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For Ant of a Nail
Disclaimer: This story contains a few, very non-graphic, depictions of the kind of Xena-style "kung fu fighting" we know and love from the TV series. Thus, while it is somewhat less violent than the average televised episode of Xena, it is not entirely violence-free.
The warm Mediterranean sun had been shining down on the road all morning, but the mud from the previous night's rain was still not completely dried. Hence, a steady rhythm of eight squinching feet could be heard, as Gabrielle, Xena, and Argo marched along.
"It must have been a morale problem," Xena said, finally. Gabrielle looked up at her, questioningly. "That war-band this morning, I mean. Their hearts just weren't in it."
Gabrielle pondered. "I think I know what you mean. When they woke us up, I was like -- well, waking up to an attack is really not the best way to start your morning. But after dispatching my fifth guy, I'm thinking, 'Hey, this is easy! I've really gotten good with this staff!' And then around the tenth, I'm thinking, 'It isn't me -- these guys just aren't trying.' And around the *fifteenth*, it was getting so repetitive doing dactyls -- WHACK-turn-turn WHACK-turn-turn" (she acted out the appropriate motions) "-- I started doing sapphics, just for variety -- WHACK-turn-WHACK-WHACK-WHACK-turn-turn--"
Xena grabbed the end of Gabrielle's staff gently but firmly, halting her companion's rotations. "Speaking of turns . . ."
"Yes, I know," Gabrielle said, as they resumed their forward progress. "Right turn at the next fork."
"Left," said Xena, solemnly.
"I thought we weren't going to Psegopolis. You usually try to avoid the cities you sacked."
Xena sighed. "I ought to warn them about that little war-band's plans. Even a group like that can be troublesome, if they show up unannounced. And," Xena added, "I never sacked Psegopolis. I *tried* to . . ."
"Too strong an army?"
"They had two hundred men, I had five hundred. At the start. By the time I pulled back, they had a hundred and fifty, I had a hundred." Xena greeted Gabrielle's surprised look with a grim smile. "Well, it was their home territory, and they were defending their own city. But mainly, they were brave, and they were well-trained, and they were just *better* at it than the army I'd put together." Xena sighed. "Many of my memories of those days are painful. That one is both painful, and just plain embarrassing."
They reached the fork in the road. Gabrielle headed a short distance down the left-hand branch, before realizing that Xena had stopped, and was gazing down the other branch.
"Let me guess -- we're gonna head *right*," Gabrielle said to Xena, who had just leapt onto Argo's back for a better view.
Xena pointed down the right-hand fork. "See those glints of light?" Even from the ground, Gabrielle could see them very faintly in the distance. "That's either a very small forest fire --"
"Or the weaponry of a good-sized army. But the one we, er, met this morning was heading *that* way," Gabrielle said, pointing vaguely leftwards, "so --"
"There's *another* army wandering around."
"And we have to go check it out, because --"
"Because it's something the Psegopolitans ought to know about, and more importantly, if there's an army running around in territory I'm traveling through, it's something *I* ought to know about." Xena got into riding position and extended a hand to help Gabrielle up -- catching up with a possibly mobile army would require greater speed than simply traveling to a city. Gabrielle put on her best horse-riding grimace and climbed aboard.
"And who knows," Xena added, as Argo went into a swift, and somewhat bouncy, gait. "Maybe they'll be friendlier than the last bunch."
Gabrielle, her arms clinging tightly to Xena's waist, muttered skeptically into her comrade's leather-clad back.
"Remind me never to doubt you again," Gabrielle said, taking another pomegranate from the dish on the table. She stretched out luxuriously on one of the soft cushions strewn across the floor of the tent, and beckoned a clean-cut soldier to refill her water-goblet.
Xena was still sitting bolt upright on one of the handsome oaken chairs, lost in thought. No one but royalty would take a pavillion like this out on a military campaign, and no one who didn't know her would have had his men be so courteous to Gabrielle and herself. Zeus -- most people who *did* know her wouldn't be that friendly. And out this far East, that meant their host had to be --
"His Majesty, King Krobylos of Lygria!" announced a herald at the door of the tent. A regal figure entered, clad in robes of Tyrian purple.
"Xena! So good of you to stop by," Krobylos said. He looked down at Gabrielle, who was scrambling to her feet. "I see you're traveling with a smaller army than usual. Wise move -- I imagine it saves a fortune in combat pay." He offered his hand to Gabrielle, who took it and attempted to curtsey.
"Krobylos, old friend," Xena said to the king, who was now wiping the pomegranate juice off his hand. "What's a homebody like you doing all the way out here, at the Psegopolitan border?"
"Ah -- but Psegopolis *is* home. Or soon will be." He grinned at the warrior woman, and noticed her face growing stern. "Oh, come now, I'm not talking about conquest -- you know that's not my style."
"And the two thousand troops you've got out there?"
"Merely a precaution -- to ensure that I get what is legitmately mine."
"Oh, come now," Xena said. "Psegopolis hasn't been part of Lygria for a hundred and fifty years. The Treaty of Koros Brook specifically states that it shall remain independent until such time as there is no king on the Psegopolitan throne." A sudden shadow crossed her face. "You mean that King Epaltes is dead -- and Prince Arisbas *and* Prince Damasos --"
Krobylos interrupted. "Oh, don't worry -- they're all alive and well, and as annoying as ever. No, the point is a bit more subtle than that. You see, you misquoted the treaty. Nearly everyone does -- people just don't bother to look anything up, I guess." He took an old scroll out of an ornately decorated wooden box. "Now, when you said 'king' -- _basileus_ -- that wasn't quite the right word."
Gabrielle spoke up. "A hundred and fifty years ago -- they probably used the word _anax_. It's a little bit archaic, now --"
Krobylos interrupted. "Not even a little bit, in these parts. I dare say Eppie is called 'Anax Epaltes' about three times as often as 'Basileus Epaltes' -- it's more dignified, you see."
"All of this is fascinating," said Xena, dryly.
"Isn't it?" said Krobylos. "But here's the really fascinating part. Look here at the treaty scroll, and see the actual word they used." He pointed at a word near the bottom. Xena peered at the text. It said "anax", but --
"It's got a six in front of it?" she asked, bewildered. The characteristic F-shape -- two gammas, one on top of the other -- was unmistakable; in the system where delta stood for four and epsilon for five, this was six. The question was, what was that six doing there?
"Oh," said Gabrielle. "That's a 'wau', isn't it." She turned to Xena. "It's a letter used to represent a 'wuh' sound. In most dialects, that sound isn't used anymore -- it's just dropped out of the words that once had it -- so the letter is only kept around for number notation. So the treaty says that if there's no _Wanax_ on the throne --"
"Then Psegopolis is mine," said Krobylos. "And, of course, there's no Wanax in Psegopolis -- just an Anax."
"But it's the same word -- 'wanax' is just an older form!" said Gabrielle.
"Really?" said Krobylos. "It's not spelled the same -- look at any official inscription in Psegopolis, and you'll see 'Anax Epaltes' proudly displayed, without a 'wau' in sight. And its not pronounced the same, certainly. But I'm a fair man." He whispered something to one of the soldiers, who dashed out of the tent. "I have an ambassador from Psegopolis here in the camp. If he is willing to assert that Epaltes is the Wanax of Psegopolis, I will take his word as a gentleman, and renounce all claim to the city. Ah, here he comes."
A richly dressed but utterly miserable-looking man entered the tent.
"What is it now?" he asked.
Krobylos turned to him, and said, "I'm giving you yet another chance to save your city. Just repeat after me: 'Epaltes is the Wanax of Psegopolis.'"
The ambassador sighed, and made what was clearly his umpteenth attempt.
"Epaltes is the Anax of Psegopolis," he said, in a subdued tone.
"You see?" said Krobylos to Xena and Gabrielle.
The ambassador roared. "I'm repeating what you're saying!"
"No, you're not," said Krobylos. "And that is why Psegopolis is mine."
Heading toward Psegopolis that afternoon, there was no need to ride -- the city wasn't going anywhere, and the warnings they had to deliver could wait the hour or so it would take to walk. Gabrielle was very grateful for that, particularly in her current well-stuffed condition.
"Why do unscrupulous kings always give the best lunches?" Gabrielle asked, the taste of fat goose and no-days-old bread still on her tongue.
"Krobylos? Unscrupulous? Quite the contrary," Xena replied. "I've never known a king who was more forthright and to-the-letter in all his dealings."
"'To the letter'? I'll say."
"Well, that's the thing. If he didn't think Psegopolis were legally his, he wouldn't be after it. But he has a document which, he believes, gives him title to the city --"
"Based on a single semi-obsolete character," Gabrielle added, tracing the F-shape in the air with the end of her staff.
"-- And he's going to take what's his. He's always been the same way; in any deal I ever made with him, he never took a dinar more than he was entitled to -- nor a dinar less." Xena noticed Gabrielle's inquisitive expression. "Well, even bloodthirsty Warrior Princesses have to do a little trading. What happens when you've stolen the gold off the sacred shrine of Hestia, but need grain to feed your men -- or when you've ransacked a granary, but need gold to pay off some antsy Illyrian mercenaries? And you've always got to buy weapons . . ."
"All right. So he's a stand-up, square-dealing kind of guy. What's going to happen when he shows up at Psegopolis and announces he's the new owner, because Anax Epaltes doesn't have a *six* in his title? Somehow, I doubt they're going to hand over the keys to the city."
"Of course not. They call out the army -- in my day it was two hundred, but the city's grown a bit, so call it three hundred. Krobylos moves in with his two thousand, thinking he can just run over them --"
"Which he can't, judging from your experiences, so there's a bloodbath, and whoever wins, there are several hundred more corpses the next day, all because the people of Psegopolis don't say their 'wau's any more." Gabrielle paused. "What is with that, anyway? It's one thing if you're not used to making a sound -- but the ambassador guy couldn't even tell the difference!"
Xena detached her chakram from her belt and held it up. "Do you know what they call this, out east? I mean, way, way east."
Gabrielle thought a moment. "Not a chakram, I take it."
"No. A _chakram_," Xena said, not using the Greek word for chakram, but the actual Sanskrit word _chakram_, with a ch-sound.
"That's what I -- oh, I see. I think. You're using a sound that doesn't exist in Greek, I guess, and I can't hear the difference."
"Exactly." Xena observed a tree up ahead, by the side of the road. "I've been around enough, and you've read enough, that we're both used to dialects both with and without the 'wuh' sound, so we can detect the difference." Without looking directly at it, or breaking her stride, she mentally measured the distance to the tree -- Thirty paces. Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight. "The Psegopolitans aren't," (twenty-seven, twenty-six) "and can't."
At twenty-five paces, without even looking up, Xena tossed the chakram at the tree. The spinning, razor-sharp disk flew towards its target -- the seventh limb up, on the left. The weapon, if thrown exactly right, was perfectly capable of cutting all the way through a branch of that size, but this one had been thrown a little differently. The chakram's spin flipped it up into the air when it had only cut one third through, and the branch probably wouldn't have broken had there not been a warrior standing on it. As it was, man and branch hurtled towards the ground, the former yelling feebly.
Xena, meanwhile, was yelling heartily, as she cartwheeled towards the tree. She was producing the bloodcurdling ululational warcry which is spelled, depending on one's dialect, as _alala_ or _alale_; neither spelling, Gabrielle had often noted, really captured the spirit of the thing.
The warrior on the ground, already in sorry shape from his fall, now watched in panic as the screaming leather-and-bronze blur finished one final flip to reach the tree, and leapt into the air; meanwhile, the chakram, having reached the top of its flight, now headed downward and, in passing, chopped another branch off the tree. One swift hand grabbed the falling chakram, the other grabbed the falling branch, and the blur headed downwards once more, until two leather-clad feet landed on the hapless warrior's chest.
By the time Gabrielle ran up to the two of them, the man on the ground was already telling Xena everything she wanted to know; or, rather, was telling her everything, whether she wanted to know it or not. As he explained that his name was Rhadimos, and gave an overlong account of his ancestry, Xena put the chakram back on her hip; as he described his warband's plans (they *were* planning to go after Psegopolis, Zeus help them) and his own (his current intention was to give up the warrior business, and to go back to Thessaly to take up sheep-farming), Xena decided there was no point in brandishing the tree-branch any longer, and offered it to Gabrielle. The latter tried a few practice swings -- it was unpolished, of course, but had good natural balance -- while they waited for Rhadimos to wind down.
He did eventually become quiet, but only after Xena crouched down and told him calmly that she would cut off the flow of blood to his brain if he didn't shut up. Silently, he looked up at her, scared and weary and miserable.
"Why did you and your comrades attack me and my friend this morning?" Xena asked.
"We were on our way to Psegopolis when we tripped -- *tripped* -- over something -- two somethings -- in the dawn shadows, and the next thing we knew, we were fighting Xena the Warrior Princess and her _hetaira_ Gabrielle." He groaned. "Did you ever have a week when *nothing* went right?"
Gabrielle, using her new staff as support, leaned down and asked, "I've been wondering -- you're going to attack Psegopolis, you said? And it's a hundred of you against a walled city and two, three hundred skilled fighters? Isn't that, well, a really bad plan?"
Rhadimos shifted his gaze to her, and said, embarrassed, "Well, when you put it that way, yes. But think how glorious it would be if we won!" He chuckled feebly. "Yeah, I know, that sounds stupid. But our army -- we haven't had much success lately. I mean, things have been kind of tight for warlords anyway, with all you guys running around -- Hercules, Iolaus, you two -- but we're even worse off than most, I think; we haven't had a decent score -- a decent meal, even -- in *months*. A lot of the guys, the idea of getting Psegopolis is the only thing keeping 'em going."
"And your leader?" Xena asked.
"Zamnos? *He* thinks we can do it. That *he* can do it. A warlord like that -- he's got an ego so big, he thinks nothing can stop him, till he winds up going after a city like Psegopolis and throws away four fifths of his men in half an hour. And even then, dinars to doughballs, he figures it's not *his* fault -- it was his men, or the wind, or something -- dusts himself off and gets together another army. You ever know anyone like that?"
"Yes," Xena said, quietly.
No one who had seen Ilion before its fall could be *impressed* by Psegopolis, Gabrielle thought to herself, but it was nonetheless a well-built, well-ordered, prosperous little city, that was clear. The stone walls were high enough for their purpose, and solidly constructed, and the arrangement of jutting spikes on top showed evidence of care and deliberation. They were not merely well-maintained and functional; they were also arrayed in an orderly pattern that was at once imposing and aesthetic -- if you were fond of artistic metalwork. On this thought, Gabrielle looked over at her armor-clad friend, and inwardly smiled.
The two soldiers guarding the east gate came to attention as soon as Xena and Gabrielle came into view. As the two women got nearer, one of the men calmly moved his spear into ready position, and without turning his head, spoke quietly to his comrade, who did the same. Clearly, Xena had been recognized.
When Xena and Gabrielle were within speaking distance of the soldiers, Xena greeted them formally, and raised her hands in a gesture of salutation that also served to show that she wasn't holding any weapons.
"Xena, Warrior Princess, I presume." said the sharper-eyed of the soldiers, as calm as ever. "This isn't another raid, I trust?"
"I'm here with important information for your king," Xena said, coldly. "May I enter the city?"
"I'm pretty sure you can enter it," said the other soldier.
"Getting *out* again may be difficult," said the first. "I'm afraid you're not very well liked in there."
"Not that you're all that well liked out here," said the second, mildly.
"Oh, I'll be fine," Xena said with a cold smile. It was a good sign that these soldiers were expressing their hostility through impertinence rather than violence. It bespoke a certain level of intelligence and reasonableness.
It also bespoke an awful lot of courage, of course.
"No doubt you will," said the first soldier. "Naturally, you'll have to leave your sword, and your chakram. Not," he added, "that we're worried about an attack -- you can't possibly be stupid enough to try anything like that -- but the citizens might take it the wrong way. I think you can keep your smaller blades -- what do you say, Boros?"
"I think she'll *have* to keep them -- there's no way we can be sure to get all of them without a full strip search, and --"
"Oh, for Zeus' sake," Xena said, tossing her sword and chakram onto the ground impatiently. "May I go in now?"
"By all means," said Boros. He opened the gate and called to another guard inside.
Xena turned to Gabrielle. "You wait out here with Argo," she said.
"No. No, no, no. You keep doing this, and it drives me up the wall. Look, you're about to go into hostile territory, and I'm coming with you, *because* it's hostile territory, and --"
"I'd recommend following your friend's advice," said Boros to Gabrielle, turning serious. "Loyalty is a fine thing, but the war-princess here isn't just going into a dangerous place -- she's going into a place that's dangerous *because* she'll be called to account for a past crime, which you had nothing to do with. At least," he said thoughtfully, "I assume you had nothing to do with it. You would have been what -- twelve?"
"No," said Xena, impatiently, "she wasn't there. And neither was the horse," she added, "in case you're wondering."
"Anyway," Boros continued, still addressing Gabrielle, or perhaps Gabrielle and Argo, "there's no reason you should be punished for hooking up with the wrong woman." He paused. "Aphrodite knows, I've done it once or twice."
"Look," said Gabrielle, "I'm --" Xena leaned over and whispered something in her ear. "Okay, I'll stay out here," Gabrielle said. But she wasn't happy.
The walk into the city center wasn't too bad. The guard that Boros had called to escort her clearly despised her, and therefore remained silent instead of indulging in a soldier's idea of witty banter. Moreover, the Psegopolitans, notoriously accurate with war arrows, proved to be completely incompetent at precision spitting.
"There goes the Warrior Princess -- slaughterer of thousands!" called one woman, from a doorway.
"Xena -- Warrior Princess -- Armored Enslaver of Arcadia!" called another.
"But she's naked!" said a small boy, off to the left. Xena paused at the unexpected remark. "I mean, that's not real armor; it doesn't even cover her --" A woman's hand, probably his mother's, clamped down on his mouth, cutting off the remainder of his observation. Xena continued her steady walk, reminding herself that it would ill-suit the occasion to show any amusement.
Xena and her escort arrived at the town square. It was a surprisingly spacious affair, considering the small size of the city, and was replete with elegant statuary of wood and stone. The buildings in the vicinity were covered with dignified inscriptions -- either they had governmental functions, Xena decided, or else people here just liked inscriptions. Naturally, King Epaltes -- *Anax* Epaltes -- had his name up all over the place. And, of course, it was always Anax, not Wanax -- not a single one of those Anaxes, Xena noted grimly, had an F-shape in front of it.
Epaltes himself was on the throne used for public appearances, in a prominent position in the square. Had he turned out just to see her? If so, he gave no sign of having gone to any effort, or having been rushed in any way -- his embroidered robes were in perfect array, and his long ceremonial scepter was held at a casual, almost jaunty angle. Perhaps he had simply been enjoying the sunshine.
Xena's escort brought her before Epaltes. She gave a half-bow -- nobody would believe a full one from her -- and when she arose, her escort had left her side. She noticed in her peripheral vision that the young man was now standing to her left and behind her, perfectly matched with the soldier to her right and behind her. A dozen other soldiers had moved unobtrusively to complete the spacious circle that formed the classic "open cordon" formation; she was, in other words, completely surrounded, albeit subtly so. To protect the king? No, he and his bodyguards were few paces away in front of her, but still inside the circle. She was surrounded, then, in order to prevent her escape. Ah, well.
"I bring you important information," she began.
"Indeed," Epaltes replied, coldly. "What sort of information?"
"For one thing, there is a band of about one hundred, headed towards Psegopolis to raid it. I encountered them in the forest this morning, a few miles to the southeast, and this afternoon I encountered only one of their scouts on the east road. I suspect the main body is taking the river route."
"Ah, yes -- my scouts have been running into them from time to time. A minor nuisance at best," said Epaltes. "Anything else?"
"I presume you know about Krobylos' plans."
"You might say that. He's been sending us a steady stream of heralds, messengers, and whatnot for the past week, all very politely telling us that he owns our city now, and that he intends to rule us with a firm but loving hand." Epaltes snorted. "I suspect that tomorrow, he's going to send someone to measure the palace for new carpeting. Really, if you haven't anything new to tell me . . ."
"I've seen his army; it numbers --"
"Two thousand and ninety-three. The main body is encamped on the high ground around Pyxos Hill -- it's a good site, but they'll have to pass through the north fields on the way here, which works to our advantage. Look. I *know* what his army is doing, and he knows what mine is doing, because neither one of us is dumb enough to try to conduct a war without proper scouting. The only stupidity here is Krobylos' belief that a meaningless letter in an old treaty gives him the right to a city his great-grandfather ceded a hundred and fifty years ago." Epaltes paused. "Oh -- and your coming here, and my wasting so much time listening to you."
"I'm here," Xena said, "to offer my help. I can --"
Epaltes' eyes lit with rage. "Your help? Your *help*?! The people of Psegopolis don't want your help -- they want your head. Your army slew fifty-three men. You left thirty-five widows, and nearly that many bereaved lovers, and sixty-one fatherless children. If you want to read all their names, there's a plaque over there." He gestured towards one of the buildings.
He went on. "The only reason I've let this go on this long is the distant hope that you might say *something* to justify delaying your execution. You picked an annoying moment to show up -- now I've got to conduct a trial, and hold a formal beheadment, and arrange a ceremonial parade with your head on a pikestaff, and I don't really have *time* for all that, because we're about to go to war!"
While the king was waxing wroth, the circle of soldiers was slowly tightening. Clearly, it was time to make an exit. The problem was, how? That little boy was right, in a way -- in one important respect she was naked, since all the weapons she had on her were a dagger beneath her breastplate, and something rather less impressive in her boot, and . . .
Not that her sword or chakram would have been of much use, anyway -- Xena was determined not to spill any more of this city's blood. Now, a good stout st-- ah, that was it.
"All I can say, then," she said, "is that -- IAAII!" She leapt, apparently at the king. His bodyguards moved in to protect him, but Xena turned aside at the last moment and delivered a hearty kick to his scepter instead. The stick went flying, and the heavy end of it delivered a solid thwack to the head of one of the soldiers in the circle.
It was a matter of delivering exactly the right amount of force, Xena thought, as she ran directly at that soldier. If it had knocked him down, his comrades would have automatically, instinctively moved in to close the gap. That hadn't happened -- he was still up. On the other hand, if it hadn't hit him hard enough, he would be sufficiently alert to impede her progress, and in no time she would have to fight the entire Psegopolitan city guard -- fifty highly-skilled soldiers, plus whatever members of the regular army might be around -- barehanded.
As Xena ran into, and right over, the soldier, she decided that it had hit him hard enough.
Now she only had to get out of the city. She was heading at lightning speed towards the south gate, which had, of course, been bolted at the first sign of trouble. Two soldiers with long pikes guarded the gate. She ran directly for them, letting out her most intimidating war cry. They remained in ready position, completely unmoved.
There are two ways you can wield a pike like that, Xena thought. You can raise it to thrust downwards, or you can lower it to thrust upwards. She would go for the soldier on the left -- he was taller, and thus more likely to be a "raiser".
She built up her speed, and then leapt. Sure enough, he raised his pike to defend himself -- except that Xena had jumped a little higher than he thought. She landed one leather boot on the upward-moving point of the pike (it didn't hurt -- they were good boots) and then, when the head of the pike was nearing its highest point, she used it as a platform to leap again (well, that hurt a little). The extra height she gained by leaping from a raised height, plus the added momentum of the upward thrust, enabled her to almost clear the wall. As she heard bows being raised down below, she scrambled up the last couple of yards. Thank the gods there are spikes up here, she thought, as she reached the top and was able to use them as hand-holds.
She pulled herself up to the top of the wall, and looked down on the ground outside for -- ah, there they were, as arranged. She jumped off the wall and onto Argo's back. Xena grabbed Gabrielle by a random garment, hauled her up, and the three of them galloped off, accompanied by the distinctive melody of arrow-whistles.
Day was drawing to a close, but Xena's plan required that they not make a fire. Gabrielle unrolled the blankets -- without a fire, it would get a bit chilly, even here in the sheltered river valley.
"Are you really sure they'll come by here?" Gabrielle asked, sitting down on one blanket and draping the excess around herself.
"When they attacked us this morning, about how many water vessels did they have?" Xena replied, sitting down beside her.
Gabrielle replayed the scene in her mind, reliving the combat, and tried to remember what the unfortunate warriors had been carrying; it wasn't an easy task, she thought, since that's not the first thing you look for when you're trying to whack a guy with a staff.
"Most had small water-skins, but otherwise -- of the ones I fought, only one had a real water-bottle."
"Right. So if they're going cross-country -- and we only saw one of their scouts on the road, so it's pretty clear that they are -- they've got to stick close to the river."
"So now we wait in the dark for them to stumble across us again."
"Yep." There was a brief pause. "So, heard any good epics lately?"
"Now that you mention it . . ." Gabrielle took a scroll out of her satchel. "It's something one of the guys at the Academy's working on -- the first chapter, anyway. It's about the Wrath of Achilles." She squinted at the parchment in the fading glimmerings of twilight, to remind herself of the basic plot and some of the key passages. Then she started to recite.
When she was done, Xena said, "I like that. You rarely get to hear Briseis' point of view -- usually in these stories she's just treated as a piece of captured property for Achilles and Agamemnon to squabble over. Here at least she gets some good lines in."
"Actually . . ." Gabrielle said, in embarrassment.
"You just put that stuff in when you recited it now. None of that was on the parchment."
"Well, yeah . . . but I think it makes the story more interesting. Besides, a lot of it's implicit in the the text, if you read between the lines. It's sort of a sub--"
Xena interrupted. "I figured you were winging it in a couple of places; the meter wasn't as smooth as . . ." She noticed Gabrielle stiffening in response to this attack on her bardic pride. "I mean --"
"You mean it didn't scan. Where?"
Xena searched her memory, and finally dredged up a line. She recited it.
"Oh," said Gabrielle, brightening. "You mean the fourth syllable should be long instead of short. Well, that's not one of mine -- it's in the original." She pointed to a place on the scroll, now almost invisible in the dark. "I wonder why -- oh, I know. See, it's short because the next word starts with a vowel, but the line is based on an old poetic formula, so the next word *used* to start with a 'wau', which is a consonant, making the syllable 'long by position', as they put it at the Academy . . . You seem annoyed."
"I am sick of that letter," said Xena. "When all this is over, I don't want to see it ever again. Not as a 'wuh' sound, not as a six. In fact, I don't think I even want to see half a dozen of anything again."
"Frankly," said Gabrielle jocularly, "I think this whole alphabet thing has overstayed its welcome. Why can't we just use the old Mycenaean Linear script?"
"The syllable-by-syllable stuff?" Xena reflected. "Great Olympus, I haven't had to write in that in years . . . I remember my mother teaching me how to write my name that way." Xena took out a dagger, and started tracing the letters in the air; the shiny tip glittered in the moonlight. "Thats a 'ke', and that's a 'se' -- and 'ke' and 'se' make 'kse' -- and then that's the 'na' -- two crossed forks."
"Wait -- two crossed forks?" Gabrielle asked. "That's not a 'na', that's a 'nwa'."
"What? Gabrielle, I know how to spell my own name! Besides, the name's been in my family a long time, and that's how Great Gr--"
"That must be it, then. The name 'Xena' used to be 'Xenwa' -- that makes sense, 'cause _xenos_, 'stranger', used to be _xenwos_ -- and when the sounds changed, your family didn't change the spelling. Heh. Behold, Xenwa: Warrior Princess!" Gabrielle chuckled. "You just can't escape the ubiquitous 'wuh' . . ."
"Don't make that sound again, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle leaned in close until her face was just inches from Xena's. She pursed her lips. "Wuh," she said, opening them.
At that moment, they both heard the distant sounds of a poorly disciplined war band crashing through the underbrush. The two separated, got down low, and remained still and silent until the band was almost upon them. Then in a flash of motion, with loud cries, both leapt up and assumed battle positions.
"Oh, sweet Ares," said one of the bedraggled soldiers, "not again." A few others collapsed to their knees, weeping openly.
"What do you two *want*?" said another warrior. He was standing up straighter than the others, and seemed, from what little of his attire could be seen in the moonlight, to hold some kind of rank.
Xena addressed her remarks to him. "I wish to challenge Zamnos for the leadership of this army."
There was a loud voice from the back the crowd of warriors. "I accept your challenge, warrior woman!" A very large, armored man, tall and broad and well-muscled, strode forth -- Zamnos, clearly. "It will be an honor to have the opportunity to slay the Warrior Princess!" The warrior Xena had been addressing, who was apparently Zamnos' lieutenant, tried to say something, but Zamnos silenced him with a powerful glance. "Everyone stand aside, and let us begin the combat!" Zamnos said.
It wasn't as quick as that, of course -- it took a while to get the disarrayed army to clear a space for the fighters, and torches had to be lit to illuminate the fight -- but soon, Zamnos and Xena faced off, swords in hand. Zamnos slashed, and Xena parried. The force of the blow sent sparks flying; the man was as strong as he looked. Zamnos slashed again, and Xena spun around to kick him in the sword hand. He dodged somewhat, and the half-a-kick that did land didn't cost him his sword; he was quicker than he looked, and had a good strong grip.
Checking out his coverage would take a little more work. Xena whirl-kicked to the left, and then to the right -- he blocked each before the boot reached his head. Another slash -- this man had *no* imagination with regard to offense -- allowed Xena to try a couple of kicks straight up the middle. One good one landed, but only a slight wince indicated any discomfort on Zamnos' part. Good armor or an iron belly? Probably both.
Slash-and-parry, slash-and-parry, kick, kick, kick. Xena tried a few sword blows of her own, and only got more sparks for her trouble. This wasn't getting them anywhere, and she needed a quick, impressive victory for her plan to work. Well, the sparks were impressive, anyway -- she just had to make it quick.
Another unimaginative slash. *Could* he do anything else? She decided to find out, and moved, from straight in front of him, slightly to his left. As he turned to face her, she danced around to *keep* to his left. Eventually he'd have to strike leftwards.
Eventually he did, and it wasn't a bad strike, but to Xena's experienced eye he seemed off-balance for just a second. *That's* what his problem was. She tried it again, this time on the right side -- another momentary imbalance, though not as much.
Okay, back to the left. Eventually he struck left again, and instead of blocking the blow, Xena ducked under it -- that prolonged the off-balance moment slightly. She whirled around, and delivered a kick to the small of his back -- he was too big for her to get around properly, so it wasn't a very hard blow, but it kept him off-balance a little longer, and he was forced to put his right foot forward to regain his stability.
Which mean that he was leaning on the wrong foot -- and in the wrong way -- to properly block the blow she then delivered to his head, and he was down.
Xena kicked him over onto his back, and stood on his chest. She rested her sword, point down, on his abdomen; it was a nice, casual-looking stance, but would also mean that if he woke up, he would know that she could run him through in an instant if he tried anything foolish. She really didn't want him to try anything -- it would spoil the effect of the speech she was about to make.
Zamnos' lieutenant came forward, and addressed the army. "Hail Xena, our new leader!" The warriors shouted back "Hail Xena!" with moderate enthusiasm; far more enthusiasm than one might have expected, given their bedraggled condition, and the fact that this was the same woman who had beaten the daylights out of them that morning.
Xena took a deep breath, and began. "I am well aware that the current situation of this army is not what one might wish. You are all tired, cold, and hungry. The city you hoped to raid has over twice your numbers in armed men, and the army that's trying to conquer it has *twenty* times your numbers. And there seems to be no way out, except to disband and sneak away.
"Very well. I am now your leader, and I am going to disband this army. But not before we complete one task." She paused for effect. "We are going to raid the city of Psegopolis."
A wave of confusion, consternation, and most of all plain disbelief swept the armed men. The lieutenant hushed them, then turned to Xena, and said, "We're going to *what*?"
Xena raised her voice slightly, and went on. "You heard me. They humiliated me seven years ago, and tried to kill me today, and I intend to do something about it. Oh, we can't take the city. Zeus -- we can't even pillage it. But there are other ways to leave your mark." She took her sword, and scratched three strokes into the leather covering of Zamnos' breastplate; one vertical, two horizontal. "See this symbol?" Actually, from that angle they couldn't, properly, so she cut out the leather bearing the F-mark and held it high above her head.
A voice from the back of the crowd said, "A six?"
"It looks to me like two gammas ____ing," called another, to the amusement of his comrades.
"Oh, you always want to see two g's ____ing," said a friend of his.
Xena regained control. "We are going to go into Psegopolis tonight, she shouted, "and everywhere the king's title is inscribed, we're going to carve this . . . di-gamma, as you might put it." (More mirth spread through the crowd -- there's not much that's better for a soldier's morale than to be reminded of a dirty joke.) "After tonight, this army is no more -- but you'll be remembered forever as the fearless band who raided the unraidable city, 'cause half the memorials in Psegopolis will have your mark on them!"
The men cheered enthusiatically, swept up by Xena's charisma and by the prospect of ending victorious when all had previously seemed bleak. The lieutenant addressed the crowd. "Is everyone with us?" he shouted, and the men shouted their vigorous assent. He shouted it again, even louder, and the men replied even louder. A third time generated an even more enthusiastic response, and the weary army had become, in their own minds, an unstoppable force.
While they were noisily celebrating their as-yet unachieved victory, the lieutenant leaned over to Xena and whispered, "I *do* hope you've got some sort of plan how we're going to do this."
Xena looked down at Zamnos, who was still under her feet and was starting to stir. "Let's get this guy tied up and stowed somewhere," she said, "and Gabrielle and I'll tell you all about it."
It wasn't a good plan. As Xena noted, there really isn't any such thing as a good plan for attacking a city like Psegopolis. Still, it was a feasible plan, and that was enough.
The lieutenant, whose name was Harpalion, had a few qualms. The main one was a peculiar condition Xena had imposed. "We can't kill anyone?" Harpalion said, incredulous.
"I'll admit that makes it more difficult," Xena replied.
"More difficult?! It means we can't use swords -- too much chance of an accident, no matter how careful we are --"
"So you'll use staves," said Gabrielle.
"You can kill someone with a stick, too, miss. Just because *you've* never done it . . . But anyway, that's not the point. We're going against an enemy that outclasses us in just about every respect, and now we've got to toss in a weapons disadvantage, and a tactical disadvantage -- because they won't be trying not to kill *us* -- and --"
"But you've got one advantage that will aid you enormously in winning without killing," said Xena.
"The knowledge that if any of your men does kill a Psegopolitan, I will rip your head off."
"Oh." This seemed to end discussion on that point. Harpalion went on. "Another question -- you haven't mentioned what part Gabrielle is going to play in this little raid."
Xena hadn't been particularly anxious for this moment, but it had to be done. She turned to Gabrielle. "Look, I understand that you're sick of being left out of these things, but in this case, it really is too dangerous. You know that, and --"
"Actually," said Gabrielle, "I was going to ask to be excused anyway; I've got a little plan of my own that I think will help things out, and it means I have to be in Krobylos' camp tonight." She whispered something, apparently something complicated, to Xena.
"I'm not sure I understood all of that," said Xena, "but I think you're right -- it might help. Will you be okay riding Argo there?"
Gabrielle sighed. "If Argo can take it, I can."
Hidden outside the south gate of Psegopolis, Harpalion listened intently, trying to hear Xena on the inside. Not that he could really expect to discern the sound of two guards being silently silenced, but he hadn't seen Xena since she had scaled the wall, and it was nerve-wracking not knowing what was going on.
Just then, he noticed the gate swinging cautiously and quietly open. A little more, a little more -- and then suddenly, two well-known hands emerged from the gate, and hit the two outside guards at carefully chosen spots on their necks. They went pale -- even paler than the moonlight already made them -- and they seemed to be unable to draw breath. Then they were hauled into the gate.
This was it. Harpalion motioned to his troops, forty men with knives and staves but no swords or metal armor, and they sped swiftly and silently into the open gate. He would have prefered to have sixty for this part of the plan, but there were really only forty he could trust to keep sufficiently quiet.
Just inside the gate, Xena had finished binding and gagging the two guards from outside, and was undoing whatever she had done to their pressure points. Then she slipped out the gate as quietly as the rest of them had slipped in. When she was gone, Harpalion quietly closed the gate.
Part one of the plan was now in action. They started with the town square, since that was where most of the inscriptions were to be found, and the absence of residences meant that only the occasional guard could notice or overhear them. (He hoped the guards, figuring nobody was going to steal the statues, didn't come by here too often.) The sturdy knives carved their 'wau's deeply into the wood of proclamations, memorial inscriptions, dedications, wherever the king had felt it necessary to have his name celebrated.
The square was two-thirds done, when Harpalion's sharp ears heard the first stirring of the town guards noticing something was amiss. It had taken maybe five minutes for their activities to be detected, longer than he had expected -- his men had done him proud -- but they'd all be caught if he didn't switch to part two now. He raised his crossbow, and fired a single shot over the north wall.
The silence turned to total mayhem, as yells and warcries roared in from outside the city, to the north. Immediately the guards at the north gate sounded the full alert horn, and their comrades came running from all over. (About fifty, Harpalion noted. Thank the gods -- if the main force of the army had come back from their encampment by the north woods, there might well have been two hundred and fifty.) From their shouts, it was clear what was going on -- the Warrior Princess Xena was back, with a war band of at least sixty, and was launching a foolish frontal assault on the north gate.
In the resulting chaos, it was no problem for forty unarmored men running around carving on walls to be unnoticed in the great mass of people running around performing more ordinary tasks. For a time, at least. In fact, the square was completely done, and most of the inscriptions in the residential sections had been taken care of, when a guard finally noticed a man carving a 'wau' on the front of the King-and-Eagle tavern, and asked him what the Hades he was doing. That guard got clocked on the head for his trouble, and the jig was up. Harpalion sighed, and launched another crossbow shot; part three had started.
Part three was a lot messier than the other two parts. Half the men were running around getting the last few inscriptions, while the other half were busy defending them with staves. Speed was of the essence -- forty men, half of whom aren't fighting, can't possibly stand still and fend off fifty of Psegopolis' finest.
The work was not quite done when Harpalion found himself surrounded by seven guards with swords. He blocked two shots, ducked another, and then found himself facing a fourth coming right at him, with no way to avoid it. All of a sudden, his staff was grabbed out of his hands, and a familiar alto voice shouted at him, "For Zeus' sake, get down!"
He fell to the ground, and thus narrowly avoided getting knocked out when Xena thrust one end of his staff into the ground and started swinging around it like a whirligig, kicking each of the seven guards in turn as she swung by him, and punctuating her actions with joyous alala-ing. When that particular set of guards was taken care of, she landed on her feet, tossed him the staff, and ran off to help someone else.
If Xena was back in the city -- back over the wall, presumably -- then that meant the other sixty guys, done with the attack-from-the-north ruse, were now dispersing into the woods. Good, thought Harpalion, as he alternately ducked the swords of two more guardsmen -- at least those sixty were going to survive this night.
In fact, now that Xena had arrived, she took up sufficent slack that the last of the carving could finally get done, and the forty-odd of them made for the south gate again. Things were easier now -- instead of having to hold off the Psegopolitan guards, they could simply fight a rear-guard action as they quickly retreated out the gate. Finally, the only two of them left inside were Harpalion and Xena.
Harpalion turned to her and said, "I can handle it from --"; his offer was cut off by Xena picking him up by the shirt, and throwing him bodily out of the gate. As he dusted himself off, he silently agreed that this wasn't really the time for formalities.
Binding her army's wounds -- at least, the wounds of what would be her army for the next few hours -- took considerable time. The general celebration that followed took even more time; this lot hadn't had anything worth celebrating in quite a while. As a result, it was shortly before dawn when Xena finally made it to Krobylos' camp.
"Xena!" said Krobylos, emerging from his tent. "Gabrielle said you'd make it here." He looked at the warrior woman, covered with mud, bruised in a couple of places, and reeking of sweat and something else not as recognizable. (In fact, it was an extremely poor grade of mead, which had been poured over Xena's head that night by an over-enthusiastic -- and terribly, terribly misguided -- celebrant, as some sort of libation.) "It appears to have been quite a trip. Shall I have a bath drawn?"
"If it's not too much trouble," Xena said, gratefully. Krobylos motioned to a nearby soldier, who scuttled off to start heating the water. "How's Gabrielle?" she asked.
"Asleep on my eating-couch. We've just spent the most delightful night together . . . Oh, don't raise that eyebrow at me. We were *talking*, just like at lunch -- about literature, language, history, you name it. That's what I really miss when I'm away from court: civilized intellectual discussion." He sighed. "Anyway, if you're worried about her virtue -- or mine, for that matter -- we had a chaperone, of sorts; the Psegopolitan ambassador was in there with us all night. Poor guy -- Gabrielle kept trying to draw him into the conversation, but the man doesn't know an iamb from an ictus, and I don't think he cares. You'd think an ambassador would have more of an appreciation for the finer things."
"He's probably had a lot on his mind, with the . . . political situation and all."
"True. Speaking of which, I'm heading into Psegopolis personally in the morning. I'd been meaning to do it for some time -- communication by messenger is so tedious and awkward, you know -- and Gabrielle convinced me that the time was ripe for a real summit meeting."
"Good. I'm going with you."
Krobylos was visibly surprised. "You're not serious. You went there this afternoon, and they tried to cut your head off."
"Well, yes, that was irritating, but I got some local guys together and raided them a little a few hours ago, so I'm not mad anymore."
"*You're* not mad . . ." Krobylos shook his head in amazement.
"Look -- I went there this afternoon to talk. They didn't want to talk, but I still do. I figure, if there's a foreign dignitary visiting, maybe they won't want to kill me in front of him -- you."
"Or maybe they'll cut your head off to impress me."
"Maybe," Xena said. "I'll take that risk."
"That's fine for you -- but I sure don't want to walk into Psegopolis with *you* on my arm."
"Bring me in as a prisoner. Win the hearts and minds of your future subjects, and all that."
Krobylos pondered. "That could work."
"And even if they still don't like you," Xena added, "this way they'll be spitting at me instead of you."
He grinned. "Just remind me not to stand too close. My heralds tell me the Psegopolitans aren't very accurate spitters."
When you're with real royalty, Xena thought, you enter a city in style. Announced by heralds, preceded by trumpets, the works. As she passed through the north gate and emerged once more into the sunlight, her newly-polished brasswork sparkled gloriously, as befitted the Warrior Princess; had she been allowed to wear her sword and chakram, they would no doubt have been equally dazzling. The two soldiers Krobylos had designated to guard her were fine specimens, in crisp, neat, skirted uniforms. Even the ropes that bound her hands behind her back were of the finest quality.
Gabrielle, having been absorbed into Krobylos' entourage, was not similarly bound, unless you considered her new, long, flowing Lygrian dress to be a form of binding. As she entered the city with the others, Xena had a moment of apprehension; if Boros and his friend, the two guards from before, saw Gabrielle, they might put two and two together prematurely. Fortunately, it would be rather difficult to see the north gate from outside the east gate, for elementary geometrical reasons.
When Xena reached the city square, Krobylos was just entering the gate. The Psegopolitan crowd which had been jeering her was now turning its attention to Krobylos. The difference was notable; kings even get a higher quality of boos and hisses.
Xena looked over at the site for the "summit meeting". A second chair had been placed near the outside throne -- a smaller chair, of course, though one still suiting the dignity of royalty. Above the smaller chair was a sign, bearing in large letters _Krobylos, Basileus Lygrias_ (Krobylos, King of Lygria). And above the throne, another new sign, proudly announcing _Epaltes, Anax Psegopoleos_ (Epaltes, King of Psegopolis). "Anax", without a 'wau'.
Oh, well. They'd just have to move the schedule up a little. Xena cocked her head as a signal to Gabrielle. The latter reached into a fold in her voluminous skirts, and produced a shiny metal object, which she tossed to Xena.
It wasn't a good throw -- throwing a chakram properly is an extremely tricky business. The thing wobbled abominably, and even when Xena positioned her bound hands as carefully as she could she wasn't sure it was going to go through the ropes instead of her. It was a welcome relief when she felt the fibers give.
Xena grabbed the chakram and threw it with blinding speed at the sign. It bounced off, leaving a vertical mark, ricocheted off a nearby building and the stones of the well, came back at the sign, left a horizontal mark, soared rather close over Krobylos' head (causing him to duck in an undignified manner), bounced off a soldier's polearm, and came back once more to embed itself in the sign, leaving one final horizontal stroke.
"What is the meaning of this?" yelled Krobylos, just as Epaltes emerged from the royal residence and expressed a similar sentiment.
"What this means," said Xena, "is that you, Epaltes, are the rightful wau-alpha-nu-alpha-xi of Psegopolis, and you," she said, turning to Krobylos, "should pack up your army and go back home before anyone gets killed."
Krobylos was bewildered and furious. "What!?"
"Look around you," Xena said. "At all these inscriptions -- proclamations, memorials, street signs, tavern signs, even. They all declare that the man we have been calling Anax Epaltes has a 'wau', after all."
Krobylos looked around. "But these are all fresh carvings -- the Psegopolitans carved them all last night!"
"In fact," said Epaltes, "we didn't. We've actually been trying to sand them out for some time now, but the craftsmen who did those wonderful inscriptions carved them in mighty deep." He looked at Xena and raised his eyebrows. She raised him one back.
"But . . . this in totally ridiculous," said Krobylos, thinking furiously. "Whatever they may have written on their walls, the Psegopolitans have an 'Anax' -- no 'wau'! Just ask any of them."
Gabrielle stepped forward. "May I?" she asked. She turned to Krobylos, and said, "Just pick anyone you want."
Krobylos became intrigued, in spite of himself. "All right." He looked through the crowd. "That boy over there -- he looks like an honest, forthright sort."
I'll say, thought Xena, amused. That's the kid who announced to the world that Xena the Warrior Princess was naked.
The little boy, more curious than frightened, came forth, and Gabrielle asked him, "Do you know what job Epaltes has?"
"Sure," said the boy. "He's a Anax." (_Esti Anax_, in Greek.)
"Good," Gabrielle said. She pointed to a large urn standing nearby. "What do you call this?"
"It's an amphora." (_Esti-n amphora_.)
"And what is this?" She pointed to her eye.
"That's an eye." (_He esti-n ops_.)
"It's a nose." (_Esti rhis_)
"And once again, Epaltes is -- "
"Epaltes is a Anax." (_Epaltes esti Anax_.)
Gabrielle turned to Krobylos. "You see? The rule here is that _esti_ comes before consonants, and _esti-n_ before vowels. But it's _esti Anax_; _Anax_, in Psegopolis at least, still starts with a consonant -- the 'wau' you thought was lost. It may not make any sound at all, but every Psegopolitan, even this little boy, always puts it in, without even knowing it."
Krobylos pondered. "But a letter that doesn't indicate a sound? A 'silent letter'? What a silly concept."
Xena spoke up. "Oh, not really. If a 'nwa'" (she drew the Mycenaean Linear script character in the ground) "can be pronounced 'na'-- 'nwa' without a 'wuh' -- why can't 'wau' be pronounced silently -- 'wuh' without a 'wuh'?"
Krobylos turned to her. "You really pronounce 'nwa' as 'na'?"
She nodded. "Or my name isn't Xena."
"Is this the last bunch?" Gabrielle said to Xena, later that morning. They had left the road for the umpteenth time, and were walking, along with Argo, towards a cooking fire a distance away.
Xena went through a mental checklist, recalling the faces of all the warriors from that small, but gutsy, band. A good warlord knows who her warriors are, even if they are only hers for a few hours. "Yep," she said finally. "Assuming all three of them are there."
They were, and when they spotted Xena, they stood to attention. "Hail, Xena!" they shouted.
"Relax, guys," Xena said. "The army's been disbanded, remember?" She looked in the pot. "What's cooking?"
"Soup," said one of them, by the name of Phytos. "See, we still had some bread left over from our rations, and Lotos here found a carrot, so we chopped that up . . ."
"You wouldn't happen to have anything else to throw in, would you?" asked another, named Mydros.
"I might," Xena said. "Gabrielle, check what's in that saddlebag."
Gabrielle opened Argo's left saddlebag, and took out three scrolls. She handed one to each of the nonplussed men.
Phytos opened his and said, "Very pretty. What does it say?"
"Those are your credentials. That scroll bears witness to the fact that you are one of those daring souls who saved the city of Psegopolis from war and possible annexation, through last night's heroic actions."
"Heroic actions -- you mean that thing with the . . . the . . ." Phytos traced an F-shape in the air. "That was to save the city?" He burst out laughing. "Remind me to learn to read some time -- I gotta find out what in Hades we did last night."
"Well, it's nice to be a hero, I guess," said Mydros. "But I was kind of hoping for --"
"That scroll," Gabrielle added, "also entitles you to a place of honor at the festival they're holding in Psegopolis, right now. When Xena and I left, they had just started putting the pigs on the spits."
All three men got up. Lotos addressed Xena: "Requesting your permission . . ."
"You don't need *my* permission," Xena said. "You're not warriors in allegiance to a warlord now; you're your own men. Use that wisely." She paused. "Okay, end of speech. Get outta here."
When the three men had run off in the direction of Psegopolis, Gabrielle looked at the unappetizing contents of the abandoned soup pot. "No," she finally said, and used the alleged soup to quench the cooking-fire. Then she turned to Xena. "It's not fair, you know."
"I helped Psegopolis out, and they let me keep my head. As far as they're concerned, that's perfectly fair."
"But you're the real hero in all of this, and they didn't let you stay around for the celebration!"
"In Psegopolis, I'll never be a hero -- you know that. The real shame is that *you* didn't stick around to take your bows. After all, you're the one who came up with that whole _esti/esti-n_ thing. How *did* you come up with that, by the way?"
"It was those epic poetry lines -- remember them, how they'd kept the poetic formulas the same but the language had changed so they didn't seem to scan anymore? I figured if I could just question a Psegopolitan long enough, I might be able to find some trace like that."
"So you kept badgering the ambassador half the night, till you found something."
"Right." Gabrielle paused. "So I guess while the 'Hundred Heroes of Psegopolis' are being wined and dined, we're stuck without any lunch."
Xena swung herself onto Argo. "Not quite. If we hurry, we can be dining on pheasant and honey-cakes by noon." She extended her hand; Gabrielle grabbed it, and started pulling herself up behind Xena. Halfway up, light dawned.
"Wait a minute -- you don't mean Krobylos!"
"Why not? He's heading back to Lygria, but he can't have gotten far yet. If we cut across the woods to the east road . . ."
"But, we cost him --"
"A city that wasn't his. We know it, and he knows it, or he would never have pulled out."
"And he won't hold a grudge," Gabrielle continued, while completing her ascent, "because he's a by-the-letter kind of guy who never looks for more than his due." She sighed. "I sure hope you're right," she said, gripping Xena's waist.
"Of course I am," Xena replied. Argo started trotting. "Besides," Xena continued, "Krobylos has a soft spot for you." She clicked her tongue and Argo started to gallop. "He likes your kind of conversation." Pause. "Zeus only knows why."
Gabrielle's response was lost in the thunder of Argo's hoofbeats.
No obsolete letters or weary warlords were harmed in the making of this fanfic. The Hundred Heroes of Psegopolis retired from war-making and found gainful employment in the fast-growing field of shepherding. The letter 'wau' retired from wuh-making and found gainful employment in Italy, as the Latin letter F.
This fanfic is brought to you by the letter 'nwa' and the number six.
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