-By Arianwen P.F. Everett
Xena threw her head back and laughed loudly. "That's why centaurs don't have wings!!! That's hilarious Gabrielle!"
The blond bard chuckeled lightly beside her friend. Gabrielle then took a deep breath, and watched the sunlight danced across the river they followed. She could only smile. Today was a beautiful spring day, and everything seemed right with the world.
Until they heard the wail. Xena quickly drew her sword, readying for a fight. Again it happened, the mournful sound filling the air. "Oh Aphrodite, in the name of true love, don't let this happen!" a feminine voice cried out. They followed it to its source, a pretty young women, sitting on a rock, crying her eyes out by the river.
Xena resheathed her sword. "Hello," she announced, never being one for preamble.
The woman spun around in shock, then jumped to her feet, joy filling her eyes. "Oh, thank you Godess!" she called to the heavens, then ran over to Xena and Gabrielle. She had heard about these two. If anyone could help her it would be them. She was confident that her patroness Godess had heard her and sent the mighty Warrior Princess and the Bard to help her.
"Oh, you've got come quickly! Please help my sister; she was only trying to help those kids! They only stole so they could eat! Please help!" the woman rambled urgently.
"Slow down, we can't understand you," Gabrielle said, resting a hand on the young woman's shoulder.
"Okay, well, it started when this small family, three kids and their mother came to our village. The mother was ill, but no one knew it. When she died, while staying at the inn, the kids didn't say anything. I guess they were too scared being orphaned in a strange village. Then some food started missing from the market shops. No one knew it was the kids, untill the fish vendor, Armanisis, caught them. He took them to king Thedias, but the royal scribe said that the old law stated the children had to be hung, no matter their reasons for theft. Thedias wanted to pardon the children, but he was bound by the law. The fish vendor said he would drop the charges only if my sister, Auline married him. The wedding is in two days, and I know this is wrong! She doesn't love him!" the lady explained, tears welling up into her eyes.
"Don't cry. We'll help," Gabrielle said gamely.
"Let's go talk with Armanisis," Xena said, stalking off in the direction of King Thedias kingdom.
"I knew the Godess sent you to me!" the woman said, smiling, calmer now.
Armanisis looked at his reflexion in the tub of water he was using to clean his fish. While not the most handsome fellow, he wasn't ugly either, as average as they got. But in two days he would marry sweet Auline, daughter to king Thedias's personal cook. She was a beauty, and Armanisis had adored her all his life, ever since she used to follow her father around the market place, as a little girl. Back then he'd been a shy boy, afraid of his friends opinions. He knew she had never felt the same way for him, and he often wondered, had he been more direct then, perhaps he wouldn't have had to win this Auline this way. He shook his head. It was all well, despite how she was one, she would be his forever. He would treat her like a queen all her life, and she would grow to love him. She had to.
Suddenly he was face down in the fishtub, his head being pushed under. He tried to scream, but that only dragged water into his lungs. Just when he thought he would be seeing Hades soon and never his wedding day, the hand dragged him back up. "Listen good Armanisis, you will let Auline out of her agreement to marry you, and you will not have those children executed. Do you understand?" a hard foreign woman's voice hissed.
Armanisis sputtered. "But she agreed to marry me. She's all I've ever wanted, and unless you kill me, as you probably will, I won't give Auline up! I'll die for her!" Armanisis stated ademently.
"I'm not going to kill you," Xena said, resigned. "But why do you want to marry a woman who doesn't love you?"
"I love her, and she may not love me now, but someday she will!" Armanisis said, his eyes filling with determination that Xena realized there was no way to verbally argue this man against this.
Taking a deep breath, Xena turned and stalked off. Time to meet the bride to be.
Auline sat in Thedias's gardens, smelling the roses, weaving the soft buds for a crown to wear at her wedding. It was busy work like this that kept her from contemplating her situation. Darcia, her second cousin, and assistant to her father, wouldn't let her help sew the dress, so she found other things to do.
Auline turned around to see Madjia, her only sister, and two other women. Her sister was smiling, and she viewed the two new women with new eyes. "You're Xena! You're Gabrielle! Oh, I've heard so much about you two, so many stories. I'm a bard too, you know, Gabrielle, can I call you that?" Auline said, blushing from hero worship.
"Of course you can, and I'd love to hear some of your poems sometimes," Gabrielle said softly.
"Alright let's get down to business. I went down to see Armanisis this afternoon, and he's still intent on marrying you," Xena said, breaking in on the small talk.
"Armanisis is sweet, but I don't love him. I love Sovan. He writes me such beautiful letters from Thebes. He says he'll be home next fall, after he finishes settling his uncles vast estate. He went there two years ago to take care of his ailing uncle, and now that the old man is dead, he's so busy with settling affairs, but he always finds time to write, every day. I swear he is a true gift from the Godess," Auline said, her eyes going moony.
Xena sighed. Sometimes she just wanted to smack followers of Aphrodite. They were so simple, living in a world so incongruous with the teaching of their godess. Not that she had anything against love. She believed in it whole heartedly. It was often the only thing that kept her from giving up on the cold world, but it was a luxury. If the followers of the Love Godess put half the energy they put into their feelings and urges, into the more practicle sides of life...
"I wonder if signing that contract was such a good idea. I know those kids needed saving, but was it necesary to sign away my life," Auline said, tears sprouting to her eyes.
"Contract? You signed a contract? This wasn't just verbally agreed upon?" Xena asked, feeling a bit of a noose slide around their collective necks.
"Yes. It seemed like the thing to do at the time. An unbreakable agreement," Auline explained fearfully. The look on Xena's face did not look good.
"I assume the contract is in the scribe's hut?" Xena asked, wanting to physically see what she was up against. Perhaps there was a loop hole.
"I believe so," Auline answered, not sure where the dark haired warrior was leading.
"Then let's go examine it. Perhaps it will give us some insight on what can be done. Gabrielle is excellent at examining documents, if there is a way out of this marriage, she'll find it in the wording," Xena said, confident in her best friends abilities.
"Here they are," the gitterey man said, giving Gabrielle the three scroll contract. He then quickly scurried away.
Gabrielle read all three scrolls carefully, then let out a groan. "According to this, unless Armanisis is proven unfaithfull after the contract is signed, Auline has to marry him!" she explained, shaking her head in frustration.
"I doubt Armanisis is that stupid," Xena said, deep in thought.
"Any man is that stupid, for the right woman," A honey sweet voice commented from nowhere.
Suddenly points of pink light coallesced into Aphrodite, Godess of Love, herself.
Then all Hades broke loose, as Auline, Madjia, and the scribe all rushed to the Godesses side, prostating themselves before her, wispering reverent prayers.
Aphrodite smiled, as she stepped upon the scribe's back, heading towards Xena and Gabrielle. "I'm here to help you. Smile Xena, you have such a lovely smile," the Godess commented sweetly, knowing she would annoy Xena.
"And what's in it for you?" Xena asked. She didn't trust Gods.
"My reputation. My village. My temple. And rubbing my dear sister Athena's nose in it," Aphrodite answered, smiling happily and clapping her hands softly at the prospect.
"Athena, what does she have to do with this?" Xena asked. It was always good to get the whole lie when dealing with Gods and their games.
"She wants this town for her own. She wants all the sacrefices these people make to me. You've seen their devotion to love, and their prosperous lifestyles. Athena set this whole thing up. She had been the one to make the law for theft in this village. Armanisis caught those children with Athena's help. She planted the contract idea in his mind, make it all nice an legal. Then, when Auline, daughter to the royal cook, and most beautiful girl in all of Thedias's kingdom has her heart broken, forced to marry a man she does not love, she'll turn against me for not saving her. She'll turn the whole village against me, and the triumphant Athena, Godess of law and order will reign. Her Law will have conquered Love, stripped true love of its power, and resign these people to contracts and arrangements instead of following their hearts in marriage and all aspects of life. She wants to replace me here, and I'm not going to stand for it!" Aphrodite said, a fire filling her sweet blue eyes.
"So what do you suggest we do? Armanisis is intent on forcing this marriage?" Xena asked.
"Xena, Xena, Xena, men think they're intent on something, when really they're intentions are whatever a woman intends. Auline intended to be beautiful, to attract men, and Armanisis responded. But he still finds you attractive Xena," Aphrodite informed.
Xena's head snapped up. "What?"
"He's a man. He noticed you when you left the shop this morning, thought you had a great behind, I think was his actual thoughts at the time," Aphrodite said, gigling at Xena's uncomfortability.
"Not another one," Xena grumbled.
"Xena, this is a good thing, as in you could get him to be 'proven unfaithful', get it?" Aphrodite explained laborously. Sometimes a mortals were so dense.
"I'm not a whore!" Xena snapped back.
"I'm not saying you have to bed him, just seduce him!" Aphrodite defended. Xena rolled her eyes, but Aphrodite saw the true meaning in the gesture. "You don't have a clue as to how to go about that, do you?" Aphrodite asked, understanding filling her mind. Xena was beautiful. She'd heard enough pleas to her for the warriors heart, to know men found her irresistable. Obviously Xena didn't know how to control the power she had over men. True beauty, Aphrodite thought happily. The Godess, then got an idea that sent an electric charge through her body! It was brilliant! "Makeover!" she squealed.
Getting Xena to agree had been a battle in itself, and Aphrodite soon learned that turning Xena, warrior princess into a fem fatale, was the greatest challenge she had ever undertaken. She had called down all her minions, Cupid, Eros, even little Bliss, all working round the clock with her and her priestess in this village.
Xena was stubborn. First there was the arguement over the dress, then the slippers, then the three hours it too to get her makeup just right, especially the lipstick and lip liner, which she kept wiping off and spitting out. Poor Aphrodite almost gave in after Xena ripped out a hair pin that strategically held up fourty minutes of work, but the image of Athena's smug smile kept her going. Finally by sunup the next morning, the warrior looked the part of the damsel, but Aphrodite knew that that was just the tip of the iceburg, and they only had 30 hours left to turn a woman of war into one of beauty and leasure.
Xena stood up, balancing herself on the high arched sandals she wore. She walked forward a few steps then back again.
"Good, now swing your hips," Aphrodite demonstrated as she instructed. "Alright, now on to speaking. Remeber, with men, less is more, listen to him, then add a comment to support him. Like in dancing, which we'll get to later, he leads," Aphrodite explained to a scowering Xena.
Xena grumbled; Aphrodite gave her a firm look. "Smile, you want to exude an air of pleasantry. You want to make him happy and encourage him to get more involved in the conversation." Aphrodite sighed, as Xena forced a tense smile. This was going to be a LONG day.
After another two hours of attitude, posture, and gesticulation restraint, Aphrodite believed Xena ready for a test. Using her Godly powers, she transported Xena to a different village, miles away, staying with the new trained woman, but only being visable to her.
Xena sat by a well, her hands demurely folded in her lap. She didn't have to wait long. A handsome young man came over to her, as she dropped her handkerchief as she'd been instructed to do. "Hello, my name is Levatis, and you are?" he fished.
"Xena," she answered sweetly.
"Xena. I've heard the stories of Xena, Warrior Princess, but you can't be her. Your too delicate a flower, but I'm sure you suprise a lot of people with that name," he complimented.
Xena bit her lip. "Thank you. So, Levatis, tell me about yourself," she said, trying to put to use what she'd been taught. She looked passed the man at Aphrodite who gave her a thumbs up.
Things were finally going well in this little game that Aphrodite decided to up the stakes, see how good her protege really was. Nodding to Xena, she steped back into the aether to Mount Olympus. Now where was Ares?
"PLEASE Ares!!! You're so big and strong and brave, those mean old warlords sacking my little temple wouldn't stand a chance against you!" Aphrodite pouted and whined.
Ares sighed and thought about it for a moment. "Okay, but if I come I no longer owe you from getting that lovestruck harpy off my back two centuries ago," Ares bidded. He hated to be endebted to anyone, especially Aphrodite.
"Okay, lets go," Aphrodite said cheerfully, slipping into the aether, Ares following behind her. In a second, they were both back in the village Aphrodite had left Xena in.
"Okay, where are those warlords?" Ares asked, getting madder with each step. They had been wandering about the village for ten minutes, and Ares saw no sign of sacking. The village was perfectly calm, as was the temple.
"Oh, but it was awful, just awfull!" Aphrodite played on. "Come on Ares, they have got to be here. They're probably just around this corner," Aphrodite said, dragging her brother by the hand. Suddenly she saw what she needed, and in one quick jerk, she sent Ares flying forward, crashing into Xena.
Xena's first instinct was to grab her sword and start hacking away at who or whatever had rammed into her, but her eyes fell on Aphrodite, and she knew it was another test. The movement she was making to her sword, she turned into straightning her dress. When she looked up, her eyes almost bulged out of their sockets, and she flushed with embarrasment at the way she was dressed.
"I'm sorry, my sist..." Ares stopped short, as he finally looked at the woman before him. It was Xena, and she was gorgeous, the flowing red and white of her gown, and the way her perfect face stood out, with her hair up, making him dizzy. He couldn't believe what he was seeing! It was his favorite warrior, yet, not, so soft and feminine. Was the last thought he had before he passed out from sheer shock.
"Yes! And he is down!" Aphrodite sqealed with triumph and glee. "Come along, Xena, you are definitely ready, if you can bring down The God of War. And love doesn't count as a weapon, HAH!" she said, hopping up and down on her toes.
Xena, coming out of her embarassment, looked down at the unconscious Ares, and gently nudged his side with the tip of her slipper. Then, feeling feminine pride, rushing through her, she stood up straight, like she was the most beautiful woman in the world, and daintily stepped over the body laying in the village street, following Aphrodite back through the aether. From the village they'd just left, she heard a frightning howl "But she was wearing a dress!"
So, day turned into night, and Auline's father, Baritis, held an engagement party, as was part of Aphrodite's plan. Ofcourse, the glamourized Xena would attend, and attempt to seduce Armanisis. Gabrielle, and if necesary, the Godess herself, would be witness to Armanisis's indescretions.
The party was huge, and it was amazing what had been pulled together in just a day and a half. It was true testiment to a father's love for his daughters, and King Thedias's commitment to his Patron Godess's wisdom, having put all his kingdom's resources at her disposal. The food was like ambrosia to mortal tastebuds, and the garlands and tapestries in the Kings reception hall, were spectacular in sight and smell.
When Auline entered the room, a round of applause rose up among the guests, but most eyes were not on the conservatively elegant dressed bride to be, but on her new companion.
Xena followed Auline around, pretending to occasionally make conversation with the girl, really watching Armanisis's reaction.
He was smitten with the Warrior Princesss, casting furtive glances at her from across the room, but that in itself would not be enough rope for which to hang himself. After two of the guests had left, Xena knew it was time to make her move. She knew Armanisis was heading to the wine jugs, so she left Auline's side, and walked around the room twice before slowly sauntering over to the jugs herself. She waited a few seconds, which seemed like centuries, as she filled her goblet. She began to fear he wouldn't respond, and Aphrodite had insisted that he had to be allowed to make the first move.
"Hello," Armanisis said between sips of wine.
"Hello," Xena replied.
"So, what made you come here tonight? I mean, you seem close to Auline, but last we spoke, I gather you didn't feel like celebrating this marriage?" Armanisis questioned.
"Well, Auline is getting married, even if it is against her will, and she wanted me here tonight with her, before the end," Xena said, forcing a pout to her lips.
"Miss Xena, if I may call you that, I'm not executing Auline tomorrow; I'm wedding her. I do want the best for Auline. I want to give her the world!" Armanisis stated, a slight glaze coming before her eyes.
"I do believe you, Armanisis, but something just doesn't feel right about this," Xena said, getting a slightly confused look on her face. "Auline is a special girl, and maybe I'm just a bit over protective. Maybe you're right," Xena finished, lightly batting her eyelashes, and casting down her face, as if bowing to his wisdom.
"Look, I love Auline. And I'm happy she has such a good friend like you looking our for her," Armanisis said, taking Xena's hand in his own.
"Thank you, and even if Auline doesn't realize it yet, I sence she's getting a fine husband tomorrow," Xena replied, slightly biting her lip.
Inside she was tensing, readying to strike. And then, after a second of staring at the floor, she quickly raised her head, and stared into Armanisis's green eyes, daring him to kiss her. He leaned in a little, and bit by bit his lips got closer to hers as she held his gaze steady.
She forced a slight blush, when all of a sudden, just as his lips made soft contact, as planned, King Thedias grabbed Armanisis's collar, and pushed him away from her. "What are you doing?"
"Yeah Hornball, this is your engagement party, and you're kissing the maid of honor! What kind of looser are you?" Aphrodite shrieked in mock anger.
Right on cue Auline stepped up to the middle of the small crowd. "You were kissing Xena? You slime!" she shouted, giving Armanisis a slap in the face. Turning, she grabbed her father and her sister's hands, and hightailed it out of the banquet hall, relief speeding her feet.
Armanisis was in shock, and looked around at the angry faces before him. He'd been beaten. As he looked into Xena's eyes, he also knew he'd been set up. He swallowed hard, feeling his heart break a bit already. "I'm sorry," was all he said before he slinked out of the hall, then out of the palace towards his home.
As the crowd smiled and resumed the party, this time in earnest, with Auline and her family all aglow, Xena couldn't help but pity Armanisis. She left the happy group, and walked outside, winding her way through the palace gardens. Her mind drifted to the poor soul that she'd just wrecked the dreams of, and her heart went out to him.
She leaned down to sniff a rose, when all of a sudden Aphrodite coalesced before her. "Hey, don't feel bad about Armanisis! I have plans for him. He loved Auline so purely, I'm not just gonna leave him hanging," Aphrodite assured her.
"It's not just that. It gets me thinking. I went through this whole transformation, the dress, the makeup, the demeanor, and it wasn't as bad as I expected playing girlee would be, but I'm much more comfortable on a battlefield than at a banquet. I need to know if..."
Aphrodite laughed loudly. "You're worried your big bad Warrior Princess gig takes away from your beauty, keeps you from finding your soulmate," Aphrodite finished for her. "Babe, If I had ambrosia for every guy that prays to me asking for your heart, to be abble to prove to you that he's the one for you, I'd rule Olypus! Zeus wouldn't have a chance! You have Gods falling all over themselves for you!" Aprhodite said, shaking her head. Then she left the warrior by herself, laughing as she disappeared.
Even though Xena had neither confirmed nor denied what Aphrodite had assumed was her problem, Xena felt better. She stood up strait, checking her dress. A smile formed on her lips. The night was still young, and the party was still rocking.
Miles away, a small village couldn't sleep. Children cried from weariness, and adults attempted every known method of plugging ones ears, and inventing a few others. The howling continued, every five minutes, repeating itself at full volume. I was the call of the mad, the call of the damned.
"But she was wearing a dress!... BUT SHE WAS WEARING A DRESS!!!"