Gabrielle could teach a turtle and a rabbit the joys of getting along.”
With the general consensus being to put differences aside in preparation for dealing with Lapedus, Xena rode off to fetch him. He and his forces arrived to behold the Amazons surrounded with weapons pointed at them.
“Well done. You taught them well.”
Xena smiled back. “It’s what I do.”
“Which one is the Amazon leader?”
Xena signaled for Cletus to bring Gabrielle forward, wanting to protect Varia’s identity in case anything went wrong. Halfway across the field the two stopped, turned to each other and shook hands. Lapedus frowned as the villagers in front of the Amazons moved aside. He became even more concerned when he realized the women too were armed and that both groups were forming lines facing his men.
“W-what’s the meaning of this?!”
“Huh. Will you look at that.” Xena shook her head. “What’s the world coming to? Can’t trust anybody like in the old days.”
“W-why you …. You’re in with them!”
“You know, I believe you’re right.” Xena rode away from Lapedus to where Cletus and Gabrielle stood. She dismounted and cocked her head at Lapedus. “Seems you’re not wanted around here anymore. Not without a fight on your hands. From the Amazons. From the good men of this village. If that’s not incentive enough to go bye bye ….” She sauntered a few paces toward Lapedus. “There’s always me.” She withdrew her chakram. “As you’ve noticed, I’m a handful all by my little old self.”
Lapedus knew a bad deal when he saw one. Especially if the card played against him happened to be a lethal legend that simply would not die. He’d turned his troops around without comment, when a handful suddenly broke rank – village recruits who feared losing their recently gained power, or their women to notions of equality. Enraged, they ran back toward the enemy, shouting and brandishing their swords. A few Amazons and village men rushed to meet the attackers. The ensuing confusion offered a bit of cover for an archer who aimed an arrow straight for Gabrielle.
The victors stood solemnly before the two funeral pyres, silently grateful there weren’t nearly as many burning as they’d imagined that morning. One of the fallen was the husband of the woman whose home the vigilantes had met in. His wife took solace from the fact he died defending against former buddies who’d thrown their lot in with Lapedus. The other casualty was an Amazon.
“I still can’t believe it.” Gabrielle wiped away a tear. “Not with you there. Varia of all people should’ve known better.”
“She was a warrior, Gabrielle. She devoted her life to that. She died defending what she believed in.”
“Maybe this isn’t all she wanted, but there’s hope now. I just wish she could’ve ….”
“I know.” Xena wrapped her arm around her partner. “They’ll be okay. Gilda’s got a good head on her shoulders. Respect for tradition but open to change. Tasha and the others’ll bring some fresh air.”
Gabrielle glanced around at the quietly conversing mix of people. “Guess I should focus on the good. Could’ve been a real mess.”
“Yup. Seems our work here is pretty much done.”
“Easy for you to say.” Gabrielle swatted Xena’s midsection. “The work you promised I’d do has just begun.”
The two travelers had resumed their course near the ocean, having decided the longer scenic route was probably better for their health. Gabrielle reclined on a blanket reviewing their latest adventure. Amazed as always at how much she continued to learn no matter how many miles or years she’d covered before. At how the past could recede one moment, then surge without warning into the present – the same waves rippling differently and new again tomorrow.
She chuckled, picturing her older self, dressed as an Amazon. Donning a royal mask she’d once dismissed to youthful serendipity. She realized now how similar that aspect of her life was to Xena’s warlord days – not so much defining them, but as important fibers of their being. And of each other’s being. She could feel what propelled young Xena into conquering everything around her, just as Xena understood what attracted her partner to jump into other people’s lives while still wet behind the ears. Neither had really changed that much since then, except as they’d continued to absorb each other – a process without limits, judging from how they’d resolved recent events.
Varia. Gabrielle had long ago forgiven the young hothead for her betrayal at Helicon. She recalled that moment on the beach when she saw Xena restraining Varia, holding the arrow meant for Gabrielle. She’d seldom felt such fury. Not because of the danger to herself. In her desperation to save her nation, Varia had nearly sacrificed what mattered most to them – their honor, their loyalty, their faith in themselves. Some 15 years later they’d faced off again. Gabrielle again compelled to take command, to fight. Varia again deciding to take matters into her own hands.
“Thought this was supposed to be a vacation.”
Startled, Gabrielle looked up to see Xena standing over her. “What?”
“Lookin’ kinda pensive for somebody supposedly taking it easy.” Xena squatted beside her partner. “Varia?”
Gabrielle nodded. “She was willing to sacrifice just about anything for the Nation. I just never dreamed it would be herself for me.” She shook her head. “For no reason.”
Sighing, Xena dropped down. “She had reason.”
“Allying with the village? I did worry about that. If she’d have trouble adjusting. I hoped – .”
“No. Throwing herself in front of that arrow.” Xena snorted. “Your great protector was too busy watching my trainees. Didn’t see that archer until too late.”
“Really. She didn’t just die for what was important to her. She died saving the most important thing to me. I might’ve cared more about that once. That somebody else had to do it. Now? I wouldn’t care if it was Najara with Callisto’s old laugh and Alti’s eyes.” Xena smirked. “See? I have evolved.”
Gabrielle stared at Xena a moment. “I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.” She shuddered. “Sorry, I’d rather die seeing somebody tall, graying and immaturely possessive.”
“Mm. Guess I’m still your girl then.” Xena stood. “And since I’m here and you’re still alive anyway, I suggest we get back to spending these moments on ourselves.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “I don’t know why I ever worry about running out of adventures. To quote a friend of mine, you’re a handful all by your little old self.”
“Good. So get off you duff and grab some while I still got it.”
“I can enjoy you from here,” Gabrielle said, laughing. “Go on back to whatever you were doing. I’ll join you in a minute.”
Xena strolled back to the shoreline, dark head tilted toward the sky and fluffy clouds circling two streaks of white, sighing contentedly when arms wrapped her waist. She leaned against the soft body that grounded her, together appreciating the tranquility in their closeness, of the blue-on-blue horizon and sound of waves lapping a safe distance away at the water’s edge.
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