Body Heart and Soul

Part 5

Gabrielle was very glad to sit down at the kitchen table in the inn, with a mug of hot tea.  The kids had been coaxed off to play in the barn and she’d just returned from there herself after offering up the promised story. “Sheeps.”

“So what happened?”  Cyrene joined her, with a bowl of soup that she put on the table and plunked a spoon into.  “Everything was rolling right along I thought.”

“Where do I start.”  Gabrielle leaned back against the wall and stretched her legs out along the bench.  “It started with Auntie Gabrielle finding the kiddies playing defend the fort in the barn.”

“I remember walking in on some of that, back in the day.” Her mother in law smiled briefly. “My two boys being run over by my little girl.”

“Eheheheh.” Gabrielle chuckled. “Pretty much how it was this time, but to be fair, Dori had Rusty on her side.” She hiked a knee up. “Anyway, I saw a caltrop on the ground and it turned out Lyceus had found it in the barn.”

“That’s not good.”

“No, so to make long story short, turns out one of the town kids got a dinar to drop it in there, and the guy we found dead in a barrel’s the one who gave it to him.”

Cyrene sat up straight and blinked at her in silence for a long moment.

“So how was your day?”  Gabrielle toasted her with her mug.  “Xe’s seeing if she can find any identification on the body and figure out how he was killed. “  She took a swallow of the tea. “And checking on that Amazon that got beaten on the road.”

“Terrible.”  Cyrene managed to say. “Even though they weren’t nice, no one deserves that. I went down to the barracks and brought the boys some soup and stopped in.  My gods. Amazing she lived.”

“That’s what Xe said.” 

“At least the market went well.  Hopefully today wasn’t a harbinger of a bad winter to come.”   The innkeeper sighed. “And I don’t like the sound of that mission to Thrace. We’re asking for trouble if you ask me.”

“Mm.”  Gabrielle cradled her mug in both hands. “Unfortunately once we knew they were there, we couldn’t really ignore them, mom.  That just gets you into worse trouble.  We learned that the hard way.”

“Mm.”  Cyrene grunted softly. “I just hope no one ends up getting hurt.” She took a moment to drink some of the soup right from the bowl.    She put the bowl down and wiped her lips, in a motion endearingly like her daughters.  “I was talking to Dori earlier. She doesn’t like school now?”

Gabrielle sighed. “She likes the Amazon school better.” She admitted. “Maybe it’s that they do things, not really sit and learn. She’s not really good at sitting and paying attention to someone who’s talking at her.”

Cyrene chuckled wryly.

“Oh yeah, I can see where it came from.”  The bard smiled at her.  “I just want to make sure she gets exposed to different influences, you know? She’s learned from me, from Xena, from the Amazons.. this is her home. I want her to know what that’s all about too because I grew up in a place like this and I think there’s value in that.”

“She’s a very lucky little girl.”  Cyrene said, in a serious tone. “Most kids don’t get a choice. Many don’t get any teaching at all. It’s a luxury, we all know it. We made the choice, to all pitch in and support the teachers, and build the little school there.”

“Oh I know.”  Gabrielle got up and took her cup over to the ever present pot on the back of the stove. She filled it with the fragrant harvest soup and came back over, sitting back down across from her mother in law.  “Wasn’t many of the kids who got schooling at home because the parents had to pay. My da decided to pay for me because he thought that would make me more appealing a wife.”

“Xena taught herself to read.”  Cyrene reminisced. “I remember coming into her room one day and there she was with ..  “She thought a moment. “Some story about horses.”

“Gee. Shocker.” Gabrielle started laughing.

“ I know, but I tell you it surprised me. She read the page to me and I just couldn’t believe it.”   Her partner’s mother said.  ‘Myself, I think Dori’s just ahead of the rest of the kids, and she’s bored. The gods only know, Xena would have been.”

The outer door opened and Xena herself entered, bringing a gust of cold, damp wind with her.   She closed the door and pulled her hood down, shaking a few leaves loose from her hair.  “Gonna snow tonight.”

“Eustace said the same.”  Cyrene got up and retrieved a fresh bowl, filling it with soup and offering it to her offspring.  “Going to be a long winter. Did you see the fleeces this year?”

Xena took the bowl to the table and sat down next to Gabrielle.  “Guy was choked to death.  Leather belt.”  She drank a bit of the soup. “Must have waited to stuff him in that barrel until the rigor faded.”

Gabrielle wrinkled her nose. “You mean there was a dead body out there in the market and no one picked up on that?”

Xena shrugged. “I told the boys to put him on a pyre. Sounds like he was a scumbag but I don’t want the garbage lying around here.”  She put one hand down on the table and cradled the bowl in the other, and Gabrielle reached over and once and captured the hand in her fingers.

“You think he just ticked someone off?” Cyrene sat back down across from them.  “If he’s the one who’s paying kids off to scatter caltrops – maybe he did worse and paid for it.”

“Could be.” Xena agreed. “One less thing for me to worry about.”  She flexed her fingers and squeezed Gabrielle’s hand. “Alana woke up,  they told me. She was back under by the time I got up to the hall.”

“Any better?”

Xena shrugged again. “Bumps gone down, and she’s breathing easier.  She didn’t say anything when she came around, but the guy sitting with her told her where she was.”

“I’m sure she loved hearing that.”   Gabrielle grimaced slightly. “I’ll walk over there. If she comes around again,  maybe I can ask her what happened.”  She glanced at her partner. “Should we move her up to the village?”

Her partner finished drinking down her soup, then put the bowl down.  “My advice is, leave her in the barracks.”

“Why?” 

“Xena’s right.”  Cyrene spoke up, dryly. “That bunch did not like you all. I heard them talking when they left.  I think if I was roughed up like that, I’d rather not face the pitying stares of people I know I don’t like.”

Gabrielle blinked. “Wow.” She looked at Xena. “Is that what you think too?”

Xena nodded. “We don’t know what happened.  Could have been an attack on that group, could have been an attack on her, but think about it, hon.”

Gabrielle thought about it, while her two companions finished up their soup.   Alana hadn’t liked them. She hadn’t liked her, for that matter.   The night they’d spent in the village had turned out a disaster, and she had to acknowledge maybe her partner had a point. “Huh.”

“Lets let her get her senses back, and then maybe see what to do.”  Xena correctly interpreted the grunt.  “It’d be a bitch littering her up the trail anyhow.  Barracks are snug and warm.”

“You’re so smart.”  Gabrielle leaned against her with an affectionate pressure.  “I really didn’t think about that, you know? I guess I thought .. well, we’re taking care of her so of course she’ll be grateful to us. But probably not, huh?”

“Mm.” 

Cyrene watched them,  smiling a bit as Gabrielle rested her head against Xena’s shoulder and circled her upper arm with both hands.   “So you think that woman’s going to recover?”

“I think so.”  Xena said.  “Shall we go collect our child, and give everyone the news up the hill?”

“You got it.”  Gabrielle stood up and collected the bowls and cups, moving them to the wash up area and dunking them in the soapy basin on one end of the wide, stone space.

They said goodbye to Cyrene then went out the back door to the inn and down the path to the stables.  The paddock in front of them was empty, and they went to the barn door and pushed it open, surprised to hear silence from inside.

It was dimly lit, and the horses housed inside were somnolent, though Argo and Iolaus went to the front of their stalls and snuffled at them as they entered.   Rusty was in his stall, and as they went over, they spotted a new addition to it, a small hammock was slung, and Dori was napping inside it.

“Aw.”  Gabrielle leaned against the stall door. “That’s so cute.”

Rusty was chewing on some hay,  eyeing them with equine amusement.   He lifted his head above the door and nudged Gabrielle, sniffing at her carry sack still slung over her shoulder. 

Xena examined the hammock, and allowed herself to be charmed at the many colored wool yarns that made it, and the hammered iron rings that held either end to the ropes tied to the stall posts.  “It’s cute.” She agreed. “Hand over the booty to the runt and I’ll wake our little princess up.”

Gabrielle fished a small, somewhat withered apple from her bag and offered it to the pony, who immediately crunched it up, with what could only really be described as a smirk on his face.  “Wonder who put that up?”

“Toris probably.” Xena reached over and tickled Dori’s arm. “Hey shortie.”

Dori’s eyes fluttered open and she lifted her head, looking around “Boo!”  She poked her fingers through the hammock strings. “Look at this!  Fun!”

“So I see.” Xena pushed her back and forth a little. “That’s cool.”

“I wanted to stay with Rusty so they got this.” Dori explained. “Boo I like being here with Rusty. He gets lonely when I go up.”

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks.  Gabrielle muffled a grin, and wandered off to pay her respects to Argo. “This one’s yours, Boo.” She pulled another apple from her bag and offered it to the mare, who had been watching her alertly.  “Here you go, girl. I didn’t forget you.”

Argo chewed the apple appreciatively,  while Gabrielle gently stroked her cheek.  “Let’s listen to your mother do a sensitive chat. That’ll be fun, right?” She whispered into one golden ear.

“Okay, Dori.  We’ve talked about this before.” Xena was saying behind her. “You live with us, he lives with the rest of the horses here.”

“But Boo.” Dori sounded upset. “He doesn’t talk to them like he talks to me.”

“See, that’s what she gets for marrying me.” Gabrielle continued to whisper.  “Cause that imagination did not come from Xena, know what I mean?”

“I get it.” Xena said. “But that still doesn’t mean you get to bring him up to our house. It’s hard. He’ll get hurt.”

“Boo!”

Argo whickered softly, and nosed around the edges of the bag.

“You’ve got lots of friends in the village, Dor.  Don’t you like playing with them?”

Gabrielle fished out another apple, aware of the stallion watching her closely in the next stall. “Got one for you too, big boy.”

“They’re yucky Boo.”

“Uh oh.” Gabrielle handed off her last apple to Iolaus. “I think I’m about to get pulled into this sensitive chat.”

“Hey mama.”  Xena called out over her shoulder. “Your Amazons are being dissed.”

“Tolja.”  Gabrielle turned and wandered back over. “You don’t like your friends up there, honey?” She walked inside Rusty’s stall and came up on the  other side of the hammock. “I thought you had fun with them.”

“Dere’ mean.”  Dori said. “They make peoples feel bad, mama.”

“Oh really.”  Gabrielle frowned. “What do you mean, honey? Were they mean to you?”

“No , mama.” Dori shook her disheveled head earnestly.  “Other peoples.”

“Hm.” 

“Hm.” Xena repeated. “Let’s go up to our place, and we can talk about it.” She ruffled Dori’s hair. “When the weather gets better, maybe we can see if Rusty can come up to visit there.”

Dori’s eyes lit up. “Boo! Yes!”

“You are such a sucker.” Gabrielle mock sighed. 

“Hey you were going to drag goats up there.”  Xena helped Dori out of the hammock and swung her down to the ground. “You can come back here tomorrow, shortie.

Dori hugged Rusty goodbye and they left the barn, walking along the path in a suddenly more significant wind.  The sun was already behind the clouds and it was a dim sort of gray light surrounding them, most of the townsfolk already in their homes.

There were soldiers around, some heading down to the barracks, some heading to relieve the watch on the back gates.   By the time the three of them got there, they were the only ones passing through, and the guard was about to close the gates for the night.

“Gnight, Genr’l.” The guard captain gave her a casual salute. “Weather’s turning.”

“Again, yeah.” Xena said. “Tell the forward watch to keep an eye on that injured Amazon. Come get me if you need me.”

“Will surely.” The man said. “Have a good rest.”

The gates closed behind them and they were alone on the path.  Gabrielle shifted her staff to her outside hand and put her other hand on Dori’s back as they started up the path. “Getting windy.”

Xena nodded, putting herself on the outside of the path as they moved upward and the gloom increased.  “Hope those guys found some shelter.”

“Cait and Benny and them?”

“Yeah.”

The Amazon watch greeted them at the edge of the village, and ushered them through the entrance.  There was already a fire built in the sturdy guard house and five or six Amazons were gathering to set the guard, Pony’s distinctive figure among them.

A little sleet was falling by the time they crossed the big open square and headed up the path to their hut, turning the last curve to find an upright, wolfish figure waiting in front of it.

“Guff!” Dori let out a squeal of delight and bolted for him, throwing her arms around his neck as he wagged his tail. ‘I missed you!”

“Hey boy.” Xena pushed the door open, letting everyone in ahead of her and joining them inside. The fire was already started in the fireplace, and there was a platter of bread and cheese on the table, and it seemed friendly and more homelike with all of that.

She sat down on the couch and let both Ares and Dori crawl over her legs, while Gabrielle went and put her staff away in the corner. “Hey Gab?”

“Hey Xena?” Gabrielle detoured over to warm her hands. “How about I cook tonight?”

“How’d you know that’s what I wanted?”

Gabrielle chuckled. “Because you’re thinking about things and you want to talk.” She looked over her shoulder at her partner.  “Am I right?”

Xena smiled.

“That’s what I thought.”

**

Cait returned to the campsite, with a double armful of wood to find the fire circle neatly made and waiting.  Bennu and Nala were pulling a big log into place, and the men from Phillipi had collected kindling and handfuls of dried moss from the nearby trees.

They had made reasonably good time, and had found shelter at twilight in a stand of heavy trees off the edge of the road.    The horses were cropping winter dried grass in a small clearing behind them, and they’d found a creek winding out of the hills past them and down to the river whose water was icy but clean.

The conversation on the trail had slowly gotten less stilted, and the men from Thrace had relaxed as they’d traded experiences with Xena’s soldiers and the two Amazons.  They seemed nice enough, proud of being their town militia, and having that in common with Bennu and his men.

Cait put her wood down and went over to her pack, kneeling beside it and opening the top.  She  removed a thick wad of folded cord and two coils of rope, then stood and shook out the cord, fastening the two ropes to it.

“That was a damn good idea.”  Nala had joined her, and removed her own hammock from her pack.  ‘Grounds cold as mountain goat’s ass.”

Cait smiled. “Pally made them.” She fastened the hammock to branches on two nearby trees and tucked her furs into it.  “She quite surprises me sometimes.”

“Everyone, most of the time.” Nala chuckled softly.  “No one thought we’d end up appreciating her. Not even you.”

“Definitely  not me.” Cait agreed. “I only didn’t kill her because I promised Xena I wouldn’t until she’d had another chance.”   She went back to her pack and picked it up, using another bit of rope to fashion a sling for it and fastening it to the tree her hammock was hanging from. 

She removed a packet of travel bread and smoked meat,  and assembled a sandwich.  “It was lovely of Cyrene to stock us up, wasn’t it?”

“She’s good people.”  Her fellow Amazon agreed. “Even if she wasn’t our Queen’s family, she’d be. Solid, you  know?”

“Yes.”  Cait leaned back against her tree and chewed her sandwich, watching Bennu and one of the Phillipi men lighting the fire, wishing it was started already and almost tasting the tea she knew she’d be making once it was.  “I remember the first time I saw her. I was hiding in some bushes near the hen house.”

“Waiting to grab some eggs?”  Nala’s eyes twinkled a little.

“Yes, but also I wanted a chicken.”  Cait said.  “Cyrene saw me, and I thought, well, rats.  But she brought over a little pot of stew and left it for me.”

“Probably wanted to keep you away from the hens.”


“Probably.”  The young Amazon agreed with a smile. “But you know, it didn’t really matter why she did it. I was just so.. “She paused. “I’d never had anyone do that before. Mostly they set the dogs on me.”

Nala had seated herself on the edge of her hammock and was watching her.  “I grew up in the village.” She said. “I remember seeing feral kids run off. Wondered what happened to them.”

“Wasn’t much fun.” Cait admitted. “I really was wild, you know? I used to hide around Amphipolis after that, if I found a tramp in the woods I’d kill them. Keep them out of Cyrene’s business you see.”

“How old were you?”

Cait didn’t answer for a bit. “I don’t actually  know.” She finally said, with a short laugh. “I just felt like I was the absolute weirdest person anywhere and then one day Xena came to visit and I said ah, well then, that’s all right because at least there are two of us.”

Nala started chuckling. “Shes a step more than feral. I’ve seen her fight.”

“Oh yes.”  Cait dusted her fingers off and unhooked her waterskin from her pack, taking a drink from it. “I remember seeing her practice with her sword the first time, and I knew instantly that’s what I wanted to be. “

“You’ve done pretty good.”  The older Amazon smiled at her. “Not many your age make queen’s chief guard.”

No, that was probably true.  Cait put her waterskin back and went over closer to the fire, glad of her thick, lined cloak.   “Right.” She came up  next to Bennu.  “Four candlemark watches?”

“Aye, Cait.  But we figured we’d trade off like,  us do it one night, and our friends here t’other.” Bennu said, indicating the group from Phillipi, who were nodding.  “They offered to start off tonight.”

“Right.”  Cait repeated, looking Bennu in the eye.  “Sounds good.”

Carolous stood up from where he’d been kneeling at the edge of the fire, getting it started. “We’re grateful to you all, you know.  It’s hard for fighters to come ask for help.”

“Aye” Bennu and Jax had rolled a fallen log nearer and now he sat down on it.  “Better to ask early than late.”

The soldiers all settled in, unrolling their furs and taking out trail rations as they relaxed. The fire had caught and brightened, and they gathered around it’s warmth as the air got colder around them.

It was an odd mixture, Cait thought.  The men from Phillipi were more relaxed out here than they had been in town, but most seemed older, and weathered, with the tanned faces of farmers and outdoorsmen who didn’t always wear armor.

Bennu and Jax, and the four other men from Xena’s army were regular soldiers, and they were as comfortable in their leather and metal as Xena herself would have been had she been there.  Even though they lived in the town, there was a little separateness about them.

“Ah, is it Cait?” Carolous spoke up after a little while.

“Yes.” Cait had her legs pulled up crossed under her, and she leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees. “That’s me.”

“Would you mind if we asked a question or two about Amazons?  We are not familiar with them – there are no.. is it tribes? In our homeland.”

“Sure.”  Nala responded for her. “We don’t mind people asking so long as they’re polite and not jackasses.”

Bennu and the other soldiers chuckled. “Mad fighters.”  Bennu commented. “Had em in whole squads in the last war. “

Carolous nodded. “That’s what we heard in the tavern at the market.  We were speaking with some of the troops who fought there as well.  You gather together and live just with women?”

Nala nodded. “Well, and some sheep and goats.”

“The occasional chicken.” Cait added. “But I heard a story once about the beginnings of the Amazons.. would you like to hear it?”

The men all leaned forward a little, and one brought out a wineskin to pass around to wash down the dry rations. “Surely.” Carolous said. “A tale for sure none of us has heard.”

Nala eyed her companion. “I don’t think I’ve even heard it.” She said.

“Excellent.” Cait got herself settled. “Well, here we go then….”

**

Iolaus was sprawled in a chair near the fireplace, a roughly cut stack of parchment bound together in his lap.  He was reading through it,  pausing occasionally to take a sip from a mug on the small table by his elbow.

He hadn’t a  clue that the history of Amphipolis, which was what the collection of pages was would be interesting, but in fact it was – far more than he had guessed it would.  Copied and recopied, and probably judiciously amended through the years it was an interesting journey through three quarters of a century of hinterland living.

Outside, he could hear the wind rising and he glanced at the fire and wriggled his shoulders into a more comfortable position, glad now that he hadn’t volunteered to join the expedition out to Phillipi.

He had thought about it. But not that hard.  There was something in him that was resisting the whole self sacrificing motif at the moment.

A  soft knock came at the door. “C’mon in.”  He put the tome aside and looked up as the door opened and Johan stuck his head inside.  “Ah hello.”

Johan came inside and shut the door. “Just wanted to let ye know, lad,  a bit of news I heard from our friends from Potdeia.”   He sat down in the chair opposite Iolaus. “Seems they heard on the road you’re being looked for.”

“Oh yes, I know.” Iolaus agreed mournfully. “Some crazy people got the idea I sank a boat on purpose.”

Johan nodded. “Aye, that’s what they said, that they’d had someone ride through with a drawing of ye, and offering a reward.” He pulled a folded bit of parchment from his belt pouch and handed it over.  “No worries on us here, but the smith there said he saw some travelers in the market had these, and did see you.”

“Hm.” Iolaus studied the parchment which had a rough, but reasonable drawing of his likeness. “A hundred dinars, huh? Should I be insulted?”

Johan chuckled.  “Be glad. Were it ten times that we’d have legions riding in here on search. This, and maybe a few bounty hunters might try it.”

“You’re right. It’ll take them a few weeks to get back to any place big enough to tell them they saw me, and by that time, maybe they’ll have something more interesting to hunt.”

Johan nodded. “Tis true.” He slapped Iolaus on the arm. “And in any case, be a bolder man than these parts hold to come up  here against Xena.  They’ll lose more than dinars if they try it.” He got up and headed for the door. “G’night to ye.”

“And you, Johan.”  Iolaus waited for the door to close. Then he carefully folded the parchment up into a triangle shape, and tossed it into the fire, watching it catch and go up in immediate flames. “Yeah, he’s right.  I’m not worth going up against her, that’s for sure.”

Give it a moon or two, in fact, and he figured he’d be forgotten.  The world would move on.

For a while he just gazed into the fire, leaning on one elbow, not even a random thought running through his head.  Just listening to the crackle, and the patter of sleet against the roof of the inn.

On the periphery of his hearing, there was a low murmur of voices from the common room, and the gentle thump of footsteps on wood as the other occupants moved towards their accommodations.

It felt like a  moment out of time, the echoes growing longer and softer, as he felt a sense of dislocation coming over him.

“Iolaus.”

The voice again.  He slowly turned his head and looked around, searching the dark corners of the room, but found nothing in the shadows at all.   Just faint motion as the fire in the fireplace fluttered.

“Iolaus.”

He stood up. “Who is it?”  He turned his body in a circle, ending up facing the fire again. “I can hear you.”

The fire popped unexpectedly and he jumped, one hand going to the hilt of the knife at his belt.  The flames spurted up and the light washed his vision out for a moment. He blinked and covered his eyes with one hand, then felt the nape hairs on his neck lift up in an icy prickle.

Then the room was suddenly filled with fog, and he sucked in a shocked breath as he lost sight of everything around him.

“Iolaus!” 

Now the voice was much louder, and it had taken on a familiar timbre.  He blinked furiously and waved the fog aside. “Herc?”

“Shh. Stop moving. Stop freaking out.”

Panting a little, Iolaus did, letting his hands drop to his sides and keeping his eyes closed against the harsh sting of the fog. “Okay.”

“Okay.”  Hercules’ voice returned. “Open your eyes.”

Iolaus squinted cautiously, and then opened his eyelids fully, finding a familiar outline now between him and the fire. “Herc?”

“Yeah.”

He blinked a few more times and his friend’s features almost sharpened into focus. “Are you  here? What happened?”

Hercules lifted his hands and moved them in a calming gesture.  “I’m not here.  Not..  not in any real sense.”  He said. “I don’t have much time. My father put me in a kind of in between place and it’s just right now that he’s distracted that I can talk to you.”

“Oh.”  Iolaus felt a weight lift off his chest. “So he grabbed you  huh?” He could see Hercules’ face now, as though a faint glow was on it.  The rest of his body was out of focus, a blur of skin tone and leather not quite familiar.  “Off the boat?”

“He didn’t want anyone to interfere with Athena and Artemis.”  Hercules acknowledged. “So he separated us. He sent them…  I don’t know where.  And me he took up to this place.”   He gestured vaguely. “It’s a lot of nothing really. I can’t get past it.”

 

“Oh.” Iolaus repeated. “That’s terrible. You don’t know where they ended up?  We heard here that Athens was looking for them.  Looking for me too.”

“I know.” Herc made a face. “Sorry about that, buddy. “

“No problem.”  Iolaus muttered. “That’s how Xena and Gabrielle figured it went down.  Smart ladies.”

Hercules watched him for a moment with quiet compassion. “I’ve only got a few moments.  I can hear the gongs going off so listen.  Ares told me..”

“Ares told you?”

“Iolaus, please just listen.” Hercules said. “Ares told me he thinks the girls got picked up by slavers. They stopped in one of his temples and left an offering.”

“Huh. Could be. We heard there were slavers in the area.”  Iolaus said. “We heard that Athens was offering a reward for them or any word of them.”

“Not heading that way.. “ Hercules turned suddenly and  looked behind him. “Gotta go.  Just.. see if you can find out where they might have been taken, okay?  Just think hard about it.”

“What?” Iolaus took a step forward. “Wait, don’t go!”

But then the fog was gone, and the chill, and the snap of the fire was suddenly loud and bright  in his ears.  He reached out in pure reflex, but there was nothing there to touch. “Son of a Bacchae.”

His knees felt weak and he sat down abruptly.  “Wow.”

His heart was still thundering, and he felt a little lightheaded. He sat back in the chair and exhaled slowly, picking up his cup and draining it, giving the ball of emotion in his gut time to resolve and leech away.

A faint smile appeared on his face.  Then he reached up and rubbed his eyes, letting them close as he slumped deeper in the chair.

**

Gabrielle picked up her quill and dunked it in the ink cup, resting her head on one hand as she started to write.

Today was one of those days.  The watch brought back one of the Amazons we ran out of town – the queen Alana.   Shes still unconscious, so we don’t know what happened to her, but there are only two real possibilities. One, that they were all attacked n the road and Alana was left for dead..

Or two, that her rival challenged her and won.  But if that happened, would they have left her there like that? Really?

Maybe they would have if they’d thought she was dead too. No sense in taking a body back.. but sheeps. They should have given her a pyre after all.

How awful that must be, if that was the case. You lose most of your tribe, and then what’s left abandons you.  I guess I know what Xena meant when she thought Alana would rather stay down in the barracks – the soldiers are all unknown to her. It’s much easier to accept the pity of people you don’t really know isn’t it?

Isn’t it.

Gabrielle studied the words, feeling a bit somber.   Behind her, Xena was sharpening her sword, the soft hiss and scrape in well remembered rhythm.  She half turned and looked at her partner, who was sprawled on the ground near the fireplace, long legs stretched out on the rug and crossed at the ankle.

Dori was asleep in her bed, and Ares was curled up on the bearskin rug next to it, his paws twitching as he slept.

Ah, her family.  Gabrielle smiled and then she turned and went back to her diary.

But that’s what it would have been like for me, if Velasca had won, and Xena had never come back wouldn’t it? She would have killed me, or just beaten me and left me somewhere, and I wouldn’t have had anyone to help me.

And I wouldn’t have gone home.  I get that now. Not and seen those pitying eyes of my family.  I wouldn’t have then, and I don’t think I would now. I remember how I felt coming back here for the first time – after the worst times we had.

Took me a long time to get that view of myself out of my head.   

But on to other things.  Xena sent a squad of her troops, and I sent Cait and Nala out with the folks from Thrace, to look around and see what the deal was with that port city.  We all hope they’re just a short term annoyance. No one wants to end up going to war.

Not even Xena.

She blew gently on the page to dry the ink, then closed the diary, putting the quill down and half turning in her chair. “Hey hon.”

“Hey Gabrielle.”  Xena looked up and smiled, her pale eyes almost ochre in the firelight. “You ready to go to bed?”

“With you? Always.”  Gabrielle smiled back.

Xena wiped her blade down and sheathed it, then she stood up and put the weapon on it’s shelf above Dori’s reach.  She walked over and extended her hand, pulling Gabrielle up when she took it and wrapping her arms around her.

The  melancholy she’d been feeling faded.  Gabrielle took a breath full of Xena’s scent and savored the hug. “I love you.”

“Back atcha.”  Xena guided her over to the bed and they fell into it together, getting under the covers and snuggling up as Xena reached out and pinched the bedside candle out.  “Let’s leave tomorrow for tomorrow.”

“Sounds good to me.” Gabrielle felt the gentle touch under her shift and she was glad enough to let the long day’s troubles dissipate replaced by the slowly ramping burn of passion.  Xena’s lips found hers and they both smiled.

You had to savor life, didn’t you?   Every single moment of it.

**

“Gabrielle.” 

Halfway across the lane leading to the inn, Gabrielle paused on hearing her name. She turned and peeked out from under her hood, giving Iolaus a little wave. “Hey. Good morning.”

Iolaus caught up with her. “Hey. Can we talk?”

Ah heh.  “Sure. Join me for some breakfast? I’ve got  a council meeting in a candlemark.” Gabrielle guided him towards the back door to the inn’s kitchen. 

They went inside and found the kitchen quiet.  Gabrielle grabbed two mugs of hot cider and a plate of bread and brought them back over to the table. “Here, let me get something to put on that.”

Iolaus picked up his mug and sipped it, watching his friend as she scoured around the kitchen collecting edibles.  She had thrown her hood back and the oil lamp on the hanger outlined her face and profile.

She had really grown up in the last few years.  Iolaus remembered the baby faced youngster that had first collided with Xena and it was hard to imagine that kid growing into the woman who was now plunking a bowl on the table and taking a seat opposite him.

She was so intense now.  All the awkwardness of her shy adolescence was long gone and the powerful will was very evident. 

But a little fun was too.  Gabrielle winked at him and took a bit of bread and cheese, and an apple from the bowl. “So what’s up? Since people don’t usually grab me first thing in the morning to talk about the weather.”

‘Hah hah.” Iolaus glanced around, but they were obviously alone and he hoped it stayed that way long enough for him to get his story out.  “Everyone already thinks I’m skanky here, I’d rather only you hear this.”

Both of Gabrielle’s fair eyebrows lifted. “No one here thinks you’re skanky.” She objected.

“A fugitive then.” Iolaus said. “So.. I had a weird dream last night.”

‘Uh huh.”  Gabrielle chewed on her apple.

“Or.. well, I think it was a dream. Today  when I woke up it sure seemed like it.” Iolaus said. “I was kind of in this foggy place, you  know?”

“Okay.”  Gabrielle responded. “I’ve had a few dreams like that.”

“So, but Herc was talking to me in it”  Iolaus got that out fast. “I mean, he was in the foggy place too, and he was telling me that Zeus put him someplace, to keep him from interfering with his sisters.”

“Huh.” 

“Which.. I mean, that sounds pretty like we’d figured, right?”

“Right.”

“But then he said something like, maybe his sisters ended up being kidnapped.”

Gabrielle’s brow lifted.  She put her apple down. “Are you sure this was a dream?” She asked. “Usually dreams.. at least my  dreams aren’t nearly that coherent.”

“Well, mine either but what else could it be?” Iolaus asked. “Anyway he said to try and find out if anyone has heard anything about them being picked up by slavers, or something like that, and then it was over.”

Gabrielle’s eyes shifted off him and to the right, going a little unfocused. Then she looked up sharply. “Tell me about the fog.”

Iolaus blinked in surprise. “The fog? It was foggy.” He said. “Just sort of misty and weird. You  know what fog’s like.”

“Did it smell like roses?”

“What?”

“Think back to it. Did it smell like roses?”  Gabrielle repeated her question. “You  know that kind of spicy sweet smell they have?”

Had it?  Iolaus found himself caught offguard. “I don’t remember.” He said. “I wasn’t thinking about that. I was j..  I don’t remember it smelling like anything.”

“Mm.” Gabrielle rested her wrists on the table. “I was just remembering something and thought it may be the same thing but maybe not.” She said. “That sounds like a really specific kind of dream though, Iolaus.  That wasn’t random.”

“Well, that’s what I thought too.” Iolaus said. “I mean.. when I woke up I thought maybe.. you know it was something my mind just made up because it’s what I want to believe.”

“Mm.” Gabrielle repeated the low noise. “That thing I was remembering.. I thought that same thing about it.  It was when Xena .. as far as I knew, was dead.”  She gazed into her cup with a pensive expression.  “It was like that, with the fog.  Xe talked to me in that and when it was over I remember thinking was that something I just made up because I wanted it so badly to be true?”

They were both silent for a long moment.  Then Iolaus cleared his throat gently. “But it wasn’t.”

“Oh no, definitely not.”  The bard said.

“But.. Herc’s not dead.”  Iolaus said. “I mean, he can’t be.”

“No, Xena wasn’t either.”  Gabrielle smiled faintly.  “Not really. But it makes sense that Herc would try to contact you, Iolaus.  And it sounds like what he told you is probably something we should consider.”

Iolaus smiled briefly, with a touch of embarrassment. “Thanks for not thinking I’m nuts.”  He reached over and clasped her hand.  “I’d kinda decided I was going to believe it was true even if it was a dream.”

The door abruptly moved inward, and they looked up as Paladia stuck her head inside.  “Hey.”  She addressed Gabrielle. “That chick who got clocked is yelling for you.”

“Eh. Great.” Gabrielle stood up. “C’mon, Iolaus.  Maybe she’s seen something on the road that ties into that message you got.”   She put her cups and the bowl on the washing up deck and headed for the door. “Paladia, you remember what Athena and Artemis looked like?”

“Yeah.” The taller woman backed hastily out of the way to let them go past.

“Grab a parchment and quill and c’mon with us too.”

**

Xena had Dori by the hand as they crossed the open space in the village and headed for the gathering hall.   They had just finished breakfast and now they were on their way to have a little talk with the children’s teachers in the village.

It had been a toss up – as to who was going to have the talk. Xena had finally convinced Gabrielle to let her do it, since it took the whole issue of her partner being the queen out of it.

And, of course, it put the whole issue of people being intimidated by Xena into it.   “C’mon Dor.” Xena picked up her daughter and carried her up the steps, much to the child’s delight.  “You’re gonna help me find out what’s going on.”

“Go Boo.” Dori wrapped her arms around Xena’s neck as they entered the hall.  “Dere dey are.” She pointed at the group of youngsters, who were sitting at a table listening to two of the older Amazons.

The two of them looked up as they sensed someone approaching and Xena noted the look of alarm, and suddenly pale faces that let her know that Dori’s tale had probably been accurate. “Good morning.”

The young Amazons all waggled their fingers at her in greeting. Xena put Dori down at the table, then pointed at an empty table a little behind them. “Mind if we chat?”  She pinned both women with an intent stare, daring them to deny the request.

“Okay sure.” They both stepped back. “Just work on your drawing, okay?” They instructed the children, before they turned their attention to the tall woman waiting for them.

“Siddown.” Xena indicated the benches. “Dori told me about something that happened yesterday and I want to know what actually happened.”

The two relaxed a little.

“Not that I think my kid’s a liar, but she’s her mother’s daughter.”  Xena said. “And she’s got a wild imagination she didn’t get from me.”

The older of the two Amazons nodded. “Thanks, Xena.  We were talking this morning about coming to talk to you because we figured Dori might have said something.”

“So?”

Bente, the speaker, nodded again. “So, the kids were playing yesterday. You know, kid games. They were hiding stuff and then finding it.”

“What Dori said was, they were picking on one of the younger ones.”  Xena said. “Taking her things and hiding them.”

“Well, I mean, they’re kids.” Bente said, and her companion nodded “Kids do that, you know?” She studied the angular face across from her. “Maybe you don’t.”

Xena’s pale eyes twinkled a little.  “I’m the pack leader in the family.” She acknowledged. “Go on.”

“So, the kids establish that kind of pecking order too. It gets them ready to be Amazons. “ Bente said, in a serious tone. “It’s nice to say life’s always fair and everyone’s a friend but you know that’s not true.”

Xena nodded.

“So.” Telan, her companion spoke up. “I guess Dori didn’t like them picking on little Cari. So she went up to the two who had Cari’s bag, were holding it up over her head, and whacked them.”

“She hit them?”

Bente nodded.  “She shoved one of them, and sent her flying, then the other one went to grab her and she took hold of her arm and pulled her down to the ground.”

“Hm.”  Xena grunted thoughtfully. “Then what?”

“She got Cari’s bag and gave it back to her and told her she shouldn’t cry.” Telan said.  “But then, the rest of the gang figured they weren’t going to put up with that and they all went after Dori.”

“We were running over to stop them.” Bente said. “We didn’t want Dori to get hurt, but turns out we didn’t need to worry. Not sure which one of you, no disrespect, taught her to fight but boy.”  The Amazon shook her head a little. “She’s got a mean punch for a five year old.”

Xena looked past them to where Dori was kneeling on the bench, with a quill in one hand and a smear of ink across her face, busy drawing on a piece of parchment. “Neither of us taught her to hit people. But she’s seen us fight often enough.” She admitted. “She’s strong for her age.”

Bente nodded.  “But what.. I mean, it wasn’t just that she defended herself.” She said with a hint of a smile. “It was the attitude. She wasn’t’ scared when they all faced off against her. She just put her fists up and let out this yell, and it scared the rest of them into running away.”

Xena rested her chin against her fist, with a wry smile. 

“So, we knew it would be trouble, but you know what, Xena? We also thought about what she’s going to be when she grows up and takes Gabrielle’s right.”  Telan said, a bit shyly.  “It was like, wow. That’s an Amazon.”

The warrior sighed.  “Yeah. Gabrielle and I have talked about it.  What Dori was pissed off about more than anything was that her little friend was being picked on for what she considered no reason.” She explained. “She doesn’t get being competitive.”

“No, I noticed that.” Bente said. “She shares everything and wants everyone to just have fun.”  She added. “But she also doesn’t take any crap.”

Xena shifted and drummed her fingers on the table. “I’ll talk to her tonight.” She said. “But I’m not sure I want to tell her not to defend her friends and I know her mother wont’ go for that either. So you might have to deal with her doing that.”

Both of them nodded. “Thanks for talking to us about it, Xena.  We were a little worried about approaching Queen Gabrielle.”  Telan said. 

The sudden absurdity of the comment almost made Xena start laughing.  “I’ll let her in on the story.  I want Dori to have fun with the rest of the kids here.  She went down to the barn and was just talking to her pony after what happened. “

“Aw.” Bente said. “That pony is so cute.”

“Yeah but then she wanted me to bring the pony up to the hut.  I’d rather she play with other kids.”  Xena stood up. “Let me know when there’s problems okay?”

“Okay.” Telan looked profoundly relieved.  “Thanks!”  They got up and went back to the table with the children, and Xena sat for a moment watching them.

The older girls were giving Dori a slightly wary look. But the younger ones, the threes and fours and the little curly haired Cari looked delighted to see her and two of them had joined her in working on her parchment.

The oldest one there was probably around ten, and old enough to understand rank.  Xena found herself caught between consternation at Dori’s apparent aggressiveness and raw pride that her kid was ready and willing to defend her buddies and herself.

She’d never wanted Dori to become a fighter.  But really, given her and Gabrielle’s nature, what had she expected?  Even Gabrielle’s poetic soul came with a bucket of kickass and as for her?

“Boo!”

Xena looked over at her child. “Yes?”

“C’mon and help draw dis, pleeeeese?”

The warrior got up and joined the children’s table, hoping her beloved soulmate was at least as well entertained.

**

Gabrielle threaded her way through the busy soldiers, gathered inside to work on armor and weapons.  The barracks were warm and quite cozy, with carpets and mats on the walls, and sturdy tables where men and women were at work making arrows and fixing crossbows.

Many called a greeting to her, and she lifted her hand in answer, giving it a wave as she and her little gang entered the hallway and headed for the healer’s ward. 

Gabrielle pushed the door open and entered, looking around quickly and spotting the small room near the window that Alana had been sheltered in.   “Okay.”   She exhaled and headed inside with Paladia and Iolaus at her heels. 

Alana was propped up on two pillows in bed, her face a mass of bruises.  She looked around as the croud came in and pushed herself upward a bit. “You.”

Gabrielle pulled up a stool and sat at the side of the bed. “Me.” She agreed. “I heard you were calling for me. I didn’t know you were awake.”

“No one would tell me anything.” Alana said, speaking with some difficulty due to her bruises. “Who is it that cared for me? I must know.”

Gabrielle studied her, seeing the fear and distrust there along with a touch of shame.  Bingo, Xe.  She complimented her absent soulmate. “Xena did.”  She replied in a quiet tone.  “She’s our chief healer, for one thing and for another, she knew you’d expect that as a sister.”

Alana relaxed back onto the pillows. “Who found me?”

“Our watch.”  The bard said, in the same even voice.  “Halfway down the road towards Potadeia.  You were alone.”

The Amazon studied her face briefly.  “Your watch?”

“Amphipolis’s watch” Gabrielle clarified. “Of which I’m a captain.  We have outposts all the way to the pass and a little beyond.” She shifted a little. “The man who found you said you were off the road in a patch of some trees.  We checked the outer posts and no one’s reported seeing the rest of your group.”

Alana looked past her. “Who are you?” 

“This is Iolaus. He’s a friend.”  Gabrielle said. “What happened, Alana. Were you attacked?”

The woman stared at her in silence. 

“If you were, and you can remember what they looked like…” Gabrielle indicated Paladia, who was seated on a nearby bench, parchment and a bit of charcoal in hand. “We can send out the guard to see if they can find them.”

“I didn’t see anything.” Alana said, finally, in a stiff voice. “One moment I was filing my waterskin. I heard a noise. Then I woke up here.”

“So you have no idea who did this?” Gabrielle asked, consciously gentling her tone.  “No reflection in the water, anything?  We’d like to help if we can.”

“I’m sure you would.”  The Amazon said. “But there’s nothing to be done.  I thank you for the care. I’ll be out of your debt as soon as I can.”  She closed her eyes, and turned her cheek on the pillow, away from them.

Gabrielle pinched the bridge of her nose, then exhaled. “Well get some rest.  I’ll let Xena know you came to.”  She got up and backed off, exchanging a glance with the soldier/healer who was sitting patiently by. “Thanks.”

“M’lady.”  The man gave her a respectful touch of his fist to his chest.

“Nice.” Paladia said, as they exited the barracks back out into the weather. “All Amazons have pinecones up their ass or something?”

‘They aren’t all like that.” Iolaus spoke up.

“You haven’t lived with em. Have ya?”

**

Cait pulled a bit of cloth from her shirt up over her mouth as she guided Shadow along the path.  They were heading down slope along a ridge and the wind was starting to swirl around them with some ferocity after a relatively mild morning.

She felt good though, after a decent nights rest and the physical discomfort they were suffering wasn’t extreme, just annoying.  She took out a bit of wood from her saddlebag and a small knife, and started whittling.

Nala was in front of her and Bennu was behind her with the rest of the soldiers at his tail, and the Phillipi men leading the way.   

The night watch had been uneventful. Cait was keeping her eyes on the visitors anyway,  never ready to trust anyone until their worth had been proven. 

The path widened a little and Nala drew up even with her, peering ahead at the downward slope. “That’s where the ambush was last time, wasn’t it?”

Cait nodded. “Yes, and where Queen Gabrielle spotted that hornet’s nest.  Good job, that.”

“It was. We probably saved a few punctures to our hides with that.  Those soldiers were no joke.” The older Amazon agreed. “We ever figure out what side those were on?”

Cait thought about that as she carved on the wooden wing of a bird she was working out.  “Oh gosh it was so hard to say, at the end there. Everyone was a bit squirrelly, weren’t they? The lot from Athens, and the lot from Sparta, and all that.”

“I missed most of it.” Nala glowered.  “Boy am I glad that’s all in the past and half those idiots went somewhere else.”

“Me too.” 

They were almost at the base of the mountain and now the path was becoming the road that would skirt around the foothills and approach the pass that lead into Thrace. 

The last time she rode along this path it had ended in spotting a Spartan army, but this time the road was far colder, and the area seemed very deserted.

Bennu came up to ride on her other side as they came to level ground and as they did, a fine, light snow started to fall.  “Ah.” The soldier grunted.

“It was scorching hot last time we were here.” Cait remarked. “I really can’t decide which is worse.”

“Depends on how you look with most of your clothes off.” Nala replied placidly.  “I think the attitude’s gotten better back home mostly because half those women don’t have to walk around sucking their guts in all the time.”

Cait chuckled, and Bennu did too, after a moment. “Got a point.” He said. “Hot’s bad in armor, cold’s bad in armor.  But if you gotta wear armor, better it be cold.” He pronounced. “Envied you all on that last bit of a trip.”

Cait remembered the sweating, miserably flushed faces on the ride and nodded. “Too right.” 

The pace picked up as they headed towards the plains, the ground around them becoming coated with a furry looking covering of frosty snow. The clouds were dense overhead and the sun completely obscured.

Caroulous came cantering back to them “Just other side of the pass, there’s a rockslide that makes a bit of a cave system. We can stop there for the night if you’re all right with that.”

“Sounds all right.” Bennu said. “Looks like weather’s worsening.”

Carolous looked up, shading his eyes as white flakes drifted down and dusted his skin. “Tis true.” He said. “But the caves should give us shelter from it. We stopped there on the way to Amphipolis – can be decently defended as well.”

They continued on, moving out of the shelter of the trees into the open, and pulling up hoods and wrapping cloaks as a stiff wind hit them. 

Cait watched Shadow’s ears flicking, and she put her carving away for later as she shifted forward a bit and tightened her knees against the horse’s sides.   She liked the mare very much,  being one of the lighter built of the animals and more suited to her frame.

Gabrielle, she recalled, also preferred riding her and said the smaller horse was easier on her back on long distance rides.

Riding had not quite come naturally to her.  Cait acknowledged.  Amazons were not, in general, horse riders and she’d grown up feral and more interested in catching rabbits than riding on anything.  She’d only learned to ride around the time of the war, and it still was something she had to think about rather than it being second nature.

She envied Xena for that a bit.  Watching her mentor on horseback was simply awesome, her balance and motion were so natural it seemed like she was really part of the animal she was riding.  And it seemed to Cait that Dori was just the same.

She wondered how long it would be before she woke up in the village to find that pony running around.

Cait chuckled, then a faint sound came to her ears and she straightened in the saddle,  her motion catching Bennu’s attention as he turned his horses head aside.  “Yelling.” Cait said, briefly. “And perhaps a lovely fight.”

The column straggled to a halt at Bennu’s shout, and when the hoofbeat’s echos settled, the rest of them heard the noise too.

“Right.” Nala shifted her cloak off her shoulder, exposing her sword hilt. “Let’s see what we got.” She turned off their path towards the sound,  with Cait and Bennu right behind her, and the rest of the Amphipolitans at their heels.

After a brief hesitation, the men from Phillipi followed.

**

The town council meeting was most of the way over.  Gabrielle was seated at the big, rectangular wooden table in the council hall with a handful of other townsfolk, including Johan and Cyrene.  

The hall was new, and recently finished.  The table however was an old one, the wood worn and smooth under her forearms as Gabrielle leaned against it.  It had once been in the back of the inn, near the fire and there was still a hint of smokiness about it.

“Well.” Ben put his quill down. “I have to say that’s the best harvest we’ve had in years and years.  So much that we managed to sell off some surplus at the market and made a deal with the traders from Potadeia in return for a wagon full of their blankets.”

“Shepherd blankets?” Gabrielle asked, in mild delight. “Where are they? I”ll take a couple. I wore the last one I got from home out to nubbins.”

“We’ve got them in the back here.”  Ben pointed to his right. “Glad to get them – thick, heavy weave they are, and nice colors.”

Gabrielle nodded. “Most of the sheep are kept up in the hill folds all winter. You need a nice thick blanket when you’re watching them up there.”  She smiled a little. “I can remember my mother cutting a hole in the middle of mine for my head, and tying it around me with a rope so it wouldn’t get lost.”

Paladia was sitting  on one of the benches near the wall with Aalene at her side.  They were acting as Gabrielle’s guard, though it was her opinion that the Queen needed a guard like a cat needed shoes.  It got them out of the weather though, near a nice fire, with a cup of grog and not on a hunting party.

She listened to the talk with some interest,  finding it hard to imagine Gabrielle as a little moppet running around after the lambs as a kid since she was so used to seeing her in her various different but privileged positions now.

“Glad I didn’t grow up in a place like that.” Aalene muttered softly. “I’ve been to Potadeia. Makes Amphipolis look like Athens in comparison.”

“Yeah.” Paladia muttered back. “My place was like that.  Six huts and a farting pig.”

“I grew up a featherhead.” The other Amazon said. “My mother was a fletcher and bowyer. We did okay, but if she could see what we have now, she’d have screamed.”

Having stuff was good.  Paladia had to agree. She had a pouch of coins back in her and Cait’s quarters from the sale of her pictures and she thought about what it had felt like to have less than nothing back when.

This was much better.   The whole Amazon thing had worked out, to her surprise.  They were okay.  Cait was okay.  Even Gabrielle had turned out to be okay.

Paladia grunted, as the meeting seemed to come to it’s end and Gabrielle got up from behind the table. “What do you figure now, back up to our place?”

“I think so.  We’ve got adjudication coming up and her nibs likes to have some time to get all the cases sorted out before that.”  Aalene got up and went to the pegs on the wall, retrieving Gabrielle’s cloak and bringing it over to her.

“Thanks.” Gabrielle threw the garment over her shoulder. “Let’s see what color blankets they’ve got – maybe they’ll have some of Mara’s blue ones.”

“Thought I saw some blue..” Ben said, as he led the way to the storage room.  “Should have figured you were partial to that color, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle chuckled softly in response, then paused and turned as the outer door to the gathering hall opened rather sharply. 

“Gabrielle.” The soldier who entered spotted her. “Looks like  a small group of guards coming up the road. Flying an Athenian banner.”

“Ah rats.”  Gabrielle sighed. “Aalene, run up the hill and let my better half know, would you?  Two dinars to six, they’re looking for either her or Iolaus.

“Right.” Aalene grabbed her cloak and headed for the door.  “I”ll let him know to stay inside on the way.”

Paladia and Gabrielle exchanged resigned glances. “Shoulda sent him with the nutcase.”  Paladia commented.  “Those people are just a big fat pain in the ass.”

“True.” Gabrielle swung her cloak on and fastened it.  “C’mon. They’ll go to the inn I’m sure.  Better let mom know.”  She turned back to where Ben was waiting. “They got any.. ah thanks.” She lifted her hands and caught the blanket thrown her way.  “See you guys later.”

**

Xena relaxed in her chair by the fire, ostensibly reading from the small bound parchment resting against her knee.

Her senses were focused on the rest of the room though, and she had at least one ear cocked to listen to the class going on at the table nearby.

She knew she was the focus of attention of her own, and if she’d let her eyes lift from her book a few dozen others would dart off elsewhere and find something else to look at.

It was mildly funny to her.   She wasn’t really sure what the fascination was at the moment since she was fully dressed in well tanned hides and there had to be a limited interest in watching her read but it was what it was, and she amused herself by occasionally looking around just to see the reaction.

The children’s group was now working on making snares.   Xena wasn’t sure that her daughter was really aware of what the snares were for, but she was crouched intently over hers, trying to get the bit of gut to lay flat inside it’s circle of twigs.

Everything seemed peaceful today, whether because no one wanted a repeat of yesterday, or whether the kids were conscious of Dori’s nearby protector.  Little Cari was sticking close to her friend, though, sitting next to Dori on the long bench, her piping voice audible over the low grade murmur in the room.

Xena watched the kids for a minute, then she shifted a little in her chair, and propped her elbow on one arm of it, turning the page of her book and looking back down.

Across the big room tables were being cleared, and a circle was forming as two of the more senior warriors were getting their swords out to start a little sparring.    Xena felt a bit of interest stir at that, and she pondered the thought of getting her own sword and joining in.

“Boo!”

“Yeeees?”  Xena’s eyes shifted to her daughter. “Whatcha got, shortie?” She asked as Dori climbed down from the bench and came over to her, carefully carrying her creation. 

“Dis right, Boo?”

Xena put her book down and sat up, holding her hands out flat. “Put it here, let me check.”

Dori put the snare in them.  Then she sat down on the footstool next to the chair and waited, watching Xena’s face intently. “Is good, Boo?”

Xena studied the snare. “Good job, Dori.”  She said, after a pause. “Did they tell you what to use this for?”

Dori frowned, and shook her head.

“Put your finger in the circle there.”

Dori did, and jumped when it closed on her, and held her hand fast. “Oh!”

Xena loosened the snare and put it down on the footstool. “That’s for catching animals.” She told her daughter solemnly. “The animal puts his foot in there, and it holds him so he can’t get away.”

Dori looked at the snare, then up at her parent, then back at the snare. “That’s bad, Boo!” She stated. “Why we do that?”

Ah.  Xena picked her up and sat her on her lap, well aware of the interested onlookers. “It’s kinda like when we go catch fishes, Dor.”  She told the child. “Then your mama makes them yummy, right?”

“Fishes.” Dori repeated.

“Right. So that catches little animals, the same way as you and I catch fishes.” Xena held up one hand and wiggled its fingers.  “So then they take them and make something good to eat with them.”

Dori reached out and grasped the hand, holding it still. “We catched aminals?”

“Yes.”

Her daughter’s pale green eyes studied her gravely.  “But we don’t get buppits, Boo.”

“No.”  Xena smiled gently at her. “We don’t. But buppits catch animals too, you know.” She told her. “Everyone wants something good to eat, don’t they?”

“Rusty just has stickies,” Dori observed. “He don’t get aminals.”

“That is one smart kid.”  Pony had eased into a chair nearby. “You know that?”

Xena nodded   “That’s right, shortie.  Horses only eat grass. But we can’t eat grass, right?”

“No.”

“So we’ve got to work a lot harder, don’t we? Your mama works real hard to make things that taste good for us, right?”

“Go mama.” Dori kicked her feet out a little. “But horsies like happles, Boo.” She said. “C’n we get some happles?” 

Xena ruffled her hair. “Sure.” She handed back the  snare. “Go put this back right over on the table, then we can go find some apples.”

Dori took the item and trotted back over to the class, climbing up  on the bench and setting it down as the rest of the children started talking about their own projects.

Xena sighed. “I was hoping not to have that little talk yet, but eventually she’d have to figure out where that rabbit stew came from.” She picked her book back up. “Need something?”

“Just taking a break.” Pony said. “I’m gonna have to get into that circle over there soon. You see that stance? “ She shook her head. “Knock her over with a pinecone.”

Xena studied the fighters for a minute. “Good luck with that.” She shook her head, then looked up again as the door opened and Aalene came inside, obviously searching for someone.  “Uh oh.” She whistled softly then lifted her hand as the Amazon  turned.

“Now what?”  Pony groused. “Those goats get out?  Your mother’s bull get loose?  Random gang of drunken raiders attacking the market?’

Xena felt no urgency from her partner, so she assumed the same sort of thing as well.  “We’ll find out in a minute.”

Aalene arrived.  “Xena, the watch came in and told us there’s a handful of Athenian soldiers heading this way. Gabrielle said to come get you.”

“Ah.” Xena got up and tucked her book away into the pouch at her belt.  “Only a handful?”

“That’s what they said.  Half dozen I think.” Aalene confirmed.  “Flying a banner.”

“Figures.” Pony got up. “I’ll come with.”  She went to get her cloak. “Eph’s taking a nap, least I’ll have something to entertain her with when she gets up.”

Dori spotted all the motion and came running over. “Boo, where you go?”

“C’mere, shortie. You’re going too. We’re going to go find your mama and see what trouble she’s getting into. How about that?”

“Whee!”  Dori turned and bolted for the door, causing Xena to quickly dodge several Amazons and leap over a table in chasing after her.  “Go go go!”

Pony fastened her clasp and started after them, shaking her head as Aalene joined her. “Glad as hell I’m gonna be retired by the time that kid grows up.”

**

Continued in Part 6