|Disclaiming the obvious (see Part I)
It's A Beautiful Life
How Xena Got Her Groove Back
by Crème Brûlée
Armies have a sound, a rhythm all their own. Over my lifetime, I have become more familiar with it than I care to think about. Traveling with Gabrielle's army was in some ways familiar, but also jarring.
Having been removed from the bustle of life for an extended period of time (five years, or so Gabrielle had said) the noises, the smells, the sites had an impact on me that I was unaccustomed to. As I was unaccustomed to feeling neglected by a certain blonde warrior-general who was busy with the running of her army and pretending that I didn't exist. After a day and half of artful dodges on Gabrielle's part, I'd begun to feel as though my reappearance was something of an inconvenience to her.
I hadn't felt like I'd been gone very long, but Gabrielle had lived out five years of her life. Five difficult years, or so it appeared by the condition of her hardened demeanor. A little adjustment period wasn't to be unexpected. Especially after a series of such extreme shocks. She needed some space, some time - or so a little voice that I was unused to hearing from kept telling the more insistent voices that populated my mind.
We'd been riding for two days. It had taken a half of the first day to ride through the bulk of Gabrielle's army. We rode with a small battalion, heading back at a good pace to a fortified city where Gabrielle would meet with the rulers of the land and the rest of the commanders of this large force. They were readying for a great battle. Their last victory had positioned them fortuitously and Gabrielle wanted to move swiftly to take advantage of her superior position.
Enid, who I'd formally introduced to Gabrielle as the person who'd assisted me in my return, spent the first day on horseback thrilling over the concept ("Everything looks so different from up here!"). She'd been rapt by each new discovery to arouse her visual, auditory or olfactory senses. We rode next to one another, so I'd gotten a blow by blow description of each encounter. She sighed, a precursor to one of her many observations. "She's right, things are much clearer by daylight."
"At least she gave you some information to go on." I said.
"Oh yes, lots. I've reestablished contact, I'm much better informed now."
"Well, for instance... I understand the body's physical responses; hunger, fatigue, pain, etc.; many of the emotional responses, I seem to know what an isosceles triangle is - informed like that. I've been briefed."
"But how?" I insisted, I hadn't heard Lao Ma in the near vicinity.
"I've reestablished contact. She's told me."
"You can talk to her?"
"In a manner of speaking, yes." Enid smiled.
"Then ask her what my next task is."
"I already have."
"Then why haven't you told me?" I asked.
"You've been so preoccupied with Gabrielle. I thought I'd give you some time to adjust to your new situation."
"How very considerate of you. But I'd rather have something to do than be coddled."
"I was just trying to be helpful," she explained.
"You can be plenty helpful by giving me my next task."
"All right then, you're next task is to stop Gabrielle's army."
I narrowed my eyes at Enid. It's a habit I'd picked up after I'd stopped killing people on whims. Whenever I felt the impulse to cut some bothersome bugger's throat I'd narrow my eyes at them. It gave me something to do while I asked myself if they deserved it, if it was worth it and so on. "How long were you going to wait to spring this little surprise on me?"
"I told you, until you had some time to readjust."
"And why do I have to stop Gabrielle's army?"
"Because it's your next task," she said.
I narrowed my eyes at her again, to encourage further explanation.
"And if you don't, a good many people will die; flooding Agent Stellar's illegal biostream causing an instability in the fundamental underpinnings of the space-time continuum. This may in turn cause the continuum to fold in on itself."
"And that would be a bad thing?" I asked.
"Very much so. We'd all be non-existent."
"Dead?" I asked.
"No, non-existent. If there's an instability in, and a rupture as a result, the space-time continuum - the fabric of existence as we all know it would unravel. All heretofore established continuums would be affected, which is to say - they would dissolve. Cease to exist." Enid said.
"That sounds bad."
"We thought so." She agreed cheerfully.
I felt it was time for some answers to a few other questions that had come up. Enid seemed sufficiently acclimated to her new surroundings and appeared less and less startled by the minute. "I have a hard time believing that the entirety of your 'assignment' here is spouting occasional tasks and cheering me on as I carry them out. "
"You're absolutely right. I have a task of my own. I'm here to locate the receiver."
"Receiver. The entity who serves as Agent Stellar's contact on Earth. This entity grounds the biostream in the material level, is an anchor of sorts."
"We can't close the biostream until this entity has been neutralized. I've been charged for that task."
"Charged with." I helpfully corrected her grammar.
"No, charged for." Enid argued.
I'm not the world's most astute grammarian, but prepositions are kind of basic. "With." I persisted.
"For," she countered cheerfully.
I would have continued the exchange, but a sentry approached us and said we'd be camping shortly and that Gabrielle had requested that we join her for dinner. As much as this request should have thrilled me, it didn't. Joining Gabrielle for dinner meant sharing rations with ten of her lieutenants who spent the entire time in awed attendance of their prickly little general.
They regaled us with stories of her goodness and heroism. Of how she'd brought peace and justice to a region that had grown so used to the carnage and deprivation of war that it had become a way of life. Their words were not mere flattery; they were born out each day that we rode through the countryside. When word got out that Gabrielle was in the vicinity, farmers and peasants would crowd around to glimpse their liberator. They would thrust their children in her direction, hoping she'd favor them with a word or touch. She was not a feared conqueror, but loved and revered by the people. I wondered if any of them believed that she was made of flesh and blood - for many chanted her name with the fervor of worshipers in a temple.
Additional proof of her success was evidenced by the lieutenant's and other personages in the entourage that joined her for meals. Some of these were the leaders of armies she'd conquered. People enlightened to her vision - some by verbal persuasion, others by force. One in particular, Guenther, bothered me. Not because he'd once been a murderous thug who's heart had known no light, but because I had seen him touch Gabrielle in a way that, as far as I was concerned, connoted a level of intimacy that I found objectionable
"Why does Guenther bother you so much?" Enid asked quietly. We sat beside one another before a large fire. There were two groups dining casually in the area where Gabrielle's tent was pitched. A tent into which I had yet to be invited...
"How do you know he's bothering me?" I hadn't realized I'd let it show.
"It's rather obvious," Enid explained. "Your emotions have clearly defined wave patterns. Much more so than many of the people I've seen so far. And they're especially clear around Gabrielle."
That made a certain amount of sense, in as much as anything Enid said did. "He touches her."
Enid looked confused. "But people touch each other all of the time. I've touched you several times." She demonstrated by resting a hand on my thigh. "I don't see the same effect." She looked at me, cocking her head to the side.
Enid's grasp on humanity was growing by leaps and bounds daily, but many subtleties were lost on her altogether.
"It's an intimacy she hasn't allowed anyone else. Me in particular." I whispered.
"Ah! I see," she smiled broadly and leaned closer. "You're jealous."
I didn't respond.
"It's only natural given the circumstances." Enid assured me.
"I appreciate your sympathy. Now would you get your hand off of my thigh?"
"Oh, sorry," she smiled sheepishly.
Our lesson on all things emotional was pleasantly interrupted by the evasive warrior-general. She greeted the people sitting near us, glanced between Enid and I, and joined our group. "Have you enjoyed your meal?" she asked.
"Oh yes, it was lovely!" Enid gushed.
"I'm sorry about the pace..." Gabrielle said. "I..."
"You're very busy, we can see that," I offered. And not for the first time since my return, I wondered at my gracious understanding.
"Yes, an army is a full-time job. You'd know that."
I nodded again.
Guenther approached and stood off to Gabrielle's side. "It has come to our attention, Xena, that you are a skilled warrior." He paused to give us time to acknowledge his little joke. "My men have asserted that the stories about you are largely myth. I assured them that Gabrielle herself has attested to their veracity. You know how soldiers are though, having little to occupy them after battle, they keep at it. An argument has broken out; we've had several fights. Seems that two groups of differing opinions have formed. One that says you could beat Davalos the Red at staffs with one hand tied behind your back. And another that says that Gabrielle exaggerated your feats and actually fought those battles herself."
"It's amazing what preoccupies the idle mind." Gabrielle sighed. "Tell your men to turn their thoughts to our next victory against Hector and Tiranus."
"I have Gabrielle, several times. But they are men of action."
"Discipline is a difficult challenge in an unruly battalion." I smiled, innocently.
"Has Gabrielle shared her methods for maintaining morale and discipline with you?" he asked.
"We haven't got around to discussing it." I glanced at Gabrielle who looked away.
"Of course not, I'm sure you've had much more important things to catch up on. But I've not had a problem with my soldiers since she enlightened me. Only now, my men have been challenged by a story they cannot believe."
"Guenther." Gabrielle warned.
I sighed and stood. "Limited imaginations are not uncommon midst bands of mercenaries." I'd heard that Guenther, back in his cagey warlord days, had hired away the most talented soldiers from his enemy's ranks, increasing the talent of his own force while decreasing the effectiveness of his opponent's. "I'll need a bit of spare rope."
"For what purpose?" Guenther asked.
"To tie my hand behind my back, of course."
Gabrielle shook her head.
Guenther smiled. "I'm sure we can find some somewhere. Shall I call Davalos?"
"Why don't we go find him and your men?" I asked.
"Xena, I'd rather you didn't do this."
"It's just a bit of fun Gabrielle - some entertainment for your soldiers after a hard fought campaign."
Gabrielle sighed. "We'll reach Bellikos tomorrow, they can find their amusement there."
She'd stood up with us though, noting my reluctance to give in.
The circle that surrounded me consisted of twenty-five soldiers. A boisterous lot, who cheered out encouragement to their comrade. Davalos the Red was a tall, well built specimen that looked like he'd seen a day or two of battle. That, or he'd had a nasty run-in with a razor one morning. Despite his scarred face, he smiled cheerfully enough while sizing me up.
Enid stood by watching the spectacle with interest. Gabrielle approached me with the length of rope. I held my wrist out for her to tie.
"Be gentle with me, Gabrielle." I chided.
She gave me a wry look and spoke quietly as she fastened the rope around my wrist and then my waist. "I wasn't the one who ever had a problem being gentle."
"You're a hardened warrior now, leader of a great army. You've changed a great deal, I'm sure."
"Not that much."
I barely heard the words she spoke above the shouts of the soldiers around us. I tried to ignore the sudden spike of my body temperature and stayed very still, as not to spook Gabrielle. She'd paused and seemed to be trying to make her mind up about something. Then she shifted away from me, finishing off securing my wrist from a slight remove. It wasn't a noticeable change to anyone else, but I felt it. I sighed quietly in disappointment and made a mental note not to take my frustrations out on Davalos.
"Try not to hurt him too much. I need every skilled sword arm I can get." Gabrielle echoed my thoughts, before walking back to the edge of the circle.
"Which is his sword arm?" I replied.
It wasn't an eventful match. The staff is a weapon requiring skill, agility and speed. You can't simply batter your opponent to death with it. Well, I suppose you could, but that isn't the point. Davalos wasn't aware of this. When he hit the ground a small cloud of dust rose around him. The soldiers, who'd cheered his several respectable attempts to disarm me, were silent. Gabrielle stepped forward to untie my wrist.
"Your soldiers seemed unaccustomed to seeing one of their own bested." I remarked.
"When he's the most talented staff fighter they'd ever seen, it's bound to give them pause."
"They've never seen you use one?" I asked.
"I don't use it much anymore."
Guenther, who'd been consoling and congratulating Davalos on his effort, interrupted our conversation. "You could have at least let the lad pretend he had a chance Xena. But I thank you, the wager I won on this fight will keep the battalion in wine for the several days we're in Bellikos."
"You bet against your own soldiers?" I asked.
"If you are the Xena of legend, I would be a fool not to." He winked and despite myself I smiled. Guenther, it seemed, was a mischief-maker.
"If we've had enough fun for the evening, I suggest we rest. We'll need all of the energy we can get over the next few days." Gabrielle was big on disappearing into her tent early.
"Yes," I agreed. "I'm ready for a good sleep. Enid?" Enid trotted over from where she'd been standing, still watching the soldiers. "May I have a word?"
"Which one?" she asked.
"Come with me to the tent." We bid goodnight to our friends.
Once inside the tent that had been assigned to us, I turned to face Enid. "I've got a couple of more questions for you. One: what's up with my body? Two: why in the hell am I so patient and insightful all of the sudden?"
"Are you having trouble with your bodily functions?" Enid looked concerned.
"My bodily functions are just dandy, thanks, but the trouncing I gave Davalos the Red went beyond my usual capabilities and I didn't even feel like I was trying very hard. Up until now, I'd figured I was extremely well rested after several years picking my non-existent navel, but a few things are starting to add up. Is there anything else you've been waiting to tell me? Anymore little surprises? I suggest you get me up to speed on all fronts - pronto."
"I'm glad that your new body is performing well, as I've explained it was created from a combination of your perceptions of your old body and a morphic resonance imprint from your file, only I..." Enid trailed off, looking uncomfortable.
"Only you forgot to tell me the next bit. Out with it. "
"As I've mentioned, your file shows significant interference - damage, if you will, from a disruptive source. In order to mitigate some of the damage I boosted a couple of wave patterns here and minimized a couple there. I also incorporated a wonderfully fine thread of influence... from Gabrielle. Only I hadn't known where it was from until I'd met her and saw the source for myself - it is very special."
I stared, slack-jawed, until I regained the power of speech. "You... you..."
"Now Xena, don't be angry. You get the most disturbing patterns of energy around you when you're angry. That can't be good for you - I know it isn't good for me."
"You bet it isn't!" I hissed. "You messed with my body. You messed with my life! What about all of that crap you've been spewing about 'interference is irregular'? Aren't we here to stop some 'irregular interference'? There's some law or code of decency that you keep claiming to adhere to, then you go off mixing and matching wave patterns and imprints like I'm some kind of one pot stew!"
"I was trying to be helpful. But I see now that efficiency and a practical approach isn't always welcome by humans." Enid responded.
"Efficiency!? What's efficient about messing with the fiber of my being? The stuff that makes up who I am! And I'm still waiting to hear why it is that I'm so damned patient?!"
"Either you're employing a rare usage of the word patience, one that I've not been briefed on, or you're confusing the concept with something else. Did you mean something else?" she asked in earnest.
I stepped closer to her, feeling less and less the patient warrior. "I meant patient. If this conversation had taken place before I'd experienced your personal brand of resurrection, I'd have had you hanging from that tent pole, possibly upside down and definitely with the pinch on you."
"Spill it." I insisted.
"I already have. The patience, the insight, it's from Gabrielle - or what you'd begun to incorporate from her. And technically, you'd have developed it without assistance had you been living out your life here, instead of having been spirited away illegally... to levels you hadn't been cleared for... where I found you... and brought your case to Her attention. I just thought I'd remind you of that in case you've forgotten and decided to hurt me. Because I've been fully briefed on pain and the pinch sounds like the kind of thing that I should avoid."
"It is. " I assured her. "Is that the last of it? No more nasty surprises?"
"No more. Though given your reliance on strength and stamina, I would have thought your physical enhancements would be a pleasant discovery, not a nasty surprise. Especially if, for instance, you felt compelled to confront another army clad in little more than a metal bikini." I couldn't be sure, but I thought I heard a note of sarcasm in Enid's voice.
"Humans are complex. We're also creatures of habit - I liked my body fine the way it was."
"I'll consult with Lao Ma and see if there's anything that can be done."
"Forget it, I'm used to it now."
"No really, if it bothers you..." she persisted.
"It's not a problem."
"It is if you are displeased," she pressed.
I narrowed my eyes at her. She smiled, knowing damn well that I didn't mind being stronger and faster. The understanding and patience, that was going to take some getting used to.
Case in point: the first day I spent back, I decided to give Gabrielle, who I realized had had quite a shock, some space to process it. I'm not sure how much choice I had in the matter, as Gabrielle was preoccupied with preparations for her departure the following day. That or she felt that I too must be going through a difficult adjustment and she wanted to help out by avoiding me like the plague. By the second day I, who'd run several campaigns with large armies, knew she'd had one or two spare moments in which we could have talked. She'd given me only the slightest consideration and hadn't sought out my counsel (not that she needed it, it's just nice to be asked, that's all). What occurred to me in that time, besides the fact that Gabrielle was especially fetching in the bossy mode, was that she was afraid. Afraid that I might not, despite all the evidence, be me. And scared, maybe even more, that I was me. Long story short, she felt deeply conflicted.
So did I. You come back to life, or you're issued a new body after being not quite dead, you want people to at least pretend they're happy to see you, especially the ones you'd walk through fire or take a quiver of arrows for.
"Ah well," I'd thought. "It's not like life with Gabrielle was ever easy. Inspirational, exhilarating, transcendent perhaps, but not easy. We're not the easy kind of people."
I'd paused directly after having this thought to wonder at myself. I'm not given to insights of this nature. I generally arrive at an opinion after a half second's worth of consideration, little of which had to do with the intricacies and subtleties of people's mental and emotional states. So I became suspicious, which is somewhat more characteristic of my personality.
Something wasn't right... or maybe something was right that shouldn't have been as right as it was. I'd been quelling a part of myself that had urged me several times to, "March over there and show that flinty warrior-bard-general what's what. Or at least find out where she got the scar." Then I'd think, "Just a little more time. Let her figure out how to deal with all of this, then you can drill her on current events."
These kinds of sentiments bouncing around my mental scape didn't make me uncomfortable, but they didn't make me feel like I had come back to my raw old self. Regardless, my new-found patience had reached its limits. It was comforting to know it had them. Still, my anger towards Enid wasn't the usual devastating rage that seared my conscious mind, blinding my better judgment. It was more like extreme irritation - which, in my case, is still problematic.
We road into Bellikos the next morning. It was a large, well-fortified town. The places where rulers live usually are.
Gabrielle - surprise - surprise, excused herself saying that she would be joining us later for a reception in the Great Hall. Enid and I were to go with Guenther, who would show us to our rooms. I'd had just about enough of the flinty warrior run-around from Gabrielle and I was near about spelling out my frustrations to her when something caught my eye. Something glinting and bright in the shadows - my senses went on high alert. Gabrielle went inside the building that we'd been standing in front of. "Does she know she is being watched?" I asked.
"She'd be disappointed if she wasn't." Guenther smiled. "Don't let it worry you too much."
I considered narrowing my eyes at him, then decided I'd save my energy for Gabrielle. I had a feeling I'd need it.
That same evening, Enid and I walked down the corridor that led to the Great Hall. She asked me if I knew how I was going to stop Gabrielle's army yet. I told her that I'd considered saying 'please', but somehow I didn't think that would cut it and that I'd get back to her when something more inspired had crossed my mind.
I was glad that I'd decided earlier to save my energy, because when Enid and I entered the reception we encountered one of my least favorite social situations: a royal court in full plumage.
"Oh Xena, what is this?" Enid breathed, immediately fascinated.
"The world's most tedious torture method." I answered.
"But it's so pretty, what's that sound?"
"It's... well it's... not what I thought it would be from the briefing," she looked distracted.
I pointed her in the direction of the players and encouraged her to investigate. I went in search of Gabrielle. I found her all shined and on display before a group of admirers. That's what I took them for on first glance, on closer inspection I saw something else.
Some have called war the answer of the limited imagination to conflict. I have sometimes wondered, when surrounded by the machinations of the ruling classes, if war isn't the sensitive person's response to politics. I know it's driven me to violence on several occasions. If Gabrielle was having similar thoughts, she wasn't letting on, as she carefully fielded questions from a group of people who were trying to siphon information out of her. She caught sight of me and motioned that I should join her.
She spent a good deal of time introducing me to the queerest mix of ruling personages and warlords I'd ever seen grouped in one room. No wonder I'd gotten such a disturbing feeling when I'd walked in. It wasn't much helped by Gabrielle's announcing her plan to move on their collective enemy within the month. And though a great cheer rose from the gathering at the news, I sensed mixed emotions in the room.
Gabrielle, who was the consummate warrior-host throughout the function, showed a cowardly streak when she abandoned me with the king and queen. They looked me over like a prize mule they hoped to add to their stable. I was saved before they tried to get a look at my teeth. Their advisor, Icthios, a harried looking man who'd been flitting about the room, begged forgiveness for his interruption. The Doge of Libos had arrived and Icthios asked if I'd mind stepping aside so that he could pay tribute. I think I moved faster from that spot than I'd moved during my staff fight with Davalos.
I was mistaken for the Govenor of Tiraneus' wife by an inebriated warlord who'd planned a liaison with said lady earlier in the evening. I was then waylaid by a princess who wanted to know how I'd gotten the title Warrior Princess, when I hadn't been born or married into royalty. A man followed me about for several minutes insisting that I was dead; I assured him that rumors of my demise are often exaggerated - but that rumors of his wouldn't be.
I found a quiet spot in which to regroup. A large tapestry hung off to the side of the room; it depicted scenes of great battles. I stood before it, feigning interest in the artistry and the subject.
"That's the story of a madman," a young man indicated the tapestry as he spoke. "The first king of Bellikos, who wandered into the Krimson valley and had a vision of a great and peaceful Kingdom."
"That sounds like a nice enough vision," I replied, only partially engaged in this latest exchange.
"He'd raised an army and attacked the neighboring village within the month. Some say it was the beginning of the wars," he said.
"It says here," I indicated some text. "That he's a hero that brought great fortune to his family."
"He did, we're rich as Croesus."
"I'm Prince Narcis, and you're Xena. Sorry I missed the introductions, I was otherwise detained."
"No need to apologize." I said, not caring to a degree that probably wouldn't occur to him in this or any other lifetime.
"It gave me something to say." He glanced at the room, still full of people. "What brings you to our happy little kingdom?"
"Of course, the Merciful Blade," there was a theatrical tone to his voice. "You must be part of her great campaign. We can add raising you from the dead to the growing list of her accomplishments. Very accomplished, our saintly little General."
"Do you have a problem with Gabrielle?" I asked.
"I suppose she's all right, but she's put a crimp in my social schedule. I mean, would you look at these people? Do you want to spend your every waking hour looking at them? I doubt you'd be over here scrutinizing textiles if you did. Still," he sighed. "Things have gotten better since she showed up. Not so many villagers dying off from famine and disease. There's something to be said for that... and then of course there's the fact, hardly worth mentioning really, that most of the people in this room used to be at each other's throats, with armies of upwards of five thousand soldiers apiece - whenever weather permitted and sometimes even when it didn't. Terribly uncivilized lot.
"But thanks to Gabrielle, we're all the best of friends now! Why just the other day I was asking Hector the Large over there for tips on putting down peasant rebellions - he's up on all the latest techniques."
I listened to Narcis ramble on about the various people in the room. He was singularly unimpressed with everyone in attendance. He showed much more interest in the alcohol than anything else.
I watched Gabrielle, who I was pleased to note, had sent several surreptitious glances my way. She stood, not far off, entertaining another hungry group of partygoers. A man approached them - I remember noticing him because it had become warm in the hall, too warm for the cloak he was wearing. I began to move in his direction, but before I'd stepped three paces he'd drawn a small crossbow and fired a bolt directly into Gabrielle's stomach.
Gabrielle was thrown back by the force of the hit. Confusion broke out, the assassin dropped his cloak and made for the nearest exit. I sprinted to Gabrielle. By the time I reached her (I had to move several people aside on my way), she was pushing herself up off the ground, clenching her side. I knelt to attend the wound which should have been in the center of her stomach - but there was the quiver of the bolt, sticking out of Gabrielle's fist, off to her side.
"I'm fine," she said through clenched teeth, while pushing my hands away. "It's not in that far. Get him!"
I hesitated, then sprang up and after the assailant. Dozens of soldiers and guards had also taken off after him and in the pandemonium of the chase he could have escaped easily. But I don't take kindly to people who try to kill Gabrielle and so I made a special effort. Several soldiers ran down a hallway that led to a side gate; one that gave quick access to a river that skirted the town wall. An excellent place to try to flee from. When the clatter of the soldiers stealthy surveillance stopped echoing through the hall; a dark figure crept from an impossibly narrow recession in the wall. I descended upon it like a pile of stone.
Assassins are, in general, a nasty bunch. Cunning killers who attack from the shadows or on the sly. It's not that they lack the courage to kill you face to face, they lack the code that dictates that one ought.
Or so I'd gathered from my experiences with them in the past - I'd also gathered that they were peculiarly self-interested creatures, bent on their own survival. I would have liked to ask this one why he'd chosen a mission that would surely end in his own death, but he couldn't answer me. Not because I'd killed him or knocked him unconscious, but because he lacked the tongue to do so. The look of surprise on my face upon discovering this impediment to conversation, caused a smile on his - I encouraged him to remove it.
After depositing the speechless assassin with several of Guenther's men, I went in search of Gabrielle; I wanted answers. Midway in my search I collected Enid in my wake. Our journey ended with Guenther, who stood, arms crossed, before the door to Gabrielle's private rooms.
"I don't want you to hurt me Xena, but I know you will if you have to. So if you could possibly avoid my face I'd be most grateful."
"Step aside and I won't have to." I was in no mood for games.
"Regrettably, I can't do that," he drew a dagger. "She's asked me not to let anyone into her rooms. The healers are seeing to her wound and pig-headed warrior that she is, she doesn't want anyone to see her when she's vulnerable, you know how bad warriors can..."
"Well then," I interrupted, stepping forward and snatching his wrist with the dagger. I took him by the collar with my free hand, lifted him, turned and deposited him next to Enid. He didn't offer any resistance. I tapped him lightly on the cheek, "Smart man. "
The door was bolted. I considered knocking, but knew Gabrielle had heard me. "Open it, or I'll knock it in. Your choice Gabrielle." There was no answer. I glanced at Guenther who shrugged. Enid shrugged too, though I don't know why.
The door's impact with the floor made an impressive accompaniment to my entrance. Gabrielle, who I found in an inner room scrambling for something, turned to glare at me. "I was coming to open it!"
"Not fast enough." I walked over to her. "I know you're busy fighting a war and getting shot at by assassins, but I'd appreciate a moment of your time. Furthermore, people who didn't know you before you were a bard may not know when your're acting," I tapped the balled up fabric she had pressed to her wound. "But I do. Where'd you get the nifty crossbow-bolt-deflecting armor?"
Gabrielle, looking thoroughly peeved, tossed the fabric away. There was no wound; there wasn't even a scratch. A creeping sensation slithered its way up my spine as a cascade of brightly colored sparkles filled the space a few paces away.
"Well, duh, where do you think she got it, Warrior Babe?" the Goddess of Love, who'd materialized in her usual fashion, smiled and winked at me. As always, the light that shone on Aphrodite seemed brighter than anywhere else in the room. She was appropriately attired for her vocation, wearing next to nothing, yet demurely covered by a see-through tunic. "You're looking mighty fine for a dead girl, Xena. But then, I never believed for a minute that you were out of the picture permanently."
Before I could respond to the goddess, I was shoved a step backward as Enid pushed in front of me. She placed herself squarely between Aphrodite and I. "That," she pointed at Aphrodite emphatically. "Is an extremely disruptive energy pattern. Step away, Xena. I'll deal with this."
For the first time since she'd dealt with the spectral figure that morning in the woods, Enid had her dander up. For such a light-hearted individual, she was all business when she got down to it. Given her size, she was also formidable looking.
"Who is your dour protector?" Aphrodite asked, amused.
"Gabrielle," Enid said. "You would be wise to stand behind me as well."
"Aphrodite is a friend, Enid." Gabrielle, who kept a wary distance from Enid yet had been civil, now spoke in clipped tones.
"She may appear to be, I agree." Enid responded. "But believe me, she's nothing you should be exposed to. "
"Cool it, Big Girl. Your fashion sense alone is hazardous to be exposed to. Xena, your taste in sidekicks has, like, totally deteriorated."
Considering the look she was giving Enid, I was interested in what Gabrielle had opened her mouth to say, but Icthios entered the room. He rushed over to Gabrielle; oblivious of the scene he'd interrupted. "I'm so glad that you weren't seriously injured! The queen has called for your counsel the moment you are able to free yourself. She fears an attempt on the king's life."
Gabrielle looked back and forth from Icthios to me, hesitated, then said, "I'll be back as soon as I can."
She motioned for Guenther to follow her and Icthios. She gave a final frown in my direction, then glanced at Enid as she stepped over her fallen door. When the three of them had cleared it, Aphrodite waved in its direction and the door rematerialized, hanging on its hinges, closed.
Enid waved her hands in front of me. "Don't look! Don't look at it. And you!" she turned back on Aphrodite. "Cease this interference!"
"Okay. I'm, like, bored with this now. Either someone enlightens me or I'm muzzling this sour puss."
"I'd like to see you try." Enid huffed.
"Okay!" I stepped between the two most oddly matched opponents I'd ever set eyes on. "Enid, as always, I appreciate your concern. But there's something you have to understand. Humans, rightly or wrongly, expose ourselves to things that are unhealthy, sometimes even harmful. It's a quality of life issue. Aphrodite is just such a thing."
Enid stared long and hard at Aphrodite, then stepped back, reluctantly grumbling something about "disruptive energy patterns." Aphrodite rearranged her see through whatnot.
"All right then," I said. "Aphrodite, why did you give Gabrielle enchanted armor? That's not your department."
"I see you're in your usual chatty mood. Death hasn't changed your temperament much. You were dead, weren't you?" Aphrodite asked.
"Yes. Well, no... Look, I'm sorry to be... brief - we can catch up later - I'm trying to piece together what's going on here and Gabrielle isn't cooperating."
"She's funny like that these days. Miss Moody, that's what I've started calling her. Even got a smile out of her for it once. I think that was a year and half ago... Has she told you about the scar?"
I shook my head.
"That's why I gave her the armor. Once you'd been killed, or not killed... whatever, she lost it - went seriously off her game, if you know what I mean. She started throwing herself at just about every bad attitude and pointy object she could find; the more, the merrier. I went to Hephaestus' mountain and dug around until I found something that I could work with. It couldn't be too big, and not too dark - you know Gabby's coloring, she needs brighter..."
"Aphrodite!" I warned.
"I threw it together and threw it on her. I told her that it was for the greater good - actually, I was hoping to keep her alive long enough to ride out her grief. She kept talking to you like you were there. It was seriously creepy. One day, she wandered into this valley, saw the bloodshed and cruelty - the illness, the famine - it put a strain on her already busted heart and I... I couldn't take it anymore."
"What do you mean, you couldn't take it anymore?" I asked.
"I had to do something. Gabrielle is like family to me... especially since I don't have much left in that department. I anesthetized her heart to pain."
"Meaning?" I asked, as Enid gasped.
"I gave her a little buffer... kind of like armor... on her heart."
"You what?!" I hissed.
"She was dying! She couldn't bear the pain, she was always so sensitive - you know that. Witnessing the senseless cruelty that this place had been steeped in for ages pushed her over the edge."
"Let me get this straight: Gabrielle was in pain, but you couldn't stand it anymore. So you thought you'd help out by making her unable to feel anything."
"That's one way of looking at it, I suppose." Aphrodite conceded.
"Are there any side effects to this pain prescription you've given her?"
"You mean like headaches, nausea, lack of sex drive - that kind of thing?"
"Sure, she's kind of limited in her ability to feel certain things... well, lots of things really."
"Like joy or love?" I asked.
"Like those. But if the feeling sneaks up on her, and it's strong enough, it could break through. Only, it might be kind of messy after going through so much resistance." Aphrodite mused.
"You don't say?" That might have explained Gabrielle's initial reaction to me during our rendezvous in the woods that first night. "Did she agree to this?" I asked, now better understanding Gabrielle's distant cool.
"Well... not, like, in so many words." Aphrodite hedged.
"Does she know?" I asked.
Aphrodite hesitated before answering. "Not really."
"Good, she won't notice when you undo it. Which is now."
"That's a great idea Warrior Babe! And I would, but I can't. It's not a simple zapper, if you know what I mean - it's more involved than that."
"Then you'd better get to work."
"Okay... um, tried kissing her lately?" Aphrodite asked.
"Is that any of your business?"
"Duh! Of course it is! But especially so in this case. To undo the adjustment to Gabrielle's sensitive coronary muscle, she has to fall in love."
"She's already in love." I said, stepping closer to Aphrodite.
"You and I know that, Warrior Babe, but her heart is kind of hard of hearing at the moment. All it hears these days is the call to war... or a "just peace" - her great vision to unite these people under one just king - yaddah, yaddah, yaddah. I mean, sure, it's a great idea, but it's kind of a drag when it's the only thing she ever talks about anymore."
Enid, who'd taken her briefing on the term "hopping mad" literally, was jerking up and down in place. "Extremely irregular!" she blurted.
If I hadn't stepped forward she would have made a run at Aphrodite. As it was, she tried to dodge around me. What she planned to do if she got a hand on the goddess, I didn't know, but I didn't feel like finding out just then. "Hey! I don't know why you're going off on Aphrodite. It's not so different from your tinkering with me." That sounded much worse than I'd thought it would, but it gave Enid pause. Or a shock, because she stood back and stared at me aghast.
"It's nothing like it! I would never touch your signal wave imprints on a material level. It could have countless ramifications - few of which could be calculated within a human life span. I've told you before, I'm not in Chaos Management!"
Continued in Part III