A Queen’s Tale
Warm sun, a cool piece of granite, and a spare moment to relax against the stone and look out over a stretch of rich, sown fields and the ribbon of the river rushing past.
Couldn’t really ask for more, could you?
Xena thumped her bare heels idly on the rock, leaning back on one elbow as she enjoyed the breeze and the afternoon light. She had a waterskin resting by her right hand, and she inhaled, feeling the almost dry light fabric cool against her body as she lifted it up and took a sip from it.
It was a beautiful afternoon. She’d just spent candlemarks at sword practice, and now she was taking a break before she made her way back to the Amazon village where hopefully Gabrielle would be finished holding court for the day.
After another sip, Xena sat up and pulled her boots back on, tying the strings snug around her calves before she slung her waterskin over her shoulder and stood up, stretching out slightly sore muscles before she started down the rocky path.
Around her the wind rustled softly through the thick green summer leaves, bringing the scent of wood smoke to her, and she took a deep breath of it, acknowledging a sense of benign well being.
They’d been back a bit over a moon from their strange adventure and had settled back down into life in Amphipolis. The town had changed, they had changed, but slowly everyone seemed to be getting used to every day life again.
Even the Amazons had settled in, their new village finally taking shape as the weather improved. Change had come to their leadership though, as a newly pregnant Ephiny stepped aside as Amazon law required and turned the reins over to Gabrielle; giving the tribe a taste of their putative Queen they hadn’t quite anticipated.
Learning process all the way around, as Gabrielle hadn’t really expected it either.
Xena whistled melodically under her breath as she dropped down the steep path, coming to a more even spot and glancing ahead to where the turn off was to the Amazon village.
A lookout was there. The Amazon warrior inclined her head in respect as Xena approached, and she lifted a hand in response, giving the woman a friendly wave. “Estas.”
“Welcome back.” The guard said. “Did you have a good practice?”
“They’re all good.” Xena grinned briefly, then passed through the guard post and started down the slope to the wide open plateau that was now filled with sleeping huts, a battle practice yard, an armory, the big cookfire, gardens, and the pens for the goats, sheep and chickens the Amazons were raising.
Children were playing over near the large dining hut, and Xena paused, shading her eyes as she heard Dori’s distinctive, piping voice. She spotted her daughter dodging between three or four other young Amazons, a stuffed ball tucked in her hands as she was chased.
Hands stretched and reached for her, but Dori spun and ducked, keeping out of their clutches, laughing as she escaped and galloped towards the two sticks serving as goals.
Xena smiled, and kept going, passing the cookfire, where three Amazons were stacking split wood and continuing past the healer’s hut towards the shaded clearing that the gathering hall was in, it’s newly barked walls and thatched roof glistening in the sun.
She turned onto the rock lined path and went to the door of the hall, ducking inside and pausing to let her eyes adjust before she picked a bench at the back of the room and slid onto it.
Silent mostly, but the low, even voice speaking at the front of the hall paused and it’s tone changed as it’s owner smiled, her mist green eyes lifting from the parchment in front of her to meet Xena’s at the back of the room.
Xena winked, and settled back against the wall of the hut, extending her long legs in front of her and crossing them at the ankles.
The hall was about a quarter full, with Amazons of various ages and ranks, some sitting together on benches like the one Xena was on, others standing near tables, arguing whatever point of law Gabrielle was currently reviewing.
Xena’s partner herself was seated behind a large, sturdy table in a chair that was ordinary in appearance and workmanlike, yet just a touch enough larger then the rest in the room to indicate there was some authority in the person sitting in it.
Gabrielle was wearing her Amazon leathers, a woven strip of the same material tied around her head keeping her hair out of her eyes. Her summer tan had darkened her skin and made the fairness of her hair stand out and the sculpted lines of her body moved in and out of the beams of sunlight coming in the window behind her.
“So.” Gabrielle put her hands on either side of the paper. “I think what’s going on here is that there was a misunderstanding between the trader and you, Jefes. I think the trader thought you were going to give him both buckets you were carrying of goats milk, not only one.”
“He was an idiot then.” The middle aged Amazon standing near the table said. “I told him, one bucket for a sack of oats. One for one. Why would he think I would give him both?”
“Well.” Gabrielle read the complaint over. “I think he thought that because you were carrying them in a brace, over your neck. Taking off one and carrying the other would have been really awkward, so he thought you would give him your whole load rather than have to carry half of it back unbalanced.”
The Amazon grimaced. “That’s pretty weak, your majesty.”
“Not very plausible, I agree.” Gabrielle nodded. “But that’s his story, and he’s sticking to it. Did he give you the whole sack of oats?” She watched the woman nod. “Okay. So he kept his end of the bargain, and he’s looking for a bucket of milk.”
“He’s a scrounger.” Jefes said. “He’s tried this before. Just ask Solari.”
Gabrielle nodded again. “I think he is too. So what we’ll do is, I’m going to tell him a sack of oats are worth a bucket of milk, and if he wants another one, he’s going to have to ask Xena for it.”
The Amazon put her hands on her hips and grinned, half turning to look at the back of the room where the warrior was lounging. “I’m good with that.”
“But Jefes, next time make sure you’re really clear about what the trade is.” Gabrielle said in a more serious tone. “We don’t want the traders in this area to start spreading the word that our bargaining can’t be trusted.”
Jefes nodded. “Understood, your majesty.” She ducked her head respectfully at Gabrielle. “Thanks for the judgment.” She took the parchment and left, winding her way out between the seats and past where Xena was, pausing to give the Queen’s consort a thumbs up.
“Well.” Gabrielle looked at her cleared tabletop. “That’s it for today, I guess. She stood up and stretched. “We’re expecting a merchant train tomorrow, so we won’t have any review. If there’s anything urgent, we can pick that up the day after.”
The room started to clear, the Amazons who had been seated listening turning to talk to each other, as they gathered themselves to leave. Gabrielle waited a moment to see if there were any further arguments, then she circled the table and headed up the aisle.
She dodged the milling Amazons and arrived next to her partner, dropping to one knee on the bench and leaning forward; resting one hand on Xena’s shoulder as she kissed her on the lips. “Hey.”
Xena reached up and hooked a finger inside her leather halter, pulling her back down and returning the kiss with lazy passion. “Hey.” She replied. “Ready to go home, your majesty?”
Gabrielle glanced down at the fingers holding her in place. “I am home.” She whispered. “But I’m ready to get the scamp and go back to our cabin if that’s what you mean.”
“That’s exactly what I mean.” Xena released her, letting her hand rest on the bard’s knee. “Its been a damned long day.”
“Well, you insisted on taking the pre dawn watch with the militia.” Gabrielle reached over and gently tweaked her partner’s nose. “Let’s go. I’m about talked out today.” She got up and extended her hand, which Xena took as she stood and joined her.
They walked out of the door back into the sunlight, holding hands as they threaded their way through the small groups of Amazons meandering outside with them.
Though everyone was aware of their presence, it excited no more notice than the chickens pecking lightly in the grass, and Xena didn’t even feel slightly conspicuous holding hands with the Queen as they strolled across the open square towards the playground.
“How’d your practice go?” Gabrielle asked. “You should have heard the grumbling when you didn’t want to take anyone with you.”
Her partner chuckled. “I’ll make it up to them after the train gets here tomorrow.” She said. “I just wanted some peace and quiet to smack myself in the head in.”
“Not this time, no.” Xena admitted. “How’d the court go?”
“About like it has been.” The bard said. “Mostly minor stuff, nothing earth shattering. The most interesting case today was the two scouts fighting over the smith’s apprentice down in the town. I can’t believe you missed that one. You’d have hurt yourself laughing.” She pitched her voice low, and gave the women they were moving past a smile.
Xena chuckled. “How’s Eph?” She asked as they cleared the crowds and entered an empty space in the clearing. “Still sick?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle grimaced. “Boy, I didn’t know how lucky I had it until I saw what she’s going through. Poor thing. She said it wasn’t nearly this bad with Xenon.”
“On the flip side, this isn’t a centaur.” Her partner mused. “So maybe it’s a tradeoff. I know the other end of her pregnancy was pure Hades.”
Gabrielle thought about that time, her expression going a bit somber as they crossed the grass and neared the playground. “That was a crossroads for all of us, I think.”
They rounded the ring of trees surrounding the childrens area and came up to where the ball game was still going on, this time a young red haired girl had the stuffed sack and was racing along the ground with it, displaying a respectable speed.
But not quite fast enough to evade the rambling, dark haired dynamo who circled the rest of the crowd and bolted across the ball carrier’s path, reaching out and latching on to the sack and digging her heels in.
The runner was yanked through the air and they both went tumbling to the ground, with Dori laughing in delight as she managed to wreast the toy away. Then she stood up and tossed it to a tall, gangly girl who was just coming up. “Your turn!”
Xena whistled. Dori’s head whipped around and she spotted her parents, abandoning the game at once as she turned and headed for them at a run. “Mama!” She yodeled. “Boo!”
Gabrielle fondly watched her daughter approach, lifting her hand and waving at the rest of the children, who were turning as they realized who was standing there. “Hello you all.”
Dori didn’t even slow down. She reached them and leaped for Xena, who caught her in mid air and pulled her into a hug. “Hey Boo! Where you been? Wanted you to come play with us!”
“I was playing too.” Xena told her. “I was just someplace else.”
“Mama.” Dori held her hand out, and Gabrielle clasped it. “Are we going home now?”
“We are.” Her mother agreed. “Is that okay with you?”
“Yes.” Dori nodded her dark head positively. “I’m hungry.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “So are you saying you know you’ll get dinner at home, or are you saying you don’t like the food here at our friends house.”
Dori grinned at her. “Mama!”
“Ah, she’s learning not to incriminate herself.” Xena patted her daughter’s back. “Good girl.”
They waved at the kids, then turned and started towards the entrance of the village. Xena lifted Dori and put her on her shoulders, where the child happily tucked her bare feet under the warrior’s arms and rode along in supreme contentment. “Did you have fun today, Dor?”
“Yes.” Dori said. “Mama, we made arrows today. But they showed me different than Boo does, so I told them it was wrong.”
Gabrielle pinched her nose with her fingers, stifling a laugh. “You did, huh?”
“They got mad.” Her daughter said. “But when I said Boo said, they got happy again.”
“Of course they did.” Gabrielle moved closer and put her arm around her partner. “Everybody wants to know how Boo does things, right?”
“Yes.” Dori nodded.
Xena draped her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders, feeling the tension in them. “You going to survive seen and a half more moons of this?” She asked. “I’d have started drugging the morning ale here by now if I’d had to listen to what you’ve had to.”
The bard leaned against her as they walked, returning the respectful bow of the guards at the entrance to the village as they emerged onto the path and turned to climb up the short distance to their cabin. “I think I’ll live.” She said, after a brief pause. “This is what Eph’s been doing since Melosa died. I think I kind of owe her a break. You know?”
“No. I don’t.” Her partner answered honestly. “But that’s why you’re the Queen of the Amazons and I’m not.” Xena tickled Dori’s foot, feeling the child tug on her hair in response. “I’ll see what I can mix up for Eph tomorrow. Maybe it’ll help. It did for me.”
“I’m sure she’ll appreciate that, and so will Pony.” Gabrielle was glad to see the outline of their cabin approaching. “I thought Pony was going to have a hard time with how Eph decided to get pregnant.”
“I knew she wouldn’t. It wasn’t her.” Xena said, in a pragmatic tone. “She told me she’s so damned relieved she’s willing to try and get the tribe to adopt Mikah. She made him a knife sheath.”
“She did?” Gabrielle’s voice dropped in amazement.
“She did.” The warrior confirmed, as they climbed up the last steep rise to the plateau their home was built on. “I also heard three more people have a crush on you.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Are you starting to listen to gossip?”
“Only when your name’s mentioned.” Her partner unlatched the door and nudged it open. “One of them was wondering if dying her hair black would help.”
The bard started laughing, closing the door behind her and covering her eyes as she stood just inside the entrance, her body shaking. “Oh gods.” She sighed and moved further inside, heading for the fireplace and the pot swinging gently over it. “This should be good and ready.”
“Smells great.” Xena swung Dori down and headed for the bathing room. “Ready for a bath, shortie?” She disappeared with the giggling child, leaving Gabrielle to gently stir the stew and get out of her leathers.
Which she did, in that order. She walked back over to their linen press and loosened the ties on her halter, easing it from her skin and setting it down on the press. The leathers were very comfortable in this weather, but it felt good to trade them for a soft woven shirt at the end of the day and to her, it was like exchanging her daytime role as Amazon Queen to her evening role as mother and partner and poet.
She took of her skirt and put it next to the halter, then she turned and leaned against the press, unlacing her boots and tugging them off.
In the bathing room, she could hear splashing and mayhem. She straightened and smiled, running her fingers through her pale hair and freeing the back of it from the collar of the shirt. Then she walked back across the cabin, flexing her bare toes against the fur rugs and planking and dropped into one of the low slung, comfortable chairs across from the fire.
Home. Gabrielle extended her legs and crossed her ankles. Yes, it was good to be here. “Hey Xe?”
“Yes?” Xena reappeared in the doorway to the bathing chamber, toweling herself and Dori off. “We got one bit of good news today. If you can call it that.” She crossed over to the press, getting Dori into a nightgown and putting a long shirt on herself. “War’s on. With Sparta.”
“Means they’ll be looking anywhere but the backend of the hinterlands here.” Xena said. “Since they can’t conscript from us, maybe they’ll forget Amphipolis exists by the time it’s all over and the treasure hunters will all follow them to Sparta looking for plunder.”
“Well.” The bard murmured. “Talk about a dark cloud with a silver lining.” She looked up at her partner, who settled into the chair next to her. “Will they come looking for you, though?”
The erstwhile Defender of Amphipolis, once the Destroyer of Nations shrugged. “Hopefully their egos will keep them from that.” She watched Dori climb up into her mother’s lap. “It’s time we just had some peace and quiet around here.”
“Mama, will you tell a Boo story?” Dori asked.
“Sure honey.” Gabrielle gazed at her daughter. “How about we do a story, then we can have some dinner. Does that sound like a plan to you?”
Dori hugged her. “Tell the aminal story. Maybe the aminal will come and listen and we can play.”
“Sure.” Gabrielle patted her back. “And maybe Boo will sing for us, like she did to the animals.” Her eyes met Xena’s and they both smiled. “We’ll have lots of fun.”
Gabrielle finished buckling the leather belt around her waist and reached for her staff, curling her fingers around the worn, battle hardened surface before she looked behind her to see if her family was ready to go.
Xena was seated near the fire with Dori in her arms, both of them dressed in blue cotton tunics and looking very festive with their matching leather boots.
It made Gabrielle smile. “Let’s go, kids.” She knocked her staff on the floor a few times. “We don’t want to miss the market, right?”
Xena looked up, a finely arched dark brow lifting in a mute, yet perfect expression of wry skepticism. Nevertheless, she got up and set Dori on her feet, and they both joined the bard at the door. “I have to admit, rebuilding the area across the river as a big market square wasn’t the worst idea I’ve seen.” The warrior allowed.
“But not letting people live over there.” Gabrielle closed the door behind them and led the way down off the porch. “I don’t really think anyone wanted to anyway, but it gets cleaned up a lot more.” She watched Dori as the child pattered ahead of them, chasing a big butterfly.
“Not as crowded.” Xena agreed. “Still don’t want to live down there though.”
Gabrielle had to admit she felt the same way. Though the village had settled down and reformed after the floods, and she and Xena had worked their way back into a more normal life over the last two moons there was still a bit of rawness there and she suspected in some sense things would never be the same for them here.
Life had become, she’d come to realize, just a cycle of changes and slowly she and the warrior had reconciled themselves to it and just learned to adjust.
It was, what it was.
A quarter candlemark later, they were emerging onto the path that lead through the back of Amphipolis; their appearance generating calls of greeting from the townsfolk who were also out and heading towards the river.
The smell of freshly cut wood permeated the village square, and on either side of the path there were newly built log cabins where there had once been only broken down remnants, as settlers took over the small plots of land and they became homesteads.
Some had been living in the lower town. Gabrielle exchanged a wave with a baker who had escaped the floods, and was now living not that far from Cyrene’s inn. Most of the merchants had moved on though, and only a few had stayed to make their home in the upper town.
Less profit, less bustle, less growth. There were many who were unhappy about that. Gabrielle edged a step close to Xena as they started into the square, since it was becoming busier by the minute. “Looks like everyone’s in a pretty good mood today.”
“Looks like it.” Her partner agreed. “Want to stop in at mother’s?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle altered her steps as they neared the inn, which was busy even at this relatively early hour. Since the inn in the lower town had been completely destroyed, Cyrene’s place was once again the center of life in the village, and so far she’d seen no move by anyone to change that.
They walked up onto the porch and Xena opened the door, letting Gabrielle and Dori enter ahead of her into the very familiar place.
“Ah, there you are.” Cyrene spotted them. “Now isn’t that cute? Look at the two twins there in the same color.”
Gabrielle smiled at her partner’s somewhat embarrassed expression as everyone turned and saw her and Dori’s matching outfits. “Can’t even blame me for that.” She said. “Xena picked them out.”
“Xena had them made.” The warrior interjected. “Since the weaver was complaining there wasn’t enough left after making mine to make another one from the same bolt.” She picked up Dori and they went to the front of the inn to the table nearest the big fireplace, where Cyrene and several others were sitting.
“It’s adorable.” Cyrene said. “Sit down. Last I heard, the merchant train was still coming down the road.”
“Be interesting to see what they’ve got for sale.” One of the men at the table remarked. He was an elder, and he gave Gabrielle a nod of respect as she took a seat opposite him. “Being it’s the first one since the flood.”
“The scouts said it was pretty big.” Gabrielle said. “I think Xena’s idea of sending a few people out to say there was still a market here was a good one.”
The man nodded. “People heard things, surely.”
“Surely.” Cyrene returned to the table with a tray full of mugs. “Here.” She put it down. “With all the bastards running from here I’m sure they heard earsful. But a few good markets will put it right.”
“People might come this way any route.” Xena said. “We’re one of the furthest areas from the possible fighting.”
The man nodded solemnly. “Figure they’ll be around to recruit soon enough.”
“And we’ve got an exemption from them conscripting anyone.” Gabrielle said, picking up a mug and taking a sip of the ale. It was cold and crisp against her tongue, and tasted wonderful. “Did you open a new keg, mom?”
“Yes, in deed I did.” Cyrene appeared pleased that she’d noticed. “With any luck, it’ll be a busy night.” She lifted a mug and took a sip. “Not bad, if I do say so.”
Xena leaned back against the wall and relaxed, noting the good number of patrons in the room and the air of cautious optimism in the faces around her. She picked up a mug and took a drink, watching Dori turn her head to watch what was going on. “Got any cider before the terror starts grabbing for one?”
“I’ll get it.” Gabrielle chuckled, getting up and leaning her staff against the wall next to Xena. She circled the table and went into the kitchen, where two cooks were busy at the various fires. “Hello, Eustace.”
The nearer cook turned. “Oh, hello there.” She greeted the bard. “Can I get you something, ma’am?”
“I got it.” The bard went over to the casks near the back of the room and picked up a pitcher, then she unstopped the cider cask and partially filled it. “Looking forward to the market?”
“Oh yes, ma’am. Absolutely. Right, Alais?”
“Good to see some new stuff.” The other cook agreed. “We’re near out of spices. Terrible.”
“Well I’m looking forward to it too.” Gabrielle picked up a cup and headed for the door. “See you all out there.” She reentered the big room and walked back over to the table, in time to see Xena nearly losing her mug to their precocious offspring. “Dori!”
Dori turned from where she was standing on Xena’s lap with one hand stretched up to grab the ale and the other clutched in her partner’s hair. “Mama! I’m thirsty!”
“Well, that’s not the way to get a drink is it? Get your bottom back down on the bench, madame.” Gabrielle told her sternly. “Stop mauling Xena.”
Dori poked her lower lip out. “Mama.” She protested, but stopped her climbing and sat down in Xena’s lap instead. “Sowwy Boo.”
Caught between laughter and not wanting to undermine her partner’s scolding, Xena merely bit the inside of her lip and worked to keep her expression serious. “Thanks for rescuing me, Mama.” She told the bard gravely.
Gabrielle poured some cider into the cup she’d brought and then set the pitcher down. “Good girl. Here you go.” She passed the cider over to her daughter. “So anyway, where were we?”
“Talking about the crops.” Cyrene said. “The floods caused a late start, and most of the fields are just under seed now. If we get an early frost, we could have a lot of problems this winter.”
“Well.” Gabrielle leaned forward, resting her forearms on the table. “I talked to the tribe. They’re willing to teach people here to forest gather, if anyone’s interested. Most of the time, the Amazons can’t put fields under plow, but they do mostly all have little gardens and they know how to make the most of the wild around them.”
The elders sitting at the table were briefly silent. “Well.” The old man said. “Never hurts to try something new, eh?”
Cyrene looked at him. “Now you say that.” She said. “The gods know all I heard before the floods was how we need to stick to the old ways.”
The elder half shrugged.
“Let’s try to get as much in storage as we can then.” Xena spoke up. “Before it all starts going to Athens.”
“They’ll expect us to donate to the war effort, won’t they?” One of the other men said. “Someone from over Thebes way passed through last night and said word was out, everyone was being taxed for it. “
“We’re exempt.” Cyrene said. “If they respect that piece of parchment, that is.”
“I’ll make them respect it.” Xena said, after a long silence. Then she bounced Dori up and down on her knee a little, as the child laughed. “But the truth is, we’re too small for them to really come after. To wage war on that scale, you need hundreds of legions and more grain than we produce in ten seasons from every city in the land.”
Cyrene nodded. “Maybe in the long view of things, the floods might have done us a favor.” She glanced at the elder. “Ector, I know a lot was lost, but who knows? It might have been lost anyway.”
“Might have.” Ector agreed sadly. “We will never know. But if it comes to be that we are overlooked or thought destroyed and bypassed of this war, I welcome it.”
“Aye.” The other two elders at the table nodded. “That’s for sure.”
The door to the inn opened, and two of the scouts entered. They came over to the back table at once, pulling riding gloves off their hands. “Trains coming in. Just down the road.” The nearer one addressed Xena respectfully. “Ten wagons at least, and lots of pack animals. Looks like it’s a good one.”
Everyone in the inn was listening, and now most rose and started for the door. “Bout time.” One man said. “Let’s see what they got.”
“Some Amazons are with them to, ma’am.” The scout said to Gabrielle. “Five or six, we think, riding alongside.”
“Really?” Gabrielle frowned. “Not from our tribe, we don’t have any hunting parties out down that way.” She looked over at Xena. “Maybe they heard the tribe moved up here.”
“Could be.” The warrior agreed. “Maybe some friends from the last war.” She bounced Dori again. “You done with your cider, shortie? Want to go see what’s going on?”
“Done.” Dori set the cup down with both hands and an exaggerated seriousness. “Boo, that was good.”
Everyone chuckled. “Don’t tell me, tell your grandma.” Xena prompted her. “She made it for ya.”
Cyrene stood up. “Glad you enjoyed it, scamp.” She ruffled Dori’s dark hair. “All right people, let’s go see what we got.” She joined the elders as they headed for the door, leaving Gabrielle and Xena with Dori at the table.
“Amazons.” Gabrielle leaned back and cupped her ale mug in both hands. “Good or bad thing, what do you think?”
“Fifty fifty chance either way.” Xena put her mug down and stood up, setting Dori onto her feet. “Let’s go find out.”
Gabrielle drained her mug, then she got up and joined her family as they left the inn last, closing the door behind them as they emerged into the morning sunlight. Most of the village was already heading down to the river, some crossing the newly rebuilt bridge over to the other side.
Across the river, all that remained of the lower town was a stone wall marking what once had been the perimeter, and a tall, heavy structure at the far end that had been the just finished theatre when the disaster hit.
Now they used it for storage, and it would be shelter for the merchants who were heading their way as they set up their wagons to sell what they’d brought in a temporary marketplace around the cleared wood planked space that once had been a dancing square.
Gabrielle felt a little sad, as she always did, when she saw it. There had been so many dreams invested in the settlement, not the least of which was a budding troop of actors, who had hoped to inhabit the theatre and bring a little of the culture found in the bigger capital cities here to Amphipolis.
So close. Now most of them had dispersed to other places, as the town reined back it’s dreams and feeding and housing everyone took precedence over entertainment. Gabrielle had hoped to see one or two of her own tales acted out in the space but now she knew it would be a long time if ever before expansion got to that point again.
For now, they would just rebuild what they could, and do their best to get back to where they had been before everything had started to spiral out of control.
Gabrielle paused before she stepped onto the bridge, memories of the flood surfacing as she remembered it’s predecessor breaking loose and bearing down on her with murderous speed. Only luck and Xena’s strength had saved her.
“Something wrong?” Xena bumped her lightly from behind.
“Just remembering.” Gabrielle continued across the bridge, the now relatively placid river flowing under it with gentle burbles. “You know I still think it was romantic of you to save me in your underwear.”
Dori skipped ahead of them, bouncing up and down on the bridge planks that gave a little under her weight. “Boo boo boo.. too slow!”
“Gods.” Gabrielle watched the child bolt across onto the other side and bounce up the slope. “She makes me feel twice my age sometimes with all that energy.”
“Me too.” Xena commiserated.
Gabrielle gave her a look.
The warrior pretended she didn’t see it, focusing her pale eyes on the oncoming merchant train. As the scouts had promised, it was a big one, the wagons not the usual small traveling vehicles common in the area but instead big, long range ones with storage and living areas being pulled behind teams of horses and oxen.
Good sign. Xena knew she had no responsibility for the flood that had damaged so much of the town and killed so many people, but she also knew she and the Amazons had destroyed the sudden hope of plundering the riches of the mountain they lived on and there were still very hard feelings about that.
Many felt they had a right to mine the place. Xena had proven her own right of possession with her sword, and after a few killings, and half a dozen with hands cut off their wrists, the bounty hunters had fled and the town reconciled itself to making a living the way it always had.
And in reality, though Dori had her collection, and there had been a nugget or two in the streams, Xena knew there was no vast fortune under the paths she trod on a daily basis. Just enough to make everyone think there was, and that would bring unrelenting destruction to a place she’d come to love.
Tough choice. Xena put her hand on Gabrielle’s back as they entered the cleared ground that once had been the lower town. But then, her life had been full of tough choices.
The crowd cleared them a path, and they emerged in the center of the space, just as the lead wagon pulled up outside the square and the drover jumped down off his seat.
“Good morning to you!” The man said. “And a long road it’s been for us.”
“Welcome.” Gabrielle stepped forward. “We’re glad to see you.” She settled her staff into the crook of her arm and extended her other hand, clasping the drover’s. “I’m Gabrielle. Welcome to Amphipolis.”
The man paused in mid motion. “Gabrielle?” He asked, a note of hesitation in his voice.
“Yes.” The bard smiled kindly at him. “Yes, I’m that one. No, I don’t bite. Yes, that’s Xena behind me. Yes, you’re perfectly safe here.” She released his hand. “You’re welcome to set up here in this area, we’ve got a storage building over there if you want to get anything under cover.”
“Ah.” The man said. “Thanks.” He cleared his throat. “This looks like a good spot. I was told we’d have good customers here… true?”
“True.” Cyrene stepped forward. “You’ve got it? We’d like to buy it. We had some bad luck in the spring thaw, and we’re just rebuilding. Once you set up, my inn’s up at the top of that slope there, everyone’s welcome.”
Several of the other drivers had gathered, and their faces looked pleased at the welcome. “Looks like we heard right.” One of them said. “Good spot here. We’ll bring the horses up.”
“There’s a rough pasture past the building there, with a bit of fence. “ Johan had come up behind them. “We sent word down the river too, for them who has needs.”
The drover’s smile grew wider. “Good to hear.” He motioned all the wagons forward. “We’ll get to working then.”
“Looks good.” Cyrene said in an undertone. “Hope they’ve got cooking pots. My best one’s shot.”
Gabrielle stepped back and joined Xena, resting her hand on her partner’s hip. “So far so good.” She kept an eye on Dori, who had run predictably up to the horses attached to the first wagon and was patting their noses.
“Mm. Look what’s coming.” Xena indicated a direction with a small jerk of her chin. Approaching them were a group of Amazons on horseback, that of itself unusual enough. “That’s trouble or I’m a goat.”
“Baaah.” Gabrielle uttered. “Hope you are.” She put a game smile of welcome on her face as the lead Amazon spotted her staff, and changed direction to come right at them. “I really hope you are.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle rested her folded hands on the table. “Let me make sure I have this straight.” She studied the five Amazons seated around her, and then looked past them at her partner who was at the other end. “Someone who said they were representing the Athenian council came to you.”
“To our leaders.” The oldest of the Amazons, Chlea, clarified, briefly holding her hand up. “We are but the messengers.”
“Don’t worry.” Xena remarked. “We won’t shoot you.”
The Amazons glanced at her with puzzled expressions then back at Gabrielle.
“So.” Gabrielle started again. “Some people who said they were representing the Athenian council came to your leaders, and offered your leaders a lot of gold if they would join the war against Sparta.”
“Yes, your majesty.” The woman nodded. “They came and said, if we could gather up all the Amazons in Greece, and enter the war, that they would pay us all enough to keep our tribes for generations, and besides, grant us lands.”
Gabrielle nodded slowly. “I see.”
“So our leaders sent out messengers to all the parts of the land, so that we might take this offer to all the Amazons we could find so that we might all benefit by it.”
“I see.” The bard murmured again. “So. Do I take it your leaders are going to accept this offer?” She asked. “They want to go to war?”
“Yes, of course.” Chlea said. “How many seasons have we scraped for a living? This is a chance to finally build our tribes into a good situation, and live a good life.”
Gabrielle looked over at Xena.
“If any of you survive.” The warrior said. “War with Sparta’s no joke.”
“The whole of the Athenian army will be fighting them.” The Amazon said. “If we join into the cause, when we win the war, we share in the riches. “
“I’ve fought Spartans.” Xena’s voice remained mild. “There’s no guarantee you’ll win.” She said. “Especially if the same idiots are in charge the last time I was in the capital.”
“Besides that.” Gabrielle drew the conversation back. “Who is to say they’re not lying to you, and really just want you for cannon fodder.”
The Amazon turned back to her. “You sound like you are against this plan, your majesty. May I know why? My leader, especially, felt that you would be the first to join in.”
“Me?” Gabrielle’s brows lifted. “I think you’ve got the wrong Amazon queen if that’s the case. I’m against it because I don’t think Athens is making a fair offer, I don’t’ agree with the war, and I wont’ send my sisters into battle for someone else’s bad decisions.”
Xena nodded her head. “What she said” She concluded.
“So you would deny your people this opportunity?” Chlea didn’t sound angry, just puzzled. “Deny them the riches, and the lands?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle didn’t bat an eyelash. “I value their lives over gold and dirt. We have lands here, and their needs are fulfilled in a way that leaves none of them hungry. I won’t send them to war, especially a war that will spill blood across the land like water.”
“But your majesty, we are warriors.” Another of the Amazons said. “Is this not what we live for?”
Gabrielle studied her. “Have you ever been in a war?”
“We have been in battles, of course.” The older Amazon said.
The bard stood up. “That’s not what I mean. I don’t mean battles, or skirmishes with other tribes, or a fight with the Centaurs. I mean a war; one with battle engines and thousands of troops, and burning fire, and catapults that can take out a whole line of cavalry at one shot.” She said. “Ever been in one of those? Seen a battlefield covered in bodies? Smelled a hundred dead around you?”
The visiting Amazons stared at her.
“I have.” Gabrielle said, in a quiet voice. “I’ve been drenched head to foot in blood, and seen my friends and sisters die in front of my eyes.” She looked at each one of them in turn. “No offer from Athens would tempt me to go through that again, and it shouldn’t tempt you either.”
The Amazons hesitated, then they looked back at Xena. “Say you the same? “ The oldest one asked. “We know your reputation, Xena of Amphipolis. Do you too, shy from this war?”
Xena steepled her fingers and tapped the tips of them against her lips. “Athens wanted me to lead their army in this war.” She said. “I nearly set the place on fire running away from the offer. There’s no good from it. Sparta’s armies are better than ours, and if they route them, they’ll be here breathing down our throats in no time. Their promises are worth nothing.”
Chlea leaned forward. “To be truthful, you are the first who feel in this way.” She said. “We have met with four small tribes on our journey here, and all seemed willing to join in this cause. They are sending representatives to the conclave our leaders have called.”
“Well, Xena and I have had more experience in this particular area than most.” Gabrielle said. “I know there are a few other tribes around here that will probably give you the same answer. They fought in the last war with us.”
“Fair enough.” Chlea said. “May we take shelter with you over night? It’s been a long road, and we’d like to get some rest before we continue on.”
“Of course.” Gabrielle said. “You can stable your horses in the town barn, and we’ll walk you up to the village. The path’s too steep for them to climb it.”
“Very well.” Chlea nodded. “Thank you for the hospitality at the least.” She got up. “Come, my sisters. Let’s settle our beasts, and then we can rest for the evening.” She led the Amazons out of the inn, past the few tablefuls of villagers waiting for the market to open and out the door, allowing in a blast of summer sunlight before it closed behind them.
Gabrielle and Xena regarded each other across the table. Then the bard got up and went over to where the warrior was seated, plunking herself down on the bench knee to knee with her. “Oh boy.”
Xena rocked forward and rested her head on her hand. “Are they really all that stupid?”
“Gabrielle.” Xena intoned. “Even before you went to war, and before you and I had all the experiences we had, would you have really thought the deal they’re being offered is legit?”
“Hm.” The bard mimicked her posture, resting her chin on her fist. “Hon, when I met you if you’d told me I’d get a nutcake every time I cleaned your saddle I’d have bought into it. I’m not really a good example.”
Gabrielle’s expression sobered. “They just want bodies.” She said. “Maybe they figure the novelty of women warriors will throw the Spartans. You think?”
“Maybe.” Xena sighed. “They’re going to need all the help they can get. “
“But you think the promises are bogus, right?” The bard asked. “The land, and the gold?”
Xena snorted. “If I were the Amazons, I’d make them give up the land AND the gold first, if they’re going to throw their bodies into this. They won’t remember a damn thing if they win, and if they lose, we’ll all be running from the Spartans anyway.”
“You won’t be running from Spartans.” Gabrielle gazed at her partner with knowing, quiet affection. “Maybe we’ll end up being the last stand if it all goes bad.” She shook her head. “But for the sake of the Gods, Xena. They can’t really think this is a good idea, can they? We had trouble enough convincing two tribes to fight with us when the threat was breathing down their necks.”
“We weren’t offering gold and land.” Her partner pragmatically reminded her. “Only the privilege of dying alongside you and I.”
Xena shifted in her chair. “If you bring them to the village, they’ll talk.” She said. “If I were you, I’d call a meeting and forstall them.”
Gabrielle eyed her.
“There are people up there who might think it’s a good enough incentive.” Xena said. “And if you’re making the decision for the tribe, you’d probably better explain it to them first.”
“Would you explain a decision of yours?”
“I’m not the queen of the Amazons.” Xena’s eyes twinkled gravely. “Army generals don’t’ have to explain anything.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle reached over and folded her hands over Xena’s wrist, feeling the warm skin under her touch with a sense of decadent pleasure. “So can I beg my consort to occupy these folks for a little while so I can go up to the village and make my peace?”
“Maybe.” Xena arched a brow. “What’s in it for me?”
“My undying devotion.”
“Already got that. What else?” The blue eyes widened a little.
“My heart, my soul.. oh wait, you’ve got that too.” Gabrielle sighed. “How about those dumplings you love so much?”
“Now we’re getting somewhere.” Xena lifted her hand, bringing Gabrielle’s with it up to her lips. She gently kissed the bard’s knuckles. “I will keep your Amazons occupied, my bard. But do me a favor and take Dori with you, because watching her and keeping track of them is going to be too much for me to handle.”
“Sure.” Gabrielle rested her cheek against their still joined hands. “Why does it always have to be war, Xena? Don’t they get it that war never solves anything?”
Her partner gazed at her with wry understanding. “It’s not meant to solve anything. It’s just what people do. Its like the bucks, sparring at mating time, Gabrielle. All animals fight. For territory, for food, for mating rights… we’re no different.”
“Are you saying we’re no better than warthogs?” Gabrielle reached over with her free hand and brushed the dark locks from her partner’s eyes. “I understand what you’re saying, Xe, but we’re not deer. We have thoughts, and dreams and a lot of things animals don’t have. We think. We make decisions. I make stories. We should be able to look at what we’re doing and say, that’s not right. We shouldn’t do that.”
“We should.” The warrior agreed. “But until you’ve gone through what we’ve gone through, it’s hard to deny that animal part.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle got up and circled her partner’s chair. She gave her a kiss on the head, and hugged her from behind. “Well, a lot of people up in that village did go through what we went through the last time, so I shouldn’t have too hard a time explaining, right?”
“Right.” Xena agreed. “And if they give you a hard time, tell them I said they’ll have to go through me to get to Athens.”
Gabrielle leaned against her, exhaling as she let the deep affection she felt for her soulmate well up and spill out of her. “Even if I didn’t think this was a scam, and even if I couldn’t convince the Amazons it wasn’t right, I’d still take you, and run off into the hills because it’s not worth it to me to risk a single hair on your head no matter what someone elses cause is.”
“Right back at you.” Xena leaned back and reached behind her to give the bard as much of a hug as she could in return. “So go charm your Amazons. I’ll meet you back up there in a while.”
Gabrielle twisted her body around and gave Xena a kiss on the lips, ignoring, or completely oblivious to the people in the inn. She took her time, then she backed off a little, allowing their eyes to meet.
They both smiled. Then Gabrielle reluctantly released her hold, and picked up her staff, easing around the table and heading for the door to the inn.
Xena remained seated for a minute after watching her leave, resting her head on her fist and taking that moment to savor the sweetness of this chance gift in her life.
Just a moment. Then she got up and dusted her hands off, pushing the chair back into place, half turning as her name was called.
“Ah, Xena there you are.” Cyrene pushed through the kitchen door and came over to her. “I need some help, you got a minute?”
“Just a minute?” Her daughter said. “Something stuck on a top shelf again? Cow on the roof?”
Her mother gave her a wry look. “You’ve been in a very good mood lately, I noticed.”
Had she? Xena pondered that briefly. “Things have been pretty good for a while.” She shrugged the thought off. “Can’t be a sour puss all the time.”
“I’m not complaining, honey.” Cyrene patted her arm. “It’s wonderful to see you happy. To see Gabrielle happy. You’ve earned it.” She moved closer. “Anyway, all I need is to have you look at something one of the traders is trying to push – tell me if it’s the real thing or not.”
That sounded innocent enough. Xena followed her mother out of the inn onto the porch, and they both pulled up short as a group of villagers blocked the way, all surrounding a wagon that had obviously come up from across the river.
“Thought they were all staying down there?” Xena asked Cyrene in a low voice.
“He’ll go back. Wanted ti bring the stuff up here, since they’re not quite set up there yet. Guess he’s anxious.” Her mother muttered back.
Xena used her height advantage and stepped to the edge of the porch, peering over the heads of the villagers at the contents of the wagon. A ripple of color met her eyes and she blinked a little, surprised to see bolts of fabric exposed under the rough leather tarp.
“Good stuff, as I said, citizens.” The wagon owner was saying. “From far off. I got a lucky shot at it, and you’re the first to see em.”
“How far off?” Xena asked, from her perch.
The drover looked up, spotting the tall, beautiful woman in blue watching him. He beamed at her, reminding Xena a bit of her old friend Salmoneus.
Which made the wagon’s contents immediately suspect.
“From far off, good lady. Far shores in the East, according to the merchant I found with them. Just off some ship that got wrecked on the coast, he said.”
Interesting. Xena started down the steps, and the crowd parted respectfully to let her through. She went over to the wagon, passing the merchant and reaching over to touch the bolts, her fingertips confirming her first guess. “Silk.”
“Is it, then?” Johan came over. “Is it as he says, Xena?”
The merchant froze, and his eyes went wide. “By the gods. Are you Xena?”
The warrior merely looked at him. Then she went back to examining the fabric. “It’s from a place damn far from here, that’s for sure.” She pushed the fabric aside and glanced at the rest of the contents.
Ivory, that she recognized. And the rich black lacquer shaping fans and boxes, all finely made, and exotic to even her eyes. “You said a boat came ashore with this?”
“Yes, yes.” The merchant said, in an anxious tone. “A shipwreck, they told me. The salvagers drew up chests of these things up on the shore. I took a few, thought maybe I could sell them. Unusual, aren’t they?”
Xena rested her wrists on the wood of the wagon. The townsfolk stood quietly around, obviously waiting for her to answer. That had changed, a little, after she’d staked her claim to the mountain, and made it clear she was willing to keep it with her sword.
This was still her home. They were still her neighbors. But there was a renewed awareness of who she was, and Xena actually found that something she liked. The guilt had faded somehow, and a certain edge had come back.
“They are unusual.” The warrior agreed quietly. “Were there any survivors of the wreck?”
The man shook his head. “They said no. It was a bad storm, so I hear. Sent the ship up onto the rocks, and cracked it in half. Man I got this off said stuff was scattered up and down the shore.”
“Better to try and sell this in Athens.” Xena mused, picking up a finely crafted music box.
“So the salvagers said.” The merchant nodded. “Said they had no use for frivolous things and to take this up to the high and mighty in the capital, but they weren’t looking for it either. Just for weapons, and gold. “
“For the war?”
“Aye.” The merchant relaxed a little, since Xena didn’t seem likely to gut him immediately. “That’s what they said. I bumped into the man who was organizing the trading caravan coming here, and he said, well, you never know.”
“You never know.” Xena agreed. She turned and looked at the crowd. “It’s real.” She told her mother. “You won’t see this stuff often.” She put the music box back down and stepped back. “It comes from Chin. It’s a land across the ocean, very far away from here.”
“You been there, Xena?” One of the crowd asked.
“I”ve been there.” The warrior answered shortly. Then she climbed the steps back up onto the porch as the townsfolk clustered around the wagon with a good deal more enthusiasm.
“Did you take a fancy to this?” The merchant held up the box. “Please, take it as a gift from me.”
Xena put her hands on the rail of the porch. “Thanks, but no thanks.” She told the man. “Sell it to someone and make some good coin out of it.” She turned and started back for the door to the inn, pausing when her peripheral vision caught sight of the Amazons coming back from the stable.
War. Amazons. Unexpected ships from Chin. It really wasn’t starting out to be a very good day.
Gabrielle was glad of the climb up to the village, because despite having to keep an eye on Dori’s scampering she had the time to think about what she was going to say to her tribe.
Her tribe. The bard shook her head a little, inwardly a little bemused at the coaching she’d gotten from her partner on dealing with a group of people they both had such mixed histories with. Xena was right, of course, she’d known that as soon as the words had come out of the warrior’s mouth, but she was also a big embarrassed to have to have been reminded of that.
Of course, Xena did have an insight into the warrior minds that made up so much of the Amazons that Gabrielle still didn’t quite have a handle on. Though she had certainly gone to war, and been in more battles than the people she was leading, she still didn’t really get the whole love of fighting thing that pushed them beyond sense sometimes.
Xena knew. Xena understood it at a gut level. Gabrielle understood Xena at a gut level, but when it came to the question of why innate fighters fought, she was removed a step.
Or, at least, she liked to tell her self that. “Dori, careful.” Gabrielle balanced her staff across her shoulders as she climbed up the path. “You don’t want to get hurt and have Boo get her needles out, right?”
“No, no mama.” Dori jumped off the rock she’d been balancing on and joined her mother. “No pokes.”
Gabrielle chuckled and put her hand on Dori’s shoulder. “Honey, I know what you mean. Do you know how many times your Boo has had to fix mama?”
“Boo always fixes mama.” Dori responded.
‘Boo always does.” The bard smiled quietly. “You know what, Dori? Some bad people want us to go fight with them again. Do you remember what that was like, when all those mean people were here, and we had to run away?”
“But we’re not going to do that.” Her mother reassured her. “Even if all our friends want to go and fight, we’re not going to do that, Dori. What do you think about that?”
“Mama and Boo stay here?” Dori looked up at her, with wide, innocent green eyes. “We can go get fishes, and play.”
“You got it.” Gabrielle steered her towards the entrance to the Amazon village, instead of continuing up towards their cabin. “So you can help me tell everyone about that. Okay?”
Gabrielle nodded a greeting at the guards, who saluted her as she passed, then focused their attention again back at the path. The one thing the tribe loved, really loved, was that they had limited access into where the village was now.
Not like when it was in the middle of the forest. Now, the guard post blocked the pass that led to the pleasant plateau they’d built on, and the rest of the area was surrounded by the peaks of the mountain and the stream that provided the tribe with clean, fresh water.
The plateau sat above some rugged slopes that led down to lower open spaces, rich with soil and perfect for the small crops the tribe planted when they had the land to. They’d gotten seed in after the floods receded, the dirt all the more enriched for its long soaking.
It would hopefully make for a good harvest.
Gabrielle came up over the little rise that led into the village and strolled across the grass, already hearing the cries of children at play and the soft thunk of arrows being sunk into targets. “Hopefully, on opposite sides of the square, right Dor?”
“Mama?” Dori looked up at her in puzzlement. “C’n I go play?” She pointed at the crowd of children.
“Sure, honey.” The bard stroked her head. “Be careful, and be good, okay? Be nice to your friends.”
“Okay.” Dori nodded readily, and then she turned and raced off towards the playground. Her mother watched her until she reached the edge of it and was welcomed by the crowd, then she continued on towards the path that led to Ephiny’s quarters, and just to the right of them, her own.
She used them during the day to relax, and sometimes have private meetings in. However, she never stayed overnight, and grudgingly the tribe had come to understand that it really wasn’t that she didn’t like being here, it was just that she’d grown old enough to put herself first when it came to dividing up her time.
She veered towards Ephiny’s quarters and knocked her staff end against the door post in a familiar pattern.
“C’mon in, Gabrielle.” Her friend and regent’s voice floated out.
Thus invited, the bard separated the heavy bead curtain that formed the door and stepped inside. “Good morning.”
“Hey.” Ephiny was sprawled in a chair behind her work desk. “Remind me again why I did this?” She had her head resting against one hand, and her other hand over her stomach.
“Well.” The bard took a seat across from her. “Same reason I did. You wanted a baby.”
“Did you ever regret it?” Ephiny’s pale curls were almost overgrown into her eyes. “Having to deal with all the side effects?”
Gabrielle cleared her throat, and glanced out the window.
“Tell me you didn’t have side effects.”
The bard gave her an appealingly sheepish look. “It’s complicated.” She said. “It’s sort of involved with that whole thing Xena and I have. It’s not that stuff like being sick didn’t happen, it just didn’t always happen to me.”
Ephiny blinked at her.
“We sort of shared.” Gabrielle explained. “Stuff.”
“Xena got sick?”
The bard nodded. “She took it pretty well though. You know Xena. She’s tough.”
Ephiny laughed gently. “Well, anyway. So I thought you were down at the town today with the merchant train? Pony said most of the tribe was heading down there too shortly.”
“I was.” Gabrielle rested her staff across her lap. “And the train’s in. Unfortunately, it came with a bunch of Amazons. Strangers. Didn’t know us.”
Ephiny straightened up, reacting to the warning note in her friend’s voice. “Yeah?” She said. “Just visiting?”
“Uh oh.” The regent rested her elbows on her knees. “Why do I have a bad feeling about this?”
“Well done stables.” The Amazon commented to Xena, as they walked along the path. “Beautiful animals in there.”
“Thanks.” Xena said. “Mare and stallion in there are mine. Mother and son.” She commented. “I’m not used to seeing Amazons on horseback, what’s the story there?”
“Ah.” The woman said. “And I’m Thrasia, by the way.” She held a hand out, which Xena clasped. “Our tribe, mine, and Chlea’s there, live on the plains just outside Athens. We’ve been horse riders for generations, best way to get across the land there.”
This was new to Xena. “Do you fight on horseback?”
“We do.” Chlea said. “We use battleaxes, and bows. “ She eased up so she was on Xena’s other side. “You are also well known as a horsewoman. One of my sisters saw you fight mounted once, and still tells the story.”
The warrior nodded, her steps taking her down the path to circle the back of the village, the long way to the path that led up the mountain. Behind her, the merchant train was busy setting up shop across the river, and most of the town had meandered down there leaving the paths quiet and empty.
“That’s why we were confused, when your Queen rejected the thought of joining us in the fight.” Thrasia said. “Everyone in the land, practically, has heard of you, Xena. They know of your fighting skills. Do you truly wish to turn your back on this?”
Xena pondered the question, looking inside herself and finding no yearning at all, which rather surprised her. “I guess when you’ve spent as much time as I have at war, it loses it’s excitement.” She said. “I don’t see the worth in the cause, either. Athens isn’t going to pay you out in land. They’ll be lucky if they don’t end up with Spartan overlords to pay taxes to.”
“The Athenian army is large, and well armed. They are our neighbors.” Chlea protested. “We know much of them. We would not otherwise consider joining with them in a fight, but we think they have a good chance of winning. But you do not?”
“I know the Spartans.” Xena said. “Athens doesn’t have the stomach for them. The army’s good enough, but the leadership’s just not there.” She raised a hand and returned the wave of one of her militia, quietly standing a post on the far side of the river.
“The town posts a guard?” Thrasia had caught the motion.
“My troops.” Xena replied. ‘They stand watch and handle any problems from outsiders.”
The Amazons looked at her in silence for a moment.
Xena understood the look. They passed into the trees and the sounds of the town faded a little. She stretched her legs out a little as the started up the slope. “How many warriors are you going to send to the war?”
“That hasn’t been decided yet.” Chlea said. “They spoke with my Queen, and her council. We weren’t given the details.” She added. “It was thought that… well, I know my Queen at least was certainly looking forward to speaking with Queen Gabrielle.”
“Why?” Xena asked.
“Well, you would need to ask her that.” Chlea said. “It is just what she told me.”
Thrasia came up even with the warrior again. “You say that Athens won’t keep their promises.. how do you know that, Xena? We have lived near the capital for all the history of our tribe, and I will say that we have always had good relations with them. They have traded with us, and I have never seen them to cheat, or try to take advantage of my sisters.”
“That could be true.” Xena acknowledged. “But my experience with them has been different. So has Gabrielle’s.”
“We heard she was in the city for the last Games.” Chlea commented. “Our tribe, and Thrasia’s were in the far west hunting. We were sorry to have missed all the festivities.”
Festivities. “We didn’t really enjoy it.” Xena said. “Up this way.” She took the angled path into the pass, and almost smiled as the two Amazons on guard slipped forward and blocked the way, hands on swords and chobos. “Friends.” She intoned, in as serious a tone as she could muster.
The guards studied them, then drew back, giving Xena little half bows.
Xena proceeded past with her little mob, catching the eye of the nearer of the two guards and winking at her. They cleared the pass and began the short climb up to the plateau, as the sun trickled through the leaves and dusted them in yellow.
“Secure approach.” Chlea said. “You could hold that with a dozen fighters.”
They achieved the slope and the village spread out in front of them, the big open space surrounded by it’s stately crown of trees where the living huts were nestled. Several Amazons were crossing to the cooking pit, a deer suspended between two staffs resting on their shoulders.
That boded well for dinner. Xena returned the greetings as she crossed over to where the meeting hall was, her innate sense telling her that was where her partner was.
“Well favored location.” Thrasia said. “Your tribe seems prosperous, Xena.”
My tribe? Xena took a breath, then reconsidered, and inclined her head graciously. “We’ve been through a lot of hard times. It was due.” She paused to listen before the hall entrance, then she pushed the door open, hearing the soft voice calling her name just at the edges of her ability to detect it.
Meaning none of the others would have heard.
Inside, Gabrielle was seated at the council table, with Ephiny and Eponin on either side of her, and several of the other senior Amazons along with a few of the elders scattered around. Behind the table, two guards stood in somber silence, though one of them caught Xena’s eye and briefly grinned.
The warrior lifted a hand in a faint greeting to Cait, and proceeded down the middle aisle, circling the table and patting her partner on the shoulder as she took up a position just near the back window, to one side of the guards, on a sturdy, high bench set up specifically for her.
“Thanks, Xe.” Gabrielle greeted her warmly. “They almost set up down there?”
“Almost.” Xena replied.
The bard turned her attention to their visitors. “You are welcome here in our village.” She said. “Please, take a seat. Quarters are being prepared for you.”
Chlea looked around, then sat on one of the well made benches at the front of the hall. “Thank you, Queen Gabrielle. We are very happy to find ourselves here in such a nice place among our sisters after spending so many days on the road with strangers. We really appreciate the hospitality.”
Gabrielle smiled. “Anytime.” She inclined her head. “This is my regent, Ephiny, and her partner and our weapons master, Eponin.” She introduced her tablemates. “They were interested to hear of your experiences, and had some questions.”
Xena leaned back against he wall, content to let the Amazons deal with the other Amazons, and suspecting that’s exactly what her partner was doing as well. Gabrielle was undoubtedly a fine negotiator, and a skilled communicator, but when it came to the inner workings of Amazon society and traditions she was the first to step back and let the experts have a go.
“So, excuse me a moment, I’ll let you get on with it.” Gabrielle stood up. “I think we’re all going to go down to see what the market holds for us, but we’d love to host you for dinner here this evening.” She glanced over at Renas, one of the elders. “Want to come up here? I know you had some questions too.”
The elder stepped up with out hesitation and Gabrielle dropped back, giving up her place and scooting over to where Xena was perched, confirming the warrior’s suspicions. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Xena smiled as the bard eased between her knees and leaned against the bench. “Some interesting things showed up in the train.” She said, without preamble. “Flotsam off a wreck from Chin, apparently.”
She felt Gabrielle’s reaction before the bard’s expression even changed. The body touching her stiffened and the muscles on either side of Gabrielle’s mouth twitched. “So that was the jolt I felt from you earlier.”
The warrior inclined her head. “Didn’t expect to see that stuff showing up here.” She admitted. “But it’s trade goods. Silk. Some carved ivory.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle relaxed. “A shipwreck?”
“That’s what they said.” Xena glanced past her, as the chatter covered their conversation. “No survivors.”
Gabrielle was silent for a long moment, her eyes searching Xena’s face. Shadows of their joined past flickered between them, but after a breath, the bard leaned forward against Xena’s body, wordlessly seeking comfort.
Xena circled her with both arms and gave her a hug. “Guy was going to give me a carved box as a gift. I turned it down.”
Gabrielle gently kissed her on the cheek. Then she straightened a little, glancing over her shoulder at the small crowd with a mildly abashed expression. “I really didn’t need to head back up here.” She uttered softly. “Though I think everyone was kinda flattered that I did. The minute I said fight, and Athens they were all over it saying no way.”
“I figured.” Xena said. “But it pays to be sure. Aside from being idiots, they’re not a bad bunch.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle chuckled softly.
“I meant the ones from Athens.” Her partner clarified. “They still don’t get why we don’t want any part of their fight.”
“They shouldn’t want any part of their fight.” The bard retorted. “They just don’t know what they’re getting into.” She half turned in the circle of Xena’s arms and watched the group around the table. Ephiny had stood up and was leaning on both hands, shaking her head.
Eponin was scowling. Renas merely had her arms folded, and a skeptical look on her face.
“Wanna go swimming?”
Gabrielle immediately felt strongly attracted to the idea. “And abandon all the stuff we have to do today?” She reminded her partner, who merely looked back at her with those twinkling baby blues. “Xena. You just don’t want to go shopping with me.”
Xena chuckled softly under her breath. “We should be careful.” She said, her expression shifting to something more serious. “We don’t want word getting back to Athens we’re here sitting on resources or building our own army again.”
Gabrielle studied her face. “You think they’d come here after us?”
“You think they’ll come here after you.” The bard restated. “They wanted you badly, Xe.”
Her partner nodded slowly. “Put that with the stories that might have gotten out about us sitting on piles of gems or gold.. I don’t mind fighting off a pack of scroungy raiders but I don’t want the Athenian army showing up on our doorstep.”
“Definitely not.” Gabrielle agreed. “So what do we do? These women already have a loyalty to Athens.”
‘They do.” Xena murmured, watching the Amazons with hooded eyes.
“Can we stand by here, and let this happen?” Gabrielle watched the sharp angles of her partner’s face shift, as the intent gaze move from the Amazons to her.
“We both almost died trying to stop this once already, Gabrielle. You really think we owe them another round?”
The bard held her eyes steadily. “Not for their sake. For ours.”
The warrior’s brows arched a bit. She looked at the Amazons, then gave her head a half shake. “No matter which way this goes, there’s going to be trouble.” She gave Gabrielle a little scratch on the back. “That’s about the only thing I’m sure of right now.”