Long after Xena’s first steps on her path towards atonement, she and Gabrielle discover the dust has settled on someone who reminds them “old history” can feel like yesterday.
THE FIRST STONE
“So, how about it …. Forgiving yourself?”
“Gabrielle, that’s not for me.”
-- LOCKED UP, TIED DOWN
Katja reined in the wagon team when she reached the outskirts of the village where she’d heard Xena now lived. Nearly 40 years had passed since she’d last encountered the Warrior Princess. Katja’s triumph then had been brief, flawed. She’d long dreamed of another chance. Youth hadn’t stopped her before. If fate smiled on her more kindly this time, age wouldn’t present a problem for either of them now. Her breath quickened at the prospect.
The road into the village ran alongside a field dotted with archery targets, straw dummies, climbing poles, hurdles. Several girls in short leather skirts practiced various forms of combat. Katja squinted at a tall woman moving among them – observing, coaching, demonstrating techniques – exuding strength, athleticism and confidence. Too young to be the legendary Warrior Princess, too old to be her daughter, yet remarkable enough in her resemblance to point the way to the original.
The meeting hall gradually cleared, people taking with them conversations left over from the communal lunch.
“More practice with the girls?”
“Don’t worry. They can handle it. Gotta make sure they represent your message of peace well at the festival sparring competition.”
“Riiight. My message of peace. Wouldn’t want them losing in defense of that.”
Gabrielle gave her partner a peck on the cheek before wryly watching the warrior stroll away. Among the stragglers still there, she noted a woman she didn’t recognize. Older, alone, hunched over a plate as though not wishing to be disturbed. Gabrielle pushed back her chair and walked over.
The woman continued eating until she could no longer ignore someone standing there. When she finally glanced up, her eyes widened. “Is it really you?”
Gabrielle smiled. “I certainly hope so. But tell me anyway.”
“Xena’s friend. Gabrielle?”
“Uh huh. That’s me all right. Do I know you?”
“We … were in the same place once. A long time ago.” She regarded Gabrielle curiously. “About the same age, I thought. Couldn’t tell it now.”
“May I?” At the woman’s slight nod, Gabrielle sat across from her. “I had a little help. With my more youthful look. Long story. What’s important, we’re in the same place again.” She offered her hand. “Welcome to the Village of Dreams ….” She tilted her head questioningly.
The woman looked at Gabrielle’s hand a moment before shaking it. “Katja.” She paused, then straightened resolutely, adding, “Of Amphipolis.”
“Amphipolis?! You knew Xena?”
Katja chewed her lip. “Almost 10 years older than me. We moved in different circles.”
Gabrielle frowned. “You didn’t see her? At the table with me?”
“Wasn’t sure it was her either.” Katja snorted. “Must’ve used the same fountain of youth as you.”
Gabrielle studied the other woman. “But she’s why you’re here?”
Katja raised a “you’re no dummy” brow. She thought carefully about her next words. “Our last meeting wasn’t particularly … pleasant. I’ve had my ups and downs since. There’re some things I need to do. She’s … first on my list. If she’s up for it.”
Gabrielle noted a slight clenching of the stranger’s jaws. She relaxed back in her chair. “If you grew up around Xena, you know she’s pretty much ‘up’ for anything. That hasn’t changed over the years. Have you seen much of the village?”
“Um, no. Just arrived.”
“Xena’ll probably be busy until supper. Why don’t I show you around? You could freshen up at our place. We can all meet back here after.” Gabrielle snorted softly. “Scratch Xena off your list? If, of course, you’re up for it.”
Katja cocked her head. “Still making a way for her, eh?” She folded her hands on the table. “Sure. We’ll see how it goes.”
“So, you gonna tell me?” Xena asked, as Gabrielle nearly dragged her to the meeting hall. “You know how I love surprises.”
“I gave you a hint.”
“Somebody from my distant past? Yeah, that narrows it down.”
“Don’t be so impatient. Have you learned nothing, lo these many years?” Gabrielle guided her partner to a table in a back corner. “The best things are worth the wait. Or,” she amended, “at least the most interesting ones.” She scanned the dinner crowd filing in. “Sit. If you’re a good girl, you’ll get a leg of mutton with your surprise.”
Xena glumly watched the small figure weave her way toward whatever she bet a leg of mutton wouldn’t compensate for. If she’d learned anything over “lo these many years,” Gabrielle’s idea of a surprise had worsened almost as much as Xena’s had improved. The more sensitive and tolerant the ex-warlord became, the happier Gabrielle was to test new boundaries. Xena darkly fantasized about the days “surprise” could mean somebody’s head on a stick. Maybe it was her “just desserts” that, in reality, the head more likely would be hers, with Gabrielle holding the stick.
A couple weeks ago, they’d come across a wild child in the woods, captured only because she’d broken her leg. “Xena, if anyone can tame her, it’s you.” And then there were the midwives who balked because Gabrielle thought fathers should be allowed to witness births. “Xena, you’re a respected healer. Who better to convince them to give it a shot?” Now what? Reminiscing about the good old days with some poor soul who didn’t have anybody else? Or couldn’t remember if they did?
“I’d like to introduce you to … my surprise.” Gabrielle waited for a sign of recognition. Seeing none, she hinted, “Another daughter of Amphipolis.”
“Yeah?” Xena gave up trying to guess. “Always nice meeting somebody from home. Welcome.”
“Let’s sit, shall we?” Gabrielle pulled out a chair across from Xena for their guest. When everyone was comfortable she said, “Our food’s on order. Hopefully we’ll all know each other better by the time it arrives.” She sat with her hands folded on the table, glancing expectantly between the others.
“So.” Xena summoned her best hosting manners. “Amphipolis, eh?”
“Haven’t lived there in awhile, but yeah.”
Xena tilted her head, thinking there might be something familiar in the woman’s rather sharp features. “I’m at a disadvantage. You know my name. Mind telling me yours?”
“Oh, of course. Katja.” At Xena’s crinkled brow, she smiled wryly. “No reason you should remember me. Trimon’s baby sister.”
“Trimon?!” Xena chuckled. “No way I could forget him.” She turned to Gabrielle. “Talk about a young ‘hothead.’ He beat me hands down. Especially at fighting. When Cortese and his goons started coming around? Trimon was among the first to argue for defending ourselves.”
Katja nodded. “He’d come to my room all excited. ‘Shhh. Pa thinks I’m still in the fields. Go out and stall `em while I clean up.’ I’d ask him why he kept playing war, when Pa told him not to. ‘It’s not play,’ he’d say. ‘At least, it won’t be soon.’ He promised his friends would make sure I could grow up safe. Be whatever I wanted, not some warlord’s slave.” She sighed. “I did look up to him. Wished I could do something important too. He told me it was important keeping his secret. Being his ‘lookout.’”
“I thought it would be nice, having a big brother,” Gabrielle put in. “Sounds like Trimon was a good one.”
“A good friend too.” Xena snickered. “There was this one time my mother caught some of us behind the inn. We were filthy, from crawling on the ground like spies. Trimon grabs me and plants a big kiss on my mouth. Pretends he doesn’t know she’s there. ‘Oh, ma’am!’ he says in horror. ‘Please forgive me! I meant no disrespect to Xena. She’s so wonderful and beautiful. I believe I’m in love and couldn’t help myself.’”
Gabrielle laughed. “And Cyrene bought that?”
“Excuse me?” Xena sucked in her cheeks. “Some reason she wouldn’t?” She snorted. “Maybe shocked I didn’t punch him. More so that I might be interested in someone. And happy enough about it to accept we were simply ‘fooling around.’ All she said was, ‘You’re a good boy, Trimon. I don’t mind you seeing Xena. But I want you to do it proper. Next time, come to the front door and ask my permission first.’”
“And did he?” Gabrielle found great amusement in Xena’s feigning courtship. “Bring you flowers? Escort you to dances?”
Xena smugly patted her partner’s shoulder. “Now, now. Nothin’ to be jealous about. Besides, we were too busy preparing for our rebellion. Not long after, the raids got worse.” Her eyes dimmed. “No more playtime.”
Katja regarded Xena’s bowed head. “My brother, Xena, their small band didn’t get the support they hoped for. Especially from the adults. Until there was almost nothing left. They pursued the attackers outside of town. Into the forests and hills. Months later, the raids stopped.” Katja picked up her goblet. “We celebrated with those who returned alive.” She drank most of her water before continuing softly, “Others we buried or never saw again.”
Xena lifted her chin. “Trimon and my brother Lyceus died heroes. Not responsible for what happened after because of the leader left standing.”
“But when you did come back, it was because Amphipolis faced another threat. Only this time I was old enough to be like my brother.”
“Draco?” Gabrielle stared at Katja. “Is that when we met?”
Katja nodded, continuing to look at Xena. “I heard the others’ ugly words. About the tragedy you’d brought us. The shame. That you were in cahoots with Draco. In my head, Trimon’s voice reminded me I could be different from the mob. Even as they swept me toward you, intent on retribution ….”
“The stoning?” Gabrielle flashed back to her initial trip to Amphipolis, arriving in time to witness town folk hurling rocks at Xena. She frowned, trying to recall any voice of protest. “You tried to –.”
“Be like Trimon?” Katja glanced at Gabrielle. “Like you?” She focused again on Xena. “I was in front, all right. Taking the lead in my way.” She nodded at the recognition dawning on Xena’s face. “Yes, that girl who cast the first stone.”
Gabrielle sat at her desk, scrolls of council business ready for review. Her thoughts drifted instead to the guest hut, where Katja awaited response to the mission she’d proposed. Apparently Xena’s impact on others was never ending. Decades later someone would not just carry memories of an encounter with her, but use it as impetus to shape the future. To redefine a past Xena and Gabrielle presumed settled.
Of course they remembered that fateful day the Warrior Princess returned to Amphipolis in hopes of making amends and a fresh start. Facing instead the disbelief and outrage of even her mother. The choice between defending herself against former neighbors or letting them kill her. The sudden rescue by a peasant girl whose greatest weapon was a gift for gab.
At dinner, Xena admitted Katja had been lost in a blur of emotions having little to do with particular individuals in the crowd of attackers. She did recall Katja, but as the child hanging in the background when Trimon was around, her serious little face occasionally lighting up with hero worship of the older kids who’d defied authority with their war games. Gabrielle had been behind the action, couldn’t identify the stone throwers and was too preoccupied anyway with creating an excuse for getting Xena out in one piece.
Katja had sat stunned listening to these perspectives. She’d held the stoning as a defining moment – the three of them interconnected central characters in a drama that played over and over in her mind – only to discover her own performance so unremarkable, of such little consequence, hardly worth what she had felt and done in the years since. Except to her.
“Important stuff, huh?” Xena blithely ignored Gabrielle’s startled response. She indicated the scrolls on the desk. “You seemed deep in pondering some issue or another.”
“So you figured you’d creep in? Give my brain a boost by scaring me half to death?”
“Anything for my bard.” Though unrepentant, Xena kissed the top of Gabrielle’s head before sauntering to their rocking chair and dropping down with a tired exhale.
Gabrielle scooted around, her planned retort cut short by the blood staining the front of Xena’s smock. “Everything go okay? It’s been hours.”
“Twins. The second one none too happy about leaving his comfy quarters.”
“But everyone’s healthy?”
“The mother and babies. Had to take care of another complication.”
“The father.” Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. “Fainted during the first birth. Hit his head on a table. Had to stitch him up after baby number two finally came out.”
“Mm. Good thing you went, huh? Loving challenges like you do.” Gabrielle rolled her tongue in her cheek. “Anything for my warrior.”
“Anything?” Xena propped her chin on her hand. “What about a certain … surprise. Haven’t had a chance to talk about that yet.”
“Mm. Gotta be more careful about those,” Gabrielle acknowledged, shaking her head. “Some deserve more inspection, before I foist them off on you.”
“Eh, you had no way of knowing.” Xena got up to change into her nightshirt. “So whaddya think? Now everything’s out in the open.”
Gabrielle fiddled with her quill. “Is it? According to her, she was disgusted with herself for what she did. Left town and fell in with a bad crowd. Managed to turn her life around later. Wants to do something about a bad situation facing her current home village. With help from the woman who’s haunted her all these years.”
“Sounds simple enough.” Xena chuckled. “Considering I’m involved.”
Gabrielle gave up her pretense at working. She decided to prepare for bed as well. “What about her brother? Amazing, she didn’t blame you, like the others. And if she truly experienced such guilt about the stoning? Not easy forgiving someone else, if you can’t forgive yourself.”
“But not impossible.” Xena passed by Gabrielle on her way to their storage area. She lightly punched her partner’s shoulder. “With the right help.”
Gabrielle stared at Xena’s back. “What are you saying?”
“I took control of my emotions. Re-channeled them. Had sense enough to let you stick around.”
When Xena passed by her again, Gabrielle caught the warrior’s arm. “I was referring to something else.”
“Second chances? For folks who make mistakes? Givin’ `em the benefit of the doubt?” Xena smiled benignly. “That was implied,” she said, prying off the fingers restraining her. “I’m not exactly in a position to throw stones.” She resumed her course toward their bedchamber.
“Tell me I misunderstood you. You couldn’t possibly be saying you haven’t forgiven yourself yet.”
“I was saying ….” Xena plumped the pillows on the bed. “I had more crap inside than most. Made more mistakes. Got more second chances. Because of special help stuck to me like a burr,” she continued, throwing a smile over her shoulder, “I was able to move past old grievances and excuses. Not exactly ‘forgiveness’ in some cases, but close enough.” She got on the bed and propped against the headboard. “The topic was Katja, right? I’m merely suggesting if I could do it, so can she.”
Gabrielle stood beside the bed, arms crossed. “I had the impression a side benefit of your quest for atonement would finally be forgiving yourself.”
“That’s your vision. Lovely as it is, I told you a long time ago it’s not mine.”
“What about Japa? Your sacrifice there didn’t –.”
“I felt what is was like to be free of the past. Of worrying what I needed to do until my last breath.” Xena snorted. “A side benefit of being dead. Anyway, I took away a fresh perspective on being alive. Living for and with somebody whose love for me is greater than 40,000 or millions of souls put together. You really think I can top that? Try to find it in myself, when I have you?”
Gabrielle was silent, absorbing the genuine contentment on Xena’s face. She sat on the side of the bed. “I guess it has been my dream. From the beginning. Somewhere along the line, I just assumed ….”
“C’mere.” Xena pulled Gabrielle up beside her. “It’s never been about forgiving myself. Maybe it’s been more … acceptance. That some would forgive me and some never will. That I could re-create myself into someone better.” She bumped heads with her soulmate. “I stopped questioning whether I deserve you. Whether I’ve earned reaching this age. Having so much more than people who never hurt a flea. Who could ask for more? Be happy for me, okay? I am.”
As she had on many an occasion, Gabrielle realized it truly might take eternity to explore all the nooks and crannies of her soulmate. How often they assumed they were on the same track because they ended up together. Admittedly, she felt some sadness and disappointment at her partner’s latest revelation. But how could she not be happy that – despite not forgiving herself – Xena had still achieved the state Gabrielle envisioned for her?
“I guess this means you’re up for Katja’s mission in Grecia?”
“Do I suspect it’s a trap? No.”
“But it could be?”
“I assumed you’d wanna tag along.”
“You assumed correctly.”
“Then no worries.” Xena tweaked Gabrielle’s nose. “What better protection than a suspicious, inquisitive, staff-totin’ – .”
“You scored a lot of points tonight. I suggest you quit while you’re ahead.”
Gabrielle relaxed with Katja next to their campfire at the first sunset of their journey to Grecia. Conversation up to that point mainly covered details about the village and the warlord who’d been causing trouble. Xena was off somewhere, ostensibly taking advantage of the remaining light to hunt and scout. Gabrielle suspected her partner also wanted to give her companions a chance to chat. The warrior wasn’t particularly big on reminiscing and probably suspected Gabrielle might want to do some reconnaissance of her own.
“Thanks.” Katja gazed up at the sky. “Did a lot of camping. After I left Amphipolis. Sure freer than living in town. Didn’t realize how much I missed this.”
“Weren’t you – back then – with a … um ….”
“Bad crowd? Yeah. But they didn’t care much about how I dressed. Or manners.” Katja snorted. “Easier than always being a ‘good girl.’”
Gabrielle chuckled. “I hear ya. Especially on the road.” She stretched out on her side. “What changed? You know – convinced you to leave that life.”
Katja stretched her back. “Age, for one thing. I wasn’t that old, but what we were doing got old pretty soon. Stealing from farmers’ fields. Off merchants. Drinking ourselves silly when we got the chance. Waking up in some forest, not sure how we got there. Pfft. Or where we’d go next. We just knew we didn’t want to be in town kowtowing to rules of stupid adults.” She shrugged. “One day we passed a wagon. Family singing and laughing like that was the best thing in the world. Reminded me .….”
“How much you missed that too?”
“Sorta. Got a push in that direction.” Katja cupped her hands around her mug. “In Grecia. Wandered into a shop. Proprietor caught me pilfering a necklace.” Katja shook her head. “Like I needed that out in the wilds.”
“Hey, a girl especially needs something pretty out in the wilds.”
“Pretty or not, nearly got me locked up. The shop owner offered me a deal. I could keep the necklace if I worked off its price at his place.” Katja sipped on her tea. “A year later, it was partly my place too. As his daughter-in- law.”
“My. Quite a story.” Gabrielle sat up. “Your husband. Is he ….”
“Dead 10 years. Still, enough of his relatives left to mind the store while I’m gone. They’re okay, far as kin go. Can’t complain about them or my life there.” Katja cocked her head. “Never pictured Xena as the settling down type. Plus, rumors every now and then she’d been killed. Guess that’s why I took it with a grain of salt – her being a permanent resident of a nearby village.”
“Heh. The ‘permanent’ part’s a little iffy. Yes, we’ve had a home here for quite awhile now. Seems we spend more time out of it than in.” Gabrielle smiled wryly. “Missions come a knockin’ just when we think our semi-retirement might stick.”
“You’ve been with her all this time?”
“So to speak. We’ve had separations. The longer ones not by choice. Although we can credit our youthful appearance to one of those. The God of War froze us in an ice cave for 25 years. Kinda complicates our anniversary celebrations.” Gabrielle clasped her hands. “I just realized. You were there at the beginning!”
“The beginning? Of what?”
“When you saw me in Amphipolis? It was right after Xena’d popped in out of nowhere to save me and my village from Draco.”
Katja looked skeptical. “You’re pulling my leg, right? You’d just met?”
“Uh huh. She had no idea – .”
“But ….” Katja tried to wrap her mind around this information. “You put yourself between the rocks and her. A … a stranger? I figured you were maybe a … a ….”
Katja bit her lip. “Slave? Servant? Somebody she’d taken on one of her conquests. Maybe freed because she … um … liked you.”
“Oh, that is too funny! I begged her to take me with her. She wanted no part of it. Would’ve left me stuck with a dull fiancé if I hadn’t followed her anyway. Believe me, she was as surprised as you when I barged in.”
“Lucky for her you did. Bet saving her hide convinced her to let you tag along.”
“Pfft. She didn’t hold her life in much esteem back then. After, she took off on her own.” Gabrielle smirked. “I followed again. Since my heroics didn’t impress her, I tried something else – pity. Poor, misunderstood runaway. Nothing but the clothes on my back to ward off the cold and hunger.”
“We’re talking Xena here. I’m still learning about that brain of hers. All I know for sure is, the next day we set out together.” Gabrielle spread out her arms. “And here I am.”
“That’s quite a story,” Katja teased. Growing serious, she continued, “Inspirational. Truly. Me? I threw the first stone when she asked for another chance. You were like the first stone building belief in her.”
“Huh.” Gabrielle leaned back on her arms. “Never thought of it quite that way.”
“You should. It’s true.”
“Xena! How long have you been there?”
Xena sauntered over to warm her hands above the fire. “Long enough to learn more about the brain of a pitiful semi-retired runaway.”
Katja halted the wagon team at the outskirts of Grecia. Xena and Gabrielle pulled their horses up on either side. Though nearly dusk, some villagers were still out and might notice the three arriving.
“We should probably settle something before we head in.”
“Yeah?” Katja’s heart skipped a beat. She’d thought they’d …. “What’s that?”
“Who am I?”
“Am I going in as me? The … well preserved …Warrior Princess?”
“Um ….” Katja turned to Gabrielle. “What’s she mean?”
“A lot of our missions have been incognito. We use made-up names. Is Xena’s reputation important in all this?”
“Oh.” Katja let out a relieved breath. “I … uh …. Tell the truth, I didn’t get that far.” She peered up wryly at Xena. “Past whether I’d find you. Or you’d come. If you did, guess I figured you’d give me tips. You know, sort of an advisor.”
“What about …baggage? My army passed through.” Xena surveyed the fairly substantial and numerous structures. “Not much more than a settlement then. Too little worth being concerned about.”
“True, we’ve grown a lot. Mostly folks who built it up and their children. A few elders may remember you. Can’t say as I’ve heard you mentioned much.” Katja nodded to herself. “Don’t see any problem with you as yourself.”
“Fine by me. We’ll play it by ear.”
That settled, the three rode in. Those they passed greeted Katja and smiled at the women she introduced simply as “old friends, here for a visit.” She led the way to a modest home behind her store and had them put their things in her father-in-law’s old room.
“When you’re ready, we’ll go to the inn. That’s where I usually eat supper. That’ll be the real test.”
The dining room was obviously a center for meeting and conversation. Several families sat at the center tables. Young adults – groups of females or males, couples – tended to congregate near the walls. Older ones sat in front, a dozen or so at two tables pushed together. Mathias liked this vantage point. As the key government official, he made it his business to keep abreast of developments – relationships, conflicts, public opinion. Strangers in town. He tuned out the debate at his table as Katja entered with people he didn’t recognize.
Ordinarily Mathias might not have paid women of that age much attention. Assumed their gossip or knitting projects not worth more than an inquiry about their health during his customary rounds. Katja, however, was … special. Quiet, reliable, respected. Stubborn. Prone to speak her mind at inopportune moments. Often contradicting or challenging his views – polite but firm. How to deal with Scabreus had become an ongoing source of friction, given Katja’s lack of appreciation for the finer points of politics.
And then there were Katja’s guests. The blonde seemed harmless enough. Indeed, she made Mathias wish he had less fondness for stuffing his belly with pies and cakes. The tall one …. Something about her rang alarm bells in his head. Most mature women he knew who looked that good often feigned obliviousness to being attractive. With her, it didn’t seem to matter, as if there were something else even more important about her that bore watching. Peasant skirt or not, she moved like someone with a brain and not shy about using it. Just the type of independent thinker who might delude Katja into believing she too had a brain.
Mathias waited while others greeted Katja. He then excused himself to do the same. “Ladies?” Katja’s rather reluctant response didn’t faze him. “Welcome home.” He bowed slightly toward her, his eyes on her guests.
“I see you’ve brought visitors to our fair village. As mayor and one of the founders, I welcome you as well.” He gave them an oily smile. Not trusting Katja to make the introductions he wanted, he asked, “And you would be?”
Gabrielle decided to go with her gut and Katja’s guarded expression. “We’re friends of Katja’s. We bumped into her not far from here and figured we’d catch up on old times.”
“Ah.” Mathias waited expectantly. He frowned when the women merely stared back.
“`Xena,’ you say? Interesting. Any relation to the legendary Warrior Princess?”
“You’ve heard of her, huh?”
“Came within a few days of meeting her during her heyday.”
“Do I look that old?”
“Um ….” Taken off guard, Mathias stalled for a quick recovery. “I understood she was tall. Dark hair. Blue eyes. With the resemblance, might you be a younger cousin perhaps?”
“Don’t mind Xena. She gets that a lot.” Gabrielle gave her partner a mock scowl. “A little too sensitive about it, if you ask me. Anyway, far as she knows, she’s the only Xena in her family. By the way, I’m … Rielle.”
Other than a barely perceptible twitch at the corner of her mouth, Mathias detected little encouragement on the taller woman’s face. He inclined his head toward the friendlier of the two. “Nice making your acquaintance. It’s not often we receive such attractive visitors. Unaccompanied, I mean.” Mathias gritted his teeth, peeved at another uncharacteristic gaffe. “By their husbands. Not,” he hastily added, “that you aren’t … or weren’t … married. It’s just, most times – .”
“We are. Taken.” Gabrielle winked. “In case anyone expresses interest.”
“Ah.” Relieved he’d been let off the hook, Mathias grinned. “I’ll spread the word. Discourage unwanted attention.” He turned to Katja. “Let me know if I can be of any further assistance. And don’t worry about the next council meeting. Spend as much time as you need with your friends.” He bowed and started to leave.
Mathias felt himself on the hook again. “Yessss?”
“I’ll be there, same as always.”
“So … Rielle … got anything else up your sleeve?”
“Not at the moment.” Gabrielle paused in her bedtime preparations. “I told Katja it was because I don’t quite trust Mathias. I kinda like being able to spring the legendary Warrior Princess on him if necessary.”
“But that wasn’t the only reason?”
“I didn’t like the way he talked to Katja. Or to us either, for that matter.”
“Eh. He’s just the usual pompous twit.” Xena hung up the long skirt she’d donned for this mission. “Doubt he’d `ve been much different if he knew who we really are.”
“Nor should he. Women deserve to be treated like we have a brain. Butt-kicking warrior or not.”
“Mm. Sounds like Katja passed your test.”
“I do understand her better. I believe she’s sincere about wanting to stop Scabreus.” Gabrielle sat next to Xena. “I don’t think she cares about getting credit. Otherwise she wouldn’t have risked bringing you into it.”
“But you think it’s important she gets credit anyway.”
Gabrielle chewed her lip thoughtfully. “Yeah, I guess I do.”
Xena put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulder. “Don’t ever change.”
“Helping folks reach their true potential.”
“You mean Katja?” Gabrielle shrugged. “We agreed to help. If she can feel better about herself, it’s a bonus. She’ll have more confidence. Grecia will recognize another leader, once we’re gone.” She narrowed her eyes at Xena. “Quite practical, if you ask me.”
“Uh huh. Practical.” Xena grinned. “You know me – can’t help seeing the ‘higher’ purpose.” She punched Gabrielle’s shoulder. “A pitfall of hanging around you.”
During the next couple of days, Katja’s guests familiarized themselves with Grecia’s inhabitants. In an interesting twist on their usual approach, Gabrielle found herself doing reconnaissance among the men. Whether shopping, at the inn or strolling the streets, she would somehow end up in conversation with them – individually or in groups. It would start with a pleasant, “Morning, ma’am,” followed by inquiries about whether they could assist in some way. To their surprise, she turned out to be the one offering advice – on subjects from healing or forecasting weather, to weaponry and maintaining leather goods.
Despite her stern demeanor, businesslike stride and no demonstration whatsoever of interest in sewing circles or market chitchat, Xena wound up participating in such anyway. At first she figured the shyly spoken invitations simply a courtesy accorded visitors. But when she finally inquired about their motives, she learned the women were drawn to the confidence she exhibited no matter where they saw her. They sat enthralled, astonished someone adept at embroidery could speak so knowledgeably about matters generally restricted to their husbands. .
“I have to say, I’m not hearing much fight from these guys,” Gabrielle reported a few days into their visit. “Talk about complacent. It’s a wonder they’re not already polishing Scabreus’ boots. I’d imagine the wives aren’t much better?”
“At least they’d like to be. Afraid there’s not much in their training for it. Or encouragement from anybody else.”
And so they weren’t surprised by the goings on of the next town council meeting. Mathias pontificated about his negotiations with Scabreus – “progress” in the form of staving off rowdy incursions, holding the gang’s “tax” at its current level, agreement not to interfere with Grecia’s governance or commerce. Judging by the eye rolls when the lone female councilor stood to speak, the other members appeared satisfied with Mathias’ approach.
“I know my concerns aren’t popular,” Katja began, “but they need saying. We’ll never get out from under Scabreus’ foot, if we keep giving ground.”
“With all due respect, Katja, we know your concerns.” Mathias glanced around the room as a parent might when indulging the whims of a child. “Perhaps if you had more experience – .”
“With what? Being pushed around? Taking the coward’s way out?” Katja’s eyes briefly rested on the back of the room where her guests sat. “I’ve had my share. It only leads to worse.”
“If I recall, you had your share causing …worse.” Mathias glanced around again, this time a parent acknowledging children sometimes misbehave. “We don’t condemn the misguided. We work with them. Achieve ends to everyone’s advantage.” He smiled at Katja with barely concealed superiority. “And here you stand – years later – a model citizen.”
“Yeah?” Katja’s lip curled. “I speak my mind. Urge confronting our problems. Defending ourselves. How come you’re not ‘modeling’ that?”
Mathias noted the murmurs and uneasy shifting. It could’ve stemmed from the usual embarrassment at Katja’s forwardness or disagreement with her views. On the other hand, he sensed awareness beyond “oh, that’s just Katja being Katja.” Perhaps even recognition of a challenge that might prick his balloon. As for Katja, she seemed less resigned to throwing darts in the hopes one might eventually hit home. More … confident … it was worth the effort.
He inclined his head deferentially toward his nemesis. “Katja is right. We rely on her honesty. Her courage to stand alone against what’s popular. I suggest our senior counselors re-examine our options. Bring our recommendations to you in a couple of days. Is that agreeable to everyone?” he asked the council members. At their consent, he adjourned the meeting, shook a few hands and eased his way through the crowd and unobtrusively out the door.
Mathias hated the road. The dust and insects. He’d had enough of all that as a child. Lusted instead after the comfortable and more exciting life of the towns where his father hauled their produce to market. Barely 13, he’d left the smell of farm animals and never looked back. Hitched a ride with a wealthy merchant who saw himself in the ambitious boy and took Mathias under his wing. The merchant envisioned a village rising on an expanse of virgin land amidst huts, fields and bountiful resources. He’d scribbled “Grecia” on a sign and planted it beside the road.
Mathias had parlayed his inheritance from the merchant into a sizable fortune and influence of his own. Now, decades later, he was as close to being a king as he’d ever dreamed. Unfortunately, he didn’t quite feel like one now. Sighing, he pulled up at his destination. Took a moment to brush himself off and review the merits of his plan. Nodded to the men lounging around the entrance and waited to be announced. When the door opened, he strode in as a man of substance, as if it mattered little that his host continued to sprawl in his seat cleaning the dirt from under his fingernails with a knife.
“My apologies. You know how ….” Mathias reminded himself of his audience. “A slight … complication. Nothing I can’t handle,” he hastened to add. He risked the liberty of sitting without permission. “Actually, something you might enjoy … assisting with. Personally, I mean.”
Scabreus finally glanced up. “Thought you had things under control.”
“I do. Just a little annoyance from one pest. Katja. Woman I told you about.”
“Yeah?” Scabreus snickered. “She threaten to muss up your fancy clothes?” He stuck his knife in the table next to him. “I want my money. I pay you enough not to bother how I get it. If that’s changed ….”
“No, no. Only thing’s changed is two strangers in town. Friends of hers. Same problem knowing their place. Busy bodies stirring the pot somehow.” Mathias leaned back in his chair. “One of them’s named Xena.”
“Xena?! The old Warrior Princess?”
“Doesn’t claim to be. Looks too young. But with her resemblance to the legend ….” Mathias noted the thoughtful frown that suggested he’d selected the right bait. He shrugged. “Like I said, probably just one of those independent types. No doubt needs a strong hand. Husband obviously doesn’t have one.” He winked. “Like you.”
Scabreus rolled his tongue in his cheek. “You’re so full a crap. Lucky for you, it’s good enough to buy.” He straightened in his chair. “Okay, you got my attention.” He sneered. “What kind a crap you wanna sell this time?”
“Well. That was interesting,” Gabrielle commented as the three women made themselves comfortable at Katja’s following the council meeting.
“Mm.” Xena sat and stretched out her legs. “How so?”
“Yeah.” Katja perched on a bench. “I’m curious too.”
“Um ….” Gabrielle shot a look at her twinkling-eyed partner. “`Interesting’ as a conversation starter.” She smirked. “I trust the legendary Warrior Princess has some thoughts on the matter?”
Xena sucked in her cheeks. “Actually, Katja’s may be more useful. Seeing as how she’s more experienced in this particular situation.”
Katja glanced between her guests, not for the first time glad she knew they weren’t nuts. At least, not entirely. “It went pretty much as usual, far as I could tell.” She snorted. “Except for me. A little bolder maybe, knowing I had back up. Although … now that I think about it, some others had a bit more life to `em too. A few even stopped to shake my hand. Gave me supportive words.” She raised a brow. “I’m thinking you two may have had a hand in that too.”
“Us?” Gabrielle blinked innocently. “Simple matrons who gossip and embroider?”
Katja chuckled. “I’ve heard a few things. Compliments on my choice of friends. Rielle’s charming insights. Xena’s example of a strong woman. Wouldn’t be surprised if Mathias suspects you’re a bad influence.”
“Yeah, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s cut some kind of deal with Scabreus.”
“Well, sure, I wouldn’t put it past him. But he’s pretty much done what folks wanted. Negotiated peace with Scabreus. No blood shed. He’s as scared as the rest of us. Probably afraid I’ll put a kink in the agreements he’s working on. I can’t believe ….”
“You shook him up today. I didn’t sense fear from Mathias, so much as worry. More about what he might lose on the deal, not Grecia.”
Katja frowned. “That would change things. Having someone on the inside. Especially our key representative. I …. What ….”
“We don’t know for sure.” Xena leaned forward. “But if I’m right, could be you’re in danger.”
“For opening my mouth? Nothing new about that. He’s tolerated me this long.”
“She means, for stirring the pot.” Gabrielle walked over to sit beside Katja. “You were pretty impressive today. Not simply a thorn easily pulled out. Mathias relies on certainty, good intentions or bad. Just in case, we need to be careful, until we see what happens next.”
Katja shook her head. “Well, guess I asked for it. Threw the first stone again, but at the right target this time.” She squared her shoulders. “I’m not turning back. Whatever happens, happens. But I’ll have Trimon behind me.” She smiled at her guests. “And two of the best sidekicks a girl could ask for.”
Mathias couldn’t hear everything from his usual table, but it didn’t matter. The body language communicated enough. Like the way normally quiet people had their heads together, animatedly conversing in low voices. Or the number of people who dropped by Katja’s table to say something that lightened the woman’s usually dour features. Not to mention the friendly familiarity they displayed toward her guests.
All of it reinforced his instincts for stirring the pot his way – himself again floating on top. And so he watched the door with great anticipation. Steeled himself against smirking when one of the lookouts rushed through warning, “He’s coming! He’s coming!” Glanced around with concerned surprise as guards paraded in. Stood and assumed his official face during the silence that greeted Scabreus’ entrance. Finally strode head high to perform his mayoral duty.
“Lord Scabreus. We weren’t expecting you.”
“Now, now.” Scabreus held up his hand. “No need to get your breeches in a twist. This isn’t a business trip.” He surveyed the room as if coaxing sheep to believe they weren’t being led to slaughter. “Consider it more a … social call.”
Scabreus begin sauntering between tables, Mathias at his heels. “Partake of this establishment’s excellent ale. See how folks’re doing. How they’re responding to my generous terms. Happier they are, less likely I’ll be more … severe. Better business is, more likely their taxes can keep up with increases in my cost of operations.” He cocked his head at Mathias. “According to you anyway.”
“Yes, yes. We appreciate the concessions you’ve made.” Mathias turned toward a table of his cronies. They obligingly nodded and smiled. “That will certainly be factored in during our next negotiations.”
Scabreus snorted. “Your cooperation warms my heart. Means I can relax. Busy man like myself doesn’t get to do that enough.”
“Please, make yourself at home.” Mathias scowled at a couple of tables next to Katja’s. The people seated there moved away.
“Much appreciated.” Scabreus signaled for his men to sit. “Ale for them too. If you don’t mind.”
“But of course.” Mathias waved toward the servers. “Is there anything else we can – .”
“Ah, I’m disappointed.” Scabreus stood with his arms crossed, staring at Katja’s table. “Seems Grecia’s been holding out on me.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“I notice additions you neglected to mention.”
“Additions?” Mathias frowned to cover his glee. Katja’s expression alone was compensation for the times he’d endured her contrariness. “I assure you,” he said, scanning the room for whatever Scabreus could possibly be referring to, “all our refurbishments have been to increase the town’s attractiveness to –.”
“I’m more interested in the attractiveness of these two ladies. Surely I would’ve remembered them from my previous tours.”
Mathias let his mouth drop. “You mean Xena and Rielle? No, no, they’re visitors. We would’ve informed you if – .”
“I’d bet you’re Xena.” At her nod, Scabreus added, “Nice name.”
“My mother liked it.”
“So did I. But I was a mere boy then. With dreams of conquering the world.”
Xena shrugged. “I’ve heard she did a lot of bad and maybe a little good. Me? I’m content with married life in a small village. A simple matron who enjoys traveling sometimes. Do as little bad and as much good as I can.”
“And how are you finding Grecia?” Scabreus leaned on the table, his face inches from Xena’s. “A place needing some good?”
“I understand they have Mathias for that.” Xena flicked her eyes in the mayor’s direction. “I have enjoyed the hospitality.”
Scabreus had expected at least a flinch. Instead, blue eyes calmly met his. No challenge. No coyness. No fear. A little unsettled, he straightened with a patronizing smile. “A traditional woman, eh? These days that’s good enough. So’s a man who knows how to handle his wife.”
“I have no husband who could match you, sir.” Xena bowed her head slightly as one might when delivering a compliment. “But, yes, my spouse does well at taking care of me and keeping me in line.”
A sudden coughing fit drew Scabreus’ attention to the blonde. He patiently waited while her friends tended to her, glad for the distraction. His gut agreed with Mathias’ wariness about these strangers. Kin to the Warrior Princess or not, it was as if the dark-haired woman had stood toe to toe with him without leaving her place. On one hand, he hadn’t quite produced the desired effect. On the other, he sensed it better to accept what she’d given him as the best he’d get. He rubbed his hands together and faced the room.
“Seems Grecia meets the approval of its guests. I’ll take that into consideration in my next review of your status.” Scabreus raised his mug. “A toast to socializing! The relaxing alternative to busting heads!” He acknowledged the chuckles and overlooked any lack of enthusiasm in the echoed toast. He bowed slightly to Katja’s table and joined his men for a drink. Not long after, he stood, boomed, “Carry on!” and left in a flourish with his entourage.
Gabrielle wiped her eyes. She poured herself water from the pitcher on Katja’s dining table. She offered some to her hostess and Xena. Both shook their heads – the former continuing to tap her foot, the latter continuing to drum her fingers. They obviously hadn’t appreciated her heroic efforts at the inn. And now that they had privacy …. She giggled, grateful she didn’t have to feign a coughing fit this time.
“Drink your water. Maybe that’ll help.”
“I thought you two did that all the time. Pretend to be somebody else.”
Xena shrugged. “In her defense, sometimes the shoe’s on the other foot.” She smirked. “There was this one time she wore my boots and leathers, passing herself off as me. Should’ve heard her practicing my ‘yell thingy.’ Sounded like a stuck –.”
“Hey! You almost died. Maybe it was funny to you, but ….” Sobering, Gabrielle scowled at her partner. “Okay. It worked. Next time you refer to the husband you don’t have, I’ll picture myself as one of those snaggle-toothed bar flies you were so fond of swatting.”
The two glowered at each other before bursting into laughter.
“I’m glad you got such a kick out of meeting Scabreus. If the strategy was pulling wool over his eyes, you succeeded.” Katja crossed her arms. “Question is, did you pull it over mine.”
“Yeah?” Xena took a few swallows from Gabrielle’s cup. “How’s that?”
“I didn’t know for sure why I sought you out. Exactly what I was after.” Katja puckered her lips. “I do know this isn’t it.”
“Katja, you must have pictured something,” Gabrielle stated quietly. “What was it?”
“Fighting Scabreus. Maybe with a militia. Or Xena training some folks on resistance tactics, like in Amphipolis. Forcing him to – .”
“Not gonna happen.”
“W-what?” Katja gaped at Xena as though the legendary warrior truly had turned into someone else. You’d really let him –.”
“What she means is, that’s not best for this situation. Grecia isn’t ready. It doesn’t mean we can’t – or won’t – do anything about Scabreus.”
“Like what?” Katja slumped back in disgust. “Chitchat and embroidery stitches with villagers?” She scowled. “Treating Scabreus like a joke? Wonder what Trimon and Lyceus would say about that.”
“Why not ask them?” Xena inquired coolly. “Oh, right. You can’t. They fought back.”
“And died. For Amphipolis. You dishonor them, trying to bring them back for battles that aren’t theirs.” Xena’s eyes softened. “I know about guilt, Katja. You can’t get forgiveness from the past. Or find it in someone else’s deeds.”
“Well, I don’t know any other place to start.”
“With where you are. Who you are now. If you’re lucky, getting fresh eyes to see new possibilities. Gabrielle had those for me. I’d like to have them for you.” Xena smiled. “But it means you’ll have to accept I’m different too.”
Katja studied the other women. They studied her as well, with honesty and compassion she couldn’t deny. She let out a long breath and gazed at her hands. Had it all really been about recreating those moments she’d let slip away so long ago? Redeeming them in an outcome worthy of the little sister she’d wanted to be? If so, it would be hard to let that go – to let Trimon go. Except …. Both he and the moment lived on right there in her home. In the two whose faces had served as reminders in her dreams. And who seemed to be telling her it wasn’t too late.
“I may be a silly fool,” she said, raising her head with a small smile. “I pride myself on not being a stupid one. I’ll do whatever you say.”
“Mm.” Xena exchanged wry smiles with Gabrielle. “Afraid we don’t exactly know what that is yet. Except it probably involves more socializing.”
Much strategizing went on the next few days. During his meeting with council elders, Mathias received disturbing news. Weather conditions had reduced the expected crop yields. In addition, market sales had dropped off. Apparently shoppers were not confident Scabreus would keep his word about stopping the mischief of his men. These factors limited the town’s ability to pay current taxes to Scabreus, let alone an increase.
Scabreus was not moved by Mathias’ report. He’d invested a lot of energy in Grecia, to the detriment of forcing his “protection” services on other villages. Lost opportunities for “complimentary” food and services forced him to dip more into his own pocket. In truth, he’d also tired of the stress associated with plunder. Counted on Grecia to be his pet golden goose, with Mathias ensuring eggs for a long, long time. Toward that end, he suggested the mayor forego his usual cut – enabling Scabreus to get the extra dinars he needed, without further straining his goose.
Mathias didn’t rule this out. As a last resort. He wagered, however, that Scabreus’ recent visit had reminded people their situation could be a lot worse. He suggested Scabreus continue making himself more visible. Scabreus didn’t object. And so Mathias proposed to the elders that Scabreus be invited to the upcoming town festival – supposedly to “soften him up” toward Grecia’s economic woes. The council voted unanimously to do so.
Unbeknownst to all but one council member – and most of Grecia – a parallel set of consultations was taking place. The parties consisted of Katja, her two guests and a few trusted co-conspirators identified through the sewing circle. All expressed dissatisfaction with continuing to go along with Scabreus. While they suspected the wisdom of hobnobbing with him at the festival, they agreed the event could provide cover for their resistance. The plan they developed might involve casualties, but to an acceptable degree compared to other options.
On festival day, the rebels gazed out the window of Katja’s shop. A nice-sized crowd circulated through the entertainment and merchandise areas. Some had already claimed seats at the tables in the center, while others spread blankets in choice locations, in preparation for the highlight of the afternoon – a communal feast to celebrate peace. Mathias had announced Scabreus would attend as a gesture of good will.
Xena steered everyone further inside. “I’m betting his tardiness means uninvited guests.” She snorted. “A whole gang of `em.”
“I don’t see how it changes anything.” Katja sneered. “We can take out even more of `em in one fell swoop. Lucas, let Galemia know, just in case.”
“I’m on it.” Lucas saluted and sprinted out the back door.
“Remember, timing’s everything. Take your cues from Ga …. Um, from Rielle, like we discussed. Once she’s carried out her part, watch Xena. I’ll take care of Mathias and Scabreus. Any questions?” Katja surveyed those gathered. Some looked less than confident, but none raised any objections. She squared her shoulders. “Accept your fear. It means we are about to do something important. I am proud of this honor and to serve with you.” She raised her fist. “Go now to your stations, armed with hopes of a free Grecia!”
Mathias hovered near the head table, anxious the seating arrangements would be to his liking. He was a little surprised to see Katja headed that way. She often eschewed the perks of her council status, no doubt to avoid being in the mayor’s company.
“Figured I’d sit with the other … dignitaries … today. This being a special occasion and all.”
“Quite fitting.” Mathias cocked his head at the person who’d come up behind Katja.
“I brought Xena with me. Hope you don’t mind.”
“On the contrary.” For once Mathias’ smile was genuine. “Who could mind having her where she could be seen?” He nodded to the tall woman. “Certainly not Scabreus.” He peered expectantly around them. “And what of the fair Rielle? Will she be joining us?”
“If she feels better. She’s a bit under the weather.”
“Nothing serious I trust.”
Katja exchanged looks with Xena. “Another coughing spell.”
Mathias regarded the two, trying to read anything that might explain his flash of unease. “Ah.” He shrugged off his paranoia. Considering his role in expected events, no sense allowing distraction from minor players. “Then I suggest we –.”
Shouts, followed by stunned murmurs, heralded the guest of honor arriving amidst clouds of dust and numerous guards.
Scabreus dismounted, ignored the frightened faces and sauntered up to Mathias. “Why so quiet? I expected music. Dancing. Kegs of ale about to be tipped.”
Mathias assumed an aggrieved expression. “Lord Scabreus, we had thought …. We weren’t prepared for … such a large … party.”
“Them?” Scabreus asked, sweeping his hand at his men. “They haven’t done much socializing lately. Thanks to Grecia. This’s a chance to make up for it. In case you missed us. Forgot how much … fun … we can be.” He leered. “If you get my drift.”
“Yes, yes, of course. Your men are quite welcome. It’s just ….” Mathias indicated the shortage of places to sit – solved when townspeople quickly vacated their seats and began moving their blankets further away. “And of course you’ll all want to partake of the feast. We’ll have to make sure there’s enough –.”
“I’ll take care of it.” Katja whispered instructions to a young woman, who rushed toward the inn. “We’ll serve … our guests … first. Many of our neighbors brought their own food anyway.”
“Excellent!” Mathias clapped his hands, overjoyed Katja would pick this occasion to be less of a pain than usual.
Scabreus’ party seated themselves. Servers brought out spits of roasted meat, fish and fowl, accompanied by dishes perfect for hearty appetites, as well as spirits to wash it all down. Many of the diners were on their second helpings when a small figure stumbled toward the head table.
“Rielle! What are you doing out here?” Xena jumped up to steady her partner.
“I thought the gaiety might help –.” Gabrielle covered her mouth to stifle a deep cough. “F-forgive me, everyone. Please …. Please don’t … let this –.” Her lashes fluttered.
“Easy, easy.” With Xena’s help, Katja guided Gabrielle into a chair. She patted the pasty face, suddenly concerned the acting had gone too far. When she drew her fingers away, she squinted at them, before quickly wiping them on her skirt. “Um, Rielle, you’re so … um ….”
“Clammy?” Xena tried her best to keep a straight face, finally deciding it advisable to succumb to a coughing spell herself.
Mathias gaped at the trembling women. “I thought you’d taken care of Rielle’s … affliction. Now Xena has it? If it’s contagious, perhaps you should leave, so nobody else – .”
“Let them be.” Scabreus deemed two sets of heaving bosoms worth any risk involved from the possible cause. “Me and my men have faced worse than a little sickness. Get `em some water. Some herbs or whatever else might work. Won’t ruin our appetites, will it, men?”
“No, sir, boss,” answered one, staring at the heaving bosoms. He grabbed his mug. “My mouth is waterin’ for more.”
“Th-thank you, kind sirs,” Gabrielle managed to get out in the midst of containing herself and rubbing Xena’s back. “Perhaps it’s time?” she asked, holding Katja’s eyes. “For the … herbs?”
“The herbs? Yes, yes. I’ll take care of that right away.”
As Katja hurried off, the two women at the head table seemed to recover from their spells. A few moments later, a little boy playing on the grass suddenly began rolling on the ground as if he couldn’t catch his breath. His mother flew to his aid, but doubled over clutching her throat and stomach before she could help him.
“What the ….” Mathias got to his feet as loud hacking erupted from more adults. “What in Tartarus is going on?!”
“Mathias!” Katja trotted from the inn. “This is so … strange! It appears we have a ….” She stared at the mother and child, at the others afflicted. “More? Oh, my!”
Now even Scabreus became concerned. “What’re you saying? This crap is spreading?”
Katja threw up her hands. “It’s a mystery! One minute everybody’s fine.”
“Not everybody,” Mathias muttered, cutting his eyes at Gabrielle.
“No!” Katja clutched her chest in consternation. “You mustn’t blame Rielle. It could be from anything. The weather. Animals. Flowers. We’ll have to – .”
“Whatever, we’re outta here.” Scabreus signaled for his men to mount up. He shook his finger at Mathias. “You and your ‘socializing.’ I want a report on this. Tomorrow. And bring the taxes due. No excuses!”
Katja had ushered the “sick” individuals into her quarters. They waited indulgently while the taller of the visitors attempted to recover from a surprising side effect of the coughing ploy.
“S-sorry.” Xena hiccupped and blotted her eyes. “I held it long as I could.”
“Mm. Lucky for us – your knack for … improvising. You and Rielle both.” Katja rubbed her thumb against her fingertips. “She certainly looked convincing.”
“Indeed,” Xena agreed, hazarding a glance at her partner. “Whatever she put on her face could fool anybody.” She swallowed back the laughter threatening to grip her again. “Unless they touched it.”
“Lucky for us, you reacted well,” Gabrielle said to Katja. She cut her eyes at Xena. “Which is more than I can say about the only person who noticed.”
“Ladies?” Lucas cleared his throat. “We’ve been under a lot of stress. Nothing wrong with lightening the tension. Now we’ve finished stage one, care to lighten the tension about stage two?”
Xena pulled herself together. “Katja, don’t you have a date with Mathias? Maybe it’ll determine if we need to … improvise … on our strategy?”
Katja’s lip curled. “If he hasn’t succumbed to apoplexy. Sit tight until I come back. I doubt you’ll be disturbed.” She snickered. “I suggested you be ‘quarantined’ until further notice.” She left and headed for the mayor’s chambers. She opened the door to find Mathias muttering and pacing.
“About time you showed up.”
“Sorry. We have a bit of a situation on our hands.”
“Situation?! Situation?” Mathias pounded his desk. “It’s a fiasco!”
Katja casually seated herself at Mathias’ desk. “How so?”
Mathis’ jaw dropped. “How so? Have you gone deaf and blind?”
“There’s a strange illness going about. We need to figure the cause.” Katja shrugged. “Troublesome, yes, but nothing to get all – .”
“I’m not talking about the illness, woman! I’m talking about Scabreus!”
“So it wasn’t the friendly get together you had in mind. A few coughs spooked him. Now he wants his blood from a turnip sooner rather than later.” Katja shrugged. “You’ll have to smooth talk him sooner rather than later.”
Mathias narrowed his eyes at the woman across from him. If he didn’t know better, he could take her innocent expression as sincere. Her words as a vote of confidence in him. Her calmness as an indication maybe he could finesse his way out as usual. Problem was, she’d nailed his predicament just as surely as if it were his coffin. A coffin he’d inadvertently constructed with the same indispensability he’d crafted to make himself respected. And rich.
He leaned back, hands steepled under his chin. “As usual you’ve reminded me of my duty. Now is not the time for modesty about my talents. I will go straight away to Scabreus. I suggest you organize the taxes just in case. Even I may not talk him out of that. Perhaps I can persuade him not to demand more tomorrow.” He threw in a shudder for effect. “Or resort to violence if disappointed.”
Katja nodded. “Yes, perhaps that’s best. I will do as you say. Just in case.”
“Good.” Mathias stood. “As you say, the sickness is troubling, but a lesser priority at the moment. If anyone can convince people of what must be done, it’s you.”
“I’ll certainly try.” The corner of Katja’s mouth twitched. “It’s what I do.”
Mathias and Scabreus waited with six bodyguards for the taxes to arrive. Both honed in with great anticipation on the wagon approaching.
“What the …. What’re they doing here?”
“I … uh….” Mathias focused on the driver, who wore a scarf over her nose and mouth.
“Gentlemen.” Katja reined in the horses a short distance from the waiting party. “Don’t come any closer. It’ll take awhile, but I’ll bring everything to you.” She turned to her companions. “Rielle, let’s start with the box of coins. Pass them to Xena. She’ll pass it to me. I’ll take it to Scabreus.”
The “gentlemen” watched the women in stunned silence. “Hold up!” Scabreus eventually commanded as Katja stepped down. “What’s with the mask? And gloves?”
“For my protection. And yours.”
“Protection? From what?”
“Mathias? You told him, right?”
“Told me what?”
“About my friends? You needn’t worry,” Katja assured, as the other men also inched back. “They’ll stay in the wagon. I felt responsible, so ….” She let her chin drop. “I couldn’t risk anyone else being exposed. Besides, I haven’t had any symptoms. Just being cautious.” She started forward.
“Stop!” Scabreus waved a fist in Mathias’ face. “You said they were quarantined. If you get me infected, I’ll – .”
Mathias gingerly pried himself from Scabreus’ grasp. “We’re in fresh air. With Katja as go between – .”
“Fool! There’s more to it than they let on!” Scabreus whirled toward Katja. “Did those two pack that stuff?”
“Well, yes. We figured it the best way to ….”
“Um, prevent more … contamination.”
Mathias stared at Katja, perplexed. “What difference does it make who did it? If you’d kept these two confined like we said, that would’ve been enough.”
Scabreus let out a growl. “Not if they aren’t the only carriers. Others got sick too.” He looked with disgust at the box of coins in Katja’s hands. “Their stuff could be in that wagon.”
“Lord Scabreus, we’re not talking food here. It’s things made of metals, wood, precious stones. What harm could come from – .”
“You, take off your glove. Run your hand through those coins.”
“I ….” Katja glanced back at the wagon.
“It’s okay, Katja. They were bound to find out.” Gabrielle perched on a crate in the wagon bed. “She didn’t know the extent of my … condition. Not at first. We thought a change in environment would be enough. But something seemed to aggravate it as before.”
“Whaddya mean – ‘as before?’”
“Warriors. Like you.” Xena stood next to her partner. “Ones who go from place to place. Maybe it’s your exposure to so many people. Different afflictions.” She shrugged. “Could be something in your blood, sweat, that you carry on your skin.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I’m around them awhile, next thing you know, it hits me. The coughing. Flashes of heat. Mood swings. Soon it spreads to others. Only with more symptoms.” She bowed her head. “Less severe than a plague, but a curse on those who must live with it.”
“See, whatever the cause, we can’t stop it. Can’t entirely cure it. It lies dormant in her or others sensitive to it. Then a Scabreus shows up and – wham! Up it pops.”
“Th-that’s preposterous!” Mathias wasn’t sure where this was going, but sensed it could be a dead end for his plans. “It’s part of a ruse to scare us … I mean, Lord Scabreus … out of his taxes.”
Katja swept her hand toward the bounty in the wagon. “We’ve done what he asked. Rielle and Xena will move on after this. Those of us not showing signs can continue making these trips. We’re cooperating best we can.”
The warlord ground his teeth. What the woman said made sense. And yet …. “I told you to touch those coins. With bare hands.”
“I …. I don’t know if – .”
“It’s possible objects could transit the disease,” Xena conceded. “It doesn’t always hit right away. Katja may not be immune.”
“Neither are some of my men.”
“Even so, they’re probably more resistant. A few precautions and – .”
“Gloves?! Holding our noses? Afraid to use what we … earn?” Scabreus spit on the ground. “We might as well take up needlepoint!”
“No!” Mathias fumed at his predicament. How could he protect his golden goose without showing himself a traitor? He glared at Katja. “You’ve always opposed Lord Scabreus. Never made allowances for the service he provides. The security and stability. His interest in building a relationship. Plenty of warlords’re roaming about who’d prey on us. Less reasonable. Bent on ‘hit and run.’ I say we’re better off with him. You expect me to let you jeopardize that?” He sneered. “`Infected’ gold? Pfft. That’s a lot of hot air, even for you.”
“Prove it.” Katja held out the box of coins.
Mathias blinked. “What?”
“You touch it.”
“Th-that’s ridiculous. I don’t have to prove anything. You’re who brought that here. Intent on treachery.”
“Sneaking that blasted affliction into Scabreus’ camp.”
Katja jingled the box. “You said it’s safe. How is that treachery?”
“Don’t be coy. I meant, making him think it wasn’t safe.”
“Woman’s got a point.” Scabreus rubbed his beard. “You’re the … liaison. Familiar with her character. You say she’s pulling a fast one. Call her bluff.”
Mathias noted the steady gaze of the three women. He’d never known Katja to be anything but painfully honest. Too plodding to scheme, let alone carry out a con like this. But those other two …. They’d kept the secret of Rielle’s condition well enough. Who knew what else they were capable of? Helping Katja get rid of Scabreus? If objects truly could carry the disease, the women had come perilously close to succeeding.
“Perhaps we can help?” Xena reached into a bag and pulled out a sword with an elaborate, jeweled hilt. She handed Gabrielle a handsomely carved, gold-knobbed ebony cane. “If Mathias is to test his theory, he might as well be thorough.” The two stepped down from the wagon and joined Katja.
“Get back!” Mathias brought his arm across his face so his tunic sleeve covered his nose. “What you hold may be safe, but you’re not.”
“You have no idea,” Xena agreed, caressing the sword hilt.
”Shut up! All of you!” Scabreus began pacing, making sure to stay away from the women. He was losing what little confidence he had in Mathias – even if the mayor ran his tongue over everything in the wagon. As for those women, he didn’t know what to believe – except he had a mess on his hands. And for once holding booty wouldn’t make him feel better.
“I’ll do it!”
Mathias strode to Katja and plunged his hand into the coins. “See?” he said, letting them run through his fingers. He got in Gabrielle’s face, closed his eyes and inhaled. “If I catch what she’s got, so be it.” He turned to Scabreus. “Until then, I’ll risk what I have to, for the sake of Grecia.”
“Yeah, and how does that help me?”
“I’ll collect the taxes. Put everything in bags for you. You can exchange or sell the stuff. Use it to buy supplies. If it’s contaminated, nobody’ll be the wiser.” Mathias puffed up triumphantly. “You’ll never have to touch what’s inside.”
Scabreus rubbed his hands together. “I gotta say, I had my doubts about your value, Mathias. Your proposal just might work.”
“Yeah, what a guy.” Katja gritted her teeth. “Grecia’s … savior … once again.”
“Not necessarily.” Xena tapped Mathias on the shoulder. When he turned, she punched him out.
“Hey!” Scabreus gaped at the tall woman, completely befuddled by what she’d done. “Are you nuts!”
“It’s been suggested.” Xena waved Katja off to the side and moved toward Scabreus, indicating Gabrielle should do the same.
“Stop!” Scabreus and his men stepped back. They drew their swords. “I don’t care if a fever’s muddled your brains. Come closer, we’ll run you through like any old bag of bones.”
“`Old bag?’ Oooo, ouch. That wasn’t nice.”
Xena nodded. “Especially ‘any old.’”
“I mean it,” Scabreus warned, as the women took a couple of steps forward anyway – one twirling a sword, the other a cane.
“And get infected blood on your blades? Mathias gonna wipe that away too?” Xena stuck the sword in the ground and rested her hands on its pommel. “Tell you what. Why not let us settle this with your bodyguards. Surely they can disarm us without much fuss. If so, problem solved. If not ….” She shrugged. “Guess we’ll see.”
The women’s confidence bewildered Scabreus. But not enough to lose his wits. Crazy or not, their offer was worth a shot. “Get `em,” he ordered his men. “Do it clean if you can. Don’t worry about it if you can’t.”
The men exchanged glances. Taking candy from babies didn’t exactly befit even the least ethical of warriors. Still, they advanced on the women. “Come on, ladies,” one said, slowing reaching for Xena’s sword. “Do yourselves and your kids a favor. Give it up.”
“Sorry,” Gabrielle responded, caning the man’s hand. “They’ve gotten used to us as we are.”
A few flurries later, the bodyguards lay scattered on the ground. Scabreus stood frozen as the she-demons approached with Katja.
“Seems we did you the favor. Your guys are mussed but alive. No blood on their weapons.” Xena smirked. “Or ours.”
“W-who are you? I’ve never seen ….”
“Exactly. This didn’t happen. Unless you’re okay with word getting out? That you got whomped by a couple ‘old bags?’”
“What do you want from me?”
Xena planted herself close enough to Scabreus that he could feel the heat from her body. “A … carrier. Spread the news about Grecia’s condition. How it flares up and attacks warlord types when they come a callin’.”
Scabreus studied the women a moment. “Is it true? This … plague?”
“Are you dying to know?” Katja removed her gloves and held a hand inches from his face. “Come near us again, maybe you will.”
“Mmm. Ungh.” Mathias stretched the stiffness from his limbs. “Ehhh.” Time for a new bed, judging from his current discomfort. Not to mention that disturbing nightmare of …. It hit him he was moving. Sensed the sounds and smells of … a road? He raised his hand to brush his jaw. A tender spot made his eyes shoot open. “Noooo!”
“Well, look who’s awake.”
“And none to happy to see us.”
Xena glanced over her shoulder. “Better fill him in. We’re almost there.”
“You!” Mathias reared up. He glared at the women in the wagon bed, before scowling at the driver. “Y-you hit me!”
“You’re a quick one, all right. Notice anything else?”
Mathias realized he was surrounded by the “tax” gathered for Scabreus. He found himself torn between wanting to caress it and scooting away. “What have you done?! Scabreus’ll kill us if he ….” He looked wildly around, but saw no sign of the warlord.
“He packed up. Decided Grecia wasn’t good for his health after all.” Katja leaned toward Mathias. “Question is, will it be good for yours?”
People rushed to greet the wagon. The majority appeared confused, if happy the four emissaries had returned unscathed. Did Scabreus reject what they’d sent? Would he follow later to force more?
“Everyone, please, settle down.” Katja addressed the crowd. “You needn’t be afraid. We convinced Scabreus to move on. Let’s assemble after supper. We’ll explain then.”
A few hours later, the packed council hall hummed with questions and conjecture. Mathias called for order.
“This is a proud day for Grecia. I am honored to have participated in our freedom from Scabreus. But the true hero is the person who assumed the mantle of leadership. I believe it only fitting she tell you how it was done.”
Katja acknowledged the mayor’s slight bow. “Before I begin, I would like to invite a few others to the platform.” She signaled for Xena, Gabrielle and the other rebels to join her. “Thanks to the courage and ingenuity of these individuals, we may not have to worry about taxes for a long time.” She snorted. “Our reputation is another matter.”
She described that those who wanted to resist Scabreus had stumbled on to the idea of a fake sickness, thanks to Rielle’s first coughing fit. How they’d added herbs to food served his men during the festival and pretended to be ill themselves. Ultimately convincing Scabreus the “condition” could flare up around well-traveled warlords and contaminate their loot.
“Rielle and Xena were very persuasive when we met with Scabreus.” Katja rolled her tongue in her cheek. “Let’s just say, he ran screaming from the threat of their … touch. With any luck, others of his ilk will hear about our unique affliction. All we have to do is keep the myth alive.”
Mathias maintained an approvingly attentive expression during Katja’s presentation. He was used to facades. To secrets. Once she’d discovered his, she could’ve left him behind with Scabreus. Ruined him forever in town. Instead, she’d said something cryptic about not casting stones. That she preferred giving him another chance. A choice he wouldn’t have made willingly, but preferred to dusty jails or roads.
“You probably have other questions. We’ll be happy to answer them later. For now, I’ll turn the meeting over to the mayor.”
Mathias took a moment to gather himself. To digest the lines he was to speak, so they’d come out sounding as if he’d thought of them on his own. “Thank you, Katja.” He drew himself up and surveyed the room with the benevolence of a parent about to reward good behavior.
“Most of you know the depth of my roots in Grecia. My efforts to help it prosper. You have rewarded me with its leadership for many years. This … resolution … of the Scabreus matter has given me a new perspective. Shown me other ways to serve.” He assumed a posture of humility.
“I am at an age where I realize I have no need for much I have been fortunate to acquire. No heirs to leave it to. I have come to see uses that could benefit individuals and the town as a whole. I plan to devote the rest of my days to such charitable projects.” He basked a moment in the gasps and smattering of applause.
“I have confidence someone else can fill my role as your mayor for the remainder of my term. She has my endorsement, should she choose to run in the next election. And that person is ….” Mathias paused, wishing to prolong his last official act. But before he could pronounce the successor he never thought he’d name, a chant rang out.
“Katja! Katja! Katja!”
Soon the room was on its feet. The proposed interim mayor appeared more surprised by this response than by Mathias’ announced retirement. She stood next to him. The room quieted.
“I … I thank you all for your support.” Katja swallowed. “I accept this honor. For now. As for the future … um …..” She ducked her head. “We’ll see if I’m still as popular then.”
“See, that wasn’t so bad.” Gabrielle threw one last wave to the Grecians before riding off.
Xena gave Katja the thumbs up sign. “Compared to what?” She kneed her horse into a trot. “Men fainting? Kids kicking me in the shin?”
“Excuse me? Doing good. Avoiding bloodshed. What’s different about that?”
“Hmm. Got some good licks in on Scabreus’ guys. I liked that part okay.”
“Yeah, yeah. Glad we could help out. Leave Katja better off than before.”
“And Mathias? Think he’ll be any more trouble?”
“Without the status or money? Nah. Besides, Katja’s inner circle’ll keep an eye on him.”
The two dismounted and walked along in companionable silence.
“Katja said this was the first time she felt like her own woman. You know – not a shadow of her brother or you?”
“Mm. Amazing how long she held on to that.”
“Humph. Look who’s talking.”
Xena muttered to herself.
“Sorry? Didn’t quite catch that.”
“I feel a moral coming on. You just can’t leave good enough alone.”
“Xena, what are you talking about?” Gabrielle pulled a small bundle from her saddlebag. She opened it to reveal a couple sweet rolls. “Want one?”
Xena cut her eyes. “You’ll have to do better than that. Go on. Get it over with.”
“Thanks, but I’ll save one for you just in case.” Gabrielle smiled, all innocence. She ate a bite of the roll. “I was merely going to say she wasn’t so hard on herself anymore. We joked about how she helped bring you and me together. Got us rolling, so to speak, with that first stone.” She reached across to thump Xena’s shoulder. “Otherwise I might not’ve had such a good excuse to save you. Or beg you not to dump me by the road.”
“Huh.” Xena contemplated the sky. “All this time I’ve blamed myself. Or you. But it was her fault?” She thumped Gabrielle’s shoulder. “Now that’s worth her feeling guilty about.”
Gabrielle growled under her breath. “My point is, she forgave herself. It helped her generosity of spirit toward others. Theirs toward her.”
“Fine. Let that be the moral of her story. When’ll you get it through that stubborn skull it’s not the moral of mine?”
“I didn’t say that,” Gabrielle huffed. “It’s just ….” She shook her head. “All these people we help. Giving them the chance to make up for something they wished they’d done before. They’re so relieved. Feel so much better about themselves.”
“Gabrielle, I keep telling you – .”
“I know.” Gabrielle sighed. “You haven’t needed self-forgiveness to be the wonderful person you are. It’s more … me. Because I love you so much. I can’t help wanting you to see yourself the way I do.”
“Listen. Remember when Katja said you were like the first stone? Towards my folks believing in me?”
Gabrielle chuckled. “That was nice. Exaggerated, but nice.”
“You’ve been helping build a new me ever since. Sensitivity. Tolerance. Appreciation for the little things.” Xena smirked. “If I’m an ‘old bag’ of anything, it’s those countless stones of yours. In fact,” she said, pointing to her butt, crinkles around her eyes, a gray hair, “they’re poking out all over me.”
Gabrielle stared at her insufferable soulmate, then at the half-eaten sweet roll in her hand. “On second thought, I believe I’ll save this.”
“Awww.” Xena grinned. “Until I have mine?”
“Mm, probably much later.”
“It’ll get stale.”
“Uh huh. Hard as a rock.”
Xena cringed. “Um, something tells me you won’t be eating it,” she said, sidling away from Gabrielle.
“Don’t worry. It won’t hurt. I’ll aim for your head.”