In the city that once called Rome but, after the death of Caesar and the destruction of the Roman army, was renamed Xenielle in honor of our two most favorite heroes.
"Are you sure about this?" Xena asked, watching the endless lines of people flowing into the coliseum.
"You want to retire don't you?" Gabrielle sighed.
"And you agreed we would find someone to take our place protecting the known world, didn't you?"
"And you didn't come up with any better ideas, did you?"
"No," Xena frowned, folding her arms over her chest as she slumped back in the unusually large throne-like chair she had been directed to some time earlier.
"Then I guess we don't have much choice," Gabrielle said, mimicking Xena's posture and attitude in her own matching throne-chair.
Xena and Gabrielle were seated on a dais located at one end of the coliseum and raised to provide them an unobstructed view of the action that would take place on the arena's floor. A colorful sheet of finely woven linen was tied to the top of poles at each corner of the dais and spread above their heads to shield them from the sun. Beside their chairs were tables holding trays overflowing with a variety of fruits and cheeses and breads with decanters of water and juices placed next to the trays.
"It won't be long now," a short rotund man, bubbling with excitement, chattered after lumbering up a series of steps stretching from the arena floor to the dais. "The last of the spectators are in the tunnels and should be in their seats momentarily. Can I get you anything? Perhaps one of my special fizzie drinks?"
"NO," both women groaned at the same time.
"Just get this thing started, Salmoneus," Xena snarled, "before I change my mind."
"Please," Gabrielle added, tilting her head up to look at the sea of faces surrounding them. Almost every seat in the coliseum was full and the few empty seats were being quickly occupied. Four stories of stone rose into the clear blue sky and at the very top of the wall encircling the coliseum hundreds of brightly colored banners danced on the breeze. Her eyes turned downward to the arena where last minute preparations were being made to a replica of a typical Greek peasant village.
Standing with their backs against the wall that separated the spectators from the activities they had come to witness, flamboyantly clad men stood approximately six feet apart, each holding a highly polished trumpet that stretched out in front of them farther than they were tall. Seemingly in response to some invisible signal, the men raised the horns to their mouths and blew a blast that no one in the coliseum or for several blocks outside could possibly have missed hearing.
"And so it begins," Xena grumbled, snatching a bunch of grapes off a tray and offering them to Gabrielle.
"It's only for a few days, love," Gabrielle smiled, plucking a grape free of the vine and placing it against Xena's lips.
Xena's tongue darted out, wrapping around the grape and the finger holding it, pulling both inside her mouth. "Better be a short few days," she said after releasing the digit. "A very short few days.
Their attention was drawn to the arena floor where Salmoneus had returned and was beginning to address the spectators.
"Ladies and Gentlemen and Children of All Ages, welcome to the Xena and Gabrielle Memorial Roman Coliseum for SUPERHERO CHALLENGE." He paused to wait for the cheering spectators to settle before continuing. "As you all know, Xena and Gabrielle will soon be retiring to a private retreat on Lesbos." He was again forced to stop his speech while a groan of disapproval rolled around the coliseum.
"Kiss my ass," Xena growled.
"Gladly, love," Gabrielle fed her unhappy companion another grape.
"But before they leave us to fade into history, they have graciously agreed to choose someone to take their place as our new protector against the forces of evil. Over the next four days you will witness a series of challenges designed to find out if our participants have what it takes to be a SuperHero."
"Humpft," Xena grunted.
"And now, let's meet the competitors. First, a woman that isn't afraid of stepping into Xena's boots, we have Minya."
"Oh, somebody just hit me over the head with a mace right now," Xena rolled her eyes as the stout but inept woman rushed out of a tunnel, tripping over a shadow and almost falling before she managed to regain her balance.
"Thought you liked Minya," Gabrielle giggled. "She sure wanted to get into a bubble bath with you."
"Not funny," Xena sneered.
"Next, a hero in his own mind and best friend to the Battling Bard herself, we have Joxer the Mighty."
"WHAT?!" Gabrielle croaked, choking on a grape.
"Calm down," Xena smirked, gently patting her lover's back. "After all, you have encouraged him over the years.
"Have too. And you know it."
"Humpft," Gabrielle grumbled not ready to concede that she just might have led Joxer on a wee bit. "I thought we were done with him after he hooked up with Meg," she sighed.
"Hmm, me too," Xena scanned the faces of the spectators. "Wonder if she's here?"
"Must be. I don't think Joxer goes anywhere without her."
"Or their brood of rugrats," Xena shivered involuntarily looking even harder for her look-a-like and the couple's numerous and rambunctious offspring.
Unable to spot Meg in the crowd, the women eventually turned their attention back to the arena as the rest of the contestants were announced and watched as a variety of men and women of every age, size and shape imaginable exited the tunnel to the cheers of the spectators.
"This is what we have to choose from?" Xena asked watching a young man carrying a sword as he emerged from the tunnel. As he walked to join the other contestants, the weapon slipped out of his hands just missing impaling itself in his boot. "I'll eliminate most of them before the day is out."
"Can't," Gabrielle said taking a sip of juice.
"Contest lasts four days."
"Salmoneus sold a week's worth of tickets. If you eliminate everyone before the end of the week, he'll have to give people their money back."
"Again," Xena raised an eyebrow as she looked at Gabrielle. "So?"
"If he has to make refunds that reduces his profits."
"Gabrielle, would you please tell me what you are talking about."
"You know that nice piece of land you picked out on Lesbos?"
"And how it sits atop the bluff overlooking the ocean?"
"Yes." Xena sighed, frustrated with Gabrielle's round-a-bout answer.
"Well property like that doesn't come cheap and I don't plan to spend our retirement bouncing from one tavern to another, telling stories to earn enough dinars to make the payments on it. And we know you never have two dinars to rub together unless you take them from my pouch."
"Gabrielle," Xena's voice rumbled a warning for her lover to get to the point.
"We're splitting the profits with Salmoneus," Gabrielle informed the warrior. "Way I figure it, we'll make enough to pay for the land, build us a nice little cabin and have plenty left over to finance our retirement."
"You mean, you were in on this from the beginning," Xena glared.
"No. But when you didn't come up with any better ideas for picking our replacements, I thought what the heck," Gabrielle shrugged. "And look," she swiped her arm in the direction of the filled seats. "With our half of the profits from just today, we've probably paid for the land."
"Humpft," Xena slumped back into her seat to watch disinterested as the remaining contestants were introduced. Her interest suddenly returned when the final challenger walked out of the tunnel.
"And our last contestant. From the great Amazon Nation, Princess Diana."
"Who?" Gabrielle leaned forward to get a better look at the woman walking out of the shadows of the tunnel, "never heard of her."
"She wears less clothes than you do," Xena smirked, watching a tall, dark haired and quite shapely woman stroll across the coliseum floor dressed in a pair of knee-high leather boots and a tight-fitting piece of cloth that barely covered her torso and the top of her very long legs.
"You better not be checking her out," Gabrielle snarled.
"I wasn't," Xena snapped her eyes off the mysterious Amazon crossing the arena floor and onto the very familiar and quite jealous one sitting next to her.
"Right," Gabrielle glared. "What's that thing around her waist, a rope? And what is that a headdress she's wearing? It looks like a tiara," she was beginning to get a little angry. After all, she was the Amazon Queen and she didn't wear any kind of crown.
Xena scratched her ear, sneaking another peek at the scantily clad Amazon. "Sure you don't know her?"
"Believe me," Gabrielle huffed. "I'd remember."
"Our first challenge will pit the contestants against a marauding band of bandits as they attack this defenseless village. Peasants, please take your places," Salmoneus shouted.
Dozens of men, women and children walked out of the tunnel. They were dressed in typical peasant clothing and a few carried rakes and pitchforks while others led cattle and sheep. Several of the children tried to keep control of a flock of chickens as they guided them into the village.
"Contestants, you will be split into groups," Salmoneus announced. "Each group will have one candle mark to prepare the village defenses against the attack. Good luck to all of you. Will these SuperHero contestants be able to defend the helpless peasants from the vicious bandits?" he dramatically asked the spectators. "And which of our contestants will be eliminated by Xena and Gabrielle? We'll know the answers to those questions soon. But in the meantime," his voice lightened, "please visit the refreshment stands inside the tunnels. And be sure to try one of my special fizzie drinks."
"So what do we say when we eliminate the contestants?" Xena asked, offering a slice of apple to her bondmate.
"What do you mean?"
"Do we just walk up to them and say ‘get lost' or what?"
"Oh, good question," Gabrielle scrunched up her nose as she considered possible axioms. "How about… ‘You're fired'?"
"Nah, whose going to know what that means?"
"Goodbye and good luck?" Gabrielle tried again. "And I can write them a scroll to take with them."
"I don't know. I just thought they'd like to have it to show people."
"What would you say on the scroll?"
"I'm not sure. Maybe tell them why they were eliminated."
"Hmmm. It does seem silly to give them a scroll if we're eliminating them."
"But we have to say something. Guess we could give them a reason for eliminating them.
Like ‘you stink, get lost'," Xena offered again.
No, Gabrielle frowned.
You're pathetic and I wouldn't trust you to defend my dirty laundry. So get lost before I use you for sword practice, Xena smirked.
No. We should be nice to the contestants, Gabrielle said, giggling at the warrior's look of disappointment. We don't want to hurt their feelings.
Xena, be good.
"Alright, Xena frowned. She sat back, watching the contestants' futile attempts to fortify the village. "Look at that one," she pointed at a chubby man struggling with a barrel. "He's not even strong enough to move that barrel."
"He does seem a little weak to be a SuperHero," Gabrielle frowned. "Maybe finding our replacements is going to be harder than I thought."
How about," Xena said excitingly, pleased with herself for thinking of what she was about to say. "You're the weakest contestant. Good bye," she emphasized each syllable especially the last two.
"That sounds funny," Gabrielle giggled.
"I like it. Can we use it..........please?" Xena asked Gabrielle, batting her eyes at her lover to encourage her agreement.
"Okay, if you want to."
"Sure," Gabrielle smiled. "I don't see why not."
"Goodie," Xena grinned, rubbing her hands together. "I can't wait to eliminate the first contestant."
Do you really think we need that much room? Gabrielle asked Xena who was drawing on a piece of scroll she had pulled out of Gabrielle's bag.
You need a writing room, Xena drew a few more lines on the parchment. I need a room for my weapons and armor. We definitely need a bedroom, she smirked. Let's see, a cooking area and a bathing room. Oh, and a room to just relax in. Anything else?
Not that I can think of and with all that, we may have to stretch this contest out one more day so we can pay for it.
Ladies, they're waiting for you, Salmoneus huffed. He had been forced to climb up to the dais when Xena and Gabrielle failed to respond to his prodding from the arena floor.
What? Xena asked.
It's time to judge the first group, Salmoneus said, annoyed with the women's lack of attention.
Oh, right. How's this work again? Xena asked.
Salmoneus sucked in a lungful of air before re-explaining the judging process. You decide which ones will remain to participate in tomorrow's challenge and you send them to that side of the arena to the ‘Are you the next SuperHero?' waiting area. The other contestants you send to the ‘Oops, You're on Thin Ice' waiting area. At the end of the day, you'll pick the contestants from that group that you want to eliminate from future challenges. Then all the contestants that haven't been eliminated will spend the night in the sleeping hut set up at the far end of the arena where they can separate into alliances and plot to get each other eliminated.
Oh, right, Xena scowled. "Tell me again why they would want to do that?"
"It doesn't matter," Salmoneus cried as the spectators began to chant in frustration at the delay in the judging. "Please go down there and make your choices."
Come on, Xena, let's go check out what they were able to do, Gabrielle stood holding her hand out to her lover. Just remember, sweetheart, you can't eliminate them all today.
Xena and Gabrielle walked toward the village that was still being threatened with the marauders' attack. They approached a contestant holding a pitchfork above his head in preparation of swinging it down at an older man lying in the dirt at his feet.
"Hold on there," Xena reached out, grabbing hold of the pitchfork and preventing it from being used as a weapon.
"Let me go," the man protested as his downward thrust was abruptly halted. He turned to see who was preventing him from his work. "Oh, hi, Xena," he smiled, recognizing the warrior.
"What are you doing?" Gabrielle asked the young man.
"Killing this bandit," the man replied, his face reflecting his confusion with the question.
"That's not a bandit, junior," Xena growled.
"Look," Xena wrenched the pitchfork out of the contestant's hands before tossing it aside. She then reached down helping the elderly villager to his feet. "Notice, old man. No weapon. No armor," she pointed at the elderly man. "This is a villager."
"Oh," the young man frowned.
"That," Xena pointed to a second man a few feet away that was beating in the door of a hut. "Ugly man, lots of scars, carrying a sword, several knives and battering in a door. That is a bandit."
"Oh," the young man frowned again. "Guess I got a little mixed up."
"Guess you did," Xena shook her head. "Go sit in the…," she looked at Gabrielle uncertainly.
"‘Oops, You're on Thin Ice' waiting area," the bard supplied.
"Darn," the young man muttered as he headed dejectedly away from the village to the jeers of the spectators.
"Oh boy," Xena groaned. "I can tell the next few days are going to be a barrel of laughs.
"Come on," Gabrielle tugged on the warrior's arm. "They can't all be that bad."
Xena and Gabrielle were again making their way through the village now looking much worse for wear after a day of suffering through repeated bandit attacks. The women were seeking out the last of the contestants in the day's final group when a familiar voice drew their attention to the side of a hut.
"That'll teach you to try to outwit Joxer the Mighty," Joxer held a dagger in a shaky hand, his self-made armor clattering loudly.
"You idiot," a bandit laughed. "We have you surrounded."
"That's all part of my plan," Joxer smiled back.
"Joxer," Xena casually walked between two bandits to reach the embattled contestant.
"Hi, Xena." Joxer visibly relaxed knowing he would not have to make good on his boast. "Hi, Gabby," he waved at the bard, loosening his grip on the dagger that clattered to the ground.
"Hi, Joxer," Gabrielle smirked, watching the wanna-be warrior retrieve his weapon. "What were you planning on doing here?" she asked studying the situation.
Joxer was boxed in between two huts set less than ten feet apart with both ends of the narrow space blocked by a pair of burly bandits. And unless the wanna-be could fly, there was no possible way for him to escape his predicament.
"Well, I," Joxer stammered. "I was just about… to, uh…. just about…."
Xena opened her mouth, preparing to send the bumbler to the ‘Oops, You're on Thin Ice' waiting area but a hand placed on the small of her back stopped her. She turned to question Gabrielle.
"Look," Gabrielle motioned with her head toward a section of seats nearby.
Xena twisted her head to see what her lover meant. Her eyes quickly focused on eight pairs of eyes watching her expectantly. Joxer's wife, Meg, and their seven children sat on the edge of their seats holding their breath as they waited for the warrior to pronounce her judgment. Slowly, her head rotated back to Gabrielle.
"Sorry," Gabrielle smiled apologetically.
"You owe me," Xena bent over in order to look directly into the bard's eyes as she contemplated what she was about to do for the woman she loved. Straightening up to face Joxer, she said, "go wait in the SuperHero area."
"Really?" Joxer stood, dumbfounded by the statement.
"Yes," Xena sighed, "go on."
"Told you so," Joxer taunted the bandits as he ran past them. The spectators groaned loudly as he entered the waiting area for the contestants who would battle another day but all he heard were the shouts and cries of encouragement coming from his family.
"You know he can't win this, right?" Xena asked as she and Gabrielle continued their search for the last few contestants.
"Told you, you encourage him."
Diana was sitting on a crate when Xena and Gabrielle finally located her. Her back was to the women and three bandits sat on the ground in front of her, backs together and a rope wrapped around their bodies. Their hands and feet were also bound with ropes and a pile of discarded weapons was nearby.
"Hmm," Xena commented, taking in the scene. "Looks like you have things under control," she said to the Amazon as she walked around the crate to take a seat next to Diana.
"So you're part of the Greek tribe?" Xena asked the Amazon Princess, at the same time sensing a rather perturbed Amazon Queen was watching their interaction closely.
"Surprising, I've… um, we've," Xena correctly when she sensed Gabrielle's back stiffen even though her lover was still standing several feet behind her. "That we've never heard of you."
"I've only recently come to the main village after living in a remote valley with my mother and sisters."
Gabrielle pulled a knife from her boot and walked past the pair to the bandits. She bent down, swiping the knife cleanly through the ropes restraining the men. "Get lost," she said as the men freed themselves from the cut ropes.
"Queen Gabrielle," Diane stood then immediately knelt on one knee, her right arm bent at the elbow with her fist held above her left breast. "It is an honor to finally meet you."
"Hmm," Gabrielle stepped around the kneeling Amazon to take her place on the crate beside Xena. She leaned against the warrior and waited until she felt a strong arm encircle her waist. "Stand up," she said a bit harshly to the other Amazon.
Diana stood then turned to face Gabrielle and Xena. "Have I upset you, my Queen?"
Gabrielle was stopped from saying what she started to by a gentle squeeze to her waist. "No. You can to the SuperHero waiting area. Good job," she added as Diana walked away.
"You have no reason to be jealous," Xena told Gabrielle after Diana left.
"I'm not," Gabrielle whispered, snuggling closer to Xena.
"Yes you are," Xena smiled, tightening her hold on her beloved. "But you shouldn't be. She's only a Princess, you're a Queen."
"It's not that," Gabrielle sighed.
Xena hooked a finger under Gabrielle's chin tenderly lifting her face. "I love you," she said, pressing their lips together.
"I love you too," Gabrielle smiled when their mouths separated just enough to breathe.
"Here you are," Salmoneus shuffled up to the women. "You can't be doing this now," he said nervously. "There's one more contestant to judge."
"Who?" Xena asked not moving.
"Let's go, warrior," Gabrielle smirked. "Then we're done for the day and we can go back to our room at the inn where I can show you how much I love you."
"Alright," Xena smiled, pressing her lips to Gabrielle's again.
"Don't forget," Salmoneus told the occupied women, "you still have to make the final choices of who will be eliminated from the competition today."
Xena stood pulling Gabrielle up with her. Draping one arm over the bard's shoulders, she reached out with the other closing her fingers around Salmoneus' neck and pulling him toward her. "I'll kiss my sweetheart any where and any time I want," she hissed into the gasping man's face. "And don't you ever forget that."
"Let him go, sweetie," Gabrielle rubbed Xena's back. "We need him, remember."
Xena relaxed her grip. "Where's Minya?" she asked Salmoneus who was bent over trying to suck air into his empty lungs.
Salmoneus pointed back toward the center of the village.
"Thank you," Gabrielle said as Xena led her in the direction the gasping man pointed. "That wasn't nice," she said to her warrior.
"No," Xena smirked, "but it was fun."
The women found Minya sitting on top of a bandit, the man under her screaming for mercy.
"Stop squirming," Minya smacked the bandit on the head with a dented bucket.
"You can let him up, Minya," Gabrielle said as she and Xena stood looking down at the determined woman.
"You sure?" Minya looked up at the warrior and bard.
"Yes, let him up," Xena assured the robust woman.
"Ok," Minya struggled to stand as the bandit tried to scoot out from under her.
Xena grabbed hold of an outstretched arm, pulling Minya to her feet before she dropped clumsily back down onto the bandit.
"Thanks," Minya said then turned, rushing off in the direction of the SuperHero waiting area.
"Wait, Minya," Salmoneus called after the contestant.
"Let her go," Gabrielle said.
"But you haven't judged her yet," Salmoneus said agitatedly.
"Let her go," Xena agreed. "She'd just end up there anyway," she grinned at Gabrielle.
"Yeah," Gabrielle grinned back.
"Who could that be?" Xena asked as someone knocked on the door to their room.
After Minya was allowed to join the other possible SuperHeroes, Xena and Gabrielle wasted no time in eliminating a dozen wanna-bes from the contestants in the ‘Oops, You're on Thin Ice' waiting area with Xena gleefully proclaiming ‘You're the weakest contestant. Good bye', to each and every one. Then they had quickly retreated to their private room in a quiet inn located in a secluded area of Xenielle to spend the evening together.
"I asked Ephiny and Solari to come by," Gabrielle said as she poured cider into four mugs.
"What for?" Xena grumbled, dropping into a chair near the fireplace.
"I want to know what they know about Diana," Gabrielle answered, walking across the room to the door.
"Hi," Ephiny said when the door opened to reveal her Queen and friend. "I, uh, got your message," she peeked into the room. "I didn't think you'd want to be disturbed tonight."
"We don't," Xena called out. "But since you've already disturbed us, you might as well come in unless you plan to stand out in the hall all night."
"Told you it would be alright," Solari smiled at her bondmate as she stepped into the room. "Queen Gabrielle," she saluted the bard then, unfazed by Xena's gruff tone, walked across the room to greet her friend.
Gabrielle hugged Ephiny before pushing the door shut and sliding the bolt in place to prevent any unwanted guests. "Come on, she won't bite, I promise," she whispered to Ephiny as they crossed the room to join their mates.
"I might," Xena chuckled, her eyebrows dancing in the firelight. "But it won't be her ass that gets bitten."
"Better not be," Solari clasped forearms with Xena. "I'd hate to have to kill you on the eve of your retirement," she teased the warrior.
"As if," Xena laughed.
"Be good," Gabrielle slapped Xena's shoulder. "Hope you're hungry, we've got cold cider and hot stew."
After passing out bowls of steaming venison stew and mugs of cider, Gabrielle asked the question that had been burning her tongue all day. "Ephiny, tell me about Princess Diana."
"Ah, I wondered if that's why you sent for us," the Queen's regent said after taking a swallow of cider. "She arrived at the village a few days after you left to come to the Challenge. She said she was born and raised in a valley high in the mountains to the north."
"And the Princess, where does that come from?"
"Her mother was Herrana, sister of Queen Melosa."
"I didn't know Queen Melosa had any other sisters," Gabrielle said
"Herrana was several years older than Melosa and detested violence of any kind. When Melosa was old enough to wear the mask, Herrana passed it and her right of caste to her younger sister. She left the village to live alone in the mountains. No one ever heard from her again and, as the years passed, it was assumed she had died."
"No one went looking for her?"
"She asked to be left alone."
"Do you believe Diana's story?" Xena asked Solari.
"No reason not to," the Amazon warrior replied. "She knew about Herrana and Melosa and she knows the Amazon ways."
"It's strange that she doesn't have the same views about violence as her mother," Gabrielle thought out loud.
"Clearly, her mother did not spend all her time in the mountains alone," Xena said. "Maybe she was influenced by another."
"Such as?" Solari asked.
"Her father," Gabrielle answered.
Solari thought for a moment then shrugged. "Guess I never considered that. Fact is, I never even thought of how she came to be."
"That's because you're a thick headed warrior not good for anything but fighting," Xena teased.
"Oh, she's good for at least one other thing," Ephiny said before thinking then blushed a deep red when she realized what she had said.
"Gee, thanks," Solari sighed. "I think."
"What's with her headwear?"
"She said it was a gift from her mother," Solari answered for her still embarrassed mate. "Refuses to take it off. Same with that piece of rope around her waist and those silver bracelets."
"Hmm," Xena and Gabrielle murmured at the same time.
"She did okay today," Solari offered. "Like a true Amazon."
"Yes," Xena nodded. "She was about the only one who didn't make a fool of themselves."
"If that's the case," Solari placed her empty bowl on the table beside her chair. "Why didn't you eliminate more of them?"
"Ask her," Xena thrust a thumb in Gabrielle's direction. "She's the brains of this outfit."
"Thank you, sweetheart," Gabrielle smiled lovingly at the warrior. She then repeated to Ephiny and Solari what she had explained to Xena earlier in the day.
Xena and Gabrielle again approached the dungeon that had replaced the peasant village on the floor of the coliseum. The second day's challenge consisted of the groups of challengers having to rescue villagers captured and imprisoned by an evil king. And after a day of watching the bungling and inept SuperHero challengers fail in their attempts to free the captives, the women were more than ready to pass judgment on the final group of contestants.
Xena had become so frustrated at trying to choose which contestants deserved to be sent to the SuperHero side of the arena that she had simply started to randomly pick three out of every five challengers to be sent to the Thin Ice area. It really hadn't mattered which three she pointed at because none of the contestants to face the challenge so far that day had shown any SuperHero potential.
The first contestant they encountered was the young man who had almost cut off his own foot the day before when entering the coliseum. He was painstakingly digging a hole just inside the dungeon wall.
The walls and top of the dungeon were constructed from poles the thickness of Xena's arms and spaced such that the spectators could easily see what was happening inside of them. The contestants had been warned not to use the walls as a means of escape. Instead, there was a small opening in the top of the mock dungeon about twenty feet above the chamber's floor that would allow a person to squeeze through if they could reach it.
Xena walked up to the outside of the wall. She placed her hands on her knees as she bent down to talk to man who continued to dig. "What are you doing?" she smiled, as if she was actually interested in his answer.
"Digging a tunnel," the young man answered, not bothering to look up from his work.
"Mind if I ask a question?"
"Where are most dungeons located?" Xena straightened back up. She leaned against one of the posts that made up the make-believe dungeon wall and waited for an answer.
The young man stopped digging to consider the question. He rubbed his nose leaving a streak of sweat and dirt across his face. "Underground?" he looked up expectantly, hoping he had provided the correct answer.
"Good," Xena smiled. "So tell me," she scratched her arm nonchalantly. "Just where do you think this tunnel of yours is going to come out? Taking into account, of course, that we would be standing underground if this were a real dungeon."
"Um," the young man looked around as he tried to understand his dilemma. "Guess it can't come out over there," he pointed to where Xena and Gabrielle were standing.
"Nope," Xena said.
"Looks like a tunnel wasn't a very good idea," the young man scratched his chin, smearing more dirt and sweat around.
"'Fraid not," Xena shrugged. "But since you were at least trying to do something, you can go wait in the SuperHero area."
Most of the day's contestants had spent their time uselessly staring up at the only route of escape while doing little to actually try to reach it.
"Thanks," the man beamed, climbing out of his hole.
After the man ran off to wait, the women stepped between poles to enter the dungeon.
"Good thing he didn't dig much deeper," Gabrielle said peering down in the vacated hole. "Another few inches and he'd have fallen through to the catacombs below."
"Maybe we should have let him continue," Xena snickered.
Just like the day before, the final group of challengers included Joxer, Minya and Diana.
"At least, someone in this group has made some progress," Gabrielle said, turning away from the hole to inspect the efforts of the other contestants.
With Diana taking the lead, Joxer and Minya had gathered all the loose objects in the dungeon and had piled them atop one another until boxes, benches and buckets were carefully stacked directly under the opening.
Starting with the smallest of the captives, the trio of unlikely allies had somehow successfully guided a few of the villagers, one at a time, up the pile to where Joxer waited teetering precariously at the top of the stack. With the tall man's help, the villagers were able to reach the opening and climb out to freedom.
"This is the easiest decision all day," Xena smiled, surprised to realize she was glad to see how well Joxer and Minya had done with Diana's help. "You three to the SuperHero area," she told the anxiously waiting contestants. "The rest of you to Thin Ice."
Using the same formula she had used most of the day, Xena quickly made the final decisions on the contestants in the ‘Oops, You're on Thin Ice' waiting area. With their duties completed for the day, she grabbed Gabrielle's hand and headed for the tunnel that would guide them outside the coliseum.
"Have you invited anyone to the room tonight?" Xena asked as she and Gabrielle walked along the torch-lit passageway.
"Interested in a walk and supper before we go back to the inn?"
"They must be kidding," Gabrielle said as she and Xena climbed the steps to the dais and their waiting throne-chairs.
"Doesn't appear so," Xena stood on the edge of the dais looking over the flooded coliseum floor.
"Well, I have no intention of going out there to judge any contestants today," Gabrielle grumbled, plopping onto her chair.
"Wonder what the challenge?" Xena said, turning to join her disgusted lover.
Salmoneus lumbered up the steps to the dais, his usually place for addressing the crowd now being underwater. "Ladies, Gentlemen and children of all ages, welcome to day three of SUPERHERO CHALLENGE," Salmoneus called out to the crowd of eager spectators. "Today's challenge will require our contestants to rescue a dozen people trapped in an overturned boat. Please bring in the first group of challengers."
A pair of rowboats emerged from a flooded tunnel. The contestants sitting in the rowboats looked nervously at a larger boat tipped upside down in the middle of the man-made lake as they were rowed toward it.
"Where in Hades is he getting the ideas for these challenges?" Xena questioned at Gabrielle.
The bard shrugged innocently. Sucking her lower lip between her teeth, she smiled coyly at Xena, "I, um, let him peek at some of my scrolls."
"Figures," Xena groaned.
"I didn't think he'd use anything like this," Gabrielle defended herself. "Defending villages, escaping from dungeons, rescuing slaves, yes. But overturned boats, no. I didn't even know this place could hold water."
"Apparently it can." Xena gaze turned to the larger boat. The bottom of the hull had been removed to allow spectators to see inside.
"Our contestants," Salmoneus informed the crowd, "will need to lead the trapped passengers down through the decks and find a way for them to then swim away from the ship to the surface. It is dark inside the ship and the contestants are not allowed any torches. Can they succeed? Only if they have what it takes to be a SuperHero."
"Not much for the spectators to look at today," Xena told Gabrielle. It was obvious that even with the hull cut away, most of the day's challenge would take place deep inside the bowels of the overturned ship. "Wonder how Salmoneus plans to keep the spectators from getting restless?"
The words had barely left the warrior's lips before four more rowboats appeared at the mouth of the tunnel. This time the rowboats were occupied by only six rowers straining hard against the heavy oars.
"For your added enjoyment today," Salmoneus announced. "We have arranged for boat races." A large cheer arose from the spectators. "Our first race will start in a few moments. Each race will be one loop of the lake then, after a brief rest, the rowers will be shuffled and race again. Bets will be accepted, just speak to my associates. They are the ones dressed in the red togas."
"Salmoneus, a word with you please," Xena said to the rotund man standing with his back to her.
"Sure, Xena," Salmoneus turned to face the warrior and bard. "What can I do for you? Things are going quite well if you ask me, quite well indeed."
"Gabrielle doesn't do water," Xena informed the chatty man.
"Doesn't do water? Oh, you mean," Salmoneus pointed to the sea of wet behind him.
"That's exactly what I mean," Xena glared. "So I'm hoping you aren't expecting us to go out there."
"Well, as a matter of fact…," the nervous man started but stopped immediately when he heard a low growl coming from the bard. "But it really does require…," another growl. "I guess we could make an exception today."
"I guess you can," Xena nodded. "I'll tell you what. Any contestant that swims free of that boat can remain in the contest. Any that don't are finished. How's that?"
"I guess that will work," Salmoneus rubbed his chin as he pondered the possibilities. "But what if no one swims free?"
"I don't think that will be a problem," Gabrielle pointed past Salmoneus who turned to see a head bobbing in the water beside the overturned hull.
"Thank the gods," Salmoneus clasped his hands together. "Gotta go," he said scrambling off the dais as a horn blast started the first boat race of the day.
"How much do we get off these races?" Xena asked Gabrielle as she watched the progress of the racing boats.
"I'm not sure," Gabrielle answered. "I don't recall him mentioning them before."
"Make sure we get half," Xena offered Gabrielle some cider. "I feel like adding another room to our cabin."
"Oh? What kind of room?"
"Maybe a nursery."
"If you want."
At the end of the day, the contestants that remained to compete in the final day's challenge had been whittled down to a mere half dozen. Again with the help of Diana, Minya and Joxer were standing in the SuperHero waiting area after successfully guiding the trapped passengers to safety and escaping the overturned ship themselves.
With no reason to leave the dais, Gabrielle spent the day catching up on her scrolls while the warrior enthusiastically encouraged the rowers of the boats she had placed bets on. With the conclusion of the last race, the women could add several more dinars to their cache.
"How many?" Gabrielle asked as she walked hand-in-hand with Xena back to the inn.
"How many what?"
"Well," Xena smiled at her lover. "I was thinking we would start with one and see how it goes."
"You have any idea how to go about that?" Gabrielle asked, quite aware that no matter how many skills the warrior had, making babies wasn't one of them.
"Not really," Xena shrugged. "But I was thinking of asking Aphrodite for some help."
"Think she will?"
"She owes us a few favors," Xena pulled Gabrielle close, wrapping her arms around her. "I think it's time she paid us back," she leaned down to kiss the bard.
The coliseum had been drained of water and an elaborate labyrinth covered the entire floor of the arena. The walls of the maze were made of tree trunks lined one next to the other and cut flat eight feet above the ground. This allowed the spectators to follow the action inside the network of uncovered corridors but prevented the contestants from seeing over the walls. In the exact middle of the labyrinth stood a box made of wooden posts bound tightly together with strong ropes.
The six remaining contestants each stood at a different entrance to the maze, anxiously waiting for Salmoneus to describe the day's challenge to the spectators. Xena and Gabrielle sat on the dais also waiting for the announcement.
To thunderous foot stomping by the impatient spectators, the rotund man appeared from out of nowhere on the top of the mysterious box. Taking a few moments to stretch out the drama, he began in an overly melodramatic voice, "Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the final day of SuperHero Challenge. When the sun sets today, Xena and Gabrielle will no longer be the ones we call upon to protect us from evil."
"I'll believe that when I see it," Xena muttered.
"A new SuperHero will be crowned today. And you, dear people, will see it all." Salmoneus paused to allow the cheers to die down. "Our contestants face one final challenge. The Labyrinth of Death," his voice carried an ominous tone. "Each contestant must find their way through the maze to this cage where four young children have been placed…"
"Xena, I don't like this," Gabrielle said as she took a closer look at the solid cage.
"As they work their way through the twists and turns, they will face many obstacles," Salmoneus continued. "Traps could send them spiraling down to Hades and monsters will block their paths. Once they reach this cage," he hesitated. "If they reach this cage," he started again. "They must free the children then guide them back through the labyrinth to safety. Their return trip will be just as danger filled as their first."
"Xena, I really don't like this."
"I know," Xena said, her eyes closing to slits as she glared at Salmoneus who was oblivious to their concern.
"Who will survive? Today we will finally answer the question DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A SUPERHERO?"
"Xena," Gabrielle reached for the warrior's hand and was comforted when the warrior's fingers slipped between her own.
"Don't worry," Xena said more casually than she felt. "If anything starts to happen, we'll step in to stop it."
"What about those children?"
"I wouldn't worry about them," Xena lifted a pitcher of cider and filled two mugs.
"Contestants," Salmoneus cried out. "You may enter the Labyrinth of Death."
All six of the contestants nervously stepped into the topless corridor before them and began to inch their way down it.
Salmoneus disappeared just as mysteriously as he had appeared moments before.
"Why not?" Gabrielle asked accepting a mug from the warrior.
"Notice how Salmoneus appeared and disappeared down there?"
"I've heard that under the floor of this coliseum are not just tunnels and catacombs. It's also filled with secret passages and special lifts to raise and lower people and animals from down there to up here. I'm sure he's got the children down below and is waiting until one of the contestants gets close enough to the cage before he'll have them put inside."
"How do you know that?" Gabrielle asked, not quite convinced by the warrior's words.
"If the children were already in the cage, why not let the spectators see them? It would make for better drama, don't you think?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle studied her lover. Then she studied the maze and the windowless cage in the center of it. She had to admit Xena was right. "Thank the Gods he thought of that."
"Yeah," Xena took a long drink of cider. "I'd hate to have had to kill him before the contest was over."
Gabrielle grinned. "It would have put a damper on the ceremonies he has planned to crown the winner," she agreed.
Three of the six contestants were eliminated within a candlemark of entering the labyrinth. One when he stepped on a hidden lever that dropped the floor out from under him. Another when she made a wrong turn and entered a monster's lair. And the third when he got turned around inside the maze and retraced his steps back to the entrance and had been disqualified.
Thus, only three contestants remained.
Minya was inching her way down a corridor, carefully placing her feet on the ground beneath her. Joxer was blithely walking down the center of a corridor oblivious to the hidden traps he narrowly missed triggering. Diana was slowly working her way down a corridor, carefully surveying every inch of ground in front of her. The three were about to cross paths when their passageways intersected.
Joxer reached the junction first. He stood at the end of the corridor, peeking around the end of the log wall. "Minya," he called out happily when he saw the full-bodied woman approaching cautiously.
"Joxer? How did you get there?"
"Our corridors meet here. Hurry up."
"Are we the only ones here?"
"I think so."
"Not quite," Diana walked into the open space where four corridors intersected.
"Hi, Diana," Joxer smiled at the Amazon. "Boy, am I glad to see you."
"Me too," Minya nodded. "Now where do we go?"
"Let's see," Diana smiled at her companions. "Joxer, you came down that corridor. And Minya, you came down that one. And I came down that one," she pointed behind her. "So that means…"
"We go down this one," Joxer started for the fourth corridor.
"Watch out," Diane grabbed the wanna-be warrior, yanking him back out of the mouth of the new passageway. Just as she did, poison darts shot out from the facing walls.
"Hey, what was that for?" Joxer cried, picking himself up off the ground where Diane had dumped him.
"She just saved your life," Minya said, her voice full of awe as she gazed at the Amazon. "Amazing. That's just what Xena would have done."
"Humpft," Xena grumbled, listening to the exchange.
"Well, you would have," Gabrielle grinned, slicing off a piece of cheese and feeding it to her warrior.
Joxer stood, brushing dirt off his clothes. Turning to look at the opening to the corridor, he started to quake like the darts stuck in the thick walls. "Thanks," he murmured to Diane.
"You're welcome," Diane smiled, patting the wanna-be warrior on the back. "Come on," she took a cautious step into the corridor. "But let's be a little more careful this time.
"She should let Minya lead," Xena muttered. "It would be a shame if the only good candidate fell to one of the traps."
"That's not nice, Xena," Gabrielle smacked the warrior on the arm.
"Do you want Joxer or Minya to win this?" Xena asked Gabrielle, her eyebrows rose as if to defy the bard to respond in the positive.
"You know I don't," Gabrielle said. "Besides Diana is the only one to show any prospects of being a SuperHero."
"My point exactly," Xena said, leaning back in her throne-chair.
Diana led Joxer and Minya down the corridor, carefully pointing out the hidden triggers to traps as they passed. The trio was approaching the end of the corridor and starting to relax when Minya, attempting to step over a trap buried in the dirt, caught the toe of her boot and stumbled. Her body crashed into the wooden wall and another hail of poison darts was released.
Diana turned back to her companions, shoving both to the ground and standing over them. With reflexes almost as quick as Xena's, she used the silver bracelets she wore on each wrist to deflect the darts.
Cries of amazement and shouts of appreciation for the Amazon's actions filled the coliseum.
"I could do that," Xena grumbled.
"Yes, dear," Gabrielle reached over to pat the warrior's firm thigh. "But you don't want to anymore. Remember?"
"You can get up now," Diane told Minya and Joxer. She kept her eyes focused on the corridor's walls for the appearance of any more darts.
"That was close," Joxer said, helping Minya to her feet.
"It sure was," Minya agreed looking at the darts scattered around them. "Let's get out of here," she said, turning and running the few remaining feet to the end of the passage.
"Going somewhere?" a Minotaur snarled, stepping out from the shadows as Minya ran into the open space of another junction. The half man, half bull stood as tall as the labyrinth's walls stood high.
"Oh, this should be fun," Xena perked up, leaning forward to rest her elbows on her knees. "I wonder which one he'll eat first."
"Xena," Gabrielle frowned. "That's an awful thing to say."
"Get out of the way," Minya snarled back. "We have to rescue the children.
"Why waste your time, I've already eaten them?" the Minotaur laughed.
Minya stared at the beast in shock, unsure whether to believe his declaration or not. "You have not," she finally breathed out, hoping that her words were truer than his.
"You'll never know," the Minotaur's voice boomed. "Because you'll never get past me to find out."
"Joxer," Diana whispered when she saw the monster's attention was focused on Minya.
"Yeah," Joxer whispered back.
"Here's what I need you to do," the Amazon said, leaning close to Joxer to whisper her plan into his ear. "Think you can do that?" she asked when she was finished.
"Yeah," Joxer nodded, his head bopping up and down rapidly.
"Good," Diana smiled, encouragingly. "Get ready," she said then walked out to join Minya. "Good day," she looked up at the beast at the same time placing her hand on the other woman's elbow. Slowly, she eased them to the side of the open area drawing the Minotaur's attention with them.
"Ah, you'll make a nice dessert after I finish devouring her," the Minotaur pointed at Minya. "She's nice and plump. Just right for my main course."
Joxer slipped out from the corridor and inched his way in the opposite direction of Diana and Minya. He passed the mouth of one passage then another and finally a third until he came to the one the Minotaur was blocking.
"I'd like to see you try," Minya glared at the monster.
"Alright," the Minotaur charged toward the women.
"Now, Joxer," Diana yelled.
Joxer threw his body in front of the Minotaur, aiming for the beast's knees. At the same time, Diana grabbed Minya and started running for the unguarded corridor.
The Minotaur was too surprised by his anticipated meal's actions that he failed to see the wanna-be warrior. He lunged for the women only to have his legs knocked out from under him and tumbled to the ground.
"Come on, Joxer," Diana cried, stopping to pull her accomplice free of the Minotaur's weight.
Minya also bent down to help and it wasn't long before the trio was running down the corridor to the cheers of the spectators with the Minotaur raging behind them.
"Will he follow us?" Minya asked, glancing back over her shoulder.
"I don't think so," Diana said, trying to spot any new dangers they might be running into. "He was a challenge that we got past. I don't think we have to worry about him anymore," she said, slowing her pace to a walk.
Slowing so as not to overrun the Amazon, Joxer took a final look behind them to make sure the Minotaur wasn't chasing them. "Until we have to get back out of here," he added.
"That was pretty smart," Gabrielle smiled.
"Lucky, if you ask me," Xena slouched disappointedly back in her throne-chair. "If I had asked Joxer to do something like that, he would have bungled it for sure."
"You sticking up for him again?" Xena asked.
"Here, eat this," the bard shoved an apple in Xena's mouth.
"Good," Xena said after taking a big bite out of the fruit and swiping at the juice running down her chin. "But I've really got an appetite for something a little sweeter," she smirked, looking at her lover.
"You're bad," Gabrielle laughed.
"That's not what you said last night," Xena looked back toward the maze, a self-gratifying grin on her face. "Or this morning."
Gabrielle felt her cheeks grow warm with the blush her lover's comments were causing. She leaned back in the throne-chair, reaching over to take the warrior's hand. "You are definitely bad," she giggled.
"And you love me in spite of it," Xena smiled, entwining her fingers with the bard's.
The trio carefully made their way down the corridor and turned right when they made it to the end as that was their only choice for continuing. The new corridor traveled approximately twenty paces before opening into another junction.
Minya was the first to step into the open. She stopped abruptly when she saw a man was sitting on a chair in the middle of the open space, humming to himself. "Who are you?" she asked, staring at the man guardedly.
"Who are you?" the man responded.
The man smiled and returned to his humming.
Joxer walked into the opening. "Who are you?" he asked the man.
"Who are you?" the man again responded.
Diana then joined the others. She ignored the man, choosing instead to study their choices as six corridors intersected at this junction. She knew she could eliminate the one they had come down to get there but which of the other five would lead them to the children? She finally looked at the man, "do you know which corridor we need to follow?"
"The corridor that will take you to the children," the man said, matter-of-factly.
"And which one would that be?"
"An interesting question, don't you think?" the man smiled.
"We don't have time for games," Minya glared at the man. "Tell us so we can rescue the children."
"And if I don't?"
"You don't want to mess with me," Minya threatened. "I know how to use Xena's pinch."
"Oh, please," Xena rolled her eyes.
"She's bluffing," Gabrielle whispered, intently watching the exchange taking place in the labyrinth.
"No, really?" Xena smirked.
"Hush or I'll put the pinch on you."
"It could be you need to go down that one," the man pointed to a corridor. "Or that one. Or maybe it's that one."
Diana uncoiled the length of rope around her waist.
"You going to tie him up until he talks?" Joxer asked, watching the Amazon curiously.
"No, I'm going to ask him to tell us which passageway to take."
"Haven't you been listening," Minya said, disgustedly. "He won't tell us."
"I think he will," Diana said, holding her arm out with the rope looped and hanging limp in her hand. With a flip of the wrist, she tossed the loop over the man's head and it pulled it tight as it settled around his shoulders.
The man looked down at the rope then up at the Amazon and laughed. "I still won't tell you."
"Which corridor will take us to the children?" Diana asked, calmly.
"That one," the man pointed to the corridor in front of him.
"Are there any more traps between here and the children?"
"Thank you," Diane smiled at the man as she loosened the rope and retrieved it. "Come on," she said to Joxer and Minya, hurrying toward the passageway the man had indicated.
"Wait," Minya called after Diana. "How do we know he told the truth?"
"Good question," Xena muttered.
"Because he can't lie to the Lasso of Truth," Diane called back, running down the corridor.
"The Lasso of Truth," Gabrielle repeated, looking at the warrior. "What's that?"
"Don't know," Xena shrugged. "But it seems your Princess Diana has a few secrets she has yet to reveal."
Diana led the way along the passageway and through its twists and turns. Joxer and Minya were panting heavily when the trio rounded a final turn to find the solid cage sitting in the middle of an open square.
"Finally," Minya exclaimed, slowing to a walk.
Joxer stopped in his tracks when he saw they had reached their destination. He bent over at the waist to try and catch his breath, his home-made armor hanging askew after being bounced loose as he ran.
"How do we get inside?" Minya asked, walking around the window and door-less wooden box.
Diana stood looking up to the top of the cage approximately ten feet above her head. "We need to get up there," she pointed upward.
"Why?" Minya asked.
"Because that is where we'll find the way in," Diana said. "Joxer come here.
Still breathing hard, Joxer dragged himself over to the women.
"Here's what I need you to do," Diana said then began to explain what she expected of the pair.
"Clever," Xena smiled as she watched the Amazon direct Joxer and Minya into their positions.
"What is she going to do?" Gabrielle asked.
"You'll see," Xena smirked.
Minya and Joxer stood shoulder to shoulder about three paces in front of the box with Diana facing them. They were bent over at the waist, their cupped hands placed in front of them at knee height.
"Ready?" Diana asked. When the pair nodded to the affirmative, she stepped into their cupped hands. "Now," she instructed.
Minya and Joxer straightened up together, their arms thrusting skyward to toss Diana up to the top of the cage where she landed lightly on her feet.
Diana immediately saw the trap door in the center of the cage top. Kneeling down she unhooked the chain preventing anyone inside the cage from pushing it open and pulled it free. Looking inside she saw a ladder leading down and four concerned faces looking up.
"Hi," Diana smiled. "I'm coming down to help you out of there."
Before she could place a booted foot on the first rung of the ladder, the four children scramble up it to stand beside her on the roof.
It took only a few minutes for the Amazon to lower the children down to Joxer's and Minya's upraised arms. Before she joined the others, Diana used the advantage of being on top of the cage to survey the layout of the labyrinth and try to find the fastest route back out of it. She could see the Minotaur's horns as he paced anxiously awaiting their return. She could also see other hazards that she knew would have to be avoided if they were to get the children to safety. Then she noticed the tree trunks that made up the walls of the maze and an idea came to her. Returning to the trap door, she pulled the ladder free and carried it to the edge of the roof. Stepping off, she dropped lightly to the ground.
"Come on," Minya told the children as soon as Diana rejoined them. "Let's get out of here."
"Wait," Diana said, stopping the other woman from leading the children back through the labyrinth. "There's a better way. And safer. But you're going to have to be very brave," she knelt down to talk to the children face-to-face. Drawing two parallel lines in the dirt, she asked, "can you walk between these lines?"
The children and Joxer nodded.
"Show me," Diana said.
"What is she planning to do now?" Gabrielle asked as she watched the children take turns walking between the lines drawn the length of Xena's boot apart.
"I think she's figured out the best way out of the maze."
"Which would be?"
"Not to go through it at all."
"Xena, how can they get out of the maze if they don't go back through it?"
"By going over it," the warrior explained mysteriously.
"Good," Diana said as the last child completed the test. "That was easy, wasn't it?"
The children nodded.
"Now do you think you can do the same thing up there," Diana pointed to the top of the nearest log wall.
"That's awfully high," one of the children gasped, looking up.
"Yes, it is," Diana agreed. "But the top of those walls is flat and the trunks are just as wide as these two lines. You saw how easy it was to walk between them here and it'll be just as easy up there.
"But how do we get up there?" another child asked.
"With that," Diana pointed to the ladder now lying in the dirt. She stood up. Lifting the ladder, she carried it to the end of one of the log walls and leaned it against the tree trunk. "We climb up the ladder to the top of the wall. Then we walk out of the labyrinth. Easy."
"I don't know," Joxer began. "Oof," he winced when Minya's elbow connected with his stomach stopping any further complaint.
Minya smiled at the children. "And up there we don't have to worry about any traps or poison darts or Minotaurs. We'll just walk right past them. Let's go."
"Minya is right," Diana told the children. "It might look scary from here but you just pretend you're walking between these two lines and you find out its not. Okay?"
"Okay," the first child said. "I don't want to fight any Minotaurs."
"Good," Diana smiled. "Minya, you go first. Then two children, then Joxer, the other children and I'll go last.
Minya was halfway up the ladder when Diana finished. To the growing cheers of the spectators, she led the group along the top of the log walls picking the most direct route out of the maze.
"Looks like we have our winners," Xena smiled. "Want to go down and meet them when they finish?"
"Just what I was thinking," Gabrielle nodded, grinning. "Who'd have guessed Minya and Joxer would have made it all the way?" she asked, pushing herself up from her throne-chair.
"Well, they did have some help," Xena said, slipping her arm around Gabrielle's waist to pull her close.
"Yes," Gabrielle leaned into the embrace. "But Diana couldn't have done it without them."
"I'm not so sure of that," Xena murmured as she pressed her lips against the bard's.
Xena and Gabrielle were waiting with Salmoneus when the three remaining contestants successfully lead the children to safety.
The coliseum was rocking with thunderous clapping of hands and stomping of boots and Salmoneus had to scream to be heard above the noise.
"Congratulations," he shouted as Minya descended a ramp hastily constructed to allow the contestants and children an easy way down from the height of the wall. "You have successfully passed the final challenge." He rushed forward to greet Minya, shaking her hands vigorously until Joxer came within reach then he directed his enthusiasm at the wanna-be warrior.
Diana descended the ramp and gracefully skirted around Salmoneus.
"Well done," Xena acknowledged the Amazon with a nod of the head.
"Thank you. But I did have some help," Diana smiled.
"Somehow," Xena smiled, knowingly. "I don't think you needed any."
"Perhaps," Diane said.
Gabrielle listened to the exchange curiously. She wondered if the warrior knew something about the Amazon that she did not.
"Queen Gabrielle," Diana saluted.
"Diana," Gabrielle hugged the Amazon, deciding to wait until later to question her bondmate about the strange conversation. "I'm so proud of you."
"I'm proud to have served the Nation," Diana shrugged self-consciously, embarrassed by the Queen's embrace.
"Enough of that," Salmoneus interrupted the women. "Enough of that. Children, you may return to your families," he watched them run away. "Now the moment you have been waiting for," he addressed the spectators who had quieted enough that he no longer had to scream to be heard. "It is time to proclaim the winner of the SuperHero challenge. Or, should I say, the winners."
"Um," Joxer stepped forward. "Before you get to that, I think I should say thanks but no thanks."
"Joxer?" Gabrielle looked at the wanna-be warrior in surprise. "I thought you always wanted to be a hero?"
"I did," Joxer said. "But that was before I met Meg. I guess I learned that there are more important things than running around the known world helping out strangers." He turned to look at his wife and seven children.
"Family is very important," Gabrielle said. Feeling a strong arm encircle her waist, she leaned against Xena. "I'm sure Meg will be pleased to have such a brave man at home protecting her family."
"Especially now that we're having another baby," Joxer said proudly. "Thanks, Xena. Thanks, Gabby. It's been fun but I think I'll pass on being the SuperHero. At least for a while," he said. "Bye, Minya. Bye, Diana. If you get in a bind, you can always send for me," he generously offered the Amazon.
"I'll keep that in mind," Diana grinned.
"Ugh," Xena shivered as the wanna-be warrior ran to join his family watching from their seats. "Another one. Does he plan to populate the known world with little Joxers?"
"They're not that bad," Gabrielle snickered. "At least, not the ones that didn't inherit his lack of coordination and good sense."
"Are you forgetting that the ones that aren't like him are like Meg?" Xena groaned.
"Not all of them," Gabrielle laughed.
"Oh, right," Xena groaned louder. "You must be talking about the ones that are like Joxer AND Meg. Someone may have to protect the known world from them," she smirked.
"I'm sure Minya and Diana will take care of that," Gabrielle told the warrior.
"Don't count on me," Minya said. "This SuperHero stuff is a bit more exciting than I figured. I'm going home."
"But Minya," Xena protested. Suddenly, the possibility that she and Gabrielle might not be able to retire was becoming too real. "All you've ever wanted to do was get away from your boring little village."
"Joxer is right," Minya shrugged. "There are more important things than saving strangers. And much safer too. Bye."
"Wait," Xena called after the woman. When Minya didn't respond, she turned to Diana. "You're not going to chicken out too?" she glared at the Amazon. "Are you?"
"No," Diana smiled. "I wouldn't have entered the contest if I didn't plan to win and take your place."
"I'm not sure I like the sound of that," Xena frowned.
"Hush, sweetheart," Gabrielle whispered. "I'm sure she didn't mean it the way it sounded. And she'll make a fine SuperHero, won't she Salmoneus?" she asked the rotund man who had been incredulously observing the winners walk away from their earned glory.
"So, um…" Salmoneus stuttered. "I guess that makes Princess Diana of the Amazon Nation our winner. I present to you your new SuperHero," he told the spectators then paused. "What do we call her?" Salmoneus whispered to Xena and Gabrielle.
"What do you mean?" Xena whispered back.
"Well we can't call her Warrior Princess because that's you. And we can't call her Battling Bard because that's Gabrielle."
"I thought you would have already figured out what to call the woman," Xena shook her head in amazement. "It's a wonder I let you talk us into these things."
"That's it," Salmoneus shrieked.
"That's what?" Xena looked around to see what had happened to cause the man to react so.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," Salmoneus officiously informed the spectators. "I present to you the new protector of the known world……..DIANA, WONDER WOMAN!!!"
"You ready?" Xena asked, hoisting her bulging saddlebags onto her shoulder.
"Yes," Gabrielle bent down to pick her bag off the dock they were standing on. "But I'm not too thrilled about having to take a boat to get to Lesbos."
"Sorry, but Argo can't swim that far," Xena smirked, tightening her hold on the golden horse's rein as she started to lead her up the gang plank. "Just remember that this is you last trip on a boat. That should help."
"It'll help when we reach Lesbos and I can stand on firm ground again," Gabrielle grumbled, following the warrior and horse onto the ship that would take them to their retirement. "Do you think Diana can handle being the known world's only SuperHero?"
"I think she'll be just fine."
"You never explained that conversation you had with her."
"I know," Xena smiled to herself as she guided Argo through the bedlam of sailors struggling to secure cargo and to the nice stall she'd arranged for the mare below the deck.
"Hey, sis," Aphrodite materialized beside Artemis who was watching the ship pull away from the docks. "Love the outfit," she took her time to appreciate the red, white and blue material that barely covered the body of the Goddess. "Very catchy. Goes with your new name too, Wonder Woman."
"Thanks," Artemis smiled.
"That was a nice thing you did," Aphrodite set on the crate beside her sister.
"They deserve to have some time for themselves."
"It's going to be a lot of work."
"I think I can handle it."
"You can always send for Joxer if you get desperate," Aphrodite giggled.
"I'll try never to get that desperate," Artemis laughed.
The Goddesses watched the ship's sails unfurl, billowing out as they filled with the light breeze blowing.
"You're going to grant Xena's request, aren't you?" Artemis asked the Goddess of Love.
"Sure but I'll need help. It's a bit more than my powers can handle."
"You know I'll help. What about Athena?"
"She's just waiting for us to call her."
"Bet they make really cute babies," Aphrodite beamed. "I can't wait to see them."
"HELP," a man's voice floated down the dock. "Help, I can't swim."
"Duty calls," Artemis looked in the direction the shouts were coming from.
"Have fun," Aphrodite called after her sister as she ran to help.
"Where's Xena?" a woman cried out.
"We don't need them," someone shouted. "Look, its Wonder Woman. She'll save him."
"How quickly they forget," Aphrodite thought as she disappeared from sight.
Xena and Gabrielle retired to Lesbos where they lived peacefully except for those occasions when Joxer and Meg brought their family for a visit. Sapphos eventually was forced to ban the wanna-be warrior and his mischievous brood from the island. Afterward, Xena and Gabrielle did live peacefully for many, many years – surrounded by their daughters and granddaughters.
No harm was done or disrespect intended to the legends of Artemis (Princess Diana of the Amazon Nation); Wonder Woman; Apprentice; Weakest Link; or Martha Stewart.
Ok…. maybe a little to Martha.
Created by William Moulton and Elizabeth (Sadie) Holloway Marston, Wonder Woman was portrayed as Princess Diana of the Amazon warrior tribe of Greek mythology. Based on Artemis, Diana is her Roman name.