Body, Heart and Soul

Part 11

Xena studied the fork in the road they were approaching, pulling out her map to consult it and then refolding it and putting it back in her saddlebag.   She lifted her hand and motioned to the left, then lifted her waterskin up and took a sip.

“Any particular reason you picked that one?” Gabrielle asked idly, as she played with a bit of Iolaus’ mane.

Xena gave her a sideways glance.

Gabrielle chuckled.

“Mostly because the left hand branch angles downward and through the forest.” The warrior answered.  “This one skirts those ridges ahead, and gives us a view from the highlands.”

“But less chance of shelter when we stop.” The bard said.

“True.”  Xena acknowledged. “But now that we’ve drawn first blood, I don’t want to be someplace we can easily be snuck up on or ambushed.”

“Sounds good to me, partner.”  Gabrielle could see now that the chosen road was starting to climb, and at the same time she felt the wind shift, and she could taste moisture on it. “Going to storm again.”

“Yeah.”  Xena sighed. “But that’s another reason to take the high road.  We won’t get buried in snow.”

The army was already moving through the crossroads and the pace picked up a little, the scouts moving ahead faster, working towards the ridge to get a sightline over it before the force behind them caught up.

There was solid experience there. No one had to be told what to do, and that left Xena free to make strategic decisions, though leading from the front wasn’t something she’d lightly discard. 

Gabrielle watched her soulmate from the corner of her eye, noting the relaxed, easy motion of her body shifting in sync with Argo’s steady pace.  The reins were looped around the top of her saddle, and she was tapping her fingers next to the in some silent, internal rhythm.

Was she singing in her head?  Gabrielle wondered.  “Xe?”

Hm?” The warrior turned her head and looked over, her hands going still. 

Gabrielle steered Iolaus a little closer.  “How big do you think this guy’s army is?”

Xena pondered that for a couple of minutes. “Based on this last group?  I’d say that’s the size he sends with his raiding parties.”

“Huh.”

“So overall, it’s probably a thousand, two thousand maybe.”

Gabrielle blinked.  “That’s a lot more people than we have.”

Mmhm. I know.” Xena agreed. “But he’s got to defend a city wall with it. So a lot of those troops are going to be taken up in guarding what he’s got.”

‘But still.”

“You can only support a certain size force, Gab.  The port city’s a lot bigger than Amphipolis. If we were the size of Therma, for example, we could support that size force. “ Her partner explained.  “I’m not worried.  Attacking is a lot different than defending.”

Gabrielle frowned over that, then her expression eased.  After all, Xena had taken over Therma pretty much by herself with the help of a few seamen and the human Iolaus, and had held it against a much superior Spartan force just with attitude.

Were they going into this a little too overconfident though?

She glanced behind them, where the fork was fading into the afternoon light that was starting already to fade, and the air was filling again with a slight dusting of snow that was filling in their footsteps and putting a haze between them and the main part of the road.

Or would she just have to trust Xena, who had after all long since proven her judgment dependable.

Probably she would.

The army was in a good mood, after the brief tussle.  They at least had no doubts as they pulled up their hoods and tied them, and draped the edges of their cloaks over their horses necks to keep the snow off the beasts.

Iolaus and Argo already had leather and cloth protection over them, though their ears were twitching as the snow flakes hit them.  Gabrielle turned her thoughts from any doubts to the day ahead, thinking about what they would do once they stopped traveling for the day instead.

The tent, and it’s warm camp stove sure would feel good.

She sensed eyes on her and she turned her head, to find Xena watching her. “Hey.”

“Hey.”  Xena responded. “Ares filled me in on a few things about his sisters. You know anything else about them?”

Gabrielle eased her horse closer. “Well.” She responded after a pause. “I guess I know what most people do about them. Potadiea didn’t much follow them. We had a temple to Demeter of course, and a little one to  Dionysus, but that was kinda hidden and no one talked about it much.”

Xena chuckled. 

“Hey it was a shepherding village. What did you expect?” Gabrielle smiled.  “My parents were always making offerings to Demeter, for the harvest and the health of the animals. I don’t think I actually heard of Athena and Artemis until I started traveling with you.”

“We had one to Demeter too.”  Her partner admitted. “But we also had one to Hermes, and of course to Ares.  I never paid much attention to his sisters.”

“Hm.”  Gabrielle turned and motioned to Solari, who guided her horse up between the guards to her side.  “Hey Solari – what’s the history with Artemis and the Amazons? Do you know?”

Solari seemed surprised at the question, but she collected her thoughts and rose to the occasion. “It’s not so much my deal, you know?  A lot of the olders were really into her, and they used to bring animals in and sacrifice them to her in the back there in that old hut, you remember?”

Did she?  Gabrielle pondered. “Oh, near the purging hut.”

“Right.” Solari said. “They say they did it because she was the goddess of the hunt, so she’d bless their traps and bring in more game.” She related. “Or something like that.  We used to listen to all those stories, but you know, after years and years of bad hunting we figured maybe we needed to range out and the place was just scoured.”

Xena chuckled. 

“Right?”  Solari also chuckled.  “Anyway,  we knew she was Apollo’s sister, like as in they had them same parents, and her mother, Leto was a daughter of the Titans.”

“They’re twins, aren’t they?”  Gabrielle asked. “I have to admit my early knowledge of Olympus wasn’t really that broad.”

“They are.” Solari nodded. “So anyway,  Artemis was kinda adopted by all the Amazon nations, because she was a chick, and she was into hunting, women, and watching over childbirth. Sorta natural for us.”

Yes, it would have been.   Gabrielle mused. “You didn’t put up an altar in the new village.”

Solari’s face wrinkled up into a wry grin. “Heard them talking, the olders, about it.  They thought that, if they put something up there it meant they totally accepted the new place.  They weren’t into it.” She gave Gabrielle a vaguely apologetic look.  “And us, and the youngers, I guess we didn’t have much time for that. I never was up to all that kill a deer and put it on an altar. I’d  rather eat it.”

Xena started laughing, and reached over to give Solari a pat on the knee.

“So then we met you guys.” Solari went on, gamely. “And like, okay? What was the point after that?  I would have felt like a dork if I’d been laying flowers and stuff  on a fireplace for some god. What you guys taught us is we’re pretty good at making our own destiny.”

“Mm.” Gabrielle had to smile. “That’s actually what Xena taught me.” She regarded her partner. “So, this whole .. I don’t know, what do you call it?” She looked ahead of them, where the light was getting quietly dimmer. “Twilight of the Gods maybe?”

Xena half shrugged.  “Maybe. “

“Started a while back.” Solari said, succinctly. “Melosa was big for Artemis.  So was Velaska.  Renas was Artemis’ priestess in the tribe matter of fact.”

“Really.”  Her queen said. “How did Eph feel?”

Solari was quiet for a minute, her horse plodding amiably alongside Iolaus.  “She hung with Melosa.” She said, finally. “But you know, I never got a feeling it was more than lip service She did it to do it, you know?”

“Eponin was an acolyte of Ares.”  Xena spoke up. “We talked about it.”

“Yeah, a lot of us were.” Solari said. “Made more sense to us.”

“Someone mention my  name?” Ares appeared on the other side of Xena, fading in as he rode on his coal black horse. 

“We were just talking about your sisters.”  Xena said briefly.  “Just trying to figure it all out.”

Ares made a rude sound.  “I thought they’d be around here ,when those losers showed up.” He said. “But no dice.”

“No dice.” Xena confirmed. “They must have taken them further. “ She indicated the sloping path. “That’s the other reason I wanted to take this road.  We get up there, and we get a view of the surrounding area and the land heading to the port city.”

Ares peered ahead of them, through the increasing snowfall. “So you get to the top and you maybe see them.”

“Exactly.”

“And then?”

“Depends what time it is.”  Xena said. “And what the weather is. But if we’re lucky and it stays somewhat clear, we head down the ridge and catch up with them.”

“I like that.” The God of War said. “We catch them, we kill them, we pick up my chicks, and we’re done.”

Gabrielle eyed him. “I never pegged you for an optimist.” She remarked as Solari clapped her hand over her mouth hastily. “Learn something new every day.”

Ares rolled his eyes at her. “Shut up.”

“Hey, be nice to my partner.”  Xena told him.  “We’re doing you a favor.”

He rolled his eyes again. “Can’t we go faster?” He changed the subject. “I’m over this do ta do ta do ta do” He made prancing motions with his hands.  “Let’s get this over with.”

Xena examined the road, then she pursed her lips and let out a whistle, lifting her hand and making a circling motion, then moving her fist forward.  The front guard returned the whistle, and then the whole column started moving faster.

“Nice.” Ares smiled at her, then he nudged his horse ahead, keeping a length past them as they all broke into a rolling canter.

“Sooner we get to the ridge, sooner we know if we can make camp or not. “ Xena lifted her voice a little, over the hissing thump of horsehooves hitting icy ground.

“Works for me.” Gabrielle said. “Hope we don’t see a blasted thing.”

**

“Cait, wait.”  Nala scrambled after her. “Wait a minute!”

“There’s no time.” Cait was untying Shadow’s reins from the branch . “Honestly Nala, I’m not trying to be ratty. It’s really important.”

“I get it.” Nala said. “But what is it? Can you tell me, please?”

Cait pulled herself up on Shadow’s back., then she leaned closer to Nala. “Those women there,  the ones with their hair cut off?”

“Yeah?”  Nala was swinging up on her own horse. “What about them? Seemed like likely cowherds to me.”

Cait removed the parchment and showed it to her. “They’re not, really. Here, look at this.”

“Okay.”  Tucked back in the trees, they were sheltered from the weather, and it was much quieter.  “It’s some women.”

“It’s a drawing of Artemis and Athena.”  Cait told her. “Pally did it, in Therma.”

Nala stared at it then at her. “What?”

“Really, there’s not time.” Cait stuffed the parchment back in her saddlebag. “We’ve got to tell Xena we saw them. She’s after them.”

“What?”

“Nala, come on.”  Cait got Shadow turned around and started leading the way down the ridge to the road. “We’ve got to go.”

Nala urged her bay horse after her, and caught her up as the snow started failing more heavily.  “But you said… did you really mean Artemis and Athena? As in..

“Yes.  Something awkward and bad happened in Therma.  So Xena needs to find those two, and quickly.”  They went single file through the trees,  the hooves of the horses almost silent on the snow packed ground.

“Better stay off that road.” Nala said as they reached the bottom of the slope and started along the tree line. “Don’t want to run into those soldiers.”

“No, let’s go this way.” Cait pointed at a small, narrow path through the trees. “I think it goes along that same way, but they won’t be able to see us.”

They rode along it in silence for a few minutes,  picking their way along the rocky path carefully.  The trees kept most of the snow off them, and they made good time despite the narrowness of the track.

“Cait, are you sure?” Nala said. “Those women didn’t look like goddesses.”

Cait remained silent for a while, debating.  She’d promised Xena not to reveal the goddesses mortality, but she completely understood her companions curiousity.  “I am sure.”  She finally said. “I saw them myself, you see.  It’s all a bit of a muddle.”

“Oh. So, like it’s  like one of those parables, right? Some kind of story?” Nala said.  “Like the gods are playing a trick.”

“Something like that, yes.”  Cait said, relieved.  “And anyway I..” She fell silent. “Did you hear something?”

Nala listened, cocking her head, “Branches breaking, behind us.”

“Rats. That’s what I heard too.”

“Let’s get in the clear.” The bigger Amazon said. “In case we need to turn and fight.”

**

Xena got up against the treeline and shaded her eyes from the snow, peering through the thick downfall at the plateau below.   She sighed, then shook her head. “Can’t see a damn thing. Redder, take a patrol and go down to the basin, see if you see any sign of their passage.”

“Aye, Genr’l.” The soldier pointed at six more troops and they separated off, and starred down the slope.

“Get into shelter.” Xena instructred the rest of the troops, and they spread out along the top of the ridge, tucking themselves behind the trees. 

As she did herself, clucking to Iolaus to follow her.  Getting behind a big, dead leaved set of bushes, she pushed her hood back and turned to regard her partner. “This sucks”

“The weather?”  Gabrielle was shaking the snow off her cloak.  “Yeah, this could be better.” She admitted. “I’m starting to feel like I’m freezing.”

Xena edged Argo over  and pulled her glove off, reaching over to touch her partner’s face.  She could see the faint blue tinge on her lips, and her skin felt cold. “Want to ride with me?”

Gabrielle smiled and leaned into the touch.  “Honey that’s not fair to Argo.” She said. “But I sooo appreciate the thought.”

“How about if I ride on Iolaus with you. He’s a big boy.”  Xena countered. “I don’t want you to get sick, hon.  That’ll end this little jaunt very quick.”

“No,  I know.”  Gabrielle was glad they were out of the wind, and she could feel some sensation coming back into the skin of her face.   The rest of the army was coming up and gathering around, the wagons pulling off to one side and parking in a way to protect the horses.  “What do you think? Are they down there ahead of us?”

“In this weather? Hard to tell. If they have a bunch of captives with them they’d probably tend to take it more slowly, and keep them in good condition.”  Xena stretched her body out and then resettled her boots in her stirrups. “This keeps up it’ll be a brutal night.”

“Mm.” Gabrielle regarded the falling snow.  “Crazy weather. Reminds me of the winter we got married.”

“Where half the inn got buried?”  Xena smiled in memory.  “Yeah.”

A signal came down the line. “Xena.” A soldier came over. “Patrol’s coming back, fast.”

“That’s never good.” Xena put her glove back on. “Got the feeling we’re going to be fighting in a minute.”

Gabrielle got a scarf she’d taken from her saddlebag wrapped around her lower face, and tucked it inside her hood, then she put her own gloves back on and released the ties on her staff. “Least we’ve got the high ground.”

The lead rider in the patrol leaned forward in his saddle as his horse came up the hill, his hoove slipping and sliding a little on the icy ground. “Genr’l.” He got up to where Xena was. “Found a big force, yeah?”

“I figured you found something.”  Xena gathered her reins up. “They headed this way?”

“Aye,  can see em coming upriver. “ He assented.

“Must be them.” Xena paused to consider.  “Let’s go intercept them.”  She let out a whistle.  “Gear up.”

Gabrielle, being as geared up as she was going to get, remained still on Iolaus’ back, sparing a hand to tuck her leggings in a little better to her boots, and wish mournfully for a cup of hot tea.

A dozen soldiers rode up to where Xena was, and circled her. “Your orders, genr’l??”

Xena considered. “Keep the riders in loose lines.  We’ll head down the road like we don’t know they’re coming.”

Ares shouldered his way through the trees. “What’s the scoop?”

“Found some bad guys.” Xena told him. “We’re going to go chase them down.”  She added. “Ready for that?”

The God of War grinned.

They wheeled out of the tree line and started down the road, which sloped gently down to the river,  the Amazons slowly moving up until they were just behind Gabrielle, Solari getting her longbow out and unfastening the long flap in her cloak that covered her quiver and sword.

Pasi was just behind her, with barely contained excitement showing on her face.  This would be her first battle, and Gabrielle slowed a little to let her catch up, giving her a smile. “You ready?”

“Yes.” The youngster stated in a very positive tone. ‘This has been so great so far, even with the cold.”  She had her cloak hood up, and like Gabrielle, a scarf across her face.  “Sometimes in the village, it was like we would practice and practice and practice but never do anything. This is something.”

“It’s something.” Her queen agreed. “Just be careful, okay?  It can get all out of control really fast, and if it does, sometimes things happen too fast to react to.”

Pasi listened closely to her, and she was nodding.  “Solari said for us… if the fighting started, we should find a place, and get off our horses and shoot from behind them.”

“Right.”  Gabrielle said. “Keep your head down, and keep out of the way of the heavy fighters. A lot of times they can’t always see around them in a fight.”

Pasi digested this as they got to the flats and spread out to fill the road completely, the soldiers sorting themselves out and readying their weapons.  “Do you do that?”

Her queen chuckled. “Don’t go by me.” She warned. “For one thing, me standing behind my horse with a bow would scare everyone including the horse so badly we’d lose in a snap. I’ve literally got no aim at all.”

Solari laughed. “That’s true.” She said. “Remember when you sent that spear through the bathing hut scared the feathers off everyone in it.”

“I stick to this.” Gabrielle lifted her staff up.  “So I can’t stay down.  My job is to make sure no one whacks Xena when she isn’t looking.”  She said.  “So I stay close to her when she’s on the ground and I keep an eye on her when we’re both mounted.”

Pasi eyed her with respect. “Wow.”

“Wait till you see it.” Solari advised her. “I aint figured out yet how they do that without whacking each other.”

“Practice.” Gabrielle said, dryly.  “Lots and lots and lots of practice.”

A line of forest dwellers came up on either side of them, fur dusted with snow, but with smiles twitching on their muzzles.  Jessan dropped in next to Xena,  trading high fives with her.

“Is it scary?” Pasi asked, after a moment of silence. “When you get into it?”

“Sure.” Solari said.

“No.” Gabrielle said, at the same time.

They looked at each other.   Then Gabrielle cleared her throat. “I used to be scared.”  She admitted. “But we’ve fought so many fights together now that I just get this.. ‘ She paused, searching for the word.

“You get fierce.”  Xena had, apparently been listening from two horse lengths ahead of her in a snowstorm with wind behind them. Now she was half turned on Argo’s back, and giving her a wink.

“I do.”  The bard admitted. “I just hit as hard as I can, and want it all to be over as fast as possible.”

Xena shifted around and then stood up in her stirrups. “Ware.” She let out a whistle.  “I can see the first of them.”

She dropped back into her saddle and motioned Gabrielle forward. “They may surprise me and not immediately attack us.  We might get to talk first.”

Peh.” Ares made a face.

“Probably not.” Gabrielle consoled him as Iolaus nudged himself between Ares horse and his mother. “But you never can tell.”

The enemy force was just rounding the bend in the road ahead of them and as they caught sight of Xena’s army there was a hasty motion and then they slowed down and halted.

The snow was falling heavily between them, making everything seem soft and fuzzily edged,   but Gabrielle could see the consternation in their front ranks and that only became clearer as they continued to move forwards.

The front guard eased to one side a bit, as their leadership moved to the fore, and the last of the army cleared the ridge and the size of their force became obvious.

“So if they turn and run, you gonna go kill em?” Ares asked, casually.  He was watching the other force, his head enfolded into the hood of his thick cloak.   “They’re gonna spoil your surprise if ya don’t.”

“I know.”  Xena got her boots settled a bit more, and loosely looped her reins around her saddle to free her hands.   Argo picked up the motion and her head lifted, breath streaming out in the cold air as she recognized the signs of impending battle.

“They’re freaking.” Jessan commented. 

“If you came around the bend in a road and found us coming at you wouldn’t you?” Solari inquired.  “But his nibs is right, if they take off, they’ll warn the big poobah by the port and that might not be so good.”

‘They’re gonna run.” Xena said, after a brief silence.

For a moment the enemy force held in place, then they proved Xena right and turned tail, bolting back in the direction they came as fast as they could.

Now was a decision point.   “Keep your pace.”  She ordered calmly. “We’ll keep on the road, let them get ahead of us.”

“What?” Ares eyed her. “C’mon, blue eyes. Let’s get killing.”

“Letting them get away might end up a bad thing.” Jessan offered his opinion.

Gabrielle was in the unusual position of agreeing with the God of War. “If you say they’ve got that big a force, hon, it could end up with us on the wrong side of it.”

“You got it, blondie.” Ares patted her on the head.

“No.”  The warrior said, with a note of finality. “If they panic, they might kill any slaves they’ve picked up.” She gave them all a meaningful look. “Keep the end game in sight, people.”

There was a small silence after that,  then Gabrielle reached over and patted her partner on the leg. “That’s why they pay her the big dinars.”  She remarked. “Besides, they just did exactly what I did when I spotted the Spartans coming the other direction.”

The army, seeing the enemy run, were laughing.  Some glancing at Xena, clearly expecting an order to chase them.   The warrior held up a hand palm out, and then curled her fingers inward, and they kept up their steady pace.

Jessan cleared his throat. “Y’know, Xena…”

“Yes.” She smiled. “I think a small group should go after them too. Wanna lead it?”

“Sure!”

“We’re scouts.” Solari commented immediately, and Pasi’s ears perked up.

“Two, two and two.”  Xena said. “Redder, get me two tough and quiet, bring em back over here.”

“Genr’l.”  Redder looked regretful.  “Don’t suppose I..

“No.  Someone has to be in charge.”

He looked at her in puzzlement.  Jessan chortled softly under his breath, and Gabrielle patted her on the knee again. 

**

Cait drew her sword and whirled as they reached the clear spot, blinking her eyes clear of the snow as she looked down the path they’d emerged from.

For a moment, there was nothing.  Just the silence, and the sound of branches creaking under their gathering load.   Nala had pulled up next to her, and was likewise armed, her crossbow resting against her left knee.

“Maybe it was just the snow?”  The older Amazon suggested.

“Maybe.” Cait felt her body take on tension, as her skin prickled.   “But I really don’t think so.”

Motion at the treeline made them stiffen, and Cait took a better grip on her sword hilt as moving figures emerged after them, two human and two animal.  After a second, she relaxed a little. “I think we know that lot.”

“Do we?” Nala eased the business end of her weapon up a bit.

“We do.”  Cait started back in the other direction as the lead figure raised a hand and waved it at them.   “It’s Hercules and Iolaus.”

“That’s nothing but good news.”  Nala disarmed her bow and followed.  “Would only have been better if the’yd had a fuzzy with them.”

“If they’d had Xena with them.”  Cait corrected her. “Hello!”

The two men were somewhat covered in snow and their beasts were as well, Iolaus’ white mare almost invisible against the weather. “Hey you guys!” He called out.  “Did we catch up with you or you catch up with us?”

Cait and Nala got down off their horses as the four met in the downslope. “Bit of both, really.” She said. “We’re on our way back to Amphipolis.”

Hercules swept his hood back and ruffled the snow off his hair. “Already?”

“Yes.”  Cait said. “We’ve found what we were looking for you see.”  She explained. “There was a big force, and they had some captives with them.”

Hercules met her eyes intently. “Captives?”

“Yes.”

“We should go after them.” Iolaus said.

“We thought about that.” Cait said, ignoring the startled look from Nala. “But there was quite a hundred of them and I’m not Xena.”  She added placidly. “So we were going to go tell her.”

The demigod put his hands on his hips and his eyes went a little unfocused. “We were heading this way as well, for the same reason.  This needs a big force.”

Excellent.  Cait felt reassured.  

“But no need to go all the way back. The army’s on it’s way here.” Hercules continued.  “I left them just the other side of the pass.” He frowned.  “Let’s get under cover for a little bit and sort out what we know.”

Even better.   “Well then, we could go back there and perhaps get a head start on it.” Cait suggested. “Before that big group of them come back.”

“Group?”

“Herc, listen.”  Iolaus held his hands up. “Riders.”

They turned only to see a group of riders emerge into view, and they were spotted immediately.  “Damn it.” Hercules growled, as he vaulted into the back of his shaggy iron colored horse.

“I knew they were still chasing us.”  Iolaus said, as the rest of them mounted and got ready to fight.  “Watch out, they’ve got bows.”

“Why are they chasing you?” Nala asked, as she got her weapons out.

“Long story.”

The group picked up speed and drew their weapons as they approached, letting out a howl of glee.  Cait drew her sword again and Nala recocked her crossbow and they started towards their attackers, outnumbered two to one.

They came together fast.   Cait found herself being attacked by a tall man in a thick fur cloak, carrying a mace.   He was laughing as he came towards her, and then he laid the mace across his saddle and reached for her with his hand instead. “Here little girl!”

Cait ducked his hand and drew her boot dagger, slashing at his fingers with it before she brought her blade around to smack him in the face as Shadow carried her by.  “There, little boy.”

He let out a yell of outrage and turned his horse, heading back for her and now picking the mace up again.   She was already engaged with another rider by that time though, and she saw him move past her as Nala put a bolt into his leg.

She kept close to Shadow’s neck, barely presenting a target to the mounted horsemen as she squirmed between them, slashing and cutting into furs and armor and skin.

Shadow bucked as a falling body rolled into her legs, but Cait somehow kept her seat and they surged through a cluster of hacking swords with Hercules in the center of them, wielding his own sword with grim mastery.

Cait saw one of his attackers go for a head shot, and she whipped the dagger in one hand through the air, getting him in the throat as he lifted himself up to take a downstroke and he tumbled back off his horse gargling blood everywhere.

His horse snorted and bucked out of the situation, sending his body flying into a tree as he slammed into a neighbor, making that man curse and shove him off.  

Iolaus was struggling with another mounted rider, both of them wrestling for control over a battle ax gripped in the man’s hands.   Cait headed in that direction, but then stopped and laid flat over Shadows neck on hearing Nala’s whistle.

She felt a crossbow bolt come past her, close enough to tug a bit of her hair.

Then she was moving past and coming up behind the man fighting Iolaus she got into a tussle with one of the enemy about to plunge a spear into his white mare’s side.  “No you don’t!” She hastily kicked out of one stirrup and booted the spear to one side, then got her sword out.

The man pulled out his own sword and they crossed blades, half turned sideways in their saddles as the horses moved past the skirmishes on either side.

He stared at her. “Woman!” He spat out.

“Amazon.”  Cait corrected him, as she shoved back against his two handed swipe, and then turned Shadow on her haunches, drawing her dagger again and coming at him with a blade in each hand, feeling the rush of battle take her and bring a laugh out of her chest.

He stabbed at her with the end of his sword and she let it slide past her shoulder, across the top of it as she deliberately closed with him, going knee to knee as he yanked his arm back and she drove hers forward to bury the dagger into his gut at close range.

She saw the shock on his face, in his eyes, and the shiver in his arm as it pressed against her.  “Didn’t think I’d kill you, then?”

He coughed, and stared down at her arm, covered in his blood. “Just…”

Cait chuckled humorlessly. “You kill because you’re paid to.” She said. “I do it because I like it.” She yanked her hand back with the dagger in it then slashed him across the throat, and shoved him off his horse.

Then she turned and paused, seeing the battle ended.  Iolaus and Hercules were back to back, slowly sweeping the area with their eyes, swords still out and glistening with blood.  Nala had just gotten off her horse and was retrieving her arrows, yanking them out of bodies with a smile.

The snow was churned up and spattered deep red, and there were eight bodies slumped into it, the enemy horses having scattered into a short distance, breathing hard and eyes rolling.

“Excellent.”  Cait tossed her sword and dagger into a clean patch of snow and dismounted. “How about we get under those trees there and have a cup of tea.”

“And you can tell us that story.” Nala added. “Because these ain’t those soldiers we saw.”

**

It was full dark before they stopped for the night, having found no sign of the fleeing soldiers.  Xena set the guard carefully, camping the army in a half circle outcropping of granite that protected them from the weather as well as their enemies.

It was snowing so hard, really, continuing was impossible, even if they had seen signs of the others.  Xena was standing with her back to the stone, arms crossed with her hands tucked against her body to warm them.  “What a mess.”

“Aye.” Redder was kneeling by the small portable camp stove, feeding some dried wood into it. “Never seen weather this bad, this early.”

“No me either.”  His leader agreed. “Make sure the horses are protected. We don’t need them foundering.”

“No.” Redder stood up. “You think this is natural, Xena?  All the talk about the gods and all. Maybe it ain’t

“Hard to say.”  Xena replied. “Sometimes the weather is just the weather.”

The hides that made up her tent were stretched taut above her head, anchored in the stone and between stout trees and Xena was left to think about Redder’s words as he ducked outside and went on with his tasks.

Gabrielle entered a moment later,  her sturdy form covered in a thick fur cloak that she kept firmly wrapped around her as she moved closer to the fire. “Holy sheeps it’s cold.”

Xena pushed off from the stone wall and came over to her, stepping up behind her and wrapping her arms around her partner. “Only good thing is, this’ll have them holed up as much as we are.”

“True.”  Gabrielle leaned back against her and felt her body relax, as the warmth penetrated her skin.  She had ended the ride damp and chilled, and even a change into these dry clothes hadn’t really warmed her up.

Travel had gotten tough by the end of the day.  There was enough snow to cause the horses to have to struggled through it, and the supply wagons had gotten stuck a handful of times and the soldiers had needed to un harness the teams and haul the big vehicles out sideways and back onto the road.

“Xe.”

Yeeeese?”

“What if its still snowing like this in the morning?”

Xena exhaled. “We’ll have to see.  I’m not going to risk half the horses breaking a leg in this stuff just to make time.”

Gabrielle looked up at her and their eyes met.

“Yeah, I know what the stakes are.”  Xena said. “But killing people for it makes no sense.”  She gave her partner a brisk rub across her upper arms.  “Think about how deep we’d be in it if we took the other road.”

“Don’t want to.”  Gabrielle turned around and put her arms around her. “Let me go get our hammocks set up.  I can see cracks in those rocks there that’ll work.”  She gave Xena a hug and then released her,  feeling a little more energized as she went to retrieve their joint hanging bed.

Surprisingly,  Xena came right along with her and together they sorted out the bed, stretching it out and finding cracks in the rock to anchor each end into.  That left the hammock hanging near the camp stove, and far enough away from the edge of the rocks to avoid any drips coming in from the hide roof.

Gabrielle studied her work, looking forward intensely to the moment she and Xena would ease themselves down into it and she could get really warm all over.  Then a hand touched her shoulder and she turned to find Xena offering her a cup of steaming mulled pear cider.

It smelled wonderful. “Thanks hon.” She sipped it, savoring the sweet and spicy taste. “Everyone’s camping in little groups.  No chance for me to tell stories.”

“Don’t want you to anyway. It’s too cold.”  Xena leaned her elbow on Gabrielle’s shoulder casually. “I’ve ordered the guard, and told everyone to get as much rest as they can.”  She said. “That means us too.”

“Think Jess and the gang found anything?”

“Hope they found a snug place to rest.”  Xena responded. “Just like us.”  She leaned over and kissed Gabrielle on the lips, feeling them move slightly as the bard smiled.  They broke off and studied each other, taking a breath at the same time and releasing it.

The discomforts of the day faded.  Gabrielle put her cup down on the worktable and hooked her fingers into the front of Xena’s leathers to pull her closer and continue the kiss, savoring the jolt of sensual tension erupting in her guts.

The wind howled outside and fluttered the hide of their shelter, but the stout lacing kept it out, and after a moment Gabrielle was glad to feel the cloak being lifted off her shoulders and tossed to one side.

It was a mixture of heat and cold and supremely energizing.  Xena casually circled her with both arms and they stood there in the torchlight enjoying a few moments of passion that lengthened and intensified quite unexpectedly.

Distracting and delicious.  They paused and looked at each other knowingly, the twinkle in Xena’s eyes very visible even in the low light. “Glad we got that hammock up.”

“Now I know why you helped me do it.”   The bard smiled, her fingers easing the laces loose on Xena’s leathers. “Thanks. I was feeling kinda crummy.”

“Why?” Xena laced her fingers behind her partner’s neck and leaned forward again to kiss her. “From the ride?”  She gently kneaded down across her shoulders.  Your back bothering you?”

“No.” Gabrielle planted tiny kisses on her collarbone.  “Just all the wet and cold.”  She felt the easing across her back at that familiar touch. “It reminds me of that time we were stuck up in those highlands way up north.”

Xena pulled her closer and hugged her, rocking them back and forth a few times.  “Oh I remember that.” She continued rocking, but edged towards the hammock.  “I remember when we finally found that little half burned out lean to that just got us out of the wind.”

Mmm.” Gabrielle got the last of the laces loosened. “Just big enough for the two of us to fit inside.” She eased back onto the hammock as Xena pulled her heavy overtunic off, leaving only the light underclothes on either of them.

She remembered that very well. After being so cold, and so miserable all day long, exhausted to the point where she hadn’t wanted anything except to curl up and close her eyes to have Xena casually enfold her in her arms had been so awesome.

So awesome and so beautiful if for no other reason than there had been no reason for it.  “You so made my day that day.”

Xena joined her in their swinging bed, gathering her up in her arms much as she had back then.   She pulled the heavy set of furs over them,  rubbing the chill off of Gabrielle’s skin as she felt her let out a relieved and contented sigh.

“I remember that night too.”  Xena said, after a few moments.   “I remember thinking I’d better do something to get your mind off how close we were to freezing our butts off and since we dind’t have any food or any fire, that was the only thing I could think of doing was giving you a hug.”

Gabrielle chuckled, as she started the process of removing  her partner’s underclothes. “Like you didn’t know what that would do for me.”

“I did, but it didn’t matter.”  The warrior responded in a wry tone. “It really was all I had.”

“It really was all I needed.”   Gabrielle slid closer and then was skin on skin with her. “Still is.”   She nibbled Xena’s collarbone, feeling the faint, silent chuckle shake her partner’s body.  “But you know what?”

“What?”

“I’m glad we brought this damn hammock.”

Xena laughed a little harder. 

“To Hades with that damn hard ground and those rocks.”

“And snow.”

“And red ants.”

“Oh, I remember that, too.”

**

They found enough of a crack in the rocks to convince themselves it was a cave, and at least it was dry and out of the driving snow.   They managed to find a protected place to leave their horses, and hunkered down together around a small, but fierce little fire.

“This weather’s a mess.”  Iolaus said, rubbing his hands briskly together. “So as I was saying, those men were from Phillipi.”

“Eh, what?”  Cait was sitting cross legged on her saddle blanket.

“Aren’t those the guys who we were going to help?” Nala added. “I mean, Bennu and them?”

“Yes.” Hercules said, grimly.  “Looks like there was a change of heart there.” He was also cross legged, his muscular forearms resting on his knees.  He had his usual hide breeches and vest on, but with a thickly woven shirt under it, and a heavy hide cloak lined with fur over his shoulders.  “Not sure if it was before or after they visited Amphipolis.”

“Oh, well then.”  Cait exhaled. “It’s a good thing Xena’s on the way because we’ve got to go warn our lot right away.”

“We stumbled into that bunch just outside a burned out village.”  Iolaus said, swirling the cup he had nearby filled with melting snow around.  “I figured they did it.”

“I thought so too at first, but it was too old.”  Hercules interjected. “They didn’t stop to ask questions – they came right at us. Not to capture.”

“They were out for blood.” 

“Did they think maybe YOU”D torched that place?” Nala asked.

Both men were quiet for a moment.  “That’s a good question. Maybe.”  Hercules finally said. 

“They knew who we were.” Iolaus added. “They went after Herc. I heard them saying something about gods and targets.”

Hercules grimaced. “Unfortunately at this point I don’t really know what side of the coin that’s all coming from.  Hera? Hades?  Just random people who don’t like gods anymore?”

“They were trying to hurt you because you were.. I mean, are…” Cait paused. “But aren’t you a demigod?” She asked. “Sorry if that’s rude.”

“It’s not rude.” Hercules nodded. “Zeus is my father.” He answered simply. “A fact that hasn’t ever really done me much good, or my mortal mother.” 

“But everyone knows that.” Iolaus said. “So my guess is, those guys are tied into this whole thing, Herc.  Hades got to them, or something. Convinced them over to his side.”

“He’s the god of the underworld. Probably didn’t take much coaxing.  Mortals only live a very short time, the rest is under his thumb.”  Hercules looked uncharacteristically grim.

“Eh. That’s true.” Nala muttered.

“He and Poseidon and my father were always rivals.  Brothers.”  Hercules said.  “Zeus took Olympus.  Poseidon the Sea,  Hades the afterworld.  They were always jealous of each other, but the two of them mostly of my father.”

“He is the king of the gods.”  Cait said.

The demigod nodded. “So now when it looks like he might be cast down off that mountain, they smell blood.”

Cait cleared her throat a bit wryly.  “Sometimes,  not having a family isn’t quite as rot as I always thought it was.”

Hercules laughed without much humor evident. “Its ironic. I’m not even sure what side of this I’m on.”

“They won’t let you make that choice.” Iolaus quietly commented. “You’re the one with the rep down here most people know.”

And that, Cait thought, was the truest thing she’d heard said so far.  She studied the demigod from the corner of her eye, understanding that he knew that as well as any of them did and noting that in their mostly shadowed haven his squared jaw and deep set eyes reminded her of his half brother.

Ares had that same uncompromising look to him, now that she’d seen him up close too, and they both seemed to occasionally look past things and people to a reality no one else around them could see.

She tried to think if she’d seen that same cast on Xena, and after a moment’s pondering to her surprise she really hadn’t.  Though Xena knew a lot about everything, and all that, she was always right there in the world with the rest of them.

That comforted her. She rather thought it comforted Xena as well.

“You think Hades will approach Xena?”  Iolaus asked, apparently somewhat reading Cait’s mind. “She’ll get points with him for turning down Olympus.”

“You don’t think that’s why Ares is sticking to her like glue?” Hercules responded dryly. “I don’t think he will anyway. He hasn’t forgiven her for the last time, and he knows full well she’s got a mind of her own.”

“Points. “ Nala mused. “You know, Cait, that’s sort of the feeling I was getting from that guy we bumped into, the one with the crossbow?”

Both Hercules and Iolaus focused on her. “What guy?” Hercules asked. “Who was he?”

They took it in turn to explain and as they described their lone visitor a grim look settled on both men’s faces.    Without a word, Iolaus pulled his cloak back on and got up, slipping out of the crack in the rocks they’d sheltered in back into the storm.

“He seemed all right.” Cait said, almost apologetically.

“To you he would.”  Hercules responded. “And I’m glad he’s not aiming for Xena. I don’t want that on my mind on top of everything.”

“Who is he?” Nala asked. “I mean really.”

“Hade’s and Persephone’s son.”  Hercules said. “The crown prince of the underworld as it were .” He picked up the cup sitting near his knee and took a sip from it.  “He’s been sent out to kill Zeus’ family, since most of them are stranded here on the Earth where none of them rules.”

Cait blinked. “He’s the one that shot Ares, then?”

Hercules nodded. “He’d shoot me if he found me.” He remarked. “That’s why Io went out to see if there was anyone around. He’s got an amulet around his neck that reacts when he’s near.”

“Will he shoot Iolaus?” Nala asked, starting to get to her feet. “I’ve got a crossbow myself.”

Hercules waved his hand at her. “He won’t. Io’s as mortal as they come. He’d no more shoot him than I’d shoot you.”  He reassured them. “You were perfectly safe with him that night.  He has no quarrel with those who he’ll end up ruling over someday.”

“Nice.” Nala sat back down. “I think I liked it better when we were just fighting Spartans.”

Cait’s face creased into a grimace. “Too right.” She looked over at Hercules. “Have you been there, to Hade’s realm?”

He nodded.

“Xena has.” 

Hercules nodded again.  “She has.” He agreed. “One of the few people I know who got out not because they tricked someone, like I did, or was owed a debt, or overpowered Hade’s forces.”

“Wait.” Nala said. “She really died?”  She looked at Cait. “I know they tell that story but it’s real?”

Hercules chuckled wryly. “It’s real.  Gabrielle called her back, and she refused to not answer that call. Hades couldn’t stop her. Pissed him off like you would not believe.”

“That’s… really weird.”  Nala said, after a long moment of silence.

“It was weird.” The demi god smiled “But for me, it made me stand in awe of the indomitable power of mortal will.  To feel that deeply,  and want that much… “ He shook his head a little.  “There’s a card there none of the old ones understand.”

Iolaus ducked back inside, a coating of snow shedding off his cloak. “Looks clear.” He said, briefly. “Let’s just hope the snow doesn’t cover the whole damn hill.”

“Hum.” Hercules pulled his cloak over his shoulders. “Even the prince of the underworld’s undercover tonight.”

**

Xena’s eyes opened on almost complete darkness, the camp stove emitting only a faint hint of red from the wood they’d stoked before going to bed.  She drew in a breath and tasted nothing but the pungency of smoke and fresh snow, then she concentrated her hearing past the walls of their tent.

Gabrielle’s fingers, curled against her arm, tightened faintly, the rest of her body remaining still where it was pressed against her partners as they were curled together in the hammock.

It was warm in their little nest, and comfortable, but there had been something that triggered her senses and she turned her head a little, cupping those ears consciously as she picked up the sound again, more a change in the motion of the air than a true sound.

Ah.  “Someone’s coming.”  Xena whispered. “On horseback. Running.”

Without a word Gabrielle rolled out of the hammock, holding it steady as her partner followed and then she ducked past her to stir the fire as Xena started to slide into her armor.  A flood of warmth spread out from the stove, highlighting the bard’s compact form as she pulled her shirt over her head. “Brr.”

“Yeah, glad I’m wearing cloth under this damn armor.”  Xena agreed, as she lifted the night cooled plates up and settled them over her. “Still snowing?”

Gabrielle ducked her head out past the front hide. “A little. Slowed down  though.”  She pulled the hide cover closed again. “Could whatever you heard be going somewhere else?”

“Somewhere else? Sure but they’re coming up the road right at us on the way.”  Xena said, as she knelt to don her leg armor.  “I can hear the horse crunching the ice on the surface.”

Gabrielle didn’t bother trying to listen. She sat down and pulled her boots on. “You going to warn the watch?” She sorted and tightened the lacing with automatic motions, moving up her leg and wrapping the gut around the back of her calf twice before tying it.

“Should I have to warn the watch? Aren’t they supposed to be watching?”

“Brat.”

“Yeah, soon as I get my gear on.”  Xena muttered. “I don’t want them all piling in here while I’m hopping around getting my boots on.”

“You could sit down like I am.”

“Where’s the fun in that?”

“Brat.”

Xena chuckled. “Least we got some rest.”

“Some.” Gabrielle got her overtunic on and belted it, then grabbed her cloak and swung it over her shoulders, stepping back out of Xena’s way as her partner picked up her sword in it’s sheath and lifted it up over her head to drop it into it’s catches on her back.

No thought needed, really.    Hadn’t been needed for a long time now. Gabrielle picked up her staff as Xena seated the chakram, and then they both went towards the entrance of the shelter.  “Take your cloak, hon.”

Xena paused in mid step, then went back and grabbed her outer garment, putting her fingers between her teeth and letting out one short and three long whistles that cracked through the air.

It only took a few breaths before the camp stirred, bodies in the darkness moving towards them as Xena repeated the signal. 

Redder skidded to a halt. “Genr’l?” He was already armed and becloacked, apparently having been out on watch. “What’s the word?”

“Rider coming.” Gabrielle answered him. “Up the road towards the ridge.”

Four soldiers bolted towards the front of the camp, as torches lit and the company came live around them and the distinctive figures of Amazons appeared out of the shadows at Gabrielle’s side, pulling up hoods and tying cloaks around them.

“Should we strike the tents?” One of the soldiers asked.

“Not yet.”  Gabrielle again responded. “Let’s see what this is. It’s only one rider.” She folded her arms, her staff tucked into the crook of her elbow. “Everyone get some rest?”

“As much as possible with the weather.” One of the Amazons said. “You think it’s one of the group that went after those men, your Majesty?”

“We’ll know in a minute.”

The crisp hoofbeats slowed, and then halted, as rider was challenged by the guard, and a moment later a group was heading in their direction.  “Here we go.” Xena rocked up and down on her heels, her hands clasped behind her back

“Xena.”  It was Solari who emerged from the clump, her hood pushed back exposing her dark , snow dusted hair. “That bunch met up with a lot bigger one, and they’re heading back this way.” She got out. “Jess kept the rest of our bunch under cover and laid down some shot to get me off. They’re coming fast too.”

“Good.”  Xena said. “How long?”

“Two candlemarks, maybe.”  The Amazon said. “Snow mostly cleared for me, we got moving faster than they were.”

“Good job, Soli.” Gabrielle said.  “How many?”

“Twice what they were, a little more.” Solari said “Second group were mostly archers.”

Xena regarded the snowy landscape. “Gonna be a mess.” She said. “Okay, let’s get packed and set up lines, and an ambush.” She pointed at the curve in the road. “Get crossbows over there.” She shifted her glance to Gabrielle. “Put the Amazons up on that ridge.”

“Good idea.” The bard said.  “Go on, get set up with as many arrows as you got.  After they come past you fire back at them.”

“Right.”  Pasi said. “Right down behind those rocks?”

“Exactly.”  Her queen sent them off with a wave.

The camp burst into activity, men running to get the shelters pulled down as some of the support crew packed the wagons.

Grooms headed for the horses, and soldiers started gearing up.

C”mon Sol.”  Gabrielle said. “Bet you could use a nice hot cup of tea.”

Whooo yeah.”

The bard led the way back into their shelter, which, in the crook of the rocks was the most guarded area of the camp.   She set her staff against the stone and went to the stove, moving the pot they’d left near it on top to warm. “Any sign of the sisters?”

“Not one.”  Solari said, promptly. “The fuzzies didn’t find a scrap.  Jess was wondering if they didn’t get popped off somewhere.”

“Well.”  Gabrielle set up some cups.  “I don’t think so, based on what Ares was telling us… “ She paused and cocked her head. “Speaking of, wonder where he is? You’d have thought he heard the camp wake up.”

Solari eyed her.

“Yeah, I know it’s weird.”  Her queen responded mildly. “I just let it go past me.”

“We just missed that army though.” Solari changed the subject. “We holed up behind this big old fallen tree, the trunk was way up taller than Big X you know?”

“Wow.”

“It was pretty good shelter, and it gave us some firewood too. Anyway, we just finished searching out that whole area they’d been in looking for any sign and were making camp when we heard a bunch of wagons going by and we followed them.” Solari accepted the cup Gabrielle handed her. “We almost got caught.”

“Did you?”

Solari nodded. “The rest of those army guys came up behind us and it was blowing so hard we didn’t hear them. Lucky the fuzzys felt them coming and we all dove into a snowbank.”

“Ah. That’s why you’re all wet.” Gabrielle observed.

“Better wet than croaked, or stuck with an arrow, you know?”

“True.” The bard agreed. “But you better get yourself dry and changed before the fighting starts.” She advised. “It’s going to be a long day.”  She paused. “Any idea why that other army was out and about? You think they heard we were coming?”

Solari took a long swallow of the hot tea, clearly thinking about her answer. “They were pissed off.” She said. “And we thought we heard something about Phillippi.”

“Mm.”  Gabrielle was unhooking their hammock and rolling it up.  “Now I wonder how Bennu and his gang are doing. Hope they didn’t run into too much trouble.”  She put the hammock into it’s carry bag and gathered their gear, tucking into saddlebags and strapping them down.

“Maybe they’re the ones that made them pissed off.”  Solari suggested. “I’m going to get my stuff on.” She added. “Sokay if I hang around and keep your back?”

“Sure.”  Gabrielle said.  “But get dry stuff on first.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Gabrielle continued packing as she heard the outside hides being taken down and folded, the cold air blasting in at her back and ruffling the hair at the back of her neck.   She glanced over her shoulder to see two tall soldiers doing the work, Xena’s tall figure just visible past them.

In a moment, they would be done, and she would have to douse the camp stove.  She had round wooden covers over her cup and her partners, but there would likely be little time to get the tea down, and even less for breakfast.

Ah well.  She got two pieces of travel bread and filled them with smoked venison, standing up to extend one to Xena as the warrior came over.  “Solari said she heard them talking about Phillipi.”

Xena grunted, taking a bite of the sandwich and picking up her tea.  “They probably kicked up while their gang was coming to visit us.  Who knows what’s left by now?”

“Ugh.”  Gabrielle stood up. “Where’s Ares?”

Xena paused in mid chew, and looked around, a bit of venison poking out from between her lips. She hastily swallowed her mouthful and cleared her throat.  “Damn good question. Let me go look.” She took her handful of bread and meat with her as she disappeared into the darkness.

The snow muffled pocking of horse hooves made Gabrielle turn, to see Argo and Iolaus being led over to the front of where they’d sheltered. “Hey guys.”

She hoisted Xena’s saddlebags over her shoulder and went to  meet them and the groom who was leading them. “Hey Caro.”

“Ma’am.” The groom held Argo still while she settled the bags over the mare’s shoulders. “Early start, eh?”

“Looks like it.”  The bard went back and got her own bags.  “Well, we had to confront these guys some time. Might as well be now, when they’re not backed into a corner and desperate.” She got her things arranged on Io’s back, then pulled a slightly withered apple out and offered it to him.

His golden ears pricked and he nibbled the treat off her palm, edging forward a little as Argo craned her neck around to see what was going on.

“Oh yes, madam.”  The bard smiled as she saw that inquisitive nose snuffling after her. “I have one for you too.”  She offered her second apple to Argo, and they stood there quietly together for a moment as the horses munched.

“Where’s mine?”  Xena appeared suddenly, draping her arms over Argo’s neck. “Found our friend by the supply wagons.”

“Getting supplies?” Gabrielle’s eyebrow hiked.

“Getting supplied.”  Her partner responded drolly.  “He’ll be over in a minute.”

“That’s what I heard about guys.” Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled. “And here’s your pear, my love.” She handed over another piece of their hoarded late fall harvest, as Xena started to laugh silently. “Army deployed?”

Xena took the pear and bit off a chunk.  “On the way to be. These guys must be idiots.”  She crouched slightly and then leaped upward, getting herself up onto Argo’s back.   “C’mon.”

Gabrielle got herself hoisted up on Iolaus’s back and gathered  her reins up, guiding the stallion after his mother as Xena made her way through the shadows to where the army was forming up.

It was growing colder again, and as Gabrielle tipped her head back she could see some of the stars peeking out from between the clouds, glad at least that it meant the snow would stop falling for now.   She pulled her hood up and got her scarf in place over her nose and mouth, checking to make sure her staff was in place under her knee.

The road stretched on past them, and she could see the shadows moving as the army took up their positions against the rock walls, the riders getting spears and maces ready for a rush up onto the road and the archers settling into protected positions with a good view.

It was surprisingly quiet, with all that motion going on.  The snow muffled most of the hoofbeats, and there was enough of it to mask what would be the crisp sound of steps on hardened ice.

The tents were all stowed away, the soldiers were all up and alert.  One of the horsemen nearby picked up a pole with Xena’s standard on it, and casually fit it to the holder on his stirrup,  the wind picking up the fabric and lightly rattling it.

Xena looked up at it,  close enough to Gabrielle for her to see the faint smile tugging at her lips despite the cold and the darkness.  

Gabrielle reached over and gave her a pat on the leg.  

They heard hoofbeats again, but a minute later, whistles sounded back identifying the oncomers as friendly.  “Jess and the rest of them.” Xena predicted.  “I want to get hold of some of the leaders of the army coming at us. Maybe they know where the hostages are.”

“Are they hostages?”  Gabrielle asked, as they both moved through the snow, coming up next to a large boulder that shielded them from the road, but gave them a view of it.  “I don’t think anyone’s going to buy them back.”

Xena was silent for a moment. “Interesting thought.”   She lifted a hand and waved as Jessan’s big form broke the crest of the road and plunged down the other side, heading in her direction.  “More going on than we know probably.”

“Isn’t it always?”

“Mm.”

**

Cait lay curled in a ball, her eyes fixed on the opening to their shelter. She could see the snow still falling and she tried to compose herself to sleep, but it was hard.

Nala was, out like a light. So was Iolaus.  But she knew Hercules wasn’t – he was seated next to the fire, his knees hiked up to his chin, his long arms surrounding them.

He seemed deep in thought, and to her, he seemed also kind of sad.

Finally after quite a long time of keeping her eyes closed and not feeling like sleeping, she finally sat up and settled herself next to Hercules.  “Bother.”

He glanced at her. “Can’t sleep?”

“No.” Cait admitted. “I feel like I should be doing something and we’re not.” She explained. “I think we should go find those people before they get off too far.”

“My sisters, you mean.”

“Yes.” 

Hercules glanced out at the snow. “Not sure we could find them in this, is the problem.” He said. “Io’s a good tracker, and probably you are too, but with that wind and that snow, they could be right the other side of this ridge and we’d miss them.”

“No, I know that. “ Cait responded. “I didn’t say we could go, just that we should. I think if we don’t find them, at least try to, something bad could happen.”

“Huh.”  Hercules exhaled. “Honestly I feel the same way. I just don’t know that we can do anything about it until it calms down outside.”

He got up and went to the entrance of the cave, putting his hands on either side of the opening and peering out.    He was still for a minute then he leaned further out. “W..

Cait jumped up and joined him. “What’s up?”

“Hear something.”  He walked out into the snow, holding one arm up to shield his face and Cait followed him, pulling her cloak around her as they walked away from the cave and down the small slope to the ledge they’d climbed up and over earlier.

Cait filtered out the wind and listened, focusing past the rattling branches to a faint tinkling and crunch. “Horses.”

“Yes.. and a wagon.” Hercules turned back with sudden decisiveness. “We can’t take a chance. Let’s find out who they are.”

It was a relief.  Cait knelt at Nala’s side and woke her, and they gathered their gear in tense silence as Hercules went to get the horses. 

“What if it’s an army we’re about to run into?” Iolaus said scrubbing his face with both hands.  “Wouldn’t that be better on a little sleep?”

“It didn’t sound like an army.”  Cait said. “And anyway they could be lost. We should help them.”

“As long as they don’t have crossbows pointed at us” Nala shouldered hers and slung her back to her back.  “Or funny ideas about taking us captive.”

“As if.” Cait snorted.

**

Continued in part 12