Tempting Fates

Part 3

It was quiet near the paddock, and Xena wound her way through the trees and caught a glimpse of the horses standing under the shelter she’d made them.  She pushed through the branches, already sorting thoughts out in her head; deciding on the path they would take and what they might be likely to find, and how long they could ride before they stopped to rest.

Being on the move felt right, and that odd inner sense seldom failed her.

She reached the makeshift fence and jumped over it, landing with a soft crunch in the shed leaves on the other side, enough sound to wake the animals inside and Tanto’s head lifted and turned in her direction.   With a soft whinny he surged into motion and headed for her.

The other horses lifted their heads at that, seeing her and then Spot eased out from behind them and came towards her – dappled gray coat catching stray moonbeams as she approached while the rest stayed behind in wary attention.   

She greeted the two young horses as they came up to her and gave them a scratch behind the ears, aware of the soft sounds the camp around them and the crackle and pop of a log breaking in the firepit in the distance as she gave them quick kisses on the nose. “C’mon kids. Time to move along.”

The wind was coming from the far side of the plateau and blowing the smell of the burning wood away from them, along with the lingering taint of fish and in its place Xena could smell the golden ripeness of the grasslands and far off, the tang of juniper, and the clear sky promised a good night for riding.

She made a low clicking noise with her tongue, and the two horses moved after her heading for the gate, their hooves softly rustling the fallen leaves as they walked along. 

Behind them, the other horses stood watching.  Xena glanced back past Tanto’s shoulders as she undid the catch on the gates, feeling the faintest bit of regret that she wouldn’t have a further chance to handle the big wagon pullers, hoping they’d come to trust the Amazons eventually.

Tanto nudged her with his nose, and she opened the gate and stood aside to let them out, then she closed the gate with conscientious care, and turned back to her left, leading the two animals back through the trees in silence, a hand on either neck.

She passed no one, and saw no one in her short trip, though in the distance, she could hear the low murmur of voices in density, somewhere there was a conclave going on.  She idly wondered if they were a subject of it, then shrugged.

What if they were?  What if they didn’t like what Gabrielle had told them? Well maybe next time they’d leave herself and Gabrielle out of their inter-tribal issues.

She approached their little campsite, where Gabrielle had already taken down the sheltering tarp walls and neatly packed them into their cases, and the hammock was draped over the saddles, waiting for her attention.  Xena made another clicking noise with her tongue and the two horses stopped, lowering their heads to crop at the sparse grass around their campsite.

“Almost done.” Gabrielle stood up with a leather sack in her hand and started stuffing the hammock fabric into it. It was light and flexible, and she stood there packing it with automatic motions as Xena went to the pile of their gear and pulled out the saddle pads.

They worked in comfortable unison, tasks they often traded off, and could do almost without thought.  Xena finished buckling on Tanto’s pad and went back for his saddle, lifting it up and moving over to him, careful to show him the leather and wood construction before she swung it up and over onto his back.

Gabrielle finished her packing and went to grab Spot’s saddle blanket, a longer and thicker pad than the stallions and went over to settle it onto her back.   She buckled the front strap across the young mare’s chest and then fastened the girth strap. “There.” She straightened the edges, “We might need to get them blankets if it keeps up with this wind, Xe.”

“Might.” Xena finished putting on Tanto’s tack and loaded her saddlebags behind the saddle. “Ready to go have some adventures, boy?”

Tanto shifted his hooves and blew a long and wet exhale past her ear.

“Thanks.” Xena took hold of his reins and waited for Gabrielle to finish loading up Spot. “Let’s go out the back way here.” She indicated the rise they were on. “I’m done being entertainment.”

Gabrielle bit back a grin and mounted, arranging her cloak so it draped over her and across Spot’s shoulders. “Fine by me.” She drew in a breath and exhaled, flexing her hands on the reins. “I guess we’re not saying goodbye, huh?”

“You want to?”

“Not really.”

“Good. Me either.”

They eased out through the trees, moving across the leaf littered ground with almost inaudible hoofbeats, getting to the top of the rise and going down the other side, past a small rocky outcropping and around the curve of the slope where the ground started to descend once again.

The sky was a crisp black, full of stars and a sedate half-moon, and as they emerged back onto the grasslands, the brisk wind fluttered their clothes against their bodies as Xena urged Tanto into a rambling canter, and Spot sped up to follow him.

Gabrielle glanced behind her, watching the encampment slowly fade into the distance, the torches planted at the barrier at the front of the camp a deep, intense orange.  “Hey Xe?”

“Hey Gab?” Xena had Tanto’s reins in one hand, and her other hand was resting on her thigh.

“You think it’s a little odd that they’re guarding the front gate there and ignoring the whole back of that camp?”

Xena half turned and looked back the way they had come, studying the Amazon conclave for a long minute before she turned back around. “I think they don’t expect anyone to approach from this side.” She said. “Now why is that?”

She looked out ahead of them, the grasslands extending off into the horizon, wide and empty, the ground cover ruffling in the wind, broken occasionally by clumps of shrubs and the occasional lonely looking and somewhat spindly tree. “Guess we’ll find out.”

“Guess we will.” Gabrielle looked ahead of them with a sense of pleasure, at seeing things unknown to her.

Far off, where the land gently lifted to a ridge, a line of larger trees could be seen and past that, they couldn’t yet see.  Xena searched her memory, but in a moment she shook her head and settled down into her saddle. “We’ll keep bearing west. Gotta cross a road sometime that’ll lead us to the coast.”

Gabrielle nodded, tipping her head back to look up at the stars. “Yeah that makes sense.” She snugged her cloak a little more firmly around her. “Ready for a story?” She asked. “It’ll keep both of us awake.”

Xena chuckled. “Let’s wait until we get up to that ridge, and then we can walk the horses. Give your voice a break trying to yell over all the hooves.”

Gabrielle was content with that, spending some time as they rode sorting through the possible subjects of a story that would keep Xena’s interest, one she hadn’t heard many times before.   The fact they would be searching for a ship to get on tickled her imagination, and she settled on a tale about pirates she thought Xena might like.

What would the pirates do? Gabrielle wove the structure of the story in her head, creating the pirate ship, a big multi sailed brig, stolen from some great navy in a battle led by a doughty pirate leader who had once been a captive of the navy and bound to be made to walk the plank.

That was a good start.


At dawn they were riding along the ridgeline, still heading mostly west and a little north as the sun painted the sky to the east in shades of delicate pink and orange. 

The surrounding plains were still empty, but very wide open and seeing the endless rolling shallow hills Xena got an understanding of why the area wasn’t well settled. There was no place to build a defense if you were just a small holder.  Anything and anyone could just come riding through and wipe you out.

Even the small towns near Amphipolis had some protection. They had stands of dense forest to provide wood for stockades, elevation to climb to escape floods, or fire, or raiders, and in the worst of times, caves to shelter in. 

Here on the flatlands, you would have to build everything up from scratch, with material you didn’t have, or must cart in from elsewhere, and you were open to wind and storm that could blow across the grasslands and lay a town flat.

There were no roads, and no cities, everything was clinging to the coast, and as they rode along mile after mile of bland nothing Xena felt a grudging sympathy for the Amazon tribes who lived there.  “They should listen to you and go up into the mountains.” She finally said, after hours of riding.

Gabrielle looked up from the waterskin she was taking a sip from. “The Amazons?”

“Yeah.” Xena stood up in her stirrups and gazed ahead of them. “Let’s stop by that tree stand up there near the bend of that last hill.” She said. “We can catch a nap.”

Gabrielle welcomed the words. “Sounds great.” She considered their supplies. “We’ve got some odds and ends we can throw together for a snack, and we can give the horses a break.” She shaded her eyes and looked ahead.  “That’s a pretty big patch of trees.. you think there’s water?”

“I think there’s water.” Xena confirmed. “Let’s see if I’m right.”

Xena was usually right about that sort of thing, and so when they reached the stand of trees and passed between the first line of them, they immediately heard running water trickling across the ground.

The small patch of trees was clustered around a depression in the ground, and the dirt in the depression had been scoured clean by a small, but burbling spring that emerged from a half-buried outcropping of rock and then ran off to the west, where the foliage followed it.

“Very nice.” Gabrielle gladly got down off Spot’s back, and straightened her own, flexing her hands and shaking them from the tension of holding the reins for so many hours. 

It smelled nice in the trees, she could hear the branches overhead knocking together in the wind, and that brought the scent of the leaves to her, and moss growing around the spring and the rich smell of dirt. “Acorns, hon.” She noted, as Xena dismounted. “And wood and running water. We’re golden.”

“And squirrels.”  Xena said. “Life is good.”

Gabrielle slipped her gathering bag over her head and tied Spot’s reins up out of her way. “Go get a snack, Spotty.”

The two horses meandered over to the edge of the trees and stepped back out into the grassy area, lowering their heads and ripping up the yellowing grass with enthusiasm.

Xena had pulled down their saddlebags and found a dry piece of ground for them, removing her small hand ax and moving off into the trees to collect some firewood.

Gabrielle also started exploring, searching along the ground for fallen acorns and into the foliage for useful herbs.

She glanced up and smiled, struck again at how naturally they both had fallen into the patterns of their wandering past, the familiar tasks feeling friendly and natural and an almost relaxing change from their regular day to day life as it was now.

It was rare, when they traveled, that they’d camp during the day.  She was used to gathering whatever was around as the sun was setting, or after it already had, in the misty dimness of twilight.  But there had been those isolated times when for whatever reason, timing, or weather or just because that they’d stop in the wild and spend the day and overnight.

It had always felt to Gabrielle like kind of a holiday, and as she stepped through the early morning spears of bright, autumn sunlight, it still did feel that way right now.

After the rains, she suspected she’d find…ah.  She spotted a thickly foliaged bit of ground and the robust grays and browns of mushrooms. She diverted over at once and carefully examined them, pleased to find two kinds she knew were safe, and most important, that wouldn’t make Xena uncomfortable.

She threw them into the carry sack, already imagining the thick and tasty soup that would result and then she swerved across the ground to a set of feathery plants, kneeling and sorting through them, rubbing the leaves gently against her fingertips and then sniffing the resulting oils.

Handfuls of the leaves and stems followed the mushrooms into her bag, and she moved on, hearing to the right of her the soft thunks of Xena breaking up limbs, and overhead the chatter and chirp of birds up in the oak trees canopy.

The patch of trees was small, and it didn’t take long for her to collect what she could and make her way back to where they’d dropped their gear, to find Xena already kneeling next to a cleared bit of earth, freshly dug up and irregular shaped rocks in a rough circle in it, building a fire.

Not long after, they were relaxing by the fire, a cup of freshly brewed tea in their hands, looking out over the flatlands ahead of them towards the far horizon. “Glad we left.” Gabrielle said, after a period of comfortable silence.

“Yes.” Xena responded, drawing the word out a little. “Something there was making me itch.”

“I know.”

“Not even sure what it was.” Xena continued. “Just something.” She concluded in a mild tone. “Making my nape hairs stand up.”

Had she felt like that? Gabrielle slowly sipped her tea, enjoying the lemony mint tang of the fresh herbs. It hadn’t been comfortable, the Amazons all relative strangers, knowing they were being watched, but she was, truthfully, used to that and so was Xena.  

Once she had started talking to the other queens, the conversation had been amiable, aside from the reaction that last night, everyone seemed friendly.

But now, here alone with Xena, with just the quiet wilderness around them, she felt a certain relaxation – of both her perceptions and physically, and she nodded. “Yeah. There was something off.”  She said. “Glad we moved on, and it was a nice ride last night.”

Xena had the scroll they’d received out and she was studying it.  “It was.” She murmured absently.  “We can keep along this ridgeline.” She rolled the scroll up and put it into her saddlebag.  “As long as we keep heading for the coast we’ll run into route.”

She settled back to lean against Tanto’s saddle and crossed her boots at the ankle, drawing in a deep breath of the cold, clean air.   There was nothing on the wind that even hinted at humanity, and even when she stretched her hearing out, there was only the grasses in the wind, and the branches clicketing against each other.  “It’s nice here.”

Gabrielle had pulled out her diary and the rolled case that held her quills and ink.  She gently sharpened the edge of a quill against the small and well used stone she kept in the case. “It is, and you know, I’m not even tired. I thought I would be.”

“Oh yeah? Me either.” Xena eyed her. “When you’re done with that, we could do a little sparring.”

Gabrielle smiled. “We could.” She agreed.  “That’d be fun.” She dipped her quill into the pottery jar of ink and started writing, feeling the warmth as Xena spread her arm out along the piled-up tack and settled it behind her, and her long fingers tickled the skin on the back of her neck.


The next morning’s rising sun found them on the move, riding along the top line of a meandering slope just a bit higher than the ground on either side of it.  Far ahead they could see the ridge bend to the south and past that, just at the very edge of the horizon there were some trees.

Xena had Tanto’s reins draped over her saddlebow and tucked under her thigh, while she worked to carve something from a piece of the wood they’d had left over from the fire the previous day. 

Gabrielle was riding right next to her, relating her pirate story.

The horses kept up a steady walking pace, their heads swinging from side to side as they observed their surroundings, and the weather remained fine – cool autumn air, and sunshine graced their travel, and there was plenty of ground cover to nibble on when they stopped for a rest.

“Why pirates?” Xena asked, as there was a pause in the tale.

“Because we’re heading for boats.” Gabrielle said. “I’m trying to psych myself up for the trip.”

Xena started laughing. “C’mon. I can hit your pressure points if it gets that bad.”  She glanced up from her carving. “Matter of fact, that’s what I’m carving. A button bracelet for your wrist.”

“Are you?” Gabrielle set aside the pirate for a moment, her voice lifting in delight. “Really?”

“Really.”  Xena twisted sideways to display her work. “See? That dip will get one of the pebbles I found in the spring. Wrap it around your arm, and it presses against that point.”

“Xena, that’s amazing.”

A sound carried on the wind abruptly made them both look up and forward, to see coming across and down the next rolling ridge over, a small train of three wagons, pulled by oxen, and two horse riders alongside them heading across their path.

It was the first human presence they’d seen since leaving the Amazons and they kept their forward pace up, as the wagon train slowly approached, heading across flats.

Xena studied them. The horses were rough coated and unremarkable, both a dark bay color with long manes and tails, and some feathering along their legs. Their riders had on equally unremarkable working clothes, natural colored overshirts and britches with a short, hide cloak covering their shoulders.

The wagons had drivers, and they were covered.

Nothing seemed intimidating or out of the ordinary, only of interest because of the scarcity of any other people in the area.   Xena put her carving knife back into its sheath and the wood into her saddle bag and took back hold of Tanto’s reins, shifting a little and resettling her knees along the stallion’s shoulders.

“Wonder where they’re going?” Gabrielle said, after a moment.

“If they stop we can ask them.” Xena said. “Looks like traders maybe?”

The travelers had spotted them, and they could see heads turning to look as they approached crossing each other’s paths.  The wagons started up the shallow slope to the ridge and the animals in the yokes tossed their heads as they threw their weight forward, pulling the wagons with some effort.

“They’ve got something in those wagons.” Gabrielle remarked, watching them. 

The oxen were big animals, with gray and maroon splotched coats in a striking pattern, and lightly curved horns over their heads and appeared well cared for and as they pulled they lowed a few times, the sound echoing across the grass.

Now that they were closer, Xena could see the two men on horseback and she was not surprised when they curved off away from the wagons and turned in their direction, putting the two horses into a light trot to intercept them.

“I guess we’re going to get a chance to ask them.” Gabrielle let her right hand drop down to the ties holding her staff and loosened them, though the oncoming men didn’t look particularly threatening, or even armed and she was riding next to Xena, who was certainly both.

You never really knew, and it paid to be prepared.

Xena had been riding with her cloak hood down and the cloak itself pushed back over her shoulders and she reached back to clear the hood away from her sword hilt in a casual manner, then she let her hand drop back down to her thigh and kept Tanto moving at a steady pace forward.

“Hello, travelers!” The man closest to them called out.  His voice was calm, and cheerful. “A word if I could!”

Obligingly, they angled towards him and then slowed and pulled to a halt as the two men closed in.  Tanto lifted his head and his nostrils flared, and he pricked his ears forward at the two animals plodding forward.  Spot merely regarded them with sedate interest.

The man who had hailed them was stocky and his face was relatively young, but fully bearded.  He had dark brown, curly hair and steady eyes and a broad somewhat flat planed face.

“What can we do for you?” Gabrielle spoke up, as they halted.  She leaned forward on her saddlebow and held her reins lightly in her left hand. “Nice to see some folks out here, we haven’t seen many on our path.”

The man smiled briefly at her. “That is true, ma’am.  We have not seen many since we left our old home. I am Maikel, and this is my brother Mason, and we’re looking for new lands to settle.”

Gabrielle eased Spot forward a few paces. “Well, that’s an adventure for you.” She said, easily. “My name’s Gabrielle, and this is Xena, and we’re heading for the coast.. what kind of lands are you looking for? We came from the east.”

Maikel looked behind him at the wagons. “We are farmers.” He said. “Where we come from, we raised olives, and made olive oil, and grew lemons. Mason makes them into cordial.” He gestured at the wagons. “We brought soil, and seeds and some seedlings with us, we look for hilly lands, with loose, quickly draining soils. Have you seen such on your travels?”

“That sounds like a good cash crop.” Xena spoke up for the first time. “Why are you moving?”

Maikel settled back into his saddle. “Ah, it will sound sad, but there are too many other farmers in the area. Too many to make a profit. We must sell at almost what it costs.” He looked behind him. “We went to the north at first, but found no suitable places, so now we are heading to the east.”

He regarded Xena with interest. “From where do you come, lady? To travel such, under arms.”

“Borderlands near Thrace.” Xena answered, briefly. “The arms come in handy.”

“Ah yes.” He nodded. “We have heard that.” He leaned on his saddle. “We are traveling with the workers from our former farm, and our family, everything we have is in the wagons. We were hoping to find a place to settle before the winter.”

Here were, Gabrielle realized, the very thing that the Amazons had dreaded, this migration of settlers looking for new land to farm on, to bring others to, to raise their families and create hamlets and then towns and then, perhaps, even cities.

And yet, could she blame them?  What they wanted was what anyone would want, a place to live and sustain, to raise your family. “Well, I can say that east of here, I don’t know that the weather will be friendly for that.” She said, in a regretful tone. “The winters are hard. We live up in the mountains and by the time we get home, it’ll be snowing.”

Maikel sighed. “No, that much cold is not good.”

Xena tilted her head thoughtfully. “Your best bet is to keep going south along the coast.”  She suggested. “Most of the crops we saw on the way here are ground crops, wheat, and straw. Olives and lemons sound more like what I’ve seen near Athens.”

Both brothers exchanged glances, and Mason shook his head. “No.” Maikel sighed. “That’s not the place for us.” He looked off to the east. “We will keep going a little way then. Maybe we will find a place we can work, if only for a while.”

“Sorry about that.” Gabrielle said, in a sympathetic tone.

“No need, we will be guided and provided for.” Maikel raised his hand and then turned his horse around. “Good journey to you.”

“And you.” Gabrielle called after him as his brother hesitated, as though he wanted to ask another question, then merely shrugged, and followed back towards the wagons.

The wagons had paused at the top of the ridge to wait for them, and now Xena and Gabrielle could see the third one had passengers. The back was folded open, and several women and a few children had gotten out to stretch their legs, and the women were shaking out some colorful woven blankets from the back.

Maikel called out, and they all climbed back up to the wagon and one of the drivers started boosting the children back in, as the women folded their blankets and stood waiting to join them in getting back on board. The children were laughing, and the women looked relaxed, tipping their faces to the sun as they stretched their arms.

“C’mon.” Xena guided Tanto down the slope to move around them and Gabrielle followed. They circled behind the wagon and as they passed they could see the interior, full of stores, the floor of it covered with clothes that the passengers were settling down on.  “That’s a long bumpy ride.”

“Better them than us.” Gabrielle agreed, as they passed the wagons and started back up the slope to the ridge. “Hope they end up finding a place.” She half turned and watched as the wagons started moving again, going down the far slope and heading across the grasslands.  “At least they were nice.”

“Mm.” Xena grunted softly. “Probably too nice.” She added. “Those that have good crop lands for that sort of thing don’t like to share them.”


They finally struck a decent sized road in the late afternoon.  Coming down from a slight rise they could see it in the distance, and the welcome sight of a small river that it was following alongside it.  “Ah.” Xena said, in a satisfied tone. “Guessing if we follow that it’ll get us where we need to go.”

The river was coming down the same rise, and as they got closer, they could see the motion of the water heading west.  The road running alongside it started at the river’s bend, where it was regular in width, but they could see the double rut traces in the grass beginning much closer to where they were showing it was used with some regularity.

Both road and river stretched into the distance, but in that distance they could see some elevation ahead, and trees and Gabrielle suspected that maybe soon that would also include habitation and though it was good to get to getting, as Xena would say, the time alone together in the wild had been great.

The weather had moderated a bit, it was still cool and breezy, but the sun remained prevalent and as they reached the bend and joined both the road and the river, a silvery flashing form jumped clear of the surface and then disappeared back into the water. “Ah.”

“I sense fish for dinner.” Xena had finished her carved bracelet, and was now working on another project, as the horses hooves came up onto the road and the sound altered from a soft thump to a sharper, more distinct clopping.

They continued along the road as the sun dipped in the west ahead of them, throwing long shadows behind them as they passed first small shrubs, then longer expanses of hedgerows along the riverbanks, and a flock of birds were visible ahead, circling.

Xena could see the slope of the road pitching upward, as they came out of the flatlands, and she was glad to see the hills ahead of them and the rock outcroppings that were just visible at the edge of the horizon. “Glad to get out of the open.”

Gabrielle glanced at her. “Are we expecting trouble?”

Xena just turned her head and gave her a look in return.

Gabrielle chuckled. “Yeah, I know. But it’s been quiet since we left the Amazons.”  She stretched in her saddle, already looking forward to the ending of the day. “We haven’t even seen anyone aside from that family of settlers. Just a lot of grass and skyline.”

Xena cocked her head slightly and listened to the wind, hearing the birds calling, and the rustling of the river waters, but not yet any sound of herds, or the distinctive whack of an ax.  They would have one more night of the wilderness, she decided, before they started bumping into people.

Which was fine.  She put away her carving knife and started scanning the horizon, looking for a likely spot for them to camp.  As the elevation continued to rise, she saw a curve in the road ahead, and to the left-hand side of it, an upthrust of rock that extended a ledge with enough space to provide some shelter.

Gabrielle was riding in silence next to her, gazing off to the right with faintly unfocused eyes, her mind busy with some thought or story idea, very content to wait for her to decide where to go. 

Xena reached out and tapped her on the leg, then pointed to the rock, getting a thumbs up response as she started to angle Tanto’s steps that way.  

The horses had been traveling all day, and they lifted their heads as the breeze brought the scent of thick foliage to them, as eager to get to the end of the trail as their riders were and they picked up their pace, moving from a walk into a gentle canter without any prompting.

“They know what’s up.” Gabrielle said, calling out over the sound of eight hooves rumbling.

“They do.” Xena agreed, as they approached the overhang, the last bit of the sun disappearing behind the still distant hills. “I only breed smart horses.”

The outcropping was as satisfactory as she’d expected it to be, and they quickly got camp arranged, Xena dropped her cloak on top of the saddles and pushed her sleeves up. “I’m gonna go see if I can grab us dinner.”

“Be right there after you.” Gabrielle was unpacking her cooking kit. “There’s some wild berries on the other side of that set of bushes. I’m going to grab them to stuff whatever you get.”

“Yum.” Xena casually tied her hair back into a tail and headed for the road, crossing it’s emptiness, and then going through the underbrush edging the river, which was thick and prickly and caught on her woven overshirt.

It took a little wrangling, but she eased a path through the leaves and ended up on the edge of the slowly widening water, some small trees angling their branches over its surface and providing her with both cover and a handhold as she stepped down off the bank and into the water.

It was cold, as she expected it to be, but not frigid and the slope quickly bottomed as the surface reached her chest, going only slightly deeper as she edged forward into the main part of the flow.   She braced one boot and looked hard into the water, feeling the downward descending surface under her foot and deciding to try her luck at this depth.

It was twilight, heading into dark, and she let the silt kicked up by her movement settle and be moved downstream as she went still, and waited.

It didn’t take that long, before she felt a bump on her knee, and then, somewhat unexpectedly, a nibble.  Her eyebrows jerked up and she plunged her hands down into the water, grabbing hold of a substantial length of firm wriggling fish body, straightening to pull it up out of the water and into view.


Xena almost dropped the fish, but she kept hold of its lashing and half turned, to see Gabrielle standing by the path she’d made, holding their water pot. “One enough?”

“One of that size.” Gabrielle was staring at the large animal, who was twisting in Xena’s grip. “What is that?”

“Move.” Xena started to make her way back to the shore. “It tried to take a hunk out of my leg.”

Gahh.” Gabrielle didn’t argue the point. She scrambled back away from the bank and cleared a path as she watched her partner slosh back up towards the shore, holding the large fish tightly in both hands.  It was opening and closing its mouth, and flaring it’s fins, each of them with sharp looking spines on the ends of their edges. “Obviously has no idea who it bumped into.”

“Obviously.” Xena got to the shore and climbed up out of the water, then turned and faced the small tree, whipping her body around and smacking the fish’s head against the trunk. The animal itself was as long as one of her arms and thick, with a curling, muscular body. “It’s a sturgeon.”

“A sturgeon.” Gabrielle watched the fish get knocked senseless. “Bet that’s good grilled.”

“Bet it is.” Xena got her fingers into the fishes gills, and it finally stopped struggling. “Glad I grabbed it when I could see what the hell it was.” She squeezed back through the bushes and emerged back into the dimness of twilight, the road’s surface showing lighter under her boots as she walked across it, herself, and the fish dripping river water in a dark stream behind them.

Gabrielle got the water she’d come for and then she stood, looking around at the branches around her.  She put the pot down and got out her belt knife, stripping the small tree of lightly leaved flexible limbs, gathering them together in her hand before she picked up the pot by its handle and started back towards the camp.

Xena had hung the fish by a nearby branch and was building a fire in a hollow of the rocky upthrust. “Figure you can put branches over that for a grill.”

“And I even have the branches.” Gabrielle lightly tapped her on the head with them. “We make such a good team.”

They settled down to wait for the fish to cook, and Xena stripped out of her boots and leathers, exchanging them for dry ones as she set the river-soaked ones out to dry.  Then she took a seat with her back to the stone wall and set her sharpening stone out for use.

Gabrielle took the fishes entrails and wrapped them up, walking out from the camp and recrossing the road to move back through the bushes to the riverside.  She tossed the entrails out into the water, and was rewarded by a flurry of motion, glad she could return something in trade for their dinner.

She knelt and washed the fabric she’d wrapped the guts in out, then squeezed out the river water and stayed there for a moment, just listening to the sound of the water rushing by.  She had always liked the sound, remembering the time she’d spent out as a child with the sheep flock, sitting next to the river that ran past Potadeia while the animals cropped grass nearby.

Always wondering where the river went, and would she ever know? Gabrielle had to chuckle a little at her younger self, in that wistful wondering.  Now she looked out over the river surface, going past in the newly risen moonlight and drew in a breath of it’s rich, pungent smell and knew that she’d certainly find out where this river went and might possibly wish she hadn’t.

That was always the thing about having adventures.  She savored and enjoyed and often regretted some of them. But she never wanted to not have them.   With a satisfied exhale, she stood up and ducked the branches, heading back to the camp.

She could already smell the rich tang of the fish cooking, it’s body stuffed with herbs she’d collected and as she crossed the road back she stretched out her arms in the moonlight, just enjoying the moment of this adventure in the moment and not worrying about what would come down the road, finally coming to a point in life when she could do that.

It was so damn liberating.  It had taken all this time for her to finally understand how to dislocate her vivid imagination from what might be, and just live.

She let her arms drop and continued back to the camp, twirling the piece of linen in the air.


What a gorgeous day today was.  Xena and I started off this morning and we traveled all day heading west, over all kinds of endless open ground with not much but a few ground hogs and a flock of birds flying overhead.  I worked some more on my pirate story, and Xena carved things- it was just like old times.

Tomorrow, we think we’re going to start hitting towns. Neither of us have been to this coast, so it will be something all new, and that’s always interesting but I don’t regret a minute of the time we had to just wander by ourselves. It was like being on a holiday.

Gabrielle looked up from her diary, looking past the grill to where Xena was doing sword drills, easy, relaxed ones, her tall figure outlined in the firelight with only spots of moonlight coming down through the trees to catch on her blade.

These were not the serious bouts, this was something to just shake out the kinks from being in the saddle all day long and as she watched she could see the start of one of the more intricate passes, tightly controlled motions of her hands and wrists that brought the tip of the sword into a blur of motion.

It had an eerie beauty.  Gabrielle could see the look of intent concentration as the speed increased, and wondered, briefly what would happen if she tossed a piece of fabric into that mesh of steel.  Would it get wrapped on the end?  Would it go flying off? Or would the carefully sharpened edge cut a lattice in the fabric?

Would it end up looking like a snowflake?

With a faint shake of her head, she went back to her writing. 

I wonder how things are going back at home.  We’re going to be away longer than we expected – I thought we would be heading home by now, and here we are, heading for some place even further away.  Will everyone start to worry about us? Or will it just be like, ‘as usual things happen’ for everyone?

Well, things do happen. We could ignore Iolaus’ note and not go – but Xena thinks there is something behind him asking us to come all the way to that place they ended up at for a birthday party, and knowing Iolaus and Hercules, I kinda see where she’s coming on that one.

It’s probably trouble. We know that. I mean, yeah I’m going to shop in the port city for something to bring for the party but honestly I expect we’re going to get there and find chaos already happening and it’ll just be one of those days.

As usual.  

There isn’t really any way for us to send a message back home, either.  We don’t know people here.

Gabrielle chewed on the end of her quill.  Then she gently blew on the page to dry it and set the pen down. “Think we’re ready here, Xe.” She got up and went to the makeshift grill. “Yeah, we are.”

“Almost done.” Xena said, slowing the drill up and coming to a halt, bringing her blade up and tapping her own forehead with it.  Then she walked over to where she’d hung her sheath on a convenient branch and put the sword away. “Smells great.”

“For something that tried to bite you, it does.” Gabrielle shifted the branch grill over away from the fire and transferred some of the grilled fish to one of their wooden plates, handing it over and then piling on to a second. “Oh yeah, that’s going to be good.”

Xena captured a piece of the fish from her plate with her teeth as she was walking back to where their bedrolls were. “Is.”  She turned and gracefully sat down, waiting for Gabrielle to come over and join her.  “That’s good fish.” She chewed another piece thoughtfully. “Wow. That was worth the chomp.”

Gabrielle sampled a piece and her pale eyebrows lifted. The fish was creamy and mild tasting with an interesting, complex taste. “Ooh. No credit to me. That’s just great tasting fish.”  She said, after swallowing. “Didn’t even need those herbs I stuffed it with.”  She extended her legs and sat the platter down on her thighs.  “I’m going to let the rest of that smoke a little so we can take it with us.”



The first light of dawn flowing from the east across the open plains caught Xena as she crossed the road back, fresh from a quick bath in the cold waters.  She had on only her underlay, and she was squeezing the water out of her hair as she walked barefoot across the dew chilled ground.

A bird sailed overhead, and she looked up at it, seeing the wingspread and the body type.  “Ah.” She paused and nodded. “We’re going in the right direction.”

“What was that hon?” Gabrielle was packing up what was left of the fish, after they’d had some for breakfast.

“Seabird.” Xena commented briefly as she returned to the camp. “Hunting inland.”

Gabrielle settled her cloak over her shoulders, her own hair damp. “So.” She clipped her gathering bag onto the ring on Spot’s saddle. “We’ll probably get to a town today.”

Xena was sliding into her armor. “Yep.”

“We going to tell a tale or just head on through and get to the port?” Gabrielle went around and scoured the now cleared camp to make sure she hadn’t left anything behind. “Do we want to find out anything about what the Amazons were saying?”

“Do we?” Xena returned the question. “We should listen up for anything about a new cult.” She deferred the question. “Depends on the town. Might be a chance to pick up local chatter.”

Gabrielle paused with her elbow leaning against Spot’s shoulder and nodded. “If there’s an inn, we can stay and hear the talk. I can figure out a story that might spark someone to tell a tale back to me.” She said, in a decisive tone. “We’ll be an unknown.. I’m guessing.”

“Might, might not.” Xena got her sword settled into its sheath and moved to mount Tanto. “Ya never know how far those stories of yours get.”

Well, Gabrielle had to admit. That was true.  She pulled herself up onto Spot and they left the shelter of the rock overhang and moved back out onto the road, heading now pretty much due west, the sun rising warm on their backs and projecting their shadows ahead of them.

They had been on the road for two candle marks before they saw any signs of habitation, and when they did, it was just a collection of very small cottages just off the road, opposite a roughly made bridge and ford over the river.

On the far side of the river the bridge led down to a dirt path heading off to the north, winding and rough, and along the river there were coracles tied up and two women were standing on the bridge, fishing, wearing light cloaks whose hoods were up against the brisk wind.

There was a marked off plot of ground to the south of the cottages, and this was being tended by three older children, moving along, and gathering what was growing there and putting into woven bags over their shoulders.  A man was standing on a ladder leaning against the wall of the nearest of the cottages, replacing some thatch.

Everyone heard the hoofbeats approaching and the man climbed hastily down from the ladder and started towards them, wiping his hands on his apron as they came closer.

Looked like a simple enough hamlet.  Gabrielle studied the man as he came closer, and from her peripheral vision she could see the women turning on the bridge to watch and then the children also stand up in their little field to stare at them, eyes wide.  Where they didn’t get visitors often.

“Good morning.” Gabrielle said, as they reached the point in the road that it crossed the hamlet, and the man came into their path.  They slowed the horses to a halt and waited for him to come closer.

“Good day, travelers.” The man said, in a cheerful voice. “What’s the news of the road? We don’t see many who pass along this way coming from the east.”

Xena loosened the reins and let Tanto sidle over to the edge of the road, where a thick tuft of grass beckoned, and she took advantage of the angle of the horse’s body while he nibbled to casually inspect the homestead. 

The yard was a homely subsistence garden, she could see herbs, their leaves ruffling in the breeze and a small patch of wheat that ringed the edges, protecting the plants inside with their thick stalks.  The kids were gathering berries from squat, dense bushes and inside the grounds two chicken were scratching and pecking.

The kids looked decently fed, and past them she could see a rough fenced enclosure with two goats in it, and the goats had good, glossy coats, and between two of the small cottages she could see further enclosures and hear the soft lowing of a cow.

The children were still staring at her, their collecting bags held forgotten in their hands, and Xena let her eyes focus on them, giving them a grin, and a little wave of her hand, then sat quietly, waiting to see what they were going to do.

After a glance at their parents, two of the children wandered over to the edge of the garden to get a better look at her, with wary, fascinated eyes.  A boy and a girl, both with tow brown hair and built along similar lines. The third child, another girl, stayed where she was, her carrysack slung over her neck and her hands gripping the straps.

Xena kicked her boots loose from her stirrups and then she slid down off Tanto’s back, half turning her body and picking up one of his forehooves to inspect it as she watched the two kids from her peripheral vision.  The stallion continued his munching, stretching his neck out to find a better stand of grass.

She let his hoof return to the earth and stood there a minute, sorting his mane hair before she glanced up and over at the kids again, then she casually strolled over to the edge of the garden across from where they were standing. “Hi.”

“Hi.” The boy answered after a brief hesitation. “Is that a real sword?”

Xena chuckled. “Yes, it is.” 

“Are you gonna go fight with someone?” The girl spoke up, edging closer.

“Only if I have to.” 

So we came overland from the east, from the borderlands.” Gabrielle was amiably supplying.  “We had a bad storm for a couple of days, but so far it’s been a good trip. We just found the road, so I can’t say much more about it.”

The man nodded. “Yes, it does not run much further east from here, there is not much beyond save the barrens.” He agreed. “Are you bound for the coast? There were wagons came across the bridge from the north a day or so past, heading for Costas, for the harvest festival.”

“We are.” Gabrielle said. “Glad to hear there are others on the road.”

The man turned and gestured at the cottages. “We are an outpost.” He turned and smiled at her. “But it’s peaceful here at the ford. It’s our second harvest here, and I have sent word to my brother who lives near Costas to come here and settle.”

Ah. Another indication of what the Amazons had related. “It seems so remote here.” Gabrielle said, casually. “It’s very brave of you to bring your families so far from town.”

The two women had come down off the bridge, leaving their fishing poles propped against the wooden steps up to it and had approached while Gabrielle and the man had been talking.  One of them looked past her to the garden, where Xena was talking to the two children. “It’s better here.” One of them said. “Too much fighting, there.”

Gabrielle followed her glance. “Yes, there’s a lot of fighting where we come from. I get it.” She looked back at the woman. “As you can see, we come prepared for it.” She patted the surface of her staff, tucked under her knee in its holders. “We’re heading to Costas to take ship across the sea, to visit a friend.” She added. “Glad to hear they’ve got a festival on.”

The man slowly nodded. “Aye you’ll find that sure enough, and if you’ve the coin, a ship as well but I’ll warn you traveler, they tax strangers heavy in those parts.” He said. “You seem a kindly woman, hope they treat you right.”

“Is she a soldier?” The second woman asked, indicating Xena with a jerk of her head. “Could get work there, I reckon.”

Gabrielle fondly studied Xena’s tall form. “Oh, we’re not looking for work, but thank you for the warning.” She said. “Xe’s not a soldier, in the traditional sense, and we both have some coin. We’ll be careful though.” She casually looked past the man and the two women and spotted, from her vantage on Spot’s back, the crude shape of an altar, between the last cottage and the road to the east, carved with the sigil of Demeter.

The man followed her glance. “We keep the traditional ways.” He said, in a proud tone. “We give of our bounty, and she rewards us, as it should be.”

Gabrielle nodded. “As we do at home as well.”  She agreed promptly. “May I leave a token?” She asked, her voice lifting softly in question.

The entire attitude of the family changed, from cautious wariness to a far more genuine welcome. “Yes, of course!” The man said. “My name is Yosel, and this is my wife Bettina, and her sister Alma.” He gestured to the women. “And your name, traveler?”

“Gabrielle.” She dismounted from Spot’s back and the horse sidestepped over to the side of the road and joined Tanto.  “Let’s go over to the altar and I can tell you a story I know about Demeter.” She said. “Back home, I’m something of a storyteller.”

Xena heard her, and she turned where she was standing and put her hands on her hips, an extremely droll expression on her face.

The settlers didn’t seem to notice. The woman’s eyes lit up. “I’ll get us all a drink of our new blackberry wine.” She trotted off towards the nearest cottage.  “Alma, bring the children over.  They love stories.”

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged knowing looks. “We’ve been riding since dawn. Break sounds good.” Xena gave a brief wave of her hand and headed back over towards where the horses were standing. “And I love a good story myself.”


“You know it just got too busy for us.” Bettina explained, as they shared a cup of wine once the storytelling was done. “Too many arguments and change.”

“Change.” Alma agreed. “People came from over the water, and they brought strange traditions with them, and sometimes they mocked ours.” She indicated the altar.

“Coin matters.” Yosel swirled the wine in his carved wooden cup. “As it does, we all know it. But to them it matters most.”

Gabrielle was seated on a backless short bench, her boots extended out ahead of her and comfortably crossed. “Yes, we’ve had some problems with that ourselves.” She agreed in a mild tone. “Hard to find a balance, you know? It’s natural for people to want to prosper.”

Yosel nodded. “That is truth.” He said. “And yet there is more to life. We like it better out here.” He glanced around the small homestead. “Lonely, a bit, but we’ll grow.” He smiled at Gabrielle. “That was a grand story. Your town must be lucky to have you if it’s a sample.”

Xena was leaning against the edge of the altar shelter, her arms casually crossed over her chest. “Oh, they are.” She spoke up before Gabrielle could. “So, did all these newcomers bring their own worship ideas with them? That they made fun of ours?”

The two women and the man thought for a minute in silence. “I wouldn’t say that.” Yosel said. “At least, not in a public way. Just that there wasn’t time for what they called superstitious nonsense.”

Xena’s eyebrows hiked.

“Interesting.” Gabrielle mused. “So, they think gods don’t exist?”

Alma shrugged. “Ours anyway.” She said. “There’s a large temple there, in the port city, to Athena and Apollo and we went there once, to make an offering.” She looked at the altar. “We are devoted to Demeter, because we are farmers, but we know to pay respects to the rest.” She said. “We found they had set up a market on the steps of the temple and blocked entrance.”

“Ahh.” Gabrielle glanced sideways and met Xena’s eyes. “Got it.” She stood up from her stool. “Well, we’ll be careful there and we thank you for telling us about it. We’d better get moving if we want to reach shelter before night.”

She went over to the altar and fished in her belt pouch, removing a carefully folded packet of gathered herbs, and some of the acorns she’d picked up in the trees. “Mighty Demeter, please grace this homestead with fruitful bounty and watch over them.” She gently set the items inside the altar, on the warm wood surface that bore wisps of leaves and seeds.

Yosel beamed at her. “Thank you, Gabrielle. I know the goddess will smile on us.”

“Yes, good travels to you.” Alma agreed. “And if you see my husband Joth on the road, tell him to hurry back before the rains.” She said. “He went to bring back his brother and their family to come live here with us, now we have the cots done.”

One of the children, seated on tiny stools at the back of the shelter came over. “If you come back this way, will you tell us another story?” He asked, looking up at Gabrielle.

“Absolutely.” Gabrielle smiled at him. “Think about what kind of story you’d like to hear, and if we come back down the road, I’ll tell you one about whatever that is.”

She dusted her fingers off and then gave them all a little wave, as Xena pushed herself off the support and they made their way out of the little homestead and over to where their horses were tethered.  “That was a little interesting.” Gabrielle said, as she untied Spot and prepared to mount.

Xena got up on Tanto and sidestepped him out of the way and towards the road, aware of the little family standing by the altar watching them.  “Decent sort.” She concluded. “Hope they stay remote. Nothing out here’s worth grabbing from them.”

They started off down the road heading west, and in a few minutes were around the next bend and hidden from view.  “Well, the road.” Gabrielle said. “And the river, but it’s not wide enough to carry cargo here.. oh crap, Xe. I forgot to mention those sturgeon to them since they’re fishing.”

“They’ll find out sooner or later. Those things’ll grab something. Either bait or a kid’s leg.” Xena dismissed the family and looked ahead of them as they cleared the turn, and she could see further. The landscape was slowly starting to elevate, and there were hills on the horizon and behind them, a higher ridge.

Gabrielle retied the holder for her staff that had come a bit undone and settled into her saddle, thinking about the small settlement they were leaving behind. 

They were nice people. Just a few families who wanted to be out on their own, to live the way they wanted to live. Potadeia had started, she knew, much the same way, and even today was no different save it had grown to be a village and had continuity and gathered in enough other people to maintain growth.

Would this little group do the same?  Or, if they did come back down this path on the way home, would they even find anything left? Even if there was not much to take, Gabrielle had lived in the world more than long enough to know sometimes people just took for the sake of taking, not for the value of what they stole.

Sometimes it would be a simple matter of some band, roaming the flats, finding a man and two women, and wanting the women and the animals and the one man would be no barrier.

That, after all, was how she’d met Xena, wasn’t it? Gabrielle glanced at her riding companion, who was whistling softly under her breath, body moving in rhythmic motion with Tanto’s slightly strutting stride.  “That port city’s going to be interesting.”

“Hope it’s not.” Xena responded dryly. “Hope it’s full of ship owners sitting at the pier waiting for two random women from the borderlands of Thrace to come along and want to buy a trip over the sea.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “Are we random?” She mused. “I don’t think we’re random, Xe. Just not something most people expect.” She stretched and flexed her hands. “I hope we at least get a chance to do a little shopping on the way through the city to the docks.”


Built into the hills as the road climbed up into them they came upon a town, sturdy and spreading out across the valley between two peaks, a stockaded wooden fence made from fire hardened logs facing the spur off the road that wound past it.

There was a roundel burned into the gates, a careful piece of artistry that showed a tree and two stars on either side of it, and as they walked their horses up towards the stockade, a sally gate to one side opened and a man in a heavy leather jerkin holding a staff walked out to meet them.

Not that much different than many small towns in their neck of the proverbial woods.  Gabrielle noted the staff was battered and capped in metal at both ends, and appreciated the weapon for what it was.   She waited until they were within hailing distance and lifted her hand in a brief wave.

Behind the stockade, they could hear the familiar sounds of town life, well known to them both, the lowing of cattle, a crow of a chicken, the sound of wood being chopped.    She could smell the campfires and see the drift of woodsmoke through the trees that towered over the town.

Xena took that all in, and the other smells of human habitation and judged the town to be unremarkable.  She could hear a creek somewhere off to the left, and the tinny hammering of metal of a smith working somewhere in the distance.

She turned her attention to the guard, who had come up to Spot’s side as the mare stood a pace or two ahead of Tanto on the lined path up to the gates.   Relatively young, but full bearded, with thick, curly brown hair and wide hazel eyes that were fixed on Gabrielle as she spoke to him, only giving her furtive, brief glances.

She kept her body posture relaxed, and let her hands rest on her saddlebow, letting her eyes roam over the stockade in approval, thinking ahead to hopefully a decent inn or at the least some space in the stable.

“We’re heading for Costas.” Gabrielle said. “We were looking for a bed for the night and room for these guys.” She indicated the horses.

The guard took a step back, then he turned and waved at the gates. “Space we have, lady.” He turned back to Gabrielle. “But not so much, there are others on the road heading same for the festival.”  He then reached out a trifle hesitantly to stroke Spot’s shoulder. “Fine beasts.”

Spot reached out her head to sniff his arm, then flicked her ears.

The gates were pushed open by two other townsfolk and they moved on through them, the lined path now continuing through the town and revealing a cluster of wooden cottages on either side of it, with lower, livestock fencing extending back from each of them into the trees. 

There were beasts in many of the yards, scruffy looking mountain cows and goats and the smell of animals and manure was prevalent.  As they traveled through they could see further buildings between the trees, and at the back of the town, build almost up against a steep hillside, was a long, low building with smoke curling from a stone chimney and a paddock with multiple beasts inside.

“Guessing that’s the inn.” Gabrielle observed. “They are busy.”

“They are.” Xena agreed. “We should be able to hear talk in there. If they’ve got a room.”  She turned Tanto in a neat circle, seeing torches being lit against the gathering darkness. “Pretty secure here up against that rock wall.” She looked back at the inn, to see a youngster heading towards them. “Let’s find out if we’re gonna be sleeping out here with these guys.”

Gabrielle got down off Spot’s back and approached the youngster, holding the mare’s reins in one hand and feeling for her belt pouch with her other.  “Evening.”

“Hello, lady.” The boy said in a bright tone. “Gate said you were looking for space? We ain’t’ got so much.” He looked over his shoulder at the gathered animals in the paddock. “But we can squeeze ya in, I think.”  He was of middling height and had dark golden hair and the beginnings of a beard. “Got one room left, but it’s small.”

Gabrielle smiled easily at him, her own hair almost burnished red in the torchlight. “We’ll take what you have.” She reassured him. “We’re used to traveling rough.”

The boy looked relieved. “Let me get pa, and get you set up.” He turned to rush off, but a tall, somewhat bowlegged man was stumping rapidly towards them. “Ah here he is.”

Xena had dismounted from Tanto and she strolled along the paddock fence, looking at the animals inside as the tall man closed in on them while the stallion stood quietly, his ears sliding from front to back to side.  There were wagons all lined up on the far side of the paddock, and the animals inside were a mixture of cart horses, and riding animals, most decent quality.

“Hello there travelers.” The innkeeper wiped his hands on his apron as he finally arrived at their side. “Welcome.”

“Looking for a bed, Pa, and them horses.” The boy said, somewhat stating the obvious. “Got that last room don’t we?”

“We do, but it’s a small one.” The innkeeper said. “Full up right now, lot of folks moving towards the coast y’know.”

“As are we.” Gabrielle said smoothly. “And a small room’s fine, it’s better than being on the ground.”

“Mmm.” Xena made a soft subvocal uttering, her eyes narrowing a bit.

“Come with me then.” The man nodded briskly. “Are the animals all right in the outer paddock here? Barn’s full to bursting, we had to put the last five or six who rode in out here with the cart beasts.”

Gabrielle looked at Xena in question.

Xena took a minute to look at the other horses. Then she glanced at the innkeeper. “This one’s full stallion.” She said. “He’s a little feisty.”

“Like his rider.” Gabrielle muttered.

The innkeeper came over and regarded the tall gray animal thoughtfully. “Horses in the paddock are mostly geldings." He said. “Should be all right, but I thank you for saying it.” He waved them on and they followed him over to the gate, which he pushed open with a negligent shove of his hip.

They walked the horses inside and took their saddles off, Gabrielle untying her staff and taking it while they slung their saddlebags over their shoulders. The boy picked up the saddles and set them onto a braced log nearby, set under a wooden shelter where other tack was stored.

Then they followed the innkeeper up the path and into the inn, the door opening to let the sound of many voices and the crash of dishes and cutlery wash over them, and the smell of venison, heavily spiced.  “Someone’s been hunting.” Xena commented as they walked past a set of double doors where most of the noise was coming from.

The innkeeper heard her. “Ah, they culled the deer herd last sevenday.” He said, nodding his head. “Had a good season, they did.”  He stopped in front of the last door in the long corridor and pushed it open. “Sorry to say, all we got.”

It was, as they had been told, a very small room, with a bed just large enough for two shoved up against the wall, and a letdown shelf next to it with a basin.  Bare floors, but there were two windows on the wall, one on the far side that would look out over the paddock and a second on the bend, that showed only dark gloom.

“It’ll do.” Xena said, dropping her saddlebags on the floor.

“Yes, it’s fine.” Gabrielle reassured him. “Let’s go back over to the common room and settle the bill.” She eased her own saddlebags down to the ground and leaned her staff against a bare corner.

“Well, thank you for being reasonable.” The innkeeper sighed, giving them both a wry smile. “I’ve had a lot of the other here today so it’s a pleasure. Now I can tell the gates anyone else comes in, they can rough camp.” He exhaled in something like relief.

“Yeah.” Xena unhooked her cloak and hung it on a nail in the wall. “My mother’s an innkeeper. We try not to cause trouble.”  She turned and jerked her head towards the door. “Shall we?”

“We try not to cause trouble.” Gabrielle repeated, in a musing tone. “Mm.”

They followed the man out and closed the door behind them.  “Got a washhouse there.” He indicated a door they were passing. “Bring water in from the crick out the back.”


Before they reached the common room he paused and turned, and looked at them, with a more serious expression. “You seem like good, decent women.” He said. “There’re folks in there, they think a lot of themselves. Please have a care.” He hesitated. “They have little respect for our womenfolk.”

Gabrielle smiled at him. “Thanks for the warning.” She said. “We’ll keep an eye out for trouble. Now let’s get you paid.” She touched her belt pouch. “We’ll leave early, don’t want you to have to worry about it.”

Xena rubbed her hands together as she followed them towards a small alcove near the doors, cracking her knuckles and smiling.  


They entered the common room and were presented with a very full space, medium in size with well-built tables scattered around its irregular interior built around the shape of the hill it was set against. 

The walls had candles in sconces in regular intervals, and from a central point, one large oil lantern casting a rich golden light over the busy scene. 

There was a central fireplace in the back, with a built-in cooking area, the kitchen itself was open to view, and on the far side away from the door was a counter behind which a boy was standing, pulling mugs of ale.

Xena put her hand on Gabrielle’s back and pointed at a small table against the wall, one of the very few empty, and they moved over to it and settled into its seats.   

There were a handful of servers rushing around with platters. Xena adjusted her chair so she could lean against the wall and extended her boots out, crossing them at the ankles. “Feels almost like a cave.”

“It does.” Gabrielle turned sideways in her seat and studied the rest of the crowd. The tables were full of patrons, mostly groups of four or six, one large table of a dozen against the side wall.  They were mostly men, dressed in traveling clothes, with capes and short cloaks, good quality cloth. “Merchants?”

“With those wagons outside? Must be.”  Xena put her elbows on the arms of the chair she was sitting in and steepled her fingers, her eyes moving from table to table in deliberation. “Don’t see any familiar faces.”

“Yay?” Gabrielle managed to catch the eye of a server, who nodded at her and ran on, heading back to the doors that must lead to the kitchen.  She sat back in her seat, reading the room.  They hadn’t attracted any attention when they’d entered – the table they were at was close to the door - but now she saw more than one set of eyes turn their way with casual interest.

Aside from a few of the servers, she realized, they were the only women in the room, which could be what was attracting attention. Watching the faces nearby, she saw nothing more than impersonal curiosity and she relaxed in her seat and returned the attention.

The way Xena was seated, the back of the chair somewhat obscured her sword hilt, and the lit candle lamps along the wall cast her profile somewhat in shadow.   Her ears were just visible and were twitching.

One of the servers arrived, a young woman in an apron, looking harried. “Hello travelers. May I get you a mug of cider?”

“Whatever’s cold is fine. Cider, or ale or water.” Gabrielle answered.

The server paused and looked more closely at her.  “Ale’s better.” She said, with a wry grin. “And we’ve got bread, and turtle soup, and venison if you’ve a mind.”

“Sounds great.”

A loud burst of laughter made them all turn and look at the table along the side wall, where another server was standing, covered in ale, a pitcher tumbled on his service platter.

“Ach.” Their server exhaled. “Not again.”

“Tough night?” Gabrielle asked, sympathetically. “Busy in here tonight, they told us the inn was full up.”

The woman turned back to them. “They all are, but more than most tonight.” She said frankly. “Gimme a minute, I’ll be back.” She turned and headed purposefully back to the service area and now Gabrielle could see the large table had spotted them and two of the men on the end closest to them were craning their necks to leer.

“Hear anything interesting?” She leaned an elbow on the table, glancing at Xena.   She herself could hear the tables closest to them, but the buzzing hum of the room obscured anything further.  The table behind them were two men who were going to Costas to buy sheep, and the ones on the other side were four brothers going to join a ship as sailors.

Better them than her.  Gabrielle concluded, almost smiling at the newly fledged look of them, all so young, and determined to make their way in the world at something other than farming.  She wondered if they’d left a family behind, now struggling to make up the slack of losing four sets of hands.

They probably didn’t think of it, just as she hadn’t, when her time had come to run out into the world.

“That table of six there.” Xena said, after a moment. “They’re from Athens. They’re going to buy out one of the chandlers and tie up the ship market.” She said. “Those other four near that table of goons are pickpockets.” She added, after a brief pause. “And they run a dice scam.”

Gabrielle looked at her. “They’re talking about that?” She asked, in an astonished tone. “Right in the middle of the crowd?”

Xena shrugged. “What can I tell ya.”  She said. “Those three near the kitchen, they’re quiet. Not saying much, just watching everyone around them.”  She said. “And the big table – big wine and mead maker, bringing three wagon loads of hooch to the party.”

“Think they want to sell us some? They keep looking over here.”

Xena smiled, suddenly, and turned her head to look at Gabrielle with that mischievous expression she knew well.

“We try not to start trouble.” Gabrielle mimicked her earlier statement with a roll of her eyes.

“Since when do we have to try?” Xena’s eyes twinkled. “Gabrielle.”

There was a sitar player in a roundish corner of the common room just playing a melody with no words to it, a low counterpoint to all the chatter going on, but he was a decent player and sat there quietly, glancing around at the crowd as he strummed.

He had a cap set out on the floor to accept any coins that the patrons were willing to toss to him, but so far, Xena’s sharp vision detected, he’d gotten no takers.  Maybe he’d have better luck when they were all on their way back, with full sacks of earnings.

The kitchen door swung open and their server appeared, carrying a laden tray with a platter on it, and two mugs. She was part way across the room when one of the men from the large table got up and intercepted her with a peremptory hand.

Xena pulled her legs in and got her boots under her but remained seated, waiting to see what the interaction would be. 

“Incoming jerk.” Gabrielle said, in a calm tone, watching the girl’s body language.  She was taking a step back and moving her free hand over the platter in a fending off gesture, keeping the man from grabbing from it. “Why must there always be jerks, Xena?”

“Because I must be endlessly entertained, and you’d have a Hades of a sore throat otherwise.” Xena stood up. “Be right back.”   She moved gracefully through the crowd, moving between the tables at a deceptively fast clip, reaching the server just as the man was about to grab her arm.

Gabrielle merely watched, her hands folded in front of her, listening to the voices around her to see if the other patrons noticed what was going on. Quickly, they did, one man nudging his tablemate and pointing, but no one standing or attempting to intervene.

Unsurprising.  She did a quick scan of the room again. Aside from customary belt knives, none were visibly armed and probably just had typical weapons when on the road in their wagons to fend off raiders, crossbows and the like they would not bring into dinner.

Xena on the other hand, wore the sword as though she lived with it, and had additional visible hilts at the tops of her boots, though she wore a knit overtunic that obscured her leathers and had left her armor in the saddlebags. Gabrielle didn’t expect much trouble and none that would provide her partner with anything other than the aforementioned entertainment.

“Hi.” Xena slid between the man and the server and took the platter from her, lifting it with one hand. “Thanks. I think this is mine.” She smiled and looked at the man, who had arrested his grab in mid motion. “Go sit down and wait your turn, buddy.” She added, in a firm tone.

“Yes, ma’am, thank you.” The server said. “Sir, I will bring you another plate as soon as it’s finished being cut, but..”

The man looked like he was going to say something, then Xena moved a bit more into the light and it caught on the pommel of her sword and glinted off her pale eyes and he turned back to the server instead. “Better hurry up then, slut.”  He grunted, retreating, and knowing it for a retreat, as he went back to the big table where he was greeted by guffaws.

Xena looked back at the server and winked, then turned, and headed back to the small table where Gabrielle was waiting, her chin resting on her fist, a grin on her face.  “Madame?”  She adroitly unloaded the tray, putting the platter down and then a mug at each place.

“Remind me to leave you a big tip.” Gabrielle watched the attention of the room, glued to Xena’s tall figure, slowly ease, as the rest of the patrons went back to their table conversation, and Xena resumed her seat, letting the tray rest against the wall. “Your mom would be proud.”

“My mom would have whacked that guy with a skillet.” Xena picked up her mug and cautiously tasted it’s content, then took a larger sip with a grunt of approval. “Not bad.”

Gabrielle assembled slices of the grilled venison onto a hunk of the brown and nut filled bread and handed it over to her. “So now that the whole room is talking about you, instead of their business, we can eat in peace I guess.”  She sat back with her own sandwich and took a bite.  

Xena shook her head a little. “Nothing much there anyway.” She remarked, scanning the crowd, and watching the glances move hurriedly elsewhere. “Have to wait until we’re closer in.”

The server came out again and put a big platter of steaming meat on the large group’s table, then she quickly backed away and went over to another patron before they could either comment or stop her. 

 It was half a candlemark before she made her way back over to where they were, and when she did, she quickly knelt next to the table and put her hand on it. “Thank you for coming to grab that.  Sorry you had to get involved.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Xena had finished her sandwich and was sipping her ale. “Guy’s an ass.”

“He is, but there’s a lot of them in that group, and they’re four pitchers in.” The girl said, looking at Xena with a direct look that lacked any illusion.  “Ale makes men brave. Please watch out.”

It was so charming. Gabrielle had to smile, as she exchanged quick looks with Xena before she answered for her. “Thank you for the warning.” She said. “I hope the ale just makes them pass out, because that’s going to be better for them than the alternative.”

The girl looked at her, then she looked at Xena, who smiled her best sexy smile.  “Maybe I’ll get them another pitcher.” She stood up and moved away from the table, heading back towards the service counter, without looking back.

“Heh heh.” Xena chuckled softly under her breath.

“Sorry to ruin your fun, hon.” Gabrielle glanced to the side, as the musician started up again after a break.  “But I really don’t see anyone here being much of a challenge.”

“Nah.”  Xena crossed her boots again. “But we better be out of here damn early. I don’t want them tempted to mess with the horses in petty revenge.” She finished the ale and twirled the mug by its handle. “They’re just the kind to.” She watched two groups of diners leave, and now the room itself was clearing out. “Aside from a decent piece of deer this was something of a waste of our time.”

“At least it was a decent piece of deer.” Gabrielle mused. “Not a bad inn, they can’t help their customers.”

“Nope.” Xena folded her hands over her stomach. “Got enough resources here to explain the stockade.” She let her gaze roam over the room. “Bet they got plundered before that went up.”

“Let me try one other source for tidbits. Be right back.” Gabrielle got up and wandered over to the corner where the busker was, taking out a coin and dropping it into his hat as she neared, and took up a stance leaning against the wall next to his alcove.

“Thanks.” He smiled at her. “One coin is more than zero.” He glanced at the hat wryly. “Tight fisted lot.”

“Yeah, been there.” Gabrielle returned the smile. “You live here or a traveler?” She folded her arms over her chest casually.

The busker was a bit older than she was, and he had long, straight chestnut hair that was twisted into a braid at his neck. “Live here? Oh no.” He chuckled very softly, glancing past her to see if anyone was listening. “No, I’m from the south. Had to get out and do a wander, got into a bit of a pickle.” He winked at her. “You know how it is.”

“I do.” Gabrielle agreed readily. “Want to come have a cup of ale with us?” She made a motion with her head over her shoulder to where Xena was still sprawled at her ease. “We’re looking for news of the road.”

The busker stood up at once and retrieved his hat, taking the coin out of it and examining the sides. He smiled briefly and put it in his pocket, then swept a bow at her. “Lead on, my lady.” He joined her as they wound their way through the emptying tables.  “I never turn down a mug of ale, or the chance to share some gossip…” He lowered his voice. “With another bard.”

Gabrielle chuckled under her breath. “We love to hear the news.” She agreed as they reached the table. “So lets see what we got.”


Continued in Part 4