In a Man's World
(Written: Dec 1996)
Part 1| Part 2 | Part 3 | Index
Xena double-checked her saddlebags. She confirmed she had everything packed, including the birthday present Gabrielle promised they would deliver to Cumae's nephew. She shook her head with a smile, having lost count of how many times Gabrielle promised they would deliver something for someone. Satisfied with everything and ready to leave, Xena called out to her friend.
"Come on Gabrielle, we are wasting daylight."
There was no response. The only sounds she heard were birds chirping and leaves rustling in the gentle breeze.
"Gabrielle" Xena uttered with annoyance.
Gabrielle was practicing her stealth in the forest - AGAIN. Each time she did so, Xena would find her and be on the receiving end of a barrage of questions. "How did you track me? How did you know? What noise did you hear first?" would be among the first questions. Gabrielle's tenacity could be irritating at times. Yet, that tenacity was what helped her to learn so quickly, Xena acknowledged.
Peering down on Xena, Gabrielle remembered, with a smile, the lessons she learned from her Amazon teachers Trayla and Sustra. "Up" was one that they stressed so she think of an attack in three dimensions not two. Gabrielle found herself pleased for this was the closest she got to Xena without Xena knowing. Or was it? Gabrielle wondered if Xena knew but didn't let her know she knew. Xena could be hard to read at times, Gabrielle knew well.
Before Gabrielle could make another move to see if she could surprise Xena, a man traveling with a crumpled map walked towards Xena. His smile was friendly which added a great deal to his already handsome face, Gabrielle noted.
"Hello." He said brightly, glad to finally see someone on the road and one so beautiful. Xena looked at him and nodded. "I am trying to find my way to Marapolis but I am afraid I am not very good at reading maps. Could you help me?" He asked. Xena relaxed, noting he was not wearing any weapons and he had a gentle disposition.
"Sure. Marapolis is actually due West of here. Just follow the sun set and you should get there in about two days." Xena smiled warmly and placed her hand on his shoulder as she pointed West.
Gabrielle's eyebrow raised. "Awfully friendly to a guy she's just met," Gabrielle noted. She noticed how he looked at her as well. "Gods, what flagrant flirting!" Gabrielle silently sighed as she witnessed the conversation below.
"What ever happened to the good old, 'don't waste my time' Xena?" Gabrielle wondered. After hearing the man a few minutes, Gabrielle found his complements really did not do Xena justice. In fact, the man was not very articulate or observant Gabrielle concluded. He didn't even mention her beautiful smile. "Gods he has to be blind to miss that one," Gabrielle thought, shaking her head. "Hey...why is she smiling so much?" Gabrielle asked herself.
Stretching further out on the limb for a better look, Gabrielle continued to watch and critique this man's performance. "Sure, go for the easy eyes complement. That's it? You completely missed the boat buddy, you can't just SAY they are beautiful, you should tell her HOW they are so beautiful." She rolled her eyes, thinking of all the things she could say to Xena that would put his lame comments to shame. Of course, she was in no position to say such things to Xena, Gabrielle sighed.
After listening a while to the man's unimpressive performance, Gabrielle wondered if he was ever going to leave so she could get out of the tree. She couldn't very well jump down now and reveal she had been eves dropping. Reaching up to a nearby branch to steady herself, she quietly shifted her position so her leg wouldn't fall asleep. Unfortunately, Gabrielle just learned the importance of recognizing the healthy branches from the dead ones. A lesson she apparently missed during her last visit at the Amazon camp. The limb gave way and Gabrielle's eyes widened, knowing she was coming down hard.
"Watch out!" Gabrielle warned Xena who already heard the cracking of the limb.
Xena pulled the man out of the way and watched helplessly as the bard flapped her arms unable to avoid her fall. Gabrielle hit the ground with a thud.
"Gabrielle!" Xena rushed over to her friend.
"Ow Ow...." The bard repeated as she moved.
"Gods, is she all right?" The man asked, looking over Xena's shoulder. Gabrielle pushed Xena's hands away from her, not giving Xena the opportunity to pinpoint the pain.
"Gabrielle...let me..." Xena asked with great concern in her eyes.
"I'm ... Ow Ow ... OK...Ugh." Gabrielle moaned as she got up and limped around. "Fine, see?" She informed Xena and dusted herself off, exhaling loudly.
"Hi, I'm Gabrielle. Sorry to drop in on you like this." Gabrielle smiled sheepishly at the man who, still stunned by the event, smiles awkwardly.
"Well, I've got to get going." The man announced to Xena, who didn't appear to hear him. "Hope you're OK." He told Gabrielle, who shrugged and waved, indicating there was no problem. "Well, thanks for your help Xena." He spoke to the Warrior Princess who grunted something, continuing to eye her friend for signs of serious injury.
After the man departed, Gabrielle walked around a bit with a slight limp, to convince Xena she was not hurt too badly.
"Your in pain, I'll make you some tea," Xena offered knowing Gabrielle had to hurt.
"That's OK...I'm fine. Really. You were right, we are wasting daylight," Gabrielle remarked, attempting to sound enthusiastic about walking. Xena noted Gabrielle using her staff a little more that usual when she started down the road. Xena sighed, relieved Gabrielle didn't hurt herself worse. As she followed the bard, a small grin crossed her face.
In the Great Hall of the Sunmoon brothers, Sunal , the founder of the Sunmoon, looked upon his grandson Leo with great pride. Leo was to go through the Ceremony of Peace and become a full Sunmoon Monk. Sunal wished Leo's father could be there to witness this great event. However, Sunal's son was murdered when Leo and Boean were young. That fact made this ceremony even more precious to Sunal. Leo had gotten past the hate and anger to embrace the pacifist beliefs of the Sunmoon.
After the Ceremony started, two Sunmoon brothers burst in, carrying a bloodied man into the Great Hall.
"My gods! It's Boean! Get the healers!" Leo shouted, helping him onto the alter. The Sunmoon monks looked on in horror.
"Who did this to you my son?" Sunal asked taking his hand. Boean tried to focus on Sunal.
"Grandfather, I only tried to spread the word of Peace and Harmony...They thought me weak when I didn't fight. I promised you I wouldn't..." Boean uttered with a cough.
"Who?!" Sunal demanded.
Sunal looked at Leo, fearing those rumors about the growing animosity towards the Sunmoon were not exaggerated.
Every time Xena would offer to stop or get Gabrielle something for the pain, she refused. All day, Xena could tell Gabrielle was silently and unnecessarily suffering while they walked. As a result, Xena grew increasingly annoyed at the bard's pride. Foolish pride was something she hoped Gabrielle would not learn from her.
That evening, Gabrielle sat down carefully on her bedroll to minimize her pain. Without telling Gabrielle what she was doing, Xena had made an herbal remedy for her bard despite earlier refusals.
"Xena, I don't need..." Gabrielle started to object again but Xena interrupted.
"Humor me..." Xena looked at her with a blank look and handed her a cup. Gabrielle sighed. She could use something for the pain, she concluded, sipping the tea. Her face cringed at the horrible taste as she swallowed.
Xena revealed a slight grin.
"If I didn't know better, I'd think ...hmmm. You know, this actually doesn't taste THAT bad...," Gabrielle noted, eagerly gulped the entire contents of the cup. A confused Xena eyed her. The drink wasn't supposed to taste good.
Gabrielle started to giggle and appeared lightheaded.
"Not bad at all. More...please" Gabrielle held out the cup, eyeing what was left of the tea.
Xena was disturbed by Gabrielle's reaction, it wasn't right. Doubts filled Xena's mind. Surely I didn't pick the wrong herb, she thought to herself, growing concerned. Xena grabbed Gabrielle's cup and poured herself the rest of the tea, tasting it. Immediately, she spit out the foul tasting contents
"Ugh," Xena blurted.
Gabrielle stared at her with a victory grin and responded, "I'm humored, what about you?"
Xena stared with amazement at her cunning friend, then her eyes narrowed.
"Sometimes I underestimate how devious your mind really is Gabrielle," Xena remarked.
Gabrielle wasn't going to let Xena get away with any practical joke without an appropriate response.
"I'm sure you mean DEVIOUS in the best possible sense. Good night Xena." Gabrielle laid back with a slight smile, pulling up the covers. She muffled a groan as she shifted to a more comfortable position, making Xena feel guilty about the practical joke.
"The herb tea really should help," Xena offered softly. "I'm sorry about the taste." Gabrielle looked over to her friend and softly laughed.
"I wouldn't have needed the tea if I didn't fall and I KNOW I should have taken you up on your first offer." Gabrielle propped herself on her elbow, her face grimacing from the pain but quickly replaced by a grin.
"Anyway, I really should have known from the odor that you added Urut to the tea. Of course, you know how much Urut looks like Henbane." Gabrielle knowingly raised an eyebrow. Xena shook her head, realizing with appreciation how much her friend had learned about herbs.
"I HAVE underestimated you." Xena grinned.
"That makes a few lessons learned today." Gabrielle responded with a satisfied smile. "Of course the BIGGEST one is that no matter how hard I flap my arms. I can't fly." Xena laughed with her intrepid friend.
It took several days for Gabrielle to walk without a limp after she came crashing down from the tree. Once she felt better, she decided to practice her stealth again.
"Gabrielle" Xena called out as she had done many times in the past, ready to start their travels only to be waiting for Gabrielle. No response. Xena had expected Gabrielle to start her practicing again, but hoped she would at least wait until the present was delivered. Xena hated having an outstanding promise to fulfill. The quicker she accomplished the delivery the better, she thought.
Xena was pretty sure the bard would not try to fly again so soon. But then again, Gabrielle was not one to let one setback stop her. Remembering the uncomfortable feelings of fear as she watched Gabrielle fall out of the tree and hit the ground so hard, Xena spoke loudly and deliberately.
"Gabrielle, I'm NOT in the mood for this." Xena warned her friend.
"FINE," Gabrielle said with annoyance from behind a startled Xena. Gabrielle looked down at the point of Xena's sword, which was draw instinctively. "I guess you really AREN'T in the mood for this." Gabrielle eyed her friend, unaware of her monumental success.
"Gabrielle." Xena said evenly with the sword still pointed at Gabrielle's throat. "What if you get SO good, I don't know it's you?" Xena asked with a raised eyebrow.
Gabrielle looked down at the sword tip.
"I see your point."
Once again they were on their way to fulfill one of Gabrielle's promises. Xena's desire to quickly deliver the birthday present to Alletus, though there was plenty of time, was not lost on Gabrielle. For some reason, lost on Xena, Gabrielle found amusement in deliberately stalling their progress. Gabrielle wanted to see how long Xena would tolerate the delay before saying something.
They came across another quaint town, Zemal, when Gabrielle deviously grinned. "Oh look, shops!" She blurted and quickly headed towards the stores. Looking back, Gabrielle found Xena's blue eyes glaring, clearly conveying Xena's frustration that they were unnecessarily stopping again. Gabrielle's grin grew bigger.
Xena looked at her horse. "Maybe I did mix up the herbs."
Argo snorted as they walked to the troth.
Sunal looked over at his grandson Boean, who just woke from a restful sleep.
"How are you feeling my son?" Boean sat up, still weak from the beating, yet recovering.
"Physically, stronger Grandfather. Mentally? I see our brethren, our beliefs threatened, yet my hands are tied. How do you think I feel?" His head sank.
"The test of our beliefs is not an easy one. We can not allow external forces to corrupt our beliefs of peace and unity. Even if it means we will be hurt.... " Sunal took his grandson's hand but Boean pulled it from him.
"We must be able to at least DEFEND ourselves from attack Grandfather. Those Amazons that beat me...they would have killed me if it weren't for Portus coming by with townspeople who were not AFRAID to fight them."
Sunal sighed at the word 'afraid'. Boean realized his mistake, but continued.
"I AM angered Grandfather, because we should not let those external forces, those UNNATURALS who disagree with our beliefs control us and try to hurt us anymore. They shouldn't think we are easy targets - but we are. We cannot even defend ourselves."
Boean could see Sunal was thinking about his words.
"Those Unnaturals, as you call them, have not done the Sunmoon any permanent harm. I believe that we should forgive those transgressions against us and move on Boean."
Boean was livid but contained his anger. "Perhaps you are right Grandfather. No permanent harm was done...."
Sunal smiled warmly at his grandson.
Unknown to the two, from behind a large tapestry of a Sun, Moon and Man, Leo listened.
In the shop in Zemal, Gabrielle found many interesting curios on display as she walked from table to table. The sunlight from the large window in the front of the store beamed in, revealing dust on the artifacts. The arrangement of the shop reminded her of one of her favorite stores in Athens, but not the atmosphere. A young couple acted as if she was a leper and abruptly left. The remaining three patrons carefully kept their distance and continued to watch her. They had eyed her since she entered the store. Gabrielle felt uncomfortable with their cold stares and unsuccessfully tried to warm them with a smile. She could only conclude they were that way because she was new in town and they were not trusting of strangers.
She considered the purchase of a hair comb she was inspecting when the shop owner came out from behind the counter.
"That's NOT for sale," he spoke gruffly and pulled the comb out of her hands. When he placed it back on the table, Gabrielle's confusion grew.
"I didn't know, I thought.... I'm sorry," Gabrielle apologized, finding his hostility very odd.
Another young woman, in a pretty dress, picked up the same comb and handed it to the shopkeeper as she looked defiantly into Gabrielle's eyes.
"That will be 2 Dinars."
Gabrielle's mouth dropped hearing the shopkeeper make the sale.
"Thank you," the young woman responded taking the prize comb with her out of the store.
"Why did you do that? I had money," Gabrielle uttered in shock.
"We don't sell to YOUR kind here. You'd be best on your way," he dismissed her, which she would have none of. Her anger grew.
"What do you mean MY kind?" Gabrielle blocked him from returning behind the counter. His eyes quickly glanced towards a tapestry on his wall, a sun and moon and a man standing between.
"Unnaturally aggressive women."
Gabrielle squeezed her staff uneasily as the man continued with unprovoked venom. "Women who would rather fight, travel on the road with each other," he explained as he glanced out the window spotting Xena coming towards the store. "...than stay home with their families where they belong."
Gabrielle could not comprehend where this man's hatred for her came from.
"Who are you to know what is right for me?" Gabrielle asked, her heart torn between anger and hurt from a man she didn't know.
"Go, harlot. Get yourself and your warrior WOMAN friend out of my town."
Xena entered the store. "Are you finished in here yet?" She questioned Gabrielle with a grin that faded fast when she saw Gabrielle's face. "Is everything OK?" Xena demeanor quickly changed. She threw an icy stare at the storekeeper.
The man looked at Xena as he slowly pulled out a sword from below the counter and placed it on the counter. Unimpressed, Xena sighed. He turned to Gabrielle.
"I've asked you, now I am telling you...leave. I don't want to fight, although I understand that is all your KIND understands..." Gabrielle was visibly upset and abruptly left, passing Xena without a word. It enraged the Warrior Princess to think anyone would deliberately try to upset Gabrielle.
"That goes for you too," the man said harshly.
Xena, took a deep breath and slowly approached the man. He didn't appreciate her height and intimidating bearing until he looked up into her cold eyes. It finally dawned on him that Xena was not one he would want to fight.
"Be thankful I didn't hear everything you said to my friend." Her voice was as cold as her stare. "I am not as forgiving as she is."
The man's eyes widened with fear, which pleased Xena. However, she was still left unsatisfied that he didn't give her a reason to rough him up.
With Argo in tow, they left the town. Xena walked along side of Gabrielle with a comforting hand on her friend's shoulder. Xena saw to it that they took their time leaving, despite the hateful eyes following them.
Gabrielle walked silently, looking only at the ground before her, wanting to put the town and those people far behind them.
Xena made eye contact with as many of the people as she could. For her, it was a small victory each time she make them look away with her glare. This experience was not unfamiliar to the former warlord. However, it pained Xena to see Gabrielle going through this. Gabrielle couldn't comprehend that blind, yet not uncommon, hate. It would be a lesson she would have to learn if she was going to travel with the Warrior Princess, Xena sadly concluded.
Xena didn't broach the incident at the store until they had made camp that evening. Gabrielle sat quietly, staring at the fire.
"Gabrielle, you didn't do anything wrong." Xena broke the silence, wanting the smile to return to her friend's face. Gabrielle nodded, rubbing the beginnings of a tear away from her eye.
"I know and that makes it more confusing." Gabrielle then spoke with such distress it surprised Xena. "To be hated on sight alone...they didn't even KNOW me..."
Xena looked at her troubled friend. "Then they WOULD have a reason..."
Gabrielle looked up at her friend not sure if she heard correctly. They looked at each other for a silent moment. A moment that made Xena begin to wonder if she had just made a mistake with her friend.
"Excuse me, I am TRYING to wallow in self-pity here. You are making that very difficult." Gabrielle found it hard, but responded with a straight face.
Xena cleared her throat.
"Sorry. Go on, you were mentioning how to know you is to...go ahead...I won't interrupt." Xena wiped the grin from her face and feigned interested.
"I SUPPOSE I should thank you for cheering me up...." Gabrielle remarked as she laid down on her bedding with a deliberate and grand gesture of turning her back to Xena. Xena laughed.
"Good night Gabrielle," Xena said softly.
"Good night Xena...Thanks."
Gabrielle replayed the scene in the shop over and over. "Your kind" she kept hearing him say. A woman in Amazon garb, carrying a staff and traveling with another woman. Why was that wrong? Gabrielle asked herself. She didn't realize how restless she had been until she heard her friend.
"Do you want me to make you some tea to help you sleep?" Xena asked with a devious glint in her eyes.
Gabrielle turned and looked over at her and laughed. It wasn't wrong, Gabrielle concluded and closed her eyes.
In Corerik, the Great Hall was once again full with Sunmoon brethren for a ceremony. However, the occasion was a somber one. It was a double funeral. Sunal stood before the group visibly disturbed. Leo and Boean stood in a place of honor behind their grandfather.
"Our brethren lost their lives having lived their beliefs which I..." Sunal's voice caught as an overwhelming sense of guilt flooded his heart. "...established so many years ago. Times have changed since those founding years. My son died because of those changes and but I did not see. My grandson tried to warn me of these changes but I did not hear. It took the heinous murders of two of our brothers for me to understand these changes. I see now. I hear now."
Sunal's words caused a disturbed murmur in the congregation.
"Our quest for peace and harmony must continue, yet our lives are at stake. We must not be targets for this senseless violence from the Unnaturals," Sunal declared, pulling out Amazon arrows that were found through the hearts of the two brethren. He raised them in the air. Slowly and deliberately, he displayed them to the congregation.
Leo watches his grandfather torn by the events.
"Boean will establish a group to protect the Sunmoon brethren and our ways. Peace and Harmony, Boean. Peace and Harmony Brethren." Sunal chanted with the divided brethren. Their leader had just agreed to establish an army, contradicting their core beliefs. Yet, the brethren trusted Sunal implicitly and would follow Sunal despite their misgivings. Both Leo and Boean knew that well. Boean spoke to his brother with enthusiasm.
"Finally brother, we will have a chance of surviving." Boean put his arm on his brother's shoulder.
"Wile and Ral were good men and good friends." Leo looked sadly over to their casks.
"Yes they were. Examples to us all." Boean agreed.
As they approached another town, Gabrielle stiffened with memory of Zemal and the shopkeeper.
"We really don't need any supplies Gabrielle. If you'd prefer...." Xena started to suggest they go around.
"I thought you said I did nothing wrong?!" She interrupted with some annoyance.
"I did, you didn't...fine, we'll go through." Xena sighed, frustrated that her efforts to help Gabrielle resulted in a adverse reaction from the bard. A common occurrence. "You are going to drive me crazy..." Xena quietly muttered under her breath.
"What?" Gabrielle asked, hearing something.
"Never mind." Xena sighed. "Just stay close, OK?" Before Xena could get a response, Gabrielle was halfway to a store.
"Gabrielle..." Xena called out with no response from the bard. "She is definitely going to drive me crazy."
"That's not funny." Xena responded.
Gabrielle entered the store and found a similar arrangement of curios that the store in Zemal had. So what? That doesn't mean anything, she told herself. She saw an elderly man and woman in the store. The man tended the counter and the woman straightened up and dusted. They both hummed the same pleasant tune and would occasionally glance up and smile at each other. The scene brought a smile to Gabrielle's previously worried face. Gabrielle correctly guessed they were married.
Gabrielle looked around the shop for a moment or two before she tried to buy something. Despite the seemingly nice owners, she had to see if she would be treated the same in this store. Gabrielle approached the counter.
"I'd like to have this ...this..." Gabrielle looked at the small object. "What is this?" She asked, not knowing what it was but liked its shape and appearance. She handed the object over to the man who held it up and inspected it.
"Hmm, it's a...huh...I really don't know, how embarrassing." The man looked over and called to his wife. "Mara, could you come here for a second dear?" Then turned to Gabrielle with a smile. "She'll know." He winked at her. His demeanor quickly put Gabrielle at ease.
The woman had a pleasant smile, which Gabrielle responded to with one of her own. The two were still very much in love, Gabrielle concluded noting how they communicated with each other with their body language.
"What is this dear?" Mara looked at the object and scratched her head. She looked back at her husband.
"OK you win, what is it?" She asked him.
"Honey, I don't know. That's why I asked you," he responded with a shrug. S he looked at him then back at the item.
"You know, I've seen that on the table for years...I never knew what it was...I assumed you did." The two looked at each other and laughed.
"Well miss, I'm sorry. We really can't sell this to you." The man put the object on the counter in front of her still looking at it curiously.
"Why not?" Gabrielle panicked. Had they fooled her with their easy manner? Were they really prejudice like that other shopkeeper?
"It wouldn't be right to sell you something we have no idea what it is. So here, take it as a gift." The man handed it to her.
"What? I can't accept this...this...item. Let me give you something for it." Gabrielle was taken aback with their generosity and reached in her bag for some dinars.
"Honey, we wouldn't know what to charge for it. Please, it would make us happy for you to have this lovely...uh...gift." Mara smiled.
"Thank you so much. I was beginning to think everyone was like the last store keeper I ran into in Zemal." Gabrielle revealed, then noticed the smiles disappeared as the couple gravely looked at each other.
Xena waited with Argo for Gabrielle to come out of the store. It seemed like a very long time and Xena was growing impatient. Many thoughts raced through her mind.
"Why did I let her go in alone?" Xena questioned herself, knowing full well if she went with her, Gabrielle would have thought she was being overprotective - again. And Gabrielle would have been annoyed with her - again.
"If she needed me she would have called out, right? Right. Of course. That is, if she could call out" Xena unsuccessfully fought her unfounded, yet growing concern. "Gods, I sound like a worried...." She shook her head at the thought. Xena looked over at her horse. "Hey girl, do you need anything in the store?"
As Xena started towards the store, she saw Gabrielle come out with a pleasant looking couple.
"Goodbye Gabrielle, it was a pleasure meeting you. Stop by for a visit sometime!" Mara waved.
Xena relaxed seeing Gabrielle had won over two more people with her charm. It was very easy to be susceptible to Gabrielle's charm, Xena knew from personal experience. Gabrielle's happiness was obvious as she walked over to her friend.
"Well, it looks like you've made new friends," Xena noted, thankfully looking back to the two who brought back Gabrielle's happy disposition.
"Yes and look what they gave me!" She held out the object.
"They gave that to you?" Xena asked looking over the object.
"Yes. Wasn't that incredibly nice of them?" Gabrielle started to put it away when Xena asked a question she somehow knew she would regret.
"What is it?"
Gabrielle looked at her with a grin, realizing she owed Mara one.
"Come on Xena, don't you know?"
As she packed the item, Gabrielle relayed what she just learned.
"Xena, Mara mentioned that the storekeeper in Zemal is a follower of Sunmoon, so is most the town according to Mara. Have you ever heard of the Sunmoon?" Gabrielle asked as they left this much friendlier town.
"Isn't that some sort of religious group?" Xena guessed from her vague recollection of the name.
"It started out to be a group of pacifists who promoted Peace and Harmony and Family." Gabrielle relayed more details.
"Hard to argue with that," Xena noted. Gabrielle nodded in agreement.
"Well, now there is a movement within the Sunmoon against those they believe are upsetting the 'natural order' ... they call them 'Unnaturals'..," Gabrielle spoke with some concern.
"Unnaturals? Let me guess, Centaurs.... Amazons," Xena guessed correctly. Gabrielle nodded and continued to relay more of what Mara told her.
"Only, this pacifist group seems to be actively recruiting young men into an army. Xena, if all the followers of Sunmoon are like the last town, they are not pacifists anymore."
"What is it?" Gabrielle noticed Xena's expression.
"When I took my... side trip ...from Walsas, I remember seeing Sunmoon followers setting up a temple in a nearby town, Marapolis. I didn't think much of it until now." She shrugged.
"They sound like they are already widespread and still growing. If they are actively recruiting for an army.... Oh Gods. Think of the numbers, the threat to the Amazons, the Centaurs, my sisters!" Gabrielle blurted with great concern.
Xena reached out and grabbed Gabrielle's shoulder. "Whoa, let's not panic before we know the facts OK?" Xena said with calm yet feeling the same concerns.
"You're right - we need to know more." Gabrielle agreed, calming down a bit.
When they reach a fork in the road, Xena mounted Argo.
"Explain to me again, why you need to go alone," Gabrielle asked with her arms crossed. She was obviously not pleased.
"It's not that I NEED to go alone Gabrielle," Xena looked down at her friend. "You still have a gift to deliver to Alletus. You wouldn't want to break YOUR promise to Cumae would you?"
Gabrielle somehow knew Xena would say that. Gabrielle also knew Xena didn't want her to go with her. It was probably one of the seedier places Xena used to hang around in her old days as a warlord, Gabrielle guessed.
"Unhuh. And that's the only reason?" Gabrielle asked. Xena looked at her, knowing she knew it wasn't.
"Isn't that good enough?" Xena asked.
"Sure. OK. Fine. I'll see you in a few days." Gabrielle sighed and started down the road.
Xena rode around to face her friend. She looked down with concern in her eyes. "Gabrielle.."
Gabrielle's annoyance faded when she heard Xena's soft voice. Gabrielle guessed she was going to say something like be careful or I won't be long.
"DON'T get into any trouble," Xena barked and rode off quickly, grinning.
"She's gonna drive me crazy..." Gabrielle muttered, then looked back at the shrinking image of her friend, her best friend.
Immediately after entering the Tartarus-hole of a town, Dunkus, Xena entered a familiar alley at night. It was not her idea of a pleasant way to spend the evening, but it was necessary if she was going to meet up with Burell, a spy she used on many occasions in her warlord days. She sensed six people in the alley with her. As she expected, five large men came out from the darkness and surrounded her.
"Good evening boys." Xena spoke with a purr. "I'm here to see Burell."
"What? You don't want to spend some time with us first?" One bold and incredibly stupid man stepped behind her. "How about a date?" He breathed down her neck as he placed his hand upon her thigh. Xena slowly slid her hand down on top of his. With a powerful, but slow squeeze, he crumpled down to his knees.
"Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer hand holding before anything more serious...Don't you?" The man looked up, vigorously nodding in agreement as tears welled up in his eyes.
Two men charged at Xena. She jumped up and connected squarely with powerful kicks to their jaws. The force of the kicks sent them flying backwards until they met the hard, cold ground with thuds. The remaining two men pull out their swords. Xena shakes her head and sighs.
"I'll give you boys some good advise. Don't EVER pull your sword out on a first date." She roundhouse kicks a sword from one man, knocking him easily out with one punch to the face. "You wouldn't want to be considered rude now, would you?" She noted, then quickly performed a magnificent somersault over the head of the remaining conscious man, landing behind him.
The last man was too scared to move, except for his shaking.
"Tsk, Tsk, Tsk...you really should wash behind the ears. Women do notice these things and you DO want to make a good first impression don't you?" She asked him. Pulling on his ear, he followed without resistance. She then tossed him. He flew backwards into the darkness, on top of the sixth man.
"OK, OK..." Burell pushed the last henchman off him and got up.
"Just checking to see if you still mean business Xena." He came out brushing himself off. "You always had a special way of weeding out the bad ones." He looked over to his protection, which now formed a pile on the ground.
Noticing the grime on her fingers that gripped the last man's ear, she wiped them on Burell's shirt.
"Glad I could help" Xena remarked dryly.
"Xena. I've heard you've changed... but you look the same to me." He walked around her appreciating her form. She sighed, but humored him. He was usually a good source of accurate information.
"I am here to get some information on the Sunmoon." She finally faced him, tired of his circling.
"Ah, odd yet busy people. Love their tunics. I would look good in ...."
He threw out a morsel of information, which got Xena's attention.
"Busy?" She interrupted his statement about fashion.
"Xena. What sort of businessman do you think I am? I need some..." He rubbed his fingers together indicating dinars. ".... Encouragement."
Xena grabbed his throat and pushed him against the wall. "Is this enough encouragement?" She smiled slightly. Burell rolled his eyes.
"You had more money as a warlord didn't you?" He rubbed his throat after she let him down.
"You're lucky, I have more patience now...but it's NOT unlimited. What do you know about the Sunmoon?"
Xena got an earful. The situation was as bad as they feared. The Sunmoon were becoming more aggressive, buying arms and assembling an army. Small skirmishes were erupting more frequently between small groups of Sunmoon and anyone they considered "unnatural." Burell didn't know where their army planned to strike first. But by the aggressive and successful recruiting efforts, the army would be huge.
"They are very good at keeping their plans to themselves. They don't really talk to anyone except their own or those they hope to make their own. I'm afraid you won't have much luck, you would be considered an 'unnatural', although I think they are crazy." He looked her over appreciatively once again. "It's been a pleasure." He noted.
Xena whistled to Argo, who came down the alley quickly. "Thanks for the chat Burell." She started to mount Argo then paused, looking at her saddlebag the back at her usually reliable source of information. Sighing, she pulled the mystery object out.
"You wouldn't happen to know what this is?" Burell looked blankly at the object, then grinned.
Walking along the road, Gabrielle, caught up in her thoughts of the store in Zemal, recognized the Sun, Moon and Man symbol too late as a Sunmoon wagon approached. The three young men on the wagon spotted her. Her heart raced as the wagon slowed down then stopped.
"Need a ride...miss?" The wagon driver in a burgundy tunic asked. Gabrielle pushed down her fear and plastered on a smile.
"No thank you, as you can see I am going the other way." She pointed to where they came from. She smiled again and started down the road.
"Stop.....Please...Don't rush off so quickly." The driver's voice was anything but sincere.
Two Sunmoon jumped off the wagon and blocked her from proceeding on the road. The driver jumped off the wagon and landed behind her. "We would be more than happy to help you along." The driver grabbed her forearm. She quickly broke his grip and pushed him back.
"Get your hands off of me." She said coolly. His eyes narrowed.
"Gentlemen, I think we have an unnatural here. What a shame." The driver stares at her.
Gabrielle forces herself to focus on the men and not the hurtful words. When the two men behind her step closer, she quickly faces them. The driver wasn't finished with his insults.
"I thought you might be one, from your garb and that staff, but since you can't stand the touch of a man...well...its clear you must prefer...." With that last insult, Gabrielle's temper could no longer be controlled. Thrusting her staff forcefully in the stomach of the talkative driver, he doubled over, gasping for air.
She swung her staff around with a flourish, having learned from Xena that it helps unsettle opponents. The move caused them to hesitate before they lunged with their swords. As a result of this hesitation, she easily dodged their blows by jumping out of the way. Amazing herself with the success of the move, she almost delays too long with her next move.
"Focus," she scolded herself. She followed with a solid hit to the man closest to her, knocking him to the ground. The second man looked at her, then his two friends crumpled on the ground.
"You will pay for this harlot!" He ran down the road. Gabrielle decided running was not a bad idea.
Arriving at a small town, she leaned against a building to catch her breath. Peering around the corner of the building, she spotted two young Sunmoon men trying to recruit a group of townsmen. Gabrielle's fear grew, the Sunmoon seemed to be everywhere. What an army they must be gathering, she worried.
She ducked into a tavern to avoid the two Sunmoon. Looking around the smelly and dirty place, she shivered with disgust. At least the Sunmoon looked like they bathed, she thought, comparing bad to worse.
"Hey babe, can I buy you a drink?" A toothless man exhaled in her face. The alcohol was strong on his breath.
"Back off!" She blurted, unable to hide her annoyance. She was in no mood to deal with this as well. The toothless man was going to say something else but was interrupted by a good-looking young man.
"Friend, why don't I buy YOU a drink." He put his arm on the toothless man who smiled a cavernous smile. With another drink in hand, the toothless man was content and left Gabrielle alone.
"I didn't need your help," Gabrielle snapped at this man after the toothless man left.
"Whoa, I sense some hostility here. Bad day?" The man kept his humor. She did not.
"What is that supposed to mean?" She asked with great annoyance.
"Nothing, traveler. I know the road can be a rough place," he offered. She suspiciously eyed this strange man. There was something about him that was odd but she couldn't place her finger on it.
"HOW do you know I am a traveler?" She questioned him.
"Being a messenger, I do a fair bit of traveling myself and besides, I know someone as pretty as you wouldn't be living in this town." He smiled warmly at this woman.
"MEN!" She blurted with great exasperation. She vented her pent-up emotion and frustration from the past week on the unsuspecting man.
"Either I am a harlot, an "object" for a man's amusement or an "unnatural." GODS, what is it with you?!" She continued her diatribe towards a silent and surprised man.
"If I were a man, no one would ever think twice about my skill with this staff - unnaturally aggressive? HA! Do you realize I wouldn't have to USE this staff if you guys didn't keep attacking me!"
The man concluded she must have been talking figuratively, continuing to listen.
"If I were a man, I could enter a place like this and not get harassed by some filthy drunk or soldier... hey babe can I buy you a drink.." Gabrielle perfectly mimicked the tone of the toothless man. "Sheese. Whatever happened to manners? Or a good pick up line????"
"If I were a man, no one would ever think it odd that I choose to travel with my best friend instead of staying home. Iolaus has NEVER had to deal with what I have to deal with." Gabrielle shook her head.
"If I were a man, I would be able to tell..." She stopped mid-sentence, surprising herself.
Having patiently waited for her to take a breath, the young man eyed her.
"So you think it is so easy to be a man?" He asked. She rolled her eyes.
"PLEASE...men have it so easy, it's ridiculous!" She blurted. He smiled at the mortal's bold statement.
"Well Gabrielle, perhaps you are right. But, I think you should see for yourself before you jump to that conclusion. THEN we will discuss how easy it is. You shall see."
In a blink of an eye, the man was gone.
She experienced a familiar feeling that she had done something very stupid. First, the disappearing man knew her name and she knew she didn't tell him. Secondly, the man disappeared. They normally don't do that. She looked around the bar and no one seemed to notice the man had disappeared.
A slight panic washed over her as she considered his last words 'you shall see.' She looked down at herself and sighed with relief, then laughed at the silly thought she had. "Nothing different, of course not", she thought. But people just don't disappear. "Ugh oh", she started to think the worst. "Get a grip Gabrielle," she told herself. There was a logical explanation of course, she just didn't know it yet.
"I'd like some water please," she asked the bartender thinking that might help calm her nerves.
The bartender looked at her oddly, then around her. He shrugged as he got the water.
"Water? Water?!?" A tired old warrior looked over with disgust. Gabrielle looked over at him.
"Excuse me?" She asked not sure of his point.
"What are you? A Sissy boy?" He looked the bard up and down, then pushed Gabrielle's shoulder. The words confused her.
"Sissy Boy?" She repeated looking at herself again. Why did he say that, she questioned silently with a confused look on her face.
The tired warrior grinned. "If you don't like me calling you that, Sissy Boy, do something about it." The confrontation gathered interest in the tavern as Gabrielle could feel an increasing number of eyes on them. She knew she could take on this old warrior but was not so sure about the entire tavern, should the patrons prove to be the tired warrior's friends. Better not take the chance, she concluded.
"Look...friend, I don't want any trouble. You obviously are a strong, fierce warrior and I am just a simple bard who would not fair well in a fight with someone of your GREAT skill," Gabrielle spoke with forced reverence for a man she didn't respect. The words appeased the tired warrior.
"You are a wise bard." He spoke evenly, his pride having been sufficiently bolstered.
"I try," Gabrielle responded honestly. The tired warrior sat down to his drink. The tavern's interest diminished, as there would be no fight between the two. Watching the tired warrior, Gabrielle wondered if that drink was all he had to look forward to in his old age.
Gabrielle started to leave when she turned and bumped into two Sunmoon recruiters. Her panic grew.
"Bard, you handled yourself well." The young man smiled. "I am Leo. This is Portus. I can't tell you how refreshing it is to find someone who doesn't think violence is the way." His words were unexpected, yet spoken as if he believed them. They didn't react to her like the other Sunmoon she realized with curiosity.
"Yes, as you pointed out Bard, some of us would not fair well in fights. I guess that fact helps us to recognize the error in living that way." Portus joked about their warrior shortcomings. The two men were very friendly, Gabrielle noted, but their affiliation with Sunmoon made her scrutinize their every word.
She sat down at a table with them. Since they seemed willing to talk with her, she took the opportunity to gather information.
"Something to drink?" The barmaid asked.
"Water please," the two men asked. Gabrielle also nodded. After she left, the two men shook their heads with sadness.
"It is a tragedy that a young woman would have to work in a place like this," Leo spoke sincerely.
"A tragedy." Portus agreed. Gabrielle kept silent.
"We belong to a group called the Sunmoon. We believe the road to true happiness is through peace and harmony. We believe in supporting the blessed gift of family. We are always looking for people to join our brethren who wish to support those precious things," Leo explained seeing a curious look from Gabrielle.
"Join your brethren? To do what?" She asked amazed at the genuinely friendly men and curious about the requirements of becoming a member of this "brethren." She considered she would not be qualified for obvious reasons.
"Promote the family, peace and harmony. We help towns ravaged by war with supplies and manpower to rebuild. We also try to teach young men that a real man doesn't need to prove his worth on a battlefield - that a real man provides for his family. Too many are losing their way, Bard, why? Because they have lost touch with what is really important. We seek only to show people that the love they crave is not out in some mysterious place but in here." Leo points to his heart. "And with the family in peace." Gabrielle heard words that unnerved her. They were things she couldn't argue with.
"You seem like the type of young man who agrees with these beliefs. Perhaps you would be interested in attending one of our services." Portus remarked with a smile.
"Young man?" She looked at him oddly, mentally repeating those two words. She wasn't sure she heard right. Her eyes darted between the faces of the Sunmoon recruiters, then over to the tired warrior.
"Oh Gods." She mentally uttered, inspecting herself. "Young man!? I don't see anything different! Is that what they see?" She silently questioned, confused that three people seemed to see her as a man, yet she didn't. Her mind raced as she nervously concluded the disappearing man had done something to her. She looked back into Leo's and Portus' curious faces. "Oh Gods."
Leo saw the bard reacting oddly.
"Portus, we don't want to scare off our friend. I'm sorry." Portus didn't think he was too aggressive, but Leo did know people better. "We try not to use aggressive recruiting tactics and sometimes our enthusiasm for our beliefs make us forget some might not welcome us. I'm also sorry for being rude...What is your name by the way?" She looked up at them.
"Gabr..." She stopped and coughed. She couldn't use her real name, how many men are named Gabrielle? Her mind raced. She couldn't think. Oh Gods. Her nerves got to her.
"Gabriel?" Portus guessed. Gabrielle nodded quickly. That sounded as good as any other name, she thought. "Good, good to know you Gabriel."
Leo could see Gabriel was still agitated and thought it best not to push yet.
"We must be going Gabriel. If you should decide to attend one of our services, tell them Leo sent you and they will respect your desire to just listen. No strings." He smiled warmly. Gabrielle forced a smile and nodded.
Shortly after the Sunmoon departed, Gabrielle left the tavern.
"I must be just really be tired and misunderstood them. Of course. Ha. I can't believe I could have believed such a ridiculous thought!" Gabrielle unsuccessfully attempted to rationalize what was going on. She needed an answer. Exiting the tavern, she immediately stopped a passerby. "Excuse me." The man looked at her curiously. "This may sound odd but, do you see me as a man or a woman?" She asked with utter seriousness. He glanced back at the tavern.
"Gods, you'd better lay off the booze son. It's doing really bad things to your brain." He shook his head.
"Son?" She repeated back to him with a nervous crack in her voice. Annoyed with the interruption, the man walked away from her, still shaking his head.
Walking some distance outside the town, she stopped and looked up to the sky. All Gabrielle could think was "Oh gods." Now what was she going to do?
"OK OK... you win. Who ever you are. I was wrong. Life isn't easier as a man! Of course not. What was I thinking! I WASN'T thinking...." Gabrielle blurted with no response. She turned and found the mysterious man standing before her. He wore a helmet with wings on it.
"Hermes," she uttered with a sinking feeling, recognizing the outfit. He smiled.
"You don't think I'd let you get off so easily do you Gabrielle?" Hermes looked her over. "Not bad handy work, if I do say." Gabrielle looked down at herself.
"But...I haven't changed." She still saw her old self. "I am still a young god you know. That's harder to pull off. But people's perception of you HAS changed, and that is all that is really needed," Hermes explained.
"I'm sorry." Gabrielle couldn't think of anything else to say.
"Hmm. Perhaps you are. You have until the next full moon to contemplate your emphatic conclusions about men by living as one. Of course, you can't tell anyone of your "change," because you really wouldn't be experiencing life as a man now would you?" He shrugged.
"Life perceived as a man," Gabrielle repeated that scary thought in her mind. He smiled.
"Don't worry Gabrielle, it won't be permanent if you show up at my temple in Athens by the next full moon." He looked at the person before him. Gabrielle thought a moment.
"What if I can't make it to the temple?"
He looked at her and raised an eyebrow.
"Good point, the conditions should be spelled out more formally...don't want any loopholes," he responded. Gabrielle wanted to kick herself having possibly lost any chance of getting out of this "test" with a loophole.
Hermes cleared his throat and stood tall. "Let it be known, that these are my conditions," he declared formally. He seemed content with the words but sought Gabrielle's opinion. "How did that sound?" Gabrielle couldn't believe he was asking.
"Very...ah...god-like." Her comment pleased the God.
"If you fail to meet with me at my temple at the next full moon, I'll consider you still of the opinion that it's easier to be a man and you'll live the rest of your life as one." Hermes continued.
"If you tell anyone of this change, blada blada blada, same thing...." He seemed to be out of time. "Of course if you die ...ah, never mind, too gruesome a thought...anyway, gotta go, I've got some cattle that need my attention." With that last remark, Hermes giggled and left.
"Wait, Please!" Gabrielle shouted. "Oh Gods, a month" She uttered, leaning weakly against the tree.
Part 1| Part 2 | Part 3