A Queen’s Tale

Part 23

 

“You.”  Gabrielle leaned over and gave Xena a kiss on the cheek. “Have created the most crazy happy kid anywhere.”

Xena was seated on the half wall outside the inn, now lit only by the fire burning in the firepit as darkness had fallen over the city.  She turned to look at Gabrielle and grinned. “This inn was run by a pretty all right guy. I stayed here the night before we went on the ship.” She indicated the building in back of them. “Left a couple of dinars with him and asked him to find me a pony if he could.”

“I guess he could.” The bard said.  “A really cute one, too.”

Xena met her eyes. “You mad at me for doing that without asking?”

Was she mad? Gabrielle thought about that for a minute.  Then she smiled. “No.” She said. “She’s your kid, Xe. I suspected something like that was in the works because it’s all she’s been talking about since we left Amphipolis.”

“Mm. Yeah.”  Xena cleared her throat and glanced out over the water. “She’s been asking for her own horse. I figured a pony was a good compromise.”

Gabrielle sat down next to her.  It was quiet here on the hilltop, the harbor now free of ships save the broken down one that was tied to a slip at one end.

An eerie peace had fallen.  All the sounds of fighting had faded and Bennu had limped up and reported the streets were empty of Spartans, though they knew there were many hiding places they hadn't checked yet.

Gabrielle had been exhausted before they'd walked up to the inn, but now she'd gotten her second wind and found energy somewhere.   Dinner had been a weird mixture of whatever they'd found inside the abandoned inn kitchen, but she was satisfied and it was good to just sit quietly next to Xena and enjoy the night breeze.

They had watchers on the walls leading into the plateau, looking for the first signs of the Spartan army.  So far, all they'd seen were some torches in the distance, tucked against the forest and Xena thought those were the advance legions that had been chasing Gabrielle.

Waiting.

Just like they were waiting. 

'Pretty night.”  Gabrielle said, after a while.

“Gorgeous.” Xena agreed. “Could be raining like Hades and it still would be.” She turned her head and looked at her partner. “Now that you're here.”

Gabrielle grinned. “Know what I’m the most sorry about?”

“Not being on the boat?”

The bard laughed, a light sound that echoed softly against the stone.  The roadway outside the inn had been turned into a campsite, and heads turned on hearing it.   “Yeah.” She admitted. “I would love to have seen you rescuing Eph and Pony, and steering that thing.”

Xena kicked the stone wall a little with her heels. “Could have helped more of them.” She admitted. “Wasn't much interested in anyone else.”

Gabrielle was watching the faint hint of starlight on the harbor waters. “That's okay, Xe.”  She said. “I left behind my nation, and our friends and family because I wasn't much interested in anyone but you.”

There was a long silence. Then Xena cleared her throat again. “I’m glad.”

Gabrielle tilted her head and looked over at her, eyebrows rising a little.

“What did you expect me to say?” The warrior asked. “That I wasn’t glad you really didn’t much care about anyone else?”

Gabrielle sighed.

“You did the right things, hon.” Xena saw the look.  “Regardless of why.  Leaving was the right choice. They'd have taken Amphipolis apart, and your Amazons would have thrown themselves against those guys with high losses.”

“Hm.”

“Leading them off was the only thing you could do to protect them.”

'Hm.” Gabrielle grunted again.  “I knew that” She admitted. “But it's not why I left.”

“No, huh?”

“Nope.” Gabrielle smiled briefly.

Xena reached over and took her hand, squeezing it. “No argument from me.”

The bard returned the squeeze, lifting their joined hands up and kissing Xena' knuckles.

“I'm sure they'll be fine back there.”  Xena said. “The Spartans went right by them, it looks like.”

“I got challenged.” Gabrielle changed the subject. “Back in the village.”

Xena went still for a long moment. Then she half turned and looked at Gabrielle. “What?”

Her partner nodded. “Elders. I made some changes and they got pissed off. Got one of the Velaska crowd to challenge me just before I left.” She reached up and rubbed her neck. “Ow. Damn arrow clipped me.” She grimaced.  “Anyway..  I bluffed her and she backed off.  Stupid.”

“Bluff?” Xena frowned. “You didn't need to bluff anyone. You could kick anyone’s ass with that staff.”

“Yeah, I know.” The bard said. “But I was so pissed.” She peeked at Xena.  “I had that … one of the chests I brought down from our place had that sword you had made for me. Remember?”

“What sw… oh. From the war.”

“Right.” Gabrielle said. “Well I found it.”

“Uh huh?”

“So I took that out and started waving it around... doing that flip thing you do all the time.”  Gabrielle gestured with her hands.

“Okay.”  Xena drew out the word, visibly confused.  “Oh, you mean this.” She drew her sword and twirled it.

“Right.” The bard  half shrugged. “So we went out side and I was all like.. 'bring it on, bitches.' “ and they got all freaked out and backed off.”

Xena started laughing silently, covering her eyes and tucking her elbows close to her body as she shook. 

“Yeah, I was saying... 'c'mon ya chickens come and get me!' - you'd have cracked up.” Gabrielle said. “Of course if you'd been there it wouldn't have happened, but boy, I laughed after I got over being pissed.” She sighed. “Jerks.”

Xena laughed harder, starting to audibly chuckle.

“Solari was so funny. She was all like. 'wow, when did you learn to use that?' so I said ‘like right now.’  And that I was  making it up and she almost passed out.” Now Gabrielle started to chuckle too. “Just dumbass, you know? Over a few cooking classes, and me letting the singles have their own quarters. You'd have thought I wanted to start having them all wear dresses or something.”

Xena's laughter finally wound down. “Damn, I'm really sorry I missed that.” She sighed. “I figured someone might get some damn ass stupid idea while I was gone, but I didn't count on you prodding them like that. Those elders are hidebound.”

“Did you? Really think they'd try something?” Gabrielle asked. 

The warrior nodded.  “Yeah.  I could see some of them were stewing.”

“How come you didn’t say anything?” The bard asked, with a frown.  “Xena, that’s not cool.”

Xena gazed off into the distance, then she looked back at her partner. “I figured if we started having that conversation we’d end it with you coming with me.”

Gabrielle took a breath to answer, then thought about that, and ended up just exhaling.

Xena chuckled softly.

“I thought maybe all that stuff about us finding those metals in the v... oh, darn. I didn't tell you about that yet.” Gabrielle hiked one boot up and put it over her knee. “So freaking much has happened since you left. We got into that valley up top and it's got silver and a bunch of other stuff in it.”

“Yeah, I knew.”  Xena said. “I figured if I signed it over to them, and they found that, it'd set them up for a long time and make them happier about moving up there.”

Gabrielle blinked. “ You knew?”

Her partner nodded. “It is my homeland.” She remarked. “Figured if they wanted to work hard to get that place open, they deserved it.”

“Xe.”

“Didn't want you to think I was trying to buy them off.” Xena smiled. “It was just there. You know we’ve got stuff like that up in the slopes by us.”

Gabrielle exhaled, shaking her head a little. “Well, it certainly made them happy. Some of the senior warriors were saying this was something Melosa used to tell them, that what they needed was a source of hard coin, and they could make the nation stable for a very long time.” She leaned against the warrior.

“You think maybe the thought of that money made them take a swipe at you?” Xena asked.

“Oh, no I’m…”  Gabrielle stopped talking again and sighed  “Boy, I sure hope not. That’d be depressing.”

“We should get some rest.”  Xena said, after a short pause. “Spartans will be here tomorrow.”

“What are we going to do, Xe?”  Gabrielle asked in a soft tone. “Ares said we had to stop the war. That was the only way to keep the gods from their stupid bet. Can we do that?”

“I have no clue what we're going to do.” Her partner answered honestly.  “I’m hoping if I go to sleep, I'll wake up and some brilliant plan will have occurred to me in a dream.”

Gabrielle eyed her.

“And if not, at least I'll have slept with you.”  The warrior stood up. “Let's get our child out of the barn. I know a room in this place that'll fit us.”

They went into the stable, finding Dori sitting in the straw near her new pony.  The animal had lain down in the small stall with his hooves tucked under him and had his head near Dori, who was stroking his mane.

She looked around as the door opened. “Mama!”

“Hey honey.” Gabrielle crossed the stable and joined her.  “Are you having fun with your new friend?'

“Yes.” Dori patted the pony's nose. “Mama what's his name??”

“Rusty.” Xena supplied from where she was checking Iolaus' stall. “That okay with you, shortie?”

“Wusty.” Dori pronounced. “Good! I like that Boo.”

Gabrielle watched her daughter's face and had to smile.  “Are you ready to get some rest, Dor? We had a long day today, didn't we?”

“C'n I stay here with Wusty, mama?” Dori said. “He might get lonely.”

Gabrielle could hear her beloved soulmate snickering behind her.  “Sweetie...”

“What are you going to say?” Xena asked. “That she can't sleep in a barn?  She was conceived in a damn tree.”  She came over and knelt next to her partner.  “Don't worry kiddo. He's got some friends here. See?” She pointed at Iolaus and the interestedly watching Shadow.  “He'll be okay.”

Dori pouted.

“C’mon, hon.” Gabrielle ruffled her hair. “Don't you want to get all clean, and have a nice soft bed for tonight?”

“No.”

The bard sighed. “Dori.”

Xena picked up a bit of straw and tickled her ear with it. “I don't mind barns.” She drawled. “Especially not with you in them.”

“You're such a troublemaker.” Gabrielle rolled her head to one side and regarded her partner. “But you know what, I just spotted those pallets stacked up against that wall there.” She pointed. “And our bags are already in here.”

They got up and Xena went to grab the pallets, apparently stored there for busy times in the inn.  She set up three of them in an unused stall at the back of the barn, and set about arranging their things, taking a seat on a discarded wooden box.  

The horse trough supplied them with running water and she set their waterskins down, for a moment almost forgetting they were in the midst of a serious problem as she went through the familiar motions.

It felt great to just listen to Gabrielle talking to Dori, to hear those two voices at her back as she set out their things and took her armor off.

“Sore?”  Gabrielle's hands touched her shoulders and gently kneaded them.

Xena swallowed against the sudden surge of emotion that tightened her throat. “Yeah.” She muttered. “All that craziness catching up with me.”

Gabrielle leaned against her, and kissed the back of her neck. “I missed you so much.” She whispered, sliding her arms around her partner and hugging her.

Unseen, Xena's eyes closed.  “Likewise.” She said.

Gabrielle released her, and then gave her another kiss on the neck before she started her massage up again. She could feel the knots and she worked them gently, slowly easing the stiffness as she felt Xena relax.

“Mama, c'n I show Wusty Bittyboo?” Dori held up the doll, that she'd retrieved from Gabrielle's casually tossed bag.  “He can be friends too?”

“Sure honey.” Gabrielle kept working. “Just don't let him get too close. Remember how Ares likes to chew on her.”

“No! Bad buppit.” Dori went back over to the pony, sitting down and starting to explain something in earnest whispers.

“You've got a big bruise back here hon.”  Gabrielle unhooked the straps on her partner's leathers and eased them down. “Wow.”

“I think that was the wall.” Xena remarked. “It hurt.” She added. “It fell on me and.. I couldn't breathe.” 

Gabrielle put a kiss over the darkened spot across her back. “I had a run in with … I think it was Artemis.”

Xena's shoulders twitched. “Artemis?”

“That was the second time Ares showed up.” The bard confirmed. “We got ambushed in the path, we stopped to investigate some dead bodies.. Amazons... and a bunch of soldiers jumped us.  Next thing I know one of them is coming at me and telling me to kneel down.”

Xena snorted.

“Yeah, well.. let me tell you something. I found out right then I'm not you. She grabbed hold of me with some light or something and it was like.. “Gabrielle paused. “I couldn't move.. I couldn't breathe. My chest wouldn't move – that's when Ares showed up and made her stop it.”

Xena was staring straight ahead. “I think I felt that.”

“Everything else stopped moving.” The bard went on. “It was weird.”

“She took you out of time.” Xena answered, slowly. “I couldn't sense you anywhere.”

Gabrielle's hands stilled. “Oh.”

“Bad moment.”

'Yeah.” Gabrielle leaned forward, so their bodies were pressed together. “So I get the feeling that this whole war thing is a big deal up there. Ares said he thinks Zeus wants to give whoever wins this war his job.”

“So that's why he wants us to stop it.” Xena reasoned. “That makes sense.” She patted Gabrielle's leg and stood up, picking up a piece of linen and wetting it before she started cleaning herself off.  “And I bet part of the challenge is to get both armies led by women to prove the point that they're good at it.”

“With everyone dying in the middle.” Gabrielle joined her in cleaning up.  “That pisses me off.”

“Yeah.”

“So, no matter what we do, we play their game with this.” The bard frowned. “Xena, that sucks.”

Xena pulled her hair back and knotted it. “Yeah.” She said. “But if I'm choosing between helping Ares and helping those other jokers, I'll pick Ares.”

Gabrielle thought about that, and then she nodded. “Me too.” She admitted. “It’s just all so stupid.”

The warrior slipped out of her leathers and threw a shift on in their place, shaking them out and shaking her head at all the sand that flew out from them in every direction. “No wonder I feel so damn raw.”

Gabrielle pulled her own shift from her bags and traded her traveling gear for it.  This would likely be the only bit of peace they get and she wanted to make the most of it.  She went over and put her arms around Xena and hugged her, savoring the feel as their bodies connected fully. 'I don't really care what we end up doing tomorrow.  I'm just glad we found you, and we're together again.”

“Me too.” Xena returned the hug. “Let's get some rest.”

They finally coaxed Dori into lying down; putting her pallet as close to the edge of the pony's stall as was practical. The sounds outside had died down completely, and through the stable's shuttered windows they could hear the wash of the sea against the harbor.

Xena settled into their joined pallets closest to the door, and rolled onto her back as Gabrielle joined her, snuggling up to her and twining their bodies together.

They both exhaled at the same time, and Xena chuckled a little. 

“I think this is the first time I've been able to relax since you left Amphipolis.” Gabrielle said. “Even when I was in the village, I was on edge the whole time.”

Xena rubbed her back.  “Getting on that boat was tough.” She admitted.  “Glad it's over.”

Gabrielle thought about that, remembering herself the last time they'd been separated by the sea. It wasn't the same this time, she knew it and she knew Xena knew it, but still, the memories stung.  “Sorry, Xe.” She snuggled closer, slipping her arms around her partner.

“Thanks for the notes.”  Xena let her eyes close.

“Thanks for the presents.”  Her partner responded with a faint chuckle.

Silence settled over them.  The stable was full of small noises, though, the horses moving around, and the clink of water buckets being pushed against the stall walls.  Xena had opened the shuttered window over where they were lying, and she could hear the scuff of boots on the stone outside, and the faint clash of armor.

Voices floated in the air, a touch of laughter.  She thought she recognized Ephiny's tone and Solaris. 

There were a lot of people here expecting her to find a way out of this, the warrior acknowledged privately.  She'd promised Denius, for one thing, and the people Gabrielle had brought with her were all looking to her for leadership.  The city patricians, drawn out of hiding as the fighting slowed down seemed to expect it too.

But really, what was she going to do?  Gather the conscripts and newly joined farmers in the city and lead them against an army ten times their number?

Really?

What would that do, aside from getting a lot of them killed? It would feed right into the damn goddesses bet.  It would work against Ares. It would possibly be deadly to her, and those who would stand with her regardless.

What actual choices did she have?

Take her gang and escape the city?  Run down the coast?  She'd told everyone she wasn't going to be a part of this war, right up until she had to convince Denius to turn the ship around. How much was that promise worth?

What in Hades was she going to do?

Xena felt Gabrielle's breathing, warm against her neck, and she decided to put the problems away for a while so she could enjoy this reunion.  

She let her cheek rest against Gabrielle's head, absorbing the sensation of having her wrapped up in her arms again. Her body relaxed and she felt sleep calling her, a smile on her face as she let the stable around them fade away.

**

Xena wasn't sure what had woken her.  She stiffened, and lifted her head off her makeshift pillow, feeling Gabrielle wake and tighten her grip on her. 

“What?” Gabrielle uttered, almost sub vocally.

Xena shook her head, ears twitching. It was still very quiet outside.   She figured it was a candlemark or more before dawn, and outside in the back alley, she could still hear the soft rasp of the watch, walking up and own the stone street.

Was it a sound that had disturbed her? Brought her out of a sweet dream full of sunlight and laughter?

A puff of air blew in through the window, and she flared her nostrils, catching the smell of smoke, with an acrid hint on it.  She took a breath, and felt Gabrielle release her, the bard rolling off her side of the pallet and getting to her feet just as Xena did.

She didn't have to tell Gabrielle what to do. The bard was already getting her staff, and changing from her shift into her clothing just as Xena was slipping into her leathers and snuggling the straps tight.   They both pulled boots on and headed for the door, Gabrielle pausing to kneel next to Dori's pallet.

A moment later they were at the door, Xena clipping her sword to her back as she eased the big wooden portal open. She paused, aware of the solid figure at her back as Gabrielle put a hand on her shoulder.

They slid out into the street and moved over to the edge of the steps that led up to the inn.  Xena stopped there, surveying the faintly starlit road that ran along the harbor.

The encampment looked quiet. There were figures rolled up in furs near the cookpit, and two men standing guard a little way down.

Quiet.

Xena swept the area again, unable to detect anything out of place.  Torches fluttered down the road, and she wondered if it was that scent, the tar pitch tainted smoke that had alerted her.

Gabrielle edged up next to her; sleep disheveled hair just visible in the faint light.   She leaned against her staff, and rested her free hand on Xena's hip.  She didn't make a sound, but she looked up at her partner in obvious question.

About to admit to seeing phantoms, Xena paused as she heard the faint shift of a body against stone, somewhere above them.  She put her finger against her lips, and pointed.

Gabrielle's head tipped up and she regarded the window over their heads, then she tightened her fingers on Xena's side as they saw a flare of light, then a blast of fire as they both ducked instinctively. 

Xena pulled them both against the steps, and then she drew her sword as she heard rapid footsteps on the stairs.  The guards started running towards them, and doors started slamming in the inn, accompanied by shouts that rang out in the stillness.

She waited until she sensed the closeness of the body moving down the steps and then she reached over the railing, grabbing the person’s arm and hauling them over the side of the steps and then against the wall with a solid crunch.

The figure bounced off and went for her, but was stopped by the crack of Gabrielle's staff as she swung it against the figures head.

They reeled back and slumped against the wall, just as the guards arrived and Pony rattled down the steps with her sword drawn.

“Nice.” Xena patted her partner's shoulder. “Damn I missed having you around.” She ducked forward and grabbed the slumped figure on the ground and swung it around so the torchlight from the guards shone on their face.  She paused for a second, and then released the dark tunic. “Figures.”

“Who is that?” Gabrielle peered over her shoulder.

“One of those stupid bitch Amazons.” Pony supplied, coming around the end of the steps and sheathing her sword. “From our ship. That sorry ass consort.”

They all turned to look at the room, which was issuing smoke out the window along with licks of flame.  The stone of the walls was staining with black soot.

“Xena.” Gabrielle stared down at the woman. “Are you telling me this is an Amazon, and she was trying to hurt us? That's the room we were supposed to be in.”

“Don't surprise me.” Pony said. “Those two were part of the group that had me and Eph hog tied and were gonna sell us.”

Gabrielle's jaw dropped. “Wait.” She said. “What?”

“We didn't have time to catch you up on stuff.” Pony said.  “Want me to go find this creep's friend?'   She glanced behind her as Ephiny appeared.

A crowd was gathering now.  Xena picked up the Amazon and shoved her against the stairs, smacking her across the face to get her out of the foggy stupor Gabrielle's staff had put her in.  “Wake up, sunshine.”

The woman shook her head and glared at Xena. “Bitch.”

“Amateur.” The warrior responded mildly. “You set that fire?” She pointed at the window.

The woman just stared at her.

Xena reached forward, jabbing her fingers into the Amazons pressure points.  She slumped back onto the ground and jerked, her eyes bugging out as she tried to move and couldn’t.  “Talk”

She was aware, in her peripheral senses, of a disturbance behind her but kept her attention focused on the Amazon, knowing Gabrielle had her back.

And as she thought that, she realized abruptly why she’d nearly died in the hold of the ship, under that wall that had fallen on top of her.   “Talk.” She repeated to the woman. “You’ve got about a count of thirty, then you die.”

“I set it!” The woman coughed at her. “Too bad you weren’t in there you traitor!”

Xena released the points, coming over her center of balance as she waited for the woman to react.  Behind her, she heard footsteps and yelling, and the Amazon before her glanced behind her and couldn’t avoid a triumphant expression.   She grabbed the woman by the throat and shoved her against the wall, just as she sensed Ephiny reacting and heard the sweetly distinctive crack of Gabrielle’s staff against something hard.

She had nearly died on that ship, because she’d lived so long now what that presence at her back, that she’d forgotten what it was like not to have it, and she hadn’t heard a yell of warning Gabrielle would have given if she had been.

Sobering thought. “What makes you think I’m a traitor?” She asked the Amazon, who tore her gaze from whatever was going on behind them to face her.   “Don’t worry about your girlfriend.  If she’s lucky and not as stupid as you are, she’ll only get bruised.”

“You told the councilman you wouldn’t fight the Spartans.” The Amazon said, looking as though she wanted to spit at Xena.  “After all your big talk! You’re nothing but a damned coward!”

Xena heard a few more whacks behind her.  “I didn’t say that.” She stood and hauled the woman up with her, turning and spotting Gabrielle swinging hard at an older Amazon and sending her drawn sword flying off into the crowd.  “I said I wouldn’t lead a hundred farmboys against them.” 

A loud whistle caught her attention, and she turned, her eyes sweeping the area looking for the source. Then she spotted a figure on slope waving their arms. “Eph, see what’s up with Cait.” She pointed with an elbow.  The Amazon regent turned and shoved her way through the crowd. 

Footsteps behind her.   “Xena!”  Jens ran up panting. “Spartans are coming at the gates!” He gasped out, one hand to his chest. “Coming down the road!”

Xena glanced at the Amazon struggling in her grip, then she released one hand and slugged her, knocking her out. Then she stepped between Gabrielle and her reeling adversary, as the other Amazon came stumbling back at them and did the same for her.  “Sorry to interrupt your fun.” She said. “We’ve got bigger problems.”

“Who in Hades are these people?” Gabrielle was fuming.  “Xena she was trying to stab you in the back!”

“Xena!” Ephiny bolted over and jumped the rail. “Cait says there’s a fleet out there heading for the harbor.”

“Way bigger problems.” The warrior glanced around. “Jens, sound the horns and wake everyone up. Get everyone on the walls with crossbows and arrows and start a pit fire going to boil pitch.”

“On the way.” Jens signaled to two of his men and hastened away from the group gathered at the foot of the stairs.  Xena walked to the edge of the road and peered at the cliff top, where Cait was now standing, her back facing them staring out at the sea beyond.

“Looks like the plans just changed.” Pony came over to stand next to Xena. 

“Yeah.”  Xena considered.  A thousand Spartans at the gates, and a fleet coming to hit the harbor.  Time to go the route of prudence?

“Want me to toss those jokers into the jailhouse down there?” Pony asked, with unconcealed glee.  “No sense letting them loose to poke you in the ass again.”

“Sure.” Xena said. “While you’re down there, find some sailors and someone who can steer a boat. Send em up here.”

“Right.” Pony looked around. “Hey, Fuzzy. Wanna give me a hand?”

“Sure.” Jessan grabbed one of the women and tossed her body easily over one shoulder.  “You thinking of getting out of here on that tub, Xena?” He pointed at the broken down vessel and lowered his voice.  “Looks pretty beat up.”

“Not exactly.” The warrior said.  “Get back here soon as you can.  I gotta figure out what we’re going to do to push em off.”

“Got it, Chosen.”  Jessan motioned one of his troop to follow with the other Amazon and they trooped after Pony, who led them down the stepped hillside towards the waterfront.

“Xena.” Gabrielle got a word in edgewise. “What was that all about? Why was she trying to hurt you?”

“She’s an idiot.” Ephiny joined them.  “Those two were part of the hunting party who were gathering the tribes. They were the leaders, I guess.”  She put her hands on her hips. “They didn’t like me and Pon.. I figure she realized after we got ambushed we were either more valuable or higher ranking than they were so they ended up jumping us and knocking us out cold.”

“You got ambushed?” Gabrielle put a hand on her head and looked over at Xena. “I’m going to be six moons catching up with all this and you were only gone a sevenday. You better not either of you ever say I make things happen ever again!”

Ephiny chuckled.  “Okay.” She turned to Xena “What can I do?”

“You can watch my child.” Gabrielle pointed at the barn.  “Paybacks are a bitch.”   She grabbed Xena’s arm and turned her around. “Panic in the streets hon, I think they need you.”

A huge crowd was, in fact, gathering in the streets and there was more than a little panic in them.  Xena felt, for a short moment, very overwhelmed by this acceleration of the war past what she’d expected.  She hadn’t started with a plan, and the sudden waking and even more sudden attack by Amazons hadn’t helped her in developing one.  

Nevertheless, she didn’t really have time to be at a loss.  “Okay, let’s go up to the gates and see what we’ve got.” She put a hand on Gabrielle’s back, and steered her towards the alleyway between the houses. “Take the back row.”

They squeezed between the walls and emerged in the small roadway in back of the villas, no doubt there to provide a way for the servants to bring provisions up and to take the garbage away before the high paying patrons could see it.

It was narrow and crooked, and mostly empty. Xena and Gabrielle loped down it at a good clip, the air around them lightening as dawn started to break over the city, a gray light with a hint of rose at it’s edges.  “Thanks, by the way.” Xena said, after they’d been on the move for a couple minutes.

“For?”  Gabrielle had her staff in one fist, carrying it slanted to prevent it from hitting the steps.

“Watching my back before.”

Gabrielle gave her a strange look. “Huh?”  She said, after a moment.  “What was I supposed to do?”

Xena drew her sword, feeling a prickle along her senses. “Exactly what you did.” She swept the path ahead of them intently. “I just realized how much I missed it.”

“Oh.” The bard’s face twitched into a grin.  “No problem.’

The path in front of them abruptly erupted into a swarm of dark armor, coming at them fast up the slope. 

“Problem.”  Xena sighed. “Damn it.”

“Yeah.” Gabrielle got her staff up, moving it mostly forward so as not to whack her beloved soulmate in the kneecaps. “Didn’t even get a chance to have a cup of tea to wake up to.”

“Make it up to you.” Xena let out a yell and bounded up into the air, swinging her sword down to meet the first of the Spartans attacking them.

There were six.  But they’d picked a very bad spot to ambush them from and Xena was momentarily almost disappointed as she was able to power her way through the guard of the soldier and knock him to his knees as he fought to defend from a lower position working his way up the steps.

It was too narrow for the others to help him, and any attempt brought stinging whacks from Gabrielle’s staff from where the bard was positioned behind her.

“Xena!”

The warrior ducked gracefully, hearing an arrow go over her head and hit the stone wall.

Another pair of hands. Another pair of eyes.  She stepped back and slid to one side, as Gabrielle slammed her staff into the man’s head and he toppled back down the stairs into the way of his companions.

Another focus.  Xena unsheathed her dagger and let it fly as the next man in line aimed at Gabrielle’s chest, nailing him unerringly in the throat right between the bottom of his helmet and the top of his armor. He dropped the crossbow and fell backwards, and they advanced after him.

Stalking their ambushers.  In the gloom it was hard to see features and Xena found herself battling a man taller than she was even with the step advantage and being pushed back against the wall as a second engaged Gabrielle with a mace.  “Hey!” She yelled in warning.

Gabrielle ducked in response, and then brought her staff up in a short, hard arc as the soldier backswung, meeting the shaft of the weapon on hers in a solid crack.

Xena kept her in her peripheral vision as she squared off against the monster in front of her, raising her sword and meeting his on a sideways slant as he tried to bash through her defenses.  The sudden challenge to her skills woke her up thoroughly and she got her back to the wall as she twisted her shoulders to one side, and then ducked and turned, bringing his sword with hers around in a circle in the tight spot.

Their swords clashed and grated down their length to the hilts, and Xena shoved against the pressure with all her strength as her eyes caught a flicker of motion and without really thinking she lashed out with one boot and knocked the knife heading for Gabrielle out of the air.

“Show off.” Gabrielle returned the compliment, smacking Xena’s opponent in the head and then poking the end of her staff right at her own opponents’ groin.

Xena dropped onto her back, surprising the man who had been trying to overpower her. He lurched forward, and she got her boots up and into his chest as he fell, his weight pressing against her before she straightened up and kicked him backwards.

The last soldier dodged him and was on her before she could roll up to her feet, throwing himself past his companion engaged with Gabrielle and onto her with arms outstretched, pinning her down.

Xena tucked her blade under her thigh and grappled with him, grabbing the hands that were grasping her throat and yanking them back as she evaded what she suspected was an attempted bite.  She didn’t make the mistake of slamming her own head into his helmeted one, but she got a knee up between his legs and as he twisted to avoid the impact she released one of his hands and jammed the heel of her hand up against his chin shooting his head backwards.

He grunted as his teeth snapped shut and she got a grip on his helmet and ripped it off.   The end of Gabrielle’s staff promptly came down on top of it, and a moment later he was slumping to the side next to her and it was quiet again.

Gabrielle was standing over her last adversary, legs braced and her hands wrapped around her staff. Her breathing was a little fast, and she had a little pink in her cheeks and in the rose dawn light Xena considered the sight more than beautiful.

“What?” Gabrielle tilted her head.  “What’s that grin for?”

“Nothing.” Xena sat up and dusted her hands off.   The man she’d kicked backwards had hit his head on the stone steps, and was currently sprawled motionless, leaving them for the moment with no further opponents.

“So, who let these guys up here?” The bard asked. “And why didn’t anyone come running when they heard all this noise?”

Two good questions. Xena got to her feet, sheathing her sword and shaking her armor back into place.  “Maybe it’s all the commotion at the gate.”

Gabrielle looked skeptical.

“Or maybe some folks don’t want the city to fight back.” The warrior concluded, advancing on the tall soldier she’d so recently been fighting and rolling him over with a jerk of her boot.  “Let’s find out.”

But the man’s eyes were staring and open, a dagger hilt protruding from his stomach.  Xena stared at it in surprise, leaning closer to look at it as she realized it wasn’t hers.  “What in Hades?”

The man’s hand flopped to the ground lifeless.

“Xena. Did he do that himself?”  Gabrielle looked quickly around.

“Must have.” The warrior murmured.  “I didn’t draw… mine.” She checked her sheaths to be sure. “Just the one.. “She walked over and examined one of the fallen soldiers. “Yeah, this is it.” She yanked her dagger out of the man’s neck, where it had cut right through his jugular.

One by one, she checked the Spartans, and found them all dead. Either from her hand, or their own, and she frowned, aware of Gabrielle’s close attention at her shoulder.  “Huh.”

“Xena, did they kill themselves? All of them?”

“Looks like it.” Xena indicated the path. “Let’s get to the wall.  Something’s not adding up right here. Spartans… “

“Maybe they were ashamed of being beaten by women?” Gabrielle followed at her heels.  “They seemed that type. When Solari and her gang beat them up back home they ran off, remember?”

“Huh.” Xena grunted again, speeding up her pace.  “Maybe.” 

“Ego?”

Xena thought about that. “They did say they didn’t consider women fit opponents.” She said. “Didn’t they?”

“Mom said they were totally freaked out when Solari and the gang started beating on them.”

“Hm.”

They traveled down the narrow path, meeting no one else until they reached the bottom and emerged into one of the main streets, which was filled with nervous citizens and men in half armor.  They parted as they spotted Xena and made way for them.

“Xena!” Denius pushed his way through the crowd.   “Xena! What’s the meaning of this!”?

Xena kept moving.  “Meaning of what.” She went past him, grabbing his arm and hauling him along as she headed for the entrance to the lower town.  “The Spartan army’s at the gates. You think I sent for em?”

“Didn’t you send to parley with them?” The patrician hurried to keep up, more or less ignoring Gabrielle.  “That’s the word that came back to us, that you had gone to make a deal with them.”

“What were you drinking?” The warrior wondered.  “I didn’t do anything last night except sleep.”

“Sleep!”

Gabrielle’s fingers tightened on her staff at the tone.  “Despite popular opinion to the contrary, she does that at night. Occasionally.” She paused. “Generally with me.”

Denius glanced at her, and then returned his attention to Xena.  “With an army bearing down on us!?”

Xena ignored him.  She scanned the open space in front of the gates, a flash of memory hitting her from the previous night.   She remembered riding through the now closed portal, driving Iolaus through the crowd and spotting Gabrielle on the fringe, sharing a hug with Ephiny and Eponin.

Relief and happiness had turned her dismount into a headlong run and she vaguely remembered bowling over everything in her way including a donkey in her haste to get to her partner.

“Xena, I’m talking to you.”

She wasn’t going to make this any damned last stand.

The warrior turned her head towards Denius. “What did you expect me to do?” She asked.  “Go out there and fight them all off?  It’s a damned army, Denius.  We don’t have enough men here to take the battle to them.”

“But…”

But.  Xena looked around, and spotted the pile of Spartan bodies from the late battles of yesterday.  Her eyes narrowed.

“Genr’l, got us some pitch boiling but..” Bennu limped up to her. “Bastards are comin right at us.”

“Take those bodies.” Xena let out a yell, turning and pointing at the pile. . “Get that half wagon over here, and put a couple of them in the bed. C’mon! Move it!”

Conscripts and volunteers rushed over to do her bidding, half afraid and half excited, bumping into each other in their rush.

Denius reached out to grab Xena’s arm and found himself blocked by a long, hardened stick. He jerked back and stared as Gabrielle put herself between them. “Get out of my way.”

“You really do need to let Xena do what she does.”  Gabrielle said, conversationally. “Asking her questions just pisses her off.”

“Take their leggings off!”

The men turned and stared at her, then back at the Spartan dead. 

“Just do it!” Xena ordered. “Strip their asses naked and get em on the cart!”

“You heard the genr’l!” Bennu fell into the plan without hesitation. “Move it!”

Xena helped the men pull the half wagon into position, and waited for them to place the Spartan bodies on the back of it. “Okay, I need a lot of volunteers.” She directed them in pushing the wagon to a specific position, and then she grabbed a spare board from a trough nearby and slapped it over the yoke, grabbing a rope and lashing it into place.  “Grab that bench there, and put it near the wall.”

“What is she doing?” Denius asked, sidetracked by all the action.

Gabrielle grounded her staff and wrapped her hand around it.  “I think she found an angle.”

“What?”

The bard watched them set up the makeshift catapult and exhaled. “They should be careful what they ask for.”

“What?”

**

Xena leaned against the wall, watching through the arrow slit. “Get ready!” She called over her shoulder.   Ahead of her, stretching across the flat area leading up to the city was the Spartan army in all its glory.    One of the siege engines had survived the trip up from Amphipolis, but the two others Gabrielle had reported were nowhere to be seen.

There were also wagons close to breaking down that her knowledgeable eye spotted, and the horses in the front legion looked exhausted.

Hard ride.  Xena figured they’d marched on short rations and even shorter sleep in order to catch up with her soulmate – only to get here and find out they hadn’t.

So, she reasoned they had only a few options here.  They could no longer stop Gabrielle from sending a warning. They likely thought the warning had already traveled on, and in fact, it had so long as the captain hadn’t gotten caught by that fleet coming crawling up her back.

To get to the fleet, they had to conquer the city.  The fleet was their only option of escape, since any response from Athens would come down the coast so either they got onboard, or they went back the way they came.

Xena didn’t want them going back the way they came.  She scratched her jaw thoughtfully.  

The front ranks broke, and a group of riders started to approach down the road, the man in front carrying the Spartan war banner seated in his stirrup.

“Looks like they want to talk.” Gabrielle pressed in behind her, putting a hand on Xena’s shoulder to steady her balance as she peered through the slit.  “Think they know we’re in here?”

“They will in a minute.” Xena raised one hand and waited until the advance party was close enough, and it looked like they were about to stop and make a pronouncement.  She let her hand fall.  The sound of a heavy weight landing on wood followed, and then there was thwacking noise that soon followed.

Xena didn’t watch. She kept her eye on the Spartans as they sorted themselves out then jumped, and looked up.  A yell went up and the horses scattered in every direction as a body fell heavily to the ground, smacking the legs of the horse of the banner carrier who reared and almost dumped the man on his ass.

It was grotesque, in all the senses of that word.  Half naked, the body’s stiff limbs were rakishly askew and the Spartans scrambled around it, one of the men sliding off his horse to turn the body over.

“Don’t think they liked that, Xe.” Gabrielle mused.

“Weren’t supposed to.”  Xena lifted her hand again. “Get another one on there!” She yelled over her shoulder, then turned back to see the Spartans staring at the gate.

“Go!” Xena dropped her hand again, rewarded by seeing another Spartan body fly over the wall, twisting as it went.  “That’s pretty good for a makeshift catapult, huh?”

Gabrielle exhaled, turning her back on the weapon. She was more used to war than most, but the dead, staring faces were putting a chill of horror down her spine she found she had little defense against. She felt a little raw, the strong smell of blood and hint of death on the air making her grimace.

Xena glanced up at her, one hand reaching out to rest on her partner’s thigh.  She could see, suddenly, the exhaustion the night’s rest hadn’t touched, and as Gabrielle looked back at her, there was a shadow of her much younger self there.  “Hey.” She curled her arm around the bard’s leg. “You okay?”

Gabrielle put a hand on her shoulder and leaned, just a little. “Tired.” She said. “Too much blood lately.” She traced an idle pattern across the warrior’s skin.  “One too many nightmares maybe.”

Xena kept hold of her, as she turned and studied the result of her attack. The Spartans were now riding around in a tight circle, watching the sky as two of their numbers were struggling to get their dead compatriots up on to their horses.

The horses didn’t like the idea. They could smell the blood and the beginning of decay and made it clear they didn’t want that anywhere near their backs.  “Ready!” Xena lifted her hand, judging the sharp, jerky gestures of the envoy.  “Go!”

Another hollow sound, another body flying over the wall.  As Xena suspected, this was too much for the men, who scattered as the body hit the dirt next to them and a half severed arm went flying all the way off.

Xena glanced up, watching Gabrielle’s somber profile.  “They’re dead anyway.” She said. “If I can use them to knock the Spartans off balance so they’ll deal with me, we all win.”

“I’m not.. ‘ Gabrielle leaned a little more. “Hon, I’m not judging what you’re doing.”

“You look like it’s bothering you.”

“Xe.” The bard sighed. “I’ve had a tough week and I’m about to start cycling. Give me a break, okay?” She watched the crowd watching Xena instead of the catapult.  “Cait’s heading this way.”

The warrior watched the Spartans retreat back towards their lines, dragging the dead soldiers with them as the sun lifted up over the trees and drenched them in anything but appropriate gentle pink light.

“Hold!” Xena called over to her erstwhile troops.   “Let’s see what that does.”   She half turned. “Keep an eye on them, Jens.”

The Athenian soldier gave her a salute, and went back to his own arrow slit, pressing his face to the wall as he watched.

Xena swiveled around and bumped her shoulder against Gabrielle’s hip.  She felt the bard press against her, as they both watched Cait approach with Milena at her heels, descending from the road up to the harbor, followed at a trot by Iolaus.  “Know what I feel like/”

“What?” Gabrielle ran the fingers of one hand through her partner’s unruly hair.   “I sure could use a cup of cider or something.  Want me to go find some?”

“That and a piece of bread and cheese.” The warrior agreed. “I figure they’re going to spend a quarter candlemark getting pissed off then try their next approach.  Maybe I’ll go out to meet them.”

“We will go out to meet them.” Gabrielle corrected her.

Xena tickled her calf. “Of course we.” She amended. “After all, we’re the ones the stupid bastards are looking for.”

Gabrielle ruffled her hair, then leaned over and kissed the top of the warrior’s head, before she eased herself out of Xena’s grip and started towards an area where city folk were gathering and collecting supplies.

Xena watched her, until Cait mounted the ledge that ran along the inside of the wall and climbed up to where she was sitting.  “Any luck?”

“Rather.” Cait half turned as Milena and Iolaus joined them.  “We found about six men who said they could sail that boat out you mentioned.” She said. “But they say it wont’ sail far. It’s broken.”

“We knew that.” Milena spoke up. “I’m sure Xena wasn’t looking to run away in it. Were you?”

Cait turned so fast she was almost a blur. “Now look here.” She grabbed Milena and shook her hard. “Stop saying such dumb things before I thrash you.”

“Let me go!” Milena grappled with her.  Cait was slimmer than she was, and perhaps an inch or two shorter, but the Amazon was all whipcord and iron and she didn’t budge. “You little…”

Iolaus came over and sat down next to Xena.  “So.” He said, observing the struggle. “We going to watch until Gabrielle gets back to adjudicate?” He asked. “My dinars are on that Amazon.  I saw her climb that cliff.”

“No.” Xena whistled. “Cait!”

Cait released her victim and turned, coming back over to Xena. “Sorry about that.”  She said. “Anyway, the sailors said they’d work the ship.” 

“Don’t.” Xena looked past her at Milena, her voice suddenly cold and sharp.  She waited to make sure the woman wasn’t going to do anything stupid, and then she turned back to Cait.  “Tell the sailors to load as much straw and pitch onto the ship as they can.  Get it into the harbor entrance, in the narrow part.”

“And set it on fire to block the opening.” Cait finished. “Splendid idea, Xena.” She said. “May I go with them? I know exactly what you mean.”

Xena studied her. “Be careful.” She said. “We can’t afford to lose you.”

Cait grinned wholeheartedly.  Then she turned and raced off, heading at full speed towards the harbor road. 

“That cuts us off from any rescue from the Athenian navy.” Iolaus commented.  “But I’m guessing you think they wont’ be in time anyway.”

“Right now, they’re the least of my concerns.” Xena stood up as she spotted Gabrielle making her way back. “Jessan!” She lifted her voice, projecting it towards the forest dweller who was halfway up the slope. He turned and waved. “Bring our horses down?” Xena indicated herself and Gabrielle.  “We’re gonna go parley.”

Jessan waved and started up at a trot.

Milena watched him leave, and then she turned back to Xena.  “Why did you stop me? Afraid I’d hurt your little kid there?”

“No.” Xena leaned back against the wall. “I didn’t want you to end up with a knife in your gut.  Cait has less of a sense of humor than I do.”

“That kid?”

“That kid is a full Amazon warrior.” Xena said. “And she’s family of mine.” She half turned and glanced through the arrow slit, seeing the Spartans still milling around, the group that had approached them surrounded by a big group of compatriots.

Milena snorted. “You sure aren’t picky with who you call family are you?”

Slowly, the warrior turned back around, her eyes rapidly cooling to an icy almost gray.

“Excuse me.” Gabrielle came up behind Milena, her hands mostly full. “Don’t want to spill this on you. It’s cold.”

Milena turned her head and stared at her for a moment, then reluctantly stepped aside.   “Speaking of.”

Gabrielle merely gave her an amused look as she settled on the rock ledge next to her partner. She set down one mug of the two in her hand, and passed the other over. “Here you go, hon.” She patted Xena on the leg.  “It’s pear cider.”

“Thanks.” Xena took the mug and took a long, deliberate sip from it, as the pulses of red anger faded from her suddenly focused vision.  She’d understood the disparaging reference and the tone in Milena’s voice and had come very close to something very violent.

Her temper on the edge of snapping so quickly it shocked her.   She exhaled slowly, tasting the cold cider finally through the copper tang in her mouth.

She could tell from the girl’s smirk that she knew she’d gotten to her.  She could see the disdain in her eyes when she looked at Gabrielle.  It started a deep burn of anger in her guts that put a twitch in her fingers as her body shifted restlessly in pure reaction.

“I was listening to the stonemasons.” Gabrielle said, apparently oblivious. “They think the walls will last maybe a day, against that catapult outside.”

“Yeah.” Xena answered briefly. “We need to take that out of action.”

Gabrielle took a bite of bread and cheese, then ripped off another and offered it to Xena.  “C’mon, open up.”

Caught between her growing anger and embarrassment at the offering, Xena turned her head to meet her partner’s eyes and saw the wry, wicked amusement there looking back at her.   She sighed soundlessly, but opened her mouth and took the bite, feeling her lips twitch just a little as the bard winked at her.

“Xena, you think they’ll send anyone climbing the cliffs there, trying to get over the wall that way?” Iolaus pointed to the distance, where the ridge of rock that the city was built over met the stone.  “They might.”

“Might.” Xena conceded. “Have them bring buckets of lard from the kitchens up there and spill it down over the stone while we’re out there talking.  Just in case.”

Iolaus regarded her. “Nice.” He said, after a pause.

“And it’s oily. You can set it on fire if they keep trying.”  Xena continued.  “If we run out of dead bodies to toss at em.”

Gabrielle winced.

“Hey, your maj.”  Solari climbed up to join them. “We found the armory.” She held up a big fistful of well-made arrows.  “Pon found like a dozen maybe two Amazons down in town too. They missed the last boat, but they want in on the action.”

“Two dozen?” Gabrielle mused.  “Is that good or bad?”

“They seem okay.”  Solari said. “They got here after all the crazy stuff happened.  They heard of ya.” She grinned at her queen.

“Ah heh.” The bard cleared her throat. “Is that good or bad?”

“They wanted to pay me to bring em up here to meet ya.”  The Amazon warrior assured her.  “So I think it’s good yeah?”

“Yeah.”  Gabrielle finally smiled. “We can meet up with them later once we get back.”  She glanced past Solari and found Milena watching her.  “I think I’m the ranking queen here, matter of fact.”

The girl looked away, returning her attention to Xena.

“Probly true.”  Solari agreed, oblivious to the drama behind her.

“So you’ll end up fighting anyway, Xena?” Milena asked. “So much for staying out of it.. or was that, you were going to lead the armies?” She added. “Do you just come up with different stories every time?”

“Here.” Gabrielle diverted Xena’s attention with another bite of bread. “She doesn’t come up with the stories. That’s my job.”  She commented casually. “But anyone who knows anything about war knows your plans change in time to the battle you’re fighting.”  She leaned closer and blew in the warrior’s ear.  “Right, Xe?”

Xena truly wanted to be angry.  But her body simply gave up on that, unable to maintain the cold rage faced with the sweet affection in the bard’s eyes, and the mischievous grin.  “Gaabbriellle.”

“Xeeena.”  The bard burred right back at her.

 It was a frustrating, funny, exasperating sensation and Xena finally just gave into it, dismissing Milena’s jibes.  “Whatever you say, my queen.”   She drawled.  “About time we tried it your way first.  I’m tired of beating the crap out of everyone this moon.”

“You’re tired of it?”  Gabrielle rested her head against her.  “If we pull this off I’m going back with you to Athens just so I can stand on the steps of the Bards Academy and tell the whole damn city about it.”

“Thought you didn’t like Athens.”  Xena saw Jessan on his way down from the hilltop, the equine Iolaus and Gabrielle’s gray Shadow behind him.  She watched Milena’s face from the corner of her eye as she draped her arm over her partner’s shoulders and saw the girl turn away. 

“I don’t.” Gabrielle shared her bread.  “I just like bragging about you.”

Xena chuckled wryly.   She felt the anger fading away, and she turned her mind instead to what she could say to the Spartans once they rode out the gates.

And they would, just ride out of the gates. Her and Gabrielle, alone, once the Spartans got their wraps undone and decided to come back at them again.  A massive bluff?  Maybe a surprise frontal attack?  Hm.   She accepted another chunk of cheese and sipped her pear cider. “What are they doing Solari?”

“Still talking.” The Amazon reported. “They look pretty pissed off.”

“Glad I got their attention.”   Xena said. “They getting ready to ride back over here?”

“Not yet.” Iolaus was next to her. “They’re putting those bodies in one of the wagons.”

Xena finished her cider and put the cup down. “C’mon.”  She held her hand out to Gabrielle, and they stood up together. “Excuse us.”

Gabrielle picked up her staff, and they stepped off the ledge, moving away from the wall towards the front of the gates where Jessan was now waiting.  She barely kept from glancing behind her, having caught the look of venom from Milena as they passed.  “That kid’s got it bad, hon.” She bumped her partner’s hip.

Xena sighed.

“I remember the days when I’d be so jealous about that I’d be coughing up green from my guts.” The bard added casually.

“You’re not now?”

“Nope.” Gabrielle said. “You’re mine.”

Xena eyed her.

“You are.” The bard said.  “I earned every damn inch of you.”

The certainty in her soulmate’s voice made Xena smile.   It was true. They’d earned their relationship the hard way and though she’d often found Gabrielle’s testy jealousy funny, the confidence that had replaced it was far sweeter.  

Jessan was waiting when they got there, and handed the reins over. “Sure you guys don’t want company?” He indicated the crowd around them, now made up of militia, Amazons, and some of Jen’s soldiers.

Xena put her hand on Io’s nose, and studied them. “No.” She said. “Let me and Gabrielle go talk to them first. If we need backup, then everyone can haul ass out.” She said.  “Stay behind the gates until then. They don’t know what kind of force we have in here. They don’t’ really know what’s going on. Keep them guessing.”

She swung up onto Io’s back and settled her self, while Gabrielle climbed aboard Shadow. “She do all right for you?” The warrior asked, eyeing the young mare.

“She’s been great.” Gabrielle put her staff into its holders, and gave her horse a pat on the neck.  “Even with Dori bouncing around all over her.” She glanced behind them. “Glad her new friend’s keeping her busy.”

Xena gathered her reins. “Okay, open the stock door.” She indicated the heavily barred, small portal to one side of the gates.  “We’ll go through that.” She said. “We won’t be long.”

Jessan put a clawed hand on her thigh.  “Be safe, my friend.” He said. “The last thing we need is to lose either of you.”

“We will be.” Xena touched his shoulder. “I want to see my kid ride that pony.”

Jessan smiled and stepped back.  Xena led the way towards the stock door, waiting for Gabrielle to catch up as they approached the wall.   She paused as they swung the door open, then she ducked gracefully and they went through.  The door closed behind them quickly, and then they were outside the gates.

Outside in sudden quiet, after the chaos of the courtyard.   Outside where the road stretched out before them, ending in a solid wall of Spartan soldiers who only now were becoming aware of their presence.

“C’mon.” Xena guided Io onto the road and they started towards the Spartan lines.  

After a moment, Shadow came up next to her and she and Gabrielle were riding knee to knee along the hard packed roadway.  The city wall fell behind them as they approached the Spartan army – and now the front lines were scrambling and men were getting mounted on their horses as banners fluttered into place.

“Weren’t really expecting us huh?” Gabrielle was very glad to have left the city behind them for the moment even if they were riding into Hades together.

“Does anyone ever expect us?”  Xena countered.  “If you were a thousand man army, would you expect two chicks with a big knife and big stick to come riding out to kick your ass?”

Gabrielle started to chuckle. “Oh, Xe.”  She exhaled.  “What in the world are we going to do?” She asked. “We’re not really going to attack them, are we?”

“Depends.” Xena watched the soldiers gathering to ride towards them. “Let’s see what they do.”  She saw the banner rise up again, and a group of six soldiers started towards them, riding with slow caution in their direction.   Behind them, the rest of the army was getting into position for battle.

Not a really good sign. She watched them bring up their shields, and saw the forest of spears shiver into place.  The siege engine was being cranked back, the creak of the ropes clearly audible to her on the wind.  The army was clearly ready to attack.

And she and Gabrielle rode slowly towards them.  She was relaxed in her saddle, and next to her, the bard also seemed comfortable. “That saddle work better for you riding?” She asked. “You look like it does.”

“Yeah.” Gabrielle nodded. “I wasn’t nearly as sore, and my back was even mostly okay this trip.”  She said. “Shadow’s a little smaller than Io, or even Argo.”

“Good stock.” Xena said, aware from her peripheral vision that the Spartans were closing in on them, helmets down, with spears at the ready.  “She was easy to train.”

“Hey Xe?”  Gabrielle said, after a moment’s silence. 

“Mm?”  Xena kept Io going at a steady pace, riding right down the center of the road towards the oncoming soldiers.

“I’m glad you gave Dor her pony.” The bard said. “I think it’s her best present ever.”

Xena smiled.

“And you never know what’s going to happen when you and do crazy things like this.” Gabrielle continued, in a soft voice. “You never know, you know?”

“I know.”

They slowed to a halt as the Spartans did too, and for a long, silent moment they faced off against each other, taking each other’s measure.

Xena finally broke the silence. “Who’s in charge of this bunch?” She asked, in a casual tone.  “Either come forward, or get the Hades out of the way so I can find someone willing to volunteer.”

The six men stayed still for a very long moment. Then one finally moved his horse forward a few steps and stopped, doffing his helmet as he turned a little in his saddle.   He was wearing more ornate armor, and his helmet had a crest, but otherwise he was indistinguishably from his companions. “I am Thurdor. I command here.”

“Good.” Xena said. “My name is..”

“I know who you are.” He cut her off. “Are you responsible for the desecration of my brothers?” He turned and pointed at the wagon. “Those men?”

“Yes.”  Xena met his eyes with a faint smile.  “I’ve got a pile more in there. Want em?” She asked, in a light, mocking tone. “Or do you want to sit down and talk with me, and maybe save the rest of your men the same fate.”

Gabrielle watched him watch her partner.  Xena had this absolute confidence in self that often overwhelmed people – had, in fact, overwhelmed Gabrielle for a long time in their relationship until she’d finally gotten an inside understanding of her.  She knew, now, that Xena was bluffing and even knowing that, there was a good solid part of her that believed utterly that Xena could deliver whatever she was offering up.

She had no doubt.  She’d seen Xena do too much; achieve too many impossible goals not to believe anything was possible if Xena said it was.

But would the soldier buy into that? Or were they about to be in the fight of their lives?

The man looked over at her. Gabrielle rested her hands on her saddlebow and smiled at him, waiting for his decision.  “So.” She said. “What’s it going to be?  Am I going to tell everyone about you being a brave and noble general, or just another of Xena’s conquests?”

The corners of Xena’s lips twitched.

**

There was a tree, and they sat under it.   Xena, Gabrielle, and the Spartan Thurdor.  He left his guard standing by the road, and they sat with their backs to both the army and the city in the shade on a fallen log and the boulder right next to it.  Facing the headlands far off, with sea birds circling them it was a bit of unexpected peace.

The Spartan looked tired. He had removed his helmet and set it between his boots and pulled his gauntlets off.   “You have led us a merry chase, Bard Gabrielle.” He addressed her. “Long and tough. I lost men and supplies in it.”

“Well.” Gabrielle was seated on the fallen log, her boots tucked under her and her staff resting across her knees.  “I didn’t ask anyone to chase me.” 

“You gave your word you would join us.” The man said. “You broke that promise.”

“I lied.” The bard agreed. “But I couldn’t let you take me prisoner and use me against Xena.”

The soldier stared at her. “You knew?”

“Of course I knew.” Gabrielle gentled the words with a smile. “So I really didn’t feel bad about lying because your men were too.”

Xena chuckled. “People have been trying that old dodge for years.” She remarked. “They all think she’s my weak spot.”

“Isn’t she?” Thurdor asked, boldly.

“Absolutely.” The warrior replied.  “So your idea of kidnapping her doesn’t make me very happy.” She gave him a level stare.

“Your idea of disgracing our dead makes me even less so.”  Thurdor replied. “That can not be forgiven.  Those men died in honest battle.”

“Did they?” Gabrielle shifted a little. “We met up with six of them who tried to ambush us on the way to the wall.” She said. “When we beat them, they killed themselves. How honorable is that, really?”

The Spartan looked at her. “You do not tell the truth.”

“Most of the time I do.” The bard said.  “And in this case, I am.”

Thurdor shook his head.  “Spartan warriors would not do that.”

“Okay, well, six guys that look like you dressed as Spartans with Spartan weapons and armor attacked us then.” Gabrielle said. “And when we kicked their asses, they stabbed themselves.”

“The ones that didn’t die the usual way.” Xena said. “Guess they didn’t want to face being defeated by a couple of women.”

The Spartan frowned. Then he shrugged. “Still, those you desecrated died with honor. We saw the sword and arrow wounds.”

“They served my purpose.” Xena spoke up. “They derailed your pompous ultimatum and got you to talk. If that saves lives on both sides there’s no dishonor.”

The Spartan grunted.

“It’s called the greater good.” Gabrielle said. “It’s why I left my family and friends behind, and risked my homeland. I knew in the bigger scheme of things putting myself in your hands would be worse.” She considered. “For both of us.”

Thurdor studied them.  “And if your home is no more now because of it?”

“Wouldn’t be the first time.” Xena returned his gaze.  “But I know those people. They don’t kill easily and you’re here too fast.” She laced her fingers together. “And I don’t think you’re stupid enough to admit to destroying the place because if you did, I’d have to cut your heart out.”

“Would you?”

“Yes, I would.” The warrior’s voice was quiet, and very serious.  “Right here where you sit, in front of that army, regardless of the fact we’re under a truce flag at the moment.”

“Have you such confidence in yourself, Xena?” The Spartan smiled a little.

“Yes.” Xena smiled back. “I do.”

Thurdor snorted a little and shook his head. “You’re all crazy, the lot of you.  They tried to keep us down by the river. Told us there was silver to be found, and stories about wild naked women in the hilltops… anything to keep us from chasing you.”

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. 

“We knew it for lies.” The Spartan said, with a shrug. “But in any case, you said you wanted speech before this battle begins, Xena. What is it you had to say?  The day grows older, and my men are anxious to go forward to the assault.” He looked over at her. “I assume you would not presume to say you wish to join us.”

“No.” The warrior said. “I don’t want this war to happen at all.  It’s wrong.” She leaned forward.  “I want it to stop.”

Thurdor stared at her, nonplussed. “What?”

“We don’t want a fight.”  Gabrielle clarified.

“It’s a sham.” Xena went on. “Athens and Sparta are being goaded into fighting each other to satisfy the whims and egos of a couple of goddesses. “ She said. “Nothing good will come of it for either city state.” She concluded. “It profits no one.  We need to stop it.”

The Spartan continued staring at her. “Are you mad?” He asked, in an honestly curious tone.

“She’s not.”  Gabrielle picked up the conversational ball.  “It’s true.  It’s all about a bet between the gods, to see who’s the better battle leader, Athena or Artemis.”  She said.  “And if this war happens, and one of them does win…  something even worse could happen.”

“What???”

“Didn’t Artemis tell you to find a woman to lead you?”  Xena asked.  “Why?”

“And Athens sent for Xena.” Gabrielle chimed in.  “Why?”

Thurdor looked from one to the other.  “You are both mad. I do not question the gods.” He replied.

“You should.” The bard said.  “You find out things that way. I asked Ares what was going on with this war, and he told me about it.”

“Ares.”

“Yes.”

Thurdor crossed one armored knee over the other and wrapped his hands around it.  He studied the two women for a long moment. “Do you truly expect me to believe you speak with the gods?” He asked, sounding just a touch plaintive.  “What type of fool do you take me for?”

“No fool at all.” Gabrielle said.  She gave Xena a sideways glance, but the warrior seemed very content to let her do the talking. 

Not really surprising.  The bard smiled a little. “We don’t’ think you’re a fool, and I hope you don’t think we are either.  Xena and I have been through a lot of different situations involving the gods.  We’re not oracles, but for better or worse they’ve taken personal interest in our lives and so, yes, when I say I’ve talked to Ares about this, I mean it. I have.”

“And I am supposed to believe this claim???”

“It’s true.” Xena replied. “You can believe it or not, that’s your choice but that doesn’t change the fact.”

Thurdor remained silent for a while. He turned and regarded Xena thoughtfully. “One of the names I have heard for you is Ares’ Chosen.”

Xena nodded. “He was my mentor.” She replied honestly. “He’s been part of my life for a long time.” 

“Is that were your vaunted skills come from?”

Xena shrugged slightly. “Maybe.” She added. “He wants this war to stop.”

“He is the god of War.” The Spartan said. “Assuming I do believe you are telling me the truth – and you have lied, Gabrielle.” He looked over at the bard. “Why would he want this to stop? He should be craving it.” He lifted his hands. “Why not believe, instead, that we should attack this city before us, and take it over as my masters have ordered me?”

“Because I’m not gonna let you do that.”  Xena replied.

“You are but one person, no matter how skilled.” Thurdor pointed out.  “We are an army, Xena.”

“Two people.” Gabrielle corrected him.  “It wouldn’t be the first time we stood up against an army.”

He looked from one of them to the other.  Xena was seated casually on a boulder, arms braced behind her, and boots stretched out and crossed at the ankles. She had her sword on, and two daggers visible, but compared to his own her armor was almost pitifully light.

And Gabrielle? She had nothing on but a half shirt and skirt, and her stick.  Nearby, their horses contentedly cropped the grass, two beautiful, well-bred animals.

Insanity.  They both must surely be insane, and yet, looking at them he saw only confidence.   Were they insane? Or was this story somehow true?   “What does he look like?” He asked, finally.  “Tell me that.  We have our own tales of the God of War.”

“He’s tall.” Gabrielle said, after a pause.  “He’s got dark hair and a beard, and moustache and thick dark eyebrows.” She met his eyes. “And very blue eyes.”

Thurdor’s attention flicked to Xena, who said nothing. She merely smiled a little.

“He wears black leather, at least, he usually does when I’ve seen him.” Gabrielle went on. “And a leather wristlet with a big red stone in it.”

“Do you worship him, Gabrielle? You do not seem the type.” The Spartan said, watching her closely. “I thought you more an acolyte of Athena, perhaps, or Aphrodite.”

Gabrielle glanced at Xena, who smiled.  “I don’t worship him. No.” She said. “But I have come to appreciate him, over the years.”

Thurdor frowned.

“Listen.” Xena said.  “You’re just going to have to either accept this on faith, or not.  Your army’s being used as a pawn in a power play.   It’s all about them, not about you.  Those men mean anything to you?”

The Spartan remained thoughtfully silent for a few minutes. “What alternative do I have?” He finally said. “I am here. The city is here. We are warriors.”

Ah. Gabrielle felt the gentle hitch as he took the bait.  She half turned her head and looked at Xena, one eyebrow cocking up slightly as she invited her partner to lay out whatever ploy she’d come up with.

She was sure Xena had something in mind. At least, she hoped she did, because Gabrielle had worked the Spartan skillfully to the place he was in now, where he was ready to at least consider what they had to say. 

Xena straightened up and folded her arms over her chest. “You have a fleet out there trying to pick you up.” She stated flatly, watching his face twitch in surprise.  “My people inside the walls are holding them out of the harbor.  If you give me your word you’ll have your men bond their arms, I’ll let you through the city, and let the ships into the harbor, and you can get out of here.”

Oo.  Gabrielle inhaled a little, a touch surprised at the brazen offer.  Risky and bold, even from her admittedly far too easily risk taking soulmate.

The Spartan was equally surprised.  “Are you saying you would open the gates to us?”

“If you give your word your men will touch nothing, and attempt no harm to anyone.” Xena said, slowly.

“My word.” Thurdor mused.  “That means something to me.”

“I know.” Xena stood up. “In return, you have my word we won’t ambush and slaughter your army in those narrow city streets and those ships will be there for you to board.”

Gabrielle just sat and watched. It was hard for her to fathom that this Spartan would take the bargain, seeing as his force was so much greater, and he surely knew the city had little defense other than it’s stout walls.

And Xena, of course.

She examined the Spartan’s face, his square skull with its grizzled cap of short-cropped hair glistening in the morning light.  He was older than Xena was, probably closer to Bennu’s age and he had the worn, leathered look of a man who had spent a lot of time on campaign in Sparta’s many wars.

There was a lot of experience in those eyes that were now studying her partner’s face with direct intensity.   Gabrielle debated stepping in, and then decided she should just let the thing play out.

“There were three ships supposed to land first.”  Thurdor finally said.

Xena pointed at the wagon that held the dead bodies. “Want the rest of them?” She asked. “I boarded one of those ships myself, and gutted the captain of it.”

The Spartan chewed the inside of his lip, his eyes watching Xena closely.  “All of my life, and in my career as a soldier I have worshiped the God of War.” He said, at last.  “And now I find myself caught between an oracle’s word from a goddess who never had interest in my people, and the word of one who calls themselves Ares Chosen.”

Xena spread her arms out, and then let them drop. “Life’s full of tough choices.”

Thurdor stared at her, then he turned and walked a few steps away, pausing with his back to them as he considered.

It was, Gabrielle knew in her gut, just the right thing to say.  Not to try and persuade him further, or to make a better argument, just put it out there and say, take it or leave it. This is what it is.

Very Xena.  Blunt in a way she herself couldn’t get away with and usually didn’t want to. She preferred gentle diplomacy but sometimes, sometimes you needed the rough, raw edge Xena provided.  Made it more real, with that potential for violence lurking so plainly behind those gruff words.

She got up and went over to stand next to her partner, feeling the rising sun warm her back. “That was bold.” She uttered softly.  “What do you think?”

Xena laid her arm over the bard’s shoulders. “Eh. Fifty fifty.”  She whispered.  “Gets him what he really wants with less risk to his men. See if that matters more than glory.”

“What would you do?” Gabrielle asked.

Xena paused. “When?”  She hazarded. “Before or after?”

The bard chuckled wryly.

Thurdor turned and came back over to them.  He seemed slightly surprised at their relaxed posture, and was even more surprised when Xena pulled Gabrielle closer and gave her a kiss on the head, before she released her and straightened.   He paused. “Why did you run from us, Gabrielle?  Did you truly think we would harm you?”

“I wasn’t running from you.” The bard answered straightforwardly. “I was running to her.” She indicated her partner with a jerk of her head. “I just didn’t want you to get in my way.”

Thurdor regarded her, his head slightly cocked to one side.  Then he nodded. “Now that I believe to be true. “ He looked at Xena. “I accept your offer. I will need some little time to arrange my troops to march through the city.”

“Good.” The warrior extended one arm, hand open and turned up. “It will take me a while to get the street cleared to let you through.  We’ll arrange your dead for you to pick up on the way.”

He covered her hand with his. “With respect?”

“They died as warriors.” Xena said. “They deserve it.” She paused. “I apologize for the use of them before. Sometimes in war you have to do things like that.”

Thurdor nodded again.  “And I apologize for our intent to capture and use Gabrielle.  Sometimes in war, you have to do things like that.”

They gripped and released each other.   Then the Spartan simply turned and left, going to his horse and pulling himself up into the saddle before turning the animal and heading back towards the guard he’d left behind.  

“Hm.” Gabrielle grunted. “He was all right. I liked him.” She said. “He felt a lot more real than the other guys they sent to Amphipolis.” She decided. “They were sorta slimy.”

“He’s an old timer.” Xena agreed, as she put a hand on her partner’s back and guided her towards where Shadow and Io were patiently waiting.  “Been around long enough to know better.”

“Like you?” Gabrielle bumped her. 

Xena chuckled wryly.  ‘Yeah, something like that.” She waited for Gabrielle to get up on Shadow, and then she vaulted into Io’s saddle. “Now we go do the hard part.” She settled her knees and turned her stallion with a nudge, as they started back towards the stock gate in the wall. 

She could see the top of the battlements lined with faces, watching them as they crossed the road and went up the lightly beaten path through the grass towards the city.  The sun was rising higher up over the trees now, and she could smell the rich earth they were riding over.

Ahead, the stock door opened, and Jessan poked his furry head out.  “Hey.” He waved. “Lots of freaking out humans in here. Glad you’re back.”

“Hey.” Xena waited for him to draw back, as she guided Io inside with Gabrielle close at her heels.  She waited for the door to close, and then half turned him to face the crowd of friends and city dwellers standing there. 

How could she put this?  She’d basically surrendered the city and offered the Spartans free passage.  Would they listen to her, or just go crazy, and then she’d have a rebellion and fight on her hands as her own forces would gather to defend her?

“Okay folks.” Gabrielle half stood in her stirrups, taking the decision out of Xena’s hands.  “Denius, could you gather a few of the leaders of the city and meet with us in the hall? Jens, you too.” She indicated the Athenian captain. “Let’s talk about what we discussed with the Spartans, and what the plan is.”

Bodies shifted and started to move, as the patrician, looking annoyed but resigned, lifted his hand in agreement and turned towards the hall. A way was cleared for him, and the city leaders joined him as he walked, their heads bent towards his.

“Thanks.” Xena turned her head towards the bard.

“Figured you needed a few minutes to figure out what to say.” The bard replied quietly. “I sure would.” She added. “That’s for sure.”

“Love ya.” Xena reached over and slapped her leg.  “Okay, Jess, you too, and Bennu if he can make it.”  She spotted Pony. “You too.”

“You bet.” Pony wormed her way through the crowd to Xena’s side. “Eph’s up the hill watching out.  They got that boat burning out there making a big old mess.” She reported. “Cait said the big bunch of them is outside in the water, going around in circles.”

A mess they’d have to now clean up. “Great.” Xena got down off Io’s back.  “They’re not going to rush the gates, but keep watch. You never know when someone might get a bright idea.” She said. “Marlas, can you get a start getting the rest of those bodies lined up on a wagon? Put them back right.”

“Aye, gen’rl.” One of her own militia nodded. “Take care of it.”  He turned and started towards the charnel pit, waving a few other militia to join him.  “C’mon boys, you heard the gen’rl.”

“So that got their attention eh?” Jens asked. “Damned good idea.”

“Got their attention.” Xena agreed, but then fell silent.

Gabrielle got down off Shadow and patted her on the shoulder.  She took the reins and followed Xena through the crowd, which gave way as they proceeded away from the wall towards the meeting hall they’d used the previous day.  Had it only been the previous day?

It felt longer.  Already the discomfort of her long ride here and Xena’s absence were fading, replaced by the far more normal to her now of them being together and dealing with something.

It was always something.  Gabrielle chuckled wryly to herself.  They never really had much peace in their lives, did they? If it wasn’t raiders, it was journeying to help people, and if it wasn’t that, it was floods or invasions.  So very rare were periods of just living a normal day-to-day existence.

Dori’s birth year, in fact, had been the last time.  Those long moons of learning to be parents, and dealing with their active infant – she remembered though a few times when she’d thought being out on the road fighting every day would have been less exhausting.

Hm.  She caught up to Xena and put a hand on the hollow of her back, below where her sword was, feeling the shift and move as the warrior’s body felt the touch.

“Hm?” Xena turned her head and looked down.

“Nothing.” The bard smiled.

Xena draped an arm over her shoulder.  “Let’s go ride the Styx again. See where it takes us this time.”

“Ugh.” Gabrielle sighed. “Can’t we just go walk on the beach instead?”

**

Continued in Part 24