Xena Warrior Princess: Literal Thinking
Written by Karen Dunn
DISCLAIMER: Xena, Gabrielle and Argo are not mine. They belong to those pleasant and ever-so-talented people at Renaissance.
No sex, not a lot of violence but there is a bad word in this one - just one and it's over very quickly.
Please feed the bard - she's ever so hungry.
The ambush was well planned and viciously executed.
Gabrielle and I were strolling along the road, minding our own business, a game of Guess the Warlord in full swing when the trees exploded in a mess of arms, legs and weapons as a sizable band of ruffians leapt out to block our path. They were all heavily armed and in desperate need of a shave. And they all had that evil glint in their eye that promised no mercy and lots of bruises.
I counted them quickly. Twenty two big, tough men against little old me and my sword and a rather small bard with a rather big stick.
It was almost lunch time and this looked liked the perfect way to work up an appetite.
Within minutes we were back to back, kicking butt and breaking heads as the bandits began to look less and less tough and more and more worried.
Twenty two to two? They should have tripled that number.
A jab to the chest, a punch to the nose, a staff across the shoulders. This was exhilarating...this was invigorating...this was, well, fun...
And then he was there. All muscle and machismo and 'I'm too sexy for my leathers' attitude and for a moment the world fazed out.
He sauntered towards me, studs and buckles glistening in the sunlight, sword balanced casually on his hip, dark eyes glinting from his chiselled bearded face.
"Hello, Xena," he said.
I dispatched the bandit I was fighting with a sharp blow to the side of the head and turned to face him, my blade resting at the base of his throat, "What do you want?"
He smiled at me, "Same as usual."
I turned away, "Dream on" and made to throw myself back into the fray.
But then he was behind me, invading my personal space and the sword was suddenly very heavy in my hand. It fell to the ground with a clatter.
His voice was soft and smooth and oh so tempting. He played around in my head, whispering pictures into my mind, enticing me with promises of bloody glories and boundless treasures.
His hands were gentle on my skin as he ran them along my arms, leaving a trail of goose bumps in their wake. His words left my body in a fog, drowning all reason and pulling me closer and closer to the dark side of my soul that had, for so long remained locked off.
I knew I was losing the fight, that it would take just one more word, whispered huskily into my ear to force me into that final step. To bring the Destroyer of Nations screaming down onto Greece on a fiery wave of guts and glory.
Then Gabrielle kicked him in the balls and kind of ruined the mood.
I shook the fuzziness from my brain as the god of war curled up at my feet clutching his dented pride and whimpered, an irate bard leaning over him and calling him words I haven't heard used outside of the more questionable taverns in Athens.
I shall have to have a word with Ephiny next time we visit the Amazons. I certainly didn't teach her these words and the bullies and bandits we have to fight on the road have been sure to watch their language since the f-word incident not long after we started travelling together.
Her father had sent a rather threatening scroll demanding that, if I insisted on dragging his daughter the length and breadth of Greece, I was to keep her away from spicy food, mind her language and protect her honour.
Ah well, one out of three ain't bad.
Well, during one particularly intense battle, throughout which Gabrielle had hovered in a safe corner, hopping from foot to foot, itching to step in and help me but not knowing how, the usual battlefield banter had been parried back and forth.
I thought nothing of it at the time.
Until the future bard asked me what a fuckwit was and could she use it in her latest story?
Well, I could see her father's well-sharpened pitchfork becoming a major and somewhat painful issue if I didn't do something quickly.
There followed a quick trip to the stream, with a bar of soap and a struggling bard, for a thorough oral washing-out, then it was on to Athens to have the word put out that, even though I had no complaints about the constant ambushes and wannabe muggings - they keep me on my toes - anyone who resorted to foul language during the butt kicking would make me very cross indeed.
Our attackers were almost polite from that point on.
Some of them even apologised before raising their swords.
So anyway, Ares was curled up on the ground, hating the world, with a ranting bard getting right in his face.
I could see this turning nasty but wasn't sure who to feel afraid for: Gabrielle or Ares. So I grabbed her by the arm, ushered her onto Argo's back, leapt into the saddle in front of her and rode like Tartarus.
The last thing I heard before we rounded a bend in the road was the somewhat high pitched voice of the God of War calling, "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little bard too!"
The threat is hardly new, so I gave it no further thought.
Had I remembered that it was Wednesday, I would have been a little more cautious.
Wednesday belongs to the Goddess of Chaos. And she thinks Ares is a thoroughly nice bloke.
Had I looked back and seen them chatting conspiratorially in the middle of the road before disappearing in a haze of butterflies and an ever-so-evil chuckle, I would have booked Gabrielle and I into the nearest inn and refused to move until Zeus himself came down and promised me it was safe.
But I didn't.
Precognition, it seems, is not one of my many skills.
I first noticed something was amiss when we stopped for a rest just before lunch.
I was perched on a rock, sharpening my sword while Gabrielle practiced The Bard Thing on a solely unimpressed Argo.
I heard her stomach rumble followed closely by a heartfelt, "Gods, I'm hungry."
I didn't look up, "Yes, I noticed."
"I'm really, really, really hungry."
"I get the idea."
"I'm soooo hungry..."
"I'm so hungry I could..."
I sighed, "You could eat a horse?"
Her eyes lit up, "I could?!"
She jumped to her feet and looked closely at Argo, licking her lips. Argo snorted nervously.
I stopped sharpening my sword and frowned, "Get away from my horse, bard."
"Just a bite."
"Gabrielle, put that knife down..."
"Perhaps a piece of haunch..."
Highly trained war horse or not, Argo is not stupid and, when Gabrielle started rummaging in our cooking bag, the mare tossed her head, slipped her reins and galloped out of the clearing at top speed.
Gabrielle sprang to her feet, "Hey!" and she sprinted off after her.
As Argo disappeared down the road with the bard hot on her heels brandishing a knife and a pouch of herbs, my little inner voice started muttering about gods and interference.
That little inner voice doesn't often let me down - if you don't count the incident when I was six years old and ran through the town in the dead of night in my nightclothes screaming that Thaddeus the blacksmith was killing my mommy in her bedroom 'cos I could hear her moaning and everyone should come and help. Aside from that one solitary, rather embarrassing oversight, my inner voice has stood me in good stead.
I gathered our things, cursed Ares' name, and set off after them.
I found Gabrielle two miles down the road, leaning against a tree stump, trying to get her breath back.
She looked up as I approached, "Your horse is a coward, Xena. A really really fast coward."
I glared at her, "Give me the knife."
She knows that glare of old and handed it over with a scowl.
"And the herbs."
She put her hand behind her back, "These are my sister's 17 secret herbs and spices, Xena. They've never been out of the family..."
I Looked at her. She handed them over, too.
"Come on," I said, "We've got a horse to find."
Gabrielle licked her lips, "Yeah!"
"And if you so much as look at her the wrong way, I will do something to you that your father hasn't had to do since you were ten."
"You'll buy me a pony?" she asked, "Why would you buy me a pony for eating Argo?"
I glared at her and stomped off down the road with the confused-looking bard running to keep up,
Being a horse, Argo knew relatively little about concealing her tracks and it proved rather easy to follow her trail.
Add to that the fact that either Gabrielle's culinary desires had really scared her or my trusty steed had been at one too many ripe apples again and all we had to do was follow our noses.
We rounded a bend in the road and there she was - my faithful, fearless, oh so reliable war horse.
"Argo!" I called to her and smiled fondly as she raised her head and whinnied at me.
With a swish of the tail she was trotting towards us when Gabrielle's stomach monster made itself known with a loud, angry rumble.
Before you could say Pegasus, Argo was gone in a clatter of hooves and a cloud of dust.
I glared at my sheepish friend, "For the love of Zeus, Gabrielle..!"
She gave me an indignant look, "Well, it's not my fault. Someone wouldn't let me start lunch earlier."
I didn't grace that with a reply. My dark side is always lurking in the shadows and it's best not to tempt it too much.
All day we walked. All ruddy day in oppressive heat, warding off those blood-sucking buzzing insects that seem to find my skin a particular delicacy.
And no sign of my horse.
I'm beginning to think that Argo is yellow in more ways than one.
As the sun began to set, my internal Idyllic Scenery Radar beeped and I pulled back a branch to find a perfect clearing next to a bubbling brook, bordered nicely by fallen logs.
Gabrielle flopped down next to one of the logs with a sigh, "I'm soo-o-o hungry."
"Don't start that again," I growled.
Why I bother growling at her is beyond me. It has absolutely no effect and I end up feeling silly. She just smiles at me until I blush self-consciously and have to go for a walk.
This was one of those times.
"Get a fire going," I told her, "I saw some berries back there. They'll do until we go fishing."
And I stomped off.
Stealth is not required when hunting berries. They rarely put up a fight.
I walked back into camp just as Gabrielle was putting the last twig on the nicely blazing fire. I place the berries next to her and picked up my sword to give it a therapeutic sharpening.
I heard the bard make an "Oo!" of delight, "Blackberries! Can I have some now?"
I buffed the blade with the corner of my bedroll, "Yeah, knock yourself out."
As soon as I said it, I knew it was a mistake. Running footsteps made me turn just in time to see the jinxed bard fly headfirst into a tree...
...and fall to the ground in a stunned heap clutching a handful of squashed blackberries.
With a sigh, I walked over to make sure she was alive before sitting by the fire to munch on the remaining berries.
They were quite sweet.
She woke up a few minutes later with a sore head and pinched the last of the berries from out of my hand, then we set off down the road in pursuit of the wayward horse.
Now, I'd like to claim that it was my preternaturally fine hearing that warned us of the ambush. I'd like to claim that I had to tell Gabrielle to get her staff ready as there was trouble ahead and that I basked in the awe she showered on me, amazed at yet another demonstration of my many skills.
I'd like to claim this but the bard cheerfully announcing, "You do know there are about 100 bandits waiting up ahead, don't you?" kind of put paid to that.
So I satisfied myself with drawing my sword in a fancy, impressive manner and growling, "Don't exaggerate, Gabrielle, there are 47 of them at most."
She glared at me as she lifted her staff into a defensive position and we strolled on up the hill towards the 47 bandits who were all trying to hide behind the same bush.
Things started well.
We stood in the road and waited patiently for the bandits to realise they weren't fooling anyone with their questionable rabbit impressions and finally all 47 of them lined up before us and tried to look menacing.
Only the leader was really successful. He was tall and swarthy, desperately in need of a bath and had a chin full of stubble the hardiest of razors would have had a hard time clearing.
He had a lethal-looking sword in his hand and an insane glint in his eye. I would give him five out of ten on the Ooo I'm Scared scale. Not bad for a common bandit.
Gabrielle, as usual, tried words before wallopings and smiled her best smile, "Gentlemen," she said, "I'm sure there's no need for unpleasantness. Let us pass and we'll be on our way."
They looked at her.
"Go take a hike, Blondie!" growled the leader before spitting a glob on phlegm at her feet.
I grinned to myself. She could have taken the insult, could have taken being called Blondie when today she was very obviously a redhead. She could even have taken the growl.
But spitting at her brand new, ever so clean boots would be the last straw.
I took an unconscious step back and waited for her to explode in a whirl of staff wielding fury. Waited for her to glare up at him in outrage. Waited for her to do one of the two things to him with the staff that has been known to make men scream.
The second thing is too eye-watering to mention and is illegal from here to Athens and back again.
I should have known that it was not that type of day.
"Go take a hike, Blondie!" he had growled.
"Okay" she said brightly and turned and strolled off up the road.
I blinked after her, "Gabrielle?"
She kept walking.
The lead bandit drew his impressive-looking and rather sharp sword and smiled a smile of not many teeth.
She was not turning back.
"Now is not a good time to go exploring!"
As one, the others drew a variety of weapons and the clinical part of my brain noted that I had a choice of ways in which to die: sword, spear, club, staff and any number of assorted kitchen implements.
I just hoped to all the gods that I would not go down in history as Xena, the greatest warrior to ever live before she met her death at the end of a brutal looking hand whisk.
I always fancied going out in a suitably heroic manner - something involving saving the innocent, preferably children. The rescuing of children is always smiled on by the tellers of heroic tales. Either that, or saving an entire town from a fire breathing dragon or rampaging warlord with one arm tied behind my back.
Of course, in that case Hades would want to know why I had my arm tied behind my back and I'd have to spend the rest of eternity listening to Gabrielle whine on and on about how we would have lived longer if I hadn't insisted on being cocky.
Speaking of the bard, she was disappearing over the hill so I called out a final desperate appeal: "There are 47 of these guys, you know!"
She carried straight on, her pace brisk, marking time with her staff as it thumped into the ground.
The bandits closed in, "I'm really gonna hurt you if I live through this, bard!"
And then I was fighting for my life.
So now I have a bard and a horse to hunt down. One of them I shall offer an apple and a swift rub down, the other I shall hurt.
I haven't yet decided which is which but the cuts and bruises and whisk burns I received in the battle are giving me a damned good clue.
I came to a village and spotted both my wayward charges. Gabrielle was just disappearing into a tavern while Argo was grazing on a patch of grass by the well.
I marched up to the horse and tugged on her rains bringing us face to face, "You and I are going to have words," I said as I walked her to the stables and left her in the hands of a nervous-looking stable boy.
I stomped towards the tavern which went by the delightful name of The Gutted Truffle. I knew the place of old. It was a Ten Winters Ago kind of tavern.
The Gutted Truffle was something of a muddle as tavern's go. With its dank, dreary corners hiding secrets which no one with the remotest interest in living to old age would try to seek out; its splinter-wood tables and beer crate stools and unidentified stains oozing frightening stenches, the Gutted Truffle had all the makings of a perfectly respectable dive.
For years barbarians and warlords shared bawdy jokes with Amazons and warriors as they knocked back huge frothing flagons of Mother's Gusset while trying to out-gross one another in the rude song stakes.
You knew where you stood with a tavern like that.
It had all gone wrong some three years ago.
Crug, the landlord, had returned from a two-week holiday in a bed and breakfast by the sea with lots of strange ideas about hygiene and the like. Before the regulars knew what hit them he had coasters for the drinks and separate holes for men and women to throw up in. And he changed the name from the Gutted Peasant to the Gutted Truffle.
He said it was posh and would attract a better class of clientele.
The barbarians and warlords and warriors and Amazons all shrugged and ordered a slow drink and a fast woman.
Which was when Crug informed them that the delightful services of Mad Dolly and her ever-itching band of bed warmers would no longer be available as he needed the rooms for paying guests. The kind who stayed a night, paid their bill and didn't leaves stains on the sheets which Mrs Crug was afraid to go near.
The Gutted Peasant Tavern was now the Gutted Truffle Inn.
Half the regulars left before the first pint was pulled.
They came back again when they realised it was the only pub in town but they weren't happy and deliberately vandalised the coasters.
Crug called them asinine philistines and watered down their Mother's Gusset.
It was lucky for him that I was the only one who understood what he had said - and even luckier that I was in a good mood at the time.
I looked round my once familiar stamping ground and immediately noticed a distinct lack of vertically-challenged bards.
I went to the bar and glared at Crug, "Where did she go?"
He was polishing a tankard - another of his strange new habits, "Who?"
"The short Amazon with the staff."
"Oh her. She went out back with Foddus."
"He asked her to show him a good time and she said okay."
I was away from the bar and through the back door in the blink of an eye, sword drawn and bloody murder bubbling near the surface. I skidded round the corner and ground to a halt.
They were both lying under a tree to the back of the tavern, fully clothed with Foddus wearing a look of complete bewilderment as Gabrielle fed him nutbread and told him the story of Hercules and the Amazon Women with much waving of arms and emphasizing of exciting parts.
She spotted me straight away and waved cheerfully, "Xena," she called, "I'm just showing this nice man a good time. Won't be a sec."
He looked up as I stood there, sword drawn and murderous expression firmly fixed, and jumped to his feet, "Xena!?" he spluttered, almost choking on his nutbread, "I didn't touch her...if I'd known who she was...I didn't...I wouldn't..." He glanced back and forth between me and the lazing bard and for a moment I thought he was going to cry, "Why am I apologizing?" he whimpered, "I didn't do anything!"
And he ran away, his previously unquestioned bad boy reputation in tatters.
I sheathed my sword, took the startled bard by the ear and marched her back through the tavern and out to the stables where Argo was trying her hardest to look ashamed.
I was pleased to see Gabrielle no longer had that hungry look in her eye when it came to my horse - perhaps she had sated herself on nutbread and Amazon fantasies.
Perhaps things were returning to normal.
"Xena" she whined, tugging away from my grip, "Xena, I have to go back to the tavern."
"I promised Crug I'd tell a few stories."
Annoyed, I grabbed her ear again and dragged her back to the tavern. I settled into a seat as she headed for the stage with a wave to Crug who, to my astonishment, waved back with a cheery, "Break a leg, Gabby!"
Well, I never knew she could move that fast.
In the blink of an eye she had taken a running jump from the edge of the rather high stage and was hurtling through the air towards a table of rather startled-looking drinkers.
That I caught her at all is a miracle.
I flew across the room and, with a rousing battle cry, threw myself between her and the now openly cowering drinkers.
We made quite a mess of the table and I had to buy everyone a fresh drink.
Well, we both walked away unharmed but the rest of the tavern seemed to think this was all part of the act and Gabrielle, being a bard and having far more imagination than it is safe for one person to possess, caught onto a money making idea faster than Salmoneus could say "ker-ching!"
She dragged me to the bar, as the crowd began slamming their tankards on tabletops and calling for more, and said, "How do you fancy being an actor?"
Crug placed a mug of port in front of me and I took a deep drag, "Nope."
She was hopping from foot to foot, "Think about how much better my stories will be if the actual Warrior Princess is there to act out the best bits!"
"Not gonna happen."
She shook my arm, "Oh come on, Xena, it'll be fun."
I pried her fingers from my arm one at a time and Looked at her, "Please explain how me humiliating myself in front of a tavern full of strangers will be fun?"
"Don't you see? It will add an extra dimension to the story. It'll help the audience focus on what's happening."
I went for the low blow, "A good bard doesn't need visual effects, Gabrielle, and you're the best bard this side of Corinth."
"You can talk 'til you're blue in the face, the answer will still be no."
I turned back to the bar and tuned her out, concentrating on my mug of port.
After a couple of good swallows, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I glared at the nervous-looking little man at my side, "Yes?"
He pointed at something behind me, "Your friend's gone a funny colour."
I spun round to find Gabrielle still chatting away nineteen to the dozen, a string of gasped Please Xenas and It'll be funs pouring from her rather blue face.
For the love of Zeus! When I find the god responsible for this curse,...
I leapt away from the bar and slapped her on the back, "All right, I'll do the gods damned story!!"
She drew in a deep, shuddering breath, smiled sweetly and passed out at my feet.
I hate when that happens.
Well, the tavern finally got its story and I came through it relatively unscathed.
Okay so I had to damage a couple of hecklers in the front row for calling me "sweetie pie" and trying to look up my battle dress but other than that, Gabrielle said it went rather well.
Yeah, sure. She's not the one who will have to put up with the thespian jokes for the rest of her life. She's not the one who will have to tolerate warlords laughing like drains at the start of every battle and asking whether or not the light is right for me and would I like them to avoid my good side.
And she's not the one who had to fight to keep her dark side in check as she left the tavern with every swarthy bandit from here to the Aegean shouting out for an encore and throwing flowers.
We stopped a couple of miles out of town and bedded down for the night.
Morpheus was calling me, like the git he is, and I just knew he had a head full of dreams lined up that would involve bright lights, bouquets of flowers and me smiling tearfully at a room full of luvvies saying things like "This is such a surprise" and "I want to dedicate this to my mother" as I gripped a cheap 'n' tacky award to my chest.
Ah well, I thought, I'm a warrior, perhaps I could persuade myself to charge through said luvvies hacking limbs left, right and centre.
I snuggled down into my bedroll and prepared for a night's dreamscape mayhem.
Just as I was drifting off I felt a prod , "Xena?"
I sighed, "Gabrielle, it's late," and closed my eyes again.
I knew it wouldn't work. She prodded me again, "Xena?"
"I can't sleep."
It had been a long day. I had had enough. Drastic action was called for.
So I took advantage of the situation, looked her in the eye and said, "Count sheep. Works for me."
"Okay," she said and I heard her wonder away from the camp in search of sheep.
Given that we're right in the middle of cattle country, it'll be a long search.
I slept really well that night.
Morning came and I was up with the first birdsong.
Gabrielle was nowhere to be seen but I wasn't worried. She was probably snoring at the foot of some tree or other, worn out by last night's great Greek sheep hunt.
I nipped down to the stream and snatched a passing trout from its sparkling depths. The fish looked at me with wide, unblinking eyes, its mouth opening and closing in panic.
All I had to do now was cook it.
That's one thing I will never understand. If you gave Gabby and I identical fishes and we both cleaned them, wrapped them in leaves and put them in the fire for 10 minutes per pound plus an additional ten minutes just to be sure; she would end up with a mouth watering meal fit for a king while I, despite my many skills, would produce something vaguely fish shaped that a starving man would turn down, saying he'll chance his luck at the next city and, yes, he knows there isn't another living soul for three weeks in any direction but he'll be damned if he's putting that in his mouth.
So I threw breakfast back into the stream and spared us both a bad day.
I knew I had found her the second a scrawny young boy came running through the grass at a cliff edge, waving his arms frantically to get my attention.
Cows were grazing everywhere. There wasn't a sheep in sight. Or a bard for that matter.
I grabbed his arms as he reached me, "Calm down. Tell me what's wrong."
His bottom lip trembled, "It wasn't my fault! I swear it wasn't!"
"She kept asking me where the sheep were. I told her over and over that there are no sheep, that this is cattle country but she wouldn't let it drop. So I told her..."
I had a bad feeling about this, "Told her what?"
"I told her to go take a running jump and..."
"And she did."
He nodded and pointed behind him, "Right off that cliff."
Oh great. As if I didn't have enough guilt to cope with. Go and count sheep, I'd said. It helps me sleep, I'd said. And all because I'd had a rough, humiliating day trying to keep her out of trouble.
I threw myself down at the edge of the cliff and peered over, dreading what I might see.
What I saw was my bard hanging from a vine, looking slightly worried.
Relief is not a strong enough word.
She went to wave at me but thought better of it, settling for a sheepish grin, "Um, Xena?"
"This isn't fun."
I grinned back, "It doesn't look it. Would you like a hand back up?"
"If it's not too much trouble."
I uncoiled my whip and lowered the tapered end down over the edge. Eyes tight shut, she reached out and wrapped it round her wrist and I hauled her back up onto solid ground.
A shudder ran up my spine and I turned.
With a crackle of light Ares appeared before me, the Goddess of Chaos behind him, shedding a hazy cloak of butterflies.
The God of War looked from Gabrielle to the cliff and back again, "You mean it worked?"
I stormed towards him, "I knew this was your doing!"
He shrugged and pointed a thumb at the Goddess of Chaos, "Well, it was her idea but I agreed to it. Never thought it would work, though."
He walked over to the glowering Gabrielle, "I'm sorry but I always wanted to say this and in your present state of mind, it should be fun," he said, not sounding apologetic at all. He cleared his throat, "Gabrielle. Go fu..."
My chackram hit him square on the nose.
He wriggled his dented nose back into shape, "A guy's gotta have a little fun."
I took him by the scruff of the neck and marched him up to the bard, "Okay, you've had your fun, now take the spell off."
"Do I have to?"
"Do you really want me to answer that?"
He pouted at me, "You know, officially you can't make me do this...I mean, I am a god, you know..."
"One day, I'll say no..."
"And on that day Hades will be skating to work."
He shook himself free of my grip and straightened his shirt with as much dignity as he could muster. Then he threw a lightning bolt at Gabby's chest and grinned as she fell to the floor, "All done," he said and disappeared in a cocky sparkle.
The Goddess of Chaos handed me a butterfly, "Great with mayonnaise," she whispered and vanished.
I looked at the butterfly, decided I would never be that hungry, and set it free.
I think it laughed at me as it flew away.
I couldn't be sure that Ares had done as I asked, so a test was in order.
"Gabrielle?" I called as she rose groggily to her feet.
"What is it?"
"Go jump off a cliff."
Hey, I'm faster than her. I'd catch her. Probably.
"What?!" She was glaring at me but making no attempt to mimic a lemming.
I breathed a sigh of relief and patted her shoulder, "Let's go."
She shook my hand away and I noticed that her face was going a pink ragey colour, "You tell me to go jump off a cliff and expect me not to comment?"
"Gabrielle, it was a test."
"For what?! Blind idiocy?!"
Oh great. She didn't remember a thing. What is it with gods and amnesia?
I placed my arm back across her shoulders and led her off down the road, "Let me explain..."
"Well, you remember that ambush..."
Disclaimer: Although Gabrielle was unharmed during the writing of this fiction, her fear of long drops and respect for lemmings has reached new heights.