A Queen’s Tale

Part 19

 

Gabrielle almost felt the silence close in around her, as the camp settled down to rest.  She was curled up on the furs she had laid out over a bed of leaves, with thickly woven branch screens around her. 

She was really tired.  Dori was already asleep next to her, using Flameball as a pillow, but Gabrielle was taking a while to let her mind wind down after their tossed together meal and the long day and night that preceded it.

The Amazons, the militia, and the forest dwellers all seemed to be pleased with how things were going, and surprisingly pleased with Gabrielle’s leadership.

That confused her, a little. She just wasn’t used to it, even though she’d been the Queen of these Amazons for years now.   When she’d spent time with the tribe before, Ephiny had usually been there and she naturally deferred to the older regent much like she naturally deferred to her older and occasionally wiser partner.

It felt very weird to be in charge and have people willingly listen to her.

Gabrielle lay down and put her head on her carrybag, with a faint smile for the ragged edged sack that had served as her pillow all during the long years of their wandering.   It was comforting, to feel that soft leather surface under her cheek, and smell the faint hint of well rubbed dirt and mint on it.

She had started feeling better while she’d started the cooking off earlier.  Her melancholy had faded, and she had found herself just thinking of Xena a lot, almost getting the sense the warrior was nearby and peering over her shoulder.

Was it real?  Gabrielle felt like she didn’t really care.  It made her feel better and that’s what counted right now.   She let her eyes close, aware of the guards standing watch around them, who would take shifts during the daylight while she slept.

Was that fair?  The bard felt her body loosening up, the aches from riding fading a little.   She knew when they were traveling alone,  Xena would stay partly awake during the night unless they were in town and even then, she knew the warrior never completely relaxed.

When they slept together, bodies tangled, she could feel it. That not quite tension in the muscles of Xena’s tall frame and the faint twitches around her ears that Gabrielle would watch in fascination sometimes, mindful of the need not to make any sudden motions that would trigger those instincts.

Here, but not. Asleep, but not.  Very different from when they stayed in town, or at home when the warrior could really rest.   

So  Gabrielle knew she’d had it easy.   When she’d put her head down at night and closed her eyes,  she could tumble into sleep as deeply as she wanted.  Now she had militia who were standing guard, since they’d all had a chance to sleep before they’d met up the previous night.

What would Xena do?  Gabrielle knew the warrior was sensitive to other people doing her that kind of favor, but with the militia there, the bard felt that she’d be curled up with Gabrielle right now, snoozing.

After all, it was her militia.  She had nothing left to prove to them.

And, as an extention, Gabrielle supposed she really didn’t have anything left to prove either, since she’d gone through the war with them.  

Eh. Whatever.  Gabrielle focused on the soft rustling of the leaves, listening to the small sounds of the forest around her that reassured her things were safe.

A squirrel,  scampering up the trunk of the nearby tree. She could hear it’s tiny claws scrabbling on the bark as it worked it’s way up, and the piping birdsong over her head that was answered from not far away.

They were real birds. The warbling was just that irregular and just that right not to be a human mimicking the sound and she could also hear the soft fluttering of it’s wings as it fanned itself.

No thumps of bunnies moving, though. Gabrielle licked her lips thoughtfully.  They’d pretty much hunted those out to feed her big group.   She enjoyed the roast rabbit, but as always felt a little pang at the thought of munching on such cute animals.

Goofy. 

Maybe that’s why they stuck to fish when they traveled. Xena usually said it was just easier for her to catch fish than trap game, and there was no sentimentality involved.

Maybe.  Gabrielle stifled a yawn and felt her breathing slow.   Certainly if it was hot, like it was now, she’d prefer to jump in a lake and start grabbing herself, rather than take the time to patiently lay traps or find a run and wait, knife or bow at the ready.

Or maybe…..

**

Gabrielle woke with a start, lifting her head up and swinging her head around as she fought through the daze of near sleep to figure out what had startled her.

The forest was still quiet. She could still hear soft rustlings, and the piping of birds.   Her time sense told her she’d been sleeping for candlemarks and a quick look to the side showed Dori still curled up next to her asleep.

So what the heck?

She sat up and pulled her feet up crossed under her, running a hand through her hair as she let the thundering of her heartbeat slow down.   It wasn’t as if it had even been a dream – she didn’t remember having one and she wasn’t having the often discordant echoes of emotion they caused.

Gabrielle reached over and retrieved her waterskin, uncapping it and taking a long drink.  Then she set it down and concentrated on listening, figuring maybe some sound had interrupted her sleeping and woken her.

After a moment, she got up and put the skin aside, emerging from behind the branch screens to the center of their little campsite.  It was very quiet, but she could hear the gentle sounds of breathing from the sleepers around her and she crossed to the campfire, hoping someone had left a water pot to warm.

They had.  She knelt by her herb carrybag that she’d left near the fire and rummaged out some mint leaves, rubbing them between her fingers before she left them to fall into the bottom of the cup.   She poured some of the hot water over them and swirled the cup in her hand as she slowly turned in a circle herself.

Had it been a smell?  The forest just smelled like she’d expect it to. Trees and grass,  the musk of leather and the tickle of smoke from the campfire.  

She felt the sun filtering through the leaves, though a rumble far off told her the clouds she could see would become less than benign.

She took a sip of her tea, then paused.  Thunder. 

Was that really thunder? Or a gust of wind bringing something else to her ears? 

Then she heard a closer sound, soft footfalls coming at them at a rapid pace, and she quickly took a long swallow of the warmed herbs before she tossed the rest out and grabbed for her bags.  “Dori!”

A forest dweller burst into the clearing. “Army’s moving fast.” He said. “Heading through the pass in a minute!”

Gabrielle let out a sharp whistle, as her daughter came rambling out, her eyes blinking in confusion. “Dori, get your bags, honey. We need to make Shadow go fast.”

“Go fast?”  Dori turned and raced back for her things. “Good!”

Amazons and forest dwellers came tumbling out of the campsite, already strapping on weapons and pulling bags over their shoulders.  “What’s up?” Solari asked.

“Dag, what’s the word?” Jessan asked the scout.” I hear you say the Spartans are coming?”

The scout nodded. “Got word from my partner.” He said. “He’s just on this side of the pass. He heard them coming up the road and tapped me.” He said. “Got some time, but not much.”

Not much.

Cait and Paladia appeared, already leading their mounts.  “Good job you left someone back there.” Cait said. “I knew they weren’t going to stick around Amphipolis long.  Silly elders.”

Paladia grunted. “Yeah, but now they’re after our butts bigtime.” She remarked.  “Bet they’re pissed.”

“They had to choose between taking their bile out on our hometown, or catching up with me in time to keep me from warning Athens.” Gabrielle observed.  “I bet they’re pissed too.”  Privately though, she wondered.

Had they seen through the ruse so quickly? Or had someone tipped them off?

“Damn that was fast.” Jessan was belting on his sword.  “Gabrielle, you were right again.” His snout moved into a wrinkled grin.  “It’s almost like having Xena with us only less scary.”

“Eh.” Gabrielle waggled her hand.  She ducked back inside the little alcove she’d been sleeping in and started tucking her things into Shadow’s saddlebags, as Dori romped around her, apparently delighted a this alteration of their plans and her sudden waking.

Children.  The bard shook her head.  She was sure she didn’t remember being that damn carefree, even at the age Dori was.  “We’re going to have to ride a lot, Dor. You ready for that?”

“Horsies!”  Dori galloped in a circle. “Mama, when can I have a horsie?  Boo promised!”

“When did Boo promise you that, sweetheart?” Gabrielle got Dori’s toys in her bag and stood up. “Hm? What did she say, did she say she’d get you a horsie right away?”

“She said..” Dori gallumped to a halt. “Mama she said when I was red.  I’m red now!”

Ah. Well, that made sense.   Gabirelle ruffled her hair. “Let’s wait until we see Boo, and we can ask her if you’re ready, okay? I’m sure if you are, Boo will help us find you a horsie.”   Dori wasn’t, she didn’t think, ready for a horse yet, really.

She could ride, no question. And she loved the animals, no question about that either, but taking care of a horse, especially a horse that was vastly bigger than she was – that was another story.   She was satisfied that her partner hadn’t gone and promised their offspring something immediate.  “Let’s go.

They joined the rest of the group by the campfire, which the militia were busy banking.   One of the forest dwellers was quickly wrapping the leftovers from the night before into waybread, and was passing them out.

Gabrielle took a pair for her and Dori, stuffing them into her herb bag before she slung it over her other shoulder.  She really wanted time for a swim, and a bath, but her mind was measuring the distance between the pass to where they were and wasn’t finding it a comfortable thought.

Last thing she wanted to do was thunder through the countryside exposing every town between here and Thera to the Spartans with no time for them to do anything about it.  

One of the other forest dwellers emerged, leading Shadow and two other horses.   “Ho ho ho.. here we go.” He said.  “Gabrielle, here’s your pretty friend.”  

“Thanks. Gabrielle hoisted her saddle bags up onto Shadow’s back, strapping them in place and adding her staff into its holders.  “Dori, ready to go?”   She turned and picked up the child, giving her a brief hug before she turned and helped her climb up into the saddle. 

“Gabrielle.” Dag came over to her. “My partner tells me…  there’s a big party of horsemen riding ahead of the army. He thinks they’re coming after us. He says.. probably a score of them, maybe two.”

It wasn’t the first time that Gabrielle envied the forest dweller’s much greater talent when it came to soulmates.   She would have given every gold nugget in the mountain she lived on to have been able to communicate that clearly with her partner.  “Figures.” She said.  “But I bet they don’t break out too far ahead. Even a score of Spartans could get into trouble if the countryside rose up against them.”

Everyone nodded.  “They may be stuck up enough not to think that.” Solari did mention. “They were pretty arrogant when they were up at Amph.”

And that was also true. “We’ll find out.” Gabrielle swung aboard Shadow and settled in behind Dori.  She was pleased to discover she wasn’t as sore as usual from riding and she gathered the reins in her hand, then realized she had no idea which way they needed to go.

Duh.  She’d followed the lead of the scouts on the way in, and habituated as she was to being with Xena she hadn’t worried about marking the path.   Xena always knew where she was. And even when she didn’t, she pretended so well Gabrielle willingly followed her anyway.

It was an awkward pause. Then Bennu appeared from between two trees and mounted his horse. “Got a shortcut up that way.” He pointed to the left. “Get us to the road past the bend, quick like.” He started off and the group followed him.

Gabrielle was fifth in line, as they passed through the trees.  Bennu and two militia were ahead of her, and so was Solari and Dag.    Jessan and the rest fell in behind them and their pace quickened, moving as fast as they could in the deep underbrush.

“Mama, there’s a pretty bug!” Dori pointed at a butterfly in a nearby bush  “Look! C’n we catch him!?”

“Not right now honey.” Gabrielle ducked under a low hanging branch.  “We’ve got to go fast for a while, and we can’t catch bugs right now.” She tucked one arm around Dori in case she got any funny ideas of flying off the back of the horse after the blue and yellow insect.

“Gabrielle.”  Bennu called back. “You want to try a back way?”

The bard hesitated.  A back way might evade their pursuers and keep them hidden.  But  a back way would keep them off the road, and away from most of the towns.  Now that the Spartans were truly on their heels, which was the better way?

She knew what Xena would choose.  “But unfortunately for everyone, probably even me. I’m not Xena.” She muttered. “Go on the road, Bennu. We need to warn everyone we see what’s coming behind us.”

“Aye.”  Bennu turned around and urged his horse a little faster.

And as soon as the echo of the words faded, Gabrielle felt that sense of rightness at the decision that was a rare, and sometimes unreliable pointer for her. It was reassuring. Mostly.  

Reliable, mostly.

She knew Xena had the same sort of instinct, but the warrior had lived longer than Gabrielle and had come to a belief in it, in her own internal judgement, that allowed her to accept that feeling of rightness as correct.

The problem was, it didn’t always mean the choice, whatever it was, was the best choice for either of them.  Xena had known that certainty over Hope, for example.  She’d known, and she’d accepted that inside knowledge and it had almost destroyed both of them.

She had been right, though.  That had been the right path, as much as it hurt Gabrielle even now to acknowledge it.

A little scary sometimes.  Gabrielle exhaled, and leaned forward a little, as the trees closed in tightly around them and the horses had to step carefully between the roots.   She herself had felt she knew that sureness, when she’d gone after Xena to Chin.

That had felt right too. No matter the cost to her, or who she had to deal with.  But that had almost destroyed them also, and she’d hardly lived through the heartache of it.

And, she’d been right.  Xena had told her afterward, long afterward, that  she knew the choice she’d made that time was wrong, and that she knew it all the way to Chin but she just hadn’t cared. She thought they were lost to each other, and it wasn’t worth her living anymore.

Gabrielle felt a lump rising in her throat, and she pushed aside the morbid thoughts and tried to concentrate on something more productive.  “Think positive, Gabrielle.” She uttered softly. “Every step this horse takes is bringing us closer.”

“Mama?” Dori turned around.

“I said, we’re getting closer to Boo, honey. Isn’t that great?” Gabrielle said.  “Let’s go real fast, huh?”

“Gogo!”

**

Xena entered her cabin and closed the door behind her, leaning on it as she regarded the room’s two other occupants.

Ephiny spoke up first. “No luck?”

The warrior exhaled, and went over to sit down on her bunk. “Not exactly.” She muttered. “We’re turning around.”

“Oh, great.” Pony stifled a yawn.  “That was fast work, champ.”

“Yeah.” Ephiny smiled. “That’s very good news. I’m looking forward to getting back home.”

Xena rested her elbows on her knees and stared pensively at the wall.  “The prisoner they’ve got down there told me there’s an army invading through Thrace.”

“An army.” Ephiny slowly repeated, sitting up and pushing her curly hair back.  “As in,  Spartans?”

Xena nodded.

“Thrace… as in the place just upriver from home?” Pony asked.

Xena nodded again.

“Ah heh.”  The regent sighed.  “So that’s why we’re heading back.”

“Well.” Xena sprawled out in her bunk.  “That’s why they think we’re heading back. I have no idea if that damn prisoner is telling the truth or not.”

‘Well, no point in risking it.” Pony commented. “I mean, like we’re going back anyway.”

“Yeah.”

Ephiny’s brow creased. “You don’t want to go back home?” She queried. “You sound bummed.”

“I do.” The warrior said. “It just all happened too easily.”

There was a brief silence.  “So.. you’re bummed because everything worked out for a change?” Ephiny ventured.

“Yes.”  Xena frowned. “Damn it.”

Ephiny rubbed her temples, but remained silent.

Pony stretched out again on the floor. “Damn I miss Gabrielle.” She said. “She can explain you when you say stuff like that.”

Xena grunted.

Ephiny chuckled.  Then she got to her feet. “I’m going to take a walk around the deck.” She announced.  “Not that I don’t appreciate the hospitality, Xena, but these bones aren’t used to sleeping on the floor anymore.”

“Be careful.” Pony warned.  “Remember those two jackasses are out there.”

“Hm.”  Ephiny brightened. “Hand me those chobos.”

It was Xena’s turn to chuckle. “I had a talk with them.” She said. “You should be safe.”   She folded her hands over her stomach.   “And for the record, I miss Gabrielle too.”

Ephiny patted her on the shoulder before she slipped out the door, closing it behind her. 

**

It was quiet in the cabin for a short while. Then Pony cleared her throat.   “So are we in trouble?”

Xena chortled softly.  “Have you ever known me not to be in trouble?” She asked, in a wry tone. “If you ask my mother, it started at birth.”

“Not exactly what I meant.”

Xena put her hands behind her head.  “Something’s going on.” She admitted. “Probably is the damn Spartans.”

“Huh.” Pony grunted.

“I told Denius I’d lead whoever he’s got there trying to join up against them.”

Pony remained silent for a while.  Then she grunted again. “Thought you didn’t want any part of the war.”

“That was before the war decided to invade my hometown.”  Xena said. “So if I have to end up leading the Athenian army out here to keep the Spartans out of my mother’s kitchen, so be it.”

So be it.  Pony studied Xena’s profile, in the dappled shadows from the window.  “Line in the sand? Something like that?”

“Something like that.” The warrior admitted. “Always been a weak spot.”

“Not to mention, Gabrielle’s there.” Pony said, in a practical tone. “That sorta counts.”

“Yeah. And Dori.”  Xena said. “I promised her I’d get her a pony, before this all happened.” She reflected. “Dori I mean. She loves horses.”

“Just like you.”

The warrior had to smile. “Yeah. Just like me.”

“Sorry I didn’t stop her, Xena.” Pony said, after another small silence.  “I shoulda.”

“How?” The warrior turned her head to peer at the weapons master. “Knock her over the head? I never could stop Gabrielle when she had an ideal between her teeth.”

“Surprised she didn’t come with you.”

Xena gave her a look.  “She promised Eph she’d stay.” She said. “But even then, it was damn close.”  She admitted. “She wanted to.”

She remembered walking out of that dining hall, and not daring to look back, knowing one meeting of their eyes, one twitch of her fingers in a c’mere gesture and Gabrielle would have.  That even though this was something the bard had wanted, Hades, something she’d asked Xena to do there was always, always that faint hint of remembrance of partings, of her fear of being left behind.

How many times she’d heard that almost soundless whisper, in the depths of her partner’s bad dreams?  Don’t leave me, Xena please…

Don’t leave her.  Xena looked up at the cabin’s ceilings.  And yet, in their lives together Gabrielle had been the one to leave, mostly.

Mostly. But then, she’d always expected her to.  Gabrielle had always felt she was leaving for Xena’s sake, that Xena only humored her being there, or that she was putting her in danger or.. whatever.

Whatever .

But she knew she’d have seen that little echo there looking back at her in that dining hall and if she’d turned and smiled and jerked her head towards the door…

Well, then she wouldn’t be lying here in this damn bunk wishing, now would she?  

“Well, sorry we put you guys through that.” Pony said, awkwardly. “I know it freaks her out.”  She added. “It was really cool she asked you to come rescue our butts.”

Xena smiled. “You’ll owe her one.”

Pony snorted softly.   “She doing okay back there?  They’re not giving her a hard time? Eph was worried about that.”

“Yeah.” Xena exhaled. “She’s doing fine,  but I sure hope you recognize the tribe you’re going home to.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“She was trying some new ideas out on them.”

“Uh oh.”

**

It was clouding up again. Ephiny stood for a little while outside the door to the cabins, simply enjoying the non moving deck, and the sense of quiet purpose in the sailors.  There was a cool breeze coming in over the water, and she leaned against the wooden wall, thinking.

Thinking about being alive, for one thing.   Now that she’d had some time to get a rest, and the rain had stopped, and she’d gotten used to the idea that she wasn’t going to die in a cold sea on a dark night.

Die with Pony, and her unborn child. That had been a tough realization, knowing she’d never get to meet that person yet to be.   She and Pony had finally talked about it, really talked about it, on the first night after they’d made camp.

Hard to say really which one of them had been more scared, or more relieved in pretty much any order.

She’d almost adjusted to being pregnant.  She could feel the start of the changes in her body, and now that she was out of the Hades she’d gotten herself and Pony into,  she could get back to enjoying the process.

Well, not exactly enjoying.  Ephiny watched some of the Athenian patricians walking back and forth across the deck, arguing. They were too far for her to hear their words, but neither looked happy.   She watched them for a few minutes, then she walked over to the edge of the ship and idly examined the sea.

It felt a little surreal, still. It was hard to believe the nightmare they’d been in for three days was over, and the storm was over, and she was on another ship, on the way home.  Or, well, she would be on her way home as soon as they finished patching things.

These sailors seemed to know more about their business, though.  They had the look of old salts and a sturdy competence in their motions as they sewed gaps in the sail and put braces around the mast.

Unlike the other crew.  Unruly and ragged and nearly animalistic in their behavior. After she’d gotten free of her bonds and they’d gotten on deck, the increasing desperation of their shipmates had driven them to take a stand with a few of the officers, weapons at the ready.

If they all had to die, well, they were determined to die last.

She was glad she’d killed the Amazon queen.  It had felt good, and she’d seen the woman’s eyes widen in shock as she’d driven the knife home. It had woken that primal Amazon inside her, and she was looking forward to getting back home and telling everyone about it.

Sandal licking bitch. Boy, had she deserved it.  The regent smiled briefly, wondering if Gabrielle would be shocked to hear what she’d done.

She thought about that for a while, pondering the unexpectedly robust backbone her queen sometimes displayed.  No, she decided, Gabrielle would not be shocked.

Maybe disappointed.  It was hard to say.

Traveling hadn’t been nearly as fun as Gabrielle made it out to be.   Ephiny was now firmly convinced that Gabrielle believed it was simply because it was her, and Xena or maybe them and Dori, alone together.

That mattered. She’d really enjoyed the alone time together with Pony. That part she got.  She enjoyed not having two dozen Amazons constantly shuttling in and out of her sight and her quarters, asking her questions, asking her for advice, asking her to judge something.

That part she got too.  It had been fun, though a little rough, right up until they’d met the foreign Amazons and then it had gone straight to Tartarus with all the sniping attitude and snippy meant to be heard whispers.

Then, she’d envied Gabrielle. Both because the bard and her Queen was so much better at dealing with people like that and because she had Xena behind her if it got too crazy. Much as she loved Pony, and much as she had confidence in her own martial skills pregnant or not – having the Destroyer of Nations tucked into your bodice sure was a natural winner.

She’d been so damn glad to see her.  Leaning on the rail and seeing that powerful body swarming it’s way across the rope,  she’d felt a sense of relief that was so profound it still bothered her a little thinking of it.

She and Pony were able to take care of themselves.  But when you were on a sinking ship, with women trying to kill you, and a bunch of randy sailors determined to get one last hump in before they died it sure was nice to have someone like Xena show up.

Especially if she was on your side.

If she wasn’t? Well, not so much.   Ephiny turned and regarded the deck, pushing away from the wall and walking slowly along the port side.  It felt good to stretch her legs, and the brisk sea air was settling her mildly upset stomach.

It felt good to know they were going home too.  After all, she’d achieved her goal- she’d found the stupid morons and tried to talk to them, hadn’t she? No one could say she just let the Amazon nation as a whole march off to war without a warning now could they?

She arrived at the bow and mounted the two steps up to go the very front of it, watching the seagulls wheel over the deck and the rocky escarpment beyond it.

Not too different from the one that had sunk her own boat.  Ephiny paused, remembering the darkness, and the noise and the stench they’d been in.    “Been a long time since I’d been that pissed off.”

From the corner of her eye, she spotted one of the Amazons that had come with Xena, the older one who’d started the fight in town.    Ephiny’s eyes narrowed, but the woman was alone, so she stayed where she  was until Auhalia came over to join her.

She’d been the lesser offensive of the two, the regent remembered.  Sticking with her sister mostly out of family responsibility, she’d felt.

“Hello.” Auhalia murmured.  “You’re Ephiny, right?”

Ephiny leaned on her elbows. “Yep.” She turned her head and looked at the woman. “Are you suicidal enough to want more trouble with me?”

“No.” The Amazon shook her head. 

Ephiny returned her gaze to the water.

“I just wanted to apologize.” Auhalia said. “We should have listen to you and just gone home.”

The regent shook her head.  “So what changed your mind?” She asked. “Or did you just figure out we weren’t lying?”

The Amazon leaned against the wall next to her. “I guess I realized these people don’t care about us, or want us.  We’re just something to leer at or have a go at to them. They don’t respect us.”

Ephiny glanced at her. “Xena said there was some trouble with the crew?”

“Not the crew. Merchants.”  Auhalia said. “But the crew would have let them do it, before Xena stepped in.  Now they treat us like queens because she told them to.  They follow her around like puppies.”

Ephiny chuckled.  “She has that effect on people.”

“Is she the queen of your tribe?” Auhalia asked. “In truth?”

Ephiny thought about that for a while.  Was she?  “No.” The regent said. “Xena’s not even an Amazon. She’s only one in name because she’s our queen’s consort.”

“She said something of that.” The other Amazon said. “It sounds very strange.”

“Welcome to my world.” Ephiny smiled.  “It’s not traditional, but it works for us.   Gabrielle’s the queen, I’m her regent, Xena’s her consort, and between all of us we have a powerful tribe that feeds itself and is growing.” She said. “We’ve fought wars. That’s why we wanted to warn you all against getting involved in this one. It’s not a forest skirmish.”

Auhalia remained silent for a moment.  “Now most of us all are dead.” She said. “All but my queen and her consort and my sister and I”

“If you expect me to feel sorry for them, I don’t.”  Ephiny turned her head and looked at the woman. “People who have me tied up and thrown in a lockdown on the way to selling me to slavemasters don’t get my pity.”

“They thought you were working against Athens.” The Amazon said, almost apologetically.

“I was.” Ephiny straightened up. “My mistake was thinking they were more Amazon than toadys for Athens.”  She started off. “If your queen knows what’s good for her, she’ll just stay clear of us, and go back where you came from when we get into port.”

“It’s true, we’re going back then?” Auhalia called after her.

“It’s true.” Ephiny spotted another empty space and aimed for it.  She didn’t have anything in particular against Auhalia, and the woman hadn’t had any part in her captivity but the whole tribe and it’s leader had given Ephiny the hives and the further she could stay away from them the happier she’d be.

Bastards. She’d forgotten how damned prickly and stuck up Amazons could be. All wrapped up in their egos and who had precedence.   She remembered it being like that, under Melosa.

“Old timers.”  It occurred to her that having had to live with Gabrielle’s relaxed and laid back leadership for so long, she was getting out of the habit of thinking like an Amazon.  “Hm.” She paused to watch a man braiding a rope with quick, expert fingers.

A man in a silk toga emerged from the hatch and strode purposefully towards the working sailors.  “All right, ya lazy pigs! Let’s get moving! Altz – you and those useless brothers if yours get started hauling the anchor line!”

Ephiny got into a corner out of the way as the sailors all started scrambling.

The hatch slammed open, and more sailors emerged, carrying buckets of pitch, their faces wrapped in squares of linen.  They filed away towards the back of the ship, and from below, Ephiny could hear the scrape and rasp as oars were seated in locks.

She looked over the side, and confirmed the sound.  “Guess we’re leaving.”

There was a loud bang, and then men started a chant as they hauled the anchor up, and a flutter of canvas as the sails started to rise.

The door to the cabins opened and Xena hopped out, her blue eyes scanning the deck alertly.  Pony was right behind her, and in a moment they joined Ephiny near the rail.  ‘Faster than I thought.” Xena remarked.

“All the better.”  Pony said. “I’m tired a Hades of being on a damn boat.”

Xena, who had only been on board for a few days, heartily agreed.  Now that they were actually starting on the way back home, she wanted it over. She wanted to be back in Thera, she wanted to be off the ship, and have Iolaus the horse under her, and she wanted badly to be riding for home.

The ship rocked under them, and there was a huge crack and a thump from the bow. Then the sails crawled up the mast and filled out and a low chant echoed through the floorboards.

They walked to the front of the boat, as the bow swung around and they started moving, heading towards clearer skies and leaving the storm for the moment behind them.

**

Gabrielle pulled her cloak a little more closely around Dori, blinking as raindrops pattered into her eyes.  Overhead the thunder rolled, and she could barely see Bennu’s back ahead of them as they made slow headway against the storm.

It was getting dark. The road had offered good passage until the rain had started, and now they were struggling to keep moving against the stiff wind and heavy downpour.

“Mama, this is no fun.” Dori complained. “Too wet!”

“I know honey.”  Gabrielle shaded her eyes. “We’re trying to find someplace dry so we can get away from the rain.”

“Pfffffftttpplug.”  Dori razzed the weather. “Where’s Boo?”

“Hopefully she’s some place nicer than this, and we’re going to find her soon.” Gabrielle gathered the rain slick leather in her hands as she saw Bennu pulling up ahead of her. He half turned in the saddle and gestured, and she guided Shadow up next to him.   “What’s up?”

“Village.” He pointed ahead at an apparently impenetrable sheet of rain obscuring the road.

“Really?”

“Aye.” Bennu said. “Point man come back and said.  Probably fifty houses, maybe an inn. You want to stop and warn em?”

“We should.”  Gabrielle sighed. “Since this damn road goes right through their front yards.”

She brought Shadow up even with Bennu’s horse and they plowed on through the rain – a curtain that only grudgingly parted as they passed through it and revealed the shadowy outline of the town ahead.

No one was around.  Gabrielle looked to her right and left as they crossed through the muddy lanes leading off to either side but saw no man or animal in sight, not surprising given the weather.

She saw a little bigger building off to the side, and just made out the lantern swinging next to the door that commonly marked an inn. “Over there. Let’s see if anyone’s around.”  She  led the way over to the yard in front of the inn and slipped off Shadow’s back.

“Not too long.” Jessan was huddled under a cloak of his own, as were all the forest dwellers. In the storm, they looked mostly like big men, dark and anonymous. “We’ll stay out here.”

Gabrielle lifted Dori down and she and Bennu strode towards the inn, making it to the door as the rain came down even harder. “Sheesh.”

“Summer weather.” Bennu pushed the door open, and they looked inside.  It was dim, but they could see two or three bodies outlined against the backdrop of the hearth. “Lo there.”

Gabrielle pushed her hood back as she shoved the door closed behind her, leaving the rain behind for a moment. “Hello.”

An older man was standing near the fire, and two younger ones were sitting at a table. Behind them, a young girl stood with a pitcher in one hand.  “What do you want?” The older man said gruffly. “We’ve got no spare here. This inn’s closed.”

Gabrielle didn’t answer for a moment, her mind busy evaluating all the tensions she felt in the room and in the man’s voice.  Lot going on here.  She decided. “That’s okay, we’re not asking for anything.  We just needed to warn you about something.”

“Aye.” Bennu agreed. “Got you someone in charge here?”

The older man shrugged. “Me if anyone.”

‘Stay here, Dori.” Gabrielle walked across the room and faced the man, now close enough to see the scar running across his face.  The nearer of the two at the table shifted, and she saw he was missing an arm.  “I guess a lot of your people left for the war?”

The older man nodded briefly.  “Left, or were taken.” He said.  “Where be you from?”

“Amphipolis.” Gabrielle replied, seeing the reaction to the name.  “Anyway, we don’t have a lot of time.   There’s a Spartan army coming up the road.  If I were you, I’d take whoever’s left here and get back in the hills. They’ll be looking for supplies.”

The man stared at her. The two younger men stood up in reaction.  “Spartans!”  The nearer said. “But …”

The older man took a step closer to Gabrielle and studied her face.  “I know ye.”  He said. “Bigods you’re Gabrielle the Bard.”  He turned towards the other men. “She’s Xena’s mate.”

Mate.  Gabrielle blinked a little, having never heard herself described quite that way. “So that’s the warning. We can’t stay, we’re trying to stay ahead of them.” She said. “But it’s a big army, and there might be  a vanguard through here.. maybe as early as the morning.”

“Might be sooner.”  Bennu said.  “Depends if they travel faster in the weather than we are.”

The man nodded. “Aye, understood.” He said. “Figured on trouble, but not so soon. Xena tried to warn us when she was here a few days back.”

Ah.  Gabrielle’s mood brightened, despite everything.  So she was on the right track. “We’re going to join her. Be safe.” She put a hand on the man’s arm.  “Don’t take any chances.” She added, aware of the irony of what she was saying.

“No place to be safe.” The man with one arm said. “They took all we had towards Athens.  Left us here with just cripples and old men, and a few children.  Said they’d keep us safe.” His lips twisted. “Yah. Safe.”

“Be fair.” The older man said. “They didn’t come to take. They paid in coin. Xena warned us.” He said.  “She warned us, and still we took the coin.  Even my son did.”

“Mama.” Dori came over and clutched at her leg, looking up at the man. “Hi.”

“Gabrielle, we better get on.” Bennu said. 

The man was staring at Dori. “Your little one?” He asked Gabrielle.

“Mine and Xena’s.” The bard responded.  “We do have to get moving. Good luck.”  She took Dori’s hand and turned, heading back towards the door.   “Try to tell anyone you see around here.” She added with a glance over her shoulder.

And that one look saved her life as she caught a motion in the doorway to the kitchen hearth and her ears recognized the sound of a crossbow firing.  She dove towards the door instinctively, covering Dori’s body with hers as she hit the surface and sent the wooden portal swinging outwards with a bolt buried deep just over her head.

Bennu drew his sword and yelled a warning, seconds too late. 

Gabrielle felt the rain hit her as she rolled outside, letting out a yell of her own as her little force bolted towards her. “Help Bennu!” She called as Solari and Jessan raced past her.  “They’ve got crossbows!”

The forest dwellers and militia headed for the door with weapons drawn, as Cait and Paladia went to Gabrielle’s side as the bard got to her feet and picked Dori up in her arms.  “Damn it.” She could hear the fight inside and almost turned to join it, then realized there just was no way with her daughter there.

“What was that alla bout?” Paladia asked.  “Thought these guys were friendly?”

“Yeah, me too.” Gabrielle carried Dori over to Shadow and put her on the horses’ back. “Dori, just hang on there okay.”

“Mama.” Dori’s eyes were wide.

“I know, that was scary.” Gabrielle patted her leg, and looked around. She could barely see past the wall of the inn in the rain, and realized they were exposed to anyone who came around the side of it.  “Someone came through the back as we were leaving and shot at me.”

Cait drew her dagger and slipped around the side of the inn without another word. Paladia regarded the hole in the mist, and came back over to Gabrielle instead of following.  “This place gives me the creeps.”

“Me too now.” Gabrielle got her boot in the stirrup and swung up onto Shadow’s back. “Go on and get mounted in case we need to get out of here fast.” She said.  “For some reason, I think we’re going to.”

Paladia snorted, but she went to her sturdy roan and climbed onboard. “Don’t you want to go kick some ass in there?” She asked with typical bluntness.

Gabrielle had her staff out and in her hand, and she was turning Shadow in a circle, watching for anyone coming towards them. “You volunteering to watch my kid?” She looked over at Paladia.

The ex renegade looked back at her, then slowly lifted her forefinger, and licked it, then made a stroke in the air.  “Gotme.”

Gabrielle had no idea what that meant, but she figured it didn’t mean yes.  She felt more than useless sitting out there in the rain, and thinking of her people inside fighting without her bothered her like crazy.

Wasn’t right. 

She could hear crashing inside, and then she started, grabbing her staff and swinging it around as the door blasted open again and four figures tumbled out. Two were men in half armor, two were her own militia, and she turned Shadow and charged towards the struggle, lifting her staff up.

Dori was clutching the front of the saddle in wide eyed silence as her mother swung the horse past the first two fighters and leaned to one side, slamming her staff down on the armored man’s head as she went by.

The sound was like a nut being cracked with a stone and the militia man rolled clear, covering his head as Shadow jumped over him.  

Jessan bounded out of the inn just as she got to he second tangle of men and he jumped on the third with a roar, claws outstretched. 

Hoofbeats sounded suddenly in the rain, and Gabrielle whirled Shadow around, but the thunder receded away from them rapidly, and she saw shadowy figures bolting past the lane and towards the road. 

“Gabrielle!” 

Gabrielle heard the warning in the tone and she turned Shadow again, whipping her head around to find the danger.   She saw the lunging body and flash of metal coming at her and took her hand off the saddle, grabbing the other end of her staff and swinging it cross her body just in time to meet the edge before it cut into her leg.

The man reached up and grabbed her and yanked her hard, and without a hold she felt herself coming out of the saddle.  She released a hand off the staff and grabbed the man’s head instead, shoving hard away from her as she clamped her legs down hard and tried to stay on Shadow’s back.

He grappled with her, and she yanked her boot from the stirrup and kicked him, getting just enough clearance to get her staff down and whack him one handed across the side of his head.

He stumbled, then thumped his body against Shadows and reached up to grab Dori from her perch, letting out a yell as he did so.

Dori screamed in counterpoint and Gabrielle dropped her staff and yanked her dagger from it’s sheath as her instincts overcame thought and she aimed for the man’s face in a pulsing rush of fury.

He ducked aside and dodged, right into Bennu’s sword as the militia captain bore down on him.  His hands clutched at Bennu’s armor and he tried to reach for his throat, but he was already dying as Bennu yanked his blade back and he slid to the floor.

Then for a moment, it was quiet save the thunder of the rain around them. 

Gabrielle fought to catch her breath, her entire body shivering.  “Y…. you okay Dori?” She finally got out, watching the knife shake in her hand.

“Bad mens.” Dori turned around and clutched her arm. “Mama, that was scary.”

Gabrielle could hear her own heartbeat, thundering in her ears. “Yeah it was.” She swallowed with difficulty.  “That was really scary.” 

Cait appeared at her boot and handed her back up her staff. “Here you go, your Majesty.” She said. “I’m sorry, but a bunch of them ran away. I couldn’t get them all.”  She sounded profoundly disappointed.

The bard felt maybe her hands had stopped shaking enough for her to sheath her dagger without stabbing herself in the midriff, and she slowly did that, before she reached out to grab her staff. “Thanks Cait.”

“Damned bastards.” Bennu came over and put a hand on her knee. “You all right, Gabrielle?”

“What a bunch of losers.” Jessan joined them, his fur dripping with rainwater. “Who in Hades were those guys? Did you say something to them in there?” He asked Bennu.

Bennu shook his head. “We were leaving, yeah?” He said. “Just turned to go and then Gabrielle looked over and next thing I knowed it, arrows were flying around the place.”

“From the people in there?” Jessan looked bewildered. “From the town?”

“No.” Gabrielle finally spoke up. “Raiders. Guys in armor. Guys just like thousands of guys Xena and I have had to deal with for years.  Dirty guys in someone else’s pay for whatever reason.”

“Ah.” Cait murmured. “Well, I got six of them.” She remarked. “Why would they try to shoot you though? “

The door to the inn opened again, and everyone grabbed a weapon and turned. 

But it was only the old man, who slowly emerged, one arm clasped across his chest. He stared out at them and then limped across the muddy ground to where Shadow was standing. 

“Maybe we’re going to find out.” Gabrielle put her hand on her knife hilt as the man came near. She met his eyes and stared at him as he slowed, and finally came to a halt in front of her. 

There was blood on his shirt. 

She could see death in his eyes, already.   “Why?”  She asked, in a quiet tone.

He looked like he wanted to cry.  “I’m sorry.” He said. “The’y’d my wife in the back, with a knife to her.  I didn’t know how to warn ye.” He looked at the muddy ground. “She’s dead now.  Should have figured that… but she was all I had left.”

Gabrielle freed her boots and again and slid down from Shadow’s back. “Hold this.” She handed her staff to Cait, who took it. She walked over and faced the man, reaching out and gently touching his cheek.

He gazed at her in silence.

“I understand what that feels like.’ Gabrielle said.  “I would have done the same thing.”

His entire body shivered in reaction, and he did start to cry, soundless droplets leaking down his cheek.  “Bastards.” He whispered. “All gone now.”

Gabrielle ached for him, regardless.  “What did they want?” She asked. “Can you tell me that?”

“You.” He muttered.  “Looking for you, that’s all.”

“From Sparta, or Athens?”  The bard persisted, gentle but inflexible. “I need to know.”

But he shook his head.  “Wouldn’t say. Didn’t say who send em.” He glanced slowly around at the group surrounding him. Then he turned and slowly moved back towards the door to the inn, ignoring the silently standing figures.

When he got to the door he reached out, then hesitated, then fell to the ground, rolling half onto his back as the rain pelted him and diluted the red stain spreading across his chest.   Solari was closest, and she crouched next to him, touching his throat.

Then she stood, and shrugged.

“Two inside tried to shield him.” Bennu said briefly. “Didn’t last.”

Gabrielle exhaled.  “Let’s move.” She said. “From here on, we don’t stop.” She climbed up onto Shadow’s back and tugged her cloak around to cover Dori as well.   There just wasn’t time to be horrified.

Everyone mounted up around her, mostly in silence.  “Which way d’ye want to head, Gabrielle?” Bennu said. “These be wild parts. “

“Let’s get out of this town first.” Gabrielle pulled her hood up.  “Then we’ll see what our options are.”  They moved back out onto the road, the village utterly silent around them.  Bennu and Jessan rode on either side of her, but no one seemed willing now to take the lead on where they were going next.

“Mama.”  Dori was rubbing the water out of her eyes. “I wanna go home. This is no fun.”

Gabrielle put one arm around her and hugged her. “I know it isn’t.”  She said. “But we can’t go home right now, Dori.  We have to keep going, and find Xena.”

“Find Boo?” Her daughter said, wistfully. “Mama I miss Boo lots.”

“Me too.” Gabrielle agreed.  “Keep your eyes open, folks.” She said, in a louder voice. “No telling when those guys will be back and after us.”

“Sitting ducks out here.” Bennu muttered. “Rain’s only thing hiding us.”

Either side of the road was thick forest.  Gabrielle couldn’t see any paths other than the one they were on, and so they kept on it, riding a little faster despite the continuing downpour.  

Around a long bend, they suddenly heard hoofbeats over the rain. “Gabrielle!”  Bennu rode up near her.

“I hear it.”  Gabrielle half stood in her stirrup. “From behind us?”

“Ahead.”  Solari said.

“And behind.”

The bard felt an odd prickle then, and she looked right and left, the tug catching her attention. “Over there.” She pointed. “Lets take that gap … it’s heading up into the hills. Maybe we can cross over and gain some time.”

“And lose some jerks.” Solari turned her horse towards the small mountain path.  “At least we’ll get out of sight.”

At least. Gabrielle fell in behind Bennu as they left the road and entered the forest, leaning forward as they started up the narrow track that somehow.. somehow felt familiar.

Imagination? 

Whatever.

**

‘So we’re going.” Iolaus was brushing out the mare’s coat.

“Yeah.” Xena leaned against the ropes.  “Sorry about that.”

“No you aren’t.”  The blond man glanced at her.  “But if you want to know a secret, neither am I really.” He sorted the mare’s mane between his fingers. “I thought about what you said, about the front lines moving with you, not back there in the capital. “

“Mm.”

“And since I don’t’ really have a choice anyway, I decided you may be right.”  Iolaus chuckled wryly. “I didn’t think the whole me acting like a woman thing was going to work anyway. I sort of think Herc maybe came up with that just to keep me busy.”

Xena privately thought the same thing. “Distract them, maybe.” She countered, however. “Draw their attention.”

“Maybe.” Iolaus conceded.

“I’m pretty good at that.” Xena said. “Distracting people, I mean.”

The blond man chuckled softly under his breath.  “And you’re so modest too.” He said. “Not to mention, you’re a lot more convincing in a dress.”

“Depends on what you’re trying to convince someone of.” The warrior retorted.  “Wanna see what you look like as an Amazon?”

“Oh no.”

Footsteps intruded into the animal hold. They turned to find the captain of the soldiers entering.  He stopped when he saw them, and came over.  “Ah, there you both are.”

“Here we both are.” Iolaus confirmed the obvious. “What can we do for you captain?”

“The prisoners have escaped the jail again.” The man said, his tone indicating he didn’t think much of the facility.  “We’re at sail, they will be found but have a care. Two of the crew were throat cut outside the doors and their blades taken.”

“Oh. Yay.” Iolaus muttered.

Xena sighed.  “What in Hades do they think they’re doing? Where do they think they’ll go, over the side?”

“Make my life easier if they did.” The captain agreed. “Nor will the Thera jailkeeper be smiling when I throw them back in his cell when we get there.”

No, he certainly wouldn’t.   Xena sighed and glanced at Iolaus. “Should we?”

“Is there really a question involved here?” Iolaus responded in a mournful tone.   “But Xena, surely the crew knows the ship a lot better than we do.”

The captain had been swinging his head from right to left, following the conversation.   Or perhaps not. “Denius asked me to ask you both to remain with one of my officers to protect you.”

Xena turned around and looked at him, letting her hands rest on her hips.  Iolaus leaned on the back of the mare and cocked his head, an incredulous look on his face. 

“He is concerned especially that the men who escaped be kept away. They were speaking of wanting to kill you.” The captain said, placidly.  “So if you would be so kind, to please stay here. My men are guarding the door overhead, and that entrance.” He indicated the hatch to the lower decks.

“B..”

“Sure.” Xena overrode Iolaus. She smiled at the captain. “We’ll stay right here.”

The captain smiled back. “My gratitude to you.” He half bowed, then trotted up the steps, already shouting orders to his troops.

“Xena.” Iolaus came around from behind the mare. “What in the world do you mean saying we’d stay here?”

The warrior took a seat on a strapped down barrel. “If we’re here, and they’re guarding us, and the stupid bastards are bound and determined to come kill me, we’ll find them with no effort on our part.”

“They’ll find us.” Iolaus clarified.

“Yes.” 

The blond man considered that, then he shrugged and laughed, going back to his task of brushing out the mare’s coat. 

Xena relaxed and let her senses extend.  It was lit a little from the torchlight, and from the cracks between the deck planks a dusty blueish light peeked through splashing over her thighs and picked up the faint silver highlights in the mare’s coat.

There was lots of noise around her. The planks were creaking, the horses were moving, Iolaus was whistling under his breath.  She could hear men calling belowdecks, and above them, the rattling flap of the sails.

Plenty of noise.  She closed her eyes and just listened, one by one filtering out the sounds she identified as harmless.

Her heart settled, and she moved past the animal sounds and the human ones, letting the creaking fade and the thump of the oars and the tromp of the crews boots overhead.

She was unaware of Iolaus watching her, his eyes studying her face as she concentrated , taking slow breaths full of tar pitch and horses trying to detect something else.

Through the chaos, she caught the sound of a scuff, and a creak.   It could have been any of the people around her, or the soldiers, or even one of the horses shifting, but she knew it wasn’t.

She imagined the space around them.  The horses in their stalls, criss crossed with rope, and the sturdy stairs leading up to the deck just in front of them.   She filled in the door to the lower deck, with its stalwart soldier guard and the hallway that led back to the merchants quarters.

Ah.

Past the small alcove she’d spoken to the sailors in there was a doorway that led down further into the middle of the ship and that’s where the creak had come from.

Xena let her eyes drift open.  She saw Iolaus watching her alertly from behind the mare and she met his eyes, then she casually hiked up her knee and rested her arm on it, her hand and relaxed fingers pointed right at the alcove.

“So.” Iolaus nodded in a natural way. “Tell me about your daughter. She cute?”

“Hm.”  Xena’s eyes twinkled a little. “How do I answer that and not make you think I’ve got an even bigger ego than I do.” She rested her hand casually on her boot, where one of her daggers was visible.  “I think she’s beautiful.”

“She look like you?” Iolaus gave her a knowing look.

“She has Gabrielle’s eyes.”  The warrior evaded the question. “And her smile. She’s sweet like Gab is too.”

“But?”

“No buts.” Xena heard a second creak, and on the air, a taint of the dungeon.  “Everything else, she’s my kid.”   She wasn’t even embarrassed at the pride in her voice. “You should see her swim like a fish, and climb anything she can reach.”

Iolaus laughed. “I can’t wait to.” He said. “Once we get all this cleared up, we gotta come visit.”

Another creak.  “You and Herc ‘ll be welcome guests.”  Xena let her fingertips close on the knife hilt. “My mother asks about you guys all the time.” She let her eyes sweep the interior, seeing the soldier shift a little, leaning against the door with hand near his sword.

She kept her head turned, watching the alcove with her peripheral vision.   “And I know Gabrielle’ll be happy to have someone else’s stories to tell for a change.”

“Haha.”  Iolaus casually put the comb into the brush and set it to one side. He eased around the ropes and came up next to Xena, leaning casually against the spar the barrel was strapped to.  “Like she ever gets tired of telling yours?” He said. “Maybe she gets tired of being IN them…”

Xena felt the flicker of motion more than saw it. Her nape hairs lifted and her lungs expanded as she half turned and let fly with the knife, knocking the crossbow bolt out of the air just before it hit the neck of the soldier guarding the door. “Get down!”

The soldier, to give him credit, was smart enough to listen and he dove for the floor as Xena rolled off the barrel and lunged for the alcove as it exploded with shadows, hands reaching for her outlined in  metal.

She shot in and out of beams of sunlight too quickly for her attackers to catch her, then she dove over the short wall and caught the first of them in a bear hug that bore them both to the ground.

A crash sounded to her right.  She felt a searing heat along her arm, then it was gone, and she was too busy to wonder about it as her attacker got her in a headlock.   He was big, and he was desperate and the stench of his body alone was enough to nearly take her unconscious.

She went limp, and his hold shifted, and she spun around and yanked her upper body out of his grip, grabbing his leg as she rolled over and knocking him off balance.  

They fought in silence. He didn’t so much as curse, and she didn’t either, as she felt another body pass over her head, and saw a glimpse of Iolaus drawing his fist back, his face tensed in a battle grimace.

Xena reached out and felt a line of fire down her forearm, and she followed the pain to the knife flashing towards her, jumping her hand over the pommel to grab the arm of the man wielding it.  She caught the bright copper scent of blood and knew it was her own.

Her breathing came a little faster.  She got her feet under her and shoved against the shadowy figure, sensing tough, heavy muscle in the body slamming against her own.

This was the kind of fight she knew she had to be wary of.  It robbed her of her advantage of speed, and she didn’t have space and her sword to fend off the man attacking her.   She was strong, but so was he, and she felt herself losing her balance as he bounced off the wall and came back at her and they crashed together in mid air.

A flash of metal caught her eye and she ducked under the man’s arm, feeling his knife whisper over her head as she dove for the floor, rolling along the straw and grabbing her own knife before she came back up onto her feet and met the man’s next charge.

Now there were yells around her. She heard the door to the deck open, and a shaft of light flooded down interspersed with the shadows of soldiers pouring down the stairs.  

Iolaus let out a bark of anger.

Xena felt her attacker lunge at her, and they grappled, going to the ground again as they were surrounded by moving bodies and armor and hard boots.  She sensed the man shifting and reading himself for a blow and she head butted him under the chin, feeling a shock as his jaws hit and his head snapped back.

She pinned his knife arm down and took her own strike, sending the short dagger blade deep into his guts as there was a crash behind her, and a scream, and the next thing she knew, what felt like a thousand pounds fell on top of her, knocking the breath out of her lungs and making it impossible to draw it back in again.

She saw stars as she closed her eyes.

She could hear, far off, Iolaus’ voice raised in serious alarm.

She remembered, once, getting trapped under the water, and feeling a little like this. Unable to breath, unable to move.

It smelled like blood and horses.

She felt confused. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.  She had a lot of stuff to do, and she wasn’t ready to…

The screams faded, and all she could hear was her own heartbeat.

She felt very alone, there in the dark, unable to breath.

The stars behind her eyelids started to flash in time with her pulse and then those stars began to fade away.  The thunder got quieter. 

She could feel that moment coming.  She remembered it strongly, now, that place where the terrors of the world would fade out, and there would be just a little nothingness.  Just a little. Or maybe a eternity you didn’t know about before bad things happened.

She remembered the bad things. But right now, she was looking at the quiet time as everything faded.

Everything faded.

Then it wasn’t, a rush of sensation that abruptly made her aware of every inch of her pain wracked body trapped under the crush of the weight on top of her,  bringing her back into the now with an almost audible snap.

She felt a strong presence.

A hand touching her forehead.  A voice whispering in her ear and she was no longer alone.   She was aware of wild energy flooding her and her body was moving, shoving away from the ground and aware of the crushing weight exploding off her.

Heat.  Xena shook her head violently and forced her eyes open, half in a roll upright as the fight erupted around her again and she was grabbing a man’s arm and yanking him around in a circle, sending him flying into the wall.

He bounced off and slammed into one of the pylons, and slid down it, his hands gripping like claws into the wood and dragging the torch in it’s holder down with him.

He screamed, as the fire caught in his hair, and rolled, taking the torch with him into the straw which quickly also caught.

“Fire!”  One of the soldiers cried. “Fire!”

Xena shook off the remaining stiffness and moved around the edge of the stall. “Get the water buckets.” She pointed at the horse’s stalls. “Douse it!”

The horses were already frantic, smelling the blood and the fire and as she bolted for them Iolaus caught up to her and grabbed her arm.  “What?”

“Xena.” He gripped her arms with both hands. “By the Gods, are you all right?”

“Fine.” She kept walking, taking him with her. “But if we don’t get the fire out we won’t be.”  She turned and saw the soldiers going for the buckets, but ducking as the horses reared.  “Damn it.”

“Lets get them out of here.” Iolaus urged. “Let the soldiers handle it!”

Sounded like a great idea. The closeness of the hold and the sounds of the flames were giving her flashbacks from Athens and so she surrendered to better sense and grabbed the equine Iolaus’ head as he landed back on all fours. 

The stallion came with her willingly, and she unsnapped the ropes and pulled him forward clearing the way for the soldiers to dash past and get the buckets.   She led him to the stairs and headed up wards, craving the sunlight that was pouring into the opening and finally bringing color back to her vision.

She could hear the human Iolaus behind her, coaxing the mare.

She was aware that she was bleeding, but figured it would wait until they were on deck, and safe and she led her horse up the last few steps and into the light just as Ephiny and Eponin hauled to a halt whiskers before plowing into them. 

“Xena.”  Ephiny backpedaled. “What in Hades is going on? Are you all right?”

“You’re bleeding like a stuck pig.” Pony chimed in.  “What’s the..  is that smoke?”

“C’mon little lady.” Iolaus emerged with his hands tangled tightly into the mare’s bridle. “Oh, hello there.”   He moved the horse past the opening and cleared space for the sailors now pouring down the hatch. “Got a bit of a problem down there right now.”

“Fire!” A yell came from the hold. “Water! Get water!”

“Crap.” Pony looked around. “Not again. What the Hades is it with us and these damn boats?”  She ran over towards the side of the ship, where sailors were already lowering buckets to draw up seawater.  “Gimme! I know what to do with that.”

Ephiny stayed at Xena’s side as they walked the horses to the other rail, as far away from the now smoking hold as they could get.  She waited for the warrior to turn her stallion around and gentle him, before she reached gently out and touched her shoulder. “Xena?”

Weary, bloodshot blue eyes turned towards her, one brow lifting.

Ephiny decided to swallow what she was going to say.   “Want some water?” She offered instead. “To drink, I mean.”

“Sure.”  Xena managed a faint grin. “Thanks.”

Ephiny made her way to the water barrel, and Xena had a minute to collect herself , leaning back against the rail and taking a few deep breaths just to make sure she could.

The fire seemed to be getting worse.  The human Iolaus came to stand next to her, and they watched the chaos building near the hatch in silence together, as Ephiny made her way back over towards them.

“I was wrong.” Xena said, after a minute.  “We should have hunted the bastards down.”

“Not let them get the drop on us.” Iolaus agreed. “You scared the Hades out of me in there.” He stared ahead of them, avoiding her eye. “I didn’t want have to explain that to Gabrielle.”

Xena studied the equine Iolaus’s neck, one finger reaching out to trace a whorl in his coat. “You wouldn’t have had to explain anything.” She said finally. “That would be my job.”

Iolaus looked at her.

Ephiny handed over a wooden mug of water, waiting for Xena to take it from her.   Then she came closer and put her arm around Xena, simply standing there without a word.

A lick of flame erupted through the hatch.

**

Continued in Part 20