Body Heart and Soul

Part 3

“Okay.” Gabrielle entered the gathering hall, letting the door swing shut behind her.  She crossed over to the raised platform at the head of the room and stepped up onto it, going over and putting down several packages before she turned, placed her hands on the worktable, and looked at the small group of people standing there. “What happened?”

Everyone looked at Cait, who bravely stepped forward until she was at the edge of the platform. “We had a bit of a tiff, your majesty.”

Gabrielle sat down, and rested her elbows on the table. “A bit of a tiff.” She repeated. “Over what?”

Cait crossed her arms and cleared her throat a little. “It was my fault.” She began. “I thought it would be funny to throw a bit of snow at our guests.”

Gabrielle waited, but there was nothing more forthcoming. “Okay. So, how bad could a little snow have been?” She said. “There were a lot more of them then there are of you.”

Cait cleared her throat again, but remained silent.

“We helped.” Aalene said, unprompted.  “Once those nitwads started going after t.. I mean, once we saw what was going on we all piled on.” She said. “Ma’am.”

Gabrielle’s pale eyebrows shot up almost to her hairline.  “Okay, so – these guests of ours, and you all knew they were guests, got clobbered by you all for a lark. That what you’re telling me?”

“Yes.” Cait said, briefly.

Gabrielle scratched her nose. “All of you out except Cait.” She said. “I’ll get back to you on what the penalty is for embarrassing the entire tribe.”

The rest of the group marched out, heads high, in silence.

Gabrielle waited for the door to close and then she focused on Cait.  The young Amazon was standing quietly in place, just waiting.  There was no fear in her eyes and she didn’t fidget, or look down – her attention was fixed on Gabrielle.  “So.”

“I am sorry.” Cait said, after a moment. “They were just beastly and I simply couldn’t resist.”

The queen’s face twitched a little. “Did you think maybe they were doing that deliberately to make you react?”

“Yes.” Cait replied. “I was sure they were, they were insulting the village, you know, and yourself.”

“And?”  A faint smile appeared on Gabrielle’s face.

“And Xena.”  Cait admitted, seeing the change of expression. 

“So they got you so wound up you went outside and got an armful of snow to throw at them?”  The queen said, in a quizzical tone. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, Cait, but that’s not really your style is it?”

Cait now glanced down, and let her arms unfold,  placing them behind her back and clasping her hands.  “Well, you see I didn’t want to do something permanent.” She explained. “So I thought a bit of snow would be safer.”

Gabrielle got up and came around the table, stepping down off the platform so she and Cait were at eye level with each other.  Then she sat down on the platform and patted the surface next to her, waiting for Cait to sit down as well.

“So now it’s not me being the queen, okay?”  Gabrielle said. “I’m just being Gabrielle, talking to you because  Dori told me what really happened.”

“Oh.”

“So , I do appreciate the fact that you’re sitting here pretending it was all your idea for this, you know?”

“Well.” Cait said. “She’s just a child, after all.  I could have stopped it all.  I didn’t have to go along with her and then.. well, they started after the children and I absolutely couldn’t let them get hurt.”

“I know.”  Gabrielle said. “A lot of people would have found excuses, Cait, and given me all kinds of justifications for what they did but you didn’t.  You just were all about taking responsibility.”

“Gabrielle.” Cait looked at her. “It was my responsibility.  I don’t mind getting punished for it.  I decided to go along after all.”

The queen smiled wryly.  “Now my issue is this – because I really can’t punish you without also punishing my kid, and without punishing my partner who told my kid to go throw snowballs at the git.. at our guests.”

“I see.”

“If you’d stayed out of it.” Gabrielle continued. “I could have just told Alana I was shocked that she’d react so badly to a simple kids prank.”

“I see.”

“But then I really couldn’t punish Dori for that because the first thing out of her mouth would be that Xena told her to do it and so… either way, I’m kinda screwed.  Know what I mean? Because I really can’t discipline Xena in front of them.”

“Yes, I do see.”  Cait murmured.

“And anyway, as soon as they started hitting kids… “ Gabrielle stopped speaking, looking off into the distance for a long moment. “You shouldn’t do that. No matter how much snow they’re dumping on you.” She concluded quietly.

“No, that’s true.” Cait said, in a small voice. “I am sorry.  I really mucked things up for you.”

Gabrielle sighed. “Well, fortunately no one really got hurt.” She said. “Just a few bumps and bruises, and everyone was lucky it was all over before I got up here.” She leaned forward a little. “But Cait, please do me a favor and think about what you’re doing next time?  You have a responsible position here now.”

“I will.” Cait said. “I feel quite silly, and horrible now.”

“Yeah, I remember what that feels like.” The queen mused.  “Go on and get cleaned up for supper, Cait.  I’ll figure out some way to sort through this.”

Cait stood up and left quietly, closing the door behind her and leaving Gabrielle in solitary silence in the hall, just the sound of the fireplace gently popping nearby.  

She lay down flat on her back after a moment, folding her hands on her stomach and regarding the ceiling as she thought.

Moments later, the door swung open, and then closed, and familiar boot steps approached her.   She waited until the soft rasp and scrape was at her side, then looked over as Xena took a seat next to her, extending her long legs out and crossing them at the ankles.  “You put me in a ratty place, hon.”

“Yeah.”  Xena agreed mournfully. “Wasn’t really intentional.”

Gabrielle studied the angular profile. “You mean you didn’t tell Dori to plaster the bathing hut with ice?”

“No, I did.”  The warrior said. “I just didn’t mean for her to do it right then.”

“Ah.  Really?”

“Really.”  Xena said. “I’m not really an idiot.”

“I never said you were.”  Gabrielle retorted. “But those women were kinda jerky so I could see you telling little miss thing to go chuck ice at them.”

“Too political.”  Her partner disagreed. “Wouldn’t have been too bad if..”

“If Cait had stayed out of it.” 

“Mm.”

Gabrielle exhaled. “I guess I could tell them it was just a joke gone wrong.”   She heard the platform surface creak slightly as Xena shifted next to her.  “Honey, please don’t egg Dori on like that.  She’s enough of a handful as it is.”

“She likes playing pranks.”

Gabrielle poked her partner in the leg. “I know she does.  But I think people think they have to put up with her doing them because she’s our kid.  I don’t think that’s great for her or us in the long term.”

“Mm.”

“I don’t want her growing up to be such a brat.”

“Are you inferring that I am?”  Xena asked.

Gabrielle could hear the faint edge in her partner’s tone and she studied her in silence for a moment. “Well,  you can be.”  She finally said, in a mild tone. “Dori does take after you, my love.  You’re her role model.”

“That’s not true.”

“Oh, Xe, c’mon.” Gabrielle sat up and half turned, putting her hand on her partner’s knee.  “You know she hangs on your every word.”  She paused, seeing the shift in Xena’s jawline. “On second thought, though, maybe she got that from me.”

“Hah.” Xena exhaled, but relaxed, leaning back on her hands.  “I’ll talk to her.”  She said. “Maybe she’s old enough for that ‘time and place’ discussion.”  She eyed her partner. “Though now I think about it…”

“Shut up.” Gabrielle advised.  “So where is our little girl?”

“In the hut.”  Xena’s jaw motion indicated the slight rise that held their quarters here in the Amazon village.  “Playing with one of the mutts.”  She got up and extended a hand, pulling Gabrielle up standing when she took it. 

They kept their hands clasped as they walked across the hall and out the door, both of them tugging their hoods up as the snow drifted down over them.  Dark was already falling around them and there were torches lit on the outside of the dining hall, protected from the snow by the stout overhang.

Their boots crunched lightly on the snow-covered ground  and the scent of the firepits wafted into the air.  “They’re getting better.” Xena commented. “Glad those lessons are taking hold.”

“Me too.”  Gabrielle said. “Since we’re spending time down here at least things are edible.  I think that one junior Evalee is going to be a good cook.”

They turned up the path and climbed the slight rise up to where the queen and regent’s quarters were, and as they cleared the trees they heard angry voices.   “Now what?” Gabrielle let out a slight grunt.  “Here I thought things were chilling out.”

The voices were coming from Ephiny’s quarters and without further discussion they hastened up to the doorway, Gabrielle reaching out to lightly knock on it.  “Eph?”

The door yanked inwards and the next thing Gabrielle knew a blade was headed right at her face and she sucked in a shocked breath as she started to react to it, ducking to one side to let the sword come past her and clearing the way for Xena’s blur of reaction.

Ephiny let out a yell from inside, then a solid crack sounded, and the clatter of metal hitting the stone verge of the regent’s quarters and then a body was being yanked backwards out of the hut to be tossed onto the snow covered path.

Gabrielle ducked inside the hut, to find her friend and regent heading for the door with a sword in her hand. “Whoa whoa..  Xe’s got it.”  She held up her hands.  “Whoa.. what the Hades is going on?”

“Stupid bitch.” Ephiny snarled. “Xena!” She let out a bellow.  “Pull her tits off!”

Outside, Xena heard the request, but she had one hand on her own sword, watching the shadowy figure on the ground. “Do yourself a favor, and don’t do anything else stupid.”

The leather swathed woman paused, then lunged for her sword, and grabbed it, coming up onto her feet and going for the tall form watching her.  “Favor me this.”

Xena drew her sword and met the charge, deflecting the woman’s jab and releasing the catch at her throat of her cloak, which then floated free behind her.   She moved her blade from her right hand to her left, and caught a down stroke coming at her, moving to one side and letting the force of the attack come past.  “Everything okay in there, Gabrielle?”

“Yeah, fine!”  Gabrielle called back. “There?”

“Just getting some exercise.”  Xena sidestepped again and let the Amazon come past her. “Keep your head inside, mkay?”

“Got it.”

Boot steps rang out heading in their direction. “Stand clear!” Xena let out a louder yell.   She worked the Amazon in a circle, keeping her blade in a defensive posture as the woman worked hard to get through her guard.

She was pissed.  Xena could clearly see her face in the gloom,  lips writhed into a snarl as she swung again and again.   It was Alana’s second, she noted, the tightly curled blonde with a powerfully muscular build and fierce temperament.

She was also a decent swordswoman, but Xena reckoned it was time to end the fun before half the tribe came barreling up the path and someone got hurt.    She took a step in and went on the offensive, disarming the woman in two fast moves and sending the weapon to clatter against the door to the hut. “Grab that, hon.”

The door swung open at once and Gabrielle grabbed for the sword just before it’s owner lunged for it, her hand smashing against the door as it slammed shut again.

Xena sheathed her own sword and opened her hands to grab the woman’s wrists as she came at her with a knife in either mitt, clamping down hard and feeling the bones under her fingers twist as the Amazon came to an involuntary halt.

The knives dropped to the ground and Xena pushed back as the woman tried to kick her, nape hairs prickling as her senses picked up danger coming up behind her.   She dropped to one knee out of pure instinct and felt the brief sting of an arrow coming past, releasing one hand off her opponent just in time to grab it.

Its tip quivered just in front of her opponent’s face, the light from the torch outside Ephiny’s quarters casting enough light over her shoulder for her to clearly see it.

Xena released her other hand, then curled her fist around the bolt and slugged the Amazon full in the face, before she turned and came out of her crouch in an explosive motion that carried her up and over Alana’s head as she shot past her, just in time for the door to open yet again and reveal two pissed off looking women with a sword and a stick coming at her.

Tumbling in mid air, Xena got herself back on the ground and headed toward them, grabbing Alana by the back of her cloak and yanking her backwards out of the reach of Gabrielle’s staff. “Do yourself a favor.”  She picked up Alana and tossed her against the nearest tree, stunning her.  “Just stop before someone really gets hurt.”

Figures came out of the gloom into the torchlight,  warriors of Gabrielle’s tribe with swords drawn and crossbows cocked.   Pony knelt by the side of the Xena’s original opponent, already pulling out long gut lines from her belt. “Thanks, Champ.” She looked briefly  up at Xena.

Cait had appeared at Alana’s side, and was standing there with her dagger out, just watching the woman in silence. 

“So much for your hospitality that’s twice in one night we were attacked. “Alana said.

“Sorry no.” Ephiny spoke up. “I can’t speak for the snowball fight but your wench there came in to my quarters and picked a fight with me.  Not the other way around.” She sheathed her sword and put her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “My queen heard her yelling in here and came to find out what the problem was.”

Xena was twirling the arrow in her fingers. “Not to mention you almost spitted her.  You should be more careful where you point that thing” She indicated the bow on the ground that Alana had dropped when she’d hit her.

“I shot it at you.”  Alana said.  “And would have been glad if it hit its mark. You were attacking my sister.”  She was breathing hard, still.  “Tell me you would have done any different.” She addressed Gabrielle.  “Or do you rely on others to protect you?”

Gabrielle curled her hand around the practice staff she’d taken from the corner of Ephiny’s quarters and pinched the bridge of her nose.  “Cait, would you and Pony please take these mor…people back to their assigned quarters and escort them inside.”

Both women eyed her.

“And then post a guard around the building.  Tomorrow morning, please take them to the gates of Amphipolis and give them their horses.”  She looked at Alana.  “Get out of my sight, and thank the gods that arrow didn’t touch her.”

Gabrielle’s voice dropped almost to a rasp on the last sentence, and the torchlight showed a grip so tight on her staff the tendons on the back of her hand were standing out in stark relief.

“We’ll see what the gods have to say about it.” Alana said, after a long moment.  She stalked off, ignoring Cait and the other two Amazons who ringed her,  while Eponin and three more hoisted her second in command to her feet and dragged her off behind them.

Xena idly threw the arrow into the ground, watching it quiver as it stuck there.  She then went over and picked her cloak up, swinging it back around her shoulders. “Gonna be one of those nights I think.”

“Ugh.” Gabrielle straightened up and flexed her fingers. “Want to fill us in on what that was all about?”

“Sure.” Ephiny agreed. “How about we have dinner over it at your place. It’s a  little bigger, and I’ll need to call two witnesses.”

“Fine by me.” Gabrielle half turned. “Aalene..”

“We’ll get a tableful set up there, your majesty.” The young Amazon said immediately, motioning to Dosi who followed her back off towards the dining hall. 

“Let’s go.” Xena said, motioning up the side path to their quarters. “Before our kid shows up with more ice.”

“Ugh.”

**

Xena poured them all hot tea, then went back to her seat near the fireplace and dropped back into it, swirling the herbs around in her own cup before sipping from it.  They were gathered around the low table in the queen’s quarters, where the remains of a platter were resting.

Eponin and Ephiny were seated on the long couch facing the fire, and Gabrielle was slouched in the chair that matched the one Xena was in on the other side of the hearth.    Past them back in the sleeping room Dori was tucked in her little bed, one of the half dog half wolf dogs curled up on the bear rug next to her.

“So, here’s the deal. .” Ephiny said. “Dosi and Elanna brought the woman over here, and I told them to stick around because I wasn’t sure what this chick’s problem was.”

“She was pretty good with a blade. Right choice.”  Xena said. “What was her story?”

“That gets a little complicated.”  Ephiny took a sip of tea and swallowed before she went on. “Seems that she and Alana were rivals for the right.”

“Hah. I figured something like that.” Pony said.  “They had that look.”

Gabrielle briefly wondered what look that might be but refrained from asking.  “So no one had been named outright?”

Ephiny shook her head. “No, there was a right holder, but she went down with the ship – matter of fact, I remember her.  Weedy little thing – queen’s eldest daughter. Had the same pissass attitude.” She leaned back on the couch.  “So Darela – that’s this one’s name – said she was the queen’s nearest blood relative, but after the word came back of the shipwreck that Alana claimed the right because she was the right holder’s partner.”

Gabrielle shifted, and hiked one knee up, resting her hand on it. “Correct me if I’m wrong here, but neither claim is really a  legit one, is it?  The right doesn’t pass automatically to either blood or.. ah… “

“Or bed.  No that’s right as you have reason to know better than most.”  Ephiny said dryly. “Which is what I told her.  In that situation, it should have been an all hands vote.”

“If either of them had enough backing to have a vote.”  Xena interjected.  “Or any of them weren’t good enough to stand against all comers.”

“Right.” Ephiny nodded.  “Anyway she said there weren’t enough of them – or – they said there weren’t enough of them to throw the right open, and I guess Alana got enough crones to agree that she should have it.”

“So what does that have anything to do with you?” Pony asked, after a moment of silence. 

Ephiny lifted her mug and then lowered it. “Darela is apparently something of the brains of that group. She knows the law.”  She said. “She knows they actually do have a blood claim on me – though we rejected it.  I did gut the woman, and not in battle.”

“You had the right to.” Xena said.

“That’s what I said.” Pony added, firmly.

“She said she’d be willing to cut a deal with me if I helped her get the right. She’d release the blood claim.” Ephiny concluded. “I had sent Dosi and Eleanna out to get some chow, since she seemed quiet enough and she wanted to talk in private. “

“Eph.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m preggers crazy.” The regent gave her partner an amused look. “I told her she was wasting her time and since I’m an Amazon I also told her if she had to come crawling to me to help her out she didn’t deserve the right anyhow.”

“Hence the raised voices.”  Gabrielle guessed.

“Exactly. She started yelling, and the next thing I know you were knocking at the door.” Ephiny said. “I guess she recognized your voice because before I could do anything she was heading for the door with her sword out  - I guess she wanted to try earning her right the old fashioned way.”

Gabrielle frowned. “What?”

“Killing another tribe’s queen.”  Eponin provided. “That doesn’t get you’re the other tribe’s right – but it gets you bumped in yours.”

Gabrielle covered her eyes. “So she was going to try and kill me to help her convince them she should take Alana’s right? Why not just challenge her?”

“Ah, now we get back into that law about challenging while the tribe is in mortal danger.”  Ephiny tilted her mug in Gabrielle’s direction. “Given their losses, it qualifies.”

Xena snorted and shook her head.

“Hey it makes sense, you know?” Pony said.  “Like, okay, the whole thing is a mess but what she did, I get that.”

Gabrielle nodded.  “But what did she want you to do to help her, Eph?”

“Ah. Now it gets a little interesting. Apparently there were two factions in that tribe, the one that loves Athens, and the one that doesn’t.”

“Ah.” Xena leaned forward and picked up a lonely looking apple on the platter, it’s skin a bit wrinkled from storage.  She bit into it and chewed thoughtfully. ‘So this one’s in the other camp, and doesn’t want to go begging to Athens for coin.”

“Something like that, yah.” The regent agreed. “I didn’t get specifics on her plan because that’s when she started yelling and anyway, I told her there was no way in Hades I’d help her do anything.”

‘”This sounds all nice and logical except surely she didn’t think if she actually did kill me that she was just going to go off with them to settle that whole right question?” Gabrielle asked. “I got the sense from the look on her face when she came out that door that she didn’t have any idea that I wasn’t alone out there.”

“I don’t think she was thinking that far ahead.”  Ephiny mused.

“I don’t think she’s clued into us too much.”  Pony said, after a pause. “I think for sure we should kick them off down the road tomorrow. Aint’ nothing but trouble there.”

Xena gave her a thumbs up, as she nibbled the core of her apple.

“Well, I think we’re all in agreement there.” Gabrielle said.  “So lets go over to the hall, and I’ll say something vague about pranks then tell a few stories.  We can get back on track tomorrow.”

“Mama.”  Dori came out of the sleeping room, holding Bittyboo in one arm, and rubbing her eyes. “I’m thirsty.”

“Well, aren’t you lucky we’ve got some apple cider here.”  Gabrielle held her arms out. “C’mere and you can have some.”

Dori obligingly climbed up into her lap and kicked her feet out a little, looking at the rest of them. “Eff!”

“Hey there, cutie.”  Ephiny smiled and wiggled her fingers at her. “Did you have a fun day?”

Xena had poured a cupful of cider into one of Dori’s smaller cups and handed it to her. “She had a great day. You caused all sorts of trouble, dincha?”

“Pipple got mad, Boo.”  Dori said. “Cat got mad.”

“Yeah.”  Xena perched on the arm of Gabrielle’s chair and ruffled her daughter’s hair. “You and I got into trouble, huh? Maybe next time ask me twice if it’s okay to do fun pranks.”

“Boo, it was funny.” 

“I know, but we really should only do that kind of stuff to our friends, to people we really like and know. “ Xena said, in a serious tone, as Dori looked up at her. “People we love. Not strangers.”

Dori drank her cider and then put the cup down. “Okay, Boo.”  She agreed . “I can do sooballs to you and mama?”

Gabrielle winced out of the child’s view and covered her eyes.

“Sure.”  Xena said. “I’ll tell you some stories about your mama putting ice in my furs sometimes okay?”

“Xe..”

“Well, you did.”  The warrior chuckled. She got up. “C’mon kiddo. Back to bed.”  She picked Dori up off Gabrielle’s lap and carried her back into the sleeping room.

“Ahh.”  The queen leaned back in her chair.  “My troublemaking little family.”

Ephiny chuckled. “You love every minute of it.”

“I do.” Gabrielle freely admitted. “I wish I’d gotten to see the snowballs fly in fact.” She pushed herself to her feet and went over to the wall pegs to remove and don her cloak.  “Anyway.”

Ephiny and Pony got up and joined her, getting themselves all settled into their outerwear as Xena emerged from the sleeping room,  pulling down the sleeves of her woolen shirt as she also retrieved her cloak.

“She actually going back to bed?  Should we take her to the hall with us, Xe?” Gabrielle asked, as her partner joined them. “I don’t really want her wandering out tonight.”

Xena reached over and straightened out her cloak hood. “Only if you promise me no damn cow story.” She said.  “You go ahead, and I’ll see if she gets up and bring her over if she does.”

Gabrielle gave her a quick hug, then she and the other two Amazons left as Xena put her cloak back on it’s peg.   She retrieved a mug and poured herself some more tea, then settled back in the chair next to the fire with a sigh of contentment.

Outside she could hear the tribe gathering, the soft hum of voices penetrating the well caulked wood and stone walls. She took a sip of her tea and swirled the liquid in her cup a little,  enjoying the warmth of the fire at her side.

Still pleasant, even though the cold weather no longer made her joints ache. Even after the long, active day she felt rested and almost bouncy, though she really had no idea how long that would last.  A year or a day though, she fully intended to enjoy it and now her ears cocked, hearing faint stirrings from her daughter’s room.  “Dooooriiii?” She rumbled softly.

After a moment, she heard a tiny giggle, and when she peeked over her shoulder, Dori was tucked behind the doorframe, peeking back at her.   ‘Why aren’t you sleeping?” Xena asked, in a mock stern voice.

“Booooo!” Dori came pattering out, this time with a stuffed cow under her arm.  It had button eyes and a red felt tongue, newly y made for her after her old cow Oogy mysteriously disappeared one day.  “Don’t wanna sleep.”

“No? How come?” Xena put her cup down as Dori climbed into her lap.  ‘You have to sleep, Dor. If you want to play all day you  need your rest.”

Dori looked at her like she was nuts. “Go go go.” She pounded Xena in the chest with her toy. “Let’s go fly Boo!”

Xena put her arms around her. “Not tonight, kiddo.  It’s all icy out there.  I ain’t gonna take a header with you on my shoulders and get us both owie. We can fly in the morning.”

Dori poked her lower lip out, and after a moment, Xena did the same thing back to her. Then they both laughed as Xena bounced her on her knee.  “Dori Dori.”

“Boo boo!” 

“You want to go listen to your mama tell a story?” Xena asked.  “You have to be a good girl, and not distract her, okay?”

“Yes!” Dori’s eyes lit up. “Go see mama!”

“Okay.”  Xena got up, cradling Dori in one arm as she went to the wall and got her cloak down again, swinging it one handed over her shoulders and around her daughter at the same time. “Hold on to me, Dor.”

Dori obediently put her head down on her shoulder and put one arm around her neck. “Love you, Boo.”

Aww.  Xena smiled. “Love you too, little one.”  She told her.   “Here, put your head under here.” She got her cloak tucked around Dori’s head, and then she tucked the stuffed cow next to her. “Hold onto that, we don’t want him to get lost.”

“Bad cow.” Dori agreed. “Buppit! Buppit! C’mere!”

The half dog half wolf came trotting out of the sleeping area, tongue lolling. “Arf.” He sat down at Xena’s boots and looked up at her, one ear flopping down, the other standing up. 

“C’mon, mutt.” She opened the door and the little expedition went out into the cold night air.

**

Gabrielle was seated on the raised platform, with Cait and Pony bracketing her.  A small group of her Amazons were loitering nearby, chatting casually with her, while the majority of the tribe were slowly filing in from the dining hall.

In the back corner,  Alana and her gang were seated, notably free of weapons.   Nala was seated nearby to them, notably not free of same.

Ephiny had gone off to bed, but in an excess of caution there were four sturdy Amazons standing guard around her quarters, and in the thick fringe of trees around the small rise that and Gabrielle’s hut sat on there were six more tucked back into the shadows.

Cat’s partner  Paladia was across the room from them, just sitting at one of the tables, idly looking around. But every few minutes or so she’d let her eyes drift over to the visiting group.

“So anyway.” Renas was seated near the raised platform. “Looks like trading’s been good so far.  Everyone’s looking for Solstice gifts, so our stuffs half gone.” 

Her partner Das nodded. “Stacked up at the inn – heard some talking about them having a show down over the river.” She commented. “One of yours your majesty?”

“Just a dress rehearsal, but yeah. They’re doing a full blown one tomorrow night which I guess I’ll head down for.”  Gabrielle smiled easily. “Xe says the weather’ll be better anyway by morning.” 

“How does she know?” Das asked.

“Have no idea.  She just always knows about the weather. Used to drive me nuts – we’d be walking along middle of the day when all of a sudden she’d just head for the nearest town, said we had to get out of the rain.”  Gabrielle related. “I’d look up, perfectly blue skies and say, what the heck? But a candlemark later, sure enough, it’d be raining hard enough to drown a sheep.”

“Weather sense.” Renas said. “Some have it. My mother did.”

“Mine sure didn’t.”  Das chuckled. “Rained every damned time she hung the laundry out .”

Gabrielle thought her own mother might have had a touch of that. At least, she always seemed to know when to come and get them when she and Lila were playing. “Yeah, Xena will tell you what the weather is going to be for days – glad it’s going to be nicer tomorrow for the market.”

The door opened at that moment and  Xena entered,  uncovering her and Dori’s head.   She brushed the snow off her shoulders and threaded her way through the crowd down the aisle to where Gabrielle was sitting. “See who’s here, Dor?”

“Mama.”  Dori’s dark hair was in wild disarray, much like Xena’s was from the cloak.  “Cow wanted to come here a story.”

“Aw, did he?”  The bard stood up and combed her fingers through first her daughters locks and then, with a grin and a stretch, her partners. “We ready for a story, kids?”

“Go mama!”

“Go mama.”  Gabrielle got up onto the platform and walked to the center of it, the table she usually presided at already pushed back against the windows.  There was an oil lamp hanging overhead and two torches on the wall, and they made a reasonable puddle of light she quietly stepped into.

Now which story, she mused, would piss their visitors off more. 

**

“Nice.”  Pony offered Gabrielle a cup of mulled wine as the bard waved off the round of applause and left the platform at last, thumping down in a seat and taking the cup.  “Did you add another bit to that battle at the end?”

Gabrielle took a sip of the hot liquid, glad to feel it ease her throat as it went down. “No, I just usually don’t leave that part in.” She scanned the crowd casually.  Pitchers of wine were being passed around, and most were sitting or standing in small groups, partaking of it.

Their guests were still in the back, looking dour.  Gabrielle wasn’t surprised at that since the story she’d just finished was about their triumph over Andreas, and it was full of both heroic bravery and cleverness on the part of not only herself an Xena, but many of the Amazons currently in the room.

The Amazons, her Amazons, loved that story. It had lots of fighting in it, and people they knew had been at part of the winning, with Ephiny and Eponin leading ambushes and all.  Pony grinned every time she told it.

And of course, the hero of it all, seated quietly to her left with Dori curled up in her lap, still bright eyed even at the late hour.   After a moment’s rest, listening to the chatter around her, Gabrielle got up.  “Be right back.”

Xena caught her eye, one dark brow lifting.  Gabrielle smiled back and made a hand signal, then she eased past her partner’s chair and crossed the hall, heading for the table at the back.   She waved off Cait as the young Amazon spotted her and came to a halt near the chair Nala was still parked in. “Hi there.”

Nala got up and pulled a chair over for her. “Your majesty?”

“Thanks.” Gabrielle took a seat and regarded the strangers. “Sorry you got caught in my kid’s crossfire earlier.” She stated, simply.  “I’ve spoken to everyone involved.”

Alana looked surprised, obviously not expecting that. “Your kid’s?” She temporized.

Gabrielle turned and pointed at Dori.  “My daughter Doriana.  She was the ringleader.”

The Amazons at the table looked at Dori, then at her, then back in Dori’s direction.  Then back at her.  Gabrielle needed no real sharpness to figure out what they were thinking. “So hopefully we can just part ways without that hanging over us.” She said. “Whatever our disagreements, we don’t typically pummel guests with ice.”

Darela was seated at the back of the table, as far away from Alana as she could get, and she kept her eyes down, refusing to meet Gabrielle’s or anyone elses. 

Alana visibly bit her tongue, then she shifted and put her hands on her knee. “Thank you.” She got out, from between gritted teeth. “I accept the apology.   I am sorry my sisters reacted as they did, and struck out at the children that too, is not our way.”

Pleasantly surprised at the reaction, Gabrielle produced a smile.  “Well then, good travel to you tomorrow.  I hope your talks with Athens turn out to be fruitful.”

Alana managed a smile in response. “I’m sure they will be.”

Gabrielle raised her mug to them then got up and headed back towards her family,  feeling a touch relieved that it all hadn’t ended up in a brawl.   “Ready to head home?” She asked Xena, who had stood up at her approach. 

They left the dining hall into a night grown clear and cold, the sky overhead no longer full of clouds.  “Right as usual.” Gabrielle tucked her hand into the crook of Xena’s elbow.   “How do you do that?”

“How do I do what?”

“Know about the weather?” 

“Ah.”  Xena drew in a long breath of cold air.  “That I learned on the sea.” She led the way to their quarters and held the door open for Gabrielle to move past her.  “It’s the change in the air, the clouds..  the smell sometimes.”

Gabrielle was glad to shut the door behind them and know it was to stay that way until the morning.  She briefly wished they’d continued up the slope again, but at least it was quiet in here, with the shutters closed and the fire still gently popping.

She went over to the clothing press, detouring briefly to stack some wood into the fireplace.   She could hear  Xena putting Dori back to bed and the soft giggling made her smile.  Nudging the hot water pot into position to warm she loosened the ties at her wrists and tugged her shirt loose from her leggings.

The heat from the fire felt good against her bare skin as she pulled the garment off, folding it and tucking it neatly into the clothing press behind her worktable.  She loosened her upper wraps and set them down, then pulled a shift over her head before she sat down to get out of her leggings and boots.

Outside, she heard the soft crunch of footsteps, which stopped a few body lengths from the front door and settled, and she went curiously over to the window and opened the shutter a trifle to look out.

Just at the edge of the gentle rise her hut was on, she saw a slight, cloaked figure settling comfortably against the trunk of a tree, back to her.

“What’s up?” Xena’s hands settled on her shoulders, the touch warm through the fabric of her shirt.  “Ah. Got ourselves a guard.”

“Cait.”  The queen agreed. “Should I go tell her to stand down? She usually doesn’t make her presence known if you’re here.”

Xena leaned closer, peering over Gabrielle’s shoulder. “Penance, probably.” She said, after a long pause. “Leave her there.”

“Mm.”

“I’ve got a funny feeling about those plains Amazons.”  Xena said.  “Lets hope I’m just imagining things for a change.”

“That would be a first.”  The queen dryly stated, closing the shutter. “Okay, but I hope she’s got warm enough stuff on. I don’t want you having to treat her for frostbite, hon.”

“She’ll be fine.”  Xena reassured her, as they crossed back over to the fire.  Now it was her turn to shed her leathers and she did, easing the hide overtunic off and draping it over one of the chairs.   Under it, she’d worn a simple shirt and she pulled it over her head and went to put it over near the press.

Gabrielle had  set up their tea cups and now she peered over her shoulder, smiling as Xena wandered back over to the fire half clad.   The ruddy light burnished her skin, and she could see the gentle motion of bone and muscle as she moved.

“See I was going to do this with the new armor.” Xena spoke up, oblivious to the eyes on her.  “Just shape the shoulder pieces up like this?”  She glanced up and found her partner leaning against the mantle, arms crossed, watching her with a smile. “What?”

“Nothing.”  Gabrielle drizzled a bit of honey in the cup. “Is that to give you a little more protection near your neck when you have your arm up?”

“Uh huh.”  Xena settled a shift over her and unbuckled the belt that held on her leggings. “And I’m going to make a new set of knee protectors.”

Gabrielle steered her over to the couch and handed her one of the cups.  They sat down and put their feet up on the low table, leaning back and exhaling at the same time.  “Y’know, Xe.” Gabrielle wiggled her bare toes.  “I don’t think I much liked today.”

“Can’t always have good days.” Her partner assented, stretching an arm out and laying it across Gabrielle’s shoulders. “But I wasn’t liking much of today either.  I don’t like that Hercules disappeared. Been thinking about that all day.”

“What do you think really happened?”

“No doubt his family got involved again.” Xena said. “That’s what bugs me.”

“Because they aren’t really fair?”

Xena studied the fire for a while, sipping on her tea and blinking slowly.  “Yeah, that.” She mused. “Maybe something else. I’m not sure.”

“Ugh.”

“Hope we stay out of it this time.”  Xena said, after a moment.  “Had enough of them to last me a good long while.”

Gabrielle leaned against her. “You can say that again.”

**

The next morning was, as promised, bright and sunny if bone chillingly cold.  Xena tugged on her fur-lined gloves and clenched her fists lightly to settle them before she slipped out the door to their quarters and shut it hastily behind her.

 Cait slipped from behind a tree and approached her at once. “Good morning.”

“Morning.” Xena shook herself to settle her armor.  “Our guests gone?”

“Yes.”  Cait said.  “Nala and Solari took them at first light to the gates.  Bennu and Marc went with them.”

“Nice.”  Xena said. “I’m going down the hill to talk to Iolaus.   Gabrielle’s going to come down later to the market.”

“Right.” Cait took up a stand near the front of the hut. “Pally’s on her way down there now with all her new pictures. They’re quite nice.”

“She’s got the talent.” Xena smiled. 

“She does. What a shock that was.”  Cait smiled back. “ You never can tell, can you?”

“True.” Xena patted her on the shoulder and started down the path through the Amazon village.  Though early, there was a good deal of activity and she had to dodge a few fur swathed figures carrying bundles heading in the same direction she was.

It was odd, really, to be moving around as a part of the village and actually be a part of it.  Xena considered that as she rambled down the path among the group.  No one looked twice at her, except to wave a greeting and the difference from years past was suddenly obvious to her.

Shocking a little. She remembered being guided into the mountain village at spearpoint and facing angry stares everywhere she went in the tribe and now?

“Morning, Xena.” Aalene fell into step next to her.  “Nice gloves.”

Xena smiled.  She held her hand out and turned it palm upmost. “Gabrielle made em.” She supplied.  “See the little quill pattern?”

Aalene chuckled. “Must have taken her forever.” She commiserated. “I did some cuffs with stitch work like that when I was pregnant.  Made me glad I gave birth and had to give it up.”

They reached the bottom of the trail and found the back gates already open.   Xena lifted her hand to return the greetings from her soldiers, and paused when she saw  Bennu loping her way obviously intent on intercepting her.

“G’enr’l” The soldier came to a halt then turned and walked at her side. “Got them lot out early.”

“I heard. Good job.” 

“Yeah, bitches.” Bennu agreed. “Saw a mounted party coming in from Thrace, about two candlemarks out. Watch sent word.”

“How big?”

“Dozen maybe.  Armed, w’a banner.”  Bennu said. “One of them you sent to, mebbe?”

“Maybe.”  Xena’s interest was pricked. “If they’re riding under a banner. “

“Aye.” Her captain agreed. “Sent a squad down to the market, just be around.” He shaded his eyes from the sun and looked out towards the front of the town.  “Had a handful more recruits come off that merch train.”

“Really.” Xena shifted her path a little, heading now to the front gates and bypassing the inn.  “Useful, or just looking for a winter home?”

“Three of em ex Athens conscripts.”  Bennu said, briefly. “Been in a few skirmishes, youngers.  T’other two old timers, but still got some life in em.”

“Old timers?”  Xena gave him a sideways look.  “Anyone I might know?”

“Mercs.”  Bennu responded, oblivious of the irony in her voice.  “Both of em knew your name for sure, but they were respectful.”

“Proves they’re not complete idiots.”  His commander smiled briefly, as they passed the front gates and headed down to the river.   The sun was now up and the banks were bathed in light, reflecting off the water and causing a faint mist to rise from it.  

Already, she could hear music drifting up from the market, a sitar and a flute’s notes floating quietly  to her ears along with the scent of cook fires and the earthy smell from the stables.  Along with some Amazons, many townsfolk were also approaching the bridge, and groups of her soldiers idly joining them.

The town’s children were on the slope, where there was enough angle to get a good slide going and they were taking turns riding an old shield down,  with yells of delight.   Xena had a sudden memory surface. “Y’know I used to do that.” She pointed.  “Pretty much right at that spot too.”

Bennu regarded the children then eyed her.  “Aye?”

“Uh huh.”  Xena felt the surface flex slightly as her boots touched the bridge and her boots echoed softly as she crossed it.  “I bet Dori’ll be out there soon as she sees that.”

“No doubt.”   Bennu grunted, as he followed her.  “Spunky little thing.”

They crossed the river and headed into the big market square, which was bustling and alive with motion.  Several of the stalls were set up near the cookfires and they were doing a brisk business with morning cider and rolls.   

Xena detoured over to them, stretching herself to her full height to peer down river, seeing moving figures heading their way. “Busy.”

“Pass said got two score maybe coming.”  Bennu said.  “Two or three from Potadeia, mid watch said.”

Xena pulled a coin out for her cider and was handing it over as hoofbeats thrummed out and she looked upriver to see a man in her colors heading at a canter into the enclosure. “Ah.”

Bennu put his fingers between his teeth and let out a sharp whistle, and the man lifted up in his stirrups to look around.  He spotted Bennu and turned his horses head that way, slowing his pace to a trot as he threaded the animal around the wagons. 

One of the watch just outside the turnoff to valley that Jessan’s tribe now lived in.  Xena pushed her hood back off her head as the man arrived and when he slid down off his horse he casually saluted her, one hand to his chest.  

“Morning, genr’l.”  The man said. “Sent word before me, but we’ve got some armored types coming in.  A score of em, mounted, with a green flag, white circle w’a black sword cross it flying.”

Hm.  “That one’s new to me.” Xena mused.  “They look like trouble?”

The watchman lifted both hands a little and let them fall, then accepted the mug of morning ale from Bennu. “Thanks.” He took a long swallow. “No fancy types, but all solid looking.  Maybe trouble, maybe just visitin, coming back from them scrolls you sent out.”

Xena was hoping that was the case. The fact that they’d sent back a score of soldiers meant either someone wanted to make a deal, or someone wanted to see if they could take her out as an upstart.  Would be interesting to see which one it was.

The  market was starting to fill up.  Xena drew Bennu and the watch aside and out of the way, as visitors who’d been staying up in the town arrived to do some shopping.  “Nice turnout.” The watch commented.

“And more coming in.” Bennu indicated the outer corral, which was filling with animals.  The snow had been beaten off most of the market area, and the river stones that lined the paths glistened in the runoff from it.

A group of men were entering the square, with thick, fur cloaks on and heavy hide boots. They wore only belt knives and one had a bow slung over his back, but to Xena’s sharp eyes there was something not quite upfront about them.

She watched them from her peripheral vision, listening to the casual conversation about the weather Bennu and the watch were having.  “When do you think they’ll get here?” She asked.

“Bout a candlemark if they don’t stop for nothing.”  The watch promptly supplied. “M’gonna go stable my horse, genr’l, and get my replacement sent out there.”

“Thanks, Marius.”  Xena said. “Get some rest.”

The watchman smiled in acknowledgement. “Going to spend a little coin first.” He winked at his leader. “Got Solstice coming.”

Xena grinned in response, then with apparent casualness drifted over to a traveling jeweler and began browsing his wares. Bennu ambled along beside her, looking with interest at the baubles himself.  “Left hand side, over near the ironsmith.” Xena said, quietly.

“Four men, yeah?”

“Yeah.” Xena picked up a finely hammered wristlet, turning it over in her fingers. “Find out who they are.”

“Aye.”  Bennu remained at her side for a few minutes more, then he wandered off as though losing interest, moving to the saddle maker who had set up shop next door. 

“It’s good work, lady.” The jeweler said, after a moment. “Can make some special for you, if you want.” He picked up another piece and brought it over to her. “Lot of the folks from here want this, from the banner I guess.” He indicated the yellow and black standard floating over the military barracks.

Xena put the cuff down and took the cloak clasp, done in bronze and iron with the distinctively shape of a hawk’s head in the center. “Ah.”

“Didn’t mean it for here.” The man said, almost absently. “I just like birds, and I saw a bunch of these big ones in the mountains before I came out.”

“It’s nice.”  Xena agreed. “I’m sure half the army’ll want them. But I don’t think wearing my own standard’s a good idea.”

The man paused and looked at her. “You’re Xena, then?”

“I am.”  Xena watched from the corner of her eye as Bennu casually engaged the group she’d spotted in conversation, his body language relaxed and after a moment, theirs was too.  “But Solstice is coming, as everyone is telling me so show me what ya got.”

The jeweler smiled. “Surely.”

**

“Hold still, Dori.”  Gabrielle waited for her daughter to stop bouncing long enough to get her little boots on.  “If you want to go play, you need to let mama get you dressed.”

“Too slow!” Dori complained. “Too much stuff mama!”

“I know, I know.”  Gabrielle got the boots laced. “It’s a lot easier in the summer when we don’t wear much, huh?”

“Yes!”

“Okay, lets go.”  Gabrielle swung her own cloak over her shoulders and got it fastened, glad of the warm clothing underneath as she opened the door to the cold morning air.  “Brr!”

Dori bounded out, unconcerned about the chill.  She hopped down the path as her mother followed more conventionally, one hand clasped around the staff she’d taken from the outside nook in front of their hut.

At her belt she wore Xena’s old dagger, half hidden in the folds of her woolen over shirt, but what she lacked in weapons was more than made up for by the escort that joined her near the meeting hall. “Good morning.” She greeted them.

“Morning, your maj.” Solari was just seating her sword, and then she fell into step next to her as they started off. 

“Everyone else already down there?”  Gabrielle asked, as they descended through the soft rattle of drying, dead leaves in the trees.  “Dori,  don’t go to fast, honey. It’s slippery.”

“Mama!” Dori pointed. “Dere’s a buppit!”

“That’s fine, you stay here near me and let the buppit come to you.” Gabrielle took a precautionary hold on the back of the child’s cloak.  “I don’t want you falling down the mountain.”

The Amazons around her chuckled. “Everyone’s down.” Nala said.  “And glad to see the last of that bunch from Athens. Wouldn’t even deign to drop a dinar in the market, just rode off in a cloud of farts and attitude. “

“They say anything?” Gabrielle lifted her hand to wave at the gate guards, who were swinging them open. 

“No, I was kinda surprised. I was expecting trash talk.”  Solari said. “Just took the horses and took off.  They did fill their skins at the water trough, but that was it.”

“Figured they’d cut their losses.” Nala suggested.  “Or maybe they just wanted to get out of town before Dori woke up.”

Even Gabrielle chuckled wryly at that one.  “Hey Dor, there are your cousins.”   She pointed to the porch of Toris’ cabin, where the twins were just emerging.  “Hey guys!”

The boys immediately ran their way, with Granella in somewhat late pursuit. “Auntie Gabrielle!”  Little Solon yodeled. “We’re going slide!”

They all paused at the crosssroads as Granella jogged over. “What?”  Gabrielle asked her, over the clamoring of all three kids.

“They’re sliding down the slope to the river, on a board.”  Her sister in law explained.  “Can’t you hear the squeals?”

And in fact, now that they’d been pointed out, she could. “Okay, Dor, you go and have fun, but be careful.” She watched all three pelt off towards the front gates.   “Okay, now that we can hear ourselves think…”

As they strolled by the inn, the back door of it opened and Iolaus slipped out, spotting them and hastening over to join the group. “Good morning, ladies.” 

Now shaven and in new, warm clothes Iolaus looked more like his usual self.  “Morning.” Gabrielle smiled at him. “Feel better today?”

He smiled back, and half shrugged. “Life is what it is.  You all heading down to the party?” He deferred the question.  “Sounds like a lot of fun down there and at least the weather’ s cleared a little.”

“Yes, we are. Come with us.” Gabrielle offered.

“It’d be an honor.”  Iolaus half bowed and fell in at her side as they continued towards the river.  “I heard people talking about Athens in the inn at breakfast. Seems like they’re not doing so well?”

“That’s what we’re hearing from the soldiers who are joining Xe’s army, and from the merchants in the train.” Gabrielle confirmed. “They’re heading here, and also into lower Thrace, because there’s not much extra coin to be had in the city.”

“Herc was pretty sure some of that was because of his sisters.”  Iolaus lowered his voice.  “With them being mortal, I mean.”

“Oh, huh.”  Gabrielle mused. “Like what happened when Ares was?”

Iolaus nodded.

“That’s an interesting idea.”  Gabrielle glanced across the long slope as they walked. “Oh!” She stopped. “What in the heck are they doing?”

“Sliding.” Solari said. “They start up at the top of the slope there, and end up near the river.” She pointed. “They put hay bales down there to keep the kids from zooming off into the water.”

The bard put her hands on her hips as she watched the action. Two of the older boys had just pulled their sled, which appeared to be an old, round shield, up to the top of the slope and they were holding it as two of the youngers climbed on it, holding on as they were given a good shove off down the hill.

The squeals reached her ears, and she could see how excited the kids were, including hers. Dori and her cousins were  up at the front of the group, waiting for their turn to take a ride down.

“Looks like fun.” Aalene commented. “Maybe when the kids are all done we should take a turn.” 

Reassured, Gabrielle chuckled and motioned them down the slope.  She could hear snatches of music floating up and she increased her pace a little,  pausing near the bridge and looking back over her shoulder as she heard Dori’s distinctive squeal.

“Look at those kids.”  Iolaus chuckled softly. “I used to do that when I was a babe.”

“Wasn’t’ any place flat enough in Potadeia.”   Gabrielle led them over the bridge and down into the market square.  “And anyway, us kids were already milking the sheep and cleaning their bedding by that age.”

“Goodness yes. I was hunting by then.” Cait agreed. “It does look like fun though.”

“It does.” Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled a little “Maybe I can talk Xe into taking a ride with me later.”

Throats were cleared all around.

“Oh people, c’mon.”  The queen mock sighed.

It was crowded.  They had to pause as they cleared the retaining wall as a crush of people moved past, in good spirits and chattering.   Gabrielle turned her head and looked around, seeing shoppers three deep at most stalls, and a stream of strangers coming in by the lower gates.  “Nice.”

There were soldiers around, she also noticed, strolling casually between the rows of merchants, standing quietly in the corners sipping ale, or engaged in conversation.  All of them bore weapons and were in their leather and chain mail armor, with their hide overtunics with Xena’s hawk head on them.

Casual, but obvious.  As was the fact that two of them just as casually attached themselves to her little party as they started to browse, striking up conversations with  Solari and Cait as though it was the most normal thing in the world for her to be trailing along eight people armed to the teeth around.

Gabrielle almost started laughing.  Eight people, or one Xena.    She sensed the presence of her soulmate nearby and paused at one of the jewelers booths, studying some cloak catches as that feeling got stronger and stronger, until a stream of warm air blew in her ear and the tall figure was at her side. “Hey hon.”

“Got some visitors I don’t like the look over near the bar.”  Xena’s voice uttered quietly.  “And a group from your hometown just came in the gates.”

Gabrielle lifted up the catch and turned, holding it up against Xena’s collarbone. “Thanks.”  She looked up into her partner’s eyes and almost poked her with the clasp pin as she lost track of her motion for a moment.  “Oops. Sorry. This would look pretty on you.”

It was a silver filigree, with a running horse chasing across it in gold  with a silver mane that reminded her of Argo and Iolaus.  “Don’t you guys think so?” Gabrielle caught the impish grin on Xena’s face and turned to see the jeweler also grinning.  “What’s so funny?”

“You were right, Xena.” The man said. “She picked it out right off.”

Bennu had drifted over, and was now looking over Gabrielle’s shoulder at the pin. “Nice for ya Genr’l.”  He commented. “Them fellers near the side there, says they’re just passin through, saw the market and came up.”

“I see.” Xena glanced down at her chest. “I like it.”

“Got coin from Thrace though.” Bennu concluded.

“Me too.” Gabrielle put the piece back down on the hide covering the man’s table, then pulled out her coin bag from it’s place on her belt. “Let’s get down to business.”  She said, taking the opportunity to glance at the gates at the group Xena had just spotted entering.   “Ah, there are some folks I know.”

“Keep an eye on the wanderers.”  Xena told Bennu.  “Maybe they’re just here to shop, but they make my shoulder blades itch.”

“Aye.”  Bennu moved off, just as the newcomers spotted Xena’s tall , distinctive form and started in their direction. 

The Amazons around Gabrielle dispersed a little, going over to nearby merchants and in Solari’s case, over to the tea seller.    Xena leaned casually against the jewelry stall, listening to Gabrielle bargain for her Solstice gift, lifting a hand in greeting to Tectdus as he neared.

The Potadeian smith returned the greeting. “Xena, it’s good to see you.”

Gabrielle turned at the voice and pushed her hood back. “Tectdus!  What a surprise!”

“Ah! Gabrielle. Didn’t recognize you in that cloak.” The smith smiled and offered a hand. “It’s good to see you!”

“Yeah.” Gabrielle returned the greeting wholeheartedly. “You’re not used to seeing me with this much clothing on, right?”  She chuckled as he blushed a little.  “Hang on a minute and we’ll share a cup – I’m getting Xe’s birthday present.”

Xena sighed.

The jeweler eyed her. “Said it was Solstice.” He  commented.

“Same day.”  Gabrielle said. “Now, where were we?”

Tectdus chuckled. “Surely.” He indicated the group with him, who were watching in mild bemusement. “We followed the train in. Stopped by us a few days back.  We’ve got a wagon and were hoping to get a stall to sell a bit ourselves. Just some basics.”

“Absolutely.” Xena said, looking around at the stalls. “I think we’ve got a place left. There.” She pointed towards a table that as yet had nothing on it. “That do ya?”

The smith grinned “Perfect.” He turned to the group with him. “See? I told you.” He said. “We have friends here.”

The other men looked relieved, not unrealistically unsure of their reception giving the mixed history both Xena and Gabrielle had with Potadeia.   “Thanks Xena.”  One of them said, a shepherd Xena remembered from times past.  “Got some decent wool this year, thought we could make a few dinars for a change.”

“Gwan and set up.” Xena said. “When Dinar Queen here is done, we’ll stop by.”

The Potadians moved on, leading their small wagon by, heading over to the spot Xena had indicated. “Marcus.” Xena tapped one of the town councilors on the shoulder. “Make sure those people get set up, and don’t tax them.”

Marcus looked past her. “All right, Xena. Friends of yours?”

“From Gabrielle’s hometown.” 

“Ah, of course.” The man went after them, catching up to Tectdus and offering him a clasp as they walked. 

“All right. We’re set.”  Gabrielle was putting a small wrapped bundle in her belt pouch.  “Wow, that was a surprise, huh?” She said, as they left the jeweler behind and started across the frosted ground.  “Xe, did I see someone with horses for sale coming down?”

“He had.”  Xena responded, with a brief smile. “I bought them all for the army.”

“Really?”

“Good blood  He brought them here to show me, matter of fact.” The warrior said. “I guess word’s out about that too.”

Gabrielle looked quickly up at her companion’s profile.  But there was only calm acceptance there, not a hint of the troubled conscience she’d come to expect.  “How far are we going to take this, Xe?” She asked.  “I realize most of the guys in the army have other skills to contribute, but can we afford this big a force just to defend the town?”

Xena’s pale eyes studied the area, then turned and lowered to meet hers. “That’s a good question.” She admitted. “But the fact is if word about your valley really gets out, we’re probably gonna need em.”

“Mm.”  Gabrielle grunted softly, then she reached out to touch Xena’s arm. “Gate.”

“I see em.”  Xena said. They were near the front of the market and now she turned, facing the entrance and casually pushing her cloak back off her shoulders and folding her arms as the small column of horses entered.

Three of her soldiers drifted over and intercepted them, one reaching up to put a hand on the bridle of the man in the lead, who held the staff that had their banner.   Bennu arrived a moment later, tilting his russet head up to talk to the man.

“What do you think?” Gabrielle asked. “Looks polite so far.”

They watched Bennu  nod, then he turned and pointed at them.   The man in the lead also nodded, then directed the rest of the group towards the communal paddock, and dismounted himself. He handed off his banner and the reins of his horse to one of the soldiers, leaving them behind as he accompanied Bennu towards them.

“So far so good.” Xena repressed a smile.  “Let’s see what we got.”  She started forward with Gabrielle and they met the newcomer halfway across the market, stopping  by the wine seller in a clear spot.

“Ah, Genr’l.” Bennu spoke first. “This be Carulous, from Phillipi” 

Xena studied the man, then extended a hand out. “Welcome.” She said, briefly. “I take it you got my message.”

He studied her in return.   Their eyes were on even level, and he had a cropped head of dark brown hair with dark gray eyes in deep sockets.   “I did.” He took her arm and returned the clasp.  “So I thought I would bring a few men out here to see who this message came from in truth.”

He had a deep, baritone voice and he wore his armor as though he lived in it. “And so you are the message sender. Xena of Amphipolis.”

Xena nodded, and released him. “That’s me.” She agreed. “This is my partner, Gabrielle.” She introduced the bard. 

“Madam.” Carulous inclined his head in her direction.  “I have to admit it was a shock to us, to get a note such as that. May we sit down at table and discuss it?”

“Sure.” Xena indicated the bridge.  “We can meet up inside the town. Not much space for it down here.” 

Carulous nodded. “I will leave my men here to enjoy the market.  We’ve been on the road a good while”   He said. “And it seems there is much to enjoy.”

Xena gave Gabrielle a sideways look, and a faint lift of her eyebrow. The bard immediately gave her a pat on the shoulder. “I’ll catch up with you later, hon.” She said. “I’ve got two disputes I have to sort out here.  Give me a yell if you need me.”

“Will do.” Xena mentally gave herself a shake. “Let’s go.  If you haven’t had anything on the road, we can grab something to eat up there.”

“It would be more than welcome.”  Carulous said instantly. “Please lead on.”

It had been a while… no.  Xena brought herself up sharply. She had never been in this role before, exactly, and so, had never looked at making allies this way.  Her previous incarnation as a warlord had never had a fixed home to it, they’d roamed over what lands they could taking what they could and any alliances had been momentary and lasted just as long as the desire for more plunder made them moot.

This was something else entirely  “I’ve been to Philippi.” She said, in a casual tone. “Not for a couple years though.”

Carulous nodded. “We have had our successes in the last while.  You’ll know then we are a river port town, not so different from here.”

“Right.” Xena led the way over the bridge, being given space in the crowds crossing as she passed through them. “We’ve had mixed luck lately.  But we’ve started growing. Seemed like good sense to reach out to neighbors for common issues.”

Carulous smiled briefly. “After the march of the Spartans through us? I suppose that’s a good thought.” He agreed. “And now that we have another trouble growing in our backyards, we thought it was a good idea to answer your outreach as well.”

“Another trouble?” Xena glanced sideways at him as they climbed the slope and passed through the town gates.  

“Makes me wish for more Spartans.”  Carulous said, bluntly. “They were swiftly gone and easily paid off.  This is somewhat different.”

Ah huh. Xena climbed up the steps and pushed open the door to her mother’s inn. Gonna be one of those days.  “Lets discuss it over a pitcher of ale.”

Carulous chuckled briefly. “Seems like we have at least this in common. Maybe its’ a good sign.”

**

Continued in Part 4