A Queen’s Tale
Gabrielle felt the shock of impact as she drove her staff around and whacked one of the shadowy armored figures in the head. She drew back a step then ducked the man’s returning swipe, feeling the faint chill as the sword passed just shy of her midsection.
She waited for it to pass, then she smacked the man’s arm, a short hard strike that sent the weapon from his fingers into the foliage.
No time to forgive. Gabrielle swung in the opposite direction as the man dove for the sword and caught him right over the eyes, with a crunch of breaking bone. He dropped to the ground and grabbed for his face and she brought the other end of the staff down on the top of his head with all the strength of her arms backed with a hop that added some weight to it.
He lay still. Gabrielle didn’t paused to look at him. She turned and dug her boots into the leaf litter, bringing her weapon around to mid thigh as she anticipated another enemy attack. But the leaves shivering in front of her split to reveal Jessan’s powerful form, one big hand raised warningly in front of him.
“Hey! It’s me!” The forest dweller barked. “Don’t hit me!”
Gabrielle relaxed. “I won’t.” She said. “That all of them?”
“I think so.” Jessan emerged from the leaves, just as Solari appeared, wiping her sword blade down. “I might be insulted. Did they really think a dozen of them were a match for us?”
Solari chuckled. “Glad you caught up with us. It was getting a little exciting down here when we found these guys.” She put her hands on her hips. “More of the Spartans?”
Jessan eyed Gabrielle, one furry brow visibly lifting up. The rest of the group joined them, only a little the worse for wear after the battle.
Dori came over and stood next to Gabrielle, hugging her mother’s leg with one arm. “Mama, bad mens.” She complained. “Got to find Boo.”
“I totally agree.” Gabrielle dropped one hand on her her daughter’s head and stroked her unruly hair. Then she looked up at Solari. “Not Spartans. Looks like we got on the bad side of Athena. She sent these guys to ambush us.”
There was a little space of silence after she spoke, until Solari cleared her throat, glancing both ways before she answered. “Um.. that a guess?”
“No.” Gabrielle shook her head. “Ares stopped by and clued me in. So let’s get going, because the sooner we catch up with Xena, the faster we’ll get this all sorted it out.” She pointed with her staff down the path. “We’re almost to the bottom. Let’s go.”
Everyone scattered and got weapons sheathed, forming up around the bard as she started to move forward.
“Gabrielle.” Jessan had been kneeling next to the man she’d taken down. “This guy’s still ticking. Want me to tie him up?” He glanced over his shoulder. “The rest of them are dead.”
The bard paused, gazing reflectively at him. Leaving the man free wasn’t’ an option, she knew. He could escape, and cause havoc and Xena had taught her batter. And tying him up? “You know, Xena once sat me down and taught me a lesson when we’d gotten into a bad spot, and fought off some guys who were really meaning us harm and I asked her why she couldn’t just tie them up.”
Everyone watched her alertly.
“She asked me, Gabrielle, would you like to be tied up and helpless, on the ground, with ants and spiders and bugs chewing your skin and wild animals finding you and eating you alive?”
Even Jessan grimaced, his face wrinkling up. “Ah.”
“She said, how merciful do you think that really is?” Gabrielle concluded. “And I guess, I’d never thought about it like that before.” She looked at the man. “Go ahead and kill him. We can’t leave him here, so close to home, to make trouble.”
She knew she’d shocked everyone. Gabrielle took a breath and released it, catching a look of respect on Solari’s face as she edged over to stand next to her. Her guts were urging her to move on, but she forced herself to stand there and wait until Jessan quietly broke the man’s neck and stood, before she gave him a smile. “Thanks Jess.”
“My honor, Gabrielle.” Jessan said, in a soft voice. He dusted his hands off and rejoined them as they moved off down the path.
Gabrielle sighed. Wasn’t one of her favorite lessons. She probed her way down the path and they filed after her in silence, as the darkness folded in around them again. It had taken her a long time, even given the quiet and almost gentle way Xena had brought her to it, for her to work her way through the painful logic.
To the warrior’s credit, she’d given Gabrielle the time. She’d gone off and done some hunting, wandering back into camp at pretty much the exact moment the bard had reluctantly accepted the inevitable conclusion.
Xena had known. She had come over and sat down next to her, pressing her shoulder against Gabrielle’s in wordless communication as they simply watched the sunset together.
That had meant so damned much to her. Gabrielle smiled briefly to herself. Just that moment of being treated like a respected adult by her much more experienced partner.
Painful as it had been, she cherished it.
A quarter candlemark later, they were on level ground, and starting towards the lower ford. Dori was snuggled up in Jessan’s arms asleep, and the tingle of adrenaline from the fight was quickly fading.
Gabrielle felt the long day catching up to her. She really wished Xena was there with her, silly as that sounded even to herself because the warrior had a knack of keeping her mind occupied and not giving her time to focus on how tired she was.
There were lots of things to think about when Xena was around. Like, what was she thinking? Why had she picked the route they were on? Was there something special about where they’d end up at dusk?
Was she thinking about a night fire and their bedroll as much as Gabrielle was?
Gabrielle amused herself by imagining her partner walking alongside her, with that stride that was just that much longer than hers that it made her push to keep up.
She would be cruising along the path, head turning slightly from side to side as she listened and smelled everything around them without much conscious thought. Her walk had a rhythm to it, and an overstated emphasis Gabrielle thought was from the armor.
Her arms would be relaxed, but held just a little away from her body and every once in a while she’d bring her hands up and flex her fingers, lacing them together and cracking her knuckles as she walked.
Gabrielle sighed, and turned her focus back on the path, reminding herself that the group was depending on her to not walk them into an ambush or fall into an unexpected turn of the creek.
She could hear the creek off to her left, a muted tinkling that almost obscured the night sounds of the crickets. A rustle sounded off to her right, but a quick look in that direction caught the retreating tail of a fox.
No danger there. She shifted her grip on her staff and looked forward, seeing the increasing glow of the moonlight as the trees slowly thinned out ahead. No danger, of course, since she wasn’t tied up and helpless in the leaves since foxes were meat eaters, after all and even though they were small, they had sharp teeth and usually kits to feed somewhere deep in the brush.
“Hey, Gabrielle.” Solari caught up with her again. “That was pretty creepy, with Athena and all that.”
Gabrielle sighed. “Yeah, I guess.” She shrugged a little. “You know, though, we get tangled up with them so often it just gets sort of annoying rather than creepy. I kinda thought, ‘oh great. Here we go again.’ When I heard it.”
“Uh huh.” Solari was silent as they walked. “So what’s that like?”
“What’s what like?” Gabrielle glanced at her.
The Amazon looked a little embarrassed. “I mean.. like hanging out with them? I heard the fuzzies talking back there and they said they came around a corner in the path and you were standing there holding hands with Ares. Were you?”
“Eh.” Gabrielle smiled briefly. “Yeah, we were… you know, it’s not like anything. It’s just what it is.” She rubbed an itch on her nose. “He’s sort of on our side in this one.”
The bard indicated the group. “Yeah, our side. Mine and Xena’s side, I guess, but you all fall under that. He wants us to help him stop the war.”
Solari frowned. “Huh?”
“Yeah pretty much what I said. But there you go.” Gabrielle held a hand up as they came to a break in the trees, and the landscape opened up into the slope down to the river, the moon lighting the grassland between them and it with silver silence.
“Let me check it out.” Solari loosened her sword in it’s scabbard and eased forward. One of the forest dwellers silently followed her around the last of the branches so they could get a clear view of their path.
Gabrielle stood and watched, one hand curled around her staff as she leaned against it. “Boy, I’ll be glad to catch up with those other guys and find a place to stop and rest.”
“Tired?” Jessan had come to stand next to her.
“Yeah.” The bard admitted. “I”ve got my fingers crossed that we can just move through here and there are no surprises.”
“Yeah.” Jessan glanced around. “We close to your birthplace, Gabrielle?”
“Yes.” The bard kept watching Solari. “There’s a short path just to the right there. Walk on it a little while and you come to a big tree, near a branch of the river. That’s where Xe and I met.”
Jessan chuckled softly. “Life changer, huh?”
Gabrielle glanced at him. “Change? Nah. That’s where my life began.” She shifted her weight off her staff as she saw Solari give the come ahead. “And it looks like we may get lucky this time. Let’s get over the river. “
They emerged into the moonlight to a quiet, empty stretch of grass leading down to the river. Here, closer to Potadeia, the water ran a little slower prior to it’s wide curve bending back towards the hills. The ford here was small, beaten posts and guidelines rather than a bridge, but once across they could make their way to the road and the stand of trees just shy of it Gabrielle hoped held their friends and the horses.
It was very quiet. The moon had risen overhead and she could hear the rustling of the trees and the sound of the river, the gentle wind bending the grass before her feet as she led the way forward.
Was it all a trick? Gabrielle scanned the area. The grass was knee height; tall enough to hide an ambush. The wind was blowing across it into their faces though, and she found it hard to believe that the forest dwellers wouldn’t smell a bunch of human soldiers even if she didn’t.
The river bent a little this far down, and she couldn’t see the turn that would take her up to Amphipolis – but that also meant anyone there who happened to be looking couldn’t see her either. She shaded her eyes, looking for evidence of the Spartan army, and there was nothing to be seen in that respect either.
Well, good. Gabrielle turned her attention to the ford, and the road beyond it. A flicker of motion caught her eye, and she felt her nerves jump- but it was just a figure emerging from the stand of trees, and waving.
“Cait.” Solari grunted in satisfaction. “Looks like everything’s cool.”
Somehow, it surprised her. Gabrielle squinted the slight figure into focus, and felt a sense of relief as the young Amazon signaled the safe come ahead to them. That meant the horses were all there, and Bennu and his men and that her plan had actually worked.
She wasn’t really sure why she was so surprised. The plan had made sense to her, and also to her companions – no one had demurred when she’d laid it out. She’d taken Xena’s tenets in mind when she’d come up with it, and she could easily imagine her soulmate doing the same thing.
So why shouldn’t it have worked? Gabrielle mused on that as she lead the way down to the ford, smelling the river as she worked her way down the bank towards it.
It was low, for the season. The ford had been in place there since the end of the last war, the posts firmly pounded in and newly wound with rope, the tickly scent of the fresh hemp strong and pungent.
The water was cold, and she grimaced a little as it penetrated her boots and she started across. Here, the river was shoulder height most of the way, only the center deep enough for her to need to swim and she looped her staff around her wrist and pulled herself through the mild current.
“Feels good.” Solari was right behind her.
“Mama! Fishes!” Dori’s voice warbled from Jessan’s hold. “Let’s go catch em!”
“Not right now, honey.” Gabrielle felt the water close over the back of her neck and had to admit the chill did feel good. She wasn’t sure she’d enjoy the drying off process, but she took a moment to duck her head under the surface and felt the cool liquid soak into her hair right to the roots.
Then it was shallow enough to stand again, and she started up the other slope. On either side of her, the ford posts rose and she moved past them as they angled across to the other bank marking a safe crossing.
To her right, she could see the branch of the river that angled off, and went past her hometown and for a moment, she wondered what her family there was up to.
Would Lila think, this late at night, that maybe her sister was swimming the river, escaping from a Spartan army?
Just as she thought that, she remembered she had an obligation to them. “Oh sheep dip.”
“Huh?” Solari was behind her and heard. ‘What’s wrong?”
Gabrielle was emerging from the river, pulling her boots free from the muck at the other side. “We need to send someone back.” She climbed up the slope to the bank. “Warn my family.. I should go.”
“Gabrielle..” Jessan hopped onto the bank, with Dori still on his shoulders. “You’re the boss here.”
“I know.” The bard said. “But it’s my family.” She glanced back across the river. “And it’s not like you can go in my place, Jess. I mean.. well, you can, but….”
“But they’ll all come running out screaming.” Jessan agreed.
“I’ll go.” Solari turned and headed for the river. “Your sister knows me. It’ll just take a minute.” She splashed into the water, as the rest of the forest dwellers emerged from the ford. “I’ll catch up to you guys.”
“Thanks Soli.” Gabrielle called quietly after her. “I’ll make it up to you when we stop.”
Solari turned around and grinned. “That mean you’re cooking?” She waved and plunged into the water, swimming with a quick, efficient stroke.
Gabrielle chuckled. Then she turned and raked the wet hair back out of her eyes. “Okay, let’s go meet up with the gang and see what’s going on.”
“That’s a cool Amazon.” Jessan commented, as he let the squiggling Dori down. “There you go, bittyboo. Don’t pull the fur, okay?”
“Soli’s always been a good friend.” Gabrielle agreed. “Now that we’re off the mountain, things should go pretty smoothly I think.”
Jessan gave her a look.
“Mama, look! A buppit followed us!” Dori rambled off through he grass. “Buppit!”
“Pretend I never said that.” Gabrielle broke into a jog after her. “Dori!! Dori!”
Xena strolled across the deck, letting her eyes scan the surface as she crossed over towards the hatch to belowdecks.
Men work working hard, splicing rope and mending the big sails that had been drawn down to the deck. The moon was fitfully poking out from behind the clouds, aiding their work but they had torches up too, and oil lamps lighting the deck.
The sailors had done what they could to set up tarp shelters for the survivors of the shipwreck. In odd corners, triangles of sailcloth were stretched, with figures huddled beneath them. A barrel had been set on the deck as well, with a dipper to provide the refugees with some water.
Pitifully few survivors. There had been probably a hundred or more onboard the ship. Xena walked between two of the shelters, seeing suspicious eyes looking out hearing her footsteps.
Poor bastards. Now that the whole thing was over, Xena had to admit she felt a little bad she hadn’t worked harder to rescue more people.
She spotted the captain up on the steerage platform and angled her steps towards him. He was standing next to the now still tiller, and another man was standing next to him. They both glanced up as she approached.
“Ah. There’s the wench.” The captain said. “C’mover here, woman. Man here wants to thank you.” He indicated his companion.
Xena recognized the man now as the captain of the other vessel. She vaguely wondered if the whole going down with the ship was a myth, but gave the man a gracious nod as he took a step forward. “Captain.”
The other man limped forward. “They tell me you’re Xena.” He said. “You brought Halgar’s ship to where mine was wrecked. That true?”
Xena studied him. He was younger than their own ship captain, tall and thin, with a sharply angular face and thick, dark hair just getting a peppering of white at the edges. “True on both counts.” She replied mildly.
“Woman knew it was a shipwreck.” Halgar stated, rocking up and down on his heels. “Idiots in the for’ard cabins kicked their heels up, but she was right.”
The other captain studied her. “You the Xena everyone’s heard about?”
She took a step up onto the platform and leaned against the thick back wall of the ship. “I’m the only one I know of.” She said. “And a couple people have heard of me.”
There were two oil lamps on the platform, and the light flooded the three of them standing there. The rescued captain regarded the tall woman leaning casually nearby, noting the long arms and powerful hands along with the sharp eyes and angular face.
Beautiful, in a wild, almost exotic way, he thought. Dressed in a light tunic, the woman’s body seemed well formed, the powerful legs crossed in a relaxed fashion that nonetheless showed a smooth bunching of muscle in them.
Xena, the warlord. He could see the killer in those eyes, mo matter the smile on the face. Defender of Amphipolis now, perhaps, but he knew the stories, and knew men who’d fought against her.
Some who’d fought for her. More of those recently, who swore by her as a captain and who would, without reservation, bend knee to her and follow her banner again. Athens itself wanted her to lead them.
“Thank you.” The captain held a hand out. “Whatever the reason for it, I’m glad you followed that instinct and found us. I’ve got a family back in Thera’d like to see me again.”
“No problem.” Xena uncrossed her arms and reached over to clasp his. “Glad we found you. I had some friends onboard.”
“The two of those Amazons, the ones they had prisoner?”
Halgar eyed her. “Pox of trouble those women, eh?” He said. “Caused trouble in Thera, trouble in my hold, trouble on his ship.. Hades devils.”
“That blond one, she’s a wild thing.” The captain of the wrecked ship said. “Got herself and the other cut loose, and went after one of the snooty ones. Killed her at my feet, she did. Knife through the ribs.”
Both men looked at Xena.
“She had reason.” Xena replied shortly. “As for the ones here, they were being attacked and raped. They didn’t cause all the trouble. I killed the men that did it.”
A sailor trotted up onto the platform. “Cap’n I..” He stopped, seeing Xena. “You’re the one!” He blurted. “Damned prisoner belowdecks screaming to see you.”
Xena sighed. She could imagine which prisoner. “How long are we going to be here at anchor?” She addressed Halgar.
“Long as it takes to fix her.” The captain responded. “No rushing wood working. We don’t want to sink before we get to Athens, eh?” He cleared his throat. “By mid day, I’m thinking we’ll be at sail again.”
“Okay.” Xena twitched her tunic straight. “Let me go see what’s gong on belowdecks.” She started for the hatch. “Maybe I’ll take that problem off your hands too.”
She disappeared down the stairs, leaving the captains to their own devices.
“Good looking, that one.” The rescued captain remarked to Halgar. “Didn’t expect that.”
“Aye.” Halgar agreed. “Love to have that in my bunk, but I’d be scared to wake up and find part of me missing from it.”
“More than a hydra. Should have seen her holding the wheel with that daft prisoner putting a knife to her – never turned a hair. Gave her a look that’d curdle the milk of a stone goat.”
“Well, no matter. Glad you listened to her, Halgar. I lost a crew but we’d all been lost in another candlemark. I owe you for this one.”
“Owe her.” Halgar pointed at the hatch. “Got the feeling we’ll all do fore this is over.”
Xena descended into a noisesome darkness, the holds full of working men and grumbling merchants, displaced out of their quarters as the sailors worked to fix the hull. Some had settled in the common room, and she gave them a brief nod as she slipped by and stopped to check on the horses.
“There she is.”
She heard the whisper, and evaluated the color of it. Deciding it was just a remark on her presence, and not a warning about it, she continued through the rafters until she reached the small area Iolaus and the mare were confined in.
The stallion had heard her coming. He was watching out for her, and tossed his head when she appeared in the opening.
“Hey boy.” Xena crossed over to him and rubbed his ears. “Not so bad now, huh? Ships not moving?’ She felt him push into her chest, and breathe out, his skin twitching a little. “Poor guy. Now I bet you wish I’d taken your mother, and left you to laze around in the paddock, huh?”
Io flicked his ears.
Xena gave him a hug then peeked in at the mare, who was lying with her feet tucked up under her in the straw. “You all right, pretty girl?”
The mare shook her head.
“Yeah, well, we’re kinda stuck here, so just suck it up for a while, okay?” Xena leaned against the ropes, but as she did, she felt her instincts prickle.
Her nape hairs lifted, and she felt a change in the air behind her. At once her ears shifted, moving a little away from her head and cupping. She drew a breath in, and caught the scent of grog and unwashed clothes.
“There she is.” A voice sounded, low and snarly. “Now we’ll see who’s tough, eh? Got no armor or weapons, we’ll get our own back from you, Xena.”
Xena slowly straightened up and turned, keeping her hands on the ropes and leaning back a little against them. “Will you?” She asked, her voice dropping a touch, and taking on a low purring rumble.
There were four men there, with short curved swords and knives in their hands and enough liquid courage to use them.
She crossed her legs at the ankles. “If you think that armor and that sword are all that make me dangerous, then c’mon boys. Bring it on.” A smile appeared on her face that had no humor in it. “I’m sure those poor bastards on deck would love your bunks.”
She had them. She could already see the muddled fear in their eyes, could see they were already regretting their drink induced foray. But as she took a breath to continue her verbal assault, six more men bustled into the space, equally well armed.
Hm. Things were getting interesting. Xena counted the steps it would take her to get to Io’s ropes, to let the stallion loose to help her.
“Leave her alone.” The leader of the new men ordered. “Or we’ll cut you up and toss you to the fishes.” He was dressed in the common garb of the sailors, and so were his friends. “Land scum. Get back to the mess room.”
The merchants looked almost glad to see them. They made a show of putting their swords away and grumbling, giving Xena dirty looks as they retreated. “Wont’ be the last you see of us!”
Xena remained where she was, interested to see where this was all going to lead. “Thanks.” She drawled wryly. “I wasn’t looking forward to getting blood on my skirt.”
The sailors turned, and the one in the lead lifted his cutlass, touching his forehead with it before her put it back into it’s sheath.
Xena’s nostrils flared a little, understanding the gesture.
“Fools.” The sailor said. “Wasn’t enough them others got kilt?” He said. “We were coming to find you in any case. Woman down in the hole yelling for ou.”
“So I heard.” Xena didn’t move. “What does she want?”
The man shrugged. “Just says she needs to talk to you. Arrogant bitch. Was spitting oaths at us before, but now she’s playing nice so we go do what she wants.”
Xena smiled. “Women do that.”
“Aye.” The man looked her right in the eye. “But some’s you don’t mind it.”
“All right.” Xena straightened up. “Let’s go see what the bitch wants then.” She said. “Lead on.”
The sailor gave a brief nod, then he turned and started further into the dark passageways. Xena followed him, then the rest of the sailors followed her. She was taller than the lot of them by a hand at least, and several times had to quickly duck before the spars emerging from the gloom smacked her in the forehead. ‘
“Low here.” The lead sailor said, after the second time. “Sorry.”
They went a deck lower. Here she could smell the pitch, and see the oil lamps flickering down a corridor. “What are they doing there?” Xena asked.
“Split a side board.” The sailor answered. “Name’s Dir, by the way.” He eased through a narrow entrance and then they were climbing down one last set of steps into a space that stank of old fish and human bodies.
Xena could also smell blood and rusting iron. She could see two roughly made cells ahead and gathered her attitude around her as the sailor went past the second, then paused and gestured at it. “In there.”
The warrior stepped to the entrance and peered inside. She could see Milena slumped against the far wall, her arms shackled to the wall and a thin layer of dirty straw on the floor. “Open it.”
“You sure?” The sailor asked. “Bitch bites.”
“So do I and I’ve got bigger teeth.” Xena responded. “But thanks for asking.”
Dir produced a heavy iron key and slid it home, unlocking the door and shoving it open. “Careful.” He warned. “She’ll probably jump you.”
Xena entered the cell, stopping just short of grabbing range. “Hey!”
Milena jerked and cringed, holding her hands as much over her head as she could. When nothing happened to her, she moved them down and looked up, shuddering in surprise as she recognized the tall figure standing in the cell. “You!”
Xena put her hands on her hips. “You were yelling at everyone you wanted to talk to me. That big a surprise I’m here?”
Milena struggled to sit up. “I didn’t think you’d listen to them.” She muttered. “I didn’t think they’d listen to me.”
“What do you want?” The warrior asked, brusquely.
The girl looked up at her. “Why have we stopped?”
Xena looked around instead of answering. The cell was small, and contained only the straw, the prisoner, and a bucket in the corner that stank. The squalor offended even her hardened sensibilities, and she wanted to make this interview as short as possible.
“Listen.” Milena lowered her voice. “Were you serious when you said you weren’t joining the army?”
The warrior dropped to a crouch and rested her elbows on her knees. It put her head more or less at a level with the girls. “I’m going home.” She said. “Take that for what it’s worth.”
Studying the girls’ face, Xena could now see past the verneer of arrogance to the scared kid underneath. She suspected the rough handling had knocked a lot of the attitude off her. A tiny part of her even felt sorry for the kid.
“My brothers.” She indicated the next cell with a jerk of her head. “They’re Spartan agents.”
Xena nodded. “The councilors know that.”
Milena blinked, caught by surprise. “They do?”
“That all you wanted to tell me?” Xena studied her. “Yeah, they know.”
The girl looked stunned. “Then wh… “ She paused. “They’re not my brothers.” She said. “I met them on the road, and we decided to travel together. They told me they were trying to run a scam with silver bars.”
“Uh huh.” Xena didn’t find it very interesting, but the kid wasn’t cursing or spitting at her at least.
“But I heard them talking.” Milena dropped her voice further. “If you help me get out of here, I’ll tell you what they said.”
Xena merely looked at her.
“Yeah, I guess that’s a stupid thing to say.” The girl muttered. “You don’t make bargains, do you?”
“Not often.” The warrior replied, in a quiet voice. “But if you tell me, and it’s worth something, I’ll do what I can.”
Milena looked up right into her eyes. “Youre the only one who’s been decent to me. Even after everything.” She whispered. “Even after I tried to hurt you. Why?”
The blue eyes painted silver in the dim light twinkled just a little. “If you ever meet my partner, you can ask her that.” She said. “Did you want to tell me something? If not, I’ve got other things to do.”
The girl glanced right and left, then back at up at her. “There’s a Spartan army. It’s coming through Thrace.”
Xena felt a shiver twitch over her skin. She watched the girl’s face carefully, seeing the minute shifts under the skin and wishing she had Gabrielle at her side, to help her gauge the truth. ‘How big an army?”
Milena shook her head. “A big one that’s all they said. “ She answered. “They’re coming over the hills and across the valley, and they’ll be picked up by ships at Thera.”
A flash of the urgent expression on Gabrielle’s face in her dream prickled Xena’s awareness. Was Milena telling the truth? Maybe. Maybe not. But a Spartan army coming down on top of Amphipolis sure would make her partner send that message, wouldn’t it?
Yeah, it would. Xena studied the captive. Well, the news only made her mission that much more urgent for having a name to pin to the unknown worry in her guts. “I’m going to try and get this ship turned around back to Thera.”
Milena’s eyes flicked to hers, in surprise. “ Are you?” She asked, in a low voice. “When we get there.. take me with you.”
It was too dark for her to see the twitch that flickered across Xena’s face at the words or the clenching of the warrior’s fingers. “If we get back there, I’ll do my best to get you free and off the ship.”
Milena pulled at her shackles. “Let me go with you and .. you’re going to stop the Spartans, right? I want to go too.”
“Becoming a patriot?” The warrior asked, dryly. She stood up and flexed her hands. “Thanks for the information. Want some advice?”
The girl looked warily at her. “Advice?”
“Be nice to the crew. “ Xena told her. “It’ll make the rest of this damn trip easier on you.”
Milena’s eyes dropped. “Tell the not to rape me then.” She looked back up. “That’s what they want.”
Xena turned and went to the door. “You’ll be safe.” She said. “Good night.” She left and waited for the door to swing shut, before she looked at the sailor. “Dir.”
“Aye.” The man waited quietly.
“Bring her some bread and fresh water.” The warrior said. “Don’t get close. I don’t trust her.”
“Aye.” He nodded. “Nor do any of us.” He motioned to the rest of the men. “Back up to the light, lads. Lead on.”
They moved off down the hall single file, the slow progress giving Xena ample time to think about what she’d just heard.
As well as wondering what she’d ended up promising.
Gabrielle had never though she’d really be in a place to be glad to be getting up onto a horse, but now, in fact, she was. She patted the shoulder of the gray mare Bennu had brought out for her and Dori to ride.
The horse was pretty, a lightly dappled coat and a darker mane and tail, one of the string of young horses that had come out of the breeding program Xena had started way back when. Her name was Shadow, and she was a little shorter, and a little slimmer than Xena’s favorite.
“Hello there.” Gabrielle greeted her, as she swung Dori up into the horses saddle. “Look Dori, a new friend for you.”
“Pretty.” Dori hitched herself up further using the saddelbow. “Mama, c’n I have a horsie? Boo said I could.”
Oh, Boo did, huh? “Honey, I’m sure you can have a horsie when you’re big enough to ride around by yourself, okay?” Gabrielle told her. “Until then, you have to help me and Boo steer.”
The bard sighed, and glance to her right, to see Cait and Paladia grinning at her. “Just wait.” She warned them. “You’ll have one of these someday.”
“Not like that one. Hardly.” Cait answered immediately. Paladia snorted.
Gabrielle got her boot into the stirrup and hopped a little, then pulled herself onboard behind her daughter. “We’re going.” She took up the reins and glanced around. Bennu’s men were mounting all around her, having had a several candlemark rest.
One of the sentries whistled softly, and she stood up in her stirrups, watching the edge of the grass as the men all turned that way. But a whistle responded, and they all relaxed, as Solari emerged from the waving stalks a minute later.
The Amazon was dripping wet, but looked in good spirits. She gave Gabrielle a thumbs up as she rejoined the group, and went over to find her pack to change clothing.
That was done, at least. Gabrielle mused, wondering how her family had reacted to the news.
Cait and Paladia were nearby, and the forest dwellers were also ready to go, mounted in their larger, shaggier animals.
Everyone was armed. Gabrielle gently guided her new mount over to where Jessan was waiting on his big chestnut. “Jess, I appreciate you guys staying with us, but we’re going into some pretty busy areas.”
“We know.” Jessan rested his hands on his saddlehorn. “Save your breath, little sister.” He gave her a small, toothy smile. “I want to see you safe back to Xena.”
Well, she could get upset at that, she supposed. Gabrielle sighed. But she understood. “I don’t think either of us would appreciate it if that ended up getting you hurt.” She reminded her friend.
“Don’t worry.” The forest dweller patted her knee. “You can just make up some story about how we’re a new kind of super soldier you’re taking to Athens.” He saw the skeptical look on the bard’s face. “Or you can say we’re a meat crop. Your choice.”
“Ew.” Gabrielle’s nose wrinkled. “Okay, for now.” She clucked to the horse, who tossed her gray head and flicked her ears backwards. “Let’s get moving. We need to clear the pass before it starts getting light.”
They emerged cautiously from the stand of trees and rode up the slight slope to the road, which was wide, and empty and silent at this time of night. The moon was behind the clouds now, and the only sound was the muffled hoofbeats against the packed surface as they started on their way.
Gabrielle adjusted her staff in it’s holders under her right leg and shifted in the saddle, adjusting to the stresses of riding after the long walk. She was tired, but she had to admit being up on the back of a horse whose legs were moving her forward helped.
Damned Xena was right as usual. She circled Dori with one arm. “You can go back to sleep if you want, honey.”
Dori pulled her legs up and let them rest on the mare’s neck, and leaned back against her mother. “Okay mama.”
Gabrielle smiled, remembering times on the road when, near the end of a long tough day, Xena would brush aside her protests and insist they both ride, citing her need to ‘get where we need to be’ for the reason.
Hadn’t been until much, much later that the warrior had admitted she’d known Gabrielle was at the end of her rope, and just wanted to give her a chance to rest and maybe catch a nap without embarrassing her.
Ah well. The bard smiled into the darkness. We’d sure have ended up in the same bedroll a lot faster if she’d just admitted stuff like that in the beginning. She remembered then how wonderful it had felt to get off her feet and settle into the back of Argo’s saddle behind Xena, feeling the warmth of her body pressed against her.
Argo probably hadn’t appreciated it though. Gabrielle knew she wasn’t a heavy load, especially after they’d been out on the road a while, but still, it was just that much more the mare had to carry.
Just as well she’d left Argo home. And with that, a sudden thought came to her, wondering if the Spartans would scour the town for the rest of the horses and take them. Her heart lurched, thinking of Argo in their hands, and the mare’s feisty temperament fighting them every minute.
“Crap.” She muttered. “I should have thought of that before. I should have taken her with us, even just on a rein.”
But in reality, there were a lot of things back there in danger. The rest of Xena’s family, who were her family too, their home, nearby Potadeia… you couldn’t protect everything. Gabrielle sighed and tried to remember that there had been times when Xena had simply let the mare run free, and take care of herself while they got involved in some crazy thing or other.
She was a canny animal. Wise in some ways more so than her human friends.
Gabrielle patted Shadow’s shoulder. She turned her head to either side, seeing Solari and Jessan riding to either side of her, and just a bit ahead as they watched the road, and despite that, despite the solid cadre of men and horses around her, she felt very exposed and very isolated.
Strange, how she could feel so completely safe with just Xena there with her. Crazy really, since she knew better than anyone how fallible her soulmate could be.
The feeling of being watched suddenly increased, and she tightened her knees on either side of the horse and increased her pace. “Let’s get through the pass.” She called to Solari. “I don’t like being out here with them behind us.”
Solari nodded, and the troop increased their speed, from a walk to a canter, sending up tiny spurts of dust from the road’s dry surface.
Shadow’s pace was comfortable, Gabrielle found, smoother and with her lighter frame, easier on the bard’s body. She relaxed into the motion, one arm still tucked around Dori and the other holding her reins.
She kept listening behind them though, halfway convinced the Spartans knew of their defection and were heading after them. In her mind she could almost hear them thundering down the road and feel the vibrations.
Then she did hear thunder. She almost pulled up, glancing to either side of her to see if her companions heard it too.
“Storm’s coming.” Solari pointed at the horizon to their left. “Look at that.”
Lightning lit the sky in silver and purple, and Gabrielle settled back down in her saddle, slightly embarrassed. “Stop freaking out, okay?” She muttered to herself. “Yeah, we don’t want to get caught in that.” She added, louder.
“Good move going faster.” Solari replied. She stood up in her stirrups and looked behind them, waiting for a blast of lightning before she sat back down. “Clear back there. “
Of course it was. Gabrielle exhaled and fixed her eyes on the road ahead. It was only just visible in the gloom, a ribbon running through the rolling countryside, wild scrub on either side of it here in the backwaters.
The patch of forest the group had hidden in was where Gabrielle had thought the Athenians had been ambushed from. It was the last place for a group of men to hide near the road this side of the pass.
Also why she’d chosen that place to meet. So now she faced flatlands stretching to the hills on either side and in the distance, the bend in the road that indicated the gap between the ridges.
With a shake of her head, she aimed for it.
Dawn found them deep in the forest long past the far side of the pass, having seen no one so far in their journey. Gabrielle was glad to dismount from Shadow’s back, reaching up to take Dori down from her neck as soon as she hit the ground.
Cait and Solari were searching the nearby area, to make sure the spot they’d stopped in was safe. They were off the road by a good way, deep in a stand of trees that had a small stream cutting through it.
Dori looked around with interest. “Mama, go find rocks.” She pattered off.
“Stay close, Dori.” Her mother called after her. “This is not a safe place, okay?” She watched the child crouch down near a tree, and turned to take her saddlebags off Shadow’s rings.
“Found a place for a fire.” Bennu came up next to her. “Let me take that for ya, little hawk?” He reached for the bags. “Got all right shelter, men’r putting some windbreak up.”
“Sure.” Gabrielle nodded. “We need to keep watch, but everyone should get as much rest as they can. We can move out again when it’s dark.” Avoiding the small towns now seemed to her to be a good idea and since they’d picked up the pace she’d gone a lot further than she’d anticipated.
Less people to have seen them, and less people to explain Jessan and his people to. The foxes and owls didn’t care. Gabrielle took Shadows reins and started forward, only to pull up as another of the militia slipped deftly into her path. “Hey Jaz.”
“Take your horse, Gabrielle?” The man asked. “We’re hobbling them over in the next clearing.”
“Thanks.” The bard handed the reins over. “She’s a good girl.”
“Good breeding.” The man agreed. “We’ll take good care of her.” He led the mare off, and Gabrielle was left to walk by herself through the trees and into the campsite. “Dori, come on over here with me.”
“Mama look.” Dori ran to catch up with her. “I found dis!”
Gabrielle looked down. “Oh, that’s pretty honey.” She examined the stone. It was round and smooth, and looked like it had come from the river. “You found that under the tree?”
“Look.” Dori turned the stone over, and showed her. “Like Boo has.”
The bard’s gaze sharpened, and she took the stone, examining it carefully in the pale dawn light. It had a deep cut in it, with the telltale scrapes from being used to sharpen a blade. “That is like Boo’s, huh?”
“Yes.” Dori agreed. “We go find Boo now?”
“Not right now honey.” Gabrielle tucked the stone into her hand and led the way into the clearing, where Bennu’s men were busy making camp. “We’re going to rest for a while here in this nice forest, wont’ that be fun?”
“I think there are some fishes in the creek over there. We can find some.” Gabrielle promised. “But first we need to get warm, and have some tea, is that okay with you?”
Lattice made of branches quickly interwoven were braced between the trees and the forest dwellers were already piling wood in the center of the space for a fire. Though it was warm, the clouds were still thick overhead and she was looking forward to a hot cup of mint tea and the chance to sit down for a while.
There was a spot near the back, in front of two large trees with plenty of shelter, and that’s where she saw Bennu had put her saddlebags. Gabrielle went over to them and sat down on the fallen long in front of them, stretching her legs out and flexing her toes.
Jessan came over and sat down next to her. “Looks like a good spot.” He said. “Two of my guys are out hunting.”
Gabrielle showed him the stone. “Dori found this.” She said. “Over where we dismounted.”
Jessan took it and examined it, turning it over with his clawed fingers. “Sharpening stone.” He said. “Used a lot.”
The bard nodded. The item was very familiar to her, accompanied by the rasping, scraping sound of metal against it that had been her evening accompaniment for many a night. This one looked something like Xena’s, but lacked the worn smoothness of years of contact that the warrior’s had.
It’s presence was troublesome. Though the tool was common enough, most carried a flatter stone used for axes. This seemed to indicate someone carrying a longsword. “I guess we could expect this, with all the people heading for the war.” She commented.
“Could be.” Jessan said. “Seems like a weird place to find it.” He stood up. “Hey kiddo – want to show me where you found this? “ He held up the rock to Dori. “I want to see if there are more like it.”
Dori willingly got up. “We go over dere.” She pointed and started off, with Jessan in hot pursuit.
Gabrielle was left by herself to enjoy a quiet moment of peace and she took full advantage of it. She’d debated with herself on stopping, wondering if it wasn’t a better idea to keep going and put as much distance between herself and the Spartans and risk traveling the road in daylight.
With any luck, the Spartans would just be starting to look for her. There would be questions, and evasions, and eventually someone would confess.
Then? Would the entire army take off after her? Gabrielle didn’t think so. As good as the Spartans were, moving an entire army that fast wasn’t easy.
But if they did?
She let out a breath, wishing again she had her partner nearby to ask. Xena would know what was safe.
Gabrielle had a feeling this wasn’t safe. But on the other hand, people had to have rest and they’d been on the move for a day and a night. Xena had also taught her tired people make mistakes and she couldn’t afford that.
So rest they would. If they left just a dusk, and rode through the night it would put them only a day or so out of Thera, and once there…
Once there? The bard decided to wait until they were closer to decide what they’d do once they were closer to the port city. It never really paid to plan in detail too far in advance in her life she’d found. You usually just ended up playing it by ear anyway.
The sound of the camp buzzed gently in her ears, and she felt a quiet sense of displacement, as the long day started to get the better of her.
Sitting there by herself on her log, she felt the absence of her partner come over her so strongly, it brought unexpected tears to her eyes. “Oh Xe.” She murmured. “I need you.” She leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees, acknowledging the ache in her guts as it made her grimace.
“I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing. I’m risking all these people, our families, all the people I left behind. I wish you were here to help me carry this damn rock I’ve got on my shoulders.”
Was she imagining she heard the faint, wry chuckle? “Yeah, I know I was the one who was bitching that you never let me make the rules.” She whispered. “Maybe I should have appreciated more the strain you took on all these years.”
She let her head rest in her hands. “By the gods, I miss you.”
She looked up, to find Cait there, with a skin in her hands. “Yes, Cait?”
“You all right?” The young Amazon approached and knelt down. “You look a bit down.”
A bit down. Gabrielle managed a smile. “Just been a long day.” She straightened up, letting her hands rest on her thighs. “What can I do for you?”
Cait offered her the skin. “Actually I rather thought I might do something for you. Would you like some cider? It’s quite good.”
A soft snick of a firestarter sounded nearby, and the gentle crackle of kindling catching sounded. “Thanks. I’d love some.” Gabrielle took the skin and uncapped it, taking a mouthful of the contents. It was rich and fruity and the fermented buzz of it hit her empty stomach in a rush.
Cait took a seat on the ground, carefully not mentioning the sparkle of tears still visible on the queen’s eyelashes. She watched Gabrielle take another swig from the skin, her gaze distant and somewhat unfocused.
She hoped everything was all right. It bothered her to see Gabrielle so out of sorts. Cait had thought everything was going quite well, actually, and she wondered what it was that had upset her so. They’d made very good time, everyone was in fine form, and the plan was going along splendidly.
So what was the problem? Cait wasn’t sure she wanted to intrude on Gabrielle’s privacy enough to ask.
Gabrielle handed her back the skin, and managed a smile. ‘Thanks. That hit the spot.” She reached out and patted Cait’s knee. “When I’m out here, stopping after a long hike is when I remember the best times Xe and I had when we traveled together.”
“Ah.” Cait nodded, though she didn’t quite understand what Gabrielle was getting at.
“So I miss her.” The bard concluded. “I wish she was here.”
Oh. Well. Now Cait felt a little stupid. Of course. “I’m sure we’ll catch up with her right away now.” She said. “You said she was probably coming back in any case, right?”
“Right.” Gabrielle nodded. “Okay, enough of a break.” She stood up. “Let’s get some chow going.” She scrubbed her eyes with the back of her hand, then headed for the fire. “Anyone want to help me look for herbs?”
Cait capped the skin and slung the carrystrap over her shoulder. She got up, hoping very much that Xena was in fact on the way, and that they’d meet up very soon – for Gabrielle’s sake if not the rest of them.
She thought about that a minute. Oh bother. Absolutely for the rest of them.
Xena emerged back onto the deck, grateful for the wind over it as it washed the stench of the hold out of her lungs.
For a minute, she just stood there, thinking. Then she slowly made her way across the planking to the mast, leaning back against it as she looked out over the bow towards the rocky outcropping they were sheltering behind.
Just a pile of rocks – much like the ones they’d nearly foundered on. It made a break for the current though and the ship rested quietly at anchor while the work went on above and belowdecks.
She let her eyes idly drift around the open deck, seeing the eyes of the working sailors avert as they realized she was watching. She had their attention, no doubt.
One of the ones closest to her sitting on the deck edged over with apparent randomness. “Nother storm’s coming at us, lady.” He commented to Xena without looking up.
Xena had seen the signs on the horizon. “Yup.” She agreed. “Dangerous weather.”
“Aye.” The sailor nodded. “Ship’s a good one, but can’t take it forever.” He glanced up at the tall woman leaning nearby. “Good bit we found t’other one.”
“Mm.” Xena casually turned her head and met his eyes. “It’s almost like we weren’t meant to get to Athens, huh?”
She saw two other heads nearby turn, as they heard her. “Maybe the captain was right… we shouldn’t have left early.”
Slowly, the sailor near her nodded. “Cap’n thought twas bad weather chancing.” He agreed. “Since we went out, we been in it.”
“Good man, the captain.” Xena mused. “Knows his craft.”
The men nearby all nodded. “Them men, shoulda listened to him.” The sailor at Xena’s feet said. “Been sailing these waters all his life, he has.”
“They should have.” Xena straightened, then strolled off across the deck. She spotted Iolaus near the railing and angled her steps, heading for where he was standing. She took care to make eye contact with the sailors she passed – effortless on her part since they were all watching her.
One of them was hardly more than a boy, and he stared unabashedly at her. She gave him a smile and a wink, then circled the area they were working and arrived at where her friend was. “Couldn’t sleep?”
Iolaus glanced at her. “I slept, for a while. Then the noise out here woke me up.” He indicated the work. “Anything we can do to help it along? Athens isn’t getting any closer.”
Xena leaned her elbows on the rail and gazed over it at the choppy seas. She had some skills in woodworking, but she didn’t figure one more body down in the hold would do much. “Stay out of the way.”
Iolaus sighed. “Maybe I should have stuck to going overland.”
Xena watched a seagull wheel over the waves, turning it’s head to eye her hopefully. “Iolaus.”
The blond man turned and looked at her. “Uh oh.”
Xena’s lips twitched.
“That tone never means anything good’s coming.” Iolaus said, mournfully. “The last time you used it you told me you named a horse for me.”
The warrior casually glanced around to make sure no one was that close. “We’re not going to Athens.” She said. “We’ve got to get back to Thera.”
Iolaus blinked. “What?”
“I need to get back there.” Xena said. “I don’t have time to go to Athens.”
“Xena.” Iolaus moved a step closer. “I hate to say this, but it isn’t all about you, y’know?”
“I know.” She smiled briefly. “But I’m going to do everything I can to turn this boat around and go back and I wanted you to know that.”
The blond man looked perplexed. “What am I supposed to do, Xena?” He muttered. “You know I have to get to Athens, damn it.” He looked around. “Does this have something to do with that crazy woman? I heard she was yelling for you.”
“She told me something.” Xena admitted. “Said there was a Spartan army invading through Thrace.”
Iolaus studied her. “And you believed that?” He sounded incredulous. “Xena, that woman would do anything to get from being taken in to Athens. They’re gonna hang her!”
Xena looked out over the waves. “I don’t know if I believe her or not.” She said, finally. “But what I do know is something is making Gabrielle want me back there, hard.”
Iolaus opened his mouth to speak, then paused. He looked thoughtful. “You mean, something other than the obvious?”
He saw the profile outlined in faint moonlight shift, and a tiny smile appeared on Xena’s face.
There was that too, he was sure. But he also remembered being with Xena the last time when she’d gotten that urgent call inside, and it hadn’t been any joke. Though years had passed, he wasn’t sure it was this time either.
“Something other.” Xena responded. “So if I have to use a Spartan army as an excuse, that’s fine by me.” She glanced behind them. “Besides, ya never know. You may have a chance to get between two armies by sticking with me.”
Iolaus sighed. “Well.” He said. “At least you wont’ make me wear a dress.” He grumbled “But Xena, I made a promise. I really don’t want to break it.”
Xena understood the statement. She could imagine Gabrielle, in the same position, making the same argument if her and Iolaus’s place had been taken by the bard and Hercules. No one really wanted to break promises, and she’d changed enough from her earlier years to feel a pang on conscience about putting her old friend into this uncomfortable position.
Only a pang though. Not enough to divert her from her goal. “Maybe you won’t have to.” She said. “If that damn kid’s telling the truth, the front lines might have just changed.”
Iolaus thought about it. “You think she is?”
Xena shrugged. “Gabrielle might know. I don’t.” She admitted. “All I know is something’s going on back there and that’s as good a something as anything else.”
Reluctantly, Iolaus nodded. “I get it.” He said. “But I’ll be honest and tell you if you don’t make them go back, I won’t be sorry.”
“Fair enough.” Xena patted him on the shoulder.
“Glad you found your friends, by the way.” Iolaus changed the subject. “Did you know that was their ship, Xena? Someone tell you , tip you off or something? It’s too big a coincidence.”
Xena shrugged again. “Just a hunch.” She said. “Try to get some rest. We’re gonna be here for another couple hours at least.” She turned and left the rail, making her way between the groups of working sailors and the refugees as she headed back to the forecastle.
Before she could get there, the door opened, and Denius emerged. He looked around and spotted her, then started walking to intercept her path. “Ah, Xena.”
Xena slowed to meet him. “Denius.” She said. “Everyone with you all right? “
The patrician paused, and visibly regrouped. “I thank you for asking, yes. Some have the sea sickness, but that’s to be expected. Fantastic rescue that you performed earlier. My retinue were spellbound.”
“It was a lucky guess.” The warrior demurred. “Glad we could help some of those people out. Too bad we were a little too late for a lot of them.”
Denius made a dismissive hand gesture. “It was the gods grace they had a chance at all. From what the captain tells me, the weather they drove into so was so ferocious, it ripped the masts off and nearly turned them over.”
“Hm.” Xena grunted in sympathy.
“Xena, may I speak with you a moment in private?”
Xena looked around at the men scattered over the deck, then back to Denius in question. “Not much privacy around here.”
“And we can be overheard in the cabins.” Denius pointed to the bow. “Perhaps up there? It seems deserted fro the moment.”
They went up to the front of the ship, leaning against the ship wall. Xena waited for the man to start talking, idly watching the action on the deck behind him. She saw the other Amazons emerge from belowdecks and look around the deck.
She hoped she wasn’t what they were looking for. “So.” She turned her attention to Denius. “Whats up?”
“My men have been listening to what people are saying.” He said. “They heard we have more bad weather ahead.”
“There.” Xena pointed in the direction they’d been heading. On the horizon, a dull flash of lighting could be seen. “If we run into another storm like the last one, not sure this thing’ll hold together.”
Denius shook his head. “So many storms in a row… does this seem natural to you, Xena? One of my men thinks it’s the gods working against us. Keeping us from Athens.”
“Or maybe driving us towards Athens advantage another way.” Xena took the opening without regret. “I’ve heard a rumor the Spartans might be invading through Thrace.”
Denius straightened abruptly. “You heard that?” He gasped. “My captain said he heard a rumor form the crew of the same thing!” He started pacing in agitation. “Xena, what if it’s true? They’ll take the port city. They’ll take half of our farmlands!”
“Wouldn’t be good.” Xena agreed. She leaned towards him. “In fact, it’s possible they picked that route because they knew I’d be heading the opposite direction. They’d have to come right past Amphipolis.”
“They would.” Denius eyed her. “What can we do, Xena? We have to do something. “
With a sense of inevitability, Xena smiled. “How many troops do you figure will be in Thera now? “ She asked.
“Some few hundreds. Why?”
“That’s enough for me to lead against whatever’s invading.” Xena leaned against the wall and smiled. “We can take the battle to them.”
Denius exhaled, his eyes brightening. “It’s as the oracle said.” He breathed. “I’ll talk the captain into turning around and heading back at once. Maybe if he knows he doesn’t have to fight that storm he’ll stop with all this precious fiddling with his ship.”
He clasped her arm, then released it and headed off towards the captain on the other end of the ship with a purposeful stride.
Xena remained leaning against the wood. “That was easier than it should have been.” She remarked aloud. “Why don’t I trust it?” She exhaled as she saw the four Amazons spot her and head in her direction. “Why is everything going in my way and I’ve got the feeling it’s going to run over me like a ox cart?”
The sky was lightening with the dawn, and she half turned to watch the shift in the clouds when she suddenly stopped, feeling her heart clench with a jolt of misery so powerful it almost knocked her to her knees.
Her mouth went dry, and she grabbed onto the edge of the rail, as the emotion moderated to a sense of melancholy loneliness.
She had her back turned to the Amazons and she blinked a few times to clear the tears from her eyes as she looked out over the water, aching for her distant soulmate.
“Xena, these people would like to speak to you.”
“Gabrielle.” Xena ignored them, staring sightlessly at the waves. “I’m coming, hon. Hang in there.” She tried to think that thought at her partner, hoping the upset wasn’t because she thought something had happened to her.
Surely she could feel Xena’s presence? They weren’t that far apart.
Couldn’t she? Xena closed her eyes and tried to compose her thoughts, concentrating on the bard and just thinking about her with as much affection as she could.
“C’mon, Gabrielle.” The warrior muttered. “I’m coming at ya. Feel that?”
The sadness muted a little, but it was impossible to tell if it was because of her efforts, or just because Gabrielle had gotten distracted by something. There was a faint sense though, of her coming closer.
Closer. Xena’s brow creased. Was she headed towards where Xena was? Maybe towards Thera? She exhaled. No, surely the bard would stay home, and protect Amphipolis as best as she was able.
“Xena, excuse me?”
The impulse was to turn and roundhouse kick all four of them across the deck,. Xena slowly took a breath though, and just turned instead, bracing her arms against the wood. “What?” She stared at the four women, anger erupting at this the source of the separation she was currently suffering.
Auheilia stepped forward. “This is Arigalia, Queen of my tribe and her consort Jesa. “ She said. “They would have words with you on several subjects.”
The Amazon queen was tall and reminded Xena a little of Velaska. She had the same slightly bugged out eyes, and rich chestnut hair though hers was very liberally sprinkled with grays. Her consort was a very muscular woman with dark brown hair and eyes and a visible attitude.
Xena wasn’t particularily in the mood for someone elses attitude at the moment. She could see the challenge in the two woman’s postures and felt her own instincts responding.
They were armed, as were Auhelia and Pasi, but that hadn’t mattered to Xena for a very long time. “What is it you want?” She asked, leaning back against the hull and crossing her ankles. “I”ve got things to do.”
“As do we.” Arigalia lifted her head, responding to Xena’s tone. “Our business is with the two Amazons you have taken under your protection.”
Xena studied her in silence for a few minutes. “They don’t need my protection.” She said after everyone started to get uncomfortable. “But they are friends of mine.”
“We have a claim against them.” Jesa spoke up. “They caused us to be attacked on the road. Some of my people were hurt.”
“Claim’s canceled.” Xena drawled. “Since you’d be dead right now if it wasn’t for them being friends of mine.” She kept her relaxed posture, getting some comfort at least in dumping more arrogance on the Amazons than she had in a long time. “And be thankful.”
“For what?” Arigalia shot back. “You did nothing to assist us.”
“For not killing you.” Xena said. “I don’t like my friends being tied up and treated like criminals.”
Jesa put her hand on her sword.
Xena turned and looked at her, and smiled with absolutely no humor. “Go ahead.” She drawled. “I’m in the mood to hurt something.”
Arigalia put a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Jesa, stand down.” She said. “We’re all aware of Xena’s reputation.”
The way she said it, she made it a dirty word. Xena merely continued to lounge.
“Your Majesty.” Auhelia stepped forward, and raised her hand. “In any case, we have a debt to Xena. Myself and Pasi. There are many layers to this. Maybe we can all just sit down and talk about it.”
The queen looked at her. Then she looked over at Xena. “You’re an arrogant bitch.”
That got her a real smile from the warrior. “I’ve got good reason to be. Thanks.” She responded. “But I could use a cup of ale and some bread. If you want to join me in the galley and talk about your problem, it’s your choice.” She pushed off the wall and started towards them.
They were blocking her progress towards the hatch, but she kept going, feeling her hands flex and curl into fists as her body recognized the imminent possibility of battle.
Suddenly wanting it, to release the stress. She closed in on them hoping they’d attack her, hoping they’d pull those weapons and start them towards her so she could take them and beat the living daylights out of them.
Maybe they sensed it. They split and let her pass, and followed after her.
Aw. Xena’s sorely tested inner tiger let out a disgusted growl. What did it take, she wondered, to start a really good fight around here? She’d practically insulted their mothers.
“Did your friends tell you what happened?” The queen asked. “Did they tell you of the attack they drew on us, and the chaos they caused in Thera? You condone this?”
Xena reached the hatch and opened it. She turned and looked at the Amazon queen. “If they drew an attack on the road, that wasn’t their fault.” She said, in a quiet tone. “And if someone started something in Thera… “ She looked at Pasi and Auhelia. “Who that person was is debatable.”
She turned and went down the steps. She hardly had an idea why she invited them to break fast with her, except maybe she wanted something to distract her from the sense of forlornness she still felt coming from Gabrielle.
Maybe that’s why she didn’t want to be alone right now. The echo reminded her uncomfortably of the bad times… the worst times, really.
She didn’t want to think about that. She was fine, Gabrielle was fine, and they were both going to stay that way.