A Queen’s Tale

Part 21

“Get in here, quick.” Gabrielle ducked out of the way and peered between the trees, watching the road anxiously as her little army swarmed past her and through a pair of moss covered wooden gates standing half ajar.

Lucky break, just when she thought she was out of them.  “Hurry.” The bard shaded her eyes from the rain and watched the gap they’d come through, seeing a blurry glimpse of the road they’d so recently left and finding it blessedly empty.

The last of the group passed her, and Gabrielle turned Shadow and followed, glad beyond reason as she heard the gates close behind her and she got her horse beneath the half roof the fortress had left. 

Once the rasp and thump of the gate bar had closed, there was relatively quiet. The rain pattered down on the wood and the group moved under shelter with sighs of relief and looks of gratitude in Gabrielle’s direction.

“Great find, your Maj.” Solari got off her horse and walked around in a circle to stretch out her cramped legs. “I thought this poor animal was gonna fall right on his ass out there and send me halfway back to Amph.”

“For sure.” Paladia had also dismounted, and was trying without much success to wring the water out of her leathers. “Score.”

“Everything looks clear.” Cait arrived at Gabrielle’s left knee.  “Lots of lovely space, and mostly dry too.”

“Dry?”  Jessan held his arms out. “I feel so water logged it’s amazing I can walk.”  He gave Gabrielle a wry look. “Thanks, boss.”

Gabrielle produced a grin, lifting her hand and letting it drop. “Just a lucky memory.” She said. “Xe and I helped some of the towns around her fight off a nasty warlord in this place. Way back when.” She got off Shadow, holding on to the saddle until she straightened her legs out and was sure they would hold her. “Ready to get down, Dori? Had enough riding today?”

“Had fun when we go fast, mama.” Dori informed her. “Tired and hungry now!”

“I bet. Me too.” Gabrielle lifted her down.  “Let’s make sure everyone’s under cover.  And someone..” She glanced at the gates, where two of the militia and two of the Athenian soldiers were already standing guard, watching through crudely cut holes in the wood towards the road. “Oh, good.”

“Good find, little hawk.”  Bennu came over to her. The soldier looked tired and he clapped her on the shoulder.  “Horses and us needed a break.”

“Yeah, we couldn’t just keep running in this weather.” Gabrielle agreed.

“How long we going to stay, yeah?” Bennu cocked his head at her.

Gabrielle let her eyes scan over her little group, seeing the exhaustion in the eyes gamely looking back at her.  “We’ll stay here until the storm stops, or the morning. Whichever comes first.” She said. “Let’s get as much rest as we can.”

Bennu was nodding. “Dangerous to keep going, No saying as they had some advance men eh?  Could run right into em.”

“Yeah.” Gabrielle took a few steps, trying not to grimace.  “And there’s.. well, there was a path that goes along the river outside that we might be able to take to bypass the road.”

Both Bennu and Jessan looked relieved.  “Sounds great.” Jessan said. “Let’s get some camp set up I sure could use a cup of hot tea.”

“Betcher.”  Bennu patted the forest dweller on the back and they moved off towards the interior of the fortress.

Gabrielle idly watched Dori explore a pile of stones and took a moment to collect herself.   It really had been a miracle, that flash of recognition just as they swept around the bend and hurtled into a forested no man’s land between the last two big towns and Therma.

Amazing.  She exhaled, feeling a sense of relief.  The Spartans might catch up to where they’d been, but the storm would protect their tracks – the road had turned into a muddy mire that would erase their hoof prints and the thick brush and trees were just far enough apart to let the horses through without breaking a lot of branches.

They could take a rest. They had to take a rest, she felt the exhaustion in her own bones, and knew the rest of them were tired as well.  There was only a handful of candlemarks left before dawn and no matter if the Spartans were on their heels, she knew they had to take a break if only for the horses sake.

“Water trough in t’back.”  One of the militia came up and gathered up reins. “C’mon you beauties. Let’s get yer a drink.”

The animals followed him willingly, their sides still heaving.  Gabrielle shouldered her saddlebag and moved towards the back of the ruined fortress where there had once been a smith’s forge and where she’d watched Xena kneel in the firelight working on broken bodies instead of iron.

Now it was quiet, and mossy, the roof still covering the area made of hard stone.   Gabrielle went over to the hearth and sat down on its edge, stretching her legs out and letting her saddlebags drop onto the hard surface.

Thunder rumbled overhead.  She didn’t think anyone really minded though now that they were under cover and the storm gave them an excuse to rest.   Gabrielle let herself lay back onto the ground, grunting in relief as her back relaxed.

Damn, she was tired.  She resisted the urge to close her eyes.  Damn she missed Xena’s presence and those nice strong hands that knew how to ease every knot.

“Mama.” Dori climbed up onto the platform and sat down next to her. “I found a izzard.”

Now Gabrielle closed her eyes and lifted one hand to shield her face from long experience. “Did you? “ She peeked at her daughter between her fingers.

“Yes.”  Dori nodded her head. “But I did what Boo says and let him go.”

“Good girl.” Gabrielle put her hand down. “How about we get you into some dry clothes. Would you like that?” She sat up and opened the saddlebag, removing one of Dori’s jumpers.  “I know Boo wouldn’t want you to stay all wet.”

“Mama, I saw Boo.”  Dori squiggled closer and dropped her voice to a whisper.

“Did you?” Gabrielle smiled, glancing up at her.  “Did you see her with your eyes closed? I do that sometimes.”

Dori shook her head. “No mama she was with you on the horsie.” She explained earnestly. “I sawed her she was in you.”

Huh?  The bard frowned, as she took off Dori’s little out fit and set it aside to dry.  “Honey, I don’t think… “ Then she paused, and thought about it.  “Well, you know Boo is always with us.”

“Saw Boo.” Dori plucked at the sleeve of her cotton jumper. “Mama, like this color.”

What was Dori talking about?  Gabrielle handed her a trail bar. “Here, why don’t you have some of this while we figure out what we’re going to do about dinner, okay?”

“Okay.” Dori munched on the bar. 

“Gabrielle, we’ve got enough scrap wood to start a fire there.”  Bennu came over and sat down beside her. “Nothing’ll see any smoke this night, but we’ve most got trail bread and dried bits and pieces around to cook w’it.”

The bard glanced around. “Grab that pot.” She indicated an overturned iron lump. “Someone wash it out and get it full of water and we’ll put everything together and make a soup”

Bennu motioned to two of the militia. “You heard the lady.”  

Gabrielle felt nothing like a lady.  She felt like curling up and going to sleep. But she pulled herself together and stood up, looking around to see how the camp making was going.

The horses were now in the back of the fortress, where one part of a wall had half collapsed and allowed thick grasses to move inside and grow there.  The group had gathered on the hearth and a fire was already being started.

Everyone was mixed together. Amazons and militia and forest dwellers sharing space with the Athenian guard and digging out supplies to add to the common pot.  Gabrielle had to smile a little at that, as she went over to the broken stone trough that still held a running rush of water in it.                                                                                                                       

They’d won the battle, she remembered.  Her and Xe and the men from three villages who’d finally had enough and were willing to grab their pikes and pitchforks and side with Xena in defeating a man who’d taken over this part of the hinterlands and made them all suffer for it.

She remembered sitting on that hearth, with Xena’s head in her lap as the warrior finally got to relax at the very end of a very long day, her hands gently cleaning a gash on Xena’s head as the half lidded blue eyes watched her in tired contentment.

Long, hard day.

Not too different than this one, really.  Except that Xena wasn’t here to share it with her.   Gabrielle knelt beside the trough and scooped up a double handful of the water, scrubbing her face with it despite the fact she’d just spent candlemarks in the rain.

The cool liquid felt good against her skin anyway.  It was sweet and smelt a little like the path leading to her cabin at home.  There were little lizards scurrying around and one perched on the edge of the trough, watching her.

The bard waggled her fingers at him, and then she pushed herself to her feet and started back towards the rest of the group.   She could see the watch men at the gates keeping an eye out for them, and she remembered, then, seeing the rain coming down that she’d neglected to change her own clothing yet.

Well, sheeps.  She went over to her saddlebag and sorted through the contents, finding a heavy woolen shirt inside it.  Her eyes flicked up to the rest of the group, pausing when she realized none of the others was making any effort to get themselves into something dry.

She cocked her head. Was she really the only one who had brought spare clothes?’

Really?

The forest dwellers had taken their battlecoats off, and they were hanging over a wall, but they had their thick coat of fur to protect them.  The militia and soldiers kept their armor on, and resigned themselves to just flicking bits of mud off their boots.

The Amazons stayed near the fire, trying to get their leathers dry while wearing them.

With a slight shake of her head, Gabrielle slipped the warm shirt over her and felt immediately better, using the length of it to let her slip out of her skirt and top and set them out to dry.  Then she sat down on the hearth and unlaced her boots, intent on swapping her wet socks for dry ones. 

When they first had started traveling together, Xena had nagged her a lot about all the stuff she collected on their journeys and carried with her.   She pulled her boots off and set them aside, digging a dry pair of socks from the bag.

But then as the years went on, the warrior had come to realize that maybe it was worth carrying a little extra if it meant you could live more comfortably when you were far away from home.

Or if you really didn’t have a home.

She was still trying to convince Xena to bring hammocks with them though.  Maybe the next trip. 

Gabrielle paused, and studied her now snugly socked foot.   “Let’s get back from this one first, okay?” She muttered under her breath. “Dori, c’mere. Let me get your boots off.”

Dori pattered over and drummed her hands on her mother’s knees.  “Mama, dis is a fun place. There’s froggies everywhere.”

“I’m glad you think so.”  Gabrielle sat her down and removed her boots, drying off her feet with a bit of linen. 

The soft crackle of the fire sounded nearby, and she could feel the warmth on her back. “Any sign of anyone out there, Bennu?”

“Naw.” Bennu was helping to wrestle the now washed iron pot onto the stones that ringed the fire.  “Got a feeling they pulled off fore that curve figgered us was going to ambush em.”

Hm. Gabrielle gave Dori one of her toys. Should she have done that?   She leaned back onto one elbow. “Should we have?” She asked the question directly.  

Bennu looked over his shoulder at her. “Never could get a count of em.” He said. “Might could have done it, but twould be dangerous with the weather.”

Solari came over and sat down next to Gabrielle.  “What are those?” She pointed at the bard’s feet.

“Socks.” Gabrielle answered.  “I wear them under my boots.”

The Amazon studied them. “I saw you with them in the village and wanted to ask.” She said. “They look cool.”

“They are.” Gabrielle wiggled her toes.  “We found them… “ She paused. “Out on the road.  Xena loves them.”

“She does?” Cait settled down on the other side of her, giving Dori’s hair a ruffle.   “I’d hardly think she’d notice.”

Gabrielle removed her edible odds and ends from her pack and got up to add it to the common pot. “Boy, she’s got you all fooled” She found comfort in talking about her partner, she realized. Just saying Xena’s name soothed a little of the anxiety in her heart.  “She wears silk under those leathers, I’ll have you know.”

Jessan chuckled.

“Really?” Solari asked.

“Really.” The bard smiled. “And she loves bubble baths.”

Everyone looked at her.   “Hey.” Gabrielle shook a finger at them. “They called her the warrior PRINCESS for a reason, okay?”

 “Pwincess.”  Dori rolled onto her back and wiggled her feet in the air. “Go Boo!”

Everyone laughed, and the atmosphere around the fire grew perceptibly more relaxed.

Gabrielle inspected what was already in the pot and added her supplies to it, and then she combined a handful of dried herbs she’d also had and contributed that too.  “Let’s let this cook while we sleep.” She said. “By the time we wake up, it’ll be worth eating.”

Everyone was already picking spots to curl up and Gabrielle did too, making space for Dori next to her as she spread her furs out.  The rain started to come down harder and she was glad.   Rain was their ally tonight.

She got Dori to lie down, and settled down next to her.  The stone hearth was far from comfortable, but she was tired enough for her body to relax despite of it.  The stout walls and gates would keep their fire from being seen, and she could feel sleep creeping up on her.

She hoped she was too tired to dream.   The hectic day had kept her from thinking about what had happened earlier and she consciously now shuttered her mind away from it.  Instead, she focused on happier memories of her partner, and she reached out along that link with wistful affection.

She could sense warmth there.  Just a gentle presence that, as she thought about it, brightened and seemed to reach back towards her. 

Was it Xena? It was a new sensation, and Gabrielle let herself be completely distracted by it, closing her eyes tight as she reached out again, picturing her hand extending out towards her soulmate invitingly.

The fire faded from her hearing, and became aware of her own heartbeat.  She reached further in her imagination and just as she thought about giving it up as a silly notion she felt strong fingers clasp hers.

Oh no that was real.   I love you.  She whispered soundlessly.  Xena?

Hang in there.   

Were they really words? Echoes? Pure imagination?

Gabrielle felt her heart pick up it’s pace and she felt a moment of pure joy at this phantom and unexpected contact, all the more precious given what she’d felt earlier.

Her hand was squeezed, then released, and it was over, but it left her with a sense of amazement, the exhaustion evaporated like it was never there.  

She took that feeling and held it close, a smile on her face as sleep took her.

Far off down the road, in the rain, hoofbeats sounded, fading off into the distance.

**

Xena looked up as Iolaus arrived next to her, and sat down.  “Why aren’t you sleeping?” She asked bluntly.

“I was.” Iolaus leaned back against the side wall of the ship next to her.  “Then I woke up and decided to take a walk.” He studied the huddled form against the mast.  “You two having a nice chat?”

Milena was once again tied to the structure, but this time in a way that allowed her to move. Her clothing had been neatened up and her hair and face were washed, courtesy of Xena’s water bucket. 

“We had a chat.” Xena allowed.

Iolaus smiled.  “Bet you’re glad we turned around, huh?” He addressed Milena.

“Yes.” Milena replied. “There’s nothing for me in Athens now.”

“Your brothers did a very stupid thing.”

“I know.” The girl said. “I tried to talk them out of it. They got very angry at me, and said I was just..” She paused, and let the words trail off.  “I guess they paid for it.”

Iolaus shifted. “Well, you know, I’ve seen a lot of people die.” He said. “And it’s not always a case of them deserving it, or paying for a deed, but sometimes you just accept that the consequences of something you do may put you in that kind of trouble.”

“I guess.”  Milena said. “Xena, if you’re going to let me go in Thema, you could let me go now. I’m not going to try anything like that.”

The warrior studied her.  “When we get to Thema, I’ll let you loose.” She said. “You’re better off where you are.”

“Xena’s right.” Iolaus chimed in. “Besides, most everyone else on board has the same accommodations, right?” He gestured around him. “Even Xena’s sleeping with the horses.”

“I’m sure she could find something more interesting to sleep with if she wanted to.” The girl said.

“I’m not sleeping.”  Xena let the conversation flow over her as she tipped her head back and looked up at the sky.  The stars overhead suddenly reminded her of Gabrielle, and her eyes went to the bard’s favorite pattern, and traced it.

The Warrior.  She remembered the night her partner had pointed it out to her, long before they were more than friends.

She remembered the reflection of those stars in Gabrielle’s eyes, and the feeling of confused bemusement she’d experienced when she’d recognized the meaning of what she was saying.

Not ‘the’ Warrior, but her Warrior.

She wanted to be with Gabrielle.  The frustration of the slow boat, and the never-ending swish of the water against the hull were wearing on her nerves.

She wished.

She wished right now that she could just close her eyes and want enough and that would bring her off this boat and across the water, past the chaos of Therma, down the road, through the trees, hopefully to the fortress her soulmate was sheltering in.

She could almost feel Gabrielle reaching out to her.

She closed her hand around the warmth of a grip.   Hang in there.  She wished at her partner.

“Right Xena?”  Iolaus turned to her. “You’d do that, wouldn’t you?”

The illusion faded, and she was back on the boat.  “What?” She felt an irrational sense of loss.  “What the Hades are you talking about, Iolaus?”

He had his head cocked to one side, regarding her.  “You go off some where?”

Milena was also watching her. “What were you thinking about, Xena? You have such an odd look on your face.”

What was I thinking about.  Xena could feel that warmth still brushing against her, wanting her presence.  “Nothing.” She said. “Just wishing this damn thing would move faster.” She got up and looked over the rail at the sea. “We’ve got a lot to do.”

“What are you going to do?” Milena asked, her eyes glued to the tall figure at the rail.

Xena turned. “Go home.” She said.

“Through the Spartan army.” Iolaus leaned back on his hands. “Poor Spartans.”

The warrior managed a smile.  “They could have stopped at the border.” She said. ‘After all, if they came past Amphipolis…”

“They had to get past your mother.” Iolaus chirped at her.  “What’s the chance of that? Heck, Xena, you’ll probably have them all camped out on the doorstep there taking turns doing her dishes.”

Xena was about to answer, when she heard a whistle from the crow’s nest.  She tipped her head back and saw the sailor on watch peering out over the dark waves and pointing.   Glad of the distraction, she circled the mast and started climbing.

Milena and Iolaus watched her go.  Then they regarded each other.   “It seems so strange to think of the great warrior with a family.” The girl commented.

Iolaus smiled briefly. “She has one.” He said. “Do you, really?”

“Yeah.” The girl answered. “But they’re not worth anything.”

Iolaus tilted his head at her. “Well now.” He mused. “You’d be surprised, really.  You never can tell with family, sometimes.”  He laced his fingers together.  “Xena’s got her mother, and her brother Toris back in Amphipolis.” He paused. “And Gabrielle, of course.”

“Yes, the famous storyteller.” Milena said. “Xena’s bard.” She tilted her head up to watch the warrior climb up the mast. “She doesn’t have to look far for a story, does she?”

Iolaus’ eyebrows lifted. “Ah, no. She doesn’t.” He murmured. “Not far at all.”

Xena was glad there was something else to do.  She climbed up the rigging, pushing aside both the fatigue and the aches as she joined the watch in the nest. “What’s up?”

“There, lady.” The man pointed. “Got som’tin on the horizin there.”

Xena leaned on the edge of the crows’ nest and studied the spot he was pointing at. Against the clouds, far off on the edge of where the darkness of the sea met the slightly lighter gray of the sky she could see the faintest hint of a skeletal outline.

Like a couple of branches, held up against the sky.   Except that to Xena’s eyes they were nothing so innocuous as that.  “Ships.”

“Aye.” The sailor agreed. “Pile of em.”

Ships.  Xena studied the outlines.  What were ships doing off the coast? “Athenian navy?” She hazarded a guess.

The sailor scratched his stubbled chin. “Them lot were in Piraeus harbor we left it.” He said. “Stockin up.”

Which is where they should be, Xena agreed silently.  Taking on stores and getting ready to defend the coastline from what would surely be a sea attack from the formidable Spartan navy.  Only the big armed merchant ships, like the one she was on, would be going between Athens and Therma, picking up men and supplies for the war.

 She squinted into the distance, trying to bring the masts into focus despite how far away they were.  The clouds were shifting across her vision though, and she had the impression the ships were stationary.

Another blur on the horizon, and she realized that was the edge of the coastline, very far off just to one side of the ships.  She turned and went to the other side of the nest and looked down. “Iolaus!”

Near the side, her stallion picked his head up and looked around for her. It made Xena smile a bit.

“Yes?” The human Iolaus had stood up and was looking at her.

“C’mon up here and look at something.”

Iolaus sighed. “I knew you were going to say that.” He grumbled, but started up.

Xena went back to the other side of the mast and studied the horizon; glad of the cool breeze that was blowing the hair back out of her eyes. 

“Other ships got into weather maybe. Waiting to sail.” The sailor offered. “Was some due in port after us.”

Could be.  Xena allowed. They might have moved out of the harbor if the weather was as bad as what they faced to avoid having the ships dashed against the wooden piers.  That might have been what she’d have done.

But then, why anchor outside the harbor, just out of view?

Something didn’t seem right.

Waiting for Iolaus, she found the memory of her contact with Gabrielle coming back and she recalled suddenly being on Cecrops ship, heading home.

Just sitting on the bow shoulder to shoulder with Gabrielle content to do nothing more than watch the seagulls coast overhead and enjoy each other’s company.  No need to talk, completely comfortable for once with themselves.

Sharing a big mug of ale, passing it back and forth to each other.  She could taste it on the back of her tongue right now, and feel the warmth as Gabrielle’s head rested against her shoulder.

Accepted and totally unselfconscious.  Both of them contented and at least briefly, at peace.

“Okay, what?”

Xena jerked upright a little, and blinked. “What?”

Iolaus was standing there, hands on his hips. “What do you mean what?” He demanded. “You told me to come up here!”

“Oh, sorry.” Xena muttered. “There.” She pointed at the horizon. “What do you make of that?”

Iolaus leaned forward and peered into the distance. “Make of what?” He asked, puzzled. “The clouds? Or.. wait, is that the coastline?”

The sailor snickered.

Xena tilted his head over. “There.” She said, in a not so patient tone.  “A bunch of ships?”

Iolaus paused then nodded. “Ooooh.” He said. Then he looked at her. “Sorry, Xena.  I know I’m supposed to get something here, but if it’s a bunch of ships, and you know that, why make me look at it?”

The warrior sighed. “Why are ships parked outside the harbor?” She suggested.

“I have no idea.” Iolaus replied promptly.   “I assume you know?”  He studied her.  “Honestly Xena, I’m not a seaman, remember?  If you ask me how to get from Macedonia to Delphi I could help you out but don’t ask me what a bunch of sails on the horizon mean.”

“I don’t know.”  Xena admitted. “I was hoping you might suggest something.” She leaned on the edge of the crows’ nest.   “I don’t think its merchanters like this one.”

Iolaus leaned next to her.   “You think its Spartans?”

There was nothing about the sails that suggested it. She hadn’t seen enough of the Spartan navy for her to be able to spot a difference between that, and the masts of their own ship.

And yet.   “I don’t know.” Xena said. “Wouldn’t make sense if they were invading. There’s plenty of land between Therma and Athens to plunder.”

“Maybe they want it to be a surprise?”

“Then why invade by land?” Xena asked. “Just take ships down the Aegean and land near Cyme. Cross the peninsula and hit Athens that way. Why bother coming down through Thrace?”

It made no sense.

“Well, if it’s the Spartans it’s going to be tough getting back into Therma.” Iolaus said. “They can block the harbor.”

“Buggers.”  The sailor agreed.  “Ca’pn’ll know what to do.”

Xena was willing to bet her friend the captain, canny as he was, wouldn’t know half what to do about facing off against a bunch of possibly hostile ships.   “We’ll see.” She stepped out of the crows’ nest and started down.  “C’mon Iolaus.”

“Up, down. Up down.” Iolaus sighed.  “Can’t keep these hero types happy. Now I know why I’m not married.”

Xena pretended she hadn’t heard that.   She dropped down the mast quickly, kicking out from the base as she dropped the last body length and landing with a little bounce.  She headed immediately towards the captains quarters, threading her way through the refugees on deck.

At least the night was proving entertaining enough to keep her awake.   She was halfway across the ship before Iolaus caught her up, falling into step next to her. “Hey Xena?”

“Mm?”

“Sure you’re okay?”

Xena gave him a quick, sideways glance. “Fine. You?”  She answered crisply. “You’re not getting to be a hen on me, are you Iolaus?”

The blond man smiled briefly. “You just seem a little out of it.”

“Out of it?”

Iolaus lifted his hands in a light shrug. 

The door to the cabins gave her an excuse to ignore the question. Xena opened it and ducked inside, feeling a rush of apprehension she powered through with stolid determination.  She spotted the captain’s cabin ahead, and she managed to get to the door, knocking on it loudly.

“Bet he’s sleeping.” Iolaus gave up the interrogation.

“Bet he is.” Xena pounded on the door again, and stepped back as it whisked open, letting a gust of leather and wood scented air into the corridor.

“Ship better be damned sinking!” The captain stuck his head out and glared at them.  Then he paused. “Ah. Well, at least its’ a good looking woman.” He studied Xena. “What trouble you causing now?”

“We might be running into a problem.” Xena ignored the banter. “Lookout spotted some ships moored outside Therma harbor.”

The captain squinted at her. Then he looked over at Iolaus.  He pulled his head back inside his cabin and slammed the door, leaving them standing there in the hall in smoky, torch lit silence.

“Well.” Iolaus said, after an awkward pause.  “So much for charm.”

Xena reached to pound on the door again but held up as it jerked open before she could touch it, and the captain emerged belting his tunic and stamping his feet into his boots.

“C’mon you iggerant landies.” He shoved past them. “Let’s see what you think you saw and I’ll tell ya what it really was. Probably just some damn moonbeams.”

The followed him through the corridor and out the hatch, emerging back into the starlit night to be watched by the refugees on deck.

Xena was aware of the heightened interest. She ignored it though, and simply followed along as the captain went to the bow and pressed up against it, shading his eyes from the moonlight. 

She stepped up onto the platform next to him and waited, her hands resting lightly on the railing as she felt the salt spray blow against her face.

“Well,, Hades.” The captain muttered. “Them’s ships all right but no saying whose.” He stepped back.  “Could be ours, y’know.”

“I know.”  Xena agreed. “I hope they are. It means we’ve got supplies and maybe men to fight the Spartans with.”

The captain frowned. “Won’t know much more till dawn.” He muttered. “Damn you all, woman.”  He turned and looked, then turned back again.  “You should sleep with me to make up for all this trouble you cause!”

Iolaus grimaced and closed his eyes. 

Xena merely chuckled. “Sorry captain.” She held her hand up. “I’m happily married.”

The man laughed. “We’re at sea, woman! Who’s to know?”

“I’d know.”  Xena replied, her voice dropping and becoming serious.  “If those ships aren’t friendly, I hope your men know how to fight as well as you know how to talk.”

“Same could be said of you.” The captain smiled, then he nodded his head, and turned to leave. “I’ll see the men ready, but this tub’s cracked and limping.  Wont’ be a picnic.” He disappeared behind the forecastle, and they heard a whistle rise up that began to gather the sailors.

Xena leaned against the rail. “Some days, I’d rather have stayed a bartender.” She sighed.    

“Bartender?” Iolaus stared at her.

“My mother’s convinced I’d make the inn a bar and whorehouse.” The warrior said. “All right, the damn bastard’s right. We might as well get some rest while we can, I guess.” She glanced across the water in frustration. 

“Wish you could fly?” Iolaus guessed.

Xena smiled faintly.  “Something like that.” She left the rail and headed, finally, back towards where the horses were patiently waiting, swishing their tails.   “See you in the morning, Iolaus.”

The horses looked up as she approached, and she patted the equine Iolaus’ neck as she eased past their supply of hay and made it back to her hammock.  This time, the makeshift bed looked a lot friendlier and she settled into it with a sense of relief.

She removed her sword from her back and tucked it at her side.  Behind her, she could hear some stirring and the creaking of doors opening along with the patter of footsteps from the sailors suddenly more active.

She felt a little bad about that, since the men deserved their rest too, but the reality was what it was, and aside from helping to sharpen weapons, there wasn’t much she could or was willing to do to help them.

That sounded bad. She knew it.  Xena closed her eyes, feeling the exhaustion finally overcoming her.  It sounded bad, but if she ended up fighting the next day, having rest would do both her and the crew more good than her meddling would.

She really wished she could fly, now that she thought about it.  It would be damn handy right now to coast over those far off silhouettes and find out what they were, and then take a detour over the hills to find Gabrielle and see what she was up to.

So much had happened, that she wanted to talk to her about.  Xena opened her eyes and studied the stars, realizing she was really over being alone.  She missed Gabrielle and she was damned tired of not having her around.

Yeah.

Wings would be nice. 

She closed her eyes.  She could feel the wind pushing them forward and at last let the gentle rocking lull her into sleep.  

**

“Gabrielle.”

The shaking on her shoulder brought Gabrielle out of her dreams and into reality with a sense of foggy disbelief.    “Ah.” She hiked herself up onto one elbow. “Yeah, I’m up.” 

“It’s okay.” Jessan was crouching down next to her. “No panic. Just getting close to dawn.” He peered at her. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” She scrubbed her face. “Just was dreaming.”

“Ah.”  Jessan murmured. “What were you dreaming about?” He asked, after a pause.

Gabrielle’s eyes went a little unfocused. “I don’t know.” She answered, with a slight shake of her head. “But it was a deep one.  I can feel it.”

Jessan watched the silvery glow in his Sight mingling with her normal golden one fade slowly out. “I bet.” He answered, giving her a light pat on the shoulder.  “Anyway, we’re stirring up that soup.” He glanced behind him.  “Rain’s still coming down.”

Gabrielle pulled herself upright and sat cross-legged. “Okay.” She said. “We can take the back trail. If I remember it right, it joins the road just before the slope down to Therma. If it’s clear, we can make for the there.”

“Great.” Jessan stood up, just as Dori came rambling over, drenched with rain. “Oh boy.”

“Dori.” Gabrielle gave her daughter a wryly exasperated look. “What have you been doing?”

“Mama I gots a froggy.” Dori produced one hand, clutched firmly around a squiggling green form. “He was groaging.” She displayed the unhappy animal to her mother. “He’s so pretty!”

Jessan made a show of tiptoeing off and leaving mother and child behind.   Gabrielle eyed the frog and ran her fingers through her hair, still more than a little fogged with sleep.  “Honey, let him go.” She said “You’re squishing him. I’m sure that doesn’t feel good.”

Dori sat down and released the frog between her knees. It sat there for a second, obviously collecting it’s wits, then it hopped over her ankle and made a beeline or the wall.  “Mama, liked the froggy.” She said sadly. “Wanted to make him my friend!”

“I know you did.”  Her mother said. “But I’m sure he had a family to get home to, just like we do, right? You wouldn’t want to keep him from that would you Dori?”

“No.” Dori drummed her heels. “Mama, what we do today?”

Gabrielle stretched her body out, feeling better than she’d expected to.  “Well, we’re going to have some of that nice smelling soup for breakfast, then we’re going to ride on Shadow for a while until we get to a place where all our friends are.”

“Boo?” Dori perked up.

“Boo might be there, yes.” Gabrielle found herself smiling at the thought. “She might be heading there right now to meet up with us, or we may need to wait a little while for her.”

“Boo will come there too?” Dori said.

“Absolutely.”  Gabrielle replied, with a sense of conviction that surprised her.

Or maybe it didn’t.  She couldn’t remember her dream, but she knew Xena had been in it.  She had that feeling she sometimes did when she woke that she and Xena had crossed paths in that gray twilight.

She almost never remembered the details.  Xena professed to never understand what she was talking about even when she did.  But there was just this feeling she had inside that made her believe anyway.

“I want Boo.” Dori announced. “Mama, we should go to Boo today!”

Her mother smiled. “You know what, munchkin? I think we will.” She could feel in her guts that building sense of anticipation. “We sure will try.”

Gabrielle got to her feet and rolled her head around to loosen up her neck muscles.  She went over and felt her traveling clothes, glad to find them dry.   “I guess you washed up already huh Dori?” She eyed the child.

“Went to fishes.” Dori confirmed, making a swimming gesture with her hands.  “It was fun!”

“I’m glad you think so little miss fishie.”  Gabrielle got into her traveling garb and removed her shift, folding it up neatly and tucking it into her saddlebag.  She glanced up as she heard footsteps approach, pulling out her hairbrush as Solari appeared out of the dusky dimness. “Morning.”

“Morning.” Solari said.  “Glad we got a little shut eye. I was swamped.”

“Me too.” The bard agreed readily.  “I know we’d probably have done better to keep going but sometimes you just can’t.”   She smiled briefly. “I learned that from a master of knowing just how hard you can push yourself.”

“Big X?”

“That’d be the one.” 

“Mamamamamama.” Dori danced around Gabrielle. “C’’n we go fast soon?” She hopped several hops. “Go Go Go!”

Gabrielle observed her with a wry smile. “Boy you sure can tell who she takes after sometimes though.”   She sighed.  “She’s so much like her.”

“She is.” Solari agreed quietly.  “She’s gonna be a kickass leader someday. She already rules the kids in the village.”

Gabrielle knew that was true.  Whether because of her own feisty personality or because the other kids knew who her parents were,  Dori was definitely showed deference.    To her credit though, her daughter never took advantage of that and her sunny presence usually got her more friends than otherwise.  “She’s a little terror alright.”

But it made her think, after a moment.  Dori was a natural leader.  Gabrielle supposed that wasn’t unusual, given her and Xena’s own strong personalities but the child also carried Gabrielle’s right of caste and could end up being a true Queen of the Amazons when she was grown.

Could be. A lot of things could happen before then.  Gabrielle got the rest of her things together and a dry outfit onto her daughter as she considered that.  Dori herself could choose another path, that was her own right when she came of age.

Nothing forced you to be an Amazon. Some kids grew up in the village, and decided to leave, the bard knew.  Some wanted to see the world, or go be a busker, or sometimes they just met a boy in a nearby town and, like Granella, decided that was the life they wanted.

“She’s smart though.” Solari commented.  “Not like some of the featherbrains I’ve seen grow up in the village. “

“Are you smart, miss fishie?” Gabrielle got Dori’s shirt sorted out and straightened. “Did you tell your auntie Solari how smart you were when you figured out how to open Gramma’s pigpen the other day?”

Dori giggled.

The bard chuckled in response. “She’s too smart for her own good sometimes.” She acknowledged. “All right, let’s get this thing going.  Breakfast ready?”

“Gogogo!”

**

The path was overgrown with trees, far more so than the last time she’d traveled it but she’d halfway expected that. Gabrielle took a firmer grip on Shadow’s bridle and led her along the slippery surface, guiltily glad herself to have her sturdy boots firmly on the ground.

They were making pretty good time anyway.  It was mid morning already, and they were climbing up the slope to the ridge that would then pitch down into the valley that led to the harbor city.  Despite the rain and the mud and the tough going, Gabrielle could feel her heart getting lighter and lighter with every step she took.

She was heading for Xena.  There was no doubt in her mind of that, she could feel that gentle pull – half sensed, half imagined, getting stronger.  She knew she was going in the right direction, now all it would take would be to clear the forest, and make a run for Therma.

So there was a bounce in her step as she walked and she was tempted to whistle cheerfully as she ducked under a pair of dripping branches and leaned forward against the slope.

Dori was bounding along next to her, apparently tiring for the moment of riding Shadow.  She had her little cloak on, and the edges were bouncing as she walked almost exactly the way Xena’s did, and it was making Gabrielle inwardly chuckle.

“Mama, see!” Dori pointed. “Pretty bird!”

Gabrielle glanced up to see a robin, huddled in the rain and looking very cross on a branch just over their heads. “Aw, cheer up.” She advised the bird. “It can’t rain forever.”

“Don’t give the Fates any ideas, huh?”  Solari and Cait were walking on either side of her, and Solari gave her a look after she spoke.  “Glad we’re going up and not down. I bet that spot we hid in’s flooded by now.”

“We weren’t hiding.” Cait objected. “We took up a strategic location.”

“Oh please.” Paladia rolled her eyes from her spot a step or two behind Cait.  “You’re such a fruitcake.”

“I am not, and if you say that again I’ll pound you.”  Cait responded.

Gabrielle glanced down at the small river of water coursing down the path between her feet, and found herself in agreement with Solari.  “Sorry to say, Cait, but we sure were hiding. I didn’t want those Spartans to find us.” She glanced to one side. “Right Jens?”

“Much as I enjoy a good fight, yes.” The Athenian captain agreed. “Right now, my whole attention is on getting to Therma, and getting word back to Athens of the invasion.”

“Jens, did you hear anything about oracles, Athena’s oracles being involved in the war?”  Gabrielle asked, after a moment’s more climbing. “The Spartans were telling me that Artemis’ oracle was involved on their side.”

Jens climbed along next to her for a minute in silence. “In truth, Gabrielle, I am reluctant to talk to you about it.” He admitted. “Not because it isn’t true – I have heard rumors that the council have gone to Delphi to consult Athena’s oracle.”

“But?”

The soldier looked around.  “It seemed to me that those who say this were looking for an excuse to war.” He said. “When Xena left the city, after the games, many said it was an omen that we should not go to war.”

Gabrielle’s ears pricked. “Really?”

“It was a strange time.” Jens admitted. “There were those who were all for starting battle immediately, but a portion stood up and said, it wasn’t a good idea.”

“I guess the ones that wanted to fight won that argument.” The bard said. “Because I know Athens is going to war with Sparta.”

Jens nodded. “They were silenced.”

“Careful Dori.” Gabrielle warned. “Those rocks are slippery. You don’t want to get owie.”

“No mama.”  Dori hopped off the rocks and came over to her, splashing in the running rainwater and sending spurts of mud up from her small boots.

“She’s a beautiful child.” Jens commented. “She’s gotten taller since I saw you in Athens.”

“Yeah.” The bard looked fondly at her daughter.  Then she looked over and met Jens eyes. “Did they silence those people by saying Athena was commanding the war?”

He nodded.

“And you think that’s bogus?”

The soldier smiled wryly. “Harsh way of putting it.  Let us just surmise that we have thought maybe the council used that story without it being strictly true.”

How much should she tell him? Gabrielle caught Solari and Cait watching her.  How much really could she say that he would believe given where her knowledge of the subject came from?  “Well.” She said. “If that’s the case, then Sparta’s doing the same thing.”

“As if they need an excuse for war?” Jens seemed skeptical.  “You see it yourself, Gabrielle.  We treat with them in good faith, and they invade us.”

True.   Gabrielle took a breath to answer, then looked up as she heard a scuffle ahead of her.  Bennu was making his way down the path at a good clip from his point position and the militia and forest dwellers were moving aside to clear room for him.   “Hold that thought.”

“Gabrielle.”  Bennu thumped to a halt, and they all stopped.  “Looks like was a battle up top. Nasty work.”

“Okay.”  Gabrielle said. “Then lets get up there. “

They climbed more quickly,  passing a line of trees and up into a rockier part of the trail with less mud and easier going despite the continuing rain.   Ahead, Gabrielle could see the ridge that was the top of the trail, and past that she knew they’d be looking down the last slope down to Thema.

One of Bennu’s men was standing just short of the crest, his sword drawn in his hand. 

“Dori” Gabrielle looked around for her. “C’mere.  Do you want to ride on Shadow for a while? I think she misses you.”

Her daughter came galloping over.  “We go fast now?”

“Not right now.” Gabrielle lifted her up and put her on the horses back. “Hold on now.  We’re going to go up to the top there, and there might be bad men. So hang on, okay?”

“Okay.”  Dori wriggled into place. “Pretty horsie.” She patted Shadow’s neck. “Mama, c’n my horsie be like this one?”

Gabrielle unstrapped her staff and wrapped one hand around it.  “You want one this color, honey? Or like Argo? “

“Yes!”

The militiaman waved them ahead, and they climbed the last bit up to where he was, and Gabrielle spotted the circling buzzards overhead.   “Hold these.” She gave her reins to Solari and eased between the horses, joining Bennu and Cait at the top of the ridge.  “What is it?”

The militiaman grimaced. “Hard to say.” He said. “Six, maybe seven bodies there, or parts of. “ He hesitated. “May be Amazons.”

Gabrielle jerked, and so did Cait.  The bard turned “Solari, come on up here please.”

Solari gave over Shadow’s reins to Paladia and started climbing up the path, with Jessan at her side.   “What’s up?” She asked, as they arrived.

“There’s some bodies in the trees there.  Milat thinks they’re Amazons.” Gabrielle said. “We better take a look.”

She led the way up through the grass, the smell of death tainting the air around them.  Unpleasant, but it was something Gabrielle knew from long experience and she was able to push past the smell as they approached the bodies lying on the ground.

“Gosh.” Cait said. “Their gear looks Amazon.”  She separated from them and approached what apparently had been a campsite. 

A cook fire, cold now, was in the center and there were two iron pots overturned next to it.   Cait crouched to touch the ashes. “Cold.”

Solari picked up one of the packs, which had been emptied and tossed to one side.  “Same type as we use.” She commented quietly.

Gabrielle went over to one of the bodies and knelt next to it. She studied the disfigured face, and the huge wound in the side she figured had been caused by a pike.  The body was dressed in Amazon leathers, bloodstained now, but to her eye natural to the wearer and not assumed as some costume. 

Flies were everywhere. Maggots hadn’t started yet though, so she figured they were likely a day or so dead.   She reached down and picked up the feathers braided in the woman’s hair, the color and design striking a faint chord.

“They fought.”  Jessan commented briefly. 

The bodies had weapons in their hands or nearby, and two had arrows piercing their chests.   Gabrielle stood up and rested her weight on her staff.  She walked over to look at another body, face down in the dirt with a huge gash in her back.

“Gabrielle?”  Solari came over with a dirt covered pouch. “They missed this.”

The bard took it, and opened it, finding a folded parchment inside.  She removed it and opened it, scanning it quickly and shading the parchment with one hand from the rain.  “It’s from Athens. “ She said. “They were responding to the same offer those other Amazons passed on to us.”

“We know these guys.” Solari said, unexpectedly.  “They were the offshoot from Jonae’s people that ended up staying near the forest.”

Gabrielle frowned. “The Spartans are behind us.  These Amazons were heading to Therma, I guess, for the conclave. They were attacked, that’s plain… but why?”

“Those Spartans what came first came from this way.” Bennu said. “Maybe they wasn’t carrying notes. Maybe they was spying out the land.”

“Maybe.” Gabrielle murmured. “But they weren’t here a day ago, Bennu. “

A yell of warning made them all whirl, and through the rain Gabrielle caught sight of dark bodies moving too fast and too close.  “Ambush!” The bard yelled at the top  of her voice, bringing her staff around and getting her balance set.  “Look out!”

**

Xena sheathed her sword and headed for the steering platform, where the captain was standing with the helmsman.  She joined them as a heavy gust of wind fluttered the sails overhead.  “Morning.”

“Morning you damned woman.” The captain said. “Looks like our friends are gone from last night.” He indicated the horizon. 

The port of Thema was now a good deal closer, and it’s mouth was clear of any ships Spartan or otherwise.   

Xena was a little perplexed about that, but glad as now her passage into the town was unimpeded.  “Maybe they went into port.” She suggested. “Could have been moored outside waiting for a pier.”

“Aye.” The captain said. “Either that or they sailed on up the coast and are past the point now. We can’t see em.” He nodded. “Good riddance at any rate.  Ship’s too crooked to stand battle.”

Xena nodded. “We made good time last night.”  She glanced up. “Wind was in our favor.”

“Better than I thought.” The captain admitted. “Two, maybe three candlemarks to the harbor.  Be good to tie up and get this damn lot of bastards and animals off my deck.”

“We’ll be gladder to get off it than you are to see us gone.” Xena said.  She turned and left the platform, walking across the deck and past the mast where Milena was still securely tied.  The girl was sleeping, though, curled up in the pre dawn light in apparent exhaustion.

Xena paused. Then she drew her sword and made a slight detour, coming around behind the mast and slicing through the ropes binding Milena with a flick of the long blade.  She returned her blade to its sheath and continued on, moving to the bow and looking over it.

The line of the land was now taller, and far clearer. The cliffs that surrounded Thema harbor obscuring the city from sight and the seas were gray and ruffled, the clouds building overhead as evidence of a coming storm.

Far off, she could see black clouds, past the city and she wondered if they were raining over her family.  She frowned at the thought, hoping Gabrielle had brought her warm cloak and was taking care to keep it on.

Hands resting on the rail, she bounced up and down on the balls of her feet. “Go go go.” She muttered under her breath.  “C’mon you bastard. Sail faster.”

“Good morning.”  Ephiny came to stand next to her.  “What’s going on?”

“Morning.” Xena responded.  “We’re almost back.”

“So I see.” The regent leaned on the railing. “Get any sleep?”

Xena glanced at her. “Couple candlemarks.” She allowed. “You?”

“It was a pretty good night.” Ephiny replied. “Thanks for the loan of the bunk. We really appreciated it.” She glanced up at Xena. “What’s the plan?”

“Does the plan include breakfast?” Pony came up on the other side of her. “I could eat a deer’s hind hoof.”  She studied the coastline. “Hey! We’re almost back! Damn I’m glad to see that harbor.”

“Me too.”  Ephiny agreed. “I’ll be glad to be back on land.”

“If I could get out and pull this thing faster I would.”  Xena said, unexpectedly. “I can swim faster than we’re moving.”

Ephiny patted her shoulder. “C’mon, champ.” She said “Let’s go find some hot tea and crackers or whatever they’re serving over there.” She pointed.  “Before you decide to act on that.”

Xena allowed herself to be steered towards the area set aside for the ships cooks, where they were busy ladling some liquid into pitchers and cutting up squares of way bread and some kind of hard cheese. 

It didn’t look that appetizing, but after all, they’d be in port before long so they three women took their rations from the busy sailors and went to sit down on the steps up to the forecastle.   Xena set her bread and cheese on her knee and put the mug to her lips, pausing and drawing it back with a look of surprise. “What the Hades is this?”

“Grog.”  Pony supplied. “Same crap they gave everyone on the other tub.  Got a kick to it.”

Kick? Xena sniffed it cautiously.  It smelled like rotten apples mixed with port and it was making her eyes water.  “You’re gonna drink this?”

“Sure.” Pony took a swallow. “Not bad. Not near as bad as that stuff you gave Soli that one time.  Holy Artemis.  She smelled like the inside of a season old ale barrel.”

Silently, Xena handed her mug over.  Then she took a nibble of the cheese, finding it bland and mild on her tongue. 

“Xena, that kid’s loose.” Ephiny grabbed her arm. “Look.” She pointed at where Milena was very cautiously standing up and looking around.

“I know.” The warrior took a bite of the bread. “I cut the ropes.”  She watched the girl. “Figured she wouldn’t be stupid this close to port.”

Pony snorted.

‘She’s a good looker.” Ephiny said. “Better not go belowdecks or those couple men working down there’ll probably have a party with her.”

“Kid.”  Pony said, shaking her head.

“Poor grandma.” Ephiny bumped her with her shoulder. “Forget your cane in Xena’s palace?”

Xena chuckled under her breath, but acknowledged a pang in her chest as she envied the relaxed bantering between these two partners.  

If Gabrielle had been there, she knew, the bard would have been seated right next to Xena, her knee touching the warrior’s knee, and their shoulders brushing.  Gabrielle would be joining in the teasing, leaning over Xena to talk, resting her elbow on the warrior’s thigh in unselfconscious possession.

She could almost hear her voice, low pitched and warm, full of mischief as she traded jokes with their friends and feel the pressure against her skin where Gabrielle would be touching her.

“Xena?”

Oh damn.  Xena glanced up from her cheese, realizing she’d been caught daydreaming again. “Yes?”  She tried not to blush as she saw Ephiny’s grin.  Part of her felt very idiotic that she was letting herself be so affected by Gabrielle’s absence. 

After all, they’d only been separated for a damn sevenday.   This was nuts.  She felt like she had when she and Gabrielle were first falling .. okay – when they admitted…

“Xena?”

The warrior sighed. “Yes?” She propped her chin on her fist and eyed Ephiny. “Can I have a minute of peace to figure out what I want to do after we tie up?”

“Uh huh.” Ephiny gave her a knowing look.  “That’s fine. You sit there and strategize.”

Xena knew she was blushing. She could feel the heat in her ears.

“Eph, cut it out.” Pony said.

Xena’s brow quirked.

Ephiny regarded her partner with some bemusement.

“Just be glad we got this end of it.” Pony went on.  “Yeah?”

Ephiny chuckled wryly. “Oh yeah.” She admitted. “Good point, Pon.” She gave Xena a pat on the back. “Sorry, Xena.  I’m not trying to give you a hard time. Much.”

Xena sighed.

“Want more bread?” Pony got up.  “I don’t’ wanna be around here if you decide to teach wrestling again.” She headed purposefully back over to the cooking area.

“I’m really not.” Ephiny said. “Actually I think it’s gorgeous, and besides, your being here’s my fault.” 

“Would you shut up with that already.” Xena gratefully took the subject change and ran with it.  “Doesn’t really matter why I’m here. “   She turned her head slightly as she spotted Milena approaching with caution. “Here comes trouble.”

“Pot. Kettle.”  Ephiny smiled at the girl. “Good morning.”

Milena looked warily at her. “Hello.” She turned her attention to Xena. “My ropes were cut. Did you do that?”

“Yes.” The warrior answered. “Don’t make me regret it.”

Milena smiled at her. “Thank you.”  She said, and then half turned. “We’re almost back to Therma.” She looked back at Xena. “What happens when we get there?”

“Hopefully, nothing.”  Ephiny said. “If we’re lucky, we’ll get off the boat, and get home before we have to tangle with Spartans.”  She studied Xena’s profile. “But you don’t think that’s what’s going to happen, huh champ?”

Xena spotted the captain and Denius emerging and she got up. “Excuse me.” She said. “Gotta see a jerk about a moron.”  She stepped neatly between them and headed in the direction of the two men.

Milena looked uncertainly at Ephiny. 

“Siddown.” The Amazon offered. “You’re not a prisoner anymore but I wouldn’t push it with the crew.”  She waited for the girl to sit down next to her. “My name’s Ephiny.” She proffered an arm.

“You’re an Amazon.” Milena observed, clasping it hesitantly, then releasing her grip.

“I am.” The regent agreed.  

“There are other Amazons on this ship.” The girl said. “They were pretty rude.”

“We can be.” Ephiny watched as Pony intercepted Xena, and they both continued towards the captain.  “But don’t’ take it personally. They were rude to me too.” She said. “They tied me up and were going to hand me over to the slave master in Athens.”

Milena blinked. “They were?”

“Yeah, me and Pony.” Ephiny pointed at her partner. “Until the ship started sinking.  Then I got pissed off and killed some of them so they left me alone after that.”

Milena absorbed this.  “ Oh.” She said. “Well, I guess they probably deserved it huh?”

Ephiny smiled.

“Are you a friend of Xena’s?”

Ephiny turned her head and looked at her. 

**

Xena settled Iolaus’ saddle on his back and cinched it tight. “Ready to head home, boy?” She patted his shoulder.  “Bet you’ll be glad to get off this damn deathtrap huh?”

Iolaus snorted, shaking his head.

She could already hear the break of the waves against the rocks as they approached the harbor.  It would take a lot of skill to get in, she knew, since they had lost the slaves who rowed the boat in, and the space they’d been housed in.  The captain would have to bring her into the harbor under sail, then drift in and hope the crew on shore could tie her without her slamming into the docks.

Xena suspected the captain was up to the task. He already had sailors lining the rails with ropes and bales of wrapped cloth to fend the pier off with.

She wasn’t concerned.   She was focused on getting her gear ready, and the horses packed so they could get off the ship as soon as the ramp was put in place, relieved that the trip was almost over at last.

“Hey Xena.”  The human Iolaus appeared, carrying his pack.  ‘I finally got some decent sleep last night. You ?”

What was this sudden interest in her sleeping habits? Xena wondered.  She’d seen her reflection in the water basin and she hadn’t noticed any dark circles under her eyes or other obvious indications of fatigue.  “I sat up and tied knots in my horses tail all night.” She said. “Then I untied them.  It relaxes me.”

Iolaus stopped in mid motion, and looked at her, finding the warrior staring back at him with utter seriousness. “Ah hah.” He said. “To each their own, I guess.”

He stroked the gray mare and scratched her behind the ears. “You doing okay, pretty girl?  We’re going to take you off this crazy ship, and you’ll be able to run around in the grass soon. You like that?”

The mare nuzzled him, batting her eyelashes against his vest. 

“That kid say she want this horse back?” Iolaus asked Xena. “I see you let her loose.”

The warrior shrugged. “I doubt it. She didn’t acknowledge the damn horse when I asked her about it, and something that good looking deserves better.”

“The kid or the horse?”  Iolaus grinned.

Xena shrugged again.  “Kid would do better to go home to daddy.” She opined.  “She’s just going to get her ass in trouble out here.  Some warlord’s going to pick her up.”

“You know, I agree.” Iolaus said. “Maybe I’ll take her with me when I head back to Athens.” He paused. “Eventually.”

Xena nodded, the matter settled to her satisfaction.  She finished attaching her saddlebags to Io’s saddle and tucked the last of her things into them. 

Her mind, now, truly, was moving ahead to what she’d do after their arrival.  Denius, she was sure, would want her to meet with any troops inside the city and there would be confusion and delay as they brought their news to the city and perhaps time to fortify it.

Xena didn’t really want any delay. She wanted to just ride right through the city and out the gates, and there was part of her that insidiously intended on doing just that.  Hades with the Spartans, or the Athenians for that matter.

Maybe she’d just grab horses for Eph and Pony and they’d all take off. Xena glanced over her shoulder to where the two Amazons were waiting, watching the approaching land with makeshift packs, supplies gathered from the wreck and here onboard strapped to their backs.

Things to travel with.   They, at least, would go where she went. Xena acknowledged. She wouldn’t leave them behind and they had as big a stake as she did waiting back in Amphipolis.

They were…  Xena paused and considered, then she nodded. They were family.

The sound of the waves against the rocks was getting louder. Xena tilted her head as she spotted the gray and white seagulls wheeling overhead.  The cliffs were now towering over them, and the ship was angling towards the harbor opening with it’s dogleg turn that let into the larger, sheltered basin that held the docks and the slope up to the city.

Xena hoped it wasn’t busy in the harbor.  The mostly out of control ship she was on wasn’t going to be a  picnic to bring in and she had left the horses cross tied just in case.

“Half mast, bring er down!” The captain called out, over the sound of the fabric being wound in tightly.

The thrum of the wind diminished a little, and Xena turned her head as she caught another sound.  Leaving the horses, she walked across the deck to the bow and cocked her head, straining her ears to listen.

Harbors were noisy places. There were always ships creaking, the wake of the water, the gulls, the wind in the lines, sails flapping, the steady hammer of repairs.

What there usually wasn’t was the sound of swords clashing and the screams of dying men, two things Xena identified in a heartbeat.  “Captain!” She let out a yell. 

“I’m busy woman!” The captain yelled back from his position near the bow.  “Shut the Hades up while I set this ship into its berth!”

Xena grabbed his arm, as she bolted down the rail. “There’s fighting in the harbor.”

The captain turned to her. “What the Hades are you some kind of damned oracle?” He bellowed. “Y’can’t see the harbor from here you idiot woman!”

“I can hear it.”  Xena enunciated each word with intense precision.  “So before you bring this tub in, better have your men grab some bows and tell the sandals to duck before they end up being target practice.”

The captain studied her for one ferocious moment.  “Can’t stop her. Can’t steer her hardly that close in.” He said. “Best we can do is ram the bastards. Point em out.”

Xena smiled, at this finding of an unlikely kindred  soul.

“Man ya battle stations!” The captain bawled at the top of his lungs. “Trouble ahead!”

Sailors dropped the lines they were carrying and rushed to pick up their weapons as Iolaus bolted across the deck with Ephiny and Eponin a step behind him.  The door to the cabins slammed open and Denius appeared, staring around in confusion as men rushed to the rail and soldiers poured across from the forecastle where they’d been gathered.  

They entered the harbor and started around the turn as the sound of battle now was heard over the waves accompanied by the ominous thunder of flames. 

Xena took her place in the bow, her sword drawn in one hand, already straining her eyes as they started to clear the cliffs and give her a view of the battle. Her heart rate was already climbing, and she could feel a flush of energy across her skin.

“Now we know where the damn boats went.”  Iolaus was next to her, his own sword already out and in his hand.  “Xena, doesn’t it annoy you to be right all the time?”

“No.” The warrior craned her neck to see and as they came around her eyes took in the scene, automatically sorting out the elements.

Colors faded a little as her tacticians mind absorbed the three ships in port, and the burning buildings, and the line of troops holding the pier, and the Spartans swarming up the streets into the city.

Seconds to take it all in. Seconds to sort it all out.  Seconds to clap her hand on the captain’s shoulder and point. “There.” She said. “Put her bow in there.”

“Haul to port!”  The captain yelled. “Haul her to port and between the two ships on the left!  Put her between em! Get ready to board!!!  Ready to board men!”

Xena hopped to the bow and readied herself as they closed, aware of the men behind her, and her friends at her heels.

She let out a battle yell, hearing it ring off the stone cliffs and seeing the eyes of the sailors on the ships as they prepared to ram.   “Kill em all!” She yelled.  “Follow me!”

And they did.

**

Continued in Part 22