A Queen’s Tale
Gabrielle walked with Elani down the neat, rock lined path that led from the central hall to the infirmary where she held sway. “Sounds like rain again.” She commented, hearing the rumble of thunder overhead.
“It does.” Elani agreed. “But at least it’s raining at night, when we’re all tucked in our bunks with a roof over our heads and not out working or hunting.” She led Gabrielle into the first of the cave systems they’d used as barracks during the war. “Were you under cover last night?”
“Thankfully yes.” The bard said. “In a cave. Last thing I’d need is either me or Dori getting sick.”
“Hm.” Elani glanced over her shoulder at her guest. “Especially when your family healer’s gone.” She said. “I don’t think anyone can duplicate that TLC.”
Gabrielle grinned briefly. “No.”
Elani smiled herself, sensing the gush of emotion as her visitor thought about her partner. Gabrielle was always an open book about what she was feeling. The bard seemed in good health and spirits despite her partner’s absence and Elani detected a stability about her she hadn’t seen before.
She’d grown up a little, the forest dweller decided, grown up, and even filled out physically, her shoulders seemed a little broader, and her body looked more solid, more, in fact, like Xena’s. “Bet you miss her.”
“Oohhh yeah.” Gabrielle cheerfully admitted it. “But it’s my fault. I sent her. So I can only whine at myself.”
They entered the caverns and moved to one of the larger ones in the rear, where a big fireplace had been constructed and there were pallets arranged for those needing the healer’s close attention. Only a dozen or so were filled, though, and half of them by disheveled, human forms.
Gabrielle followed Elani over to the bedside of one of them, who was propped up on pillows talking to one of the helpers.
Apparently he’d gotten used to the forest dwellers. He glanced up as they approached, though, his eyes sliding past Elani’s tall form and fastening on Gabrielle’s behind her.
“Well sir, another guest of ours wanted to have a word with you.” Elani said, by way of introduction. “This is Gabrielle.”
The other forest dweller backed off, and Elani went on to see another of her patients, leaving Gabrielle to take a seat on the stool next to the man’s cot.
“Hello.” Gabrielle said.
“Greetings.” The man said. “My name is Regulus. Are you the Gabrielle? The great bard?”
“Well.” Gabrielle glanced down at her travel stained form, and then back at him with a wry expression. “I’m Gabrielle, and I’m a bard, anyway.” She said. “Elani said you were from Athens?”
He nodded. “Yes, myself and my colleagues were on our way to Amphipolis, to speak with your .. “He paused uncertainly. “With Xena.”
“I see.” Gabrielle rested her elbows on her knees and leaned forward a little. “Why?”
Regulus studied her. He had a thick bandage wrapped around his head, and his arm was in a sling. There were scrapes and cuts all over his face, and a big, mottled bruise on his other arm. He hesitated, looking uncomfortable. “The message was for her ears.”
Gabrielle smiled briefly. “There are a lot of words for what Xena and I are to each other. Some of them you can even say in polite company.” She said. “But they all mean we’re responsible for each other and what applies to her, applies to me also.”
He still hesitated.
“And, of course, I’m the only one who knows where she is, and how she’s likely to respond to whatever it is you want from her.”
His brows twitched. “Point made.” He conceded. “My apologies. It has been a long journey for us full of trouble and pain.” He took a breath. “But I am sure my traveling companions have already spoken out of turn and you likely know already that we seek out Xena to join our war effort.”
The bard silently revised her estimation of the man. “That’s partly true.” She responded straightforwardly. “But we didn’t have time to discuss it, and I’d rather hear the real story from you anyway.”
“Gabrielle, how about a cup of tea?” Elani offered her a mug on her way between the cots. “You’ve had a long day.” She gave the bard a look until she took it, then showed her fangs in a smile and went on her way.
The bard sniffed the tea and muffled her own smile, recognizing the herbs. Resignedly, she sipped on them, the almost lemon tang making her nose wrinkle just a bit and as she did, she could almost feel Xena’s approving tickle on her back right in the middle of her shoulder blades.
Regulus waited for Elani to disappear before he spoke. “What manner of c.. beings are these?” He asked in a low voice. “You seem to be well known by them.”
Gabrielle sipped her tea. “They’re called the Children of Ares.” She said. “They’re like us, in many ways. They live as we did, in days past. They’re smart, and they have an interesting culture.” She continued. “Xena and I encountered them a few years ago.”
The man watched her for a long moment. “You are accepted here.” He ventured. “I heard them speaking of you.”
The bard took a mouthful of the herb tea and let it roll around in her mouth for a minute. She swallowed and licked her lips. “We’re part of the tribe.” She acknowledged. “There are people here who are family to me.”
“You have an expansive view of family.”
Gabrielle studied him. “I’ve met a lot of different kinds of people. It’s made me appreciate the things we have in common rather than the things that make us different.”
Regulus nodded slowly. “My wife was in the ampitheatre during the games, and saw you. I was not in the city. “ He said. “She thought you were charming.”
Gabrielle’s lips twitched wryly.
“We came here looking for Xena, it is true.” The man said. “I was given two scrolls to present to her, an official request and offer from the Athenian council for her to lead our army in the war against Sparta.”
“Why?” His voice lifted in question. “Surely, you are not asking why we want her to lead our army.” He said. “Her reputation is well known to everyone.”
True. Gabrielle knew Xena’s martial skills better than most. “I understand everyone respects her both as a warrior, and as a general. But this is a conventional war, that Athens is starting. Isn’t there ample generals in the army already who want the chance to do that? Go for the glory? Instead of having a woman, an ex warlord, steal their thunder?”
Regulus considered that thoughtfully. “Yes of course.” He said, in a mild tone. “But the truth is, an oracle has come to the council, and speaking for the gods, has said unless a woman leads us, Athens is doomed.”
An oracle. Gabrielle sighed. Troublemakers from the gods, she regarded them, and since they’d already heard there were gods involved…. “Okay. But there are other women.”
He smiled faintly. “Bard Gabrielle.” There was more than a little chiding in his tone. “You will not sit here and tell me there is another woman in Greece who can match your Xena in the ways of war.” He protested. “Have you not heard the stories of her prowess?”
Hoisted. Gabrielle acknowledged the truth with a smile and a shrug. “I won’t deny it. “ She said. “But Xe’s retired.” She added. “She doesn’t want to go to war anymore.”
“And you truly believe that?”
“I do.” The bard said. “Partly because I’m one of the reasons she retired.”
The Athenian absorbed this. “Even were I to also believe that, I still would need to present my scrolls, and let her answer for herself.” He said. “No offense meant to you, Gabrielle, but there is a great deal at stake here. The future of Athens among other things.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I understand.” And she did, really. If it were true that the oracle told them they faced bitter loss, then that’s what they believed. Her saying Xena wasn’t interested wasn’t going to cut it. They wanted to hear it in person, and honestly she couldn’t really blame them. “However, it’s a moot point because she’s not in Amphipolis.”
“I’m not sure when she’ll be back.” The bard continued. “And, frankly, you’ve got a much bigger problem to worry about. There’s a Spartan army heading up the river and no one to stop them.”
The man actually stopped breathing for a long moment, his eyes growing larger as he struggled to sit up a little more in his bed. “What?”
Gabrielle nodded. “We got word of some people gathering up at the pass into upper Thrace.” She rested her elbows on her knees again. “So we went to find out who they were, and who they were turned out to be the Spartans.”
“And you told no one”? The man blurted.
“Well, I’m telling you.” The bard said, in a wry tone. “I haven’t seen anyone else yet except the Spartan raiding parties. I think that’s who attacked you.”
“By the gods.” Regulus looked absolutely stunned.
“They came after us too, but we lost them.” Gabrielle concluded. “Do you think they realized who you were? Or did they just attack you because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time?”
Regulus blinked. “I hardly know.” He murmured. “We were riding on the main road, and had stopped in a small stand of trees to rest. We knew we were not that far from Amphipolis, and we wished to freshen ourselves.”
Trying to impress the natives? Gabrielle suppressed a smile. “I think I know where you mean. There’s a ruined ford, and across the river a path leading into the hills?”
Regulus frowned. “May have been.” He said. “A dozen of them jumped out of the trees and attacked us, with no provocation. It was terrible. They were armored, but carried no flag.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Same as we saw.”
“My men fought them off.” He straightened a little. “And to find they were Spartans and were beaten back by our smaller group – that does hearten me.” He said. “Then we took horse, and they chased us up the road until we were past the turn of the river. We could not ford there.”
“No, it’s full of rapids.” Gabrielle agreed. “The bridge across from Amphipolis is the last ford this side of the mountains.”
“So we found.” Regulus said. “They caught us as we fought to get through the forest. They beat us, and left us for dead.”
Gabrielle glanced at the other Athenians nearby. Two were very obviously gravely injuried, and swathed in bandages. Two more were like Regulus, with splints and bruises. A fifth had a bandage across his middle. “And that makes so little sense.” She murmured. “Why just beat you? Why just chase us? Wouldn’t you be worth ransom? “
The man shook his head. “It was almost as though they were just told to randomly destroy what they found.” He said. “I lost three good men to them. If these… ah.. people.. hadn’t found us it would have been all of us.”
Gabrielle took another sip of the herbs, the ones that fought off coughing sickness a little bitter on the back of her throat. “It really doesn’t add up.” She said. “But sometimes in war things don’t I’ve found.” She stifled a yawn. “Tomorrow we’re heading back to Amphipolis.”
“May we go with you?” Regulus asked. “I realize your… that Xena isn’t there, but we would hope we could somehow get word of the invaders back to Athens. We would be willing to pay good coin for someone to go.”
The bard sat up on her stool. “What makes you think I wouldn’t do that without any prompting from you?”
He blushed a little. “Well, of course, but…”
“But what?” Gabrielle cocked her head to one side. “Buddy, I’ve been saving Greece for half a dozen years now without any help from people like you. I don’t need someone to tell me what the greater good is.”
His jaw dropped.
“Who in Hades do you think you’re talking to anyway?” The bard went on. “You’re going to stay here, and not bleed all the way to Amphipolis and slow us down. Leave warning Athens to me.”
She got up and lifted her mug in his direction, then she turned and winded her way through the cots and headed towards the door. “Unbelievable. “ She muttered, as she passed two of the forest dwellers, both who had grins on their faces. They gave her a big claws up sign as she passed, and the nearer one winked.
Gabrielle chuckled and shook her head, giving them a wave as she exited the cavern and turned her steps towards the hut she’d been given for the night. Dori was already asleep there, and the rest of her party had retired as well.
She almost had, then she’d seen Elani crossing the path and decided to visit the rescued travelers. Now she was wondering if that had been a good idea.
“Pay us to go warn Athens.” Gabrielle made a disgusted sound. “Give me a break.” She turned down the path to the huts, moving through the damp air as the sounds muted around her and the rest of the village moved off to bed.
A guard on the walls stayed up, of course. Hunters were out in the valley night hunting, as well. But the balance of the forest dwellers were tucked in their houses, soul bonded and not, adults and children enjoying the peace of a summer night here in the remote quiet of the valley.
Quieter than Amphipolis was, down in the town.
Gabrielle exhaled, feeling the welcome relax of tension as she pushed the door open to the round, spacious shelter she’d been given. Spacious both because it was, but also because everything in it was scaled a certain percentage larger to accommodate the size of the forest dwellers.
The chairs were higher, the round bed was, the tables, the doorframes. Xena had once told her the forest dweller village was one of the few places that made her feel small, and where chairs and benches were more than sufficient to accommodate her long frame.
And if it made Xena feel small… Gabrielle peeked into the second chamber, where Dori was curled up in a ball in the center of one of the round beds, her little Xena doll tucked under one arm. She stood there watching her daughter sleep and smiled, leaning against the doorframe and folding her arms across her chest.
Dori was having a ball on the trip, of course. She adored riding Argo, and loved having a chance to play with Jessan’s triplets. She was as comfortable in the forest dweller village as she was in her own and even the crustiest of the residents always managed a smile for her.
She was special, this child of the spirit of theirs. Dori was both a proof of one of their legends, and a proof to them that Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship was more familiar to them than they’d ever imagined.
She was natural here. Gabrielle went over to where she’d set her travel bags and pulled out a shift, trading her traveling clothes for it and savoring the gentle touch of the soft cloth against her skin. She left her diary where it was, and went to the other bed instead, collapsing into it as she gave in to the long day’s exertions at last.
She thought ahead to tomorrow, when she’d head back home and decide what she was going to do about the Spartans. With any luck, they would just go past.
With her luck, though, they wouldn’t.
So since she didn’t have either soldiers or soulmate in sufficient quantities to beat a Spartan army, she’d have to think of some other way out of the problem.
Gabrielle exhaled, and closed her eyes, asleep almost before the last of the breath trickled between her lips.
Xena made her way across the deck, having found her sea legs with surprising quickness. It was dark, only the lantern at the bow and to either side on the rail were lit, fluttering hard with the wind that was tossing the vessel in the white capped seas.
She’d passed on the fish stew and wine the ship’s cook had offered for dinner, contenting herself with nibbling from her basket and avoiding both the strongly scented meal and the queasy looking patrons who were consuming it.
Reaching the hold door she unlatched it and went down the steps, closing the door after her and pausing a moment to let her eyes adjust to the lower light belowdecks. She continued down the steps and followed her nose to the livestock area, easing the door open and slipping inside the space the animals were being held in.
Here, it was almost cheerful. There was a lantern on either end of the space hung carefully in swinging hooks that moved with the ship’s movement and three or four of the crew had made their bunks in the space and were singing softly as she entered.
They looked at her in suspicion, and ceased their entertainment. Xena merely lifted a hand in their direction, then pointed at Iolaus’s head. “Just visiting my horse.”
The crew relaxed, and went back to their song, and the wineskin they were passing around to each other.
Xena went over to Io’s head and scratched him between his eyes. He had spotted her coming, and poked his head out over the criss crossed rope that made the front of his makeshift stall. “Hey boy.”
He nudged her with his nose. The stall was relatively comfortable, small, but the deck was covered in a thick layer of straw and there was a swinging bucket of water there half full.
Satisfied with the condition her horse was in, she spent a few minutes more affection on him, giving him a kiss on the head before she ducked past the thick spar support to the next stall that held the young mare.
The human Iolaus had done a good job on her. The mare’s coat was clean and shining in the low light, her wounds tended to and all the briars and prickles worked out of her silky mane. Xena held a hand out to her and she lipped it at once, gazing benignly at the warrior from her dark eyes. “Hey pretty girl.”
She patted the broad cheek. “See? I knew you’d luck out of you kept bumping into me long enough. Iolaus is a good guy, and he’ll take good care of you.”
The mare seemed content. She had a delicate, concave face and wide nostrils and Xena suspected she’d come from a place far away from where she was now. “You’re a desert baby, aren’t you? Some pretty thing from a Persian’s string? I rode a horse like you once.”
She remembered the heat, and the sand, and the powerful gray dappled body under her as she raced along at a speed so great it made her eyes tear until she had to close them.
A wild horse, from a wild herd they’d just happened to bump into on an ill thought out foray that had almost ended up with her, and Borias, and the rest of the rough gang they led slaughtered.
Out of their league, big time. Xena smiled, faintly. She’d been very young, and very stupid, but the ride had been worth it no matter that she’d scared Borias so badly he almost beat her when she finally got back to them.
Instead, her completely out of character bubbling enthusiasm about the animals had shocked him so badly he’d just run away, unsure of how to deal with that side of her having never seen it before.
Oh, but that ride had been delicious. Xena stroked the mare, smiling in memory. And it had turned out to be more profitable than they’d imagined, since the enemies who’d seen her do it inexplicably reversed their aggression and instead of being slaughtered they’d been accepted.
Hadn’t really helped in the end, but it kept them from being killed for a little while. Long enough for them to get out of the desert and head off somewhere else.
Chin, in fact.
“Shoulda stayed with the Persians.” Xena sighed, giving the horse a last pat. She made sure both horses had hay, then started back out of the hold intent on enjoying a turn around the deck. As she passed the crew, one stood, however, and moved to intercept her.
Xena was unarmed, and only in a linen tunic. She came to a halt and her hands curled lightly and automatically into fists, and she swept her eyes around instinctively looking for any weapons at hand.
Ah. A pitchfork, and within reach, too.
“You’re Xena, aren’t you?” The crewman asked. “The famous one?”
Xena nodded. “Yes, I am.”
“Figured you were, since you came and checked on them.” He indicated the horses with a nod of his head. “Rest of that lot we’ve got on wouldn’t check on a bedmate unless they wanted to mount them.”
Xena didn’t necessarily disagree with that. She tilted her head in question, and waited.
“We heard you been looking for some Amazons. “ The man said. “Them women came on with you, said that.”
“Yes.” Xena walked over to where the group of the were sitting, and picked a crate to settle on. “I’m looking for some friends of mine who are Amazons. “
The crew were all watching her curiously, but there seemed to be no malice in them. They settled down across from her, the iron brazier in the carefully cleared center set on a stone slab glowing softly.
The man who had approached her sat down on a stool. “Heard something on the dock, before we left.” He said. “Something about some Amazon royalty, or something, and them being tied up when they went onboard the Yellow Dolphin coupla days back.”
“Tied up.” Xena mused. “You mean by the other Amazons?”
Another of the crew nodded. He was short, and had curly red hair. “Was me who heard it.” He said. “Wasn’t goin to say nothin, but Jod’s right about you and them horses. Good people cares about them animals. “
Funny, since she’d cared about horses even when she’d been a very, very bad person and even now she surely wouldn’t characterize herself as truly good. Xena hitched up one ankle and let it rest on her knee. “And I already know you’re all right or my stallion’ would have kicked you all bloody already.”
“’e’s a good looking horse.” Jod said. “He fight?”
“Oh yes.” Xena said. “So, you heard that the Amazons had two other Amazons with them, tied up, that they took on the ship with them?”
“Ayah.” The curly headed man said. “Said they looked banged up. He only notic’ed cause there was all that trouble with them women.”
“They caused a pile of trouble.” Iod said. “All them people on the dock were talkin about it. Said them ones that was tied up tried to stop em from something, and that’s why they’d done it.”
Xena pondered that, and found it brightened her spirits since if it were true, and the idiotic bastards had hurt either Eph or Pony, then she had no reason to try and stop them all from getting their asses killed and she could just rescue her friends and be done with it.
On the other hand, the thought of Ephiny and Pony tied up for the simple reason they’d tried to keep their putative sisters from harm really pissed her off.
Maybe she’d have a chance to express that. “Thanks for the info.” She said. “They expecting the weather to get rougher tonight?”
The men nodded. “Storm.” Jod said. “Big one. Cap’n’s fair worried. Mad as we had to leave early.”
She’d smelled the storm on the air crossing the deck. “Did you hear anyone describe these two Amazons?” She asked. “After all, with all those feathers they look alike sometimes.”
The men grinned, relaxing now in her presence. “You ain’t one.” Jod said. “Them women down the hold what came with you were saying that.”
“No.” Xena shook her head. “I’m no Amazon.”
“Guy said they were like all of em.” The curly headed man mournfully said. “Couldn’t see why they was tied up, but he said one had fire to her, yeah? Freckles, he said, and dark hair.”
Ah. Could be Eponin. Xena got up. “It could be the ones I’m looking for.” She admitted. “Can’t do much about it until we get there, I guess. Yellow Dolphin, you said?”
“Aye.” Jod agreed. “Good ship. Like this one, a bit, not so fast though.”
“Thanks for the info, guys.” Xena smiled at them. “And thanks for keeping an eye on my big boy there. I’ve been to sea before, he hasn’t.” She tapped the spar with one hand, the ring on her finger sounding loud as it hit the surface. “Good night.”
“And to you, ma’am.” Jod said.
They watched her leave. Xena deliberately closed her ears, and refused to hear their ribald whispers behind her, though she was more than human enough to be flattered by the few that got through her concentration.
She paused before the stairs, and considered paying the Amazon sisters a visit. After a moment, she climbed the steps instead and emerged onto the deck, which was pitching and rolling in the rising seas.
She spotted the captain near the wheel, and she walked in that direction, passing two sailors working hard at the rigging who didn’t give her a second glance. She mounted the step up to the tiller platform and waited, as the Captain had words with the man holding fast to the rudder.
Rain lashed unexpectedly across the deck, coming with a gust of wind that fluttered the cloth tight around Xena’s body. A roll of thunder rumbled over head, and a flash of lightning came with it, showing a wild, tossing sea and a thickly cloud layered sky over it.
The captain turned away from his steersman and spotted her. For a moment he glared, then he grudgingly approached. “Come to show your smart mouth to me again, woman?”
Xena looked at him with almost affection. “Captain, I’m the least of your worries.”
He glared a moment more, then he grunted and jerked his head. “Struth.” He muttered. “The lot of them sick as pups and crying for their mothers.” He said. “Been to sea, have you?”
“Heard some crazy talk about you and that damn ghost ship.”
“It’s true.” The warrior said in a mild tone. “This weather going to get a lot worse?”
The captain studied her for a moment,. “True eh? “ He mused. “Storm’s going to take us where it will” He said. “Idiot made me leave port early. We could be sitting on shore, watching this with a cup of ale and laughing at it. I was a fool to listen.”
Xena felt the violent motion under her, and blinked as the rain started to fall almost sideways. “We could be in trouble.”
“We could be.” The man said. “No sense in crying over that. We’ll just heave to the sails and do the best we can. You best get off the deck.” His voice was mild though, and held no insult. “Could take a wave over it.”
“Good luck.” Xena said. “I’ve got a strong arm. If you need any extra help, let me know.” She caught his eye and he nodded at her, serious now. She stepped aside as he left the platform, then she turned and started back across the deck .
The wind gusted against her with enough force to make her stop walking and hold her arms out to catch her balance, and she hastened over to the door and ducked through it before the storm got any other funny ideas.
Dripping wet, she sidled through the narrow hall and made it to her cabin, closing the door behind her very glad she’d closed the window before she’d gone out.
Now waves and rain were lashing at the leaded panes and she was happy the cabin was narrow enough for her to hold herself upright in the motion as she changed out of her drenched tunic into a dry one.
She pondered putting on her leathers instead. She was always more comfortable facing the unexpected in her armor but she knew in this case, with this foe, it would do her no good. As much as she adored the stuff, if she was thrown in the water she’d have a better chance without it weighing her down.
So she carefully packed the leathers and armor inside one of her saddlebags, and strapped her sword and chakram to it. Then she fastened it to the edge of the bunk in her cabin and lay down, letting her head rest on the pillow as she tucked her fingers into the saddlebag straps.
The ship creaked and groaned around her, but now that she was lying down and moving with the vessel instead of straining to keep her footing against it, the motion started relaxing her and she felt her breathing slow and her muscles unlock.
Her thoughts turned to Gabrielle, not unexpectedly. The weather would have made her partner totally miserable, and so in that respect Xena was glad she wasn’t on the ship with her. She would also have freaked out about Ephiny and Pony possibly being captives. Xena wasn’t happy about that, but she was a realist, and knew there was nothing she could do about it right now.
Gabrielle also knew that in her mind, but her heart would be overwhelmed with outrage and it would have been chewing her up inside regardless.
Which would, actually, have probably taken her mind off her seasickness, Xena reasoned. So sometimes there were small silver linings to be found in the worst of issues.
What was Gabrielle up to? Xena closed her eyes and concentrated, opening her thoughts and trying to imagine what her partner was doing.
There was just a sense of warm peace there. Xena decided the bard was sleeping, and she was glad of it. Sleeping quietly, and having good dreams.
She hoped Gabrielle wouldn’t have any nightmares. They really bothered her, and she tended to have them when they were apart. For a long time, Xena had too, and it meant any separation meant sleepless nights for both of them.
Exhausting and unpleasant. As if worrying about each other wasn’t enough? But at least now it was different, and they woke together with mutual smiles, if sometimes silly memories of what dreams they’d had the night before.
Gabrielle had once told her she was convinced that Xena could come to her in her dreams, that she knew she was there, that they interacted with each other.
Xena really didn’t think so. She knew Gabrielle had an amazing imagination, since after all she was a bard and inventing stories was what she did. She also knew her partner dearly loved her and sometimes was ready to ascribe to her talents she didn’t actually have.
At least now she did, again. For a while there… Xena sighed.
But Xena didn’t think she could go into anyone’s dreams. She remembered vaguely the one time her partner had been absolutely sure of it, something about a field, and some rabbits… it had seemed like just wisps of things – half remembered glimpses of sunlight, and maybe a book.
Had she done that? Xena really couldn’t imagine how she would have. She knew she hadn’t done anything deliberately. She’d just gone to sleep that night, with Gabrielle in her arms, just thinking about how much she loved her.
She thought about that and smiled, as the sounds outside the ship seemed to mute a little. She felt her breathing slow and she let herself think about that again, about how much she loved Gabrielle, and how much she wished she could be with her.
She could almost imagine she could hear her even breaths, and see the image of her asleep, curled on her side….
And then she sort of could. Or at least in her half asleep, half awake mind she imagined she could see Gabrielle, asleep in the shadows but not, she realized, in the Amazon village.
Must be just imaginary. She mused, as she recognized the surroundings as Jessan’s village in the valley. It made her smile, and she continued the daydream, now confident it was something she was just making up since she knew her partner wouldn’t be visiting their friends.
She could see her partner in her minds eye so clearly though, and she settled into the soft, grass stuffed mattress of the round bed next to her, imagining that Gabrielle sensed her presence, and reached out for her, turning over and snuggling up against her with a tiny murmur of contentment.
By the gods, it felt so real. Xena wasn’t sure if she was asleep or in a waking dream, but she went with it, tuning out the rumble of the storm and sliding her arms around her imaginary soulmate as she felt the warmth of their bodies pressing against each other.
Real or not. It didn’t really matter to her. In her mind’s eye, she kissed the top of Gabrielle’s head and pressed her cheek against her hair, and let true sleep take her, regardless of the raging storm outside.
The ship plowed on through the storm, it’s sails lashed firmly to it’s spars, and the slave master belowdecks relentlessly lashing the men at the oars working without ceasing to keep the boat steady in the water.
The sailors sweated and worked, hauling the lines. The captain fretted on the bridge, wiping the water from his eyes every second.
The patricians suffered, in their seasick misery.
Iolaus slept obliviously, his belly full of Xena’s tonic.
Sitting alone and unheeded on the bow, unseen by the crew, Ares drummed his heels against the wood and watched the approaching storm. The wind lashed his dark hair, and the lightning caught sparks off his pale eyes as he spread his arms out as if to embrace the fury of it.
The ship came up over the crest of a wave, and slipped down the side of it, plunging into the water at the bottom and causing a blast of water to cover the bow and it’s occupant.
Ares only smiled, and shook himself off, flicking the moisture off his hands and back into the sea.
Gabrielle lay quietly on her back, her eyes idly searching the thatch high over her head. She’d just woken up, and she was sorting out the fading memory of Xena’s close presence that had patterned itself on both senses and skin.
It was still dark, just before dawn, but the sense of warmth and affection still lingering around her was unmistakable, and she found herself more than a little befuddled by it.
It wasn’t entirely unique. She remembered when Xena was trapped in an underground cavern, and she herself was in pain, a nighttime visit that had seemed so real it scared her at the time. Xena had told her later that they both had just had overactive imaginations – the stress they were under had been extreme – but Gabrielle knew the difference between imagination and reality.
She was a bard, after all.
Xena’s spiritual presence had been there then, and had been with her last night. If she concentrated when she drew a breath, she could even taste Xena’s scent on the back of her tongue.
Real as life. Real as the sound of crickets outside.
Real as her heart beating inside her chest.
Gabrielle smiled, wrapping her arms around herself and tugging the light blanket up around her. She thought about Xena, and about how their life’s pattern had changed so much only to come right back around to where they were now.
It was hard, really to clearly remember how bad the bad times were.
She’d gotten used to being in love again. She’d gotten used to looking up and seeing Xena and having that make her feel warm and happy inside again. Her life had gone from bitterly hard to gorgeous as a spring day, and even something as horrific as their trial in the valley hadn’t put a dent in that because they’d been together.
Riding down the River Styx to Tartarus would be okay, so long as Xena was in the boat with her. Gabrielle had to smile to herself at that, no matter how true.
It sounded so darn tacky.
Xena had finally come around back to herself too. Gabrielle had seen her soulmate fractured, as torn apart as she’d been only with all that history and guilt on top of it and it had made her a different person.
Quieter. More depressed. Even a little shy. It had been hard to adjust to. A little scary, seeing how fragile her partner was. How haunted those eyes were when she thought no one was looking.
But then the war happened. There hadn’t been time to be shy, or fragile, or afraid. Not for either of them. They’d come back to the core of themselves during that nightmare and after that, things had changed again.
Now Xena had slowly worked back to being who she really was, and accepting the dark part of her back that put that edge on her character Gabrielle silently cherished.
People were a little afraid of her again. Gabrielle studied the outline of the window, still dark and still. And Xena wasn’t hiding that part of her that made people a little afraid. She wasn’t ashamed of it anymore.
Neither was Gabrielle.
They’d earned the right to be who they were paying the price of blood, and pain, and soul ripping sorrow and so, she reasoned, if Xena wanted to flout the possibilities of humankind and visit her in spirit at night, she was all for it.
‘You go, Xe.” The bard closed her eyes and resolved to drift off again for a little while, at least until dawn broke and she had to rustle everyone out and get headed back home. “Now we just gotta teach you to put your body where your mind is. “
She tried to imagine where Xena was by now. Approaching Thera? Had she found Eph and Pony on the road, maybe, and was headed back? She hadn’t felt anything strong or urgent from her, so she figured her travels were going on as ordinarily as they ever did.
Which was sort of terrifying to think about, actually.
“Well, at least you can’t blame me this time if things go crazy.” She smiled, and thought good thoughts in her partner’s direction, returning the affection she’d woken up to and sending out a silent wave of happiness, feeling her soul soar in response.
She had no idea if Xena could or would feel it.
She hoped so though. She hoped her partner woke up feeling just as good as she had.
Two candlemarks later, Gabrielle was sitting in the common dining hall surrounded by forest dwellers and her little scouting party. Dori was seated next to her busy with a meatroll, and there was an air of bustle and motion around them quite different from the previous day.
“Are you sure” Gabrielle asked, resting her forearms on the table. “They moved fast in the night.”
“And the rain. No wussies there.” Jessan agreed. “They’re almost to the bend of the river, and after that, they’ll just be across from Amphipolis. “
“Damn.” Gabrielle said. “So my choices are, we leave right now and haul butt and try to beat them…”
“Or you stay here, and maybe they pass Amphipolis by.” Jessan said. “Since the most interesting people aren’t there.”
It was tempting. Gabrielle was, in fact, tempted, for all of about five seconds. Then she exhaled. “Everyone get packed.” She said. “Thanks for the offer of sanctuary, my friend, but we need to ride fast and get there before they do. I’m not leaving my home undefended.”
All of the forest dwellers smiled toothy smiles. “You get more and more like us every day, little sister.” Jessan teased. “Naturally, some of us are going too. If you think we’re going to miss out on this good a fight you’re nutty.”
Gabrielle smiled wryly. “I”ve been called that before.”
“Bet not more than once.” Jessan grinned back.
“I”ll get our horses, shall I?” Cait said. “Pally and I are packed already.”
“Us too.” Solari agreed. “But let me tell you, fuzzy, those beds are like to die for comfortable. So thanks a big one from me.”
“Aye.” Bennu said. “Grand place.”
“Well comb my fur and call me hedonist.” Jessan said. “Glad you enjoyed them!” He glanced at Gabrielle. “I know it wasn’t as soft as the one you’ve got.”
The bard smiled, a slight twinkle in her eye.
“Gabrielle, we’ll pull all together and meet you at the gates, yeah?” Solaris stood up. “Okay if I pick up your stuff, and Dori’s?”
“Great idea.” Jessan said. “Everyone, move out!” His voice lifted into a bark, and in a moment the place was in a whirl of motion, as forest dwellers and Gabrielle’s troops left the hall. Gabrielle kept her hands wrapped around the mug of warm tea and watched as Dori finished her breakfast.
It got very quiet, very fast. Dori looked up, then around in puzzlement. “Mama, where’d everbody go?”
“They went to get ready for us to go home.” The bard informed her daughter. “We’re going to run really fast back there. You like that idea?”
Dori’s eyes lit up. “Go fast?”
“Go fast.” Gabrielle agreed. “Do you remember all those men we saw, yesterday? We’re going to try and beat them back to where we live. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”
“Yes!” Dori said. “Gogo go fast! “ She finished the last bite of her meatroll then she frowned.. “But mama, I wanted to stay here and play.”
“I know honey.” Gabrielle said. “But you know what, after we go home and make sure everyone is okay, maybe we’ll all come back here and you can play with your friends then.”
“Of course.” The bard smiled. “When do we ever do anything without Boo?”
Dori kicked her feet out. “Now?”
Aw. “Honey.” Gabrielle gently smoothed the unruly dark locks. “Boo’s always with us. You know that. Even when she’s not right here, she’s always thinking about us, and wanting to be with us just like we want to be with her.”
Dori poked her lower lip out, and looked up at her mother through her bangs. It was so in Xena’s image, that Gabrielle had to stifle a laugh. “Okay.” The child sighed. “We go on Gogo fast?”
“You bet.” Gabrielle drained her mug and set it down. “Let’s go, munchkin. Time for mama to go do the Amazon thing.” She took Dori’s hand and they walked outside. “You can help me steer Argo.”
“Absolutely.” They emerged from under the trees canopy outside the dining hall and headed down a neatly lined path that skirted the lanes that led deeper into the surrounding forest where the forest dwellers had built their homes.
It was quiet. Around them the village was stirring and heading about it’s various tasks, but the barefoot residents made little sound as they passed, and Gabrielle could hear the gentle sounds of the wind brushing the leaves together over her head.
She could see her group already gathered near the big gates. She spotted Argo, standing a little aside as she cropped some of the green grass near the wall, and the rest of the horses were nearby with their reins gripped in the hands of their riders.
Argo spotted them, and lifted her head. She finished chewing, then she started to amble their way, dodging two of the other animals and walking determinedly in their direction.
“Here comes Argo, Dor.” Gabrielle distracted her daughter, who had been distracted by a frog. “She’s looking for you.”
Dori looked around. “Gogo!” She released Gabrielle’s hand and bolted for the mare, who watched her approach and slowed as the child reached her. She nibbled Dori’s cloak as the child grabbed hold of her trailing reins and tugged her over to a tree.
“Dori, be careful.” The bard warned.
Dori blithely ignored her, as she swarmed up the tree and balanced on the lowest branch, which let her get high enough to reach Argo’s saddle.
“Hey Dor.. wait for me.” Gabrielle broke into a jog, extending a hand out when she realized what Dori was going to do. “Hey! Dor!”
Dori released the branch she was holding and jumped for the saddle, grabbing hold of the saddlehorn and thumping against Argo’s side with a grunt.
Argo lfited her head and peered around, taking a step away from the tree and slamming into Gabrielle just as the bard reached for her.
“Mama!” Dori got a small foot into the stirrup and pulled herself up into the saddle, sprawling over it and nearly falling off onto the other side. “Ow ow!”
Gabrielle grabbed her, and held her in place. “Okay, honey, I got you.” She lifted the child up so she could sit in the saddle. “Next time just wait for me, okay? I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“Mama I want to jump up like Boo!” Dori complained. “It’s too hard!”
“Well, maybe when you get bigger Boo will teach you to do that.” Gabrielle gathered Argo’s reins and started towards the gates. “Cause she never taught me that, and I’m really sure Argo’s glad.” She scratched the mare’s cheek affectionately. “Right Argo?”
A dozen forest dwellers were also leading horses to the gates, and the din of voices were now growing louder as she approached
“Take the river road, right?” Solari was saying. “That’s the fastest route.”
“Unless you meet up with all those nice shiny guys.” Jessan objected. “I think we should take the forest route, the one we use to get to Amphipolis. It’s quiet, and no one uses it but us.” He turned as Gabrielle came up behind him. “What do you say, boss?”
Gabrielle’s eyebrows lifted. “Shes a little young for that isn’t she?” She asked, giving Dori a sideways look.
“Ha ha.” Jessan rolled his eyes.
“Just kidding.” The bard smiled. “I think the forest is the right way to go. I want to make the best time we can, but Jess is right. If we bump into the Spartans, any time we pick up on the road will be lost either fighting or escaping.”
She glanced around the group quickly, and didn’t see any visible objection, not that she truly expected one. “Okay, let’s get going folks.” She looked up at Argo’s tall back, and sighed, catching an amused look from the mare out of the corner of her eye. “Yeah yeah, laugh it up.”
“What was that, Gabrielle?” Jessan turned from where he was mounting his horse.
‘Nothing.” The bard got her boot up in the stirrup and pulled herself up, swinging her leg over Argo’s tail as she settled into the saddle behind Dori. “I was just regretting, not for the first time, how damn short I am.”
The gates swung open and they rode out, the horses hooves making muffled thunder on the path as they moved away from the stronghold and down the forest track that lead deeper into the trees. Gabrielle was between Jessan and Solari, with two of the forest dwellers riding point, and the rest of them in a casual train of ones and twos behind.
“The guard who came riding back in said he thought they were going to stop for a while and get some breakfast.” Jessan commented. “Said that’s what it looked like, anyway.
Gabrielle nodded. “I hope so. I’d hate to have to see their backs as we head for the gates of Amphipolis.”
They were constrained to a walk this first part of the path, giving her time to talk to Jessan. His wife had stayed behind with the triplets, and it had been a while, she realized, since they’d talked. “So how are things with you guys?”
Jessan chuckled. “I was just about to ask you the same thing.” He admitted. He glanced at her, and caught the warm smile as she looked back at him, Seeing without effort the placid happiness just under the worry of her current thoughts.
Just from the quiet confidence in her body posture, he’d have known things were good with them. Gabrielle had a habit of hunching her shoulders a little when she was on the defensive, her muscles tense and wary, even when her words were ordinary.
There was no tension there now. Even though they were riding out, under the stress of a possible attack by Spartans the bard’s powerful body was comfortable and relaxed, the reins held loosely in her hand as she moved with Argo.
So. Really no need to ask. “How’s Xena?” He inquired instead. “We’re doing great since everyone came down to the valley. We had a great crop this year so far, and the livestock is breeding like crazy.”
“Xe’s doing fine.” Gabrielle related. “I don’t know if you heard but we had a bad flood during spring thaw, and there was a lot of damage done to the town.”
“Yeah?” Jessan asked. “Wow, sorry to hear that. I know the rains were pretty heavy this year, but we’re at the head of the waters in the valley, so we just see a little of it.”
“We lost the lower town.” The bard said. “A lot of people got hurt, some were killed. Xe and I got washed down the river when the bridge broke and ended up in a steep valley. It was a mess.’
“Ugh.” Jessan looked at her in sympathy.
“Mm. Xe ended up with the Sword of War for awhile. But we got that all sorted out.” Gabrielle related. “There were some pretty nasty creatures in the valley, and Ares died.”
Jessan gasped. “Your pet?”
The forest dweller’s eyes nearly popped out. “What?”
“It’s okay.” Gabrielle patted his leg. “Xe and I got him out of it and back to his godly self.”
Jessan put a hand to his head. “You say that like it’s some ordinary stuff like making a sandwich.” He moaned. “Gabrielle!”
“Well, you know, that stuff happens to us.” The bard sighed. “So anyway we’ve been relaxing since then, and trying to get stuff sorted out with the town. The Amazons moved up to the plateau valley near our cabin.”
Jessan eyed her and lowered his voice after a glance at Solari. “That good or bad?” He uttered.
Gabrielle smiled. “It’s good. I’ve been trying to get them to do that for a while now. That spot in the hills was too much of a crossroads, and there were towns hemming them in lately.”
“But I think we’re going to head out again after this is all over.” The bard admitted. “We thought maybe we’d take Dori and go overseas.”
Jessan was silent for a long moment. “Really?” He said. “But what about those guys.” He indicated the Amazons. “And the town, and your family?”
Gabrielle bit off a smile, and glance down at Dori’s head, ruffling her hair. “Everyone knows we’re not going to be there for long.” She said, keeping her voice low. “No one wants to talk about it, but we are… I mean, Jess, Xe and I are who we are. We’re not farmers, or merchants… what’s there for us to do in the town?”
“I adjudicate stuff, I tell stories, Xe messes with the militia, and practices with her sword. You really think we’re meant to live at home for any period of time?”
Jessan chuckled under his breath. “No.” He said. “Not really. But it’s tough on your friends and family, you know?”
“I know.” Gabrielle looked over at him. “But I want to go see things. I want to see lions. Xe said we could go to Africa. “ She said. “I want to see that. I want Dori to see that. I want her to see the things I’ve seen, and go to places that make your heart stop they’re so beautiful.”
“So now we just have to get through this war mess. “ Gabrielle concluded. “What a pain in my butt.”
“What do you mean”
Xena was woken out of a very nice dream in the rudest of ways, as she was tossed violently out of her bunk and only her finely honed reflexes saved her from knocking herself senseless against the far wall.
She twisted in mid air and grabbed the one of the rafter spars, arresting her unexpected flight as the ship pitched back the other direction very violently, sending the warrior swinging from her precarious hold.
“Son of a …” Xena blinked the sleep out of her eyes. One moment she’d been curled up with Gabrielle in bed, her arm snugly tucked around the bard’s middle and the next she was being pitched halfway to Hades. “This sucks.”
Before the ship could pitch again, she dropped from her hold and landed on the deck, quickly grabbing her saddlebags, then wedging herself between the wall and the bunk as the ship rose up at the bow, then pitched down abruptly, slamming into the sea and shuddering.
Xena paused and listened hard. She could hear yells, and creaking, and far off, screams.
Rats. That meant she wasn’t going to be getting back in her bunk to continue her pleasant snooze. She got the strap on her saddlebag open and worked her boots out, bracing her feet against the wall to keep from being thrown up to the ceiling.
No doubt, Gabrielle would have been freaking. Xena studied the contents of her bag, then decided to change into her leathers after all. She managed this with only a small amount of aerobatics, then she locked one arm around the bunk support as she used her other hand to tug on the first of her boots.
The ship pitched, and she felt the strain in her back as she fought to hold herself in place. She gritted her teeth, then nearly bit her own tongue as the motion surged in the opposite direction, slamming her against the wall. “Ow.”
It was dark. The only light was coming in the leaded glass of the fastened window, a bare glistening of reflected lightning giving her just enough illumination to see by.
Most anyone else, would have seen nothing. But Xena could see the faint outline of the inside of her cabin, and enough detail to get a firmer hold as she tried again to get her boots on.
Tightening and tying the laces one handed was just a testament to her coordination, and she only got thrown around a half dozen more times before she was able to stand and sling her saddlebags with her armor and weapons over her back, fastening one of the straps around her to hold them still over her shoulders.
Not very comfortable. Xena shrugged her shoulders adjusted the leather, and finally sighed resignedly and managed to get herself to the door.
She opened the door and the ship pitched, sending her tumbling back as the door swung inward. The backs of her knees hit the bunk and she fell backwards, slamming her head against the wall.
“Ow.” Xena held herself in place, bracing her feet against the opposite wall as she waited for the stars to fade from her vision. She grimaced, working her jaw to relieve the ache that suddenly spread from the back of her skull.
The ship shuddered. Xena hauled herself to her feet and got to the door and through it before she could be tossed head over ass again.
The hallway was a lot more intimidating. It was creaking and at the end of it she could see the door leading to the deck swinging open, allowing rain and bursts of lightning in. She struggled to the steps and pushed the hatch open, stumbling out onto the deck just as the ship climbed up the front of another massive wave.
The deck was a nightmare. Xena got her arms around two spars just in time as the ship heeled to one side, lifting her feet from the planking and sending two sailors tumbling past her to slam into the sidewall.
Not good. Even in the storm thrashed darkness Xena had seen a spar cracked in half, and she could sense the anxiety in the crewmen as they stumbled back to their feet and grabbed trailing lines.
Xena judged they didn’t need her help, and instead she made her way along the rail up to the steering platform, where she could see two men lashed to the rudder, and the captain braced at their side.
Timing her lunge, she went with the ship’s motion and it launched her through the air, depositing her right next to the man and scaring him half out of his knee laced britches.
“Yah!” He let out a squall that sounded over the storm, as the sailors jerked their heads around, their eyes white and rolling.
“Easy.” Xena grabbed hold of the railing, as the ship rode down the side of another monster wave. “You weren’t kidding about the storm.”
“Bloody iggerant woman! Course I wasn’t kidding!” He bawled at her. “What d’ye mean jumping at me like that? Coudla got yourself kilt!”
Xena took a breath as she was sideswiped by a blast of rain. “Buddy, don’t start with me.”
The captain eyed her.
“I told you before I’m the least of your worries.”
“Agh.” The man said. “Got the hatches battened. We’ll make this. Ship’s holding up.”
Xena braced her boots on the deck and watched the spray explode from the bow, covering the front part of the ship. She could see whitecaps everywhere, and the wind was howling across the deck with a persistent, grating moan. “Sure.”
“Want to do something useful? Them women you brought on are causing trouble belowdecks.” The captain yelled at her. “Go tell em to shut their traps!”
Xena took her time considering the request. Then she sighed and released her grip . “See what I can do.” She waited for the ship to roll, then she bounded down the steps and across the deck, somehow managing to keep her balance and avoid the half dozen sailors furiously lashing sheets to the main spar that was between her and the hatch to the hold.
She hit the hatch just as it was opening, and heard the rumble and crash of someone falling behind it, combined with a harsh yell.
“Whoops.” Xena yanked the hatch open and got herself into the stairwell just as another wave hit, and she braced her hands to either side, keeping her body suspended as the world seemed to swirl around her.
Below, she heard men screaming, and the heavy thuds of horses hooves slamming against wood. She waited for the ship to steady mometarily, then she dropped downward as fast as she could, landing in the hold just as she heard a loud crack from up above.
Not a good sign.
There was a huddled form on the deck, shoved against a support beam. Xena grabbed onto the beam and looked around, giving her eyes a moment to adjust to the almost pitch darkness. Everything had been lashed down tight, but there were things swinging from the rafters that were between her and the horse holding area.
Deciding the Amazons could take care of themselves, she released the beam and dodged her way through the hold, ducking the swinging barrels and getting to the inner opening without getting smacked.
Her shoulder hit the doorframe and she looked inside, spotting Iolaus at the front of his stabling, ropes holding him in place. His head was extending into the hallway and his eyes were rolling whitely with fear.
Xena pushed off the door and grabbed hold of the ropes, pulling herself close to the stallion as he recognized her presence and snorted hard. “Easy boy.” She caught his halter and felt him breathing hard against her chest, making a rattling sound. “Eeeeasy boy. It’s okay. Just a storm.”
Next to him, the mare was also alert, pressed against one wall in the narrower space though she, too, was tied on both sides. The ground was also liberally covered in straw, in case the animals fell down.
Xena glanced up as she heard footsteps, looking up at the doorway just as the human Iolaus rounded the corner. “Iolaus!”
Her horse moved his head in her grip. “Not you.” She muttered.
“Oh, good you’re here.” Iolaus stumbled over to her. “This is really Hades, right? We got tricked and we’re heading down the Styx? It sure feels like it.”
“Bad storm.” Xena said. “Your stomach holding up?”
Iolaus grinned. “Whatever it is you gave me, worked.” He held on as the ship rolled, and his expression grew serious. “Xena, is this thing going to hold together?” He pulled himself over to where the mare’s head was sticking out, and scratched her ears. “Hey pretty girl. Don’t worry. We’ll take care of you.”
Xena felt the ship shudder. “Captain knows his business.” She said. “Let’s just hope we get through the damn storm fast.”
There were no other people around. The crew were off helping the ship survive and the small brazier they’d used was banked and put away. Xena spent a moment more gentling her stallion, then reluctantly decided she’d probably better go see if the Amazons were all right.
It occurred to her that Gabrielle would probably have been a little scandalized by her caring more for her horse then her putative sisters, but then again… Xena gave Io a kiss on his nose. Maybe she wouldn’t.
“Want to stay with them?” She asked the human Iolaus. “I want to go check on our other friends.”
“They’re not friends of yours.” Iolaus stated, with a half smile.
“No.” The warrior said. “But I want to check on them anyway. “ She gave Io a last pat, then she headed for the hallway that led to the merchants quarters.
The ship seemed to be moving a little less, and she made good time as she worked her way across the beam and down the narrow hallway, where she could now hear a lot of people making a lot of noise. She edged between two doorways, glad of the closeness when the ship pitched downwards and shuddered.
Around the next spar was the common travelers quarters and as she cleared the doorway a blast of noise assailed her.
“You stupid bastards get off her!”
“Shut up you bitch! I’ll knock you down again!”
Xena didn’t wait to hear any more. She bolted into the room and took stock of the dim scene, lit only by a single swinging oil lantern that cast shadows darting every where. She surged forward and grabbed the first merchant she saw, a man with his breeches half off who stank of drink.
She didn’t bother talking. She picked the man up and slung him across the deck, moving with the ship to add momentum and sending him flying.
The two Amazons were in trouble. One was pinned down by two men sitting on her, the other was half tied to a bunk, and already missing half of her leathers. Xena felt a sense of rage erupt and she lashed out and kicked the next man in the head, rewareded with a sodden crack as his neck broke and he slumped over next to the bunk.
The merchants started reacting, too late, to this terror in their midst. “Hey.. wh… stop that! We’re important men!”
“You’re dead men.” Xena slammed him in the head with her elbow, then grabbed the man lying on top of the tied Amazon and lifted him up off her, letting the clean feeling of anger drive her motion as she turned and twisted, bringing him up and over her head before she slammed him not the deck just as the ship pitched hard to one side.
She turned to the men pinning the other Amazon and they scrambled to get off her, but not in time as Xena yanked her sword from the kit on her back and it flashed crimson reflections across the room. She advanced on the men, twirling th sword in her hand, apparently oblivious to the motion of the ship.
Xena caught up to the first one and lifted him up single handed, shoving him against the wall and pausing, her sword held at groin level. “Tell me why I shouldn’t euench you?”
The man was shaking. “Wasn’t… didn’t’… “
“Sure. Lie to me.” Xena shoved him harder. “Tell me you and your buddies didn’t want to rape her. Go on.”
“I ddin’t do nothing!” The man squealed. “I just held that bitch down she was trying to cut Alavar..”
“And what was Alavar trying to do that she wanted to cut him?” Xena brought her blade up and rested the tip against his throat. “Was he giving her flowers?”
The man’s face, ugly and scruffily bearded, was pale, and slack. Then he gathered his wits. “She’s just a woman!”
“So am I.” Xena reversed the sword and slammed it into his groin with all her strength. There was a sodden crack as she broke the wood he was held against, the pommel of her sword crunching bone and cartilage along the way.
He squealed soundlessly, his eyes rolling up into his head. Xena released him and let him slide to the ground, then she turned and surveyed the scene. The other man had escaped, along with the others still conscious and only the two Amazons were conscious. “You both all right?”
Auhalia was busy on her knees freeing her sister. She glanced over her shoulder. “That’s two we owe you, Xena.”
“Stupid morons.” Xena glanced around the room. It was divided by rough sailcloth walls into spaces that gave some semblance of privacy, but there were no doors – just a flap easily cut through. The rough spaces opened into the common space that they were all in, that had some wooden trestle tables bolted to the deck and a few large waterskins hanging from the ceiling.
“My sister was sick.” Auhalia said. “From the motion.”
“I’ve got something for that.” The warrior commented.
“I got thrown against the wall in the storm and lost my wits.” The woman continued. “When I came to they were all over her, and then two of them laid down on me, the bastards.”
“Bastards.” Regi ground out as she was freed. “May Artemis stunt their manhoods forever.”
There were footsteps, and suddenly one of the mates was there, the senior man Xena had seen upstairs. “What goes on here?” He demanded. “I hear tales of murder?”
“No one’s been murdered.” Xena still had her blade out and now she rested it on her shoulder as she gazed impassively at him. “But there’s at least two men dead here.” She said. “Better get them overboard before they rot.”
“I killed them.” The warrior frankly admitted. “They were raping my friends. I don’t like that.”
The mate studied her. “Men said it wasn’t …”
Xena merely raised her eyebrow at him.
The man shrugged and nodded, then he turned and left the room, calling out orders to his sailors. Immediately, three of them entered, giving Xena a wary look.
‘The warrior pointed at the two dead men with her sword. “ The other two are gonna wake up wishing they were dead.” She predicted. “C’mon.” She addressed the Amazons. “Get your stuff. I’m not gonna go through that again.”
The door was filled again, this time by one of the Athenian soldiers who were traveling with them. “What happened here?” He said, giving Xena a suspicious look. “Some merchants came to get me. Said there was someone killing people down here for no reason.”
Xena rubbed her thumb over the hilt of her sword. “Do I look like someone who kills people for no reason?’
The man barely glanced at her. “Can’t see you at all, so who would know? Did you kill them?”
“Those men were raping my sister.” Auhailia said. “No reason? Bastards. They were drunk, and attacked us.”
The soldier regarded them. “Well then, are you not harlots?” He asked in a reasonable tone. “What else were they do to with you?”
Xena’s sword moved in a flicker, and smacked him hard across the cheek. He stumbled backwards, grabbing his face. “They’re not harlots.” She stepped closer to the oil lamp and when he stopped blinking and reached for his weapon, he looked up and saw her more clearly.
His hand dropped from his sword. “Xena!”
The warrior was half in light, half in shadows, and standing there with the oil lamp glistening off the brilliance of her sword and the pale clarity of her eyes, she was worthy of the shock and dismay in his tone.
“Get out of our way.” Xena said, seeing that Auralia had Regi up and moving. “Before I forget I’m a respected citizen.”
The soldier scrambled back. “My apologies.” He said. “I did not know you were involved in this, Of course we’ll arrest those merchants. Can I help you?” He edged nearer to the two Amazons. “May I be of assistance?”
“To harlots?” Regi snarled at him.
“I could not see you.” The man said, stiffly. “And you are not dressed as I am used to seeing citizens dressed.” He looked pointedly at the Amazons bare skin. “I beg your pardon for the assumption.”
Regi started to talk again, but apparently had better thoughts and clamped her jaw down instead, obviously wrestling with her stomach.
“Thank you.” Aurailia said. “You’re excused. I could use some help here.”
“Let’s get up on deck.” Xena was relieved to feel the ship moving less under her. “Get you some air. And get you out of this cesspit.” She waited for the soldier to take a gingerly hold on Regi, and they made their way up the back steps to the open deck.
As she had suspected, the storm had abated some, and instead of the near panic, she sensed a relieved order as the sailors worked to fix the damage. The rest of the passengers had come out on the deck also, and were gathered near the steering platform.
They were halfway there when one of the other soldiers spotted the man near Xena and stumbled over him. “Sir! Sir!”
“Can’t you see I’m busy?” The soldier sniped at him.
“Sir, the prisoners have broken out! They’re somewhere on the ship! They’ve taken a prisoner!”
Oh great. Xena groaned inwardly. Just what they needed.
Just what they needed.