A Queen's Tale
“So that is what the great Artemis told us.” Selenius concluded. “Her oracle laid it out, and though we find it very strange, and not in line with our warrior tenets, we will not go against her wishes.”
Gabrielle tucked her staff in the crook of her arm and rested her folded hands on the table in front of her. “Okay, let me see if I have this straight.” She said. “You were told that you won’t win this war unless a woman leads you.”
“I was not told.” Selenius clarified. “I am just a warrior. The noble oracle consulted with my masters, the high council of Sparta.”
Gabrielle waited for him to finish then continued on. “So that’s why you sent that note to Xena.”
“She was the most logical candidate.” Selenius agreed. “I’m sure you agree.”
The bard considered the question. “Well, from your perspective I guess.” She said. “Not from mine.” She concluded. “Anyway, Xena said no when your envoy asked. I was here.”
Selenius nodded. “So they told us. We met up with them two nights before last.” He said. “They were in some disarray, they had been attacked they told us, and had escaped from some savages near here somewhere.”
Solari cleared her throat.
“We brought that answer to the oracle, and the oracle consulted the Goddess Artemis.” The man continued. “The oracle told us we should come here and enjoin you to lead us instead.”
Gabrielle blinked. “Me?”
Selenius nodded. “The oracle assured us that since you lead Artemis’ people, you would of course join our cause and assist us in winning this war.”
“Yes.” Selenius agreed. 'Does that surprise you?”
Gabrielle rested her chin on her fist. “About as much as you taking all your clothes off and offering to cook nude in my mother in law's kitchen would, yeah.”
The Spartan blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
The bard exhaled. “Look, the Spartans who were here before made it pretty clear they don't appreciate women in battle. Why on earth would you want one to lead your forces? Even Xe?”
He looked puzzled. “Because the goddess commands it, of course.” He said. “Whether I, or any of my brothers in arms thinks an army is any place for the... “ He glanced past Gabrielle at the stolidly glowering Amazons. “Is any place for our fairer sex is not the point. Artemis has given us her blessing, and directed us, and that's all there is to that.”
“Artemis.” Gabrielle mused.
“We were honored by her support.” Selenius said. “Of course. We also send a supplicant with offerings to Ares, but he has not yet returned, we hope to secure his blessing also.”
Gabrielle was, at this point, just stalling. “Hm. Ares.” The situation had taken a turn she hadn't expected, even given her experience in the unexpected. “I wonder what he thinks about all this.”
Selenius gave her a strange little look. “Your pardon?”
“I wonder what Ares thinks about all this?” Gabrielle repeated. “About his war being turned over to his sisters?”
The Spartan looked affronted. “We do not wonder such things about the gods.” He said sternly. “They are beyond our understanding.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle grunted softly. “Lucky you.”
“Maybe you could call him and ask him?” Solari suggested. “Might be good to know, you know?”
“Maybe.” Gabrielle agreed. “Well, Selenius..”
The Spartan focused on her. “Of course you have your doubts.” He said. “After all, did my men not chase you only days before? All I can give you as an answer to that is that we had not yet gotten word from the oracle. We were concerned our presence would be noted and warned about, but we know from watching none have left this village and so, we know you do not intend to do that.”
“They did chase us.” Gabrielle said. “Were those your men in the forest? The ones who attacked us?”
Selenius frowned. “When was this?”
“When we where heading out to see who the soldiers were Xe's scouts spotted.” Gabrielle said. “We had word of a big movement of people, so me and a few others rode out to see who it was.”
The Spartan watched her face intently. “You saw us.”
The bard nodded.
“And you were attacked.. before, or after this?”
“Both.” Gabrielle said. “We were attacked on the way to the pass, and then again on the way back, we were chased but we took an alternate route I know and got away.”
The Spartans all shifted a little, glancing at each other. “Regalas” Selenius turned. “Is this so? Have we sent out men to way lay those in the area?”
The Spartan directly behind him shook his head positively. “No, m'lord. You gave strict instructions none were to leave the army. Only the point scouts, riding a league before the troops went before us. We saw no one until we were heading up the road, and these people rode out of the forest and into our path.”
Hm. Gabrielle wondered if they were telling the truth. She watched Selenius' face, but she knew the man was a canny soldier and probably well used to hiding his motives. If the ambushers weren't Spartans, then who were they? “We also heard that the Spartans who came to speak to Xena.. they were attacked also.” Gabrielle said, slowly. “They weren't sure by whom.”
Selenius was already nodded in agreement. “Yes, that is so.” He said. “They made it back half their number.”
“And remember, those guys in the cave.” Solari spoke up.
Gabrielle remembered. “The men who attacked us weren't Spartans.” She said finally. “But I think they wanted us to think they were.” She leaned on her elbows again. “Selenius, we want no part in this war. Not my tribe, not this town.”
The Spartan nodded. “So our agents said.” He murmured. “But we do not require anything from your .. ah... tribe, or from Amphipolis. We only require you.” He leaned forward now. “Let me put my cards on the table. If you come with us, my army will bypass this valley and go at all speed for Thera. Warships will meet us there and carry us to Athens.”
“But if you don't, we must believe you to act against us, no matter how you protest neutrality.” Selenius said, in almost a gentle voice. “And we will not leave you at our backs.”
Gabrielle gave herself a few long breaths to think about what to say to that. She wasn't exactly surprised to hear the threat, but she hadn't really expected for it to be put on the table so bluntly. She decided to accept that as a mark of respect. “Selenius, do you really think you want someone who you are asking to lead your army to do that under duress, with the threat of destruction of my hometown?”
He shrugged slightly. “Gabrielle, you were presented to me as someone who understands war.” He said. “Xena would not allow an enemy free rein at her back either, and we both know that.”
True. “Did it occur to you that Xena will have a serious problem with this?” Gabrielle countered.
“Did it occur to you that we know that, and hope to draw her to us if you agree?” Selenius countered. “As I say, this is war, Gabrielle. We are willing to risk a lot for that. Are you willing to risk your friends and family?”
The bard nodded, almost as if to herself. “Are you willing to risk your army?” She asked. “Or are you just going to pay Artemis lip service and keep me tied up on the back of someone's horse?”
The Spartan leaned back and studied her. “You do us no service. We are honorable men.”
Gabrielle smiled. “Then answer the question.” She said. “If I had a dinar for every honorable man who's taken a shot at me I could buy a villa in Athens and give free wine to the whole city three times a sevenday.”
Behind her, she knew the Amazons and the Amphipolitans were fidgeting. She herself now had a throbbing headache that was sending tiny sparkles into the periphery of her vision and it was all she could do to keep her body posture relaxed and her fingers laced casually together instead of clenching into fists.
What a mess. If she hadn't regretted enough sending Xena on a wild Amazon chase before, she certainly did now. She was mentally kicking herself in the back of the head so hard it was a wonder her body wasn't bobbing forward like a chickens. “Well?”
Selenius lifted one hand in her direction, and gave her a tiny smile. “There are many in the army who would not accept a woman leading us, no matter what god or goddess commanded it. You are wise to understand that.” He admitted. “But if you are willing to stand at my right hand and allow me the facade of leadership, we might both receive Artemis' favor as she surely will know the truth of it.”
Ah. Against her will, Gabrielle found herself liking this guy. He was ruthless, but honest. She leaned forward. “That's a fair statement, Selenius.” She said. “And so, since you've been fair with me, I will be fair with you.”
'If you're lying, and I come to any harm, or if this place comes to any harm, Xena will find you, and she will kill you, and she will kill everyone around you up to an including the rest of the army you're with.” Gabrielle stated mildly. “You're playing with a much bigger fire than you know.”
The Spartan paused, then he sighed, and nodded. “I will remember that.” He said. “Though I think I'm man enough to know my risks.” He added. “So will you join us, Gabrielle? We have little time if we intend on making Thera before the moon wanes.”
The bard stood up. “I'm going to take a walk outside. I'll be back and let you know my choice. Please stay here, and I'm sure mom will be glad to give you some lunch.”
Selenius hesitated, then nodded agreement. “Very well, but do not take long, Gabrielle. We have little time.” He said. “Please.” He added, belatedly.
The bard pushed the chair back and went to the side door, pushing it open and slipping outside.
Once there, she simply leaned back against the wall of the inn and stared across through the trees towards the stable, her eyes unfocused.
A moment later, Cyrene came out of the door and found her there. “Gabrielle.”
“Yes mom?” Gabrielle rolled her head to one side and gave her mother in law a wry look.
Cyrene put her hands on her hips in a very familiar pose. “You are out of your mind if you go with these idiots.”
“Am I?” The bard said. “Am I out of my mind to want you all safe? Out of my mind to want them to leave Amphipolis, and all the other towns in the valley alone? Just how crazy is that?”
“Gabrielle, you can't go with them. Their word isn't worth a potato in my pot.” Cyrene said. “You'll end up a hostage and they'll still rape this place. It's an army. We both know what that means. They need all the supplies they can get.”
“I know.” Gabrielle folded her arms over her chest. “And despite what I told him, I don't really want Xe having to face off against that whole army.”
“Absolutely she would.” The bard almost smiled. “I can picture it in my head, you know? That whole army spread out across the plains, thousands of them riding in one direction and my partner, by herself, riding in the opposite direction with nothing but that sword and the chakram and more guts than three armies against them.”
Cyrene studied her. “You're not going with them.”
Now, a smile appeared on Gabrielle's face, if only briefly. Then she turned, and walked over to the back kitchen door, rapping on it lightly. It opened after a few seconds, and Jessan's head poked out. “Hi.”
“We outta here?” Jessan asked. “Those guys are lying like rugs, by the way. They're all the way nervous.”
“We need to leave by the back route.” Gabrielle said. “Can you get everything ready? We'll take the high path out so we need to find a way to get the horses on the road some other way.”
“I”ve got that arranged.” Cait squiggled through the trees. “Goodness, that's a bother.” She twitched the tunic she'd gotten from somewhere over her thin form. “Two of Xena's fellows have a wagon ready, and we're taking horses to market.”
Gabrielle felt a moment of intense gratitude. “Good move, Cait. Just get out of here casually, and meet us at the edge of the road where it bends towards Potadeia.”
“Right.” Cait said. “Pally's gone up to get our things and then'll she'll be with me. I'm sure we'll have a grand time.” She squiggled back out from the trees and loped towards the stables, her pale hair bouncing as she ran.
“Okay;” Gabrielle said. “Now let me go be the bard.” She turned to face Cyrene. “Mom, I'm going to try and buy some time for us to escape.”
“Good girl.” Cyrene said. “We'll be fine, Gabrielle. We've been through this before.”
“Take everyone, mom.” Gabrielle took her by the shoulders. “Take them up to the Amazon village. You'll be safer there, than here.”
“What about Dori?”
Ah. Dori. “She's coming with me.” The bard said.
“Good.” Cyrene looked unabashedly relieved. “That's the safest place for her.”
The bard gave her a wry look. “I promised her, and besides, she's as big of a target as I am if they figure out who she is.” Gabrielle squared her shoulders and gently shoved aside her last reservations, as her heart naturally urged her to put herself in the way of danger to protect her friends.
It was unnatural for her to do otherwise.
But her guts were telling her she had made the right choice, even if she took out the knowledge that part of the urge she had to run was triggered by how damn much she missed her partner and wanted to be back with her.
What would Xena have done if she was here?
Gabrielle had to admit, she really wasn't sure. But she also knew she woudln't have cared, so long as whatever it was, they'd done it together. So now she just had to trick the Spartans into giving her time to escape, then go down Xena's path up by the cabin without killing herself.
Or anyone else.
It was just turning out to be one of those days, wasn't it?
Gabrielle opened the door and entered the inn. She gave the Spartan leader a brief smile, and went back to the table, as everyone's eyes once again focused on her.
“You have decided. “ Selenius said.
“I have.” Gabrielle agreed. “Of course, I will come with you. My family and friend's safety is the most important thing to me.”
The Spartan smiled broadly. “So the oracle said.” He stood. “Let's go then.”
“Ah, just one thing.”
Gabrielle sat down, with a pleasant expression. “It's a minor complication.”
Xena closed the door to her cabin, grabbing a piece of linen and drying her face as she reveled in not being in the driving rain for a few minutes.
The ship was moving significantly again, but she rocked with the motion and leaned against the wall, debating whether it was worth changing into something dry for half a candle mark.
That would, she figured, give the ship enough time to plow through the waves and get close enough for them to identify the smudge on the horizon that was even now almost invisible in the heavy wind and rain.
She dried her arms off, then after a brief pause, she unhooked the straps on her leathers and peeled them off, draping them over the end of the bunk to, if not dry, then at least stop dripping.
The leather was great protection, but wet it was heavy and clammy and it rubbed against her skin uncomfortably. It felt good to get it off and let her sore body relax for a while.
It wasn’t worth switching to a dry set, she knew. But she briskly removed the water from her skin and then gave in and pulled a set of dry under wraps from her saddlebag and changed into them, before donning a wool shift.
Half a candle mark. Might as well be comfortable. Xena sat down on her bunk and extended her still booted feet across the wooden floor, reaching over to snag her basket and drag it over to next to her on the rough linen sheet.
She was aware of being tired. The scant sleep and the constant stress were wearing on her, and she’d escaped to the cabin to escape the staring eyes as much as the falling rain.
She thanked the storm, privately. It kept the patricians off the deck and out of the hair of the captain who was doing her a big favor and didn’t deserve being browbeaten for it.
Pain in the asses.
She dug the nutbread out and a crock of mild cheese, and spread the one on a slice of the other before she settled back to enjoy her snack.
Two bites into it, a knock came at the door. Xena sighed, and debated not answering, then shrugged a little. “C’mon in.”
The wooden portal opened and Iolaus poked his head in. “Hey.” He entered sat down on the low bench against the wall. “I heard the fellows from Athens talking. They’re not happy with our detour.”
“Don’t care.” Xena nudged the nutbread in his direction. “Have a piece.”
Iolaus didn’t hesitate. He cut a chunk off and nibbled it. “I’m kinda worried about it too.” He admitted. “I really need to get to Athens.”
“I know.” Xena wriggled her shoulders into a slightly more comfortable position. “But I’ve got a feeling it will be worth it. Anyway, if it’s really a shipwreck, we need to stop.” She eyed him. “Insane as it is for me to be telling you that.”
Iolaus had the grace to blush. He was drenched as she’d been, his curly fair hair plastered over his head and his leather vest dripping fat droplets onto the wooden floor. “You really think it is?”
“My gut is telling me it is.” The warrior responded. “I learned the hard way that I should listen to it”
“Could be from anytime.” Iolaus said. “Might be abandoned.”
“Might be.” Xena agreed. “We’ll know in about a candlemark. Then we can haul around and head for Athens.”
Iolaus rested his elbows on his knees. “They finished fixing the hull.” He said. “Probably move those poor guys down off the deck.” He glanced up at her. “Saw you break out the first aid for the young lady.”
“Idiot.” Xena remarked. “Rubbed herself raw on the ropes, then wondered why salt water stings like hell. Some people don’t’ have the sense to get out of the rain.”
“Some people are tied up in the rain.” Iolaus chuckled briefly. “So, what did they do? I never got around to getting the story from you.”
“Depends who you talk to.” The warrior gave him a wry look. “Denius says they snookered the Athenian council pretending to be kids of some rich patron to be.”
Iolaus straightened, then leaned back against the wall. “Ah hah.” He said. “Well, I guess it’s technically against the law.”
“Mm. Anyway, I bumped into them halfway to Thera.” Xena cut herself another piece of nutbread. “I was minding my own business getting a mug of ale and they showed up and decided to start trouble with the villagers there.”
“Ah.” Iolaus nodded. “So you kicked their asses.”
“Not exactly.” Xena smiled. “But I threw a kink in their plans, and your little friend there decided to come after me.”
“What, that girl?” Iolaus’ eyes widened. “She attacked you?”
“Not that kind of come after.”
“Ooooh.” The curly haired man muffled a laugh. “Saucy wench.”
Looking back at it, Milena really had been very precocious. For all her lack of age, she definitely was grown up in her desires. “And then I kicked her ass.” Xena concluded. “After she tried to force her way into my room.”
Iolaus stuffed the last bit of the nutbread in his mouth and swallowed it. “Wow.”
“So when the stooges from Athens caught me on the road on the way here and asked if I”d seen anyone who looked like them… I told em.”
“You turned them in?” Iolaus asked. “So that’s why they were so pissed off at you. I heard the two of those guys talking and boy. “ He shook his head. “Glad they’re tied up. You might get a quarter candlemark rest now.”
“Eh.” Xena reached into the basket and pulled out a wineskin, uncapping it and taking a sip. “They ticked me off trying to mess with those people. Serves them right to get caught.”
“Mm.” Iolaus grunted. “I don’t know if I’d have gotten in their way of bilking some of those council members. They gave me a hive the last time we were in Athens. I think crook’s a kettle calling a pot black coming from them.”
Xena studied him, a little surprised. It had been a few years, but she suddenly got the sense that her old friend had changed as much or more than she had. “We didn’t have a good time with them last time either.” She commiserated. “So yeah, I know what you’re saying.”
Iolaus grunted. “Ungrateful bastards.” He said. “It’s always what have you done for us lately, lately. Even Herc was pissed of the last time we were there at them.” He stretched his hands out and flexed the fingers. “Takes a lot to get him pissed off.”
Xena thought about the last time she’d seen the two of them and how much had changed in her life since then. “Yeah.” She murmured. “He’s pretty laid back.” She remembered, though, finding him in a dungeon showing a harsh and cruel side to his person she hadn’t suspected him to have.
He probably hadn’t either, and Xena had come to wonder after that if it wasn’t really the immortal part of him showing. The Gods were like that, sometimes, weren’t they?
Xena took a slow breath, and let it out. Yeah, weren’t they?
Iolaus stifled a yawn. “I wish this damn storm was over already.” He glanced at the window. “I need a decent night’s sleep.”
Good subject change. “Me too.” The warrior agreed. “Unfortunately, I think we’ve got a shipwreck and the rest of this storm between us and that.” She took another sip of wine. “Tough night last night.”
“Saw you hold the tiller during that whole thing.” Iolaus said, a smile returning to his face. “Nice work, Xena.” He said. “Even with that crazy girl hanging onto you.”
Yes, and her shoulders still ached from it. Xena lifted the skin in his direction, then handed it over to him. Her shoulders and back, and the front of her thighs where she’d had to clamp herself in place trying to keep the ships off the rocks.
Hadn’t that been heroic? Noble? Self sacrificing?
Painful and stupid, actually. Xena tipped her head back and regarded the ceiling. Though she’d saved herself some trouble in the bargain since she had no wish to be stranded on a damn rock. “I wasn’t in the mood for swimming and we’d have been doing that for a long time.” She said, then paused. “And by the way, you never did get around to telling me what you were going to do in Athens.”
“Ah.” Iolaus took a swig of the wine. “Thought you forgot about that.”
Xena’s eyebrow lifted eloquently.
“It’s a little embarrassing.”
Xena’s other eyebrow lifted.
Iolaus’ face scrunched into a half grimace. “Herc didn’t get a lot of the scoop on what was going on with the war, but one of the things he did hear was that somehow, for some reason, both Athens and Sparta think they have to be led by a woman in order to win.”
Well. Xena stifled a wry laugh. That did explain why they’d shown up on her doorstep. “That at least makes some kind of sense.” She said. “Now I know why they were after me.”
“Not that kind of after.” Xena rolled her eyes. “So – what does that have to do with you?” She asked, after a pause. “You going to pretend to be an oracle and tell them different?”
“I’m going to pretend to be a woman and play into their game.”
There were very few times in her life that Xena could remember being caught as completely offguard as she was in that moment. For a long stretch of heartbeats, she simply stared at her old friend, jaw slightly dropped, eyes definitely widened.
Then her voice returned. “What?”
“That’s pretty much what I said.” Iolaus said mournfully. “Pretty much that same inflection too. Now.. “ He lifted his hands. “I realize desperate times call for desperate measures, but I really thought Herc had gotten hit in the head by a coconut one too many times when he asked me.”
Xena closed her eyes, then opened them, then raised one hand and rubbed them with her fingers. Then she shook her head rapidly back and forth.
“And I can see you agree with me.” Iolaus sighed. “At any rate, I finally agreed to try it, but man.” He shook his own head. “I’d rather be singing soprano in the Athens choir, let me tell you.”
“Iolaus.” Xena paused, uncharacteristically stifling her natural bluntness as she searched for a better way to phrase what she was thinking. “Um…”
“Iolaus.” Iolaus said. “You make a reasonably good looking man, but a hideously ugly woman. Right?”
“I wasn’t going to say that.” Xena said.
“I haven’t seen you dressed like a woman.” Xena’s nature reasserted itself. “Anyway, wouldn’t it be easier to just find a woman and have them do it?” She sat up and rested her elbows on her knees. “Was he serious?”
Iolaus took a long swallow of the wine. “He was serious.” He sighed. “See, the problem is… we’re a little short on women between the two of us.” He paused, and glanced at the woman across from him, who was looking back at him with a battle hardened stone face which nevertheless couldn’t keep the twinkle from her eyes.
It reminded him, again, of the mischievous sense of humor that lurked behind the warrior façade and he waited for the comment, but Xena remained silent and waited for him to continue. “You’re being good, Xena.”
Now the twinkle was definitely there, as Xena briefly grinned at him. Unlike the last time they’d traveled together, he found himself al lot more comfortable with Xena this time around. He wondered briefly if it was because she’d changed, time had passed, or he’d moved a little more towards understanding the dark side in more ways than one.
Didn’t matter, he supposed. “Anyway, Herc figured if I could get in there, and distract them, it would give him time to talk Artemis and Athena into finding something else to do other than make two armies fight and die to prove a point.
Xena nodded at that last, obviously in agreement.
“So here I am.” He concluded. “And boy, I’m glad I ran into you because if anyone would know how to be a sexy, ruthless woman warleader, it’d be you. Got any tips?”
Xena finally chuckled audibly. “Iolaus.” She shook her head. “That’s a damn crazy idea. What makes him think the council will listen to an anonymous woman, even if you do pull off the stunt?”
“Good question.” Iolaus passed the wineskin back. “I have a cover story, something about being his cousin so I can leverage his name with the bastards, but honestly I was just going to wing it.”
He inclined his head slightly. “Isn’t it always?” He asked. “But if I can get in the middle of this and stop it, it’ll be worth it. A lot of people’s lives are at stake.”
And I could have stopped it. Xena, though, felt at peace with that. I could have stopped it, and I chose to live, and stay with Gabrielle, and to Hades with all of them. “I’ll do what I can to help you, Iolaus.” She said, in a quiet tone. “But I’m not going to Athens, and if that means they all kill each other, then they do.”
“You don’t owe them anything.” Iolaus nodded. “Herc has to do what he does. You don’t.” He paused and studied her again. “That’s why your heroic stunts are always so much more mind blowing. You could walk away from it all and you don’t.”
“Most of the time.” The warrior said. “This time’s different. There’s no winner in this game.”
Iolaus leaned back against the wall. “That’s exactly what I told Herc. “ he said. “Because y’know, no matter what he does, no matter how noble it is, he’s just going to end up in his father’s doghouse, his family hating on him, and no thanks from all these rock heads down here who want blood.”
They looked at each other for a few minutes.
“Sometimes it’s just not worth it.” Xena concluded.
“That’s what I learned the hard way.” Iolaus said.
Xena took a sip of the wine, and tilted the bag at him.
If she looked objectively at it, of course the obvious solution was for her to go to Athens and put on the show that poor Iolaus was so ill equipped to do. She was the most likely candidate, and though Athens hadn’t extended her an offer – everyone thought they had.
Made total sense. If fact, she was sure if Hercules had been there right now, he’d have asked. She was surprised Iolaus hadn’t.
Unfortunately for them all, she wasn’t going for it. “When we get to Athens, I’ll see if I can hook you up with someone who can help you pull this off.” Xena said. “Then I need to grab my damn missing Amazons and get back home.”
“That’d be great, Xena.” Iolaus smiled. “Anything you can suggest, I’m up for it. I don’t even know where to start with acting like a woman. I’m not really.. um…”
“No, you’re not.” Xena smiled. “But once the weather slacks off, I’ll see what I can do to teach you that, too.”
Iolaus’ nose wrinkled.
“Might be fun.” The twinkle was back in those very blue eyes. “Hey, I even taught Gabrielle to dance.”
“I even have a dress you can borrow.”
Gabrielle took the upward path at a jog, ducking under some branches as she heard the Amazons head up after her. “Let’s get a move on people.”
Solari caught up to her. “That was some kind of. Uh…”
“Storytelling?” Gabrielle grinned briefly. “Hey, they bought it.” She kept a tight hold on Dori’s hand. “You all ready to go for a ride, Dor?”
“Fun, mama!” Dori hopped up onto a rock and then down the other side. “We go wif Gogo again?”
Regretfully, no. Gabrielle glanced back through the trees, glad they hid the somewhat undignified rush up the mountain.
The Spartans had been given little choice but to accept her story of an Amazon fertility ceremony of the moon. Gabrielle had thrown her considerable powers of persuasion into it, and off the top of her head had described the need and the ceremony in intricate detail.
But they had made it clear they wouldn’t wait for long, and she had barely the night to get her group together, and escape before they’d start looking for her at first light.
They would ride through the night, she decided, and hole up near daybreak, hopefully on the other side of the pass. She wanted to get ahead of the army, but not so far that they neglected to chase her.
“Hey your maj?” Solari ducked past a branch. “You’re really gonna piss these guys off, huh?”
“Not intentionally.” Gabrielle headed to the right, where the path turned into the Amazon village. “I just can’t walk into their clutches.”
“You don’t trust them.”
“Hades no.” The queen shook her head as they cleared the guard and entered the village grounds. “Not further than I can pick that guy up and throw him. He talked a good game, but they’ve got no intention of keeping their word.”
“There’s no reason for them to.” Gabrielle turned and walked backwards. “Dori, let’s go and get our stuff ready, okay? Soli, make sure everyone’s ready at the gates in a candlemark. Bring all the supplies we can carry because I don’t’ know how long we’ll have to march rough.”
“Right.” Solari darted off. Nala hesitated, then followed her.
That left Gabrielle to turn back around and continue heading for her quarters, her mind abuzz with possibilities.
Chief among them was the possibility she wasn't making the right choice. Despite her words to the Amazons, her words to Cyrene, and the advice of everyone from the forest dwellers to the militia there was still that core in her that wondered.
Maybe there always would be that core. Gabrielle entered her quarters and went to the packing she'd left. She'd gotten so far as to add some extra shirts for Dori when she rummaged in the bottom of the trunk she'd brought down from the cabin and felt her fingers hit something unexpected.
A little puzzled, she pushed aside a stack of towels and spotted something glinting in the light. She closed her fingers around the unexpected item and drew it out, gazing in some confusion at the sword she now held.
“Where in the Hades did this come from?” She murmured aloud, her brow creasing. IT was a beautifully made weapon, reminding her a little of Xena's but smaller, and lighter and as she turned it in her hand, it seemed fitted to it.
Then she remembered. “Oh. Damn.”
A sword that fit her hand, because it had been made to fit it, to the exacting specification of Xena's request. The blade was finely hammered, and the perfection of the finish made her wonder again if her partner had a hand in the making itself.
Wouldn't surprise her. Gabrielle started to put the sword back, then she hesitated and left it out on the top of the chest as she went back to get everything else ready.
“Mama, ready.” Dori came out with her own little bag, that had a small collection of her rocks, and her Boo doll in it. “We c'n go now? Gotta go to Boo.”
Her little face was serious and it made Gabrielle smile. “In a little while, Dor. I want to go too. We're going to have to climb down the mountain, wont' that be fun?”
“Go with Boo?” Dori cocked her small head. “Up the moutain?”
The trail they would take Gabrielle knew Dori knew well. It was one of the places her partner took their daughter flying in the morning, on the edge of the cliff they made their home on. “Yes. You can show me the place with the birds, okay?”
“Okay.” Dori put her bag down and went to the door. “Mama c'n I go see my friends?”
Gabrielle glanced out the window, judging the light. “Yes you can, honey. You can go play, but stay near the middle, okay? So I can see you when it's time for us to go find Boo.”
“Okay!” Dori disappeared in a flash, bolting across the grass towards the group of Amazon children playing ball in distance.
Gabrielle smiled, then she went back to her task, a little pensive. Dori would miss her friends, both here and in the town, and she felt a little sad taking her away from the kids she'd learned to play with.
The knock on the door didn't really surprise her. “C'mon in.” She got the last of the laces tied up and straightened as Renas and three other of the elders entered. They looked upset, and angry, and the bard felt her body responding to that.
She stood a little taller, moving over her center of gravity as she glanced towards the corner where her staff was leaning. “What can I do for you? I'm a little busy right now.”
“So you intend on running off and leaving us to the Spartans?” The elder next to Renas asked sharply.
Renas twitched a little and made a gesture.
“You shut up, Renas. No one asked you to come with us.” The elder said. “You talk the talk, but it's time to walk the walk now, beat it.”
Gabrielle felt a cold chill, then a flush work it's way over her skin. She curled her hands slightly and stepped forward, recognizing the elders in the room as those who had always borne that grudge.
Supported Velaska. Supported Arella.
Never really cottoned to this awkward shepherd's kid getting Terrais' right.
Well. “What's this all about.” Gabrielle said. “I don't own an explaination for my decisions, but that one was made with the best interests of everyone in mind.”
“If you leave, they'll destroy this place.” The elder said. “Whose best interests? Yours, I guess, as usual.”
Gabrielle felt that part of her that was part of Xena stirring. She could picture the bristling of her soulmate's hackles, and her own eyes narrowed, sensing the slow rush of anger building inside.
“Mara, don't be so.. “ Renas said. “Look, Gabrielle, you've got a responsibility for this place. Now that you talked Ephiny into moving us here, you can't just let us get ripped apart.”
Gabrielle leaned back against her work table, forcing herself to remain calm. “I don't actually owe you anything.” She said. “But if any of you had any brains at all, you'd understand that my going to the Spartans or escaping has nothing to do with what'll happen to this place, and the town.”
“The town where my family lives.” Gabrielle rode over the interruption. “Where my brothers, and sisters, and the woman I call mother live, where my partner grew up and the place she considers the home of her heart.”
“Shut. Up.” The bard said. “Why don't you take your mindless gripes and go somewhere else with them. I've got work to do.”
“Then you're going to answer to us first.” Mara put her hand on her sword hilt. “I'm tired of having a queen who's no Amazon, and doesn't give a damn about us.”
Gabrielle stared at her. “Are you challenging me?”
“Yes.” Mara said. “I think its high time you stop hiding behind that soulless whore you sleep with and put up, or shut up yourself.”
Xena had known. Gabrielle took a slow, even breath. Xena had known, had sensed this, and had surrounded her with friends, and people and... “ Her eyes caught a glint of light against the surface of the trunk.
Had she even thought that far? Could she have known this was brewing, and not said anything?
No. Gabrielle decided after a bare seconds thought. If she'd have known this, she'd have never left. That was just where the sword had landed, when they'd moved their stuff up the mountain.
But now it was here. She rubbed her fingertips lightly together.
“Well?” Mara said. “Let's get this over with so we can decide for ourselves what to do and not have to worry about you screwing us over.”
Gabrielle slowly looked at all of them. “This what you wanted, Renas?” She asked the eldest of them. “I thought you liked Xena.”
The elder flushed. “It's not about her.” She muttered. “It's about who we are.”
“I see.” The bard straightened and dusted her hands off. She could see the smirks in their eyes, and now, she understood the resentment that ran just under their skin. “All right.”
She walked over to where the sword was resting and picked it up, slinging it over her back and buckling the finely made, supple leather harness across her shoulder and around her waist.
It fit perfectly.
Of course. She looked up at the group and saw the hint of surprise there, just a flinch, and a jerk of the head as they watched her. She reached up and drew the blade from the scabbard in a smooth move she'd seen Xena do countless times, and glanced at them across the extended metal. “Outside.”
Mara stared warily at her. “You accept?”
“Thought you didn't use a sword.” One of the other elders said.
'Listen, Gabrielle. You can just walk away and forfeit.” Renas said. “No one has to get hurt.”
Gabrielle merely smiled, and indicated the doorway with the point of the blade. Then she twisted her hand, and twirled the hilt in her palm, catching it again before she resheathed it. “I said, outside. I don't have time to mess with you people.”
She waited for them to back out, then she followed them, advancing until they were clear of the trees and into the open. Amazons moving across the ground spotted them and halted, seeing the drawn blade.
“Hey!” Solari came running. “What in Artemis' left tit is going on here?”
Heads turned. “Amazons.” Gabrielle's voice rose over the central square, projecting across it without effort. “I have been challenged. Gather here to witness this.”
She could sense the emotion, puzzlment and outrage, Solari's face going bewildered to honestly angry in a blink of an eye.
“What?” Aailene came up behind Solari. “What's all this about? Mara, are you crazy?”
“Shut up!” Mara said. “You all talk, and no one's willing to do anything? Well I”m doing something! So join me or get lost!”
Gabrielle quickly scanned the group now surrounding them. “Aailene.” She turned her head and looked directly at the younger Amazon. “If anything happens to me, take Dori down to Cyrene.”
Aailene looked stunned and horrified. “B...”
“Take her to her family.” Gabrielle clarified. “Understand?”
Aaliene stared at her, then she nodded. “I understand, my queen.” She answered quietly. “Surely that is her family as she has NONE HERE.” Her voice lifted on the last two words as she stared angrily at the elders.
They stared back at her, in silence.
Now a big enough group had gathered, and low murmurs were going around. “Lucky for you Cait's not here you old blowhard.” Aailene finally spoke up again. “She'd have your liver on the ground already Mara.”
Paladia came bolting up at that moment, her eyes nearly coming out of her head. “Now what the Hades is going on?” She asked Solari. “This place is nutsville today!”
“That moron is challenging Gabrielle. Go get Nala.” Solari urged. “This ain't ending good no matter what happens.”
“Ah, crap!” Paladia took one look at the sword on Gabrielles back and for once, she just took off and didn't question anything.
Gabrielle turned and faced her opponent again. She made eye contact, and walked forward, stopping just out of blade reach. “Ready?”
“Mara, you're an idiot.” Solari said. “You all are, you old goats. Any idiot knows the damn Spartans are going after her, they don't give a crap about us. She goes, they go. “ The senior warrior stepped boldly between her queen and the challenger.
“Get out of the way, Solari. We know where you stand.” Mara said.
“Yeah. You do.” Solari stood a little taller. “Always have. I don't change sides like some around here every time a goat farts.”
The crowd stirred. “Watch your mouth, Solari.” Renas warned.
“Shut up, you old fraud.” Solari shot back. “You're not good enough to lick her boots.”
“Solari.” Gabrielle said, gently. “Thank you. But please get out of the way. I don't want you getting hurt.”
Solari turned and looked at her, seeing the faint smile, and the look of gratitude. Then she slowly edged back again, with visible reluctance. “This aint' right.” She said. “This ain't no time to be screwing around like this!”
Gabrielle drew the sword again, fitting her hands around the hilt and flexing them. “C'mon.” She jerked her head at Mara. “You started this, now finish it.” She watched the woman's body language with exquisite care as she stepped away from the safety of the other elders and approached.
They faced each other, and she waited until they were just paces apart, then let her eyes meet Mara's. “You really want to die, Mara?”
Mara licked her lips, and shifted. She was a big woman, almost Xena's height, with a burly builld and powerful legs. “You really think you can take me, you little fraud?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle replied. “Do you think you can take me, old woman?”
Mara's eyes narrowed.
The bard kept her eyes steady, and smiled just a little. “Either I'll kill you.” She said. “Or Xena will.” She said, in a mild voice. “You, and everyone else around you. There's no place in this world she won't chase you down to.”
Mara stared at her, breathing a little more quickly. “Still trying to hide behind her?”
“Just telling you the truth.”
The Amazon gripped her sword more firmly.
Gabrielle twirled the blade in her hand again. “You want me? Come get me.” She curled the fingers of her free hand into a motioning gesture, and grinned. “Better hope she didn't teach me to do this as well as she taught me to do everything else.”
For a moment, there was absolute silence. Even the rest of the elders were silent, the ones around Mara shifting a little, some of the others moving away a little. The younger Amazons were watching her intently, tense with anticipation.
Ready to fight for her, the bard suddenly realized. Not part of the rebellion.
Gabrielle's eyes never left her opponent. She got her balance ready, aware of the warm sunlight gilding her as it tilted down towards the trees. There was no time, really to be afraid, and less to be worried about the consequences.
She just hoped her partner's spirit would carry her through this. She was gambling everything she had at the moment and she motioned Mara forward again. “Now or never. I've got things to do.”
Mara took a breath, then she stepped back. Her shoulders slumped, and she let the point of her sword touch the ground. “I withdraw the challenge.” She muttered.
Huh? Gabrielle stared at her in disbelief, then slowly let her blade lift up and come to rest against her shoulder. “Good choice.” She said, after a pause.
“Chickenshit.” Solari stepped back in. “Always a big talker.”
Nala raced up, with Paladia jogging after her. “Your majesty!” She pushed through the crowd. “Your poison finally got the better of you Mara? This is no time for crazy challenges.”
Mara let the sword drop. Then she turned and walked away, shoving her way through the crowd and heading across the center square towards the furthest set of living quarters.
The rest of the elders who had come with her looked uneasy. Renas refused to meet Gabrielle's eyes.
“I'll take care of this.” Nala said. “I can see some asses need kicking.” She turned. “Sorry about that, Gabrielle. I heard these graybeards griping the last couple of days but didn't think they'd be this stupid about it.”
“It's not stupid!” Renas finally spoke up. “We have valid complaints! Don't treat me like a child, Nala.”
“Why not? You're acting like one.” Gabrielle said. She sheathed her sword and flexed her now empty hands, giving her heart a chance to stop thundering. “I'l deal with you all when I get back here.” She motioned to Solari. “C”mon. Let's get this show on the road.”
“You got it.” Solari followed her. “Boy I didn't see that coming.” She added, under her breath.
“Me either.” Gabrielle sighed, wishing her legs would stop shaking. She got through the door to her quarters and got to the chair, collapsing into it as Solari came in behind her. “Ungh”
Solari crossed over to her. “You okay?”
The bard rested her elbows on her knees and let her head drop against her fists. “The gods damn them.” She said. “I can't believe they did that.”
“Well.” Solari sat down next to her. “They're old timers, you know? They keep long grudges.”
Gabrielle lifted her head and regarded the dark haired Amazon.
“Yeah, I know. It's crazy.” Solari admitted. “But hey, it worked out, right? She backed off. I think she thought you were going to cave, like be a creampuff or something.”
A darkly humorous glint appeared in Gabrielle's eyes. “You think?”
Solari nodded. “She figured you'd hand over the title and take off. I know she didn't figure you to meet her with a sword.” She paused thoughtfully. “Course I didn't either. That was pretty awesome.”
“You been doing that long?” Solari asked, after a moments silence. “Swordfighting?”
Gabrielle pushed herself to her feet. She unbuckled the belt holding the sword on and removed it from her back. “About a quarter candlemark.”
The bard wrapped the belt around the scabbard and set it on top of her bags. “I can't use that any more than I could flap my arms and fly to Athens.” She turned an put her hands on her hips. “Pretty cool bluff huh?”
Solari's jaw just dropped.
“Wait till Xe hears. She's gonna freak out..”
“Well, woman, you were right.” The captain was holding onto the rail as the ship pitched side to side. He peered into the gloom, watching the hulk draw nearer as they eased through the towering waves.
“I usually am.” Xena was standing right next to him. It was hard to make out in the rain, but she could make out an outline of a ship, half turned onto it's side, with it's mast collapsed into the water.
There was a hole in the bow, and she could see no people anywhere.
“Wasn't here when we were headed inbound.” The captain commented. “But looks like we were late to come to it. No one's survived.”
“They might be taking shelter. We are in the middle of a storm.” Xena remarked. “Got a horn on board? Blow it.”
“Wench.” The captain turned and motioned a sailor forward. “Ah , here comes some bad news.”
Xena glanced behind them and spotted Denius heading their way. “I'll handle him.” She waited for the man to close in on them then she turned and faced him. 'Problem?”
Denius had taken a breath, now he released it, grabbing the rail as the ship pitched. He stared over the rail, and looked at the shipwreck they were closing in on. “By the gods!”
Xena also turned. “Yours?”
Denius strained his eyes and shaded them from the rain. “Damned if I know.” He said. “Too destroyed.” He turned to her. “What is our profit from this, Xena? We all have to get to Athens. We've been half a day diverting.”
“Our profit?” Xena covered her ears, as the sailor let loose next to her on the horn and an off tone, blaring honk sounded through the storm. “Saving people's asses if there are any alive.”
“Is that a concern of yours?”
Xena looked at him.
“Cap'n!” The sailor bawled. “Lookie there, on the bridge!”
Xena turned back to the rail and spotted what the sailor was pointing at, a ragged figure hanging on to a piece of the broken mast, one arm weakly waving. As she watched, another figure appeared, then a third.
The third was an Amazon. Xena felt a smile crease her face, as she recognized Pony's distinctive figure. She stood a little taller at the rail, gazing at the forms until she saw Pony start, and point at her, then start waving frantically.
Xena waved back, her smile broadening as she watched Pony hop up and down, pumping her fist in the air. “Guess she's glad to see me.” She muttered under her breath. Then the Amazon disappeared, jumping off the top of the forecastle all the while waving her arms.
Obviously going to tell someone. Something.
Ah. The warrior's mood brightened instantly. Not only had she guessed right, not only had she found a shipwreck, not only had she found a shipwreck with surivors on it who deserved rescue, but she'd been right and found a shipwreck with survivors who also included the Amazons she was looking for.
Gabrielle would be so annoyed she'd missed it. She hated getting stories second hand, and even Xena had to admit this little voyage of hers was turning out to be very taleworthy.
“These seas, we can't close with her.” The captain commented. “Got any good ideas, wench?”
Xena was too cheered up to even be annoyed with him. “Get me a rope and a crossbow.” She directed. “We'll shoot a line over and bring em on one by one.”
“You heard the woman.” The captain nudged the sailor, who was standing there with his horn, gazing at Xena. “C'mon, you slug. Move your lazy bones.”
Now there were more people collecting on the bridge of the damaged ship. Xena counted at least a score, and her face twitched, thinking of the crowding they'd have to suffer onboard their own ship.
She sighed, supposing just rescuing the two Amazons was out of the question.
“Poor bastards.” Denius sighed. “We must help them, I fear. I will get my men to come on deck and assist.” He left, shaking his head.
“Looks like they foundered on those rocks.” The captain pointed. “Guess they didn't have the likes of you to haul em off em.” He nudged Xena with his elbow. “Got more like you at home?”
“No.” Xena shook her head. Then she paused. “Well, my kid.” She amended.
“Hah.” The captain chortled.
The sailor came back with the crossbow, handing it warily to Xena as he readied a coil of rope slung over his shoulder. “M'lady.”
“Hah!” The captain chortled again. “Ain't no one's lady, you gull splat.”
Xena examined the crossbow. She removed the bolt from the mechanism and fished in her belt pouch, pulling out a bit of gut from it and tying it to the end of the shaft. Then she took the end of the rope and tied the gut to it with a neat half hitch.
“Been with ropes before.” The sailor noted.
“Oh yeah.” The warrior murmured absently. “I do a mean hangman's noose too.”
The captain laughed. He had his spyglass out and he was studying the other ship. “Hold her here, lads!” He called out. “Tell the oars to keep her aft, or we'll end up on the same rocks and lady Posiedon here's too busy to take the wheel.”
“Dont' curse yourself.” Xena raised the crossbow and put the stock against her cheek.
“Gonna blow your damned face off women. Take that down.”
Xena ignored him, picking spot on the other ship that looked reasonably solid. She took a breath, then let it out, waiting for the ship to pitch to the side and steady before she squeezed the trigger mechanism.
It had a kick. But Xena's grip was up to the task, and she held it steady as the line played out. The bolt slammed into the ships mast, and she dropped the crossbow and turned to the sailor.
“Gonna do that swing trick again?” The sailor asked her. “Pretty crazy it was, the last time.”
“No.” Xena took the rope from him and went to a thick spar, tying the end of it firmly. “Keep the ship steady.” She told the captain.
The captain was circling his arm and yanking it, ignoring her. He waved his hand again, then made the motion. “Stupid goats.” He smacked the sailor. “Blow that damn thing. Look at those slags running like idiots.”
Xena returned to the rail. “What's wrong?”
“Want em to tie off the damn thing, woman.” The captain said. “Idiots!”
Finally the other ship seemed to get the idea and two men went to the crossbow shaft, reaching up to pull it out.
There seemed to be some kind of panic onboard, Xena realized. People were grabbing at the rail in some desperation, and she studied the ship carefully, wondering if it was sinking.
Then she realized it was. “Captain.” She pointed at the waterline, which was bubbling heavily.
“Aye.” The man said. “Men, get ready to send the ropes down we'll be pulling em out of the water in a minute.” He turned to Xena. “Better to let her go down, and we'll save what we can from the water. Too rough to get closer.”
Xena studied the other ship, then she hopped up onto the rail and grabbed the rope. It had been tied off, and she gave it a hefty yank to make sure it was tied. “Be right back.”
“Woman!” The captain lunged for her. “Dont' be daft!!!!!”
Xena leaped out half twisting before she grabbed the rope, swinging herself up and locking her feet around the heavy hemp as it swung violently in the seas between the ships. She waited to make sure it was going to hold, then she started to pull herself along, heading headfirst towards the wrecked vessel.
It was hardly comfortable. The waves were rising up and lashing her, and the rain was hitting her from above and sideways. The rope swung and creaked as the ships moved apart and together, and she paused briefly as she reached half way.
She looked up, to see the clouds roiling and racing over head, and a low rumble of thunder shivered against her skin as lightning flashed.
Not so good. Deep in her guts, she suddenly felt a jolt of fear and she hung there as her body shivered from it, feeling her insides tense up in reaction to something she couldn't see or touch.
And before she could take another breath, it was gone, replaced with an emotion of burning anger that flushed through her, then faded.
What the Hades was going on? Xena waited a moment more, then relaxed as the anger was replaced with a gentle warmth, confusing but real.
Another false alarm? Somehow, Xena didnt' think so.
She continued, moving hand over hand up the slope towards the other ship, remembering too late how sore her shoulders were from the previous day. “Ow.” She grimaced. “Too late now.”
In another moment, she was passing over the railing of the other ship and she released the rope, somersaulting over the heads of the people rushing at her and landing on the slanted, moving deck.
Everyone was babbling, but in the storm and the chaos, she ignored them and focused on the familiar face now closing in on her. “Pony!”
Eponin let out a curse as long as Xena was tall and threw her arms around her, shocking the daylights out of both of them.
Xena recovered and returned the hug. “Eph okay?”
“Pissing mad.” Pony said. “Me too.” She got the words out. “Glad you're here.”
Xena smiled and gave her a pat on the side. “C'mon. Ship's sinking. We've got to get everyone outta here.”
“We know.” Pony started up the slanting deck, ignoring the people trying to grab both of them. “Okay to leave the rest of those Amazon bastards in the hold?That's where I left em. I hope they drowned.”
Xena's eyes popped wide open and she almost stopped short.
“Mother whores.” Pony said. “Tied us up and were going to sell us to the bastard Athenians. They can all die far as I'm concerned.”
“I heard they grabbed you.” Xena got herself back into motion. “Didn't make me happy.”
Pony snorted. She led the way towards the forecastle, the part of the ship that was highest out of the water, and as they cleared the mast and climbed up the slope a small group of people stood up to meet them.
Chief among them, Ephiny, who met Xena's eyes with a look of utter relief. She moved forward in the rain and gave the warrior a hug. “Damn am I glad to see you.”
Xena gave her a light rub on the back. “Likewise.” She released the regent and stepped back. “Glad you both are okay.”
“Now that we got that out of the way. What are you doing here?” Ephiny asked. “Are you doing here what I think you're doing here?”
“Gabrielle sent me.” Xena replied, simply.
Ephiny's face creased into a grimace. “She was that pissed?”
“She was that worried.” The warrior put a hand on her shoulder. “We found out a few things after you left.”
“See? Tolja.” Pony said. “Can we finish this stuff over on the other ship that ain't sinking?”
Ephiny raked her pale, wet curls out of her eyes. “Yeah. This is gonna take a while.” She glanced at Pony. “You tell her about the others?”
“You really want to leave them in the hold?” Xena asked.
“I really do.” Ephiny answered, looking her straight in the eye.
Wow. Xena considered, then she nodded in acquiescence. “Let's go.” She turned and started back towards the rope. “You up for crossing on the line?”
“I'm up for getting off this damn ship any way I can.” Ephiny was at her heels, with Pony right behind her.
They came around the mast and saw a crowd of people all fighting over the rope, pushing and shoving, with no one crossing on it.
“Looks like we need to kick some asses first.” Pony said. “Lemme at em.”
“Oh no, me first.”
Xena simply got out of their way, and picked up a discarded oar, thinking maybe there were a few details she'd leave out when she told Gabrielle what happened.
Yeah, maybe a few.
Continued in Part 17