Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
A Little Fable
Once upon a time, there was an overworked Muse. The work situation isn't so bad nowadays, what with television being so dull, but at this time, being the Muse of Comedy could get pretty overwhelming, even with folks to delegate to. Working over a scroll containing the names of the latest applicants for comedian status, Thaleia groaned and scratched several people off with vigour. "Who are they kidding? They aren't funny. Tragic maybe – would it hurt their feelings too much if I sent them on to Melpomene, I wonder?" A beat. "Then again, maybe it would hurt Melpomene's feelings. That would be bad." Pushing her unruly hair out of her eyes, Thaleia sighed heavily. "If comedy would only take care of itself for awhile. Hard as she works, even poor Thraso can hardly put a dent in this mess." Thaleia glanced at the huge pile representing the various works currently on the boil. Salmoneus had more than his share of junk there, as he was always inventing gimmicks, and a few things had quite literally wandered in from Erithakos' workshop. "Must talk to that girl about that forge of hers – when she strikes too many sparks off she accidentally animates things, quite a pesky problem." Thaleia gave one of the things in question, a dented coal bin, a brisk slap to stop it sniffing at her behind and returned to her previous line of thought. "Now, there must be a way to get things running on their own for a bit."
Outside of Thaleia's little cottage, which was bigger on the inside than the outside – was a small pool, beside which was a patch of ground covered in smooth stones. One stone in particular stood out. Now, what made this stone stand out was that it had been worn into a smooth, poppy red, perfect, skipping pebble. And for these reasons, a short, sturdily built god with a few minutes to spare picked it up. He turned it over and over in his hands, rubbing off the sand and peering at it intently. This particular day he was wearing a simple white tunic and a pair of short green breeches, an incongruous mix with his winged boots and crookedly perched winged hat. "Cool beans." Hermes murmured happily, pushing an escaped lock of fair hair back behind one ear. Typically Hermes wouldn't be anywhere near Thaleia's place, considering his knack for falling into trouble, usually of the humourous kind, all on his own without help. In this case he had doomed himself to the visit and carrying around a series of replies from the Muse to her followers by making a snide comment about Thaleia's hair. Hermes was just a little bit of a hair snob. A very bad idea it was, to make that comment. He had apologized a hundred times and shamelessly begged for mercy any time he could catch her for three days, but Thaleia was immovable.
"Is it my fault that so many of the applicants are practical jokers? Just take proper care of those goofy shoes and that ridiculous hat, and I'm sure you'll be fine." With a note of cheerful 'I know for a fact that what I just said is the unsmelly equivalent of centaur crap' in her voice. Thaleia deeply enjoyed watching a good practical joke go off, and she had picked out the best few jokers to send Hermes to.
"You're so mean to me." Hermes pouted out loud, before attempting to skip the stone. He gave it a bit too much momentum, however, and tossed it across to the other side of the pool instead. Muttering, he leapt over the pool to retrieve it and try again.
"No I'm not, which you know quite well. The Muse of Comedy is incapable of cruelty." Thaleia declared airily, making the diminutive god stand still so she could finish writing one note by using his back as a desk. He sighed unhappily, knowing that his back would be full of inkspots, smears, and fingerprints before he could get away. What he didn't realize was that Thaleia herself was quite an accomplished practical joker, and had quickly scrawled 'kick me' across his shoulder blades. She let him stand up, and Hermes looked more closely at the stone.
"Right." Hermes managed to skip the stone this time, and it dropped into the pool with a plop. "Is that everything?"
"Oh yes." Thaleia beamed happily, and fell over her own feet. "Could comedy ever take care of itself?" she murmured, attention shifting back to this question, which was very interesting.
"What are you saying?" Hermes asked curiously, tucking the scrolls into the scroll case he kept slung almost, but not quite perpetually across his chest.
"That it would be nice if there was some way for comedy to take care of itself about half a moon each turn of the seasons." sighed Thaleia. "All these recruiting drives on top of everything else – knowing ten jokes involving bodily wastes and strange sounds emanating from bodily orifices does not make you a comedian!" The Muse emphasized the point by slapping her hand on the ground. "I've been working on ways to make the unfunny funny, but, well, there it is."
"None of them work?" This was a great surprise. It was one of the greater ironies that pretty much anything Thaleia created worked as she intended, whereas everyone else usually had to straighten out a few teething problems. The hat Hermes was wearing was a case in point. Persephone had created it in order to make the wearer invisible. Instead it turned their skin bright green. In the end she had simply rendered it into an obnoxiously shiny 'pay attention to me' hat, quite suitable for messengers and heralds.
"No." Thaleia frowned slightly. "And I'm really surprised, because the basic principles are all fine – you just have to, sort of, infect them with comedic ability. Sadly it isn't quite the same thing as when you need to teach a bad poet to be a good one. The transformation there only requires you to encourage them and keep them practicing."
"Oh." Hermes replied, rather faintly. Infect somebody with comedic ability? It made him nervous to hear about it.
"You see," Thaleia was warming up to the topic. "There are two problems, one, the infection doesn't last, two, it's pretty well impossible to control something like that. Can you imagine the havoc it would wreak, if it ever got loose?"
Hermes frowned in confusion. "How could it? I mean, don't you have to, er, infect someone?"
"You know, if I had been thinking along those lines it would have been much easier. As it was, I thought it'd be easier to model it on the common cold. Except they spread more like 'cooties' among small children – comedic cooties, if you like." Thaleia picked up a phial from the clutter of objects half sprawled across her desk, including a rather forlorn object made of cloth and shaped like a chicken.
"What's that thing?" Hermes pointed at the chicken.
"Hmmm? Oh, some gimmick of Salmoneus' – there are always at least thirty of those around. It's this close to assigning him a sub-Muse to deal with all of the stuff he sends around here – or maybe tell him to find the Ruler of Gimicry and Gimcracks." Thaleia held her fingers apart just enough to let light through. "A cloth chicken, he calls it. Sounds wrong rather than ridiculous..." She stared at the shattered phial, which she had absentmindedly dropped when making the finger gesture. "Oh dear."
"Well, I guess I had better get started." scowled Hermes, who had tightened his shoe bindings, unconsciously brushing broken crystal off of his shoes. Without another word, he was gone like a shot.
"Actually, you might want to wait, that phial had my comedic cooties in it..." Thaleia's voice died. "Damn." She considered the situation. "Then again, this could be funny."
Erithakos frowned, and pointedly ignored the most recent scroll from one of her mothers, who happened to be the Goddess Artemis. They had had a rather long, probably silly argument about something neither of them could remember once they had each respectively stormed off. Erithakos' twin sister had crisply suggested that it would be far easier for everyone concerned if they were more alike in personality and less alike in abilities. This crisp but confusing assertion had left both antagonists rather puzzled. One of Erithakos' surprisingly numerous half-sisters, Xena, had suggested that they seemed more alike than they actually were, and so had communication problems they couldn't figure out. At which point Artemis had groaned in agony, clutching her temples, and Erithakos had frankly begged Cyrene to make Xena stop.
Erithakos might have continued thinking in this vein, except her own head was starting to ache, and there was the stubborn problem of the flying fire tongs. They were clattering around the room, smacking chunks out of the plastered walls and occasionally smashing their way through the shutters. "Now I've fixed the spark problem but can't deal with these bloody tongs." Erith muttered. She considered her options. There was a broom jammed into a corner, and the tall Goddess grabbed this and began slowly stalking the tongs, which were weirdly savvy and so couldn't be simply smacked senseless, or at least still, easily.
"Now then, don't move." she muttered, advancing carefully on the tongs, which looked almost innocent in their corner, rather than the nastily destructive things they were. "Precisely," Erith breathed, and swung the broom. Unfortunately the blow was glancing, due to the tongs having perked up and started to flee. The chase was on when Hermes, entirely contrary to his habit, burst in through the front door.
He was giggling hysterically, apparently due to a set of his own quills, which were tickling him mercilessly. "Erithakos, quick, save me, it's all Thaleia's fault! Arrrgh – no, no, not the armpits, not the armpits! Eeeeeeeeeeek!"
For her part Erithakos stopped short, mouth agape. Then she burst out laughing. "No! Stop it! I can't – hee hee hee – I can't be funny! I'm a herald, a hahhahhaaa..." Hermes protested, as he struggled to flee his own writing materials. The tongs further proved their peculiar perversity by hovering around Hermes' head, dancing around deftly as the god desperately waved his arms and hopped from foot to foot.
"Okay," Erith gasped between chortles. "I'll help, just, try to hold still then, old thing. Must take care of these damned tongs first." Then she swung the broom, smacking the tongs soundly but also the hapless herald who got a faceful of straw and collapsed to the ground.
"Better and better." laughed Erith, as she used a hunk of rope to tie up the tongs. Hermes continued giggling helplessly on the floor, where his resistance to the quills was still futile. "Why are you here, anyway?" She neatly caught the quills, which had already caught a touch of perversity from the tongs, and promptly dropped flat into her hands, once again inanimate.
"Message for you – damn but I nearly didn't make it. You wouldn't believe what has been happening to me since I left Thaleia's place!" Hermes handed Erith what happened to be the last scroll the Muse had given him.
"Disgusting, your hands are sweaty." Erith wiped her hands on her leather apron. "Good thing I'm too old to worry about cooties, or there'd be trouble."
"Cooties? What does that remind me of?" Hermes shook himself. "Anyway, it was awful, just awful. This flock of doves started trailing me over Dodona, and when I tried to shake them, I ran right into a hayrick. That farmer will probably never forgive me. Then every place I stopped with other scrolls, people were kicking me! Kicking, you know with their feet? I'm a herald, heralds are sacrosanct!" He rung his hands. "And then my hair, look at my hair!" he wailed.
Erith finally looked up from the message, a question about how the forge spark problem was coming along, and promptly burst out laughing again. Rather than his usual, perfectly coifed strawberry blonde locks, Hermes had a rather alarming rainbow coloured mohawk. She hadn't laughed this much in one afternoon in she couldn't remember how long.
"It isn't funny! This is a tragedy!" Hermes exploded. Then he stopped short. "Cooties!" he gasped. "Oh no!" he moaned. "I've already been to destinations over half of Greece, three quarters of Persia, and a chunk of North Africa!" His eyes fixed on Erith, the current, alarmingly powerful and typically bad tempered Ruler of War. Hermes took a slow step backwards. "It's not my fault, really. This is all the result of a peculiar and twisted accident. Peculiar and twisted, yeah that's it..." He headed for the door in a hurry, managing to smack into the wall beside it as he was also trying to watch Erith's reaction, hoping desperately to escape before the Goddess realized she had been infected with comedic cooties. Since she had no idea, he really shouldn't have been concerned, but since the whole point of comedic cooties is that they make you think and act silly for the enjoyment of others, Hermes may perhaps be forgiven.
Erith stared at Hermes' retreating form in bafflement. "Hermes, you are in dire need of a vacation." Shaking her head, she considered the next item on her to do list, which was marked carefully on an old chunk of leather. "Ah yes, that weird shield aunt Athena wants. Wonder what for. That's much better than cleaning the workshop or finding all of my socks. Funny, I'm sure I didn't write those two things in."
Xena kept insisting she wasn't innkeeper material, but Gabrielle couldn't help wondering. Certainly the warrior couldn't cook to save her life – which was an alarming thought, because with their luck one day Xena would need to – but otherwise, she more than knew how to get by. She couldn't cook, but she had her mother's knack at the brew vats. More than a few traders had put Amphipolis on their routes over the past three weeks on discovering the sweet, smooth mead Xena had picked up the recipe for in Britannia long ago. Of course she was the bouncer to beat all bouncers, and had a talent for avoiding haggling that was serving the profit margin very well. Gabrielle chuckled softly to herself, and sipped from a mug of mead by her elbow. If that was being unfit for being a fulltime innkeeper, the bard was quite certain the only reason Cyrene hadn't started buying up and refurbishing inns in other places was for fear of accidentally taking over the whole of Greece.
Turning her attention back to the story she was working on, Gabrielle brought the protagonists to the very edge of disaster – then got a bit stuck. The situation really was not a fun one to get out of. Gabrielle reconsidered her determination to use the whole moving ceiling with spikes on it motif. She ran an eye over the lightly occupied common room, noting a couple of people almost done lunch.
The inn door opened, and a gaggle of people spilled into the room, talking animatedly about a story told by an Athenian trader that morning. It seemed that a group of Ionian traders had been behaving very strangely, singing Solstice songs and lightly pelting passersby with pistachios. They might not have stood out so much if Solstice hadn't been over seven moons away.
"Gabrielle." One of the locals, hoping to get his mug refilled. He gently waved a hand before the bard's distracted eyes. This was occasionally necessary. The Amphipolitans usually referred to it as 'that bard thing.'
"What?" covering her embarrassment with a bit of aggressive irritation, the bard set aside her quill.
"I would like a refill please." He grinned broadly and stuck his chest out. So Gabrielle was all gone on Xena. It never hurt to put your best foot forward, he decided. A member of the most recent group of people hurried over with a long bundle that was oddly lumpy and haphazardly wrapped.
"Delivery for Xena of Amphipolis." She warbled, plunking the package onto the bar, nearly spilling a wooden pitcher of water and overstressing the thread holding one of the buttons on her tunic, which flew off, bouncing off of the bard's forehead. The button allowed a rather abrupt release of the other woman's breasts – which is not to say she wasn't wearing a shirt under her overtunic. She was. It was just that she was well endowed.
Gabrielle struggled desperately not to stare, and not to giggle. "Thank you." she managed to choke out finally, hurriedly pouring the posturing local a refill.
Absurdly, Athena abruptly sashayed into the inn. "Oh, there you are." she declared upon spotting Ganrielle. She briskly moved the delivery woman out of the way, leaned on the bar, took a breath, and stopped dead. "Hang on a second." The tall Goddess leaned closer to the bard. "Do you have any idea why I'm here? I hope so, because I don't. It's something to do with Hermes, I think. Maybe. Sort of." Hermes had been acting very strangely when he stopped by with her messages. And for some reason he had scrawled 'kick me' across the back of his tunic.
"Umm, I, have absolutely, no idea." Gabrielle was a bit alarmed. The Goddess' eyes seemed a bit glazed, and her usual reserve had vanished, making her demeanor and speech patterns much more reminiscent of Artemis'.
Then one of Athena's hands shot out and she gave Gabrielle's nose a tweak. She jerked her hand back in shock. "What the?!"
"What did you just do to me?" Gabrielle said dangerously, eyes narrowing. Yes, Athena was a Goddess, but honestly!
"Ehhh..." Athena squinted at the bard's chest. "What's that?"
"What?" Gabrielle asked suspiciously, looking down. Athena neatly chucked her under the chin. "Excuse me!" For her part the Goddess had an expression of comical disbelief on her face.
"You're excused. Nobody would have noticed if you hadn't drawn attention to it, you know." Customers were beginning to laugh quite noticably now. "It's not my fault, this isn't like me at all." Athena added in a rather pleading tone.
"Wha – you – I oughta – why you..." sputtered Gabrielle. Then she jumped onto and over the table, knocking Athena flat with no very clear idea of what she would do next, and apparently even less idea of the potential consequences. A bit of an unfortunate miscalculation, as Athena deftly put her in a headlock and proceeded to give her a noogie. For her part Gabrielle was yelling and laughing intermittently as she struggled to get loose, complaining loudly about the Goddess' sweaty hands, one of which happened to be splayed across her midriff to hold her still.
"People, people, no brawling." Xena called as she hurried in from behind the inn where she had been cutting firewood. "Hey! What are you doing?" The entire inn was in a minor uproar as people continued laughing and now cheering the ridiculous near wrestling match by the bar. Xena pried the combatants apart, just barely catching Gabrielle's hands before she made an attempt to slap Athena silly – more silly.
The tall Goddess rubbed dazedly at her head, and scrubbed her palms on the sides of her tunic. "If I didn't know better, I'd think whatever was up with Hermes was contagious." she muttered in confusion.
Xena scowled and wiped her hands on a rag sprawled on one corner of the bar. "Are you sick or something? Your hands are sweating worse than a farmer in the fields on a hot day." Moving closer to the Goddess, Xena stopped short. A truly unusual amount of heat was emanating from Athena, which strongly suggested she really was sick. Behind her, Lisana grabbed the rag to use it to wipe tables as she went around the common room.
"Xena, I hate to break it to you, but immortals don't get sick." Athena wiped at her forehead, which was a bit damp. "What's that thing?" she pointed at the roughly wrapped bundle.
"It's for Xena." Gabrielle piped up helpfully. She was carefully drawing a very silly picture on the bar.
"Thanks." Xena frowned a little, but chose not to comment on the doodling for a moment. The world was heading straight for Persephone in a basket if she was being called upon to keep the peace. She carefully unwound the wrappings on the odd package, revealing a sword and a tightly rolled scroll. The latter fell with a hollow pseudo-pop onto the bar, blurring Gabrielle's sketch. Drawing the sword part way from the scabbard, Xena had to admit it's gleaming lines impressed her. Putting the scabbard aside, she hefted it experimentally, surprised that practically no adjustment to it would be needed. She turned her attention to the scroll. Usually it took longer before the mysterious smith out near Ankitheas finished a commission. Xena knew this well, because she had been making use of the smith's services from before she had stopped warlording.
The scroll stated: "It's no wonder you and that blonde are always in trouble. I could be offended, being such a nice half-sister, never actually taking your money and always reserving some of my best work for you – and never being recognized. I'm the Ruler of War now, Xena, you wouldn't want to get on my bad side. - Erithakos"
Xena blinked. There was more behind this, that was for sure.
One of the other customers suddenly burst out laughing again. "Where'd you find the pink dye for your hair, Dan? I coulda sworn that wasn't the sort of thing you found in an outhouse." The aforementioned Dan, who was indeed the proud new owner of a head full of pink hair, glared at his compatriot.
"You're drunk! My hair ain't pink." Then he looked at his arms, and was stunned to see that all the little hairs on them were dayglo pink.
"Yes it is! So are yer eyebrows." the other fellow laughed harder. Quite a few other people in the room began to chuckle.
"No." Dan yanked over a bucket of water usually used to mop up spills and glared at his murky reflection in it. Stunned by what he saw on his head, and his arms, he drew up one pant leg to reveal the hairs on his legs looked to be pink too. Looking just a little wild eyed, he hurriedly turned around so as to put his back to everyone else and peeked down the front of his trousers. His eyes got very big. His mouth dropped open. He fainted. Everyone else in the room laughed helplessly, except Athena, whose expression had changed to one of alarm.
"What has that damnable Hermes done?"
"Blahh!" this from the posing local who had gotten his mug refilled. Rather than ale, which he had expected, the mug was full of ink. And not garden variety ink which was basically black to deep purple in colour. Nope. This stuff was a weird dark blue. Worse yet, it was in his mouth. "Eww, gross, gross!" he waved a hand comically in front of his mouth, drawing attention to its newly blue tint.
"Hah!"laughed Gabrielle, even though she hadn't the faintest idea how ink had gotten into the mug, let alone that colour. Her partner gaped.
It was all too much, and clearly a matter to be referred to whoever was in charge of the ridiculous. Athena stood up, and headed for the door. "Well, being as I have finished being here for unknown reasons to myself, I'll be on my way." And then she was gone, still bemused and bewidlered by the whole situation.
"This is so bizarre." Gabrielle picked up the water pitcher with the idea of waking Dan from his faint.
"Hang on, hang on..." Xena caught the other side of the pitcher with the palm of one hand. "Honey, you can't wake the poor guy up like that, he's already had a terrible shock."
"And how else are we supposed to wake him up?" Gabrielle tried to set the pitcher down, and was stunned when her fingers remained stuck to the handle. Her partner's palm was equally stuck to the pitcher. They both yanked their hands back, but only succeeded in nearly dumping the pitcher all over themselves and the floor. "I'm going to kill her." Gabrielle declared in a flat tone that people who knew her had learned to fear.
"No you aren't, Gabrielle, she's immortal. And somehow, I don't think this is the sort of thing she goes for. Athena was as baffled as we are." Xena peered at the pitcher where her hand was stuck to it, and tried dragging the appendage off the surface. Bystanders giggled helplessly. "Oh great."
One of the other customers suddenly stood up, grabbed a poker from the fire, and brandishing it like a walking stick began to strut up and down one of the long tables, singing:
"The radish is a silly vegetable,
It's a silly vegetable to me,
The radish can't help but be a silly vegetable,
It isn't found in Greece!"
Everyone except the temporary innkeepers proceeded to merrily sing along, adding more goofy and nonsensical lyrics, and a fair number of them trying to dance along. "What is going on?" Gabrielle blurted in bewilderment.
"Why did this have to start the evening we expect my parents back?" groaned Xena.
A pair of well matched horses trotted up the road to Amphipolis, drawing a small cart. Part of the cart contained two sturdy bags of clothes and several other bags and packages whose contents were unknown to any but those who had packed them. The packers were sitting in the other part of the cart, relaxed against a couple of sacks solidly stuffed with pine needles and straw. They were both tanned and fit looking, as might be expected from spending a month involved in various indoor and outdoor vigourous physical activities.
Cyrene was sound asleep, having stayed up far too long the night before, enjoying the sea breeze on the deck of the ship that had dropped them off. The whole sea breeze thing had begun innocently enough, because the breeze was nice. Her partner had made some sort of arrangement with the crew, however, and soon turned up with a bottle of wine, a basket of food, and a naughty gleam in her eye. It seemed she had a bit of a thing for making love under the stars. For her part, Cyrene didn't worry about that too much. As she had told Artemis, she liked making love period.
Artemis glanced across the horses' steadily moving backs, judging how far they had to go yet. Due to a bit of cheating, not too long, but they'd still arrive in the second half of the dinner rush. The tall Goddess sighed. She wasn't in a violent hurry to return to the rather sedate life Amphipolis represented. Yet. She frowned slightly. It had started chafing a bit before, like underwear that was too tight. Maybe she could persuade Cyrene to break up the year a bit and come north for a month or two to her mountain house. That'd be neat, Artemis decided.
"A ways to go yet." Cyrene commented, her voice a little hoarse from sleeping.
"True. I was thinking that instead of going straight in, we could have a quick dip in that pool down the hill from the inn, then go to dinner with the kids."
"Sure." Sitting up, the innkeeper rubbed her eyes. "We can discuss proper arrangements to keep you from going stir crazy when we get there." Kissing her lover on the tip of her chin, Cyrene took hold of the horses' reins and guided them expertly off the road to the little glen beside the pool. She paused, gazing at it intently. "Hmmph." she murmured. "What a neat trick of the light. Seemed like it was glowing for a moment."
They had just finished settling the horses down for the time being and pulled out bathing things when a merrily singing man staggered straight through the bushes and plopped face-first into the pool. Alarmed, Artemis dashed forward and hauled him out, only to find that he was still singing between waterlogged coughs. "You love me, we're a..."
"Hey! Snap out of it!" Artemis gave him a cuff when he tried to wrap both arms around her neck and plant a sloppy wet kiss on her cheek. "This is so gross!" She wrung her hands in the air and booted the man in the rump, wriggling in disgust. Goddess of Amazons aside, anyone could be thrown into Aphrodite-like contortions by a man with such alchohol-ridden breath he could breathe on bystanders and make them drunk who was also soaked to the skin and sweaty and inclined to be WAY too friendly.
"Damnus?!" Cyrene blurted in surprise, now that she had made out the man's features in the moonlight through his rather lanky hair. "Whatever is the matter with you?"
"I don't know. I've been completely ridiculous since that weird woman came and went this evening." Damnus sighed, then began to giggle helplessly, looking straight up at the sky.
"What's so funny?" Artemis asked suspiciously, readying her fists in case he needed to be knocked senseless for his own safety.
"That big, white, sort of thing up there in the sky." Damnus giggled some more. "I'm going home now." Then he staggered away.
"Stay away from water!" Artemis shouted after him. "Or fire. Or anything."
"Tccch." Cyrene laughed, and shaking out one of their towels began carefully wiping her lover's face dry. "He wasn't that bad."
"He was sticky and drunk and gross, and he TOUCHED me!" Artemis blurted in outrage.
"Yes dear..." Cyrene winced. Until now she hadn't quite known where Xena's powerful sense of personal space came from. "He really had no clue what he was doing, of that I'm certain. Damnus is rather afraid of you most of the time." Continuing in this vein, the nettled Goddess was soon hapily sudsing up in the pool, humming a little tune.
"Are you hungry?" Cyrene asked her partner, considering the bag of things Sappho had insisted on sending them off with. The poet had insisted on the grounds that Lesbos had a reputation for generosity and good treatment of lovers to uphold. Then she had promised to come by Amphipolis during her latest tour, which was specifically through various Amazon villages, including Ankitheas, home of Thraso the Haplessly Clumsy Weaponmaster.
"Not really – well – truth be told I'm not really hungry any time, but at this moment I'm too full from all that other food to eat any more for the moment." Artemis explained. Her wife grinned.
"Okay. I'm not hungry either – do you think Sappho bribed the ship's cook to feed us like that? Or that she bribed the whole crew, for that matter. It was like a cruise."
"No, no. Amazons are nice people, is all." Artemis crossed her fingers behind her back as subtly as she could in the water. The bribing had all been by her with some help from Sappho who had helped keep her schemes under wraps.
"Uh huh." the innkeeper chuckled, and turned her attention to her partner's boots, one of them being the proud owner of a split toe. While it was true that she could do all these things with the powers becoming a Goddess in her own right had leant her, Cyrene found herself still preferring homely awl, needle, and gut. Artemis leaned back against the edge of the pool, and relaxed, waggling her big toes just above the water's surface. She proceeded to mentally debate what to tell the kids about the honeymoon. The debate was still going on when she dozed off, much to Cyrene's amusement.
Grinning naughtily, Cyrene began undressing, intending to slip into the pool and surprise Artemis awake with her surprisingly nimble toes. The supine Goddess watched Cyrene out of a tiny gap between her eyelids (a tell-tale sign she was no longer asleep, but Cyrene sometimes forgot to check that), observing as her partner first worked the ties out of her hair, then removed her footwear, and proceeded to go to work on her bodice. There were times, Artemis decided, that patience was not a virtue. She shot forward, and quicker than Cyrene's eyes could see snatched the lace right out of its eyelets and danced off with it. "Hey!" Cyrene laughed helplessly, and automatically keeping her assets from falling out of place chased off after her partner, who was dancing ribaldly around the pool.
They tore around the pool for some time, laughing like kids. At long last Cyrene caught hold of some rather sensitively placed hairs on her partner's anatomy, and the Goddess let out a suprised yelp and toppled back into the pool, dragging Cyrene in with her. Not even a breath later Artemis leapt out, sputtering, dancing the funky chicken and performing the silliest attempt to speed towel dry Cyrene had ever seen.
"Artie, Artie! Stop, what's, err, wrong?" The Goddess was laughing really hard.
After some effort to catch her breath, Artemis was in a state of complete bafflement. "I have no idea what's going on." Before beginning to giggle helplessly at nothing in particular. "It's like I'm stoned or something – and you know as well as I do I don't have anything to cause that with."
"Yes, I do. And yes, your behaviour is very similar to being stoned." Cyrene frowned, considering her lover's sweaty hands and forehead, combined with her rather glazed eyes. "So was Damnus' for that matter." she murmured thoughtfully, helping her lover dress again before washing off in the pool herself. As she dried off, she watched with amusement as Artemis struggled with her vest, accidentally yanking her tunic out of the back of her trousers, which were not yet fully buckled and descending dangerously downward.
"That is such a cute birthmark. Right on your butt." Cyrene pinched the bodypart in question, catching her lover's clothes and neatly buckling them into place, admittedly with an effort of willpower.
"Now Reenie, no pinching, especially the butt." Artemis chuckled while struggling to do her vest up straight. Then she jumped as Cyrene suddenly turned her attention to one of her ears with a highly nimble tongue. "Gosh Reenie, why'd you help me get dressed if you're in that sort of mood, I mean, really." Reaching for one boot to pull it off again.
"No, no, stop, the kids are expecting us. No sense making them worry." The innkeeper was just a bit surprised at her own behaviour. Then she shrugged. Making up for lost time after having a very dull, very uninteresting husband, she was sure.
Xena struggled to fend off the strange and silly actions by the inn's clientele – one of them was a dry goods trader, and he had provided a large bag of dried grapes. Luckily as long as no one stepped on them they could be collected from the floor, given a good wash, and dried out again, none the worse for wear. In the meantime, Xena was protecting her face with a serving tray and scowling. Gabrielle had slipped as far under the bar as she could get, considering that she and her partner were still stuck to the water pitcher, which they had at least managed to empty. The crowd had started into drinking songs when a man's voice cut across them,
"Hey! I know! Satyrs, they're cool! I'll just..."
"Don't you even think about taking your pants off!" Xena boomed in what Gabrielle had long ago nicknamed 'the voice of death.' (For those of you finding this a bit fuzzy, satyrs run around naked with their penises tied against their abdomens. Don't ask me, I'm just the bard.)
A skinny man stopped in mid-unbuckle. He gulped. "Okay – just a suggestion."
That disaster averted, the warrior and the bard sighed deeply in relief. "Sanity can return any time now." Gabrielle declared, peeking over the bar to see how the rain of dried grapes was going. "Hmmph." grunted Xena. She seemed to have snapped out of it faster than anybody else. By now the warrior was beginning to lose patience with the whole thing, especially the fact that she was still stuck to a damned water pitcher. For awhile the common room antics had gone unnoticed as Xena found herself in the middle of a no-holds barred tickle fight with the bard, who perhaps thought that a one-handed Xena was at a useful disadvantage. Forgetting she only had one hand to work with herself. By this means the pitcher was empty and both combatants were half soaked. On returning to the common room they had found an uproar, as someone had decided the next best thing was a bigger fire. Then Gabrielle had tripped over something and nearly fallen into said fire. Xena had neatly averted the near disaster, and the jolt seemed to have cleared her head.
This was basically the state of things when Artemis and Cyrene walked through the front door.
A younger woman was about to try a new volley of dried grapes, pitched from a shallow plate that usually held a candle. Cyrene caught her at at this and boomed in her own 'voice of death' "Put that down. WHAT is going on here?" Absolute silence, but for a helpless giggler writhing on the floor for no apparent reason.
"Damn." The dry goods trader rubbed his chin. "We forgot to figure out what to tell you."
For her part, Artemis was peering intently at various members of the melee, periodically reminding someone or other, "No touching. I have a sharp object." She paused by the bar, frowning. Lots of sweaty hands, overheated people, glazed eyes, and basically stoned behaviour. Did the evening stew get spiked or something? That wasn't like Lisana.
"Lisana!" Artemis called in the general direction of the kitchen while staring at her children. For some reason they were holding an empty water pitcher between them. Very strange.
"Yes, ma'am." Lisana came out of the kitchen wearing a pot on her head.
"Oh." Artemis blinked in some surprise. "Never mind then." Clearly the cook wasn't guilty of anything.
"You're all behaving very oddly. I wonder why." Cyrene looked significantly over at Xena and Gabrielle, who managed an in unision wince.
"It all started right when Athena came here, it's obviously her fault." Gabrielle declared, shaking her entrapped hand vigourously. "You might want to have a talk with her – it's all very nice that's she's trying to relax a little, but this is going way too far."
"I see." Artemis replied slowly. Athena? Her sister Athena? The one who had a serious sense of humour impairment these days? No.
"You think Athena started this?" Cyrene asked in bewilderment. "There's no way." She was quite sure that was impossible. Beyond quite sure. Absolutely certain.
"Not deliberately, but she certainly brought it with her." Xena commented.
"It as in, the weird stuff people have been doing." Gabrielle added.
Artemis nodded slowly. "I don't see how, this really isn't Athena's thing – eeerrk!" A woman was sprawled on the floor just off to Artemis' left side, stroking one of her calves.
"Wow, you have like, the most gorgeous calves." the woman sighed deleriously.
"You're touching me."
"Yeah, and I'm giving you a really nice compliment." the woman declared virtuously.
"Hello there." This was Cyrene, who had knelt down to look the other woman straight in the eye.
"Hi." the woman beamed happily. "She's got nice calves."
"Yes, she does, and I've got first dibs."
The younger woman blinked. "Gosh, really? Are you ever lucky! So's she, cuz you know, from here I can see you've got really nice br..."
"Yes, yes, my calf please." Artemis interrupted.
"Okay. I'll go find somebody else's." the woman declared, not all put out. Then she wandered off.
"As I was saying," Artemis began again, sounding stressed. "Athena doesn't go for infectious ridiculousness."
"Well, that's not much help right now." sighed Xena, struggling to pull her hand off the pitcher, with the result that Gabrielle fell face-first into her lap. The wolf whistles and catcalls made it quite clear how that had looked to most other people in the room, and Gabrielle came up for air blushing furiously. Xena had a distinctly rosy tint herself.
"Why," Artemis pointed at the pitcher. "are you two acting like you're stuck to that?"
"Because we ARE." Gabrielle sighed irritably.
"Oh, kay..." Artemis blinked. Her head was starting to feel all fuzzy and weird again, and things were looking unaccountably funny. A man danced past her waving a bit of nice wooden sculpture she had made for one corner of the inn some time ago. Distracted from the incipient giggle paroxysm for the moment, Artemis started chasing him. "Hey, put that down before you..." Whacking her head solidly on a low beam, Artemis dropped herself senseless on the floor.
The party atmosphere promptly resumed, even as Xena and Gabrielle were abruptly released by the pitcher with a stereo pop, causing them both to fall to the floor as well.
"Oh, for Gaia's sake!" Cyrene exploded in disgust. "We're going to bed. Chase this lot out of here before the Moon has set, all right?" Not waiting for an answer, she picked Artemis up off the floor and slung the tall Goddess across her shoulders before beginning the short climb up the stairs to their room in the back of the inn.
The next morning started with a bang, so to speak. That is, just before Xena had a chance to unbolt it, someone slammed bodily into the inn door, producing a resounding bang. The warrior stared at the door a moment, then quietly reached for a poker which had been left conveniently far from the fireplace. The customers of the night before hadn't been able to convince Xena to give them a bottle, basically because she didn't have any and wasn't too sure what they meant by a 'bottle' being as drinks came in skins, barrels, casks, or pithoi prior to being poured into mugs or goblets. So they had resorted to playing 'Spin the Poker' which had gone surprisingly well, except that the local blacksmith had been quite upset when instead of getting to kiss the local shepherd he had to peck the cheek of the milkmaid. Then he and the shepherd had gone off together. They had been making googly eyes at each other for ages, so perhaps something good had come out of last night's weird behaviour, Xena decided.
Carefully, slowly, she unlatched the door and threw it open. A yell greeted her, so Xena swung. The poker promptly became flaccid and flopped around uselessly.
The person who had produced the yell was struggling to disentangle himself from a considerable collection of leather straps. The yell wasn't at Xena. It was in fact a reaction to tugging at a strap that had gotten fixed around a sensitive body part.
Hermes finished up the whole strange tableau by falling at Xena's feet. In view of his desperate situation, he figured it was just as well to beg. "Help me, please!"
The warrior shook the flaccid poker at him. "Why should I? Go away!" Tossing the poker aside she began to stalk away. The truth of the matter was the diminutive god's strawberry blonde hair, distinctive green eyes and two days of reddish stubble had given her a turn. He was practically a male version of Gabrielle, physically, and after last night that was a bit much for the warrior to process.
"No, wait! Don't leave me!" Hermes began inching across the floor like a ridiculous worm, having gotten all of his limbs thoroughly enmeshed. "When Erithakos sorts out who gave Ares' old army cooties, she'll like, shave me bald or something! Can't you see what a tragedy that would be? Hair this beautiful should be treated with respect!" By now he had gotten within a half bodylength – one of Xena's half bodylengths – of the warrior, and now, desperate, knowing that Xena seriously intended to leave him, Hermes hurled himself forward and managed to get hold of one of her boot straps with his teeth. "Werffmmmm!" Xena froze in midstride, a bit stunned to have the god hanging off of her foot like a demented terrier.
Artemis opened the kitchen door, intending to pick up the endangered sculpture of the night before on her way out to her shop. Seeing Hermes, she burst out laughing.
"Iff nerf erfffyerm!" protested Hermes, not daring to release Xena's boot. He hadn't really thought through his choice of tactics, and he wasn't at all certain what she would do to him once the shock wore off.
Three Amphipolitans clattered into the common room, shouting in chorus, "Xena! Xena!" One of them fell unceremoniously over a table. The other two blurted out, "Ares' army is marching toward Amphipolis right now and they want to fight with you!" Ever since Ares' imprisonment and complete demotion, his army had been wandering around, listlessly trashing the odd village. They were curiously incapable of directing themselves without him.
"Oh no, what'll we do?" the Amphipolitan sitting on the floor by the table where he had fallen added like a lunatic and poorly rehearsed chorus member in a play.
"I know!" crowed one of his compatriots, eyes dancing with the power of his idea.
"What?!" the other two shouted at him.
"Laugh hysterically until they go away. I don't know if I can fight, but laughing hysterically, yup, can definitely do that."
"Oh." The others weren't nearly as enthusiastic about this idea.
"But that would give me a stomach ache." protested one, bawling like the man on the floor was somewhere across the Strymon river during a driving rainstorm.
"And I'd rather laugh for a reason!" the other man added. "Oh, wait, saving Amphipolis would be a reason. Let me rephrase that..."
"Why are you shouting? It is barely after dawn!" Lisana hissed from the kitchen doorway. She had just arrived to start work.
"Ares' army." Xena said flatly. It was almost enough to convert her to sleeping in.
"Ye – oof!" Hermes dropped back to the floor, having released Xena's foot. "Yeah, I've been trying to tell you about that! You simply must save me from Erithakos. Those guys have been wandering around since yesterday yelling 'meep' at random intervals and they're terribly embarrassed."
"Meep." for her part, Artemis had the sculpture and was beating a retreat to her sane, nice, quiet shop.
"Yes, and wearing silly hats – well, more so than usual. The captain did wear that dead bird on his head on purpose before this whole comedic cooties mess..."
The hapless herald looked thoroughly alarmed, and began squirming and inching his way in the general direction of the door. "Oh no you don't." Xena stomped on one of the loose straps, stopping Hermes short. "You have more than a little explaining to do. Beginning with when you ingested the henbane that is addling your brains."
It was of course, far worse than henbane. The story of the unwitting release of Thaleia's alarmingly infectious comedic cooties was simply unimaginable. Strange reports had started arriving with the day's merchants. Stories of Scythian warriors abruptly stopping a fight to chase rabbits and geurilla clothing makers. Apparently a ship had gotten stuck just out of the harbour at Athens, sailing in circles while the crew gaily sang nursery rhymes and silly dithyrambs that they were referring to as ditties. And then there was the army heading towards Amphipolis in vast disorder, its members randomly yelling 'meep' so they sounded like a herd – well, flock – of strange, flightless birds.
"Oh, and just look at my hair." Hermes fussed, peering at his reflection in the shiny surface of his helmet.
"Would you shut up about your hair already!" snapped Artemis. Cyrene rubbed her partner's shoulders comfortingly. "We have to do something about this! We can't have these comedic cooties causing insane behaviour everywhere, it'll start a damned war!"
"Listen." Gabrielle said suddenly. For several long moments, everyone in the kitchen did. Cyrene, Lisana, Artemis, Hermes, Xena and Gabrielle. It had all begun to seem highly anticlimactic until the unmistakable sound of many people walking together along with a strange randomized symphony of meeps became clearly audible. Hermes made a strangled groaning noise.
"Xena!" A voice boomed outside of the inn, struggling to outnoise the meeping hordes. "You'd better come out and meep – talk to us!"
A vein began jumping on Xena's forehead. "When this gets sorted out, I am going to personally hold you down while Erithakos shaves your head and paints your scalp green!" Then the warrior squared her shoulders and headed out of the inn to talk to Ares' addlepated army, Gabrielle right beside her, ready to fend off anybody who messed with her partner.
Ares' army was drawn up within sight of the village, and its general, with several meeping cohorts, was sitting on a skinny black horse in the middle of the main street. Literally – the several meeping cohorts were hanging off of the horse from various bits of the saddle the general's body didn't cover. Being rather fond of horses, Xena found this rather disturbing, especially considering how peculiarly inanimate the horse seemed. Having gone out with her 'I am a vicious, cruel warlord' look on, she had plenty of time to notice other details. Like the curious tracks that ran back from the horse. Rather than the odd bit of horse effluvia and regular hoof marks, there were two tracks, and a whole muddle of footprints on the outside of each one. Putting two and two together, Xena began to find the situation a bit less disturbing than before. But not much.
"Xena! Meep!" shouted the general. Wisely, Xena had kept back out of spray range. "I've got a bone to pick with you!"
"Oh please, just get ON with it." Gabrielle muttered from where she was watching Xena's back.
"You have, meep, deposed our leader – and you didn't even have the common courtesy to take his place! What's the matter with you? Meep! Don't you know the rules?!" The general was wearing a curious headdress with a stuffed bird attached on top. It was a highly unfortunate crow that some effort had been spent on to make it look owlish. His armour was rusty, clothing in tatters. The leather bindings around his sword hilt were loose and unravelling. Horror of horrors, this guy made Joxer look good. That might have been due to the moustache that looked suspiciously like the general had glued it back on after a shaving accident. Crooked.
For several long moments, the ex-warlord's lips twitched violently. She struggled to think of depressing things. The urge to laugh was so powerful it almost physically hurt to resist it. "Well, you see," she drawled at last. "I don't play by anybody else's rules, except MINE."
The general glared at her, and shifted in the saddle. "If you won't join us Xena, we'll just have to wipe out this puny village. Meep!" By now quite a number of the local village defenders had gathered around, easily hefting various weapons and agricultural tools. They hadn't liked it when Xena had become a warlord. They hadn't been too sure when she came back. But they had never forgotten that they needed to be able to defend themselves, even if only well enough to let those who couldn't fight get away. Their response to the general was to guffaw.
"The answer is no." growled Xena. "And if you really think you can raze this village, my friends and I will enjoy explaining what this village will do to you instead."
The general glared at her. One of his compatriots groaned loudly, "Oh man, I gotta go to the can. Are we there yet?" Somebody lost it and proceeded to giggle and chortle very loudly. Gabrielle flicked a gaze over the sundry people gathered around. Weirdly, the laughter didn't seem to be emanating from anyone she could see.
"Fine, fine!" The general wriggled in frustration, putting too much pressure on the saddlestraps. The whole strange, horse-like contraption fell to bits, revealing it was a sort of wee cart, with a few things added to it to make it look like a horse, albeit a skinny one.
"Ah man! I told you we should have just gone and found our horses. How far could they get? Meep!" This from one of the minions who was not hearing the call of nature.
"The better question, meep, is how we could possibly have lost every single meeping horse!" snapped the general. He turned back to Xena. "I demand satisfaction!" The strange, invisible laugher proceeded to sing merrily, "I can't get no, satisfaction – I can't get no, reac – no wait, is that it? Never mind – I can't get no, satisfaction..."
The general looked ready to burst into tears. "A pastry Xena, that's what I want. Meep. A pastry big enough for my army. And if I find out you didn't make it, meep, that's it." With that he stormed off, leaving his minions to drag back the remains of the pseudo-horse. They were verging on out of earshot when the fellow hearing the call of nature asked again, "Are we there yet?"
"Oh no." Gabrielle breathed. "It's my third worst nightmare." Her partner looked at her quizzically. "You, having to cook to save us. Xena, you can't even boil water."
"Excuse me? I can make tea just fine! And actually I can cook, it's just that my repertoire is not great." Xena declared with dignity.
"Right. Well, I guess I'll just have to go start working on the story now. How to tell the tale of the warrior princess wantonly food poisoning an army..." Gabrielle turned to walk off.
"Hey! My cooking is not that bad!" If they hadn't been discussing this around so many people, probably Xena wouldn't have found her partner's lack of faith quite so embarrassing.
At this moment, Artemis wandered out of her shop, carrying what looked suspiciously like a new work table for the kitchen. "I'll just round up a party to start the burial pit." Gabrielle shot back at Xena. The Goddess blinked, and shifted her grip on the table.
"It's gonna be tough talking around that foot in your mouth, Gabrielle." Artemis commented gently, then disappeared inside the inn. Only to discover that Cyrene was in a terrible temper due to some of the things that had wound up in the fire the night before. The weather was warm enough that Gabrielle and Xena had decided the safest bet was putting it out until the strange behaviour had passed. Then things had gotten tossed in the ashes. Not realizing they were there, Cyrene had started the fire back up again, only to have the inn flood with a heinous smoke. Burning dried grapes did not smell good, and a bundle had been dropped down the chimney, blocking it.
Needless to say, Cyrene of Amphipolis was among the first to truly recover from a case of the comedic cooties. Her partner was the second person to recover.
Outside, Hermes was trying very hard not to antagonize Xena further. He had of course been the invisible tormenter of earlier, and kept pleading he that he couldn't help himself. The final result was that Xena lashed him to a chair in the inn and ordered him to not even think about going anywhere. The messenger god found this quite difficult to do on principle, and so managed to stay put while he tried to sort out how he was supposed to do that with his muzzy faculties.
Meanwhile in the kitchen, Xena laid out the situation to her mother. Cyrene frowned a little as she hurled open the last window, and put her daughter to work flapping a large towel to get the air moving. "It won't be that hard to do what he says he wants – if he does. Honestly honey, he sounds like a lunatic."
"A lunatic with an army big enough to do a lot of damage even if they just make a point of walking all over things. If they take out the harvest, half of Amphipolis will starve this winter." The warrior frowned in her turn. "I don't think we can gamble on them snapping out of this comedic cootie thing."
"True." Cyrene considered poking at what jammed the chimney with a broomstick, then decided against it. Not knowing what it was, she didn't really want it falling on her head. "But they aren't thinking clearly. How do we know they'll accept a giant pastry – made by you?"
The reason Gabrielle wasn't contributing to the discussion was because she was off in the room she shared with Xena, struggling to recast the results she expected into a good story. Like Hermes, her behaviour just kept getting more peculiar. More hilarious, but more peculiar.
"Who knows?" Xena sighed and stopped flapping the towel. "I can hardly keep my mind on any of that." Thumping down into a chair, the warrior scrubbed at her temples. "Most of us are getting over this thing Thaleia concocted. But Hermes just seems to keep getting worse, and so is Gabrielle." Upstairs the bard could be heard warbling some sort of limerick song, grimly offtune.
"Yes, I noticed that too." Cyrene gave her daughter's shoulder a squeeze. "This cooties thing isn't permanent, honey. I'm sure it's just different for different people."
Xena deftly skirted the edges of the ex-Ares' army camp. It was an example of how not to set things up at the moment. The camp cook had managed to make some sort of gruel which a number of mercenaries were applying to their feet. The general was ranting about the pastry he wanted Xena to make him, which sounded not like a pastry but a sort of griddle cake. The ex-warlord considered that. She could figure out how to make those. The general began loudly declaiming how big was big enough for the pastry, which had been just what Xena was waiting for. She had run into him before, and knew that he'd spill the beans about pretty much anything, everything, and all things, even when he was relatively sobre and unaddled. She tipped her head to one side. "It might just be possible to fake this." Then she saw something far more intriguing.
One of the mercenaries was dozing under a tree not too far from Xena. She could see his chest moving up and down, and pick out his snores and the occasional 'meep' over the meeping chorus in the camp and the regular crashes of collapsing tents. The warrior threw another idle glance at him as the general began loudly declaiming the proper qualities of pastries, and why they were absolutely necessary in an unbalanced diet. The general was standing on a ragged stump, one hand gripping the edge of his tattered breast plate, the other up in the air in a declamatory gesture. The raggedly meeping mercenaries were watching him with expressions of near rapture.
This time when Xena glanced over at the dozing mercenary, she saw a rather large spider that had climbed up onto the man's neck. It moved slowly around his neck, making Xena cringe, until it was standing just below his chin. At this point, the mercenary became extremely aware of the small, many legged creature under his chin. Uttering an extraordinary scream, he slapped furiously at his throat and chest, managing to knock the spider away without squishing it. Finally satisfied the luckless spider was nowhere on his person, the mercenary took a deep breath and began putting himself back in order.
Not long afterwards, Xena frowned. Something was different. Not wrong necessarily, just different. What was it?
Then, it hit her.
The mercenary who had been so abruptly awakened by eight tiny legs was now whittling at a stick. And he was no longer meeping.
Hermes scowled, and began hop stepping his chair across the rooom he'd been left in for safekeeping. He was totally bored. It was time to find something else to do. On the brink of working the door open, the messenger god was stopped short by a hand on his shoulder.
"And just where do you think you're going?" Artemis asked him curtly. He gaped up at her. The tall Goddess was a little disturbed on her part. The diminutive god's mouth was so wide open she could see his tonsils, and a gap between two of his molars where he was known to occasionally hide appropriately sized precious gems that didn't belong to him. Hermes was after all, a thieving god – although, weirdly enough, not the ruling deity of thieves.
"You caught me!" Hermes blurted. This did everything to raise the level of confusion and nothing to help it.
"Ye-es – mainly because you have a tendency to do strange things when left to your own devices." Artemis frowned. "Well, more so than normal." Hermes was always doing odd things of one sort or another. He was forever well-meaning and forever causing peculiar situations through his singular difficulty in sorting out the possible consequences of the things he started. In a real sense, Hermes was like a teenage boy who never grew up.
"No, you don't understand, no one ever catches me – at anything!" Hermes blurted incredulously. "It's unheard of. I'll never live it down." He promptly stepped out of his bindings and began to pace the room.
"But nobody else knows about it." Artemis pointed out. She was rapidly tiring of the conversation.
"Yes, but I do. And such a shock too." Hermes frowned and began muttering to himself. His behaviour was almost normal, for him.
Normal – Artemis grinned delightedly as she put two and two together. "Excellent then, you can help us get things sorted out with the army camped across the way and maybe sort out poor Dan with the pink hair. You're a man, so he won't feel so uncomfortable."
"Army? Dan with the pink hair?" Hermes asked in bewilderment. "Errr – Artemis, maybe you had better tell me what I've been doing. There seems to be an alarming gap in my memory. Dan isn't some ex-boyfriend of mine is he?"
"I doubt it. Thinking of which, you should go talk to Apollo, he's still pouting." Artemis cheerfully shoved the god out of the room, and managed to get him down the stairs without tossing him down bodily, much to Hermes' relief. The Goddess seemed quite distracted.
They made it to the common room of the inn, which was in absolute chaos, as opposed to the merely everpresent kind. Xena was sewing at something behind the bar while trying to organize what sounded like some sort of chorus from among a group of hysterical Amphipolitans who didn't seem to understand there was no need to shout. Gabrielle was standing in the kitchen door, an expression of astounded disbelief on her face.
"Artemis, what the furk is going on?" Hermes blurted in alarm, hiding behind the Goddess.
"Oh, nothing much, just working on undoing some of the havoc you've caused. Go on." Artemis caught Hermes by the collar and his belt and marched him on tiptoe up to Xena. "Here he is." She leaned closer to her daughter. "I even gave him a chance to run, but he just staggered along like a landed fish." Mother and daughter gazed at each other.
"Mets, that metaphor was so mixed it's seasick." Xena commented drily. Turning her attention to Hermes, who winced, the warrior drawled, "Come on over here Hermes, I have a job for you."
"Oh, but I'm afraid you'll have to get someone else. Duty calls, all that." the god turned around hurriedly and tried to slip from behind the bar, only to slam into Artemis' sturdy back, which she had turned to them in order to deal with a chattering Amphipolitan. Which is not say the poor fellow was talking rapidly. He had gotten soaked with ice water somehow, and his teeth were literally chattering.
"Oh, I think your duty lies here." Xena smiled ferally.
"Eeep." squeaked Hermes.
And so it was that Hermes found himself divested of his fancy herald garb and jammed into some rather unfortunate and shapeless traditional sheep-herder's clothes (so he called them) and was leading a strange group off to the camp of the ex-Ares' army meeping hordes. Or something like that. He had precisely no idea what was going on, and found himself regularly pleading for reason and sanity, and assuring anyone who would listen that, "really, you've mistaken me for someone else," inspired in part by one little old lady's insistence on calling him Clarence the teacup. Xena found this enormously funny, and had just severely shocked him by telling him that he bore up to not being able to reach teapot status quite well, all things considered.
They had just reached the edge of the army camp when the watchkeeper shouted, "Behold, the pastry cometh!" and fell out of the tree he had been perched in with a meep.
The meeping general rushed up wildly, brandishing a tent peg. "Well?" he shouted. "Where the meep is it? I don't see any pastry."
For several moments there was a surprising amount of silence. Even the level of meeping dropped significantly. "There you are. What have you been telling him?" Xena asked Hermes briskly as she rolled over an object covered in a curious, conical cover made of sackcloth. "One pastry as requested." The warrior pronounced the word oddly, as 'paste-tree.' The general frowned suspiciously. Whatever the thing was, it was certainly large. Large enough that several people had helped Xena roll it over. They were all stuck to the sackcloth cover. Or at least, that's what it looked like. "Remove the cover." Xena imperiously ordered Hermes. The god stared at her uncomfortably. The look he got back made him move hurriedly. Mortal or no, somehow Hermes didn't want to vex her.
Locating a large and ludicrous bow, Hermes gave one end a tug, and the entire cover fell on him. And so Hermes didn't really get to see the paste-tree, which was a giant edifice in mildly tree shape, built up from an extraordinary conglomeration of junk. The only thing holding it together was a rather odiferous paste consisting of bitumen (provided by an Arab trader who had wandered into Amphipolis giggling hysterically and hopelessly lost) and cut up hay. Against all odds things were holding together quite well.
The general stared. "I wanted a pastry! You know, the sort of thing you eat!" he stumbled to a halt. "What did I want that for?" He looked around in confusion. "Why are we here?"
"Err, boss, I don't think this a good time for philosophy." pointed out one of his henchman.
"No not why are we here, why are we here?" the general ranted angrily. "In Amphipolis. Why are we here in Amphipolis?!" he bawled into the ramshackle camp. "What is going on here? And who has tried boiling their boots again? Who? Who? I'll have him horsewhipped. You better answer me..." He stormed off.
Having reached this rather anti-climactic ending, the Amphipolitans began moving back to their homes and places of work, generally feeling rather puzzled about the whole thing. Some months later it would be agreed that the whole situation had been very strange, but they had all laughed very hard.
"Ah, Xena, Xena..." Hermes hurried up to the tall warrior, who was scrubbing at a bitumen stain on one palm. "Could you tell me, just why I had to wear this monstrous get up?"
"Hmmm? Oh, no reason." She carefully set aside the cloth she had been using. "I just wanted to see if you'd do it." She clapped him on the back, rather hard, Hermes thought. "Did you see Gabrielle? She's back to her old self." With that the warrior strode off, whistling cheerfully, thumbs tucked into her belt.
"Oh. I understand. No I don't. Never mind." Taking a deep breath, Hermes snapped his fingers, replacing his odd clothing with his usually vanity gear in a flash. But since he didn't know about the brand new 'kick me' sign Xena had stuck on his back, that remained. There were a few scrolls waiting for delivery in his scroll case, and Zeus to avoid yet.
Thaleia sighed ruefully. It had taken quite a bit of work to disentangle some of the results of her comedic cooties. Luckily although they were still extremely infectious, they tended to produce fits of giggles and the urge to pull practical jokes rather than the original wholesale strange behaviour they originally had. Which, Thaleia admitted to herself, pretty much meant that they now did next to nothing at all, after she banished their ability to cause sweaty hands and fevered brows. "Ah well – maybe I'll establish a new holiday. Something in the spring maybe – we could call it Aphrodite's Fools Day, and spread the work..." Thaleia hummed happily to herself.
And we all know what came of that idea, don't we?
- The End