Tempting Fates

Part 4

The busker’s name was Oraldo and he pulled a chair over to their table and settled down to talk, while Gabrielle went over and ordered another round of ale, coming back with three full mugs she plunked down on the table’s surface. 

“I’ve been traveling up the coast.” Oraldo said. “My hometown’s Korydallos, for what it’s worth.” He glanced at Gabrielle. “But I’ve been to Athens and seen the Academy.”

Gabrielle smiled, but just took a sip of her ale. 

So when some random suspiciously savvy lady came over looking for info and had a coin stamped with Amphipolis, who was sitting with someone that silently intimidating it wasn’t that hard to guess who you might be.” He continued, with a slight twinkle in his eye. “But I think I’m the only one here who has.”

He then looked at Xena. “Buddy of mine was a cook in a city way east of here.”  He said. “He told stories about you holding off an entire army one night.”

“I did that.” Xena said, in the mildest of tones. “Held the city gates until Gabrielle came to my rescue with a herd of cattle, matter of fact.”

Oraldo blinked. “He never said anything about that.”

“Too bad. That was my favorite part of that story.” Xena smiled briefly. “You should get Gabrielle to tell the whole thing to you sometime.”

Gabrielle chuckled.

He nodded a little. “I will. But the rest of these townies are too local to know.”

“Probably.” Xena was still leaning back against the wall, her legs extended casually. “Neither of us has been in the area around here and it’s pretty backwoods.”

Oraldo nodded. “Kinda why I’m here. Had some patrician back at home get convinced I was bedding his wife and it was either run, or end up in a lockdown.”  He cleared his throat a little. “I wasn’t going to be held, so I ran. In the irony department, the wife was looking elsewhere, but it wasn’t with me.”  He added wryly. “But the patrician wasn’t going to believe it was his father, if you know what I mean.”

“Yikes.” Gabrielle commented, with a faint grimace. 

“Nice.” Xena took a sip of ale. “We’ve been hearing talk of some new cult in the area. Maybe from over the Ionian. You hear talk of that on your way north?”

Oraldo’s expression shifted to one of mild intrigue. “Cult? You mean some new gods or worship? That kind of thing?”

Xena nodded. 

The busker sat there for a long moment in thought. He had a facile, relatively attractive face, and the kind of roguish appeal that made it easy to see where the patrician had gotten his suspicions from. “Not in any of the little towns.” He finally said. “No, they stick to the traditions. But I was passing through Eleusis about two months back and I happened to fall in with some jugglers.”

“Looking for a winter spot?” 

He nodded. “Anyway, they were saying something about some secret society they’d stumbled into, trying to find a place to sleep one night, who were doing some ritual in the basement of an abandoned villa.” He looked between the two of them. “That like what you mean?”

“We’re not really sure what we mean.” Gabrielle told him, frankly. “Just some rumors we were hearing about a new cult, and that it may have come from overseas.”

Oraldo immediately nodded. “Yeah, that’s what was weird, they were reading from a scrip, a rolled parchment, in some other language. Something with a cup.” He said. “Sorry it’s not much, but they heard them and scattered. Good job for the jugglers, they had a dry spot to sleep and they left behind some munchies.”

“Interesting.” Gabrielle said. “They were hiding?”

“That’s the impression I got.” Oraldo shrugged. “But you know, jugglers.” He added dismissively. “I have heard a lot of other things on the way up though.  Are you headed for the festival at Costas? Word on the road is there’s some trouble brewing there.”

“Figures.” Xena remarked. “They know we’re coming.”

“Of course there is.” Gabrielle said, at the same time. “Absolutely we’re interested. We hate surprises.” She watched more of the patrons leaving, drifting slowly through the common room and giving them side glances. “We’re not really going for the festival, we want to catch a boat there.”

“Ah, then you want to hear about the pirates.”

Xena started laughing. 

“We want to hear about the pirates.” Gabrielle sighed. “Xena, why must there always be pirates?”

“I’m sure there’s a giant sea serpent in the mix somewhere.” Xena said. “Pirates using Costas as a base, or pirates attacking Costas, or??” She eyed the busker. 

“Pirates attacking ships crossing the Ionian Sea and bringing their plunder to Costas to sell it.” Oraldo promptly provided. “They don’t live there, but you pay a fee when you take ship from Costas so you won’t be plundered, and it’s not cheap.”

Gabrielle sighed again. 

“Good scam, huh?” Oraldo seemed amused. “You know how it is with the port towns. Anything for a dinar. They know they’re a hub.”  He leaned back in his chair and took a draft of the ale. “They’ll clip ya for a good payout if they figure out who you are.”

“Unless I commandeer a ship and go after the pirates.” Xena remarked. “That’ll probably ruin everyone’s day.”

“Or commandeer a ship and just steal it and sail to where we’re going and leave all the rest of it to figure itself out.” Gabrielle mused. “That might be faster. If you take over a band of pirates no telling where we’ll end up with them. Rome, probably.”

“They’ll probably end up coming home with us.” Xena dismissed the thought. “Okay, well, at least we know what we’re in for.” She regarded the busker. “Thanks for that.”

Oraldo was looking from one of them to the other. “You two are funnier than I thought you’d be.”  He said, in a tone of bemused surprise. “You are joking, right?”

“No.” They both said at the same time.  “Anyway.” Gabrielle exhaled. “Hope you end up having a good season here. Seems like it’s a pretty traveled crossroad.”  She stood up, and Xena joined her. “Thanks again.”

“Worth the coin and ale.” Oraldo lifted his mug at her. “Good to meet you.”

They gave him a little wave and left the nearly empty common room, and the server came over to claim the ale mugs. “Better grab your tinkle toy, player.” She jerked her head in the direction of the alcove. “For someone claims it, that kind of crowd around.”

“Yeah, sure.” Oraldo stood up and drained his ale then put the mug back on the table. “Any chance of a crust? Tight those travelers are, save this last pair.”

The server glanced around. “Yeah, nice people for a change. Didn’t give me no trouble and left a tip. Who does that these days? Let me get you a bowl and a topper. The old lady had spare.”  She took the mug and retreated towards the service area, leaving the busker sitting at the table. 

“Nice people.” Oraldo repeated, letting a faint giggle escape. “Oh, if you only knew.”


Xena popped the window open in their tiny room and stuck her head out of it, blinking her eyes to let them adjust to the darkness outside and waiting for the shadows to resolve.  She could see the field in front of the inn, and smell the horses, mules, and oxen grazing in it.  

The moon came out from behind the clouds and agreeably lit the area for her, and she spotted Tanto and Spot near the end of the enclosure, heads down, cropping the grass, apparently without a care in the world.

It was quiet, and there was no motion around the space, so after a minute of watching she pulled her head back inside the room, leaving the window a little open. “Looks peaceful.”

Gabrielle was sitting cross legged on the floor next to her saddlebags, updating her diary. “Were you expecting otherwise?”  She glanced up. “Aside from people just being common jerky jerks I mean?”

“Not really.” Xena was in her shift, and she sat down on the edge of the narrow bed. “Pirates, huh?”

“I swear I’m not an oracle.” Gabrielle replied at once, continuing to write. “So don’t start.”

With a chuckle, Xena lay back on the bed and studied the wood beam ceiling. “They’re the major seaport here in the north.” She mused. “It’s a pretty good scam, matter of fact. They know they have a captive audience.” She folded her hands over her stomach and tapped her thumbs together. “With some luck we’ll find an incoming new merchant who doesn’t want to pay the tax, and I can sell him our services for passage.”

So you say you’ll protect the ship if the pirates attack.” Gabrielle paused to nibble the top of her quill. “Well, wouldn’t be the first time.” 

“Probably won’t be the last.”  Xena agreed. “I don’t know that we have enough dinars to pull this off otherwise if they’re as greedy as our musical friend seems to think they are.”

“What did you think about the guys in the basement?”

Xena was silent for a minute. “That was interesting. But if they’re hiding in basements probably not top of our list of things to worry about right now.”

“Especially if they were chased off by some jugglers stumbling in.”  Gabrielle finished writing and gently blew her ink dry, waiting for the letters to lose their sheen before she closed the volume and looped the piece of braided string she used to hold it closed around it. “Amazons might just have been running into the usual dislike of uppity women, Xe.”

“Might have.” 

Gabrielle slid the diary back into her saddlebag and stood up, crossing over to join Xena on the bed.  Outside in the corridor they could hear footsteps, heavy boots tromping along, and low, male voices muttering. A few words made their way through the wooden boards, about weather, and the prices of hides. 

Nothing about the uppity women in the common room, and after a minutes listening, they squirmed around to lay down lengthwise on the bed, it’s width just large enough for them.  Gabrielle’s arm was almost brushing against the outer wall, but she settled into a comfortable spot while Xena pulled their own traveling furs over them. 

She had her sword hung on the headboard, it’s hilt within easy reach, and they both exhaled at the same time as she put out the candle on the fold down table nearby. 

Very slowly the sounds of the inn around them faded into silence, and now only the soft noises of the beasts in the corral outside floated in on the cold breeze, the hollow thunk of hooves moving, the tearing noises of the grass, the snort and lowing of an ox. 

Gabrielle turned on her side and snuggled up to Xena’s warm side, feeling her arm slide around her shoulders and her fingers idly trace a little pattern across the skin of her back.  She could feel her own breathing slow, and she relaxed, and then another set of footsteps sounded outside, coming towards them. 

She looked up in the gloom, just able to see the faint outline of Xena’s profile from the moonlight coming in the window, enough to see the glistening of that same light reflecting on her eyes and the faint smile on her face.  They could both hear the steps getting closer and then more cautious as they approached, a careful placing of boots that nevertheless creaked along the wooden floorboards. 

Aside from the twitching of her ears, Xena hadn’t moved, and her breathing remained slow and easy, her arm still in place around Gabrielle and her other hand just resting on the furs over her stomach. 

“Is there anyone really that dumb here?” Gabrielle whispered, a bare uttering she knew Xena could easily hear. 

Xena shrugged and lifted her left hand up and then let it drop again. 

The latch on the door clicked softly.  “They are.” Gabrielle breathed.  She carefully unwound herself from Xena’s embrace and rolled onto her back, as Xena silently lifted the furs up and slid out from under them, crossing the floor in her bare feet and getting to the door as the latch depressed, and it started to open. 

She got behind it and then jerked the door open with force, reaching around it and grabbing hold of the body behind it and yanking it into the room, then slamming the door shut again as Gabrielle got to the candle and struck a spark for it. 

Light flared and outlined Xena holding a cringing figure against the wall, his hands lifted, one of them holding a knife.  

He was a stranger to them. A tall, weedy looking man with some light-colored hair and a threadbare shirt and leggings on.  Xena reached over and took the knife from his hand and tossed it behind her to stick into the far wall, and then she released him with a shove. “What the Hades do you think you’re doing, buddy?”

The man blinked furiously and stared at her. “What’chu doin in here?” He demanded. 

Xena planted her hands on her hips. “Sleeping.” She said. “In the room we paid for. What are YOU doing in here?”

He looked around again, then his head tipped back to thunk against the wall. “Lil bustard told me the end room.” He said. “Told me an easy mark, drunk…” 

Gabrielle had gotten out of bed and came over to where Xena was standing, pausing only to grab her staff and bring its solid comfort with her. “Were you going to rob us?” 

The man nodded. “Said there were merchants, plenty of coin.” He glowered at her. “Not the likes of you!”

Gabrielle leaned on her staff. “Was this guy a friend of yours? Because either he got his rooms wrong, or he was trying to kill you.” She stated blandly. “Not great either way?”  She moved forward and then she knelt next to the set of saddlebags and fished out a belt pouch. 

He watched her, licking his lips nervously. “Kill me?” He looked over at Xena, who was now standing with her arms crossed, leaning one shoulder against the wall to the corridor. “Who are ya?”

“My name is Xena.” Xena said. “I fight for a living.” She gave him a droll look. “You don’t really want to see a demonstration of that so just take my word for it.”

Gabrielle stood and walked over to them and held out a coin. “Please go find yourself some better friends.” She studied his ripped and much mended shirt. “And a jacket.” 

He stared at her in utter disbelief, but slowly lifted his hand to take the coin.  

Xena walked over to the wall where his knife had stuck an inch deep into the wood.  She pulled it free and came back over, offering him the hilt.   It was a badly made, crude blade, with an exposed tang wrapped in a rag, but there was enough of a point on it to do some damage. 

She waited for him to hesitantly take it, then she walked over to the door and opened it, gesturing him out.  “Scram.” She said, watching him carefully as he sidled towards her then slid out of the door quickly, shambling rapidly away from their end of the hall. 

Xena closed the door, and then looked at Gabrielle. “Which do you figure it was?”

Gabrielle came over to her and inspected the door mechanism, then she experimentally slid her staff under it, and braced it against the side wall.  “Which do I think it is.” She studied her handiwork, then she looked up at her partner. “I think someone wanted to be rid of him, Xena. That’s what I think.  Maybe they saw your sword, and figured it was a fast way to get that done, and someone else to blame.”

“Lousy.”  Xena took a length of gut from her saddlebag and lashed the end of the staff against one of the framing planks to hold it in place with a sturdy knot. “Assassin by proxy is not my gig.”  She dusted her hands off. “That should at least keep it shut.”

Gabrielle exhaled. “The wilderness has felt a lot safer than towns we’ve stayed in.” She said. “That seems wrong, Xe.”

Xena merely looked amused. “There was a reason we seldom stayed anywhere back in the day. Between my reputation and your ability to attract trouble, we’d never have lived through those times.” She patted Gabrielle on the side. “C’mon, let’s get some sleep before something else happens.” 

Gabrielle slid her arms around her and gave her a hug. “I love you.” She said, simply. “Even in the middle of the utter chaos of our lives.”

“Especially then.” Xena returned the hug, lifting her up a little and letting her back down. “Love you too.”

They climbed back into bed and back under their furs, and this time the noises outside just faded out and everything past the door went still.


Xena regarded the dense fog billowing through the town as she entered the paddock, her long steps sending swirls of it ahead of her as she went to the tack shelter and retrieved Tanto’s saddle, walking through the deep shadows that were cast by the inn.

The stallion trotted towards her, coming out of those shadows, and seeming a part of them himself, with his gray dappled coat and he tossed his head as he arrived, his breath showing as streams of a lighter fog in the chill air. 

“Morning, Tanto.” Xena set his saddle blanket in place and secured it, giving him a pat on the shoulder, then proceeded to lift his saddle in place as the stallion stood quietly, ears flicking, watching over her shoulder.   There were no other people around, just the animals and the air was rich with the smell of their presence. 

There was a sense the town was still asleep, the sun had not yet risen, and though Xena could hear the soft sounds of motion in the near distance, the clank of a milking bucket, the creak of a barn door opening, there were no human voices yet, here in this moment of pre-dawn where the world seemed to be taking a breath waiting to step into another day. 

Xena finished up with Tanto and turned to find Spot already standing there behind her.  She gave the young mare a scratch on her nose and was rewarded by a nibbling investigation along her cheek.  

She heard steps approaching from the far side of the fence and she paused, looking over Tanto’s back as both horses turned their heads. 

A tall, heavily clad figure had entered the paddock and was moving across it, cursing the fog, in search apparently for their animals.  

Xena remained still, just watching as he tromped across the ground, kicking animal dung out of his way, shoving past some of the other horses.   She glanced at Tanto, who had one ear cocked back towards her, and the other laid back flat on his head and silently congratulated the stallion for good perception. 

Then she turned back to the shelter and retrieved Spot’s gear, getting it arranged as she heard the distinctive to her footsteps of Gabrielle approaching, carrying their saddlebags slung over her shoulders and walking along with her staff in quiet counterpoint. 

“You there!” 

Xena looked up from securing Spot’s saddle, peering across the mare’s back at the approaching figure.  “Yes?”

The man stopped and regarded her, and the animals standing next to her. He had a long rein in one hand, and behind him a stolid looking red roan horse was following, kicking out it’s darkly feathered legs as it walked.  “Those are fine beasts.” He said, in a robust, round tone. “May I ask where you found those two?”

“I bred them.”  Xena responded, turning the take her saddlebags off Gabrielle’s shoulder and lift them up onto Tanto’s back. “But they come from the borderlands of Thrace.”

“Ah.” The man nodded. “They didn’t look local.” He said. “Pity, are they for sale? If you’re a breeder then, showing your wares?”

It was not really an unreasonable conclusion, Xena had to admit. “No, they’re just our transport.” She pulled herself up onto Tanto’s back and waited with her hand loosely clasping Spot’s bridle as Gabrielle finished getting her staff lashed in place and got settled.  “Getting them some saddle time.”

The man came closer, and now it was obvious he was well off, he had a beautifully lined and embroidered cloak draped over his broad shoulders and there was a glitter of metal at his neck and on his fingers. “I do some horse breeding myself.” He indicated the roan behind him, a heavier beast with a square head. “Are you headed to Costas as we all are?” He asked. “You’ll have more interest if that’s your intent then. Folks know good blood when they see it in these parts.”

“Good to know.” Xena released Spot’s bridle as Gabrielle collected her reins and the mare sidled over and around Tanto.  “I’ll keep it in mind, and that’s a good-looking animal there yourself.”

The man smiled, he had obviously been waiting for the recognition. “Like knows like.” He turned to lead the roan horse towards the gate. “Has a smooth pace for my trap.” He gestured towards a light cart that was just outside the fencing, a very well-made conveyance with smooth, polished wood sides and a bit of gilt trim. “If we meet again in Costas, lets talk!” He called over his shoulder. “Maybe we make beautiful horses together!”

“People are funny.” Gabrielle remarked in a mild tone. 

“People are funny.” Xena agreed. “But I’d rather that kind of funny than the usual kind we bump into.”

“True that.”

Xena sent Tanto after the roan. “Let’s not waste a good opening of the paddock gate.”  They followed the man out and he turned right towards the parked cart, leading the roan up to its harness as the two of them moved past and away from the inn.

The fog rolled before them as they made their way along the main path of the town, the pearl light of the coming dawn slowly raising shadows as they moved along towards the main gates, the tops of which were visible among the gray mist. 

A boy was trudging towards them, rubbing his arm across his eyes as they approached, reaching to uncouple the main lock spar and stand it upright, then push one side of the gate open outward to let them pass out onto the road. 

The fog was denser as they moved away from the town and down the slope, and it swallowed them up, making it seem for a bit like they were just walking through clouds. “You know what this reminds me of?” Gabrielle said, after several minutes of silence. 

“Olympus.” Xena said at once. “Walking up those damn steps.”

“Mm. Yeah.”  Gabrielle reached one hand out to cup some of the fog drifting past. “Except it’s wetter.”

“And it tastes like pine trees.” Xena stuck her tongue out into the fog and pulled it back in. “It’ll clear.” She concluded. “Here’s the road.”  She led them on to the west, following the now distinct stretch they were walking on. 

Gabrielle sucked in a breath of the pine tinged, vaguely musty, foggy air and settled her cloak around her. “Does this mean rain’s on the way?”

Xena considered that for a few minutes, tipping her head back and looking up. She drew in a long breath, then let it slowly out. “No.” She said. “South wind. Just some warm air.” She decided. “Might be some cold coming through in a day or so.”

Relieved, Gabrielle composed herself to the long day’s ride, and they proceeded in silence for a time while the sun rose behind them slowly first sending tendrils of dawn light through the fog, then pitching their shadows ahead of them as the fog started to ease. 

The road then started very slowly to climb, and by mid-morning they were riding in clear air, with a bright blue sky overhead and a brisk breeze coming across their path.  As the road bent a little to the left, Xena waited for them to complete the bend, then she held a hand up and guided Tanto to a halt. 

Gabrielle obligingly followed and used the stop to stand up in her stirrups and stretch, glancing aside as Xena merely sat there in the saddle, head slightly cocked as the silence of their lack of motion settled around them. “Hear something?”

Xena nodded. “Horses behind us.” She remarked. “Pretty far back.”

Gabrielle listened but could hear nothing that didn’t sound like birds overhead. “You think someone’s following us?”

“No reason for anyone to be.” 

“No.” Gabrielle resumed her seat. “Probably some of the merchants heading to the festival.”

Xena’s eyes were off shifted, looking to one side at nothing as she listened. Then she shook her head. “Just horses, no wagons.” She turned Tanto’s head and nudged him on. “Well, it’s a road heading to the coast. Lot of reasons for people to be on it.”

Which of course was true. Gabrielle looked behind them as they started off on the road again, but the stretch of it to the bend was quiet and empty.  Of course it was true, but it was also true that they collected trouble just like bees collected flowers. 

She had accepted that. “How many of them?” She asked, after a minute. 

“Four, maybe five.”  

“Well, we’ll just have to wait and see if they catch up.” Gabrielle said. “Want me to continue my pirate story?” 

“How about you talk about sheep for a while.” 



By nightfall, they were well into habitation.  There were clusters of small farms and cottages all along the road, and they’d ridden through three larger towns, with stretches of newly harvested fields on either side of the river.  

Ahead they could see some tall hills, and off to the right, along the ridge of the nearest one was a stoutly gated stone walled enclosure with buildings inside.

The river they were riding along had also broadened, and boat traffic was moving up and down it, mostly low, long cargo craft moving products up and down to the townships, and there was a tow path alongside between the road and the river with mules pulling the larger of the craft upstream.

There was a lot of noise around them now. Long fields with cattle and sheep in them, flocks of chicken in well kept coops, the sound of the river work, men on the boats, somewhere off to one side, a woman singing.

“Looks like it was a good harvest.” Gabrielle commented, as they passed one of the large cargo craft. “Those are wine casks, aren’t they?”

Xena glanced over at it. “I think so, yeah.” She studied the road ahead of them, then casually she turned and retrieved her waterskin, glancing back along the way they’d come. “Ah.” She turned back around. “Finally caught up to us.”

Gabrielle looked back, to see a cluster of riders, moving at a casual pace coming around the last bend in the road at the bottom of the slope they were climbing up.  Five, and a pack horse, who had been trailing behind them the entire day, making no obvious effort to close their distance. 

They were all male, at this distance their faces indistinguishable, but the body language she could see seemed relaxed and unconcerned, and the horses they rode seemed in good condition, with no flashing gilding being reflected in the setting sun. “What do you think?”

Xena sucked at the spout on the waterskin for a minute, her eyes narrowing slightly. “What do I think.” She mused. “I think they want to look like some random travelers going to the festival. Problem is, they’re not dressed in enough glitz to be patricians.”

“Okay.” Gabrielle said, after she paused “And?”

“And if they’re not patricians, and they’re the townsfolk they seem to be why aren’t they at home bringing in the harvest and preparing for winter?” Xena mused. “Farmers want their workforce riding off to a party this time of year?”

“Hm.” Gabrielle considered this theory and glanced behind her again.  “They’re dressed like farmers.” She noted, watching the group pull off to the side to a river fed trough to give their horses a drink.  They had rough, homespun tunics on, belted for riding, with breeches and leather work boots. 

There were no obvious arms.  They probably had belt knives on them, and one had a long bow slung over his shoulder, no doubt to hunt for food along the road.

“They’re not bringing merch to sell. Why are they here?” Xena wondered. “They going to join your pirates maybe?” She nudged Tanto to the left, towards the winding road up to the walled town above. “Reminds me a little of when Athens was offering coin for recruits.”

“Hm…” Gabrielle nodded slowly, remembering. Groups of young men on the road, she recalled, ready to go and take their chances to get a position in Athens army rather than stay at home and work the fields. “Maybe.” She concluded. “You think they’re recruiting?”

“We’ll find out soon enough.”

They joined a line of wagons and horses moving towards the gates, and ahead, they could see guards around the entry, a little more formal than they’d seen before on the road.  These were dressed in matching dark clothing, and they were carrying spears, with crossbows on their backs. 

The town was large, twice the size easily of Amphipolis, and the walls were constructed of local native stone mortared together at a very respectable height, obviously a major town in the area.  “Malakos.” Xena mused, as they slowed to let traffic clear ahead of them. “Who did I know that came from here.”

“Hopefully no one with a grudge.” Gabrielle leaned on her saddlebow, observing the crowd waiting to move past the gates.  Most were merchants, easily recognized, and had wagons thickly loaded with products, but she could also see a few others traveling light, like she and Xena were. 

“Metalsmith.” Xena concluded. “Made some decent horseshoes.”  She straightened in her saddle and peered over the crowd, which was moving slowly.  “Guards are asking questions.”

There was a captain in charge. He had a rolled-up scroll in his hand and as each party came to the gates the guards held them from proceeding until he stepped up and spoke to the travelers in it, spending a time in discussion before somewhat grudgingly moving back and motioning them forward. 

“Wonder what that’s all about.” Gabrielle clenched and unclenched her hands, her fingers a little stiff from holding the reins all day. “I mean, if someone was going to do terrible things in town or make trouble, would they say that to the gate?”

Xena chuckled. “Never can tell.” She said. “We could tell them our names and get kicked out just on general principals.”

None of the travelers were turned away, however, and when it was their turn for inspection the captain of the guard merely looked at them both and then, without a word gestured them on without asking them anything at all, not even their names.

“I’m not sure how to take that.” Gabrielle said, as they passed through the gates and into a wide, stone lined clear space inside the wall.  “But obviously we were not the miscreants they were looking for.”

“If only they knew.” Xena chuckled softly.  She scanned the area they were riding through, and looked back at the walls, which had fighting platforms built into the back of them, with guards walking along with purposeful strides. “Well, seems like they know how to deal with problems.”

There was an inner wall, and then an inner gate, but this one was unimpeded, and they crossed through it and into another wide, stone lined square along with the wagons that were now moving ahead of them.   

The town was deep and wide and had several main throughfares moving crosswise to the main road that climbed steadily upwards.  On either side were two story stone buildings, with wood pitched roofs built in a square back from the street, with a gated courtyard just visible between them. 

There were trees growing in the sheltered courtyards, and as they passed, Xena could smell both flowers and fruits wafting out from them and hear the sounds of fountains, a softly musical tinkle at the edge of her hearing. 

As they moved by, she caught sight of a child playing in one of the courtyards, chasing a colorful ball around under the leaves and heard the sharp bark of a small dog apparently in attendance.

Off to the right-hand side the wagons were turning into a wider lane, that led a little downhill, and at the end of that, from her perch on Tanto Xena could see a glimpse of open pasture. “That way I think.” She indicated the path. 

The streets were full of people, and there were some standing near the openings to the courtyards, watching the flow of travelers with speculative looks – but that would be no different than market watchers at home, Gabrielle considered, recalling many a morning where she’d taken a cup of tea with Cyrene on the porch of her inn, doing the same.

She put her peripheral vision to work judging if she and Xena were collecting any special interest as they made their way down slope towards the open space, but nothing really stuck out to her, no warning signals tickled the nape of her neck in the watching eyes. 

General interest, yes.  She could see the eyes appraising them, and the nods, and one man pointing but she could read his expression and decided it was Tanto who had caught his eye. The gray stallion was a striking animal, and he walked with a proud stride, his finely shaped head turning from side to side as they moved along. 

At the base of the path there was a large, well-built barn that stretched out along the slope and a narrow but long pasture that went down to a cliff edge, bound by a sturdy fence.  Inside the pasture were a wide mixture of animals, horses and mules, ponies, oxen, a small herd of milk cows, and a scattering of goats.

Across from the barn was a wide, stone lined open space, and that was rapidly filling with wagons, with several townsfolk helping to get them lined up and parked, and the animals removed from traces.  It seemed clean and organized and as they reached the barn they pulled off to the side of the path near the gates and dismounted. 

A man in a leather apron came promptly over to them, wiping his hands on a cloth. “Evening.” He said, in a businesslike tone. “How can I help you, ladies?”  He was middle aged, brown, straight hair going silver along the temples and had the muscular build of a stock handler that went with the leather and his knee length well-worn boots. 

Xena put her hand up along Tanto’s cheek. “I’d like inside stabling for these two.” She answered straightforwardly. “Got any?”

Gabrielle was content to stand next to Spot, fishing a bit of apple out of her pack and offering it to the mare as she peered past her to where the merchants were all milling around, talking, and laughing. 

The man took a step back and studied the two horses, and as well their riders, and gave them a nod. 

“Come along with me then.” The man said, in a cheerful tone. “We’ve got a box stall left, if you’ve a mind to take it.” He turned on his heel and headed for the barn and they followed promptly, as the sun dipped below the tree line and the purple of twilight stole the colors from the yard. 

There was a wide path between the fence to the pasture and a smaller enclosure to the left, where a sturdy smith’s shelter was built, a massive anvil set on a stone base under it, and large blackened firepit nearby. The smell of woodsmoke was strong and pungent as they passed, and along the inside fence, there were three horses tied, awaiting shoes. 

“Let me know if you need any hoof tending.” The man said, as they passed it, making a slight gesture towards the shelter. “I’m one of the town smithies.”

“Good to know. Looks like a solid setup.” Xena replied, as they walked. “I’ll check them in the morning before we move on.”

The barn doors were wide and large, and the floor was stone, well swept, and with a rear set of equally wide doors open, a clean, cold breeze was coursing through it bringing the smell of horses and hay and leather to them. 

Tanto lifted his head and his nostrils flared.  Xena smiled and patted his cheek, but remained silent as they passed inside. 

The man walked along the central aisle, which had large stalls on either side of it. Many had horses inside, and several came over and put their heads out to observe the newcomers.  “Most of these are held by townsfolk. We have a few places though, for visitors who have the coin and don’t mind tendering it.”

He stopped in front of one of the stalls and gestured to it. “Will this do? They’re handsome beasts. Can see why you’d want to house them.” His eyes were mainly for the horses, the oil lamps inside the barn giving him a good look at them. 

Xena went over and peered inside the stall, which was a large box square, with a slatted window to the outside letting the breeze in, and a meticulously swept stone floor.  Along the side was a wooden bin, now empty, and a neatly fitted stone water basin, also empty. “Looks great.” She concluded, pleased with the cleanliness.

The man gestured to a gangly looking girl who was standing at the end of the row, watching with noncommittal eyes. “Put straw down and get the bins full.” He ordered, in a crisp but even voice.  “Let me get you ladies a hand with the tack.”

The girl emerged from the end of the hall pulling a flatbed cart with wooden wheels, it’s surface piled with straw and got to work with a pitchfork spreading it inside the box while they divested the horses of their saddlebags and gear.  

“On your way to festival, I take it.” The man ran his hands over the well-made saddle as he lifted it off Spot’s back. “Busiest time of the year, for travelers.”

“We are.” Gabrielle answered easily. “We’ve never been in these parts before. We’ve heard a lot about Costas.”

The girl inside the stall snorted softly but didn’t turn. 

“It’s a sight.” The man said, briefly. “We’ve got three hostels here.  One’s a guesthouse, really, used by the townsfolk when they’ve got visitors more than they can take.” He talked as he worked, straightening out the tack with automatic gestures. “No space there, got a lot of those visiting who rest here and travel into Costas to save the dinars.”

“It’s a short ride then?” Gabrielle asked. “We weren’t sure.”

The man nodded vigorously. “Two candlemark.” He said. “The second inn’s just up the path where the road bends. They’ve got space, its well-favored, a bit pricey. Third – that’s where most here will head to. Up the next path and all the way to the right.  Got a common room and bunks. No private space.” 

He paused and looked at them both. “You ladies might go to the second. It’s a bit of coin, but better, no problems if you understand me.”

“Totally understand.” Gabrielle said, in the mildest of inflections. She shouldered her saddlebags and picked up her staff. “Thank you for the advice.”

“There’s not a bad lot here.” The man went on, seeming to feel further explanation was required. “Just tending to slake the thirst of the road, and get a bit rowdy.” He paused, as Xena hoisted her bags to her shoulder, moving aside her cloak hood and exposing the hilt of her sword. “Though you seem prepared for the travel I see.”

“We travel a lot.” Gabrielle saw the wry twinkle in Xena’s eyes. “Always pays to be prepared on the road, right?”

“Without a doubt, lady.” The man smiled.

Xena gave Tanto a pat on the shoulder and gestured to the open box stall door, and the stallion ambled inside without protest, walking to the back of it and peering out the gaps in the window as Spot followed him. 

The girl came back carrying a bucket of water, and emptied it into the stone trough, then turned and went back to unhook a filled hay net from the back wall and bring it over to hang against the side of the box, all in silence. 

“If you’ve got any oats, give them some.” Xena said, as she adjusted the net, both horses coming over to investigate it’s contents. “We’ve been on the road a lot.”

The girl glanced up at her with some renewed interest. “We got some.” She said. “You want em rubbed down?” 

Xena studied her. “Sure, they’d love that.” She agreed. “They’re both pretty good with being handled.”  She said. “I don’t think they’ll give you any trouble.”

The girl nodded, giving Spot a pat on the shoulder. “I’ll take care of em.”

They paid the man for the stall and made their way back out into the brisk evening air, walking along the road and heading up the slope to the main part of the town. “So.” Gabrielle said, as they walked out of any earshot. “How do we feel about this place?”

“I feel like a mug of ale.” Xena replied, shifting the saddlebag on her shoulder. “And I am not in the mood for a common room, so I think it’s the fancy digs for us.”  She steadily scanned the area as they climbed up to the main road and turned to the right, seeing oil lamps ahead. “Seems like a pretty average town. Taking advantage of being on the road, and pricing themselves lower than the port city.”

There were numbers of people walking in both directions, and the soft clop of horse hooves behind them.   Xena waited until they were almost even with the turn off to the indicated inn, and then she paused and glanced back, as the hooves got closer. “Ah. Our friends from the road.”

Gabrielle looked over her shoulder, to see the five riders and their pack horse coming up the road.  The riders were in a jovial mood, and she could hear them laughing and one was singing some road song in a reasonably tuneful tenor voice. 

“Let’s get our room settled.” Xena gave her a nudge, and they walked down the path towards the inn, either side lined with stone planters, full of thickly fragrant herbs that made the passage pleasant.  Overhead was a an attractive vine lattice, and it held creeping ivy, giving the feeling of moving into a private retreat. 

The inn was fronted with a low stone wall and a gate, and past that, there was an open space with wrought iron tables placed in strategic locations each with hedges cupping them giving them a sense of privacy. Three of them were occupied by patrons, who were enjoying the twilight, sipping from wooden cups. 

There were steps up to the door to the inn and as they reached the top of them the door was opened inward, and a tall, spare woman emerged, pausing when she saw them approach.  “Good evening.” She greeted them. “Be looking for a room?”

“We are.” Gabrielle agreed. “We were directed here by the gentleman at the stable.”

The woman smiled. “Ah, Roget.  He’s a good fellow.” She backed into the inn and swung the door all the way open. “Come inside, let’s get you taken care of.  Here for the festival?”

“Yes.” Xena said. “Isn’t everyone?”’

“As you say.” The woman smiled at her as she led them into the inn.  “Now, the price of the room includes a dinner and a breakfast… will you only be here for one night?” She glanced over her shoulder at them in question. 

“We heard people stay here who are going to the festival.” Gabrielle countered. “Is that true? They stay here and travel to it?”

“Yes, ma’am that’s true enough.” The woman answered readily. “The guesthouse, top the hill, they’s filled to the brim with folks doing just that. Better price, you see.” She went to a door in a corner of the inn and opened it, pushing it to and stepping back. “Will this suit?”

The room, unlike their previous inn’s experience, was large and well provided.  Gabrielle was glad to see not only a water basin, with water piped in, but also a large stone tub against one wall with a stopper firmly inserted into a faintly rust stained hole. 

There was a large bed, an equally large window with shutters, and, rare, a neatly built stone fireplace with a wood fire already burning inside it.  “This is very nice.” She told the woman. “It’s fine.”

The woman looked unsurprised, she obviously knew the value of her offering.  “The price is ten dinars for the night and the two meals.”

Gabrielle removed her coin pouch from her saddlebag. “Fair price.” She removed a silver piece from the bag and handed it over. “Is the inn full?”

The woman turned the piece over and then looked up. “About three quarters.” She said, with a brief smile. “Many travelers prefer the common inn, with their music and beer tap. I like to think it’s a more restful experience here.”  She pocketed the coin. “You can come to the dining room when you like. We serve at will.” 

She left and closed the door behind her, it shut with a solid, quiet, click of a locking mechanism. 

“Well.” Gabrielle looked around. “This is almost as nice as Athens.”

Xena went over and pushed her finger into the bed experimentally. “Not bad.” She went over and dropped her saddlebags on a backless couch next to the tub, then opened the shutters and looked out the window.  The view was of the garden that seemed to surround the inn, and it was quiet. “That tub’s worth the price.”

“I was just thinking that very same thing. Let’s go get our dinner and come back and use it.” Gabrielle put her staff in the corner and started rummaging in her bag, pulling out the small bag she kept her soap and other sundries in. She went over to the water basin and set the bag down then pulled the soap out and started washing her hands. “I think I smell herbs growing out there.”

“You do.” Xena leaned her elbows on the windowsill and enjoyed the breeze for a minute, then she turned and came over and took her turn at the basin. “With any luck, we won’t have to spend a night in Costas.” She said, as Gabrielle ran a comb through her hair and traded her traveling cloak for a deep green woolen overshirt. “We can divide and conquer.  You go shop for Hercules, I’ll go get us a ride.”

“Deal.” Gabrielle was smiling as she adjusted her sleeves. “But not with pirates if you can avoid it hon. We’ll miss the party.”

“No pirates.” Xena leaned over and gave her a kiss on the lips, then she removed her cloak and hung it on a nicely shaped iron hook attached to the wall. “I think I’ll leave this here.” She removed the belt that held her sword across her back and laid it down on the bench next to the saddlebags. “How much trouble could we possibly get into over dinner.” 

“You had to say that didn’t you.” 

Xena chuckled, low and deep in her throat.   “They’ll have meat knives in the hall, Gab. I’ll improvise.” She opened the door and bowed Gabrielle out, then she closed it behind them and removed the key the innkeeper had left in the lock, turning it and hearing it make a satisfying solid clunk. 

There were other patrons emerging and moving down the hall and they joined them, none of the faces were familiar from the road, most were dressed in good quality clothing, and there were flashes of rings and brooches and in one case, a beautifully intricate twisted silver lizard ear cuff on one of the ladies. 

Not quite patricians, but solid citizens, Xena mused.  Their speech was decisive and a little strangely accented to her ears, they spoke of deals and opportunities, things they were looking forward to at the festival, utterly ordinary conversations. 

She and Gabrielle were not out of place in their midst, at least to look at, and studying them she was glad they’d left their weapons behind, as they politely exchanged good evenings as everyone was filing into the dining hall. Their clothing was darker in color, with less ornamentation but of equal quality and no one really looked twice at them as they joined the line.

They were seated quickly, the servers were just as quick to start circulating, she could smell roast something or other coming from the kitchen.  From her spot behind Gabrielle as they were taking their seats, she was able to scan the room, finding it, as the innkeeper had said, about half to three quarters full. 

There was no entertainment, she noted, but the servers came right over and poured glasses full of a rich red wine and set down a wooden dish of olives and cubes of meat and cheese to nibble on.  

Gabrielle picked up an olive and bit into it, chewing it thoughtfully. “It does sort of feel like.. mm… “

“Wanna be Athens?” Xena took a sip of the wine, and her eyebrows lifted. “Not a bad try with that.” She settled back in her chair, content with the wall at her back and studied their near neighbors.  Most were parties of two, as they were, and a few parties of four. There were no large loud groups and she noted that their followers from the road were not in sight. 

A server appeared, a young man with curly brown hair and a formal manner. “Ladies, would you prefer the duck, or the carp fish?” He asked, poised for their decision. “And we have a trifle for dessert.”

“Duck.” They both answered at the same time, without even exchanging a glance.  “Thanks.” Xena added, folding her hands, and watching the man bounce off to the next table. “Only place they’re getting carp from is that river.” She said. 

“And you won’t even drink out of that river this far downstream.” Gabrielle concluded the statement. “Lets hope it’s not grilled duck. Last time I tried that it was like chewing boot leather.”  She looked up at the door as motion caught her eye. “Oh, look, Xe. Your horse buddy from this morning.”

“Ah, yes.” Xena watched the man, and an attractive woman accompanying him, entered, and were escorted to a table near the center of the room.  He was obviously known in the inn, the servers were greeting him with a familiar air. “Guessing he validates our choice of hostelries.”

Gabrielle took a sip of her wine, and rolled the liquid around her mouth before she swallowed it.  It was mellow, and just a trifle sweet, not dry on the tongue. There was a strong, fruity taste to it that was pleasant.  She idly watched as the servers started bringing out platters and she resolved to relax and enjoy the experience, looking forward to following it up with that nice big tub. 

There were a number of other women in the room, most of them seated at table with men, but she notice in the far back corner two women seated together, watching the action in the room much as they were.  They had good quality, possibly silken tunics on, and silver bracelets whose polished surface caught golden reflections of the oil lamps, and one of them had on a woven shawl held closed by a beautiful pendant pin on her right breast.  Gabrielle spent an idle moment imagining a background for them, and wondered if they were also merchants.

Xena had her elbows on the arms of the chair she was seated in and her hands were clasped in front of her, her fingers resting against her chin as she looked past them, scanning the room and Gabrielle wondered if anyone was pondering the same questions about them as they were of everyone else.

“What are you thinking about?” She asked Xena after a quiet pause.

Xena leaned back in her chair. “Wondering if those two, back there aren’t oracles of Athena.” She mused. “I think that pin’s a stylized owl.”

Gabrielle was momentarily silent. “Wow.” She said, as their server headed their way with a tray. “That wasn’t on my diary notes for today.” She took a sip of wine. “They could just like owls.” She demurred.  “That shawl is pretty. Any reason for them to be some of Athena’s followers?”

“No reason other than we’re here, and she’s a goddess.” Xena gave the server a brief smile as he put down a plate of stewed, and neatly sliced duck breasts in a fragrant sauce, with greens in front of her. “Thanks.”

Well there is that.” Gabrielle accepted her own plate and cleared her throat. “Lets cross our fingers that they’re maybe jewelry makers who like owls.”



“How is this water hot, Xe?” Gabrielle was watching the stream from the spigot run over her hand. “I’m not complaining, but I’d love to know how they do it so we can figure that out at home.”

Xena came over from shutting the window shutters and examined the tub, which was filling.  “Hot?”  She stuck her hand into the flow and her eyes widened. “Wow.”   She edged around the other side of the tub and got her head between the tub and the wall. “Maybe they’re running it behind the fireplace? No.” She could see the pipe that fed the tub ran down into the stone floor and vanished, not going near the mantel.  “Huh.”

Gabrielle pulled a handful of the water up and sniffed it. “You know what the smell of this water reminds me of? That hot spring there used to be at the old Amazon village. You remember that?”

Xena stuck her face down close to the surface of the water. “Yeah.” She straightened up. “Maybe there’s a hot spring around here.” She said. “Great benefit.”

“No kidding.” Gabrielle finished getting undressed and then stepped into the tub, easing herself down into the water.  “Oh gosh that feels good.” She savored the warmth soaking into her bones.

A moment later Xena joined her, and they were facing each other across the length of the long, wide tub. “Sure does.”  She wiggled her toes. “If it is a hot spring that’s disappointing. We don’t have any on the mountain that I know of.” She added in a regretful tone. “At least I’ve never found any.”

“You’ll just have to figure some other way out.” Gabrielle said. “Imagine what that would be like after a long day chasing up and down that mountain.”  She retrieved the soap and started applying it to her shoulders. “That was a bit of crazy entertainment at the end of dinner wasn’t it?”

“That guy proposing to the server? Yeah.” Xena chuckled. “He was drunk off his ass.”  She caught the soap as Gabrielle tossed it to her. “On the other hand I heard some of the kitchen staff talking about going to some militia practice after they were done there. Wonder what that’s all about?”

“Xena, if anyone in the world knows about militia practice it’s you.  What do you mean what’s that all about?” Gabrielle ducked her head under the water to rinse her hair out, emerging to squint at her tub mate. 

“Wonder if they’re expecting trouble.”  Xena sniffed reflectively. “Pretty heavily guarded town this close to a major city.”  She rubbed the soap over her knee and scrubbed a bit of leaf stain off her skin. “I might go find out.” She glanced up at Gabrielle, who was watching her with a drolly knowing grin. 

She stuck her tongue out. “I’m not going to go beat people up.” 

“Ten dinars you end up doing just that.” Gabrielle chuckled. “But it’s probably a good idea. Maybe it’s tied in with that whole pirate thing, right? They want to be prepared if that spreads out. I could see it.”

“How about you invent us out of that whole pirate thing?” Xena splashed her with a handful of sudsy hot water. Then she leaned back against the edge of the stone tub and spread her arms out along it’s sides. “Speaking of, I think we should keep this place on for a day when we head up to Costas tomorrow. Worth having some place to come back to.”

“In case?” Gabrielle pondered that. “Like if, we can’t get on a boat tomorrow? Stay here instead and then go there when the boat’s ready?”

Xena nodded. “Less chance of complications staying here.” She suggested. “Maybe the owner’ll give you a discount for staying the extra day.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “Maybe I can trade her the day for entertainment tomorrow night in her dining hall. That was pretty boring in there until that guy acted up.”

“That’s not a bad idea.” Xena considered thoughtfully. “Worth a try at any rate. She might blow you off though if she has no clue who you are.”

“She might even if she did. I’ll find the innkeeper and feel her out while you go out to not fight with people.”  Gabrielle stood up, then looked around. “Oh sheeps.”

Xena reached out one long arm and snagged a towel hanging nearby and tossed it to her. “Here.”  She then slid under the water to rinse off and then she surfaced, pulling the plug out of the bottom of the tub’s bottom, and standing up to let the water drain off her. 

Gabrielle brought over a towel for her as she stepped out of the tub and then started drying her off, her own towel wrapped around her body, but only for a moment before Xena unraveled it and ruffled her hair dry with it.  

“That’s dry enough.” Xena said, tossing it to land on the side of the tub, and then enfolding Gabrielle in her arms instead, pulling their bodies together and gently bumping her backwards towards the bed. “Let’s enjoy our nice digs for a candlemark.”

“Before we go out looking for trouble.” Gabrielle readily assented, as they fell into the bed, it’s soft surface bouncing just slightly under them as they rolled over into the center of it. 


Xena closed the door gently behind her as they emerged from their room into an empty, quiet hallway, where the sounds around them were soft, indistinct notes of humanity on either side of them as they walked along in companionable silence.

The outer door was slightly ajar, and Xena pushed it open and then stood aside as Gabrielle slipped past her, staff clasped lightly in one hand, her pale hair framed by the hood of her cloak.

They crossed from the oil lit light of the interior to the redder, more inconsistent light of torches lining the path and as they reached the end of it, they paused and Xena tilted her head just a bit in a listening attitude while Gabrielle waited, adjusting one of the leather wraps on her staff.

“That way.” Xena gestured and they started off on a smaller and more irregular path that went between several of the buildings and then around the back of them where the town was less well lit and a trifle unkempt.  

Not that it was dirty, it just wasn’t polished. The path was beaten earth, and it was lined with larger stones cleared out of the ground, unmatched in size or color and there were marks of wagon and cart wheels indented in the ground.

Overhead the sky was clear and full of stars, and the path led down slope and the wind drifted around to blow in their faces. “Ah.” Gabrielle nodded, as she caught the distinctive sound of weapons meeting and the low murmur of voices. “Sounds like a crowd.”

“Sounds like.” Xena agreed shifting her shoulders to adjust her sword a little.

They got to the bottom of the path and there before them was another wall, this one built of wood, tall enough for Xena not to be able to see over it, and there were gates in it, one of which was partially open.  “Here we go.” Gabrielle remarked.

“Here we go.” Xena pulled the gate open and went inside the enclosure, moving to one side and slowing to take in the scene before continuing.

Inside the stockade were roughly a hundred people, dressed in work clothes, and twenty with the more formal looking guards tunics.

The guards were all armed with swords and crossbows, the rest had a mixture of short wooden poles, long bows, and harvest scythes and mattocks. 

There were torches all around the interior of the circle of the walls and they outlined a scene very familiar to both Xena and Gabrielle, sparring practice.  There were guards that were facing off against each other, the clang of swords meeting scissored through the crisp air, and to one side, more guards were working with poles and square, crude shields fastened to their arms in close order combat, paired with townsfolk in slow, rote motions.

All of the combatants were male, and most of the crowd, but some were women standing by watching.  Xena patted Gabrielle on the back lightly and they started forward moving from the shadow of the wall into the torchlight and catching the attention of the townsfolk at the rear of the crowd.

The smith saw them and came hurriedly over. “Travelers! Ladies!” He sounded more than a bit alarmed. “I think you have come off the path, let me lead you back to the inn.”

Gabrielle stepped casually forward and swung the bottom end of her staff forward and slapped him on the hip making him come grinding to a halt with a startled expression.  “Take it easy.” She recommended with a smile. “We’re not ladies and we know exactly where we came to.”

“We heard fighting.” Xena agreed. “We came to find out where the fun was.”  She had left her cloak behind in the hostel and now as she moved into the center of the torchlight her sword was visible, the hilt twinkling darkly.

Very seldom had they ever caught a group of people so flat footed, Gabrielle decided. It was literally if some of the animals in the stockyard nearby had turned up chatty with daggers.  “We’d like to join you.” She told the crowd cheerfully. “That okay?”

“Xena, don’t make trouble.” Xena warbled softly at her in an undertone.

“Hush.” Gabrielle uttered back.

Xena snorted softly and started forward, walking through the startled townsfolk to where the guards were standing, jaws a bit agape and their swords hanging at their sides, the senior guard who had been directing the sparring staring at her.

The smith had turned to watch her as well, then he turned back to Gabrielle. “Madame, this gathering is for the townsfolk only, we gather to ah.. teach some of those who have the inclination the martial arts.”

“I know.” Gabrielle said, biting off a grin. “We do this at home too. We enjoy it.”

The smith pulled his head back and studied her with raised brows. “Oh. Really?”

“Really.” Gabrielle assured him. “Amphipolis, where Xe and I live, also has a militia. We do this all the time.”

“They include ladies such as yourself?” The smith seemed utterly amazed.

“Yes.” Gabrielle said, simply. “I could explain the whole backstory about that but it’s going to be faster and probably more entertaining if we just demonstrate.”

Xena looked at the senior guard and then pointed to him. “C’mon.” She invited. “Lets do a round.” She made a come hither motion with her hand and walked to the center of the circle, standing there in a casual stance waiting for him to join her.

Abruptly the man brought his jaw up with a click of teeth and he motioned the other guards to move back.   He drew his own sword out and walked out to meet her, enough strides and motion for her to judge him, and she did, suspecting she was going to enjoy the next several minutes.

He was tall and well built, with thick shoulders and a coiled way of walking that promised speed and strength and Xena’s eyes twinkled as she relaxed her posture and let her knees unlock and her weight come up over the balls of her feet.

It was a very small motion, but he caught it and he paused and looked up to meet her eyes, and when he did, Xena smiled at him, as she reached over her shoulder to draw her sword out of it’s sturdy leather sheath.

She flipped the hilt in her hand and lifted the blade up to chest height and cocked an eyebrow at him in question.

He took a breath and the tip of his tongue emerged and then disappeared. Then he stepped forward and engaged her, their swords lightly clashing against each other, that distinctive sheering sound.

The rest of the crowd had gathered to watch, abandoning any pretense of doing anything else and Gabrielle herself was content to watch, appreciating the gentle grace of Xena’s motions as she absorbed and returned the guard captains tentative attack.

There was zero danger to anyone. Xena was deflecting him with casual ease, working him around in a slow circle, keeping the action mild and non terrifying as it was possible for her to do, nothing like what it was like facing her in true battle.

This was the playful sparring that Gabrielle knew, the one that ended their evenings so often, sometimes with staves, and sometimes, recently, when she held a practice sword and went through those motions to learn this most alien of weapons.

The guard captain knew it.  Gabrielle could see it in his expression which went from stolid determination to a hesitant appreciation.  He knew enough to know what he was facing.

Which was great. Much less chance of anyone getting killed or needing to prove something and end up triggering Xena’s quicksilver reflexes and end up losing a hand.  

Xena got to the top end of her circle and held off the captain’s sortie while she waved casually at the clump of other guards standing there watching. “C’mon, boys.” She invited them with a slight tilt of her head. “Lets make this a party.”

intrigued, and now completely oblivious to the watching townsfolk the guards looked at each other, gave faint shrugs, then pulled out their swords and dove in, coming at her in a half circle while she kept her back to the stockade wall.

Xena waited for them to close in, then she lashed out and kicked the guard captain in the side of his knee, sending him sprawling and switching her sword from her right hand to her left to catch the oncoming guards with motions that suddenly sped up, her blade now flickering in the torchlight as she pulled her dagger from her boot top and used it to fend off the now recovered captain.

She let out a chuckle of honest enjoyment.

The smith, standing next to Gabrielle, folded his arms over his chest. “Your friend knows well this weapon.” He commented in a bemused voice.

“Yes.” Gabrielle agreed, mildly. Then her voice pitched down a little, and projected as she continued. “You’d have to do a lot of searching to find anyone better at this than she is.”  She glanced at him. “She’s called Ares’s Chosen for a reason.”

The reaction was as interesting as she had hoped it might be.  Everyone within hearing of her voice turned around and stared at her, and the smith himself took a step backwards as though the words had stung him.

She herself remained standing where she was, her hands wrapped around her staff leaning on it. Her eyes kept Xena’s quicksilver motion in view, not expecting to have to dive into the fight but knowing that you just never knew.

“It’s not often we hear his name in these days.” The smith said, after a breathless pause.

“Nor will you if you keep going to the west, but there are those here who welcome it.” He was washing his hands together in a nervous gesture.

Gabrielle looked past him to where Xena was now standing alone in the center of the circle, her sword resting in a relaxed pose on her shoulder, the guard’s weapons all laying in the rich dirt of the sparring ground.

Xena lifted her eyebrows and one hand in question.

Gabrielle lifted one hand off her staff and gave her a thumbs up gesture.

“Okay.” Xena turned back to the circle of watching guards, some of which were standing shaking their sword hand and grimacing. “Lets try that again, only this time I’ll close my eyes.”  She smiled at the sudden stares.

“Well.” Gabrielle shifted a little. “We’d like to hear all about that. Can we buy everyone an ale after we’re done here?”  She straightened and hefted her staff.  “I’d like to get a little practice in myself.” She moved forward towards where the townsfolk who had been sparring with sticks were standing, passing Xena on her way. “Great job, honey.”

Xena twirled her sword in her hand and winked at her. “You finally agree it’s sometimes easier my way?” She took a step back and did a few more flips of the long sword in her hand. “C’mon boys. I won’t peek. I promise.”

Did she agree? Gabrielle had to admit if only to herself that she did, and had agreed with that some time ago.  She could have sat with these people and told stories to them for a few days, and maybe - maybe have gotten them to buy into what she was saying but Xena had done in a quarter candle mark what it would have taken her days and yes there were times it was just far easier to show than tell.

Especially when it was Xena doing the showing, to an audience who was appreciative of her skills.  Gabrielle could see the guards all glued now to her every move and though they were small town men, backwoods militia and not battle hardened soldiers there was that something in them that responded to that sexy dark energy that Xena exuded.

Xena had come around to enjoy the teaching finally.  The militia, the wanna be militia in the town at home and now, at last the Amazons all were receptive to this transfer of skills and Gabrielle could see that she was enjoying this iteration of it.

From the corner of her eye, she spotted the stable worker who had helped them put up the horses, the young girl who was standing back in the shadows, almost hiding in a corner, avidly watching.  Then the innkeeper edged over next to her, one of the few other women there.  “Hi.” She greeted her. “Sorry if we caused a stir.”

The woman laughed. “When I saw the weapons you had, coming in, I thought you might.” She responded frankly. “And that you were two, traveling alone without any escort and without wanting any. I said to myself, now there’s something different.”

“Go on down the road some, it’ll be called indecent.” One of the men standing there said. “Don’t care for that, in the big cities. People have their place if you know what I mean.”

“I’ve been to Athens.” Gabrielle said, in a somewhat dry tone. “I do know.”

The man nodded at her, then hefted the long pole he was carrying. “Care to have a go? I’m not bad with this, fending off the beasts in the herd fields as I do.”

Gabrielle felt just a little surprised and delighted at the ready acceptance.  She lifted her staff and pointed at the other open area. “Lets do it.”

“Are you a follower of Ares as well?” The man asked as they moved through the crowd. “My father was, but its fallen off these days.” He walked along holding the pole much as she did her staff, with comfortable familiarity.

“Am I a follower of Ares.” Gabrielle mused.  “Complicated question really.  Let’s just say I appreciate him and I’m willing to act in his interests.”  She got to an open space and turned jumping up and down a little to wake her body up and flexing her hands around her staff.

“But you believe in him?” The man asked, with a tone of genuine interest. “As a god?”

Gabrielle wasn’t sure what the question was.  She lifted her hands and spread them across her staff as she thought about it. “Do you mean do I think he exists? Absolutely I do.” She finally answered. “Do I think he’s a god? Absolutely I think so.”  She looked him in the eye. “Do you?”

He shrugged. “Didn’t do my pa any good.” He went at her, with a sturdy, workmanlike attack that Gabrielle easily turned aside, aware from the very corner of her eye that despite being engaged by ten earnestly battling guards she was being watched by a sharp blue gaze.  “Well, when we’re done here, I’ll tell you a story that might give you a different insight.”   She parried his pole with her battle-hardened staff, the lighter weight of the tool making an uneven sound against her weapon as she knocked him off balance and used the opportunity to swing the bottom end around and take his feet out from under him. “You never know.”

She dug her boots into the dirt as he scrambled to his feet and now, a little embarrassed, picked up his pole and came at her with more energy, using his larger size and greater weight in an attempt to bowl her over with a straight up frontal charge.

That happened a lot to her.  Gabrielle understood that her stature often deceived people into thinking they could knock her on her ass that easily and now she used it to her advantage by ducking into a crouch as he lunged for her and got her staff in between his boots, taking one end of the staff in both ands and kicking forward to throw herself past him.

The staff, propelled by her weight twisted his legs and threw him up into the air, with the pole flailing wildly and she just barely missed it slamming into her head as she tucked and rolled out of the way, coming up onto her feet and bringing her staff into a defensive position as he went sprawling.

She brought one elbow back and tensed her body to get ready for a hard swing as she waited to see what he was going to do, still even after all this time not willing not to give a chance when she could.  But if he was going to go wild on her, her next move would be right for his head.

He grabbed his pole and got to his feet and then he straightened up and put his hands on his weapon and blew out a breath. “You’re a tricky one.” He said, with a wry grimace. 

Gabrielle relaxed her stance slightly.  “I had an even trickier teacher.”  She said, loud enough for Xena to hear her. “But c’mon you can do better than that. Stop trying to knock me over.  Have some fun.” She stepped forward, repositioning the staff.

“Should war be fun?” The man countered, but he also met her staff with his, and they started a gentler and more rhythmic exchange.

“Depends who you ask.” Gabrielle said, with wry honestly. “And which war.”

He paused and looked at her. “I didn’t really expect you to say that.”

Gabrielle tapped him on the head with her staff. “There was a time in my life that I didn’t expect me to say that either, but here we are.”  She admitted. “So let’s go.”


Now the inn’s dining hall was full, but it was a totally different crowd.  All of the guards and the would-be guards were clustered around the tables that had been shoved together into a mass in the center of the room, and the taps were flowing, big pitchers of ale on every surface.

It had a rougher, homelier feel.  Gabrielle was seated on one of the high table stools, easing her throat with a cup of hot, spiced wine, having just finished her promised story, a somewhat capsulized retelling of the fight between Hades and Ares, and his saving his acolytes from Hade’s realm.

Only one side and one part of that story, but it was relatively short and made a good tale and served her purpose.

Xena was on the other side of the mass of tables, with a parchment and a piece of coal, drawing strategy lines with the guard captain, the smith, and most of the regular guard clustered around her.

It felt like old times.  Gabrielle could feel an almost melancholic sweep of nostalgia come over her as she listened to the townsfolk talk about the story, debating it’s points, it’s truthfulness, and it’s provenance.  None of that offended her.  She was old enough not to expect everyone she met to believe everything she said without questioning it.

“Gabrielle.. where did you hear that story?” The innkeeper was at her elbow. “Not in these parts surely.”

“Since I’ve never been in these parts, definitely not.” Gabrielle shifted a little and took another sip of the hot wine. “So that one, I created that one.” She said. “I was there, I saw what happened, and I wrote that story down so I could tell it whenever I had the chance to.”  She looked over at the innkeeper to see her staring back, one hand resting on the table the other lifted slightly and frozen in place. “Weird, huh?”

“You saw these things?” The innkeeper said.

“I saw them.” Gabrielle confirmed, biting back a laugh at the look of consternation. “Don’t get me wrong, I have a whole collection of stories from things and places and people I haven’t witnessed, and I tell them also. But that one in particular, yeah.” She nodded. “We were there for that one.”

The woman looked at her, and Gabrielle returned the look with an expression of mild amusement.  Then she abruptly turned and walked away from her and across the floor to disappear into the kitchen area of the dining hall.

Now what was that all about?  Gabrielle looked up and found Xena sliding into a seat next to her. “Having fun?”

“Farmboys.” Xena said, but with a benign grin. “They like your story?”

Gabrielle shrugged one shoulder. “I think so. It’s always a dice throw telling that one, that piece of the gods saving the harvest and all that. I think I freaked out the owner saying we’d been there.”

“We were.”

“I know, hon.” Gabrielle chuckled. “But that piece I try to keep about them, to make the point.”

Xena leaned back on the stool, stretching out her long legs and rocking her head back and forth to loosen her neck muscles. “Yeah. I’d rather you not mention me and Hades and the Sword of War if you can help it.” She uttered softly. “Let Ares and Aphrodite be the heroes.” She studied the collection of townsfolk all clustered together talking. “I think they got a kick out of us.”

“I think so too.” Gabrielle said. “Probably made me bartering some tales for our room tomorrow easier.”

“I’m going to pull that smith aside in the morning.” Xena leaned on the table with her elbow. “I think he knows something he wants to tell me, but not in a crowd.”  She kept her tone low. “He really liked your story. Asked me if I though you’d maybe do a repeat over breakfast.”

Gabrielle’s right eyebrow lifted speculatively.  “Do I want to do that? We wanted to get on the road early.”

Xena rested her chin on her fist and pondered the question as they watched the crowd. “I felt like he was asking for a reason.” She finally said.  “Damned if I know what the reason was, but maybe I can find out.”

Gabrielle offered her a sip of the mulled wine. “I think there’s a little fig in here.” She tilted the cup and watched Xena taste it experimentally. “Is it?”

“Yeah, maybe.” Xena licked her lips. “Got some honey in it. They must have roses around here somewhere I can taste that.”

“Okay, you can tell him if we start early I’ll entertain the morning crowd.” Gabrielle decided. “Actually, I’ll go tell him and see if I can bargain for a packet of snacks to take for lunch.”

“Atta girl.” Xena patted her knee, under the surface of the table. “I’m sure he’ll appreciate that more than me just walking into the kitchen and taking it.”

“Xena.  Are you practicing for the pirates?”

“Do I need to practice for pirates?”

“No, probably not.”


Continued in Part 5