Body Heart and Soul

Part 4

Gabrielle was glad enough to step out of the crowd into the small booth where the Potadeians had settled, sharing a mug of cider with them as they finished setting out wares that were already being inspected by the throng of shoppers.

She was surprised to see Tectdus there, and said as much when he stepped back from the table to drink with her.

“Ah, Gabrielle. I’m getting on in years.” The smith said. “Winter’s hard on these old bones, I feel every hit of the hammer on the anvil.  I left Lennat minding the shop.”

“So traveling here in winter was better?” The bard asked him.

“Wasn’t a bad trip.  Just had the snow yesterday, but was an easy ride.” Tectdus disagreed.  “Besides, we were looking for some news about a lad went missing from town.  Figured with everyone here, maybe we’d find out about him.”

“Anyone I know?”

The smith settled against one of the crates. “Remember Sallah?  She went off out of town just fore you left home.”

Sallah.  A fiery, loudmouthed girl a few years her senior, who had fought with everyone she could get her hands on.  “I do.”  Gabrielle said, thoughtfully. “We all thought she ran off with that goat herder who was passing through, the one who stole that bale of pelts.”

Tectdus nodded. “That’s her.  She came back, just last season. Had a kid with her, scrappy little boy who had a chip for the world.”  He said. “She had enough of the herder, he’d got him children in half the towns round the place. Bad lot.”

 That would figure. Gabrielle remembered the girl as never being satisfied with anything, a bowlful of complaints all day long.  “So she came back home?”

“Tried to, sort of. Her folks were killed in the raid, in the war.” The smith said, quietly.

“Ah.” Gabrielle grunted softly. “So what did she do?”

“What she could do. Worked in the kitchen at the inn.  They were all right to her. Gave her and the kid bed space in the back, but she wasn’t happy.”

“Hey, I lived in my mother in law’s barn for a good long time. You take what you can get, you  know?”  Gabrielle’s lips twitched a little.  “But I remember Sallah. She wouldn’t take that really well.”

“No.” The smith said, keeping an eye on the table that held along with the rest shoes and pot hooks that came from his anvil.  “She used to kick the kid around. He just lit and took off one day, right after some folks came thorugh we didn’t like much.”

“Yeah?”  The bard lifted a hand and returned the wave of a pair of townsmen going past.  “What kind of people?”   She watched some of the Phillipi men wander by, with skins at their belts and apparently enjoying the market.

“Hard men.  Looked like they had some slaves with them, said they were taking them to port to sell them overseas.”  Tectdus replied promptly. “They were looking around close, so we figured maybe the kid ended up being picked up by them.”

“Huh.  Well, we haven’t seen that type here yet.” Gabrielle admitted. “Not sure they’d be bold enough to bring their custom in here.  Amphipolis isn’t that big, but we’re not just a roadside stop either.”

No, though they once had been. Larger than Potadiea by more than half when she’d first encountered it, now with their garrison walls and stout gates, and the armored soldiers wandering through Amphipolis was starting to build itself up and out. 

“Tis true. They only stopped by us to get some water from the horse trough and what news we were willing to give them.  But day after they left, the kid was gone and Sallah was sure to fire they’d taken him.”

Well, it was a reasonable conclusion. Gabrielle mused to herself. “Could the kid have run off to just get away from town? If he wasn’t happy, I mean.  Especially if she was knocking him around.”

“Well…”

“Hey, it happens.” Gabrielle smiled wistfully at him. “You get to that place where anything is better than where you are.  Someone comes by and its your ticket out.”

The smith looked at her, for a long silent moment. “That way for you, lass?”

“Absolutely.”  Gabrielle looked him right in the eye. “But I don’t think I’d have chased after slavers.”  She set her cup down. “And on that note, I’ve got to get back to work.” She put her hand on Tectdus’s arm. “Would you come have dinner with us tonight?  It’ll be up at the  town inn.”

He smiled. “I’d be sure happy to, Gabrielle.  See you after sundown.”

She emerged from the stall into the market, and like a shadow Cait fell into place at her side.  “Hey Cait. “

“Hello.” Cait greeted her. “I believe those players were looking for you.”

“On the stage?” Gabrielle started in that direction, edging her way through the crowd with some difficulty. “Sheeps! Where did all these people come from?”

“They all heard about this market.”  Cait stuck to her like a burr.  “Gosh the merchants are happy though.”

“I bet.” Her queen said, as they got into the more open area near the stage.  She could see the performers up on the platform, and she quickly trotted up onto the stage, moving across the wide surface with Cait at her heels.  “Hey guys.”

“Gabrielle!” One of the young players came over. “Oh, I’m glad you’re here. We had a question about the show tonight.”   He waved the group over. “It’s a bigger crowd than we thought.”

“That’s good, right?”

“Well…”

**

Xena settled into her usual seat and waited as Carolous took the opposite chair.  The inn was, unusually for these times, almost empty since most everyone was down in the market.   She watched him look around before he faced her, finding a quietly intense expression tensing his features.

A good looking man.  Roughly the same age as she was,  with a thin scar moving along his jawline to the point of his chin.  His eyes were guarded, but there was a general air of straightforwardness that Xena found appealing.

 One of the servers moved their way at once,  putting down mugs for each of them and giving Xena an inquisitive look.

“Hungry?” Xena asked her guest, who nodded.  “Two plates of whatever they’ve got, Chara.”

“You got it.” The server moved off and disappeared into the kitchen.

Carolous picked up his mug and took a sip, his brows lifting in reaction. “Do you export this? I’ll take a barrel if so.”  He said. “If the plates as good, you’re a lucky woman.”

Xena smiled.  “I’ll pass along the compliments.” She lifted her own mug and then took a swallow.  “It’s my family’s inn.”

He looked up in surprise. “You’re from these parts then?”

“My birthplace.” Xena smiled briefly. “Hate to disappoint everyone who thought I was born under Hades breastplate.”

He leaned back in his seat and smiled, his face relaxing. “Well, I will tell you that will be a relief to those just cross the border. There was much wondering being done as to why you picked this place to stake a claim.”

The door to the inn opened and Bennu came inside, with Nala.  He crossed over to where Xena was sitting and touched his chest. “Genr’l, just wanted to let y’know we grabbed us some pickpockets down the market.  Put em in the lock.”

“Scumbuckets.” Nala added, briefly.  “Didn’t figure on half the women walking around being Amazons.”

“Didn’t they see half the men walking around in armor?” Xena growled. “Keep them in the lock until the market’s over, Bennu. Then boot em out on the road.”

“Aye.”  Bennu saluted again, then nudged Nala’s arm. “S’get us a bite.”

They skirted the back table and went to the kitchen door, pushing it open and going through. 

Xena shook her head. “Market’s going better than we expected. Looks like we attracted everyone with a spare dinar for leagues.”

“Not surprising.” Carolous said, wiping his lips. “In this part of the hinterlands, you’ve become the biggest stopping point on the old east road.  We’d heard that, even before you sent the note.” He glanced past her at the now closed door. “So it’s true then, you’ve got Amazons here?”

“Scores of em.”  Xena’s eyes twinkled a little. “There’s a village up in the mid heights above the town.”

“Huh. Good neighbors?”  Carolous seemed doubtful.

“More or less.”

Chara came back and set down a big platter, which had steaming, freshly carved meat on it, along with a loaf of bread, and two bowls of soup. “Here ya go.  Eustace said to tell you it’s lamb barley.”

“Thanks.”  Xena claimed her bowl .  “We used to house a militia here, after the last war.  But Athens sent lackeys here once too often for my tastes. I figured if I was going to teach plowboys to fight I might as well start opening up land to protect with em.”

He was already nodding. “Phillipi started much the same.  We banded together, us and two nearby towns for protection from a couple bands of warlords. They’d come through every moon and take everything they could get their hands on. Got old.”

Xena remembered being one of those warlords and smiled a bit at the irony. “Yeah.” She commiserated. “That’s why we ended up with a militia, once I decided to retire and settle back home.”

“Us as well.   We gathered a bunch of guys and put up a fine little force, and they kept the peace.  Phillipi was glad of it, and more than happy to kick in to buy arms and beer for the men.”

“And then you got neighbors?”  Xena ripped the loaf of bread in half and handed him one portion.  “That’s the big seaport south of you?  I figured that’s where the Spartans came ashore.”

Carolous nodded. “Abbas. Yes.  They.. “ He took a bite of the sliced meats and bread.  “They, like your Amazons use to be more or less good neighbors.  We did trade with them, down the river. “

“But?”  Xena had picked up her soup bowl and was sipping from the edge of it. 

“But.”  He glanced around then back at her. “One day, after we hadn’t seen any of the raiders for some time, we got an emissary from Abbas.  Either hand over crops and dinars, or they’d wipe us off the map.”

“From a trading port?”

“A trading port that had been taken over.  Ever hear of a pirate called Toda?”

Xena’s eyes shifted off him and went slightly unfocused as she flipped through memories of the past. Then she looked back up at him. “No, can’t say I have.”

“Us neither.” Carolous promptly said. “He came with a fleet of ships and took the port town, it seems, and now he’s made it a base to send out pirates over the land like he did on the sea.”

“Huh.”

“We handed over crops and coin.”  He said, without a trace of embarrassment.  “The lot that showed up were well armed and mounted and it wasn’t a raider band.  We weren’t going to take a chance – militia or no.”

Xena used the excuse of having her mouth full to consider that before she answered.  Was this really the kind of ally she wanted? One who’d turn their belt pouches out without attempting to fight?

And yet, it was just exactly that she’d done with the Spartans wasn’t it?

She chewed thoughtfully  No, it wasn’t.  She hadn’t given anything. The Spartans had moved according to her orders.  “How many of them were there?” She took a sip of ale. 

“Hundred, mounted.”  Caroulous gave her a bitter smile.  “I didn’t have the luck of guarded walls.  We hadn’t gotten that far. Not like here.”

Ah. Well.  Xena shook her head. “That’s a tough call.” She commiserated.  “They’d have done a lot of damage. Killed a lot of people maybe.

He nodded. “Exactly.”

“But that probably means they’re coming back.” 

“Right. But they’d only cleared the pass back to the coast when your note showed up.” His lips twitched a little, almost another smile.  “So my town council met and we talked.  Your name and reputation aren’t unknown in Thrace.”

“Had to figure out which of us was a worse deal?” Xena looked amused. 

“No, not really.” He wiped his bowl out with  a bit of bread.  “I know things were different back in the day, but your more recent tales tell a different story.”

‘That’s true.”  Xena said, quietly. “”I’m neither a warlord or a mercenary these days. Just someone working to protect their home.  So.” She leaned on the table. “You interested in making a pact, or are you here to ask for help?”

He smiled easily back at her. “You don’t pull punches do you, Xena?”

“Never.” 

“Then both.” He said. “Yes, of course we’d love to enter into an alliance with you. I’d be an idiot not to, though you have far more to offer than we do.  But we also would ask if you could think about what to do with Toda and his crew.  They took over that entire port city  Wont’ be long before he’ll be looking around for more.”

Xena had already considered that.  She wasn’t sure if this pirate, whoever he was, would consider her a threat, but in the general area, she was the biggest threat and eventually this guy would hear about it.  Someone would tell him, hey, keep clear of Amphipolis. It’s dangerous there.

Which would make her, if she’d heard that immediately head that way. She wondered if Toda had that in common with her, or if he had sense.

“He’s running a lot of dark stuff there.” Carolous went on. “Slavery, of course, but buying and selling drugs – the market there’s full of that far eastern stuff.  He feeds it to kids, you know? Has them around him all the time.”

Xena’s dark and finely arched eyebrow lifted. 

“One of the merchants that came through there, heading past us to here, told us.  Said it was a pretty wild place. “

“So what was his bargain with you?  Pelts and grain for protection?”  Xena asked.  “One of the, hey, it sure would be a shame if some warlord ran thorugh here, huh?”

Carulous nodded. “You have it.” He said. “Said if we handed over the goods, not only would the not attack us, but they’d provide men and arms if anyone messed with us.  Some of my town though it was an all right deal.”

Xena’s pale eyes studied him. “But you didn’t believe they’d make good.”

“No.” He folded his hands and studied her right back. “I could see the animal in their eyes. You know what I mean?”

“Yes, I do.” Xena smiled at him.  “I think he needs a closer look.”

“I was hoping you’d say that.”

**

Gabrielle lifted one hand up, acknowledging the applause as the players took their final bows and all gestured to her, sitting there in the front row. 

“That was fun.”  Ephiny said, relaxing in her comfortable, backed chair next to her queen.  “I like how they did the horses. Much better than bringing the real ones on the stage.”

“Are you kidding me?” Gabrielle leaned back in her own chair. “Bring horses up there with Xe watching? She’d flip out.”

Ephiny chuckled.  “Where is she, anyway? Thought she’d be up here with us.”

Gabreille half turned and pointed. “Right over there, with some of her guys and our visitor from Thrace.” She watched her partner swivel around and meet her eyes, as she gave her a thumbs up.  ‘Can’t wait to hear what that all’s about.”

“Trouble?”

“When isn’t it?”  Gabrielle accepted a mug of freshly mulled cider from one of Cyrene’s servers and took a sip from it. The rich, pungent spices tickled her nose and she savored the taste of pears and apples in it

One of the best parts of the harvest.  The ciders and the fruit pies Cyrene baked that lasted well into the cold season and which both she and her partner loved.   She took another sip and turned her head to regard the crowd, acknowledging the cheerful attitude and general air of satisfaction.

“Been a good market so far.”  Ephiny conveniently echoed her thoughts.  “Das and Renas sold out, and so did Paladia.  Talked to Johan and he said the merchants from town have done well too.”

“And the players made out too.” Gabrielle indicated the half barrel set up at the side of the stage, where the crowd could toss in the odd dinar to mark their appreciation. She could hear the clink of coins even from where she was, and she knew these youngsters that had worked so hard to bring her story to life would earn some shopping money themselves.

It was good.  ‘They asked me what share I wanted from it.” Gabrielle indicated the barrel.  “I told them I had all I needed in life. Have at it.”

“That a good idea?  Never did turn dinars down, myself.” Her regent said. “You never  know, you know?”

“They worked hard, and they came back here just on a wish and prayer. Remember what happened to them last time?”  Gabrielle said. “If I’m ever desperate for coin I can always walk the road myself y’know.”

“True.”

“But honestly, I’ve got Xe and Dori.  And the town. And you all.  What more do I need? “ Gabrielle asked in a practical tone.  “Look at those kids. Some of them are so thin you can see through them. I heard them talking about how amazing it was going to be to be able to buy as many bowls of soup as they can eat and what it would be like to have fresh bread whenever they wanted.”

“You’d know what that’s like.  We may not have had gourmet food, but wasn’t many times we didn’t have any at all.” Ephiny remarked.   “Well, time to head back up the hill.” She stood up and the guards scattered casually around stood up as well.  “See you back at the village, Gab.”

“Be up in a little while.” Gabrielle got up and stretched, then went over to the stage where the players were gathered. “Good job, guys!”  She stepped up onto the platform, sensing a rush of energy at her back and pausing to let Xena catch up with her.

“It was a lot of fun, Gabrielle.”  The older, bearded man who was the leader of the players said, with a smile.  “They liked it!  Good story.”

“Thanks!”  Gabrielle grinned, as Mikah eased between the milling crowd and came to her side. “MIkah you were great.”

The young man smiled. “It felt great to get back to this.” He admitted. “I had no problem working around the town, but this is more my style, you know what I mean, Gabrielle?   I really enjoyed it.” He looked around at the market. “This feels really good.”

“Definitely a success.” Xena draped her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders. “You done for the night, your majesty?”  She eyed Gabrielle.  “I’m putting up our guests from Thrace in the barracks. Mom has no room at all tonight.”

It had been a long day.  Gabrielle was glad enough to leave the market, waving a good night to the players and milling Amazons as she and Xena headed for the bridge.  Halfway there, Iolaus caught up to them,  a new, heavily lined cloak settled over his shoulders.   “Hey there.”

“Hey you two.” Iolaus said. “Gabrielle, nicely done play. I really liked it.” He complimented the bard.

“Thanks.” Gabrielle smiled.  “How are you doing? I see you got some shopping in.” She reached over and fingered the cloak’s surface. “This is nice.”

“Doing fine.” Iolaus agreed briefly.  “It was good to just browse like a regular person for a change.  No one knew who I was.  Felt like a rock off my shoulders.”

Gabrielle knew what that felt like.  She could think of times when Xena had just tired of being herself, and they’d slipped into some small town or other, giving assumed names and just sitting in the common room in quiet anonymity.

She slipped her hand inside the crook of his elbow, and gave his arm a squeeze in silent sympathy.  “It was a good day.  I got some Solstice presents, and some birthday presents.”   She remarked.  “Some nice stuff for Dori, and some of the jarred honey that came in from the west coast, did you see it?”

“I did.”

They crossed the bridge and started up the slope to the town gates, along with a bunch of other cloaked figures, as the cold wind off the river came up behind them and fluttered the fabric around their legs.

The torches at the gates were being changed out, the flickering light outlining the crowd as they pass through, most of the figures splitting off and moving either towards the inn, or the barracks, with a column of laughing men and women heading to the cots further down the path.

“Well, see you ladies in the morning.”  Iolaus lifted his hand in a wave as he started for the back door to the inn.  “Sleep tight.”

“You too, Iolaus.”  Xena called out,  as they continued past.  “I brought Dori up before we had dinner out there.”  She told her partner, as they dodged slower walkers. “And I got the fire in there stoked while I was at it.”

Gabrielle could sense the mild turmoil in her.  “Let’s go and get warm, and you can tell me all about whatever it is that’s bugging you.”

Xena smiled wryly.

“Its going to bug me too, isn’t it”

“Yeah.”

“Great.”

**

It was blessedly nice to come into their quarters, with it’s cozy fire and waiting hot water pot waiting for them.   Gabrielle hung her cloak up on the peg  near the door and loosened the laces on her sleeves, moving closer to the fire as she pulled her shirt off over her head.

“Town the guy’s from is about the size of this one.”  Xena was on the other side of the fire, lifting her armor off.  “Except without the walls.”

“Uh huh.”  Gabrielle got one of her shifts on and went to fill the water pot from the pitcher standing by the mantel, moving the pot over to warm.  “Have you been there?”

“Long time ago, yeah.  They’re building out a little, have a small defense force,”  Xena got into her own shift and shook out her leathers, setting them near the worktable before she came over to where her partner was assembling cups of tea.

“So the problem is?”  Gabrielle finished fiddling with the herbs.

“Problem is they’ve got very bad neighbors.” 

“This is going to be one of those, boy I wish I hadn’t done that  kinda things huh?”

“Pour the tea.”

They sat down together on the couch.  For a while they just sipped their tea and listened to the sound of bootsteps outside, and the rattle of wind against the dried branches.  “Looks like some bad news sea dog took over Abbas.  It’s about the same size as Therma.”

“Okay.” Gabrielle drew the word out. “That’s pretty big.  It’s the place you figured the Spartans came in from?”

Xena nodded. “This guy sounds like he wants to take over that whole area.  Sent a mounted force of five score to bully Phillipi out of crops and coin.”

The bard’s eyes widened. “Five score?” She said. “That’s not a raiding party.”

“No.”  Xena agreed. “He’s running a den there, drugs, slaves, that kind of thing.  Probably has pirates from across half the Aegean putting in there.”

“That’s not good.  They’re not that far across the pass from us.  You think they  know we’re here? Or.. Amphipolis has been around a long time. You think he knows you’re here?”

Xena was silent for a good long time.  She cupped her hands around her tea and turned her head to look at Gabrielle. “I think we need to find out what his game is. Before it gets too late.”   She said. “Last time we ignored a threat didn’t turn out so good.”

“No.”  Gabrielle muttered. “Not so good.”   She studied the flames in the fireplace for a while. “We should find out, you’re right.” She took a breath.

“I’ll save us both the heartache. I’m going to send a recon party that doesn’t include me.”  Xena said, bluntly. “I don’t want to know bad enough to go through that again.”

Oh.  Gabrielle felt her jaw snick shut, as her eyes widened a little.  “Wow, Xe. You caught me by surprise there.”  She got up and went over to the hearth, refilling her cup with herbs.  “Who are you going to send?  Can a few of my Amazons go too?”

Xena studied the profile outlined in firelight, seeing the profound relaxation in Gabrielle’s shoulders and hearing the smile in her voice.  “Bennu and Jaxson, and three or four of the scouts.  Would love to take a couple of yours too.”

Gabrielle turned, swirling the herbs in the hot water to steep them. “You’re really  not going?”

“Really not.”  Xena turned sideways and extended her long legs up on the couch.  “At some point in my life I have to  learn not to live on the sharp edge of the sword, hon.  Besides, you don’t develop leaders in the army if you’re the only one who gets to lead.”

Gabrielle put her cup down, walked over to the couch and knelt, then leaned over and gave her partner a kiss on the lips.  ‘You are awesome.” She pulled her head back a little and looked into her partner’s eyes, finding a grin, and a gentle loving expression that made her heart skip a beat.  “Thanks Xe. But that wouldn’t have been heartache for me. I’d have gone with you. No big choice on my part.”

“I know.” Xena leaned her forearm on Gabrielle’s shoulder and gently massaged the back of her neck. “And who knows? It might come to our having to go to war again, sweetheart.  But let’s find out what’ going on first.”

Gabrielle squirmed up onto the couch and put her arms around her partner, giving her a squeeze.  ‘I hope not. I want some time just to live.”

Xena set her cup down and returned the hug.  “Right there with ya.”    She said, exhaling in contentment.  “Lets be grown ups for a while.”

Gabrielle started laughing, burying her face into the side of Xena’s neck.

**

Iolaus eased off his boots and extended his feet towards the fire,  settling back into the comfortable chair and folding his hands across his stomach.  In an animal comfort sort of way he was happy, not having to find a cave or a rock to sleep behind, shivering,  or hunt desperately for scarce game for his dinner.

It was all right to be here, in Amphipolis, surrounded by decent people who didn’t look crosswise at him, and accepted by all as a friend.

It was good to be around those people all day, and he’d had a surprisingly nice time in the market, walking around with Xena’s brother Toris, and his wife Granella. 

Now it was equally as nice to be relaxing in Cyrene’s snug back room, with a warm fire and a comfortable bed, knowing he had no place he had to be, and recognizing he had all the time he needed to decide what he was going to do next.

He missed Hercules.  It was lonely without him around, they’d been traveling as a team for so long that it was strange to be in so much silence by himself. Though things had been so crazy with them recently – and traveling with Herc’s mortal sisters had been horribly uncomfortable  - he still wished he was with them.

There seemed no sense in hiking around in winter looking for him.  Herc had a lot of good sense, and he reckoned the demi-god would know Iolaus would head for Amphipolis and so, either he would hear tales of his return somewhere, or Herc would turn up here looking for him.

A soft knock came at the door and he looked up at it .”C’mon in.”

It opened, and Cyrene stuck her head in. “Hello there.” She nudged the door all the way open. “We’re just shutting the kitchen down and I had some leftovers. Thought you might like some, since dinner was a while ago.”  

She entered and set a platter down.  “Got everything you need, Iolaus? I’m glad you’re getting to spend some quiet time here for a change.”

Iolaus smiled, shaking his head slightly. “Yes, I remember the last time I spent time here. Wasn’t very peaceful!”

“My pigs still remember you.”  The innkeeper’s eyes twinkled.  “You know Eustace swears that the smoked meat from that hog was the best she ever had, and it lasted forever.”

Iolaus managed a smile. “I have to admit that was the biggest porker I’d ever seen in my life.” He glanced at the platter. “Thanks for thinking of me. You’ve all been so kind.”

“Have a good night.” Cyrene chuckled, waggling her fingers.  She retreated out of the room and closed the door behind her.

Ironic.  Iolaus got up and went over to the platter, breaking off a piece of nutbread and nibbling it.  Ironic, because of all of them, it turned out that the one with the most normal, loving family had been Xena.

Given what she’d done, what she’d been – it seemed so incredible.   He remembered Gabrielle telling him about meeting Xena’s family for the first time, and how theyd almost stoned her to death.

Really. 

That same woman who had just been in here, making sure he had snacks for the night, had been a party to stoning her own daughter.

Now look at them. “I guess anyone can be forgiven, in enough time, eh?” He took another piece of nutbread with him and went to the small bed, putting his snack down on the wooden table beside it as he stripped off his clothing.

He slung his sword in it’s sheath over the headboard post and sat down to unlace his boots,  then he lay down on the bed and wriggled into a comfortable spot,  glad of the fire’s warmth soaking into his still a little chilled bones.

He could hear the sounds of people still, coming up from the market, and walking past the inn towards their homes, and suddenly he wondered what it would be like if his next move just wasn’t to make one.

What would it be like to stay here?  He studied the ceiling, dimly seen in the candlelight.   If Herc was stuck somewhere for a while?

He drew in a cautious breath.  What if Zeus finally  made him stay?  Put him somewhere, punishment for trying to help his sisters?

Trying to kill one of them?

Was he sitting somewhere, looking down at the world, no longer a part of it?  Not even able to send a message?

Iolaus hoped so, in a way.  He hoped the instant, assurances of both Gabrielle and Xena were as accurate as Xena’s ever were and that the truth wasn’t really that he’d just been left behind as the gods went and dealt with each other in places he couldn’t go.

And if that was true?  He swallowed.   Well there were things he could do here, weren’t there?  He had skills. He could even help out the new little troupe out there performing.  Xena would let him stay, he knew.

He’d been on the road a long time.   Maybe it was time to just go still for a while.

He thought about that, too, as he listened to the soft laughter floating in through the leaded window panes, footsteps heading to the rows of cabins that stretched behind the inn, each with it’s little garden and chicken coops.

“What would it be like, I wonder, to go home to one of those every night?” He asked aloud.  “I talked to Gabrielle today, and as much she says she loved wandering the world with Xena she sure seems happy now.

Happy, and settled and content.  Happy running her Amazons and raising her daughter, and, presumably,  enjoying her life with Xena all the more because she knew what it was to lose it.

“Nice.” He dusted his fingers off and half turned, blowing the candle out and then squirming under the covers.  “Maybe that’ll work out for me too.”   He was aware of trying to convince himself, but underneath it all he also felt some nugget of truth there.

He was tired.  He closed his eyes and waited for sleep to take him, putting aside the question for tomorrow.

And the world slowly faded out, that faint sort of dislocation that came just before sleep did making the slightest of echoes in his ears as his body relaxed into the soft mattress.

Balanced on the edge, in this world and not, and a voice gently called his name.  “Iolaus.”

A dream so soon?

“Iolaus.”

He opened his eyes and looked around, lifting up off the bed onto his elbows and peering into the corners of the room. “Someone there?”

Silence.

After a few moments he lay back down, shaking his head and closing his eyes.  This time, after a few minutes, he dropped all the way off into sleep.

**

Dori looked up from her task as the barn door opened. “Boo! Look!” She took a step back from Rusty’s side. “I brushed him real good.”

“So I see.”  Xena held the door open as Cait and Nala came in behind her. “You did a good job, kiddo.” She moved past Rusty’s stall to the ones behind it. “Okay, Cait, you go ahead and take Shadow, and Nala, I think Jasper’s your speed.”

“Say that again.”  Nala waved at Dori as she went over to the last stall, where a stolid bay horse was standing, looking inquisitively out at them. . “Hey there, Dori.”

Dori looked from one to the other then over at her parent. “What’s you doing Boo?”

“Not a thing.”  Xena told her. “Cait and Nala are going for a ride.  That’s all.”  She took a step back and let the two riders get about the business of saddling.    Both women were in thick leathers and cloaks, with heavy riding boots and full weaponry.  “Sounds like fun, right?”

“Yes.” Dori came over and started to brush Xena’s leg with the curry comb.  “Can we go ride too, Boo?”

“Sure. We’ll go riding later on. “ Xena let her hand drop down on her daughters’ head.  “But Cait and Nala are gonna ride a long way.  We’ll see them when they get back.”

“Cat, you bring me rocks?” Dori asked, plaintively. “I lost some.”

“Of course.” Cait finished putting Shadow’s bridle on. “I’ll pick up one every league for you.”  She promised the child.  “That’ll be great fun.”

Xena chuckled.  “Be careful.” She warned, after a moment. “Keep Bennu and those guys in line. No heroics. We want information and your hides back here in one piece.”

Nala led Jasper out of his stall. “Got it.” She answered briefly. “Cait, got some dinars with ya?”

“Yes, I do.” Cait pulled aside her cloak and showed a small bag tied off at her slim waist. “Two dozen fox pelts, that lot’s from.”  She said

“Here.” Xena went to the press in the corner of the barn and opened it, removing a sack and upturning it on one of the water barrels. “Take some of this. It’s not stamped here.”   She sorted through the coins and handed them both a couple handfuls.

“Boo can I have some!”  Dori pulled herself up so she could see the top of the barrel. “Pretty!”

“Here.”  Xena handed her one, a bright silver coin with a tree stamped on one side, and a flower on the other.  “You keep this, okay?”

“Tank you, Boo.” Dori took the coin and went over to the little chest in the back of Rusty’s stall, where she kept a collection of treasures. She added it to the box and closed it.   “You watch that Rusty.”

“Thanks.” Nala put the coins away. “I was a little worried about that – the town stamp is pretty distinctive.”  She patted Jasper on the cheek.  “Lets get going, Cait.  Benny and the boys are waiting for us at the river crossing.”

“Good luck.” Xena leaned against the stall divider.

“Thanks.”  Nala said, turning to lead her horse to the door.

Xena and Cait looked at each other for a moment, then Xena pushed off from the wall and opened her arms, giving Cait a hug. “Be careful.” She muttered in a low tone. “If  we’ve got to come out after you bunch none of us’ll ever hear the end of it.”

“I will, I promise.” Cait stepped back, blushing a bit, but looking pleased. “Do keep an eye on Pally will you?  I thinks she’s actually quite miffed she’s not going.”

“No problem.”  Xena waved as Cait led Shadow out  and a moment later, the door closed and it was quiet again.  She went over and sat down on a box next to Rusty.  “Cmere punkie.”

Dori came over to her and wrapped her arms around Xena’s  knee, putting her chin on the top of the joint.  “Hey Boo.”

“Hey Dori.”  Xena leaned back and lifted Dori up into her lap.  “Where are your cousins? How come you’re in here by yourself?”

“Dere at school.”  Her daughter informed her. “I didn’t want to go. Mama said I didn’t got to.”

Xena studied Dori’s snub nosed profile. “You don’t like school?”

“No.”

“I didn’t either.”   Xena told her. “I couldn’t sit still and just listen to somebody yap.”  

“Mama tells better.” 

“That’s true.”  Xena bounced her a little on her knee. “Your mama is the best storyteller in the world. Did you know that, Dor? I don’t mind listening to her all day long.”

Dori grinned at her. “Go mama!”

Xena stood up with Dori in her arms. “Let’s you and me go ride, and maybe we’ll find mama. How about that?”  She walked over to the pony and set Dori down on his back, picking up his reins and handing them to her. “Now sit up straight.”

Dori wiggled into position,  dropping her knees down and taking a firm hold  with her legs on the pony’s bare back.  “We go!”  She pointed his head at the door and squeezed his sides. “Go go go!”

“Ah ah.”  Xena moved over to Iolaus’ stall and unhooked the rope at the front, grasping his mane as he moved eagerly forward and launching herself up onto his back. “Dori, wait for us.”

Iolaus caught up to Rusty at the door, and the horses bumped the portals open,  and she kept Iolaus alongside as Rusty started down the path at a brisk trot. 

The pace didn’t disturb Dori at all. Xena watched her daughter as she moved with the animal, a smile of pride crossing her face as she watched her ride.   “Lets go down across the river, Dor, and find Mama.”

“We go!” Dori laughed. “Go Rusty!”  She urged the pony faster and a moment later they were cantering past the inn, waving at Cyrene who was standing on the porch.  “Gramma!”

“You two be careful!”  Cyrene yelled.  “Xena, there’s ice on that bridge!”

“Got it!”  Xena guided Iolaus with her knees, the stallion racing free without so much as a halter on.  She got in front of Dori as they went down the slope, the bright sun of a crisp cold day drenching them.

She could see Cait and Nala, with Bennu and his group and ahead of them on the bridge she saw the group from Phillipi  making their way down.  They heard the hoofbeats behind them and paused, then turned as they saw the two horses heading their way.

“Go fast!” Dori was in high delight, her hair being blown back by the air.  “Boo!”

Xena chuckled, slowing Iolaus a little. “Take it easy Dor.  There are more people there.”

Dori took hold of her reins and they trotted together up to where Caroulous and his party were waiting.

“Morning.” Xena held a hand up, as Iolaus came to a halt. “Wanted to give you all a send off. “

Carolous lifted his hand in response.  “Good morning, Xena.  My compliments to you for our lodging. Your men were most accommodating.” He glanced at the pony and it’s small rider. “Is this your little one? Surely she must be. She looks just like you.”

“Yes, she is. This is Doriana, our daughter.”  Xena responded.  “You have everything you need to travel?  I can see my gang is picking up a few things in the market.”

They started across the bridge, and Carolous fell in beside Xena. “We really appreciate you sending your troops with us, Xena.  A half dozen of my men have agreed they will go with them in this scouting party.”

“Good.”  Xena had her hands resting on her thighs, and one eye firmly fastened on Dori’s tousled, dark head.  Iolaus tossed his head, eying the other horses as their hooves clattered along the wooden planks of the bridge.

Downstream,  the water was already showing a low level, and there was frost whitening the dust brown grasses exposed at the edges.  Though the sky was a bright blue, and the sun was shining, Xena’s weather sense told her that wouldn’t last, and they’d be glad to escape inside.

Off the bridge they spread out and headed to the market,  and Xena spotted Gabrielle bargaining at one of the stalls.  As she watched, her partner straightened and turned, looking right at them and a big smile appeared on her face. “Look Dor, it’s mama.”

“Mama!”   Dori pressed her knees into Rusty’s side and the pony obligingly sped up into a canter again, as she headed towards where Gabrielle was standing. “Mama!”

Xena chuckled.

“She’s an adorable child.” One of the other men said. “Quite a rider.”

“Yeah.”  Xena nodding approvingly as she watched her kids perfect balance. “She’s been riding since she could sit upright. Loves horses.”  She sorted out a bit of Iolaus’s mane. “Gets that from me.”

Carolous glanced at her, then at Dori, then at Gabrielle, who had come to greet rider and pony.  Then he looked back at Xena, with a faintly bewildered look on his face.

Xena just ignored him.  She nudged Iolaus forward and smiled a little as the stallion put on a few fancy steps, his nostrils flaring as he caught the scent of two of the mares waiting for them near the edge of the market.  “Ah ah ah.”

Iolaus snorted and shook his head.

“Don’t start with me, buddy.  You got plenty of action this year.”  Xena patted his neck as she used the advantage of his high back to scan the crowd, and the market. 

Everything seemed quiet.

And yet.  Xena’s ear twitched and she turned her head sideways and down, listening past the early sounds of the merchants and the laughter of her family nearby. 

Bennu noticed, and a moment later he was at her side, his hand laying on Iolaus’  golden neck. “Problems, Xena?”

“Horse on its way in, fast.”  Xena said. “Send someone to see if it’s the watch from downriver.”

“Aye.”

“What’s up, hon?”  Gabrielle took his place as he moved quickly off. 

“Nothing maybe.”  Xena swung her leg over the stallion’s rump and sat sideways on him, her hands resting on the base of his neck and his hindquarters.  “I hear a horse coming.”

“They could be coming to the market.”

“Nothing in this market should be making  them come that fast.”

“Ah.”  Gabrielle had her other hand wrapped around Rusty’s bridle.  “You giving Dori bareback lessons? Let her leave the steering bits on for a while if you are.”

“Nah, Dori just wanted to go for a ride and I didn’t want to take the time to tack him up.” Xena told her. “Everything all right down here?”

“Sure, fine.” The bard answered. “Merchants are happy, town’s happy, Amazons are happy. I’m waiting for a drunk unicorn to come and poop all over the place because this much success is scaring the fleece off me.”

“Mama, look.” Dori hopped off Rusty’s back and pointed. “Dere’s a ducky!”

“That’s great, sweetie. But he’s swimming with his family. We can’t go after him.” Gabrielle told her. “Are your friends still in school? I think I see your cousins coming down the path.”

Dori’s head whipped around and she spotted the twins.  She scrambled back over and reached up to grab Rusty’s mane, pulling herself onto his back. “Mama leggo!”

“Be careful.” Gabreille handed over the reins and got out of the way as Rusty clattered back onto the bridge and back the way they’d come at a brisk pace. “Oh boy.”  She waved at Toris, who was coming down behind his kids.

Toris waved back, and then pointed at Dori, shaking his head.

Xena just chuckled.

“You and your horses.”  The bard sighed.  “I enjoyed the market, but I’ll be glad when it’s all gone and we can go back to setting up stuff.”

“Mm.”  Xena saw Bennu returning and she straightened up as she read his body posture. “Hm.” She got herself seated more conventionally on Iolaus’ back as the red haired soldier came closer. “What’s up?”

“It’s the watch comin in, surely, but he’s got something.. body maybe, over his horse’s haunches.”  Bennu reported. “Hurt maybe.”

“Okay.”  Xena said. “You keep moving out.  We’ll see what’s up with the watch.” She guided Iolaus with her knees past the scouting party, reaching down with one arm to grab Gabrielle and pull her up behind her. “C’mon, mama.”

Gabrielle got her arm around her partner’s waist. “Mind if I close my eyes since no one’s steering?”

“Ppfft.”

They detoured around the group and headed through the market at a trot,  then moved into a canter as they cleared the last booth and approached the outer town gates.   A half dozen soldiers were already there watching the oncoming horse, and they moved aside as Xena and Gabrielle arrived.

The gates were open, and they could see all the way almost to the bend.  There was a horse galloping along the river road, puffs of dust coming up from his hooves and when he got closer, visible steam coming off his coat. 

The rider waved an arm as he closed in. “Need a healer!”

“Eh.” Xena slid down off Iolaus’ back and headed for the gate. “Going to be one of those mornings, huh?”

Gabrielle inched forward on the horse’s back, deciding to stay onboard so she could see what was going on over everyone’s head.  She hoped whoever the guard was bringing in wasn’t too badly hurt, possibly someone had stayed out in the cold too long.

She felt Iolaus start under her as the mounted guard thundered thorugh the gates and pulled up, the soldiers around them closing in to help him shift his burden off his horse’s haunches. “Easy, big boy.” She patted her mount on the neck.  “Your mom’s got it under control.”

And Xena did – kneeling beside the fur wrapped bundle as her men let it gently to the ground and pulled the covering aside.   The warrior took one look, then looked directly up at her and Gabrielle felt that whoomp of solid emotion that had her sliding down off Iolaus and running over.

She dropped to one knee at Xena’s side and looked down at the huddled form, inhaling sharply as she recognized, barely, Alana’s once haughty features. “Oh crap.”

“Yeah.”  Xena evaluated the woman’s condition quickly, then looked up at the guard, who had dismounted and was catching his breath. “What happened?”

“Was coming back from the pass, Genr’l.” The watchman said.  “Just passing the ford and saw something moving in the grass.  Was her.” He indicated the woman. “Been sore used.”

“Thanks for coming fast.”  Gabrielle said.  “Xena… “

“Yeah.” The warrior covered the woman up again in the furs. “Not good. She’s been beaten, probably some broken bones,  maybe worse. We should get her up to the .. “She paused. “The barracks. We’ve got beds there, and two of those rooms in the back with single beds.”

“How about up to the village?” Her soulmate said, quietly.

“Eventually. Let me check her out first.” Xena said. “Need a stretcher, boys.”

“On it, genr’l.” Two of the guard headed for the nearby woodpile.

“What’s up?” Ephiny arrived, with Eponin at her heels, apparently having been summoned.  “Is that.. it is.” She put her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “Crap.”

“That’s what I said.” The bard exhaled.  “She was the only one there, Beren?”  

The watch nodded. “Aye, Gabrielle, she was, like she’d been thrown down, you know?  Was just moving a bit, didn’t say anything to me when I got hold of her.” He looked down at the battered woman.   “Poor thing.”

Xena touched the woman’s eyelids, feeling no response to the slight pressure. She slid her long fingers over her skull and grimaced a little. “Concussion, probably.  She’s got two or three big bumps there.”

“Genr’l, this do” The guard came over with a cloak fastened between two relatively straight poles.  They knelt down and between them, Xena and Gabrielle they shifted the injured woman onto the cloak, then stood and lifted her. 

“Take her over to the healer’s rooms in the barracks.”  Xena ordered. “I’m going to go up to the inn and get my kit.”

“I”ll get it for you,  Xe.” Gabrielle said. “Go on with them. Iolaus’ll follow you – he just splutters all over me.” She put her hand on Xena’s back. “Ephiny.. “ She lowered her voice. “Let Nala and Cait know. Have them keep their eyes out for anything on the road.”

“They’re going the other direction, but sure.” Ephiny tugged Eponin’s sleeve. “Let’s keep it quiet though.  Wait till we find out what the deal is.”

Xena followed the stretcher.  Gabrielle headed across the bridge ahead of her on her way to the inn, diverting to intercept Toris as he herded the kids to come meet her.

Trouble, again.  “Hey Tor.” 

Toris was watching the stretcher heading past them. “What happened? Someone get hurt?” He had Rusty’s reins in one hand, while the twins and Dori chased a squirrel across the rough ground.  

“One of the Amazons that left yesterday ran into some trouble I guess. We don’t know much. Xe’s going to see what she can do for her. She’s pretty banged up” Gabrielle said. “I’m going to go grab her kit.”

Toris nodded. “I’ll take the kids down in the market.  Hope it’s not too bad, even though I know you all didn’t get along with that gang.”

“Hope it isn’t for a different reason.  I want to find out what happened to her.”  Gabrielle said, grimly. “And where the rest of them are.”

“Never ends.”

“Never does.”

**

Xena leaned back on the stool she was crouched on, wiping her hands on a bit of damp cloth.   The Amazon’s eyes were closed and she was breathing with short, rapid pants, insensible to the outside world.

Which was, the warrior acknowledged, a good thing. Aside from the head injury, the woman had suffered broken ribs, a broken leg, and a number of other, lesser hurts. “Hope she stays under.’ She commented briefly.

Gabrielle was sitting on a bench against the wall, leaning forward a little with her elbows braced against her knees.  “They took her weapons.” She noted.

“They raped her.”  Xena said, after a moment of silence.  “Looks like more than once.”

Gabrielle grimaced.

Xena got up and picked up the basin of water she’d used to clean off the injured woman and went to the corner sump, pouring the blood tinged liquid into the trough and watching it flow away.    She then rinsed the basin out and set it back down on the table against the far wall. “Let me get someone to sit with her.”

Gabrielle got up and went over to the cot, gazing briefly down at Thera.  With the bandages covering part of her neck and jaw, face blank in unconsciousness she seemed hardly older than a child. ‘Guess we need to wait to find out what happened to you.” She sighed.

Xena returned from the inner door that opened into the barracks.  “I sent the guard back down towards the pass with a dozen soldiers.  See if they can find any raiders.”

“Could just as easily have been Tectdus’ group that got attacked.”  Gabrielle mused,  taking a step back as one of  Xena’s men came in and settled quietly at the bedside.  “Except maybe they had a wagon, and were men.”

“Deggan,  come get me if she wakes up.  See if she’ll drink if she does.” Xena left him with a waterskin, and clapped him on the shoulder.  “She got hit in the head, might come out of it not knowing what’s going on.”

“Aye, Xena.”  The older man nodded. “Got my kit here. I’ll watch the hurts.” He touched the healer’s pouch at his belt. “Sent one of the lads over to get some soup from the inn, if it goes all right.”

“Good idea.”  Xena handed Gabrielle her cloak. “We’ll be back.”  She got her own cloak on and fastened it, then she and the bard left the infirmary and walked down the inner hall to the main entrance to the barracks.

There was a big and sturdy porch on the outside, where in good weather the soldiers could work on various small projects.  To the inside were long sleeping rooms, with cots and space for the men and women who made up Xena’s army to have their personal gear.

It smelled of curing wood and leather inside,  and from the sparring room in the very center of the complex the sound of swords ringing together could be heard through the walls. 

Many of the soldiers were out and about, some were up the mountain helping the Amazons mine the valley, some were hunting, some were collecting firewood.  As Gabrielle walked with Xena through, she could almost sense the contentment of those she did see.

The inside courtyard, besides holding the sparring chamber also had stables and working spaces, everything with the unweathered just finished look of new construction.

Which it was.  “Hard to believe we did all this in such a short time.”  Gabrielle commented.  “We’re going to have to expand down the hill along the river at this rate.”

“Yup.” Xena agreed.

They walked together in silence for a minute or two. “What do you think happened, Xe?” Gabrielle eventually asked. “That was a well armed group of Amazons.”

“It was.” Her partner mused, thoughtfully.  “Weather was clear. There’s really no place for them to have stopped this side of Potadeia.”

“I thought they’d go through the pass, and stop on that side.”

Xena paused. “Maybe the rest of them did.” She studied her partner’s profile. “Maybe that power play happened.”

Gabrielle’s face tensed, one of her hands coming to rest on her hip.  “And they left her behind?”

“Could have thought she was dead, with that head wound.”  The warrior said. “Left her, and some bastard found her and took advantage of a helpless woman.”

“Ugh.”

“C’mon.”

They emerged into the chill and headed up the path that went along the slope up to the town, heading to the common paddock where the sound of children’s voices was loud and distinct.  In the paddock the goats were huddled warily on one side, and a circle of kids were around Rusty on the other.

Dori had one hand on his bridle and she was pointing at his hoof.   Some of the children were laughing, but two of the boys were yelling something in an apparent challenge. 

Dori shook her head.

Solon and Lyceus got up on either side of their cousin and yelled back at the two aggressors, but then everyone started laughing again, and it was all over with by the time Xena and Gabrielle were in hearing range. 

One of the kids broke from the group and wandered over to the goats, holding his hand out to one who sniffed at his fingers suspiciously.  He turned his head. “Can we ride dese?”  He pointed. “Got lots!”

The children turned and headed in a group towards the now alarmed looking goats, while Dori and her cousins stayed where they were, petting Rusty’s shaggy coat.  “No ride dem goats.”  Lolo said, looking up as a shadow fell over them. “Aunties!”

“Hey kids.”  Gabrielle climbed over the paddock fence while Xena merely leaned against it.  “What’s going on here?”

“Mama, I found out about the pointing thing.”  Dori said. “The one Lolo found it?” 

“Ah.”  Gabrielle went over and scratched Rusty’s ears. “ Hon, I forgot to tell you about that. They found a caltrop in the barn.”

Xena straightened up and vaulted the fence. “What?”

“I found it! I found it!” Lolo said. “In the straws.”

Gabrielle removed the item from her carrybag and handed it to her partner. “So what did you find out about it, Dor?” She knelt down next to her daughter, carefully avoiding what you usually found in animal enclosures. 

Xena leaned back against the fence and studied the caltrop.   She turned her head a little as footsteps came up behind her, then relaxed when she recognized Iolaus. “Hey.”

“What’s going on?” He leaned on the other side of the fence. “Someone said someone was attacked on the road?”

“One of those Amazons who came in same day you did.”  Xena said, briefly. “Got into some trouble on the road. Watch brought them in.” She handed him the caltrop. “The kids found this in the barn.”

“Yow.”   He turned it over in his fingers. “That’s not good. Especially not in that stable.”

“No kidding.” Xena sighed. “I thought it was too relaxed around here. Should have kept my mouth shut about it.”

“Hon.” Gabrielle was walking over to her, with one of the children at her side being held by the hand. “Georgie has something interesting to tell you about that piece of metal.”

Georgie was the son of the local smith, and now he was looking wide eyed at Xena. “Didn’t mean to do nuthin!” He said, at once.

Dori came over, leading Rusty by the reins, and her cousins clustered behind her, all of them up against the fence where Xena and Iolaus were standing.  Rusty was chewing a bit of dried grass, and now he extended his head forward and  nibbled on Xena’s cloak.

“It’s okay, Georgie. Just tell Xena what you told me.” Gabrielle encouraged him. “Then we can go into the barn and I’ll tell everyone a story. How about that?”

The children had trailed after them and now all of the broke into a clamor of approval. 

Georgie was one of the kids who had been disagreeing with Dori, Xena noted, and now he looked overwhelmed and a little terrified of her.    She dropped to one knee much as Gabrielle had, and relaxed her expression.  “So what’s the story Georgie?  Where did that thing come from?”

“T’market.” Georgie said, after a doubtful moment.  “Man there, he gave me a dinar, said it would be lucky for him if’n I dropped the thing up in the stable.”

“Mm.”  Xena made a low sound in her throat.  “Was this guy a visitor or someone who lived here?”

The boy was already shaking his head. “Didn’t know im.  Just wanted the coin to spend on my mama. Get her some stuff.” He rubbed the back of his hand over his eyes.  “I didn’t know it could hurt the horsies honest.”

“Bad mens.” Dori commented. 

“It’s okay, because none of them got hurt.” Xena told him, consciously gentling her voice.   “If we go down to the market, could you tell me if you see the guy though?”

Georgie nodded.

“You’re gonna get him in trouble.” One of the other boys said.  “He won’t give you no more coins.”

Xena’s head lifted and she stared past Georgie at the other boy.  “You think it’s okay to hurt your friends and neighbors for some coins?” She asked, flatly.  

“Was just a piece of iron!” The boy answered.  “Didn’t hurt nothing.” He backed off a step, uneasy under that cold, blue stare.

“That piece of iron was made to puncture the foot of a horse or a cow.”  Xena said. “Sometimes it hurts them so bad you have to put them down. You know what that is?”

The boy blanched. “Oh.”

Gabrielle’s hand dropped gently on her partner’s shoulder. “It didn’t, because Lolo found it.  If he hadn’t, and it had stayed in the barn, it could have hurt one of the horses very badly.”

Lolo puffed his chest out. “Dats right.”

“I’ll tell you if I see him.” Georgie spoke up. “I didn’t mean to do a bad thing. I don’t want to hurt none of the horsies.”

“Good boy.” Xena stood up and ruffled his hair. “Let’s go for a walk down there, and maybe we’ll find some cookies.”

“Cookies!” Dori said, alertly. “We go too?”

“Everyone.” Xena went to the gate and swung it open, so the children and Rusty could exit.  She followed them out and closed the gate to keep the goats inside, waiting briefly for Gabrielle to join her.

‘He’s probably left by now.” The bard said, softly. 

“Probably, but let’s find out. “ Xena motioned Iolaus to join them, and made a hand signal to two of her men who had been watching unobtrusively.  “It’s not making sense.”

“No.” Gabrielle sighed. “Really starting to be one of those days.”

**

The merchants were busy packing up as they all arrived, but halted when they spotted the group entering the square, enticed by the idea of getting rid of a little more stock and not having to cart it off.

Dori was on Rusty’s back,  the pony’s reins held firmly in her mother’s strong hand.  “Okay kids, let’s take a walk around and see what we can find.”

The children were clustered around Gabrielle, some with their hands on Rusty. Behind them Xena and Iolaus walked along together, watching the crowd.

Townsfolk were starting to close up the booths, and they came first to the one near the stage that held the Amazon’s.  Paladia was standing with Aalene, two stout packs leaning against the trestle tables next to them.

They looked up as the group approached, and Aalene came forward to greet them. “What’s all this?” She laughed as the kids chorused hellos.  “Morning, your majesty.”

“Hi there.  We’re just taking a tour.”  Gabrielle responded. “You all done here?”

“Just about.  Most of the mob just went up the hill.   Paladia and I were just getting the last of our gear up.”  Aalene indicated her companion.  “We’re about to head up.”

Georgie was standing next to Xena, earnestly looking around the square. “Everybody go.” He said. “The man was ober there.” He pointed at the stall, now closed down and empty, where the leather seller had been.  “Was with the guy there.”

Xena went in that direction, strolling quietly across the churned up ground that even now had a thin skin of frost on it. Overhead the clouds were beginning to gather on the horizon, and the winds were coming up, flapping the sheltering overhangs the townsmen were busy strapping down.

“Looks like weather’s getting worse. “  The baker said, as Xena passed. “Care for a bun, Xena? Save me the trouble of carrying it.” 

The warrior selected one and leaned on the counter, motioning Iolaus to do the same. “Thanks Sara.  You noticed any one hanging around at the stall across from here?  Not the seller, someone else?”

The baker studied her in silence for a moment, then she half shrugged. “There were a lot people around. Strangers I mean. I saw some folks from Potadeia way, and a few from through the pass.”  She pondered a moment.  “Man or two, I didn’t like the look of.”

“Uh huh.”

“One bearded fellow. Kept trying to get free goods from me, and from Ballus there, with the wine.  Said we should be glad to hand over for no cost, since the market was doing so well.”

Hm.  Xena chewed on the bun thoughtfully. It had nuts and dried fruits in it, and was liberally laced with honey. “Well can’t say I blame him, Sara.” She winked at the baker. “He had good taste.” 

The woman smiled at her. “Ah, g’wan with you, Xena.  But no, this fellow, he seemed slimy. You know what I mean?”

“When did he leave, do you know?”

“Last night.” Sara supplied promptly. “Right after the show finished. You know that was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it.”

“Yeah, they did a good job. I liked it to.” Xena dusted her fingers off. “Thanks Sara. Glad you had a good time, and a  good market.” She started to turn, when something caught her eye and she stopped, leaning closer to the edge of the table and peering hard.

“What is it?” Iolaus knelt at her side.

“You’re missing your profits, Sara.” Xena got her arm down between the table and the support and then stood, bringing back a glittering bit of metal between her fingers.  She glanced at the imprint, then offered it to the baker.

“Goodness.” Sara took it, frowning. “How could that have ended up there?  What stamp is this, Xena, do you know it?”

“Its from Thrace.” The warrior answered quietly  “From one of the port cities there.”    She pushed away from the trestle. “Later.” She walked away from the stall and went over to the spot where the hide vendor had been, circling the closed booth, the musky scent of the skins still lingering.

Georgie came running over to her, and pointed at the barrel to one side. “Dere.” He said. “The guy was dere, and he gave me the coin when I come back.”  

“You told him where you put it?”  Xena thumped her boot against the barrel idly.

“Yah.”

Xena thumped the barrel again, the sound striking her as somewhat strange.  “Thanks for showing me, Georgie.” She  put her hands against the barrel and pushed against it. “What the hades is in here?”

“Water?”  Iolaus kicked it. “Ow. No.” He hopped once of twice. “That was idiotic.”

Georgie started to laugh.

“Garun.”  Xena motioned over one of the soldiers nearby. “Get this thing open wouldja?”

She tipped the barrel over and gave it a healthy shove with her boot, rolling it out into the path as her men came over with axes.  “Cut the top off.”

Gabrielle had started her way with Dori and the kids all were running over to see what was going on.  Xena watched Garun brace his boot against the wood and swing, and as he did, she held a hand up in the bard’s direction. “Hold up.”

The ax hit the barrel and one of the spars split and she got a glimpse of a bit of gray and white.   Garun whacked it again and the side came off and a sodden stench started to rise.

“Ew.” Georgie pinched his nose and took a step back.

“Gab, get the kids back.” Xena waved them off.  “Go on back there, Georgie. There’s something bad here.”

Gabrielle stopped and half turned. “Aalene, give me a hand?”

The Amazon came running, and Paladia was right behind her.  They just got the children corralled by the time Xena and the soldiers pulled the barrel open and a large figure came rolling out of it, to sprawl stiffly on the ground, still and lifeless.

Georgie clapped his hands over his mouth, his eyes growing huge and round in his head.  He turned and ran, getting back over to the rest of the children and ending up throwing his arms around the bard’s legs.  “S’him!” He choked out.  “He’s all dead!”

Xena and Iolaus came to stand over the body, blocking the view from the rest of the kids.  They looked at each other, and Iolaus shook his head a little. 

“All right. Take him over to the table over there. Let’s see if he can tell us anything.”  Xena said.  “Get everyone else inside.”

“Aye, Genr’l.”

**

Continued in Part 5