A Queen’s Tale

Part 8

Xena caught the back of the two armed men’s leather armor and hauled backwards, nearly pulling them both off their feet and back onto their asses.  “Hold on there boys.”

They turned, reaching for their weapons and she swung them both together, smacking them against each other as the crowd around them edged away.  “I said, hold on there.”

“Let me go you..” The one on the left caught his balance and turned fully to face her. 

Xena spun other one around then she grabbed the both by the front of their half armor and walked backwards, ducking behind the nearest stall before they could pull themselves free.   

She shoved them away from her and stepped back, standing relaxed in the light from the torches. “Wanna talk? Or fight. Your choice.”   The rate her luck was going, she figured they’d fight and resigned herself to the inevitability of it all.

The two looked at each other, then they both held out their hands to show how empty they were. “Not looking for trouble. Xena.”  The one on the left said.  “What’s your piece in this?”

“Same here.” The other man said. “Aint’ seen you since the war, but I sure remember you fighten.”

Ah. Pleasant surprise.  “Those sandal wearers pay you to make trouble?” The warrior asked bluntly.  “I heard them giving the innkeeper a hard time.”

The nearer of the two glanced behind them, and lowered his hands. “Just making a few coins.” He said. “Didn’t seem a big thing, Xena. He just wanted to get the noise to stop.  Asked us to fake a fight near the stage.”

“Stupid bastards.”  Xena said.

The man looked abashed. “Didn’t seem much harm.” He muttered. “Just some buskers.”

The warrior put one hand on her hip.   “These people are just minding their own business enjoying themselves. Leave em alone.”  She said. “And don’t diss performers. I’m married to one.”

The man blinked. “Ah. Sorry.” He said. “What are we going to tell those travelers? They paid us good dinars to break this thing up.  Something with their women.”

“Take off.”  Xena said. “I’ll handle them.”

The two men left without further argument, disappearing into the darkness in the direction of the inn.  Xena waited a moment, then she wandered back around into the square again, glancing up as the musicians gave way to a lone storyteller. 

A young woman, tall, with chestnut hair. She reminded Xena a little of Gabrielle’s sister Lila, and she paused to lean against a post to listen, the faintly awkward posture ringing familiar bells with her.

She wished Gabrielle were with her, and standing up on the stage right now ready to charm the audience with one of her stories, her eyes twinkling in the torchlight, poised and confident.

It always gave her a kick, to be there in the audience.  Even when the story wasn’t one of hers, she loved seeing the reaction of those around her and knowing that she’d had a hand in making the person Gabrielle had become.

Though there had been good and bad in their lives,  the part that had included Gabrielle learning to be a good storyteller had very few of the bad memories and the majority of the good ones.  Xena still smiled every time she thought about their trip to Athens, when the simple power of the bard’s words had overshadowed so much pomp and circumstance.

Back in the back of the auditorium there, with her drum, she’d been so proud of Gabrielle, and so incredibly happy  she’d been the one who brought the word of her winning the competition to her. 

Now she stood in the shadows, watching a young girl take the  same first steps on the road they’d traveled, and she was very glad she’d taken the time to get involved and given the kid a chance to do her thing unimpeded.

She was obviously new to the craft, and it was a simple story.   Xena kept an eye on the two patricians as she listened, watching them grow more and more agitated as they obviously craned their necks looking for something.

There was a flicker of motion nearby, and Xena moved her head a little, so she could see what the motion was. The two men had half stood up,  to greet a young woman joining them.  She was dressed in good style, and had blond hair so pale it almost appeared white.

The men seemed upset she was there.  The woman signaled the servers to bring over a tray, and one of the men stood all the way up and reached for the woman’s arm.

The new bard wound up her story, and Xena pulled her attention away from the minor drama at the bard to start the clapping for her, which was picked up by those nearby and caused a blush to color the girl’s face.

She stepped down off the platform and smiled at the crowd, her path taking her right past where Xena was standing.  She glanced to the side as she sensed the warrior’s tall presence, halting to stare as their eyes met. “Oh!”

Xena put her finger up to her lips and made a small hushing noise.

The girl came closer. “You’re Xena, aren’t you?” She whispered. “By the gods!”

“I am.” Xena admitted. “But I’d rather not draw a crowd.”

The girl looked around. “I saw you grab those guys before I went up there.” She said. “I thought it was  you, but it was so fast I didn’t have time to see.”  She added. “Were they Spartan agents or something? What did you do with them?”

Echoes of her soulmate rang like the bells of the Hestian Virgins in her head.  “Nothing that exciting. Just a couple of guys.” Xena said.  “Nice story.”

The girl’s eyes positively lit up. “Did you like it? I mean, of course, I’m just starting and you must be used to the best.”

“Everyone has to start somewhere.” Xena said.  “Good luck.” She lifted her hand and waved a trifle, and then she slipped away from the platform and headed purposefully back towards the bar.  One of the two men were gone, and the other was seated next to the pale haired young woman, who had a mug in her hand and seemed to know what to do with it.

She was noticed as she climbed the two steps up to the bar level.  Both the man and the young woman turned their heads as she passed, but Xena saw no reason to acknowledge them as she wound her way back to her selected spot.

The server drifted over immediately. ‘Ready for another mug?” She asked.  “On the house?”

Xena leaned against the counter, regarding her.  On the stage, a harpist was starting to play, the beautiful sounds lifting up into the sky.  “On the house?” She inquired.  “My mother’s an innkeeper. She doesn’t give away her ale to every scruffy looking stranger in the place.”

The server smiled. She was roughly Xena’s age, with dark brown hair and a startling scattering of freckles across her face.  She leaned a bit closer. “Even if the old woman hadn’t sent word down, and even if I hadn’t recognized you,  my brother saw what you did down by the stage and so yes, on the house.”

It was pleasant, Xena had to admit, being recognized this way, rather than how she had been in the past.   She inclined her head in graceful acceptance, and took the proffered mug.  “Thanks.”

“Watch out for those two.” The server made a motion with her thumb pointed behind her. “They’re trouble.”

Having already decided that on her own, Xena merely nodded. The woman moved on, heading back to the bar and leaving Xena to ponder her choices for dinner.   Nearby to one side of the stage, she spotted a cookpit roasting what looked like a whole pig and she marked it for attention.

Once that was decided, she slowly let her gaze roam around the open air tavern, finally allowing herself to meet the gaze of the young woman at the front table. The knowing expression and faint smile made her understand she was recognized, but rather than prolong the contact, the warrior merely moved her attention on.

She caught sight of the other man coming back, his face stormy as he shoved his way past the crowd and back to the table.   She sipped her ale as she watched the action in her peripheral vision, the newcomer leaning in to the table and gesturing with his hands to his companions.

The woman listened, then she turned her head away, watching the harpist.

Xena picked up her mug and dropped off the wooden floor of the tavern to the ground. She made her way over to the cookpit, now aware of the looks she was getting from the crowd as she went through it.

She heard her name, whispered, finally in a tone more reverent than feared.  Xena smiled as she arrived at the cookpit, studying what they had to offer.

They had wooden platters. She pointed at one, then at the grill. “Gimme one of whatever you got.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The man behind the grill quickly complied. “Here you go.”

Xena took the plate and gave him a coin, staring him down when he started to refuse.  She then took her platter and went back to the tavern, climbing up back to her spot to find she’d gained herself some company.

The young woman was there, waiting.

Xena put her platter down and resumed her perch, giving the woman a chance to talk first.   She had fine, even features and a beautiful face that went with the body just visible in the artfully arranged draping of fabric around it.

“You’re Xena.” The woman said.  “From Amphipolis.”

The warrior picked up a rib and glanced at her. “Good guess.”  She took a bite and chewed, pleasantly surprised at the spicy tang.

“My name is Milena.”  The woman said. “Would you join us at our table? I have a offer for you.”

Xena looked past her to where the two men were sitting, visibly upset and glaring in her direction. “No thanks.” She said.  “I’m not looking for any offers.”

“All right, then I’ll join you.” Milena sat down on the edge of the wood and took a sip from her mug.  “Sorry to be so forward, but this isn’t Athens and I don’t’ think you appreciate the social necessities anyway.”

That surprised Xena.  The woman apparently had a mind, and was older than she perhaps looked. “That your horse in the barn?” She asked, casually drawing her dagger and stabbing a likely looking piece of meat before bringing it u to her lips.

Milena paused in mid sip.  “Horse?”

“White mare?”

The woman blinked. “W… oh. Yes.” She said. “What does that have to do with anything, and how did you know that?”

“Just asking.”  Xena settled back on her makeshift seat and nibbled on her selection, the dagger catching the torchlight.  “What do you want?”

Gabrielle would be so exasperated at her.  Xena waited for the woman to answer. But then were was a reason most everyone preferred to deal with her soulmate.  She was curious, though, as to what the woman had in mind.

 “My brothers and I are headed for the port city.”  Milena collected herself. “We hear from the provost here that the road’s alive with brigands.  If you’re headed in that direct, we want to hire you for protection.”

Xena started laughing, a light sound that echoed through the tavern.  Then she let the laugh wind down into chuckles, as she took a swallow of her ale.  “I’m not for hire.” She said. “Most dangerous thing I saw on the road here were packs of idiots kidnapping people to sell to the Athens army.  You’re probably safe.”

Milena studied her. “You act like my offer is an insult.”

“If you really know who I am, then you know it is.”  The warrior responded mildly. “I’m no mercenary. “  She speared another chunk of barbeque and tore a bite out of it, watching Milena’s face past it.

It was a face unused to rejection, she decided.  This was a beautiful, willful person who probably was the apple of her father’s eye, and very used to having every wish granted to her.

Gabrielle, certainly, would have been having a ball once she got past her innate dislike of anyone trying to horn in on her partner.

“Everyone has a price.” Milena finally said.  “But I meant no insult.   We had heard Amphipolis was on hard times, and thought you would welcome a chance to earn some dinars.”

Xena extended her booted legs and crossed them at the ankles.  “You heard wrong.”

“Then you don’t deny you have a price.” Milena smiled.  “But come, Xena. We all travel the same road.  Why not travel with us, in that case? “ She rested her elbow on the wooden perch Xena had her plate on. 

One of the men came over. “Milena, we’ve gotten lodgings on the other side of town. Come.  We can get some quiet there.” He refused to look at Xena.

“Rog, go if you want.” The woman said. “Take Gerras and go to bed.  I can take care of myself.”

Xena continued consuming her dinner, mildly entertained by the patricians.   She was finding Milena intriguing, with a touch of the piratical that peaked her interest.   Her brothers were common Athenean types however, and she was hoping they’d take the hint and leave.

“Sister, please.”  Rog leaned closer and lowered his voice. He glanced at Xena, then focused on the other woman.  “We have an early start tomorrow, and the crowd here is getting rough.”

Xena found his eyes on her again. She licked the edge of her dagger and waggled an eyebrow at him then she picked up a rib and bit into it. 

His lip curled in distaste.

“Go on.” Milena gave him a little push on his shoulder.  “I”ll come join you shortly. Where are the new rooms?”

“Someone’s guiding us.” Rog said, in a stubborn tone. “You will have to come with us to find it.”

Milena’s eyes narrowed. “Then I’ll sleep where I please.”   Her glance drifted over to Xena, then back to her brother.  “Leave.”

“Milena, you cannot.”  He hissed.

“I can.”  She pushed him again. “Go, before I find the guard and tell them you’re misusing me.”

Reluctantly, the man straightened, and backed off, shaking his head before he turned and rejoined the other man a the table, bending close to him and talking with short, sharp motions of his hands.

Milena watched them for a moment, then she returned her attention to Xena. “They mean well.  But they like to think they’re in charge.”

Xena drained her mug.  “Thanks for the offer.” She said. “You and your brothers heading for Athens?”

“Of course.” Milena signaled the server, who came over with her tray. “Two.” She tossed a coin onto the tray and put one of the two the server set in front of her over in front of Xena.  “Isn’t everyone?  There’s a sloop waiting for us in port.”

Xena finished her rib and debated briefly, then accepted the mug and took a drink from it.  “What’s your interest in Athens?  Supporting the troops?

“What’s yours?” Milena countered.  “Joining the troops? “

“No.”  Xena said. “I’m not heading to Athens.”

“Really?”

“Really.’” The warrior said. “I’m just looking for some friends, then heading back home.”

Milena studied her with focused interest. Her eyes were a muddled color in the torchlight, but they were pale, and almost as piercing as Xena’s own and this close, the warrior could see the sharp intelligence in them.

“I find it hard to believe you have no interest in this war.” Milena said, slowly. “My father was in Athens during the games, and that’s all they were talking about, you being part of the army.  Why lie about it?”

“I’m not.”  Xena said. “It’s not my war.”

The woman took a swallow of her ale. “I don’t believe that.”

“I don’t really care.” The warrior shrugged.  “I didn’t ask for your opinion.”

The woman straightened a little. Then she lifted one hand and let it fall. “That’s true, you didn’t. I intruded myself on your table, didn’t I?” She said.  “So you won’t travel with us then, I take it.”

Xena shook her head.   She stood up, casually shrugging her weapons into place and seating her dagger.  “Have a good trip.”    

Milena rose as well. “Staying at the inn?” She asked. “I’m sure you are, if your horse is in the barn with mine.  I’ll walk you to your room.”

Xena shrugged again and led the way out of the tavern, briefly glad her beloved partner wasn’t there at her side, if only because if she had been, the night would have ended with them riding from the town in the dark after the bard clocked this young, saucy rich kid.

Who was definitely intent on getting what she wanted.

**

Gabrielle cradled Dori in her arms as she walked back to her quarters, the last echoes of the drums fading off into the distance.  A sense of quiet was settling on the village, after the long night of songs, and dance and feasting.

“Mama.” Dori burbled sleepily.  “Mama I love you.”

Gabrielle smiled. “I love you too, honey.”  She told her daughter.  “Did you have fun with your friends tonight?”

“Missed Boo.”

The bard hugged her a litte closer.  “Yeah, me too. But I had fun tonight anyway. Cait stayed with me and told me funny stories.” She said. “We’re going to to go see Grandma tomorrow.”

“Gramma!” Dori kicked her feet. “Good. I can play there.”

“That’s right. You can play with your cousins, right?”  Gabrielle ducked through the curtained entry to her quarters and continued through to the sleeping area, setting Dori down onto her bed. “And your other friends who live by Grandma.”

Three village children, and Granella and Toris’ twin boys.  Dori adored them.  “Mama, we can see horsies! I can ride Gogo?”

Hm.  “Well, I think we can ask Argo if she wants to give you a ride.”  Gabrielle said. “But remember you have to be very nice to her, right? She’s Boo’s favorite horsie.”

“Bring happles.”

Gabrielle chuckled, as she removed Dori’s jumper and replaced it with a little cotton shirt.  “You learn fast, honey.  Okay, we’ll bring Argo some apples, and see if she’ll give you a ride.”

Dori snuggled down in her bed and pulled Flameball over to her, tucking her arm around the stuffed toy and hugging it. “Good.”

“Goodnight, Dor.” Gabrielle ruffled her hair.  Then she stood up and went back into the other room, dropping down into the chair behind her worktable and loosening the laces on her boots.  She pulled them off and wiggled her toes.

Long day.  She got up and went to the garment press, exchanging her leathers for a shift.  The party had gone on later than she’d expected, and she’d had one too many cups of ale near the end of it, using that to excuse herself from the dancing.

She knew how, but she was more than a little self conscious about it, and surprised at the number of her sisters who had asked knowing what her answer had been the last time.

Maybe they’d forgotten.

She went over and rummaged in the kit Xena had left, removing a packet and studying the script on the back.

With a nod, she went over to the table under the window, adding the contents of the packet to a cup and pouring some apple cider over it.  She stirred it with a finger then downed it resolutely, the crisp sweetness of the cider almost overcoming the sharpness of the herbs.

Then she filled the cup with water, and drained it. 

That made her head feel better.  “Ugh.” Gabrielle filled the cup again and took it back to her worktable, setting it down as she slid into the chair and opened her diary.  

Today’s been a really eventful day.

I don’t want to say it’s been a great day, or an amazing day, though some amazing things happened, but it’s been a very important day in terms of the tribe.

I wish Xena were here.

That had nothing to do with what I wrote first.  I just wish Xena were here because I miss her. I really felt it tonight at the celebration when everyone was having fun and being together and that platform up there felt so empty to me.

It was nice of Cait to come up and keep me company.   It figures Xena told her to keep an eye out for me. 

I wonder why she did that? It would have been good for her to have Cait go along, even if all she did was keep watch one night or two so the poor thing could get some sleep.

Cait said Xena said I needed all my friends around me.  Why?

What did she know? Or was it just one of those things that she just understands and can’t really explain?  She was the one going out there, she was the one who really could use some friends with her.  I was just staying here and babysitting.

Did  she know we’d find something? Probably not. She probably just didn’t want anyone to be responsible for out there if it wasn’t me.

Or Dori.

I wonder where she is and what she’s doing. 

I wish I was with her.

Anyway.   The search party who was digging out the pass up mountain found a valley that has a lot of ore and silver in it.  It’s also a really pretty valley and I think there’s probably a lot more to find there but really it’s the silver and the lead and everything that has everyone so excited.

Am I excited?  I guess I am for the tribe.  They’ve worked so hard for so long, and they’ve got so little to show for it except for this village, and their identity.   They hunt and sell the skins and that stuff but really, if they were hard up they’d have a tough time surviving.

So now, it’s different.  With what they found today, so much is possible.  We just have to handle it, and figure out how to take advantage of it in a smart way.

We definitely need Xena’s advice on this.  I know she’ll know how to do it and not mess it up.

Gabrielle reread her last sentence, then she set her quill down and leaned back, folding her arms across her chest, and stifling a yawn.  “I need to finish this tomorrow when I’m less gloomy.”  She got up and went over to the pitcher, pouring herself another cup of water, going over to the window to look out as she drank it.

Jasmine was blooming.  She could smell it’s sweet fragrance on the air.  The moonlight was trickling through the leaves and painting a faint silver pattern on her, and now that the sounds outside had faded, an owl’s soft hoot echoed nearby.

She finished her water and then she doused the candle and went into the sleeping chamber.  Dori was sound asleep, and she crawled into the sturdy bed and lay on her back, looking up at the ceiling.

She was tired. It had been a long day, and the climb up and down the mountain hadn’t been the easiest. Gabrielle could feel an ache in her knees and a little stiffness in her back, and suspected she’d be wishing for a trip up to the cave of the hot springs by the time she woke up tomorrow.

Maybe it all had made her too tired to dream.

**

Xena felt a distinct twinge of annoyance as she walked through the hall of the inn, very aware of the shadow at her heels.   She’d worked to lose her unwanted visitor by stopping at several vendors to pick up supplies for the road, but Milena had stuck with her.

Now she was at the door to her room. She turned and leaned against it, feeling the outline of her sword through the leather over her shoulder blades as she faced the young woman. “Night.”

“Aren’t you going to invite me in?” Milena asked. “You’re known to like women, Xena.”

It had been a long time since she’d been so boldly propositioned.  Xena wasn’t sure if she should be flattered, insulted, or just amused.  “No thanks.” She said.  “I’m married.”

“So?” Milena leaned against the wall. “What does that mean, for a woman in these times?  Someone’s ready to pay for your headstone?” She inquired. “My father is busy marrying me off. You think I care?”

Xena cocked her head a little to one side.  “I don’t give a damn. I said I wasn’t interested.”

“Really?”

Xena merely turned and opened her door, then she walked in side and closed it firmly behind her.  “Pity the bastard who’s got to marry her.” She sighed, walking over to her saddlebags and kneeling next to them to stow her provisions.

When she heard the latch working, she felt her temper unexpectedly snap and by the time the door was cracking open she was across the floor and yanking it towards her with one hand, the other reaching back and drawing her sword.

The blade whirled around in the shadows and smacked Milena across the cheekbone, sending her flying backwards into the hallway and against the far hall wall.

Xena followed it up, flowing into the hallway and pouncing on the woman, grabbing her by the front of her gown and pulling her up only to slam her against the wall. She leaned forward and put her blade Milenas throat. “Sorry I was too subtle for you.” She growled. “Beat it.”

“Wait I... wait, Xena, please.”

The warrior’s eyes narrowed, but she held herself still.

“I just wanted to talk to you.” Milena said. “You’re gorgeous, and strong and sexy and I really like that. You fascinate me. Its not a crime.”

Xena studied the pretty face across from her.  She could see the flutter of her pulse at her throat, but the expression was carefully controlled and without visible fear.

Interesting.  “It’s not a crime.” She said. “But I’m not interested in talking.” Xena let her go, and gave her a shove down the hall.  “We clear now?”

Milena caught her balance, and straightened her clothing, retaining  an admirable dignity.  “Maybe you’ll be more in the mood tomorrow.” She said. “See you in the morning.”   She turned and walked back down the hall and into the darkness, turning the corner and disappearing back into the main part of the inn.

The warrior waited for a minute to see if she was coming back, then she retreated back into her room and shut the door, sheathing her sword with a vexed scrape of metal on leather.  “How in the Hades do I get into stuff like this?”

She dropped to one knee next to her bags, then changed her mind and sat down on the floor, extending her legs out and pulling the leather sacks over.  “Stupid wench is lucky  Gabrielle wasn’t here or she’d be pulling three cubits of wood out of her backside by now.”

The woman’s wanton approach had surprised her. She was no stranger to sensuality, but she knew her reputation was built more on ass kicking than ass kissing and so the aggressive stalking wasn’t something she was used to.

Or something like that.

She sorted through the packages she’d purchased and found space for them.  Things she hadn’t really thought of bringing, trail snacks and herbs she was accustomed to Gabrielle carrying in their mutual baggage.

She’d forgotten that it was her partner who thought about what they’d eat on the road, keeping her eye out for berries and roots as they walked, and casting her mind ahead to where they would stop to make sure they had enough to keep themselves going with.

Ergo, why she ended up having pine nuts for breakfast twice now.  

Xena leaned back against the bed and unstrapped her knee armor, setting it down and starting on the laces holding on her boots.   She decided to get out of town before the sun rose, figuring the last thing she needed was a daylight encounter that might attract the law in the bargain.

She pulled her legs up crossed under her and unlatched her chest armor, pulling it off over her head and setting it down on the pile, followed by her bracers.  Then she raked her fingers through her hair and went back to ordering her bags.

A skin of cider and a honeycake would do for breakfast.  She tucked those in her front saddlebag, then she paused as her fingers encountered something unexpected.

She pulled it out, a smile grudgingly appearing on her face as she studied the parchment wrapped bit of rock now resting in the palm of her hand. 

Was it something new Gabrielle had put in there? Or something left over from one of their many trips, just now being found?’

Milena faded from her thoughts as she patiently unfolded the parchment from the rock, studying the stone for clues of it’s origin.  

Ah. It appeared to be a river stone from near their cabin, so the chances are this was something new.  Xena set the rock down and turned the parchment over , lifting it towards the candlelight so she could read the words written on it.

Gabrielle’s hand, unmistakably.  

Hey love of my life.

Xena smiled in reflex.  If the note wasn’t new, it was recent, from the salutation.  It held the warm confidence they’d developed between them over the last little while and she had no trouble hearing Gabrielle’s voice saying it.

I know when you’re reading this I’ll be missing you like crazy.

Ah. Definitely something new.

Letting you go on your own was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It’s not that I don’t trust you to do what needs to be done – I just don’t trust the Fates. They’ve been really cruddy to us.

Xena exhaled. “They have, haven’t they.” She sighed. “Wish you’d just chucked your conscience and come too, Gab. I miss you.”

So I hope you’re just laying low and staying out of trouble.  I want Eph and Pony back safely, but really, Xe… that’s mostly because I want to break my word to her, and get out of this.  I think you know that.

She did.  “Right there with ya, hon.”

Please go as fast as you can, and bring them back.  If you want to pass on convincing the other Amazons, that’s okay by me. You mean more to me than they do.

Xena stopped and reread that line a few times, dark lashes fluttering over her eyes in startlement.  She hadn’t expected that raw of an admission from her partner, though she’d known in her heart that was how the bard felt.

They’d moved past the greater good, in some ways.   Paid their dues to the concept in ways few other people ever had. 

Anyway I don’t want to bring you down.  I’m sure you’ll have a good trip, and maybe even have some fun out there by yourself.

“Oh yeah. It’s been a blast.” Xena remarked dryly.

And I want you to know I’m going to be spending most of the time you’re gone figuring out what to do to you first when you get back.

Xena’s eyes widened.  “Gggabrrrrielle. “  She drawled. “Boy have you ever grown up.”

Listen to me. Would you believe I blushed when I wrote that?

The warrior started laughing. “Yes!” She chortled. “I sure as Hades can.”

Be safe, my love.  See you soon.  G.

Xena read the note over, then she folded it in half, touching it to her lips before she dug out her little book and slipped the note inside for safekeeping.   Her agitation over MIlena’s advances had faded, replaced by a warm contentment.

She wondered if Gabrielle had found any of her own little surprises yet, tucked away in the Amazon queen’s quarters before she left.   Not notes, no – writing wasn’t her forte.

But other things.  Her own way of reaching out over the miles and touching her soulmate whose melancholy was evident through the link between them.   

She closed her eyes and thought about how much she loved Gabrielle, and how happy that love made her.

It was the best she could do.  She didn’t know if it would make Gabrielle feel any better, but it sure worked on her, and she got to her feet, going to change out of her leathers in a much more pleasant frame of mind.

Tomorrow she’d start out early, before the sun rose.  It would get her to her goal faster, and with any luck at all she’d leave her randy admirer behind.

Far behind.

**

Gabrielle watched Dori join in the play of her cousins, an indulgent smile on her face. Then she turned and headed down the path, angling her steps towards the inn on one side of the central square of Amphipolis.

It felt good to be in the town, and she waved back at the blacksmith and the weaver, who were crossing in the other direction.   It was early, and the sun hadn’t become unbearable yet and she enjoyed the splash of warmth on her skin as she trotted up the steps onto Cyrene’s porch.

Her mother in law was seated just to one side of the door, a cup in her hands. “Ah. Good morning, cutie.”

“Hey mom.” Gabrielle dropped into the seat next to her. “Glad I found you out here.”

“Uh oh.” The innkeeper eyed her. 

The bard grinned wryly.  “It’s not bad, really.” She said.  “We finally unblocked that high pass up the ridge from the Amazon village.”

“Did you? Xena said someone was working on that.” Cyrene replied. “A big rockslide closed off so much of that way back when… Gods, ten summers back?  Some of the hunters came back and said it was all blocked so we just forgot about it.”

Gabrielle nodded. “Xena said.” She agreed. “So we moved all the rocks, and a couple of the Amazons went down into it and explored it a little. It’s a nice valley.”

“Good.” Cyrene nodded. “Glad it worked out. I thought Xena was being a little snitty, honestly, when she signed it over.”

“Me too.” The bard admitted. “But she’s going to be pretty surprised when she gets back. We found a lot of ore, lead and silver in there.” She lowered her voice.  “Enough to really mean something.”

Cyrene whistled under her breath.  “How about that?” She said. “You know, after some of the things we’ve seen around here, it doesn’t really surprise me. “ Her face grew thoughtful. “You might not want to advertise it round here, though.”

“Yeah.” Gabrielle agreed. “I know the land was granted, but like we found out with Dori’s rocks, sometimes people just get so crazy they don’t think.”

Her mother in law nodded. “You said it.”

“There’s so much I want to do for the tribe. This changes a lot for us.” Gabrielle leaned back, letting her elbows rest on the chair arms. “We had a big meeting about it last night.”

Cyrene turned her head. “How do the Amazons survive?” She asked. “They don’t farm, and I never see them herding or anything. Do they just scavange in the forest?”

Reasonable question.

“Wait.” Cyrene said. “Let’s go in side and get you some tea. It’s going to start to get busy out here in a  minute anyway.”  She got up, and led the way into the inn.

Gabrielle followed willingly, and they crossed the big, empty front room in silence and entered the kitchen together. 

This room always made her smile.  There was a  small table in one corner, big enough for a couple of people to sit down at and she’d had many a breakfast there with Xena when they’d lived just behind the inn.

There was always something going on in Cyrene’s kitchen. Something on the fire, something being cut up,, or prepared, or even just a pot bubbling  slowly on the back hook full of odds and ends.  “I dropped Dori over at Toris’s place.” Gabrielle said. “She was glad to see her cousins.”

Cyrene poured her a cup of tea, and they sat down at the table. This early, her helpers weren’t in yet and they were alone in the inn, with just the soft simmering of the aforementioned back pot.  “They miss her.” She said.  “Soli was in here asking me just yesterday where she was. He thought she went to Athens again.”

Gabrielle took a sip of her tea. “Almost.”

Her mother in law chuckled wryly. “I know you didn’t want her to go alone.”

The bard smiled. “I didn’t.  I told her before she left when she got back and Eph got back I was going to see what I had to do to turn over my title. “

Cyrene sat up a little. “Didn’t you just say you had all these plans for the Amazons?”

“I do.” Gabrielle admitted. “I just don’t’ want to be part of them.”

Her mother in law gazed at her in interest. “Really?”

“Really.” The bard said. “I think I’ve finally figured out who I am, and it’s not the queen of the Amazons.” She took a sip of her tea. “Anyway, so we found a ton of valuable stuff in that valley, and I’m going to have to figure out a way to take advantage of it without making us a a target for every greedy mercenary in the area.”

Cyrene digested this. She watched her daughter in law’s expressive face, the mist green eyes flicking up to hers with that open steadfastness so peculiar to her. “What did Xena have to say about that?”

The eyes warmed. “I think she was for it.” She said. “She tolerates the Amazons because of me.”

“Isn’t she an Amazon?”

“On parchment.” Gabrielle said. “Though, that parchment also means she gets a piece of whatever we found in that valley so I don’t know.”

“I’m not sure that matters to her much.” Cyrene got up and went to the pot, ladeling two bowlsful of the contents of it and bringing them back to the table. She slid one in front of Gabrielle and handed her a spoon.  “I can hear you growling from here.”

Gabrielle didn’t deny it.  “Dori and I shared some cereal this morning.” She said.  “So, mom, who do you think I can talk to about this here? We’re going to need help extracting the ore, and smelting it. I know Xena knows how, but I’m not sure when she’s going to get back.”

Cyrene stirred her stew thoughtfully. “That’s a tough question. I know there’s some good craftsmen here, but they’re neighbors. Not sure they can keep quiet about it.”

“Mmhm.” Gabrielle was busy chewing.

“So maybe we can…. “ Cyrene stopped as they both heard the sounds of running footsteps outside. “Hm.”

“Hm.” The bard repeated.

They heard the outer door open, and the sound of a number of people entering. “Cyrene!” A voice called.

“Cow fall in the creek again?” Cyrene got up and pushed the kitchen door open “ Here.” She said. “What’s all the noise?”

“Is Gabrielle there with you? The smith said he saw her come this way.”

Cyrene turned, but Gabrielle was already at her side and they both made it through the doorway and into the big room.  “What’s going on?” Gabrielle asked, as she recognized two of Xena’s militia. “Peder, what’s happening?”

The militiaman looked relieved on seeing her. “We heard from the watch, upcountry.  Lot of people moving through. Heading this way.”

“Upcountry?”  Gabrielle’s brows lifted.  That meant the wilds of Thrace, sparsely populated and on the edge of the sea.   “Who are they?”

“Watch didn’t say.” Peder reported.  “Armed, though. Said to let you know, cause they weren’t sure what their intent was.”

“Armed?”

“Aye.”

Gabrielle took a breath, sparing herself a moment to think about the situation.  What would Xena do?  Without question, Xena would go find out.  “Okay.” She said. “How far?”

“Three, four nights. it was the far watch.”  Peder said.  “Out beyond Xena’s valley, by the sea road.”

He looked at her expectantly, waiting for her to respond.

Yikes. She would need to see who they were. “Let me get some of the Amazons, and we’ll take a couple of the guys and go see what’s up.” The bard decided.  “It could be nothing. Maybe Athens raising troops out in the far reaches, and they just gathered together to march to the capital.”

“Could be.” Peder admitted. “Pass us by, more than likely. If they take the sea road.”

“We need to be sure.” Gabrielle said.  “Tell Bennu to pick two guys who can ride, and I’ll meet him down here after noon. “

“Aye, will do.” Peder took his companion and they left, rattling the door shut behind them.

“Well.” Cyrene said. “Never a dull moment around here, I guess.”

“Probably nothing.” Gabrielle couldn’t keep the anticpation from tensing her guts though. “After all, Athens is raising troops. Stands to reason they’d be heading there.”

“True.”  The innkeeper agreed. “But I can tell you there’s not much sympathy for Athens in those parts.  They must be spreading coin like rain to get any number responding.”

“That they are.” Gabrielle sighed. “Well, let me finish your great stew and then go head up to get an honor guard. “

“Rules of the Amazons?” Cyrene smiled.

“Rules of my partner.”  The bard admitted. “But hey, it’ll give me something to make a story with for the feast at the full moon.” She headed back to the kitchen,  turning her mind to who she’d take with her on this unexpected journey.

It wasn’t until she’d sat down and finished half the bowl before she realized that with Xena gone, she really, truly was apparently in charge.

Of everything.

**

Xena was glad of her isolated room when she dressed in the light of a single candle, in the dark hour just before dawn.  It was quiet outside, and she washed quickly and put her leathers on, then donned her armor as she listened for anyone stirring outside.

She lifted her saddlebags to her shoulder and went to the door, pausing and cocking her head.  There were soft, muffled sounds on the other side, and she wasn’t sure she could identify exactly where they were coming from.

With a shrug, she went to the window and sat down on the sill, swinging her legs over and hopping down to the ground soundlessly.   The air was still cool with the night’s moisture, and she took a deep breath of it as she walked along the path heading for the barn.

Most of the torches had burned to guttering.  Xena crossed in front of the inn and stayed near the edge of the big square, which had more than one figure curled up near the firepit in a cloak to keep the dew off.

She’d slept the same way, many times.   So many mornings waking up before the dawn, rolling over and watching Gabrielle sleep beside her, tucked into her furs with just that mop of hair poking out.

Xena smiled as she turned at the end of the square and opened the gate to the barn’s yard, closing it carefully as she headed for the door through the idly grazing horses left to pasture outside.

One big cart horse eyed her, and she gave him a pat on the shoulder as she opened the barn door and walked inside. 

It was dark. No lamps were lit, and she nodded in approval at that as the animals inside became aware of her presence.  Io stuck his head over the door to his stall and extended his nose towards her, his pale coat visible in the shadows. 

“Hey boy.” Xena greeted him, scratching his cheek and giving him a kiss on the nose.  “Ready to get out of here?”

The stallion nudged her, and got an ear rub for his pains.   Then Xena stepped inside the stall and set her saddlebags down, reaching over to lift Io’s saddle and swing it up and over his back.  She looked across the barn as she settled the tack, spotting the white mare watching her. 

She made a small noise and the mare shook her head, pricking her ears forward. 

Xena finished saddling Io, then she left his stall and crossed to the mare’s, holding her hand out to the animal’s muzzle as she came close.   The delicate nostrils sniffed her skin, then nibbled it, and she stroked the horse’s nose. “What a pretty girl.”

The mare took a step forward, pressing against the stall door.   Xena ran her hand down the animal’s neck, admiring the arch of it, and the smooth lay of her coat.  “You are too good for a raunchy wench like that, you know that, pretty girl?”

The horse had big, liquid dark eyes, and they were watching Xena intently.

Xena peered into the stall, sorry she didn’t see any sign of mis use that might excuse her from taking the mare along with her. “Sorry about that, girl.” She gave the horse a final pat. “Gotta go.”   She retreated back to Io’s stall, where her stallion was alertly watching, clearly as interested in the mare as his rider was.

“C’mon, Io.”  Xena fastened her saddlebags to his saddle and led him from the stall, waving at the mare as she headed for the door.   They emerged into the paddock,  and as Xena crossed with him over to the gate, she heard the start of a commotion coming from the direction of the inn.

Could have been anything.

She wasn’t taking a chance.  In a smooth motion she leaped into Io’s saddle and got her knees settled, then turned his head for the far paddock fence and clucked her tongue.  The stallion responded, moving from a walk to a canter as they moved away from the inn.

Gathering himself Io sped up and jumped the fence head on, landing in the grass beyond it as Xena guided him out past the rows of houses towards the road.

Xena could hear the commotion growing behind her, but she kept her head forward, and in a moment she and Io were in the trees and out of sight.   She kept up the pace until they reach the road, then she slowed to a canter as they left the big town behind them.

As dawn lightened the sky, she was approaching the river ford and as they reached it, so did two wagons heading the opposite direction.   Io splashed into the ford and they moved to one side as the first of the wagons did the same, the big oxen pulling them lowing in anxiety as the cold rush of water hit their hides.

The drover whistled and cracked his whip, and the oxen kept pulling. He paused and gave Xena a nod as she passed, and she lifted her hand and waved at him. 

“Morning.”  The man said. “Fair road ahead?”

“Fair.” Xena replied. “Big town half candlemark down the way.”

The man nodded. “Where I’m bound.” He indicated the wagon.  “Picking up rations for the war.  Hope they’re in a giving mood.”

“Luck to you.” Xena was glad she was heading in the other direction. She guided Io to the far bank and they climbed up out of the river, passing the second wagon and continuing on the road.

Another half candlemark later, and she started to relax, letting the tension out of her hands and turning her thoughts to the plan ahead.  Two days riding, and she’d be near the port town.  Once there, she could find out if the Amazons had shown up, and maybe even if she was lucky find Ephiny and Eponin.

If they were there, she’d try to convince them to just turn around and come back.  If the other Amazons were there, waiting to catch a boat to Athens, she’d talk to them but as Gabrielle herself had said, they were not her priority.

Xena uncapped her waterskin and took a drink from it. And if Ephiny and Eponin weren’t in the port town?  The warrior put the skin back on her saddlebow.  Then it would get tougher.  If the Amazons had taken the overland route, the one she and Gabrielle had taken on their way to Athens, then she had a long trek ahead of her.

She hoped they’d want to take the easy way.   Xena hadn’t been in a hurry either coming or going to Athens, and so she’d elected to take the long route, giving them more time to wander out alone – something that strongly appealed to both of them.

Besides, Gabrielle got seasick, and they’d both had horses.   Ephiny and Pony hadn’t taken any, and the Amazons could sell theirs and pick up others on the far side of the journey so the port city made more sense.

Or at least, that’s what she told herself.

The sound of approaching hoofbeats jerked her out of her thoughts, and she half stood in her stirrups, gazing down the road.  A small party of horsemen were heading in her direction, and after a split second’s indecision, the warrior stayed on the road and resumed her seat.

She had a right to be on the road, after all.  

Xena relaxed her posture as she drew even with the riders, men in the unmistakable livery of Athens.  Not army soldiers, but administrative types.   She gave them a civil nod.

“Hold up, would you?” The man in the lead said.  

Obligingly, the warrior pulled Io up. “Yes?”

“Beg your pardon.” The man said. “We’re looking for two men and a woman.  They may be traveling calling themselves brothers, perhaps.  The woman is young, and of good looks. Have you seen any such as these?”

Xena leaned her weight on her saddlebow.  “Why are you looking for them?” She asked. “I’m not in the mood to play into some father’s nightmare.”

The Athenian raised his hand, seeming in good humor. “Never fear.  These three aren’t any runaways.  They’re reported to have been involved with the stealing of some of the tax rolls from these parts.”

“Oh really.” Xena perked up.  “Thieves?”

“So called.” The man admitted. “There’s no proof yet, but they’re wanted for questioning. We’ve been sent to find them and bring them to the provost in the port city.”

Xena turned and pointed. “Town, about a candlemark or more that way. Three that match what you’re looking for.”

The man smiled. “Much obliged to you, citizen.” He courteously held a hand out, and Xena reached over to grasp his forearm.  “Areneus is my name.   And yours?”

“Xena.”  The warrior smiled back,  as she saw the reaction to her name.  “And for the record,  they had a damn ratty attitude.” She released the man. “So go get em.”

The man half saluted, and waved his party on. “Come on.  We’ve pinned our quarry. Let’s go quickly and we might yet catch them in bed. “ He led his group on, and once they passed Xena, they broke into a canter.

Xena watched them go with a satisfied grin.  Then she turned and gathered her reins, urging Io on.  “Feels good to be a nice upstanding citizen, huh Io?”

The stallion snorted and bobbed his head.

“Gabrielle’d be proud.”

**

Gabrielle dodged a cart as she made her way between the fence posts and headed for the barn and it’s outside pasture.  She ducked inside the barn first, and went to the heavy wooden chest in the corner, which held her and Xena’s travelling gear.

She opened the top and ran her eye over the contents, seeing what was missing and apparently gone with her partner.  She took a mental inventory, then she turned and slipped back outside, heading around the corner of the barn to the open space just to one side of it.

“Oh boy.” Gabrielle reviewed her choices.  “Argo, it looks like it’s you and me, girl.”

The golden mare had been cropping some grass under the shade of a tree in the paddock, and now she looked up when she heard her name called and regarded Gabrielle thoughtfully.

Still, even after all this time, Gabrielle felt funny about riding Xena’s favorite.   She knew Argo was moderately fond of her and she often brought the mare apples and other treats, but there was just something about her memories of their early years together that made her feel just a bit awkward.

Maybe because Argo had given her that first glimpse into Xena’s softer side, back in the days when she dreamed of being smiled at with half the affection the mare got.

She’d never gotten to know horses in Potadeia.  There were sheep there in plenty, and goats, and cattle, but  her only equine experience had been with the shaggy old pony Tympani. Horses were owned by the families who had the most money – hers hadn’t had,  and Argo was the first horse she’d actually spent any amount of time around.

She suspected it had been a learning experience for them both, since Xena was the only person Argo had been around for a really long time.

“Mama!” Dori had come out of the town school and spotted her, and was now running her way.  “Lets Gogo!” She yodeled. 

Argo saw Dori approaching.  She lifted her head and she moved away from the tree and came over to the paddock fence as Dori reached it, standing still as the child swarmed up the posts and climbed on her back with a gleeful laugh.  “Gogo!!!”

The bard smiled at the sight. Dori, on the other hand, treated Argo like she treated Xena herself., as a playmate and living toy to be clambered over with impunity.  Gabrielle came over and patted Argo’s neck.  “Be careful honey, make sure you hold on.”

Dori hitched herself up closer to Argo’s neck and took hold of her mane, giving it a tug. “Gogo!”

Argo craned her head around and gave Gabrielle a look.

“Hey. Don’t look at me, madame. She didn’t get that riding seat from this shepherd’s kid.” Gabrielle pointed at her own chest.  “Go talk to your buddy Xena.”

“Boo!” Dori agreed. “Mama, let’s go!”

Realizing she wasn’t getting off without a ride, Gabrielle got up on the fence herself and settled into place behind her daughter, squeezing her knees tight as Argo amiably ambled off with them on her back.

The three Amazons she’d selected as an escort were getting ready, packing up their gear and heading down the mountain.   Bennu and his men were also preparing, and that left Gabrielle alone to decide which horses to take, and what she was going to tell her daughter.

She’d promised to stay with Dori, after all.  Just like she’d promised to stay with the Amazons.  Gabrielle found herself willing to break the latter promise, but not so much the former one. 

Cyrene had agreed to take care of her, but now Gabrielle found herself undecided, not sure if she should go on and leave Dori here, or send someone else in her place to see what was going on.

No question what Xena would have done, and in fact, if she was very honest with herself she’d have gone with Xena in an instant.

On the other hand, this really wasn’t a dangerous trip. They were just going to scout things out.  Gabrielle studied her daughter. “Hey Dori?”

“Mama?” Dori was bouncing in place, hoping for a faster ride. “Make Gogo go!”

“Okay.” Gabrielle tightened her grip and Argo broke into a gentle canter, much to Dori’s delight.  The other horses in the paddock got out of the way, and they made a circuit of the grassy space in short order. “Dori, Mama has to go on a ride with Argo for a few days. Do you want to come with me?”

Dori nearly lost her grip as she turned around. “Go with Mama? Yes!”

Should she?  Gabrielle watched Dori’s face light up, and she smiled.  “You have to be really good for mama, okay?  Can you do that? Like when you were with Boo and me out in the forest?”

 “We go get Boo?”

Gabrielle sighed. “I wish, honey. No, we’re going to go see some people that might be coming here.  We’re going to ride on horsies, and I need you to help me steer Argo. Okay?”

Argo slowed to a halt under her tree and turned her head around to peer at Gabrielle, giving as close to a copy of Xena’s skeptical expression as was possible on an equine face.

“Yeah, I know. “ Gabrielle patted the mare’s neck.  She thought about not going, wondering if her decision to ride out with the scouting party broke the letter of the law Ephiny had mentioned to her. Did a short trip count?

She thought about that. Ephiny had left on her own more than once for longer than that, in fact, she’d left and ended up in Amphipolis for a moon at a time at least twice.    So her going with some Amazons to check something out should be fine.

After all, it was in their benefit, since whoever the large group of troops were, they were also headed in the direction of the village.

Right?

“Mama, we go?”  Dori asked. “C’n I bring Guff?”

Was she a little crazy?  “Just a minute, honey.”  Gabrielle got down off Argo’s tall back.  “Okay, let’s go get our things together so we can take our friends and see new things.”

Dori gladly scrambled off Argo’s neck and into her mother’s arms.  Gabrielle then set her down on the grass, and followed her as she ran towards the gate.   It would be short ride, she reasoned, probably only a day, or a day and a half because they’d be coming towards them.

No big deal.

Probably just troops moving to Athens.  They’d see them, turn around, and come right back.  One night camping, and that was it.  No problem.  They could tell the town there was nothing to worry about, and she could reassure the village they were being left in peace to explore their new discoveries.

Piece of cake.

Gabrielle scratched her nose and hoped she wasn’t making a really bad mistake.  “Dori, let’s stop by Grandmas.”

“Gramma!” Dori changed her direction and bolted off towards the inn.  “Get cookies!!”

“Yeah, let’s hope Grandma doesn’t bake me into a cookie.” Gabrielle started sorting out her arguments for her mother in law.  “She’s going to freak out.”

“Mama?”

“Nothing, honey.” The bard broke into jog to keep up with her daughter.  “Let’s go find Grandma.”

**

Xena perched herself on a rock in the shade, draining her waterskin as she watched Io take a break under the trees.  The heat of the day had stained the stallion’s coat to almost brown with sweat, and Xena could feel the tightness of the exposed skin on her body as the sun baked her as well.

It was just after noon, and the worst of the day’s heat was making the road shimmer, the sky overhead without a single cloud to break up the sunshine.

On the edges of her hearing, she caught the sound of the river, winding it’s way through the forest on it’s way to the port city and into the sea.    They were far enough downstream that she wasn’t intending on either drinking from or swimming in the water, but the trees around it might provide both her and Io a more comfortable route out of the sun.

Her plan decided, Xena stretched her legs out and crossed her ankles, regarding the slope of scrub that separated her from the road.

It was surprisingly  empty. She hadn’t seen more than a handful of people since midmorning, and as she peered down the road to the horizon, it remained bleak and silent.  That seemed a little strange to her.

And so, of course, as soon as she thought that, she heard the sounds of wagon wheels approaching, and the solid thunk of oxen hooves. 

She looked the other direction, and sure enough, a trail of figures appeared from the same way she’d come, dust rising around them as they took up the width of the road.

It appeared to be a merchant train.  Xena could hear the slow crack of whips, and the yells of the drovers, and she could see men walking alongside with staves, though whether they were leading or guarding was anyone’s guess.

A few men on horses were riding up and down the train, and that made Xena stay in her spot, waiting for them to pass by so she could see exactly what they were up to.   The riders had armor, and were carrying whips and that combination usually ended up being trouble.

Of course, she was often riding, in armor, and occasionally had a whip and sure enough, she usually ended up being trouble so personal experience in this case was definitely weighing in.

The wagon train drew closer. The lead wagon was a big covered conveyance, with tall wooden walls and a heavy hide draped and tied down over the bed.  The drover had the six sets of reins from the six oxen clasped in one hand, and he slouched in his seat, reaching out with the whip every so often.

The oxen were big animals, their solid, well fleshed bodies at least indicating they were reasonably well cared for. They plodded along the road, kicking up dust as they pulled their burden along. Their backs and sides were covered in sweat though, and the drover had his arm shading his face from the sun when he wasn’t using it for his crop.

One of the riders cantered up to the front and spoke to the man, who shrugged, but Xena couldn’t hear what he said over all the clatter of the wagon train.    Behind the first wagon she saw a group of men walking, most dressed in common tunics and boots, and carrying rough hide bags.

They were young, and seemed in reasonable spirits.   The rider gave them a brief glance as he passed, then moved on. 

Volunteers? Xena guessed.  The second wagon appeared much like the first, and there were three after that which rolled by her, sending a gust of air filled with the smell of animals and dust, and the sharp scent of human sweat.

After the last wagon went by, she saw another group of men, and though these were also young, they were dressed in brown linen shirts, and were tied by their ankles together.  Most had their heads down, and none were carrying anything more than a little bag at their belts.

Most were barefoot.  They shuffled along, and there were far more of them than the ones near the front.  Xena counted over a hundred, and the riders seemed to circle around them most often, whips at the ready.

Conscripts.   The warrior’s face twitched, and she flexed her hands.   Or worse.

The wagon train slowed and stopped a short distance past where Xena was sitting, and the crowd of volunteers and drovers moved off the road and headed to the fringe of trees not far from where the warrior was resting.

The conscripts sat down where they were, their backs to the sun as two of the riders stayed nearby to watch them.  One of the drovers jumped down off his wagon, and picked up a big waterskin, coming back to offer the seated men a drink.

One the rides waved him off. The drover shrugged and retreated, putting the skin back.  Xena’s eyes narrowed, but she stayed where she was, listening to Io crop the grass under the trees.

If Gabrielle had been with her, Xena had no doubt that she’d be riding into battle at the moment, driving off the riders and setting the conscripts free.   It went against the grain of her soulmate to let someone be dragged into anything as horrible as a war without their consent, and regardless of the trouble it would have caused them, she knew they’d have done it.

Xena didn’t have time to take care of a hundred lost, penniless conscripts who were who knew how far from home.   She felt bad for them, and didn’t agree with the practice, but she was pragmatic enough to know that it was both legal and expected in times of war and cutting the men loose would likely only get them recaptured, and put a price on her head.

Really no point to it.  She took another sip of water, glancing to one side as she heard hoofbeats approaching and saw one of the riders headed her way, having spotted her.  

She retained her relaxed pose as he rode up.  He was dressed in well cared for armor and carried himself with a definite air of authority, but she didn’t see any identifiable crests or markings on his gear.

“Hello there.” The man said.  “Traveling on the road to Therma?”

Xena nodded.

“So are we. Care to join us?  Safer traveling together, and we could use another sword.”

Xena wondered just what it was about her this trip that made people think she was looking for a job.  Was it the worn boots?  She studied hers thoughtfully.  Had she forgotten to fully polish her armor?  Did she look like she was going hungry?

With a sigh, she glanced up at the man. “Thanks for asking, but I’d rather go at my own pace.” She said. “You heading for Athens?”

The man nodded. “We are.” He said, looking behind him.  “Got men and supplies for the war. You heading there yourself?”

 The warrior shook her head. “Just to Therma.”

“Really? You’re not joining the army?”

“No.”  Xena said. “I’m retired.”

The man studied her closely.  “Well then, good travels to you.” He turned his horses head away and started back towards the wagons, leaving her sitting on her rock in peace.

His attention had drawn others, though, and Xena realized she was now the focus of the conscripts seated on the floor, their eyes fastened on her in unmistakable recognition.

So. 

What were they expecting?  Xena mused. If they really knew who she was, they would expect… now.. that she’d intervene on their behalf, wouldn’t they?

They would.

But she already had decided not to get involved.  She didn’t have time. She promised she’d hurry back. There were things to do, and people to find and a partner to get back to.

She watched them nudge each other, and point at her.  

Damn Gabrielle and her stories.  Xena smiled, though, and stood up, stretching her body out before she turned and whistled for Io.  The stallion trotted over to her and she patted him, then she took hold of his reins and started back in the direction of the wagon train.

After all, they were going in the right direction, right?

The man who’d approached her saw her coming and turned, then headed back in her direction.  He slowed to a halt a few paces from her, his head cocking in question. “Change your mind?”

Xena shrugged. “We’re going in the same direction.” She said. “And it’s too hot to rush.”

The man nodded and extended his hand. “Paradon.” He said.

“Xena.” She surrendered to the inevitable as she saw his face react. “Relax. I really am retired.” She got up on Io’s back and followed him back to the wagon train, turning her head casually to look at the conscripts as she came even with them.

Kids. Staring at her with those big eyes, full of stifled hope.   Xena winked at them, then she rode up alongside the wagons as the volunteers rejoined the train and they started off again.  

She picked a spot about midway, and got upwind of the oxen and in the shadow of the wagons, ,  settling down in her saddle as two of the riders cautiously approached her, obviously intent on talking to her.

Maybe she could get some useful information before she threw her life ass over teakettle and ended up being chased by the law. 

“You’re Xena, right?” One of the men said. “It’s an honor! “

“Yeah.” His companion agreed. “I’ve never met a real live hero before.”

Xena smiled at them, as charmingly as she could. 

Maybe she’d even have a little fun.

**

Continued in Part 9