A Queen’s Tale
“They tell me your name is Xena.” The gray haired patrician took a seat across from her, swirling the wine in his goblet. “Is that true?”
“Who’s they?” Xena watched him as she worked a grape off the bunch she had in one hand and popped it into her mouth. She rolled it around with her tongue, the bit into it and enjoyed the burst of cool sweetness. “And who’s asking?”
The man smiled briefly. “My name is Denius.” He said. “I’m a member of the Athenian council.” He continued. “And they, are my lovely retinue over there, who seem to know of you.”
Xena glanced past him at the three young women, who were watching them with tiny smiles and half lowered lashes. “I’m Xena.” She admitted. “What are you doing here, instead of in Athens?”
“I could ask you the same.” Denius said. “Though I fancy you’ll be taking ship for the capital in the next day or so when the transports get here.”
Xena studied his face. He was handsome, and had steady gray eyes and seemed just vaguely familiar to her. From her last visit to the capital, maybe?
“May we join you for dinner?” Denius said. “We’re taking ship tomorrow or the next day ourselves.”
“Sure.” The warrior made her decision. “I hate eating alone.”
Denius smiled, and lifted his hand, making a gesture with his fingers. The three women responded immediately, rising and coming over to join him, settling themselves in the seats to either side. “Thank you.”
Xena picked up her goblet of chilled white wine and sipped it., pondering how to proceed with her seeking of information. “You from around here?” She hazarded a guess. “Home seeing what you can send to the war?”
The man inclined his head gracefully. “My lands are about a day’s ride to the south.” He said. “Now that arrangements were made, it’s time to head back to Athens, and rejoin the rest of the council as we prepare for war. And you?”
And her? Xena considered her options. “I”ve heard Athens is soliciting Amazons for the fight.” She decided on truth, something in her resisting the easier route of pretending to follow the path he’d already preassigned her.
She wasn’t really sure why.
His brows twitched. “That may be so.” He allowed. “Does that concern you?”
“Why?” Xena asked. “Why ask them?”
Denius shrugged. “I have heard they are sought, but not the reasons behind it. That is up to the generals, they asked that messengers go out and collect the best warriors of the land. Why not the Amazons? Are they not fierce?” He turned the question around on her.
“They are.” The warrior accepted an exquisitely carved wooden platter with delicacies placed on it and gave the server a smile in return.
The young man winked at her, then turned to serve Denius and his retinue.
Xena wondered idly if she got treated well by inn workers because they knew who she was, or if they sensed she was one of them in a way. She set the platter down on the low table next to her seat and examined it’s contents.
“They are?” Denius prodded her. “And so?”
Xena selected a morsel and put it in her mouth. She gave the excuse of chewing and swallowing to give her time to answer. “They aren’t soldiers.”
“The better to deter the Spartans with, then. They expect soldiers. They expect a traditional battle. That’s not what this war is about.” Denius smiled. “Come, Xena, surely that’s why you are going to Athens, isn’t it? I know a handsome sized delegation came to ask you to come.”
Xena kept her breathing even, and she shrugged slightly. “I said no the last time.” She commented, catching sight of a few people entering the dining hall, tall, broad shouldered men with the unmistakable air of soldiers.
She felt a prickle between her shoulder blades.
“Yes, but it’s different now..” Denius shook his head, oblivious to the newcomers. “That was a command, what was sent to you was an offer. By the fact that you are here, you have accepted, it is clear. I am glad.”
“Denius.” One of the soldiers came over. “Good to find you here.”
“Ah, Aleron.” The patrician smiled. “See who is also waiting to take ship?” He gestured at Xena. “This will be a glorious war.”
The soldier ducked his head respectfully in Xena’s direction. “We heard on the way up here that the honorable general was also staying. It is an honor to meet you.”
What. Xena managed a smile Have I gotten my leather covered ass into.
“Please join us.” Denius gestured to an empty chair. “Xena, Aleron is the cavalry master. He has been very anxious to meet you.”
“Gladly.” The soldier sat down and accepted a goblet. “But it is a shame we just missed the last ship. Many of my comrades were on it, and would have loved to have used the voyage to discuss our horse strategy with such a master.” He held up his goblet in Xena’s direction. “But ten big wagons, and some of those Amazons will be welcomed by the cause on the other side.”
“Ah, and we were just talking about Amazons.” Denius said. “Xena here seemed interested in them. A large number?”
“Score, perhaps.” Aleron said. “Noisy bunch of women, no offense.” He glanced at Xena.
“None taken.” The warrior picked up a bit of chicken and ate it. “When did they leave?”
“Evening before last.” The soldier plowed into the plate of food the server handed to him without apology. “City was glad to be rid of them, I think. Someone said there was some fighting involved or somesuch.”
Double damn it. Xena ripped apart another piece of chicken, not even tasting whatever spices were on it. What were the chances the Amazons were any other than the ones she was looking for? And she’d missed them by a day and a half, since she’d been hanging around lollygagging and getting involved with every hard luck story she’d come upon.
Damn it, damn it, damn it.
“Xena, of course you’re welcome on our ship.” Denius spoke up. “We have a large sailed transport picking us up, and naturally it has all the comforts.”
Xena eyed him. “Fast?”’
Aleron smiled. “The fastest. My uncle’s the captain.” He said, proudly. “She’ll be the flagship once the war begins. Hes breaking in new sailors as he picks up supplies and soldiers from here.”
“Sounds like she’s a pleasure to sail on.” Xena sighed inwardly. “I love a good warship.”
Both Aleron and Denius looked like she’d just tossed them one of Gabrielle’s freshly baked cookies.
“Are you a mariner, Xena?” Denius said. “All the stories I’ve heard of you don’t mention the sea.”
“That’s because most of those stories are told by my partner Gabrielle, and she gets seasick.” Xena resignedly accepted a plate of fruit and cheese from the server along with what looked like rabbit legs.
“Ah, yes.” Denius nodded. “The lovely young woman who won the bard competition.” He said. “I remember that well.” He turned to one of his companions for the first time. “Leena, you were there also. You remember that?”
The woman nodded. “Of course.” She smiled at Xena. “And was in the games as well.”
“Ah.” Denius sat back. “Of course, that’s why you were interested in the Amazons. Isn’t your partner one? I had forgotten, she was carried to the stage by several of them.”
Xena took a swallow of wine. “Gabrielle’s an Amazon queen.” She said. “But that’s not why I was asking about them. She’s already turned down Athen’s request to go to war.” She glanced up when she sensed the silence, to see them watching her.
What were they thinking? That she agreed with Gabrielle? Disagreed? “She made the right choice.” Xena took any ambiguity out of it. “The tribe she’s the leader of took the brunt of the last war in our parts.”
Aleron nodded. “There were many who thought that overblown, but my people live just this side of Thrace, and they know better. They toast you at every meal, Xena.” He raised his goblet. “I think Athens should too, from what they’ve told me of that fight. It could easily have come our way.”
“Would have.” Xena said, briefly. “I drew it the other way.”
“That’s what they said.”
“And that’s why Athens asked for you.” Denius cut in smoothly. “And I’m sure it comforts you to know your friend is safe and sound back in… Amphipolis, yes? While you pursue this with us.”
Xena remained silent, sipping her wine as the rest of them started chatting, bypassing her for the moment. The room was now very full, but it was obvious to her that they were the center of attention, the other diners watching them from the corner of their eyes, or over their cups.
She sensed she was well in the middle of something, and something she hadn’t really intended on putting herself into. Speaking out against the war at this moment would likely get her nothing but suspicion, or into a fight.
Now, she really wouldn’t mind getting into a fight. The dinner was stretching on, and she was getting a little restless, and a knock down drag out in the middle of the room would give her both entertainment and exercise.
But now that it looked like the Amazons had left ahead of her, she didn’t want to alienate her new friends who had a fast ship. The trip across the Aegean would take a week, and with any luck at all she might overtake her quarry and they could turn it right back around in the port of Athens.
So she didn’t disagree with Denius, she merely smiled at him and returned his mimed toast, resigning herself to having to spend more time searching, more time traveling, and more time away from home, and away from her family.
“Sure have become a grumpy old homebody, huh?” She muttered.
“Xena, did you say something?” Denius leaned forward. “I can’t tell you how glad I am you’ll be traveling with us. My brother Aescenian is the senior member of the Athenian council, and he’s very anxious to talk to you.”
Xena felt her lips twitch, as she remembered her brief encounter with the council, and the memory she had with the man in question. “I’m sure he is.” She smiled graciously. “I’m looking forward to the trip. I haven’t been to sea in a while.”
“Have you traveled much?” The woman next to Denius asked, speaking up for the first time. “This is my first voyage.”
“I have.” The warrior said. “I’ve been as far as Chin by sea. But that was a long time ago.” As she said it, she realized she was thinking not of her first voyage, but her latest one, which was now beginning to fade into the mists of her past.
It had been years, she pondered with an internal start. It had been all the years of Dori’s life and more, though thinking of it still hit some faint raw spots in her, and certainly in Gabrielle – though she felt that too, at last was fading.
“Chin! That’s so far.” Aleron said. “We heard there was a shipwreck off the coast earlier on this season, from there. Some things were salvaged.”
Xena nodded. “Saw a merchant train with some of it.” She said. “Guess they’re reaching out to trade again. They weren’t for a long time.”
Denius eyed her sharply. “Think they are?”
Xena leaned back and tried to relax, as the servers came over and refreshed her plate and her glass. She was glad enough to turn the talk to something other than the war, and she reckoned her experiences in Chin were far enough in the past to raise little comment. “What I saw was trade goods.” She said. “Ivory, combs, music boxes.”
“That’s what they said.” Aleron nodded. “My cousin saw them coming ashore. Great packing boxes full.”
“Some were saying it was just a screen, to excuse their presence in our waters.” Denius said.
Xena thought about that. It wasn’t something she hadn’t considered herself, hearing the news. “Anything’s possible’ She conceded. “They could have been testing.. “ She paused for a second. “Us, or they could have been seeing what the merchanting possibilities are. I’d bet on the latter.”
“Why?” Denius said. “We’re searching out war, why not them?”
“If they were looking for war, we’d be fighting right now.” Xena said. “One ship, trade goods… yeah, it could have been a fishing expedition but chances are they’ve had a warlord change there and finally got tired of eating their own for a while.”
“They recovered two barrels of spices. Those went right to Athens for the war effort.” Aleron said. “Gorgeous stuff. I got a smell of it on the way through.”
“If they brought spices, definitely it was trade.” Xena said. “I’m surprised they didn’t have opium with them.”
“If they did, we didn’t see any.” Aleron shook his head. “Though I’ve heard of it, from some of the old soldiers who traveled in those parts.”
The spices would be enough, Xena reasoned. Exotic and strange, tickling the tongue and often the senses with the pungent tastes and smells. She’d gotten her taste for spices in Chin, and though she was well satisfied with her diet these days, she did remember the fire and richness of them.
Maybe she’d be ashore long enough to find some in the market. Xena’s interest perked. She could bring it back home, and see what Gabrielle could do with them.
Would the bard enjoy the challenge? Or resent the memories the spices would raise, of a time neither of them remembered with any pleasure?
It was a tough question. On one hand, the bard enjoyed practicing her cooking skills on her family, but on the other, Xena was very sensitive to the fact that Chin had been a dark period in Gabrielle’s life for more than one reason.
Heartbreaking. For both of them.
Xena regretfully decided to leave her past in the past, and maybe just take the time to grab her soulmate a stack of parchment, or a nice new quill if she had the chance.
Much safer choice.
She got caught up in a moment of daydreaming, imagining what Gabrielle was doing, feeling a sense of vague discontent she thought might be coming from that direction.
Was it egotistical to assume it was because Gabrielle was missing her? Xena smiled faintly, acknowledging that since she was missing the bard, it probably wasn’t.
She wished Gabrielle was with her. She cursed her moment of weakness in not persuading her to break her promise and come, wanting the comfort of her presence and missing the simple companionship she’d come to depend so much on.
Maybe she should just turn around and go home. Tell Gabrielle they’d already left for Athens, and ..
And she missed her too much to stay apart from her? Xena smiled again. Well, Gabrielle wouldn’t put much of an argument up against that, now would she?
She could imagine the grin, no matter the failure of her mission. Maybe she could just send a message with Denius.
Maybe tomorrow would be more interesting than any of them thought.
Gabrielle woke to the sound of thunder, and the clatter of rain hitting the rocks outside their little sheltered cavern. She lifted her head and peered past the fire, to see pitch blackness outside, violently jerked into silver as lightning struck.
Great. She exhaled. Just what they needed.
“Loud, mama.” Dori had apparently been waiting for her to stir. “Too loud.”
“Yeah, I know honey.” Gabrielle pulled her a little closer, now glad of the furs she thought might have been too warm the night before. “Shh.”
“Okay.” Dori put her head back down on her little pillow. “Mama I was seeing Boo when I was leeping.”
Gabrielle glanced around, seeing the rest of the group rolled up in their beds asleep save the one Amazon on watch, who was just inside the edge of the cavern. “Were you?” She curled her arm under her head and lay back down. “What was Boo doing?”
“Going to fishes.”
Of course. “She was catching fish for you?”
“Well.” Gabrielle lowered her voice. “I was seeing Boo in my sleep too. How about that? We both were seeing Boo, I guess that means Boo must have been thinking really hard about us, huh?”
At least her dream had been a good one. Gabrielle let her eyes drift shut, and wondered if she could get back into it. It had been her and Xena, taking a walk through the forest near the cabin, chasing woodchucks.
Who knew? It had seemed important at the time, and certainly her partner had been throwing her usual intense effort into finding the little creatures, but that had been interspersed with a lot of laughing and picking of flowers.
Silly. A little surreal.
But they’d been happy, and if the worst dreams she had centered around them chasing wild animals in circles while collecting daisies she’d take them in a heartbeat. It was such a damned relief not to fear falling asleep anymore.
Her life had gotten so much better.
“Mama is raining.”
Gabrielle winced a little as the thunder boomed again. “It sure is, Dor.” She agreed. “Remember the last time it rained so hard, when we were in our house?”
“Boo made fun!”
“Yeah, Xena played all day with you. Wasn’t that nice of her?” Gabrielle said, thinking of the long candlemarks spent together, watching the rain quietly as Dori took her afternoon nap and they lay curled up in bed together.
“I love Boo too.” Gabrielle found herself smiling. “I wish Boo were here right now, so we could hug her.”
“Boo Boo Boo.” Dori warbled softly. “Mama Boo showed me a bug it had red dots on it!”
“She did?” The bard waited as a flash if lightning lit the cavern, then a rolling blast of thunder followed it. “Was it little and shiny black?”
“Well, let me tell you a story about that kind of bug, okay?” Gabrielle kept her voice low. “One day, Boo and I were going into a town, where they were having a big, big party.”
“Boo and I wanted to have fun, because we’d been walking for a long time, and it was very nice for us to find this town and see how much fun everyone was having at the party.” The bard said. “We were really really glad because we were thirsty, and we wanted to have fun too.”
“Boo has fun with mama.” Dori clarified the point.
“Well, now she does, honey, but that’s a story for another time.” Her mother said. “Anyway, we were looking for someplace to get a drink and all of a sudden, everyone started to make a lot of noise.”
“You go get water?”
Cold ale, actually. “We were thirsty.” Gabrielle evaded the question. “But all the people started to make noise, so Xena and I had to go see what was going on.” She squirmed a little closer. “So we got to where all the people were and what do you think we saw?”
“Nope.” Gabrielle said. “We saw a bunch of bad men trying to hurt people. So what do you think we did?”
“You got it. Me and Xena went over and we stopped those bad men from hurting people and they all ran away. “
“Boo fixed it!” Dori made a burbling sound. “Boo fixd e’vrything.”
“Isn’t Boo wonderful?” The bard smiled. “The people there were so happy that we chased away the bad men they gave us presents, and one of the pretty things we got was a pin that looks just like that bug, with the red dots.”
“Oh.” Dori lifted her head and looked at her mother. “Boo has dat!”
“That’s right. There was a very nice man there and he gave me that pin, and I put it on your Boo because I thought it was as pretty as she is.” Gabrielle said. “She was wearing it at the party before we left, you remember that?”
Gabrielle remembered that years ago moment, looking at the beautiful piece of jewelry and then turning to slide her fingers inside the strap of Xena’s leathers to fix it there, looking up to find those gorgeous eyes watching her in a sudden silence.
She’d done it without thought or warning, forgetting why there should have been either.
And the fact that she had, after all they’d been through on the dark road back to each other had put the sudden glint of tears in her partner’s eyes and stilled her own tongue in a moment of aching, terrible joy that caught them both completely by surprise..
Gorgeous. “Boo does like it a lot, so that’s probably why she showed you that bug because seeing that kind of bug makes her happy and it makes me happy too.”
“Yep, they’re very pretty.” The bard said. “You should always be very nice to those bugs, Dor. They make the flowers come out and smell so pretty too. They’re good bugs.”
“Good bugs.” Dori murmured. “Mama go sleep now?”
Gabrielle silently started to laugh, her body shaking in the storm lit gloom. “Am I boring you, honey?” She asked, when the giggles had worn down. “You’re my toughest audience, you know that?”
“Aw.” Gabrielle put her arms around Dori and hugged her. “Okay I’ll stop talking about her, because that makes me want her to be here too.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes and tried to relax, hoping the storm would be finished by the time they had to leave the next morning. She didn’t want either of them getting sick on what was turning out to be a slightly more ominous trip than she’d anticipated.
Or was it?
Gabrielle sighed, hoping she wasn’t coming down with a case of her partner’s precognition.
Xena left her dining companions long before they were done with their cups. She made her way back to her room and shut the door behind her, locking it and hanging the key back on it’s hook. She went to the window and leaned on the sill with both hands, staring out at the sea with a grim expression.
The air was full of moisture, thick and salty from the sea, but also heavy with impending rain. Xena could feel the taste of it on the back of her tongue, and she half turned and perched on the sill, leaning back against the window edge and folding her arms across her chest.
The air was cool, and felt good blowing against her skin after the long evening of verbal fencing and rich foods that had resulted in her having to swallow some very unpalatable facts to go along with the heavy red wine.
“Damn it.” She sighed. “Why couldn’t this have been easy? I’m going to kick Ephiny’s ass when I catch up with her.”
She had a sense that the whole situation was getting away from her. There was definitely a little voice inside her that was telling her going to Athens was a bad idea and she very badly wanted to listen to that voice.
Xena sighed. She decided to search the city anyway tomorrow, to maybe find someone who had seen the Amazons and could tell her for sure they were on their way across the water. After all, everyone said they saw Amazons – didn’t mean it was her Amazons, did it?
Maybe it was some other Amazons, and she could still find Ephiny and Eponin waiting here with the rest of the idiots or going to take ship to follow them. It could be. Her luck didn’t always have to be bad, did it?
The sound of the ocean almost masked the soft knocking at the door, and Xena almost pretended it did for a long moment, her nerves rubbed raw from the night and the news. “I guess it does.” Then she exhaled and got up off the sill, trudging across the wooden floor and bracing her hands to either side of the doorway. “What?” She asked, in a loud enough growl to be a warning.
“Xena.” A voice echoed softly through the wood. “It’s a friend.”
Not enough of one to immediately trigger the warrior’s memory, but she reluctantly removed the key from the hook and unlocked the door, swinging it partly open enough to poke her head out.
Then she straightened and stepped back, blinking a little in surprise. “Iolaus.”
“Shh.” The short blond man hurried inside and shut the door. “I’m not exactly as welcome as you apparently are here.” He pressed his back against the wood and went still, his leather woven vest warmly reflecting the candlelight.
It was as though a pink rabbit had appeared in her room. Xena wasn’t quite sure how to react, it had been so long since she’d seen him. “Hello.” She ventured.
Iolaus ran his hands through his curly hair and exhaled, then looked up at her. “Hi.” He stepped forward and hesitantly offered a hug, audibly surprised when Xena took him up on it. “Uh.”
“Where in Hades have you been?” Xena asked, releasing him. “Where’s Herc?”
“Long story.” Iolaus said. “Wait, I know, when isn’t it?” He added. “Where do I start…” He looked around then sat down on a chair next to the dresser as Xena took a seat on the bed. “He’s all wrapped up in the challenge between Athena and Artemis and it’s a mess.”
Xena’s eyebrow lifted.
“You don’t know about that?” Iolaus exhaled again. “Figures. I guess you don’t know about the bet, either.”
“The bet.” Xena covered her eyes with one hand. “I thought I heard something about a bet but I was hoping the guys I heard it from were drunk off their asses.”
“No. Well, they might have been I don’t know, but the bet’s real enough.” Iolaus said. “Not sure what started it but the two of them got in a squabble about who was the better battle inspiration and apparently Zeus said neither of them were.”
Xena got up and went to the sideboard. “Want a drink?”
“Do you have to ask?”
She poured him a mug of wine and passed it over. “Don’t they have anything better to do then get into pissing matches?”
“Do you have to ask that?” Iolaus cupped the goblet in both hands and took a deep draft of it. “Athena naturally roused Athens into the fight, and Artemis went to inspire the Spartans. “
Xena brought her cup over and sat down in the chair across from Iolaus. He really didn’t look much different, she realized, save he’d gotten a haircut and gained a few more lines on his face. “What’s the bet?”
“Zeus bet them both they couldn’t inspire either side to win. “ Iolaus said. “If the war doesn’t happen he said he’d make them both mortal.”
Xena groaned. “Just what we don’t need.”
“Tell me about it.” Iolaus said.
‘So what else?” The warrior asked. “Lets get all the bad news out at once.”
“Then they wagered with each other – whoever wins gets to sentence the other to something bad.” Iolaus concluded. “Just a mess. Herc went over to the other side to try and reason with them.”
The warrior leaned on one arm of the chair and swirled her wine in the cup. “So two cities will go to war and a lot of people will die for a damn pissing match.” She shook her head. “Athena behind the recruiting of the Amazons?”
Iolaus cocked his head. “Huh.” He said. “I saw a whole bunch of them on the road. I was wondering what that was about.. they’re being recruited?”
Xena nodded. “That’s what I’m doing here. A couple of Gabrielle’s Amazons, Ephiny and Eponin, chased after them to try and change their minds.”
“Names sound familiar.”
Iolaus covered his eyes with one hand. “Ah.”
“Anyway, they took off after them and I’m doing Gabrielle a favor trying to get them back and warn the rest of them they’re in a bad deal.”
The blond man sipped his wine thoughtfully. “Thought you didn’t know about the bet?”
“I didn’t.” Xena took a swallow of the sweet red wine. “But I had a visit from some Spartans who wanted to recruit me and they told me they knew the Amazons were going to be battle fodder.”
“Spartans.. came to you?”
“Mm.” The warrior nodded. “So we figured the Amazons were just a ruse and were going to end up being sacrificed on the Spartan front lines.”
“That’ll … Artemis is pretty damn fond of them.” The blond man said. “What a mess.”
Xena nodded again. “Damned gods and their damned bets.”
Iolaus grimaced, and glanced around. “Listen, I know you’re more immune than most but I’d rather not be zapped tonight, y’know? It’s been a long day.”
They studied each other in silence for a moment. “It’s good to see you , Iolaus.” Xena finally said. “Been a long time.”
“Sure has.” Iolaus smiled wistfully. “You look good. How’s Gabrielle?”
Xena returned the smile. “She’s fine.” She said. “She’s home in Amphipolis.”
“We heard you two settled down there.” Iolaus leaned his head back. “Or as settled as you’re likely to get.” He added.
“More or less.” Xena agreed. “Not sure you heard. We have a daughter.” She watched his reaction and smiled. “Her name’s Doriana.”
Iolaus looked up over his cup at her, studying her face for a moment. Then he chuckled softly. “Yes, we did hear that.” He admitted. “I’ve been trying to get Herc to take a moon off to go visit you since we got back from overseas. It’s just been so crazy.”
Xena nodded. “You should. I’m sure we’ve got a ton of stories to swap.”
The blond man’s lips quirked. “We do.” He admitted. Then his eyes lifted back to her face. “But right now I’m trying to get to Athens. You got a ride?”
The warrior nodded again. “You’re more than welcome to join me. Better than the bunch of uptight sandle brains I had dinner with. Ships coming in tomorrow.”
Iolaus sighed. “Xena, you’ve changed.”
The warrior smiled easily. “Yes, I have.” She agreed. “Like I said, its been a long time.”
He lifted his cup in her direction. “Then can I ask another favor for old time’s sake? I sure could use a room and the bastard who runs this place had me kicked out twice for asking.”
Xena wasn’t sure if he was asking to stay in her room, or asking her to get the innkeeper to put him in his own, but given her room only had one bed, and it had been a long time since they’d seen each other she opted for the safe route, and got up to open the door. “Sure. “
Iolaus got up hastily. “Ah, actually it’s sort of late maybe I could..”
She stepped out in the hallway and lifted her fingers to her lips, putting them between her teeth and letting out a long, very loud, very shrill whistle.
“And then again, some things never change.” Iolaus leaned against the door way and chuckled. “I can’t wait for Herc to get back from Olympus. It has been too long.”
Xena let out another whistle, then listened as feet started running in their direction. “It has.” She said. “It definitely has.”
Gabrielle carried her staff outside, the early dawn light spreading over a waterlogged countryside. Raindrops were still perched and glistening on the leaves, but the sky was clearing and the storm had brought a bit of cooler weather on.
It felt great. The bard drew in a breath of the clean air, and laid the staff over her shoulders, twisting her body to loosen up her muscles.
Inside, her little gang was stirring and getting together a trail breakfast, with Cait entertaining Dori long enough for her mother to take a break to work the kinks out after sleeping the night on hard stone.
She was used to that, of course, but being used to something and liking it were two different things. Gabrielle reasoned that she’d paid her dues a long time ago in the roughing it category and she’d even opened up a dialog with her partner about bringing hammocks with them the next time they traveled.
Xena had laughed, but Gabrielle knew her soulmate felt the ground more than she herself did and she knew that would only get worse as time went on. The warrior no longer dissembled about it to her, matter of factly admitting to the aches and pains and expecting her to do the same.
Now she did. Now she could, without feeling afraid of Xena’s opinions of her. So if she took the blame for being a softie, that was okay with the bard since they both knew the truth and there had been more than one day in the past cold winter where Xena had unapologetically stayed inside by the fire to ease the ache in her battered joints from the weather.
Not having sore ends justified the means. She twisted her body the other way, then pulled the staff down and started her warmup routing, glad to get the blood moving as her muscles relaxed and lost their stiffness. Her lower back was aching from the ride the day before though, and she leaned to one side, grimacing at the tight pain.
“Ow.” Gabrielle straightened up and looked around, finding a scrubby bristlecone pine growing into the side of the mountain not far away. She went over to it and judged the height of the branches, setting her staff down with a grunt of satisfaction.
“Short and spunky.” Gabrielle grabbed an upper branch and lifted herself up off the ground, relaxing her back and then crossing her ankles and extending her legs out.
It helped, but not quite enough. With a sigh, the bard pulled her feet up and put her legs over a lower branch, loosing her hold and then allowing herself to drop upside down. “Ah.” She felt the knots start to loosen as the weight came off her spine. “That’s better.”
The roughness of the bark wasn’t exactly comfortable against the backs of her knees, but the relief from the pain was worth it. Gabrielle folded her hands over her stomach and rocked her head back and forth, one eye watching the entrance of the cave.
Xena had taught her this particular trick. She’d seen the warrior do it on any number of occasions, locking her ankles under another branch and pulling her body up and letting it drop for a considerable length of time.
It kept her body strong, she’d told Gabrielle, but also made her back feel better and the first time Gabrielle had tried it, once she’d gotten over the vertigo of being upside down and the odd feeling of blood rushing to her head, she realized it felt really good for her also.
As the sun started to peek through the clouds, she finished her swing and pulled herself upright, freeing her legs and letting herself back down to the ground.
Now when she picked her staff up her body felt more ready for it, and she quickly ran through three or four drills with it that woke her up completely and got her heart pumping hard in the cool morning air.
That done, she went to the edge of the path and looked out over the hills, spotting the fold in them that they’d need to head for. She marked the road down, deciding they’d be better off walking the horses at least until they got into flatter spaces.
Of course, her own dislike of riding had nothing to do with that.
“Mama.” Dori came pattering out of the cave. “Where you go?”
“Right here honey.” Gabrielle turned and walked towards her. “I was just looking out at the pretty day. Aren’t those trees nice?”
Dori stooped to pick up a rock, then she stood and held it out. “Pretty!”
“It sure is. Are they ready for breakfast in there?” Gabrielle cautiously steered her daughter away from the edge of the path, which tumbled down dangerously.
Gabrielle turned to find a group of Amazons emerging. “Good morning.” She greeted them. “I know that wasn’t the most luxurious cave I’ve slept it, but it wasn’t too bad, was it?”
Nala was fastening her dagger. “I’ve definitely slept worse. “ She said. “Especially given that storm last night. That would have been nasty to suffer through.”
“Too right.” Cait agreed. “I think we’re about ready to have our whatnots and start along.” She said. “We should be mostly there quite soon.”
“Mostly.” Gabrielle guided everyone back towards the cave entrance. “So let’s get ourselves fed and get moving. Maybe we can sort out who these people are by today, and then be on our way back.”
The fire was in the process of being banked, and everyone had their things packed up. They sat around in a rough circle and at the leftover venison, along with some nuts and berries Gabrielle had produced from her carry sack.
It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t horrible either. Gabrielle chewed her semi warmed deer flesh and reflected she’d certainly had worse breakfasts, when she and Xena had just had one of those days on the road and ended up the following morning with little more than stale water and a withered apple between them.
Tough times, sometimes. She’d learned to keep a bag of groats tucked away for emergency breakfast and that was mostly why she’d lost her taste for the stuff.
Venison on the other hand, had a nice smokey flavor, and she’d put enough herbs on it the night before to give it an acceptable taste even for breakfast. “You like that, Dor?”
Dori nodded, both hands wrapped around a piece of the stuff as she chewed it.
Sunlight started to peek inside the cavern, and Gabrielle relaxed, suspecting it might even end up to be a fairly nice day. “We ready to go?” She asked, after a few more minutes, as everyone got up and they started to move out.
The horses were more or less where they’d left them, in a sheltered space between some trees. Branches had been knocked down around them, but the animals were grazing placidly the long summer grass, while one of Bennu’s men stood casual guard nearby.
They saddled up and got moving, leading the animals along the path that narrowed to single file, as it pitched downward towards the pass leading into the valley plains beyond.
Gabrielle had maneuvered herself and Argo, with Dori on her back, into the lead. She walked alongside the horse and watched the footing, damp from the rain the night before. The last thing she wanted was for Argo to slip and get hurt – explaining that to Xena would take more out of her than she was willing to give.
“Mama, you gots a story?”
Gabrielle smiled. “Of course I do.” She said. “What kind of story do you want to hear? “
“Of course.” The bard chuckled. “How about I tell you about how Boo and I taught a whole school of kids like you to count sheep?”
Dori considered this. “Don’t know that one.”
“That’s because I just made it up.” Her mother informed her. “Want to hear it?”
“Can you just do that?” Solari asked, as she walked along as close to Argo’s rear as she could without risking the battle mare’s temper and getting kicked. “Just make it up as you go along?”
“Now, sure.” Gabrielle said, confidently. “Especially with my little wild child. Most of the stories I tell her are short and funny.” She glanced ahead of them and started down a slope. “Easy Argo.”
Argo snuffled a little.
“That’s cool.” Solari said. “I can remember a lot of long nights around the campfire when we could’a used someone who could do that.”
Gabrielle smiled, and was about to start her story, when something caught her attention and she got in front of Argo and swept the forest, trying to find out what it was.
The path seemed clear before her, as far as she could see. The trees off to the right were fairly thick, and down the steep slope and she studied the edges of them, her eyes flicking over the branches waving softly in the morning breeze.
“Gabrielle?” Solari called uncertainly.
The bard held her hand up, clenched around her staff. She kept moving, but slid around in front of Argo so that she was between the trees and both horse and tiny rider.
Something. Something had made her senses prickle, and she felt her heartbeat get faster as she intently searched the area to find out what it was.
Bird? She swept her head back and forth, and didn’t see any. “Solari, keep your eyes open.” She said. “Pass it back.”
“Just hang tight, Dor.” Gabrielle. “Mama thinks someone is playing hide and go seek. You remember we play that with Boo?”
“Okay, so mama’s seeking. Maybe we’ll find someone nice, but you need to be quiet now so I can look, okay?”
“Okay.” Dori pulled her legs up and crossed them under her, balancing on the saddle with utter unconcern. She had her hands gripping the saddlebow and she watched in silence as the ground went past them.
Gabrielle felt the breeze against her skin and she cupped her ears and took a deep breath as she’d seen Xena do times without number. Her senses were nowhere near her partners but in growing up out in the wild, she gained some little bit of the woodcraft skills her partner was now teaching Dori.
The wind brought mostly silence, which was a warning in it’s own right. She could smell the forest, and the rich smell of the mud they were walking through and a brief hint of bruised leaves from the evening’s storm.
But that was it.
She drew in another breath. Or was it? “Hey Dor?” She called softly back to her daughter. “Tell me what you smell? Something funny? Like the buppets when they’re wet?”
Dori frowned. “Smell Gogo.” She said, after a moment.
“Why are you asking her that?” Solari whispered.
“She’s Xena’s daughter.” Gabrielle uttered back.
“Smell izzards.” Dori commented. “Big oinks.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Yeah, I thought I smelled those too.” She said. “But I don’t think they’re piggies, Dor. It’s too high here for them. “ She took a firmer grip on the staff. “But sometimes men wear pigskin, don’t they?”
“Watch the trees.” Gabrielle ordered. “That’s where the smells’ coming from.”
Solari gave her a respectful look. “You got it.” She turned and made a sign behind her. “You want me to take point?”
“No room.” Gabrielle started moving faster. “We need to get down lower and clear of this path. They can get at us one by one here. C’mon.” She urged Argo on, watching the treeline as she felt her way down the slippery rocks.
“Little hawk, we’ve got the line covered.” Bennu called. “Take yer time.”
And then, there were good points to having people with you with weapons who knew how to use them. Gabrielle took a breath and continued down. Usually out in the wild it was just her, and Xena.
And Dori, of course. “What at honey?” Gabrielle glanced behind her, to see a small hand pointing down and to the right. She followed the fingers and saw a flicker of motion, color that didn’t belong in the greens and browns of the forest. “You see that Dor? Someone’s playing hide and go seek, huh?”
“Yes.” Dori agreed. “Go hide now.”
“I saw it.” Solari said. “She’s got sharp eyes.”
Gabrielle spotted a widening of the path below, and a turn, where the way went around a large standing boulder. “Solari.” She pointed at the spot with her staff. “We can’t see the other side of that rock.”
“Hold up, and we’ll come past you.” Solari said. “I got Ben and his boys and Cait behind me.”
The bard hesitated, driven by the urge to lead the charge herself. She knew absolutely it was what Xena would have done.
She took a breath. But she wasn’t Xena. “Okay, when I get to that next little knob, I”ll pull Argo up and you can go around.” She moved to a slightly wider area and stopped, patting Argo’s cheek as the Amazons and Bennu and his men slipped casually past her, leaving their horses with the two men and Paladia.
Gabrielle started moving as soon as they passed, using her staff to steady her steps as she followed her troops towards what she suspected was an ambush.
“Who in the Hades is making trouble out here?” Paladia asked. “It’s nothing but scrub and feral goats.”
Good question. “I don’t know.” The bard answered, watching the path anxiously as Solari and Bennu approached the wide bend and the boulder, now shoulder to shoulder and apparently lost in casual conversation with each other.
They were good people. Gabrielle knew a moment of deep anxiety, wondering if she should be the one risking the ambush again. Then, her skin tingled as she felt a surge of instinctive alarm, her body reacting far faster than her thoughts as she whipped her staff around and slashed through the air, feeling the solid thunk as an arrow was caught in mid flight and deflected. “Get down!”
In an instant, she pulled Argo against the rock wall and hauled Dori off her back, setting her daughter down on the ground. “Hold on to Argo, Dor. “
Dori clutched the mares front leg with both hands as Gabrielle got in front of her with her staff stretched out in front of her, and Paladia slammed into the wall next to her, with Bennu’s men diving down in the front of the path to lay on their bellies, their crossbows extended on the ground.
“We’re sitting ducks up here.” Paladia said.
“No kidding.” Gabrielle watched her troops further down the slope also drop, and she flexed her hands as two more arrows suddenly appeared, and she knocked them both down with a double motion. “Keep your head down.”
“Keeping my head behind your stick.” Paladia said, edging over. “Jerks.”
Solari yelled from further down the slope and a cascade of crossbow bolts fired from the path, arching down into the trees and ripping through the leaves with an audible rush. There was a grunt just audible and a shiver of the leaves, and then a body fell out of one of the canopies breaking branches as it tumbled down in a lifeless sprawl and hit the ground.
The two soldiers in front of Gabrielle fired. Another body fell from the trees, then a volley of return fire headed their way, but aimed at the group on the lower path.
“Cover me!” Solari bolted down the path, with Cait and Nala behind her, dropping down the rocky way with impressive speed.
Bennu and his men shot into the trees, loading and shooting again as they drew the enemy’s attention from the rushing Amazons, ducking as a return set of shafts nearly caught them where they were standing.
“Let’s get on down there!” Bennu pointed at the boulder. “Kill or cover.” He slid down the path with his men behind him, as the two men left above started firing to cover them too.
Gabrielle chafed at being the rear guard, but she knew this kind of fight wasn’t one she could help much in so she held her ground and watched as Solari and the other two Amazons dove off the path into the forest, disappearing into the brush as two of the enemy soldiers broke cover and bolted for the location they’d dropped into.
“Mama.” Dori had wormed her way between Argo’s front legs and was now peering past Gabrielle’s knees. “Bad mens?”
“Bad mens, honey.” Gabrielle sighed. “Story of our life, huh? We’re always running into bad mens.”
Cait’s battle yell suddenly rang over the trees, high and distinctive, and Gabrielle heard the ring of steel against steel as Bennu’s men reached the boulder and engaged the group of men she’d figured might be behind it.
“Okay, time to go fight.” Gabrielle picked Dori up and put her on Argo’s back. “C’mon, guys. Paladia, just bring those horses behind me, okay?”
“Sure.” Paladia sorted the reins out and followed. “Nothing’s gonna be left by the time we get down there though. The crazy nutcase is about to cycle so if I were you, I’d hide the kids eyes.”
“Bet you wish your squeeze was here.”
“Bet your ass I do.” Gabrielle started down the path, having tied one of Argo’s reins off to her belt to free her hands for her staff. “More and more every damn minute.”
Xena woke to sunshine outside, but as she stepped to the window and looked out over the sea, she could also feel weather approaching and a glance at the crimson sunrise confirmed it. She could see dark clouds right on the horizon, and the surface of the sea was dark and had a glaze to it’s surface.
Storm coming in over the water. She wondered if it would delay the ships, then realized some were already in port. Three of the slips below her window had wooden bulks in them, and the roads that ran right along the piers were busy with traffic.
She sat down on the window sill and stretched her joints out, wincing as the coming storm made itself doubly known in their aching stiffness. The breeze came in and riffled her hair and she leaned back against the wall edge as she idly watched the city wake beneath her.
She could hear the yells of the workers, rough curses floating up on the wind as another ship came edging into the harbor with it’s sails half furled.
This one was massive. Xena studied it with some wry admiration, the wooden vessel shifting in the wind and sending heavy creaks up to her ears. The ship had two belled sails in a richly striped motif and a high forecastle with a big curving prow, and she could see and hear the oars to either side slowly moving her along.
On either side of the ship hung shields, and she could see soldiers gathered on the bow watching the approaching town. On the rear raised section there stood a clump of crew and what was likely the captain, one of the men standing stalwart with his hand on the tiller as they steered slowly in.
It occurred to her that getting some breakfast before the incoming horde hit the beach was probably a good idea. Accordingly, she got up from her perch and walked back over to the dressing table, where a bowl of water rested.
She washed her face and dried it with a piece of the clean linen left there for her, then she dressed in her light tunic and sandals and slipped out of the door.
The hall was empty. She gave the room the innkeeper had given Iolaus a brief glance, then decided to let her old friend sleep in, since he’d seemed exhausted when he’d escaped into it’s darkness the night before.
Iolaus, Herc, gods, bets…. It was all starting to sound a little too tiresomely familiar to her and Xena bit off a few curses under her breath as she climbed up the steps into the small central courtyard.
“Ah, good morning, good warrior.” The innkeeper was just coming out of a smaller door to the rear, apparently the one to his own personal quarters. “Did you have a good evening?”
“I did.” Xena confirmed. “I see the ships are coming in.”
“Oh yes.” The man said. “The Silver Sand Dollar is just coming in, and we’ll be overrun shortly with randy sailors and men from Athens who’ve spent the trip at sea and tire of hard tack and salt cod quite quickly.
“I figured.” Xena said. “Thought I’d grab something then be out of your hair. With any luck, I can find what I’m looking for here and not have to get on that damn ship.”
The innkeeper cocked his head at her. “It was said you’d be going to Athens, though. To fight in the war.”
“Not if I can help it.” Xena said.
“I see.” The innkeeper mused. “Well, you are the master of your own mind, to be sure. There’s a breakfast laid on inside the hall. We thought to have it out here, but the weather’s not so promising.” He gave her a brief nod then continued on past her and disappeared through the door she’d entered through.
Xena continued on and entered the hall, glad to find a ready sideboard of cider waiting, along with fresh bread and sweet, mild cheese. She captured a portion and added a handful of figs to it, then took her plate over to a table near the window and sat down.
A moment later, the door swung open, and her dinner companion from the night before entered. He was dressed in a good quality but toughly made leather overtunic, close enough to armor to catch Xena’s eye.
“Good morning.” He greeted her. “Mind if I join you? My ladies are all still abed.” He didn’t wait for her to answer, he just took the seat across from her and started to pick at his plate of nuts and olives. “I would have thought you the same.”
Xena merely look at him, as she chewed her bread and cheese.
“After all, we heard you had a late visitor.” Denius concluded, glancing up at her. “Busy woman, I’m sure.”
Xena put the piece of bread down she was holding and without any warning half stood and slammed the man across the face with enough force to knock him right out of his chair and send him flying across the room into the next set of tables.
Then she sat down and picked her bread up again, continuing her breakfast without a word.
Denius sat where he landed, utterly stunned, for several heartbeats. Then he took a gasp of air and lifted a hand to his face. “Why did you do that?” He spluttered. “For a compliment I get this?”
The warrior glanced up. “Sorry.” She said. “I don’t consider it a compliment.” She added. “I’m an old fashioned kinda gal.”
Denius stood up. “If I had my sword…”
“If you had your sword I’d shove it up your ass.” Xena interrupted him. “I’ve killed ten thousand men dumb enough to try that. Don’t be stupid.” She wiped her plate with the last of the bread and drained her cup, standing up when she finished and dusting her hands off.
The inner door opened and Iolaus appeared, grinning when he spotted her. “There you are.” He continued, oblivious to the red faced Denius. “Hey thanks for arranging the bed last night. I really appreciated it.”
Xena pointed at the sideboard. “Food’s that way.” She said. “Glad you got some sleep.”
“Ah, yes.” Iolaus started to turn, then apparently remembered his manners and held a hand out ot Denius. “Sorry, we haven’t met. I’m Iolaus.”
Stiffly, the patrician clasped his arm, then released it. “Ah, would that be…”
“Yes. It would.” Iolaus agreed cheerfully. He turned and went to the buffet and loaded up a plate then came back over and sat down at Xena’s table. “Boy this looks good.”
Xena resumed her seat, and leaned back, resting her elbows on the chair arms.
Denius slowly lowered his hand, and then raised it to rub his jaw, already bruising. “Then I in truth apologize, Xena.” He said. “I meant no disrespect.”
Xena inclined her head graciously and indicated the chair Denius had so unceremoniously abandoned. The man eased back down in the chair and picked up his mug, as the warrior steepled her fingers and rested her lips against them.
Iolaus paused and looked from one of his table companions to the other. “Do I want to know what’s going on?”
Xena hiked an eyebrow at him.
“That’s what I thought.” Iolaus went back to his bread and cheese. “Harbor’s filling up. Hope they’re going to do a fast turnaround.”
“Me too.” Xena agreed. “You want to give me a hand looking around for my friends today?”
Behind them the room was slowly filling up, most of the guests coming in in groups of two or three and sitting quietly with their food. The mood seemed reserved, and far off, a soft rumble of thunder could be heard.
“Weather’s coming in.” Iolaus said. “On the tails of those boats, I bet.”
Denius had recovered his composure, but there was now a bruise darkening his skin all across one side of his face. He blinked a few times, and kept glancing over at Xena, as though wondering if she was going to haul off and hit him again.
Having made her point, Xena didn’t. Her head lifted though and she caught her breath, as she felt that indefinable sense of energy from Gabrielle fighting.
The room faded out a little. It was a very odd sensation and after a moment of it going on Xena decided she really didn’t like it. She imagined she could hear Gabrielle’s breathing speeding up, and her own heart fluttered a little.
It did. She felt it.
Her fingertips twitched and she felt the muscles in her thighs tense.
She looked across the table at Iolaus, who was watching her in some concern. “Yeah?”
Xena remembered being with Iolaus, way back when, and knowing she had to get back home but this was different.
Very different. This wasn’t Gabrielle wanting or needing her, this was just Gabrielle living and being into something that Xena probably needed to be into also. “Yeah.” She finally answered. “Weather’s giving me a headache.”
“Ah.” Iolaus looked relieved. “Gives me earaches.” He drained his cup. “Glad it’ll come through today and give us clear sailing.”
Denius spoke up finally. “Do you also travel for Athens?” He asked. “I had offered Xena passage on our ship, we would be honored if you joined us as well.”
Iolaus displayed his charming smile. “That’s very nice of you to offer. Thanks!” He said. “Which ship is yours? Is it here yet?” They both turned and looked out the window and Xena was left to her own devices.
The feeling of anxiety grew. She knew almost at once this wasn’t a sparring match, and as it went on longer and longer, the buzz of conversation moving past her unheeded, she tried to sort through what she was feeling and figure out what to do about it.
The noise became too much. “Excuse me.” Xena stood up. “See you in a while.” She ducked around the table and got over to the door, getting through it and across the small courtyard as quickly as she could.
She brushed past two men on the steps, barely hearing the exclamations of anger and escaped into her room before anything else could happen.
Then she sat down on the bed and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees and her head against her hands, her heart racing.
It was one of the most uncomfortable things she’d ever felt. She sat there for a least a quarter candlemark, until it started to fade, and the anxious tension relaxed. She lifted her head and exhaled. That had been a real fight for sure.
Hadn’t it? The warrior got up and went to the credenza, splashing her face with the water in the basin and scrubbing fiercely. Or had it just been another sparring match, an early morning bout after breakfast as the Amazons tended to do?
Xena went over to the window, feeling uncomfortable and restless. What if she abandoned her task and went back home and found out that’s all it was? What would Gabrielle think?
Gabrielle would understand. Xena leaned her weight on the window sill. She often teased Xena about being overprotective, but she also knew her life had been saved more than once when her partner had responded to her distress, so always, always, the teasing only went so far.
“Damn it.” She scowled out over the water, watching the clouds start to roll in. Now that the feeling had faded completely she was a little embarrassed, and with that she decided to get her ass in armor and get to work.
She changed out of her tunic and pulled on her leathers, pausing when she spotted a rip in the surface and exhaled. “It’s gonna be that kind of day, isn’t it?” She stepped back out of the garment and sat down on the bed, pulling over her saddlebag and removing her kit from it.
She spent a minute threading some gut through one of her sturdier needles and half turned as she started sewing so the light from the window aided her effort.
The tear was along where her ribcage would be and she wondered briefly when she’d gotten it. The tough hide didn’t rend easily, and she glanced at her own side, pausing her sewing to run her fingertips over her ribs searching for a cut or bruise from it.
Nothing. “Huh.” Xena frowned and finished the mend, tying off the gut and biting it clear with a quick pressure of her teeth. She put her sewing kit away and stepped into the armor again, sliding it up and slipping the straps over her shoulders as she tugged it into place.
“Ah.” She said, as she caught sight of her reflection in the mirror. “That damn inn. I remember now.” Satisfied, she donned the rest of her armor and strapped her saddlebags shut. The scuffle in the dining room, and a quick glimpse of a knife coming at her as she boxed with her opponents.
It hadn’t touched her, but it had apparently come close, and she put the event out of her mind as she ran her comb through her hair.
Feeling the sticky breeze from the window, she took a moment to get a hair clasp from her bag and tie her hair back, then she made sure her sword was seated, and left the room.
Outside, the corridor was now quite busy. Men and women were filing through and she could hear yelling from further up, near where she’d originally come in the inn.
“Xena!” Iolaus caught up to her. “Hey, you okay? You looked like you ate something bad in there.”
“Yeah, fine.” Xena said. “I just went back and got some herbs for my headache.” She indicated the corridor. “I’m heading down into the city looking for Amazons. Wanna come?”
“Sure.” Iolaus nodded. “I talked to that guy we were sitting with. His ship’s the big one out there. I think we got lucky.”
Xena led the way up the hall towards the entrance. “If I find those Amazons I’ll have gotten luckier.” She said. “I don’t really have any desire to go any closer to Athens, thanks.”
Iolaus gave her a sympathetic look. “All those guys think you are.”
They exited into the street, now full with people and wagons, the damp air making the smells around them more than usually pungent. Everyone seemed excited, and children ran through the crowd, dodging the carts and they ran pell mell down towards the pier.
Xena and Iolaus walked along at a much more sedate pace, easing past the crowds as they casually scanned them. “Lot of people.” The short, blond man said. “Lot of excitement too.”
“War does that.” Xena took a fork in the road that would lead down into the more moderate areas of town, where the Amazons might have taken rooms. It wasn’t that Ephiny didn’t have coin with her, she knew the woman well enough to know better than that, but a crowd of Amazons wouldn’t have been to the liking of the innkeeper up the hill.
Just as a lone, scruffy looking fighter hadn’t been. Just as she herself might not have been if her personality had been different.
They crossed a street and entered a market square, the stalls around them looking scantly filled as those waiting to travel stocked away things for the voyage and vendors just as obviously held back waiting for those fresh off the ships.
Xena slowed. “Let’s take a walk around here. See if anyone saw those guys.” She started a counter clockwise ramble through the stalls, searching out the kind of thing Ephiny or Eponin might have been shopping for.
Ah. She stopped at a leather stall, thick hides draped over a wooden tree and a couple of dour looking craftsmen behind the counter who perked up immediately when they spotted her and Iolaus.
“Ah, now what can we do for you two?” The older of the two came forward, rubbing his hands. “Fine way to start the morning, with people who know what they’re looking at.” He pulled one of the hides off the stack and laid it over the counter. “See that? Best of the season.”
Iolaus stroked it with his fingers. “Nice job.” He agreed. “And I need a good bit of leather for a new vest, don’t’ you think?” He touched his sadly worn one. “I think that’s most of the reason they wouldn’t let me in the place last night.”
“Go a head and bargain.” Xena edged over and found a spot to lean against, giving the second man a sociable nod as she half turned to watch.
“Anything for you?” The younger man stepped over to her. “We’ve got some nice dark ones there. Like what you’ve got.”
Xena looked where he was pointing, seeing in fact a darkly tanned hide whose smooth surface looked more than agreeable. If she was heading back she’d have grabbed it without question – the craftsmen back in Amphipolis had her measure and she was due a new set of leathers but there was no easy way for her to carry it if she was heading out.
Too bad. “Nice stuff.” She complimented the man. “I like that color.”
Thus encouraged, the young tanner brought over the hide. “Thank you. It was my work.” He said, proudly. “I take my time, and try to do it right.”
Xena touched the hide and flipped over one end of it, rubbing the edge of her thumb against it’s soft surface. The tanning had been done right and it was soft as silk, and she was reminded of just how many patches were in the current set wrapped around her body.
Leathers wore well, but she was tough on them. “How much?”
Down the counter, Iolaus was in a spirited bargaining session, reminding Xena a little of her partner. She smiled, then looked over at the younger tanner. “Well?”
“Ten dinars.” The tanner said.
Xena studied him. “This your first sale?”
He blushed a little, and shrugged.
The warrior fished a ten dinar piece from her belt and tossed it onto the hid. “Roll it up for me kid.” She said. “You drive a hard bargain.”
The man looked confused, his eyes going to his boss, who was in fierce debate with Xena’s companion. “Aren’t you going to argue with me?” He asked,
“No.” Xena said. ‘I know what these damn things cost. I go through a half dozen a year. Roll it up.” She watched the tanner take the hide and start to carefully fold it. “Find some place to store the damn thing I guess.”
“Did you say something, ma’am?”
Xena turned her head to watch him. “I’m looking for some friends of mine.” She said. “They’d have liked your wares too.”
“Yes?” He looked at her with interest. “Such like yourself?”
Xena waggled her hand. “Amazons.” She said. “Seen any?” She was watching his face, and saw not even the slightest twitch of reaction. “Two maybe, maybe more. One with curly blond hair a little like his?”
The man considered, then regretfully shook his head. “Sorry, I’ve seen none such.” He set Xena’s package on the counter. “I’ve heard of Amazons, I would have remembered seeing one. My master also - he has spoken to me of them and so I know he would surely have said.”
“All right sir, you drive a hard one.” The older tanner said, as coins changed hands between him and Iolaus. “Here you go, and good service to you.”
“Thanks anyway.” Xena said. “C’mon Iolaus. Let’s keep shopping.”
“Right you are, Xena.” Iolaus shouldered his hide and joined her. “Nothing like a bit of good bargaining to start the morning off right.” He glanced behind them, to see both men staring at them with jaws dropped. He chuckled a little. “Ah, just like old times.”
Xena smiled briefly and shook her head.
They wandered away from the stall, and stared along one side, distracted when they heard the sounds of a loud altercation coming from the downslope road on the other side of the market.
Men and women started running up the road away from it.
The sound of steel suddenly rang out, and a woman screamed.
“I think the morning just got a lot more exciting.” Iolaus sighed.
“Depends on who’s doing the screaming. C’mon.” Xena broke into a run and they headed downhill, against the flow now heading just as rapidly the other direction.
“Story of my life.”
“Yeah? Mine too.”