by Nene Adams
PART I: GOOD NEWS TRAVELS FAST
"Oh, my goodness!"
‘‘What is it, bardie-poo?’’ Xena looked over Gabrielle’s shoulder; the bard had received a scroll delivered by special horse courier a few moments ago.
‘‘I... I... oh, dream rabbit!!’’ The bard’s green eyes quickly scanned the heiratic text and suddenly the strawberry blonde woman leaped straight up into the air, clicking her heels together like the demented, porcinus-tailed star of that popular Etruscan play, The Sorcerer of Odd, and shouted, ‘‘Eureka!’’
‘‘Uh, Gabrielle?,’’ the dark-haired warrior ventured when her lifemate had both feet firmly on terra firma again. ‘‘What’s with the Archimedan exclamation?’’
‘‘Oh, dream rabbit! It’s so exciting!’’ Gabrielle crushed the scroll to her chest, her eyes shining like stars. ‘‘We’re gonna be rich! Rich, rich, rich!’’ She did a little dance reminiscent of a beheaded chicken afflicted with the Ceasarian disease, and was on the verge of doing her version of the Jesse O’Wen’s standing broad jump when Xena cleared her throat.
‘‘Erhem!,’’ the warrior coughed, and both women winced at this reminder of Captain Schtubing, the Lust Boat guide in their last adventure. ‘‘Sorry, Gabrielle. What do you mean, rich?’’
‘‘It’s my Uncle Bingo!’’
Gabrielle replied in an exasperated fashion, ‘‘You know, my Uncle Bingo! Gosh, Xena, I’ve only talked about him a thousand times! He’s my cousin’s sister’s nanny’s mother’s brother-in-law twice removed.’’ The bard sighed. ‘‘He was absolutely rolling in dinars! Inherited them from his grandfather, the chicken-on-a-stick magnate, vir militaris Sandersian.’’
‘‘Oh.’’ Xena thought a minute, then said, ‘‘Okay, so what’s this Bingo’s connection to you?’’ Her brain was still swirling, trying to make the genealogical connection between her bard and this Bingo fellow. And what the Hades kinda name was ‘Bingo’ anyway?
Gabrielle sighed again. ‘‘Look, Xena, it’s really quite simple. Uncle Bingo - actually, his name was Catholicus but he was nicknamed ‘Bingo’ after the family dog - they had a farm in the Sabine Hills - anyway, he was my cousin Emeretis’ sister Fabula’s...’’
Xena interrupted. ‘‘Never mind, Gabrielle. My brain hurts.’’ She rubbed her temples with her hand. ‘‘So, what’s in the scroll?’’
‘‘That’s what I was trying to explain! Uncle Bingo - like I said, he was richer than Croesus - made out a will and I’m in it!’’
‘‘Yes, really! I was his favorite niece, after all. We just have to go to his summer home for the reading of the will, and then, my precious dream rabbit, we can go to Athens and party like it’s 999!’’
‘‘Gabrielle, are you sure this is a good idea? I mean, I’ve heard stories about the sort of stuff relatives do when there’s a will. You know - knives in the dark, poison in the cup, that sort of thing. Wouldn’t you rather just forget the whole idea? We could play Brittanic Belly Bouncing...’’ Xena hefted the saddlebag that contained all their wonderful toys (except for Item #3, which had spontaneously combusted one night during an epic bout of Alexandrian Apple Bobbing) and smiled suggestively. ‘‘I polished up #48 with the racing stripes just for you!’’
Gabrielle was torn. On the one hand, her Libido was screaming at her to take Xena up on her offer to fool around, and on the other hand, Greed and Practicality, for once agreed on a subject, were equally verbose in demanding she go collect the loot. After a moment, the bard sighed regretfully; Greed and Practicality won, having hired Passion to lick Libido into submission. ‘‘No, I’m sorry, dream rabbit. Much as I’d like to visit the bushes, I think this is important.’’
Xena kicked an innocent rock with one toe. ‘‘Pooh!,’’ she exclaimed.
...the rock, having recognized the famed warrior princess, immediately contacted the legal team of Macator, Metellus and Nerva to begin instituting proceedings against Xena for assault and battery, mental cruelty and general emotional distress. It was asking a million dinarii; a Roman judge, that hard-nosed Agelastus (known as the ‘Tarpeian Rock’) threw the case out and fined the rock a hundred dinarii for wasting the court’s time. The rock attempted to counter-sue, but was defeated when it was summarily used by a peasant to complete a wall. Currently, the rock is scheduled to make an appearance on Court Populi with Judge Wapnerius...
‘‘Oh, Xena!,’’ Gabrielle said, ‘‘Don’t be such a podex! It won’t take long... and I’ll bet Uncle Bingo’s place has really thick walls!’’
Xena looked up, her pale blue eyes glistening. ‘‘Oh, really? And just how do you know that?’’
The bard looked smug. ‘‘Because it’s called the Old Stone Fort, that’s why! Aw, c’mon, dream rabbit! It’s just a teensy widdle twip up to bee-you-tee-full Cumae, and a coupla days being waited on hand and foot by Uncle Bingo’s servants. Then I get the money and we’re outta there!’’
‘‘Oh, all right.’’ Xena momentarily considered pouting but decided it didn’t fit her tough warrior image. ‘‘Is the house in Cumae itself? I hate that place. Full of stuck up Roman patricians with their noses in the air, and their fussy, flirty wives. Ugh!’’
‘‘Er... actually, it’s about five leagues from Cumae itself. Uncle Bingo’s place is pretty isolated from what I know. The letter does have complete instructions, though.’’
‘‘Yeah, I thought it might. Those Vestal Virgins are fairly organized for a bunch of women who’ve never been closer to a mentula than the family herms.’’
Gabrielle looked shocked. ‘‘Well, I should hope they’ve only been exposed to sculpted genitalia! If they’d actually been close enough to a man to see his mentula, then they wouldn’t be virgins anymore, would they?’’
Xena nodded knowingly. ‘‘S’pecially in Rome. So, the will’s lodged with the Vestals... who’s the representative of the probate court?’’
‘‘Umm.... Says here Lucius Ravilla. Then we’re going?’’
Xena squared her shoulders, then tossed the special saddlebag on Argo’s back. ‘‘Yep. Let’s burn some daylight, bardie-poo. If we quick march, we can get there before full dark.’’
Gabrielle giggled gleefully. ‘‘Oh, dream rabbit! I’m gonna buy you the world!,’’ she said, managing with Xena’s help to clamber up on the golden warhorse.
‘‘Well, sweet knees, you can start by replacing poor old #3 - remember? The one with the rotating bushy thing - it was my personal favorite.’’ Xena gracefully swung herself up on Argo, settling down in the saddle in front of her bard, then kicked the warhorse lightly. ‘‘C’mon, Argo! Let’s ride!’’
As they trotted down the trail, leaving a cloud of dust behind them,
neither woman was aware of a presence that watched... and chuckled to itself
softly as it contemplated the awful fate awaiting the warrior princess
and the amazon bard.
PART II: SOMEBODY’S WATCHING ME
The woods were quiet... sort of. Gabrielle was amazed at how, once the two women entered the forest known as Tallulahn Bankhead Woods, the sun seemed to be blotted out by the curiously leafless branches of twisted and gnarled trees. Tiny red eyes peered out at them from the underbrush, and a continuous current of strange mutterings, squeaks and howls accompanied their passage along the torturously knotted trail.
‘‘Um, Xena?’’ Gabrielle’s voice had a tiny tremor.
‘‘What’s the matter, bardie-poo?’’ Xena, hardened warrior that she was, was completely oblivious to atmosphere.
‘‘Is it really, really spooky in here or is it just me?’’ The bard’s green eyes were as round as nomadic pocket-bread, and her grip on Xena’s waist had tightened until the reinforced leather creaked.
Xena contemplated their surroundings for a moment, cocking her head to one side. ‘‘Nope,’’ she replied with a shrug, and urged Argo on with her heel.
Xena’s indifference did nothing to ease Gabrielle’s fears. She peered around, her heart beginning to beat faster with each strange sight or noise... Suddenly, the bard shrieked, ‘‘WHAT’S THAT!’’
It took a few seconds for the ringing in Xena’s ears to subside. Shaking her head, she said, ‘‘You know, Gabrielle, I really wish you wouldn’t do that!’’ Shifting in the saddle so she could see her bard, Xena continued, ‘‘Okay. What’s the problem now?’’
Gabrielle pointed with one shaking finger. ‘‘T-t-t-t-hat!,’’ she stammered.
The warrior’s ice blue eyes followed the line of the pointing finger. Nailed to a tree was a human skeleton, the mouth of the grinning skull opened in a silent scream of agony. A rusty sword with a jagged-edged blade had been thrust through the rib cage and around the skeleton’s neck hung a sign.
Despite Gabrielle’s protests, Xena guided Argo closer to the grisly signpost. Finally reaching it, Xena read aloud, ‘‘Please do not feed the demons, monsters or bears.’’ Oh, Hades!,’’ the warrior exclaimed.
Gabrielle managed to tighten her deathgrip on Xena’s waist. ‘‘D-d-d-emons? M-m-m-monsters? Oh, Xena!,’’ she wailed. ‘‘I don’t like this at all!’’
‘‘Neither do I,’’ the dark-haired warrior said nervously, eyes darting in every direction. ‘‘I hate bears. Nasty, ill-tempered brutes... always eating honey... living in treehouses... playing with Tiggers and Christopher Robins... gods! Give me Echidna any day!’’
After a vigilant moment, Xena relaxed. ‘‘Okay, bardie-poo... I don’t sense any bears, so we’re safe for the moment. This must be the sign we were told to look for. What are the rest of the directions?’’
Gabrielle unrolled the scroll with shaking hands. ‘‘Er... left at Deadman’s Curve, go east until you reach the Bloodsoaked Brook; look for a lightning blasted tree call the Witch's Signpost, then go north to the Old Stone Fort.’’
‘‘Sounds easy enough. Look, while we’re stopped, do you need to visit the minimus porcella’s room?’’
‘‘No, I do not. Honestly, Xena, my bladder’s the normal size, you know.’’ Gabrielle sounded indignant.
‘‘Okay, okay, just checking! Zeus, it’s just that every time we take a trip anywhere, every few candlemarks you’re wanting to drain the saurus.’’
‘‘For your information, Miss I-Can-Hold-It-Longer-Than-You, it’s the jogging up and down on this knock-kneed nag of yours that jiggles my bladder. You’re the one whose obviously abnormal. And furthermore, if I have a saurus to drain, it’ll be a huge surprise to my mother.’’ Gabrielle, having gotten over her fright, was obviously spoiling for a fight.
Xena kicked Argo into motion again, and retorted, ‘‘It’s just a stupid military expression. Of course, you wouldn’t know anything about that!’’
Gabrielle drew in a breath. ‘‘You’re absolutely right. When you were out conquering innocent villages, oh mighty warlord, I was learning the womanly arts in Potiedia!’’
The fight was getting dirty; the bard had been the first to land a below-the-belly punch. Xena opened her mouth, preparing to blast the bard out of the saddle with some choice invective, when a noise caused both women to start in surprise.
‘‘Go back! Go back! Go back before it’s too late!’’ The voice was thin and wailing, and seemed to come from every direction at once.
Xena reigned in Argo and they sat there for a moment. Finally, Gabrielle said in a small voice, ‘‘Did you hear that?’’
Xena set her jaw. ‘‘Hear what, bardie-poo?,’’ she asked mildly.
‘‘Oh. Nothing.’’ Gabrielle pressed herself against the warrior’s back as tightly as she could. ‘‘Do you think we can go any faster?’’
‘‘Yep.’’ Without another word, Xena’s boot urged the golden warhorse into a gallop, and they flew down the trail, strawberry-blonde and ebony hair co-mingling in the wind from their passage.
There were no more frights or surprises until they reached Bloodsoaked Brook.
‘‘Um... you know,’’ Gabrielle said, eyeing the rushing, crimson water askance, ‘‘I thought the name was hyperbole or something.’’
Whatever hyperbole was, Xena knew better than to ask. ‘‘Right. I guess they believe in truth in advertising around here.’’
Gabrielle nodded. The brook didn’t babble; it murmured darkly, apparently in words of an unknown origin that the mind shuddered back from understanding. ‘‘Can we leave, please?’’
‘‘Huh?’’ Xena had been momentarily transfixed by the rush of the bloody water; shaking her head, she nudged Argo and they trotted away from the gruesome sight. ‘‘Sorry. Just brought back some memories, I guess.’’
Since Gabrielle could only imagine what those memories might be, she refrained from asking. Too much information is a bad thing, she thought.
They continued their journey in silence, until in a few candlemarks,
the two women arrived at the Old Stone Fort... and the strange and frightening
destiny that awaited them there.
PART III: ROUND ABOUT THE CAULDRON
The Old Stone Fort had been well named. It was a massive pile of rock, vaguely shaped like a house of some sort that had been melted, patted into place by inexpert hands, and solidified by a god with a warped sense of humor. Xena was immediately struck by how a pair of high windows and the door seemed to form a face... a face that scowled dreadfully, unwelcoming and menacing.
Both women sat there for a moment, staring at the imposing edifice. Who knows what thought were swirling in nebulous fashion through their brains?
...Xena was thinking: ‘‘Hmmm... if I were sieging this place, I’d send a digging crew to the west wall... that looks to be the weakest place... heavily fortified, though... Zeus, with a handful of men and a good water supply, I could occupy and defend that place forever!... wonder what’s inside? Bingo was rich... ‘‘
At this point, the warrior’s Conscience and Sense of Duty were delivering a few choice and rather pointed reminders of Xena’s bad old warlord days, along with the details of her vow of redemption. Xena flushed and her hands tightened on Argo’s reins as she firmly put down Avarice, Bloodlust and myriad other negative emotions associated with the former Warrior Princess, and with head held high and pale blue eyes alight, silently renewed her oath to help the weak, aid the less fortunate, and generally indulge in unexpected acts of kindness wherever she roamed.
...(In short, this was one of those moments when you’d expect to see a golden halo of light shimmering around the hero while a stirring and inspirational paen plays louder and louder, and there’s some sort of flag and a long shot of a clear blue sky and fluffy clouds in the background, and the audience gets all misty eyed and starts bawling into the sinus of their togas and veteran soldiers stand up and salute, and even teenagers making out in the nosebleed section of the Coliseum are jolted out of their hormonal rages for just one, brief moment, and breathe with respectful awe, ‘‘Whoa, dude’’...)
Meanwhile, Gabrielle was thinking: ‘‘Gosh. I wonder if they have indoor latrines.’’
Xena helped Gabrielle dismount and the bard staggered around a few minutes, trying to get the feeling back in her legs. Xena slid down and led Argo and Gabrielle to the door, which was huge and built of iron studded oak.
There was a doorknocker fastened to the front in the shape of a serpent with glowing, yellow-green eyes. Gabrielle wouldn’t have touched it for all the honey-mead in Gaul, but Xena was made of sterner stuff. She grasped the knocker and pounded a brief tattoo. The echoes seemed to ring all around the forest.
When there was no immediate answer, Xena pounded the doorknocker again. And again. And finally gave the door a mighty whack with her fist.
That seemed to bring the desired result. Slowly, the door creaked open, squealing like a hungry piglet at nursing time. A man stood there, and both women took a step backwards.
The man was enormous, a giant, with a curiously flat head, a jagged scar that ran from his hairline to one eyebrow, and a pair of large moles on either side of his neck. His eyes were brown, and the lids were half-closed, giving him a sleepy expression.
His black tunic, though spotless, had obviously not been made to his measure. His wrists jutted from the sleeves, and the hem was ragged. His trousers were also black, and on his large feet he wore boots with cork soles that made him appear even taller.
‘‘Yeth?,’’ he lisped, eyeing the two women disdainfully, as if he thought they were door-to-door salesmen, or perhaps even pre-Jehovah’s Bystanders.
‘‘Um... I’m Gabrielle, Uncle Bingo’s niece. I’ve come for the reading of the will.’’ The bard’s voice was shaky, but she managed to control it enough to speak clearly.
‘‘Oh.’’ The giant thought a moment, then pulled the door open wider. ‘‘Come in, young mith. And your big butch fwend, too.’’
Xena made a face but stayed where she was. ‘‘What about my horse,’’ she asked.
The man turned his head and bellowed, ‘‘Th-wabo! Oh, Th-wabo! We have a horthie for you!’’
A young man appeared. He was scrawny and angular, all knees and elbows. ‘‘Hi,’’ he said miserably. ‘‘I’m Strabo the stableboy. I’ll take your horse, ma’am. Warm mash okay?’’
Reluctantly, Xena nodded and handed over the reins, watching as her precious warhorse was led off to be groomed and fed.
The man at the door watched, too, until Strabo was out of sight. ‘‘Pweath, come in, ladieth.’’ He ushered Gabrielle and Xena inside, then shut the door. ‘‘I’m Gwim, the overtheer.’’ A stout woman with crossed eyes and a bosom like a marble shelf materialized beside him. ‘‘And thith ith my wife, Homithidia, the houthkeeper.’’
Grim and Homicidia? Gabrielle didn’t even want to go there. ‘‘Um, that’s great. You know, we’re both really tired. Maybe if you’d just show us to our room...’’
Homicidia nodded. Her hair was a teased-up mass of unnaturally dyed red, and her teeth seemed far sharper than normal. ‘‘Of course,’’ she said in such a smooth, cultured voice that both women were taken aback. ‘‘Right this way.’’
As she led them up a great stone staircase, the walls hung with antique weapons, armaments and trophies of war, Xena asked, ‘‘So... you lived here long?’’
Homicidia’s head bobbed up and down. ‘‘Yes. All our lives, me and Grim. And his twin brother, too.’’
Gabrielle piped up, ‘‘Twin brother?’’
Homicidia stopped and turned around. For the first time, Xena noticed the housekeeper had a large wart on the end of her nose, and a long silver hair bobbed from the blemish. Xena itched to snatch that hair out by the roots. ‘‘Yes,’’ the housekeeper answered, ‘‘His twin brother. Oriental twins would be my guess, as they’re always together.’’
Gabrielle considered that, perplexed... Then the rushlight dawned. Oh!, she thought. Poor Homicidia. She thinks there’s a twin ‘cause she always sees two of Grim on account of her eyes... ‘‘Um, Homicidia,’’ the bard asked, ‘‘What’s the brother’s name?’’
The housekeeper turned and began plodding up the stairs again. ‘‘Why, it’s Grim, too. At least, both of them answer to it, and I’ve never cared to inquire further.’’
Xena rolled her ice blue eyes but said nothing. The two women followed Homicidia to the second floor of the fort, and down a long hallway lit by torches.
At last, Homicidia opened a door. ‘‘Here you be, ladies. Room number 13, it is. But I warn you... beware of the ghost.’’
‘‘Ulp. What ghost?,’’ Gabrielle asked.
‘‘Why, the ghost of Sandersian, of course. He still roams the house, searching for his lost treasure.’’
t this, Xena’s perked up. Words like ‘treasure’, ‘loot’, and ‘gimme your gold or see the color of your intestines’ still had a powerful attention-getting effect on the former warlord despite her reform. ‘‘Did you say treasure?,’’ the warrior asked, licking her lips.
‘‘Yep. The Sacred Golden Chicken of Illizubah. Sandersian, poor Bingo’s grandpappy, brought it back from the African province on his last campaign. Shortly afterward, he was found in his bed... poor man had been pecked to death by vengeful roosters, says the legend. Personally, I think it was his heart.’’ Homicidia’s eyes glittered in the torchlight... Gabrielle noticed with a start that the woman’s eyes were the madder-red of third-class garnets. The housekeeper continued, ‘‘Yes, many’s the time I’ve seen the old centurian myself, wandering and searching. Master Bingo, he’d seen him too.’’
‘‘Out of curiosity,’’ Xena asked, ‘‘How did Bingo die?’’
Homicidia looked thoughtful. ‘‘Dunno, actually. Me and Grim, we just found him one day, laying in his bed, a twisted look of inhuman horror on his face, no visible marks on his body, the sulpheric odor of the nether regions still clinging to the air... by the way, #13 was his room. Well, good night, ladies, and pleasant dreams!’’ The housekeeper stumped off, leaving Gabrielle and Xena staring at one another.
‘‘Uh, Xena?,’’ Gabrielle asked, green eyes doing their nomadic-pocket-bread thingy again. ‘‘Next time you tell me something isn’t a good idea, I’ll believe you.’’
Xena laid a comforting arm around the bard’s shoulders. ‘‘Shhhh, bardie-poo. Your widdle dweam wabbit will protect you fwom aww the bad, nasty ghosties.’’
Gabrielle’s lip twisted and she gave her warrior lifemate a look of sheer disgust. ‘‘Just for that, Miss Smarty-Loincloth, see if you get to play with #18 tonight!’’ The bard flounced into the room, leaving a disgruntled Xena behind.
Oh, caco!, Xena thought as she followed her bard into their bedroom.
Looks like I’m gonna hafta drag out the big catapult tonight... ‘‘Oh,
bardie-poo,’’ Xena cooed as she shut the door gently behind her, ‘‘Have
I read you Wyllam’s poem about the darling buds of May yet?’’
PART IV: WHEN SHALL WE MEET AGAIN?
The next morning, all the beneficiaries met for breakfast in the fort’s high ceilinged atrium. Xena and Gabrielle reclined together on one couch, while the other guests took their own places and the meal was served.
They had all introduced themselves previously. Gabrielle’s eyes roamed around the room as she devoured a boiled goose egg, and she tried to put names to faces again.
Freddius was a round faced, pleasant chap who had been Uncle Bingo’s grain factor in Sicily. He was accompanied by his beautiful, red-haired and curvaceous wife Daphne; their friend, Velmer (a plump brunette who affected a quizzing glass of clear quartz crystal) and another friend, who was probably the oddest of the bunch.
Gabrielle looked at the last guest out of the corner of her eye. Tall, rail-thin, sporting a sparse goatee and a thatch of pale brown hair, the fellow was named Shaggius. He eats like both legs are hollow and there’s a famine coming on, she thought. Shaggius simply stacked up the contents of his plate into a tottering pile then shoveled it into his gaping maw. A few chomps and he was ready for the next course.
I bet the emperor would hate to have him as a guest, even at a vomitorium, the bard thought.
Lying beside Shaggius on the couch was the strangest looking animal Gabrielle had ever seen. It was ostensibly a dog, but what a dog! Privately, the bard thought this Shooby-Foo, as it had been introduced, was some sort of human placed under an evil spell.
Shooby-Foo was brown with black spots, had expressive eyebrows, could walk on his hind feet and gesture like a human, and could very nearly speak. At least, Gabrielle couldn’t make out a word, but Shaggius, Velmer, Freddius and Daphne seemed to have no trouble interpreting the dog’s speech.
Freddius was saying to Xena, ‘‘So, you two are beneficiaries as well? I wonder why the will wasn’t probated in Rome?’’
Before Xena could answer, Velmer interrupted, ‘‘Jinkies, Freddius! Maybe there’s a mystery here.’’
Daphne nodded. ‘‘Could be. After all, everywhere we go we seem to find a mystery of some sort.’’
Shooby-Foo snickered. ‘‘Hee-hee-hee-hee! Rots of mysteries!,’’ he said. ‘‘Rots and rots and rots!’’
Shaggius whined, ‘‘Aw, c’mon Shooby! You know how much you hate ghosts and stuff.’’
‘‘Rhosts? Rhosts? Roo never said rannything about rhosts!,’’ Shooby-Foo said, clearly alarmed. The big dog leaped on top of Shaggius, wrapping his arms around the man, teeth chattering like castanets in the hands of a demented Iberian flamenco dancer.
Homicidia entered the room at that moment, and promptly whacked the frightened canine on his head with a rolled-up parchment. ‘‘Get off!,’’ she said severely. ‘‘This is a respectable household, not one of your Roman orgies!’’
Xena guffawed, earning a hairy eyeball from the indignant housekeeper.
Homicidia continued, ‘‘Lucis Ravilla is waiting in the master’s study. You’re all to go in when you’re finished eating.’’
Gabrielle hastily shoved another handful of sticky honeyed almonds into her mouth and wiped her hands on the front of her ugly green carpet-like top. Xena winced but figured that no respectable stain would possibly stick to the monstrosity that her beloved bard wore despite all offers of replacement. The warrior had even tried burning it once or twice, but like the legendary phoenix, it kept rising from the ashes...
Or rather, Xena thought, like a bacchae that’s been staked, decapitated, mouth stuffed with garlic and buried at a crossroads, only the damned thing kept popping up every time you turned around in the inevitable sequel...
‘‘Okay,’’ Gabrielle said, ‘‘Let’s go.’’
She and Xena walked to the master’s study, followed by the other beneficiaries, and sat down in the chairs indicated.
Lucius Ravilla was a man of obvious straightness - he had straight hair, straight eyebrows, a straight and prim little mouth, and sat with his hands squarely on the desk, his knees and feet together beneath. Xena thought he looked like the ultimate uncorruptible - until she remembered several other men of such mien she had known, and how small had been the price that had bought them...
...in fact, the definitive guide to said prices would be ‘‘Jane’s Corruptibility Factors Guide,’’ first published in 329 B.C. Jane’s Guide lists all occupations, along with the necesssary sums to purchase a person involved in such practices. For example, a costermonger rates ten shillings, while a lawyer is rated at one signature in blood on a soul-selling document. As a point of interest, used chariot salesmen are rated at a glass of stale, flat beer, while politicians get a pile of compost or a non-binding oral agreement for campaign contributions, whichever comes first...
Ravilla cleared his throat. ‘‘Since you are all gathered here, allow me to identify everyone in this room.’’
Velmer started to say that they had already introduced themselves, but her voice trailed away as Ravilla gave her a diamond-hard look from his black eyes. Glancing around and seeing the others weren’t about to make the same mistake, Ravilla sat up a little straighter (the iron bar that was his spine creaked in protest) and began...
‘‘Freddius Marius, a grain factor of Rome, and his wife, Daphne Cultivarius. Velmer - who is of Germanic origin and is considered a noted scholar on the supernatural. Shaggius, occupation unknown, current holder of the All-Macedonia Free-Style Eating Contest for the previous four years, and his hound, Shooby-Foo, second-runner-up of same contest. Xena, warrior princess and former warlord. And Gabrielle, distant relative of the late, lamented Bingo, and a bard. I bid you all welcome to the Old Stone Fort.’’
They all nodded and Ravilla continued, ‘‘As you may or may not be aware, Bingo lodged his will with the Vestal Virgins. In that aspect, all is above board, and if there were not extenuating circumstances, I would be more than willing to execute the will this very moment. However,’’ he said, holding up a finger in the face of protests, ‘‘Bingo has included some rather extraordinary clauses in his will, and it is my duty to see that those clauses are carried out in a satisfactory fashion.’’
Freddius asked, brows furrowed, ‘‘What clauses, if I may ask, sir?’’
Ravilla smiled slightly, pleased by the young man’s politeness. ‘‘First of all, everyone here has met the first condition. You have all come here to the Old Stone Fort. The second condition you must meet may be a little more difficult.’’
They all waited, looking at one another, while Ravilla allowed the suspense to draw out. Finally Xena, unable to stand anymore and muttering something about ‘‘... Zeus-damned Hitchcockian wanna-be’s...,’’ drew her sword with a steely rasp and began ostentatiously sharpening it, eyeing Ravilla all the while.
The Roman, not entirely a stupid man, got the point quickly. ‘‘The second
condition,’’ he said hastily, ‘‘is that you must spend the night in the
Old Stone Fort alone, and face poor Bingo’s worst nightmare - the ghost
of Sandersian. And you must also discover the location of the Sacred Gold
Chicken of Illizubah.’’ He paused. ‘‘Or else you forfeit all claims on
PART V: YOUR DOOM AWAITS
‘‘What?’’ Velmer’s voice was shrill with disbelief. Her left eye, hugely distorted by the quizzing glass she held up to it, blinked rapidly. ‘‘You mean we have to spend another night in this haunted place and find the Sacred Chicken?’’
Ravilla nodded. ‘‘Precisely. You have hit the Archimedes’ Screw on the head.’’
Gabrielle whispered to Xena, ‘‘I didn’t know Archimedes did that... with whom, do you think?’’
Xena whispered back, ‘‘Dunno. Maybe a gymnasium attendent. You know what they say about Greek philosophers.’’
Gabrielle nodded sagely. She’d heard a few stories at the Athens Academy. Even Plato was rumored to have had a fling with a scantily-clad botanist from Gaul-Across-the-Alps.
Freddius was saying, ‘‘Okay. So all we have to do is solve the mystery of the Sacred Chicken and survive the ghost of Sandersian. What do you say, gang?’’
All nodded, except Shooby-Foo. ‘‘RUH-Ruh!,’’ the dog grunted, shaking his head in a clearly negative gesture.
‘‘Aw, c’mon Shooby.’’ Freddius scrabbled around in his toga, and withdrew a handful of evil smelling biscuits. ‘‘Would you do it for a Shooby snack?’’
‘‘Two Shooby snacks?’’
‘‘Three Shooby snacks?’’
The dog looked thoughtful, then his tail wagged. ‘‘Yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!,’’ he replied, and snatched all three of the biscuits from the air when Freddius tossed them to him. ‘‘Yum!,’’ Shooby said, licking his chops, eyeballs and ears with an incredibly long, pink tongue.
‘‘Ha-ha-ha!,’’ Shaggius twittered nervously. ‘‘I think me and Shooby will spend the night outside. Right, Shobby?’’
‘‘You’ll do no such thing,’’ Velmer replied firmly. ‘‘We all have to stick together in this. Right, Daphne?’’
‘‘Right, Velmer!’’ It was clear that Daphne was what was known as a team player. Such an attitude would have earned the pretty but vacuous woman a good stoning by a ravening mob in Constantinople.
‘‘Okay, guys. Let’s get started!,’’ Freddius said enthusiastically.
‘‘Hey, wait a frimpin’ minute!,’’ Xena said indignantly. ‘‘What about us?’’
She was ignored as Ravilla rolled up his scrolls and rose. ‘‘Grim, Homicidia and myself will be leaving the castle in one hour. If you have any questions, feel free to ask. Anything we know we will be glad to share. At the end of that hour, the doors to the fort will be locked and barred - until sunrise, there will be no escape... er, I mean, exit. Understood?’’
Gabrielle and the others nodded; as Ravilla swept from the room, Xena repeated, ‘‘What about us?’’ Her tone was dangerous and her deadly eyebrow quivered.
Freddius looked thoughtful. ‘‘I don’t see why we can’t all work together. Let’s go find Grim and Homicidia and see if they have any information on Sandersian or Bingo that can help.’’
Xena, still fuming, followed the youngsters from the room, with Gabrielle
PART VI: ASK AND YE SHALL
By mutual consent, the questioning of the lisping Grim was postponed. Instead, the Roman contingent, followed closely by Xena and Gabrielle, sought out the housekeeper, who was laboring in the kitchen.
‘‘What can you tell us about the late centurian Sandersian, Homicidia?,’’ Velmer asked.
While the housekeeper answered, Shaggius and Shooby-foo were investigating the contents of the pantry, Gabrielle was scribbling on a scroll (Calliope having blessed the bard with sudden inspiration) and Xena leaned against one wall, sharpening her bosom knife on a whetstone. The conversation sounded something like this:
‘‘Well,’’ Homicidia began, ‘‘it wasn’t too long ago when Sandersian returned from the African war, bearing with him many treasures, including the Sacred Gold Chicken of Illizubah....’’ As the housekeeper spoke, she continued to hack apart an unfortunate piglet (deceased) on her cutting board, punctuating her speech with ‘‘THWACK! THWACK!’’ as her overly large cleaver did its grisly work. Unfortunately, she missed half the time, as Homicidia was laboring under the incorrect assumption there were actually two piglets.
Shaggius and Shooby-Foo had discovered the motherlode - chocolate covered anchoves from distant Columbia. ‘‘Mmmmm... now if only we could find some pickles!,’’ Shaggius exclaimed, rummaging with glee.
Rasp.... Rasp.... Rasp... went Xena’s knife against the whetstone.
‘‘And so, the intrepid heroes, having discovered to their horror that they would be forced to confront the bone-chilling specter...,’’ Gabrille muttered, scribbling furiously.
THWACK! ‘‘Old Sandersian never married, lived all alone in this house. Rarely spent his money on anything, except for the occasional holiday to Rome. But the Sacred Chicken... that was his prized possession... except for Marigold.’’ THWACK! THWACK!
‘‘Oh, joy! Look, Shooby! Pickled turnips, olive spread and Juvenal ham!’’
‘‘...the poor old man, completely and utterly alone, was forced to encounter the demons of his past...,’’ muttered Gabrielle
Rasp... Rasp... Rasp...
THWACK! ‘‘A few years after his return, Sandersian took up with a special hen... he named her Marigold, and he loved that chicken like it was his own child.’’ THWACK! ‘‘Nothing was too good for Marigold... jewel encrusted hen house, special feed, wing massages on alternate Tuesdays... but one day, Sandersian was hungry, and there was nothing left in the pantry...’’ THWACK! THWACK!
‘‘Ha-ha-ha-ha! Shooby, we have made the big time! Look at this: lickerfish preserves, an onion, some Asian-style hot mustard, and wheat bread! Let’s make Dagwoodius sandwiches!’’ ‘‘Yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!’’
‘‘...the bestial lust the old man held in his heart for the innocent chicken was a hissing and a scandal that was felt as far away as Roma Herself...’’ Gabrielle was on a roll.
Rasp... Rasp... Rasp...
‘‘So what happened to Marigold?,’’ Velmer asked.
All activities ceased (except for the gross devouring sounds of Shaggius and Shooby-Foo as they unhinged their jaws like anacondas and swallowed their towering sandwiches whole...)
...for those readers who are burning with curiosity about such matters, Shaggius and Shooby’s sandwiches were on whole wheat bread, and contained all of the ingredients listed above, and also included boiled pheasant’s eggs, baby lettuce, tiny octopi preserved in olive oil, boar’s head cheese, tongue, mutton, slices of lemon, a generous dab of honey, and several miscellaneous dollups of odd sauces found in unlabled jars in the back of the pantry...
Undaunted, Homicidia raised her cleaver and... THWACK! ‘‘Sandersian ate Marigold, of course. Baked, with a simple bread stuffing and ripe purple grapes on the side.’’
‘‘Oh, how awful!,’’ Daphne whinnied.
‘‘And how did Sandersian die?,’’ Freddius wondered aloud.
THWACK! ‘‘All’s I know is that he was found one morning, pecked to death by a rooster, or so folks believe. But like I said, I think the poor old man had a heart attack.’’ THWACK! THWACK!
‘‘A rooster?’’ Gabrielle laid down her scroll, having been snatched from the throes of creation by Homicidia's retoric. ‘‘Why did they think a rooster had anything to do with it?’’
THWACK! ‘‘From the long black tail feathers found clutched in his dead hand!’’ THWACK!
‘‘Okay, gang,’’ Freddius said, adjusting a fold of his toga. ‘‘Thanks, Homicidia. You’ve been a big help. C’mon... Let’s go see Grim.’’
The Roman contingent left... and Xena stayed behind, grabbing the back of Gabrielle’s ugly green top to keep her from blindly following the others.
The warrior eyed Homicidia, her small bosom knife now secreted in the valley of her magnificent breasts. ‘‘Okay, Homicidia,’’ Xena said, ‘‘I’m not as gullible as those kids. Let’s have the real story.’’
Homicidia looked at (both Xena’s) blankly, then shrugged. ‘‘Not much more story to tell, Miss. You’ve heard it all.’’
Xena muttered to Gabrielle, ‘‘Stand aside, bardie-poo. This calls
for drastic measures!’’
PART VII: DOUBLE, DOUBLE...
Xena unhooked the chakram from her belt and let fly with a blood-curdling war cry.
As Gabrielle and Homicidia watched open mouthed, the razor sharp circle of steel whizzed through the air, spanging off several pans hanging from the ceiling, doing a bankshot against a statue of Demeter in a wall niche, and finally whirred through the remains of the piglet on the cutting board before leaping back to the warrior’s waiting hand.
With a smirk, Xena blew gently on the chakram before replacing it on her belt.
The piglet now lay in neatly sectioned cutlets, with bacon, hams, porkchops and fatback in separate piles. Homicidia looked down at the piglet, then up at the snickering warrior, crossed eyes goggling. The housekeeper sighed. ‘‘All right. Sandersian was probably poisoned. By who, I don’t know. And poor master Bingo was probably given the same treatment.’’
‘‘But don’t you realize that you and your husband would be implicated in the murders?,’’ Gabrielle said aghast. ‘‘By your own admission, you two were the only ones around when each of the men died.’’
‘‘True.’’ Homicidia looked thoughtful. ‘‘I guess that means you’ll be wanting to do your own cooking from now on, miss.’’ The housekeeper gave the astonished bard a snaggle-toothed grin before gathering up the dismembered piglet and lumbering away to the smokehouse. ‘‘Me and Grim, we didn’t kill ‘em. But I reckon you already know that, don’t you, Miss Warrior Princess?’’
Looking at the housekeeper’s departing back, Xena muttered, ‘‘Yeah. I already knew that.’’
Gabrielle tugged at the warrior’s skirt. ‘‘Okay, Xena, spill it! How did you know there was more to the story?’’
Xena sighed. ‘‘Well, bardie-poo, the likelihood of someone, even old, being killed by a rooster is a little far-fetched. Although it might work in a bardic fantasy, it just doesn’t cut any glaciers in reality. And the so-called look of terror on Bingo’s face? I can think of a half-dozen poisons that would produce the same effect.’’
‘‘So why didn’t Homicidia and Grim do it?’’
‘‘Because they’re not stupid, that’s why. As the only two people in the house, they would have automatically become suspect. I think Sandersian and Bingo were killed by the same person... and it’s up to us to find out who!’’
Gabrielle sighed. ‘‘I love it when you’re assertive, dream rabbit,’’ the bard said moonily.
Xena drew in a deep breath, her breastplate creaking under the strain, and put her arm around the bard’s shoulders. ‘‘I know, bardie-poo. C’mon - let’s go put Ravilla to the question. I think his tale should be fairly interesting.’’
The two women departed, completely unaware that they were being watched...
*(insert spooky organ music here)*
Ravilla sat so straight his spine was forced to order a reinforced truss from Acme Medical Supplies, Inc., sent Republican Express, to keep its veterbrae from snapping. ‘‘So, you believe both Sandersian and Bingo were poisoned?’’
Xena nodded. ‘‘Yes. However, I don’t believe Grim and Homicidia had anything to do with it.’’
‘‘Then who?’’ The Roman spread his hands. ‘‘Both Bingo and Sandersian lived in near total isolation. Although they occasionally traveled to Rome, I can think of no poison that would allow for unspecific travel time enough for them to have been contaminated in Rome and die at home. Do you?’’
The dark-haired warrior thought furiously, then shook her head. ‘‘No. It had to have been administered here. And since both men enjoyed good health prior to their deaths, it must have been fast acting.’’
Ravilla sighed. ‘‘Too bad an autopsy wasn’t done. Now we may never know.’’
Xena looked at him sharply. ‘‘Perhaps not... I don’t claim to be a physician, Ravilla, but I’ve cut up my share of bodies, and I’m familiar enough with the most common poisons that I should be able to detect traces... that's it!! We could dig up Bingo! Gabrielle, get a shovel!’’
Ravilla held up his hands. ‘‘I’m afraid that won’t be possible, Xena. According to the instructions in his will, Bingo was cremated and his ashes scattered over the naked body of the famed Roman hetera, Racquellia Welch. And Sandersian has been dead so long I’m sure he’s not but a skeleton.’’
Xena looked downcast. ‘‘Pooh!,’’ she exclaimed, kicking the leg of the desk.
...the desk wrote a sharp note to the Jester’s Guild, asking that Bardwynna be summarily ejected from that august body for excessive cruelty to inanimate objects. The desk received a concilatory letter from the Guild’s president, and a complimentary whoopie cushion...
Ravilla’s ruler-straight brows came together, forming a single ebony bar over his hard black eyes. ‘‘Without proof, without even a suspect, there’s little I can do, warrior. You, however, are not bound by the conventions of the will. If you wish, you may leave with Grim, Homicidia and myself.’’
Gabrielle clutched Xena’s arm tightly. ‘‘Please, please, don’t leave me in this spooky place all alone,’’ she whimpered.
Xena patted her hand. ‘‘It’s all right, Gabrielle. I’m not going anywhere.’’ The warrior drew a deep breath. ‘‘I have a gut feeling we’re going to solve this mystery tonight!’’
Ravilla smiled. ‘‘Excellent!,’’ he said, rasping his hands together. ‘‘Now, if you’ll excuse me, ladies, I really must make myself available to the other claimants.’’
As the two women left the room, they failed to notice a portrait of
a gold-bedecked chicken hanging on the wall... A chicken whose bulging
eyes followed their every move...
PART VIII: BOO! YOU’RE IT!
Good as his word, precisely one hour later Ravilla, Homicidia and Grim departed the Old Stone Fort, the Roman’s key grating in the ancient door lock.
Freddius, Daphne, Velmer, Shaggius and Shooby-Foo were gathered in a little clump, talking in excited whispers. Gabrielle attempted to tug Xena over to join the group, but desisted when the warrior muttered about, ‘‘... Hades-taken kids with overinflated egos...’’ The bard joined the Roman contingent in time to hear Velmer say, ‘‘Jeepers, Freddius! Our first clue!’’
Intrigued, Gabrielle went closer. ‘‘What clue?,’’ she asked.
Freddius looked proud. ‘‘I found this in the hall after we talked to Grim,’’ he said, holding out a hand.
Glistening in the uncertain torchlight was an iridescent black rooster’s feather. Suddenly, the air was rent by a sound that sent a chill down every spine...
‘‘COCK-A-DOODLE-DEAD!,’’ rang through the air, followed by a malicious cackle of insane levity.
‘‘Jinkies! What was that?,’’ Daphne asked.
‘‘Zoinks! It’s the ghost of Sandersius!,’’ Shaggius exclaimed. Shooby-Foo leaped into the thin man’s arms, shivering like a Cynic in the presence of a Suburan Mimus.
Immediately, the two began to run comically in place until Velmer put a stop to their nonsense. ‘‘C’mon gang!,’’ the plump Germanic woman said, quizzing glass firmly in place, ‘‘We have to stick together!’’
Gabrielle’s strawberry-blonde hair was rising on her head. ‘‘X--x-xena?,’’ she quavered, ‘‘I’m s-s-scared!’’
Xena’s pale blue eyes were as hard as petrified water beryls. ‘‘I’ll get to the bottom of this, bardie-poo!,’’ she said. ‘‘Don’t worry.’’
‘‘COCK-A-DOODLE-DEAD!’’ A ghostly form floated seemingly through the wall... It was the misty figure of a Roman man with a ridiculous goatee, dressed in a toga, and on his head was perched an ominously glowing black rooster. As everyone watched, frozen in horror, the ghost threw back his head and cackled, while the rooster fiercely beat his iridescent wings to keep his balance. ‘‘Run!,’’ the vengeful spirit boomed, ‘‘Run far away!’’
The spirit of Sandersius did not need to repeat himself. Moving so fast they were very nearly blurs, Freddius, Daphne, Velmer, Shaggius and Shooby-Foo scattered in all directions... leaving a frightened bard and a cool warrior to confront the grim spector alone.
Sandersius seemed pleased at this reaction, but upon spying the two remaining woman, he scowled. Even the rooster seemed put out. ‘‘I said RUN! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!,’’ the ghost shouted, waving his hands and making a horrible face.
Gabrielle’s legs quivered in spite of her faith in her warrior, but she stood fast. Her heart was beating like a Germanic oom-pah marching band (heavy on the drums and tuba) playing their own unique polka rendition of ‘Highway to Hell.’
Xena buffed her fingernails on her breastplate.
‘'AAAAAHHHHHH! OOOOOOH! EEEEEEEEH!,’’ Sandersius moaned, flapping his arms as if he were contemplating flight. The rooster merely glared.
...within the bard’s mind, a terrible struggle was taking place. Prudence and Faith were locked in battle with Frightened-Out-Of-Wits and About-to-Soil-Loincloth. Fortunately for both Gabrielle’s dignity and laundry bill, Prudence and Faith, having heavily bribed Righteous Indignation and Mindless Lust into an alliance with promises of hot fudge sundaes, won by giving the other two participants really wicked Indian rope burns...
It appeared as if Sandersius were growing desperate. His unearthly eyes bulged from their sockets, his goatee waggled in near-semaphoric code (He was not transmitting an SOS - many centuries later, scholars discovering the bard’s journals would decipher Sandersius’ goatee’s message as a recipe for full-tilt boogie Mexican bean dip), and even the rooster seemed dismayed.
The ghost drew a deep breath, obviously prepared to make a last ditch effort. ‘‘BOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!,’’ he screeched, as the rooster stretched his neck and crowed, ‘‘Fock-a-noodle-foo!’’
‘‘BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!,’’ Sandersius shrieked.
Xena thoughtfully chewed off a hangnail.
‘‘For the gods’ sake, BOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!,’’ the desperate ghost screamed, spraying spittle all over the room.
Xena twirled a lock of hair around one finger.
Sandersius seemed to collapse in on himself... then he rallied. Drawing a short sword from the depths of his toga, the spirit yelled, ‘‘THEN DIE!’’
As Gabrielle watched in horror, the late Roman centurian ran straight
at the woman she loved, madness and murder gleaming in his eyes...
PART IX: COME
Just as Sandersius seemed on the verge of running Gabrielle’s beloved warrior through, a miracle happened.
Blatting trumpets announced the arrival of the Roman contingent, back for another round.
‘‘Shooby, Shooby-Foo!,’’ the hound hollered as he sailed into the room, scrambling as ungracefully as a porcinus on ice with Shaggius right behind.
Shooby-Foo wore a crown of oak leaves on his head and was draped in an immaculate toga, while Shaggius sported the crimson tunic and bundle of rods of a magistrate’s lictor. Sandersius stopped dead in his tracks, obviously confounded by this sight.
"Ha-ha-ha!,’’ Shaggius laughed nervously. ‘‘Make way for the esteemed senator Shoobia, of the noble gens Shoobii, one of the First Families of Rome!’’
Sandersius scratched his head, upsetting the rooster. It was clear he was laboring to comprehend this strange sight.
Shooby-Foo stood on his hind legs, as dignified as Cicero, and began walking towards the ghost, the hound’s manner impeccably, arrogantly Roman - even to Gabrielle, Shooby-Foo seemed every inch a dignitary of the highest patrician birth. Striking a noble pose, Shooby said condescendingly, ‘‘Credo ut intelligam. ’’
Sandersius was at a loss and the rooster was confounded as well. He put aside his sword and while Shaggius giggled and pranced, the spirit actually seemed poised to surrender to this paragon of Roman nobility and grace.
Until Gabrielle, who never could resist a quick come-back, said, ‘‘Credo quia absurdum est...’’ and all Hades broke loose.
With a growl of pure rage, Sandersius reached for his abandoned sword, while Shooby-Foo said, ‘‘Ruh-oh!,’’ and Shaggius twittered, ‘‘Zoinks! He’s on to us! Run, Shooby!’’
Accompanied by the strange tweakings of an unseen zither, Shaggius grabbed Xena, while Shooby snatched up Gabrielle, and all four of them made a hasty exit from the room, the ghost of Sandersius close behind.
The strange music became louder as they flew down a hallway, eventually meeting Freddius, Velmer and Daphne. Shaggius bellowed, ‘‘He’s right behind us!,’’ and avoided a collision by a series of masterful contortions that would have made a double-jointed orangutan proud.
Xena was struggling, but trying not to hurt the well-meaning young man, and through gritted teeth was hissing every vile curse she knew. Finally, Shaggius dropped the warrior on her saddle-hardened buttocks, while Shooby-Foo, with Gabrielle in tow, ran through a door and slammed it shut behind them.
‘‘Run!,’’ Freddius shouted, and everyone scattered again, each one flying through one of the doors that lined the hallway. Leaving a simmering Xena alone... with the blood-maddened ghost of the chicken-on-a-stick magnate, who waved his sword and bellowed, ‘‘COCK-A-DOODLE-DEAD!’’
Xena ran to the door she had seen the hound go through with her beloved bard, and shut it behind her, hand scrabbling for a bolt. There wasn’t one. Her heart hammering, the warrior scanned the room - a small bedchamber by the look of it - and realized there was no one there.
Wait a frimpin’ minute, Xena thought. I know they came in here... how did they get out?
After a moment, Xena cautiously opened the door again. The hall was deserted. Suddenly, one of the doors at the far end opened, ejecting Shaggius, who ran to the door opposite and went through. A heartbeat later, Sandersius flew out of a door, and entered Shaggius’, while the rail-thin young man exited yet a different door and entered another...
And the music continued to swell while an invisible singer - a young male with a moptop and tie-dyed breeches, by the sound of him - sang an inane song about love that had nothing to do with the action commencing in the hallway.
Xena watched dumfounded as one by one, the Roman contingent dodged in and out of doors in an impossible manner, followed by Sandersius, who was, from his wheezing, becoming tired of all this racing about nolens-volens. And that mysterious music was getting loud again... eventually, a six-piece band ran out of a door and down the hall, playing their instruments madly. At Xena’s inquiring eyebrow, the conductor panted, ‘‘Hey! It’s a paying gig, leather chick!,’’ and the band disappeared through yet another door.
Finally, the exasperated warrior spotted Gabrielle, who ran through six doors in succession and then disappeared again.
Xena’s heart nearly burst from her chest and lay palpitating on the floor when a finger poked her in the back and a voice said, ‘‘Boo!’’
Chest spasming, the warrior turned around so fast she left skid marks on the marble floor and nearly met herself in passing... only to behold a manically grinning Gabrielle.
‘‘Whoo, boy! That was FUN!’’ The bard’s face was flushed and sweaty, but her sparkling green eyes made it clear she was having the time of her life.
‘‘Harpy mutes! Bardie-poo, don’t DO that! You nearly ate six thumbs of steel!’’ Xena’s eyes were doing the nomadic pocket-bread thingy (and she did it nearly as well as Gabrielle. See? She really does have many skills!)
‘‘Sorry.’’ But the bard was not the least bit repenitent. ‘‘It’s just that this place is positively riddled with secret passages. See?’’ Gabrielle grabbed a torchstand on the wall and pulled it down; immediately, a section of the wall slid aside, revealing a dark passageway.
‘‘Mmph. I knew that,’’ Xena lied. ‘‘So this is how all of you were jumping all over the place?’’
‘‘Yep. Neat, huh?’’
‘‘So where does it lead?,’’ the warrior asked, cautiously poking her head into the dark opening.
‘‘Everywhere! There are even peep holes, so you can see into all the rooms... uh-oh!,’’ the bard exclaimed at the look on Xena’s face. Gabrielle’s brain swiftly put II and II together (and came up with IV - that is, if there were spyholes, then there were most likely spies, and that meant that somebody had probably been watching them last night as they played Poteidian Sugar Gathering...)
‘‘Uh, dream rabbit?,’’ Gabrielle said nervously, seeing the way her warrior’s hand clenched spastically on her sword hilt. ‘‘Maybe you’re misinterpreting the whole thing. I mean, just because you kept thinking you were being watched, and I know it made you feel a little inhibited...’’
‘‘I’m going to have blood for this, Gabrielle! BLOOD, I TELL YOU!’’ Her face a mask of rage, Xena raised her arms into the air, and at that precise moment, a bolt of lightning sizzled down from the sky, accompanied by a boom of thunder so loud, it rattled chamberpots all the way to Sparta.
‘Thanks for the special effects, Zeus,’’ Xena said more calmly. Then, turning to Gabrielle, Xena cocked an arm and said, ‘‘Coming, bardie poo?’’
With many misgivings, Gabrielle stepped into the secret passage... and
sincerely hoped that her beloved dream rabbit wasn’t turning into the notoriously
insane innkeeper of legend, Normana Batesiun.
PART X: EYE OF NEWT
The two women crept along the secret passage, stopping every now and then to put their eyes to the spyholes and take a peek at what was going on in their absence.
Shaggius and Shooby-Foo had covered themselves in plaster dust and were posing as a tasteless fountain (the hound apparently had a bladder the size of the Asian province) while Sandersius, sword in hand, searched the room...
Velmer was on her hands and knees in another chamber, whining, ‘‘My quizzing glass! Where’s my quizzing glass? I can’t see a thing without it!,’’ while the ghostly black rooster stalked the innocent Germanic maid, evil intent glimmering in its beady eyes. until an offhand gesture by the blind Velmer thwacked the rooster solidly in the chest, sending him tumbling against the wall, only to slide down and lay as limp as a featherduster on the floor...
Freddius and Daphne were playing ‘‘Hide the Kielbasa,’’ and scattered around the couple were an empty gallon jug of cooking oil, a platter of baked pigeons, and a dish of raisins. Gabrielle breathed, ‘‘Will you look at the size of that thing?’’ Xena replied, ‘‘Yeah, and positively covered in grease, I can tell!’’ just as Daphne squealed, ‘‘My turn!,’’ and while Freddius turned his back, secreted the enormous sausage they were playing with hide-and-seek with behind an urn in a corner of the room...
*Xena turned suddenly to the audience and shrugged her shoulders. ‘‘Don’t blame me!,’’ she said matter-of-factly. ‘‘That bad joke wasn’t my idea!’’ Gabrielle wrinkled up her nose and poked the warrior in the stomach with one elbow. ‘‘Shhhh!,’’ she hissed. ‘‘Not so loud, dream rabbit! Do you really want to make you-know-who mad?’’ Xena blanched. The last time she’d confronted the author of the Myth tales, an entire three-ring circus had paraded through their bedroom. ‘‘Oh!,’’ the warrior said. ‘‘Never mind, folks. Just enjoy the story, hee-hee-hee,’’ she giggled nervously, eyes rolling. ‘‘Oh, yes, Bardwynna’s very funny. Very, very funny. Hee-hee-hee.’’... (From somewhere in the distant reaches of authordom, Bardwynna sighed and shook her head sadly.)*
The two women continued their journey through the secret passage in silence.
The passage ended in the kitchen. Xena exited, Gabrielle right behind, and took a deep breath. ‘‘Okay, bardie-poo... now what?,’’ the warrior asked
Gabrielle sniffed. ‘‘What’s that smell?’’
Xena sniffed, too. ‘‘Um... roast pork, maybe?’’
‘‘Yeah... but I thought the smokehouse was outside???’’
Both women, noses in the air, followed the delicious scent through the kitchen, and through another door... and gasped with shock.
In the middle of an otherwise deserted storage area stood a small house, plated in gold, heavily encrusted in jewels... Over the small round door, now covered with a board, had been picked out in diamonds, ‘‘Marigold.’’
‘‘It’s Sandersius’ chicken’s house!,’’ Gabrielle exclaimed.
‘‘Hmmmmm....’’ Xena looked thoughtful. Walking over to the small henhouse, she pried off the board. Billows of pork-scented smoke poured out of the opening. ‘‘Homicidia uses it as a smoker!,’’ the warrior gasped, choking on the smoke. She slammed the board back over the hole and waved her hands briskly until much of the smoke had cleared.
‘‘Why on earth would she use that as a smoker?,’’ Gabrielle asked. ‘‘I mean, it just isn’t practical. Hades, clay would have made a better insulator than gold...’’
‘‘What did you say?,’’ Xena interrupted, pale blue eyes gleaming.
Gabrielle crossed her arms. ‘‘I said,’’ she repeated slowly as if to a half-deaf old granny, ‘‘Clay would have been a better insulator than gold.’’
Xena snapped her fingers. ‘‘That’s it!,’’ she exclaimed, then grabbed the astonished bard and gave her a hug and a wet, smacking kiss on the brow. ‘‘Bardie-poo, you’re a genius!’’
Gabrielle looked confused and narrowed her eyes ‘‘Dream rabbit, have you been eating those funny mushrooms again? I thought after last time, when you stripped down to your loincloth in that tavern and started doing the Phoenician hootchie-kootchie in front of all those sailors, that you’d sworn never to eat fungi again.’’
‘‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’’ the warrior said coolly.
‘‘You don’t remember?,’’ the strawberry-blonde bard giggled. ‘‘It was right after Callisto and Valeska took a header into that lava, and you saw these mushrooms growing under this oak, and you said 'whoo-hoo! there's a funky fungus among us!' and we wound up in this horrible little tavern full of these huge, whiskery men...’’
‘‘Gabrielle...’’ Xena’s voice had that warning tone (you know the one; it’s #48 - the ‘‘Say One More Word and You’ll Feel The Back of My Chakram’’ tone of voice that’s oh, so effective in silencing talkative bards).
‘‘Oh, all right!,’’ Gabrielle said, pouting a little. ‘‘I can’t help it if you insisted on getting that ridiculous tattoo...’’
This time, Xena clapped a hand over the bard’s mouth. ‘‘Ix-nay on the attoo-tay,’’ the warrior hissed.
Gabrielle’s green eyes flashed, and she tore her mouth away from Xena’s muffling hand. ‘‘Really!,’’ she said angrily. ‘‘I can’t help it if you wanted ‘Rear Guard Action’ tattooed on your gluteous maximus!’’
‘‘It’s hardly maximus, Gabrielle! I exercise, I eat right...’’ Xena twisted around, trying to get a good look at the anatomy in question. ‘‘It’s as firm as the Triocala fortress! See!,’’ she exclaimed, giving herself a slap on a hard gluteous. ‘‘Hard as a rock!’’
Gabrielle didn’t have to pretend fascination. ‘‘Um... may I try?,’’ she asked tentatively, the first stirrings of... something... bubbling up from the hidden depths of her psyche.
Xena bent over and thrust her buttocks out invitingly... And Gabrielle raised her hand, heart throbbing in her chest, a thousand-and-one fantasies running through her brain...
But before the two heroines could embark on what might have been a whole new aspect of their sex lives, they were interrupted by Shaggius and Shooby-Foo.
‘‘Zoinks!,’’ Shaggius yelped. ‘‘Have you seen Freddius and Daphne? Or Velmer?’’
Xena hastily straightened up. ‘‘Um, no,’’ she answered, while Gabrielle lowered her hand and looked at Shaggius with blood in her eyes.
‘‘Well, I’m starving. What about you, Shooby?,’’ Shaggius said.
‘‘Yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!,’’ the hound answered, tail wagging.
‘‘Say, do I smell roast pork?,’’ Shaggius said, nose quivering.
Just as Gabrielle was poised to tell the skeletally lean eating machine where he could put his roast pork, Xena answered hastily. ‘‘Um, yeah, but it’s not done yet. Still raw.’’
‘‘Haw-haw-haw!,’’ Shaggius guffawed. ‘‘We’ll eat it anyway, won’t we Shooby?’’
The hound whirled around in a circle... ending up with a napkin tied around his neck and holding an eating knife in one paw. A chef’s hat stood up in a pouf on Shooby’s head; it read, ‘‘Caveat Epicure.’’
‘‘Ret’s eat, Raggy!,’’ Shooby said.
‘Oh, boy! Roast pork and all the trimmings!’’ Shaggius began to move toward the golden henhouse, but Xena blocked his way. ‘‘Make one more move, spaghetti boy, and I’ll have your guts for sandal laces!,’’ the warrior barked.
Shaggius gulped, his enormous throat-lemon bobbing up and down. ‘‘Ha-ha-ha,’’ he laughed feebly. ‘‘Aw, c’mon, Xena, it was just a joke!’’
The warrior stood firm, deadly eyebrow cocked and locked. Just as she was on the verge of laying Shaggius low with a medium-impact Look at Level #4, Freddius and friends entered.
‘‘Hi, guys!,’’ Freddius crowed. Behind him were Daphne and Velmer, both women munching on lengths of sausage. ‘‘Find anything?’’
Xena motioned to Freddius. ‘‘I think between all of us, we’ve about got this thing solved. Gather ‘round, everybody... we need a plan.’’
Gabrielle’s green eyes got rounder and rounder as the warrior explained her plan, accompanied by plenty of input from Freddius and Velmer. In the end, the bard could only nod helplessly in agreement - it seemed like the best way to solve this mystery and get on with their lives...
Although privately she thought that the crazy scheme would never work.
Not in a million years...
PART XI: OH, MR GOLDBERG...
Shaggius and Shooby-Foo crept down the hallway, Shaggius giggling nervously. ‘‘Oh, Sandersius!,’’ he called tentatively. ‘‘Here, ghostie, ghostie, ghostie! Haw-haw-haw!’’
‘‘Reah!,’’ Shooby said, ‘‘Rere, rhostie! Rere, rhostie!’’
‘‘COCK-A-DOODLE-DEATH!,’’ came the blood-chilling call of the spirit, then Sandersius himself appeared, the black rooster perched on his head. ‘‘COCK-A-DOODLE-DEATH!’’
‘‘Run, Shooby!,’’ Shaggius exclaimed, and took off down the hallway, Shooby-Foo dead on his heels, with Sandersius bringing up the rear and gaining fast.
The two skittered through a door, entering the already opened secret passageway on the fly and disappearing into the darkness. Sandersius, clearly enraged beyond his ability to reason, followed, cacking insanely and yelling, ‘‘Booooo! Booooo! I’m going to kill yooouuuu!’’
Shaggius and Shooby burst through the end of the passageway into the kitchen... and Velmer said forcefully, ‘‘Now!’’
Freddius and Xena pulled a cord just as Sandersius came through the doorway...
The spirit tripped on the taut rope that had been rigged at knee level by the cunning warrior and sprawled on the floor. Unfortunately, Sandersius had lost none of his momentum, for he slid along the well greased floor like a human head propelled by a Mongol horseman in a game of psycho-polo. On and on he slid, arms waving wildly, the rooster perched on his head flapping like mad, and Velmer said again, ‘‘Now!’’
Xena whipped off her chakram, wound up and pitched. The steel circle (a ‘‘donut’’ as one Grecian wag had put it; as in ‘‘DoNUT piss the warrior wench off or she’ll fling a shamrock at you and two days later you’ll wake up wondering what was the frimpin’ number of the elephant that danced the tarantella on your precious little skull...’’) buzzed through the air, slicing neatly through a set of ropes that held a dusty carpet poised precariously high above the kitchen floor.
Unfortunately, Velmer had misjudged the timing. Just as Shaggius and Shooby skidded past, the rug dropped on them. Sneezing madly (and incidentally sounding like a brigade of ragweed-sensitive mice with severe adnoids and killer cases of testiculus-non-droppus), the two staggered onto the oil slick path, colliding with Sandersius. Their legs flailing wildly, Shaggius and Shooby-Foo joined the ghost on a non-magic carpet ride along the floor.
As Gabrielle shrieked, ‘‘Oh, no!,’’ and Daphne covered her eyes, the dust-rug-oil covered trio (by now Sandersius and the rooster had joined in on the sneeze chorus - and it sounded like a drunken chimpmunk convention trying to harmonize to the ‘Song of the Volga Boatmen’ played by a vodka-induced Jiimmii Hendrix - the African province’s answer to Francis Sinatrius) hurtled down the floor, screaming incoherently between sneezing fits.
‘‘Hang on, Shooby!,’’ Shaggius whinnied, while the hound bellowed, ‘‘Oh, RO!! RAAAAAAGGGGGGYYYYYY!’’
Instead of landing in the clever trap rigged up by Velmer (consisting of a bronze cage that used to belong to Bingo’s hunting dog, McDonald) set up at the end of the oiled trail, the unexpected addition of Shaggius and Shooby sent Sanderius (and themselves) severely off course. With a thud, the tangle of bodies slammed into the golden henhouse, sending it flying apart with a resounding bang. Bits of smoked pork rained down everywhere, as did jewels and pieces of gold sheeting.
As everyone watched in horror which turned shortly into amazement, the framwork of the henhouse slowly collapsed... revealing the treasure concealed within.
IT WAS THE SACRED GOLD CHICKEN OF ILLIZUBAH!
Xena turned to Gabrielle, a tiny smile curving her lips. ‘‘See, bardie poo?,’’ she said smugly. ‘‘I said you were a genius.’’
The bard could only stare, mouth agape, in wide eyed wonder.
PART XII: FINIS...?
Ravilla stared in amazement. ‘‘I just can’t believe it! It’s just too fantastic!’’
‘‘Not at all,’’ Velmer said, polishing her quizzing glass on a sleeve of her simple orange gown. ‘‘It’s really quite simple.’’ The Germanic woman drew a breath to explain, but let it out again when Xena’s icy blue eyes sizzled into her own.
‘‘You see, Ravilla,’’ Xena said smoothly, as if she'd not just interrupted Velmer's explanation with her deadly Look. ‘‘I suspected there was something piscean from the start. I mean, why leave a mere grain factor anything in your will? Especially when there were blood relatives - sort of - to inherit.’’ The warrior whipped around and glared at Freddius, who had opened his mouth... and shut it again quickly.
Satisfied, Xena continued, ‘‘I’m willing to bet that Bingo was the type of patrician who never went into the kitchen - right, Homicidia?’’
The housekeeper nodded, the enormous teased mass of hair on her head bob-bob-bobbing along. ‘‘Yes. He didn’t care what happened in the household as long as his meals were on time, his togas and tunics were clean, and the chamberpots were emptied on a regular basis.’’
Xena said, ‘‘And it was sometime after Sandersius’ death that you started hearing strange noises at night...’’
Grim spoke up. ‘‘Yeth, that’s wight! Aww kind-th of thwange thumping-th and bumping-th, and gwoans and moans...’’
‘‘That was our cuplrit, searching for the Chicken,’’ Xena said positively. She turned to Gabrielle. ‘‘I’m sorry, bardie-poo, but the villian, the one who has been impersonating Sandersius and trying to scare us off is none other than...’’ The warrior walked over to Sandersius, who was being held between two burly lictors (who had come at Ravilla’s request) - and dug her fingers into his face.
As everyone looked on in horror, Xena twisted her hand... and Sandersius face came off! Revealing...
‘‘Uncle Bingo!,’’ Gabrielle shrieked in surprise.
Shooby-Foo twittered, ‘‘Hee-hee-hee!’’
Xena nodded. ‘‘That’s right. You see, Bingo poisoned his poor grandfather Sandersius, wanting to get his greedy little hands on the old centurian's money. Not to mention the Sacred Gold Chicken of Illizubah, which would be worth quite a few dinarii to collector’s of barbarian treasures. Bingo faked his own death after spending months trying to find the hiding place of the Chicken, and hoped that either Freddius and gang - who have a good reputation for solving mysteries in Rome - or Gabrielle and myself would be able to locate the treasure. Incidentally, the body that was cremated was not that of Bingo - it was an itinerent scroll salesmen from Syracuse.’’
‘‘But why did he try to scare us?,’’ Shaggius asked.
‘‘He was trying to force us to pool our resources,’’ Velmer said knowingly. ‘‘He figured that if we all worked together in a common cause, we’d find the Sacred Chicken. Bingo believed that once we uncovered the location of the statue, he’d be able to frighten us away easily, leaving the house deserted and himself in charge.’’
‘That’s right!,’’ Bingo snarled. ‘‘And I’d have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for you pesky kids!’’
Ravilla’s lictors marched Bingo away. Ravilla asked, ‘‘So where was the Chicken?’’
Xena smiled. ‘‘In the kitchen, of course. After Sandersius ate his beloved pet Marigold, he had her henhouse moved to the kitchen, where Homicidia has been using it as a smokehouse. I suspected something was up... and Gabrielle unknowingly helped my idea along when she told me that ‘clay would be a better insulator than gold.’ That made me think... Why would anyone use a golden henhouse as a smoker? The only answer that made sense is if someone was hiding something they didn’t want to be found.’’
Homicidia gulped like a stricken calf. ‘‘You’re right, warrior. Grim and his brother and I discovered the Sacred Chicken shortly after Old Colonel Sandersius’ death. We wanted to keep it for ourselves, but we knew if we disappeared right away, we’d be suspected in his death. So we laid low... and then Bingo died, and you all came... oh, well,’’ she shrugged philosophically. ‘‘It was worth a try.’’
Gabrielle’s green eyes were round and wide. ‘‘Okay. So I’m related to a murderer?’’
‘‘I’m afraid so,’’ Xena replied. ‘‘But don’t be too worried, bardie-poo. Some of my best friends are murderers... anyway, here’s the Chicken,’’ the warrior continued, handing the priceless statue to Ravilla, ‘‘and now, we’ll be on our way.’’
‘‘Shooby, Shooby-Foo!,’’ crowed the hound.
‘‘Fock-a-noodle-foo!,’’ crowed the rooster, who had flitted into the room to land on Shaggius’ head, much to that thin man’s disgust.
Everyone laughed uproariously.
FADE TO BLACK...
PART XIII: BUT I DIGRESS...
‘‘Hey! Wait one frimpin’ minute!’’ Xena’s voice was loud, commanding and contained a note of petulance.
FADE IN ON: Warrior and bard, standing side by side. Xena’s hands are on her hips and one foot is tapping the ground.
‘‘What about whoever-that-was who kept watching us? Was it Bingo? The rooster? One of the Romans? WHO?’’ Xena was clearly waiting impatiently for a reply from someone... namely, the author.
Bardwynna shrugged. Okay, she thought, if that’s how Xena wants it...
Suddenly, a section of wall behind the two women opened up and a monster stepped through. Vaguely heart-shaped, absolutely covered in reddish fur except for two round eyes, clawed hands, and feet. It wore strange rubber soled shoes and crept along silently...
‘‘Well? I’m waiting!,’’ Xena said. Her pale blue eyes flashed.
Gabrielle, taking a casual glance over her shoulder, did a double take. Plucking the warrior’s arm, the bard stammered, ‘‘Uh... uh... uh...’’
‘‘Not now, bardie-poo. This looney bard’s gonna answer me, or I’m gonna stand here all day if necessary, and all night, too!’’
‘‘Uh, dream rabbit?,’’ Gabrielle whimpered, eyes doing their pocket-bread
imitation, and strawberry-blonde hair trying to stand on end. ‘‘M-m-m-monster!’’
The monster growled, its clawed fingers reaching out for both women, prepared to rend and tear...
But before tragedy could strike, Gabrielle had a sudden inspiration. ‘‘Will you look at those nails!,’’ she said indignantly to the monster. ‘‘Didn’t your sweet master ever tell you about manicuring?’’
With props hastily provided by Bardwynna, Gabrielle is quickly seated at a table across from the monster, and is busily filing his nails and chatting inanely. ‘‘I was saying to my good friend Aurelia the other day, I said, you know, Aurelia, I bet monsters are such in-teresting people... and I bet they do a lot of in-teresting things... I bet you know lots of in-teresting people, don’t you?’’
The monster nodded helplessly.
‘‘There!,’’ Gabrielle said in satisfaction. ‘‘All clean. Now, let’s put our paddies in the water!’’ Plopping the monsters hands in two bowls of water, there was a snap and the monster howled... Snatching his hands out of the bowls, Xena saw that there were two devices pinching his fingers. Beside her, Bardwynna whispered out of the side of her mouth, ‘‘Mus-traps...’’
As the monster whimpers, and the table disappears, and the entire scene solidifies, Bardwynna fades back to her own domain. Xena and Gabrielle are about to have another scary adventure...
Bardwynna ponders... should I throw in Barnabas Collins? Maybe Vincent Price? Oooooh, how about Christopher Lee and have some quality Hammer time? The Scream Queen could make a cameo...
FADE TO BLACK... accompanied by screams, howls and maniacal laughter as Xena and Gabrielle complain mightily to The Powers That Be 'cause none of this was in the frimpin' script, anyway.
And Time, who had hoped this whole business had ended, heaved a massive sigh, put on his Freddie-fingers glove and a white sheet, and went trick-or-treating.
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