A Queen’s Tale
“Dori stay down!” Gabrielle put a hand on her daughter’s back as she peered between two rocks at the fight in process. They were pinned down behind a set of rocks, and their attackers were sheltered in the forest, and right now, no one was going much of anywhere.
“We should rush them.” Nala was busy fixing an arrowpoint on one of her crossbow bolts.
“We could do.” Bennu agreed.
Solari came over and crouched next to them. “I think we can get down the trail there.” She pointed. “If we get some cover, we can hit them from that side.”
“Sounds good.” Nala said.
“Aye.” Bennu agreed. “Send my boys down the right side there, quick like. Surprise em.”
“No.” Gabrielle was watching the pattern of the arrows. “I think that’s what they want. “ She sensed the silence around her, but didn’t look at her companions. “So we’re not going to do that.”
The silence went on a few minutes more, then Solari cleared her throat. “What clued you to that, your maj?”
Gabrielle almost smiled at the political correctness of it. “Well.” She eased up and rested her elbows on the stone. “If they just wanted to attack us, they’d just have waited at the foot of the path, and when we went through that area there, they’d surround and hit us.” She pointed to a small clear spot near the bottom of the path.
“Maybe we surprised them.”
“No, because Dori saw them creeping around waiting for us.” Gabrielle reminded them. “So they knew we were coming.”
“Huh.” Solari grunted. “So why are they just pinning us down here? “
Now that was a good question. She hadn’t really gotten that far yet.
“Why would they want us to attack them?” Nala asked. “You said doing that would play into their hands, but why would they want that anyway? You think they have a trap laid down there?”
“Could be they want to draw us in, yeah.” Gabrielle was more than happy for the handout. “Maybe they’ve got a pit dug there, and they want to catch us instead of fight us.”
“Ahh.” Bennu made a low muttering sound.
“Why capture us?” Nala said. “We’re just a bunch of ..”
“You aren’t.” Gabrielle turned to regard her. “But I’m really not, and neither’s Dori.” She said. “Wouldn’t be the first time someone tried to grab me to try and get leverage on my better half, and there’s a lot of people out there who want a piece of her for this damn war.”
“Oh.” Nala exhaled. “Well, Artemis’ left tit, I never thought of that.”
“Me either.” Solari murmured. “Boy that would have really sucked.”
Gabrielle glanced around, taking in the now respectful looks aimed in her direction and knowing a moment of that black self humor so common to her partner. “Anyway.” She said. “So now we are pinned down here and we’ve got to figure out what to do about it. We’re wasting time.”
“Maybe they know we’re going to look at those armed troops and they don’t want us to.” Paladia spoke up.
“Why not just shoot us then?” Nala asked. “Her maj is right. If they wanted to stop us, they would have.”
“Well, maybe they wanted to delay us then.” Solari said. “Sort of hold us off so we… aw crap. That doesn’t make sense. Nala’s got it they ‘d just have shot us.”
They looked at Gabrielle.
“Unless they’re afraid to shoot us.” The bard responded.
“Afraid?” Nala looked confused. “Of what?”
“Xena, dumbass.” Solari rolled her eyes. “You think you’ve seen some bad tempers? You just wait to see what she’s like if someone lays a finger on either Gabrielle or Dori.”
Actually, though she thought the notion was valid and that there was a good reason to fear Xena’s vengance; Gabrielle knew in the depths of her heart that if anything were to happen to either of them her partner would be far too rolled up in grief to much care.
It was a horribly uncomfortable thought. Gabrielle shifted away from it quickly. “So.”
“So, what do we do now?” Solari asked. “Cause there’s no way in Hades we’re going to risk them grabbing you, your maj. I’m not gonna be the one to go back and say I let that happen.”
It really didn’t do any good to wonder what Xena would do. Gabrielle picked up a rock and looked thoughtfully at it. Xena would just go wipe the floor with all of them and they could continue on their merry way.
So if she couldn’t wonder what Xena would do, she had to figure out what she would do, and the truth was she wasn’t often in situations like this alone.
So what should she do? Gabrielle had to admit privately she really didn’t have a clue.
She got up on her knees again and peered between the rocks, the offset just enough to hide her from the forest yet give her a glimpse of it. The trees were tall, and thick with leaves all the way up to their crowns, the summer rains having given the region a richness of growth everyone hoped would translate to the crops.
Her eyes traced the shape of the branches, the glittering of moisture from the rains putting the kibosh on a nascent idea of setting them on fire.
Not really her style anyway. She paused seeing some thick lumps in the branches, wondering if they were lookouts.
Too small, she decided after a moment. Too small, but were they some disease causing the odd shapes or…
“Solari, who’s the best marksman we’ve got with us?”
“Cait.” Solari answered without hesitation. “She’s just waiting her chance down the slope there, though. “
“Tell her to come here.” Gabrielle leaned her elbow on the rock. “Dori, stay where you are honey. Don’t’ go past that green stick, okay?”
“Okay.” Dori scrambled over to her and sat down. “Mama, c’n we go down wit the trees? Hot here..”
“I know honey.” Gabrielle murmured. “Thank you for being so good for mama. We’ll go down there and see some pretty flowers soon.”
“Here I am.” Cait came over to her, crouching low behind the rocks. She settled on her knees at Gabrielle’s side. “Something lovely for me to shoot at?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle moved aside and cleared the way for her. “Look right through that slot there, at that tree with the bent top.”
Cait studied the area. “All right.”
“Just to the left there, see those lumps?” Gabrielle said. “Sort of looks like the trunk bends out?”
For a moment, the young Amazon didn’t answer, then she leaned forward just a bit. “You mean that bit there?” She pointed. “Where it angles?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle leaned on the rock. “There’s a narrow bit there, where it’s touching the branch? You can just see the light behind it?”
“Yes, I do see it, how odd.” Cait frowned. “Is the tree deformed or something?”
“No.” The bard said. “It’s a wasps nest. Can you knock it off the branch?” She peered through the gap. “I think it’ll drop right on top of those guys.”
Cait grinned. “Rather.” She very gently nudged Gabrielle out of the way. “Let me get on with it.”
Solari squinted. “Holy Artemis. You can tell what that is?” She blurted. “I can hardly see it!”
The bard got back away from the rock. “Okay folks, listen up. Cait’s going to drop a surprise into their laps, and we’re going to wait up here and see what happens. If those are what I think they are, our friends down there are going to come flying out of those trees. Let’s be ready if they fly this way.”
The men and Nala got their weapons ready, grins on their faces. “Good catch, little hawk.” Bennu said. “That’ll stir em.”
“That’s sweet.” Nala agreed, drawing her sword. “This should be good.”
Gabrielle took Dori’s hand and moved with her to the other side of the rocks. “Okay, Dor. Let’s see if we can find some pretty rocks for you here.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Whenever you’re ready, Cait.”
Cait rested the barrel of her crossbow into the slot and waited, her body settling into stillness as she carefully sighted down the shaft tucked into the mechanism.
She licked her lips and stuck her tongue out, almost making Gabrielle laugh until she realized why she was doing it. She watched the Amazon take a breath, then release it, then take another one, and then slowly exhale, triggering the crossbow as she did.
They heard the hiss of the arrow, then the sound of leaves tearing, and a thunk that sounded oddly hollow.
Gabrielle smiled. “She hit it.” She said.
“Sure did.” Bennu had been watching. “Nice shot.”
“Got it.” Cait confirmed. “It’s coming off quite nicely now.”
There was a ripping, tearing sound then they could hear something large hitting branches, and tumbling through leaves.
A yell of surprise.
Then a louder yell of alarm.
“Loud.” Dori said, looking up from sorting her pebbles out. “We go get fower now?”
“Soon, sweetie.” Gabrielle said. “Maybe mama can even work out a new story when we do that, hmm? A story about how the pretty flowers grow?”
“Mama makes good stories.” Dori contentedly arranged her pebbles in a circle.
Chaos erupted down below. Gabrielle could hear thrashing and then running feet, and screaming. “Thank you sweetie, I do my best.”
“Wow, listen to them.” Solari came over to her. “Bennu, they taking off?”
“Wrecking the bushes right now.” Bennu said. “Got a dozen of em I can see.”
There was another hiss.
“Less than a dozen. Good shot young Cait.” Bennu said. “C’mon boys, let’s pick em off.” He steadied his own crossbow and Nala joined him, as they sighted over the stones towards the forest where their enemies had been hiding.
Paladia was watching from the next rock over. She turned and looked at Gabrielle. “They’re getting bit like crazy.”
“Yellow jackets.” The bard said. “They really hurt.” She moved some of the rocks over. “Let’s see if we can make a picture, Dor. Then we can go see the flowers.” She ran her fingers over the pebbles as Dori placed them into a pattern.
“Really hurts huh?” Paladia asked as screams of pain suddenly rang out. “You know that like personally?”
“Oooohh yah..” Gabrielle exhaled, chuckling wryly. “That’s how I knew what to look for. I learned the hard way.” A brief memory flashed into her mind’s eye of a long day spent soaking in a cold pool, trying so hard not to scream as Xena patiently treated sting after sting.
For once, Xena hadn’t scolded her. Had felt truly, honestly sorry for her and it had showed in the gentle fingers and the quiet, serious voice.
She remembered cups of bitter tasting herbs, and falling asleep in Xena’s arms, and the ungrudging comfort her companion had provided her.
She remembered opening her eyes, and looking up to find Xena’s gentle, loving expression gazing back, raw and unexpected and all the more precious to her for it. All the more so when the look refused to alter, even after Xena caught her awake.
“Whatever.” Paladia said. “Pretty cool though. We’re not going to have to go get in another freaking fight now at least.” She leaned forward. “Those things are kicking those guy’s asses.”
Nala let out a whoop, and Solari joined her. “Look at them go! Hey, your maj, they’re clearing out! They’re running!” Solari said. “Wow!”
“Bad mens go?” Dori inquired.
“Bad mens go.” Gabrielle confirmed. “Mama made them run away, Dori. So we could go and see the flowers and the pretty butterflies and go where it’s cool. That okay with you?”
Dori grinned. “Go mama!”
“Go mama.” Gabrielle got up slowly, keeping behind the rocks as she peered warily over them, seeing the wild thrashing and hearing the voices slowly fading into the distance. The plan had worked stupendously well.
Not bad. The bard suspected her partner would have been delighted with her. “Lets get moving people. Just be careful.”
A quarter candlemark later, and they were walking down the path, into an area now quiet and still. Gabrielle led Argo carefully, third in line behind Nala and Bennu who absolutely insisted on going in front.
Mindful of her own suspicion that she might be a target, Gabrielle had given in. But as they reached the bottom it was obvious that their attackers had well and truly fled. There were broken branches and ripped leaves everywhere, the ground churned up by boots and hooves.
There were discarded items in the grass, and they paused to investigate, wary of the still buzzing insects in the area. The Amazons and Bennu’s men fanned out and searched carefully, them moved back in Gabrielle’s direction.
“Just some bags and what not.” Cait displayed her finds. “And we got a handful of them.” She indicated the trees. “Quite dead.”
“One of them I think from the critters.” Bennu said. “No touch on im but that.”
Gabrielle nodded. “They can kill you if enough of them sting you” She commented mildly. “Unless you’ve got someone who knows how to take care of that.” Her expression was thoughtful. “I’m’ glad I did.” She turned and took Argo’s reins. “Let’s go. “
“Gabrielle, you mean you got bit by those bees?” Nala said.
“Wasps.” The bard corrected her. “Yeah, I backed into a nest in a swamp way east of here a couple years ago.” She started leading Argo on, with Dori perched happily on her back. “One of the longest days of my life.”
“I bet.” Solari caught up with her. “Found this.” She handed Gabrielle a pouch. “Most of the stuff was empty, or just stuff they had food in. They must have been camping around here.”
Gabrielle opened the pouch and examined it. Standard leather, and very common. Could have come from anywhere. No stamp identifying where it was made, and inside, a comb and blade, and a tiny hunk of soap.
She removed the soap and sniffed it. It had a slightly rancid smell that wasn’t pleasant, and none of the herbs common to the markets around Amphipolis. The blade had remnants of short, thick hairs on it, and she reasoned it probably had been used to shave a man’s face with.
Hence the soap. She considered that. What soldiers in the wild would bother with shaving? “Hm. We find anything else? Coins? Sharpening stones, anything?”
Cait came up and held out both hands. “They were camping back there, absolutely. Killing rabbits.” She displayed the bones. “And this.” She displayed a boar’s tusk. “Quite some days, it looks like.”
“Aye, they’d been there a bit.” Bennu agreed. “Had a middens to the back. Near the water.”
So. A group of soldiers, camping for a number of days, who shaved, and apparently were determined to stop or delay … them? Or any travelers that way?
It wasn’t really adding up. “Let’s keep our eyes open.” Gabrielle said. “I’m sure they’re out there, and they’ll probably be back. We should ride on faster once we clear the ridge.”
“Yes. Ma’am.” Nala said. “Whatever you say.”
“Got that right.” Bennu said. “Woudla spent half the day getting shot at weren’t for the little hawk.”
“Does he have to call you that?” Solari whispered to Gabrielle.
“It’s a compliment.” Gabrielle whispered back. “Long story.”
Gabrielle started moving a little faster, anxious to get clear of the narrows. She was inwardly pleased with the success of her idea, but she’d learned in long, hard lessons from life with Xena that one moment’s victory usually meant a day of disaster to follow.
She wasn’t looking forward to it.
Xena hauled up just past the curve in the path, when she saw the commotion ahead of them. There was a huge group of people in a mass, and she realized the wagons looked familiar to her. “Ah.”
“Ah?” Iolaus barely kept from crashing into her. “What’s going on?”
Good question. Xena’s eyes flicked over the crowd. The riders were trying to get through a mass of bodies and there was a flurry of motion in the center of the group, hands and arms moving in hitting motions.
A whip cracked.
“I think they’re bringing conscripts in.” Xena finally said. “I saw them on the road.”
“Well. Ah.” Iolaus stood on his tiptoes to see better, resting his hand on Xena’s shoulder for balance. “Who’s doing the fighting? “
Xena shook her head. “I don’t know. Probably the conscripts fighting to get away from those guys. They didn’t look happy when I saw them on the road, but…”
“It’s legal.” Iolaus concluded. “It reeks, but it’s legal. Herc and I were arguing about that just last moon.” He exhaled. “We could bust them loose.”
“We could.” Xena agreed. “But then what? They all run off and get recaptured in a day and we’re in lockdown watching them march on the ships anyway.”
Iolaus sighed. “I hate logical thinking.” He muttered. “That’s exactly what Herc said.”
Xena smiled briefly. “Let’s get out of here before we get ourselves in trouble.” She headed down a side street, and Iolaus reluctantly followed her. It was the second time she’d turned her back on the same group and she was starting to wonder if it wasn’t the Fates who kept throwing them in to her path.
She spotted an inn, a one level, somewhat rough looking building, and steered towards it. “Let’s ask in there.”
“Looks scroungy.” The blond man said. “What are you saying about the Amazons, huh Xena?” He followed her through a broken gate towards the door. “They don’t like frills?”
“They don’t like frills.” Xena repeated. She pushed the door open and scanned the interior, then she entered and blinked as her eyes adjusted to the gloom inside. “On the other hand, they don’t like stink either.”
It smelled like spoiled beer inside, and long expired food. Xena doubted Ephiny’d so much as stepped inside, but she continued forward anyway figuring it didn’t hurt to ask if they’d been seen. She spotted a small man in a stained apron near the back, and headed his way.
He had a cleaver in his hand, and his fingers flexed on the hilt as they approached, but he stood his ground and gave them both a trucelent stare. “What yer want.”
“Some friends of ours passed through the city the last couple of days.” Xena said. “We were just wondering if maybe you saw them.”
Iolaus merely folded his hands in front of him, and politely smiled.
“Aint’ seen nobody.” The man spat at them. “Get outta here.” He waved the hand with the cleaver at them and then had it taken from him.
Xena threw the cleaver into the wall where it stuck with a ringing sound. She then grabbed the innkeeper and lifted him up by his shirt, pinning him to the wall with a solid bang. “Okay. Let me rephrase the question, jackass.”
The smile on Iolaus’ face went a little wry.
The innkeeper’s eyes bulged. “Ddddint’ meant it.” He stammered.
“My friends are two Amazons.” Xena said.
“Ccccourse they are.”
“Have you seen them?” The warrior enunciated slowly. “One had blond curly hair, the other long dark hair. They might have been alone.”
The man swallowed, then shook his head. “Didn’t see em. For real.”
Xena studied his face, then she let him drop to the ground and stepped back. “That’s a damn relief. If they’d had to come in here they’d have been in real trouble.” She looked around and shook her head. “Next.”
Iolaus gave the innkeeper a bright smile. “Hasn’t had her morning ale yet.” He said, as he followed Xena to the door. “She’s a laugh riot most of the time. Honest.”
They emerged into the sunlit day. “A laugh riot?” Xena eyed him as they moved along the road towards the next square. “What was that all about?”
The blond man chuckled. “It’s just good to see parts of you haven’t changed, Xena.” He said, surprisingly. ‘You were being so nice I was starting to wonder who it was I was walking around with.”
“Gabrielle rubbed off on me.” Xena ducked under an awning, and moved into the open space beyond where a big well sat in the middle well attended by citizens with buckets and waterbags. There were several wagons passing through, and at least half of the people in the crowd were in half or full armor.
She and Iolaus fit in. Xena strolled casually over to the well and waited her turn, pulling up the bucket and setting it on the well to dip her hands in and take a drink, her ears cocked to listen to the talk around her.
“See them ships in? Lotta dinars going out.”
“Got some fellows want to buy everything we got I say we wait and up the dinars..”
“Tell em you fought in the war, idiot. They’ll pay ya.”
“Those kids, they’ll end up with that bunch of women that went the last time. All dead, I’m telling ya.”
Xena slowly lifted her head and looked around to identify the last voice. It was older and male, and she had little trouble finding the grizzled soldier who was filing his waterskin nearby. He was one of the ones in full armor, and his beard was liberally flecked with gray.
An old timer. She had some in her own militia. He could even have been someone who’d fought with her… fought for her once upon a time.
His eyes shifted and met hers. He blinked, then straightened, his expression altering to astonishment.
Xena deduced she’d once again been recognized. She lifted a hand and crooked a finger at him. After a brief hesitation, the man capped his waterskin and edged through the crowd, coming around to her side of the well as she leaned against a spare bit of the wall.
“Xena.” He said, as he arrived at her side. “Been a while.”
“Yes it has, Daniel.” She agreed. “Heading to Athens?”
He nodded. “That’s where the pay is.” He said. “You?”
“Not if I can help it.” Xena watched the crowd clear a little, leaving them some talking space. Daniel had been, she recalled, a minor member of her army back in the bad old days. A farmer’s son who didn’t have a taste for planting, reasonably good with a sword, with a natural inclination to keep his mouth shut. “Still selling your sword?”
“I am.” He glanced at Iolaus, then back at her. “I heard you’re not.”
“No.” The warrior agreed. “I’m here looking for some Amazons. You seen any lately? Last couple of days?”
He was already nodding before she finished talking. “Sure as Hades did. Big bunch of bitches.” He responded readily. “Got in a big dustup down near the pier, broke up the inn down there and some of them got locked up.”
Xena’s ears pricked. “Yeah?”
“Started up with a bunch of kids signed on for the war, thought women had no part in it.” Daniel said. “Most of the oldtimers like me stayed clear. But couple of the kids ended up dead, and one or two went to the healer’s. City was some upset at those Amazons.”
“I bet.” Xena said. “Then what?”
“Most of em went shipboard that day.” Daniel said. “Except the ones in lockup. Still there, maybe. Haven’t seen em around the last day.” He added, studying her for a moment. “People said you retired.”
“I did.” Xena confirmed.
“So what’ya sitting here under arms in a muster town for, Xena?” Daniel’s eyes twinkled, just a little bit. “Didn’t know better, I thought you maybe were shopping your talents out.”
Xena sighed. “You’re not the only one who’s thought that.” She acknowledged. “But believe it or not, I’m just doing a favor for someone.” She pushed off the wall. “Now it looks like I’m going to have to go visit the jail. Thanks Daniel. Good luck to you.”
“And to you, Xena.” Daniel held a hand out. “Course, if you do end up in the war, might be like old times, eh?”
Xena clasped his arm and released it. “I doubt it would be like the old times, Daniel.” She waved as they turned to leave. “But do yourself a favor.” She paused. “Think about where in the lines you want to end up being.”
Their eyes met, and his lips quirked just slightly. Then he turned and melded back into the crowd, just another armored form in a stream of them.
“Old acquaintance?” Iolaus asked, after a moment of silence.
“He was in my army, way back when.” Xena started down the alley, feeling the draft of salt scented air hit her face. “Now what are the chances the Amazons I’m looking for are in the slammer? Do I get that lucky?”
“If I remember Ephiny right, probably not.” Iolaus said, with a rueful smile. “She didn’t seem that much of a firebrand to me.”
“No, she’s pretty sharp.” Xena agreed, as they sidestepped a laboring pony trying to draw a laden wagon upward past them. “And she’s pregnant. Hopefully that’ll make her not want to take chances.”
“Ahh. Her first?” Iolaus asked. “But wait, no - I thought she had a …”
“She’s got a centaur son.”
“Ah. Heh.” The blond man murmured. “Scratch that about firebrand and chance taking.”
Xena had to smile about that. She briefly let her mind drift back to Xenon’s birth, and the chaos and heartbreak surrounding it.
Ephiny’s heartbreak, in losing her partner. Xena’s own heartbreak in nearly losing Gabrielle.
Nearly. She swallowed the lump in her throat. “She took a chance on Phantes. Damn shame what happened to him. I delivered the kid.”
“Hm. Yeah, I remember her saying.” Iolaus mused. “So she really is an old friend.”
Xena thought about what was then, and what was now, and what had come between in her history with the Amazon regent. Then she smiled briefly. “She is. “
They reached the dockside and now they were in the middle of a crazed chaos of people and animals, wagons rumbling back and fourth and large crowds around each ship. It was hard to tell if they were coming or going.
The dockside shops were packed though, and Xena led Iolaus slowly along the fringe of them, keeping her eyes peeled for Amazons. They would have stuck out, definitely, in the throngs of merchants in sturdy cottons and the ships crew in linen and leather.
“I think that’s the dock jail.” Iolaus pointed at a walled building at the end of the pier. There were a half dozen city soldiers in front of it, and the windows had stout iron bars in them. “Did you want to check for your friends there?”
They crossed in front of a dockside bar, already packed and busy despite the still early hour. The crews had gotten off the ships, apparently, and headed right for the ale barrels and there were raised voices slurring out in bawdy songs.
“Ah, the good old days.” Iolaus chuckled. “I remember bars like that when I was a kid.”
“Me too.” Xena admitted. “Learned some of my best fighting moves in places like that.”
Her companion laughed. “Oh yeah.” He paused. “Want to go get a cup?”
“No.” Xena steered him past. “We’ll end up in a brawl.” She glanced ahead at the jail. “Despite how much fun that would be, I got stuff to do.” She dodged four men arguing so furiously they were unaware of anyone in their path, and caught sight of a group of armored mercenaries watching her and Iolaus.
Evil intent or just curious? She had a bare few seconds to figure it out before they were moving past the group, all her senses tingling and her body already flexing to move into a fighting position.
Maybe they sensed that. The group shifted their attention abruptly to something else and Xena relaxed a little.
Until she spotted what they were looking at.
A wagon was rolling down the slope from the upper town, with soldiers in it, and several prisoners apparently bound for the jail. Most were men, but one was a woman, and she was struggling in her chains like a wildcat.
Young, and beautiful, and dressed in the remnants of a silk gown, she was fighting so hard the soldiers holding her were sorely pressed to keep her in one place, two of them braced on either side holding the chains in both hands.
“That one of them?” Iolaus hazarded, seeing Xena’s expression.
“No.” Xena shook her head. “That’s trouble.”
Iolaus paused and looked up at Xena, both his eyebrows hiking up into his hairline. “You ever heard the term pot calling the kettle black?”
“What?” The warrior frowned. “C’mon. Let’s go around the back of that damn thing I don’t want to get involved with them.” She ducked around a pole and merged with a stream of shoppers, working to blend in as they moved around the wagon and past the jail.
“Wow. Look at that woman” Iolaus said. “What a beauty!”
The woman was gagged. Her appearance was gaining a rapt audience though, and Xena had to start to push her way through the stalled crowd to get around the wagon. “Looks aren’t everything.”
“Oh c’mon, Xena.” Iolaus started walking backwards to keep the woman in view. “I know you’re a married woman now but you’re not blind. She’s gorgeous. Wonder what the deal is with her?”
“Let’s not find out.” She and Iolaus had gotten most of the way around, and almost in the clear when a man on horseback moved to block her way.
“Ah, our friend from the road.” The man raised his hand. “Just wanted to say thanks, citizen!” He pointed at the wagon. “Your tip lead us right to them.”
Iolaus stared at Xena. “Citizen?”
Heads swung around to see who he was talking to, and Xena had to pause as she reached the horses side. “No problem.” She said. “Anytime. Excuse me.”
“No rush!” The soldier said. “Come with us to the inn, Xena. We owe you a drink.” He gestured to the soldiers around him. “We got high marks for capturing that bitch and her two friends!”’
Xena glanced at the wagon, to find a pair of absolutely venomous eyes glaring at her. “Maybe later.” She said, then paused. “You got any friends in the jail? Want to do me a favor back?”
The soldier hopped down from his horse and dusted his hands off. “My brother’s in charge.” He said. “Sure I’d be glad to help if I could. Men, take this prize into the lock down. Don’t let her loose for a minute!”
The men started hauling their captive down as she lunged in Xena’s direction, but was unable to break the hold they had on her.
The soldiers laughed and one went over and circled her with his arm, lifting her up despite her kicking and struggling. He walked to the edge of the wagon and tossed the woman to three of his comrades. “ Be still you bitch! Or we’ll put you in the jail with some as not been with women for a year!”
“Xena.” Iolaus looked uncomfortable. “What’s going on here?” He asked. “What did she do?”
“Now, what can I do for you?” The soldier asked Xena. “Aside from stating again my offer of hospitality.”
“Later.” Xena muttered to Iolaus. To the soldier she pointed at the jail. “Someone I may be looking for might be in there. Just need to find out.”
“Ah!” The soldier gestured with his arm. “Nothing easier. Come!” He glanced at Iolaus. “And your friend here as well… do I know you sir?”
“Ah, no.” The blond man muttered. “Iolaus.” He held a hand out and exchanged clasps with the man. “What did that woman do?”
“What ddin’t she?” The soldier started to guide them towards the jail. “A lot of people in Athens want a piece of her, I can tell you that. My senior officer and the city council among them.”
“Really.” Iolaus muttered, watching the woman be dragged off ahead of them. “She seems so young.” He glanced at Xena. “Sure there wasn’t some mistake?”
There was a yell ahead of them, and as they watched, the woman twisted in the grip of the two soldiers, lashing out and kicking a third right in the groin. The man went to his knees, and she kicked him in the face, then she yanked her escort around and glared back at Xena, raw fury in her eyes.
“Okay. Maybe not.” Iolaus remarked.
“Don’t think she much likes you.” The soldier agreed. “Charming enemy you made there Xena, though it was for our benefit.”
Xena’s fingers twitched, and she wondered if maybe she should have let her instincts get the better of her back in the town. Death was often unfair, but it sure kept people from sneaking up and stabbing you in the back.
She sighed. “Let’s go and get this over with.” She nudged the man forward. “The sooner the better.”
“It’s too quiet.” Solari glanced around, taking a sip from her waterskin as they stood in the shade for a short break. “Too damn quiet.”
They’d stopped for a brief rest, to get some water and get out of the sun for a few minutes. The horses were sweating, and seemed glad to be clustered under the thick leaves of the tree they’d found as they caught their breaths and cropped the lush grass.
Gabrielle was watching Dori run around nearby, the queen walking around in a circle and stretching her body out as she relieved the cramping even from the short ride as it tensed up the muscles in her back.
The sun had risen high overhead, and was baking down on them now that they were off the mountain path and into the lowlands that led to the pass to the lower plateau, the hills surrounding them blocking the wind and making it a muggy, breathless heat.
Solari sighed, and resisted the urge to dump the contents of her waterskin over her head. At least in their new village, higher up the mountain, the heat was less and the mountain walls channeled a breeze pretty much all the time. “I had to volunteer for this, huh?”
“Sorry, did you say something?” Nala asked, as she leaned back against the tree’s trunk, arms spread out along the lower branches.
“Nah.” Solari let her gaze wander again.
It was mostly scrubby brush they were moving through now, with only a few trees, and little cover. That made it easier to watch for any followers, but also exposed them to the merciless sun.
Life and it’s tradeoffs. Solari dismissed the discomfort, idly watching Gabrielle flex her hands, the warm light dappling over the bard’s tanned, muscular body. It occurred to her again that her queen was completely ignorant of her own sex appeal and consequently equally ignorant of all the attention it got her.
She just really didn’t clue into it. She really was just sort of puzzled when everyone wanted to dance with her, or end up in the bathing room at the same time as she did, or carry her stuff back to her quarters for her.
No clue. Solari watched Gabrielle hitch up her tooled leather belt, then hook her thumbs in it as she watched her kid chase butterflies.
No clue at all.
She really didn’t look like the rest of the tribe. Most of the Amazons were taller, for one thing, generations of being their own defense breeding them tough, with heavy bones and lithe, fighter’s bodies.
Gabrielle wasn’t. In comparison with them, or even with her consort, she seemed almost slight and when she had her town clothes on you would never take her for an Amazon at all. But dressed as she was now, it was different.
Short and lithe, her light frame was nevertheless wrapped in visible muscle that shifted under her skin as she moved, giving an impression of confident power somewhat at odds with her gentle and humorous nature.
Very sexy. Solari produced a wry grin. Very attractive, and completely unavailable and therefore frustrating in the extreme to a nation more used to casual promiscuity. It wasn’t even that people were too scared of Xena to approach her – the truth was Gabrielle just absolutely had no interest in anyone but her partner.
Village morals? Solari watched Dori crawl under the bush, down on her belly with her nose near the dirt in search of some creature or other. Could be. Or it could be what the queen had blurted out one late night in a dance, that Xena was just that good so why look elsewhere?
Or maybe that was just Gabrielle.
Cait emerged from the underbrush and walked back over to where Paladia was holding both of their horses reins. “No sign of anything.” She reported. “I went quite back to that ravine there, under where they’d gotten cross of us, and it’s all quiet.”
The queen leaned against a nearby rock, one eye on her daughter and the other on their scout. “That’s good news..” Gabrielle said. “But it doesn’t really make sense. I know we gave them a beating, but they were here for a reason.” She frowned. “Hard to believe they scared off that easily.”
“Aye.” Bennu agreed. “Don’t like the quiet.”
“Hmph.” Paladia scratched her nose. “Can’t make anyone happy around here.”
“Sh.” Cait told her. “This is quite dangerous.”
“No shit.” Her erstwhile partner rolled her eyes. “I ain’t worried. If those jerks come back we can just throw that kid at them. If they thought hornets were bad they ain’t seen nothing.
“Pally.” Cait poked her. “Do be serious.”
“I am serious!!!”
“All right. Let’s get going.” The bard went over and patted Argo on the cheek. “C”mon, Dori. Ready Argo?”
The mare snorted, spraying her with grass bits and saliva and making her jump back with a yelp.
Dori giggled and danced around the horse’s legs. “Gogo you made mama all funny.” She scampered under Argo’s belly and bounced next to her mother. “Mama, go up?”
“Hang on there a minute.” Gabrielle boosted Dori up into the saddle, then she removed a piece of linen from her saddlebag and removed Argo’s gift from her bare stomach. “Cait, why don’t you hang back a little after we move on.” She tucked the linen away. “Just in case someone’s following us.”
“Right.” Cait went over and took her horse’s reins. “No surprises.”
“No surprises.” The bard agreed, hauling herself up behind Dori. “Let’s hope what the watch saw was just a herd of sheep. There’s enough odd stuff going on around here.”
“Got that right.” Paladia muttered, climbing up onto her horse.
“Hope it is, cause I don’t like the idea of camping out here with those guys coming after us.” Solari remarked. “Cave was one thing.”
Bennu grunted assent.
Gabrielle took Argo’s reins in her hand and settled herself. “Well, sooner we go. Sooner we’ll get there.” She started the mare forward, only to have to pull her up a little as Bennu and Solari battled for point ahead of her.
She bit her tongue and looked down at Dori instead, while they sorted themselves out. “Weren’t those pretty butterflies, Dor?”
“Pretty.” Dori nodded. “Mama it’s hot.”
“I know, honey.” Gabrielle nudged Argo forward as they moved out of the meager shade and back into the glare of the sun, making their way out of the foothills and into the grassy plains approaching the pass. “But maybe we can find a pond, and go swimming later. Would you like that?”
“Yes. Catch fishes.” Dori thumped Argo’s shoulder with her boots and rocked back and forth. “Gogogogogogog.”
Gabrielle caught one boot. “Honey, stop thumping Argo. I’m sure she doesn’t like it.”
She’d begun to feel that this trek wasn’t a good idea. A foreboding was twisting her guts and she wasn’t sure entirely if it was what she herself felt or something Xena was going through since it was accompanied by a sense of impatient restlessness alien to her nature.
But not to her partner’s. She let her thoughts slip for a moment, turning her attention inwards to the always fragile and sometimes unreliable link they shared.
Lately, she’d come to realize, it was also hard to tell if what she was feeling was her or Xena, because they’d started to grow towards each other so much. When she was down in town, and someone was bitching at her for something, she found her eyes narrowing and her temper shortening, and if she looked over at Xena, she saw exactly what she was feeling reflected in her partner’s expressive face.
Synergy. They’d come around to the same viewpoint on a lot of things.
“Mama, wanna hoball?”
Jerked out of her meandering, Gabrielle looked down at her daughter. “Honey balls? I don’t think we have them with us.”
“Good.” Dori held up a small sack. “See?”
Gabrielle’s heart lurched as she reached for the sack. “Did you find this in the forest, Dori?” She anxiously examined it, relaxing as she saw the sigil stamped on one side. “Or.. where did you get it?”’
“Here.” Dori tugged at one of the saddlebags. “Boo put it.”
Honeyballs. Gabrielle opened the sack and took one out, putting it in her mouth and smiling around the familiar taste. “She did huh? I guess she wanted to surprise us.” She peeked inside the bag, hoping for a note, but seeing a flash of metal instead. “Hm.”
“Good. Boo Boo Boo.” Dori burbled happily. “Gogo, go faster!”
The bard fished inside the bag and drew out the metal item, which turned out to be a pretty gold ear cuff, with three bits of jade in twisted wire hanging from it. “Oh”
“Pretty.” Dori had turned around to see what she was doing. “Oh, mama! Bitty rocks!”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle felt her throat close a little. She reached up and fastened the cuff to her ear, feeling the cool metal warm to her skin quickly. “See how much Boo loves us, Dori? She gives us such nice presents.”
“Me too.” It was unexpectedly intimate, and gorgeous and she fairly ached with the hug she couldn’t give her partner for it. She gave Dori a hug instead, and they both rode along, sucking their honey balls.
“Shouldn’t be long now. “ Bennu said, having regained the point lead from Solari as they avoided some boulders. “Then we’ll be after it.”
“Hey, is that someone watching us?” Solari pointed, and Bennu reined aside to look. “Sscuse me.” The Amazon neatly moved her horse around his, and continued on in front. “My mistake.”
Bennu snorted, and shook his head. “Saucy woman.”
“You both are just lucky I’m letting you get away with it.” Gabrielle warned him, a faint twinkle in her eyes. ‘Enjoy it while you can.”
“Genr’ls orders.” Bennu said, in a virtuous tone.
“Genr’ls not here.” Gabrielle countered, shaking her finger at him. “And she left me in charge.”
As it happened, it was Gabrielle who was in the lead when they got to the bottom of the trail and turned to head through the pass. She was riding easily, one arm tucked around Dori and her eyes scanning the horizon.
After a candlemark of working their way across the plains they hadn’t seen any of their attackers, nor seen any sign of them either. The rest of the Amazons and Bennu and his men had fanned out, giving Gabrielle the point but creating a circle of protection just in case.
So Gabrielle had let her nerves settle, once Cait had rejoined them and now she was telling Dori a short tale as she craned her neck to see what the pass had to offer to them.
There was just an outcropping of granite blocking the view, and she kneed Argo into a gentle canter as she angled to one side of it. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Gogo!” Dori was delighted with the pace. “Go faster!”
Dori the speed demon. Gabrielle chuckled under her breath. The gods help them when she started riding on her own – she could see years of being a nervous wreck in her future.
She rounded the granite and they cantered forward into the pass, a wide grassy opening between the hills that was pleasant and open right to the point where Gabrielle saw what was on the other side of it. Then she stopped Argo with a quick tightening of her knees. “Whoa.”
“Mama?” Dori looked up at her.
“What’s going on , your Maj?” Solari came up next to her. “You see some…oh.” She stopped. “Oh.” She repeated. “That can’t be good.”
Bennu trotted up, shading his eyes. “Bigods, that’s a…”
“Damned army.” Gabrielle concluded, with a sigh. “A damned big army.”
“A Spartan army.” Bennu’s lieutenant said. “I seen them banners. I knows em.”
Gabrielle licked her lips, and looked carefully around them. “I guess that explains the welcoming party.” She said. “And the other guys. They must be advance scouts.” She drew Argo back until they were just inside the pass entrance again, and out of sight.
Now what? Gabrielle eased Argo up a little so she could look out at the invaders, under no illusion that they were anything but.
The army had just started to enter the pass on the other end, and apparently had stopped for some reason. There were at least a thousand men there, all armored, with siege engines and all the panopoly of war tediously familiar to Gabrielle’s eyes. “I should have saw this coming.”
“Your maj?” Solari was peeking from behind her right shoulder. “Were you, like, expecting this?”
Gabrielle sighed. “ Not exactly.” She said. “But the fact of the matter is, my life is just never simple or easy. If there’s a catastrophic way to do anything, I’ll find it. Hades, look at who I’m married too.”
Solari muffled a snort.
“So, what are we going to do?” Nala asked. “You think they’re part of the war? I thought it hadn’t started yet.” She frowned. ‘That’s what those women said. They were just preparing.”
“Well, Xena said the Spartans were no dummies. Looks like they decided to get a head start.” Gabrielle watched the front of the lines, seeing a lot of horses and men riding back and forth in very well kept armor.
Nothing good there. They were equipped to march, and march they would across this sparsely populated area, crossing the hills and ending up attacking Athens by the rear.
She knew the route by heart now, having traced it out on the map in her quarters a dozen times, trying to figure out how far her partner had gotten. The question was, would they speed across the land and leave it’s small towns and villages intact, or rape and pillage them as they went to leave Athens nothing to tax behind?
One course was bad for Athens, the other for her and their neighbors. And really, it just absolutely sucked.
Gabrielle sat back in her saddle and considered. “It’s possible they’ll go right past us.” She said. “Right past Amphipolis, I mean.”
Bennu shifted a little. “Just let em by then?” He said. “Let em head past?”
The Amazons watched her in silence. Gabrielle felt an unpleasant sensation in her guts again, and wished, vainly, that Xena was here to do what it is that she did best. “Guys, I love all of you in the Militia and all my sisters in the tribe. I’m not sending a couple hundred of us up against a Spartan army.”
“In fact, Xena probably wouldn’t either.” Gabrielle said. “But what we need to do is head back home as fast as we can, so we can get ready in case they decide not to pass us by.” She started to turn Argo around. “Let’s go, people. We came to see what was going on, and boy did we.”
She could sense the reluctance around her as she nudged them around and headed back up the path the way they’d come. The story she’d been telling Dori was driven right out of her head, and she started thinking about everything that would now need to be done in fairly short order.
“Mama?” Dori half turned to look up at her. “We go?”
“We’re going back home honey.” Gabrielle hugged her. “Did you see all the people out there? They were shiney huh?”
“Bad mens?” Dori frowned.
Were they? Gabrielle felt ambivalent about that. She’d been around and in wars long enough to know that usually there was no real right and wrong, good and bad about the participants themselves. They were just two sides of a coin. “Well, Dor, they could be bad men.” She said. “It depends. But we have to go tell all our friends about them, so we can all be ready in case they come to see us.”
“Bad mens.” Dori concluded. “Go get Boo.”
Gabrielle suspected their daughter had inherited in full measure her partner’s cut to the chase attitude and had to smile, despite everything. “Yeah, I wish I could, Dori. I wish I could.”
“Your majesty.” Cait had come up alongside her. “Do you suppose they really will just go by us?”
The bard exhaled. “Depends.” She said. “Depends what their goals are. If their goal is to get across the land quickly and ambush Athens, then maybe.” She glanced around them, feeling a sense of urgency to be out and away from the army. “But if it’s not, if they’re invading, then they’ll destroy and take what they can along the way.”
“Oh. Dear.” Cait frowned. “That’s awful.”
“War is awful, Cait.” Gabrielle said. “If this war comes to us… “ She paused, and shook her head. “We don’t have time to get ready for it.”
Cait moved her horse closer, and lowered her voice. “Gabrielle.” She said. “Shall I go get Xena?”
“Welre going to check to make sure them fellers didn’t come back to ambush us.” Bennu rode up. “Don’t need no slowdowns.”
“Okay, thanks Bennu.” Gabrielle eyed the path, knowing they’d need to get off and walk the horses shortly. “Let’s make time while we can.” She watched him and the other militia men depart, and then she turned back to Cait who was waiting patiently.
“I know the route she’s taken.” Cait said. “I will find her.”
The bard reached out and clasped her shoulder. “I know you would Cait.” She said. “But you won’t have to. She’ll come back on her own.”
Cait studied her with interest. “Really?”
“Really.” Gabrielle said. “And if something were to happen to you when you were out there looking, Cait, she’d never forgive herself for it and neither would I.”
The last thing Xena would want, Gabrielle was sure, was for people to start heading out after her, that she’d only have to turn around and go find again. The bard was the only person who could journey out and absolutely track her down and though Gabrielle would have headed out in a heartbeat she knew she had a damned responsibility here.
Damn damn damn.
“Mama, we should get Boo.” Dori conveniently read her mind. “Boo chase the bad mens out.”
A thousand Spartans? Yeah, Xena would certainly do her best to chase them out. “I know she would honey.” Gabrielle gently moved her daughter’s dark hair out of her eyes. “I’m sure she’ll be back soon. We wouldn’t want to miss her if she came back, would we?”
“Mama find Boo.” Dori said. “We could go an bring Guff and Gogo.”
“So you’ve got it all planned out huh?” Gabrielle felt more than a little bemused “Let’s get home and we’ll see what’s going on there, okay.”
Her tribe, and the militia.. well, she wouldn’t say they were helpless in the face of the Spartan army. After all those men, and her sisters had been part of the force that had beaten back the huge, frightening and truly evil force in the last war.
Gabrielle had learned, after all, to never say never. But that force the last time had been led by Xena, who had a true tacticians mind behind those pretty eyes and had spent most of the time in the war outthinking the enemy more than outfighting them.
Fight they had, and Xena more than any of them but in the end it had been her cleverness, her knowledge of human nature, and the bond she had with Gabrielle that had won the day not the strength of her sword arm.
Try that without her?
No way in Hades.
Xena looked around cautiously as they entered the jailhouse, not being fond of the places even now when her visit was more or less innocuous. She spotted two men in the uniforms of the city police and walked over to them. “Excuse me.
They turned, breaking off their conversation, and eyed them suspiciously.
The inside of the jail was small, and close. The outer door opened into a space with a table, and two chairs that the men were standing next to, and behind them a corridor extended with crudely made cells on either side.
It stank. It was hot, and the door behind them was the only way out.
Xena came close to simply turning around and taking it. There was a bad vibe here, and she felt all her senses come to alert. “Morning.” She addressed the men.
“Yeah?” One the men approached her. “ What do you want?”
“Just to ask a few questions.” Xena tried her best to be non threatening. “I’m looking for some Amazons. I heard you had some trouble with them recently and some are here in the jail.”
The man’s attitude changed immediately. “Hades we did.” He glanced at Xena, then behind her at the patiently waiting Iolaus. “You responsible for em? City’s looking for someone to pay bail and damages.’
“Depends who the ones you have here are.” Xena said straightforwardly. “If they’re the ones I’m looking for, I’ll take responsibility for em. If they’re not, sorry.”
The man studied her, then nodded. “Worthless lot of women if you ask me.” He said. “Got in a fight in Athelo’s bar down the way. Broke the place up, put a handful of citizens in the healer’s house. Big mess.”
“What was the fight about?” Iolaus spoke up. “Usually Amazons don’t’ fight without a reason.”
Xena eyed him.
“The ones I know, anyway.” The blond man conceded.
The jailer shrugged. “They were drunk. Who knows?” He beckoned them to follow him. “But see for yourselves, and make it fast. Got a bunch of thieves they’re taking back to Athens coming in here.” He led the way down the corridor, seemingly oblivious to the stench wafting from the cells.
Xena wasn’t. She set the stink aside an glanced in each one as they passed, seeing little but ragged figures huddled inside.
“Here you are.” The jailer stood to one side and gestured.
Xena stepped warily up next to him and looked in the cell. She had mixed feelings when the two sullen faces looking back at her were complete strangers, since getting anyone out of the cesspit the jail would have been an undoubted good deed.
“Well?” The jailer looked impatiently at her.
“Not the ones I’m looking for.” Xena said, with some regret in her tone. “Sorry.”
“Wait, who are you?” One of the Amazons surged to the front of the cell, gripping the bars. “What do you mean we’re not the ones?”
“Let’s go then.” The disappointed jailer gestured. “Haven’t got time to hang about.” He walked back down the corridor, clearly expecting them to follow. “Manios! Get that cell door open. We’ll put all the new ones in there.”
Xena looked at the two women. “We’re looking for some friends.” She explained. “Two Amazons from the mountain tribe of Thrace.”
“Yeah?” The nearer Amazon looked skeptical. The other Amazon went back to the back of the cell and curled up on the dirty straw again. “Get us out of here and we’ll help ya look.”
“Their names were Ephiny and Eponin.” Xena ignored the jibe. “Seen em?” She added, without really needing to. She saw the jerk of reaction from the woman in the back, and the sudden shift in the nearer one’s expression.
“Get us out of here.” The one close to her repeated. “Or we won’t tell you anything.”
“You already told me what I needed to know.” Xena turned and started out, nudging Iolaus along in front of her. “C’mon.”
“Wait!” The woman said. “Help us, please!”
Both Xena and Iolaus stopped, and looked at each other. Iolaus’ pale brows twitched. Xena exhaled and turned. “Did the rest of your tribe leave?”
“Yes.” The woman said. “My name is Auheila. That’s my sister Regi back there. They all left, left us here when the boat left. Please. Get us out of here. I’ll tell you about your friends. “
A loud noise interrupted the discussion. At the front of the jail, the door slammed open and the soldiers worked their way inside, struggling with the two men and the woman they’d brought in. The men were yelling loudly, and all of sudden the jail seemed too full, and too noisy to stand.
“Let me go you stupid bastards! I’ll have your heads!” The older man was bawling.
They were blocking the exit. Xena could see Milena, still gagged and tied, twisting in the arms of two husky soldiers just behind him, and the third man she’d been traveling with was slumped in what appeared to be unconciousness behind her.
She took a step backwards, out of their view.
“Shut up or I’ll knock you out again!” The soldier holding the older man said. “You’ll have your say in Athens!”
“Damned to Hades, Jos.” The jailer said. “You didn’t say there was a woman. Can’t put them in a cell together and I’ve only got one!”
“I got this.” Iolaus patted Xena on the hip and moved forward, emerging into the main part of the room. “Well, good fellow, today’s your lucky day.” He fished out some coins. “What’s the bail on those two? We’ll take em off your hands.”
His cheerful attitude distracted everyone, and even the older man stopped struggling and stared at him. Short and muscular, with obvious weaponry yet clad in the distinctive woven leather and sturdy trousers of his traveling gear Iolaus wasn’t easily categorized.
Appropriate, for one who consorted with the gods on a regular basis. He smiled at the jailor and hiked his eyebrows at him.
The jailer spluttered. “Thought they weren’t the ones you were looking for?”
“They’re not, but they know the ones we are.” Iolaus jingled the coins. “How much?”
The jailer brightened. “Ten dinars.” He said. “And lucky it’s not more.” He held out his hand, and took the coins Iolaus offered him, giving the blond haired man a crabby little smile. “All right, put the men in the first cell.” He directed the guards. “Quickly.”
The guards wrestled the men past Iolaus and shoved them into the cell before the older one could protest further, slamming the door after them. “Good riddance.” One of the soldiers said. “Hope they hang you in Athens, you lousy thief.”
“I’m not a thief you stupid bastard!” The man grabbed the bars. “And when I get to Athens, you’ll all pay! You’ll pay!!!!”
The jailer scuttled past the cell and came over to where Xena was waiting. “Many thanks citizen.” He unlocked the door. “Good riddance as well to these two, and I wish you much joy of them.” He waited for the Amazons to evacuate, then turned. “Bring the woman here!”
“C’mon.” Xena put her hand on both Amazons’s backs and guided them towards the exit, shifting so their bodies were blocking the view of the furiously twisting captive the other guard were shoving past them.
Milena was a little worse for wear. The guards hadn’t been gentle, and she had bruises on her beautiful face. Her eyes were practically on fire with fury as she fought to free herself right to the very end, when the door slammed on her and the guards dusted off their hands.
“Bad piece of work that is.” One of them said, as he followed Xena and her new friends out. “Glad to be rid of her.”
“As will I be when she is taken aboard ship tomorrow and sails for Athens.” The jailer said. “Good riddance to all of you.” He shuffled back to the back of the room and drew out a book, and they all exited back out into the sunlight and the waterfront before them.
The Amazons paused, looking around uncertainly. They, too, were battered and covered in dirt and the several citizens passing them looked at them with twitching lip disdain. “Now what?” The older of them sighed.
“Now you tell me about my friends.” Xena reminded them. “There’s a horse trough there if you want to wash off.” She turned her face into the sea breeze, and exhaled deeply, then inhaled to clear her lungs of the stench of the jail.
Grudgingly the two Amazons followed them over to the trough, and made use of it. “Who are you?” Auhelia asked. “Those friends of yours acted pretty stuck up and said they knew people.”
Xena chuckled briefly. “I’m Xena.” She said. “This is Iolaus”
The woman took a step back. “Oh.” She muttered. “Yeah, okay. So that’s what she meant.”
Regi, the younger woman straightened from where she’d been rinsing her head off. She looked at Xena appraisingly. “So she wasn’t lying.”
Iolaus spotted a tavern nearby. “Why don’t we all go over there and sit down with a nice mug of cider and talk about it?” He gave the two Amazons a courtly half bow. “I’m sure you both could use something other than jail food too.”
Regi smiled at him. “Youre the one who goes around with Hercules, aren’t you?”
“I am.” Iolaus admitted.
‘Figures. You actually have manners.” She glanced at Xena and finished wringing her hair out, stepping away from the trough and giving Auhalia space to wash. “Unlike some other people.” She went over to the low stone wall surrounding the trough and sat down on it, resting her elbow son her knees and exhaling.
Xena didn’t look or even feel ruffled, having never pretended to manners at any time.
“Sorry” Auhelia muttered, as she scrubbed her skin. “She’s cycling.”
The door to the jail slammed, and Xena looked back to see the soldiers who had brought Milena and her brothers in emerged, shaking their heads. One was holding his hand. “Bitch.” He said loudly. “Should have cut her tongue out of her mouth for that.”
“Serves you right for putting your hands that close to that mouth, Stefas.” One of the others jibed him. “You wont forget that any time soon.”
“Xena, who were those people?” Iolaus asked.
“C’mon, lets go.” Xena jerked her head in the direction of the tavern. “Then we can talk.”
They crossed the path and slipped into the tavern, finding it mostly full with sailors and dockworkers who nevertheless took one look at Xena and cleared space for them.
Trouble knew trouble, Xena mused, as she claimed a table just to one side of the bar and motioned them all to sit down. That had opened paths for her and Gabrielle on more than one occasion, and in fact the bard had learned finally to go with it and not protest when it got them where they wanted to be.
In fact, she vividly remembered the crowded city tavern full of overly hot bodies where she’d first heard Gabrielle say the words ‘can we try this your way first this time?’ to her. What a crossroads that had been.
Yes, sometimes it paid just to be intimidating. “Ale.” Xena told the server briefly. ‘And whatever you have to eat.”
She sat down. “Now.’ She addressed the Amazons. “Talk.”
The server came back with a tray of mugs and spread them around Auhelia took hers and drank, then looked over at Xena. “We met your friends on the road six days back. My queen had taken an honor guard with her..”
“Which we were in.” Regi said.
“And we journeyed in the direction of the port city, where she was to meet with another queen who was representing the Athenian army.”
“Where do you come from?” Xena asked. “I haven’t seen your markings around here.”
Auhelia regarded her. “Nor I your friends, though your name is known to us. We live past the mountains, in the north.” She took a mouthful of ale. “In any case, we were crossing through a small patch of forest when a gang of mounted men attacked us.”
“For no reason?” Iolaus asked.
Auhelia shrugged. “None that we could see. We were just walking along the road. It was late afternoon, and we hadn’t seen anyone else all day.”
“What did the men look like?” Xena asked. “Were they in unmarked armor, well cared for?”
Regi leaned forwad on her elbows. “Friends of yours?”
Xena ignored her. “We ran into the same type.” She said. “Near the pass.”
Auhelia shook her head. “No.” She said. “They said they were a town militia, and were mostly in mismatched junk. They claimed to be chasing us away from their patch, not really too much of a threat.”
“Morons.” Regi grunted. “Woulda been nothing if your buddies hadn’t shown up.”
Xena sipped from her mug for a long moment, enough for possibly a count to ten. Then she set the cup down. “Go on.”
“Guess one of the guys knew them, because next thing we knew they were all over the two of them trying to rope them up like cattle.” Regi said. “No idea what the Hades they were going after. Not like they were any prizes.”
“Well now.” Iolaus cleared his throat. “I wouldn’t say that. I know the ladies in question, and neither one of them’s ugly.” He said. “Not to mention, Ephiny is an Amazon regent, isn’t she, Xena?”’
“She is.” Xena replied. “She and Eponin are highly ranked Amazons. Maybe they were looking for a bounty.”
Regi snorted and went back to her mug.
Her sister exhaled. “Well, after all, our queen was there too.” She said. “If that’s the case, why not go after her?”
Ah. Xena realized she’d stepped into Amazon ego hour. “Your queen probably isn’t married to me like the one Ephiny’s regent for.” She remarked dryly. “So let’s get out of the pissing contest and down to the facts. You met up with Eponin and Ephiny. Then what?”
“Hey, you lot.” A large man with a thick, full beard fairly screaming sea captain had opened the door and was now standing in the opening. “Get your grub and move it. We’re untying in two candlemarks and heading back to Athens.”
The sailors groaned. “C’mon! “ The one nearest Xena stood up. “We just got here, and through that storm too! Don’t we need supplies? Fixing?”
“Shut up.” The captain said. “No questions. Get your cups and back to the ship with you. We’ve got double dinars to leave.”
He left and slammed the door behind him, leaving a large contingent of grumbling men who reluctantly started standing up and tucking bits of their lunch away to take with them.
As someone who had done time on a ship, and then come to shore, Xena sympathized with them. She wasn’t prone to seasickness, but the feel of solid land after a long time at sea was a good thing. Fortunately for the men, the trip to Athens wasn’t that long.
“So is this all about you?” Regi asked, staring at Xena.
Was it? Or was that just her ego talking? “If they really knew who she was, maybe.” The warrior admitted. “What happened next?”
Gabrielle was much better at this sort of thing than she was. The bard had a talent, probably linked to her own storyteller one, that drew information out of people almost effortlessly. With her, it was like yanking a yard wide chain through a hand wide opening.
She knew probably what had happened. The men had recognized Ephiny, and either knew her for a high ranking Amazon that the men from Athens were in search of, or knew her to be the regent of the mountain tribe Gabrielle headed, and knew there was money in either their persons or news of them.
“We fought them off, and our queen offered to travel with your friends the rest of the way here.” The older Amazon said. “And so , we learned their names. I have to say, they were very strange Amazons.”
Ephiny and Pony had always seemed to her to be completely ordinary Amazons, so Xena was intrigued. But she put that aside. “So you ended up here?”
“Yeah.” Regi nodded. “Just in time to meet up with about a hundred other Amazons and start a damned riot in the middle of the town.” She looked angry. “These little bastards here refused us rooms. Said we were only fit for the stables.”
“It’s true.” Her sister said.
“Except your friends.” Regi added sarcastically. “They were special.”
Xena pondered with the idea of just letting all the Amazons go to Athens and have the Athenians have to deal with them. The mental picture of hundreds of bickering women in the middle of the Army made her smile.
“Well you know, from what I remember of those two, they are pretty special.” Iolaus gamely dove in. “And anyway, I couldn’t get a room here either.”
They stared at him. “You?”
Iolaus shrugged. “It’s not like I have Hercules stamped on my forehead.”
“I could arrange for that.” Xena propped her chin up on her fist.
“So anyway I … what?” Iolaus gave her a look. “Xena.”
The warrior chuckled. Then she gave the Amazons a dour look. “Did they go on the ship?” She leaned out of the way as a server dropped a tray of sliced meats and cold vegetables on the table. “To Athens?”
Iolaus pulled over a trencher and stabbed a few things onto it from the platter. “Everyone else is.” He sighed. “I just hope Herc’s getting some headway in stopping the whole thing.”
The Amazons turned their attention to him. “Trying to stop what?”
“The war.” Iolaus put a piece of meat between a fold of the dark bread they’d been given and took a bite of it. ‘He’s up on Mount Olympus, arguing with the family.”
“Good luck.” Xena muttered.
“You should go help him.” Iolaus commented. “ You could keep his brother busy and out if his way in any case.”
A silence fell around the table, as Iolaus munched his sandwich. The Amazons stared at him, then stared at Xena.
Xena took a sip of her ale and thought about that. “He’s got a better chance of talking them out of it than I do the Amazons.” She sighed. “So. Did they go on the boat or not?”
Auhelia shifted a little. “They all did. On one big merchant ship. The only one that would take them.” She said. “After the fight broke out, they had a choice to either leave that day, or be evicted from the city. They picked the boat. We got caught in a mess while we tried to buy some stuff for the trip.”
“So they threw you in jail for buying provisions?” Iolaus picked up the thread of the conversation. “Glad we could get you out of that, by the way.”
They had the grace to look abashed. “Thanks.” Regi said. “They threw us in jail for kicking the crap out of the city police chief’s son.” She drained her mug. “Hear he holds a long grudge.”
The door slammed open again, and some of the city watch entered, with the typical faint swagger of those in power. One of them claimed a table that had been recently vacated by sailors, and signaled the server over, while his mates surveyed the room before joining him.
Their eyes fell on the Amazons.
Xena sighed and rubbed her temples. “Eat fast.” She advised Iolaus. “It’s going to be one of those mornings.”