DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Cyrene and Joxer belong to whomever owns them now. Heck, I don’t even really know. This story falls into the category of fan fiction; it is offered to the public free. We’re talking fun, not money here.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Friends, this is my first time doing pure comedy (so be gentle with me). Having written lots of heavier stuff, and being in a particularly jocular (translate: strange) mood, I decided to write something totally lighthearted and fun for a change of pace. (That partial bottle of wine probably didn’t hurt, either.) Writing comedy that flies well is, I think, difficult. One must ‘push the envelope’ without offending horribly. So, I put this humble offering before you in hopes that it makes you laugh out loud. If it does, then great! I’ve done my job for you, and that is my reward. Now, without further ado, as they say, snuggle down and prepare for the further (mis)adventures of our two favorite kick-butt girls, as they tackle a labor worthy of Hercules himself!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
How Hard Can It Be?
By D.J. Belt
The early afternoon presented a bright and cheery sun, pleasantly warming the skin and filling the senses with the fragrance of wild-flowers in bloom. Birds sung and chirped and insects buzzed, altogether a most pleasurable surrounding in which to finish a long trip. Xena and Gabrielle paced along the road to Amphipolis, Xena's war-horse trailing behind, Gabrielle's staff thumping softly in counterpoint to their footfalls. The trip was not punctuated by much conversation. Their company was enough for the time being as they strolled hand in hand, fingers interlaced, and Gabrielle was marveling at the natural beauty of the Macedonian countryside. Xena, for her part, was doing her own marveling at the relative quiet of the little bard beside her, whose usual chatter kept her alternately entertained and puzzled at her incredible ability to converse on an endless variety of topics, both mundane and lofty. After a bit, though, Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand and broke the silence.
"Aren't you excited to see your mother again? What's it been now, most of a season?"
Xena muttered, "Not long enough."
"What? Oh, come on. You love your mother. Don't give me that grumpy act. I know that you'll be glad to see her again."
"Sure I love her, Gabrielle, but she gets on my nerves after a couple of days. You know how she is, always finding fault with the way I live my life." Xena affected a pleasantly nagging voice and mimicked, "Look at you, not getting any younger. Still a tramp, a vagabond. Why don't you settle down and get a real job?"
Gabrielle chuckled at the imitation. "That's good, Xena. Who else can you do? Have you ever done Hercules, for instance?"
At the question, Xena raised an eyebrow and got a faraway look in her blue eyes. "Oh, yeah."
She shook her head, bringing herself back to the present. "Oh, nothing. Anyway, you know how it always goes, Gab. Look, you have to promise that we don't stay more than about two days."
"Okay, I can go with that. We'll leave when she starts trying to set you up with men."
Xena rolled her eyes. "And that's another thing. Always trying to play matchmaker for me. It drives me crazy."
Gabrielle eyed Xena. "Well, love, why don't you just finally tell her about us? Once she gets the picture, she'll leave you alone." Gabrielle paused, then finished her thought. "Unless you're ashamed, that is."
Xena stopped in the road at that, slightly aghast. "Is that what you think?"
Gabrielle shrugged, suddenly shy under Xena's stare. "Well, what else can I think? You won't tell your mother about us."
"Gabrielle, I'm not ashamed of you, or of what we have together. You know that our being in love means more to me than anything in this world. It's just that......"
"That what?" Gabrielle awaited an answer, leaning on her staff.
"Well, I know my mother. That won't stop her, either. She'll just ignore me when I try to tell her, or blow it off as a 'phase', or something." Xena's expression became slightly exasperated as she looked into the apprehensive hazel eyes peering back at her. "You know how she is. If she doesn't want to hear something, she just pretends that she didn't. She won't take our relationship seriously, even if we @$#*@!!! right in front of her."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes at the mental image. "That's nice, Xena."
"Well, it's true."
"I told my mother about us."
"And she told your father. And he threw me out of their house. Forever."
"But my mother didn't. You don't have a father to deal with."
"No. I have my mother. Somehow, that's more frightening."
"Do you want me to tell her?" At that, Xena paled slightly. "I will, you know, if you won't, just to get her to stop trying to set you up with every doofus in Amphipolis. You know, Xena, it really does bother me when that starts. I don't like those guys sniffing around you."
Xena pointed a finger at Gabrielle. "You're jealous."
Gabrielle flicked her staff, striking Xena's shin armor lightly and causing a metallic clank. "Damned right I'm jealous. And don't change the subject. Xena, I'm going to ask you a question, and I want an honest answer."
"Have I ever given you any other kind?"
Gabrielle raised her eyebrows. "Never. Look, do you really love me?"
Xena's expression softened. She could see the earnest seriousness in the hazel eyes, and the sad countenance which surrounded them. "Yes. I really love you." She reached down and lifted Gabrielle's hand, opening it and holding it palm up in both her own. "I have put my heart and soul here. I've never done that with anyone else, and I never will."
Gabrielle smiled a little at that. "Then, for me, will you tell her on this trip?"
"I will. Now, c'mere." She reached out and embraced Gabrielle, who relaxed and buried her head in Xena's chest, squeezing her tightly. "I will. Do you feel better now?"
Gabrielle looked up. "I do. Just don't chicken out on me, Warrior Princess."
"I can't, now. I've given you my word."
"I know. That's one of the things that I love so much about you. You have more honor than anyone I've ever known." At that, Xena leaned down and kissed her, a soft, gentle, lingering kiss that made the world close in around them. After a moment, they reluctantly separated and began walking down the road again, holding hands. They were silent, walking easily, their clasped hands swinging slightly, until Gabrielle laughed aloud.
"What's so funny?"
"You, Xena. You're the bravest warrior I've ever seen, and yet your mother scares you to death. That's hilarious. Tell me, 'O warlord reformed', is there anything that scares you as much as your mommy?"
Xena scrunched her expression into a thoughtful squint, then responded, "Yeah."
"Oh, really? What, in the name of all the gods?"
The tall warrior raised an eyebrow, then cast a glance aside at her companion. "You. Your displeasure, my fear that someday I'll disappoint you."
Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand reassuringly. "You could never disappoint me. You always come through. You will this time as well, and so will your mother. You'll see."
The interior of the inn's main room was sparsely occupied. Only one table held any occupants, some farmers sitting together by the window, talking and sipping their ale. They glanced up when the tall warrior entered, their eyes taking in her formidable presence and the softer balance of her blonde companion, and then returned to their conversation. Xena softly tread across the stone floor to the long bar, then leaned slightly across it to peer into the kitchen door. She straightened up when a familiar voice greeted her enthusiastically from the stairs leading to the rooms for rent.
"Xena! Oh, my prodigal daughter's come home to visit! Come here and let me look at you!" Xena turned just in time to see her mother breeze down the stairs and grasp her in a surprisingly strong embrace. "Dusty, as usual after traveling. My, and just a bit underfed, as well. You stay for a bit, and I'll fix that. And look at those arms of yours! You have more muscle than some of the farmers around here." She squinted at Xena, then added, "Are those new scars? Xena, have you been fighting again?"
Xena shrugged. "It's my job, Mom. I'm a warrior, remember?"
"Yes, well, that will do until you get a real job. Oh, and you've brought your friend Gabrielle along." She released Xena to offer the bard a welcoming hug. "Good to see you, dear. You're still as sweet as always, I'll bet."
Gabrielle returned the hug and answered, "That's what Xena says. It's good to see you too, Cyrene."
Xena's mother held the little bard out at arm's length and looked her over. "You're all dusty, as well." She poked Gabrielle in the abdomen with a finger. "And losing weight. I swear, you two will be the death of me. Well, I've got plenty of empty rooms up there. You two take the one at the end of the hall. Xena, fill the bath, and you both can clean up. Dinner will be ready later. Oh, and grab an ale for each of you, won't you? I've got to get to the kitchen."
"Can we help, Mom?"
"No, no. I've just got to finish the stew and the bread. People expect to eat around here, you know. Now you two make yourselves at home. Go on." With that, she breezed into the kitchen, leaving the two travelers standing in the common room. Xena shrugged, then walked around the bar to the ale barrel, drawing two wooden cups of the drink and plopping them down on the counter. She slid one over to Gabrielle, who perched on a stool and propped her staff against the bar. Xena leaned on the bar from her side, and they drank deeply of the cool ale. Gabrielle put her cup down first, then studied Xena from across the bar, a twinkle forming in her eye and the corner of her mouth turning up in a slight grin. In response, Xena just raised an eyebrow.
Gabrielle teased, "I can see you as a barmaid. You'd make a good one, I'd bet."
Xena scoffed. "I did it as a teen, here in Mom's tavern. Hated it."
"Really? Hey, maybe this can be your 'real job'." Gabrielle snickered a bit at the thought. "Xena the barmaid."
"Why, that's a wonderful idea." Cyrene's voice joined the conversation from behind Xena. "One of my girls is sick, and we've been crazy around here. Why don't you two fill in for her tonight?"
Gabrielle noticed the pained look on Xena's face, and took the opportunity to goad her a bit. "Yeah, Xena, let's help your mom tonight. C'mon, how hard can it be?"
Xena cast Gabrielle a withering look. "You don't know what you're saying."
Cyrene waved a hand through the air. "That's wonderful. Thank you, Gabrielle. You both will be a big help. Now, go and get cleaned up, the both of you. I'll feed you, and then you can help me tonight. It's settled." With that, she disappeared back into the kitchen. There was an icy silence at the bar for a moment, then Xena slowly raised one eyebrow and turned her head toward Gabrielle, who just sat sheepishly on her side of the bar.
"Guess I put my foot in it, huh, Xena?"
"Oh, you have no idea. The labors of Hercules? Peanuts! The Horde? Easy money. Bacchus? A pansy, compared to what can happen tonight in here." She drilled a piercing blue eye into Gabrielle. "Tavern-keeping isn't for the weak of heart, love."
"Well, how hard can it be? We'll sling some ale and wine and serve some stew. Maybe I'll even tell some stories. Come on, Xena, it might be fun!"
Xena waggled her head and repeated Gabrielle's words in a squeaky voice. "How hard can it be?" She then leveled her icy blues at her friend. "Come midnight, I'll remind you that you said that."
Gabrielle rose to the challenge. "Oh, yeah? Well, I'll bet you five dinars that I make more in tips than you do."
"You're on, little bard. Now, let's get that bath, hey?"
"Xena, you are absolutely not going to wear that."
"Mom, what's wrong with my leather? I always wear it."
"When you're busting heads, perhaps. This is a tavern and inn. It just won't do at all. Look, I'll get you something more appropriate to wear." Xena raised an eyebrow and Gabrielle snickered from behind the towels that covered her wet hair and body. "And Gabrielle, you just can't wear your usual clothes, either." The snickering suddenly stopped, and the hazel eyes grew large.
"No buts. Too much skin. Trust me, when these farm boys get some ale into them, you don't want to provoke them. No arguments, now. I'll bring you something." With that, Cyrene breezed out of their room, leaving the two women eyeing each other apprehensively.
Gabrielle weakly called after her, "But it's practical, and Xena likes it." There was no answer from Cyrene; she was already headed down the hall. A rumbling, low laugh echoed in the room, and Gabrielle turned her attention to Xena.
"Just what's so funny?"
"Don't say I didn't warn you."
"You're enjoying this, aren't you?"
Gabrielle just shook her head, and smiled. "See? You're having fun already." Xena opened her mouth and waved a finger at her friend, but was interrupted by Cyrene's return.
"This is for you, Xena, and Gabrielle, you wear this. It's a bit big, but you'll manage." She offered out a white peasant shirt and a long, colorful skirt for each of them, then stopped halfway out the door, looking back. "Come on, girls, you just have time to eat before people start arriving. Hurry, now." She paused, then winked at them. "Who knows, each of you might find a nice fellow tonight." With that, she was gone.
"Oh, great. Now she's going to start on you."
"Xena, you just have to tell her."
Gabrielle mused a bit over that one, and then nodded. "I'm beginning to see what you mean."
Shortly, Xena and Gabrielle sat at a small table in the corner of the kitchen, a bowl of stew and cup of ale in front of them. The sleeves of their peasant shirts were rolled up to the elbows, and their hair tied back out of their faces at Cyrene's suggestion. Xena ate furtively while Gabrielle finished her dinner with gusto, occasionally mumbling in between mouthfuls of hot stew and round bread. Cyrene breezed around the kitchen, pleasantly chattering and fussing with one detail after another. As Xena watched her, her mind was brought back to attention by Gabrielle's voice. "Xena, are you hearing anything I'm saying?"
The smaller blonde studied her friend closely. "Oh, my. You've got that same look that you get when you're about to go into battle."
"I am about to go into battle. Excuse me, will you?" Without waiting for an answer, she rose and left the table, striding toward her mother. Gabrielle just cocked her head slightly and mumbled, "Uh, yeah, sure."
Cyrene looked up to see her daughter approach her, a determined look in her blue eyes. "Oh, Xena, look, can you........" She stopped short at the hands which grasped her shoulders and the voice which softly addressed her.
"Mom? We have to talk."
"Does it have to be now? I'm...."
"I know. It'll just take a minute."
"Well, all right, Xena, if you insist."
"I do. Come here." She led her mother aside, and then stared hard at her.
"Xena? What is it?"
"Look, Mom, I don't want a man, so please stop trying to set me up with them. Do you understand?"
"No, I don't, dear. Every girl wants to settle down eventually."
"Look, Mom. No matchmaking tonight, for either me or Gabrielle. Please?"
"This isn't like you, Xena. You've always been a lusty girl. Why, I remember that time that I caught you in the barn with......."
"Mom? My lust is just fine! I just don't need a man, now or ever. Understood?"
Cyrene's face assumed an extremely puzzled look, and then her eyes widened. "You mean..."
"Yes! That's what I've been trying to tell you."
"You've joined one of those weird religious cults? Which one? Artemis? The Hestians?"
Xena heaved a deep sigh, then covered her face with her hands. "No, Mom."
"Say, Aphrodite isn't involved here, is she? Now that's a strange one, I'm telling you." Cyrene looked askance at Xena, then continued, "Is that dear Gabrielle involved, as well? You didn't get her into this, did you? Xena, I'm ashamed of you, influencing that poor girl that way. I'll just have to have a talk with her."
"Mom!!!" Xena placed one hand on her mother's shoulder, and the other pressed a finger gently over her lips. "No, it's not a cult, and yes, Gabrielle's involved here. Deeply involved, if you get my meaning."
Cyrene shook her head. "I'm afraid I don't, dear."
Xena rolled her eyes. "I had hoped that I wouldn't have to be this blunt, but....." She leaned close to Cyrene's ear and began whispering. Cyrene just stood still, her eyes growing ever wider, the hand holding a wooden spoon slowly sinking to her side. After a minute or so, Xena straightened up and just stood awkwardly, gazing at her mother. Cyrene said nothing for a moment, then tilted her head slightly as she mentally digested what she had just heard. Finally, she looked at Xena and smiled broadly.
"Oh, is that all it is? I'm so relieved that it's not a cult. Why didn't you just say so sooner? You had me worried to death!"
"Mom? Talk to me. Do you understand, now?"
Cyrene reached out and hugged Xena tightly, then stepped back and waved her cooking spoon in the air to punctuate her words. "Of course, daughter. Now I see why you two always insist on sharing a room. My word, I should have seen it sooner. You do act like two lovebirds when you think no one's around."
"So, you're okay with this?"
Cyrene, who had begun walking back to the center of the kitchen, stopped and looked over her shoulder. "I understand, Xena. I've been there as well. I wasn't always a frumpy innkeeper, you know. I was young once, myself." She returned to the large stew pot and gave it a stir or two, raising the spoon to taste the results.
Cyrene saw Xena's expression, and her eyes twinkled. She gave her hips a suggestive shake. "Sure. I was pretty lusty in my youth, as well. I understand perfectly. A girl like Gabrielle can certainly steal a heart, and it seems that she's stolen my daughter's."
Xena slowly walked through the kitchen, and as she passed her mother, she gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "I'm sure glad you understand now, Mom."
"Oh, of course I understand. It's just a phase. You'll get over it, and when you do, you'll still need a man. Now, let's get ready for business, shall we?" With that, she breezed from the kitchen toward the main room, leaving Xena standing alone in the kitchen, her jaw hanging slackly, her expression one of total defeat. After a moment, she just raised her hands to the heavens and uttered what sounded to Gabrielle strangely like a primal scream.
The tavern portion of the inn began to fill with locals both hungry and thirsty, and Gabrielle, Xena, and Cyrene buzzed around the tables. They poured wine, ale and cider, and offered out innumerable bowls of hot stew and slabs of round bread. To Cyrene, it was just another evening in her life; to Gabrielle, it was a fascinating new experience, and to Xena, it was like a bad dream from her youth. She was still disappointed and smarting over her conversation with Cyrene, and her thoughts were only half on her duties. As she hefted a tray loaded with empty bowls and cups over her head and steered to the bar, Gabrielle cornered her.
"Did you have 'the talk' with your mom?"
"So? What's the verdict?"
Xena rolled her eyes. "She thinks it's a phase. Told you, didn't I?"
"So, is she going to stop trying to set you up with men?"
"How should I know? Look, I'm busy." With that, Xena headed for the kitchen, leaving Gabrielle standing near the bar. She watched her friend disappear around the corner with the tray, and then shook her head slightly.
"Grumpy tonight, aren't we? That phase of the moon already?" Xena's head reappeared around the corner.
"I heard that."
"Xena, how is it that you can look right at me and not hear me, but then hear me from around the corner?"
She just wiggled an eyebrow and retorted, "I have many skills."
As the face disappeared once again, Gabrielle smiled wistfully. "I'll say, love. Oh, yeah!." Her pleasant, rather smoky daydream was broken by a loud voice from nearby.
"Hey! Can we get some more ale here?"
Gabrielle started, then sighed deeply. "Sure, pal. Comin' right up."
In the kitchen, another discussion was taking place. Dirty bowls and cups were gathering. Cyrene eyed the pile, and pulled Xena aside. "Dear, wash those and bring them back out before we run out. There's the bucket and soap."
"Sure, Mom." Xena eyed the pile with chagrin, then forged ahead with her task. Dirty became clean and wet, and those items piled up next to her left elbow. When they were all washed, she looked around for a towel. A voice assailed her from the door.
"Xena, where's those bowls and cups? We're getting low."
"In a minute." No towels were evident, and she growled under her breath, her language becoming very colorful. "Towels. Where's the towels? What am I supposed to do here, pull one out of my........" At that, a hand thrust one out to her, accompanied by a pleasant laugh. Xena looked up to see a young woman at the end of the hand, her eyes twinkling.
"You look like you could use some help."
Xena grinned in spite of her cloudy mood, and accepted the towel. "Yeah, guess you could say that. Thanks."
"Sure. I'm Scylla, by the way. You new here?"
Her eyes widened. "Not the Xena?"
Xena looked down at herself, her peasant shirt wet, her hands and arms covered in soapsuds. "That's me, in all my glory."
Scylla laughed. "You don't look as fearsome as everyone says. Helping your mom?"
"Trying, and making a mess."
"Come on. I'm with you." They began drying cups and bowls, and in no time, were delivering them to the bar.
Cyrene brightened when she saw them, and pointed to the area under the bar where they were to be stowed, with the comment, "Oh, I see you've met Scylla. Good, she's a sweetheart. Xena, see to those tables over there, will you? Scylla's got the bar for a moment".
Xena eyed the tables apprehensively. They were populated by a batch of men, talking loudly and draining the last from a pitcher of ale. Xena filled another pitcher, then approached the table, leaning to avoid a frantic Gabrielle as she whizzed past with an empty ale pitcher in each hand and the exclamation, "Outta the way, Warrior Princess. Move it or lose it."
Xena reached the table and set the full ale pitcher down in its center, snatching her hand away just in time to avoid a meaty paw grabbing the handle. Its owner bellowed, "Thanks, hot stuff. Hey, how's about some chow in this dump? Whatcha got to eat? Besides you, I mean!"
The table erupted in slightly inebriated roars of laughter at the jest. Xena bit her lip and picked up the empty ale pitcher, holding it in her hand. "Got stew tonight. Interested?"
"Sure. Ate some myself."
"I'll bet you have, sweetie!" At that, the table roared again, and Xena just eyed the source of the jokes.
"You're a funny guy. Tell me, are you one of Cyrene's regular customers here?"
"Naah. Never been to this dive before."
"Good." With that, Xena brought the empty ale pitcher squarely down on the man's head. The pottery shattered, and the man's eyes rolled back in his head and he fell forward, his head thumping heavily on the wooden table. The others at the table cringed at the blow, then stared at her silently. She dropped the handle back down on the table, placed both hands on her hips, and looked at the other faces. They all peered back at her, eyes wide, expressions frozen. "Now, anyone else got anything to say?"
No one spoke for a moment, and then one man offered a weak, "We're all regulars here, if you please."
Xena continued, "You guys want some stew?"
Several heads nodded silently, and one voice responded, "Would 'yes, ma'am' be the right answer?"
"Bingo. Comin' right up." As Xena left the table, she nodded to herself, and muttered, "Gabrielle's right. This could turn out to be fun, after all." She picked up a tray at the bar and walked back to the kitchen, returning with five stews and a round bread, tray held above her head. As she passed the bar, Cyrene collared her.
"Xena, I want you to meet someone. This is Coeus. Coeus, this is my daughter, Xena." Xena looked around to see her mother gesturing toward a man, who nodded and smiled. Xena responded with a nod, then a squinted eye toward her mother, who waved a hand in front of her. "Oh, Xena, I'm not setting you up, I'm just introducing you two. He's an old friend." She laughed, and looked at Coeus. "She always thinks that I'm trying to match her up with someone."
Xena, her full tray still over her head, reached out her free arm and gave her mother a hug. "She's not doing that anymore now that she knows I'm 'taken'. Isn't that right, Mom?"
Cyrene smiled her most disarming smile. "Of course, daughter. I know when to take a hint."
Xena grinned skeptically. "Yeah, right."
Coeus just nodded pleasantly. "Taken, eh? Congratulations. He's a lucky guy!"
Xena looked him squarely in the eye, pleasantly correcting him. "Thanks, but she's a lucky girl." Not waiting for a reply, she sailed away from the bar, weaving between the tables with her tray still high over her head.
Coeus watched her go, then sipped his ale and said aloud to no one in particular, "Yup. Story of my life."
On her way through the noisy, crowded room, Xena passed Gabrielle and noticed a flustered look on her face. "What's the matter, Gab? Not having fun?"
"Xena, my butt's been grabbed more times than I can count with my boots off. I think my left cheek's got a permanent hand print on it."
"You just have to know how to handle these guys with a little finesse."
"Like breaking an ale pitcher over their heads?"
Xena shrugged and continued on, calling over her shoulder, "Works for me." Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at that, then gathered some food and returned to one of her tables. As she stood at the end of the table, passing out an ale pitcher and bowls of stew, she felt an offending hand once again grab her fanny.
"Here's your stew, here's your ale, and here's your bread." She then looked down at the face belonging to the hand, and grasped the knife on the tray. "And here's a knife to cut the bread with." She picked it up, and flicked it down toward the man's stool. The knife's point thumped deeply into the wood between his legs, the handle quivering, as the man slowly stared down at his stool. The point was barely an inch from his crotch. She felt the hand remove itself from her behind, and he cleared his throat nervously. Never losing her smile, she finished, "My ass is not on the menu. Unless you want to be known as 'Stubby' from now on. Got it?"
"Um, yeah, sure."
"Good." She wheeled about and strode from the table, thinking aloud, "Xena's right. Finesse. Oh, yeah, this is fun."
As the night wore on, 'Cyrene's army', as Gabrielle jokingly referred to themselves, perfected their dance of bowls, pitchers, and deflected advances. The deep pocket sewn into the front of Gabrielle's apron began to clink with tips, and she felt the bulge with satisfaction, wondering to herself whether Xena was having the same luck as she. The crowd became increasingly inebriated, the early diners leaving, and the die-hard drinkers remained to dominate the inn's main room. The noise and laughter grew increasingly raucous, the fire in the large hearth burned brighter and the smoky oil lamps grew hotter.
As Xena prepared to set down yet another pitcher of ale at one of her tables, she overheard an energetic conversation between the men. One, loud with too much ale, was bragging. "Ah, that Draco was a bad-ass, I tell you that! Rode with him for a while, I did."
His friend disagreed. "Nope. Xena kicked his butt good. No one's badder than her. I saw her in action once."
The first man roared. "Xena? That pansy? I could beat her with one hand."
Xena clunked the pitcher down in the center of the table a bit harder than necessary, then placed her hands on her hips. "Pansy??!!?"
The braggart looked up. "Yeah, she's a pansy. What the blazes do you know about it anyway?" He waved a hand. "You're just a barmaid. Never seen the action I have." Xena felt the color begin to rise in her cheeks. The braggart cocked an eye her way. "What're you waiting for, strumpet? A tip? Ah, here you go." He fumbled in a pocket, and cast a single copper coin onto the table in front of her. Xena said nothing, but only allowed one eyebrow to rise slowly. She cast a glance at the others at the table. Most were listening to the braggart's words, but one had his eyes fixed on Xena. His jaw slackened and he stared unblinkingly at her, then swallowed hard as his loud companion continued. "Yeah, like I said. That Xena was a pushover." He roared a short laugh. "Pushed her over once, myself."
The fellow held a hand up toward the braggart, then pointed toward Xena. "Ah, Poliminius, ah.......I'd shut up if I were you."
"What? Don't interrupt. Now, like I said......"
The braggart became slightly irritated. "What?"
His companion motioned toward the waiting barmaid with a thumb. "That's Xena."
The braggart looked at his companion, then glanced toward the barmaid. He once again roared with laughter. "You fool! That's not Xena. I knew Xena, if you get my meaning. Xena's taller than her, and besides......"
Xena leaned forward slightly. "Besides?"
The braggart finished his thought, dismissing Xena with a contemptuous wave of his hand. "She's got much bigger ta-ta's than you."
Cyrene's attention was attracted by a short scuffle, and she looked up to see Xena drag a fellow toward the door by the back of his tunic, then deftly throw him out into the street, banging his head on the door jamb in the process. He rolled down the front steps and came to a stop in the street, face down. Xena shouted after him, "And there's nothing wrong with my...." Her expression became exasperated. "......Ta-ta's!" A couple of the tables full of people nearby stared at her, and she just growled in reply, "He didn't leave a tip." As she dusted her hands off, walking toward the bar, Cyrene could hear the clink of many coins hitting many tables throughout the inn. For her part, Cyrene just smiled slightly and wondered at how the gods seemed to work in mysterious ways.
A loud crash followed by much drunken applause filled the room. Xena, puzzled, walked between tables and finally found the source of the amusement. Gabrielle was sprawled out on the floor, bowls and cups rolling around her head, Xena's feet in front of her. She slowly looked up, then muttered, "Not used to long skirts anymore, I guess."
"So, love, are we having fun yet?"
"Very funny, Xena." She rose to her hands and knees and began gathering utensils as Xena bent low to help her. As the little bard finally bustled away, tray high above her head, Xena watched her go and smiled, deciding that Gabrielle had endured enough teasing that evening. After all, she mused, every human being was a balance of light and darkness, and it didn't take a philosopher to see that Gabrielle's darkness could erupt with a vengeance if the night didn't end pretty darn soon. Her thoughts were interrupted by a voice near her elbow.
"Hard to get good help these days, eh?" She looked down at a slightly drunken but pleasant older man.
Xena nodded. "That's what Cyrene tells me."
"Sorry to say, but the girl's a bit clumsy as a barmaid."
Xena patted him on the shoulder. "Yes, but she's one Tartarus of a sidekick."
Gabrielle deposited the bowls and cups in the kitchen, then turned and almost collided with Scylla. She placed a hand on Gabrielle's. "Oh, honey, that's okay. I've done that before, myself. Those guys, they trip you on purpose sometimes. I just look on it as part of the entertainment."
Gabrielle was frazzled. "What else can go wrong tonight?"
Scylla just laughed. "Oh, that's nothing. By the way, there's a guy out there who told me that you look just like his girlfriend. He asked your name. When I told him, he looked as if he'd swallowed a horse or something." She shook her head. "Weird guy, but rather nice in a strange sort of way. Pretty drunk, too. Says he a mighty warrior, but I suspect that he's full of crap. You know him?"
Gabrielle's jaw dropped. She gulped, then asked, "Pointy helmet?"
"That's him, honey."
"Oh, by all the gods. Joxer. That's what else can go wrong. I give up."
Scylla eyed Gabrielle perceptively. "Not your boyfriend, is he?"
"Him? That's ridiculous." A smile broke out upon her face, and in a moment she was laughing hysterically at the thought. Scylla watched her, amused at the outburst, and then commented.
"Yeah, I thought so too. I had you pegged as a girl's girl from the start."
Gabrielle stopped laughing. "You.....did?"
"Oh, yeah. You're Xena's honey, right?" Gabrielle nodded, totally speechless. "Aha! See, I'm never wrong about these things. You two got the sparks flying, I can see it." She elbowed Gabrielle, accompanied by a good-natured wink, and finished, "That's swell. She's a beauty, that one is. Come on, let's get back out there."
Xena looked up from the bar to see a couple of slightly over-painted and under-dressed young women hanging over the bar toward her. One of them pleasantly addressed her. "Hey, doll, you new here?"
Xena's eyes trailed over the ample bosoms and blinked at the slight traces of perfume. "Just helping out."
"We're here to start workin', sweetheart. How's about a couple of cups of wine?"
The other chimed in, "Yeah. Cyrene always gives us our drinks for free."
"Sure, babe. We're good for business, ya know." They eyed each other knowingly and giggled a bit.
Xena raised an eyebrow and then grinned a lopsided grin. "I'll bet." She turned around, and saw her mother near the kitchen door. "Hey, Mom! You know these two?"
Cyrene glanced over and then smiled. "Oh, hey, girls. Glad you could make it. Yes, Xena, they drink for free here."
The other added, "Yeah, and there's more coming along soon. They......"
Xena finished her thought for her. "I know. They drink for free, too. Don't worry, I'll know them when I see them, I'm sure." She drew two cups of dark red wine and scooted them across the bar to the women.
"Thanks, doll. Say, you the Xena? Y'know, Cyrene's daughter? Vicious warlord, destroyer of nations, former disciple of Ares, that sorta thing?"
"Last time I checked."
"You can't be that Xena. I don't see any horns and cloven hooves."
Xena patted her head. "Damn, must have left them upstairs."
The women laughed at that, and sipped their wine. One nodded and replied, "You don't seem as ferocious in person. That's okay, honey. We've decided that we like ya anyway. Might even give ya a free one, end of the night." She waggled her eyebrows, then explained, "We might drink for free, but we tip good."
Xena grinned and leaned over the bar toward the women. "Thanks anyway. See the little blonde?" The women looked over toward Gabrielle, then back to Xena. One of them spoke.
"You got good taste, honey. She's a cutie. Oh, well, guess we settle for men tonight."
The other consoled her friend. "That's okay. They pay better, and don't take as long."
Her friend retorted, "That's true. It's the fellas that pay our rent."
The crowd was becoming increasingly drunk and raucous as the evening wore on, a situation that Xena noticed and perspired slightly over. As they passed between tables, Gabrielle noted the concerned look on her face and touched Xena's shoulder gently. "Love? What's wrong?"
"Getting kind of wild in here."
Gabrielle's expression brightened. "Entertainment, that's what we need. Perhaps I could tell them a story or two."
Xena shook her head. "Not this crowd, Gabrielle. Trust me."
Gabrielle was already assuming her bard's persona. "How about the one where I'm challenged as queen of the Amazons?"
"Gab, I don't think......."
A loud voice from the table next to them interrupted. "Amazon? That's rich! You? Haw!"
Another voice joined him. "Aw, shut up. Let her tell us a story."
A third chimed in, "Yeah. Hey, blondie, tell us about when you lost your maidenhead!"
Roars of laughter erupted at that joke, and Xena could see Gabrielle burn. The jokes, however, just continued. "Aah, she doesn't remember that far back!"
"Sure she does, and so does the entire Spartan army!"
More laughter. Xena thought that she could actually perceive steam shooting from Gabrielle's ears. The awful moment of destiny was close at hand, Xena felt, and when it erupted, it wasn't going to be pretty. Gabrielle looked at Xena, her eyes burning with fury, and muttered, "Where's my staff when I need it?"
A bleary face looked up at her. "Under your pillow, probably." More drunken laughter followed. "Aw, come on, pumpkin, you look like you've been around the block a few times. Amazon, my ass. Now shake your tooshy and get us some more ale." Gabrielle's mouth fell open and her eyes bulged with a primal fury. Xena attempted to sooth her friend.
"Now, love, remember. Finesse. Peace and understanding, right?"
The little bard's voice emerged as a guttural growl. "!!!!%#^*&_=@!!!!" Gabrielle whirled, fist tight, and a resounding crack echoed through the inn. The man sprawled out in the isle, stool clattering, and slid between tables on his back, finally coming to rest unconscious in a puddle of warm ale. Gabrielle then placed one fist on the table and leaned in toward the other faces, swinging an open hand and slapping every face at the table in one sweep. A rapid series of smacks resounded, and a ripple of bobbing heads ran around the table. "I'll have you !!~**$!!%^+! morons know that I'm a !!*&>/!! princess of a tribe of Thessalonian Amazons. Got a ?%@&*****!!!!!!! problem with that?" She glared around the table, noting each head as it silently shook in a negative answer. As the last head shook, she picked up the knife from the table and brought it down harshly on the round bread in the center of the table with such force that it penetrated to its handle the wooden plate beneath it and pinned both plate and bread to the center of the table. Ale cups and pitchers bounced and sloshed. "Good. Now, any more speculation about my !!!$&^%$!!! maidenhead?" All heads shook unanimously. Gabrielle stood up, an expression of evil satisfaction evident. She looked at Xena and commented, "Finesse. There's your !!!%$&*_+!! Finesse."
Xena blinked several times coyly. "My goodness, Gabrielle, your language has certainly become quite colorful over the course of the evening." The little blonde shook a finger vigorously toward the tall warrior, then snatched the large wooden serving-tray from her hands.
"Don't f*** with me, Xena. Not in the mood for it."
"Me? I wouldn't think of it, love. Ahem. Say, why don't you give our greetings to Joxer? It would be the polite thing to do, you know."
Gabrielle sighed heavily, then nodded. "If I have to. He is our friend, after all." She turned and walked toward that side of the tavern, her manner seeming much like the condemned walking toward the gallows.
Xena chuckled to herself as she watched the object of her heart's affection from a distance, and muttered aloud, "Yeah. I think you're just about ready to talk to him now. Gotta watch this. Oh, yeah. Fun."
Gabrielle cautiously approached the small table in the corner of the room. "Joxer?" At her question, he looked up, slightly bleary-eyed and slurred of speech. His eyes widened and his jaw almost bounced off the table.
"Gabby? Is that you?"
"What are you doing here? And don't call me 'Gabby'. I hate that."
He attempted to rise from the table, but couldn't quite get his grip. "Is this what it's come to for you, a barmaid? I've come to take you away from all this, my love."
Gabrielle fumed. "Joxer, I am not your love and I am not going anywhere with you."
"Your lips say 'no', but your eyes say 'yes'. 'Fess up, now. I light your fire, don't I?" He tried to rise again. Voices started to assail her from all around her.
"Come on, blondie, let's get some more ale."
"Yeah. What do we have to do for service here?"
"Cough up some more booze, kid. We've been waiting."
Joxer was not to be outdone. He finally struggled to his feet and announced to the other drunks, "She's in love with me and I'm going to prove it to her."
"Joxer, you're drunk!"
He waved a finger in the air. "That may be true, but I'm going to marry you one day."
More voices surrounded her. "Aw, come on, blondie, marry the guy."
"Yeah. Can't you see he's crazy about you?"
"Just marry him, and then get us our ale, will you? Hurry up, now! We wanna get laid, too."
Roars of drunken laughter filled the corner of the tavern, and Gabrielle felt the color rise in her cheeks. She gritted her teeth and stared hard at a drunken Joxer, who was leaning across the table toward her. "Just tell me when to set the date, Gabby."
Gabrielle's voice, now a hoarse scream, rose above the din. "Snowballs in Tartarus, Joxer! Snowballs in Tartarus! Pigs flying! Does that mean anything to you?"
"Aw, come on, Gabby, I know ya love me. Give me a little kiss." He puckered his lips and closed his eyes. Once more, the voices from around her pounded in her ears.
"Give him a kiss, sweet cheeks, and then get us our ale. We're thirsty!"
Gabrielle's vision reddened. She could feel the veins pulse in the sides of her head. "I'll give you a !!!&^>:***!!! kiss, all right." She pulled the large tray out from underneath her arm and brought it down squarely on top of Joxer's head with a resounding crash. It splintered, and pieces flew in every direction. Joxer collapsed backward, thumping against the wall, and applause erupted from the inn's occupants. Gabrielle then spun around, faced the sea of drunken faces with her fists on her hips, and hissed through gritted teeth, "Now who wanted the !!%+<$&*@#!!! ale?"
In reply, there was a split second's silence, and then all the men at the near tables pointed fingers at each other. A sea of voices rejoined, "He did." Gabrielle nodded, then stomped off toward the bar. Joxer opened one bleary eye and waved a finger in the air.
"That's okay, Gabby. I can be patient."
At the bar, Xena watched Gabrielle storm by and then stop. "Three pitchers of ale, Xena."
Xena nodded her head, then dipped out the large pottery pitchers from the open barrel. As she set them on a new tray, Xena raised an eyebrow at Gabrielle. She could see that her temper had cooled slightly, but that she was still no one to be teased at the moment. Sincerely, she asked, "Having trouble with a customer, Gabrielle?"
The little blonde's eyes grew suddenly pleading. "Xena, it's Joxer."
"Yeah? What does he want, as if I didn't know?"
"He's drunk as a pig, and he wants to marry me. He's like a puppy dog. I'm surprised that he's not humping my leg right now." Gabrielle was waving her hands as she spoke.
Xena tried to be soothing. "That's understandable, love. I'm sober, and I want to marry you. And, as far as humping your leg goes,......" The two women at the bar giggled at that, and the jest got an outright laugh from Scylla. Xena reached out and hugged Gabrielle reassuringly. "Look, let Scylla and me handle that side of the room, and don't worry about it. I'll see to him. I guarantee that he won't bother you for the rest of the night."
She looked up from within Xena's arms. "You're not going to hurt him, are you?"
"What? Of course not, love."
"Because you have my permission to kill him if you want to." Gabrielle, still squeezed against Xena's chest, could feel the rumbles of laughter.
"I'll keep him off your back. Now do me a favor and check my tables, will you?" Xena could feel her head nod, and she released her from the hug. Scylla breezed by and gathered up the ale pitchers, heading toward Joxer's side of the tavern. Xena studied Gabrielle. "You okay?"
Gabrielle sighed. "Yeah. I'm fine, now. Thanks." She left, and Xena leaned over the bar and toward the two women on the other side.
"So, when do you gals start to work?"
"When they get drunk enough to play and pay."
"How much do you charge, usually?"
"Five a throw, fifteen for the night."
Xena continued, "You see that guy in the corner?" They nodded. "Here's what I'd like for one of you to do." She leaned close, and then whispered. As she did, the women's faces began grinning, and their heads nodded. Xena finished her clandestine instruction and then raised an eyebrow. "One of you two up for it?"
One of the women smiled. "I'll go. He's actually kinda cute, in a weird sort of way. Oh, hey. Pay up front."
"What? Oh, yeah." Xena reached into the money box under the counter, and plopped out fifteen dinars. She looked down at the money, and then added five more. "After all, you poor girl, it is Joxer."
Cyrene bustled out from the kitchen, held a tambourine high in the air, and then rapped it several times loudly. "Attention, everyone! The entertainment has arrived!" Roars of approval met her announcement, and applause started. A few rather scantily-clad women, small strings of bells about their ankles ringing as they pranced, emerged from the kitchen and passed by the bar, and several musicians followed. They immediately began strains of pounding music, drums thumping, castanets clattering, stringed instruments strumming and flute sounding, as the women expertly fell into a rhythmic dance. The tavern erupted in cheers, and hands began clapping and feet stamping to the time of the music. As Gabrielle, Xena, and Scylla wove among the tables with pitchers of ale, the music became increasingly infectious. Now, cups were thumping on tables and shouts and cheers goaded the performers on. The room was quite warm, and the serving-people found themselves starting to perspire freely but were unmindful of the heat as the tavern's guests had become thoroughly involved with the spectacle and were enjoying themselves enormously. Their good cheer brightened the moods of the tavern's workers, as well.
On her third or fourth trip around the tables, Xena noted that the number of women in the room had increased, and guessed that the compatriots of the first two ladies had finally arrived. Some of them had risen and shed cloaks to reveal themselves in more alluring clothing, and were dancing as well. One had even taken to dancing rather suggestively atop a long table at which several men were dropping coins at her feet and shouting encouragement. Xena looked around to notice her mother, standing in one corner, eyeing the cacophony with approval. On her way back to the bar, she stopped next to her mother's shoulder and shouted over the din.
"You've got the place hopping now, Mom."
"I'll make some money tonight. You girls have been a real help to me. How can I ever thank you and Gabrielle?"
Xena grinned. "Don't thank us yet. The night's not over." She headed toward the bar, swaying in time to the music.
Scylla bumped into Gabrielle as she collected several empty ale pitchers, and pulled on her arm. "That fella's not going to be thinking about you tonight."
"Why? What do you mean?"
"Lookie there!" She pointed, and Joxer was staggering toward the stairs arm-over-shoulder with one of the two females that she had first noticed at the bar.
"How did that happen?"
Scylla laughed. "Ask your girlfriend." With that, she steered herself toward the kitchen. Gabrielle headed for the bar, then poked Xena in the ribs.
"Joxer just went upstairs with some girl. Did you arrange that, Xena?"
"What? Me? Oh, gee. So Joxer's gonna get lucky. No accounting for taste, huh?" Xena just grinned and chuckled, and then headed back out into the crowd, swaying to the music and with a full pitcher of ale in each hand.
Gabrielle watched her go, her hips moving to the infectious music, and smiled slightly. After a moment's reflection, she sighed, "Oh, what the Tartarus. Here goes nothing." She dipped two pottery pitchers into the ale barrel, and then, holding them aloft, began dancing across the floor toward her tables, finding the music, the clapping and over-warm room strangely exhilarating.
Some of the men were rising from their seats and dancing now, often in the company of one of the women who had infiltrated the crowd. Stools began to tumble and tables were being shoved out of the way, and Gabrielle, swaying to the drumbeat and waving now-empty ale pitchers in her hands, found herself snagged by one of the entertainers' dancing girls as she passed by. They pulled the little blonde into the middle of the dancing circle, and the ale pitchers left her hands to be replaced by a tambourine. She found the moment so intoxicating, so rousing from its own accord that she joined the scantily-clad dancers in their circle, tambourine high, eyes closed, lost to the moment. Voices in the inn cheered her on, shouting encouragement and many ribald comments. More joined the dancing, and the inn's main room became a swirl of noise and rhythm around her.
Xena, dancing through the crowd, slapped down two empty ale pitchers on the bar, then looked up to see Scylla standing on the bar, looking over the heads of the crowd. She noticed Xena and pointed, shouting, "Seen your sweetie lately? Take a look!" Xena, puzzled, crouched and easily leapt up to stand on the bar next to the young woman, peering over the heads of the crowd. There, surrounded by scantily-clad dancers was Gabrielle, center stage. Her eyes were closed, her tambourine keeping time above her head, her peasant shirt dotted with perspiration, her long skirt swaying about her legs as she danced with total abandon. Xena just scratched her chin and grinned over toward Scylla.
"Well, I'll be damned. You think you know a person, and then......"
"Oh, oh." Scylla pointed toward the crowd. Xena's eyes followed her finger to see a scuffle starting near the dancers.
"Time to play bouncer, I guess." Xena leapt forward off the bar and landed on the floor. She pushed her way through the crowd of dancers and spectators to pull the two fighting men apart. Grabbing each by the front of their shirts or tunics, she shook them both soundly, then held them up, side by side. Over the roar of music, she shouted, "What's going on here?"
One of the men, nose bloodied somewhat, pointed over at the other. "He started it."
The other retorted, "Did not. He made a grab for my girl."
"Your girl? She's not yours. She's mine."
"She's mine. I saw her first."
"Did not, you goat." They began pummeling one another again, and Xena shook them both soundly until their heads bobbed back and forth. She could feel her anger rising, and banged their heads together. Both now totally subdued, she held them up.
Over the din of music, she shouted, "What girl?"
They both gestured weakly. "The little blonde," one of them said.
Xena could feel her anger at the two drunks swell, and she let it explode, pulling their heads close together and staring hard at them. Just as she shouted into their faces, the music stopped and the room fell quiet. Her voice resounded through the room and echoed off the ceiling rafters. "YOU MORONS! THE LITTLE BLONDE IS MY GIRLFRIEND! I'M SLEEPING WITH HER TONIGHT, NOT YOU! GOT IT?"
The two men looked at each other, and then back to Xena, nodding their heads weakly. Xena, for her part, now realized that the entire tavern had fallen silent, and looked up from the two drunken forms in front of her. The room was so still that one could hear a pin drop. All faces were riveted on Xena. The only sound which could be heard was a loud belch from the back of the room. She straightened up, drunks still in hand, and held herself with as much dignity as she could muster. Her face flushed scarlet with the heat of embarrassment, and she just muttered aloud, "Well, she is."
Another long, uncomfortable moment of silence followed, finally broken by Gabrielle's voice, tinged with ironic humor and echoing from behind Xena. "Well, Xena, I guess you've told everybody now."
"Ahem. Yes. Well......" At that, one of the drunks slapped the other one in the face.
"You shmuck! Look what you've done, grabbing for Xena's girl. She'll pulverize us."
"Did not. You did." They began tussling with each other again, Xena still holding them at arm's length. In the flurry of swinging arms, a fist emerged from the fracas and cracked Xena across the cheek. At that, the fighting abruptly stopped, and it seemed as if the entire crowd gasped at once. Xena recovered from the blow and looked at the two men, her eyes bulging, her teeth showing in a ferocious growl. The drunk who dealt the blow pointed at the other, and said sheepishly, "He did it."
"Did not. He did it."
Xena shook them both fiercely, then shouted, "THAT'S ENOUGH!!!" She hurled one over the heads of the crowd toward the back of the room, and a resounding crash sounded as he hit something. She held up the other and growled, "You're outta here." She picked him up by his collar and the seat of his pants and flung him toward the front door, and he burst through them and into the darkness of the street outside, rolling a bit before coming to rest in the dust. A sodden voice hailed her, and a heavy hand grabbed her shoulder.
"Hey, you can't do that. Them's my friends."
"Oh, yeah? You want to join 'em?" At that, she ducked and felt the breeze of a fist swinging over her head. She straightened up, bringing her own fist into her assailant's abdomen. He coughed, and fell backwards into the crowd. As he struggled to his feet, someone nearby joined in the argument.
"Where's your manners, jackass? That's Cyrene's daughter." A foot caught the man across the head and he dropped heavily, just as another drunken patron assaulted the foot's owner.
"That's my nephew!" He swung drunkenly, and, as he missed the intended target, his hand accidentally ripped the top from one of the dancers. She screamed, folded her arms across her chest, and then kicked the man squarely in the groin and dropped him on the spot.
"Hey! That's my cousin." Within seconds, pandemonium erupted in the tavern's main room, as shouts, blows, and the crash of breaking pottery pitchers filled the room. Stools began flying along with bowls and half-empty ale cups, and the entertainers scattered and ran for the door. Gabrielle ducked and crawled across the floor to the bar, reaching across it and lifting her staff from where she had left it earlier that day. With it, she prodded and slugged her way back to Xena, who, in the middle of the fray, was felling drunks left and right. She assumed her position guarding Xena's back, and could hear the tall warrior's voice address her between grunts and gasps from fighting.
"Well, Gabrielle. Are we having fun yet?" Xena looked around to see Gabrielle deck a large man with one blow from her staff.
"Actually, yes, I think we are." She cracked the shin of another would-be assailant who got just a bit too close, then laughed gleefully.
Xena ducked, a pottery pitcher sailing just over her head. "That's my girl."
Cyrene was frantic. She pulled Scylla aside, and shoved her toward the kitchen door. "Go and get the town guards. Quickly!" Scylla nodded, then sprinted out into the night and down the street as fast as she could toward the guards' nearest post.
As Xena decked a drunk, she would throw him toward the door. Sometimes they rolled out and into the street, sometimes they would thud against the wall. The pile of groaning bodies near the door was growing, but the brawl was not lessening. Stools and cups were still bouncing off the ceiling beams and the walls with regular frequency, and grappling forms rolled across the floor or occasionally hurled through the air. The fracas showed no signs of lessening, and the situation was totally out of control.
As Xena, a drunk in a headlock under her arm, and Gabrielle, her staff swinging, hovered near each other, they saw a flesh-colored form streak by, shrieking. Xena recognized her as one of the two prostitutes hanging out by the bar earlier in the evening. She was naked except for a pointy helmet, which was askew on her head. She was followed closely by a laughing and shouting Joxer, wrapped only in socks and a smile. As she passed Xena and Gabrielle, they heard her shout, "You maniac! Three times is enough!" She made a wide curve around the brawling room, ducking under tables and frantically attempting to elude her pursuer, finally heading back past them to sprint up the stairs. Joxer was close behind her, and they could hear him shouting in an inebriated drawl.
"Aha, my little butterfly, you're dealing with Joxer the Mighty! Oh, hey, Xena. Hey, Gabby." He breezed right past them, taking the stairs on hands and knees and gaining on his quarry. Xena and Gabrielle stared incredulously at the spectacle, then at each other as the amorous circus passed them by.
Xena shouted after them, "Hey, we paid for all night!!"
A strained female voice responded from the top of the stairs. "Twenty dinars ain't enough. Oh, by the gods!" She squealed, and then the door slammed. Gabrielle, still waving her staff to frustrate any close brawlers, looked over her shoulder at the tall warrior. "Xena?"
Xena, still holding the headlock on the drunk, kicked another back away from them. "Yeah?"
"Joxer was naked."
"That was scary. 'Nightmares for a week' scary."
"You're tellin' me. Look, let's get to the door. I want to try to get this under control."
"I'm with you, Xena." They edged their way to the door, and as they arrived, Xena hurled the drunk through the open door. He bounced off the steps and rolled into the street, stopping just before the feet of the Amphipolis militia. A shrill whistle sounded, and uniformed, armored figures began charging into the door, swords drawn and shouting. Xena saw the sight, froze momentarily, then snapped completely. At the sight of armored men hurling themselves through the door at her, her mind flashed back to the image of a desperate battle from long ago, and she went totally berserk.
"Persians! Stay out of sight, Gabrielle! I'll save you and Athens both! Yiyiyiyiyi sheeee-yah!" Her shrill, trademark battle cry resounded through the tavern, and she systematically decked the first five men through the door in quick succession. The others saw what had happened in front of them, and backed up. Their officer bumped into them, then cursed and shouted.
"What's happening, you idiots? Get in there and stop that brawl!"
"There's a maniac woman in there, guarding the door. She clobbered the first five of us."
"Well, get in there and subdue her!"
The Sergeant of the Guard coughed, and replied, "Sir, officers first."
The officer rubbed his chin. "On second thought, men, we'll just hold here for a moment and regroup."
The sergeant responded, "Right, sir. Good thinking."
In the tavern, the brawl was lessening in its intensity. Many of the participants were now littering the floor, leaned against the wall, or draped over tables. Enough were still scuffling, though, that a danger was presented. Cyrene, who had witnessed Xena begin to deck the militiamen, wove cautiously across the floor, a frying pan in her hand, occasionally banging it down upon the head of a brawler. She approached Gabrielle, then hailed her. "Gabrielle, what's wrong with Xena? Those were the militia!"
Gabrielle turned, slightly desperate. "I know. Xena's snapped. She thinks she fighting the Persians."
"Can you get her out of here? Use the back door. If they catch her, they'll throw her in jail for a month."
"I think so. Try to stall the militia." Gabrielle stood behind Xena, calling her name softly. Xena, armed with a sword from one of the prostrate militiamen, hovered in front of the door, her eyes wide. At the sound of Gabrielle's voice, Xena responded.
"Huh? Gabrielle? What are you doing up? You're deathly sick."
"I'm all right, Xena. Look, follow me. We can get out of here."
Xena, perspiring freely now, turned toward Gabrielle's voice. "Out? Which way? There's hundreds of them."
"Xena, do you trust me?"
Xena's wide eyes flickered around the room. "Sure I do."
Gabrielle gently laid a hand on Xena's sword arm. "Come on." She pulled the arm, and Xena followed, eyes still wide and searching. She dragged her through the kitchen and out the back door into the cooler night. As they passed the well, Gabrielle lifted a dipper of water from the bucket and flung it into her friend's face. Xena started, then stood still for a moment. When she spoke, it was in question.
"What am I doing in the back yard with a sword in my hand?"
"Oh, thank the gods. I've got you back again. Look, it's a long story. For now, just hide, okay? I'll come and get you when the coast is clear."
"Look, just trust me. Stay in the barn for a bit. Promise?"
Xena's expression was full of question, but she nodded her head, then headed for the barn door. Gabrielle watched her enter the barn and shut the door behind her. With a deep sigh, she then returned through the kitchen to the scene of devastation inside the tavern.
The remaining brawlers were being herded or dragged out of Cyrene's tavern by the militia. The officer stood by, questioning Cyrene on the evening's events. At Gabrielle's approach, he studied her curiously. "Who are you?"
Cyrene added, "She is ah, ..... a friend of the family. She was helping out tonight, as we are a bit short-handed."
He grunted, then eyed the staff. "A barmaid with a staff? You look more like a shepherdess."
Gabrielle leaned it against the wall behind the bar. "It's a fighting staff. I'm an Amazon. We always keep a weapon close. It came in handy tonight."
"I daresay. Hey, you're not the 'wild woman' who decked five of my men, are you?" He eyed her suspiciously. "An Amazon could do that."
"Huh? Oh, no. She, ah, left. Gone."
"What did she look like?"
"Ah, really, I didn't get a good look at her."
Cyrene echoed, "Neither did I."
The officer harrumphed skeptically and eyed the two women. "Also, one of my men is missing his sword. If you find it in this mess, be a good citizen and return it, won't you?"
Both women nodded innocently. "Of course."
"Well, good night, ladies."
"Good night. Thank you for coming."
"Not at all." He followed the last of his men through the door, and turned to face them just before he left. "If you see that woman again, you'll let us know?"
Cyrene and Gabrielle both nodded, innocent expressions on their faces.
The officer smiled slightly and added, "I'd like to offer her a job!" He roared at his own joke, leaving the tavern. Cyrene walked over and closed, then bolted the door. Wearily, she shuffled back to the bar and laid the frying pan down on the wooden counter-top. Gabrielle approached her, and rested a reassuring hand on her arm. Cyrene just smiled down at her, then hugged her closely. They heard Xena's voice from the kitchen entrance, a few paces away.
"Oh, Xena. Are you all right?"
Xena walked to the other side of the bar and rested the sword down on the counter-top. "I'm fine. Sorry about your place."
Cyrene turned her head, examining the wreckage, then shrugged. "I needed to do a spring cleaning, anyway."
A shaky voice heralded the group from the bottom of the stairs. "I've just had a spring cleaning, I think. Gods, I need a drink." All three women turned to see an extremely disheveled prostitute, hair in tangles, shoes in hand, make-up smeared, standing on the bottom stair. At the sight, Cyrene's eyes widened, but Gabrielle just covered her mouth with her hand and turned her head to stifle a laugh. Xena grinned her most endearing lop-sided grin and waved the unfortunate girl over to the bar.
"On the house. In fact, I think that we could all use one. We'll join ya." Xena dipped four cups into the ale barrel and lined them up on the bar.
The weary prostitute shuffled over to the bar and downed her drink in one gulp. Xena refilled her cup, then queried, "So, how's your, ah, 'gentleman caller'?"
"Drunk as a lord and sleeping it off. He probably won't be awake for a week."
Gabrielle nodded. "That works. We'll be gone before then."
The girl sipped her second drink and set the cup down wearily. "I've just got to find a new line of work."
Xena motioned toward her mother with her cup. "How's about minding a tavern? I'm sure that Mom can use your help."
The girl's eyes trailed over the wreckage of the inn's main room, then rolled around to look up the stairs. "That depends. Does he have any brothers?"
"Several, I believe."
She looked at Cyrene. "When can I start? Right now?"
Cyrene smiled, then answered, "You look dreadful, my dear. Why don't you take tomorrow off, and come to me on the day after that?"
The girl breathed a sigh of relief. "I'll be here. Assuming I can walk, that is. Oh, by the way, I owe you guys a refund. There's no way in Tartarus I'm staying up there all night. He could still wake up."
Xena laughed brightly. "Keep it. You earned it."
Gabrielle added, "Yes. Thank you. I do appreciate you keeping him off my back."
"You bet, sugar. Now, if I can just keep me off my back for a while."
Cyrene looked over at her daughter, then stretched out a hand and placed it on top of Xena's. "Now, speaking of new jobs, Xena, aren't you ready to settle down and get a real job?"
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Like yours?"
"Yes, dear, like mine."
"Nah. I've seen what you do. It's brutal. Believe me, I'd rather face an army anytime."
"What about you, Gabrielle? If you two are going to be a family from now on, don't you want a job so you girls can have a place of your own? Every couple needs that."
Gabrielle studied Xena for a moment, then looked up at Cyrene, her eyes twinkling. "I'm with Xena on this one. Facing warlords and evil deities is less brutal work than what you do. Besides, I have a place. It's in Xena's heart and soul. I don't need anywhere else."
Cyrene hugged Gabrielle close, her eyes misting slightly. "Oh, Xena, don't you dare let this one get away. I want to live to see you grow old with her."
"I'd like that too, Mom. I'd like that, too." Xena cast a genuine smile toward her mother. "So, you don't think that it's 'just a phase'?"
"It had better not be. If you ever dump her and break her heart, Xena, you'll have me to deal with, former warlord or not." Gabrielle, still wrapped in one of Cyrene's arms, teasingly stuck her tongue out at Xena, who surrendered with a graceful smile.
"Trust me on this one, Mom, I love that girl more than I can say. I'm with her for keeps. Now, no more matchmaking, right?"
"Right, daughter. I've learned my lesson."
A slightly sodden sniff sounded from across the bar. Gabrielle, Cyrene and Xena turned their heads to see the exhausted, tipsy prostitute dab at her eyes and stifle a sob. "Oh, that is just so sweet. You two are so in love." She sniffled a bit, then rested her head down in her arms on the bar and began bawling. "It never happens to me. They never fall in love with me. All I meet are jerks. They're all jerks. Waaaaaah......"
Cyrene released Gabrielle and walked around her to comfort the young lady. "Now, dear, it's not so bad as all that, is it?" She patted the bawling woman on her back and stroked her hair. The girl lifted her head slightly, one eye peering up from her folded arms, tears trailing down her cheek.
"You kidding? D'ya know who I just bedded for twenty dinars? Four times?"
Xena and Gabrielle nodded at each other and replied in unison, "It's that bad." Xena walked around the bar and collected Gabrielle as they watched the girl drop her head back into her arms and wail, Cyrene offering soothing words to her.
Xena leaned over and kissed her mother's cheek as she passed by. "G'night, Mom. Love ya."
Gabrielle leaned up slightly and pecked her cheek, as well. "G'night, Cyrene. I love ya, too."
Cyrene paused, her hand on the sobbing girl's shoulder, quite surprised and pleased at the quiet show of affection which she had just received. She watched Xena and Gabrielle begin their trek up the stairs, an arm around each others' waist, and smiled.
As Xena and Gabrielle wearily trod the stairs, they heard Cyrene's voice in the background. "Good night, girls. I love you, too." Slightly softer, her voice continued, attempting to sooth the weeping prostitute. "There, there now. Don't be so despondent. I tell you what, I know some nice young men. I'll introduce you to one of them, if you like. It'll be a whole new life for you. New job, new love, new everything. Here's a hanky, dear."
A loud honk resounded, then the young lady's voice responded, "You'd do that for me?"
"Of course, dear. Cyrene takes care of her own. Just ask Scylla."
"Scylla? She seems nice. Can you introduce me to her? I think I've had enough of drunken men for a while."
"After tonight, dear, I think we all have."
Gabrielle paused at the door to their room and rested a hand on Xena's arm. "Um, Xena?"
"Thanks for telling your mom about us."
"Thanks for making me. Hades, I ended up telling the whole tavern about us."
Gabrielle chuckled at that. "So, how much did you make in tips?"
"Thirty-two. How about you?"
"Forty-one. Gotcha beat, Warrior Princess. You owe me five dinars."
"Forty-one? How'd you do that, show some cleavage?"
"Nope. Finesse. I used tact and finesse."
Xena laughed outright. "Language, as well. By the way, what does !!!^%&****!!! mean?"
"Gods, Xena, that's really crude. Where'd you hear that?"
"From you. You've got a way with words, you know that?"
"Well, I am a bard. Let's hit the sack, love. We've got a Tartarus of a cleanup job tomorrow. You trashed the place."
"Me? The brawl started over you."
"Oh?" Gabrielle pondered that, then raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, it did, didn't it? You know, this would make a great new story. Helen of Troy was 'the face that launched a thousand ships'. I could be......." She paused, searching for just the right title, but Xena beat her to the punch-line.
"The face that demolished a tavern and got threescore horny drunks arrested?"
"Hmmm. I see what you mean. Not a flattering title, is it?"
Xena hugged Gabrielle close and kissed her fondly. "So, my little bard, did you have fun tonight?"
"Yeah, all things considered. You?"
"Yeah. I guess I did at that." Xena opened the door, then stood aside as Gabrielle entered the room. Her voice became suddenly quite excited.
"Xena? Let's do it again tomorrow night!"
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