A Queen’s Tale

Part 5

Gabrielle found herself just sitting in her quarters as it came close to lunchtime, unable to concentrate on anything as she waited for Xena to appear.

There were any number of things she could have been doing, but rather than doing them she had her arms folded on her work desk and her chin resting on her wrist, listening to the sounds of the village drifting in the window along with the sweet summer air.

Dori was with the children’s group, playing.  She could hear their laughter from where she was, and knowing her daughter was having a good time in the village made her feel better about them spending even more time here.

She was trying to work herself into a positive mind set about the whole thing.   She really didn’t want to project a horrible attitude to the Amazons, because they were savvy enough to pick it up, and they didn’t really deserve that from her.  It wasn’t their fault Gabrielle was stuck here, and they were her responsibility.

They deserved better from her. 

Gabrielle glanced around the inside of the simple space, pondering how much she could, or should personalize it in the coming days.   She didn’t really want to bring the things on the wall in her cabin down.

They didn’t really fit in, and besides, half of them were Xena’s, and she didn’t want to…

“Psst.”

The bard jumped, and looked over at the window, feeling mixed emotions as she recognized the tall figure outside leaning on her sill.  “Hey.”

“Hey.” Xena stepped over the sill and entered the room, walking over and taking a seat next to Gabrielle on one of the sturdy guest stools.  “What are you up to?”

“Trying to talk myself into not being bummed out.”

Xena gave her a sympathetic look.  “Want me to not go?”

“No.” Gabrielle sighed.

“Want to go with me?”

The bard sighed again. “Don’t be mean to me, Xe.” She said. “This is hard enough.”

Xena reached over and stroked her cheek. “Sorry.” She said. “I don’t like it when you’re bummed out, and I don’t have your scruples when it comes to reversing that.”

Gabrielle straightened up and half turned, so she was facing her partner. “You all ready?”

“Yeah.”

“How long do you think you’ll be gone?”  Gabrielle tone was even, but Xena could see the faint tremor in her hands.  “Just an estimate.”

The warrior unslung her armor bag and set it on the ground. Then she stood and held her hands out, waiting for Gabrielle to take them before she pulled the bard up and led her from the work area back into the sleeping chamber, separated by the traditional curtain of carved beads.

This room had two windows, but they were shaded fully by trees close outside and it leant the room a cool calm that Xena found appealing.  There was nothing on the walls, and only woven mats on the floor, but there was a bed that was big enough for both of them and that’s what she was looking for.

She bumped Gabrielle down onto it and then joined her, stretching out on her side as the bard did the same.   “Now.” She reached over and tickled her partner’s navel.  “Now that we’re alone and in bed. Talk.”

“Sorry.” Gabrielle said. “I’m not really sure why I’m acting like such a baby.  I’m not even close to cycling.”

“It’s okay.” Xena studied the expressive face opposite her. “If I had nine months of being stuck here in my mind, I’d be acting a lot worse.”  She smiled. “C’mon, Gab. If you weren’t ticked off about not coming with me I’d be pissed.”

“I know.” Gabrielle admitted. “I do want to go with you. I don’t even care about the other Amazons.” She made a face.  “I mean, I do, but I care about being with you a lot more. “  She glanced up and met Xena’s eyes.  “Don’t take too long, okay?”

Xena smiled, and ruffled her hair. “I won’t.” She said. “I’m going to track those Spartans, then head up the main trade route – same one we took when we went to Athens. I figure the Amazons went that way.”

“Not the long way along the coast like we did coming home.”

“Right.” The warrior nodded. “Once I catch up with them,  I’ll talk to the Amazons, make sure they know what they’re getting into, and bring Eph and Pony back with me the same way.”

It all sounded so simple and straightforward.  Gabrielle could imagine the route herself, having ridden it not that long ago.  Her mind drifted to that trip to Athens and she smiled, remembering how many moments of joy there had been amongst all the crazy danger and terror.

Xena reached over and tweaked Gabrielle’s nose.  “Short trip.” She said. “Then after I get back, we need to plan a longer one.”  Her eyes twinkled gravely. “I’m kinda tired of hanging around here.  What about you?”

“Eurgh. “  Gabrielle felt a surge of happiness, and she saw Xena’s expression brighten as she reacted in return. “Know where I want to go?”

“Where?”

“Someplace I haven’t been to before.”  Gabrielle squirmed closer and settled down against Xena’s warm body.  “Can we go where you saw that animal?? The lion?”

“Africa?”  Xena pondered that. “Yeah, why not? Maybe Morocco. You’d have a blast there.”

“Really?”

Xena’s eyes twinkled.  “Oh yeah. I’d never get you out of the souk.”  She watched the bard’s face light up, and her gloomy attitude faded.  “So start thinking about what we can take on a trip and we’ll get moving on that soon as I get back. You me and Dori, just out there.”

Gabrielle gazed affectionately at her. “You’re trying to cheer me up.”

“Working?”

“Yes.” 

Xena kissed her. “Good.”  She gently nibbled her partner’s throat.  “It would make this trip miserable for me to think you were miserable here. “  She felt Gabrielle press against her, the bard’s hand coming to rest on her hip and slowly moving over it.

And slowly, Gabrielle felt the tension in her ease.  She returned the kiss as her shoulders relaxed and she focused on the tan skin in front of her.  ‘I’ll try not to be.”  She said.  “I don’t want you to be miserable, Xe.”

Xena lightly rubbed her back, and felt Gabrielle press her body against hers.  “Yeah, bad enough I have to suffer my own cooking out there.” She said mournfully. “And only have Io to talk to.”

Gabrielle smiled, and gently untied the belt holding her partner’s tunic closed.  “Well.” She eased the fabric back. “Let’s not talk right now and get you started off right.”

Xena’s low, musical chuckle tickled her ears.

*

Lunch was light, and cool.  Gabrielle managed to relax in her chair up at the front, satisfied with the plate of crisp vegetables and cold fish but suspecting her partner would stop in the merchants stalls on her way out of town and pick up some of every horrible thing she could find to take the place of hers.

She didn’t look unhappy though.  The warrior’s face was also relaxed, and she was resting her chin on her fist as she worked her way through a big wooden mug of cider.   Dori was seated next to her, helpfully cleaning her plate for her.

The dining hall was full of light, for a change. They had rolled up the windows shades and opened the shutters, and there was actually even a breeze coming through.   Gabrielle picked up a pea pod and offered it to her companion.  “C’mon, hon. You have to eat something.”

“I just did.”  Xena gave her a mock innocent look. “Didn’t I?”

Caught offguard, Gabrielle felt a blush heat her face and she closed her eyes and put her head against her hand as the people nearest them started chuckling.

Xena crunched a piece of carrot. “See?” She said. “What are you all laughing at? What’s so funny?”

Gabrielle shot her a sideways look.  The mischief was so evident, she just as quickly looked away.  “Are you trying to make me glad you’re leaving?”

The warrior chuckled.   “No.’ She turned abruptly serious. “But it is time for me to go. I want to get through the pass before nightfall.”   

Gabrielle nodded. “Okay.” She sighed. “Dori, hon.  C’mere.”

Dori looked up alertly, her eyes moving from Gabrielle to Xena.  “Mama?”

Xena stood up and picked her daughter up from the chair and hugged her.  “Shortie, I got to go out for a while.” She saw Dori’s eyes start to get big.  “Not too long.  I’m going to go get your Aunt Ephiny and Pony, and come right back.”

“Boo go?”  Dori looked crestfallen.  “Boo, I miss you when you go!”

“I know you do.” Xena leaned forward and rubbed noses with her. “But I’m leaving you your Mama this time, so you have someone to tell you stories and have fun with.”

Dori looked over at Gabrielle, then looked back at Xena.  “Oh.”

Gabrielle stood up and pressed her side against Xena’s, putting her arms around the warrior. “That’s right, Dor. You and I are going to have a great time.  And if you’re really good, Xena’s going to bring you back some presents, right?”

“Xena’s bringing back presents for everyone in this family.”  The warrior asserted. “But you gotta be good for your mama, okay?”

Dori still seemed amazed. “Mama’s staying here?”

Gabrielle had to laugh. “Oh gods.” She hid her face against Xena’s shoulder. “She’s as weirded out by that as I am.”

Xena gave her a kiss on the head.   “Both of you behave and stay out of trouble.” She shifted Dori to her mother’s arms.  “I’ll be back soon as I can.” She leaned over and gave Gabrielle a kiss on the lips, not particularly caring that they were in front of the entire nation.

Hadn’t cared the first time either. 

“We’ll try.” Gabrielle took a deep breath as her eyes and Xena’s met. “Promise me you’ll be back in one piece.”

“Promise.” Xena’s lips tensed, and her eyes softened.  “Love you.”

“Gush!”  Dori waved her hands.

“Love you too.”  Gabrielle leaned up and kissed her back.

“Gush!!!”

“Love you even if you think we’re strange.” Xena told her daughter.  “Be good.” She ruffled Dori’s hair, and gave Gabrielle’s arm a squeeze, then she ducked out from behind the table and headed for the door, returning the few casual waves from the crowd.

Gabrielle waited until she disappeared, then she sat down and put Dori in her lap, as much for comfort as to prevent her from just bolting after her partner.  “Okay, sweetie.  Can you imagine all the nice things Boo’s going to bring us?”

She wasn’t nearly as happy as she sounded, and as she looked at Dori watching her, she figured her sensitive child probably knew that. Sure enough, she saw the beginning of a pout.  “I’ll miss Boo too, honey.”

“C’n we go with Boo?” Dori turned and looked after the departed warrior. 

The bard exhaled. “Not this time, Dori.” She bounced her a little. “This time, we need to stay here with our friends, and have fun, and Boo has to go help your Auntie Ephiny.  But when they come back, we’ll have a big party, and a good time, right?”

“Party.” Dori looked mildly intrigued.  Then she tugged on her mother’s leathers. “Mama, we should go with Boo.”

As if she needed to hear that.  “Well, we can’t.” She returned her attention to the table. “So we’ll just have to muddle along, Dor.  Want some more fish?”

“Your majesty?”

For once, glad of the distraction, Gabrielle looked up to find Aalene there. “Hi there. Sit down.” She indicated the chair at the end of the table.  “What can I do for you?”

Glancing past Aalene, Gabrielle could see the quickly averted eyes and the mixture of expressions and she slowly let out her breath, digesting that.   There was some sympathy there, she could see those friendly faces and quick smiles.   There was also disapproval, from the older ones in the room, and embarrassed excitement from the very younger.

So.  She’d chosen to make her parting from Xena public.   She knew some were wondering why, and she knew others knew why and felt bad for her.  She didn’t really care either way though, because the truth of the matter was if she’d done it in private she’d never have done it, and she and Dori would have been on their way down the hill right now with their gear packed and rules broken behind them.

She wasn’t even really sure why she was so tied up in obeying this particular rule, except that she’d promised Ephiny.  Promised her she’d take care of her Amazons while she went through this very trying and private time in her life.

“I was just wondering, I heard you were giving some lessons this morning.” Aalene said, distracting her.  “Are you going to do that again? I missed it.”

“Sure.” Gabrielle offered Dori a bit of her fish.   She looked up as Solari scooted into the seat on the other side of her.  “It doesn’t have to be very formal, I was just giving some tips. “

“Hey, Your maj?” Solari said. “Any chance of staff class this afternoon?”

Gabrielle smiled at her, feeling a little bit better.  “Sure you’re up to it?” She teased Solari.  “That last class didn’t end up so good.”

 “I’ve been practicing.” Solari said, as the women nearest them laughed.   “Besides, I hear the scouts were practicing a new dance they wanted to show you, so I thought I’d better get a bid in before every body’s laughing too hard to pick up a staff.”

“Sure.”  Gabrielle gave Dori another piece of fish, and then she picked up Xena’s mug and took a sip from it.  “We can do that, right Dor? You want to help me teach staff?”

Dori picked up one of the peapods and studied it, then she took a cautious bite of it, drawing it back out of her mouth and sticking her tongue out. “Yuk!”

Aalene and Solari chuckled, and slowly the rest of the crowd in the room started drifting forward, gathering around in casual groups.

“Oh, you rotten child.”  Gabrielle relaxed, forcing herself to accept the fact that she was here, and Xena had left.   “You’re just like your Boo, you know that? I bet she’s having a dough cake right now down by your grand ma’s.”

“She’s really Xena’s image.” Aalene said.  “So cute.”

Gabrielle’s brow cocked. “Which one of them?”

Solari laughed, and two more of the Amazons sat down.   Cait wandered over and sat down on a stool behind Gabrielle’s table, and someone brought over another pitcher of stream cooled cider, and poured her cup full.

They were her sisters.  Gabrielle started feeling just a little better.  She might even actually have a little chance to learn more while her partner was gone, and not scaring everyone half to death.  Maybe she’d talk to more people. “Hey Solari?”

“Yazzam?”

Gabrielle took and released a breath. “Mind giving me a hand? I’m going to move my stuff down here while Xe’s on the road.. It takes both sets of our eyes and ears to keep Dori from getting into trouble up there anyway.”

She felt the reaction, heard the slightly louder buzz just under her audible hearing. 

“Sure.” Solari didn’t bat an eye.  “I bet Cait’ll help too. Right Cait?”

“Absolutly.” Cait agreed instantly.  “Should we go now?”

“Hey, we can help too.”  Dosi and Elen came over.  “I’m sure Dori’s got a lot of toys to carry huh?”

“Sure.” Gabrielle stood up.  “Now’s as good a time as any.  Anyone who wants to help. C’mon.”  She started to round the table, as the small groups broke up and quite a number of people started to follow her.

She knew most of them just wanted to see her place. 

Their place.

But hey, at least it would keep her mind occupied.

**

Xena led Io out of the barn, his saddle and her gear already strapped to his back.  She paused near the fence and jumped onboard, settling her knees against the well broken in leather and gathering the reins in one hand. “Ready boy?”

Iolaus tossed his head and mouthed his bit, but started forward agreeably enough. They passed the inn but didn’t stop, since Xena had already  been in to bid her mother farewell.   Only a few townsfolk were around in the late day heat, but she spotted Bennu jogging towards her as she rode through the gates.

She pulled Iolaus to a halt and waited for him. 

“Gen’rl.” Bennu stopped next to her. “Sure you want to head out by yerself?”

“Yep.” Xena confirmed.  “I need all of you here in case anything happens while I’m gone. I’ve got a feeling there’s more going on here than we know.”

Her captain nodded. “Agree, genr’l, but it wears hard seeing you go out with no one at your back.”

Xena shifted in her saddle.  “I appreciate the concern.” She said. “But I’ll be fine, and it’ll make me feel a lot better to know you’re here.”

“All right.” Bennu patted Io’s shoulder.  “Take good care then, Genr’l.  If you need anything, send word.”

“I will.” Xena caught his hand and gave it a squeeze, then she urged Iolaus down towards the river and the road that would lead her out of Amphipolis.

She definitely had some mixed feelings.   She was looking forward to some action, tracking the Spartans, and seeking out the Amazons, but she felt uncomfortably  alone without Gabrielle’s familiar presence and she knew she was in for some long, dark nights during her trip.

At least she’d get a chance to sit and think, though. About what she wanted for her future, and her families.  It was hard to do that surrounded by them.

They crossed the bridge and meandered through the market, noting the satisfied looks on the merchant’s faces.  “Afternoon.”  She greeted one of them. 

“Afternoon, lady.” The man responded. “Heading out somewhere? Need supplies? We tried to get some coin from those soldiers what came through late but they were spooked and run through us.”

Xena pulled Io to a halt and dismounted. “Maybe” She strolled among the stalls with Io trailing amiably behind her.  The merchants caught sight of a prospective customer and scurried to their wares, glancing hopefully at her as she browsed.

She mostly had what she needed.  “What’s in that?” She pointed at stuffed waybread, on heavy wooden trays.

“Lamb, ma’am.” The man working the spit said.  “Fresh cooked this morning.”

“Gimme two.” Xena ordered. 

The man dropped his knife and complied.  “Was going to put some greens in, but m’daughter’s not back yet with em. If you wait a bit…”

“Glad I missed her.” Xena sniffed the sandwiches, pleased to detect a significant amount of spices.   She tossed the man a coin and turned to stow them in her saddlebag, spotting a wineseller at the next wagon eyeing her hopefully.

A bag of sweet white would be good.  Xena walked Io on and surveyed the casks, their stoppers stained and fragrant.  She bought a skin, then continued down the row of stalls, set up in front of their wagons along the road.

A saddle pad, travel cup and a few more snacks later and she was mounting Io again and heading out along the road.  As the wagons faded into the distance behind her, Xena settled into her saddle and relaxed, taking in a deep breath of warm air tinged with the smell of the river.

She rode through the fields under crop on the far side, the stands of wheat and barley rich and golden in the sunlight.  It smelled of the earth, and Xena felt her body settling into the ride as she looked around her.

A sheep’s soft baa echoed gently.    Her ears pricked, and she became more aware of her surroundings, a nameless alertness she had little need of when she was living in the town, even up alone in the cabin as they were.

The sun warmed her skin, it’s slant pronounced in the now cloudless sky and she was very glad she’d decided to hold off putting on her armor. It felt nice to just be riding, the thin fabric of her tunic comfortable in the heat.

A rabbit raced across the road ahead of them.   Io snorted. Xena watched it disappear into the wheat, but continued on, resisting the urge to start hunting so soon into her trip.  There would be time enough for that later.

Tonight she planned to stop at a small town just the other side of the pass.  She’d briefly considered stopping in Potadeia, but her partner’s hometown was just a short ride from Amphipolis and Xena wanted to get a little further before she stopped traveling for the day.

A soft whistle came to her ears, and she looked up to see a sentry part the stalks and climb up to the road to meet her.   She slowed Iolaus. “Destin.”

“Hullo, Xena.” Destin was an older man,  who had a family and a small holding in the town and had chosen to join the militia after the war.  “Heading out?”

“Heading out.” The warrior agreed. “Quiet?”

“Very.” Destin nodded. “Didn’t expect you.  Saw those Spartans riding out before dawn. You after them?”

The warrior shook her head. “Going to bring back those Amazons from here that went down the river on a fool’s errand.” She leaned on her saddlebow. “Favor for my partner.”

“Ah.” Destin smiled.  “Anything for the pretty one, eh?”

Xena smiled back. “Something like that.” She gathered her reins. “Have a good watch. “ She started Io forward again, and in a little while she cleared the fields and entered the scrublands that led eventually to the pass.

Here, with the town far behind, the road paralleled the river and wound between trees and shrubs.  On the other side of the river lay the hills that held  Potadeia  and to her left, the mountains that Gabrielle’s Amazons had once lived in.

She remembered riding down those mountains, heading for that river after rescuing Ephiny from a frozen stream, and seeing Gabrielle riding to meet her, the bard’s anxiety palpable.  

It made her smile to think of it.  No matter how far they’d gone in their travels, and no matter how terrible the situations they’d found themselves in, the ride down this road, and along this river had always meant home for them both and now that she was out here, in all the quiet, she wished Gabrielle were riding along with her.

Traveling with Gabrielle gave her something to keep her mind occupied with.  If the bard wasn’t talking to her, she was doing something with her horse, or picking something up on the ground – it gave her something to watch and usually something to listen to.

Especially when Gabrielle would practice her storytelling.  There were many long roads they’d spent many long days traveling where the bard would entertain them both by figuring out how to tell any number of their stories, or those about others to make the time pass.

It was different being out here alone.  Xena let her eyes track along the river’s edge,  watching the shadows start to slide across the ground. 

Sort of boring, really.

Xena settled back into her seat and turned her thoughts to something more productive.  She considered how her path might fork once she traveled through the pass, and tried to reason out which way the Spartans would have gone.

Would they keep riding, and head to the nearest port town, just down the river from Amphipolis?  There they could board a trading boat and cross the Aegean to Sparta, but it meant risking suspicion unless they could find a merchanter who didn’t care whom he carried.

Therma was the closest large port town, but Xena recalled the men saying they’d travelled far – and they were on horseback.  The horses hadn’t been local, and the tack was just altered enough not to have been either.

So. Then maybe they’d come overland, crossing over at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth, and then traveling through the mountains and through the wilder areas, passing as few large cities as possible.  Xena nodded a little. Would they go back the same way?

Or would they take the quick route, ditch their mounts and take to the water to make their way home that much faster?

What would she do?

Xena took a sip of water from her waterskin and turned her head to watch a duck glide by on the river’s edge, trying to recall how the soldiers had treated their mounts.  Transport? Or comrades.  She herself would not simply ditch Iolaus much less his mother Argo to save herself the trouble, but she hadn’t gotten the feeling that the Spartans were wedded to their beasts quite that way.

Tentatively, she decided on a route to Therma.  It was on the route to Athens, and it was possible the Amazons had stopped there as well.  She could find out if they’d seen the Spartans, or their horses and as it was a trading city, she could also pass on word of Amphipolis’ market.

“All right.” She said aloud. “So, Io. Know any good stories?”

The stallion craned his head around and eyed her, yanking on the bit a little.

“No huh?”

**

Gabrielle set down an armful of scrolls on her worktable, turning to find Cait right behind her with the small chest that held her quills. “Thanks Cait. “ She took the chest and set it down. “I think that’s everything.”

Cait surveyed the inside of the Queen’s quarters.  “It’s a bit smaller in here.” She commented.

“It is.” Gabrielle agreed. “But not too bad.”

It really wasn’t. Though not as large nor as comfortable as her cabin home up the mountain, the hut had enough space for her to bring down clothes for her and Dori, her cooking gear, and toys to keep her active child busy at least for a few minutes.

She had a worktable to write on, and she’d put Dori’s little bed, it’s collapsible frame and clever strapping now stowed into the sleeping area  with it’s covering of sheepskin and linen all neatly tucked in.

“It’s near dinner.” Cait said. “If you’re quite done, I’m going to get a bit of a wash then.”

“Sure.” Gabrielle smiled. “Thanks, Cait, I appreciate the help.”

“Had lots of that.” The young Amazon smiled back.  “Though I think a lot of that bunch just wanted to see the inside of your place.”

The bard chuckled. “I think so too, but that’s okay. I like my home.”  She said. “I think Xena’s knife collection fascinated everyone.”

“Too right.”  Cait said at once.  “Lovely.” She gave Gabrielle a little wave. “See you later.”

“Later.”

Gabrielle watched the beads swing after Cait, and then she looked around again.   She went over and opened the wooden cabinet near the wall, peering inside to see her Queen’s mask laid carefully inside along with her ceremonial leathers.

The other side of the cabinet was empty though, and she set to work putting her clothes and Dori’s inside it. 

Most of the Amazons wore leathers pretty much all year round, with thick hide leggings and cloaks in the cold weather.     She, on the other hand, had shirts and dresses and boots and cloth leggings, and clean linen shifts to wear after she retired at night.

Some were workaday clothes, mostly in rich colors she tended to like, but some were also silk and other rich fabrics she sometimes wore down to the inn, or to tell stories, or just because she felt like putting something pretty on.

Xena had a beautiful silk robe she sometimes wore after her bath,  and she enjoyed dressing up sometimes too, trading her leathers for velvet and her boots for pretty laced sandals.

Gabrielle had left most of her nice stuff up at the cabin, but she’d brought down some of the short, belted tunics she liked to wear,  sleeveless and light, just enough coverage for the town’s sensibilities and yet comfortable enough for the heat.

Sometimes coming into the inn, acting on town business,  just worked better if she wasn’t in her Amazon leathers. She wasn’t sure Amphipolis bought into the Amazons all the way yet.

She finished putting away the clothes and turned, as she heard Dori’s voice approaching.  “Now.” She said. “Let’s see how my child deals with this.”

Dori came pattering inside, then pulled up and looked around. She spotted Gabrielle and came over to her, reaching for her hand. “Mama”

Gabrielle sat down on the cabinet and picked her up, setting her on her lap. “Hey, munchkin. Did you have fun with your friends?”

“Mama yes.”  Dori nodded enthusiastically.  “We had fun!  We played ball.”

“Good girl.” Gabrielle gave her a hug.  “You know what I did? I went and got our stuff, so we can stay here by our friends while Boo is gone.”

Dori frowned.

 “Wont that be more fun?” Gabrielle ran her fingers through the child’s dark hair. “Since we won’t have Boo here to play with for a little while, we can play with our friends the Amazons.”

Dori considered this. “How long Boo go?”

“Not long, honey.” Gabrielle bounced her a little. “Just a little while. So we’ll stay here and watch all the funny things our friends here do, and be with them. I brought your toys here, they’re in the other room there.”

“Okay.” Dori said. “We c’n have fun.”

“Besides, it’s easier for the buppits to get here.” Gabrielle tossed her ace card in gently. “it’s hard for them to climb up where we live, but I saw one of them here just a few minutes ago looking for you.”

Her daughter’s eyes lit up. “Buppits? Where?”

“We can go look for them in a little while.”  Gabrielle promised. “And look, Dor. We have pretty beads for a doorway, isn’t the sun pretty on them?” She pointed at the door, where the sun was slanting through the colorful stone beads.

“Pretty.” Dori kicked her feet a little, seemingly satisfied.  “C’n we still go get fishes, mama? “

“Sure.” Her mother said.  “We’ll go get fishes, maybe tomorrow morning, before everyone gets up. Would you like that?”

“Yes!”

“Okay.”  Gabrielle mentally pictured the Amazons reaction to finding their Queen and her heir up to their backsides in the creek in the morning, and grinned.  “We’ll do that.  Right now, we’re going to get cleaned up and go get some dinner. Is that okay with you?”

Dori grinned.

“I thought so.” Gabrielle ruffled her hair again.   “Lets go over to the bathing room. They’ve got big pools there, Dor. You can swim in them, I bet.”   She got up and picked up two pieces of linen, draping them over her shoulder. “Wanna go make trouble?”

Dori giggle. “Boo makes trouble.”

“Boo does.” Gabrielle led her out of the hut into the rich russet of the coming sunset.  “But you know, I can make trouble too.”

“Mama?”

“Yep, mama.”

It felt a little strange, to be walking across the grass, joining a small straggle of Amazons also heading towards the big communal bathing hall.  Past the hall, she could see the big cooking pit busy with people, and the scent of woodsmoke drifted past her.

She was noticed, crossing the grass. More eyes gathered to her as she neared the hall, and she felt more than a little conspicuous as she entered the hall aware she was the center of a lot of veiled attention.

“Mama!” Dori provided a welcome distraction. “Fishies!” 

The laughter eased the tension in her guts, and Gabrielle forced herself to chill out. “Yes, little miss fishie.”  She returned the smiles of the women nearest to her.  “Let’s show everyone how you can swim.”

“Like Boo!”

“Just like Boo.”

**

It was full dark by the time Xena reached the small town on the other side of the pass she’d intended on spending the night at.  The road had been almost empty, she’d only passed one man with a ragged herd of sheep and two travelers heading the same direction she was on foot.

Now, as she rode Io down the last slope leading into the dusty town, she kept her eyes and ears open. There were a few people out, they gave her a cursory look as she rode past but kept on their paths, leaving her to find her way to the small inn at the center of town.

She dismounted Io in front of it, and let his reins drop. “Stay.” She gave his shoulder a pat and eased past him, passing the lit torch in front of the inn and pushing the door open.

There were a handful of people inside. Mostly travelers like her, hunched over bowls at the trencher tables.   Xena moved past them over to a man perched on a stool in the front, his arms resting on a higher table and a mug of ale before him.  “Evening.”

The man gave her the once over, then he leaned closer, stirring the candle to bring the light up. His eyes widened and he stood up, giving her a respectful duck of his head. “Bigods. Here’s a surprise now.”

Xena smiled. “Hello, Bins.”  She leaned on the counter.  “Been a while.”

“It has.” The innkeeper said. “Good to see you then, Xena.” He returned the greeting.  “Sorry to hear the floods were so hard on you down in the valley.”

“It was rough.” The warrior agreed. “But it’s getting back.  Got a bed?”

“For you, surely.” The man nodded. “By yourself?” He looked around hopefully. “Gabrielle’s not with you is she?”

“Unfortunately no.” Xena demurred. “I’ll tell her you asked for her though.”  She handed over a coin. “Got a horse to be stabled.  Take dinner and a handful for the road tomorrow.”

Bins nodded, but handed the coin back. “Take none of your coin here.” He said, in a blunt tone.  “I’ll send my boy out to take care of your friend.  Room’s out round the back.  The rest of these here are in the big hall.”

Xena gave him a slap on the shoulder and made her way back to the door, this time collecting quite a few interested stares.  She ignored them.  Once outside, she removed her saddlebags from Iolaus’s back, and turned him over to the slim young man who’d come running over.

The town was darker at night than Amphipolis was.  There, they took pains to keep torches burning on the crossroads, and main lanes of the town but here only the torch in front of the inn and one further down just barely seen through the trees was lit.

That didn’t impede Xena. She could see fine in the gloom, and she followed the long walked path around the side of the inn to a single stepped porch that held a door. She pushed it open and entered, her nose catching the smell of sun washed linens and candlewax.

She set her bags down on the small bed and went to the windows, opening them wide to let some air and light in, enough for her to take out her striker and light the candle on the bedside table.

That let her light a second, and the room brightened to a golden glow, revealing a humble space with just enough room for her and her things in it.

That was fine by Xena, since she only had her and her things this time.  Gabrielle, she was pretty sure, would have nosed around and tried to find something bigger, but it had a bed, and was acceptably clean.

 Xena went over to the basin on the table and dipped her hands into it, bringing them up to her nose and sniffing the water, before she washed her face with it.   She ran her wet fingers through her hair and turned to regard her saddlebags thoughtfully.

“Hmph.” She removed the bag of coins and tied it to her belt, then she left the bags in the corner.   The open windows were now letting in enough breeze to promise minimal comfort later, so Xena made her way back out into the dark night and closed the door behind her.

When she entered the inn, she noted the number of people inside had increased.  No one stared directly at her, but she was aware of the attention as she selected an empty table and sat down behind it.

A young girl she recognized as Bin’s daughter came over immediately with a wooden serving tray.  She had russet red hair and eyed her new customer with unabashed awe.  “C’n I get you a drink?”

“Ale.” Xena drawled.

“Okay.” The girl nodded. “We’ve got rabbit stew inside.  Not much.”

“That’s fine.” The warrior replied.  “With some bread if you have it.”

The girl disappeared and Xena folded her arms onto the table and looked around the room, watching everyone furtively look somewhere else.   She started chuckling a  little, unused to the wary reaction now since she was taken for granted so much at home.

She wasn’t ignored, of course. Everyone did tend to be aware of her presence and she knew she was the center of attention if she showed up to have a meal at the inn, or stopped to pass the time of day at the stables with the stockmen.

But there, the interest was just interest.  Amphipolis knew her and frankly just enjoyed looking at her; they were not worried about her intentions.

If Gabrielle had been with her, the interest here would not have even made an impact. She’d have been focused on whatever it was the bard was talking about,  distracted enough to ignore her surroundings.

Now there was nothing to distract her. So she studied the inhabitants in return, no doubt making them a lot more uncomfortable than she was.   She didn’t hold out much hope for the dinner – if they were serving rabbit stew it meant they were scrounging the countryside for the pot and that didn’t say much for the town’s prosperity at the moment.

“Well, Xena.” Bins came over and took a seat across from her. “Give you what we got, not a lot you can see.”

“I see.” Xena said. “Summer hasn’t been bad by us. What’s the word here?”

The girl brought her ale back, and a wooden bowl full of a light brown stew. “Here you go.” She set it down with a half loaf of bread.   “Da,  ma says we’re near out.”

“Allright. Just tell her we’ll start up again tomorrow.” Bins said. “G’wan.”

His daughter escaped, and disappeared around a corner into what probably was the kitchen.  Bins watched her go, and shook his head. “Least we made the pot tonight.” He looked around. “Thanks to you, Xena.”

Xena chuckled briefly. 

Bins lowered his voice. “You heard about the war?”

“Yeah.”  Xena nodded.  “They come taking for that?”

Surprisingly, Bins shook his head. “Wish it was.” He said. “Be easy to be mad about that, yeah?  Nah. They offered top coin for all the stock, and thems that had took it down to the gathering point for it. Left us with a few chicks, a sheep or two, and whatever we could cull from the forest.”

Well. Xena ripped off a piece of the bread and dunked it in the stew, taking a bite and finding it acceptably edible.  “Hard to argue with that.”

“Aye.” Bins nodded. “Hard to be mad, but yet, winter’s comin Xena.”

“True.”  Xena drew her belt knife and fished out a chunk of rabbit. “We didn’t hear anything about that at home. “

Bins looked around. “No.” He said. “We heard they said they weren’t going past the pass. Said you all were out of the conscripting, so you shouldn’t share in the buy out.”

The warrior started laughing.  “Give me a break.”

Bins shrugged.  “Guess they figured they screwed up last time.” He muttered. “Now they’s buying everyone and everything up with good coin stead of demanding it for free.  We lost most of our boys, they went down to join up for the offer, top coin for that too.”

Ah. Xena considered that as she ate. “Fits.” She finally said, taking a sip of ale.   “We heard they’ve made that offer to some others, closer in.”

“Not so lucky for you down there.”  The innkeeper said. 

“Mm.” Xena knifed up another chunk of rabbit.  “Anyone come back here yet with all that coin?”

Bins remained silent for a few minutes. “Well, no… haven’t been gone that long though.” He said. “And the boys, I guess they’re gone till the war’s done.” He picked at the wood surface uneasily. “Makes you say that, Xena?”

The warrior took a long swallow of ale.  “I’ve had enough to do with Athens to wonder.” She said. “Maybe it’ll all be good.  Guess we’ll find out when winter hits.”

Bins looked troubled.

“At any rate.” Xena was aware of his discomfort.   “We’re just as glad to stay out of it. We’ve had enough fighting on our doorstep these last seasons.”

“True enough.” Her host seemed glad of the subject change.  “And at the least we’re glad ourselves that we’re at the back end of the fighting and I’m sure you are as well.”

Xena nodded.  “We haven’t seen much really down our way.” She ventured in a little different direction. “Merchant train just came through.”

“Aye.” Bins relaxed. “Saw them heading down the road – they didn’t take the time to stop here, and I don’t blame em, neither. Did they have a good market by you?”

“Very good.  Stopped on the way out in fact and picked up a few things.”

The innkeeper lowered is voice again.  “Heard a story from one of the poor lot passing by though. Begged me a piece of bread, and said he saw some fighten going on this side the pass.  Big mix up, some foreign types a horseback, ended up leaving some bodies at the side of the road.”

“Yeah?” Xena raised an eyebrow.  “Foreign?”

Bins shrugged. “So he said.”  He replied. “Never saw the like here, so couldn’t say.  Some from here went out to see if they could see aught, but came back empty.”

Went to see if they could scavenge, Xena reckoned. But the Spartans would have taken everything of any value and she remembered seeing extra bags lashed to their horses saddles.   “No one came through here today, did they?”

Bins shook his head immediately. “None but you.”

So. “Good. I’m not looking for trouble.”  Xena drained her mug and set it down.   ‘Thanks for the stew. Hope everything works out for ya.”  She stood up and patted Bins on the shoulder.   “Don’t’ be a stranger.”

She walked back out through the room slowly, taking her time and turning her head from side to side as she examined the inhabitants.   They all seemed local, most looking back at her shyly.  Only one seemed out of place, a man in half armor near the back, keeping his eyes firmly on his plate, and his hand firmly on his mug.

Xena scanned his profile, but it didn’t ring any bells good or bad, so she continued on and emerged back into the darkness with relative satisfaction.   She’d gotten a decent meal, some interesting information, and had planted a bug of her own in the process.

Not bad for under a candlemark.  The warrior turned the corner of the inn and paused, tilting her head and listening in silence.  She could hear voices murmuring inside the inn, and the creak of the wood tables, but the door remained closed behind her and after a moment, she continued on back to her little room.

Once inside, she stood still and swept her eyes over the interior, comparing what she saw now with how she’d left the space before dinner. Satisfied, she went over to her saddlebags and lifted them up, unlashing the flap and removing a rolled light fur which she tossed on the bed.

Then she removed her sword and put it down on the right side of the mattress within easy reach of her hand.  So far, the town had been completely mild, and there was no reason for her to expect that to change.

However.   She hadn’t survived to be the age she was by not taking precautions and you could never tell when the Fates were going to throw you a rotten egg from around a blind corner.  Not in her life experience anyway.

Xena sat down and removed her sandals, then stretched out on the bed, leaning back against her bedroll and opening the small bound volume she’d taken from her bag.  The light of the candle was sufficient for her to read it, and she tilted the rough cut pages, absorbing the words in silent pleasure.

**

Gabrielle sat down at last, at the end of a long and stressful day and faced her closed diary, it’s leather cover a warm and rich golden in the candlelight.

Dori was asleep in her bed in the other room, and the sounds of the village had faded at last outside  as the Amazons drifted back from the firepit and the practice yards to their quarters. 

Somewhere, off to the left, Gabrielle could hear laughter.   It was a little strange, to be able to hear so many people around at night, she was used to hearing at most an owl or Ares hunting after dark.

She could hear the soft sounds of chores being finished near the dining hall and was aware of the sound of booted feet crossing the ground on the path that led past the turn her quarters were built into.

Her’s and Ephiny’s, tucked into the back corner of the village compound, away from the rest, secluded on a slight rise and surrounded by a thicket of trees and bushes that gave them privacy.

Gabrielle appreciated that.  She found herself just a bit rubbed raw by all the attention and she was glad to have some peace and quiet to sit and reflect and write her diary entry in.

With a sigh, she got up and went to the table near the window, picking up a pitcher of cider and pouring herself a mug full.  She brought it back and sat down, taking a sip and listening again to the sounds outside.

It was too quiet in the space around her, she decided.  Xena was never that noisy, but she was always aware of the warrior’s presence, even if she was slouched by the fire working on something, her motions precise and deliberate.

Her absence, now that Gabrielle was alone here became starkly evident.   With a sigh, the bard shook her head and pulled the diary over.  “Get over it, Gabrielle.” She told herself.  “Don’t make her crazy.”  She opened the diary and flipped to a fresh page, and then she paused, spotting writing that wasn’t her own.

She flipped the last page back and found and entire sheet of her partner’s distinctive, slanted writing, and she felt a smile tug on her face muscles as she settled down to read it.

Hey.

I sat down and wrote this the day I was taking off because I figured you’d be reading it at night, after being pissed off all day.

Gabrielle chuckled wryly. 

I wrote this knowing I’d be missing you already when you read it, and you’d probably be missing me too.  

The bard swallowed, and felt the faint sting of tears I her eyes. “You’re right there, partner.”

Look at it this way.  I know you’’re ticked off at the Amazons. But without me around for a little while, you can get to know them and then at least when you tell them to get lost, it’ll be an informed decision.

The bard laughed in pure reflex. 

I told you once you’d never be an Amazon, and I think now you’re getting an idea of what I meant.  It has nothing to do with you being able to fight.

Gabrielle looked thoughtfully at the page, her fingertips touching those words.

It’s the same reason that, though I’m your consort and I play the game, I could never be an Amazon either no matter what my history with them is.   To be an Amazon, you have to play by the Amazon’s rules and live by their laws and neither of us is made for that.

Gabrielle straightened, and reread that part again.  “Good grief, Xe. You make me sound like an outlaw.”

I’d like to blame that on me, because I’ve never been willing to live by anyone else’s idea of what’s right or wrong, but I don’t think you have an obedient bone in your body either.   Maybe that’s why we clicked, way back when.

The bard sat back, a trifle bemused.  But after a moment’s thinking, she chuckled again and nodded, a wry expression on her face.  “Yeah, maybe.”

So do me a favor and try to get some fun out of letting the stuffed feathers see who you really are.  They think they do. I know they don’t.   They see you as a mirror of Eph or of me – just about everything about you is not what they expect.

Gabrielle pondered that.   She really had no desire to be miserable the entire time Xena was gone and what the warrior was telling her made a lot of sense.  She knew if she was upset, her partner would feel it no matter what distance, and it would make her upset, and they’d start to get each other crazy.

She didn’t want to do that.  “Hon, I’ll try.” She said.  “I will sure give it a try, because I don’t want to be nuts until you get back.”

Anyway.  I’ll try to make it quick.  Just remember I love you.

As if she could forget that.

Give Dori a hug for me. Hope she’s not too mad at me for leaving.  I’ll bring her some presents as a bribe.

X

Gabrielle felt a certain tension in her relax. She took a long swallow of her cider and rested her chin on her fist, rereading the note a few times and allowing the gentle affection in every word wash over her.

She and Xena had come such a long way.  

With a smile, she turned the page and picked up her quill, dipping it into the ink. She started to write, the soft scratching of the quill point now the loudest thing in the room.

**

Xena was on the road by dawn,  still in her light tunic in deference to the muggy heat that had descended during the night and promised  further rain later on that day.   She planned her route in her head, hoping to find another stopping point by dusk but recognizing that it was very possible she’d spend then night out in the wild.

As she rode on and the sun rose,  she caught up with and passed a few other travelers, all heading in the same direction she was.  Most were younger men, with bags strapped to their shoulders who gave the tall woman on horseback only casual glances as they met.

That suited Xena.   She tied her hair back in a tail and steadily drained her waterskin, feeling a faint trace of tightness across her shoulders that made her glad she’d packed the aloe.   

About midmorning,  she passed from fairly open ground into a patch of forest, glad to escape the sun for a while.  The trees came close to the road, and as the wind passed between them it brought the sound of voices ahead to her.

She shifted forward in Io’s saddle as they rounded a bend in the road, unsurprised to see it blocked ahead with a fairly large group of men, some mounted.  They were clustered together ,  apparently deeply into an argument

Xena glanced up through the trees, judging the position of the sun. “Hasn’t even been a day.” She sighed, as she closed in the group, who now were raising their voices in anger.   Since there was no way for her to guide Iolaus around the men and the trees were too close for the stallion to fit between them, she reined him in and came to a halt just short of the group.

The mounted me were clearly soldiers.  Xena could see a sigil on their armor, but she was too far away to identify it.  The men on the ground were dressed more or less the same way, but their armor was of a lesser quality, and more haphazard.

“I don’t care what those bastards told you. Go back there and find someone who’s seen them! We know they came this way!” One of the mounted soldiers said, thrusting his hand in a gesture Xena’s direction.  “They’re lying!”

“Sir, we asked.” The man on foot closest to him said. “We asked everyone we saw.”

Xena had no reason to believe their conversation had anything to do with her, but she was willing to lay ten dinars down that it did.  Her life just went that way.    With a sigh, she kneed Iolaus forward slowly. “Excuse me, gentlemen.”

The guard captain turned his head and spotted her. “Here, you! Hold it.”

Xena pondered the fact that so many guard captains  she’d met had turned out to be jackasses.  Was it the armor? Too tight around the neck?   Casually she reached down and untied the flap on the hide cover over her sword hilt.  “Why?”

The man swung his mount to block the road. “We’re the regional guard.  I need to question you.”

Xena closed in on him, keeping Io to a slow walk right up until they all started twitching, hands reaching for weapons nervously. Then she signaled the stallion to halt and sat there, hands resting on her saddlebow.  “About what?”

The soldiers watched her uncertainly.   The guard captain put his hand on his sword hilt and assumed an air of bravado.  “We are in search of a group of Spartan soldiers.” He said. “Where do you come from? What road have you been on?”

“Amphipolis.”  Xena saw the reaction to the name and just kept from smiling.  “Been on the river road up from there, through the pass.”  She said. “I haven’t seen any Spartans since I left home.”

“Would you know even what you were looking at?” One of the other riders said, in a derisive tone.

Xena turned her head slowly and looked at him.  “Would you?”

“Quiet,  Zoser.”  The captain lifted his hand in the direction of his subordinate.  ‘It just occurred to me who we’re speaking to, and I’ve got no intention of losing my command this short into it.”

Xena smiled at him, her blue eyes twinkling.  “What’s the story with Spartans on the road? Spies?”

The man shook his head.  “We don’t know.” He said.  “We just had word from an old, retired Athenian soldier who lives east of here that he’d seen Spartans, fighting with some local band nearby.  You didn’t see anything?”

“I didn’t see any fighting.” Xena replied honestly. “No.”

The captain nodded.  “Eh. Maybe he was knocked on the head one too many times. No one round here has seen anything either.”

Xena pondered pointing them to her friend Bins, then figured he didn’t deserve it from her.  “Well, good luck hunting.” She said politely.  “Wanna move out of my way now?”

The captain drew his horse aside.   “Headed to Athens?”

The warrior shook her head. “Just out for a ride.” She guided Iolaus around the soldiers.  “Athens isn’t in my plans this season.”

“Have a good ride then. “ The captain said. “Fair travels, Xena.”

Xena lifted a hand and rode on by, aware of the now wide eyed stares from the younger soldiers.  She kept her casual pose until she got around the next bend, then she reined her stallion in and turned in a tight, silent circle, gazing back along the path through the thick leaves.

Her ears cocked.  She could hear the soldiers back there. The voice were no longer raised, and after a moment, she heard the soft sounds of hoofbeats slowly heading in her direction.  With a sigh, she turned again and  started off, her eyes flicking casually to either side o the path looking for a way off of it.

“It’s getting complicated already, boy, and Gabrielle’s not even here.”  She told her horse.  “Is that fair? I’ve only been out here for a day, and I’ve already got a dozen soldiers on my ass. “

Io snorted.

Xena listened, and heard the sounds of pursuit behind her, though slowly and stealthily enough to make her believe they weren’t trying to overtake her, just follow.

Well, she had no intention of being followed.   She spotted a creek just off the path and after she rode around the next curve, she guided Io off the road and down the sloping bank, the stallion obeying her without question as his feet left dry land and he splashed into the water.

Downstream for a moment, then she found a spot on the opposite side and kneed him in that direction, leaning forward as he climbed up the bank and they passed through the trees and were hidden from the road.

Xena didn’t stop to see if they were going to follow. She pushed on through the thick foliage, letting Io pick his course as she pictured the road in her minds eye and worked to move away from it. 

The ground was a little soggy from the previous day’s rain, and that muffled Io’s hoofbeats as she ducked under a fallen tree and got a lungful of richly mossy air.   She glanced to one side, and saw a rocky path and with a quick shift of her knees guided Io onto it.

His hooves made more noise here, but left no mark, and she kept him on the stones until the path tilted to one side, then spread out into the leaf litter again.    This deep inside the forest, she could hear leaves blowing around her, and animals moving, but no sound of pursuit.

Good.   Xena pulled Io to a halt and dismounted, then took hold of his bridle and led him behind a huge fallen trunk, stopping and letting her hand rest on the crumbling bark of it.

He nudged her and nibbled her sleeve.  Xena reached over and scratched his forehead, her ears perked for any sounds other than the natural ones.

Would the soldiers follow her?  Xena wasn’t sure if their curiousity had any meaning, or if it was just coincidence, but she wasn’t in the mood to find out.   She waited in silence for a quarter candlemark, her breathing quiet and measured as the birds twittered overhead and a squirrel raced up the trunk only to find her there, halting in startled amazement.

Xena made a small chittering noise at the animal, watching as it lifted, then put down it’s front foot, it’s nose twitching furiously.   The warrior fished in her saddlebag for a bit of waybread, and held it out invitingly. 

The squirrel stepped catiously forward foot by foot until it was within Xena’s reach.  The warrior didn’t move though, she merely held the bit steady, until the animal snatched it with one foot, bringing it back as it backed up a few steps.

Xena let her hand fall, and watched as the squirrel nibbled her offering, giving her quick, nervous looks as it ate.  

With a smile, the warrior gathered up Io’s reins and slowly moved off, threading her way through the trees and stepping carefully over the logs and branches that liberally littered the ground.  Here in the closeness of the trees it was hot and muggy and before long, she was sweating freely under her tunic.

She kept going though,  squeezing herself and the horse between close growing trees she knew would block any followers and picking her way carefully over a series of wet rivulets winding through the leaves.

A motion caught her eye, and she went still. “Hst.” 

Io stopped still next to her.

The leaf litter stirred again and morphed into a thick body sliding  along.  Xena took a firm grasp on Io’s bridle and willed him to remain in place, her eyes glued on the snake as it moved in their direction, her senses ratcheting up to hair trigger level.

The snake paused, it’s tongue flicking out as though tasting their essence, then it continued on through the wet leaves leaving them disinterestedly behind.

Xena let out a breath.  She recognized the big puffy headed snake as poisonous and getting bitten or worse, getting Io bitten would have truly, truly ruined her day.

She waited for the snake to get a good distance off, then she continued, a touch slower this time as she searched the ground intently for any of the snake’s relatives.

It was starting out to be one of those days.

**

It was just dawn when Gabrielle waded into the creek, with Dori scampering at her side, all excited at their very early morning  escapade.   They had tiptoed out of their hut and snuck past the standing guard near the firepit on their way down to the water and now that the sun was just peeking through the trees, they were ready to catches fishes.

“Mama.”  Dori whispered.  “We’re sneaky!”

“Yes, we are.”  Gabrielle whispered back.    She had a woven bag slung over her shoulder and now she paused in the creek, then moved forward until she was up to her thighs in water.

It felt good.  It was cold, and the smell was rich and clean.  “You ready, Dor?

Dori was crouched in the shallower water, staring intently at the surface.   “Mama you hear them? Fishies!!!””

Gabrielle didn’t, really, but she felt them, and after a long moment, she plunged both hands in the water and grabbed hold of whatever it was that was tickling her calf. “Ah hah!”

Dori nearly pitched forward into the water with her own attempt, letting out a squeal as she pulled her hands out full of  a sardine size fish. “Mama!”

“Shh.” Gabrielle put her own catch, a respectably sized perch, into her bag. “Give that to me, Dor. I’ll put it here with mine, and we can have fish stew later. You like that right??”

“Yum.”

Gabrielle waded in a few steps deeper, until her hips were covered and she was standing in the full force of the water, not terribly strong this close to the source, but enough to provide a shelter for the fish trying to hold their place and search for food.

It was a trap of sorts, just standing there and tricking the fish into trusting her, but Gabrielle felt no remorse about it as she might have for furrier, cuter creatures.

Not fair.  The bard wiggled her fingers and listened, hearing the clink of the river stones near her bare feet.   Not fair, but it was what it was.  She paused, and went still, as she felt something against her knee.  “Ooo… I think I got one, Dori.”

Dori looked over, a wet river rock in her hand. “Mama?”

Gabrielle made a grab for it, and felt scales under her fingers as she struggled to get her fingers into the gills. “Cmon you…”

Dori got up and rambled towards her, splashing into the deeper water and throwing herself headlong into the creek, eagerly grabbing at whatever it was her mother was fighting with.

“Dori!”  Gabrielle let go with one hand and grabbed for her daughter, but the child latched on to the fish and squealed in delight.

“Mama! Gots!” She tugged the fish up in both hands, kicking with her feet to keep afloat. “Mama!”

“Yes, I see.” Gabrielle was laughing, as she held the fish in place, getting her fingertips into the back of Dori’s little Amazon skirt. “You hang on tight, okay?”

“Gots!” Dori hauled the fish up and the weight of it nearly took her under the water, only Gabrielle’s hold on her prevented it. “Mama! Look!”

“Look what you caught, Dor!”  Gabrielle got a good grip and lifted the fish out of the water, the rising sun catching a rainbow of colors across it’s scaly body.   “Oh, look. How pretty!”

“Pitty!”  Dori now had hold of Gabrielle’s leg, to keep herself from being taken downstream. “Mama,  you make that with the yellow stuff inside?”

“Yes, I will.”  Gabrielle glanced to the side, realizing they had an audience. Five or six Amazons were there, two obviously the guard. “Good morning.”

“Your majesty.” The nearest guard said. “We heard sounds.”

“Bet you did.” The bard got the big fish into her bag. “Dori, you done fishing? Can you get me one more small one?” She picked up her daughter and walked her into the shallow water. “One more, so we have four. “

“Okay.” Dori crouched in the water. “Mama watch!”

“I am honey.” Gabrielle concentrated on her daughter, blocking out the watching Amazons.   “Go on.”

Dori went very still, and her eyes narrowed. Then she grunted and stuck her hands in the water, grabbing something and removing it.  “Gots!”

“Very good, honey.”  Gabrielle held her bag open. “Put it in here.”  She waited for Dori to do so, then she looked up at the watching group. “We felt like fish for breakfast.”

The Amazons were watching her with expressions of mild disbelief.  

“Here, hang on to this.” Gabrielle offered up the bag, waiting for one of the to take it. “Thanks.”  She turned and plunged into the creek headfirst,  exulting in the rush of the cold water over her body – a sensation that was long familiar to her from her travels.

It felt wild and wonderful, and the part of her that was part of Xena laughed inside.  She squinted into the water, feeling the sting against her eyes as she saw a blur of motion around her,  a brief glimpse of a fishes wild eye, and the rounded hump of a turtle.

 She let the current take her, ducking under the surface and turning, stretching out her body and then grabbing hold of a passing branch to stop herself. She pulled herself back to the shallows, then she stood up and let the water sheet off her, shaking her head and sending droplets everywhere. “Ahh.”

“Mama!  Wet!”  Dori shook herself too, wiggling her entire body in imitation.

Her mother chuckled and ruffled her hair. “That was fun, huh?”

“Fun.” Dori had hold of the back of her skirt and she climbed up the bank after Gabrielle as they joined the small group on the bank.   Gabrielle took her bag of fish back, and they all started walking up towards the central square.

As they reached it, the other women drifted off, leaving Gabrielle with the two guards, who seemed to be providing something of an escort to their wayward Queen.

The sun now felt good on her wet skin, and Gabrielle ran her fingers through her hair as she walked.  “Didn’t meant to scare anyone.”

“Oh, you didn’t , your Majesty.” The guard hurriedly assured her. “We were just surprised, right Rana?”

“Right.” The other guard agreed. She was a younger woman , with dark red hair and a spare, athletic body.  “We just couldn’t imagine what kind of animal was caught in the creek.”

Gabrielle chuckled.  “When we’re out on the road, we do that a lot.” She said. “When you sleep rough, it’s nice to start the day with a bath.”

She was aware of the eyes on her.  She was wearing only the top and brief skirt of her Amazon leathers,  but the sun on her bare skin felt good, and knew both she and Dori would dry soon enough – and the faint shock value was making her smile.

“Your majesty, can I ask a question?” Rana said.

“Sure.” Gabrielle nodded.

“Is it true, I heard that you said you were going to let people make houses, like down in the town, around in here.  Just for one person.”

The bard watched her from her peripheral vision.  “Well, I was talking to Solari.” She said. “And it just seemed crazy to me that she has to live in the communal dorm just because she’d not partnered with anyone. “ She said. “We have a lot of space, why shouldn’t she be able to make her own place if she wants to?”

“Its not tradition.” The other guard objected. She was an older Amazon, with a sprinkling of gray hairs and a prominent scar on her shoulder.  “Living in the dorms teaches you how to get along with your sisters.”

Rana snorted under her breath.  “Elseh, please.”

“Well, I’m not very traditional.”  Gabrielle replied mildly. “And I guess I value my privacy because there wasn’t much in my family growing up.”

 “Mama.” Dori came trotting back over. “Look! Izzard!”

Gabrielle knew better than to hold her hand out. “Let me see.” She peered at Dori’s catch. “Oh, isn’t he pretty? You should let him go, Dori. So he can run around and have fun with his friends.”

Dori eyed her, then reluctantly let the lizard loose. The animal sprang from her hand to the ground and scampered off, it’s crest rising and falling rapidly.

“But your Majesty.” Elseh said. “We let women who partner out make their own space. If you let everyone do that, what incentive is there to partner?”

“That’s not why people partner.” Rana broke in. “You’re such a prude.  Maybe more of us would get to know and keep a partner if we weren’t stuck in a room with everyone making comments all the time.”

Gabrielle figured she’d found at least one ally.  “Well, I can only speak for myself.” She cleared her throat. “And given who I’m partnered with, I can say making our own hut somewhere never came into the decision for me at all.”

Rana chuckled. 

“No one has to do it.” The bard went on. “But since we have the space now, I think we should give people the choice. “

“Its not tradition.” The older Amazon turned and started off in a different direction. “I’m going back on post. You can stay and suck up, Rana.”

“Hey.”  Rana frowned.

“Hey.” Gabrielle put her hand on the woman’s arm.  “Don’t let that get to you.  I know there are a lot of traditions here, and it’s not my intention on rocking the boat.”

“Why not?” Rana said, looking her right in the eye. “Maybe some of us would like that.”  She gave the queen a smile, then she saluted. “Time for me to get back to guard duty as well. Have a good day, your majesty.”

Gabrielle watched her go, one eyebrow arched. “Ah heh.” She mused. “Interesting.”   She turned back to Dori. “C’mon, Dori. Let’s go make some fish. You want to help me teach how?”

“Fun?”

“Well.” Her mother smiled wryly.  “Maybe. Let’s go see.”

“Uh oh.”

**

Continued in Part 6