Tempting Fates

Part 2

Xena finished giving the two horses scritches and then she made for the gate, pausing as she heard thunder off in the distance at the edge of her hearing.   She frowned, and turned, studying the corral thoughtfully as Tanto followed her, nosing her in the back looking for more treats.

“No time for that, kiddo.” She said absently. “Gotta see if there’s anything here I can.. ah.”  She walked purposefully across the grass towards the rear of the enclosure, passing close to the two large draft horses who lifted their heads to observe her.

There was a large, long limbed tree at the back, and she leaped up lightly to grab hold of the lowest of the branches, pulling against them experimentally.  They were still full of sap and springy, and she started to work on them, pulling her knife from it’s sheath and cutting and trimming them as she wove the boughs into a crude lattice.

“Won’t be great.” She went to the other side of the tree and hacked loose smaller branches closer to the ground, bringing them back and interlacing them into the others, working until the space held enough density of foliage to provide some shelter to stand under. “There, now..” She paused as Tanto breathed into her ear. “Okay, are you smart enough to get out of the rain here?”

One of the draft horses, who had been watching her came plodding over, stopping short of the shelter and dropping his head to continue cropping the grass.   The rough coated ponies had roamed over, and one stepped nimbly past her and went to the bole of the tree, putting his back to it and looking at her, with a shake of his head.

“Best I can do.” Xena concluded. “Good luck, ya punks.”   She gave Tanto a pat and went past the draft horse, reaching out absently to stroke his shoulder in reflex as she went by.  

The animal jerked its head up and started, moving away and lifting a hind hoof at her and Xena stopped and turned, regarding the horse with bemused surprise.  “What’s that for?” She put her hands on her hips. “I didn’t hurt ya.”

The second draft horse was standing with its head up, ears back, his nostrils flaring at her. 

Curious, Xena moved slowly towards him, finding in her belt pouch a last few slices of carrot and getting one into her fingers as she approached. “What’s up with you?”  She asked, in a calm voice, ignoring the threatening signals from the animal. “Somebody beat you up? Ya have a bad trainer?”

She looked over his coat, searching for lines or scars to account for the attitude, as the horse lifted up onto his hind legs, pawing the air over her head.   She came to a stop almost underneath him, and waited, ignoring the hooves moving and the clods of light mud showering her.

The horse finally came down onto all four feet, his nose within inches of Xena’s face as she stood there quietly just breathing, waiting to see what he was going to do.

Would he bite her? That would be embarrassing to have to explain to Gabrielle.  Xena could almost hear the exasperation in her voice asking her why she’d gotten so close.  For a long minute she just stared at the horse, and he just stared at her, then she saw motion over his head and one ear flicked forward.  “There ya go.”

She slowly extended her hand with the carrot slice in it and held it steady, her palm flat but relaxed, her other hand easily resting on her thigh.

But after a pause, the horse suddenly wheeled and cantered off across the ground, and the second followed, not without a sideways look as he passed.

Xena didn’t chase them. “Huh.”  She turned and extended her hand out to Tanto, who stepped without hesitation over to her and took the treat and munched it. “Tell those guys to chill out, Tanto.” She scrubbed his forehead. “I’ll get em tomorrow.”

With a last pat she went to the far wall of the corral and leaped over it, landing between two of the trees and making her way through the gloom back towards the fire.


There were two visitors still at the campfire when Xena made her way through the trees back to their site.  Different visitors, she noted, not the kids that were creeping around the fringes before, these were older warriors, with rank markings and feathers and all the rest of the Amazon regalia fruffing around them.

The body language was relaxed though, so she paused just shy of the firelight and stood quietly, ears cocked to listen to the low conversation knowing that Gabrielle had a much higher chance of getting juicy details out of the strangers than if she came up and joined them.

After a few minutes of listening to bits of gossip and stories about some big fight between tribes at some market she turned and made her way back into the forest, removing a knife from its sheath and holding it clasped lightly int her fingers as she moved quietly forward doing a little hunting.

Rabbits were her current target, though she had heard the soft distinct whirring of some large bird in the vicinity moving overhead possibly large enough to be worth the plucking. The air moving through the branches was taking on the heaviness of humidity and she could smell the change, the expected weather moving in.

She felt the muscles around her knees relax and her steps became silent, any stirring of the leaves underfoot covered by the rising wind.  In the distance, she heard the soft thump of impact against the ground as animals moved off the open plain to the trees for shelter, knowing the oncoming storm as well as she did.

She paused and lifted her head, gently sampling the breeze that was coming directly through the branches to her, opposite from the campsite, catching the faintly musty scent of the large bird she’d heard before, just off to her left hand side, roosting in the branches.

Xena moved her eyes in that direction, sorting through the shadows until she spotted the creature, head sunk down into its shoulders, feathers fluffed.   It was quite large, and round, and Xena studied it for a long moment, trying to determine what kind of bird it was.

A grain eating bird, or a worm eating bird?

Xena moved silently sideways towards the tree it was sitting in.   In the distance, she could hear the sounds of the horses moving around, the casual thump of shod hooves against earth, unhurried and relaxed.  Cautiously she knelt down next to the trunk of the tree and ran her fingers over the earth, searching for… ah.

Gooey wet.  She brought her fingers to her nose and sniffed warily, then she smiled and wiped her hand off on the leaves,  standing up and whipping her right hand from her side in a flickering motion that ended with the knife leaving her fingers and striking the bird in the throat, causing it to reel back off the branch with a flutter of feathers and a strangled gargling sound.

She caught it as it dropped, already dead, and retrieved the small knife from the body of the bird, feeling the weight of it with a sense of mild surprise, but her touch confirming the excellent condition of the creature and it’s future potential for a meal.

Gabrielle was wary of birds in that regard, as most of the ones they encountered were scavengers and tough, gamy animals but this one smelled clean, and had a thick plumage with stiff quills that would provide a nice supply of writing implements so Xena concluded it was a win win situation and proceeded back towards the fire.

This time she didn’t hesitate, she strode casually out of the trees and across the open space they had built their camp in, the tarp already fluttering a little in the rising storm winds. 

The two visitors looked sharply up, but Gabrielle didn’t stir, having felt her approach.  She just smiled as Xena arrived at her side, and peered at her, spotting the bird tucked under her arm. “Was that bothering the horses?”

“No.” Xena sat down next to her gracefully and set the carcass down. “Some kids wanted to see them. I found this on the way back.” She indicated the bird.  “You’re almost out of quills.” She started plucking the fowl, laying the long, stiff feathers aside.

Gabrielle draped her arm over Xena’s knee. “Thank you, hon.” She said. “That’s a pretty big bird. I can make a soup out of it.”

“Hoped you’d say that.”

The two visitors looked a touch embarrassed and they were eyeing Xena in imperfectly hidden alarmed fascination.   Gabrielle found it a little funny.  She reached over and filled Xena’s cup, setting it down by her knee before she looked up at the two women.

“Xena, this is Peleta, weapons master, and Des, historian of their tribe, from the coast.” She made introductions. “This is Xena, my partner and consort.”  She concluded, her lips twitching into faint grin as the two stared furtively at the busily plucking figure.

Xena looked up from her task, producing a brief smile of her own. “Hi.” She greeted them, gazing from one to the other. “You from the nomad tribe?”

Peleta nodded. “You talked to some of our kids I guess.” She ventured. “They went over by the horse pen.”

“Yeah.” Xena agreed. “Some of the youngers, and a couple of just interested olders.”  She continued plucking the bird, the feathers coming loose in her strong fingers. “I like people who like horses.” She added in a casual tone. “Some of my favorite animals.”

“Those are nice ones.” Peleta grinned wryly, relaxing a little. “You gonna take em to market? They’d pay good coin by Toryne for them, for sure.” She glanced up at Gabrielle. “After the meetup, I mean.”

Des nodded in agreement. “Always looking for good looking stock.” She added.  “They trade across the Ionian sea sometimes.”

“No, they’re not for sale.” Gabrielle answered with a smile. “Xena’s going to train them to do bookkeeping.”

Sharp blue eyes darted her way. “Can you not get that started, Gabrielle? I don’t want people showing up at mom’s door looking for ponies with an abacus.”

Gabrielle laughed easily.  “We have a pretty sizable herd of horses that we’re raising, most Xena sells stallion covers for anyone in our part of the world whose interested.” She explained. “We don’t have a lot of plowlands up in the hills.” She picked up one of the feathers and examined it, turning it in her fingers. “These are pretty.”

“That’s a colchi.”  Des spoke up briefly.  “They raise them over on the coast. Probably escaped from someone there.”  She continued. “Raise em for table, in Toryne.  All the patricians have em.” She glanced over into the trees with renewed interest. “We should go look tomorrow and see if there’s more of them in there.”

A soft rumble of thunder sounded in the distance.

Rain’ll make for good hunting of them.” Peleta noted. “They’ll be looking for shelter. Not really hardy birds.”

“It was an easy catch.” Xena agreed.

Both women got to their feet. “We better go help get the shelters up. Thanks for the drink, your Majesty.” Peleta said. “Nice to meet you.” She added, giving Xena a sideways look.  “Maybe we can talk about the horses tomorrow?”

“Sure.” Xena replied cordially.  “See ya.”

The two Amazons walked quickly away, tugging their cloaks around them as the winds started to whip through the encampment.

“Does this all sound a little weird, Xena?” Gabrielle asked as soon as they were out of earshot. “What the hecks’ being going on out here?”

Xena spread her hands out, feathers in both, in an elaborate shrug.  “Amazons.” She commented briefly. “That tribe they’re in packs up and moves around, they don’t’ have permanent lands.”

Gabrielle nodded. “Yeah I know, they told me.  A lot of people moved to the coast during the wars, and then there was a big blowup between the western tribes, and the ones who.. “ She paused in consideration of that fractious time.

“Ran.” Xena supplied blandly. “Or pandered to anyone willing to buy them.” She glanced at Gabrielle as she worked the feathers off the bird’s tail. “Didn’t get many points in my book, most of them.”

“Yeah, that wasn’t the Amazons finest hour.” Gabrielle said. “Anyway, some of them tried to settle in this area, but there were already tribes here, and they didn’t want to share.”



Xena finished her plucking of the larger feathers and stripped out the down, stuffing it into her belt pouch for later use. “Eh, I don’t blame them. If they came over by us I’da done the same thing.” She admitted. “Seems like this bunch got pushed out anyway.”

“Seems like it.” Gabrielle got up and went to the edge of the tarp, untying the flap of it, and letting it roll down as the wind started to gust. “Is this going to cover the fire?”

Xena looked up at her through her bangs.

Of course it is.” Gabrielle chuckled, kneeling to pin the edge of the tarp in place, banging the slim bone spikes into the ground with a rock.  She got up and went to the other side and repeated the activity, giving them a three-sided structure with the hammock at the very back and the fire at the front carefully contained by stones.  “Let me get water in this pot and we can enjoy some colchi bird soup in the morning.”

“Yum.” Xena finished her work and examined the carcass, pulling a small pair of armoring tweezers from her belt kit and removing some of the tiny pinfeathers.  The bird, even stripped was a decent size and well fleshed, and she looked at it in approval, satisfied with her impromptu hunt.

They had stores for breakfast, but given the rain that was coming, and the chill wind it would be nice to have something hot all ready as they sat in their snug shelter, watching the camp downslope become a muddy moraine. Xena shifted and pulled out another tool, this one she used to cut the bird up the breastbone and prepare it to be thrown into the pot.


Gabrielle whistled softly under her breath as she walked along the perimeter of the camp, the pot swinging lightly from one hand and her staff clasped in the other.  She circled the horse corral, hearing the rustle as they moved inside it and headed out across the drying grass towards the stream.

Upstream of the camp, from the direction they’d come from she could see in the appearing and disappearing moonlight the scrub brush running along the water and it was quiet all around her as she made her way towards it.  The camp fell behind her and she drew in a breath of the storm scented air, seeing now in the far distance lightning in the sky.

She could hear voices echoing out over the grass, as the tribes within the encampment worked to bring their gear under shelter, and the flap of hide tarps was sharp on the wind as she walked through the grassland, enjoying a minute of clear vision as the moon came out from behind the gathering clouds and lit her path.

The grass was silver in it, the hills they’d come down through were mere smudges of darkness on the horizon, but as she approached the dark line of the shrubs she saw suddenly a faint flash of motion past the stream, between it and the pass.

She was aware she herself would be visible, against the paleness of the plains, her clothing and cloak woodland greens and rusts that would stand out but at this moment, the motion was just that, a flicker, and as she stared into the shadows where she’d seen it she saw a flicker again, in a particular rhythm.

Someone was starting a fire.  That was a striker, she decided.  Someone was taking shelter there in the foothills from the storm like they all were and therefore, likely, just a traveler.   She kept walking forward, watching the spot, as the clouds covered the moon again and she was cast into shadow.

That made her relax a little, feeling less of a visible target and she sped up, hearing the nearby sound of the water trickling down from the hills towards the stream that serviced the rest of the camp, reaching the bushes a minute later and gently edging through them to the bank.

Here, the creek was perhaps two body lengths wide and she was able to get between the shrubs and kneel, propping her staff with it’s end in the water, and its length lying along her shoulder as she used both hands to dip the handled pot into it’s flow.

It smelled crisp, and the rush was considerable against her hands and with that volume of water she wondered what the storm would bring as she prepared to stand up, watching through the bushes on the far side of the creek, at the now visible spot of light that was the fire.

She set the pot, now full, on the ground and watched the fire for a minute, but it remained remote and strain her eyes though she might, she could see nothing approaching from that direction, and no sound carried to her from it either.

A scent caught her attention then, and she looked around the hedges she was kneeling in with interest, reaching out and examining the thick leaves, her fingers finding round objects in thick clusters just at the height of her shoulders. “Ah.” She mouthed in silence. “Wild plums.”  

She swung the gathering bag under her cloak around and with an inner chuckle filled it with the objects, finding with gentle pressure of her fingertips the ripe ones ready for plucking.  

Then a sound made her stop in mid motion, her body going still as she detected the faintest footsteps coming from behind her.

The only welcome ones would be Xena’s, and it wasn’t.  Both the lack of that familiar near presence and the fact that she could hear something sealed that and she closed the cover on her sack and edged away from the pot of water, sliding her grip around her staff as it rested still against the top of her neck.

There was no real sense of fear.  She had long ago moved past that and without thought she shifted her balance forward and her breathing deepened as the softly stealthed steps came closer, and along with that, she heard the almost soundless rustle of leather in motion and the faint vibration of a bowstring.

Decisively, she stood up abruptly and brought her staff around in front of her. “Halt.” She said, in a firm, loud tone. “Who approaches?” She took a step forward and emerged from the shadows of the bushes to face whatever was coming as the moon briefly reappeared, outlining her in silver.

She heard the soft inhale and then the two figures that had stopped moving resolved into Amazons, one with a longbow in her hands, but without yet an arrow nocked.

“Oh. Queen Gabrielle.”  The nearer one tentatively came forward. “We didn’t know it was you. We just saw something moving.”

Oh well, guards. Gabrielle could hardly blame them. “Yep, just me.” She responded. “I was getting some water from the creek.”  She looked casually past them, to the gate that fronted the encampment. “I probably should have stopped by the guard station first.”

These two Amazons were strange to her, neither the ones that had been at the gate when they’d arrived, nor the ones that had visited their little camp.  These were in standard hide winter leathers, but they had striking white feathers twisted into their hair braids. 

They were tall, and slender, and looked like they would have the same relative coloring in the sunlight.  “No problem, Casey just saw someone walking out across the grass so we came out to see what was going on.” The nearer said and then, with a touch of embarrassment. “Should you.. ah.. be just..”

“Walking around by myself at night?” Gabrielle wrapped her hand around her staff and leaned on it with a casual air. “Sure, why not.” She smiled at them.  “But actually I’m glad you came out because I spotted a campfire up on the rise there.” She turned and pointed at the  hillock with her staff.

The Amazons came up next to her and peered in that direction. “Shielded fire.”  Casey pronounced with some authority. “Huh.”

“I was going to go ask them what they were doing, but I gotta get this pot of water back to my camp.” Gabrielle concluded, turning back to go grab the handle of the covered pot. “Let me know what’s up when you find out, would you please?”

She was now enjoying the somewhat round-eyed looks coming from these strange Amazons as she returned with the pot, it’s surface chill damped from the cold of the water inside it and the handle damp under her grip. “See ya.”  She started back through the grass, circling around the two of them and heading back the direction she’d come from.

“Sure!” Casey called back. “We’ll let you know. Thanks Queen Gabrielle!”

Chuckling softly under her breath, Gabrielle retraced her steps, visible in the grass ahead of her as the drying ground cover crackled and broke under her boots. 


The rain broke mere moments after Gabrielle returned to the shelter of their campsite, the sound of big, fat raindrops thunking on the hide rain cover sounding loud and distinct as she set the pot down next to the fire, and then unlooped the carrysack from around her neck and dropped down next to Xena. “Just in time.”

Xena had finished dismembering the bird and now it lay in a neat pile next to her knee.  She was sipping from her cup, leaning back against their stack of gear and saddles.  Next to her a small, folding camp shovel was lying, it’s pointed tip dark with fresh soil.  “What was the excitement?”

Gabrielle moved the pot onto the small iron grate in the fire, and pulled her saddlebag over to her. “Which one..oh that.” She took the cover off the pot and started to put the pieces of bird into the water.  “The guard came out to see who the nutjob roaming around in the dark was.”

Xena snickered.

Gabrielle glanced behind her. “That rain’s going to start coming down this slope isn’t it.”

“And right into the trench I dug behind us going around on either side.” Xena said, placidly. “There’s a small rock basin to your left that’ll collect some if you want to wash your hands.” She wiggled one boot. “It’s clay soil.”

“In a minute.” Gabrielle was adding chunks of root vegetables to the pot, cutting them into pieces with her belt knife. “And I saw someone show up and set up camp just outside the pass.”  She added spices from the bag, making Xena sniff appreciatingly.  “I sent the guard out there to do something more useful than trying to sneak up on me.”

Gabrielle set the top on the pot and left it to cook while she got up and went to the edge of the shelter, where, in the glow from the fire she could see a pool of water gathering in a rough basin.  She knelt and washed her hands off. “I could have saved my trip out there if I’d have known you’d do this.”

“And missed the intruder? Our lives don’t work like that.” Xena replied imperturbably. “It’ll probably turn out to be a Spartan spy with a message in a bottle for us.”

“A cursed Spartan Spy, with a peg leg, and one eye.” Gabrielle stood and shook her hands dry.  “Who’s followed around by a seagull who keeps trying to poop on his head.” She came back over.  “I can tell Dori that one when we get back.”

She seated herself next to Xena and took the refreshed cup that was being offered.  The feathers from the bird were bundled meticulously into lengths next to Spot’s saddle and she touched the longest of them, which was a pretty gold and mahogany color. “Should we see if we could raise these back home, Xe?”

“Like chickens?” Xena mused.  “Maybe.”

They sat side by side quietly, watching the rain fall in a deluge, the wind thrumming against their shelter and the wash flowing around them to continue down the slope.  Past the last tree they could see the encampment hunkering down under tarps and the big bonfire was long since extinguished.

The torches still fluttered but sporadic drops were dousing them and aside from the thunder and the rain there was no sound from the area of the encampment as the storm settled in earnest, lightning and thunder arriving in concert and rain drenching the ground.


Dawn found the rain still coming down.   The sky was a dark, brooding gray in the breaking light, the lightning and thunder had tapered off but the sheets of rain and the steadily blowing wind put a curtain of water in every direction, and there were branches scattered everywhere.

Gabrielle was standing under their protective cover, gazing thoughtfully out over the doused camp downslope from them.  She was dressed in a heavy knit and leather overtunic and leggings with a tooled leather belt around her waist, her dagger, and a belt pouch already in place on it along with a pair of leather gloves.

Her lined cloak was lying across Spot’s saddle, awaiting use and she was in the process of adding her rank tokens around her neck as she watched the cloaked, huddled figures sludging through the mud in the distance.  

The rain had flooded most of the grounds.  She could see the water halfway up the boots of most of the women, the main bonfire was long drowned, and some of the tarp shelters had blown down overnight and were now being wrestled back into place in the gray gloom of the morning.

Behind her, she could hear the rain thrumming against the tarps, and the small pool that Xena had constructed at the base of their tent was full of constantly collecting rainwater which was then spilling down the slope to add to the flooding below.  But the trenches along the back and sides had done their work, and the ground they were camped on was mostly dry and the pitch of the overhead tarp had shed the rain forward.

She briefly glanced down at her own dry footwear, and the newly freshened campfire with its gently steaming soup pot, grateful for the planning and forethought their extensive travels had taught them, having spent enough time in less-than-ideal situations to strenuously want to prevent repeats of the worst of them.

And so their night had been relatively comfortable, tucked into their hammock, though the wind’s howling had kept Xena up most of the night along with the startling thumps as branches driven by wind smacked the back tarp behind them.

Not unusual with Xena at any time, though and she’d been cheerful enough when they’d gotten up, whistling as she went out to see how the horses had fared after they had some hot tea and their unusual bird soup along with the surprise treat of the wild plums from the river.

Gabrielle wondered if the guard had investigated the traveler she’d spotted or deferred to the weather. They’d gotten no word either way, which she thought was a little interesting. The guard owed her no real obligation to report but she had felt they maybe would – yet they hadn’t.

So, interesting. Possibly in either a good or bad way, likely to be discovered as the dreary day wore on.

She glanced casually to her right and spotted Xena emerging from the depths of the dawn shadows, her cloak wrapped around her with its hood pulled all the way forward to keep the rain off her head, the body of it dropping to the tops of her boots and bouncing slightly as she walked and small splashes from the coursing groundwater spraying to either side.

“I’m back.” Xena said, as she stepped inside the enclosure and paused to shake the drops to the ground before she swept her hood back and continued towards the fire.  “Those horses are smarter than most of the people around here.”

“Did they use your shelter?”  Gabrielle smiled indulgently at her.

“They did. Were all standing under it when I got there.”  Xena agreed.  “Smirking at me.”

“I can picture that.”  Gabrielle had finished her adornments and now she folded her arms over her chest as they stood side by side regarding the camp. “That’s a mess, Xe.” She observed, as four figures moved across their line of sight, struggling to shift a large bale of supplies.

“It’s a mess.” Xena concluded.

“Do we feel bad enough to go help?”

“No. We were the last ones here, Gabrielle. Anyone with half a mind could have picked this spot to camp on and put up a few tarps.” Xena said. “They chose being down close to the river and the bottom of a ground slope. Not my fault.”   She went over to the campfire and dropped to a crouch, picking up one of the two bowls next to the soup pot and ladling some into it.

“Not everyone can predict the weather like you can, hon.  Without the storm, that area’s not a bad choice.” Gabrielle demurred mildly.  “To not have to carry all the cooking water and all that.”

“You could smell that storm coming days off.”  Xena scoffed. “Don’t tell me they don’t have anyone weather wise in all those tribes. I don’t buy it.”

‘I’m sure there was a reason.” Gabrielle said. “Maybe this area up here wasn’t big enough for any single tribe.” She mused. “Might have been a status thing.”

“Status? With Amazons?” Xena looked up and lifted her eyebrows meaningly. Then she winked and stood up, sipping from the edge of the bowl. “Good tasting bird.” She said. “Not sure how much is the bird and how much is your cooking though.”

Gabrielle smiled. “Wasn’t gamey at all. Didn’t have to do much work there.”  She walked over and picked up her cloak off the saddle, swinging it over her shoulders and fastening the clasp, a beautifully hammered metal hawk’s head. “Put the cover on that and pull it a little back when you’re done. We can have the rest for lunch.”

“Way it looks out there, the rest of them will be eating trail mix.”  Xena kept hold of her bowl with one hand and with the other, she unbuckled the clasp on her belt pouch and fished inside it, removing a glittering piece of metal that she then affixed to her cloak, just at her collarbone.

It was mountain silver with aquamarine insets, Gabrielle’s token rendered in the metals and stones from the valley her tribe now owned high in the mountains above Amphipolis, replacing the leather one she’d always worn for tribal events previously.

Her concession to Amazon regalia, more an acknowledgement of Gabrielle’s position than any need of her to demonstrate status, her role within the tribe well understood by everyone, now at least and despite her shadowed past with them and the badge itself had been crafted by two of the elders, presented and accepted without even a bit of irony.

Gabrielle smiled in reflection, getting the rest of her front clasps done and relaxing in the warmth the cloak provided, standing quietly with her arms folded under it, waiting to hear the horn that would start the conclave. “You mean because the campfire’s under water?”

“And half the supplies.”

“Oh, I’m sure they’re using fire buckets, Xe. They have some shelter down there, enough to hold the conclave in at any rate unless they expect us all to sit outside in the storm.” Gabrielle said. “And if they really do expect that…”

“We’re coming back here and packing.” Xena knelt at the edge of the tarp and used the makeshift pool to wash the bowl out, then got up and put it away, turning as they heard the low, disconsolate, almost depressed sound of a horn blowing.

“All righty.”  Gabrielle exhaled, waiting for Xena to join her near the fire. “There’s the signal.”

Xena pulled the hood up on Gabrielle’s cloak and adjusted it. “Lets go, your Maj.”  She tugged her own hood up and they strode out into the rain, walking side by side down the slope towards the right-hand side of the encampment where they could see a relatively wide stretch of tarps overlapping each other, and bodies flowing towards it.


The shelter was thrown together but functional. There was room inside for all, but just barely and the growing crowd was standing in deep mud with rivulets of rainwater rolling across the ground heading for the river.

Gabrielle was glad she’d brought spare boots with her as she stood near one of the outer sides, with Xena’s hand on her back as they waited to see how it was all going to sort out.  She pushed her hood back off her head and let her peripheral vision take in the gathering women.

Apprehension, irritation, some understated excitement, exasperation.  She was by now skilled at reading the room and glad she wasn’t in charge of the show for a change. “Tough crowd.” She muttered under her breath.

Xena’s hand shifted off her back and then her wrist came to rest on Gabrielle’s shoulder, casually visible from the corner of her eye, the dim morning light reflecting only slightly off the ring on her finger.   She’d kept her hood on and her head was turning slightly inside of it, pale eyes slowly studying the room, using her height to good advantage and hiding any reaction in the shadows the covering provided.

On the back side of the shelter they’d worked to put down a layer of muddy, fallen branches, and a collection of Amazons with rank badges were gathering on them.  Behind them other Amazons were assembling a trestle, and unfolding canvas covers from a stack of arm’s length wooden planks to make a table.

“Guessing that’s where you need to be.” Xena commented, jerking her head towards the gathering.

“Do I really want to be there?” Gabrielle mused. “Hm.”

“You’re getting more like me every day.”

“Thank you.” Gabrielle grinned briefly. “I should have brought my staff.” She concluded. “Clear a path in all this muck.”

Xena leaned closer to her and purred. “I can clear a path for ya.” She reached over her shoulder and lifted her sword hilt up just enough for Gabrielle to hear its whisper against the sheath.  “Make them forget about the weather at any rate.”

“Xena.” Gabrielle’s shoulder shook silently.  “You just want to start a fight.”

“I do.”  Xena agreed straightforwardly. “Why should you have all the fun?”

“Brat.” Gabrielle chuckled. “C’mon.” She started forward, easing her way between the milling Amazons with quiet apologies, aware of Xena strolling along at her heels, aware when their presence was recognized, and the crowd started parting without her urging.

She recognized her two informative visitors from the day before, standing just shy of the branch laid area and she lifted a hand in brief greeting as they approached, giving them a little wave. “Good morning.”

The elder, Peleta, took that as an invitation and eased forward as they arrived. “Good morning. Would you like an intro?” She angled her head towards the crowd on the branches.

Recognizing the power play for what it was, Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled and she bought into it promptly. “I would! Thank you, Peleta. I appreciate it a lot.” She said, in a sincere tone, ignoring the faint snicker at her back.

Peleta produced a pleased grin and moved onto the little platform and motioned them forward, heading for the rear left area where five older women were gathered, in wary conversation.

Everyone looked up as they arrived. Gabrielle had undone the fastenings on her cloak to expose her rank markings, though she fully understood everyone there knew who she was and she watched the eyes of the women facing them take that in, then shift to look past her at the tall figure behind her.

Xena casually swept her hood off and ran her fingers through her thick, dark hair to free it from the neck of the cloak and returned the examination, easing her cloak back over her shoulders to reveal her leathers, a more complete set of body protection than any of the Amazons wore, dark layers with a mahogany sheen to them, a hint of red along the edges.

She then pointedly focused her attention on Gabrielle, shedding the attention back and waiting for the formalities to continue.

Jona, my queen, this is Queen Gabrielle and her consort, of the mountain tribes of the north.” Peleta was addressing a silver haired woman who was tall and slim, with a regal bearing and intricately braided locks. “This is my queen, Jona, your Majesty.” She nodded at Gabrielle.

“Thanks, Peleta.” Gabrielle responded easily. “Queen Jona, thank you for inviting me to this conclave, and for your weapon’s master’s kind welcome last night.” She extended her hand out and held it palm up towards the woman.  

Jona rose to the occasion and stepped forward, reaching out and clasping Gabrielle’s arm and accepting the return clasp. “Queen Gabrielle, it’s good to meet you, and I thank you for making the long journey here to join us in conclave.”

She had a quiet, measured voice and that matched her steady hazel eyes and there was no sense from her attitude or speech that she felt herself to be an any disadvantage.  “Our table is almost complete.” She continued. “Then we can all take a seat and begin our discussion.”

She half turned. “In the meantime, let me introduce you to the others who have so graciously come to meet as well.”

So far, so good.  Xena relaxed a bit and kept her place at Gabrielle’s shoulder, acknowledging the introductions with a brief nod of her head as they moved from tribal queen to tribal queen, perfectly content to let Gabrielle do the talking.

None of the other queens was familiar to her, these were all tribes she had no experience with either for good or ill.   The five Amazons were all a good deal older that Gabrielle, and in fact, older than she was, but they were all strong and distinguished looking, with steady eyes that were evaluating the two of them just as she was in return.

They all knew who she and Gabrielle were. Hard to say at this point though, from what angle, or from whom.  That they would learn in the next short while and would shape the reason they’d been asked to come. Xena smiled suddenly.  At least, for why Gabrielle had been asked since her own name hadn’t been mentioned in the invite though there did not seem to be any surprised at all at her presence.

They gathered around the table as the intros were completed, the wooden sections put into place and making it into a sturdy surface.  Two Amazons came in with folding stools and put them down, wearing the roundel that matched the one that was dangling from Jona’s braid.

Xena studied the portable surface with approval, the legs sturdy and well braced, and the sections fit with solid precision making a large, square functional platform.

There were only enough stools for the queens, though, so she took Gabrielle’s cloak from her and went to the edge of the overlapped tarps, where there was a rock outthrust forming a protective wall to anchor the tent to and found a spot against it to lean on, extending her long legs and crossing them at the ankles, the stone cold at her back.

The other consorts and seconds found spots to listen from in their turn, and Peleta came over and picked a spot nearby, giving Xena a brief grin as she did so.

Xena settled in to observe, considering the other avenues being presented for her to get the other side of whatever this story ended up being.

There always was one, and if it ever stopped raining, there might be a fire, and a gathering of warriors, who might be itching to fill her in.


Gabrielle listened intently to the talk around the table, resting her elbows on the wooden surface as the narrative moved from queen to queen.

“At first,” Jona said. “No one realized it was happening.  Just hunting parties finding less and less game, and more and more signs that others were hunting in the same areas.”

The woman to her right, Analaya, nodded. “Exactly.” She said. “Goats started disappearing. We thought it was wild dogs.”

“Or raiders.” Jona said. “It’s happened before, everyone’s aware.”

“The next thing we knew, there were villages and settlements just popping up everywhere.  People coming in, most from the north, or from the east..” Analaya glanced at Gabrielle. “We heard about the conflicts.”

Well it’s true.” Gabrielle said. “There were conflicts. Invading warlords, Spartans, little bit of everything really.” She agreed. “We had some shelter in the highlands. But we knew a lot of the lower areas, and the river valleys were abandoned. We saw the towns burned out.”

Well they came here.” Jona said. “At first we moved down the river, and then moved again, but then we ran out of places to move to.” She lifted her hands and put them down. “So we changed our ways.”

The woman next to Analaya nodded. “We kept on the move.” 

So all of you became nomads?” Gabrielle asked.

Jona nodded. “Worked well at first.” 

“Yes.” Analaya agreed. “Better than we’d hoped it would. We increased trade, a lot.” She looked at the other queens, who all nodded back. “Moved up and down the coast, we had a good market for our leather and skins.” She leaned forward. “But now, things are changing, right Costa?”

Here, Xena considered, was the meat of the matter.  She could see the other queens shifting their body positions, and the crowd listening behind them leaned forward a little.

The woman next to her nodded, then she stood up and pulled her cloak down, and pushed the sleeve up to show skin covered in red weals, puffy and stark.  “They got new ideas, coming maybe from over the water.” Costa said. She was a stocky woman.  “New things they think, about how women alone doing their own society is wrong.”

Jona nodded. “Port city has these groups of men, come from the other side of the Ionian sea, who think different. Believe different, got teachings from some new god, or prophet, or something.”

Gabrielle turned half around and looked at Xena, who had both eyebrows sharply lifted. “Really.”  She turned back around. “Well, we’ve heard about people who believe in that kind of thing. In fact, we’ve met a few but…”

“More than a few.” Analaya said. “And they’re teaching these new ways to townsfolk. They’re listening. Said they don’t get much from the old gods, so why not try a new one?” She lifted her hands up and put them back down on the table. “At any rate, we had to start being very careful about how we traded there, and then from there, it started spreading up and down the coast.”

“We were there a half moon ago, in one of the towns north of the port and just minding our own, coming back out to the caravans and a bunch of them came after us, with whips.” Costa said. “I killed two of them, but not without a mark.”

Now that, Xena considered, her mind racing over the news, was an Amazon. “What were they after?” She asked from her spot against the wall.

“Said we were unnatural women.” Costa said. “That we didn’t know our place, without a man to be in charge of us, that we shouldn’t be allowed into the town without escort.”

So they were just being jackasses?” Xena said, in a voice tinged with disbelief.

“Well, from their view, we were the jackasses.” Costa said, dryly. “But they ran when the blood started, Hayly there went after them until they scattered back into town.” Costa gestured behind her, where an Amazon was standing, arms folded.

Hayly was a tall, rawboned, no nonsense looking woman with curly red hair and a pugnacious jaw.  She had a crossbow slung over her shoulder and a longsword on her back, and the rank tokens of a tribal champion. She looked like she’d earned them the hard way.

Xena was starting to warm up to these Amazons. “Any details on what this new cult is?”  She asked, pushing off the rock and coming over to stand behind Gabrielle, one hand coming to rest on her shoulder. “Haven’t heard anything in our neck of the woods.”

Hayly, thus addressed, shook her head. “Not really. Just going on about a new way.” She said, gruffly. “But we’d heard that before, yah?” She said. “Not the first time anyone’s run into that attitude. But usually it’s just old ways. Not new gods.”

“That’s true enough.” Gabrielle said, in a mild tone. “The village I grew up in was full of that sort of thing.”

“We talked about moving to the north, or towards Thrace.” Jona spoke up. “But if it’s still sparse there, no one to trade with and we gave up farming. No sense tilling land you’re pushed off and cant reap.” She stood up off the stool and paced a little. “If it’s as empty as they said, we could take up land again…”

“But that means starting all over.” Costa said. “And then what if they move east from the coast?” She said. “Where does it stop?”

Gabrielle remained briefly silent. “Any sense where the tribes that used to be east of here went?” She finally asked. “I know some individual Amazons from those groups joined our tribe, after the war.”

“No.” Costa shook her head. “They were close by to our range, before the settlers came.  We had the southwestern most lands. They tried to get us to come in with them, when they made that deal with Athens.”

“Yeah, I remember that.” Gabrielle murmured.

“Me too.” Xena said, dryly.  “For what it’s worth, we didn’t see any sign of any tribes or even Amazon travelers all the way here, once we left home.” She considered. “There’s a lot of empty lands there. I think we only hit four towns all told.”

“Nearest port town to us is Therma.” Gabrielle said. “Last time we were there – nothing like that was in the wind.”

Xena forbore to mention the last time they were there it was with an armed militia and a captured Spartan army and the very last thing anyone had worried about was a fringe religious cult. “No, nothing like that.” She commented mildly. “Spartans had some annoying ideas about women, in general, but that wasn’t anything to do with the gods.”

A disturbance at the back of the gathering hall caught everyone’s attention, and heads turned as the motion rippled from the rear of the tent through the crowd, a knot of Amazons wrestling a tall male figure forward, his arms lashed behind his back.

“Let me go!” The man growled. “I’m just trying to deliver a damn message!”

He was dressed in travel stained but decent quality clothes, leather and cloth with a waxed cloak and well made but mud spattered knee high boots and he was drenched from head to foot.

The Amazons shoved him forward and then forced him to his knees at the edge of the platform the queens were meeting on. “This was the guy in the foothills last night.”  The lead guard, who Gabrielle now recognized, said. “Been chasing his ass through the rain since then. Finally caught up to him.” She glanced aside and gave a brief nod in Gabrielle’s direction. “Thanks for the tip, your Majesty.”

Gabrielle ignored the startled looks in her direction. “Glad to help.”  She said, as she felt a tickle along the back of her neck.

Jona stood and moved forward, and Peleta swiftly circled the space to join her, one hand on her belt knife.  “Who approaches?” The queen asked sternly. “What brings you unasked to this place?”

The man was young, barely out of boyhood and with the stubborn brashness of his age. “Nice of you to ask me now?” He shot back. “Instead of before you put the hit on me with my back turned!”

Peleta grabbed him by the hair and pulled his head back, drawing her knife. “Like your tongue?”

His eyes rolled to the side and he looked at her.

Gabrielle let out a breath, and then she stood up and moved around Xena, walking over to the youth and knelt next to him. “Please stop being an idiot.  Who are you?” She looked directly into his eyes.

He stared right back at her, and then, suddenly and unexpectedly, he grinned. “You’re Gabrielle, aren’t you?”

Gabrielle held a smile back. “I am.” She admitted.

He sighed exaggeratedly “Glad I found you. If they’ll untie me, I got a message for ya.” The man said, ignoring the other Amazons. “I been looking for you for about a month now. ”

Gabrielle looked up at his escort, who were watching this unfold with unfeigned interest.  “Could you let him loose please? He’d probably enjoy it too much if you searched him.”  She stood up. “He’s harmless. He’s a busker.” She stepped back as they closed on him and knives came out, this time to cut the ropes holding him. 

They cut the bonds on his arms and he hopped to his feet rubbing his wrists. “Tough crowd.” He said, as he fished into his belt pouch and came up with a small, tightly rolled scroll, that without hesitation he handed to Gabrielle. “There. My commission’s done.”  He paused as she started to untie it. “How’d you know what I was?”

Gabrielle glanced up at him. “You have the busker guild stamp on your belt pouch.”  She looked back at the scroll, as she unrolled it and half turned to let the light from the nearest torch fall on it. “And I’ve been around enough of them to recognize the attitude.”  She studied the writing. “Ah huh.” She looked up and over at Xena.

Xena took that as an appeal to come over and peer past Gabrielle’s shoulder at the scroll. “Now who’s … oh..huh?” She frowned, and her brows creased. “What is this?”

“We’ve been invited to a birthday party.” Gabrielle let the scroll roll back up and handed it to her. “Okay, sorry for that diversion, everyone.  Shall we get back to our discussion.”  She glanced at the busker. “Thanks for the message.”

“We’ll take him outside the gate.” One of the guards said and grabbed his arm. “C’mon smart mouth. Might have figured you were a player.”

“Jealous?” The boy looked brightly at her. “Aw, c’mon. I’ll teach you how to juggle. Got some rocks?” He was hustled off. “And the names Artos!”

Xena had the scroll in her hands, and she was reading it again, for the third time. She looked up as Gabrielle came over to her. “What the Hades?”

“Oh, lets hope he’s not invited.”  Gabrielle turned her around and tucked a hand into her elbow. “One thing at a time, hon. Lets deal with this first.” She sighed. “Because that scrolls probably going to take us right down a rabbit hole.”

“Yeah.” Xena put the scroll into her belt pouch. “With a wild boar in it.”


Gabrielle stood looking out at the rain, while behind her a brief break in the conclave buzzed into conversation.  She heard the soft crunch of boots on the leaves underfoot and glanced to her right, to find Xena coming up to stand next to her. “They have a problem.”

“They do.” Xena readily agreed. “And they don’t like their choices of solutions.”

“They want it to go back to the way it was.” Gabrielle watched a bird, caught in the storms crosswinds, struggle to escape being tossed to the ground. “But life’s not like that, Xe.”

Xena was momentarily silent, then she smiled. “No, it’s not.”  She put her hands behind her back and rocked up and down on the balls of her feet, her brow creasing a trifle. “Hills near Portos might not be a bad place to look. It’s pretty empty there.” She concluded in a low tone.

“Yeah, I was thinking about that. When I talked to that innkeeper it sounded like they wouldn’t mind a few more neighbors.” Gabrielle uttered back. “And they didn’t seem freaked out by the idea of Amazons.”

“Not much in the way of croplands.”  Xena mused. “But decent foraging. Could be decent to settle in.”

Gabrielle turned and put her back to the weather, studying the throngs of Amazons who were milling around, hands cupped around mugs, a low buzz of conversation rumbling in counterpoint with the thunder outside. “But for how long, is their question.”

“Can’t answer that.” Xena said pragmatically. “But one thing I do know.”

Gabrielle looked sideways at her. “We need to find out what that story is?”

Seriously, Xena nodded. “We do.”

“Is it pointless to say maybe we should stay out of it?”

Xena just chuckled.

“Yeah.” Gabrielle patted her on the side and moved away from the edge of the tent back to the table, swinging the waterskin she had looped over her shoulder up and taking a sip from it. “There’s just no way we’re not going to be dragged into whatever it is and if we just turn around and go home it’ll just come find us there. Better we keep it away.”


She went over to her stool and sat down on it, extending her legs out and crossing them as she waited for the rest of the Amazon queens to reassemble from their break.   Already though, her mind was moving ahead, moving past the conclave to what their next steps would be and the extension of their trip.

Complications. Always complications.

“Queen Gabrielle.” Jona came over and sat down on the stool next to hers. “Tell me how it is your tribe lives. You said your lands were up in the mountains.”

Gabrielle cleared her throat a little. “Well, yes.” She said. “Our tribe originally lived in the forest lands south and west of Amphipolis, but during the wars, we relocated up into the heights above the town where there was a lot of hunting and a rocky plateau we could secure.”

Jona nodded slowly. “Was being in the same area as the town an issue for you?” She asked, with interest. “It sounds as though you have a reasonable situation.”

For a long moment, Gabrielle kept silent, formulating what she wanted to reply in her head and testing out silently what that would sound like. “That’s a little complicated.” She finally said. “We had a period of adjustment, yes of course, but eventually things did work out.”

“And the town keeps to the old ways?”

Gabrielle rested her elbows on her knees. “You mean, about women, and that sort of thing?”


“No, they don’t have a problem with that, now at least.”

Jona nodded again. “Was it hard to convince your tribe to relocate?”

“A little.” Gabrielle said, honestly. “Change is a tough sell, and they had to get used to the new lands. It was different. There was a lot of contention, people wanted to go back to the old lands, and there was a lot of arguments about how the new village wasn’t the same.”

“I can well imagine that.” Jona looked sympathetic. “When we had to start migrating, we lost a lot of tribeswomen, who broke off and stayed in the old location.  Some came back.” She glanced at Gabrielle. “Some died. The people moving in viewed them as enemies.”

“We had some people leave as well. They didn’t like the new location, or the changes that had to be made for the tribe to settle there.” Gabrielle said. “Or me, actually.” She grinned briefly. “But we picked up quite a few new warriors from other tribes over the last year, and we’ve had twenty new children born.”

Jona’s eyes lit up. “Twenty!”

Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled a little. “Being near Amphipolis isn’t all a bad thing.” She said. “It’s a market town, with frequent festivals. Brings a lot of new blood in.”  She said. “And up in the mountains, it’s wild, and unsettled. Hard weather, sometimes but we’ve built out a good-sized village.”

Jona looked around at the gathered Amazons, then looked back at Gabrielle with a direct gaze. “Change is hard. But what’s harder is when it just keeps changing.” She said. “You can’t plan, you can’t think about the future.”  She got up and went over to where two other queens were standing and they bent their heads together.

Gabrielle looked up and found Xena looking back at her, a wry smile on her face.  She lifted her shoulders in a slight shrug, and then she returned to her relaxed position, as the crowd started to sort out into groups to stand and watch as the queens prepared to return to the table.

She would suggest the area around Portos, she decided.  In her mind, she shaped the story around it, and the possibilities, and tried to remember the details about what that surrounding area looked like, the trees, and the rolling hills, and how lonely it seemed to her.

At least it was a suggestion. They could take it or leave it. 


The rain had cleared, finally, as the sun was setting, allowing the last red beams to come across the water logged encampment, and the air was turning very cold, a fresh, brisk chill that fluttered the tarps and the clothing of the women stirring to clean things up.

Xena shed her cloak and left it in their shelter, emerging to stroll through the trees, swinging by the corral to check on the horses before making her way through the main area, casually moving between the tribes, lending a hand in moving debris out of the way righting crates.

Her ears were pricked listening to shreds of conversation and casual words being traded, finding a group of sturdy looking warriors working to right one of the wagons, whose wheels had been undercut by the coursing water and sent the conveyance onto it’s side.

The light was fading and they were focused on the wagon, so she was able to silently walk up and join their group, stepping to the end of the wagon and getting a grip on the bottom edge with the rest of them as the prepared to try and stand it up right.

Then she paused and looked at the ground. “Wait.” She called out.

The others turned, startled, and reacted to seeing her there, eyes widening a little.

“Ground won’t hold it.” Xena said, pointing at the sludge. “Lemme get something so we can haul it further that way.” She pointed now towards the fence that ringed the area. “Hang on.”

She turned and went back to the corral, stepping inside and whistling softly.  Tanto, having seen her, was already trotting over, ears flicking forward and back, but she nudged him aside and patted Spot instead. “C’mere girl.” She picked up a coil of rope she’d left hanging on a tree branch and slipped a loop over Spot’s head, leading her back out of the enclosure.

Tanto looked affronted, giving her a snort.

“Yeah yeah.” Xena reached into her belt pouch and tossed him a bit of carrot and then closed the fence and led Spot back over to where the rest of the Amazons were standing, waiting for her return as though glued into place.   She walked the horse around to the other side of the wagon and took the other end of the rope and tied it to the edge of the upper buckboard.

“Stay clear.” She warned the watching Amazons, who stepped back almost in unison.

Stifling a chuckle,  she settled the rope on Spot’s shoulders and walked her forward, away from the wagon, until the weight of it came onto the line and she snorted. “C’mon.” She urged the young mare forward, and with another snort, she stepped into the weight, bobbing her head, her hooves splashing pocks of mud as she strained against the load.

Xena reached back and got a hand on a knot in the rope and lent her own strength to the pulling, digging her boots into the mud and throwing her weight along the line as the wagon started grudgingly to move, inching its way through the muck with a grinding, sucking noise.

They slowly turned the wagon around to face the slope, and with a quick, backwards glance, Xena put her fingers on Spot’s neck. “Hold up.”

The young mare stopped moving, turning her head to look around at her trainer with enquiring eyes.

“That’s a damn well-trained horse.” One of the watching Amazons climbed up the slight slope. “If we’da tried that with ours there’d have been blood flying everywhere.”

Xena came back and untied the rope from the wagon and let it drop to the ground.  “Stand.” She told Spot, then she came back over to the wagon.  “Yeah, I noticed they’ve got an attitude.” She remarked. “I wondered what the story was there.”

She kept her tone light and casual, as the Amazons gathered around the wagon again and they prepared to lift it up onto it’s wheels.

The contents had been emptied, so there was plenty of space along the sideboard to grab hold and they all did, with Xena on the end where the rope had been tied, dropping down into a crouch and tightening her grip on the wood.   

“Ho!” The Amazon on the other end called out and with a long heave, the wagon struggled up onto its wheels as they pulled upward, and Xena straightened her legs, taking the corner’s weight and lifting it up as the two Amazons next to her pushed it sideways.

It rocked into place and stabilized, and four of the six women started wiping it down with sacks, clearing the worst of the mud off of the surface of it.

“Thanks.” The Amazon next to Xena held out a hand without hesitation. “Never thought I’d meet you like this, but I’ll take it.” She said. “They call me Greta.”

She was a well built woman, with chestnut hair pulled into a tail, and the tail festooned with multiple feathers and tokens, roughly a head shorter than Xena was but with an aggressive stance, and clear, pale gray eyes.  Her leathers had earth toned beadwork on them and on the back of the hand she held out she had a thick long scar.

Xena took the grip and returned it. “No problem.” She was aware of the rest of the crowd gathering around, recognizing these as the rank and file of the Amazons, the warriors and senior warriors that made up the great body of the tribes. “Glad to help out. Storm’s a pain in the ass for everyone.”

Two of the other women who had helped lift the wagon sidled closer. “You asked about the horses.” One said. “We were making camp off the road, maybe three moons, four back and we heard a ruckus. Went into the woods to find a carter there, and those two stuck up past their knees in clay mud.”

Xena grimaced in reflex.

“Carter was beating them.” Greta said. “Maybe he was drunk.” She acknowledged. “He saw us and came and tried to start beating on us.”

“We killed him.” The second woman nodded. “Buried him in the mud and had Ares own time getting those beasts cut out of there.”

“Lucky they didn’t break a leg.” Xena said.

“Yeah, well, whatever that drover’d done to those horses they didn’t like people.” Greta said. “We had to rope and hold them to get them out, and after that they didn’t much like us neither, even with us getting them out.” She held up her hand. “Didn’t know horses could almost take a hand off. Now I do.”

The second woman nodded knowingly. “Mad beasts. They settled some, but its all we can do to get them in the rig and pulling.” She patted the wagon. “And this is a different wagon, those animals wouldn’t go anywhere near the drover’s.”

Xena was silent for a moment. “Damn shame.” She finally said. “They’re decent horses.” She leaned an elbow on the wagon. “Good of you to rescue them.”

The four other Amazons had finished cleaning what they could off the wooden wagon and they came around the side of it to join the two talking to Xena.  “They’re all right.” One of them was wiping her hands off on her cloak. “We try to treat them good as we can. Good as they let us, anyway.”

The last of the sun disappeared behind the far end of the plains, leaving behind a fading dark blue sky, with remnants of clouds moving quickly across it, gradually dissipating.

Greta glanced around at her companions, then back at Xena. “Want a cup of grog? Least we can offer for getting that wagon sorted.”

Xena smiled easily. “Sure.” She said, having hoped her toil would lead to just that kind of invite. “You can tell me what it’s like around here. I’ve never been in these parts.”

Not entirely true, but close enough.

“Sure.” Greta waved her to follow, and the rest of the Amazons dusted their hands off, ready to move with them, the ears of passing warriors pricked and heads turning. “We tarped some firewood. Lets go share a cup.”

Xena picked up the end of Spot’s rope. “Let me get her back in with her buddy.” She said. “He gets lonely.” She winked at them. “Typical boy.”

That got a laugh, and as she’d expected, they all trailed along with her as she walked the mare back over to the corral, making somewhat awkward small talk, conspicuously ignoring the stares from the other Amazons and the somewhat envious looks.

Amazons. Xena slung her arm over Spot’s neck and chuckled silently. Gotta love em.


It was much nicer to be parked back in their shelter, with Jona and Peleta in attendance, sharing a private meal and a cup.  Gabrielle had their folding table and seats well deployed, and she’d taken out the small skin of spiced red wine from their gear and propped it near the fire to warm.

“We appreciate all the information you gave us.” Jona said, with a sigh. “I just don’t know.”

The breeze fluttering across the front of the shelter was taking on a dry chill, and the warmth of the fire, built up and stirred was very welcome.  Gabrielle sat back against Spot’s saddle, a woven shawl knit in rich woodland colors wrapped around her shoulders and considered her words.

She felt a touch impatient, to be honest. “Well, you could continue as you are, and see what happens.” Gabrielle said, in a reasonable tone. “It could be this cult is just a passing trend. I’ve seen that happen before. I think everyone always thinks there’s something much better on the horizon until they get to the horizon.”

“And find a ditch.” Pelota said, seated on the far side of Jona, sitting cross legged on one of their hide protective seats. “If only, if only.”

Gabrielle nodded. “Yeah, we went through a lot of that when we moved our tribe up into the mountains where we are now.” She said. “But you get used to things.”

And the tribe had. The start had been rocky, not helped by the random vagaries of her own life and the things she and Xena had gotten involved in, but now, a year gone and all four seasons weathered, yes.  They’d gotten used to their space high up on the side of the mountain, and in the hard to get to and half hidden valley beyond.

The valley had been as productive and valuable as they’d hoped it would be.  They had gained the resources and, yes, wealth that had been anticipated, and the tribe now was living more comfortably than at any other time in their history and were, dare she even think it, content.

“Like we did to traveling.” Jona said. “No that’s true enough.” She agreed. “And I’m sure that we all can adjust if we have to.” She eyed Gabrielle. “You feel this nearby town in the area, they will not be a problem? Does your nearby neighbors where you live now cause issues?”

Here, with just the senior Queen of the traveling tribes and her weapons master, Gabrielle was inclined to be a little more forthcoming. “You mean, Amphipolis?” She let a smile appear. “No, we have a good relationship with them. We help each other out.”

“Really?” Peleta leaned forward.

“We’re on the borderlands.” Gabrielle explained. “We get a lot of activity, especially in summer, from raiders, and brigands that come over from Thrace.  Amphipolis maintains a militia and they’re pretty well known in the area.”

“Not dangerous for you?” Jona asked, with a skeptical note in her voice.

“it’s Xena’s militia.” Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled gently.  “So no, the tribe gets along with them just fine. They practice sparring together and have war games almost every sevenday.”

Both Amazons sat back and stared at her.

“We go to war together when we have to.” Gabrielle concluded in a mild tone. “But fortunately, it’s been pretty quiet this last year, just a few squabbles, a warlord who crossed the border looking for an easy target, that sort of thing.”

She lifted the now warmed wineskin from the firepit and set up three traveling cups, unstopping the warmed liquid and pouring it into the cups, giving a mild distraction while her guests absorbed this anomaly of the known Amazon experience.

She handed them their cups. “I sit on the town council.” She added cheerfully. “And my weapons master and several of our senior warriors are part of the militia leadership team.  They enjoy it.”

“I can’t imagine that.” Jona said, but her tone was bemused and mild, rather than shocked. ‘I suppose a common defense…”

“Wow.” Peleta took the cup with wide eyes. “That’s crazy.”

“Not really.” Gabrielle chuckled. “It’s Xena’s hometown. Her family lives there. Her brother Toris married an Amazon from the tribe.”  She leaned back and sipped her mulled wine, which was strong and pungent with the autumn spices she’d stirred into it.  “It’s a good partnership.”

“And all those men don’t cause any issues?” Peleta asked, sounding incredulous. “Sorry, Queen Gabrielle, but based on my experience, I find that really hard to believe.”

Jona gave her a swift, sideways glance and half lifted a hand, but Gabrielle just waved at her and chuckled. “I get it.” She said. “It’s why I didn’t really get into that during the conclave.” She paused. “Because I’m not as naïve as I look. I know what the world is like.”  She paused. “Amazons are fierce fighters. The men who live in and around that town know that, and they respect that.”

Skeptical looks.  Ah well. “And even if they don’t respect the Amazons, they do respect Xena.” Gabrielle went on. “She’s the law there.” She looked from one to the other. “No one there wants her mad at them.” She stopped at that point and sat there, just sipping her wine.

The two women were silent for a long minute, and then Peleta shrugged her shoulders faintly and took a sip of the wine, her eyes a little wide and round and obviously deferring to her queen.

“Well.” Jona said. “Yes, that does explain why you didn’t go into that with the greater group today.” She said. “Also why any solution for us is much more doubtful.”  She mused. “As we have none of those advantages.” She leaned back against the piled saddlebags behind her. “And we could have a very different result.”

“You might.” Gabrielle replied, honestly. “But if it’s any help, we’re going to try and find out what the story is behind this new cult. It sounds like just another rerun of old ideas, but we want to find out where it’s coming from.”

Peleta and Jona looked at each other, and then looked back at her.  “You are going alone?” Jona asked. “By yourselves? To the port city?”

Gabrielle nodded. “Yep. And further than that since we will have to go through there to cross the Ionian Sea for that scroll we got.”  She lifted her cup in their direction. “We’ll let you know what’s up on our way back home, if you’re still somewhere in the area.”   She added. “Maybe that’ll give you more information to base your decision on.”

Jona studied her for a very long, silent minute.  “Queen Gabrielle, you have an interesting life.” She finally said, with an utterly serious tone. “And I wish you good luck in your travels.”

“Thanks.” Gabrielle said. “We’re probably going to need it.”


Xena came drifting out of the shadows into the firelight sometime after her visitors had left, casually circling their campsite before she entered, stripping off her cloak and draping it over the gear. “Well, well.”

Gabrielle looked up from her diary in greeting, wiggling a quill as she came over and dropped down next to her, extending her boots to the fire.

Well well.” Gabrielle handed her the wineskin. “Xena, I’m pretty sure they’re not going to take my advice.”

“Probably not.” Xena uncapped the skin and squeezed a stream of the warm wine into her mouth. “They really want to keep doing what they’re doing. They like the nomad life.” She crossed her ankles. “Rank and file, they don’t want to go back to farming.”

“Did you gather an audience of the rank and file?”

Xena smiled and wiggled her eyebrows. “I did. I helped em haul a wagon out of the mud and got invited to the warriors campfire.”  She related. “Got to hear all the gripes.”

“Like you thought you might.”

“They wanted to talk.” Xena leaned an elbow on the saddle behind her. “These were the seniors. They heard about all the fighting, wanted to hear what happened. They heard a lot of rumors.” She said. “Some of them wanted to join up when Athens came scamming them. I told them why they were glad they didn’t.”

“Did they believe you?”

Xena shrugged. “They only had what they heard from Athens, and you know what that story was.”  She removed her gauntlets and laid them on her knee. “So maybe they bought some of the details.”

“Ah.” Gabrielle set her diary aside and the quill next to it, after wiping the nib on the piece of scrap leather she kept for the purpose. “Yeah. They were pitching a good deal, right? Money and lands to help Athens win a war.” She eyed Xena with a wry smile. “How could they say no?”


“And then they met us.” Gabrielle leaned back and put her hands behind her head. “And all Hades breaks loose.”

“All of Olympus breaks loose.” Xena corrected her. “Even so, wouldn’t be surprised if some of the ones I talked to tonight didn’t end up finding our part of the world.” She added, in a musing tone. “Might find some on the doorstep when we get back from Herc’s birthday party. They have a few that were interested in what I had to say about how we all ended up back at home.”

“Shocking.” Gabrielle rolled her head to one side and gave her a droll look, seeing the mischievous twinkle facing her. “Did you tell them you made that sword you’re carrying?”

“Matter of fact, I did.” Xena said, in a cheerful tone.  “They wanted to see it.” She said. “And we talked about the horses.”

Gabrielle chuckled softly. “Well, we’ll see when we get back.”  She turned her attention to a new subject. “Now, about that party. What are we going to bring him for a present?” She asked. “What do you get for the son of Zeus for his birthday, Xena?”

Xena pondered that question in silence for a minute, her eyes moving back and forth, her mind visibly engaged. “A helmet that blocks his half siblings zaps?” She asked, in a questioning tone.

“Where do you think we’d find one of those?”

“Good question.” Xena acknowledged.  “How about a puppy?”

Gabrielle covered her eyes.  “Maybe we can find him a nice bottle of really great cordial or something when we get to the port city.” She sighed. “I don’t want to show up empty handed.”

“Gabrielle, with our usual luck, we’ll show up and need to save his house from a fire breathing sea serpent. That’ll be a good enough present.” Xena took another sip of the mulled wine, hot and spiced, and let it’s pungency fill the back of her mouth. “Which is on him for inviting us. He should know better by now.”

Iolaus should know better. He sent the scroll.”  Gabrielle said. “Unless the invite’s an excuse.” She glanced at Xena. “Maybe there’s something going on.”

Xena looked plaintively at her. “Do you have to even say that?” She sighed. “Anyway lets pack up in the morning and get on the move and go find out.”

“Sounds like a plan.”  

They sat for a little while, finishing their wine and gazing past the slowly dimming fire across the encampment, where blooms of campfires were visible past the trees, and the smell of grilling fish wafted on the chill air. “Glad we brought our winter gear.” Gabrielle commented, as the breeze fluttered her hair.

“If we hadn’t it’d be snowing right now.”  Xena said, imperturbably. “Hey maybe we can pick up some socks for Herc in that port town.” She glanced sideways. “And some ginger drops.”

“Ugh, don’t remind me.” Gabrielle covered her eyes with one hand. “You were bound and determined to get on a boat on this trip.”

Xena chuckled. “I was. Not in that direction though.” She mused. “We’ll need to cross the Ionia sea, then go overland across the isthmus to where he ended up.” She glanced at Gabrielle. “Unless you want to see if anyone’s going around the cape and up the other coast.”

Gabrielle’s head tilted and she gave Xena a wry, displeased look.

“Didn’t think so. But anyway, I haven’t seen that area, so it’ll be new to both of us.” Xena carried on. “Maybe five, six days at sea.”

“We taking the horses?”

“Yeah. I wouldn’t trust leaving them.”  Xena set the wineskin down. “I’m gonna go take one last look around.” She got to her feet and swung her cloak over her shoulders to cover her, giving her body a shake to settle it.  “Check out the perimeter and see if any other random buskers are loitering.”

“You’re just jealous I found one.”

“Maybe I am.” Xena winked, then she turned and moved out from under the shelter, melting into the shadows in an instant, the waving branches of the nearby trees, shedding their leaves, covering her.

Gabrielle finished her cup, then she got to her knees, and started the process of tidying up the camp, storing away everything they would not need and packing up their saddlebags to prepare to leave at first light.

She knew Xena would want to, and it made her smile, remembering those long days on the road when correctly identifying these quirks, and anticipating them had earned her those approving grins, and occasionally, that offhand clap on the back she’d come to treasure.

She gathered up her freshly cleaned cooking supplies and returned them to their hide cases, fastening the closures and adding them to the neatly stacked saddlebags, leaving out travel bars they’d have for breakfast, and then picking up the waterskin lying nearby.

It was almost empty.  Gabrielle stood up and ran her hands over it, pondering if she should make a trip out to the creek again to fill it.

As she considered, she felt a sense of wordless warning there in the back of her head, an instinct that had her put the skin back, attaching it to one of the rings on Tanto’s saddle.  They had a second, full skin and she’d lived long enough in the world to accept and heed that instinct, without really understanding or knowing it’s source.

Just.. no, that wasn’t a good idea.

She made a circle of the camp, and nodded, satisfied they were as ready to leave as she could make them, given they had their shelter, and the hammock to settle with in the morning.  Then she went back over and picked up her diary and writing supplies, standing quietly for a moment, just listening to the sounds from the camp ahead of her.

It occurred to her, suddenly that what she was listening for and not hearing was the ordinary sounds of people just gathering and sharing conversation, the punctuation of laughter, or voices raised in emphasis. Around her village, she would hear the patterned beats of a drum or the reedy sound of a whistle, even recently the nascent experimental strum of a harp.

It reminded her, she acknowledged, of an army camp, on the march, sheltering and called to mind the time she had been traveling with Amazons and militia, resting by day, hidden in the forest.  She remembered the tired peace of that, and yes, there was some of that in this gathering of Amazons.

Interesting. She stored away the observation to discuss with Xena when she returned, and slid her diary and the rolled hide case of quills into her saddlebag, winding the leather thong around it to hold the cover shut.  Then she paused, as she felt through the soles of her boots the faint impact of footsteps approaching.

Casually she looked over to confirm where her staff was resting, leaning against the saddles before she turned around and looked out past the campfire to see a group of women approaching her, the shadows of the night too deep yet for her to identify them.

She walked over to the stack of their gear and stood there behind them, the line of the staff resting against the top of her boots, an easy stoop away from being grabbed up if needed, aware that she herself was outlined in the red gold firelight.

She moved her cloak aside and hooked her thumbs into the tooled leather belt around her waist and moved her feet just a little apart as she watched the group approach, keeping her expression mild, but straining her eyes to see any carried weapons or intimation of threat.

Wishing, not for the first or the last time that she had Xena’s night eyes.

The gang resolved as it reached the limit of the light of her fire into about a dozen women, somewhat nondescript, wearing standard Amazon clothing.  They were all fairly young, and the one in the lead, a tall, dark haired woman, walked up to the edge of Gabrielle’s shelter and stopped.

“Hi.” Gabrielle said.

“Hello.” The dark-haired woman answered promptly.  “We would like to ask you a question, Queen Gabrielle, about something that happened, in the past, to our tribal sisters.”

Well then.  Gabrielle pondered that.  Could be anything.  “Sure.” She said. “If I can answer, I’d be glad to.” She motioned the Amazons forward. “C’mon in.”

The group edged forward and gathered under the tarp on the other side of the fire.  Gabrielle remained standing, with the gear between her and them, then she casually booted her staff up and caught it, wrapping her hand around the upper part of the weapon and leaning on it.

“Thank you.” The woman said. “My name is Mercia. Our tribe was one of the allies of Athens, in their war with Sparta.” She said. “Our queen, and our senior warriors went over the sea, and never came back.”

Gabrielle nodded somberly.

“Do you know what happened to them?”

Gabrielle looked at the group. “Are you all from the same tribe? They went on the boat to Athens from Therma?” She asked, watching them nod.

“Yes.” Mercia said. “We were on a hunting trip when they decided to go, and by the time we came back, the village was half empty.” She said. “We went the way we thought they might have gone, but we never found them, and someone said you might know what happened.”

Gabrielle added her other hand to the staff and exhaled. “I do.” She said. “So have a seat if you want to hear it.”

Thus invited, the women slowly settled into cross legged positions near the fire and rested their elbows on their knees, composing themselves to hear what she had to say.

She cast her mind back to those times and took a moment to compose the narrative in her head, considering where to start, what to leave out, and where to end the story.  There had been a lot going on.

Gabrielle remained standing, always better for her when telling a tale. “It was near harvest of that year.” She started, her voice dropping a little and deepening. “We were all setting up a fall market when a merchant train came through, and with it, a group of Amazons who were sent to us to invite us to join them in an offer of partnership with Athens in their war with Sparta.”

She shifted her stance and walked around a little, moving her staff with her. “We listened to the offer.” She said. “We declined to accept it.”  Here she paused, and regarded the group. “I declined it, but our senior warriors and my regent were in agreement to that.”

Mercia nodded. “We had heard that. You thought Athens would lose.”

Gabrielle smiled a little, and her voice took on a less formal tone. “Well.” She said. “While that’s true, the reason we didn’t want any part of it was our belief that the war was just for the sake of war.  There was no justification for it.”

“Does there have to be a justification to fight?” A chestnut-haired woman asked, on Mercia’s left.

Gabrielle stopped walking and wrapped her hands around her staff again, regarding them. “As someone who has been in several major wars, and seen the destruction of them, yeah, actually.  You should have a good reason for it.”  Here she paused, and waited, but the group remained silent.

“That delegation left and went on their way.” She continued. “But my Regent, Ephiny and her partner, Eponin decided they were going to go and catch up to them and try to reason with the tribes who were going to war.”

Slowly, Mercia shook her head. “They would not turn from it.”

“No.” Gabrielle half shrugged. “When they caught up to them, the assembled tribes there felt they were being lied to, and they captured and tied up the two of them, and took them aboard ship to Athens, to turn them over to the Athenian war council.”

Which, Gabrielle reflected after some long thought about it, was not completely outrageous. Unfair to Ephiny and Pony, and with horrific consequences, but if she’d put herself in that Amazon queen’s place…  She paused, and then mentally, silently shook her head.  Well no, she really couldn’t have done the same thing.


“The ship they boarded was caught by a horrible storm at sea and foundered on rocks.” Gabrielle decided to leave all the detail out. “Another ship following in the same path found them, and a few people were rescued, but the majority drowned when the ship sank.”

The women now were solemn and very quiet. “I guess your people were some of the few.” Mercia finally said. “Since you know the details.”

“They were.” Gabrielle said, in a mild tone. “And they told us how badly they were treated when they returned to Therma.”

“I guess you think the rest of them deserved it?” The chestnut-haired woman said, staring at her. “Because of that?”

Gabrielle faced them, leaning on her staff. “I never think anyone deserves it.” She responded quietly. “I was just glad to get them back unharmed.” She paused a moment. “But yeah, matter of fact I think it was a ratty thing for them to do to people who were honestly just trying to help them make an informed decision.”

Xena had told her the truth, of course.  That on that horrible night, when they’d found the sinking ship and Xena had rigged up what she’d called a breeches buoy and climbed across it, she’d found the two of them, and both Ephiny and Eponin had told her to let the rest of them die. Not to waste any of her time or energy on them.

And Xena had. She’d crossed back with them, and then seeing the other craft breaking apart, she’d cut the rope and called it a night, content with securing the mission she’d been sent on. There had been no regrets, not for Xena, and not for Ephiny and Eponin.

And remembering the rude arrogance of the women who had came to ask them to join their cabal for Athens, and what they had done to her two friends, Gabrielle had understood.

‘Bad enough.’ Ephiny had told her. ‘That I had it on my conscience you sending her after US.  Because if anything had happened to her I swear to you, I’d have wanted to go down with that ship rather than look you in the face.’

“So yes.” Gabrielle concluded, to all those watching eyes. “That’s what happened.”

They had wary looks now. “Seems like a big coincidence it was just your people that got off.” Mercia commented, after a significant, silent pause.

“Not a coincidence at all.” Xena’s voice cut in crisply, and she materialized out of the shadows behind them, coming to stand at the edge of their enclosure, hand resting on the front edge of the tarp. “I was on the ship that found them and made sure they were safely off.”

The Amazons had all turned, startled, and now found themselves in the sharp glitter of Xena’s stare, as she stood in the golden light of the fire.

Gabrielle remained silent, waiting to see what would happen next. She hadn’t been surprised when Xena stepped in, she’d sensed her presence some minutes earlier, but her aggressive stance was a little unexpected. After it started to be awkward, though, she cleared her throat. “Yes.” She said. “I asked Xena to track down where our people had gone and bring them back safely. She did.”

Another awkward silence followed, then Mercia got up and the rest of them scrambled to join her. “Thanks for the information.” She said briefly, and turned on her heel and left, the rest of them silently following.

Xena waited for them all to vanish into the distance before she turned and put her hands on her hips. “Amazons.” She said, in that tone of voice that gave the word an exasperated meaning.   “I didn’t even get to the campfire before I saw those harpies heading this way.”

“Well, Xe.” Gabrielle came over with her staff and joined Xena at the edge of the shelter. “I mean, if my whole tribe had disappeared, and I knew someone knew about it, I’d have asked too.” She said, in a reasonable tone. “I don’t mind that, but it was kind of ratty for them to assume there was ill intent.”

Xena eyed her. “There was.” She said. “You know perfectly well what Ephiny told me.”

“Yes.” Gabrielle tapped her staff against Xena’s shoulder. “But the ship was sinking hon. There wasn’t anything you could do anyway. We both know that. If it hadn’t been, would you have just had that captain turn and leave?”

Xena pondered that thoughtfully, chewing the inside of her lip. “Knowing what I knew after? Yes.” She said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did to take over Therma with those screaming meemies onboard, and there were too many for that brig anyway. Mighta sunk her. Make the whole thing a moot point.”

They regarded each other for a minute. “But yeah, I woulda have sent a rescue after.” Xena conceded, with a smile. “If things had been different.”

Gabrielle leaned against her. “But they weren’t.”

“They weren’t.” Xena confirmed. “It happened the way it did, and if it happened again, same thing? I’d do what I did all over again.”

Gabrielle nodded. “I know. Eph said the same thing.” She concluded. “At some point people have to take responsibility for their decisions, you know, Xe? Those Amazons decided to sell themselves to Athens and wanted to use our friends to make a few extra coins.” She looked up at Xena. “Maybe they did deserve the consequences of that.”

Xena leaned over and kissed her on the head.  “Wanna just get out of here?” She suggested in a low tone. “We can ride until dawn.”

Unexpected, and it reached in and touched that wandering nerve in her with a quick, tingling jolt.  The idea caught her imagination, and made her grin. “Sure.”  Gabrielle agreed with alacrity. “Let’s do it.” She cradled her staff and gave Xena a quick hug. “I’ll pack the hammock.”

“I’ll go saddle the horses.”


Continued in Part 3