Body, Heart and Soul

Part 10

“You sweat more in summer. But boy, is it better than this.” Gabrielle remarked, before she covered her lower face again with a fold of her cloak to keep the snow out of her mouth.

“No argument from me.”  Xena was slightly ahead of her, doing as much as she could to intercept the blowing winds that were driving the wet substance right through them.  

They were through the pass and heading downslope to the hilly midlands  where months before the Spartans had marched on their way to Athens.

No sign of their passage, of course.  The ground was covered in snow and the trees bore thick blankets of it, which shed over anyone who was as ill advised as to come too close to them.

Xena and Gabrielle were in the vanguard, the mounted troops were in columns behind them and then the wagons came after with a rear guard last.

Ares had allowed himself to be coaxed into staying in the wagon, tucked into the straw with a thick hide over the top of it to keep him out of the weather.   His horse had stuck with the army spares and was trotting along with them, content to swing his head from side to side watching the world go by.

Xena had checked her map carefully, and she directed the scouts to continue up the long road once made by Romans that led eventually to the port city.  She could have taken a meandering route through the forest – and if she’d been alone with Gabrielle she would have.

But an army, though very handy to have was not much for small hunting trails. 

There were thick stands of trees on either side of the road, and the outriders were skirting through them, occasionally letting out a shrill whistle that echoed softly across the frosty ground.

Gabrielle glanced at the sky, but the clouds were so thick and gray it was impossible to even guess where the sun was. “Is it past noon, Xe?”

“Yes.”  Xena reached into her saddlebag and pulled out a packet, handing it across to her partner. “Want some meat pie?”

“How’d you know I was hungry?”

“Oh, Gabrielle, please.” The warrior rolled her head to one side and gave her a look of mock exasperation. “As if I’ve never traveled with you before.”

Gabrielle chuckled and unwrapped a pie, then handed the package back over.  “Thanks.” She bit into the pastry and munched it, appreciating the spiced meat inside and tasting the familiar spices of Cyrene’s kitchen.

She watched the scouts ahead of them, seeing the incessant sweeping of heads side to side as they kept watch on the path ahead, self consciously alert in the knowledge that their general was watching them from behind.

Xena, of course, was just as aware of their surroundings, as she relaxed there in her saddle, apparently lost in thought, to all intents and purposes leaving the guarding to the guards.

But.

As Gabrielle watched her from the corner of one eye, she saw Xena’s head lift, and one hand come up to push her hood back and expose her ears to the wind, and a moment later the tall body straightened in the saddle. 

She put her fingers into her mouth and let out two short, sharp whistles, then swung her hand over and pointed at the right hand side of the trail as heads turned her way.

Three of the scouts turned and headed in that direction and after a moment more, Xena joined them with Gabrielle trotting at her heels.

“What is it?”  She asked the warrior as she came up next to her.

“Two men, walking horses, trying to keep hidden.” Xena supplied placidly.  “With crossbows.”

 “Black boots or brown?”

Xena chuckled.  She slowed Argo’s pace , the mare shaking her head in irritation to move the snow out of her eyes.  They got to the edge of the trees as the scouts came out from between them, with two figures ahead of them with their hands up.

They stumbled on the frosty ground as they came up in front of them, blinking through the falling snow.

“Found these two, genr’l.” The older scout said, a tall man with a thick russet beard.

“Thanks Tak.”  Xena leaned on her saddlebow.  “Hi.”

The men looked at her uncertainly.  “You ain’t gonna shoot us?”

“Do you want me to?”  Xena asked in a very mild tone.  “I don’t mind shooting people, especially if they ask nicely, but I’d rather do it if they really deserved it.”

The man shaded his eyes and looked up at her. “Who are ya?”

“Since I have the sword, and the guys with the arrows maybe I get to ask that first.”  The warrior replied. “Who are you, and where are you heading?”

The army had paused, and two of the cavalry squads had come up and now surrounded them in a tight, disciplined circle. 

The two strangers looked around them then the first one shrugged. ““Our town was burned out. We got free of the bastards who did it.” He said. “Heading out to where them kind don’t run.”

“We’re brothers.” The other one offered. “Denas and I’m Tulen.”

“Hm.” Xena regarded them. “Who did it?”

“Pinu’s men.  All had his flag.” Denas said. “Took everyone they got their hands on and left nothing but burned out wrecks.  We were hunting.” He indicated his companion. “So we just took off.”

“Not go after them?” Xena asked. “Just let them take your family?”

Denas shook his head. “Not like that. We didn’t have no one but us, we just came there, moon or so back.”  He didn’t seem either embarrassed or ashamed of having run. “We brought our hunting there, traded for stuff.”

True?  Xena studied the two of them intently.  They had the rough hide clothing of hunters, and she could see at least one of them had a trap hanging from his belt.  They were of the same height, and neither had Thracian accents.  “Pass is two days walk that way.” She indicated the road behind them.

Denas touched his head in acknowledgement. “Ah thank ye.” He said, then paused. “I can ask you your name now, ma’am?”

Gabrielle chuckled, and gave her soulmate a poke.

“Sure.” The warrior said. “My name is Xena.” She half turned. “This is my partner, Gabrielle.”

She turned back, to find both men staring at her open mouthed. In pure, human reflex, she glanced down at herself, but nothing seemed awry, so she looked back at the men.  “What?”

“You’re Xena?” Denas got out.  “The famous one?”

Xena turned and looked at her partner, who had her cloak up covering her face ostensibly against the snow – though the intense sparkling of her eyes and the faint shaking of her shoulders gave lie to that. 

She cleared her throat. “Yes.” She responded. “That’s me.”

“He’s got a price on you.” Tulen spoke up at last. “Pinu does.  Said anyone brought you in he’d give ten thousand dinar to.”

Both of Xena’s eyebrows shot up. “Huh.” She said. “Maybe I should go turn myself in.  That’s a lot of coin.”

“But live, mind ya.” Denas nodded. “Wants to sell ya, I think.” He looked around. “Don’t think he knows you bring a army with ya.”

“Xena’s full of little surprises like that.”  Gabrielle said.  “Is he collecting slaves? We heard that.”

The man nodded. “Port city’s spreading out. Taking over towns round those parts, and putting the people to work for im.  Or sell em. Specially women.”

“Nice.” Xena grunted.

“Weather’s hard. Least they get them fed.” Tulen told her.  “Been hard times these parts. Lot of kids dying off.  Old people.  Now this?” He indicated the snow.  “Some went to the port without being taken.”

Well. Gabrielle exhaled. They had a point, in a twisted, hard, graceless kind of way.   She remembered, both in her childhood and in her travels with Xena times when she’d gotten just so tired, and so hungry that the thought of just not having to struggle on had been enticing.

“So some considered them rescuers?”  Xena asked, leaning forward a little

“Some like.” Tulen agreed. “Those like us, who live off the catch, we just move on.”

Able to provision themselves.  Gabrielle nodded in understanding.  It was how she and Xena had lived, sometimes. Just on what they could catch or gather, but it was a skill. Her ability to find herbs and mushrooms and tubers was a skill.

Xena’s trapping was a skill, and not everyone could do it.   “I get it.” Gabrielle said. “You’ll be glad to know things are  a little better west of here. You can stop in Amphipolis if you want, the inn’s always looking to trade or buy catch.”

“Amphipolis.”  Denas said. “Was a small town last time I been through the pass.”

“It’s grown.” The bard told him, with a faint smile. “Kind of like the port city has. Only we don’t collect people to sell off.”

Denas touched his head. “Thanks for the word.” He said. “Be careful now. Don’t get yourselfs in trouble with Pinu.  He’s a rough bit o work.”

“Thanks.”  Xena said. “I’ve been known to be a little rough bit of work on occasion myself.”  She straightened up in the saddle. “Good travel.” She guided Argo around them and started back for the trail, with Gabrielle moving beside her. “Eh.”

“Eh.” The bard mirrored the grunt.  “Well, hon, at least they want you alive.”

“You could turn me over, collect the bounty, then get out of the way while I kill them all.” Her partner mused thoughtfully.  “Havne’t we tried that before?”

“A couple times.”  Gabrielle agreed. “I got a sack of gold nuggets for you that one time.  But we gave them all to that sheep farming family who’d just lost their flock, remember?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t want to hand you over anyway this time it’ll freak out the army.”

Xena chuckled wryly.  “I used that when I got those Amazons out during the war.  When they were holding them as bait for me?” She let out a whistle and the army was moving, leaving the two scavengers behind.  “Hope they don’t follow us.”

Gabrielle looked behind her, watching the two men walking stolidly through the snow in the other direction.  They showed no further interest in the army, and appeared to be moving relatively quickly away.

But you never knew, with people.  The thought of all those dinars, after all could overrun good sense sometimes.

She faced forward.  “Me too. We don’t need any more complications.”

**

Cait put her back to the tree they were sheltered behind and wrapped her cloak more tightly around her.  “Bother.”

Nala was busy making a small fire, sitting crosslegged next to her in front of a piece of cleared, cold earth with a mound of dried sticks on it. “We can heat up some water at least.”

“Yes, I’ve got some herbs.”  Cait agreed. “And a packet of dried meat.” She fished a hammered metal cup out of her gear and filled it with snow, then set it aside to wait as she went back for the venison. 

It was early dusk. The dense grove was a close as they could find to shelter, and she’d rigged up a roof for them out of their hammocks to keep the still falling snow off their heads.

The flakes, though, had gone from soft and a little wet, to frosty and crystal and Cait could feel the temperature dropping.  Her breath was now readily visible as she sat there sorting the jerky out as the fire caught and the light turned from a burnished silver gray to copper.

The trees blocked the wind, though, and the makeshift roof trapped the warmth and as the fire caught the sting of the cold eased.  Cait rubbed her hands together and studied their dinner, reaching up to scratch the bridge of her nose.  “I’d be glad to go out and get a rabbit or something.”

Nala eyed her. “You know how to cook it?”

“I know how to skin it.”  Cait grinned briefly.  “And we can probably put bits of it on some sticks and whatnot.  I don’t think this venison’s going to be enough.”

“Let me see what I got.”  Nala sat back and pulled her pack over, untying it and opening the top.  “It’s a lot easier to be out in the wild when it’s warm.”

“Yes.” Cait said. “There’s usually stuff around then, nuts and berries and so on.  In this cold..” She glanced around.  “Not even sure I can find a rabbit.”

“Everything’s undercover.”  Nala pulled out a wrapped packet. “I have some travel bread.” She opened the packet and handed Cait two pieces of the flat substance.  “And two hunks of cheese.”

“That’ll do.”  Cait took one of the pieces and handed over half the jerky.  “By tomorrow we’ll be back near the river, and if it hasn’t frozen all up we can get some fish.”

“Yep.”  Nala got out her own metal cup and they set the snow filled mugs up against the fire to melt the snow to water and heat it.   She settled back to wait, wrapping a bit of her bread around some cheese and jerky and biting into it.

Cait did likewise, her head slowly turning from side to side as she watched the area around them, and let her ears cup the cold air.  There was nothing stirring that she could detect, one positive of the cold being the clarity it brought to sound.

It was almost dark, and as the light faded completely the snow tapered off and overhead the sky cleared a little, tiny patches of stars emerging briefly to view.

Cait felt, in her heart, a sense of deep relief to be heading back. She was already casting her mind ahead, measuring the distance they could make once it was light again and how long it would be before they arrived back in Amphipolis.

Xena would, she was sure, head out at once to take care of this nasty bit of goods.   She reached over to pour  a handful of herbs in each cup and as she drew her hand back she caught a sound on the breeze that made her sit up straight. “Hello.”

“What?” Nala’s hand went to her knife. “Something coming?”

“Yes.” Cait put her food down and stood up, drawing her sword out and stepping to one side of the fire to clear it’s glare from her eyes.  “Stop.” She called out. “Stay where you are.”

Nala got up and lifted up her crossbow, cocking it and slipping a bolt into place. She moved to the other side of the fire and brought it to bear, blinking quickly to get her vision to clear.  “Do what she says.”

Slowly the shadows resolved into a moving figure, who paused just at the edge of the firelight, hands held up. “I mean no harm.” It’s voice echoed softly, low and male, and with a slight harshness that grated on the ear.

He took another step forward, and they could see him more clearly. “Just another traveler looking for some company.” He said. “And news of the road.”

Cait let her sword rest on her shoulder.  The man was of medium height, with gray hair and gray eyes and dark clothing and cloak.  He, too, had a crossbow but it was slung over his shoulder, unstrung.

Her ears told her he was alone.  “All right then.” Cait said. “What’s your name?”

“And where are you bound?” Nala added.

“Brunius.”  The man came forward, letting his hands fall to his side. “And where I’m bound?  That all depends.”

**

“It’s clearing.”  Gabrielle said as she ducked under the rigged roof of their shelter.   “I think the weather’s going to stop for a while.”

“Good.” Xena was standing near the folding worktable, inhaling the contents of a bowl of stew.  “Glad we waited to stop as late as we did.”

Gabrielle gave her a pat on the side as she moved past and retrieved her own bowl. “Glad you found this slope we could camp on that meant we didn’t have to dig out snow up to our hips.”

The stew was good.  Gabrielle spooned up a mouthful of it.  Prepared before they’d left Amphipolis, a carefully dehydrated base with dried meats and tubers, and some fruits, packed in a sack that would be emptied into a pot and water added. 

That and travel bread, and some toasted, boiled grains and it was a hot and filling meal to men and women who had been marching in cold weather all day.   It would be put on to warm as soon as camp was broken, and if the hunters were lucky their catch added to it.

They had a moon’s worth with them.  It would  be stretched with any catch, and Gabrielle also knew if they happened upon a free running river, she would also be treated to fish once in a while.

Not so different from what she and Xena had lived on when they’d traveled.  She’d had her share of nuts and baked tubers, and the chewy, tough smoked venison that was one of her beloved partners few culinary specialties.

That and the travel bars.  Gabrielle chewed the soup plumped version of this in her stew in some contentment.  She stood next to Xena in silence, both of them just sharing the small protected space together as they ate, both of them still fully dressed and in their cloaks in deference to the chill air.

Xena set her bowl down and went to the space she’d cleared for a fire, taking the stack of wood some of the army had left there for them and arranging it to her satisfaction.  She’d just gotten moss stuffed in the center of it when boots crunching on the snow outside made them both look up.

Redder stopped and ducked his head before he came just inside the makeshift roof.  “Xena, scouts came back. They found a village nearby, burned out.”

“Raiders?” Gabrielle guessed.

“Hard t’say.” Redder said.  “Nothing left of it, but scouts said they ddn’t see no bones or suchlike.  Seems abandoned.”’

Xena finished striking sparks into the moss and blew gently to get the fire started. Then she stood up and tucked her flint and steel back in her belt pouch.  “Abandoned.”

“Seems like.” The troop captain agreed.

“Let me go take a look.”  The warrior pulled her gloves back on. “Be right back.”  She motioned the soldier to precede her then they disappeared into the darkness outside.

Gabrielle dragged one of the folding stools that comprised the sparse furniture over to the fire and sat down on it, combining warming herself with a tidying of the wood as she built up the fire securely, stacking it so it would last the night.

The warmth felt good against her skin and she stretched her boots out towards it, watching the drying moisture glisten a little on the waterproof hide.

It had been a long day, but she felt fine after it, even the riding hadn’t caused her the usual backache.   Now that they had stopped, and she had a fire going, and a bowl of stew, she was ready to let the stresses of the ride ease and get some rest.

It felt different, now that they were in Thrace.  She herself had never been this far into the neighboring lands so there was that little tingle of the unknown, where every step took her further into a place she’d never seen before.

There was something deep in her that still responded to that. That internal wanderer who had been sleeping for a good long while now, waking up to the knowledge of every step being a new experience.

It made her shed her Amazon role.  Gabrielle felt lighter for that. She’d left the running of the group of Amazons to Solari, as she felt the long hours of traveling allowing her the silence of her own mind to start exploring again.

That’s where the stories lived, after all. In that silence. When she had the time to let images and ideas start to bubble up as she endured the candlemark after candlemark of travel.

She folded her hands and looked into the flames, already feeling that little buzz of what ifs, and it made her smile.

Another set of crunching boots, and she looked up to see Solari approaching. “Hey.” She waved the Amazon forward. “C’mon in.”

“Boh.”  Solari entered and took a seat on the other folding stool.  “We’re trading off with the fuzzys watching .. uh…”

“Ares?”  Gabrielle suggested. “It’s okay to use his name.”

“Yeah.” Solari agreed. “It freaks the fuzzies out a little so we just kinda talk around that.  Anyway, we shared out what we had for dinner, and gave him a wineskin.”

“Good.” Gabrielle said. “I’ll go over and make sure he’s okay in a bit. Xe just went out to look at a burned out village they found.”

“We heard.” Solari said. “We found some old hunters campfires up the ridge there. Probably part of it.”  She rubbed her hands in the warmth.  “We made good time today huh?”

“We did.” Her queen confirmed. “Xe figures we’ll be coming past Philippi tomorrow night or early morning. We’ll catch up with Bennu and Cait and then head for the port city.”

Solari nodded. “We heard about the price on Big X’s head.  Freaky.”

“Weird.” Gabrielle said. “It’s as if that guy doesn’t realize just how much trouble he’ll be in if someone actually delivers Xena to him. We halfway wondered if that wasn’t a reasonable plan, but we’ve done that gig before and frankly I’d rather use the army and not put her in a trap if I don’t have to.”

They were both briefly silent, then Gabrielle stood up. “Let’s go see what they found.” She picked up her staff and pulled her hood up over her head. “You never know.”

“Could be trouble.”  Solari agreed, wrapping her cloak around her as she followed her queen out. “Happens sometimes with you all yeah?”

“Oh yeah.”

**

Xena motioned the two torchbearers forward and she walked carefully in a circle, surveying the rough, icy ground.   The snow was draped over what was left of several collapsed huts and she lifted one up to look underneath.

The burned out ruin was crumbling to pieces. She broke off a bit of the charred wood and stepped closer to the torch, studying its structure. “Been like this a while.”

Redder nodded. “Seems like a season, maybe.  Four moons or so.”  He held up a few bits of leather. “Just scraps left over there, what’s left of fence, nothing else. Not even no buckets or nothing.”

“So they took everything with them.”  Xena kicked over a few more bits of wood. “They evacuated, they weren’t burned out.”   She roamed around what was left of the town, sorting through the debris.

There had been a barn, badly made but still partially intact.  Xena pushed the door open and stuck her head inside, blinking a little to adjust her eyes to the gloom.  Against one wall was the remains of a stall, and there was still a bit of soggy, dirty hay on the ground.

Obeying some internal instinct, Xena went inside, pausing and going quiet, listening to the sounds in the air around her.

She could still smell, a little, the scent of the animals that had been housed here, goats and sheep, mostly, but a bit of horse lingered as well.  

She walked over to the back corner, feeling her skin prickle.  “Redder.” She called. “Bring the torch in here willya?”

A breath later, the soldier came inside, the torch throwing immediate, orange highlights over everything. “Genr’l?”

“Bring it here.”  Xena looked down between her boots, and as he came over, the light spilled over her shoulder to disclose a set of dusty, sooty bones, scattered among the stalks of dirty straw. 

“Ah.” Redder said. “So there was some left? A goat maybe.”

“No.” Xena knelt and put her gloved hand down, sorting through the debris.  Her long fingers curled around something and lifted it into the light,  a round skull that just fit in her grip.  “No goat.”

“Oh.” The soldier exhaled. “A little one, is it?”

“Toddler, barely.”  Xena looked around. “Get me a sack or something. We’ll give her a burial.”

Redder lodged his torch in a corner of the wrecked stall and went outside, leaving Xena there with the straw and the bones. 

The little head made her feel sad.  Here was a child who was left behind, for unknown reasons.  Were it’s parents dead?

Or did they just leave it, not wanting to take care of a small child on the road?

She sorted through the straw, gathering the bones together.  They were relatively intact, so at least the child hadn’t suffered the ravages of some animal. Probably had just died in it’s sleep, in the cold.

Or of hunger.

Xena’s fingers touched something that wasn’t straw and wasn’t human remains.  She pulled on it, and wiggled it a little, shifting her boots when she found she was standing on an end.  A moment later and she was moving a piece of parchment into the light, just in time for her to look up and find Gabrielle entering and looking back at her.

“Redder told me what you found.”  Gabrielle said, without preamble.  She held up a bit of sack from the provision wagons and came over to where her partner was standing. “He said it was a baby?”

Xena lifted her other hand with the skull in it and handed it over.  “Two year old, probably.” She turned her attention to the parchment. “Found this too.”

“Poor little thing.”  Gabrielle said, her tone deep with regret. “All alone here?”

“Yeah.” Xena touched her arm. “Listen to this.”  She tilted the parchment closer to the torch. “They said we go to a better life.”  She said. “But I think they lying. Want us for slaves, better to leave my little one here, to the fates.”

“Ugh.”  Gabrielle exhaled. “How could she think that, Xena? That it.. “ She paused and stopped talking, taking the parchment and reading the rest of it.

Xena remained quiet, taking the bag and collecting the bones in silence.

The  echoes of the past between them were loud enough.  

Gabrielle rolled up the parchment and leaned over, giving her partner a kiss on the head. “Let’s go give her a place.” She waited for Xena to stand, then removed the torch and carried it with her as they left the barn.

The soldiers were standing outside waiting for them standing respectfully as the two walked over and joined them.  “Nothing else much here, genr’l.” Redder said.

“No. Found a note in there, looks like we were right about them leaving voluntarily.”  Xena said, briefly.  “But not all of them were fooled by an offer of a better life.”

They walked back to their camp and when there they split up to different shelters.  Xena and Gabrielle kept walking though until they got to the top of the ridge.  They walked along until they found a small break in the trees, where a cold, fresh wind blew through and they could  look out over the land and see the patchy stars.

Then Xena knelt and picked up a long, narrow rock, and started patiently digging in the cold ground with it. 

Gabrielle leaned back against the nearest tree and studied the ground ahead of them. The slope went down to the road, just barely seen as a faint irregularity in the coating of snow. The air held a frigid touch now and she blinked a few times, as the cold bothered her eyes.

Then she turned her head and watched Xena working at the earth.  “We both understand that choice she made.”   She said, after a moment.

“We do.” Xena agreed in quiet tone. “But right now my guts hurt on that kid’s behalf.”

“Yeah.” Gabrielle murmured. “Me too.”

The ground was hard, and cold, but not totally frozen yet and Xena was able to gouge out a reasonable hollow fairly quickly. “Okay.”  

Gabrielle came over and gently put the bag into the hollow, then she helped Xena fill it in, covering the bag and it’s sad contents completely. 

They were so absorbed they only barely heard the bootsteps coming up behind them,  turning at the last minute to find Ares there, swathed in his cloak. 

“What are you doing?” The God of War asked, with an actual note of curiousity in his tone. 

“Giving some bones we found a decent burial.”  Gabrielle said, standing up and dusting her gloved hands off

Ares looked at her, then at the ground, where Xena was wrestling a large stone into place over the spot. “Why?” 

“Just a show of respect.”  Xena regarded her handiwork then stood up.  “We found a little baby who died in the village over there. Only thing left.”

Ares folded his arms over his chest. “Did you know them?”

“No.” Xena brushed her gloves off.  “Let’s get back to camp.”

“So you found some bones someplace and you decided to bury them to show respect to some dead thing you didn’t  know?”  Ares said, in a tone of disbelief.

“Yes.” Gabrielle said.

“You morts are weird.”  The God of War shook his head as they walked past him and back into the tree line.  “Why would you do that?”

“Because we’re mortals.”  Gabrielle answered, as she tucked her hand inside Xena’s elbow.  “We value life, and we both know what it’s like to lose it.”

Xena covered her hand with her own, a quietly pensive look on her face.

“Well la te dah.”  Ares followed them, still shaking his head.

**

Brunius settled down opposite them next to the fire and laid his crossbow and quiver of bolts down. “I’m looking for someone.” He told them, without being prompted.  “Someone who’s done a powerful lot of damage.”

Cait handed him a cup of herbal tea.  He accepted it, and handed over a packet of smoked fish and travel bread.  “Who is the someone, can we ask” She said. “I’ve been around long enough to know damage can depend on whos’ talking about it.”

Brunius took a sip of the tea, then toasted her with the cup. “Tis true.” He said. “But though I can’t reveal who my target is, be at ease. It’s surely no one that you know.”

“Mm.” Cait made a non committal sound.

“You’d be surprised.” Nala told him with a wry smile. “We live in the mountains above Amphipolis.”

He didn’t react to that.  “Do you?” He said. “I have heard that is a good place, with a strong defense.” He responded. “My friends who have been there like it.”

“They’re good neighbors.” Nala said.  “Our tribe moved there a season ago.”

Brunius nodded. “Then you know, of course, Xena.”

“Of course.” Nala said.  “She’s not your target, is she?”

“Because if she is, I’m afraid we’re not going to get along.” Cait added.

But he was already shaking his head. “For sure not.  I have the best of respect for Xena of Amphipolis.  We have many goals in common, though we are not acquainted.”

Cait let out a soundless sigh of relief. “Glad to hear that. “

“Yeah, it’s too cold to fight right now.” Nala agreed. “Xena’s partner, Gabrielle is our queen.”

“The great bard.”  Now Brunius smiled easily.  “You know, I was fortunate enough to see her telling stories in the most unusual of places.   She is a brave woman.”

Now both Amazons relaxed.  “She’s got a pile of guts. No doubt.” Nala handed over some of her jerky to him.  “Are you headed in that direction?”

“No.” Brunius said. “My work takes me south.  And you?”

“North, then west.  We’re going home.”  Cait said.  “But it’s nice to share a fire with someone even if you’re going different ways.”

Brunius smiled at her.  He had curiously flat, black tinged eyes and an ageless face.  “It has been one of my greatest pleasures on this journey, meeting fellow travelers.” He toasted her again with his tea. “Especially those who have good crushed mint with them, and know how to brew a good cup.”

Cait and Nala lifted their cups in return, and they fell silent, settling down to share their conjoined supplies, as the fire warmed them.

**

For the moment the weather was holding.  The army was moving faster, as the snow packed down and turned to powder in the cold air and they were already deep inside Thrace.

Ares had abandoned his nest in the cart and was riding at Xena’s side, invisible to everyone but her and Gabrielle, who was on her partner’s other side.

‘This is boring.”

Xena eyed her somewhat unwelcome companion.  “It’s tough to be mortal sometimes. We can’t just snap our fingers and go somewhere.”

“I’m starting to realize that.” Ares said.

“Sorry about that. It’s a little too cold for me to be talking for candlemarks.” Gabrielle spoke up. “Or I’d entertain you both with a story.”

Xena reached over and patted her soulmate’s knee. “Want a honeyball?”

“Yes. You have some??”

The warrior fished in her saddlebag and handed over a small sack.  “They had them at the market. I got a couple bags.”

Gabrielle fished one out and handed the sack back, popping it into her mouth, glad of the moisture it generated against the cold, dry air she’d been sucking in. 

“What is that?” Ares asked.

Xena handed him the sack. “Help yourself.”

The God of War curiously stuck his hand in and drew out one of the candies.  He sniffed it gingerly then put it in his mouth, sucking at it a moment. “Okay.” He said. “What is it?” He handed Xena back the bag. “It’s sweet.”

“It’s made from honey.” Xena told him. “Which is something that bees create to feed their babies.”

“Ah huh.”  Ares mouthed the candy. “So how do you get it?”

“We steal it.”

“Nice.”

“We don’t have the option to have slaves from Elysia bring us ambrosia.”  Gabrielle commented. “So we have to just do what we can to feed ourselves.”

Ares pondered that for a few minutes. “You could have slaves.” He finally said. “I saw those rocks up at your pad.”

“Not really our style.”  Xena responded shortly.  “I’ll settle for troops who obey me because I know what the Hades I’m doing and because I pay and support them.”

Gabrielle nodded. “It’s taken me seasons and seasons to get used to the Amazons wanting to bring my pots and pans up to my quarters.”

“They must think you’re a crackpot.” Ares responded, though in a relatively mild tone.

The bard smiled. “Yeah, some of them do.  But they offer anyway.”  

They came up over a windswept ridge and started down the other side. “So.” Ares said, after a while of silence. “The old lady told me you said you were going to tell everyone not to believe in us.”  He looked at Gabrielle.  “Did ja?”

“No.”  Gabrielle answered.  “I told her I’d do that if she laid a finger on either Xena or our little girl. She didn’t.”

Ares eyed her. “She really doesn’t like mortals.”

“She doesn’t like mortals sleeping with her family.”  Xena said, dryly. “I don’t think she cares one way or another about mortals as long as enough of them stick around in Elysia to draw her bath and bring the platters in.”

“Don’t knock it till ya try it, blue eyes.”  The God of War advised her.  “And you had your chance.”

Xena heard a whistle from the scouts.  She half stood in her stirrups, seeing one of them riding back to meet her. “Don’t want another chance thanks.”  She squeezed her knees into Argo’s sides. “C’mon girl. Let’s go see what’s going on.”

“Did she just call me a girl?” Ares asked Gabrielle.

“No she was talking to Argo.”  The bard responded. “Her horse.”

They watched the scout pull up next to Xena and talk to her, pointing over his shoulder.   Xena lifted both hands up then let them fall, then she waved the army on before she trotted back over to where they were waiting. 

“Trouble?”

“River ford.”  Xena replied. “Not quite frozen, so we’re gonna get wet.”

“Ugh.”

Xena shrugged again. “Is what it is.”  She pulled up her cloak and tucked it around her shoulders. “Hopefully it’s not too deep.”

It was deep, and the horses ended up swimming through chunks of ice and black, chill water that penetrated their clothes and sent their legs numb almost immediately.  Gabrielle  grimaced as a slushy piece of ice bumped her knee, and she felt Iolaus struggling under her.

Ares horse was swimming along side her, and the God of War seemed a little disconcerted about the wet, the cold and the water now coming up over his boot tops.   “Major suckage here.”

“Yeah, surprised they didn’t bridge this.” Gabrielle agreed. “Oh, wait, maybe they did.” She pointed at a long, low rock base just upstream, crumbled into the water. “Looks like it was destroyed.”

There wasn’t much current, the ice was blocking a good portion of it, and Gabrielle felt Iolaus lurch then angle forward as his hooves found purchase.  “Ah, here we go.”

“You okay, Gab?” Xena called over from the other side of her.

“Yeah, hit the slope.”  Her partner answered, as the vanguard came up out of the river, slipping and sliding on the icy ground.  “Watch out.”

Xena did better. She was off Argo’s back in an instant, and she grabbed both her reins and Iolaus’s as they approached the shore, ignoring the ice cold water as it drenched her, surging through the churning liquid as she started up the slope.

“Thanks honey.”  Gabrielle looked fondly at her.  “You’re going to end up with one whopper of a cold though. I just know it.”

“Yeah yeah.”  Xena plowed stolidly forward, guiding the horses up the easiest part of the  bank and onto sure footing.  “Better than then you ending up on your ass in the mud under that damn stallion.”

Ares and his horse followed Iolaus without comment, the animal having no problem negotiating the ice with faintly blue tinged flares around his hooves.

They had just cleared the edge of the river when the sound of hoofbeats heading their way made the steady slog turn into a more vigorous motion.  Xena vaulted up onto Argos back as the mare shook herself vigorously, stamping her hooves to rid them of mud.

The vanguard formed up and moved through the trees  back up to the road, and when they got to the edge of it they could see a wagon barreling towards them, with a team of four ahead of it.

Three of the soldiers immediately headed towards it, and two others split to either side of the road to try and get an angle on the horses.

“No driver.”  Xena commented. “Something must have scared those horses.”

They moved out towards the road just as the soldiers got to the wagon, turning to run along side the terrified animals.  The nearest man got up in his stirrups and reached out, grabbing for the lead horses’s traces.

A scream came from the right hand side of the road.  Xena turned around in her saddle and looked, then sent Argo galloping towards the sound, and a moment later Gabrielle followed as they spotted a woman running out of the tree line.

“Well well. Maybe things are getting a little more interesting.”  Ares said, as he sent his horse after her.  “Maybe I’ll even get lucky and get out of this stinking cold mud pit.”

The soldiers got the wagon to a stop as the woman saw the riders heading her way and reversed course. She was in a cloak, but was barefoot and only got a short way before Argo caught up with her.

“Hold on.”  Xena surged past her then pulled Argo to a halt and held a hand up. “No one’s gonna hurt you.”

The woman jerked to a halt and stared at her, panting.  “Who are you!?” She yelped, after a moment. “Who? You’re a woman!”

Gabrielle arrived as she said it, and jumped off Iolaus. “Take it easy.” She said. “This is Xena, and my name is Gabrielle.  We won’t hurt you.”  She moved towards the woman slowly, her hands outstretched. “Its  okay.”

Xena also dismounted.   The woman looked from one to the other, and relaxed a little, then she looked back at the wagon. “There’s children in there.”

“Aye, genr’l.”  One of the scouts confirmed.  “Three little ones.”

“Yours?”  Xena asked.

“No.” The woman answered, catching her breath. “The gods must have led me to you. We were taken captive by some men. They were taking us to be sold.”  She was tall, almost as tall as Xena, and had a brown hair and eyes.  She looked bedraggled, and she was rubbing her wrists, which were red and bleeding. “I got away.  Something got them all het up. They ran off to find something, then came and took everyone and bolted.  I was behind a tree.”

“Kent.  Break the army for some food and rest.” Xena told the captain that had come up next to her. “We’ll need to send escorts with the wagon.”

“Genr’l.” The man touched his head and started back towards the river, letting out whistles.

“Where did you come from?” Gabrielle asked gently.  “From Thrace? Or further away?” She indicated the group. “We’re from Amphipolis.”

The woman nodded. “Realized that when you said who you were.” She said. “Two of the women with us, they  knew you.” 

“Ah hah.” Ares said, getting down.  “Ask her what they looked like.”

Gabrielle rolled her head to one side and looked at him then she looked back at the woman, but to her surprise found the woman looking right at the God of War.  “Um.”

Ares realized it at the same moment, and his lips twitched. 

“They were from far off.” The woman answered. “They had red hair, one straight, and one a little curly.. or at least it was. They cut it off her.”

“Huh.” Xena grunted under her breath.  “What else?”

The woman’s attention switched to her. “They were tall, as I am. They had very white skin, it was strange, since they said they came from the country.”  She turned back and started a little. “Where did that man go?”

Ares was standing there, glowering, a distinct, annoyed crease in the skin of his forehead.  Xena made a sign with her fingers and dropped Argo’s reins, ducking past the mare and heading for the milling troops.

“He went to get something.” Gabrielle distracted the woman. “What’s your name?”

“Clarabell.” The woman answered at once. “My home was in Tharosa. It’s a small town really small.” She said. “Its just the other side of the mountain pass to the west.”

“Yes we’ve been there.”  Gabrielle murmured. “So they just came in and took you?”

Clarabell looked, momentarily, abashed.  “Not.. well.” She glanced around. “Its been hard, this year.” She admitted. “So these people came, and wanted to know if we had anything to sell or trade.  Said they were from Thrace.”

“And all you had was people?”

“They said they’d teach us a trade, you see.” Clarabell said. “I have none. I can’t even sew.  I thought it maybe would give me a chance – there are no men of marrying age in the village no more.”

Well.  “It’s hard.”  Gabrielle murmured.

“Then we were took to their camp and I saw the children and I knew.”  The woman said. “And the others. They put some herbs or something in them, so’s they didn’t care.”

“And you?”

“And me.”  Clarabell agreed, simply.  “But they ran low, got more than they thought they would so they gave the herbs to the men, who would have fought them.”

Xena came back over. “I’m sending some squads out to search the area. Let’s see if we can find these guys.” She said.  “You stay with that wagon.  Some of my men’ll get you back across the pass and home. “ She paused to study the woman. “Or if you want, they’ll take you to Amphipolis.”

“I can take care of those children.” Clarabell said, immediately. “Maybe get some work there.”

Gabrielle took her arm. “Let’s go get you settled.” She headed off towards the captured wagon, leaving Xena and Ares behind.

Xena looked at him.

“Things are getting crazy.”  Ares answered the unspoken question. “We gotta move.  Get to them before someone else figures it out.

“Yeah.”  Xena exhaled. “You think that was them?”

Ares shrugged and lifted his hands. “I wish I knew.” He said, in an uncommonly serious tone. “When we dropped out of Mount Olympus we lost.. “He paused. “A lot.”

“But youre not mortal.”  Xena glanced past him, as she saw three different squads ride off in a search pattern. “Right?”

“Right.”  Ares said. “As in, if you poke me with that thing on your back it wont do a damn thing this time.”

Xena took hold of Argo’s reins.  “But those arrows can.”

He nodded. “And I can’t.. affect anything.” He made snapping motions of his fingers  “It’s fading.  That woman could see me, and I didn’t want her to.”

They stared at each other intently. “Would they reveal themselves, Ares?  How would they figure it out if they didn’t?”

His face twitched. “Remember what I said about them after that whole mortality thing? After daddy sent them downstairs?”

Xena’s eyes shifted off him and went a little unfocused. “You said a lot of things.” She said, then paused. “You said you wanted to see them get raped.” She looked up at him. “Is that it?”

“It’s.. “  Ares looked uncomfortable.  “Like those Hestian weirdos.”

Xena felt an equally uncomfortable stab of enlightenment. “They’re virgins.”

“Told you they were idiots.”  Ares tried for a little bravado.

A gust of wind rattled past, stirring the drying ends of Xena’s hair and blowing her wet clothing against her body, but she scarcely felt it as her mind tumbled over a suddenly new level of understanding.

She let a long, aggrieved breath. “So they think you brought this down on them?”

He shrugged.

“Is that why women are becoming targets?”  Xena asked suddenly. “As slaves, rapes, all that?”

Ares shrugged again.

The warrior exhaled again and put her hands on her hips. “Then we’re gonna have to do this the hard way. My reputation’s not worth a leaf to those guys, and it makes sense why they put a price on my head.”

Ares blinked at her.

“Gabrielle wondered, why they’d poke me.  It’s because they don’t care.”  Xena clarified for him. “That’s what Athena and Artemis being mortal has done.”

“Sure, maybe.”  Ares said. “But that doesn’t change what you are, sweetcakes. Just because they don’t remember it.” He glanced around. “You’re not tied into all of this. You got a free ride.”

Xena really had no idea what he meant by that.  But she wasn’t sure it mattered.  She pulled herself up on Argos back and pulled her gloves on, the cold making her hands almost painful. “Lets find them.” She concluded. “Take it from there.”

Gabrielle was jogging back towards a bundle of something stuffed under one arm.  With a wry look, Xena got back down off her horse and pulled her gloves back off.

“Now what?” Ares had gotten back on his large, dark beast, who had been nibbling at the dried, dead branches.

Xena just unfastened her cloak and draped it over her saddle, yanking at the ties on the overtunic she was wearing over her leathers.

“Here.” Gabrielle handed over the dry clothes to her. “You can bitch at me later. I’d really rather not have you in a raving fever tonight.”  She took hold of Iolaus’ reins and scrambled onto his back.  “They were even drugging those kids, Xe.  They’re all in a fog.”

Jessan rode up. “Hey guys.” He glanced over his shoulder at the wagon. “Our place is closer. Should we take them there? Those bitty kids don’t’ look so good.”

Xena removed her armor and then got her leathers off, ignoring the stares around her.  She put the dry stuff on, almost closing her eyes against the animal comfort as the cloth warmed her skin.  “Yeah.” She said, as she pulled a fresh set of leathers on and laced them. “That’s a good idea, Jess. Thanks.”

“Shouldn’t these guys be out hunting for those missing chicks?” Ares asked, pointedly.

‘They will be.”  Xena swung back up onto Argo’s back. “We all will be.”

Far off, and on the wind, they suddenly heard yelling.

“Or maybe we won’t.”  Gabrielle said, as they started towards the sound.

**

The first of Xena’s soldiers thundered up and over the ridge, starting down the opposite side as a large melee came into view. There was a thick patch of forest and in between the trees a crowd of people were fighting each other, the ring of swords audible on the chill air.

The vast majority of them were soldiers, dressed in half armor and wearing leather overlays with a half moon bisected with a dagger on them.

They were attacking and surrounding a smaller group of men, with their backs to the trees, armed with crossbows and spears fighting them off.

Xena threaded her way through the galloping horses,  moving up into the lead group as they powered towards the battle.  She drew her sword from it’s sheath and gripped her knees a bit tighter,  smiling a little as one of the attackers spotted them coming.

There were probably two score of the attackers, and Xena’s vanguard had a similar number, except hers included a dozen forest dwellers and a handful of Amazons as well as herself, and Gabrielle and, at her right elbow, the God of War.

It made a pretty impressive force, and the liveried soldiers broke off their attack and wheeled to meet them instead, as a cheer rose from the small group they’d been pounding on.

“Stay clear!” The nearest of the attackers yelled out. “You don’t know who you’re riding down on!”

“Likewise!”  Redder hollered back. “Better run, ya bastards, or you’ll be finding out!”

Gabrielle got her staff out from it’s holders and brought it around in front of her, tucking it under one arm as she kept her other hand on Iolaus’s reins.  She could see the enemy forming up to meet their attack and she spared herself a single, tingling moment to enjoy that singular sense of savage excitement that came with riding a charge.

Nothing else like it, really.  The snorting of the horses, and the stream of warm breath rising over them.  Fighters all around her getting weapons out and ready and her, with her own chosen one couched like a lance at her side.

Her Amazons let out a yell behind her,  and Xena echoed it, with Jessan’s roar coming a moment later.

Xena was in the lead now,  and she released the reins as the other army surged into a gallop to meet them.   She could see the leader and he came right at her, a mace in one hand and  a curved scimitar in the other, swinging the mace at her as they closed.

She powered right through him, slamming the mace out of his hand and putting her sword right through his armor,  her shoulder hitting his as she pulled him off his horse to the ground, freeing her blade as he fell.

He died with a shocked look on his face.

Then they were in battle, and it was a chaos of frothing horses and weapons with a counterpoint of arrows as the Amazons circled them and let loose, while the forest dwellers let out bass roars and started swiping soldiers out of their saddles.

Xena was right in the middle of it, making use of Argo’s well trained moves and Gabrielle’s watchful eye at her back as she carved her way through the enemy army.   She engaged one of them, who had turned to find her next to him, and too close to get her sword into play she reversed it and slugged him with the hilts instead.

He rocked back off his saddle and fell off his horse, but recovered and came up and around, swinging his battle ax right at Xena’s knees.

It was taken from his hands by Ares, who whacked him with it, smashing in the side of his head and sending him down for good.   The God of War inspected the ax, then turned his big black beast around to find something else to hit with it, a look of pleased interest on his face.  “This is more like it.”

“Thanks.” Xena called back, as she ducked a spear and then grabbed it, yanking the man holding it over ot her. “C’mere, moron.”

One of the riders came at Ares and he ducked the man’s sword, backhanding him with the ax and cutting his body in half through the leather armor he was wearing.   The man fell sideways off his horse and on top of another fighter, who collapsed under him.

“Yeah, I like this.”  Ares headed over to a group of the enemy, who were surrounding two of Xena’s men and had them unhorsed.    He got behind one of them and whacked him in the head,  then kicked the man’s horse in the side and sent him plunging into his two comrades.

Xena’s men let out a yell and fell on them, one of them lifting his sword in salute in Ares direction.

Ares chuckled and waved his ax at them, then he turned to find another target, when he realized one of the enemy horsemen was coming right at him.

Could see him.

He saw the man’s broadsword coming around and he dropped the ax, reaching over his shoulder and clasping the hilt of the sword that had remained sheathed on his back. With an indrawn breath he drew it and met the man’s blade, the impact shattering the lesser sword’s metal into an explosion of shards.

The enemy soldier tried to pull up and swerve away but the next swipe of the sword of war took his head off, sending a shock wave of energy rippling through the trees.

His horse let out a raucous neigh.

The man’s horse plunged off into the trees, terrified.   Ares just laughed and turned his mount in a circle looking around him for another attack.  To his disappointment, though, the battle was rapidly fading out.

Half the enemy were dead, and the other half started disengaging, backing off and stumbling away from the field, turning to run away through the trees, even the putative leader of the force, who bolted across the frosty ground only to be chased down by Xena.

“Heh.”  Ares flexed his hands in their gauntlets and inspected his sword, finding it glittering and clean.  He sheathed it and then guided his horse in the direction of the now captive man, reeling in a circle with his cloak firmly gripped by Xena’s hand.

Xena pulled the enemy soldier half up onto her saddle. “Who do you fight for?”

The man was panting hard, his face half obscured behind a roughly hammered helm.  He was scrabbling with his hands to get at her and she kicked her boot loose of the stirrup and slammed it into his groin.

He coughed and squirmed, making a gagging noise.

Ares reached over and touched him, making him stiffen up in shocked pain. “Answer the lady.”  He suggested. “It’ll hurt less.”

“P.. pit.u.”  He gargled out. “Army o t’ port city.”

“Shocker.” Xena dropped him to the ground and looked around her.  Gabrielle was calmly seated on her horse behind her,  while the rest of her vanguard were chasing down their adversaries and killing them. “Let’s see what they were after.”

They sidestepped around the bodies and started for the smaller group, who were clustered in the trees, watching them approach. 

A tall, bearded man stepped forward as they closed in and lifted his hand. “My thanks to you, good people.” He ventured as they dismounted.  “You came upon us just in time.”

His companions were emerging from behind him, going to fallen comrades and unstringing crossbows, giving their erstwhile rescuers shy, sideways looks. 

Xena still had her sword out and she wiped it clear on the edge of her cloak as she paused before the man.  “Glad we got here.” She said. “Where do you folks come from?”

“Was what I was going  to ask.” The man smiled briefly. “But since you’re our saviors I will answer first. My name is Marcos, and these people here and I live in Preto, just past the forest, on the border of the river.”

Three of the other men came up next to him, just watching Xena quietly.

“Why did they attack you?” Gabrielle asked.

“We were running from Pinu’s demands.” The man standing next o Marcos said. “Who are you?”

“So, they wanted tribute from you, and you decided to leave rather than pay it?” Xena said.

“Yes.” Marcos agreed. “In the wagons there, are all our possessions.  The rest of the town stayed, and decided to give them what they asked for.”

Xena reviewed the group.  There were perhaps a half dozen women, who were emerging slowly from behind the wagons that had been lined up to protect them.  One of the oxen  drawing them had been killed, and was sagged in it’s traces, and there were at least a half dozen bodies on the ground that were part of their group.

A dozen men remained, three of them injured. 

“My advice.” Xena said, after a long moment. “Is for you to go home.  I don’t know where you were thinking of running to, but it’s a long way past their reach from what I can see.”

Marcos looked uncomfortable.

“Unless the town won’t take you back now.” Gabrielle guessed, seeing the expressions facing them. “In this season, you’d have a hard time joining another town unless you wanted to go all the way up to Amphipolis.”

“And even then, unless you had some skills to offer, you might not find a place.” Xena added.

The group was moving closer now, gathering around them except for two men who were still kneeling next to one of their fallen comrades.   “I’m not going back.” The second man stated. “Not and give up all I have, and my daughter as well.” He glanced behind them.  “I’ll go on if the rest of you don’t.”

He faced Xena. “You’ll be wanting to go back where you came from as well. When Pinu finds out  you fought his men, he’ll be after you quick.”  He paused. “Whoever you are.”

“She’s Xena.”  Gabrielle supplied. “And my name is Gabrielle.” She added. “So there’s that.”

“Ah.” Marcos nodded a little. “Thought maybe that’s who you were. “ He said. “But Jace is right. Pinu won’t care a bit about that. He’s got a big force, and not shy to use it.”

Xena smiled. “I hope so.” She agreed, as Jessan came up next to her and Solari took up a position to the right of her queen.  “Hate to have gone through all this trouble and not get a fight out of it.”

“You want to fight him?” Marcos asked, in an incredulous tone.

‘Something like that, yes.” Gabrielle said. “We don’t really like people who go around taking people prisoner and steal their things.”

“Army’s coming up on the road, gen’rl.”  Redder walked over, sheathing his sword.  “Looks like we got them all.”

“Thanks Redder.”  Xena said. “Marcos, take my advice. Weather’s getting worse. If you can take these people back, do it.” She regarded the men. “We’ll attract Pinu’s attention for ya. He’ll probably leave you alone once he has to deal with us.”

Marcos looked past them to where the army was appearing,  one of the lead riders now carrying a spear with it’s butt resting in his stirrup that had a black and yellow banner on it’s top.  “We don’t know if there’s anything left to go back to.” He looked back at Xena. “We’ll keep going on, what’s left of us.”

Jace nodded. “If we die in the cold, we do. Better that than in chains.”

Gabrielle looked the group over, now seeing two children peeking out from behind their mother’s knees.  She exchanged glances with Xena, then motioned the Amazons back. “Let’s get mounted up and get moving.”

Xena took a step back as well. “Good luck to you then.” She said. “There’s some caves, just shy of the pass. You could get shelter there if you need it.”

Both men nodded.  “We appreciate you helping us out.” Marcos said. “I just hope you  know what you’re doing, provoking him.”

“We’ll find out.”  Xena turned and let out a whistle, then she followed Gabrielle and the Amazons back towards the oncoming riders.  “They won’t make it.” She commented under her breath to Jessan.

“Crazy.”  Jessan said. “Maybe they’ll stay in those caves for a while.”

“Mm.” Xena took hold of Argo’s reins. “Let’s see if we can find this bunch’s camp, maybe it’ll tell us why everyone here is so damn afraid of this Pinu.”

“Died kinda easy.” Jessan agreed.

“Well, they’ve been beating up villagers and stealing kids.  We’re neither.”

“Mm.”

Ares came up on her other side, looking pleased with himself. “That was a kick.” He admitted to Xena. “Why didn’t you tell me this was so much fun?”

Xena gave him a look.

“I may have had this whole thing all wrong.”

**

Cait held her hand up and pulled Shadow to a halt, as Nala came up behind her. They were in a cluster of thick trunked trees enjoying a respite from the cold wind but now they were on the verge of emerging back onto the road. “Hold on.”

“What is it?”  Nala craned her neck. “What is that?”

“Don’t know. Looks like a big group on the move.”  Cait eased over to get a better look.  “Wagons, and I see spears.”

“Armor.” Nala agreed. “Three or four score. That’s a big force.”

“I wonder if that’s our slavers.”  Cait got down off Shadow and handed Nala her reins. “I’m going to get a closer look.”

“Be careful.”

Cait chuckled softly.  “Right.”  She pulled her cloak around her and slid off through the trees, working her way along the ridge line but keeping out of sight.   She got to a spot that gave her a view of the road, wriggling between two silver barked trees and settling to a halt against one of them.

It was a large cavalcade.  At least ten wagons, and behind them, loosely stringed, goats, sheep and cattle.

The men guarding it were obviously soldiers, all of them were in metal and leather armor and they were armed with maces, axes, and swords, with a good number of them also carrying crossbows.

Between the wagons, there were groups of people walking.  Most were in ragged cloaks, some were in thicker coats, a few were just in shirts and leggings, hugging themselves as the trudged along.

Cait’s eyes narrowed.

As she watched, though, a rider approached the train from behind, galloping full out.    The wagons slowly started to come to a halt, and the guards turned, and a few of them broke out of line and started back towards the oncoming rider.

Cait didn’t move, the only thing stirring being the gentle fog of her breath and the faint flickering of her lashes as she blinked against the cold. Even if the travellers had looked up at the ridge, they would not have seen anything that wasn’t part of the landscape.

The rider came closer and Cait could see he was injured, and the horse was as well, bloody froth coming out of it’s mouth and staining the snowy ground.

The horsemen from the caravan caught up with the rider and grabbed him as he fairly fell out of his saddle.  He was leaning over and gasping, one hand pointing behind him

“Well gosh.” Cait commented under her breath. “I’d say he found something he didn’t quite like.”

Nala had wormed up next to her, and was behind the tree Cait was standing next to.  “Trouble?”

“Not for us.”   Cait observed, as the soldiers started milling around.  The wagons were pulled off the road and it was obvious the group was splitting up, a good three quarters of the soldiers getting their weapons out and forming up.

“They stopping?”

“Yes, it appears.”  Cait responded. “Might be an excellent chance for us to look round a bit.”

“Mm.” Nala eased her head around the tree.  “Something stirred em up.” She said, as the remaining soldiers herded their captives in the square made by the wagons and the drivers got down and started easing their beasts.

“Perhaps someone finally took offense to being dragged off like that.” Cait mused. “Looks like they’re going off to thump something.”

The rest of the soldiers rode off towards  the direction the injured man had come from, and they could see the rider himself being laid down on the buckboard of a wagon with two others attending him.

The rumble of hoofbeats were fading as the armed force disappeared beyond a bend in the road, and as that did, the rustle and creak of the wagons drifted up to the two watching Amazons.

The wagon tops were opened, and after a moment, one of the men came over and started lifting children out of it, setting them onto a thrown down piece of sacking.   The tots just sat there quietly, one of them sprawling over onto his side and putting his head down.

“Huh.” Nala muttered.

“That doesn’t look right.”  Cait agreed. “I’ve seen our lot. You don’t catch them sitting still like that. “ She watched the prisoners also come over and sit down quietly, and then, another wagon was open and several women were dragged out and thrown to the ground next to them.

They were all hog tied, and their hair was cut very short, and as they struggled to sit up they could see they were dressed in coarse sacking not unlike what they were sitting on.

“Hm.” Nala shook her head. “More of the same like that woman we found, I guess. “

Cait edged down the line of trees, and shaded her eyes to get a better look at the women prisoners. “Oh no.”

“What?”

Cait stared at one of the shorn women, who had half turned and tilted her head up towards the light.  She hastily felt inside her belt pouch and drew out a piece of parchment, opening it and studying the images on it. “Bloody Hades.”

Nala scooted up and peered over her shoulder. “Who’s that?”

Cait looked up from it to the woman. “What we were looking for, actually.” She said. “We’ve got to move, Nala.  I need to get to Xena.”

“Oh crap.”

“No time for that – move!”

**

 Continued in Part 11