After “Something New, Something Old,” Gabrielle and Xena reconsider their notion of semi-retirement, given the succession of adventures that began interrupting their attempts to celebrate 25 years together in “Fifty Winters Ago.” For Gwen/Widget.
The wagon proceeded at a leisurely pace, slow enough for the gang of four to easily overtake it. One of the riders threw a heavy sack in front of the team, forcing the driver to pull up.
“Okay, folks. Time for a rest stop. Heh, and we’ll take the rest of your belongin’s, while you’re at it.”
“No? Whaddya mean, ‘no.’”
“No. As in … ‘no.’”
The gang’s spokesman gaped at the wagon’s occupants, who appeared completely unconcerned about their predicament. “Listen, just `cause you’re a couple ol’ biddies, doesn’t mean we won’t get rough if we have ta.”
“Old biddies?!” The larger of the women turned to her companion. “Did he just call us old biddies?”
“Uh huh. Sounded like it.” The smaller woman addressed the spokesman. “Excuse me, but did you in fact call us old biddies?”
The men exchanged glances. This was supposed to be an easy heist – not the prelude to a conversation about age. “We’re robbin’ ya, you fools. What difference is it if –.”
“Oh, it makes a difference.” The smaller woman smirked. “To her anyway. Personally, I don’t get all hot and bothered by –.”
“Shut up! You wanna be stubborn about this, we’ll just take what we want.”
The spokesman dismounted and indicated for one of his colleagues to do the same. The taller woman stood. Something about her made the men hesitate.
“Whaddya think you’re doin’?”
“What’s it look like I’m doing?”
The spokesman rested a hand on his sword hilt. “Tryin’ to get yourself killed instead of robbed.”
“Mm. Maybe so. If we’re just ‘a couple old biddies.’ On the other hand ….” The woman reached through a slit in her tunic and pulled out a metal disk. “Looks can be deceiving. Take this,” she said, holding up the disk. “Could be a new-fangled frame for embroidering. Or ….” She sliced a line through the top of the wagon seat. “Maybe not.”
The men frowned at the disk. They weren’t quite sure what to make of it. The woman’s eyes, however, were quite clear. Not those of an old biddy, but of the last person any sane thief would choose to victimize. And these men definitely weren’t crazy.
“Okay, boys. Seems we made a mistake.” The spokesman manufactured a sneer. “They’d be more scared, if they had anything worth losin’.” He mounted, his colleague following suit. “No sense gettin’ a few scratches over nothin’.”
The smaller woman stood. “Very sensible decision.” She gave the men a maternal smile. “You see, knowing the difference is important. Between right and wrong. Profit or loss.” She tousled the taller woman’s silvered bangs. “An ‘old biddy,’ versus an elder who fancies herself in the mold of a legendary Warrior Princess.”
The men snickered. “Oh, that’s her problem,” surmised the spokesman, preparing to ride off. “Could be dangerous. I’d keep her in the house, if I was you. Not everybody’s as understanding as us. Ya got lucky.”
“Yes, someone got lucky all right,” the shorter woman stated at the taller one’s low growl. “Perhaps you should go? Before someone’s luck runs out?”
The women watched the gang ride off.
“Toldya I’ve gotten more patient with maturity.”
“But no less competitive.”
“As if you’ve forgotten.”
“The bet? Don’t see how this qualified. Hmmm. Maybe for extra credit. Yeah, I wouldn’t mind a little of that. And I know just how I wanna cash in.”
Brightly colored streamers fluttered in the wind, beckoning shoppers to part with their coins as lavishly as the sun bestowed its blessing on the day. Children dodged between legs and stalls. Adults inspected merchandise and haggled with vendors. Two women strolled through the scene as though they hadn’t a care in the world – no need to worry about vegetables or cloth or utensils.
“That matron. Over there. She’s holding up two fingers. The merchant’s holding up three.”
“Humph. That pot’s only worth one.”
“She seems flustered. A little desperate. Probably not much left in her money pouch.”
“Think she’s about to give in. Shame if she gets the short end of the stick.”
“Too bad she doesn’t have somebody with her. You know, somebody good at bargaining?”
“Uh huh. Oh, look! Have you ever seen such an exquisite vase? Come on. Let’s check it out.”
A couple of hours later, the women relaxed in the dining area of the local inn, enjoying its coolness and apple pie.
“Big guy in black? With the sword? He just made a pass at that young redhead.”
“I think she’s with another man. Guy at the front table? Dressed like a farmer?”
“Ooo, the farmer’s getting up. I hope he doesn’t …. Gods, he’s a twig, compared to the warrior type. Oh, boy, they’re facing off. Maybe if somebody steps in –.”
The sound of grunts and objects crashing to the floor sent patrons scattering.
“Ouch. Big guy landed quite a blow. The farmer’s no match. Not by himself. If only he had some help.”
“Mmmm. This is really good. You gonna eat that last piece? Helloooo. I say, you gonna …. Never mind. I’ll take it off your hands. Wouldn’t be as good cold anyway.”
Having decided to take a room for the night, the two women prepared to turn in.
“I have to admit, you’re doing better than I expected.”
“The hard part is getting that poor woman’s face out of my mind. I’m sure I could’ve saved her a couple dinars.”
“Yeah, I was itchin’ to take out that thug.”
“I can’t remember the last time you let a bully get away with pounding somebody.”
“Mm. I meant the one tried to rob us. But yeah, hard to forget the redhead screaming at all that blood. The farmer’ll be okay physically. Not sure about the beating his pride took.”
“Funny, but if anybody’d told me about all this, I wouldn’t have believed it was really us.”
“Heh. Could’ve been any two ‘old biddies,’ eh?”
“Well, except the part where one of them practically dares a gang of thieves to attack.”
“Hey, I didn’t touch `em. Besides, we hadn’t discussed the rules in the event our personal safety was involved. Shouldn’t disqualify my extra credit.”
The two slipped under the covers.
“I think so.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “You smell like her, if that’s any consolation.”
“Before or after I work up a sweat?”
“I can go with that.” Xena snuggled closer. “Now, about that extra credit ….”
“I’m having second thoughts.”
“S’okay. My first thought is enough for both of us.”
Gabrielle swatted Xena’s arm. “I’m talking about our bet. Keeping it isn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped.”
Xena snorted. “Figured I had you in the market. A shopper in jeopardy? A pitiful one at that? No way I thought you’d resist jumping in.”
“I’m not talking about winning, Xena. I mean the whole idea. Now I’m hypersensitive to the smallest injustice. Not doing anything …. It’s like every fiber of my being is on edge, but tied in knots.”
Sighing, Xena flopped on her back. “We’re supposed to be semi-retired. Our 25th anniversary so-called ‘celebration’ turned into a reprisal of our most active early years. We’ve been on the road nearly six months. Most of it spent butting into others’ affairs. Butt kicking on the rare occasions biddy wit didn’t work. You’re the one said we should take a break.”
“I know.” Gabrielle was silent a moment. “I guess I take what we do for granted. Helping out when we can. It reminded me what a difference it makes. Not just the big things like stopping a war. The little things that make life better or more fair for an ordinary person.”
“Gabrielle, people get cheated or beat up every day. Sure, you might’ve saved that woman some money. The vendor would’ve made it up on his next customer. I jump to the farmer’s aid, but what about fights before I got there or after? There’s probably all sorts of stuff happening at home. Will everything fall apart `cause we’re not involved? Nope. Folks muddle through. Somebody else steps up.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “All your talk about bloodlust in your veins. I figured you’d be the first to crack. Stupid challenge. When will I ever learn.”
Xena rolled to her side. “It wasn’t stupid. We deserve time to appreciate how long we’ve been together. Somehow we end up distracted by something else. Somebody else’s life. So we’re forcing ourselves to stay focused. If it works, even for a little while, we can have more of that romance you want.”
“Mm. Starting with your ‘extra credit,’ no doubt.”
“Ah.” Xena tweaked Gabrielle’s nose. “From your lips to mine.”
The wagon rounded the bend. A horse stood at the side of the road, a figure kneeling in front.
“Oh, it’s a woman!”
“Slow down, Xena. Maybe she needs help.”
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. “You realize what this means.”
Gabrielle arched a brow. “I realize what it could mean.”
“Besides I win?” Xena narrowed her eyes. “What else is there?”
“Extra credit? No reason for that any more, if the challenge is over, hmmm?”
Lips pursed, Xena pulled up beside the woman. “Morning. Problem?”
The woman turned around. She was the redhead from the inn. The hair spilling down her face didn’t quite hide a bruised cheek. “I’m afraid so. My horse.”
Gabrielle made herself focus on the horse. “Perhaps we could help?” She smiled. “We just happen to have an expert on hand.”
“Um, sure.” The woman looked at Xena. “If it’s not too much trouble?”
Xena snorted softly. She handed the reins to Gabrielle and stepped down. “Bad hoof,” she said after her examination. “I can do a temporary fix. Relieve some of his pain. But you’ll need a blacksmith.”
“Will I be able to ride him? When you’re done?”
“He probably can’t take the extra weight. Shouldn’t be a problem walking on his own though.” Xena patted the horse’s lame leg and turned toward the wagon with the hint of a smirk.
Gabrielle forced a smile to cover her gritted teeth. “Should we hitch the horse to the back? Or let him walk alongside.”
“Oh, that’s very kind of you,” the woman said, “but I can --.”
“No, we insist.” Gabrielle slid to the middle of the bench and indicated for the woman to join her.
“Absolutely.” Xena dutifully led the horse to the back of the wagon, but not before flashing Gabrielle a victory sign.
The redhead introduced herself as Moira. Asked where she was headed, she replied, “Nowhere in particular. Just away from here.” Some gentle prodding from Gabrielle revealed Moira hoped to escape “a bad situation.”
“Man trouble?” Gabrielle asked, finally looking pointedly at Moira’s bruised cheek. “That farmer you were with?”
Moira covered the side of her face. “Um, no. He’s my brother. Stanos. When I find a safe place, he’ll join me.”
“A safe place?” Gabrielle laid a hand on Moira’s arm. “From that warrior? The one who beat Stanos?”
“Not just him.” Moira’s head dropped. “They’ve made Alleteon their home base. They leave for a while to do their dirty work. They come back, get drunk, intimidate folks. Demand free food and lodging. Take … liberties.” She raised her chin. “Not everyone goes along. At least, not my brother and me.”
They rode along in silence. Gabrielle figured she’d already said enough. She could justify helping some poor soul stranded by the road. Offering to do more might warrant accusations she’d broken the pact so foolishly proposed precisely to avoid entanglement in strangers’ problems. Xena had expressed little beyond superficial politeness. No doubt would dump Moira at the first chance. Was that so wrong? Hadn’t they already done enough? What any decent person would for a traveler in need? Helped distance Moira a little from her situation?
“Farmland and huts ahead,” Xena announced. “Probably means a village not too far.” She smiled at Moira. “Maybe even a blacksmith.”
“And weapons,” Moira murmured.
“Um … nothing. A blacksmith would be good.”
Xena studied the redhead a moment. She noted Gabrielle had leaned forward, her expression suggesting she’d heard the same thing. The warrior shrugged. “Cold drink’d be good too. Anybody else thirsty?”
“Hungry’s more like it.” Head cocked, Gabrielle added, “Something we don’t have to cook?”
“Works for me.”
Gabrielle started to invite Moira, but her gut warned to leave well enough alone. Whatever happened next would be Xena’s call.
“What can I get for you?”
Gabrielle wasn’t sure how to answer the serving girl. Xena had gone with Moira to the blacksmith. Gabrielle assumed both would join her at the inn. Although, given Xena’s fondness for picking up strangers, Moira might end up spending the night with her horse. Especially given their competition to see which of them would be the first to capitulate to do-gooding. On the other hand, Moira had mentioned weapons – always music to certain warrior ears. The question was, would that be Siren’s Song enough to beat out “na na na na na, I win.”
“Let’s start with a platter of cheese, bread and fruit.” Gabrielle smiled smugly. “Enough for three.” She snorted to herself awhile later when she saw she’d guessed right.
“Hi there,” Gabrielle greeted her partner as she and Moira seated themselves. “Get everything taken care of?”
“Pretty much.” Xena helped herself to slices of food from Gabrielle’s plate. “Horse should be good as new in the morning.”
Gabrielle tapped the food platter. “This cheese is excellent,” she said to Moira, who sat with her hands in her lap. “You must be hungry.”
“A little.” Moira sampled the cheese. “Mmm. This is good.”
“Just the appetizer. I’m told we’d like the mutton too.” Gabrielle turned to Xena. “You say the horse’ll be ready in the morning?” she asked casually.
Xena sucked in her cheeks. “That’s what I said. In the morning.” She raised a “your move” brow.
“Ah. That’s what I thought you said.” Gabrielle broke off some bread, eyes twinkling a silent, “What else ya got, Warrior Princess?”
Moira glanced between the two. Their words seemed simple enough, but she was pretty sure she hadn’t caught on to everything being communicated. “Um, it probably would’ve taken a lot longer, if not for Xena. There were quite a few jobs ahead of mine. I stepped out to get some water. When I came back ….” She grinned and shrugged. “The blacksmith said he’d make my horse a priority.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Happens a lot with Xena.” She snorted. “Must be her winning personality.”
This time Moira got the humor. Smiling, she said, “Whatever, I can’t thank her enough. Both of you. At least now I can …. I can ….” She sighed. “Well, I can keep moving.”
“Have you decided where?” Gabrielle asked.
“We’ll decide in the morning.”
Gabrielle and Moira cocked their heads at Xena, as if trying to confirm they’d heard right.
“Um … we … will?”
“Mmhm.” Xena plucked grapes from the platter and popped a couple in her mouth. “Moira’s gotta wait for her horse. No place special we have to be right now. Might as well stay here tonight.” She ate another grape. “Decide where to go from there in the morning. Anybody got a problem with that?”
Gabrielle and Moira exchanged wide-eyed glances.
“No? Okay then. I’m ready for that mutton.”
Generally speaking, Gabrielle felt comfortable with her mature self. She’d long ago vanquished doubts about her ability to survive – even triumph – in the often violent world outside Poteidaia. To traverse the winding, bumpy road required of Xena’s quest to atone for her past. Though now a half-century after they’d met, they looked and felt 25 years younger, thanks to the time they’d spent frozen in Ares’ ice cave. They’d become legendary, but many assumed them dead. This afforded them the luxury of settling down in the Village of Dreams she’d established after Xena’s ultimate sacrifice in Japa, as well as the option to continue defending the “greater good” when they chose. Or, more accurately, when it dropped in their laps. As it did pretty much like in the old days.
Xena, of course, still liked a good fight. Still liked getting out and about. Had adjusted well to traveling by wagon for “practical” reasons – the reduced stress on aging body parts an understood, if seldom acknowledged, bonus. Indeed, she’d mellowed in many ways – more patience with nonviolent solutions, more acceptance of the rewards of a life devoted more to doing the right thing because she felt like it, than because she had to. Oh, she hadn’t entirely lost her evil streak. Certainly not when it came to getting on Gabrielle’s last nerve. Like now.
They’d retired to their room. Nothing in dinner’s superficial conversation had revealed what on earth Xena had in mind with her cryptic comments about tomorrow. She now prepared for bed as usual. As usual insufferably tight-lipped when she knew Gabrielle wanted answers. It was at moments like this Gabrielle wished she too had changed more. Especially her unquenchable curiosity. Once again it would probably mean she’d have to make the first move. And endure that insufferable gloating regardless whether Xena had truly won.
Gabrielle went about her business feigning the same casualness as Xena. “You do realize I’m being gracious,” she finally said.
“I could be like some other people.” Gabrielle cut her eyes at Xena, who sat blithely brushing her hair. “Prance around chortling, ‘I win, I win.’”
“We both know ….” Gabrielle stared at the back of her partner’s head. “What?”
Gabrielle dropped down on the bed. “What do you mean, I win?”
“I caved first. No use denying it.”
Gabrielle frowned. Xena never gave in this easily. Unless it was a trick. “You helped her with her horse. Invited her to dinner. Common courtesy, really. Sure, if the shoe was on the other foot, you might consider that losing, but I wouldn’t ….” She caught herself too late. “Gods,” she said, knocking herself in the head. “When will I ever learn.” She snorted. “I could say it’s `cause I feel sorry for you. You being so competitive and all. Attempting to go easy on that ego of yours. If only my sense of ethics –.”
“It’s not what I’ve done.” Xena turned around, smiling, but not with the usual glee of victory. “It’s what I’m gonna do.” She rose and joined Gabrielle on the bed. “I wanna pull one of your numbers. Let her travel with us awhile.”
Gabrielle digested this news. “What brought this on?” she asked, reaching up to check Xena’s forehead for signs of fever.
Chuckling, Xena grasped Gabrielle’s hand. “The situation she talked about? Back in Alleteon?”
“She told me a little more at the blacksmith’s. It’s bad. Moira and her brother can’t stop those goons alone. I know. I’ve been there.”
“Mm. And you know what it can take to … ‘fix’ … things. That she could end up just as bad.”
“Yes. But if I help her …. Teach her how to do it better, maybe she can get her home back.” Xena squeezed Gabrielle’s hand. “And not end up like me.”
Gabrielle studied her partner a moment. She couldn’t remember seeing quite the same look – passionate, but also … innocent. As if Xena’d dropped the weight of so many years. Maybe returned to the rebellious village girl before she’d lost her way.
“Yeah, I hear ya,” Xena guessed. “Another trip to the past, huh? They say it’s always with us. But maybe with a better outcome this time? At least for Moira?” She scooted back on the bed and leaned forward. “I can’t explain it, but I feel drawn to her. To this … crossroads … in her life. Who better to guide her? Keep her from making the same mistakes? Not out of guilt or anything. Because … for some reason … I … want to.”
Gabrielle wasn’t sure why she’d have any reservations. Certainly not because of their pledge to spend this time together. The eagerness on Xena’s face alone made her desire worthwhile. And perhaps more vulnerable? To possible disappointment? To success that underscored her own lost opportunities? But wasn’t that too an important thread in the fabric of what they’d made together? Facing challenges, taking risks and discovering strength they wouldn’t have otherwise?
“I think it’s a great idea,” Gabrielle responded, cupping Xena’s face. “Win or lose, I’m with you for whatever tomorrow brings.”
Moira expressed surprised gratitude at breakfast, when informed she’d be welcome to travel with the women who’d befriended her. She also acknowledged doubts.
“As much as I’d love your company, I can’t ask you to put yourselves in danger for what I have to do.” Moira admitted she intended to buy weapons before heading out to meet up with other potential rebels. “We don’t have experience or a plan yet. Just commitment to try anything until it works.”
“Moira, have you ever heard tales of Xena the Warrior Princess?”
“Oh, yes. That’s partly what inspired me.” Moira frowned in puzzlement at the other women’s silence, at the smiles apparently supposed to communicate something important. “Xena? Surely you’re not implying ….” She stared at the woman across from her. “She died before I was born. At least, that’s what ….” She stared at Gabrielle. “Even if not true, they’d be ….”
“Hunched over canes, gumming cheese?” Gabrielle grinned. “We’ll explain our miraculous appearance later. For now, I assure you it’s us. Longer in the tooth and wider of hips, but still the real deal.”
Moira sagged against the back of her chair, mouth open. “That … that changes everything!”
Gabrielle put her arm around Xena’s shoulder. “We certainly hope so.”
After tying Moira’s horse to the back of the wagon, they set out for the forest where Moira planned to meet her fellow conspirators, a day or so ride away. Stanos would join them, hopefully with more recruits. Gabrielle contentedly darned tears in her extra britches, listening as Xena grilled Moira about her home village, the warlord’s possible strength and routine. The girl hung on every word, eager to connect each question to Xena’s thought process for devising a strategy.
“The main thing,” Xena advised when they stopped for a lunch break, “is what’s up here,” she said, tapping her head. “If you’re gonna be a decent leader.”
“Leader?” Moira nearly dropped the apple she was eating. “Most of our recruits are male. Most at least used to … casual … fighting. Why would you think – .”
“Like I said, brain counts more than brawn. The ability to observe, take in information, be creative. Not let ego or reliance on physical prowess get in the way of good sense.” Xena cocked her head. “Whose idea was this – to fight back?”
“Who went around identifying others?” Xena smirked. “As opposed to challenging them to a duel first?”
Moira ducked her head. “Mostly me.”
“Who decided you weren’t ready yet to make your move? That you needed to get proper arms and training?”
Moira shook her head. “Okay, I see where you’re going. You know how guys are. It’s hard enough getting their respect in the romance department. Have you any idea how hard it would be ….” She noticed bemused expressions. She bit her lip. “Oh. Sorry. Silly question. I forget ….”
“No problem. By the time I’m finished with ya, they won’t know what hit `em.” Xena smirked. “Besides, there are advantages. Gives you a certain mystique, them not always knowing where you’re comin’ from. If you’re successful, they’ll call it ‘women’s intuition.’ You can get in their face, scare `em with crazy talk. ‘Must be her time of the month. Better give her space.’ When it gets tense ….” She chuckled. “Amazing what a well-timed eye bat can do.”
Moira laughed. “And here I’ve been playing down my looks, for fear of pats on the butt.”
“Well, it’s not all easy. I’ll give you that. We’ll work on your fighting skills too. I know some techniques especially designed for smaller folks. They see you take down the biggest guy with a couple jabs from your fingers, they’ll be sufficiently impressed.”
“I’d heard you could do that. This is better than …. I can hardly wait.”
Gabrielle looked up from tearing off a piece of bread. “You’d heard she could do that?”
Moira searched Gabrielle’s face. “Sorry?”
“You said ‘you.’ For a moment I thought you meant ….” She glanced at her partner.
“Oh, you mean ….” Moira covered her mouth. “Oops. Well, I suppose I did. I mean, despite age and all …. Um, now that I know ….” She chuckled girlishly. “But I was talking about the … other … Xena. The one of legends.”
Xena raised a brow at Gabrielle. “S’okay. She gets `em confused sometimes. When you’ve been together this long, you tend not to notice time’s added some gray and wrinkles.”
“Thanks for the reminder.” Gabrielle scowled at Xena. To Moira she said, “Don’t mind me. Like she says, I’m prone to confusion. Unfortunately, a product of too much curiosity and an over-active imagination.” She smiled. “Same as the Gabrielle of legend.”
“Thank the gods.” Moira sliced a piece of cheese and handed it to Gabrielle. “Your stories portrayed a Warrior Princess we might not have known otherwise. Stumbling into the flesh-and-blood Xena and Gabrielle? Traveling with, learning from them? I gotta be the luckiest girl in the world.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle smiled benignly. “Given your quest, maybe it’s more than luck?”
“You mean, like fate?” Moira considered this. “Hmm. Wouldn’t that be neat.”
“Care to explain what that was about?” Xena asked when Moira made a trip to the bushes.
“That little exchange about me and my legend.”
“Pfft. Just me being … me.”
“Yeah, yeah. I didn’t just pick you out of a cabbage patch, ya know.”
“Fine. Something in her voice …. It’s like she knew you. I mean, more than a stranger.”
“What’s new about that? Wouldn’t be the first time we met somebody and it was like we’d been friends for years.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “True. We do have that effect.”
Xena snorted. “Although usually it’s you. Tara was an aberration.”
“Oh, don’t give me that. What about … um ….” Gabrielle searched through decades of memories. “Joxer! He was yours. And Minya and Hower.” She snickered. “For a while anyway.”
“Yeah, yeah. Well, lay off this one. At least she doesn’t clank, want my whip or toss me aside for another woman in leather two minutes after professing her profound love for me.”
Gabrielle laughed. “You do deserve someone ‘normal’ for a change. I’ll keep my curiosity in check. Focus on my legendary trust instead.”
“Good.” Xena rubbed her hands together. “Frees me to focus on my legendary butt-kicking.”
Upon reaching the outskirts of an abandoned fort, Moira rode ahead. When she returned, she reported some 35 villagers inside. “They’re a bit skeptical it’s really you,” she said. “That’ll change when they see you in action.
Once again Gabrielle found something odd about Moira’s comment, but decided to keep her mouth shut as promised. “Should we meet them now?”
“Um …. If you don’t mind, I’d rather wait for Stanos and the others.” Moira smiled shyly at Xena. “Maybe get some private lessons first? Dazzle them with my new skills?”
“Actually, not a bad idea. Good camping over there. We can talk tactics, do some drills.” Xena glanced apologetically at her partner. “Relax in between?”
“Hmm. Shades of ‘early’ Gabrielle. Not to worry,” she added at Xena’s pained expression. “I bought some fresh scrolls and ink in town. Have a feeling I’ll be scribing an interesting addendum to our ‘geezer’ adventures.”
During the next two days, Gabrielle hiked a bit through the forest and lush nearby meadows. She did some writing. Mostly she observed the two figures engaged in various forms of martial arts. It never ceased to amaze her how much of her youthful physical abilities her soulmate had retained. She even performed the few flips Gabrielle deemed permissible.
For her part, Moira picked up techniques with surprising ease. Before long she parried Xena’s stick without losing her own after three strikes. Xena hadn’t yet taught her “the pinch” – Gabrielle suspected out of over-sensitivity to a certain petite blonde’s feelings – but demonstrated pressure points that would be almost as effective.
A day after Stanos and his recruits arrived, Moira felt ready to introduce Xena. Gabrielle prepared to accompany them. Moira caught her arm.
“You want to come too? Won’t it be boring for you?”
Gabrielle pursed her lips. “I’m usually the designated demonstration partner.”
“Um ….” Moira exchanged glances with Xena.
“We … uh … I figured Moira could do that. You know, strut her stuff.”
“Maybe you could work with my brother? Out here? So the others don’t get jealous?”
Gabrielle allowed a conciliatory smile. “Not a problem. Go on. I’ll be over there waiting for him.”
Awhile later, Stanos came out. He didn’t look particularly happy for tutelage from the sidekick. Gabrielle didn’t mind. He’d learn soon enough. Besides, despite her best efforts, her curiosity had gotten the better of her. She discovered Stanos was a young man of few words. He did exclaim a few times when she whipped a stick from his hands in the blink of an eye, or when he landed on his butt from a foot swipe he didn’t see coming.
“Whew.” He wiped his brow. “Xena’s good. She does fancy stuff. You don’t mess around.” He gave her an appreciative nod. “Right to it. I like that.”
“Xena loves butt-kicking. I do it from necessity.” Gabrielle gestured toward her blanket. “Let’s take a break. You’ll need all your energy for the next session.”
The two sipped water and ate fruit.
“So. Everything going okay? No problems with them seeing Moira as a leader?”
“That was very considerate of you.”
“I understand you’re her older brother.”
“Must not’ve been easy letting her be out front.”
“She got the brains in the family. Natural she’d have ambitions. Me?” He shrugged. “Bein’ the farmer suited me fine.”
“Ambitions? You mean besides marriage, raising kids?”
Stanos snorted. “Nah, not the settlin’ down type. No guys I know man enough to order her around.”
“Huh. She seems sweet, rather shy.”
“Heh. Our recruits know better. Ones from home anyway. After Xena, they’ll all see she’s got the right stuff.”
“You should have a fighting chance now. I mean, with Xena’s help. It’s great Moira’s getting to learn from the warrior who inspired her.”
“Yup. Grew up hearing about Xena.” Stanos absently fiddled with his sparring stick, mind wandering back to his childhood. “Should’ve seen the look on Moira’s face, first time we – .” His head jerked up. He gave Gabrielle a quick glance and saw her expression of polite interest hadn’t changed. “Um, somebody came to town. A bard. Told stories about Xena. Never saw Moira so excited.”
“Mm. And now here they are. Together.”
“Uh, yeah. Lucky, huh.” Stanos fidgeted, drumming his fingers on his thigh.
“Almost like …. What did Moira call it? Ah, yes. Fate.” Gabrielle stretched and prepared to rise. “Enough chatting, eh? Why don’t we – in your words – ‘get to it.’”
That evening, Moira stayed in the fort, while her guests retired to their camp. For once Xena dominated the conversation. She reported more progress than expected. The novice “troops” included rougher elements. They took surprisingly well to her regimen and even to accepting Moira as their leader. The two were about to turn in when Xena realized Gabrielle’s contribution of words had been unusually small.
“How’d it go with Stanos? You teach him not to underestimate wrinkled sidekicks?”
“Stanos?” Gabrielle paused in smoothing out her bedroll. “Um, it went fine.” She smirked. “He was properly impressed.”
“You learn anything?” Xena rolled her eyes at Gabrielle’s expression. “Don’t give me that innocent look. If turnips had blood, you’d get it out of `em.”
“Humph.” Gabrielle mentally reviewed her conversation with Stanos, surprised at her reluctance to share it with Xena. “Let’s just say he’s a turnip when it comes to talking.”
“Gabrielle?” Xena studied her partner. “You’re okay with this, right? You having second thoughts?”
“Second thoughts?” Gabrielle chewed her lip. “Why do you ask?”
Xena stretched out on her side. “I don’t know exactly. You seem … distant sometimes. Like you get when you’re holding something back.”
Xena sighed. “We haven’t spent much time together. I’ve been so caught up in this …. Hadn’t occurred you might feel a bit … left out.”
“Left out? Because I don’t see you every minute? Xena, that’s crazy. Especially from someone I’ve been practically glued to longer than my last nerve.”
Xena picked at some knotted fur on her bedroll. “Sure, I know that.” She glanced up. “Moira doesn’t.”
“Moira?! Did she say something?”
“She … um … wonders if maybe you resent her a little. You know, for taking me away from you so much.”
“And where’d she get that idea?”
“Don’t get mad, okay? She thinks you’re great. Appreciates your kindness and patience. It’s just …. I guess she feels you’ve been … reserved. Maybe … suspicious? Of her intentions?”
Gabrielle took a deep breath. “I feel there’s more to her than she lets on. Not necessarily bad. The reality is, we are strangers. Could be she needs more time to fully trust us.” Gabrielle smiled wryly. “Despite our many instant friendships.” She stretched out facing Xena.
“You have instincts and aren’t always sure where they’ll lead. My curiosity’s the same. Please, assure Moira I do not feel threatened in any way.” Gabrielle rolled over to give her soulmate a peck on the forehead. “Only one who can do that is you. Now get some rest. You may not want to expend all your energy on your students tomorrow.”
“Yeah? Somebody else I might tire myself out on?”
Gabrielle rolled to her back. “That extra credit? I am having second thoughts about giving it up.”
Gabrielle sat in the shade writing down some thoughts. She looked up to see Moira approaching.
“Well, hello there.”
“I’m hoping for some staff lessons. Xena said you were the best.” Moira smiled shyly. “You up for that?”
Gabrielle set her scroll aside. “Sure. Although Xena tends to exaggerate my prowess.”
“I doubt that.” Moira held Gabrielle’s eyes. “She hasn’t exaggerated anything yet, when it comes to you.”
Gabrielle laughed good-naturedly. “There’s always a first time. Even after 25 years.” She retrieved her staff and handed Moira the stick Stanos had used. “We’ll start with some basic moves.”
She demonstrated proper grips for various offensive and defensive maneuvers. On a hunch, she spun suddenly, her staff aimed for Moira’s head. Moira deftly blocked.
“Excellent reaction,” Gabrielle said, backing off. “For a beginner.”
“I do seem gifted at this kinda thing,” Moira responded with no pretense at girlish surprise. “But I learned that move from my sword lessons.”
“Ah. Took me several hours of drills. I wasn’t a … ‘natural.’ Like you and Xena.” Gabrielle raised her staff. “We’ll jump to something more difficult.”
A few rounds later, the two dropped to the blanket and got some water.
“I thought Xena was rough,” Moira said after catching her breath. “Sure you weren’t trying to kill me?”
“Nooo. Contrary to perceptions you may have.”
“Xena told you?”
“Moira, I’m sorry if I’ve given you the wrong impression. Xena’s happy working with you and your budding militia. That’s all that counts.”
“But you don’t like me.”
“I don’t trust you.”
Moira blinked. “Gee. That was honest.”
“Actually, it was a warning.” Gabrielle relaxed against the tree at her back. “I’m too old to play games with you, Moira. I may be nice. I usually give people the benefit of the doubt. But when it comes to Xena, all bets are off.”
“I’m not sure what you’re getting at, Gabrielle. I assure you –.”
“Assurances are worth the actions they lead to. Yours will tell me all I need to know.” Gabrielle smiled. “Fortunately, we tend to draw out the best in most people. I have faith that will be true in your case. Now,” she said getting her staff, “let’s continue making the best of your staff work.”
Xena left the fort later than usual. She walked stiffly, none of the bounce from previous days. Her curt “hey” did not invite chitchat. Instead, she went about her camp routine as if Gabrielle wasn’t there.
“Xena? Something happen today?”
“Wanna tell me about it?”
“In a minute. I’m too …. Gotta cool down first.”
When Xena finally sat across from Gabrielle, she took a few deep breaths. Her face communicated a mixture of confusion and anger.
“Not sure how to start this. Haven’t had much practice lately.”
“Start with what’s bothering you most. That usually works.”
Xena looked up with disappointment Gabrielle hadn’t seen in a very long time. “Not when it’s you.”
Gabrielle’s breath caught. “Me?!”
“Kinda hard on Moira, don’tcha think?”
“You’re better than that. No way those were ‘accidents.’”
Gabrielle scooted closer, startled when Xena flinched. “Xena, honestly, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I saw them, Gabrielle. The bruises. On her arms. Legs. She tried to hide the others. I made her show me.”
“Surely you don’t believe I ….” Gabrielle sat back, aghast. “I barely touched her. I took the usual precautions. In fact, even if I hadn’t stopped in time, she was good enough to block most –.”
“Did you go for her head? Right off the bat?”
“Well, yes. To test her. I wouldn’t’ve made contact. She blocked that one too. See, I had a feeling she was more experienced than –.”
Xena’s jaw clenched. “I asked whether you had a problem with this. If so, you should take it out on me. Not her.”
“Xena, listen to yourself! You’re actually accusing me of hurting her? Purposely? Why on earth would I do that?”
“I don’t know. Doesn’t make sense.” Xena’s eyes bore into Gabrielle’s. “Surely you know there’s nothing between us.”
Gabrielle’s mouth dropped. “Jealousy?! Have you lost your mind? Completely forgotten I’ve loved you all these years, when anyone else would’ve gone screaming into the night after two minutes with your stubborn, egotistical, paranoid ….. Y-y-your ….” She sputtered, brain sorting through myriad descriptions for the woman across from her.
“…Insufferable hide!” Gabrielle huffed, poised to continue her tirade. She glanced up to see grudging bemusement, signaling the storm had passed. “Thank you. Just the word I was looking for. Not to mention ‘delusional.’” She decided to leave it at that. After all, it's not like she didn't know the risks of keeping secrets – possibly unleashing the warrior’s imagination to run wild.
“If you didn’t do it, that would mean ….” Xena shook her head. “But why would she? For attention? I don’t give her enough as it is?” She looked at Gabrielle, perplexed. “I’m old enough to be her …. She couldn’t possibly think …. I mean, there’s been nothing to give her the idea ….”
“I don’t know, Xena. Maybe ….” Gabrielle girded herself to suggest something she didn’t believe. “Maybe she has uncommonly thin skin. Bruised easily from the taps I gave her.”
“Yeah? You think?”
Gabrielle noted the relief on Xena’s face. “It’s possible. An alternative to going off the deep end.”
“She didn’t blame you. Seemed more embarrassed than anything.”
“See? No need to change your attitude toward her.” Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. “You tell her I might’ve done it intentionally?”
Xena puffed up with righteous indignation. “Of course not.”
“Riiiight. Being so trustful of your companion of lo these many years.”
Xena winced. “Sorry about that. Not sure what got into me.”
Gabrielle crawled over to put an arm around Xena’s waist. “This feels good to you. Everything that means anything to you – all rolled into one. Moira being the catalyst. Only natural you wouldn’t want it turning to dust.”
Xena sighed. “You’re right, you know.” She pulled Gabrielle closer. “I am delusional. Like anyone besides you would tolerate this turnip.”
“Insufferable turnip.” Gabrielle playfully pinched Xena’s nose. “It can be trying sometimes.”
Xena squeezed the forgiving body in her arms. “But not necessarily tiring?”
“Uh huh. I was tired at first. I’m not now. You?”
Gabrielle stared up at Xena as if the warrior actually had lost her mind. She caught a clue at the “come hither” expression and burst out laughing. “You truly are insufferable,” she emphasized with a swat to the midsection. “After all that, you still expect extra credit?”
“I gave you the right word, didn’t I?”
Gabrielle pulled Xena down to her bedroll. “In our next life? I’m coming back as the turnip.”
“You wanted to see me?”
Gabrielle imagined young Xena once displayed the same cockiness as Moira. “Yes. Walk with me.”
Moira reluctantly followed Gabrielle to a meadow filled with wildflowers. She knew they wouldn’t be doing drills but brought her staff anyway. No telling what Gabrielle had in mind.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Gabrielle asked, rolling out a blanket and indicating for Moira to sit. “Helps me clear my mind, surrounded by nature’s gifts. You?”
“It’s all right. I’m more interested in you at the moment. What you’re up to.”
“It’s simple, really.” Gabrielle stretched out her legs. “Finding out what you’re up to.”
“I’m an ordinary peasant girl. I don’t like being bullied. I mean to stop the bullies. That’s about it.”
“Mm. I don’t think so. I’ve been trying to figure out what’s so odd about your story. The lies are one thing.”
Moira stiffened. “What’re you talking about.”
“Poor, innocent girly girl intimidated by big bad boys. Slapped around by drunken louts. Self-doubt about her leadership qualities. Her lack of fighting skills. Knowing of Xena as only a legendary hero presumed dead.” Gabrielle raised a brow. “That little show in Alleteon? You bruise your own cheek? Like you did the rest of you after our staff drills?”
“I’m outta here,” Moira stated, getting to her feet.
“Sit … down.”
“Or what?” Moira twirled her staff. “You gonna poke me with your gnarly finger?”
“I may.” Gabrielle gazed at the girl with wry indulgence. “And when you can’t move, I’ll tie you with pieces of your shirt. You’re gonna listen either way. Your choice.”
Moira measured the older woman. She’d sensed early on Gabrielle could be a problem. Had kept her away from contact with the other rebels. She’d relied on Stanos not to have loose lips. Apparently even he was no match for Gabrielle, who sat relaxed as if the topic was butterflies and Moira merely a specimen in her net. No fear or uncertainty. No anger either. Only absolute, unwavering confidence. Moira had done some foolish things in her young life, but she was no fool. She knew she’d be one if she tested Gabrielle’s resolve.
“Can’t hurt to hear what you have to say.” Moira eased back down. “Besides, I’m curious what you think you know.”
“Ah. Curious. Now that’s something we have in common.” Gabrielle plucked a flower and sniffed. “Amazing, isn’t it? How little thought some people give a wondrous thing like this. To me it’s inspiration for discovering the essence of someone’s story.” She returned her gaze to Moira. “Interesting, how similar yours is to Xena’s. Like discovering you by the road with a lame horse.
“Xena once conned a man in similar fashion. Iolaus. Best friend of Hercules. She was building an army. Wanted to make a name for herself. Figured she’d do so by eliminating Hercules, learning what she could from Iolaus. She tried to turn them against each other. Fortunately failed. Thing is, I never wrote about that. Happened long before I met Xena. Yet it’s as if you – who weren’t even alive then – are reprising that story. Coincidence? Fate?” Gabrielle paused. “Plot?”
Moira squinted at the strange woman talking to her. “Why would you care? Why should I care about something you came up with out of thin air?”
“Because we both want the same thing.”
“Pfft. What’s that.”
“Xena’s success. Her help training you to defeat the enemies of Alleteon.”
“You accuse me of lying. Say you don’t trust me. Yet still you want to help?” Moira shook her head. “I don’t understand you.”
“You will. First I need to understand you. You’ve nothing to lose. With what I’ve guessed so far, I can convince Xena to leave. The truth – the whole truth – could mean you walk away free to do whatever you want.”
Moira rolled her staff in her hands. Part of her plan was years in the making. The other part …fate? Both could go up in smoke, depending upon the response of a has-been hero. Or, play out. Her gut said Gabrielle wanted only honesty. No strings that might tie Moira’s hands.
“Iolaus was a distant relative. He stayed with my grandfather’s folks during that time he met Xena. They passed that story down – how she almost came between him and Hercules. What Iolaus learned of Xena’s life before. I knew since I was ten I wanted to be like the Xena he met.”
“Not the hero she became?”
Moira snickered. “She didn’t spring up like that, did she? Maybe her heart changed, but it was her past that made her great. You should know. You wrote about the so-called evil people she learned from. The dark deeds that taught her strategy and skills. Even you can’t pretend that’s separate from who she became.”
“No, I can’t.”
“When Tricinus brought his gang to Alleteon a few years ago, I knew what I had to do. I picked up what skills I could. Convinced the guys and a few girls to join with me.”
“And Xena? How did you know she was alive?”
“I didn’t. Not before Trimea.” Moira grinned smugly. “Stanos and I happened to be near there not long ago. Heard about an older woman claiming to be Xena. That she defeated the warlord Galates. We found a spot on a hilltop. Watched her whip some militias into shape. There were always rumors. From what I saw, it seemed the real Xena was as alive as her legend.”
Gabrielle nodded. “You’ve kept track of us since then. Arranged ‘bumping into’ us. Why the ruse? Why not simply ask for help?”
“I wanted more.” Moira raised her chin. “A reputation. Same as she did by besting Hercules.”
“So you’d use her like she did Iolaus. Then kill her.”
“Why not? When I saw her, everything fell in place. Payback for Iolaus. Expertise to free my home village. Going down in history as the woman who beat Xena. Taking up where she left off when she nearly conquered the world.”
“Nothing’s changed. Except you. Just my luck you aren’t the knucklehead Iolaus was.”
“Lovely.” Gabrielle steepled her hands under her chin. “You know, it took Xena a long time to trust people. To see the good she could do with her heart, not just her sword. You’ve brought back the time in her life when her motives were pure. All she wanted was to protect Amphipolis. She believes she can steer you away from the bad that happened later, toward the good. It’s giving her pleasure I haven’t seen quite like this. I’d hate for her to lose that. For her openness to bring hurt in a new way. ”
Moira rolled her eyes. “I’d heard you were the gullible one. Idealistic and such. Xena’s supposed to be tough as nails.”
“Mm. What matters is that I’m her protector. Especially of her heart. It’s why I’ll allow you to play out your scheme.”
Moira sat dumbstruck. Was Gabrielle nuts? “W-what do you mean?”
“We’re going to act as if nothing has changed. As if this chat never happened. Xena will continue giving you her best shot without reservations. The guidance and opportunity to do some good. It’s up to you what you do with it. At least she’ll know it was your choice.” Gabrielle raised a brow. “Your … destiny?”
“Humph. You figure on turning me into a do-gooder, like Xena?”
“I’ve learned the hard way not everyone is redeemable. I once befriended an enemy soldier. He brought back an entire army to attack us.”
“You’d … you’d let me kill her?”
“Maybe in your story. I’m writing this one. I can pretty much guarantee that is not how it’ll end.”
During the next few weeks, Xena prepared the rebels for securing the safety of Alleteon. The spies she dispatched reported Tricinus approaching the village for his periodic stay. Two other warlords and about 100 men accompanied him. With Xena’s consultation, Moira divided her rebels into two primary groups. One would conduct hit-and-runs during the enemy’s advance, the other take up defensive positions in and around Alleteon. The dawn before mobilization, Xena reviewed plans one last time with Moira in the little office the latter had set up for herself.
“That’s it, then.”
“You chose wisely for the ambush team. It’s an effective use of their aggressiveness and … creativity. The others are better suited to the disciplined force we need to protect the civilians in Alleteon.” Xena smiled. “They’ll have a good leader. I’ll be there if you need me.” She studied Moira a moment. “Scared? Only natural if you are.”
“I’m … not sure.” Moira brushed her hand across the rough map they’d drawn. “It’s like a dream, yet my heart is racing. My brain is whirling. Sometimes it’s all the ways the mission could go wrong. Other times I see us defeating Tricinus.” Her index finger landed on the tiny square representing Alleteon. “Funny.”
“Up to now, it was all about how to win. I didn’t really think about the people. Villagers. Our militia.” Moira was silent a moment. “Our parents are dead, you know.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Stanos and I fended for ourselves a lot. The neighbors helped. I didn’t get very attached to any. Not sure why, but they looked to me when there was trouble. You know, kids not behaving. Somebody believing a merchant cheated them. I’ve started seeing their faces. Feeling a connection I hadn’t before. A … responsibility. I figured it gave me an advantage, focused only on what we had to do. Objectivity, I guess. Isn’t that better for a commander? Not letting emotional stuff get in the way?”
Xena dropped down into a desk chair. “Caring started me on my path. Wanting to protect my family. Amphipolis. It gave me the motivation and courage. After our success, I cared too much. Sought to stop intruders at the expense of other villages. Justified my actions as on behalf of my kinsmen. On behalf of myself as their ‘protector.’ After awhile, I lost sight of the faces in a blur of conquests. Friends and foes alike. I lost sight of myself as more than my best weapon. When I stopped caring ….”
Moira leaned across the desk. “You became the greatest commander known.”
“And a monster.”
The hard set to Xena’s face pushed Moira back. She hadn’t seen that before. Not in their discussions of warfare. Or about the qualities of strong leadership. It occurred to her they hadn’t really discussed punishment much. Instead, Xena had given tips for positive motivation, rewarding exemplary behavior, meting out fair justice.
“You don’t believe in whipping a man for disobedience? Making an example of some uncooperative villager? When that’s what’ll work?”
“As Destroyer of Nations, yes. I did what was easiest. Casualties be damned.” Xena cocked her head. “Thought we were talking basic defense of a village. Maybe a militia.”
Moira bit her lip. “Uh, y-yeah. Sure. Of course. I was just –.”
“Then, as I was saying, it begins with caring.” Xena’s eyes softened. “Hopefully, you’ll still care when it’s over. As to whether you could be a great commander as well ….” She gazed at her hands. “I’m not one to speak on that.”
“You, um, don’t want to?”
“Never tried it.”
Moira frowned. “You cared after your … dark … period, right? You care now. You became – still are – one of the greatest warriors.”
“Yes. Warrior. You need an army to earn reputation as a commander – great or otherwise. Monster or hero. Live with them over a long period. Constantly consider their needs, their every action, even their thoughts. I didn’t want that any more. Or to rule the world. Didn’t trust myself with that much power again. As a warrior, caring has inspired me to do the impossible. I couldn’t – haven’t – asked for more.”
Moira regarded the map again, this time the territory surrounding Alleteon. She’d already imagined the army required for control. The commander with vision and expertise to conquer it. Ideally no faces getting in the way. Certainly not the one across from her.
“A great warrior. That’s enough for you. Gotcha.” Moira squared her shoulders. “Okay, then, let’s do this. I’m as ready as I’m gonna get.”
The surprise attacks had gone well. By the time they reached the outskirts of Alleteon, the warlords’ troops had been reduced considerably, while the ambushers suffered only one loss. As Xena and Gabrielle monitored the situation outside, Moira sat alone in the inn pondering her choices.
Spies had witnessed bickering among the warlords. Apparently they disagreed on Alleteon’s value, given the escalating price for its occupation. Moira could wait them out in hopes they’d simply walk away. Of course, they could lay siege and wait for the village to succumb. Some of the elders had suggested negotiation. The warlords could stay on occasion, if they followed rules and paid for services. Otherwise they would face armed resistance. But if this enemy had been truly weakened, the militia could take the battle to them. Defeat – possibly wipe them out – once and for all.
“Hey, Sis.” Stanos joined Moira. “Enemy’s pulled up at the road in. Some’ve fanned out so it’s hard to leave that way. Farmers can’t get in for supplies.”
“Don’t think so. More like a standoff. Waiting to see our next move.” Stanos leaned forward conspiratorially. “The strike force wants to hit `em now. Get rid of Tricinus. Maybe pick up some deserters. Could be the beginning of that army you always wanted to build. Those not up for it could stay on for a militia. The rest could move out to … protect … the area.” Stanos grinned. “For a small …tax.”
“And Xena? She have anything to say?”
“Uh huh. That’s the best part. Said to tell you she’s ready to help however. Negotiation. All-out battle. Even fight Tricinus one-on-one.”
Stanos relaxed back. “Seems once the leader’s gone, she can convince his troops to leave Alleteon alone.”
Moira gazed at the ceiling. She was so close. She truly believed they could prevail without any heroics from Xena. Indeed, a victory like this could launch her quest to become Xena. But not if Xena saved the day. On the other hand, Xena might fail in her combat with Tricinus. Die then or “accidentally” later. At the least, lose face. Open the way for Moira to assume a legend’s mantle.
Moira snorted softly. Finally paying attention to how little she understood Xena. Why the warrior would risk her life for Alleteon. But, then, even an aged Xena was a pretty good bet to win. And then what? Allow Moira to take command of the enemy forces? Expect her to resume life as a peasant girl, except with newly acquired battle skills, content playing war games with a village militia? Continue as an apprentice at Xena’s side?
“What’s it gonna be? Your troops’re waiting for orders.”
“I know. Hold your horses.” Moira briefly closed her eyes, replaying the scenario she’d aspired to for so long. Herself proudly astride a magnificent stallion, warriors lined up behind, fires in the background blazing her glory. Xena no more than ashes left behind by another greatest of the greats. “Assemble the elders and noncombatants,” she said, pushing her chair back. “We must spare no one in sending the message Alleteon is through being up for grabs.”
Moira sat tall in the saddle, enemy defectors lined in front, her troops behind. No Tricinus. No Xena. No blazes to signal her conquest. She basked instead in the sun at her back. The murmurs of admiration. All eyes upon the slender figure who had managed the unimaginable. Everyone awaiting her command. It was if time had stilled, heightening her every sense – the heartbeat in her ears, the tingling on her skin, her sight turned inward to realize she’d achieved the same outside.
So this was it. The feeling of a dream come true. As fleeting as hard won. A moment worth savoring. Sharing. Satisfying better dreams. Xena had been right: the faces made it so.
“We did it!” Moira raised her fist in triumph. “Let the celebration begin!”
A thunderous roar greeted her words. The crowd surged around her, dancing and shouting her name. She remained mounted, searching. Finally caught sight of the two women she sought, easing their way toward the stables. The din drowned out her call to them. They seemed to know anyway. They turned and smiled. The shorter one gave the “okay” sign. The taller one raised two thumbs. Moira prized that moment even more. She saluted it as one might the making of a legend.
The clear, warm late afternoon wrapped the wagon occupants in comfortable serenity. Sounds of conflict and confusion faded into recent memory. Honeysuckle vanquished lingering scents of sweat and toil. To souls who’d weathered many winters, the wonder and renewal of nature in spring would always bring the breath of fresh air.
Gabrielle smirked at Xena’s profile. “You’ve earned it.”
“Hmm?” Xena glanced up from the reins in her hand. “Earned?” Her puzzlement morphed to anticipation. “Ahhh.” She began scanning for a suitable rest stop.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Not that. Not yet anyway.”
“You did good. So good, you lost the bet and still won. Insufferableness well deserved.”
“What makes you think I’m having a bout now?”
“You were smiling. No doubt congratulating yourself on your good deeds.”
“Mm. In that case, I’ll take a rain check. Add to whatever else I’ve earned.” Xena’s eyes twinkled before turning serious. “Actually, I was thinking how lucky I am.”
“Oh? The chance to help Moira?”
“More like … the chance to … enjoy it. Felt … clean.”
Gabrielle rested her head on Xena’s shoulder. “I’m glad.”
“Thanks, by the way.”
“For what? Softening her up for ya with my staff?”
Xena bumped heads. “You know what I mean. For helping it stay clean.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Smarty pants. When did you first suspect?”
“The horse shoe. No ‘accident’ then either.”
“And you played along because …?”
Xena smirked. “Curiosity. You don’t have a lock on that, ya know.” She cut her eyes at her soulmate. “The danger to Alleteon seemed real enough. Her desire to do something. If I could help her – the village – why not?”
“I kept waiting for your skepticism to kick in. At first I thought it a trick.” Gabrielle cut her eyes at her soulmate. “You know, win the bet somehow? Wait for my curiosity to kick in?”
“Nah. Figured I’d play you this time. Give `er the benefit of the doubt.” Xena sucked in her cheeks. “Until those bruises. I wasn’t really mad at you, so much as myself – playing the patsy. At her, for implicating you. Shook the belief, the generous spirit I’d worked so hard on. If I forced her hand, I might lose her. Maybe lose my willingness to care.”
“Heh. So you left it up to me to play you?” Gabrielle snickered. “Talk about patience. You have no idea how close I came to knocking her silly.”
“I could tell you picked up on something. Pretense and all.” Xena gave a sheepish grin. “Yours, I mean. But if there was good in her, figured you’d pick up on that too.” Xena reined in the horses. “Ready for a break?” she asked, stretching. “My bladder could sure use one.”
“I’m with ya there.”
They climbed down to visit the bushes. After, they unfurled a blanket and took out travel rations.
“Speaking of curiosity, I noticed Moira chatted with you a little. Before she took on Tricinus. Some last pearls of wisdom from her mentor?”
“I’d … um …offered my services. Should they be needed.”
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. “Such as?”
“Humph. Will ya look at that.” Xena displayed a wormhole in her apple. “Knew I shouldn’t turned my back on that produce guy. Wonder how much other rotten stuff he pawned off on us,” she groused, pawing through their bag of food.
“You can inspect every leaf of lettuce. It won’t get you out of answering my question.”
“Hmm, not a bad idea.” Xena picked up a head of lettuce. “I’m surprised at you. You’re usually so picky about – .”
“Yeah?” Xena looked up innocently. “Oh, right. Your question. Sorry. You know how single-minded I can get when I see –.”
“Okay, okay. Sheesh! It was nothing, really. I’d be her point person, whatever she decided. You know, the usual. Negotiating. Leading the troops.” Xena lowered her head. “Duke it out with Tricinus,” she mumbled.
“I see.” Gabrielle crossed her arms. “Mighty cooperative of you. Especially if she wanted you …out of the way.”
“Out of the way?” Xena blinked. “Why, whatever do you mean?”
Gabrielle rolled her tongue in her cheek. “I didn’t just pick you out of a turnip patch. If you figured she wasn’t all sweetness and light, you must’ve figured she didn’t need you around to steal her thunder. Benefit of the doubt notwithstanding.”
“Why? You scare her into confessing?” Xena ruffled her partner’s hair. “I do so love when you get all protective.” She snickered at Gabrielle’s low growl. “Even when I’m close to snapping your last nerve.” She scooted over and lay with her head in Gabrielle’s lap – usually an effective ploy for mitigating killer instincts.
“Sure, it occurred to me. But if she was having any jitters …. Who better to step in? Keep things from escalating unnecessarily. Or people getting hurt for no reason. Besides, we both knew I’m tough to get rid of. If she planned on me having an ‘accident’ after ….” Xena shrugged. “So be it.”
“Lucky for her she listened to you.”
“Listened to me?”
“The villagers gathering tipped me off. I surmised we were in for one of your creative solutions. If I’d seen you strolling out to duel Tricinus instead? I swear, Xena, I might’ve whacked your old hide before he had the chance.”
“Yeah?” Xena reached up to tweak Gabrielle’s nose. “Another way to get your hands on me? Ooo, kinky.”
“Grrr.” Gabrielle chewed her lip, regretting how hard it was to wring Xena’s neck when the silver-streaked head lolled there as if already on a platter.
“Actually, it was her idea.” Xena smugly nestled more comfortably into Gabrielle’s lap. “The villagers, I mean. Using me would’ve been easier.” She sighed contentedly. “I knew she’d be okay when she said the easiest way wasn’t always right.”
“Wow. She learn that from you?”
“We had a chat about it at the fort. Seems she concluded Alleteon would be better off standing up to Tricinus as a united front. Better than a hero they depended on to save them. Or a substitute for Tricinus – good intentions or not. A risk, but it worked. Between what promised to be an effective militia and rebellious civilians, Tricinus found himself in a place not worth the effort.”
“And she got the credit. No ancient Warrior Princess in the way. You know, she dreamed of patterning herself after the ‘early’ you. Think she’s given up on that?”
Xena snorted. “What? Be more like the ‘new’ me?” She gazed out at the darkening sky. “Not sure she understands who that is. Said she knew I’d become a ‘sucker for victims,’ but figured I’d have the same bloodlust when it came to battle stuff. The advice on nonviolent tactics? Really surprised her.”
Gabrielle combed her fingers through Xena’s hair. “That was pretty special – getting tutelage from the legendary Warrior Princes.”
“Mm. That puzzled her too. Trying to penetrate her thick skull before it was too late? Giving her the chance I didn’t take at her age?” Xena snorted. “Not sure she has your empathy when it came to understanding why.” She giggled.
Gabrielle frowned. “Something funny I missed?”
“Okay. B-but I gotta know somethin’ first.”
“Whether I’ll snatch every one of your gray hairs out after? Keep stalling, you’ll find out.”
“My rain check.” Xena grinned up with possibly her most insufferably insufferable expression. “That still on?”
“S-she asked if my help was part of atoning for mistakes. I said n-no.” Xena could barely contain herself. “She … she asked why. `You’ve f-f-finally done enough? Was this ….’” Eyes streaming, she managed to cough out, “`W-was this f-f-for extra credit?’ Bwahahahahaha!”
Gabrielle scowled down at the woman doubled over in her arms, renowned for cashing in on defeat, somehow surviving innumerable brushes with death. It occurred to her how often she – like everyone else – overlooked that her soulmate actually did win more with brains than brawn. Smiling wryly, she allowed her love to bubble up along with the laughter now equally difficult to deny. Soon both women rolled on the ground like schoolgirls who’d earned free passes to a recess they could enjoy as long and however their tested hearts desired.
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