In the Season 3 Solstice story “Raindrops on Roses,” Gabrielle and Xena try to make the best of their near-death experiences in THE BITTER SUITE and ONE AGAINST AN ARMY. This continuation explores different ways others take the heroic partners’ presumed demise as a gift. For Cousin Liz and Nancy G.
The tall woman in leather brushed dark hair from her eyes for an unobstructed view of the castle. Through the dusk she could make out four guards at the entrance. A figure scaled one of the side walls, undetected by the enemy. Another approached up the main path. He could be heard a mile away.
The woman watched the first figure disappear inside a window. “Get ready,” she said to the blonde beside her. “Our guys are almost in place. Gotta time this just right.”
“You sure about this?” The blonde scowled at the “diversion” clanking and stumbling toward the guards. True, she’d seen him challenge the greatest of warriors, but he’d been no match in the fighting department. “He could get himself killed, if they don’t buy his antics.”
“Nah. Nobody’s better’n him. See? They’ve dropped their spears, laughin’ so hard. Okay, they’re startin’ ta push him around. Better get movin’.”
The two spies left their hiding posts and jogged toward the fort.
“Hi ya, boys.” The brunette stopped a few feet from the guards. “Forget about the stumble bum. Wanna have some real fun?” She sneered. “With me?”
The guards stood gaping, until one went for his spear.
“Nuh uh uh.” The woman snatched a disk from her waist. “`Less you wanna lose a hand.”
Another guard retreated a few paces. “That’s Xena! I saw her cut down six men with that thing.”
“Maybe when she was breathing. Only way she could now is from the grave.”
“Pfft. I look like a ghost to you?” The tall woman twirled the disk. She gestured toward her comrade, who expertly twirled a staff. “And if I don’t get ya, she will.”
The guards shifted uncertainly. Finally one stuck out his chin. “You know whose castle this is? Lord Croesus. Men’re crawlin’ all over the place, you thinkin’ of goin’ after the treasure.”
“Yeah? You oughtta be more worried about crawlin’ away at all. Leave now, I won’t hafta chop off any of your body parts.”
The guards exchanged looks. “Even if we do, how you figurin’ on gettin’ in?” The bold guard snickered. “Ya gonna get ‘stumble bum’ there ta knock?”
On cue, the door opened. A masked man in black poked his head out. “Boo!”
Needing no more hints as to their best course of action, the guards scattered into the forest. The “diversion” jogged up to the masked man.
“You get the treasure?”
“But of course.” The masked man tossed out bulging sacks. He wiped his forehead. “I usually prefer less weighty gigs. I suggest you folks grab those sacks. Oh, and after you do,” he warned at shouts from within, “run!” With that, he took off for the hills.
The vigilantes had hidden Croesus’ treasure, intent on returning it to the village of Annapolis. They now relaxed in Xena’s mother’s inn, where they’d hatched their plot. Cyrene sadly noted their half-hearted attempt at celebrating their successful caper. As heroic as it had been, she understood why it didn’t quite fill the void they felt.
“Xena?!” A short, chubby man had come in. He hesitated, staring at the vigilantes. “I thought …. I mean, I’d heard ….”
Cyrene walked over to the newcomer. She laid a sympathetic hand on his arm. “I’m her mother. Are you another of her friends?”
“Um, well, we do have history.” He ducked his head. “I won’t go into some of it, you being her mother and all. Not that it was … you know … that kind of history,” he hastened to add. “Heh, not with Hercules as my competition anyway. Now, if it was when I still had my – .”
“And you would be …?”
“Oy.” He slapped his forehead. “Salmoneus. Merchant extraordinaire. Nice place you have here, by the way,” he said, discreetly checking out various accessories. “You might be interested in my line of ….” His eyes again landed on a certain dark-haired beauty. “But that can wait. I came here expecting …. Let’s just say, I’m relieved to see Xena’s okay.” He started toward the table.
“Salmoneus?” Cyrene’s caught his arm. “I’m so sorry.” Sighing, she led him over to the others. “That’s Joxer and Ephiny.” She took a deep breath. “This young woman – the spitting image of my daughter – is Meg.”
“Hard to believe, I know.” Joxer sat forlornly after recounting once again what he and Ephiny had witnessed at the Amazon compound some weeks earlier. Gabrielle in a sweat hut – desperate to purge her agony over her child killing Xena’s, angry Xena’s obsession with Caesar had ignited the tragic chain of events. Xena, equally consumed with grief and rage, thundering in, attacking her friends, on horseback dragging Gabrielle to a cliff high above the sea.
“Xena’s survived certain death before. I’ve seen it. Twice.”
“I have too, Salmoneus. We searched for days. Both vanished. Their footprints and signs of a struggle all they left behind.” Ephiny bit her lip. “Seems the one thing they couldn’t survive was killing each other.”
Such a conclusion hung in the air, shrouding the friends’ recollection of brighter moments, rendering the loss of Xena and Gabrielle especially hard to take. No two people loved each other more. Their example had inspired many along their travels to exhibit unaccustomed bravery and compassion.
“I judged Gabrielle a silly child,” Ephiny revealed softly. “An outsider stumbling into a heroic act. Into our royal line. No clue about the consequences.“ Her mouth twitched. “I … tested her. Taught her hard lessons about Amazon life. She never backed down. Showed her courage was real. As natural to her as the birthright we took for granted. When a renegade sister threatened our unity? Gabrielle became the queen we turned to.”
“Yeah, well, that’s nothin’ compared to wearin’ this heavy getup,” Meg groused, adjusting her breastplates. “People thinkin’ I’m the WP is even heavier. Standin’ straight like a pole. Minding my manners and such. Every Tomas, Dicus and Hareos expectin’ me to come to their aid.”
“I hear ya. Can’t say I always had the best of intentions. Or wanted any part of Xena’s heroics.” Salmoneus smiled wryly. “The one time it was real? Mostly me? I thought she was dead. The only way I could save a village was ….” He shuddered. “Sacrificing myself. Thank the gods she rose to the rescue like usual.” He winced. “Um, like used to be usual.”
“Yeah, I wasn’t always the warrior I am now. But I was side by side with `em against the worst of the worst. Even stood up to Xena herself when ….” Joxer’s eyes closed briefly. “When she came to hurt Gabby.” He looked around the group. “See, I just couldn’t remember them like that. I wanted us to do it in a way that would be more ... them. You know?”
“It was a wonderful idea. I’m glad you came.” Cyrene rested a hand on Joxer’s shoulder. “What happened to their children …. That’s hard on any mother. Bringing my daughter back to me like this ….” She paused to wipe away tears. “What I’d hoped for her lives on in you. I can’t thank you enough.” She ruffled Joxer’s hair. “But I can insist you eat and rest well. You must be strong for whatever you decide tomorrow.”
“Mmmm.” Gabrielle stretched, eyes still closed, and focused on the sounds outside their makeshift tent. No pitter-patter of raindrops, just the usual early morning chirps. She sniffed the air, spiced with the rich scent of damp earth. “Hmmm.” And the smoke from a campfire. She smiled. With any luck, she’d soon smell breakfast cooking – one of the upsides to living with an early riser who liked to snare anything with fur or fins.
Motivated now to leave the cocoon of her bedroll, she shifted enough to peek outside. She did indeed see her warrior chef crouched beside the fire, knife in one hand, a fish in the other. Staring into the flames with other matters besides eating obviously on her mind.
“Oh. Hey. Figured you’d sleep in awhile longer.”
“You know me and food.” Gabrielle sat next to Xena. “My spidey sense is always on alert.”
“Mm.” Xena dangled the fish in front of Gabrielle. “Meet today’s special,” she teased, settling in to begin gutting her catch.
“It’s been a few days since we had them poached.”
“Mmhm.” A moment passed before Xena looked up. “What?”
“You seemed to be pondering something deep.” Gabrielle smiled wryly. “Like maybe which method to use? How about poaching?”
Xena raised a “think you’re so smart, huh” brow. She sucked in her cheeks. “Not sure Mom’ll take too kindly to that.” Satisfied with Gabrielle’s blank expression, she decided she might as well come clean. Not that her smugly intuitive companion would be surprised. “I was thinking about heading home.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Makes sense.”
“Guess I can’t put it off any longer. Word’s probably reached her by now. Must be beside herself. Hearing we’re dead. Maybe about losing a grandson she didn’t know she had.”
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle swallowed. “Lot of catching up to do.”
Xena took a deep breath. “Yeah.” She turned to give Gabrielle a lopsided grin. “Glad you’ll be with me,” she said, her eyes communicating the question behind her words.
Gabrielle ducked her head, blinking back tears, then rested it a moment against the warrior’s shoulder. “Where you poach, I poach. Even if it’s Cyrene.”
Xena chuckled. “No doubt you’ll make things more palatable. As usual.”
“Let’s hope so.” Gabrielle patted Xena’s arm before rising to begin taking down the tent. “Let’s hope that’s all we have to deal with.”
“Not everyone’ll be happy to learn you’re alive and well. I’ve wondered if they’ve stepped up their mischief, you supposedly unavailable to stop them. Amphipolis no longer especially off limits.”
“Yeah. Crossed my mind too.” Xena’s jaw tightened. “If so ….” She impaled the fish she’d been working on. “They’ll wish all I had planned for `em was poaching.”
Gabrielle peered down from their vantage point on a ledge. Over a dozen warriors had stopped to talk with uniformed men headed in the opposite direction. “That’s the third gang we’ve seen. You think it’s a coincidence – .”
“They’re traveling toward Amphipolis?” Xena’s lip curled. She shifted to begin her descent.
“Xena?” Gabrielle caught the warrior’s arm. “What’re you – .”
“Nothing too bloody. Wanna have a chat.” Xena pointed to the uniformed men. “Unless they’re not into friendly conversation.”
The two made their way down to where they’d left Argo. Xena reached into her saddlebag. “We’ll put our cloaks on. Might help those guys be more talkative.”
“Riiight. That’ll make you less threatening.”
“Fine. You kick it off.”
They pulled up their hoods, mounted and caught up to the men.
“Sirs?” Gabrielle smiled shyly as the men turned around. “You seem to be soldiers of substance,” she said, gesturing toward their handsome battle gear. “Not like the ruffians we’ve been dodging now for days.”
One with epaulets on his shoulders stepped forward. He scrutinized the smaller woman, then the other behind her. “You’re out here alone?”
“On our way to bury my uncle in Amphipolis. A group of us. Our party was attacked. We managed to escape.” Gabrielle bowed her head. “Not sure what happened to the rest.”
The man nodded. “Strange times. Riffraff coming out of their holes. Running amuck. Challenging even the law in these parts.”
“Governor Croesus. We served under him.” The man spat on the ground. “Until thieves broke into his castle. Stole his …. Stole the taxes he collected to maintain order.”
“You left to find the culprits?”
“We left to find other work.”
“Is Croesus dead?”
The man snorted. “Tax collection’s not as easy as it looks. Any goon can rob. Croesus had rules. A system. Done right, that’s where the authority comes from. People know what to expect. When. Enforcement’s only needed for the few who like going their own way. If it gets to be too many ….”
“Ah. The … lawlessness?”
The man nodded. “Croesus might as well be dead. Made a fool of in his own house. Nothing left to pay for starting all over again. Unless he uses goons.” He lifted his chin. “That’s not us.”
Xena came up beside Gabrielle. “We saw you talking to some armed men. What about them? They didn’t seem the kind to share your sense of … discipline.”
The man studied Xena a moment. “No. You’d do well to stay out of their way.”
Gabrielle took hold of Xena’s arm. “Oh, my. They weren’t interested in working for Croesus?”
“They’re more interested in taking his place. So are others, according to them. Maybe they’re after what was stolen. Whatever, let’s just say, I’d think twice about continuing on to Amphipolis.”
Cyrene surveyed the dining room, now clean and ready for the morning’s dirty dishes. Empty of the guests who’d retired to their rooms. On one hand, she was heartened by the reunion of Xena’s friends, despite their news about her probable death. But it also reminded her how little she’d gotten to know the child she’d raised in hopes of a vastly different future. How she would have to rely on the memories of strangers to acquaint her with the woman her daughter had become.
“Cyrene, I presume?”
She whirled, startled to see a masked man only a few feet away. “W-who ….” She prepared to defend her turf. “I’m not alone. One scream and –.”
“Don’t be afraid.” He held up his hands. “I’m here for the same reason as the others. To honor Xena.”
Cyrene raised a brow. “You look more like a thief.”
“Not just any thief.” He bowed. “The King of Thieves. But you may call me Autolycus.”
“Mm. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. My daughter navigated many circles. Most not devoted to sewing.”
Autolycus chuckled. “I see where she got her sense of humor. And beauty.”
“Ah. A silver-tongued thief. Are you a handsome one as well?” Cyrene inquired coolly, eyeing his mask.
Autolycus pulled out a chair at Cyrene’s table. “May I?”
“Manners too?” Cyrene resumed her seat, curiosity overcoming fatigue. She nodded permission for Autolycus to join her.
“A king has certain etiquette to observe. Especially with the fair mother of the Warrior Princess. However, I do have my … professional … reputation to maintain.” He pulled off his mask. “I helped with the Croesus heist. Wouldn’t do for word to get out I’ve become a softie. Except for Joxer, the others don’t know my identity. No reason they should. You,” he added, reaching across to take and kiss Cyrene’s hand, “are another matter. I’m so sorry for your loss and proud to make your acquaintance.”
“My.” Cyrene fanned her blushing cheeks. “Xena does have method for her … odd … taste in friends.” She cocked her head. “Wouldn’t be surprised if you stole her heart.”
Autolycus chuckled. “Oh, I tried. She has a way of turning things back on you. Doesn’t matter what you’re king of. She’ll have the stronger hand.”
Cyrene sighed. “And tougher heart. I do hope it’ll soften one day for the right man.”
“Mm. It’s certainly softened for the right woman. Gabrielle’s an ace of a sidekick.”
“You’ve given up?”
“Pfft. Me? Give up?” Autolycus winked. “A good thief’s a master of patience. And timing. In fact,” he said, leaning in conspiratorially, “I’ve already been inside her.”
“You mean …. Xena? You’ve …. The two of you ….”
Autolycus enjoyed the shock on Cyrene’s face. “Well, actually, it was more the other way around.” He sobered a bit. “Another time she was … badly injured. Her spirit left her body. Entered mine.”
“Ohhhh.” Cyrene regarded the thief with some awe. “She chose … you?”
“Eh.” Autolycus shrugged sheepishly. “Truth is, she needed me to steal something – ambrosia – to restore her.” He snorted. “Ended up getting me to do flips, battle Amazons and otherwise make a fool of myself.”
“But you succeeded. In bringing her back?”
“With a little help from her sidekick.”
“She must’ve trusted you a lot. Not an easy thing for my Little One.”
Autolycus ducked his head. “She has a way of forcing the best from even somebody like me. Humph. And doesn’t have to be inside you to do it.”
“Maybe she saw what was already there?”
The King of Thieves mock scowled. “I’m simply a man who likes challenges. With a weakness for gold molded as exquisitely as your daughter.”
Cyrene laughed. “Not a description I would’ve expected. I like it.” She patted his hand. “Your secret’s safe with me.”
Autolycus smiled his thanks. “Well,” he said, stretching, “guess my work here is done. With you anyway. My apologies for keeping you up.” He stood. “I’ll be nearby. Never can tell what other crazy schemes Xena’s crew’ll come up with.”
“Why not stay here? There’s the cellar. You can get to it through the kitchen or a concealed trap door out back. No one will be the wiser.” Cyrene winked. “The room service alone might be worth it.”
“Hmm. Does sound better than the accommodations I had in mind. No harm in having a look-see.” Autolycus offered his arm. “M’lady? Mind giving me a brief tour before we trundle you off to bed?”
Croesus seldom appreciated the humble beginnings he’d worked so long and hard to put behind him. The castle he’d built a few years ago might be modest, but he’d filled it with the trappings of a king. Now, as he dined alone on peasant fare in the dungeon he’d had to confine himself to since robbed of his fortune and left with a mere fraction of his army, he counted on remembrance of his old life to carry him through this setback.
He’d adjusted well enough to his current lodging. It was the most fortified, with secret passages affording quick escape. Large enough to accommodate loyal guards. Equipped with the chains and instruments of punishment he envisioned for the thieves he intended to take his place – without benefit of the food, drink and unlocked cell he presently enjoyed.
He heard sounds of someone at the door. He expected it to be one of the men stationed as lookouts or sent to scout the area. Just in case, he pulled closer his old sword and shield. A key turned in the lock.
“Lord Croesus? It’s me. Barabus.”
“I have news for you. Some good. Some not so good.”
“Sit.” Croesus indicated a chair across from him, as well pitchers of water and wine.
Barabus brushed the dust from his uniform before taking his seat. He poured water into a mug, first using some to wet his face. After a long drink, he began his report.
“I contacted various gangs. Promised them a share of our take. I figure some will arrive in a couple days. Maybe 50 or so. At least, the ones who’ll fight with us.” Barabus filled his mug with wine. “From what I could tell, might be as many with different ideas.”
“Going after the stolen treasure. Taking over the castle. Your territory.”
“And we’ll know who’s who how?”
Barabus bit his lip. “Our guys’re supposed to signal us with blue flags when they come. Not sure all of `em’ll get that message.”
“Was the good news in there? Must’ve missed it.”
Barabus swirled the wine in his cup. “`Here’ depends on which story they get. Neither of the ones I told ends up at the castle.”
Croesus leaned forward. “Explain.”
“The ones I recruited? They’re to assemble in the caves east of Amphipolis. We’ll meet up with them there.”
“And the others?”
“I spread word you’d moved your operations. Whether they’re after you or the treasure, they’ll have to go through Amphipolis.”
“What about Xena? Have you forgotten that’s her home village? She may have a bigger force than those thieves who hit the castle.”
Barabus smirked. “If that was really her who robbed us. Some of the men heard she’s dead. I talked with a trader who deals with the Amazons. He confirmed she went over a cliff and hasn’t been seen since. Even if it is her, not like her kinsmen’ll jump at following her into battle again.”
Croesus finally saw a glimmer of hope. He snickered. “Yeah. Good as she’s reputed with a sword, not much reputation for winning friends.”
Cyrene busied herself serving breakfast to patrons beyond her daughter’s friends. Some were extending Solstice season by enjoying the amenities Amphipolis offered. Others had shortened their road trips, feeling more secure in town. Their tales of thugs and mysterious warriors roaming about were especially troublesome to the wannabe do-gooders plotting what to do next.
“What’s everybody lookin’ at me for?” Meg glowered at her comrades. “Got a piece a meat stuck,” she said around the fingernail between her teeth. “Pickin’ too loud for ya?”
“Sorry.” Salmoneus rubbed his forehead. “Just can’t get over how you could look so much like Xena, yet ….” He watched Meg slouch even further as she concentrated on her task. “Be so … different.”
“Yeah, I’m used to looking to her for ‘the plan.’ Um, not that I didn’t help. I mean, `cept for Gabby and Xena, I’ve probably been on more missions than – .”
“So you have no plan.” Ephiny scowled at Joxer. “I doubt we’ll get one from Meg either. No matter how much we wish she really was Xena.”
“Hey! Least I got skills at pretendin’ I’m her. I’m not hearin’ much from the rest a ya.” Meg snorted at the heads bowed in confirmation. “Even that thief fella went on the lam.”
“Nah, he’s just low profile. My sidekick, so to speak. You know, another experienced guy to lead.” Joxer sighed. “We had a plan. Get in. Get the gold. Get the gold to its rightful owners.”
Salmoneus patted Joxer’s shoulder. “On the bright side, you’ve managed two-thirds.”
Joxer brightened. “Yeah, only half to go.” His face fell again. “Now we’ve got a bunch more bad guys to deal with. Only one warrior besides me,” he muttered, looking at Ephiny. “No offense,” he added, glancing at the others, “but we gotta have more than a salesman and barmaid pretending she’s Xena.”
“Will I do?”
“So, what’s the plan?”
Xena descended the tree she’d used for surveillance. “It’s your call.”
“Deer a little east of us. Probably fish to the west. Rabbits, of course, just about everywhere.” The warrior sauntered over to her Palomino.
“Hey, I don’t have to make all the decisions, you know.”
Gabrielle scowled at her partner. “Mighty big of you. Too bad we’re not talking today’s menu.” Her stomach growled. “As the primary topic anyway.”
“Oh, you mean the bad guys? We’re headed in the same direction.” Xena shrugged. “Good enough for now.”
Gabrielle observed the warrior fuss over Argo a bit too casually. It occurred to her Xena might be more worried about danger to Amphipolis than she let on. And because she hadn’t yet come up with a plan.
“Rabbit’s good enough for now. Much quicker. Less muss and fuss.” Gabrielle smirked. “Assuming that won’t be too boring for a muss-and-fuss kinda gal.”
Xena watched her companion begin gathering wood for a fire, humming as though the idea of feasting on standard fare qualified as exciting. It occurred to her Gabrielle sensed something worrisome, including the absence of a plan to deal with it. She snorted, wondering why she bothered trying to fool someone who knew her so well.
“Another round of rabbit, huh? Well, you’re the gourmet among us,” Xena said, taking out her hunting knife. “I’ll see if I can make capturing it as unboring as apparently you find eating it.” She blithely ignored the eye roll response to her statement and headed into the woods.
Gabrielle glanced up from a scroll she was working on when the warrior finally returned. “Find what you were looking for?” she inquired dryly.
“Mm.” Xena dropped her catch next to the campfire. “Not always easy to tell.”
“Oh?” Gabrielle squinted at the two small bodies, as though they were the primary topic of conversation. “Fur. Long ears. Cute bunny tails. Not enough for a definite ID?”
“Sure.” Xena snorted. “If we’re talkin’ bunnies.”
Gabrielle rolled her tongue in cheek. “That’s your call. I made mine.”
Xena knelt beside their washbowl to clean her hands. She took out her knife and sat cross-legged by the fire, staring absently at the rabbits. When Gabrielle scooted closer, the warrior exhaled a resigned sigh. No sense prolonging admission of what Gabrielle had presumed – her “muss and fuss” partner scouting more than dinner.
“I spotted warriors riding alone. Some in small groups. We’ve seen soldiers under somebody’s command. There’s the rag-tag bunch who robbed Croesus. Who knows how many of his guards hung around? Apparently one thing in common.”
Gabrielle brushed the warrior’s clenched hands. “Amphipolis?”
“Either there or someplace too close for comfort.”
“And you’re not sure what they’re after.”
Xena nodded. “Could be the treasure. Maybe replace Croesus.” Lip curling, she plunged her blade into one of the rabbits. “Shop in the Warrior Princess’ home village? Since she’s reputedly out of the picture?”
Gabrielle bumped shoulders. “`Reputedly’ being the operative word.”
“For all the good that does.”
“This, from the single-woman army?”
“Those Persians?” Xena extracted her knife from the rabbit and began the rote process of skinning it. “I knew what I was up against. What they wanted.” She snorted wryly. “All of `em considerate enough to bring the battle to me in a confined place. This time ….”
“You saying you could use backup?” Gabrielle chuckled. “Besides the half-dead sidekick you had then?”
Xena sighed. “And no time or way for more recruits.”
“What about Amphipolis? Surely – .”
“I’m lucky they forgave me for the first time. I can’t …. It’s too … soon.”
Gabrielle decided it best not to share her more optimistic opinion on that subject. She patted Xena’s shoulder. “Well, at least your sidekick’s in better shape this time.” She chuckled. “Apparently as resistant to death as you.”
“Not something I wanna keep testing. But definitely a bright side.”
Gabrielle gave the warrior a hug. “I say we focus now on what we know.” She picked up the other rabbit. “Something that looks like a bunny. With a good chance of tasting like one.” She studied the rabbit. “Could be a sign even. You know, for a plan? Recruits?”
Xena raised a skeptical brow. “In case you haven’t noticed, these bunnies aren’t particularly talkative. Or able to take up swords.”
“True, that’s not their strong suit. But like you said ….” Grinning, Gabrielle spread her arms. “Even if you don’t see it yet, there’s plenty more of the little critters around, just waiting for you to find them.”
Xena’s friends stared at the two warriors standing at attention by their table. One a powerfully built young man, the other confidently mature enough to be his father.
“Pardon the intrusion.” The white-haired man bowed. “We heard about the memorial.” He bit his lip. “For Gabrielle? And Xena?” He gestured toward Cyrene. “She sent us over here.”
“Y-you’re … friends of theirs?” Joxer narrowed his eyes. “How come I don’t know you?”
“We’re more … fellow warriors. Can’t say we spent much time with them. But we owe them our lives. Xena’s mother says you aim to carry on their legacy. Even fight for it.” The older man patted his sword. “If so, you can’t do much better than Meleager The Mighty.” He bowed again. “At your service.”
“B-but you can’t be! I’m already known as ….” Joxer looked around the table, realizing the only two people who could back up his claim as “The Mighty” were dead. Whatever rep he gave himself, he’d have to earn it all over again. “Um, ‘Meleager,’ you say? I … uh … thought you said …‘Leaper.’ I’m called that. For my ability to jump. Almost as high as Xena.” He cleared his throat. “Okay, then. We could use a veteran. I mean, to reinforce me and Ephiny.” He shifted his attention to the other stranger. “You his sidekick?”
The younger warrior smirked. “We just met. On the way here. Name’s Paelemon. No title, but ….” He stroked the scar on his cheek. “I’ve won my share of battles. Even fought Xena.”
Joxer stiffened. “Then you oughtta be dead.”
“And you’d do well to hear why he’s not. Or me.” Meleager’s eyes traveled from a long leg propped on the table, to the leather skirt and bustier of a dark-haired woman in leather. “And explain why it seems Xena’s not dead either.”
“Well, I sure ain’t,” the woman emphasized in her best Xena drawl. She gave both warriors an approving once-over. “And I got a plan for provin’ it with ya. But it won’t be fightin’.” Her wink clarified she was a decidedly different brand of woman.
“What?” She scowled at Joxer before resuming her perusal of Meleager and Paelemon. “You was just complainin’ about not enough swords. Not enough … big, strong, manly … vet’rans. I’m just saying, more’n one way ta strut their stuff.”
Unbeknownst to the planners, two sets of strategies were discussed the next couple of days along parallel lines. Joxer had secretly sent Autolycus off to scout the enemy. The latter described a similar situation to the one Xena had also found: not much visible going on at Croesus’ castle, an ever-growing assemblage of warriors hanging out in caves located outside Amphipolis, and various gangs setting up camps throughout the area.
“So, what do you think?”
“Still not sure.”
“Strange no one’s made a move, huh?”
“Mm. Could be Croesus is calling the shots somehow. At least with the men in that cave. I saw a command type from there visiting the castle.”
“You more worried about them than the gangs?”
“Not necessarily. Any of `em might have designs on Amphipolis.”
“And if any does? Xena, finding out what they’re all up to will be hard enough. Fighting them, even harder. Forget what I said about ‘one-woman army.’ I wish you’d consider getting help.”
“In Amphipolis? I need to know more first. Think I’ll start with that castle.”
“So, whaddya think?”
“Even when she was blind, Xena could smell trouble at its source. That Croesus guy had a lot of power. So his castle’s quiet. Doesn’t mean he’s lost his fangs. Cut off the snake’s head, might not have to worry about the rest.”
“Pfft. The ‘rest’ wouldn’t scare Xena. Ever hear of Callisto? Xena went after her and her army. Nah, Paelemon, I say she’d take on the biggest threat. Those guys in the cave or roamin’ around outside Amphipolis.”
“If I may? I know about being a one-man army. Humph. Thanks to Gabrielle forcing me to sober up. Be the warrior I should. She believed in people. In giving them a chance. She’d argue we should turn to Amphipolis for help, like she did in her home village. And I’d agree with her. We need as many ‘heroes’ as we can get.”
“Meleager has a point. The Amazon Nation became stronger because we learned from both their ways.”
“Yeah, yeah, make up your minds soon, will ya? All this talk about Xena, figure you’ll be needin’ her double again. Fortified m’self just’n case. Couple more rounds of fortification, I’ll be three sheets to the wind. Have ta tie me to a pole. Oooo. Warrior Princess Scarecrow. Now there’s a plan!”
Two women took faltering steps toward the castle, the taller one supporting the other, who appeared to be ill. Spotting no guards, they cautiously made their way to the main doors. Nothing to bar their way there either. The main halls were empty, though showing signs of a struggle. Scuffmarks led to a huge cabinet pushed aside to reveal a hidden passage to the dungeon. Food and goblets were strewn across the floor of one of the cells where apparently someone had been holed up. But no more.
The women inspected rooms throughout. They found no one. Just as they prepared to leave, they heard horses and shouts. They peered outside to see an assortment of warriors, some bearing blue flags, glaring at each other. Suddenly the leader of the largest contingent signaled an attack. His men hurtled themselves into the second largest formation. Soon others joined the fray, no clear indication of who was siding with whom.
The two spies returned to the dungeon and found an uncovered tunnel allowing escape unseen. Awhile later, they arrived at a cave where they knew other warriors had been massing. It too was uninhabited. The women looked at each other, perplexed, before heading toward Amphipolis.
“You’re back!” Cyrene rushed over to greet the vigilantes. “Safe and ….” She visually inspected them as they made their way to a table, hiding her surprise they seemed unscathed. “You were successful?”
Meg grabbed a pitcher of ale before plopping into a chair. “Piece o’ cake. Pfft. Could’ve been four sheets to the wind and done okay.”
Joxer nodded. “Plan worked like a charm. Almost like we had the gods on our side. I know Xena wasn’t real keen on `em, but ….” His eyes grew wide. “Hey, maybe it wasn’t the gods.” He glanced around the table. “We talked about Xena and Gabrielle. Before we headed out? You think maybe we conjured `em up? Their spirits?”
“Xena’s sure must’ve entered me, the time I stood up to that warlord.” Salmoneus grinned sheepishly. “Even though she wasn’t actually dead like I thought, it had the same effect.”
Ephiny shrugged. “I did see it once, when we thought Xena dead. Gabrielle brought her body to us for Amazon funeral rites. Next thing we know, some guy is flipping and fighting like Xena. Saved her body from the flames. We found out later she was actually inside him.”
“Oh, that must’ve been – .”
“Any old random guy.” Joxer coughed, using the ruse to secretly shush Cyrene. “You know, some worthy stranger? Like I was at first? They did that all the time.”
Paelemon chuckled. “Xena was something all right. One minute you’re trying to make a name for yourself killing her. The next, pulling her out of harm’s way. End up somehow letting her turn your life around.”
“Uh huh. Same as Gabrielle. I willed my few possessions to her – the daughter I always wanted.” Meleager grinned. “She made that unnecessary when she kept me from getting hanged.”
“I’ve no doubt they were with you in spirit. If they helped guide your success, even better.” Cyrene noted the villagers filling the room. “Well, I’d better get back to work. Relax. I’ll bring you something. You can tell me all about your victory then.”
“Now what do you think?” Gabrielle heard a snort in response. “Oh. Right. My turn.”
“You’re lucky you got credit for the bunnies.”
“Hey, picking what we eat should count. Like I get to choose much else.” Gabrielle cut her eyes, but otherwise maintained her study of what they could see of Amphipolis. “Can’t tell much from here. At least no warlord types on guard. No sounds of something amiss. Does seem unusually busy. More saddled horses than wagons. Maybe they’re preparing for trouble? Don’t realize yet it might not come?”
“Wouldn’t bet on it. Being over yet. That was too easy, considering the mess we faced. Could be Croesus’ forces or some of the others came here first. Maybe made a deal to call off their threat.” Xena growled in frustration. “Something’s off. And it smells like it’s coming from there,” she said, pointing in the direction of her mother’s inn. “Time for a closer look.”
“Hey, I was about to say that.” Smirking, Gabrielle reached for her cloak.
“Not so fast.”
“What? Can I help it if you took the words right out of my –.”
“I meant, you won’t need the cloak. I remembered a better way in.”
“I know, Anna, but we’re out of lamb. You’ll have to sell them on – .”
“No, no. You don’t hear it?”
Cyrene turned to see her helper bent over, ear tilted toward a faint sound coming from the floor. “Ah. Nothing to worry about. Take that platter out. Do the best you can. Mingle awhile until I can come up with something else.” Cyrene kicked aside the rug covering the trap door. She pulled on the ring. “I wondered when you’d come b-.” Instead of Autolycus, she saw the unmistakable blue eyes of ….
She regained consciousness to semi-darkness. She wondered if she’d been dreaming, although she lay on a surface much harder than her bed. And something cool and moist covered her forehead.
“Mother? Don’t be afraid. I’m here.”
Cyrene felt a hand on her shoulder. Though light, the touch was all that kept her from bolting upright. She took a few deep breaths to slow her pounding heart. “They talked about your spirit,” she finally murmured, stifling a sob. “I wanted to believe. I never imagined it would be so … so ….”
“Real?” Xena helped her mother sit up and hugged her. “I am. I’m so sorry you had to find out this way.”
Cyrene realized they weren’t alone. “Gabrielle? You too?”
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle put her arms around mother and daughter. “We’re both alive and well.” Her stomach communicated a different opinion. She chuckled along with the others. “Although at least one of us is dying for your lamb.”
“There she is! Cyrene! We tried to wait for you. Hurry! You don’t wanna miss the best parts!”
Cyrene surveyed the animated crowd huddled around the table where Joxer perched. She used the time to gather herself, to assume an expression that wouldn’t hint she in fact already knew the best part.
“Well, I see everyone seems taken care of,” she noted, raising a brow at the numerous pitchers full and empty of wine. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to take a break.” She settled into a chair and poured herself a drink. “I’m ready. Go on with your tale.”
“Oh, it’s much better than a tale. Unless it was one of Gabby’s. This’s real, just like hers.”
“Got that right.” Meg thumped her Warrior Princess breastplates. “These babies sure got a work out today. Never thought I’d be – .”
“Meg! Hold on a minute. I gotta bring `er up to speed first.” Joxer reviewed how they’d divvied up assignments. “Me, Ephiny and Paelemon dealt with Croesus. Took out his few guards. Found him in the dungeon. Quite a set-up he had. Grabbed his sword and said he’d rather die than leave.” Joxer swallowed. “So we … um …. I …”
“Joxer let me give the man what he wanted.”
Joxer breathed a relieved sigh. “Yeah.” He shot a grateful look at Paelemon. “We brought the rest of `em here to the jail.” He winked at some men sitting nearby. “With a little help from your fine neighbors.”
“Indeed.” Meleager saluted those gathered at another table. “Last time I commanded a better group of raw recruits was with Gabrielle in Poteidaia.”
Cyrene gasped. “You fought those gangs?”
“Not quite. Got them to battle each other. We convinced them we knew where the loot was hidden. That I was building a force. Told them those interested should go to Croesus’ castle. Said we’d partner with whoever prevailed.”
“They won’t come looking for you?”
“Last we saw, they were cutting each other up pretty good. The few who limp away?” Meleager inspected his fingernails. “We stationed folks beside the road in, with directions for any survivors. They’ll find a fort about two days’ ride away. Not the loot they expect, but a new commander.” He smirked. “Who happens to supply free labor for rich landowners. And doesn’t care how he gets them. He’ll probably welcome the guys we send with open arms.”
Cyrene shook her head. “You’re right. Quite a story. And all of you were in on it?” she asked, sweeping her eyes around the room. “I must say, the men of Amphipolis have done us proud.”
“Nuh uh. Not just them.” Meg scowled at Joxer. “Now is it my turn?”
“Isn’t it always?” Joxer muttered.
“Humph. Didn’t hear ya complainin’ when -- .”
“Yes! I mean, yeah, go ahead. Sheesh.”
“Okay then.” Meg straightened in her chair. “All of `em might not wanna admit to it, but some of the ladies did their thing too.” She smirked. “And not just the ones ya might think.” She waved her hand at the sound of discreet coughing. “Nah, don’t worry. If there’s anybody knows about keepin’ mum, it’s me. Bad for business otherwise. Lotta so-called ‘gentlemen’ and loyal husbands --.”
“Just tell the story, will ya?”
“I’m settin’ the stage is all. Bet you didn’t mind ol’ Gabby doin’ it.” Meg rolled her eyes at Joxer’s glare. “Anyhoo, the ladies and me had a mission too. Bad guys holed up in a cave outside of town. The warrior types among us wanted to rush in, swords swinging. Even I know ya can’t be in three places at once.” With a smug smile, she inspected her fingernails as Meleager had done. “I said there’s more’n one way to skin a cat.”
Meg recounted how she’d gathered volunteers to pose as “entertainment” for the enemy. The women had dressed suitably, loaded up a wagon with a keg of ale and arrived at the caves as “gifts” from Croesus. A dozen or so ribald songs and dances later, the men began dozing in their mugs from a sleeping potion in the ale.
“That’s when I barge in doin’ the eye-yi-yi thing. Bangin’ on my chest. You know, for the ones still seein’ straight? ‘All right,’ I say, ‘If ya don’t recognize my yell, I’m Xena the Warrior Princess. I got my army here to protect my home turf.’” Meg gestured toward some of the villagers in the room. “It was really those guys. But they didn’t have no trouble handling warriors who could barely sit up. Wasn’t that many of `em anyway. Turned out most had heard about Meleager’s deal and left already.”
“Those warriors in the cave. They’re still there?”
“Nope. We loaded `em on their horses or in wagons. I told `em – as ‘Xena’ – I might let `em in my army if they passed muster at my camp.”
Cyrene chuckled. “Let me guess. That fort Meleager sent the others to?”
“Yup. Gave the sober ones directions, and off they went.”
“What about Salmoneus and … and your secret accomplice. Did they fare all right?”
”Arggh!” Joxer slapped his jaw. “Almost forgot about them. Salmoneus got a covered wagon. Decked it out like a traveling merchant. Heh. Pots, cloth, straw baskets – stuff most thieves don’t care about. Nobody’d guess what’s hidden underneath.” He nodded at the look of wonder on Cyrene’s face. “Uh huh. The treasure Croesus stole. On its way back to Annapolis.”
“Amazing. You pulled off a miracle. I can see why you felt Xena’s and Gabrielle’s spirits on your side.”
“Uh huh.” Joxer snorted. “Didn’t always seem so easy when they did it.”
“They didn’t have all of you,” Cyrene suggested, smiling at her daughter’s friends. “Or them,” she said, indicating fellow Amphipolans who normally shrunk from confrontation of any sort.
“Kinda surprising, huh?” One of Cyrene’s regular customers grinned sheepishly. “Maybe your kid’s spirit gave us a kick in the pants too.”
“If so, I’m sure she’d feel honored beyond words.”
Meleager gallantly kissed Cyrene’s hand. “I hope so. It’s why we came.”
“Is it?” Ephiny was fingering a bracelet of feathers and beads from the royal mask Gabrielle had left in the Amazon village. She glanced up at the stunned silence that greeted her comment. “We mourned what we thought lost without them. Instead, we found it inside.” She glanced wryly at the yawning Meg. “In places we might not have looked before. Maybe we came to honor ourselves as much as them?”
“It is the Solstice season,” Cyrene reminded. “What’s more fitting than gifts all around? All of us filled with spirits of generosity and wonder.”
“I guess.” Joxer sighed. I only wish ….”
“They could have been here? To see it? Share it?”
“Yeah. I mean, I’m glad we did it and all. Meeting these guys. Talking about our adventures. Laughing. Doing a mission in their honor. Brought `em closer. Gabby and Xena. Almost as close as that battledress,” he said with a crooked grin at Meg. He shrugged. “S’pose that’ll have to do now.”
“It will for me,” Paelemon acknowledged. “Xena tried to get through my thick skull. I thought I understood. I see now what she meant. Or maybe … why. Friends. Dedicated to her as she was when she risked everything to save Gabrielle.”
“Aw, come on,” Meg huffed. “You call this ‘celebratin’’? Cryin’ about what you miss? Yakkin’ about makin’ it all better? What happened to ‘ain’t we grand’ and rounds of ale?”
“Now, now,” Cyrene admonished the others, laughing at their scowls. “Meg’s got a point.” She signaled for Anna to refresh the mugs. “Since you’ve finished your tale, I believe a toast is in order.” She raised her cup. “To all of you. The best friends and kinsmen anyone could know.”
“To all of us!”
“Yeah, and to -- .”
Cyrene caught Joxer’s arm as he was about to make another toast. “Hold on, young man. I’m not done yet.” She walked to the kitchen doorway. “I have news. As good as the stories you’ve told.” She swallowed, brushing away a tear. “Forgive me. I’m not sure how to ….” She drew herself up and closed her eyes. “I’ve learned they truly are with us. Not just in spirit. In the flesh. They’re alive. My daughter and Gabrielle are alive!”
“You’re sure?” Cyrene sat across from Xena and Gabrielle, watching them enjoy the meal she’d brought down to the cellar. “They miss you so much.”
“I know how they feel. You have no idea how hard it was not to run out there and give them all a big hug. Something,” Gabrielle said, narrowing her eyes at Xena, “restrained me.”
“Listen, I was right there with you. I’m not a complete slug, you know.”
“Then why, Xena? It was like new energy poured through me, when I saw you. Don’t you want that for your friends?”
“You saw how they were. Just knowing we’re okay?” Xena snorted. “They’re having way too much fun guessing how we made it. Arguing and wondering about how we are.” Xena bumped knees with her partner. “With each other.”
“You really believe they’d rather that? Than hearing it from you? Seeing you?”
“Um, hate to admit this, but Xena may be on to something. Two minutes after we appeared, could be like we might as well not. Until they sucked us into proving who was right.”
“And after we tell them the truth? ‘Sweet little Gabrielle? Pushed you off a cliff?! No way!’ ‘You drowned? Callisto revived you? With a kiss? Eewww. When pigs fly!’”
“`Sure, Xena has a temper. But stab you in the heart?’” Gabrielle feigned horror. “`She’d never do that.’”
Cyrene glanced between the two, shivering a little at sensing they weren’t exaggerating the nightmare they’d endured. Beginning to understand their reluctance to rehash such an experience while still so fresh. And why doing so might dampen more than enhance their friends’ presently joyful mood.
“We’re really okay,” Xena assured, sensing her mother’s thoughts. “We did a lot of forgiving. And healing. May need to do more.” She smiled at Gabrielle. “Happens when people care about each other that much. It’s personal, you know? Not something we want bandied about. Or put on others. In time, it’ll matter more that we’re back. Less, how or why.”
Cyrene sighed. “You’re right, I suppose.” She leaned across to squeeze her daughter’s cheeks. “My Little One. I certainly don’t care what happened. Only that you’re here. I’ve shared you with the world for so long. Having you all to myself these moments isn’t so bad.”
Xena brushed her mother’s hand. “For me either.”
“Besides, I got to know you better through your friends. You heard why they came?”
Xena nodded. “Paelemon was a surprise.”
“Nah, you were on target about him. Good man.”
“Same with you and Paelemon. I guess we take it for granted. You know, that people can be good if given the chance?”
Xena snorted. “Um, one of us does. More of a necessity for me. Like when I’m blind or semi-dead. Not disappointing a certain merry bard at Solstice.”
Gabrielle laughed. “Now that would’ve been something – Senticles tumbling down the chimney to honor our memory.”
“Um, girls? Much as I love the reminiscences I’ve heard the past few days, I’ve neglected my duties.” Cyrene stood. “Finish your food. The next course is Xena’s favorite dessert.”
“Oooo, now there’s a Solstice gift worth waiting for.”
Cyrene paused, soaking in again the reality of her child. “You know the two of you can stay down here as long as you want.” She grinned. “That Autolycus fellow found it comfortable enough.”
“Ah. The mystery conspirator accompanying Salmoneus?”
“Uh huh. Quite the charmer, that one. Has eyes for you, you know.”
“Mm. Has eyes for most things he shouldn’t.”
“Says he hasn’t given up. Although he believes your heart already taken.” Cyrene held Gabrielle’s eyes. “I’ll bring fresh bedding with your dessert,” she said before heading up the stairs.
The two guests ate in companionable silence, each reflecting in her own way on recent events.
“Well, at least now we know why resolving this was so easy.”
“Mm.” Xena snorted. “I was beginning to wonder myself if it was really us.”
“Jumping in first.” Xena chuckled. “You know – before we got there.”
Gabrielle laughed. “In a way it was. According to our friends anyway. Our spirits guiding them.”
“Riiiight. Like me whispering in Meg’s ear, ‘Seduce `em. Get `em drunk.’”
“What about Amphipolis? Getting them to help?” Gabrielle threw the warrior a smug grin. “Seems somebody might’ve heard me suggesting that. Good thing they had enough sense to listen.”
“Ya got me there.” Xena glanced at the ceiling, recalling her shock when she learned the town had gotten involved despite her doubts. They’d sat on the steps with the trap door cracked open enough to hear everything after Cyrene returned for the recounting of how victory had been won. “Kinda nice.” She snickered. “Not many get to witness their own memorials.”
“Or enjoy the fruits of their good deeds. The loyalty and love.”
“A side benefit of dying so much?”
Gabrielle scowled. “But not reason enough to keep doing it.”
“Um, no. I suppose not.”
“So.” Gabrielle patted her stomach. “I’m sated on one side benefit of living. What’s next?”
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. “Dessert?”
“Ha ha. The plan. I believe it’s your turn again.”
Xena sprawled in her chair in her best Meg impression. “Ain’t it always?”
Gabrielle stared at the warrior before punching her in the arm. “Fine. I say we spend a little more time here with Cyrene. Make sure there aren’t repercussions to our friends’ good deeds. Cyrene said they’d probably be going their separate ways soon.” She rubbed her nose. “Joxer’ll probably come looking for us.”
“Pfft. Sure has a knack for popping up.” Xena pursed her lips. “Unless we plunge into the ocean again.”
“Also not reason enough to do so.”
“No. Definitely not on my list of repeats.” Xena allowed a rueful smile. “Except for the ending. Finding ourselves on firm ground. Safe. Whole.”
“Absolutely.” Xena put an arm around Gabrielle. “The best part of all.”
“Cyrene’s right,” Gabrielle murmured, laying her head on Xena’s shoulder. “A wonderful Solstice all around.”
“Victory without us lifting a finger. Spilling a drop of blood.”
“Believed dead, yet visible in those who love us.”
“Mmhm.” Gabrielle raised her head. “Wait. I’m sorry, I …. What was that?”
“And you say I don’t listen.” Xena patted the top of her partner’s head. “Back when I worried how we’d fix the Croesus mess? You suggested we could get recruits.”
“Um … okay. And …?”
“I didn’t see much potential in that. At the time, all we had was a couple dead bunnies. You reminded me there were plenty more around.”
“Ah. Like our friends? Those folks upstairs?”
“And you.” Xena kissed Gabrielle’s forehead. “Just waiting to be found.”
“Xena, you brought out the best in me. Before I met you, no one saw me for who I was. I felt … invisible. But you saw all the things that I could be. You saved me, Xena.”
-- Gabrielle in IDES OF MARCH
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