A middle-aged Xena and Gabrielle find themselves reprising roles from their past, after receiving a mysterious invitation from Cleades, the baby-to-man monarch of season four’s "Key To The Kingdom."
FIFTY WINTERS AGO
"Fifty winters ago. Hard to believe, eh?" The tall, distinguished speaker grinned. "Technically, it’s been a little longer than that for me, but – at our age – who’s counting?"
The handful of men and women chuckled. All felt lucky to be alive, let alone quibbling over a few years’ difference in their experiences.
"Ha, whoever made that threat should’ve caught me back when I still had my figure." The stout woman in her 60’s pinched the flesh hanging from her arm. "Then I might’ve cared."
"Me, I wouldn’t’ve passed this up for the world. Hades himself couldn’t’ve stopped me, even with this bum leg of mine."
"Yep, ain’t often I git ta laze around in a fancy place like this." The sturdy male speaker glanced around the banquet hall they lounged in. "I got ta give it ta Cleades for buildin’ this guest compound. That castle of his was fine when he had ta worry more about keepin’ people out, but it sure weren’t that comfy for folks inside."
An expensively attired matron brushed nervously through her silver-blond hair. "That’s why I was so surprised by the threatening note. It’s been ages since we’ve had to worry about attacks in my realm. I felt transported back to the days when warlords ran amuck."
"It is strange," agreed the stout woman. "Robbery I could understand." She smiled at the matron. "We do have a few notables among us worth kidnapping or something. But killing? What possible harm could we pose to anybody?"
"I wonder if it’ll keep the others away. Cleades said he’d found a couple more members during his travels," added the tall gentleman. "I was looking forward to meeting them. I’m always curious to see if anybody can break my record as the oldest – well, `first’ to be more accurate."
The man with the bum leg nodded. "We could use some new blood. Another 10 years and most of us’ll probably be gone."
"Fine with me. I ain’t had it as easy as some of the rest of ya. The next few days I’ll have a big, soft bed and all the food I kin eat. No roosters gettin’ me up afore I want or leaky roof callin’ my name."
"I hope the others arrive soon," the matron said with concern. "Otherwise, I’ll worry some thugs really did attack them."
"Ah, I wouldn’t worry too much." The man with the bum leg awkwardly pushed himself to his feet. "Probably somebody’s idea of a joke. Knuckleheads with nothin’ better to do than try and scare a bunch of old folks grayer than we already are." He yawned and stretched. "Well, I’m ready for that nice, soft bed. If somebody kills me in my sleep, I’ll die a happy man."
"Fifty winters. That’s about how long this’s been gnawin’ at me. Evertime I thought I had it licked, there’d be somethin’ to remind me." The burly white-haired warrior paced in front of the campfire, his eyes burning into the motley "army" he’d assembled. "Most of you’re too young to remember, but I do. Those old buzzards do too."
"I hear the warning didn’t work too hot, least not on the couple I know about," said the only woman in the group. She flicked her finger against her knife blade. "Guess I’ll get to use this after all."
"You said we wouldn’t have to kill nobody," a youngish man piped up. "All’s we had to do was scare `em, keep `em away and run off the few who showed up."
A grizzled warrior in black snickered. "What’s a matter, boy? Don’t have the stomach for a little bloodletting?" He searched out the approval of others dressed in tattered battle clothes like himself.
"Yeah," another older man said. "Not much action anymore like in the good old days. My Pop could take whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. If we don’t fight for our traditions, who will?"
The gang murmured among themselves, with varying levels of enthusiasm for going beyond a few scare tactics. Finally a man with scars on his face stalked over to stand with their leader.
"Enough! We didn’t come all this way to cluck like a bunch of chickens! Areus knows what he’s talkin’ about. He spent years plannin’ this. When it’s over, we’ll have rid ourselves of the blot on our heritage. I say we cut the crap and get on with why we’re here."
The woman brandished her knife. "Yeah!"
"I want my revenge!" declared another member.
"Blood will have blood!"
Areus raised his sword. "What about the rest of you? Ya want your seed to live on in shame?"
"No!" several voices shouted in unison.
"Do we let a bunch of sorry old wimps defeat us without even lifting a hand?"
"Do we march on Cleades and take our due?"
"Excellent." Areus smiled grimly. "This is my destiny. Follow me and reclaim yours!"
"Fifty winters." Xena rested her head on the tree behind her, gazing into the distance. She exhaled a long breath. "Who’d’ve thought?"
Xena absently stroked the fine blond hair splayed across her lap. "Hmmm?"
"We’re supposed to be celebrating the time we’ve actually spent together."
"Oh, yeah. Right." Xena shook her head and grinned down at Gabrielle. "Though, technically, we were together the 25 years Ares had us frozen – just in separate coffins."
"`Technically,’ we might as well’ve been dead." Gabrielle smirked. "I don’t recall you ever hopping up to wish me ‘good morning.’"
"How do you know I didn’t in my dreams?"
"Because, if you did, I’d know. If you did and I didn’t know, that doesn’t count as ‘together.’"
"Ah." Xena looked out again. "I do wonder sometimes about those lost years. Not just missing Eve grow up, but whether I might’ve been able to do more good. You know?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes. "Not really. I figure we did well enough the most important years."
"Yeah? Which ones? The battles with the gods? Saving humankind from Dahak? Making sure Chin and Egypt and Rome and other places got a chance to get out from under tyrants? Being involved with –."
"Ahem." Gabrielle scowled up with a "could you be so dense" expression.
"Um, being with you, which I was saving for last, because those have been the best 25 years of my life?"
"Good save. Though technically it’s 24. You keep forgetting the year I spent comatose in that ring of fire – ‘technically’ making me another year younger than you, since I don’t seem to have aged then either."
"I still had you inside, despite my amnesia. That doesn’t count as ‘together’?"
"Not until you actually popped up to wake me. Quite nicely, I might add. Certainly one ‘good morning’ kiss I’ll never forget."
"Heh. You should’ve seen what it took to get there. Fending off that slob Hrothgar. Fighting those Valkyries. Literally leaping through fire, not to mention –."
Gabrielle sat up. "Look around." She swept her arm to indicate the lovely scenery, the tablecloth-covered blanket laden with dishes of fruit and cheese, a basket of breads and pastries, the goblets and pitcher of wine, centered by a vase of wild flowers. "Are you trying to take the romance out of this?"
Xena blinked, then grinned sheepishly. "Sorry. Guess from my standpoint, that’s not possible." She waited for Gabrielle’s response with the slight smugness of someone who’d managed to say the right thing and win at the same time.
Gabrielle stared back with the graceful resignation of someone defeated by irrefutable love. "You know, this little celebration of ours was to remind us why we’ve tolerated each other so long. Perhaps I should’ve been more precise in my wish."
"C’mere." Xena pulled Gabrielle next to her and wrapped her arm around the smaller woman’s shoulders. With her free hand, she picked up a goblet to give Gabrielle. She poured wine into it and then into a goblet for herself.
"As someone who once believed herself destined to be alone, I salute the one person who tolerated me enough to prove me wrong. I pray it’s my destiny to be with you another 50 … um … 25 … 24 years." She clunked goblets with Gabrielle.
Gabrielle wryly shook her head. She raised her goblet. "As someone who once doubted she’d meet anyone fascinating enough to spend eternity with, I salute the one person who tolerated me enough to prove me wrong. I pray it’s my destiny to be with you forever." Her eyes twinkling with just a wee bit of smug one-upwomanship, Gabrielle clunked goblets with Xena.
The two sealed their toasts with a kiss. They sighed contentedly and enjoyed the palette of spring colors that seemed especially ordered for that moment.
"This is nice."
"Things have been pretty hectic lately. Didn’t realize how long it’s been since we had time to ourselves like this."
Gabrielle chuckled. "So much for our ‘semi-retirement.’ We forgot to schedule in some peace and quiet. Maybe if we …." Gabrielle felt the familiar tensing in her partner’s body. "What?"
"Someone’s coming." Out of habit, Xena pulled her chakram closer. "Too noisy to be a real threat, but …." She turned her head toward the sounds of underbrush crunching. She relaxed when she saw the tall, slim figure of Daracles, one of their younger neighbors.
"Gabrielle! Xena!" Daracles puffed a little from what must have been a rather fast-paced trek. "Eve told me where you’d probably be." He walked over and stooped to catch his breath.
Xena scowled at him. "Did the sky fall in over the Village?"
Daracles frowned nervously at what sounded like a trick question. With Xena, any answer might be wrong. "Um, ‘sky fall’?"
"I thought my instructions were pretty clear. Everybody keep away unless the sky’s falling."
Daracles ducked his head. "Blame it on Eve. I’m just the messenger." He peered at Xena hopefully. "Okay?" He turned to Gabrielle for support.
"It’s all right, Daracles. Don’t pay Xena any mind. If Eve sent you, it must be important."
"Whew!" Daracles dropped down beside the blanket. "I understand this was supposed to be a special day for you," he said, indicating the spread of goodies. "Eve said you’d want to know."
Xena blew out a prolonged sigh. "We might, if maybe we knew what it was we’d want to know."
It took Daracles a moment to realize he’d been asked a question. "Oh, y-y-yes, yes, of course," he stammered, fumbling at the pack on his back. "Eve said it had something to do with King Cleades. An invitation to a party, I think." Finally he found what he was searching for. "She sent a note." He offered the message to Xena, who crooked her head, none too happily, in Gabrielle’s direction. He handed the note to Gabrielle.
"Hold on," he said, reaching back in the pack. "Got a couple more …. Ah, here they are." He gave Gabrielle two small, rolled pieces of parchment. His mission now accomplished, Daracles looked longingly at the basket of baked goods.
"Help yourself," Gabrielle said absently. She studied with mixed emotions the three missives she’d placed in her lap. She fingered the one with King Cleades’ seal affixed. "Xena," she began, not daring to look at her partner, "You haven’t seen him since …. Gods, he must be in his 70’s now. Might be the coronation of one of his heirs, or a wedding." She finally glanced at Xena, whose dour expression hadn’t changed.
"Peachy. You know how much I love pomp and circumstance." The warrior cut her eyes at Daracles, then Gabrielle. "Talk about taking the romance out of things, I think I’ve been trumped." She stretched and rose. "I’ll let you handle this. I’m going for a swim. Join me when you’re finished." Her voice softened. "Please?"
Gabrielle smiled, knowing they were all better off with Xena in the lake than discussing party arrangements. "Sure. I’d like that."
She watched her partner stroll away, the sunlight glancing off the dark, shiny mane. Except for the silver at her temples, a few more lines on her face, maybe some added thickness around the slender waist, Xena’s appearance hadn’t changed much over the years. Gabrielle chuckled, recognizing that she wouldn’t have noticed anyway. To her, Xena would always be the ageless goddess in white who magically appeared to rescue her with feral grin and breathing fire. Who even now ….
Xena had stripped down to nothing and was running to dive in the lake, as fluid and powerful as ever.
"Is there anything else?"
Gabrielle focused blankly on the man facing her, having completely forgotten about him. "I’m sorry. What?"
Daracles licked his fingers of the glaze from the sweet roll he’d eaten. "You want me to take a message back to Eve or anything?"
"Um …." Gabrielle glanced down at the notes. "Have another pastry. Let me read these first."
Daracles grinned, happy to oblige.
Gabrielle unrolled the first note, smiling bemusedly as she read it. She frowned at the second note and hastily opened Eve’s to see if there was an explanation. When she’d finished it, she rolled and tapped it against her chin.
"You can go back whenever you’re ready," she instructed Daracles. "Tell Eve we’ll let her know what we’re going to do." She got up and took a few steps toward the lake. "Thanks for bringing these," she said over her shoulder. "Take whatever you’d like to nibble on during your walk back."
"Thanks!" Daracles palmed an apple and headed home.
Xena floated peacefully in the middle of the lake. Gabrielle smiled to herself when she saw the dark head rise, as though sensing the bard’s presence. Gabrielle waved and beckoned the warrior closer.
"You coming in?!" Xena shouted. She plunged under and came up grinning through the streams trickling down her face. "Water’s great!"
"I’d love to, but we need to talk first!"
"Do we have to?!" Xena tread where she was, stubborn reluctance oozing from every exposed pore.
Gabrielle laughed. "We’re old enough not to have to do anything!" She batted her eyelids seductively. "I want to!" She heard "Crap!" even though Xena hadn’t voiced that sentiment. They both knew the warrior couldn’t resist the eye bat. Xena swam slowly to the bank.
"This better be good!"
"You saying I’m not good enough just standing here with nothing to say at all?"
Xena appraised the pleasingly rounded figure. It amazed her how much Gabrielle still reminded her of the cute, feisty girl who’d stood protectively in front of her kinspeople, boldly stating, "Take me!" to the slavers who’d threatened to swoop them up. Little did Xena know she’d be the one to obey that audacious command. Wondering if Gabrielle had been born knowing how to get her way, Xena glowered as she stalked through the shallow water toward her smirking partner.
"Didn’t anybody ever teach you to play fair?"
Gabrielle gathered Xena’s clothes and walked up to grab her wet partner around the waist. "You’ll have to take that up with my mentor. I learned to play by her rules."
"Maybe by her next life, your ‘mentor’ will’ve learned to keep her mouth shut," Xena muttered as the two strolled back to their blanket.
"Heh. I didn’t notice she had a problem with that in this life." Gabrielle took a cloth from their bags and helped Xena dry off. "Sit."
Xena sat. Gabrielle knelt behind her and began rubbing her shoulders.
"Kinda tense there, old girl."
"Mmmm." Xena lowered her head, swinging her hair forward. "You oughtta know, Miss Give It and Take It Away."
"I’m sorry." Gabrielle kissed the back of Xena’s neck. She resumed her massage. "I know how much you wanted us to relax today. I wouldn’t have let a little ol’ party invitation ruin that, unless there was a good reason."
"Yeah," Xena sighed. "I know. Might as well get it over with. I’ll either be mad or make you mad. Whichever, you’ve got your hands around my throat anyway."
"Xeenaa!" Gabrielle rapped the warrior on the head, laughing. "Such a cynic." She handed Xena her clothes. "All done. For now. Put those on before you catch a chill."
The warrior rolled her eyes. "As if. Quit stalling. I’m as relaxed and pliable as I’m gonna get." She started dressing, expecting to endure Gabrielle’s gentle persuasions. She didn’t hear any. Xena narrowed her eyes. "Exactly what kind of party is this?"
Gabrielle ducked her head. "Um, not sure. One where we have to wear costumes?"
"Costumes?! Oh, for …."
"Give me that!" Xena snatched the King’s note with an exasperated sigh. "`My dear friends’ … blah blah … ‘long time’ … blah blah … ‘in two weeks at the guest compound’ … blah blah …." Xena brought the note closer to her face. "`Please conceal your true identities, as your attendance is to be a surprise for both you and the other guests.’"
"It gets better." Gabrielle handed Xena a second note. "I don’t think this one’s from Cleades."
Xena took the note suspiciously. "`To who it may be concerned. You go, you DIE.’" She rubbed at a red smudge on the note. "What’s this supposed to be? Blood?"
"It would seem so." Gabrielle studied her partner, not sure she really wanted to see the telltale feigned neutrality that meant Xena’s curiosity had been piqued. "According to Eve, that was concealed inside the King’s invitation. She’s pretty sure the messenger wasn’t aware of it. He said he had several others to deliver."
"Mm." Xena set the mystery note beside her. This party might not be so bad after all. Feeling Gabrielle’s probing eyes, she casually slipped into her shirt. The trick was to appear neutral – gracious about the King’s invitation, but not too enthusiastic about the threat that came with it.
"Don’t even try it. "
Xena looked at her partner, all innocence. "Beg your pardon?"
"I can already sense your ‘juices’ going, so let’s not waste time pretending you’ve developed a sudden yearning to indulge a possibly dying king’s last wishes."
Xena scowled, but didn’t bother disputing this accusation. "Talk about cynics," she mumbled. "You’d think I didn’t have a social bone in my body."
"I didn’t say that. It’s the people you like ‘socializing’ with that’s the problem." Gabrielle sighed. "For once, why couldn’t a party just be a party? A little gaiety in luxurious surroundings wouldn’t kill us." She snorted. "I take that back. In this case, maybe it would."
Xena grinned. "Nah. We’ve got more lives than a cat. Besides," she added with a gleam in her eyes, "maybe Cleades is the one in danger. Maybe he needs our help. Hmmm?" She waited, confident she had a few tricks in her bag that still worked.
Gabrielle knew full well what Xena was up to, but she acknowledged that the insufferable warrior might have a point.
"Okay, Princess I Hate Parties Except When I Might Have To Risk My Not So Young Butt. What’s your theory on all this?"
Xena picked up the second note, waving it with barely restrained excitement in Gabrielle’s face.
"First, I’d say this is an inside job. Whoever wrote this had access to the King’s invitations. Second, the threat wasn’t addressed specifically to us. It’s very possible others got it too, which could mean it has nothing to do with us. If that’s so, somebody doesn’t want this party to happen at all. Finally, I’d say it’s a good bet the potential party poopers would be news to Cleades." Xena pointedly added the finishing touch. "He’d be a sitting duck."
"You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?"
"Enjoying someone else’s possible misfortune?" Xena assumed an indignant expression. "I’m devastated, simply devastated, that you think so little of my social graces. I don’t know how you’ve stood me all these years."
Gabrielle ignored Xena’s pitiful act. She sighed as she once again surveyed the remnants of their romantic getaway. In truth, she was more than a little intrigued by the intrigue surrounding the King’s party. It could end up adding some spice to their anniversary – intrigue for her, mayhem for Xena. She could feel Xena’s eyes calculating how long it would take her to give in. Gabrielle leaned forward.
"We follow the King’s instructions about disguising ourselves."
Xena nodded vigorously, her lips pressed in a ridiculously serious line.
"Whatever we do, it’ll be by mutual decision. No sneaking off on your own."
Xena nodded again.
"One more thing." Gabrielle scowled wryly at her cautiously rejuvenated companion. "Happy anniversary."
The covered wagon bumped along, a cloaked figure on the driver’s bench. A voice drifted from inside.
"I still can’t decide which is best."
"Flip a coin."
"There’s more than two, Xena. That’s the problem."
"Then ‘eenie meenie mynie mo’ oughtta do the trick."
Gabrielle didn’t bother gracing that suggestion with a response. She scowled at the clothes spread from one side of the wagon to the other. It had seemed so simple at first. At least, that’s what she’d assured Xena. "Lemuel’s trading shop should have everything we need. We’ll pop in, pop out and be on our way in no time." That was before her cursed imagination started working overtime.
Once inside Lemuel’s, she discovered that nearly every garment she examined reminded her of one of their old adventures. Silks and linen. Fur coats and kimonos. Theater and specialty costumes. She’d figured she’d reprise one of her old roles – maybe the "ghost" when they’d saved the orphanage, Xena’s "sponsor" at that beauty contest, or the unfortunate "queen" she’d been forced to portray the time she got kidnapped and Xena blinded.
She’d eliminated outfits like the one she’d worn in Chin. Too many bad memories. The Egyptian style evoked mixed emotions, since they’d saved Cleopatra the first time, but not the second. Gabrielle chuckled recalling the get-ups she’d worn when pulling that con with the casino owner, getting the gold statue back for Autolycus or freeing Xena from Shark Island Prison. Maybe a sari from India?
Next thing she knew, Xena was breezing by with her packages, snickering, "See you outside?"
Gabrielle had quickly gathered up almost anything not battle related, promising to pay Lemuel when they returned. Bless him, he’d said he wouldn’t charge for what she didn’t use. Unfortunately, that hadn’t solved her problem. She’d hoped to get a hint from Xena, but the warrior’s only response was a smirk. Gabrielle refused to beg, instead huffily packing every possible choice.
"See if I care. Probably going disguised as herself." Gabrielle snorted. "Just older."
"Make up your mind yet? We’ll be camping soon. Should get to the compound sometime tomorrow."
Gabrielle could hear the "told ya so" in Xena’s voice. "Old know-it-all." To Xena she called out, "I’m working on the subtleties. Some of us took this more seriously than others of us." Sometime later, she felt the wagon stop. "Curses," she said, hastily moving everything into semi-neat piles. She pushed back the tarp and stepped down to help Xena set up camp.
"So what’s the plan?" Gabrielle asked when they’d finished their evening meal.
"Not sure yet. Have to see what the compound’s like, how protected it is."
Gabrielle began clearing away their eating utensils. "Wonder who the others are?"
Xena shrugged. "Cleades must think they’ll recognize us, but I can’t imagine who’s left to care."
"Xena!" Gabrielle knelt next to her partner with some excitement. "Do you suppose he knows about our anniversary? Maybe it’s a surprise party for us?"
"Hmmm." The warrior frowned pensively. "Why would he want the guests of honor disguised?"
"He said everybody would be surprised. Maybe they don’t know they’re celebrating us."
Xena snorted. "And here I thought battle strategy was complicated."
"Well, we’ll find out soon enough." Gabrielle shook out her bedroll. She glanced around as though having misplaced something. "Hmmm, now where did I put that comb?" she asked, casually reaching for Xena’s travel bag.
Xena pulled the bag into her lap. "Not in here. Didn’t see it when I took stuff out to make room for my costume." She flashed Gabrielle a "you’ll have to do better than that" look. She patted the bag. "It’ll make a nice pillow, don’t you think?"
"Why, yes," Gabrielle agreed sweetly. She got up and climbed inside the wagon. Mumbling to herself, she grabbed up the first clothes she came to. She stuffed them inside her carry bag and came out to plop down next to Xena. "But not as nice as mine."
Gabrielle wasn’t particularly surprised to find Xena gone the next morning, but ground her teeth nonetheless. It irked her that the warrior’s energy to spring up at the crack of dawn hadn’t lessened one iota over the years. Normally that wouldn’t have bothered her, as it had been a long time since some sneak attack on them had necessitated Xena’s waking her with gushes of water. But her instincts told her the warrior was out there putting on her disguise, that she’d stroll back expecting Gabrielle to be unprepared.
Gabrielle threw back her cover. "We’ll see who’s so smart, Miss Smarty Pants." She strode over to the wagon. "Sometimes I work best under pressure." Sighing at the mess she’d have to choose from, she spread everything out again, pursed her lips and closed her eyes. "Eenie meenie …."
Xena sauntered quietly from behind a tree, a huge grin plastered on her face. As hard as she’d worked on her dark side, she just couldn’t seem to let go of irritating Gabrielle. She’d told herself there were some sinful pleasures that made life worth living – like watching the blush spread across her partner’s face, the heaving of her bosom, those luscious lips press together, that foot that tapped in displeasure. Xena sighed. Gabrielle truly was beautiful when angry.
"Gabrielle? You in there?"
Gabrielle froze momentarily. "Hades." She quickly began changing into whatever she had in her hand. "Yes, I’m in here. Um … putting the finishing touches on my costume. You have a nice walk? Bring back something for breakfast?"
Xena smirked. "Don’t even try it. Fortunately, I’m in the mood to help you out." She jiggled something she had hidden behind her back. "I think the simplest thing is for you to be my …."
Gabrielle threw open the tarp to pose in her costume.
Xena’s brows shot up. "… Senior concubine?"
Gabrielle’s mouth dropped open. If she hadn’t known any better, she might not have recognized her soulmate beneath the turban, goatee, mustache, and pronounced paunch hanging over flowing pants.
"Anthrax? From when you pretended to be Genaia’s father and we got Hermes’ helmet back?"
Xena bowed with a flourish. "At your service, little lady."
Gabrielle reluctantly admitted that Xena had chosen well. Nobody would guess that "Anthrax" was actually …. Suddenly it dawned on her what Xena had said. Concubine?! Gabrielle glanced down at herself. She touched the top of the bodice that came down unexpectedly low over her breasts, the split that nearly dissected the front of the short skirt. She forced a smile.
"You don’t think this is appropriate? This ‘look’ worked well enough that time we helped Ares with his farm."
Xena sucked her lips in, enjoying the moment, but not suicidal enough to show it too much. She stroked her goatee, as though truly giving Gabrielle’s choice consideration.
"Fine. If this shows a little too much imagination for your tastes …."
"No, no, nothing wrong with not leaving too much to the imagination, when you’re trying to fool somebody."
Gabrielle folded her arms across her exposed chest. "Okay, let’s hear your idea."
Xena held up a dark wig. "Um, well, maybe this, a peasant dress, big floppy hat."
"Oh, that’s imaginative. And just who am I supposed to be?"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Oooo, and so original too."
Xena shrugged. "Suit yourself." She turned to kneel beside their bedrolls, mainly so Gabrielle wouldn’t see the grin on her face. "Give me a good excuse for some exercise. You know, fending off any guests who mistake you for the party favors." Xena’s shoulders started shaking despite her best efforts to be good.
Gabrielle’s cheeks reddened. Her bosom heaved, lips pressed, foot tapped. "Tell me again why it is I tried in vain to get you to redeem yourself?"
Xena gazed over her shoulder at the beautifully irritated love of her life. "`Cause you’re a sucker for lost causes and couldn’t help yourself?"
The elevated road offered a view of the castle above, as well as of the guest compound nestled among the trees at the small mountain’s base. The four wings of the main structure formed a rectangular shape. The lush grassy area in the middle featured a flower garden, canopied area and archery range. A large stable stood outside near the main entrance, presumably already hosting some of the horses to several wagons.
"I don’t like it."
"What’s not to like? Too peaceful and quiet for you?"
"That, and the fact that I don’t see any guards. A whole army could be in those woods, and you wouldn’t know until they were partying in your face."
The horses shifted restlessly as Xena held them steady while studying the situation.
"Xena, we can’t sit here all day." Gabrielle pointed to the wagons. "I’d say quite a few guests decided to come despite any threats."
Xena longed for the days she could burst in, shimmy down walls or otherwise arrive unannounced. She peeked at Gabrielle out the corner of her eye.
"Absolutely not. Either we camp here until trouble actually appears, or we go down and figure out what to do then."
Xena cut her eyes at her partner. "I might’ve said that, if you’d given me a chance."
"Good. Then we’re agreed. So which is it?"
Xena snapped the reins. "Didn’t realize you’d become so fond of ambushes or getting jumped inside," she groused as they continued down the road to the compound.
"Deny you a chance to show your stuff? Nah."
Xena raised a brow. "What about the danger to my ‘poor, old body’? You suddenly not concerned about that either?"
"Nothing wrong with your senses." Gabrielle smirked. "No doubt you noticed the absence of smoke or flocks of frightened birds indicating the gathering of many humans nearby. At least, not the kind who’d probably use farm wagons and old mules. Or forget to post sentries around." She chuckled at the reaction this provoked. "I figure you’ve decided we have a little time to scope things out and devise a plan later."
"You know, if you’re gonna be my `good little wife,’ you could use some practice. A person could get the wrong idea about who really wears the pants."
Gabrielle reached over to tweak Xena’s mustache. "You forget, I’m a fast learner. How’s this?" She blinked her eyes and fluttered her hands. "Besides, what else could I be, with this virginal dress you talked me into?" She disgustedly flicked the brim of the floppy hat that partially covered her primly knotted brunette wig. "I look like a puppet," she groused, brushing her hand disdainfully over the rouge on her cheeks.
Xena coughed. She carefully formed her next words. "We had to do something drastic. That hair … those abs … and shoulders, triceps, thighs. Why, if we’d let any of those legendary body parts show, it’d be a dead give away." She smiled sweetly.
"You know, if you’re gonna be my handsome – if overweight – husband, it would behoove you not to do anything that might make what’s under this dress a mere memory."
Xena swallowed, wisely sending her retort back down with all the others that might not be good for her health. She couldn’t do anything about the grin, though, so hunched forward, screwing her face up in concentration on their surroundings.
"I’ll be Anthrax’s wife, but I refuse to use that silly name from last time."
Xena studiously kept her eyes on the road. "Spitunia?"
"Ugh. Don’t remind me."
"Aphrodite didn’t mind using it."
"Whatever, it’s time to get in character. Somebody might be watching."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Sure, if they’ve got a telescope." Still, they were close enough not to take any chances. She’d let Xena win this round.
No one seemed to notice when they pulled up to the stable.
"I look okay?" Xena asked as she helped Gabrielle from the wagon.
Gabrielle patted Xena’s unusually soft – and shifty – paunch. "Yeah, long as you don’t let anybody but me hug you."
"Crap." Xena stopped a few feet from the entrance to examine herself. "You think I should – ." Her head jerked up as she heard a scraping sound. A large peephole opened in the door, soon revealing an eye.
"Got an invitation with the King’s seal on it?" a masculine voice asked.
The two visitors exchanged glances.
"Um, sure." Gabrielle fumbled around in her carry bag. "Here …dear," she said demurely, quickly deciding to let Xena do the honors.
Xena suppressed a smirk and took the invitation. She handed it through the hole. A few moments later, the door swung in.
"Can’t be too careful," the man stated. He limped backwards. "Come on in. Name’s Lynal. I’ve got the escort shift for now."
Xena and Gabrielle unpacked their things in their nicely appointed bedchamber. Lynal had dropped them off at their door, hastily explaining that most of the other guests had retired to their rooms until supper, that he’d be back when everyone assembled in a couple of hours. He obviously wasn’t accustomed to playing host. Except for a brief exchange of pleasantries with Xena, he hadn’t encouraged much conversation.
"I think we can safely say he’s not one of the King’s servants." Gabrielle tossed her hat in a corner and walked around the room, inspecting the small tub draped with towels, sliding her hand across the fine linen on the huge bed, smelling the flowers in a silver vase on the nightstand. "But somebody sure knows how to spoil their guests." She sampled the fruit and cheese from an ornate platter which, along with wine and metal goblets, set atop a small table.
Xena stood frowning out a window that opened onto the center garden. "The question is, why no sign of Cleades? Are the guests running the show?"
"Mmm, who cares?" Gabrielle luxuriated contentedly on the bed. "I’d be fine staying right here, ordering in. Our own Anniversary Suite."
The warrior turned and leaned against the wall. "And the possible assassins? We just forget about them?"
"Xena, Xena, Xena." Gabrielle sat up and adjusted her wig. "What do you have against romance that makes you want to stomp its little head whenever it pokes up?"
"As I recall, you’re the one who thought we should come."
"But not just for the mayhem, much as I look forward to that, of course." Gabrielle got up and went over to lean against her partner. "I pictured something like this waiting for us. I hoped there’d be moments to relax – you know, before, in between or after the mayhem."
Xena sighed. She wrapped her arms around Gabrielle. "I’m sorry. It’s just …. We’re not much closer to knowing what’s going on than we were yesterday." She rested her chin on Gabrielle’s head. "What’s Cleades got in common with somebody like Lynal? Is everybody like him? Have they done something worth being killed? His caution about letting us in suggests he knows about the threat. Why isn’t somebody doing more about it, instead of napping like everything’s peachy?"
"Is it likely there’ll be mayhem before Lynal summons us?"
"Not unless the bad guys are already inside." Xena smiled to herself. "And are sneaking around picking folks off as we speak." She reached up, took off her turban and spun it into the corner on top of Gabrielle’s hat. "Which might make sense…." She plucked the pins from Gabrielle’s wig and sent it flying over to join the other head coverings. "If they hadn’t already poisoned supper. Or," she continued, guiding Gabrielle backwards, "maybe hidden big, sharp blades for us to impale ourselves on if we move too much in our beds." She gently pushed Gabrielle down on the potentially deadly piece of furniture. "But since you feel so brave, I suppose we could test that out."
Gabrielle batted her eyes at her seductively unredeemable soulmate. "Have I mentioned your talent for … practically … squeezing romance out of almost anything?"
Lynal pushed open the door to the banquet hall and ushered the latest arrivals inside. The spirited conversation died down among the 25 or so guests.
"Everybody? This is Anthrax and his wife …." Lynal realized he’d learned the name of only half the new couple. He stared questioningly at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle’s mouth worked, but nothing came out.
Xena’s eyes twinkled. She cocked her head at Gabrielle. "Um, honey?"
Lynal nodded and turned back to the room. "Anthrax and his wife, Honey." He failed to notice the two behind him nearly choke.
A tall man strode toward them. "Welcome, Anthrax and Honey. I’m Spiros, self-appointed vice-host. We heard of your arrival. We were waiting for you to join us before we got on with dinner. Please, follow me."
Spiros led the couple to one of the front tables. Xena and Gabrielle nodded and smiled as they passed through the room, quickly noting that everyone was at least 50 or older. Some vaguely familiar. Gabrielle seated herself. Xena stood next to her, wide-legged, arms akimbo, grinning genially as the others gathered round.
"Winston said you looked a little familiar," Spiros began. Others nodded in agreement. "Tell us about yourselves."
Gabrielle smiled deferentially up at Xena.
"Um, well, first let me say it’s mighty fine to meet you all. If some of you good people’re from around … Thessaly … we might’ve crossed paths." Xena rested a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. "Honey originally hails from Athens."
"Athens?!" A silver-blond matron leaned forward excitedly. "I love Athens! What plays have you seen?"
"Hold up." A burley man pressed forward. "Afore we git inta chitchat, we best take care a serious business first."
Glad for the lead in, Xena nodded. "I’m with you there, mate. We got a very disturbing note with the King’s invite. Wasn’t sure if the missus would be safe."
"What kind a note?"
Xena rubbed her goatee. "Sorry, friend, didn’t catch your name."
"Well, Winston, I figured from Lynal’s caution that maybe some of you got a warning too."
"We did," confirmed the matron. "Threatening us not to come."
"But most of us did anyway," a stout woman chimed in.
"Uh huh. That’s what I thought. What’s Cleades said about that? Where’re his guards?"
"Cleades had to leave," the matron said. "He doesn’t know – ."
Winston put his hand up to interrupt her. "What’s the passwords?" he asked Xena.
Xena noted the suspicion in his voice. She moved behind Gabrielle’s chair and rested her arms on her partner’s shoulders. Gabrielle got the hint.
"Passwords?" Gabrielle echoed innocently.
"Yeah, what ya s’posed ta say to git in." The big man scowled at Lynal. "Ya didn’t ask `em, did ya?"
"Hey, I said I wasn’t cut out for –."
"Gentlemen!" The matron straightened regally. "Please, mind your manners." She smiled apologetically at Xena and Gabrielle. "Forgive my friends. That note made us a little nervous. You seem like perfectly nice –."
"Nobody’s ‘perfectly’ nice." Winston refused to budge. "Like ya said, we got reason ta be nervous. The rest of us know each other. How do we know these two’re who they say?"
Gabrielle batted her eyes, "We take no offense. Cleades must have forgotten to tell us about the passwords. I’m sure he can clear all this up."
"How’d you meet him?" Winston asked.
Xena gave Gabrielle’s shoulders a little squeeze. She leaned against the table behind her. "The King and I did some business awhile back. I sell fancy wear like this," she said, gesturing at her silky robe-like garment. "I kind of … dropped in … on him."
The room got very quiet.
Spiros had been sitting at the end of the table listening. He stood and folded his arms across his chest. "The King said he met some new members during his travels." At his nod, the other men slowly formed a circle around the table.
Xena maintained her relaxed position. "Fellas, you’re barking up the wrong tree. The wife and I are simple folk, here to enjoy ourselves at the King’s expense."
"I can’t say I’m convinced of that." Spiros looked at the others. A few of the women seemed chagrined by the hostility in the air, but most appeared willing to err on the side of caution. "Perhaps we’ll have to apologize later, but for now it might be best if you stayed in your room. We’ll make sure you’re treated well until we can straighten this out."
Gabrielle gracefully pushed out of her chair. She moved to stand next to Xena. "Anthrax, dear, they’re right to take precautions. You said as much yourself."
Xena gazed down at the imploring eyes that only she knew disguised a command. She put her arm around Gabrielle. "All right … Honey. I know how spats upset you. Wouldn’t do for you to get the vapors and miss out on the party when Cleades returns."
Areus paced angrily in front of his dwindling "troops." Five more had deserted on the march to the outskirts of Cleades’ property. He’d decided to forge ahead, even though his "inside" man, Balthus, hadn’t shown up as planned. Balthus apparently succeeded in his ruse to divert the King’s guards away. At least from Areus’ vantage point some distance from the front, the compound seemed undefended. But Balthus was supposed to come out the day before, to report on the situation and confirm which entrances he could leave unlatched. Dusk was descending with no Balthus in sight.
Areus hefted his battle-ax and flung it into a tree. "Stand down. We’ll wait till nightfall. No fires. I’ll be back before then with your orders." He turned and stalked through the trees in the direction of the backside of the compound. He’d gone a few feet when he whirled to confront whoever was following him.
"Hey, it’s just me. Monlika." The knife-enthusiast put her hands up. "I figured you could use some backup. Somebody who won’t run off with their tail between their legs at the first sign of trouble."
Areus studied her a moment, before turning to continue on.
"I’m still in, even if your guy bugged out."
Areus stopped. "He didn’t ‘bug out.’ You see any guards?"
"No, but you said – ."
"I know what I said! He’d of been here if he could."
Monlika leaned against a tree. "You think they caught `im? Maybe they know and set a trap?"
Areus frowned. He hadn’t considered that. "Balthus is smart. Maybe he couldn’t get away without making `em suspicious." He furtively looked around for something to sit on, irritated at the aches and weariness of being on his feet too long, or the stiffness that beset him if he sat on the ground.
Monlika suppressed a smirk. The old guys in the group had their share of big talk, peppered with tales about past exploits. But judging from their physical condition, they must’ve figured hard drinking and fantasies of revenge would keep them in shape if opportunity ever knocked. She gestured toward a good-sized fallen limb.
"Might as well take a load off. Review the options."
Areus nodded. He sank down in relief on the limb.
"Whatever happened to Balthus, I’d say we need another plan. There’s enough of us younger …." Monlika saw Areus’ nostrils flare. "Um, enough of us to storm the place."
Areus’ lip curled. "Shows how much experience you’ve got. Ever try burning through slate? That’s what’s on the outside of those walls. We’d need a battering ram for the heavy doors." He snickered. "Unless you wanna waste that youthful energy tryin’ to hack your way through."
Monlika snorted. "So we make some noise. No guards’re gonna come runnin’ to the rescue." She chuckled. "Worst we could do is scare half those old folks to death before we had a chance to kill `em."
Areus kept the scowl on his face. It wouldn’t do to let this female upstart think she was smarter than her leader. "I was gettin’ to that. Another day won’t matter. We’ll make the ram before nightfall, attack tomorrow."
"I don’t see why we can’t just –."
"Any scum can be a ragtag mob, screaming and hacking." Areus glared at her disdainfully. "We’ve got traditions to uphold. We’ll go in there professionally. You got different ideas, go find yourself somebody else to do it with."
Monlika pushed off from her tree. "No, I wanna do this right." She waited for Areus to start back.
"You go ahead. Tell the others. I’ve got some more plannin’ to do."
"Yes … sir." Monlika walked away, not for the first time wondering if the grandfather she’d never met was worth joining up with a bunch of idiots.
"`Honey.’ `Vapors.’ I’ll show you some ‘vapors’ all right."
Gabrielle paced about their room, occasionally glancing darkly at Xena. The warrior sat at their table, eating the dinner that had been sent with them.
"Better get some of this before it’s too cold."
"Bunch of old idiots. About to be attacked and they lock up the only two people with wits enough to do anything."
"Hey! Watch who you’re calling ‘old.’ I’m right up there with many of them. Besides, the ‘brains’ of this ‘golden duo’ insisted we not reveal ourselves."
Gabrielle stopped pacing. "Oh, so now I’m fodder for the ‘butt’ of jokes?"
"No, no. Things didn’t work out so bad. There’s a bright side."
"Oh?" Gabrielle’s glower turned to hopeful skepticism. "Like what?"
"Well, we’re confined to the Anniversary Suite, with room service no less." Xena batted her eyes. "Isn’t that what you wanted?"
Gabrielle regarded Xena as if the warrior had suddenly morphed into Callisto. "I don’t believe this."
"What? That I can … ‘practically’ … squeeze romance out of anything? I thought you admired that particular skill."
Gabrielle chewed her lip. Sighing, she dropped into a chair across from Xena. "Gods know I hesitate saying this, but there’s a time and place for romance." She ate a couple of bites. "Mmm, not bad." She took a few more bites, before remembering her train of thought.
"Xena, this is serious. We’re no closer to knowing what’s going on than we were yesterday. What’s Cleades got in common with these people? What could they have done worth being murdered?"
Xena’s eyebrow rose. "I don’t believe this."
"What? That I can be ‘practical’ too?"
"That you’re using my own arguments against me."
"That’s beside the point." Gabrielle grinned. "As my mentor always says, ya gotta be flexible."
Xena glanced up at the ceiling with a "why do I even try" smile. She wiped her hands, stood and went to perch on the edge of the bed.
"Has anybody been killed in their sleep, poisoned or sliced to death with bed blades?"
Gabrielle shook her head.
"No. There are two doors to the outside and two to the garden. Between getting to our chamber and the dining room, we passed all the doors. Were they unlatched?"
"No. Very solid, I might add. And the exterior is slate. It’d be hard to break in here quietly."
Gabrielle leaned back in her chair, pondering this information. "But we don’t know for sure there’s no inside person. He could open the doors after everyone’s retired."
"True, but I doubt it. My gut says it’s not one of the guests."
"What about the servants?"
"I didn’t sense anything suspicious about them. Besides, I had in mind someone at a higher level." Xena hunched forward. "See, I think whoever it is managed to convince Cleades to assign his guards elsewhere. I think he – or she – is with Cleades."
"So we don’t need to worry until they get back?"
"Nope. Well … and yes." Xena slid off the bed and began pacing. "Does an attack depend on the inside person? Is Cleades the real target? Will we have a chance to warn him?" She sighed in frustration. "How’re we going to convince these people to listen to us without revealing who we are?"
"Sooo," Gabrielle began, getting up, "you’re saying we’re probably safe for a few more hours, if not the night?"
"That we’ll probably hear if someone’s breaking in."
"And even if the spy is with Cleades, there are probably some guards protecting the King, right?"
Xena stopped pacing. "Right." Her eyes followed her partner, who had sauntered over to perch on the bed.
"Which means it probably wouldn’t hurt if we waited awhile before figuring out how to talk to the others." She punctuated her conclusion with an eye bat.
"Probably." Xena folded her arms across her chest. "But what would we do in the meantime? We’ve pretty much finished dinner." She lowered her voice suggestively. "Maybe have dessert?"
"Uh huh. I’d say that sounds like an excellent probability."
"You know, if we don’t get ourselves killed, I’d say this trip isn’t turning out so bad after all."
"Speak for yourself." Xena glued her mustache back in place. "I’ve yet to experience the mayhem my travel agent enticed me with."
Gabrielle adjusted her wig in the mirror they currently shared. "The leisure activities don’t meet your approval?"
Xena reached over to even out the dark coloring on her partner’s eyebrows. "On the contrary. I hadn’t realized how invigorating they could be before a big mission. These quickie pit stops really rev up the old horses."
"Mm." Gabrielle rubbed rouge into her cheeks. "Too bad you didn’t discover this sooner. Might not be any bad guys left in the world by now."
"Never too late, I always say." Xena grinned at Gabrielle’s reflection. "Um, that is something else I always say, isn’t it?"
Gabrielle straightened Xena’s mustache. "Depends on which time ‘always’ starts. You’ve certainly said it a lot lately." Gabrielle cut her eyes at Xena’s reflection. "Mostly when it involves something inappropriate for most folks your age."
"Hogwash," Xena declared, putting on her turban. "You’re as young as you – and someone who matters – believes."
Gabrielle snorted. "Yes, you certainly are getting as much mileage out of the romance thing as you can." Grimacing, she pulled the despised floppy hat down over her wig. "There. One puppet, ready to go."
"Awww …. Honey," Xena said in her Anthrax voice, draping her arms over the smaller woman’s shoulders, "you look cute as a button."
"Grrrrr." Gabrielle shrugged away to stalk over to where her grandmotherly shawl lay. "Start getting somebody’s attention, before ‘Honey’ makes herself an untimely widow."
Xena paused a moment to enjoy her partner’s pique. "Yes … dear." She turned and began banging on the door. "Hey, you out there! We need to talk to you!"
They heard muffled voices, then, some moments later, the sound of something being moved outside the door. It finally opened to Spiros. A couple of other men stood behind him.
"It’s late. I hope this is about something more important than forgetting to bring your dessert."
"Um, no, the missus and I took care of that ourselves." Xena ignored the poke in the back she received when Gabrielle came up behind her. "We had some concerns about security. Maybe some suggestions you might find helpful." She showed him her weaponless hands. "Wouldn’t hurt to hear us out. We could talk here if you like."
Spiros studied the potential co-conspirators. He conferred with the other men. "All right. We’ll give you a few minutes."
Xena and Gabrielle backed up to let them in. The warrior sat at the table, where Spiros joined her. The other two men guarded the door. Gabrielle sat on the bed.
"So what’s on your mind?"
"A man of action. I like that." Xena relaxed in her chair, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. "Here’s the thing. Way we figure it, Cleades may have a snake in his lair. The warning we got came in the King’s invitation. Did yours?"
Spiros frowned. "My wife opened it. I do know the notes came together." He looked at the other men.
"The threat was inside mine," the first man confirmed.
"Are you accusing one of the staff? Somebody here now?"
Xena shrugged. "Could be. Don’t know why they haven’t moved yet. Maybe waiting for Cleades."
"You mean, he’s the real target?"
"Or `cause the spy’s with him."
Spiros drummed his fingers on the table. He narrowed his eyes at Xena. "Quite a lot of conjecture, for ‘simple’ folk here to wine and dine at the King’s expense. Maybe you and Honey –."
"My name’s not `Honey.’" Gabrielle walked over to stand behind Xena. She smiled thinly and placed a hand on Xena’s shoulder. "That’s my husband’s term of endearment." She squeezed Xena’s shoulder with apparent affection. "This isn’t the first time I’ve had to clear that up."
"Oh, sorry about that. What are you called?"
Gabrielle rested her other hand on Xena’s turban. "Meg." She smiled as she none too gently prevented Xena’s head from tilting back.
"Meg?!" Spiros’ eyes widened. "The Meg?"
Gabrielle’s mouth dropped open. This time she did let Xena’s head tilt back and looked to the warrior for help. Xena simply gave her a "you got yourself into this, get yourself out" smile.
"Um, the Meg?"
Spiros studied the shorter of the two detainees. "Cleades did say she was comely, with dark hair. But the eyes … the height…." His brow rose. "You’d be mighty well preserved for somebody that old."
Gabrielle mentally kicked herself. So much for trying to out-clever Xena. Now "Spitunia" wouldn’t seem so bad after all. She bought herself some time by coming around to sit at the table. She demurely adjusted her skirt and the bun on her neck.
"Oh, that Meg. No, no, I’m not that Meg. I’m –."
"Her daughter." Xena smirked at the expression on her partner’s face. She patted Gabrielle on the knee. "See, that’s why I started calling her ‘Honey’ – so’s we could tell `em apart." She shook her head. "If you’d known Meg, you’d understand why she’d come up with something like naming her child the same thing."
All Gabrielle could do was nod in agreement.
Spiros continued examining Gabrielle. "How do we know this isn’t a sham to get in our good graces? Anybody could claim they were related to the famous Meg."
"Famous?" Gabrielle blinked in genuine surprise. "Why, I hadn’t realized she … um … Mother was so well known."
"Awww, Honey, think about it." Xena winked conspiratorially at Gabrielle. "Remember she saved Cleades when he’d been shrunk into a baby? How she helped him and Xena fight for his kingdom after he turned into his real age? I bet he spread that story far and wide in gratitude."
"Why didn’t you tell us that in the first place?"
"Cleades said she shouldn’t reveal who she was. We weren’t sure why. Honey didn’t like the idea at first. She’s not quite as rambunctious as Meg Sr." Xena leaned toward Spiros with her hand partially covering her mouth. "I talked quite a bit with Meg when she lived with us for awhile," she whispered to him. "You know how it can get between mothers and daughters sometimes."
Spiros looked at Gabrielle, who’d pretended not to hear the whispered information. "Prove it. What did Meg call Cleades?"
"Um …." Gabrielle glanced between Spiros and Xena.
"You know." Xena grinned at her partner. "`Pookie.’"
"Pookie?!" Gabrielle pursed her lips. "Anthrax, I’ve told you, when we’re in public –."
"No, no … dear," Xena soothed. "I meant the pet name Meg gave Cleades when he was in baby form."
"`Pookie.’ Yes, that’s what the King said she called him." Spiros stood and bowed slightly. "Please accept my apologies. If we’d known who you were, we never would’ve treated you with such suspicion." He turned to the men guarding the door. "Go summon the others. Tell them to meet us in the banquet hall. I don’t think they’ll mind being disturbed for this news."
Xena lounged in a chair with her feet propped up on a table. Gabrielle perched on another table a few feet away, nearly surrounded by the other guests. They’d "oooed" and "aaaahed" when learning Meg’s daughter was among them. They’d told her how Meg was a hero to Cleades despite her original intent to kidnap him for herself. She became the inspiration for their gatherings, which the King had hosted once a decade for about 40 years to celebrate courageous acts like hers. Gabrielle obliged their curiosity about Meg by telling them of the warrior barmaid’s escapades with the Warrior Princess.
Xena was grateful for the diversion. Her gut warned that trouble would strike soon. She’d wandered off while Gabrielle did her bard thing, double checking the doors and satisfying herself that the three servants posed no threat. Still, she wished the other guests had some clue about their potential attackers and their motivation. She wished she herself had a clue what to do with all the potential gray-haired victims. Most seemed almost resigned to whatever fate awaited them. Gabrielle’s stories were perking them up a bit, but they needed to give some thought to a defense.
"Folks?" Xena stood and got Gabrielle’s attention. "Folks, I hate to break this up, but I think we’ve got some planning to do."
The group reluctantly tore their attention away from Gabrielle to glower at Xena.
"What’s your opinion, Meg?" the stout woman pointedly asked the celebrity in their midst. "You grew up listening to your mother’s missions with Xena. Do you really think we’re in that much danger? What can a bunch of grandparents like us do about it anyway?"
Gabrielle beckoned her partner to approach. "Um, well, Anthrax is actually pretty knowledgeable about such things. My experience is second hand." She paused to allow Xena to sit next to her on the table. "We did give this some discussion. We do believe the danger could be very real, even though the compound is difficult to break into. Anthrax? Would you like to add anything?"
Xena stroked her goatee. "I gotta tell ya, the missus and I sometimes disagree on what’s appropriate for folks our age." She waited for Gabrielle’s steely-eyed permission before standing and sweeping her gaze across everyone as she might’ve done with her army.
"I look around this room and see lots of experience. Some of you, like Lynal, have years of toughness in those old bones." She patted her prominent belly. "May not look like it, but I myself keep in shape, as does the missus." She saw a few nods added to the looks of skepticism. "If Meg Sr. was here, do you think she’d nap with a bunch of goons threatening?"
A few heads bowed.
"Nope. Wouldn’t matter how old she was, she’d find a way."
More heads nodded.
"This is one time I think Honey … um, Meg Jr…. and I see eye to eye on showin’ whoever’s out there that they can’t take us for granted." Xena sought confirmation of this from her partner.
Gabrielle gave her a long look before answering, "Yes, I trust that Anthrax has some reasonable ideas for a defense." She sought confirmation of this from her partner.
"Absolutely. I say we take a few minutes to talk about our options, get some sleep and wake up ready for whatever comes." She raised a fist. "For Meg!"
Slowly others stood and raised their fists. "For Meg!"
As dawn broke, the scraggly band of 15 or so began their approach toward the compound. The strongest carried the battering ram on their shoulders. A few feet from the front door, Areus signaled for three men to take up positions guarding the other sides. He gestured for the rest to prepare to break down the door. Before he could give the command, the peephole opened up.
"Ho there," a voice said from within. "You here to join the party?"
Areus stood frozen with his mouth open. This was not quite the reception he’d expected.
Monlika came up beside him. "Think it’s a trap?" she whispered.
Areus ground his teeth. "Who cares? What’re they gonna use against us? Canes?"
Monlika grinned. "I hope it’s more fun than that."
"Yeah!" Areus shouted at the door. "We’re here for the party. Wanna see our invites?"
"No need. We’ve been expecting you." The door opened. "Name’s Anthrax. Follow me." Xena turned her back on the door and started walking toward the interior.
"Hold up!" Areus waited for Xena to turn around. "We need you close at hand." He smirked. "Wouldn’t wanna get lost." He backed away from the door, indicating that Xena should come outside.
Xena shrugged and did as instructed. Monlika came up behind and lightly pressed her knife blade into her taller captive’s back. Areus waited while two of his men cautiously peeked inside the door. They nodded that the coast was clear.
"Here’s the deal." Areus got in Xena’s face. "Don’t know what you’re up to, but if there’re any surprises, you’ll be the first with a slit throat. Where’re the others?"
"In the dining hall. About to start breakfast."
"Mighty relaxed, for folks marked to die."
Xena shrugged again. "All got to die sometime. Not like we’re that far from it anyway. Better to get one last good meal in our bellies, than waste time huddling around waitin’ to be killed." She squinted at Areus. "Besides, we’re kinda curious why you’re so anxious to hurry us to our graves."
Areus snickered. "Oh, ya wanna chat, do ya?" He turned to the others. "Hear that? They’re `curious’ about why we’re here. Think we should satisfy their curiosity before we put `em out of their misery?"
"I didn’t wait all this time for talk!"
"What’s wrong with tellin’ `em what’s what?" asked one of the younger soldiers. "They should know why they’re dyin’."
"It’d be like a trial," piped up another.
"Yeah! With the executions thrown in."
Areus laughed with the others. "Okay, quiet down. Sounds like we’ve got an affirmative on the ‘trial by fire’ idea." He directed his men to lay down the battering ram. He told one man to inform the three guards to stay outside until further notice and stationed another at the front. "Monlika, you go first. Keep our friend here in front of you."
"Yes, sir, boss. Be glad to."
Monlika pushed Xena ahead of her, holding the knife pressed against her back. Areus followed. He had Xena point the direction to the banquet hall. As the others came in, he directed them to check the hallways. They tested the doors to all the rooms, finding them unlocked, no one inside. They reassembled near the front.
"Keep your eyes open." Areus unsheathed his sword and led the way to the banquet hall. Once there, he put his ear to one of the double doors. "Yeah, somebody’s in there all right." He stepped aside and motioned for Xena to go in. She obeyed.
Groups of four to five guests quietly conversed at half the 12 or so tables in the room. They looked up at the rag-tag soldiers bursting in, but more with mild curiosity than fear. Most calmly watched the interlopers fan out around the room, weapons drawn.
Areus swaggered to a small podium in front. "Well, well, well. I was hopin’ for a little more action, but what can you expect from a bunch of do-gooders?" He surveyed the occupants with a sneer. "A bunch of old, used-up do-gooders."
A tall man stood. "I’m Spiros, ‘main greeter’ for the bunch of `old do-gooders.’ And you would be?"
"Name’s Areus. And in case you got any funny ideas, we’re gonna keep your boy Anthrax in our possession." He gestured over to where Monlika gleefully pantomimed cutting Xena’s throat.
"No need for threats," Spiros assured him. "Or, should I say, more threats. The first was sufficient."
"Yeah? That mean ya got a death wish?"
Spiros smiled. "Cleades lays out a spread good enough to die for."
"Doesn’t seem much of a host to me, leaving his guests unprotected."
"He had to make a quick trip. He seemed unaware there might be uninvited company."
"That so?" Areus ran his finger along his sword blade, drawing blood. He drew a "C" in red on the front of the podium. "Let’s hope he returns in time to enjoy the surprise."
Spiros glanced around at his silently waiting friends. "Yes, we did wonder about that – the surprise. Do we know you? Have we offended you in some way?"
"Funny you should ask. We was just talkin’ about that ourselves. Bein’ the professionals we are, we decided to make it official."
Areus caught sight of a high-back, ornate chair. He beckoned for one of his men to place the chair next to the podium. He lowered himself into it, appreciating the way its height elevated him above his seated prey.
"I feel like a judge," he said, grinning conspiratorially at his gang. "You there," he called to one of the servants standing nervously near the kitchen. "Bring us some of that food to die for. The rest of you might as well eat, drink and be merry at your last meal."
The servants brought out food, which Areus made them sample before distributing to his men. The guests ate in silence as Areus and his gang gorged themselves on dishes indeed fit for a king. Finally he belched and dropped his eating utensils on the floor.
"Well, that was civilized. Time to move on to the good stuff." Areus took out a knife and banged its handle on the podium. "Hear hear! The court will now decide the fate of the old geezers who serve in the army of our worst enemy – Xena the Warrior Bitch!"
Areus cocked his head at the small woman in a floppy hat who had jumped to her feet. "You’re out of order, missy. Guess I forgot to mention you don’t get to speak."
"S-s-sorry, sir." Gabrielle remembered to flutter her hands. "Please, pray tell what Xena has to do with you. She hasn’t harmed anyone in years."
Areus’ face darkened. He slid slowly off his chair and stalked a few steps toward Gabrielle. The guests held their breaths.
"Hey! Where you do ya think you’re goin’?"
Areus swiveled around to where Monlika stood with her free arm wrapped around her captive’s neck.
"Silly old coot tensed up, like he might bolt or somethin’." Monlika pressed her knife blade in deep enough to cause discomfort. "Any excuse and I’ll cut whatever spine he’s got left."
"No!" Gabrielle hunched forward on the table as if faint, in the process knocking a metal goblet to the floor. Its clatter drew attention back to her. "That’s my husband. He’s just worried about me. Anthrax? Please. You know how I get the vapors when I’m upset." She let her eyes roll up a little for emphasis.
Xena sucked in her cheeks. She relaxed her body.
Monlika loosened her neck hold. "Awww, and I was so hoping for a little fun."
Areus snickered. "You people take this hero worship much too seriously. Told ya it would get you killed." He focused on Gabrielle again. "The stories were bad enough. But you people couldn’t let them die. No, you had to keep `em alive, spread `em around, so’s they’d keep hittin’ us in the face, generation after generation. Well, it stops here!"
"Sir?" Gabrielle picked up a cloth from the table and gently patted her face. "We’re here to talk about Meg. Yes, she sometimes worked with Xena, but – ."
"Quiet, woman! Before I kill you and your stupid man."
Gabrielle meekly bowed her head, in truth hiding a sudden flash of annoyance at having argued against the very mayhem she dearly wished to engage in at that moment. She didn’t dare look at Xena. The warrior’s smug calmness might send her over the edge. Instead, she fluttered her hands against her chest and sank heavily into her chair.
Areus walked back to sit on his "throne." He pompously surveyed the room. "We don’t care about Meg or any of the other ‘heroes’ you yammer on about. Xena’s the main one who ruined our lives." He glanced over at Monlika. "Tell `em."
Monlika let her knife hand dangle over Xena’s shoulder and faced the gathering. "My grandpa was a simple man. Poor. Joined Xena’s army and said he’d be back with riches." She snorted. "She turned him into an assassin – the best. After she’d become do-gooder, she broke him out of jail, then killed him. My pop named me after Monlik but didn’t have the guts to avenge his death. It may be too late for me to get my hands on Xena herself, but not the fools who keep her name alive."
"Mezentius sired me," stated a grizzled soldier with a scarred face. "I remember he visited us a few times when he was in the area. Ma said he was rich and powerful, that maybe one day he’d let me take a place at his side. Xena made sure that never happened. I’ve hated her ever since."
Others added to the roster of people they accused Xena of wronging – Krykus, captured when she first united the Amazons and Centaurs; Deiphobus, brought down when she helped Helen in Troy; the warlord Cortes, gaming club owner Titus and gang leader Zantor, whose downfalls she’d also engineered. Some held a particular grudge because of relatives who died at her hands, like King Xerxes, who’d tried to eliminate the Black Wolf rebels; Lord Sinteres, a renowned master of pressure points; and Dagnine, whose obsession with the Ixion Stone she inspired and then snuffed out permanently.
When the gang members present finished recounting their personal grudges, Areus leaned forward in his chair. "My old man was Darphus. He challenged Xena for her army and won. She betrayed him, gutted him after she took up with Hercules. I was a baby when it happened. All my life I’ve born the shame that Darphus ‘made’ Xena into the scourge of those whose only fault is knowing how to use strength and weakness to our advantage."
Areus got down and walked around the room, stopping a moment in front of various guests. "The world needs people like us, just like the forest needs predators to keep things in balance. Without us, mortals would become too soft to survive. Do-gooders like you wouldn’t have nothin’ to do but twiddle your thumbs. But how do you honor us?" His lips twisted in a sneer. "You forget about Xena the Destroyer of Nations and celebrate Xena the destroyer of our families, our way of life, our reputations."
Areus returned to his chair. "We’ve been remembering Xena too in our own way. In fact, I got the idea for this reunion from Cleades. I heard about his hero-worship parties. I’ve spent years locating the descendants of Xena’s enemies. The ones here today had the guts to put things back in balance."
Spiros stood. "So what happens now? You slaughter us like sheep? Or do you allow us to take up weapons and defend ourselves?"
Areus gaped at him. "Defend yourselves?!" He exchanged disbelieving glances with the rest of his crew. "What would you old farts do with weapons?"
"No offense, but you and a few others in your … group … aren’t exactly spring chickens."
"What are you saying?"
"Some among us could volunteer to challenge your warriors of comparable age." Spiros puffed out his chest. "I would." Lynal and Winston stood. Xena raised her hand. "We could fight in the garden, each member using the weapon of his choice."
"Th-that’s ridiculous! We have the upper hand. Why should we give it away to old farts who don’t deserve spit?"
"Your traditions? Your honor?" Spiros looked at each of the gang members. "Surely ‘professionals’ wouldn’t be afraid to test what you say Xena had no right to deprive them of? Unless, of course, you’re saying she succeeded."
"No!" Scarface brandished his sword. "I’ve waited 50 years to avenge the blood in my veins. I would gladly fight for Mezentius!"
"Me too," echoed two other gray-haired veterans.
"Wait a minute! What about the rest of us?" Monlika pointed at the guests. "And them? Why not let all of us fight?"
Areus pursed his lips. He didn’t like the feel of this. It was one thing to brag about storming in, ‘trying’ and executing the allies of an old enemy. It was quite another, if word somehow got out that these old buzzards challenged him and he’d backed off or …. No, he wouldn’t even contemplate defeat.
Areus’ head whipped around to the woman who couldn’t seem to keep her mouth shut. "Now what?!"
"Didn’t you leave some men outside? You have some weighty issues to ponder. Might your men want food and to give their votes on the decision?"
"Votes?! This is an army, you fool. I give the final command."
"Areus, the lady has a point." Scarface gazed meaningfully at their leader. "I’ve waited for this long as you. Monlika was one of the first to join up when she heard about us. Wouldn’t hurt to talk about makin’ this more interestin’. Who’s to stop us from doin’ what we want in the end?"
Areus recognized the subtle challenge to his authority. He pulled himself up. "Zentius is right. We still hold the power, whatever we decide. I can’t deny the proper reward to those of you who have been loyal." He addressed the servants. "Put some food together for my men outside." He singled out a few soldiers. "You four relieve the others. No tellin’ when Cleades might get back. We’ll let you know what we come up with and see what you think. That suit you?" The men nodded.
The servants prepared trays and handed them to two of the relief guards. As they were about to head for the door, Xena jumped up out of Monlika’s grasp.
"Please! Don’t make me go out with them! My wife’s poor heart might not take it!"
Monlika quickly reached up to put her knife at Xena’s throat. "Whatever we do, this one’s mine! I think he aims to be a hero."
Areus sneered. "You know, Antyrocks, I believe she’s right." He cocked his head thoughtfully. "Not a bad idea though. Monlika, you go in Gorgon’s place. Take Anty with ya. I’m likin’ the way you two look together." He turned to leer at Gabrielle, who seemed near apoplexy. "That oughtta keep him and his woman quiet for awhile. Or, better yet, permanently."
After feigning reluctance, Xena slumped her shoulders and let herself be pushed out the door along with the replacement guards.
Areus directed the remaining prisoners to bring their chairs to the front and pack closely together. He motioned for the soldiers to sit where they could keep an eye on everyone. The gang began a spirited discussion about what to do next. It was some minutes later that Areus realized no one had returned. He sent Zentius out to check. When Zentius didn’t come back either, Areus’ bad feeling got worse. He put up his hand and stood.
"Somethin’ ain’t right. Gorgon, you and Titan stay here. If any of `em so much as sneeze, kill `em. The rest of you come with me."
Xena followed three guards down the long hall, with Monlika behind. They’d gone a few steps when Xena "tripped." In a flash, she’d spun, grabbed the dagger at her back and brought it up to sever Monlika’s windpipe, using the woman’s own sleeve to trap the blood. Except for a slight "whoosh" from her lips, Monlika crumpled quietly to the floor. Xena cleaned the dagger on Monlika’s leg before inserting the knife in her waistband.
She quickly came up behind her next prey. He, like the other middle guard, carried a tray. She tapped him on the shoulder. "Monlika told me to take that," she whispered in his ear. As he instinctively turned toward her, she grabbed the tray in one hand and snapped his neck with the other. She let his body slide down hers, then noiselessly set the tray on the floor.
The last two were now nearing the entrance. Xena simultaneously pressed the dagger against the closer one’s back and her palm over his mouth.
"Hey, there," she called quietly to the remaining man. He looked back. His eyes bulged, but that was about the only reaction he had time for, before a knife handle slammed into his forehead. His colleague gaped as the guard fell unconscious.
"Like Areus said, don’t be a hero." Xena pointed behind him. He turned and saw the two bodies. He swallowed, soon nodding his head. Xena gestured for him to set the tray on the floor. After he’d done so, she jabbed her fingers in his neck. His legs buckled.
"I’ve cut off the flow of blood to your brain," she warned as he dropped to his knees. "If you cooperate, I’ll let you live."
The guard stared at what he thought must be a demon in disguise. He managed to choke out, "Y-e-ss."
Xena took his sword and released the pinch. She gestured for him to help her deposit his comrades in a sleeping chamber, after which she knocked him out, then bound and gagged the two unconscious men. She put one of the trays in with them before closing the door. She opened the peephole.
"Areus thought you might be hungry. He ordered me to bring you some food."
"Come on out." The guard backed away from the door.
Xena came out and took a few steps forward. She placed the tray on the ground. "I’ve got more for the others," she informed him. She turned as if to go back inside.
"About time somebody remembered us."
When the man bent to sample the food, Xena spun and kicked him in the head. She dragged him to a nearby tree and used vines to prop him sitting against it. Anyone looking out the peephole would probably think he was dozing. She got the tray again and went around to the other three guards, each time leaving them unconscious and bound to a tree. She positioned herself against a side of the building, close enough to the front where she could keep an eye on the entrance. A minute later, she heard someone call out.
"Garus! What in Tartarus are you doing?! You were s’posed to come in." The door opened slightly. "Monlika?"
Zentius cautiously stuck his head out. He didn’t like the quiet, but he couldn’t see anything very wrong either. He unsheathed his sword, walking slowly toward where Garus appeared to be napping, every now and then checking behind him. When he glanced back just before reaching Garus, his mouth dropped open at the sight of a tall, colorful figure standing in front of the door.
"You?! What … Where’s …."
"I sense there’s a question just dying to come out. Perhaps I can help." Xena strolled a few paces toward him. "If you’re looking for your friends, they’re taking a break."
Zentius swung his head from side to side, puzzled at not seeing anyone else. "Don’t know what game you’re playin’, but it ain’t good for your health."
"I appreciate the advice," Xena said, continuing her approach, "but I’m afraid I’m a little pressed for time."
Zentius realized his captive now carried a sword. He raised his own. "What’re you gonna do with that?" He snorted. "You figure `cause I’ve got a few years on ya, you can take me?"
Xena came close enough to lay her sword against his. "Not really. I don’t put much stock in years."
Next thing Zentius knew, his hand was empty and a fist smashed into his face. Xena trussed him up and dragged him into the stable. She soon heard Areus’ voice.
"Zentius?! What’s going on out there?!"
Xena cracked open the door. "Over here!" she yelled, doing her best to sound like Monlika. "The stable!" She piled some hay over Zentius.
Areus came outside, accompanied by four others. "What’re you doing?! Where’re the rest?!"
"Having some fun with Anthrax! Almost done!"
"You fool!" Areus led the others to the stable. "This ain’t some game!"
Xena lay curled on her side, facing the front with her hands behind her.
Areus cautiously pushed open the door. He stood at the threshold letting his eyes adjust to the interior. "Monlika?" He approached the body on the floor, glancing around for his female ally. Suddenly his feet flew out from under him.
"She had another appointment," Xena said, head-butting his lights out. She sprang to her feet to deal with the four who came rushing in. A few kicks and punches later, all lay out cold. She was tying up the last of them, when she heard several horses galloping down the road.
"Halt!" King Cleades put his hand up to the guards accompanying his carriage. He peered down at the compound. "Everything looks fine, Balthus. Well, except you’d think the guests would be in the garden on a beautiful day like this." He signaled for the driver to proceed. "First you send us on a wild goose chase away from here. Then you have me racing back because your nerves are unaccountably on edge. You’d think you were the crazy old man here, instead of me."
"I’m sorry, sir. My informants are usually reliable. They insisted there could be some truth behind rumors of marauders at the northern boundary. I still think it was a good idea to send the bulk of your guards back to the castle, while we checked on things down here. Who knows? Maybe the idea was to lure us away and attack while we were gone."
As they neared the stable, Cleades noted the guests’ wagons. He was just about to relax, when Balthus touched his arm.
"Sir, did you assign guards here after all, before we left?" Balthus pointed to what looked like a sentry nodding off in the front yard.
Cleades frowned. "No, I didn’t." He started to direct one of his guards to check it out, when a figure emerged from the stable.
"Hey there, Kingy. A bit late, but your timing couldn’t be better."
Cleades and Balthus gaped at the tall man, turbaned, in a flowing robe. "Do I know you?" the King asked, having a feeling he did.
Xena walked over to the carriage and extended her hand. "Anthrax. Been awhile since I dropped in on ya." She winked. "Back when both of us were a little younger. You were … in transition … to your throne, so to speak."
The King’s eyes widened in stunned recognition. "Y-y-yes," he stammered, shaking Xena’s hand. "So good to see … you … again. I wondered if you would make it."
"Sir?" Balthus frowned at what to him was a mystery guest. "I don’t recall –."
"Before your time, Balthus. Anthrax, this is my personal assistant." Cleades stood a bit shakily and let Xena help him down. Balthus followed.
"Assistant, you say?" Xena maintained her steadying support for the frail King, while wrapping her other arm around a startled Balthus. "You wouldn’t happen to know a fellow by the name of Areus, wouldya?"
Balthus nearly choked. He tried to disentangle himself, only to find the steely arm around him locked in place.
"I’ll take that as an affirmative." Xena pointed her chin toward the stable. "Why don’t I fill you guys in on how the party’s been going? Cleades, you might let your guards know we’ll need a little private time."
Though still puzzled, the King heeded Xena’s suggestion. He allowed her to help him – and drag a reluctant Balthus – into the stable. Both men gasped at the hog-tied figures decorating the floor.
Xena gently deposited Cleades on a bale of hay. Still holding on to Balthus, she walked over to the unconscious gang leader. She crouched in front of him, pulling Balthus down with her. "Areus! Wakey wakey." She lightly slapped his face.
Areus stirred. His eyes blinked open. They narrowed, then darkened, when they focused on the slight, balding man beside Xena. "You! You bastard!"
"No! It’s a mistake!" Balthus did his best to manufacture outrage. "I’ve never seen this man before." He squinted meaningfully at Areus. "It’s not too late to set things straight."
Areus’ lip curled in a snarl. "Look at me, you fool! Look at my men! It’s too late for all of us!"
Xena nodded. She pulled Balthus to his feet, pushed him onto a stool and tied his arms and feet. "Come, Cleades," she said, helping the King up and leading him to the door. "Let’s chat a few moments in your carriage."
Gorgon and Titan paced uneasily in front of their prisoners. The two weren’t the brightest candles burning, but even they deduced something was amiss. Though they’d briefly discussed one of them going to check on the rest, they quickly decided their chances were better staying put.
After what seemed liked hours, they heard a voice outside the banquet door yell, "My missus better be okay!" They turned to see Anthrax’s head poke in, followed by Areus’. The guards sighed in relief.
"Boy, am I glad to see you." Gorgon walked toward the door.
"Yeah, boss," Titan added, turning his back on the guests. "Where you been? We almost started the party without ya." He never saw the floppy hat coming down to cover the top part of his face. Nor did he have time to pull it off before a heavy metal pitcher bonked him on the head, sending him slumping to the floor.
"What the –." Gorgon turned at the noise behind him. He started when he felt a sharp point in his back.
"Walk nicely to the table, or I’ll push the blade through."
Gorgon did as told. When given permission to turn, his mouth dropped open at Anthrax standing in front of him. An old man stood with what looked like Royal guards surrounding him. One held a bound Areus, whose cheeks seemed fuller than usual. Soon other guards pushed in the rest of the surviving gang.
"It’s okay, everyone." Xena raised her fists, thumbs up. "King Cleades is back and has everything under control."
The room burst into pandemonium.
Cleades sat on his high chair, bemusedly observing the scene in front of him. Half the guests surrounded the small, dark-haired woman who’d bopped Titan on the head. She sat fanning herself as if nearly overcome by her own bravado. Others tossed questions at "Anthrax." A few argued with Spiros about what advice to give the King on handling the situation. Finally Cleades reached in his robe and pulled out the bell he’d begun using to save his fragile vocal chords. He rang it as vigorously as he could. Gradually the din quieted.
"First, a belated welcome to you all. My apologies for not being here to assure a more proper reception."
"That’s all right," the silver-haired matron said. "Meg more than made up for that!"
"Meg?!" Cleades glanced around in confusion.
"I don’t believe you’ve had the pleasure of meeting Meg Jr. in person." Xena pushed through Gabrielle’s admirers to stand next to her partner. "Meg Sr.’s daughter." She grinned at Cleades, her eyes glinting mischievously. "My wife. Sorry, guess I forgot to mention that."
Cleades shook his head, catching Xena’s hint. "Uh, glad to hear that. What a … fortuitous … joining."
"I’ll say. Very sudden. See, I was courtin’ a woman named Spitunia at the time. Meg Jr. kinda sneaked up on me. She must’ve –."
"Anthrax," Gabrielle interrupted through gritted teeth, "I think it’s sufficient to say we were both surprised at the outcome."
"Yeah, well looks like you chose right," one of the guests enthused. "She’s a `chip off the old block.’ A hero, just like Meg Sr."
Gabrielle fanned herself. "Thank you, thank you. It was nothing. I didn’t like that old hat anyway." She smiled modestly as everyone laughed. "But you know, we mustn’t overlook Anthrax." She blinked adoringly up at her partner. "No doubt he played some role in our rescue."
"Now, now, dear." Xena patted Gabrielle on the head. "Much as I’d like to brag, I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. Besides, it’s only right you should have the spotlight. Let’s not forget, Meg’s the reason we’re all here."
Spiros chuckled. "Very sensible of you, Anthrax – touting the mother-in-law – though it’s a bit of an exaggeration."
"Quite right," said the matron. "Above all, we mustn’t forget Xena and Gabrielle."
Cleades noticed two pairs of eyebrows shoot up. He began laughing so hard the guests feared for his health. He raised a hand to ward off well-meaning attention.
"I fear this may be too much for a man my age. But before I retire to rest, it seems I neglected to orient our new guests sufficiently."
"Yeah, like not tellin’ `em the passwords." Winston glared at Lynal. "In case somebody’d `membered ta ask."
"Yes, yes, my apologies for that as well. I take it you didn’t introduce yourselves to them?"
Spiros cleared his throat. "Um, I may have fallen down a bit in my vice-host duties, what with the excitement and all."
"Ah. We’ll rectify that shortly. You see … Anthrax … and … Meg, it’s true this all began because of Meg – um, Sr., that is."
Cleades explained that he’d always wondered what became of Meg. Technically, Xena had saved him and his kingdom in the end, but he credited Meg’s maternal instincts, quick wit and courage for initiating his escape from the "baby" state he’d been consigned to. When he’d regained his adult form, it was what he’d learned in her company that helped him become a better leader. He recounted his attempts to find Meg, how he kept running into others who had, as children, been similarly rescued – not by Meg, but by Xena and Gabrielle.
Winston nodded his head. "Didn’t know who she was at first," he acknowledged. "Must’ve been about 10. I hated her `cause her army’d burned down our village, made me an orphan. One day, this woman warrior rides up on a gold horse. I begged her for food. She threw me some bread’n cheese. Wasn’t much, but ‘twas the first kindness anybody’d shown in a long time. Never forgot it. Later, I heard Xena’d turned ta good. Woman they described sounded like the one I saw. Hard to keep hatin’ the other Xena I’d heard about but hadn’t really seen."
"She and Gabrielle kept me and some other kids from being tossed out of an orphanage," Lynal said.
"I would’ve been an orphan as well. I’d been put in a basket and sent downriver. They found me, stopped me from being killed by someone who thought I’d grow up to be a threat to him. Xena convinced King Gregor to take me as his son. That’s how I got my name – Gabriel."
"I’m Melina. This horrid blond warlord attacked our village, claiming she was Xena. A dark-haired woman fought her. The blonde threw her knife right at me! The other woman dove over and caught it before it struck me. I found out she was Xena, that the other woman was really Callisto."
"I am called Meadea. Xena save us from painted men." The small, soft-spoken woman shuddered. "I watch her slam into tree because of me. I think she die. Many moon after, I hear of woman dark and brave like her. I so happy she alive."
"Yeah, Gabrielle almost died saving me – Timuel. There was a big battle going on between Thessaly and the Minatoans. I got separated from my father when everyone took refuge in a healing temple. She was wounded after she came out to get me."
"My name is Sarita," said the stout woman. "My two brothers and I saw Xena get shot with an arrow defending our village. My father took her in." She sighed. "Our mother had died. We hoped Xena would take her place. I had lost the will to speak. Xena was so warm and funny, I suddenly found my voice again, trying to get her to stay with us. When I was older, I understood she had more important work to do."
The silver-blond matron smiled ruefully. "My own experience wasn’t nearly as bad as most others. I’m Queen Alecia – a rather spoiled princess at the time. I’d run away because I too had lost my mother. Xena helped me accept my new one. Even though Zantor’s gang attacked us, I had more to fear from the stories told me by Xena’s friends Joxer and Aphrodite." She chuckled. "Xena became my fairy godsmother." She touched the arm of the woman seated next to her. "Perhaps Daphne got `up close and personal` with the Warrior Princess more than anyone."
"Yes, Aphrodite accidentally trapped Xena in my body. I was very ill, partly from grief at my mother’s mysterious death. Xena’s energy saved me. While she was inside, I did the most amazing feats. Yet what impressed me most was how she told me of her own childhood and helped me repair my relationship with my father."
Others shared their stories. They also spoke for some of the members who had passed on or couldn’t attend: Icus, whose jealous brother drugged their father into nearly sacrificing Icus. King Lias II, almost kidnapped as a baby from his mother Diana and who had also recalled hearing of Meg because she worked awhile in his castle. Marissa, whom Xena had carried to safety during a siege at Corinth. Pilee, known for the mediating skills she’d exhibited between her blood family and the Pomira tribe who had kidnapped and raised her. Everyone agreed that, like Daphne, most of them didn’t stress being rescued, so much as learning the importance of self-respect, courage, generosity, humility, or that being a hero could even be fun sometimes.
Spiros spoke last. He rose importantly, ignoring the eye rolls of the other guests. "It won’t surprise my friends if I take exception to Areus’ claim that his father, Darphus, `made’ Xena. According to bards who attended the Athens Academy with Gabrielle, one of her first stories was about how warlord Xena saved an infant – the act of kindness that gave Darphus the excuse to brutally sever her from her army. She joined Hercules shortly after. Needless to say, I was that baby."
"Yeah, yeah, but technically Cleades is still the oldest."
"Not to mention the only one of us who remembers Xena and Gabrielle as less than 10 feet tall."
Cleades smiled at the puzzled expressions on his mystery guests’ faces. "You see, I found so many people they’d saved that I decided to limit the group to the period in my own life when it had such an impact – childhood. Except for me, everyone else here was no more than 12 when they encountered our heroes. We decided not to take in people who claim to have been saved as children after those 25 or so years when Gabrielle and Xena appear to have risen from the dead."
"We may need to reconsider that," Spiros added, "given our age and how our numbers have dwindled. It’s just that the newer tales we hear don’t have the same …."
"Humanity?" Alecia sighed wistfully. "We or our folks remember them before they became such legends. When they still had faults and doubts like the rest of us."
"Yeah. When the hero stuff was still new for `em." Winston looked into the distance. "That woman who tossed food ta me knew she weren’t better’n me, just luckier. But even though I didn’t have no food, I was luckier in my way. Her eyes said that whatever she hungered for, food wouldn’t make it go away."
Cleades broke the silence that fell. He addressed Xena and Gabrielle. "Those of us here may not have much time left. We could use a more … objective … opinion. What do you two think? Should we expand our membership? Forget our restrictions?"
Xena had been sitting next to Gabrielle during the guests’ stories. Her head remained bowed, as if she were contemplating the King’s question. Gabrielle knew a lot more was going on behind the disguised visage. She grasped Xena’s hand.
"As grateful as you are, it’s children like you who helped Xena feed the hunger Winston saw in her. Meg hungered for the child she couldn’t have. I believe it was the good deed she did for baby Cleades that allowed her to conceive."
Gabrielle glanced at the sullen captives hunched over tables under the watchful eyes of guards.
"Areus and his gang grew up hungering for something they never got – love, justice, respect. They hoped to force that from others. You have children, grandchildren, younger friends, neighbors. Whatever it is you believe you received from your heroes, I can’t think of a better way of passing it on than to continue giving the good part of yourselves and trusting others to carry on for you."
"And you, Anthrax?" Cleades said softly to Xena. "Would you agree?"
Xena straightened. "I do. Tell folks to be their own heroes." She smiled. "That way you won’t have to worry anymore about running out of stories or time to tell `em."
PART 6 (Conclusion)
Xena and Gabrielle spent awhile with Cleades in his private quarters. The King relaxed on his bed as they discussed recent events. He’d been shocked to learn from Balthus that the trusted servant had been planning his betrayal since before he joined the court staff nearly 12 years ago. He’d never bothered to reveal that his grandfather was Kryptus, the corrupt official who’d taken over when the King had been turned into a baby and plotted to steal the treasure to which Cleades was the "key."
Balthus blamed Meg and Xena for disgracing his family and robbing him of the power and riches he might have inherited, had those do-gooders not intervened. He’d run into Areus, the two soon discovering the hatred they had in common. It particularly galled them that Cleades had dedicated himself to memorializing the women who’d ruined their lives. They devised a scheme for revenge. Areus would locate others whom Xena had wronged. Balthus would worm his way into a position close to the King.
"It might have worked, if I hadn’t asked you to come this year." Cleades shook his head. "Balthus copied most of the invitations. I wrote yours myself and added it to the pile. Evidently he didn’t notice the little `X’ I’d put on the outside, when he slipped Areus’ note inside the invitations. He also didn’t expect me to personally investigate that false threat of his or to have him accompany me."
Cleades expressed disappointment that his surprise had been ruined. "I couldn’t wait to see everyone’s faces when you revealed your true identity. All these years talking about you as if you were characters in some children’s tale. To see you in the flesh …." He looked hopefully at his two guests. "It’s not too late, you know."
Xena smiled. "I appreciate the thought. I can’t tell you how moved I am to hear that we’ve been in your hearts like this. You give new meaning to my old fears that the past is always with us." Xena gazed fondly at her partner. "I’m fine leaving things as they are. I guess I’ve gotten used to enjoying the present I never expected, anticipating a future with someone who loves me for the flawed human I’ll always be."
"I understand." Cleades sighed. "The others have trouble seeing beyond the past. One side dedicated themselves to helping it live on, the other to making it go away. They act as if you don’t exist anymore or are drooling in rockers somewhere." He smiled with fond wryness at his two guests.
"I look at you and still see such vitality and optimism, such strength and courage. People think that escapes us when we get a few gray hairs. Guess I wanted my friends to know that doesn’t have to be." He snorted. "Perhaps that’s why I insisted on taking that trip like an old fool. One last, impressive adventure."
Gabrielle got up to sit on the King’s bed. She took his hand. "You know, I think they learned that anyway. Xena convinced them we could defeat Areus. They were prepared to use whatever they could to beat, stab or squash the enemy. And that was before learning half the opponents were the same age." She chuckled. "They still don’t know we had a secret weapon that would probably make their bravery unnecessary."
The King nodded. "I admit, I expected to walk into a room full of hapless victims waiting for slaughter. I haven’t seen them this spry and excited in ages." He smiled at Xena. "You always did know how to rally the troops."
Xena chuckled. "Yeah, well, that’s something I haven’t had to do in ages either."
"Heh. You should’ve seen how spry and excited she got when she found out your little get-together promised a side dish of mayhem. The romance of our anniversary celebration paled in comparison."
"Anniversary?" Cleades frowned. "What anniversary?"
"Would you believe 25 years together? Well, technically 24 if you take out a particular year, or 50 if you add in some others, but that’s too many long stories to tell."
Noticing the chagrin on the King’s face, Xena came over to sit on the other side of his bed. "Not to worry," she said, patting his shoulder. "You couldn’t’ve given us a better present."
Cleades wasn’t mollified. He accepted that the group couldn’t honor Xena and Gabrielle, but saw no reason why they shouldn’t toast Anthrax and Meg Jr. The two agreed. Xena said they’d like to set out for home the next day, so Cleades summoned a servant to announce a party for late afternoon.
Xena gazed out the garden window of their room. The party continued in full swing after two hours. Some of the guests sat on the lawn, chatting in small groups. A few men – plus Sarita – tried to outdo each other at archery. The rest perched in chairs under a canopy listening raptly to Gabrielle. Xena had quietly slipped away when the bard began recounting untold Warrior Princess tales she’d supposedly learned from Meg Sr.
Xena admitted her heart sang to see living proof of the good she’d done. At the time, she’d been so focused on her mission to atone for the past, she’d taken the lives saved for granted – part of her "job." She hadn’t pictured orphans getting another chance, or kingdoms ruled better because she’d rescued a baby destined to lead. Now she associated personalities and experiences with some of the young faces she vaguely recalled from a time long ago.
Yet she was also aware of the faces absent from the celebration outside, of the adults not participating in the sunlit beauty of the King’s estate. The shackled, sullen band of would-be assassins had been led away to the castle dungeon, the two bodies discreetly whisked off for unheralded disposal. Cleades had insisted on taking care of all that, on making sure the surviving interlopers received due justice. "You won’t accept credit for the positive lives of the ones you saved," he’d told her. "I won’t hear of you assuming responsibility for the ones who chose vengeance."
Xena sighed. What Cleades couldn’t understand was how she felt being hit with new realization of how her past could crop up to threaten her friends after all these years, even if she wasn’t there. She couldn’t help wondering how many others might be somewhere honoring who she’d become, angering the descendants of victims, allies or enemies of what she’d been. Would the bad always be there, underlying the good? The flip side of the same coin? Like her?
Monlika. She’d been about the same age as Xena when Hercules came along. What if …. Xena’s darkening thoughts were interrupted by unmistakable footsteps approaching. She strode quickly over to crouch next to her carry bag before the door opened.
Gabrielle poked her head in. "Hi there. Wondered where you’d wandered off to."
"Hi, yourself." Xena glanced up before taking some items from her bag. "Figured I’d get a head start on packing."
"Ah." Gabrielle gazed a moment at her companion’s bowed head. She strolled over to the dressing table. "I needed to get out of the sun awhile," she said, examining herself in the mirror. "Much as I hated that floppy hat, it might’ve protected this stupid rouge a little better."
Xena chuckled. "Titan didn’t seem to like it much either. Seems I’m not the only one who can make anything into a weapon."
Gabrielle went to gather up a couple of dresses she’d hung on a bedpost. "Speaking of which …." She pointed her chin at the chakram and some knives Xena had taken from her bag. "Looks like you brought your usual ones for nothing. Hope you filled your quotient for mayhem anyway." She held up a particularly hideous garment before folding it. "Remind me to glue my lips together the next time we get invited to any costume parties."
Xena chewed the inside of her cheeks. Gabrielle’s casual observations didn’t fool her one bit. It was her way of leading up to why Xena hadn’t said much about events in between leaving the banquet hall and re-entering with Cleades. No doubt everyone noticed the absence of Monlika, if not the other dead warrior. They’d assumed the King’s guards had dealt with them and the others. Gabrielle, of course, would assume otherwise.
"I’m fine," the warrior responded tersely. "The mayhem was quite satisfactory."
"You take all of `em out before Cleades arrived?"
"Got in quite a few of the old kicks and punches, eh?" Gabrielle gazed at her with a knowing smile. "Must’ve felt pretty good, finding out everything still works okay."
Xena sighed. She stretched her legs out on the floor and gave up pretending to rearrange her things. Gabrielle walked over and sat cross-legged facing her.
"I did what I had to. As usual." The warrior glanced down at her hands. "I would’ve spared them if I thought I could."
Gabrielle patted her partner’s leg. "I know. Being an `army of one,’ with only moments to take out a dozen bad guys, when neither the captives nor their captors can know you’re there – quite a challenge." She grinned with some pride. "Even for a rusty old veteran Warrior Princess."
Xena allowed a small smile in acknowledgement. "It’d been so long, I wondered how I’d react." She held her partner’s eyes "I felt nothing … except the cold calmness of clarity. The satisfaction of a quick, precise cut. Of seeing what I needed to do next, before I’d even cleaned the blade."
"Monlika?" Gabrielle asked softly.
Xena nodded. "For all her talk, I’d bet she never spilled blood." She shook her head. "Sure picked the wrong time, wrong place, wrong person to try it."
"You mean, right person."
"Yeah," Xena snorted. "She wanted so badly to lay hands on the Warrior Princess. Too bad. Got her wish and died not even knowing." She smiled a bit sheepishly. "What happened outside was different. None of them was much competition, but I still felt the old `rush.’ The perfect sensation of mind and body performing like a finely balanced sword. Gods, how I’ve missed that. Part of me worried a little I wouldn’t still have it." She looked down at her hands again. "I guess another part questioned if I should."
Gabrielle rose and walked over to the window. "Did you see Sarita on the archery range?"
Xena’s head jerked up. "What? Sarita? Uh … yeah."
"She said she’d never tried that before. Used to remind her of you being shot, falling off your horse, lying there silent like the last time she saw her mother. Now, she says for some reason she remembers more how happy she was that you’d recovered to tell jokes and fight again."
"How’d she do?"
Gabrielle chuckled. "She’s quite a strong woman. Certainly managed enough distance. We’re not quite sure what she might’ve hit though. Her arrow went over the wall."
"Um, Gabrielle?" Xena’s lips pursed. "Is there some moral to this, or you just tryin’ to cheer me up?"
Gabrielle grinned. "Both? C’mere." When Xena joined her, Gabrielle gestured toward the festivities. "An old friend of mine once said things happen precisely as they should. Take those folks out there. Most of `em wouldn’t have been here yesterday, if you hadn’t had `it’ in the past. They might not be here today, if you didn’t have `it’ now. They’re safer and more confident as a result."
Xena let out a long breath. "Like I would’ve wanted to do for my own children," she said softly. She gave her partner a small, wistful smile. "And you for yours."
Gabrielle nodded. "I look at those people as our children too, Xena. They blossomed during the other ‘lost’ years you worried about, when we were no better than ice cycles. Can you say their lives weren’t worth whatever price we paid? That you could’ve done much more good than what you see in front of you?"
"No," the warrior acknowledged after a moment. "I was lucky for the chance to do even that."
"Not just lucky. What you see is the flip side of that ‘it’ you sometimes hope will wear away over time." Gabrielle put her arm around her partner’s waist. "Don’t ever forget, `it’s` what attracted a certain someone to you before you even met all those people – except maybe Spiros. I’ve seen `it’ at its best and nearly its worst. If I’m gonna tolerate you for an eternity, I’d rather have `it’ as part of the bargain, than not."
Xena pondered this. "So … you’re saying I should listen to a certain someone who wears frumpy clothes and silly hats?"
Gabrielle cut her eyes at her nemesis. "I’m saying you should listen to a certain someone who would only let a certain someone else talk her into wearing frumpy clothes and silly hats."
Xena surveyed the scene outside again. She had to smile at the happy, contented faces. Winston hopped gleefully on his good leg, having beaten Lynal in the archery contest. Daphne knelt beside Medea at the flower garden, their eyes closed, noses poised inches away from scented petals. Cleades, Alecia and Gabriel compared notes on the challenges of royalty. Spiros. To think he’d been the baby who’d forced her to confront the evil she’d arrogantly convinced herself she could control. Yes, there was a certain rightness about it all, about recognizing the innocence in faces she’d long ago let slip away. They did deserve a place in her memories beside the victims she’d vowed never to forget.
"You win." Xena smiled. "You did what you do. As usual." She rested her head against Gabrielle’s. "I’ll even let you drag me back out there for more revelry."
Gabrielle moved away a little to study her soulmate. She frowned. "I don’t think so."
"No." Gabrielle pulled the curtains across the window. She turned to Xena with smoldering eyes that stilled the warrior’s heart an instant before setting her whole being aflame. "I think we’ve had enough revelry out there. I think we should spend the last of our ‘vacation’ celebrating in the Anniversary Suite."
Xena swallowed. "Yeah?"
Gabrielle reached up and gently detached Xena’s goatee. "Uh huh."
The warrior summoned her enormous will power. There was one more round yet to go. She crossed her arms. "You know the passwords?"
Gabrielle’s fingers paused in their course toward the taller woman’s mustache. "Passwords?"
"Uh huh. The one’s that was s’posed ta git ya in ta this little celebration."
Gabrielle stared at Xena in disbelief. She ripped off the mustache and smiled unapologetically at Xena’s "ouch."
The warrior glared, rubbing at the stinging spot above her lip. "And you accuse me of being the Destroyer of Romance. Humph."
Unfazed, Gabrielle started pulling on Xena’s sideburns. "I take it you know the passwords?"
"Spiros told me. I’d’ve thought one of your admirers would’ve shared that with you."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. She sighed with exaggerated patience. "`The Warrior Princess.’"
"Mm … warm."
"`Xena and Gabrielle?’"
"`Xena, Gabrielle and Meg.’"
"Not so warm."
"I give. Tell me." Gabrielle batted her eyes. "Surely they’d want Meg Jr. to know."
"Maybe not if they learned how sneaky she is."
"Xena?" Gabrielle’s lips pressed together.
Xena scratched her chin. "I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to give you a hint."
"Xeenaa." Cheeks reddened.
"Though if you’d put a little more thought into it, you’d probably –."
"Xena!" The bosom heaved.
"Gods, talk about no appreciation for foreplay." Xena grinned as Gabrielle’s foot started tapping. "Okay, okay." She began steering Gabrielle towards the bed. "`Fifty winters ago.’"
Gabrielle abruptly halted. "Twenty-five."
"No," Xena said, gently pulling Gabrielle forward again. "That’s it."
Gabrielle resisted. "I told you, we’re celebrating 25."
Xena mentally kicked herself. Sometimes her dark side just had to go too far. "I meant," she soothed, grabbing Gabrielle’s shoulders, "the passwords."
Gabrielle stiffened against being guided onto the bed. "So what are they?"
"`Fifty winters ago’!" Xena huffed in exasperation. "The cursed passwords are `50 winters ago!’" She plopped heavily down on the bed.
"Fifty?" Gabrielle frowned. "Why 50?"
"Gods be damned, Gabrielle, who cares?!" Xena fell back. She stretched out her hand toward her partner. "Now would you c’mon and give it a rest?"
Gabrielle took a few steps forward. She stopped as if hit by a sudden thought. "Xena, imagine! All those times they came together to remember meeting us, they were actually celebrating –."
"Grrr-ab-ri-elllle!" Xena rolled to the center of the bed and beat it with her fists.
Gabrielle knelt on the bed. "My, my." She crawled toward the middle. "Such passion." Gently pushed her red-faced, mumbling partner to her back. "Hear that voice?" She stroked the warrior’s throat. "Must’ve deepened two octaves." Walked her fingers up Xena’s chin. "Look at those lips. All pouty and quivering. And your eyes. What a provocatively darker shade of blue." She straddled Xena’s hips. "I’m sure I’ve told you countless things I love about you. In all this time, did I fail to mention how beautiful you are in a snit?"
Xena stared up into the innocently playful green eyes, fairly certain she noticed the glint of "gotcha" behind them.
Gabrielle caressed Xena’s open, but silent mouth. "Don’t tell me I’ve rendered my big, bad warrior speechless."
All Xena could do was lie there and let her lop-sided grin give her away. "Not entirely," she finally answered. She reached up to pull Gabrielle’s face closer. She batted her eyes. "Happy anniversary?"
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