A Queen’s Tale

Part 12

Gabrielle judged the angle of the sun as the climbed up the path back into the mountains.   The light was fading, and she was approaching the time when she’d have to decide where and when they’d stop for the night.

However, the sense of urgency she’d started to feel was pushing her to keep going, riding through the night and ending up home as quickly as possible.  That meant no stopping, and while she knew the Amazons and the soldiers were more than capable of that she had to wonder about her daughter.

Dori had fallen asleep on horseback before, cradled in her arms or in Xena’s, but usually that had been during their daily travels, not because she’d been forced to.   “Hey Dor?”

“Mama?” Dori half turned around to look up at her inquisitively. “Got cookies?”

“I sure do.” Gabrielle fished in her saddlebag and pulled out a travel bar, breaking it in half and giving one portion to her daughter.  “Here you go.”  She bit into the other half, and chewed it. “What do you think about sleeping right here, Dor, on Argo’s back?”

Dori gave her a puzzled look.

 “Here’s the deal.” Gabrielle continued. “Mama’s got to get back hoe real soon, back to Grandma and everyone so  I want to see if Argo will keep walking all night long so we can get there faster.”

Argo’s ears flicked back, then forward.

“So I wanted to know if you could be good for me, and stay here and just go to sleep on Argo’s back, just like Xena does.”

“Boo.”  Dori considered.  “Boo loves Gogo.”

Gabrielle smiled. “Yes, she does.”  She ruffled Dori’s hair. “Boo loves Argo, and you, and me. And I know she’d want us to get home as soon as we can, so we can tell all our friends about the men we saw, right?”

“Ride Gogo.” Dori turned back around and thumped her boots against the mare’s neck. “Gogo, go fast!”

“Gabrielle.”  Bennu was coming up fast on her left hand side. She drew Argo over and half turned, spotting the concerned look on his face at once.    “We’re bein followed.”

Of course. What were the odds she’d have seen an enemy army and made it back to tell anyone in peace and quiet?  Her life just didn’t work that way. “How many?”

“Hard t’say.”  Bennu grunted. “Comin fast.”

Run? Or stand and fight?  “Let’s move.” Gabrielle squeezed her knees tighter against Argo’s sides.  “See if we can lose them.”

Dubious, at best.  But turning to fight on the path they were on, single file, was worse.  Gabrielle slid forward a little and took a good grip on the reins with one hand, her other reaching down to untie the straps holding her staff to the mare’s side.

“We go?” Dori looked around.

“Stay down, honey.” Gabrielle felt the mare start to pick up speed, not quite running, but moving in an amble up the steep, rocky slope. “Bennu, let’s look for a place to turn around if we need to.”

“Aye.’ The soldier answered shortly.  “Could hold the cave, maybe.”

Maybe.  Gabrielle could hear the Amazons getting their crossbows ready behind her . She got her staff unhooked and shifted it forward in her hand, careful not to smack Argo in the head with it.  Should they head for the cave? 

She could see it up the slope, the opening just visible.  Or would that get them pinned down again…  She thought about that, as her breathing deepened, and her body tensed, hearing the low rumble of hoofbeats behind them.

“Bad mens come.”  Dori said. “Mama, I don’t like it.”

“I know sweetheart.”  Gabrielle murmured. “I should have left you with grandma, huh? “ She looked behind her, seeing the grim faces. “I should have left all of us with grandma and sent some young, fast kid out here.”

“They’re gaining on us.”  Solari called forward.  “Damn I’m glad we let you go in front.”

“If they catch us, you won’t be.”  Gabrielle yelled back.

Argo’s ears went back, and she surged forward as Gabrielle  lowered her profile, hoping the men chasing them didn’t just start firing when they got a clear shot.   She felt tense, but she was also surprised to find the situation really annoyed her more than scared her, despite having Dori huddled in front of her.

So many fights, so many battles. So many headlong dashes, and the clang of weapons, and eventually you just considered being in mortal danger sort of normal.   Gabrielle shifted her grip on her staff as her eyes swept the ground before them.  

She was in that place.   They thundered towards the cave, and she heard the rasp and twang of crossbows firing behind her. 

“Hurry up! Get to the cave!” Solari yelled.  “Watch out! Nala! Watch it!”

Argo lunged the last few feet up to the cavern level and as she started to straighten, something made Gabrielle stop, and slack off the reins instead. “We’re not stopping!!!” She yelled at the top of her voice. “Follow me!”

“B.. Ga.. Ma… What???” Solari barked. “They’re almo… wheres she….  Oh Gods! Watch it!” 

“Gabrielle! Where you going!” Bennu called. “Y’can’t go up the path there, it’s a dead end!”

“I’m not! Just follow me, damn it!” Gabrielle turned Argo down a smaller path  just past the caverns, one that was steep and narrow, and caused the mare’s eyes to roll and show their whites. “Easy girl. “ She patted Argo’s neck. “Don’t fall down, okay? I can’t jump off you like Xena can.”

“Gogo!” Dori seemed delighted at this new turn and the rapidly increasing speed. “Go! Mama! Go!”

“We’re going, Dor.”  Gabrielle risked a look behind her, to find Solari’s horse just a length beyond Argo’s tail, with the rest of them behind her trying not to overshoot and send everyone sprawling downhill.  “Just stay with me!”

“Hades!” One of the soldiers yelled. “I’m off… watch the horse! Watch him! He’ll fall… where..”

“Your majesty have you lost your mind!” Nala squawked. “Watch it! Help!”

“Let your horses find the path!” Gabrielle hoped she wasn’t making one of the more abysmal mistakes of her life.  “Just hang on! Trust me! Stay with me!”

“Like ticks.”  Solari agreed “Watch it, kid.” She warned Cait, who was trying to turn around, shoot, and maintain control of her horse at the same time.  “You’re gonna shoot Benny!”
“Bother.”  Cait ducked and squirmed around, then got a shot off that almost skimmed the ears of the horse Paladia was riding.  “Pally, duck.”

“Turn around and ride you nut!” Paladia yelled back. “You’re gonna fall off! Those guys ain’t gonna follow us they’re not stupid!”

Gabrielle swiveled forward, and concentrated on the path, hoping Argo would be able to find her way down it without much guidance.  She had one arm around Dori with her hand clutching the reins, and her staff in her other hand and she didn’t have Xena’s horse skills to help her.

The path narrowed, and now branches were slapping her on either side, and she had to hug her staff close to Argo’s body least it be ripped from her grip.

“Ow!” Nala cursed. “Gods be damned.. where in the Hades…”

“C’mon! Stay close!” Gabrielle yelled back. “They still behind us?”

She felt a little crazy, and her heart was starting to hammer. Not from the impending fight, but because she was really going on instinct, and Gabrielle knew she really didn’t have that kind of instinct in her in a useful way.

She’d once told Xena she followed her heart into compound disasters.  That really hadn’t changed much, she thought.  But she half remembered where she was, and if she was right….

“Watch it!”  Bennu yelled. “Here they come!”

Gabrielle focused on the path, and leaned a little to the left  as the path veered that way, closing in even tighter as it wound it’s way through rapidly overgrowing foliage. “Uh oh.” She muttered. “Wasn’t really like this the laa…. Oh, sheep crap.”

“Mama?”

“Keep your head down honey.” Gabrielle did the same. “Watch out overhead!” She yelled behind her as she heard the curses and the sound of breaking branches.  “Keep tight to your horses backs!”

“Easy for you to say!” Solari groaned.  “Oh Artemis’s tit.” She cursed.  “Careful! Careful you idiots… no, don’t pull up like that! Let the horse… oh damn it!”

Argo’s hooves were starting to slide a little as the path abruptly got steeper, and after a brief glance forward, Gabrielle closed her eyes and trusted the mare, gritting her teeth as they slid and stumbled down a long embankment, half running and half falling with the sound of huge crashes behind her.

“I think this was a bad idea.” She grunted.  “Really bad idea. This is one of those ideas that ends up with me on my ass in some thorn bush with Xena standing over me and giving me ‘that look.’

“Fun.” Dori commented. “Gonna go fishes.”  She was clutching Argo’s mane and looking past the mare’s shoulder.  “Go go!”

“Water?” Gabrielle’s head jerked back around.  “Water? Oh.. yeah..  watch it guys, we’re getting wet!”

A moment later, Argo’s hooves splashed into water, and they were covered in it as the mare plunged into a chest deep running stream.  She kept moving, the force of the creek pushing her forward and out of the way of the pile of horses and yelling Amazons behind her.

“Damn!” Bennu bawled. “Watch it man! W… aw Hades!”

“AHHHHHH!!!!!”

“Bother.” Cait appeared at Gabrielle’s shoulder.  “That was wicked.”

“Fun!” Dori kicked up her heels. “Mama, let’s go get fishes.”

“Not right now, Dori.”  Gabrielle half turned, relieved to see the majority of her little force behind her in more or less one piece.  “Those guys still following us?”

“No.”  Cait shook her head. “The lot of them pulled up when the path went bad and we started falling off the mountain. I suppose they figured it was too dangerous.”  She pulled a tangle of leaves out of her hair.  “I can’t see why myself.”

Gabrielle looked up at the path they’d taken, which was marked by broken branches and trees and so steep she quickly turned back around.  “Right.” She agreed. “Everyone okay?”

“Yeah, I think.” Solari was settling her weapons around her.  “That was a ride to Hades.”

“Bigods.” Bennu looked a little the worse for wear.   “Been through wars since I was a tot wasn’t that crazy.”  He looked over at Gabrielle in question.   “And now, little hawk?”

And sometimes, you just got lucky.  “Okay. We can follow this right to Xena’s valley.” Gabrielle counted noses.  “If they’re still behind us, there’s arms in there and friends to wield them.” She patted Argo’s neck, and slid her staff back into it’s holders.

She could hear faint sounds of surprise and muffled a smile.  “I didn’t want to take a chance on the cave. They’d have trapped us in there.” She continued, glancing at Bennu’s face.

His head was cocked just to one side. “Stream goes down past the entrance, yeah?” He said. “Near the wall there?”

Gabrielle nodded, seeing a new respect in his eyes.   It felt a little odd.  “So let’s get going. We’d need to warn Jessan’s people there anyway.”   She urged Argo forward,  as the stream wound between thick leaved trees and soon swallowed them from the eyes of their frustrated followers.

“Mama, no fishes?” Dori looked into the water sadly.  “Hungry!”

“Honey, there aren’t any fishes right here.”  Gabrielle retrieved another bar and handed it to her, as her pulse started to settle.  “We’re going to see our friends in the valley. You like them right?  You remember Butterbean?”

Dori was instantly distracted. Her eyes lit up and she started to bounce around on Argo’s neck. “Yes!” She said.  “When, mama? Soon?”

 “Soon, honey.”  Gabrielle felt better as the forest swallowed them.  They were in a fold in the hills, and the stream they were wading in led almost directly down past the entrance to the valley they’d fortified in the last war and where Jessan’s people now lived in wild seclusion.

Wild, because they’d chosen to leave most of the valley that way, and seclusion because the area was unsettled and at least in popular view under Xena’s protection.   The warrior had claimed it, after the war as some place to retreat to in times of danger and the walls they’d constructed were still there, still cared for, and still manned, or forest dwellered, just in case.

You just never knew.   It was close enough to Amphipolis for there to be regular traffic between them, and yet far enough so that Jessan’s people didn’t feel the impact of living amongst their human friends.

Gabrielle had toyed with the idea of moving there, on occasion. When the village got a little too frustrating for her.

“Hey, that was pretty cool.”  Solari edged up next to her. 

“What, the path?”  Gabrielle glanced sideways at her. “Now that we’re not squashed like a bug down here, right?”

Solari grinned. “Hey you got to take a chance sometimes, you know?”  She put a brave face on it.  “That kinda stuff’s old hat to you and Big X, huh?”

Hm. Gabrielle considered that.  Would Xena have considered the plunge down the mountain, endangering her family and her beloved mare old hat?

Probably not.  “Well, I guess I figured getting stuck in the cave, like being pinned down on the path, really didn’t get us anywhere. “ She answered slowly. “I think we could have held them there, but I get the feeling their intent is to keep us from getting back and spreading the word, not just to attack us.”

Solari nodded, and next to her, Bennu nodded also. “Makes sense.” The Amazon said. “Maybe they think we fell down and cracked our skulls and did the job for them.”

“Maybe.”

“Figure they’ll go up and down the ridge and come up the other side.” Bennu shook his head. “Didn’t figure to give up so fast.” He disagreed. “Good thing for us to end up at t’valley.  Got good people there and can pass the word too.”

Gabrielle nodded.  “They wont’ make it over the mountain before we do though.” She said.  “And if they think they’ll storm the valley entrance, boy are they in for a surprise.”

Cait chuckled coldly. “Absolutly.” She said.  “Get a face full of fangs, I bet.”

The Spartans would be shocked to find the forest dwellers. Gabrielle mused. She didn’t think their presence was known anywhere outside Thrace and they kept to the wildest parts of that, not wanting any contact with Gabrielle’s people if they could avoid it.

Hm.

“Get there round dark.”  Bennu said. “Be glad of it.”

Murmurs of agreement surrounded her, as Gabrielle’s eyes went a little unfocused, and her eyes narrowed in thought.

Hm.

******

“Hey! Hey you there!”

Xena didn’t respond to the hail, figuring if someone actually wanted her attention they’d have the sense to use her name. She shoved her way through the crowd, guiding the Amazons and Iolaus along with her as they tried to put as much distance as they could between them and the tavern.

“Xena, maybe we should have stayed and explained…” Iolaus glanced behind them. ‘I’m sure the chief of police would have understood…”

“Hey! Gods be damned woman! Stop! I’m callin ya!”

“I’m sure he would have if we’d given him every last dinar we had.” Xena spotted an opening and directed them through it “Let’s get back to the inn and stay out of sight for a while.”  She checked the angle of the sun.

A hand grabbed Xena’s arm and she turned, cocking her fist to rid herself of it’s owner. “Hey!”

“Hey!” The man yelled back, a voice she recognized from the previous calling. “You deaf or something?” He seemed oblivious to the threat of Xena’s knuckles.   “Been calling you for a damned quarter candlemark.”

Xena glared at him. “I don’t answer to hey you.” She growled. “What the Hades do you want?”

He was an older man, with a thick, white beard and weathered skin, dressed in the thick cloth and boots of a seaman.  “Go t’Hades yourself, woman.  My master just told me to tell you if you want on the boat, get your ass down to the pier and get on it. We leave at the tide.”  He shoved her away from him and stalked off, his legs somewhere between bowlegged and just crooked.

Xena tracked his progress, and realized he was heading to the big ship her friend the Athenian patrician had pointed out as his own.  Apparently it was the one taking sail early.

The one taking prisoners.

The one she was supposed to be sailing on chasing some damned ass fools across the Agean.  For a moment, Xena thought about it, standing there being an impressive roadblock in the stream of people, oblivious to the venomous stares in her direction from those having to edge past.

 “I guess that’s our new friends ship, huh?” Iolaus said. “Not a nice invite, but I’im going to take it, Xena.  It’s the fastest way to Athens.”

Xena exhaled. “Yeah.” She said.  “Let’s grab our gear and get out of here. Sticking around will probably just get us in more trouble anyway.”  She changed direction and started plowing thorugh the crowd heading across it, away from the piers and back up towards the hill the inn stood on.

“Can we come with you?” The older Amazon said. “You’er going to try and find your friends right? They’re with our people.”

“C’mon.” Xena waved her hand, not really caring if they followed her or not.  Now that she’d made the decision to go the advantages of that were occurring to her rapidly, and she felt a sense of relief come over her that she wasn’t going to be stuck in the city for much longer.

Even the though of sharing the transport with undesirables wasn’t bothering her that much, as she figured the ship was big enough, and they’d be down in the hold for the voyage.   

This was better. It got her to Athens faster, she could find Ephiny and Pony faster, and then start back faster, getting home before things started heating up.   She ducked under a log being carried by four men and got out of the way of heavy wagon, the heat and the noise pressing in around her.

It rasped against her like a rough piece of bark.  The stench of the waterfront suddenly wafter over her as the wind changed, and she was abruptly glad she’d missed out on any food at the tavern. Even the ale was sitting uneasily in her gut.

“Ugh.” Iolaus grunted. “Forgot how much I hated that stench.”

Xena didn’t answer. She just moved faster, pushing her way through the milling crowd and reaching the stepped cobblestoned path that led up the hill.   There, it was easier going and she broke into a jog, heading upwards with only a thin stream of well dressed patricians going the other way to dodge.

Behind her, she could hear the noise of the city dropping away, and the sound of her own boots on the rock got louder.  They reached the  top of the hill and found it almost deserted, the top road quiet and windswept and a definite relief.

“Swanky.” Regi commented.  “Figures.”

Her sister gave her a look. “Would you shut up already?” She snapped. “I’m not going to listen to your attitude for much longer. I’ll turn you back over ot the police.”

 The woman glowered, but remained silent as they crossed the path and the large stable doors that were now flung wide open.  

Xena went to them, and caught the attention of a groom. “Hey.”

The man came over touching his chest respectfully. ‘Yes, citizen?”

“Gold stallion. I need him ready to go. Ships pulling out.” Xena said, crisply, handing over a coin. “Careful of his head. He bites.”

The man took the coin. “Right away.” He turned and headed towards  the equine Iolaus and only then did Xena realize she probably had a personally embarrassing admission to make to her old friend and recent companion.  “Ah.” She turned to the human Iolaus.

“Nice horse.” The blond man said.  “One of Argo’s?

“Her son.”  Xena glanced furtively around. “She had twin colts.  His brother got killed in the war.”

“Ahh. That last big one.” Iolaus patted her shoulder. “Sorry to hear it. “ He studied the stallion, who had spotted his mistress and had his head poking over the stall divider watching her alertly.  “Gorgeous animal.”

Xena raised one hand to pinch the bridge of her nose,  glancing sideways at him. “His name’s Iolaus.”

“Really nice head a…” Iolaus stopped speaking and looked at her.  “You’re joking.”

Xena gave him an appealingly wry grin, and shook her head.

“Xena, you named a horse after me?” Iolaus asked, plaintively.  “Really?”

“Yeah.”  The warrior cleared her throat.  “Wasn’t meant to be an insult.  I like horses.”

 Iolaus covered his eyes with one hand and exhaled, then he started laughing silently, his shoulders shaking. “Why is this a surprise, after what you named that wolf?”  He finally sighed, lifting his head and resting his elbow against the door. “At least he’s good looking.”

‘Yeah, well.” Xena let out a private sigh of relief. “Let’s get our gear.” She turned to the two Amazons who had drawn a little away, and were sitting on a whitewashed limestone bench. “We’ll be right back.”

The elder one nodded and lifted a hand. “We’ll wait.”

“Figured you would.” Iolaus muttered as they trotted up the steps into the inn’s courtyard.  “What sourpusses, Xena. They’ve got worse attitudes than you do.”

“I wasn’t locked up in the damn jail.” Xena evaded the innkeeper who had been hustling in her direction the moment he saw her.  “Grab your stuff and lets get out of here. “

They separated at the hall and went to their respective rooms.  Xena unlocked her door and shoved it open, reaching to hang the key on the hook as she moved over ot where she’d left her gear neatly packed and ready to go.

She picked up her saddlebags and slung them over her shoulder, turning and pulling up short as the door swung open and the innkeeper appeared.   “Sorry. Nice place, but I need to get going.”

“The ship, of course.” The innkeeper was already nodding.  “Many will go with you, in fact if all the hysterical hurrying by servants is any indication.” He said. “I thought since you were one of the few delightful patrons who’ve graced my premise I thought I might gift you with a picnic basket for you to take aboard with you.”

On the verge of simply passing right by him, Xena paused, surprised at the offer.  “Why was I delightlful?” She asked bluntly.  “Because I didn’t break anything?”

“Because you are as wonderful as you think you are.”  The man answered, with a smile.  “So rare. So very rare.” He gave a slight bow. “The basket is waiting right out side as I figured you were not the waiting kind.  Will you accept it?”

Xena focused fully on him, meeting his eyes and producing an open, genuine smile.  “Absolutely.”   She said.  “And back atcha. Anyone who asks where to stay in Thera, I know where to send them.”

“Not everyone, my dear.” The innkeeper’s eyes twinkled.  “Only the best people, please.”  He opened the door and they emerged into the hallway which was, in fact, full of scurrying servants running back and forth. 

Iolaus was waiting, his pack on his back, and standing tight against the wall was one of the inn servants, with a big wicker basket  clutched firmly in both hands.   

“Escaobar, please follow these good people outside to the road with this basket, then return.” The innkeeper said.  “Good voyage, sir and madam.” He gave a slight bow again, then he disappeared into the flow of people without further word.

“C’mon.” Xena headed back towards the stable. 

“What’s in the basket?” Iolaus asked, as he fell in at her side.  “Kittens?”

“Yeah, for lunch.”  The warrior rambled down the steps and emerged into the street.  “Hope you like yours raw.”

“Yum.   I can see where Hercules learned those cooking tricks.” 

Despite it all, Xena smiled, her humor restored by the innkeeper and his basket, and the prospects of getting out of the city.   She gave the equine Io’s cheek a pat, then glanced past him to see a muddy, sad looking horse being tied up outside the stable.

With a start, she recognized the white mare, under a coating of mud and briars, and more than a little dried blood.  ‘What happened to her?”

The groom looked up in surprise. “Ah.  Was a criminal’s horse, citizen.  The soldiers brought her in, but she’s not to their liking and too spirited, so they asked us to clean her up a little to see if we can get a dinar or two for her for them.”

Both Xena and Iolaus reacted at once, reaching for their belt pouches. “Ah aha h!!” Iolaus jumped in front of her. “You have one.  Just hope I don’t name this one Xena.”

“A white horse?” The warrior retorted.

“Never mind that.”  Iolaus went over and touched the mare’s nose, stroking it gently.  “I’ll give five dinars for her, and take her with me. How’s that boys? You don’t even have to clean her up. It’lll give me something to do onboard the ship.”

The groom stuck his hand out without hesitation. “Wish we had more patrons like you sir.” He took the coins.  “Take a dozen, any day.  She’s a sweet beast, bad used.”  He added. “Real fine blood.”

“We’ll take care of her.”  Iolaus stroked the mare’s cheek, encouraged when she made a soft nickering sound and butted her head into his chest. “Don’t worry girl, you’re safe now.”  He smiled. “Mommy Xena and I will take care of you.”

Xena’s eyes narrowed. “My mother’s got a new batch of piglets that need names.” She commented, in a meaningful tone.

Iolaus smiled his bright smile. “Message taken.” He said. “I remember your mother’s hogs.  I’ve fought hydras less frightening.”

The Amazons had stood when Xena and Iolaus had appeared, and now they were standing to one side, watching them uncertainly.     Xena spared them a glance, then she shifted her saddlebags to Io’s back and fastened them in place. “Let’s go.”

“Madame?” The servant from the inn, who had been standing in silence as this went on, stepped forward. “Your basket.”

Xena hesitated, then she took the wicker and fastened it to a saddle ring, ignoring Io’s dubious look at it. “I’m sure there’s an apple in there for you, boy.” She muttered.

The servant turned and escaped back up the steps into the inn, leaving them alone in front of the stable. 

In the distance, a faint rumble of thunder was heard.  “Just what we needed.” Iolaus sighed.

“Let’s get onboard before it starts.”  Xena led the way down the slope from the inn, her hand firmly clasped on Io’s bridle.  The mare followed with no real urging and they made their way through the crowd onto the larger road that led down to the harbor.

Glancing to her left, Xena saw a train of servants hurrying down the steps they came up heading in the same direction, laden with burdens and carrying bags across their shoulders.  She wondered at the sudden turn around, though.   “Huh.”

“You say something, Xena?”  Iolaus was gently pulling the burrs out of the mare’s mane.  

“Wonder who changed the ship leaving?” The warrior mused. “ They didn’t seem to be in that much of a hurry last night.”

“Good question.” The blond man said.  “Maybe they got word things are heating up faster than expected? Could have come in on the ship.”

“Could have.” Xena acknowledged.  “Whats your plan once you get over there?”

Iolaus was silent, then he glanced around. “Tell you later.” He said. “It’s a little irregular.”

Oh boy.  Xena kept moving, and they wound their way down the harbor past the tied up ships, most of which were still offloading people and merchandise onto the docks.   

Only the ship on the end, the largest and richest of them, had a frantic spate of activity around it, and wagons and men running to carry supplies onto the ship instead of taking them off.  

She spotted a carriage approaching, a well built conveyance drawn by four matched horses, and they bustled through the crowd as they pulled up to the gangplank.  A man hopped down and opened a door, and white robed patricians alighted, tugging their garments straight as they observed the ship.

Xena recognized a few of them as their dinner partners from the day before.   She sped up her pace a little, drawing a determined path through the crowd to where the patricians were gathering.

She wasn’t worried about talking her way onboard. After all, someone from the damn ship had sent an old salt after her.  But getting the situation settled from the start would make it easier, especially since she was bringing the two Amazons with her.

As she drew nearer, she saw a man dressed in a gold threaded overtunic mount the gangplank and head down to greet the newcomers. From his stance and attitude,  Xena guessed he was the captain on the ship, and watching his body language as he greeted the patricians confirmed it.

This was a man who was his own master.   Xena muffled a smile, as they crossed the last bit of dock and dodged the last hurrying sailors to arrive just in front o the wagon in time to hear the captain speak.

“Gentlemen, your request is impossible.”  The captain said. “To prepare this vessel to sail in so short a time – out of the question.”

The patrician in front, who Xena recognized as her dinner companion, merely nodded. “Are we ready, Captain?”

The man sighed.  “We are not.” He shook his head. “We have difficulty obtaining two items critical to the sailing, one of which being fresh water.”

“Oh, that’s a necessary thing.”  Iolaus said. “I”ve been on a ship without fresh water. They made us drink rum the whole time.  Couldn’t even remember my name most of the trip.”

“Captain, we must sail.” The patrician said. His head turned as he regarded the surroundings and he paused as he spotted Xena. “Ah, there you are.” He seemed relieved. “Word reached you then, I see.”

Thus addressed, Xena advanced through the crowd of robes and arrived to stand in front of the captain. “They found me.” She agreed. “Are we sailing?”

“Of course.”  Denius said. “We must get back to Athens immediately. I had word from one of my men who came in on the Striped Duck over there that things have moved ahead far more quickly than I imagined.”

The captain was regarding Xena warily, and the warrior had the feeling she knew him somewhere from back when. 

“Well, here we are.” Xena indicated the small group behind her. “I picked up a few Amazons. They’re coming with me.” She added, in an uncompromising tone.

“Excellent!” Denius seemed delighted. “The more the better.  Let’s go onboard, while the captain here finishes getting ready.” He turned and stared at the captain. “We will be ready at the tide, correct captain?  Whatever it takes to obtain your supplies, do so. I will pay.”

The man touched his cap brim.  “As you wish.”  He answered grimly.  “But it’ll cost dearly, I’m warning you.”

Denius made a gesture towards him. “We’re preparing for war, man. What kind of idiot are you?  What cost could matter? Just be quick about it.  We’ll be getting settled onboard.”

The captain stalked off, visibly angry, and the sailors busy coiling ropes and moving things onboard gave him wary looks as  he passed.

One of the men, a tall, thin man in a linen tunic, came down the gangway and stopped before them. “I’m Teras.” He said. “First mate.  You need to bring all onboard? Them horses? The wagon? I”ll get some to help.”

“Just our bags.” Denius indicated the pile of luggage.   “I can find my cabin onboard. Please let us pass.” He led his group up the ramp as the man stood to one side. Then he stopped and turned. “Make sure there are rooms made ready for our other guests.” He indicated Xena and her little gang.  “As good as ours.”

The patricians disappeared, leaving the mate to face them. “Horses come at your hand or need hobbles?” The man asked. “Got room for them below.” 

“Lead on.” Iolaus said. “I need to clean this girl up a little..”

 “My tack kits in my bags.” Xena said, as she started to lead the stallion up the ramp. “You can borrow the brushes.”

The mate gave them strange looks, but shrugged and led the way onboard, edging past Xena and crossing to the deck to wait for them to follow.

It was a strange feeling. Xena felt the soft motion under her feet and she kept a good hold on Io’s bridle as they walked up the broad wooden ramp and into the hold of the ship.

It smelled of old wood and pitch, and the sharp scent of rope and Xena remembered all too vividly the last sea voyage she’d chosen to make.  She felt a pang in her chest, but she swallowed hard and dismissed it, acknowledging that this time, absolutely, was very different.

She just really hoped the trip would end in a much better place.

**

It was almost dark by the time Gabrielle lead them out of the forest through the thick swath of trees that bordered the entrance to the valley.    

No one was arguing with her now, or trying to push in front. They were content to follow along where she led them, and had spent a last few candle marks in a quiet peaceful pace through beautiful virgin forest.

It was quiet and wild here, far from the road, and close enough to the borders of the high mountains to make settling out of the question for most.

They’d left the stream about a candle mark back, and Gabrielle figured her boots were about half dry as she guided Argo around some fallen logs towards the somber, now age darkened wood stockade fence.

“Glad to see this place.” Bennu said. “Good to sleep inside walls with them lot out there.”

“You got that right, Benny.”  Solari stretched her body out.  “I’ll be glad to see the fuzzies.  Good people.”  She added, almost as an afterthought, as she caught Gabrielle’s glance in her direction, and the grin at the words.

“They’re awfully nice.”  Cait said. “Even Pally thinks so, finally. Don’t you Pally?”

Paladia considered the question.  “Yeah.” She said, after a long pause. “We didn’t start out so great, but they grown on ya.” She conceded. “Kinda like other people around here.”

Gabrielle’s ears twitched, just a trifle, and she wondered if the ex rengade was referring to the Amazons, to Cait, whom she was partnered with, or to Gabrielle herself.

Or all of the above. Hard to say.  She took a deep breath and let it out, looking very much forward to the end of a very long day.   “C’mon, Argo, I think I smell a nice stall and some hay for you.”  She patted the mare’s shoulder as they headed down the last little slope to the gates.

There was activity around the entrance, and after a moment a group of tall, robust, furry people ducked out the gates and jogged in her direction. 

Ah. “Jessan!”  Gabrielle waved in his direction.  “Hey!”

The forest dweller in the lead returned the wave and hustled over to her, his body posture already putting Gabrielle on alert. “Hey Gabrielle… glad you’re here.”

“Uh oh.”  The bard reined Argo in as her friend arrived at her knee. She slid off the mare’s back and gave him a hug, as the second forest dweller distracted Dori.   “Why do I always worry when I hear anyone say that?”

“Ah heh.” Jessan waved at the rest of the group. “C’mon inside.  It’s not really bad, or anything. We just had some refugees show up here who didn’t expect walking carpets to be manning the walls.”

“Well.” Gabrielle took hold of Argos reins. “Stay up there, Dor, we’ll be inside in a minute, okay?”

“Mama, want to go play with the pipples!”  Dori was fairly bouncing up and down on the saddle, despite the long day of traveling behind them. “C’n I go?”

“In a minute, honey.” Gabrielle slid her arm around Jessan’s back. “I’ve got some news too.”  She said, in a lower tone. “Bad news.”

Jessan sighed, then he glanced around, looking back at Gabrielle in silent question.

“She’s out doing me a favor.” Gabrielle interpreted the look without effort. “That’s part of the news too. Let’s go inside first though I’d rather not drag through it more than once.”

“Uhgh.” Jessan wrinkled his muzzle up.  “Well, glad to see you anyway.” He gave his friend a toothy smile.  “We were just about to visit, too  We’ve heard some weird things lately.”

Gabrielle laughed wryly.

“That’s what I thought.” Jessan turned his attention to Dori. ‘Hey there, bittyboo!”  He greeted the child. “My kids are gonna go nuts when they see you. “

“She loves playing with them.”  Gabrielle said. “And I know she’ll be glad to sleep on something but rocks tonight as much as I will.” 

Jessan led the way to the gates, which were swinging all the way open to receive them. Inside, a handful of forest dwellers were on hand, all toothy smiles as they entered the stronghold.

That’s what it was, actually, not so much a valley, or a village, but the first place Xena had fortified in the war, where they’d gathered their forces and she’d taught the Amazons to fight horseback.  They’d built a huge stockage fence across the narrow valley opening, twice the height of a man and the forest dwellers had chosen to take it over after the battle and live there.

It was secluded, definitely, and well protected, and there were cave systems inside that could easily hold three times the number of people who lived there.

Plenty of space to spread out, a good size lake in the bowl part of the valley whose far end was closed, good hunting, good fishing… really it was all you could ask for if you were a secretive group of not quite humans looking for a nice place to live.

They exchanged greetings, and the big gates swung shut with a solid boom behind them, making Gabrielle able to relax fully for the first time in several days.   Inside the gates there was a big round gathering place, and a outdoor cookpit that was sending sparks into the air.

“Wow.” Gabrielle looked around. “There’s a lot more people here than last time.”

Jessan smiled. “Finally got the rest of the village to move back here.” He commented.  “Mom and Dad, too.” He waved across the open space to a figure Gabrielle recognized as Wennid, his mother.  “Truthfully, that whole ghost thing freaked em.”

“Really?”  Gabrielle mused. “Well, yeah, I guess with them worshipping the column and all that stuff.” She remembered her own part in the drama. “But really, they turned out to be nice people. “ She paused. “Spirits.” She paused again. “Whatever.”

“Yeah, it was just a little too close to home.” Jessan smiled as several younger forest dwellers ran up.  “Will you guys be nice and take our friends horses down to the yard?  They’ve had a long day it looks like.”

“Sure.” The nearer one grinned at Gabrielle. “Will you be telling stories later?”

Jessan rolled his eyes. “Nice.” He sighed. “Can you let her get a drink first?”

Gabrielle chuckled as she swung Dori down from Argo’s back, and unclipped her saddlebags.  “I’m sure I will be.” She said. “Thanks.”

The group followed Jessan through the open space and past the fire to a path that led between thick leaved trees and opened up to a small grove with a half dozen round huts in it. “We just finished these for some newcomers due in a moon.” Jessan said. “But you can test em out.”

Loud squeals made them all turn, to see three tiny figures racing across the grass making  a beeline for Dori.

“Honey, your friends spotted you.” Gabrielle said. “Why don’t you… careful!” She watched Dori bolt past her to go meet her little playmates.   “Gosh they’re so cute.”

“That’s one word for it.”  Paladia commented, but in a mild tone.

“Okay.”  Gabrielle turned around,. “Split up and grab some bunks, guys.  I’m going to talk to Jessan for a bit then maybe we’ll see if I have to talk for our supper.”  She waited for them to split up and separate, taking five of the six huts, then she turned and looked at her friend. 

Jessan looked back at her. “Want a drink?”

“Do I ever.”

They linked arms and headed not to the sixth hut, but down another path into another secluded glade, this with a single homestead in it with space all around and it’s own small brook.    They pushed the door open and entered Jessan’s house, which was cool, quiet and empty. 

Jessan nudged her towards a bowl chair and went to the cupboard.  “So.”

“So.” Gabrielle settled herself. “Where do I start.”

“Want me to?” Her friend came back with two cups and handed her one.  “Yesterday, one of our scouts came in and told us he found five strangers, in fancy clothing, nearly dead in the forest.” He watched Gabrielle’s eyes widen.  “Freaked us out a little.”

“I bet.”

Jessan sat down in the bowl chair across from her.  “Pretty big debate on whether we should bring them here or not.”

Gabrielle merely nodded. Given how she’d met Jessan, it wasn’t entirely unexpected that his people would rather shy away from hers.

“But we did.” Jessan said, with a half shrug.  “I think mostly because we were all so damn curious as to why they were dressed so funny out here in the forest.”   He grinned briefly.  “Elani took care of them and finally this morning one of them woke up, then promptly passed out again seeing her.”

“Ah.”

“Woke up again, and it turns out they’re from Athens.” Jessan continued. “Looking for Xena.”

“Ah.” Gabrielle repeated the grunt, with a completely different inflection. “Lot of that going around.” She said.  “Athens is going to war with Sparta.”

“We know. They told us.” Her friend agreed. “Over and over and over again, like we were pussy cats walking on two legs who didn’t know better.”

Gabrielle took a long swallow of the cool ale.  “So they missed Amphipolis?” She queried. “That’s a little tough, you know?  It’s the only thing on the road on the way towards here. That and Potadeia.”

“I know.” Jessan said. “Apparently they got jumped near the pass and went on the run and ended up crossing the river up here, then they got attacked again.  Not real friendly people in your neck of the woods.”

“No.” Gabrielle sighed. “I think they’re Spartans.”

Jessan’s eyes widened. “Really?”

“Yes.” The bard said. “We found a Spartan army about to cross into Thrace just below the river.  The people who attacked the Athenians were probably scouts…. At least on this side of the river.  Maybe even at the pass, since there was a big group of them who rode into Amphipolis looking to recruit Xena for their side.”

Jessan blinked. “The Spartans?”

“Yes.”

“But that’s what the Athenians wanted too.”  The forest dweller said.

“It’s been that kind of moon.” Gabrielle sighed, taking another drink from her mug. “Poor Xe.”

“Which side is she gonna pick?”

“Neither.”   Gabrielle said. “Matter of fact, she’s out chasing down Ephiny and Pony. They chased after some Amazons who were going to enlist to try and change their minds.”

Jessan cradled his mug, and watched her.  “Staying out of it’s not easy.” He said. “Will they let ya?”

Good question.  Gabrielle lifted a hand and let it drop in tacit admission.  She knew Jessan didn’t believe they’d be allowed to stay neutral any more than she did.  “Right now, I’m mostly concerned with getting back home and figuring out what we’re going to do when that army marches through here.” She said.  “We ran into at least two of their scouting parties ourselves.”

“So… the’re going to sneak up from behind, so to speak?” The forest dweller asked.  “Sounds pretty scummy.”  He raised his mug in a toast. “But we’ll deal with the like everything else.”

Gabrielle lifted her mug and tipped it in his direction.  “You know it.  We heard here was a large bunch of people moving through. We thought it was conscripts from upper Thrace for the army.  That’s why I headed out to just see for sure.”

“And because you can’t sit still.” Jessan grinned, to take the sting from the words.

Gabrielle smiled back, a bit sheepishly.

“So.” He stretched his legs out and crossed his ankles. “Been quiet at home?”

“Hum.” The bard scratched her jaw. “Where do I start?”

“Uh oh.”

**

“Mama, cn’ we stay here till Boo gets back?” Dori tugged at her mother’s arm, from the chair next to her.

Gabrielle put a bit of bone she’d just sucked clean down on her plate. “You want to stay here, honey? Did you have fun with your friends tonight?”

“Mama yes I did.” Dori said with wide eyed sincerity.   “They gots boats, mama they want to go to the water and go around.”

“On the lake?” Gabrielle reached over and smoothed Dori’s hair back. Despite the fact it was long past moonrise, and she’d been up before dawn, the child looked as brightly energetic as she had at breakfast. “You want to go o the boats on the lake?”

“Go to fishes.” Dori nodded.  “C’n we stay?’

Gods, it was tempting. Gabrielle looked over at the rest of her group, who were scattered at nearby tables intermingle with the forest dwellers, laughing and enjoying their late meal.

The forest dwellers were flourishing here. They were stalwart and friendly, and there was a part of her that felt very comfortable with them despite her sometime checkered history with different factions of their peoples.

It was good to see Jessan, and his wife Elani, the triplets who were growing like weeks, like Dori was, and who were the most favorite of her playmates.  Little Xena, little Gabrielle, and little Warren, whose energy equaled her child’s own.

It was tempting to go back to Amphipolis, and talk everyone into coming here to the valley.  They would be safe here, and probably even anonymous, since the chances of the Spartans wandering this far in the wilderness looking for people was pretty slim.

Just let them go past, let them wreak whatever havoc they intended to, and then after they were gone, go back and just build everything back up again. Maybe if they found Amphipolis abandoned, they just go on by.

Part of her conscience was horrified, knowing that so many people would be affected if she did nothing, warned no one, but another part of her had found itself highly tired of getting beat up time and again in the service of those who really didn’t give two squats about her.

I think I’m finally growing up. She mused silently.  I mean, really growing up and not just piling up experiences that make me dodge one way or the other.

Feels weird.  She gazed around at her friends, and for a long moment ached to feel Xena’s casual touch on her shoulder, or the offhand ruffling of her hair.

Then she twitched, and shrugged her shoulders, leaning back in her chair as she cradled her mug between her hands.  Across the room, Wennid caught her eye, and smiled, and she smiled back, her eyes flicking to the tall, still thin figure of Lestan seated in a padded chair next to her.

Recovered, to an extent, the horrible injuries grown over by fur, only the missing arm and the loss of muscle on his chest remaining to mark what had almost cost him his life.  

Almost. He had survived by a combination of Xena’s skilled hands, and his own iron will and looking at him Gabrielle felt a sense of accomplishment inside.  This one little thing had been a success of theirs and she was proud of it.

A hard thing.  But they’d seen it through, and Lestan had lived to see his new home raised, and watch his grandchildren run wild through it, and was glad himself no matter what the effort had been.

So much of their lives was like swimming upriver, sometimes making some progress, other times being rushed back downstream.  But she could look at Lestan, and this valley, and the thriving Amazons and her own family and know those few nuggets of positive reality.

“Mama, you tell story?” Dori changed mental directions. “Want to hear about Boo.”

Speaking of nuggets of positive reality. Gabrielle didn’t miss the pricked ears all around her. “In a little while, sweetie.” She told her. “Let mama finish her dinner, and you finish all of yours, then I’ll tell everyone a story. How about that?”

Dori eyed her thoughtfully, then she resumed plowing through her food, smacking her lips appreciatively. “See mama?  Num num.”

Gabrielle chuckled and set a piece of sliced meat between a fold of waybread and nibbled on it as she waited for everyone to get through their dinner.   She knew stories were welcome any time, but she liked people to pay attention, and it was hard to do that if you were busy with your food.

Jessan leaned on the arm of his chair.  ‘Don’t take this the wrong way.” He muttered. “But it’s a lot more relaxed here without your other half around.”

“Considering the last time?” Gabrielle said. “When Ares showed up?  I bet.” She leaned on her own chair arm a little closer to him. “I forget sometimes how weird it is with them.”

 “What’s he really like?”

Oh boy. Talk about your loaded questions.  “Wow.”  Gabrielle pondered the question, taking a bite of steak and chewing it.  “That’s a tough one.  Mostly because he’s changed over the time we’ve known him.”

Jessan studied her face in the firelight, noting the strong planes  “Uh huh?”

Gabrielle swirled her ale in her cup and took a sip.  “Yeah.” She said. “First I was afraid of him.  Then I resented him.  Then I was angry at him.  Then I hated him with every fiber of my being.” 

“Uh?”

The bard chuckled wryly. “Now I think I’m almost to the point of liking him.  Sometimes.”  She sighed. “He sure has a lot more shades of gray than he used to for me.”

“Ah huh.”

“You asked.”

“Boy, did I.  So.” Jessan peered at her. “How’s the weather so far this year?”

Gabrielle laughed softly, and patted his arm, turning her thoughts to what story she’d tell, and whether she’d be able to avoid the one with the cow.

Talk about ruining the image.

**

Xena watched the barrels being rolled onboard by sweating sailors, the sun’s heat baking down on them in a muggy, ominous stillness.   Under her boots she could feel the slight motion of the ship in it’s traces and found herself wishing they’d throw the lines off and at least break out of the harbor into a breeze.

She went to the side of the ship and looked over, idly watching the boat next to them offloading their cargo as the captain of her own vessel yelled strident orders behind her.

The Amazons had gone with Iolaus belowdecks with the horses, to get out of the sun, and then square away where they’d spend their time during the voyage.

She, herself, had been allotted a corner space in the forecastle, amidst the patricians. The fact that she had a shuttered window almost balanced the need to mingle with them, and she wasn’t displeased to find the ship’s crew treating her with an obvious, wary respect.

Iolaus had been put in a cabin nearby, smaller, but evidently to his satisfaction based on the relieved grin he had on when he emerged from it.  

A week at sea.  Xena leaned on the railing and exhaled. Then a day or two in Athens, if she was very very lucky and a week back.  There was already a feeling in her gut that it was taking too long, and that something was going on back at home – she only wished she knew if that was real, or if it was just wishful thinking.

Wouldn’t it stink if she got home and no one had missed her, right?  Xena smiled to herself, and acknowledged how unlikely that really was.  Two people at the very least would be watching for her return and even as she thought that she felt or imagined she felt a gentle tug calling her back.

The notion occurred to her that she no longer enjoyed being alone.

“Scuse me, lady.”

Since she was the only woman on deck, Xena rightly concluded this unlikely hail was for her. She turned to find a small, bandy legged sailor standing next to her. “Yes?”

“Y’won’t remember me but we met once.”  He said.

Xena scanned his face briefly. “I do remember.” She smiled. “On Cecrops ship.”

The old man grinned. “Aye.’ He said. “Been gone from that a time, yeah?  S’prised to see you here. Heard you’d tossed up the army thing.”

“I have.” Xena said. “I’m doing someone a favor.”

The man nodded. “How’s your sweetie?”

Amazingly personal question.  Xena actually felt herself blush. 

“Gutsy kid, that one.” The man went on, apparently obilivious.  “Beautiful eyes.”

Xena retrieved her dignity.  “Gabrielle’s fine.” She said. “We got married and had a kid.”

The sailor had been nodded in rememberance. Now he paused, and looked at her from under grizzled eyebrows, taking in the warrior’s pleasant smile.   “Didja now?”

“Mmhm.” Xena leaned casually against the side of the ship. 

“Well. Figure that.” He wandered off. “Ain’t that something.”

Xena chuckled softly. “Yeah, ain’t it?”  She exhaled, pushing off against the wall and turning her head when she heard the commotion of a wagon approaching.  She looked over the side again and spotted the soldiers, pulling their wagon up and getting ready to empty it.

Ah.  Xena watched them yank the two brothers out of one side, and a trussed up figure tied head to foot out of the other and felt a bare moment of sympathy for her randy adversary.

She hadn’t liked her, hadn’t appreciated the attentions, but the girl had spirit and it twinged her conscience to see them toss her to the ground like a sack of tubers.

The soldiers shoved the men up the ramp, and one picked up the girl and threw her over his shoulder, marching up after them and crossing the deck to descend into the hold on the opposite side of where they’d taken the horses.

The group of patricians chose that moment to emerge back onto the deck, and joined Xena at her post.  “Was that the water coming aboard?”  Denius asked.  “It grows late. Where is that damned captain?”

“Barrels came on earlier.” Xena said, briefly. “They just brought some criminals onboard.”

“Ahhh yes.”  Denius nodded. “We’ll get a pretty penny for turning those bastards over.  They swindled three of the senior council out of hundreds of dinars before they turned tail and ran.”

“Really?” Xena saw the captain trod up the gangway, gesturing to his men.  “Pulled one over on em, huh?”

“Indeed.” Denius said, gravely.  “Posed as children of a very rich man, who was interested in investing in the war.  Led them on, and ended up robbing them one night after they’d been supped like princes. “ He shook his head.  “With luck we’ll see them hang.”

Xena pondered what she remembered of the captives.  Something wasn’t quite adding up, since she clearly remembered the trio’s statement that they were traveling towards the port city, ostensibly to return to Athens.

Heading towards Athen’s soldiers? Knowing they were looked for?  The warrior frowned. “They were on the run?”

“Assuredly.” Denius nodded.  “With a large price on their head, from the council.  The guard captain who captured them will do very well.”

Hmm.  Xena’s brows hiked, just a bit.

“Are they known to you, Xena? I  thought I had heard from the police your name involved somehow?” Denius turned and regarded her with a more intent interest. 

“I wouldn’t say known.”  The warrior temporized.  “Looks like we’re taking off.” She drew their attention to the captain, who had marched up the steps from the hold to the deck, and was bearing down on them.   The sailors started to swarm around the deck as well, and suddenly the creak of lines and the flutter of the sails sounded loud.   ‘Captain.”

“Eh.”  The captain grunted. “Two hundred dinars, that’s what this haste has cost you, sir. “ He addressed Denius.  “And all the waterfront raped of water, mad as hind bitten goats and minded not to let me put in here again with ease.”

“They’ll get over it.” Denius waved the idea off. “They have two hundred dinars to nurse their grievences, and buy ale with to wash their feet.”   He took a deep breath. “Are we off then?  I want out of this stinking city.”

“We are.” The captain agreed.  “Be warned though, sir, we could not take on the delicacies one of your station expects. It will be soup and travel bread, and smoked meat for the crossing.”  He glanced at Xena.  “For everyone.”

The warrior regarded him thoughtfully.  “If you’re nice to me, I’ll fish for us on the way.” She said.  “If you’re not, I’ll use you as the bait.” She retained her relaxed posture, but allowed a lazy smile to appear as the man stared at her.

After a moment he stomped off and started yelling orders at the crew, and the patricians around her started laughing.

“Well spoken,  Xena.” Denius chuckled.  “The man’s a pompous ass, even for those of us well used to them.”   

Iolaus emerged from the hold, dusting his hands off.  He spotted them and approached, slowing to a halt next to Xenas tall form.  “All set.” He said. “I can’t believe what they did to that animal.  She’s such a beauty.”

Denius cocked his head in question.

“Your crooks.” Xena supplied. “One of them had a nice mare they brought along who was pretty banged up. Iolaus bought her.”

“Ahh.” Denius nodded.  “Then we all profited by the capture, even the horse who surely will be better served with you as her master, sir, than the brigands who brought her.”

Iolaus smiled politely. 

Denius turned as they heard the crack of a whip belowdecks, and the ship started to move away from the dock propelled by the slave wielded oars extended to either side of her.  “Come, let us refresh ourselves until we are out to see and the breeze takes the stink away.” He said, glancing at  Xena and Iolaus . “Sir, madam, until later.”  

The patricians left the deck, climbing up the short flight of steps to the forecastle and disappearing inside the inner hall that led to their cabins.    

Xena preferred to stay in the fresh air, and she leaned next to Iolaus as they watched the other ships slip behind him, knots of people on the docks yelling in outrage, with some pointing in their direction.   The sailors worked to rig the ship for sea, ignoring the commotion behind them.

“I saw them bring those prisoners down into the hold.” Iolaus said, after a few minutes of silence.  “They’re in cells at the very bottom of the ship. Stinks down there.”

“Cells usually do.”  Xena remarked.  “There’s a lot of slaves and livestock down there too.  Can’t be nice.”

“No. Well, at least it’s only a week to Athens.”  Iolaus acknowledged.  “I wouldn’t want to trade places.” He glanced around. “Your Amazon friends found some space near the merchants bunkroom. They seem happy.”

“Happy?”

“Well, less enraged.”  The blond man smiled wryly.  “I don’t think they like you much.”

Xena rolled her eyes. 

“I don’t think they like anyone much.” He went on.  “I sure hope they don’t make trouble with all those merchants. Last thing we need is a riot onboard.”

The ship slowly moved away from the shore, edging between the small boats in the harbor who turned out of their way and through the rocky breakwater that lined the inlet.   As they cleared the rocks, the motion of the sea became more apparent and once the headlands were past the bow the breeze crossed the deck as well.

Xena blinked into it, appreciating the cool saltiness as she expelled the air in her chest and drew in a clean breath, glad enough to leave the stench of civilization behind her.    The bow crested a wave, an the salt spray dampened her skin to counteract the heat of the sun and she decided she was glad at least to once again be on her way.

She looked ahead to the horizon, and saw a dark smudge on the far edge of it.   Somewhere out there a storm was building but for now, she was content to let the breeze fill the sails  and snap the lines taut and let the ship carry her hopefully in the right direction.

Hopefully.

“I’m going to go wash up.” Iolaus said. “Much as I love that little mare,  she sure smells like a horse.”  He pushed away from the rail and headed in the direction of the cabin, leaving  Xena to stand alone at the rail as they moved farther out to sea.

After a few more minutes, and a few more salty splashes,  Xena decided to join him, and she strolled across the rolling deck and left it to the sailors.

**

A candlemark later, she was sprawled in her bunk, shed of her armor as she took advantage of the sun pouring in her little window to read a few pages of her book.   She had the window propped open, and there was a cool breeze coming through it, brushing across the bare legs she had braced against the bunk’s far end.

She had cleaned both herself and her armor and brushed out her leathers, which were hanging on the far side of the small cabin to dry while she relaxed in a simple linen tunic.  It felt good to be rid of the sweat and dust of the day, and she’d even taken time to investigate what had been packed in her surprise gift basket.

That had surprised her.   She had initially been a little suspicious of the present, half expecting the innkeeper’s twisted humor to have provided her rocks or well wrapped old dead fish but finding instead enough carefully packed stores to last her the voyage if she chose to avoid the ship’s mess.

Waybread, certainly, but also smoked meat and fish, two crocks of spreading cheese,  apples and pears, flagons of wine and at the bottom a wrapped nut cake that smelled of honey and cinnamon.

Unexpected kindness.  Xena glanced over at the basket, and smiled briefly.   Gabrielle would have been delighted by it, but it did make her wonder just a trifle as to what the innkeeper wanted in return.

Just a good word?  A favor?

She shrugged and decided she didn’t much care.  If what he wanted was to be advertised, she’d be glad to do it basket or none. The inn had been more than comfortable, and she was disposed to do the man a favor in any case  because of the way he’d treated her.

Maybe she’d have Gabrielle work his inn into a story, and have that spread around.  The warrior glanced past her book and grinned, imagining hordes of patrons showing up at the inn.  Yeah. That’s what she’d do.

One good turn, and all that.

She went back to reading, flipping the page over and studying the next one.   The careful script detailed a poem  that talked about snow and the fragrance of pine trees, and she remembered that trip up into the mountains of the north and how they’d found that still, beautiful lake at the top of an exhausting climb.

Two cold, irritated, snippy women at their wits end with each other pausing in their heated argument as they topped the rise and saw the last of the sunset gilding the water with a quiet peace that simply shut them both up at once.

After a long stretch of them just silently absorbing the beauty, Gabrielle had cleared her throat. “Can we put this fight on hold til tomorrow?”

And Xena had extended her hand in answer. “It’s a stupid fight. Let’s just not have it.”

Gabrielle had in the past refused to give up on arguments.  She held them and worried at them like a dog with a bone until Xena wanted to bang her head against a tree in utter frustration.

“Okay by me.” But this time she just took Xena’s outstretched hand and they walked together over to a fallen log, sitting down on it together to watch the last of the sun fade and the purple twilight fall around them.

Xena now couldn’t even remember what they’d argued about.  Probably Gabrielle had been pissed that she hadn’t told her where they were going, mostly because Xena herself hadn’t a clue where they were.  What she remembered from that night was them sitting by the fire, on a double set of furs, full of broiled fish as she sharpened her sword and Gabrielle wrote in her diary.

She remembered the pop of the flames, and the feeling of just being glad to be living in that moment, a bit of quiet peace that morphed into something a little more when Gabrielle stopped writing, and turned to look at her.

‘You know something, Xena?”  Gabrielle had said.  “I’m really glad every day of my life ends just like this.”

Xena had felt tears sting her eyes quite unexpectedly, and she’d had to wait a moment to swallow the lump in her throat before she answered. “Yeah, me too.” 

Now, reading the words of Gabrielle’s poem again, she remembered that feeling of contentment, and the commitment between the two of them. She flipped the page over, and read her partner’s comments on it.

That was one of the strangest nights I could remember about us traveling together.  I remember getting madder and madder all day long.  My head hurt, and I was so angry at you, and the climb was impossible and then we got up to the lake and it was as though none of it mattered.

I didn’t forget about being mad, really.  It wasn’t like the whole day didn’t happen. 

I just realized how incredibly blessed my life was that I could see new things, and find places like that, and have a friendship like ours.

That I wasn’t stuck in a tiny village, feeding chickens, never knowing what it was to see the moon rise over a mountain lake or be able to turn my head and see the most beautiful person in the world looking back at me.

That was a stupid fight. Thank the gods you just threw it away like an orange peel. 

G

You could let life get you down, Xena mused.  They’d chosen that night otherwise, and she thought they maybe both had ended up better people for it.   Certainly, the night had ended on a far higher note than the day had started on.

She rolled onto her back and stretched out on the bunk, feeling the motion of the ship under her as she folded her hands under her head and studied the wooden spars over her head.    

What would Gabrielle do if she were here, and they were heading to Athens?  Would she just collect Eph and Pony and turn around?   What, Xena wondered, did she really want Xena to do?   Did she really want her to ignore the war?

When she’d left Amphipolis, she remembered feeling very strongly that going and getting back were what Gabrielle most wanted her to do.   She’d felt that way most of her journey.   But now that she’d bumped into Iolaus, and found out what was behind it – she was beginning to wonder if there wasn’t something she could do short of joining the fight to turn it around.

Could she help?  Could she keep the Amazons from heading into a disaster? Could she do anything to thwart two pissy goddesses with a lot at stake?

Did she want to risk anything doing that?

Xena studied the age darkened surface not that far over her head, reminded suddenly of her mother’s barn and the hayloft she’d consummated her relationship with Gabrielle in. “You know what?”  She spoke half to the ship around her, and half to the woman she’d left back in Amphipolis. “I don’t owe anyone but you a damn thing, Gabrielle.”

She would not risk.  She would act in Gabrielle’s best interests.

She would remember how blessed their lives were.

**

Continued in Part 13