Shortly after events in the story "Not Yet," Gabrielle questions Xena’s perturbing response to perceptions the legendary duo are too dead or too old to aid a village in distress.
"You have to learn to smell the flowers ... enjoy the peaceful moments in life. You know, everything can’t be an adventure all the time." – Gabrielle to Xena in ULYSSES
"So, where to next?"
"No place needin’ a long-in-the-tooth girl with a chakram, that’s for sure."
"Why, Xena, I’m surprised at you. We’ve only been gone – what? – a couple months? You sayin’ you’re tired of the road already? Tsk tsk. And here I thought a few gray hairs couldn’t slow you down."
"Gray hairs have nothing to do with it. Your idea of a ‘romantic’ 25th anniversary getaway would’ve done me in when I could still fit in my old leathers."
"Oh, I don’t know about that." Gabrielle slid her arm around the warrior’s trim waist, leaned back against the wagon seat and closed her eyes. "You pace yourself better now," she observed, enjoying their leisurely ride in the early morning sun. "Even between escapades you were always fidgeting, always smelling trouble. At least we got some relaxation in when we left King Cleades’ party, after fighting alongside our future selves and since you spanked butt for Zee."
"Yeah, it has been nice – the quality time. I’m just lookin’ forward to spending it as ourselves for a change. Between playing Anthrax, Exzema and Spitunia, I’m beginning to feel like the Furies."
Gabrielle laughed. "I thought it was kinda fun. Sure beats being Gabrielle, Chief Councilor."
"Yeah?" Xena studied her partner. "You don’t miss it yet – home?"
"A little," Gabrielle admitted, resting her head on Xena’s shoulder. "I like this too. You know – seeing we haven’t lost the old fire. Solving the world’s problems with the right word here, a good kick in the pants there." She smiled contentedly. "Gets my juices going."
Xena shook her head. "I’ve often wondered why I kept you around all these years. It’s certainly not predictability."
"Good." Gabrielle gave Xena a squeeze. "Boredom’s about the only thing you might not survive. I plan to keep you alive for another 25 years, seeing as how we slept through that many the first time around."
"Gabrielle, I’d be over 100."
"But you’ll look like a spry 70 something. Just as cute as you are now."
Xena sucked in her cheeks. "Time was, figured I wouldn’t make it past 20. Gotta be more careful what I wish for."
Gabrielle’s head lolled back. "What do you wish for now?" she asked, peering up sultrily.
Xena gazed down with hooded eyes. "Something I could get out here in the wild, without leaving the wagon. I’d prefer a quiet room with a big soft bed. Although...," she added, smirking, "I suppose a few screams wouldn’t hurt."
"This oughtta be sleepy enough for ya."
Gabrielle surveyed the collection of thatched structures and sparsely stocked market stalls. The lone villager in sight paced around the drinking well mumbling to herself.
"What? You expecting trouble from her?"
"Where is everybody?"
"In the fields? Doing chores?"
"There." Xena pointed to several wagons and horses outside the largest structure.
"So? Looks like an inn. Probably where we should go too, if we’re gonna find that soft bed you wished for."
Xena cocked her head, continuing to study the situation. "Boredom," she muttered, finally urging the horses into motion.
"Boredom. Somehow I don’t think that’s an experience I’ll ever get to test."
Just as Xena suspected, it appeared most of the villagers had gathered inside the inn. They huddled at tables or in clumps around the walls, heatedly discussing some subject Gabrielle bet wouldn’t be boring, even though she hadn’t a clue what it was. Few gave much notice to the two middle-aged women seating themselves side by side near the door, except a serving girl. She ambled over to the newcomers.
"You here for food?"
"Need a room?"
"Whew! Papa’ll be glad to hear that." The girl cut her eyes at the other patrons. "Everybody else acts like we’re runnin’ a meetin’ hall. All that yammerin’, you’d think their throats’d be dry or their bellies grumblin’. You’re my first real customers in hours. So," she said, grinning at the dinar-paying patrons, "what’ll it be? Still early enough for breakfast, if you want. Otherwise, we got lamb or beef stew. Ma’s specialties."
Gabrielle ordered breakfast, Xena the lamb.
"Ale for me. The usual for you?"
"Tea for her."
"Excellent. Plenty of rooms left. What’s your pleasure?"
"A big one with a big, soft bed."
The girl grinned. "I hear ya. Been on the road awhile? Visitin’ your relations?"
Both women snorted. "You could say that," Gabrielle answered. "More than we ever thought possible."
"Got any here?"
"I hope not." Xena shrugged. "Way things’ve been going, you never know."
"Heh. Take a look around. Just about everybody’s here. Make yourselves comfy. I’m Jenna. I’ll be back with your drinks in a minute."
"What do you think?" Gabrielle asked as she watched the girl walk away.
Xena stretched out her legs and relaxed back in her chair. "Her ma looks like she might know what to do with lamb."
"Xeenaa." Gabrielle swatted her soulmate’s midsection. "You know what I mean." She strained to catch snatches of conversation. "I think I heard ‘army’…. Oooo, and ‘fight.’"
"Could be talking about ants. Hope none of `em get in my lamb."
Gabrielle scowled at her studiously relaxed companion. "You’re determined to make this boring, aren’t you?"
"Uh huh. Try something new for a change. See if you’ve underestimated my ability to survive even staring at dust balls."
Suddenly the arguments in one group of townsfolk verged on turning violent. The room grew hushed as two men got in each other’s faces, shouting the rightness of their positions.
"You’d let them walk over us like spineless wimps? Take everything, maybe even our women? I say we fight!"
"With what? Tomatoes? We’re outnumbered, outclassed. How do we know they won’t negotiate, unless we try? We’ll all be wiped out otherwise."
"I’m with Pontius!" A third man raised his fist. "It’s time we acted like men!"
"Yeah!" declared a few others. The majority remained silent, some glowering stubbornly at Pontius, others looking anywhere but at the erstwhile rebel leader.
"Thetis is right." A woman came up beside the second speaker. "We have the children and elders to think of. What harm could there be listening to what General Galates has to say? He sent an emissary didn’t he? He could’ve squashed us like bugs already."
"Exactly." Thetis sensed the crowd with him. "Fighting among ourselves will only weaken us. Instead we should be figuring out our terms. Showing him a united front."
"No! Don’t fall for that!" Pontius scanned the room, searching in vain for defiance on the faces of his neighbors. "Men like Galates don’t care about ‘terms.’ It’ll only make things easier for him, huddled together like sheep. Our only hope is surprise. Convincing him we might not be worth the trouble."
"We have until tomorrow to decide." Thetis squared his shoulders. "I propose we vote now, between resistance or negotiation. If it’s the latter, I stand ready to serve as your spokesman. If it’s the former, Pontius, do you stand prepared to take command?"
Thetis addressed a large man sullenly observing the proceedings in the background. "Micah, as the owner of this establishment, would you be so kind as to do the honors?"
Micah sighed heavily. He lumbered slowly to the center of the room. "All those in favor of fighting, raise your hands." He snorted at the results. "All those in favor of yakking some more, raise your hands." He snorted again. "Okay, Thetis. Looks like your show."
Pontius shook his head in disgust and pushed through the crowd out the door. A handful of men followed him. Thetis began directing everyone in rearranging the furniture into long rows of chairs facing the front. Soon all the townsfolk except Micah, his wife and daughter sat or stood prepared to hear Thetis’ instructions for how they would proceed.
"Sorry you had to wait so long." Jenna had finally woven her way over to the lone occupied table. "Had a few interruptions, as you can see. Food’ll be up soon," she said, setting down a couple of mugs. "I got your room ready. Will you be needin’ anythin’ else?"
"Um...." Gabrielle looked at Xena. "Isn’t there something we’d like to ask Jenna?"
Xena swished ale around in her mouth. "Ahhh, hits the spot. I do have one question." She stretched, adding a big yawn for emphasis. "You got a jug of this we can take upstairs?"
Gabrielle scowled surreptitiously at her soulmate. The insufferable woman sat in front of the mirror, carefully braiding her hair, an infuriatingly smug grin on her face. They’d spent a quiet, intimate evening – most of it sharing their appropriately sized bed. Of the few words spoken, not one had been about the goings-on downstairs. She’d been bursting at the seams to discuss that, of course, but refused to give Xena the satisfaction. Stubborn old thing wanted to pretend disinterest? Fine. Two could play that game.
"I notice you didn’t spring up at the crack of dawn. Does that mean we’ll be lazing around in here awhile longer?"
"Why? Last night we found plenty to do by ourselves. That not enough for you?" Xena turned with just the hint of a smirk. "Not bored are ya?"
Gabrielle willed her eyes not to roll. "Me? Bored with romance? With taking it easy?" She gritted her teeth. "With minding our own business? Pffft. Just asking. Trying to pace my stomach for a later than usual breakfast."
"Ah." Xena resumed gazing in the mirror. "I suppose we could have Jenna bring us something."
Gabrielle suppressed a growl. "Yes, we could."
"We might even order something for later at the same time. That way we could stay up here all day. You know – romancing, taking it easy. Keeping our noses out of anything that might distract us from doing practically nothing at all."
Xena cocked her head. "Shame to waste this braid, though. Can’t remember when I last spent this much time getting it just so. Takes quite a bit of patience you know." She put her fingers to the pulse point on her neck. "Huh. And I’m still alive." She glanced at Gabrielle again. "Wouldn’t you say?"
"Yes, I would," Gabrielle agreed sweetly. "For now," she muttered under her breath. "And, yes, that braid’s a work of art. Definitely deserves public viewing."
"Assuming, of course, there’s anyone besides Jenna and her folks to view it."
"True. If not, there’s always me." Gabrielle smiled with the hint of a smirk. "And you’ve already more than proven I’m enough."
Xena raised an "ooo, good one" brow. "Quite right." She inspected her braid, nodding approval. "I think you’re right about this too. Could be just the thing to perk up anybody down there who might be bored."
The bleary-eyed patrons in the main room gawked at the women descending the stairs as if they’d beamed in from Mt. Olympus.
"Braid must be working," Xena mumbled.
Gabrielle snorted. "Or they were too busy yesterday to miss us. Looks like they stayed all night."
The two nodded as they passed through to sit near the door again. Nearly all the tables were occupied and littered with used utensils. Micah’s big frame moved with surprising speed around the room as he tended his customers. The smile on his face suggested the meeting had paid off after all – at least for him.
"Mornin’," Jenna said cheerily, once the women had seated themselves. "I wondered when you’d be down."
"Good thing we didn’t come earlier." Gabrielle gestured toward the others hunched over the remains of their breakfast. Unable to help herself, she asked, "They get everything settled okay?"
Jenna shrugged. "I guess. Turned in around my usual time. When I came in here, the ones not sleepin’ weren’t sayin’ much. Whatever they decide won’t matter much to me and my folks anyway."
"Nah. We figure this Galates character won’t be much different from all the other thugs who’ve come through here. We’re sorta like furniture to `em. Long as we stay out of their way, do the dirty work with no complaints, keep `em full and comfortable, they don’t pay us much mind. We serve `em same as we do anybody. Sometimes they act like kings – throw money around, brag how they can pay for the best."
"Galates, huh?" Gabrielle glanced at Xena out the corner of her eye.
Xena snorted. "Go on. You know you’re dyin’ to. Just remember who caved in first, while I, on the other hand, managed to survive boredom quite fine, thank you very much."
Gabrielle gritted her teeth, forcing herself to swallow the questions on the tip of her tongue. "Jenna, I’ll have the same as yesterday. Except I may want cheese too. Is it moldy?"
"Oh, no. Very fresh."
"Too bad. I was gonna have you bring it for her."
"You want.... Oh, I get it. You’re teasin’, right?"
"Only partly," Xena answered. "She used to be quite deadly, before I reformed her. Still has urges every now and then."
"Oh, she looks pretty harmless to me, like a very nice lady." Jenna grinned at Xena. "Now you.... I bet you were quite the devil in your day."
Gabrielle nearly choked. "My, what a good judge of character, for someone so young. Quite the devil indeed."
"I’ll have the same as her." Xena glared at her partner. "And you can mix the cheese in my eggs."
Jenna shook her head. "You two’re funny, know that? Sure a lot more lively than that bunch. We’ll see how they are after Galates gets here." She frowned. "Shouldn’t scare good customers away, but you might wanna go while you can. Things could get ugly. I’d hate to see nice ladies like you caught in it." She turned abruptly to leave. "I’ll tell Ma to make it quick," she threw over her shoulder, hustling away.
Gabrielle rolled her tongue in her cheek. "So, what’ll it be? Hang around to see if you can make Galates boring? Or more fun and excitement with little ol’ me?"
Gabrielle and Xena had nearly finished eating when Thetis arrived with an important air, bearing scrolls as if they were peace treaties to end the Trojan War. A gaggle of folks trailed him.
"All right, everyone, your attention please. Galates should arrive soon. Let’s get in position."
Those already seated rose tiredly, pushed together a couple tables in front and positioned seven chairs on each side. Thetis took the middle chair facing the door, joined by six of his neighbors.
"Pontius has formed an escort. When they bring Galates in, I will welcome him and introduce our negotiation team. Micah will serve our guests as usual. We want to communicate right off this is our territory and we intend to deal with matters civilly. I suggest we relax until he gets here."
Xena noted the slumped postures of nearly everyone except Thetis. "Look more like sitting ducks," she muttered to Gabrielle.
"You have a plan, since we’re staying?"
"Hmm." Xena puckered her lips. "I’m thinking it’d be good to order one of those sweet rolls Jenna tempted us with. Could be a long morning."
"Aren’t you taking this a little too far?"
"Don’t give me that innocent look. We’re about to be invaded by who knows what. Unless Galates is nothing more than a bumbling con artist, these folks could be in real trouble."
"I’m sittin’ here being contented, contrary to certain assumptions. The Trimeans got a plan. Galates has his. Mine is worrying about what we oughtta be worried about until we see what’s what. Speaking of which...."
Xena waved her hand to get Jenna’s attention. She rubbed her stomach and smacked her lips. The girl grinned and signaled she’d gotten the message. She grinned even more when Gabrielle held up two fingers.
"Devil," Gabrielle muttered, cutting her eyes at her soulmate. "Both of you."
Xena’s snarky retort got cut short by a commotion at the door. "Crap," she muttered, guessing Galates had arrived. "So much for satisfying my sweet tooth."
Sure enough, some uniformed types swaggered in bristling with weapons. The first six or so stopped, surveyed the room, then lined up on both sides of the entrance. The inn patrons could easily see the white-haired man who sauntered through, a head taller than those he passed. He waited, wide-legged, arms crossed.
Thetis stood. "General Galates, I presume? On behalf of Trimea, welcome. I am Thetis, the –."
"This your place?"
"Um, no, sir. I am the –."
"Where’s the innkeep?"
"General, we’ve already made the necessary arrangements with him. First, we thought we’d –."
"I want the innkeep! Now!"
Micah came up beside the flustered Thetis. "This is my place. What can I do you for?"
Galates approached the front tables. "Ale for me. The others don’t need anything right now. How many rooms?"
"Six. Five empty."
"Six’ll do for me and my top men. Some can double up."
The two big men locked eyes for a moment. "Jenna," Micah said without looking away, "get the man his drink." He gestured for Galates to sit, and himself took Thetis’ chair. "What else will you be needin’?"
Galates got comfortable. "Starting tomorrow, this’ll be our headquarters. Till I finish my business in the area. When I’m here, I’ll want a hot breakfast for me and the others lodged here. The rest of the town can take care of the others."
Galates glanced around, sizing up the place. He ignored the Trimeans silently listening to his exchange with Micah. When Jenna brought his ale, he drank half before setting down his mug.
"I’ve got about 50 men in this unit. Looks like you can handle `em in a couple shifts for supper. May need some provisions packed for when we ... make trips."
Micah braced his elbows on the table and rested his chin on clasped hands. "Pretty tall order. Won’t leave much for the town to use or sell."
"All you need worry about is me and my men. If business works out, you’ll get your due."
Thetis cleared his throat. "That’s all well and good for Micah. Perhaps we can discuss the rest of us? As I started to say, I’ve been...." He paused and indicated the people on either side of Micah. "We’ve been chosen as the negotiation team to –."
"Negotiation?!" Galates snorted in disbelief. "Who said anything about negotiation?"
Thetis’ jaw dropped. "Your representative said.... We thought this meeting was so we could mutually –."
"I like to give folks time to adjust. Things tend to go smoother that way." Galates pushed his chair back and stood. "Now I’m telling you how things’ll be. I had special orders for him." He pointed his chin at Micah. "We’re done. I’ll finish briefing anybody else tomorrow." He downed the rest of his ale, turned and strode out with his men.
"See, told ya he wasn’t the negotiating type." Pontius scowled disdainfully at his neighbors, most of whom continued sitting in stunned silence as they had since Galates’ departure.
"And where were you and your so-called ‘fighters,’ huh?" Thetis scowled back. "Didn’t see you rushing in to the rescue."
"What for? So you could sell us out? Maybe trade us for an extra day wallowing in self-pity?"
"Hush!" Jenna’s mother wedged her ample frame among those crowded around the "negotiation" table. "Blaming each other’ll get us nowhere."
"Sure, Efthimia, easy enough for you to say," Thetis threw at her. "Your husband took care of his own. Left the rest of us hanging out to dry. Where’d he go? Fetching food for his new master?"
"As a matter of fact, he’s squirreling stores away for the ingrates he left ‘hanging out to dry.’ At least he made sure we’re no worse off now than before."
"Yeah, well, that ain’t sayin’ much," someone in the crowd tossed out.
"Got that right," another added. "All these mouths, not one full brain comin’ up with anythin’ besides gettin’ killed or walked over so much we might as well be dead."
"Excuse me?" Shushing Xena’s warning growl, Gabrielle had gotten up and now edged her way toward the front.
"One of those strangers."
"What’s she got to do with this? They won’t be here no way after tomorrow."
"I’m someone who’s seen a lot of situations like this. Someone who doesn’t like to sit by when innocent people might be hurt." Gabrielle faced Thetis and Pontius. "Someone who wants to help however I can."
Pontius snorted. "Maybe you can help Thetis and the other women kiss Galates’ butt."
Thetis turned red. "Why you –."
"Enough!" Gabrielle’s authoritative command surprised everyone into stillness. "It just so happens you do have someone here with a brain. Someone more experienced at dealing with warlords than all of you put together."
"Who? You?" Pontius snickered. "No offense, ma’am, but we don’t send our mamas into battle for us." He gave Gabrielle’s small frame a dismissive once-over. "And mine’s got a better chance of standin’ up to Galates than you."
Gabrielle chuckled. "You may be right. I’m not one to underestimate the strength of a woman who’s weathered many seasons. But I don’t mean myself." She turned and locked eyes with the woman sitting in the shadows by the entrance. Xena finally responded with an "it’s a little late to consult me now, so you might as well see what happens" shrug.
Thetis rolled his eyes. "Great. Someone with even more seasons?"
"Yes." Gabrielle squared her shoulders. "Someone who happens to be named ... Xena."
The townsfolk stared at Gabrielle, waiting for her to say more. Gabrielle waited for the expected response. It didn’t come.
"’Xena?!’ That’s it?" Thetis regarded Gabrielle as if she’d been possessed by the Furies.
"The name means nothing to you?"
"I’ve heard the legends. You think we’re gonna scare anybody off with a name?" Pontius cut his eyes at Xena. "And carried by someone like ... her? My friends here might not show much spine, but they’re not idiots. Don’t know what game you’re playing, but –."
"It’s no game. She’s not any Xena. She’s the Xena. I’m Gabrielle."
"They’re dead, woman! Stop wasting our time with nonsense," someone yelled.
"We’re not dead. Certain circumstances preserved us for 25 years as if we hadn’t aged, to live on now for another 20 or so. We’ll prove it. Ask us anything."
Pontius and Thetis huddled with a few others, while the rest of the onlookers whispered among themselves, not certain what to make of this new development. Eventually the two informal leaders finally reached agreement on something.
"Listen ... Gabrielle." Thetis reached across the table and patted the stranger’s shoulder. "We’re glad to hear these heroes might be ... uh ... are alive. We appreciate your concern. Thing is, you seemed to be out of action for quite awhile."
"Which is good," Pontius hastened to add. "Everybody has to lay the old sword or plow down some time. I hear Xena led a hard life. With that and all the good she came to do, she deserves time off."
"Didn’t she have a daughter?"
Gabrielle sighed, having a pretty good idea where Thetis’ questions were headed. "Yes."
"See? Bet that’s where you were going, before you got caught up in this."
"Actually, we’ve been on the road –."
"And that’s where you should return tomorrow morning. You heard what Galates said. He’s taking your room."
"We can’t protect you." Pontius remembered to glower at Thetis. "We can’t even protect ourselves. You best take this time to pack. Go back to your peaceful life. We’ll deal with this in our own way."
Gabrielle checked the faces surrounding her. They reflected a mixture of solicitude, pity, skepticism, and impatience. She took a moment to weigh enduring more of that, versus eating crow at the table occupied by the expressionless semi-retired Warrior Princess. She gathered herself and smiled ruefully.
"As you wish. Besides, I suspect Xena’s already reached the same conclusion "
Much to Gabrielle’s annoyance, her taciturn partner exhibited complete disinterest. Even "told ya so" would’ve been preferable to, "I need some air. Meet you back here for lunch." Whereupon Xena got up from the table and exited the inn without so much as a backward glance, leaving Gabrielle frozen in open-mouthed perplexity. When she finally ventured outside, the tall warrior was nowhere to be seen.
Gabrielle stayed downstairs, half listening to the on-going debate about Galates, her brain preoccupied with wrapping itself around something else. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had so little sense of her soulmate’s inner workings. Did Xena truly not care about Galates? About the hapless Trimeans? Was she convinced the two of them couldn’t do much anyway? Would they ride off as though they’d never been there?
Gabrielle began pondering her own role in the situation. She didn’t like nagging her partner, certainly not questioning what – on the surface – seemed perfectly logical. After all, no one had summoned them to Trimea. The villagers pretty much scoffed at the notion two middle-aged strangers had much to offer, even if one of them purported to be the legendary Warrior Princess. What did she expect Xena to do? Force them to listen to her? Single handedly defeat Galates? And if she tried, could she be –.
Gabrielle looked up, startled to discover Xena standing there. "Um, hi. Didn’t realize you’d come back."
"Apparently." Xena’s mouth quirked. "Found a really nice spot not far from here. Interested in some peace and quiet in the great outdoors?"
Gabrielle blinked. "Uh ... sure. Now?"
"Now’s as good a time as any. I’ll have Jenna pack us a basket. Why don’t you grab a blanket and our bags?"
"A picnic? We’re ... not leaving?"
"We’ll be back before nightfall. See you in a few." Xena headed for the kitchen.
Gabrielle stared at the tall back. "Right," she muttered, shaking her head. "Got some nerve, calling me unpredictable."
As promised, Xena treated her partner to a glorious day in the countryside. They spent much of it on horseback exploring the marvelously varied terrain in the shadow of a nearby mountain. Neither mentioned the soldiers camped on the outskirts of the village.
They returned to the inn at dusk. Xena picked up some wine and fruit to carry to their room. Once again she paid scant attention to the villagers who continued squabbling over what to do about Galates. Once again Gabrielle felt torn.
"Hmmm?" Xena sat brushing her hair as they prepared for bed.
"You do realize you’re acting very strange."
"You think?" Xena studied herself in the mirror. "How so?"
"As if you don’t know." Gabrielle lay on the bed and propped on an elbow. "Am I supposed to go along with it? ‘Just desserts’ for opening my big mouth? Daring you to relax and smell the roses for a change?"
Xena smiled at Gabrielle’s reflection. "You disappointed? Want me to run up the walls? Beat some sense into those folks with the pommel of my sword?"
"Funny. No, I’m not disappointed. More like ... curious."
"What difference does it make?" Xena resumed her brushing. "You challenged me to try something new. I am. Long as you’re happy, I’m happy."
"I won’t be happy if Galates throws us out of our room."
"We could leave before then." Xena smirked. "You know – before it gets too exciting?"
Gabrielle sat up and leaned forward. "Seriously, Xena, I can’t believe you’d simply walk away from this. Certainly not to prove a point."
"And why not?"
"Pride, for one thing. Those folks acted like we’re useless crones. Swept you and your reputation into the corner like dust. You telling me that didn’t get your juices going even a little?"
Xena set the brush down. "Gabrielle," she said, turning to face her partner, "like you said, I pace myself better. I’ve enjoyed our time together. Why waste it on people who won’t listen? If they choose Galates’ way over sticking up for themselves, that’s their right."
"So tomorrow we’ll pack our bags. High tail it out before he returns?" Gabrielle shook her head. "Nuh uh, I can’t believe you’d do that. Whatever the reason."
"I didn’t say that."
Gabrielle brightened. "So you do have a plan? Could you just tell me, so I can get some sleep tonight?"
"You know I like being flexible, seeing what the situation presents. Not much I can tell you right now." Xena gazed at her reflection a moment. "Other than maybe, if you can’t beat `em, join `em."
"Ma’ams?" Jenna rapped on the door. "Ma’ams? You awake?" She raised her fist to knock again, when the door opened to a fully dressed figure.
"Morning, Jenna. What’s up?"
"Galates! Our sentries say he’ll be here any moment."
"That for us?" Xena indicated the sack in Jenna’s hand.
"Uh, yeah, it is. Some bread, fruit, cheese. So you can get an early start." Jenna leaned sideways attempting to peer around her tall guest. "You know, for the road."
Xena smirked. "Wanna come in?" She moved aside. "You’re right on time. Someone’s stomach was beginning to rumble."
Jenna stepped over the threshold.
"Ah, room service." Gabrielle took the sack from Jenna. "Thanks. I suspect we’ll need all the energy we can get."
Jenna watched the smaller woman reach into the bag and begin laying out some of the contents on the dressing table. She also noted with some dismay that the two hadn’t packed.
"Ma’ams, you don’t have much time. I can help you get ready. If we all move fast –."
"For starters, you can call me Xena and her Gabrielle. Have a seat. Share some of this with us."
"I reckon we’ll know when he gets here," Xena said, slicing the cheese and bread. She handed a few pieces to Gabrielle, cut some for herself and joined her partner on the bed. She gestured toward the chair at the table.
"B-but ...." Jenna seemed rooted to the spot where she stood. "You’re not leaving?"
"With hospitality like this?" Xena grinned at Gabrielle. "We like it here, don’t we?"
Gabrielle snorted softly. "It would seem so."
"B-but .... You’ve got to!" Jenna finally perched nervously on the edge of the chair. "You heard what he said, didn’t you? How can you sit there .... I don’t understand."
"What’s the best room here?"
Jenna’s mouth dropped. "What?"
"You got a better room than this? Bigger? Bigger bed?"
"Nnnno. It’s probably the one Galates – ."
"Uh huh. We’ve already got our stuff here." Xena shrugged. "Not our fault we booked it first. I’m sure we can work something out."
"Work something out? With Galates? Why would he – ."
"Because we’re Xena and Gabrielle."
Jenna sighed in frustration. "I mean no disrespect, but even if you are, you’re not ...." She took a deep breath, summoning the patience she’d learned to use with certain elders and small children.
"Look, I don’t know much about Xena and Gabrielle, except they were supposed to be great warriors. A long time ago." She narrowed her eyes for emphasis. "A long, looong time ago. Whatever good deeds they ... you ... did is history. You don’t have to prove anything anymore. I’m honored to say I met you. Wouldn’t it be better to live on, to inspire other girls like me?"
Gabrielle cocked her head. "She’s good."
"Mm. Almost like she’s already been inspired by a certain bard."
"Argghhh!" Jenna jumped up. "Why’re you being so stubborn?! Don’t you see we have enough problems, without worryin’ about you too?"
"You mustn’t worry about us," Gabrielle assured, going over to the distraught girl. "Thanks, though." She gave Jenna a hug before resuming her seat. "Like I tried to tell everyone the other day, nobody’s better at handling trouble than Xena. She’s never stopped doing that. In fact, she’s gotten even better over the years." She smiled at her soulmate. "You gotta trust she knows what she’s doing. Whatever it is," she added, cutting her eyes at Xena. "I do."
Xena returned the smile. "Go on back to your work. We’ll be down in a few minutes. And Jenna?" She stood and drew herself up to her full height. "Whatever happens, have faith in us. I promise, none of you will be hurt."
Jenna looked deep into the commanding blue eyes. She searched the face of the smaller woman and saw the same confidence and truth. At that moment she believed whatever certainty they had was ageless, more rock solid than the confusion she’d witnessed among the adults supposedly leading Trimea.
"On our names and ‘history.’"
The girl stared at the presumed dead heroes, chewing her lip. "Okay. Enjoy your breakfast." She picked up a slice of cheese and headed out. "See ya soon."
Galates strode through the door in full regalia – sweeping his cape behind him, removing his red-plumed helmet with a flourish that included shaking out the long white locks framing his deeply tanned skin. He planted himself in the center of the room.
He lived for this part of conquest. The chase, the slashes and punches still felt good, but not so much anymore on the receiving end. Nearly 60 winters of that had taken their toll on the towering frame he’d worked hard to keep muscled and lean. He’d learned to rely more on the reputation he’d earned, the physical assets he’d been born with and the soldiers he’d molded to his will.
Ah, the gasps. Galates closed his eyes. He didn’t need them to hear women’s hearts fluttering in a mixture of fear and attraction. To see the resentful awe among men who dared not oppose him. To smell another victory won without even breaking a sweat. To enjoy such moments that supposedly withered away with the bloom of youth. No, he was too smart for that. If he kept playing his cards right, he could go on like this forever.
Galates slowly opened his eyes. A thin man stood in front of him. One of the yakkers from the other day, holding out a mug of ale. Galates smiled, taking the mug. Now he could taste victory.
"Remember me? Thetis? I’ve been chosen to represent Trimea in this matter."
Galates arched a white brow. "Matter?"
Thetis swallowed. "The ... um ... relationship ... between you and Trimea. How we can best ... host ... you during your stay. We didn’t get to the ... specifics ... the other day."
"Ah, yes, the ... ‘specifics.’" Galates nodded to the guards accompanying him. They fanned out around the room in pairs, some taking up positions in different sections. "It’s simple, really. Let’s see what we’ve got." He scanned the room. "I want the young men over there." He gestured toward one pair of guards.
"General?" Thetis reflected the trepidation of his neighbors as he watched roaming guards steer individuals to the designated spot. "What’re you – ."
"They’ll travel with us. Some may make decent warriors. The others can do the heavy work around our camps." Galates smirked at Thetis. "You older men will tend our needs here. All of you assemble ...." He pointed to another corner of the room.
Thetis saw a hint of rebellion flit across a few faces, notably Pontius’, but soon his more mature brethren had gathered as ordered. Shoulders slumped, he joined them.
"As for the females, I want the young ones, kids and their mothers on that side. The rest of you go over there."
The inn’s proprietors had remained near the door of the kitchen, understanding Galates would probably consider them as their own group. Jenna startled her parents by heading for the group of younger women. She stopped in front of Galates with her arms crossed.
"So what’s your plan for us? ‘Entertainment?’"
Galates snorted. "A spirited one, eh? Why should you care? Don’t you come with this place?"
"Maybe. First, I wanna know what you’re gonna do with my friends over there."
Galates smiled indulgently. "They’ll be confined to their own section of the village. I run a disciplined army. Hard to do that with temptations and distractions. Whatever tasks or ... other services ... we need, they can do here. We’ll take some of the older women with us for the cooking and light chores at our camp. Satisfied?"
"Yeah, she is." Micah had come up beside his daughter. He grabbed the would-be rebel and steered her back toward her mother.
"All right, then." Galates rubbed his hands together. "These’re good numbers. Not too many, not too ...." Something struck him as out of order. Everyone was standing or sitting in the proper groups except for two older women at a table tucked away near the door. "You, there! You belong with them." The women continued staring at him. Galates searched out Thetis. "What’s the matter with them? They deaf?"
Thetis’ instincts warned him things were about to go from bad to worse. "N-no. Don’t mind them. Strangers, just passing through." He scowled pointedly at the women. "Perhaps you’ll see no harm letting them get back to their grandkids?"
Galates narrowed his eyes, trying to pinpoint what about those two made his palms itch. They dressed differently than the usual women – long tunics, leather breeches, boots – though perhaps to make traveling more comfortable. They seemed harmless enough. Surprisingly calm. Too calm, compared to everyone else.
And the dark-haired one .... Was that a hint of insolence in her eyes? He sauntered closer, a wordless threat. She cocked her head, as if studying the approach of a poisonous snake. Good sense told him to leave her alone. His pride detected a subtle challenge he simply couldn’t let pass.
"I ordered them to move. They’re under my command until or unless I say otherwise. Whoever they are."
"She claims she’s Xena!" Pontius blurted out, eager to start trouble he might not have to finish.
"Shut up!" Thetis hissed.
"Xena?!" Galates snickered. "So that’s what’s wrong with her? A little ...." He circled his index finger around his head.
"The other one says she’s Gabrielle," someone else chimed in. "Says they can prove it."
Galates focused on the smaller of the two strangers.
"Don’t ask me. I’m just the sidekick in all this."
Galates stared into the other woman’s ice-blue eyes. He’d been a boy when tales of the Destroyer of Nations thrilled him. He’d been disappointed to learn she’d died, heartened by rumors she could overcome even that. But she’d be ancient by now, not a few years younger than ....
"General?" Thetis risked inching away from his assigned place. "We don’t know for sure who she is. She’s got nothing to do with us anyway. Can’t we just forget about her? Let them –."
"No." Galates refused to accept the message in the woman’s silence. He brought his hands together, unconsciously scratching his palm. "I want to hear it from her."
The dark-haired woman glanced at her companion, pushed back her chair and slowly rose. She stuck her hand through a slit in the side of her tunic and pulled out a metallic disk. "Heads up," she warned, then launched the disk into the air. It ricocheted off the ceiling, walls and beams. Would’ve whacked Galates in the head, had he not ducked. Returned like an obedient pet to the woman’s hand. She hooked the disk back under her tunic.
"Anything else you wanna know?"
Jenna had heard about the plays staged in Athens. She couldn’t imagine they’d be better than the drama building between Galates and Xena. Apparently everyone else thought so as well. They watched transfixed, most in the same place the general had assigned them. His men shifted uncertainly. Some stared with their mouths open, as intrigued as those they guarded. Others scowled, clasping the handles of their weapons in case called upon to ... to ... to do whatever required to put that gray-templed biddy in her place.
Jenna pulled out of Micah’s protective grasp and hustled behind the bar.
"W-what’re you doin’, girl?!"
"Just takin’ care of business, is all." Jenna filled two mugs with ale. "Like you taught me," she threw over her shoulder, making a beeline for the main attraction, where Galates was doing his best to recover with as much dignity as possible from near beheading.
"Ale?" Jenna held up the mugs. "The kind you both like."
"Sure." Xena gave Jenna an approving grin. She took a mug, sat and crossed her legs. She cocked her head at Galates. "Not afraid of a little drink with a washed up Destroyer of Nations, are ya?"
Ordinarily the wily veteran would’ve ordered such behavior punished. Not this time. Not at the risk of tacitly acknowledging she was the irritant she’d become, or making her seem the threat she implied. Besides, half the art of being successful was knowing when to put on a good show. He turned to wink at the onlookers, took the mug, sat, and crossed his legs.
"Not at all. We can swap stories about our campaigns. If," Galates snickered, "you remember back that far."
"Um, Xena?" Gabrielle got up and laid a hand on her partner’s shoulder. "I’ll leave you two to your reminiscing. Okay?"
Xena squeezed Gabrielle’s arm. She smiled at the silent understanding that passed between them. "You’d probably be bored anyway."
Gabrielle snorted. "We’ll see." She nudged Jenna toward her parents.
"So. You’re really the former Destroyer of Nations, eh?"
"Look good for ... however old you are."
Galates’ cheeks reddened. He prided himself on his quick mind. It wasn’t often he met someone his equal. He decided to shift gears. "Must’ve been hard. You know – giving that up."
"The conquest? Taking whatever I wanted, whenever or however it suited me? Bending legions to my will? Answering to no mortal or god?"
"Nothing like it, eh?" Galates smirked. "Oh, yeah, I almost forgot – you found doing good more to your liking."
"Actually," Xena said, gazing at him thoughtfully, "I kinda miss it." She smiled wryly at his obvious surprise. "Been a long time since I felt that kind of freedom. The rush of fighting with no limits. No worries about who got hurt." She blew out a long breath. "Using all my skills to the fullest."
Despite himself, Galates felt his blood stirring. He leaned forward. "The ones who’d seen you in action? They all said you were the best. I’d sit at their knees, soaking it all up. How you whipped your armies into line. Used your wit and words, when weapons wouldn’t work." He straightened and ran his hand through his thick silver mane. "Not to mention making the most of height and good looks."
Xena shook her head. "I set the standard for ya, huh."
"You could say that. I aimed to be as good as you."
"Sorry to hear that."
"No, worked out fine. I’ve outlasted everyone I came up against, some half my age. Lot more fun than sucking up to wimps."
"Uh huh. But you failed your main mission."
Galates frowned. "Like I said –."
"Being as good as me."
"What?" Galates blinked, realization dawning that he might’ve stepped into a trap. "What’re you – ."
"Not now," she stated matter-of-factly, "not ever. Even when I’m not around to prove it."
The angry hiss of Galates’ breathing filled the otherwise absolute silence. He jumped up so abruptly his chair crashed to the floor. "That’s it! Now you’ve gone too far."
"Hmmm." Xena rubbed her chin. "You got an army, right? Trimea, some other villages?" She stood, her face now a hard mask that frightened even Gabrielle. "Your life? When I have all that, it still won’t be far enough."
Galates had experienced a lot over the years. Considered himself lucky to make it so far with only a scar on his cheek – a scar both men and women admired for different reasons. His corpse could easily have lain among the many he’d pushed off his sword. Yet never did he imagine facing this particular ghost from his past. To think he’d wished her alive, fantasizing himself battling with – or against – the infamous raven-haired beauty with a body deadlier than any weapon.
Oh, she still looked the part all right. From a distance she could be half her years. Closer, the streaks of silver, some lines on her forehead disarmed her. Until you felt the cold steel of those eyes. He felt them penetrating his armor, slicing through the supremacy he’d come to take for granted.
He’d offered her armor from one of his men. She’d disdained it. Stood there all confident in her ordinary clothes, except for the scabbard she’d put on her back and the chakram now visible at her waist. If he’d removed his own protection, he’d look like he took her seriously. Leaving it on reminded everyone of his status, of the ridiculousness of her challenge. He had another reason as well.
A less experienced warrior would see a crazy woman past whatever prime she once claimed. They’d probably miss what decades observing opponents revealed to him. The way she balanced herself while appearing to be relaxed. Her refusal to get caught up in the circus atmosphere, instead keeping her focus on him. Not on his body, but his eyes. He could see his every thought reflected in the barest hike of her brow, a slight twitch at the corner of her mouth. A thinking man’s warrior, like him.
He’d also noticed something else. When they shook hands, her palm was soft, not calloused like his from hours of handling weapons. No matter how good she was, rustiness could make her responses a hair too slow. Not so slow she wouldn’t seem a decent adversary, but enough to give him an edge. He’d need that, to make her look foolish without appearing to take advantage of someone others deemed a crazy woman.
"General? I say, are you ready?"
Galates shifted his gaze from her to Thetis. The skinny "negotiator" stood at a safe distance with the others circled around the combatants. They’d moved Xena’s "winner take all" proposition outside to a grassy area behind the inn. The two would fight until one died or surrendered.
"One more thing." Galates smiled unpleasantly at his foe. "Let’s say I trip. Accidentally fall on my sword. You get to be the big hero anyway. More likely that won’t happen. What’s in it for me when I win?"
Xena shrugged. "Bragging rights? Only a few can say they beat the Warrior Princess in single combat or otherwise."
"Might be worth something to young bucks. Not to me." Galates pointed at the blond woman positioned a few feet from Xena’s back. "What about her?"
"What about `er."
"I could use an attractive, mature woman for a change." Galates imagined not having to pretend youthful stamina, not enduring giggly teasing about the white fur covering his chest. "I don’t need permission, of course. I’d prefer her willing, for as long as it suits me."
"Gabrielle? Man wants to know if you’ll be his little love slave. Assuming he wins. You up for that?"
Gabrielle snorted. "Not really. However, I give my word, if it’ll make him happier about the spoils of victory."
"It does." Galates leered appreciatively at his prize. He straightened. "Let’s get this over with."
"Hold on a sec." Xena unhooked her chakram and handed it to Gabrielle. "We agreed to swords, right? Wouldn’t want to forget in the heat of battle and take your head off unfairly."
Not to be outdone, Galates made a show of removing several knives from his person. "Hold these until I’m done," he said, giving them to Thetis. The general drew his sword. "Ready now?"
Xena drew her sword. "Thought you’d never ask."
Neither made a move, each waiting for the other to reveal any preferences, weaknesses or strategy. The onlookers became restless.
"What’d you expect?" muttered someone in the crowd. "Both of `em’re too old for this nonsense."
"You hear that? They think we’re too old." Xena took a step toward Galates. "That’s not nice."
"And not very smart." Galates closed in on Xena. "I’ll deal with them later. After I deal with you," he snarled, making his first test lunge.
Xena parried, surprising Galates with her quickness. She made a few thrusts of her own, not surprised when they were easily deflected. Both increased their speed, soon dancing in and out, spinning, blocking in lightning blurs. As if on cue, they backed off. They nodded to each and began again in earnest. Now the air crackled with excitement. The crowd cheered – the villagers when Xena nicked Galates’ previously unscarred cheek, the soldiers when their leader cut Xena’s arm.
A few grueling minutes into the fight, Galates blinked the sweat out of his eyes, now regretting the extra weight of his armor. Xena moved as lightly and looked almost as fresh as when they’d started. It occurred to him she meant to draw the battle out, attack more fully when he tired. Whatever ideas he’d had of toying with her vanished with his ebbing energy.
Miraculously, he saw the opening he needed to end things quickly. He put everything he had into his final lunge, glimpsing too late the smirk that warned he’d been outfoxed. He couldn’t stop himself from thrusting into the empty space she left when she dropped to the ground and swept her leg to send him sprawling.
The downed general scowled up the length of blade pointed at his chest. "We agreed to swords," he gritted out. "Not brawling."
"Whatever. I’m holding a sword on you now. Give and we’re done."
Galates held the cold blue eyes long enough to see another opening. "It’s not done until one of us finishes it." He stuck out his chin, daring her to kill him where he lay.
"We’re smarter than that," Xena responded evenly, one veteran to another. "Nothing to prove, remember?"
"Like you don’t?" he sneered. "Otherwise put your sword down and walk away."
Xena regarded him a long moment. "Guess even wisdom’s got an expiration date." She shook her head and backed off, still holding her sword at the ready. "But maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m not done yet either."
"Thought so." Galates congratulated himself on calling her bluff. He got up and dusted himself off. "Only this time I’ll know its no holds barred."
The two went at it again, Galates adding punches and kicks to his swordplay. At one point they locked together and fell to the ground, their swords awkward at such close range. But the general had an alternative up his sleeve. Literally. As they wrestled, he released into his hand a dagger hidden above his wrist. He’d use that to wound her. Finish her off with his sword for public view.
Except, once again, she anticipated his intent. She grabbed his hand before he could jab the blade into her side. They rolled over. The knife sunk in below his armor. The onlookers stared at the motionless tangled figures, at a bloody rivulet beginning to flow from where they lay.
"Xena!" Gabrielle ran to her partner’s side. She pulled the warrior off Galates and gasped at the red stain covering Xena’s tunic.
"It’s not mine," Xena assured woodenly.
"General!" The soldiers gathered around Galates’ body. "General?" One looked over at Xena in disbelief. "What happened?"
The warrior shrugged off Gabrielle’s assistance and forced herself to sit up. "Like he said. Accidents happen. He died on his own blade."
The crowd shifted nervously in anticipation of what would happen next. While most had placed their bets on one or the other opponent, few expected Xena to prevail, let alone to see Galates dead. The victor had gotten to her feet and now observed stonily the men hovering over Galates, whispering among themselves. Finally a soldier detached himself, raised his chin importantly and addressed the gathering.
"I am Linus, second in .... I suggest you go on with your business while I confer with my lieutenants. We’ll let you know when to reassemble for further instructions."
"Nobody moves unless I say." Xena pinned everyone in place with her iciest warrior scowl. "The agreement was winner take all."
"W-well ...yes. Surely you’re not .... You got what you wanted. You defeated him. Played the hero like he said. You can leave here as that, which is more than –."
"You disappoint me, Linus. I was hoping you had potential. Now I’m not so sure."
Linus turned red. "Listen, game’s over," he blustered, laying his hand on the sword at his side. "I’m not Galates. I’m three-times younger, faster. You’re no more than a myth to me, so don’t think that’ll carry any weight."
Xena backed up a few paces and held her hand out for the chakram Gabrielle gladly returned. "True, I don’t do this kind of thing twice in one day anymore unless I have to. This," she said, dangling the chakram from her finger, "is my equalizer. Try something stupid, I’ll give you another demonstration of why it’s so much better than a cane."
"Let me!" A soldier came up beside Linus, itching to shut that woman up. "She won’t hurt us. Got lucky with Galates. Nothin’ but a sack of old air."
"Yeah," said another. "We can’t let her order us around." He nodded to a few of his comrades to fan out. "Let’s see how good her ‘equalizer’ is with us."
"Stand down!" Linus glowered in disgust at the threatening soldiers. "She’s one woman. I’ll handle this."
"By lettin’ her make a fool of us?"
"No, I’ll handle this." Xena kept an eye on the half dozen men slowly advancing from three sides. "That’s my first order, Linus. Obey and you just might live to leave a better impression on me."
Linus hesitated, half his attention on the men he was supposed to be commanding, the other half on the woman planted with her knees slightly bent, the round weapon held cocked near her ear. His gut advised that this ‘sack of old air’ could blow them all away. Grim faced, he nodded slightly and stood at ease. The soldiers behind him took that as a cue to do the same.
Everyone silently watched the potential attackers creep toward Xena. They’d been among those inside who’d seen the round weapon flying around the room. The closer they got, the more confident they became that either she wouldn’t throw it, or she wouldn’t have enough space to do so with much effect.
"Now!" the ringleader yelled.
The men rushed, caught completely off guard when the woman suddenly pivoted with her arm stretched out in front of her. Silver slashed through their ranks so fast men on one side of its arc felt it at about the same time as those on the other. They crumpled almost as one to the ground and might’ve been mistaken for sleeping except for the line of blood circling their throats.
Xena gazed down at them a moment, then bent to wipe the chakram clean on one of the bodies. She straightened and surveyed the scene around her. Everyone else stared back with varying degrees of fear. Waiting.
Linus finally approached. "What now?"
"Do what you will with Galates and the others." Xena gestured toward the bodies.
"Go back to your camp. Inform the rest what’s happened. Tell `em to relax, stay out of trouble and await further orders. While you’re at it, send some guards to replace the ones I ... dismissed."
Linus’ surprise mirrored that on the villagers’ faces. Tense murmuring swept through their ranks. Their self-appointed leaders stepped forward.
"Why do we need guards anymore?" Pontius crossed his arms. "What with Galates dead."
"Are ... are you expecting trouble from the rest of the army?" Thetis asked.
Xena regarded the two coldly. "And I’m the one who’s supposed to have a hearing problem. Let me repeat: ‘winner take all.’"
"B-but ... we thought .... Now that you have –."
"Galates’ life. His army. Trimea and whatever other villages he controlled."
Pontius was nearly beside himself. "You can’t mean .... Surely you don’t intend –."
Xena sauntered up to Pontius. "Not listening is why you’re standing here, me replacing Galates." She leaned in, radiating menace. "If you’d rather be with him instead, don’t think for a moment I won’t grant your wish." She addressed the dumb-struck crowd. "That goes for anyone else who feels the same."
No one challenged the steel-blue eyes. A few soldiers risked smiling at this unexpected turn of events. Most of the Trimeans huddled in resignation, wondering what had happened to their hero, if she might turn out worse than what they had before.
"All right then. Go on with your chores until you hear otherwise from me. Linus, station guards around the village. Make sure none of these good people strays too far without an escort."
Linus saluted smartly. "Yes, ma’am.... Um ... General."
"`Commander’ will do. Oh, and Linus? Inform the other officers I’ll want to meet with you tomorrow morning. I’m interested in learning what ‘all’ I’ve won."
Gabrielle found a shady spot across from the inn. Far enough to have a good view of the surroundings. Close enough to keep an eye on her elusive soulmate. She could see a few tents in the distance, some farmers bundling wheat in nearby fields. Others hustled about doing some chore or another, occasionally stopping to speak briefly with a neighbor. Except for the thick smoke billowing from the area where the bodies had been carried for disposal, Trimea looked like any other village. Xena had seen to that.
After giving assignments to the soldiers, their new commander had made inspection of village supplies, including those Micah had hidden. She’d basically grouped folks along the same lines as Galates. The young men toted supplies to the soldiers and chopped wood. Their elders fished, gathered vegetables, cooked, repaired equipment. The older women did domestic work in the camp, while the younger ones and mothers took care of their families and neighbors as they had before. The only person without a job was Gabrielle.
The night before, Xena had surprised Gabrielle by announcing she’d be sleeping at Galates’ camp. "I need to be ‘hands on’ right now," the warrior had said. She’d packed a few items quickly without conversation. "Hang around here. Pitch in where you can. I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon." No "You okay with that?" or "I’ll explain later." Not even a peck on the cheek. It was as if the new commander had nothing on her mind but her troops.
Xena’d returned the next afternoon, accompanied by guards. They strode hither and yon, never staying still long enough for Gabrielle to catch Xena’s eye. Gabrielle felt she needed an appointment to greet the woman from whom she’d been inseparable for over 25 years (not counting the ones when they were frozen, in a coma or suffering from amnesia).
She’d finally stormed from the inn in frustration. Someone noticed, all right, but it wasn’t Xena. Gabrielle cut her eyes at the guard who’d followed her out, now lounging against a nearby tree. "Give some people an inch, they take a mile." Gabrielle muttered to herself, picturing what she’d say or do to Xena when she got the chance. "I don’t care what she’s up to, she’s gone too far."
She shivered, her mind flashing back to that time they’d had to fight the Horde. "The Pomira," she amended. Xena seemed almost as closed and hard as she had then. "No, no way. She’d never ...." And yet .... It had been a long time since Xena’d looked more focused and energized, more ... in her element. A leader free to lead. But how? More importantly, why?
Gabrielle got up. She marched toward the inn, completely ignoring the guard trailing her. She stood inside the entrance, eyes blazing, hands on hips. She knew better than to challenge Xena publicly. No, she’d wait until the warrior deigned to notice her. Even if it took all day.
"See if the supplies’ve been loaded," Xena instructed her guards. "I’ll be out in a minute." She led Gabrielle to a quiet corner behind the bar. "Yeah? What’s so important you had to interrupt me?"
"I didn’t interrupt you."
"Fine. You got my attention. You want it or not?"
Gabrielle glared at her partner. "Know what? If you gotta ask, I’m wasting my time. Go back to whatever in Tartarus you’re doing." She started to walk away.
"Hey, where’re you going?"
"Upstairs, to pack. Or am I under house arrest."
Xena pursed her lips. "Gabrielle, this is no time to get coy. These first days are critical. I can’t show weakness or indecision. I can’t lose focus just because you need attention I can’t give right now."
"Attention?!" Gabrielle glanced around. She lowered her voice. "This isn’t about ‘attention.’ It’s about you and what you’re doing. Surely you didn’t expect me to fall in line without question, like those troops or villagers."
"I expected you to give me space. To do as I asked."
"And what’s that exactly, Xena? You’ve barely said two words to me."
"Why do I have to? You see the situation. You’re not some babe in the woods about this. I asked you to pitch in here, make sure things go smooth. What’s so hard about that?"
"Curses, Xena! We’re a team!" This time Gabrielle didn’t care who heard. "How’m I supposed to read your mind, when you shut me out?"
Xena steered Gabrielle farther away from any eavesdroppers. "Look, I have to restore order – to the troops here and in the other villages. I need to be in the field, see what I’ve got to work with. I need you to work with the Trimeans. At some point we’ll compare notes. It’s not like we haven’t done this before."
"This feels different." Gabrielle studied Xena a moment. "You feel different. One minute, we’re simply passing through. Suddenly you decide to take over everything for gods know how long." She shook her head. "I don’t like it. I don’t like you sticking me here, going off alone. Getting buddy-buddy with a bunch of goons who’d just as soon stab you in the back."
Xena’s eyes darkened. "Who do you think you’re talking to?"
"You heard me."
Gabrielle stared at her partner. "Xena, I’m – ."
"That’s right. ‘Xena.’ One of us better know who I am. You’re not sure, then yeah, do what you think best until you figure it out." The commander turned on her heel and swept out the door.
Jenna didn’t bother hiding her feelings as she brought the tray of drinks over to Xena and her lieutenants. She set each mug down with enough force to slosh the contents on the table, not to mention in a few unfortunate laps.
"Hey! Watch it, you clumsy – ."
"Leave her be. Little wetness won’t kill ya." Xena grabbed Jenna’s arm before the girl could make the same mistake with the commander. "You fine gentlemen probably make her nervous. Right, Jenna?" She waited for the girl’s sullen nod, then released her arm.
Jenna set a mug in front of Xena with exaggerated care. "Your Highness want the mutton now or later?"
The men at the table held their breath, along with everyone else in hearing distance.
"What `Your Highness’ wants is those spills wiped up and more ale in the mugs."
Lips poked out, Jenna stalked away. She returned with a cloth and jug. After swiping the table, she prepared to top off the mugs. She felt Xena’s hand again.
"Pour that in there." Xena pointed to a cup on a nearby table. "Now, take a sip."
"Take a sip. Tell me if it’s cold enough."
"Um ...." Jenna stared at the cup, then at Xena, as if weighing which was worse. "We’ve got colder." She grabbed the jug and rushed off. "This one’s better," she said when she came back. "Want me to test it?"
"No," Xena answered, the corner of her mouth quirking, "I’m sure it’s fine now. Leave it here. Bring our food in a few minutes. And Jenna?" she added as the girl turned to leave. "Lose the attitude. I’ll not have it spoiling your mother’s fine mutton."
Jenna glowered at Xena just long enough to see ice beginning to form in the commander’s eyes. She let her head dip in an acceptable semblance of obedience and headed for the kitchen. Once inside, she slumped against a wall.
"Mama, she knew!"
"Uh huh." Efthimia ladled out some gravy. "Hmmm, still a little thin. Jenna, get me .... Girl, what’s the matter with you? I got no time for your moods now."
"I could’ve been killed!"
"What?" Efthimia paused to glance at her daughter. "What’re you talking about?"
"Xena. Somehow she knew ...."
Efthimia narrowed her eyes. "Knew what?"
"Um …." Jenna gathered herself and pushed off the wall. "What’s that you wanted me to get for you?"
"No. You tell me first. All of it. Don’t make me pry it out of you."
"I’m sorry, Mama. I wasn’t thinking. She just makes me so mad sometimes, and nobody else’ll – ."
"Now, Jenna. Spit it out."
Jenna grimaced. "Um ... I already did." She ducked her head. "In their ale."
Efthimia gaped at Jenna. "You spit it out in...." Her befuddlement turned to incredulity. "You spit? In Xena’s ale?!"
"You couldn’t tell it from the foam! But somehow...." Jenna shook her head. "She could’ve made me drink it. Why’d she let me off the hook? I just don’t get her."
Efthimia sighed. She grabbed Jenna by the shoulders, firmly but with maternal concern. "Listen, child, I know you’re disappointed in her. We all are. But whatever she’s got planned, I don’t believe it’s our deaths. We gotta keep going like we always have. Do the best with what we’ve got. We don’t serve spit. Never have, never will – no matter who’s eatin’ it."
"But we can’t just sit by and –."
"Honey, pride’s a funny thing. Your pa and me don’t have much, besides this place. When we die, it goes to you and your brother, if he ever comes back. You spit on our food, you spit on our pride. You spit on our hard work and reputation, on your heritage. Understand?"
Jenna sniffed. "Yes, ma’am. You know I’d never hurt you and Papa."
"I know. We tolerate that smart mouth of yours `cause that’s your pride." Efthimia lifted her daughter’s chin. "You’ve got spirit. Need a little more sense to go with it. Xena seems to know that. Respects it even. Believe me, if she tried to break it, you’d see a lot more than spit out of your old ma and pa."
"They don’t call me ‘the best woman with a skillet’ for nothin’. There’s a reason folks don’t act like fools in this place, and not just because of the food or your pa’s size."
Jenna grinned. "Wish I’d seen you in action."
"Maybe way back when. If it comes to that now, could be one of the last things any of us’ll see."
The fresh smell of laundry blowing in the breeze reminded Gabrielle of home. She closed her eyes, visualizing the chores she’d taken for granted. The routine drudgery that structured a "normal" life and made the freedom to roam more special. Appreciating moments like that now gave her a feeling of suspension from present concerns. Reminded her of what she’d come to count on. Faith. Sometimes it was as simple as filling a tub with water and expecting to wash a soiled shirt clean.
Gabrielle opened her eyes to see Jenna hustling her way. Each day the girl came to find Gabrielle whenever Xena arrived at the inn. Each day Gabrielle smiled and continued whatever she was doing. She much preferred being active somewhere else, than standing in the same room with the partner who treated her like a tent post.
"Hand me some of those clothes pins, will you?"
Jenna sighed. She’d gotten accustomed to Gabrielle’s puzzling behavior. She grabbed a handful of pins. She handed them to Gabrielle and plopped down on a crate, determined to pry out some answers.
"I don’t get you two. It’s been a week, and still you act like nothin’s wrong."
Gabrielle hung some socks on the line. "Define ‘wrong.’"
"Come on, Gabrielle. You know what I mean."
"Tell me from your perspective."
Jenna fiddled with a clothes pin. "You seemed so cool – you and Xena. I’d never met anybody like you before. I thought you were brave and good. I thought you loved each other." She snapped the pin in two. "Now one of you’s turned into a warlord, the other into a mouse. You act like you don’t even know each other."
"A mouse, huh? My." Gabrielle patted her behind. "Didn’t realize my tail showed through this dress."
"Gabri-elllle. I’m not a stupid kid! I thought you saw that." Jenna stood. "Forget it. Guess I was stupid, to think –."
"Wait." Gabrielle pulled over a crate to sit on. "I’m sorry. I don’t mean to make light of you. It’s the situation. I’m trying not to let it get to me."
Jenna plopped back down. "Whew! So you do see a problem."
"Of course I do."
"Then why won’t you talk sense into her? You don’t even try."
Gabrielle gazed at the laundry she hadn’t hung yet. She picked out an undershirt worn by one of the warriors. "See this?"
"That old thing? Don’t know why anybody bothers with it."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle poked her finger through one of the holes in the frayed garment. "Looks worse for the wear. Somebody wants to keep it anyway. The owner can probably tell it from all the others, describe what fights it’s survived."
"So? Flimsy thing like that won’t do much good, even new, once you get past the armor. What’s that got to do with –."
"It’s what he wears next to his body. Maybe as protection against cuts or rashes. For warmth. Maybe it’s comfortable – an especially good fit, feels good on his skin. Could be like a good luck charm. Whatever, he’s used to it. Trusts it’ll do the job, tears and all."
Jenna squinted at the older woman. "You sayin’ this’s got somethin’ to do with Xena? She’s like an old shirt you don’t have the heart to get rid of? You can’t see maybe she’s good for nothin’ but a rag?"
Gabrielle winced. "Oooo, harsh. But, yeah, even at her worst she cleans messes like nobody else." She smoothed the damp cloth over her knee. "I know she has flaws. Plenty of rough edges."
"It doesn’t bother you? You don’t care if she swipes up a bunch of innocent people with her ‘cleaning?’"
"You know, I was just thinking about faith. Why sometimes it’s so hard and sometimes it’s as easy as breathing." Gabrielle got up. She shook out the shirt and carefully pinned it to the line.
"All I can say is, Xena’s mine. We’ve endured everything there is together, for longer than you’ve been alive. She’s closer than my skin. Even when I don’t know what in Tartarus she’s up to, I believe I’d feel it if she wasn’t worth keeping around anymore."
Jenna gazed at Gabrielle a long moment. "What if you felt it? What if you had proof? Could you do what was right? Against her?"
"Trust me, Jenna, I’d be the first in line."
"Everything is proceeding according to plan. The tradesmen have constructed the targets and completed half of necessary repairs to equipment. That includes work required for Planos and Gidea."
"Excellent." Xena paced behind her desk in the nicely appointed tent she’d inhabited since defeating Galates. Except for periodic meals at the inn, she’d spent most of the last two weeks at this main camp near Trimea. "And the villagers? They’ve been organized?"
Linus nodded. "Exactly as Trimea. Planos gave us a little trouble at first. None since your visit. Gidea prefers our presence to the raids they’d been experiencing from roving bandits."
"I’m pleased with the response here to my drill regimen. What’s your assessment of the other troops?"
"They’re doing very well. Remy’s a good man. Maintains both morale and tightness." Linus shifted in his chair. "One-Eye ... doesn’t have the same respect for discipline."
Xena leaned against a post. "You mean, for my discipline."
"Who should replace him?"
Linus mentally reviewed the second lieutenants. Only one, Melton, had the leadership and military skills required to maintain stability at Planos. But he wanted Linus’ position. This command would give Melton a chance to shine, perhaps a little too much. Linus glanced up at Xena. Even as her right hand man, he couldn’t figure out her intentions.
Did she really mean, at her age, to build an army? Conquer and rule provinces? If so, how would she repay the loyalty he’d given her so far? If not, was he a fool to aid potential competition for her replacement? Linus had grown to admire the woman, but being around her was a constant test, with failure not an option.
"I’d go with Melton."
Xena nodded. "I’ll take him with me on my next review."
"One-Eye probably won’t like being pulled."
Xena’s smile chilled the air. "He’ll like my chakram in his chest even less." She pushed off from the post. "I’m ready to begin phase two. You’ve identified potential recruits?"
"About 20 from each village. Mostly young men. All raw."
"Good. Less bad habits to break. Have those from Planos and Gidea brought here. I’ll train them all myself."
"And if they don’t wish the training?"
"I’ll leave it to you to come up with a worse alternative."
Xena detached her cape and reluctantly removed her armor, leather breeches and jacket. This new uniform reminded her how much simpler the world had been when she thought herself a god. When her will had been supreme, her mind unfettered by niceties or other people’s rules. She’d rise each morning certain the day was hers to plan, shape, guard against, lose, win. That the people she encountered would either bow to her or die.
She eyed with mixed emotions the simple outfit she was donning this day. On one hand, it would assist her surveillance activities. On the other, it conjured up images of another life – one of complexities, compromise, consideration, conscience. Service to others’ needs. Love. As seductive in its own way as her warlord past, but much harder to control. She had faith in control. Needed control. Galates was right – there was nothing like it. Now that she had it again, she’d be a fool to squander it on the unknown.
"Linus? You out there?"
"Aye, Commander. Everything’s ready."
"Good. Proceed as usual. I’ll be there – incognito unless I say otherwise."
"Understood. I’m on my way."
Xena pinned her one long braid beneath a scarf. She picked up the basket of fruit Linus had left and peeked out her tent flap. Hunched over, she shuffled toward the training area.
Linus already stood before a motley crowd of mostly fresh-faced, nervous villagers. He raised his hand. "All right! Attention!" He waited for quiet. "You know why you’re here. You’re candidates for the army now led by Commander Xena. She will personally oversee your rigorous training exercises. Those who do not qualify will return to their normal duties. I will be dividing you into groups with members from each village. Before then, I will ask you to swear allegiance to the commander."
Linus swept has eyes across the potential recruits. "The fate of your villages depends upon you. By serving under Commander Xena, you can protect your kin and bring glory to yourselves. Refusal may result in no longer having anything to protect." He paused at the gasps of confusion and horror. "The choice is yours. I will give you a few minutes to decide." He turned to confer with some of his aides.
Xena had begun weaving her way through the recruits, offering fruit. No one paid her any attention.
"This is crazy!" A young man spoke in hushed tones to his neighbors. "We’re no soldiers. If we agree, we die. If we don’t agree, our folks die – by her hand or somebody else’s. What kind of choice is that?"
"So what’s your idea? Be heroes? Me, I’d just as soon live to see what the next day brings."
Xena’s sampling of conversations revealed similar reactions. Her interest piqued at a familiar voice a few feet ahead.
"Don’t kid yourself. Old or not, she can beat the tar out of the lot of ya. Should’ve seen what she did to Galates and his goons. That’s why I volunteered for this."
"You what?! I’d rather die fighting her, than die fighting with her."
"That’s what I’m talkin’ about. Let her teach us what she knows. Nothin’ stoppin’ us from usin’ it how we want later, right?"
"Lucas, the girl makes sense. Live to turn this to our advantage."
"Quiet!" Linus faced the crowd. "Time to choose. Those prepared to join, remain where you are. Those who refuse, step to the front."
Heads turned to see what others would do. Despite some grumbling, no one moved. Including Jenna.
Xena relaxed on the hilltop overlooking Trimea. At her camp, one group of veteran soldiers and recruits practiced sparring, archery and the martial-arts moves she’d taught them. In only two weeks, they’d made excellent progress physically and in melding together as units. She snorted softly, recalling the mistakes she’d made as a young commander.
If only she’d known then what she did now, she might’ve been called Builder of Nations, rather than Destroyer. Not that she’d really been interested in ruling. No, it hadn’t mattered whether those she conquered were breathing, only that they didn’t get in her way. It took awhile to appreciate how much farther she could extend her reach with live bodies than dead ones.
She saw Linus look up to her position. He began walking that way. She smiled. He certainly had a knack for being at the right place at the right time.
"Seems to be going well." At Xena’s nod, Linus sat next to her.
"You sound surprised."
Linus noted his commander’s neutral expression. "I would’ve expected more resistance from the men. You know, being put on the same level as the captives."
"And the captives?"
"They’re adjusting better than I thought. Some even seem eager." Linus pointed to a slender figure at the archery range. "That girl? She’s held her own in several areas. Some problems taking orders, but otherwise has potential."
"Mm." Xena observed the girl with a wry grin. "With more manpower, we’ll need some good unit leaders. Work with her. See how she does. Pick out a few others and do the same."
"I’ll begin tomorrow."
"There’s something else. I want the regulars helping with supply and maintenance duties."
Linus frowned. "You mean ... labor? Menial tasks?"
"Linus, when you occupy an area, what’s the biggest thing you have to worry about?"
Linus shifted around to face Xena. "Galates didn’t care about occupation, only what we could take. Food, booty, weapons, horses. Once we got what we wanted, we’d move on."
"I’m not interested in being a petty warlord. Scrounging around for something to loot. Trying to keep my men from killing each other over a piece of gold. Conquering some village one day, having to win it back the next. Been there, done that. No future in it. Troops get restless with the same ol’ same ol’, going nowhere in circles."
Linus pondered this. "But we’d have to spread ourselves too thin. Some of us’d have to stay behind. We’re not cut out for that. It’s in our blood to fight, to go wherever the smell of riches takes us."
"And you still could." Xena smiled conspiratorially. "If you had somebody guarding your territory for you. Somebody you could half-way trust."
"Like those villagers?"
Xena nodded. "We get to know them. Work side by side – planting, reaping. We learn their weaknesses, the benefits we can exploit. They decide it might be better to throw their lot in with the devil they know."
"Huh. Ambitious. I’m not sure the men – ."
"The men’ll be fine. Those with ambition ...." Xena smiled knowingly at Linus. "Let’s just say there’ll be more opportunity for growth. Any of `em who don’t like where I’m headed can leave. Walking or on a litter."
"You’d let them choose?"
"Sure." Xena fingered her chakram. "Long as they understand, either way, first they gotta go through me."
Gabrielle felt like that “flying parchment" her soulmate had fashioned all those years ago. She’d struggled to stay "up" during Xena’s initial takeover of Galates’ forces. After all, she’d urged the warrior to "do something" to help the Trimeans. She understood they couldn’t exactly leave the villagers to the whims of a potentially fractious army. Accepted Xena’s rationale for establishing firm leadership and order, for not wanting to divide her attentions. Tolerated Xena’s bedding down with the troops and acting as if the supposed love of her life didn’t exist.
Her confidence had taken a nosedive when Xena began conscripting villagers for "her" army. Gabrielle offered herself, hoping to get closer to the commander. Linus politely informed her he had orders not to take in "any middle-aged green-eyed blondes with moles on their bellies."
She’d been heartened a couple weeks later at sight of troops pitching in with the drudge work. Xena had even given the three villages permission to hold small festivals, which the soldiers could attend in shifts. Then yesterday a grim-faced Jenna came to the inn with the supply runners. She’d pressed a note in Gabrielle’s hand. "Meet me in storeroom during festival. Come alone."
Alone. Gabrielle smoothed her hand across the bed she’d hoped to share with her partner for their stay in Trimea. She surveyed the room, keying in on traces Xena had actually been there. A hairclip. A long night shift draped over a chair. The knife Xena’d used to cut fruit and cheese. Rather than reassuring her, they reminded her how much she’d lost sight of the owner – what Xena was doing, thinking, feeling. Whatever it was, Jenna hadn’t seem pleased.
The sounds drifting up suggested the festival had begun. Gabrielle decided it best to go down early. She spent awhile making small talk in the main room and helping Efthimia in the kitchen, before easing away to the storeroom. The door wouldn’t open.
"Micah?" Gabrielle hesitated a moment. "Um, it’s me, Gabrielle."
The door opened enough to reveal Micah’s big frame. He checked outside before beckoning for Gabrielle to enter. When she did, her eyes widened at the others in the dimly lit room – not just Jenna, but Thetis, Pontius, and a young uniformed man she didn’t know. They sat on large grain sacks, staring at her.
"Jenna? What’s going on?"
Jenna exchanged glances with the others. "I told `em we could trust you. You gotta promise not to tell Xena."
"You also said Xena gave her word none of us would be hurt." Thetis scowled at Gabrielle. "What makes you think this one’s any better?"
Gabrielle lifted her chin. "How many of you have died?" Silence. "Been beaten or attacked?" More silence. "Starved, had your homes torched?"
Pontius crossed his arms. "So she’s smart. Fattenin’ sheep for slaughter. Couple more parties like this, we’ll be prancin’ into her trap like it was a field of sweet grass."
"What makes you think – ."
"Gabrielle? We’ve heard some things. Me and Lucas. He’s from Planos." Jenna tilted her head toward the stranger. "About Xena’s big plans for after the festival. I’ve about given up on her, but not you. We could use your advice."
"Then you’ll have to trust my judgment. If you believe I don’t want innocent people hurt, tell me what’s going on. If not, I’ll walk out that door now as if this never happened."
"Once she knows, we’re stuck," Pontius warned. "Just because Xena hasn’t been too friendly to her lately doesn’t mean she’ll take kindly to any ‘accidents.’"
Thetis jumped up. "I told you, this isn’t the time or place anyway. We shouldn’t be discussing ... what we’re discussing ... among ourselves, let alone with her."
"Then go." Micah continued relaxing against the doorframe. "Just remember, Xena won’t notice if you go missin’."
"Are ... are you threatening me?!"
Pontius snorted. "He’s sayin’ everybody in here better keep their mouths shut."
Gabrielle held up her hand. "We’re wasting time. Whatever this is, you risk raising suspicion. Talk to me or let me go."
"I’m countin’ to three." Micah lifted the door latch. "Anybody wants to go, go." He counted. No one left. "Okay, Jenna. Shoot."
The commander propped her feet on her desk. She’d reviewed the situations at Planos and Gidea. Morale and operations were good. The festivals had gone over well. One-Eye’s reports had been reassuring. After some initial bluster, he’d plunged into his reassignment as reconnaissance chief with gusto. Riding around searching for potential rival warlords suited him just fine. She’d become aware of missing inventory from their arsenal, but had expected as much. All in all, she felt everyone was prepared for the next phase. She had only one big question mark. Gabrielle.
Xena could only imagine what her partner must be thinking. What she’d heard. What she’d decided to do about it. With any luck, Gabrielle would resist her natural tendency to try turning back a tide already surging to its crest. She’d ride it out, deal with the aftermath when the waters calmed. If so, she’d probably be at Xena’s side regardless of the outcome. If not .... Xena’s jaw clenched. First things first.
"Aye, sir." Linus pushed open the tent flap and stood at attention.
"The representatives from Planos and Gidea are here?"
"Waiting at the inn."
"Send runners to the village. Spread word everyone is to gather on the east side of the training field after the noon meal. I have an important announcement to make."
"Um, Commander? The men have been asking questions. They wonder.... Will you be briefing us before –."
"No." Xena allowed a small smile. "I prefer everyone hearing at the same time. When the villagers begin arriving, assemble the troops on the west side of the field. Dismissed." She cocked her head when Linus didn’t move. "Problem?"
Linus steeled himself. "If you’re planning a big campaign, it might be wise for me – for all the officers to – ."
"I learned a long time ago, Linus, too much talk can weaken a good strategy. What happens today could teach you a thing or two about commanding. If, of course, you’re interested in moving up."
As he had on many occasions during the past few weeks, Xena’s second questioned continuing to give his new commander the benefit of the doubt. True, he couldn’t have asked for a better teacher. Her vast experience, her superior skills and mind far surpassed what Galates offered. But Galates’ simple needs and goals made him an easier person to decipher.
Each time Linus thought he’d figured Xena out, she’d surprise him with something new. What did she get from all this? What more did she want? Would her announcement finally reveal that? Linus shrugged. Better safe than sorry.
"Yes, sir." Linus saluted. "As you will."
Gabrielle headed for the training field with the first wave of villagers. She shared their anxious anticipation of Xena’s announcement. From the snippets of conversation she heard, rumors had spread far beyond the conspirators she’d huddled with a few days ago in the storeroom. The army massed across from them fueled conjecture about what the rumors might mean.
Some guessed Xena would continue business as usual – looting or demanding "protection" taxes like Galates. Others believed she intended to establish herself as governor of Trimea and the other communities in territory she conquered. Whatever, they primarily worried about what would become of the relatives and neighbors pressed into her service.
The middle of the field certainly suggested the presence of royalty. A purple-decked podium sat on an ornate gold runner extending to Xena’s tent. A large black and purple flag fluttered near the podium, the gold "X" in its center shining in the early afternoon sun.
When the last of the villagers straggled to the area, an honor guard marched from behind the command tent to form lines on both sides of the entrance. A couple raised horns to their lips to blare everyone to attention. Gabrielle smiled wryly. Her soulmate could put on quite a show when she wanted.
The commander emerged resplendent in black leathers, plumed helmet and flowing purple cape. She sauntered down the gold runway to pose regally before the podium and scan those assembled as if she owned everyone there. She bowed slightly, apparently satisfied the hush connoted deference to her position. She went behind the podium and removed her helmet. Her loose silver-flecked dark hair seemed to add more height to the tall frame. Gabrielle swallowed. Potential warlord or not, Xena looked magnificent.
"Trimeans, Planosians, Gideans, soldiers." Xena paused, her rich voice sounding what could have been welcome, warning or both. She raised her palms to the sky. "Isn’t it a beautiful day?" She smiled at the expressions of surprise.
"A short time ago you lived in fear. Torn between giving in and suicidal resistance. Your only hope was a reportedly dead ex-warlord turned hero, ancient enough to remember when the gods reigned supreme. That is, before I ‘poofed’ them into air and Mt. Olympus into a molehill."
Some in the crowd chuckled, Xena along with them.
"You wondered if this old ‘has been’ would be good enough to defeat Galates. I was. When I took over his army, you wondered if I’d be good enough to protect you from rape and pillage. I have. Now you wonder about the future. Will I be good enough to leave you better off than before I came." Xena gazed a moment at the expectant faces. "That question I cannot answer for you."
Murmurs rippled through the crowd. Once again, Gabrielle thought of Xena’s flying parchment, of how quickly what started out well could dip towards trouble.
"What I can do is tell you what I see. I see an army of villagers and professionals securing the land – some locally, some in surrounding territory. I see most of you going about your daily lives free of worry about anything other than your harvests, getting your children to bed, whether to go fishing or dancing. I will do all the tough worrying for you.
“In return, I see loyalty and cooperation. Supplies, assistance, new recruits when I need them. Obedience to any rules I establish for maintaining order. I see the same for the leaders I appoint. Ah, and one more thing." Xena smiled. "The best room in your inns reserved for my stays. I don’t see these aged bones bedding down in tents unless they have to."
Xena donned her helmet and walked in front of the podium. "In two days, I will accompany the representatives from Planos and Gidea back to their homes. When I return, I will begin mobilizing the main army for travel to the other four villages in the province. I trust by then you will see things as I do. Go now. Enjoy the rest of this beautiful day." With a swirl of her cape, she disappeared inside her tent.
"We have a problem," Linus said, finally catching up with his commander.
"Handle it," Xena threw over her shoulder. "I wanna be in Planos before noon."
"Uh, perhaps you should check it out first?" When Xena turned, Linus pointed to a group of villagers at the edge of the practice field. "They demand an audience with you. Your... um... Gabrielle is their spokesman."
Xena glanced casually at the familiar figure impatiently tapping a foot. "You told her I was busy, preparing for my trip?"
"I did. In no uncertain terms."
"She asked me if I knew who I was talking to. I said, ‘Yes, Gabrielle.’"
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. "And she said...."
"`Right. Gabrielle. Tell your commander somebody ought to know who I am, or there’ll be Tartarus to pay.’"
Xena barked some orders to the traveling party, then strode over to the villagers with Linus trailing. She crossed her arms. "Yesss?"
Gabrielle stepped forward. "Some of us don’t share your vision of the future. You should know that before you leave."
"Oh really." Xena noted several faces she recognized, including the representatives from Planos and Gidea. "Perhaps we should talk privately."
"No. What we have to say is of interest to everyone."
"Commander?" Linus warily watched the mixture of civilians and soldiers gathering around. "Should I summon your guards? In case things get out of hand?"
"Whose hand?" Xena smirked, patting her chakram. "One of mine should do fine with these folks."
Jenna came up alongside Gabrielle. "Don’t count on it. We’re not the pushovers we were before."
"Hush, girl," Micah said, laying a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. "Let Gabrielle talk, like we planned."
Xena cocked her head. "Yes. Let Gabrielle talk. She hasn’t said much lately. This’s gotta be worth waitin’ for."
Gabrielle put her hands on her hips. "Sorry, but it’s pretty straight forward. They don’t want your army, your rules or your generous offer to do their thinking for them. Not just here, but the other villages as well."
"I see. I take it they have a counter offer?"
"Leave. Take with you the soldiers who wish to go with you."
"Who says this is up for negotiation?"
"We do!" Jenna shrugged free of her father’s hand. "Thanks to you, a lot of us know how to fight." She pointed her chin at the swelling crowd. "And we’ve got weapons for any of `em that want to join us."
Xena sauntered closer. She singled out one man in particular. "Thetis, you seemed to have sense. You realize I could order all of you killed on the spot."
Thetis shifted nervously but held his ground. "Gabrielle says you’re not a fanatic. That you might change your mind when you hear everything."
"Is that so." Xena sidled up to her partner, gazing down at the shorter woman with hooded eyes. "Finish it."
Gabrielle calmly held the blue eyes. "The recruits want to protect their homes. Beginning with you. They expect some of the regulars to stand with them."
Xena whirled to confront Linus. "Is this true?"
"I... uh...." Linus searched out his lieutenants. They stood off to the side waiting to see what happened. Some of the soldiers did the same, while others mingled with the villagers. "I hadn’t thought – ."
"Begging your pardon, Commander, but it’s your fault." One of the regulars stepped forward and stood at attention. "You shouldn’t’ve had us mix in like you did. It leads to... fraternizing." At Xena’s frown, he added, "You know – attachments."
Xena snorted. "A few rolls in the hay? Since when did that ever cause mutiny?"
"T’ain’t just that." A second man came forward. "Only reason I joined with Galates was ‘cause I didn’t see much else. I’ve met somebody I could settle down with. Worked with her pa in his fields. Darn sight better’n gettin’ m’self killed so’s some general kin wear more finery."
"Not me!" One of the guards brandished his sword at his comrades. "I’m a warrior through and through. So’re a lot of the other fellas." He gestured toward a group who looked ready to pounce on the renegades. "Why’re you lettin’ `em get away with this crap?"
"Shut up and move back." Xena retreated a few paces from the villagers and indicated for the threatening soldiers to do likewise. "Jenna, you seem to be the ringleader in all this. That so?"
Jenna glanced at Gabrielle. Gabrielle shot her a warning look. Jenna drew herself up and stalked forward anyway. She frowned when she felt someone else come up beside her.
"No! It was my idea. I urged this from the beginning."
"Good for you. Now step back. Jenna’s the one I’m interested in."
"Do like she says, Lucas. She made me a promise. I hafta see if she keeps it."
Xena waited until Lucas grudgingly moved away from Jenna. She strode over to one of the archers, took his bow and a couple of arrows and held them out to Linus. "Shoot `er."
A gasp went up. Like everyone else, Linus seemed paralyzed.
Xena put the bow in Linus’ left hand and an arrow in his right. "Shoot ... her."
Linus glanced in consternation between his commander and the girl planted defiantly a few feet away. "B-but.... In cold blood?"
"See, Linus?" Jenna glared at Xena. "Nothin’ but disappointment."
"Oh dear." Xena put her hand over her mouth in mock dismay. "Don’t tell me the two of you have become an item? I said `work with’ the girl, Linus. I see I should’ve been more specific."
"I am not a ‘girl!’" Jenna poked her chin out. "I’ll be 18 next month. Old enough to choose whoever I want. Woman enough to take you on," she threw at Xena. "If you were woman enough to do your own dirty work."
The tension that had been building verged on the point of eruption. The villagers and their allies readied themselves to protect Jenna, led by the skillet-armed Efthimia. Soldiers loyal to Xena or as yet uncommitted awaited her command.
"Interesting. Let’s review where I am." Xena assumed a relaxed stance, rubbing her chin. "‘Easy pickings’ villagers aren’t such easy pickings anymore. Not much profit trying to squeeze a dinar out of that. A good number of my army wants to play house. Don’t want warriors with their hearts someplace else. Linus can figure out what to do with those who prefer defending hearth and home. Maybe the plundering types’ll form their own army or scatter to somebody else’s. Trouble for another day, another place."
She shrugged. “Far enough. Never’ve let Galates get his hands on the best prize anyway.” She honed in on the one face worth more to her than all the spoils of victory imaginable in the known world. "Hi there," she drawled, sauntering up to her partner. "I’m Xena. You must be Gabrielle."
"Nice of you to notice."
"This’s gotten kinda old, don’tcha think? Friend of mine once said everything can’t be an adventure all the time." Xena offered her hand. "Care to go somewhere new with me? You know – smell the roses?"
Gabrielle gave her soulmate the once-over. She lightly grasped Xena’s middle finger and held the larger hand up to examine it. "Your friend may have a blind spot when it comes to thorns."
"She does." Xena wrapped her fingers around the smaller hand, her eyes shining gratitude and love. "We wouldn’t be who we are without it."
Gabrielle allowed an "ooo, good one" grin. She withdrew her hand and inserted it under Xena’s arm. Turning to the crowd, she announced, "It seems you no longer need Commander Xena. She will be retiring now – first from her position, next to that room where her ‘just desserts’ await. Disturb her without permission and you risk wrath from the half of her you haven’t heard much from – Gabrielle."
The reputedly out-of-commission legendary couple strolled away, keenly aware of the mystified, awed eyes glued to their backs.
"Feel better now?"
"Yeah, I do. That’ll teach `em to treat us like useless crones."
Gabrielle swatted Xena’s midsection. "I meant, teaching `em to stand up for themselves. I was really hoping they wouldn’t actually have to do it. Not against you anyway."
"Had you worried, huh?"
"Confused maybe. Irritated for sure. Although.... You did look mighty at home parading about in those fancy duds, barking orders."
Xena laughed. "I had a good supporting cast." She planted a kiss on her partner’s head. "Figured if anybody knew what to do with righteous indignation, it’d be you. Sorry I was so hard on you. Both of us had to be convincing in our roles."
"Uh huh. You’ll pay for that with a lot more than ‘sorry.’"
"Oooo, I can hardly wait." Xena caught hold of her cape swirling in the breeze. "Guess I can get rid of this now. Won’t exactly go with my tunic."
"Oh, I don’t know. Gives you a certain flair."
"Yeah? You like?"
"Mm. Fashion’s tricky." Gabrielle caressed the satiny purple the wind molded to her partner’s body. "I’ve learned – with the right person – what’s ‘old’ can still wear just like new." £
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