A Queen’s Tale

Part 22

They weren't Spartans.  Gabrielle was getting to be an expert at knowing that.  She ducked under a mace blow and swung her staff into the ribcage of her opponent, who was on a little rise ahead of her giving him an even greater height advantage.

No matter. She was used to that.  She followed up the blow with a reverse that slipped past his short sword and smacked him in the side of the head glad, at least, that the rain had stopped.

He growled and shook himself, making the half helmet obscuring most of his features rattle.

Gabrielle slid around to the side, and suddenly spotted a man about to spit Bennu. She turned her back on her own opponent and slammed the end of her staff into the soldiers face, knocking his head back and giving the militia captain a chance to shake loose from the two other fighters he was battling and shove a dagger into the man's guts.

Instinct dropped her to one knee, and she ducked her head as the man she'd been fighting lunged past where she'd been, his mace flying past her ear and just grazing it.

Didn't faze her. Gabrielle got up and took advantage of his lack of balance. She whacked him on the back of the head, then whirled and set herself, kicking out with one boot as she saw his jaw turn towards her and nailing him on it.

His head shot back at an awkward angle, and he dropped, his body going limp.   She thought she heard a crack at the same time, but didn't have the luxury of wondering about it as she heard footsteps charging at her from behind.

She turned and saw the enemy powering towards her, a yell on his tongue and both hands flung out in her direction, one with an ax, and the other with a spiked ball and chain, which was whirling.  There was no time to dodge, so she took three steps towards him, thumping her staff down into the dirt and leaping into the air.

Her boots struck him right in the chest and her weight took him right over backwards, his ax flying off into the bushes and the ball getting tangled in a branch as he landed on his back and Gabrielle landed on her knees on top of him.

“Got him.” Cait whipped by and cut his throat, showering her with blood on her way towards another soldier.  “Good one!”

Gabrielle grimaced and rolled off, getting to her feet and looking around as she found herself in a small pocket of quiet in the middle of the battle.  Roughly two dozen attackers had jumped them. She could see a dozen fighting with her people and a bunch of bodies on the ground, some of them hers.

None of the enemy were running.  She could see them fighting fiercely, but now they were outnumbered and having to face the forest dwellers who were roaring as they attacked.

Gabrielle quickly glanced back down the trail, where she could see the horses standing with Paladia stolidly at heir head. Was the ex renegade wishing she could join the fight? The bard watched her glanced up at the passenger on the gray horse next to her and then look back.  No, she didn't think Paladia did.

Jens came running up to her. “Almost got the bastards.” He said. “Damned if I know who they are.”

“Me either.” Gabrielle went over to one of the dead soldiers and knelt next to him. Unmarked armor, unmarked gear. Again.  “Jens, we've been bumping into these guys all over. What's gong on here?”

The Athenian captain dropped to one knee next to her. “Wish I knew.” He admitted. “But Gabrielle, if anyone might know it would be you as they were going for you the lot of them.”

Gabrielle glanced up at him 'Me?”

Jens nodded. “Had a chance to see it.” He said. “All of them, fighting, looked for you.”

“Me.” Gabrielle exhaled. “You know, sometimes it's a pain in the behind being me.” She stood up and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand.

“Gabrielle.” Jens touched her arm, then pointed.

Gabrielle turned, and saw a figure on a horse near the top of the path and her nape hairs prickled. It had a helmet on obscuring their face, and a cloak doing likewise for their body but she had a edgy, twitchy feeling she usually associated with Ares.

This wasn't Ares. “Now what?” The bard walked forward and put herself between the figure and hr still fighting troops, facing the intimidating and silent watcher.  She grounded her staff and wrapped her hand around it. 

The figure rode forward, half turning to display a sword drawn in their hand.  The fighting fell off behind Gabrielle, and she could hear the sound of clashing weapons fade to be replaced with silence, broken by the wind through the trees overhead.

The figure studied her, shadowed eyes barely visible inside the helmet. “Kneel, mortal.”

The voice was female, but it had a deep and arrogant resonance.   A little like Xena's, when she was in that old warlord mood.  Gabrielle remained standing, sorting through her immediate choices.  “What do you want?” She asked, in as clear and cold a tone as she could muster.  “I don't kneel to anyone.” Exactly what Xena would have done, she was pretty sure.

She saw the figure jerk slightly. Then it's free hand raised and she was abruptly caught in a blast of purple brilliance, a searing light that crawled all over her skin and stopped her breathing.   Gabrielle had little time to do anything but brace herself as she felt the overwhelming compulsion to kneel.

Far off, she heard Dori scream.  Deep inside, a feeling of rage erupted inside her and she fought the command, locking her knees and tensing every muscle in her body as she forced her eyes to focus outside the brilliance on the figure head of her.

It hurt. She could feel the darkness gathering at the fringes of her consciousness as her lungs fought to bring air into her and failed.

Frantically, she reached out for Xena's presence, afraid suddenly as she realized she wasn't her partner, and she wasn't endowed with that little something extra that let Xena get away with challenging the gods the way she did.

Thunder clapped, abruptly loud and harsh and she felt the ground rumble around her and with a blast of cold blue light, the compulsion disappeared and she gasped, sucking air into her lungs as a dark, heavy blast of sound rattled her teeth in her head and she was aware of a tall figure at her side, and the now frozen into immobility warriors all around her.

Time, it appeared, had stopped. She panted, trying to catch her breath, as her heart thumped loudly in her chest.

“Stay out of this.” The figure on the horse said. “You were warned.”

“Ah ah ah.” Ares draped a casual elbow on Gabrielle's shoulder. “Temper temper.” He shook a finger at her. “No interfering with your little plan, dear sister. But this one's mine.” He pointed at Gabrielle. “Keep your paws off.”

“It's a mortal.”  The figure said. “Fair game.”

“My mortal.” Ares merely smiled. “Go find your own.” He glanced around. “If you can find more. You're running out of these losers.”

“They are Amazons. They are mine.” The figure disagreed. “She's an Amazon. I claim her.”

Gabrielle opened her mouth to answer, but felt a poke in the ribs and stopped.

“Not this one.” Ares shook his head. “Scram. We both know daddy will grant an exemption for her and we both know if she belongs to someone it sure ain't you.”  He paused. “Some mortals it doesn't pay to piss off.”

Gabrielle straightened a little as she realized who he was talking about.

'So you say.” The figure said. “Maybe that's why daddy wants to get someone to take your place. Mortal lover.”

Ares merely smiled, making a shooing gesture with his free hand.

“You'll pay for this, Ares.” The figure said. “Dearly.”  The horse turned and slowly moved off, up over the top of the pass and down the other side until it was out of view.

Ares sighed. “Bitch.”

Gabrielle was, honestly not sure what to feel.  “Thanks.” She finally murmured. “I think.”

Ares turned and looked at her. “Get a move on.” He said. “You don't have much time to stop this.” His voice was unexpectedly serious.  “Go find Xena. She needs you.”

The bard blinked in utter shock.

“Scoot!” He snapped his fingers and disappeared, and in that moment the sound of battle erupted around her again and she was back in the middle of the fight hearing screams and yells and...   A body thumped into her knees, almost knocking her down.

“Mama!” Dori's eyes were wide as Argo's hooves.  “Mama!”

“It's okay, honey.” Gabrielle knelt down and hugged her. “Mama's okay.”

“Gabrielle!” Jens stumbled up to her. “Where did that rider go! They just disappeared!”

The bard felt sick to her stomach, her body aching from the assault. “I dont' know.” She muttered. “Let's get this over with. We've got to move on.”  She turned and started towards the fight, but as she did, the last of the enemy soldiers fell and she was surrounded by dead bodies, and recovering warriors.

Stupid.

Senseless.  She looked around, and saw one of the forest dwellers still in the dirt, and two of her militia. A quick glance told her Cait and Solari were all right, though Solari had a cut across her ribcage that was dripping blood.  Two of the Athenian soldiers were also dead.

Stupid.

She felt tired and disgusted. “They all think it's damned game.”

“What was that, your Maj?” Solari was cleaning her sword.  “Boy, good thing you yelled that warning. We just got these guys. They were tough.”  She sheathed the weapon and tossed the bit of fabric she'd ripped off a dead body to clean it with to one side. “You figure it was a trap?”

“It was a trap.” Gabrielle agreed quietly. “Looks like someone laid an ambush for us.. made it look like something we'd stop and check out.”

“Someone.” Jessan studied her intently.

“Someone.” Gabrielle agreed giving him a wry look.

'Yeesh.” The forest dweller went back to his task, carefully straightening the limbs of his fallen comrade.

The bard walked over and put her hand on Jessan's shoulder. “I'm sorry.”

Jessan looked up at her. “Thanks.” He said.”But we're warriors, Gabrielle. It's part of the deal.”  He patted her on the shoulder. “You okay?”

None of them had seen. None of them knew.  Should she tell them? “Yeah” Gabrielle replied.

“We in trouble here?” Jessan let his voice drop. “Seems like there's stuff here out of our league.”

The bard exhaled. “That's why the sooner we find Xena, the better.” She half evaded the question.  “I'm not sure we can get out of this at this point.”

“Go find Boo.” Dori agreed. She was still holding on to Gabrielle's leg, staring at the bodies on the ground. “Mama this is scary.”

Jessan grunted

“Dori.” Gabrielle stroked her hair. “Could you do me a favor sweetheart? Please go back over to where the horsies are, and I'll come right over, okay?”

“Wanna stay with you mama.”

“I know.” Gabrielle knelt down, so her head was even with her daughters and they were eye to eye. “But there are some things here that are bad, and I don't want you to look at them, because I love you and I know they'll make you have bad dreams.”

Dori looked at her. “Bad mens?”  She asked. “They do bad things?

The bard sighed. “Yeah.” She said. “We're going to go really fast after this and get to Boo. Okay?”

“Okay.” Dori released her and walked slowly back down the path, looking at everything around her then trotting back towards where the horses were. 

“Gabrielle.”  Bennu came over and knelt. “We'd like to give em a pyre. Plenty of dried wood around.”

Gabrielle watched his face.  She understood the request, more than most.  There were pyres burned into her memory that she'd carry the image of until her dying day and the cleansing of the fire was good, and right and the proper thing to do for these men who had died in her service.

Died, in her service.  Gabrielle suddenly felt like crying. “Make it as fast as you can, Bennu.” She said. “We have to find Xena.” Though the urgency of Ares warning was sounding in her head like a bell, she knew leaving the bodies behind wasn't something she could do.

“Aye.” The soldier touched her shoulder. “Men'r already getting the wood.”

Gabrielle went over to all of them, the fallen ones as they were being moved to a clear spot, looking at their faces, now at peace, their battles over. 

She remembered, suddenly, Xena's quiet, exhausted face after a direly hard battle, and her plaintively saying all she had wanted was to not see anyone get hurt and she understood those words now in a gut level way that she'd never had before.  It hurt, when people died for you.

It hurt her now, even though everyone around her was a volunteer and knew the dangers. 

She left them to start the fire and walked down the slope to where the horses were waiting and went to Shadows side, where Dori was impatiently waiting. “Thank you for being a good girl, Dori.” She murmured. “Thanks Paladia.”

“No problem.” The ex renegade seemed very subdued. “This all kinda stinks.”

“Yeah.” Gabrielle leaned against Shadow. “It really does.” 

They led the horses up the path to the crest, just as the flames started rising from the hastily gathered pile of wood where the fallen had been laid.

“Mama what's that?” Dori asked. “Howcome they doing that?”

Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the child and gazed at the pyre. “Dori.” She paused. “You know sometimes things happen, and our friends have to stop being with us and go to some other place.” 

“Like Boo is gone now?”

The shiver that went down Gabrielle's spine at that nearly made her throw up. “No, honey.. not at all. Boo just went for a walk, she's coming back to us.” She said. “But sometimes people go away forever, and they don't come back.  That's because  it's time for them to go to a different place.”

Dori looked confused. She glanced  up at her mother. “Where?”

“A nice place honey.” Gabrielle whispered. “A very pretty place, with flowers, and lots of birds. And everyone just has fun there all the time.”

“Can we go there?”

“Not right now.” Gabrielle watched the flames. “Dori do you remember when we were in the big white place? When we were in the rock house and it was all hot?”

“Yes.”

“Do you remember when we were in the room, and it was all bad and I told you we'd be going to some  place nice after that?”

'Yes.” Dori nodded, more confidently. “Mama, I remember that. You said we would go, and Boo too.” She said. “But mama if it's a good place why can't we go now?”

Sometimes, Gabrielle reflected, Xena's far more direct way of talking had it's advantages. “Because we have things we have to do here first, Dori.  We'll go, someday. You and me, and Boo.”

“Go Boo.”

Gabrielle motioned to Solari and Cait. “Let's go up over the rise.” She said. “I don't want her to see the burning.” She led the way up over the crest and down the other side, just far enough so that the pyre could no longer be seen.

On this side of the ridge, they could see most of the way down to the plateau, and if Gabrielle craned her neck and squinted, she could see the edge of the road leading down to Therma.   She heard footsteps behind her, and she turned to find the rest of the troops joining them, their faces quietly grim.

Everyone mounted, and she led the way down the path, heading downward.  Bennu and Jessan got in front of her and led the way, and by common consent, they started going faster.

The sound of the horses hooves drumming on the wet path rumbled through her. Gabrielle had a moment to think about what had just happened, and she felt herself getting angry again, at the presumption of the gods, or in this case, goddess who had attacked them.

Artemis?  Based on what she'd said about Amazons, it must have been.  The bard frowned.  She was grateful that Ares had stepped in again, but the fact that once again gods were meddling with them and causing her friends and coleagues to be hurt and killed made her angry.

And what, really, was Ares angle in all this?  Was he really just stepping in because he was concerned about them?  Gabrielle found that extremely hard to believe.  There was a reason, somewhere, for him to be doing what he was doing. Collecting favors?'

Maybe.

She was aware of being wet all through, and of the aches from the fight and from Artemis's attack on her. The lifting of her spirits from earlier was gone, replaced by a sense of heavy dread, as they rode in silence through the trees and down towards the city.

Xena needs you.  Ares words echoed through her head. Xena needs you.  And yet, she could feel no dire pull from her partner through their connection, just the usual sense of restless energy....

Gabrielle paused, as she felt the familiar dark flood of emotion  that was Xena in a big fight.  Fierce and wild, it coursed through her and washed the fatigue away, feeling very close and very potent.

They were near the bottom of the path.  They reached the flat and threaded through the trees, emerging at the edge of the forest with the road in sight.

“Let's go.” Gabrielle nudged Shadow in the ribs. They picked up speed and reached the road, clearing the thick brush on either side of it to scramble up onto the hardened surface.

“Gabrielle!”  Bennu pointed.

Oh, sheeps. Gabrielle spotted the legion of troops thundering towards them.  “Move it people!” She turned Shadows head and urged her into a gallop. “Get to the city!” 

The surged into motion, sending mud flying in every direction as they headed towards the city walls.  Already above it they could see smoke rising, and Gabrielle wondered if they were heading towards a sanctuary or just more trouble.

What she was sure of, is that they were heading towards Xena.  She could feel her partner in a very close and vivid way, knew she was fighting, knew she was in the city they were barreling along towards.

So she didn't care.

“Mama we go fast!” Dori clutched Shadows mane and grinned in delight. “Go fast! Go go go!”

“We're going Dor. Fast as we can.” Her mother promised her. “You know who's there, in that place?”

“Boo!”
“Oh yeah.”  Gabrielle looked behind her. The Spartan legions were picking up the pace, having spotted them.  Outriders were thundering forward, gaining on them.

She turned back around and leaned forward over Shadows neck, urging her fast. “C'mon girl. We're almost there.”

**

Xena leaped onto the Spartan ship, cutting down the first man who obstructed her without even looking twice at him.  These were sailors, not soldiers and she powered her way through a line of them trying to defend themselves with little more than boat hooks and sticks.

The Spartans hadn't expected someone to attack from the sea. They had taken the waterfront and a line of soldiers were holding it, but left their ships with few guards and now were paying th price.

One of the guards came at her, sword drawn.  She engaged him, his sword clashing against hers as the ship shifted against its morning blown by a gust of wind.   Xena caught her balance and deflected a second slash, swinging her blade around and holding it two handed as he lifted his over his head and slammed it down towards her.

She brought her arms up and caught the edge on her flat, then she half turned and kicked him in the groin as hard as she could.  He staggered back and grabbed a rope to steady himself, then stopped and jerked as an arrow pierced him in the throat.

Xena turned her head to see Pony reloading. “Nice shot.”

Pony grinned.

Xena turned and raced across the deck, hearing the clash of swords in the distance as she slammed her body into three men trying to get in her way and knocking them back onto their asses.  Behind her, the Athenian sailors and her Amazons, plus a few stragglers had jumped onto the ship after her, and as she reached the gangway they caught her up.

“We going to fight all of them?” Ephiny asked, sheathing her sword.  

'Sure.” Xena backhanded a sailor who reeled up trying to hit her with a pike.

Pony was behind her, and so, Xena noticed, was Miliena.  The girl had picked up an ax and looked like she might actually know how to use it.   Denius arrived at her shoulder. “Now what?”

Horses.  Xena turned and looked behind her, relieved to see Iolaus leading the two of them over a hastily set gangplank from their crippled ship to the Spartan one.     The Athenian soldiers were driving back the ship's crew, but the other ships crews were now swarming off their decks and heading over to help.

“Whew.” Iolaus arrived, handing Xena her reins.  “Don't want to have to do that again. I thought all of us were going get pitched into the harbor for a minute.”

“What's the plan, champ?” Pony slung her borrowed crossbow over her shoulder and drew her sword out.

She had about a dozen people to fight three ships worth.  Xena sighed. “Denius.” She turned. “Do you have contacts in the city?  We need to find the soldiers waiting to enlist here.”

The patrician looked shaken, for once. “I hadn't expected this.” He said. “They would be in the hostels and rooms near the docks... but surely they are already fighting these invaders.”

“Let's find out.” Xena let out a whistle, and started down the gangway with her stallion willingly following her.  She could hear the rest of them start down but her attention now turned to the soldiers starting to move towards her across the dock.  She reached the bottom and hauled herself up on the equine Iolaus' back, drawing her sword as she turned the horse to meet them.

Her little horde poured down the gangway after her and the human Iolaus joined her on the mare's back. The soldiers formed up behind her and the rest of them, including the sailors off their ship who decided to fight clustered behind them.

Xena lifted her sword. “Better think twice.” She let out a yell at the men. “I left a dead ship there. Wanna join them?” She pointed at the ship they'd just come off of.  It was creaking and silent, the rails sporadically dotted with slumped bodies.

The Spartan sailors hauled up.

The sound of fighting was a little further off.  Xena urged her horse a few steps towards the men and half turned so they had a good look at her. “Go back to your ships.”

“What is she doing?” Milena muttered to Ephiny.

“Pulling a Warrior Princess on them.” The Amazon replied.

“What?”

“Shh. Just watch.” Ephiny said.

Xena sidestepped forward. “Make your choice!” She yelled. “Go back to your ship or we'll kill you where you stand.” She twirled her sword in her hand.

One of the sailors stepped forward, dressed in the tunic of a ship master. “We are Spartans!” He yelled back at her. “Who speaks!”

“Xena of Amphipolis.”   The warior replied, as she let her sword rest on her shoulder.  She had a fifty fifty chance, she figured, depending on if the dumb bastard had heard of her, and when. “Now choose. I've got people to kill, and cities to conquer.”

The man stared at her.  Then he held up a hand. “You'll be taken down soon enough.” He said. “No need of my men to suffer for it.”  He signaled and the sailors slowly retreated back to their ships.   As they reached them, the man gave an unheard order and the men started to take the lines up as though they were getting ready to leave.

Good.  Xena turned and went back to her little troop. “Let's see if we can take the high land up there.” She pointed to the ridge overloooking the harbor.  “Then we can gather troops and fight our way down.”

“Might have some horses up there too.”  Denius said. “Very well, let's go.” He added. “I will attempt to contact my people here once we arrive at the upper street.”

“Sounds like the fighting's that way.” One of the guards said, pointing to the left. 

It did. But Xena was sure charging up the slope into the old market area would result in them fighting an unknown number of Spartans in close quarters and she wanted to get a look at the enemy first.  She started up the stepped slope, seeing the smoke start to rise more thickly over the city and now to the right she could hear screams breaking out.

She felt a certain lightness coming from Gabrielle, and definitely sensed her coming closer.  Was she near the city?  Xena felt her own heart lighten thinking of it.  She hoped so.

“Those guys just backed down.” Milena said to Pony, as she trotted up the steps next to the Amazon.

“Sure.”  Pony said. “She wasn't kidding. They were smart enough to know it.” She watched the burning flames shoot up from a building on the other side of the hill.  “Seen her hold off a hundred men with just that sword. She'd  have killed em.”

“So..” Milena studied the tall figure ahead of them. “Those stories are all for real?”

“Stories an't half of what's real about Xena.” Pony said. “But if you're carrying that thing you better know how to use or stay the Hades out of the way.”

Milena frowned. “I know how to use it.” She muttered, shifting her grip on the ax, as she tried to keep Xena in sight.

Iolaus urged his mare to catch up to the fast moving warrior. “Xena.”

“Hm?” Xena was leaning forward a little, guiding her stallion's steps carefully up the crooked path.

“What's the game here?  Three Spartan ships? That's not enough to pick up an army.”:

“No.” Xena said. “But it's enough to take over the port town. They've probably got a fleet on the way.”

“Ugh.”

The wariror had her sword out again, and she was holding it ready as she reached the road at the top of the hill, which was silent and deserted. There were bodies scattered up and down it, and the doors to the villas were hanging open. One was smoke filled.

“Check the stable.” Xena sidestepped her horse in a circle, listening and watching carefully in both direcitons.   One of the Athenian soldiers jogged past her and entered the big structure. “Iolaus, knock on the door and see if the innkeeper's there. “

“Bet he isn't.” Iolaus hopped off his horse and went to the inn's door, banging on it.   

Xena dismounted and went over to the nearest of the buidings. She crouched a little, then jumped up and caught the edge fo the roof, pulling herself up onto the flat surface.  She walked across it, easing between the buildings until she had a view of the next street over, inside the wall next to the main concourse.

It was full of fighting bodies.  She recognized Spartans who were making good headway against the lines of half armored and lightly armed men defending the city, a mixture of guard and conscripts with their backs to the wall. 

Good a place to start as any.  Xena turned and recrossed the roof, exploring the passageways the walls fenced in. She found one that lead down to the lower street, and, satisified, she returned to the edge of the higher roof and stepped off it.

She somersaulted lazily in the air, landing on the street just behind her horse. He started, and turned his head, snorting when he spotted her.

“No answer.” Iolaus told her.

“Stable's pretty empty, but a pony, ma'am.” The Athenian solder reported.

Xena nodded. “Put these two in here, and then follow me. We've got a fight a street over we can make a difference in.”  She turned and studied her troops as one of the sailors led the horses into the stable.  Steady eyes looked back at her, and she smiled. “Gonna be a busy day.”

Ephiny smiled back.  “I”m just glad to have solid ground back under my feet.”  She seated her daggers and ran her fingers through her curly blond hair. “And that I got a decent night's sleep.”

“Got that right.” Eponin nudged Xena. “Let's go. Sooner we start this, sooner it's over.”

Xena turned and led the way up to the door to the inn, throwing her shoulder against it and knocking it inward.  She half walked, half ran through the big front room and through the corridors in the back, exiting into the empty inner courtyard where everything was knocked askew.   She went through the small gate in the back that led downward, and a moment later was moving through the servants quarters that bordered the lower street.

Those, too, were empty.  There was evidence of a hasty departure though, the beds were overturned, and possessions were scattered over the floor. Xena headed down a last flight of stairs and paused, holding her hand up.

The sound of fighting was much closer now.  Steel clashing and the grunts and screams were just outside at the foot of the stairs.   Xena turned.  “Try to double team the Spartans. They're tough bastards.” She said. “They're in the street, the Spartans on the top side, pushing the city people down the slope.  When we come out of here, we'll be in it. Ready?”

“Gwan, woman.” Surprisingly, the captain was there, a curved scimtar in his hand.  “Move your butt!”

Xena chuckled and turned, heading down the steps and out into the street right in to the middle of the battle. She let out a yell, the sound ringing off the walls as she swept her sword around and down and cut off a hand with a sword in it about to spit one of the city guard.

She leaped past him to clear the stair entrance and found herself in a circle of four Spartans, all of whom had full armor and longswords on them. She picked one and dove at him, driving her sword towards his head and waiting for him to counter it, then kicking him in the chest with a roundhouse boot that knocked him out of position and drew them all back a step.

The rest of her force poured into the street, swarming over the men fighting and using bow and knife to good effect. The captain was hacking at a Spartan's kneecaps and Xena caught sight of Milena meeting a Spartan sword with her ax, a determined look on her face.

Xena went back to her own fight, satisifed so far with the results.  She locked her hands on her sword hilt and faced off against two soldiers, setting her boots a little apart and putting her back to the wall mindful of the fact she didn't have anyone watching it.

Been a while, for that.  She'd become accustomed to having Gabrielle's protective presence at her side, her staff ready to knock anyone trying to get at her off balance.  Another pair of eyes, another pair of strong hands  - she missed having her there.

Not to mention the Spartans were tough. She parried a powerful blow and twisted her shoulders to deflect it to one side, ducking and jerking herself backwards as the second Spartan lunged at her with a dagger.

Now she was glad she'd gotten some rest herself during the night.  She sharpened her attention and watched her opponents carefully, remembering the Spartan she'd fought in Athens to win the games.

These two were not his match. They were shorter, and younger, less skilled than he had been. But there were two, and they were strong and they came at Xena in a way that made her understand they were used to fighting together.

Like she and Gabrielle were.  Xena took a deep breath and focused, her peripheral vision watching the other battles, and catching sight of Ephiny and Pony tucked behind a half wall, firing arrows into the melee with calm precision.

She wove a net of flashing steel in front of her, deflecting the swords of the two Spartans in a series of rapid counterstrokes, feeling her wrists pop a little as she whipped the sword into a figure eight and take both of theirs out of position.  She took advantage of one, releasing one hand off her sword and shaking her dagger into her hand, letting it fly with a side swipe of her arm.

It got him in the gut. He wrenched at it, as she parried his partner's slash then had to duck fast as he reversed his motion and nearly skimmed the top of her head with his blade.

She kept the motion going, turning and lashing out to kick the man she'd knifed backwards, and he stumbled, still trying to pull the knife out of his stomach.

“Bitch.” The other man redoubled his efforts.

Xena saw the other man get the knife out of his flesh and start to get to his feet, picking up his sword. She deflected one attack from his partner, then had to duck again, this time getting a little to far forward as the man slammed his hilts down and caught her on the shoulder.

Rather than resist it, she went with the motion and tucked and rolled, getting her boots up and slamming him on the hip as he swiveled to attack her, shoving off against the ground and sending him flying against the wall.

Her nerves jangled a warning and she got her hands up just in time to catch the other soldier's down sweeping sword against the hilt of her own, rolling and shunting it off to the side as he hacked at her.

She heard the sound of an arrow over her head and felt the hacking slack off and she continued her roll right back up onto her feet just in time to meet the lunge of the other soldier.  Her elbow slammed him in the jaw, and he rocked back, but reached for her and swiped sideways with his sword as his hand caught hers.

Xena yanked him towards her and the stroke just slammed against her ribs as the sword twisted in his hand  and the flat hit her instead of the edge.  She head butted him in the face and then they were grappling, as she shoved him over and bore him down onto the ground.

She could hear yelling behind her.  Off in the distance she thought she heard a horn. But right now all her focus was on the  grunting struggle she was involved in as both of them fought to control the sharp blades trapped between them and she reached for her boot dagger.

He beat her too it, grabbing it and slashing at her but she shifted like a snake and got a knee up to pin his arm down, then her free hand reached over and stabbed into his neck, finding the pressure points she almost never used in actual battle.  The man went limp, and she grabbed the knife from his slack fingers and drove it into his chest.

No time to review. Xena swept her eyes around as she rocked up onto her feet and picked up her sword, heading already for th next patch of soldiers.  She could see the city guard now moving closer, and some of the bodies on the ground were Spartan.  She let out a yell, and picked up a mace on her way towards her next battle.

They wouldn't surrender.   She saw Milena engaged with one of them,  frantically trying to keep from being killed as the man stalked her with murderous intent.    Changing her angle, Xena took a step up onto a half wall then vaulted into the air, tucking her body into a somersault as she used her forward momentum and lashed out at the man facing Mileana, her boots striking him in the head.  He stumbled forward and she landed with a half twist, using his disorientation to give her the time to grab his arm and whirl him around, slamming him face first into the wall.

He bounced off and she got a knee into the small of his back, yanking him over and breaking his back with a loud cracking sound.  She let him roll off and stood, ducking a slash from another Spartan and getting behind him.  She caught sight of Milena, who was staring at her in a mixture of awe and relief.  “Find a bow!” She advised, before she had to twist and knock a mace out of position just as it was about to hit her in the gut.

Close quarter fighting was a special talent.  Xena turned and grabbed a dagger from a man's belt and cut him with it, then ducked past him and buried the knife into the next man's neck.   It took speed, and nerves from Hades, and strength enough to wrestle through the melee.

Xena preferred a more open sword fight where she had space to maneuver and use her speed to advantage.  But she could pit fight when she had to and now the memories of that washed through her as she spun and stabbed, and kicked, working her way through the Spartans until she was at the edge of the fight, coming to stand with the city guard who let out a yell when they saw her.

She let out a yell back, and joined them, driving the Spartans back step by step until they were against the wall and the conclusion was foregone.  

True to their nature, the Spartans fought to the last man,  a tall, weathered warrior who fell to Xena's sword after a short tussle with her.  As his body sank to the ground, the warrior turned and lifted her hands, facing the city fighters behind her.

“Xena!” Denius shoved his way forward. He and his guard had joined the fight and he even had some blood on his silk surcoat  “Maginificent!”

The warrior lowered her sword to rest on her shoulder and took stock. She saw most of her little group safe, Ephiny and Eponin were standing nearby with Iolaus, and a little behind them, Miliena was clutching her ax in one hand, and a longbow in the other.

“We won this little battle.” Xena told Denius as he arrived at her side. “Now we need to win the rest of them. I don't know how many Spartans are in the city.”

“Enough to be burning half of it.” Ephiny joined them.  The regent pointed at the sky, which was filling with smoke.  “You were right though, Xena. Those men died hard.”

They had, and taken at least one city fighter with them as they did.  Xena studied the men who were now picking up discarded weapons and realized she didn't have that much to work with.   “We're gonna have to do this one street at a time.” She sighed,

Turning, she started to consider where to go next when she stopped, a cold rush coming over her along with a stark blast of terror from her soulmate.

It was like being hit in the face. Xena grabbed onto a piece of wall and forced herself to stay upright, almost overwhelmed with the frantic fear.

Then it stopped. Then everything stopped and it got so quiet inside her head she could hear her soul gasping.

“Xena?” Ephiny touched her shoulder. “You okay?”

Gabrielle was nowhere she could sense.  Xena felt her heartrate double.

“Xena?” Ephiny moved closer, her voice lowering in concern. “Hey.”

It was hard to breathe. Xena threw her senses out as far as she could, reaching out to touch a partner she had a sudden, terrible fear might have moved beyond her reach.

No.

No!  Not now! Not yet!!!!! Gabrielle!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ephiny's hands on her face. “Xena!”

And then, like a candle flaring, her awareness of Gabriele flooded back, chaotic and surging with emotion.   Xena breathed it in, and slowly, slowly let her eyes focus on Ephiny's.  “I'm all right.”

Ephiny released her, but the worried expression didn't fade. “What the Hades just happened?”

What answer really, was there to that?  “Something.. “ Xena felt exhausted, and for a moment she was afraid her knees were going to unlock and dump her on the ground.  To prevent that, she turned and sat down on the half wall, blinking as she felt the tremors in her hands.

She could feel Gabrielle now. There was sadness, and grief, and a sense of impatience there, and despite the grim mood, Xena savored it.  “Gabrielle must have run into some trouble.” She finally said.  “It's all right now.”  The noise around her now rose, and she was aware of the troops again.  She saw Denius headed her way, and heard the sound of fighting now not far off.

She didn't give a damn about any of it.

Not a bit.  “I gotta get to the gates.”  She said, as her heart finally settled, and she was able to breathe normally again.

“Lot of Spartans between us and that.” Pony had come up alongside Ephiny and she was standing close by. “Want some water?”

“Yeah.” Xena responded. She closed her twitching fingers on the hilt of the sword now resting between her knees, and exhaled, putting the sudden terror in the past. “And the Spartans are just going to have to get out of my way.”

**

“They’re picking up on us.” Solari leaned over towards Gabrielle. “Hey listen..”

Gabrielle looked over her shoulder and saw the leading riders indeed catching up to them.  She turned her head around and looked at the city, seeing the smoke rising over it, but also noting the very closed gates.   “This could get ugly.”

“Get?”  Solari queried. “Listen, how about some of us falling back and giving those guys a hard time, you know? Give you all some space to get to the wall.”

Gabrielle understood what Solari was offering.  “We’re all gonna get there.” She disagreed.  “Just keep going. The city’s not that far!”

Dori was clutching Shadow’s mane, delighted with the long run. “Mama, we go fast!”

“That’s right honey.” Gabrielle felt her body getting exhausted with the constant strain of keeping her balance and holding onto Dori with one arm. “You hang on tight, okay?”

They were halfway to the city, the walls growing larger and more substantial ahead of them.  Not soon enough though, since the riders behind them seemed to have fresher horses, or maybe just faster ones. 

“Gabrielle.” Bennu now rode up next to her. “Keep going, lass.” He said. “We’re going to pull back and stop em.”

“No.”  The bard yelled back. “Everyone stay up.  No one gets left behind.”

“Gabrielle!” The soldier said. “For the sake of the gods, it’s you they want!”

She knew that. She also knew they were outnumbered five to one at least and anyone who stayed behind didn’t have much of a chance. 

Maybe she should just turn around and let the rest of them go on.  

“Go go go!” Dori squealed. 

Gabrielle looked down at her daughter.  Of course she couldn’t.  She could put her back to a wall and fight to the end with Dori behind her but she couldn’t throw herself into a death trap and leave her behind.

Wasn’t in her. 

Neither was letting friends sacrifice themselves so she could escape.  “Bennu, you stick by me.” She told the man. “We all make it, or none of us does.”

“Gabrielle!”

“It’s too late for that, damn it!”  Gabrielle said.  “They’ll just run you over and come after me anyway.” She yelled. “There’s at least a hundred of them chasing us!”

“We could slow em down!” Solari threw in from the other side. “C”mon, Gabrielle! You’re the damn queen! You need to make it !”

“Damn it I said no!” Gabrielle felt her temper flaring.  “Don’t pay me lip service as the queen if you ‘re not willing to listen to me!”

“That’s not what I meant!”  Solari bravely shot back.

“We all need to make it.” Gabrielle said. “Besides, if they don’t open those gates you’ll be making your last stand soon enough.” She pointed ahead of them.  The gates were shut tight, and now that they were closer they could see bodies lying on the ground before them.

“Ah.” Bennu grunted.  “Yah.”

“Great time for them to be closed.” Solari said. “Maybe we can…”

Gabrielle closed her eyes and thought about her partner as hard as she could, blocking out the labored breathing of the horses, and the thunder behind them.  She concentrated on needing her, wanting her – calling out for help as she so very seldom did.

She thought she felt a response, but the sound and the exertion of the ride washed it out of her mind and forced her to turn her attention back to the road ahead of them.

Thunder rumbled over head again.  Gabrielle could feel Shadow tiring, and she patted the horse on the shoulder. “Easy girl. Not much further.”

An arrow arched over her head.

“Uh oh.” Solari turned and pulled her crossbow off her back. “Ware!”  She fitted her bolt and turned again, raising the weapon and squeezing of a shot.  “Damn it.’

“Gabrielle! Duck!”  Cait’s voice, from the left of her.

She sweved instead, and another arrow whipped by this time so close it’s feathers touched her arm.  “Dori, stay down.” Gabrielle wished she’d thought to take her wartime armor, the leather scales fitted to her torso protecting her far better than her light clothing and cloak.

“Got one!” Cait crowed. 

Jessan brought his horse up next to her, as Bennu dropped back a pace. “Hey.”

“You’re not going to tell me something stupid like you’er going to stop and fight them right?” Gabrielle asked.

Jessan’s golden eyes twinkled wryly.  “You’re gonna need me when we stop at that wall.” He said. “If they don’t get the gates open.” He indicated the closed structure.  “They can sure see us… what’s the deal?”

“They’ll get them open.” Gabrielle stubbornly looked ahead,  seeing a stark lack of people on the wall.   At least, she hoped they would since the thought of dying at the very gates of the city she knew her partner was in was devastating.  “Just hang on, Jessan. We’ll make it.”

The forest dweller drew his sword, and clasped it, pulling his horse back so he was just behind Gabrielle and between her  and the Spartans coming up on that side.  “Watch out!” He pointed across the back of Shadow’s hindquarters. “They’re coming up fast!”

Gabrielle heard the Spartans start yelling, and knew suddenly they weren’t going to make it.  Arrows started to pepper the ground around them, and one stuck in her saddle.  

She felt  Shadow stumble a little. 

“Get ready boys!” Bennu yelled. “We’ll turn at the rock there!  Give a bit o room against the wall!”

Gabrielle gathered herself, and got ready to fight.  She loosened the straps on her staff and tried to gather her energy, ready to jump off Shadow as soon as they got to the silent and unfeeling stone wall.

More arrows.  Gabrielle heard a stifled cry just behind her, and her heart clenched, then she almost went bolt upright as she saw the gates start to open. “They’re opening!”

“By the gods.” Bennu said. “Go! Go.. we’ll… ahugh!”

No Gabrielle turned and saw him pitch over his saddle and she grabbed for the reins to haul Shadow around. “Bennu!”

“Got him!” Jessan hauled the militiaman over Eris’ saddle. “Keep going! Keep… hurry!”

A spear came out of nowhere, so fast Gabrielle just barely had a chance to release Dori’s body and smack it with her hand, feeling a painful sting as it just missed hitting Shadow’s neck.   She could hear the thunder of the Spartan’s catching up with them and from the corner of her eye saw a man with a crossbow almost even with them taking aim at her.

She threw her body over Dori’s at the last second and felt a searing pain across the back of her neck.  It almost knocked her off Shadow’s back, but she gripped with her knees and grimly hung on, her heart hammering loud in her ears.

“Mama!” Dori cried out. “Ow!”

“Just stay down!” Gabrielle whispered. “Dori, please.”

They bolted for the gates, angling across the road towards them as they swung open and revealed a tumbled chaos inside, a swarm of horses and men and wagons that all seemed to explode outwards towards them.

A bold yell rang out over all of it, and the chaos parted to reveal a golden stallion racing out of the opening, his rider making enough noise to split stone as she charged towards the Spartans, sword drawn. 

Just like she’d imagined.  “Xena!”  Gabrielle let out a bellow that came from her very soul.

“Mama!” Dori squealed with almost the same volume.  “Boo! Look! Dere’s Boo!! Boo!”

Caught between elation and exhaustion,  Gabrielle could only smile, even more so when she heard her partner’s distinctive battle yell sound out in answer.

Yeah. 

“Mama! Go Boo!”

Yeah.

A stream of riders followed Xena out of the city and they thundered down the road, passing through Gabrielle’s beleagured band as they headed right into the faces of the Spartans, at least a hundred  of them, most in armor and all of them carrying some kind of weapon.

“Keep going!” Jessan caught up to her, Bennu balanced over his saddle.  “These guys have had it!”

Gabrielle wasn’t sure if he meant the Spartans or the horses but she could feel Shadow faltering and knew racing out after her partner wasn’t in the cards.   “Got it!”  She pointed. “Over there!”

Horns blew. A volley of arrows came from the walls, over their heads as they slipped between the city defenders and rode through the gates into the square, almost plowing into a crowd of men and women, milling around with smoke rising from buildings all around them.

Gabrielle had no idea what was going on. She hauled Shadow to a halt and turned around, hearing the horns blaring and cheers rising from the wall.   

“Gabrielle!”

Her head whipped around, and she spotted two very familiar faces coming at her fast through the crowd.  With a stifled yelp she slid off the horses back and found herself enveloped in Ephiny’s arms, with Pony right behind her.  “Eph!”

Ephiny released her and stared into her eyes. “Damn am I ever glad to see you.”

“Me too.” Pony got an awkward hug in.  “Hey Dori.”

“I gotta go.” Gabrielle got herself loose.  “Is there a…”

“Hey hey hey. Relax. They’re coming back in.” Ephiny put a steadying hold on her shoulders. “She’s coming back.”

Gabrielle took a breath to protest, then she heard the sounds of pounding horse hooves and got a blast of frenzied impatience from a very close source.   “So she found you?”

Ephiny and Eponin exchanged glances. “Long story.”  Ephiny said.

“Get back! Get back! Let’em in!” Yells now rose up and there was noise and more chaos and shoving, accompanied by the thunder of horses and the sounds of screaming nearby.   “Look at them! The bastards ran!  They were afraid of her!”

“Look out!”

They were shoved back, almost stumbling as motion and sound filled the square and then Gabrielle saw the gates swinging shut as the space was filled with horses and men and spears and she blinked asthe smoke stung her eyes. She barely kept her balance as Shadow was pushed from the other side, and she could hear Ephiny yelling.

Everyone was yelling.

Then the horses moved aside and the people were dodging too, out of her way, diving to the side as something was coming towards her and she knew without Dori’s squeal what it was.

Who it was.  She ducked under Shadow’s neck and threw her arms open and in the next breath Xena was in them, wrapping Gabrielle up in a ferocious hug and lifting her into the air, right off her feet with an inarticulate growling roar.

“Ungh.” Gabrielle groaned softly herself, feeling a deep breath come out of her partner’s chest, and she was let back down to the ground, and rocked slowly back and forth in Xena’s embrace.

She sucked in a lungful of leather and metal in a moment of perfect relief.

So beautiful.

So incredibly sweet.  “Ah, Xe.” She breathed. “So glad I found you.”

Xena didn’t say anything.  She just hugged Gabrielle tighter. 

There was noise around them, and shoving bodies, and panic.   Gabrielle didn’t give a damn about any of it. She felt like she was rooted in that one spot, in those arms, all the terrors of the recent past gone.

Just gone.

She felt Xena kiss the top of her head.  Tears stung her eyes and she finally looked up,  finding those gorgeous blue eyes gazing back at her, equally damp. 

They touched foreheads. Then Xena hugged her tightly again and exhaled.  Finally they separated, and turned towards Shadow, putting their arms around each other as they went over to get a frustrated Dori out of the horses saddle and into Xena’s arms.

“Hey shortie.”  Xena’s voice was raspy, and very, very tired.

“Boo!” Dori hugged her enthusiastically. “Mama said we go fast, and find you. We did!”

“You sure did.”

Gabrielle soaked in every word.  She was aware at some level of the chaos around them, and she could hear men yelling urgently nearby and she really just didn’t care.  She knew there were people around, knew Ephiny and Pony were there to talk to. Knew they had things that needed to be taken care of.

Didn’t care.

She leaned against Xena’s body and wrapped her arms around her, only barely keeping from bursting into tears. 

“Xena, they’ve turned around good.”  A man edged in between the crowd. “Went back down the road, we can’t see em no more.”

“Caught a break.” Xena said. “Let’s get the defense organized.  Get everyone back from the gates, get the horses back to the stables.” She said.  “All you people get those wagons into the store rooms and get a fire started. Got a lot to burn.”

“Rain’s startin!”  A yell went up. “That’ll put the fires out!”

“Let’s get inside.”  Xena pointed at a large building. “In there.  Jess? Bring him in there, I’ll look at it.”

Gabrielle was aware of being guided and she was content to simply follow Xena out of the rain and into a big stone room, followed by people she knew and some she didn’t.  Thunder rolled over head and she could hear rain outside the open windows bringing a puff of smoke tinged wet air against her face.

She was conscious of Ephiny on the other side of her,  of Cait and Paladia getting between the crowd and them, and of a strange girl standing next to Pony staring at them.

Aware, but really only caring about the warm body under the leather her hand was resting on, and the resonant voice and the deep sense of comfort she now felt having Xena once again at her side.   

She let her head rest against Xena’s shoulder, savoring the touch.

Somehow, suddenly, it was quiet.

Gabrielle looked up, to find Xena seated next to her on the bench she’d half fallen down onto, with Dori in her lap and absolutely no one else in the room, a smaller room than she remembered walking into.

“Hey.” Xena said.

“Hey.”  Gabrielle almost whispered. “Where’d everyone go?”

“They’re in there.”  Xena pointed to a door at the end of the room  “I thought we needed a few minutes.” She paused. “Alone.”

Gabrielle looked around, then back at Xena. “Was I that out of it?”  She watched her partner nod. “Wow.”  She took a deep breath, then exhaled.  “Yeah I guess I was. It’s been..” Her voice trailed off.  “Yeah.”

They looked at each other.  Xena bounced Dori on her knee a little.  “Next time.” She said. “You’re coming with me.”

“Oh yeah.” Gabrielle snorted slightly, rubbing her face with one hand.  “I regretted that decision every single damned second.”

Xena put her arm around her partner. “Me too.”

“Thanks for finding Eph and Pony for me.”  Gabrielle had to smile.

“That was the easy part.” Her partner informed her. “Then there was everything else.” She added, with a sigh. “You too, I guess.”

“Yeah.” The bard exhaled.  “So much happened.” She reached over and touched Dori’s foot. “She was such a good girl, too, weren’t you Dor?”

“We had fun.” Dori said. “Lots of go fast, bugs, froggies, too many bad mens.” She frowned. “We got Boo now so it’s all good.”

Gabrielle considered, then nodded. “Yeah, that bout covers it.” She picked up Xena’s free hand and brought it to her lips, ignoring the dirt and blood on it as she kissed the knuckles. “I’m… “ She felt her throat tighten.  “So much I have to tell you.”

“Yeah.” Xena agreed quietly. “Me too.”  She said. “Spartans really coming?’

Gabrielle nodded.  “You knew?”

“Someone told us.  Wasn’t sure if it was true, they had a reason for lying.”  The warrior said. “But I knew something pissed you off.”

“They wanted me to come lead their army since you said no.”

Xena turned her head and peered at her, both brows hiked. 

“Stupid. Some game with Artemis and Athena.” Gabrielle muttered. “They’re fighting over who should take Ares place.”

Xena covered her eyes.

“He popped in an saved my butt twice.”

Xena looked at her from between her fingers, then dropped her hand.  “What’s his game?” She asked. “I haven’t heard a peep from him.”

Gabrielle rubbed her temples. “He said he can’t mess with you.  He said we need to stop the war.”

“Ares said that?” Her partner’s voice rose in disbelief.  “He wants us to stop this thing? After all the crap that happened to get it started? Does he remember that?”

The bard shrugged.  “Something about bets and whatever. You know Xena, it’s the usual mess with them.” She looked up. “Did I see Iolaus here? I just remembered that.”

“Yeah.”

Gabrielle gazed ahead of her at the stone floor. “Damn, I’m tired.” She said, finally. 

“Yeah.”  Xena agreed, in a soft voice.  “Me too.”

Gabrielle looked up and studied her. “Honey.” She finally said. “You look as tired as I feel.”

Xena leaned back against the wall. “I’m beat.” She said. “Every damn inch of me hurts, and I think I need stitches in a few places.” She said. “And now I have to figure out how to stop a gods be damned war?” She asked, in a plaintive tone. 

Gabrielle folded her hands over her partners. “Know what, Xe?”

“What?”

“Its amazing to be whole again.”

Xena rolled her head to one side and studied her soulmate. A faint, tired smile appeared and she nodded  “Yeah, it is.”  She reached over and ruffled Dori’s hair.  “We’ll figure something out.”

They were both quiet for a few minutes.  Then Gabrielle exhaled softly. “What happened?”

Xena didn’t have to ask what she meant. “Had some trouble on the boat.” She said. “Some guys… Hades, it’s a long story but they had a grudge and came after me belowdecks. A wall fell on me in all that.  Got a little… “ She hesitated. “I thought I… “  She paused again. “Anyway, I got out of it but I know I was … um.”

“Close to the edge?”  Gabrielle suggested quietly.

“Yeah.”

The bard kissed her on the arm, then put her cheek against the spot.  “I guess we have time to talk it all out later, huh? We’ve got a lot on our plate here.”

Xena turned and ducked her head a little, giving Gabrielle a kiss on the lips.  “We have time.” She said. “Let’s get some of this started then maybe we can go somewhere and you can patch me up.”  She stood, cradlng Dori against one shoulder and extending her hand to her partner.   “Dori can tell me about her froggies.”

Dori put her head down on Xena’s shoulder. “Love you Boo.  I tried to bring you a froggy but mama made me let him go.”

“Mama’s so mean to you.” Xena circled her partner’s shoulders with her arm.

“Mama’s going to put the froggy down your leathers next time.”  Gabrielle promised, unable to keep from feeling just a bit on the giddy side.

It did feel good to be whole again.

**

They were gathered inside the larger room in the villa, around a hastily found table that Xena now had a map of the city spread out on.

It was an odd group.  Gabrielle was seated just to Xena’s right, content to mostly listen as the city guard captain explained the layout to them.  There were some patricians to one side, they knew her partner apparently. There was a big collection of soldiers and wanna be soldiers, along with the forest dwellers, the Amazons, and a bunch of sailors.

“There are Spartans still in the city.” The guard captain concluded. “Ambushing us, killing citizens.. they disappear like smoke.”

Xena was leaning on her hands as she peered over the map. “Too many damn twisting courtyards.” She traced a few of them with her finger. “Lot of places to hide.”

“There were a lot of buildings burned out.” The soldier agreed. “Plenty of places they could hole up in, and ambush us from.”

“Not to mention.” Gabrielle cleared her throat gently. “The fact that their army is a days march from here.”

“What about the ships in the harbor?” Denius spoke up.  “I would ask our good captain to take the ship we captured and make haste for Athens.” He said. “Now that we’ve cut the gangways to the other two, and they’ve sailed out.”

“Me, sail a Spartan ship?” The captain glared at him.  “Hades with you.”

“But captain..” Denius lifted a hand.

“Been through enough for you ya bastard!” The captain barked.  “Lost good men I did!”

“Captain!”

“Surely captain…” Gabrielle stood up and smiled at him. “That would definitely back up your story, wouldn’t it?  After all, I’m sure you’d impress everyone by sailing a captured Spartan warship into Athens harbor.”

The sailor drew breath to answer, then paused. “Eh.” He grunted. “Who in Hades are you?”

“Gabrielle.” The bard answered. “And after all we need to get word there as soon as possible.”

The captain grunted again.  “Women.” He shook his head and started for the door. “Let’s go you lot.  NO sense standing around here and getting our asses kicked anyway.”

The sailors filed out obediently after their leader leaving the room a bit emptier. 

Everyone was quiet, then they all looked over at Gabrielle. The bard smiled, and sat down, folding her hands. After a moment of awkward silence, she looked up at Xena, who was gazing very fondly down at her.  “What?”

Xena chuckled and put a hand on her shoulder.   “Did I ever miss you.” She sighed.

“Xena.” Jens stepped forward. “Is it true the army numbers a thousand or more men?”

“That’s what Gabrielle said.”  Xena turned to him. “You want to with him, or stay here?”

“Stay here.” Jens responded immediately. “By the time we get to Athens, this battle will be over, and I want to be a part of it.”

Ephiny was very glad to be perched on a bench near the window, just watching.   She could see Gabrielle was tired, but it was worth her being there to see the profound change her presence made in her partner.  The twitchy, dour, half spaced out woman was gone, replaced by the normal Xena she’d become used to.

Focused, confident… despite the chaos of the situation relaxed and in control. 

Guess it helped when your mind wasn’t totally focused on something happening to the person you love most in the world.  Ephiny smiled.  

“So, that’s the famous Gabrielle, huh?” The girl Milena said. 

“Yup.” Pony agreed. “That’d be her.  Glad she made it here.”

“Me too.” Ephiny said. “And I’m glad she brought some of our gang with her. Good to see Soli and the nutball twins.”

Pony glanced at the next bench, where the other Amazons were perched. “You talk to them yet?” She asked her partner.

“No. Why?”

“Some weird stuff happened.  Gabrielle got challenged before she took off.”

Ephiny straightened and peered at her companion. “What?”

“That’s what Soli said.”  Pony nodded. “Didn’t get a chance to get the whole scoop.”

Milena wasn’t really listening. She was intent on watching what was going on around the table, with Xena standing at it’s head and this new intruder sitting next to her.

Gabrielle wasn’t what she expected.  She wasn’t really sure what she had expected but this  short, sun tanned, muscular woman wasn’t it.  Maybe something like a vestial virgin?  Walking around with scrolls dressed in a toga.   Not half naked with scruffy blond hair.

Peasant, definitely.  Milena shook her head a little. Even had a tattoo on her shoulder, a black birds head.   This was the great bard? The great friend of Xena?

“Xe.” Gabrielle stood up again, circling her partner and putting a hand casually on her back. “Do you think .. what do you think their plan was? Take this port town?”

Xena nodded. “I figure they’ve got a fleet out there to pick them up.” She indicated the direction of the harbor. “Those three were sent in to pave the way.”

“So.” Gabrielle said. “Now that they left, you think they’ll tell the rest of the fleet? Will they come in to help, or run back home?”

Xena pondered the question.

“Can we block the harbor?”  Gabrielle asked.

“But then we won’t be able to send men to Athens.” Denius protested.

“If the Spartan Army is here, we won’t be able to do that anyway.” Gabrielle gently reminded him.

“No.” Xena said. “We don’t want to block the harbor because it also blocks the only escape route for the people here.” She indcated the city. “We can clear the Spartans here out, maybe, but when a thousand of them with siege engines hits this place, we need options.”

“Run from them?” Denius sounded outraged.

Xena gave him a dour look. “You’ve got a hundred men here, Denius.  Untrained. I can make a damn pretty last stand with that, but I’m not stopping a thousand Spartans with them.”

“What are we going to do then?” Jens asked.

“First things first.” Xena leaned over the map again.  “Jens, split up your guys, and take ten men each. Quarter the city and see if you can get rid of some of our unwanted guests.” She said.

“Hey, we’ll help.” Jessan showed his fangs in a big grin. “That’s the fun part.”

The Athenians looked at him uncertainly. 

“Good idea.” Xena agreed. “Jens, this is Jessan.  He and his group are part of my family.  They’ll give you a hand.”

“What are those?” Milena asked Ephiny. 

Ephiny turned to regard her.  “People. Friends of Xena and Gabrielle’s.  They helped in the war out there.  Good folks.” She said. “Good to have at your back.”

“You betcha.” Pony interjected. “They kick ass.”

Jens and the forest dwellers left, taking the rest of the Athenians with them.  “Someone want to volunteer to climb up to the cliff top and watch out for that fleet we think’s out there?” Xena asked.

“Gosh, I will.” Cait volunteered. “Looks like a lovely cliff to climb up.”

Xena gave her a smile. “Sure you’re up to it?” She asked. “I hear you had a tough ride.”

“Absolutely.” The young Amazon responded.

“Nutball.”  Paladia muttered.

“Right. C’mon, Pally.” Cait grabbed her partner by the leathers and started for the door, leaving Paladia with the choice of following her or exposing herself to the entire room.   She deferred to better judgement and lunged after Cait, following her unwillingly out the door.

That left the Amazons, Denius, Milena in the room with Xena and Gabrielle and the map.  Xena turned and perched on the edge of the table, folding her arms over her chest. “So.”

“So.” Gabrielle leaned against her, resting her elbow on her partner’s shoulder.  “Is it time for me to take you and get you cleaned up?”

Denius came over. “Xena, I’m disturbed – you seem to be saying we have no chance against this army. I thought you were willing to lead our men against it?”

“You said you had a couple hundred soldiers.” Xena said. “Not a hundred untrained farmboys.”

“Well but…”

“No, she’s not going to lead a hundred of anything against that army.” Gabrielle gave him a direct look. “I’m not going to let her. You people need to find a way out of this that doesn’t involve all these people getting slaughtered.”

Denius stared at her.

“It wouldn’t do us any good anyhow.” Xena said after an awkward silence.  “Those kid’sll just get killed.”

Denius looked at her again, then he turned and left the room, shaking his head.

Gabrielle looked at her partner. “Did you really tell him you’d do that?”

Xena returned the look. “I was ready to tell him anything to get him to turn the damn boat around so I could get back here and find you why you were hollering my name.”

“Hm.” Gabrielle scratched her nose.

Ephiny and Eponin came over from their bench and joined their two friends.  “So what is the plan?” Ephiny asked.  “Don’t get me wrong, we love a good fight and would follow you two into any of them but I hate lost causes.”

“What she said.” Pony agreed.

Xena let her eyes drift over all of them, then returned her attention to her partner.  “I need to think about it.” She said. “Let’s all take a break.  Give me a chance to go over what our options are.”

“Sounds good.”  Ephiny said. “We’ll go scrounge.”  She bumped Pony, and they started for the door. 

“Where’d they take Bennu?” Xena asked. 

“Here, Genr’l.” Bennu appeared from behind her. He had been sitting quietly on a bench. His shoulder was thickly bandaged and his arm was in a makeshift sling.  “Wasn’t but a scratch.”

Gabrielle muffled a chuckle as her partner narrowed her eyes.  “Glad you’re okay, Bennu.” The bard said. “I felt terrible when I saw you get hit.”

“Still woulda like to give ye a spare chance, little hawk.” The militia captain said.  “Genr’l, we wanted to hold back and hold em off for her.”

Everyone looked over at Gabrielle, who flushed a trifle.  Xena cocked her head to one side. “You really thought she’d let you do that?” The warrior’s voice was honestly astonished.  “You’re kidding me, right?”

“Genr’l!”

“Thanks, hon.”  Gabrielle bumped her gently.

Xena rolled up the map and fitted her hand around it. “C’mon.” She said. “Let’s not put poor Iolaus through more of our daughter.”   She tapped Gabrielle on the butt and pointed to the door.    She glanced around, taking in the militia and Milena standing near the wall. “There’s an inn top of the hill. Probably has some provisions there we can grab.”

Everyone left the room. Gabrielle and Xena left last, and the warrior pulled the door shut behind them. The rain had tapered off and a bit of wan sunlight was filtering through, dull orange from the oncoming sunset.  They walked through the burned out sections of the city, past the men dragging what dry wood they could find for a pyre, and up the steep path to the hill that overlooked the harbor.

Halfway up, the spotted two figures heading down towards them, one rather larger than the other.  When the larger of the two spotted them, he waved, then turned and retreated. “See you when you get up here!”

Xena and Gabrielle both waved back. 

“Boo!”  Dori bolted downhill as fast as she could.  “Boo Boo Boo!”

Xena handed Gabrielle the map and opened her arms, as Dori jumped into them. “Hey shortie.” She hugged the child. “What have you been getting into?”

“Boo, I missed you.” Dori told her earnestly. “There was lots of bad mens and mama was mad!”

“I missed you too, squirt.”  Xena hugged her, then shifted her to one shoulder as she kept walking. “I know your mama was mad. I could feel her be mad, you know that?”

Gabrielle slipped her hand inside her partner’s elbow. “Could you?”

“Sure.”  Xena slowed a little, letting the rest of the group get a distance away from them.  “Thought you were fighting a few times”

“I was.”  The bard nodded. “Tell you about it later.”

Xena’s brows hiked up a little. “Okay.”

They walked along in silence for a few steps. “Who’s the kid?” Gabrielle finally asked, indicating Milena. “The one in the warrior princess haze?”

The warrior princess in question grunted. “Long story.” She said. “That’s who we heard about the Spartan army from.  Some screwed up kid, with a couple of half brothers out for bounty. “

“Uh huh.”

“Got arrested.  Ended up on the ship and tried trading some info for me cutting her loose.”

“Uh huh.”

Xena eyed her, aware of the hand tucked firmly inside her elbow.  Gabrielle didn’t look upset though, she had a faint grin on her face.  “Something funny?”

“She keeps looking at Dori. Can’t get the dots to connect.”  The bard observed.

Xena felt Dori tug at her hair, and she knew a moment of tired contentment, glad beyond belief she’d been reunited with her family.  “Glad you’re here.”  She said. “You can kick her ass for me if she tries jumping me again.”

Gabrielle merely rolled her eyes. “Another one’s fallen.” She mock sighed. “Why do they always do that?”

“Dunno.” Her taller companion said. “Why don’t you tell me?”  She gave her partner a cheeky grin.

Finally,  the bard’s expression relaxed into a smile in return.  “Because you’re gorgeous and sexy.” She said. “And you attract feckless kids like a bee to flowers.”

They stopped on a landing halfway up, to gaze out over the harbor.  It was hazy, the sunset cutting through the smoke from the fires and they could see a mist rising over the water.  Xena tilted her head up and spotted Cait up on the  bluff, her slim form outlined against the darkening sky.  “Glad you brought them.”

“Glad you left them.”  Gabrielle said. “You were right, Xe. I needed all those friends.” She sighed. “Now, where do we start?”

Xena shifted and slipped her arm free, lifting her hand and cupping Gabrielle’s cheek. “Let’s start here.” She tilted her head and kissed Gabrielle on the lips, feeling the bard’s short intake of breath, then the warmth as their bodies pressed against each other.

“Gush!” Dori scolded them.

“You bet.” Gabrielle murmured, as they parted.  She looked up at Xena’s profile, outlined in gilded crimson, and saw that gentle smile shape her lips.   Past the warrior’s  shoulder, she could see they were being watched, and she smiled back, reaching up to pull Xena’s head down for another long, slow kiss. 

Her body reacted, and she felt a powerful surge of passion, making her skin tingle.  This time when they parted Xena’s expression was knowing, and her grin was far more sexy than gentle.  Gabrielle held her hand out and waited for it to be taken, then they continued their stroll up the hill.

Damn, that had felt good. 

Yes, she’d missed Xena for all the emotional reasons she could care to name, but her body really didn’t care about all that stuff.  Her body had missed her partner for very carnal other ones.  Gabrielle grinned and reached up to ruffle her fingers through her hair as they got to the top of the hill and joined the group standing there watching the captured Spartan ship being maneuvered around to leave.

There was another ship nearby, with Athenian colors. It had burn marks on the upper deck entries and the portholes were all black with soot. One mast was snapped, and the furled sails looked very tattered.  “What happened to that one?” Gabrielle pointed. “Was it in a fight?”

Xena let Dori down.  “Not exactly.”

“Xena happened to that one.” Iolaus eased from the crowd and came over.  “Boy, do I have some stories to tell you about that, Gabrielle.”

The bard’s ears visibly perked. “Oh really?”

Xena sighed.

“Boo, where’s da horsies?”  Dori tugged her leathers.  “Want to bring happles.” She held up her hand, with a somewhat dented, withered fruit in it.

Xena turned and knelt, pointing at the stable door. “They’re in there, Dor. Be careful, okay?”

“Okay.” Dori agreed and pattered off.

The warrior straightened back up, finding Iolaus looking at her with a knowing grin.  She shrugged slightly. “Told you.”

“You did.” Iolaus said. “And you were absolutely right.”  He clapped Gabrielle on the shoulder. “Gabrielle, it’s good to see you.  Even though I could have thought of a couple dozen places I’d rather see you in.”

“It’s crazy.” The bard agreed. “Now.. what was that about stories?”

Xena let the discussion drift past her as she studied the harbor, her mind at last free to drift and consider what options they had open to them. 

“Feel better?” Ephiny came over to stand next to her.

Xena glanced at her.  “Like the weight of Mount Olympus is off my shoulders.” She replied candidly.  “You going to stop acting like I was a sick elder now?”

The Amazon regent chuckled wryly.

In front of the building that held the inn they had gathered all the provisions they could find, and now someone had made a fire in the firepit in front of the stables and set up makeshift tables to put everything on.   Xena became aware of how hungry she was, and she hooked a couple of fingers into the back of Gabrielle’s belt and started tugging her in that direction.

The bard’s skin felt so warm and nice against her knuckles.  She could feel the muscles shifting under her touch as Gabrielle responded to the motion and she just left her grip there as they made their way over to the front of the inn to join the rest of the crowd there.

The sunset was painting the stone street in a smoky golden light, the sea breeze starting to come in and take the haze away.  She could smell the salt on the air now, and hear the rush of the waves as the chaos in the city started to die down a little.   She turned and surveyed the destruction, seeing wisps of smoke now rising rather than billows of it.

Off to the left, she could hear the clash of weapons.   She knew somewhere her putative troops were fighting with Spartans, but she felt no urge to go join them, content to be standing in the dying light of the day, distracted by an olive being touched to her lips by Gabrielle.

“Mama!” Dori wriggled through the partially open door and bolted for them. “Mama! Boo! Come see what I found!”

“Uh oh.” Gabrielle muttered sub vocally. “In a stable that could be pretty much anything.”

Xena cleared her throat.

Gabrielle looked up at her. “Uh oh.” She repeated, for a completely different reason.   She took her partner by the arm and they joined Dori at the stable door, pushing it open so they could enter behind her.  

“Mama! Look!” Dori ran back to the rear of the stable, past where Shadow,  Iolaus and the light gray mare were contentedly munching hay.    At the back, in a smaller section, stood a pony,  with a  shaggy, reddish color coat and creamy mane and tail.   The pony was regarding them with some bemusement, stalks of hay sticking out of his mouth.

“Honey, he’s adorable.” Gabrielle approached the animal, whose head came to her shoulder.  “I wonder where he came from?”

Xena cleared her throat again.

“Mama, he’s pretty!” Dori went up to the animal and patted his shoulder, easily within her reach.  “I can get him!”

Gabrielle looked over her shoulder at her partner, who was standing by, with a faint grin on her face. “Do you know where he came from, Xena?”

The warrior came forward, and stood next to her.  “Maybe.”  The slight grin widened.

“Boo, c’n I ride him?” Dori was already hopping up to grab the animals mane to scramble onboard.  Gabrielle went over and boosted her the rest of the way up, settling her on the pony’s back.  “Boo! Look!”

Gabrielle looked at her partner, who was watching their daughter and saw such a mixture of deep emotion there she forgot to be miffed at her for not asking first.   “Doriana.” She put her hand on Dori’s back. “I think you have to give your Boo a very very big thank you kiss for this very nice present she’s giving you.”

Dori looked at her, then looked at Xena, her eyes getting big and round.

Thus appealed to, Xena stepped closer and scratched the pony on the forehead. “I know you wanted a horse.” She looked gravely at her daughter. “But this one’s more your size for now.”  She said. “So this pony’s yours, but you need to take really good care of him, just like I do with Argo, okay?”

Dori blinked, then looked down at the pony. She looked back up. “Mine?”  She asked, in a soft, surprised voice. “Mine, Boo?”

Gabrielle bit her lip inside as she felt tears sting her eyes.

“Yeah.”  Xena patted the pony’s cheek. He snuffled against her leathers, taking a step forward in the hay.  “All yours, Dor.”

Dori unexpectedly scrambled to her feet on the pony’s back and jumped off it, landing in Xena’s arms. “Boo Boo Boo. Love you!”

The pony merely shook his head, unfazed.  Gabrielle patted his neck as she watched Dori hugging her partner.  “Welcome to the family, little man.” She met Xena’s eyes, seeing unrestrained joy reflected there back at her.  “Today’s turning out to be a pretty amazing day.”

**

Continued in Part 23