A Queen’s Tale

Part 9

“Mama, look.”  Dori pointed ahead of them, between Argo’s golden ears.  “Birdie!”

Gabrielle shaded her eyes and peered ahead of them, spotting the circling creature in the distance. “That’s right honey, that’s a bird. Do you know what kind it is?”

“Big.” Dori pronounced with emphatic satisfaction.

Her mother chuckled.  “It’s a big bird. Its an eagle.”  She said. “Remember when Boo found that eagle’s nest? With the little baby eagle in it?”

“Boo Boo Boo.” Dori bounced a little. 

They were a half days into their journey, nearing the time when the sun would start to disappear.  Gabrielle  and her little band had kept up a steady pace, heading up the river through sparsely populated wilds where cottages were few and the road was merely a partly overgrown path cut through the dry grass.

Solari was riding a pace or two to her left, with Nala, an older Amazon who had ridden as one of Xena’s horse soldiers in the war. She was tall and no nonsense, and bore a scar across her arm that looked like an arrow had gone through it.

Cait and Paladia were riding behind them with a greater and lesser sense of satisfaction accordingly.

Bennu was on the other side, with three of his men.

Gabrielle was pretty sure they were all convinced she was nuts to have Dori with her.  However, the child’s delight with being along overshadowed her knowledge of that, and she was content to enjoy the ride along with her daughter. 

“What do you think these guys are, your Maj?” Solari asked. “Really soldiers heading to the war?”

Gabrielle shrugged.  “That many people, it would really be hard to say it was anything else.” She said.  “I just didn’t think there were that many places in Thrace that were beholden to Athens enough to send that many troops.”

“That’s the truth.” Bennu spoke up. “When we was in the vally there, wasn’t nothing that far around that gave a whip for them people.  Must be giving gold like water to pull em in.”

“But they didn’t come to Amphipolis.”  Bennu’s lieutenant spoke up. “I wonder why?”

“Someone didn’t want big X to ram their offer scroll up their butt?” Solari said.  “Cause I’m pretty sure she woulda.”

Gabrielle was pretty sure she would have too.  “Well, apparently everyone else felt the need to come ask. “ She demurred.  “Amazons, the Spartans…  everyone but Athens.  But you’re right, it’s a little strange they combed the whole area around and didn’t bother stopping here.”

“Maybe they didn’t want the Genr’l to tell em what for.”  Bennu mused.  “Men doing crazy things don’t’ like bein called on it.”

And that was also true.  “She would have.” The bard agreed.  She looked ahead of them, and saw the river bending to the left, just past what was obviously a ford. “Guess we need to cross.”

“Water’ll feel great.” Solari said. “Hades, it’s hot.”

They headed down the slope towards the water, alone in the vast expanse of scrubland that extended out to the horizon.  

All around them the sound of crickets buzzing stirred the air. Nala and Solari eased ahead of her along with Bennu, and Gabrielle muffled a smile and stifled her instinct to protest, wrapping one arm around Dori instead.

“Mama, dere’s a bug.” Dori reached out to make a grab at one of the crickets, who had unwisely jumped to a stalk nearby.

“No, honey.” Gabrielle captured her hand. “Don’t do that, the grass will make you owie.”  She stopped Argo long enough to carefully break off a piece of the grass. “Here, mama will show you.”

She took hold of Dori’s hand, and touched the edge of the grass against it. “Feel that?”

Dori drew her finger back. “Stuck!”

“Like a thorn, right. It’s sharp, and if you grabbed that bug, you would have cut your hand.” Gabrielle said.  “It’s sneaky grass!”

“Ew.” Dori put her hands behind her back. “Tank you, mama.”

Satisfied her teaching would be remembered, Gabrielle rid herself of the bit of offending foliage and looked around as they approached the river, it’s surge a little more apparent here closer to it’s source.

It was also a little shallow here, too.  They picked their way down the slop, which bore scars from the water that had coursed down it in the floods, and had carved it’s way through rock to leave broken slates and rocks scoured and tossed along it’s temporary bed.

Now the water was back safely inside it’s bed, and in fact looked a little on the low side. Gabrielle was a little glad of that since it meant less of her and Dori would get wet on the way across. 

They approached the edge of the river, going single file down to the ford.  A channel had been roughly cut in the bank and lined with posts, the ground beaten smooth from years of use.   Solari guided her horse, a stolid brown gelding into the water, and the animal splashed through without hesitation.

Nala went through next, and then Bennu, before Gabrielle gently urged Argo forward, glad her partner’s horse didn’t really seem to mind them riding her.  “C’mon girl.”

“Mama, fishes.”  Dori observed.

“I know, honey, but we can’t stop right now to catch them.”   Gabrielle wrinkled her nose as the water came up on Argo’s sides and covered her boots, soaking through them as they crossed. She could see the pressure of the water against the mare’s legs  and the sound of the rushing made her briefly think of the day of the flood.

Horrible, terrifying day.  Gabrielle took a closer hold on Dori, who was leaning over to peer into the water.   She’d come so close to dying, in that moment when the bridge was bearing down on her and she was stuck in the mud of the bottom, unable to escape.

“Mama, Boo would catch dat fishie.” Dori pointed. “Look!”

 Gabrielle peered down and spotted the big perch. “You’re right Dor.  Boo would catch that, and then we would eat it for dinner, wouldn’t we?”

“Yes!”

The fish swam between Argos legs and continued on downstream.    Dori picked her feet up and put them on Argo’s neck as they reached the middle of the river, giggling as she looked up past Gabrielle to watch some birds flying by.

“Hey Dor.” Gabrielle tickled one of her feet.  “Are you glad you came with me?”

Half upside down, the child’s pale green eyes goggled at her.

“Yeah, pretty stupid question, huh?” The bard chuckled, taking a tighter hold as Argo started to climb up the bank to the other side of the river.  “Of course you’re glad. I’m glad too.”  She took her boots out of the stirrups and shook them, startling Argo a little.

“Gabrielle.”  Bennu dropped back next to her. “I’m thinking there’s a set o caves just on that side of the ridge.” He pointed.   “We stop there yeah?  Bout two candlemarks yet.”

“That’s fine.”  The bard drew Argo to one side, and they waited for the rest of the group to emerged from the ford and gather around.  “Then we can get an early start tomorrow and probably be through the upper pass in time to see them mid afternoon.”

“If they’s moving fast as we are.” Bennu said. “Yeah.”

“And then, your majesty?” Nala asked.

And then? Gabrielle resisted the urge to come up with an immediate excuse to prolong the adventure.  “Well, we need to see who they are.” She temporized. “Let’s wait to determine what to do next until we do that. “

“Could be harmless.” Nala agreed.  “Could be men heading to Athens, but most I’ve seen would stop and take what they could if they found it.”

“Tis true.” Bennu nodded.  “Genr’l knew. She said to keep an eye out.”

Gabrielle looked over at him.  First Cait, now Bennu?  Had Xena really known something, or was it just her typical overprotectiveness showing?   “Xena always knows.” She remarked. “I used to think she carried a crystal ball in her saddlebags.”

Bennu chuckled.

“Boo!” Dori thumped her bare heels against Argo’s neck. “Mama let’s go!”

“Your majesty, would you rather we look for an inn?” Nala asked. “For the little princess, I mean.”

Gabrielle looked fondly down at her daughter. “No, she’ll be fine. She knows how to sleep rough. Right Dori? You like camping with us?”

“Yes!” Dori grinned.

“She traveled back from Athens with us after the Games.” Gabrielle said.  “She got a lot of experience sleeping out under the stars. Xena made her a little folding cradle and everything.”

“Boo!”

Solari studied the happy child. “She’s in a good mood.”

“She’s with me, not back in town.”  Gabrielle replied, in a wry tone. “I didn’t really want to subject Cyrene to that and she can’t really keep up with her anyway.”

“Too right.” Cait said. “It’s great we all got to go.”

“Speaking of going….Let’s. ” Gabrielle picked up her reins, and they moved off.   The overgrown path moved away from the river and towards the far hills, cutting a swath in the thick patch of river grass waving on either side of them.

The warm air made Gabrielle glad she was in her Amazon leathers. She’d packed her old traveling clothes in her saddlebag, and a tunic, but the nature of the trip seemed to dictate some what martial trappings, so accordingly she had her staff strapped against Argo’s side  and was wearing Xena’s dagger at her hip, it’s hawskhead pommel resting against bare skin.

The other Amazons had far more weapons, of course. Cait alone probably had ten blades on her, and Solari had a longsword strapped across her back not too different from Xena’s.

Gabrielle bore her single piece of steel with a sense of pride, though.  It seemed to fit her, longer than an average dagger and holding a dark patina, it was different from the simple blades the Amazons were wearing.

Older. More potent, having been borne by Xena during her warlord days and stained with unknown quantities of blood.    Gabrielle had last carried it during the war, and by her own hand had refreshed that stain finally making the knife hers in a way.

In a way.  She remembered cleaning it that night, after Xena was asleep and taken care of.  A piece of cloth in her hand, and some water, and a candlemark of scrubbing while she went over every moment she could remember of that frantic plunge.

It had been such a strange feeling, holding this thing in her hands that she’d used to fulfill one of the oldest of her unspoken daydreams.

In that moment, she’d gotten the smallest glimmer of understanding into the unspoken emotional attachment  Xena had for her sword, and the chakram.  It became more than a tool and more than some half foreign thing hanging at her waist.

She could now see a piece of her own soul reflected in that dark metal.

“Mama, dere’s a deer!”

Gabrielle shook her head a little and jerked alert, peering around her. She spotted the brown figure moving through the grass on the other side of the little plateau they were on. 

She raised a hand and caught the rest of the groups attention.  “Anyone want to chase down dinner?”  She pointed at the motion.

Nala pulled her crossbow out and slipped off her horse. “I’m on it. Meet you on the other side of the grass.”

Solari grabbed the reins from her horse and they moved on, while Nala slipped into the high cover and disappeared.

“Good catch, your Maj.”  Solari said.

“Not me.” The bard pointed at Dori.  “She figured out pretty fast if she pointed stuff out to me eventually it meant something good to eat for her. “

Bennu chuckled. 

“Your Majesty.” Cait took the opportunity to ride up next to Gabrielle as the path opened up a bit. “Can I ask you a question?”

Gabrielle eyed her. “Since when do you call me that?”

Cait blinked. “Well, you are that now, aren’t you?” She asked, slightly puzzled. “I mean, with Ephiny gone and all that.”

The bard looked at her, one brow raised.

“Okay, well, anyhow.” Cait cleared her throat.  “You know I thought there was something a bit odd about those other Amazons, and I just now got into my head what it was.”

“Uh huh.”  Gabrielle kept one ear on Cait, and the other focused on Dori, who was rambling something to herself involving buppits and rocks.

“Well it was just that..”

A loud whistle went up, alerting them.  Gabrielle stood in her stirrups and peered in the direction of the alarm, seeing waving grass where she’d seen the deer disappear.  “Okay, let’s go.”  She sat down and released her staff from it’s bindings.  “Bennu!”

The men wheeled their horses, and in a moment they were galloping through the grass, and Gabrielle was remembering all over again why sometimes Amazon leathers weren’t the greatest idea  in the world when you were riding a horse. “Ow..ow…ow…”

“Mama owie?”

“Mama’s an idiot sometimes.”  Gabrielle muttered, shaking her head to move the hair from her eyes. “Nala! Hang on!”

“Yah!” They heard Nala let out a yell, and then the clash of steel, and the men drew their weapons along with Solari as they let out a yell of their own, to let the Amazon know they were coming.

Gabrielle tightened her hold on her staff. “Dori, hang on to Argo, okay? Mama’s got to go boom.”

“Go boom?”  Dori had both hands clutching the mare’s mane. “Mama go boom?  Gogo! Go faster!”

“Just hold on, sweetheart.. hold on tight.”  The bard could see violent motion in the grass and she licked her lips, tying the reins to her saddlebow and letting go, relying on her powerful legs alone to hold her on Argo’s back as she swung her staff over the horses head and grabbed it in both hands.

Dori ducked, and clutched Argo’s neck, her eyes wide, her lower lip caught between her teeth as she recognized the danger around her. “Mama go boom. Go get Boo.”

**

Xena stretched her spine out as she walked along the road, it’s fringes steadily going wider and wider as she approached the port city ahead.

Iolaus ambled along behind her, slightly favoring his front left hoof that had shed it’s shoe some candlemark or so before.  The stallion seemed to be enjoying  his riderless stroll, and he was swinging his head from right to left, watching the scenery go by.

Xena wasn’t minding walking either.  It reminded her of the days she and Gabrielle had spent together on the road, after their friendship had grown to the point where the warrior felt uncomfortable riding while her companion walked.

Argo, naturally, had gotten the best of that deal.  Xena was pretty convinced her horse had started warming up to the bard after that happened, accepting her shyly offered treats with a cheerful horse smirk.

Xena chuckled under her breath, looking up to check the angle of the sun.  Another couple of candlmarks and she’d be entering the gates of the city, the area she and Io were traveling through already sprinkled with cots and crossroads where the road branched out to settled areas.

She was looking forward to getting there. She’d only seen a few people heading out in the opposite direction, and she was anticipating the bustle and buzz of the place and the possibility of finding her friends.

Might even be a little fun to walk the docksides, and see if she could find a little trouble, not too much, but enough to brush the dust off the memories of what it was like in the bad old days.   Have a couple mugs of the hard stuff, and get in a bar fight maybe.

Xena thought about that and started laughing, surprising Iolaus, who snorted.   The warrior dropped back and walked alongside him, putting her hand on his shoulder. “I think I’m definitely too old for that crap, Io.”

Instead of that, maybe she’d see if she could find something fun for Dori, and unusual for Gabrielle.  Port cities were good for that sort of thing, and if she was lucky she might even find some socks. 

Maybe a stirring spoon for her mother.

Io sidled over and bumped her.   “How about a new bridle for you, boy?”  Xena patted his shoulder. “Get all my friends a little something? That sound better than getting drunk and getting throw in jail for being an ass?”

Io shook his head, blowing his lips out and sending small spatters of saliva ahead of him.

“Thanks.”  Xena put her arm over his neck.  “Did I ever tell you how I met Gabrielle?” She asked the stallion.  “There I was, Io, just walking down the road heading for Amphipolis.  Felt like crap.  Got thrown out of my army, got my ass kicked, fell in lust with a demi god.. my life was going right to Hades.”

The stallion flicked his ears backwards towards her voice.

“Damn, I was tired.”  Xena paused a moment, remembering.  “Tired of myself mostly.”

She remembered the sultry heat of the day, and how she’d heard the screams for help, noise that bothered an already aching head.  

She remembered being pissed off.  Seeing Draco.  Wanting to hurt someone, lash out more than she really wanted to help the bedraggled looking village kids she paid only a brief, cursory attention to.

There had been a momentary pleasure, momentary satisfaction at the end of the fight but then a sudden motion had caught her eye and she’d turned her head and her gaze had been caught by one of the victims, staring at her in awe.

Just a kid. Just a barely out of adolescence girl, with long blond hair in shaggy disarray dressed in typical peasant garb.

Smudge of dirt on her cheek.

Those soulful eyes that captured her whole and never let her go.  

Xena remembered feeling her chest heave as her body belatedly remembered to breathe and then everything going dark as she got cold cocked from behind.

“Nearly got my ass killed, Io. What do you think of that?” Xena smiled, feeling a benign goodwill at the golden sunlight bathing her. “I had no idea what the Hades I was getting into, that’s for sure.”

Now she knew.  Now she could look back along that long crooked path and wonder how she could have been so blind for so long.  

“I should have known right then, Io.”  The warrior sighed. “I should have known even before that damn kid showed up in Amphipolis and got between me and those rocks.”

Abruptly she stopped walking, sensing something she couldn’t identify for a minute, then realized it was a wave of emotion coming from Gabrielle, the mixture of apprehension and energy she recognized as her partner in a fight.

“What in the Hades?” She looked at Io, who had stopped when she did, and was now peering back at her curiously.  “Who is she fighting with in the damn village?” A prickle of unease went up her spine. “Hope to Hades none of those old timers got any ideas about challenging her.”

Gabrielle could certainly defend herself, and Xena knew she was likely capable of answering her own challenges, but she also knew her own role as Queen’s champion and took it very seriously – which meant everyone else did too.

No Amazon even joked about that in her presence.

So. Just a training session?  Xena chewed on her lower lip, knowing her partner did also take those seriously and might be just getting into it with her staff.   She didn’t sense any real fear there, but then, she hadn’t sensed that from Gabrielle while fighting in quite a while.

Tension, yes.  Ferocity, always. But with that staff in her hands, being as good with it as she was, the bard was no longer afraid to face off against whatever she had to.

She would never know the joy in battle Xena did.   That just wasn’t in her.  But she’d come to accept a sense of personal satisfaction in her hard won skills that made her teacher proud and caused the bard to exude a raw confidence when she fought.

Sensing nothing other than that,  Xena relaxed a little, and continued walking, but she realized her breathing was a little fast, and she felt her hands twitching as her body responded to the far off agitation of her soulmate.

Sparring session?  Or was it something more serious?

As she kept walking, and the sensation didn’t diminish,  she felt her heart rate start to speed up, faint chills working their way down her spine.  It wasn’t a pleasant sensation.   Xena felt an urge to turn around, and start back that she only just stifled as being pointless.

No matter what Gabrielle was into, she was days from home.   What would rushing back there do, after the fact?

She stopped, and half turned, her body tensing as she poised in indecision, about to release Io’s bridle and grab her saddlebag before starting to run.

Then the energy eased back, and almost as if she could see and hear Gabrielle grounding her staff and catching her breath, her own heart started to settle. 

Okay, so probably a training match.  Xena exhaled in relief, and shook her head.  Probably her partner was working a few kinks out giving a class to some of her Amazon sisters, working up an appetite before ending the day.

That was their usual schedule, after all. They set aside time before dinner for sparring, up in the small open glade near the cabin as the sun started to paint the forest around them in shades of copper and gold. 

A candlemark, usually, going full out with each other with no pausing in a perfect synergy of intimate knowledge and confidence that raised a good sweat and worked off the stress of their lives.

Then a jump in the spring, and they’d join Dori for leisurely meal and relax after a usually long and active day.

As she felt the emotion ease further, she allowed herself to be relieved and made a mental note to tease Gabrielle about her battle lust when she got back.  She knew the bard could feel hers, and she suspected they were two very different sensations.

It would be fun to tell Gabrielle she had one of her own.  She could imagine the widening green eyes and it put a smile back on her face. “C’mon boy.” She picked up the pace a little, wanting the long dusty day to end.  “Let’s go see a man about a shoe.”

**

Gabrielle dove off Argo’s back as they cleared the last row of river grass and spotted Nala in a group of armored me, fighting furiously.  “Dori, stay!” She yelled, as she bolted towards the group and picked a target aware of the troops arriving at her back.

She didn’t wait for them, seeing the swords in fists raised above her Amazon sister.  She swung her staff at the nearest soldier and caught him in the head, the noise of the blow ringing out over the fight as it knocked his helmet right off and sent it rolling down the slight slope.

Bennu came past her and took on another soldier with his mace, as the man turned and faced this new attack. 

There were six men fighting Nala. Gabrielle had time to see the Amazon rolling out of their grip on the ground as they all realized they were being assaulted and then she had to focus on her own survival as one of them came at her with a drawn longsword.

About Xena’s height.  His face was hidden behind his helmet but he struck at her in a way that she recognized as a skilled swordsman – down and past her staff, then sideways as Xena sometimes did.

But she knew how to counter that.  She reversed the staffs position and went in the opposite direction instead of intercepting the blade, whacking him on the hand with the middle of her weapon with a short, hard push downward.

The tip of his blade smacked the ground and she jumped backwards as he tried to grab her with his other hand, swinging the end of her staff around and into his fingers instead. He let out  a yell and jerked his hand back, and Gabrielle stepped forward again, bringing the other end around to hit his sword arm again with all the strength she had and sent the weapon flying.

She could hear her heartbeat hammering in her ears as she focused on the battle, sliding her hands apart as the man gathered his wits and drew a mace from his belt, coming at her with grim intent. He made no effort to go after his sword, using the weapon he had at hand and that, too, was what Xena would have done.

So these were not common raiders.  Gabrielle watched her opponent carefully, looking for an opening.  She waited for him to come at her and commit himself, the mace heading for her ribs in a sideways swipe that took a great deal of strength. 

Hard to block.  So she didn’t. She got out of the way and let him come past her, turning as he did and watching his body language as he flipped the mace to his other hand and backswiped the weapon at her head.

She could see the muscles standing out against his skin, and the dark eyes watching her with no compassion as he moved toward her with sudden speed, taking away the advantage of her staff’s reach.

She ducked, and the mace went over her head, then she dropped the staff and grabbed his arm, catching him by surprise as she wrenched his hand behind him with her forward motion and pulled him out of balance.

His mace hand whipped around and tried to hit her, but she was well behind him now, and he was bending over from the pressure she was putting on his arm.

She slammed into him and they both went to the ground as he tried to yank his hand from her grip, and she used all her strength to twist it up and forward, shoving his face into the dirt as she let out a yell, ducking her own head as the battle swarmed over her.

He made a gargling noise into the dirt and twisted under her, as she got her knee up under the back of the arm she had a grip on, leaning forward until she felt his back arch in pain, fending off a struggling form with a shove of her shoulder.

“Here, little hawk.”  Bennu slammed his battle ax against the back of the man’s head, and shattered it, sending bone and blood across the ground.  “Good grip on ya.” He yelled.  “Get free!”

Gabrielle released the arm and rolled clear, ducking past a sword and under a chobo and spotting her staff nearby. She grabbed it and came up onto her feet, quickly looking around to see what the battle status was, and where Dori had ended up.

She saw Argo nearby with the rest of the horses, and Dori’s dark hair against the mare’s pale mane, and four of the six soldiers were on the ground, with the two remaining being overwhelmed by Bennu’s men and a visibly delighted Cait.

“Crap.”  Paladia was shaking one hand.

“You all right, Gabrielle?” Solari bounded over.  

“I’m fine.” The bard said, as the final soldier went down under Bennu’s sword. “What on earth are these guys though? Setting ambushes?”

“Not really, your majesty.” Nala limped over, cradling one hand. “I think they were after the same as I was, I shot the deer and surprised them.”

Gabrielle set her staff end down and exhaled. “So they decided to attack you?  For a deer?”

“Mama!” Dori yelled. “Come now?”

Gabrielle looked over and made the tongue clicking noise Xena had taught her, that brought Argo towards her at an amble. 

“Didn’t make sense to me.” Nala said. “But then .. I didn’t’ waste much time asking questions.  They were out for my hide and no amateurs.”

Bennu came over, wiping his sword.  “True enough.” He said. “These were reglars.”  He had  a deep cut across his arm, and the links in his armored shirt were half pierced through.  “Not the lot usually around here looking for trouble.”

“That was absolutely wonderful fun.” Cait was seating the last of her daggers back into their sheaths.  “And here I thought we’d have nothing but a bit of hunting to do.  Lovely.”

“Freak.” Paladia rolled her eyes.

“I saw you kicking that red haired one.” Cait said.   “Wasn’t expecting that, was he?”

“In the nuts? Nope, guess not.”  Paladia smirked.  “Moron had his legs spread like a donkey. He deserved it.”

Gabrielle took a quick stock of herself, then she reached up for Argo’s bridle as the mare arrived next to her, with Dori clutching her neck. “Good girl.” She patted Argo’s nose. “And you’re a good girl too, Dori. Thank you for listening to mama.”

“Mama go boom!”  Dori informed her seriously.  “Big boom!”

The bard patted her leg.  “Yeah, mama didn’t’ do too bad.”  She said. “But you did great, honey.  You kept Argo safe, and you know how important that is, right?  Keeping Argo safe for Boo?”

“Yes!”

Argo looked at her, then snorted and shook her head.

Gabrielle surveyed the battlefield. To one side lay the shot deer, and what she could see was a scattering of camping equipment she figured belonged to the soldiers. “Okay, let’s see what we can find out about them.”   She ordered.   “I don’t see any obvious markings, but they have to belong to someone.”

“Yeap.”  Bennu and the other men started searching, rolling the bodies over with nonchalant unconcern.   Solari joined them and Cait was already investigating their gear, cautiously opening a bag with the edge of her dagger.

“That was a nice move, your majesty.” Nala said. “Taking that big guy down like that. Never seen it before.”

Gabrielle could feel her heartbeat settling, and she leaned one arm against Argo, her other hand wrapped around her staff.  “Xena’s big on the unexpected.” She said. “Guys that big don’t’ expect someone my size to try and wrestle with them.”

“No. I wouldn’t have.” Nala said frankly.  “What I like most about Xena is that she fights smart, not just hard.  People could learn a lot from her.”

That got her a big smile from her queen.  “I’ve been telling people that for years.”

“Well, a lot of us had our heads up our asses.” Nala said. “Some still do, but I figured out during the war just how much she had to offer and decided to toss my ego long enough to learn it.” She examined the swelling in her hand.  “Wish I’d learned not to punch some guy in the helmet. Ow.”

“Go on back over to the river and put your hand in there while we clean up.” Gabrielle advised. “The cold will help.” She patted Nala on the shoulder. “Good job.”    She walked past the Amazon and joined the rest of the group around the fallen soldiers.

“All dead.” Solari commented. “Too bad, maybe we could have gotten some info from them.”

Gabrielle knelt next to the man she’d taken down. “Well, if Xe’d been here, maybe.” She said. “But these kind of guys – they usually don’t’ talk.”  She studied the armor on the man’s body, well made mail and hardened leather with metal studs that was cared for and in good condition.

Definitely soldiers.   There were no insignias stamped on the leather though, and even the helmets were generic in shape, not like the distinctive ones she remembered from the war.   She picked the man’s up from where it’s fallen, the beaten metal heavy in her hands.

Simple crosspiece over the eyes, and no flares at the neck to deflect a sword.    Gabrielle set the helmet down and studied the body sprawled face down and motionless.   His hair was cropped very short, and amidst the gore she could see pale skin exposed.

She pulled the mail shirt back a little, some still, silent part of her shivering over touching this dead man she’d so recently been fighting with.   “Bennu, look.”

The soldier knelt next to her and without hesitation moved the cracked skull forward to see better. “Ah.” He ran a finger along the line in the skin.   There was a distinct mark where the helmet had blocked the sun, but under it, about a fingerspan lower, was a second, almost faded line that contrasted with the pale skin under the armor.  “Good catch, little hawk.”

Gabrielle wasn’t really that fond of her nickname amongst the militia but she knew it for the honest compliment it was.  “So he wore a different helmet, and not that long ago.” She mused.  “Well, that’s not really unusual, is it?”

Bennu grunted.  “Maybe got rekitted when he joined up with whatever’s paying him now.”

“Nothing on them,  Gabrielle.” Solari came over.  “Just blank. No stamped coin, no script, no nothing.”

“Interesting.”  The bard rested her weight on her knee.  “Almost like they didn’t want anyone to know who they were fighting for.”

“They had this.”  Cait brought over a blanket. “But that’s it. Isn’t this an awful like the ones they were selling in town?”

Gabrielle reached up and took hold of the fabric, turning one edge over and looking at it.   It was more familiar to her than she’d expected, the colors and pattern striking an unexpected chord. “Not quite.” She said, after a long pause. “It’s a shepherd’s blanket. From Potadeia.”

“Huh.”  Bennu said. “These aint’ the ones who came through the other day.  Not the same ones, but the same kit.”

“Yeah.”  Gabrielle stood up and dusted her hands off.  “Not the same as the Spartans. But they definitely have been in the area.  The question is, why?”

“Maybe the’yre a part of that force heading through?”

“Why no markings though?”  Solari asked. “Those Athenians, they like everyone to know it.”

Gabrielle rubbed her thumb against the edge of her staff, and exhaled. “I should have guessed this wasn’t going to be as simple as it seemed.”  She said.  “Somewhere out there, Xena’s laughing at me.”

**

 Somewhere out there, Xena was standing next to a blacksmith’s shop, waiting for the smith to finish hammering out a new shoe for the patiently waiting Iolaus. 

“Nice horse.”  

“Thanks.”  Xena used the time to study the part of the city around her, which was filled with shops and the small cots of workmen.   It was busy, and the paths were full of people and wagons moving back and forth reminding her of what Amphipolis had been like before the flood.

There had been isolated moments when she hadn’t really minded that.  They had been few and far between, but there was something in her that could appreciate the bustle of a big city, if only for a short time.

“Heading over the water?” The smith asked, as he dipped the shoe into a bucket, letting of a hiss of steam.  “Lots are.”

“Looking for someone.”  Xena replied. “If they’re here, then no. If not, maybe.”

The smith nodded. He came over and turned his back to her, picking up Iolaus’ foot and setting it between his knees.  “Ships in tomorrow, we think.   Places is full of those wanting to take them.  If youre looking for a bed, might need to spend a bit of coin for it.”

A tiny twinkle entered Xena’s eyes. “So the decent priced rooms are gone?”


“Aye.”  The smith agreed.  “Fancy inn’s all that’s left I hear.  Up top of the hill, looks out over the water.”  He put four twisted iron nails in his mouth, and set to work fitting the shoe.

Having spent her share of time in the slums, Xena wasn’t overly disappointed to hear that.   She waited for the smith to finish, then she led Iolaus back out into the busy roadway, heading up the long slope of the road that rose up to the gates of the city.

Along the road there were rows and rows of cottages that spread out to either side around the curve of the walls that surrounded  the hill the city sat on.   Xena glanced around her as they started upward, feeling the slight strain against her thighs as they climbed.

The sun was down, and twilight was advancing.   The air around her was relatively still and the smells of the city were somewhat overwhelming.   As she climbed upward though,  there was a hint of a breeze and that became more than a hint as she reached the gates and the scent of the sea hit her.

Ah.   Xena gave the guards a brief nod as she passed through the gates and entered the city proper, the change from wood and mud construction to stone making an immediate visual difference.  It wasn’t the pristine white of Athens, but the buildings she now walked among had the look of permanence.

It was lit with oil lanterns already, the golden light reflecting off the walls and there was sound all around her of people and living, music and booted heels, the creak of wagons and the rhythmic pocking of horses at a stately walk.

Thera was the biggest trading city in the area, in truth, what Amphipolis had aspired to be, with it’s dredged barge landings and its ambitions. But this city sat on the edge of the Aegean, and the ships that docked at it’s long piers were from places her home town had never heard of.

She had.  Xena led Io past the busy taverns, the full stable yards confirming the smith’s statement to her.  The outdoor eating places were packed, filled with young men bearing packs, some not much different than the men in the wagon train she’d briefly traveled with.

That hadn’t worked out.  Two of the wagons had broken down not a candlemark after they started towards the city, and she’d rode on with out them, somewhat reluctantly leaving behind the conscripts they were herding.

Even the fact she’d ended up walking the last half of the day hadn’t let them catch her up, and she regretfully decided she’d find her business here and get on with it before she had a chance to get herself in trouble.

Ah well.  Xena watched the wagons around her peel off, and she went on into a set of steeper streets, with wider curbs and larger buildings.   The crowd was thinning out and the smell of salt was stronger here, and she glanced up at the street signs, spotting a directional one pointing her towards the Owl’s Goblet,  at the top of the hill.

Two men walked past her, dressed in the typical white togas of Athens, and she knew she caught their attention as they stopped speaking until she passed.    She kept going though, climbing at last up onto the wide, curved street at the top, lined with classic stone buildings facing the sea.

 She paused, for a minute, holding Io’s reins as she faced the water, letting the breeze coming off it whip her hair back and rinse away the stink of the lower city.  The thunder of the waves made her smile, and she glanced down at the piers, seeing them dark and empty.

So.

“C’mon Io.” She turned and started leading the stallion towards a set of stout barn doors set back into the street.    “Let’s go get comfortable.  Those ships not being here either means I’ve been lucky, or I’m in deep horse crap.”

Iolaus ambled along behind her, his golden coat glistening in the lamplight.   He stopped and waited as Xena paused before the doors, taking her dagger out and rapping on them with loud, sharp bangs.

It was silent inside, then she heard running feet. She took a step back and waited, hearing the rasp and scrape of metal against wood, then the door to the barn slowly opened, pushed by a young man with mud brown hair and a slight stature.

He stared at Xena for a moment, then he stepped back.  “You want something?”

Xena leaned one arm against the door. “Place for my horse.” She drawled.  “That’s what you do here, right?”

The boy studied her. “This place’s for them that’s staying there.” He pointed at the inn.

The warrior nodded. “That’s where I’m staying.”

“You are?”

Xena chuckled. “Kid, take the horse before I knock you senseless and do it myself.”

Still looking doubtful, the boy stepped back and extended his hand. “Bring im in I guess.”  He backed away as Xena moved forward, leading Iolaus into the inside of the barn.

It was big, and very well kept.  Xena ignored the skeptical stable boy and looked approvingly around at the neatly made stalls, and the swept floor.  The smell inside was mostly of hay and horses, and very little of manure and she was content to turn the reins over as they approached one of the empty spaces.

“You pays them in the inn.”  The boy told her. “Tack cleanin’s extra.”

“Clean it.”  Xena gave Io a pat on the rump. “Have fun, boy. Enjoy it.” She spotted a set of steps. “That go inside?”

“Courtyard, yeah.” The stable boy nodded, then dismissed her, as he started to work on removing Iolaus’ saddle.

Xena unlatched her bags and put them over her shoulder, then she climbed up the steps and pushed the door open to find a small hallway and another set of steps leading up.

Those stopped at another door, and when she pushed that open she found a small inner courtyard  with a alabaster fountain in it, surrounded by patrons in white robes, sipping from goblets.  They looked at her when she emerged, the looks turning into stares as she knocked the dust off her boots before she strolled casually through them.

The chatter dropped off, and the sound of her footsteps rang suddenly loud in the courtyard.  Xena ignored it all, and went up yet another set of steps on the far side of the open space, nearly colliding with a hurrying figure heading in the opposite direction.

“Oh, ah.oh.”  The man hastily stopped and stepped back. “Oh.”

Xena looked at him. “You own this place?” She asked.

The man looked around, then back up at her. “Why do you want to know?” He countered.  “We don’t want any trouble here.  If you’re looking for someone, I don’t record any names of those people staying here.”

Xena waited for him to stop talking.  “I want a room.”

The innkeeper blinked. “ You do?” He asked. “Are you sure?  There’s some lovely places down the hill from here, much more your type.”

That earned him a smile for his honesty.  “I’m sure.” Xena told him. ‘Relax. I can pay.”

“To be sure.” The man said. “I can see by your weapons you surely are no common soldier, but why would you want to? The rest of thee patrons here are all patricians.  Do you wish to be stared at?”

“Sometimes.”  Xena allowed herself to be charmed by the man. “Suppose you give me a room, and let me worry about providing entertainment.”

The man shrugged and gestured behind him. “Come then. I was just going to see what raised the alarm in my stables. I suspect I have found it.”

“You have.”

Xena followed him further into the building, finding herself in a maze of meandering passages with odd turns and doorways leading off into the shadows.  There were oil lamps in iron brackets on the walls, and the floors she was walking over were well fitted stone tiles.

It smelled of roasting lamb inside, and spiced wine, and she was reminded of times she’d spent with her army in the coastal capital cities a little further down the coast.    “Busy, huh?”

“Very.” The innkeeper led her to a door, and opened it with a set of keys jingling on his belt.  “I’ll be glad when the ships come in.  There’s not enough for some to do here, if you catch my drift.”

Xena did. 

“Does this suit you?” The man indicated the room.  “The cooks will be serving dinner shortly. I  could have them bring it here if you want.” He rubbed his hands together, cocking his somewhat birdlike head at her.

Xena stepped inside and glanced around. The room was large, and well aired,  a large window in one wall thrown open that faced the sea.  There was a bath in one corner and a bed that looked soft, and was canopied, and the whole place smelled like fresh linen and oiled wood. “That’ll be fine.” She said. “I’ll find the dining room. “

“Your choice.” The innkeeper said. “But I’ll just warn you, there are some there already half drunk, and they’re not shy about making rude comments.”

Xena leaned against the doorframe. “I’m not shy about cutting people’s tongues out.” She said. “Might want to pass the word around.”

“Perhaps you will pay me now then?” The man shot right back. “In case you leave in haste.”

The warrior started laughing., the sound echoing off the stone walls. 

“So rare.”  The man leaned back, folding his hands over his stomach. “To find someone with a sense of humor in these hard and frightening times.”

Xena tossed her bag inside and then opened her belt pouch, removing some coins and extending her hand out to him.  “There.” She said. “I’ll try not to break anything on my way out the window.”

He took the coins without hesitation. “Pleasure doing business with you.” He said. “The dining chamber’s down the hall, and last door on the left.  Some of the rest, as you have seen, are in the solar having some wine. You’re free to join them.”

“Thanks.”

“Good day.” The man turned and disappeared down the hall, without further comment or question.  

Xena chuckled and shook her head, and then she went in her room and shut the door behind her. She crossed to the window and rested her hands on the sill, enjoying the brisk sea breeze and the rush of the waves that penetrated the room.

It was a nice view, and it reminded her a little of the old days, when she was roaming the coast, before she took a hand picked crew of her men to sea and became a pirate for a while.  Xena smiled at the memory, and then pictured a more recent one, when she and Gabrielle had traveled along the sea on the way home from Athens.

That had been nice.  Dori had love the ocean, and they’d all enjoyed the long days of bright sun and fresh air.   After a moment, Xena sighed. “We gotta get out of Amphipolis.” She mused.  “Get back out in the world.”

 She turned and went over to her bags, picking them pu and tossing them on the bed. She went to the tub and opened the stopper, watching the water rush out and into the carved stone, a quick dip of her hand confirming that it was pleasantly warm to the touch.

Ah.   Xena shed her armor and leathers and grabbed the soap from her pack, then she lowered herself into the tub with a heartfelt sigh of pleasure.  

The basin was long enough for her to stretch her legs out and she did, letting her arms rest on the edge as the water filled up and covered her body.   The warmth felt good, despite the heat of the day, and she leaned her head back, taking in a breath of the salt tinged air.

Tomorrow she’d scour the city looking for Amazons, she decided.  Now that she knew the ships weren’t in, she also knew she had time to search and where the most likely places to look  were.  With any luck at all, she’d find them by lunch time, and the following morning she could start off back home.

She took out the soap and started washing the trail dust off,  humming a little under her breath as she worked.  A quick wash of her hair, and she was rising out of the tub, the breeze coming in the window getting a start on drying her skin.

It felt good, and refreshing after the long day in the sun.  She stretched, feeling a tightness in her skin and a tingle that meant she’d gotten a little toasted on the journey and she made a mental note to shop for some aloe before she left the city.

The sound of the waves brushed against her ears, and she shook her head to get some of the water out of her hair, running her fingers through the dark locks to sort out the tangles and rake them into some order.

At least she’d gotten Gabrielle to give her a trim.

Xena took a piece of linen out and completed the process, then opened the flap on her bags and considered her options.    She riffled her fingers through the contents, and then she pulled out a neatly folded packet she’d shoved in there last minute, with some idea she might have to blend in somewhere.

Simple, Athenian style robes, last worn in the capitol and saved in jest by Gabrielle before their hasty leaving.   Xena shook them out and slipped into them, fastening the golden link belt and then glancing at the mirror to judge the result.

Not bad. She brushed her hair out, and then she added the silver ear cuffs Gabrielle had gotten her a lifetime ago and sat down to put on her sandals.    Aside from finding the Amazons and bringing Eph home, her natural curiosity was urging her to find out if any of the bored patricians in the courtyard knew what was going on in the capital.

She didn’t want any part of the war, but she wanted to know who did, in case it ended up causing her problems.  Xena stood up and adjusted the crystal necklace she was wearing and twitched the robes a little more to her liking. 

Then she gave her reflection a wink and went to the door, slipping through it and pausing, then ducking back inside to take the key from the ring on the wall.   She went outside and closed the door, locking the lock and slipping the key into her belt pouch along with her dinars.

She studied the hall for a moment, then she headed down to the door the man had indicated, hearing the soft sound of voices, and a harp inside.  She paused outside and took a breath, then she worked the latch on the door and pushed it open, entering the dining chamber.

Unlike the reaction in the courtyard, there was more interest than outrage as she sauntered across the big chamber and claimed a seat on a couch against the far wall.   She extended her long legs and crossed them at the ankles, as two servers hurried over, bearing laden trays.

The rest of the room was filled with men and women in fine silk robes, seated on low lounges as she was, most holding goblets and plucking fruit off platters.   Most of them were roughly the same age as Xena was, though a few of the men were older.

One of them had four women around him, and he was watching her with definite interest.  He had a faintly familiar to her face, and a lean, soldiers body, and the ladies were solicitously plying him with food and drink as though they were body servants.

Maybe they were.  Xena spared him a glance, then moved her attention elsewhere, exchanging glances with two women seated together across from her and a young man with the air of a noble.  Did any of them know her?

Probably not. The warrior smiled inwardly.  At least, none of them might until they heard her name.  It had been a long time since she’d been to Thera, but she suspected her reputation might still be whispered about back in the alleyways and along the docks.

There were some here that might remember the Destroyer of Nations, along with those who more likely knew her later incarnations. 

Xena let the inner smile appear.  She accepted a goblet from the server, and took a handful of grapes then settled back to wait and see who was going to nibble at her bait first.

**

It was almost dark by the time they reached the caverns.  The sun had already disappeared behind the mountain and the rich purple twilight had turned their surroundings into muted shades of gray.  Gabrielle had one arm tucked around Dori, glad her daughter was being quiet for a change.

They hadn’t seen a single other person since their altercation a few candlemarks before. The track had been empty, and they’d made pretty good time across the wide plains until they started up the slope that led to the cavern entrance.

Gabrielle could see the openings from where she was, relieved that they seemed as bereft and empty as the track had been. “Solari…”

“I’ll go check it out.” Solari correctly interpreted the start of the request. “C”mon Ben.”

Bennu chuckled and followed her as she rode towards the caverns and the rest of the group slowed to a halt.  

“How’s the hand, Nala?” Gabrielle asked.

“Better.”  The grizzled Amazon relaxed in her saddle.  “Looks deserted around here.”

“It does.” The bard agreed.  “But you never can tell.  I can remember my share of strolling into what I thought were deserted caves only to find a bear inside them.”

“Really?”  Cait asked. “Don’t they smell awfully?”

“They do.”  Gabrielle agreed. “But if the wind’s blowing into the cave, and it’s raining, you miss that sometimes.   Xena ended up in boxing match with one the last time we were out.”

“She win?” Nala asked.

“That’s where the rug in my quarters came from.” The bard answered, with grin. Then she glanced around, “We should pick up some dry wood for the fire.  Probably isn’t much up near those rocks.” 

Two of Bennu’s men and both Cait and Paladia got down off their horses, and moved into the trees, breaking off dry limbs as they walked.  Gabrielle stayed where she was, content to at least act the queen for the moment.

“Mama, hungry.” Dori announced, tipping her head back and looking up at her mother.  “You got cookies?”

Gabrielle dug in her saddlebag. “I have some of Boo’s cookies.” She pulled out one of their trail bars and broke it in half. “Want to share it with me?” She gave half to Dori, who clutched it with both hands and started chewing it industriously.  “Guess that’s a yes.”

She stretched her legs out and then let her body relax, wishing she was well off Argo’s back and knowing she’d pay for the long day’s riding.   Already she could feel the knots forming in her lower back, and  Xena wasn’t around to fix them.

Solari and Bennu emerged from the caves, and the Amazon let out  whistle, waving them over.   With a  sigh of relief, Gabrielle patted Argo on the shoulder and tightened her knees. “Let’s go Argo. You’re almost rid of us for the day.

They rode over to the edge of the rocks and dismounted.  Gabrielle eased her legs straight and lifted Dori down, then she studied the steep climb ahead of her.

“Gabrielle.” One of Bennu’s men came over to her. “May I take care of your horse for you? I know you have your hands full with the little one.”

Gabrielle hesitated, aware of the Amazon eyes on her.  She untied her staff from it’s hangers, using that to give her a minute to think about what to answer. 

“We’re putting up a lean to.” The man pointed. “And posting guard there, figured we’d leave the tack and not have to haul it up.  We’ll take yours too.” He looked over at the rest of the Amazons.

“Oh gosh, that’s lovely of you.”  Cait said.

“I’ll help.” Nala said. “That’s a good idea.”

The soldier turned and looked at Gabrielle, lifting his brow a little in question.

“Sure.” The bard gave in and handed over Argo’s reins. “Thanks, I appreciate it.” She unclasped her saddlebags and tossed them over her shoulder, then ducked past Argo’s neck, giving  the mare an affectionate pat as she passed.  “C’mon Dor.”

Dori fit her hand in Gabrielles as she joined Cait and Paladia and they started up the rocks towards the cavern, where Solari and Bennu were waiting.   Solari had a pack on her back that had the venison in it, and  the bard sorted out her mind whether or not she’d brought the right kind of spices for it.

“Mama, dere’s an owl.” Dori pointed. “Hoo! Hoo!”

“I see him, honey.” Gabrielle watched the bird turn it’s head to follow them. “He’s pretty, isn’t he?”

 “Hoo!”

They made it up onto the ledge. “All clear?” Gabrielle asked.

“Dry as dust and empty.” Solari said.  “We’ll have to haul water up, but it’s safe up here.”

“Okay,  lets get some torches lit first.” Gabrielle said.  “Then get a fire on so we can get ourselves some dinner.”

“Yum.”  Dori released her mother’s hand and went over to the edge of the cavern, peering inside. “Mama it’s dark in there.”

There was the sharp sound of a flint and striker, and a moment later the twilight faded back as Solari lit the torch she’d been carrying. It shed the scent of wood and pitch and she ducked inside the cavern as Gabrielle followed her.

It was a large cave, with smudges of soot along the walls and ceiling that showed it had been used for shelter by many others before them.  Against one wall was a circle of stone, with blackened remnants of a previous fire.

The Amazons brought in the firewood, and laid it down to make a fire, and as it was lit, Gabrielle slowly examined the interior of their shelter.

She’d been in worse.  She could remember nights spent in scant overhangs, when only her cloak and Xena’s warm body had stood between the cold and rain and her.   This was better than that, a large, wide mouthed cave that let in light from the stars outside and the rising moon, overlooking the trail heading to the river plateau below.

If it was her and Xena,  she would have laid their dual bedrolls just to the left of the fire, with their backs to the wall, and Xena would have taken the spot closer to the entrance.   No argument there.  But now, Xena wasn’t there and she had Dori to think of.

“Mama, look.” Dori had climbed up onto a small rock shelf and was patting the wall. “Shiny.”

Gabrielle went over and held the torch up, seeing the faint crystals in the rock walls. “Sure is,” She wet her finger, touched the rock then touched her tongue. “Oh my gosh, you know what this is, Dor? This is salt.”

“Really?” Solari came over and scratched a bit of the crystal, then put her finger into her mouth. “Hey it is.”

“Good.”  Gabrielle set her bags down on the little shelf.  “I picked up some stuff during our stops today so let’s get everything out and we’ll see what we can have for dinner.”  She sat down on the shelf and opened the bags, rummaging inside.

“We’re going to fill the waterskins.” Cait came over. “Do you want me to fill yours?

Gabrielle felt the urge to do it herself, and she had to exhaled and stifle that, surprised when it took more effort than she’d expected. 

Close to cycling maybe? “Sure, thanks Cait.” She gave the young Amazon  a smile, as she picked up the worn skin and slipped out the entrance to the cave with it.  “Dori you can look around, but don’t go far away, okay?”

“Okay.” Dori got up from where she’d been kicking her heels and ambled off to explore the inside of the cave.   “Boo Boo Boo…”

“Boy, if she finds that in here I’m throwing a party.”  Gabrielle muttered under her breath.  She glanced up as she heard the crackle of the fire, and then she looked around, picking spot just to the side of the shelf, in a curve of the wall to spread out her bedroll.

Wouldn’t be comfortable.   Gabrielle now wished in retrospect she’d brought Dori’s little folding bed with her, since her daughter hadn’t quite learned to turn off the discomfort of sleeping on the ground with any sort of success.

When she’d first started traveling with Xena, she’d just been too exhausted at the end of the day to really care where she was sleeping. Even the hardest ground, and pinecones under her wouldn’t have kept her from collapsing but as she grew up, and grew more used to traveling, she also became aware of how damned uncomfortable it all was.

She remember sleeping in a bed with Xena for the first time, and how blissfully comfortable and gut churningly uncomfortable at the same time that had been.  The memory made her smile.

“Gabrielle?”

With a jerk, she glanced up, abashed to realize she’d drifted right off into a daydream.  “Sorry. “ She cleared her throat, giving Solari an apologetic look. 

“No problem.”  Solari opened her pack, releasing the scent of raw meat into the cavern.  “So, like, what do we do with this?  I’ll be the first to tell ya, I ain’t one of those people who wants to learn to cook from you.”

Gabrielle removed her frying pan from her gear and stood up. “C”mon.” She pointed to the fire.  “Let’s get this party started.”   She followed Solari over and the crowd around the fire made room for her, as she slid her frying pan into a comfortable position over two of the stones, and set her spice bag down.

In her peripheral vision, she saw Nala and the two soldiers come in, talking in undertones and chuckling.  “Horses settle down?”

“Yeah, they’re fine.” Nala said. “Guard’s staying down there, but they’re all pretty hardy beasts.”

“True.” Gabrielle drew her cleaning knife out of her pack.  “But Argo’s pretty special to me since she’s Xena’s horse. “

“Boo!”  Dori came galloping over. “Mama can I go sleep with Gogo?”

“No honey, I’m afraid you’re stuck with me.”  Gabrielle cut the venison into slices and dusted it with herbs from her kit.   She cut off a bit of the fat and dropped it into the pan, throwing in a handful of berries along with it and waiting for the fat to melt and start to sizzle before she laid the steaks on the hot metal.

The scent of the spices and the meat filled the cavern, and Gabrielle studied her handiwork for a moment, before she settled back to watch the steaks cook..   She put her arm around Dori and exhaled.

“That smells great.”  Nala said.  

“Sure does.”  Bennu agreed. 

 “Once we finish this off, we can smoke some of the rest of that meat for the ride tomorrow.”  Gabrielle said.  “We probably won’t get as lucky as we did today.”

Slowly, the Amazons and soldiers settled down in a circle around the fire, as the  last of the light faded outside. 

“Wish we knew who them fellers were.” Bennu said.  “Bothering me.”

“Seemed pretty weird, them being there without any scrip or anything on them.”  Solari agreed.  “You think they were spies?  Maybe from the Spartans like those other guys?”

“Coulda been.” Nala said.

“No.”  Gabrielle turned the steaks.  “I don’t think they were Spartans.”  She was aware of her voice echoing in the silence as everyone looked at her. “They had the wrong shaped heads.  Spartan heads are really blocky, kind of square.  And these guys weren’t that great at fighting. Spartans are.”

The rest of the group digested this for a few minutes.

“You’ve seen other Spartans, your majesty?”  Nala asked, after a somewhat awkward silence.

“I have.”  Gabrielle was unruffled.  “And Xena has. She told me about them. But the man she defeated in the Games, in the pit was a Spartan. “

“Their champion.”  Solari said. “The big guy Pony told us about. She said he was good.”

“He was.”  Gabrielle turned the steaks again. 

“Not good enough to win though.”  Bennu said. “Not against Xena.”

No.  Gabrielle started parceling out the venison to the waiting wooden travel plates.  Not good enough to win against Xena, even though  his winning would have squashed the war they were now so worried about.

Ares trap, which they’d walked right into.  Which Xena could have circumvented, and possibly, probably saved many lives not the least of which was the Spartan slave who’d been promised his freedom if he’d beaten her.

That day when the greater good had lost.  “He really didn’t have a chance.”  Gabrielle managed a smile, as she cut up a portion for Dori, who was impatiently wiggling on the ground next to her.  “But he was a real Spartan, not like those guys today.”

She handed Dori her plate, and put a handful of berries on it next to the meat along with a few nuts. Then she offered her scrounging to the rest of the group and settled back with her own serving.  She had her waterskin back, the surface damp and chill with the fresh water inside.

The low hum of conversation rose around her, and she nibbled her steak absently, her thoughts drifting almost irresistibly to her partner; wondering what she was doing, and whether her trip was going well.

Missing her.

Maybe because they’d spent so many evenings just like this.   Around a fire, after a long day traveling, a little sore, they’d have a leisurely dinner together then relax under the stars simply enjoying each other’s company.

“Mama?” 

Gabrielle looked up from her plate and over at her daughter.  “Mm?” 

“You make this for Boo? Boo likes this.”

Yes, Boo did.  “Sure, when Boo comes back, I’ll absolutely make this for her.”  Gabrielle said. “Go on and finish, Dori, before it gets cold.”

Dori went back to her plate, and Gabrielle leaned back against the wall, releasing some of the stress from between her shoulder blades.   She thought about the men they’d fought earlier, who certainly had spent their own nights around the same kind of campfire.

Where had they been going?  Were they spies?  For Sparta, or Athens or someone else?  Maybe they were even roaming the area, having heard about the supposed riches in Amphipolis.

So strange, not to have any thing on them that identified them.  Even their weapons had been painfully common.

What would Xena think about it?  Gabrielle wished she could ask her soulmate.  She was sure if Xena had been there, seen what they had seen, she would have known exactly what the men were up to, and what to do about it.

That was just how Xena was. Her mind took all the details everyone else saw and fit them neatly together like one of her puzzles and that was something the warrior hadn’t ever quite taught Gabrielle to do.

Gabrielle exhaled silently.   She wished Xena were here.  She knew everyone was looking to her to know what to do, and as they got deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the situation she wasn’t at all sure she was up to that.

“Gabrielle?”

However, she suspected someone was going to ask her for something she was up for.  “Yes?”

Bennu licked the edge of his knife. “Woudlja tell us one of Xena’s tales?”

“Mama, cow!” Dori said instantly, drawing Gabrielle’s mind right off her absent partner.  “Pweeze?”

“Honey, let’s save that for when we get home.”  Gabrielle took a sip of water. “You know Boo likes us to tell that when we’re together, right?”

Dori scowled.

“How about if I tell the one where me and Xena found the Lost Mariner. You like that one, don’t you?”

“Fishes!”

The group chuckled a little. “I like that one too.”  Gabrielle said, pausing to swallow a mouthful of venison, as she composed herself to start the story, ordering the parts of it in her mind, shifting some, discarding a few.

Savoring all over again that moment when Xena had jumped on board,  and the sweetness of that hug.  “I’d heard about the legend of Cecrops the Lost Mariner since I was a little girl.” The bard began.  “About how he was cursed, and how he had to travel the seas forever and ever, never going home again.”

“Stories, I thought.”  Nala said.

“Me too.” Gabrielle agreed. “Until one day I was in s shipwreck, and ended up being pulled onboard his boat and into his legend one dark night.”

“Oh wow.” The older Amazon said. “Didn’t see that coming.”

“Neither did I.”   Gabrielle finished her dinner and settled back, putting her arm around Dori.  “So it was dark, and it was stormy, and the ship Xena and I were on broke apart on the rocks in the storm and we were tossed into the ocean and lost each other.”

“Boo gets mama, all the time”  Dori wiggled her booted feet. “Go Boo!”

“Hey, who’s telling the story here, you or me?”

**

Continued in Part 10