Disclaimer: By now it should be readily apparent that the characters of Xena: Warrior Princess do not belong to me. I'm just borrowing them for the moment.
General Audience: This fic fine for any age. It's just your basic adventure tale. Chronologically, it can be placed sometime within Season Three of X:WP. Let me know what you think!
Gabrielle kept silent as long as she could, but when her dark friend made no move to mention it, she burst, "I can't believe you forgot my birthday."
Xena glanced her way, hardly pausing. "I thought we settled this two miles ago," she murmured. Argo, walking between them, nickered softly in agreement.
Casting a quick scowl toward the traitorous horse, Gabrielle shook her head. "Not that I expected anything elaborate—a cake, or maybe a small gift. Then again, maybe it's for the best. You're not really known as a power shopper."
"One more crack like that, and I'll take a mind to cook a special birthday dinner."
Gabrielle cringed, and not entirely in jest. "No thanks," she said. "You know, I should—"
"Quiet," Xena ordered suddenly, stopping in her tracks.
Gabrielle obeyed, but gritted her teeth at her friend's rudeness. She waited as Xena tested the air. It was obvious that she'd sensed something. But the warrior woman wasn't one to volunteer information, and Gabrielle knew she's have to yank it out of her.
"So?" she asked. "Who is it this time? Warlord? Barbarian? Some other wandering villain who needs a good walloping?"
Xena smiled. "Are you suggesting that our travels are getting predictable?"
"No, of course not," Gabrielle assured her as Xena sprang forward to intercept the men who'd been hiding in the brush at the side of the road. Argo stood patiently where she'd stopped, waiting for her mistress to finish her work.
Xena didn't even have to draw her weapon to dispatch these amateurish thieves. With a shrill cry, she slammed a fist into one man's face then followed with a roundhouse kick, catching the other on the chin. Gabrielle instinctively clutched her staff closer to her body, but Xena didn't need any assistance with these two. Moments later, the men realized they'd underestimated their prey and ran off into the woods.
"Well, maybe a little," Gabrielle amended. "Not that I want something horrible to happen, of course. It would just be nice to have something more to write then, 'Xena stopped the highwaymen at their game.'"
Xena shook her head. She grabbed Argo's reins and started walking again. "This might be the time to toss out that old saying—be careful what you wish for."
Gabrielle laughed. "Well, don't worry—adventure isn't going to find us on my say so."
"Oh, I'm not worried," Xena demurred. "Hey," she said. "Do you hear that?"
Gabrielle paused to listen. "Music?" she asked. "Isn't Pondrea just ahead?"
They were headed toward the city in order to restock their supplies. Of course, the rumor that Pondrea was so overrun by lawlessness that its own prince never made an appearance had nothing to do with Xena's decision to stop there. Gabrielle grinned. She wasn't the only one looking for something new.
"Let's check it out."
The music grew louder as they crept through the brush to investigate. Argo was left grazing nearby while they abandoned the well-traveled road in favor of the cover offered by the trees. Gabrielle could see the bright red of a tent well before they finally reached the music's origin. She heard the sounds of people working, too—the pull of a saw, and the fall of hammers against wood.
"Aren't we a good mile outside of Pondrea?" she whispered. What could they be constructing out here?
When the scene was revealed at last Gabrielle gazed around in awe. They crouched low and out of sight, but could still observe everything that went on. She recognized the group as traveling performers. They were not uncommon throughout Greece. But these folks had a much larger organization than she'd ever seen before.
There were at least twenty tents set up, all surrounding a massive one at center. This was the red that Gabrielle had glimpsed through the trees. They were still busily setting up stands and unpacking equipment from wagons nearby. These performers had animals as well. She was amazed to spot a man coaching a large brown bear to stand on its hind legs and wave.
"It's a circus," Xena murmured. "I saw one in Rome, once."
"What is it doing up here?" Gabrielle asked.
"Oh, admission is usually cheap, so they can really pack in the crowds. Whole towns have been known to drop everything and catch the show. It's not a bad idea, actually," Xena explained.
Just then a woman's shouting diverted their attention. A moment later one came bursting out of a smaller tent, a grizzled man quick on her heels. She was wearing a strange garment of scarves that were tied together in strategic positions across particular body parts. A large snake hung around her shoulders.
"I quit!" she shouted. "I don't have to put up with this."
The man grabbed her arm and spun her around. "You aren't going anywhere, wench," he snarled.
"If you think I'm actually scared of you, Agenon, you are sorely mistaken," she sneered, glaring as well at the armed men who'd stepped forward to surround them. In response, the serpent on her neck raised its head as if to strike him. "He's poisonous," she warned.
"Agenon," Xena whispered. Gabrielle glanced at her in question. "I know him by reputation," she explained. "He's a nasty one, all right. He'd sell his own mother into slavery if it turned a profit."
They watched Agenon reel back to avoid the snake, then wave the woman away in disgust. He then turned toward his men and started shouting angrily at them. As the snake woman sauntered out of view, Gabrielle caught sight of Xena's sneer. She tensed, realizing they'd come across their next great adventure. Her friend had that certain gleeful light in her eyes. It meant they'd be hanging around until she was sated.
"Well, I think you have your change of pace," Xena muttered.
When Agenon stalked away, flanked by his toadies, they hurried out of their hiding place. Xena signaled for Gabrielle to follow her into the tent that the warlord and his reticent employee had just vacated. Once inside, Gabrielle let herself relax a bit. They were alone, and no one had spotted them.
"Why would a warlord be running a traveling circus?" Gabrielle asked. "He can't be making too many gains selling tickets to farmers and peasants."
Xena was busy rummaging through a trunk of clothing. "Oh, I'm sure he has some kind of half-baked idea. We'll just have to find out what that is." She turned and tossed something at her. "Here, put this on."
Gabrielle caught the bit of cloth and held it away from herself to get a good look at it. Like the snake charmer's clothing, it was composed mainly of thin scarves in varying shades of violet. "I'm not wearing this," she protested.
Xena turned, holding a rose colored dress up against herself. "Why not? I think you'd look very nice."
"It's not even an entire outfit," Gabrielle answered. "I think there must be some pieces missing."
Xena shrugged, then tossed the dress her way. "Fine, then we trade."
Relieved, Gabrielle passed the gauzy material toward her friend and set her staff aside in order to begin changing. "So we get inside to see what Agenon's up to," she commented. "Is that the plan so far?"
"That's about it," Xena responded, tossing her breastplate on the ground. "After that we can make up our minds what to do with him."
"So basically shut up and follow your lead?" Gabrielle teased. There Xena went again, making things up as she went along. But Gabrielle was getting used to it. Xena smiled sweetly, making her laugh. "Just get dressed, will you?"
After they'd hidden their clothes, Xena and Gabrielle made their way through the grounds. A six-foot tall dark haired woman wearing a bunch of scarves proved to be very conspicuous, and it didn't take long for Agenon to find them. Gabrielle tried not to cringe as he came near. He stank of ale and lard. Xena of course was on her best behavior, and instantly came up with a story for their appearance.
"So you run this operation?" she asked. "'Cause we have an act that you've just gotta see."
Agenon stared at her in distrust. "What do you do?" he asked.
"Well, the name's Demira, and I'm a blade thrower," Xena said. Gabrielle stifled a laugh.
"You mean a knife thrower," Agenon corrected.
Xena smiled at him. "No, I don't like to limit myself. This is my assistant, Calliope. She's mute."
Gabrielle stared up at her friend in shock. Agenon wore a similar expression, causing Xena to add, "Not because of me."
"Well, I did lose someone earlier this morning," Agenon allowed. "Let me see what you can do."
Xena grabbed her arm and had to forcefully push Gabrielle toward the nearest tree. They were out of earshot, so she whispered, "Just what do you think you're doing?"
"Trust me," Xena whispered back.
Gabrielle couldn't believe her ears. Trust her, when she was obviously going to hurl something sharp right at her? It took a lot of effort to remain where Xena placed her against the trunk of a tree. Her friend whirled, returning to Agenon's side. She asked him something, and he gestured toward one of his men. Gabrielle peered at them intently, trying to see what it was they were retrieving. Presently, the man returned carrying a bow, a quiver of arrows, and an apple.
"Just put that on her head, will you?" Xena asked him.
He did as she bid. Gabrielle could feel the piece of fruit shaking on her skull and realized she was trembling. She trusted Xena, she really did, but she hoped she wasn't wrong just this once.
Agenon stared at her in disbelief. "You're going to shoot it off her head with an arrow?" he asked.
Xena paused, considering. "Too easy?" she asked. "How about an axe, then?"
Gabrielle knew right then that she was going to strangle her friend as soon as she got her hands on her. Leave it to Xena to think up the most far-fetched…her thoughts scattered as soon as she saw the huge weapon in her friend's hand. The blade was big enough to split her head, let alone a tiny apple. Gabrielle gulped and closed her eyes, knowing she had no way out of this one.
"All right, here goes," she heard Xena say, then the wind suddenly rushed straight at her.
A heavy thud erupted above her head, and the tree itself vibrated with the impact. Gabrielle felt pieces of apple fall past her shoulders and opened one eye to check on herself. Xena was grinning at her, while Agenon stared with the same look of dumb amazement. She sagged in relief, and felt her hair pull against her scalp. Surprised, she jerked her head down and away from the weapon, the handle of which still quivered in the air above her. Turning around, she saw a tendril of blonde hair still attached to the tree. She rubbed her tingling scalp, feeling numb.
Xena approached behind her. "Is this your way of telling me I need a haircut?" Gabrielle asked, still in shock.
"That's funny, Calliope, I thought you were mute," Xena answered.
"I'm going to get you for this, Demira," Gabrielle hissed before turning around to face the crowd behind them.
Agenon inclined his head briefly. "All right, we'll make room in the program for you. You can take that tent over there to start your preparations."
A few hours later, Gabrielle watched as Xena swung a spear around experimentally. "You better not think about tossing that at me tonight," she warned.
Xena frowned. "It's not right anyway," she agreed. "I'll have to find something really special for you."
Gabrielle shook her head. "You're enjoying this way too much," she accused. She shifted gears then, saying, "So what have you found out?"
"Well, the performers I spoke to say that Agenon is a recent addition to the troupe. He apparently won the business in a game of chance. More than likely he stacked the deck, but…" Xena shrugged. "At any rate, no one much cares for his way of running things. The snake charmer isn't the first one to quit."
"Why don't they all leave? He'd be left with nothing," Gabrielle commented.
"I have a feeling most of them are afraid. On his own, he's no challenge, but he does have his men following him around like lost puppies. What about you?" Xena asked.
"Uriah told me that tonight is supposed to be some big event for them. The prince himself is coming to see the show. He hasn't left the palace in more than six years," Gabrielle said.
An interested expression passed over Xena's face. "Really?" she asked.
"And it's so well guarded up there that no one has even seen him since then. He's pretty much lived the hermit's life these past several years."
Xena nodded. "Now it's making more sense," she said.
"Do you think he'll make a move on the prince?" Gabrielle asked.
"I guess we'll find out tonight, won't we?" Xena responded.
That evening's show arrived with no clearer view of what Xena had planned. They hadn't even gone over their performance, and Gabrielle had no idea what her friend was going to do to her. She stood at one side of the tent, staring out into the crowd, trying not to bite her nails in nervousness. There'd been no sign of Xena since earlier that afternoon, when she decided to check out Agenon once again. Of course she'd ordered Gabrielle to "stay out of trouble." That basically meant to cool her heels and wait.
The prince had not yet made an appearance. But the tension in the group was palpable. It seemed inevitable that he would show up. Gabrielle was tapping her foot impatiently when she caught sight of her friend nearby. Xena had somehow managed to lose a few scarves on her costume, and when the light hit her right… Gabrielle stared in shock. Meeting her eyes, Xena cast a wink her way, making her blush.
"I want to thank all of you for coming this evening. Many thanks as well to Prince Arnam, who was so very thoughtful to make a special trip out to watch our humble program," Agenon began.
There was a sudden hush just before the crowd burst into sudden conversation. The people looked around themselves, trying to spot the man in question. Gabrielle searched the crowd as well, wondering why Arnam hadn't made his presence more public. Just then she felt a touch on her arm, and glanced up to see Xena smiling down at her.
"Are you ready?" she asked. "Because we're up first."
"What on earth have you done to your costume?" Gabrielle demanded, hiding her mouth with her hand. "Everyone is staring at you."
"Are you jealous?" Xena teased.
Agenon continued his welcome, saying, "The first performance we have for you this evening is a very special one. All the way from deepest Africa comes our dark-haired maiden and her lovely partner. Please welcome Demira, Mistress of the Desert Wind!"
Gabrielle snorted and gave Xena a mocking look. Her friend shrugged. "Okay, that's us," she said, shoving her forward.
She almost balked when she saw the apparatus her friend had come up with. At the center of the tent stood a tall wooden wheel. Ropes were tied to create four rungs at opposite ends. Gabrielle had no doubt what she was meant to do with this item. Xena grabbed her waist and hefted her up, quickly tying her wrists and ankles. Although it was not appropriate for her to resist, Gabrielle shot a glare when Xena glanced at her.
"Trust me," she said again, and Gabrielle scowled.
Xena turned and instantly began a brief dance, sashaying around the sawdust-covered earth like a belly dancer. Gabrielle rolled her eyes when she saw how the men were responding to this. Suddenly Xena whipped around and flung something straight at her. The knife struck the wood just beside Gabrielle's head, trembling slightly before going still.
Somehow, Xena had stashed the weapon on her person even though what she was wearing left little to the imagination. It was a neat trick, and one that was appreciated. The crowd howled with delight. Xena continued her movements, slowly circling Gabrielle before reaching out and grabbing the wheel. With a firm twist, she sent the device spinning, and Gabrielle found herself whirled upside down before righting again, then turning to repeat the whole process. After a moment of this she was sure she was going to be sick.
By the time Xena was done with her dance, there was a veritable arsenal impaled upon the wooden wheel. Gabrielle felt ill, and knew that after this was over, she would lie down for a very long time. At least the wheel had stopped its horrible spinning, and she was still again. But she was very nearly nailed to the device.
The crowd loved them. Agenon waited for several minutes before the roar had died down enough for him to speak. "Now we come to the part of the show that is my personal favorite," he said. Nodding toward two of his men, he continued, "It is a proud day when a prince can come down among his own people for the first time in six years. Even more inspiring is the time when a warrior holds the life of such an important man in the palm of his hand."
There were dozens of confused expressions following this remark. Xena, disregarded by Agenon and his men for the moment, quickly returned to Gabrielle's side in order to release her. "As much as I love seeing you tied up like this, you're more use to me with free hands," she muttered.
Behind them, a loud cry of surprise rose from the crowd. Agenon's men had managed to find the prince among them. He was dressed as a commoner, wearing the rough woolen garb of a peasant. They dragged him down toward the floor, where Agenon waited.
"He must have bribed someone from the palace," Xena said quietly. "Someone who told him what Arnam looks like."
"What does he want?" Gabrielle whispered.
Xena shook her head, grabbing the same axe she'd used earlier that day from the table of weapons set up nearby. "I don't think the prince appreciates this rough treatment, Agenon," she called.
Gabrielle scrambled to find herself a weapon. But she hesitated to use the blades Xena had strewn about for their performance. She spotted a broom propped up against some equipment, no doubt accidentally left behind after the floor had been swept for that night's show. It was as good as anything at that point, and she picked it up gratefully.
Agenon turned toward the sound of her voice. "I don't think it's your place to question me, little one," he purred.
Xena smirked at him. "Oh, I'll do more than question you," she answered.
He scowled. "I don't have time for this. Get her out of here," he told the warrior nearest him.
When Xena sent the man flying with one well-placed kick to the face, the rest of Agenon's men stared dumbfounded for an instant before giving chase. Of course by this point the crowd at begun to bolt themselves. Gabrielle found herself wading through innocent bystanders in her attempts to reach Xena and the fight.
"Be careful!" she shouted when she saw a man step on a woman who'd fallen to the ground. She stooped to assist her.
Gabrielle kept an eye on her friend while she went through the necessary motions of protecting the townspeople. There were children here, and her heart wrenched to think that one of them might be injured in the scuffle. Xena was having the time of her life—a dozen or so skulls to crack, and multiple weapons to choose from. Every time Gabrielle glanced up, she wielded a different blade. Her warbling call pierced through the din, making Gabrielle's pulse race. This would make a great story.
The battle only took a few moments. Xena had shoved the prince aside, taking on the warriors herself. By the time his guard had arrived to assist, she was done with them. Agenon, the weasel, tried sneaking out with the crowd. But his brutish face was too difficult to disguise, and Xena easily spotted him. She hauled him back, smacking him across the face, and shoved him onto the ground.
By then most of the people had fled. A few of the performers had stayed behind, curious. Arnam stood safely with his royal soldiers, greatly relieved. "You shouldn't have come here on your own," Xena chastised him.
He nodded. "I was told as much," he said. "I just missed…I missed being a part of things," he added wistfully.
"Well, you better get back to the palace. I'll make sure Agenon gets what he deserves."
"What should we do with him?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena cocked her head, staring down at Agenon a moment. He glared at her defiantly. "I don't think he learned his lesson," she finally said.
"Definitely not," Gabrielle agreed. "I can tell you one thing he'd really hate…from personal experience, mind you," she said, looking over toward the wheel.
Xena's face lit up. "Great idea," she said. Bending down, she grabbed Agenon and forced him to his feet. "Up you go."
Moments later she had him tied up in the same position Gabrielle had suffered earlier. She found the view much more enjoyable from her present location. Gabrielle watched as Xena selected the largest blade among those still resting nearby. When Agenon saw that she truly meant to throw it at him, he started blubbering like a baby.
"You know," Xena mused. "This doesn't feel right."
Gabrielle was surprised. "Really?" she asked.
Xena snapped her fingers. "I need a blindfold," she said.
With a sash tied around her head and covering her eyes, Xena purposely wavered in her aim a moment, obviously hamming it up for Agenon's benefit. Gabrielle thought the man was going to wet himself. Finally Xena lurched forward, hurling the weapon through the air. It struck wood right between Agenon's legs, so close to his crotch that he must have felt the impact. To Gabrielle's amusement, he fainted dead away right then. Everyone standing around them burst into cheers.
"We want to thank you, Xena…and you, Gabrielle," Uriah said.
Xena nodded. "That's what we're here for," she said.
"We'll be packing up and getting out of here as soon as possible." Uriah glanced behind herself. "How are you going to deal with him?" she asked.
"Just go ahead and pull down your tent. I think he'll be fine on his own for awhile. The fresh air will do him good," Xena answered, laughing.
The performers were true to their word. They put their caravan together in record time, and pulled away soon after. As she and Xena retreated, Gabrielle glanced back to see the form of Agenon still strapped to the large wheel, with nothing but beaten down grass and smoldering campfires around him. She wished she could be there to see his face when he awoke. Prince Arnam would send men for him in due time, and he'd spend the rest of his life in prison, no doubt. Xena was right--the fresh air would do him good, since it would be his last for a long time.