A Queen’s Tale

Part 14

Gabrielle squirmed between two tree trunks and climbed carefully up onto the rock crag above her.  Cait was waiting, occasionally lifting herself up to peek over the top between glances behind her to judge her queen’s progress.

Despite her well known dislike of heights – Cait would never ascribe something so low as fear to her mentor’s partner – Gabrielle seemed to be comfortable enough, scaling the side of the cliff much as  Cait herself had, pulling herself up with her powerful hands and making a steady if unspectacular progress.

She thought she’d heard something about Gabrielle climbing out of the valley she and Xena had gotten themselves stuck into, the one where Pony and Granella had gone to find them in.  Was it true? She made a note to ask the bard if it was. 

No one had really wanted to talk about that whole thing.   Cait glanced through the gap, then turned back to watch Gabrielle.  Pony and Granella had simply said they’d ended up being whisked through most of it – they’d started by falling down a waterfall and ended up flat on their backs up on the top of the ridge again, so there wasn’t much to tell.

But from the look in Gabrielle’s eyes when she and Xena had come back, Cait knew something terrible had happened.  Something terrible, and heart wrenching, and soul changing, if nothing else by the fact the bard simply refused to tell the story of it.

Gabrielle’s stories weren’t all nice. Some didn’t reflect well on her, or sometimes even on Xena, though they usually worked out right in the end. So if she’d lived through something and didn’t want  to tell about it, Cait reasoned, it was probably something most of them didn’t want to hear.

“Almost there Cait.” Gabrielle grabbed the last bit of a thick ledge, and pulled herself up over it, getting her booted feet under her and standing up. She dusted her hands off and joined Cait at the rock. “What’s up?”

“That is.” Cait said, simply. She pointed, and moved back from the gap so Gabrielle could take her place and see thorugh it.  The bard was just a bit taller than she was, so she didn’t hardly have to get up on her tiptoes, but by the stiffening of her back the Amazon knew her queen had seen.

“Damn.” Gabrielle exhaled.   They’d finally caught up with the Spartans but they were now on the road approaching the bend that would bring them even with the bridge, and the entrance to Amphipolis.

One bit of luck, the enemy army had stopped for a break, and the men were filling their waterskins from the river.

Bolting, which is what she felt like doing, would catch their attention.  But Gabrielle knew there was no real way to slip out of the forest and make the road that would take them to the bridge without being seen.

So.

They would have to be seen.   

Gabrielle turned and dusted her hands off again.  “Okay, let’s go.” She started down the cliff with Cait right behind her.   The rocks were a little loose under her boots, but the slope wasn’t all that steep and she slid down and kept her balance with relative ease.

Tramping up and down the damn mountain to her home had done some good, anyway.

The rest of her group were waiting at the base, as she reached the last small ledge and jumped off it to land near them. “Okay folks – here’s what we’re going to do.” She went over and took hold of Argo’s bridle. “The Spartans are right over the ridge there.”

“Nice.” Solari nodded.  “I knew it was going to be a fighting kind of day.”

Jessan smiled.

“Well, that’s not the goal.” The bard shook her head.  “Because we can’t fight all those Spartans, and still get back to warn Amphipolis, not to mention Athens.” She pulled her cloak out of her saddle bag and swung it over her shoulders. “So we’re just going to be a visiting Amazon queen and some friends, riding down to Potadeia so I can visit my hometown.  Everyone got that?”

Solari scratched her jaw. “You think they’ll buy that?”

Gabrielle pulled herself up on Argo. “Well.” She said. “I learned from Xena to try and keep as much truth in my charades as I could. So I am an Amazon queen, you are all my friends, and I was born in Potadeia. Not much for them to prove wrong.”

“Think they’ll let us go?”  Nala asked.

“Depends on whether they think we’re for or against them.” Gabrielle smiled briefly.  “Or whether they want get someone who potentially has lots of big, angry fanged friends mad.”

Jessan laughed outright, the soft, throaty laughter of his kind.    

“Well, if not, we’ll get a good fight out of it.” Solari concluded. 

“To right.” Cait agreed. “C’mon, Pally.  Get on with it.”

Gabrielle was now glad she had Dori with her. She settled behind her daughter, and raked her fingers through her dark, unruly hair.  It made a story of travling to see family so much more believable if you had a toddler with you, didn’t it?

“Gabrielle.” Jessan rode up next to her.  “What do you think they’ll do after the bend?”

“No idea.” The bard waited for the rest of them to mount then she nudged Argo gently and they started down the thin forest path that would end up dropping down through the grass to meet the road.

“What if they recognize us?”  Solari asked. “Well, I mean, what if they recognize you.” She clarified, as she edged her horse up next to Argo.  “Or if they know it was us, with those other guys. They were Spartans right?”

“No.” Gabrielle frowned. “I’m still not sure what that was all about.” She ran a hand through her own hair to order it a little.  “Let’s just play it straight. Let me do the talking.”

Solari stifled a laugh, and Nala wrinkled up her nose to make her smile less obvious.   Paladia merely snorted. “Who the Hades else is going to do any talking?” She asked.   “None of us can make crap up like you can.”

“Pally.” Cait scowled at her.

Gabrielle just chuckled.  “She’s right.” The bard said. “It’s what I do.”  She sped Argo up a little, settling herself and sorting the details in her mind as they cleared the trees and started down the slope to the road.

From where they were, they couldn’t quite see the army, but Gabrielle figured the army, or more precisely it’s scouts, could see them.  She  took a few breaths to settle her nerves, then she glanced casually around. “Just one thing.”

They looked at her.

“If I say run, you RUN.” Gabrielle said. “Okay?”

“Would Xena… “ Bennu started.

“Like the wind.”  Gabrielle cut him off.  “She taught me how to run.  No arguments Bennu.”

The soldier subsided with a grunt.

It was quiet.  There were no animal noises around, and the trees were only lightly moving in what little breeze there was.   The air was moist and warm, and she was already regretting putting her cloak on as sweat started to form on her skin.

“Mama, it’s hot.” Dori said. “C’n we go get wasser, and see the fishes?”

“Soon, honey.” Gabrielle became aware, or really, consciously aware that she was taking herself and Dori into what could be a lot of trouble.  “We have to go down to the road, then we’re going to the bridge, and over to our house.  Grandma’s there and she’ll have some cool cider for you.”

“Gramma?” Dori brightened. “Boo there too?”

Well, it wouldn’t be unheard of. “I don’t know.” Gabrielle said.  “She might be, but I think she’s still out there getting our friends back, Dori.”

Dori scowled.

“Yeah, I know.” Gabrielle gave her a one armed hug. “I miss her too.” She kept her arm around Dori. “Listen Dor, we’re going to probably see a lot of men now, the ones we found over the mountain.”

Dori looked up at her in question.

“I want you to just sit here, and be quiet for mama. Can you do that? No matter what happens?” Gabrielle lowered her voice.  “Be quiet like Boo, right?”

“Okay.” Dori whispered. “Bad mens?”

“Maybe.”  Her mother whispered back.

“Mama go boom?”

“I hope not, sweetie.  We want to just go home, right?” She straightened up and glanced quickly around her at her little gang.  The four Amazons were in rough group around her,  with Bennu and his men behind them and Jessan’s people on the outside of the party.

They were all watching her. 

Leadership, Xena had told her many times, comes from inside.  You have to lead yourself, and then other people will follow you.   Gabrielle smiled a little at the thought, since when they were together she really didn’t have any need to lead herself. Xena did a great job of leading everything in the vicinity.

But she had learned, over the years, little tricks and things from her natural born leader soulmate that let her give a creditable show of being in charge and now she gathered all of those little nuggets and prepared to put them to the test.

So she sat a little straighter in her saddle and lifted her head, slowly sweeping the vista as they made their way down to the road, catching in her peripheral vision a flicker of motion ducking back through the trees, heading for the bend.

So it begins.  Gabrielle took Argo’s reins in the hand she had tucked around Dori, leaving her other hand free. She let it rest on her thigh, but shifted just a little, exposing the ties that held her staff in place and then she moved her cloak back just enough to expose the dagger she wore at her waist.

They crossed the last bit of trail and climbed up the embankment to the road, a wide, sturdy track that had been cut along the river  in a time long before Gabrielle’s birth.    It was lined with stone, and fitted with it in places, and you could take it most of the way from Athens to Thrace if you had a mind to.

By chance, it passed close by Amphipolis, and that chance had directed most of her adopted hometown’s fortunes. 

Had directed her own fortune, since it was that very road she’d followed to find Xena that day, so long ago, when she’d left one world and found another.  “C’mon Argo.” She broke the silence, giving the mare a pat on the shoulder. “Not too much longer now.”

As if by signal, the rest of them started talking also, low, general conversation that barely rose above the hoofbeats as they turned their back deliberately on the army they knew was behind them and headed down the road.

Gabrielle half turned her head, focusing her hearing behind them.  “Anything?”

“Nothing yet.” Jessan muttered.  “Don’t’ see anything behind us, they must be well behind the pass there.”

Run for it?  Keep walking? “Okay.” Gabrielle held a steady pace, a rambling walk as they filled the road from side to side.

Her ears actually caught the sounds right before Cait reached out and put a hand on her wrist.  “Okay.” She said. “Everyone just stay relaxed.”

“Score, coming up behind us.”  Bennu rumbled softly. “These un marked no doubt.”

Gabrielle could hear the hoofbeats.  “They riding to catch us?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Nala said. “Spreading out to circle.”

Should they ignore them till the last moment? Gabrielle pondered that, then elected otherwise.  She slowed Argo and lifted her hand, then circled her finger and the entire party obediently turned around. 

The Spartans were, indeed riding towards them.  They slowed as they saw Gabrielle’s party stop, and as they came up to face them, Gabrielle nudged her way through the crowd of men and Amazons and forest dwellers to the front.

She took Argo a bodylength past Jessan, who visibly twitched but let her pass, then she came to a halt and fixed the Spartan in the lead with her eyes.  

He slowed further, and the rest of the Spartans did also. These  were regular soldiers, Gabrielle recognized, with Spartan shields and surcoats, and carring a Spartan banner.  It seemed a very bold move to her.

The man stopped a horse length from where she was. “You there.” He said. “Who are you?”

“You there.” Gabrielle answered him, with a touch of gentle amusement. “Who are you?”

Behind her, she could hear the nervous stirring and it occurred to her, not for the first time, that all those years with Xena had stiffened her nerves way past the norm because she didn’t even feel slightly anxious.

She wondered if that was a good thing or not. 

The man facing her let his gloved hands rest on his saddlehorn.  “You ride the road boldly for a woman.” He commented. “Even so faced with armed soldiers.”

Gabrielle lifted her shoulders in a casual shrug. “Seen one soldier, seen them all.” She remarked.  “Why do you seek to stop us?”

The man glanced past her, at Jessan sitting motionless at her side.  “We are the vanguard of the Spartan army. “ He answered with surprising straightforwardness.  “We are sweeping the road clear.  You of no name can either answer my questions, or we will sweep you aside.”

Jessan smiled at him, showing every tooth in his head.  “Bet you don’t.” He said, cheerfully.

“Bad mens.” Dori concluded. “Mama, go boom with him. I’m hungry.”  She frowned at the soldier. “Go ‘way.”

Gabrielle ruffled her hair. “Take it easy slugger.” She told her daughter.  “You’re not Xena yet.”  She watched the soldier from the corner of her eye and saw the slight reaction.   “Spartan.” She addressed the soldier.  “My name is Gabrielle. I’m the queen of the mountain tribe of the Amazons.” She paused. “We’re heading to visit my family in Potadeia and if you’re a smart man you’ll just leave us alone.”

He studied her.

“You really don’t’ want to mess with me.”  The bard concluded. “I know why you’re here, and honestly, I don’t care.  We already turned down Athen’s request.”

The soldier signaled his men in. “So we have the famous Gabrielle here before us.” He said. “Men have been searching long for you and have died for it and here you walk right into my hands.”

“I’m not in your hands.” Gabrielle said. “And I won’t be.”

“You will.” The man said. “My name is Raurus. I am a senior captain of Sparta, and I have the authority to tell you that if you come with me, turn yourself and your little one in,  we will bypass this land and not touch it. No harm will come to your family.. your… “ His eyes drifted. “friends or suchlike.”

Gabrielle felt her body slowly tense as the words penetrated.

“I know who you are.” The man said.  “Come with me, and your friends are safe.  Choose not to, and we will burn this valley out. I swear it.” He stared into Gabrielle’s eyes.

Gabrielle never flinched.  “There’s really only one answer to that” She said, in a placid tone.

“Uh oh.” Dori ducked down against Argo’s neck.

“Good, I’m glad  you see reason.” Rauros rode closer and reached out for her, his hand getting within inches before Gabrielle clamped her legs against Argos side and the mare surged into motion. She grabbed his hand and yanked him bodily off his horse as Argo  raced by, then she let out a loud yell that galvanized her tiny army into battle.

She released Rauros arm and pulled Argo up as she reached for her staff, then her eyes fell on the army moving rapidly towards them down the road.   “Oh boy.” She whirled the mare around. “Hang on Dor.”

Bennu and Jessan were in full battle with four of the Spartans and holding their own, but she knew it didn’t matter. “Jess! Bennu!” She yelled. “Cait! Paladia! Nala! Run!” 

“Run? We just sta..” Solari protested, then she saw the army coming. “Oh! Oh crap! Run!  Run!” 

Jessan walloped two of the Spartans then he, too saw the army. He swiped at a third with his claws, then he turned his horse and whistled, and the group broke off and surged into a gallop down the road towards Amphipolis.

“That didn’t work well at all.” Cait sighed as she seated her dagger. “Bother, Pally.”

“Bother my ass.” Paladia only just kept from grabbing Cait’s horses bridle to haul it along faster. “Wouldja move ya nut!  Move! Run!”

The army let out a yell and started moving faster, seeing their fallen comrades in the road.   Gabrielle didn’t have time to worry about it, she got down low over Argo’s back and asked the mare for all she had. 

She only hoped they made the bridge in time.

**

“The rocks!”

Xena whirled as she heard the yell, her eyes sweeping the area around the ship and catching the reason the wind had slackened.  The storm had driven the vessel perilously close to shore, and now she saw through the driving rain a dark bulk of stone.

The sailors were running to the main spar, and the first mate fairly dove down into the hold to rouse the oarsmen as the captain grabbed the wheel from the two men and wrestled with it.   

The warrior paused a bare instant, then she made for the steering platform, scattering the patricians who had inched their way onto the deck to see what was going on.  “Go through that door!” She yelled at Regi and her sister. “Hang on!”

The two Amazons didn’t waste any time listening. They got to the door and went through it, ducking as a wave plunged over the sidewall and drenched the deck.

“Watch it” Xena  grabbed the wheel along side the captain and they turned it hard together, hearing the creak of the rudder as it slowly shifted against the wind and sea. 

“Bastard!” The captain yelled, more just to enunciate his feelings than at her.

“Poseidon sure as Hades can be.”  Xena agreed, gritting her teeth.  “Especially when he’s in a bad mood.”

“Get that damn sail up!” The man bawled at the top of his voice., making Xena flinch since she had no hands free to cover her ears.  “Up! Up!”   He turned his head and stared at Xena. “Woman you have this wheel?”

“I’ve got it!” Xena yelled back, cranking it another notch to prove her point.

The captain let go and bolted for the mainsail, leaving the steering of the rudder to his troublesome passenger without a backwards  glance.   He grabbed one of the lines and started hauling along with his men, and the tattered sail started to inch up the mast.

Xena threw a little more weight against the wheel. “Get inside!” She yelled at the patricians. “If we hit the rocks, you want something to hang on to!”

They scurried across the lurching deck and she was left alone on the steering platform, as the other sailors rushed to help raise the sails.

The ship was lurching, and she could hear the rumble and scrape as the hull scraped against the rocks, a shudder running through the structure that set her teeth right on edge.   She could feel the rain lash harder, and she wished the boat off the rocks, wished the flapping, ragged sail to raise, wished she heard the thunk and splash of the oars running into the ocean as they lifted the hatches below.

She saw the hatch at the far end slam open, and the three prisoners emerged, looking desperately around.   

Briefly, she considered suggesting they jump. After all the rocks they were smashing themselves against had to be part of some land.   But she held her tongue as they spotted her and she could see the woman’s eyes narrow and her hand tighten on the knife she had clutched in her fingers.

Uh oh.  Xena braced her knee against the wheel and tentatively let one hand off the handles. The wood shifted under her and she grabbed hold again,  feeling the strain in her shoulders. 

“You!” Milena staggered as the boat lurched.  “No matter if this damn thing sinks I’ll kill you first.” She came at Xena, knife extended.

“Don’t be an idiot.” Xena growled, fixing her with a glare. “I’m keeping the damn ship off the reef.”

Milena grabbed the wheel and swung around it.  “You bitch. You set those soldiers on us.”

The boat lurched. “Can we talk about it later.” Xena felt the strain as the rudder tried to force itself the opposite direction. She looked up to see the sail filling.

“Oh no.” Milena got right up against her, shoving the point of her knife in the hollow below Xena’s ear. “We’ll do whatever I want now.” She shifted, and smiled as the edge of the blade pierced the warrior’s skin, and a bubble of blood appeared.

Xena hoped the ship didn’t’ tip upwards, or she’d end up spilling most of her blood all over the salt drenched deck.  She could hear the captain yelling, and the agonized creak of the wooden spars, and belowdecks, the clamor of the oarsman.

“Milena! Let that damn woman go!”  One of her brothers yelled. “C’mon! Let’s get out of here ! We’ll jump!”  He had a coil of rope lashed to the rail on the side of the ship currently scraping the rocks. “C’mon!”

Milena looked quickly at them.  “Not before I’m done.” She leaned over and licked the blood, then bit Xena’s earlobe. “And I’m not nearly done. How does it feel to be helpless, Xena?”

The warrior sighed. “I’m not.” She said. “I’m just making a choice.”

Milena ran the knife along Xena’s neck, then slid under the powerful arm braced against the wheel’s surge,  the warrior’s muscles standing out under the skin like iron bands.  “You’re going to choose to stand here, and take this. Let me do whatever I want to you, aren’t you? Because you know I’ll cut your throat.”

“Milena!  Come!”

“No.” Xena turned her head and their eyes met.  “I’m choosing to save the lives of everyone on this ship instead of killing you.”  She said. “Don’t make me change my mind.”

Though Xena’s stance was rock steady, there were tremors twitching across her body, as her will held a tight rein on her animal instincts.

Through the salt air, she could smell her own blood.  Her nostrils flared.

For a moment, Milena froze. Her beautiful face, washed clean of the dirt from the jail, was outlined in a blast of lightning.  Then she growled and her hand moved with the knife in it at a rain spattered bare neck leaking a trickle of blood that was there before her.

And then was not.  Her arm plunged past now in bare emptiness and she stumbled forward as something hard slammed her in the side of the head and sent her sprawling.

“Hold it! Hold it ya damned woman!” The captain yelled. “We’re almost up!  C’mon you slackards pull!”

Xena landed and hauled the wheel to again, bracing a boot against the chest bolted to the deck next to her.  She cursed under her breath as she locked her arms in place again, hoping she’d hit the damn idiot hard enough to knock her out for a while.

There was a flap of the sail, and then she felt the ship moving under her as the sailors got the lines untangled and the sheets rode up, the wind grabbing hungrily at them as they swung the yard arm around and they belled with air.

With a wrenching creak the ship tore itself away from the rocks, and there was a scream on the wind, as two bodies flung themselves over the side.

Xena straightened up as the wind pulled the ship into deeper water, and she felt the rudder respond as she cranked the wheel around and straightened the course.  

The rain came pouring down harder and as she watched, lightning hit the top of the mast, lighting them  with a silver blast from Hades she only barely closed her eyes against.

Men screamed and grabbed for their heads. 

Xena cracked her eyes open, and saw bodies on the deck, and sailors staggering around blinded. She kept her hands on the wheel though, and a moment later spotted Iolaus emerging from the hold and bolting in her direction.

He let out a yell as he came past her,  drawing his sword as she heard someone scrambling at her back. “Knock that stupid bitch out!” She advised loudly.  “Maybe you’ll knock some sense into her.”

“Stop!” Iolaus’ voice echoed. “C’mon now, don’t’ make me..ow! Cut that out!  Stay still or.. you’re going to bleed to death you crazy woman!!!”

“I’ll kill her first!” Milena’s voice gargled. “You ruined everything! You ruined my life! The gods DAMN you Xena!””

“Ah ah!” Iolaus grunted. “Too late for that, I’m afraid.”

Xena kept her eyes on the sea, and adjusted the rudder as they inched away from the rocks, now visible in the blasts of lightining as an island jutting out in the middle of a wash of white water.  Against the blackness, she saw a figure hanging on the rocks, and got the impression of a pale face, and staring eyes.

“My brother!” Milena suddenly screamed.  “Fool!”

The captain came back, running across the deck. “Steer it, woman!” He yelled. “We’re off! We’re off! Get the aft away from the damn rocks!”

Xena grabbed him and shoved him at the wheel. “Take it.” She said,  leaving the platform and bolted for the rail.

A rope was tied there.  She looked over the side and saw nothing but churning waves, and the single man. He thrust his hand out and she could see the terror in his eyes.

Good riddance?  Xena felt her body move without any conscious thought on her part. She grabbed the rope and yanked it up out of the sea, wrapping it tight around her arm and jumping up onto the rail. Before she could consider, she crouched and leaped, the salt water pounding against her as she passed through rain and waves to a jarring landing on the rocks. 

She had only a breath. A hearbeat at most before the ships motion yanked her back off the rocks, or else made her release the rope and trap herself here where she could only die slowly.

She didn’t wait even the heartbeat. She grabbed the man by the arm, the younger man from the town, and threw him over her shoulder as the ship surged in the opposite direction and before she could take a breath they were airborne.

Not enough to make it back. She felt the water closing in and she took hold of the man and grabbed a breath before she hit the water and the cold surge washed over her head.

A breath, and she was being yanked up again, into the waves as the ship moved ponderously through them.  “Hold me around the neck!” She yelled at the man. “I need both arms!”

“Ahhhhghghgghhgh!” The man screamed, almost witless with fear.  “Death! D…”

Xena grabbed his arm and bit his wrist, cutting his stuttering off. “HOLD ON!” She bellowed.  “Or yo’ll meet Posiedon and he’s not a fun date!”

Shivering, the man clutched her tightly around the neck, and she released him, grabbing the rope and hauling them both through the water.  

It was hard.  The waves swamped them every minute, and she felt the strain in her shoulders and back as she moved the double weight along.

“Why in the Hades am I DOING this?” She screamed silently at herself.  “Idiot!!!”

The ship suddenly loomed over them, and before she could stop she was being slammed into the side, coming perilously close to blacking out as the force stunned her.  The ship dipped down at the bow, and she saw the wave coming at them and it was all she could do to hang on, hardening her will as she had with the wheel and giving all her effort to convince her body it could do this.

She felt the wave. She felt herself yanked out of the water as the ship climbed the side of it and the weight of both of them was suddenly on her as she swung wildly through the air, slamming against the side of the ship again as they reached the top of the wave.

And going over she just as suddenly felt airborne, as though she weighed nothing, was floating, there in the rain and the spray from the salt, as the world went sideways on her and she tumbled in mid air, seeing the sea, and then the boat, and then the sea in rapid fashion beneath her.

Instinct saved them both. Xena yanked herself sideways in the air and grabbed the sideraiil of the ship, flipping them both over it and onto the deck as the boat surged down the slope of the wave and they were pinned to the wooden surface by their weight redoubled.

Oh gods.  Xena felt as though every bone in her body had cracked.  She released the rope and slumped on the deck,  as dizzy and disoriented as she’d ever been in her life.   Salt water burned in her nose and throat, and she could barely hear the chaos around her for the ringing bells in her head from the pounding.

“Xena!”

She felt a warm hand on her shoulder and managed to get her eyes open to find Iolaus crouched over her in concern.   His face was blurry, and she grimaced, blinking her eyes to clear the salt from them. “How was that for stupid?”

“Stay still.” Iolaus urged. “You’re hurt.”

Flat on her back on the deck,  Xena tilted her head and regarded him. “ You a healer?”

“No, I..” Iolaus looked around. “Let me go find one.”

Xena grabbed his arm before he could take off. “Iolaus.”  She waited for him to look back. “I’m a healer. Why not let me figure it out?”  She could feel her scattered wits returning and the ship’s deck had regained its nightmare clarity.

“Xena, you’re bleeding all over the place. Let me get someone.”  Her old friend was visibly very upset. “Now who…”

Xena was still holding his arm.  “Hey.” She said gently, getting his attention again.  “It’s okay.  Just relax, willya?  You’re freaking out like Gabrielle used to.”

“Used to????”

That brought a faint smile to Xena’s face. “Now she just starts sewing me up without even warning me first.”  She assured him. “I’m okay, Iolaus. I’ve got a damn tough hide.”

“Xena, that was crazy!”  He sat down next to her, giving in. “That was a damn stupid crazy thing to do. You’ve got a family to get home to!”

It was.  “I know.” The warrior took a deep breath, cautiously.  She was relieved when her ribs seemed to function without causing her undue pain, which meant for once she hadn’t cracked any of them.  She flexed her hands, then tensed the muscles along her legs and was even more relieved when everything responded.  “Gabrielle’s rubbed off on me. What the Hades can I tell you?”

“Hmph.”

Her head hurt, badly.  She reached up and felt blood along her skull, and a lump in the process of forming.   That, along with the upset in her stomach and she reckoned she’d gotten away with a concussion doing something she should really have died from.

Just not her day.  “Okay.” She slowly pushed herself up to a seated position and looked around, with Iolaus anxiously hovering over her. “Know something?”

“What?”

“I told Gabrielle this. It hurts a hell of a lot more to be a hero than it does to be an evil warlord.”  Xena swiveled so she could lean back against one of the spars, and then she carefully extended her legs out.  “Gets truer every day.”

Iolaus exhaled and let his arms drop. “Crazy.” He shook his head.  “That was so crazy I don’t even think Herc would have tried it.”

“He’s not crazy.”

“He’s not married with a kid, either.”  Iolaus said. “For Zeus’ sake, Xena.”

Xena leaned back and exhaled slowly.  The ship had gained momentum, and they were now plowing through the waves again, as the sailors slowly got the ship back to rights, most of them skirting the area Xena and Iolaus were in with wide eyed, respectful stares.

The soldiers had staggered abovedeck, and taken the man she’d rescued back into their custody. Xena watched them surround him, then she looked over past the captain to find a trussed Milena tied to the rail, staring at her.

Staring intently at her, face twitching.

Impossible to say, what was in that stare.   Xena had expected hatred and the petulant, frustrated anger that had driven the woman to torment her when she’d held the wheel. But she didn’t see that in those pale eyes, almost as piercing as her own.

This was something completely different, and she wasn’t sure what it was.

Her neck stung, and she remembered the knife, and the bite, and her face twitched into a grimace. “I think I’d prefer hatred.”

“What?”

Xena sighed. “Damn I wish Gabrielle was here.”

“What?”  Iolaus got ot his feet. “Let’s get you inside. You’re not making sense.”

“I only wish I wasn’t.” Xena very slowly joined him, feeling an ache in every single bone she had. “I only wish.”

**

Gabrielle was, in fact, wishing she was anywhere but where she was.    She was crouched low over Argo’s neck, shielding Dori’s body with her own as they thundered down the road, with what she figured was a rapidly gaining squad of Spartans on their tail.

What would Xena do if she were here?.   Gabrielle spared a glance over her shoulder,  a little surprised to see nothing on the road behind them.  Xena would be cursing like sailor if she were here, that’s what she’d be doing.

Bennu came up next to her. “Dropped back.” He said.  “Odd, that.”

Odd? Oh yeah.  “I’m not looking a gift horse in the… uh… mouth.”  Gabrielle said. “Let’s just get home.”

The soldier nodded “Aye.” He said. ‘And then what, little hawk?  Tis you they’re wanting, I’m thinking.”

Exactly what Gabrielle had been thinking. “Maybe I should just keep going.” She muttered.  “Let them follow me and leave you all alone.”

Bennu just looked at her.

Gabrielle understood the look.  Bennu wouldn’t leave her to flee alone, any more than any of the rest of the group she had with her would.  At a pinch, maybe Nala would take a direct order from her but the rest of them knew her better as Gabrielle than as their Queen.

Bennu, in fact, was absolutely loyal to Xena, and she was sure he’d been told to keep her skin whole at risk of everything else.

Just like Cait had been. 

Gabrielle got that.  She really did. She got that Xena cared so much about her, she’d risk Gabrielle’s anger at being babysat in her typical, well honed strategy of the end justifying the means.

And of course, she wans’t angry.  Not anymore.  “When we get to the bridge, lets get over it.” She said aloud.  “You get the militia and get them into the woods, out of sight. I’ll go for the Amazons.”

“Right.” Bennu nodded.  “We’ll fade off, quick like.”  He said. “Find us armed in the village, it’ll be blood.”

It was likely to be blood anyway.  Gabrielle now wondered if she should send everyone else up to the Amazons and face the Spartans when they came in herself.

But it was her they wanted.   So how could she bargain? All they would offer is Amphipolis’ safety for her handing herself over.

She couldn’t do that.

The road bent to the right and she felt a sense of somber relief as she took the bend and saw the lower town and the bridge, all looking quiet and peaceful in the sunlight.

She looked behind her again, and the road was still empty, then was out of her line of sight as she came fully around the corner and Argos pace picked up as she recognized the way home.

 Gabrielle wished now that she’d left Dori with the forest dwellers.   Jessan came galloping up on her other side, the wind plastering his fur straight back.  “Almost there.” She called over.

“I know.” Jessan said. “The bunch that was following us cut off the road and went through that cut forest path we left after we did all the rock moving for the dam.” 

“Huh?”

“They’re trying to cut us off.”  The forest dweller clarified. K

“Jess, that path dead ends into a ravine.”

“No, really?”

Could they have gotten that lucky?  Gabrielle shook her head and took a hold of Dori. “Hang on honey, we’re almost home.”

“Fun.” Dori was completely happy with the situation. “Gogo go fast, go Gramma and get cookies,  and den we get Guff.” 

They thundered over the bridge  and up the slope towards the gates of the town. Some of the militia were already mustering, having seen them round the bend and villagers were running towards the inn as they heard the sound of running horses.

Cyrene came out onto the porch, wiping her hands, and Gabrielle turned Argo’s head towards the inn to meet up with her.   She came to a stop and kicked her boots free of the stirrups, launching herself off the mare’s back and sliding down to the ground. “Mom.”

“Trouble?”  Cyrene came down the stairs and reached for Dori. “Want me to take her?”

One of the militia ran up. “Can I take your horse? I’ll wipe her down.”

“Sure.”  Gabrielle said to both, leaving her free to wonder what the Hades she was going to do next.

The rest of Gabrielle’s little group was dismounting around them and the brief confusion gave her a little time to think about what to do. It didn’t do much to think about what Xena would do, because Gabrielle knew what Xena would do would involve swords and battle leadership skills she didn’t have.

What did she have? 

Good question.

 “Okay.” “ She turned. “Mom, get the council here. There’s a Spartan army just down the road heading this way.”

Cyrene barked out a curse that shocked everyone except for her daughter in law who’d heard it many times before from her partner’s lips.  The innkeeper turned and grabbed one of the men standing by and hauled him up onto the porch, talking insistently.

How to protect the village, protect the Amazons, and protect her family at the same time?  She thought hard about all the things Xena had ever told her about Spartans and finally something she remembered triggered an idea.

Gabrielle took a breath.  “Okay.”  She said again.  “Bennu, get the militia under cover. “ She said. “Jessan, take your guys and go up to my cabin. “

“Huh?”

The bard held her hand up. “Bear with me.” She glanced past them at the still thankfully empty road.  Several of the elders ran up, looking alarmed. “Okay, we don’t have time to wait for everyone.” She moved up onto the porch so everyone could see her.

The quickly gathering crowd turned to watch her intently, falling silent and waiting for her to speak.

She wasn’t really sure what she was doing was right. In fact, she wasn’t really sure what she was doing.  She just hoped no one laughed at her.  “A Spartan Army is right around the river bend heading this way.”

Several people gasped.

“That’s what the gathering forces were. Not Athenian.” Gabrielle said. “They know who I am. So what I’m going to do is disappear.”

“Gabrielle.” Cyrene came over, looking at her in concern.

“Hang on, mom.” Gabrielle held her hand up. “When they come here, I want everyone.. “She looked around the crowd. “Everyone, to tell them I came here, warned you, changed horses, and took off. Okay?”

After a hesitation, they nodded.

“You don’t know where I am, or where I’m going.  You can’t tell them anything. If they want to search the town, let them.”

“Gabrielle.”

“LET THEM.” The bard repeated. “I won’t be here, there’s nothing to find.”   She started down the steps. “C’mon Jess.   Cait, you all, with me.  Dori, c’mon.” She held her hand out to her daughter. “Mom, sorry to leave you in the lurch, but if I’m here, they’ll take me.” She glanced at Dori. “Take us.”

“Go.” Cyrene nudged her. “We know who they really want. We’ll cover for you.”

“Right with you, your Maj.”  Solari had shouldered her saddle bags and was already at Gabrielle’s side.  They edged through the crowd and once they were clear they started at a run towards the back gate. 

They were through it and had it closed behind them in a moment, and then Gabrielle and Dori led the way up the steep mountain path that led to the Amazon village. 

As the forest closed around them, Gabrielle felt the tension ease out of her, once they were out of sight of the village and well up onto the slope.     

“We lucked out.”  Solari said.  “Losing those guys.”

“Too right.” Cait agreed.  

Dori pattered along next to her, climbing up the slope with casual ease. “Mama, c’n we get some fishes?  I’m hungry.”

“Soon as we get up to where our friends are, Dori.”  Gabrielle shifted her saddle bag on her shoulder. “Then we’ll get you something.”

“You figure you can hide out up there?” Cait asked.  “It’s a terrible spot to try and get an army up, isn’t it?”

It was. Gabrielle sighed. But no matter how tough a path, she knew the Spartans would and could get up there, and then when they got to the entrance to the village?  Then what?  Would she throw the battle force she commanded there against them, and pit the two hundred Amazons against thousands of Spartans?

Just to protect her?

Just, really, to protect Xena?

“We can hold that entrance.” Solari said, confidently. “Don’t care how many guys they bring up. They cant rush it, this path’s too narrow.”

“Absolutely.” Cait agreed. “Pally could hold it with a slingshot, really.”

Paladia, who had been climbing behind her, looked up. “What?” She said. “You nut. I’m not facing a whole freaking army with a slingshot. Get out of here.”

That broke the tension, and everyone chuckled.   Then they fell silent as they approached the entrance to the village, and the sentries came out to meet them having heard them long before.   “Your majesty!”

“Yeah, that’s me.” Gabrielle paused as they reached the entrance. “Jess, take your guys up to our place and hang out there for a while until we see what’s going to happen.”  She said.

“Okay.” Jessan said. “If those guys show up at your door here, we can roll em of the hill from up there.” He motioned. “C’mon, guys. Let’s go take a bath in Xena’s bathtub.”  He winked at Gabrielle and led his troops on up the path.

Gabrielle exhaled.  “Let’s go.” She indicated the entrance. “Everything quiet inside?” She asked the guards.

“Pretty much.” The nearer one said.  “Wild boar got into the provisions this morning.  Hades of a chase, but they finally got him down. That’s about it.”

Well, thank good ness for small favors.  Gabrielle crossed through the rocky entrance and up over the slight rise that then sloped down into the valley the Amazons made their home in.   She was surprisingly glad to see it, and she released Dori’s hand as they walked across the large common area and people started noticing their return.

She was aware suddenly of how tired she was.  Though they’d done little but ride the tension had given her a throbbing headache, all the more so when she realized she now had to call a meeting and tell her tribe what the plan was.

The problem with that was she had no idea what the plan was. “Solari, can you call a conclave please?” She said.  “In about a half candlemark. I want a chance to get my thoughts together.”

“You got it.” Solari said. “C’mon, Nala.” She bumped the other Amazon, and they angled off towards the meeting hall. 

“Are you going to stay here?” Cait asked. “I don’t think all that lot down in the town will keep quiet about where this place is.”

Paladia snorted.  “Someone’ll offer one of em a coin and they’ll lead em up here. “ She said. “They were ready to sell their man’s parts when you guys were gone the last time.”

Gabrielle grimaced a little, but didn’t refute the statement.  There were people she loved down in the town, and there were people  she liked, but like anywhere else, there were some who would gladly betray both her and Xena cheerfully at the drop of a hat.

Or the drop of a quarter dinar.

“I don’t’ know.”  She finally answered.  “We’ll see. Anyway, you guys can take off and go get some rest.”  She started angling towards the path to her own quarters.  “See in you a little while.”

“Right.” Cait said. She watched Gabrielle head down the path, with Dori skipping along at her side.  “This is a mess, Pally.”

“You got that right.” Paladia agreed, for once. “Those jackasses down the hill are gonna sell her out, and the jackasses up here might too.”  She eyed her partner.  “And you know what?”

‘What?” Cait was nibbling her fingernail, her brow creased in thought.

“That’s lousy. She’s all right.”  Paladia pronounced. “I didn’t used to think so, but compared to the rest of the people around, she’s all right and don’t deserve to have some of these cranks hauling on her.”

Cait turned, and patted her on the arm.  “Oh, well done, Pally.” She said. “I knew you’d like her if you only just tried.”

“Didn’t say that.”

“C’mon.” The slim young Amazon latched onto her arm and started hauling her off.  “We’ve got to get things packed up.  None of this two day thingie either.  It’ll be a quick, long march.”

“Wh…”

“Come along. You don’t’ really think we’re not going out with her after Xena, do you?”

“Ugh.”

**

Gabrielle was glad of a few minutes peace.  Dori had gone out with one of her little friends, and she was alone in her quarters with a jug of strong cider, a fresh set of leathers, and a reasonably warm bath to enjoy.

The bath had been a surprise, and she hadn’t quite know how to respond seeing the private tub there in  the sleeping quarters, gently steaming.   The Amazons were communal bathers, and she hadn’t even been aware they had a private tub in the village.

Apparently they did and she was grateful for it. She stripped out of her travel gear and lowered herself into the water, exhaling as the heat soaked the ache out of her bones and she was glad to simply sit quietly for a bit.

She scrubbed her skin with a chunk of soap, smelling of mint and sage, a new experiment from Cyrene’s kitchens. She wasn’t entirely sure she loved the smell, but it wasn’t unpleasant and she used it to wash her hair before she gave it a good rinse and surfaced.

Then she put the soap down and laced her fingers behind her neck, gazing pensively at the ceiling as she tried to sort out what she was going to tell her tribe.

She was under no real illusion that she could hide out here in the village.  She knew the Spartans would find them in fairly short order.  The question was, what she was going to do about it.  

She could stay, and let the Amazons battle the Spartans at the gates.  It was a narrow slot, and easily defended, but the Spartans resources were extensive and people would surely die in an effort that would ultimately fail.

Even if she took the tribe back into the new valley, still, that was just another trap. Would it make the Spartans give up? Would it be enough to just stall them long enough for them to get antsy, and realize they were risking their invasion?

Maybe.

Gabrielle really didn’t want to do that though.  She didn’t want any Amazons dying to keep her hidden, and she didn’t want the Spartans to overrun the village and destroy what had just been built up.

She could give herself up to them, of course.  Here in the privacy of her quarters, Gabrielle examined that idea thoughtfully.  The Spartans seemed to value honor. They well might trade off the safety of the town for her captivity, and use her as a pressure point to get Xena to join them.

Stupid really. Given that taking Gabrielle would achieve nothing but getting her partner extremely pissed of it was very possible that Xena would agree long enough to get her hands on her  and then start killing everyone in sight, or, more subtly, lead the Spartans into military disaster in revenge.

Stupid and pointless.  Gabrielle reluctantly lifted herself out of her bath and picked up a linen cloth to dry off with.  Stupid, because no one would gain from any of it, and pointless because of that, and because people would die in the process – with a chance of those people including her and Xena.

She ruffled her hair dry with the towel, and then she trudged over to her garment press and opened it. 

So what was she going to do?  The Amazons would be expecting her to tell them just that in now, a quarter candlemark. 

She was their Queen.  She had to make the right decision.

She studied her choices of clothing, then she pushed aside the Amazon leathers and pulled out her old traveling clothes instead, slipping into the mid thigh length skirt and fastening the tooled leather belt in silence. Then she put on the cropped top, pulling her traveling boots from the press and tossing them near her desk to put on later.

She riffled her fingers through her hair, and spared a glance for the staff resting near the weapons rack against the wall.

A little longer than the one she’d carried the past few days.  Darker wood, with a tough surface well seasoned with hits.   Leather wrapped hand holds, and near one end, a series of whittled notches just visible.

She sat down at her workdesk and rested her elbows on it, gazing thoughtfully past the end of the surface as her fingers played idly with the ring on her hand.

**

“Xena, why not come in off the deck?” Iolaus crouched next to her, his blond hair dripping with sea spray. “It's nasty out here.”

Xena was seated, with her back against mast, one leg hiked up with her arms circling her knee.  “I know it is.” She said. “I want to be uncomfortable. I go inside, chances are I'm gonna fall asleep.” She looked over at Iolaus. “Not what I need right now.”

“Head?” He hazarded a guess, watching her nod briefly.  “Sure you don't want me to find a healer on here somewhere? You look a little rough around the edges.”

“No thanks.” The warrior gave him a brief smile. “I feel rough around the edges, but there's nothing they could give me for this.”

He studied her. “Okay.”   He looked up as the soldiers appeared, dragging their recaptured prisoners along with them.  “Now what?”

“Taking on water below.” The soldier in charge said, briefly. “Going to tie them up here till the ship gets it sorted.” His men lashed the three to the rail, as Xena and Iolaus watched. “Twas bravely done, citizen.” He addressed Xena politely. “But a waste of your time and effort, to my mind.  Here.” He pointed at the nearest soldier. “Gag them. No need for these people to have to listen to their poison.”

The three really didn't look talkative. They were sullenly quiet, refusing to look up at either their captors or the two watching.

“Leave it.” Xena said. “I don't care if they talk.  Don't risk your thumbs to their teeth.” She let her head rest against the mast, trying to put the pain her body was experiencing out of her mind. She had plenty of herbs in her pack for that, but none of them were safe with the rattling of her skull and being on deck not only kept her awake,it also kept her from being tempted to take them.

“As you wish, citizen.” The guard captain said. “Is there anything we can do for you? Was your cabin broken in the storm that you sit here so uncomfortable?”

“I'm fine, thanks.” Xena said. “Just enjoying the weather.”

The soldiers eyebrows twitched. “To each their own.” He waved his men back belowdecks. “Men, to the hold. We'll help with the patching.” They marched off, closing the hatch behind them.”

“How about a hot cup of tea?” Iolaus suggested. “At least that's safe.”

“Sure.” Xena said.”Thanks.”

He patted her shoulder and stood up, giving the three prisoners a stern look. “Be nice.”  He said, before he turned and headed for the galley.

Xena resisted the urge to close her eyes.  They stung, a little, from the salt spray but she could feel a faint sense of dislocation that warned her against succumbing to the desire.  

The rest of her body ached.  Where she'd smashed into the ship, she could feel whole sections of her torso tense and tender and there were bruises covering most of her side from shoulder to hip.

Nothing was broken, she'd decided, but everything felt like it wanted to be and she wished more than anything to be home and in bed,with Gabrielle's solicitious attention around her.  Xena took a breath, and let it out, watching the waves come at the ship instead.  No point in that wishful thought.

“Xena.”

And any distraction, really, was welcome at the moment.  The warrior turned her head towards the prisoners, to find Milena watching her.  The other two, the one she'd rescued and the older man, were slumped against the rail, oblivious.  “Yes?”

“You saved my brother's life. Why?”

Why. Well you know that was a damned good question.  Xena wasn't really sure she had a coherent answer to it.  So she shrugged  “Someone needed to do it.”

“Why?” Milena said. “You heard those Athenian bastards.  No one would have blinked if we'd left him there.”

Xena studied her somberly.  “I thought you were headed for Athens.” She countered.  “Going to join the war effort wasn't it?”

Milena snorted, glancing away.

“So now they're bastards?” The warrior said.  “Oh, I forgot. You're innocent.”

The young woman looked at her again. “You turned us in.  Did my chasing your tail piss you off that much?”

Xena chuckled briefly.  “I didn't turn you in.  Someone asked me if I saw anyone fitting the three of your's description and I told the truth.”

“Why not just mind your own business?” Milena snapped.

“Got out of the habit.” Xena smiled at a private image, a quick mental picture of the warmly affectionate look she'd have gotten from her partner for the statement.   “And anyway, you were jackasses.  You gave me a problem, and your brothers would have given the town a problem if I hadn't stopped them so Hades with all of you.”

“And yet you saved his life.” Milena mused, now watching her intently. “At risk of your own.”

“Don't be impressed.” Xena felt the throbbing in her bones intensify.  “I'd have done it for anyone.  Even jackasses deserve to live sometimes.”

Iolaus came back, his hands cradling a wooden mug. “Here you go.” He crouched next to her again. “Just mint and honey, but it's not bad.”

Xena took the cup and warmed her hands with it, the mint laced steam rising and making her nose twitch. “Thanks Iolaus. I appreciate it.”

“Anytime.” The blond man rested a hand on her shoulder.”Sure you don't want to come inside? No good surviving a head bump only to catch your death of a cold.”

“In a little while.” Xena said. “I just want to make sure the swellings gone down first.” 

“Okay.” He stood up. “Holler if you need anything.”  He retreated back to the forecastle, and Xena drew her other knee up, resting her elbows against them as she sipped the tea.  It was warm, and mild and her stomach didn't protest when she swallowed it.  

The steam seemed to help her headache too.  Xena breathed it in, feeling a little of the pounding tension ease.  “So what was your game?” She asked Milena,  turning her head to see the woman.  “You really scam the council?”

Milena's nose wrinkled. “Mind your own business.”

Xena shrugged. “Suit yourself. You're the one tied to the rail.” She  extended her legs carefully, stretching out strained muscles that had stiffened while she sat.  She looked out over the sea instead, watching the waves approach as the ship plowed through them, the forward deck busy with sailors mending ropes and sail.

At the edges of her senses, she caught the scent of pitch burning somewhere, and realized they must be patching the hull below. Dangerous in these seas, both to the men who were weilding the pitch rods, and for the fire theyd' have had to start to melt the substance.

Last thing they needed was a fire onboard.  Xena grimaced, remembering being caught in one way back when.   All that water but no good way to fight the flames, and no good place to run to.  They'd ended up in the water as the smoking hulk sank,with only a few crates to cling to.

She'd earned her leadership then.  She'd gathered the men with her, lashed the flotsam together and navigated them to a spur of land that had provided birds nests with eggs to revive them until they could make their way inland again and steal weapons and arms to move on with.

For once,she'd done all the right things.  For once, the men had looked at her with honest respect,not based on fear of her temper or the unpredictable edge of her sword.  She'd saved them, she'd brought them home, and then, she'd gone on to lead them in battle in her more successful days.

She'd grown up, in a way, floating there in the sea trying to figure out what to do. Stopped being a petulant jackass the men only tolerated.

Became someone people felt they could be loyal to. To trust beyond where the next dinar was being stolen from.  She'd come out of the shadow of Borias and Lao Ma, on the road to becoming the Destroyer of Nations and all because of a fire at sea that could easily have killed her instead.

Life was funny that way.  Xena mused.   

She wonder if Gabrielle ever thought about her own life’s crossroads in that way, when her path and Xena’s path had intersected, and she’d gone from being a village kid with a bad home life to being a homeless vagabond facing death every other day.

She probably didn’t look at it quite like that though.  Gabrielle had dreamed for a heroic hero to carry her away and since Xena was all she got, she simply pushed and prodded her unlikely rescuer into the mold her mind had imagined.

Which is what  had led to her sitting here on some damn boat in some damn storm hurting  from her toes to her eyebrows because her body was totally invested in Gabrielle’s vision even if her conscience wasn’t.

Well, she liked to think her conscience wasn’t.   There was some badass left in her somewhere.

Wasn’t there?

Sure.

 “We scammed them.” Milena spoke up unexpectedly.  “Stupid sandal wearers. They were ready to buy whatever story we had to sell them if it meant they could stand up in council and say they'd brought bags of coins to the war effort.”

“What did you get out of it?” Xena arched her back a little, glad to feel only a little strain there.  She was more than glad to turn her attention to the prisoners instead of focus on her own reputation. 

“Amusement.”

Now the warrior looked over at her, one dark brow hiking up.

“And a thousand dinars.” Milena smiled. “Advanced to us for expenses in bringing my 'father's wagons of gold to Athens.” She twisted against the ropes. “They won't get any of that back.  I .. we got out of there just in time, but not before I found out they were all in a dither about you.”

“Me?”
“Oh yes. You were the talk of the council. I almost got into one before we got our cover blown and we had to take off and escape from that white mausoleum.”

Hm. “They come after you?”

“For what it was worth, sure. We lost them in a candlemark.” Milena tossed her head, the only part of her body she could move.  “Useless morons.”

“But here you are.” Xena reminded her.

“Because of you.” She said. “They never would have found us if you hadn’t told them where to go.”

“Why were you headed back to Athens if you knew they were looking for you?” Xena sipped her tea. She suspected the girl enjoyed her own cleverness and couldn't resist talking about it.  Gabrielle had taught her how to ask questions like that. The bard had that knack and after all, she'd gotten years of practice with it on a grumpy antisocial warlord. 

If she thought a moment, she could even hear the 'gee Xena, it's amazing how you knew that. How did you?' in her mind's ear and it made her smile wryly as she waited for Milena to answer.

“We weren't.”  Milena gave her a bitter smile. “We'd just come from Thera and we were heading towards Amphipolis. I figured we could meet up with you, knock you over the head, and get paid to deliver you to Athens who would then forget about us gaming them.”

Xena started laughing, almost spilling her tea.

“It could have worked.”

Xena eyed her. “You'd have ended up dead.”  She said, the laughter gone. “You don't even know what kind of game you're playing, kid.”

Milena didn't flinch. “Maybe.” She conceded coolly.  “You didn't look so tough when we met you. There were three of us. No matter how good you think you are with that sword there are herbs that would make you no more than a halter led sheep.”

Xena realized why the kid was annoying her as much as she was, suddenly.  Milena was who she'd been, all those years ago.  An arrrogant, cocky, precocious brat with no respect for anyone or anything and a total belief in her own ego.

Absolutely convinced of her own invincibility.

Twerp. Serves you right, Xena.  She took a sip of her tea, and acknowledged the irony.  “There are no herbs you could find here that would let you lead me like a sheep.” She said, in a quiet tone. “The one you could use from somewhere else doesn't agree with me, and you'd have ended up with either a raving maniac with lethal combat skills or a dead body you'd have to get rid of.”

Milena stared at her. “You're lying.”

Xena shook her head.  “You and everyone in the area would have been lucky if they killed me.” She said. “Someone tried it once.  Didn’t work out for them.”

“That’s just another one of those lame ass stories they tell about you.” Milena scoffed. “Like the one they tell where you died. Give me a break.”

“No thanks.” The warrior said. “I’ve had enough fun for today.”  She decided it had been long enough for her head to clear, or at least, long enough of her enduring the wet, the cold, and the company. She drained her mug.  “Ask me again tomorrow.”

The girl stared at her. “They’re just stories.”

“Are they?” Xena got up, her breath catching a little as her body protested. “Live as long as I have doing what I do, you've pretty much had everything happen to you at least once.”  She eyed the girl. “Including death.”  She lifted the mug in their direction and headed towards the door to the cabins.  “Night.”

“Xena, wait!” Milena yelled after her.

The warrior merely waved a hand, and pulled the hatch door open. 

Maybe it would give the kid something to think about.  Xena closed the door behind her and was glad to move from the chill and the salt into the stuffy warmth of the forecastle. But if the kid was as much like she'd been at that age, probably not.

She bumped her cabin door open and shut it behind her, glad someone had thought to light the tiny oil lantern that shed enough light for her to see inside.   Iolaus maybe?  She set her mug down and stood for a minute, trying to decide what to do.

The pain was starting to get to her.  She reached up to touch the lump on her head, glad to feel that, at least, had gone down some.  The ship was still moving erratically in the strong seas, and she didn't want to be thrown around against the walls, but she also didn't want to stay in damp clothes.

“Damn it.”  With a sigh,  she got out of her leathers, and removed a piece of cloth from her bags to dry her skin with. The folded linen was soft, and carried the scent of home and she lifted it to her nose, sniffing it before she used it.  It smelled of sunlight and the wood of their garment press and it's touch was gentle on her battered body.

Gabrielle’s touch would have been even more gentle.  Xena mourned the fact that her soulmate wasn’t around, even though she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself.  With the moving ship and reaching around things, an extra set of hands would have really been a help.

She gently tousled her head somewhat dry, avoiding the sore spot and finding a scrape still oozing blood she hadn’t suspected. “Ow.”

Since it appeared they were going to stay afloat, and the storm wasn't getting worse, she put her shift back on then she set her saddlebags on her bunk and removed her healer's kit from them, opening it to study what herbs she had to choose from.

Two kinds for pain. She set them aside, since they were very strong and would put her out. She usually carried a much milder one with her she used on Gabrielle, but she'd left that behind this time.

She removed a small packet with some of the cleansing paste she used, prepared carefully in her mortar and pestle. “Glad I brought this.” She put a bit of it on the scrape on her head, then wrapped it back up again.

Her wrist was killing her where the rope had wrapped around, but the skin was unbroken, merely darkly bruised.  She flexed her hands a little, then started putting the herbs back inside her pouch.

Her fingers touched something, and she tipped the pouch towards her, peering inside, her lips already twitching into a smile as she spotted the parchment wrapped stone at the very bottom.   She drew it out and set it aside, then she put everything else away.

 She drummed her fingers on the bunk, then the basket in the corner caught her eye.

Ah.  She stowed her kit in her bags, then she went to the basket and removed one of the wineskins from it.  She uncapped it and sniffed, then she brought it back to the bunk, sitting down on it and taking a long swallow.

It had a mild, sweet burn going down.  Xena hadn't eaten anything since the previous afternoon and after another two swallows, she felt a gentle buzz start.   Her body started to relax, and she eased herself down onto her back, letting her head rest on the straw stuffed pillow.

It didn't really help the pain, but the wine put a light layer of separation between her and the ache.  The wound up tension eased and she was able to settle her body with a little more comfort on the bunks surface.

She pulled the light blanket over her, warming her chilled skin from the long soaking outside.

Ah. That was better.  She wasn't sure really if enough time had passed for her to safely sleep, but now that she was dry and more comfortable the urge to drift off wasn't as strong either.  

Milena's words now came back to her attention, and she had to smile at the audacity of her plans.

“Capture me and sell me to Athens.”  The warrior regarded the ceiling.  “Didn't really think that one through, did she? Even if she had done it, I don't think I'd have been in any mood to lead the damn army after that.  Waste of everyone's time.”

Audacious, though.  Very audacious.

Then something occurred to her.   “Why in Hades is Athens so damned anxious to get a hold of me?” She asked the wooden surface. “I already turned them down. They've got generals of their own.  Sparta's no respecter of women,so it's not like I'd scare em... what's the deal?”

What was the deal?  Why was Sparta, and now Athens so intent on her?  Xena's eyes narrowed. Why would two city states be so anxious to get the same retired ex warlord to run their armies? 

Why?

It made no sense.

She resolved to corner Milena again very soon and extract whatever she knew about what the Athenian council wanted from her.   Audacious? She'd see how much this kid matched the juvenile brigand she'd been and whether she could stand up to someone who wanted something out of her the way Xena had been able to way back when.

Ah, Hades with it.  Xena picked up the stone she’d found in her pouch and unwrapped it, setting the stone on her stomach while she tilted the parchment towards the oil lamp. 

 One side had a few unintelligible scribbles, and a small palm print on it.  Xena felt her smile broaden as she traced the outline of the fingers, imagining Dori’s hand making it.  Then she held the paper out, and held her own hand out, comparing the two shapes.

“Damn.”  She whispered, shaking her head a little.  But for size, they were identical. “Look at that.”   She bit her lip and turned the parchment over, where she could already see strong, dark script.

Hey there.

I was sitting down writing some notes to put in your bags, when Dori came over to see what I was doing. She wanted to give you a note too, so here you are.   I think the scratches are supposed to say Love Boo – at least that’s what she was saying when she was scribbling them.

Xena turned the parchment back over and studied the marks.  Then she resumed reading.

I almost hope you don’t’ find this one, because I’m putting it in your healer’s kit.  I don’t want  you to have to use it, especially if you need to use it on you.  It makes me crazy to think you might be out there and hurting, and I won’t be there to take care of you.

Yeah, I know you can take care of yourself. That’s not the point.   Anyway, if you do find this, I hope you’re just getting some ground root for a headache, or aloe for the sun.  Please be well, my love. I’m counting the moments until you come back.

G.

Xena smiled, and brushed the parchment against her lips. Then she folded it inside her hand and closed her eyes.

**

Continued in Part 15