Tempting Fates

Part 5

Gabrielle paused outside their room, the door shut behind her, as she leaned against the wall and studied the ceiling, ordering her thoughts and making sure she had the story beats aligned in her head, debating over whether or not to add in a small bit she’d left out the night before.

Then she pushed off the wall and headed down the hallway, her staff clasped in one hand.  Xena had gone out to get the horses tacked up and their bags loaded, and though it was early, there was a distinct stirring around the inn as doors opened and closed, and voices sounded on either side of her.

She had on a blue, nubbly woolen overshirt and riding leggings and her traveling cloak slung over her shoulders, pinned in place with a finely wrought silver hawks head against a background of an unrolled parchment scroll with a lattice of tiny staves around the rim of it.

Beautiful work, given to her by the tribe at their solstice gathering and one she hadn’t even realized she’d brought with her until she’d been folding up her sleeping shift and found it at the bottom of her saddlebag. 

She went to the door to the dining hall and slipped inside, looking quickly around before she continued on into the room.  There were three or four tables occupied, and most of the diners looked sleepy, supping from large mugs with trays of what smelled like freshly baked bread on the tables.

Her server from the previous night spotted her and came over quickly. “Good morning, madame.”  He glanced past her. “Are you alone this morning?”

“No, Xena’ll be joining me shortly.” Gabrielle said, glancing past him to see if she could see the innkeeper, but there was no sign of the woman.

“This way.” He beckoned her towards the table they’d sat at the previous night, and she kept at his heels, aware of the quick, almost furtive looks from the other early morning patrons.  Reaching the back wall, she leaned her staff against it, then took a seat.  “Will you be leaving us today?” The server asked diffidently. “My brother was here last night and heard you.”

Gabrielle leaned back in the chair. “We’re going on into Costas.” She agreed. “But we may be back. Depends.”

He nodded and took a pitcher and two cups from the tray and set them down on the table. “I’ll bring back some bread.”

When he left, Gabrielle picked up the pitcher and inspected its contents, finding it to be a light, pleasantly scented cider of some type of fruit.  She poured a little into her cup and tasted it, a little surprised by the half tart, half sweet flavor.

It was nice. She poured a full cup and then sat back to wait for the promised bread service, watching idly as several more patrons came into the room and took seats, and the light buzz of conversation started to fill the hall.

The door opened and Xena appeared, glancing over and meeting her eyes before she strode across the hall heading for the table.  She had leathers on under her heavy tunic, the lamps inside the hall caught the reflections against her armor and she had her cloak over her arm.

Her progress across the room caught the attention of everyone, Gabrielle noted. The looks were not furtive as they had been for her, these were outright stares and as Xena neared she saw the twinkle in her eyes and the saucy grin as she added a little extra swagger.

She draped her cloak over the back of the other chair and spun in place before sitting down, letting her elbows rest on the chair arms. “Not much of a crowd.”

“Not much.” Gabrielle agreed. “Smith have anything to say?”

“Oh yeah.” Xena stretched her legs out and crossed them at the ankles. “All kinds of apocalyptic warnings about Costas, and how we should really just stay here.” She poured herself a cup of cider and took a sip. “That the town could use us.”

Gabrielle started chortling softly.  “Liked what they saw last night, huh?”


The server returned with a fresh, steaming loaf of bread and a crock of new cheese and set them down. “We have oat cereal, if it suits you.”

“It doesn’t.” Gabrielle responded at once. “Got any of that stewed duck left over from last night?”

Caught a little by surprise, the server took a half step back and cocked his head to one side. “We might.” He allowed. “Let me go ask the cook.”

“And?” Gabrielle turned her attention to her tablemate. “He make you an offer?”

“Didn’t give him the chance.” Xena pulled out her dagger and cut up the fresh bread, handing Gabrielle a hunk of the warm, brown seed filled loaf. “Told him we’d stop on our way back and we’d talk then.”

Gabrielle’s eyebrows lifted.

Xena cut a hunk of the new cheese off the block and spread it on the bread. “Chances are we’re not coming back this way, didn’t figure that was going to be a problem.”  She glanced around the room. “This stays like this we’re not wasting your time here.”

As though the words had been a trigger, the door opened and patrons flooded inside, and the room quickly filled with guests, most of whom took note of their presence with varying levels of interest.

“Had to say that didn’t you?” Gabrielle asked, mildly. ‘I’ll try to make it quick. They said it was a two-hour ride to the port.” 

“Damn.” Xena sighed.

“I’ll leave out the three headed dog.”


Gabrielle settled into her saddle as Spot cantered along in Tanto’s wake, the two horses moving briskly along the road as they tried to make up some time.

She had left the town with mixed feelings. Though well received, she’d felt a weird vibe in the room during her storytelling and she was thankful they were on the road heading out.

Ahead of them the road stretched out almost due west and far ahead she could see wagons moving, and the faint puff of dust on the air from their passage. 

At this pace, there was no talking between them, and no doing busy work. Gabrielle paid attention to what was going on with Spot’s motion, watching ahead for any holes in the road or other hazard that might cause the horse to stumble.

There was now a low, stone wall on either side of the road, and on the far side of that fields under cultivation, most of which had workers already out reaping and harvesting, and in some cases plowing under the last year’s growth.  She could smell the earth being turned, and the fertilizer being spread, and in one field a large herd of sheep was being gathered with the sound of tinkling neck bells.

It called up early memories of her own childhood, though these fields, and flocks were far vaster and more fertile than Potadeia’s had been.  She took a breath of the air and adjusted her fingers on the reins and not for the first time, envied Xena’s relaxed motion and posture just ahead of her on Tanto.

Riding had been her hardest acquired skill. Even now after years of practice, she still felt a bit unsteady when going at more than a walk and her body felt tense, ready to react to the unexpected she felt sure would happen at any moment.

They came up a slight rise and then the road seemed to be descending into a long, slow decline to a just barely visible gap between two hills ahead of them, as well as began to get appreciably wider, and in the distance the wagons were shifting over to the left edge of the wall.

Their shadows had shortened appreciably before Xena lifted her hand and they slowed first to a trot, then to a walk, as they came up to a cluster of thickly leaved trees that hung over the road wall on the right-hand side.  Xena pulled Tanto to a halt under them and waited for Gabrielle to come up next to her. “Ready for a break?”

“Oh yes.” Gabrielle glanced over at the river, now coursing widely. “You want to water them?”

Xena got down off Tanto and patted his cheek.  On the other side of the wall were tall river grasses and without hesitation he leaned over and investigated their scent.   “Yeah.” She glanced down the road. “We’re going to have to slow down anyway it’s getting crowded up there.”

Gabrielle slid down and went to her saddlebags, removing a leather water carrier with its waxed interior and hopped up onto the wall, swiveling her body and legs over it.

“Watch out for snakes.”

Caught in the act of sliding off into the grass, Gabrielle looked around at her. “Want me to catch one for lunch?”  She landed on the sloping ground on the other side and proceeded forward at a rate calculated to allow any creatures in her way to move off ahead of her.

The ground was rocky, thankfully, and she got to the edge of the river dry shod, finding an overhanging tree to hold onto while she dipped the water carrier into the turbulent flow and pulled it back up to give it a sniff.  With a noncommittal grunt, she made her way back to the wall that Xena was standing on top of and lifted it up for inspection.

Xena released her dagger back into its sheath and took the carrier. “Looks okay.” She turned and hopped down, walking over to offer the basin to the two horses. 

Gabrielle hopped back up to sit on the wall, letting her heels bump idly against the stone surface as she watched the traffic on the river go by.    There were five or six boats moored to wooden pylons on the far side, and on them were fishermen busy with nets.

A bit of motion caught her eye and she looked upstream, to see a large cargo barge coming down, under a short sail, with two polemen steering it, and then she heard the yells of the fishermen, as the barge shifted right and headed right for them.

The polemen were trying, Gabrielle had to give them that, but the current, and the additional aid of the wind in the sails had them moving faster than they could adjust for and as they frantically tried to push off the bottom of the river the barge veered and slammed right into one of the boats, tearing it from its mooring.

There was a lot of yelling and cursing going on.  Gabrielle kept her seat on the wall, glancing over her shoulder to see Xena holding the bucket for Spot, while she watched the action over the mare’s back.

The two boats, intertangled, were swept down the river in the current, their strident voices fading off into the distance.

“Why did that idiot have a sail up?” Xena asked, after it had disappeared around a slight bend.

Gabrielle had her arms folded over her chest. “Maybe he was in a hurry?”  She mused. “Should we have helped?”

“Helped do what?”

Gabrielle pondered the situation. “Yeah, no.” She finally concluded, climbing back over the wall and dusting her hands off. “You’re right.”

Xena drained the remaining river water out of the basin and shook it to remove the drops, then folded it up. “Willing to bet we’ll see what the end of that action was on the way.” She handed Gabrielle back the carrier and then spent a moment hopping up and down, shaking her arms out.

Gabrielle paused with her hands on Spot’s saddle, waiting for the mare to finish ripping up a mouthful of the grass on the other side the wall.  She was looking back the way they’d come, and now a cluster of motion caught her eye. “Ah.”

Their group of young farmers were coming down the road, riding at a good clip, the last one of them leading their pack horse who was tossing his head at the pace.

Xena had spotted them, and she’d stepped behind Tanto, standing casually at his side, watching them go by. “They’re in a hurry.”

The trees efficiently obscured them, the long arching branches coming down to block anything but the legs of the horses and the riders passed them by without a second glance. 

The farmers, if that’s what they were, were not laughing and singing now. On this leg of their journey they were leaning forward over their horses necks and urging speed, moving at a fast canter that was almost a gallop.

Xena got up on Tanto as they raced past, heading west. “Good riddance.” She concluded. “C’mon.”

“Coming.” Gabrielle pulled herself up into her saddle and got herself settled.  She guided Spot after Tanto as they emerged from the trees, trading the chill shade and fragrant smell of laurel leaves for the brisk wind of the road.


The city gates of Costas were visible when they exited the pass, but they pulled to a halt at the crowd filling the road ahead of them, and the chaotic motion going on.

There were wagons and animals filling the road from side to side, the walls rising up from half a body length to shoulder height as they came out of the narrows that trapped the river and sped up its course and squeezed the road between high craggy ridges.

Ahead of them they could see the entrance to the city, which was bordered by tall stone walls with guard towers on either side, and past that, a wash of buildings rising up the slopes of a ridge. Past that, there was open sky and in that open sky they could see tiny waves of circling sea birds.

Xena could already smell the salt on the air, though sifting that out of the stench of a big city and the road packed with animals was truly a tribute to her sensitive nose.   She stood up in her stirrups and shaded her eyes.  “Well.”

“Well?” Gabrielle was taking advantage of the stop to take a drink of water from her waterskin.

“Well, that boat eventually stopped.” She sat down in her saddle again. “Crashed into the docks at the bend into the city.”

“Yikes. That what everyone is looking at?”

“Cargo broke up and it’s washing up against the banks.” Xena looked faintly amused. “They’re doing more than looking.”

“Ah.” Gabrielle put the waterskin away. “We going to try and get through?”

“Yep.” Xena nudged Tanto on and they started to wind their way through the wagons, finding room enough between them to squeeze through single file.

“If we run into any stuck wagons, no repeats.” Gabrielle called forward to her.

Xena smiled and lifted a hand in acknowledgment. “No rain, no mud.” She called back. 

They got halfway through the traffic jam, the wagons in back merely watching, the men driving them standing up on the front seat and shading their eyes while the wagons nearest the accident pulled as close to the wall as possible, and crowds of people having hopped over and run down to the riverside where boxes and bags were floating.

Out of the city gates now rode what looked like a squad of city guard, all dressed in matching dark purple overlays and all armed with swords and crossbows.

On the barge, which had plowed right into the docks and knocked two other boats over onto their sides, there were at least ten men fighting, throwing punches, and yelling and on the docks were more, some trying to climb onto the barge to join the fight, some standing by the other upended boats and bellowing.

The huge barge still had its sail up and it was filled with the breeze coming, shoving the vessel against the docks and even from where she was, and given the chaos, Xena could hear the pylons creaking.

The guards reached a gate in the river wall that was hastily pulled open and they charged through, riding tall and matching bay horses. They headed for the frantically grabbing hustlers on the shore, drawing sword as they approached.

Gabrielle found a gap between wagons and got Spot up next to Tanto. “What a mess.”

“Yeah.” Xena remarked briefly.

“Wonder where that fishing boat is.”

“Bottom of the river probably. Hope those idiots were decent enough to pull them onboard.”

Seeing the guards approaching the wagons were all shifting now, and the men who had grabbed booty from the shore were scrambling over the wall to throw it into the backs of the transports with shouts of glee, and as the drovers tried to maneuver out of the crush, the pulling animals resisted.

Xena saw an opportunity to get between them and she grabbed Spot’s bridle and turned Tanto’s head, urging him towards the shifting opening and getting them both through it before a wagon backed up abruptly and blocked the path, the bullocks pulling it bawled in protest.

Their driver jumped off and grabbed the lead animal’s head, striking out with his lash to clear space.

Everyone was now craning their heads to see what was happening and Xena ducked her head down and bulled their way forward, shoving past riders and horses and into an open spot past the jam that gave them a clear shot at the gates.

She released her hold on Spot’s bridle, and they rode at a brisk walk towards the open portal, bypassing the second set of rushing guards who sped past them and headed for the wagons staged on the road that were now scrambling to move away from the area where all the salvage had taken place.

There were no actual guards guarding the gates, they were thrown open, and a gaggle of onlookers were now surging out to see what was going on, drawn irresistibly to the yelling and sounds of fighting.  Gabrielle urged Spot to keep up with Tanto and leaned closer to Xena. “Are we using this as a distraction?”


“Good.” Gabrielle kept her eyes firmly forward, and they passed the gates, winding their way through the rush of people going the other direction.  She reached down out of habit and loosened the ties on her staff, shifting her knee to clamp it in place as they moved inside and the crowd plowed past them, pushing and shoving. “Oh boy.”

“Stay close.” Xena led them both along the very edge of the road, almost brushing the gated stone surface of the inner portal.

“Like a tick.” 

Once well inside the tall stone walls the port city reminded Gabrielle strongly of Therma, with stone lined streets branching off the central square they were now crossing, and a steep incline ahead of them up to a ridge. She could see buildings continuing past that, the tops of them topped with ceramic tile roofs, and brightly whitewashed walls, with glass windows inset and wrought iron ornamentation that advertised wealth.

It smelled of humanity, but a cold, fresh breeze was blowing past them and made it bearable.

The houses on the left and right of the main thoroughfare were deeply inset from the road, and all had walls and gates, most with a guard on watch before them, arms folded, watching the passer’s by with stolid, disinterested eyes.

Ahead of them, a cadre of horse riders appeared from over the ridge and started down the slope, the leading rider yelling and waving an arm as they plowed right through the moving crowd, kicking people out of the way when they were too slow to move.

“Nice.” Gabrielle commented.

Xena shook her head. “Never changes.” She remarked cryptically.  She slowed Tanto down as the crowd scattered out of the way of the guards, pushing up against the sides of the road as they trotted past, their hooves ringing on the cobblestone surface.

One of the guards, a tall, brown haired man, glanced at them as they passed, doing a bit of a double take and then getting his head turned back around hearing the shout from his captain.

The horses were snorting and bobbing their heads as they got to the top of the steep slope and Xena held up as they came to level ground and pulled close to the side of the road as they looked past it, and down to the port and the sea.

The sun was reflecting off the water, a deep cerulean blue with white chop as it moved past the harbor, and the harbor was stocked full with boats pulled up to moorings with sails furled.  To the right was the estuary where the river they’d been following met the sea and from this distance they could see the swirl of the water where the gray and green fresh flowed into the blue saltwater basin.

At the bottom of the lighter slope downward was a huge, sprawling market, packed with stalls and cart sellers, buzzing with people moving in and out of the rows of temporary stands built from wood and back into the permanent buildings that lined the port.

A banner flew from a tower at the edge of the dock area, a red and green crosshatched fabric with wind tattered edges.

The docks themselves traveled all along the edge of the sea from the estuary down along the waterfront and past it, around a rocky promontory that protruded into the water and provided some protection from the rolling waves.

The place had a rowdy feel to it, and in the distance they could hear music playing, and as they stood quietly there, the first of the wagons that had been making for the city finished the haul up the prior slope and started down towards the market, the drivers scrambling hastily down to grab hold of the bullock traces to keep them from stumbling or bolting downhill.

“Okay.” Gabrielle took a breath and expelled it. “You go try and buy us passage, and I find a present?” She asked. “And I hope we’re both successful Xe, because I’m not sure I like this place.”

“I’m sure I don’t like this place.” Xena said, in a somber voice. “Maybe I’ll go right for the pirates.”


“At least I know what their motives are.” Xena started Tanto downward towards the milling marketplace. “I’ll try to make it quick. We can meet at that tower.”

“Okay.” Gabrielle followed her and they rode cautiously down the cobblestones, the din of the crowd growing at every step.


They reached the bottom of the wide inclined road and paused, at the edge of the market.  Up close, it was louder and more fractious than it was viewed from the top of the ridge and they reviewed it for a long moment in silence, and then they looked at each other.

Lets not split up.” They both said at the same time, with the same inflection.

Muffling a grin, Xena dismounted and took hold of Spot’s bridle as Gabrielle did the same. She waited for her to unstrap and put in hand her staff, then they proceeded to approach the crowded haphazard layout of sellers ahead of them.

The space between the sellers was large enough for horses to pass, and a lot of the shoppers were riding through mounted, throwing casual, often disinterested looks at the wares on this outer fringe which seemed a bit meagre and mostly produce brought in from the surrounding countryside.

Walking along at street level, deftly avoiding the piles of horse manure in the alleyways, Xena and Gabrielle both took their time in looking around, moving unhurriedly from offering to offering.  

Tanto stretched his neck out a little to investigate a very small wagon they were passing, its bed filled with neatly tied bundles of nettles.  “Ah.” Xena paused to examine it, exchanging a brief nod with the farmer leaning against the wagon.

The farmer straightened up and half turned to pick up one of the bundles, bringing it a step forward to display for her. “Good crop.” He said, succinctly. “If y’know what to use it for.”

“We do know.” Gabrielle leaned over to take a sniff of the leaves, which were light green and grassy smelling. They were attached to tender looking shoots, and she fished in her belt pouch. “Do you have any of the older leaves?”

With a faint smile, the farmer handed off the bundle to her and turned back to the wagon, digging in the back of it.

A loud thunder of hooves caught all of their attention and Xena turned instantly and looked back the way they’d come, seeing two large chestnut horses coming at them at a gallop. Mounted on them were two of the men in the guards uniforms.

“Out the way!” The first of them let out a yell and brandished the crop in his hand. “Move!”

Xena took hold of their mounts and pulled them closer to the wagon, nearly being lifted up as Tanto reacted to the two animals bearing down on them. “Easy buddy.”

The stallion wasn’t having it.  He yanked his head against her hold and half lifted up on his hind legs, letting out a bugle of challenge.

Gabrielle got prudently out of the way, putting her back to the wagon next to the farmer who was glowering at the oncoming guards. “Is there anything really that urgent going on here?”

“Bastards.” The farmer said. “Pardon, ma’am.” He added, glancing at her. “Think their bottom’s don’t stink like the rest of us.”

Xena got herself between Tanto and the two galloping animals and wrapped the fingers of her left hand in his bridle, keeping her right hand free and spreading her boots out for balance.  She could see the two riders were lashing out on either side of them as they barreled along, striking out at both shoppers and merchants who hastened to dive out of the way.

“Why must there always be jerks.” Gabrielle mused. “Is there any reason, really do to that?”  She asked rhetorically, exhaling as she waited for the result of the impending chaos, one hand curled around her staff as she leaned against it. “What’s the point.”

“No reason.” The farmer commiserated. “Just they can.”

The riders were now reaching them, and Xena braced herself, keeping a tight hold on Tanto as she pressed her shoulders back against him, listening to the stallion’s angry snorts very close to her ear. “Easy boy.”  She muttered, looking out across the path, and catching the eye of the foremost rider, who was adjusting the grip on his lash, looking ahead for more targets.

For what? Xena had to wonder. No one was now impeding their path. All along the upper part of the crooked alleyway between the sellers everyone had gotten out, seeing the guards approaching and their way was clear all the way to the inner buildings.

The rider spotted her and actually veered closer, lifting his lash up and grinning as he aimed right for them, bringing his arm across his body to prepare to strike.

He was that stupid. Xena waited until she was sure he was going to hit her and reached over her shoulder to grasp and draw her sword, stepping forward to shield Tanto’s head as she intercepted the lash, her blade slicing it off like it wasn’t even there so close to the man’s hand a hair’s breadth more would have lost him fingers.

The lash went flying and landed in the wagon as he galloped past, and then he pulled up and turned and looked back at Xena.

She stood there, without moving, the sword’s blade now resting casually on her shoulder, her eyes fastened on his.  Tanto wrestled his head around and put his jaw on her other shoulder, snorting.

The other rider cantered past, staring at Xena, but yelled forward at the first, waving him onward. “G’wan!” He said. “We can come back for this one!”

Angrily the first rider wrenched his horse’s head around and kicked him in the ribs, making the animal buck and nearly throwing him off his back. But they started forward and in a moment they had disappeared off into the distance, entering the large stone building.

Gabrielle eased forward and gave Spot a pat on the neck. “Good girl.” She complimented the mare, who had been content to stand behind her more excitable companion.  “Now, where were we?”  She turned to the farmer, who had fetched the lash from the wagon and was holding it in his hands. “I think we’ll take this batch, for soup and that one for Xena’s medicine kit.” She said, briskly.

Without a single word or change of expression, the farmer lifted the lash and then he put it back in the wagon, then he handed her the bundles of produce and dusted his hands off, signaling the end of the deal.

Xena turned and sheathed her sword with a look of utter exasperation. “What the Hades was that?” She asked.

“Jerks, Xena.” Gabrielle responded mildly. “You once told me into our lives all the jerks must fall.”

“Idiots.” Xena glanced at the packets, which Gabrielle was tucking away in Spot’s saddlebags. “We done here?” She glanced at the farmer. “Sorry about that.”

“Mm not.” The farmer produced a smile for her. “Wish they’d not been so hasty off.”

The inference was clear, and Xena had to smile back at him for it. She lifted her hand in a wave and moved back out into the lane.  “Now, you chill out, buddy.” She warned her horse, who was still flaring his nostrils, his ears flipping back and forth. “Only one of us needs to start fights.”

“End fights.” Gabrielle led Spot after her. “Should we try following them? Looks like the permanent market’s up there. Maybe we can find an alehouse where ship captains hang out.”

“Maybe we can find the whorehouse where ship captains hang out.” Xena drolly responded. “Yeah, I think I see a wagon with casks up there. Let’s see if he’s got anything decent and grab some bottles.”


The wine merchant was planted right on the edge of the dockside, where a newly swung onshore breeze was bringing in a brisk salty freshness, pushing out the smells of the market up in the other direction. 

It was a large wagon, as befit the casks, with an area to the side of it that held tall, rough tables where patrons could stand and taste, and a view of the harbor behind it filled with ships.

Across the water they could hear the creak of lines and flap of sailcloth, and the rough rumble of wooden ship sides rubbing against the pier. 

Xena drew in a breath of the sea air and studied the ships with a knowledgeable eye.  Many were small merchant vessels, coastal traders who were in for the festival, their crews given free range of the market and the decks shut down and furled.

Two were larger two masted galleys, multileveled, with lines of oar locks near the waterline for slaves to ply long oars to aid the sails.  The one closest to them was very much a cargo vessel, it’s decks were wide and clear without armaments, and had hatches and winches to lower loads into the forward and after holds.

The second galley she could see was a bit more ambivalent.  While it also had holds, it’s decks also bore the clear signs of archer bastions and there were large, now furled and covered, two man crossbows as well as a catapult on the raised rear section.

Past those, she could see lines of working boats, fishermen that called the port city home and at the very end, a very large, ornate, gilded ship in what was evidently pride of place, the very end of the dock in a section by itself.

She could see men standing guard on her decks.  They were armed and wore hardened leather and steel armor and were standing at the rail of the main deck looking out over the dock with a distinct impression of alertness.

Xena nodded a little, pondering her choices.  None of the ships were actively loading – the cranes were all lashed and quiet, and there were no wagons moving up or down the frontage of the port.  She sighed in some slight frustration.

Behind her she could hear Gabrielle bartering with the wine merchant, the man’s round, bass tones relaxed and cheerful as he showed off his wares, the stall itself well-appointed and clean, and with enough finely edged appointments to show off the man’s wealth.

Tanto and Spot were tied up on a railing next to the merchant’s stall, sharing space with two very large draft horses with calm, laid back attitudes, who were also amenable to share their long wooden bin of hay.

Xena looked either way down the dockside promenade, and spotted a few merchants set up there, facing the ships. She turned around and walked back towards the wine stall, catching Gabrielle’s eye and pointing in the direction of the pier.

Gabrielle gave her a thumbs up, and then continued her focus on the three bottles in front of her.

Xena studied the posture of the merchant, and the lack of other customers, and then she turned back around and headed down the stone steps that led from the market level to the dockside, arriving at the bottom and the creosote treated wooden pilings and spars that fronted the boats.

She could smell the deep brine of the sea coming up between the boards and hear the lap of the water sloshing beneath her boots, and overhead there were gulls circling, searching for a leftover dropping from the fishing boats, letting out irregular, complaining squawks.

The merchants down at this level were all selling things that sailors and boatwrights would be interested in, and the first one was a small but sturdy wagon that had brass fittings.  She paused and browsed them, admiring the compasses and astrolabes, lifting the lid on a beautifully joined wooden case to reveal a hand sized brass sextant.

Xena looked up at the merchant, who was sitting quietly on a stool, just watching her with quiet thoughtful eyes. “You make these?”

“Ah do.” The man agreed. He was perhaps fifty years old, with a sun-tanned lined face, grizzled red hair and almost colorless gray eyes. “Got my rig on all the home porters here. No one’s gone off course yet.”

Xena had no idea really why she wanted a sextant. The number of times she had put to sea in her recent past were few, most brought horrible memories with them, and she wasn’t looking for that to change, and yet she picked up the box with the sextant and brought it over to him.

“Been to sea then?” The man asked, setting the box down on the small table in front of him.  His stall was his wagon, as were the others, but he had a tarp that fastened out in front of it giving him shelter from the sun and with the breeze off the water it was both quiet and pleasant.

“I have.” Xena agreed. “Always wanted one of them. I left the last one I used onboard the ship for the next captain.”

His eyes kindled with interest. “You have a ship in port?”

“No.” Xena shook her head. “I’m looking for one. I need to get across the waters to Sybarris.”

He opened the box and took out the sextant, turning it over in his hands. “Twenty dinars for the set, and the casing.” He said. “Might be faster for you to move on down the coast, see if you can pick up an outbound ride, lady, if you’re in a rush.” He lifted his eyes to study her. “Not sure a hull’s leaving here till after the festival.”

Xena sorted in her belt pouch and brought out a silver coin larger than her thumb. “That do you?”

He put the device back in the box and took the coin, examining it with inoffensive care and turning it over, from the crosshatch design on the front to the town stamp on the back. “Where’s this from?” He asked, meeting her eyes straightforwardly.

“Amphipolis.” Xena said. “It’s..”

“On the borderlands of Thrace.” The man finished for her. “I know of it, though I’ve never been that far to the east.” He slid the coin into his belt pouch and tucked the sextant into its box, closing it and fastening it with care. “You know your own business, but were I you, I’d stay clear of the boats in this harbor, now.  The one down the end, especial.”

He handed her the box. “Good sails to you, lady. Hope this serves you well.”

Xena took the box. “Thanks, I’m sure it will.” She ducked out of the stall and moved aside several paces, pausing to slide the box with its contents into the long bag she had fastened to her belt, and continued down the dock.


Gabrielle took the carefully packed, straw stuffed bag and fastened it to one of Spot’s saddle rings, content with her bargain, and reasonably sure that it would be well received by its intended recipient.  She looked around, then she went over to the railing the horses were tied to and took a seat on it, pondering what to do next.

She could follow Xena, but she wasn’t entirely sure which direction she’d gone and now that she’d finished her shopping she wasn’t sure either if the merchant would be amenable to her leaving the horses there. 

The sea breeze was pleasant though, and she sat quietly for a few minutes enjoying it, and the warmth of the sun on her face.

The wine merchant appeared, with his cask boy a moment later. “Wanting a bit of a bite, lady?” He asked cheerfully.  Man down there has grilled fish, it’s fresh.” He pointed down to the dock. “All the boys off the boats are customers.”

Gabrielle stood up. “Okay to leave the horses?” She indicated Spot and Tanto.

“Of course.” The merchant waved her forward. “Leekos is there, he’ll put his eye on them.” He pointed back to the stall, where one of his helpers was now perched on the stool. “We’ll bring his lunch back.”

“Pleasure watchin em.” Leekos cheerfully waved at her. “No worries, lady.”

Did she believe them? Gabrielle gathered up her staff and took a moment to think about it, then she shrugged slightly and joined the two men as they started down the steps to the waterfront, concluding that all risks were risks, and at least going this way she had a chance of finding Xena.

And if not, then she had an opportunity to obtain some sustenance, in an area that smelled relatively fresh.  She made her way down the steps following the merchant and they turned right at the bottom, walking down the wide wooden dock that extended all along the edge of the city. 

The boats pulled up to dock were colorfully painted and well kept. Gabrielle enjoyed looking at the pictures on the hulls as they walked along, and the fancifully tipped prows, which varied from sirens to dragons and a few that were a combination of the extremes.

She could smell something being grilled nearby, and it had a spicy, tangy scent to it.  The two men were angling their steps in that direction and then the merchant laughed. “Ah, your friend has beaten us to it.”

Gabrielle felt a soft pang of relief on seeing Xena’s tall form at the large, tented stall and she exhaled a little, glad that nothing yet had gone awry. 

The grill was wide, a purpose-built wagon with a firepit in a metal casing in it, well stocked, and two men in front of it busy pulling various bits of things out of battered metal bins at their feet and throwing them onto the hot, black grill top.

It smelled amazing. The two men from the wine stall went up to the cooks at once, and obviously well known, just held up their fingers and then waved, and moved aside to one of the counters already filling with other hungry patrons.

“Hi.” Gabrielle sidled over where Xena was standing in a casual pose on the far end of the last counter, waiting.  “I see you found what I’m being told is the best place to eat.”

“Followed my nose. I ordered one of everything.” Xena agreed. “I was going to bring it back. Finish so soon?”

“Got two of the bottles.” Gabrielle saw a young boy heading their way with a wooden platter. “Any leads?”

Xena inspected the platter that landed on the counter.  It had a range of seafood spread across it, all sizzling, all fresh off the grill, and with that, the boy set down a crockery dish with a deep red sauce flecked with dark spices. “Thanks.”

The boy merely nodded and went back to the grill for another load.

There were wooden skewers on the edge of the platter and Gabrielle selected one and speared a chunk of fish, taking a tentative bite of it. “Mm.”

Xena eschewed the skewers and picked up a piece of octopus, dipping it into the sauce and popping it into her mouth.  Aoooh…” She made a pleased sound. “Let’s get a bottle of THAT to bring home with us.”

Gabrielle dipped the tip of her little finger into it and sampled it. “Oh Hades Xena.” She looked around, her eyes watering. “What is IN that?”

“More for me.” Xena handed over the cup she’d been holding. “Here. It’s just cider.”  She continued sampling off the platter. “Leads? No.” She said. “Except to be told by two different merchants on the dockside to stay away from the ships here.”

Gabrielle paused mid swallow. “Really?” She put the cup down. “They don’t like their primary customers?”

Xena shrugged. “Maybe we should just steal one of them.” She mused. “I got a sextant.”

“A what?”

Xena pulled the box out from her pouch and put it on the table. “Thing you use to navigate at sea.”

Gabrielle opened the box and looked inside, blinking a little. “Wow.” She turned it to the light coming in under the tent flap. “That’s beautiful.” She looked at Xena. “Can you use it on land too?”

“As long as you’re not in a forest or a cave.”

It was a fascinating piece of kit. Gabrielle closed the box, resolving to take their next opportunity of camping in the wild to get a better understanding of it. “All right.” She turned and looked down the dock. “So which ship are we thinking of stealing?”

“Second one.” Xena replied promptly.  “I think that’s a fake merchant. Got arms on the deck. That first one’s totally cargo, the last one on the end has a squad of guards on it and looks like some patrician’s boat.” She dipped another piece of fish into the sauce and put it in her mouth.

“How can you actually eat that?” Gabrielle stuck to the non-enhanced grill bits, which were well cooked and tasty. “Gross.”

Xena stuck her tongue out and it was colored a lurid red from the sauce. “Yum.”

Gabrielle mock shuddered and turned her attention again to the docks.  She could see the ship Xena had called out, and it looked like a sturdy enough conveyance, right now all closed up and silent, with no sailors onboard or motion around it.

Then she saw a group of men sauntering down the pier from the top end of it and she nudged Xena’s elbow to catch her attention.  There was nothing outstandingly odd about them, but she just felt they seemed like they were out of place.

A little too… something.

“Ah. Now what have we here.”  Xena looked over and caught the service boy’s eye, pointing at the cup of cider and holding up two fingers.  The boy nodded and went to the wagon, as a crowd of other patrons flooded into the tent. “Festival goers?”

They were wearing high toned and well fitted clothing, the two in the front even in what could pass as a lined toga if they were more south. They had on fine, leather boots and were wearing daggers prominently at their waists and the sun caught glints of gold and silver at neck and wrist as they walked along.

“Patricians.” Gabrielle concluded. “Maybe they belong to that boat at the end of the dock.”

“Maybe.” Xena accepted the two cups of cold cider and passed the boy a coin. She handed one over to Gabrielle. “Glad we got our lunch first if they’re heading this way.”

“Ah, there you ladies are.”

The voice made them both look around, to find their old friend from the road, the horse breeder coming across the tent, pushing his way between the customers to come over to their table. “I thought I saw your lovelies up by Mishra’s wagon.”

“Who calls my name?” The wineseller turned from his counter and looked around. “Ah! Dugan!” He sounded delighted to see the man. “I have a plum based port wine for you!” He picked up his platter and brought it over to where the man had stopped next to Xena and Gabrielle. “Do you know these ladies? Customers of mine.”

“Figures they know each other.” Gabrielle murmured.


“We met on the road.” Dugan waved his hand at the cooks. “Give me a plate, no octopus!” He called out. “Did you see those beasts they ride? Beautiful animals.”

“You and your horses.” The wine seller set his plate down and picked up a long finger of white, flaky fish. “I did, in passing but was more interested in their lovely riders as they were the ones with the dinars to spend.” He toasted both of the women with his cup. “Now that we’re not dickering, are you here for something particular at the festival? Happy to give you a guide to the best of the merchants.” He offered, his eyebrows lifting in question.

We’re here to steal a boat to go to a demigods birthday party.  Gabrielle pondered the effect of saying it, then decided against it. “Actually, we were hoping to take passage from here, to go visit a friend. We didn’t know there was a festival until we traveled near here.”

“Ahh.” Both the wine seller and the breeder grew solemn. “That could be chancy.” Dugan said. “The seas can be very tricky off the shore here.”

Just then the group who’d been walking towards them arrived, and stood at the outer edge of the tent, which was now full of patrons. The man in the lead called out imperiously and waved a hand at the cook, calling for a seat.

“Jerks.” Gabrielle sighed, propping her chin on her fist. “Why must there always be jerks.”

“There’s trouble.” Mishra the wine seller frowned. “Damn rich bastards who don’t want to spend a dinar, came to my stall, and wanted a free bottle, ‘to test’” He turned his head. “Pardon the spicy language, ladies.”

“No problem.” Xena leaned on the counter. “Anyone know what the guards were running around about earlier?”

Mishra snorted. “This morning you mean? I saw the nitwits speeding down the lane. Idiots couldn’t stop in time when they reached me and went plowing into my stock.” He looked incensed. “Ran off. Didn’t take a moment to see if anyone was hurt, or my wares ruined. I heard it was some shoplifter caught stealing a necklace, up at the hall.”

“I was there.” Dugan said, with a modicum of importance. “Saw it. Young whip caused a clamor and his accomplice, a young lass with yellow braids took a bauble from Sineclair. He raised the roof over it.” He nodded sagely. “Guards were far too late to catch the girl. They snagged the young man though, and he’s in lockdown. Came off the merchanter Yellow Duck, just in from Corfu.”

Xena straightened up and drained her mug of cider. “C’mon, Gab.” She put the cup down. “Gentlemen, we have shopping to do.” She said. “If you hear of any ship moving out who has space for two plus horses, let us know.”

Dugan caught her by the arm. “You look to cross the Ionian Sea?” He asked. “Tis a narrow channel, one of the coastal boats might be willing. Better to look there, than one of the big ones.” He winked knowingly at Xena and released her arm.

“Thanks.” Xena put her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder and steered her out of the tent, just as the patrician group started demanding the customers at the nearest counter be removed in their favor. “Stealing a boat’s going to be the simplest way out of this.”

“I’m beginning to think that’s true.” Gabrielle said, with a sigh. “Damn it, Iolaus. Why couldn’t you have had the party in Amphipolis?”

They slid out of the far side of the tent and walked rapidly down the dock to get the building fracas behind them, as the customers already inside started to yell in protest.  It took several minutes but then they were out of range and passing a few other merchants who were set up at dockside as they walked towards the two ostensibly cargo vessels.

The brass merchant had closed up, possibly to go and get a meal, but the setup a hundred yards past his had seashell jewelry and they paused to look, while casually reviewing the two large boats as though in idle curiosity.

When they left, they hadn’t picked up any baubles, but they did have one thing of value, the name of the captain of the fake cargo vessel, and a possible clue where to find him. “Back to the wine seller?” Gabrielle suggested, as they walked out in the sun starting to slant down to the horizon. “Probably not much going on at the bawdy house yet.”

“No.” Xena exhaled. “We better find shelter for the night. I don’t see a way to get out of here before the morning.” She started up the steps with Gabrielle pacing beside her. “Not sure going back to the town makes sense.”

As they got to the top of the steps they saw a cluster of people standing at the wine stall, and then they realized that two of them were the guards from the incident earlier that day. “Oh boy.” Gabrielle sighed. “Now what do we do?”

“Act like a jerk.” Xena replied. “Works for everyone else here.”

“Oh boy.”


The two young whip wielding guards were accompanied by a blunderbuss. Gabrielle judged him as a puff chested impressed with his own importance type person even before they’d climbed up the last of the steps and approached the crowd, he had that nose stuck in the air posture recognizable from afar.

“There they are sir.” One of the riders pointed. “That one. They attacked me.”

Xena strolled forward, heading right for the blunderbuss, with Gabrielle at her heels, her staff firmly held in one hand. 

“Ah.” Xena said. “The idiots with the whips.” She came to a halt right in front of the head of the guard who had the same fashion of uniform as the others but had gold discs on his collar and his overtunic was beautifully embroidered. “Your troops need some manners.” She told him, in a firm tone.

The funny thing about Xena was, Gabrielle watched the reaction with bemusement, you didn’t really realize how forceful her personality was until she wanted you to.  Now, as Xena confronted the captain with all that edgy attitude, she saw the man pull his head back like a chicken and just keep himself from taking a step back.

He took a breath.

“What kind of discipline do you keep that you let these kids ride through a crowd beating people? That is no way to maintain order.” Xena followed up her advantage, taking another step closer to the man and making the most of her height. “He’s lucky I just cut his whip in half, not take his arm off at the elbow.”

The crowd, Gabrielle noted, was absolutely loving it, and they were swiftly gathering an audience as Xena’s clear, crisp voice echoed out over the noise of the market.  On the right, the wine merchant had slid back into his stall, and he was standing with his hands clasped in delight, his thumbs pressed to his lips to hide his smile.

She wrapped her hands around her staff and crossed her boots at the ankle, enjoying it just as much as the watchers were.

Xena lifted her eyebrows. “Well?” She asked, sharply. “What do you have to say for yourself buddy?” She looked down at him and waited expectantly.

This could end one of several ways. Gabrielle mused silently. The man could try to arrest them, he could try to bluster, he could call for help, he could draw his weapon on Xena.

But she could see by his face he really had no idea in the world what to do with this tall, sexy, sword wielding apparition and he was used to dealing with meek townsfolk who never talked back.


She looked him in the eye as he searched for a response. “I’d answer her if I were you.” She remarked in the mildest of tones.  “There really was no call for those guards to treat people the way they did. You want people to come here to spend in your market. You shouldn’t beat them while they’re doing it.”

The man turned to look at the guards. “Did you do this?” He asked, rapping the words out in clipped speech.

Oh they did.” Mishra spoke up, in his round, basso tone. “Could see them clear, coming up the path. Right at me, and couldn’t stop, they took out my table there.” He pointed at the wooden pieces stacked neatly by the side of his wagon. “Lady’s right, shouldn’t treat us that way, we’re paying good coin to rent the space here.”

Mercantile pressure tipped the scales with the guard captain. He gave Mishra a curt nod, then he turned and gave the two younger men a shove. “To the barracks. We will discuss it there.”  He kept shoving them and they stumbled, still stunned about the unexpected result of their complaint.

The captain glanced behind him once he’d gotten a good pace between him and the still bristling Xena. “Watch your tongue, woman. Lest you wag it at the wrong person.” Then he turned back around and marched off with his young miscreants, shoving his way through the amusedly watching crowd.

“If I had a dinar for every person who ever said that to you Xena, we could buy one of those boats outright.” Gabrielle mock sighed. “It’s a damn shame I don’t.”

Xena looked around at her and stuck her tongue out in response.  “At least he had the sense to take his punks and leave.”  She gave herself a shake, and straightened her cloak out, which the sea wind had wrapped around her.  “Not that it really helps us. I think we’d better ride on out of here and try again tomorrow.”

Mishra sidled over to them, one eye appraising the still gathered crowd. “Now then, ladies, let me offer you a cup of my special wine, in appreciation for that bit of entertainment.”  He spread and arm out and waved it invitingly at his little tasting area.

Gabrielle quickly scanned the surroundings, then she slid past Xena, giving her a pat on the hip as she passed. “Glad to accept.” She ducked under the burgundy-colored tent flap and Xena followed her, the two of them ending up at the front of the display and taking an elbow on the wooden counter there.

A young lutist, who had gotten up to watch the action returned to his low stool and settled himself, taking up his soft strums as the crowd milled around with continuing curiosity, one or two of them breaching the entrance and wandering closer.

Mishra poured them both a cup from a stoppered gourd, an amber colored liquid he presented with a faint smirk to them.

Dugan briskly entered from the left-hand side of the tent, dusting his hands off as he approached the counter, confidently assured of his welcome. “That put cat amongst the swallows.” He commented, as he took up a position on the other side of Xena. “Give me a glass of the white, will you Mishra?”

He turned to the two women. “My boy tells me they sounded their complaints all the way back to the city inner courtyard. The two might be foolish young, but they’re well born, and likely they will come back to give you trouble.”

“Faster we leave then the better.” Xena took a sip from the offered cup, pausing to savor the taste.  “Wow.” She directed that to Mishra, who beamed at her. “What is that?”

“Ah, a woman of fine distinction.” Mishra smiled. “It’s a fine spirit infused with fruit from foreign lands, dried and obtained by me in a very arduous process.”

The taste was light and lingering on the tongue, and Gabrielle shuffled through her sense memories to determine if she’d encountered it before.  There was a faint hint of rosewater to it, and a delicate sweetness. “Xe, is that lychee?”

She looked at Mishra, whose eyes had positively lit up with delight. “It is, isn’t it?”

“It is, indeed. Very rare.” The winemaker said. “You are well traveled my lady, to know such!”

Gabrielle’s nose almost wrinkled with the irony, but she lifted her cup up in acknowledgement instead. “It’s really good.”  She half turned and regarded the milling group of shoppers and vendors who were still in the area, not subtly watching them with evident curiosity. “And yes, I’ve traveled a little.”

“Did I hear you were leaving the city?” Dugan asked. “Back to where we stayed last night as many do? The road should be quiet now.” He swirled the wine in his cup. “Tragas is the captain of the guard, whom you just chased off.  He’s a bitter man at best and is one to call a bluff if it suits him.”

Xena leaned against the counter and regarded him with a small smile. “Did you think I was bluffing?” She asked, in a silken smooth tone.

Mishra leaned on his counter with a look of a man ready to enjoy entertainment designed personally for him and he spared a moment to meet Gabrielle’s eyes, and wink at her.

Gabrielle decided she liked these two guys, mercantile as they were. They were the rich enough to be comfortable but not rich enough to be power hungry type of middle-aged fellows, content to make reasonable profits and maintain a comfortable life.

So she winked back at him, sifting through some possible tales she could spin if the opportunity arose and as if reading her mind, Dugan glanced past Xena at her.

“From what I heard this morning before we left, no need to bluff now is there?” He glanced between them, with an almost mischievous smile. “But not what Tragas thinks, as he’s not heard the same. Got my earful at the inn before we left.”

“Ahh?” Mishra raised his brows with interest.

A few more of the crowd had wandered warily inside, and were making a show of examining Mishra’s wares, inspecting bottles and jugs under the pretense of pretending not to be examining his other guests.

“Oh.. you heard I was storytelling.” Gabrielle amiably picked up the cue. “Or did they mention that Xena was giving a lesson on sword handling last night.” She added. “Both were true. “And since it’s a little small in here for Xe to demonstrate would you like me to come up with a short story?”

One of the shoppers near the back looked her up and down. “A woman storyteller? That’s a first.”

“Don’t knock it till you try it.” Gabrielle crossed her boots at the ankle and looked at Mishra. “Should I?”

Mishra looked over at Dugan, who winked. “By all means, my lady.” He answered in a cheerful tone. “I’d love to hear whatever you have to tell.”

Now the other people in the tent were turning to look at them without dissembling and several others on the fringe of the stand edged closer.

Xena picked up her cup and went to a nearby folding table, taking a seat behind it and settling back as she watched Gabrielle perch on a stool at the service counter. 

This was Gabrielle’s arena, and she was content to just relax and let her take the field, playing a little guessing game with herself as to what story was going to come out of her mouth for this specific occasion. 

Sometimes, Gabrielle just told stories to entertain.  When they were home, at the Amazon village, in the town tavern, she was often asked for a tale and those were often about their adventures, or classic stories from other sources and or something she’d just made up that didn’t have any particular message behind it.

Here though, she was confident that Gabrielle would want to hammer home a point and wasn’t disappointed when she promptly took a swallow of the fine spirit they’d been given and launched into one of their tales where luck, or cleverness or just brute force had them solving some problem or battle and saving the day.

It had bad guys and a large town under siege and both fights and a narrow escape and by the time she was halfway through it, the winemaker’s stall was packed with passersby who heard her clear, incisive voice and Mishra’s server boys were busy squeezing between the tables to bring refreshment to the crowd.

There was now Mishra’s friend Baldos behind the service counter, a neighboring merchant who sold cheeses and along with the wine were plates of cheese and olives on offer, and almost all the tables had at least one as well.

Xena had her cup refilled and a plate of the nibblements in front of her, content to be the show part of Gabrielle’s show and tell, the story’s details being leaked out of the tent into the road that fronted the stall, which was full of shoppers, many coming to stand at the edge of the blocked off area to listen.

Towards the back she saw a tall man with silvered gray hair pause and then come back a few steps, ending up leaning against one of the support posts for the steps to the waterfront. He had on expensive looking clothing and there was a heavy gold wristlet on his left wrist.

There was nothing familiar about him, and yet Xena felt as she watched him watch Gabrielle that he saw something familiar in them.

He had been heading for the steps down but now he stood quietly there until the story was finished, and then he slid into the tent amidst the clapping of the crowd and approached Gabrielle, standing back until she’d finished talking to two men ahead of him.

The crowd, Xena had noted, was mostly men. She’d only seen a handful of women out and about, and those seemed to be part of the market itself, women carrying supplies in baskets balanced on their heads or leading donkey carts with merchandise on it along the lane.

She turned her attention back to the tall man, who now stepped up and ducked his head, speaking in a low tone as she studied his body language, which was polite and unthreatening.

Gabrielle listened to what he said and then she smiled, and nodded, then half turned and gestured towards Xena, getting up and squeezing through the crowd to the table she was seated at and leading the man along with her.

Ah, now what would this be.  Xena gave him a brief nod of greeting as Gabrielle slid into the seat next to her, picking up a piece of the cheese and biting into it. “Hon, this is Marcos.  He lives here, but he used to live in Athens.”

Xena gestured to the seat next to her, then she extended her hand to him. “Greetings.”

He clasped her arm without hesitation and sat down. “It’s remarkable.” He said, without preamble. “I was passing along the lane and heard your voice, Bard Gabrielle, and was so surprised to see you here! The last I heard you was at the Athenian bard competition at the last games.”

“Ah.” Xena nodded. “That why you left? That was a mess.”

The man laughed, a light and happy sound. “Oh well, yes, it was something.” He admitted. “But no, I own a shipping company. We just opened an office here in Costas, as we have new ports in the northern part of the Ionian sea to service.” He half turned and looked over his shoulder. “Matter of fact, our first ship is due in tomorrow with the tide.”

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a brief look.

“Really.” Gabrielle said.

Mishra glided over and put a cup down in front of the man. “Sir, have a try of this.” He smiled and whisked off to the next table. 

The tent was still full, people content to continue sampling wine and the cheeses, talking about the market, and about the story they’d just heard, and the buzz of conversation was loud enough to mask their own. 

Marcos picked up the cup and tentatively tasted it, making an approving, slightly surprised sound. “The man knows his trade.”  He remarked. “At any rate, now that you know my business, what brings you here to Costas? I think you are not well known in these parts, from the chatter I have heard they have no idea who they have in their midst.”

He looked at them with open interest. 

Gabrielle and Xena exchanged another brief look, and Xena lifted her free hand up slightly in a faint gesture of resignation.  “Well for a change, its not that complicated.” Gabrielle said. “We’re here, because Costas is a port city, and we’re looking to take a boat across the Ionian Sea.”

Marcos made an interested sound, his finely arched eyebrows twitching. “Which port are you heading for?”

Sybarris.” Xena answered. “We’ve been told there’s been some trouble in these waters. The passage is apparently not that straightforward.” She watched him carefully, and he reacted to her words, straightening up a little and settling back on his haunches. “True?”

He pursed his lips. “It’s not what you think.” He finally said, glancing around. “But this is not the place to be speaking of it.”   He eyed them. “Where do you lodge tonight? Perhaps we could meet later for discussion.. or no, better yet, there is a small park, just there.” He pointed up under the tent flap where they could see the ridge of the hill in the waning sunlight. “Do you see the trees? It’s quiet there, and I can bring along my partner Besan, who knows more details.”

“Sure.” Gabrielle agreed amiably. “How about just after sunset. We’ll meet you there.”

With an almost relieved nod, he stood up, and made them both a bow, then picked up his cup and went to the counter with it, calling out to Mishra and pointing.

“What are the odds, Xena.” Gabrielle leaned her elbow on the table. “That we happen to bump into some guy who happened to see me in Athens years back and knows who we are who also happens to own a shipping company when we need a ship.”

“Mm.” Xena made a low noise in her throat.  “But hey, if it works out, its gonna be easier than stealing a boat in a city that’s already pissed off at us.”  She sniffed reflectively. “Least that park’s halfway to out of town.”

“Maybe we could camp in the park.”

“Maybe I can bag another one of those fancy pigeons.”


“What if this is a trap?” Gabrielle suggested, as they approached the stand of trees at the ridge, climbing up from the port and along a well-kept path leading to the outcrop where the park was located.

“Then we get a great workout.” Xena casually sorted Tanto’s mane, leaning forward a little as the stallion bucked slightly under her. “Stop that.”

“You know what was weird?”

“I’m about to.”   The weather was growing colder now that the sun was down and Xena shifted her cloak a little around her shoulders.

“When he said, ‘it’s not what you think’” Gabrielle pondered. “What do you think he meant by that?”

Xena shrugged both shoulders expressively. “We’ll find out in a half candlemark.”

It was quiet in this part of the city, the residential areas had been left behind on the lower slope and the wind whisked through the thickening belt of trees, rustling the leaves, and bringing the scent of spruce around them.

“Nice of Mishra to give us those bottles of that lychee stuff.” Gabrielle said, after a couple minutes of silence between them.

“Nice?” Xena eyed her. “Gabrielle you probably made the whole market for him. Did you see all those people in that tent? I bet he makes a deal to have those grill guys come up and sell them all dinner to keep them drinking all night.”

“He asked me to come back tomorrow.” Gabrielle chuckled. “Pretty good crowd.” She acknowledged, steering Spot a little over to the right to avoid a large rut in the path. “If we’re going to have to pay through the nose for passage, maybe I can barter with him.”

They climbed up into the park, a thick ring of well-kept trees and foliage where they could see paths laid out and through the branches, some stone structures scattered around in the growing twilight.  There were benches to sit on, and Xena could hear at least one fountain in the distance.

It was away from the chaos of the city and up there with the breeze coming in over the sea, the stench of the place was also dissipated.  “I like the idea of us camping up here.” She commented. “I feel like wherever we end up staying if we do in the city, we’re gonna be in trouble.”

“In trouble or be trouble.” Gabrielle said. “Yeah, it’s nice here.”

They were on a path leading to the center of the park, and there were only a few people around, most were on the way out, giving them curious looks as they passed.  

They reached the ridge that Marcos had indicated, and it was a wide-open stone amphitheater overlooking the sea, with beautifully carved frescos on the walls and echoingly empty seats, a stretch of carefully tended white stone holding its breath waiting for a focus.

They crossed the path and entered the clearing with the amphitheater and came to a halt, just sitting quietly and listening, the rush of the sea waves below against the bottom of the mountain walls loud on the wind.

Gabrielle dismounted and walked down the steps of the stone edifice, strolling down the weather worn but clean surface until she reached the bottom of the gentle slope and crossed from the tiered seats to the platform stage, walking to the center of it and just standing there as the twilight filled the clearing and the onshore breeze disordered her hair.

Xena stayed where she was, mounted on Tanto, letting her eyes slowly drift from the edge of the clearing around to the direction they’d come from and back, waiting and watching for their purported hosts to join them.

She had her ears attuned to the trees, and as the darkness fell she blinked slowly as her eyes adjusted to it, aware always of the pale haired figure to her left, walking in a light pattern on the stage deep in her own thoughts.

It was a disadvantage in having the wind blowing inland.  Xena would have preferred it to be the opposite direction, to bring information to her senses now that the light was fading.   If she looked up the dark blue of the twilight sky would be deepening into black, and the scattered clouds were fading into that, exposing between them a smattering of stars.

Then she heard footsteps approaching and with a swift motion she dismounted, moving sideways across the stone verge and crossing the stepped seating platforms as the footsteps approached and grew louder, and she detected more than two sets.

Behind her she sensed Gabrielle moving and heard the light sound of her boots on the stone as she ran up the levels and came in behind her, the long staff in her hands shifting from a walking stick to a weapon.

They were in the middle of the audience seating, Xena picking instinctively a spot where due to the uneven levels coming at them in an attack would be a bit troublesome and she braced her legs at shoulder width and waited, ears almost standing out from her head to catch the noise.

Six men walked out of the forest, coming from the center path through the trees and moving in and out of the deepening shadows they strode with quick steps towards where Xena and Gabrielle were standing.

“Was this a bad idea?” Gabrielle asked, sliding her grip apart a little on her staff.

“Maybe.” Xena remained in a relaxed stance leaving her sword in its sheath as she watched the men approach. “They don’t have any crossbows at least.”

The men wore swords, and two had spears, and were carrying shields on their backs.  Marcos was in the lead and he held a hand up as they neared, and the group with him slowed and stopped, except for the short, stocky figure at his left.

“Good sign.” Gabrielle said.

“Mm.” Xena stayed where she was and waited for the two men to come up in front of them, after a moment hitching her thumbs into the belt around her leather overtunic. “Nice stage you got here.” She remarked in a neutral tone.

“Thank you.” Marcos was now within reach, and he turned and gestured to the short man with him. “This is Besan, my business partner.  Besan, this is Xena, and Gabrielle, of whom I have spoken.”

The short man was squint eyed and gruff of manner, he had short, cropped ginger hair going gray and a thickset body with the rolling steps of a sailor.  He gave them both a curt nod.

“Tell them about what happened today, Besan.” Marcos said, crisply. “They already know something’s going on.”

Gabrielle wasn’t sure she’d have put it that definitively, but she remained silent, because the other man did not look like he was in favor of telling them anything.  He was glaring at them from under lowered brows, with an expression of deep skepticism.

“You want me to tell aught to women?” Besan said, in an outraged tone. “S’matter with you. Too much wine at the market today, that’s what.” He waved a hand. “Waste of time, when we could be getting the money together, you idiot.”

Xena moved so fast even Gabrielle, who was used to her reflexes, was startled, her body jerking a little in reflex as she whipped back one elbow and swung it forward, connecting with the short man’s jaw with a very audible crack and sending him flying backwards to land on the steps flat on his back.

The four soldiers behind them reacted, starting to dash forward but came to an abrupt halt when Xena drew her sword and came to meet them, the newly risen moon splashing her with silver highlights and as the first soldier thrust at her with his spear she didn’t bother to block it with her sword, she grabbed the spear below the head and yanked him closer, then kneed him in the groin when he stumbled forward and lost his balance.

The second man drew his sword, and had it taken out of his hand by a kick, the blade went flying across the stone seating to clatter noisily on the ground.

“You really don’t want to do that.” Gabrielle had her staff out and ready, keeping one eye on the short sailor and the other on Xena’s back.  “If this was what you invited us to, Marcos, it’s not going to end well.”

“No, no wait all of you!” Marcos belatedly reacted. He reached out to grab Xena’s arm and found himself moved aside by Gabrielle’s staff, it’s end shoving him back, and his boots hit the uneven platform and he went head over heels as Besan recovered his wits and scrambled to his feet, pulling a dirk out of his belt.

He took a step then had to stop when the point of Xena’s sword was in his face, the very tip cutting the skin of his nose. He looked up along its length to meet her eyes and for a moment, everything went very quiet.  The soldiers were frozen in place, and Marcos was rolling to a seated position, holding his head.

Besan took a breath, then he wisely took a step backwards away from the sword, sliding his boots along the stone surface to ensure good footing. “Allright.” He said. “What is this?”

“I told you what it was, you idiot.” Marcos was climbing to his feet. “You didn’t listen to a word.”

“Never you said it was women.” The sailor took another step back. “Specially none like that.”

Gabrielle came forward with her staff and grounded it. “Hi.” She said briefly. “Can we start this over? We don’t mind fighting but maybe we should find out if we have to first.”

Xena twirled her sword and then slid it back into its scabbard with a soft whispery sound.  Then she lifted her hand and let her wrist rest on Gabrielle’s shoulder.  

“Everyone just calm down.” Marcos shook his head and gathered his scattered wits. “Lets go to the rostrum there, it’s as far from everything in the city as can be and just talk!” He stressed the last two words loudly. “For the sake of the gods we can help each other!”

The man who’d been kicked in the groin was slowly standing up, groaning and the second was slowly inching over towards where his sword had landed.

“Take it for granted.” Xena said, in a calm tone. “That I can kill all of you. That’ll make it a lot easier on everyone.”  She stared down the sailor, his lips twitching in resistance. “If you’ve been at sea any length of time, maybe you’ve heard of Poseidon’s Bane.”

His gaze turned wary. “Aye who hasn’t?” He said. “What do you know of that?”

“That’s one of Xena’s many names.” Gabrielle said, dryly.  “They go along with her many skills.”

Xena’s body twitched into silent laughter, and she was glad of the shadows.

“Well then.” Besan said, very slowly. “Color me surprised then.” He turned to look at Marcos. “If that’s true, you bastard, maybe you’re right.”  He reached up to scratch his grizzled eyebrow. “That puts a different spin on it.”

Bewildered, but gratified, Marcos waved his hand towards a section of the platform that had benches set up in rows, and a stone rostrum. “Right. So lets go talk about it.” He exhaled in relief. “Stop hitting each other.”

He shoved Besan towards the platform and motioned the soldiers ahead of them, and they marched in that direction while Xena and Gabrielle brought up the rear.


Continued in Part 6