A Queen’s Tale

Part 2

Gabrielle gazed into the heart of the cookfire, a mug cradled in her hands and a pensive look on her face.  Around her the Amazons were gathered in groups enjoying dinner, served outside near the pit to avoid the summer heat inside the gathering hall. 

She was tired. It had been a long, full day; the market had turned out to be a general success, and she’d gotten a few luxuries she was looking forward to sharing with her soulmate once they got back to the cabin later on.

Ephiny had already retired, the early stages of her pregnancy knocking her out.  Gabrielle tried to remember if she’d been affected that way, but it was hard because they’d been involved with that war, and the city, and one of Xena’s old soldiers.

She sort of remembered being more tired than usual, but they were on the road traveling so it could have gone either way.  In any case, she didn’t’ grudge the rest to her friend, and was happy enough to spend the evening under the stars with bellyful of relatively tasty venison stew and some of the market’s fresh cheese with sweet bread to chase it down with.

Her senses caught Xena’s presence, and she turned her head to watch her partner approach, the warrior’s distinctive, sexy walk drawing more eyes than hers as she approached the slightly raised platform Gabrielle was seated on.

Xena had changed into her leathers, the dark blue hide hugging her lithe frame and the well made boots altering her pace just enough to be noticeable.  She’d left her armor in the cabin, but tied her hair back and added the charming touch of an armband that had Gabrielle’s token dangling from it.

Even after everything, that made her heart skip a beat, and the bard smiled as her partner joined her on the platform, dropping into the next chair and handing over a plate. “Whatcha got there?”

‘They’re trying a new kind of honeycake, and they were too chicken to ask you to pass judgement on it.” Xena informed her. 

“So they asked you?” Gabrielle asked, her voice rising in astonishment.

“No.” Xena folded her hands over her stomach. “I just went in and took some because it smelled good and figured I”d bring you back a plate too.”

“Pirate.”  Gabrielle broke off a corner of the cake and tasted it. “Mm.  Not bad.” She went back for more. “And they were scared to bring this over?  What’s up with that?”

“Your cooking skills intimidate them.”

Gabrielle paused in mid chew, and gave her partner a dire look.

Xena lifted both hands, turning them upright, then putting them back down on her belly.   Then she turned her head as Pony came up on the other side of her chair, and leaned on it. “How’s Eph?”

“I think that stuff you gave her helped.”  Pony looked as relieved as her partner probably felt.  ‘So what do you think about those guys?” She indicated the visiting Amazons, who were near the fire, with a group of their own tribe.  “They’re all hot to go to war.”

Xena turned her head. “What do you think about them?” She returned the question. 

Pony went down on one knee and rested her elbow on the chair arm. “I was talking to them, you know? I thought maybe they were just nuts, because Xena, I’ve been to war.  The real kind.”

“I know.” The warrior glanced sideways at her. “I led you into it.”

Pony nodded. “But we went, because we trusted you and her Maj.” She looked past Xena at Gabrielle’s quiet profile. “We knew there was bad stuff going on, and that it would be hard, and people would get hurt, and die, but we also knew we were there for the right reason.”

“Not this time.” Xena shook her head.  “This time, it’s just war for the sake of war.” She lifted her hands and interlaced her fingers. “But those other Amazons we got to fight with us, they though the same thing we’re thinking about these guys,  didn’t they?”

Pony considered that, then she shook her head. “Not the same.” She disagreed. “They just thought we were crazy, and you were going to go out in a blaze of glory with everyone dying around you.”

Xena looked over at her, both eyebrows hiking.

“We knew it wasn’t. Because we know you and her Maj.” Pony continued, unruffled. “But I guess I see what they are saying because they think they know those guys in Athens, like they’re neighbors and all that.”

Xena looked thoughtful. ‘We were in Athens.”

“Yeah, right?” Pony nodded again. “So we sorta know more about what that’s all about than they do, but you can’t just go say that, you know?  Like, oh, well, we know it’s all a scam because we know the God of War is behind it all and stuff like that. People look at you funny when you say stuff like that.”

Xena chuckled wryly. “Ya got a point, Pony.” She agreed. “They do.”

“They’ve got a lot of people sucked into that.” Pony said. “I was talking to that Chlea and it’s ten tribes.  I didn’t know there were that many down there.”

“Lot of things down that way have changed. We saw that when we were traveling back from Athens here.” Xena said. “We thought we saw signs of Amazons, but we didn’t want to call attention to ourselves so we ducked around them.” She was aware that Gabrielle was now listening, the bard’s ear visibly twitching in the next chair.

“Kinda sucks if they all get pulled in.” Pony said.  “But on the other hand, maybe if they don’t get into the stuff with Athens, they’ll come after us up here.  You get too many warriors in one area, sure as Hades they’re gonna start sparring with each other.”

Delightfully pragmatic. “Good point.” Xena leaned her elbow on the chair arm.  “Maybe they’ve got the same itch Athens does.”

“So you think it’s okay for them to just go marching off to get killed?” Gabrielle spoke up, resting her mug on the chair arm and regarding her platform neighbors.

Pony shrugged a little. “It’s their game.”

The bard exhaled. “That’s true.” She admitted. “But I’m not sure I can sit here and not try to stop them.”

Neither Xena nor Pony looked particularly surprised at the statement.  Gabrielle herself wasn’t particularly surprised to hear it coming out of her mouth.  Most of the entire last decade of her life had been spent sticking her nose into everyone elses business and she figured at this stage she probably wasn’t expected to change much by her friends and family around her.

But did she really want to go down to Athens and try to convince people not to do what they passionately wanted to do?   There was, she’d discovered, such a thing as lost causes, and she remembered how hard they’d tried to subvert Ares plans the last time only to end up almost walking right into a trap.

Gabrielle studied Xena’s profile.  No, be truthful, Gabrielle. You did walk into it.  He played us both to perfection. He got exactly what he wanted.  She watched the pale eyes, amber tinged in the firelight turn and meet hers with an emotional impact that almost made her breath stop.

I got exactly what I wanted too, though, didn’t I?  Gabrielle reached over and clasped the warrior’s arm, feeling her skin warm under her touch. “We should get everyone together tomorrow and talk about it.”

Xena cocked her head to one side, and one eyebrow edged upward in a skeptical expression. 

“Queen Gabrielle.”

The bard turned her attention from it’s current fascination to the young Amazon in front of her. “Yes, Aalene?” She smiled at the woman, remembering the long hot night she’d given birth, a crossroad on their journey with the Amazons as the baby was born into Xena’s skilled hands.

“We were just telling our guests about the last war, but I can’t do it justice. Would you?” Aalene asked. “It’s always so much more real when you tell it.”

Hm. “Sure.” Gabrielle set her mug down and stood up, running her hands through her hair as she walked down from the platform over to where their was a cleared spot just to one side of the firepit.  Her presence was immediately recognized, and bodies shifted, coming around from the other side of the fire and gathering where they could see her.

Amazons loved stories.  Gabrielle hadn’t quite realized how much until she’d gotten to spend a lot more time with them now that they lived just down the slope.  It was a rare night when she wasn’t asked to display her storytelling skills and she’d learned she could polish her gorier stories on them where she couldn’t down in the town below.

Different audience. She liked that.   As she waited for the crowd to settle down she stretched out her body and shook off the after dinner sleepiness as she sorted through the number of stories she had about the war, deciding what to tell.

It was warm out, and she half wished she was in her old traveling gear, or her Amazon leathers instead of the staid tunic she’d worn to the market and then not bothered to change out of when she came back up the mountain for dinner.

She was sweating, a little.  Her mind drifted a little, to the thought of the deep spring in the back of their cabin where she and Xena would slip out to and cool off by starlight sometimes.   Maybe they would tonight. She glanced over at her partner, seeing the faint knowing smile on her face and she plucked at her tunic, sticking her tongue out a little.

Xena made tiny swimming motions with her hands, then she lifted her index finger and made a whirling gesture with it.

“Okay.” Gabrielle flexed her hands, as the conversation stilled. “We’ll make this a short story, since we’ve had a busy day.  So I’ll tell you about how a great army walked into a trap, and how by working together we won a war that ended right down in the town of Amphipolis.”

Xena settled back to listen, extending her long legs out and crossing her ankles.  Pony settled down cross legged on the platform, and they both accepted fresh mugs from a tray being passed around.

“That was pretty cool.” Pony said. “Coming up behind those guys and nailing them.”

“Plan worked.”  Xena agreed, taking a sip of the cool ale, from barrels they’d stored in a cool cave just down the slope.  The outer wall was part of the bed of the same cold stream that started in the spring  up by their cabin and it provided an escape from the heat during the day.

“Know what Eph liked the most about that whole thing?” Pony said.

“Not having to mess with the horses?”  Xena smiled.

“Yeah, that.” The weapons master agreed.  “But no, she really liked being one of the only people who knew the whole deal.”

Gabrielle started her story, the bard’s rich voice filling the glade as the crowd all leaned forward to listen.   Xena watched their visitors, who seemed a little surprised.  “You and Eph were the only ones we could tell. Everyone else was just a doublecross waiting to happen.”

They listened to Gabrielle,  the bard’s voice becoming warmer and more animated as she described what her mind’s eye was seeing, her hands reaching and shaping forms as they helped her express her feelings.

Standing there in front of the fire, the warm golden light outlining her body,  she had transformed completely from her role of Queen into what Xena had come to understand was her native persona as a storyteller, this facet of her most closely expressing the truth of who Gabrielle was.

Xena regarded the crowd, catching the visiting Amazons leaning together and whispering. She studied their faces, then relaxed as she detected mostly intrigue there. 

No one in the tribe was interested in joining in on the war.  Xena’s sharp ears had picked that up without any effort during dinner, though the Amazons had been polite to their guests, the general consensus was that they were nuts.

Xena didn’t think they were nuts, she thought their tribes were restless, maybe a little cramped in their plains home if there were that many tribes around, and probably had a bunch of younger warriors just itching to make their feathers.

Personally, she was of a mind to let them go do what they wanted, and let what was going to happen, happen.  She had no attachment to the greater Amazon nation, just to this specific portion of it, and if tribes who might at some point decide to come after them got wiped out?

Well, they did. It happened.  Xena took a sip of her ale, acknowledging how cold, but how true to her own nature that was.

Gabrielle, on the other hand, her still idealistic, great hearted soulmate probably had other ideas.

“And then, just as all seemed lost, a signal was given, and between the rocks of the pass there came a thunder, a sound so loud it drowned out even the hammering heartbeats and the screams of battle.”

Xena suspected she’d find out what those ideas were sooner, rather than later.

**

“This feels wonderful.”  Gabrielle floated peacefully in the spring, the cool water soaking the day’s frustrations from her bones.   The moonlight lit the water’s surface with silver, and all around her she could hear the faint sounds of nature going about it’s nocturnal business.

A faint ripple rocked her, and she turned her head to see Xena joining her in the spring, the warrior’s bare body rippled in moonlight and shadow.  Gabrielle waited for her to swim over, then she reached out and curled her hand around Xena’s neck, pulling her closer and rolling half over in the water to kiss her.

Xena bowed her head willingly, one arm slipping over Gabrielle’s hip while her body curled up around the bard, displacing the cool water with body heat.

It felt very good. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena’s neck as they turned slowly in the water, savoring the teasing touch of Xena’s hand making it’s way up her body.  The combination of the sensual tweaking and the feeling of near weightlessness sent a flush across her skin. “Mm.”

Xena chuckled softly, deep in her throat. “Glad this day’s over.”

Gabrielle kissed her again, moving closer and running her hand slowly down Xena’s belly.  She felt the muscles contract under her fingertips, sensitive to the touch and smiled as a reciprocal warmth made her own guts clench.

Their bed would certainly have been a more comfortable spot for this.  Gabrielle nibbled down Xena’s collarbone as she felt her partner’s hand gently cup her breast and tease it.  But there was something about being out in the wild surrounded by the quiet sounds of nature that really turned her on.

Xena’s hand cupped the inside of her thigh and she relaxed her tensed muscles, letting her knees part and welcoming the warmth as Xena’s leg slid between hers.

Cold and warm.  She released a soft, gutteral sound as Xena half turned, taking hold with one hand to something to keep them in place and bringing them belly to belly as their lips met again and the gentle stroking began to get a little more insistent.

Gabrielle could felt the welcome tension begin to build in her as Xena’s touch became intimate, and she heard the taller woman growl as she kept pace, working to keep them in synch as a hot flush of passion made the cool water simply vanish.

Now it was just them, just the heat, and the knowing touches and the desire that flooded both of them as they clamped hold of each other, riding a rolling, shuddering wave that sent ripples to the very edge of the spring.

Gabrielle was breathing hard as she felt her body slow it’s convulsions,   as Xena relaxed, and their stroking gentled and eased.   She exhaled into a faint chuckle, then she wrapped her arms around her partner as Xena rolled onto her back.

It felt wonderful, just to relax together in sated contentment, catching their breaths.  Gabrielle inhaled deeply, feeling her body press against her partner’s as Xena curled her arm around her waist and hugged her closer.

She closed her eyes, resting her head against Xena’s collarbone.  “We’re nuts.”

“Yup.”

 “Do you care?”

“Nope.”

“Me either.” Gabrielle tried to call up all the things she wanted to talk to Xena about from the day and utterly failed.  With a shrug, she concentrated on the rich mineral scent of the water, and the intoxicating warmth of her partner’s skin instead, reasoning that whatever the issues were, there would always be tomorrow to resolve them.

Hades with it.

**

Xena quietly watched the outline of the window very slowly become visible in the faint gray of pre dawn.   In truth, this was her favorite time of day, before anything was stirring when she could lay in bed, with Gabrielle curled up against her and just be happy.

Not that her life during the rest of the day was bad.  It had settled down into an acceptable mix of activity tucked into periods of lazy summer peace.  But those minutes before dawn didn’t’ require her to be anywhere, or do anything other than in bed and be in love and she liked it.

Life had come around to being all right again. 

Must be pissing the Fates off.  Xena shifted a little so she could look down at her sleeping soulmate, limp as a dishrag next to her.

In her sleep, Gabrielle stirred, one hand reaching out suddenly, stopping when it hit Xena’s hip, then draping over it.  Her body relaxed again and a faint smile appeared on her face.

Xena smiled back. She gently rubbed a bit of Gabrielle’s pale hair between her fingertips, idly wondering what her partner was dreaming about, the faint motion of her eyes under their lids betraying her.

A happy, peaceful dream,  the norm now for her.

For both of them. Xena recalled the one she’d recently woken from, a zany and colorful romp that had involved a donkey in a hat, and her mother chasing them around the kitchen with her rolling pin.  It had made no sense at all, but she remembered laughing so long and hard in it her stomach had hurt.

She was beginning to be able to see her life from a different perspective.  Watching Dori the other day, realizing how big her daughter was getting brought home to her the fact that she was, in fact building a successful family relationship with Gabrielle; something that at one time she regarded as impossible.

So many long nights they had both suffered through, so sharp the fracture, so vivid the anger, so painful the heartbreak.

She was beginning to believe they were past that now.  She was older, the years separating her from that always angry past.  Gabrielle had grown up and grown into a more mature set of ideals and gotten a handle on her sometimes impulsive temper.

What they’d gone through would never be forgotten by either of them, and that was a good thing.  Xena knew those memories tempered everything they said and did with each other, their current happiness all the more intense for them knowing the opposite.

So.  Xena breathed in a lungful of the sweet summer air, catching a hint of rain on the breeze, and the far off smell of bruised vegetation.  What would this war bring them? She wasn’t silly enough to believe it would pass them by and in fact, she was a little surprised Gabrielle hadn’t brought the subject up the night before.

She thought about that, then smiled. Okay, maybe she wasn’t that surprised.

A soft piping sounded outside.  The soft light was growing a little stronger, making the inside of the cabin somberly visible. 

They had finished it, since they’d come home.  The furniture was finished, and the walls decorated with woven mats and a colorful throw rug.  The fireplace had it’s stone mantel, and it was fitted out with iron cooking pots and Gabrielle’s various knives and tools and spoons. 

The big bearskin rug was there, and a matching one graced the floor in Dori’s room, and the windows had light hemp covers they could draw down that let the breeze in but kept any wandering eyes out.

It was a little wild. There was a big curved sword, captured from one of the mercenaries in the last war up on the wall, and staves and armor were scattered all over, blatant advertisement that the occupants of the place weren’t quite domesticated.

Xena liked it. She felt comfortable here in a way she never had before, even down in Amphipolis in the first cabin they’d lived in.  There were furs draped over the furniture, and an Amazon mask on the wall, and most of the time a wolf was curled up near the fire, completing the exotic picture.

She felt Gabrielle start to stir, and she looked down, to find her partner’s eyes half open, gazing up at her with a sleepily contented look. “Good morning.”

“The best morning.” The bard corrected her. “I love waking up with you in bed.”

Xena’s eyes twinkled a little.  “You’re very good for my ego.”  She gently pushed Gabrielle’s hair back.

“You think I’m kidding?” Her partner asked.

“No.” Xena laid her palm against Gabrielle’s cheek, and watched her eyes close as she leaned into the touch.  “What were you dreaming about?”

Gabrielle’s lashes fluttered open.  “Fishing.”

“Fishing?”

The bard nodded. “You and me and Dori were out somewhere in some pond in some forest chasing and catching fish.” She pillowed her head on Xena’s stomach and exhaled. “Maybe I’m getting that itch again.”

Xena chuckled softly.

“ I think I want to go and try to talk those crazy Amazons out of going to war, Xe.” The bard said. “I don’t think I can sit here and not at least attempt it.”

Xena watched her face, seeing a frown forming there. “But?”

“I can’t just walk away from the Amazons here.”  Gabrielle said. “I promised Ephiny, and the only person I could really ask to take my place – since she can’t – is you.”

Xena searched the ceiling intently.  “Gabrielle, you are not suggesting that you want me to run the Amazons. Are you?”

Gabrielle exhaled again. “I didn’t say that. I said you were the only one I could ask.” She ran the edge of her thumb along one of Xena’s ribs. “I know you wouldn’t want to and for that matter, I don’t want to go without you.” She paused. “I just don’t’ know what to do.”

Xena let her hand rest on Gabrielle’s hip.  “Sweetheart.” She said, in as gentle a voice as she could manage with the thought of running the Amazons rattling around in her head.  “There is no way in Hades I would let you go to Athens by yourself.”

Gabrielle’s lips quirked.

“And even if I was demented enough to, the minute you got into trouble I’d toss the Amazons ass over feathers anyway.”

“I know.”  Gabrielle didn’t even feel a twinge of resentment. Xena was only telling her the truth, and they both knew it.   It didn’t pay for her to get pissed off, or to complain that Xena was treating her like a child. 

She wasn’t. She was treating Gabrielle like she was her beloved soulmate. How was she supposed to be upset about that? She would do the same thing, and it was silly to pretend otherwise.

But that didn’t really fix her problem.  Gabrielle watched Xena’s ribs rise and fall.  Maybe she should just let it be. Stay out of it for a change.   “It’s a silly rule, anyway.” She said. “I stayed Queen of the Amazons when I was pregnant. I even rescued the damned Amazons when I was pregnant.”

“I remember.” Xena mused. “But we were both pretty damned emotional, Gabrielle.  I can see the Amazon’s point.”

“What’s wrong with being emotional?”  The bard asked, reasonably.  “It didn’t stop me from making some hard decisions.”

“True.” Xena nodded. “But you’re an emotional person. “

Gabrielle’s face crinkled into a wry expression. “Well, that’s true too.” She exhaled. “Let me talk to Eph about it. See what we can come up with.” She reached out and grasped Xena’s hand. “I’m sure we can work something out.” She kissed the warrior’s palm.

Probably they could. Xena glanced up to where the dawn was breaking in earnest, the pinkish gray light flooding the inside of the cabin. “Better get the water on.” She said. “Our child will be rambling in here any minute wanting her breakfast.”

Gabrielle smiled. “I’m going to teach her to cook.” She informed her partner. “I am not going to be the only one in this family who knows how to do that.”

“Lucky me.” Xena smiled charmingly.

“Wench.”  Gabrielle chuckled and rolled out of the bed, stretching her body out with a grunt and grabbing one of her shifts draped over the end of it. She tugged it on over her head and headed for the cookfire.

Xena relaxed for a moment more, then she followed suit, standing up and reaching for one of the roof supports, catching with her fingers and letting her weight hand just long enough to pop her shoulders into place.  “Ow.”

She went to the press and removed a shift of her own, putting it on just as her sharp ears heard the first rustlings of motion in Dori’s room.  “Look out.”

“I hear her.” Gabrielle  poured water from the pitcher she’d set by the previous evening into a pot and set it on the iron grate over the fire, kneeling to stir some life into the coals and add a hunk of wood to feed it.  “Want some eggs for breakfast?”

“Sure.”  Xena looked up from washing her face. “We have some?”

“Mmhm.” Gabrielle opened the top of a basket and peered inside. “Eggs, which I’ll poach, and some bread and cheese. Sound good?”

“Mama!” Dori pattered out, her dark hair sticking out in all directions. “I saw a owl outside!”

“Did you, honey?”  Gabrielle was setting a pot on the fire.  “A big one? Did it ask you who you were?”

“Yes!” Dori “He said Hoo! Hoo!”

Xena circled the chairs and picked her daughter up, carrying her into the bathing room. “How about we make you not look like a porcupine.  You up for that?” She set Dori in the big tub and stuck her hand in the pitchers of water, glad to find them luke warm. “Ready to be a fishie?”

Dori looked up at her and grinned widely.  “Boo, will you take me to catch fishies today?”

Xena removed the child’s shift and set it aside. “I have to see what your mama’s going to be up to, but we could go catch fishes, Dor a little later.”

Dori frowned. “Now!”

“Aren’t you a demanding little thing.”  Xena washed Dori’s head, as the child giggled and closed her eyes against the stream of water.   She put the pitcher down and picked up one of the rough linen towels, drying Dori off.  “Let’s get some breakfast, then we’ll see about fishies.”

Dori threw her arms around Xena and hugged her.  “I love you Boo.”

“I love you too, munchkin.”  Xena ruffled her hair dry.   “C’mon.” She put Dori’s shirt back on then picked her up out of the tub and set her on the ground.  She followed her back into the main part of the cabin, where Gabrielle was busy with a knife and some wooden plates.

She joined the bard near the fireplace and stole a piece of cheese from the cutting board, breaking it in half and handing a portion down to Dori before she could take a breath to squeal for it.  “If Athens starts conscripting the merchant trains, we need a backup plan to prepare for winter.”

“You think they will?”

“If it were me, and I was in charge, I would.” Xena said. “They’ll need all the supplies they can get.  The only thing we’re gonna see is a lot of what was in that merchant train down there.”

Gabrielle stirred the slowly boiling eggs. “So.” She said. “If we stock up, and have a good harvest, what’s to keep them from coming here and conscripting that? The only thing we’re exempt from is people.”

“I”ll keep them from conscripting that.” Xena stole another piece of cheese. “Last thing they need is to get any part of their forces tied up with some crazy has been warlord down in Thrace.” She picked up the plate of cheese and bread Gabrielle had finished cutting and turned to put it on the table. “Not worth the grain.”

She lifted Dori up into the high chair furthest from the fire, and took a seat next to her. “Ready for breakfast, Dor?”

“Yes.” Dori drummed her hands on the table.  “Boo, ever’body’s going to go catch fishes and in the woods. I can go too.”

“Yeah? Who’s everybody? All your friends in the town with Grandma?” Xena sorted out Dori’s portion and handed it over, along with her little cup full of cider.

Dori shook her head as she manhandled her bread.  “Feather peoples.”

“Ahh.” Gabrielle brought the finished eggs over and sat down. “Hold on, Dori. Let me give you your egg, okay?” She quickly peeled the shell off and, using her knife, cut the medium boiled object in to slices.   “They’re going to take the kids and do a forest class tomorrow.”

“Ah.”

“Not too far, just in the back section.” Gabrielle handed over two eggs to her partner, and accepted a cup of cider in return. “I think it’s safe for her to go.”

“I think it’s safe for her to go, but probably not safe for the egos of the people teaching the class.”  Xena added a slice of egg to her cheese and munched her impromptu sandwich.  “When she starts correcting them and throws my name in a few times, you’re gonna hear about it.”

Gabrielle chuckled. ‘Yeah. I know. But that’s all right. I’ll survive.” She watched her daughter try to emulate her, balancing a slice of cheese on her bread. “Good girl, Dori.”

Dori looked up at her, and grinned widely. Then she took a bite of her breakfast, spraying crumbs on the floor. “

“You can go with your friends, honey.” Gabrielle continued. “Just be careful, and be good. Okay?”

“Okay.” Dori agreed.  “Mama, can I take Guff? I hear him outside.”  She scrambled off the chair without waiting for an answer, rambling over to the door and tugging it open. “Guff?”

“Is it really him?” Gabrielle murmured.  “I didn’t hear a damn thing.”

“Uh huh.” Xena took a swallow of cider. 

There was a patter of toenails and Ares trotted in, his tongue lolling out. He went immediately over to Xena, who greeted him with a scratch of his hears. “Hey boy. “ 

Dori came after her friend, throwing her arms around him and hugging him. “Guff! You get to come wif me to have fun today!”

Ares set to work cleaning up all the crumbs under Dori’s chair and the child climbed back up into it to resume her breakfast.

Gabrielle watched her indulgently, enjoying the normality of the morning.   Dori was always entertainment for them, and it provided a nice way to start the day together.  From the corner of her eye she saw Xena drop a piece of egg on the floor for the wolf, and she prodded her partner’s hand. “Xeeeena.”

“Ggaaabbbriellle.” Xena grinned engagingly, knowing she’d been caught. “C’mon, he’s part of the family too, and he’s hungry.”

Familiar argument.  Gabrielle mock exasperatedly shook a finger at her, then she went back to finish her food before anyone got the idea to send it the wolf’s way too.   After a moment, she looked up, catching Xena watching their daughter with a look of gentle, bemused affection.

It tugged at her heart, as it always did. It felt a little strange, to feel this normal, to have day after day of them just living their lives, going through the various trials and tribulations.

Laughing. Sometimes a little exasperated.  “Xe?”

“Mm?” Her partner turned her head and looked over at her.  “I’m going to send some scouts out along the way towards Athens. See if they see anything, or hear anything going on.”

“Have you talked to the merchant train leader?”

“Not yet.”  The warrior finished her plate, then got up and took it over to the washing basin.  “Wanted to let them settle down. I’ll visit them afterwards. You going to go do your Amazon Queen thing?”

“Yep.” Gabrielle got her plate, and Doris and brought them over to where Xena was washing up.  “I’m going to get those visiting Amazons into my quarters up there and have a private talk with them. Maybe I can give them something to take back with them that could get their leaders to at least ask some questions.”

Xena snorted.

“Honey, I gotta do something.” Gabrielle gave her a kiss on the shoulder.  “Come on back up when you’re done down in the town?  We had a council meeting scheduled for today to talk about winter. I’d like your.. um…”

“Intimidating influence?”  Xena bumped her with her hip.  “Sure.  G’wan and take the terror with you. See you up there later.”

Gabrielle put her arms around Xena and hugged her hard.  Then she released her, and collected Dori. “C’mon Doriboo. Let’s you and I get dressed and go find your friends.  You can help mama pick out what color to wear today, okay?”

Xena chuckled as they retreated to the garment press. She whistled softly under her breath,  enjoying the simple tasks and pondering her approach to the merchants.   Friendly militia leader?  “Nah.” She shook her head. “Time to put the armor on and shake em up a little.”

**

Gabrielle strolled across the big center square, Dori’s hand clasped firmly in hers.   The morning sun had just cleared the trees and it felt good on the back of her shoulders as she amiably glanced around the village.

There were women clustered over near the cooking area, and two patrols getting ready to go out. Other than that, it seemed quiet.  “Now remember, Dori.  You have to be good and listen to the nice people taking you out in to the forest, Okay?”

“Okay.” Dori agreed.

“You’re not going to run away and make them scared, are you?”

Dori eyed her. “No, mama.”

“Okay.” Gabrielle steered them both over to the teaching hut, where she could see activity as the group was gathering. “Morning, Solari.”

The dark haired Amazon glanced up from where she was kneeling next to her pack. “Oh, hey. Good morning.”  She waved at them.  “Dori ready for her first class in hunting?”

“Mama! My friends in there!” Dori pointed at the hut. “C’n I go?”

The bard released her. “Go ahead, and be good.” She watched her daughter trot inside, then turned her attention to Solari. “Are you all ready for your first lesson from her?” She asked, wryly. “She’s been going out with Xena for a while.”

Solari wrinkled her nose. “Yeah, I kinda figured. But we’ll try to teach her a few tricks anyhow. “ She admitted. “I’m looking forward to it. Be good to get out of the crowd for a while.”

Gabrielle swiveled around, then looked back at her. “This is crowded?”

“I’m staying in the big hut.” Solari said. “It gets really noisy in there.”

“Ah.”  Gabrielle put her hands on her hips. “Solari, you’re a senior warrior. Why are you in the group hut?  You should have your own digs.”

Solari stood up slowly, wrapping a snare into a small ball. “Well.” She glanced around. “It’s always been sort of like, you stay in the big hut until you partner out, then you get a single. “ She said. “Pony lived in the dorm until she and Eph hooked up.”

Gabrielle considered that.  “I’m not sure that makes sense to me.” She finally said.  “We have plenty of space here. I think I’ll change that tradition and give people an option.”

Solari grinned suddenly.  “Really?”

“Sure.” The bard turned around and gestured.  The village really was tucked into one corner of the big plateau, the other three sides wide and open as they faded off into the forested distance.  It was roughly five or six times the size of their previous location. “Look at this place. You could give every single person their own place and still have plenty of room.”

Solari took a step closer. “You know, we were talking about that the other day.” She said. “About how we got so much land here. But I think everyone’s still sorta adjusting.”

Gabrielle nodded. “I know. It’s a new world for all of us.” She exhaled. “Take care of my terror. Give me a yell if she starts giving you too much grief and I’ll send Xena over to give you a hand.”

“No problem.” Solari said.

The bard waved, and then she headed back towards the gathering hall, where she could see a knot of familiar faces in front of the door. 

She watched their body posture, and her bard trained senses pricked immediately, picking up definite tension in the group.   Her years of gauging audiences came into good service, and she angled into the sunlight, catching their attention and waiting for the reaction.

Uh oh. Even from where she was, Gabrielle could see the widening eyes and mouthed curses.  “Now what.”  She picked up her pace and closed in on the group, keeping her eye on them and daring them to run.  “Good morning.”

“Ah. Good morning, your majesty.”  Renas mumbled.

“Your Majesty.” Selene murmured.

“Good morning.” Aalene put her hands  behind her back and fell silent.

Gabrielle looked from one to the other, then she let one eyebrow hike up.

The three Amazons gazed apprehensively back at her.

“Okay.” The bard said. “What’s going on?”

“What makes you think something’s going on?” Renas, as the eldest and a elder answered.

“I have a child.” Gabrielle responded. “And you all are acting just like her when she’s snitched my nutbread.”

The two younger Amazons edged back, leaving Renas facing Gabrielle.

“Chickens.” Renas muttered. Then she exhaled. “Um. Seems like our guests left early.  Real early.  As in, before it got light early.”

Gabrielle indicated the opening to the gathering hall.  “Okay.” She followed Renas inside. “Well, I would have liked to talk with them, but I guess they wanted to get on their way since they didn’t get what they wanted here.”

Renas grunted.

“And?” Gabrielle fished.

Renas kept facing away from her as they walked slowly up the aisle towards the head of the room.

“Renas?”

The elder paused, and turned. “Ephiny and Eponin went with them.”

Gabrielle felt her body chill with shock, then flush as she started breathing again.  “What?”

Renas perched on the bench before the raised table.  She braced her hands on the surface and looked up at the queen. “They left with em.” She repeated. “I guess.. well, Eph said she figured if she didn’t go you would, and maybe she could talk those fools out of fighting.”

The bard felt like she was a little short of breath, so profoundly was she stunned by the news.  She slowly walked around the table and sat down in the chair behind it, resting her elbows on the arms and steepling her fingers. “Okay.”

“That’s why Eph went. Pony went because she said she was damned if she was the one who was gonna have to face you when you found out.”

Gabrielle managed a brief smile. “I’m so glad I inspire so much terror.”  She remarked dryly. “Did I grow horns somewhere no one’s mentioned to me yet?”

“Well.” Renas cocked her head a little.  “You do have a temper.”

She did.  Gabrielle pressed her fingertips against her lips, falling silent so she could gather her wits.  She felt betrayed, in addition to surprised, that Ephiny would choose to up and leave without a word to her about it.

She thought about that for a while. Did Ephiny owe her explanations?  Her eyes flicked to Renas face, as the elder sat quietly watching her.  Had she ever consulted her regent before she’d done whatever it was she wanted to do?

Would she have let Ephiny go?

Did she have the right to stop her?

“She figured you’d tie her to a tree.” Renas said, finally.  “Crazy idea, I thought.”

“That’ I’d tie her to a tree?” The bard asked.

“Going.” The elder shook her head. “Fools’ errand. Those women don’t have the sense Artemis gave a grasshopper.  Mind’s only on one thing, gold.” Her face wrinkled. “Get as old as I am, you realize a cellar full in winter’s worth a hell of a lot more than yellow dirt.’

“Hm.”

Renas studied her face. “You mad?”

“Disappointed, I think.” Gabrielle responded honestly. “That Eph didn’t think she could trust me.” She looked up as the beads rustled, and Solari entered.  The dark haired Amazon was breathing a little hard, and she came right down the aisle towards where the bard was sitting.  “Trouble?”

“Just heard about Eph and Pony. You want me to go after them?” Solari asked without hesitation.  “They musta lost their feather plucking minds.  I knew preggers made you crazy, but I didn’t think it made you that crazy.”

It was a funny feeling. Gabrielle wondered if she’d somehow crossed some line somewhere and gone from being a respected, if somewhat marginal outsider in the tribe to assuming this regal role and having it accepted.

Solari was, in fact, treating her as the queen. Not as Gabrielle.   “Let’s call a council and discuss it.” She said. “They’re both grown women, and I want Xena here to get her take on it.”

Solari nodded after a brief pause. “Okay, I’m going to get back to the kids.  Yell if you need anything.” She turned and made her way out of the hall, nodding at the group of Amazons entering. 

They were whispering, and Gabrielle figured the word was passing quickly.  That was all right, she figured, since it saved her the time of having to tell everyone.   “I’m going to go to my quarters for a minute.” She got up. “Tell everyone we’ll meet back here in a candlemark. We’ve got a lot ot talk about.”

Renas studied her. “Will do, your Maj.” She agreed. “Give everyone time to get a cup of tea into them and find their wits, at any rate.” She waited for Gabrielle to head for the door, then she got up and followed her. “Long live the Queen.”

“What was that?” Gabrielle half turned, peering curiously back at her.

“Nothing. Just talking to myself.” Renas waved her on.  “Old women do.”

**

Xena seated her sword in it’s sheath and shook herself to settle her armor into place around her.  She adjusted a bracer, and then she left the cabin and headed off down towards the town.  It was early enough that the summer heat hadn’t risen yet, and she rambled down the steep mountain path in a tolerable good humor.

She passed the turn off to the village and briefly waved at the sentries, continuing past them into the deeply forested lower part of the path.  It was closer here, and now she could hear the sounds of the town filtering up on a smoke tainted breeze coming up at her.

Her armor was soundless, unlike the chain her soldiers wore and she passed through the trees and onto the path like a silent shadow moving among the faint spears of early sunlight.

The town was just stirring.  Xena nodded in greeting as she passed the smith, a brace of buckets over his shoulder heading back to his workshop.

“Morning, Xena.” The man smiled amiably at her. 

“Morning Arens.” The warrior responded. “Got some work for you later. “

The smith perked up. “Anytime.”

Xena continued down the path that led through the center of town. In the front of the small cabins and huts men and women were emerging, sweeping the front of their homes out, and feeding the chickens. 

A hen scurried across in front of the warrior, avidly pecking the ground, oblivious of the boots that paused just long enough for her to pass before moving on. 

“Morning. Genr’l.” Bennu emerged from a small cabin, closing the door with evident pride of ownership.  “Pretty morning, eh?”

“Nice.” Xena agreed. “You and the boys get some down time in the market yesterday?”

“Aye.” Her militia chief nodded, as he joined her on the path. “Heard about the war, eh? Good thing tis far off from us.”

“For now.”  Xena eyed him. “I’m not ruling trouble out.”

Bennu smiled. “Genr’l with you, never.” He said. “Boys are just now settling themselves back down after that whole mess w’the flood and all. Still sorry we took of after ye when them townies told us off.”

Xena patted his shoulder. “You came back. That’s what mattered.”  She paused at the crossroads. “We need to send scouts out.” She kept her voice even, but it went completely serious. “We need to know what’s moving from here, to the big pass.”

“Aye.” He watched her face intently.  “I’ll take care of it. Genr’l.”

“Send a few men past the Thrace border.” The warrior continued. “Tell them to listen hard to anything they hear about conscripts, war confiscations, all that.”

“Aye.”

“Keep it quiet.” Xena concluded. “But I want to know what Athens is up to.”

“Will do.” Bennu nodded, and ambled off down the path, with a deceptively easy speed.

“Bennu.” Xena called after him, waiting for him to turn. “Send word down to the outpost near Potadeia.”

He lifted his hand and saluted, then disappeared between the trees.

Xena glanced down towards the river, then she swerved, and climbed up onto the porch of her mother’s inn instead of continuing down towards the market.   She could smell bread baking, and as the door opened, a gust of warm, rich air hit her.

“Morning, Xena.”  Johan looked up from a hinge he was working on. He was seated at one of the tables, amongst a dozen or so others taking an early breakfast.  “You’re early on.”

“Morning.” Xena glanced around at the crowd casually, before she took a seat next to her step father. “Looks like we’ll have good weather today.”

“Aye.” Johan nodded.  “Think we can fancy some dancing down by the river tonight? Good and warm for it.”

Cyrene emerged from the kitchen. “Ah, thought I heard your voice.”  She came over and sat down. “Why the formality?” She tapped Xena’s shoulder armor with her spoon.

Why. Good question.  “I need to go talk to the merchant leader.” Xena said. “Didn’t want him to mistake me for a milkmaid.”

Johan chuckled softly under his breath and shook his head.

Cyrene rolled her eyes.  “They were up here last night having a grand old time with their earnings.” She said. “So I’d guess you won’t be getting much out of him this early.”   She glanced past Xena.  “Glad they had a good market though. We need that to get around.”

“If there’s any other trains on the road.” Johan muttered. “I was talking to that lot that came with the fancy stuff, said trading’s sparse this side of Athens.”

“Everyone’s heading there to get their coin.” Cyrene exhaled. “Athens, damned it, always causing us a headache.  Wish we could move the town out of their reach.”  She sounded frustrated. “Can’t we just catch a break?”

“That’s what I want to talk to the merchant captain about.” Xena lowered her voice. “Try and get a feel for what they’ve seen out there and what we can expect.” 

Both Cyrene and Johan nodded. “So no break for us.” Cyrene sighed.

Xena half shrugged. “Life.” She acknowledged. “You never know. It could pass us by, mother.  They may not have time to worry about us here in the hinterlands. They’ve got bigger issues.”

“And yet, they could.”  Johan spoke up. “If they hear there’s riches to be had.  Men that left here, could have gotten that far, Xena.”

“I know it.” The warrior stood up.  “I’m banking on them not having the time or the guts to send an expedition up here.” She considered. “I’ll give the barracks a visit to give those bastards time to wake up, then go down there. “

She moved past the tables and stiffarmed the door, letting it swing shut behind her.

“Crazy times again.” Johan went back to working on his hinge. 

Cyrene sighed. “I think we’re on the right side of this, Jo.  I’m hoping Xena’s right, and they focus all their attention on their blasted war.  Maybe by the time it’s over, if they end up leaving for Sparta, we’ll have a time of peace to collect ourselves in.”

Johan glanced up, peering at the door, and then back at his wife. “For their sake, I hope they keep their distance. Hate to think we’d have to kill countrymen over some damn fool thing like money.  Xena won’t let em through here.”

“No. She won’t.” Cyrene agreed quietly. “Even if the whole blasted army of Athens shows up on my doorstep.” She tapped her spoon on her hand. “But they better have a care of they do. She might end up stealing that army right out from under them. Almost did the last time.”

Johan scratched his nose. “Lot of mouths to feed.”

Cyrene snorted.

**

Gabrielle was glad enough to escape into the dim confines  of her quarters, aware of the bulk of the village now out and about and all abuzz with the news.    She paused as she got to the center of the space and looked around, struck suddenly at how impersonal it was.

It was comfortable – like the one she’d had in the previous village, it was square, and divided into two areas, a sleeping area in the back separated by a dense, bead curtain and a working area in front that had a desk, a weapons rack, and two chairs.

Comfortable, but impersonal.  She had nothing of her own here, save a few practice staffs tucked into the weapons rack.  There were a few curls of parchment on the desk, but they were notes of hers about things she’d adjudicated, or history scrolls of the nation.

Guest quarters.  Gabrielle’s face twitched, as she mentally acknowledged that.   Even now, with the village so close, she still wasn’t a part of it.  In this case, she knew the decision to put that distance between herself and her nation was hers, though, not theirs, and not Xenas.

The warrior had even offered – a sacrifice that Gabrielle fully appreciated – to split time and spend nights in the village with her if that was what Gabrielle wanted, since she’d started taking a day to day role in the Amazon’s lives.

But no, Gabrielle hadn’t wanted that.  She wanted to go home at night, away from the village, and away from the town she also worked in council for and back to a focused involvement with her family.

Turn off the Amazon queen stuff. Turn off the town reeve stuff.   Back to just them.

With a sigh, Gabrielle went to her desk and sat down, hitching one booted foot up onto a rung of the chair and leaning her elbow against her knee. Her eyes got caught by a piece of parchment, folded, underneath her ink jar and she studied it for a moment, then reached over and tugged it free.

Unfolded, it revealed Ephiny’s untidy scrawl and Gabrielle took the time to lean back in her chair before she read it.

Gabrielle –

By now I guess you’re good and pissed at me, so I took the chicken’s way out and left you a note where I figured you’d find it.

First of all – don’t blame Pony.  This was all my idea.

Gabrielle had to smile at that, a rueful chuckle emerging from her lips.

I knew you were worried about the war, and all those Amazons going headlong into it, and I figured you were thinking of heading out to try and fix the problem yourself.

I figured it was my turn.  I’ve watched you do the greater good thing for how many years now, and just this once I thought I’d take my hand at it. I might be able to talk to those Amazon leaders and they may listen to me in a way they’d hesitate before listening to you – I thought it was worth a try anyway.

I also figured you could use some down time at home.   So kill me when you see me, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I know you want to know why I didn’t talk to you about it first.  It’s pretty simple. If I had, you’d have talked me out of it.  So I didn’t.

We should be back in a month or so – take a vacation, and take it easy. 

E.

Gabrielle reread the note a few times, then she set it down on the desk.  “Well.” She sighed. “She’s right on all counts.  I wanted to go, I wanted to stay home, and I’d have talked her out of it if she’d asked.”

She got up and went over to the small, square table that held a few of her things inside. There was a small carafe on the top of it, and two wooden cups.  She poured a bit of water into one of the cups and brought it back over to the desk, sitting back down in her chair and swirling the liquid thoughtfully.

Was she mad at Ephiny?  Gabrielle studied the inside of the small hut. Or was she just jealous, since her first instinct had been to do the same thing? 

Except she couldn’t.  She’d committed to Ephiny that she’d run the Amazons until she had her child, and running off to Athens would have ruptured that commitment, regardless of how much she’d wanted to, and the fact that she’d started trying to find some kind of justification for doing it.

Well, Hades. She took a sip of the water. There wasn’t much she could do now, except deal with it.  Maybe Ephiny was right, after all.  Maybe a lifelong Amazon, a regent and a seasoned warrior like her just might carry more weight with the heads of those unknown Nations than Gabrielle would.

So.

Now in the meantime, with Ephiny and Eponin gone, she had to face the fact that for the first time since she’d been given Terries right of caste, she was here and solely in charge of these Amazons.   She’d been the queen for some time, of course, but she’d always had Ephiny there, and she always was mindful of her regent’s authority and took pains not to undermine her.

Now, she was it.

“Ugh.”  Gabrielle felt more than a little depressed.  Then her head lifted up and she looked over at the opening to her quarters, just as a hand parted the beads and Xena’s tall figure ducked inside. “Am I ever glad to see you.”

Xena let the beads fall behind her and crossed the interior space over to where she was sitting. The warrior dragged one of the chairs in front of the desk around to the side and sat down in it, extending her armored legs out across the floor. “Did I hear right?”

Gabrielle handed the note over without commenting.

Xena took it and read it, then she flicked her eyes up to her partner’s face. “Huh.”

“Mm.”

“Wasn’t expecting this.” The warrior admitted.  “I wasn’t expecting those women to take off out of here, and I certainly wasn’t expecting Ephiny to chase after them.”

“Me either.”

Xena turned the parchment over in her fingers. “So I guess that blows our reputation for knowing everything huh?”

“We had a reputation for that?”

Xena smiled.  ‘Want me to go after them and bring them back?” She asked. “They’re not going to get anything out of this other than trouble.”

Gabrielle studied her partner. Sitting there, completely relaxed in her well made armor, Xena seemed almost as out of place inside her little Amazon hut as she did.  “I thought about that. Solari offered.” She said, after a quiet moment.  “But you know, Xena, they’re both adults.  Maybe Eph’s right.  She’s done this a long time and she knows Amazons.”

“So have I.” Xena replied.  “I think they’ll just chase them back down the road.”

“Then they’ll be back here and we won’t have to do anything.” The bard said. “But I think if that’s what they really want to try, we shouldn’t go after them like they’re little kids and drag them back here.”

“Okay.”  The warrior nodded.  “At any rate, we’ll have enough on our plates here.  I talked to the merchant train captain. In private.”

“Yeah?”

“He said he had a Hades of a time getting enough wagons to come up here.  Said it’s likely there won’t be more than this one.”  Xena said. “So we’ve got to figure out what we’re doing to do for the winter, and if trouble comes this way.”

“You think it will.”

“I think it will.”  The warrior confirmed.  “I think word is out about riches to be had here, and I think Athens remembers what I did there.  They’ll come.”

Their eyes met, and Gabrielle gave herself a long moment to study that familiar, angular face, half cast in shadows.  She didn’t feel any sense of panic. They’d both gone through so much in their lives together that it was hard for her to say what at this stage would freak her out.  “Okay.” She half shrugged.  “So lets just do what we can do.”

“Got a plan?”

“No. You?”

Xena chuckled. “Not yet.” She admitted. “I sent some people out.  Gave the merchants some lies to spread around.  To be honest, I’m not really sure where to start in all this.”

Gabrielle got up and walked around the back of Xena’s chair, circling her neck with both arms and kissing her on the back of her head.  “We brought this right down on top of ourselves.”

“We did.” Xena agreed.

“Well, we’ll figure something out.”  It made Gabrielle feel better just to be in contact.  “You know, I think I never knew how lucky we were when we were common road vagrants, hon.”

Xena chuckled wryly.

“Then at least when we screwed up, we’d only get ourselves in trouble.”

“Well.” Xena tipped her head back. “Not always.”

“Mm.” Gabrielle closed her eyes and drew in a breath filled with Xena’s scent. “I feel so confused, Xe.  Part of me wants to just take you and Dori and just run away somewhere, but I know we can’t.”

“We could.”

“Xena.”

The warrior shrugged. “I’ve been a selfish jackass before, Gabrielle.  If that’s what you want to do, I’d be happy to throw you over my shoulder, put Dori in the saddle bag and take off.”

“Would you really?”

Xena nodded. “Being guilty gets me nothing. I finally figured that out.”

Gabrielle came around and knelt down next to the chair.  She rested her forearms on her partner’s thighs, and gazed up at her. “I don’t want to do that.” She said. “I think I’ve grown up enough to know running from your problems never solves them.”

Xena’s face creased into a smile, lighting up her eyes.  “No. But it’s more fun.” She lifted her hand and cupped Gabrielle’s cheek, watching the look focused on her soften and intensify.    “I’m sure Eph and Pony will be fine. Those were a tough bunch of women they were with, and they’re both fine warriors.”

Gabrielle nodded.

“And if all else fails, we can take the militia, and the Amazons, and go conquer Athens.  I loved those nice big bathtubs they had.”

Gabrielle put her head down on Xena’s lap, feeling the cool pressure of her leg armor against the side of her face. “You’re so funny sometimes.”

“Think I’m joking?”

“No.”

The bard got up, giving Xena’s knee  pat. “C’mon, consort.  Help me go wrangle some Amazons.  They’re going to pitch a fit when I tell them we have to cooperate with the town. There’s still some hard feelings there.”

“Still some hard feelings in this group from Zeus’s creation of that damn mountain outside.”  Xena got up and joined her. “They hold a grudge longer than I do.”

“Xe, be nice.”

**

The whole village had gathered, there in the hall. The only ones missing, Gabrielle realized, were Solari and the small group that had taken the children out for their classes.  On one side of the hall were the elders and the senior warriors, in the middle were the young adults and the far side was full of the recently feathered warriors, the just out of adolescents who had never known any leadership other than hers.

Gabrielle paused when that thought ran through her head, and winced. 

Cait and Paladia were there, standing against the wall together in all their mismatched glory.  Despite Cait’s age, she already wore the double feathers and weapons of a regular warrior and though Paladia had never become the village social butterfly, she had achieved acceptance from most.

Perched on her shelf nearby, Xena had her arms crossed over her chest and her legs extended a little, crossed at the ankles.     The position had been deliberately chosen,  a spot enough out of the way not to distract from Gabrielle, but enough in view that the assembled crowd couldn’t forget about her presence.

Intimidating? Gabrielle studied her partner.  Yes.   There had been a time in her life when the thought of using Xena as a symbol of her authority had galled her to the quick but now she’d grown enough as a person and as a leader to welcome it.

Xena caught her eye, and unobtrusively crooked a finger at her.

Gabrielle moved away from the small table in the corner where she’d been standing and crossed the raised platform over to her partner.  “You want me?”

Xena’s pale eyes took on a decidedly mischevious twinkle.

Gabrielle sighed. “Someday, maybe, I’ll stop walking right into stuff like that.” She acknowledged. “We’re almost ready to start. I’m just waiting for two of the elders who are on the way over.”

Xena uncrossed her arms and let one hand come to rest on Gabrielle’s hip. “How are you going to play Eph’s leaving?” She asked, in a low tone.

“Straightforward.” The bard half turned her back to the crowd.  “I’m just going to say she decided to see what she could do about persuading the other Amazons not to go to war.” She watched Xena’s face, seeing the muscles shift as her expression altered into one she knew meant the warrior was thinking hard.  “No?”

Xena’s eyes shifted to the room, then back at her. “Can you imply there was more planning behind it without outright lying?”

Gabrielle put her fingertip on Xena’s exquisitely shaped nose. “Are you asking me that for a strategic reason, or just because you know I don’t like lying?”

“Yes.” The blue eyes twinkled again.

Gabrielle gazed steadily at her for a minute. Then she nodded. “I can do that.” She said with confidence.   “You’ll tell me why later, right?” She asked, seeing the last two stragglers come in, and the room start to quiet and look up at the platform.

“I will.” Xena gave her hip an affectionate pat.   She watched Gabrielle move forward to address her sisters, crossing in front of her desk and leaning against it, not very far from the posture Xena herself had taken.

That presented the warrior with a nice view of her partner’s back, it’s bare expanse lit by the flickers of sunlight coming in from the window behind them. 

Another reason she’d picked the spot she was in.

“Good morning everyone.” Gabrielle said, her voice deepening a little into her storytelling mode.  “As I’m sure you have all heard, we have a lot of things to talk about today so I think I’ll just go ahead and get started.”

Get started. Xena resumed her crossed arm posture.  She felt like she should be getting started too, but she was damnably unsure of where that start place was, or really what they should do about the situation they were rapidly finding themselves in.

She had so little real information.  Aside from the merchants news, and the abrupt arrival of the Amazons she really didn’t know what Athens plans were, and if she even played the tiniest part in them despite what she’d said earlier.

Was it ego, that insisted that Athens would come after her? Come here, to Amphipolis in the hind end of nowhere to dig out a now truly retired warlord to lead their attack?  Was she unrealistically flattering herself?

Xena wondered about that.  What would happen if they just did nothing? Just prepared for a hard winter, and got their affairs in order, and pretended they were just some little town and some mountain Amazon village out in the sticks no body really cared about?

It might be true.

Did she want it to be true?

“And so, Ephiny and Eponin decided they would go with these Amazons, to feel out what the situation really was, and see if they could talk to their leaders.” Gabrielle’s calm tone made her look up. “I think it really benefits us to have two such experienced sisters working to determine what our options are.”

Nice.  The confidence in the bard’s voice made it seem like the whole thing was well planned, and as the warrior scanned the room, she saw a lot of nodding heads.

“In the meantime, we need to prepare.”

“Prepare for what, Queen Gabrielle?” Aalene spoke up.  “For war?”

“Not if I can help it.” Gabrielle smiled easily. “We’re in a safe place up here, with the mountain at our backs, limited approaches, and good friends to stand with us.”

“You mean the town?” Renas looked a touch skeptical.

“I mean Xena, and her militia.”  Gabrielle responded.  “Who are part of the town.”

There was a faint stir, but then the Amazons settled down again. Gabrielle waited to see if there was any further comment before she continued.  “So you might ask, what do we prepare for, if not for war.” She stood up and started to pace slowly.  “We have to prepare for being cut off. With no trade, and no access to things we don’t either grow, or have here ourselves.”

Renas nodded. “Like the old days.” She said. “There were times in the war, we only had ourselves.”

“Exactly.” Gabrielle said. “Like how I lived with Xena, on the road for all those years. Depending on each other.”

Xena produced the expected smile at that, as the crowd looked over at her.   Well, in the short term, what Gabrielle was telling them made sense.  They could gather and prepare, and get ready, and if nothing worse happened than a tough season, they’d come out all right.

And if the worst happened, they’d at least have something prepared.

“So the bottom line is, we don’t know what will happen. But we do know how to take care of ourselves, and we will do that.” Gabrielle concluded.  

“Queen Gabrielle.”  Aalene spoke up.  “Will Athens send people here, like the did the last time, that we heard about? Here to the town I mean?”

Gabrielle half turned in Xena’s direction. “Xe?”

Thus called on, the warrior stood and came forward to stand next to Gabrielle.  “The town was exempted.” She said briefly.  “Whether they’ll honor that, remains to be seen. But it’s possible we’re just too small for them to really bother with.”

“Now.” Renas said.

Xena inclined her head in agreement.  “It could be they have heard about the flood.” She allowed. “It could be they’re depending on the bigger towns and cities around Athens. But if the war doesn’t go their way, or it’s a stalemate, that could change.” 

“Xena.” Renas rested her hands on her wrinkled knees. “Why in Hades don’t’ you just go lead the damn army and get the war over with? Save us all a pack of a lot of trouble.” She asked. “Get this gone and done for Artemis’ sake.”

Xena felt her nostrils flare a little, as she swept her eyes over the assembled Amazons and saw nods and mild agreement in their faces.  She looked over at Gabrielle, who prudently looked away and scratched one ear.  “That really wouldn’t be my first choice.”  She finally muttered. “But thanks for asking.”

“Pity. Woulda been fun to watch.” Renas grumbled.

“All right.  Let’s conclude this for now.” Gabrielle took control back.   “Senior warriors, and elders, please stay behind so we can start drawing up some plans.”

The room started to bustle with movement, and low muttered voices.  Gabrielle turned and looked at her partner, giving her a pat on the side. “Want some cider?”

“Got anything stronger? I think I’m gonna need it.”

**

Continued in Part 3