After almost winning her back near the end of Season One in TIES THAT BIND, Ares ponders why Xena continues to resist him, confident she’ll eventually accept the ridiculousness of her budding partnership with Gabrielle.
What She Sees
Ares lounged atop the highest peak, invisible to the mortals below. His vantage point took in folk within the mountain walls that nearly surrounded their village, as well as the small army camped some distance away. But he was oblivious to all of them. His eyes fastened instead on two figures scaling the rocky slope across from him, a range of emotions alternately lightening and darkening his ruggedly handsome visage.
The War God’s chest inflated with admiration for the taller woman’s long, strong limbs. The way she tackled the juts and crevices with the same determined defiance she’d used to handle him. He loved simply gazing at the dark beauty, fantasizing about what he could do with her when he had her in his grasp again. She was so …. "Arghh!" He clenched his eyes, unable to ignore the redheaded obstruction to his view, tethered to the sole object of his dreams like dead weight.
He anxiously leaned forward as the redhead slipped. Part of him gleefully anticipated her plummet to the nothingness where she belonged. The other part feared she’d drag his cherished warrior with her – certainly not the ignominious end he’d envisioned for one of the most magnificent creatures he’d ever known.
"Hold on! I gotcha."
But no, the warrior would have none of that. She reached back for the redhead, pulled both of them safely to a ridge near the crest.
"Xena, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize – ."
"Shhh. It’s okay. You did good for your first time. Catch your breath. You’ll be fine."
Ares gritted his teeth. It wasn’t supposed to be like this! All of Mt. Olympus knew she’d been his to lose. His siblings snickered at his futile attempts to keep her, mockingly accused him of worshipping her! He didn’t care about them. He wouldn’t have given a second thought to the redhead either, were it not for the warrior. "Xeeena." The possessively snarled name caressed his lips, left a bitterly sweet taste on his tongue. He let the wind carry his presence to her.
"Xena? Something wrong?"
"Nothing important. Ready?"
Ares scowled. He knew she’d heard him, the way her head cocked and shoulders tensed. Why had she begun ignoring him like this? Why couldn’t he get to her, like he had so often in the past?
Only a few weeks ago, he’d had her right where he wanted – full of rage, leading an army, moments away from wreaking vengeance on townsfolk she thought killed her long lost "father." Oh, he’d played the role brilliantly, first drawing on that honorable side of her that made her so appealing, then igniting the bloodlust that proved she was his daughter more than any pitiful mortal’s. One whack of a pitchfork from the redhead, and suddenly Xena’s conscience had taken over again, pitting her against him once more when he’d abandoned his disguise. If the Warrior Princess had been anyone else, he’d have killed her where she stood.
"You’re not seriously considering …. Xena, you know I’m not good with heights."
"It’ll be easier to start our descent from over there. No, leave the rope on. Stay close and don’t look down."
He watched her move semi-crouched along the ridge, confidently encouraging the redhead still tied to her waist. Reluctantly he studied the little tagalong who’d somehow wormed her way into Xena’s focus as well. It didn’t make any sense. Xena was too smart to lug around excess baggage. "What could she possibly see in her?" he plaintively asked the air, unable to fathom – even contemplate – what a bumbling peasant might have to compete with him.
"Gabrielle? You okay?"
"You mean, other than a skinned knee, pounding heart and big doubts about what I’m doing here?"
Nah. The girl was simply a nuisance, like Hercules. Another challenge to overcome in acquiring what was destined to be his. He had his pride and wasn’t about to accept something much worse than ridicule: defeat. Surely he could help Xena see the error of her new ways. The War God grinned evilly as the redhead stumbled again. Maybe the answer was right in front of him. Maybe all he had to do was wait.
"Xena, you sure we’ve got the right place?" Gabrielle peered down in awe from their perch near the base of the mountain. "It’s almost better than I’d imagined the Elysium Fields."
"Why? What do you see?"
Gabrielle looked at Xena as though the warrior’s exceptionally keen eyesight must be failing. "Lovely homes and … and totems decorated with beautiful carvings. Neat fields and landscaping around a shimmering lake. People quietly talking, enjoying the day. It’s as if … as if artisans created Blyssia."
"They did. Thaddeus said it’s a commune of sorts -- weavers, musicians, sculptors and the like."
"I don’t understand." Gabrielle frowned at the seemingly tranquil village "Why do they need help? Where are the bad guys?"
Xena pointed to the fields. "See those bushel baskets? They’re full, but somebody just left them sitting there. The men are all older. The ones over by the lake? They’re working with materials you’d use for battle gear, not fancy garments. It’s nearly suppertime. Smell any food cooking? Normally most of those women would be inside. Why are they standing around in hushed clumps, like they’re waiting for something?"
"Xena, people do get behind on their chores sometimes. Women do gossip sometimes. Maybe they’re making extra dinars by supplying uniforms for –."
Xena let out a low growl.
"I am listening! I don’t hear anything –."
"No laughter, no scolding. Where are the children?"
Gabrielle leaned forward, squinting. "Oh, my, you’re right! Xena, what does this mean? Are we too late?"
"I don’t know, but I don’t like it." Xena untied the rope around her waist and scooted back until she was under the large outcropping above her. She began unpacking some of the items from her carry bag.
"We’re not going down there now, to find out what’s going on?" Gabrielle glanced back with concern at the village. "What about the children?"
"We’ll stay here until it’s dark," Xena said, taking out some travel rations. "We’ll eat, get in a few winks, go down when we’re less likely to be observed."
Gabrielle scooted back beside the warrior. "Xena, I barely made it in the daylight. Besides, don’t we want them to know help is on the way?"
Xena pointed her chin to the sky. "Full moon tonight. I can do pretty well by feel anyway." The warrior began laying out her weapons. "We don’t know who’s in those houses. Could be spies. I’d rather see them, before they see us."
"What exactly did Thaddeus say?"
"He has folks here. They didn’t show up for a visit as planned. I thought we’d find out something on the road here. When we didn’t, I figured we’d better check out Blyssia itself."
Shaking her head, Gabrielle toyed with a piece of jerky. "I shoulda known somebody wouldn’t go to the trouble of contacting you, just to carry a message to their relatives." She raised her hand as Xena started to say something. "I know, I know. You told me it might be better if I waited for you back in Panthos."
"Gabrielle, we have decent shelter here. You’re right about it being dangerous climbing in the dark. I should go ahead, scout things out on my own, then –."
"Oh, no. I got this far. You’re not leaving me here." Gabrielle grinned. "Worst that could happen is I lose my footing and arrive there before you."
Xena rolled her eyes. "Fine." She held up the tether rope. "But if there’s any falling, it’ll be together."
Gabrielle playfully tugged on the rope. "A little crude, but I think you’re getting the hang of this friendship thing."
"Climbing mountains with somebody glued to your back, then tumbling down because she’s too stubborn to listen to reason?" Xena smiled wryly. "Oh goody." She frowned and cupped her ear.
"Thought I heard something."
Gabrielle peered anxiously around. "Like?"
Xena relaxed, apparently satisfied they needn’t worry. She shrugged. "Laughter."
The two figures stealthily approached one of the few homes where light still flickered in the window. They crouched outside.
"How do we know this one’s safe?" Gabrielle whispered.
"We don’t," Xena whispered back. "Gotta start somewhere." She gestured for Gabrielle to lay low, while she stretched up to peek through the window. A few seconds later, she stooped down again. "One of the old guys. Well, here goes."
Gabrielle followed Xena’s lead, as the warrior straightened on her knees to look in again. A gray-haired man sat at his table, head in hand. Xena tapped on the shutter. The man didn’t move. She knocked harder, but still got no response.
"Pssst! You there! Come to the window!"
The man raised his head, his eyes widening at the two faces peering in.
"Come here," Xena commanded quietly. "We need to talk to you."
The man’s mouth moved, but nothing came out. His expression veered between confusion and fear.
Fairly confident now he posed no threat, Xena placed her hands on the sill and leaned in. "Shhh. I’m Xena. Thaddeus sent me. I know you’ve got trouble. We’re here to help."
The man stared at the women. Something about the second one’s innocent young face made him feel more at ease. He glanced around, as though danger might somehow ooze from his walls. He got up and took a few steps toward the intruders.
"Thaddeus, you say?" His eyes narrowed a little. "You mean Helene’s husband?"
Xena smiled approvingly. "I mean Helene’s nephew. He was worried when his folks didn’t show for Jasmine’s wedding."
The man exhaled in relief and approached the window. "Are the others near? They’ll need to be careful. Garelus left some of his goons here." He sighed. "As if he needed that to keep us in line."
"Can we come in?" Xena smiled wryly. "We could talk better that way."
"Oh, yes, of course," the man answered, backing up to let the women climb in. He shuttered the window behind them and led the way to his table. "Please, sit." He glanced forlornly at his cupboard. "I’m afraid I have little to offer you. Garelus takes most of what we have. We’ve been too upset to use what’s left for ourselves. By the way," he added, extending his hand in turn to his seated guests, "I’m Tyber." He crooked his head. "You say you’re Xena? The Warrior Princess?"
"And I’m Gabrielle, her trusty associate. I don’t do much of the fighting yet. I’m more like a –."
"We’d heard you helped people now," Tyber interrupted, addressing Xena. "We’re fortunate Thaddeus is acquainted with someone so formidable. We’re not warriors. We’ll need an army if we’re going to defeat Garelus."
Xena relaxed back in her chair. "First, I don’t do armies anymore. I work alone." She cut her eyes at Gabrielle. "With an exception here and there."
Tyber’s mouth dropped. "There’s no one else? Just you? And … her?"
Gabrielle leaned forward and patted his arm. "Don’t worry. Xena’s an army of one. Whatever the problem, she can fix it."
The "army of one" let out a long-suffering sigh. "Which brings me to my second point. We don’t really know what’s going on yet, other than that it involves Blyssia’s children."
Tyber’s shoulders slumped. "We make nice things here, mostly for ourselves. We founded Blyssia so we could be with others who appreciate imagination, beauty, living peaceful and simple lives, free of greed or envy." He glanced down. "Away from kinsfolk who think we should do something more ‘useful’ with ourselves."
"It’s wonderful," Gabrielle enthused with dreamy eyes. "I can’t believe a place like this exists. I used to wonder sometimes if I could ever …." She let her voice trail off, remembering why they were there. And who sat next to her in stoic silence.
"Yes, we’ve been quite pleased with what we’ve done here," Tyber agreed solemnly. "We gladly share our talents with others. We barter for what we need. We pool our resources for equipment or supplies to further someone’s craft. We never thought we might have anything a warlord like Garelus would want. I just don’t understand what …." Tyber sighed, studying the hands his father had said were worthless.
Xena cleared her throat. "Tyber? What does Garelus want?"
He looked up with creased brow. "Fancy gear," he said as though not believing his own words. "He wants his men to look better than his rivals. As if it matters, with all the gore that’ll cover them."
"He took the children as hostages."
Tyber nodded. "We refused to do it at first. We didn’t build all this to have it tainted with that kind of work. He took our young men too, for servants. Now some of them want to join Garelus, to leave Blyssia and go on big adventures."
"Mm." Xena chewed the inside of her cheek. "It’s hard talking sense into `em when they get ideas like that in their heads."
Gabrielle cut her eyes at the warrior. She cleared her throat. "Tyber, are the children okay?"
"It seems so, for now. The soldiers bring a different one with them for us to see each day. The children look scared, but otherwise all right."
"What exactly are his terms?"
After a deep sigh, Tyber straightened and addressed the warrior. "He came about a moon ago. Said they’d leave us in peace once we fashioned decorative tunics and sheathes. We’re nearly finished. But we don’t trust Garelus to keep his word." Tyber searched his rescuer’s face for reassurance. "What’s to stop him from threatening us again? Or keeping some of the children?"
Xena stared grimly at the table before answering quietly, "Probably nothing that’ll prevent his fancy gear from getting dirty."
The three set in silence. Finally Gabrielle touched Xena’s arm. "Do you have a plan yet?"
"I need to see his camp first. Tyber, can you direct me to it?"
"All we know is that it’s somewhere to the south. Close enough that they can leave and return within a candlemark."
"Any soldiers here now?"
Tyber scooted closer to the warrior. "Four. They sleep in the meeting hall. They take turns patrolling. In the morning, two will carry what we’ve made back to their camp. Three will come, two to replace the guards and one who brings the child for our inspection."
"All right then." Xena nodded decisively. "I’ll follow them in the morning."
Gabrielle scowled in Xena’s direction. "Um, Tyber? Could you give us a moment? Xena and I need to discuss something."
Halfway out of his chair, Tyber hesitated at the warning tone in the warrior’s voice. He glanced uncertainly from one woman to the other.
"It’s okay," Gabrielle assured him. "Like Xena said, she’s used to working alone." She gave the warrior’s arm an indulgent pat. "She’s to be excused, if she sometimes forgets to consult me."
Tyber finished standing, but otherwise remained motionless. "Perhaps I could get some water for you?" he asked Xena. "Prepare a space for you to sleep?"
Xena glowered at her companion before answering Tyber with a tightly polite smile. "Sure. Thanks."
Tyber let out a relieved breath. "I’ll be … over there," he said, gesturing vaguely toward the area where a doorway opened to another room. He began walking away. "Don’t pay me any mind," he threw over his shoulder. "I don’t hear so good anyway."
His two guests watched him remove a pitcher from his cupboard, open the door and disappear outside.
"I want to go with you."
Xena crossed her arms in response.
"I don’t care if it’s too dangerous, if you can travel faster without me, if I can be a good little helper by staying here, counting how many times Garelus’ guards circle the village." Gabrielle smirked as Xena’s brows rose. "Yes, I already know all your arguments. I hear them often enough."
"How can I learn to be more useful, if you won’t let me see what we’re up against? If I always come in at the tail end of your plans? Besides, it’s when we’re separated that weird things happen." Gabrielle grinned. "What if I run into more Titans while you’re gone? Or eat some tainted nut bread?" Her eyes glazed at the boundless scenarios available to her. "Run into cute guys who turn out to be warlords, about to die, betrothed to me or to somebody else? Maybe get myself thrown in jail, crowned princess of another tribe, captured by –."
"All right, already!" Xena growled between clenched teeth, throwing up her hands. Her eyes had also begun glazing at the truth in Gabrielle’s words. "But you’d better do what I say like ‘a good little helper,’ or I might be tempted to beg Garelus to make our separation permanent."
"Now, see?" Gabrielle patted Xena’s arm again. "Was that so hard?" She noticed the warrior tense up a little. "Um, harder than I thought?"
"No …." Xena seemed to be listening for something. "I mean, yes, but that’s not …."
Gabrielle glanced around the room. "What?"
The warrior shook her head as though to clear it. "Maybe you really are driving me nuts."
"Xeenaaa! What on earth is – ."
"It’s that damned laughing. Could’ve sworn I heard it again."
Ares shifted his eyes from the two mortals long enough to examine the fingernails he’d been buffing against his chest. "Humph! And my family says I have no patience." Well, he admitted, usually he didn’t. But Xena wasn’t the usual quarry either. Threats, bribes, promises of glory didn’t work on her. He’d had to stretch himself, resort to more creative, subtler persuasion. He snorted. Even that didn’t work.
"Okay, we’ll have to crawl the rest of the way. Stay low and for gods’ sake keep quiet."
Ares watched the women drop to the ground and head into the tall brush bordering Garelus’ camp.
The War God snickered at the sight of his fierce warrior scrambling to muffle the sneeze that threatened to explode from her companion.
"Sorry," the redhead whispered, sniffing, pinching her nostrils together. "Don’t know if it was a bug, pollen, dust –."
"What difference does it make!" the warrior hissed. Suddenly she ripped off the decorative strip from the hem of the redhead’s top. "Stop that!" she ordered, pushing away the girl’s swatting hands. "I’m not gonna tie you up, much as I’d like to." She secured the material around the girl’s nose and mouth. "Maybe this’ll keep you from snorting everything in sight."
Ares doubled over, tickled beyond his wildest imagination. Of all the ways he’d enjoyed the Warrior Princess, he’d never expected her to amuse him so. And to think he had that pesky redhead to thank. He’d certainly underestimated her ability to annoy. Here he’d been regarding her as an irritating glitch in his plans for Xena, when actually she’d become an unwitting accomplice.
He smirked at remembering that she fancied herself a bard. "Yeah, this is a great story, all right. And I’m lovin’ every minute." He reared back and let out a roar of appreciation that he knew would raise the fine hairs on the back of his warrior’s lovely neck.
The two spies parted the remaining vegetation in front of them and perused the bustling camp a few hundred yards away. Xena pointed to a large tent. "Garelus," she mouthed. Gabrielle nodded, then gasped, gesturing toward a tarp-covered pen filled with children. Some sat morosely on the ground, while others played with rocks or sticks. Xena surveyed the area a few more minutes before indicating they should crawl back the way they’d come.
"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle said, brushing herself off when they’d gotten far enough away to stand and talk, "that doesn’t look so good."
The warrior was already striding purposefully toward where she’d left Argo. She glanced back. "Why?" she asked, pausing to let Gabrielle catch up.
"There must be at least 100 men! They’re no slouches either. Did you see how good the ones were practicing archery and hand-to-hand combat? So much equipment! And the camp – it was so … neat." She grabbed the warrior’s arm. "Aren’t those the signs of a well run army? Of a smart commander?" she asked, concern for her friend evident in the green eyes.
"Yes," Xena responded, patting Gabrielle’s hand. "You’re getting pretty good at that." She gazed thoughtfully at the young woman a moment. "Come on," she directed, leading the way to a stand of trees. "We’ve got some time. Argo’s probably within whistling distance." She sat and waited for Gabrielle to plop down next to her.
"Seeing the enemy’s strength is important, but the weaknesses are even more important. That’s where you find opportunity."
Gabrielle frowned. "Weaknesses? You mean like the fact they have to go relieve themselves sometimes?" She snorted. "Some ‘weakness.’"
Xena chuckled. "Hey, you can’t afford to overlook anything. But that’s not what I meant." Xena picked up a twig and drew a rough diagram of Garelus’ camp in the dirt.
"The children were visible, loosely guarded, some distance from the command tent and main sleeping area. How many sentries did you see?"
Gabrielle thought back. "Um, it looked like everybody was practicing or sharpening weapons."
Xena shook her head. "No, one guy was by a tree not far from us. Another was partially obscured by the command tent." Xena smirked. "No doubt dreaming about his girlfriend. What does all that suggest?"
"Wellll…." Gabrielle’s face scrunched in contemplation. "They don’t seem particularly worried about an attack." Her expression brightened. "Or somebody sneaking in to free the children?"
Xena smiled. "Right. And you’re right about Garelus too. His men weren’t skulking around aimlessly. No whipping posts or other scare tactics to keep them in line. He could relax in his tent, apparently not feeling the need to come out and check up on things." The warrior paused to rub her chin. "Except for his vanity, he’s probably a pretty tough cookie." She got a feral look in her eyes.
"You have a plan now?" Gabrielle asked, knowing what that familiar expression usually meant.
"He likes order. That’s good."
"It is? We don’t want to create havoc, get his men to scatter to parts unknown?"
Xena shook her head. "Won’t happen. They’re too disciplined. Besides, we wouldn’t want them doing something reckless with the children or Blyssia. No," she concluded, gazing pointedly at Gabrielle, "they’ll do only what Garelus tells them to do."
Comprehension dawned on Gabrielle’s face. "So we don’t need to worry about 100 men."
Xena grinned. "Nope. Just one."
"But how …?"
"I’m workin’ on it. Something’ll come to me." She stood, reaching her hand down to assist Gabrielle. "Let’s find Argo before she starts thinking she’s on vacation."
Gabrielle pulled out the piece of cloth she had tucked in her skirt. She dangled it in Xena’s face. "And while you’re at it, maybe you could get her to sew this strip back on my shirt?"
For the next three days, Blyssia’s residents worked furiously on the uniforms for Garelus’ army. The morning of the fourth day, Tyber came out to greet the soldiers performing their daily routine of bringing a child and switching the guards in Blyssia. He asked the lead guard to please inform Garelus that Blyssia was ready to fit the soldiers with their new uniforms, but that the final adjustments should be made in person, either at the camp or village.
"We don’t need all that," the guard growled. "If they’re ready, load `em on a cart, and we’ll take `em back now."
Tyber stroked his beard. "Well … all right, but we know how particular your commander is. Tell him it’s not our fault if he’s displeased."
"What’s to be ‘displeased’ about?" The guard narrowed his eyes. "Unless you’re sayin’ they’re not what Garelus ordered."
"No, no. We followed his instructions to the letter. We even added some flair to them. Problem is, they’re all the standard size. Other armies might not care if their uniforms are a little too big or snug. We thought Garelus wanted yours tailor made." Tyber shrugged. "I suppose it won’t be too bad, if some of your tunics look like hand-me-downs. But what about Garelus?" Tyber visually measured the guard. "You seem about his size, maybe a little smaller, but he probably won’t mind if –."
"Enough! We’ll let Garelus decide." The guard waited impatiently as some parents came up to console the boy the soldiers had brought with them. He soon rode off with the guards who’d been replaced.
A tall woman disengaged herself from the onlookers. She loosened the scarf on her head and walked over to Tyber. "Hand-me-downs, eh? Nice touch."
Tyber grinned. He took her arm and the two strolled past one of the guards, heading to Tyber’s home. "The man had no fashion sense. I figured I’d better help him appeal to Garelus’ vanity."
"Let’s hope he takes the bait." Xena surreptitiously surveyed the townsfolk milling about. "Is everyone ready, in case he does?"
"Heh, we may not be fighters, but I think we’ll make up for it in creativity."
"Tyber?" Xena put her hand over his and gazed at him solemnly. "You realize you might have to be good at both, if we have to use Plan B."
The older man nodded. "It was foolish of us to think we could make something as good as Blyssia, and not have to defend it someday. That day has come. We owe it to ourselves to put our bodies on the line for our dreams."
The next day, Garelus sent word any uniform adjustments would be made at his camp, rather than at the village. Blyssians sighed in relief that they could stick with Plan A. Xena donned a dress and scarf again, as she would be among the group riding the wagons bearing the battle gear. Gabrielle would stay behind to help deal with the four guards who patrolled the village.
"Be careful," Gabrielle cautioned quietly as she stood beside Xena loading bundles of tunics and supplies onto a wagon.
"Always. You too. Wait until the sun is high before you make your move." Xena indicated the golden mare shifting restlessly beneath the harness of the last wagon. "I’ll send Argo back, if we run into something unexpected. Otherwise, stay put, okay?"
Gabrielle nodded. She moved aside for the soldier who came over to bark orders at those going to Garelus’ camp. Soon the wagons disappeared in clouds of dust. Sighing, she walked back to Tyber’s home, emerging a short while later with a laundry basket. She could feel several pairs of eyes on her while she pinned clothes to a line that had been strung up near the center of town, confirming Blyssia was prepared to move into action upon her signal.
Garelus emerged from his tent to meet the wagons. He ordered the Blyssians to stand aside while his men untied and poked around in each bundle. "You can never be too careful," he explained with a slight sneer. "Even with artsy fartsy types like you."
Satisfied the Blyssians posed no threat, Garelus indicated five stations around the camp where the adjustments would take place. Each had tables and benches out in the open. The villagers divided up and dutifully carried their supply bundles to one of the stations.
Garelus addressed a group of older boys and young men, some in makeshift uniforms. "Go help out at one of the stations." He leered as the villagers hugged the boys. "Who knows? Maybe your parents’ll get to suit you up too, eh?"
"Sir?" Tyber bowed to Garelus. "If I might make a suggestion?" At the warlord’s nod, Tyber continued, "We can work faster if we have as many of your men as possible put on a tunic. With three of us at a station, each group can handle about 10 soldiers. Some tunics will require less work than others. If there are soldiers ready to get in line, we won’t have to waste time looking for the next one."
Garelus twirled one end of his impressive mustache, thinking this over. "Very orderly. I like it."
"One more thing, sir? We would like to break at midday. To rest and eat? It’s hard to do good work when our hands are cramped."
"Fine," Garelus answered with a dismissive wave. He called his second-in-command over. "Gather all the men. When the tailors are ready, have each man put on a uniform. I want at least 10 men available at all times at each station."
Tyber bowed and walked away to confirm instructions with each group of fitters. Shortly thereafter, the bundles of tunics lay open on the tables. "We’re ready," he called to Garelus.
The soldiers began filing over to grab a tunic. The first ones to put them on went to stand in line. The next ones practiced swordplay or cleaned their weapons nearby. Many seemed pleased with the intricate patterns on the tunics. Others twisted from side to side or flapped their arms up and down, apparently satisfied with their ease of movement.
The Blyssians spent the morning measuring for fit and marking the outside of the tunics. They had set some quills and ink out so that the soldiers could write their names on the inside of their outfits. Tyber explained that this way the tailors could make the adjustments back in the village if necessary.
As the sun overhead brought beads of sweat out on the faces of both workers and soldiers, Tyber requested a break. Garelus gave the Blyssians permission to eat in the area where the children were confined. Just as everyone had settled on the grass and laid out their meal, some of the soldiers began muttering and pulling at their tunics. A few yanked their tunics off altogether, scratching at their upper bodies as though bugs crawled over their skin. Soon tunics littered the ground, as did most of the soldiers who rolled around trying to relieve some itch. Others rubbed their backs on trees, the edges of tables or their comrades.
"What’s going on out here?!" Garelus boomed, striding out of his tent to the sound of curses and moans. He was bare-chested, his as yet untried tunic hanging from his hand. His eyes widened at the sight of his men writhing as though mad. He whipped around to glare at the Blyssians. "What have you done?!"
Tyber stood up along with fellow villagers. "Seems your men reacted rather badly to one of our leather treatments," he explained dryly.
Garelus held up his own tunic before throwing it down in disgust. "You’d damn well better have the cure with you!"
"As it happens, we do."
Tyber beckoned a tall woman, who sauntered up beside him. Garelus watched with open mouth as she removed her scarf, then casually slipped out of her dress, revealing battle leathers underneath.
"Quite fast and effective, but deadly if not applied properly." Tyber smiled. "We call our cure … ‘Xena.’"
Gabrielle wiped the perspiration from her brow. She noted the sun’s position nearly overhead, deciding the wet garment in her hands would be the last she’d hang to dry. Her loudly voiced, "Whew! I need a break," signaled the moment the villagers would launch their part of the plan.
"I could use a break myself," agreed a man sewing by the lake. Soon others abandoned their various tasks and headed for the meeting hall, most plopping down in the shade outside.
One of the tailors, Lykus, approached the guard leaning against a post nearby. "Sir, we’re going to rest a little. We have some uniforms for the soldiers here. Now would be a good time for you to try them on. We can take the measurements and do the adjustments after we’ve eaten."
The guard glanced around. All the inhabitants were either within his view or that of the guards inside the hall. "Shouldn’t hurt," he concurred. He went to the hall door. "Hey, fellas!" he shouted. "They’re gonna fit us with our uniforms, make the adjustments after. Might as well eat now too."
A couple of villagers handed out tunics to each of the four guards. The guards stripped their upper wear off to bare skin and put on their new tops.
"Nice," one guard commented, admiring the detail.
"Yeah," another added, executing a few air punches. "Easy to move in."
"Hmmm." Frowning, Lykus surveyed the guards inside. "Maybe you should test them under battle conditions, outside? The weather sometimes affects how hot or heavy the leather feels."
The three guards looked at each and shrugged. They walked out to the sunny side of the hall’s exterior, where the fourth guard joined them in practicing some moves. "Seems fine to me," one decided. He wiped away some sweat. "No worse than our old ones." The others nodded.
"Excellent," Lykus said. "We’re having an extra special meal today. You’re welcome to join us," he added, pointing to the people distributing food and making themselves comfortable on the grass or benches.
Two of the guards prepared to accept the invitation. A third eyed the Blyssians suspiciously. "You’re in a mighty good mood today. Not planning any surprises, are ya?"
Lykus looked offended. "Us? A bunch of artists?" He glanced around at his neighbors, who smiled and shook their heads as though amused at the suggestion. "Today we put the finishing touches on our deal with your commander. We’re looking forward to getting our children back soon."
"Yeah, well you’d better hope things go well at the camp. If Garelus isn’t pleased, you could get your kids back all right – one little limb at a time." The guard smirked at the shudders his comment evoked. Satisfied he’d made his point, he positioned himself where he could keep a wary eye on everyone. His colleagues did the same.
Some women brought food to the guards, as usual sampling it first to prove it was safe. Everyone ate quietly awhile, before the guards began to fidget. Suddenly one jumped up.
"What the …. Feels like ants and bees on me!"
The other guards started scratching at their chests, trying to reach around to their backs. They tore off their tunics and began rolling around in the grass, hissing and cursing.
"Now!" Gabrielle commanded. She led the Blyssians in pouncing on the guards and taking their weapons. "Do you want relief?" she asked them as they lay surrounded and writhing.
"Then don’t resist when we tie you up. We’ll wash you with the antidote afterwards."
"We surrender! Do it now! I can’t take anymore!"
The villagers bound the guards. Gabrielle called for the buckets of water mixed with the herbs that would rid the men’s burning itch. The villagers scrubbed the men until the four lay exhausted and helplessly still.
"You’re … gonna pay … for this," one warned between labored breaths.
"If you ask me, Blyssia’s paid too much already." Gabrielle smiled grimly at the guards. "With any luck, your colleagues are giving some refunds, just like you."
Everyone looked up to see a man riding like Hades to the village gates. He reined his horse to a stop a few feet from Gabrielle and nearly fell to his knees upon dismounting.
"Janus?" one of the women said, coming up to him. "Husband, what’s wrong?"
"Xe-Xena," he panted. "She’s in trouble."
Gabrielle grabbed the man’s shoulders as he leaned down to catch his breath. "What are you saying?"
He put his hands on his knees and looked up. "They were out scouting. Some of Garelus’ men. They came back. Saw the others rolling on the ground. Grabbed the children."
"She had to give herself up to save the village."
"Did she send you?"
The man seemed perplexed. "What? Uh, not exactly. She saw me sneak off and didn’t stop me."
Gabrielle stood with puckered lips. "Had the wagon horses been unhitched?"
"Well … yes, but I don’t see why …." He threw up his hands impatiently. "Shouldn’t we do something? They may slaughter everyone, including the children!"
"She said she’d send Argo," Gabrielle murmured to herself, gazing up the road. "Maybe she couldn’t." She paced away from the group, deep in concentration. Finally she straightened and walked back.
"Janus, I’ll ride back with you. The rest of you stay here." She put her hand up at the protestations from the Blyssians. "I’m not sure what we’ll be facing. Garelus might hurt people if he sees reinforcements. Come on, Janus."
Janus quickly remounted, pulling Gabrielle up behind him.
"I’ll send Janus back with any news," Gabrielle said. "Let’s go."
With trepidation, the villagers watched the horse and its riders race down the road.
"That’s so strange," Janus’ wife said, a puzzled frown on her face.
"Why?" the woman next to her asked. "We knew something might go wrong."
"No, I mean Janus. He seemed so …. And when did he learn to ride like that? He’s always been afraid of horses."
"Xena?!" Garelus curiously regarded the imposing warrior. "Well, well, well." He stepped over some of his men to get closer to her, oblivious to everyone else. "I’d heard you took Kirilus’ army from him. Lucky for me, since I inherited a few of `em myself."
The corner of Xena’s mouth quirked. "One of the problems with knocking over ant hills. Little buggers end up in your pants anyway. "
"What I don’t understand is why you let them go. Or what you’re doing with these artsy fartsies. Unless the rumors are true, that you’ve lost your taste for plunder and pillage."
Xena inspected her fingernails. "I like to keep my options open." She looked up at Garelus with a cold smile. "Lately that’s been collecting armies." She shrugged. "Maybe just because I can."
"Really." Garelus poked his boot into one of the writhing soldiers. "I don’t see how this one’s much use to you now." He withdrew his sword and executed a few intricate patterns before casually sheathing it. "And I’m not Kirilus."
"Close enough." Xena unhooked her chakram, threw it against the side of a big woodpile, smirked when it buzzed Garelus’ ducking head, caught it, and casually hung it back at her side.
"First, I’ll convince you to give up your army." Xena smiled at Garelus’ snort. "Next, I’ll convince them there are much better leaders to follow than you." She smiled again at his growl. "Then I’ll rid them of that itch to bother defenseless villages. We’ll gather up the children and all leave happy as clams. Except maybe for you." She turned to the Blyssians. "Think you can teach him basket weaving?" They laughed appreciatively.
"Very funny. Didn’t realize you’d developed such a sense of humor." Garelus walked slowly to one of the few areas devoid of writhing men, keeping his eyes on Xena. "It wouldn’t be very sporting of you to behead me with that fancy weapon of yours. How about a fair fight with sword or hand-to-hand? Whoever wins gets to decide what happens to all this," he proposed, sweeping his arm to include both soldiers and Blyssians.
"Suit yourself, but I’ve already made up my mind." Xena addressed the villagers. "Let the children out. Get the herbs and stuff we’ll need to put these guys out of their misery." She unhooked her chakram and handed it to Tyber. "This shouldn’t take long. When he’s agreed to my terms, start treating the soldiers," she said, sauntering toward the big commander.
When they’d reached the outskirts of Garelus’ camp, Gabrielle told Janus she wanted to scope things out first. She dropped to the ground and began crawling, as she’d done a few days before with Xena. She glanced behind her to discover the man still standing, staring at the ground as if it were beneath him to muck about in the dirt. At Gabrielle’s scowl, he finally complied with a disgusted expression.
"I knew it!" Gabrielle chortled after they’d reached their destination and lay peering through the grass at the camp.
Xena stood on the far side, apparently fine, unconcernedly helping reload the wagons. The children ran free. Villagers helped soldiers wash themselves with the herbal remedy for their affliction. A large man sat sullenly alone at one of the tables nursing a bloody nose, an assortment of cuts and bruises visible beneath the too-small peasant vest he wore.
"Garelus?" Gabrielle asked Janus, pointing to the large man.
Gabrielle prepared to stand, surprised when she was suddenly lifted off her feet and dragged quickly over to Garelus.
"A present for you," Janus told the startled commander. "Xena’s little girlfriend. Use her wisely." He produced a sword and handed it to Garelus, before vanishing behind the command tent.
Xena had seen movement across the way, but calculated she couldn’t get there fast enough to prevent what she was pretty sure was about to happen. She folded her arms and relaxed against a wagon as she watched some man deliver Gabrielle into Garelus’ clutches.
A few gasps and murmurs later, the Blyssians froze at the sight of Garelus holding Gabrielle with a sword to her throat. Most of them looked to Xena, somewhat bolstered by her calm appraisal of the situation. Despite the anxiety in her eyes, Gabrielle also appeared fairly calm. She didn’t struggle, simply focused on Xena with an apologetic grin.
"So, Xena, what was that you said about already deciding where to go from here? I’m thinking you might want to reconsider your plans."
Xena continued lounging against the wagon. "Kids? You still want to go home?" They nodded and shouted yes. "The rest of you Blyssians want to be free of Garelus?" They nodded and shouted yes. "How about you, boys?" she inquired of the soldiers. "You ready to take orders from Garelus again?" She pushed off from the wagon and straightened, radiating certainty and menace. "Against me?" she added in a velvety low voice that sent shivers up everyone’s spines.
The soldiers stopped scratching themselves long enough to look at their beaten commander, reduced to using someone half his size as a shield. They shifted their gaze to the legendary Warrior Princess. None dared join Garelus against the woman who’d made him beg for mercy and had subdued legions with only her eyes.
"So, Garelus, what was that you were saying about reconsidering my plans?"
Garelus glared at his fallen troops and spat on the ground. "I don’t need cowards anyway. I’ll build another army and cut you all down like the disloyal dogs you are. You!" he bellowed to a soldier standing by the horses. "Bring me my mount."
The soldier glanced questioningly at Xena. She shook her head.
"I’ll cut her!" Garelus warned. He tightened his hold on Gabrielle.
"Garelus, right now she’s the only thing standing between you and my fist rammed down your throat. I might let you leave, but if you take her with you, I’ll find you. Count on it. I don’t think you want me to be the last thing you see."
Deciding she should weigh in on the discussion about her own neck, Gabrielle stared pointedly at Xena and began scratching her chest. Confident Xena’d gotten the hint, Gabrielle leaned her head back and peered up at her captor. "Garelus, Xena’s just being her protective self. Trust me, I can be more trouble than I’m worth."
"Speaking of which," Xena said, pointing her chin at Gabrielle’s scratching hand, "you didn’t crawl through those bushes again, did you?"
Gabrielle had begun squirming against Garelus, now scratching at her shoulders, belly and sides. She glanced down at herself, as though suddenly becoming aware of what she was doing. "Oh, no! I did! Is that why I suddenly feel like I’ve got critters crawling over me?"
Garelus frowned down at his captive. He allowed some space between them, partly so she could scratch her back, partly to inspect her better.
"Maybe." Xena smiled with hooded eyes. "I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about. Could be you’ve simply gotten allergic to folks holding blades to your throat."
"Yeah, has gotten rather old," Gabrielle agreed, contorting to scratch her back. "You’d think they’d learn it usually leads to more trouble. Hey," she said to Garelus, "I could use a little help here. There’s a spot I can’t reach driving me nuts. Forget about Xena. Scratch my back and I’ll gladly scratch yours. So to speak."
Like everyone else, Garelus looked between the two women as if they’d already lost their minds. His eyes narrowed suspiciously at Xena’s nonplussed reaction to her friend’s predicament. They opened wide in horror as he seemed to come to some realization.
"No!" he shouted, backing away from Gabrielle, rubbing his free hand against his thigh, then switching his sword so he could do the same with his other hand. "It’s a trick! You’ve got that poison on you!" He rubbed at the skin beneath his vest. "You’re trying to get it on me!"
Xena snorted. "It’s not contagious," she assured him, not very convincingly.
Garelus put the point of his sword to his twisting victim’s back. "Get me that antidote!"
Gabrielle suddenly slithered to the ground, apparently more interested in rolling around on it, than concerned about Garelus’ sword. The warlord shifted indecisively as his captive rolled further away.
Xena unclipped her chakram. "We warned you she could be trouble. So what’ll it be, hmmm?" she drawled with a wicked grin, twirling the chakram on her finger. "Think you can fetch my friend faster than I can throw this? Make a run for it and possibly get the heebie-jeebies when you work up a nice sweat? Or drop that sword like a good little warlord, so’s maybe we put you out of your misery?"
Garelus glared around the camp. He found more consolation in the Blyssians’ watchful satisfaction, than he did in the contempt of his former army. He threw the sword down with a snarl and stalked to sit back on the bench he’d initially been relegated to.
"Good choice." Xena strolled over to hobble his legs and secure his hands to the table.
"What about the antidote?!"
"Oh, yeah. Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle had stopped writhing. She lay on her back gazing up at the sky. "Yes, Xena?"
"The man wants his antidote."
"Do I have to?" Gabrielle sighed contentedly. "I don’t think we’ll need it. My itch seems to have gone away." She rolled her head toward Garelus. "I think Xena was right. Must’ve been that ‘grabbing Gabrielle and putting a blade to her throat’ affliction after all."
Xena perched on the ledge, her arms wrapped around her knees. Not far below, the lake reflected the campfires outlining it, as well as the twilight moon. She’d raised her eyes a little to catch the sun’s slow descent behind the mountain on the other side, when she felt a presence behind her.
"Funny, I don’t hear you laughing anymore," she said without turning around.
Moving to press himself against her back, Ares rested his hands on her shoulders, closed his eyes and enveloped her in his power and desire. He felt her breath catch and her spine stiffen against him.
"You don’t listen," he chided softly, massaging the taut muscles within his grasp. "It’s not that hard, you know. Just let yourself be. Accept what’s as natural to you as breathing."
"This is who I am. Why can’t you accept that and let me be?"
Ares exhaled an exasperated sigh. He stepped around to sit beside his recalcitrant protégé. "Look at that," he directed, gesturing towards the scene below. "Another army at your command. Another village ripe for the picking. Another chance to soar like an eagle at my side, where you rightfully belong. All you had to do was say ‘yes.’" He shook his head in disappointment. "Yet here you sit, moping on cold, hard rock. Nothing to show for your efforts but a crow’s eye view of your loss."
"That’s the problem, Ares." Xena turned to him with a wry smile. "We don’t see things the same way anymore. Never will."
Ares’ face clouded at the sight of the young redhead emerging from a group of women, searching for something. She caught sight of the figures on the ledge and started in that direction.
"Like her?" Ares snorted. "She doesn’t listen well either. How many times will she make a mess of things, before you see she’s all wrong for someone with your talent and fire?"
Xena cut her eyes at him knowingly. "It’ll take more than your shenanigans, Ares. Or should I say, ‘Janus.’"
Ares feigned ignorance, then allowed a sheepish grin. "She would’ve done something stupid anyway. I simply gave her a little boost."
Xena fondly followed Gabrielle’s ascent. "You were wrong about that too. She’s a lot smarter than you think. She inspired the villagers to come up with the itchy leather idea. Her way is to see solutions that don’t involve bloodshed. Something else you’ll never understand."
"Where's the glory in that? You might as well let her make your chakram into a backscratcher and use your sword for a cane." The God of War stood and dusted himself off. "I’m not known for my patience, Xena. I’ve got my eye on others who appreciate what I can do for them. Don’t ignore me too long, or we may both regret it. Maybe next time," he said as he shimmered out of sight. "Maybe next time you’ll see."
The warrior didn’t bother acknowledging Ares’ haunting words. Her eyes continued to focus on the small figure laboring up the rocky incline. She got up to help Gabrielle the rest of the way.
"Whew!" Gabrielle sank in relief to the unforgiving slab beneath her. "I’ve had enough of this climbing stuff to last a lifetime." Frowning, she glanced around. "I thought I saw somebody else up here."
"Mm. Had a visit from a certain God of War."
"Yeah?" Gabrielle appraised her woman-of-few-words companion. "Anything besides the usual?"
Xena shrugged. "Not really." She rolled her eyes as Gabrielle continued to stare at her expectantly. Sighing, she added, "He can’t believe I don’t share his vision."
Xena allowed a lopsided grin. "What kind of bird I ought to be."
"Okay, okay," Xena conceded, ducking away from Gabrielle’s punch to the arm. "Of armies to lead. Villages to conquer." She glanced sideways at her seatmate. "Of sidekicks to kick to the side."
Gabrielle snorted. "Typical." She looked down at Blyssia. "Although … I can see his point."
"Well, things aren’t exactly settled yet. Garelus could get free to start another army. His soldiers might decide to take up where they left off. Blyssians are worried maybe they can’t have the dream world they wanted." Sighing, Gabrielle fingered the hem of her repaired shirt. "Certain sidekicks still haven’t figured how to stay out of harm’s way."
Xena nodded. "Yep, that’s one way of looking at it."
"You see something different?"
Xena leaned back on her hands. "I see parents with their children back, safe and sound. Soldiers who may actually help protect peaceful villages, perhaps with the encouragement of the decent young men of Blyssia who want to see more of the world."
"Not to mention fear of a certain Warrior Princess who threatened to hunt them all down otherwise."
Xena chuckled, before continuing, "I see a former warlord who’ll have a hard time getting sheep to follow him after this. A village more prepared to defend what they believe in. I see a nice evening to a good day’s work."
"Huh." Gabrielle studied her friend’s face, then reexamined Blyssia. "You see all that, do you?"
"Uh huh. That’s how I’d look at it." Xena grinned affectionately. "If I were you."
"If you were …." Gabrielle’s brow creased.
Xena rested a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. She gazed back up at the sky, where stars now twinkled like the fires below. "I’m not you, but I can see through your eyes. I can see what I do in you – hope, trust, beauty, joy. Don’t ever doubt what that means to me."
"Even though my timing isn’t so good yet and I sometimes don’t follow instructions?"
Xena gave her "associate" a reassuring squeeze. "You have your strengths. I have mine. That’s why we’re a team."
Gabrielle felt Xena’s grasp tighten. "What?" she asked, sensing the warrior slipping into surveillance mode.
"You hear something?"
"Not anymore." The warrior playfully tousled Gabrielle’s hair. She shrugged with a satisfied smirk. "Maybe whoever it was didn’t like what he sees."
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