Chapter Five


The statuesque brunette laced up her leather boots, smoothed out her armor and
stared into the mirror. "I'm ready," she said to herself.

She had vowed she would never do this again, that she would leave the work to
others. But only she could fulfill this task, so she had reluctantly agreed. A
servant girl opened the door and gently entered the room.

"You look magnificent!" she told the brunette.

"Do I?" Meg replied in her typical street-smart manner. Any resemblance to Xena
ended the second she opened her mouth, but how many people had ever heard Xena
speak? Certainly not the merchant in Corinth who had desired Meg's services.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Very good. Can you hold down the place and watch the girls and their customers
while I'm gone?"

"Why, yes," the servant humbly replied.

"Okay, then. I'm gone." Meg hadn't worn this outfit in a while, but fortunately
for her it still fit. Just hope Xena has gone off to Gaul or someplace like
that, she thought. Actually, dressing up like Xena had its advantages; she
looked so strikingly intimidating that no one on the way would dare attack her.

Meg strolled downstairs, adjusting her shoulders to make the outfit a bit more
comfortable. At the base, she found a short man arguing with one of her girls.
"You paid me 10 dinars. We had agreed on 15!" she said.

"I'm paying for services rendered," he angrily replied.

"Would you like to be rendered?" said Meg, who was significantly larger than he
was. She picked him up by his neck, walked a few steps to the door, and tossed
him out about 10 feet...roughly 50 yards from where Hilda and Xelda were
walking, searching for Salem.

"Did you see that?" Hilda said.

"I think so," her sister replied.

"And stay out!" Meg told the man, who quickly ran away in fright.

"I think that was...her," Xelda said.

"Who else could it be?"

Meg, who was waiting for an Argo lookalike to be delivered from the stable,
looked back at the girl. "Don't take stuff from anyone--okay?" She nodded.

The horse arrived seconds later, and Meg mounted the mare.

"Why don't we get Xena's help?" Hilda said. "Though I don't know if she'll want
to, the way you're dressed."

"We can pretend we're coming home from a costume party," Xelda replied,
"assuming they had such things in this era. If not, we invent them--like we did
darts."

The two slowly walked toward Meg, and they caught her eye. Xena as a
blonde--what a twist, she thought. Not certain I like the competition, but it
does have possibilities, though the other girl is too tall to be a Gabrielle.
Perhaps she could be a Callisto for those with a sense for the perverse...

"Let me go first," Hilda told her sister. "I may appear less threatening." She
yelled toward the woman on horseback. "Hey, Xena!"

I'll play along for now, she said to herself. "Yeah, whaddya need?"

"That doesn't sound like Xena from the few glimpses I've caught of the show,"
Xelda said to her sister.

"Well, Lucy Lawless is from New Zealand, so she probably sounds a bit different
off-screen."

"But we're not off-screen, so to speak."

"Maybe she's originally from America and moved to New Zealand," Hilda said.

"Just like Mel Gibson moved to Australia from the U.S."

"Mel Gibson," Xelda said, and both sisters dreamily sighed.

Meg, playing Xena, was impatient. "Whaddya want? We warriors don't have all day,
you know."

"We're sisters trying to find our cat," Hilda said. "Can you help us track him
down?"

"That's it? That's all?" Meg said in bemusement. "No warlords terrorizing your
village or anything like that?"

"Sorry," a chagrined Xelda replied.

"By the way, hon, nice outfit. What does kitty look like?"

"He's black," Hilda replied, "and is named Salem. And should we tell her, sis?"

"Tell me what?" Meg interjected.

Xelda picked up the slack. "He...talks."

A talking cat? These two are a little crazy, Meg thought to herself. Probably
part of their charm. They might have some value for me down the road. So let's
keep up the facade. "Tell ya what. If I find your kitty cat, I'll tell him to
return to the two of you."

Hilda smiled. "We knew we could count on you."

"Ya know, I bet you two could really be of service to me."

Xelda beamed. Was she offering them a position in her Amazon army? Had word of
her triumphant battle in the tavern traveled so quickly? "Has my reputation
preceded me?" she asked.

"Reputation?" Meg replied. "Nah, I can just tell by looking at ya you'd fit in
in my outfit."

"Well," Xelda considered, "as long as you're working for good."

Meg smiled. "We're workin', all right."

Hilda shook her head in amazement. Am I suddenly the only sensible one here?
That's a switch. "Xelda, right now that's not what we're here for."

"My sister Hilda is right. Xena, I regretfully decline."

"The offer remains on the table," Meg said. "Believe me, we could use you." With
that, she turned her steed toward Corinth. Those two would be popular, she
thought. Men go ga-ga for blondes.

* * *

"...Shall be lifted...nevermore!" The black cat issued a sinister chuckle followed
by a mournful howl. "Anyway," Salem continued affably, "that's just a little
something I composed myself. Of course, I use the word 'composed' instead of
'wrote,' because, well..." He held up his paw to demonstrate his lack of thumbs.
Silently, he thought back to those days when Edgar Allan Poe would use him as a
sounding board for his latest works. Luckily, some of it sank in...

"Amazing!" Salmoneus exclaimed. "Not only do you talk, but you've got a
remarkable way with words, not to mention an impressive dramatic delivery.
There's got to be some way we can turn those gifts into a source of revenue...but
how?"

Both merchant and cat sat silently for a moment, then simultaneously blurted
"I've got it!"

* * *

"Mrs. Wootton, I'd like you to meet our two newest exchange students, Xee and
Gabrielle," Sabrina told her homeroom teacher. "They're from Greece. Here are
their papers."

Not taking any chances, Sabrina made sure the papers she'd zapped up had her two
companions enrolled in all her classes, so she could keep an eye on them.
History first period, then phys ed, followed by science, then lunch...

"Pleased to meet the two of you," the teacher said. "I think you will enjoy
Westbridge High School. Sorry we can't have you sit anywhere now, but I'll call
maintenance and each of you will have desks available tomorrow morning."

"Thank you so much," Gabrielle replied.

"Just relax," Sabrina said. "We'll be leaving for our first class in a few
minutes."

"Fine, then," Xena answered, smiling at some of her new classmates.

Just then, Willard Kraft strolled into the room, handing a sheet to Mrs.
Wootton. "Belinda, here's a copy of that questionnaire from the district, and
don't forget to appear at the school board meeting tomorrow night to lobby for
more funding for the yearbook." The vice principal turned and saw two unfamiliar
students. "And who, may I ask, are you?"

"Uh, they're exchange students from Greece," Sabrina quickly replied. "Staying
at our house."

"Why doesn't Zelda tell me about these things?" Willard said with a sigh.

"She and Aunt Hilda have been...called away for a while on assignment." Was
there a better way to dance around their absence?

"Well, when Zu-Zu gets back, let's all get together for some gyros with your
Greek buddies."

Sabrina cringed. It was bad enough when he called Aunt Zelda Zu-Zu at home, but
here? "Whatever you say, Mr. Kraft. It should be fun."

"Enjoy your stay here in school and work hard," Kraft told the exchange
students. "You can learn a lot from us, and we can learn a lot from you."

"Strange fellow, isn't he?" Gabrielle said as the vice principal left the room.

"An understatement, to be sure," Sabrina replied as the bell rang. "It's off to
history class, guys. Follow me."

* * *

The sisters had reached a fork in the road.

"Hilda, I think it would make more sense if we split up while searching for
Salem," Xelda said, pointing to her left. "You go that way, I'll go this way and
meet you back here in about an hour."

"I don't have a watch," Hilda protested.

Xelda pointed at her sister's pocket. "You do now. Well, it's not really a
watch."

Hilda reached into her pocket and tugged at a chain. "What am I, sis, a railroad
conductor?"

"Pull out the whole thing."

Hilda complied and displayed a miniature sundial. "I'm impressed," she said with
a smile.

"Knew you would be, Hildy. See you later."

* * *

"Gather round, people, gather round," Salmoneus urged to the throng of passersby
before his hastily-set-up stage. On the table before him was a small object
hidden by a dark cloth. "Prepare to be amazed, mystified and edified. I present
to you, all the way from the faraway land of Egypt, the wondrous Oracle of the
Nile!"

Salmoneus removed the cloth to reveal an ordinary-looking black cat.

Okay, Salem thought as his audience began to chuckle. Showmanship is the key
here. Give them a moment to think it's all a joke...then really wow 'em!

Salem rose onto his hind legs and spread his forepaws wide in a grand, sweeping
gesture. "Incense and peppermints!" he intoned dramatically. "The color of
time!" He almost forgot himself and completed the verse, but caught himself in
time. "Dead kings" was not a phrase to be tossed about lightly in this world.
Fortunately, he had many more cryptic lyrics to fall back on. "What you think,
what you feel, what you know to be real. A mulatto...an albino...a mosquito...my
libido. And so it was that later, as the mirror told its tale, that her face, at
first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale."

The audience issued a collective gasp of astonishment, not to mention
puzzlement.

"The Oracle will answer your questions," Salmoneus explained, "for a reasonable
fee, of course. Five dinars per answer."

As supplicants approached, Salmoneus urged "One at a time, please!" Collecting
his fee from the first customer, he said, "Thank you very much, sir. And your
question?"

"My brother left the family trade and went off to live as a hermit," the man
explained. "Why would he do that?"

Salem cleared his throat as he considered an appropriate answer. Fortunately,
one came to mind almost immediately. "In the desert," he recited, "you can
remember your name, for there ain't no one for to give you no pain."

"So," the man pondered, "he's gone off by himself to be his own man? Yeah, that
makes sense. I understand now. Thank you!"

"Glad to be of service," Salmoneus cheerfully replied. "Next!"

A young woman paid her fee as she asked "What is the nature of love?"

Ah, Salem thought, from the specific to the universal. Luckily, there was no
shortage of songs to answer this question, though many were contradictory. "Love
hurts," Salem declared. "Love scars...love wounds and mars any heart not tough,
not strong enough to take a lot of pain...take a lot of pain. Love is like a
cloud, holds a lot of rain." He remembered Nazareth's hit version from the
1970s, although Xelly had been singing the Everlys' original ad nauseum at home
of late.

"Gods," someone in the audience remarked, "that's the most bitter oracle I've
ever heard."

"Hey!" Salem hissed at the heckler, "I've looked at love from both sides now!
From win and lose...and still, somehow, it's love's illusions I recall."

Salmoneus pushed through the audience and found the man who'd made the comment.
"Five dinars, please."

"What? I didn't ask a question!"

"I didn't say five dinars per question...I said five dinars per answer, and you
got one. Wouldn't want to cheat the Oracle, would we?"

* * *

Ares came down from Mount Olympus, searching for Xena in hopes he could finally
persuade her to return to his side. Now there was a warrior, he thought. Why
waste your skills on such namby-pamby stuff as doing good?

He transported himself to a temple, then walked outside...just as Joxer was
passing by, keeping an eye out for Salem. "So if it isn't Mr. Mighty himself,"
he said derisively.

In the past, Joxer might have quaked in his boots over seeing the god of war. He
wasn't doing it here, for some reason he couldn't quite fathom. Instead, he felt
confident. Not foolhardy, but definitely sure of himself.

"Very nice, Ares," Joxer replied with a laugh. "What's eating you?"

Ares walked up to him, looked down at the scrawny warrior, and simply asked,
"I'd like to know where Xena is--not that you would tell me." He flashed an
intimidating glare. "Then again, you might."

"I honestly don't know. Haven't seen her in a couple of days."

Ares scowled. "Well, perhaps if I take you hostage, she might come to your
aid..." With that, he grabbed Joxer by his armor and lifted him so they were
eye-to-eye, expecting to see a sniveling, scared look on the ersatz warrior's
face. It was always good for a perverse laugh.

That's not what happened this time, though. Rather than show fear, Joxer smugly
smiled at his enemy--and unbelievably flipped him over, despite having no
leverage to work with!

Ares, momentarily confused over what had happened, quickly regained his
composure as he got up and opened his hand, firing a burst of electrical energy
toward Joxer. However, not only did the once-bumbling warrior dodge the bolt,
but he whirled over toward the god of war and sent him back down with a mighty
kick.

You've gotta be kidding me, he thought to himself. This is Joxer, poster boy for
ineptitude? What's gotten into him? I bet Aphrodite is fooling around with those
bells again. Wait till I get back to Olympus and set her straight!

"Ares, I'm in no mood to play your mind games," Joxer said emphatically. "Bother
me some other time."

The god of war grudgingly complied and vanished from the scene. If word of this
gets back to Olympus, I'm a laughingstock, he thought.

Meanwhile, Joxer went on his way, strong and secure. Hilda is going to be so
proud of me, he thought with a smile.

* * *

History class should be fun, albeit confusing, for Xena and Gabrielle, Sabrina
thought to herself as she walked into Mr. Lawton's classroom. Her two friends
followed closely behind; on the way to class, they had stopped in the girls'
room, where Sabrina--making sure the coast was clear--zapped up their history
books.

Sabrina made certain Xena and Gabrielle sat near her, accomplishing the feat by
magically making the seats in question either too hot or too cold for their
regular occupants.

Once the bell rang to signal the start of the period, Mr. Lawton addressed the
class. "I've been informed by Sabrina Spellman that we have two newcomers here,
from Greece, Zee--" Xena waved to her new classmates "--and Gabrielle," who did
likewise. He smiled. "I hate to disappoint both of you, but we covered Greece
last week. Today, we continue our discussion of Rome."

"Nobody's perfect," Xena said without maliciousness, but the remark drew a few
titters from her fellow students.

"We are presently at the height of the Roman Empire, under the stellar
leadership of Caesar."

That comment immediately drew Gabrielle's ire. "Excuse me, sir, but I know
Caesar," she said, "and--"

"She means, 'I know of Caesar,'" Sabrina quickly explained. "A little hangup
with English sentence structure, that's all."

"I don't care if you know Imogene Coca," Mr. Lawton replied to Gabrielle.

"He is--er, I mean was--a person who was only interested in empire, not about
people," Gabrielle retorted.

"If you want revisionist history, check out 'The Great Soviet Encyclopedia,' if
you can find it," the teacher said. "I admire the strength of your convictions,
but that's not the philosophy of this district."

Sabrina shrugged her shoulders at Gabrielle, who took the hint. The rest of the
period proceeded without incident.

* * *

"You may find yourself living in a small thatch hut," Salem chanted while making
rhythmic chopping motions with one paw over the other foreleg, in as good a
David Byrne imitation as felinely possible. "You may find yourself behind the
reins of a large chariot." Okay, so some lyrics have to be reworked for this
audience, he mused. "You may say to yourself, 'Well, how did I get here?'
Letting the days go by...letting the water hold you down..."

"What does that mean?" somebody asked...then immediately slapped his forehead upon
realizing he'd asked a question. Reluctantly, he dug out five dinars as
Salmoneus approached.

"I close my eyes..." Salem did so in demonstration. "Only for a moment..." Suddenly
he snapped his eyes open and blurted, "And the moment's gone! Dust in the
wind...all we are is dust in the wind."

"So...you're saying time is fleeting, and we should use it to the fullest while we
can?"

"Sing for today!" Salem exulted. "Sing for the moment! Sing for the time of your
life!"

A murmur of awe and appreciation spread through the audience.

"I've got a question for the Oracle," a feminine voice piped up.

"Certainly, miss," Salmoneus grinned, "only five dinars..."

The crowd parted around the imposing blonde figure that strode forward. "My
question is," Callisto continued, "what's going to happen if anyone tries to
stop me from taking your little talking kittycat?"

Salem trembled, but amazingly did not break character. "She'll carelessly cut
you and laugh while you're bleeding," he whimpered.

"My, you really can tell the future!" Callisto giggled as she marched past the
cowering Salmoneus and snatched Salem up by the scruff of the neck.

* * *

"Salem! Salem!" Hilda kept calling, without success. With my luck, he's probably
found the ambrosia, consumed it, and left me as a mollusk for the next
millennium once the Witches' Council gets wind of the news. Then she smiled. As
long as Drell runs the Witches' Council and still has that little spark of
romance left for me, maybe I'll only have to be a big dog or something.

Quickly abandoning such defeatist thinking, she decided that if she was going to
catch a cat, she may as well think like one. So Hilda changed herself into a
wildcat, albeit one that was dressed an awful lot like Gabrielle, and employed
her now-enhanced feline sense of smell to begin searching for Salem as she raced
through the woods...

* * *

Xelda headed for the hills in hopes of finding Salem. She kept yelling his name,
to no avail. But someone else heard her calls...

"Joxer--there you are!" she said with a smile, waving at the warrior riding a
horse in the distance.

But it wasn't Joxer at all. Unbeknownst to Xelda, his twin brother, the evil,
bloodthirsty Jett, had been making his way through the countryside. He quickly
deduced that his brother knew this lovely wench who dressed like Xena. Perhaps
he should get to know her too--as Joxer, of course...

"Come on," Xelda continued. "We've got to get to that ambrosia before Salem
does."

Ambrosia? Jett thought. Well, that settled it. He knew it would be all but
impossible to take the godly substance from its place of concealment--but it was
a prize worth the risks. Particularly if those risks were actually taken by
someone else, like this woman or that Salem person she mentioned.

"Right!" Jett answered. "Lead on!"

"Lead on?" Xelda asked in puzzlement. "You're the one that knows the way!"

"Oh, right," Jett responded, getting in character with a perfect imitation of
his brother's guffaw. Luckily, he had heard about the fabled cave's location, so
they'd be there soon enough. "Did I say 'Lead on?' Why would I say 'Lead on'
when I'm the one who's leading? Follow me, that's what I meant to say. Follow
me."

Hmm, Xelda thought, that spell may have made him into a real warrior...but it
doesn't seem to have had any effect on his overall goofiness.

* * *

Tara Hastings watched the girls come in for second-period gym class. To be
honest, she was getting tired of Westbridge High, particularly after five
beleaguered years as its girls' basketball coach. The Lady Scallions had yet to
post a winning season under her guidance, and the administration, led by Willard
Kraft, was beginning to put pressure on her. "We have no talent in this
district!" she kept telling him, though he didn't seem to get it.

There were two girls in her class that she didn't recognize. Both were chatting
with Sabrina Spellman.

"Look at this!" Gabrielle said, glancing at her green and white gym outfit.
"We're all dressed like this--like prisoners."

Sabrina chuckled. At times, gym class did feel like prison, she thought,
although Coach Hastings did what she could to make things interesting.

"Oh, it's not that bad," Xena said. "Haven't really had a chance for exercise
since we got here."

"Miss Spellman," Coach Hastings asked, "who are these young women you're talking
with?"

"Transfer students from Greece," Sabrina replied. "Meet Zee and Gabrielle."

The coach sized up the brunette. Nearly six feet, she thought. She has got to
play basketball.

"Ever played basketball, Zee?"

"I'm afraid not," Xena replied.

"She's from the mountains of Greece," Sabrina interjected. "A very rural area.
They don't even have television."

"But I can learn," Xena said.

"Me, too," Gabrielle added.

"Okay," the coach said. The little blonde might make a good point guard, unless
she's as uncoordinated as Spellman... She picked up a stray basketball and began
to dribble it. "Basketball's a pretty easy sport to learn. The object of the
game is to put this ball in the hoop," and pointed to the basket about 40 feet
away.

Xena took the ball from the coach. "You mean, like this?" she said, heaving the
ball toward the hoop for a perfect swish.

The coach smiled. "Yeah, like that." Maybe she has some talent. "But you also
can score from closer in, as long as you don't run with the ball." She dribbled
downcourt and made a layup off the glass, showing some of the skills that made
her a Division I player some 10 years before, then passed it back to Xena.

"I can do that, and more," Xena said. She dribbled downcourt, then at the foul
line performed a somersault toward the basket. There, she coolly dunked the ball
in the hoop.

"Not bad," Gabrielle said with a grin. Sabrina and her classmates stood with
open mouths. Coach Hastings nearly fainted, but Sabrina subtly pointed and kept
her from collapsing. "I've never seen anything like that!" the coach exclaimed.
"You are an incredible athlete."

"I have many skills," Xena calmly replied.

Class continued, and in the pickup basketball game Xena dominated. She hit a
series of three-pointers, pulled down several rebounds, blocked a number of
shots and made five dunks.

As Sabrina played, vainly trying to keep up, she thought she heard the coach say
to herself from the sidelines, "Package deal...package deal...Get me out of this
place..."

That'll have to wait till next year, Sabrina thought, since it's spring and no
longer basketball season. Of course, if things went right Xena won't be here
tomorrow. Sorry to disappoint you, coach...

* * *

Hilda was having little success tracking Salem. As she sniffed around in her
wildcat form, she mused to herself, Maybe it would help if I'd ever paid
attention to what he smells like...but who knew I'd need to know that one day?

As she stalked her prey, her cat ears perked up towards a distant, approaching
sound. It sounded like...singing?

"Joxer the Mighty, master of magnificence, fights with such intelligence..."

Yes, it was singing, all right...and Hilda was surprised by how much she liked the
catchy little tune.

"...With Hilda and her magic tricks, stronger still than Gabby's stick..."

Well, that settled it. Hilda really liked this song!

She considered surprising Joxer by waiting until he arrived to resume her human
form, then decided against it. He may be made of sterner stuff now than he was
when Salem's speaking made him faint...but a full transformation would be hard to
take for anyone.

She pointed at herself with one claw, and with a swirl of light returned to her
usual (for this world) appearance.

"Hi, Joxer!" she exclaimed as he came into view. "I didn't expect to run into
you again so soon."

"Well," Joxer chuckled, "I did get a little sidetracked. I'm on my way to the
ambrosia cave right now. Hopefully, I still just might be able to reach it
before Salem does."

"That does sound like the most likely place he'd be going," Hilda replied. "I
certainly haven't had any luck finding him."

"Say!" Joxer's face lit up. "Since I'm going there, and since he's probably
going there...why don't you come along with me?"

"I thought you'd never ask," Hilda giggled.

* * *

With class ended, it was on to third period for Sabrina and companions. Around
the corner from the gym, towards the academic wing, they were seen by a brunette
in a green and white cheerleading outfit and two of her cohorts.

"Oh, boy," Sabrina mumbled. "Libby Chessler. Just who I needed to see."

"Who is this?" Xena inquired. "You're evidently not happy to see her."

"Let's put it this way--she is to me what Callisto is to you."

"She killed your husband on your wedding night?" Gabrielle said with a sigh. "My
sympathies."

"Noooo!" Sabrina said with a chuckle. Libby's a lot of awful things, she
thought, but not that. "The analogy isn't perfect, but you get the general
idea."

Libby walked up to Sabrina and pals. "So it's the freak and the Greeks," she
said with an irritating smile. "Word gets around quickly."

Xena scowled, obviously understanding Sabrina's enmity for the cheerleader. And
being a woman of action, she took some. She instantaneously placed her hand on
Libby's throat...and delivered the pinch.

"I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain," Xena told a powerless,
immobile Libby. "You'll be dead in 30 seconds."

Sabrina was incredulous, and quickly froze Libby and every mortal in the school
except Xena and Gabrielle. "What are you doing?" she screamed.

"Protecting you," Xena said.

"This woman is obviously your enemy," Gabrielle added.

"I may not like Libby, but that doesn't mean I want to kill her!" Sabrina
retorted. "You either release her, or I'll do something to you." Precisely what,
she wasn't sure.

Xena relented. "Oh, all right," she said, releasing Libby from the pinch, "but
don't say I wasn't trying to protect you."

Sabrina unfroze the school, but hadn't noticed who had been at the other end of
the hallway when the incident occurred. She found out a few seconds later when
Willard Kraft walked up to her.

"Miss Spellman, I saw what happened with you and your new friends," he said,
then turned to Xena and Gabrielle. "I do not claim expertise on the quality of
discipline administered in Grecian schools, but I can certainly tell you that
attempting to assault a cheerleader is not accepted behavior on this side of the
Atlantic." Particularly one with her family's money and influence, he thought.

"I apologize," said Gabrielle, trying to play diplomat.

"I'm afraid it's too late for that, young lady. I'd like all three of you to
come to my office. Now."

DISCLAIMER: No trampy Xena lookalikes, witches-turned-wildcats or gym teachers
were harmed in the making of this chapter. The music of the Strawberry Alarm
Clock, Cheryl Lynn, Nirvana, Procol Harum, America, songwriters Boudleaux and
Felice Bryant, Joni Mitchell, David Byrne, Kansas, Styx and Billy Joel (whew!)
also survived this chapter, despite Salem doing to them what Xena did to Libby.