A Queen’s Tale

Part 30

“Here comes another one!”  Hercules yelled, as he held on to part of a wall. “Hang on!”

“Hanging!” Iolaus shook the water out of his eyes.  “Hey can you tell your uncle to cut it out? We got the picture! He's pissed!”

Hercules shoved a sack full of sodden grain into place against the wall.  “I”m a little busy right now.” He grabbed another sack and slung it to his left.  “Besides, after how I left the last time I don’t think he'd be listening much.”

“Ah.” Iolaus dragged a crate over and shoved it into place.  The wall seemed to be supported, and he walked to the edge of it and looked past, towards the harbor.  It was literally boiling with water, the moonlight creepily shining down on frothing white-capped destruction as it rushed against the city's walls and collapsed them.

They were high enough up on the hill to escape the waves, but the structures around them were crumbling from the force below, and now Iolaus had to wonder when it would stop.   He glanced up the path, to the wide eyed faces watching as the top of the hill was dense with frightened city dwellers.

Down below, he could see bodies rolling in the surf, and already the piers were clogged with broken wagons and stores, parts of the city that had been sucked back out by the water but trapped in the harbor.

Pretty horrific.  Iolaus turned his head as motion caught his eye and he saw Xena emerge from a building, a body cradled in her arms.  He watched as the warrior climbed up the steps just ahead of the advancing water. “Careful, Xena!”

Xena gave him a short nod as she gained the relative safety of the promenade, and laid the huddled figure down.  “That's the last one.” She said. “Everything lower than that's gone.”

Hercules shook his head. “Where's Gabrielle?”

“On her way back.” Xena glanced reflectively over her right shoulder.   “No wonder the damn horses were jittery. Look at that water.”

“Glad we had them in the stable up here.” Iolaus commented. “Poor things.”

Hercules shoved a last sack into place. “Place is a wreck and I'm sure they'll be itching to blame us for it.. probably think I pissed off Zeus.”

Iolaus grimaced. “Maybe they won't.”

“Tidal wave destroying the city right after we let the Spartans walk through it?” Hercules eyed Xena. “What do you think?”

“What do I think?”  Xena put her hands on her wet linen clad hips.  “I think us warning them gave most of the town a chance to get out of the way.  They want to blame us for that, fine.”

“Right.” Iolaus agreed immediately.  “She's right, Herc.  I saw a lot of people get out and head for the gates.”

“Meh.” The demigod grunted. “Don't know why Poseidon would get his nose out of joint about this whole thing anyway. He wasn't even around up there.  Aphrodite told me he was off creating some new island or something.”

“Probably heard I was here.” Xena remarked dryly. “He's not a fan.”

“They were calling you Poseidon’s Bane on the ship.” Iolaus recalled. “That must be an interesting story.” He watched Xena's face. “Or should I just ask Gabrielle?”

A dark brow twitched. “I haven't told her that one.” Xena admitted. “Those were definitely my wilder days.”

Hercules reluctantly chuckled. “Yeah, you've become so much more sedate.” He looked around, but the chaos seemed to have settled for the moment. The water was receding again, and he walked over to where Xena was standing to peer down at the harbor. “Okay, where do we go next?”

Xena stiffened, and she half turned, her hand already going for her sword hilt as the area around them suddenly erupted into motion, doors in the inn opening and men in dark armor pouring out. Her eyes took in the blocky bodies, and unmarked arms and then she didn't have time to think about it as they were attacked without a word.

“Sorry I asked.”  Hercules grabbed one of the attackers arms and whirled the man against the wall he'd just finished shoring up.

“Me too.”  Xena hard her sword out and she was busily engaging three soldiers, skillfully moving them into position so her back was to the inn's wall.  Two of them were trying to rush her, and she ducked a sword and kicked a groin with consummate grace as she deflected the blade of her third opponent.

She spotted a man about to smack Iolaus in the back and grabbed a dagger from her boot, letting it fly as she dodged a mace that whistled past her left ear.

There were at least two dozen of them.  Xena grabbed the closest and head butted him in the face, making him flail his arms to keep his balance. She grabbed the axe in his left hand and swung it under his return blow, chopping at the second man's hands as he tried to get hold of her.

She heard him curse, and smelled blood.   There was no time to enjoy it though since the third man jumped on her back and tried to bear her to the ground.

Xena bucked him off much like Argo would have, and then she slammed an elbow into his jaw, and gutted the second man with her sword.  The axe she took a short grip on and slashed open the third man's face, smashing her body into his and knocking him backwards.

A low growl escaped from her throat as two more men dove at her. She crouched and jumped, kicking out as the soldiers crashed to the ground under her and nailing her first adversary in the throat.

She dropped onto the fourth and fifth man before they could roll out of the way and went down ot one knee, chopping the back of one's neck while she stabbed the other in the back.

Blood flew everywhere. Xena yanked her weapons free of the two bodies and launched herself to her feet to meet five more men heading her way.

A shuddering jolt went through her and she paused, identifying the cold fear as Gabrielle’s.  She started towards the inn's passageways, dodging the oncoming soldiers but then stopped when she saw a female form blocking the way to the back street.

“Oh no, Xena.” Artemis drew her sword and stood in front of the door. “This is retribution.  I’m going to enjoy not only watching you die here, but watching you die knowing your precious bedmate is behind this door getting gutted by my sister and her men.”

“Artemis!” Hercules yelled.

“Stay out of this, little man.” The now mortal goddess warned. “You're already on the edge with Father.  Keep out of my business or you know what's going to happen.” She motioned to the soldiers. “Stop her! Kill her! It is my command!”

The soldiers redoubled their efforts immediately. “Yes, my goddess!” One called out. “We obey!”

Xena was too busy to get involved in the discussion. She powered through the first of the soldiers, cutting him open from throat to groin before she kicked him out of her way and moved to meet the others.   She was aware of some level of Iolaus arriving to help her, the blond man's face now set and hard and lacking any semblance of his usual good nature.

The soldiers all threw themselves against the two of them, and Xena steadily battled back, her own frustration replaced by a cold anger.   She handed Iolaus the axe and drew her boot knife, going into close order fighting in a blur of rapid hand motion that send spatters of blood everywhere.

There were a dozen,  and they were coming at them with grim determination and thorugh them Xena could see Hercules standing, staring at Artemis with an indescribable expression.

No time to think about it. Xena threw an emotional surge of encouragement towards her partner and started hacking her way through the crowd, her sword moving in a blur as she blocked a sideswipe then reflected the blade forward to stab the man in the eye.

She ripped the weapon back and turned, ducking and shoving her knife hand into the gut armor of her next opponent, her momentum giving her enough force to penetrate the hardened leather.

The man staggered back and took her knife with him.  Xena released it and balled her hand into a fist instead, slugging the bearded fighter who replaced him in the nose.

She brought her sword up into position just in time to block an overhand slash then turned her shoulder and slammed into the man, knocking him back a step and giving her a little more room to work in.  “Stupid bastards.” 

“Mindless idiots.”  Iolaus was right next to her, stabbing one of the men in the side. “They don't care what they're doing, just following her orders.  Sheep!”

'She's a goddess!” The man in front of Xena spoke for the first time. “Blasphemers!”
“No she isn't.”  Xena boxed him in the head with the hilt of her sword. “And in a minute I'm gonna prove that to you when I gut her on my way out that door.”

The man actually stopped in mid-motion, shock showing on his face. Never being one to look a gift horse in the ass, Xena smashed her blade down on his arm and sent his sword flying. Then she over-handed the blade into his throat, shoving forward as he threw his hands up and reached for her.

She kicked him back off the sword and whipped her own around in a circle and half turning as she saw Hercules stir from his stillness and start towards Artemis.

Time slowed. Xena ducked under a spear and saw the demigod pick up a sword on the ground from one of her many kills as he bypassed two men fighting Iolaus.

'What do you think you're doing, Hercules?” Artemis yelled.

“Choosing.”  Hercules replied, the words echoing a little in Xena's ears.  “Get out of my way, Artemis.”

It was weird, and strange, and the sounds around her faded out to shadows of clashing, as Xena kept fighting while her senses absorbed this out of time experience.

She was aware of Iolaus fighting next to her, and she was aware of the soldiers coming at her with swords and maces. Her body understood what to do with them though and she was almost a watcher outside herself as she parried the swords and returned their attacks with powerful, automatic grace.

Exact and almost effortless.  Xena was aware of watching herself fight for the first time, and for a very brief time, it was fascinating and she gained an wholly unexpected understanding of how others saw her.

Twisting and turning, motion never stopping, one blow connecting to a parry connecting to a roundhouse kick then to a duck that allowed a sword to pass over her head so close a few hairs floated free in the wind of it’s passing.

And yet, part of her stood quietly, watching as Hercules gripped the sword in his hand and started up the steps, his tall, broad frame spattered in some of the blood from her victims.

She could sense Gabrielle fighting.  She could feel her partner's anger, the powerful emotion flushing out any sense of fear and it occurred to her that whoever the bard was facing off against might be in more trouble than she was.

Did Gabrielle really need someone running to her rescue anymore?

Did Gabrielle really want someone running to her rescue anymore?

Artemis raised her sword and the next moment she and Hercules were battling each other, in the tight confines of the doorway and sound flooded back in and Xena was in the middle of the fighting fully again.

Three men landed on her at once. She felt blades pressing against her and she remembered almost too late that she wasn't wearing her armor, quickly twisting her way out of their grasp before they could slam her into the ground.

Or worse. She grabbed the nearest and turned, pulling him over her shoulder and dumping him om the stone then rolling him into the path of the other two, who hopped and lunged to avoid tripping over him.

Threw their blades out of alignment. Xena took advantage of that by wrapping both hands around her sword hilt and bracing her legs, sweeping the blade around in a circle and cutting right thorugh the first man's neck and deep into the torso of the second.

The head went bouncing off as the first man's body dropped and the second dropped his sword and reached out at her, his eyes wide in shock.

Xena kicked him off her blade and overhanded it into the collarbone of Iolaus's opponent, who was grappling with the blond man.

Then the rest of them were turning, and rushing back towards the door.  Xena put her hand on Iolaus' back and they bolted after them. 

“Herc!” Iolaus let out a yell.  “Look out!”

Xena saw the borrowed blade in the demigod's hands raise up and then the rest of the fighters were on him, grabbing his arms and crashing up the steps in a tangle of armor and chaos.

“Bastards!” Iolaus waded in and grabbed one of them by the belt, hauling himself backwards and pulling the man with him. “C'mere you damned cowards!”

Xena didn't waste time talking. She stabbed the closest one to her in the kidney and cut him open, then kicked him out of the way and hacked at a second, slamming the hilt of her sword into someone's neck and grabbing a mace from someone elses hand and whacking them on the cheek with it.

Someone screamed, loud and high pitched.

Xena ripped the last soldier out of her way in time to see Hercules' sword plunging down towards Artemis' chest as the mortal goddess squirmed and held her blood covered hands over her head in fear as the blade arched down towards her.

No.  A jangling warning rang in Xena’s head, sharp and distinct and irresistibly compelling.

Nothing could have stopped him, and yet Xena did.  She launched herself forward and got her arm wrapped inside his, and used her weight to throw him back against the wall as they both tumbled off balance and ended up crashing to the ground together in a tangle of long limbs and blood.

Iolaus ripped past them and stopped, sword outstretched and knife in his other hand, drenched in gore as he got between the attackers and his friends, chest heaving.

“Sorry.” Xena released Hercules and moved clear. “Just didn't think that was a good idea.”  She put a hand on his shoulder. “Even though I would have done it.”

Hercules lay on his back, breathing hard and staring at her, His sword was gripped in his hand, but the edge trembled against the stone, making an odd, softly rattling sound.

Xena rolled up to her feet and made for the door, jumping right over Artemis's prone body and hitting the door to the inn with her shoulder.  The wooden panel exploded inward and she was through it before anyone could react, slamming the door behind her.

Iolaus flexed his hand on his sword hilt, flicking his eyes between the prone Artemis and the remaining soldiers, who were standing, unsure of what to do.  

Six of them left from two dozen.  The stone floor past them was littered with bodies and the rock itself was stained black with blood. Iolaus was equally stained, even his pale hair was darkened with it.  “You okay, buddy?” He asked Hercules, without turning around.

Hercules pulled himself upright and stared bemusedly at the sword clasped in his hand.  “Yeah, I'm fine.”  He said, leaning to one side so he could watch Artemis. “Bitch.”

Artemis slowly lowered her hands and stared back at him. “You were going to kill me.”

“You bet.” Hercules said. “You get tossed on your ass down here because of your own arrogance and so you destroy everything around you because of it? Destroy people?  Yeah.” He said. “I'd have gladly skewered you like the pig you are.”

Artemis kept staring at him, an expression of horror and disbelief.   “You would take their part?” She pointed at Iolaus. “The son of Zeus? Their part?”

“My mother's part.” Hercules said.  “My wife's part.”  He extended his hand and clasped Iolaus's booted leg. “My friend's part.”  He nodded. “Yes.”

“We’re your family  Artemis hissed.

“He’s my family.” Hercules answered, not looking at Iolaus.  “And he doesn’t try torturing me every time we meet so I think I like it better that way.”

Artemis remained silent, turning her head to glance at the remaining soldiers.

“There's only six left.” Iolaus said. “You might want to tell them to go sit down before there's less than that.”  He seemed to stand a little taller, his head lifting with an expression of somber pride.

Artemis looked past them, to the bodies on the ground.  She seemed confused, “They were supposed to stop you, until I could enjoy seeing Xena experience her mate's death. But they didn't.”

“No, they didn't.” Hercules now looked disgusted. “They died. You wasted their lives for nothing.”

Hercules got up.  “You better hope nothing happened to Gabrielle.” He said. “You'll pay for that with more than your life.” He went to the door and opened it. “C'mon Iolaus.”

“What about these guys?” Iolaus pointed his sword at the soldiers.

Hercules looked at them. “Go take care of your former comrades.” He told them. “I dont' think we'll have much that can burn here for a while.”

For a moment, the soldiers stared at him, then the one nearest let his head drop. He turned and walked away, and after another pause, the rest followed him.

Gabrielle could see the outlines of the men waiting for them, and figured they were Spartans.  She kept hold of Aljins hand as they trudged up the slope,  finally reaching a bit of stone that wasn’t drenched with water.   “Let me do the talking.” She advised Cait and Paladia.

Paladia snorted.

“All right, if you let us do the fighting.” Cait replied.

Gabrielle snorted.

“Well that’s settled then, isn’t it?” The young Amazon added, cheekily.

The bit of black humor helped.  Gabrielle kept her head up and her eyes pinned on the nearest man as she approached. “Excuse us.”  She said politely. “I need to get up that stair.”

The sound behind her and Cait’s sudden intake of breath sealed the sense of danger.  But Gabrielle kept her body relaxed, and her eyes on the first of the soldiers. 

“Your majesty.” Cait murmured.

“Yes, I know, Cait.”  The bard said.  “I’m sure we’re surrounded now by a bunch of big, armed men since we’re a very dangerous combination of three women and one little boy.”

The soldier’s face twitched.

Cait and Paladia edged up on either side of her, as soldiers closed in from behind.  Gabrielle got in front of  Aljins and wished she had her staff in her hands as the soldier near the door drew his sword. “I guess you’re not going to get out of our way, huh?”

“No they are not.” A tall figure emerged from the shadows.   “That’s not their purpose.”

Gabrielle looked steadily at Athena.  “No.” She said. “I guess their purpose is to do your dirty work isn’t it?”

“They do my will.”  The mortal goddess said.  “And my will is that you should die, here, in the street, in this crappy little town.”  She indicated the door. “While your precious creature is held inside there, unable to save your ugly little ass.”

“Why?” Gabrielle took a step forward, releasing the boy’s hand. “Stay here,  Aljins.”

The boy clutched at her. “Where’s my mama?” He asked. “I want her.”

“She’s dead.” Athena told him, with a smile. “Drowned.  Sorry about that kid.”

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed and she felt her nape hairs lift, when something occurred to her. “You don’t know that.”  She said. “Aljin, don’t’ listen to her.”

“I don’t?” Athena smiled again.

“No.”  The bard shot back at her. “You don’t know that any more than I do.”

Athena shifted her grip on her sword. “You don’t know anything.” 

Gabrielle turned in a circle, seeing the men shifting, anxious for the word to attack. “I know anyone who tries to hurt me is going to end up dead.” She put her back to the narrow wall “Do you really think they’ll be able to hold Xena back, over there?”

Athena laughed.

Gabrielle turned her head and looked full at the mortal goddess. “You really think so?” She asked her directly.  “Aren’t you forgetting, Athena? You’re mortal here. She isn’t.”

She felt a little shock go through the crowd around her. “What makes you think you can stop me, much less her?”  She put her hands on her hips.  “What a bunch of frauds you and your family are.”

“Oh my goodness.” Cait murmured. “Pally, we’re in something here.”

“Just keep your mouth shut.” Paladia muttered back. “That really Athena?”

Cait managed an unobtrusive shrug. “How would I know?”

“Kill her.” Athena pointed her sword at Gabrielle.  “She mocks the gods.” She waved the men forward. “Kill all of them, and I will reward you.”

The men surged forward. Gabrielle pulled her companions behind her and threw her hands out towards them. “Stop!” She yelled. “What price is  your life?  What good is any reward if your head’s cut off?”

The men didn’t pause, and in a moment Gabrielle changed her stance from warding off to battle, ducking the sword of the first soldier to meet them and squirming past him between the heavy, armored bodies.

The man whirled to follow her but she was on his back already, jumping up and grabbing him by the back of his armor and throwing her body weight back as hard as she could.   He reeled and stumbled, in the chaos waving his sword back and forth and cutting one of his own men.

“Yah!” Cait stabbed a second. “Pally get the little fellow out of here!”

“Screw you.” Paladia slammed an elbow into the eye socket of one of the soldiers and grabbed his sword from him as it nearly impaled her.  “He’s over there. Take his chances.” She gripped the sword and faced of against two of the men, catching sight of Gabrielle pulling her opponent over backwards in her peripheral vision.

Unreal.   She remembered thinking of Gabrielle as this slightly crazy, overtalkative wench more hot air than anything and then had to change her mind about her not once, but a half dozen times as she’d seen her then go and do things like she was doing now.

Gabrielle had the soldier on the ground, and she was twisting his mace out of his hand,  dropping right straight down with her knee onto his throat.

“Kill them!” Athena screamed. 

People were idiots.  Paladia stabbed at the soldier trying hard to overwhelm Cait.  She hacked at his arm and then punched him, smacking the sword into another soldier rushing in on her right.

Gabrielle got her hands on the mace and swung with it, nearly overbalancing herself but smashing the head of the weapon into the soldier about to stab her.  He reeled back, clutching his head, as Athena’s yelling rang out over them again.

She could hear the sound of the waves, coming back.

Somewhere, people were dying.

Gabrielle ducked under the soldiers return slash, and bolted up the stone road, heading for the mortal goddess.   She lifted the unfamiliar weight of the mace in her hand and let out a yell of her own, seeing Athena’s eyes go wide as she brought her sword up to defend herself. 

She was filled with a cold, clean anger.  “You stupid bitch!” She slammed the mace against the sword. “All you can think about is having people killed who are worth a dozen of you!” 

“I’ll…’ Athena backed a step and parried the rush. “I’ll kill you myself then!  Look what you did to us! You did this! You made us like this!”

“Oh no’ Gabrielle dodged the sword and swung the mace, smashing through Athena’s guard and hitting her in the ribs with it. “That’s for the Amazons!”

“Ahh!” Athena screamed.

“Damn stupid..” Gabrielle let the rage take her, feeling a rush of strength in her arms as she whacked the goddess again, hearing the crunch of bines.   “Stupid venal… selfish… arrogant… take that for what you were doing to Hercules!”

“Ahh! Help! Help me!” Athena called out. “Men! To me! Help!”

Gabrielle swung the mace and it took the sword out of Athena’s hand, sending it clattering down the stone road as the sound of boots rang out as the soldiers ran to their mistresses aid.

She whirled to meet them, bringing the mace up as she braced her legs and focused on the closest soldier, with a complete lack of fear that was surreally liberating. 

She could smell the salt of the sea, and hear Cait’s yell as she hit the men from the rear and in the fringes, the sobbing cries of the little boy. 

Kill her?  Oh no.  Not this miserable creature, or her faceless thugs.

Gabrielle deflected the sword blow and shifted, moving to one side as a second hit the stone wall where she’d been a moment earlier and then, in the middle of parrying another strike she felt her senses prickle and knew there was danger at her back.

Athena yelled in triumph just as the door to the inn’s back corridor opened.

“Die!” Athena drove the sword right at the slim, tensed back in front of her, lunging forward and putting all her weight behind the blow only to be yanked backwards with such force it threw her back against the stone with a sodden crack.

She slid to the ground, and the sword came loose, rattling softly.

Xena casually thrust her sword through her belt to hold it and swaggered over to the fallen woman, picking her up by her shirt and lifting her up.  She shook Athena roughly as her head wobbled and then slammed her back against the door, her feet dangling a foot shy of the road.

Pale, ice blue eyes bored into hers as Xena held her there until she saw what she wanted in Athena’s golden ones. 

Fear.

“Feel that?” Xena asked, tightening her grip. “I want you to know what it feels like to have someone a lot stronger than you hold your worthless life in their hands.” She lifted the goddess and slammed her back against the wall. “Feel it?”

Athena twitched, then let her hands drop.

“You can’t stop me.” Xena thumped her. “You can’t save yourself.” She thumped her again. “If I want to kill you, or break you, or cut your tongue out you couldn’t do anything about it.”

The goddess swallowed. “I won’t always be mortal.” She finally growled.

“That’s my point.” Xena said, in a surprisingly mild voice. “When you have the upper hand again, remember what it feels like not to.” She stared at Athena, then finally released her to drop to the ground. 

“You’ll pay for that, Xena.” The goddess said, her voice serious.

“I pay for everything.” Xena replied. “Oh. By the way, speaking of paybacks.” She uncoiled and sent an overhand right into Athena’s jaw, a double crack sounding loud and startling as her hand hit the goddess, and the goddess’s head hit the wall.   “That’s for giving Gabrielle a hard time.”

She watched the woman slowly slide down the wall into a crumpled heap, senseless.   Then she booted the sword she’d taken from Athena up and caught it, turning to face the rest of the group.

The bright moonlight showed a sea of pale faces watching her, the soldiers shifting from foot to foot, unsure of what to do.

Xena stepped out onto the street, her body covered head to toe in battle gore, blood staining her skin a deep, rusty brown.   Without a word, she stepped up next to Gabrielle and twirled Athena’s sword in her hand, staring evenly at the now halted soldiers.

The waves surged up and lapped at their boots, as they stared at her.

“Hope you boys can swim.”  Xena said, after a long silence. “We’ve already got enough bodies that look like you in there to burn.”

The man in the front, the one who Gabrielle had pulled over backwards, and whose mace was clasped in the bard’s hand, licked his lips. “We serve the goddess.”

Xena looked at him, turned, around and looked at the slumped, unmoving figure against the wall, then looked back at him. “Really?”  She raised an eyebrow. “Looks like you need to find a better one than that..”

“Truly.. “ One of the others. “She is mortal, as the bard said.”  Their eyes shifted to Gabrielle, who was standing in the shadows, unmoving. “What trick of the gods is this?”

“A trick of the gods.”  Xena acknowledged. “Ready to see a few more?”

The soldiers started to back away.  They dropped their weapons and held their hands up, moving backwards into the rising water without taking their eyes off that tall, bloody figure at the top of the steps.

Suddenly the walls were thick with Xena’s men,  tall furred figures, and half armored, weapons raised.  “Should we kill them, Chosen?” Jessan called, from the rampart.

Xena exhaled, and rested her free hand on her partner’s shoulder. “Just catch them, and tie em up.” She said. “Enough people died today.”

Gabrielle let her hand fall, with the mace in it. The head of the weapon clunked to the ground and she sighed, closing her eyes to let the flashes of red fade.  “Thanks Xe.” She murmured.

The warrior squeezed her shoulder.  “That’s what I’im here for.” She said.  “You okay?”

“No.” Gabrielle muttered. “I’m going to throw up. Move.”

Xena released her shoulder and started massaging her neck instead. “Easy.  Given everything on me a little upchuck wont make it worse.”  She shoved Athena’s sword under her belt next to her own.  “Good job.”

Gabrielle half turned and leaned her head against her partner’s shoulder, savoring the simple contact. “Damn it, Xena.”   She exhaled.  “I really am going to throw up.”

The warrior put both arms around her and pulled her close, watching over her shoulder as Cait and Paladia made their way over.   Behind them a step or two was a small boy.   Xena had no idea where he fit in, but she gave the two Amazons a smile and a nod.   “Hades of  a way to end the night, huh?”

She felt Gabrielle’s body start to relax against her and she kept up her gentle rubbing, working to ease the painful tension she could feel in the bard’s neck. 

“What were those waves, Xena?”  Cait asked. “They’re terrible.”  She politely kept her attention on the warrior, not on the quiet figure in her arms. 

“Going down now.” Paladia commented. “Wasn’t as high this one.”

‘They’re called tidal waves.”  Xena explained, watching her men take the soldiers into captivity. “I saw them once, out at sea.  Saw the water just get sucked back off the land, and then the waves came. “  She mused. “Scared the Hades out of me.”

“Well, yes.” Cait turned around, looking down the crooked, tiny street where the water had once again receeded.  “Terrible.”

The boy edged around her and stared up at Xena with huge, scared eyes.   “Who’re you?”

Xena studied him. “Xena. Who are you?”

Gabrielle lifted her head at that. “His name is Aljin, Xe. He got separated from his mother in the flood.”  She glanced down at the boy. “He’s been really brave.” She exchanged looks with Xena.  “Maybe we can go find his mother now.”

Xena looked up, to see Cait and Paladia watching her, that look of knowing in their eyes.  “Sure.” She said. “Let’s go get Dori. She can help us look.”

Gabrielle extended her hand to the boy, and they walked slowly up the last of the steps to the door, bypassing the silent, still figure to one side of it. 

“She was mean.”  Aljin spoke up, as they were about to walk through into the inn.  “I’m glad you made her shut up.”  He looked up at Gabrielle. “You got her good.”

Gabrielle managed a smile. “Yeah, I sure did.” She felt Xena’s arm settle around her, and the nightmare started to fade. “I sure did.”

They entered the inn, with Cait and Paladia following them, leaving the battlefield at least temporarily behind.

**


Gabrielle was glad enough to be sitting in the stable, one knee hiked up with her elbow resting on it as she watched Dori patter around Rustys stall.

Outside it was too loud, and too chaotic, and she was simply grateful to Xena for taking over and handling everything, leaving her to chill out a little inside.

Mama, did you see the fishes?” Dori poked her head out of the stall. “They was big! Come right up on the street!”

I saw them, honey.” Gabrielle said. “I was with Cait, and we saw lots of fishes.”

“Boo made everbody go up up!” Dori came over and explained. “She was flying! I wanted to go too!”

The bard studied her daughters bright, interested face. As always, when faced with utter catastrophe Dori had taken it all in stride, more upset about any possible harm to her new friend and missing out on playing with Xena than anything. “I know.” She reached out and touched Doris leg, rubbing the soft skin with her fingertips. “Boo will take you flying soon, honey. Shes got a lot of work to do first.”

Dori sat down in the straw. “I saw Boo go boom, mama.” She related in a serious tone. “Boo was real mad.”

Gabrielle had seen the pile of bodies, and Iolaus' grim face as they came through the inn. Hercules had taken his half sisters someplace, and she hadn't yet had the guts to ask about them. “Yeah I know, Dori” She watched her Dori play with her hand, her tiny fingers moving the ring the bard wore around in a circle on her finger. “Boo had to make everyone safe.”

“Cat was saying mama went boom too.” Dori looked up.

Gabrielle exhaled. “Mama did.” She admitted. “Mama got very angry at some bad people, because they wanted to hurt mama and Boo. So I hit them.”

“Go mama.” Dori grinned.

“Where were you watching from, Dori? From up at the top of the hill?” Gabrielle asked, internally wincing at the thought of what must have been a bloodbath, given how much gore was covering her partners body and the nicks in her blade shed have to polish out.

But then, half of the men who'd attacked them had died. At least one at her own hand.  She'd grown out of the anguish that might have once caused but it still made her grimace at least inside.

“Eff said I had to stay up dere.” Dori frowned. “I wanted to go help Boo.”

Good for Ephiny. “Well, its better that way, honey.” Gabrielle felt her throat closing a little. “Everyone wanted to make sure you were safe, with all the water going on, and everything.”

Hm. Dori grunted a little. “Too much fishes, mama.”

“Yeah there sure were, huh?” Gabrielle pulled her over and hugged her, giving her a kiss on the top of her head. “Cmere and give mama a hug and make me feel better.”

Dori willingly complied, giving her mother a kiss on the cheek. “Mama owie?”

The bard closed her eyes., then opened them right away, when echoes of that anger flashed red against her closed eyelids. “Yeah.” She said. “Mamas not doing great right now.”

“Go get Boo? Make mama feel good?” Dori suggested.

“No need, munchkin.” A quiet voice sounded from the door. “I'm here.”

Gabrielle looked up to see her partner entering the barn, shutting the door behind her. Just the sight of her did, in fact make her feel better and she managed a smile as Xena crossed the floor and settled down next to her in the straw. “Hey.”  She reached up and tweaked her nose. “You're wet.”

“Hey.” Xena was, in fact, drenched, her dark hair dripping with what smelled like fresh well water. “Just got a chance to clean up, thought Id come find you.”

“Boo, all the bad mens gone?” Dori asked.

“Yeah, they are.” Xena ruffled her hair. “All gone.” She caught sight of the tense grimace that flashed over Gabrielle's face from the corner of her eye.  “Hey, did you brush Rusty today?”

“Boo I did!” Dori scrambled up . “Wusty, show Boo how pretty you are! She rambled back into the stall and started talking to the new pony.

Gabrielle leaned her head against Xena's shoulder, ignoring the dampness. “How's it going out there?” She asked, after a brief pause.

“I'm more interested in how it's going in here.” Xena reached over and cupped the side of Gabrielle's head, brushing her thumb over the chilled skin of her cheek. “You're cold.”

Gabrielle exhaled. “I am.” She murmured. “All through.”

“Let me change so I don't make it worse.” Xena got up and stripped out of the wet tunic she was wearing, trading it for her old gambeson, tucked in the saddlebags they'd left in the stable. “Damn that feels good.”

Gabrielle watched, with a tired though appreciative smile. “You're so beautiful.”

Xena paused in mid motion, looking around the stable. Then she raked the tangled, wet black hair out of her eyes, and put her hands on her hips. “Gabrielle, c'mon.”

“You are.” The bard half shrugged. “Even in that.”

“Well, they say love is blind.” Xena took off her boots then returned to Gabrielle's side, settling back down in the straw and opening her arms in invitation. “C'mere.”

Gabrielle slid over and let herself be wrapped in warmth, gratefully accepting the comfort. “Thanks, Xe.”he murmured. “I needed a hug.”

Xena smiled faintly, savoring her newly found appreciation for this very human sensation. Gabrielle's body was chilled indeed, and she rubbed her partner's arms to warm her. “Glad that's over.” She said. “Water's gone all the way back down, doesn't look like it's coming back.”

“Great.” The bard nestled closer. “Hope nothing else happens.”

“Me too.” Xena could feel the faint tremors running through her partner's body, and her brows contracted a little. It wasn't that cold in the stable. “You okay? You didn't get hurt out there did you? Besides all those scrapes?”

“Ungh.” Gabrielle exhaled. “My soul hurts, Xe.”

Ah. The warrior sorted through her possible options. “Wanna talk about it?”
Bittersweet tang of memory. The bard felt a little, warm jolt inside from it, remembering the times they'd traded that question. “What a crummy end to a crummy day.” She said, after a long pause. “I feel like I've been turned inside out and shaken like your mom's hearthrug.”

“Someone once told me.” The warrior rubbed her back gently. “That being alive at the end of a day was enough to make it okay.”

Gabrielle smiled faintly.

“And today that sure has meaning for me.” Xena concluded. “Being alive here, with you, makes it a damn good day.”

The bard felt warm tears tracking down her face. “You're the one with the words for a change, huh?” The body she was curled up against vibrated slightly as Xena chuckled. “It really got to me today, Xe. I was so mad I wasn't thinking straight.” She played with one of the buckles on Xena's outfit. “That hasn't happened to me in a long time.”

Xena seemed to consider this in silence for time. “Tough situation.” She finally said. “You had a dozen men trying to kill you, Gab. Hard to overreact to that, you know what I mean?”

Gabrielle nodded. “I know. I just don't like how I felt when I was going after Athena.” She admitted. “I was out of control. I could have killed her.” She paused, mouthing over that statement again. “I could have, Xe. Not in a fight, because I took her sword away, but... I could have kept hitting her.”

“But you didn't.” Xena responded. “Could doesn't count. We both could do a lot f things. What counts is what you did, and what you did was survive and protect the people with you.”

Long speech for Xena. Gabrielle pondered it gravely, giving it the consideration it deserved. From the edges of her hearing she caught the sound of Dori warbling to her pony, and the crackle of the hay they were seated in, and the world shifted just a little for her. “Hm.” 

“You did the right thing.” Xena squeezed her a little. “You would have stopped.”

Gabrielle looked up at Xena's shadowed profile. “It's not going to matter, Xena. We're targets now anyway. They wont' ever let us live in peace.” She watched the warrior's profile, seeing the honest confirmation there.

Xena sighed. “I kept Herc from killing Artemis. Maybe it'll count.” She conceded the point with a brief lift of her hand. “Besides, it's not like they left us alone before.”

“Mmph.” The bard let her head rest back against her partner's collarbone. “Why did you stop him? She asked. What would have happened?”

Xena fell silent again, her face tensing into a frown. “I don't know.” She admitted. “I just felt them dying here would be trouble.” She said. “Well, more trouble.” She clarified, seeing her partner's wry expression. “I really don't know.. I didn't think about it.”

“You just knew.”

Xena paused, then nodded.

“Well.” The bard took a breath, and released it. “Maybe I did too, because I sure did turn my back on her instead of killing her and almost got killed myself.”

“Those guys were attacking you, hon.” Xena riffled her fingers through the bard's hair affectionately. “Wasn't a good place to turn your back to anywhere to be found.”

Gabrielle thought about it, then she reluctantly nodded. “I guess that's true, huh?” She said. “But just when I realized how bad a spot I was in there you were.” She looked up, watching Xena's dark lashes flicker in the torchlight. “There you were, and boy was I glad.”

“Mm.” The warrior curled her arms around her and exhaled. “Funny I'd just wondered before that if you wanted to be rescued, or if you'd just rather handle it on your own now.” She mused. “You knew she was behind you. I saw you start to react as I came through the door.”

Gabrielle stared off into the distance.

For a brief moment, she thought about what it would be like for her if Xena wasn't around. If the warrior had taken Zeus' offer and stayed in Olympus, and she'd come back alone, and could only depend on herself.

Could she have handled Athena?

Would she have cared? “Xe.” She finally said. “I never want to not have you be there for me. Rescue my crazy butt any time your heart desires.”

Xena hugged her. “My heart desires you every damn minute of the day.” She assured her partner. “So I'll be there.”

Gabrielle took solace in the warmth of Xena's embrace, and the melancholy sweetness of the words they were exchanging. Love was, she'd finally realized, when you could accept the idea of someone taking care of you not because you couldn't, but because it was their privilege to.

Because they wanted to.

Funny how life taught you things. 

She gently patted the warrior's side, and decided to change the subject a little. “Did they really get Poseidon to destroy this place, Xe? Just because they were pissed at us?” Gabrielle asked. “I think that's what's bumming me out more than anything. We worked so hard to keep this town safe, and they just trash it on a whim.”

Xena scratched her on the back of her neck. “Anything's possible, but.. She considered. Doesn't have to be Posiedon. Sometimes stuff like this just happens.”

“Really?”

The warrior nodded. “I remember .. there was an earthquake once someplace I'd been.” Xena said. “Ground shook like crazy, parts of it opened it... and then we could see a tidal wave going out across the water. Wasn't any gods... no one was pissing anyone off. Just happened.” She pointed at the horses. “They knew. They feel stuff like that.”

“They did.” The bard said. “They were really nervous... oh.” She inhaled a little. “Xena, it's like when a big storm's coming. They know.”

Xena nodded. “They just know.”

“Like you.” Gabrielle considered that, already aware that her mind was shifting from it's depression to a more normal pattern, and mare than aware that was Xena's motive in her unusual chattiness. A surge of utter love overcame her, and she reached around Xena's body and hugged her as hard as she could. “Ungh.”

Urf. Xena responded to the squeeze. “I know it's been a tough day.” She kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. “But we made it. Let it go.”

Gabrielle sighed. “It's so hard.”

“I know.” Xena eased her back so she could look into Gabrielle's eyes, dim and bloodshot in the low light. “But it's done. We'll deal with whatever happens.”

She watched her partner's body posture carefully, seeing the relaxation on either side of her neck she was hoping for. She leaned forward and kissed her on the lips, tasting the faintest hint of sea salt on them. “Like we always do.”

When they parted, Gabrielle looked up at her and just for a moment, that feckless kid from Potadeia was there, with that open, soulfully trusting look that had changed Xena's world once up on a time.   Then the bard smiled, and leaned her head back on her chest, her body finally relaxing fully.

Feel better? Xena asked.

Gabrielle considered. “Yeah.” She nodded. “Yknow it used to get me crazy when you'd just tell me to move on, but I think I finally get it. You really cant change stuff that happened.”

Xena chuckled faintly.

“I mean, I knew that in my head.” The bard explained. “I really did, Xena. Its kinda obvious. But theres a difference between knowing something in your head, and understanding it in your heart.”

Ahh. Xena settled her head against her partner's contentedly.

“I guess its the difference between knowing, and believing.” Gabrielle added, after a moment.

Mm. Xena grunted thoughtfully.

“Sort of like..” The bard regarded her profile. “We always knew about you.” She saw the quick reaction, and the flicker of emotion in her partners pale eyes. “But even after Dori, we never really ..  we just talked around it.”

After a moment, Xena simply nodded.

“You still don't like it.”

Xena cleared her throat a little. “Sometimes you're forced to face things. You don't have to like them.”

Gabrielle patted her on the side gently. “But it makes you feel different now, doesn't it? You know inside.”

 She slipped her hand under the worn fabric and touched Xenas skin, finding it warm and silky textured. “You're attitudes a little different.”

Her partner was quiet for a long time, the faint twitches in her face showing thoughtfulness. Gabrielle waited patiently, hearing the steady heartbeat under her ear that meant it was just that, and not upset. “I'm fine with it, by the way.” She said after a while. “I always was, Xe.”

“I know.” Xena finally answered. “I guess it is what it is.” She said. “I'm not sure if it just made me more.. “ She frowned. “More confident or just over it all.”

“Mm.” Gabrielle grunted softly.

“Knocked any of the awe left out of me.” The warrior clarified.

Ahh. “Never thought of it like that.” Gabrielle mused. “But you know, I think I feel that way too.” She turned her head and regarded her partner thoughtfully. “I'm still a little in awe of you though.”

Xena rolled her head to one side and gave her a very droll look.

Gabrielle grinned, finally, a twinkle appearing in her tired eyes. “You know its the mortal part of you that makes you so special, don't you? Just like with Herc. The god part kinda doesn't.”

Xenas eyebrow quirked up. “Really?”

“Theyre jerks, Xe.”

“So Im just a little bit jerky?” But the warrior smiled. “Nice.”

“Xena.”

Xena finally just shrugged. “Yeah, I feel different.” She admitted. “Cant really say what the difference is. Maybe it was just going up there and back.” She said. “Maybe I understand a lot more.” She flexed her hand, examining the back of it. “I like it.”

“Healing up probably didn't hurt.” Gabrielle captured the hand, turning it over and kissing Xenas palm. “Sure made me feel better.”

Xenas face took on a thoughtful expression again. “Maybe I got some time back up there.” She said, after a pause. “They say every cloud has a silver lining.”

Her partner laced their fingers together and smiled. “You've been the silver lining to my life.” Gabrielle said, in a mild tone. “So Ill take it.”

“And the black cloud occasionally.” Xena said with a faintly wry smile.

“Back at you.”

Their eyes met, and the silence lengthened.  Gabrielle felt a sense of peace return to her, and as she watched the torchlights shadows shift across Xenas face, she smiled. They would go on.

They would live life, and deal with whatever came at them.  Gods or wild goats, it just would be what it would be.

“Mama.” Dori trotted out into the open space in front  of the stall. “Wusty just made a poo! Wanna see?”

Gabrielle started to silently laugh, her body shaking. 

“Leave it where it is, shortie.” Xena muffled a laugh herself. “Mama doesn't need to see it. She's had enough horse crap to deal with today.”

Dori came over and sat down in the straw. “Mama feel better?” She inquired.

Gabrielle let her laughter wind down. “Mama's fantastic, honey.” She patted Dori's knee. “Boo fixed me right up.”

“Boo fixes evrything!” Dori plucked handfuls of straw and threw it up in the air. “C'n we go home now mama? You said we could in the mornin and look!”

She pointed at the stable window which was, in fact, showing the light of dawn. “Can we go? Huh? Now now now???”

Xena reached over and grabbed her daughters foot and tickled it.

“Eeee!” Dori snatched her appendage back. “Boo! No itch!”

“We've got to help our friends here today first. Xena told her. “The water made a big mess, Dori. We need to help clean up and then we can go.”

Dori pouted. “No fun.”

“Sometimes life isn't all fun, sweetie.” Gabrielle untangled herself from Xena's embrace and stood up. “That's just how it goes. Besides, mama needs to go take a nap for a while. I had to race the fishes a lot last night and I'm kinda tired.”

“Hungry?” Xena asked.

“That too.” The bard heard her guts grumble, and gave her partner a wry look. “Let's go see whats up.” She offered Xena a hand up. “I guess life's moving on.”

Xena took her hand and allowed herself to be hauled to her feet. “After you, my queen.” She gestured towards the door, following Gabrielle and Dori as they pushed the door open and let the dawn light in, walking out to see what the day held.

**

Gabrielle leaned gingerly against the promenade wall as she gazed out over the harbor. 

It was almost unrecognizable.  The savage waves had taken out most of the land between the harbor and the hill, and the tide now lapped at the bottom of the steps leading up to where she stood.

Of the wooden piers, and the road, and the buildings lining it – there was nothing.

Part of the outer cliff wall had collapsed, denting that side of the harbor with rockslides and providing a sluice for the waters coming in through the harbor entrance.

“Wow.”  The bard murmured. “Those Spartans got out just in time.”

“They sure did.” Xena agreed. “Got in, got out, when word gets to them about what happened here, they'll think that damn captain was blessed by the gods. He'll be a hero..”

“Mama, there's fishes.” Dori pointed, to where sure enough, some fish were leaping out of the water, the early light reflecting against their scales.  “Can we go catch them?”

She thumped Xena's sides, from her spot perched on the warrior's shoulders. “Boo.. go fishes?”

“Not right now shortie.”  Xena cupped her hands over Dori's knees. “I just got dry.”

Gabrielle eased closer and draped her arm around her partner's waist.  “Can they rebuild the pier?”

Xena studied the space. “Maybe.” She said. “Tough to get anything down to it. They have to rebuild the road and docks on pylons I guess.”

“We're not going to do that.”

“No.” Xena agreed. “We're not.”

They walked along the promenade, towards the edge of the hill that faced the inner part of the city.  The gates the Spartans had marched through were gone, and a good part of the wall that held them. 

The lower levels of the streets that branched off the main road were in shambles, houses torn apart by the force of the water, or collapsed due to the walls themselves crumbling into pieces.

There were bodies bobbing in the cluster of wreckage near the bottom of the hill.  The harbor itself was full of parts and boxes, pieces of someone's home, some ones wagon.

Sad.  Gabrielle exhaled.  She let Xena guide her back along the wall and then up the steps to the place they'd started the previous night out.  The steps were lightly traveled – most of the people who'd taken refuge on the top of the hill had gone back down into the city to salvage what they could.

They found Ephiny up at the top of the hill, seated on the wall watching what was going on down below. 

“Hey.” Gabrielle greeted her. 

'Ahh there you are.” Ephiny swiveled around on the wall to face them.  “Our nations first family.”

“Eff!” Dori waved.

“Where's Pony?” Xena asked. “Thought she'd be up here.”

Ephiny crossed her arms over her chest, and smiled. “She's up near the gates.” The regent related. “Busy spreading the word about how our queen whomped the poo out of Athena for trying to throw the Amazons into the Spartan spears.”

“Gods.” Gabrielle covered her eyes with one hand.

Xena chuckled softly.

“Ephiny, that's not the smartest thing to do.” The bard said. “When Athena and Artemis become gods again, they're going to remember that.”

Ephiny shrugged.  “Talking about it's not going to change what happened.” She patted Gabrielle on the arm. “So you might as well get the props for it.”

“Dori and I are going to go scrounge.”  Xena said. “We'll bring you back something.” She headed off towards the hilltop building, leaving Gabrielle and Ephiny behind.

“Tactful.” Ephiny gave the retreating woman an approving nod.

Gabrielle took a seat on the wall next to her. “Crazy day huh?”

Ephiny chuckled. Then she gave her queen a sideways look. “You doing okay?” She asked. “All kidding aside, I know that had to be rough.” She paused. “On top of an already crazy day.”

The bard tilted her head to one side and regarded her friend.  “I”m okay.” She said, after a pause. “I felt really down after the fight, but Xe pulled me out of it.” She admitted.

“She took those Spartans apart going for gateway.” Ephiny comented. “I haven't seen her fight like that since the war.  Happened so fast everyone could hardly get down there in time.”

“Mm.” Gabrielle could picture it in her mind's eye, right down to the ferocious grin. “This is going to sound strange, but I think dying was good for her this time.” She reflected. “In a lot of ways.”

“Not the least having you with her.”

Gabrielle tilted her head in acknowledgement.  Then she looked up at Ephiny. 'We need to talk about that promise I made to you.” She watched the expression on the regent's face. “Not surprised?”

“Gabrielle.” Ephiny half turned, so she was facing her queen. “The fact you promised at all, and spent time there was more than I really expected.” She looked her friend right in the eye.  “We both know how it is with you.”

The bard looked at her with that little, charming smile.

“The kids were telling me some of the stuff going on.” Ephiny continued, not by any means immune to that smile. “I don't think the tribe's ready for you anyway.”

“Some are.” Gabrielle replied. “The younger ones are, Eph. I could see the split forming there.” She said. “There are kids taking arms now that have only known me and you in charge.”

“Huh.”

“You could see it when I got challenged.” The bard went on, in a serious tone. “Afterward, all the youngers were around, guarding my quarters.”

“Really?” Ephiny asked, fascinated. “I guess I shouldn't be that surprised, but you know, I am.”' She shifted a little.  “I figured the elders are shook up about the move. It's all changing around them, and it wouldn't have taken much to set them off.  Letting singles have quarters? Yeah, that would do it.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes.

“When you get older, kid, you don't like things changing like that.” Ephiny put a hand on her queen's shoulder. “Take it from me.”

“Yeah, grandma.” Gabrielle smiled. “But you know something Eph.. you have to change to live. The world doesn't stay still, it keeps moving and you need to move with it.  That spot you were in, towns were closing in on all sides. What would they have done when goats and sheep started stampeding through the village?”

“Shot them and ate them”  Ephiny replied, with a twinkle.

“Not with those cooks.” Gabrielle muttered.

They both chuckled.  Then Ephiny cleared her throat. “So what's up with you? Aren't you going back to Amph?  I don't need you living there in the damn village every minute, Gabrielle. You're close enough by.”

Gabrielle got up and turned to face the rising sun, blinking a little in it's warmth.  She let the rays soak into her skin, thinking about what answer to give to Ephiny. 

They had a responsibility to go home, she knew that.  They needed to make sure their families were safe, and see their friends safely back home.  But she knew if there had been a ship in the wreck left of the harbor she and Xena and Dori would be glad to hop on it.

Finally she sighed, and turned. “We are going home.” She said “I just don't know how long we're going to stay there.”  She hooked her thumbs in the tooled leather belt around her waist. “For a lot of reasons.  This thing with the gods isn’t over, and the last thing I want to do is make the tribe a target again.”

Ephiny considered that, watching Gabrielle’s expressive face.  There seemed to be a little more depth there than she remembered, just one more layer of shadow in those pale eyes.   The bard didn’t seem any the worse for wear though, even after the long day.

Long day, and long night.  “We can talk about it when we get back there.” Ephiny gently sidestepped the question. “We'll work something out.”

“I'm sure we will.” Gabrielle smiled. “We always do.”

“True.” Ephiny smiled back. “Besides, who knows what we'll be going back to? Those kids might have had their own revolution there and we could get back to the whole lot of them wearing long dresses and baking cakes.”

Gabrielle started laughing, the sound ringing out and echoing against the stone.   She wrapped her arms around her bare middle and leaned against the wall.

“Oh, c'mon. The cooking's not THAT bad.” Ephiny protested with mock exasperation. “Give me a break, Gabrielle. No one's died from it.”

The bard sat down next to her, letting her laughter wind down. “No, they haven't.” She admitted. “You know, but I think one of the things that struck me about the tribe is.. “ She paused.

“Yes?”

“They're in a bad mood most of the time.”  Gabrielle blushed a little, unaccountably.  “I don't mean.. well, everyone's grumpy.”

Ephiny frowned a bit, her pale brows bunching. “No they aren't .. are they?” She looked up at Gabrielle in mild wonder. “There's the usual scrum and the squabbles, but that's...”

She stopped, and bit her lip. Then she met her friend's eyes. “You know, I've lived like that so long, almost all my life. It just seems normal.” She said. “But it isn't normal, is it? Not to you?”

Gabrielle rested her hands on the wall, leaning on them a little. “I like being happy.” She said, after a pause. “I think I also like people around me being happy.  Not constantly, because people just aren't.”

“Mm.”

“But having people around me in a constant state of... of needing, or wanting...of not being happy gets me a little crazy.” Gabrielle said. “I think that's why I don't like spending much time in the village.”

“Huh.” Ephiny murmured.

“So when I was there before.” The bard continued. “I think I was trying to change things that might make some people happy. Like having private space, or good things to eat.”  She reached over and clasped Ephiny's hand. “I really didn't mean to tear apart traditions, Eph. Honestly. It wasn't about that.”

“I didn't think it was.” The regent responded mildly. “We don't really have a tradition of bad cooking, for one thing.  Esta's in hospital, and the damn old fool refused to teach anyone because... well, because it's the one thing she can do.”

“But Eph.” Gabrielle turned towards her. “It's not like you get thrown out of the tribe if you dont' have a special skill.”

Ephiny looked at her. “Actually, Gabrielle, you can get thrown out of the tribe for exactly that.”

The bard blinked at her. “What?” She stared at Ephiny. “Are you kidding me?”

The regent chuckled wryly. “You know, it's so basic to us. It's not written down, so it's not something you would have come across in the scrolls. But yeah.” She said. “You need to be useful to stick around.  Some kind of skill. Fletching, or fighting, or cooking or building treehouses, or something. No one gets a free ride.”

Gabrielle merely blinked at her.

“Of course, if you're born into the tribe, you get a pass until you come of age, but then you need to apprentice out, or show a skill, or.. “ Ephiny shrugged. “Or you go find some other way of life.”

“Sheeps.” Gabrielle liflted her free hand and covered her eyes.

“I mean, think about it, Gabrielle. It's not like we have a huge amount of resources to spend on people who don't contribute.”  Ephiny sensed the bard's dismay.  “So sure, everyone needs to pitch in.  So Esta figured if anyone could figure out how to cook better than her, she'd be replaced.”

“No wonder they all freak out about Xe.” Gabrielle murmured. “Oh Hades that explains so much.”

“Oh.” Ephiny thought about that.  “Huh. Maybe.”  She sounded surprised. “Sorry. I guess I always assumed you knew.” She patted Gabrielle's hand. “But I guess it never did come up because … well, I mean...”

“Because I have skills.” Gabrielle murmured. “At least I do now.”

“Mm.” The regent eyed her. “And you came with a big stick even before you learned to use one.” She watched Gabrielle's head come up, and turn so their eyes met. “Since we're being honest....I was there in council when Terrais choice came to the question.”

She studied Gabrielle's face quietly, as the growing light outlined it's now adult planes. There was no surprise there, which didn't surprise her. 

“You took me because of Xena.” The bard stated.  “Because she's a much better friend than an enemy.”

Ephiny nodded. “That's pretty much what Melosa said.” She agreed. “And a lot of people disagreed with her, but she was the boss.” The regents eyes twinkled a little. “I think that was the moment I decided I wanted to go for being the boss. I really liked the idea of standing up there in the chamber and telling everyone what to do.”

Gabrielle smiled. “Sorry I got in your way.”

Ephiny laughed, a loud and joyous sound. “No no no.. “She waved a hand. “You don't get it.  You didn't... you gave me the best of both worlds.”

They were both silent for a few moments, thinking.

 “ remember.” Ephiny went on, in a musing tone. “I remember when Velaska had taken over, after Melosa died, and all of us who … who weren't in her camp got together and tried to figure out what to do about it.”

Gabrielle gazed quietly off into the distance. “You know it's still hard for me to think about that time and not start crying.”

They both fell silent again.

Then Gabrielle cleared her throat a little. “You wanted Xena to come fix Velaska.” She glanced up at Ephiny.  “That's why you sent for me.”

Ephiny hesitated, then nodded. “And we ended up getting that.” She said. “But the truth was, Gabrielle, after that point... you were the queen.”

“Why?” The bard asked. “It was Xena who fixed Velaska.  I didn't do anything for the tribe.”

The Amazon smiled, a touch wistfully. 'Why? Because that was when we all fell in love with you, Gabrielle.  With you, and this great, terrible, fantastic love story unfolding before our eyes.”  She reached over to clasp the now wide eyed and silent bard's shoulder. “And you did something. You brought Xena back.”

Gabrielle folded her arms around her stomach. “Probably a damn good thing for everyone that she found a way to come back.”  The bard said, in a sober, quiet voice. “I would have made a lousy queen back then.”

Ephiny nodded. “We would have been in a bad place.” She acknowledged. “But you know, even then we'd have figured something out, Gabrielle. Like we always do.”

Her queen smiled, a thousand emotions present in those eyes.  “Probably.” She said. “But that's in the past. So let's see what we're going to do when we get back. Maybe it's time I turn you over my right for good.”

“Who says I want it?” Ephiny responded with an arched brow. “Maybe I want to move down to Amphipolis with Pony and raise goats.”

Gabrielle's arms shifted and she planted her hands on her hips, tilting her head with her own brows hiked.

The regent shrugged. “You never know.”

A loud whistle drew both their attention, and they looked up the hill to see Xena standing on the upper walk looking at them. The warrior spread her hands in question, then curled her finger at them in a come hither gesture.

“Let's go.” Ephiny stood up. “I'll take second breakfast. C'mon.” 

The two women strolled up the path, as the sun climbed higher overhead and the city started to wake up around them.

**

It was quiet up on the top of the hill.  Gabrielle mopped up some of the gravy from the stew someone had put on with a bit of bread, keeping an eye on her partner standing on the other side of the room.

Two of the city council were talking to her. The warrior had her arms folded, but her posture was relaxed, her body at ease in its casing of padded cloth. 

It didn't look like trouble. The city councillors, all of whom who lived up in the higher portions of the city, hadn't lost as much as many others had.  Mostly storefronts, some of them, on the first level of some of the streets and wagons.

No sign of Denius.  No sign of Jens, for that matter.  Gabrielle wasn't sure if they'd taken the opportunity to leave the city before sunrise,  or if they were somewhere in the city, helping out.

Or even, if something had happened to them, in all the flooding.

Gabrielle picked up a cup of cider and took a sip.  The stores they'd found in the city and brought up to the houses they'd commandeered hadn't been touched. Even the room she and Xena had relaxed in after the dinner hadn't been touched, and if she wanted she could go right back in there, close the door, and take a nap.

That thought seemed very attractive at the moment.  “Hey Dor.”  Gabrielle turned to her daughter, who was busy with a cup of milk in the seat next to her.  “Would you like to go take a rest with me?”

Dori looked up at her. “Go sleep?” She seemed incredulous.

“I know that sounds crazy huh? It's all sunny outside.” Gabrielle grinned at her. “But you know, mama's tired. You got to sleep last night I didn't.”

Dori considered this. “Okay.” She put her cup down with exaggerated seriousness. “Go sleep with mama.”

Gabrielle got up, her motion immediately drawing Xena's attention. She pointed at the room behind them and saw look of understanding cross her partners face, then she retreated with Dori into the bedroom and shut the door.

It was quiet in the room.  Dori went over and lay down on her little bed, leaving her mother to crawl into the bigger one, as a gentle sea breeze blew through.

“Mama?”

“Yes, honey.”  Gabrielle was incredibly happy to let her body relax as she lay on her back on the bed.

“C'n we bring Wusty up to our house?”

Gabrielle indulged herself for a moment imagining their home with a pony in the corner of it. 

Pony, okay. Pony poop? Not so much.  Gabrielle decided, stretching her body out to it's limits and feeling the pleasant ache of muscles well used. Then she sighed.

“Honey, I don't think we can do that. None of the rest of the horses live with us, do they?”  Gabrielle smiled, as she studied the timbered and whitewashed ceiling. “Do you miss being home?”

“Yes.” Dori responded. “I miss my friends, Mama. Want to show them Wusty.”

The bard turned her head and looked over at her daughter.  “You do huh?” She said. “You have a lot of friends at home.”

Dori nodded. “Fevver friends, and down the hill friends, and my friend up up.” She said. “He goes up by our house Mama, so Wusty can too! They can be friends togever.”

Ah. Dori's friend.  “We haven't seen your friend in a long time by our house  honey. I think he went back to be with his mama and papa.”  At least, the bard hoped that's what happened to the young creature.  There were big hunting cats on the hill.  “Maybe we can find out how he came to visit us, and visit him back.”

Dori clapped her hands.  “Miss him, Mama. He was fun.”

Find the way down for the little guy, and maybe make sure there wasn't a way up for any remnants of the rest of the vally inhabitants.  Gabrielle put her hands behind her head and felt her body start to relax.

She had thought she knew what their near future was earlier, but now, lying her and listening to Dori, having spoken to Ephiny.. she wasn't so sure.  She felt very torn. Part of her wanted to leave Greece behind, and set out on roads unknown with Xena, but now part of her was looking forward to seeing home and family, and sorting out the Amazons.

And then, there was Dori to consider.  She'd just been reminded that though she and Xena loved the traveling, there was a reason to be grounded in a home surrounded by friends and family.

Was it fair to take Dori away from that?

Was it selfish of her and Xena to want to take off? Leaving their family, their friends, the Amazons... all behind?

Gabrielle nibbled the inside of her lip.   Then she sighed. “I”m glad we're going home too, Dori.” She said. “I”d like to have our breakfast on the porch, watching the birdies in the morning, woudln't you?”

“Yes, mama.” Dori came over and pulled her way up onto the bed. She bounced over to where her mother was lying and sat down next to her. “I want to go fly with Boo, and show Wusty to my friends, and catch fishes. No more run run run.”

Gabrielle turned her head and studied Dori's face. 

“No more running around, huh?” Xena slid onto the bed on the other side of Gabrielle.  “What do you say about that, mama?” She rolled over and put her head on The bard's stomach, letting her legs dangle off the bed.  “I know you had other ideas.”

Gabrielle regarded her soulmate's beautiful profile.  She lifted her hand and stroked Xena's cheek, watching those pale blue eyes watch her.   “What do you say about it?” She countered. “It's our choice, not my choice.”

Xena's lips twitched into a smile.  “I want to go home.” She said. “For as long as the Fates let me.” She half turned on her side.  “I want to just live.”

The bard exhaled. “Is it so selfish of me to want to take you and Dori and just go somewhere else?” She asked.  “I feel like I”m going crazy again, Xe.  Part of me wants to go back to Amphipolis, and take care of the Amazons and see what we're doing to do for the harvest and all that... “

“But part of you wants to follow Posiden's Bane out there and have adventures.” Xena tickled her around her bellybutton.  “”I get it.”

“Do you?” Gabrielle eased up onto her elbows and regarded her partner. “What does that mean for me, Xena? That I'll always want what I don't have?”

“You have me.” The warrior protested mildly.  “And Dori.”

“Boo?” Dori looked over at her buddy, having been bored to distraction by the talk. “C'n we go home now?”

'Soon, shortie.”  Xena told her. “You ready to ride Rusty all the way home?”

Dori grinned. “Yes!”

'You have to stay near us, Dori.” Gabrielle warned. “Don't you think you're going to go running off by yourself just because you have your own horse, okay?”

Xena chuckled.

“Shh”  The bard pinched her.

“Okay mama.” Dori said. “C'n we go now?”

Gabrielle's lashes fluttered. “You want to go, Boo?” She glanced back down at Xena. “I”m not going to get my nap, am I?”   She could see the restlessness in Xena's body and felt a certain itch to move herself.

“Let's get the group together and move out.” Xena said. “We can always stop later, once we clear out of the city area.”

Gabrielle studied her face. “You think we should get out of here.”

Xena nodded in silence.

“Then lets go.” She patted Xena on the shoulder.  “You ready to go, Miss Doriana? Should we go get you things and your pony and go?”

“Yes!” Dori scrambled off the bed and headed for the door at a run. “Go go go!”

“Whoa!” Gabrielle rolled over and hauled herself out of the bed with Xena a bare step behind her.  “Grab our stuff.”  She hopped a little as they collided. “Dori!!”

Xena skidded to a halt and grabbed their bags, then bolted out after her partner. “Damn it.”

Gabrielle circled the table  “Is it right for us just to leave like this?” She asked, as they ducked through the door and headed for the outside.

“We should leave.” Xena said. “Before the city gets itself together and starts looking for someone to blame.”

'Ah. I see. You mean they haven't yet?”

“No.” Xena let out a low whistle as they cleared the doors, and from positions around the hill militia came running.   “Not yet. They were looking for Hercules.”

“Oh.”

“So was I.” Xena said. “No one's seen him.”

“Where's Iolaus?”

“Him either.”

“Ah heh.”

“What's up?” Ephiny caught up to them.

“We're outta here.” Gabrielle told her. “Gather everyone up, let's move.”

“Bu.. uh.. b..” Ephiny paused, then simply closed her mouth and turned, putting her fingers between her teeth and letting out a much louder and more strident sound. “I'll send Cait over to get the fuzzies.”

Xena led the way down the steps, catching up with Dori as she rambled towards the stables. She scooped the child up as she passed, making her squeal with delight She loped down the steps, catching sight of the rest of the militia heading towards her.

Why were they running? Who knew. Xena just felt like it, and the motion satisfied something inside her as she reached the bottom of the steps and pulled up to avoid crashing into Bennu. “Get things together.” She told her captain. “We're moving out. Heading down the coast back towards Amphipolis.”

“Right you are, Genr'l.” Bennu looked pleased. He was in his militia tunic, though his shoulder was still in a sling. “More'n ready to head home.”  He headed off towards the courtyard. “Get the boys moving, meet ye up at the gates, yeah?”

'Yeah.” Xena called after him. “Be right there.”

“What's up?” Pony took the last step from the lower harbor at a jump. “We leaving?”

“Yes we are.” Gabrielle confirmed. “Xena thinks it's a good idea.”

“Me too.” Eponin came over to her, lowering her voice. “There's a lot of mad people down near the lower gate, and where the water pulled all that stuff down.”  She indicated the lower level. “Lost a lot of family and stuff.”

“Looking for someone to blame.” 

Pony nodded. 'You got it, your maj.”

Gabrielle studied the wreckage. “I can't even say they're wrong.”  She exhaled. “Though Xena thinks the waves were natural.” She took hold of Pony's arm. “Go get Eph. We'll get the horses ready.”

“On the way.” Pony took off up the steps leaving the queen to dodge the growing number of mliitia and head into the stable.

Inside,  she looked quickly around.  Iolaus and Hercules horses were missing, she noted, and she felt annoyed that they had just left without talking to them.   “Plenty of space in here now.”

Xena was saddling Io, while Dori was dancing around Rusty in a happy circle.  Gabrielle went over to Shadow, giving her mare a pat on the nose as the gray horse nuzzled her.   “Are we overreacting?”

“Do you really want to stay here?” Her partner responded pragmatically.  “If we end up sticking around, we'll be here for a moon trying to clean this place up. And we'll get goat poop for it.”

Gabrielle reached for Shadows saddle blanket and settled it on the horses back. “Well, yeah...  but we've done that before Xe.” She said.  “When did it matter what was in it for us?”

“I don't want anything from them.” Xena cinched Io's saddle snug and hooked her saddle bags to it.  “I just don't want them coming after us either.  Been a long day and night, not in the damn mood to have some patricians chewing my ass.”

“Ah.”  Gabrielle sorted the argument around as she finished buckling her saddle. “Okay.”

'You want to stay here?” The warrior looked up, a little temper flaring.

“Did I say that?” The bard shot back at her. “I'm just asking a question. That allowed?”

“Look, Gabrielle.” Xena leaned her arms on Io's back.

Gabrielle ducked her head under Shadows so she could see her partner. “I”m looking, Xena.”  She said. “You know you really look cute in that outfit. It shows off your legs.”

“Mama, ready!”  Dori marched out of Rusty's stable with the pony ambling after her nodding his shaggy head and looking around. “Boo, see how pretty he is?”

Xena regarded her family. A smile crossed her face, and she lifted a hand in Gabrielle's direction. 'Thanks for reminding me to change.” She pulled her leathers out of her saddlebag.

The bard leaned against Shadow's warm side, and smothered a grin, as the possibility she was going to get her wish anyway occurred to her.  They would leave and head toward home, but there was a lot of ground to cover.

Anything could happen.

**

Gabrielle carefully guided Shadow down the steep and twisting path on the other side of the inn.  Parts of the walls had fallen in, and the path was littered with debris. She had one hand wrapped in her horse's reins, and the other firmly clasped on Rusty's bridle as the pony ambled next to her with Dori on his back.

She had an uneasy feeling. Most of the doorways were empty of doors, and empty too of people, sludge and refuse from the floods clogging the road and making the way down treacherous for the horses, though not too bad for their riders.

Xena was moving along with Iolaus a horse length in front of her, casually shoving aside the larger pieces of debris to clear the way.

She had her leathers on, and her armor over them and Gabrielle was idly enjoying the distinctive swagger they gave her partner as they moved down the slope. 

They were alone heading down. The rest of their group, the Amazons, and Forest dwellers had kept their horses in stables nearer to the gates of the city, so they'd taken their gear and headed up to meet them, agreeing to gather just in front of the main entrance.

That left her, and Xena and Dori  to lead their horses down from the inn, in a cone of somewhat prickly silence.

Prickly, because there was something creepy about the path. Maybe it was the blood stains they'd passed over, or the emptiness of the street.

Gabrielle wished she had a hand free for her staff.  The spot between her shoulderblades was burning as though unfriendly eyes were poking her there.

“Mama.” Dori broke the silence. “Wusty likes happles.”

“Mm.”  Gabrielle nodded. “I know he does, honey. All the horsies like apples, right? Don't you have fun giving them to all your horsie friends at home?”

“Gogo.”

“Especially Argo.”  The bard smiled, as she saw Xena's head half turn towards them.  “Argo loves apples. You want me to tell you a story about how I found that out?”

“Yes!”

Xena started chuckling.  “I remember that story.”

“I bet you do.”  Gabrielle heard the warm tones enter her voice.  She remembered it well herself, that long ago day far off now when the discovery had led her to try an apple filled pastry on Argo's rider with equally spectacular results.

Xena licked her lips, and gave her a wink.

“So one day, Xena and I were walking along the road.” Gabrielle told her daughter. “And it was a really really really hot day.”

“Really hot.” Xena agreed. “So hot I tricked your mama into taking her clothes off and going in the water naked for me.”

“Tricked?”

Xena grinned. Then she cleared her throat. “Hey Gabrielle.. go in there and get under those branches. I'll cut the apples down with the chakram.”  She mimicked herself of the time.  “I’m tired of rabbit.”

Gabrielle chuckled.

“Tricked mama?” Dori looked puzzled.  “Mama likes fishes.”

“I dind't always.”  Gabrielle told Dori.  “Did you know your Boo taught me how to swim, just like she taught you how to swim?”  She glanced ahead, glad they were almost at the bottom of the hill.  She could see a bit of the road down below and the sound of hammering rang out in the still air.  “So anyway, we were walking down the road on that really hot day when your Boo spotted some apples high up in a tree, right near the top.”

“Go climb.” Dori said promptly.

“Well, the problem was, there was a big flood” Gabrielle demurred. “And the branches of the tree were out over the water, and the water was very very deep.”

“And your mama, naked in the sun there was very very beautiful.” 

Gabrielle glanced over at Xena who had paused, waiting for her to catch up. She could see those eyes watching her, an expression of indulgence on her face. “C'mon, Xe.”

“Cmon nothing. You were.” Xena waited, then started forward as they reached the bottom of the hill and emerged into the sunlight at the base of the broad avenue running down to the pier.

Running down now, right into the water not two horse lengths from where they were standing. A ramp going right into the gray green water, which lapped at the cobblestones.

“I remember watching you coming back out of the water with all those apples and thinking... 'Xena, it's too damn bad you're too damn old for that kid.” The warrior led the way up the avenue.  “Cause she’s adorable.”

“Mama, where's the story?”  Dori frowned.

“Your Boo stole it.”  Gabrielle said. “Just like she stole my heart when I met her.” She came to walk side by side with her partner. “I know I've said this before, but you were never too old for me, Xena. I”m glad you gave me a chance to grow up though.”

Xena smiled.  She looked around, seeing the empty streets on either side. “Quiet.”

Gabrielle shaded her eyes. “Not up there.” She pointed at the top of the road, where it evened out and spread into the big central square of the city.  A crowd was up there, the edge of it visible to them as they continued to climb.

“You're right about that.”  Xena frowned.  “What's going on up there I wonder.”

“Trouble?” Gabrielle knotted Shadows reins around her wrist and reached for her staff.  “Cmon, people.  Let's not start this stuff now.”

“Bad mens, mama?” Dori was watching her unstrap her staff.

“Just stay up on Rusty, honey.” Gabrielle watched Xena loosen her sword in it's sheath and check for her chakram.  “It may not be bad men. Maybe they're having a party.”

Xena looked at her.  Gabrielle shrugged. 'You never know.”

As they got closer, it became apparent that there was some sort of excitement going on, and instinctively Gabrielle drew herself and by extention Rusty and Dori closer to Xena as they came up to the top of the slope and moved into the square.

Up this high on the hill, there was little sign of water damage.  Only the mud remnant in in the cobblestones, and the disarray of the blockades and wagons that had fenced in the Spartans. 

The city gates stood wide open, and as Xena straightened to her full height she could see a group of sodden, unhappy looking men sitting in a cluster outside.    She spotted her own militia near the gates, appearing nothing more than curious.

“Huh.”

“What’s gong on?”  Gabrielle resisted the urge to mount Shadow so she could see better.

“Not sure.”  Xena started edging her way thorugh the crowd. “Excuse me.”  She tapped a man on the back.  He turned with an annoyed expression, but quickly ducked out of the way when he realized who it was.

He pushed his neighbor aside, and pointed, and a path opened up in front of the warrior with alacrity.  Xena led Iolaus through it , motioning Gabrielle to follow her.  “Stay close.”

“As a tick.”  Gabrielle returned her staff to its holders and took a good hold on Rusty’s bridle as she made her way through the crowd behind her partner.   Halfway to the center, the crowd stirred and Jens eased into the opening, holding a hand up. 

“Jens.”  The bard glanced after Xena. “What’s up? Didn’t know where you guys went.”

“We got conscripted. “ Jens made a face. “Recovering the treasures of the city with Denius.  But then we heard what was going on up here so we came up to see.” He turned and walked with Gabrielle.  “Incredible, huh?”

“What is?” Gabrielle said. “We just got here, I’m not sure w..” She paused as they reached the edge of the crowd and emerged, to find Xena standing in an open space with at least a dozen of the city elders, facing a bedraggled figure.

Xena half turned as Gabrielle came up next to her.  “Seems like we’re not the only ones who were affected by the waves.”

Gabrielle, blinked, recognizing the Spartan commander.

“It’s just as you said, Xena.” The city elder spoke up. “You said they wouldn’t be able to come back and attack us, and you were right!”

The rest of the elders murmured, and nodded, and gave Xena very approving looks.    “And warned us all.” Another said.  “Xena, we owe you much.”

Gabrielle’s eyebrows twitched.

 “You were right not to trust us.” The Spartan commander addressed Xena. “We weren’t more than a league out of port, when the ship captains made it up to come back in the night, and attack.”  He looked like he’d been run through a pestle.   “I argued, but could only get my own captain to stand off.  We took our ship to the north while the rest went to the south, and then.. “

“And then Posiedon smashed them to bits against the cliffs!”  Denius shoved his way through the crowd. “We have seen the debris!  At last, the gods spoke truly in our favor.” He spotted Xena. “You spoke truly, Xena.”

“Oh boy.” Gabrielle muttered under her breath.

The Spartan commander nodded. “We were saved, by our sheltered position beyond the point.  The rest are nothing but splinters. Our force is lost, and my word is perjured.”

Xena was a bit bemused by this unexpected ending. “It’s not your fault they were idiots.”  She told the man, but he held up a hand and she fell silent.

“I was their leader.” He said, looking Xena in the eye. “It was my fault, Xena, just as it would have been yours had we been attacked while we moved through this city.”

Xena studied him, then she nodded. “You’re right.”  She said,  “But you turned the ones you could touch.” She saw Jessan and his warriors join the militia near the wall.  “Why come back here?”

“Where else would we go?” The man said. “To go back to Sparta would mean our death. To stand in the way of the Athens navy, would be our death.  So we came here, and hoped if we threw down our arms we could stay here.”

“Here?”  Denius sounded startled.  “In the city?”  He looked at the elders, then out at the group of men seated outside.  “But… 

“We are just soldiers.”  The man said.  “Most of us are veterans. I see many such here, who thought to retire.   After this fight…  it’s the best of what’s left to us.”

“Hm.”  The elder looked thoughtful.  “You would fight for us?”

“If needed.”  The commander said. “But we would hope to live simply.”

Denius nodded to himself, watching the man.

Gabrielle eased forward, handing Rusty’s reins over to her partner. “Hang on to this.”  She went up to the Spartan commander and studied his face.  He was grizzled, and old, and she could see the weariness in his eyes.

He was, she thought, an honest man.  “Are there still Spartan forces here in the city hiding?” She asked, in a quiet, steady voice.

Xena merely watched, moving over to put her arm around Rusty’s neck much to Dori’s delight.

The Spartan met her eyes.  “Yes.”

A little reaction ran through the crowd and they started muttering.  Denius put his hands on his hips. “So. Not so very honorable after all.”

“They were not my men.” The Spartan replied, lifting his hands and letting them drop. “They were led by some of our younger captains, who thought they were being directed by Artemis.  At least, that’s what they were told.” He half shrugged.  “Yes I knew about them.  They were not part of our bargain though, now were they Xena?” He looked at the warrior.  “We spoke only of the men I led.”

“That’s true.”  Xena admitted.

“So are you coming back here, asking to be let in – so you can find and lead them and attack people?” Gabrielle asked.  “After all, we’re just the enemy, aren’t we?”

Denius looked at Gabrielle, his head tilted a little to one side, his expression a little surprised.

“I kept my word.” The Spartan said, stiffly. “You saw it.”

“You kept the letter of your word.”  Gabrielle stared evenly at him.  “But you knew there was still a force here. Maybe you were hoping they’d break out when you came into the city, and start attacking us.”

“But they didn’t.” 

“No, they didn’t.”  The bard said. “Because Xena and Hercules were here, and they were afraid.”  She took a step back. “But what happens when we leave?  When it’s just the city, and you, and those cowards hiding in the streets?”

The Spartans face twitched.  “Nothing will happen. We wish to stop fighting.”

“That’s not true.”  Gabrielle took a step closer to him. “I know it’s not true,  because you’re afraid right now.  I just insulted you, and insulted your culture and you wont’ make one move towards me because Xena’s there and you know she’ll take your head off.”

The crowd was silent, watching and listening to the bard in fascination.   Denius folded his arms over his chest, and shook his head.

Gabrielle turned her head towards her partner. “I say kick them out, Xe.”  She said. “I wonder if they split off and were lucky, or if they were just lucky.”

The Spartan lunged and Xena’s sword whistled out at the same moment, his forward motion stopped cold as the flat of her blade smacked him in the face in a backswing that continued and threw him over onto his back on the muddy cobblestones.

Gabrielle hadn’t even twitched.   The sword, in fact, had passed over her head and stirred the pale hairs at the top of it.   “On second thought.” She glanced over at Denius and Jens. “Maybe you should keep them locked up and turn them over to the Athens Navy when they get here?”

Denius nodded, his lips twitching into a reluctant smile. “They will make valuable hostages.” He agreed. “Perhaps enough to rebuild the waterfront.”

Jens was also nodding. “That’s more like it.” He agreed. “I will take responsibility for them, Xena.”  He addressed the warrior.  “We will ransom them.”  He and one of his lieutenants went over and grabbed hold of the Spartan.

Xena studied the fallen man, feeling more than a touch disappointed.  She had liked him.   Her eyes shifted to Gabrielle’s, as the bard watched her. But Gabrielle had seen the truth of it, lacking the sympathy she felt for another old campaigner like herself.

She’d acted like an Amazon queen, matter of fact. Able to make judgments. Fearless. Confident.  As Xena studied her partner’s face, she saw the quick wink and the twinkle appear in those eyes, and the tiny tip of the bard’s tongue as she stuck it out at her.

And as ever,  essentially Gabrielle. 

“That’s settled then.” Xena said. “I think it’s a good plan.  Spartans will pay good coin for them regardless just to find out what really happened here.” She gave Denius a shrewd look, and he nodded, his lips pursed together.   “So we’ll be getting out of your way now, and heading home.”

Ephiny and Eponin pushed their way through the crowd and ended up at Gabrielle’s side.  “Nice one.”  Ephiny whispered in her ear. “I didn’t figure that guy like that.”

“Me either.” Pony muttered.

“Xena, won’t you stay a while as a guest of the city?” Denius asked. “You really did allow us all to escape the danger..”

“Not all.” Gabrielle interrupted gently.  “People died here.”

Denius looked at her. “No one that mattered.” He said, bluntly.  “Only the dregs. We’re better off without them. In fact, the whole city seems cleansed.”

Gabrielle’s whole body twitched into motion and then stilled, as Xena’s hand settled on her shoulder.  The cold anger she felt made her want to kick Denius, but the pressure against her skin was definite and precise, and she understood the signal.

No words needed.  She didn’t’ even have to look up at her partner.   She sensed Pony and Ephiny close in though, and if she glanced to her right, she knew she’d see Pony’s hand on her sword hilt.  

“Denius.”  Xena said. “We’re leaving.  Thanks, but no thanks.  I used to be one of those dregs, and frankly, I’d rather help them, than you.”  She let out a whistle. “Let’s go people.”  Her eyes flicked to the city elders. “Good luck.”

They moved past them, joining the militia and Jessan’s group at the gates, and moving through them.  Xena glanced at the group of Spartans as they went past.  They were all just slumped together, visibly exhausted, and many had injuries.  “They definitely were in a shipwreck.” She commented.

“Yeah, I think that’s true.”  Gabrielle agreed.  “Those waves were real.”

The men didn’t even look up as they passed, or react as Jens led a group of the city guard out to take them into custody.    They  staggered to their feet and allowed themselves to be pushed along with no resistance.

“Xe?”  Gabrielle studied them.

“Mm?”  The warrior was adjusting her sword sheath.

“Was I wrong about that guy? Those people look all in. Maybe it was what they said.”  Gabrielle found herself swamped by a wave of self doubt suddenly.   “I just thought for sure they knew something when he admitted he knew Spartans were still in the city.”

“Hmm.” Xena rumbled under her breath. “You could be, but I wouldn’t bet on it.”

“You think they’ll really be able to ransom them? “ Gabrielle mused.

Xena rested her hands on Iolaus’ saddle. “I think it’s going to be a toss up who ends up ransoming who.” She replied cryptically.  “But it’s not our issue.”

Gabrielle looked intently at her, then she slid one arm around Xena and gave her a quick hug. 

The group gathered around Xena, who was still on foot. They waited for the soldiers to retreat back into the city, then everyone sort of took a breath, and looked at each other.

It was midday.   Xena tilted her head back and regarded the sun. “We’ve got about four hours riding, and then we can take a break.” She pulled herself up into Io’s saddle.  “Let’s move people.”

“Go go!” Dori agreed, as they milled around, and got ready to ride off.  “Go Go go!”

**

Concluded in Part 31