Body Heart and Soul

Part 7

Gabrielle sat on the bench near the back wall, hands splayed out supporting her weight as she listened to Xena’s low, wryly resigned tone.  “Are you kidding me?” She finally said. “They get themselves into the ultimate pickle and they want YOU to fix it?”

“Not kidding.”  Xena said.

“After what they did to us?” The bard’s voice rose.  “Xena, that sucks!”

Xena got up and switched benches, sitting down next to her partner and ending up shoulder to shoulder with her.  “Story of our lives.” She said. “But I didn’t say I’d go fix their problem. I just said I’d see if the bunch we sent out there saw anything.”

Gabrielle gave her a droll look.

Xena held both hands out in self defense.  “What was I supposed to tell her? It was Aphrodite. What would you have said?”

The bard grumbled under her breath.

“That’s what I thought.” Xena leaned back against the wall, watching the children across the hall near the fire at their games.  Ring ball, and Dori was in the middle.   She bounced around with a grin, ducking the hide stuffed ball as the other girls tried to hit her with it.

Xena had to wonder where that game came from.  Pelt a kid with a sack?  Really? 

“Xena.”

“Yes?” She turned back to her partner.  “My guess is, they got picked up by those slavers Tectdus told us about.  Probably had no idea who they were.  Knocked em over the head.”

Gabrielle covered her eyes with one hand.

“If they’ve got one coins’ worth of sense, they’ll keep quiet and not spill who they are.” The warrior went on.  “But  Cait knows what they look like. If she sees them, we’ll know.”

“And then what?”

Xena folded her arms over her chest. “Well, hon, greater good or no greater good, getting them out of their hands is the right thing to do. Look what happened to Alana.”

“You think it’s the same guys?”

“Wouldn’t surprise me.”  Her partner said. “That kind of skunk doesn’t tolerate rivals.”

Gabrielle thought about that in silence, her eyes going a little unfocused.   “Yeah.”  She rested her head against Xena’s shoulders.   “You’re right. Not even vengeful little bitches like that should have to go through what she did.  Or what I did, for that matter.”

She felt the hitch in Xena’s breathing, and pressed closer to her.  “Of course if we know where they are, we’ve got to help them.”  She took Xena’s hand in hers and clasped it. “It’s our destiny, you and I. To stand in that wind.”

Xena smiled briefly. “I sent word down the hill to the barracks. Just to quietly start getting ready.”

Gabrielle nodded. “I’ll let Ephiny know.”

They watched Dori jump over a thrown ball and laugh, then run to the circle as another girl took her place.  “I’m glad she’s getting a lot of friends.”  Gabrielle said after a long pause. “Its good for her, you know?”

“Yeah.” Xena sighed. “Wish I’d had a bunch when I was her age.  It was just me and Tor and Ly. Werent many other kids in town then.”  She let herself relax, glad there hadn’t been any contention between them.  “We never played that game.”

“No, us either.”  Gabrielle said.  “Or.. well maybe the boys did.  The best the girls did was play pick up sticks in the barn.”

They looked at each other. Then Gabrielle put her head back down on Xena’s shoulder, feeling the muscles shift as her partner turned slightly and gave her a kiss on the top of her head, the exhale of her breath warming her scalp.

There was something so elemental about that feeling.  It was like dunking your soul in warm soup on a cold day.  Gabrielle watched her daughter at play, with her little friend beside her and took a moment to savor her life.

“Mama!” The game ended and Dori ran over, with Cari beside her. “Can I bring Rusty in to be with us to have fun? He can play games too!”

“No, honey.”  Gabrielle put her arms around her.  “Rusty is down by Gramma, and it’s too cold to try and bring him here.”

“Mama, Boo said!”

“Boo said maybe when it’s warmer.” Xena spoke up.  “You’ve got all your buddies here, Dor.  Let him spend time with his friends down in the barn.”

“Horsie is cute.” Cari spoke up shyly.   “Like him.”

“Do ya?” Xena turned her attention to the little girl, who edged back a little.   She was a hand or so shorter than Dori was, and had curly reddish blond hair and was cute as a button herself.  “Cmere.” She held out her hand.

Cari hesitated, then she quickly put her hand in Xena’s much larger one.  Then the other girls all started shouting in a new game, and she withdrew it, looking back over at them.

“Go have fun.” Gabrielle gave Dori a hug and a kiss on the head.  “We can talk about Rusty later.”

“Okay mama.” Dori said. “C’mon lets go.” She and Cari pattered off back to the game, which now seemed to involve a lot of running and laughter,

“We’re going to end up with that pony at the breakfast table aren’t we?”  Gabrielle mock sighed.  “Let’s go, Boo.  Let Dori have her fun, and you and I can go have some dinner in our hut.”

Xena stood up agreeably and stretched.  “Let me tell Dori we’re leaving.”

Gabrielle waited as her partner strolled over to the group, leaning over their daughter and ruffling her hair. Dori looked up, then looked quickly behind her.  The bard lifted a  hand and waved, then smiled as Dori went back to her play.

Xena observed the group briefly, then returned to her side, extending a hand out to her as she stood to join her.

They strolled over to the door and ducked outside, crossing the cold ground to their quarters, entering into the candle lit space and shutting the weather out behind them.

Gabrielle went over to the fire and nudged a cast iron pot closer to the flames, then paused as she felt Xena come up behind her and waited as long arms enclosed her from behind and their bodies pressed together.  ‘Mm.”

“You really don’t want to go.” Xena said, after a brief pause.

Gabrielle turned, putting her back to the fire and let her hands rest against her partner’s body. “You really can read my mind, can’t you?” She asked. “How do you do that? How on earth do you know exactly what I’m thinking, Xena?”

The taller woman shrugged, and smiled. “We’ve known each other long enough.”  She responded. “And you don’t exactly hide your feelings.”

Gabrielle’s face eased into a somewhat wry smile. “Not with you.” She admitted. “Not anymore. I don’t think I could now.”

“No, me either.”

Their eyes met and they stood quietly, studying each other for a minute, surrounded by the faint snap of the flames, and the soft hiss of wind in the drying tree limbs outside.

“Huh.” Gabrielle exhaled finally. “I never thought I’d get to where I really liked staying in one spot. But you know, it’s been okay.”  She said. “I’m happy being here, and doing what we’re doing.”

“Mm.”

“I wish neither of us had to go.” The bard clarified. “I’m just so tired of us having to go pull everyone’s ass out of the fire and get nothing for it.”  Her face scrunched. “Gah that sounds selfish doesn’t it?”

“Given what we’ve gone through the last few years? Not really.” Her partner said. “But maybe we’ll get lucky this time and something good’ll come of it.”

Well, that could be.  The bard reflected. You never knew.  “Do you want to really do this, Xe?” She watched the firelight reflect off Xena’s angular features.

“I want to finish this whole deal.  It’s been hanging over me.”  Xena replied promptly. “We knew this would be coming.”

“Iolaus said they were trying to keep us out of it.”

Xena nodded. “Which probably just drew it all out.”

“Probably.”  Gabrielle admitted. “So we get this taken care of, then we get our quiet winter, right?” She exchanged wry, understanding looks with her partner. “Ah, Xe.”

Xena chuckled softly.  She leaned forward and hugged Gabrielle close, giving her back a light rub with her fingertips.  Then she released her and removed her cloak, taking that and her own over to the pegs on the wall.

Gabrielle turned and picked up her big wooden spoon, stirring the stew she’d left warming and sniffing at the steam that was starting to come off it. “Mm.”

“I smell duck.”

“Yes,  you do.”  The bard agreed.  “They brought in close to two dozen of the suckers. I grabbed two for us.”  She added a touch of herbs, then went over to the cabinet against the wall to get some platters out.  “Hey Xe?”

“Yees?”  Xena had just folded her overtunic and put it on the garment press.

“What would happen if we let them just kind of fade out?” Gabrielle turned and faced her, tapping her spoon against her lips a little.  “If we didn’t get involved?”

Xena sat on the press and folded her arms. “I don’t know.” She answered. “Hadn’t really thought about it. “

“Hm.”  Gabrielle wiggled her eyebrows. “Interesting question?”

Xena hiked one knee up and circled it with both hands. “Made me think of another question. How much of the good attitude around here lately is because Artemis and Athena are mortal?” She asked. “Remember what happened when Ares was.”

Gabrielle put the platters down and paused, leaning against the table. “But that was the reverse, Xe.  Everyone was crazy angry.”

“True.”

“But you know.”  The bard said. “As soon as that happened, remember how chilled out everyone got in Therma.” She added thoughtfully.  “Was that them just stopping wanting the war, or …”

“Yeah. That’s what made me think of it.” Her partner mused. “The or part.  Because Ares didn’t stop wanting the war, after they were out of the way now did he?”

“Huh.”

“Ah, who knows.”  Xena got up and came over, taking a seat at the table as she watched Gabrielle bring the platters over and load them up from the kettle.  “We’re both assuming Cait and Bennu are going to find them out there. Let’s get past that first.”

“True.”  The bard filled two mugs for them and sat down next to her.  “You up for a little sparring after dinner?” She asked. “I’m kinda in the mood.”

“Let’s see if you stay that way.”

**

Cait had been waiting in silence for about a half candlemark, her dark cloak blending in perfectly with the tall tree she was standing against. 

A moment ago though, she’d heard motion behind her.   Xena had taught her how to know what that was. The movement of air, the compression of a step against bare ground, faintest rasp of clothing against skin.

Most animals didn’t make that sort of noise, and the hunting ones made no noise at all.  Cait felt her breathing slow as she sharpened her senses, detecting that mildest of vibrations against the soles of her feet that was a human sized animal coming closer.

Could be someone just coming to relieve her.

Could be someone just coming out to relieve themselves.

Cait curled her fingers around her long dagger and drew it from it’s sheath, lowering her hand to her thigh, and readying her other hand at the hem of her cloak to move it aside.

They were behind her tree.  Cait went absolutely still, the only motion the cautious rise and fall of her chest as she breathed.

They moved.

She felt the hands coming for her and she waited until they committed, before she slid to one side, hearing fingers impact the bark of the tree as she swirled her cloak aside and reached out to grab her adversary by the throat, bringing her dagger around in a fast, then slow motion as the point came to rest pricking skin.  “Stop.”

The figure went still. “Okay! Hey! No harm meant! I was just trying to surprise you.”   It was Jakes just out of adolescence voice, cutting through the cold air.  “Don’t stab me!”

Cait met his eyes in the gloom steadily. “I don’t play.” 

“I get it.” Jake had his hands up now, palms out. “I couldn’t sleep. I thought maybe you’d want to talk to someone out here. It’s boring.”

How do you know.  That’s what she’d asked Xena, in the dark night when they’d shared watch at the front of the Amazon village.   How do you know when someone’s rot, or not?

You know.  Xena had said, her pale eyes watching the open space at the gates, seeing far more in the gloom than Caits did. You do it enough, and you know.  And then Xena had turned her head to look at Cait and told her,  you see it in their eyes.

Rats.  Cait released him and stepped back, holding her dagger ready in any case.  She couldn’t see anything particular in his eyes at all.  Apparently she hadn’t done this quite long enough yet.  “Don’t do that again.”

“Trust me I won’t.”  Jake cautiously backed away from her, and slowly lowered his hands.  “You’re a wild thing, aren’t you?”

Cait slid her dagger home in it’s sheath and returned to leaning against the tree. “I grew up talking to wolves and rabbits so I suppose, yes, I am a wild thing.” She twitched her cloak back into place and resumed her steady scanning of the trees.

“Oh.”  Jake picked a nearby tree to lean against, at a safe distance. “Do all Amazons do that?”

“No.”

“What do Amazons do?”

“Whatever everyone else does.”  Cait said. “Hunt, gather, plant things, get herbs, make clothing, raise children..  really, not any difference.”

“Except no men.” Jake said, succinctly.

“In the village, no.” 

‘That’s weird.”

“Not really.”  Cait said. “Bit of a relief actually.  All that pissing and stink out of the way.”

Jake looked at her in silence.

“Maybe you could find someone more pleasant to talk to?”

**

Iolaus pulled his cloak more closely around his head as he led the white mare down the slope towards the bridge. “Shh.” He patted the horse’s neck. “I know it’s cold, sweetheart, but we’ve got work to do.”

The mare flared her nostrils, her breath visible on the air but remained quiet, walking along next to Iolaus without complaint.  

“See, we’ve got to get this done, right?  Herc and I agreed we needed to keep Gabrielle and Xena out of it, so that’s what we’re gonna do. We’ll ride out into Thrace, and find us those two and get them back where they belong.”

The mare blew out a breath, snorting softly.

They crossed the bridge, the thocking of the mare’s hooves muffled by the snow and headed out along the Thrace bound road after passing through the silent, empty lower market.

He figured he would get a ways off from Amphipolis, and then camp just off the road.  He knew the others from the town were days ahead of him, but he’d keep the same general track and maybe he’d catch up.

“Should have gone with them.” He sighed, stroking the mare’s cheek. “Then you’d have company too.”  He took a better hold of her reins and blinked a few snowflakes off his eyelashes, feeling a profound sense of relief in his guts to be on the move.

Whether it ended in success or not – he had to respond to the urgency he’d sensed in Hercules’s message, whatever form that message actually had been delivered in.

Xena hadn’t though it was a dream.  Xena had, in fact, told him what she thought it really had been, having a unique insight.

Iolaus took a breath. Was the veil really that thin?  Had Xena really stood just inside it and reached out to Gabrielle in just that way?

Of course, that was Xena, and she wasn’t Hercules….

His mental voice trailed off into introspective silence.  Just a matter of degree, she’d said, facing him across the table with that faint smile, and the echo of new self knowledge in those pale blue eyes.  

Sure.  Hercules had known, the moment he’d met her.  But they’d all always looked steadfastly past it, because she had.  Even he had, after his own life had been given back to him – offered to her as a gift from the God of War.

But there had been a reason he’d come to her, years ago, to her and not to anyone else when he’d needed help to reclaim his lost friend.  Even if he had never admitted it.

Even if she had never acknowledged it.

Hercules had told him all about it that night in Therma, after it was, they thought, all over. Before the tidal wave. He’d been so proud of Xena.

So envious of her.

Iolaus smiled and lengthened his stride, moving past the dark forest at the edge of the road and continuing down the barely seen shadow of it.    Maybe he would catch up with Cait, or maybe, he reasoned, he’d bump into some fuzzies.

It was good to be on the move.

**

Dori sat on her little bed, listening to one of the biggers telling a story. 

It was okay.  Not as good as mamas, but everyone knew that mama told the best stories.  This one was about a giant, who had gotten lost.  

Dori knew about giants. Mama had told her all about how Boo had made friends with them and then, sometimes beated them up.  She wanted to meet a giant.

“Dodo.”

She turned to look and saw her friend there “What you do?”

Cari had her hands clasped together, and she cautiously opened them, exposing a tiny nose and whiskers. “I gots an mice.”

Dori wriggled around, dismissing the story for this much more interesting diversion. She put out a fingertip and felt the nose wiggle against it. “Good.”  She approved “Nice aminal.”

Cari opened her hands and the mouse sat there, nose wiggling furiously.  Then it paused and used it’s front paws to wash it’s face. “So cute!”

“What do you two have there?” A loud voice interrupted them, and they both turned, to see one of the minders approaching.

“Uh oh.” Cari’s eyes widened.

The mouse didn’t like the voice either. It gathered itself and jumped off Cari’s hand, running between the minder’s legs and into the storytelling circle.   

Screams went up, and the minder herself jumped in mid air,  whirling around and looking rapidly between her feet. “What the Hades was that?”

Dori got up to her feet, frowning. “What you do?” She demanded. “Just a bitty aminal!!”

The mouse ran across the straw covered floor, scampering towards the entrance.  One of the older girls ran and grabbed a staff, coming back and aiming for it. “I got it!”

Dori’s eyes got wide. “Hey!”  She ran for the spot, and jumped over the animal, landing on her elbows and knees on top of it as the staff slammed down on her.

Owie.  Dori felt the thing hit her again, and she let out a startled and outraged yell.

“Stop!” Another voice yelled. “Ragie, stop! Stop it!”

Everyone was yelling.  Dori got owie real fast, and it made her start crying.  Then things were happening, and people were coming over and then, real fast, it got very quiet.

Then she heard her mama’s voice.

“WHAT IN THE HADES IS GOING ON HERE?”

It made her hiccup.  Mama was mad and loud.  Really loud.  She was still owie, but she bit her tongue to keep  quiet and looked down, relieved to see the mouse there, okay.  “Pssehh.” She told it. “Mama’s mad.”

More voices spoke up, then it got even quieter,  then a shadow fell over her and she felt someone get close and it was Boo.  “Got aminal, Boo!”  She said, as Boo took hold of her. “Look!”

“I see, Dori. Let me take him.” 

Boo took the aminal, and the aminal liked that.  All aminals did, when Boo took them.  They loved Boo, just like Dori did.  So that was okay. 

But she was still owie, and then Boo was picking her up and she knew she was going to be okay too because  Boo made everything okay. 

“Looks like just a skin split. Let me go look at her.” Boo’s voice said, into all the quiet after Mama stopped being loud.  “Looks worse than it is.”

Then Boo stood up and it was like flying, a little. It made Dori almost forget about being owie.  She looked around and saw all the other kids watching her and she wondered where the mouse had gone.  But then Boo was walking and they were going away from everyone.

“I”ll catch up with you”  Mama’s voice spoke up, still sounding very mad.  Dori was glad mama wasn’t mad at her, and that Boo was there to make things good. 

**

Gabrielle waited until her partner and child were on the other side of the room, and Xena was occupied before she turned back and faced the circle of wide eyed kids, her hands planted firmly on her hips.

The girl, Ragie, had dropped the staff and was standing in frozen silence, her eyes the size of ducks eggs as she stared at the visibly furious Amazon queen in their midst.

“It was.. it..” The girl started, then stopped.

“Even if that child you hit wasn’t my daughter, I would do this.”  Gabrielle said, after taking the time to swallow, and obtain a deep breath of air.  “Solari take her to the punishment chamber.  No rations.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Solari advanced immediately. 

“I didn’t meant to hurt her..” Ragie blurted.

“When you pick up a weapon.” Gabrielle stared her down. “You take responsibility for what you do with it.” She took another breath. “Especially when it’s aimed at a sister.”

Solari took hold of her and led her out, pausing to give Gabrielle a comforting pat on the upper arm as she passed.  “Definitely your kid.”

That at least made Gabrielle smile briefly.  “Yeah that’s pretty much how I got into this whole mess, isn’t it?” She sighed.  ‘Xe?”  She called out, raising her voice and projecting it behind her.

“She’s fine.”  Xena called back. “Just a bruise and a little cut. She’s already negotiating with me for cookies and to go back to her fun.”

Gabrielle exhaled, and then went to one of the seats and sat down,  extending her legs and regarding her bare, and chilled feet.  “Okay, so everyone sit down, and let’s talk about this.” She said. “Someone want to tell me exactly what happened?”

Cari was still wide eyed. “I gots a mice.” She said, in just above a whisper. “It got skeered.”

Gabrielle extended her hand out. “C’mere, Cari.  Tell me about the mic.. I mean, mouse.”  She watched the little girl approach timidly, and smiled at her. “It’s okay.” She told her, as Cari came up next to her. “Was it a nice mouse?”

“Yes.” Cari nodded. “Mices is cute.” She told Gabrielle, more confidently.  “A little one, it was in my hand.” She held up her hand. “I catched it.”

“It was just a mouse.” One of the older girls said. “It ran out and Ragis was just trying to kill it.” She said. “It happened so fast.”

“It did.” The minder came over and sat down next to Gabrielle. “It was my fault – I saw them whispering about something and went over to see what was going on. I guess I scared the thing and it ran between my legs.”

“Mices got skeered.” Cari agreed. “Was going to get hurt. Dodo said oh no and got it.”

“Yeah.”  Gabrielle felt a sense of calm return to her, after the heart jolting and mind spinning yanking of both of them out of bed into the night in nothing but shifts.   She was glad of the fire. 

Glad she’d been one step ahead of her partner as they’d cleared the door and seen that staff coming down on Dori’s head, as she’d heard the growl of rage erupt from Xena’s chest as her partner saw only the weapon and not the wielder.

 Gabrielle ruffled Cari’s hair.  “So let me tell you all a story, okay?  Maybe after that it will make more sense to you about why Dori would do what she did.” She told the rest of them.  “Cause I don’t want you all to think she’s totally crazy.”

Everyone relaxed now, and gathered closer.  Gabrielle as a storyteller was a well known and loved manifestation, far more than the yelling, bristling, mad as Hades woman who’d first come in.

“Let’s talk about what the greater good means.”

**

“Okay now?” Xena examined her handiwork, satisfied the bleeding had stopped.  “No more owie?”

“Yes.” Dori was balanced on her lap, legs hanging off and her head cradled in the crook of Xena’s arm. “All good Boo.”  

Dori had been lucky. The girl had been slight, and her grip on the staff had been loose.  It was, in fact, just a graze as she’d told Gabrielle. “You and your buppits.”

“But Boo, they was going to hurt the mousie.”  Dori protested. “No good!”

“I know.”  Xena gently smoothed her hair back.  “You did right, Dor.  You always want to help your friends, right?”

Dori grinned. “Yes!”

“That’s what you see us do, right?”  Xena said. “So promise me, you’ll always do that.  Even if you get owie.”

“Boo and mama do good.” Dori said. “All the time.”

Xena studied her quietly. “Not all the time.” She said. “But we try real hard.”

“What mama do?” Dori peeked past Xena’s elbow. “Tell a story? We go Boo?”

About to stand up, Xena paused when Solari appeared next to her.  “You have a talk with that kid or do I need to?”

Solari put a hand on Xena’s knee. “Easy champ.” She said. “Regis is not a bad kid. Not like some over there, with their snootful of attitude.  She’s okay. “

Xena looked from Dori’s scalp to Solari, and back.

“No seriously.  She came from Gillen’s tribe, when they got whacked.  One of the refugees.” Solari said. “But not much into mice and stuff, yeah? They don’t climb trees.”

“She hit my kid.” Xena said, in a flat tone.

“Honest, Xena. I don’t think she meant to. She’s crying like crazy, scared crapless.” Solari said. “Y’know?”

“Mmph.”

“My telling her she almost had her head taken off didn’t help, of course.” Solari continued, in a mild tone. “I don’t think she realized you were actually still in your underwear and didn’t have a sword on you.”

That forced a chuckle from Xena. 

‘You hear her yell or something?”

“No. Just felt like something was wrong.” Xena answered.  “Yanked us both out of bed.”

Solari digested this in silence for a minute. “Maybe Regis should stay in there for like a sevenday.” She remarked. “Honest, and serious, she’s an okay kid.”

Xena nodded. “Take your word for it.” She shifted Dori a little. “You ready to go back to listening to your mama? Will you stay out of trouble for the rest of the night?”

“Yes, Boo.”  Dori promised. “No more mouses.”

“Mm.”  Xena stood up with her daughter in her arms.  She  looked at Solari. “Lot of those kids orphans?” She asked. “Besides Dor, and Aalene’s  girl?”

Solari glanced at the group.  “This batch? Yeah I guess.  From the war, and all that after. And the move. Some of them were left with us when their mothers decided to go somewhere else.”  She considered.  “I don’t much keep track of them. Kids aren’t my thing.”

Xena nodded thoughtfully.  “Okay, well let me go put her down. Hopefully that’s all the excitement for the night.”  She walked back over to the circle, with Solari beside her and set Dori down next to her mother.  “Here ya go.”

Gabrielle paused in her story and gently examined Dori’s head. “You all good now, honey?”

“Yes mama. Boo fix it.”  Dori sat down next to her, next to Cari. “We should go find more mouses.”  She whispered.

“Dori.”

**

Xena was flat on her back on the bed, arms spread out, regarding the sturdily built ceiling.   Nearby, the fire rustled and popped, but otherwise the hut was quiet.

She was alone, waiting for Gabrielle to come back over from the gathering hall, the bard taking a moment out to go speak to the hapless Regis in her solitude.

Stupid little punk.  

The door opened and a gust of cold wind blew in, bringing a prickle of goosebumps across her skin, and she lifted her head as the door closed to see Gabrielle divesting herself of the borrowed cloak she’d gone to the lockdown in.  “Hey.”

“Hey.”  Gabrielle yanked off her equally borrowed boots and crawled into bed, throwing herself over Xena’s body and letting out a disgusted grunt.  “Ugh!”

“Maybe that whole sleepover thing wasn’t a good idea?” Xena hazarded. “Next time maybe invite some of Dor’s little friends here?”

Gabrielle lifted her head and regarded her partner.  “You want a bunch of little girls running around in here?”

“I”ll cope for one night. “  Xena responded.  “That’s twice in a row with those kids.  I don’t like it.”

“Mm.”  The bard put her head down on Xena’s shoulder. “Sweetheart, I don’t really think there was anything malicious in this. I talked to that kid. She’s in there, in a corner, crying her eyes out.”

“Coulda been worse for her.”  Xena remarked darkly. “Not surprised she’s upset.”

“It’s not that, hon.   She’s really upset about hurting Dori.”

“Naturally she’d say that to you.”

“Xena.”

The warrior exhaled. “Yeah, I know. I’m being a jerk.”

Gabrielle wrapped herself around her partner and allowed the warmth to take the chill from her skin.  “Dori and her animals.  She can’t even fathom why Regis wanted to hurt that mouse.”

“No, I know.”  Xena murmured after a moment. “She’s got such a clean soul.”

Gabrielle let the silence after that lengthen, as she lay quietly just looking up at Xena’s face.  Then she lifted herself up and they kissed, putting aside firmly the worries and disturbance to focus on each other.

After a moment she paused, and studied the depths of Xena’s eyes, allowing herself to wonder, really, which one of them Dori had gotten that from.  Under all the blood stain, there was, and always had been such a sense of burnished purpose there.

But she couldn’t deny the echo of Dori’s acts in her own history either. It occurred to her that her own admittedly sometimes off base protective instincts matched with Xena’s unquestioning belief in her own judgment might not be the best combination for her child long term.

Well.  She kissed Xena on the lips.  At least the mice would be safe.

**

Xena unrolled a hide map onto the long table and weighed the ends down with couple of rocks she’d picked up on her way down the hill.  

She was alone in the barracks planning room, with dim gray light coming in the leaded glass windows along the outside wall. The inside wall was covered in a large scale diagram of Amphipolis and it’s surrounding area,  all the way along the river to the pass, with Potadeia marked in it’s place on one side.

The other stretched to the Thrace border,  and had the trail up to the forest people’s valley marked as well.   

The map she had on the table though was from the Thrace border inward, and she refreshed her memory of the area and it’s winding roads and hills.   She put a finger on Phillipi, and then the port city, noting the narrow pass just to one side of the long valley that connected the two.

Cait and the rest were, she figured, going down into that valley around now.  She figured it would be another day for them to get to Philippi and two more after that to the port city if they stayed mounted.

So she had time for them to get there, and send word back of what they’d found.

“Xena?”

She looked up to find one of her troop captains there. “C’mon in, Redder.”

The man entered. He was tall and gangling, roughly the same age as Xena was, and had random scars that indicated a life of fighting behind him. “I’ve got the provision masters getting loads made up. We figure we’ve got enough stores to go a moon, maybe two sevendays more.”

“That should do it.”  Xena said, regarding the map. “Take us a week or so to get out there.  How long we stay depends on if we need to siege.”

The man nodded. “Could be they’ll duck out, if they’re pirates. Might just sail off.”

“Ehh.. “  Xena rested her weight on her fists, leaning against the table. “Been in there a while. I don’t think they’ll give up the sweet life so fast.”  Her face creased into a brief grin.  “I wouldn’t.”

“Not you you’d have been facing off against.” Redder smiled back. “Feel good to be out and on the march. Been a while.”

“True that.”  His general agreed. “Make sure we’ve got enough spears and arrows laid by.  They could have outposts here, and here.” She indicated spots near the narrow pass.  “We could have to fight through it.”

Redder didn’t look at all dismayed. “Aye” He agreed. “Bring along Dag and Furstan, case we need to get a catapult going . They know how to build em.”

“Good.” Xena said. “Trees will have dried out enough I think.  Better than if it was spring.”

“Aye, for sure.” He responded.  “Have them seeing to wagons, for the weather.”

Xena nodded. “Make sure they wax the bedrolls. I don’t want half the army sickening.” She leaned against the table again, regarding the map, while Redder waited companionably in silence.

Two old campaigners, just going over mental lists. Xena was relatively satisified with the readiness of her troops, and she allowed herself to be cautiously excited about taking this force, all of them shaped and trained by her hand, out to war.

No one was even looking askance at her, not here, not in Amphipolis, not anymore.

One  of the guards poked his head in. “Message from the watch, Xena.” He entered and handed it to her. “Seems like that pal of yours struck out last night.”

“Yeah, he left a note with my mother.” Xena glanced t the bit of parchment then handed it back. “Chances are we’ll catch up to him he’s headed in the same direction we are.” She sighed. “Wish he hadn’t gone out by himself though.”

“Bad time of year for it.” The guard agreed. “Nice fella though.”

“Yes he is.”  Xena said. “All right, let’s get everyone in the hall after lunch and get some sparring in.” She caught the grins and returned one of her own.  “Maybe if it clear a little we’ll do some horsework after that.”

“That’ll be fun.”  Redder said. “I”ll pass the word.” He left the room with the guard, leaving Xena in solitary glory with her map and the set of armor resting on a worktable behind her.   After one last satisified pass at her route, she went to the table and started sorting out her gear.

Not that different than what she’d normally wear, but with a long sleeved linen garment underneath and leggings to protect her from the weather.   Xena unrolled her armor kit and removed a tool, starting the work of adjusting the leather and metal to fit over the additional layers.

Lined boots this time too, and her thick cloak.  Xena whistled softly under her breath as she worked, glancing up as a soft knock came at the open door. “C’mon in.”

The fledgling healer entered. “X.. Xena?” He said. “May I speak with you a moment? It’s about the woman, the injured one.”

Xena waved him in but continued to work.  “She having problems?”

The young healer came over to her. “She seems to have pain, yes, but what worries me is she has asked me for a knife or a sword, to protect herself with. She seems to think she’s in danger here.”

“She does, huh?”  Xena skillfully unbent a retainer ring and added another link to it, then rebent it closed. “You mean from the men?

“I think so, yes.”

True, or just a scam?  Xena worked on another clasp, finding a worn spot underneath it. “Peh.”  She set the tool down and fished in her kit, removing a leather scrap.  “”Anyone been in there to talk with her, or is this something out of her head?”

The healer considered that a moment, a good sign from Xena’s point of view.  “Could have been a visitor, I guess.  One of the grooms sat with her while I was having my breakfast.  But no one said anything about having an argument or anything with her.”

“Mm.”  Xena carefully stitched in a replacement underlayer.  “She was raped.” She said, glancing up at the healer. “Multiple times. “

He grimaced.

“So she’s probably skittish around men.  Maybe I’ll see if my mother has space up at the inn for her.”  The warrior decided. “Going to be a lot of motion around down here.  Who’s with her now?”

“Solari.”

Xena bit off the end of the gut thread. “G’wan up and ask if there’s a room we can put her in.”  She instructed. “Not the back room where Iolaus was.  Something private.”

The healer nodded and scuttled off, to be replaced at once by her partner’s cloaked and compact figure. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Gabrielle came over. “Whatcha doing?”

Xena went back to her pliers.  “Adjusting this old junk.” She responded. “You hear what he just said?  Our guest doesn’t trust us.”

“I heard.”  The bard came over and leaned her elbows on the work table.  ‘I talked to Ephiny.  She agrees with you, by the way.  She thinks if we don’t give a hand, even if we can’t actually save them, we’re going to pay a price.”

Xena nodded.  “Uh huh.”

“She says if you go, I should go.” 

Xena looked up, and a faint smile appeared. “That was in question?”

“No. She just got that out first.  She said after that last time, screw Amazon law.”  Gabrielle returned the faint smile. “I expected her to say it though, she said something like that when we were on our way back from Therma.”

“Good.”

“So we talked about what to do about sending Amazon fighters.  Do I leave them here to defend the place, or take some with me to satisfy that primal urge.”  Gabrielle boosted herself up onto the work table and sat there, legs swinging a little.

“Some want to go?”

“Oh yeah. They heard the soldiers talking about getting ready and they’re up for it. Maybe a score of them caught me in the gathering hall before I came back down here.” 

Xena added a few more links to her armor.  “They have to ride.”

“They know.”

Amazons.  Xena swung her armor up and settled it onto her shoulders to check the fit, imagining in her head the extra room that would be needed. “You want to take them?” She finally asked, glancing up at her partner.

Gabrielle was studying the floor between her boots with a thoughtful expression on her face.  She turned her head and met Xena’s eyes only after a relatively long silence.  “I don’t.” She admitted, with a wry smile.  “But I think I should.  It’ll take the more antsy out and let them get it out of their system. Safer for Eph and everyone I leave behind.”

Xena reached over and put a hand on her knee, squeezing it gently. “Spoken as a true leader.” She said, casually.  ‘Good job.”

“You still make me feel like a feckless teenager, you know that?”  Gabrielle responded, after both a breathless silence, and a blush. “Just for that, I’ll make you those dumplings you love tonight.”

The warrior chuckled lightly.  “I’ll take all of those I can get.  Too much trouble when we’re out on the road.” She removed the armor and laid it back out on the worktable.  “So now we’ve only got one thing to decide.”

“Who to leave Dori with.”  Her partner concluded. “We always save the toughest things for last.”

**

Cait fastened the ties on her saddlebags, then pulled herself up onto Shadow’s back.  She settled her knees and picked up the reins, as Nala led her horse up next to her. “Well, that was a night.”

“Buh.” Nala climbed up on her horses back. “Damned ass wild goose chase.  Glad I’ll be in a bedroll tonight.”

“Mm.” Cait pulled her hood up a little and flexed her hands in her gloves.  “That lot thinks we can make town by tonight.” She indicated the group from Philippi. “Might even get to sleep indoors.” She     guided Shadow along the snow covered path.

“That’d be nice too.” Nala said, as they joined the rest of the group in getting underway.  They fell into line behind Bennu and the rest of their gang as they moved out of the forest they’d sheltered in and back onto the road.

The sky was clear, at least, though gray around the fringes with promise of more weather to come.  But right now there was sunlight coming through the tops of the trees and as they turned and headed east.

They spread out a little and the pace picked up a bit.  Though she hadn’t gotten much sleep, Cait felt a little refreshed by the cold breeze against her face and she took a deep breath, happy to be on the move.

She could see Jake ahead of them, riding next to the Philippians again and talking to the second in command. 

A relief.

“So  your friend ever give up last night?” Nala asked, in a wry tone.

“Goodness.” Cait shook her head. “You’d think simply not speaking to him would have driven him off, but no.”  She relaxed into her saddle. “He’s rather creepy.”

“He likes you.”

‘Yes, I got there myself, thanks.” Cait responded drolly.  “Spend enough time around an inn, you do understand all that nonsense.”

‘Guys tend to really believe everyone wants them.”  Nala remarked.  “But you know I’ve known some women like that too.”

Cait chuckled. 

“So you’re not interested in something casual with him? He’s not bad looking.”

Cait’s brows contracted, and she turned her head to regard Nala. “I have a partner, you know.”

“No, I know, but he’s fair game.  We do that sometimes, just out there.” Nala said, in a mild tone. “That’s how we end up with kids, you know?”

“Mm.”  Cait made a low sound in her throat. “Not really my thing.”  She shook her head.  “I’m with Queen Gabrielle on it.”

“Ah. Well, like she said, she’d have to go pretty far to find someone better than who she’s with.”  Nala chuckled. “Hey you think Xena really fathered that kid?”

“Oh yes.”  Cait answered in a very positive tone. “There’s no doubt at all, really.  You just have to look at Dori.”

“Some people said they just say that, and it’s really her brother.” Nala mused. “I mean, that’s what it was supposed to be, remember?”

“I do, but that’s not how it turned out.” Cait glanced ahead of them, but they had put a little space between themselves and the others, and the wind was blowing in her face and taking her words behind her. “Xena’s a bit god, you know.”

Nala eyed her. “She is?”

“Yes.”

“You know for sure? I know everyone thinks so.”

“Yes.”  Cait said. “I was outside the barn up in Therma, and I heard Gabrielle talking to someone about it. “

“Wow.”

“Well, I  mean really. You could have guessed.”

“Huh.”

A shout made them both look up, and they saw one of the scouts galloping back towards them, waving an arm.   “Now what?” Nala nudged her horse in the ribs. “C’mon, Cait. Let’s see what entertainment’s in store for us now.”

They rode up to the rest of the group who had pulled up to wait or the scout.   “What’s going on?” Bennu asked.  “Trouble ahead?”

“Looks like there was a battle.” The scout said, soon as he was in range.  “A lot of bodies.”

“Here we go.”  Bennu loosened his sword in it’s scabbard. “Let’s go see what’s what.” He motioned the scout to turn around and they started after him, the pace quickening to a canter as they spread out over and across the road, heading between a thick stand of trees on both sides.

Cait made sure her daggers were all accessable, and she caught sight of Nala pulling out her crossbow as she rode.   Though it had seemed to her that the battle was over, you never knew.

It could be a trap, after all.

They swept around the bend in the road and down into a rocky dell, where vultures were busy and wheeled off at their approach.

Ten human bodies, five horses.  They slowed down and fanned out, Bennu  halting in the center of the carnage and sliding down off his horse.  

Cait moved her horse around him and circled the dell, then she halted at the far end where a small stream was trickling and got down.  She fastened Shadow’s reins to a tree limb and started hunting in the grass, looking for a flash of sunlight she’d spotted.

“Recognize any of em?” Bennu asked one of the Philiipi men.   “They look like merchants.”

“They do.”  The man he’d addressed agreed. “No one I know though.. could they have been at your market?”

Nala came over and studied the dead.  “If they were, they lost their purses.” She indicated the man’s belt, where cut ties were evident.   “But they’re dressed well.”

“And they were in our parts.” Cait came over and extended her hand, opening it to show a bit of jewelry.  “That’s one of Das’s bits. She’s an Amazon of our tribe.”

“It is.” Nala confirmed. “So they were at market.”

“So maybe it’s just a road robbery?”  Jake had come up next to Cait. “Stupid, not to go with a guard. Where did they think they were? Athens?”

“it’s quite as dangerous there.”  Cait said. “But couldn’t they just have taken their coin?  Why kill them all?”

 “No one to put the law on you.”  Jake said.  “Easier if there aren’t any witnesses, right?”

Cait regarded the bodies, which were hacked and cut to really a horrid degree, and one man’s head had been bashed to bits.  She took a step back and turned slowly in a circle, watching the dried branches move at the edge of the dell.

This was not right.  She suddenly felt sure.  Not right at all.

**

Gabrielle ducked into the inn kitchen, a sack hanging over her shoulder. “Hey mom.”

Cyrene turned from the hearth. “Hey there kiddo.”  She motioned Gabrielle forward. “Want some hot wine?”

“We’ve got some up the hill, thanks.”  The bard came over. “I need to borrow some herbs. I promised Xe something special tonight.”

“Help yourself.”  Cyrene chuckled indulgently. “What’s the occasion?”

“Nothing really.”  Gabrielle had stepped down into the pantry and was selecting some herbs.  “I do this thick soup with venison dumplings she likes and it needs juniper which I’m out of right now.” She stepped back up into the kitchen. “It’s good weather for soup anyway.”

“It is.” Her mother in law agreed. “I’ve got a root and chicken pot going here myself.  Glad we’ve got a smaller crowd tonight I was getting tired of that stew.”

“Well we’re going to enjoy the comforts while we can.” The bard said. “Though at least we’re going to be traveling in company this time.”

“And damned good for that.”

Cyrene had been filled in, of course, on everything.  Though she’d spent quite some time throwing her hands into the air, she’d eventually agreed ignoring the trouble would only mean even more trouble.  She hadn’t liked it though.

“Yes, I’m glad we’ll be with the army.  I get chills thinking about that last mess we were in.”  The bard admitted. “It’ll be more comfortable all around traveling this time.”

“Well, with any luck at all, you two can find those missing… “ Cyrene paused. “You know, and get things put right without anyone getting hurt.”

Gabrielle lifted her hand and crossed her fingers.

Cyrene mimicked the motion.

‘Yeah, and by the way, thanks for finding space for our injured Amazon.” Gabrielle added a loaf of bread to her sack and leaned against the table. “I appreciate it.  Xe said she was getting nervous down in the barracks with all the men.”

“Natural.” Cyrene said, in a sympathetic tone. “We’ll keep an eye on her.  She’s had a lot of the attitude kicked out of her, I noticed.”

Gabrielle hadn’t noticed that at all, but, she acknowledged she might be biased. “Let’s hope she doesn’t have other complications.” She sighed. “Let me get going. My soup needs a good long while to simmer.”

“If there’s any left over, send a bit down here.” Cyrene winked. “I’m always open to learn a new recipe.”

“You got it.”

Gabrielle left the warmth of the kitchen and gathered her cloak around her as she walked along the path leading to the back gates. Halfway to them she paused, then turned and retraced her steps, passing by the inn and turning down the route to the barracks.

Why? No reason really.  Gabrielle thought she might want to have a word with Alana, before they shifted the woman up to the inn.  Or maybe she just wanted to pick up the staff she’d left there earlier.

She could hear the sound of a melee going on in the barracks courtyard and smiled with wry self knowledge.  

Oh yeah, her staff.

Right.

She pushed through the gates into the inner square and the sounds got louder and more vivid, the ring of steel and the heavy thunk of maces against armor and as she cleared the corner of the barracks she paused to lean against the wall and watch.

A big group of Xena’s soldiers were all fighting in a group, and in a group, they were facing off against their general. 

Xena was in the middle of a forest of swords and pikes, her back to the practice post in the center of the square thoroughly engaged in beating off all comers a look of positive glee on her face.

Gabrielle had to smile herself on seeing it. She could feel the surge of almost lighthearted joy coming from her partner as she bounced around the post, blocking a downstroke here, kicking a mace out of someone’s hand there, headbutting someone so careless as to get in range and knocking them right back on their ass.

All motion smooth and easy,  the hops and jumps and somersaults without effort as she got between four men in a wrestling ball and broke them up without them realizing what had hit them.

Then Xena engaged two of the bigger swordsmen, and was alternating between them, her blade moving so quickly it was a literal blur.

She realized, somewhat belatedly, that Alana was there, bundled in furs and seated in one of the big chairs on the edge of the open space, watching the sparring.  She took a few steps closer and sat down next to her, remaining silent as everyone’s attention focused on Xena and her opponents.

In a blaze of motion Xena disarmed one, and then turned and booted him back, clearing space and blocking a swipe from the other, then going toe to toe with him in a noisy exchange of bladework.

Then Xena uncoiled from the ground and tumbled in mid air, catching his sword against hers and using the rotating motion to send it flying across the ground to clatter and thump against the stone ground.

Prudently the man dropped to the ground and covered his head with his arms, making his compatriots laugh as Xena landed next to him, bouncing a little as she reached down to tousle his hair.

The soldiers gathered around her as she started an impromptu lecture, listening attentively to her as she went over some of the tactics.

“I have never seen anyone fight like that.” Alana said.  “I had heard many stories of her prowess.  I thought them just exaggerations.”

“Mm. No. Xena always exceeds expectations.”  Gabrielle said, watching the sunlight glisten off her partner’s sweating skin.  “Shes amazing.”

“Naturally you think so.” Snarky, but Alana’s tone was actually quite mild.

“Naturally I do, but so does everyone else.”  Gabrielle smiled briefly at her.  “So few people in the world live up to their reputations. “ She studied her partner fondly.  “Xena does. She’s a master of weaponry, as you saw, but she’s also a very sharp tactician.  As a war leader, she’s earned the respect of pretty much everyone who’s ever faced her.”

Alana watched Xena leaned casually against the sparring post,  sword resting on her shoulder as she talked about the sparring to the troops surrounding her.   “Does she belong to you, or to them? “ She asked.  “To be the focus of so much admiration must be a distraction.”

Gabrielle smiled again., as she watched her soulmate look up and across the square to meet her gaze with a solid thump of emotion that made her breathing hitch a little, as that knowing, sexy grin appeared on the warrior’s face in return.

The sword lifted and touched Xena’s head, then moved in her direction before dropping casually back to her shoulder, the twinkle in her baby blue eyes very visible.

“She’s mine.”  Gabrielle made a thumbs up gesture twice, then touched her fingertips to her lips and made a throwaway gesture towards her.   “We’ve been down a long road together.”

“So I heard around your campfire in the village.”  Alana murmured. “So she is your champion?”

Gabrielle leaned against the wooden post at the edge of the seat Alana was sitting on. “She is.  But sometimes, I’m hers. Depends on what end of the sword we’re on at the moment.”

“In our tribe, the queen’s consort is often a matter of political advantage.”  Alana said.  “A strong consort gives one the advantage.  But you must know that.”

The bard chuckled. “Xe gave me that advantage before she was my consort.  Hades, before we were more than friends.  But I don’t care.”

“Don’t you?”

“No, really.”  Gabrielle turned her head and met Alana’s eyes.  “If all we had was each other and Dori, I’d consider myself wealthier than the gods.”

Alana looked skeptical.

“Yeah, sounds corny. I know.”   The bard said. “But we traveled together for years, just on what Xe could hunt and what I found, and on coin I earned telling stories on the road.”

Alana looked even more skeptical.

“We know what it is not to have anything but each other.  We worked hard for what we’ve got here.” Gabrielle said. “That’s why we didn’t take kindly to you and your group showing up here demanding we hand over part of it.”

“No matter now.” The other Amazon said. “If I had known at the beginning what I now understand, we would have never left the plains. I risked, and lost.” She stared past Gabrielle’s shoulder, then looked at her directly. “It was kind of the innkeeper to find space for me. If you had a part of it, I thank you.”

“Cyrene’s my mother in law. Xe’s mom.”  Gabrielle felt herself relax, sensing an easing of the woman’s hostility. “Alana, I am sorry about what happened to you.  I wish we could have first met differently.”

The other woman studied her, bruises still plain across her face. “You mean that.”

“I do.” Gabrielle confirmed. 

“Well so do I.”

The bard smiled.  “We’ll work on it.” She said.  “And now let me go and keep my promise. Enjoy the show.” She lifted a hand and then turned to leave the sparring area, getting a few steps towards the door before a soft  whistle made her stop.

She turned and waited, as Xena jogged in her direction, hitching a hand on the strap of her carrybag as the warrior came up next to her. “Didn’t want to interrupt your fun.”

“You weren’t.”  The warrior leaned an arm on her shoulder. “Make any progress with our friend?” She inclined her head just a trifle in Alana’s direction.  “I was surprised she asked to be taken in here.”

Gabrielle took a half step back and ran her eyes over her partner from head to foot, then back up again. “Really?”

“Gabrielle.”

The bard chuckled at the tone of sweet exasperation.  “Did you stop me for a reason? I’ve got dumplings to make.”  She tangled her fingers into the straps on the front of the practice shirt Xena had on.

“Yes I did.” Xena leaned over and kissed her soundly.  Then she backed off and headed over to the milling soldiers, who had started to break up and face off against each other again, not without knowing grins in her direction.

Gabrielle sniffed reflectively, and reached up to rub her face, then run her fingers through her slightly disordered hair. “Thanks hon.” She exhaled. “Always like to entertain the troops for ya.”

She studiously avoided looking over at Alana and retreated, heading back out the door and starting up the slope again towards home.

“All right.” Xena wiped off the hilt of her sword.   “Let’s clear the ground and get a couple of the horses out here.  I want to work on close in fighting.”

The  soldiers moved off in several directions, some taking off their heavy armor and heading for the chests that held the more flexible scale armor they wore on horseback. 

A group went towards the stables.  

Xena remained in the center of the sparring area, picking up a sharpening stone and swiping it casually across her blade. There was sound all around her,  as her troops exchanged weapons and took a break for water, but she was conscious too of the quiet in her immediate presence.

She picked up her own waterskin and tipped her head back, taking a long swallow of the clear, sweet water dipped from the spring above their cabin, then she briefly squirted a handful of it over her head to clear the sweat.

A shake sent droplets scattering everywhere, and one of the camp boys alertly trotted over to her with a bit of linen.  “General?” He piped, holding it up. “Face wipe for ya?”

“Thanks.” Xena took the cloth and dried her skin. “Did you ask your ma if you could come with us, Jerr?”

He nodded.  Twelve years old and well grown, he was one of a handful of older kids who had gone apprentice to her forces, their parents proud of them getting a spot where they would learn skills and possibly a trade.  “Ma said yeah.  She’s got my brother and  two sister at home, we’re outta space.” 

“Good.”  Xena smiled at him. “I was about your age when I started learning to fight.” 

“Whoa.” He goggled at her. “Yeah?”

“Amazing at it seems, yeah.”   The warrior chuckled, handing him back the cloth.  “Give them a hand with the horses. I hear them kicking the walls.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Jerr took the cloth and bolted off towards the stables, his leather boots kicking up tiny puffs of dust from the sparring ground.

Xena wiped down her blade, then seated it in the leather sheath on her back.  Then she turned and fished a harvest apple from a sack hanging at her waist and took a bite out of it, hitching herself up on a nearby barrel. 

She felt satisfied with the afternoon’s work so far.  She’d gotten a good workout, and she could see signs that her troops were starting to work as a solid team together, learning that elusive understanding of who you could trust at your back and when.

Two of the men had wandered back out into the open area, and were facing off with dual swords. Xena shifted a little to keep them in view, and watched as they did a slow exercise with the weapons, showing some experience with them.

Xena crunched on her apple, chewing thoughtfully as she studied the technique, wondering where the men had picked it up.  She’d learned about them in Persia, but the two men looked like local cowherds. 

Interesting.  She got up and walked over to where they were sparring, gaining their attention immediately. “Hey boys.”

They stopped and broke apart, giving her a little salute with the left sword that rang a bell of familiarity with her. “Haven’t seen that technique in a while.”

“Do you know it then, genr’l?” The nearer one asked. “We don’t see it much in these parts.”

“No, you wouldn’t.”  Xena agreed. “Where’d you pick it up?”

The other man, younger and with bristly ginger hair, smiled bashfully. “You’ll take a jab at us for it, but me and Jor here mixed ourselves up with a circus a ways back.  Got us out from home, like.  Learned it there from an old guy.”

“Circus.” Xena glanced up as they started leading the first of a half dozen horses into the sparring area.  “Huh.”

“Foolish.” Jor smiled. “We were kids.  Didn’t want to herd sheep. My family and his lived just north of Potadeia.”

“That seems to be a common theme in those parts.”  Xena’s eyes twinkled a little.  “Gabrielle didn’t want to herd sheep either – she might have had an easier time if she’d gone the circus route.” 

“But not met yourself.” Jor protested.

“Eventually I bet she would have. You did.”  The warrior said.  “But I’m glad she went the tough route and we didn’t have to wait.” 

The horse in the lead swerved and ambled in Xena’s direction, nostrils delicately flaring to catch the scent of the apple half eaten in her hand.   She handed the treat over and patted the animal’s broad cheek.  “So you learned doubles in the circus. Learn anything else?”

“Bit of juggling, some card tricks. That sort of thing.”  Jor said.  “Could make a bit with that on the road, but all in all, I likes being a soldier better.”

Hm.  Xena stuck that in the back of her head, and dusted her hands off,  checking the horses tack before she vaulted into the saddle, settling her knees and turning the animal in a circle before backing her up a few steps as she waited for the rest of troops to reassemble.

“Xena.”

She turned hearing her name, and guided the horse over to where Alana was still sitting, wrapped up against some straw stuffed cushions. “Yes?”

“I wished to compliment you on your skill at battle.”  Alana said. “I was tired of the walls of my chamber and they offered to bring me in here for entertainment. I was most thoroughly entertained.”

“Thanks.”  Xena relaxed her body.  “They’re going to move you up to a room at the inn tonight.  It’s still four walls but it’s more private.”

“So they said.”  Alana eyed her warily. “Is there a reason why?”

Xena regarded her for a moment in silence.  “My healer’s tell me you were asking for weapons.  I don’t want any trouble in my barracks.”

“Ah.”

“And don’t make any  up at the inn if you know what’s good for you. My mother wields a mean skillet.” 

“You do me no service, Xena.  If you were in a strange place, would you not want your weapons around you?” Alana frowned. “I asked as any other warrior would… unless you consider me a prisoner. Do you?”

“No. You’re free to leave whenever you want.”  The warrior answered, slowly.  “My men told me they thought you were worried about them attacking you. If so you did them no service.” She side stepped the horse over a few paces. “That’s why I thought moving up to the inn would be better for everyone.”

“Perhaps you’re right.”

“If you want to give them both a skip and be taken up to the Amazon village, work that out with Gabrielle.”  Xena turned the horses head and started back towards the center of the open space, where the rest of the horses and troops were gathered.

“Don’t you command them as well, Xena?” Alana called out. “And their queen?”

Xena paused and looked over her shoulder.  “You’ll have to ask her that.” She put the horse into a trot and left the benches behind, loosening her sword as she prepared to join the melee again.

Alana remained silent, her eyes fastened on the tall figure who now took the center of attention again.  Xena rode as a natural, she’d seen enough of them in Athen’s army and the warrior’s rangy lean body was apparent in its long history of fighting.

Perhaps the Amazon village wouldn’t be the worst place to go after all.

**

Continued in Part 8