“Xena, are you gonna die?”
“It’s not about me. It’s about these people. That’s why we’re here. People like this used to be my victims. I keep that in mind every time we come up against a warlord like
Talmadeus. It’s the greater good. Remember that.”
The tall man they’d passed, haggling with a merchant, looked like a typical farmer. The one in uniform lounging outside the door could be any warrior waiting or looking for trouble. That big guy at the bar? Not much notable about him except the assortment of knives at his waist. Maybe a bounty hunter?
What was their story? Why were they here? Did they all really have one thing in common?
“Are you trying to start a fight?”
“If so, keep staring at `im. If not, at least pretend more interest in what I’m saying.”
“Saying?” Gabrielle tore her eyes away from her target. “Oh, sorry.” She grinned sheepishly. “I … um … missed that last part. Something about a fight?” She scanned the room for potential perpetrators. “Where? Which one?”
“Short redhead. Long nose.”
“Yeah?” Gabrielle did another scan. “I don’t see ….” She turned to discover herself the object of scrutiny. “What? You don’t mean me?!”
“Curiosity’s one thing. You’ve been giving everybody the once-over. Like they’ll turn into Ares or somethin’. Keep it up, maybe they will.”
“Hey, they started it. Haven’t you noticed?” Gabrielle cut her eyes at her latest quarry. “Big guy at the bar? A couple others we passed on our way here?”
“You referring to the ones minding their own business?”
“Ha.” Gabrielle leaned toward the warrior. “More like trying to mind yours,” she said in a low voice. “You don’t find it strange? Like maybe they expect you’ll turn into Ares?”
Xena took a swig of her ale. “Not particularly. Don’t know why you do. You’ve seen it often enough.”
“Well, yeah. But that was before …. Um ….” Gabrielle pushed down emotions she’d resolved not to burden her friend with. “Before … I had more experience. I mean, you are kind of imposing.” She grinned. “Striking.”
“And now?” Xena raised a brow. “Knowing I really could turn into Ares?”
“Xeeenaaa.” Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “I know now you could have a history with them. I’m simply curious. You know – about their motivations.”
“Mm.” Xena relaxed back in her chair. “I suppose staring at `em’s one way to find out.”
“Tsk tsk. Must you go to extremes? I bet if I went over there, started a friendly conversation, he’d – .”
“Not necessary.” Xena crossed her arms. “Going to that extreme.”
“See? You always pick the hard way. What’s wrong with – .”
“Already got his attention. He’s on his way over.”
“He is?” Gabrielle’s jaw dropped. “Curses. You don’t really think he’ll – .”
“Thought so. Haven’t changed much.” The man appraised the warrior. “Filled out pretty good.” At her silence, he added, “Prob’ly don’t recognize me with the beard.” He snorted. “Mustache was only a few stray hairs.”
“Mm. Filled out pretty good yourself.” The corner of Xena’s mouth twitched. “Your … ‘baby fat’ … got distributed over more height.”
“Size didn’t help me much then.”
“You planning on testin’ that now?”
The man chuckled. “Yep, same ol’ Xena.”
“Um, sir?” Gabrielle glanced between the man and Xena. Neither gave clues about what might happen next. “I’m Gabrielle. And you would be?”
“Bellos,” he answered, without taking his eyes off Xena. “Grew up with the Warrior Princess.” He snickered. “Of course, back then, young bucks like me had other names for `er.” He folded his arms. “She had a habit of interfering in our … business.”
Bellos finally addressed Gabrielle. “Weaklings.” He smirked. “Seems her yen for `em hasn’t changed either.”
“Excuse me?” Gabrielle gaped at Bellos. “Surely you’re not referring to … to me?! I’ll have you know – .”
“Down, Gabrielle. Save your fire until we know it’s needed.” Xena cocked her head. “He hasn’t answered that yet.”
Bellos locked eyes with his childhood nemesis, before leaning against the table behind him. “Nah. Found a new career. You were right. A waste tryin’ ta beat manhood into weaklings. More satisfaction – and profit – picking on somebody with a bounty on their head.”
“Aha!” Gabrielle’s pique diffused into smug, “Thought so!”
Xena chuckled at Bellos’ puzzlement. “My friend here likes making up stories about people.” She sucked in her cheeks. “Bully to bounty hunter? Better ending than I would’ve guessed.”
“Least I know who – or what – I am. Yours took a few turns I wouldn’t’ve guessed either.” Bellos stroked his beard. “Me and my boys were wimps, compared to the great protector turned Destroyer of Nations. Your little friend predict yet how you’ll end up?”
Xena shrugged. “A work in progress. For both of us.”
Bellos nodded. “Honest enough. Always respected that.” He straightened. “I bump into some of the old gang from time to time. The usual curiosity about a kid who left home for fame and fortune. If it’s true she’s back to sticking up for weaklings.” He smirked. “I can say the Warrior Princess is still everything else we called her. And then some.” He started to walk away, but first gave Gabrielle a mock bow. “If pickier about the strays she takes in.”
“`Weakling.’ `Stray.’ The nerve! Big dummy. Has no idea how lucky he is, growing up with Xena. I gave him some slack for that. If he’d been a stranger …. Well, you know how ugly I can get, dontcha, girl. Oooo, speaking of which …. Little too much time on this spot, huh? Sorry about that.” Gabrielle interrupted her monologue long enough to move to Argo’s other side.
“I’m supposed to be pampering you. Can’t let my irritation with him ruin our quality time together. How’s this? Forgive me? Eeewww. Not the mouth, okay? We gotta work on a less juicy way of communication. But thanks. Coming from you, it’s a compliment. And guess what? When I’m done with this, you’ll get another reward. Here’s a hint – it’s red, firm and just the way you like it. Juicy. Now, if only you could help me with another issue ….”
Xena put away her sharpening stone and relaxed against the log at her back, wryly observing Gabrielle’s animated grooming of Argo. She couldn’t remember the young woman spending that much time with the Palomino before, let alone engaging in such an apparently heart-to-heart … conversation. As entertaining as it was, the warrior also found poignancy in the chosen “listener.”
A lot had happened the past few days. Experiences neither wanted to dwell on, but were bound to be on their minds nonetheless. Death was something Xena had lived with for some time. She might brush off nearly succumbing to it because of a poison dart, but realized that might have been harder for Gabrielle. Not to mention the girl’s having to literally step into Xena’s boots and trick Talmadeus into believing the Warrior Princess healthy enough to kick butt.
And there was still the mystery around the who and why of that dart. Xena suspected it explained her usually friendly companion’s recent scrutiny of anyone who gave the warrior a second look. On one hand, Xena wanted to reassure Gabrielle they probably needn’t worry too much about folks like that. On the other, Gabrielle might not view the reason as reassuring.
“Well, I think Her Highness is pleased.” Gabrielle stowed Argo’s brush in a saddlebag. “Maybe she’ll take that into consideration next time, before she tosses me on my butt.”
“Glad you’re bonding so well.” Xena smirked. “That ‘be nice’ stuff must work after all.”
“Humpf.” Gabrielle paused in spreading out her bedroll. “More like being forced into it, when we weren’t being so nice.” She plopped down, her face brightening. “You know, I really had doubts about pulling that off. But once I put on your leathers? Strapped on your weapons? I felt I could take on the world!” She grinned. “Well, with a little help from a friend.”
Xena chuckled. “That ‘yell thingy?’ Scare `em out of their pants?”
“Nooo. Well, yes, I did manage a decent likeness. I meant my four-legged friend over there.” Gabrielle glanced fondly at Argo. “Talk about a ‘sidekick.’ Heh, those hooves came in mighty handy. Saved my life, once Talmadeus realized I wasn’t you.”
“Yup. Still got my arms and legs, thanks to her. Talmadeus picked the wrong horse to rip `em off.” Smiling at her beloved steed, Xena moved to stoke the campfire. She frowned. “He knew by then you weren’t me. When’re you talking about?”
Gabrielle winced. “Um …. That second time? When you had me toss fire bombs into his camp?”
“I told you to get in and get out.”
“Xena, I had to make it look good.” Gabrielle ducked her head. “Guess I got a little carried away.”
Xena began laying out her sleeping furs. “You could’ve been killed,” she muttered. “I never should’ve – .”
“Expected me to fill your boots?”
“Put so much on your shoulders.” Sighing, Xena dropped down on the furs. “It was an iffy proposition – even with me at full strength – persuading Talmadeus not to attack. I was so focused on fighting the poison …. Not knowing for sure how long it would take …. I hoped you could stall him until ….”
“Until what? Your super powers prevailed? You sprang up from death’s door to ride to the rescue?”
Xena snorted. “Somethin` like that. Not because I didn’t have confidence in you. You filled my boots pretty convincingly.” She smirked. “My breastplates too, I might add.”
Gabrielle allowed a small smile. “Yeah, it was a funny at first. Even fun, pretending I was you. But I believed it too, Xena – that you would spring up. The Warrior Princess once more. When I came back, and they showed me that litter ….” She swallowed. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Pulling that blanket back. Seeing it was really you underneath. So pale. And still. Leaving only me. Inside your battledress, except … except I couldn’t pretend anymore.”
Xena squeezed Gabrielle’s shoulder. “It’s never been ‘pretend’ for you. It’s who you are.”
“The greater good?” Gabrielle snorted softly. “I would’ve preferred you. Alive and well. I had the confidence at first because of you. Because you put the village ahead of yourself. Because I believed you’d be there with me. When I thought you … gone, it was still you. Giving me the strength. I couldn’t let your wishes, your life, be in vain.”
Xena gazed into the fire. “I said helping those people wasn’t about me. But in a way it is. A personal debt from my past. I put that on your shoulders, whether I wanted to or not. It’s a consequence of being with me.” She sighed. “Is that right? Letting you share the sadness and pain?” She smiled ruefully at Gabrielle. “Knowing it’s in you to do – for me, for others who need it – is why I can anyway.”
Gabrielle searched Xena’s face, not so much to find what was there, as to reassure herself there was nothing she had missed. She scooted next to the warrior and rested her head against a strong shoulder. “It feels right, Xena. Being a part of the greater good. Nothing warms my heart more. Touching it in you?” She slid her arm through Xena’s. “Feels even better.”
“You did fine on your own. Without the physical me.”
Gabrielle suppressed a shiver at visions that contradicted Xena’s words. Of helplessness to do more than caress one last time strands of dark hair gone limp, lips that would never tease again. The coldness of a future without the warrior’s passion. Grief hot with rage, directed at a tree lest it consume focus on the legacy that should comfort instead. So much taken for granted spinning beyond control. Demanding a heart more metal than human. Survivable maybe, but not exactly “fine.”
“I guess, all things considered. You know – my first time experiencing a loss like that.”
“What about your pony? Pretty traumatic for a kid.”
“Xeenaa. There’s no comparison.” Gabrielle swatted Xena’s arm. “What I’m trying to say is, my ideals were easy, before I understood the true cost. Now that I do ….”
“What? You’ll chuck `em for the dark side?”
“Noooo. But if another day comes? Having to choose between keeping you around, or losing you to the greater good? I’m not so sure anymore.”
They sat in silence a moment. Gabrielle grappling with the impact of possibly loving someone more than making the world a better place. Xena realizing it was still about her, but in a way that involved another – more important – life.
Xena gave Gabrielle a sympathetic pat on the arm and began removing her armor. “I’m going to get hurt, Gabrielle. Maybe killed. You can’t let that cloud your thinking. Won’t do either of us any good.”
“I know,” Gabrielle said, focusing again on smoothing out her bedroll. She grinned. “Just me being my usually chatty ‘what deep stuff can I bore Xena with tonight’ self.”
“Mm. No more looking over your shoulder? Worrying which of numerous folks we pass might be out to get me?”
“I’m curious about that dart too. But not so much it interferes with eating or sleeping.”
Gabrielle stared at the warrior, as usual caught when she least expected. “Fine. So maybe I am a little more cautious.”
“Humph. I learned from the master.” Gabrielle scowled at Xena. “What about that farmer? How do you know he wasn’t from some village you … visited … when you were … less good?”
“Took skill hitting a moving target from that distance. Not something you pick up in between sun up to sun down chores. Whatever his interest, I doubt he expected to see me. Once he did, if I’d wronged him, more likely he’d rush me with a pitchfork.”
“That warrior could’ve had the skill. Maybe another ‘I’m the man who got Xena.’”
“No witnesses? No proof I was dead? Besides, he’d’ve been bragging and buying drinks – not lounging outside like just another unemployed stiff.”
“How better to disguise he’s really an assassin? A cold-blooded professional, biding his time until he finishes the job? You’ve gone up against lots of folks who’d hire him. Warlords wanting revenge. Tyrants who don’t want you interfering.”
“Nah. They’re basically businessmen. What’s past is past. No sense shelling out blood money unless I’m actually a threat.” Xena shrugged. “They usually know when I am.”
“Xena, somebody shot you. We didn’t imagine it.” Gabrielle stretched out, propped on her side. “I gather you don’t suspect Bellos. You’ve eliminated most other possibilities that make sense. You truly have no idea?”
Finished with her preparations for sleep, Xena lay on her back. She had ideas all right – far more disturbing than Gabrielle’s. Beyond anything she’d encountered before, though obviously she and her mystery assailant had crossed paths. This was personal. Very personal. Worth hours of planning and practice. Studying her behavior, tracking her moves. Not simply to kill her, but to make her suffer. Disable her both physically and with troublesome questions. And to some extent had already succeeded. She did wonder – of everything she’d done – which might have created a mind as twisted as her own had been? So obsessed with a single victim?
Yes, this certainly had the feel of a private affair, with everyone else simply background or minor details to enhance the main attraction. Whoever it was no doubt knew she’d survived. Would strike again. With any means necessary. And in the preoccupation with her, would probably not be concerned about any other bodies that happened to fall as well.
“It’s someone with a grudge. Someone who doesn’t fit the pattern of 99 of 100 folks we’ll meet.” Xena ruffled Gabrielle’s hair. “No sense losing sleep over a needle in a haystack. My gut says it’ll pop out on its own soon enough.”
The next couple days passed uneventfully. When they decided to stop at an open-air market along the road, Gabrielle took a more relaxed approach to the various peasants, traveling merchants and warrior types.
“How about these? They look pretty good. Robust. Less blemishes.”
“Gabrielle, it’s not a beauty contest. Whichever you pick will do.”
“I swear, you have no appreciation for the finer points of a champion potato. Compare that one with – .”
The two women whirled to see a burly man a few stalls down, holding a sword. Onlookers nearby glanced between him and the tall warrior in his sights. Some appeared to recognize the name he’d called out. Others merely seemed curious.
“Do you know him?”
“Not yet. Stay here.” Xena strolled toward the man. “Let’s not make a scene, shall we?” she said to him quietly, pointing her chin toward a clear area nearby.
The man seemed surprised, but complied. Most of the other shoppers turned their attention away from what hadn’t yet shown signs of interesting trouble.
“You have business with me?”
“You came to my village a few weeks ago.” At Xena’s continued scrutiny, he added, “Remember Lotia?”
“Uh huh.” Xena cocked her head, brow raised at the sword dangling from his hand.
“Oh, this? Merchant over there’s lettin’ me try it out.” The man nodded at Xena. “Because of you.”
“Everything okay?” Gabrielle had eased up beside the warrior in time to hear the man’s last remark.
“So far. He’s from Lotia.”
“Greetings. Gabrielle, right? Was just tellin’ Xena she’s why I’m here, lookin’ at weapons.”
“Left up to us, our daughters would be slaves. You two showed we don’t have to take crap, if we stand up for ourselves. Have to start somewhere. Figured might as well be me. Name’s Thepedes.” He grinned. “Meant to say thanks, not scare you.”
Xena sucked in her cheeks. “No problem. Appreciate the update.”
“Glad I ran into you.” Thepedes started to bid farewell. “Hey, since I did, mind givin’ me your opinion on this sword?”
“Sure.” Xena inspected the weapon and gave it a practice run. “Decent quality,” she said, handing it back. “Weight should work with your size. I wouldn’t recommend strapping it on too soon.” She cut her eyes at Gabrielle. “Not until you learn how to use it.”
“Old military guy back home’s gonna teach us.” Thepedes raised his fist. “Visit us again, maybe we won’t be runnin’ `round with our tails between our legs.”
“Whew.” Gabrielle watched Thepedes walk away. “One down, another appointment to go.”
Gabrielle crooked her head toward a handful of men wearing armor, posted near the produce stand. “They wouldn’t give any particulars.”
As Xena closed in on the men, one stepped forward. She stopped in front of him and crossed her arms. “If you’re lookin’ for advice, my friend’s who you should talk to.”
“Potatoes. That’s what we’re here for. Anything else better be quick.”
The man snickered. “Got a sense of humor. Nobody told us about that.”
“Tick tock, tick tock.”
“Okay, okay. The girl there said you really are the Warrior Princess.”
“No need scraping the barrel,” the man said, sneering in Thepedes’ direction, “with veterans like us available.”
“Um, excuse me? What makes you think Xena’s conducting job interviews?”
The man would’ve ignored Gabrielle’s question, except Xena gave no indication he should. “Some guys returnin’ from Corinth. Reported the Warrior Princess is back in business. Said her new army’s been … active … near there. With her strollin’ around here, we figure she’s lookin’ to expand.”
“Step back, soldier.”
“Fall in. All of you.”
The men got the message. They quickly lined up and stood at attention. Xena paused in front of each, as if a commander reviewing troops.
“Head north toward Thermopylae. When you get to the main road, take the east fork through the forest. About a day’s ride will bring you to a large rock formation. Behind it is a small fort where Athenian guards were stationed years ago. Tell the sentry Xena sent you. The code word is ‘Caesar.’” Xena stepped back. “Sooner you’re taught properly, better the chance you’ll be in position for the next operation. Now go.”
The men exchanged grins. In unison, they saluted and said, “Yes, sir!” before loping toward their horses.
“That was weird.”
“No weirder than rumors I gave up warlording. Especially to men like that.” Xena shrugged. “I did make quite an impression in Corinth awhile back. Not that surprising if it’s still marking my reputation.” She thumped Gabrielle’s carry bag. “You manage to get those ‘champion’ potatoes, in between recruiting for my army?”
“Ha ha. As a matter of fact ….” Gabrielle grabbed five from the top, tossed them in her bag and paid the vendor. “We’re good to go.” She ignored Xena’s snicker, instead heading for the road and commanding, “Fall in, soldier. March!” Once the warrior joined her, she asked, “How come you played along with those guys? Won’t they find out? When they reach that abandoned fort?”
“First, they weren’t worth it. Whether they believed me or not, either way might’ve meant too much trouble. As to your second question, who said anything about ‘abandoned?’ Far as I know, it’s still a guard post.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Nice to know they’ll get the reception they deserve.”
“Guess you were right about the 99 of 100 people. The upside is, at least nobody we met today tried to kill you.”
“Mm. Not to mention much easier building an army. If I wanted to.”
“On the other hand …. Remember what you taught me about catching arrows aimed you? The downside is, the one you miss counts most.”
“Oh, so now you’ve become the cynic among us?”
“Nuh uh. Still 99 parts optimist.” Gabrielle smirked. “I’m simply reserving one for paranoia.”
It was a beautiful morning. When the two travelers reached the crest of a hill, they paused to appreciate nature’s gifts, captured in a majestic oak brimming with birds, its branches caressing the sky, feet planted in a carpet of purple and green. At least, that’s how Gabrielle described it. Xena couldn’t disagree. And so both women scowled at an unwelcome addition to the scene – riders with swords, bearing down on a collection of huts.
“Uh huh. I couldn’t have expressed it better myself.” Gabrielle watched Xena resignedly mount Argo. She reached up. “I’m going with you.”
“Yeah?” Xena tilted her chin at the rather steep slope. “Not your usual cup of tea.”
“My tastes got expanded lately.” Gabrielle allowed a wry smile. “Besides, I can enjoy this with my eyes closed.”
Chuckling, Xena pulled Gabrielle up. “Guess I don’t need to tell you to hang on while you’re at it.”
“You’ll have to pry me off when we get there.” Her head and arms securely in place, Gabrielle took a deep breath. “Okay, let `er rip! Eyeyiyiyiyi!”
“Yah, Argo! Eeyaaah!”
The Palomino had nearly reached level ground before her hooves began to register on figures in her path. Marauders and their victims alike froze at sight of the golden steed bearing down on them. Their faces reflected astonishment, until one of the uniformed men’s eyes showed recognition.
The warrior reigned Argo to a halt. Gabrielle peered around the body she clung to. The farmers had gathered near the huts, nervously holding on to loved ones or murmuring with their neighbors. The marauders had regrouped with weapons at the ready. All staring at the new arrivals.
“What are they doing?”
“Waiting for me.” Xena snorted. “Whichever ‘me’ they’ve got.” She dismounted and helped Gabrielle down. “You take the villagers. I’ll see about the boys over there.”
Gabrielle assumed her most innocent expression and walked up to a cluster of families. “Hi there. We’re here to – .”
“Is that really the Warrior Princess?” a man asked softly, eyes glued to the dark-haired woman sauntering up to the marauders.
“Uh huh. We saw those men and figured we should – .”
“Are you her … slave?” An older woman squinted at Gabrielle. “She send you over here with instructions for us?” She drew herself up. “Well, I’m not for it. Been there before. With Petracus and his gang. I’d rather die first.”
“Mother!” A young woman put her arm around the older one’s shoulders. “Don’t make matters worse.” She looked appealingly at Gabrielle. “Please. Tell us what you want, so no one gets hurt.”
“Um ….” Gabrielle let out a long breath. “Tell you what. For now, don’t do anything. Let Xena finish her business first. You’ll know after that.”
Xena now stood in front of the armed men. She folded her arms and cocked her head at them. They stared back. Finally one rolled his eyes at his comrades and edged forward.
“You really Xena?”
“So what you want?”
“The … usual?”
She nodded again.
Frowning, the man turned to the others. They shrugged, as if to say, “Whatever happens happens.”
“We’ll cut you in, if that’s what you want.”
Xena raised a brow.
“You …. You want it all?”
Xena said nothing. Some of the men began grumbling. They quieted when she rested her hand on the round weapon at her waist.
“Didn’t know you had a claim here.” The spokesman stuck out his chin. “Shoulda left some guards or somethin’.”
“I’m here.” Xena sucked in her cheeks. “Oughtta be enough.”
“Uh, yeah, well … uh ….” The spokesman decided to let little enough alone. He scanned the area. “Don’t see your army, is all.” At Xena’s silence, he ventured, “Scoutin’ for more? We’re here. No reason we couldn’t – .”
“I’ve got this under control. If you’re interested ….” Xena gave them directions to the Athenian fort near Thermopylae. “Better hurry. Ya got competition already there. Figure they’ll see some action real soon.”
“Gotcha!” The spokesman led his fellows in a sloppy salute before they hi-tailed it to their horses and thundered away.
Xena ambled toward Gabrielle’s group. “So. How’re things over here?”
The older woman tore away from her daughter’s grasp. “Your little slave didn’t tell us much. She didn’t have to.” The woman sneered. “Whatever orders you gave your goons, bet they’ll be back with more tomorrow.” She glared at Xena for confirmation. Receiving no response, she got in the warrior’s face and declared, “I already told her, I’m not havin’ it. Try taking my place, I’ll fight you to my last gray hair!”
“First of all,” Gabrielle huffed, coming up beside Xena, “I’m her friend. And partner.” She scowled at the older woman. “Second of all, she just saved you. Without any bloodshed. If she meant to harm you, or let those men harm you, no amount of gray hair could stop her.”
“Why did they obey her? If they’re not her men?”
“The same reason you haven’t made a move. She’s the Warrior Princess. Whatever that means to you, it carries more weight than who she really is.”
“And who exactly is that?”
Xena lay a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “S’okay. We’re done here.” She whistled for Argo, mounted and pulled Gabrielle up behind her. Before trotting off, she smiled thinly at the older woman. “Like my friend here said, the answer’s up to you.”
“You have to admit, Xena, this is stranger than usual. Almost like a pattern of some sort.”
“Yeah?” Xena did agree but glanced over her shoulder and asked anyway, “How so?”
Gabrielle poked a finger in the warrior’s back. “You know what I mean. How’d you get so famous all of a sudden? Being legendary’s one thing. Everybody acting like they’ve met you personally? That’s not normal. Especially since you’re not following your old pattern either.”
“So I’m alone.” Xena snorted. “No army anyway. Saving instead of pillaging. Doesn’t change what they’ve heard. Isn’t that what legends do? Live bigger, longer than the actual person?”
“I suppose so.”
Gabrielle tried to put her finger on what had changed. She was used to ordinary folks getting wide-eyed, once they learned the warrior’s identity. But most had no actual experience with her. Many didn’t recognize the name. Even those who did appreciated her help regardless of her reputation.
As for the bad guys, their rumor mill apparently worked pretty well. They might be perplexed anyone would disdain the fruits of successful warlording, but they certainly were aware Xena was trying to do so. Yet lately both innocent and criminal types assumed the Warrior Princess was up to no good. The slate that had been relatively clean for most of their journeys so far now bore marks that would make Xena’s quest even harder.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions yet,” Xena said, correctly interpreting Gabrielle’s silence. “Could be that imagination of yours working overtime.” In truth, the warrior had maintained their present course precisely because it seemed to be taking them closer to whatever was “off.”
“We headed someplace special?” Despite Xena’s casualness, Gabrielle sensed purpose in their direction beyond the usual “go where the road takes us.”
“Little town a few miles up. Same as the rest. I could use a decent port.” Xena threw a grin over her shoulder. “No doubt you could use a decent meal.”
“Maybe pick up morsels of information while we’re at it?”
Xena shrugged. “Way things’ve been going, who knows? Whatever they’re serving, I wouldn’t mind a little peace and quiet for the appetizer.”
Not long after, Gabrielle chatted with the proprietor of the town’s inn, ostensibly to check on the menu, but mainly in case there was gossip to be had as well. Xena sat sipping her port. A man dropped down next to her.
“Innkeeper, please – wine!”
Xena noted the man’s obvious distress. She pushed her drink toward him. “You look like you could use that more than me. You all right?”
“No, but thank you for your kindness. My name is Melas.”
She looked him over before offering her hand. “Xena.”
“Xena? The Warrior Princess?”
“Some people call me that.”
Suddenly Melas attacked. Xena subdued him, keeping her sword on him as he sprawled against the table.
“Go ahead. Murder me. Just like you murdered my son.”
“What are you saying?”
“I found a woman from my village lying half-dead in the road. She said you and your army murdered everyone but her – even my 6-yr-old son!”
“That’s a lie.”
“Then why does every traveler between here and Corinth have a story about an army led by Xena?”
The sun barely favored the western horizon on the still beautiful day, it’s golden highlights reflecting off the water’s surface and tiny darting wings. A scene worth contemplating if not for thoughts drawn somewhere else. Gabrielle absently plucked the petals off a dandelion. Xena scraped at debris wedged under Argo’s shoe. Neither seemed to appreciate her surroundings as more than a rest stop before reaching a destination more memorable. And darker.
“Melas was so sure. And some of the others. Where did they think you’d stowed your army? Why would you be sitting there – in a public place – caring about how someone felt, if you’d just mowed down an entire village?” Gabrielle studied the shorn stem in her hand. “One simple act of kindness, and suddenly the whole place turns on you.”
“Mm.” Finished with Argo’s hoof, Xena patted the Palomino’s flank. “Gotta be more careful.”
Gabrielle looked up at the warrior. “Careful?” She glanced at Argo’s foot. “About … taking less rocky shortcuts?”
“About offering drinks to strangers.”
“Xeenaa.” Gabrielle got up and handed her friend a water skin. “It was strange enough before. At least it could’ve been that legend thing. What Melas said? About an attack only a few days ago? His grief was real. How is it possible?” She leaned against a tree. “We hoped to learn something. Instead, it makes less sense than ever.”
“Not entirely.” Xena took another swig from the water skin. “We learned it’s a woman. That makes sense.”
“You know of someone? A female warlord?”
“None like this.” Xena propped herself on Argo, eyes distant. “That poison dart? It didn’t fit the men I’ve gone up against. Too complicated. No profit in it. The patience and cunning. But a woman ….”
“You think they’re working together? One, more like an assassin? The other, a leader of a gang? Maybe a wannabe Warrior Princess?”
“It’s possible.” Xena snorted. “Any or all of that.” She put away the water skin. “We won’t solve it here,” she said, preparing to leave.
“Xena?” Gabrielle put her hand on the warrior’s arm. “I have a bad feeling about this. It’s like everything’s turning upside down.”
“What are you saying?”
Gabrielle blew out a breath. “You’ve been attacked or hurt before, trying to help people. I accept that’s a price of your quest.”
“Heh. You know what I say about that.”
“`No good deed goes unpunished.’ Yes, Warrior Sunnyside. Especially since you act like you deserve that. This is different. It’s like somebody following in your footsteps. Reshaping or erasing them. Trying to kill either you or your new reputation. Both, if they can.”
Xena gave her friend’s shoulder a squeeze before heading out. “We’ve done okay so far. Gods, Titans, enemy troops. Whoever it is – however many – how bad could they be, compared to the rest?”
“Well, I’m sorry, but I take back what I said. About being paranoid. Even kids won’t get a free pass if they look at you funny.”
Xena halted. “That’s not funny. I don’t want you losing your trust because of this. Because you fear for me or my quest. That’s a punishment you don’t deserve and I can’t accept.”
“I’ll try.” Gabrielle slipped her arm through Xena’s as they walked along. “Who knows? If it’s a wannabe, maybe we can ‘turn’ her. Get her to see the error of her ways? Follow your example?”
“Ah, there’s the Gabrielle I’m used to and love.” Xena snorted. “Gives another slant to punishment.”
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. “Excuse me?”
“Rescuing you from Poteidaia?” Xena tweaked her companion’s nose. “Unintended as it was, that’s one good deed I’m rewarded for every single day.”
Gabrielle: “I’m glad you saved Callisto.”
Xena: “It was the right thing to do.
Callisto: “The right thing to do. That’s what they think.”
– The conclusion of CALLISTO
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