As they approached another town, Gabrielle stiffened with memory of Zemal and the shopkeeper.
"We really don't need any supplies Gabrielle. If you'd prefer...." Xena started to suggest they go around.
"I thought you said I did nothing wrong?!" She interrupted with some annoyance.
"I did, you didn't....fine, we'll go through." Xena sighed, frustrated that her efforts to help Gabrielle resulted in a adverse reaction from the bard. A common occurrence.
"You are going to drive me crazy..." Xena quietly muttered under her breath.
"What?" Gabrielle asked hearing something.
"Never mind." Xena sighed. "Just stay close, OK?" Before Xena could get a response, Gabrielle was halfway to a store.
"Gabrielle..." Xena called out with no response from the bard.
"She is definitely going to drive me crazy." Argo snorted. "That's not funny." Xena responded.
Gabrielle entered the store and found a similar arrangement of curios that the store in Zemal had. So what? That doesn't mean anything, she told herself. She saw an elderly man and woman in the store. The man tended the counter and the woman straightened up and dusted. They both hummed the same pleasant tune and would occasionally glance up and smile at each other. The scene brought a smile to Gabrielle's previously worried face. Gabrielle correctly guessed they were married.
Gabrielle looked around the shop for a moment or two before she tried to buy something. Despite the seemingly nice owners, she had to see if she would be treated the same in this store. Gabrielle approached the counter.
"I'd like to have this ...this..." Gabrielle looked at the small object.
"What is this?" She asked, not knowing what it was, but liked it's shape and appearance. She handed the object over to the man who held it up and inspected it.
"Hmm, it's a...huh....I really don't know, how embarrassing." The man looked over and called to his wife.
"Mara, could you come here for a second dear?" Then turned to Gabrielle with a smile. "She'll know." He winked at her. His demeanor quickly put Gabrielle at ease.
The woman had a pleasant smile which Gabrielle responded to with one of her own. The two were still very much in love, Gabrielle concluded noting how they communicated with each other with their body language.
"What is this dear?" Mara looked at the object and scratched her head. She looked back at her husband.
"OK you win, what is it?" She asked him.
"Honey, I don't know. That's why I asked you." He responded with a shrug. She looked at him then back at the item.
"You know, I've seen that on the table for years...I never knew what it was...I assumed you did." The two looked at each other and laughed.
"Well miss, I'm sorry. We really can't sell this to you." The man put the object on the counter in front of her still looking at it curiously.
"Why not?" Gabrielle panicked. Had they fooled her with their easy manner? Were they really prejudice like that other shopkeeper?
"It wouldn't be right to sell you something we have no idea what it is. So here, take it as a gift." The man handed it to her.
"What? I can't accept this...this...item. Let me give you something for it." Gabrielle was taken aback with their generosity and reached in her bag for some dinars.
"Honey, we wouldn't know what to charge for it. Please, it would make us happy for you to have this lovely...uh....gift." Mara smiled.
"Thank you so much. I was beginning to think everyone was like the last store keeper I ran into in Zemal." Gabrielle revealed, then noticed the smiles disappeared as the couple gravely looked at each other.
Xena waited with Argo for Gabrielle to come out of the store. It seemed like a very long time and Xena was growing impatient. Many thoughts raced through her mind.
"Why did I let her go in alone?" Xena questioned herself knowing full well if she went with her, Gabrielle would have thought she was being overprotective - again. And Gabrielle would have been annoyed with her - again.
"If she needed me she would have called out, right? Right. Of course. That is, if she could call out" Xena unsuccessfully fought her unfounded, yet growing concern.
"Gods, I sound like a worried...." She shook her head at the thought. Xena looked over at her horse. "Hey girl, do you need anything in the store?" Argo snorted.
As Xena started towards the store, she saw Gabrielle come out with a pleasant looking couple.
"Goodbye Gabrielle, it was a pleasure meeting you. Stop by for a visit sometime!" Mara waived. Xena relaxed seeing Gabrielle had won over two more people with her charm. It was very easy to be susceptible to Gabrielle's charm, Xena knew from experience. Gabrielle's happiness was obvious as she walked over to her friend.
"Well, it looks like you've made new friends." Xena thankfully looked back to the two who brought back Gabrielle's happy disposition.
"Yes and look what they gave me!" She held out the object.
"They gave that to you?" Xena asked looking over the object.
"Yes. Wasn't that incredibly nice of them?" Gabrielle started to put it away when Xena asked a question she somehow knew she would regret.
"What is it?" Gabrielle looked at her with a grin, realizing she owed Mara one.
"Come on Xena, don't you know?" Xena sighed. As she packed the item, Gabrielle relayed what she just learned.
"Xena, Mara mentioned that the storekeeper in Zemal is a follower of Sunmoon, so is most the town according to Mara. Have you ever heard of the Sunmoon?" Gabrielle asked as they left this much friendlier town.
"Isn't that some sort of religious group?" Xena guessed from her vague recollection of the name. "It started out to be a group of pacifists who promoted Peace and Harmony and Family." Gabrielle relayed more details.
"Hard to argue with that" Xena noted. Gabrielle nodded in agreement.
"Well, now there is a movement within the Sunmoon against those they believe are upsetting the 'natural order' ...they call them 'Unnaturals'..." Gabrielle spoke with some concern.
"Unnaturals? Let me guess, Centaurs...Amazons." Xena guessed correctly. Gabrielle nodded and continued to relay more of what Mara told her.
"Only, this pacifist group seems to be actively recruiting young men into an army. Xena, if all the followers of Sunmoon are like the last town, they are not pacifists anymore."
"What is it?" Gabrielle noticed Xena's expression.
"When I took my...side trip...from Walsas, I remember seeing Sunmoon followers setting up a temple in a nearby town, Marapolis. I didn't think much of it until now." She shrugged. Gabrielle responded to that news with great concern.
"They sound like they are already widespread and still growing. If they are actively recruiting for an army...Oh Gods. Think of the numbers, the threat to the Amazons, the Centaurs, my sisters!" Xena reached out and grabbed Gabrielle's shoulder.
"Whoa, let's not panic before we know the facts OK?" Xena said with calm yet feeling the same concerns. "You're right - we need to know more." Gabrielle calmed down a bit.
When they reach a fork in the road, Xena mounted Argo.
"Explain to me again, why you need to go alone." Gabrielle's arms were crossed, she was obviously not pleased.
"It's not that I NEED to go alone Gabrielle" Xena looked at her friend. "You still have a gift to deliver to Alletus. You wouldn't want to break YOUR promise to Cumae would you?" Gabrielle somehow knew Xena would say that. Gabrielle also knew Xena didn't want her to go with her. It was probably one of the seedier places Xena used to hang around in her old days as a warlord, Gabrielle guessed.
"Unhuh. And that's the only reason?" Gabrielle asked. Xena looked at her, knowing she knew it wasn't.
"Isn't that good enough?" Xena asked.
"Sure. OK. Fine. I'll see you in a few days." Gabrielle sighed and started down the road. Xena rode around to face her friend. She looked down with concern in her eyes.
"Gabrielle.." Gabrielle's annoyance faded when she heard Xena's soft voice. Gabrielle guessed she was going to say something like be careful or I won't be long. Instead, Xena barked an order.
"DON'T get into any trouble." Xena rode off quickly, grinning.
"She's gonna drive me crazy..." Gabrielle muttered, then looked back at the shrinking image of her friend, her best friend.
Immediately after entering the Tartarus-hole of a town, Dunkus, Xena entered a familiar alley at night. It was not her idea of a pleasant way to spend the evening, but it was necessary if she was going to meet up with Burell, a spy she used on many occasions in her warlord days. She sensed six people in the alley with her. As she expected, five large men came out from the darkness and surrou ded her.
"Good evening boys." Xena spoke with a purr. "I'm here to see Burell."
"What? You don't want to spend some time with us first?" One bold and incredibly stupid man stepped behind her.
"How about a date?" He breathed down her neck as he placed his hand upon her thigh. Xena slowly slid her hand down on top of his. With a slow and powerful squeeze, he crumpled down to his knees.
"Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer hand holding before anything more serious...Don't you?" The man looked up, vigorously nodding in agreement as tears welled up in his eyes.
Two men charged at Xena. She jumps up and connects squarely with powerful kicks to their jaws. The force of the kicks send them flying backwards until they meet the hard, cold ground with thuds. The remaining two men pull out their swords. Xena shakes her head and sighs.
"I'll give you boys some good advise. Don't EVER pull your sword out on a first date." She roundhouse kicks a sword from one man, knocking him easily out with one punch to the face.
"You wouldn't want to be considered rude now, would you?" She notes, then quickly performs a magnificent somersault over the head of the remaining conscious man, landing behind him.
The last man is too scared to move, except for his shaking. "Tsk, Tsk, Tsk...you really should wash behind the ears. Women do notice these things and you DO want to make a good first impression don't you?" She asks him. Pulling on his ear, he follows without resistance. She then tosses him. He flies backwards into the darkness, on top of the sixth man.
"OK, OK..." Burell pushes the last henchman off him and gets up. "Just checking to see if you still mean business Xena." He came out brushing himself off.
"You always had a special way of weeding out the bad ones." He looked over to his protection which now formed a pile on the ground. Noticing the grime on her fingers that gripped the last man's ear, she wiped them on Burell's shirt.
"Glad I could help" Xena remarked dryly.
"Xena. I've heard you've changed...but you look the same to me." He walked around her appreciating her form. She sighed but humored him. He was usually a good source of accurate information.
"I am here to get some information on the Sunmoon." She faced him tired of his circling.
"Ah, odd yet busy people. Love their tunics. I would look good in ...." He threw out a morsel of information which got Xena's attention.
"Busy?" She interrupted his statement about fashion.
"Xena. What sort of businessman do you think I am? I need some ..." He rubbed his fingers together indicating dinars. "....encouragement." Xena grabbed his throat and pushed him against the wall.
"Is this enough encouragement?" She smiled slightly. Burell rolled his eyes.
"You had more money as a warlord didn't you?" He rubbed his throat after she let him down.
"Your lucky, I have more patience ow...but it's NOT unlimited. What do you know about the Sunmoon?" Xena gets an earful. The situation is as bad as they feared. The Sunmoon were becoming more aggressive, buying arms and assembling an army. Small skirmishes were erupting more frequently between small groups of Sunmoon and anyone they considered "unnatural". Burell didn't know where there army planned to strike first. But by the aggressive and successful recruiting efforts, the army would be huge. Xena also considered that Burell could be exaggerating in hopes of getting in on an arms deal with her.
"They are very good at keeping their plans to themselves. They don't really talk to anyone except their own or those they hope to make their own. I'm afraid you won't have much luck, you would be considered an 'unnatural', although I think they are crazy." He looked her over appreciatively once again. "Its been a pleasure." He noted. Xena whistled to Argo, who came down the alley quickly.
"Thanks for the chat Burell." She starts to mount Argo then pauses, looking at her saddle bag the back at her usually reliable source of information. Sighing, she pulls the mystery object out.
"You wouldn't happen to know what this is?" Burell looked blankly at the object then grinned.
Walking along the road, Gabrielle, caught up in her thoughts of the store in Zemal, recognizes the Sun, Moon and Man symbol too late as a Sunmoon wagon approaches. The three young men on the wagon spotted her. Her heart raced as the wagon slowed down then stopped.
"Need a ride...miss?" The wagon driver in a burgundy tunic asked. Gabrielle pushed down her fear and smiled.
"No thank you, as you can see I am going the other way." She points to where they came from. She smiles and starts down the road.
"Stop.....Please...Don't rush off so quickly." The driver's voice is anything but sincere. Two Sunmoon jump off the wagon and block her from proceeding on the road. The driver jumps off the wagon and lands behind her.
"We would be more than happy to help you along." The driver grips her forearm. She breaks his grip and pushes him back.
"Get your hands off of me." She says coolly. His eyes narrow.
"Gentlemen, I think we have an unnatural here. What a shame." The driver stares at her. Gabrielle forces herself to focus on the men and not the hurtful words. When the two men behind her step closer, she quickly faces them. The driver wasn't finished with his insults.
"I thought you might be one, from your garb and that staff, but since you can't stand the touch of a man..well...its clear you must prefer....." With that last insult, Gabrielle's temper could no longer be controlled. Thrusting her staff forcefully in the stomach of the talkative driver, he doubles over gasping for air.
She swung her staff around with a flourish, having learned from Xena that it helps unsettle opponents. The move caused them to hesitate before they lunged with their swords. As a result of this hesitation, she easily dodged their blows by jumping out of the way. Amazing herself with the success of the move, she almost delays too long with her next move. "Focus" She scolds herself. She followed with a solid hit to the man closest to her, knocking him to the ground. The second man looked at her, then his two friends crumpled on the ground.
"You will pay for this harlot!" He ran down the road. Gabrielle decided running was not a bad idea.
Arriving at a small town, she leans against a building to catch her breath. Peering around the corner of the building, she spots two young Sunmoon men trying to recruit a group of townsmen. Gabrielle's fear grows, the Sunmoon seem to be everywhere. What an army they must be gathering, she worried. She ducked into a tavern to avoid the two Sunmoon. Looking around the smelly and dirty place, she shivered with disgust. At least the Sunmoon looked like they bathed, she thought, comparing bad to worse.
"Hey babe, can I buy you a drink?" A toothless man exhaled in her face. The alcohol was strong on his breath.
"Back off" She blurted unable to hide her annoyance. She was in no mood to deal with this as well. The toothless man was going to say something else but was interrupted by a good looking young man.
"Friend, why don't I buy YOU a drink." He put his arm on the toothless man who smiled a cavernous smile. With another drink in hand, the toothless man was content and left Gabrielle alone.
"I didn't need your help." Gabrielle snapped at this man after the toothless man left.
"Whoa, I sense some hostility here. Bad day?" The man kept his humor. She did not.
"What is that supposed to mean?" She asked with great annoyance.
"Nothing, traveler. I know the road can be a rough place." He offered. She suspiciously eyed this strange man. There was something about him that was odd but she couldn't place her finger on it.
"HOW do you know I am a traveler?" She questioned him.
"Being a messenger, I do a fair bit of traveling myself and besides, I know someone as pretty as you wouldn't be living in this town." He smiled warmly at this woman.
"MEN!." She blurted with great exasperation. She vented her pen -up emotion and frustration from the past week on the unsuspecting man.
"Either I am a harlot, an "object" for a man's amusement or an "unnatural". GODS, what is it with you?!" She continued her diatribe towards a silent and surprised man.
"If I were a man, no one would ever think twice about my skill with this staff - unnaturally aggressive? HA! Do you realize I wouldn't have to USE this staff if you guys didn't keep attacking me!". The man concluded she must have been talking figuratively and continued to listen.
"If I were a man, I could enter a place like this and not get harassed by some filthy drunk or soldier... hey babe can I buy you a drink.." Gabrielle perfectly mimicked the tone of the toothless man. "Sheese. Whatever happened to manners? Or a good pick up line????"
"If I were a man, no one would ever think it odd that I choose to travel with my best friend instead of staying home - Iolaus has NEVER had to deal with what I have to deal with." Gabrielle shakes her head.
"If I were a man, I would be able to tell ..." She stopped mid-sentence, surprising herself. Having patiently waited for her to take a breath, the young man eyed her.
"So you think it is so easy to be a man?" He asked. She rolled her eyes.
"PLEASE...men have it so easy it's ridiculous..." He smiled at the mortal's bold statement.
"Well Gabrielle, perhaps you are right. But, I think you should see for yourself before you jump to that conclusion. THEN we will discuss how easy it is. You shall see." In a blink of an eye, the man was gone.
"Ugh oh" She experienced that familiar feeling of having done something very stupid. First, the disappearing man knew her name and she knew she didn't tell him. Secondly, the man disappeared. They normally don't do that. She looked around the bar and no one seemed to notice the man had disappeared. A slight panic washed over her as she considered his last words 'you shall see'. She looked down at herself and sighed with relief, then laughed at the silly thought she had.
"Nothing different, of course not", she thought. But people just don't disappear. "Ugh oh", she started to think the worst. "Get a grip Gabrielle", she told herself. There was a logical explanation of course, she just didn't know it yet.
"I'd like some water please." She asked the bartender thinking that might help calm her nerves. He looked at her oddly, then around her. He shrugged as he got the water.
"Water? Water?!?" A tired old warrior looked over with disgust. Gabrielle looked over at him.
"Excuse me?" She asked not sure of his point.
"What are you? A Sissy boy?" He looked the bard up and down, then pushed Gabrielle's shoulder. The words confused her "Sissy Boy?" She repeated looking at herself again. Why did he say that, she questioned silently with a confused look on her face.
The tired warrior grinned. "If you don't like me call ng you that, Sissy Boy, do something about it." The confrontation gathered interest in the tavern as Gabrielle could feel an increasing number of eyes on them. She knew she could take on this old warrior but was not so sure about the entire tavern, should the patrons prove to be the tired warrior's friends. Better not take the chance, she concluded.
"Look...friend..., I don't want any trouble. You obviously are a strong, fierce warrior and I am just a simple bard who would not fair well in a fight with someone of your GREAT skill." Gabrielle spoke with forced reverence for a man she didn't respect. The words appeased the tired warrior.
"You are a wise bard." He spoke evenly, his pride having been sufficiently bolstered.
"I try." Gabrielle responded honestly. The tired warrior sat down to his drink. The tavern's interest diminished as there would be no fight between the two. Watching the tired warrior, Gabrielle wondered if that drink was all he had to look forward to in his old age.
Gabrielle started to leave when she turned and bumped into two Sunmoon recruiters. Her panic grew.
"Bard, you handled yourself well." The young man smiled. "I am Leo. This is Portus. I can't tell you how refreshing it is to find someone who doesn't think violence is the way." His words were unexpected, yet spoken as if he believed them. They didn't react to her like the other Sunmoon she realized with curiosity.
"Yes, as you pointed out Bard, some of us would not fair well in fights. I guess that fact helps us to recognize the error in living that way." Portus joked about their warrior shortcomings. The two men were very friendly Gabrielle noted, but their affiliation with Sunmoon made her scrutinize their every word.
She sat down at a table with them. Since they seemed willing to talk with her, she took the opportunity to gather information.
"Something to drink?" The barmaid asked. "Water please" The two men asked. Gabrielle also nodded. After she left, the two men shook their heads with sadness.
"It is a tragedy that a young woman would have to work in a place like this." Leo spoke sincerely. "A tragedy." Portus agreed. Gabrielle kept silent.
"We belong to a group called the Sunmoon. We believe the road to true happiness is through peace and harmony. We believe in supporting the blessed gift of family. We are always looking for people to join our brethren who wish to support those precious things." Leo explained seeing a curious look from Gabrielle.
"Join your brethren? To do what?" She asked amazed at the genuinely friendly men and curious about the requirements of becoming a member of this "brethren". She considered she would not be qualified for obvious reasons.
"Promote the family, peace and harmony. We help towns ravaged by war with supplies and manpower to rebuild. We also try to teach young men that a real man doesn't need to pr ve his worth on a battlefield - that a real man provides for his family. Too many are losing their way, Bard, why? Because they have lost touch with what is really important. We seek only to show people that the love they crave is not out in some mysterious place but in here." Leo points to his heart. "and with the family in peace." Gabrielle heard words that unnerved her. They were things she couldn't argue with.
"You seem like the type of young man who agrees with these beliefs. Perhaps you would be interested in attending one of our services." Portus remarked with a smile. Her smiled faded. "Young man?" She looked at him oddly, mentally repeating those two words. She wasn't sure she heard right. Her eyes darted between the faces of the Sunmoon recruiters, then over to the tired warrior.
"Oh Gods." She mentally uttered, inspecting herself. "Young man!? I don't see anything different! Is that what they see?" She silently questioned, confused that three people seemed to see her as a man, yet she didn't. Her mind raced as she nervously concluded the disappearing man had done something to her. She looked back into Leo's and Portus' curious faces. "Oh Gods."
Leo saw the bard reacting oddly. "Portus, we don't want to scare off our friend. I'm sorry." Portus didn't think he was too aggressive, but Leo did know people better.
"We try not to use aggressive recruiting tactics and sometimes our enthusiasm for our beliefs make us forget some might not welcome us. I'm also sorry for being rude...What is your name by the way?" She looked up at them.
"Gabr..." She stopped and coughed. She couldn't use her real name, how many men are named Gabrielle? Her mind raced. She couldn't think. Oh Gods. Her nerves got to her. "Gabriel?" Portus guessed. Gabrielle nodded quickly. That sounded as good as any other name, she thought. "Good, good to know you Gabriel."
Leo could see Gabriel was still agitated and thought it best not to push yet. "We must be going Gabriel. If you should decide to attend one of our services, tell them Leo sent you and they will respect your desire to just listen. No strings." He smiled warmly. Gabrielle forced a smile and nodded.
Shortly after the Sunmoon departed, Gabrielle left the tavern.
"I must be just really be tired and misunderstood them. Of course. Ha. I can't believe I could have believed such a ridiculous thought!" Gabrielle unsuccessfully attempted to rationalize what was going on. She needed an answer. Exiting the tavern, she immediately stopped a passerby.
"Excuse me." The man looked at her curiously. "This may sound odd but, do you see me as a man or a woman?" She asked with utter seriousness. He glanced back at the tavern.
"Gods, you'd better lay off the booze son. It's doing really bad things to your brain." He shook his head.
"Son?" She repeated back to him with a nervous crack in her voice. Ann yed with the interruption, the man walked away from her, still shaking his head. After walking some distance outside the town. All Gabrielle could think was "Oh gods" Now what was she going to do? She stopped and looked up to the sky.
"OK OK... you win. Who ever you are. I was wrong. Life isn't easier as a man! Of course not. What was I thinking! I WASN'T thinking...." Gabrielle blurted with no response. She turned and found the mysterious man standing before her. He wore a helmet with wings on it.
"Hermes" She uttered with a sinking feeling, recognizing the outfit. He smiled.
"You don't think I'd let you get off so easily do you Gabrielle?" Hermes looked her over.
"Not bad handy work, if I do say." Gabrielle looked down at herself. "But...I haven't changed." She still sees her old self.
"I am still a young god you know. That's harder to pull off. But people's perception of you HAS changed, and that is all that is really needed." Hermes explained.
"I'm sorry." Gabrielle couldn't think of anything else to say.
"Hmm. Perhaps you are. You have until the next full moon to contemplate your emphatic conclusions about men by living as one. Of course, you can't tell anyone of your "change", because you really wouldn't be experiencing life as a man now would you?." He shrugged.
"Life perceived as a man", Gabrielle repeated that scary thought in her mind.
He smiled. "Don't worry Gabrielle, it won't be permanent if you show up at my temple in Athens by the next full moon." He looked at the person before him. Gabrielle thought a moment.
"What if I can't make it to the temple?" He looked at her and raised an eyebrow.
"Good point, the conditions should be spelled out more formally....don't want any loopholes..." Gabrielle wanted to kick herself having possibly lost any chance of getting out of this "test" with a loophole.
Hermes stands tall and declares formally. "Let it be known, that these are my conditions." He seemed content with the words but sought Gabrielle's opinion. "How did that sound?" Gabrielle couldn't believe he was asking.
"Very...ah...god-like." Her comment pleased the God.
"If you fail to meet with me at my temple at the next full moon, I'll consider you still of the opinion that it's easier to be a man and you'll live the rest of your life as one." Hermes continued. "If you tell anyone of this change, blada blada blada , same thing...." He seemed to be out of time. "Of course if you die ...ah, never mind, too gruesome a thought....anyway, gotta go, I've got some cattle that need my attention." With that last remark, Hermes giggled and left.
"Wait, Please!" Gabrielle shouted. "Oh Gods, a month" She uttered, leaning weakly against the tree.