Body Heart and Soul

Part 17

 

No snow, so no tents.   Gabrielle was content to perch behind the now built up campfire, watching the disciplined soldiers from Amphipolis cooking up their stew and breaking out a cask of ale that bore the stamp of home on it’ side.

Pinu’s force had camped on the other side of the hedges from them, a little downstream, with a definite separation between them and Xena’s army.  They had rejected any offer of supplies, and if she turned her head, she knew she’d see their guards watching her suspiciously.

Peh. 

Xena was just crossing into the circle of firelight, and as she approached they both paused and looked up, where the big, full moon was shining placidly down over them.

“Mm.” Gabrielle grunted.  “So are we on the plus side of this or not, Xe?”

Xena came over and sat down on the rock next to her, fluffing out her cloak and taking off her gauntlets.  “Depends what that charade was all about.” She said. “That was a game if I ever saw one.  Not sure what it was supposed to prove.”

‘That you can fight?”

“C’mon, Gab. “  Xena tucked her gloves into her belt. “Those soldiers weren’t real. Maybe that one who shot the arrow was – probably was that kid of Hades.”

“No, that’s true.”  The bard assented. “Big as he was, that yonk didn’t have a step on you.  But I think I know who he was.”

“Who?”

“Actaeon.”

Xena half turned and regarded her soulmate. “Never heard of him.” She admitted.  “Someone I should know?”

Gabrielle accepted one of the two bowls Solari had just  brought over.  “Probably not. He was some guy from Thebes, who apparently stumbled into a pool he wasn’t supposed to and ticked off Artemis.”

Xena started drinking directly from her bowl, ignoring the spoon she’d been given.  “Ah huh.”

“She turned him into a stag, and his own dogs ate him.”  Gabrielle concluded succinctly.  “Kinda gross, and kinda stupid, given all he was supposed to have done was walk in on her naked.”

“So what makes you think it was him?”

“Saw a hanging of it in the Academy when I was there and it really looked like this guy.”  The bard said. “And he had a stag on his armor, and was riding a stag. Kinda seemed like it was pounding the notion through y’know?”

“Mm.”

‘He was blowing a hunting horn.”  Gabrielle said. “So who knows? Maybe Hades told him if he beat you he’d tell him where Artemis was, so he could go claim his prize.”

That sounded like something Hades would have done.  Xena merely nodded in response, as she wolfed down the chunks of venison in her stew.     She caught motion out of the corner of her eye and tilted her head a little to watching the approaching figure.

All her scouts and guards were watching him too, as Pinu approached her.    “Yes?”

Pinu held his hands out to the fire and rubbed them, looking casually around before he moved slightly closer to her.  “My men tell me they hear you have a young boy named Jake with you. Captured, they say.”

“Sort of.” Gabrielle answered.  “We ran into him near some burned out villages.  Is he one of your men?”

PInu lifted his broad shoulders slightly.  “Men? No.  He came into the city as a slave of a trader. The trader died in a brawl and he hung around trying to convince my major domo he was useful.”

That rang somewhat true. “We know him.”  Gabrielle said.  “He lived in a village near ours when he was much younger. It was raided by slavers.”

“Well then, madame, he tells the same story at least.  That he was taken by road men when just a child, and brought up by them as a thief.”

“He seemed skanky to me.”  The bard said. “So, you want him back?”

Pinu carefully kept his face towards the fire. “If you have no use for him, sure.” He said, casually. “Did turn out to be a bit useful”

Xena leaned back against the rocks. “Cait.” She called out. 

The young Amazon was at her side in an instant.  “Yes?”

“Bring your friend Jake over here.” The warrior said. “He belongs to Pinu.  Wants him back.”

“Right.” Cait said with a nod.  “They have him tied up near the stock wagons. I’ll just go get him and bring him back in a jiff.”

“You have tied him?” Pinu had sidled a step or so closer to Xena.  “Did he harm you?”

A few of Pinu’s men had drifted a bit closer, not entering the cleared space they were in but hovering just outside, keeping an eye on their leader.  Perversely,  Gabrielle found herself nodding at that, seeing a respect in their attitude that sent its own message.

“He was acting strange. Went after one of my Amazon warriors, then told us all about how you were going to kick Xena’s ass when you found out about us hog tying him.” The bard said, with a brief smile.  “I think we tied him up more for his safety than ours.  Cait has no sense of humor.”

“Unlike me.” Xena spoke up.

Pinu glanced uncertainly from one to the other.  “I am sure he meant no insult.” He said, after a pause. “All most of us knew about you was from stories. And I am sure you know how exaggerated those can be.”

Xena started laughing, as Gabrielle cleared her throat meaningfully.  

“But you have indeed earned your reputation.” Pinu concluded, eyeing the two women. “Hard as it is for me, a man, to admit that.”

Gabrielle considered that. “So you don’t think women can fight?” She asked. “The Spartan’s didn’t either. Maybe that’s why they got along with you all?”

Pinu stiffened in reaction.  “Spartans?”

“The ones who intended to attack Athens via your port?”  Xena said, in a mild tone. “We know where they came ashore.  You’re damn lucky I sent them packing before Athens realized how they got in.”

Some of Pinu’s soldiers now came closer, visibly listening.

But Pinu shrugged, after a moment. “They paid well for passage, and gave us good coin for supplies. We are not and never have been friends of Athens.  Nor were you, from what we heard.”

Xena shrugged back. 

“It’s a love hate relationship.”  Gabrielle countered, as she spotted Cait returning, with Paladia at her side, a struggling form between them.  “In that, they’d love to hate Xe but she keeps saving their asses so it’s hard for them.”

“Here you go, your Majesty.”  Cait said, as they came to a halt. “One rotter, tied.”

Jake stopped struggling as he saw Pinu, going still and hopeful.  He was still gagged, so he couldn’t say anything but the impression of wiggle tailed puppyhood needed no vocals.

“Like a bad half dinar coin, here you turn up again.” Pinu said, giving the boy a resigned look.  “We’ll take him, Xena, and my thanks for it.”

Xena made a hand sign to Cait and the two Amazons frog marched Jake along, past Pinu, over to where his men were loitering.   At the last step they stopped and shoved him forward, and two of the men caught him, with none too gentle hands.

“Take him to camp.” Pinu ordered them. “Turn him loose, and if he’s able work him.”

The two men nodded and dragged Jake off.   He’d started to struggle again, and he turned his head, looking back at Pinu with a desperate, hurt expression.

Unexpectedly, it touched Gabrielle’s heart, and she got a flash of memory of Jacob as a young boy, being shyly fascinated with Xena, trying to live up to his position as first born son. 

Just a scared kid.  She exhaled. How could she have thought he was anything like Seraphim? Was that only her own dusty conscience rearing it’s head? Really?  She saw the disillusionment as he was jerked way and felt it, deep in her gut, unexpected and raw.

“Hey.” Xena nudged her gently. “What’s going on?”

Gabrielle turned her head and tilted it up, feeling the impact now of those eyes gone ocher in the low light watching her with intent concern, all the encompassing attention that kid was looking for – that she’d been looking for – that now was hers.

She turned back to Pinu. “He’s had a rough life for a kid.  Give him a break.”

Pinu stared at her.  “It was you had him tied, lady.” He said. “Not I.”

Cait and Paladia returned, Cait dusting her hands off, and the two of them took up positions on either side of Xena and Gabrielle, looking as intimidating as they were able.  “You might have taught him a bit of manners.” Cait told Pinu.  “If he’d kept his hands to himself he wouldn’t have been tied up.”

Pinu turned and hooked his thumbs into his belt.  “Why should he?” His tone was reasonable.  “It’s the right of men to take as they please, and populate the world. Surely you realize that.”

Cait looked at him, then at Xena and Gabrielle, while Paladia just covered her eyes with one hand.

“In some places, that’s true.” Xena responded mildly.  “Wouldn’t try it around here if you want to keep your fingers though.”

“I didn’t mean any rudeness.” The city leader said, and he seemed sincere. “I am just saying what all men know to be true, that this is the natural order of things.  That men lead, and women care for the home.”

“Except when women lead, and don’t sometimes have a home.” Gabrielle said.  “Like Xena and me.”

“Or have a home, and only other women around.”  Cait said, placidly.  “Like the Amazons do.”

Two of Xena’s men came over and offered them a platter. “Men caught some fish in the crick there, genr’l.”  The nearer one said. “Got plenty of water, down deep under the ice.”

“Thanks.”  Xena set the plate down and picked up a bit of the grilled fish, glad of it’s mild fresh taste.  “I thought that way too once, Pinu.”

Gabrielle’s eyebrows hiked up sharply.

Pinu nodded. “Of course, you would have made a fine wife.” He said.  “Any man would have been glad of you.”

“I got past that after I figured out I liked being in charge.”  The warrior responded. “I wasn’t going to let anyone tell me what to do.”

“Well.” Pinu smiled a little.

“Until I met Gabrielle.”  Xena draped her arm over the bristling Amazon queen at her side.  “But there’s nothing special about men. There’s nothing they can do I can’t.”

Pinu’s men laughed, with a nasty tinge to it. “Got one thing you can’t.” The nearest one said, with a meaning smile.

“Don’t be too sure about that.”  Gabrielle smiled lazily, leaning against Xena’s shoulder.  “If you’re ever over in our neck of the woods I’ll introduce you to our daughter.”  She watched the men’s laughter trail off, and they looked uncertainly at Pinu.

Pinu turned and looked  hard at them.   Xena merely rested her chin against Gabrielle’s head, as her partner reached up to twine their fingers together. 

“Do you make fun of us?” The big man asked, softly.

“Not at all.” Cait answered.  “Although we could, you know.” She added.

“The Spartans said you led those around you into bad thoughts and actions.” PInu said.  “That you taught those who followed you to go against nature.”

“That’s horsecrap.” Solari spoke up.  “Amazons have been around for a long longer than either of these two have been.  We just don’t need men, never have.”   She had her hand on her dagger.  “Nothing unnatural about it.”

Everyone stared uneasily at each other for a long moment until Xena cleared her throat. “Those Spartans got their asses kicked by me.” She said. “You want to have that experience too? Or just get some rest before we go back to your city tomorrow.”

Pinu stared intently at her, the campfire casting shadows across his handsome face. “Warning well taken.” He said.  “We will retreat to our camp indeed, Xena.  When we get to my city, we can discuss it again. Perhaps I can show you a different way.”

He lifted a hand in farewell, then walked decidedly away from their fire, motioning his men ahead of him. They turned reluctantly, and moved off, going through the shadows to their own fire behind a large line of wiry dead brush that separated the two armies.

“Bleah.”  Gabrielle spoke for them all.  “Let’s take your advice, hon. Get some rest.”  She hopped off the rock and tucked her hand inside Xena’s elbow.  “Though I think we should put a line of guards between our friends there and us.”

“Too right!” Cait said. “What a bunch of weasels.”

Xena nodded. “Bennu.” She stood up, as her captain came over. “Perimeter secured?”

“Aye.” He nodded. “S’all quiet out that way” He indicated the city. “Nothing moving that we can see.”

Xena and Gabrielle retreated to the thick band of hedges that bordered the creek,  where shelter had been set up and men and women were quietly settling down to rest.

No privacy in this camp, but neither of them minded, taking a spot near the back between Io’s and Argo’s saddles on their twin set of furs set down on the hastily swept clear ground.   Out of the wind and near the smaller fire it was even a little warm.

Gabrielle exhaled, stretching her legs out and crossing them at the ankles.  She tugged her cloak around her and relaxed a little, as Xena squeezed in next to her, bringing welcome heat.  “Xena.”

“That’s me.”  Xena arranged her sword along her thigh, and leaned back.  “At least now these guys are becoming the creeps I expected them to be.”

“Mm.”

“If they’d turned out to be white sheep, I think I’d have lost my mind.” Her partner agreed, mournfully.  “Nothing we’ve seen so far has been what it seemed, until that little exchange.”

“It’s ratty, but I think he actually believes that.”  Gabrielle said.  “A lot of people do, don’t they Xe?”

The greatest woman warrior of her generation sighed. “They do.”  She said. “You and I make our own reality, and we live with Amazons and people who respect who we are and what we do.” She took Gabrielle’s hand.  “Not common. Most places I’ve been women are playthings, slaves or afterthoughts.”

“Yeah.”  Gabrielle pulled the furs up over them, making it even cozier.  “Look at Potadeia.  It’s not even that far away.”  She rubbed the side of her nose. “If I hadn’t met you, I’d probably be in some straw hut getting the crap beaten out of me.”

“Ah Gab.” Xena shook her head. “Not you.” She patted her soulmate’s thigh.  “Though chances are you’d probably not have lasted long, after going after everyone with a pitchfork.”

The bard was silent for a while, then she laughed softly. “You know, Xe, you’re right. I never told you this, but one day I’d just brought the lambs in the barn and Perdicus came in and found me there.”

Xena waited. “And?”

“And he thought it was a good opportunity to kiss me.”  Gabrielle said.  “He was older than I was, and I was just like, Oh gross! What are you doing!”

Xena started laughing silently.

“And you  know, it sure was a pitchfork I picked up to poke him in the ass with.”  The bard admitted. “Freaked him the heck out. He ran away.”   She watched Xena lift their linked hands and kiss her knuckles. “I was just glad he didn’t tell my father. “

Xena transferred her lips to her partner’s.  “I’m just glad I was walking past that river that day.”

“Yeah me too.” Gabrielle returned the kiss, oblivious to the watching eyes.  “I’m glad you took me with you.”

**

It had started snowing again as they approached the port city the next day.   Xena found herself and Gabrielle surrounded by the best of her troops, all with weapons unsecured as they rode slowly towards the opened gates.

“Genr’l” Bennu steered his big dun horse closer.  “Remember that story them villagers told, of giving them all some drink or potion or some such. Not something we want to trust in there.”

“I remember.”  Xena said. “That’s why I had them fill all the water casks before we left.” She studied the city walls, which were tall and well built,  stacked stone and capped with guards.

The army seemed disciplined.  They rode easily in their saddles, not without sidelong glances at Xena’s troops riding among them.  

The Amazons had settled into spots around their queen, and rode with their crossbows laid casually over their saddlebows, shafts ready to be cocked.  There was a stiffness to their posture, and an awareness that the city troops kept watching them with seeming disdain.

Xena had her hood down,  her dark head exposed to the weather as she slowly scanned the horizon, ears twitching a little.   She rode easily though, one hand resting on her thigh, the other loosely clasping Argo’s reins.

Pinu had sent a squad ahead to ensure their greeting.   Gabrielle wondered exactly what that greeting would be, and whether the ride would end with a strained, suspicious gathering or all out battle. 

The men expected battle. She could see it in them, and truth to tell, she almost felt like she’d rather the fight herself, than the uncomfortable diplomacy they’d been practicing.

“Gabrielle.” Cait angled Shadow over to her and came even with Iolaus’ tall shoulder.  “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”  Her queen replied.  “Can’t guarantee I’ll have an answer but go for it.”

The young Amazon nodded.  “We started out to help the gods.” She said. “But now, they’re all gone, and we’re out here by ourselves.”

“That’s true.”

“Are we still going to help the gods?”  Cait asked. “I mean, do we still want to?”

Peh.  Gabrielle pondered that for a minute, “I don’t think the gods left us voluntarily, Cait.  It could be they’re depending on us to do what we need to do in order to help them.”

Cait looked skeptical.  “Terribly sorry, Gabrielle but honestly I think they’re all just rotters.”

“Yeah, I know.”  The queen sighed. “Let’s wait to see what happens.”  She felt the army gathering closer to her as they approached the gates, and now she could see past them to throngs of curious onlookers watching them.

There was an avidness to the stares that made her spine prickle and she didn’t need to look at Xena to feel the emotional thump that brought her partner’s posture to stiffened alertness.

Without thinking, she reached out and touched Xena’s arm, her fingers clamping down on it as the warrior rose up in her stirrups, the flutter of reaction to her motion traveling down the ranks.

She lifted her hand and clenched a fist and her soldiers halted, making the city troops pull up hastialy and move around them, as everyone started to turn around to see what was going on.  The walls loomed over them, and as Pinu himself turned his horse around to face them,  there was a sudden motion from behind the gates, and a rush of wind that blew against them.

Then Pinu gave his own signal, and all Hades broke loose.

**

A loud howl made Ares duck out of the hot, fetid corridor they were walking through and into a side chamber that was still, and cold and somehow all the more frightening for it.  

Jessan just pressed his back against the wall and waited, watching  Ares profile as he stood inside the entrance, his sword gripped in one hand.

“Know what that is?” The god asked, suddenly, as the howl repeated, echoing through the rock walls.

“Should I?” Jessan asked, after a pause.

Ares shrugged.  “Depends what kind of stories they told ya about the afterlife.”

Jessan decided to remain silent.  The tales told around his home about the afterlife had been…  He paused to think about that.  What had his mother told him?  “We were supposed to come and serve you.” He blurted, unexpectedly.

“Well what do you know.” Ares half turned and spread his arms out. “Here ya are.”

Here he was.  Jessan sighed.  “I don’t think this is really what my mother had in mind.”

Ares chuckled and poked his head out, then motioned him forward. “C’mon.  That was Cerebus, and he’s hunting.” He said. “That means someone’s keeping my uncle distracted.”

Jessan followed him down the hall and raised his arm to shield his eyes as they passed another chamber, this one lit up with lurid red fire.  He heard a scream past it, the sound rending his sensitive ears as he hurried by.

Ares halted unexpectedly and retreated, with Jessan scrambling to get out of his way as he shoved his head inside the chamber and with a lazy wave of his sword parted the fire.   There was a woman hanging by the wrists from a branch, being blasted with pain and he cocked his head briefly to one side watching it.

“Are you going to help her?” Jessan asked. 

Ares let his sword rest against his bare shoulder.  “Nah.” He turned and headed down the corridor again.  “Just didn’t expect to see that chick here.  Thought she was heading up to lala land.”  He ducked through another entry way and then went flat against the wall again, as a howl erupted very close by. 

Jessan joined him, heart hammering in his chest.  “Is Cerebus looking for us?”

Ares shook his head. “He’s not into me. I took one of his whelps and he’s never forgiven me for it.” He waited, then instead of going back into the corridor he crossed the chamber and went out the other side. 

This one was empty.  It had a tall pole in it with a crosspiece lashed to it,  and at the foot of it was a skeleton.

Ares paid no attention to it, but Jessan glanced at it as he passed by, seeing the bones of the hand curled around a whip that snaked itself through the rest of the skeleton, it’s end with it’s razor sharp spikes resting near a bare kneecap.

He wondered what it’s story was, the light too low for him to even really tell if it was a male or female skeleton, though it was small enough for him to be confident it wasn’t one of his kind.   “What was that?” He asked Ares, as they entered another corridor, this one slanting upwards.

“What?” Ares asked. “That?” He pointed behind them.

“Yes.”

Ares chuckled, as he strode along the rock floor.  “What’s left of whoever let Xena walk out of here.” He said. “Seriously pissed the old crank off.”

They both stopped as there was motion at the end of the corridor, and it was suddenly filled with a huge creature, with three heads all writhing with snakes.   On seeing Ares, the creature lowered one head and growled, eyes glowing bright red and gold.

Ares lifting his sword up and brandished it.  “G’wan! Beat it ya mutt!”

Cerberus growled more loudly, his snakelike tail lashing back and forth as he started stalking towards them.   All three heads were now baring their teeth, and the snakes that made up the mane around his heads started to hiss.

“Um.” Jessan muttered.

Cerberus broke into a lope, and as he neared Ares stood his ground, and extended his arms. “Don’t move, fuzzy.”

“Okay.”

Ares took a step forward as the three headed beast reached them, and as it twisted it’s nearest head and opened it’s jaws to bite him he smacked it on the head with his sword, reaching out to grab a handful of the snakes and pulling hard on them.  “Stop it!”

The left head snapped at Jessan, who edged back away from it.

Ares slammed his hilt on the head and then punched it, his fist hitting the teeth and knocking the beast backwards. “I said stop it!’

Cerberus roared in outrage, his third head whipping around and chomping down on Ares bicep, shaking it back and forth as he tried to drag the god of war down under his clawed feet.

Jessan hesitated, then he used his own sword, still in it’s sheath, and whacked the head munching Ares arm with it.  The impact made his hands ache, but he did it again, jerking back when the head released Ares and lunged after him instead.

“Stupid mutt.” Ares punched the head again with his hand, then drove his elbow into the middle head, hitting the beast in the eyes.  “Get outta here! You’re supposed to be hunting for someone escaping!”

With an irritated roar, Cerberus released him and headed up the hallway, one head twisting to the side to try and bite Jessan as he passed.

Ares got in the way at the last minute, shoving the beast past them and up the hall. “Careful fuzzy. He bites you and it’s bad, bad news.”

“Worse than being in Tartarus?”

Ares paused long enough to make sure Cerberus was going to keep going, then he turned and regarded his companion.  “Chill out. You’re not stuck here any more than I am.”

Jessan stared at him, their heads almost on a level.  “No?”

“No.” The god of war said. “He can’t bring morts here and keep em so don’t worry about it. You’ll get back to your rugrats eventually.”

Jessans knees almost unlocked and he grabbed for the wall to remain standing. “I.. I will?”

“You don’t want to?” Ares looked mockingly at him. 

“I do!” The forest dweller got out.  “Of course I do. I miss my wife.”

Ares rolled his eyes.  “Really?”

Jessan looked at him, actually looked into his face for the first time, the terrified intimidation fading a little. “Yes.” He said.  “I love my wife, and I want to be with her.” He saw the eye roll again. “Have you had a wife, ever?”

Ares went briefly still. “Not my gig.” He answered finally.  “Can we shut up and move now?”

The forest dweller pushed away from the wall.  “Thanks.” He said, belatedly. “For telling me I’m going to go back.”

Ares looked bemused. “Ya made the mutt let loose of my arm. Another couple bites and it woulda come off.” He inspected his bicep.  “And ya bit the snake.  You fuzzbutts are all right.”  He motioned towards the sloping corridor. “C’mon.  We’re wasting time.”

They started off again, Jessan this time with a much lighter heart.  That only lasted a few minutes though, before they turned a corner and came to a halt, as the hallway filled with dark, misty forms, all hissing, all heading for them.

“Thaaats not good.”  Are said.  “So listen, Fuzzy.  Take this.” He thrust his sword at him, hilt first. “I’ll draw these goons off, you get past em up that way, there’s a portal out.”

“But…”

Ares turned and looked at him, suddenly fierce and overwhelming.  “Get the sticker to her.” He said, “She’s gonna need it. You got that?”

No need to ask which her.  “Okay.”

“Move. Don’t screw it up.”  The god of war then turned and bolted towards the dark horde, raising his empty, bare arms and letting out a yell that echoed familiarity in Jessans ears. 

The horde rose up in excitement, and a moment later they enveloped Ares, mist gray weapons decending on him over and over again.

Jessan took a deep breath, and broke into a run, the Sword of War tucked between his arm and side, his fingers curled around the hilt.   There was a slim open space on the side of the melee and he took it, his ears folding flat against his head as he heard Ares scream out in pain.

This.  He kept running. This was what was in the God of War he could worship.  Not battle lust, or success in fighting, but this one thing, this willing sacrifice to do the right thing when pressed to it.

In this moment,  he understood why Xena believed in him.  Not always with good grace, or a fond heart, but with an elemental understanding of what it was to be a warrior in all the sense of that word.

A bold, brave heart.  He hadn’t expected to find that.   With a burst of speed he got past the last of the creatures, casting back with all his senses a wholehearted belief in Ares, with no restraint, and for the first time in a while was proud of being one of his children.

**

“Stay behind me!” Xena bellowed, lunging past Gabrielle to deflect a spear.  “Damn it, Gab!”

“Okay Okay!”  The bard jumped behind her, turning her staff in a tight circle as she watched for more creepies to come up when Xena wasn’t looking.

It was a black, shade army.  Grim and intent fighters who were going after Xena’s army with weapons ranging from pikes and spears to flint rocks and broadswords.

They were pressed against the city gates, as Pinu’s army had scurried inside and slammed them shut against their erstwhile allies, and now were on the ramparts throwing rocks and bricks at them and laughing their fool heads off.

Bad place to be in.

Xena had fought her way to the very front and was methodically hacking her way through ghouls who just kept coming, the smoke black weapons real enough to decimate flesh and send some of Xena’s soldiers to their deaths.

The army had collected themselves though and had formed up around Xena in overlapping triangles, grimly defending themselves while the Amazons dodged between them, facing the other direction and firing up at the soldiers on the walls.

The sun was starting to set, and it was easy to see that the shades were becoming more fierce as the light started to fade, and the snow got thicker.

There seemed to be an endless amount of them, and as Gabrielle moved her staff in a short arc to intercept a long hatchet filled hand she realized that this could end up being one of those days.

The shades were ganging up on Xena, many of them gathering around her as the army shifted and realized, and Bennu led a squad over to join their leader,  swinging a big battle ax in a ferocious circle as he cleared three of them out of Xena’s way.

It made Gabrielle have to take a step back, and she looked around, spotting a dark figure heading right for her Amazons, through a gap in the lines.  With a yell she bolted that way, getting to the attackers just as they got to the Amazons.

Cait had turned at her shout, and the young Amazon dropped her bow and pulled her sword, the sword Gabrielle had given her, and she slammed it into the black fighter in the lead, smashing his shield aside and then pulling her hands back as he lunged.

Too far.  She let him come past and then plunged her sword into the folds of the figures gut, the metal causing him to buckle just like he would have if he had been normal flesh.

And it had felt like flesh, as Cait yanked her sword back and turned, putting all her strength into a roundhouse swipe that caught another of them in the neck, and then the body was sent sideways by a hit at the knees from Gabrielle’s staff.

Pasi and Solari came up next to the queen, swords drawn, and all of them turned as the remaining two shades arrived.  Behind them, Paladia picked up one of the fallen bows and pulled an arrow out of the quiver on Cait’s back, nocking it and taking aim.

One of the shades looked over at her, and she saw it’s lips writhe in disdain. “Makes a good target.” She said, as she released the arrow and watched it hit the thing in the kisser.   “Keep your head down, nutcase.”

Solari was finishing off the last one and then they regrouped, Pasi going over to retrieve her bow. 

“This is gonna suck when it gets dark.” Paladia said, to Gabrielle, as she wiped the snowflakes out of her eyes.  “We’re gonna get squashed.”

Gabrielle was scanning the lines. “Probably.” She admitted.  She turned to the walls and saw them clear, then she caught motion and looked to one side of the gates to see a small door closing to obscure the pair of eyes that had been watching them.

They were right up against the wall now, the gates huge and barred over their heads.  Gabrielle put her back to the rough wood, then sidled along the surface until she was on the other side of the small door.

It had a ring set in the outside and she slid her staff end into it, getting the staff flat against the wall and herself then a step back into the angle of the gates.

The Amazons bolted over to flatten themselves against the wall on the far side of the door, and then they waited, Gabrielle with her hands curled around the staff, arms tensed, waiting to jerk hard.

**

Xena almost wished she had a staff.  The shades were numerous and attacked in groups, though they weren’t exceptionally good at what they were doing and it would have been easier for her to start just knocking them down than spending the time to gut them.

Her men had realized it. The faint sense of fear that she’d detected before was gone, and now her troops were formed up in a wedge around her steadily battling through the enemy attackers and holding their lines.

But it was getting dark.  Xena suspected sundown would change the equation and she knocked the head off a tall, shaggy bearded shade and took a step back to look around, trying to find Gabrielle in all the chaos.

A motion caught her eye and she spotted her soulmate and her Amazons making what looked like an attack on a rider door at the wall, and she immediately let out a whistle and made a signal with her fist.

Her troops let out a roar and redoubled their efforts, taking short, digging steps forward and forcing the shades back.  It attracted all attention, as she’d intended, and she saw heads emerge cautiously from the top of the wall to see what they were doing.

She stooped and picked up a rock, and let it fly, smacking one of the defenders in the face as he blinked into the setting sun.

“Kill em all!” Xena bellowed, turning and jumping back in the fight, getting a two handed grip on her sword and cutting a swath through the shades.  “Send em back to Hades! He deserves these useless cowards!”

Her voice echoed back against the walls, and a moment later, the rider door cracked open, to be yanked all the way out as Gabrielle threw her body weight against the staff and pulled it outward.

A figure in black came flying out, tumbling then coming up on to it’s feet and raising a crossbow that was knocked out of his hands a moment later as Gabrielle jumped towards him.

He turned and pulled a dagger from his belt and came at her, and she settled her balance and brought her staff back across her body,  her shoulders already twisting to deflect him.

She never got a chance.  Cait loomed up behind him and got an arm around his neck, and as he turned in surprise she buried her own dagger into his throat, cutting his jugular as she tilted his head back to expose it.

His scream of surprise was cut off sharply as the blade sliced through his windpipe and he crumpled to the ground as she released him and moved past, coming to Gabrielle’s side and looking for another target. 

“Got the door!” Paladia was yelling, as she thumped against it.   “Hey!”

Xena whistled and a squad wheeled around and spotted the opening, bolting for it as soldiers from the city  belatedly realized it was open and tried to get it closed, driven back by Solari and the rest of the Amazons accurate bowry as they knelt behind a slight rocky berm just past the wall.

Xena reached the fallen figure and turned it over, already suspecting his identity as the shades they had been facing stopped, and froze in a sudden mileau.   He coughed his last as she touched him, and then, on the wind, they heard an unearthly howl.

“Oh boy.”  Gabrielle was at her side. “That’s trouble.” She exhaled. “That was Hade’s son.”

“One thing at a time.”  Xena pointed at the door “Take it!”  She yelled, as with a crack, and rumble the shades disappeared and the clouds overhead filled the sky with an ominous billowing.

Cait knelt. “Did I do the wrong thing, Xena?”  She asked, after a breathless instant.

Xena looked at her. “He was going at Gabrielle with a knife. What do you think I would have done?” She asked, pragmatically. “You didn’t stop to ask him his name and I wouldn’t have either.”   She reached for the still form, but as her hands touched it the figure dissolved into the ground, leaving a hollow there covered in dark dust.

Ah well.  Xena got to her feet and whirled around, watching the light disappear as her army surrounded the small door and battled inside.  One problem at a time.

**

The problem with the door was it’s size.   Xena took a step back from the wall and looked to either side, then sheathed her sword to free her hands.  She let Bennu keep driving inside the small space, and crouched slightly then uncoiled upward and grabbed hold of one of the thick metal studs that protected the gates.

Gabrielle saw her and grabbed Redder, hauling him around and pointing up. “She’s going to open the gates!”

“Ba…” Redder cut off his epithet. He tapped two other soldiers on the shoulder. “Watch t’general!”

Xena got her boots into position and released her hands, shoving herself upward again and then once more until she was near the top of the wall. 

She took a breath to get ready for the fight she knew was coming and launched upward again, clearing the top of the gate just as a soldier came up from the other side. 

In mid air, she drew her sword and backhanded it, whacking the soldier’s neck as she caught the top of the gate with her other hand, hoisting herself over it and onto the walkway on the back side crowded with the enemy.

The man she’d hit tumbled backwards off the walk and then she was facing them, hemmed in on both sides by momentarily stunned fighters. “Hello boys.”  Xena twirled her sword in her hand, giving them her very best cheeky attitude. “Ready to rumble?”

She got her chakram in her free hand and let out a battle yell, and that echoed from below as her troops picked it up and answered it.

There was a stair cut into the side of the rampart to her right, but it was filled with soldiers and the wall to her left was too.  Xena had a split second to decide if she wanted to fight her way down, then she simply leaped out into space with arrows flickering all around her.

The soldiers below had no idea what was coming at them. She landed just on the inside of the gates and cut a swath around her with sword and chakram, sending people flying as she made her way to the locking mechanism.  

The men holding the door against her army turned as they realized what was going on, and as they did Bennu shoved his way in, along with a dozen of her men.   As she reached the turnstile they reached her.

“Get the gate!” She yelled at Bennu, as she turned to defend him. “G’wan!”

He sheathed his sword and obeyed, grabbing the wooden latches and hauling on them,  as the rest of the men grouped around Xena who was battling the front of the city forces, all pouring forward to stop them from opening the gates.

No sign of Pinu.   Xena hopped up on a crate and knocked it over, then stood on it’s side as she spotted an archer take level on the roof of a building across from them and let loose the chakram at him.

Behind her, the gates creaked open.  A roar echoed inside, as her army pulled them wide and poured in, a wall of arrows coming in over the heads of the heavy fighters.

None of the city people were laughing now.  All of the civilians had vanished, leaving behind the army to fight amongst torch lit streets now that dark was falling rapidly.  

“Take em!” Xena waved the troops forward, as they poured past her and engaged the retreating city men, some of whom had now broken and run.   She stayed on her crate as she sensed Gabrielle’s presence, and a moment later her partner joined her, curling an arm around her knee.  “Hey.”

“Hey.” The bard said. “That was a cool trick.”  She pointed at the gates. “But if there’s something out there coming at us hon, you probably should get them closed up again. “

“Ah.”  Xena sighed, and let out a long whistle.  “One of those days, huh.”

“One of those days.” Gabrielle gave her leg a hug.  “Hang in there, babe.”

**

Jessan found the exit with less trouble than he thought he would.  The streams of black shaded warriors racing out of it, of course, gave him the best clue and he waited for a gap to form in them so he could head towards the sweet, amazing smell of fresh air coming in the crack in the rock.

Was it really so easy? He was wedged behind a curve in the wall, watching Hades troops rush out.  Was Hades’ realm really just this hole in the ground that things and maybe people could just go in and out at will from?

Wasn’t what his mother had taught him.  It didn’t even match the stories he’d heard from Gabrielle. It was just strange and shallow and…

He felt a shudder go through the rock around him, and then in the distance down further from where he’d come from he heard a wild, angry bellow.

“Uh oh.” He cautiously poked his head out, and saw the dark stream waver, then dissipate as though they were dust.  He heard another scream nearby and after a moments hesitation he bolted from his hiding place, heading for the opening as the shaking walls started to drop rocks on top of him.

There was no way this was good, whatever it was.  He reached the opening just as he saw the sides of it starting to snap shut and one last lunge got him outside, the sharp rocks scraping his shoulders as he hit the ground and rolled over.

The gap was gone.  In it’s place was nothing but solid rock.  But in his head, he felt that other sense erupt back into life, flooding his senses with both powerful emotions and the ethereal substance of the world around him.

He felt Elaini, in a burst of perfect, mutual relief that left him shaking a little. 

No, shaking a lot.  He had to blink a few times and let his breathing catch up to him before he felt like he was back to himself, the world sounding just a little too loud for him for a minute.

He touched the rock he was lying on, and pressed his lips to it, taking that bare moment to savor life, at last understanding something Gabrielle had once told him about never really valuing what you had until it was gone.

She had meant her, and Xena. In so many levels.  His life had never had the pain and complexity theirs had, but in this small way, he got it.

He got it.

Jessan got hastily to his feet and looked around, but there was nothing there save dead trees, snow, and an odd, foggy mist.  He took a few steps away from the stone wall and then turned his head a little as he breathed in the air and caught familiar scents.

A few more steps and he knelt, finding marks on the ground, touching them with his fingertips as he recognized hoofprints from Iolaus and Argo. 

He looked down the path and nodded, heading down it with more confidence as he decided it was the very path he and Ares had been on when they’d ended up in Hades’ realm.   So not so far at all, really.  Xena had sensed something was at the top of the path and as usual, she’d been right.

Now he just had to find her again.  He rambled down the icy path as fast as he could, coming around a bend and halting as a dark figure loomed up ahead of him.  He almost passed out, until his nose and eyes resolved the outline and he let out a cough of relief. “Eris!”

His stallion came trotting up to him, obviously as glad to see Jessan as he was to see the horse. He threw his arms around the animals neck and hugged him.  “Boy am I glad to see you, buddy.” He said. “You’ve got no idea where I’ve been.”

Eris nickered forcefully, shaking his head. 

Jessan looked past him, wondering if he’d see the black horse Ares had been riding, but the path was empty as far as he could see down it.   He hauled himself up on Eris, glad to find his gear still in place, and his thick cloak still lashed to the saddle.

They started down the path, but every little while he turned his head and looked behind him, a bit surprised when he continued to see nothing following them.

**

They had captured the lower town.    Xena had squads out taking possession of the buildings and supplies left behind when the city folk fled to the inner walls,  larger and stouter then the ones they’d breached that surrounded Pinu’s palace and the upper wards.

The city soldiers had more run than fought.  They’d lost several score to Xena’s men, and she herself had only lost fifteen fighters and two horses. 

Wasn’t bad, for an unexpected siege. 

It had started snowing harder and now at full dark the army and it’s leader were content to consolidate their gains and plan for sunrise.   “Be careful of any supplies.”  Xena said, bracing her weight against a sawhorse table they’d set up for her inside a big stable.

“Aye.” Bennu had a bandaged hand, but was otherwise hale.  “Don’t like to trust any of it, Genr’l.”  He moved over to the fire they’d built and warmed his hands over it.  “Good day, though.”

Well, aside from it all going ass over teakettle,  Xena sighed inwardly.   “Yeah, let’s get ourselves settled and ready for the morning. I’m sure those guys will be ready for us.”

Bennu glanced at her. “Not sure any could really be ready for you, Xena.” He smiled wryly at her. “Sure they didn’t expect you to jump all over that wall then. Nor the little hawk to unplug their mouse hole.”

His leader smiled back. “Yeah, we do the unexpected No doubt there.” She agreed. “But they’ll have time to regroup. I almost kept up the attack, but Gabrielle was right. Better to secure the lower gates for now.”

Bennu nodded immediately. “Oh aye no doubt, given the things we were fighting off outside.” He said. “But what’s the truth here, Xena?  What were them things?  Sounded like they were going after this lot too, from what they said.”

Xena leaned back against a hay crib behind her.   “What do I think they were? Hades’s army. “ She said. “They disappeared when Cait killed that archer, who Ares said was Hades’ son.”

Bennu considered that thoughtfully.  “Be trouble, that killing?”

Xena was about to answer but paused when the stable doors opened up and Gabrielle entered, trailed by her Amazons.  “What’s the word?”

“They’re behind those palace walls, the bunch of them.” Solari reported.  “Different kind than the outer ones, yeah?  Taller, smoother walls.  They got arrow slits.” She held up a bolt. “And a clear area in front they can cover with em.”

“Hm.” Xena folded her arms across her chest. “Seems the person in the castle figured they’d have to defend themselves from their subjects.”

“But… why didn’t they, I mean the people, join us and fight against Pinu?” Cait asked.  

Gabrielle had been carrying saddlebags, and now she dropped them in a dry corner and removed her cloak, shaking off the melted snow from it.   “Sometimes you stick with the danger you know, you know?”

“She has a point though.”  Xena said. “What’s the closest place we can set up a guard station at?”  She motioned them over to the hastily drawn map, and Bennu joined her. “What are these, here?”

“Haven’t gone in those yet.” Cait said. “Pally just made sure they were empty.”

“Empty”  Paladia repeated.  “Stinky too.”

Xena paused with her fingertip on the hide.  “Let’s go check them out.” She twitched her cloak into place and started for the door.  The Amazons and Bennu followed her, and with a sigh Gabrielle resumed her cloak and took up the rear.

The outer rings of the city were mostly storage and workrooms, now with doors left wide open and snow covering the boxes and bags left behind in haste.   They passed a blacksmith’s courtyard,  where some of Xena’s men were clearing the area around a pedestal mounted anvil and a long stretch of shoddily made booths that would in better weather have been sales stalls.

All pretty normal.  There was a main street that led up to the inner walls, and the crates and boxes had been tidily piled up to give protection to Xena’s guard, and they had used doors taken off hinges and hides to roof the posts to add some shelter.

Xena returned the casual greetings as she moved forward and nodded in approval at the positions.  The heavy troops had taken over a second stable and made the horses comfortable, and the support staff were ensconced with their wagons inside a large warehouse near the outer gates.

All in good order, and to the left as she passed she could hear the hammering of swords being straightened and see through windows at archers replenishing their quivers.  

Nearer to the inner gates, the streets changed, becoming broader and the buildings to either side rose to second and third stories, their walls more carefully plastered and iron bars set into every window and around the doors.

The windows were covered with shutters, but no chink of light showed through them and each of the buildings had a shield on the front with some insignia chisled into it.

“Y’know Xe.”  Gabrielle was observing all this. “People are pretty much people, no matter where they are.  Even Olympus.”

“True.”  Xena paused at a crossroads. “That where you meant?” She pointed, asking Paladia over her shoulder.

“Yup.”

The building in question was large and blocky,  two story, but without any windows to be seen. The doors in the front were more gates, and there was a second set of barred grids that blocked any approach. These now were thrown open, and one in fact was hanging by it’s hinges.

Bennu went forward with two other soldiers and he held his torch up high, to see letters carved above the doors. “Workhouse.” He turned and reported. “Guess them stories were true then, too.”

One of the soldiers shoved the inner door open, theb turned and put his arm across his face as a fetid stench floated out. 

“Toldja.” Paladia said, with a grunt.

Xena tipped her head back and regarded the roof. “Well, let’s see what needs to be done to clean it up That’s a good forward watch and I want it.”

Wrapping folds of their cloaks over their mouths, and raising torches, they moved inside.

**

They got just a few body lengths inside, and to the first row of square cells before all of them stopped in mid walk and just stared.

Even Xena, who had seen more in her lifetime than most.

The inside of the building was lined with small stalls on either side of a central walk, and those were lined with dirty straw and each contained a women in rags, most slightly to extremely visibly pregnant.

“Bigods.” Bennu finally said.

“What is this?” Gabrielle added, on the heels of that. 

The women in the stalls just stared at them unseeing. There was no reaction to their presence, not even a change of expression.

Xena took one of the torches from Solari and walked in a slow circle, crossing from one side of the aisle to the other,  peering inside the compartments before returning to Gabrielle’s side. “Okay.” She said, finally, then paused.

Gabrielle looked up at her. “Speechless?”

Xena exhaled. “Pretty much. I’ve seen harems.” She said.

“Me too.”

“But not a place where women are being treated as sows.”  The warrior concluded. “First for me.”

“Ugh.”  Solari’s eyes were wide and round.

“Crap.” Paladia added, shaking her head slowly.  She walked over to one of the stalls and went inside, waving her hand in front of the inhabitant’s eyes.  “Hey.”

Very slowly the woman turned her head and regarded the tall woman blankly.   There were chains on her wrists, and ankles, and she was lying on a slanted surface that was padded with leather.  

Solari came over to join her and they stood together for a moment, while the woman stared back at them without any emotion at all on her face.

Gabrielle put her hands on her hips. “Okay hon. You got a plan?  I don’t think we can just leave them all here like this.”  She uttered in a low tone.   “At least we can…” She fell silent. “Crap. What can we do?”

Xena reached up and pinched the bridge of her nose.  “Honestly? Nothing right now.” She said.  “We don’t have the resources to take care of these people. The best thing we can do is beat that damn army and get someone else to do it.”

The bard regarded her for a moment in silence.  “Son of a bitch.”  She finally muttered.

“Bennu, check access to the roof.”  Xena said, walking past the last of the stalls and looking inside a chamber beyond.  “There’s fresh straw back here. Get a dozen people in here and rake the dirt out, then put down new.”

“Should I get one of the healers in here just to check them out?” Gabrielle asked  “I know we can’t do much.”

Xena came back over, holding a jug.  She unstoppered it and sniffed cautiously at it’s contents. “Nice.”

Gabrielle leaned over and sniffed, making a face.  “Oh, gross.”

“That what they’re given em?” Solari came over. “What is it?”

Xena took another smell of it. “Has henbane in it.” She said. “Not sure what else.”  

Bennu came clattering down the steps that led up to a trap door and dusted his hands off. “Got some cover up there, seems sturdy enough Genrl.”

Sturdy enough, but not a place she’d willingly lead the troops through.  “Let’s see if we can climb up from outside.” She said. “Less people in here the better.”   She looked around  again and shook her head. “Damn.”

The vacant, uncaring eyes looked back at her, lost and turned inward.   No matter what Pinu had said, this city had accepted this in their midst and there was no right to it.  Not even in her darkest hours, in the worst depredations she’d fashioned in the bad old days would she have done this.

She walked outside with the rest of them and let the cold, harsh wind scour her lungs of the stench as she stood there with snowflakes dusting her shoulders.  

Then she turned and regarded the inner walls, seeing winks of light in the arrow slits and knowing she was being watched in her turn. 

“Careful there, champ.” Solari edged up next to her. “I know you can catch those things but who wants to take a chance in the dark, huh?”

‘Yeah.”  Xena retreated behind the building.  “No sense in that.”  She joined Gabrielle near the door and they both stood together as the soldiers used boxes to build a ramp up to the roof.

“Xe.”

“Yeah?”

Gabrielle had her arms folded and her hood up around her head.  “I don’t want Dori growing up in a world where that’s okay.”  She looked at the building.  “So we need to do something about this.”

“Yeah.”

**

Cait sat up on the wall looking out over the plains they’d fought over.  There were bodies out there, but the cold had just turned them into snow covered lumps, and beyond that, there was nothing but empty darkness.

Behind her, there was still activity going on as the army settled in, and spread out between the two sets of gates, finding nothing much alive save a couple of dogs and in the stable, three cats.

“You going to sit here all night?” Paladia shook the snow off her shoulders and sat down on the walk next to her.

“I’m part of the watch.” Cait said. “So yes, of course.”

“Uh huh.” Paladia hunched over and rested her elbows on her knees.  “Still freaked out about that dude?”

Cait sat quietly for a while, her eyes scanning the horizon. “I just think its going to be trouble.” She said eventually.  “I really didn’t think about it when I did it.”

“Why would you?”  Her partner asked, in a pragmatic tone. “You’re in the middle of a stupid fight and some dude is heading towards her nibs with a pig sticker.  Like anyone else would have stopped and thought about it?”

“No, I know.”  Cait acknowledged.  “Its just all so odd.”

“No kidding.”  Paladia straightened and leaned back, stretching her legs out.  “Freak city. Like that other place” She indicated the general direction of the inner gates. You see those chicks in there?  Just breeders.”

“Terrible, really.”

“Seriously screwed up.”  The taller woman concurred. “But you know something?” She looked casually around and then lowered her voice even though they were quite alone.  “A lot of guys think that’s okay, you know?”

Cait’s eyebrows arched right up to her hairline. “What?”

“Not like that.” Paladia waved one hand in negation. “But the whole idea that  the only thing we’re good for is making babies. You know?” She watched Cait’s eyes widen. “Okay, you were raised by wolves. Maybe not. But I was old enough to know something before I left the pit my village was.”

Cait studied her. “That’s what that man was saying.” She said.

Paladia nodded. “That they’re dudes, so they take what they want. That’s how it works most places y’know?  The Amazons, and the two of them nibs are like serious weirdsville to places around. Even in Therma, you know?  I heard them.”

Cait exhaled. “I know.”

“Even in Amphipolis, those jerks when they were gone remember?” Paladia persisted. “And if any place should know better about kick ass women, it’s that one.”

Cait scratched her ear. 

“I mean seriously.  Like it’s not enough they got Cyrene, right? Who goes after dudes with a hatchet.” Paladia counted on her fingers. “They got whatshername.. Granella.. who went all stabby on that other chick. They got the Amazons running around all over the place kicking ass.”

Cait smiled wryly.

“And like that’s not enough, they got Xena and Gabrielle, right, who spawn their own babies and do favors for gods in their spare time.”  Paladia concluded. “So if they can’t get it in their heads, what chance do dudes  like those have?”

“So, you’re saying that’s just how it is?”  Cait asked, seriously. “Because that rather stinks, Pally.”

Paladia shrugged a little.  “Yeah.”

Footsteps sounded on the walk and they both looked up, Cait putting a hand on her sword hilt.  But a moment later they relaxed, as they recognized Gabrielle’s distinct outline. “Hello.”

“Hi.” The bard sat down next to them, and pushed her hood back, exposing here pale hair to the drifting snow. She had a wine skin with her and now she unslung it and offered it to them. “Solari’s right behind me.”

A moment later, Solari did in fact arrive, and took up a spot on the opposite side of the walk.   Here, there was an overhang that provided some protection, and the gates themselves blocked the wind.  “So.”  Gabrielle said, after they’d all taken a swig of the warmed wine.  “What do you all think about this whole thing?”

“Which part of it?”  Paladia asked, after a brief, awkward silence. “The god part of it, or the weird ghost dudes part of it, or the freak show in a bowl in that building part of it?”

Gabrielle gave her a wry grin. “Good point.” She said. “Let’s start with the battle we fought in front of the gates here.” She patted the wood with her hand.  “What did you guys think of that?”

“Those shade warriors didn’t seem very good.”  Cait stated. “I mean, none of them did.  We spent more time keeping out of their way so as not to get tred on than fighting them. All you had to do was poke them with a blade and they went down.”

Both Solari and Paladia nodded.

“That’s true. Xe was knocking them over by the handsfull.” The bard agreed. “Seemed like they were a distraction.”

“And that lot in here.”  Cait continued. “They could have come out and fought against us and helped them but they mostly didn’t. Just shot a few arrows off.”

“Till you got that door open.”  Paladia pointed out. “That stirred em up.”

“And then when big X bopped up on the wall, they all took off. She scared the balls off them.”  Solari said. “Like, none of them had any fighting chops, you know? Like here’s this big army, and we saw them riding around in all that armor and all that, but the minute they go up against our guys, they poop their pants.”

Gabrielle nodded. “That’s what my problem is with this.” She said. “It all seems fake. Like nothing’s really real and it’s all for show.”

‘But then we see stuff like that barn.”  Solari said, with a grimace. “Gabrielle that was seriously not cool.”

Cait nodded. “Pally and I were just talking about that. About how.. “ She hesitated. “Why no one else seems to see us.. ah.. the way we do.”

‘If that’s how they look at stuff.” Paladia said. “I don’t want to help these guys for nothing.  Open the gates and let the creeps in, or set the place on fire, or whatever.”

“Gabrielle.” Solari asked, after an uncomfortable pause.  “What do the guys in the army think about that?  They’re guys.”

Gabrielle sat back, after taking a long swallow from the wineskin.  “They are.” She said. “But you know, it’s a little like the Amazons.”  She held up a hand when they all started to protest. “Hear me out.”

They fell silent.

“See?” Gabrielle smiled a bit wistfully.   “You all listen to me. I’m the queen only because someone died at the wrong time and tapped me on the shoulder. For no other reason.”

“Gabrielle that’s not true.” Solari said, firmly.  “We know you.  We have literally seen you kick ass all over this part of Greece.  There is no doubt in anyone’s mind now that you’re as much an Amazon as any of the rest of us.”

“Now, yes.”  Gabrielle had waited her out.  “You all know me. You have had personal experience of my leadership, and seen me display those virtues that you all believe are part of what makes an Amazon.” She paused. “I am the real thing.”

“You bet.” Solari agreed.

“Well, it’s the same thing with that army.” Gabrielle indicated the troops behind them. “They have personally experienced Xena’s leadership, and they have seen her display on many occasions the skills and the abilities of being a fighter the likes of which most of them only ever will aspire to be.” She paused, and smiled. “She is, without a doubt, the real thing.”

They were all quiet for a moment. “But they don’t really see her as a woman.” Cait finally ventured. “Do they? “

“That respect they have? Doesn’t go past her.” Gabrielle agreed with a nod. “They don’t respect women.  They respect Xena, and, as an extension, me, and because of that, you all. We are exceptions”

“Ugh.” Cait made a face.

“Yeah.” Gabrielle passed over the wineskin. “I was just telling Xe I didn’t really want Dori growing up in a world where what we saw in that building was accepted. But you know, I don’t know if she’s got a choice.”

Solari shrugged a little. “She’ll be an Amazon.” She said. “Like you said, we’re exceptions.”

“Well, that’ll be up to her. “ The bard said. “It just makes me sort of sad.”

The other three women looked discomfited.

“You think she won’t want to be?” Solari finally asked.

Gabrielle lifted both hands. “She’s too young to even know what that means.” She said. “She’s got some of both of us in her. I’m not going to guess what that’s going to be like when she’s a teenager.”

“Ah.” Solari grunted.

“Xena, as a teenager, became a brigand without a conscience.”  Gabrielle said. “And me? I ran away from home as a teenager and fell in love with a brigand without a conscience. Dori?” She let both hands fall to her knees.  “She might well accept my right and become an Amazon. She could also run off and join a circus and marry a performing bear. You just never know. “

Her three companions chuckled a little.

“Whatever she does, I want her to follow her heart.” Gabrielle concluded. “I don’t want her to be pressured to become anything in particular because of us.”  She exhaled.  “I’m just concerned that attitudes like what we see in these people are going to spread.”

“Because of the gods?” Paladia asked, after a pause.

“Yeah.”

Cait rocked forward a little. “Gabrielle, is there something we can do to help that? You said there was something with the goddesses, that we were going to try and fix.”

Gabrielle rested her forearms on her knees. “Well..”

Another set of footsteps made them pause and look up, as a tall figure in a borrowed cloak climbed up onto the wall with them. 

Solari eyed her, then moved aside and made room on the ledge. 

Artemis sat down and folded her hands in her lap, looking at all of them, then focusing on Gabrielle.  “Before we started for this place, you had a plan.”

“We did.” The bard agreed. “But part of that was based on Ares, and he’s not here any more.”

Artemis nodded. “Yes.” She said. “He ran away. He was afraid to fight, to lead you with that famous sword of his.”  She said, in a placid tone.

“He didn’t run away.”  Gabrielle shook her head.  “Hades took him. We were there.” She added. “Hades took him, and our friend Jessan.  We really hope they’re okay.”

“Do you really?” Artemis seemed amused.

Cait cleared her throat. “But you know, I think she’s right about him being afraid.” She said. “He did seem to be, a bit.”

“He was.  But he wasn’t afraid of the fighting. He’s been liking that the whole time. He loves mixing it up.” Gabrielle said. “He’s afraid he’ll fail. That he wont’ be able to lead us to victory.”

Artemis studied her.  “Well done. You understand more than either he or I would have credited.”

“Really?” Gabrielle mimicked her amused response. “So you lied to us because you thought we’re stupid?”

“Most mortals are.”  Artemis said. “But you know this yourself, since you manipulate them as you do.” She watched Gabrielle’s face carefully. “So now we come to the plan.” She added.  “Do you want to be of use?  There is a way for you to be.”

“Of use to you?”  Gabrielle asked wryly.

“Yes.” The goddess nodded. “You will serve my purpose. But you will also serve your own.”

The bard studied her face for a long moment, seeing the hardness, and the cruelty there and forgetting nothing of how she’d attacked Hercules, and thrown the Amazons to the wolves. “What do you have in mind?”

Artemis smiled.

**

 

Continued in Part 18