A Queen’s Tale

Part 6

Xena stood just inside the treeline, the setting sun brushing her shoulders as she watched the approach to the tiny town ahead of her on the road.    

The place looked fairly sleepy.  There were two chickens pecking the grass near the first small hut and a woman was standing outside, beating linen in a wooden bucket.

“What do you think, Io?” Xena asked her equine companion.  “Those guys ride through here? Or did they go up the main fork to Thalos?”

Io rested his chin on Xena’s shoulder and blew out his lips, spattering horse spit all over his rider’s face.

“Thanks.”  The warrior wiped her cheek of against her tunic sleeve.   After a long day’s hike in the deep woods, the garment was much the worse for wear and Xena was looking forward to getting out of it.

Question was, where?

The town looked too small to even have an inn. Just a collection of cottages and a communal paddock that had two cows, a horse and a donkey inside it.   Xena exhaled with some regret and turned, heading back into the trees.

The leaves brushed against her as they had been all day, and she wound her way through the overgrown trees until she found a small footpath, which headed up on a slight incline.  She took it, leading Io up the slope.

As she walked, the breeze got a little stronger, and she kept climbing, as the sun slanted further on the horizon and painted the path with lurid orange light.

The path got a bit steeper, and as she looked to her left, she could see a wisp of smoke from a town chimney as she climbed above the little valley fold the town was settled in.   The path took her then to the right, around a moss covered stone outcropping.

Behind her, Io ambled along with out protest, his golden head swinging from side to side as he examined his surroundings.  His rider had been leading him on foot most of the day, and so far he’d gotten to see lots of interesting things and animals, a far more intriguing time than he’d have spent in the field in Amphipolis.

Now there seemed to be cool water and hill grass in his future, as Xena made a satisified grunting noise and they climbed up a last, steep grade up to a flat area between two hilltops.  The water he’d smelled turned out to be a deep spring  that overflowed it’s bank on  one side and ran down the crease in the hills as a respectable creek.

The surface of the ground was covered in thick, green grass and if Iolaus could have smiled, he would have. Instead, he flicked his tail and nudged his rider in the shoulder.

“Yeah, didn’t expect to find anything this nice up here. “ Xena sighed in satisfaction. “Better than the stuffy back of a barn, huh boy?”

 She turned and started taking off Iolaus’ saddle, loosening the girth and swinging the heavy leather construct off his back and setting it down on a narrow boulder near the creek. She then slipped his bridle off, and gave him a slap on the shoulder. “G’wan.  I’ll rub you down later, after you finish rolling.”

Iolaus trotted off towards the water. Xena watched him with an indulgent grin, and then she unstrapped her bedroll and saddle bag and started examining her surroundings for a decent place  to make camp.

She didn’t have far to look.  There was a curve of the hill with two trees in front of it, and a clear space between them.  Xena took her gear over and set it down, pulling out her wood cutting ax and  heading into the nearby scrub for some firewood.

There would be no fish in the spring, she figured,  so as she went, she kept her ears cocked for anything she could catch for dinner.

The summer heat had dried out the trees, so she had little trouble chopping herself a double armful of wood, tucking the ax into her belt as she carried it back to the camp, dropping to one knee near the curve of the hill and arranging the limbs into a neat pile.

A handful of dried grass, and her flint and striker, and she was blowing gently into a quickly catching tinder.   The fire came to life t her hands and she carefully tended it, using one of the spare pieces of firewood to scrape away anything that might burn from the edges of the newly born flames.

Once she had it burning the way she liked, she took out the small traveling pot they used for water and went over to the creek, leaning over and bringing a handful of the water up to her nose for a cautious sniff before she took a sip of it.

Clean, cold and sweet.  Xena filled the pot and brought it back with her to the fire, setting it down at the edge to warm.  Then she leaned against the stone and unlaced her sandals, letting them drop to the ground as she viewed their sadly battered state.

Comfortable? Yes. But not nearly as rugged as her boots.  Xena loosened the belt on her tunic and stripped it off, draping it over the top of her saddlebag as she felt the early evening breeze cool her skin.

She walked over to the spring and splashed her way into it, waiting until she was  up to her thighs before she dove the rest of the way in.   The cold water felt wonderful; she’d been sweating most of the day and it was a relief to wash the dust and grime off her and she held her breath as she scrubbed her newly trimmed hair and let the water cool her scalp.

Then she surfaced into the oncoming twilight, flipping over onto her back and swimming lazily across the spring as she watched Iolaus rolling in the grass, all four legs waving in the air.

He was a beautiful horse.   He had his mother’s coloration and spunky disposition, and his father’s size and build.  He bred well, and was a pleasure to ride having a nice smooth gait, more pleasant in fact than Argo’s though Xena would not have mentioned that in her favorite’s presence.

Looking at him, she felt a quiet pang as she thought about his lost brother,  the dark maned and tailed Hercules who had died defending her in the war.  She still missed him.  It still made her angry when she thought about the gutless animals who had killed him and she hoped they’d been some of the men she’d slaughtered in the fight that followed.

Bastards.

Xena brooded a moment  longer, then set the memories aside and swam across the spring again, reaching the end and turning to go back the other way.   The water felt good and it let her stretch her body out, after all the tramping she’d done through the forest that day.

Io finished his fun and came over to the spring, lowering his head to get a drink as he kept and equine eye on his mistress.

Xena leaned back against the moss covered stone ringing one side of the water, stretching both arms out to either side as she watched the sun disappear from the sky.   The color stretched across the horizon, in gentle colors that tinged the leaves and the grass and she was content to simply watch it, having learned from Gabrielle to appreciate a nice end to the day.

It was nice.  She had a decent place to camp, good water, and she’d managed to make relatively good time while avoiding the soldiers from Athens.   All in all, not a bad day.   

She waited for the last of the sun to fade, then she swam to the shallow area of the spring and stood up, now appreciating the warmth of the air against her water chilled skin.   She made her way back up to her camping spot and removed  a piece of linen from her pack to dry herself off with.

Iolaus wandered over to a patch of thick green grass nearby and started ripping up mouthfuls of it, his flaxen tail whisking slowly back and forth.

Xena rummaged in her pack and removed a clean shirt, slipping it over her head.  Then she rolled out her bedroll near the fire and sat down on it, removing her travel cup and packets of herbs and setting them down. 

She sorted out the herbs she had and crumbled some into the bottom of the cup, reaching over to pick up the water pot and pouring the steaming liquid over the leaves. She set them aside to steep and considered her options for dinner.

Fishing was out. She could hunt for something, of course.  Xena regarded the rapidly darkening forest around her, her fire spreading only a modest ring of light across the space.  Or she could make do with the leftovers she had in her saddlebag, and get something better in the morning.

Xena stretched out on the fur and pulled her bag over, removing one of the pocket sandwiches she’d gotten in Amphipolis out of it, along with a handful of nuts.   She sipped her tea and munched her sandwich, idly listening to the soft cracking and popping of the fire nearby.

Iolaus edged over, still cropping the grass but staying within the warm light of the fire. It reflected off his golden coat and he shook his head, nickering a little at her.

Xena toasted him with her tea.  “Could be worse, huh boy?  Could be some dusty lean to with weeks old hay.”

Io snorted.

The warrior chuckled.  The ground was hard, but it was nice to stretch out and just listen to the forest around her.   She would go back to the road tomorrow, she decided.  Hopefully the soldiers would have found something more interesting to occupy their attention, but if not, and she met them on the road, then she’d just deal with that.

She finished up her sandwich and nuts, and then she sat up and pulled her gear bag over, removing her sword and setting it to one side along with her sharpening stone.   She set the bag aside, patting it with one hand. “Tomorrow.” 

She’d gotten her two days of relief.  In the morning she’d put on her armor and trade the discomfort for the safety of the well broken in leather and hammered metal that in reality defined who she was.   With a satisfied grunt, she started running the sharpening stone down her blade, the harsh whisper echoing through the glade and into the darkness.

**

Gabrielle settled her staff down across her thighs and waited, while the Amazons across from her sorted themselves out and decided who was next.   They were halfway through a morning sparring session, and she’d just joined them when their attentions had turned to quarterstaff.

Bows and spears – she was useless with and everyone knew it.  She picked up a bow, and every Amazon in the vicinity ran for cover, and even her beloved soulmate went on unobtrusive alert, her hands flexing just in case they were needed for errant arrows.

Some of the Amazons preferred chobos, the short, hard war clubs used in both hands.  Gabrielle had only recently started to learn them, as Xena determined her two handed coordination had improved enough for her to try without hitting herself in the head all the time.

Embarrassing.  But she’d started to get the hang of them and she loved watching Xena use hers, since the warrior was so graceful and balanced with them. 

So for most of the sparring sessions she just watched, content to observe the Amazons, knowing enough from her life with Xena to know who were the good fighters and who weren’t and having a very good eye for skills that she didn’t’ herself possess.

But this one weapon, the one she had both hands wrapped around, and was idly spinning as she waited,  that she could and did participate in and often taught her sisters when she was in the mood to. 

“Your majesty?”

Gabrielle turned to find Renas the elder at her back, along with two of her cohorts. “Hi.” She greeted them. “What’s up?”  She could see the faint twitches in their faces, and she stifled a smile.  

“May we speak with you?” Renas said.

 “Sure.” The queen said. “But not right now. I’m in the middle of this.” She indicated the sparring session. “We can do lunch if you want, over at my place.”

The elders looked conflicted between being pissed about being put off, and being charmed about being  invited to the queen’s private quarters and they fortunately decided on the latter.  “We’d be glad to do that.” Renas said. “Just after noon?”

Gabrielle tipped her head back and regarded the sun’s position.  “That’ll work.” She said. “Now you’ll have to excuse me.” She pointed at the tall Amazon who had trotted out to oppose her.    “See you later.”

The elders retreated a bit awkwardly, as Gabrielle turned and went to meet her sparring partner. “Hi.”

The Amazon managed a grin. “Your majesty.” She handled her staff a little nervously, clearly intimidated by facing her queen.

“You know.” Gabrielle twitched her hands, and took the Amazon’s staff out of hers. “Xena taught me one thing that really sticks out in my mind.”  She waited for the woman to retrieve her weapon.  “You can’t worry about who you’re fighting against.”

The Amazon gripped her staff and managed a brief grin. “All due respect, that’s easy for you to say, your majesty.”

Gabrielle laughed.  “So how intimidating an opponent do you figure Xena is?” She moved her staff up to a defensive position across her body.  “C’mon.” 

The Amazon took a deep breath and came closer, hesitating as she waited to see what Gabrielle was going to do.   “I’m not really good with this.” She apologized. “I’m better with a sword.”

“So’s Xena.”  Gabrielle agreed.  “But there are advantages to using a staff, like this. “  She extended the staff in one  hand,  it’s end tapping the woman on the shoulder. “If you had a sword, I could get at you, and you can’t get to me.”

“Okay.” The Amazon shifted her grip.   “But we practice staff against staff.  How does that help you know how to use this against a sword”

Good question. “Well, you should practice against both.”  Gabrielle answered, as she moved her hands and took the Amazons’ staff out of hers again with the unexpectedly quick motion. “But first, you need to learn to use this thing before you try that.”

“Could you kill someone with it?” The Amazon asked, out of the blue.

The murmuring voices of the group watching stilled, and everyone looked over at Gabrielle.

The bard set the end of her staff on the ground and leaned on it. “Yes.”  She answered.  “And I have.”

The silence stretched on a moment after that, then Solari pushed through the crowd and gestured at Gabrielle’s opponent. “C’mon, Kellas.  Get a move on.  Gabrielle ain’t got all day here.  You can ask her stuff at dinner.”

“Okay, sorry.” Kellas turned and put her staff up in position.   “Your majesty?”

Gabrielle resumed her weapon position and came forward, reasoning she’d never so much as get to lunch if she didn’t start the sparring session off.     She tapped one end of her staff against  Kellas, and waited for her to react , then moved forward again to engage her.

 She kept her motions relatively slow and relaxed, making the strike and counterstrike more of a dance than a fight, using the gentle warm up motions that she and Xena used when starting their own sessions.

Xena had told her, well, that’s fine for training sessions.  It suited them both to slowly work up to the rapid fire exchanges that got her heart racing and forced her reactions past thought, to the instinct that had become over the years bone deep in her just as it was in her partner.

In real life, though, she knew opponents didn’t let you warm up. 

Kellas took heart from the lesson though, and slowly her reactions became more sure, and faster.   “It’s..ah. It’s hard to  get an angle on you.” She blurted out, as she got knocked back for the fifth or sixth time.

“One time being short gives me an advantage.” Gabrielle acknowledged easily, ducking under a swing and bringing her staff back faster, as her body started reacting without her thinking about it.   She  kept her grip on the staff shoulder width and used the strength of her torso to add punch behind the strokes.

Kellas was strong, and she was fast.  She wasn’t that skilled with a staff, as she’d told Gabrielle, but she wasn’t that bad, and  after a few minutes she seemed to be enjoying the experience.

That made Gabrielle relax, and she started enjoying it too.  “Okay, try not to hold your staff even like that.” She said. “Hold it .. right. Angled, so you can use your weight to counter.”

Kellas nodded. “Oh. Yeah, I see.”

“Right so.. “ Gabrielle suddenly felt a prickle across the nape of her neck, and she didn’t stop to think when her instincts warned her of a presence at her back, and danger She planted both feet and jumped backwards, then swung her staff around so fast it was just a blur to the watching eyes.

A body, a moving weapon.  Gabrielle felt the hard, familiar crack as her staff caught the object heading towards her and sent it flying, following through and catching her attacker in the head as her body reversed itself and the opposite end of her staff took the feet out from the figure holding it and dumped them on the ground.

Kellas stood with her staff in her hands, gaping.

Gabrielle took a deep breath and slowly let her body relax, recognizing the figure on the ground now holding their head. “Sorry about that, Aalene.”

“Ow.” The Amazon croaked. “Great Athena.”

The bard grounded her staff again, and eyed the watching Amazons. “It’s probably not a good idea to come up behind me like that anymore.” She said, quietly. “I’ve had too many people try to kill me that way.”

In the silence that followed, she could hear a hawk in the distance.  It almost made her smile.

**

“No, no, it was my fault.” Aalene held the water soaked cloth to her head.  “I should know better than to run up on anyone on the field like that.”  She gave her queen a rueful look. “But boy, do you hit.”

Now inside the healer’s hut, Gabrielle produced a mildly abashed expression.  “When I first started learning to fight.” She said. “I had to think about everything, and believe me I kept getting knocked on my ass all over the place. Xena got me past that.”

“Here, drink this.”  Salas came over and offered her a cup.  “There’s no herbs in it, but it’ll make you relax.”  She glanced at Gabrielle.  “And by the way, your majesty. I’m not Menelda. Your consort is welcome here to teach us anything she likes whenever she likes.”

That produced a genuine, full smile from the queen.  “Thanks Salas.  I’ll let her know when she gets back.  I’m glad you stepped up here, I’ve heard everyone say good things about your care.”

The older woman looked faintly surprised. She smiled back at Gabrielle. “Thanks.” She said. “To get a nod from most of these women, you’d need to to pay em.”

“I’m glad Menelda decided to go back with her daughter rather than move here.” Aalene spoke up. “She was so bitter.”

“No way she’d have moved here.” Salas said. “Not with how much she hates Xena.  Hope she’s happy where she moved to.  She never was with us.” She removed the cold cloth from Aalene’s head, then rinsed it, and replaced it, putting Aalene’s fingers back on it.  “You’ll be okay. Just stay away from the business end of her Maj’s stick.”

“That’d be either end.”  Aalene said. “I think I got hit by both.”

“You did.” Gabrielle agreed, glad to see the injury was relatively minor.   She felt bad that she’d hurt Aalene, whom she liked, but not that she’d reacted as she had.  Xena had gotten her past that, too. “Now that I know you’re okay, I’m going to go get lunch and see what the elders want from me.”

“Oooohh..” Aalene rolled her eyes.

Salas snorted. “Stuck in the past. “  She shook her head. “They want to go back to the old days, when you had to kiss every nipple in the nation to get accepted.”  She patted Aalene on the shoulder and gave Gabrielle a nod of respect, then disappeared back into the depths of the healer’s hut.

“Well, they won’t get much luck with me on that score.” Gabrielle said. “Sorry again, Aalene. Hope the headache goes away soon.”

“No problem.” The younger Amazon waved at her.  “Have a nice lunch.”

Eh. Gabrielle left the healer’s hut and angled her steps towards the dining hall, using her staff in it’s more usual role as she walked.   As she approached the kitchens she could hear the normal clatter of those working inside and she slipped past the curtains and into the firepit area after leaving her staff leaning outside.

There were six women hard at work inside, and they looked up as Gabrielle entered  with a mixture of anticipation and wariness.   “Ah, your majesty.”  A brown haired Amazon of medium height greeted her. “Welcome back.”

The bard went over to a washbasin and scrubbed her hands in it. “Thanks” She said. “I’m just going to grab that stew I left on this morning. My kid’s expecting it for lunch.”

The cooks chuckled.  “Doriana has a good appetite.” One of them mentioned.  “And a good heart too. She saved a little lizard from under my foot earlier.”

Gabrielle went over to where she’d left her pot of fish stew and uncovered it. “She loves all kinds of animals. I don’t really have the heart to tell her we regularly serve some of her favorites to her as dinner.” She sniffed at the concoction approvingly, then put the cover back on and hefted it off the warming fire.

The cooking area was finished, finally, and starting to look like she remembered the one in the mountains had.  They had built a stone cooking pit at the back of the dining hall, the inside being a fireplace for the cool weather, and the outside a series of spits and hooks to hang pots on, where several fires could be lit at once.

Stone workspaces were across from the fires,  the mountain above Gabrielle’s cabin giving a rich source of building materials to the clever stone masons in the tribe.   The whole work area was covered with a sturdy roof  and thick thatch, the firepit itself sending it’s smoke off a well built chimney that had seen Xena’s hand in the  making.

Amazon meals were mostly communal.  There was always a big pot on, and the hunters that went out every day would bring back whatever they found, to be added to it to serve the village, along with the herbs and vegetables from the gardens, and whatever forest scrounge the gatherers brought in.

“Your majesty, can you show me again what herbs you used in that?” One of the cooks came over, a thin girl with hair roughly the same color as Gabrielle’s.  “It smells so good.”

“Sure.” Gabrielle set the pot back down. “Let’s see, this one has sage in it, those are the leaves I showed you all this morning, but what you probably smell is the crushed fennel seed I put in. “ She opened the pot and sniffed it. “And the wild onions.”

“Mm.” The woman agreed.  “Thanks.  You know, we really do appreciate you sharing that with us.” She looked around and the other cooks came closer to her. “We’re sorry that Esta’s in the sickroom, but she never wanted to tell us how to do anything.”

‘Why?” Gabrielle leaned against the hearthstone, feeling the warmth of it penetrate her shoulder muscles with a sense of relief   “Everyone who wants to learn should know how to do this stuff.”

“Not everyone?” One of the other cooks asked shyly.

“Some people just have no interest.” The bard smiled at her.  “I live with someone like that. I wouldn’t force her to learn something she didn’t care about.”

“But you would show her if she asked you, right?”

“Of course.”  Gabrielle replied. “So, let me get this straight. You asked Esta how to cook, how to put things together, and she said no?”

The thin woman nodded. “Said she worked hard to know what to do, and she wasn’t going to give it up to just anyone.” 

“Jeun, that’s crazy.” Gabrielle said, after a moment’s pause. “We’re all sisters.  We have no written history. How would anything get passed down from generation to generation unless we taught each other what we know?”

The woman shrugged. “Just what she said.”  She turned. “Right?”

The rest of the cooks nodded. “You’re the first person who told me to cook porridge with anything but water.”  Jeun admitted. “We just figured people would pour honey or whatever onto it”

“And they do.” Gabrielle said. “But if you make it taste like something to start with, they have to work less at doing that.” She picked up her fish stew again, and reached over to pick up a loaf of newly baked bread. “Don’t worry. We’ve got plenty of time to learn.”

The cooks went back to their tasks, and she left the kitchen, stopping to pick up her staff before she made her way back over to her quarters with a very thoughtful expression on her face.

**

Xena woke in the dark of pre dawn, blinking a little to shed the dew from her eyelashes as she lifted her head off her bedroll and looked around the campsite.

Her fire was still popping gently, mostly banked but giving off a little heat she could feel on the bottom of her bare feet.   The glade was quiet and dark otherwise, and she could see Iolaus’ outline just down the slope near the spring.

Without Dori to care for, or Gabrielle to roust, the warrior put her head back down and let her body relax back onto the furs, content to wait until dawn lit the surroundings.  She stifled a yawn and let her eyes half close, glad she’d gotten a decent night’s sleep despite being out here in the wild.

Or maybe because of it.

She let her mind lapse into an idle daydream, until she felt the light on her eyelids, and then she opened her eyes again this time to the gray twilight of morning.    She rolled over then and stretched, arching her back and pushing herself up right.

Iolaus was already cropping grass, and Xena watched him enviously for a moment, as she heard her own guts rumbling.  With a sigh, she rummaged in her pack and removed some leftover nuts, munching on them as she got up and went to the spring to fill her water pot again.

She paused to drink her fill from the spring and wash up before she dunked the pot in and wiped her lips dry as the sun started to peek slightly through the trees to the east.    There was a haze in the sky that promised rain, and she got her water heating as she traded her shift for her pair of neatly folded leathers.

She folded the shift and put it away, then sat down on her furs to pull her socks and boots on and lace them.

Halfway through the second boot, her ears caught a sound out of place and she quickly looked up and around, seeing Iolaus’ head come up and his ears cock at the same time.   She finished her lacing and got to her feet, drawing her sword from it’s sheath in a smooth motion.

Flexing her toes, she circled the trees she’d been camping behind and came around the rocks to where Iolaus was standing, his head turned towards the south.   Xena came up next to him and put her arm over his back, looking in the same direction.

There was nothing obviously there, but both she and the horse could hear the sounds approaching, bare footfalls and labored breathing.   Xena judged this as not an immediate threat, so she remained where she was, until the noise resolved into motion just at the treeline.

“Trouble for breakfast, Io.”  The warrior mused.  “Just like old times.”

Moments later, the motion turned into a young man racing up the slope, looking behind him as though he was being chased by wolves and throwing himself heedlessly forward with jerky, awkward strides.

He was halfway to where she was standing when he swung his head around and spotted her,  his eyes growing huge and round as he hauled himself to a stop, stumbling forward and nearly pitching headfirst into the ground.

Xena lifted her free hand and motioned the boy forward. “C’mere. I won’t hurt you.”

Chest heaving, the boy stared at her for a long moment, then he lurched forward, stumbling up to her. “You..’ He turned and pointed behind him. “They’re comin.  Gonna get me.”

“Who’s coming?” Xena asked, then stopped, as the answer became evident. Four men on horseback thundered through the trees, dressed in common workman’s clothes.   They spotted her, and their quarry and pulled up.

“Hey! You there! Leave that boy be.” The man in the lead yelled out. “He’s ours!”

Xena stepped out from behind Iolaus so her casually carried sword could be seen.  “That true?” She asked the boy. “You a slave?”

The boy shook his head like a frantic puppet. “No. no no no.”

There was something familiar about the boy, but Xena turned back to the men. “What do you want with him?” She asked. “He says he’s not a slave.”

The men looked at each other. They were unarmed, but had ropes in their hands, and whips. 

“You running from the officials?” Xena asked, not taking her eyes off them. “You do something?”

“Nnnno.”

“Well?”  Xena twirled her sword in her hand.  The sun eased up over the treeline and sent sparkles off the blade.   She started towards the men and stepped into the sunlight herself.  She saw the men react a little.  ‘What do you want with this kid?”

“This is our business!” The man in the lead protested. “You shouldn’t’ get involved!”

“Story of my life the last few years.”  Xena smiled and twirled her blade again. “C’mon. I could use a little exercise before breakfast.  Spill it or I’ll beat it out of ya.”  She was glad, now, that she’d decided to put the armor on  no matter the heat, because silly threats like that definitely carried more weight when you were wearing leathers than when you were wearing a nightgown.

They just did.

“No matter. We will find him later.” The man in the lead buckled, and pulled his horses head around. “Let’s go.   We can tell the town guard there’s an outlaw in the area!” He tossed the threat back at Xena as they cantered off.  “They’ll take care of you!”

Xena laughed, the light ringing sound chasing the men out of the clearing and back down the hill.  Then she shook her head and turned around, finding the boy still standing next to Iolaus, hesitantly patting the stallions shoulder.  

She had the time she took walking back to try and figure out where she’d seen him before, and just as she came within reach of him she did.  “I know you.”

The boy watched her face, and slowly nodded “I remember you too.” He said. “You were there the night I came back to ma’s. You helped me. “

“Evon.” Xena remembered the name, and it brought back a memory of a downtrodden inn, and a desperate mother, and fear.  “You escaped from Andreas’ army.”

“Aye.”  He nodded. “And you’re Xena.  Mama tells everyone how you came and helped me and made those soldiers go away.”

They walked back over to where Xena’s campsite was. The warrior banked the fire and tucked the water pot in her gear, after emptying it.  Then she started to don her armor. “So, why are you being chased this time?” She asked, settling her chest armor over her head.  “Don’t tell me you’re running from an army again.”

Evon sat down on a rock and sighed. He had grown in the past two years into a tall, gangly young man with a headful of curly blond hair.   “Sorta.”

Xena sat down on another rock as she fastened her knee guards on.  “Sorta?”

“Wasn’t easy after the war.” Evon said.  “They took so much, mama had a tough time wi it.”

“Hm.” Xena grunted. Though Amphipolis had prospered after the war, many places, some already marginal like the tiny town she’d bypassed the night before, hadn’t.  “So let me guess.  You were given for work to someone ?”

“Aye.” Evon nodded. “Went to help farm, I did.  After I healed, anyway.  Hard work.”  He flexed his hands. “Did the best I could but m’back’s always bothered me since.”

“Given what they did to you? I bet it did.” Xena stood up and started lacing her bracers.  “And?”

“Well, them folks from the city came through, said they had good money for them who wanted to be soldiers,  so them folks my ma gave me to figured I’d be worth more to them for the coin, than for the work.”

Xena stopped lacing. “They were going to sell you to go fight for Athens?”

Evon nodded. “Didn’t want to.” He said succinctly. “Had me enough with that other one.”

The warrior finished getting her armor settled then she clipped her sword sheath to her back and settled her sword inside it.  “C’mon.” She knelt to roll up her bedfurs. “I’ll take you home and see what we can work out.”

Evon watched her curiously.  “Why should ya?” He said. “Just gonna be more trouble. Them’ll end up dragging me off some where anyhow, they gots the rights to.”

Xena stood up and whistled for Iolaus.  The stallion trotted over, his muzzle covered in water droplets which he delighted in scattering over his rider’s face.  She lifted his saddle up and settled it onto his back, reaching for the girth strap under his body.  “Why should I.”  She mused, tightening the strap.   “Just because.” 

“Oh.”
Xena slid the horses bridle on and fastened it.   It was tempting to think that this was just a change that had happened to her,  something Gabrielle had nurtured and triggered but the truth was, well, how had she met Gabrielle in the first place?

Meddling in crap she had no business caring about. 

“Ma’ ll be glad to see you in any case.” Evon seemed reconciled to the idea. “Talks about you all the time.  Think some folks there don’t like that, though.”

“Considering we had to talk them out of turning us over to Andreas because they were cowards? I bet.”  Xena took hold of Iolaus’ bridle. “C’mon. Let’s go this way.” She started forward.  “There’s a way through the hills back down to the road. “

Evon joined her, and they walked together through the grass to the narrow footpath on the other side.   “You won that war, that last one.”

“Yes, I did.”  Xena agreed.

“Nobody thought you would, from where I was from.” Evon seemed apologetic.  “They figured you were crazy.”

 “I’ve been called that before. “ The warrior admitted.  “They were lousy odds, but sometimes you get lucky. I did.”

Evon digested this. “Mama said she put a offering to Ares for you, every night. “ He said. “Did you do that too?”

“Ahh… “ Xena chuckled wryly. “That’s complicated question.”

“Oh.”

**

Gabrielle sighed and sucked on the end of her quill, studying the parchment in front of her .  She was sprawled on the bed in her quarters, writing by candlelight as Dori snoozed on her bed nearby. 

It was night, and it was dark out and here she was again, feeling that darkness outside pressing in on her.

“Cut it out.” She spoke softly aloud. “I mean it.”   She went back to writing with a determined expression.

So today was my second day staying here.  It went okay, I guess.  The cooks are sort of warming up to me, the elders are pissed of at me, and I scared the heck out of people with my staff during practice.

Boy, I wish Xena was here.

Boy, I wish Xena was here. 

Just thought I would put that down twice just to make sure anyone reading this gets where my head was when I was writing it.   She’s only been gone two days – okay – really one whole day – and I feel so depressed I want to hit something.

I don’t like that.  I feel like most of the people here think I’m just this crazy person who they’re stuck with while Ephiny’s gone and pregnant, and I don’t much think they like me. 

Well, some of them do. Cait does, and Solari.  I think some of the younger ones think I’m less hidebound than Eph, which is sort of funny because I never thought of her as really traditional at all – but when I look back, and remember her challenging me when I first got Terrais’ right, well, maybe she is.

I guess the question is – when is change good, and when is it just something different?

The children’s minders said today that tomorrow they were going to teach the kids how to make bows and arrows.   I really don’t know how I feel about that.  

Or, really – I don’t know what Xena’s going to think about that. I don’t think she wants Dori around weapons, at least until she’s much older when she can talk to her about them first.  She’s really hung up on Dori not following in her footsteps.

How do I feel about that?

Gabrielle let her head rest back against the wall.  “How do I feel about that?”  She studied the ceiling, glad that the noise around the village had dampened down to it’s late night level.  “I don’t know.  Would I want someone to deliberately steer me away from where my heart tells me to go? Isn’t that what my family did for all those years?”

She glanced over at Dori, deep asleep in her bed.  The child was on her stomach, her arms and legs sprawled in abandon and her dark hair in disarray .    “What if you like bows and arrows, Dor? Should we stop you and say no, that’s wrong? How can we do that, if you live here?’

She dunked her quill point in the ink.

I think it’s probably unfair to Dori to tell her it’s wrong to touch weapons, when she lives with us, and sees us fighting all the time.  It’s too confusing.  I think we have to either go live on a farm and raise sheep and tell her not to touch a sword, or we need to prepare her to live in our world with us.

She reread the paragraph, and grunted a little.

So if she wants to, I’m’ going to let her go to the bow class tomorrow and see what she says about it.  Maybe she’ll end up thinking it’s silly.  After all, we don’t use bows much.  I sure don’t anyway.

So the elders came to see me today.   I wasted a nice pot of fish stew on them.  They’re really scared that I’m going to be changing things right and left and they don’t like it.  But I’m not sure if it’s that they’re that stuck with tradition, or they’re just embarrassed they didn’t think of changing things before.

Guess we’ll find out.

Gabrielle blew the entry dry, and then she got up and put her diary on the worktable in the main section of the hut, pausing to get a cup full of water and drain it before she went back into the bedroom.

She blew out the candle and got into bed, holding her breath a little as the vision of the other half of the bed empty brought back a startlingly powerful emotional pang.  She felt a chill run over her skin, and had to spend a few minutes just slowly relaxing as her rational mind worked to overcome her emotional heart.

“Wow.” She finally said. ‘That wasn’t funny. You gotta cut that out, Gabrielle.   She’s out there. “ Gabrielle licked her suddenly dry lips and felt her heart slow.  “Stop freaking out.”

The sounds of the village drifted in, just strange enough to move her mind out of that dark place it had been sliding into and making her grateful that she’d decided to move down from the cabin after all. 

Being alone in that big bed would have been too much. 

The sound of toenails suddenly echoed loudly in the hut, and she turned her head to see Ares trot inside, with one of his puppies at his heels.  The wolf leaped up onto the bed next to Gabrielle and turned a few times, settling down and gazing at her, ears pricked.

The puppy settled down next to Dori’s bed with a grunt.

Gabrielle stared at him in fascination.  “Ares… how did you know to come in here?” She whispered, reaching out to scratch his ears. “ Did Xena send you?”

Her partner was nowhere nearby. The wolf hadn’t followed her.  And yet, right at this moment, when she was thinking these dark, lonely thoughts he had appeared and plopped himself down in Xena’s spot just as though her partner had snapped her fingers somewhere and sent him.

Ares tongue lolled out and he panted happily at her.

Gabrielle put her head back down on her pillow, wondering if it was just her admittedly overactive imagination playing tricks on her.  Sometimes the downside of being a storyteller was that everything around you could turn into a story if you weren’t careful.

Regardless, having Ares there made her feel better.   The wolf lived on the mountain – often he was away hunting, or being with his family, the puppies and the scruffy barn dog bitch that was their mother but he often stopped by the cabin, or joined Xena on her hunts.

Gabrielle was always glad to see him, because Ares had become a part of her life just as her life had changed beyond recognition  along with her relationship with Xena.  He’d seen the best and the worst of them, and through it all just wagged his brushy tail, and offered a wet kiss without judgement.

So few people in her life were like that.  She rolled over onto her side and gave him a kiss on the nose. “Thanks.”

Ares licked her face, then he settled his head down on the bed and exhaled.

Gabrielle did the same, feeling both her body and her mind relax and she was able to turn her thoughts towards the morning. 

Tomorrow she’d end the speculation running in the village and start making some changes. 

See where that took her.

**

Xena felt her boots skid a little as they descended a somewhat steep slope leading down to the road.  She leaned back and got he balance, watching from her peripheral vision as Iolaus did the same.  “Easy boy.”

Evon was behind her, one hand on the horses saddlepad to keep himself steady, having run out of things to say quite some time back.

Wasn’t much of a talker. Xena didn’t mind that, really.   She glanced both ways as they reached the road, then crossed into the center of it, judging the time it would take to continue around the bend and eventually end up back in Evon’s hometown.  “How long were they chasing you?”

“Two days.” Evon moved up next to her, now that they weren’t on the slope. “Figured I’d get far from mama just in case.   Didn’t want em taking out on her, or her getting in with them.”

“She tried to shoot me.”  The warrior recalled.

Evon looked at her. “My mama?”

Xena nodded. “Figured I was there to make trouble the last time, after all the destruction Andreas spread around.  Can’t blame her.” She kicked a small rock. “Ran out of arrows then started throwing pots and pans.  Woulda been funny if I hadn’t had cast iron heading at me.”

“Wow.”

“That was just before you got there.”

Evon exhaled. “I don’t like thinking about that.” He said, honestly. “It hurt a lot.” He reached back and touched his shoulder.  “Still does. All stiff and all.  Makes it hard to work.”

The scar tissue would.  Xena glanced at him.  All the skin on his back had been flayed off,  and every movement must have been agony for the kid for months.  “Yeah, I’m sure it does.” She said. “That was a lot of damage.”

“You told me, I’d wanna die. I did.” Evon said, in a placid tone. “I did, but I couldn’t leave mama, all by herself.  Not till it was over, and things got sorta okay.”

They walked past a herd of sheep off the road, with their shepherd under a tree wiping his brow and taking a swig from a waterskin.  The animals looked a bit bedraggled, and Xena’s knowledgeable eye caught the lack of lambs in the huddled herd.  “Morning.”

The shepherd looked up, gazing at them a moment before he lifted a hand in greeting. “Morn.”

 “Heading to market?”  The warrior asked. 

The man shook his head. “Just moven em to better pasture.”  He studied the herd. “Wolf got a half score. Bastard animal.  Shoulda set poison.”

“Took the lambs?”

“Aye.”

Xena felt a bit ambiguous.  She sympathized with the man, and understood his anger at losing part of his flock, but she also counted a wolf as part of her family and she knew if Ares had the chance, he’d have taken one of the animals too.

Just part of nature.  She knew Ares hunted mostly wild mostly up by the cabin, but she also knew she’d seen him with chicken feathers on his muzzle and the only chickens around town belonged to someone.

 She could remember being a wolf in human form, and exulting in finding a flock out in the field when she was hungry.  How could she fault her four legged friend the same?

“Where you folks headed?” The shepherd asked, unexpectedly.   “You going to join up with the army?”

Xena bit back a retort. After all, she was in armor, carrying weapons, with a battle horse.  Wasn’t really outlandish. “No.” She said. “Just heading for the coast.”

“Yah.” The man nudged his flock into motion. “Least one person I met today’s got sense.” He shook his head. “Buncha idiot kids going to get thesselves kilt.”  He muttered.  “Told them fancy high types came through here same thing, just got laughed at.”

Xena’s ears pricked. “Soldiers?” She slowed to  let him catch up. The sheep flowed around Iolaus, who ignored them being long used to the wooly beasts.  “Coming through here?”

The shepherd shrugged as he walked along. “Had stuff on like you do.” He said. “All horseback, and whatnot, half score of em. “  He glanced behind them. “Lot of people riding through lately.  Least they don’t come through wrecking all.”

Ah. Xena was pleased.  She recognized the Spartans in the man’s description and felt a sense of vindicated relief that she was heading in the right direction. “When did the soldiers come through?”

“Sun highest yesterday.” The shepherd said. “They friends of yours?”

“No.”  Xena said. “Just don’t want to bump into them. Not looking for trouble.”

“Smart.”  The shepherd grunted. “More should mind their business.” He herded the sheep along the left hand side fork in the road, a half cleared path leading slightly downward. “Good day to you.”

“And you.” Xena replied courteously, looking up quickly when she heard approaching hoofbeats along the right hand side fork they were continuing to travel down.

Evon edged closer to Iolaus, taking hold of one of the stallion’s stirrups and getting behind Xena as though he was hiding.

Xena sighed and shifted her shoulders, twitching her sword into place. “Maybe your friends are coming back for you.”

“Hope not.”

Six riders clattered around the bend heading right for them. Not Evon’s friends, Xena noted, but well dressed men with the air of merchants about them.   The men stared at them carefully, but continued past without comment.

“Didn’t look too friendly.” Evon commented.

“Neither do I.” Xena reached into one of her saddlebags and retrieved an apple. Then she paused, and pulled out a second. “Want one?”

Evon lifted a hand. “Thanks. I don’t like them.” He said. “Got a pit stuck in my throat when I was little.”

Without comment, the warrior put the second fruit away and bit into the first, tearing off a chunk and offering it to Iolaus.

The stallion nibbled it from her palm and crunched it contentedly, as Xena patted his cheek.  “Good boy.”  She strolled along side the horse.  “This much traffic on the road lately?”

“Seems like.” Evon said. “Ever since them folks from Athens came through.”

“Uh huh.” 

“Maybe they’re looking for stray stuff to sell.”

Xena figured they were more likely looking for people like that shepherd, either to co-opt or get his animals at a bargain price to sell them but she merely grunted and shrugged.

The continued down the road for another quarter candlemark when they heard more horses approaching.  “Busy day.” The warrior mused.  “Seems like a lot of people are heading in the opposite direction from us, uh?”

“Uh huh.” Evon agreed.

Xena was beginning to get the feeling that things weren’t really adding up. There was something going on that she just didn’t quite grasp yet.

The sounds got louder, and now they heard voices, raised and full of coarse laughter. 

This time, it was trouble.  Xena felt her hackles lift as soon as the newcomers came into view, rough armored men driving their animals hard, who let out a roar as they spotted them.  “Fresh meat!” The man in the lead said. “Git em!”

 “Stay here.” Xena swung up onto Iolaus’ back and sent the stallion bolting down the road as she drew her sword.   She wrapped the reins around her saddle horn and released them, clamping down with her knees as the men neared.

It occurred to her that she could have tried talking to them first. 

Only fleetingly though, as she was engaged in battle in the next moment, her sword smashing the leading raider’s out of position as Iolaus barreled into his mount and knocked him over. 

Without hesitating she turned the stallion in a circle and kicked out with one boot, sending a second man half out of his saddle as she whipped her sword down and smacked the man in the side of the head with the flat of it.

That sent him tumbling out of his saddle as she ducked instinctively, sensing a mace passing over her shoulder. She straightened and backhanded her attacker, the backs of her knuckles wrapped around her sword hilt catching him in the face and sending blood flying everywhere.

A flash if steel and she kneed Iolaus, feeling the stallion whirl under her and kick out with both hind legs as she flipped her sword from one hand to the other and caught the blade heading her way, twisting her wrist and deflecting it then sending her elbow into the face of the man wielding it as his horse buckled under Io’s attack.

“H.. get out! Get back!” One of the men screamed horsely. “Get outta here!”

Ah, music to Xena’s ears.  She whirled Io in a circle, pleased to see her erstwhile adversaries running for their lives down the road, dripping blood and having left weapons, bags and for some reason a boot behind.   “Losers!”

The men didn’t stop to argue. They disappeared around the bend, and Evon emerged from behind the rock he’d hidden behind as Xena wiped her blade down.  “Wow.”

‘Yeah.” Xena sheathed her weapon.  “Wow. As in, wow, what did those idiots think they were doing?” She shook her head. “Attacking people on the road in broad daylight?  Is that common around here?” She asked the boy.

Evon shrugged. “Maybe they gots the same idea as them guys from my town.” He suggested. “Sell us to the army, or something.”  He eyed Xena. “You really know that stuff, huh?”

Xena looked around, then at herself.  Her eyebrows hiked. Then she shook her head and extended her hand down. “Here, grab hold and I’ll pull you up.”  She said. “We need to move.” 

A moment later they were cantering down the road, leaving the brigands far behind as they headed through a fold in the hills and into the valley beyond, winding through sunlit brush that held an air of wildness and neglect.

**

Gabrielle was startled out of sleep and a deep formless dream by an impudent tug on her hair. She jerked and came up onto her elbows, then relaxed as she heard Dori’s giggle. “Dori.”

 “Mama.” Dori mimicked her tone.

Gabrielle put her cheek down on the bed and peered at her child. ‘That’s bad, Dori.”

Dori came over and put her fingers on the covers, getting almost nose to nose with her mother.  “Hungry.” She complained. “I played with Oogy but I’m tired now!”

Ah.  There was definitely a good side to her partner’s early rising ways.  The bard pushed herself upright again and swung her feet over the edge of the bed.  “Okay, you little bandit.  I’m getting up.”

“Yay!” Dori scampered off into the other room, leaving her mother to climb out of bed and follow her.   It wasn’t quite dawn, but Gabrielle stifled a yawn as she crossed the floor and figured at least it would give her a little time to get ready for the day.

Xena was Doris’ morning buddy.  The warrior never minded waking up early, in fact she usually woke up before their daughter did and she would gather up a cold breakfast and go into Dori’s room, to entertain her and let Gabrielle wake whenever she had a mind to.

The bard had started out resenting that a little.  She’d felt Dori was usurping her own morning time with her partner, but after she’d thought about that for a while she’d just slapped herself and grown up and learned to enjoy it instead.

“Dori Dori.” Gabrielle came into the main part of her quarters, and glanced around, spotting the child over near the fireplace. “Careful, honey.”

“Mama, I cook.” Dori had one of her pots on the floor, and she was pounding a mud patty with a serious expression. “Look!”

Gabrielle finished washing her face in the water basin, and then she came over, wiping her skin dry with a linen towel as she gazed at Dori’s new project. “What is that supposed to be, honey?”’

“Pacakes.”  Dori looked up at her. “Like mama do.”

The bard sat down on the chair next to the fire, and rested her elbows on her knees. “Well.” She said. “They look very pretty, but I don’t’ think you want to eat them, right? That’s dirt from outside, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” Dori picked up a few pebbles and pressed them in some haphazard pattern into the mud.  “Go outside with Guff, and got good dirt.” She explained. “Then we got rocks and make all pitty.”

“Ah huh.” Gabrielle mused. “Well, how about if mama goes and gets some stuff to make you some of the kind of pancakes we can eat. Would you like that?”

“Yum.”

                                                                              

“I thought so.”  The bard went to the chest and pulled out a shirt, exchanging her sleep shift for it.  She tied the rough linen belt around her and ran her fingers through her hair. “We can have some pancakes, and some fruit.  That okay? You want some pears?”

“Yum!!!”

“That’s what Boo gives you all the time, right? Nice pears?”

Dori got up and joined her. “Yes.” She agreed seriously. “Apple and cupcakes.”

“Cupcakes.”  Gabrielle took Dori’s hand and they walked together out of the hut. “Honey, if you were anyone else’s kid, I would think you were just trying to con your mama.”

“Yum!”

Gabrielle chuckled under her breath. The sun was just coming up, and there were only a few Amazons out and about, scouts heading out towards the fringes of their territory and some early risers heading towards the dining hall as she was.

It looked like it was going to be a nice day. 

“your Majesty?”

Gabrielle glanced up to see Solari trotting towards her. She waved.  “Morning.”

“Morning.” Solari slowed to a halt. “We just heard from the upmountain watch.  They finally managed to clear that rockfall last night and they found a new little valley.”

“Great.” Gabrielle said. “I think we agreed anything the tribe clears on this side of the mountain belongs to us.”

Solari nodded. “Yeah, they said you should come check it out.”

The bard considered that as they walked along. “They did, huh?”

“Yeah.” The dark haired Amazon agreed.  “I think they found something but didn’t want to say. You know?”

“Mm.”  Gabrielle nodded. “Okay, sure.” She said. “Dori’s going to be in the class all day, so I can run up there and see what’s going on. “ The idea of exploring something new appealed to her.   “You want to round up a few people to head up there after breakfast?”

“Sure.” Solari smiled. “You’re going to let Dori do the bows and arrows class? “

The bard nodded. “Yeah.” She said. “I don’t want her shooting bows at anyone, but if she’s going to be a part of the tribe, and live here for a while, I can’t keep her from taking part in stuff like that.” She said. “Besides, she wants to. Right Dor?”

Dori had been examining a bug on the ground. “Mama?”

“You want to make bows and arrows with your friends today?” Gabrielle asked her daughter, as they reached the dining hall and ducked inside the kitchen.  “Remember what they asked yesterday?”

Dori nodded emphatically. “Want to make arrows with the pretty fethers.”  She agreed. “Pretty like mama’s!”

Solari regarded her. “I don’t’ think she gets it.”

“That’s why I don’t mind her being in the class.” Gabrielle smiled briefly.  “I know how Xena feels about that.” She roamed around the kitchen, picking up a wooden bowl and putting a few ducks eggs in it, then dipping into the common barrel of flour.

“What are you doing?” Solari asked, after a moment’s watching.

“Getting stuff for breakfast.”  Gabrielle added a pitcher of milk from the stone crock and tossed a handful of berries into the bowl for good measure. “Want to come over to my place for pancakes? Dori woke up wanting them.”

“Uh. Sure.” Solari came over. “Want me to carry that for you? I heard the grumps yapping yesterday about you acting like a queen and all that.”

Gabrielle gave her a look, then she handed over the bowl. “Thanks.” She went and captured her roaming offspring. “But only because I need to keep hold of little miss wild thing not because of what the elders think.” 

They escaped as the morning workers were arriving to the kitchen and headed back across the square.  In the few minutes they’d been inside,  the area had gotten busier, and Gabrielle returned the greetings of at least a dozen people as she walked.  “I don’t’ really understand what the elder’s problem is.”  She commented.

“With you?” Solari asked.

The bard nodded.  “It’s not like I just started acting weird yesterday.  I don’t get it.  Are you telling me that Eph really has everyone cater to her like that?”

Solari was quiet for a few minutes. “Well.” She said, as they reached Gabrielle’s quarters and went inside.  “I mean, yeah. Um… but, it’s not catering.” She glanced around and then put the bowl down on the worktable.  “It’s just what she’s due, you know?”

Gabrielle set Dori loose. “Go see what Oogy’s up to, Dor. I’m going to make you some pancakes, okay?”

“Yum!”  Dori galloped around in a circle.  “Mama! Mama! Yay!”

The bard chuckled, and shook her head as Dori went bolting off into the sleeping area. Then she went and got the bowl. “You know, I don’t think I do know.” She answered Solari.  “I know Eph’s my regent, and she’s due all the respect in the world for that, but I don’t’ get what that has to do with her carrying her own stuff back to her hut.”

Solari scratched her nose. “Well when you put it like that…”   She moved around so she could watch Gabrielle work. “I think she’s…  I mean she does get her own stuff and all that, but it’s sort of an honor for someone to go and get stuff for her, or do stuff.”

Mist green eyes flicked to her face, then went back to the bowl.

“Like.. I don’t know.” The Amazon said.  “Like a perk.”

“Ah.”  Gabrielle nodded. “I see.” She mixed the ingredients with an expert hand, her skillet already warming near the fire.  “But I thought the whole concept of the Amazons was equality.”

Solari sat down. “Gabrielle.” She said. “I think you kinda know better than that.  Sure, we’re all sisters and that stuff but we wouldn’t compete like cocks if those rank feathers didn’t mean squat.”

“Mm.”

“So with the elders, it’s like if you act like your rank doesn’t mean squat, then all theirs and I guess all ours don’t either.”

Gabrielle stopped mixing, and studied her, a thoughtful expression on her face. “Now that, I understand.” She said. “I don’t’ want to diss anyone. I just don’t want to pretend I’m someone I’m not when I’m here.”

Solari  grunted.

“ I mean.. “ Gabrielle carefully ladled a portion of the batter she’d just finished mixing into her skillet.  “This is my life. This is who I am. I wake up every morning, and I need to be a mom, and get breakfast together, and try to keep Dori from eating frogs, and all that stuff. I can’t not do that.”

 “Most of us eat over at the hall, together.”  Solari said. “It’s sort of tradition. People who stay in their own places we look like as being stuck up.”

Gabrielle removed her spatula from her kit. “Solari, you can’t have it both ways.” She flipped a pancake. “Either I’m stuck up and the queen, or I’m common as the gardeners and I’m not.  I can’t just eat in the hall because the food there stinks, and my family can’t stand it.  Xe was chewing on wood bits the other day before she left for the god’s sake.”

Solari regarded her.  “Oh. I guess we’re just used to it.”

The bard put three of the pancakes on  a plate, and drizzled some honey over them. She handed the plate to Solari.  “I know.”    She started another three cakes cooking.   “But we’re not.” 

Dori rambled back in, holding one of her dolls. “Mama.” She came over to where Gabrielle was busy with her cakes.  “C’n the buppit have some too?”

“Is the buppit here, honey?”  Gabrielle flipped the cakes.

“No.”

“Well, then sorry about that, he missed out.”   The bard put the cakes onto a plate and applied honey, then set it down on the table. “Here you go.  See if that’s better than the mud.”

Dori scrambled up onto the chair across from Solari, kneeling rather than sitting and reaching for her plate. “Yum.” She poked one of the cakes with her finger, then blew on it. “Mama, it’s hot!”

“That’s right.”  Her mother agreed. “Let it cool down for a minute.”  

Solari had rolled up one of the cakes and bitten into it.  “Mm.” She mumbled after a moment.  “That really does taste good.”    She admitted.   “But anyway you’re teaching those guys how to do this right? So it should get better?”

“Right.”  Gabrielle sat down with her own plate. “But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop cooking for Dori and Xe.  I like doing it. “

“Ahuh.”  Solari  nodded.  

“So, what do they think they found up at that new valley?” The bard changed the subject.  “Is it the one up at the high pass?  I thought I heard something about some work going on there.”

“Dunno.”  Solari was busy with her pancakes.  “They were acting like it was some big thing, you know?”

Gabrielle eyed her. “No, but I  bet I’m going to.”

“Mmph.”

**

Xena slowed Iolaus as they approached the worn looking gates to the village Evon lived in.  It appeared deserted, and she glanced behind her as they approached. “Pretty quiet.”

Evon peered past her shoulder.  “Some people left for the war.” He acknowledged.  “But most will be in the fields trying to get what we can in.”

Ah.   Xena nodded. “Farmers?”

“Mostly.”

“They lose a lot of field help to the army?”

“Yeah.”

They dropped to a walk as they entered the village,  one or two scraggly looking chickens scattering before Iolaus’s hooves as they passed between two rows of almost unkempt appearing huts, and a second row a little further back that were burnt and destroyed.

“That from the last war?” Xena indicated the abandoned property.



“No.”  Evon shook his head. “Someone set fire in the winter, burned out a dozen families.  They left.”

All around her Xena sensed an air of indifference,  and the few inhabitants she saw on the way to the old inn merely gave her a brief glance, then turned away.  “I figured your mother would want to move out of here after what those bastards let them do to you.”

“Not so easy to move.” Evon said. “Ma’s got ties here.”

Xena pulled Iolaus up next to the inn and waited for Evon to slide off. Then she dismounted and looped her reins around a broken post.   She led the way up the steps and pushed the door open, revealing a dark, dank interior she half remembered.

She and Gabrielle had been on their way back to Amphipolis after discovering the danger Andreas posed and they’d stop to stay the night here after a long day’s travel.   The fear then had been palpable, and the innkeeper had viewed them with suspicion after being attacked by Andreas roaming bands on more than one occasion.

She hadn’t held that against them.  It had been a tough time.  But looking around, she’d gotten the feeling that this particular little village hadn’t needed Andreas to ruin their luck.  

“Let me go get ma.”  Evon eased past her and headed for the back of the inn.  

Xena decided to remain where she was, and she turned slowly in a circle regarding the inside of the place.  It was completely empty – as her mother’s almost never was.  The fireplace was stale and cold, and most of the tables were uneven.

She and Gabrielle had never spent time in this room, she recalled. They had gotten their vegetable soup and retreated to their tiny room, with only a fight with Andreas men and an impromptu attack by the innkeeper to break the quiet.

“I told you, Evon, you can’t come back like this I..”

Xena turned as the innkeeper entered, with Evon following her.   The woman stopped in her tracks on seeing the warrior, her eyes widening.  “Hello, Rose.”

“You.”  The innkeeper gasped.   “He wasn’t lying!”

The warrior cocked her head. “Why would he?” She asked bluntly.  “Seems like I’m destined to get in the middle of him being dragged off to some damn army.”

Rose came over and sighed, perching on the edge of an uneven table.  “Different this time.” She said, a touch defensively.  “This was legit, those men from Athens came here and made their offer.”

Xena glanced past her to where Evon was standing.  “That’s an offer.  Not a requirement.”

“He’s prentice to them men.” Rose said. “They’re entitled to their keep of him.”  She didn’t even look at her son. 

Xena felt herself to be a bit shocked, and she wasn’t sure the woman was saying what she thought she was saying. “So you think it’s all right for them to sell him to Athens?”

“He went into prentice of his own mind.” The woman said. “It’s their right.”

Technically, that was true.   Xena looked over at Evon, watching his face, seeing the betrayal in his eyes as he watched his mother.   “C’mere.” She ordered him, waiting for him to edge warily past Rose and approach her. She extended her fist towards him and dropped a handful of coins into his hand when he reached instinctively towads it. 

The sound of the metal was very loud in the room.

“Go buy yourself free of the bastards.” Xena said, then she grabbed the front of his shirt unexpectedly. ‘Then get out of here. There should be enough left over for you to go somewhere else. Head down to Amphipolis if you want.”

Evon stared at her in shock.

“Don’t’ come back here.” The warrior said. “There’s no future here. Move it.”  She gave him a hard shove towards the door, and waited until he caught his balance and stumbled over to it, looking between her and Rose before he finally pushed his way outside and the door closed behind him.

Slowly Xena turned and regarded the innkeeper.  

Rose hesitated, then finally met her eye.   “You get tired of fighting.” She said. ‘He gave himself over to them.  Them people from Athens made a good offer.”

Xena felt a mixture of emotions.  Part of her could see the woman’s perspective, but another part of her felt a profound disappointment.  “Those people from Athens are nothing but murderers.”  She said, bluntly.  “All they want kids like him for is to throw in front of the Spartans while they shoot over their bodies at them.”

Rose studied her. “That what you’d do?” She asked, but before Xena could answer the door burst open and a crowd of men  with weapons drawn filed in, stopping when they spotted the warrior standing there.   “Here now.. wait!”

The men didn’t. “There she is! Get her!” The one in the lead roared, launching himself forward.  “Get her now!  To Hades with that damn boy! Here’s our meal ticket!”

Xena grabbed Rose and threw her bodily towards the kitchen, turning and drawing her sword as the crowd descended on her, the close quarters hemming her in and cramping her ability to respond.

The day was running rapidly downhill.

**

Continued in Part 7