A Queen’s Tale

Part 4

Gabrielle settled back down into her chair, the last of the claps and whistles fading around her as she returned the accolades with a smile and a wave.  She picked up her mug, freshly filled, and took a sip to ease her throat as their guests turned their chairs and faced her.

“What a fine storyteller you are.” Ranalf said straightforwardly. “Wonderful.”

The bard smiled at him. “Thanks.” She lifted her mug in his direction.  “It’s very nice to have a new audience. Glad you enjoyed it.”

The inn was chock full, between the merchants visiting,  the soldiers, the townsfolk, and a dozen Amazons scattered around inside.   It was more than a little warm, and Xena had her chair pushed back against the wall, with the window open behind her shoulders.

“Do the Amazons traditionally perform so?” Ranalf asked. “I hadn’t heard they did.”

“They don’t.”  Gabrielle said.  “Amazons have a strong tradition of passing down their beliefs and history in tribal  scrolls, and there’s many a night when someone will bring one of those scrolls out and read to everyone a bit of the history.”

“But that is not what you have just done.” The soldier next to Ranalf spoke up.

“No.” The bard agreed. “”That part of me is not Amazon. I’m a bard.  I tell stories just because that’s what I do, and that’s what I love.”  She glanced to one side. “Well, that’s one of the things that I love.”  She amended, as she watched Dori swinging her booted feet where she was sitting on Xena’s lap.

Xena was content to sit in her corner, with the cool breeze hitting the back of her neck as she watched their guests, and listened to Gabrielle’s skillfully casual questioning of them.    Solari came over and offered her queen a pitcher, and the bard waved her to put it on the table, inviting everyone to take part in the most natural way.

The soldiers, of course, were happy to.  They’d had a big dinner, and many jugs of ale, and despite being big men and experienced fighters, it was starting to get to them.   Xena kept to her large mug, filled with cider and pretended to concentrate on Dori’s cheerful babbling, one ear fully cocked and listening to the men’s conversation.

“Boo, I heard somethin.”

“Yeah?” The warrior bounced her little charge a bit on her knee. “What’d you hear, shortie?  In here all I can hear is your mama telling stories and someone beating up a pot back in the kitchen.”

“I heard a foxes outside.”

Xena turned her head and looked out the window, seeing little but shadows. “Yeah?”

“Pardon, Xena?” Ranalf said. “What did you say your daughter’s name was?”

Xena wrested her attention from the bushes and focused on the soldier. “Her name is Doriana.” She said. “Dori for short.”

Dori put her hands on the table and patted it. ‘Hi.” She greeted Ranalf amiably, grinning at him. “You gots pretty shirts.”  She pointed at the mail on the man’s chest. “Shiny.”

One of the other soldiers chuckled. “Tis only a babe could think this pretty.” He touched his armor. “Wish they could never grow up to find differently.”

“Dori’s already known war.”  Gabrielle spoke up from her end of the table. She smiled at Dori as she looked over at her. “Mama’s got a shirt like that too, right honey?”

“Yes.” Dori agreed.  “Mama, you tell the cow story? It’s funny!”

“Not right now, Dor.” Gabrielle had caught the grimace on her partner’s face. “I’ll tell it to you later, when you go to bed, okay?”

Dori scowled engagingly at her.

Ranalf was studying Dori, then looking at Gabrielle, then turning his head to look over at Xena.

Xena merely smiled benignly back at him.    “We held off an army of around four thousand with about six hundred here,  Gabrielle’s Amazons, my militia, and some friends of ours all told.” She remarked. “Dori helped.”

The soldier’s curious look turned to a stare. 

“We know war.”  Gabrielle said.  “That’s why we don’t want to rush off into another one, no matter whose side it is.”   She held her hand out. “C’mere, honey.”

Dori scrambled off Xena’s knee and darted under the table, startling all the men before she popped out next to Gabrielle and climbed up into her lap.  “Mama!”

Gabrielle put her arms around Dori.   “I can understand Athens recruiting Amazons.” She said, casually. “They’ll be lucky to get them.”

Xena nodded.   “I took every one I could get in the war.” She said.  “Those were some tough battles, right Solari?”

“You got that right,  champ.”  Solari was seated at the next table with Cait, Paladia, and Aalene.  “We got them good in that ambush, though.” She said.  “Nailed those suckers.”

The younger man next to Ranalf leaned forward and let his weight rest on his elbows. “Well, as we hear it.” He said, looking around and then facing forward again.  “They don’t care if you can fight.”  He was visibly a little more drunk than his comrades. 

“Well.” Solari  leaned forward. “I hope they don’t think they can use Amazons for something other than fighting if you catch my drift.”

Cait chuckled. Paladia rolled her eyes. Aalene merely looked amused.

‘We can fight.” Solari went on seriously. “C’mon, you wanna arm wrestle?”

The younger soldier goggled at her. “Who.. me?”

“Yeah you.” Solari stood up and put her hands on her hips. “I’d rather arm wrestle you than either of those two.” She indicated Xena and Gabrielle. “I can beat you.” She looked back at the man. “I’ll just get my ass kicked by them.”

Gabrielle bit the inside of her lip to keep from laughing, and almost lost it anyway when she looked across the table and saw the faint smirk on Xena’s face and the tip of her tongue poking out between her teeth.

She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Solari.” She said. “These are our guests.”

“Aw.” Solari returned to her seat and dropped down into it.   “Sorry your Maj.”

Ranalf looked bemused.  His younger companion scowled.   “Naw.” He said. “They didn’t want em for bedding, we heard.  Some deal.  Some thing, some god favor.. dunno.”  He reached for his mug and drained it.  “You aren’t gonna be there, so it’s okay.”

It stopped being funny. Gabrielle looked right across the table at her partner and saw the narrowed eyes and the slightly flaring nostrils. Without moving a muscle Xena had suddenly altered from laid back and slightly bored to bristling irritation and Gabrielle suspected the same thoughts were running through both their heads. 

“Yeah, you’re right.” Xena drawled. “We’re not going to be there. “

Ranalf cleared his throat a touch uncomfortably.  “And glad we are of it. All that talk is probably nonsense at any rate.” He turned to Gabrielle. “Where did you learn your storytelling,  Gabrielle?”

With an effort, Gabrielle wrested her attention away from the thought of gods, and favors.  “Living with Xena.” She told Ranalf.  “Though I’ve told stories since I was little, really.  I started having lots of things to tell though when I began traveling and seeing the world.”

“And getting into trouble.”  Xena relaxed a fraction, still without actually moving.  “I got a lot more experience figuring out how to get us both out of situations after that.”

“Makes for good stories, though.” Gabrielle blithely asserted.  “So that’s where I got my start, and when you live the life I do, you’re never lacking for new material.”  She looked down. “Right Dori?”

“Mama.”  Dori squiggled back and leaned against her mother. “Mama tells good stories!”

Xena let her partner draw the attention while she studied the soldiers at the table. She was aware of the alertness of the Amazons nearby, and knew they hadn’t missed the offhand comment any more than she had.

Gods again.  She knew better than most that it was not a far stretch to think that was possible, though Ranalf’s original story that they were going to be used as spear fodder was also reasonable given the current minds in charge in Athens.

Maybe the truth was twofold.  Maybe there was a god’s involvement, and maybe that was Athen’s way of filling their end of the bargain.   Or maybe it was all nonsense. The warrior conceded it could well be.

The facts were, the Amazons were being solicited.  The Spartans were also soliciting, but it seemed they were being far more selective.  Were they both just looking for every advantage?  Xena didn’t lie to herself. She was flattered by the offer, and deep down, there was a very animal part of her that would enjoy leading Sparta to war.

But the animal part now was fully owned and directed by a mature reasoning that had different priorities and so, though both flattered and understanding the pleasure being held out, there was truly no temptation for her to agree to it.

She wondered if Ares was involved.  It would be like him to play so frivolously with the mortals at his disposure.  Xena had thought, though, that the adventure they’d just shared might have made him take a step back, and think about things for a change.

Then she thought about that, and had to laugh wryly at herself. “Who do I think I’m kidding?”  She muttered under her breath.

“What was that, champ?” Solari looked over from the other table.

“Nothing.” Xena straightened up and leaned forward.  “Ranalf, has Sparta tried to treaty with Athens over this?  I know the war really has no urgent reason, but I’m sure they’ve said what their attacking for.. what the goal is, haven’t they?”

Ranalf shrugged. “I am but a soldier.” He said. “I know not the plans of my masters. We were not told the whys, just to gather our weapons and assemble.  That is the Spartan way.”

“No clashes on the border lately?” The warrior pressed.

‘The usual.” One of the other soldiers sitting closest to Xena said. “Squabbles.  A man stole a cow, a legion responds to retrieve it. “

“Then the other side sends two legions to ask why.” Gabrielle said. “Is that it?”

Ranalf nodded.  “We both want war.” He said, in a mild tone. “I want it. I’m bored at home, I want to fight.  Does there need to be a reason?”

Athens had also wanted war, Xena recalled. If she cast her mind back, she could remember herself wanting it, wanting the excitement of leading soldiers into  battle and the incomparable rush when your life was on the line and it was only your skill and the luck of the battlefield that let you walk the line and survive and win.

And win.  Xena folded her arms over her chest with a thoughtful expression. “What’s at stake?” She asked bluntly. “Land?”

Ranalf cleared his throat. “I don’t know any details.” He said, leaning forward in a conspiring way. “But the word is,  this will be no border skirmish.  How do you keep from having to guard your borders? Remove them.”

The younger soldier nodded in excitement.  “Once and for all!  End the petty stuff.  We want to take it all. Maybe you’ll end up under Spartan rule in any case?”   He smiled at Xena, not very pleasantly. “We could end neighbors.”

“Think Athens wants the same?” The warrior picked up her mug casually and drank from it.

“Of course.” The man shrugged.  “But they wont’ get it, if they must beg women to fight for them. “ He added. “And no offense to those here, who have proven themselves in war apparently.” He gave Solari a look. “I will kill women, but I do not fight against them. It isn’t honorable.”

“Well.” Xena steepled her fingers in front of her, gazing at the man past them. “I’ve never let honor stand in the way of a good fight.” She commented. “But as my partner mentioned, you’re a guest so I won’t rip your man’s parts off and shove them in your mouth for that.”

The soldier took a breath to answer, then met the ice blue eyes staring at him and paused.

“Ah, the boy meant nothing.” Ranalf said, giving the man a push back against the back of his chair. “It’s the ale talking.  Apologies to all.  We talk freely here, as perhaps we shouldn’t.” He gave the rest of the soldiers a warning look, then turned determinedly back towards Gabrielle. “Your little child is charming and well favored. How many seasons has she?”

Gabrielle accepted the change of subject, realizing by the expressions on the other soldiers faces they would likely get no further information from them.  ‘She’s almost four.” She combed her fingers through Dori’s dark hair.  “And very precocious. “

Dori looked up and grinned at her, making her mother grin back at the familiarity of the expression.  “Are you ready to go to bed,  Dori?”

Her daughter scowled.  Everyone around the table laughed, the tension easing.  

‘I think that means no, your Maj.” Solari chuckled. “Does she ever sleep? “

“Very lightly.” Gabrielle ruefully agreed. “Just like her other mother.”  She looked over at her partner. “Thank goodness it’s quiet up by the cabin or they’d both be basket cases.”  Her eyes shifted focus and caught the look on Ranalf’s face and only just kept herself from reacting.

She forgot now, sometimes, that not everyone would find the idea of Dori’s origins natural.  They hadn’t dissembled about it for years, and everyone in Amphipolis, and in the village, took it as a matter of course.

However, explaining usually got her nowhere, so she pushed right on past the consternation.  “So despite the fact my little fishie here doesn’t want to, it’s time for her to go to bed, so I’ll leave you all to trade gory stories.” She stood up with Dori in her arms. “C’mon, punkie.”

“Mama!” Dori protested. “Want to stay with Boo!” She poked her lower lip out. “Pweese?”

“G’wan, shortie.” Xena told her. “I’ll be there soon. “

“Promise?” Dori asked.

“Promise.” Her parent said gravely.

“Okay?” Gabrielle gave Dori a little bounce. “We should see if we can find Ares, too. I thought I heard him outside.”

“Find Guff.” Dori agreed. “Bye!” She waved at the remaining tables as Gabrielle eased between them on the way to the door.  “Bye Cat!”

“Bye!” Cait waved back. 

Cyrene came over with another pitcher of ale and set it down, then took the seat Gabrielle had vacated.  “We had a weaver who came here, couple of seasons back, who was from Sparta.” She said. “She tells us tales…”

“Ah the tales of women..” Ranalf chuckled.  “Is she still here?  I sorely lack a good woven blanket in our style. Mine was lost in the journey here.” He seemed more comfortable with Cyrene. “We have some I have known from Amphipolis as well.   We too have heard tales.”

“Well, we can trade then.” Cyrene poured ale in his cup.  “And yes, she’s still here, and I’m sure she’d love to sell you whatever you like. I’ve seen her blankets. Gorgeous.”

Ranalf beamed.  “Our weavers are without match.” He said.  “The colors they use are like none other.”

Bennu came over and sat down. “Tis true you don’t take mercenaries?”

“Very true.” One of the other soldiers, previously silent replied. “And to be a citizen, you must be Spartan. We allow no others the privilege.”

“And I”ve seen smithwork.. hold on a minute.” Cyrene glanced down the table at her daughter. “Don’t’ you have a promise to keep?”

Xena looked up from her mug, both eyebrows hiking.  Then she lifted the mug in her mother’s direction and stood up. “I do.” She glanced casually at Solari, who nodded almost imperceptibly.  “Gentlemen, I’m sure we’ll meet again tomorrow before you leave. Enjoy my mother’s hospitality.”

“And a good evening to you, Xena.” Ranalf said courteously.  “Till the morrow.”

Rather than dodge through the room, Xena merely stood and put her hands on the windowsill, vaulting out of it and into the night air as she left the soft rattle of crockery and the low voices behind her.

A moment later she was crossing through the back gates, aware she had more than a promise to Dori awaiting her up the mountain.  Given her knowledge of Gabrielle, it was probably going to be a very long night.

**

Xena took a detour, as she got to the ridge where she’d built their home.  Instead of heading for the porch step she took the path to the right of the cabin, into the deep and fragrant woods that bordered the homestead.

It was quiet up here. She could hear small night animals moving around, and the soft sound of crickets, and far off on the edge of her hearing the faint sounds from inside the cabin and the whisper of Gabrielle’s voice on the breeze.

Taking her time, she eased between the bushes, following her nose until she reached a thickly leaved shrub, covered in white and yellow flowers.  She carefully gathered a handful of them, appreciating the sweet, delicate scent. 

Once she had them arranged to her satisfaction, Xena circled  back around the rear of the cabin, glancing up to see the flicker of candlelight through the glazed windows. It shone out a little,  just enough for her to cast a shadow as she came around the other side and passed by the deep sunk well with it’s carefully hammered trough that brought water into the cabin.

Surprisingly decadent for a cabin in the wild.   Xena appreciated it though and she gave the wall a pat as she headed up to the door, pushing it gently open and walking inside.

The main room was empty, though the fire was stoked. She could hear Gabrielle’s voice inside Dori’s room, the bards warm tones rising and falling as she told Dori her favorite story.  Xena went to the mantel and took a down an earthenware jug, carefully arranging her flowers in it and setting it back down to let the fragrance drift around the cabin.

Satisfied, she sat down and removed her boots, tucking them under the chair before she got up and went to the door to Dori’s bedroom, where the child was curled up in her bed listening.

Gabrielle was seated in the low, padded chair next to the bed with her legs extended, and she turned her head as she sensed Xena’s presence, her voice altering as she smiled.  “And then, grandma said, look!  Look who’s here.” 

Dori turned around, and her eyes lit up. “Boo!” She yodeled. “Mama’s going to tell about you and the cow!!”

“Yeah, I’d never want to miss that part.” Xena came over and settled on the bearskin rug, resting her elbow on Dori’s bed.  “Told ja I’d be up here. “She tweaked Dori’s foot. 

“That’s right, Boo promised.”  Gabrielle prodded her leg with a toe. “And Boo always keeps her promises, right?”

“I try.”  Xena exhaled, meeting her partner’s eyes through the warm candlelight.

“Mom take over the game?”  The bard asked.

“Like a champ.” Xena confirmed. “I just hope they don’t’ end up in a free for all down there.”  She watched Dori grab her hand and squirm over to be next to her.  “Those Spartans were getting pretty soused.”

“Mm.”  Gabrielle returned her attention to their daughter. “Okay, let’s finish our story.”

Xena resigned herself to it, extending her arm across the bed as Dori curled up on her side and used it as a pillow. “G”wan, mama.” She regarded her soulmate with a wry smile. “Let’s get to me taking a header into the turd pile.”

“But you did it so gracefully.” Gabrielle said. “And you didn’t go headfirst.”

“No I went butt first.”

Gabrielle cleared her throat. “Okay, here we go.  Grandma said. Oh look, look who’s here! Xena’s here. She’ll get the cow down!”

“Moo!”

**

Gabrielle noticed the fragrance as they left Dori sleeping and entered the main room of the cabin. She detoured to the mantel and stopped at the jar, taking a deep breath of the scent.  “Mm.”

Xena patted her on the side as she eased past, unstoppering the half full wineskin and pouring some of it into a warming pot  that she set by the fire to heat. 

Neither of them spoke.   Gabrielle went over to the chair nearest the fire and sat down, extending her legs out and crossing them at the ankles as she gazed into the flames.

Xena set two mugs on the mantel , waiting until she could smell the heating wine before she took it off the fire and poured it in equal measures. Then she picked up the mugs and joined Gabrielle, handing the bard hers as she sat down in the second chair.

“Thanks.” Gabrielle finally broke the silence, taking a sip of her wine.  “Long day.”

“Uh huh.” Xena swirled her wine around idly.

Gabrielle waited, watching her soulmate from the corner of her eye.  When nothing else was forthcoming, she took another sip of the sweet, warm wine and let it burn it’s way down into her belly.  “What do you think?” She finally asked.

Xena let her head rest against the back of the chair, turning her face so she was looking right at Gabrielle. “What do I think.” She repeated. “That’s a damn good question, Gabrielle.”

The bard half turned so she was facing Xena.  “I can’t decide what I want to believe.” She said. “Do I want to believe Athens is going to throw Amazons in front of the army as bait? Do I want to believe this is all some scam from Olympus? Do I want to believe these soldiers are just passing us bad information for whatever reason? What do you believe?”

Xena studied the quiet, serious face opposite her.  “I believe I want to take you to bed.”

That got her the expected reluctant smile. “Xena.” Gabrielle sighed. “I don’t know what to do with this.”

“I know.” The warrior said. “So let me get my side of this out before you start since you talk more than I do, and I really do want to take you to bed.”  She took a sip of her wine. “First of all, I could give a damn if those other Amazons want to ride Athens coattails to Hades.”

Gabrielle sighed again. “Yeah, I know.”

“I really don’t care.” The warrior said, bluntly.  “They’re idiots for doing it.”

The bard watched her, eyes intent.

Xena was briefly silent. “I do care about Eph and Pony.”  She continued, in a quieter voice. “I think she’s on a fools errand, but if either of those things they told us are true, they could be getting themselves into trouble.”

Gabrielle put her cup down. She got up and went over to Xena’s chair, laying her fingertips on her partner’s chin and lifting her face a little so she could kiss her on the lips.  Then she let her forehead rest against Xena’s. “I’m worried about her too.”

Xena put her own cup down and got up, bumping Gabrielle over to the low slung couch where they settled together in a comfortable squish.  “So.”

“So.”  Gabrielle took Xena’s hand in hers.  “So my problem is, I can’t just leave it alone, Xe.  I know they aren’t part of our tribe, and they really want to do this but I can’t let them just walk into what might be a trap without trying to warn them.”

Xena nodded, and grunted a little under her breath.

“I have this obligation to Ephiny.” Gabrielle continued. “This rule, this… “ She exhaled. “I started changing the rules there today Xe.”

“Uh huh.”

The bard was silent for a long moment. “I can’t change the rules for myself though.” She finally said. “I can’t just say, because I want to go someplace, I’ll just change this rule that says I can’t.”

Xena thought about that. “You and me are different in that way.” She remarked.

“I know.”  Gabrielle acknowledged softly.

“I’d say to Hades with the rules. I’ll do what I want.”

“I know.” The bard repeated, with a touch of very wry amusement in her tone.  “But I can’t do that, Xe. I can’t just leave them here.”

“Uh huh.”

There was another little silence, filled with soft breathing, and the snap of the fire in the fireplace.  “Xe.” Gabrielle said, at last.  “Will you go out there and find them and warn them? Bring Eph and Pony back here?” She asked. “For me?”

Xena tilted her head and studied her partner’s face in the shadows, watching as the candlelight picked up the glints off her eyes a she watched Xena in return. “Do you honestly expect me to say anything but yes to that?”

“No.” Gabrielle smiled briefly. “I knew you’d say yes, even though you think they’re idiots and deserve what they get.”

‘I”ll do it because you want me to.” Xena said. “But also because I want to make sure I understand what’s gong on with this war.   I don’t like surprises. “

Gabrielle nodded. “I think that’s a good idea too.”

The warrior lifted her hand and gently stroked the side of Gabrielle’s face. “I’ll miss having you with me.”

“I’ll miss having you here.”  The bard replied in a mournful tone. “And .. um. “ She paused and took a breath.  “I’m going to be looking at the rule books. Figuring out how I can pass this right of caste on to someone else.”

In the shadows, Xena’s eyes popped wide open. “Buh.” A tiny, startled noise escaped her.

“By the gods, did I actually surprise you?”  Gabrielle said  “Xena, this isn’t who I am.  I don’t want to be the queen.  I don’t like it, and I don t think I’m very good at it.”

Xena was surprised. Really surprised, since she’d thought Gabrielle was enjoying her time with the Amazons.  “You really don’t like it?”

“I don’t’ like it.”  The bard confirmed. “I don’t like being in charge of all those people, especially since I’m starting to disagree with a lot of things about the Amazons. “ She rested her head against Xena’s shoulder.

“Ah.”  Xena recovered and circled Gabrielle with her arms, giving her a hug.  “When we get back, Eph and you can work something out.”

“She’s going to be pissed at me.” 

“I’m pissed at her for taking off like that.”  Xena retorted.  “She didn’t spring that you’d have to run the Amazons until after she gave birth until it was a done deal .”

“Well, if I’d paid more attention to the rules… “ Gabrielle sighed.  “Anyway.” She lifted Xena’s hand and kissed the knuckles. “Thank you for taking care of this for me.”

“No problem, hon.” 

Gabrielle soaked in the indulgent affection in that tone, glad of this quiet moment in the dark, when she could speak her heart and know it went to safe ears.  Long past were the days when she stressed over every word, wondering how Xena would take them, hoping she didn’t sound crazy, or childish, or…

Whatever.

She was angry, a little, that she had to send Xena alone to salve her own conscience.   Angry that she had to stay behind and deal with the Amazons, who she was beginning to realize didn’t have much in common with her.

They loved her stories, for example, but had no understanding of her need to tell them.  They lived by laws that sometimes made little sense to her and had prejudices she really didn’t understand.  

On the other hand though, with Xena gone, she’d decided she’d take Dori and move down into the village, so at least when Eph came back, and she told her she was giving up the right,  she’d have some solid experience behind her to back up the decision.

And probably an Amazon tribe in the middle of a full scale revolt.

“Besides.” Xena spoke out of the darkness suddenly. “This’ll give me a chance to spread the word we’re still open for business here.  Maybe drive some trade this way, merchants trying to get away from the war.”

“Bring Dori back a present.”  Gabrielle said. “She’s going to be mad at you for taking off.”

“Least she’ll have you here.”

Gabrielle at last surrendered to a yawn. “Honey, I know she loves me, but I’m not her Boo and we both know it.”   She squeezed her partner’s hand.  “She’ll miss you as much as I will.”

Xena patted her on the knee. “Let’s go to bed, Mama.” She stood up, taking Gabrielle up to her feet with her.  “I’ll meet with the Spartans tomorrow and let them leave out of here. Then I’ll start out after them.”

“You don’t want to travel with them?”

“Oh no.” The warrior smiled grimly. “Last thing I want to have happen is someone spot me traveling with Spartans.   We still don’t’ know what Athens is up to in these parts.”

Fair enough.  Gabrielle unbuckled the belt holding her tunic closed and went over to the garment press, glad to rid herself of the leather.  Xena stood nearby, taking off her armor and hanging it up.   

Gabrielle sat down on the press and unlaced her boots, pulling them off and setting them aside.  She then stood and unlaced the ties at her neck and pulled the tunic off over her head, feeling the slightest of chills as the night air came in through the window, fluttering the candle flames as it went.

It brought to her the scent of the flowers, and she turned to look at them.  She walked over to the mantel as Xena started stripping out of her leathers and stood next to the hearth, the warmth of the fire tickling her skin as she touched the soft petals.  “Thanks for bringing these in.”

“I like the smell. “  Xena joined her, resting her elbow on Gabrielle’s shoulder as she leaned in to sniff them.  “There’s a couple of big bushes out in the back. I noticed them when I was out with Dori the other day.”

Gabrielle turned and slipped her arms around Xena’s bare body, the warmth of the fire replaced by the heat of their skin as they came into contact. “You  know, it’s been a long time since we were apart for any length of time.”

“Before Dori was born.” Xena said, in a very quiet tone.

Gabrielle fell silent.

“Okay, probably not a good thing to think about before bed.” Xena gave her a hug. “C’mon.” She steered Gabrielle over to the big bed near the windows, which were propped wide open to let in the night air.

Very different from down in the town.  There, the townsfolk kept shutters tight, against creatures of the night and prying eyes.   But to people who were used to sleeping under the stars, the night sounds were welcome and the cool air doubly so.

Gabrielle stretched out on the cool linen, laying her head on her pillow as Xena slid into bed next to her.   Feeling the comfort and the peace of their home was already giving her second thoughts about moving down into the village, and as she felt Xena’s fingers tangle with hers, she decided put that choice on hold for a day or two.

See what happened, first.  Maybe Dori would rather sleep here too.

Out of the shadows, Xena’s voice suddenly rose, singing a gentle song that put a smile on Gabrielle’s face. She turned on her side and reached over to lay a hand on her partner’s belly, feeling the motion as she drew in breath to continue her singing.

It was sweet and beautiful.  And yet, Gabrielle felt tears coming to her eyes when she thought about not having this cornerstone of her life at her side for an unknown period of time.   It was strange and she felt a sense of confusion, a torment of conscience that felt like she was being torn in two.

Chill out, Gabrielle.  Her better sense chastised her. You just asked Xena to go out there and do you a favor so stop freaking out because that’s what she’s doing. She’ll be fine.  You’ll be fine. 

Xena’s hand covered hers and rubbed her knuckles in comfort.

It did comfort her. It was as though Xena understood what was going through her mind, and just wanted to say it would be all right.  Just like the song, just like the flowers.

Gabrielle thought about the flowers, as the last of the song faded. “Did you know I was going to ask you to find Eph?”

Xena cleared her throat a little. “I thought you might.” 

The bard smiled, and snuggled up next to her soulmate, satisfied to let tomorrow wait.  Now it was time to just savor the moment, soak in the love, bolster herself against the separation to come so that in those long dark nights, she’d be able to fill her mind’s eye with just this moment.

They’d be all right.  Then when Ephiny came back, there would be changes.

It would all work out.

**

The next morning was overcast.  Xena stood by the window, debating whether to just get wet or endure the sweaty discomfort of her cloak on her way down to the town.   On the one hand, it would be more comfortable at first to merely get wet, but on the other hand if she wore her leathers it would end up being a lot more uncomfortable.

Choices. Choices. 

“Uck.” Gabrielle joined her at the window, already dressed in her Amazon leathers.  “Figures if you have to travel the weather’s going to suck.”

Xena chuckled wryly. 

“Maybe it’ll clear up later on.” Gabrielle mused.  “You’re going to stay wet for candlemarks though.”

“Yeah.” The warrior agreed. “I think I’m going to just throw a tunic on to go down the hill with.  I can change into leathers and armor later. “  She turned and headed over to the press. “You coming down?”

“No. I’m going to head on to the village with Dori.”  Gabrielle said.  “I think it’s best we don’t let them think anything they said caught our attention.”

“Okay.” Xena finished tying the belt on one of her older tunics. “I’ll see them off, then stop by there and have lunch with you before I head off.   Take me a candlemark or two to get packed up anyway.” She sat down and tied on a pair of sandals. “Then can get out of this wet stuff and at least start out the trip half dry. “

Gabrielle turned to watch her.   In the simple peasant garb of the town, Xena almost seemed ordinary, except for her height and those eyes.  Almost, until she moved and displayed that animal grace. “You look cute.”

Xena stopped and looked at her.

“Honey, you do.”  Gabrielle protested mildly, crossing over and fluffing her partner’s dark bangs.  “Do you want me to braid your hair?” She sorted through the wild locks. “You need a trim.”

Xena lifted her hand and gave her partner’s bare navel a tickle. “Want to do it quick now?  With that sun, a trim would do me some good.”

Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder at the door to Dori’s room, where the child was busy playing with her toys.  It was just dawn, and she reckoned they had time for the task. “Sure.”  She agreed. “Let me get my trimmers.”

Xena got up and went over to a stool near the fire her partner often sat on when she cooked and perched herself on it, letting her elbows rest on her knees as Gabrielle came over and started combing out her hair.

The familiar touch felt good. Xena exhaled in pleasure and relaxed, turning her mind towards the tasks she had yet to complete before she left, and the path she intended on taking.  “I’m going to take Io instead of Argo.” She commented.  “Get him some exercise.  He’s too full of himself after the last breeding season.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “I can hear Argo snickering from here about that.” She said. “You said she was pissed of at you for riding her in the heat yesterday.”

“She was.”  Xena extended her legs out.  “Besides, she may be in foal. I don’t’ want to stress her.”

“Mmhm.” Gabrielle carefully trimmed the dark hair, cutting it just to shoulder length. “If you put this back when you’re riding, you should be fine.”

“Feels better already.” Xena closed her eyes in reflex as the sharp trimmers came close to them. “Want me to do yours? You’re kinda shaggy.”

“Sure.”  Gabrielle agreed. “I like the way you cut mine.”

“Me too.” Xena bumped her with an elbow.  “Hey, you think I should just ride like this? Bring the armor with me?”

“You’d be more comfortable riding.” Gabrielle carefully trimmed the thick hair around her partner’s sensitive ears. “I’d say you’d draw less attention but we both know that’s just not true.”

Xena smiled.

“I’d even say you might attract less trouble, but we both know that’s nonsense too. “ The bard mock sighed.  “But what the heck, Xe. See how long you can get away with it. At least you’ll be a little cooler for a while.”

“Yeah, I think I will.”  The warrior agreed.  “At least until I’m out of the area and nearer to the roads leading to Athens.”  She added. “You done?”

“Yep.” Gabrielle finished the last snip, then she riffled her fingers through the silky dark strands and gave Xena a kiss on the top fo her head. “My turn.”

They changed places, and Xena went to work with the comb, untangling the pale strands before she started. “You want it short like last time?”

“Yeah.”

Xena straightened a little, and her hands went still.

“What?”

“Sh.”

Gabrielle felt the motion start again, and she fell silent, straining her ears to try and pick up whatever it was that had alerted her partner.   She knew it was probably a lost cause, but she sorted through the sounds around their cabin in hope anyway.

The birds had stopped singing, she realized.  She could still hear the trees outside rustling in the morning breeze, but the piping birdsong that she’d become so used to hearing was now startling by it’s absence.

Xena’s hands remained steady though, her fingers sorting through Gabrielle’s hair and gently tugging on it with the trimmers to cut it.  The warrior started whistling softly under her breath, the quiet melody floating out on the breeze into the too silent forest outside.

Very casual. And yet, through the contact of her shoulders with Xena’s thighs, Gabrielle could felt the tension in the body behind her.  She focused her hearing now on Dori’s bedroom, catching the soft burbling of her daughter at play.

“Hey Dori.” Xena suddenly called out.  “C’mere.”

Gabrielle slowly pulled her boots up under her and shifted her center of balance, a quick glance around locating her staff in its place near the door.  Whatever the danger was, it was enough for Xena to worry about where their child was, and the bard felt her heart start to beat more strongly, flushing her skin with blood and warming it.

“Boo?” Dori appeared in the doorway, clutching Flameball.

“Hey shortie.” Xena said casually.  “C’mere and show mama that trick I taught you yesterday.”

Dori amiably ambled into the room and came over to where Gabrielle was sitting. “Boo show me dis, mama…”

“Hold this.” Xena handed Gabrielle the trimmers, then she stepped silently back and drew her sword from it’s sheath hanging on the wall.

“C’mere, Dor.” Gabrielle took hold of their daughter and circled her with both arms.  “Hang on for a minute then you can show me, okay?”

Dori had seen Xena move, and she huddled against Gabrielle, eyes wide, knowing what the baring of that glittering steel meant.   She had seen Xena fight often enough. “Boo gots mad.” She whispered.

“I know, honey.” Gabrielle whispered back as she turned to keep her partner in her peripheral vision. “But Boo won’t be mad for long, right?”    She watched as Xena went to the window, silent, as she shifted her sword from her left hand to her right, then paused, motionless.

Sitting in the center of their cabin, Gabrielle felt completely safe even though she herself had a clear shot at the window.   Watching Xena hunt, though, made her realize that her initial plan of moving down to the Amazon village while her partner was gone wasn’t the worst idea she’d ever had.

She could defend herself.  She could defend Dori.  There was no question in her mind, or in Xena’s of that. But Xena was what she was, and Gabrielle knew she could never hope match her partner’s skills or senses.

A flicker of motion, a sudden surge of tanned skin and the solid thump of Xena hitting the side of the cabin wall preceded a struggle outside, as the warrior hauled herself backwards, along with whatever she’d grabbed outside and dragged it through the window.

Gabrielle stifled a giggle.  “Boy, I feel safe.”

Xena sighed and released the dog she’d hauled in by the scruff. “Damned puppies.”

“Guff!” Dori looked absolutely delighted. “Thank you Boo!” She rambled over to the animal, a half dog, half wolf crossbreed who was cowering with a  tremulously wagging tail at Xena’s feet.  “Buppit!”  She hugged the creature. “Good boy!”

Xena sheathed her sword with a faint curse, and went back over to where Gabrielle was sitting.  “Damn things are running around all over the place up here.  Can’t they stay in the town?”

Gabrielle handed her back the trimmers.  “They love you.” She relaxed, and straightened back up, as Xena resumed her task.  “Besides I’d rather Ares teach them to hunt then have them have to rely on handouts in the town.”

She felt a draft, and a tickle as Xena cut her hair short in the back, the edge of the trimmer sending tiny chills down her spine as it traveled across the skin of her neck.  “Look at that, Dori! Boo brought you a present, wasn’t that nice of her?”

“Love Boo!” Dori was on her back, her legs tangled with the dogs as they played. 

“Okay.” Xena finished up the other side of Gabrielle’s skull and ran her fingers through the front part of her hair to see if it was even.  “That should do you.”

Gabrielle stood up and glanced in the mirror, pleased with the results. She turned and gave her partner a hug. “Thanks, Looks great.”

“Mine too.” Xena returned the hug, then reached over to put the trimmers in their box, with it’s locking clasp on top of the mantel.  “Sure you don’t want to come down to town with me?”

Gabrielle exhaled, and put her hands on Xena’s stomach. “I’m sure.” She said. “For one thing, if Dori sees you leave, she’ll freak out. “ She glanced at their child, busy with her animal pal.  “And for another, if I see you leave, I’ll just follow you.  Let’s save both of us the heartache.”

“Okay.” Xena cupped both Gabrielle’s cheeks in her hands and tilted her face up, kissing her with simple, frank passion.  “I’d rather say goodbye in private anyway.”

The bard felt another flush warm her skin, for a completely different reason.  “You got that right.” She drew an unsteady breath then backed off a bit as Xena released her.  “See you around lunchtime.”

Xena winked at her, and then she turned and lifted her cloak up, swinging it over her shoulders and clasping it in place.   “See you in a little while, Dori.”  She waved at the child, then escaped out the door before she could be chased and hauled down.

“Boo!” Dori let out an outraged squawk.

“Take it  easy munchkin.”  Gabrielle walked over and ruffled her hair. “Boo will come and have lunch with us. We’re going to go and see your friends in the village, okay?”

“Okay.” Dori appeared mollified. “Mama can I take the buppit? “ She still had a headlock on the animal.  “He wants to play too.”

“Sure.” Gabrielle said. She hoisted up her carrybag and slid it onto her shoulders, then held her hand out. “Let’s go and we’ll surprise everyone.  We’ll teach them how to make breakfast. How’s that?”

Dori looked dubious, but got up and took hold of her mother’s hand anyway.  “Fun?”

“Well, for us it will be.” Gabrielle fastened Dori’s cloak on her. “Keep that on, honey… it’s raining outside.”

“Buppit gonna be wet.”

Gabrielle swung her own cloak over her shoulders, covering in the carrysack. “That’s okay, honey. We’ll take him inside the big place to dry off. I’m sure everyone will like that.”  She opened the door and waited until Dori and the dog went through it, then she followed, stopping briefly to pick up her staff.. “Dori, we have to give your friend a name.”

“Buppit.” Dori pointed at the animal, who was now snuffling in the wet leaves.

“Arent’ all of them buppits?”  Gabrielle started down the path, careful of her steps in the slippery weather.  “We should give him a special name.”

“Boo.”

“Honey, I don’t think Xena would like it if we called a buppit after her.”  Gabrielle stifled a laugh.  “Especially not a little boy buppit.”  She clarified. “How about Patches? He’s got those gray and brown patches on his back.”

Dori bounced down the path. “Boo.”

“Honey, you can’t call him Boo.”

“Boo boo boo boo boo.” Dori bounded ahead of her. “Mama, we kin call him buppit.”

“Okay.”  The bard gave it up. “Let’s call him Buppit.”   She caught up with Dori just as they reached the fork in the path and they took the one leading into the village.   As they reached the guard outpost, the two guards stepped out into the open, and saluted her respectfully.  “Morning.”

“Good morning, your Majesty.” The one on the left said. “It’s an early start today for everyone? We saw Xena go down to the town a bit back.”

“Yes, it is.” Gabrielle agreed.  “I have a lot of news to tell everyone, and Xena wanted to see our guests off properly.” 

Both Amazons smiled at that.  “We heard about them.” The same woman said. “We heard Solari had a mix up with them too, she got back here real late last night.”

Oh.  Sheep.  “Ah.” Gabrielle herded Dori and her buppit past. “Well, I’m sure it turned out fine.” She said. “But I can’t wait to hear all about it.” She could tell by the expressions on the watches faces that whatever had happened, hadn’t been bad for the Amazons.

That meant it probably hadn’t been great for the Spartans.   Gabrielle wondered idly if they’d gotten soused enough to delay their departure.   The thought made her wryly smile, and she ducked her head a little as the rain drove more insistently against her, and they had to navigate around puddles on their way across the big open space in the center of the village.

Well, first things first. She angled her steps towards the cooking hall.  Time to start the day with a little lesson.

**

Xena entered the back door of the inn, not surprised to find the place quiet and almost empty.  The only other occupant was her mother, who was in the kitchen, putting up loaves of morning bread.  “Morning.”

Cyrene looked up. “Oh, morning, Xena.”  She said. “Did you two have a good night’s sleep?”

“Sure.” Xena went to the cupboard and removed a mug, then poured herself a cup of cider.  “How’d it go here last night?”

“Sit.” Cyrene scooped two plates of stew from a pot in the back of the stove and set them down on the table, removing a newly baked loaf of bread from the tray nearby and setting it down as well.  “Where’s Gabrielle?”

“Village.” Xena was content to let her mother talk at her own pace, and started in on the stew, something left over from the day before and rich tasting that worked quickly to quiet her grumbling stomach.   She hoped Gabrielle was getting as lucky.

“We got them talking.”  Cyrene said. “But nothing more than they already said while you were here.” She ripped the bread loaf in half and tossed one portion onto Xena’s plate.  “They don’t know anything about battle plans, nothing about what Sparta wants to get out of the war, nothing about what you’d have been doing. “

“Hmph.”

“Then your Amazons challenged them to a shooting match outside.”

Xena stopped eating, and looked up.

“Well, it was better than letting them wrestle inside the inn, and they were all pretty overheated.”  Cyrene told her in a wry tone.  “I’d say it ended up a draw, but that was enough to embarrass the Hades out of those men.”

“I bet.”

“That’s why they snuck out of town last night.” Cyrene added.  “One of your boys followed them down through the ford and I suppose to the pass.”

Xena worked hard not to react.  “Saves me the trouble of pointless conversation with them this morning I guess.”  She took a sip of her cider.  “Good.”

‘You going to just let them go?”

Xena rested her elbows on the table.  “Gabrielle asked me to go find our missing Amazon regent, and warn the other Amazons about what these guys said.”

Cyrene’s eyebrows hiked. “She asked you to go? She doesn’t want to?  Is she sick? “

Xena gave her a wry smile. “With Ephiny gone, she can’t just leave.” She explained. “There’s no one to leave in charge. Pony’s gone, and her logical choice, her consort…”

“Is you.”

“Is me, and she can’t leave me in charge of the Amazons either, because I’d never let her go by herself.”  Xena concluded. “So I’m going. But I’ll check out what’s going on, and make sure those Spartans get back across the border while I’m at it.”

Cyrene nodded in agreement.  “That’s going to be tough on her.”

Xena nodded back. 

“You going by yourself, or taking some of your men with you?”  Her mother asked. “It could be a little dangerous out there.”

“Myself.” Xena said firmly.  “I want everyone else here to deal with anything that crops up. Last thing I need is to be parading around the countryside with armed troops.”

Cyrene grunted.

“I’ll be fine.”

Cyrene grunted again.

Xena finished her cider. “Thanks for the breakfast. I’m going to go pack my kit.” She got up.  “Talk to you later.”

Cyrene watched her daughter leave.  “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” She said, to the empty room. “But then, I always have a bad feeling about everything.”

**

Gabrielle entered the gathering hall, glad the rain had finally stopped, and a pallid sunlight had begun to filter through the trees.    She walked to the front of the hall and removed her cloak, hanging it on a hook fastened to one of the support poles.

Inside, the hall was a little stuffy, and she went to the windows and opened them to admit the breeze. She’d called a general assembly, after a surprisingly well received cooking lesson that had resulted in a reasonably tasty breakfast for the tribe.

Everyone had seemed a little bemused.  The two cooks who had been struggling were now glued to her every word, though as yet no one else seemed to be interested in learning anything likely to help them.

The old cook had caught the coughing sickness, and was very ill and likely to be a long time recovering. Since Gabrielle herself was susceptible, she sympathized but was disturbed that the older woman hadn’t even tried to coach any of the younger ones in what to do.

She’d jealously guarded every recipe, such as they were, and Gabrielle had a sense that there was more to it than just an older woman’s peculiarities.

Oh well. She’d find out eventually.  She turned as she heard footsteps and found Solari entering the hall. “Morning.”

“Morning, your maj.” Solari looked more than usually pleased with herself. “You hear what the deal was last night?”

“I’m about to.” Gabrielle took a seat on her table and let her legs swing.  “Xena went down to the town, guess she’s probably hearing now.”

Solari came down to the front and sat on the first bench. “Those guys, they were crazy.” She said. “After they had a couple more cups, they were all talking crap about how great fighters they were and all that stuff, and then someone said they were just talking like that because Big X was gone.”

Gabrielle considered that. “Spartans are good fighters. Xena’s come up against them before, and the guy she had to beat in Athens was from Sparta. They deserve their reputation from what she’s told me.”

“Yeah, okay.” Solari said. “But they aint’ better than she is, and we got the feeling they thought they were.”

“Ah.”

“So we told em we’d take em outside and beat up on em.” Solari said. “They freaked! They were all like, ‘we’re not fighting women.’ And all that but we got them outside and then one of them picked on Paladia.”

“Oh no.” Gabrielle covered her eyes. “Did he survive Cait?”

Solari laughed. “She tore into that guy like a wild dog. I thought he was going to lose his mind.”  She said. “She’s so fast you can’t even see her moving, almost as fast as Xena.”

“Almost.” The bard agreed. “So then what happened?”

“We all scrapped.” Solari replied. “It was a mess. Those guys knew their stuff, for sure, but I think we freaked them out so bad they just picked up and started running and didn’t stop.”

“Running?”

“Got on their horses, and picked up their stuff and took off.” The Amazon affirmed. “Got across the river and headed out down the road. One of big X’s guys went after them.”

Gabrielle’s jaw dropped a little. “They ran away?”

“Uh huh.”

The bard covered her mouth and stifled a laugh. “By the gods, Xena’s going to lose her mind when she hears about that.” 

“I thought it was pretty cool.” Solari seemed quite satisfied with herself.  “Those guys were bugging me.”

The hall behind them was starting to fill with Amazons.   Several came forward and took a seat next to Solari, some stayed in the back , most found seats somewhere between the two.  The elders filed in, and took their customary seats on one side and Gabrielle could tell from the looks and the whispers that everyone knew something was up.

Gabrielle waited until everyone sat down, then she stood up. “I’m glad we’ve all assembled here.” She said.  “There’s been a lot going on the last few days and I wanted to fill you all in on it.”   A faint reaction caught her attention and she took a moment to identify it. 

Surprise? A little.  “As you know, there were some soldiers spotted coming through the pass.  It turns out they’re Spartans.”

There was a stir, but Gabrielle correctly guessed this was not news to anyone unless they’d been out hunting all day and night yesterday.   “The Spartans were here to tender an offer to Xena, for her to come lead their army.”

“Spartans are smarter than they look then.” Renas commented from her corner.

A faint chuckle went over the crowd.  Gabrielle inclined her head in acknowledgement.  “I certainly don’t blame them. If I had an army going to war I’d want her to lead it too.” She said.  “Xena turned them down. She doesn’t want any part of this coming war.”

“What were they offering?” Renas asked.  “Just curious.” She amended, when Gabrielle gave her a raised eyebrow look.

“You can ask Xena.”  Gabrielle heard the edge in her voice, and produced a smile to soften it. “If she wants to tell you, that’s up to her.”  

“Those Spartans seemed really high on themselves.”  One of the guards said.  “Solari said they were dissing women, and Amazons too.”

Gabrielle nodded “They were. It seems they’d heard that Athens was recruiting Amazons, and they had definite opinions about that.”

“Said they were going to be spear fodder.”  Renas said. “I heard em.”

There was a stir again, and Gabrielle was aware of an intensifying attention on her.  “Yes, that’s true.” She held up a hand.   “They seem to think Athens is going to put the Amazons in front as a distraction, because they have the idea that Spartans won’t attack women. That’s not true.”

“For sure.” Solari agreed. “I don’t think it worked out for them last night though.”

Everyone chuckled. 

“The Spartans told us it’s not true, because though they won’t go to war against women, they have no problem just killing them.” Gabrielle said.  “So obviously, that’s a concern because many other nations are considering joining in with them in this war.”

One of the senior warriors,  Sesta, stood up. “Queen Gabrielle.” She said. “Even though we turned down the offer to join them, we can’t let those Amazons go to war and not know that.”

“Yeah.” “Agreed.”  “We have to tell them.”

Gabrielle waited for the chatter to die down a little. She lifted her hand. “Yes, we have to warn our sister Nations.” She said. “I’ve asked Xena to go find them, and tell them.” She said, into a sudden silence.  “And also to bring our regent and weapons master home safely to us.”

Another ripple of reaction, this one very complex even for Gabrielle to sort out.  It was hard to tell where all the emotions were coming from, she could see relief, and consternation in equal measure, along with a touch of suspicion and from the corner of her perception, envy.  

A full handful.  “So.” Gabrielle leaned back against the table. “With any luck, we can stop our sisters from getting into a situation that brings no value to them.  If it’s true that Athens wants to use them like that, then many of them will die, and for no purpose.”

Renas nodded slowly. “No coin’s worth that.”

“No.”  The queen agreed.

“Is Xena going by herself, your majesty?” Sesta asked. “It could be dangerous.”

That produced a very wry smile from Gabrielle.  “She is.” She said. “And over the years, we’ve sometimes realized that the fewer people who get involved in our situations, the safer it ends up being.  Xena feels that she can attract a lot less attention if she goes alone.”

“Anyway, she’ll have Eph and Pony on the way back.” Solari mentioned.  “I just hope those tribes listen to her, cause it would really suck if they ended up just getting offed.”

A mutter of agreement traveled over the crowd.  Gabrielle got the sense that her actions were generally approved, though she got the feeling some had their reservations. Was it still that mistrust of Xena?

She knew there was long memories here, and her soulmate had at best a mixed history with many.   That couldn’t be helped.  “I hope she has a quick and successful journey. I don’t think I need to tell anyone here how personally invested I am in that it be a safe journey as well.”

That seemed to alter the reaction, just a little.   Solari gave her a quietly sympathetic look, and she remembered the dark haired Amazon as one of the ones who had stood by her in the purging hut, in that dire time of her soul.

Brave and loyal, and a good friend of Ephiny’s.  Gabrielle returned the look with a  smile, then she straightened to address the assembly again.  ‘Now that we have that discussed, I have a few other items I want to bring to the table, since we’re all here.”

Everyone sat up a little and watched her alertly.

“Let’s talk about traditions. “

**

Xena had her pack laid out in the stables, and she was carefully stowing everything she’d need in it piece by piece.  At her back, the stalls were empty since the horses were out enjoying the newly burgeoning sunshine after the stuffiness of the barn.

To one side, she had her saddle and tack slung over a stall divider, the leather warmly rich with polishing.  On the bench before her she had her bedroll tied neatly, the furs tucked into the ends of it, and the rudimentary kit she could use to cook with when the need arose.

Flint and tinder.  Several different daggers of various sizes and uses.  The farrier tools she’d need to care for Io’s hooves on the road.  Tools to fix her armor.  The sharpening stone for her sword.

Her gear was always more compact and lighter than Gabrielle’s.  But it had been a while since she’d had to pack for a relatively long journey alone, and she kept having the feeling she was forgetting something only to realize that no, she wasn’t, it was just that her partner wasn’t going so whatever it was wasn’t needed.

She didn’t need the double set of furs, for example. Or the case of parchment and quills, nor the carry bag that usually held Gabrielle’s diary and her personal gear.

It felt weird not to have it.  Xena sighed and shook her head, tucking away a supply of dried venison for the ride and a pair of  extra boots. 

One bag, she slung over her shoulder. That would be for her leathers and armor, still up at the cabin. She decided she’d go up and get all the things she needed from there, then stop at the village on the way back and spend some time with her family before she came back down, saddled Io, and left.

She wasn’t looking forward to their parting.   Xena could feel the turmoil in her partner and the powerful desire in her to join Xena on the journey.  She knew it would take the lightest of excuses and for a split second wondered if it wouldn’t be better if she just got her stuff and rode out without stressing that any further.

Only for a split second.  She regretted even the thought as soon as she had it. 

She rolled up the pack and set it to one side, then dusted her hands off and started for the door, pulling up short when it opened, and Cait slipped inside.  “Hey.”

“There you are.” Cait said. “I was terribly afraid I’d miss you.”

Xena perched on the edge of a feed bin.  “Almost.” She acknowledged. “What’s on your mind?” She asked. “Bennu just told me you roughed up the Spartans last night.”

Cait looked pleased with the acknowledgement.  “They were complete jerks.” She said. “It was a good job thrashing them.  But I just heard, is it true you’re going to find Ephiny?”

Xena considered the question. “Gabrielle asked me to go warn the Amazons about what we heard, and to find Eph and Pony, yeah. “ She allowed. “I’m not sure how much of what they were spouting was the truth, but they should know about it anyway. Maybe it’ll change some minds.”

Cait nodded. “Would you like some of us to go with you? I know Gabrielle can’t, because of the rules.”

Anyone else, and Xena would have just brushed off the offer.  However, she respected Cait and understood the request, so she gave it it’s due somber regard. “All the people I’d like to take with me.” She said. “Including you, I really need to stay here and make sure Gabrielle’s all right.”

Cait frowned. “She’s right in the middle of a whole pack of those Amazons.” She said.  “I don’t…”

“Exactly.” Xena very gently cut her off, making eye contact with her.   “She’s right in the middle of all those Amazons.”

Cait fell thoughtfully silent.

“She needs all the friends she has there, Cait.” Xena said.  “I don’t want to take any of them with me. I’d rather you be there for her.”

“All right.” Cait said. “But please do be careful, Xena. It would be awful if something happened.”

“I will be.” The warrior smiled.  “Thanks for the offer, Cait. I do appreciate it.”

Cait blushed slightly, and nodded.  “Well then I’m off.” She said. “Pally said Gabrielle threw everyone head over this morning teaching cooking.  I can’t imagine how scary that’s going to get.”

The warrior chuckled. “C’mon. I’ve got to go up to the cabin. “ She got up and shepherded the young Amazon to the door.   They exited into the sunlight, and as it baked down on them Xena was glad of her decision to ride light starting out.

“It’s awful hot, isn’t it?” Cait seemed to read her mind.  “It wasn’t this hot last summer.”

“No, it wasn’t.”  Xena agreed.  “Summers only half over too.”  She added. “Damned if I’d want to run an army in full kit in this weather. Half of em’ll probably keel over.”

“I’m glad we’re up on the hillside. It’s cooler. “Her companion said.  “Will Gabrielle be coming to stay in the village while you’re gone?”

“She might.”  Xena allowed. “Depends how crazy she’s being driven.”

“That doesn’t sound good.”

No, it didn’t.  Xena thought maybe her partner would want to be in the village, just to give Dori some company, but that might pose difficulties of another kind.   She knew there were those who would use Xena’s absence as an excuse to approach the bard and they might find out more about their Queen than they’d bargained for.

Oh well. Gabrielle would decide one way or the other, and there was nothing stopping her from moving if things didn’t work out.

Right?

She dropped Cait of at the path to the village and  continued climbing up, into cooler air that dried the sweat on her skin before she reached the cabin.    She opened the door and stepped inside, closing it behind her and pausing a moment to look around.

It was very quiet, as their home almost never was.   She walked over to where she’d left her armor and started packing it, folding the metal plates and fitting them inside the carrybag.   On top of that, she slid in two sets of leathers, and the heavy boots she usually wore with the gear.

Her cloak was already packed down in the stables. Now she looked around the cabin for anything she might be missing.   She spotted Gabrielle’s diary, and after a moment, she went over and sat down at her partner’s desk, picking up a recently used quill and opening the top on the ink jar. 

She flipped the pages to a fresh one, and started writing on it, spending some time and covering three quarters of the page with her bold script.   When she finished, she tapped the quill against her chin and reread it, then sanded it dry and closed the book, setting the quill down next to it.

The desk was a little too low for her to be really comfortable at it, but she rested her forearms on the wood for a long moment, absorbing the warm energy she could feel in this space her soulmate spent so much time in.

Screw the Amazons. Maybe she should just go get Gabrielle and Dori, and take them with her.

Xena traced a pattern on the wood desktop, wrestling with her own conscience before deciding on circumventing her partner’s.    Then she sighed and straightened, shaking her head  at her internal conflict.

She got up and roamed around the inside of the room, letting her fingers lightly touch the items scattered around.  Gabrielle’s sparring shirt, which she’d made to match the one she used for sword work, with padding along the ribcage and shoulders was laying across the back of her workchair.  Xena straightened it a little and paused to examine a buckle before she moved on.

She picked up her worn travel bag and dropped a comb and a chunk of soap into it, and a handful of leather ties for her hair, closing it and tucking it into her armor bag

With one last look around, she swung the bag back onto her shoulders and shifted the weight so it was balanced.  Then she went her armory chest and opened it, removing a leather bag the size of her fist from it and opening it.

Inside was a double handful of coins, a brassy and solid weight in her grip. Xena swung the pack down one last tie and stowed the bag, then she resumed it and headed for the door, her conscience salved by the opportunity of doing some surprise shopping while she was out in the world.

Io’s stud fees.  Xena closed the door behind her and started down the path towards the Amazon village, whistling a soft melody as she passed through the trees.

**

Continued in Part 5