A Queen’s Tale

Part 15

Gabrielle entered the meeting hall, walking quietly between the rows of chairs as everyone already in the room realized she was there and reacted.   She was still wearing her old traveling clothes, and she had a cloak slung over her shoulders that she gently swirled out of her way as she took her seat behind the table.

She rested her forearms on the wooden surface and regarded her sisters, as they all sorted themselves out and took their seats.

Hard to say what the attitude was.  Word had certainly gotten out from Soli and her crew about the Spartans, and so there was some anxiety there, mixed with a certain amount of anticipation from the more martially inclined.

Some of the older Amazons were scowling.  Some of the younger ones were almost grinning.  It was really tough to guess how they were going to react.  “Sisters, please be seated.” Gabrielle said, after a few moments, wishing suddenly that Xena was perched on her little ledge behind her.

The Amazons settled down though, and fell silent, waiting for her to speak.

“It’s been an eventful few days for us.” Gabrielle said.  “I’m sure you’ve heard by now that what we thought might be levies heading to Athens turned out to be a Spartan army, also theoretically heading for Athens.”

Renas lifted a hand. “Was there really thousands, your Majesty?”

“There was.”  Gabrielle nodded. “And they had siege engines, and all the bits and parts and clanky bits you’d expect in an army that meant business. “ She added. “Though I have to admit we did not stay around long enough to carefully count them.”

Renas nodded.  “Surely they’re not interested in little towns then, right?”

The Amazons around her nodded.

Gabrielle sighed.  She got up and came around the table, leaning back on it and facing the tribe on her feet.  She folded her arms over her chest.  “I would say, no. They’re not interested in all at little towns. Not really interested in Amphipolis, or Potadeia, or any of the settlements between us. Probably not anything this side of Thera.”

The elders nodded.  “Big army. Wants lots of supplies and a fast road.” Renas stated. “We should just lay low out of their sight.”

“We’re not afraid of them.” One of the younger women said.

“You should be.” Gabrielle remarked. “Though I know we all know what’s mystique isn’t always reality.” She waited for the muttering to die down. “I think they’d just pass these towns by. They’re in a rush, they made it from the pass into upper Thrace down to the bend in the river in a half a day.”

The elders nodded. “Good.” The elder next to Renas said.

“Unfortunately.” Gabrielle continued, after a brief pause.  “I have reason to think the Spartans won’t pass Amphipolis by, mostly because they’ll be looking for me.”

“You, your majesty?” Aalene spoke up. 

“Me.”  The bard swept her eyes over them, seeing a range of emotion from worry to veiled anger.  “I think most of you realize I’m a little more notorious than your average Amazon queen.” She paused. “We met a scouting party from the Spartans on the road, and they made a grab for me.  We got out of there fast.”

“They wanted Gabrielle to hand herself and Dori over in return from them leaving Amph alone.” Solari spoke up. “That wasn’t happening.”

“If they wanted to bother us, they would have anyhow. “ Cait piped up, from her spot near the wall.  Though the youngest in the room, her status as a full warrior entitled her to speak, and she did, without apology.  “Good job we got out of there fast as we did”

Gabrielle could easily read the body language, and she knew there were some, not as many as she’d feared, but some, who thought maybe she should have taken the Spartans up on the offer. 

She’d briefly even considered it. Long enough for a couple breaths anyway, her natural inclination to self sacrifice surging to the fore before her hard won experience clamped a boot on it.   “Cait’s right.” She said. “If their intention was to loot the area, they’d do it with our without me.  The only thing having me gains them is they figured to use me either as bait or as leverage.”

“For Xena.”  One of the older warriors said. eyes watching Gabrielle closely.

“Sure.”  The bard nodded. “Both sides want her bad.  Put myself in that kind of situation and chances are a lot of people are going to get hurt.”  She stood up and walked over to the window, looking outside. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt.  Especially not people I care about, like the ones down in the town, and the ones right here in this room.”

She could feel the emotion behind her changing, as they responded to her words.  “The last thing I want is for anyone to be harmed because of a decision I made.  I’ve had too much of that happen in my life.”

She turned, and saw the quietness in their faces now; even the ones who weren’t her biggest fans were watching her with pensive eyes.  “Look.” She went back to the table and sat down. “I can’t change who I am. “ She put her hands on the wooden surface. “But I also can’t change what I am, and for better or worse you’re my responsibility.”

Now they were curious, wondering what she was going to do.  Gabrielle studied them for a moment.  “The safest thing for everyone is for me to leave.” She said.  “Dori and I, that is. If we’re not here, then Sparta has nothing to pester anyone for.  There’s not that much here, and harvest wont’ be ready for two moons.”

The Amazons watched her in silence.

“I realize that poses a problem,” Gabrielle said. “That’s something I have to think about, who to leave in charge here. “

“Where will you go?”  Aalene asked. “I mean, Gabrielle, that’s dangerous for you.  That’s not good either.”

A murmur went up. Gabrielle held her hand up in response. “I have a plan.  But I think it’s better if I keep things up in the air for right now. “    Also, the idea that everyone would either laugh at her or call her crazy wasn’t appealing. Silence seemed a better course for the moment.   “So what I’d like everyone to do is go out and pretend everything’s normal. I’ll call everyone back in when my decision’s made.”

After a moment’s shocked silence, the Amazons reluctantly rose, and started to file out.  Gabrielle looked up and caught Cait’s eye, making a small gesture with her hand.

Cait looked outstandingly pleased. She remained where she was, her slim powerful form relaxed against the wall as the rest of the tribe moved past her, muttering under their breaths. 

Renas moved against the tide, and approached her. “Well, your majesty, if you want some good advice.”

“I don’t.” Gabrielle gently interrupted her. “Thank you for the offer, Renas, but I’m fine.”

The elder hauled up short; her expression altering to swiftly concealed anger.  “Well, all right.” She turned and marched out, following the last of the Amazons out of the door.  If it had anything other than beads for a door, she would surely have slammed it.

Cait waited a moment, and then she moved away from the wall and came over to join Gabrielle at the table.  “She didn’t like that much.”

“I know.”  The bard said. “But really, Cait, what was she going to tell me I don’t already know?”

“Rather.”  Cait sat down on the first bench. “Are you going to go find Xena?”

Gabrielle smiled, and studied her interlaced fingers.   “Yes, I am.” She said. “And I’d like you to come with us.” She saw Cait’s grin. “Because I know you’re going to whether I want you to or not.”

“I did promise.” Cait said.

“I figured.  I don’t’ break my promises to her either.” The bard felt a weight lift off her shoulders, now that she’d decided her course, and put it in motion.   “Should I leave Paladia in charge?”

“No I’m sure you.. hello, what?” Cait sat straight up, her pale eyes blinking.  “What?”

Her queen chuckled.  “Just kidding. I figured I’d round out my complete pissing off of the tribe that way but yeah, it’s not fair to her.”

“Gosh.” Cait put a hand on her chest. “That was a terror.”

Gabrielle got up. “Sorry.  Paladia can come with us if she wants to. Not sure if she’s up for traveling rough all the way to Thera.”   She ran her hand through her hair.  “I want to go soon, and keep ahead of the Spartans.   We can warn all the towns we pass on the way.”

Cait nodded.  “Sounds wonderful.” She said. “I’ll start gathering and sorting things out right away.” She smiled. “Thanks for not making feel rotten about chasing after you.”

The bard smiled back. “Been there. Done that.” She came around the table and clapped Cait on the shoulder. “C’mon. Let’s get this bard and pony show on the road.”

**

Gabrielle whistled softly under her breath, her mind on all the details she had to go through before leaving.   It was a familiar routine.   She had a mental checklist she went through when they were getting ready to go out on the road and now it was almost a pleasure to be going through it.

“No, Gabrielle, be honest.  You were looking for an excuse, and you darn well found one.” She told herself.  “Granted, we could have done without the Spartan army, but still.”

It was a serious situation.  Gabrielle laid out her traveling bags, and stowed clothes for herself and Dori in them.  It was a serious situation.  She was sacrificing her safety and being with her friends and family because she wanted to warn Athens, and the surrounding areas, and to keep from being a hostage for her partner.

Absolutely.

Gabrielle heard pattering footsteps, and she looked up as Dori burst through the bead doorway, her green eyes all alight. “Hey there, kiddo.”

“Mama!” Dori danced in a circle. “We’re going to find Boo!!!”

Well, so much for all that serious stuff. “Yes we are!” Gabrielle dropped her supplies and danced around in a circle with her.  “How’d you know that, Dor?”

“Mama’s all happy!” Dori bounced around her.  “Go find Boo! Go find Boo!”

“Shhh.” Gabrielle felt more than a touch guilty, as she glanced out the window hoping no one was passing by.  “You have to go with me again, Dori, we have to go riding, and camping. That okay?”

“Go with mama?”” Dori grinned. “Yes!” She whispered. “Mama find Boo!”

“Mama will, that I promise you.”  Gabrielle said. “Cait is going with us too, and our friends the forest dwellers. Won’t that be fun? “  She had a bit of a trepidation on Jessan’s going, but her friend refused to take no for an answer.  Much like Cait would have, and she was smart enough to know when an argument had no point.

“Mama, I love you.” Dori said. “You so good!”

Gabrielle picked her up and hugged her. “I love you too, honey. I’m glad you’re going to go on an adventure with me, and even more because when we’re done we’ll be with Boo.”

“Love Boo.”

“Me too.”  Gabrielle let her down. “Now, you get the toys you want to bring with us and give them to me, so I can put them away, okay?”

“Okay.” Dori pattered off into the sleeping chamber, leaving her mother to continue packing.

It was an amazing sense of relief, to finally be following where her heart was so strongly leading her.   She felt a lightening of her soul that suddenly, unexpectedly, put tears in her eyes as she tucked her diary away into it’s customary place, making her sniffle and sending a scattering of droplets to make tiny, dark stains on the hide surface.

A soft knock came at the doorframe. “C’mon in.” Gabrielle quickly passed the back of her hand across her eyes. 

Paladia entered, ducking her head a little to clear the door. “Hi.”

“Hi.” Gabrielle glanced at her.  “What’s up?”

Paladia scowled at her. “You’re cutting out of here?”

Gabrielle sorted through the varying motives and statement she could have made and ended up simply nodding. “Yeah.”

“Why?”

The bard folded a shirt and stuffed it in the bag. “Oh, a lot of noble reasons like wanting to warn everyone about the Spartans, and get out of sight so I don’t’ get used as a pawn in the damn war but in reality I just want to go. I want to find Xena and stop being miserable.”

Paladia digested that in silence.  “Thanks.”  She said, briefly.

“For what?”

“Explaining to me why I want to go.” The tall ex renegade said. “I’ll go pack. Bye.”

Gabrielle looked up to see her leaving, the beads falling closed behind her broad shoulders.   “Love is screwy sometimes, huh?”  She shook her head and went back to her packing.   “Screwy and crazy and amazing and life changing.”

“Mama, can I bring Oogy and bitty boo?” Dori came out with both her favorite toys, the stuffed cow now much the worse for wear, and the tiny stuffed image of Xena she adored.  “Don’t wanna leave dem.”

“Sure.” Gabrielle said. “Boo always found room in the bags for everything Mama really wanted to keep, so we can find room for your toys, okay?”

Dori grinned and brought them over, laying them carefully down on the chest. “Dere.” Then she rambled back into the sleeping room. “Gots to get my rocks.”

Rocks. Gabrielle hoped she didn’t want to bring all of them. She made space for the toys, and then slid in the leather wrapped healer’s kit Xena had left behind when she’d gone.  It had a smaller selection of things, just basic stuff Gabrielle would know how to use, and she fervently hoped she wouldn’t’ need it during the trip.

She added a block of travel bars Xena had just recently made, wrapped in waxed parchment to keep them and added two water skins, now empty to the load.

Another knock on the doorframe. “C’mon in.”  Gabrielle laid a bet with herself, and then collected it as Solari stuck her head in the opening. “Hey, Solari.”

The dark haired Amazon entered. “Your Maj.”

“What’s on your mind?” The bard pulled out two extra shifts, and put them in the larger of the two carry bags. “Everyone freaking out?”

Solari came over and sat down in the chair across from Gabrielle’s worktable.  “Hard to tell.” She said. “Some people think you’re doing a pretty cool thing, but the old cranks are mad as Hades.”

“Eh.”  Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders.  “Don’t’ really give a damn.”

“I figured.”  Solari grinned briefly.  “Can I go with you? I don’t’ want to stick around here.  Eph and Pony are the best friends I got these days.”

Gabrielle stopped what she was doing and turned, sitting down on the chest.  “I was going to leave you in charge.”

“Yeah I figured.” The dark eyes regarded her. “Don’t really want that.”

“Probably why I wanted to do it.”  Gabrielle smiled briefly.  “You should never give that kind of power to someone who wants it.  Ends up bad every time.”

Solari looked up and met her eyes. “Please?”

There was something in the asking that went straight to Gabrielle’s heart.  She reached over and put her hand on Solari’s shoulder. “Of course.”  She said. “Get your stuff together. “

A look of profound relief crossed Solari’s face. “Thanks.” She said. “Want my advice? Leave Nala in charge. She doesn’t’ take crap from anyone, and she’s a big fan of yours and the champ’s.”

“Is she going to hit me if I do that?” Gabrielle chuckled. “I kinda liked her.”

“Nah.” The dark haired Amazon stood up. “She’ll be all right with it once she gets over not getting to go with us.”  A puckish look appeared on her face. “And that I got here first.”

Gabrielle chuckled gently. “Go on. Send her over.” She said.  “Let’s get this all settled and get going. I don’t’ want to give the Spartans a chance to wander up here.”

With a grin, Solari left, whistling under her breath.  Gabrielle watched her go, shaking her head a little.  “Xe, you were right.” She said. “I’m not sure that’s what you meant when you said I’d need my friends around me, but there ya go.” 

“Mama.” Dori came out. “C’n I put the buppit in the bag? He said  he’ll be good.”  She had her arms wrapped around the animal, whose tongue was lolling out happily

Gabrielle turned and put her hands on her hips, regarding the pair.

“Pweese?”

**

Xena had very mixed feelings about waking up.   On the one hand, her head felt better, and though the ship was still tossing, light was filtering weakly into the cabin and she couldn’t hear rain outside.    On the other hand, trying to get out of bed brought a heartfelt groan out of her guts as her stiffened muscles screamed bloody murder in counterpoint.

“Son of a Bacchae.”  Xena managed to haul herself up into a sitting position, resting her hands on the edge of the bunk as she slowly stretched herself out. 

Everything hurt.   She leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees, feeling her spine pop and grudgingly ease into alignment.   That last flip into the boat had been half sideways, and she remembered having to wrench herself around in mid air to get her feet under her in order to land on something other than her head.

Might have been better landing on her ass, now that she thought about it.  With a sigh, she pushed herself up to a standing position, grabbing the ceiling planks for support.

“Ugh.” She let her head rest against her arm.  “I hate mornings like this.”

One of the good things about them being at home more, she reflected, was that there were fewer mornings like this.   She limped over to her bag and fished inside it, this time bringing out the herbs she’d pushed aside the night before.

She unhooked her cup from its holder and put a pinch of the ground herbs in the bottom, then poured some of the wine from her opened wineskin over it.   The sweet scent made her blink, but she mixed it with her index finger then downed it before she could think about what it tasted like.

Peh. She stuck her tongue out.  “Damn that’s rank.”  She poured another splash of wine into the cup, then took it back to her bunk and sat down with it, nursing it cradled in both hands.

Outside her cabin, she heard very little noise.  The creaks of the wood around her, and a steady thump from the deck, and a low buzz of sound seemed to echo under her feet.  Otherwise, it seemed quiet and placid, the soft rush of the sea coming only gently inside the cabin.

She leaned back against the ship’s wooden wall, waiting for the herbs to take effect, an escape she didn’t often give in to especially when others were present.   She was tough on her body, no one knew that better than she did, but she figured she went into it knowing that, so suffering the consequences was just part of the game.

Getting a splinter, then downing a cup of herbs to take the pain away seemed a little cowardly to her.  You made your living as a fighter? Fine. Then accept you would spend most of that life aching somewhere or other.  Just how it was.

But times like this, when she’d done something so outrageously stupid and it hurt just to breathe – well – Xena sipped the wine and felt the cramps in her body start to unwind a little.  She was a healer for a reason, after all.

A soft knock came at the door. “C’mon in.”  Xena briefly glanced to the side, making sure her sword was still where she left it.

The door opened and Denius poked his head in warily.  “Ah. My good general.”

Xena was too sore to object.  “Yes?”

He entered, leaning against the wall near the door.  “I just wanted to give you my personal thanks for the help you gave last night.  The captain gave me a full report of what occurred, and how your action kept the ship off the rocks.”

Xena took a sip of the wine and rolled it around inside her mouth before she swallowed it. “This is yours?” She asked.

“It is.” Denius agreed. “And I was not looking to see it broken to splinters with myself in it.”

“Me either.” She said.  “Glad I could help.”

Denius studied her. “Many think you should also have left that criminal to die. I wanted you to know that I am not one of them.” He said. “I’m very grateful you saved him. He’s worth a lot more to the council alive, than dead and food for the fish.”

Xena indicated the small bench across from her. “Siddown.” She suggested.  “That woman that’s with them was a literal pain in my neck last night.” She turned her head and pointed at the thin, rusty line already healing along her jugular.   “So I’d thought about gutting the bunch of them.”

Denius sat.  “It is well you did not.” He said, in a grave tone. “Though I am the first to admit I share your impulse. I have just spoken with the harlot and got nothing but spat on for my troubles.”

“Then why not kill her?”  Xena asked. “You think she’ll say more to some inquisitioner in Athens?”

“No.” He said. “This is confidential.”

Xena carefully turned her head and examined the room, then glanced up, and back at him. “We’re alone.”

He smiled wryly.  “The woman is the bastard daughter of the head of the council.” He said. “The two with her.. not quite the brothers she claims.  We think them spies for Sparta.”

Xena pondered that news, while she drank from her cup.  “They’re not Spartans.” She said. “Thracians, maybe.” She added. “Neighbors of mine, that could be. They’ve got the accent.”

Denius slowly nodded. “So you see, the council wants them back for many reasons.  My brother Ascenian told me Gaias, the leader of the council, has offered ten thousand dinars for the woman’s return alive.”

“His bastard?”

The man shrugged. “I don’t claim to know his thoughts. Perhaps she has worth to him no matter what side of the sheets she was born on.”

Xena smiled briefly. “I appreciate the viewpoint.” She remarked. “Better hope this thing picks up speed then. Long as you have her onboard, she’ll be trouble.”

Denius got up. “True.” He responded. “And I have asked the captain to pile on all sail to get us to Athens, believe me. But they are still repairing the damage from the storm, and its slow going. The hold is partially flooded, I am told. “

“I smelled them using pitch last night.”  Xena cautiously stretched her body out, relieved that the herbs seemed to have kicked in. She drained her cup and stood, balancing as the ship moved.  “They still lashed to the rail?”

He smiled unkindly. “Yes.”

Xena nodded. “Keep an eye on them, but keep the sailors away from there.” She warned. “That’s a silver tongue she’s got.”

Denius studied her again. “Were you attracted to it?”

“No.”  The warrior went over to her gear.  “I’m married to a bard and I know every trick of that trade.” She glanced at him over her shoulder.  “But those men out there don’t.”

He nodded firmly. “It’s good advice, and I will have the captain act on it.” He said. “We are gathering for a midday meal in the captain’s galley. Would you join us?”

Sometimes, it was just some internal instinct that guided her, one that she didn’t always understand or appreciate. “Maybe later.” She said. “I’ve got some work to do on my armor. Thanks anyway.”

He bowed, and left, closing the door behind him. 

Xena turned and sighed, leaning against the cabin’s wall.  She slowly flexed her hands and leaned over, stretching her back out and hearing the soft pops as the bones eased into place. Then she stood straight and rocked her head back and forth, loosening the muscles on either side of her neck. 

It would do.  She rummaged in her basket for some bread and cheese, and with those tucked into her hand; she went over to the window to look outside.

Gray skies, as she’d expected. The water was a ruffled gray, with waves crashing into each other and she suspected there was more storm to come.  

**

A candle mark later, she had cleaned up and was back in her leathers and armor, strolling on the deck.  The damage from the storm was formidable, and only one of the two sails was raised, its center belled out from the wind as they moved steadily along.

The other had been rended by the storm, and the crew had it down on the deck, busy at the work of sewing the canvas back together.  

Xena debated stopping and helping, then decided to give it a pass for the moment and went over to the side, leaning on it and gazing out over the water.

How many hours had she spent doing that on her way to Chin last time?  Xena sighed and scanned the horizon.  How many times had she wished she’d made a different choice, and turned around, and just done what her heart was prompting her to?

What her pride had prevented her from doing.  Her pride, and her ego, making one last defiant stand against the giving in of self she’d suffered becoming Gabrielle’s partner.

She should have gotten down on her knee and just said a simple. “I’m sorry.”   Was that so damned hard?  It would have opened the door and started the healing so much faster.  “I’m sorry I failed you in Britannia, Gabrielle. I should have honored our relationship more than my need for revenge.”

So simple.  So basic.  So true, now, and then and she’d known it.   As much as Gabrielle had insisted it all was her choice, they both knew this one basic truth would have changed everything. 

And yet, she was who she was.  Xena watched a seagull coast along, traveling low over the waves looking for a meal.  She had acted in synch with the person she’d been since she’d left home, and that, Gabrielle had said, was also a truth neither of them could ignore.

You can change what you do, Xena.  Gabrielle had told her. But you can’t change who you are, and neither can I.

It had been liberating, in a way.  She’d been haunted for so long by the need she felt to change change change… and to be told by someone who loved her dearly that it was okay to be who she was – that had made her stop, and think and understand herself just a little bit better.

Made her understand Gabrielle just a little bit better. 

They were really just opposites.  Gabrielle was a person who belonged to the light who chose to court darkness, and she someone who belonged in darkness who chose to court the light.   Yin and Yang as they said back in the Far East, a perfect balance.

Xena smiled wryly. Well, not quite perfect.

What would she do now, given the choice again?  What if she ran into those traders from that ship from Chin, and got handed a note, and given that challenge?

Xena thought about that, as the waves tilted a little, and she felt the spray hit her face as it had for so many days that last voyage.  Would she honor that summons?

A smile tugged at her lips.   She imagined getting that same message right now at this very moment in her life and felt, in her heart of hearts, she’d just hand it back and say no thanks.  No thanks, I just got my life back together and you can take your note from some woman who’d seduced a young idiot and take it right back with you.

“I’ve got what I want.”  Xena remarked to the gull.  “Screw you all.”

She pushed off the rail and turned, surveying the ship.  Then she walked up to the bow and climbed to the front of the ship, letting the wet wind lash her and drive the last bit of weariness from her body. 

“There you are, you damned smartass woman.” The captain joined her. 

“Hello, captain.” Xena replied.  “Glad to see your sorry tub’s still in one piece.”

He chuckled.  “Take more than a storm to sink me, or you either.” He said. “Got more weather coming. Hope the dogs I have there finish their mending before then.”

Xena smiled, but didn’t answer. She turned her head a little, and caught sight of the prisoners still lashed to the rail, the men slumped over seemingly unconscious but the woman sitting in a cramped posture, glaring at everything around her.

Which wasn’t much, Xena noted. There were no sailors nearby, and all the rigging and crates had been moved carefully out of reach.   Milena had her arms tied to the spindles and in the driving rain, little was left to the imagination regarding her well formed body.

Just as well the sailors were warned off her.  The warrior turned her head and then shook it, as the captain regarded the sea.  “I’ll be glad to see Athens.”

“Me too.” The man said. “Too much ill wind this trip, and a viper lashed to my deck on the top of it.” He indicated the prisoners.  “Bad blood. Glad you tipped his nips off and warned him to keep all away from that one. “

“Trouble.”

“A sea full.” The captain agreed. “Last thing I need now is a mutiny.” He studied Xena’s profile.  “But then you’d have some persuasion yourself, I think.”

“I might.”  The warrior concurred. “I’ve got no… “ She paused, and blinked, raising a hand to shade her eyes from the mist.  Far off on the distant horizon, there was a dark smudge. “Island out there?”

The captain peered in the direction she was facing. “Too small.” He said. “Not sure what it is.”

The wind started to pick up, and the sailors all scrambled, grabbing the edge of the canvas and holding it down.  “Hurry up you mongrels!” The captain yelled. “We’ll be back in Poseidon’s pocket in a minute now!”

He trotted off across the deck, leaving Xena to ponder the unknown.

She studied the blot on the horizon.  It seemed like a bump, almost like a sandbar, but if she squinted, and cupped her hands around her eyes she almost had herself convinced there was a blockiness to it that meant something other than a lonely bump of sand.

Xena had good eyesight.  She’d always taken that for granted right up until she’d lost it on her journey with Palimon.  That slow slide into darkness, coupled with the internal knowledge that Gabrielle was in trouble and needed her had come very close to driving her into the kind of internal panic she often scorned in others.

She’d almost completely freaked out.   If she thought a minute, she could bring back into her mind the pounding of her heart, and the shortness of breath as she raced blindly through the corridors, the smoke half choking her, relying on only on Gabrielle’s desperate need to guide her.

The whole damn experience had humbled her. For one, that she’d taken for granted the fact that she could open her eyelids and see the way she did.  And for two, that Gabrielle now knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt what her worth was to Xena.

What she’d risk for her.   Sobering moment for both of them. 

With a sigh, she focused those eyes again on the blur, and then she started and leaned forward, as a flash seemed to erupt, for a tiny moment, from the mass and then disappear. 

“All right, get that up the mast!”

Xena turned, to see the crew struggling to restore the sail to the second mast, which had been repaired with spars and splints and good stout rope.  The captain was pacing around the deck supervising the work, whip clasped lightly in one hand he evidently intended on using.

Xena crossed to him. “Captain.”

He turned. “You again?”

“Does our course take us towards that island, or whatever it is?” She asked. “I think I saw something out there.”

“Naw.” The captain said. “We’re hailing southwest. That’s southeast, we’ve got no business there.”  He paced forward.  “Get the damn hooks in place!”

“We need to change course. I want to see what that is.” Xena got in front of him, and made him stop.  “It won’t take that long.”

“Are you crazy woman?” The captain said. “I’ve got a schedule to keep! Fool!  Who the Hades cares w..” He stopped speaking, as a razor sharp blade pressed against the skin at his breastbone.  He looked up it., across the powerful forearm that held it steady up to the pale blue eyes that no longer had any sense of amusement or tolerance in them.

“I’m not crazy, and I’m no fool.” Xena said, in a quiet voice. “I think that’s a shipwreck, and the last ship that left before this one had friends of mine on it.”

“Could be nothing.” The captain stayed very still. “Could be pirates.”

“I can handle nothing, and I can handle pirates. But we both know if it’s a ship out there and it’s in trouble, you’ve got to help.” Xena replied. “Now are you going to do it voluntarily, or do I need to do it for you.”

He looked her right in the eye.  “I’d say over my dead body but that’d only encourage you.” He said. “This is my ship, woman.  No one masters her but me.” He reached up and closed his hand around her blade, gently moving it aside. “If it’s no shipwreck, you’ll pay my price, even if that’s to be whipped on the yard arm.  How’s that?”

“Deal.” Xena said. She pulled the sword out of his grasp and seated it back in her scabbard.  “But you better make sure you tie the ropes on me tight. I don’t give any quarter.”

Faintly, the captain smiled.  “Woman, I’d marry you in an instant.” He stated.  “You gods be damned thing you.”

Xena found a smile somewhere, and gave it back. “I’m taken.” She said.  “But you are my kinda guy, Captain.” She gave him a slap on the shoulder. “Now get the ship turned.  I saw a flash like they were trying to signal us.”

He snorted. “Coulda said that first, ya wench.” He turned to watch the sail go up. “All right you salty bastards, make the lines tight, and I’m turning the tiller about.”  He strode towards the steerage platform, waving at the helmsman.

Xena chuckled softly, spotting Iolaus emerging from belowdecks, a concerned look on his face.  He saw her and started in her direction, as the fluttering sound of the sail going up filled their ears. 

**

“So that’s what we saw so far.” Bennu concluded. He was sitting in the chair across from Gabrielle’s worktable, having been ushered there by Solari a brief time before.  “Army’s just round the bend, seems like they’re settling in and not coming round before nightfall.”

Gabrielle braced her head on her fist. “That makes no sense, Bennu. Why not send at least an envoy around? I’m sure they know we’re here.”

Bennu shrugged. “Didn’t want to send anyone around to ask em.” He said.  “Just got the militia all tucked up, as y’asked.”

“I don’t’ get it.” The bard frowned. “Why did they stop?” She tapped her thumb on the desk. “We need to send someone to find out.”

“Good thing though, if you’re leaving out of here.” Bennu said.  “Get you some space ahead of them yeah?” He watched her closely.  “Got an idea how to keep you safe, little hawk? I know the Genr’l minds it.”

It was a good thing, but Gabrielle had lived in the world just long enough not to completely trust a good thing.   “The problem is, there really is only one way out of here, and if they’ve had people spying here as long as we think they have, they know that.”

“Aye.”

“Well.” Gabrielle reconsidered. “There’s only one way out of here towards Athens.  We could just go the other way of course, and run right into them.”

Bennu frowned.

“Just thinking out loud.”  Gabrielle fell silent.  “I figured on leaving with only a few people, that would be fastest.”

“Little hawk.” The soldier leaned forward.  “You’ve got your own mind, surely.  But would you take a bit of a notion from an old man who’s been round a time or two?”

“Sure.”

“Them people.” Bennu said. “Figure you to tuck on out of here.  They’ll be waiting.”

“A trap.”

“Aye.”

Gabrielle exhaled.

“You got a few people, you’ll get caught.” The militia captain said. “No question.  Only one who’d be able to pull that off ain’t here.”

“Xena.”  The bard said. “I could go anywhere with her and be safe.”

Bennu nodded. “Tis so.”  He said. “Only way you can stay safe is stay up here, with these fighters and all. They’d watch you, or take a bunch with you and go.”

Gabrielle sat back and folded her arms over her chest.  The last thing she wanted to do was take with her, and be responsible for a big group of people.  But something inside her was telling her that Bennu was right, and leaving with only her picked handful might get her into trouble.

Of course, with her, doing anything including going fishing with Dori might get her into trouble.

So not what would Xena do, but what would Xena tell her to do if she could?

She thought hard about that for a long few moments, while Bennu waited in patient silence.  “Well, here’s what I think we should do.”

“Your Majesty!”

Gabrielle paused, hearing the yell outside. “C’mon in.”

A scout entered, breathless. “Runner coming up from the town, already calling for you.  About halfway up.”

“Okay, let’s see what this is.” Gabrielle got up and circled her desk. “C’mon Bennu, this might change what I was about to tell you.” She followed the scout out of her quarters then broke into a run towards the village entrance, hearing Bennu curse but follow her.

Heads turned.  Gabrielle ignored them and increased her speed, glad of the excuse to rid herself of the building up of nervous tension that was starting to give her a headache.  It felt good to feel the surge of energy and the wind against her face as she crossed the square.

She reached the guard point and hauled up, as two of the guards sprang up when they saw her. They cleared away though and she bolted through the narrow pass between the rocks, arriving on the path just as a young man gasping for breath stumbled up the last of it.

“G.. “He sucked in a breath.  “Gabrielle, there’s a delegation f..from the Spartans.”

Ah. That was more like it. “Okay.” She responded. “Take a second, catch your breath. They’ll wait at least that long.”

The man was bent over, hands on his knees and he took her advice, his chest heaving for a minute. “Steep path.”

“It is.” The bard said. “Even Xe’s huffing a little if she runs up to our cabin. Don’t feel bad.”

The man looked up at her in surprise.

“Don’t’ tell her I told you.” Gabrielle said, solemnly.  “It’s bad for her image.”

He relaxed a little.  “The delegation said they wanted to talk to you, and only to you.”  He said, after a long exhale.  “They carried a white truce flag.”

“As if Amphipolis was an army?”  Gabrielle had to smile.

The runner shook his head. “Said they knew you were here, and hadn’t left. Said they were watching all the ways out.”

Hmm.  So Bennu’s worry had been dead accurate.  Gabrielle sighed.  “I’m not sure if I should be worried or flattered at that.”   She patted his arm. “Let’s go down there and see what they want.”

“Gabrielle.” Bennu had come up behind her. “What if all they want is t’grab you?”

Good point.  “How many of them are there?” She asked the runner.

“Six.”

Gabrielle turned around to the guards. “Call back and tell Solari I need a half dozen Amazons as an honor guard, please.”

“Yes, your Majesty.” The guard took off at a run, leaving the other guard behind. 

“Hang out here a minute.” Gabrielle told the runner. “I’m going to get a staff.” Instead of heading back into the village, she turned and started up the slope to the cabin instead.  

It was a steep path, and running up it took a lot of energy.  She hadn’t been kidding when she’d told the village man it strained even Xena, because the last time she’d seen the warrior do it, when she’d though there was something wrong with Dori, Gabrielle had teased her partner about how out of breath she’d been when she’d got there.

For a split second, she’d thought she’d crossed that line, as Xena had put her hands on her hips and given her ‘that look’.  That look that had always meant she’d pushed that old teasing threshold a little too hard and bumped into her partner’s vanity the wrong way.

But then, amazingly, the warrior had just laughed and dared her to do any better, blowing off the pinched ego as though it didn’t matter.

And for that, Gabrielle had given her a hug and a kiss and written her a poem that still made her blush just a little remembering it.  

How very far they’d come.

She got to the top of the trail breathing hard herself, and quickly crossed the slight rise to the cabin, taking the steps at one jump and pushing the door open. “Jess?”

“Here.”  Jessan was flat on his back on their bed, looking blissfully comfortable. His four companions were strewn around the cabin like mobile rugs, and they all looked up at her as she entered.  “Boy. You guys got it made.”

Gabrielle took a breath, and released it. “Well, maybe we do, but right now all I have is a mess. The Spartans showed up in Amphipolis wanting to meet with me.”

“Figures.” Jessan rolled over and propped his head up on his hand. “All of them?”

“Only six, under a treaty flag.” The bard said. “I want to go parley with them, but I need some help.”  She went to the side of the cabin where they kept their gear and picked up one of Xena’s practice staves.  “I’m taking some Amazons, but I’d like you guys to go down there and be around in case they try something funny.”

“Funny like pull their pants down, or funny like try to grab you and run?” Jessan asked.

Gabrielle just looked at him.

“Sure.” Jessan got up. “We’ll hide around the inn… that’s where you’ll be with them right?”

“Can we hide in the kitchen there?” One of the other forest dwellers asked.  “It smelled great in there.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “Sure. I know Cyrene’ll be glad to have you around.” She said. “Just don’t scare her cooks, okay?”

They left the cabin and started down the trail, getting to the Amazon village entrance a few minutes later.   Solari was there, with Cait and Nala, and three other of the mature warriors, all with feathers flying and bristling with weapons. 

“Ready, your Maj.” Solari said.  “I hear the Spartans are gonna surrender to ya.”

Gabrielle chuckled wryly.

“Really?” Cait asked. “Should I get Pally down to draw it? I’m sure it’ll be memorable.”

“Come on, people.” Gabrielle motioned to the lower path. “Let’s go see what we’re in for.” She led the way down, sorting through the new information and wondering how it would impact her plans.  Were they really watching all the paths, for instance? Even the ones she knew, but probably they didn’t?

Like the very narrow, secret, hard to travel path that would take you from Amphipolis to Potadeia if you really had a need to go there, and not be seen?

She knew that one. Xena did, because Xena had made it.  The warrior had patiently chopped her way through underbrush and scrub, winding between thickly grown forest and over cold, fast running streams creating a track between their home town, and Gabrielle’s birth town.

Just in case.

They reached the bottom of the path and she went to the town’s back gate, pushing it open and standing aside as the rest of her group came through. “Bennu, take six of your men, and get around in back of them.  Jessan and his friends are going to secure the inn.”

Bennu nodded. “Sounds good, little hawk. “ He seemed pleased with the plan.  “And ye’ll take us with you if you go, yeah?”

“Yes.” Gabrielle said. “I will.”

Satisfied, the soldier rambled off, disappearing between the trees.  Gabrielle motioned the Amazons and forest dwellers forward, and took the lead again as they crossed the lane to the stables and headed up the main path that would take them to the central town square where Cyrene’s inn was.

“You think they’re playing games?” Nala asked, glancing around somewhat self-consciously.  She hadn’t taken her temporary promotion well at all, and made it clear she was only doing this because it was Gabrielle who was asking and she understood the need.

Gabrielle had given her a hug for that, and was vaguely surprised at the tongue tied and flustered Amazon that stepped back from her.

“I don’t’ know, but I know they aren’t stupid or reckless.” Gabrielle said. “Xena was telling me about her experience with them before she left.”  She paused. “She respects them.”

The Amazons pondered that, as they reached the back of the inn. Rather than going around, Gabrielle motioned them to the back door, and they slipped inside  before anyone could see them.  They went single file down the corridor and Gabrielle motioned the forest dwellers into the kitchen while she led the Amazons on towards the front room.

She figured that’s where they’d be.   She could hear a low murmur of conversation in the room, and Cyrene’s distinctive voice raised in mild argument.    Gabrielle paused at the back of the door leading into the main room and listened, trying to judge what she was walking into.

She took a breath, a little surprised at how relaxed she felt.  Then she pushed the door open an entered, aware of the armed women at her back. 

The sound cut off as she appeared, and she walked a few steps further in the center of the front of the room, sweeping it with her eyes as she came to a halt.   At the table in front Cyrene was standing, her arms braced against the surface.

Three of the town council were there, sitting on the side facing the room.  Four townsmen who were also incidentally militia were at the next table, and opposing them, standing in the center of the room were the Spartans.

And they were Spartans. She recognized the bearing, and the gear, and the martial attitude she remembered from the slave Xena beat in Athens.  These were men raised as warriors, who thought of little else and who lived by a code even Xena raised her beautiful dark eyebrows at.

Gabrielle wished really hard that the outer door would open, and her partner would walk in.   “I hear you wanted to see me.”  She said, coming to stand next to Cyrene.

The Amazons formed an arc behind her, watching the Spartans.

The man in front took a step forward. “You are Gabrielle?”

“I am.” The bard answered mildly. “At least.. that’s my name.” She demurred. “And since you’re here, looking for someone of that name, I’m pretty much what you got.”

The Spartan studied her curiously.  “But are you the one I seek?”

A faint grin twitched at Gabrielle’s lips briefly.  “Well.” She  said.  “If you’re looking for the one that’s a bard and a queen of the Amazons… “ She watched his facial expression, seeing the minute shifts under the skin. “and the partner of Xena of Amphipolis, then yes.  That’s me.”

He jerked a little at Xena’s name, confirming her suspicions. 

“So, what is it you want?” Gabrielle continued.  “We’re busy people here.”

The man nodded. “My name is Selenius.” He said. “I am the chief captain of the first guard, commanding the Spartan invasion forces.”

He fell silent, and the room echoed a little after that.  

Just before everyone started to shift uncomfortably, Gabrielle shifted her stance, cocking her head a little to one side. “And?”  She prompted gently.   “We’re just a farming town here.  Not much for an invading army to be interested in.”

The Spartans exchanged glances.  It was hard to say what their attitude was.  “You saw our force.” He said. “So naturally you are not surprised to see us.”

“Naturally.” Gabrielle said.

“But you also seem ignorant of your danger, then.” Selenius said.  “Do you not find an army on your doorstep even a little alarming? It might be true you have nothing we need, though I have seen horses, and supplies, and men I could easily use.”

“We don’t intimidate easily here.” Gabrielle straightened a little. “I certainly don’t.  But why don’t you tell me what you want, and then I can decide what my response should be?  It could be that you are asking for help, after all. “ She smiled. “Since you sent an envoy here to ask Xena for exactly that.”

The man almost smiled. “May we break bread together, Gabrielle?  The one who told me of you certainly described you to an almost perfection.”

 Gabrielle turned her head towards Cyrene. “Okay with that, mom?”

Cyrene gave her a look that was half wry and half exasperation.   Then she turned to the Spartan. “Listen, buddy.” She said. “I have no idea what you want with my kids, but I’m in no mood to clean up a busted inn, so mind your damn manners and you can eat here. Otherwise, out with you.”

Selenius’ eyes widened.

“Sorry.” Gabrielle said. “Selenius, this is Cyrene. She’s Xena’s mother.” She paused to give that statement the weight it required. “I wouldn’t mess around with her if I were you.”

The Spartan laughed briefly.  “The gods themselves only know why a tiny town in the backwoods of Thrace holds such fire in it. “ He bowed to Cyrene. “We will behave, madam.  We are Spartans. Not unnamed roughnecks stealing sheep.”

The Spartans took a table and sat at it, and Gabrielle came around from the front table and approached them, lightly grasping her staff. 

One of the soldiers stood back up and reached towards her and in a flickering of an eye the staff was up and whipping in his direction, smacking him on the fingers with the sound of wood cracking.   

Gabrielle brought the end back, her body settling into a balanced pose as the soldier bit off a curse and grabbed his hand.  “Please don’t’ do anything crazy.” She said. “I’d rather we just talked.”

Selenius had half stood; now he sat. “Petrus, sit.” He said. “He meant no harm. His family is noble, and he would pull your chair for you.”

The bard exhaled and let her muscles relax, and she heard the rest of the Amazons sheathing weapons behind her.  “My parents were shepherds in a town half the size of this one.” She said, as she sat down.  “Let’s just keep it plain.”

Then she stopped talking, and waited.

**

The storm hit again as they altered their course towards Xena’s blot on the horizon, but in this case the winds were with them and it filled the sails, sending them barreling along the waves in the right direction.

Xena was up on the steering platform, braced against the rail as the rain drove against her.  The patricians had disappeared back into their cabins, and Iolaus had gone back down into the hold to see to the horses after telling her the stalls weren’t in any good condition.

Or at least, that’s what he said he was going to do. He’d also asked Xena for another dose of her seasick remedy. 

The prisoners were still lashed to the rail. 

Xena knew she, too, could go into her cabin, and be dry and warm, but there was something wild and elemental about the storm, and the sea that touched something wild and elemental in her.  

As she looked out over the waves and felt the ship moving under her feet she imagined all the terrors of the deep they were skating impudently over and smiled, giving her head a shake to clear the wet hair from her eyes.

Her leathers were drenched, but the rain wasn’t so chilled that it bothered her and she stood there against the rail sucking in deep breaths of the salt air that almost tickled her nose enough to make her sneeze.

Almost.

The tillersman turned to look at her and she gave him a smile.   After a frozen second, he smiled back, and then turned again to his task of holding the ship on course.   “Want to take her a bit, lady?”

Xena chuckled. “Think I can?”

“Knows it.” He answered. “Saw yer in the storm, holding us.”

The warrior took a step forward and joined him, laying her hand on the tiller and feeling it press against her push as the sailor released it.   “Know who I am?” She asked.

“Aye.” The man said.  “Poseidon’s Bane.”

“Ahh. Been a long time since I’ve heard that name.” Xena burred softly.  “Where’d you hear that from?”

“Fellers I sailed with.” The man turned. “Fergus is my name.” He offered a hand. “My father sailed with ye, long time ago.  Name was Marco.”

In the act of taking his hand, Xena paused. “Marco Half leg?”

The sailor grinned. “Aye.” He said.  “Came back from the sea and told the story of you savin the rest of him from that squid.”

Xena grinned back, and felt ten years younger all of a sudden.   “By the gods that was a long time ago.” She took his grip and returned it.  The sailor was young, maybe even younger than Gabrielle was. He had curly dark hair and smoke gray eyes and it brought back the memory she had of his father.

And that damn squid. 

“Was yeah.” Fergus said. “But y’know he tells that story every chance he gets, till the town’s sick of it. Specially when we started hearing tales of you after.”

Xena nodded. “I got around.”

Fergus nodded back. “Year or so back he said you and another came through where he lived, he didn’t get a chance to say hello to you. But the one was with you, told stories in the inn he said.  Was a cute thing, he said.”

“What town?”

“Don’t even have a name. Too small. Just couple dozen farmers and a small inn.  Near Hostace.”

Could have been any of a dozen.  Xena smiled ruefully and shook her head. “Wish I’d known. I’d have welcomed a chance to see how he was doing.” She nudged the tiller a notch, her eyes running knowledgably over the sail.  “The storyteller was my partner, Gabrielle.”

“Seems I heard that name.”

“She’s been around too.”  Xena chuckled.  “If you get home again, tell him to look me up sometime.  Everyone knows where I live now.”

The sailor grinned. “I will.”  He turned his head as there was a motion by the rail, and they watched the Milena twisting in her bonds, trying to wrench the gag loose from her mouth.  “That’s a bad lot, that one.  Cap’n tried to give it water, bit him.”

“Yeah.”  Xena studied Milena’s violent frustration.  “Hang on to this a minute. Maybe I can get her to settle down.” She handed him back the tiller and crossed down off the steering platform to where the woman was tied up.

“Good luck w’that.”  Fergus shook his head.

Milena stopped writhing when she saw the warrior approach, going still as her chest heaved with the effort she’d been putting out. She watched Xena warily as she came over and settled to one knee in front of her.

“Listen.” Xena said. “Don’t be a such a jerk, and you’ll get treated better.”

Those pale eyes watched her intently, as a wave of rain lashed over both of them, spattering against Xena’s bare arm and beading off the warrior’s tanned skin.  

Xena got the feeling if Milena could chew through the gag and then take a bite out of her, she would.   “Stop fighting them.” She advised. “It wont’ get you anywhere.”   She casually drew out her breast dagger and reached over, putting the tip against the woman’s gag.

Milena stopped moving, staying completely still.

With a flick of her wrist, Xena cut through the gag, and eased back to watch as Milena spit it out of her mouth with a croaking curse. 

“I’ll never stop fighting them.”  She half coughed. “Bastards! Leaving us up here like this! The salt is rubbing us raw.”

Xena could see the welts.  “The cell you were in down in the hold is flooded.” She remarked. “It’s better up here than there.”  She rested her elbows on her upraised knee.  “If you behave, I’ll fix that for you.”

Milena glared at her. “What do you mean, behave?”

“Listen kid.”

“Stop calling me that. I’m not a kid.”

Xena smiled tolerantly. “Listen kid.” She repeated. “You’re not ever going to teach me anything about being a badass. So just shut the Hades up and maybe I’ll think about giving you something for those sores. Otherwise you can sit out here and rot for all I care. Your choice.”

She watched Milena’s face, understanding well the conflicting emotions there, idly wondering which side of the bed she was going to come down on.

Metaphorically speaking.

“I’m not a child.” Milena finally said, but in a much milder tone.  “I’ve just passed my eighteenth year.”

“To me, that’s a kid.” Xena informed her. “Pick your fate, kid.” She smiled easily, shaking the wet hair from her eyes again as the rain swept over them one more time.  She saw the shoulders slump and bit off a smirk as the expression on Milena’s face altered from arrogant anger to what came close to a little desperation.

“If you can help me, then do,” She said. “Please.” She added, grudgingly and late.

Xena had her healer’s kit clipped to her armor from her session with Iolaus.  She untied it and edged sideways to block the rain from hitting its contents as she sorted through what she had inside.   She drew out a small wooden box with the paste she used for wound healing in it, and a piece of linen folded up in a square.

“Why are you doing this?” Milena asked after watching for a moment.

“Doing what?” Xena picked up her supplies and moved closer. “This?” She held up the paste. “A friend of mine would expect me to.”   She paused before she lifted the linen up. “I’ll warn you once.  Mess with me while I’m working on you and I’ll knock you out.”

Milena lowered her lashes, and then fluttered them open. “I won’t.” She said. “Being knocked on my ass once was enough.”

Satisfied, Xena went to work on the sores, areas rubbed raw by the ropes and inflamed by the salt water. They hurt, she knew, but the girl stayed silent and still while she dried the spots, and then coated them with the salve.  “That’ll keep the water out if you don’t rub it off.”

“What is it?”

“Mixture of an herb to kill the pain, one to keep the wound clean and a vegetable jelly my mother came up with.”  Xena remarked absently.  “Used it first on my horse.” She felt the motion as Milena reacted, and she looked up to see a smile on the girl’s face.  “But it works on people too.”

“It feels much better.” Milena admitted.  “Thank you.”

Gabrielle, Xena mused, would be so damned proud of her.  She’d never quite gotten the knack of killing people with kindness, though the very idea made her chuckle inside.  But she’d finally realized that sometimes, some places, a kind word or act often got the results she wanted faster than using her pinch, or beating people silly.  “No problem.” She moved around to the girl’s other side.

“You’re a healer?”  Milena asked, after a moment’s silence.

“Yes.” Xena studied a particularly large gall, which was seeping blood.  She could bandage it, but she knew the rain and the wind driven seas would make the linen a sopping mess and negate its effectiveness.

Hm.

“You have gentle hands when you want to.” Milena observed.

Xena briefly glanced up, to see the captive’s eyes not far from her own, watching her steadily.  “I have many skills.” She went back to her task, cleaning the spot and putting the salve on, then wrapping the linen bandage around the rope closest to it.  “Stay still or you’ll be back where you were before I did this.”

‘We changed course.” Milena changed the subject.  “Why?”

Xena straightened up and tucked away her supplies.  Then she rested her hands on her knee and studied Milena who was looking back at her with an interesting expression.   Interesting, because it wasn’t hatred, and it wasn’t the youthful arrogance she’d displayed before.  “I saw something I want to get a better look at.” She answered.

“Something more important than getting to Athens?”

“For me.”  The warrior stood up and dusted her hands off.  “Why, you anxious to get there?”

Milena’s face twitched. “I’d rather be swimming the other direction.” She shifted, just a little, tipping her head back to look up at the warrior’s towering form. “How about leaving me that knife?”

Xena grinned wryly.  “And have it buried in my back? No thanks.” She glanced off to the horizon. The storm was now obscuring the dot, though she thought she caught sight of a shadow in the distance getting closer.

The ship was pitching a bit more now, and she felt a lash of cold saltwater blast against her side as she stood near the rail.

“Xena.”

The warrior turned back to Milena’s now still form. She was huddled against the rail, not moving as Xena had suggested, but there was a bluish tinge to her skin and as Xena looked past her, she could see the two men shivering as well.  “What?”

“You’re really not going to Athens, are you?”

“No. Not if I can help it. I’m really just trying to find some friends who are out here and may be in trouble.” Xena shaded her eyes against the spray.  “Believe it or not.”

“I do believe it.”  Milena said. “What I don’t’ believe is that your ego would let you turn down their offer.” She added. “Don’t turn around and kick me for that. Mine wouldn’t either.”

Xena chuckled and laid her hands on the rail.   “That’s because you have no idea what that offer means.”  She said. “Doesn’t even tempt me.” She turned and headed for the bow to get a better look through the fog, leaving Milena to her own thoughts.

Milena’s thoughts might have surprised Xena, as the girl watched the tall figure moving away from her with it’s characteristic swagger.  Or then, maybe they wouldn’t have. Unlike her partner, Xena had a relatively good sense of her own attractiveness and she knew how to use it when she had to.

“Milena. Stop messing with that demon.” 

She looked over at her brother, who was watching her with red-rimmed eyes. “Shut up, Rog.”  She said. “Don’t even think you can tell me what to do now. Not after all this.”

“She’s bad news.” Rog said. “Don’t talk to her. She’ll get something out of you.”

“Yeah, she will.” Milena turned her attention to the dim figure now on the bow, arms braced against the rail as the rain pounded her.   “And I’ll give it willingly. I want her.”

“Milena.”

“Sorry Rog. You can be slaves to our master if you want.” The girl said. “I’m not just talking. I want her, and I want her so bad I’m willing to sell myself to Hades for her.”

“You’re crazy. She’s not up for grabs. She don’t want you.”  Milkas spoke up from behind Rog’s huddled form. 

“She will.” The girl smiled briefly. “I’m going to worm myself into her and take her. You watch.”

“Idiot.” Rog turned as much as he could so his back was to her. 

Milena ignored him.  She watched Xena lean forward, then abandon the rain and head for the mast, moving with that bouncy, catlike grace.  She reached the mast and started to swarm up it, climbing as easily as any of the sailors despite her armor.

The leathers hid so little. They clung to her body and outlined its muscular power, and yet took nothing away from the sensual beauty of her.   From where she was, Milena could see her thighs tense, as her hands released and found another hold, pulling her up towards the crown’s next.

Like an animal, steady and sure, fearless in the rain and the ship’s motion as she swung over their heads in the pitching of the waves.

Wild and beautiful.  Uncontrolled by captain or council, owner of her own destiny.  Milena succumbed to the sense of envy and wanting, wishing her hands were free and her body unfettered. Oh yes, her mind echoed softly . You want her.

She remembered clearly those blue eyes, and that planed face, and that low, husky voice that even the memory of made her mouth dry out.   She licked her lips and felt the rain on them, as Xena reached the top and swung herself into the basket, the sailors inside moving to make room for her.

As well they might.  Milena could feel the ache in her guts, wanting to be up there with them.   She’d tried to dismiss Xena when they’d parted in the town, enduring the taunting of her brothers… well, her half brothers, anyway.. but now?

Now that she was here, and Xena was here, she felt herself losing control to this burning desire that only got worse every time the warrior came near her. 

Now she even knew what those fingers felt like, touching her skin.  Gentle indeed, and skilled, and close enough for her to smell the rich scent of leather and brass around her.

Intoxicating.  Her body wrestled with this new desire she could do nothing about, tied as she was to the wooden railing and haunted by the echo of that voice and that casual look as she’d glanced up from spreading her salve, those eyes filled with potent intelligence and mystery.

By the gods, I will have her.

**

Xena edged to the front of the crow’s nest, shading her eyes again to look into the distance.  “Damned weather.”

“Ah, tis the law of the sea, lady.” The sailor on watch said. “Weather is, as weather does.”

“Yeah.” Xena sighed. “I know.”  She could still just vaguely see the blurry dark blot on the ship’s port bow and she wondered again if she was just sending the vessel into a wild hare chase for no reason.  What if the blot was a small island, like the one they’d nearly crashed on?

With the winds as they were, what if she put the ship in danger again? A smash on those rocks would be just as deadly today as they were the previous, and what did she really think she was going to find there anyway?

Xena rested her elbows on the crow’s nest and regarded the shadowy figure.  “Why am I doing this?” She wondered aloud.

“Lady?”

Xena glanced at the sailor. “Nothing.” She said. “Just talking to myself.”  She looked down at her hands, fingers laced together.  For a minute she simply stood there, looking inward as she tried to puzzle it out.

Ah. She lifted her head.  It was the itch.  She straightened up and indicated the blur. “That’s where we’re headed.  When you can see what it is, holler down.”

“Aye, lady.” The man nodded. “We know our bizness, yeah?”

“Sorry.” Xena turned and leaned against the edge of the rigging. “Didn’t mean to say otherwise.  I’m just the crackpot who thinks that’s a shipwreck so I’m interested to know if I’m right or not.”

The sailor peered at the blot, and then cocked his head. “Might to be, lady.” He remarked casually. “Ain’t no rocks or islands past the narrows back there, where we almost lost ‘er.”  He nodded. “So either that, or t’whale, or somesuch. “ He glanced at her. “Cap’n turned her. Must be summat.”

“Must be.” Xena said. “Let’s hope it’s not a hundred year old ghost ship.” She turned and hoisted herself out of the crow’s nest, watching the deck sway far below her.  She could see Iolaus crossing it, towards the prisoners and the captain making his way to the helm.

With a sigh, she grabbed sheet and swung herself onto it, wrapping her legs around the rope and lowering herself down to the deck.  She swayed as the ship did, and she felt the ache erupt in her shoulders as the herbs wore off and she remembered what she did the previous day. “Ow.”

But it was only a brief twinge, and she managed to get down and onto her feet without any slips and dusting her hands off, she started in the direction of the tiller again only barely aware of the intent eyes on her from near the rail.

It was the itch that was urging her towards the dark mass.  The internal, infernal pecking of her own mental woodpecker that just kept nudging her in a direction regardless of the logic involved.  Instinct, maybe.  Sixth sense? Maybe. 

Gabrielle had once said to someone,  ‘well, Xena just knows things sometimes.  Ignoring that gets us in trouble.’

No ignoring for her.  Xena raked the hair from her eyes as she bounded up onto the steering platform.  Not this time.

She was staying strictly out of trouble.

**

Continued in Part 16