Body Heart and Soul

Part 6

Gabrielle was standing near the fireplace, hands on hips when the inner door opened. She looked over to see her partner entering, with Dori scooting ahead of her.  “Hey you two!”

“Mama!”  Dori held up her hands and gave a little leap towards her mother as she was caught and lifted.  “Mama we should have stikies and happles to eat! No aminals!”

Gabrielle studied her, then looked over at her partner with a perplexed expression. “What?”

“Class up the hill was in snares.”  Xena explained briefly.  “I had to tell her what they were for.”

“Ooh.” Gabrielle gave Dori a hug.  “I see.” She patted her daughter on the back. “We can talk about that later, Dor. I think you’d get bored with just hay and apples after a while.”  She told her.

Xena came up next to her and put a hand on Gabrielle’s back. “So we’ve got soldiers headed this way?”

“Not so much, Xena.” Johan was seated at the nearby table. “Seems like just a group of travelers, watch said.”

“Carrying a pennant?” The warrior gave him a skeptical look.

“Dressed like locals.”  Johan said. “Or anyhow, not like the last lot of them that showed up here.”

They all sat down at the scattered tables, and the servers had brought around pitchers of ale when the front door opened and three of Xena’s men came in with a half dozen strangers who were led immediately over to the back table

“General.”  The oldest of the soldiers saluted. “These folks asked to see yah.”

Xena was seated against the wall, and she remained there, casually regarding the newcomers. “What’s on your minds?”  She asked.

The group was, as the guard said, dressed for traveling.  They had solid cloaks on over thick tunics and leggings, all well made but without any gilt or markings.  The apparent leader of the group stepped forward and put his hands on the chair opposite the one Xena was sitting in.

“You are Xena?”

Xena blinked mildly at him. “I am.”  She admitted.

“My name is Delphas.  I represent the regional authority on behalf of the Athens council.” He said. “We know you are harboring a criminal here.  I am here to offer you a deal for him.”

Well, now wasn’t that refreshing honesty. “Sit down.” Xena said. “Let’s start off by you telling me exactly who you’re looking for and why.” She said, motioning the server over. “There are people I’d hand over to you free of charge, and people you’d never have enough coin to offer for.”

Delphas sat down, nodding a little and folding his hands in front of him. “I understand.” He said, in a courteous tone.  “May the rest of us take a seat?”

“Sure.”  Xena indicated the next table over, where two of the town elders were sitting. The other travellers went and sat down with muted sighs of relief, holding their hands out to the fire.

“It’s been a cold march.”  Delphas said. “We have been out looking for this criminal for two sevendays.  Yesterday, we met a man on the road, and he pointed us here. He’d been at a market here and said he saw our mark wandering free.”

Xena merely looked back at him, one dark eyebrow lifted. 

Delphas cleared his throat. “We know this man as Stephan.” He said. “He is the local leader of a gang of raiders who have been robbing and murdering people all along this side of Therma, and has been charged with robbing the tax rolls that were on their way to Athens.”

Xena looked at Gabrielle, who shrugged faintly.  Then she lifted her eyes past their visitor to her soldiers. “We know that name?”

“Not as such, general.” The older one said.

“Johan?” Xena turned to him next. “Did you find anyone called that in the market?”

Johan pursed his lips, and looked past them, silent for a long moment. “No, lass.” He finally said. “No man by that name came to my notice.” He looked at Delphas. “Could he have gone by some other?”

Delphas looked puzzled. “But we are sure he was here.” He said. “He doesn’t care if people know about him why would he hide behind a false name?”

Johan shrugged. “Donno, lad.” He said. “Just saying we didn’t have cause to notice anyone by that one in the market. What’s he look like?”

“Middling height,  pale hair, big, thrusty kind of nose.”  Delphas produced promptly.  “Had a scar on his arm, below the elbow here.” He pointed at his own arm, and drew his finger down to his wrist. “Twisted, like a scythe had taken him.”

Johan looked at Xena. 

“Didn’t know his name.” Xena admitted. “But he was here.”

“Ah.” Delphas nodded. “And now?”

“Now he’s dead.”  The warrior replied in a mild tone.  “Found him stuffed in a provisions barrel. We put him on a pyre.”

‘So that’s who he was.”  Gabrielle mused.  “He paid one of the local kids to put caltrops in our stable.” She explained to Delphas. “Seems like a petty, mean thing to do.”

The man looked stunned. “You’re sure?” He asked Xena. 

“That he was dead? Yes.”  Xena replied. “We don’t know how he got that way though. No one came forward to say he’d been in a fight, or anything.”

“Huh.”  Delphas leaned back in the wooden chair, and let his hands fall to his thighs.  “By the gods, to hunt like that and come to nothing. “

Dori appeared, entering the room from the kitchen where she’d escaped to find a snack. She came over clutching a cookie in one hand, and latched on to her mother’s overtunic with the other. “Mama.”

Gabrielle picked her up and sat her on her lap.  “Is it just him you’re looking for? What about the gang he was leading?” She bounced Dori up and down a little on her knee. “Is this the same gang we heard were going around grabbing people to sell them into slavery?”

Delphas shrugged. “That, I cannot tell you. I know his gang were ambushing people in ones and twos on the road, stealing from them, that kind of thing. That’s how they got ahold of the tax rolls.  Two of the towns closer in reported the messengers carrying theirs had come back beaten.”

“Sure that’s true?” Xena asked, skeptically.  “They could just be saying that.”

“They could.” The man said. “But we know from others this gang was running loose, and you yourself say he meant mischief here.”

“Weird mischief.” Gabrielle said. “I mean, whats the profit to them in potentially crippling our horses?” She asked. “Not even the cavalry’s. Our family’s. “ She hugged Dori. “My kid’s pony, my partner’s mare, and a few others.”

“Only thing that would have gotten him was my sword in his gut.” Xena said.

“Would you have ridden out after him?” Delphas asked, after a moment.  “Yourself, I mean?”

“For that? Yes.”  Xena asserted. “I would have cut them all to pieces.”

“Then perhaps the target was not your animals, but you?”  He responded. “We hear his market is off in Thrace, and have expensive tastes.”

Xena blinked at him then turned her head and looked at Gabrielle.

Gabrielle frowned. “Do you really think they’d risk having Xena and a round of cavalry from here go out after them?  She’s kinda dangerous y’know?”

“Stephan was not from these parts. He was from eastern Thrace, and only recently started inroads here, somewhat after the Spartan invasion.  He might not know of your reputation.”  Delphas said. “In any case, I will need some proofs of his demise. The council will demand it.”

“Little hard.” Xena leaned back. “He’s ashes.”

“Well..”

Paladia chose that moment to stand up from where she’d been sitting next to Aalene and come over, removing a piece of parchment from her sling bag and handing it over to Xena.  “The guy who croaked, right?”

Xena examined it, then gave Paladia an appreciative grin. “Thanks.” She handed it over to Delphas. “This your man?”

Delphas took the sheet eagerly and peered at it motioning the others who’d come with him forward. “I think..  Gellen, is this the man?”

A tall, blond haired man with a thick beard and moustache put his hand on the table and leaned in to examine the likeness. “I believe it is, sir.” He said. “Hard to be completely sure.. “ He glanced up at Paladia. “You drew this?”

Paladia nodded. “Didn’t have a choice on the posing. He was dead.”  She said, bluntly. 

“Good job.”  Gabrielle complimented her.  “We were going to see if anyone in the tribe had seen him around.” She explained to Delphas.  “We had a market stall there.”

“May we ask them as well? The more information we can collect, the better since it seems I will not be bringing the man himself back.”  Delphas sighed.

“Sure.” Gabrielle got up  and set Dori on her feet. “Let’s go on up there now, before the weather starts really getting bad.”

Xena caught the eye of two of her men, then shifted quickly to Delphas, then back to them. Both nodded and they followed the group out as Gabrielle led the way, holding Dori by the hand.

“Boo!” Dori turned at the door, not seeing her buddy joining them.  “ You come?”

“Be there in a little while shortie.” Xena told her. “G’wan with mama and I’ll meet you up at our house.”

Dori scowled, but went with the gentle tug on her hand and followed Gabrielle outside.  The door closed and that left Xena with Cyrene and Johan and a handful of the town elders.   A moment later, the inner door opened and Iolaus entered, coming over to sit down at the table. 

“Least they weren’t looking for you.” Cyrene said, patting his hand. 

“Yeah, that’s a relief.”  Iolaus admitted. “I thought for sure there for a minute he was going to call me out.”  He leaned closer to Xena. “Has Gabrielle mentioned anything about what I told her this morning to you?”

“No.”

“It was kinda weird.”

Xena propped her head up on her fist.  “Weird?”

“Weird.” 

**

Cait was the first to crest the small rise and see the wagons,  as well as the crowd of mounted men on horses surrounding them with weapons raised.

They were making so much noise and the screams of the wagoneers were so loud they had no sense of the Amphipolis force approaching and so she was able to drive Shadow right up into the fight and jump off without drawing their attention.

Then, of course, she drew it sharply as she pulled her sword from it’s sheath and dove into a bunch of raiders pulling two women from the second wagon in line.  She ran the blade through the back of one of them, and yanked it right out in time to turn and cut the hand off of the second.

It dropped with his long knife in it to the ground and he spun, flinging his arm back and spattering the snow covered ground in blood.  

Cait didn’t hesitate, seeing a clear path to his chest and she pulled her own dagger and plunged it into him, driving it through his leather armor.

He fell. She moved on.  

Just past the wagon side she saw Bennu smashing a mace down on the head of another raider, and Jax was watching his back, firing his crossbow into a moving rider heading away.

Nala caught up to her and they were in a bunch of men on foot, the scrape of blade on blade and the grunt of  fighting bodies suddenly loud and immediate.  Cait relied on her speed to keep clear of the weapons and she ducked under a curved sword and got her dagger sheathed, putting both hands on her sword hilt as she stepped in and blocked the return swipe.

Xena made it look so blasted easy.  Cait grunted herself a little, twisting her wrists and shoving hard against the raider she was fighting as he tried to run her over. 

“Duck.” Nala called out and Cait did, feeling the other Amazon’s sword whisk over her head and catch the man in the side of his neck as she hopped sideways and got out of the way. 

There were two men throwing a boy on the back of a horse and she headed that way, swinging her blade up and around and slicing through the nearest raider’s hamstrings.  He went down with a startled scream and his partner turned, raising his sword as he saw Cait coming at him.

The boy had his hands and feet tied but he managed to look over his shoulder and start to kick out as the raider turned. He thumped his boots into the back of the raider’s head just as Cait got to him and knocked him offbalance.

Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Cait chopped quickly at his sword arm and then swung in and drew her dagger, thumping it into his gut as he stumbled to one side. 

He stumbled back against the horse who kicked out in fright, smashing his head with a hoof as he dumped the boy on his back onto the ground, plunging forward when Cait smacked his behind with the flat of her blade. 

She knelt quickly and cut his bonds, rising up and stepping back as he rolled over and got his hands and knees under him. “You okay then?”

He looked up at her in startlement. “Ares balls. You’re a woman!”

“Too right.”  Cait turned, her blades moving in a circle as she looked out over the battle.  “You can go back now to the rest of your lot. Looks like these rats are running off.”

The boy got up and brushed the icy mud off him.  “Who are you?” He asked, before he stared out over the wagon train.  “And they aren’t my lot.  I’m just traveling with them.”

The Phillipi men were chasing off the last of the raiders, and Bennu and Jax had dismounted and were helping right one of the wagons.  

Cait watched them briefly, then she knelt and wiped her blade off on the cloak of her last adversary.  “Did they want something from you all?”

“Who are you?” The boy repeated the question.

Cait stood and sheathed her blades. “My name is Cait.” She said. “I’m an Amazon, and I live in Amphipolis. Who are you?” She put her hands on her hips and lifted her brows.

He stared at her. “An Amazon?” He asked. “Really?”

“Yes.” Cait looked around again. “Sorry. Have to go along with the rest of my gang.  Goodbye.” She started off towards the gathering force, lifting a hand to wave at Bennu.

“Wait.” He jogged after her. “My name’s Jake.  I knew an Amazon once.”

“I’m sure you did.” Cait kept walking.  “There are quite a lot of them around.” She caught up with Nala, who was wiping down her own blade. “Lovely fight.”

“Yeh, not bad.” The taller Amazon agreed, glancing behind them “Who’s your friend?”

“This is Jake.”  Cait said. “Apparently he knew an Amazon once.”

“No hey I did.” Jake caught up with them. “They tied her up and took her away from my village.  There wasn’t much left there so we all decided to go somewhere else.” He indicated the wagons. “But I guess we just ran into the bad guys again.”

“I see.” Cait said. “Well, at least we came along.”

“That was cool. The other Amazon wasn’t really cool. She said she was in charge of things and we’d all be sorry when she got her stuff back.”

Cait and Nala stopped in mid walk and turned  to look at him.  “Really?” Nala said.  “What was her name?”

“What did she look like?”  Cait said, at the same time.

Jake shrugged.  “Kinda ugly.  Don’t know what her name was… some other women with her called her Arty.”

The two Amazons exchanged glances.  “I see.” Cait finally said.  “Any idea where they might have taken her?”

Jake grinned. “Let me come with ya and I’ll see if I can remember where they said they were going.”

**

“Show me your snare, Dori.”  Gabrielle hung up her cloak and made sure the door to her quarters was closed. 

“No mama, don’t like it.”  Dori was sitting near the fire, her small legs pulled up crossed under her. “Don’t want to hurt aminals.”

“Well.”  Her mother pushed a pot of water near the fire to heat. “I understand that, honey, but the fact is, your mama and your Boo both catch animals, and then mama makes something nice to eat from them.”

Dori poked her lower lip out. “Mama that’s bad!”

“No, really it isn’t.” Gabrielle settled on the floor right next to where Dori was sitting, also pulling her legs up under her.  “Its how life is.  Those little animals catch things to eat too, either bugs, or grass or chestnuts, and those things, even chestnuts, need something to live on.”

“Mama.”

“I know, it’s hard for you to understand, honey.”  Gabrielle told her.  “But everything on earth, even trees and bugs, depend on something else to give them nourishment and keep them alive.”  She took Dori’s hand and gently squeezed it. “So your mama and Boo try to make sure that when we do have to catch something that we do it very fast.”

Dori pouted again.

“You like what mama cooks, right?”

“Didn’t know it was aminals, mama!” Tears welled up in Dori’s eyes. “Don’t want to hurt them!”

Gabrielle sighed. “Honey, calm down.” She said. “I understand why you’re upset. I remember when I was a little girl, and I realized how my mama got our dinner.  It really bothered me, because one of the things I did was take care of the animals”

Dori sniffled.

“Some of the animals I took care of were lambs. You know what those are right?”

“Baby sheeples.”  Dori said. “Like gramma has.”

“Right.  My mama and papa had sheep, and those were the baby sheep and I used to take care of them. And one day, papa came to where I was taking care of them, and took one away, and then I saw my mama cooking something nice for dinner and I realized then that the baby sheep I’d been taking care of was now giving us food.”

“Mama, that’s bad.”

“No honey.” Gabrielle put her arm around her. “It’s life. Just like sometimes mama and Boo have to fight with people? It’s just how it is.” She said. “So in order for you to grow up big and strong, you need to have good things to eat, and some of those things come from animals.”

“Wusty has happles and stickies.”

“And we eat apples, and sometimes herbs and mushrooms that mama finds.  But we also need to eat other things, like Ares does.”

“Guff?”

“Right.”

“Guff has aminals?”

“Yes.” Gabrielle told her. “Guff mostly only has animals.”

“No cookies?”

Gabrielle chuckled softly. “Sometimes we give him cookies, sure.  But mostly he has animals.  That’s how he grew up, and how the puppies grew up too.”

“Buppits.”

“Buppits.”  Her mother confirmed. “So don’t feel bad about that, Dor. I’ll try to make you things that are mostly not animals, okay? Like the soup we had yesterday, and cookies.”

Dori looked mollified.  “Gramma has aminals?” She asked, after a pause.

“Yes, she does.” Gabrielle rubbed her back. “Sorry about that. We’re all just horrible.”

A soft knock came at the door. “C’mon in.” Gabrielle said, automatically.  She remained where she was as the door opened and Ephiny poked her head in. “C’mon.”  She waved her over. “I’m just explaining the birds and the rabbits to Dori.”

“Isn’t she a little young for that?” Ephiny came over and took a seat near the fire. 

“Birds and rabbits as in dinner.”  Gabrielle clarifled. “They did snares in class to day.”

“Ooooohhh.”  Ephiny gave them both a fond look. “This is the kid who rescues lizards. Bet she didn’t take that well.”

“No, I think I’ll be making that lemongrass and vegetable soup for a while.”  The bard replied, with a smile. “Lucky both Xe and I love it.   How’d they make out in the gathering hall?”

“Meh.” Ephiny shrugged. “No one really remembers that guy, except that they knew him from being the body in the barrel.   Renas thinks he might have come over and looked the jewelry but she’s not really sure.”

“Can you believe they thought he wanted to draw Xena out after him? On purpose?”  Gabrielle said. “I mean, how idiotic can you get?”

‘Yeah that’s a mistake you only make once.”  Ephiny agreed. “Aalene told me that and I laughed my head off.”’

“Mm.. but then, if not that why?”  The bard mused. “Maybe he was just seeing how easily he could buy someone here?”

“Mm.” Ephiny grunted in assent. “Maybe.”

Gabrielle got up off the floor and went over to the folded blanket on the table, unfolding it and shaking it out.   It was mostly blue, with greens and tans woven in a crosshatch pattern.   On one corner, the town sigil was embedded, and she smiled on seeing it. “Aww.”

“Mama where’s Boo?” Dori asked, suddenly. 

“Boo’s down in the town, talking to her friends.”  Gabrielle draped the blanket over the back of the sturdy couch. “She’ll come up here soon.”

“Want to go get happles.”  Dori hopped off the chair and rambled off into the sleeping room.

“Ho boy.”  Gabrielle came around and sat down on the couch, leaning back on the blanket and stretching her arm out along the back. “The stage players asked me if they could come up here and do some skits for the tribe. What do you think?”

Ephiny pondered that. “Why not?” She said. “Sounds like fun.  They seemed like a pretty relaxed bunch.”

Gabrielle nodded.  “Be something different every once in a while.” She leaned back and swung her legs up onto the couch, extending her legs and crossing them at the ankles. “Did you hear what happened with my little miss thing yesterday?”

The regent nodded back, with a faint smile. “I heard.” She said. ‘Bother you?” She watched Gabrielle’s face go quiet, and slightly pensive. “Freaked out the teachers a little.”

“I don’t know.” Her friend admitted. “I mean, what can I say? Can I tell her not to stand up for her friends?  How hypocritical would that be?”

“Very.”

“She did exactly what I would have.” Gabrielle said. “What I have done, more times than I can talk about.  Someone’s being tormented, being taken advantage of – no problem of mine, don’t even know the person and there I am with a big stick taking a whack at them. Don’t even have to think about it anymore.”

“Any more? I remember you with Terreis.”  Ephiny said, in a mild tone.  “She copies what she sees, Gab. Not only with you, but with big X. All she’s ever known is that her family steps in front of catapults for people on a regular basis.”

“Mm.”

“Now, she might end up being the only vegetarian ass kicker who lives with ponies the Nation has ever seen, but y’know”

Gabrielle started laughing silently.

“She’ll always be unique.”

“Shes’ got a big heart.” Dori’s mother agreed, with a smile.  “I just want her to have both sides of the story, you know?  She should know there’s another choice than her fists sometimes.”

“Talk then fight.”

“Exactly.”

**

Xena stood quietly in the barn,  moving the curry brush over Argo’s back as she listened to the quiet sounds of the horses around her.  “Hey girl.  Arencha glad that little tyke found that damn caltrop? I’d have hated to see that in your foot.”

Argo blew out a bit of straw and craned her head around, nibbling a bit of Xena’s shirt instead.

‘Yeah, I know.  I remember that time too.” Xena sighed, switching the brush for a comb and combing out the mare’s long mane.  “That was a dark road, and you and I should have been long off it and camped.”

She moved around to the other side of the horse.  “You picked up one of those damn things and threw me and we both ended up in a bad place.”

Argo snorted and shifted her big feet, bumping against her rider.

She had broken her arm, matter of fact. Falling on it just the wrong way on a thick tree root and hearing the snap a moment before the wave of pain had hit her.   So there she was, alone in the woods, broken arm, and a lame horse with a caltrop embedded in her foot.

Lousy day.  Xena could still remember the pain of it, as she delayed taking care of the break and managed to get the iron spike out of Argo’s hoof, dressing the wound and then, at the end of it collapsing against a nearby tree.

It had rained and it had been cold, and she’d caught a horrible cold on top of it and she remembered huddling there shivering and in pain, on the cusp of giving it up.

Only the need to take care of Argo’s foot had stopped her. It had kept her from slipping into that fog, and letting the darkness take her, because she had to keep the fire going, keep the poultices steaming, focusing completely on this creature who was dependent on her.

“Yeah, those were tough days, huh girl?” Xena smiled as she finished up her brushing. “Now you’re treated like a queen in here, right?  You got everything you need.”

Argo snorted again then tugged at a bit of hay in the net at the front of her stall.

“Me too, matter of fact.” Xena stroked the now spotless hide, before she went over and put the brushes up.  “We got lucky, Argo.”  She gave the mare a pat on the hip before she moved out of the stall and looked around the barn, moving through the straw and kicking it investigatively.

Rusty was watching her, laying down in his stall with his small hooves tucked under him, his shaggy coat flecked with bits of yellow dust. 

“Hey there little man.”  Xena went over and sat down on a nearby bale of hay.  “You know what? Your little rider wants me to try and get you up the mountain path to the village. What do you think about that?”

Rusty looked thoughtfully at her.

“Maybe we’ll wait until it isn’t snowing.”  Xena conceded. “If you started sliding down that slope, we’d both probably end up ass over teakettle with everyone laughing at us.”

She fished a carrot out of her belt pouch and offered it to him, watching with a grin as he crunched it happily. 

Behind her, both Argo and Iolaus snorted and the stallion whinnied a little to catch her attention.

“Ah, they caught me.” She got up and retrieved two more of the roots, handing it over to the two golden horses who were watching her alertly.  “Here you go kids.” She watched them munch.  “Now I gotta go up and see what Gabrielle and Dori are up to.”

She lifted her head as the door opened, and then shifted the hay net around as Cyrene entered and closed the door behind her. “You have room to put that bunch up tonight?”

“If most of them share a room, yes.”  Her mother came over and patted Argo on the nose.  ‘You think they’ll get any information from those Amazons?”

“Maybe.  If they poke them enough, one or the other might remember something about that ugly bastard. He was noticeable enough.”  Xena said. “The whole deal doesn’t sound right to me though.  If he was being chased by Athen’s stooges, why come here and start trouble?”

“Maybe he didn’t know.”

Xena gave her mother a skeptical look. “When you do what he does? You know when you’re being hunted.”

“Maybe you did.”  Cyrene said. “But you, my dear, have more than your share of smarts.” She watched the faint blush appear across her daughter’s planed cheekbones. “I just hope that bunch goes back to where they came from and leaves us in peace for the winter.”

“You know what was funny?” Xena leaned against the stall divider.  “They didn’t even ask about Iolaus.”

Her stallion nickered, nudging her in the back with his nose.

“Not you.” 

“After what Johan heard in the market, about that reward – you’re right.”  Cyrene mused. “Tell you what, when they come back down here, I’ll see if they know about him.”

They walked out into the now falling snow, pulling up their cloak hoods as Xena shut the barn door behind her.  “I’m going to go check that Amazon.”

“And beat up some of your faithful men?”

Xena chuckled. “Maybe.”   She parted from Cyrene at the inn path and continued on, taking the downward track to the barracks.   It had grown quiet again, the townsfolk either  in the hall, or in their homes, only a few cloaked figures coming up from the bridge. 

She could hear swords crossing inside the military compound though, and the sound got louder as she walked along the front of the barracks and stepped up onto the porch, moving to the door and pushing it open.

Inside, here in the front, was a set of guards both of whom saluted her as she came inside. “Afternoon, boys.”

“Afternoon, Xena.” They replied dutifully.  “That beat up lady in there was looking for you.”

“Thanks.” Xena went to the healer’s hall and stepped inside it, the warmth in the room appreciably greater than it had been by the guard.   She crossed to the private room Alana was in and pushed the door open.

Inside, Alana was sitting up a little in the bed, bruises still very lurid against her skin and a pained expression on her face. “Xena, I must speak with you.”

“Okay.”  Xena pulled up one of the low stools and settled herself on it. “Say your piece, then I’ll check your wounds.”

“No need.”

The warrior lifted her hands off her knees, and then put them back. “Have it your way.”  She motioned to the junior healer who was sitting patiently against the wall.  He got up without a word and left the room, and the silence settled back over them.

Alana studied her face, while Xena merely sat there waiting, still and relaxed, looking as though she was ready to wait there all night.

“You know what they did to me.” Alana said, finally.

Xena nodded.

“I don’t remember any of it.” The Amazon said. “How do I know it wasn’t someone here that did this?”

“They didn’t”

“So you say.”

The warrior shook her head briefly. “I was there when the watch brought you in.”

“And what if he did it?”

“He could have.” Xena said. “Problem with that is, he’s one of my men, and he knows what would happen to him if I found out. If he’d done it, he’d have kept riding.”

Alana turned her head slightly. “Oh yes. You would protect a sister.” She said, in a dry tone. “How could I forget.”

“No, not really.” Xena decided to take the remark at face value.  “I keep discipline in my troops.  Has nothing to do with the Amazons.” She extended her legs and crossed them at the ankles. “If it’s worth anything to you, I’m damned sorry about what happened.”

“Sure.”

Xena studied her briefly. “What is the last thing you remember?”

“Why should you care?”

The warrior leaned forward a little “Truth interests me.”  She said, in quiet tone. “You may not want to know what happened to you, but this is my patch, and I do.”

Alana just stared at her.

**

They were packed up again and riding.  The wagon train had been sorted out and put on it’s wheels, and Bennu had convinced the wagon leader to head to Amphipolis rather than over the pass into Thrace. 

Cait thought the people with the wagon train were quite happy about that When they’d listened to the description of the town, most had nodded in relief, and it hadn’t taken long to convince them not to go forward.

Good thing that, since they’d likely either run back into those ruffians, or even more trouble if they’d kept on.   She tugged her hood a bit closer and tightened down the ties in the front of her cloak as the snow started to get heavier. 

One of Xena’s men had remained with them as a guide, and his horse was now taken up by Jake, having wormed his way into the recon party, not without some subtle assistance from Cait herself.

“Not sure about that kid.” Nala said to Cait, as they resumed their steady pace near the front of the group. “Seems like a trickster.”

“Too right.” Cait said. “But he saw that woman he said was an Amazon and I want him about if we see her where we’re headed.”

Nala eyed her. “You don’t think it was an Amazon?”

“No.” Cait said, briefly, then fell silent.

Nala waited, then adjusted her reins in her fingers. “All right then.”

“I don’t mean to be rude.” Cait cleared her throat. “It’s just it reminded me of something that happened when we were in Therma, during the fight and it’s a bit hard to explain.”

“Ah.” Nala grunted. “Damned sorry I missed that.”

“I can certainly imagine you were.”  Cait was aware of Jake slowly catching up with them. “We missed having you, and I know it was just ratty back at the camp.”

Nala rolled her eyes expressively.  “Sweetest thing in the world was seeing you and Pony come through that crowd of morons and knowing that for me, it was done and over.”

Cait chuckled with little humor.  “The queen certainly showed them what was what.  You know, I think it was then, when she chased them all off, it clicked a bit that she was actually the queen.”

Nala nodded emphatically. “The move was then. Yeah.  You could feel it. It got real.  Was like up to then most of those mooks thought, I mean really thought she was a figurehead and were like, yeah whatever.”

“Not after that night.”  Cait smiled briefly.  “Not after she knocked off that nasty bit of goods on her own.”

“Bare hands, in the dark? Oh yeah.” Nala agreed cheerfully. “That nailed it.  I mean, her telling Xena to kill that moron in the hall – that was all right, and the kids liked it, but the seniors – after that night?  They were like okay. She’s an Amazon. We got it.”

They rode on a bit further.  Then Nala turned her head slightly towards Cait. “You think she’ll turn it back over to Ephiny?”

“Not at all. No.” Cait said, then fell silent as Jake caught fully up with them and came alongside her.  “Hello.”

“So hey.” Jake spoke up. “You said you guys were from Amphipolis, right?”

“Right.”  Cait agreed. 

“I knew people from there.”

“You know a lot of people from places.” Nala observed. “Got around for such a youngster didncha?”

Jake thought about that a moment. “I guess I did.” He said. “My family used to live around these parts, but they got whacked out when I was a kid, and me and my brother were taken.” He added. “But before that, some people from Amphipolis came to our town and caused a lot of trouble.”

“People from Amphipolis do tend to do that.” Cait said, politely.  “But usually if they’re making trouble for someone they deserve it.”

Jake shrugged. “I don’t remember much.  But there were Amazons there too.”

Cait and Nala exchanged looks.  “If people from Amphipolis were there and Amazons were with them, I’m fairly sure who it must have been.”

“Huh.”

“How’d you get out of being caught?” Nala asked, to change the subject.  “You run away from them?”

“That’s a long story.” Jake said.  “Are we going to ride up through the pass to Thrace today you think?  Reason I got in with that bunch is they said they were going there. “

“Oh, I think so yes.”  Cait said. “We should be on the other side by sundown.”

“That’s good.” The young man said. “Maybe we can talk more tonight then.” He nudged his horse forward and trotted after Bennu, who had paused to survey the trail. He pulled up next to the man, and started talking to him, and they rode on together.

“You figure he bumped into our royals?” Nala asked.

“Had to be.” Cait said at once.  “I’m quite surprised he didn’t ask about them by name.  I’m sure he knows them.”

“Like I said, weird kid.”

Possibly true. Cait thought.  She considered that they might find out more around the campfire, and also, she wanted to know why he was so eager to get to Thrace.   There was, as Nala had said, something not quite right about him.

**

Gabrielle stepped back out of the sparring ring and set her staff end down on the ground, her hand curled around the well worn and familiar surface.  “Next!”

Pasi walked over and offered her a mug of water, which she gratefully accepted.  “Thanks.” She took a swallow, glad to clear the straw chaff and smoke from her throat after her set of staff bouts. 

Two other Amazons took the place of her and her last opponent in the ring and started up, the softly tentative cracks becoming louder and more confident.

There was an air of comfortable competitiveness in the room,  a good number of women gathered to watch and participate in the sparring, and Gabrielle’s presence and participation were no longer looked at with any sense of it being unusual.

She shared teaching duties in the weapon, in fact, with Eponin and she pretended not to acknowledge the fact that her classes were better attended than her weapons masters.   It was a long gone time since she’d done it to prove anything to anyone.

Some of the Amazons were in leathers, since the room was warm enough for it. She was wearing a padded overtunic though, made by Xena to match the one she wore for her sword practice. It was soft, and had protection around her ribs and her hips to soften hits taken there.

It was sleeveless, and she could feel the faint warmth of the fire in the big pit against the bare skin of her shoulders, comfortable now as her body cooled down from the exercise. Her upper arms ached a bit from it,  but in a good way.

It felt very good to be just one of the tribe, in this arena.  Gabrielle smiled and flexed her hands, watching Solari neatly parry a strike, then reverse her motion and take her opponents staff out of her hands, a move the bard remembered teaching not that long ago.

Now that was pretty cool. It was good to know she was contributing to the tribe, being a part of their lives now for far longer than she ever had in the past and not only that, doing so without anyone thinking it was odd anymore.

She was no longer really a stranger. There was, she knew, still that bit of separation due to her rank and history, but she no longer felt like an impostor. 

Most of the time, anyway. 

Paladia was seated at a table near the hearth, busy with parchment and charcoal.  One of the younger women was seated there watching her, apparently absorbing the way she was shaping something.  Gabrielle had to smile indeed in seeing that, acknowledging truly how far they’d all come.

On the other side of the big gathering hall the children were seated in a circle, listening to Ephiny tell them a story.    She couldn’t hear what the regent was telling them, but she could hear the giggling and she turned her head to watch, spotting Dori on one end of the circle.

Everyone seemed happy. That was good.  

“Hey Gabrielle?”

The bard turned back around to find Solari heading her way. “What? Did I miss something?” She looked around quickly.

“Nah, will you go through that knee sweep?” Solari asked. “I keep whacking my elbow.”

“Oh sure.”  Gabrielle stepped back into the circle with her, as her former opponent backed away to clear space.  She lifted her staff off the floor and brought it up to shoulder level as she waited for Solari to come over to face her.

Then she dropped the staff to her thighs. “Okay, so.” She said. “The times I usually use this is when some big old dude is swiping at me with a sword, usually around this level.” She indicated her collarbone.  “So the drop is to let that go over my head.”

Solari obligingly stepped back and then gently swung her staff around, and Gabrielle went to one knee as she did. “Keep going around.” She said. “See what your knee does there? Goes up?”

“Right.”  Solari nodded.

Gabrielle tucked her staff under one arm and wrapped her hand around it, then swiveled around and used both her momentum, and the weight of her body to lend force as she moved.  When her staff hit Solari’s knees though she slacked off and just tapped her. “You need the extra motion to get their legs out from under them.”

“Okay I got it – I wasn’t putting it under my arm.”  Solari said, as she nodded. “I was just holding it like this.” She held the staff out with it’s end going past her elbow.

Gabrielle unexpectedly swung her staff up, and with a loud clack sent Solari’s flying, giving her an impish grin when she yelped and shook her hand rapidly.  “Don’t. It’s too easy for someone to disarm you.”

“Ouch.”  Solari tucked her hand under her other arm. 

“Yeah, I learned that the hard way too.” Gabrielle got to her feet and twirled her staff a few times. “I can remember so many twilights ending with me yelling Xena’s name in complete and utter frustration when she’d just keep doing that to me.”

The women around her chuckled, and Solari waved her opponent forward again. “Let’s try that.”  She said. “I’ll try to keep my elbow out of it this time.”

The bard went back to her sideline spot, and perched on one of the benches that surrounded the sparring circle.  Pasi had refilled her mug and was standing by watching. “Glad we got this hall done, huh?”

The younger Amazon nodded. “Absolutely.  This is awesome. That old one had so many holes in it you could see people walking by outside.”  She watched the action for a moment. “I heard that lowland Queen really got whacked. Is that true?”

“She did.”  Gabrielle said.  “She doesn’t remember how it happened though.”

“Mm.” Pasi made a low sound in her throat. “Would she tell you if she did? She seemed pretty obnoxious.” 

“Still is.”  Gabrielle folded her arms.  “She doesn’t much want anything to do with us. Xe was right to leave her in the barracks and I sure don’t mind having that attitude in close quarters.”

“Nice.”

They exchanged wry looks.  Pasi was one of the youngers that had stood by her in the last dust up, and she’d become a friend in the subsequent months as had several others most of whom were around Gabrielle’s age.

Squeals made them turn around, to see a rush of small bodies heading for the passage between the gathering and dining halls.   “Uh oh.. there goes the horde.” Gabrielle watched Dori in the middle of them, as two of the child minders jogged behind.

One of the taller girls tripped, and fell near the door.  Most of the kids ran past, but her kid stopped, and held a hand out invitingly to help her up.  The older girl took it, and was hauled to her feet, and they ran out together at the very rear of the group.

Gabrielle chuckled, and got up off the bench as Ephiny strolled over. “Story time over?”

“Mmm.” The regent murmured. “I wanted to see that whole group dynamic after what happened yesterday.” She said.  “I need to take Marisha aside and have a talk with her.  She’s old enough to come out of that gang and start trailing as a junior.”

“That the one who was mixing with my kid?”  Gabrielle eyed her.  “Let’s go grab a cup. We’re about done here.”

“Sure.”  Ephiny joined her as they walked towards the passage.  “I heard from Soli she was talking smack after that.  Time for her to move on.  She’s bullying the other kids.. or trying to.” Ephiny smiled at her queen.  “Actually, that’s a good sign she’s ready to move up.  Getting near cycling.”

“I’m not sure I like kids who beat up the younger ones.” Gabrielle stated. “Especially that little cutie Cari.  What did she do to deserve that?”

“Yeah, poor little kid. She’s an orphan.”  Ephiny told her, as they walked together between the two halls.  “Her mother died giving birth to her.  She didn’t have a partner – she got herself pregnant at the spring festival after you had Dori.”

“Ah.” Gabrielle murmured. “So who takes care of her?”

“Everyone. Anyone.”  Ephiny shrugged. “Happens sometimes.”

Gabrielle looked around as they entered the dining hall and spotted the kids in a cluster around the smaller table they used.  She followed Ephiny across to the service area and the big pot near the fire filled with spiced, hot cider, but kept the children in her peripheral vision.

“Mama.”  Dori saw her, and came running over. “Mama, they want to stay here sleeping over can I?”

“Ahhh.. now you’re bringing up memories.” Ephiny had seated herself on one of the benches.  “I remember my first sleep out. We didn’t have a nice place like this though, Dori. We had to sleep on pallets in the dirt.”

“What?” Gabrielle handed down a small cup of cider to Dori. “What is all this about?”

‘Mama, can I?” Dori ignored the cup. “Want to stay here with my friends.”

Gabrielle sat down and put both cups on the table. “Okay, hold on a minute there, miss thing.” She picked Dori up and put her on the bench. “Weren’t you telling me just yesterday there were mean kids in that group?”

Dori gave her a puzzled look. “Can I stay mama?”

“That was yesterday, mama.” Ephiny poked her in the arm. “C’mon, get with the program.”

“Boo made everybody good.” Dori explained. “Now we have fun!  Can I mama?”

Gabrielle gave Ephiny a questioning look.  “What is this?”

“Just the kids, they keep them together overnight in the gathering hall.  Little beds, baby fire, that sort of thing.” Ephiny smiled at her memory of it. “Someone tells stories, they get to paint each other’s faces, you know.”

Both of the bard’s eyebrows lifted.

“Okay so no you don’t know, but didn’t you… no.” Ephiny waved her hand. “Never mind, retract the question. It’s fun.  I hope I have a girl this time, so she can join in.”

Gabrielle looked down at Dori, who was waiting for her with commendable and unusual patience. “You can stay tonight, Dor, if you promise me you’ll behave and stay here with the others. Don’t run around outside, or anything.”

“Okay mama.” Dori agreed instantly. “I can do? Good!” She hopped off the bench and went running back over to the children’s group. 

“Why don’t I trust that innocent face?”  Gabrielle mused.  “Maybe I’ll have Ares stay too.”

Ephiny chuckled. “You don’t trust that innocent face because she’s your daughter.”  The regent gave her another poke in the arm. “Don’t worry about her – after what happened yesterday none of the kids is going to mess with her. Trust me.”

“Was she that rough?” Gabrielle frowned.

“Well, she’s got Xena’s right cross.” Her friend admitted.  “But no, it wasn’t that bad according to the minders. As in, she didn’t hurt anyone, but there was no doubt in anyone’s mind she wasn’t playing around.”

Gabrielle watched Dori mix back in with the kids, and she could see it – some of them gathered to her and some put a careful, respectful space between them.  It was crazy. She was five.  “Ah well.” She picked up her cider and took a sip.

“She’s a good kid, Gab.” Ephiny said. “It’s a good thing she stands up for her friends.”

“Oh, I know.” The bard said. “Problem is, Xena started out standing up for Amphipolis, and that didn’t end up so good for a while, you know?”

“Hm.”

“Hm.”

**

“We stopped for the night.”  Alana finally said, after the silence had gone on almost forever.  “There is a copse of wood just off the road.  We hadn’t gotten much sleep so we decided to stop early.”

“I know that spot.”  Xena said. “Just across the ford to Potadeia.”

“It was marked as a campsite.”  The younger woman agreed. “We had supplies from the market, so we didn’t hunt.  And as I told you, I was just filling my waterskin and then, nothing.”

Xena considered her in silence. “So you didn’t meet anyone on the road before you stopped?”

“No.”

“Anyone with you at the river?”

“No.”

Xena shifted a little closer, and then paused, as she saw the other woman flinch back.  “Not going to whack you one, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Alana’s eyes narrowed. “It wasn’t my own people who attacked me, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

The warrior got up and went to the cabinet near the wall. She opened it and removed a bowl and some cloths, and a pouch with well worn ties. “Could have been.” She said. “That’s what they were trying to buy Ephiny’s help with.”

“Not all of them.”

“No.”  Xena turned around and came back over with her kit.  “Which is why I don’t think it was them. You didn’t have a consensus.” She sat back down and opened up the pouch. “So what kind of raider band could bushwhack a party of Amazon warriors without a sound?”

Alana’s expression shifted a little. “You really don’t think it was them.”

“No.” Xena said. “You were hit in the back of the head hard enough to fracture bone.  Amazons are a lot of things, but they aren’t cowards. If she wanted to challenge you, she’d do it to your face.”

Alana remained silent as she watched the furs drawn back over her leg, exposing the splint Xena had put on there.  The limb underneath was a mass of bruises, and there was a long line of stitches down the front of the thigh ending just above the knee.

Xena cleaned the stitches and daubed them with cream from a jar she held in her other hand.  Then she examined the splint and adjusted it slightly.

“You really are a healer.” Alana said.

Xena didn’t bother to answer that.  She settled the furs back over the splint and wiped her hands off, putting the cloth down next to her kit. “There are known bands of slavers in the area.  Not that close to Amphipolis, but close to the pass.” She rested her elbows on her knees.  “Maybe they got the rest of your group.”

“And left me?”  Alana said, quietly  “Or are you saying, the others went willingly, since it was no secret to us how little you thought of our people.”

“If whoever knocked you out represented themselves as being from Athens? Maybe they did go with them.”  Xena said, in a mild tone.  “There’s no reason for me to think well of people who show up here with airless threats from Athens demanding compensation for being jerks.”

“Is that truly how you see us, Xena?”

“Yep.” Xena stood up and picked up the bowl of water.   “Leg’ll take three or four sevendays to heal up enough for you to walk on it.  You got lucky with the whack on the head. Nothing swelled up in there.” She dumped the water and put the pouch back in the cabinet. “Your choice if you want to stay here, or go up to the village.”

“I want no part of your tribe.”

Xena nodded and turned, taking her cloak off the wall peg.  ‘That’s fine by me.  Don’t annoy my troops.”  She swirled the garment over her shoulders and tied the fasteners. “If you decide to remember anything else, let me know.” 

She went to the door and passed out into the corridor. “All yours.” She said to the healer apprentice waiting there. “She’s got a sharp tongue on her.  Don’t let her get to you.”

“Aye, Genr’l.” The young man nodded. “Was speaking ill of the ladies up the hill. Paid no mind to it.” He shook his head. “Don’t have much patience for folks like that.”

Xena clapped him on the shoulder. “You learned a lesson young it took me a long time to get.” She admitted. “But do me a favor and pay attention to what she says .I’m trying to figure out what happened to her and she wont’ tell me anything.”

The man nodded. “Will do.”

Xena left the barracks feeling as unsettled as she had when she arrived.  The pieces were just not fitting together, and now she had Hercules’ message to deal with as well.  Unlike Iolaus, she knew his dream wasn’t anything of the kind, and now the thought of the mortal goddesses being caught by slavers was making her guts churn.

She knew – in the end – it would mean nothing but trouble for everyone.

She started up along the path to town, responding to the greetings of her soldiers heading in the other direction. The snow was starting to fall hard again, and she pulled her hood up as she walked along the path.

Most of the town was heading home for supper.  The upper lane was almost empty, and Xena was halfway up it when she sensed a presence and halted, swiveling around.

She was alone.  Then she heard a soft ‘psst’ and she stared through the trees, spotting a vaguely ghostly figure behind a tree, motioning her to come over.

With a quick look around, she approached the tree and slipped behind it, where the ghostly figure solidified, slightly. “Aprhrodite?’

“Shh.”  The goddess put her finger to her lips. “Don’t like even say my name, okay?”

“Okay.” Xena folded her arms. “What’s up?”

“If my father hears me down here, I’ll be toast.” Aphrodite whispered. “I can’t believe I let my brothers talk me into this.”

“Talk you into what?”  Xena whispered back. “Hercules got a message to Iolaus.  Is he right?”

Aphrodite looked around carefully. “We don’t know!  We don’t know where they are.” She said. “But if we don’t’ find them, and get them back upstairs, if you catch my drift, it’s gonna suck for everyone.”

Xena frowned. “Why doesn’t he just..” She snapped her fingers, then lifted her eyebrows.

“Shh.” The goddess came even closer, the fringes of her fogginess drifting against Xena’s shoulder.  “It’s gotten out that they’re down here and like.. mortal.”  She breathed.  “And we can’t get a handle on it, because all the little peoples have kinda started to not believe in us so much.”

Xena blinked, honestly surprised. “What?”

“C’mon, Xena. You know about this.” Aphrodite said, uncommonly serious.  “It’s all about up here.” She tapped on her forehead.  “You said it once, I heard you. You do stuff because…” She lifted her own eyebrows.

“Because I believe I can.” Xena murmured.

“And?” The goddess hissed. “Who else does?”

“Gabrielle.”

“So it’s no different for us.”  Aphrodite looked quickly around, then back at her. “If they find them before we do, and show them around, it’s just a matter of time.  The rents tried to get them back and they couldn’t! it’s started already!”

Xena put her hands on her hips. “Ever hear of the saying hoisted on your own petard?”

Aphrodite stared at her. “What? Are you not listening to me, Xena?”

“I am.” The warrior sighed.  “I’ll do whatever I can do to find them, but they could be anywhere.”

The goddess sighed back. “Not anywhere.  We think they’re somewhere around here.”

“Here?”

“Well, you know.” Aprhodite waved her hand. “In the sticks somewhere.”

Xena studied her thoughtfully.  “I’ve got some people checking out some of the lands east of here. We heard of some slavers operating in those parts.  The two Amazons with them know who they are if they see them.”

“Great.” Aphrodite gave her a pat on the cheek. “I knew we could count on you. Get  them out of this one, and I think you can write your own ticket with daddy, if you catch my drift.”  She winkled. “Gotta go!”

And then the fog was gone and Xena was left to roll her eyes, groan, and lean her back against the tree.

**

Gabrielle was sitting on the bed, helping Dori pack her things in a little bag.   “You want to take both of those, Dor?”

“Mama ,yes.”  Dori presented her with Bittyboo the doll, and a new favorite, Buppit.  “Gramma got me dis one.” She held up the roughly dog shaped toy. “He go have fun too.”

“Okay.” Her mother amiably packed the toys, and her favorite blanket.  “So you’re going to have a good time tonight huh?”

Dori nodded. “We going to play hide and seek, and ball, and hear stories. It’’ll be fuuuuuuun.” She danced around in a circle. “And we get cookies!”

Gabrielle muffled a laugh. “Oh my gosh.” She closed the bag.  “You’re such a lucky little girl. I never got to do this when I was little. I just had to chase the sheep!”

“Sheeps!” Dori bounced over.  “What you do with the sheeps mama?”

Gabrielle put her arms around her. “What did mama do? Mama used to watch the sheep, and make sure they were safe, and tell stories to them.”

“You tell stories to sheeps?” Dori seemed amazed.

“I did.”  Her mother told her. “I used to sit in the grass, on sunny days, and make up stories for them. But they weren’t good like you, they usually just ate the grass and ignored me.”

“Mama will you come tell us a story?” Dori asked suddenly.  “Everybody likes when you tell.”

“Sure.” The bard stood up and held out her hand. “Let’s go over there, and maybe Boo will meet us.  That’ll be fun, right?”

“Boo!” Dori agreed enthusiastically. “Let’s go, mama.”

They left their quarters and headed over to the gathering hall, boots crunching in the snow now thick on the ground.   A cold wind was blowing through the village and Gabrielle was glad to get up onto the porch and into the firelit building.

Already there were childish squeals and laughter ringing out and Gabrielle realized in surprise that a few of the town children were also there in the gathering circle.  “My gosh what’s going on here?”

The kids greeted her with a chorus of hellos, and the minders waved from where they were fixing up small beds near the fire.     Gabrielle left Dori with her friends and walked over to the makeshift sleeping area. “This is cute.”

“Isn’t it?” Aalene had come over, after dropping off her daughter in the ring.  “Its fun for the kids and not so bad for the parents either.” She winked at her queen, who managed a slightly abashed look.  “I’m looking forward to some quiet time tonight.”

Hm.  Gabrielle grinned briefly to herself.  “Not a bad idea.” She turned back to the kids. “You guys want to hear a story?”

She took the opportunity of the general clamor to move over and sit down in front of the fire, as the children scrambled to get a seat next to her on the big bearskin rug.  Even the older girls, usually a bit standoffish were smiling and pulling up small stools of their own and Gabrielle smiled back at them, noting the crowd gathering behind them of not so small figures.

And then, with a wash of emotion, she felt Xena’s presence, a moment before the crowd parted and she spotted her partner’s tall distinctive form.  Their eyes met and Gabrielle could see the storm clouds there, but she held out her hand in invitation anyway.

Xena wound her way through the crowd and eased past the kids, taking her partners hand and dropping down onto the bench next to her.  She lifted both hands and brushed her lips over Gabrielle’s knuckles, making eye contact with her in eloquent silence.

“Hey honey.” Gabrielle gave her a wry look back. “I’m going to tell this bunch a story. Wanna help?”

“Depends.”  Xena settled herself. “Are there cows involved?”

“Would I do that to you?”

“Yes.”

The bard chuckled, folding her fingers around her partners.  “Something happen?” She muttered, as the children crowded closer. 

“Uh huh.”

“Can it wait for the story?”

“Uh huh.”

“Am I going to wish I stayed her talking all night?”

“Uh huh.”

**

Cait found a comfortable place to stand, half sheltered under a ledge of rock.  It was dark, the snow was still falling, but she had a full belly of stew and cider, and she was content to be there on guard for her part of the watch.

Bennu was on guard on the other end of the cavern entrance, the others from Amphipolis getting some rest before it was their turn.

Cait rather liked the quietness of the watch. She often volunteered for it at the village, when she had no pressing duties in her role as Queen’s guard on tap.  The long dark hours were great for thinking, and sometimes even talking to the others keeping watch with her.

Solari was quite interesting to talk to, in fact.  Though she seemed lonely sometimes, and Cait half thought she really volunteered for watch just for the company.

Perfectly fine by her.

But here, it was only her and the cold, and the faintly drifting snow.   She had her cloak tucked around her and beneath it a heavy leather sueded shirt and leggings along with thick boots so she was comfortable at the moment but she suspected she would be chilled before her watch was over.

It was very quiet in the forest in front of the caverns.  They were far enough off the road for it to be invisible even if the moon were out to display it,  the trees were thick, but most of them had lost their leaves.

Off to one side, she heard a rustle, and she turned her head in it’s hood that way, blinking slowly as she scanned the shadowy area. Instinctively her hand went to her belt knife and she drew it, curling her fingers around the carved wooden hilt and moving her arm a little away from her body.

The rustle came again and she went still.   Then from under the almost dead bushes something moved, coming abruptly into the clear space before the cavern and just as abruptly stopping.

It stared at Cait, who stared back.  Then it quickly turned and ran off, it’s bushy tail catching just a hint of the snow as it disappeared.

Fox.  She put her dagger back in it’s sheath.  Taking it had been an option, but she really had no urge to spend the night stripping and dressing it, though it  had a lovely pelt.  Cait settled back against the rock, crossing her legs at the ankles.

She heard someone come out of the cavern behind her and she half turned, then went back to her watch as Nala came out and stood next to her. “Not good sleeping?”

“Not sleepy yet.” Nala agreed. “Quiet out here?”

“Just saw a fox in the brush. That’s about it.” Cait said. “I do wish it was a bit thinner  - so I could see the road.”

“Mm.” The veteran Amazon grunted. “We figure two more days to Phillipi – I want to ask some questions there before we go skulking.”

“Too right.”

“Just seems too… I don’t know.  Maybe I think those guys caved too easy.”

“I believe Xena thinks so.” Cait responded, glancing around.  “You could just see that look in her eye when she talked about it.”

Nala grunted again.

Footsteps approached and they fell silent, standing in the shadows as another figure came over  to them.  

“You restless too, Jax?” Nala asked the soldier.

‘Just twitchy.”  Jax said. “You know, I been with Xena too long maybe, to not trust the quiet.  Feels like somethings watching us.”

Both Amazons looked at him respectfully.   Jax was roughly the same age as Xena was, and he’d been through a lot, including  the last big war, and before it.  One of the original militia.  

“Want to take a little walk out there?” Nala asked. “Cait’ll watch our backs.”

“Good idea.” Jax shifted his cloak to free it from his sword hilt. “Let’s see if it’s just quiet, or wrong quiet.”

Cait watched them stroll off into the shadows, drumming her fingers lightly on her leg.  “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” She muttered. “Or maybe I just should have asked to go first.”

**

Continued in Part 7