Body Heart and Soul

Part 9

Gabrielle pushed her hood back as she entered the children’s quarters, where things were still more active than she would have thought at this hour. “Hey.”

“Your majesty.” The minder came over to her. “Is there something wrong?”

“No.”  Gabrielle glanced around, spotting Cari on her little bed in one corner.  “I need to talk to one of the kids.”

The woman looked concerned. “Did something happen again?” She asked, unhappily. “I didn’t see anything today.. I thought Dori was down in town most of the day.”

“She was.”  The queen lowered her voice. “We’re taking Dori with us, and leaving her with the forest people while the army’s away.  Xe figures if she’s here, she might end up a target.”

The woman nodded, with an expression of relief.

“So, Dori asked me if she could take a friend with her.” Gabrielle explained. “I thought I would ask Cari.”

The minder blinked a little in surprise, then she nodded again. “Cari said to me earlier that she was really sad Dori was going away.” She said. “She’s really a shy kid.”

“Well, let me go ask her.”  The queen said. “I think it might be good for her, the forest people have really active kids. Maybe it’ll bring her out of her shell a little.”

“And a perk for her.” The woman said. “She gets teased a lot.”

Mm.  Gabrielle made her way across the room, aware of the little heads coming off pillows as they recognized who was passing.

Some of the older girls were sitting up in bed and they shifted to watch her as she went to the furthest corner and knelt down next to Cari’s bed. “Hey, little one.”

Cari sat up and rubbed her eyes, gazing up at Gabrielle a little uncertainly. “Hi.”

Gabrielle sat down  so her head was at Cari’s level.  “Hey there.   You know that we’re going to go away for a while, Cari, and Dori’s going with us.”

Cari nodded. “I sad. Going to miss Dodo.”

“Well, Dori said she would miss you too, and she wanted me to ask you if you wanted to come with us.” Gabrielle said, in a gentle tone. “She’s going to visit some of her friends in the valley and she thinks you’d like to play with them too.”

Cari’s eyes opened wide. “I go?” She said, with a little gasp. 

“If you want to yes.”  The queen smiled at her, as the child rapidly nodded her head. “Okay, so, here’s what we’re going to do. Let’s get your stuff together, and you can stay over with us tonight so we’re ready to go in the morning. That  okay?”

“I”ll help.” The minder was at her back. “We can fold up your  blanket, Cari. I know you like that one.”

Cari didn’t have much to gather, Gabrielle realized.  Just the blanket, and a small bag that had a few shirts in it, a mismatched overtunic that looked too big and a pair of worn booties.  She stowed them all in her carry bag and took the child by the hand. “Ready?”

“I go, I go.” Cari whispered softly, pattering her feet in their boots on the floor. “So good!”

It hit Gabrielle unexpectedly in the gut.  She bit the inside of her lip and stood up, leading the way to the door as she felt the envious eyes of the rest of the group on her. 

No matter how they felt about Dori, she realized, all of them wanted the attention. They wanted the queen to take them by the hand, and make them special.  Raise them up.  Give them rank and status.

She remembered, suddenly, an image of herself,  in a crowd of villagers in some out of the way village at the end of a long and dusty day on the road, and being ignored by all of them until they all made way for a tall, dark haired woman in armor who came over, and draped a casual arm on her shoulder.

“This is my friend, Gabrielle.”

And that had made her special, just like her taking Cari’s hand made Cari special in the eyes of those around her.  “Say goodbye for a while, Cari.  You’ll have lots of fun with us,  right?”

“Bye!” Cari waved at the room, as they got to the door and went through it, the child not looking back even once.

Well,  Gabrielle smiled wryly. The gods only knew she hadn’t either.

They walked across the ground and up the path to the queen’s quarters, arriving there just in time to see a tall figure in a cloak at the door, leaning on it, waiting for them.  “Hey hon.” The bard greeted her.

“Hey.” Xena held the door for them and came in behind them “You ready to come on a ride with us, Cari?”

“Yes.” Cari said, in a whisper, looking shyly up at Xena.

Dori heard them and came pattering out of the sleeping room. “Car!”  She squealed in delight, coming over to greet her friend. “You come! Mama said!”

Gabrielle released Cari’s hand and the two children ran off into the bedroom together.  “Aw.”

Xena gave her an indulgent look, then put her arms around the bard and hugged her. “It’s a good idea.” She concluded.  “Dori’s getting old enough to where a ‘mama says so’ doesn’t cut it.”

Gabrielle chuckled wryly.  “She figured that out a lot faster than I did.”   She leaned against her partner, savoring the warmth.  ‘But I’m glad we’re taking Cari. “ She added. “Everything ready to go down the hill?”

“Just finishing the wagon loading.”  Xena confirmed. “Solari just brought down the Amazon’s kit with the gang that’s going. They’re going to bunk out in the barracks.”

“She said.” The queen nodded. “All our stuff’s ready, all the army’s stuff’s ready, all the Amazon’s stuff’s ready. We’ve got a god and a demigod wrapped  up in warm cloaks and mom said she’d put a breakfast on before sunrise.”

“So that’s that.”

“Mm.”

They both stood quietly together for a few minutes, listening to the girlish chatter from the bedroom, and the wind outside lashing the branches of the trees.

“Let’s get some rest.”  Xena finally said, giving Gabrielle a rub on the back.  “it’s going to be a long, cold march tomorrow though at least we’re bringing shelter with us.”

“Tents?”

“Yup. One advantage to traveling with an army.”  Xena removed her sword and sheath from her armor and set it down on the table, then hung her cloak  up on the peg to one side of the fire.  “There’s room for some comforts.”

“No sleeping on the ground. Hot sheep tails.” Gabrielle did a little dance in the center of the floor.  “Okay let me get the kids all settled, and then we can get some sleep.”

Xena watched her dance off into the bedroom, then she went over to the fire and sat down in the chair near it, stretching her legs out and sparing a moment just to sit and relax.

Her mental checklists were done, all the detail checked and double checked. Everything was packed and ready to go.

She tipped her head back and regarded the ceiling, reflecting on the fact that this was the first time in a very long time she’d be riding out leading what was, in fact, an invading force from Amphipolis.

Amazing how little emotional charge she got from that.  Maybe it was mission they were undertaking, or the weather, but she could sit here and honestly tell herself that what she was doing was all right.

She was going to take the army out and pursue the raiders, help the captives, find the made mortal gods and rescue them, and possibly run pirates out of the port city.

She was going to do that, and nothing else. 

She was the defender of Amphipolis.  General of the army who protected her home.

“Xe?”

“Mm?”

“I got you some new socks.”

Xena smiled, lifting her head and looking over at her partner. Gabrielle had her carry bag out and she came over, holding up several pairs of woven, warm looking foot coverings. “I love you.”

“Someone has to take care of you.”  Gabrielle perched on the arm of the chair. “I’m going to throw in some extra old clothes of Dori’s for her little friend. She didn’t have a lot.” She removed the shirts and the overtunic. “That’s it.”

“Mm.” Xena reached over to touch the shirt. “Just what the tribe had available I guess.”

“Yeah.” Gabrielle folded the worn linen.  “Well, after all, I had less when I took off, right?”

The warrior studied her face, resting her wrist on Gabrielle’s thigh. “You brought everything that mattered.” She responded, in a quiet voice.  “Body heart and soul – what else did you need?”

Gabrielle glanced up, then smiled, a gentle twinkle coming into her eyes. “Then I hope Cari’s as lucky as I was.  That she finds a place and a home that cradles all three of them in a loving feather’s touch.”

Xena’s eyes widened a trifle.

“Hey, I’m a bard.”  Her partner stated. “C’mon, partner – let’s sack out for a while.”  She got up and offered Xena her hand and then pulled her to her feet. “One last warm comfortable night before we head on out.”

Xena followed her with no complaint, hoping the morning would bring dry weather, and fast progress.

But willing to deal with whatever came.

**

Xena sat on Argo’s back, hands resting on her saddle pommel.   She was out on the market square, watching her troops move out in orderly fashion in the at least briefly clear air. 

She had her heavy cloak on, and thick quilted undergarments under her armor, with woven wool leggings on tucked into her boots.   The cloak was lined with sheep fleece, and the hood was as well, all dyed charcoal black.

The snow had stopped about a candlemark previously, though the heavy skies promised more. Behind the clouds the sun was just thinking about appearing and there was a faint gray light filtering through them that outlined the moving bodies.

Scouts in front, already fanning out and heading up the road.  The supply wagons had just crossed the river and were turning up, and the rest of the troops were behind them along with Gabrielle and her Amazons.

And of course, Dori on Rusty.  Cari was riding with the queen, ahead of her on her saddle, with one of the bard’s arms tucked around her for safety.

Kinda ridiculous, in an army, but what the Hades.   Xena’s eyes found the two tall figures in borrowed cloaks riding along towards her, and she gathered up her reins and prepared to join them as they fell in at the rear.

“Do you mortals have to do everything the hard way?” Ares asked as he closed in on her.

“You could just go to the port city and save us the trouble.” Hercules eyed him in irritation. “Do your own dirty work for a change.”

“And I so want to spend time with you.”  The god of war rolled his eyes.  “Much as I would love to snap in and out of here, you know better than anyone why I can’t.”

Xena looked from one to the other. “Want to share?” She asked, after a period of ill natured silence.

“No.” Hercules muttered. 

Ares chuckled humorlessly.

“Nice.”  Xena settled her knees on either side of Argo’s sides.  “My troops know you’er here, Herc.” She said. “But they’ve only heard rumors about you. “ She eyed Ares. “And they think we’re going to deal with the pirates not rescue your sisters.”

“You gonna tell em?” Ares asked.  “Those chicks already know.”

“Because you stumbled into my house half frozen yeah.”  The warrior stated flatly. “I’ll tell them after we drop the kids off.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard yet. Bringing kids.”

“No, it makes sense.” Hercules disagreed. “I wish I’d thought of that way back in the day.”

Ares rolled his eyes.

“Besides, we’ll pick up some troops there.” Xena ignored both of them.  “I thought it would be a good idea to bring along some true believers.”

It was Hercules turn to chuckle dryly. 

Ares was briefly silent then he chuckled as well. “That’s really not a bad idea.”  He admitted. “Might up the kickass factor too. Those fuzzies can fight.”

The gray light was slowly increasing, and by the time they cleared sight of Amphipolis it was as bright as it was going to get, casting a silver hue on the dark, dead branches of the trees that lined the road.

Xena took a deep breath of the damp air and checked her saddle bags one last time, convinced in the back of her mind she’d forgotten something from them.

It had been a hectic morning, since she’d woken a little later than she’d expected to, and then they’d spent some time gathering some supplies for Cari as well as giving the Amazons and the townsfolk some last minute instructions.

So she was sure she’d forgotten something.  Not something obvious, like her sword or any part of her martial gear, but something.

Hercules guided his horse closer to hers. “I might slip ahead and go look for Iolaus.” He said, watching her nod in agreement.  “I wasn’t able to make contact with him after he left Amphipolis.”

Xena looked at him. “Any idea why?”

“Wasn’t able to contact him before he got to Amphipolis.”  The demigod informed her dryly.  “Maybe it’s the water.”

“Hm.”

“Maybe it was some place he felt safe.”  Hercules said.  “Some place he could let his mind relax enough to hear me.”

“That makes sense.” 

“Hope he didn’t get into any trouble.”  He sighed. “I was so pissed off I didn’t get a chance to talk to him before they yanked me up to Mount Olympus.”

“Mm.”

“He probably thought I just left him.”

Xena regarded the reins in her right hand, the worn leather resting between the fingers of her lined gloves. “We told him you didn’t.”  She said. “Who knows better than Gabrielle and I how little choice  you have with the gods involved?”

“Hm.”

“Talking smack already?”  Ares came up on her other side, looking relatively relaxed on his big dark coated mount. “Gonna be a long ride.”

**

Gabrielle found herself enjoying the ride, despite the weather.  She was warm in her cloak, and the travel had been smooth so far, her time occupied in pointing out things to Cari who was amazed at everything.

Dori had of course traveled extensively with them, and was more interested in talking to her pony than watching the trees go by. But her little friend had been a baby when the tribe had moved to the plateau and she’s only seen the village since then.

So the army, and animals, and the tall pine trees were all a revelation.  Gabrielle found it funny, but she also had to wonder if the incessant questions weren’t a little bit of revenge for her own younger self.  “That’s right Cari, you see that? It’s a fox.”

“Foxes!” Dori was riding next to her and pointed at the fast moving animal.

“I see, Dor.”  Her mother said. “Don’t go chasing after him.”

“He go fast.” Cari observed. “Gots big tail.”

‘They do have big bushy tails.”  Gabrielle agreed. “Sometimes we see foxes like that up by our cabin, right Dori?”

“Yes, mama.”  Dori nodded. “Guff chases.”

“Guff is the doggie.” Cari ventured. “He’s nice.”

“He’s a wolf, actually. But he is nice to his friends.”  The bard told her. “He doesn’t like animals or people who want to be mean to us.”  She shifted a little on Iolaus’ back, taking a firmer hold of the reins when the stallion arched his neck to look back at her.

It was past noon, and they were almost at the point where they would need to turn off to go down to the valley.   The pace so far had been reserved, but the sense was it would pick up after their stop and Gabrielle was looking forward to getting off her horse and stretching her back out before that happened.

It was getting colder. She could feel the sting of the air against her cheeks, and she reached down to pull up Dori’s hood around her head. “Keep that up, it’s cold here.”

A low whistle sounded from behind her, carrying over the sound of the moving army without effort, the tone and clarity identifying it’s issuer with equal ease.

Gabrielle turned and looked for Xena, only to find her partner right behind her, catching up fast. “Hey.”

“Hey.”  Xena came even with her. “Going to stop up ahead near the bend and have them take a break while we go down to Jessan’s.” She said.  “Herc might go ahead and look for Iolaus.”

“Sounds good.”  Gabrielle said. “Everything okay back there?”

“Eh.”  The warrior grunted, shifting her gloved hands on her reins.  “Last thing I needed on this trip was moody gods.”

Gabrielle reached over and patted her knee comfortingly.  “Given what our goal is, comes with the territory hon.”

“I know.  Let’s get this done, and then I’m going to let the troops in on the deal.”  Xena shifted Argo with her knees, then sidestepped the mare out of line and up the road.

 “Dori, don’t go running off honey. We’re almost at your friend’s house.” Gabrielle called out just in case her daughter decided to go after her partner.   “Let’s go down that way, okay?”

“We go play?” Cari asked, softly.  ‘With the fuzzy people?”

“Yep, you’ll get to play with Dori and her friends in the valley. “ Gabrielle agreed, slowing Iolaus’ progress as she heard Xena sending out whistles of command to the rest of the troops.   “I know you’re going to have a good time there, Cari. They have lots of toys and things to play with.”

“Gots boats.” Dori piped up. “We can go find the fishes.”

Gabrielle glanced up at the cold sky and winced. “Maybe you can catch the fishes without going in the water, honey.”

Obediently the moving lines stopped, and cleared off the road, dismounting from horses and removing packets from saddlebags as the wagons pulled up to a halt behind them. 

Xena let out another whistle, and two of her captains trotted over, along with Solari and Paladia.  “Let’s go on down.”   She indicated the half hidden path that cut through the trees, and they started for it.

The snow had held off so far, and the branches only dusted them a little as they moved through the forest towards the entrance to the valley.   It was quiet between the trees, most of the animals were tucked away from the cold and the wind had died down leaving the air cold and still.

There wasn’t room to go side by side, so Gabrielle steered Iolaus ahead of his mother. “Dori, stay there behind me, okay?”

“Okay mama.” Dori was dressed in a thick woolen overshirt and leggings and she was wearing riding boots the image of Xena’s. She had a cloak on, but the hood was once again pushed back and there was a dusting of snow in her dark hair.

She looked adorable.  Gabrielle gazed fondly back at her, feeling a pang in her chest knowing they’d be parting so soon.   Regardless of how safe the valley seemed to them, there was always that chance, wasn’t there?

She sighed and looked up over Dori’s head, meeting Xena’s eyes as the warrior leaned lightly on her saddle bow, the wry smile on her face echoing the thoughts in Gabrielle’s head precisely.

Their life’s choices were just never easy, were they?

Halfway down the path Xena realized Ares had joined them, his horse falling in behind hers, then coming up next to them as the path widened.  “Not sure I want to freak out Jessans people so fast.”  She commented softly.

“Meh.” Ares pulled his cloak hood a bit closer to his face. “They won’t see me.  I’m just bored with all this riding riding riding.”

“We’ve only been at it five candlemarks.”  Xena remarked.  “It’s going to take us days to get to the port city.”

“Ugh.”

They continue deeper into the forest, halting suddenly when a buck plunged across the path.

“Boo! Look!” Dori stood up in her stirrups . “Pretty!”

Solari had raised her crossbow in an easy arc, but halted when Xena let out a low whistle, and looked behind her in question.

“Not in front of the kid.” Xena said. “I don’t want to start that up again.”

“Ah.”  Solari nodded. “I forgot about that. Sorry.” She let the crossbow rest, not without a wistful look at the buck.  “That’s a lot of  meat.”

The big deer stopped inside the fringe of the trees, breath streaming from his nostrils as he stared arrogantly at them. Then he whirled and dodged between the branches, heading down towards the gorge.

“Mama!” Dori started after him, but was pulled up when Gabrielle made a grab at her bridle. “Want to see the aminal!”

“We can go see him later, sweetheart. We need to go see our friends now.”  The bard hauled the pony’s head around and they started forward again.  “Let’s go.”

 A quarter candlemark more and they became aware of motion ahead of them on the path, and Xena’s two captains cantered ahead to meet it.   Xena herself stood up in her stirrups, then dropped back down into her seat.

“Fuzzies?” Ares asked.

“Yes, a bunch of them.”  The warrior agreed. “They’re expecting us.”   She settled her boots and then pressed her knees into Argo’s sides and urged the mare up next to Gabrielle.  “Is that.. yeah.  Jess!” She lifted her voice.

The first ranks of the forest people were now visible, paused and clustered around the two captains. The one in the lead turned his head and looked out over them, lifting a fur covered arm and waving.

Everyone seemed relaxed. There was no other problem waiting for them, Xena reasoned, relaxing a little.  “Looks quiet.”

“Mm.”  Ares rumbled under his breath.

They all moved forward together past the trees, and the forest dwellers  turned and spread out in the open beyond, letting Xena and her little crew forward into the clearing.

Jessan half turned in his saddle and looked at his friends, a grin appearing as they came closer.   He angled his mount over to greet them. “Hey guys.”

“Hey.”  Gabrielle returned the cheerful words. “Thanks for taking in my little refugees.” She looked down at Cari, who was staring at the seven foot tall furry guy with wide open eyes. “Cari, this is our friend Jessan.”

“Hi there, Cari.” Jessan greeted her. “You going to come have fun with my kids for a while too?” He glanced at Gabrielle in question.

“She’s Dori’s best friend.”  The bard informed him. “Dori asked if one of her buddies could come with her and so here Cari is.”

“Hey cool. The more the merrier.” Jessan waggled his fingers at the child.

“Is big!” Cari said, looking up at Gabrielle. “What is?”

“That’s our friend Jessan.”  Gabrielle informed her.  “He’s just like us.”

“Except bigger and hairier.”  Jessan winked. “And lots better looking.”

“Boo Boo Boo.” Dori was bouncing in her saddle. “Kin we go?”

Jessan chuckled. “Let’s head down to the gates. “ He waved everyone forward with a furry arm and they started forward again.  “Glad to see you guys.”

“Likewise.”  Gabrielle agreed.  “We’ve got the other side of the story to tell you.” She added, with a wry look in his direction.  “As usual.”

“Uh oh.”  The forest dweller uttered. “I could have guessed.”

“You could have.”

Xena glanced casually around as they rode down the slope to the entrance to the valley. Snow was piled deeply already between the trees, and the horses were knee deep in it by the time they were in front of the gates.

She was aware of Ares coming along behind her, his dark coated mount stepping in the track already plowed by the other animals, a stream of fog issuing from his nostrils.  

He was a big animal, with a bit of a red glint in his eye and Xena found herself wondering if he were entirely natural. 

Entirely mortal. Or something Ares had picked up and brought with him on his way down from Olympus.

Argo seemed a bit suspicious of him, anyway.   Xena patted her mare’s neck, keeping an eye on Dori on her pony, and  her friends chatting ahead of her.

“You going to stick around here long?” Ares asked suddenly.

Xena slowed, so she could answer him without drawing attention to herself. “No. Just going to drop the kids off. Why?”

 “This is boring.”

Xena eyed him. “What, riding?”

“It takes you for ever to get anywhere.” The god groused.  “How do you expect to get my sisters loose at this rate? They’ll have mortal bastard kids by the time you get there.”

Xena paused and half turned, staring at him. “Why not just click us to the port city then?” She asked. “Moving an army takes time, Ares.  It’s not my fault you got into this mess.”

Ares glowered at her.  “Aint’ it?”

“No.”  Xena eyed him steadily.  “It’s not.”

“You agreed to help.” The god of war changed the subject. “This isn’t getting us anywhere!”

Xena lifted her hands and let them drop.  “Then feel free to click yourself there.  Armies don’t fly.”

“They do on Olympus.”   Ares sighed.  “Listen if I could boot your asses over there I would. I can’t.”

“Can’t?”

“Can’t.”

Xena leaned on her saddle. “What do you mean by that?”

“None of your business. I just can’t”

“Hey Xena.” 

The warrior jerked her head around, to see Solari approaching.  “Yeah?”

“Fuzzies say it’s gonna snow like crazy.” The Amazon said, glancing at Ares, then back.  “They think we should bunk here overnight.”

Ares rolled his eyes. “You’re never gonna get anywhere.”  He pulled his horses head around and started back up the trail. “I”ll have to do this myself.”

Solari grimaced. “Well, scuse me.”  

Xena sighed. “Yeah, but he’s right. We need to keep moving.” She nudged Argo to go a little faster. “We’re losing time and something tells me we don’t have that much to spare.”

“So no bunking overnight?”

“No.”

**

The caverns were busy here at mid day, and Gabrielle spent quite a bit of time returning greetings from tall forms who spotted them entering.  

Little Xena, Gabrielle and Warrin were waiting for them when they came in and bolted for Dori with high pitched squeals of delight, gathering around her and jumping up and down.   

Cari watched in astonishment, until Dori came over and took her by the hand. “Come! We go have fun with them.”  

The triplets came pattering over and little Xena jumped up into Gabrielle’s lap. “Auntie Gabby!” She yodeled.  “Tell a story!”

Gabrielle chuckled “I will later, kids.” She promised. “Right now I have to talk to your folks.”  She gave little Xena a hug, and set her down on the ground. “You all play for a while.”

Cari looked intimidated, but she allowed herself to be tugged forward, as Gabrielle watched intently. “Be gentle, guys.” She told the triplets. “Be nice to Cari. She’s new.”

“Its good!” Her own little namesake piped up. “Come!”

Cari looked up at Gabrielle. “Is okay?”

“It’s fine, honey.”  Gabrielle was seated on a bench, and she leaned forward towards Cari resting her elbows on her knees. “Go on and have a good time.   They’ll show you all kinds of cool things, right?”

“Yes.”  Little Xena agreed. “Dori can we see the horsie?”

“Come.” Dori took charge and pointed to where Rusty was pulling up some grass.  “Let’s go have fun.”

The children ran off, without another backward glance.  Gabrielle watched them go, smiling a little wistfully.   “You know, Xe, I’m glad we decided to leave her here.”

Xena sat down next to her, and Jessan followed, along with Elaini and several others.   “Me too.” She said. “Now, let’s let our friends in here on what’s going on.”

“Why do I think we really are going to regret hearing what’s going on?” Elaini said,  with a knowing grin.  “Its not enough that we’ve got some crazy guy causing trouble in Thrace?”

“No.” Xena said. “It’s about the gods.”

“Uh oh.”

Everyone sat down and Jessan passed Xena a mug of ale. 

“Where do I start?” Gabrielle picked up the tale.  “Remember our trip to Therma?  With the Spartans?”

“Sure.”  Jessan agreed. “Not fun.”

“Did I get around to telling you about us dying and going to Mount Olympus?”

Silence.

“Um… what?”  Elaini said.

“I thought I did. Anyway, we did.  And that’s how we found out what was going on with the bet, and Athena and Artemis and all that.” Gabrielle plowed on.  “But at the end of all that, Artemis and Athena ended up being made mortal.”

“I remember that story.” Jessan said. “You did tell us.”

“You never told me that story.” His soulbond immediately retorted.

“Freak out factor was too much.”  He answered succinctly.   “So, is this about that too?  Are they still mortal?”

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks. “Yes.” Xena said. “And the thing is, if everyone finds out about it, and stops believing in them, it’s a problem.”

Silence.  The forest dwellers all looked at each other, and then at the two women in their midst.  “So.. where do we fit into this?” Jessan finally asked. “I thought we were going after a pirate.”

“We think they were taken there. We’re going to rescue them, and get them out of sight.”  Gabrielle stated. “In that same port city.”

“Oh. So like.. two birds with one stone?”

“Sorta.”

Elani covered her eyes with one furry hand. “Why do I have a bad feeling about this?”

**

Xena walked over to the edge of the cavern and sat down on a rock, watching the kids playing nearby. They were sheltered from the weather in a long, curving arc of stone under the edge of the overhang and they were running rings around Rusty who was standing there chewing with an amused pony expression.

It was time to go.   But she sat there for another moment or two, just enjoying the laughter, soaking up the sound of Dori’s piping voice as she led the chase, a stuffed ball clutched in one hand.  Several more of the forest dweller children came over, and joined in the fun, one of them managing to get a hand on the ball amidst a chorus of giggles.

With a sigh, she got up and walked over to where the children were, pausing as the giddy scrambling then included her. “Hey you rugrats.” She stood still as two of the forest dwellers ducked between her legs.

“Boo, come play.” Dori took hold of her hand.

“I can’t right now.” Xena said. “Your mama and I have to go do something.”

Dori frowned. “You go?” She stopped tugging and just looked up at her parent sadly. “Boo, stay!”

Oh boy.  Xena settled to the ground so they were at eye level. “We have to go for a little while.” She said.  “But we wanted you to be okay with that, Dor, that’s why we brought you here to play with your favorite buddies, and we brought Cari with us too.”

Dori sat down too, studying Xena solemnly.  “Boo, stay too. You have fun here?” She repeated in a wistful tone. “Please?”

Ow.

“Wish I could.” Xena smiled briefly. “But we’re going to go around in all the cold and weather, so we can help some people out. You know how that is, Dori. Mama and I have to do that.”

The other kids came over and sat down too.  “Going to be campfire and stories later.” Warrin offered. “We’ll have a goooooood time.”

“Yeah, you guys are going to have a much better time than we are.” Xena admitted. “But this wont take long and then we can come back and have fun with you.”

“How long?” Dori asked.

Xena knew her daughter really didn’t have a sense of time yet.  “Not long, kiddo.  We’ll be back before you know it, and then you’ll be arguing with me not to go home.” She reached out and ruffled Dori’s hair.  “So go over there and give your mama a hug, and then you all get back to playing.”

Dori considered the request, her eyes going to her waiting friends, and then looking back at Xena. “Okay.” She decided after a long, quiet moment. “We have fun.” She got up and ran over to where Gabrielle was putting something in a saddlebag, holding her hands up to be hugged.

“Now.” Xena addressed the rest of the little pack. “You kids have a good time, and take care of Dori, okay?”

“Daddys going too.”  Warin said. “You take care, Auntie Xe?”

Xena allowed herself to be charmed. “I promise I will.”  She told the tot.  “And maybe your dad will bring you back some presents.”

“Oo.” Little Gabrielle gurgled.

“Okay.” Xena got up on one knee. “Be good, kids.  Have fun.”

The horde closed in on her and a number of small arms reached around her to give her a hug.  She returned the embrace, even getting a timid clasp on her leg from Cari.  “You okay with this, little one?”

“Yes.” Cari whispered softly. “So good now. Get to be with peoples.”

Xena gave her a gentle hug. “You have fun with Dori, okay?  Keep an eye on her.”

Cari just grinned.

Xena patted her on the back and stood up, as Gabrielle came over with Dori in her arms. “Ready, partner?”

“Yep.”  Gabrielle bounced their daughter a little. “You going to be a good girl, Dori?”

“Yes mama.”  Dori assured her. “We be good. I promise.”

“Mm.” Gabrielle let her down, with an expression of skepticism.  “Go on and have fun with your friends.  You kids be good!”

Dori ran over to the group and they all dashed back over to where Rusty was patiently waiting,  gathering around him as he sniffed at the little forest dwellers.

“Bye guys.”  The bard waved, but was mostly ignored. She exchanged a look with her partner, then they headed together back towards the valley’s entrance, where horses and their friends were waiting.

They led the animals outside and the gates closed behind them.  Then they mounted up and started up the path towards where they’d left the army.

A couple steps up Gabrielle eyed her companion, and they both sighed.  “Our kid’s growing up, Xe.”  The bard said mournfully.  “She doesn’t even miss us.”

“She will.” The warrior reassured her.  “We stacked the deck this time,  hon.  We brought her here to her favorite buddies and brought her little friend along and she got to bring the pony.”  She lifted a hand and let it fall on her thigh. “What in Hades would she want us for?”

Gabrielle chuckled dryly.  “You have a point.” She shifted a little in her saddle. “And speaking of points, I’m gonna regret this ride I can just tell you now.”

Xena let a whistle out. “Let’s just get as far as we can fast as we can.” She urged Argo into a faster pace.  “Get this over with and get back home.”

**

They had made good time after all.  As darkness fell,  Xena called a halt just short of the pass into Thrace.  Snow had started falling again, and they pitched tents against it,  the wagons making a windbreak and rough hide tarps gave shelter to the cookfire.

The army was too big to take shelter in caves, so they were spread out among the trees,  using whatever natural wind blocks were there, and rude, three cornered hide tents to sleep in.

Xena and Gabrielle’s shelter was a little more ornate, it had four walls and was tall enough for their general to stand up straight in.   Xena also had a folding table she put her maps on, and a hammock big enough for two strung across one side.

Gabrielle was just coming back from the cookfire, a small pot swinging from her gloved hand as the watch came in to report to Xena.

She followed them under the flap of their shelter, and went over to put the pot down on the small brazier in the center of the tent while the men went over to the worktable.  “Coming down like crazy, hon.”

“Yeah.” Xena was studying a hide map.  “So the watch is set up here and here?”  She indicated two spots on the map.

“Aye, gene’rl.” The taller of the two men said. “S’only two approaches. Got a gulch here,” He touched his finger to the map. “And t’river here.”  He indicated another line. “Got ten men on each.”

“Good.”  Xena nodded. “Rotate new bodies in every four candlemarks and make sure they’ve got enough wood to keep watchfires up. I don’t want anyone getting frostbite.”

“Tis quiet for now.” The man said. “We looked all up the road to the pass, didn’t see nothing like anyone in the area, though snow’s got the ground all covered.”

“Yeah.” Xena said again. “But go over by the river and uncover the dirt there. See if anyone’s used it as a middens.”  She touched the map. “And look here, see if you see a sign of old campfires.”

The man studied the area, then nodded. “Right you are, Xena.” He said. “We’ll check it out.” He motioned to his companion, who had been content to let him do the talking. Both men were around Xena’s height, and had the easy physicality of regular soldiers.  

Not militia.  Gabrielle watched them as they gathered their cloaks and left the tent, trying to remember where they’d come from.

Old soldiers of Xenas maybe? “Hey Xe?”

“Mm?”  Xena leaned her elbows on the table. “Yes, oh my queen?”

Gabrielle paused, savored the moment, and smiled.  “Dannan and Joh, those two. Were they your guys from before?”

“Ah, no.”  Xena tapped her thumbs together. “They came from Therma.  After we left there. They were part of the city guard, and they decided to come out our way.” She said. “Why?”

“Just curious. I knew they weren’t from town.”  Gabrielle stood up with two plates full of travel stew and came over to put them on the worktable.   “It’s a lot different traveling with so many people isn’t it?”

“Sure.”  Xena ripped a piece of travel bread in half and scooped up some of the stew with it. “We did that, in the war, a little.”

“Not like this.”  Gabrielle poured her a mug of mulled wine and set it down at her elbow.  “We were mostly on the defense then.  We knew it.  This is different.” She took a bite of her own plate.  “Should we have kept going on tonight? You seemed kinda twitchy.”

Xena exhaled. “Something Ares said.” She glanced around. “But honestly, you cant just drive people in this weather. No point in ending up someplace with everyone too tired and sick to fight.”

“You think Ares went there ahead of us? Maybe he’ll save his sisters and we can just go shopping.”  The bard suggested. “I’m kind of pissed off he, and Hercules took off after all that begging us to help.”

“I’m not. I didn’t have to explain why they were here then.”  Xena said, pragmatically.  “I wasn’t looking forward to that.”

Gabrielle picked up the cup of mulled wine and took a sip, tasting the rich and fruity flavor as she considered that. “Is it fair not to tell them?”

Xena leaned on her hands, looking out past the shelter edge.

“I think you should.” The bard continued, after a period of silence.  “I think this is something everyone should know they were a part of.”

Xena turned her head and regarded her. “Maybe.” She acknowledged. “You want to tell them?” She looked back out into the night, the soft fall of snow obscuring most of the view.  “Or wait until the morning.”

Gabrielle scooped up a handful of stew with her bread. “Tomorrow.” She said. “Everyone’s bunking down and just getting warm. My pulling them out into the snow again isn’t going to make that story any better.”

Pragmatic.  Xena straightened and went over to her, settling her arms around Gabrielle’s body. “It’ll hold.”  She said. “I don’t want you standing out in the snow either.”  She opened her mouth to accept a bit of bread and stew. “Hopefully the weather’ll get better as we go south in Thrace.”

Gabrielle gently pulled her head down and gave her a kiss on the lips. “I’m not worried.  I’ll be warm no matter what.”

Xena’s brow lifted. “Why Gabbbriellle.”

Her partner chuckled. “C’mon, Xe. Who else can I say that too?”

“You better not be saying it to anyone else.”  Xena rumbled softly, letting her chin rest against Gabrielle’s head. “You know what just occurred to me?”

“What?” Gabrielle simply enjoyed the moment, the warmth in the body behind her making her muscles relax.

“What if we’re all just assuming those women are in the port city?”  Xena asked. “Even Ares and Hercules.  What if it’s a scam?”

“Who’d be scamming them?”

Xena shrugged, moving them both a little. “I’m glad we’re going to Thrace, don’t get me wrong.  But what if we end up there, and all that’s there is some pirate for me to harass?”

Gabrielle considered that,  her fingers idly playing with the sturdy leather ties on Xena’s overtunic.  “I think…” She mused. “I think that would be the place they’d be taken to if they were taken. Those guys seem to be the ones out for slaves.”

“Mmph.”

“So it makes sense you know? If they’re not there, holy sheeps Xe, that’s a lot of territory to search for them.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you think they’re somewhere else?”

Xena gently blew in her ear, then nibbled the edge of it. “I think when everyone looks in one place for something, the something’s usually not in that place.”

“Xe. Sometimes a rock is just a rock, huh?”

Xena chuckled, low and almost soundless.  “Eh. We’re going there so no point in arguing about it.”

“We’re not arguing. We’re just talking”

“Okay, we’re just talking.” Xena drew a breath in to continue and then paused, cocking her head to one side and falling silent.

Gabrielle looked up, seeing that sudden tensing of the skin on the side of her partner’s face.  She kept quiet and still, waiting. 

Xena released her and went to the opening of the shelter, drawing her sword in one easy motion as she passed into the snow.   Gabrielle threw her cloak on and grabbed her staff, chasing after her partner as she plunged through the drifts between the trees.

A shout lifted up, and a breath later soldiers were pouring out of their tents, torches lifted, all of them moving towards the watch station near the river.

Gabrielle caught up to Xena as they reached the edge of the trees, and they started down the slight slope to the river.  She could see the watchfire burning brightly ahead of them, and as Xena arrived, everyone parted to let her through.

“Genr’l!” The watchman had his hand on a bridle, the dark mass of a horse behind him. “Just came riding in.”

“Uh oh.” Gabrielle muttered as she followed Xena around the soldiers and they came into the firelight.  A bundle of cloth was at the horses’s feet, unmoving. “I think I recognize that horse.”

“Yeah me too.”  Xena strode over and knelt beside the bundle, sheathing her sword as she did.  She rolled over the body and the cloth fell back exposing a pale, bearded face, still, with closed eyes.  “Ah.”

It had grown quiet around them, save the snap and pop of the fire, sparks arcing up amidst faint hisses as the snow hit the hot wood.  “Ye know him, Genr’l?” The watch asked. “Might nice horse he came in on, just trotted in here like he knew us.”

Xena sighed.  “He does.”  She looked over her shoulder at her partner. “He’s been shot with a crossbow.”

“Ohhhh  crap.” Gabrielle looked around. “Okay guys get something so we can pick him up and get him under shelter.  Jessan, can you get Xena’s kit?”

The forest dweller, who had come to stand next to her, made a semi strange squeeking sound with his teeth. “Sure.” He took a breath. “You .. uh.. want my guys to carry him?”

Xena stood up. “Yeah, I would.” She  turned. “Get a tarp up near the cookfire.  I’m going to need some water and bandages.” She paused and put her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “You want to fill the troops in on who this is?”

“Not really, no, but I will.” Gabrielle muttered under her breath. “Okay people, gather around.” She added, as two of Jessan’s soldiers gingerly lifted the still, limp figure up between them and started off around the edge of the forest. “We’ve got a few things to let you in on.”

Xena went over to the horse, who was watching her with dour intelligence.  She lifted her hand and let him snuffle it.  “You can let him go.” She told the soldier. “Let me just tie up his reins, let him go where he wants to.”

The soldier did as she asked, taking a step back. “Good looking beast.” He said. “Good eye on im.”

“Yeah.” Xena fastened the horse’s reins up to the top of his bridle, giving him his head. “G’wan. There’s fodder with the rest of the horses if you want.”

The horse pushed his head into her chest, breathing out against her in evident approval. Then he moved off and ambled between the trees.

Xena followed him, angling right back towards the cookfire, as she listened to Gabrielle start to tell her men what had just dropped into their camp.

She really couldn’t even say she was surprised. Xena headed over to where the forest dwellers were standing around, having set the injured god of war down on the bucktail of a wagon.   They backed off as she approached, Jessan holding out her healer’s kit. 

With a sigh, she took it.  “Okay, get me some water in that bucket too.”

One of the forest dwellers trotted off.

“Xena.”

“Yeah?”  She rolled open the kit and set it down, moving up against the back of the wagon, which had a  hide tarp over it protecting the contents.  It brushed against her head and she reached around to pull a handful of snow down, scrubbing her hands with it.

“This isn’t good is it.”

“No.”  Xena responded. “I think we need to get this fixed in a hurry.”  She flicked the moisture off her hands and pulled back the cloak covering Ares body.  He had regained a touch of color now that he was near the warmth of the fire but the bolt sticking into the air from just below his ribcage was short, black and covered in blood.

Blood.  She touched the shaft, seeing her skin take on some of the taint of it.

Gods blood.  She opened her hand, palm up.

‘That’s weird.”  Jessan whispered. “It’s the same color as mine.”

“Yeah.” Xena sighed. “Mine too.”

They looked at each other in silence, unspoken questions echoing in the silent chill air.

**

 They clustered around the campfire,  healers to one side tending to the injured.   Cait stood next to Bennu,  her arms folded over her chest, listening to the Phillipi scout relating what he’d found over the next ridge.

“Looks like they been through, right enough.” The man had his hood pushed back, his face rough and reddened from the cold. “Whole town’s laid to waste.”

“Laid to waste? Everyone dead?” Jax asked, sharply.

“No. No people at all, no horses, no animals – just the place torched, still can smell it under the snow. But no bodies.” The man responded.  “Just like it was cleaned out, and burnt down so as no one could use it.”

“Huh.” Bennu grunted. “Group jumped us, was more than scouts. Organized.”

The Phillipi men were getting restive. “Maybe we should head right home now.” One suggested. “No telling what they’ve done.”

“I think he’s right.” Cait spoke up, in a calm tone. “Staying here is not good. We should move on, since that lot that attacked us knows we’re here.”

Carolous was already nodding.  “Tis right.” He said. “Lets get packed up and move. Here we’re sitting ducks.”

Everyone split up to break camp.  Cait went back with Nala to pack up their gear, shaking the snowflakes off their hammocks. “Good thing we’re going on.” Cait said. “Weather’s getting really ratty.”

“Right.” Nala agreed. “I wouldn’t have slept a wink anyhow, this place is giving me the creeps.” She got her bags fastened and hoisted them to her shoulder.  “Let’s get the horses ready. Maybe we can get a cup of something while everyone else is packing.”

They went to the corral, where there were several people already moving amongst the animals who were still visibly nervous after the raid, throwing their heads up and starting away from their riders.

Cait went over to Shadow, who was sheltering against two close growing trees and patted her nose. “Hello there.” She greeted the mare, who unlike the rest of the horses had remained calm and placid.  “Are you ready to start walking again?  Sorry about that.”

Shadow bumped her with her nose. 

“How close are we to Philippi you think?” Nala asked, as she got her mount’s gear settled. “They said we’d be there tomorrow anyway.”

“Yes.”  Cait pulled herself up on Shadow’s back. “Hope they’re right.”

“Me too.”

The whole camp was packed and out in under a quarter candlemark.  Bennu and the Amphipolis militia allowed the Phillippi men take the lead and they fell in behind, with the Amazons in the middle of them. 

One of the Phillipi men had their rescued woman up behind him, and two of the injured soldiers were riding double as well.  The bodies of the attackers they left behind, lined up near the deadened fire, stripped of their weapons and gear.

They rode quickly through the forest, coming up over the ridge and descending into the destroyed village.  The small houses were burned out and collapsed, and what had once been a fenced area for livestock was broken and laying under the snow.

Cait watched the ground as they rode through,  sweeping her eyes from side to side.  Everything was stripped clean, she noted. Not a pot or basket was lying anywhere, and as they passed the well, still intact, even the bucket that would have been lowered into it was gone, rope frozen stiffly to the stone.

The Phillippi men were now visibly nervous.  “Wondering what they’ll find at home.” Nala muttered to Cait.  “This wasn’t any casual raid.”

“No.”

Bennu heard them. He slowed his horse a little and they came up on either side. “Gotta stink to it.” He said. “Seems like she should know.”

No one had to ask who she was.  “Right.”  Cait felt a certain sense of relief shudder through her. “I’ll go.”

“We’ll go.” Nala said, firmly.  “No one should be out on the road by themselves.”

Bennu nodded. “Go then. I’ll do the covering.” He said. “if we find worse, we’ll be back ourselves. Not going to risk the men with that lot.” He indicated the Phillippians.  “Got a stink to them too.”

Without a sound, both Amazons nodded. They pulled up on their reins a bit, and slowed, letting the rest of the militia come around them.

“Careful, you all.”  One of the soldiers said. “Be safe.”

“You as well.” Cait reached out and clasped his hand, then released it, as they all moved past and left the two Amazons behind. 

They waited until the last horse moved out of sight in the darkness, and then they turned and went back up the track, passing back through the silent, dead town.   Once past it, they moved down past where they’d camped, and then up out of the hollow and back into the road that would take them back to Amphipolis.

There was already a layer of snow on the path and any prints had been covered, only the bushes to either side of the road giving them any real sense of where to head. 

The wind seemed a bit stronger, and they were moving into it.  Cait pulled her cloak hood closer around her face to shield her eyes against the blowing snow, but despite the discomfort felt herself content.

This was right.  Xena needed to be told.

**

They had built a tent over the wagon, to give Xena space and some warmth while she worked. A fire was crackling near the entrance behind her, and two torches had been planted into the cold ground at the edge of each end of the platform.

An iron pot of steaming water was just to one side of  her, and she lifted a soaking cloth from it and squeezed it lightly before she leaned forward to wipe the last bit of blood off the bare skin exposed to her.

Just to one side of her left hand lay an arrow, it’s short, thick shaft covered in a dark rust stain.   She pulled a sheepskin lined cover over Are’s chest, then she put the cloth down next to the arrow.

Outside, the snow was coming down steadily, making no sound as it hit the top of the cowhide roof over her head.

Xena cleaned her hands off and glanced to one side as Gabrielle joined her.  “This ain’t good.”

“No.” Gabrielle observed the body now swaddled in fleece and blankets. “You got the arrow out?”

“I did.”  Xena picked up the totally black shaft and displayed it. It had no markings, and the feathers were also solid black, as was the cruelly barbed head.    She drew aside the bandage on Ares’ chest and exchanged looks with Gabrielle.

“It’s healed.”  The bard observed. “Just like that?”

Xena nodded.  “Soon as I got the arrow out.” She studied her patient, who was very slowly regaining a more for him normal color.  “Not really sure what’s going on.” She examined the arrow, trying to decide if she was imagining the faint tingle in her fingers.  “This doesn’t look like any local kind of arrow.”

“Been that kind of day.” Gabrielle put her hand on her partners back. “Let’s go finish the stew, if he’ll be okay now.”

Xena shrugged. “Who knows.” She glanced out from under the covering protecting the back of the wagon, to find two of Jessans soldiers there on guard.  “You guys come in here and keep an eye on him okay?”

The two big furry people gave her big, round eyed looks, but pulled their overcloaks closer and stepped inside the shelter, taking up stances as far away from the silent figure as they could.

“If he wakes up, come get me.” Xena gave the closer one a pat on the arm.  “Relax.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The forest dweller said meekly.  “We’ll keep a good eye on him, I promise.”

Xena ducked out and moved from the wagon shelter back to her own, noting that hides had been fastened overhead to give them a snow free path.  

She kept her hand closed around the arrow as they walked in silence back to their own tent, wondering how this latest development was going to impact her plan.  Hopefully the erstwhile God of War would come to his senses sooner rather than later.

She wanted to find out about the strange arrow.  Was there someone out there hunting gods?

Once inside their little haven she put the arrow down on her little table and went over to the brazier, sitting down on the folding stool next to it and holding her hands out to gather its warmth.  

Behind her, Gabrielle was gathering cups and a water pot and she came over to take the stool next to her and set the pot down on the warmer. “You know, I was surprised at how well everyone took the news.”

“Mm. They probably heard rumors. Either from the Amazons or Jessan’s people.”  Xena clasped her hands together and flexed them.

“Probably.” The bard agreed. “I think the general consensus was, it’ll work out however it works out.” She said, slowly. “I don’t think… Xe,  I don’t think they really cared.” She looked over at her partner. “Isn’t that weird?”

Xena remained silent for a moment, then she gently cleared her throat. “Yeah. It is weird.”  She took the cup of tea Gabrielle had just poured out and took a tiny mouthful of it.  “But then – some of these guys have been around us a while. Word gets out.”

“Mm.” Gabrielle slowly sipped her honey laced tea.

They remained quiet for a bit, sipping their tea.  Then Gabrielle got up to make a second cup, putting her hand casually on Xena’s back as she stepped behind her. “Know what I think, Xe?”

“I’m about to.”   Xena pulled her knees up and rested her elbows on them.

“I think the army doesn’t much care about gods because they have you.”  Gabrielle dumped more herbs and honey into her cup and came back over to pour hot water over them.  She sat back down and looked over at her partner, who was regarding her with a dour look. 

Gabrielle knew that look.  It wasn’t the one Xena used when she was upset at her, it was the one she recognized as her partner just being pissed off in general, without a direction to loose her irritation off at.

She’d seen that look so many times across so many campfires.  “I mean, who do they look up to? Who leads them? Protects them?” She reached over and touched Xenas hand.  “I don’t mean they think of you as a god, hon. I just mean, you’re here, and in their lives every day, leading them.”

Xena made a face, then exhaled. “Yeah, I know what you meant.” She said. “Look at Amphipolis. We don’t have any temples there, or any even nearby this side of Thrace.  Who’s to say the slacking off didn’t start a long time ago?”

Gabrielle straightened a little. “Huh.” She said, after a moment. “I never really thought about that. We had a .. was it just to Athena?  Or maybe Hera.. two little temples back in Potaidea but after they rebuilt.. they didn’t put them back.” 

They were both silent for a while. “I used to pray to the gods to make my father stop hitting me.” Gabrielle said suddenly. “But they never did.”

Xena stood up and walked around behind Gabrielle, dropping her hands to her shoulders and squeezing them.

“Should we worship them, Xe?” The bard said, in a soft voice. “What have they ever done for us?  Everything I know about them is that they make us suffer for their entertainment. “

She heard Xena sigh behind her, and she leaned back against the warrior’s legs. “I know.  A little late for me to be saying this now, huh?”

Xena’s fingers gently scratched her behind the ears, and then across her head, her thumbs coming to rest on the back of her neck and giving her a light massage.  “We’re committed.” She agreed.  “Let’s just see what happens I guess.”

 “I guess.”

Soft footfalls made them both look up, as Jessan stuck his head into their enclosure.  “Hey.”

“Hey.” The forest dweller said. “You’re wanted.” His muzzle twitched uncomfortably. “Over there.” He indicated over his shoulder with one thumb.

Xena exhaled. “Figures.” She headed for the flap. “C’mon, Gabrielle. I may need some backup.”

Gabrielle got to her feet hurriedly and headed out after her, bumping lightly against Jessan as they went crunching off across the newly laid snow.

They went together under the sheltering flap  and found Ares half sitting up in his nest of sheepskin looking wildly around. 

“Hey.” Xena held her hands out. “Relax.”

“Where is it?” Ares asked as soon as he recognized her.  “Where did it go?”

Xena put her hands on her hips. “You mean the arrow?” She hazarded. “It’s in my tent. What do you want with it?”

The forest dwellers were all plastered against the hide walls looking like vertical rugs.  Their eyes were wide and white, standing out in contrast against their dark fur.

Ares dropped back into the bed of the wagon.  “You took it out?”

“Yes, I did.” Xena moved closer to him, and let her hands rest on the edge of the wagon. “Want to tell me about it?”

Ares looked at the forest dwellers, one eyebrow hiking up.

“Go grab a hot cup, fellas.”  Xena addressed them. “I’ll spell ya.”

The two guards, and Jessan vanished without a question.

Ares then looked at Gabrielle.

Xena hiked her own eyebrow even more sharply at him.

“You sure you got it all out?” He finally said, glancing furtively around.  “All of it?”

Xena sighed. “Gabrielle, can you go grab that arrow and bring it back here.  I don’t remember seeing any nicks in it, but I didn’t look that closely at the head.”

“Sure.” Gabrielle said. “Ares, would you like some hot tea?” She got it out before the absurdity of the whole situation nearly got to her, leaning past Xena to give the ailing God of War a sympathetic look. “Or some hot wine?”

Ares glowered at her, then his lips twitched into a reluctant smile.  “Wine would be good, thanks.”

Gabrielle ducked out of the tent and went quickly back to their own, glad enough for her errand.  She caught motion inside as she entered, and grabbed her staff as she cleared the flap bringing it up and into battle position.

“Hey hey hey!” Jessan held his hands up. “Don’t hit me!”

Gabrielle exhaled. “Sorry.” She went over to the worktable and retrieved the arrow resting on it. “Ares wanted to see this.”

Jess made a face.

“I know, it’s freaky.”  Gabrielle patted his arm. “Sit down and relax. I’m sure Xe’ll be right back here to let you know whatever it is he’s got on his mind.”

“Not sure I want to know.” Jessan covered his eyes. 

Gabrielle patted his arm again. “Take it easy, Jess. I’m hoping he’ll decide to leave again. I don’t much like him being around either.” She picked up the pot of mulled wine on the brazier and snagged a cup, then left him to sit down near it’s warmth.

**

“I’m pretty sure I got all of it.”  Xena said, dragging up a folding stool and sitting down on it. “Wound closed right up after I got it out.”

Ares glanced down at his chest in reflex, touching the spot below his ribs that the arrow had pierced.  He pushed against it experimentally, then grunted. “Seems okay.”

Gabrielle re-entered with the arrow, handing it to her partner as she set the cup down and poured the hot wine into it. The rich, spicy smell filled the enclosure and she swirled it a little to let it cool.

Xena bent her head over the arrow, turning it towards the torches to examine it. The head was clean and unblemished, and she turned it in her fingers, seeing no sign of a fracture or chip. “Here.” She held it out to him.  “Looks fine.”

Ares took it cautiously, and hiked himself up to look at it. After a moment he grunted and put it down on the edge of the wagon.  “Lucky.”

“Gee thanks.” 

He looked at her dourly.  “It came from a crossbow hand built by my uncle.”

Xena glanced at the shaft, then at him. “Hades?”

“Good guess.” He widened his eyes in mock astonishment.  “He decided he was going to defend his own patch, if you catch my drift.”

“Isn’t he a god too?”  Gabrielle set the pot down and took a seat on the edge of the wagon.

“He’s always been a little different.” It was Xena who answered. “Sort of Zeus’ reluctant ally.”

Ares nodded. “Exactly, little chipper.”  He said. “So when all this came down, he decided he’d take the opportunity to… “ he lifted a hand and dropped it. “Promote himself. See he knows regardless of what the morts here believe, they all die.”

“They all come to him.”  Gabrielle said, quietly.  “Eventually.”

“You got it.”

“So he’s trying to kill you?”  Xena said. “Is that what that is? Arrows from his hearth?”

Ares nodded.  “Has his own troops. Unlimited resources, y’know? Been a lot of you morts, all dying all the time.” He touched the arrow with one long finger.  “And hes probably pissed off at me anyway. I stole one of his horses.”

“Figured that horse came from somewhere else.” Xena muttered.

“Had to find one somewhere.”  Ares said. “But I figured his plan is to knock us all off, then let the chicks get plundered, then let his troops out to scare everyone into believing in him.”

“Ugh.” Gabrielle exhaled. “Ares that sucks.”

“Yeah, been that kinda day, blondie.”  Ares lay back down, then he plucked at the sheepskin lined covers.  “You put animals on top of me?”

“You were half frozen.”  Xena said. “Besides, where do you think all this leather comes from?  A tree?” She indicated her garb and his own.  “It’s cow skin.”

Ares looked at her, then down at himself, then back at her. “Cows?” He looked around the makeshift shelter. “The more I hang out down here, the weirder it gets.”

Gabrielle handed him the hot wine. “For us too. Why didn’t you tell us this before?”

Ares rolled his eyes at her. 

“Is that why you wanted to move faster?” Xena asked. “You should have said something.”

“So will you move faster now?” He shot back.

Xena picked up the arrow and closed her fingers around it. “Maybe.” She said. “After I figure out how to keep Hades minions from spitting you with more of these.” She got up. “Get some rest. We will too.”

Ares watched them go, then he looked around, and put his head back down on the straw stuffed pillow. He plucked at the sheepskin covering again, and just shook his head.

**

Continued in Part 10