A Queen’s Tale

Part 3

Gabrielle evaded two groups of chattering women and slid into a seat at the high table next to Xena.  “You know what I just thought of?”

Her soulmate was plowing stolidly through a plate of the Amazon’s miscellaneous stew lunch.  She put her knife down and picked up her cup, taking a sip and swallowing whatever it was she had in her mouth with some effort. “Gabrielle.”

“What?”

Xena turned and laced her fingers together. “Couldja please teach these damn Amazons to at least cut the pieces of wood in the food into bit size chunks so I don’t get a sore throat swallowing it?”

“Oh, c’mon, Xena. It’s not that bad.” Gabrielle poked around in her partner’s plate and paused, as she felt something hard and square. She removed it and brought it closer to her eyes for inspection, her brows creasing.  “What is this?”

Xena pushed her plate over, and retired to her cup instead. “Here. All yours.”

Tentatively, Gabrielle bit into the square, then she removed it from her mouth and examined it again.  Then she stood up and picked up the plate. “Excuse me a minute.” 

“Go baby go.”  Xena braced her elbows on the table and watched in contentment as Gabrielle disappeared into the cooking area, fairly sure she’d return with something at least marginally more edible.

There had been a time in her life, and in fact, a time in her life with Gabrielle when she’d pretty much not cared what food tasted like. She ate whatever was available, to keep herself going and keep her strength up for fighting the unnumbered series of battles that stretched on day after day.

Then she met Gabrielle, almost the first person she’d spent any length of time with outside her mother who could cook. Now she’d found that she’d gotten a lot pickier about what was on the table and far more used to things that were cooked right and tasted good than otherwise.

The Amazons unfortunately stuck to her former philosophy and while they appreciated good food when it was available they consumed whatever the cook hall put before them with very little complaint.

Xena wasn’t above complaining.

She glanced around the room. It was mostly full with Amazons all clustered around the trestle tables, hunkered over bowls or tearing hunks of bread up to dunk in the liquid at the bottom of them.  Xena shook her head a little and set her mug down.

Everone seemed to have settled down.  The conversation was casual, though some of the women looked up as Gabrielle passed, their eyes following her with various levels of interest, ranging from curiousity to outright lust.

Xena’s eyes narrowed a little, seeing the latter.  

“So, Xena.” Renas came over, seeing her unoccupied.

 ‘Yes?” The warrior eyed her, not really wanting to continue their conversation about her leading Athen’s army.

“I was talking to those women last night.” Renas said. “After Gabrielle finished telling her story.  You know what one of em said to me?” She didn’t wait for Xena to respond. “She told me Gabrielle must just be exaggerating because she could see for sure none of us had the guts for war.”

Xena rolled her eyes.

“Cait poked her in the ass.”  Renas said. “I mean, Artemis sake.”

“Wait until they get in the middle of it. Then they’ll find out who has guts.” Xena said. “Everyone thinks it a big old party until they take the first arrow in the chest.”

“Have you?” Renas asked. “Taken an arrow in the chest?”

The warrior chuckled softly under her breath. “I’ve taken arrows pretty much everywhere.” She admitted. “Gabrielle’s had to do plenty of sewing on my hide in the last few years.”

“She’s taken a few herself.”

“She has.” Xena agreed. “That’s why both of us agree going to war is no fun.. We have a lot of scars to show for it.”

Renas grinned. “That’s what Cait told them crazy Amazons.  She got her skirt all in a dither about it.  Kid’s got spunk. Likes you a lot.”

The warrior nodded.  “We have a lot of history together.”

“She from here?”

Xena caught sight of Gabrielle heading back in her direction, carrying a pot.   “She’s from just down the river.  Parents were killed in a raid, and she went feral. My mother started tossing her scraps, and she hung around the inn for a while.”

“Hm.”

Gabrielle arrived back at the table, and set the pot down. She stirred what was in it, then scooped two big ladles full into a plate and put it down in front of her partner. “See if that’s any better.”

Xena speared a chunk and popped it into her mouth, already recognizing the familiar spices.  Then she reached over and took Gabrielle’s free hand, bringing it over and kissing it.  “Almost as tasty as mpfh.”

The bard had clapped her hand hastily over her soulmate’s mouth. “Xena.”

Renas chortled. “Your secret is out, your Majesty.” She said. “Xena, I never figured you for such a romantic.”

“Oh, she is.” Gabrielle released her hold, watching the blue eyes twinkled wickedly at her.  “She most certainly is.” Before she could continue, though, they all heard the sharp whistle of the watch, stilling conversation around them as everyone turned towards the door.  “Ah.” She removed her hand from Xena’s mouth as she felt the warrior’s body start to move, guessing her intent and stepping out of the way.

“Be right back.” Xena stood and slipped around her, moving swiftly through the dining hall and ducking out the door before the sound had faded.

Gabrielle debated following, then she took her seat instead, ladling out some stew for herself.  Xena certainly could take care of herself and everyone else in the general area, and besides, she was hungry.

The stew hadn’t taken that much to fix. She’d just had to have the well meaning, but unused to the local ingredients cooks fish out the chunks of root they’d thought would soften and then follow her lead in correcting the spices so the stew tasted like something other than dishwater.

Poor Xena.  Gabrielle chuckled and shook her head. “I’ve got you good and spoiled, that’s for sure.” She muttered under her breath.

“Queen Gabrielle?” Renas spoke up after a moment’s silence.  “Anyone ever tell you you’re not supposed to be serving other Amazons?”

Gabrielle looked up at her, a droll expression on her face.

“I know.” The elder held her hand up. “But if you want to maintain your authority, you have to think of things like that.”

The bard chewed her mouthful and swallowed.  “So does that mean I have to treat my family differently when I’m here? If it does, I’m leaving.” She took a sip of cider, and then another spoonful of stew.  “So long.”

Renas blinked at her. “Well, that wasn’t really what I …”

“That’s nor another Amazon.”  Gabrielle said. “That’s my partner.”

“Sure, I know that.”

“Do you really think I care what anyone thinks when it comes to me and my partner?”  Gabrielle asked, looking up over her bowl.  “Especially when I have to subject her to this tasteless pulp you all eat here?”

“Hey, it’s not that bad.” Renas dropped the subject.  “Sure have had worse. They have to get some practice somehow right?”

“We teach our sisters to make arrows, and craft armor.” Gabrielle said. “Why don’t’ we teach them to cook?”  She looked over at Renas. “Why don’t we teach things like that?”

Renas blinked at her in silence.

“Is it because we’re all supposed to be tough?” Gabrielle wondered.  “Or what?”

The elder scratched her head. “Y’know, I never thought about it.” She admitted. “I guess everyone figures if you’re a woman, you know how to do that stuff, so why bother teaching it?” She shrugged. “Anyway, in the village it’s always someone who has the interest who gets into that.  Most of us, the warriors, we don’t.”

Gabrielle rested her chin on her hand. “That’s silly.”  She remarked. “I think we need to change that. It doesn’t work to wait for someone to take an interest – look where we are now? Our one cook is out of commission in the sick hall and we have to eat tree bark.”

“Well…”

“Xe’s right. I’m going to lay off the staff and start teaching other stuff.” Gabrielle shook her head and went back to her bowl. “Plenty of people here know how to beat the stuffing out of each other. Not many know how to grill a fish.”

“Ah.”

“Want to be in the first class?” The bard asked.

Renas got up. “Actually, I have a.. trap I have to go check. Yeah. Ah, see you later, your Majesty.” She sidled away and headed for the entrance to the hall, leaving Gabrielle to finish her lunch in peace.

“I’m not sure what that was all about.” Gabrielle mused. “But those classes are definitely going to happen.”

**

Xena met the guard as they came across the central grassy area, their eyes showing relief as they spotted her and angled their steps to intercept hers.  “Whats up?”

“Word from the town.” The nearest guard said. “Said they’re looking for you.”

“Thanks.”  Xena ducked past them and started for the entrance to the village, breaking into a loping run as she hit the slope down to the path.   The summer air puffed lightly against her body, and she was aware of the warm sun on her shoulders until she cleared the edge of the village and passed beneath the trees.

Then she was in the shade of the rocky, steep path and moving faster,  rambling down the rocks with easy grace. She was glad the relative peace since their return had let her recover from their harrowing ordeal in the valley.   It made the travel up and down to the cabin a lot easier, and she and Gabrielle had resumed sparring again after taking a long break from it.

The town was coming up fast, and Xena allowed her speed to increase as she came to the end of the slope and headed through the town.

She was spotted immediately by two militiamen, who startd in her direction. “Gen’rl!” 

Xena pulled up as she met them. “What’s going on?”

“Genr’l,  got a r’port from the pass.  Armed troops coming in.”

Son of a Bacchae.  Xena cursed silently.  She hadn’t expected anything this quickly. “Okay.”  She said. “Get me six mounted, at the gates. I’ll meet them.”   She didn’t wait for an answer, turning and heading towards the stables at a run.

Then she stopped, and half turned. “Leos!”

One of the running militia hauled to a stop. “Aye?”

“Send someone up to the village. Let Gabrielle know.”

“Aye!”  He pointed at the barracks and waved the other man on, turning himself and running towards the sloping path Xena had so recently come down.

Satisfied, Xena turned and headed for the stables.  She passed the inn, catching a glimpse of a familiar figure on the porch as she started past.

“Xena!”  Cyrene called out. “Wait! What’s going on?”

“Later, mother.” She gave her mother a wave, as she jumped over the paddock fence and dodged a couple of goats on her way to the barn door.   She let out a whistle, and pulled the door open just as Argo pushed her stall door open and came towards her, snorting. “Hey girl.”

She wrapped her fingers in the mare’s mane and vaulted onto her back, glad she already had her armor on and her sword on her back.  She tightened her knees and urged the mare out of the barn, ducking gracefully as they cleared the door.

A saddle and stirrups would have been nice, but she’d ridden many times without them, and she relaxed into Argos pace as the mare broke into a canter.   She could hear hoofbeats approaching and as she reached the crossroads, six men on horseback clattered towards from the direction of the barracks.

“Let’s go.” Xena urged Argo towards the bridge.  “Lets see what’s going on here.”

“Right behind ye, Genr’l.” Bennu answered.

They rode across the bridge and up the slope to the far side, threading their way through the wagons among the slowly stirring merchants. 

“Hey, what’s going on?” One asked.  “What’s all the rush?  Sara’s got some fresh pastries out, good ones!”

“Later.” Xena guided Argo around him. “We’ve got something to take care of.”

“Something going on?” The man called after them.

“Soon’s we’ll all know.” Bennu said as they rode past.

Xena waited until they cleared the merchants, then she tightened her grip and Argo responded, surging into a gallop.

It felt great.  She’d always loved riding horseback, and knowing she was doing that, into possible battle, raised the hair on the back of her neck and put a grin on her face.   “Any idea who they are?” She yelled to Bennu, over the rumble.

“Nah.” Bennu shook his head. “Didn’t have colors on.” He said.  “Looked like mercs, scout said.”

Mercenaries.  Xena settled herself a little more forward on Argo’s back, putting her hand on the mare’s shoulder as she galloped.  That could go either way.   Maybe just some opportunists, who hadn’t figured out where they were, or maybe agents of Athens.

She wasn’t really sure which she’d prefer.  Opportunists would merely provide her with some entertainment.   Agents of Athens, on the other hand, would at least confirm her suspicions and let them get enough information to form a plan.

They would know soon enough.

**

Gabrielle spotted the forestry class coming back and changed her direction, heading back across the grass towards the children’s area instead of going to her quarters.  

Now that the first meetings were over, and the shock had faded, wheels were starting to turn in her head as she realized this was an opportunity to think about changes she could make in the long inured traditions of the tribe.

She respected tradition.  She understood that the Amazons took pride in their heritage, and stood firm in wanting to keep to their old ways and not really try to fit in with changing times.  But Gabrielle also knew more than most how people needed to adapt to the world and maybe this time she’d have a chance to gently push the Amazons towards some new horizons.

She’d start with the small, common sense things first, like the single quarters now that they had space, and cooking lessons.   Who knew where that might lead?

Already, she could hear the children’s excited voices, and selected Dori’s out of the crowd with out effort.  Her daughter was rambling on about fishes, and Gabrielle briefly wondered if she’d displayed her nascent talent for catching them in her bare hands to her friends.

She was fairly sure that would startle the Hades out of them, since it certainly had knocked her and Xena for a loop the first time they saw her do it.

As she neared the group, Solari spotted her and waved.  Then Dori saw her and came running over, her face alight with happiness. “Mama!”

That never failed to perk her up.   She opened her arms and knelt as Dori reached her, giving her a big hug as her daughter flung her arms around her enthusiastically. “Hey, Doriboo. Did you have fun?”

 “Mama I did!”  Dori said. “I saw fishes, and we got bugs, and Mama! Mama I saw a turtle and I show him to e’vrybody!”

Ah.  “You did, huh?”  Gabrielle ruffled her hair. “I see you got wet too, huh? Did you go hunting for fishies?” She stood and took Dori’s hand, walking with her back over to the group. “Everyone have a good time?”

“Well.” Solari looked a little worse for wear, her leathers scuffed and a few bruises dark against her tanned skin.  “I think we sorta just kept up with your kid there, finding stuff for us to look at.” She gave Dori a look of respect. “She sure can track.”

“Is that true, honey? Did you show your friends all kinds of nice things?” Gabrielle asked her daughter.

“She sure did.”  Solari grinned.

“Yes, mama! Look!” Dori was digging in the little pouch at her waist.  “See?”  She held up something. “I found a toof!”

Gabrielle accepted this item and inspected it gravely. “What kind is it, Dor?”

“Piggy.”

The bard glanced at Solari, who grinned. “That’s right, it’s a wild boar, huh?  Do you remember when that piggy chased your mama?”

Dori giggled.

“I don’t remember hearing that story.” Solari mentioned hopefully.

“Hm. No.”  Gabrielle handed Dori back her prize.  “Didn’t wind up so well for me or the boar, but Xena ended up with porkchops for dinner so she thought it all worked out fine in the end.” She said. “I’ve got a history of stumbling into wild boar’s dens. That’s where I got this.” She indicated a long thin scar on her thigh.

‘Wow.” Solari glanced at it respectfully. “That musta hurt.”

“It did.” The bard agreed.  “She wasn’t too crazy, was she?”

“Nah.” The dark haired Amazon shook her head. “She’s just knows so much about stuff out there. She sees everything.”

“Like Xena.” Gabrielle smiled.

“Like big X. “ Solari nodded. “It’s wild.”

Gabrielle gazed fondly down at her child, who was examining a butterfly fluttering around a few grass stalks nearby.  “Xena’s been teaching her for the last year or so.” She said. “I think she gets a kick out of passing on that knowledge.”

“She mind giving us some lessons?”

The bard chuckled. “Ask her.” She whistled softly. “C’mon, Dor.  Let’s go back to our house here, and you can show me all your stuff and tell me stories about it.”

Dori jumped up and ran over.  “Good! Mama, can we have some cookies too?  Hungry!”

“Sure honey, I’ll get you some lunch.” Gabrielle promised. “Then maybe your Boo will come back, and we can have some fun with her. How about that?”

Dori’s eyes lit up.  “Boo! We can go flying!”

Solari chuckled.  “See ya later. “ She said. “Everyone stop freaking out about Eph?”

Gabrielle took Dori’s hand and clasped it. “They’re working on it.” She said. “You know, I’ve heard people say more than once it would be nice if their Queen stuck around for a while.” 

Solari grimaced.

“They might want to be careful what they ask for.” The bard winked at her, then she started off across the grass, with Dori rambling happily alongside her.

‘What did she mean by that?”  One of the other children’s caretakers came up next to Solari.

“Pasi, your guess is as good as mine.” Solari said. “But there are a lot of people around here that are gonna have their opinions adjusted if you know what I mean.”

“Hmph.” Pasi sat down on a rock at the entrance to the kids area. “You think she made Eph leave?”

Solari turned around and stared at her. “Are you nuts?”

Pasi shrugged. “Just something I heard in the dining hall.”

“No way.” The dark haired woman shook her head emphatically.  “And whoever’s saying that should keep their trap shut, because if Gabrielle hears that crap she’s not gonna like it.”

“I don’t think so either.” Pasi said, a touch defensively.  “It was just real strange for her to up and take off like that, you know?”

Was it? Solari gazed at the retreating figures.  “Well.” She said, after a moment. “Eph’s done that before. You remember when she took off with those kids, and when she took off again for Amphipolis, said she was itchy?”

Pasi nodded slowly after a pause. “Oh yeah. I do remember that.”  She said. “Got her ass in trouble both times.”

“Got her ass saved by Gabrielle and big X both times.”  Solari confirmed. “So you know, the last thing I think her Maj would do is to send her outta here, cause probably she’d just have to haul her butt out after her and go rescue her again.  She’s got crap luck that way.”

“That’s true.” The childcare worker agreed.  “And when she had Xenon, too.”

“Yup.”

“Yeah, you’re right. So what did she mean by saying people should be careful for what they ask for?” Pasi said. “Sounds like she doesn’t think Ephs coming back.”

Solari stood up and dusted her hands off.  “Maybe it means she’s going to take that mask seriously.” She said. “If she does, won’t matter if Eph comes back or not.  Gabrielle’s the queen.”

“Huh.”

“Huh.”  Solari echoed.

**

Xena pulled Argo up as they approached the last bend in the road before it turned and straightened and went through the pass that came down through the mountains and opened up onto the plains where Amphipolis was located.

The message had been relayed from her watch station just this side of the pass, sent via signals past the watch at Potadeia, past the bend of the river, and up through the rise to the town.   After a two candlemark ride, they were almost in position to see what was coming at them firsthand, and Xena took a moment to catch her breath, and think about what she wanted to do.

No point, really, in doing that beforehand.  “Okay.” She patted Argo’s shoulder, feeling the sweat under her touch as the mare also caught her breath.

“Think there’ll be fighten?” Bennu came up next to her. 

“Maybe.” Xena felt her own pulse pick up a little at the words.   She’d had no real fights since they came back, though she’d conscientiously drilled for them and she was feeling a touch on the rusty side because of it.

Crazy.   “Let’s let the horses cool down, then we ride around the bend towards the pass casual.” She ordered.  “Just make it look like we’re heading to Dartour.  We’re not expecting any trouble.”

“Aye.” Bennu nodded, patting his big bay horse’s shoulder.  “Sounds good  Genr’l.  What your thinking they want?”

Xena cocked her head to one side. “Well, it’s either just some opportunists, if it’s mercenaries, or they’re running from Athens because they realize the war’s a bust, or it someone coming to Amphipolis for a reason.” She sorted Argo’s mane.

It was hot, and she could feel the sweat under her armor. She raked her fingers through her hair and settled her legs, then she nudged Argo forward again. “Let’s go find out.”

They kept at a walk, as the men filed in behind her in a rough formation, talking to each other as they moved along.  Xena stayed in the lead, vaguely wishing she’d stopped to saddle Argo since the one odd thing about them was the fact that here she was, in full armor, riding a horse with not so much as a bridle on.

Ah well.  She hitched forward a little, and tightened her knees, moving her body weight forward over her center of balance in case she needed to draw her sword.   She took a deep breath, feeling the leathers under her armor grow snug, then released it, glancing casually around as they started into the bend.

Argo snorted and shook her head.

“Yeah I know, we’re crazy.” Xena correctly interpreted the horse’s commentary.  “Sorry girl. Next time I”ll take your son when I want to go riding all over the place in the heat, okay?”  She stroked the horse’s neck. “I think you’re getting a little too old for this crap.”

Argo snorted again.

“Maybe I am too.” Xena muttered under her breath, more than normally aware of the discomfort of the weather.

The mare rolled her eyes.

“Did you say something, Genr’l?” Bennu asked, moving up next to her.

“Nah.” The warrior sighed.  “Did  Deran tell me the other day you had ten new recruits?”

“Aye.” Bennu seemed happy at the acknowledgement. “Y’know we all feel like we let you down,  Xena, letting the town run us off that way. “

Xena half shrugged. “You did what you had to, Bennu. If you’re supposed to be guarding the town, and the town tells you to get out, what choice did you have?”

“Coulda stayed.” Bennu said, glancing off past her.  “But the truth is, we’re not here for the town. They know it, we know it.  Ain’t no purpose for us staying there w’out you being there.”

Xena exhaled.  “I know.” She said. “Sometimes I wonder if that’s where I really want to be too.  I think I was happier out on the road with Gabrielle.”

Bennu chuckled. “I figgred that.” He said. “Even when we were at the city, that time, you didn’t have a mind to stay.”

“No.” Xena remembered that time, and smiled. “But then, I’d just found out we were going to have a kid.  Hard to say where the Hades my head was then.   If Gabrielle had wanted to stick around for a while, I woulda.”

“Ahh.”

“And after that, once we finally got home, I knew we had to stay there.” Xena went on.  “We had some peace and quiet.”

“Till the war.”

“Till the war.” The warrior acknowledged. “Now we take it one day at a time. “ She lifted her head, as a puff of wind brought her the faint sound of hoofbeats coming towards them. “Here we go.”

Bennu fell silent and they all shifted, men checking their weapons as their pace picked up a bit, the horses sensing their rider’s tension and reacting to it.

Xena felt her heartbeat pulse more strongly, bringing a flush of blood to her already warm skin. A tingle of anticipation ran up her spine and she took a few deep breaths, as they rounded the midpoint of the bend and could see ahead of them again.

At the edge of the curve, on the other side, a group of mounted, armed men were clustered, all looking their way having heard the approaching horses.

“Keep going, act normal.” Xena uttered.  She let her hands rest on Argo’s neck and whistled softly under her breath, as the rest of the militia laughed at something Bennu was telling them behind her.  She watched the soldiers they were approaching with her peripheral vision, affecting a relaxed lack of concern to their watching eyes.

A dozen of them.  Mounted and well armed, on well kept horses. They didn’t wear tabards, though, nothing to identify them with Athens, or anything else. 

Her curiosity was peaked. Could another warlord like Andreas be rearing his head?   Xena turned her eyes towards the men now, casually meeting the glance of the one in the lead, then looking past him as though he were of no interest to her.

He was about her age. Bearded, and with short cropped hair, with a serious expression but nothing that indicated immediate threat.

Xena kept her hands on Argo’s mane as they drew even with the group, her fingers sorting the rough hairs out to either side of the horses neck.  She gave the man in front a brief nod as they started past, the rest of her men ignoring the others completely.

“Excuse me.” The man said. “Could you possibly tell me where Amphipolis is?”

Xena signaled Argo to stop, and the mare did willingly. She half turned and regarded the man. “Who wants to know?” She kept her voice mild, though, giving the man a brief grin to take the sting out of her words.

The militia came to a halt behind her, leaning on their saddlebows and regarding the strangers with benign interest.   Though outnumbered, the confidence in their body language was unmistakable, and mostly based on the fact that they had unshakable faith in the woman leading them.

A dozen men? They’d seen Xena battle hundreds and defeat them, without any help at all.  What were a dozen men to her? Or them?

“My name is Ranalf.” The soldier said, in a polite tone.  “I bear a message to be tendered in Amphipolis, and am just wondering if we’re on the right road.  We have been traveling four sevendays and were hoping our journey was near to it’s end. It’s hot, and we’re tired.”

Xena swung her leg over Argo’s head and sat sideways on the mare’s back, crossing her legs casually and leaning on both hands.  “You’re on the right road.” She replied with equal courtesy. “Follow this around to the river ford, across that is Amphipolis proper.”

The men looked relieved. Up close, they appeared well ordered, mostly younger men but neatly shaved with their armor in well cared for condition.  Their leathers were stained with sweat though, and they were dusty from long travel.  “A river ahead? That’s good news.” Ranalf said.  “And journey’s end, for now. I thank you.”

“My pleasure.” Xena said. “Is your message for anyone in particular? We’re from Amphipolis.”

Ranalf glanced at them curiously, taking in their armored bodies and well used weapons, and the hawkshead patches sewn into their leather shirts.    Then his eyes turned to Xena, who was still comfortably seated sideways on her horse, with no such identifying mark on her.  “Are you? Well, our business is somewhat private….”

“I can think of two people that message might be for.” Xena gently interrupted him. “I’m one of them and I’m married to the other. My name’s Xena.”

Ranalf’s body posture stiffened perceptibly and his fingers inside leather gloves clenched on his horse’s reins.  “Then you are indeed who we are looking for.” He said, unsurprisingly.  “If I may beg a pardon though, as I say we’ve been traveling a long way. Could the delivery of this message wait until we have a table bench under us, and some ale before?”

Xena studied him for a long moment, her eyes narrowing slightly.  She let him wait just long enough for everyone to start twitching, then she nodded. “Sure.” She resettled herself in a more conventional posture on Argo’s back, and lifted her hand to indicate the path back towards home. “After you.”

Ranalf started his horse forward, and she pulled Argo along side him, letting her men string out in rough formation around the strangers. 

They rode in silence for a moment, then Ranalf looked over at her. “So you’re Xena.”

The warrior nodded. “I’m Xena.” She agreed.

“You and your men were heading somewhere. I hope we’re not interrupting you.” Ranalf said.

“We were finding out why a dozen strange soldiers were heading this way.” Xena informed him.  “We had word you were coming through the pass earlier.”

The soldier nodded slowly. “I see.”   He said.  “Were you expecting some trouble?”

Xena chuckled. “We were bored and looking for entertainment.” She turned her head and looked at him. “But we’re glad you turned out to be friendly, polite strange soldiers instead of the usual kind.  It’s always nice to be pleasantly surprised.”

“Some shoot first in these parts, we’ve discovered.”  Ranalf said. “We started out eighteen.”

Xena glanced behind her. “I’m old enough to know better than to do that.”  Her ears pricked, though, hearing it. “But there’s a lot of unknowns right now.  With the war.”

“With the war.” The man agreed. “That’s very true.”

Silence fell again, and they walked along, kicking up dust from the road as the sun baked down on them.   Xena had the feeling the shadows they would soon start casting before them were a sign that once again, she was bringing trouble home.

Again.

**

“What?”  Gabrielle looked up from changing Dori’s jumper. 

“Said he was from the town, from the militia.”  The scout said. “Wanted to talk to you.”

“Bring him over.” Gabrielle tied the strings on Dori’s shirt hastily.  “He’s probably got a message from Xena.”

The scout regarded her. “We didn’t let him in. He’s a man.”

Gabrielle paused in midmotion, then she turned and looked up at the scout.

“It’s the law.” The scout said. “Your majesty.”

“Oh for the sake of the Gods.”  Gabrielle got up. “Dori, stay here.  Mama will be right back.”  She ducked past the scout and emerged onto the lined path that led to her quarters, breaking into a run towards the tribe’s entrance.

She startled a group of women standing nearby, her powerful, short strides taking her up to her full speed quickly as she crossed the open space drawing the attention of everyone in the general vicinity.

There was no sense of urgency from Xena. No trickle of anger, or fear, or the seductive excitement of fighting coming from her partner, so Gabrielle herself wasn’t really sure why she was scaring the Hades out of everyone except that running felt good, and she was in the mood to do it, so she did.

She whipped past the dining hall, and spotted heads turning and hands reaching for weapons, but she kept going, ignoring the calls and the quickly reacting guards who started running towards her.

She outpaced them, her boots kicking up dust as she slipped between them, taking the slope in stride and muffling as smile as she heard them cursing.

A moment later she passed under the leaves of the trees that lined the outbound path and had to haul up quickly to avoid crashing into the man in Xena’s colors standing patiently outside. “Edgar.”

“Ma’am. Ah. Gabrielle.” The soldier looked very glad to see her. “Didn’t want to stir up nothing here, but Xena asked to get a message up to you.”

“No problem.” Gabrielle clasped his shoulder, pleased to feel her breathing remain even, and her heartbeat steady despite her sudden effort. “What’s wrong?”

“Watch station at the far pass sent word. Soldiers on their way in.” Edgar said. “Xena took a couple of the boys to go check it out.”

“Soldiers… as in an army?” The bard asked.

“Didn’t sound like.” The militiaman shook his head.  “Else she’da taken more, yah?”

“Not necessarily.” Gabrielle responded dryly.  “But thanks, Edgar.   I guess we’ll find out soon enough, right?”

“Yah.”

Gabrielle patted his arm.  “Okay, let me get my daughter and we’ll head down to town. Thanks for coming up to tell me.”  She watched him salute, then turn and leave, heading down the slope back towards Amphipolis.

She waited, then she turned, to find the guards, and the two on duty watch there staring at her.  “Okay.” She said. “Gabrielle’s rule change number one. If someone from the town wants to talk to me, you let them in.”

“He was a man.”

“I don’t care if he was a three legged minotaur.” The queen said. “These are not some unknown strangers wandering down the road.  If they show up here, and ask for me, find me. Bring them in and don’t waste their time.”

“Mama.” Dori pattered into view, two Amazons sprawling nearly into the leaves after her. “Mama, where you going?”

“C’mere, Dor.” Gabrielle held her hand out. “So are we clear on that?” She returned her attention to the guard.  “I understand what our laws are. But I also have learned, sometimes painfully, that common sense has to come before laws sometimes, and this is one of those times.”

“Yes, your majesty.” The nearer of the guards said. “We’re clear on that.”

“Besides, if they’re sending a warning up the hill, chances are we need to hear it.”  Gabrielle concluded. “Now, me and Dori are going to go down there and find out what’s really going on. There are soldiers headed this way.” She started for the path herself.  “I’ll be back shortly to fill everyone in.”

“Yes, your majesty.”

Gabrielle took Dori by the hand and dropped out of their view as she ducked past the village entrance and headed for the lower gate to the town.  “Like chickens sometimes, I swear.”

“Mama, we going to find Boo?” Dori asked, as they climbed down the path.  “I want to show Boo my toof.”

“Yes, honey.” Gabrielle murmured. “We’re going to find Boo.  I’m not sure where we’re going to find her, but we’ll find her. Don’t you worry about that.”

“Okay.” Dori agreed. “Mama those people were mad.”

“Who, the people up in the village?”  Gabrielle watched her daughter. 

“Yes.”  Her daughter nodded. “They were chasing and making loud noise.”  She added. “Mad peoples.”

Gabrielle raked her hair back out of her eyes. “I know that, sweetie. But sometimes you have to do the right thing, even if it makes people mad.  You know that, right? Sometimes me and Boo tell you to do things you don’t want to do?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that’s because your Boo and I know that it’s the right thing to do, even if it doesn’t seem like fun to you.”

“No fun.”  Dori pouted.

“I know, honey.”  Gabrielle felt her annoyance ease, charmed by her daughter as usual.   She was a little concerned about her partner, but after all Xena was more than capable of taking care of herself and she’d taken militia with her. 

She’d be fine. 

Not that the thought kept her from moving a little faster, or her heart beating a little more strongly, or her senses starting to reach out to find that sometimes elusive thread that bound them together.   There was what she told herself logically, and then there was that feeling in her gut that sometimes overrode sense.

There were things about her and Xena that defied logic and often also sense, but she was okay with that. 

They reached the back gates and Gabrielle stiffarmed them open, striding down the path past the new cabins and the recently rebuilt wooden fencing towards the inn – where she could already see a crowd gathering.

The inn, which had become again the centerpoint of town life and the place all Amphipolis went to find out what was going on.    Gabrielle exchanged smiles and a wave of greeting as she edged her way up the steps and found Cyrene waiting at the top of them. “Hi mom.”

“Ah, there you are.” Cyrene spotted her and came over.  “Do you know what’s going on?”

“Just what everyone else probably does.”  Gabrielle admitted. “That they spotted some soldiers heading this way, and my one and only’s  out there checking it out.”

“Gramma!” Dori wormed her way forward. “Want to see my toof?”

“Hey you little darling.”  Cyrene stroked Dori’s head. “I’ll look at it in just a minute.” She turned back to Gabrielle. “Hope this isn’t the start of something bigger.”

“You and me both.” Gabrielle put her hand on her mother in law’s arm.  “Maybe we’ll get lucky and it’s just someone lost heading for Athens.”

Cyrene gave her a skeptical look.  “Well, why don’t you two come inside and get some lunch while we’re waiting? Unless you’re going to sneak off to the stable and ride after her.”  She watched Gabrielle’s face shift and saw the chagrin there.  “By the gods, Gabrielle. Some things about you never change.”

Gabrielle had to smile, and lift her hands in self acknowledgement.  “No, I’ll be good this time.” She guided Dori into the inn. “C’mon, Dori. Let’s see if Gramma has some cookies.”

Cyrene followed them inside, leaving the buzzing crowd behind them.

**

Xena led the way across the bridge, glad they were almost back to town so they could escape the heat and the thick muggy air.  She was sweating freely, as were the rest of the men behind her,  and she was grateful for the relatively scant covering of her leathers that at least gave her a little relief.

“Hades, it’s roasting.”  Ranalf said. “Glad to see the town there. That’s it?”

“That’s it.” Xena agreed. “Stables to the left. Inn’s to the right.”

“Phew.” One of the men behind him sighed.  “Thank the gods.”

They started up the slope from the bridge up to the town. Xena glanced up at the inn’s porch, where she could just make out a figure standing on it, elbows resting on the railing watching them approach.

Gabrielle, of course.  The warrior smiled as she recognized her partner, reading impatient curiosity in the bard’s posture.  A straggle of others were moving towards the inn, seeing them approach and Xena herself was very glad to pass at last under the trees that lined the approach up to the newly rebuilt town gates.

The bard straightened up and put her hands on the railing, the sunlight trickling through the leaves outlining her body.   Unlike the townsfolk around her,  most of her skin was showing in her Amazon leathers, burnished to golden from the summer sun.

“Is that an Amazon there?” Ranalf said.  “By the inn?”

Simple question, with a  very complicated answer.   “C’mon and I’ll introduce you.”  Xena angled Argo’s steps towards the inn and shook the sweat dampened hair from her eyes.  “Bennu, call someone up to grab their horses.”

“Aye, Genr’l.” Bennu swung off his horse as they arrived at the inn. He put his scarred fingers between his teeth and let out a short and long whistle, grunting as two of Xena’s men popped out from nearby and headed their way.

Xena swung her leg over Argo’s neck and slid down, giving the mare a slap on the shoulder and bumping her on her way back towards the paddock.  “G’wan, girl.  I promise you some apples laster.”

Argo eyed her rider skeptically, but snorted and trotted off, pausing to shove her nose into the horse trough next to the inn’s yard and drink some water.

“General?” Ranalf asked.

“You pick up a lot of titles when you do what I’ve done.”  Xena walked towards the steps, her eyes meeting Gabrielle’s and a smile appearing on her face at the grave twinkle she saw there.  “Lead men in battle, you get called a lot of things.”

“Ah.” Ranalf hurried to keep up with her as one of the militia took the reins of his horse. “I see.”

Xena climbed up the steps, reaching out to take Gabrielle’s extended hand and clasping it, drawing it up with casual grace and kissing her knuckles before turning back towards the soldier behind her.   “Ranalf, this is Gabrielle.” She said. “She’s… what are you today anyway?”

Gabrielle chuckled, and met Ranalf’s eyes. “A little of everything . “ She said. “I’m Xena’s partner.”  She clasped his hesitantly offered arm. “Welcome to Amphipolis.”

The rest of the townsfolk were hanging back a little, waiting to see what was going to happen.

“Thank you.” Ranalf said. “But you are…  you are an Amazon?”

“Sometimes.” Gabrielle said. “When I’m not acting as a judge here in town, or telling stories somewhere.” She indicated the door. “Looks like everyone could use a cold drink.”  She hooked her fingers through one of Xena’s armor straps.  “Especially you.”

Ranalf looked confused, but wasn’t about to turn down the offer. “It is very welcome, thank you.”

They entered the inn.   A few of the tables were occupied, but most weren’t, leaving plenty of room for the visitors to settle in.   Cyrene was behind her counter, watching the action with a critical eye, but she kept her silence as the strange soldiers took seats around the biggest of the tables.

Xena took her usual seat at this, her family’s table. It was the one closest to the window, where a chance of a breeze might blow in.   Gabrielle took the seat next to her, and they faced the soldiers.  “Pitcher of ale?”  

“We’d be grateful for it.” Ranalf said. “We have good coin to pay.” He hastily added.  “We’re not asking for charity.”

Cyrene grunted, and signaled the serving girl, who had been standing by in the shadows waiting.  The girl picked up a pitcher and a tray of wooden mugs and glided over to the table.

‘Where are you from?” Gabrielle asked, appropriating one of the mugs and pouring it full. She put it down in front of her partner and leaned on the table, studying the soldiers. 

Ranalf glanced up from pouring his own mug. “Begging your pardon, ma’am, we’ll keep our business quiet a bit longer, until there’s a touch less dust in the throat and I can speak of it.”

“Sure.” Gabrielle said. “I know the feeling.”

Xena took a slow swallow of ale, glad to be in the shade after the day’s ride up an back to the pass. She was content to wait until the soldiers had a mind to talk, since hearing whatever trouble this was bringing her wouldn’t make her happy.

It seemed a bit strange to her to have the soldier keep pushing it off like this though, and she could see the minute shift in Gabrielle’s expression that told her the bard was thinking more or less the same thing.

Could they read each other’s minds?  Xena felt a tiny smile appear as her partner casually looked around, and met her eyes, one brow hiking slightly.   No.  She couldn’t reach inside the bard’s mind and examine her thoughts. But living with her in close quarters for so many years had allowed Xena to read her body language; more expressive than any words could be.

“Is our daughter back from the wilds?” Xena leaned back and tapped her thumbs together, seeing the tilt of her partner’s head as she acknowledged the response and the subject change.

“Yes.” Gabrielle took a sip of Xena’s ale, then put the mug down. “She ended up teaching the class, as you suspected. She found a boar’s tooth as long as my hand in the process.”

“Have to carve something out of that for her.”  The warrior remarked. “Did they at least catch the boar and bring it back?  You could show them that pit cooking you do with those things.”

“Just the tooth.”  The bard patted her hand. “But I told them I was going to start cooking classes so you didn’t have to suffer so much there.”

The server returned with a platter, which had a loaf of fresh bread on it, and a mound of cut meat slices.    The soldiers made very agreeable noises as it arrived, and dove in without hesitation.  “Not many towns out this way.” Ranalf said.

“Not many, no.” Gabrielle answered, since Xena had her nose stuck in her mug.  “A few small ones, down the river, and there’s a few holdings up in the mountains, but it’s pretty quiet around here. Amphipolis is the largest town for about a sevenday.”

“So we noted.” Ranalf nodded. “Get trade here, though, we saw on the way in.”

“Sure.” The bard said. “We produce enough to trade.” She added. “Farms around, and there are some good craftsmen here.”

“Good hunting around.” Xena commented briefly.

The man nodded. “And now we come to it.” He opened a pouch at his waist and withdrew a rolled parchment. “Forgive me for waiting. It’s a cruel thing, but my men are important to me, and I wanted to make sure they got at least a bite and some drink before I tendered this, least you take exception to it and send us back on the road.”

“We would never do that.” Gabrielle told him, in a kind tone.  “We’d have just had Cyrene poison the meat.”

Everyone stopped chewing, and stared at her.  

“Just kidding.” The bard smiled.

Xena extended her hand out for the parchment, holding it steady until Ranalf gave it to her. Then she settled her elbows on the arms of her chair and untied the silk ribbon holding it closed.

Silk ribbon. Bad sign.   “Did you come from Athens?” She asked, glancing up over the still closed parchment resting in her hands.

“No, we did not.” Ranalf answered. “But I believe that message will explain our purpose.”

Gabrielle regarded them, then turned her head and looked at her partner. “Why do I get the feeling we should have stayed in bed today?”

Xena sighed, and unrolled the scroll, tilting her head a little to read it.

**

Gabrielle sat down on the grass next to where Xena was fully reclined, her long legs extended and crossed at the ankle in the shade of a tree.  “Well.”

“Definitely wasn’t expecting that.”  The warrior said.

“No.”  The bard said. “Me either.”  She unrolled the parchment and read it for the nth time. “Most noble warlord Xena.” She intoned, lowering her voice.  “We approach you on a matter that might be of benefit to us all and ask your indulgence on a discussion of it.”

Xena covered her eyes with her forearm. “I’m no supporter of Athen’s war, but did the Spartans really think I’d cross the lines and lead their army?”

“Apparently so.” Gabrielle confirmed.  “Ten thousand dinars, and ten leagues of land if you agree, and twenty thousand more dinars plus a palace if you lead them to victory.”

“That’s a lot of loot.”

Gabrielle glanced at her. “Interested?”

“Sure.” Xena left her arm where it was. “We could use all that to buy a thousand silver horseshoes for Argo and a gold ale tap for my mother.” She exhaled.  “No I’m not interested, but it was damn bold of them.”

“I like it.” Her partner surprisingly replied.  “Very straightforward. None of this appealing to loyalty  or honor stuff. Just ‘hey, we hear you’re a kickass fighter, and we’d like to pay you a lot of money to do it for us.’ It’s sort of refreshing.”

Xena chuckled.

“Well, hon, it is.”  Gabrielle let the parchment roll up, and then she reclined next to the warrior, resting on one elbow.  “Do you think they heard about you defeating that guy?”

Xena let her arm down, then curled it around Gabrielle’s back.  “Maybe.” She said. “But I think I’ve told you I bumped up against the Spartans before.  Fought a legion of them to a standstill back in the border hills years back.”

“You and your army?”  Gabrielle leaned closer and gently blew in Xena’s ear.  “Or you alone?” She watched the skin on her face tense as a smile appeared, and she could see the twinkle in those very blue eyes.

“Me and about a dozen guys.”  Xena turned her head and kissed Gabrielle on the lips. “It’s possible they remembered that.”

“It’s possible they remembered you.” Gabrielle touched foreheads with her.  “You’re pretty unforgettable.”

The warrior purred softly under her breath.   Then she sighed. “Well, I’m not up for leading Sparta against the Athenian army, so I guess we can send back a note with these guys and that’ll be the end of it.”

“Not even a little tempted?”

“Honestly, no.”  Xena replied easily.  “For one thing, I don’t think they need my help and for another their fighting style is not anything I can work with.  That’s what let me beat them the first time, they do battle by numbers.”

“Ah.”

“Besides.”  Xena nibbled on her partner’s earlobe. “I’m enjoying being retired.”

Gabrielle studied her soulmate’s face. It was relaxed and open, and she realized the words were heartfelt.  Xena really didn’t feel any urge to accept the offer, and that made the bard wholeheartedly smile.   “You couldn’t anyway, sweetheart.” She informed her. “Because I’d have to go with you, and that means our whole Amazon nation would have to go too.”

Xena covered her eyes again, her belly shaking with laughter.

“There’s not enough parchment in the world for me to write down all the stuff that would happen if we did that.” Gabrielle eased down next to her, letting her cheek rest against Xena’s upper arm. “I’d still be writing when Dori’s kids were around watching me thinking their grandmother was more than a little nutty.”

“Gods.” Xena wiped the tears from her eyes. “That’s the truth.”

They lay there together quietly for a few minutes, listening to the leaves rustle over head.  Here in their little private glade, the sounds of the town were muted and they could absorb a little of the peace they’d retreated here to find.

Back at the inn, the soldiers waited, along with the elders of the town who knew what was going on.  Dori was playing with her cousins,  and Gabrielle had sent word up to the Amazon village that she’d be down the hill for a while dealing with some unexpected visitors.

That left them free to consider the options together, without interruption or the pressure of all those watching eyes and listening ears.

It suited Gabrielle. She draped her arm over her partner’s waist and let her fingers stroke the soft leather covering it.  Underneath, she could feel the steady breathing, glad she was finally not able to count every rib.

They had both been nothing but skin and bone when they got back from the valley and all the running up and down the mountain since then hadn’t helped much.  But the slower pace of the dog days of summer had finally caught up with them and they’d gotten a chance to relax a little more and recover completely.

She felt Xena’s fingers glide through her hair, and she exhaled happily as she felt the gentle massage at her temples. “Mm.”

Xena let her eyes drift open, and regarded the leaves over her head.  It was hard to say really how she felt about the parchment.  On one hand, it was flattering that a major city state was offering her truly princely sums of money to do something she generally did for free, but the offer did put her on the map and if it got out, could draw Athen’s notice and not in a good way.

She really didn’t have any desire to actually accept the offer. Her statement to Gabrielle had been the honest truth, and even now, reviewing the idea, she didn’t even feel the faintest twinge of interest.

Which in itself, was a little interesting.  Xena felt Gabrielle nestle a little closer, her warm breath tickling the side of her neck.  “What would you do with all those dinars?”

“What would I do.”  Gabrielle unbuckled a strap on Xena’s armor.  “Well, since no amount of money could possibly buy me anything more precious than I already have, I guess I’d have to spend it on toys for Dori and new clothes for you.”

“That’s’ a lot of clothes.”  Xena observed.

“You wear them out fast. I figure that many dinars should keep you for… maybe a year.”  Gabrielle looked up at her with warm affection.  “Why in Hades would we need all that?”

“We wouldn’t.”  Xena shook her head. “But I’d like you to write a nice, polite note to them turning them down, so we don’t stir up any more trouble than we have to.”

Gabrielle considered that, one hand making idle tracings on the leathers covering her partner.  “They’ll never believe it’s from you.”

“Especially after you sign your name to it. “  Xena pulled the leather knots loose holding Gabrielle’s top on.  “Tell em you won’t let me go.”

Gabrielle started laughing.

“You’re the queen of the Amazons, aren’cha?” Xena felt her armor drop free, and the laces on the back of her leathers loosen.  “Don’t I have to listen to you?”

Gabrielle laughed harder.

“Yeah, okay.”  Xena finally chuckled along with her.  She rolled onto her side and stifled the bard’s guffaws with a kiss, that eased quickly past teasing into passion as Gabrielle slid the straps on her leathers down. “You’ll think of something.”

“Yes I will.”  Gabrielle nipped her collarbone. “But not right now.”

“No, not right now.”

**

They walked back up onto the inn’s steps hand in hand, the late afternoon light casting their shadow ahead of them. 

Xena pushed the door open and they entered, to find the room mostly empty, with the foreign soldiers still at the table, looking a little awkward and uncomfortable.  Cyrene was behind her work counter, and only a half dozen militia were there, keeping watch on the guests.

They all looked profoundly relieved to see Xena and Gabrielle. 

Xena pulled out a chair at the table next to the soldiers and sat down, as Gabrielle went over to where Cyrene was standing, and whispered to her.    “Gentlemen.”  The warrior said.

The soldiers turned and looked at her, with slightly wary expressions that made the warrior wonder if her militia hadn’t been telling tall tales while she was gone.     She extended her legs out and crossed them at the ankles, and rested her elbows on the chair arms.

Ranalf turned to face her. “Have you had enough time to consider the note we brought you?” He asked.  “I do thank you for the hospitality shown to us, I realize our mission might not be popular.”

Xena shrugged. “We’re a pretty tolerant town.” She remarked. “Most of us are fighters, or retired fighters, or people who’ve lived through knowing what side you’re on is sometimes a very gray proposition.”

“I see.”

“And Athens last took notice of us wanting taxes and conscripts with nothing in return.” Xena went on. “Wasn’t a popular demand.”

Now Ranalf nodded assuredly.  “We have heard much the same on the way here.” He said. “In our land, coin for the army and bodies to fight in it are never begrudged but also care is taken in return.”

“So I’ve heard.”  Xena inclined her head graciously. “Spartans are a proud people.”

The soldiers stirred a little, and exchanged glances, relaxing in their chairs perceptibly.

Gabrielle came over and sat down, a parchment and quill in her hands. She set an ink pot down on the table and dipped the end of the quill in it, pausing to bite the end of the instrument as she considered the blank sheet in front of her.

“We have heard.” Ranalf said.  “Your officers here have been entertaining us while you were gone.”

Ah.  Xena gave her men a look, and they grinned back at her.  “So you don’t have anything to worry about in regards to that here.” She said. “My mother’ll take your coin even if you are Spartans. Right Mother?”

“Right.” Cyrene agreed.

Ranalf glanced over at her.  “We appreciate that.”

“You came here in good faith, and delivered a message.” Xena said.  “I didn’t take offense to that.  Nice of Sparta to think of asking, but that’s not my line of work anymore.”

Ranalf studied her closely. “Really?”

“Really.” Xena confirmed.  “I’m out of the warlord business. Have been for a while. “

The soldiers looked around at the militia, then back at Xena, plainly skeptical.   “I know those who sent me will be disappointed.” Ranalf said.  “They had hoped you would be honored by the offer.”

Bennu shifted, his eyes narrowing a little.  Xena lifted a hand slightly in his direction, and he settled back down   “Honored is a hoary term.   I appreciate the offer, and I respect whoever it was who sent the message.  I’m just not interested.”

Ranalf exhaled. “I am truly sorry to hear that.” He said. “As I have been listening to these various tales of your men here, and was looking forward to seeing the reality of that for myself.”  He glanced at his companions. “We all were.”

Xena spread her hands out, then laced her fingers together in front of her. “That’s not my problem.”  She said. “Gabrielle will give you a note to take back to whoever sent you.”

Ranalf glanced at the bard, who was busy scribing next to Xena.    Gabrielle wrote for a moment more, then sensed the quiet and looked up in question.  When no one said anything, she put her head back down on her left hand and continued scribbling, pausing only to briefly glance at her partner and bite the end of the quill, before she went on.

“Well.” Ranalf said after a long pause. “We will be content with that, then.  You are the master of your own mind, of that I am sure. “ He inclined his head respectfully in Xena’s direction.  “Then with your leave, we will stay the night and take horse tomorrow. I would like to get clear of this border region and back into more familiar lands quickly.”

“You took a risk coming here.” Xena remarked.

“We did.” Ranalf agreed. “Though we do not wear my master’s badge, still, we would be recognized by some and though battle has not yet been joined, all know it’s coming.” He regarded her. “Perhaps you are the wiser to stay here and out of it.”

“Mostly because we’ve been in it a lot more than a lot of people.” Gabrielle spoke up. She signed the bottom of the parchment and gently blew on it to dry the ink.   “Why are you fighting this war?” She looked over at Ranalf. “I know why Athens is.”

The soldier settled back and rested his elbow on the table.  “Fair question.” He said. “We welcome the war.  It’s what we live for, and we love fighting. I love fighting, even though you get hurt, and many die doing it.”

Gabrielle rolled the now dry parchment up and tied a ribbon around it.   She took a bit of  old candle end out of her belt pouch and held it near the lit candle on the table, until it softened and dripped on the ribbon’s knot.  “Well.” She  set it down, then she removed the ring from her finger and reversed it, gently pressing the face of it into the cooling wax.  “At least you’re honest about it.”

Xena chuckled softly.

“Do not your Amazons feel the same?” He asked.  “I had heard that they do.”

“Some do.” Gabrielle handed him the rolled parchment. “Here you go.  My Amazons, matter of fact, don’t want any part of this war.  They know what war is. We lost sisters, friends, and mothers to the last insane man’s fight that came this way.”

Ranalf took the parchment and looked at it, then he carefully put it in his saddle bag resting near his feet.  “Tis our belief war has no place in it for women.” He said, as he closed up the bag  “So that is for the best.”

Xena tilted her head and looked at him, then looked down at herself, then looked over at Gabrielle with hiked  brows, before she returned her attention to the soldier.  

“Don’t worry honey.” Gabrielle patted her arm. “I know you’re all woman.”

Ranalf looked up at her, then at the warrior. “Of course, you are an exception. “ He recovered gracefully.  “I am sure my master has the greatest respect for your skills, if he asked you to fight for us.” He added.   “And I meant no offense, it is just what I believe.”

Gabrielle leaned on elbows. “None taken.” She said. “Matter of fact, there’s been more than one time in my life when I’d wished the guy trying to kill me felt that way.”

The soldier smiled at that.  “Had it been me or one of mine, it would have been so. “ He said.  “If we cannot persuade your noble friend here to take up arms with us, at least I am glad that we will not be facing you or your – did you call them sisters?  Across the line of battle.”

Gabrielle smiled back. “Likewise.  I have heard so much about the fighting skills of the Spartans. I know you’d be a very formidable enemy.”

All the soldiers straightened a little, and preened.   “We are of the First legion.”  Ranalf said, proudly. “We have carried our master’s flag into battle twenty seasons and never failed him.  So indeed I am glad we will not be enemies. I have heard – rumors cross the water – that even Athens will mock us by throwing others of the Amazons before us in hopes of drawing our weapons and giving us pause, but I will tell you that though we do not think women should be on the battlefield, none of us will hesitate to take their lives.”

Xena and Gabrielle went still. Then they slowly turned and looked at each other, staring silently into each other’s eyes for a long moment.

“They will tell them we are afraid of women.”  One of the other soldiers said, oblivious of the wordless communication going on. “And so they will lead the vanguard and think themselves secure. We will kill them.”

Ranalf nodded. “So it is good, then, you and yours stay here behind.” He said to Gabrielle. “As you are gracious, and seem a kindly woman.”

Gabrielle slowly exhaled. “Thanks.” She murmured.  “Will you excuse us for a moment?  We.. um..”

“Need to go pick up our daughter.” Xena rose out of her seat, her body tense.   “We’ll see you later on.”  She put her hand on Gabrielle’s back as the bard stood up.   “Bennu, make sure they get settled.”

“Aye, Genr’l.” Bennu also stood.  “We’ll take care of em for ya.”

Instead of heading for the front door, by common, silent consent they both eased past the tables and went into the kitchen through the back entrance, waiting for the swinging door to shut before they looked at each other.

“We need to talk.”  Gabrielle said.  “I need to think about what they just told us.”

Xena slowly nodded.

“Do you think they were telling the truth, or was that just battlefield bs?”  The bard asked, turning and taking Xena’s hands in hers. “Wishful thinking on their part? Just ego talking?”

Xena’s face went still, only her eyes moving as she considered.  “I don’t know.” She said, after a long pause. “But we need to find out. “ 

“Damn.” Gabrielle muttered.  “You going to take one of them out behind the barn?”

“No.” Xena released her, and gave her a pat on the cheek. “Relax.  Let’s find out the truth of this before we even talk about it.  They could just be shooting pointless arrows. “ She glanced at the entrance to the kitchen cellar. “Let’s let mom’s ale work on them and see what we can dig out of them tonight.”

“I know they’re not my tribes, and not my business.”  Gabrielle said. “But they’re talking about just letting them walk into a slaughter.  I don’t know if I can ignore that, Xena.”

The warrior’s hand came to rest on her partner’s shoulder.  “Me either.  But let’s find out the truth first.”

Gabrielle put her hands on her hips and exhaled, her head down.   Then she stepped closer and put her arms around Xena, seeking comfort.   “Trouble really does seek us out, doesn’t it?”

Xena hugged her.  “Think of a good story to tell tonight.  And let’s get some of  your Amazons down here for dinner.”

“Ugh.”

“They could use a break from the food up there anyway.”

“Xena.”

**

Continued in Part 4