It All Began With A Trout by Alexiares
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DISCLAIMER: Hmm, let's see. Xena and Gabrielle don't belong to me. I am just among the many who borrow them for my own purposes. Oh, Argo doesn't belong to me, either. Or any other charcter from the television show. This isn't a violent piece, or a very sexually explicit piece. But, those things do show up. What else... oh, as far as I'm concerned, Xena and Gabrielle are a couple. If you don't like it, don't read my story. Any other characters and other original material belongs to me. Oh, and last but not least, chronologically speaking, this story is pre-Rift, in fact, in my Xenaverse, there is no Rift. Truth is, I think the whole Dahok storyline stinks, and I think the new Gabrielle thing isn't that hot either...

Oh, and if you have comments, send them to . Anything nasty will be cheerfully ignored.
It All Began With A Trout

by Alexiares

I have had such a weird four Moons or so. Which started out with a bizarre day... no, a bizarre morning... okay, okay, a bizarre... half candlemark. And trust me, you don't know bizarre until you've had a morning like that... half candlemark... week... Moon... whatever. I don't know, I'm not a bard. Well, not officially. Well, not all the time. Shut up and tell the story... can you do both? Have you ever wondered? Ooooh... Iphito you so owe me for this... Um, anyway, it all started when this six foot tall dark haired woman knocked me out with a trout. Stop looking at me like that.

Anyway, as you can see from the leathers, and the feathers, I'm an Amazon, or as my people prefer, Emetchi. Usually I'd be in my home village teaching my fellow Amazons how to belt each other senseless with various oddly shaped sticks and pieces of metal. For the knowledgeable. that means I'm a weaponmaster. The fact that I know that does not necessarily make me knowledgeable. If it did, I wouldn't have been knocked out with a trout a Moon ago. How did I wound up getting knocked out? Ah, and so begins my woeful tale... damn, I've always wanted to say that... ahem.

Well, you see, the Queen's daughter is really cute, and I was chatting her up. A little walk in the woods, dinner, maybe a cuddle under the stars. No big deal, nothing bad for her health and well being. But, her mother sure didn't see it that way. Apparently chatting up her daughter is a bad idea, and she got pretty pissed.

That in itself, did not cause me to take a little strategic walk around time. The Queen is really quite fair, and though angry, the extent of it was, "Hands off, featherhead." After she finished yelling, anyway. Later that day, I accidentally... knocked her into a horsetrough showing one of my better staff moves to a friend of mine. At which point she told me to go walk far beyond her sight for a while, and I agreed that this was a wise and well considered idea. And it was.

So, I decided to head south towards Arboria, Amphipolis, all that. It's peaceful there, and pretty, and there are great streams for fishing. My only complaint is that it is really cool at night for so early in the fall, so I had to take my heavy bedroll. This together with my armour, and my weapons... see, I figure, if I bitch about this in enough places, my fellow Amazons will get so damn sick of it they'll help me get some new, lighter armour. Nothing has happened for years, but, hey, I try to take a long view of it.

Three weeks wandering or so from home, I found myself in the near vicinity of a lovely little stream. Damn, you could see the trout ghosting along in the current, looking all silvery in the midday sun. Loads of them. I found a nice little clearing and set out my kit. Then I pulled out some line and a little jerky... trout can't resist it you know, especially when you give the line that bit of a twitch... with your wrist, you know, and add a weight to the bait end so it sort of bobs... ummm, story not fishing lesson, right.

I walked down to the stream, happy as a jaybird. I had my line all set, and was watching for a bit of a gap in the fish, a sort of clear point in time when dropping in a line wouldn't scare them too badly. It's a funny sort of time. It feels all sort of quiet and calm, like the stream is empty and asleep for a few moments. Just some little tiny twigs, and a water walker in the still soggy part near the bank. Maybe some bark, and the bubbles where the water swirls in a little hollow and jumps back into the current again. Then I let the line slip in, careful, so there won't be too much of a splash. I don't think the fish really care about any of this, actually. It just feels right.

After a moment, I hunkered down, making an interesting shadow on the water for the fish to poke around at. A nice breeze was blowing, and it smelt of the trees, and the old rotten trunks that go all reddish and crumbly, and the dying leaves when they fall to the ground, and wood smoke... wood smoke? I just about jumped out of my boots. But it was just a wiff, and I couldn't see any smoke in the air above the trees when I stood up. I figured, you goof... you were dozing off and started dreaming. Probably just about fell in the creek.

So I stretched my legs and settled in again. The fish started moseying by, and a few of them swam around my line, sort of poking at the weight. I had tied some feathers from a heron on it, the fish seem to think they're fascinating. Trouble was, most of the fish were so small, I'd have had to throw them back if they took the bait. And then apologized to Artemis for hurting baby fish. And then it happened.

This monster trout swam over. Gods, it was huge. It would have provided lunch, dinner, and breakfast besides. And I could brag about the huge fish I caught later. Oh, I wanted to catch that fish. And it swam over, ever so slowly, right up to the bait, and it was just getting ready to take it in a gulp when a hideous splash came from about fifty body lengths upstream. That fish took off like I had spanked it. I was furious, and turned to see who the idiot was who had just scared away the most amazing fish I would ever see in this life. And that was when my life took a turn into strangeland.

There upstream was this tall woman in dark leathers. She had dark hair and these really gorgeous bright blue eyes, which were so intense you could see them that far away. Hades, she was just gorgeous all over. I almost forgot to be mad, I was so busy gaping. Then the facts trickled back. That woman had just scared away an incredible fish. First I would teach her not to do that. Then, I would chat her up. With any luck, I wouldn't embarrass myself by drooling all over her boots.

After putting aside my fishing gear, I grabbed my chobos and set off upstream. Whoever she was, she wasn't worried about followers. Her tracks were as clear as the sky, and in a few minutes I was two, three bodylengths behind her. Then I took to the trees. My plan was to drop out of the trees in front of her, give a good sized war holler, and look threatening while explaining my problem with her behavior earlier. Something like that. The first part went off without a hitch.

She was, however, totally unimpressed by pretty much everything. Now, I am over six feet tall, and she was smaller than me. My job keeps me working out all the time, and to my eye she was so slender I could have broken her in half without trying. And as a general rule, people find dark haired warriors more disarming, and I'm pretty dark haired. I've also got funny coloured eyes as you can see. This silvery grey thing doesn't happen too often. Altogether, I usually have surprise on my side. Apparently not today, because she didn't even blink. "What do you want?" she asked bluntly.

I was caught totally flat footed. And she had a huge trout clutched in her right hand. So what comes out of my mouth? "Give up the fish and I won't hurt you for scaring away my dinner." One eyebrow raised. She put her free hand on her hip and held up the fish. "You want this?" A little unsure now, I shook myself, sucked in my gut and made my voice as deep and growly as possible. Which means I almost swallowed my tongue. My voice can't get much deeper than it already is, after all, but this lady was so self-confident I was just wilting. Wilting, for Gaia's sake! I'm a weaponmaster, that's intolerable! "Yeah, gimme the fish!"

"Oh, then you just try and take it."

Now I was steamed. She had this self-satisfied smirk on her face like she was the best warrior in Greece or something. So I decided to lunge at her rather than the fish. Knock her flat, stun her, then obtain the fish and explain the importance of not underestimating your opponent. Sigh. I twitched. She bent her knees a bit, tensed her right arm, and swung.

Yeah, yeah, so she DID happen to be the best warrior in Greece.

Never get knocked out by a trout. It's worse than getting kicked in the head by a centaur, because you'll definitely wake up afterwards. Chances are, a centaur kicks you, and you won't get up again, until Charon prods you and demands his fare.

I came to after, most of the afternoon, I guess. My left eye was swollen shut, and the teeth on the left side of my mouth felt like they were trying to leave me. My guts felt horribly squirmy, and I found myself wishing very hard that nausea did not accompany concussions. Then I noticed that I was tied with my back to a tree, I had no weapons, and while I was sitting on the ground, my ankles were tied too. Not a problem, just my ankles. That is still workable. So, I tried to bend my knees, and made this awful squawking noise when I discovered that the rope that bound my ankles had been somehow attached to the little fingers of my hands. Bending my knees nearly pulled them off. Great.

Off to my right, a faint rustling came to my ears, and voices.

"Xena, I realize she attacked you... but did you have to hit her so hard? Not only did you just about knock her head off, you killed the fish."

"Ah come on. The fish had to die before you could clean it anyway... she pulled a stupid stunt... think of what would have happened to the fish if I had hit her harder... or if the fish had been older."

This was supposed to help? I was struggling not to puke.

"Well, well. So the Amazon wakes up. Not feeling so great, huh?" Ah, it was the dark haired beauty. And she sounded quite cross. So much for chatting her up.

"Come on, Xena, cut it out. It's not her fault she happened to try jumping you after being forced to spend a day and a half with Joxer." This came from a smaller woman with fair hair and a green top. A top that had to be the colour of my face at that moment. She was dressed pretty much like an Amazon and carried her staff with authority but... I sighed. I had underestimated her friend, whose name was Xena, and this had proved a serious mistake. Very serious.

Xena scowled. "Fine. I'll mix up some herbs so she doesn't puke everywhere."

"Gee, don't hurt yourself on my account." I managed to croak.

"Shut up or I'll hurt you... more." She sort of frowned and rolled her eyes after that, then she went to get the herbs.

"You might want to try more diplomacy and less brawn from now on," the fair haired woman suggested mildly.

"Right. Sure. That sounds so believable when my face has been pulverized and I've been tied to a tree." The woman raised her brows and walked around me, examining my bonds. She sighed. "Xena! Did you have to do that finger thing? Hold still, I'll at least set your fingers free." After a few breaths, I felt whatever attached my ankles to my fingers disappear, along with the rope around my ankles. Then the woman sat down in front of me, looking serious.

"My name is Gabrielle. You tried to jump my best friend Xena, and to tell the truth, if I has been closer you wouldn't have gotten hit with that fish." I rolled my eyes. Well, eye. "Maybe the staff instead, huh?" Gabrielle shook her head slightly. "I can see you're an Amazon. But you aren't from around here." I shifted a bit, trying to indicate subtly that lashing me to a tree was rather unnecessary.

"No," I finally said grudgingly. "I'm from up North, Queen ProthoŽ's tribe."

"Ah," Gabrielle murmured. "One of the loyal ones too... and I bet you have a name." I was warming up to her in spite of myself... not like that! Sheesh you people, get your minds out of the gutter.

"Thraso, daughter of Enna."

Gabrielle grinned broadly. "You really are a traditionalist." That comment sort of pissed me off. Those of us up North get that a lot from southern Amazons, because we still remember the old ways, and call ourselves Emetchi, rather than Amazon... Amazon is what the Greeks like to call us as a slur. Either that, or Greeks have congenitally defective hearing. You know what they call the Egyptian Goddess Au Set? Isis. Isis? How the furk do they get that from Au Set? Anyway, the point is, and I had one long before I got sidetracked, is that my people tend to be made fun of on a regular basis. That little comment seemed to fit quite neatly into the 'being made fun of' category.

"And what's that supposed to mean, wannabe?"

Her eyebrows raised much higher, and her face flushed. Getting right in my face she said angrily, "There is no 'wannabe' about it. You haven't been keeping up. I've been Queen of the Amazon nation nearly three years now... or had you forgotten?"

Forgotten? This was the Gabrielle? This was the one who had Ares' Chosen as her champion and consort? No. No. Forget it. I saw what had happened. I was sprawled on the stream bank, sound asleep, my fishing line gone on the current. My stomach was complaining because I was starving. Perfectly reasonable explanation. After all, you simply don't get knocked unconscious with a trout in real life.

"Now look what you've done. You've scared her into unconsciousness again." Xena said, trying not to laugh. "I have not... ah, hang on, I haven't, right? Are you okay?" She sounded real worried. I felt bad. Oh well. I kept my eyes shut and waited to wake up. "I said, are you all right, because I don't think you're unconscious."

"Don't mind me. I know I'll wake up shortly."

"You are awake, now open your eyes or I won't give this to you and you can stay nauseous and in pain. It doesn't matter to me. I feel just fine." Xena again. Hera's tits. I opened the only eye I could and watched, bemused, as Xena knelt down in front of me with a wooden cup. "Start with this and I'll give you some water to chase it down. It doesn't taste too bad, but the aftertaste is bitter." She surprised me. She was actually real gentle about it, not choking me or anything. "Show her the top of your staff, Gabrielle. It'll be easier for her to believe you if she sees the markings on it." Xena's eyes had softened a lot and she seemed a bit regretful about the whole situation. "Ah, you're just an overgrown kid. How old are you?"

Getting called an overgrown kid got old a long time ago. And back then, I was still a kid!

"Twenty two winters... not a kid. I've been a weaponmaster four years already." Gabrielle chuckled. "That explains the attitude. She's more than a bit like Eponin." A snort came from Xena, who had walked around their fire for a waterskin. "Just goes to show, weaponmasters are picked that way on purpose. Stubborn, competitive, and hot headed."

A frown crinkled Gabrielle's forehead. "Well," she replied mildly. "That is how I picked you."

Xena's eyebrows disappeared under her bangs. "I am not hot headed."

"That man you belted into next week in the last village would beg to differ."

"He tried to pinch your butt!" Xena blurted in an outraged tone. Gabrielle rolled her eyes. Apparently this argument had been going on for awhile. "Look, we might as well just untie her. I think there was just a misunderstanding." Gabrielle stood up and dusted off her skirt as she spoke. Xena took half a step forward, frowned, then handed Gabrielle the waterskin. "Then you hold this."

She walked right up to me and yanked a dagger out of her bodice. My left eye almost came open I was so surprised... alarmed. I'm not sure what stunned me more, the place she took the dagger from or how unpleasant she looked when she did it. A quick flash and I was free of the ropes. Can a flash be anything but quick... lemme try that again, a flash and I was free of the ropes. Maybe... heh, heh, come on now big guy, this is no time to start a brawl... yes, yes, I'll get on with the story.

To my embarrassment, at first my hands were numb, so I couldn't hold the waterskin. That passed after a few moments though, so I stood up and shook myself. A bad idea, because my head promptly started pounding and my vision filled with spots. I clutched my head and nearly reeled into the fire before somebody caught me by the arm and sat me down again. "Take it easy, willya!" Xena stalked to the other side of the fire, and turned over the fish that had put me in this condition in the first place. I figured it was time to try and cover my butt. After all, I had had no idea I was picking a fight with Xena. All we hear up North is names, they couldn't be bothered to visit there.

Brushing off my trews, I cleared my throat and said, "So you're Xena and Gabrielle, huh. Well, now I can go home and tell everybody what you really look like." Gabrielle stared at me for a moment, then silently handed me her staff to look at. It was the real thing. Damn. "What do you mean?"


"What do you mean you get to 'go back home and tell what we really look like'?"

I squirmed. I seemed to be doing that a lot around these two. That wouldn't do, I had the honour and reputation of my tribe to uphold, and so far I had done a pretty lousy job. "Well, it isn't like you've bothered to visit us up North, have you? Most Eme... Amazons, as you say, in the South, think we're just... backwards people. My sister went South, and she asked me not to use my weaponmaster's seal on my scrolls to her. She doesn't want anyone to know how far North she's really from. She's ashamed. And the... Amazons she lives with now mock us, do it's no wonder." This isn't a topic I enjoy. I'm one of the youngest to ever earn the title of weaponmaster. I'm proud of where I am from and that I have earned the right to use that seal.

The fire cracked and popped. Xena pushed a log to one side and said quietly, "But you're not."

"Why should I be?" I liked Gabrielle just fine, but Xena was sending such weird messages I was starting to dislike her just for confusing me.

"You shouldn't be ashamed of where you're from." Gabrielle cut in. "And I'm sorry that Northern Amazons are made fun of on such a regular basis. I suppose we don't understand you as well as we should. What were you going to say instead of Amazons? And how did you become a weaponmaster so young?"

A plate was handed to me as she said this, and I realized Xena had been divvying up the fish. Her expression was unreadable as I accepted it from her, so I was unsure whether I should say thanks or nod. I settled on nodding and looked back to Gabrielle. "Emetchi. That is what we are really called. Amazon is a slur most of the time, and a poor approximation the rest." I felt eyes burning into my right side, and looked back to Xena. "You sound quite well read, besides being a weaponmaster so young." Oh. I quickly turned my gaze back to Gabrielle. No need to explain some of my weirder talents to these people.

"I was always really tall. Really gangly. I spent half my time falling over my own feet, and the other half picking myself up. It was awful. Then one day my mother took me out back of our house and handed me a staff. 'You just do what I do.' We spent every afternoon after that on staff lessons, and damn if I didn't quit falling on my face all the time." The fish smelt too good to ignore, and the herbs seemed to be working, so I worked through some of that before I went on.

"And after that, everything was easy. Picking it up was almost the same as learning it. The javelin, the bow, anything. Eurybe, the weaponmaster when I was finishing my training was old, over fifty summers. She usually just showed technique. One day, she decided I was pretty good and declared I would be her assistant. For that, understand training pell for the class. And when she was showing how something was wrong, I had to do the wrong thing, and she dumped me on my butt." I sighed here, and Gabrielle handed me the waterskin.

"Uh, thanks. Anyway, one day I got really angry..." Xena snorted. "...and I waited by her hut after class. 'Eurybe,' I said, 'I realize those kids need to understand how and why something is wrong, but I'm sick and tired of being a training pell. It would be better if you used the person who was actually doing it wrong!' And she smiled at me and replied as if we were having an entirely different conversation, "Excellent. Now you are ready to be a weaponmaster.' And she set me up in front of the first class next day and went back to her hut." I flushed. "No big fights, or anything. Nothing real impressive."

"Amazons." Xena muttered, rolling her eyes. Now, I've already said, Xena confused me. Xena is an Amazon... okay a feather impaired Amazon, so what was this all about? So I kind of stared at her, and rubbed at my nose, which I do when I'm trying to work something out, except this was a bad idea because my nose was pretty sore. "Whaddya mean?" I asked finally. The trout had addled my brains. I kept having bad ideas, and now I couldn't figure this out. The only thing left was to ask. Xena raised an eyebrow and sighed. "Trust me, kid, a flashy fight is always best avoided." I rubbed at the right side of my head. I would force that damn woman not to call me kid even if I died in the attempt. And maybe I would, with my luck.

Gabrielle asked suddenly, "What's that mark on your arm?"

Okay, fine, show and tell... shut up buddy, or we WILL have a fight, and you'll never hear the end of the story! See, on my left shoulder here? Well it's a five pointed star, kind of stretched out like, and its all bluey silver, silver bluey... blue silver... si... well come on, that sounds funny. Do you know another way to say it? Umm... that isn't the sort of description I had in mind.

It looks like that even at the height of summer, when the sun tans you the most. I've had it since I was a little kid. Obviously, I told Gabrielle all of that.

I couldn't resist you know, flexing a bit, being as she was looking just about at my bicep. Xena made this really nasty growling noise, and I stuck my tongue out at her. Like I was seriously gonna try to pick up her partner. Yep. Uh huh. Me and what demented early death wish? Come on. So I flexed again, making my tattoos show a bit more. "You should hear the priestesses back home going on about it... how it indicates something to do with the gods and all that stuff." Shaking her head slightly Gabrielle ran a finger across the star, and jumped back half a body length.

This was actually funny. A little lady like that jumping that far. That green top moved so fast you would have mistaken it for a grasshopper. She shook her hand a bit like I had slapped it, which I hadn't, then looked at it like it was burnt, which it wasn't, and then looked at Xena. Then back at me. Then she got a real funny look on her face. Being as the first funny look was a fake one. Sorry, I like puns.

"Xena, why don't you look at this. It's a birthmark, obviously, but birthmarks don't usually feel different from the rest of a person's skin, do they?"

"Not necessarily." Xena got up with this long suffering look on her face. Fact number two about the Emetchi queen. She is nosy! Heh, heh, heh, now sit down Iphito, I don't mean it in a mean way. Sheesh.

"What do you mean? Yours doesn't." I burst out laughing as Gabrielle tried to swallow the statement after she had said it, and Xena just about blushed. Laughing was a bad idea. She just about pulled my arm off. As it was, I was sure I'd be able to catch behind my back without turning my wrist.

She glared at the star on my arm, and I swear, it nearly grew legs and ran away. Then she sort of turned me around a bit to get better light. Remember, I am well over six feet tall. I am not accustomed to being turned around like a moldy sack of turnips. I was getting ready to say as much when Xena asked, "You sure this isn't a burn?"

"No, it's not a burn!" I snapped and jerked my arm out of her grip. And fell over my feet because between my having forgotten how to work my knees and my inability to tell which way was up, there was no way I could have avoided them. One thing about not knowing which way is up... guaranteed you'll eventually fall down.

I woke up again, with both women peering at me with alarmed looks on their faces. "The fish," I muttered dazedly. "That damn fish. I should have reached in and grabbed the furking thing. Yeah..." My eyes rolled up.

"Oh no you don't." Xena grabbed me by my tunic front and shook me. "Why don't you just take it easy?" I couldn't believe my ears.

"You're asking me? I'm the one getting shaken like a ragdoll, and you're asking me?" I glared at her. Okay, I tried to glare at her. A one eyed glare is terribly ineffective at the best of times, and this was the glare queen I was looking at. Finally I hauled myself upright. Xena looked over at Gabrielle with a pained look in her eyes. "Maybe I should whack the other side and even her brains out again." But there was a worried look in her eyes that belied the words, and I realized something must have happened while I was unconscious.

"Listen, Thraso, for a few moments after you collapsed, you were in some sort of convulsion. You've been unconscious for four candlemarks." Gabrielle's tone was pretty worried. She didn't know me, so that was understandable.

"Oh, that's okay. It wasn't anything serious... that happened after the last concussion I had too. I felt a lot better afterwards." To prove my point I stood and hopped up and down. Then I shook myself. No more dizziness. I still didn't feel so good, but hey, dizziness is the worst part. If you can get rid of that, life is getting better. Xena and Gabrielle just stared at me.

"Of course, this birthmark as you call it tends to get me in all kinds of trouble. Last week it was a guy yammering about half god types... this week an Ares' army recruitment team... and now, now I'm having trouble even before anyone notices it!" I stopped my tale of woe to take a breath. "The half Goddess stuff was the weirdest." The look that passed between Xena and Gabrielle were priceless. And I would still have paid dinars for it. Get it? Oh. Forget it. Teach me to throw in subtle humour in a crowd like this.

That pretty much shut down conversation for the day. Xena insisted I stay put and got my stuff. I half expected my fishing gear to be kind of tossed into a bundle, but you know, she put it away in the special satchel I made for it and wound up the line so it wouldn't tangle or anything.

"See, she's not so bad." Gabrielle told me, as she handed me another mug of crappy stuff to help my headache and my sore stomach. Don't get me wrong. It worked. It was still crappy. Then I curled up in my bedroll. Must have been sleeping herbs in that cup, because I fell asleep so fast. And the last thing in my waking memory of that night was Xena and Gabrielle curled up together in their bedroll, making moony eyes at each other. Moony eyes!

The next morning started about as nicely as the previous afternoon had finished.

"Aiyeaaaah!" someone nearly stomped on my head.

Bong! Smack! "No, Xena, not the frying pan!"

"Eat rocks." Crack. Thud.

"Hey! Pick on someone who can fight back!" A blow whistled by my head, and was followed by several whacks and a thump... sounds, that is.

Clearly I was missing the fun. Scrambling out of my bedroll, I grabbed my sword. Five guys had ganged up on Gabrielle, so I ran over to help out. She was holding up quite well, all things considered. There were raiders all over the damn place, partly because there were lots of them, but mostly because Xena was hurling them around like ragdolls, bouncing them off trees, each other, the ground, whatever. Since Gabrielle had seen fit to nyx the idea of using the frying pan for a weapon, I noticed it sitting serenely on some rocks by the fire. Those rocks were probably hot, I figured.

I had downed three guys, but now I had Fool from Smelliopolis to deal with. Damn, that guy's body odour alone nearly knocked me out. He was fairly big, and unlike me, unconcussed and untired. However, warriors are taught to fight through being tired, knowing when to conserve energy and when to use it. Altogether I was having a good time if I forgot about the smell, because I had never fought sword against glaive before. It is really quite interesting, the key is guiding the other person's momentum... if you guide it instead of trying to stop it cold... er, sorry. Can't help it, I'm a weaponmaster, it's what I do.

Anyway, I saw a really neat relay of thugs go ricocheting off a series of three trees into Gabrielle's fighting space, where she'd knock 'em into further insensibility. Think of a tornado. Think of being in the tornado. That's how wild it was. Fool of Smelly was starting to get tired, so I began to move around the fire, forcing him to run a bit to catch me. It was working great, he was getting tired and really angry, so his swings were wilder, and I was getting close to a real opening. My left foot landed solidly on a flat surface, and I used it as a pivot. Finally, Fool of Smelliopolis fell to the earth like a rotten tree in a hard wind. Which he was, in a manner of speaking.

Then I turned my attention to some other people, and found myself rather close to Gabrielle and her staff. Four guys to fight, three down, and then I smelt smoke.

My boot was aflame... as in on fire. Have you ever tried you put out a fire and fight with someone at the same time? It's no picnic, let me tell you. Hades, it isn't even a roast.

So, I was hopping around like an idiot, and my foot wasn't getting any more comfortable when... note that I magnanimously ignored the heckling comments you all so kindly contributed... despite the yellow flames that were to starting to grow alarmingly tall at the expense of my boot, and probably my toenails, I knocked my last opponent flat. Ah, life was getting really good again. I managed to dampen the flames to a smolder and took a step back. At which point, something nailed me on the right side of my head. You know, sometimes you really do see stars when you get hit in the head.

"Come on, wake up. You can do it." Right. Clearly this person didn't have Hephaestus using their skull as an anvil.

"Please?" Hades' balls. Fine. I peeled one eye open. My left eye ignored all commands. A fair haired woman with green eyes gazed at me with an expression of deep concern. "I'm so sorry... I swear it was an accident." Really? It was? What was, I wondered. A dark haired woman with blue eyes walked into my line of sight, such as it was, and laid a cold compress on my head. "Better do the checklist." She drawled. This drew a grave nod.

"What year is it?" Hmmm. Tough question. I was pretty sure it wasn't a millennium, after all, those things are a one in a thousand deal. That didn't help much though, and I finally had to admit I didn't know. "What day is it?" Oooh. Another tough question. When all else fails, try the sixth day of the waning Moon. It may be dead wrong, but it's something. Apparently it was more than just dead, because the blond covered her eyes. The dark haired woman laughed out loud. "Met your match, bard?" The blond glared at her. She held up one hand. "How many fingers am I holding up?" I looked at her hand. I squinted at her hand. "Well quit wavin' already!" I exploded finally. The blond looked up plaintively. The dark haired woman shook her head in disgust. "Do you know me?" Uh oh. Double uh oh. That was always a bad question. Real bad. "No, have we met? If it'sh 'bout Camilla, I never touched 'er, I shwear." The dark haired woman's lips twitched. "Ah, no, no, this isn't about Camilla." She knelt down beside me. "Say good night."

"Good night?" Everything went dark after that. I guess that was the point. No, I am not going to explain about Camilla.

My mother was explaining to me, very gravely. "Life is just damn silly. Every time you've got a plan, life changes. Every time you have a clue, it grows legs and runs. Name one time you were in control of a situation, and I'll tell you a time you were asleep. And remember, beware panthers bearing fish." And then she vanished in a flash of light, which became a puff of smoke. That was confusing, and I noticed in a vague sort of way that I seemed to be confused a lot lately.

But that was all right, because then I started flying, just coasting along, watching the world down below. Seeing trees, and mountains, and fields. It was so pretty, and I was having a great time, and better yet, I wasn't hurting a soul. And then I flew up to this mountain, and coasted around. It had the usual mountainey (is that a word? Don't answer that) stuff, but half way up, it stopped having just the usual. It started to have marble buildings, and I could see people. There was this woman in a pink, floaty thing scolding this guy with a bow in his hand and wings on his back. Then there was this really over tanned guy on some sort of board. He was flying too, but he wasn't having near as much fun as I was. He was trying to do tricks, I think.

And then I got bored with them, so I flew higher, and found a building set off from the others with no one in it. But it had a big arrow on the roof, so I followed it. It was a big, silly, bright red arrow too, so I realized I was having a dream, albeit a remarkably detailed one. In a moment I had arrived at a totally different place. It was on a mountain too, and it didn't look quite as imposed on the landscape. Sitting on a balcony, which was part of a turret, which was part of a tower, which was part of a set of buildings that didn't look at all Greek, was a woman in dark clothes. For some reason, I found it quite important that I go and speak to her. So I flew on up there. She had grey green eyes and dark hair. I just dropped onto the balcony in front of her without so much as a by your leave. She looked up, and never had I seen a person so surprised.

"Thraso!" she blurted. What did I blurt? I don't even know how I knew this.

"Mom!" she stared at me. I took a step and fell over my own feet into a heap by hers.

"How the Tartarus did you get here, and how do you recognize me? I never wore this form on the mortal plane!"

Damn. More hard questions. I struggled to untangle my legs, which had gotten into the human body's equivalent to knots. "I don't know. You were telling me weird stuff... then I started flying... then I realized I was dreaming... then..." Hang on. The mortal plane? "What do you mean? Where is this?" Mom walked around me, very carefully.

"Thraso, look here." she pointed at the stones beneath our feet. Her shadow stretched languorously in what seemed to be the afternoon sun. "What is missing?" Everybody was asking me questions lately. I was starting to feel real cranky about it.

"I don't know." A nice, sullen answer.

Mom laughed. "Yes, this does try a person's patience. But trust me on this one."

Look at the stones. Stones, Mom's shadow... oh. A problem. There is a problem. A big problem. "Heh, he, I seem to have misplaced my shadow. This has got to be the weirdest damn dream I have ever had." A soft chuckle. I was hearing a lot of those lately too. I was really starting to yearn to be on the chuckling side.

"You are most certainly dreaming, and you have managed to wander astrally over here to visit me. I'm pleased to see you, very surprised, but pleased. You inherited many powers and abilities from me, but my psychic powers did not seem to be among them. Perhaps you are a late bloomer." She hauled me into a standing position, then plunked me into a chair she made appear beside her own. "I loved your birth mother very much. I used my powers to make you of the two of us, as a gift to her." A heavy sigh. "I never expected sickness to take her away so soon. But I had intended to stay, and live as mortals do, and see to it that you had two loving parents. So stay I did." Silence fell over us.

I used to think that was just an expression. But that is exactly what silence does, like a great big tree. And then you have to find a way to squirm out from underneath the thing again.

The implications of what I had just been told were not lost on me. I looked over at her. "You're a, umm..."

"A Goddess, yes. Athena, to be precise." It felt like I was in an earthquake. My breath came short, and my limbs began to feel heavy and jerky. "No! Don't leave me yet!" Mom's voice was urgent. "Let me give you a token, or else you will dismiss this as a concussion caused illusion. You have arrived where you are for a reason. An explanation for that will come." Kissing me on the forehead, she placed a carved wooden pen with a metal nib in my hand. "I expect you to use it."

The angle of the sun changed, and the air began to smell suspiciously like burnt leather. For the first time in a day, both my eyes opened. Peering right into my face were two beady little eyes in the midst of a furry face. Jerking upright, I dislodged the squirrel, who hared off into a tree (bet you never heard of a squirrel haring before), and gave myself a bad case of dizziness while I was at it. Letting whatever it is in your head that needs to settle down so the world stops looking like it's spinning around, I listened to the squirrel scold me. I pulled my arms out of the bedroll. A neat row of stitches closed a gash down my left arm. I reached to touch them, and found the wooden pen in my right hand. I flopped back and let my breath out in a whoosh. Yep, my life had veered off into strangeland and I was getting further and further from home.

The smell of stew drew my attention to the left, where Gabrielle was busy over the fire, while Xena was sharpening her sword.

"Well, welcome back to the mortal world." Xena commented dryly.

"You don't know the half of it." I sighed. The curious stares were palpable. I looked at my arm, with its star and its neat row of stitches. Then the pen. Wow. A look at my feet revealed that my left foot had some nasty burns and no big toenail, but with a bandage and a stick I could walk. "Really interesting dream, I had." Sitting up carefully since my gut was pretty sore, I discovered my leather tunic had been replaced with one of my linen ones while I was unconscious.

"You bled all over the other one." A quick look revealed another row of stitches along my ribs on the right side.

Dropping my head into my hands, I sighed, "I wanna go home."

"Good idea," Gabrielle agreed crisply. "We'll come with you." My head popped up. "I need to know about Northern Amazons... Emetchi, and we..." she flashed a look at Xena. "are going to ensure you make it home safely, since you received most of your injuries from us." Somehow having people who beat you up with fish and began their day with a scrap with a band of raiders escort me home didn't seem any safer than me hobbling home alone.

"You are very kind, my queen, but that really isn't necessary..." Fair eyebrows drifted upward. "...although appreciated." She nodded, clearly pleased I had decided not to argue.

Picking up the waterskins and her staff she said, "Be right back." I watched her. Oh, but she had a cute walk. Without really considering who I was talking to, I turned to say as much to Xena. The warrior was watching me with a very unfriendly look on her face. I smiled weakly.

"Stare at her butt again and I'll make you tell me about Camilla... twice."

I would have had no problem stumbling along with a crutch. After a few minutes I'd have a rhythm going and that would be that. And hey, I had happy thoughts. Now I had a cool scar to show off to my buddies across my ribs, and I could tell them how I met the queen of the Emetchi and Ares' Chosen. Well, leaving out being smashed by a fish and lightly sautťed, that is. My left eye was practically open... I heal really fast. There was only one problem. Xena was determined that I should ride Argo. I was determined that I should not.

Argo is a nice, smart, beautiful horse. Argo is also very big, and a fully trained battle horse. Her size alone made me nervous, let alone climbing up onto a high saddle which wouldn't be moving as predictably as a tree branch. Let's face it, a tree branch can move up or down mostly. Any other direction is what you determine yourself. Perhaps this is also true of a horse. If you know how to ride. I don't. When I was six, a mean old horse that used to belong to one of the village elders bit me on the arm. I'm still not sure why. I mean, I didn't fall into him on purpose... in fact, falling was the furthest thing from my mind, since I was busy trying to escape a swarm of angry bees.

Point is, I was determined not to ride a large, unpredictable, smelly animal when I could move myself just fine. None of this made any difference. Tired of protests, arguments, and a bit of sidestepping and tap dancing that probably endangered my stitches, she picked me up like the aforementioned sack of moldy turnips and plunked me in the saddle. I was very unimpressed. The time was rapidly approaching when Ares' Chosen or not I was going top have to carefully explain how a little mutual respect would be required between us long before we so much as approached my village.

It was nearly midday, and the sun was glaring a little. The forest was getting closer, and occasional pale grey rocks were poking out of the meadow we had to walk across to enter it. The grass was really short, and that emerald green colour really young grass with good soil to grow on gets. A stone about three body lengths away was cracked neatly in half, and now I could see why the grass was so trimmed looking. The rock was partially blackened, and fragments were spread about it in the grass. A fire had cleared off the previous cover, and shattered the rock with its sudden, searing heat. I felt empathy for that rock. My burnt foot throbbed just to remind me why I felt empathy for the rock. Then I felt a little jealous of the rock. After all, rocks can't feel anything.

These pointless, silly meanderings were interrupted by a determined queen.

"So, how long does the route we're using take to travel?" Gabrielle asked briskly. I rubbed at my nose, successfully this time, since it was no longer sore. "Going this direction isn't much fun, really. When I left home, I just traveled to the Nestos River and convinced a trading barge captain that his half empty ship would add more money to his pockets if he let me sail with him for a few days. That took three days going non stop." Poking half forgotten geography lessons into fretful life, I calculated a bit. "We're fairly close to Drama... three days to the mountains... a day to the village."

Believe it or not, the next three days went quite peacefully. We had to hole up one day due to a filthy storm... slush fell out of the sky for the majority of the day. I got to clean and repair my battered tunic, which was a good thing. Usually I got to clean my stuff more often, but I had gotten out of my routine and had become rather rank. One of my rules of coexistence with others is: unless it's right after class or patrol, smelling bad is not a good thing. However, should you notice insects and small animals dropping dead downwind, see your healer immediately.

I was distracted from these considerations by the star on my arm, and a funny shiver ran up my spine. I had my boots on, but my foot was still tender so I was still stuck riding Argo. Turning around as best I could, I tried to see what was bothering me. Nothing but the rather scrubby road and the trees and soggy meadows on either side. Maybe. You ever get that? Just that weird feeling something is totally wrong that leaves you looking behind you every second breath? See, I figure, that feeling ought to have a name... how about... the Platos? Ah come on... he's a pretty strange guy, and that feeling is pretty strange... no go, huh?

Argo had stopped moving, so I jumped down. Maybe I had an excess of energy from not walking enough. Having too much energy can do goofy things to you. A great explanation until I saw Xena standing with her sword drawn and Gabrielle in a fighting stance. Uh oh. I really had the Platos now. Looking straight back to where we had come from, I found myself counting, "One rainbow trout, two rainbow trout..." Now, be nice. I hadn't been fishing in nearly a week. I was itching to pull out my gear at the first creek.

Finally, a group of screaming, yelling, and occasionally tripping and falling filthy guys jumped, fell, and collapsed out of the trees. "Where do these people come from?" Gabrielle exploded in exasperation. "Do they just wait in the middle of nowhere hoping to ambush us or what? Where have they been for four days? Figuring out excuses not to wash?" Weaving little patterns in the air with her sword, Xena laughed softly. "Personally, I think it's that trouble magnet you carry around in your bodice."

"Yeah, and look here, it caught you first!" Gabrielle snapped.

Okay. Whatever. This exchange had 'keep your mouth shut' written all over it for me so I snatched my chobos off my belt and started denting skulls and bruising appendages and ribs in earnest. I had seen my first battle two winters ago, so all the yelling and screaming didn't do much for me one way or the other. Lots of people though, so I started circling, forcing them to come after me. Being from this part of the world, I knew some things about the terrain they didn't.

Typical of semi-capable raiders the world over, when I apparently started trying to run away, I had a merry crowd of them on my heels. They were laughing like a bunch of kids... but not the ones you like to play with at breaks from lessons... no, this was like the little group of bullies who run around together stealing lunches. Despite my current size, I was small for my age until I hit my teens, and I often had to deal with those bullies... all great strategists began as small for their age kids who were bullied during breaks, I'm sure of it.

Hopping off into the soggy meadow like a demented rabbit, I leapt from solid patch to solid patch, and heard the footsteps of my pursuers dropping rapidly from solid strikes to loud squishes to quite impressive splats. Non-Emetchi of the world: why do you walk like elephants? For those who haven't seen an elephant, it's about ten times bigger than a plow ox with legs like tree trunks. Those things can't help but walk heavy.

Looking behind me now, I saw one fellow drop down into the muck up to his groin, drawing a disgusted howl as he found himself covered in cold, sticky muck. Most of his buddies joined him in the ranks of smelly-soggy-stuck guys, and one fellow plunged face first into the muck. Having knocked the two guys out who made it the furthest, I dashed back to the road, where Xena and Gabrielle were creating neat piles of unconscious people. They didn't really need me, so I sat on a rock by the side of the road and watched. You know that move Xena uses, when she knocks some goof out with her thighs? There's an insidious message in that move, I just haven't figured out what it is yet.

Xena and Gabrielle were walking along together, holding hands. I was thumping along ahead on Argo, feeling kind of out of place, and just relieved to be entering the mountains. Of course, that holding hands thing is king of goofy... no, I didn't tell Xena that... now who's interrupting the story for no good reason, buddy?

Sheesh. Some people's kids.

The day was dimming into twilight when we stopped. A neat little clearing was settled not too far from one of the small creeks that cross cut the range, and barring the fact that I fell off of Argo, setting up camp went ahead without incident.

Digging in my pack, I came up with that wooden pen again. It was pretty cool. It was carved with snakes, birds, and eyes. I ran my fingers over it. It'd be nice to try out. Lacking ink and parchment, however, this was not an option. Digging around some more for my whetstone and cloth, my hand bumped an unfamiliar bundle. Hauling it out, the bundle proved to be rather lumpy, wrapped in a piece of thick cloth, and tied with a chunk of sturdy cord. The knot was intricate, and so interesting in itself that rather than just cut the cord, I began to try puzzling out how to unravel it.

It was pretty easy, once I had taken a good look at it. Unfolding the cloth, I found a sturdy book and a bottle of ink. Obnoxious things. What were they doing in my bag? Opening the book, a short note on the first page gave the answer.

Hello Thraso,

Surely you didn't think I'd forget to give you something to write on?

Love, Mom

A typical mother's message, isn't it? You get the main point, but feel like you've missed something anyway. If you think you completely understand your mother, than you are deluded. I'm sorry, but you have to be. Mothers and their kids aren't supposed to completely understand each other. It's some kind of law some divine being came up with just to give everyone something in common by keeping everyone befuddled about at least one thing.

I had gotten occupied with figuring out how to get the ink to run evenly and noting that a bit of charcoal would be better to draw with when a bowl of stew appeared by my right knee. If that had been all there was to it, it would have been a truly amazing bowl of stew. Shaking her head slightly, Xena drawled, "I figured that would get your attention. You're too big not to notice food." Never mind that the bard ate more than me or Xena.

"Thanks." I said. I rubbed at my arm. Maybe I had a sunburn. That could explain why the skin felt so warm.

Dinner went by in silence, and then Gabrielle started this weird game with Xena. She'd sort of wave her arms around and stuff, and apparently Xena was supposed to guess what the arm waving meant. I politely refused to play, and wondered if Xena worried about Gabrielle tossing herself into the fire accidentally during her more vigourous arm waving moments. After a bit I returned to my pen, and soon had a nice little picture of the clearing framing up Mom's note. With a bemused Xena and a suitably contorted Gabrielle, of course.

"How can you not get that? You figured out The Fool from this..." Gabrielle held up one hand in a sort of halt pose. "But you couldn't figure out The Metamorphosis from this?!" Now she crossed her arms across her chest and opened them wide in an expansive gesture that made me think of an overenthusiastic flower girl at a joining in a Greek village I had seen. Looking a little alarmed, Xena replied, "That is supposed to be a metamorphosis?" Gabrielle glared at her. "Yes, you know, like a butterfly coming from a cocoon. I know, ask an unbiased observer. Thraso, what do you think?" and she repeated the overenthusiastic flower girl just for me.

Ah, Hades. This is not my thing. I do not get into the middle of lover's disagreements, no matter how minor. I got in the middle of one once... having failed to realize there was a lover in the picture, and got my nose broken. Some lessons you remember, especially when it rains.

"I... ah... you must remember, Gabrielle, I am not Greek, so the metaphors we use aren't quite the same... so really, I can't judge." Complete and utter horse crap, but, all importantly, unlikely to get me bapped in the head with a staff horse crap.

Gabrielle looked at me like I had grown another eye in the middle of my forehead. Xena looked at me with an expression of utter disbelief. "I thought you said you were a weaponmaster." she said dryly. Uh oh. The conversation had just spiraled off into the land of confusion again.

"Yeeah... that's right." Pulling a chunk of wood from the fuel pile, Xena poked the fire a bit. "You just did one amazing impression of a bard." Her eyes were twinkling, and it now became clear to me that Xena thought this was real funny. And that I was up to my eyeballs in trouble, because Gabrielle had gone from thinking I had grown another eye to thinking I was fair game.

"You're telling me that as an Amazon... Emetchi of non Greek occupied Thrace..." Ouch. She was pulling out the catapults on me. "That the metaphors you use are different... and you can't understand Greek metaphors, despite the fact that you have learned Greek."

Not to be outdone, I replied, "Metaphors in speech reveal themselves by context. Physical metaphors are something else entirely." Try to nail me with facts will you? Try to force me to take this seriously, will you? Try to force me into this argument will you? Hah!

A sage nod. "I see. And what... physical metaphor would you use for metamorphosis?" How did I get into this again? Wasn't Xena supposed to get asked this? I was beginning to feel desperate. Surrender was not an option. Time to go to my death with dignity like an honourable warrior.

I sat up straight, and set aside my book and everything else, and then I shrugged off my cloak which I had previously thrown across my shoulders, and stood up. "I'm not sure what you want, Gabrielle..." I sighed. Looking at her face, I began to wonder if I had grown another eye.

"I never thought of that." Worriedly, I checked my forehead. "A snake sloughing off its old skin. That's amazing. That's really good. I see what you mean about different physical metaphors." And she sat down and hauled out parchment and ink, to make a note, I guess. Meanwhile, I was just kind of standing there with my mouth open. Enough of that, I decided, and sat down with my mouth open. A soft snickering caught my attention, and I looked over at Xena, who was enjoying herself far too much.

"Hey," she tossed me a wineskin. "Anyone who can out B.S. my bard deserves a drink." Not quite the way I meant to gain the warrior's respect. But I'll take it, after all, no one got hurt, and no one got embarrassed. This was especially good, since if anyone had gotten hurt or embarrassed, chances are it would have been me.

"Here, Cerby... here Cerby... here Cerby, Cerby, Cerby... come on now, no hiding from me, you know how worried Persephone gets when we get back home late..."

My first thought on hearing this was, "Dammit to Tartarus, I'm tired and I want to sleep!" My next thought was, "If I'm awake, how can I be hearing this?"

"Here Cerby, here thingy... aw, come on!"

I sat up. I was getting the Platos again. I looked over at Xena and Gabrielle. Sound asleep with silly grins on their faces. Hmmmm... good thing I sleep like the dead, I think. Probably. Ahem. The fire was neatly banked, lots of warmth and little light. The campsite was neat. All was well. And, I heard no more calling. Well, obviously I had had a weird dream and surprised myself awake. Okay. Just a touch of the Platos. Maybe I'd scout a little, just to settle out of the Platos and banish weird dreams. Oh, and promise never to eat that funny red pepper Gabrielle used on the fish steaks we had again. Yeah, there was a plan. I slipped my boots on and tightened my belt and tunic fastenings. Then I grabbed my chobos, just to be on the safe side. A slow, careful look around, and I slipped into the trees.

I really wish I could explain to those of you who aren't Emetchi how it feels to us to move through a forest. A lot of you look on a forest as a huge bunch of trees. Either a source of wood or a source of game, or a nuisance if you're a farmer. When you pass through the forest, I get the impression that you feel the way my Mom used to visiting my other Mom's mother. Err, yeah, that's right. She felt like an unwanted but occasionally necessary guest. That's really too bad, because the Emetchi never feel that way. We feel like we belong there, just as we do in our villages or the fields we work.

Yeah, I know, I'm wandering around again. But it'd be a really cool part of the story, if I could explain that. Of course, in the meantime, I damn near need a map to get back to the point.

Nothing. Just an owl, and a few other animals that prefer to hunt at night. I could hear frogs singing to each other, and the breeze meandering around the trees the way I've been meandering around this story. Stopping by a tree, I rested one hand on its rough bark and took in the smells and sounds. Hmmf. Just had a weird dream that gave me a touch of the Platos. time to go back to bed.

"Here Cerby... that's right... come on... come on... yeah, you like that, huh?"

Uh oh. Platos. Platos. Big time Platos. And then, right behind me, "Woof!" in, triplicate.

I whirled around and backed against the tree, hard. Standing far, far, too close was a large, three headed dog. Cerby... Cerby... Cerberus?! Climb the tree, dogs can't climb trees, even three headed supernatural soul eating underworld guarding dogs... climb the tree, climb the tree... "Woof!" The thing bounced up and down and wagged its tail. Then all three heads started barking, sounding like a dog pack, and the beast began to bounce up and down in a semi circle.

Climbing a tree is very difficult when your back is pressed against it so hard that it is entirely possible to sink into it. Cerberus jumped forward a bit, and barked some more. Finding my voice, I croaked, "What is a beastie like you doing here? Okay, ah, no chewing on the nice mortal, okay? No chewing on the nice mortal who never attempted to cross paths with you." Slipping to the side, I saw a sturdy branch right within reach. Ah, a means to, hopefully keep Cerberus at a distance while I scrambled up the tree.

Picking up the branch, I took a deep breath. Cerberus was tail wagging, and two of three heads were drooling. It was sort of reminding me of a mongrel one of my students has. Ugly little beastie, but the thing does adore that kid. One day it apparently decided I was being too rough on her and took a chunk out of the seat of my trews. I'm not sure what part was more embarrassing, the fact that a dog had taken a chunk out of the seat of my trews, or the fact that my underwear had been a cutesy gift from Mom... polka dots, okay, my underwear had blue polka dots on it.

I waved the stick a bit. This incurred another round of barking and tail wagging. Altogether, I was beginning to think that maybe I was going to go deaf and its tail was going to come off.

I waved the stick again, and Cerberus jumped up and down eagerly. Oh my gods. It wanted me to play fetch. I f I was dreaming, this was the most spectacularly strange dream of all time. Never one to ignore a blatant cue, I tossed the stick and ran like the wind. Right behind me, I could hear Cerberus barking and baying. I looked. Right behind me was the three headed beastie, two heads yanking at the stick, one keeping an eye on me. I should have been looking ahead. I ran straight into a tree and bounced off, knocking the wind out of myself. A moment later, Cerberus arrived, dumped the stick, and proceeded to lick my face.

"It likes you." Sitting on a branch above me was a woman I had never seen before. She was wearing Emetchi type leathers, except they were black, and black gloves. Her hair and eyes were dark too, and she had a really nasty pallor.

"Really?" I squeaked as Cerberus flopped on its belly and dropped a head on my shoulder. Scratching it bemusedly behind the ears, I asked, "Who are you?"

"Believe it or not, my name is Pluto. One bard goofed up my gender and nobody has gotten it right since." Okay. So, I was talking to a Goddess of the Underworld. Appropriate, since I was playing with her pet... Persephone's pet... or, whatever.

"I try to take Cerberus out for a good run every night before it goes back to watching the gates. Cerby enjoys it. I don't usually run into mortals, but sometimes Cerby takes off after unsuspecting rabbits, and that can lead to surprises."

Surprises. No, I think they're Platos. Sitting up gingerly, I carefully brushed off my torso, which was full of bark bits. This gave Cerberus ideas, because it rolled over with all four paws in the air.

"Go on, scratch its stomach... it won't bite your hand off." Thanks, that made me feel better.

Pluto looked up. "Hey, here comes Xena. Just think of how impressed she'll be that you can scratch ol' Cerby's belly." True to Pluto's word, Xena ghosted out of the trees a moment later, sword in hand.

"Well, it looks like you've got everything under control, Thraso."

The damn woman didn't turn so much as an eyelash. Not to be outdone, I really can't ever allow that, I drawled, "Well, yeah, you don't get to be a weaponmaster at eighteen without the ability to get a handle on tough situations." Xena's lips twitched, but she didn't tell me I was full of crap, so all was well with the world, as far as it went.

"Aren't you supposed to be in the Underworld, helping Persephone judge souls?" Clearly Xena considered it entirely appropriate to question a Goddess about her activities. I suppose if she wasn't always hauling Goddesses and Gods out of trouble she wouldn't see it that way.

Pluto chuckled. "Perhaps. As I told Thraso here, however, this is Cerberus' free time." Dropping off the tree branch, she continued, "Really, you shouldn't be surprised to run into me, Xena. After all, bring more than one half Goddess together at a time, the Fates see to it you fall over a God or Goddess at some point. In for a dinar, I guess."

An expression which would have convinced most people to turn and run appeared on Xena's face. "What's the excuse when Thraso or Hercules or whoever isn't travelling with me?"

"What makes you so sure there needs to be one?" Pluto's smile broadened, and now I could see that she had fangs. "Thraso knows who her divine parent is. Do you know yours?" Another soft chuckle. "Come on, Cerby. Time to go home." Cerby sighed in a doggish sort of way, wagged its tail at me, and then Goddess and beastie disappeared.

"Come on," Xena sighed. "Time to go back to camp." She gave me a hand up and I finished dusting myself off as we walked back.

"Ah, Xena..." She turned to stare at me. "What she said..."

Gazing off into the forest, Xena said quietly, "I heard all the implications you did." Her pale eyes drifted to me again. "It isn't your business." Oh, hey, woops, miscommunication, miscommunication.

"That's not what I meant at all... I was just trying to say, I can be trusted to keep it to myself."

A dark eyebrow twitched upward. "Thanks."

Ah, a village. Different food, possibly an inn. Oh, the possibilities were endless. Xena went in one direction to get Argo reshoed, since the trip through the mountains had been rough on her, and Gabrielle went in another to shop. What is it with the shopping thing? It's boring. I only shop when I need something and I can't make it.

Anyway, the village was bustling due to a trade caravan that was busy emptying money pouches, so there was plenty to see. The occasional Emetchi showed up too, but no one I recognized. That was pretty weird, since I had lived in the area all my life. Finding the inn, and finding myself much enamoured of the idea of a tall tankard of ale, I stepped inside.

Following the mandatory smacks, whacks, and punches men seem to need in lieu of listening to a clearly stated, "No, I'm not interested." I made my way to the bar. A rather tired looking man with greying hair was handing plates of food to a server, and he asked without looking, "What'll you have?"

"What does it cost to have dinner, ale, and a room for the night?"

"Two dinars." I rubbed my nose. Not bad, and pretty honest considering all the folks hanging around due to the trade caravan. "All right. I appreciate an honest price." I always butter up innkeepers a little when they don't give me a reason to haggle.

The innkeeper smiled a little. "Thank you... and I might just spoil you a little, Sly One. Don't think I haven't noticed you in here many times before, trying to chat up Eumache."

I flushed a little and cleared my throat. "Thanks but, I don't think she's interested. I only know her name because you just told me."

The innkeeper chuckled. "That one is from Crete... and her Greek was miserable when she first got here... anyway, go sit down already. You're holding me up."

I slid two dinars across the bar, and found a seat against the wall. A truly terrible bard was giving a rendition of the war of Troy. Poor guy. Absolutely terrible, and completely unaware of it. I think the patrons were listening out of sympathy. Just goes to show, folks are good at heart.

A sweating tankard of ale and a platter of food arrived, and I looked up to thank the server. And oh, it was my favourite person in the whole place. What a very beautiful woman. From her fine build, olive colouring, and ringleted hair she was obviously a Cretan. I didn't need an innkeeper to tell me that. I had been dying of unrequited interest from the first time I saw her deftly smack a drunk fellow's attempt to grab her ass. Truth be told, I sort of had a crush on her. This day of all days, I finally caught her eye despite the large number of people vying for her attention, and decided it was now or never. I simply had to convince her to sit with me. Of course, in the meantime, my heart was attacking me, and my speech had left me for someone else.

She smiled at me, and said, in a fabulously innocent tone. "You know, my shift is over, and the inn is pretty full. Do you mind if I take up this free seat beside you?" I hadn't said a word yet... not a word... damn, was I ever good at convincing people! Yeah, yeah, who am I kidding. Bear with me here.

"Sure... I mean... no... I mean... yes... wait..." by the gods, what was wrong with me? "What I'm trying to say is, no, I don't mind, please, have a seat." Hey, now that came out rather well. She smiled again. "Great. I'll just get myself some dinner."

I watched her go behind the bar, then quaffed half of my tankard. Now, see here, I am like any other young woman. When I find someone interesting, I like to chat them up, have some fun, whatever. I like being on the receiving end too, but it hardly ever happens, unless it's a guy... and, sorry guys, you're not my drink of water. Having experienced and lived through the embarassing moments of my adolescence, I never expected to be reduced to incoherence again. I'm not sure what surprised me more, that I reacted like a Moonstruck teenager when Eumache finally decided to sit with me, or that somehow, I didn't mind.

Of course, these ideas didn't come to me then. Instead, I was babbling inwardly, "She's perfect. Perfect. She's wonderful! She is finally going to have dinner with me... something must be wrong with my pick up lines 'cause they never worked with her until I stopped trying tio use them... is it hot in here?" And so on. End result, after the official introductions, I found myself grinning at her like a complete fool. Eumache cheerfully plied me with shamefully easy and inane questions until I snapped out of it a bit, and we were soon having a really interesting conversation. It turned out she was quite good with various weaopons herself. And she loved fishing. Oh, I was in Elysia. If I was dreaming, nobody wake me up.

The common room was three quarters empty before Eumache commented mildly, "Hadn't you better see what those two people behind me want?" I blinked like the total goof I was and realized with a start that I had talked the evening away with this woman. That meant the two people behind her could only be...

"Hi, Xena, Gabrielle... need... something?" Smooth, Thraso, smooth. Did you forget seven years of your age out in the mountains somewhere or what? They grinned at me. "Just wondering when we'll arrive at your village tomorrow." Xena's expression was unreadable, but Gabrielle had this funny little smile on.

Village? What village? Weren't we already in a village? "Oh, well," I struggled to work up some enthusiasm for going home. Trouble was, all I got was a bit of heartburn. "Only two candlemarks walk." Pulling on her lip, Gabrielle said, "We should probably leave early, then." Early? Early? Leave?

"I have to work all this week, Thraso. But, come by and see me at the end of the week. We'll go... fishing." I had no idea that word could sound so lascivious. Blood rushed to all sorts of places, none of which I'm going to name for you. Eumache grinned broadly. "We could go for a swim." Swooning is not something the Emetchi do. I just about did anyway. My brain was struggling for its fair share of my blood supply.

Having said the appropriate good nights, and finally conceding that talking all night and getting up early in the morning were not compatioble, we all made our way upstairs. Xena and Gabrielle already had their room, but since I would have been oblivious to the sky falling, Eumache had to show me where mine was.

"Well, see you in the morning before you leave."

"Sure, Eumache... it's been really..." Oh, stumbling wildly here. "...wonderful." Goes for the save! The crowd roars. Eumache smiles. Ooh, that was better than the crowd roaring. And now, I am suave, I am strong, I am gorgeous, and now shall stride with aplomb into my room, despite my bulky pack and bedroll.

In fact, while all the rest may be true, I walked into the door, walked into the door jamb, hit my head on the lintel, and finally fell with a terrible thud into my room. Eumache never laughed at me. Disentangling me from straps and what not, she asked me in a concerned tone, "Are you all right?" Never mind I would have been great even if I had just broken every bone in my body. "Yeah, fine."

A half candlemark later, I was laying on my bed, staring at the ceiling, and wondered what the Tartarus was up. Crushes were silly, although in this case rather fun barring the speech problems and inability to walk properly. Hmmm. Ah, the cause of my extreme ridiculousness was clear. Xena and Gabrielle gave off all kinds of vibes. A few times I nearly jumped in the nearest body of water after getting caught in the crossfire. So, between them, and a moon or so without any female companionship, my hormones were having a wild party and making a big mess. In fact, they were probably bustin' for action.

Having told myself all of this, I grinned like a goof at the ceiling and fell asleep thinking how beautiful Eumache was, and how cool it was that she found me interesting after all.

"Ah, Xe, be nice. I think it's cute."

"I think she hasn't got a clue what hit her."

"That's half the fun."

"Uh huh."

"Oh, come on, you can't lay there and tell me you knew what was happening that day in Potidaea."

"Of course I knew. I was busy saving villagers from slavers. Then I saw you. Then I got hit from behind. And then..."

"That's not what I meant. How about a different example... when we were getting to know each other better."

"Oh, you mean while you were sticking to me like a burr..."


"Or maybe the saga of the ever shrinking halter top..."

"Ooooh... you're going to pay for that."

I had no idea what they were talking about, but the fact that I could hear them and the grey light of dawn meant it was time to get up. Time to put on my working leathers, and go back to being a weaponmaster again. And since Gabrielle wanted to know about my tribe, then I was going to have to go all out. Of course, impressing Eumache had nothing to do with it.

A candlemark later, I had not only polished my armour, brushed my leathers, fixed my boots, and readjusted my gauntlets twice, I had been able to find someone to trim my hair. I don't keep it long anyway, so it just needed tidying up. Gathering up my kit, I paused by the rather dirty mirror, which was placed, curiously enough, right beside the rather creaky little bed. It was unusually wide for a mirror too, stretching almost the entire length of the bed. Hmmf.

Black leathers, red trim, and crimson armour. I was still a bit thin from a stomach illness I had suffered through two moons ago, but all told, things were fitting well. I smoothed my hair and fiddled with my scabbard. "Oh, get over yourself already!" I told my reflection irritably. Have you ever noticed that whenever you give yourself good advice you always ignore it?

By the time I got downstairs, my two fellow travelers were already seated, and Eumache had joined them for breakfast. I caught Eumache looking me up and down appreciatively. Oh, this was a good idea. I missed two steps and almost careened down the stairs. Sigh. For a half Goddess, I sure felt like a clown.

Arriving at the breakfast table without further incident, barring almost missing my seat, which Gabrielle saved by knocking it underneath me with her foot just in time, I tried to remember what composure meant so I could regain mine.

"Those are pretty impressive leathers. What are all the designs for?" Gabrielle asked. As it happens, I'm wearing similar leathers today. As you can see, the trim is in the form of various animals and symbols.

"I don't know how it is for your tribe, but the leathers we wear speak of our position in the tribe and our personal beliefs." I paused. "I get to wear the snakes and falcons as symbols of my rite of caste. They are on my seal, too. The meanders and v's they speak of, my dedication to Artemis, to Athena, to the respect and memory of my foremothers." And here I thought I had been too hungover that day before I was invested as a weaponmaster to remember the lorekeeper's lesson. "That I wear red and black... that represents growth."

"And the gorgoneum on your breastplate?" Xena had no sense of drama. None at all. How could she just butt in like that? That and her eyes needed checking, because I didn't have a gorgoneum on my breastplate. Looking down, I saw that yes I did have a gorgoneum on my breastplate and I needed my eyes checked. Luckily breakfast arrived just then, giving me a chance to make up something. I shouldn't have worried. A small scroll sat beside my plate.

Mom here,

You made it through the Cerberus thing with flying colours. That and the dream test... that makes two that you passed. The gorgoneum is a mark of that. Both Artemis and I wear it, and what it symbolizes for you is that you are a Chosen warrior of the Nation.

You know I'm proud of you, right? Right.

Later, Mom.

Okay, I'll admit it, I got sort of choked up.

The walk to the village was uneventful, and I got peppered with questions from Gabrielle about everything. Food, clothes, scrolls, staves, feathers... I mean it, everything, everything but the... the... the cauldron in the food hut. Yeah. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. It was far more enjoyable than the wave of questions you get from a class after giving them a task they realize they have to do partly on their own.

The walk IN the village was another story. First, we met the scouts, made the sign of peace, all that. The first words out of Linden's mouth after I told her who the strangers were was, "Are you nuts!?" Thanks for the vote of confidence, my sister. Another scout, Tharjon, grabbed me by the elbow and hauled me ahead of the others. "Are you sure this is a good idea, Thraso? I mean, consider how irritated the Queen was with you before... you bring Xena here... and the Queen of the entire Nation... she'll lose her eyeballs! We'll have to pick 'em up off the ground and wash 'em off and put 'em back... and then what'll we do when the Queen starts spitting up her kidneys? Hey, when did you get the gorgoneum?" Tharjon can make up wild crap almost as fast as I can.

Made it through that part. Whew! Next, we finally get into the village proper. Then I got to watch the unflappable captain of the guards get so busy watching Xena and trying not to drool that she walked into a tree. Then the village smith fell in a horsetrough. Then one of the carpenter's assistants stepped off of a roof, luckily landing on some bushes... excepting they were a little thorny, so she yelled a bit. Then my Queen showed up, looked at the various gaping, sprawled and silly women, and bellowed:

"Get to what you're supposed to be about! Now!" I can't understand that phrasing either, but the point gets through somehow.

Queen ProthoŽ turned to look at me. "Weaponmaster Thraso, how kind of you to return from the rest of the world. Come with me a moment, please." Ah, tartarus. She already sounded angry, and I hadn't done anything yet.

We walked into her hut, and she seated me in front of her desk. Then she sat down across from me. She looked at me. I looked at her. No one said anything. I began to wish I was still young enough to carry around my stuffed bear. Queen ProthoŽ leaned back. "You're glowing, Thraso." Huh? Queen ProthoŽ's eyes narrowed. "You haven't come back here pregnant, have you?" I couldn't help it. I laughed until tears rolled down my cheeks. "I'll take that as a no." Queen ProthoŽ said dryly. "What's the matter with you then?" I blinked. There was something wrong with me? "Er, well, actually..." A glare which very nearly matched Xena caused me to say hurriedly, "There's this server at the inn in the other village, she's gorgeous and smart, and funny, and..."

"Stop, stop, stop. I get the hint. The Great Mother alone knows how you have managed to keep from having more than a broken nose with your woman chasing." Queen ProthoŽ had a funny little smile on her face even though her tone was sour. I was seeing that funny little smile a lot the last day or so. "Who are the people you brought here with you? I highly doubt either of them is the server." Oh, body blow to the ego. "Well, you see, nearly a half moon ago, I... ran into Xena, fishing." Settling her chin in her hands Queen ProthoŽ asked, "You were fishing and running at the same time?"

"No, no, of course not. I was fishing, she was fishing, we wound up in the same place." Apparently that answer was better, Queen ProthŽ waved one hand in a 'go on' sort of way. It looked kind of like a 'get out' gesture too, but I was pretty sure that wasn't what she had in mind. "She and Gabrielle are bondmates, so I got to meet her. We got to talking about how the Southern Emetchi tend to think about the Northern ones, and Gabrielle decided she needed to learn about us. So, here we are." Oh, what a lame finish. Oh well. Win some, lose some.

"Ares' Chosen, Artemis' Chosen, and a breastplate that has the entire village abuzz already... couldn't you have just brought home a dog?" Standing up and pacing around the room Queen ProthoŽ added, "What am I supposed to do with them? How long are they going to stay? And what do you mean Queen Gabrielle wants to learn about us?" I don't know about you folks in the audience, but I sort of expected some enthusiasm.

"They are Emetchi, your majesty. They'll earn their keep. At the very least they should have plenty of news. Who knows, maybe this visit will help ease the belief among southern Emetchi that we are a bunch of bumpkins." Sorry, I have to be fairly serious when I talk to the queen.

"An exchange program for queens won't achieve that, Thraso."

"No, but maybe her example will help move things along. Trying to get respect can be like expecting someone to throw the discus properly by reading about it." I was getting the uncomfortable feeling that there were facts that I was unaware of flying around. Flying unknown facts are all very well until someone loses an eye.

Queen ProthoŽ dragged her fingers through her greying red hair. "Thraso, you have no idea what time of year it is, do you?"

"It's... autumn." I did so know what time of year it was!

"Ah, and clearly you have forgotten the Beggar's Festival." Oh no. Oh no. No, no, no. Okay, now the obvious question is, what is the Beggar's Festival?

Well, I'll repeat the story as the loremaster told it to me... you can tell I didn't make it up, because I can't stick to the point like she can. Anyway: a high priestess of Artemis with nothing better to do needed to set herself apart somehow from her fellow high priestesses. The others were known for being great oracles, or hunters, or warriors, or bow makers, whatever. Her skill, she declared, was that, unlike all others in the mortal world, she knew what Artemis really looked like and could identify her anywhere. Typically, such silly claims derive from lack of sleep, but she took herself very seriously. Nobody could prove her wrong, so this rather dubious distinction was taken rather seriously. Apparently taking silly things too seriously is contagious.

The very eldest of the high priestesses of Artemis got wind of this, and she laughed herself breathless, much to the alarm of her students. After regaining her breath, she called a conclave, a great big meeting of as many Emetchi as can get to a place and declared, "In three days, Artemis herself will come among us. We shall then see what we shall see." At the time, the Nation didn't extend as far south as Arboria, so what is Northern Amazonia now was all Amazonia then. And Amazonia went nuts. There was decorating and partying and feasts, and the weavers and tailors for miles around were exhausted since everyone wanted a new set of clothes. It wouldn't do not to be as impressive as possible.

As a last step in the beautification of the Nation, any poorer women who passed through the Nation on their travels without staying were briskly removed. According to a queen of the time, they were mere beggars, not true followers of Artemis at all.

Two days went by, and that infamous high priestess hadn't seen Artemis yet. So she went outside the temple, where she had been waiting, to watch the children playing in the sun. This particular day, an old woman was with them, telling them stories and giving them carved toys that she pulled from the folds of her robe. The kids were delighted, but the high priestess was not. She stalked up to the guard on duty and said, "Why has that beggar not been removed?"

Can't you just about see her trying to glare at the poor guard down her nose?

"I... well, ma'am... it's just old Admetus... the kids love her, and..."

"You let that woman remain here because of the children?!"

"Er, yeah." Come on, what else could she have said?

Entirely disgusted, the priestess stormed up to the old woman. "You must leave at once. The Great Artemis is expected and you will not be pleasing in her sight." Old Admetus was not at all bothered. "Aren't I? Aren't I? Mind your manners, sprite, or I'll put you over my knee." I'll bet you already know how the priestess felt about being told that. She was a priestess though, and a high priestess, no less. It would be easy to show this old woman her place. "Come with me." she ordered. Admetus rolled her eyes, but clambered to her feet anyway. Leaning on a twisted stick, she tugged on her tattered robe a bit and replied, "These young sprites here know manners... how come you don't?" The children tittered and tagged along, some of them clasping bits of her robes, and others occasionally fouling up her progress by hugging one of her legs in midstride.

In the apse of every temple of Artemis is a little alcove which is usually poorly lit. Also usually, there is nothing in it. Not so usually, hung on the back wall of the alcove is a tapestry called The Three Wise Fools. Greeks laugh at it because there are only two people in it, standing about a shoulder width apart. They wear nondescript robes... these people could be anyone in the college of priestesses. The high priestess took Admetus to it and declared, "A beggar such as yourself created this ridiculous tapestry. As you can see, she couldn't even count. The tapestry was dedicated to Artemis over the protests of the high priestess of this temple at the time, so she insisted it be placed in this dim alcove. Such a position relative to the Emetchi is proper for beggars."

Admetus tipped her head to one side. Then she shifted a torch so that the apse was lit. "You want to see Artemis, and you think you won't if I am here. Hmmf." Shuffling forward, she drawled, "Step back a step or two... a little more, yes that's right. Now, to the right, oh, too far, left." Shuffling back a bit, Admetus called one of the older children to herself. "Can you count to three?" A grave nod. "Excellent, you and I, we'll count to three. Count the Fools now..." And counting the suitably positioned priestess, there were indeed Three Wise Fools.

"Well, well. It seems you have seen me. But don't forget, an indulgent guard and a gaggle of children saw me first." With that, the twisted stick became a silver bow, and the tatters fine leathers. No longer wearing the appearance of an old woman, Artemis said, "Now forget this nonsense and go play with the other kids your age."

And that's how we wound up with one of the biggest, rowdiest, best festivals in all the world. Adults play like children and spoil their children rotten. In the spirit of it all, we have created a bunch of silly games. The one of concern here is called Slap Your Neighbour. In it, all of the physically able warriors have to draw lots from three different bags. One is for an opponent. Another is for a weapon. The third is for a location to fight on. These things are all as silly, messy, and embarassing as possible. Can you imagine Xena in a food fight with the woman who trained me... on top of the temple of Artemis? With this game it could happen. I think the game is called Slap Your Neighbor because when they laugh at what you pull from the bags you feel like slapping them. It's just a theory.

Queen ProthoŽ straightened her pale brown leathers and settled her lanky form into her seat. "So, oh brilliant and foresighted weaponmaster, how do you intend to avoid a massacre when Xena finds out about the game of Slap Your Neighbor, hmm?" Foresighted? Foresighted? Excuse me, I have never claimed to be foresighted, especially being as I only have two eyes. Yeah, I know, Queen ProthoŽ didn't think that was funny either.

Outside, practically the entire tribe was assembled. The three wardens who kept the bags of lots before the draws were standing off to one side, looking thoroughly cowed. Looking around, I saw a furious Gabrielle, looking ready to smack someone with her staff. Xena looked as cool and enigmatic as ever. The entire crowd was abuzz. Such a set of circumstances hadn't happened in years. A rather pudgy, arrogant woman stepped up. Her name was Eriphyle, and she believed herself to be my obvious successor. I'm twenty two winters old and I already have a successor? She vastly overestimated her talent. And when I say vastly, I mean vastly. She couldn't hit a mountain if she were standing on it.

"I must say, weaponmaster, if anyone had said that you were going to arrange something like this, I would have laughed in their faces. Who knew you had such imagination?" Hitching up her skirt and straightening her bracers she drawled, "These people are your guests, Thraso, shall they adhere to our traditions today?"

"No." It nearly became necessary to retrieve eyeballs from the dirt.

"No?!" Eriphyle squawked incredulously. Oh, but she sounded so like a chicken.

"I mean, no they don't have to participate in things they aren't comfortable with. We're supposed to be having fun." Eriphyle puffed up her chest. Apparently she was confused, and believed herself to be a rooster.

"Surely we cannot allow them to spurn Tradition." I don't know about you, but 'Tradition' in this sense makes me think of some nasty ritual your parents make you do once a year for no reason that you understand, and everybody hates it. Things like always eating split pea soup the day after Solstice.

"Get over it, Eriphyle. They are guests, not prisoners." Prisoners often are people who expect to kidnap and enslave Emetchi at their leisure. We like to tie them to posts and pelt them with sloppy biscuit dough. You'd be amazed how effective it is at preventing new attempts... and how quickly an otherwise completely bloodthirsty warrior will cheerful trade hacking the offendor to pieces for a few good sized handfulls of dough. I think maybe it's the shocked looks on the guys' faces after the first faceful of muck. After using up the dough, we go on to more serious considerations. But who needs serious considerations?

Eriphyle stepped up to me, and glared, trying to look intimidating. I nearly laughed, and I could hear tittering in the crowd. She is about tall enough to look at my gorgoneum... barely. Glaring in a threatening manner at my gorgoneum, which was sticking its tongue out at her, she hissed, "Don't be a fool! this is our chance to put the so called Warrior Princess in her place... and that upstart Gabrielle too."

"Seems to me that they are both already in their places... and if you don't get out of my... body space... right now, I am going to do a series of unpleasant and embarrassing things to you."

"Oh yeah?!"

I smiled my, I am a weaponmaster, I am huge, and I am about to eat you for breakfast along with my daily portion of rocks smile. "I will knock you down, tie you up, strip you naked, paint you orange, and suspend you from a tree." I licked my lips and showed my teeth. "After that I'll coat you with honey and leave you for the bears." Chances were a naked, pudgy, orange Emetchi semi-competent warrior would be considered inedible and she would live to be ridiculous another day. Paling a little, Eriphyle stepped back, so that she could actually look in my face without hurting her neck. She shook her head and tried to disappear into the crowd.

"Xena of Amphipolis," called Queen ProthoŽ.

"Yes," Xena drawled in a bored tone.

"Do you wish to participate in the game of..." she sighed. "Slap Your Neighbor?"

"Certainly." I could not believe my ears. No one else could believe theirs either. Gabrielle turned around and looked at Xena like she had lost her mind.

"Xe, maybe we should take a little holiday, huh?"

Still looking cool and enigmatic, Xena replied, "Don't be ridiculous. You said we should come here and learn the customs of the Northern Amazons... Emetchi." she amended with a nod to me. "I can handle that, and so can you." Oh, I saw the logic. I saw the plan. I saw Gabrielle's eyes narrow as she too, saw the logic, and the plan. Stepping very close she hissed, "Don't you even dream of trying to get up close and comfortable tonight you rat!"

All that said and done, it was time to draw the lots. All sorts of other warriors were involved, but everyone was interested in Xena, and Gabrielle, since her partner had so deftly boxed her into participating. I was having nightmare visions of what had happened to me last Beggar's Festival. In that one, the smith and I had to fight by doing hand stands in four inch deep mud puddles, throwing eels at each other with our feet. It was pretty funny. I just wish someone else had been forearms deep in mud praying no eels slithered down their leg. Eww, I get the Platos just thinking about it.

Gabrielle drew Eriphyle as an opponent. According to the goofy near impossible edicts of the lots, which I begin to think Artemis herself makes up... they were to pelt each other with potato peels while perched on rickety piles of hay bales. The hay bales were specially prepared and stacked to give the poorest footing possible, while scattering hay to the four winds and preventing injurious falls. I however, was far less fortunate. I think you already know what I drew. Xena as my opponent. Fish as the weapons. And we were supposed to beat each other up with them while standing on a log bridge over a rather mucky, fishy smelling, partly dry creek. It was Muddyopolis under that bridge. Smelly Muddyopolis.

So, Xena and I strolled down to the river to get the required fish, which no one had thought to catch beforehand, even if only for dinner.

"You first." Xena drawled. I had no rod, no string, no hook, and I couldn't get my armour wet. I would have a chance to change into more appropriate gear before the fight, but still. What was I supposed to do, just reach in and grab a fish? Xena jerked her chin at the river and said, "Well, hurry up and grab one." I was supposed to just reach in and grab one. Hera's tits. Laying flat on my stomach parallel to the river, I watched the water flow, one arm held about o hand's length from the surface. All I could hear was the water. And then, I don't know, I just up and grabbed something that I could just see out of the corner of my eye. Something was a trout as long as my arm, wriggling vigourously. I nearly dropped it back in. I nearly dropped my bulging eyeballs in, too. Chuckling a bit, Xena soon had a fish of her own, and we returned to the fighting field.

The referees judged our fish acceptable, although Xena couldn't resist jiggling hers a bit and drawling, "Mine's bigger than yours."

A quarter candlemark later, I was in considerably more appropriate clothes, and we were perched on the log bridge. Now, understand, I have never fought with fish before. Never. I have been hit with a fish, but I had never fought with a fish. Clearly I was going to have to make this up as I wandered dazedly along. So I punched the fish senseless so it quit wiggling, and bounced up and down on my toes a bit. I nodded at Xena once, and swung.

Never in all the days of the world can this deliberately silliest of games have produced a sillier sight. An entire village agape, the sun rising slowly higher. The log bridge made steadily smoother and more slippery by the dancing, quick moving feet of two leather clad demigoddesses, beating the crap out of each other with trout.

At last, I saw a gap in Xena's defense. I was dead tired and had slipped and cracked my shins on the log far too many times. Xena must have had sucker pads on her feet because she hardly slipped at all. If I knocked her silly and into the mud, that would be nice, considering how we had first met. If she knocked me sillier than I already was, chances were nobody would notice the difference. Ultimately, I never knew what hit me. This time it was okay, because Xena didn't either. We knocked each other out.

Coming to sprawled in the smelliest mud I had ever encountered, I noted regretfully that my left eye had once again suffered indignity, since half of my face was buried in the mud. I never saw the duel between Eriphyle and Gabrielle, however, I understand that Gabrielle, struck by sudden inspiration, simply tossed her entire arsenal of potato peels at her opponent. Overwhelmed and blinded by the barrage, Eriphyle misstepped and found herself buried in hay. It took nearly half a candlemark to haul her out, and Gabrielle was carried around on shoulders as the best winner of the day. In the meantime, Xena and I got to lay in the healer's hut. I felt really sulky about the whole thing. Surely challenging Xena to a fight and living to tell the tale deserves some recognition?

Things settled down after that. Gabrielle had become well loved just by being smart and quick, and Xena had by being willing to take part in something that really was only meant to be fun. They stuck around for about three moons, visiting villages, taking notes and stuff. I got to spar with Xena quite a lot, which was fun... bruising, but fun. Eumache eventually stuck around to help me teach classes and stuff. An excellent arrangement, since not only did I have a knowledgeable partner, but I could show off to her practically all day.

Still, as everyone knows, Xena and Gabrielle don't seem to stay anywhere too long, and this was no exception.

"Well, Thraso, we got off to a rough start, but it's been great." Gabrielle grinned at me.

"You could say that." I replied, chuckling.

"Hmmf." snorted Xena. She was already perched atop Argo, and ready to leave. Rolling her eyes, Gabrielle nearly surprised the feathers off me by giving me a hug. "Send a scroll along to Amphipolis once in awhile, we'll get it... and I expect you to invite us to the ceremony." With that, she scrambled up behind Xena. Ceremony? What ceremony? "Seeya, Thraso." Xena rumbled gruffly. "Sure." I growled. We shook forearms, then Xena tossed me on my butt. "Never underestimate your opponent." Struggling to my feet and trying to regain some dignity, I slipped an arm around Eumache's waist and ordered the blush creeping up my neck to go someplace else.

We watched them ride away. I was still confused. "Ceremony?" I asked Eumache a bit plaintively.

"Don't worry about it. We do need to talk, though." We were walking back through the forest that surrounded the village, and I walked into a tree. I bounced off the tree. I tripped on a root. I fell on my face. Eumache sat down beside me and said. "Well, now that you're already no longer standing, you do realize I'm staying?"

Okay... loose ends, right? Ummm... oh, yes, my mother's last note implied another test coming my way. I know, audience participation... three guesses. Come on, I'll even buy an ale for the one who gets it right. No, no, not the fish fight with Xena. No, not refraining from carrying out my threats to Eumache. Is that the best you've got? Wow. Anyway, what am I doing here, telling this story? Well, I have to take care of some trouble over the silver hooved hind sacred to Artemis that some doofus stole about half a moon ago. Just on the way here I had to deal with a giant wolf Ares sent to wreak havoc on a village. The inhabitants supposedly pissed him off. Oh, and Eumache and I figured out why the walls of the new palace being built in Athens kept falling down...


Want to read the sequel. Take a look at
And it Continued with a Skunk...

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