A Queen’s Tale
Gabrielle felt a huge sense of dislocation, as though her body was turning inside out and then just as suddenly as she'd left the world, she was back in it – in the same place and time and the darkness was closing in on her again and she felt Xena's touch and then....
And then a powerful force yanked her sideways and she was in the air and there was heat and noise and something brushed against her back as she felt Xena slam against something hard.
Then a crack sounded and light flared as the noisome air of the jail was replaced by the smell of salt and tar and she landed on the ground and rolled in Xena's arms down a slope. “Whoa!”
Xena stood up and hauled her up as well, and they rambled down the rest of the slope before they turned and looked behind them.
The jail was in complete ruins. Flames licked up from it on all sides, and there were men running towards it, carrying buckets pulled from the waterfront.
They stared at it in silence, then they turned and looked at each other. Gabrielle reached up in reflex and touched Xena's face, their sudden return so overwhelming neither of them had anything immediately to say.
Xena finally let out a breath. “ Whoa.” She echoed Gabrielle's earlier grunt. “We're back.” She looked around, seemingly dazed to find the port town around them.
Gabrielle felt a little dizzy. “We are.” She murmured, looking around at the daytime chaos of Thema. “You okay?”
Xena took a breath and released it, blinking a little. “I think so. You?”
Gabrielle nodded. She drew in a breath of air herself, pungent with the smells of the town and shivered as the damp air brushed against her bare shoulders. The sounds of the waterfront were sharp in her ears, and everything seemed just a little too loud.
Just a little too colorful, and overpowering. “Feels a little weird.”
Xena winced at the scream of a gull, and let her body slowly relax from it's sudden return to life. Her skin was still tingling from the adrenaline of the building collapse and her heartbeat was just starting to settle down to normal again.
Weird. “Yeah.” She agreed. “Got used to the quiet up there.” She admitted.
Gabrielle glanced around, glad they were hidden in an alleyway behind where the jail had been. She took Xena's hand and clasped it, pressing the back of it against her cheek. “We're back.”
“We are.” Xena agreed, stressing the first word just slightly, and smiled as Gabrielle's eyes lifted and met hers. “Glad we got out of there when we did.”
The bard could feel the intensity of it. “Glad we got out of there.” She answered. “Thanks for sticking wth me.”
“Gabrielle.” Xena's voice deepened and warmed, and her expression altered to one of wry affection. “C'mon.”
“I know. It wasn't really even a choice, was it?” The bard said. “It wouldn't have been for me either. But thanks anyway.” She paused. “Even though I don't know what that means for us, in the long term.”
Xena circled her with both arms and gave her a gentle hug. “I don't know either. Lets worry about it when the time comes.”
Classic Xena. Gabrielle had to smile, savoring the rich scent of leather and metal she was pressed against. But she felt more than willing to go along with it this time. “Okay.” She gave her partner a healthy squeeze, then released her. “Let's go find Dori.”
“Good idea.” Xena flexed her hands and shook herself, reaching back to make sure her sword was in place before she gave the burning jail one last look. “Bastard.”
“Don't look gift gods in the mouth, Xe.” Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's back. “At least we're back.” She felt a rush of relief almost make her knees weak just saying the words. “Back where we belong.”
“He could have put us back somewhere else.” The warrior groused. “We could have died all over again in there.”
“But we didn't.” Gabrielle gave the leather covered surface a little scratch.
“No.” Xena finally started to walk towards the path that would lead them back up from the waterfront. “I moved fast enough this time.” She flexed her hands again. “Least he didn't put me back with all those damn bruises. Gave us a chance.”
Gabrielle drew in a breath. It was too much to take in all at once, so she spared herself a moment to consider her own condition and realized she didn't feel all that different than she had up on Mount Olympus.
Well, that made sense. Their odd journey had erased the long trip from her bones, and the hectic heroics from Xena's. At least it had done them that good.
At least. “Xe?”
“Hm?” The warrior guided her towards the steps, putting a hand lightly on her back as they started up. Then she paused and grabbed Gabrielle's arm. “Hold on.”
“What?” Gabrielle looked around, then up at her partner. “What are you doing?” She felt the feather light touch of Xena's fingers on her neck, then on her back. “Xe?”
“Your scars are gone.”
Gabrielle felt a shock travel up her spine. “What?”
“The one here.” That touch, on the top of her neck where she'd fractured a bone in the valley. “And here.” Another, across the lower part of her back where she'd gotten cut in the war. “Gone.”
Gabrielle reached up and felt her own throat, where one of the oldest of her injuries was and felt another chill as her fingers touched nothing but smooth skin. “Wow.” She looked up at Xena, then just as suddenly looked down at the warrior's bare thigh, reaching out to touch a spot. “You too.” She traced a line where a jagged white line had been for as long as she could remember.
The warrior straightened a little and looked at her arms, turning her hands over to look at the palms only to find unmarked skin everywhere she could see. “That's gonna be a little hard to explain.”
Gabrielle glanced around, realizing they were being watched by many curious people. “Okay, well, let's go talk about this inside somewhere before someone comes and asks us what we're doing.” She felt distinctly unsettled.
“Wonder if Herc came back too.” Xena spotted Dori's pony near the stables, and a short figure next to it, and she let out a silently held breath. “There she is.”
Ephiny was standing next to her and spotted them as they came up over the rise. “There you are.” She echoed. “What's going on? We heard the alarms.”
“Mama.” Dori turned and saw them. “Dere you are!” She rambled over to them as Gabrielle dropped to one knee and threw her arms around her mother.
Gabrielle felt Xena's hand on her shoulder as she came close to losing her composure. She wrapped her arms around her daughter and hugged her tightly. “Hey honey.”
“Mama, Wusty found a birdie and he chased it!”
Like nothing happened. Gabrielle reluctantly released her. “Did he?” She said.
“He sure did.” Ephiny came over. “A pelican.” She added. “Chased the damn thing all the way down the waterfront with all of us chasing after her. Pretty funny.” The Amazon grinned.
Dori started climbing up Xena's tall body. “Pretty birdie, Boo.” She got a handful of leathers, then giggled as Xena reached down and picked her up, cradling her against her chest. “Pretty! Big fevvers like mama likes.”
Xena hugged her. “We'll have to go see if we can find it again, huh?” She silently savored the sound of the fluting voice, and the wriggling energy.
“Yes!” Dori nodded vigorously. “You go ride wif us Boo? You said!”
“There was a.. fire.” Gabrielle got to her feet and faced Ephiny. “The jail burned down.”
“Yeah?” Ephiny's pale brows hiked up. “With our friends inside it?”
Gabrielle nodded. “We tried to help but...” She shook her head. “It all happened too fast.”
Which was the truth. They had gotten involved too fast, threw themselves into a fight too fast, and gotten caught for once. Sometimes that did happen to them. Usually it was for a good cause.
“Hey listen! No harm to a hair on your head for that pair of bitches!” Ephiny waved her hand back and forth. “Not worth it! I'm telling you, Gabrielle. I spent three days tied to an iron post because of them.”
“Yeah, I know..”
“No, you don't.” Ephiny stepped closer and put a hand on her shoulder. “I mean it, your majesty. They were not worth your sweat.” She said, in a serious tone. “I heard on that ship, you know? That one of those criminals – Xena threw herself off the ship in a storm and went and rescued him from those rocks. And they tried to kill her. It's nuts, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle steered her over to the well and they perched on it, watching Xena play with Dori. “We don't usually plan that stuff in advance.” She admitted. “And yeah, sometimes it bites us hard.”
Ephiny studied her in silence as the bard watched her partner and child. After a long moment, Gabrielle turned her head and looked back. “You're right.” The bard said. “We should be more careful.”
“Eph... t.. oh.” Pony came to a halt beside them. “Damn! There you guys are. Some people down by the docks thought you were in that fire!” She glanced at Xena, who was bouncing Dori lightly up and down in her arms. “They saw you go in the jail.”
“We did.” Xena confirmed. “Got out the back before it collapsed.” She remembered something else. “Some roughnecks were having a good time with them in there.”
“Ugh.” Pony winced. “Didn't like them but no one deserves that.”
“I think the fire got them.” Gabrielle said, quietly. “It was pretty bad in there. Started very suddenly.. almost like... “ She fell silent. “Well, maybe they had some oil in there or something.”
“Lucky you guys got out.” Pony summed up.
“Gen'rl.” Bennu trotted up the steps. “Got that pitch up t'the top yonder. Kids got a big fire started. Hope they dont' burn thesselves up.” He adjusted his sling with a bit of impatience.
Pitch? The warrior was briefly confused. Oh. Right. Cait. Ships. Bluff. “Thanks.” Xena said. “What's the word from the gates? Spartans still behaving?”
Bennu nodded. “Getting themselves sorted.” He said. “Ready to come through.”
“Okay.” The warrior said. “Get all the fighters together in that big square. I want to talk to them before we do this. The barriers ready?”
“Aye.” Bennu replied crisply. “We'll be waitin for ye, Genr'l.” He turned and headed off, towards the road heading to the entrance to the city. Xena was about to speak, when Iolaus' voice sounded suddenly from the steps of the hostel. She looked up, to see him descending the steps, visibly happy, with Hercules a pace behind him.
“Hey!” Iolaus waved. “Look who I found!” He pointed behind him.
“Ah.” Gabrielle muttered. “Guess he did come back.”
“Guess he got put someplace better than we did.” Xena growled.
“Xe.” The bard put on a welcoming smile and waved. “Long time no see.”
Hercules exchanged wry looks with them. “Sure has been.” He agreed. “Hello, longer for you folks.” He greeted Ephiny and Eponin.
“Hi there.” Ephiny amiably replied. 'It has been a while.”
Gabrielle leaned close to her partner. “We're not going to tell everyone what happened, are we?”
“You want to explain it?” Xena uttered back.
Gabrielle let out a little grunt of satisfaction. Since no time had passed, and everything had gone on like nothing had happened, better for everyone if they pretended it had. So as though she hadn't seen Hercules in years, she stepped over and gave him a hug.
She felt him sigh, and as they parted she met his eyes, seeing worry and frustration there. “Good to see you.”
He made a face, his back to the rest of the crowd so only she could see it. “Gonna introduce me to your new family member?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle turned. “This is Rusty the pony.” She scratched the animal on the forehead. “Isn't he cute?”
Hercules cleared his throat, but chuckled.
“And this is our daughter, Doriana.” Gabrielle completed the introductions, turning and tweaking Dori's booted foot. “Dori, say hello to our friend Hercules.”
“Hi.” Dori wiggled her fingers at him, safe in her perch in Xena's arms.
“Hello there.” The demigod walked over and waved back. “It's nice to meet you, Dori.” He extended one hand and watched as it was grabbed and tugged. “You're a lucky little girl, aren't you?” He glanced at Xena, who was watching with an expression of indulgence. “She's gorgeous.”
“We think so.” Xena bounced her daughter up and down a little. “And she got to ride her new pony today, didncha Dor?”
“Yes!” Dori grinned widely. “Wusty goes so fast!”
“Why don't we go inside.” Gabrielle suggested, pointing at the inn. “We can bring Hercules up to speed and check in with everyone before all the stuff starts.”
“Mama, I'm hungry!” Dori announced. “K'n we get some fishes?” “And we can get Dori some lunch.” Gabrielle concluded.
They put Rusty in the barn and trooped up the steps into the inn's main room, where a lifetime ago Xena remembered having breakfast. She set Dori down on one of the benches and sat down next to her , resting her arms on the table as her little gang sorted itself out.
Hercules came over to share her bench. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Xena watched Gabrielle go over to rummage around at the table they'd set all the found food onto. “So what actually happened? This war stopping?”
Hercules sighed. “You tipped the balance.” He said. “They were trying their best to make this the showdown. Athena was all pissed off you broke up her Amazon scam.”
“Screw her.” Xena said bluntly. “Pair of stupid whore bitches.”
Hercules eyed her.
“I've had it up to here.” Xena put her hand up to the level of her beautifully shaped eyebrows.
“Anyway.” The demigod cleared his throat. “When you showed up and cut the deal with the Spartans, everything went nuts up there. They convinced Zeus you were interfering with their contest and then Ares and Aphrodite got into the mix saying you couldn't care less about them and the next thing I knew Zeus decided to call you up there.”
“Boo, look!” Dori displayed a piece of pear. “Mama got dis. You want some?”
“You go ahead, munchkin.” Xena ruffled her hair. “I'll get mine later.”
'Then after you met with him.” Hercules accepted a mug of cider from a tray Gabrielle held out. “Thanks.”
“Here.” Gabrielle handed Xena a pocket sandwich and gave one to Dori. She sat down next to Xena and took a bite of her own, chewing it with stolid enjoyment. “You know what? This tastes a heck of a lot better than that stuff did up there.”
Iolaus came over and put a tray of bread and cheese down, nudging Hercules and pointing to it. “So. How'd it go?”
Xena and Hercules exchanged glances, and he shrugged a little. “Didn't get much headway.” He answered. “But with all the stuff happening here, I didn't have to. Thanks to our friends.” He lifted his cider mug in Xena and Gabrielle's direction.
“Well, I gotta say – Xena said for me to stick with her and I'd end up seeing you sooner rather than later and boy, she was right.” Iolaus gave Xena a smile and a toast of his own. “Glad I'm not in Athens.” He gave his friend a dour look. “Much less in a dress.”
Hercules had the grace to blush.
Gabrielle leaned on the table and peered at him. “What?” She turned and looked at Xena.
“I was going to let him borrow one of mine.” The warrior responded. “Been a while since I was asked for advice on how to be a lady.”
Hercules covered his eyes. Gabrielle looked from Iolaus to Xena, then she sat back and folded her arms over her chest, visibly struggling to stifle a laugh.
“Hey, they were looking for a woman to lead the army.” Hercules said. “I figured at least it might distract them.”
“Me in a dress, definitely would have distracted someone.” Iolaus agreed. “Y'know, now that I think about it, maybe that would have worked since they'd all have been too busy laughing to fight.”
“Well.” Hercules slowly traced the handle on his mug with one finger. “I think once this part of the Spartan army sets sail, maybe this war will just peter out.” He glanced at Xena. “Their idea was to land in Thrace, pick you up as a leader, and sweep through to Athens, pinning them in the city.”
“But we blew their plan.” Gabrielle said.
“Exactly.” The demigod nodded. “So now all we have to do is let them through, and go home.”
Ephiny leaned back on the bench next to theirs, letting her hands drop to her knees in relief. “So it's going to work.”
Everyone was focused on Hercules, and he suddenly seemed to realize that. He straightened and lifted his mug. “There's no reason for it not to, now.”
Now that it didn't matter to Mount Olympus. Gabrielle nevertheless touched her mug to his and then to Xena's. Now that the two goddesses who were pushing and prodding their subjects were no longer around.
Now that they weren't the after dinner entertainment.
Gabrielle took a swallow of her cider, savoring the pungent taste. Maybe they'd won this time.
Gabrielle managed to get away for a few minutes, ducking into the barn and crossing over to the small area they’d set aside as their own.
Xena had gone to talk to the fighters. Dori was already in the barn busy with her new friend, and she looked up as her mother entered. “Mama, look!” She held up the currycomb the bard knew was from her partner’s kit, and then continued to brush out Rusty’s coat with it. “Boo showed me.”
“She showed me too, honey. A long time ago.” Gabrielle went over to see how her daughter was getting on with the job. “He looks so pretty.”
“Good!” Dori patted Rusty’s neck.
Gabrielle watched her a moment more and then she turned and went over to the joined pallets they’d left only that morning yet a lifetime ago for her. She sat down on the edge of them and exhaled, waiting for her whirling thoughts to settle.
There was a lot to think about, and she hadn’t had much time to do any of that. Things were moving too fast.
She looked down at her hands, her eyes moving over the surface of her skin. Even the smallest of her scars had vanished and thinking about that made her feel a little weird.
Getting them hadn’t been pleasant. Each one represented some dangerous moment in her life, from the trivial to the near mortal and she’d come to look on them as a visible mark of a lesson learned or a sacrifice made.
To have them gone felt strange. She looked at her shoulder, obscurely glad to find her tattoo still in place, though that had been as much of a painful addition as some of the others.
“Well.” Gabrielle touched the skin on her thigh, which once had held the ragged scar of a boar’s tusk and now was smooth. “Guess it could be worse.” She muttered. “At least it’ll make cold mornings better for Xena.”
“Mama?” Dori poked her head around the half wall. ‘Whatcha doing?”
“Just talking to myself, honey.” The bard leaned back, extending her legs and crossing them at the ankles. “You know mana does that sometimes.”
“Just talking to our friends.” Gabrielle said. “She’ll be right back.”
“Okay.” Dori disappeared back into the stall.
She lay there for a moment just breathing. Sucking in air that smelled of animals and manure, rich and pungent and real. She could smell her own skin, and the salt from the sea, and, nearby the leather saddles that were slung over the divider.
She could feel the discomfort of a piece of straw poking her in the back of her thigh and the sense of being a little tired and it all felt wonderful.
Mount Olympus had been terrifying. Not only because of the sense of sterile remoteness, but because she knew she didn’t belong there and there was always that chance she would look up and find herself in a different place, without Xena.
Just like they’d been taken, and put back. Just like that. Taken from here, and away from her daughter on a whim.
Just like they tried to separate her and Xena, not honestly not through battle but through trickery.
She’d learned a lot about the gods, and Olympus and Elysia.
“Mama, we go home now?” Dori came pattering around the divider and jumped up on the pallet next to her, sitting down with a thump. “Wanna ride Wusty real fast.”
“We’re going home soon, sweetie.” Gabrielle patted her on the back. “Maybe tomorrow, we’ll go down to the ocean. You remember that? You and Boo swam all over the place.”
“Then we’ll go home with our friends.” Gabrielle was looking forward to the trip. “And once we take our friends home, maybe you and I and Boo are going to go on a really long trip. What do you think of that? “
“C’n we take Wusty?
Gabrielle wished it was already over. She wanted to be gone from Thema.
“Mama I love Boo. “ Dori commented.
“Me too, honey.” Her mother replied. “And she loves us. Did you know she told the King of the Gods she’d rather be with us than stay with him on Mount Olympus?”
“Go Boo.” Finally, Gabrielle smiled. “Your Boo rocks my world, you know that, Dori?”
“Boo Boo Boo.” Dori flopped back on the pallet on her back, and wiggled her feet in the air.
A prickle along her skin made her look up sharply, just as a pink flare happened and then Aphrodite popped into view. “Ah.”
“Hey!” The goddess was in a very good mood. “Why’d you take off so soon? You didn’t get to party with us!” She bounced around in the air, and wiggled her fingers at Dori. “Hey cutie!”
Gabrielle regarded her. “Got tired of being a pawn and wanted to get back to my kid.” She answered honestly. “That sucked.”
“Aw c’mon.. you guys did great!” The goddess of love stretched out on her side in thin air. “You aced it! You won the whole pineapple! “
The bard gave her a dour look.
Aphrodite rolled over and put her chin on her hands. “Pissed, huh?”
“When I get torn away from my child, and then have a bunch of bored gods try to separate me and Xe for eternity.. yeah, it gets me mad.” Gabrielle said. “Pissed enough to consider spending the rest of my bard career convincing people to find other gods to worship.”
“Hey.” Aphrodite frowned. “Don’t’ get all radical on me, okay? “
Gabrielle straightened up and rested her elbows on her knees. “So what was your angle on this? Why were you banished?”
“Oh.” The goddess made a flicking motion with the fingers of one hand. “It was a mess.” She admitted. “But you guys were great. You really came through, you know? I was like sooooo tired of hearing those two bitching!”
“How?” The bard asked, in a quiet voice. “How did we come through? I thought they were betting about who could lead a battle better or something like that. We had nothing to do with it.”
“Yeaeeeaahh… that’s how it started.” Aphrodite said. “But then when you and your babalicious one skewed that all up, we all got in a huuuugge fight.” She said. “We’re talking like bolts flying everywhere, statue arms flying off, the three headed dog piddling on the altar… crazy stuff.”
Intrigued despite herself, Gabrielle cocked her head. “Fight about what?”
“About you, baby.” The goddess said. “You and your squeeze. I finally got like totally ticked off and told everybody they were all off base and you two put loooooooveee above everything else.”
Gabrielle put her arm around Dori. “We didn’t always.” She said, very quietly.
“Yeah but you’re so over that.”
A faint smile appeared. “True.”
“So then everyone got all pissed with me and it wasn’t lookin good for the Goddess of Love when if you can believe it… my bro stepped up and said, yo.. she’s right.” Aphrodite buffed her fingernails on her diaphanous silk. “Like you could have tripped over the tongues hanging out.”
Gabrielle could well imagine it. “Wow.”
“Yeah, so the bet became, will she or won’t she and baby your baby came through like whoa.”
“She did.” The bard smiled a little more. “She blew me away.”
“Oh please.” Aphrodite rolled her eyes. “Tell me you didn’t see that coming.” She rearranged herself on her floating cloud of nothing. “Daddy was sooooo ticked off. He wanted to see those two fight it out. But he did like your snookie a lot.”
“Mine.” Gabrielle stated.
The goddess chuckled. “So anyway, we’re sorry you had to blast off like that. Bro wanted to gloat.”
“I can imagine.” The bard said, dryly. “We didn’t have a choice, though. We sort of just ended up back here and then almost died again. Wasn’t a lot of fun.”
“C’mon, didncha like our pad?” Aphrodite pouted.
“It was beautiful.” Gabrielle said. “I just couldn’t stop thinking about all the friends I left behind here, and what was going to happen to my little girl.” She gave Dori a hug. “And I didn’t belong there.”
The goddess gave her a sober look. “Xena sorta does.”
“I know. But she decided not to stay.” Gabrielle took a breath, and released it. “So… I’m kind of in a space where I need to find something I believe in that’ll let us be together if that happens again.”
‘’Hm.” Aphrodite assumed a very unusually serious expression. “You mean that.”
Gabrielle nodded slowly. “I do.” She paused and studied her visitor. “Aphrodite, have you ever been in love?”
Aphrodite blinked a few times, then shook her head rapidly. “Chick, I am the goddess of love. Remember?”
“I know. But have you ever been in love yourself?” Gabrielle asked. “Really in love, like I am with Xe?”
The goddess inhaled to answer, then she paused. “Why do you want to know? I mean like… of course I know what love is.”
The answer was an answer in itself. “Aphrodite.” The bard stood , keeping her hand on Dori’s shoulder. “Love is a great gift.”
“I know.” The goddess smirked. “You’re welcome.”
Gabrielle sighed. “It’s been the greatest gift of my life.” She said. “But it’s also been the cause of my greatest pain.”
Aphrodite looked at her a little uncertainly. “We talking whips and chains here?”
“Mama.” Dori was apparently bored with all this adult talk. “I’m going to go play with Wusty.” She trotted out and around the divider, and a soft pony nicker was heard.
“No whips or chains.” Gabrielle walked over to where the goddess was floating. “It’s like lighting your soul on fire, Aphrodite. It’s intense. It’s all consuming. It makes you so happy.” She looked steadily at the floating woman. “And when you lose it, part of you dies inside, and the pain of that hurts so much all you want to do is scream.”
Aphrodite’s face wrinkled up. “Ew.”
The bard studied her, and nodded. “So I have to believe you .. and your family have never known what that feels like.” She concluded. “Because if you did, maybe you would be a little less frivolous with your mortal playthings.”
The goddess stared at her. “You have like no idea what you’re talking about.”
Gabrielle sighed. “No, you have no idea what I’m talking about.” She said. “Aphrodite, can’t you all please just leave us alone?” She asked. “I’m tired of hurting.”
Aphrodite scowled at her. “Y’know we don’t mess you up on purpose.”
Gabrielle looked steadily at her.
“Okay, well, I don’t.” The goddess amended. “But hey, lighten up, babe.” She reached over and patted Gabrielle on the cheek. “Maybe now that I’ve got a couple of mortal sibs, that’ll take over the talk around the dinner table, hmm?” She wiggled her fingers. “Gotta go. Bye!” She kapofed out, leaving behind the scent of lavender in the air.
“Mama. Look who I found?” Dori called out. “Look!”
Gabrielle turned her head, to see Ephiny standing behind her daughter, with a half stunned and half embarrassed look on her face. How much had she seen?
How much did Gabrielle care? “Hey, Eph.” She returned her friend’s look. “C’mon over and sit down before any more of them show up.” She went over to her bags and hauled one up onto the pallet, rooting inside as Ephiny slowly came over.
“Boom boom… “ Dori left her new discovery and went to the hay net instead, tugging some of the substance free and heading back over to her pony with it. “Wusty, got some stickies for you.”
Ephiny sat down on the pallet, her eyes never leaving Gabrielle’s face. “That was… um.. “
“Aphrodite, yeah.” Gabrielle removed a neatly folded bundle from the bag and set it down. “How much did you get of that?”
The Amazon folded her hands on her knee. “How much did I hear or how much did I understand?” She countered. “I got the last part. That was a zinger. That whole part about being in love and all that.”
Gabrielle got out of her traveling clothes and put on a light but padded shirt on, brushing a bit of grass from the front of it. Then she paused, and sat down. “When that jail collapsed, something happened.”
“Uh huh.” Ephiny murmured encouragingly.
“Xe and I died.”
The Amazon regent blinked a few times.
“It’s all a part of this whole thing with the war.” The bard said. “It all got wound up in some bets between the gods and they brought us to Mount Olympus to talk about it.”
Ephiny looked around, then back at her. “You went to Mount Olympus?”
“Yeah.” The bard said. “So anyway, there was this..” She paused, as Ephiny reached out and took hold of her wrist.” “What?”
“What was it like?” Ephiny asked, curiously. “You got to see the palace of the gods? Zeus? All that?”
“What was it like?”
What had it been like? Gabrielle got up and went over to the bundle, unwrapping it. “It was big. A lot of pretty grass, and marble, and all that. Zeus’s palace is on the top of a hill, and it’s got places for all the other gods to sit in it.” She said. “We didn’t really stay around that long to be honest.”
Ephiny hiked one knee up and rested her elbow on it. “I guess not, since we didn’t realize you.. um.. were gone.”
“No, Zeus put us back right where we left from.” Gabrielle said. “Only this time we got out. “
Gabrielle removed her skirt and pulled on a pair of leggings. “I got to see an old friend from Potadeia. “ She said. “And Xe got to talk to her brother Lyceus.”
Ephiny covered her eyes. “That sounds so weird.”
Gabrielle opened the bundle and shook it out, gazing at the coat of leather scale armor a moment before she got it over her head and settled it against her body. “Yeah I know. It’s hard to talk about this stuff because everyone looks at me like I’ve got two heads.” She muttered.
Ephiny put her hand down and watched her friend. “So what did Aphrodite mean when she was talking about mortal siblings? She mean you and Xena?”
Gabrielle looked up from buckling the belt on her armor. Her face scrunched into a half horrified, half amused expression. “Oh heck no.” She shook her head. “She meant Artemis and Athena.”
The Amazon blinked again. “They’re… mortal?”
“I think so.” The bard tugged the armor straight and reached up to free her short cropped hair from the back of it. “They lost the bet I guess. Anyway, after that they just sent me and Xena back and here we are.”
“Here you are.” Ephiny mused.
Gabrielle sat down to tie the laces on her boots, tucking the leggings inside them. “I figured I’d end up being in the front lines with Xena when that army comes through. If they start shooting at us I though I’d give Xe a break and not make her work so hard.”
“They’re really mortal?”
The bard looked at her. “I think so. “ She said. “So maybe now that they are, Sparta and Athens will forget about the war. They were the ones prodding them into it.”
Ephiny gazed at her friend. Then she put her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders and patted her knee. “Your majesty? Do me a favor?”
“Uh sure.” Gabrielle half turned to look her in the eye. “Name it.”
Ephiny put her finger over Gabrielle’s lips. “Don’t tell me anymore.” She felt the surface under her touch twitch and saw the wry expression in the bard’s eyes. “At least not until I can have a nice, big, cold mug of ale while you tell me the rest, mkay?”
Far off, a horn sounded.
Xena rambled down the steps from the hilltop along the back side of the inn, past the spot she and Gabrielle had been ambushed at. The afternoon sun slanted halfway down the far walls and in intermittently splashed over the warrior’s skin as she made her way down.
She was glad of the few minutes alone before all the craziness started again. It felt good to have the cool air brushing against her, and she barely felt the jar as she moved over the stone steps at a pretty good clip.
It felt good to be alive. Xena smiled at the many layered meaning to the thought. Mount Olympus had been interesting but she’d been unable to really enjoy the experience between her worry over Gabrielle and her anxiety over what would happen back here in the city once their deaths had been discovered.
All in all, she felt she’d done pretty well in the business. She’d learned a little about herself, and a bit about Gabrielle and they’d gotten back in fair shape despite everything.
There were talks ahead, between her and the bard. Xena understood that while she’d always had a sense of the truth behind who she was, Gabrielle maybe hadn’t been so clear and she could sense the bard was disturbed.
Maybe about her. Maybe about her choices. Xena didn’t have it in her to be bothered about either thing since one she couldn’t change and the other she wouldn’t. So what if Zeus had said she couldn’t come back to Olympus?
Boring place. Not her style.
So what if he said she couldn’t enter Hades realm? Let’s see him stop her, if it came down to Gabrielle walking through some door they thought she couldn’t.
So what if Elysia really didn’t seem to be where they’d end up? Who’d want to? Xena almost laughed, feeling an unusual sense of freedom.
She reached the bottom of the steps and dropped off the last one, uncoiling up into a lazy somersault, turning and twisting through the sunbeams before she landed on the road and reviewed the preparations that had been made.
The main road had been lined with wagons, blocking access to the side streets and funneling all traffic down through the portal that led to the waterfront. Behind the wagons were merchants and workers, busy stacking heavy crates between the wheels and shafts, leaving space between them in the road for four men to walk abreast.
Xena climbed up the sloping surface, enjoying the walk and the surge of energy she suspected was an aftereffect of their experience. She felt almost bouncy, and she started a cheerful whistle as she passed the blockades and spotted the bundles of arrows and stacks of spears on either side.
The warrior didn’t even feel bad when she recognized Denius’s voice. She paused and waited for him to catch up to her, before she started walking again. “Yes?”
“I owe you an apology.” The patrician glanced to either side. “It seems your plan – it makes sense now that I have had a chance to cool my thoughts and review it.”
“Thanks.” Xena replied.
“I had a chance also to go look at the Spartan army.” Denius said. “It is formidable.”
“Spartans are good soldiers.” Xena said. “They fight and die hard. But their goal isn’t to fight and die hard here in the back end of Thrace, since their initial mission failed and they need to move on.”
Denius nodded. “They thought to take Thrace.”
“Actually they were after me.” Xena replied mildly. “They’d been told by their oracles that the only way they could succeed was with a great woman warrior leading them, and I was the first one they thought of.”
“Are there others?”
“Women war leaders? Sure.” The warrior said. “I’ve known some of the good ones.” She added. “But lately I’m the best known, and unfortunately, they know where I live.”
Denius nodded. “That’s true.”
They arrived at the central square before the gates, and found it full of fighters. Xena’s brows twitched, and she surveyed the crowd – surprised to see many new faces in half and full armor, along with her conscripts and the force Gabrielle had brought with her.
To one side, she spotted Jessan and his cohorts, holding a thick row of logs in place as two of Jens’s men wedged very big merchant wagons on either end. Scattered here and there she saw a few of the Amazons Pony had found, working hard at moving things.
The conscripts were there, in their newly minted armor and Xena could sense the excitement rising as they spotted her. That perked her ego’s interest and she went to the pedestal in the center of the square and bounced up onto it, standing brace legged with her hands on her hips.
Denius came to a halt nearby, and Jens joined him, along with Jessan.
After a moment, everyone focused on her, and fell silent.
“All right.” Xena said. “Good job, everyone. Path to the waterfront looks great.” She looked around. “We open the gates just at sundown. I’ll ride with their commander down to the waterfront.”
The soldiers remained silent, listening.
“Once the army is on the docks, bring all the wagons down to the port gateway and block it. “ Xena said. “Then we’ll gather on the heights overlooking the docks until they load onto the ships and leave.”
Jens stepped forward. “What if they turn on us, Xena?”
Xena half turned to face him. “Then we fight.” She swiveled and let her eyes track over the group around her. “We fight, and kill as many of them as we can.”
“Guarantee the guy leading them’ll be the first one to die.” Xena added, with a sexy smile. “Because he’s the one who gave his word they wouldn’t. “
She could feel that stir of excitement around her, and she only barely kept from drawing her sword and doing a few tricks for what she sensed was an appreciative audience.
She and Gabrielle had that, at least, in common. “So split up and get behind the wagons. Be ready.” She hopped lightly off the pedestal and headed for the gates, intent on taking a peek out to see how the Spartans were doing.
Denius and Jens hurried after her, catching up as she circled the wagon nearest the gate and paused to study the best place to look out from. Then she shrugged and went over to the gate itself, taking a long step before she reached it and launching up into the air, catching one of the crossbeams.
She pulled herself up and got her feet on the beam, then jumped for the top of the gate, grabbing the spikes that lined it and holding herself up to look between them.
Her fists gripped the iron, and she relaxed the rest of her body, crossing her ankles as she peered out and reviewed the Spartan formations. They had lined the siege engines at the rear, the structures stripped of anything useful – a good sign.
Meant they were leaving them behind. Xena nodded to herself. She spotted the Spartan commander on his horse to one side of the legions, leaning on his saddlebow as he talked to four other men in captains trappings.
The rest of the soldiers were drawn up in marching order, standing or kneeling in place with their gear bags strapped to their back. A half dozen wagons were in the rear, with men around them making repairs. The wagons were covered, and their contents were tied in place with thick brown ropes.
So far, she saw nothing that made her think the Spartans were going to do anything but what they said they would.
However. Xena’s nose twitched. She had a gut feeling they would. They didn’t like to lose any more than she did, and the way she’d set up their pass through the city would feel like a loss to them.
Xena pulled her boots up against the gate and released the spikes, kicking backwards and launching herself up and into a pair of backflips that ended with a twist bringing her to her feet facing away from the entrance as she landed.
“What do you think, Xena?” Denius asked, approaching her warily as though expecting her to bounce off again somewhere without warning.
“They look like they’re packed up just ready to move.” Jens said. “Leaving the big stuff behind.”
Xena nodded, dusting her hands off. “Yeah.” She agreed. “Make sure there are plenty of torches lined along the way down.” She pointed. “I don’t want them to know how many soldiers we actually have.”
Jens nodded. “A lot of the townsmen joined up.” He commented. “Didn’t know we’d get so many.”
“True.” Denius agreed.
Xena had noticed that herself. She studied a few of the men in armor around her, and liked what she saw. The gear was worn, but had been taken care of, and the bodies inside it looked like they knew what to do with the swords and maces strapped to them.
Curious, she walked over and intercepted one of them. “Hey.”
The man didn’t brace to attention, but when his eyes met hers he straightened up. “Aye?”
“You’re from the city.”
The man nodded. “I own a tavern, mid town.” He said. “Usta be a mercenary though. Retired here, years back.”
Xena studied him. “Lot more like you here?” She asked, in a casual tone.
He lifted one shoulder in a half shrug. “Some.” He said. “Not a bad place to end up in. See things, market’s good.”
This wasn’t a man she knew. Xena acknowledged she’ d known a lot of hack fighters in her time, but one of her many skills was remembering faces even after all these years and she didn’t remember this one. In his reaction to her, she figured he didn’t know her aside from her name either.
“Figured I’d put the old stuff on.” He glanced down at his armor, then back up at her, with a rakish grin. “S’prised it still fit. But feels good, you know? You don’t forget.”
He flexed his hand and Xena knew exactly what the sensation he was feeling was. “You don’t forget.” She agreed, giving him a clap on the shoulder. “Thanks for giving us a hand.”
The man grinned. “Same t’you.” He lifted his hand and touched his temple, then continued on with the hank of rope he’d been carrying.
Xena watched him go, and then she turned and started strolling down the row of wagons, studying the men behind them.
“Seems like some good men here.” Jens commented, as he fell in at her heels. “My fellows were glad to see them. They did what they could with the conscripts but truly, Xena, it wasn’t much.”
“No, it wouldn’t be.” Xena mused. “Those kids didn’t want to be here. They just had the bad luck to miss the last set of boats.”
They passed a couple of the Amazons and two of them paused, and stepped out into the roadway. “Excuse me.” The one nearest to Xena said. “Can we talk to you for a minute?”
A bit startled at finding Amazons with manners, Xena felt her eyes widen as she slowed to a halt. “Sure.”
“Just asking. Is it true our queen and her consort died in that jail fire?” The woman asked. “That’s what they told us.”
Ah. “It’s true.” Xena said.
“Do you know why they were in there?” The second woman asked. “They wouldn’t let us near to ask them.”
“Yes.” The warrior said. “They tried to kill me, and my partner.” She answered. “They set part of the inn at the top of the hill on fire.”
Surprisingly the two Amazons didn’t seem surprised to hear it. The closer one, a tall, spare woman with carrot red hair shook her head. “Must have really lost their minds.” She said. “We left a week after they did – tried to catch up with them and convince them to turn back but it was too late.”
“Really.” Xena folded her arms. “Some friends of mine were trying to do the same thing.”
The other woman, a shorter, heavier Amazon with curly dark hair nodded. “Queen Regent Ephiny and her partner. We heard about it.” She said. “It was like they’d gone a little crazy, you know? The emissary from Athens arrived, and then the next thing we knew we were going to war. Crazy.”
“They made a good offer.” Xena said.
“It wasn’t that.” The taller woman eased closer. “I mean, yea, the idea of land and all that was attractive, but really what they said was that if our queen went to war with them and got the other tribes to go too, they’d name her the head of all the Amazon tribes in this part of Greece.”
Xena’s brows contracted. “What?”
The smaller woman nodded. “Yeah, that was the deal. That’s why they were so torked off about meeting up with Regent Ephiny. They thought she was horning in on the arrangement.” She said. “So they figured they’d stick with them, and then get rid of them when they could.”
Xena actually blinked at her in disbelief.
“We thought you should know that.” The taller woman said. “That’s probably why they tried to hurt you. They were so hung up on that, even after everything. We heard them talking last night. They wanted to get the town to turn on the Spartans and they knew there’s no way they would if you were around.”
“And get themselves killed?” Xena managed to get out. “What did they think that was going to accomplish?”
“Make them heros.” The smaller one said, succinctly. “Get them in with Athens, and all that.” She indicated Jens, who was waiting quietly behind Xena. “That guys knows. If they coulda pulled it off, it would have gotten them in big.”
Xena turned and looked at Jens. “Were you planning something like that?” She asked, in a flat voice.
Jens met her eyes. “There was talk of it last night at the cookfire.” He answered, straightforwardly. “And there is merit in the idea, but no, Xena. I had no plans of such, and would not have let my men join in any such scheme against your wishes.”
Did she believe him? Xena studied the Athenian soldier intently, watching his body language and the pulse point she could see clearly at his throat. “That’s good.” She said, after a long pause. “Because trust me. I’ll join the Spartans if that happens and a lot people here’ll die the hard way.”
Jens took a breath. “Would you truly, Xena?”
“Sure.” The warrior said, with a grin. “I don’t owe Athens anything.” She glanced around. “I’m doing this because these people here don’t deserve to be slaughtered as part of anyone’s power play.” She told him. “And the people who came here with Gabrielle are here for us, not for Athens or Sparta They’ll fight whoever I do.”
Jens nodded. “Understood.” He said. “But Xena, I will not lie to you and say we don’t want there to be battle here, preferably under your direction. It goes against everything I am to let those men walk through here and escape on ships towards my capital.”
Xena nodded. “I know.” She said. “But you’ll have to trust me when I tell you we all win if we hold our swords here.”
The Athenian captain grunted. “I will have to take your word for it.” He said. “Let’s just hope the Spartans do as well.”
Xena turned back to the Amazons. “Thanks for the information.” She said. “I really appreciate it.”
The two grinned at her. “Hey, we know whose favor matters. Better than they did.” The taller one winked at Xena, then they went back to their task.
Ah heh. Xena reached up and pinched the bridge of her nose, then she gestured for Jens to keep walking along the ranks. “Gonna be an interesting night.”
“Mama, c’n we take Wusty?” Dori patted the nose of her new friend.
Gabrielle glanced up from adjusting her armor. “Let’s leave him here to rest while we take a walk down by the water, okay? Maybe you’ll find something nice to bring back for him.”
Dori reluctantly left the stall and joined Gabrielle at the door to the barn, blinking a little as they exited into the late afternoon sun. They waved at the Amazons nearby, then started walking down the path to the waterfront.
Gabrielle wasn’t really sure why she wanted to. She hefted the staff she held firmly in one hand and kept walking, arriving down at the waterfront as the sun’s light just started changing fro a rich yellow to a golden tone.
There hadn’t been any sunsets in Olympus. So maybe that was why- she wanted to watch that change that marked time the Olympians didn’t care about. “Look Dori – Theres a pelican.”
She indulgently watched her child chase the bird down the dock, it’s frantic waddling making her grin. She took up a perch on the seawall, bracing one foot up on top of it and wrapping her arms around her knee.
“How will this day end?” Gabrielle mused. “Will this be one of those stories where I end it with a moral? Like, violence isn’t the answer, or is this one of the times I have to remember gory details.”
Off towards the harbor entrance, she could see the hulk of the ship that had brought Xena back, tumbled over onto it’s side and half sunk. If she tipped her head back, she could see the watchfire on the top of the cliff, dark smoke rising from it from some unknown source.
“Mama!” Dori came running back down the piers. “Look what I found?”
Gabrielle eyed her hand warily. “What did you find? Something nice?”
Dori held up her treasure. “It was over dere.”
The bard took the item and examined it. It was a button, a wooden roughly round shape hand carved with the image of a flower in the center. “Oh my goodness, that’s so pretty, Dor.” She said. “I wonder where it came from?”
“Mama make a story?” Dori asked invitingly.
“You want me to make a story about how this got here? “ Her mother asked. “Or who made it?”
“Yes.” Dori nodded. “Mama knows. Mama make a good story.”
Gabrielle turned the button around in her fingers, grimacing at a sudden tightening in her chest as she thought about the casual request and remembered what it felt like to think she’d never be able to do this again.
Who would Dori have asked for stories? She sighed silently.
“Sorry honey.” Gabrielle managed a smile. “Mama’s just had a long day.” She studied the button. “Do you know what kind of flower this is? This is the kind of flower grandma has in her garden, isn’t it?”
Dori peered at the button. “Gramma has that?”
“Grandma does. She uses it to make tea sometimes. It tastes like pepper.” Gabrielle could almost taste the spicy, fragrant beverage, whose pungent steam eased even the worst head congestion. “Okay, I’ll tell you a story about how a pelican caught a cold, and his best friend the sailor made him feel better. That okay?”
“Go mama.” Dori seated herself on the wooden planks, looking up at her with an expectant grin.
Gabrielle smiled back at her, grateful beyond words that she was here, seated on the hard rock wall in the light of a dying day that could end up in battle and able to tell her daughter a simple child’s tale. “Once upon a time there was a pelican named Helican.”
A soft footstep made Gabrielle paused, as she recognized a familiar presence. She looked up to see Xena settling herself against the wall nearby, her pale blue eyes tinted hazel in the sunlight. “Hey there.”
“Boo!” Dori scrambled up and ran over to the warrior, holding her hands up. “Dup!”
Xena picked her up and cradled her in her arms, then she moved up to where Gabrielle was seated. “Hey.” She eyed her partner’s armored body. “What’s that all about?”
“Eh. Seemed like what I should wear for tonight.” Gabrielle patted her chest. “Give me a little more protection than two bits of cloth and a complete lack of sense.”
Xena chuckled. “You look good in it.” She commented. “I’m looking forward to leading the Spartans down here with you next to me.”
“Mama, story!” Dori gave both her parents a fierce scowl. “No gush!”
“Aw, honey. I’m sorry.” Gabrielle reached over and tousled her hair. “I just wanted to say hi to your Boo. I missed her.”
“For all of a half candlemark?” One of Xena’s eyebrows hiked.
“Every damn moment.” Gabrielle studied her partner’s profile. “Aphrodite showed up and freaked Ephiny out.”
“I think I pissed her off.” The bard admitted.
“Ah.” Xena settled Dori onto the wall, then hopped up next to her. She rested her hands on the wall and leaned her weight on them. “She say what happened to the other two?”
“Mama!” Dori pouted.
“Just a minute, Doriana.” Gabrielle let her voice drop a little, and take on a rare hint of sternness. “You’ll get your story just as soon as I’m done talking to Xena.”
Dori pouted harder, then she turned and snuggled against Xena’s leather covered body, curling up on the top of the wall and putting her head down on the warrior’s leg.
Gabrielle was quiet for a moment, then she sighed. “What would have happened to her, Xe?” She asked, softly. “She needs us so much.”
Xena ran her fingers through Dori’s dark, disheveled hair and merely nodded.
“Aphrodite said Artemis and Athena lost the bet in the end so Zeus made them mortal.” Gabrielle went on, after a pause. “I guess Aphrodite had something to do with it too. She and Ares.”
“Yeah. I wasn’t really listening to be honest. I just kept thinking of how pissed off I was about being dragged into their stuff again.”
Xena watched her partner’s face, seeing the shadows masking the usually sunny good nature there. “Hey Mama.” She patted the bard’s foot. “Let’s hear the pelican story.”
Gabrielle met her eyes for a long moment, and then she smiled, lifting one hand and acknowledging the gentle nudge. “Xe, I haven’t gotten to the point where I can just let things go like you do. I need to work through this.”
Xena closed her hand over Gabrielle’s knee. ‘Tomorrow.” She said. “Don’t think about it tonight, We’ve got a lot on our plate right now and you don’t want to be distracted.”
No, that was true. Gabrielle admitted to herself. She certainly didn’t want to be distracted when she was watching Xena’s back. Her eyes drifted over her soulmate’s sun profiled body. Or any other part of her, for that matter.
“Okay.” Gabrielle tweaked one of Dori’s toes through the soft leather of her boot. “Once upon a time there was a pelican named Helican.”
Dori sat up to listen, wriggling around to sit between Xena’s knees as the warrior circled her with both arms. “Good!”
“Helican was a very stubborn pelican, and even though his mama told him not to fly out in the rain he decided he would fly out anyway, and chase some fishes.”
“Remember that when mama tells you not to swim in the rain puddles back home.” Xena whispered to her, getting a sudden grin from her partner on hearing it.
“Yeah, Boo, remember that.” The bard shook a finger at her. “Anyway, one day Helican went out to chase some fishes, and it started to rain a very very cold rain. But Helican chased the fishes anyway, and just as he caught the fishes, he started to sneeze!”
The sun’s golden warmth settled over them, as the salt air carried Gabrielle’s words to the seagulls drifting overhead
Gabrielle settled herself onto Shadow’s back, glad she had her leggings on as the cooler wind of the oncoming twilight blew against her body. She idly played with one of the reins, waiting for Xena to join her.
Her partner was standing nearby, one hand curled around Io’s bridle, and the other resting on her hip as she talked to Jens and Jessan. She’d put a cloak on, and the sleek fabric curled itself around her in the wind, outlining her powerful legs as it fluttered against her in the breeze.
She’d convinced Dori to stay in the barn, guarding her new pony, with Bennu and one of his men guarding the barn. Two birds had been knocked off the branch with that stone, as it both protected her daughter and kept the injured captain out of the battle if it happened.
Bennu hadn’t been fooled. But he also hadn’t been able to say no to something he knew was so important to them.
Ephiny and Eponin were in full leathers and weapons, getting ready to join them on the horses that Cait and Paladia had ridden to the city. Those two Amazons were up on the bluff, getting ready to put a plan of Xena’s into action and glad enough to be doing so.
Ephiny wandered over and patted Shadow. “Ready?” She asked the horse’s rider.
“As I ever am for these things.” Gabrielle leaned on her saddlebow.
“Nice sword.” Ephiny eyed her queen’s back.
The bard glanced at it over her shoulder. “Yeah, Xe thought since I had the armor on, I should add that just in case.”
“Just in case?”
“Just in case she needs a spare.” The bard clarified. “It’s light enough not to bother me having it back there too much.” It felt a bit strange, having that weight there though, and she found herself adjusting her shoulders a little realized the motion was very much like the one Xena did all the time.
“You look good as a weapons rack.” The regent said. “Want a couple of my daggers for her?”
Gabrielle chuckled. “She’s got enough of her own, thanks.”
“Let’s go.” Xena said, raising a hand to her two captains and turning to mount Io. The horse tossed his head as his rider vaulted into his saddle, his ears briefly flicking back and forward as Xena seated herself and swirled her cloak into place around her.
“Eph.” Gabrielle put her hand on her friend’s arm. “You can stay here with Bennu if you want. No one’s asking you to romp around with us on this one.”
Ephiny smiled up at her. “I appreciate that, my friend.” She patted Gabrielle’s thigh. “But it’ll be twice as stressful for me to stay here, then go. Pony’s got my back.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle completely understood. “Please be careful.”
“You too.” Ephiny gave her a wink and turned, heading over to where Pony was standing with the two horses.
Gabrielle smiled, and then she turned as Xena and Io arrived at her side, all shifting motion and energy. “We heading up?”
“We are.” Xena said. “Let’s hope this is just ends up being a bore.” She leaned over and gave Gabrielle a kiss on the lips. “But if it doesn’t, keep your head down.”
“Only if you keep yours the same.” The bard reached out and snagged her partner’s cloak, dragging her back over and returning the kiss. “Where you go, damn it, I go.” She said, after they parted.
“You betcha.” Xena whistled, and lifted her hand, and the group moved out, riding along the road and making the turn to head up through the portal to the waterfront and up the carefully constructed road from the main city gates.
Gabrielle rode next to her partner, in the very front row. Behind them were the Athenian soldiers, and then the Amazons both theirs and the ones they’d picked up along with a silent, brooding Milena. Jessan’s group rode in single file down the ranks forming a very large furry barrier, with Jessan himself riding to Xena’s left, and one of his biggest soldiers to Gabrielle’s right.
Xena’s militia was bringing up the rear, their armor covered in the distinctive hawks head tabards and in truth, they were a pretty formidable looking little force.
Torches lined the path, and now that the light was fading they threw flickering shadows everywhere making it difficult to discern what was behind them.
Exactly what Xena had intended.
The conscripts were scattered along the route along with the volunteers from the city, manning the wagons and settling themselves into place. Behind them were merchants and city dwellers, each with a stick, or a stave, or a pitchfork in their hands.
There was an air of edgy energy to the crowd. Xena could almost smell the tension, the desire for battle flooding the city and her body twitched, wanting to respond to it. The thought fleetingly occurred to her that with the additional men at arms, her bluff wasn’t so much a bluff now.
Maybe she could take them, if she wanted to. Xena scanned her little force, and a tiny smile appeared. Or maybe she’d just stick to her word and end up the night in one piece, in a hot tub somewhere.
As they cleared the riverfront portal, Iolaus and Hercules joined them, neatly guiding their horses into place as Hercules fell in next to Xena as Jessan made room for him. The mare Iolaus had rescued seemed mostly recovered, her elegant head turning as she watched the crowd.
Hercules had picked up a tall bay horse with a calm disposition, who didn’t even turn a hair at the equine Io’s inquiring snort. “Pretty good plan, Xena.” Hercules commented. “Surprised the heck out of everyone up there, I’ll tell you that.”
“Sure beats a siege.” Xena replied. “They don’t know what we got, and we’ve actually got more than they imagine we do. I know they’re already beaten. They won’t live this down, especially when word gets to Athens they snuck in the back door.”
“They were being guided.” The demigod said, dryly. “Artemis figured if she could get you to accept the Spartan’s offer, she gets Thrace and a surprise attack. Not a bad plan either.”
“Unless you know me.”
Hercules chuckled faintly. “I should have just come and got you when I went to Olympus. Saved everyone some time”
‘Why were they trying to blast you?” Xena asked, turning her head. “What was that all about?”
Hercules sighed. “They don’t particularly like half god bastards up there.”
“Really.” The warrior drawled, her lips twitching a little.
“It reminds them how close they really are to being mortal.” Hercules continued. “Zeus is my father, and yet, I bleed like a stuck pig when an arrow hits me. I think it scares them.”
“So they work that out by blasting you?”
Hercules gazed at the square they were approaching, and the gates beyond them. “Proves I’m not one of them.” He said, with a brief smile. “I can’t blast back with anything but words.” He glanced over at her. “But you know, I keep trying. They’re the only family I’ve got now.”
Xena caught his eye, then she leaned forward a little and peered past him at the quietly riding Iolaus, then she looked back at him and lifted one eyebrow.
Hercules scratched the bridge of his nose. “Blood family.” He amended with another sigh. “And shows how much I’ve lost it when I need to be kicked in the rear by you about that.” He added in a barely audible mutter Xena heard clearly.
The warrior patted his leg. “Hey I learned the hard way.” She shifted a little in her saddle, as they came into the square. The sun was just dropping below the horizon and already shadows filled the space surrounded tightly by armed men.
Xena signaled them to stop. “Everybody ready?”
The roar that responded surprised her. Xena let the echoes die down, then she set her boots firmly into her stirrups and signaled the men at the gate. “Open er up!”
The big bars holding the gates closed began to creak back, pulled by the rope and pulley system on either side. Xena watched it briefly, then she turned her head to regard her partner. Gabrielle was also watching the gates, her fingers toying with the reins draped down Shadow’s neck.
Unfamiliar profile, with the scaled armor and the sword. Xena’s brow creased a little and she tried to decide whether she liked it or not. The bard’s staff was strapped to Shadow’s side, but with her garb even that looked out of place. “Hey.”
Gabrielle turned her head and looked over at her. “Hey.”
“No.” Her partner smiled, after a brief pause. “I was just thinking that I want to be on a beach, in the sun, with you.” She said. “Naked.”
Xena kept her eyes firmly on Gabrielle’s face, not daring to look around at the people listening. She’d been caught speechless, and she knew the bard knew that, from the tiny mischievous glint in her eyes.
Fortunately, the opening of the gates drew everyone’s attention forward. Xena gathered her reins and got ready to move, wishing it was already all over.
And thinking about the beach.