by Nene Adams ©1998 - All rights reserved
The storyteller speaks:
Once, so long ago that the seasons' turnings are as uncountable as the stars, Xena, the Deliverer of Justice, and her companion Gabrielle, Queen of Amazons and famed bard, rested one night beside a blazing fire.
''Xena,'' said Gabrielle, whose mighty appetite had lately been quelled by the offerings of roast rabbit, roots and sweet berries, ''tell me, if thou wilt, a tale of thine younger days, when thou wast a fearsome warlord.''
For in truth, the bard grew never weary of hearing the amazing stories spun by her normally taciturn friend.
''I believe I have told thee the full measure of such tales, '' replied Xena with a smile.
''I cannot believe thou hast told me of ALL thine adventures,'' challenged Gabrielle, returning her companion's smile. ''I beg of thee, just one before we retire for the night.''
''Very well.'' Xena was defeated by the bard's grin and charming plea, but there had never been any real doubt that her friend and love had the warrior's heartstrings wrapped about her smallest finger. Xena could deny Gabrielle nothing.
And so began a curious tale of a warlord named Xena - and three terrible thieves...
It was early in my career as a warlord; I really couldn't have called myself that, since I didn't have much of an army to lead then. A bunch of raggle- taggle, half-trained former plowboys and shepherds; up until that time, our victories had been due more to Fortuna's smile than skill.
At any rate, I decided that what I needed to do was hire mercenaries. Professional swordsmen whose respect I could gain, and use to my own ends. First I'd purchase their loyalty, then I'd win it. The problem was money; I didn't have enough ready cash, and everybody knows that while an army might march on its stomach, a mercenary marches only for cold, hard dinars. That's when I thought of the Ursae.
Ursa Major, his wife Ursa Minor, and their daughter, Ursula, were the three best thieves in Greece. Yes, I know Autolycus calls himself the King of Thieves, but believe me, he's a wet-bottomed baby compared to the Ursae. They'd managed to steal a ruby from a temple of Aphrodite - it was called the Dragon's Heart. Big as a fist, it was said said, and priceless. More than worth its weight in gold. So I decided to steal the jewel from the Ursae and use that to finance my new army.
I couldn't confront them directly; they had their own band of cut-throats who guarded them and their ill gotten goods. I would have to use stealth and cunning instead of brute force.
I left my army camped some miles away, and walked to their lair, which was in a huge cave. I'd taken the precaution of going disguised; I wore a blonde wig and a dress, and called myself Comachrysos, which if you know your Latin, means ''Golden Hair.'' Not very original, I admit, but I don't have a bard's imagination.
I found the cave, no problem. A very friendly guard let me go in, and I got myself a place as the cook's helper.
(''You? A cook?'' Gabrielle giggled.)
Do you want me to finish the story or not? Anyway, I waited for a few days before I made my move. The Ursae always had pulse porridge for the mid-day meal; probably because they gorged like pigs at breakfast and dinner. They were all huge people, Gabrielle. Even Ursula was over six feet tall and built like a... well, let's just say she was an incredibly healthy girl. Big boned. Hefty. But pretty... er, if you like that sort of thing.
I knocked out the chief cook, then deliberately heated that porridge until it was practically boiling out of the bowls. I served it and sat back to wait.
Needless to say, the Ursae quickly figured out their porridge was too hot to eat, so they took my suggestion and went for a nice walk in the woods to let their food cool.
I checked everywhere; I turned the place upside down, but there was no sign of the jewel. All that searching made me hungry, so I tried Ursa Major's porridge, but it was still too hot. Ursa Minor's was too cold. But Ursula's was just right, so before I knew it, I'd cleaned out her bowl.
With a full stomach at last, I went back to digging. The last place I checked was their bedrooms. Ursa Major's bed was hard as a rock, and I didn't find anything there. Ursa Minor's was so soft, I thought I'd drown in all the feathers, but there wasn't any sign of the Dragon's Heart there, either. Finally, I checked Ursula's bed. Yep. You guessed it. Nice firm rush mattress, great for the spine. And one enormous ruby.
(Gabrielle moved around to the other side of the fire and snuggled up beneath Xena's arm. Her eyes were wide as saucers as she listened to this fascinating tale.)
Unfortunately, I hadn't reckoned on the Ursae finishing their walk so quickly. I heard them come into the cave, and I didn't have any time to find a hiding place. So I dived beneath the covers of Ursula's bed - she had a lot of pillows, and I figured one more lump wouldn't make much difference - and held my breath. I'd left my sword with my second-in-command, and if I was caught... well, the last person who'd stolen from the Ursae ended up choking to death on certain anatomical parts... and the local constabulary ruled it suicide.
I heard Ursa Major say, ''Somebody's been eating my porridge!''
Ursa Minor, good little echo that she was, said, ''Somebody's been eating my porridge!''
And Ursula piped up: ''Somebody's been eating my porridge, too, and they ate it all up, may Harpies devour their entrails!''
See, Ursula was a big, healthy girl who really enjoyed her daily bread.. and roasts, and pickles, and olive oil... but you get the picture.
I waited, holding my breath...
Then I heard the sound of heavy feet tromping along the passageway. ''Somebody's been sleeping in my bed!'' hollered Ursa Major.
''Somebody's been sleeping in my bed, too!'' shrilled Ursa Minor.
I felt a hand descend upon my hidden body... I closed my eyes, figuring I was as good as dead. I heard Ursula say, ''Somebody's been sleeping in my bed, too! But it looks like they're gone and nothing's missing, so that's okay.''
I let out the breath I'd been holding, and listened to two sets of feet stomp off down the hallway. But the hand on my body didn't relax its grip, and slowly, the blanket was drawn off me.
Ursula was standing there with a peculiar expression on her face. ''You're after the ruby, huh?''
''Well, I can't let you get away with it, you know.'' Her eyes sparkled with some unidentifiable emotion, and her magnificent... er, very large and impressive bosoms heaved beneath her tunic. ''However, since I've just saved your life, you owe me something.''
I nodded again. She was right; one scream from her and all Hades would have descended on my unprotected head.
She smiled hugely. ''Since you agree,'' she said, ''let me make a little, uh, proposition...''
In the end, we made a bargain, she and I. And I snuck out of the cave that night, carrying the ruby with me.
I made it back to my army and the rest is history.
The storyteller speaks:
''Xena!,'' said the bard, all a-quiver. ''What happened betwixt thyself and the girl Ursula?''
The warrior blushed... or perhaps it was but the heat of the fire that gilded her cheek so becomingly. ''Must we speak of that, Gabrielle?,'' she replied. ''I gave her something she wanted, and after sleep claimed her was I able to make my escape.''
''After sleep claimed her? Xena, I understand this not! Dost thou mean to say that thou...''
Xena nodded again.
Gabrielle was non-plussed. For many moments, it was clear that astonishment had siezed her tongue. ''But how didst thou escape with the jewel?''
''I swallowed it.''
Again, the bard quivered. ''Thou didst what?''
Xena blushed again - or did the fire lay once more a heated hand 'gainst her noble brow? ''There truly wast no choice, Gabrielle. I had no other place of concealment where Ursula might not discover the ruby and displace my scheme.''
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. ''I see.''
There was silence.
After a while, Xena spoke a final time. ''T'was not the swallowing that proved a difficulty - t'was retrieving the gods-cursed thing that nearly proved my downfall!''
At last, unable to hold back any longer, the bard's silvery laughter took flight...
And the two sought their bedroll beneath the stars.
Please comment to Nene Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org