A Queen’s Tale

Part 20

Gabrielle wiped her brow with a bit of linen, blinking as sweat dripped into her eyes and made them sting.   It was late afternoon and they had made decent time, though not nearly as good as if they’d stayed on the road.

Climbing the mountainside to evade the main way had led them through thick forest and underbrush, they’d spent a good deal of the time walking the horses and only seen two people since they’d gotten off the road  - but the downside was the lack of a breeze and the relatively slow going.

“Mama it’s too hot.” Dori was sitting on Shadow’s back. “Want to go to fishes.”

“Me too, Dor.” Gabrielle leaned against the horse, glancing back to where the rest of the group was resting for a quarter candlemark.  “I wish you and I were home up on our mountain, and we were swimming in our pond with Boo.”

Jessan and his crew had gone back to scout the road, to see how much of a lead if any they still had.  The rest were taking advantage of the stop, savoring a moment of golden peace as the sun started to drop into the tops of the trees.

“Boo boo boo.” Dori warbled.  “ I want to go where Boo is.”

“Me too.” Her mother repeated, with a sigh. “I hope we’ll find her soon,  sweetie.  I miss your Boo a whole damn lot.”  The long day and scant sleep were wearing on her, and she rested her cheek against the horse’s neck, wishing she could close her eyes.

She knew they wouldn’t stop tonight. The sense of being pursued was heavy not only in her, but in the rest of the party, and..

A chill came over her.  She felt a sick clenching in her stomach and she gripped the saddle with both hands to keep herself upright.

“Mama?”

“Hold on a minute, Dori.” Gabrielle whispered.  She felt her heart start to race and she closed her eyes as flashes against the inside of her eyelids made her lightheaded. 

It was dark. It was terrifying. She had no idea what was happening to her except that…  She froze, as a dark, cold sensation she remembered deep in her nightmares erupted inside her, a stark emptiness that had last overwhelmed her as she felt Xena’s hand grow cold between hers high up on a mountainside.

It was so sudden, she couldn’t even cry out. 

Couldn’t even scream.

Barely even able to breathe, her stunned soul responded belatedly, reaching out into all that darkness unable to..

Unable to believe.

No, this wasn’t happening.  Again.

“Xena no.” Gabrielle wasn’t sure if she actually said aloud the words screaming in her heart.  “Xena please… oh.. Gods please no!.”

“Mama???”

Echoes in all that darkness and then between one breath and the next the shadows were sucked out of her soul and a blast of familiar fire replaced it.

The darkness faded, taking her strength with it until she as on the verge of utter collapse but leaving behind a sense of profound relief in its place.

Life was back again. Just like that.

“Mama!” Dori was clutching at her in fear. “Mama!”

Gabrielle slowly opened her eyes, hearing the footsteps approaching rapidly as the rest of the group reacted to Dori’s calls.   Her heart was still beating so hard she couldn’t speak, but she clutched that heat to her and savored it, staring at the whorls in the leather of Shadow’s saddle without really seeing anything.

“Gabrielle!”  Solari reached her first.  “Hey!”

 Now her whole body was shaking.   Gabrielle suspected if she let the saddle go, she’d drop to the ground so she kept her grip despite the tremors in her hands.  “I’m okay.” She managed to get out.  “It’s okay. Dori, it’s okay.” 

“My goodness.” Cait came up on the other side.  “What’s going on?”

“Mama!” Dori scrambled over and thumped onto her belly on the saddle, reaching out to pat her mother on the head. “Okay mama?”

The bard straightened up and risked releasing the saddle. “Sorry.” She said. “I got a cramp in my back.” She reached behind her. “Thought I was going to fall right down.” 

She didn’t want to tell them what really happened.

Didn’t want to talk about it, and her mind blanked out might have beens hovering on the fringe of her conscious thoughts.

Both Amazons relaxed.  “Boy, ya scared me.” Solari said. “Dori was freaking.”

Gabrielle ran a hand through her hair. “I must have had a pretty bad face from it.” She said. “Sorry about that.  I’ve had problems with my back since the war. Goes out sometimes.”

“From that bitch. I remember.” Solari said. “Boy, she sure deserved killing.”

Gabrielle felt the tremors recede. “Well. I killed her.”  She glanced up. “Dori, stay here. Mama’s going to go get a drink of water, okay?”

Dori studied her, the child’s lower lip poking out in a pout. 

“If I see a fish, I’ll catch it for you.” The bard patted her foot.  “I’ll be right back.” She ducked between Solari and Cait and slipped between the trees, kneeling beside a small rivulet busily winding it’s way down the mountain.

She wasn’t really thirsty. She had a full skin of water on the saddle ring.  But she needed a few minutes of privacy to collect the shattered bits of her soul and tuck them back inside her.

By the gods. Gabrielle dipped her hands in the water and raised them, taking a swallow of the cool liquid.   Her heart had slowed down again, and right at the back of her mind she could sense that low level something present that was her connection to Xena.

Sometimes, she wasn’t even aware it was there. She didn’t think about it often.  But it’s sudden absence had shocked her senseless and now even thinking about that hurt.

What had happened? How real had it been? 

Tentatively she thought about her partner.  She thought she could sense weariness, and worry but it was very hard to tell.  There hadn’t been any strong emotion before what she’d felt earlier – it wasn’t as though Xena had been in some terrible trouble that had gone wrong, just all of a sudden she’d just…

Gabrielle felt  her stomach clench, and she let the thought pass.  

It was over.  Whatever had happened, was past.

Xena was okay. 

As she thought that, she felt a faint warmth, an odd disconnected sensation that made her imagine Xena was just behind her, dropping her hand on Gabrielle’s head and ruffling her hair.

More imagination?  Gabrielle studied her reflection in the water and shook her head.   She dipped her hands in again and drank her fill, then shook her fingers out to dry them.  She watched the droplets fall and then turned, as she heard tiny footsteps coming up behind her.

Dori thumped down next to her. “Mama, horsie wants water.”

“Oh yeah?”  Gabrielle gazed at that small profile, that was already taking on Xena’s familiar shape. “How do you know that, hm? Did she tell you?”

Dori patted the water’s surface. Then she looked up. “Yes.” She nodded solemnly. “Mama owie?”

The bard exhaled. “Not anymore, honey.” She said. “I was, before, but I’m okay now.” She dipped her hand in the water. “Do you want some?”

“Fishes.” Dori  put her hands on her knees, looking into the water.  Then she looked back up. “Mama, is Boo owie?”

Gabrielle reached over and touched her cheek.  “Shes fine, Dori.”   

Dori poked her lower lip out and rocked back and forth a little.

“I promise.” Her mother added, in a soft voice. “Xena knows how much we love her, and how much we need her, and she would never let anything bad happen. Right?”

“Miss Boo.”  Dori picked up a pebble, slick and wet from the stream. “No fun.”

“Yeah.” Gabrielle sat down and pulled Dori into her lap. “I know, Dor.  I know.”  She hugged her. “We’re going to run real fast all day and all night until we’re back with Boo again. I promise you.” She rocked them both a little.  “Nothing would make me happier than to be with her right now.”

“Me too.” Dori said.  “C’n we bring water back for the horsie?”

Gabrielle took a deep breath and released it. “Dori, how about if you went over to Shadow, and brought her over here so she could take a drink. Can you do that?”

“Yes!” Dori wriggled free and dashed off.  “C’mere horsie!”

That gave the bard a few more moments of quiet. She leaned against a tree next to the brook and looked across the water, into the deep green underbrush running alongside it.

She was glad, suddenly, that they’d be traveling all night.  She really had no desire to fall asleep now, afraid of what her dreams would be.

“Gabrielle.” Jessan knelt at her side and touched her shoulder. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah.” She didn’t bother to dissemble.  “Now I am.”

“Any idea what happened?”

“No.”  Gabrielle looked up at him. “It happened so fast.”

The forest dweller’s expression shifted into grim sympathy.  “It did.” He said. “But hey, it’s over.” He patted her arm. “Xena wouldn’t let anything happen.” He paused. “Permanent, I mean.”

“Yeah.”  Gabrielle nodded. “You know, that’s true.” She looked up as Shadows hoofbeats approached, watching Dori lead the horse towards her with a seriously intent expression. 

So cute.

So like Xena.

“C’mon horsie.” Dori tugged the mare forward. She pointed at the brook. “Dere!” She said. “Go drink water! “  She rambled right into the stream, her boots kicking up water as Shadow followed her.

“Dori!” Gabrielle started to get up, then paused as Jessan put a hand on her shoulder.  “She’s going to get soaked.”

“I’ll get her.” Jessan got up and stepped across the water, grabbing Dori as Shadow dipped her head to take a drink. “C’mere, bittyboo.”  He lifted the child up and tucked her under his arm. “Your mama doesn’t want you to get sick.”

“Don’t get sick from fishes.” Dori protested.  “Mama! Fishes!” She pointed. “Look!”

Eels, actually. Gabrielle got to her feet.  “I see them, Dor.” She said. “Any sign of the Spartans on the road, Jessan?”

“Have no idea.” The forest dweller said. “I left my guys to go look and came back here.”  He glanced around. “We didn’t see anything on the way out there though except a bunch of  vultures. We didn’t stop to see what they were circling.”

Vultures.  The bard stroked Shadow’s smooth neck as the mare finished her drink and shook her head, scattering cool drops of water over Gabrielle’s legs.  “Let’s get ready to move as soon as they get back.” She said. “We can’t risk getting caught.”

“Mama, up.” Dori came wandering back between Shadows legs.  “We go?”

“We go.” Gabrielle lifted her up into the saddle.  She led Shadow back over to where the others were standing, now quietly watching her with varying looks of concern.   “Sorry about the scare.” Gabrielle produced a brief smile.  “Let’s get ready to move as soon as…”

A loud whistle interrupted her.   They turned to see the forest dwellers pelting towards them at top speed.

“Uh oh.” Jessan swung up on his horses back.  “I don’t think it’s good news.”

“No.” Gabrielle pulled herself up on Shadow behind Dori.  “Get ready people.”

Everyone did, and the incoming forest dwellers headed for their horses as they came through the trees. “Legion’s on the road just past the last bend.” One said, panting.  “They’ve got prisoners.”

Oh, Hades.  Gabrielle grimaced. “Great.”  She turned Shadows head towards the road, then paused.  What was she intending on doing?  Riding right into the Spartans?  She had a handful of fighters against a hundred hardened soldiers.

“Let’s go.”  Bennu motioned with his hand. “Let’s make way there, through the trees.  Quick like.  Got to go find the Gen’rl .”

“Go Boo.” Dori agreed, tugging on Shadow’s mane. “C’mon, mama! Go go go!”

Gabrielle turned Shadows head and squeezed her with her knees, heading for the trail Bennu pointed out.   She dodged between the trees and fell in line in back of Jessan, who was in the lead with his big, shaggy stallion Eris.

There was no time to think about the prisoners. No time to wonder if they were someone she knew, or cared about.    With any luck, she wouldn’t have time to worry of any of that or anything else for that matter.

There was too much to think about.  She still hurt too much inside. The memory of that sudden emptiness was just around the corner of her mind, waiting for a lull to slip back in and make her remember what it was like to lose half her soul.

They headed down hill and a few minutes later were cantering, the path they were on now wide enough to easily pass between the trees and they started making better time.  

Gabrielle was glad enough to focus on the trail, sweeping the forest around them with her eyes as they followed Jessan, spotting a thinning in the trees ahead that suddenly prickled her nerves. “Jess!” She called, pointing when he turned to look. “Watch out!”

The forest dweller half stood in his stirrups, shading his eyes as he tried to see what had alerted her, and then it became evident as the leaves parted and they could see color between them, the flash of chestnut and bay of horses hides and silver of armor.  “Ware!” Jessan bellowed. “Get ready to fight!”

“Uh oh.” Dori grabbed Shadows mane as Gabrielle reached down and released the ties on her staff, letting it drop into her hand as the way ahead was filled with men and horses and the flash of weapons. “Mama…”

“Bad mens.” Gabrielle was almost glad of the coming battle.  It was something she could focus completely on.  “Watch out!” She called behind her “Ambush!”

Everything turned to thunder, as Solari and Cait both came galloping forward, swords drawn with Bennu and his men right behind them.  Gabrielle pulled Shadow to one side and as they came even with her, she released the mares head and charged with them.

The path ahead was blocked and she ducked as an arrow came slashing through the branches, clamping down with her legs as Xena had taught her and bringing her staff across her body in a two handed grip. “Dori, stay down.”

“Yeah!”  Solari let out a yodel, and they crashed into the ambushers, close quarter fighting in the scant clearing making it hard to see who was battling who and which was the swords were moving. “Bastards! Die ya!”

Gabrielle swung her staff at a fast moving body, which got close enough for her eyes to focus and they did, the familiarity of the design on the armor suddenly becoming clear to her. She let out a yell of her own. “Hold IT !” She smacked the man’s sword out of his hand with a hard strike. “Hold it!  They’re from Athens! Hold it Hold it!”

The man grabbed his stinging hand as he staggered back, lifting his helmed head and staring at her.  “Hold!” He yelled himself after a moment. “Men! Stand fast! Don’t attack!”

The battle wound it self down rapidly, men stepping back and forest dwellers sheathing swords and fangs.  Bennu released the man he had grabbed and hauled up onto his saddle and for a moment, everyone just stared at each other.

The man Gabrielle had disarmed pulled his helm off, revealing hair as blond as hers, and a familiar face. “Gabrielle.”

“Jens.”  Gabrielle exhaled. 

They looked at each other. “What are you doing here?” They both asked at the same time. 

He sighed. “Looking for Xena.” He said.  “But all I have found so far is dead men, and rumors of worse.”

“Worse.” Gabrielle extended her hand to him. “But we don’t have time to stand around and talk about it.  Let’s go.”

He gripped her arm and released it. “Have you heard about the war?”

“Have you heard about the Spartans invading from Thrace?”

Jens stared. “You’ve trumped me.” He admitted. “Lead on.”

**

“Xena?”

Xena could tell by the tone it wasn’t the first time she’d been called.  She lifted her head from where it was resting on her fist and regarded Ephiny quietly. “Yes?”

Ephiny sat down on the deck and offered her a steaming mug.  “Mulled cider.” She said. “They’ve got a brazier set up over there.”

Over there was the bow, where many of the crew were clustered.  From the hold, a dirty gray smoke was still issuing, evidence of the destruction belowdecks.   Everyone was outside, forced to take shelter there since the holds were now half collapsed and dangerous, the sails now their only transport.

“Thanks.” Xena took the mug without protest.  She suspected she was in a kind of shock, and a sip of the warm beverage burned in her guts bringing a welcome boost of energy.  ‘They get it out?”

“I think so.” Ephiny was glad she had her back to the rail, bracketed between the two horses as they stood quietly, the wind whipping their manes.  “I don’t think they got any of the rowers out.”

“No.” Xena could imagine the charnel pit the hold had become. “Poor bastards.”

“Mm.” The Amazon grunted.  “That bitch made it out.” She pointed at Milena. Covered in dirt and soot, the woman was tied to the mast, her dirty clothes stained deeper with blood. “They found her hiding near the armory. Good thing she didn’t get inside.”

Xena leaned back against the side of the ship and cradled the mug in her hands. She hurt in a lot of places, and the gash on her arm was still oozing a little.  “The two men with her are dead.” She remarked, after a moment’s silence. “They’re the ones that jumped me.”

Ephiny studied her with a sideways glance.

“One of them dragged the lantern down an set the straw on fire.”  The warrior continued in a very quiet voice. “That’s what started it.”

“You want me to fix up that cut?” Ephiny indicted her arm.

“No. It’s fine.”  Xena half shook her head. “It’ll close.”  She took another sip of the cider.  Flashes of her experience belowdecks kept surfacing uncomfortably, and she wished everything would stop shifting in her vision.

It was like there was a low level buzz going on in her head, blocking things out. She knew there were things going on around her but try as she might, dredging up the will to care seemed beyond her at the moment.

Iolaus came back across the deck and joined them. “Oh boy.” He sighed.  “You know, if I could get out and push this thing faster back to Thera, I would.” He said. 

Pony lifted her hand. “I’m in. “  She was sitting quietly on the other side of Ephiny, just watching all the confused activity on deck.  

“Me too.” Ephiny agreed. “Never wanted to see land as much as I do right now.”

Xena also nodded, but remained silent.  The memory of being under the wall replayed in her mind again, and she exhaled, rubbing her eyes.

She knew Gabrielle had felt it.  That sharp jolt of horror had been unmistakable and now the ache in her guts was poignant and familiar, a reaching out that was full of both hope and fear at once.  The knowledge that they were so far apart was now a growing torture.

“You really gave me a scare in there, Xena.” Iolaus spoke up, distracting her.   “When that wall dropped on you and those guys jumped on top of it.. boy.”

Xena looked at him.  “Wasn’t my favorite moment.” She said after a pause.  “Glad they got off me.”

“Got off you?” Iolaus blinked at her in surprise. “Yeah I guess you couldn’t see what happened… they were forcing that wall down on you and then .. well.. they just went flying.” He gestured with his hands.  “And that wall came to pieces like it was soggy driftwood.  You took it apart.”

Xena nodded, and took a sip of cider.  “I don’t much like things falling on me.” She tried to remember doing what Iolaus had related, and failed.  The memory just wasn’t there, not of that. All she recalled was the pain, and the darkness.

And the voice from the shadows.  Gabrielle’s voice, without question.  As though her partner had grabbed her and pulled her back with all the strength of her will.

Again. 

But this time there had been no warning, since Xena herself had none.  She hadn’t expected the aborted ambush to turn so bad so fast, nor seen any danger in the wall that had separated the horses, from the men’s work area.

“Well, who does?” Iolaus patted her shoulder.  “I sure don’t.  And I have to admit it, Xena. I’m glad those bastards aren’t around anymore to cause trouble.”

“Me too.” Pony agreed. “I just hope this tub’ll make it back in one piece.”

As if in answer to her comment, the wind started picking up and filling the sails, and Xena could hear the slap of the waves against the hull as they surged forward.   It gave her a profound sense of relief, and she only just prevented herself from getting up and going to the bow.

  Her focus was narrowing, she suddenly realized. She didn’t really care about getting to Thera, or the army, or the Spartans or getting home to Amphipolis.  Right now all she cared about was finding Gabrielle, and giving her a hug.

She felt like Gabrielle needed it.  She could almost feel the distress .. no, she could feel the distress she was in. It was like a hand clenching her heart.

Really.  Everything else just paled out into insignificance and she closed her eyes, leaning back against the side wall so she could imagine doing just that, sensing the warmth of Gabrielle’s body and the solidness of it as she put her arms around her in her mind and squeezed.

She could feel the exhale of her breath, and the muscles shift under her touch as Gabrielle returned the affection in her imagination.

She had no idea if her soulmate would sense it. But it felt real enough to her, and some of the ache inside her chest relaxed.

A faint spray came over the rail, and dusted her face with sea salt.  Xena opened her eyes and reached up to wipe it away, at last seeing her surroundings through something other than a complete mental fog.

Now the smell of the salt water made her nose twitch, and the sounds of the crew yelling penetrated her awareness.  She could taste the cider on her tongue as something more than just warmth and she shifted a little, drawing her legs up crossed under her and leaned forward to stretch out her stiffening back.

“Xena?”

She swung her head around to face Ephiny.

“You okay?”  The Amazon asked, watching her face closely. “You seemed a little out o it.”

Dying does that.  Xena lifted the cider towards her. “Nah. I’m fine.” She demurred. “I was just thinking.” She flexed her free hand, feeling the sharp pain as her skin tightened where she’d scraped her knuckles.  “Damn lucky they put that fire out.”

“Very.” Iolaus agreed. “But unfortunately most of that deck is wrecked. We’ll have to keep the horses up here until we get back to Thera.”  He patted the mare’s leg. “Hope they don’t mind poop on the poop deck.”

Xena smiled in reaction.  “Well, we’re heading into better weather.” She indicated the sky.  “So it wont’ be too bad up here I guess.”

“I’ll be happy to sit right here.” Ephiny said. “With those skies clearing, it’ll be a beautiful night.”

Xena set her cup down and stood up, managing to keep the movement smooth despite the screaming outrage of her overused body.  “Gonna take a walk.” She eased out from their little camp and moved along the deck slowly, letting her muscles stretch out a little.

She hurt.  The collapsing wall had bruised her back and her knees ached intensely. She suspected she’d pulled more than one something in doing whatever she’d done to get the damn thing off her. It felt like she had when she’d launched herself into a mountain wall, in fact and she seriously craved a nice hot spring to soak in.

“Getting too damned old for this.” She muttered, shaking her head.  She caught sight of Denius approaching her, and slowed, waiting for the patrician to catch up.   “Yeah?”

“Xena.” The man looked as exhausted as she felt. “They tell me those prisoners attacked you.”

“Yeah.” Xena nodded. “Guess they were pissed off I turned em in.” She paused and put a hand on the rail. “Doesn’t matter now.”

Denius nodded. “I know. They’re dead.” He turned and looked across the deck. “That one remains.” He pointed at Milena.  “But I have spoken with the rest of my party and with the captain.  We feel she deserves to die for her complicity.” He hesitated. “What are your thoughts?”

Xena considered.  “A lot of people deserve to die.” She acknowledged. “But she didn’t attack anyone down there. She wasn’t around. Just the two men were.”

“Even so.” Denius shook his head. “I find myself mortified that my need to bring these criminals to justice overwhelmed my responsibility to keep my guests safe onboard.  If harm had come to you, Xena, I do not know what I would have done.”

The warrior  wasn’t sure how to feel about that.  “A lot of people died down there because of them.” She acknowledged slowly.

“Exactly” Denius was nodding his head. “Five of my soldiers, three crew, the rowers… terrible.”

Almost a retired ex-warlord among them.  Xena considered  “Let me think about it.” She said. “I’m going to.. “ She glanced down at herself. She was covered in soot and blood. “Clean up. We can talk later.”

The man nodded. “Fair enough.” He studied Xena. “You are bleeding.”

The warrior examined the still seeping wound on her arm.  It was deeper than she’d realized, and belatedly she wished she’d let Ephiny sew it up.  “Yeah.”  She turned and started for the door to the cabins. 

Her hand was on the door and she was entering the hallway before the closeness of the space suddenly made it self very present to her, and she stopped abruptly, her knees shaking a little as her heart started to pound.

Damn it!  She took a breath. It had been a long time since…    She forced herself to keep moving forward, shoving open the door to the cabin and lunging for the window to swing it open before the door shut behind her.

The light was her only salvation.   She gripped the bars and sucked in the fresh outside air, letting her heartbeat start to slow and her breathing to relax.

After a moment, she let her head rest against the iron. It had been years since she’d had to deal with that insidious terror and now it seemed fresh and sharp, bringing back old memories into vivid relief.

She was glad she was alone.  This was never something she liked sharing, even with Gabrielle, who if anyone did, understood its hold on her.    She’d worked herself into a place in her head where she could deal with the fear, most of the time, and it hadn’t bothered her in a while.

Not even in Athens, crawling through the tunnels. Probably because that tunnel, far from being a trap, had been their miracle route of escape from a fire she’d feared they’d die from.

But this.

Xena took a deep breath and released it. The entrapment below had stirred that old fear and made it sudden and relevant to her.  That terror of being held down, in the dark, with no escape and no breath…

She felt her mouth go dry.  Then she resolutely put  the image away and turned, regarding the small cabin with a sense of distaste.  It’s cramped confines now moved past merely inconvenient and into the realm of unbearable.

She could barely force herself to sit down on the bunk, hyper aware of the wooden walls around her.  Only the fact that she knew getting herself wound up in a full on freak out would drive her partner nuts kept the lid on it.

She sat there for a few minutes, waiting for the discomfort to fade a little.  Then she pulled over her basket and rummaged in it, glad beyond words at the little innkeepers courtesy.  She took the wineskin and tilted it back, sucking the sweet, rich liquid into her mouth and swallowing it.

Several swallows later, and she was able to relax enough to think about getting herself cleaned up.   She set the skin down and stood, stripping out of her mostly ruined clothing and tossing it aside.  Going over to the water basin, she picked up a bit of soap and linen and washed her skin, grimacing a bit as the soap entered her cuts and stung.

“Ow.” She scrubbed her shoulders, far as she could reach, then her torso, She twisted cautiously, feeling the strain in the muscles on either side of her body still sore from keeping the ship off the rocks days back.

Being clean felt good though.   She washed her hair, then dumped the remaining water in the basin over her to rinse off, glancing down as the wooden deck boards quickly absorbed the moisture.

It smelled a little smokey, from the fire.   She picked up a dry piece of fabric and gently sopped the water off her body, patting herself dry and feeling much the better for it.   She went back over to where her saddlebags were and pulled out her leathers, donning them despite the discomfort of the leather against her raw skin.

She tightened the straps, then picked up her healer’s kit and sat back down on the bunk with it, as close to the window as she could get.   With a sigh, she threaded a bone needle with some thin gut, then she braced her arm against her thigh and started putting neat stitches into herself.

Not a pleasant task.  Xena felt her lips twitch every time she punched the needle into her flesh and wished for the nth time she had Gabrielle at her side to take the task on.    The pain made the fingers of that hand contract and she had to wait for her muscles to relax before each stitch.

A knock came at the door and she cursed under her breath.   “Yes?”

The door opened, and Pony stuck her head in. “Hi.”

“You lose the coin toss?” A faint, wry smile appeared on Xena’s face.

“Yeah.” Pony didn’t bother dissembling.  “Okay to come in?”

“Sure.”

Pony entered and settled herself on the floor.   “Want me to do that?” She indicated the stitching. “We get almost as much practice as you do at it.”

“Nah.”

Pony nodded. “Figured you’d say that.” She looked up at Xena, her caramel colored eyes mild.  “This whole thing really sucks.”

That about encapsulated how Xena felt, and she grunted in agreement.  “We’re in decent weather now at least.” She glanced briefly at the window.  “Good thing because I’m sleeping out on deck tonight.”

Pony blinked. “Um.” She shifted. “Listen if we’re crowding you here we can do that.”

“You’re not.”

The Amazon pondered. “You think they’re going to do something to the horses?”

Xena glanced up. “If you want to accept that as an excuse, sure.” She went back to her work. “I just want to do it.”

“Okay.” 

Xena got the end of the cut, tying off the gut and bending her head to bite the tough sinew through with her teeth.  She straightened up and regarded her handiwork, the she put the needle back in her kit and then dusted the area with a powdered herb she used to protect against infection.

She decided against a bandage, closing the kit and taking a few sips from the wineskin instead.  “Ephiny doing all right?” She tilted her head to one side to watch Pony’s face.  The Amazon looked tired, and more than a little overwhelmed. Her face was pale, and there were dark circles under her eyes.

“Better than me.” Pony admitted frankly.  “I don’t like this stuff, Xena. I don’t’ want to be you. I wanna go home.”

Xena exhaled. “Sometimes I don’t’ want to be me either.” She responded.  “Like right now.”

Pony tilted her head in question.

There was an urge in her, to talk about it. But even as she thought about that, the urge passed, and her natural inclination reasserted itself.   “Anyway.” She removed fold of waybread and some cheese from the basket and nudged it towards Pony.  “With any luck, we’ll be back in Thera tomorrow night.”

“You really going to run the army then?”

Xena chewed for a minute and didn’t answer.  She swallowed.  “I’m going to do whatever it takes to go find Gabrielle. “ She said. “If men with swords want to follow me doing that, I could care less.”

“What about the Spartans?”

“Don’t give a damn.”

“What about home?”

“Don’t give a damn.” Xena repeated.  “I got one thing on my mind. “ She took another bite. “You and Eph are welcome to ride with me, if you want.”

Pony grunted.

“Just being honest.”

Pony grunted again.

**

 Gabrielle urged Shadow onto the road, leaning forward as the horse climbed up the embankment and joined the half of her group that had preceded her.   It was dark, and very quiet, and they started forward as soon as the last of them scrambled up to try and make time up where they could.

“By the gods.” Jens wiped his forehead with his sleeve.  

They numbered now almost two dozen and Gabrielle was a little worried about the size of the group and keeping track of everyone. She held on as the pace increased to a canter and the breeze blew her hair back off her sweaty forehead and cooled her off.

It was overcast and hot.  She could hear rumblings of thunder and smell rain on the air but no one was thinking of stopping knowing the Spartans were right on their heels.

She was exhausted.  Most of the others were too including the dozen Athenian soldiers that now were their escort.  Jens had listened to her for only a few breaths before deciding his mission was now moot and the soldiers had melded in with her Amazons, her militia and her forest dwellers in a broad and unlikely bunch.

Not really different from the last  war though. She’d spent a lot of time then getting different groups to cooperate. 

“We can make good time now, till dawn.”  Solari was riding next to her, with Bennu on the other side.  Cait and the rest of the Amazons were ringed around them, and the militia and the forest dwellers had taken the lead.  

“Yeah.” Gabrielle tried to shake off the need to sleep.   Dori had snoozed on and off the whole night, but now the child was clutching the rim of the saddle and peering ahead, enjoying the pace.  “You doing okay, Dori?”

“Go fast.” Dori patted the saddle with both hands. “Mama it’s goooood.”

One bit of amusement in a day of pain.   “See, I told you we’d go fast, and find Xena.”  Gabrielle resettled her knees, knowing from the ache that now was spreading up her back that she’d pay for the long hours riding.

There was no stopping.  They’d already made that decision.   The Spartan advance force was no more than four candlemarks behind them, and Gabrielle was afraid their choice to stay off the road was cutting that time down as they fought their way through forest and underbrush.

So here they were.

 “Gabrielle, it’s so hard to believe this is going on.” Jens said.  “Our captains in Athens would never have thought it. They’re still trading envoys with Sparta even as we speak!”

Gabrielle didn’t consider what the Spartans were doing was actually that startling. “But Jens… if you wanted to win a war, wouldn’t sneaking up on your opponents and attacking them from the rear be.. uh…  right?”

The Athenian guard captain sighed.  “That’s now how we do war.” He explained. “I know… well, I’m sure Xena would think what they are doing makes sense. Maybe even I would, if I wasn’t part of our army.”

The bard was glad to know apparently what Xena would think made sense and what she thought made sense seemed to be meshing.  “Why not?”

“Well.” Jens settled his gloves more firmly on his hands. He was dressed as a proper soldier of Athens, with a set of plate armor and a thick tabard over it.   “We know that Sparta, and us also, treat war in a much more formal way. There are things you must go thorugh, Gabrielle, when you are pitting two great city states against each other.”

“Except that Sparta seems to have forgotten that since they are charging up the road back there after us.”  Gabrielle said.

“Are you sure they’re Spartans?”

“Is there some other city state that could field an army of thousands you’re expecting to attack us?” Gabrielle countered.  “Yes, I’m sure. I saw them. I also had some of them visit Amphipolis and they definitely were Spartans.”

“Visiting?” Jens eyed her.

“They wanted me to lead their army.” Gabrielle pronounced, with a certain exhausted internal glee. “Since they couldn’t get Xe to.”

Jens rode alongside her for a few minutes in silence. “Is that supposed to be funny?” He finally asked.

“Not to me.” The bard answered.  “They did say something about the goddess Artemis telling them what to do.” She glanced behind her.  “You do know Artemis is the patron goddess of the Amazons, right?”

Jens seemed surprised. “Really?” He frowned. “But we’re…”  He broke off abruptly.

“You’re recruiting Amazons.” Gabrielle said. “For what, Jens? To throw them at the Spartans?”

He remained silent.

“They bought the pitch.” The bard kept the sharpness of her voice down.  “That’s where Xe is, by the way. Chasing down some of my people who tried to stop the ones who think being target practice is a good idea.”

“That’s not what the idea was.” Jens protested. “Where did you hear that?  The Amazons are trusted allies near Athens, and they were wanted to help us infiltrate the Spartan marshlands when we took ship to attack them.”

Hm.  Gabrielle pondered that.  “Why them?”

“Why not? Are they not warriors?” Jens frowned. “They were not conscripts.  We were offering handsome pay for the help and land for them.  My captain’s sister knows the head of the Amazons near us and always they were looking for good land to settle on.”

Was it true?  The bard knew a moment of self doubt now, and she wondered.

“But if what you say is so, that Artemis is their patron…” Jens now looked very worried. “I wonder if it’s a trick that they were so eager to say yes.”

They rode through a section of forest,  the sound of their horses sounding muffled now that they were between the trees.  The clouds were getting thicker over head, and in the distance flashes of lightning lit up the sky.

“But wait, Gabrielle.” Jens spoke up after being silent a while. “Aren’t you an Amazon?”

Ah, the central question of her life these days.   “They came and asked us to join in the effort.” Gabrielle avoided the question.  “I turned them down. We’ve had enough war in our homeland.”

Jens moved his horse closer to hers.  “Were you directed by Artemis?”

“No.”  Gabrielle answered honestly.  “We just want to be left alone.  Two of my people, close friends of mine, decided to go after those Amazons and try to talk them out of joining up.  I don’t know what the intent was, but the Spartans think they’re just fodder.”

Jens almost pulled his horse up. “They know?” He asked, in an astonished voice.

The bard nodded.

“Spies.” 

Probably true.  Gabrielle slid forward a little and gripped the reins with one hand, sliding the other around Dori’s body.  “It just seems like everyone is on a different piece of parchment in this.” She said. “We tried to warn the first town we saw on the way from Amphipolis and almost ended up hurt.”

“This areas a lost cause.” Jens said. “We need to get to Thera, and fortify it. There are soldiers there, men we can use to block them.  Then I can send the fastest ship to Athens.”

Gabrielle felt the first drops of rain. “Gods be damned.” She sighed, releasing Dori and digging in her pack for her cloak.   Despite the heat the last thing she wanted to do was ride wet again, suspecting she and Dori were both on the edge of getting sick.

Too much running, too little rest, too few good square meals.  Recipe for illness, as Xena was always telling her even when both of them were guilty of the same thing at the same time for usually good reasons.

She got the cloak out and shook it open, settling it around her shoulders and around Dori as the rain started coming down in earnest.  The pace had slowed as the weather worsened, and now they were only at an amble.

Gabrielle got her hood up over her head and wiped the water out of her eyes.   To either side, the Amazons were donning cloaks also, but the soldiers and her militia suffered the rain in silence as it started turning the road into a muddy mess.

She felt as though it was conspiring against them, and then, she thought about that and wondered if it really was possible. After all, there were gods and goddesses involved .

“Damned rain.” Solari grunted.  “We can’t catch a break, huh?”

Gabrielle could sense the grim mood. “Well.” She raised her voice.  “It’s annoying for us, sure, but it’s also slowing them down. They wont’ be able to move those wagons in this mud shortly.”

The wagons, the siege engines, all would be mired down if the rain continued, and as they considered that, expressions around her perked up.  It seemed a little ridiculous to her, since what she’d said was completely obvious and they should have thought of it themselves.

Shouldn’t they?

Gabrielle got an insight into something Xena had once told her.  That being a leader was fine, and she always enjoyed doing that, but sometimes when you were too good of a leader, the people you led sometimes stopped thinking for themselves and depended on you for that.

At the time, she’d thought the warrior was insulting her.  Gabrielle remembered clearly how angry she’d gotten, accusing her soulmate of saying she was stupid.

Xena had almost gotten mad back.  It was a sort of singular reaction, because there wasn’t any reason for her not to get mad but she didn’t.  Her body had tensed up and she’d started to get into that exasperated pose with her hands on her hips and then just stopped.

Gabrielle had stopped.  They’d just looked at each other.

They’d both shrugged and decided to go swimming. It was one of those moments they just didn’t want to deal with each other and by then they’d learned to just move on.

Now, she understood what Xena meant.  No one around her was stupid. She wasn’t stupid. People just sometimes like to be lead, including her.   “So let’s keep positive, guys.   We’re doing good. It’s just a little water for us.”

The militia men chuckled, and Jessan dropped back a few paces. “Got a story to tell us, Gabrielle? Maybe something funny?”

“Mama, can you tell the cow pweese?” Dori spoke up for the first time in a while.  “Wanna see Boo in my head.”

Oh dear.  Gabrielle looked down at her daughter, who was, given the circumstances, being as good as any child her age could have hoped to be.   “Honey…”

“Pweese?” Dori begged. “Mama that’s my favrite story.”

“Cow?” Solari looked at her.

Now she was surrounded by a tight cluster of riders, conveniently blocking most of the rain.  “Okay.” She said. “But you all have to promise me cross your heart that you’ll never mention this to Xena.”

Solari’s eyebrows hiked.

“And anyway, that’s a good idea unless you want to get punched.” The bard concluded.  “So everyone agree?”

Everyone nodded hastily.

“Moo!” Dori yodeled.

“One day,  we were all out for a walk.” Gabrielle started the story.   “We were walking around the whole day, and all of a sudden, a big storm caught up with us and picked up all sorts of things into it and carried them off over the hills.”

“Seen that type of thing once or twice.” Jens allowed. “Funnels.”

 

“Yes.” Gabrielle said. “This was the biggest one I’d ever seen, and two of the things it picked up were me and Xena.”

“I remember that.” Solari said. “Scared the crap out of me.”

“Me too.” Gabrielle agreed. 

“Mama, what about the cow?” Dori frowned at this interruption in her favorite narrative. “You go with the cow? You never said.”

No, she hadn’t. “Well, Dori, you know I think I thought you were too little for me to tell about that before.” Gabrielle ruffled her daughter’s hair.  “So now you get to hear the other side of that story, okay?”

Dori seemed dubious.

“So Xena and I got sucked up into this cloud.  It was really cold, and we were moving very fast and I don’t mind telling you I was petrified.”  Gabrielle said.  The noise of the horses hooves was muffled now, the mud obscuring the sharp stacatto pocks. 

“How high were you?” Jens asked.

“I have no idea. Last thing I wanted to do was look down.”  The bard said.  “We were in the cloud for a little while, then the wind started to die down, and we felt ourselves falling.”

“Mama!” Dori’s eyes were wide.

‘Yeah.” Gabrielle nodded.  “It was very scary, honey.  But it was okay, because Xena was there, and we were holding onto each other, so we knew we’d be all right.”

“Boo fix ever’ting.”

“We fell down into a barn. But Xena knew how to do it, and we went right through the roof and we landed in a big pool of mud.”

There were a few startled chuckles.

“Good thing.” The bard said. “If we’d hit anything hard we’d have died.” She let the silence go on a moment.  “But we didn’t. We fell into the mud, and we were surrounded by piggies!”  She smiled at Dori.

“Piggies!” Dori’s eyes lit up. “Mama! You bring me one!”

“Well, we couldn’t, sweetie, because the mama piggie loved her little babies a lot, and she didn’t want us to take any of them away from her, just like Xena and I wouldn’t want you taken away, right?”

“Buppits.” Dori thumped her heels against Shadow’s neck.

“Cute.”  Jessan grinned.

“Not really.” Gabrielle muttered. “Sow had a worse attitude than Xe.”

“Oooo.”

“So anyway,  we went outside and it was raining, so we started to walk again, over the hills and the forest and all the way home.” Gabrielle related.  “But the storm that picked us up, hadn’t stopped there.  On the way it picked up a house, and a mouse, and a sow, and a cow.  Right Dori?”

“Moo!”

“And it carried the house and the mouse to the meadow and put them down, then it took the sow and the cow and when it got to the river, it put the sow down.  But the cow was still in the air, turning around and around.”

“Cow Cow Cow.” Dori bobbed her head back and forth.  “Round and round.”

“And where did the storm put the cow?” Gabrielle asked.

“Cow came down on Gramma’s barn!” Dori said. “And it walked round and round and went moo!!”

“Is that true?”  Jessan whispered.

“Believe it or not, yes.”  The bard whispered back.   “So grandma went outside and saw the cow and said now how do we get that cow back down?”

“Get the cow!”

“And how do we get the cow, Grandma asked?”  Gabrielle found herself enjoying the tale, not so much for the content which was childlike in the telling, but in the happiness in her daughter’s face on hearing it and the memories it brought to her of a time of returning if fragile happiness.

“Gramma knew!”

“Grandma turned around, and who did she see?”

“Boo!!” Dori threw her hands up  “Boo knew what to do!”

“Boo?” Jens asked, from slightly behind her.

“That’s what Dori calls big X.” Solari informed him.  “Mama was already taken so that’s what the kid picked.” She saw the confused look on the man’s face and just grinned.

“Xena knew exactly what do to. She climbed up onto the roof and she went over to the cow and she said…”

“Go down brown cow!”

“Gabrielle.”  Jessan interrupted. “Horses behind us. Closing fast.”

Damn.  Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder and saw the smudge in the darkness. “Okay, let’s go.” She let out a whistle. ‘Move people!”

Jens came up next to her. “Spartans!? We should fight them.”

“Was a legion after us.”  Bennu broke in. “Need to find a spot to turn guard.”

The horses lunged into a labored canter in the mud and Gabrielle tucked Dori back under her cloak. “Finish the story later honey.”

“Boo got the cow down.” Dori said.  “Mama, I’m scared.”

“I know.” Gabrielle loosened the ties on her staff. “Mama’s scared too, Dori.  Just hang on, and we’ll do the best we can.”

“Bend in the road ahead!” Jessan called back.

“Look for a spot to stop and defend after that.” Gabrielle yelled back at him.  “We need good cover!”

Lightning flashed overhead, and thunder rolled so loudly, it almost deafened her.  Gabrielle grimaced as Dori screamed in fear.

Can’t catch a break.  Damn it.

**

The stars were out in force.   Xena lay on her back on the deck and watched them wheel overhead, savoring the space and the peace and the gentle rasp of the water against the hull.

She was using her saddlebag as a pillow, and had her furs rigged as a hammock stretched across the sidewall between the two horses as it swung with the movement of the ship.

First peace she’d felt in days.  Xena studied the bright pinpoints of light, aware of being relatively comfortable with her cloak tucked around her. She could hear people on the deck around her, but the spot they’d put the horses in was isolated and so far everyone was keeping their distance.

Ephiny and Pony had accepted her abdication of the cabin with some bemusement.   They had offered to trade spaces with her, but after a few minutes of her glaring, they knocked it off.   So here she was, her head not far from the equine Iolaus’s listening to him rip at the haybag she’d managed to salvage from the wreckage below.

Life for the moment seemed okay.   She could taste the herbs on the back of her tongue ; a little bitter and a touch salty – from the cup she’d taken to ease the aches and now the discomfort had finally faded.

It felt good not to hurt so much, at least for a little while.  Xena tried not to think about how much damage she’d done to herself and hoped some rest would let her heal.   She was tired, but even so, and even with the herbs putting a little bit of fog between her and the world she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to drift off to sleep.

Bad dreams were nothing new to her.  Xena traced a pattern of stars over her head.  She just wasn’t sure she wanted to wake screaming and have to explain that to all the refugees and crew around her.  It was embarrassing, would be so even if it was just her usual ego involved but she was counting on her reputation giving her leverage with some of these people and having them hear her yelling her head off set bad precedent.

Footsteps approached her and she slowly lowered her hand, closing her fingers on the hilt of her sword. 

“Xena?”

Ah. “C’mon over.” Xena relaxed her hand, and turned her head as Ephiny picked her way across the scattered straw and came to stand at her side. “Something wrong?  Thought you’d be sleeping.”

“I was, for a little while.” Ephiny said. “I came out here to check on you, make sure you were okay.”

Xena’s finely arched eyebrows hiked up.  “I already have a mother back in Amphipolis.” She commented, but smiled a trifle.

“I know.”  The Amazon leaned against the side of the ship, gazing out at the sea.  “But I was talking to some of the sailors who were down there fighting and they told me what happened with you and half the ship falling on you.” She turned and regarded Xena.  “And I talked to Iolaus.”

“Yeah.”  Xena wasn’t sure whether to be annoyed or mildly grateful for the concern.  “Couple of close minutes in there.” She admitted. “But it worked out all right.  I’m just pissed off and sore from the last couple of days.”

“I can imagine.” Ephiny moved back over and put her hands on the edge of Xena’s hammock. “Iolaus was telling me some of the stuff you went through.  I have to tell you I’m feeling like a first class jerk listening to that and knowing we were the reason.”

“Ah.” Xena waved off the concern with a motion of her hand.  “Gabrielle and I tell each other that’s what friends are for, right?”

The Amazons’ hands tightened on the furs and then relaxed.  “I want to make sure you get back to Gabrielle in one piece then, friend.” She leaned forward a little.  “Because I can’t face her if you don’t. So please be careful, okay?”

Aw.  “She wouldn’t blame you.” Xena answered, in a quiet tone.

“No, she’d blame herself, since she sent you.” Ephiny sighed. “Pony was right. I should have listened to her, and stayed my ass right back in the village.”

There was definitely some truth to that.  However. “Ephiny, knock it off.” Xena said. “If I had a dinar for every damn time I did something stupid we could have bought half of Athens by now.” 

Ephiny smiled.

“And if I had a half dinar for every time I had to pull Gabrielle out of trouble…”

“I get the picture.” Ephiny gazed affectionately at her. “Thanks, Xena. I really mean that.”

Xena studied Ephiny’s face, remembering all the things they’d had between them over the years.  They’d met when Ephiny was just a junior warrior, one of Melosa’s bodyguard.

Long road.  “I’m all right.” She said, again. “I took some stuff. Just want to get some rest before we hit Thera again.”

Ephiny hesitated, then she nodded. “Okay.  Sorry to be a hen.” She patted the warrior’s shoulder. “See ya in the morning. Hope it’s dull till then.”

She ducked past Iolaus, giving him a scratch on the ears before she headed back toward the cabins.

Xena smiled briefly.  Gabrielle would be charmed to hear of the concern. She relaxed in her hammock, feeling the herbs start to work on her, drawing her slowly towards a light sleep she hoped would be peaceful.

The thought of falling sleep worried her a little. She knew she had Iolaus nearby and he was trained to protect her, but still. He was young, and he wasn’t his mother who had long experience knowing what to do to help her.

It would have been safer staying inside the cabin. But the thought of being inside the cramped space even now made her queasy.  So the hammock was the best of bad choices.  She wriggled into a more comfortable position and tried to relax, letting the sway of the ship lull her again.

What was Gabrielle up to?  This late Xena figured her soulmate was asleep somewhere.  She had figured her to be home, or in the village, but now she wasn’t entirely sure where the bard would be given the potential crisis around them.

Something inside her was telling her she wasn’t where Xena expected her to be.

Something was…  she felt a tug, all of a sudden, a strange and uncomfortable sensation that made her body tense up and her breathing restart with something of a hiccup.

She closed her eyes and focused her attention on her partner and was drawn immediately into a whirlwind of concern and frustration.  She felt her hands clench in reaction and she reached for her sword despite having nothing near to wield it on. 

She could hear the thunder of hoofbeats, and feel the sting of rain against her face. Gabrielle’s breathing was coming a little hard, and she could feel the bard’s racing heartbeat as though she were there with her hand on Gabrielle’s chest.

So real.

She could hear Dori’s voice, and the desire to be where her family was felt like it was tearing a hole in her.

Xena no longer was aware of the ship around her. Now she was caught up in whatever was going on with her soulmate and as she heard thunder overhead she became aware of many bodies surrounding the bard.

Not at home, that was obvious.

A voice, Bennus.  A brief glimpse of a face, Solari’s.  A sense  of urgency all around that made her think they were running from something.

Running from someone.

She could see ahead, briefly.  The rain paused, and she could see a road stretching before Gabrielle, a road familiar to her as she recognized the landscape as one she’d recently rode through. 

They were running hard, the horses splashing up mud and sweeping around a curve through a small valley.

She could sense Gabrielle searching for something. People were yelling around her, but she couldn’t focus on the words but if they were being chased she reasoned her soulmate was looking for some place to hide and defend.

She flicked through her memory of the area.  It was mostly scrub brush lowlands not far from where Ephiny had met up with the stranger Amazons.  There weren’t too many towns, no caves or anything like that to hide up in.

Her heart started beating faster.   In her mind, she was seeing through Gabrielle’s eyes, and her partner tipped her head down briefly to look at Dori tucked in front of her in the saddle.

Dori was holding on to the horses mane and her eyes were big, as she shook her head and blinked to avoid the rain. She turned to look up at her mother and for a second Xena was looking down into her daughter’s eyes.

Then Gabrielle picked her head up and looked forward again and Xena remembered a spot they might be able to use. She focused her attention on it, reaching out to try and force Gabrielle to look in the direction she wanted her to go.

Not easy. There was no true connection there, the bard had no idea of what she was trying to do.  It was akin to what she’d felt when she’d had to take over Gabrielle’s body only this time she wasn’t on the other side of the veil.

She didn’t stop to think about what that inferred.  Unable to get the bard to look, she concentrated instead on what the place looked like, making a picture in her head and projecting it at Gabrielle as hard as she could hoping she’d remember her own memories of the place.

Then it was gone, and she was only aware of anxiety and urgency as Gabrielle faced whatever it was she was facing.  Frantically, she reached out again, trying to make the view reappear, but all she got was tense emotion, and then a brief sense of triumph.

Had she gotten the message?  The warrior exhaled in a growl of frustration. “Damn it!”

Xena let her eyes open. She looked up at the stars and listened now to the thunder of her own heartbeat. 

Staying in the hammock was impossible. She rolled out of it and sheathed her sword in a single motion, shaking herself to get the nervous tension out. 

The deck of the ship was almost eerily peaceful compared to what she’d seen in her head.   She went to Io’s side and leaned against him, looking out over the huddled figures of the crew, passengers and refuges who no longer would or could use the hold for shelter.

The bodies of the two thieves had been pitched overboard, along with the perished slaves from the oar compartment.  Two more of the merchants had gotten caught in the crossfire below and also died.

Across the deck, the four strange Amazons were watching her, huddled together in a corner and even from where she was, Xena could see the glares.

She didn’t really care.  She felt sick inside.  Gabrielle most definitely needed her and she was out here on this damn boat.  

She walked out across the deck and headed for the bow, which was empty of anyone at the moment. She walked up the steps to the raised platform and went to the front of the ship, leaning on the rail and clasping her hands together.

All the pain in her body was forgotten.  She focused on the waves, the moon painting a line on the surface leading them back to Thera and for a few heartbeats, she almost simply launched herself over and into the water, to follow that moonstripe herself.

Logic kept her from it. The sails were full and they were making good speed and she didn’t think she could outrace it no matter how great the need.

Would have probably made her feel better, though, since just standing where she was hurt.

So Gabrielle wasn’t at home, and she had a number of friends around her.  Xena figured the bard was heading for Thera, and that, at least, was a good thing as it cut their time in finding each other in half.

Except she was in trouble.  Xena leaned against the rail, feeling as though she wanted to throw up. She was in trouble, and Dori was in trouble. Something was chasing them, and she suspected the something might be Spartans.

She needed to be there.  Much as she was fond of Bennu and Solari, if it was Spartans that needed fighting she was the one who should be doing it.

She felt a sudden sense of relief flow through her.  Gabrielle finding the hideout?   With any luck.  But what was going on? Why was she being chased?   Xena stared out to sea and growled under her breath in frustration.

A line of clouds were skudding along the horizon, their fronts lit with ghostly light from the moon overhead.  Were they the same storm raining on Gabrielle?

Xena exhaled.

After a few more minutes she turned around and started back across the deck. She could hear the creaking of the hull and the thrum of the wind in the sheets and she willed the wind to blow stronger as she walked past the mast.

“Xena.”

She almost didn’t hear the call, it was so soft. But she turned, and swept the deck with her eyes, finally realizing it had come from a huddled figure tied at the base of the mast itself.  She cursed under her breath, but she changed her path and walked over to where Milena was tied.

The girl was much the worse for wear.  She was covered in soot and grime and the look she gave Xena had no arrogance left in it, only pain, and exhaustion and fear.  “Yeah?”

“I told them not to try that.”  Milena said. “I told them to leave you alone.”

Xena knelt down on one knee. “Too bad they didn’t listen.”

 Milena nodded slightly. 

“Want to tell me the truth about them now?”  Xena asked, bluntly.

Milena gave her a wary look.  When Xena didn’t say anything further, she looked away not able to meet those clear blue eyes. “It’s a long story.”

Xena settled herself down on the deck, wrapping her arms around her knees. “Got all night.”  She welcomed the distraction and figured she might get some information she could use in the bargain.  “If you tell me enough, I might get you something to drink.”

Milena lifted her head a little at that.  “I could have gone in with them and come after you, but I didn’t.”

Xena nodded. “And you ended up alive. Good choice.”

“Did you kill them?”

Xena pondered the question, aware she was being put off.  Had she?  “It was dark.” She said. “I might have after they jumped us.”

“Do you like killing people?”  Milena asked.

“Sometimes.” Xena answered honestly.  “If they piss me off enough, or they’re doing something bad.. hurting people I care about.”  She watched the girl’s face.  “Some people need killing.”

Milena nodded a little. “That’s what they said about you. That you needed killing.” She looked boldly up into Xena’s eyes to find nothing but mild amusement there.  “That doesn’t surprise you.”

“People have said that about me since I was fifteen years old.”  Xena said.  “I’m just a tough kill.”

Ironic really, when the two damn bastards had nearly done it.  Xena wondered if anyone else in there realized it – she thought Iolaus might have guessed, from his reaction.

Milena shifted, her discomfort apparent.  Then she exhaled and looked down at the deck. “My mother was a slave in Athens..” She said. “She served for the head of the Athenian council, and he took his pleasure with her resulting in me.”

Xena grunted.

“She already had two sons with a man she called her husband. They lived in the slaves catacombs under the Council chambers.” The girl glanced up. “Those two men traveling with me were them. My half brothers.”

“So you told a half truth both times.” Xena remarked.

“I did.”  The girl agreed. “My father liked me, for some reason.  Even though I was base born he never minding me being around. “ She shifted again. “So I decided I’d go out and help him with the war.  I figured maybe if I did, he’d take that final step and acknowledge me.”

Xena studied her face. “He might have.” She answered.  “You’d bring him a decent dowry.”

Milena jerked her head up, looking at Xena with a startled expression.

“Why were Athenian soldiers looking for you if you’re all cozy with your dad?” Xena changed the subject. “Did you run a scam with them or not?”

“It wasn’t a scam.” The girl replied, with some fire.  “The bastard promised he’d give half his holdings to the war. That’s what it was when we left, and then.. I had no idea he backed out until those soldiers ambushed us.”

Truth or not?  Xena wasn’t sure it mattered.  “Tough luck.”

“My half brothers and I decided to head out and drum up support if we could.  We figured Thrace was a good start to find people since they’d already scoured all the lands closer to Athens.”  She exhaled. “We were on our way back when we met up with you.”

Xena had a feeling it was all lies.  Nothing the girl was saying had even the slightest ring of truth, but since she was really just looking for entertainment to keep her awake she didn’t really care.  She made a note to ask the guard captain his side of the story.

“I don’t want to go back now. I’ll end up down in the catacombs or worse. “ Milena went on. “And anyway, I can’t go tell my mother what happened to her sons.” She spared a brief  glance at the listening warrior. “Their father will kill me.”

Now that, Xena judged, was probably the truth.   She got up. “Don’t go anywhere.” She told the girl, circling the mast and heading for the small mess area the sailors had set up.   She rummaged in the supplies, picking up a waterskin and a piece of bread and slab of cheese.

Then she returned to the mast. She set the wood slab down with it’s supplies and went over to Milena’s side.  “I’m going to cut you loose.” She said. “If you so much as spit at me I’m going to nail you to this mast up to the hilt with my dagger.  We understood?”

“Yes.” Milena murmured.  “I won’t do anything.”

Xena drew her dagger and cut the ropes holding the girl to the mast. She half fell forward, catching herself on her hands, stifling a cry.    The warrior went over to the water barrels and dipped out a portion into a demi cask, which she brought back over with her and set down. “If you feel like washing.”

Then she settled back down on the deck, waiting to see what other amusement the girl was going to provide her.

Anything to keep her from falling asleep.

**

Continued in Part 21