A Queen’s Tale

Part 28

The Spartan army was drawn up in marching array, their shields firmly in place, spears bristling over them.  The mounted warriors were lined up on the edge of the foot soldiers ranks, fully armored and apparently ready for battle.

Nice show. As a warrior, Xena could appreciate the well ordered formation and the proud stance of the men. Despite their mad dash across Thrace after her partner, and despite the compromised situation they were in, they held their heads up high and wore their colors with honor.

She respected that.

Xena tucked Io's reins in one hand and gave the stallion a signal with her knees, and he started forward, his head up and ears pricked as his nostrils flared to catch the scent of the enemy horses.

Xena muffled a smile, watching her horse.  Io wasn't the largest stallion in their group – he was a hand at least shorter than his father Eris whom Jessan was riding and he was younger than most of the others. But he had a brash attitude as though he thought he was the biggest baddest horse around– almost as though he knew his status was tied in with who he had on his back.

Very different than Argo.  Her mare was old enough and experienced enough to take charge on her own.

“Looks like they're ready.” Hercules commented. “Hope this goes smoothly. I'm pretty damned tired of this game.”

Xena eyed him thoughtfully. “Need a vacation?”

“I need something.” The demigod replied in a dour tone.

They passed through the gates and as they did, Xena's force spread out a little, breaking into a canter as their leader did and turning their stately march into something a little wilder, the ground thundering under them in the twilight.

Gabrielle blinked a little into the wind, keeping up with Xena but not with her partner's plans since from the look of it, they were about to attack the Spartans.  There really wasn't time to ask though, and the hoofbeats made it impossible anyway.  She watched Xena's body posture instead, seeing a relaxed swing to her shoulders that reassured her.

She knew what her partner looked like when she was about to draw her sword intimately. She could picture in her mind the arching of her back and the shift of the muscles visible over her leathers that would end with her hand on the hilt and the flicker of steel as the blade emerged.

There was none of that tension present in Xena's tall form, and in fact she had her sword hand resting casually on her thigh as though they were out for an afternoon ride at home.

So Gabrielle kept her staff in place, and tried to relax into Shadows smooth gait as they approached the enemy army.  The Spartans looked imposing enough, and she could see spear tips shivering a little in the twilight as they waited to see what Xena and her force were going to do.

There were a thousand of them.  Gabrielle was riding with a group that were barely two score and to even consider that they were going to attack the army was bare insanity.

Yet, watching the Spartans, she realized that insanity or not, they were facing the possibility that Xena was going to do just that.

And that, the bard realized as well, was something they were scared of. 

Xena judged her pace exactly.  At just exactly the moment when the Spartans had to react, she held her hand up, palm forward and let out a whistle, and the force slowed from a canter to a walk, and then came to a halt as she clenched her fist.

They stood there, the wind fluttering over them, blowing her cloak back and her hair out of her eyes.  “C'mon.” She crooked a finger at Gabrielle, and nudged Io forward, while turning her hand back flat to the rest of the group. 

There were four Spartans in the lead, and Xena and Gabrielle approached them at an amble, coming to a stop well within weapons reach of the first rank of soldiers.

Thurdor was one of the four. He removed his helmet and studied them, with an impassive expression on his face.  “You have given your word to me that we will pass through unhindered.”

Xena straightened a little and sat back in her saddle. “I have.” She agreed. “And you have given me your word you will pass through that city and draw no weapons against the people inside.”

“I have.” Thurdor confirmed. “Then shall we begin? Night draws near and we do not wish to spend it here on Thracian soil.”  He stared right into Xena's eyes. “Under the sword of a Thracian warlord.”

Xena merely smiled, refraining from denying the description. Then she lifted one gauntleted hand and as she did, she half turned Io and gestured towards the city gates.  “We'll escort you.” She said. “Follow my lead and you'll end up safely on the waterfront.”  

Thurdor brought his horse up next to hers and regarded the group she'd brought from the city. “These are your people.”  He said. “But … is that not Hercules, there?” He indicated the demigod, who was patting his horses neck. “What is his part in this?”

Gabrielle guided Shadow over and stopped on Xena's other side. “He's a friend of ours.”  She said. “He wants this to end peacefully, just like we do.”

Thurdor turned his head and looked at her. “So it makes a good story for you, Gabrielle?” His voice was faintly ironic.

Gabrielle shook her head. “I'm not a storyteller today.” She said. “Today I'm one of Xena's captains.” She looked steadily back at him. “And an Amazon queen.”

Thurdor's brows creased.

“And a mother.” The bard continued. “Whose child is in that city.  So if anyone makes a wrong move in there, I will stop them.”

The Spartan leader regarded her in silence for a moment. Then he returned his attention to Xena. “Let this begin.” 

Xena felt there had been enough theatrics as well. She made a parting gesture with her hands, then she turned Io and started back towards her force, as they all shifted and moved aside to let the Spartans through.

Only Hercules and Iolaus remained, waiting for them. 

Thurdor fell in beside Xena, his three captains waiting for them to get a few paces away before they followed, one raising his hand and clenching his fist to signal the army to move.

Xena was aware of the motion at her back. She kept her body relaxed though, glancing to her left where  Shadow was walking resolutely next to them.  She could see Gabrielle's profile, and after a moment, the bard glanced back at her, giving her a quick wink before she returned her attention to the gates.

It was hard not to smile.  Gabrielle had her act down so pat, wearing her armor so naturally, her head held high and the leather woven tokens of her queen's rank draping across her shoulders. 

Then after a brief moment, the thought occurred to her that it really wasn't much of an act anymore. That despite the wink, her partner wasn't pretending anything she really wasn't now.  One of her captains? Gabrielle had lead the force they were now approaching from Amphipolis with skill and courage equal to any.  Amazon queen? She'd answered her own challenge, now hadn't she? No matter how she'd done it and Xena had no illusion that if it had come to fighting, the sturdy, feisty woman at her side would have held her own.

She wasn't really sure whether to feel more proud, or more sad.  There was a little of both in her heart at the thought.

As they reached her lines,  Hercules and Iolaus joined them in the front, the demigod bringing his horse up on the other side of Thurdor in silence.   That made the Spartan look from one  side of him to the other, a sober expression on his face.

Xena's little force fell in line one at a time as the Spartans marched past, forming a very thin buffer on their edge as they all moved towards the city gates.   The portal was wide open, bracketed by torches that lit the opening with a garish orange glare. 

Now it was almost dark, and the shadows danced across the ground as t/hey approached the walls – the lingering twilight just outlining the bodies waiting on the top of the battlements with weapons to hand.

Okay.  Xena quietly took a deep breath, and released it. Now came the truth of it.  She flexed her right hand inside it's glove and her body responded to the scent of expectation on the wind. She felt her spine straighten and her knees dropped a little, ready to clamp down on Io's sides to give her balance to use both hands to fight with.

She had said – to them all, and to herself,that she wanted no part of this war. No part of the fight she could sense trembling on the air and that was true.   Xena drew in a deep breath and felt the familiar rush of blood to her skin. That was true, but it didn't mean she wouldn't savor the battle if it forced itself on her.

She was what she was, after all. 

Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Gabrielle's hand loosening the ties on her staff, though the bard's head was up and her eyes fixed on the path to the waterfront.   She pressed her knee against the wood to hold it in place, and shifted the reins to her left hand, letting the other drop to rest casually on the weapon.

No one talked.  They passed through the gates and into the central square.  Xena pointed towards the road to the pier and Thurdor nodded, glancing at the blockade on either side of it. After a moment, he nodded again, this time apparently in grudging approval.

They filed down the sloping surface, as the city rose around them, the wagons and defenders lost in the shadows from the torches planted every other bodylength. 

Far off, there was the sound of the sea, but with the wind at their backs there was no smell of salt on the air. 

Xena let her head sweep casually right to left, watching the men behind the wagons. They were all tucked away behind the wood, crossbows resting on the tops of the full beds, eyes watching the Spartans intently. 

Some of the eyes curious, but some hungry, their expression reflecting the desire to face this enemy no matter how many of them there were.  Mercenary instincts, Xena knew, died very hard.

To shoot the Spartans though, they'd have to get past Xena's forces.  Just like, to get at the city defenders the Spartans would need to get past the same, and Xena had made sure all the people with her were armed to the virtual teeth and as imposing as she could manage.

She wasn't taking any chances aside from the obvious one. 

They were halfway down now, and slowly, she could sense people relaxing around her.  Thurdor reached up and scratched his neck, shifting his armor a little, as he peered forward towards the lower gates to the waterfront.

The entire Spartan army had entered the downward path, and Xena turned, glancing behind her as she saw the city forces fall in behind them, exactly as she'd told them to. 

So far, so good. 

It was full dark now.   Above them, the sky was clear, and stars were starting to emerge. Xena glanced up at them, their pinpoints dimmer and less clear than she remembered from Mount Olympus.  Not so vivid, or..  She glanced over at her partner.  Would they ever be able to just lay under those stars, and play that game now?

A seagull called, and Xena focused her attention back on the road.  “When we get to the bottom.” She addressed Thurdor.  “They'll close the lower gates.  Then I'll signal my people on the ridge to let the ships in.”

Thurdor nodded. “Many speak of your prowess in weapons, Xena.” He commented. “Not so many your strategic skills. They should.” He looked to his right and left.  “I could not have done better.” Now he looked back at her. “Why not just engage us?  Surely Athens would reward you for such a win if you did and despite what we were told, this city is surprisingly well defended.”

True.  Xena flipped a bit of Io's mane over to the other side of his neck. “I gave my word.”  She glanced at the Spartan. “And the truth is, this war serves no one's purpose.”

Thurdor nodded again. “Today, for the first time I thought of home.” He said. “Of my family.” He added. “It was strange, but the men did as well. I heard them singing songs of our lands as we got ready to march.” He leaned forward and looked past Xena to where Gabrielle was quietly listening. “I too, have children.”

“Glad you're going to get home to see them?” Gabrielle asked. “I know I would be.”

The Spartan gave her a wry look. “Those ships will not take us home.” He said. “Surely you both realize that? We leave here, to go to Athens.”

“Do you?” The bard answered, with a gentle smile. “Maybe you could talk the captains into going home. I bet they'd like to do that too.”

Thurdor stared at her. “We are at war.”

“Do we have to be?” Gabrielle replied. “You don't really want to go to Athens.  I've been there. It sorta stinks.”

“Gabrielle!” Jens objected, from his spot just to her left. “That's our home!”

“I know.” The bard gave him a sympathetic look. “And I'm sorry, but it really does. You can smell that place for three days on the way there.  Poor Xena got sick as a dog when we were in the city for the games.”

Jens frowned at her. “Athens is very beautiful.”  He protested.  “Besides, is not your Academy of Bards there? Your scrolls and all that?”

“Scrolls don't have noses.” The bard muffled a grin.

Xena was watching Thurdor from the corner of her eye.  His face was thoughtful, and there was a thick, heavy crease in his brow. “C'mon.” She addressed him. “You're not a new kid at this.” She said. “You know this whole damn thing's a bust.”

He sighed. “Somehow, it seemed like a good plan, at the start.” He said. “Now... it's truth. My heart is no longer in it.”

Amazing what not having gods in the mix could do.  Xena looked up to find Hercules watching her past Thurdor's shoulders.  She shook her head and smiled, and felt at last the sea wind on her face as the breeze changed directions and they passed through the lower portal to the waterfront.

There, six wagons were waiting, with men guarding them, bundled figures perched on top.  The breeze brought them the scent of decay, but Thurdor exhaled, and nodded one more time as he glanced over at Xena. “You gave your word.”

“I did.”  Xena said. “Though, you might think of giving them a pyre here.”  She gave a light whistle, and her escort peeled off, moving to line the edge of the waterfront, blocking the paths upwards towards the escarpment. 

Thurdor motioned to his captains, and they rode on slowly towards the wagons as the troops filed into the big open space near the docks.  Everything had been cleared out of the way, and they spread out as they moved, some going over to the water and looking out into the harbor.

Xena stayed where she was, watching the Spartans file past.  She was aware of Gabrielle sidling up next to her, expecting and getting the warmth of the bard's hand on her thigh.  Without looking over, she covered the hand with her own, wrapping her fingers around her partners and clasping them.

“It is going to make a good story.”  Gabrielle said.

“Long as they don't go and attack Athens, and you and I end up fugitives for the rest of our lives.” The warrior responded wryly.  “Sure.”

“Eh. There are worse things that could happen.”  Gabrielle responded. “We could go live somewhere else where they've never heard of us. Start fresh.”

Xena turned her head and regarded her partner. “You really want to do that?”

Gabrielle watched the Spartans for a while in silence before she sighed. “Part of me wants to, yeah.” She said. “Amazons are pissed at me. Amphipolis is probably pissed at us, Athens is going to be mad at us... gods are mad at us... what the heck.  Let's go live somewhere else.”

Xena studied her in silence.

Gabrielle looked up at her after a minute of that. “Or... maybe I'm about to cycle and I'm just cranky as heck.” She admitted. “I dont' really want to leave everyone behind.”

Xena patted her on the back. “We'll work it out.” She said. “Let's get these guys out of here and then we can relax and celebrate for a while.”  She half stood in her stirrups, looking past Jessan's tall form to see the last of the Spartans clear the lower gate, which was swung promptly to behind them. 

City defenders immediately lined the top of it and more appeared on the upper slopes of the hill, setting themselves into position and readying weapons.

Impressive.  Xena looked up to the top of the slope, spotting Bennu standing up there, his arm still in a sling.  She saw him turn to face her, and he raised his hand in a casual signal, which she returned.  “Looks like everything's okay up there.”

 Gabrielle had been watching.  She smiled and waved at Bennu, then she returned her attention to the Spartans.  They were all milling around in the big open space, and some were taking their packs off and sitting down, apparently unfazed by the watching city defenders.

The plan was going to work, she realized.  The Spartans didnt' seem to want to fight, and even the men in the city she'd sensed really did want to were quiet.  Even Jens.   She looked at the Athenian captain, who had taken off his gauntlets and helmet and was ruffling his sweat stained hair.

He seemed to sense the attention, and he looked over at her. “Did it really smell so bad?”

Gabrielle chuckled briefly. “Most big cities do to us.” She relented.  “We're so used to traveling in the wild, or living in small towns.  Even Amphipolis was getting bad there for us for a while, before the floods.”

“Huh.” Jens watched the Spartan army settle. “Last night, I was all for ambushing this lot.”  He admitted frankly.  “But then, when they came in the gates, it seemed to me that our word was given, as Xena had said and breaking that would be no honor to us.” He stretched in his saddle. “As the sun was setting, I lost my stomach for it.”

“Just want to go home?” The bard asked.

Jens nodded. “They will likely need us in Athens at any rate.” He said. “If this legion goes, another will come.  War is inevitable.”

Gabrielle considered that. Was war inevitable?  Now that the gods had abandoned their interest, it seemed that the soldiers were less willing to fight.  Was that true, or just coincidence?  “Mmph.”

“Stay here.” Xena patted her on the leg. “Be right back.” She turned Io and cantered him over to the wagons, where the Spartans were gathered  examining their fallen brothers.   The stench was intense when she got there, but the men of war, just as Xena, was used to the smell and ignored it. 

Thurdor turned as she arrived.  He took a step back from the wagon and regarded her. “If there is wood, we will make a pyre for them, near the water.  You have my gratitude for treating them with honor.”

“Good choice.”  Xena said. “I doubt your ship captains would appreciate you bringing them onboard.”

The Spartan nodded.  “There is truth in that.”  He said. “Though we could carry them to Spartan waters, and bury them in Posiedon's realm.  Still, the flame is cleaner.”  He looked out into the harbor. “But I see there will be trouble getting the fleet in. You have blocked it.”

“Sure.” Xena put her fingers between her teeth and let out a loud, long whistle, followed by two shorter ones.  “But I keep my promises, Thurdor.” She shaded her eyes, looking at the shadowy figure of the wrecked hulk blocking the passage.  In the distance, she heard a grinding, grumbling sound and as she did, they all did.

“What's that?” One of the Spartans asked, looking around. “A trick?”

In the dark it was hard to tell what was happening.  Suddenly there were more noises, cracks and thumps and everyone started looking around, grabbing for weapons and ducking. 

Xena remained where she was though, watching the harbor.   Abruptly a hissing sound crackled over the waterfront and everyone dove for the ground instinctively, as that was followed by a echoing reverb, then the sound of something breaking apart.

Xena pointed at the entrance to the harbor.  The shadow of the old hulk was moving, in two huge sections as it seemed to come to life and rush towards the cliff at a startling speed.

“By the Gods!”   Thurdor yelped.  “It's some magic!”

The two sections of the ship plowed through the water and smashed abruptly into the cliff face, with a thundering roar and a crash that sent a rolling wake towards the waterfront.

The Spartans bolted back from the seawall, throwing their arms over their heads as the waves crashed against the stone, exploding over it and showering them with seawater so violently the spray from it reached even to where Xena was, dusting the warrior with a cold mist of salt water.

The harbor entrance was now open.

Xena blinked the salt out of her eyes and gestured towards it. “Get your men ready to board those ships.” She said. “Got it?”

Thurdor now stared at her with something like awe.  “Yes.”

The warrior turned and gestured towards two of the militia. “Tell them to bring down firewood.” She said. “Near the last dock.” 

“Genr'l.” The men saluted, and rode off towards the back gate, where the jail had been.  

Xena watched them go, then she sidestepped Io away from the wagons, up onto a little rise she could see the entire waterfront from, stopping there in the flickering torchlight as shadows obscured her features.

Hercules leaned over towards Gabrielle. “How did she do that?” He whispered.

“I have no idea.” The bard murmured back. “I'm just glad this is all over.”

Hercules grunted. “Yeah.” He slowly looked around.  “Me too.”  His brow creased. “Me too.”

**

By the time the third set of three ships came in, everyone was starting to unwind.  Xena was still on Io's back, but she'd stripped off her gauntlets and let her boots loose from her stirrups, relaxing in her saddle as she watched the loading continue.

Half of the Spartan soldiers were gone, and the waterfront was getting emptier.  Some of the remaining men were gathered quietly around the smouldering pyre at the far end, the rest were seated in formation, their arms wrapped around their knees, waiting.

Denius rode his tall bay horse over to where Xena was, drawing up to a halt as he came to her side.  “Xena.”

The warrior turned her head. “Half done.”

“They came through meek as lambs!” The patrician chortled. “Fantastic!”

Xena nodded briefly. “Good end to it.” She said. “Once they clear the harbor, we can stand down.”

Denius leaned closer to her. “We could have taken them, Xena.  The men all know it.”  He said. “Such a pity we didn't.”

Xena looked at him. “They marched down here like that because I gave my word they'd be safe.” She said. “Not because of the force in the city. It would have been real different story otherwise.”

“Yes but..”

“No buts.” The warrior looked annoyed.  “Their captain and I made a deal.”

“But Xena.” Denius seemed oblivious to the dour glare he was getting. “Imagine what a boon that would have been for Athens? An entire Spartan army – defeated! By the gods, they'd have showered us with honors and coin.”

Xena fought the urge to knock the man off his horse.  “They'll have to settle for having Thema in one piece and no captured Spartan territory between here and the edge of Thrace.” She answered dryly. “Sorry if that disappoints them.”

“Hm.” Denius didn't get the sarcasm. “There is that, yes.” He conceded. “This would have been a great loss, certainly.” He added. “But the way they came in.. maybe they would have been stopped by the walls in any case.”

“They wouldn't.”  Xena shook her head. “Go outside and look at the siege engines again that they left behind.”  She leaned forward a little, spotting Gabrielle approaching. “The walls wouldn't have lasted a candlemark against them.”

“So you say.” Denius frowned. “But some say they bought you, Xena. So you let them go.”

Xena merely looked at him.

Denius shrugged. “All have their price.”

“Do they?”  Xena turned her head and let her eyes follow her partner as Gabrielle gently guided Shadow around to her other side.  “Maybe I was bought.  Not by them though.”  She met the mist green eyes gone amber in the torchlight.  “Hey.”

“Hey.” Gabrielle hauled something out of her saddlebag.  “Everyone up there's starting to party.” She said. “They've got ale barrels and cookfires starting, while my poor general sits here in the cold, wet wind without so much as a cracker.”

“Did you bring me crackers? I'm all for em. I'm starving.”  Xena smiled. “Hand em over.”

Gabrielle drew her hand out of her bag and passed over not crackers, but a pocket sandwich, the scent of freshly grilled lamb  drifting up from it.  “Here you go.” She watched her partner take the offering, and immediately bite into it.  Then she leaned forward and looked at Denius. “What was that about someone buying Xena off?”

Denius looked a little uncomfortable.   “Some have said it.” He answered stiffly.

“Would some like to be made out as skanky cowards when this story gets told?” Gabrielle asked, with a kind smile.  “I'm sure it could be arranged.”

He gave her a dour look.

Gabrielle's expression grew serious. “We saved this town, Denius.” She said. “We saved Thrace from being invaded.  We chased the Spartans out, and probably ended the war.” She added. “There was no sell out here, even if the Spartans had Xena's price, and they don't.”

“You would, of course, say that.”

“I would.” The bard said. “Because I do have that price.”

Xena merely munched on her sandwich, content to listen to the drama. She reached over and snagged the wineskin hanging on Shadow's saddle ring and uncapped it, taking a mouthful and swallowing it down. “Yeah.” She said, after a long moment of silence. “She bought me down by a creek in the ass end of Thrace couple years back. Never did get her money's worth.”

Gabrielle chuckled softly, under her breath.

“I suppose we shall see whose truth is heard, when it's all done.” Denius said. “For me, this night should have ended far differently.”  He pulled his horses head around and left, angling towards the lower gates.

“Ugh.” Gabrielle sighed. “What a creep.”

“Got another one of those?” Xena dismissed the creep.  “I feel like I haven't eaten for a week.”

Gabrielle produced another sandwich, then took one out for herself.  They stood quietly together, watching the Spartans while they ate.  “This was a good plan, Xe.” The bard finally said. “I'm really glad it worked out, and no one had to get hurt.  I feel really good about that.”

“Me too.”  Xena agreed. “Everyone won here. Even if they don’t realize it, or want to admit it.” She took another swallow of wine. “How’s Dori doing?”

“Wondering where her Boo is.”  Gabrielle replied. “She wanted to come down here with me, but I figured it was still a little too unsettled.”

Xena regarded her somberly.

“And she might scare the Spartans.” The bard concluded. “I didn't want to mess up your plan.”

Xena smiled as she finished off her sandwich and let her eyes travel over the crowd again. Her people, the ones Gabrielle had brought, were still forming a barricade between the Spartans and the city defenders, but  as she was, they were also relaxing on their horses, talking casually with each other.

The city defenders were still lined up on the edges of the waterfront, and Xena watched them closely for a minute, before she tapped Gabrielle on the knee and jerked her head in the direction of the wall. “Let’s go take a ride.”  She turned Io’s head and they started towards where Jessan and Ephiny were idly chatting.

Gabrielle willingly followed, one hand clasping the reins as she popped the last mouthful of sandwich onto her tongue, enjoying the wood grilled taste of the lamb.

She was tired, and looking forward to the end of the night when they could go find a nice spot to lay down and relax, maybe even back in the barn.  She’d seen Ephiny’s scandalized look when she’d realized where her queen was sleeping, but Gabrielle was long past caring what others thought about her status.

Or lack of it. Or whatever.  She just wanted to curl up someplace dry and warm, with Xena next to her.  It had been far too long a day.

Xena lifted her hand in greeting as they closed in on the wall. 

“Hey, guys.” Jessan waved back.  “Looks like this is going pretty smooth, huh?”

Xena looked around, settling her boots in her stirrups.  “I told them it better be.” She said.  “Told Thurdor he better make sure his troops didn’t get any ideas.  A deal’s a deal.”

Jessan nodded. “I think he got the message.” The forest dweller said, in a placid tone.  “Especially after you waved our hand and made that ship fly apart. Pretty cool.”

“Yeah.” Ephiny agreed. “Scared the crap out of everyone, but cool.”

Xena shrugged slightly.  “Had to move it.” She remarked. “You all see where Hercules went?”

Ephiny pointed. “He’s down by the pyre.” She said. “Iolaus is with him. They were talking to some of the city guys down there.”  She leaned forward on her saddlebow.  “We’ve gotten a room for you two rigged up, by the way.” She gave Gabrielle a wry look. “Please don’t turn it down.”

“Hey c’mon, I like barns.”  Her queen mock protested. “Some of my best times were had in b..” She looked over at Xena, whose hand was covering her mouth. “Wmfh?”

Ephiny chuckled. “Yeah, I heard about those initials carved in the timbers of Cyrene’s barn.”  She teased.  “So is it true?”

“That our relationship was consummated in the hayloft of my mother’s barn?  Yes.”  Xena removed her hand, feeling the heat as her partner blushed.  “It was the closest thing we had to a home at the time.”

Jessan laughed.

Xena chuckled also.  Then she regarded the harbor. “Looks like one more set of ships and we’re done.” She said. “Jens, pass the word back – the city defenders can stand down.  Let em go get out of that fake armor before it chafes em to death.”

The Athenian captain moved a bit closer. “Sure of that, Xena?  They're not quite done down below.”  He indicated the Spartans. “Though, they've been quiet, I'll say.”

“And I'd like it to stay that way.” Xena replied. “Get those guys to their cups.  And Jens.. “ She leaned forward towards him. “Find the conscripts. Any of em who were under arms during this... let em go.”

He studied her. “That's not the law, Xena.  They were to be brought to Athens.”

“They had their war.”  She said. “A lot of em died. Let the rest go.”

His eyes met hers for a long moment. “I thought you turned down the leadership of the war, Xena?” But his lips twitched into a reluctant smile. “Seems to me you ended up doing it anyhow.” He gathered his reins. “If I find any of the miserable cowherds,  I will release them.  They didn't have the make of soldiers in any case.”

Xena watched him ride off, and then she sighed.

“He's right.” Jessan said. “You are in charge, Chosen.”

Xena sighed again. “I'm always in charge.” She complained. “Everyone bitches about me being an overbearing battle whore but when do I get a chance to be anything else?” She spread her hands out in appeal. “I didn't see anyone else holding up their hand to be in charge around here.”

Everyone chuckled.  Gabrielle patted her partner on the thigh comfortingly.  “You really tried to stay out of it this time, hon. This was really all my fault.”

Xena rolled her head to one side and gave her partner her most droll look.

“Actually.” Ephiny cleared her throat and raised her hand. “I think this was my fault, my queen. Not yours.”  She said. “I'm the one who decided to try being the good guy for a change.”

'Well, you know, I could have just let you.” Gabrielle eyed her. “I didn't have to send Xena.”

“You also didn't have to go find the Spartan army either.” Her partner reminded her.

“And we didn't have to come with you, Gabrielle.” Jessan threw a fang into the ring.

“Hmm...” Ephiny's eyes twinkled gravely. “And I guess Xena didn't have to take over an Athenian warship and come find us.”

'You all done yet?” Pony had been sitting on her horse just behind Ephiny, to all intents and purposes half asleep. “It' aint' no one's fault. This crap just happens to us. We should just get used to it.”

Gabrielle chuckled softly. “Yeah,  we sort of accepted that a while ago.” She confirmed.  “Pony’s right. It’s really no one’s fault.  It just is what it is.”  She was aware, in her peripheral vision, of the listening city defenders just on the other side of the wagons and then, also, of Milena who was just on the outside of the torchlight, watching them.

She wasn’t really sure what to make of either. The defenders were listening, no doubt but she couldn’t read their expressions, and she wondered if the edgy restlessness she sensed was really them just wanting to end their vigil or something more sinister.

Mercenaries were funny that way.  Gabrielle tucked away the bag she’d brought their food in and checked the ties on her staff as she idly listened to the banter now between her friends.

Xena was right, she realized suddenly, to send the defenders home. There were too many of them, too close to the Spartans and she felt her nascent warrior instincts bristle as she picked up something… a smell? A sound?  That made her back stiffen and brought her head up as she swept her eyes across the area.

The others were still just talking, so what was... ah.  Gabrielle exhaled slowly, watching the edges of her partner's sensitive ears, just visible to her, cup the air as without moving, Xena's body completely altered it's posture.  She saw Xena's head turn just slightly, and caught the glistening of the torchlight reflecting off her eyes as they moved.

And yet, nothing around them stirred out of place. None of the rest of their companions seemed to sense anything, even Jessan was leaning back in his saddle, trading a joke with Solari.

Gabrielle looked back at Xena, to find her partner peering back at her, one eyebrow slightly raised.  The bard shrugged faintly in response, and saw a furrow appear above Xena's eyes.

Then the feeling slowly faded, and the sounds of their companions became normal again.  Xena rested both her hands on her saddlebow and frowned, her body shifting a little restlessly.

Gabrielle wasn't sure what that was all about.  She felt the tension leave her body though, and she focused again on what was going on around her.   The three Spartan ships were slowly  making their way out of the harbor, and now only one last group was left on the pier.

Thurdor was among them.  She could make our his tall figure leaning against a pylon, but he looked at ease and she even thought she heard a faint echo of laughter from the Spartan troops.  So the tension hadn't come from them.   Gabrielle casually turned her head and regarded the group around her, likewise untroubled.

Her eyes lifted and she studied the makeshift wagon walls, seeing the city defenders starting to thin out as Jen's men moved along and dismissed them.  Everything seemed to be winding down, and a brief gust of wind from the landside brought the sound of a pipe playing up the hill.

Everything seemed calm.  Gabrielle looked back at her partner, who was still leaning on her saddle, eyes slowly sweeping the waterfront.  Everything except for the two of them, apparently.   She edged Shadow over until her knee was pressing against Xena's and leaned towards her a little. “What was that?”

“Good question.” Xena muttered, under her breath. “Maybe nothing.”

“That both of us imagined?” The bard whispered. “Or was I just reacting to what you felt?”

Xena thought about that for a long moment. “Damned if I know.” She finally responded. “Just nerves maybe. I want this thing over.”

“You and me both, partner.” Gabrielle turned a little, to face their companions. “Hey, you all want to hear a new story I'm working on?”

“Don't we always?” Ephiny turned, and the rest of them focused on the bard, pleased looks of anticipation on their faces. “Best way I can think of to pass the time.”

Xena leaned over and tapped Gabrielle on the knee.  “No chickens.” She said, firmly. “And no cows.”

**

Xena guided Io down towards the piers where the last of the Spartan ships were almost finished loading.  The faint sense of unease was still with her, but so far there had been nothing around her that seemed to be causing it.   In a quarter candlemark the Spartans would be gone, and Jens had reported back that he'd sent the city men home with no incidents.

She wasn't stupid enough to ignore the warning.  That same tingle up her spine had saved her life on more than one occasion, and there were still things that could go wrong. 

“Xena.” Thurdor greeted her as she arrived at dockside. The Spartan general had his helmet off, and was supervising the loading of the last of the horses.  “So we are almost at the end of this.”

“Almost.”  Xena dismounted off Io's back and walked over to him. “I'm glad it all went right.” She watched the sailors busy on the deck. “Hope you have smooth seas.”

“As you did not?” Thurdor asked. “I had heard a tale from some of the dockmen.” He indicated the wharf workers, busy with their ropes. “They tell a strange story of storms and shipwrecks, and that you sailed the hulk blocking the harbor in and swamped our ships at dock with it.”

Xena glanced out over the water.  Her sailing on the ship was already fading into the past for her, the struggle and the dangers dismissed as was her habit.  Even the close brush with death was already almost forgotten as just a hazy situation that ended up all right.

No sense in dwelling on it.  “Your ships weren't expecting an Athenian brig of war to come hauling into the harbor, that's for sure.” She remarked. “They were stuck nose to the dock.”

“They weren't expecting yourself either.” Thurdor said.  “What is the truth of it, Xena? We would have paid you handsomely to join us, I know the offer.  You said yourself this wasn't your war and yet, here you are leading Athenian forces.” He studied her. “I am just curious for myself.  I want to understand this most ferocious adversary before me.”

Xena leaned against the post, the wind off the water fluttering her cloak and blowing her hair into roguish disorder.  “Lets just say I pick my wars.”  She drawled. “I fight when I have to, but not for anyone's coin.” She half smiled. “I never did. I never wanted anyone to have a hold on me.”

The Spartan nodded. “I was against asking you.” He said, candidly. “I argued with our council over it.”

“Smart man.”  The warrior smiled fully.

“But now that I have met you.” Thurdor continued.  “I feel they were right, and I was wrong, and I wish you had accepted our offer.” His eyes met hers. “You inspire the warrior in me, Xena. I want to fight alongside you, and go to battle with you because you have something so very few do.”

A little surprised, Xena cocked her head in question.

“You believe in yourself.”  The Spartan said. “Without question.  You trust in your decisions and because of that, Xena, those who follow you also trust.” He smiled. “It is a great thing to trust in the one who leads you.  I try to give my men reason to trust me so, but I do not in return trust those who give me orders. You understand.”

“I do.”  Xena replied quietly.  “And that's why I wouldn't take anyone's pay to fight.  I don't trust anyone to tell me what to do.” She pushed off the post. “Especially not any council.” She extended a hand to him. “Your ships ready.”

He clasped her arm.  “Good fortune to you,  Xena.  I hope our paths never cross in war.”

“Same to you.”  The warrior said. “And if you keep your men out of Thrace, we probably never will.” She released his arm and took a step back as he turned, moving to the gangway and climbing up onto it.   The Spartan captain was waiting for him and as he boarded he turned, waiting as they cast off the gangway and let the ropes go.   The oars slowly moved the ships back and Xena watched them go into the moonlit harbor with a small exhale of satisfaction.

“Good riddance.” One of the dockworkers said. “Too much fightin.  Need merchants back in here agin.”

“Yah, like that one that went out, took all the water w'im. Barstards.” The man standing next to him said, spitting on the ground. “Never a thought for us.”

Xena eyed them thoughtfully. Standing in the shadows as she was, the men weren't aware of her presence.

“Thought they'd burn the place down.” The first man said. “Good job that Xena come in here. Got smarts, that one does.” He dusted his hands off an started down the pier. “C'mon, let's get us a mug.  Job here's done.”

Xena chuckled softly, and patted Io's cheek. “Yeah, that Xena.” She murmured. “She's a bright one, huh, Io?”

The horse nibbled her cloak, shaking his head.

The warrior sighed.  “Now let's see if I'm bright enough to figure out what's really wrong before something else bites me in the ass.” She swung herself up onto the stallions back, and started him towards the road up the hill.

**

Gabrielle closed the door to the stable, keeping hold of Dori’s hand with one of her own. “Honey, I know you want to stay with Rusty, but you need to come with mama now, okay?”

Dori produced a pout. “Mama, Wusty’s lonely!”
Gabrielle knelt down on one knee. “Dori, he’ll be fine there, with all our horses to keep him company. Shadows in there, and Iolaus, and Gray Lady, and Hercules’s horse too.  He has lots of other horses to talk to.”

Dori looked sadly at her mother.

“You can ride him tomorrow, when we leave.” Gabrielle ruffled Dori’s hair.  “You want to be with me and Boo, right? We’re going to a nice place our friends found for us, so we can get a good night sleep.”

“Boo’s coming?”  Dori allowed herself to be sidetracked.

“She’s on her way now.” Gabrielle held her hand out. “Let’s go get ready for her. Maybe she’ll go to fishes with you.”

Dori scowled, but she took her mother’s hand and walked with her as the bard stood and started up the steps to where Ephiny was waiting.   “Okay, lead on.”

“She’s a tough case.”  Ephiny grinned at her. 

“She is.” Gabrielle agreed.  “She’s got a one track mind sometimes. Wonder where that came from.” She exchanged wryly knowing grins with her regent.  “Hey, you didn’t have to get our gear. You guys were busting your tails all day. We could have grabbed it.”

“Gabrielle.”  Ephiny pushed open a door at the top of the steps they’d been climbing.  “For one thing, it gave us a chance to scope out the area and for another, give us a break. One time we treat you like a queen ain’t gonna kill you.”

Gabrielle lifted her free hand and laughed gently. “Okay.”  She followed Ephiny into a large room, with a table and chairs in it, and past that, two more doorways.  “This place was empty?”

“Completely.”  The regent agreed. “Pony dug up some groom or something who said the poobah who lived here left on the ship before ours.  Heading to Athens. This was a vacation villa, apparently.”

“Ah.” Gabrielle looked at the expensively plastered walls. “I see.” 

“Anyway, we got everyone bunked down around this place. “ Ephiny pushed one of the far doors open.  “I know you two can take care of yourselves, but something in the vibe here has me twitching.”

Gabrielle released Dori’s hand. “Look Dor, our friends brought your toys up here, and set up a bed for you. Wasn’t that nice? Say thank you to Auntie Ephiny.”  She glanced around the room, which also held a big, comfortable looking bed and a big garment chest that seemed the right size to dump lots of armor on top of.  “Nice.”

“Dank oo.”  Dori gave Ephiny a grin, her good humor evidently restored. “Mama, where’s Boo?”

“She’ll be here in a minute honey. She was just talking to Hercules downstairs.”  Gabrielle reassured her.  “Go get your things out and I’ll help you change.”

Dori went over to her bags and sat down next to them, rooting inside enthusiastically.

Gabrielle and Ephiny exchanged amused looks.  Then Gabrielle went over to the long wooden chest on the other side of the room, where her own bags were.  “Xe and I picked up a little trouble on the wind too. We couldn’t figure out where it was coming from though.”

“Us either.” Ephiny sat down on the bed. “Its just making us nervous. And by us, I mean me, Benny and Jess.”

Gabrielle unbuckled the belt holding her armor around her and then loosened the leather strap holding her sword to her back.   She removed both and shifted her shoulders a little, feeling a bit lighter now that the weapon was off her back. 

“May I?”  Ephiny got up and came over, holding her hand out for the sword. “You have no idea how weird it is for me to see you with that on.”

“About as weird as it is for me to have it.” Gabrielle confessed. The bard handed the weapon over.  “I forgot I had it on for a while.” She lifted the scale armor over her head and set it down on the press, ruffling her hair out from her collar and feeling the cool breeze from the window a little chill against her scalp.  “Glad we didn’t need it.”

“Beautiful work.”  Ephiny was examining the blade.   “Reminds me a little of Xena’s.”

Gabrielle untied the padded shirt and removed it, leaving her in her wraps and leggings.  She set the padding down next to the armor and stretched, glad the weight of it was off her frame.  “Yeah it does a little.” She agreed, rubbing her arms.  “Any water in that other room?”

Ephiny grinned. “How about a bathtub?”

“Ungh.”  Gabrielle let out a half grunt, half groan.  “I’m all for it.” She glanced over at Dori, who was sitting on the ground playing with Flameball.   “Whatcha doing Dor?”

Dori looked up. “Flameball wants to know about Wusty.” She explained. “I'm telling him, mama.”

“Oh, okay.”  Gabrielle said. “Good girl. I’m going to go right in the other room, okay?  You can come find me when you’re done.”  She watched her daughter go back to whispering to her stuffed toy, then she followed Ephiny out of the bedroom and into the other chamber, which held he promised tub and plenty of clean linen.

“Oo.” Gabrielle stuck her hand in the already filled basin and felt the warm water.  “Xe’s gonna love this too.”   She told her regent.  “Too bad I don’t have any bubble bath with me.”

Ephiny paused in mid motion and looked at her, both brows lifting.   She watched Gabrielle’s face relax into a grin and shook her head.   “Anyway I figured I owed you one, for all this.” She strolled over to the tub and leaned her forearms on it, gazing through the faint wisps of steam at the woman on the other side of it.

The candlelight in the room outlined the bard’s body as she shifted a little.  “We’d have been dragged into it anyway, Eph.”  The bard said.  “If it wasn’t you, it would have been something else.   As it was, going after you put Xe in the right place at the right time to stop it, so who knows? Maybe it was meant to be.”

Ephiny made a face, then she frowned a little, and leaned forward, peering at Gabrielle’s now bare neck.

For a minute,  Gabrielle wondered what she was looking at, then she remembered.  “Scar's not there.” She said, in a matter of fact tone.  “That was one of the things that happened when we.. um… “  She paused. “Had our little adventure earlier today.”

She didn’t really want to say die in front of Dori.  She wasn’t sure how much her daughter would understand, but she figured it wasn’t time yet to explain to the child what that really meant.  She’d seen death, Gabrielle knew, but seeing it happen to others and thinking about your parents going away and never coming back were two different things.

Wasn’t it?

“Yeah.”  Ephiny murmured. “I didn't get that lucky when I had that bad time in the mountains.” She skirted around the subject as well.

The head injury, given to her by Paladia.  Gabrielle nodded. “No, me either, and Xe still had hers when she came back that other time.” She said.  “I think going to Mount Olympus had something to do with it. She hadn’t been there before.”

The regent nodded. “I noticed the mark on Hercules neck is gone.”  She said. “But hey, that's cool for you guys, huh? Scars are no fun.”

“Feels a little weird.” Gabrielle acknowledged. “Xena noticed mine first.. the ones on my back are gone.” She touched the back of her neck.   “But I think she’s going to appreciate it with hers more.  Cold mornings were getting pretty tough for her. Especially that knee from Athens.”

Ephiny looked at her for a long moment in silence. “Cold mornings are tough as Hades for me. “ She finally said. “I can’t even imagine what it would be like for someone who’s been through everything she has. But yeah,  I thought she looked a little ragged around the edges on the ship.”

“Yeah?” Gabrielle’s brow creased.

“Yeah.” Ephiny nodded. “Not… I mean, she was doing all her usual stuff. I just got the feeling she was having a little harder time than usual at it.”

“Well, she had a tough time, too.”  Gabrielle stripped off the rest of her garments and lowered herself into the tub, reveling in the warm, clean scented water.  “Between the fights and the storms and everything.  Sounds like it was pretty rough couple of days. She said she thought she twisted something saving that guy on the rocks.”

Ephiny tossed her a lump of soap and a cloth.  “And she was worried about you.” The regent smiled. “She seemed to  perk  up soon as you got to the city.”

Gabrielle scrubbed the leather stains off her arms, sparing a moment to think of that meeting in the square, and the knee shivering relief they’d both shared. “Likewise.”  She admitted. “I had Dori to distract me, but still.” She ducked her head under to wet her hair, surfacing and wiping the water out of her eyes.  “I was sure glad to see her.” She finished, in a quiet tone.

‘Well.” Ephiny smiled at her. “On that shipwrecked ship out there? So was I.”

“You have to tell me that whole story.”  Gabrielle reminded her.

Ephiny wandered over to the window in the room, peering out. “Ah. Here comes your consort now.”

Gabrielle smiled. She quickly washed her hair, then she got up and out of the tub, wrapping herself in a clean sheet of linen just as she heard Xena’ s distinctive footsteps crossing the outer room. “In here, hon.”

Ephiny turned and grinned.  She leaned back against the windowsill and watched as Gabrielle’s attention went to the door exactly at the moment Xena stepped through it, the warrior bringing a perceptible edgy energy along with her that eased as soon as she met her partner's eyes.  

“Everything calm down there?” The regent asked, amused to see Xena’s attitude alter from warlord to seductress in the blink of an eye as she stopped just inside the door and gave her towel wrapped partner a head to toe review.  “Outside, I mean.”

Xena turned and glanced at her.  “Apparently.”  She drawled.

Gabrielle tucked the end of her linen in and walked over to her.  “Did you see the nice tub Ephiny arranged for us?” She reached up and unlatched the catches on Xena’s cloak.  “And there’s an equally nice bed in the other room.”

The warrior encircled her with one arm and gracefully inclined her head to give her soulmate a kiss.  “What tub?” She gazed intently into Gabrielle’s eyes. “All I see is you.”

The bard’s expression shifted from faint surprise to wide eyed bemusement.   “Xe.” She murmured. “Yeesh.”

Xena chuckled.  Then she turned her head and regarded Ephiny. “Thanks.” She indicated the room with her free hand.  “I tripped over six of my militia on the way in here.  Everyone else on the roof?” She gave the regent a wry look. “Not that I object to getting a decent night’s sleep, but was that really necessary?”

“Yes.”  Gabrielle poked her. “We both think something’s not right here, Xe. What’s the chance you’ll get any rest at all otherwise?”

“You really want to just rest in that nice bed?”  Xena’s blue eyes widened in mock astonishment.

 “Xena.”

“Yees, Gabriellllle?”

The bard put her hands on her linen wrapped hips.  “What in the world’s gotten into you?”

Xena grinned evilly.

“Gods.” Gabrielle covered her eyes. “Let me go get Dori for her bath.”

“Nah.” Xena ruffled her wet hair. “G'wan and relax. I'll get our tiny terror and get her cleaned up since I need to.” She let her arm rest on the bard's shoulders.  “That room out there's perfect for a meet.  Stick your head out the window and have everyone c'mon up here in a candlemark. Let's talk about this place.”

Ephiny accepted the instruction without comment and ducked outside, heading for the outer door rather than the window.

Gabrielle looked up at Xena.  “Hey.”

“Hey.”  Xena smiled at her.  “Did I embarrass you?”

The bard’s eyes warmed. “No.” She pressed her cheek against Xena’s forearm. “Of course not. How could you telling me you think I’m attractive be embarrassing?” She countered. “I was a little surprised. Not embarrassed.”

“Mm.” Xena gently tickled her partner’s pink tinged ear. “Feel better? You haven’t worn that stuff in a long time.”

“It was okay but I was glad to get out of it.” Gabrielle bumped her gently towards the door. “C’mon. Dori was asking for you.”  She led the way back out into the big chamber, then angled towards the bedroom door.  Ephiny’s words niggled at her conscience though. “How are you feeling?  It was a long day, huh?”

Xena didn’t answer right away.  She put her hands on her partner’s shoulders as they entered the other room, and squeezed them a little.  “Actually.. I feel great.” She admitted.   “Probably because I didn’t have to spend the night hacking people’s heads off.”

“Boy isn’t that true?” Gabrielle sighed. “You were running around all afternoon though.”

“Not the same as fighting.” Xena released her and swiveled, looking for their offspring.  “Hey Dor!”

“Boo!!” Dori scrambled to her feet and made a rush for her buddy.  “Boo, you take me to fishes?”  She reached up and was grabbed and boosted up almost to the ceiling, making her squeal in delight.  “Eeeeee!!”

“How about you settle for a bath, hm?”  Xena tossed her up and then caught her. “You ready to come have a bath with me?”

“Yes!” Dori giggled.  “C’n we go fly?”

“Maybe. If we get both of us all clean.”  Xena tucked her against one shoulder and then went to their bags, grabbing a linen tunic and a jumper before she turned and headed back for the tub, whistling melodically. 

Gabrielle leaned back against the press, crossing her arms and regarding the now empty doorway.  Regardless of the uncertainty in the city, her partner appeared to be in a very good mood.  Not having to fight a war certainly helped, but she sensed a warm energy there she’d missed lately.

It occurred to her that despite the very very long day, she really didn’t feel that tired either.  Was it a leftover from their adventure?

Eh.  Gabrielle smiled as Ephiny reappeared.  Who cares?  She decided to enjoy it while it lasted.  “Any chance of..”

“They’re bringing some food and drink up.”  Ephiny neatly cut her off, with a knowing grin. “They found some provisions in the basement of that inn next door. Probably won’t be as good as what you could cook up but it might be edible by the time it gets up here.”

The bard chuckled.   “I’m glad it turned out good tonight.”  She regretfully put aside her sleeping shift and drew out a tunic instead, sliding it over her head and snugging the belt tight.   “But I really wish it was tomorrow and we were all getting out of here. “  She sat down on the press and put on her soft indoor boots, then she ran a comb through her wet hair to order it. “Before everyone remembers it was me that led that army right to the gates.”

“We'll be glad to be gone too. This place wasn't much fun for us.” Ephiny took a seat in the low slung chair in the room, near the window.

“How are you feeling?” Gabrielle glanced at her friend.

“Wiped.” Ephiny admitted, with a smile. “I’d forgotten how the first couple months kick the crap out of you.  Least the stomach problems settled down.” She extended her legs and crossed them at the ankles. “Otherwise not bad.”

The bard got up and went over to the bed, sprawling on it on her side facing Ephiny.  She propped her head up on her hand and exhaled.  “I remember what that was like.  Or.. “ She smiled a little. “I remember what the tired part was like, and I remember having to mix up herbs for Xena for the other part.”

“Pony’s glad she doesn’t have that in common with her.”  Ephiny grinned easily.  “And I am too  - that’s just a little too weird for me, you know what I mean?”

Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled a little. “It is weird.” She agreed. “But at the beginning it really wasn’t for us, because Jessan’s people have that happen too, and they told us about it. So we didn’t freak out. “ She gazed past Ephiny for a minute, then refocused on her. “Then.”

Ephiny tilted her head. “Then?” She inquired. “Was there a point you did?”

The bard nodded. “Remember when the village got captured?”

Ephiny winced.

“Well, remember that we met up with Jessan and his family outside the cave?  He told me then it was a little weird, because usually that sort of stuff didn’t happen unless both partners were the parents of the child.”  Gabrielle got the whole sentence out, managing to keep her tone normal.

Ephiny leaned on one arm of the chair. “And you both didn’t think you were at that point?”

Gabrielle remained silent, her face pensive.

“You knew.” Ephiny answered for her, after a while. “Even when you were telling people it was Toris.”

The bard exhaled after another long pause.  “Yeah I knew.”  She admitted.  “In my heart, I knew.  I think Xena knew too, but neither of us wanted to really admit it.”

“Because of Dahok?”  The regent asked softly.

“No.” Gabrielle shook her head.  “To be honest, Eph… other people thought about that. Jess did.  You guys probably did, but I never worried about that at all.”  She studied her friends face. “We didn’t – it was more about if we did talk about that it led into stuff about Xena she’s not really comfortable with.”

“Her being part god?”

Gabrielle nodded. “It freaks her out.” She explained. “Actually, it freaks her out more than it does me, but then I'm not the one who has to face that in myself.”

Ephiny nodded a little.  “She told Gran she had Ares blood.”

“Did she?” Gabrielle mused. “Well, even on Mount Olympus she didn’t want to go into it and finally I was just like.. Xe, c’mon.”

“Yeah”  Ephiny leaned forward. “I remember asking her about it once. She froze up. Didn’t like me asking.”

Gabrielle nodded. “She doesn’t like it. But I mean, there we were on Mount Olympus, and she’s walking through walls of lightning and everything and it was just… “ She sighed. “Then she just said it – about having god’s blood and it sounded so weird it was almost worse.”

“I can’t imagine her saying it.” The regent said. “Freaky.”

“Really freaky. But then, everything was.” Gabrielle admitted. “I was scared, and thinking about Dori, and..  then on top of it we had to go stand before the Gods and that was a whole other freak out.”

“I bet.” Ephiny muttered.

“She stood up to them.”  Gabrielle said.  “They were really jerks, you know?  Messing with us because they’re all bored up there and don’t have anything better to do.”   She paused and regarded her regent’s expression. “I guess it’s that old thing though. Zeus liked the attitude.”

“Figures.” The regent frowned. “Guys. They’re all alike.”

The bard nodded slightly.  “He offered her a spot up there. Said she could stay.”  She met Ephiny’s eyes. “He was going to send me back here, said we’d never end up in the same place anyhow. I couldn’t stay there. Xe couldn’t end up in Hades realm...she’d end up in some limbo or something otherwise.”

Ephiny’s jaw dropped a little. “What?”

“Yeah.” Gabrielle looked past her out the window, where the dark sky was visible.  “But Xe turned him down cold.”

“Sure she did.” The regent shifted, seeing the tears rolling down her friends face. “Gabrielle?” She reached over and touched the bard's hand.

“She told him she’d rather just spend her life with me down here, then eternity with him.” Gabrielle’s gaze shifted to meet Ephiny’s. “She didn’t even think twice.”

Ephiny remained silent, merely shaking her head a tiny bit.

“I would have made the same choice, you know?” Gabrielle said, softly. “But just hearing it like that from her...”

The regent squeezed her hand, then reached up and gave her a pat on the cheek. “So, you're finally convinced she's yours?” She grinned, seeing the mixture of embarrassment and acknowledgement on her queen's face. 

Gabrielle sniffled, and passed her free hand over her eyes to wipe the tears from them. “So anyway.” She said. “That’s what stopped the war.  Aphrodite got into the whole mix and she told them… I guess she told them love meant more to us than anything else.”

“And it does.”  Ephiny finally smiled, as her nape hairs relaxed. “Wow.”

‘Yeah.” A grin appeared on Gabrielle’s face, lighting it up all the way.  “Wow.”

Ephiny settled back in her chair, watching the joy dance in the depths of her queen’s eyes. As well it might, after they’d both been through.  But the whole idea of standing on Mount Olympus, challenging the gods?

Brr. 

Just… brrr.

**

The scent of roasting meat drifted in the window.  Xena could hear the sounds of her forces outside as well, low voices and the clink of ale mugs, mixed with the rasp of leather boots on stone and the subtle soft clash of armor.

Comfortable and familiar.  Xena felt a sense of security knowing the people around her were friends, but still, in the back of her mind was a gently thrumming warning – frustratingly without a specific source.

She'd walked through the city, and slipped in and out of the shadows, listening to the city defenders and the residents who were working to put things back in order after the sailing of the Spartans.

Didn't seem to be them. Xena heard a lot of comments but most had been at worst, neutral about them and at best...   The warrior wrinkled her nose at the remembered, often ribald compliments.  So if not the city, then who or what was triggering her senses?

“Boo, I brushed Wusty real good.” Dori was standing in the tub, her hands on the edges watching Xena towel herself off.  “But mama made me leave him in the barn!”

“Sure she did, shortie.”  Xena responded. “You ever see me bring Argo into our house?” She paused to study the scar free skin on her arms and shook her head a little.

Dori bounced up and down a little, a frown on her face as she pondered this blatant logic. 

“Didja?”  Xena ruffled her hair somewhat dry. She'd never considered her scars as ugly or unsightly, just the markers of a life spent fighting and in truth, she had fewer than her history might have indicated.  Not having them felt strange, and as she looked down the length of her tall frame it was a little difficult to get used to seeing all that unblemished surface wrapped around the more familiar bone and muscle under it.

Weird. 

However.  The warm bath had felt good, and the combination of the pleasant texture of the linen and the cool breeze from the window felt even better.  “Hmm?” She looked up at her daughter, her brows lifting in question. 

“No.” Dori admitted grudgingly.  “But Boo, he’s gonna get lonely!”

Xena wrapped the towel around her and tucked the end in to keep it in place, then she walked over to the tub. “Listen, shortie.” She combed her fingers through her daughter’s wet hair. “I love horses too, y’know.  But I don’t live with em.  Rusty can talk to all the other horses. You get to stay here in this swanky place with your mama and me.”

Dori pouted.

“Ah ah.” Xena put her fingertip on the child’s nose.  “I want your mama to have a good nights rest, okay?  She’s worked really hard here.”

“Okay.” Dori relented. “We go t’morrow?”

“We do.” Xena lifted her out of the tub and carried her over to where the stack of linen was. She set Dori down on the chest and picked up a towel, drying her off.  “We’re going to go home with all our friends. You like that idea?”

“Yes.” 

Xena ran a comb Gabrielle had left in the bathing room through her hair, then she did the same for Dori, smiling a little as Dori laughed and clapped her hands, dancing from one foot to the other.   “Hey, you dance just like your mama, you know that?”

“Go mama!” Dori burbled, rambling around in a circle wiggling her behind.

Xena bit the inside of her lip to keep from cracking up, since her daughters motion really was Gabrielle's image.  “You have to do that for mama later, shortie.” She finished toweling the child off.

Dori finished her dance and leaned against Xena's tall body.  “Boo h’com they were all mad today?” She looked up, her clear green eyes reflecting in the candlelight. “Everybody was making a loud yell, and mad.”

“Who was mad, Dor?”  Xena sat down on the chest and Dori climbed into her lap, settling down as Xena wrapped her arms around her.  “The people here were mad?”

“Mens.”  Dori said. “All mad.”

Xena studied her daughter.  “Well.” She said. “I think they were mad because they thought they were all going to have to fight. To go boom.”

“Boom.”  Dori nodded.

“But I made it so they didn’t have to.”  Xena said. “I told everyone not to go boom.”

“H’com?”

Xena had to think about that.  “How come I wanted them not to fight?”

“Boo goes boom. Mama goes boom.” Dori replied. “Fun? H’com you didn’t want to go boom?”

Hm.  Xena studied her daughter’s face bemusedly.  Tough explanation.  Dori saw her and Gabrielle spar on almost a daily basis and knew they enjoyed it, she’d lived in or near the Amazon village and seen the same, and down in the village where the militia drilled in the afternoon amid good natured teasing and laughter.

Xena herself enjoyed fighting, and resisted lying about that to her offspring. 

So how to explain?  “Going boom is something we do.”  Xena said, slowly. “Your mama and I do it when we have to, and we practice, which can be fun.”  She went on. “But it’s not fun when someone gets owie. Right?”

“No, Boo. No fun.”  Dori shook her head.  She knew what owie was, having seen her parents get injured enough times. “Don't like that.”

“Okay, so I thought if we all started to fight today, a lot of people would get owie. Maybe mama and me too.” Xena explained. “So I decided it would be better if we just had fun and didn’t fight.  Got that?”

Dori nodded. “Good.”  She decided, giving Xena a hug. 

Xena hugged her back, then she stiffened, looking to her right just as Ares appeared in a for him restrained blue flash.  He sauntered over to where she as seated and leaned against the chest.     “I was wondering if you’d stop by.”  The warrior said, in a mild tone.

Ares smiled. “You missed the party.” He winked at Dori, who was regarding him with wide, green eyes.  “Hey kid.”

“Hi.” Dori responded, safe in the cradle of Xena’s arms.

“I wanted to get back to this party.” Xena remarked.  “Have fun?”

Ares chuckled. “Yeah.” He admitted. “Woulda been better if you took Daddy’s offer.” He said. “But seeing those two lose out to baby sister was a kick.” 

“You knew I wouldn’t.”  Xena found she actually didn’t mind Ares presence for a change. “Wasn’t that the whole point? “

“Sure.” Ares extended a finger and watched Dori grab it.  “I knew you’d be stupid enough to turn him down and go back to being a dirt grubber with your babe. “ He glanced up at her. “But I still had hope maybe you’d see the light and act in your own best interest for a change.”

Xena wasn’t even offended. She smiled at him.  “C’mon, Ares. You can’t have it both ways. Either I won your bet for you, or I didn’t.” She said. “You didn’t really want me to stay up on Mount Olympus and I didn’t want either of your sisters to get your job.”

“True.” The god admitted. “But it would have made it interesting up there, gotta say that.” He played tug with Dori.  “You’d have kicked their asses anyway.  I had a side bet on that.”

Xena rolled her eyes. 

“It was a bummer.”  Ares said. “I was really working this Sparta thing.  I dig those guys. They love war. Not like those Athenian losers.”

Xena cocked her head in inquiry. “So how did Athena and Artemis get involved in that anyway?” She asked. “I thought you had that all lined up.”

“Thanks to you? I did.”  Ares' lips moved into a grim smile. “Then that whole little incident happened.”

Incident? Oh. “The valley.” Xena said.

“Yeah. Bad enough those losers didn't pay any attention to my croaking.” Ares said. “But after I got back up there I found them divvying up my stuff.”

Xena's eyes opened a little wider.

“Nice, huh?” The god said. “They didn't figure I was coming back. So the two butch bitches got into a knockdown about who was going to be goddess of war. “  He glowered at Xena. “And daddy thought it would be entertaining to let them fight it out.”

“I see.” Xena murmured.

“Bitches. Screwed up my nice war.” Ares said. “So yeah, I'm glad they ended up down in some pig sty somewhere. Hope a couple of big cowherds find em and rape em.”

Xena winced. “Not nice, Ares.”

The god shrugged. “Neither was them tearing up my bedroom and kicking my dog out.” He said bluntly. “No sympathies from me. Sorry babe. My turn to laugh at them.”

“How long will he leave them mortal?” Xena asked.

Ares shrugged again. “Beats me. Until he gets bored.” His brows quirked. “Better watch out. They know you've got experience with that whole mortality thing. They may come looking for you to help them.”

Xena groaned, and rolled her eyes. “Like I would, after what they did.”

Was there a twinkle in Ares' eyes? “Well, babe, you did help me out and we havent' always been best buddies, now have we?” The god asked. “They know you're a sucker.”

Xena studied him. “You're different.”

They looked at each other for a long period of time, enough for Dori to get restless and start to squirm in Xena's arms. 

Then Ares smiled.  “Same to you.” He finally said.  “But watch out.  Those two are gonna hold a big time grudge.”

“Got cha.”  Xena bounced Dori in her arms. “You hungry Dor? I think I smell dinner coming outside.” She darted a glance at her visitor. “Wanna join us?”

“Xena. C'mon.” Ares chuckled.  “You had what we eat up there. You think I want mortal food?”

“It tastes better.”  The warrior informed him.  “I got bored of that stuff up there after what.. a day?” She stood up, cradling Dori. “Besides. Your brother's here. Think of the entertainment possiblities.”

Ares tipped his head back and laughed, the sound echoing off the marbled walls.

Xena chuckled briefly. “I gotta go.” She said, as his laughter wound down.

“Ah well. Me too.” He sighed.  “It was pretty good having dinner last night and not having a bitchfest.”  He said. “But it’s too bad you split so fast. Just seeing the old lady frothing would have been worth it.” 

He straightened up.  “Anyway,  I’ve got wars to instigate and acolytes to ravish.” He said. “See yah, ya little monkey.” He addressed Dori. “Maybe you and I can have some fun when you grow up.”

His eyes darted up to Xena's face, but the warrior merely returned his look with a mild expression. After a moment of silence, he snapped his fingers, and disappeared.

“Boom.” Dori commented.  “Hungry, Boo.”

“Me too, shortie.” Xena headed towards the door. “Let's go get mama and find our friends and get some food. Okay?” She picked up their clothing on the way out.

“Okay!”

**

Its finally the end of one of the strangest days of my life.  Between dawn and now, I died, went to Mount Olympus, came back, and helped avert a war.

Not bad for one day.   There’s so much that happened, I think I’ll wait to write about all of it until we get back home and I can sit down and think about it.  Especially some of the stuff that happened on Mount Olympus.

Ephiny said something tonight that really hit me.  I was telling her about how Xena turned down Zeus’s offer to let her stay on Olympus and she asked me if I finally was convinced Xena was mine.

Did I doubt that before? Or did she just think I did because of everything that happened to us.  I wasn’t surprised when Xena told him no, just like I knew for sure she’d never leave me there and stay in Elysia.

But you know something? In the very back of my soul I did feel this little zing when she said it. It wasn’t surprise, it was something else.  Joy? Relief? I can’t really tell. 

I think it s more like.. the feeling you get when you know something, but everyone else doesn’t, and then they find out. Sort of a .. ‘yeah!’ feeling.   A ‘see? Toldja! Kind of thing.

So, it’s not so much that I was finally convinced, but that I could tell people that and they’d be finally convinced. You know?

Gabrielle looked up from her diary as they entered.  “Hey you two.”  She greeted them. “Nice bath?  I could get used to that tub.”

Xena chuckled.  She carried Dori over to the long bench and set her down on it. “Ours isn't bad.” She said. “And it's got running water.”  She reminded her soulmate.

“Yes it does.”  The bard agreed. “Eph went to get Pony.  I was just getting caught up on my writing.”  She indicated the book.  “Did I hear another voice in there?”

“Ares.” Her partner promptly supplied. “Stopped by to warn me about his sisters, and gloat.” She pulled Dori's jumper on and set her down on the floor. “There ya go little frog. Go play.”

“Ah.” Gabrielle nibbled the end of her quill, watching Xena as she removed her towel and picked up the long tunic she'd taken into the bathing room with her.  The candlelight gilded the warrior's body, only the dark patch of the tattoo on her breast marring the surface.  “He have anything else to say?”

Xena glanced up from fastening her tunic. “The usual.” She came over and sprawled on the bed next to her soulmate.  “Gave me a hard time about turning Zeus down.”

The bard cocked her head. “I thought the whole point of that was we won his dumb bet for him?”

“Mmhm.” Xena nodded. “It was. He just wants everything.”

“Ah.” Gabrielle reached over and tickled Xena's nose with her quill. “He can't have you.”

“Nope.”  Xena caught the end of the quill in her teeth, then released it. “I invited him to have dinner with us and he split.”

Gabrielle laughed softly. “That would have been really weird, honey. You'd have totally freaked all our friends, and pissed off Hercules.” She saw the mischevious glint in her partner's eyes. “Xena.”

“I said he left.” Xena smiled. “But c'mon, it would have been fun to watch.”  She reached out and stroked Gabrielle's calf.  “He sounds really mad at his family.”  She said. “But having been up there... they're cruel, Gab. All of them.”

“Even Aphrodite.” Gabrielle nodded gently.  “I should have asked her about that, when she came here to see me. We talked about love, but what does that really mean if you're immortal?” She studied her partner's angular face. “I realized something.  Of course they have to mess with us. All they have up there is each other.”

“The only thing that's permanent for them is them.” Xena agreed. “We're just fleeting distractions. We come and go and they go on.”

“Wow.”  The bard mused. “But Xena... we go on too. We know that.” She said. “Look at those people from Elysia, who were serving the gods.  We knew those people.”

“But not everyone goes there.”  Xena rolled onto her back and studied the ceiling. “You know, I once heard something.  I was somewhere and I heard about this belief.. these wise men who were telling people when they died, they went to a place to wait, and then they got reborn.”

“Reborn?”

Xena nodded. “Yeah. You just kept going through lives, until you got to a point where you caught a clue then you went somewhere else.”

“Huh.” Gabrielle thought about that.  “Would you know who you were if you were born all over again? Or would you just be... “ She stopped speaking, her eyes meeting Xenas as the warrior head turned towards her. “Or when you met people you shared this thing with you'd feel like you knew them?”

She could feel the prickle as her nape hairs lifted, and the cool breeze from the window hit the skin on the back of her neck, a flash of memory bringing into her mind's eye the moment she and Xena had met.

The moment her life had begun, wasn't that what she'd told Jess?

Xena released a breath. “Eh.” She shrugged, breaking the tension. “Or it was just a crazy story from some drunk old guy.” She turned her head, as Dori came over with Flameball. “Whatcha got there, Dor?”

“Hey people, dinner's here.” Ephiny's voice called in from the outer room, and there was the sound of people entering, and boots scraping against the stone. 

Gabrielle closed her diary and put it on the low bench next to the bed. She got up and went over to where Xena was sprawled, crouching down to look her partner in the eye. “I'd spend ten thousand lifetimes with you.”  She leaned forward and gave Xena a kiss, then she stood up and walked out of the room.

Xena smiled, watching her until she disappeared.  “You ready for dinner, Dori?” She asked her daughter.  “I bet they found us some honeycake.”

“Boo, Flamby wants a horsie too.” Dori said, earnestly.  “You get him one?”

The warrior rolled up off the bed and extended a hand. “I'll see what I can do.” She waited for Dori to clasp her fingers.  “Maybe we can train a squirrel to take him around with you.”

“A pony Boo!”

A pony for a stuffed animal. Xena mused, as they entered the main room, where dozens of people were already gathering around the table. 

Almost as crazy as being perpetually reborn.

**
Continued in Part 29