For disclaimers see Part 1 .
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“This is completely unacceptable, Eponin,” Ephiny shook her curly blond head. “He's the—wait, how many have we caught so far? Ten? Twelve? I'm losing count.” She shook her head again and the blond curls danced around her face. “We can't keep locking them up like this. Pretty soon we're going to run out of room in the stockade, and then we'll need to find somewhere else to keep them.”
“Ephiny, it's not as bad as all that,” Eponin gave her blond companion a wry half-grin. “Maybe we can cage ‘em and hang ‘em from trees at our borders, as examples to others who think they can get away with sneaking men in here. They know the rules, Ephiny. They just need a reminder that the treaties don't allow for men in the village.”
“I have the council on my ass about this whole mess,” Ephiny growled. “Leave it to Gabrielle to drop this in my lap and just saunter off on her merry way. Ugh!!! I could just…” She balled her fists and ground her teeth in frustration.
“Eph!” Eponin took the smaller woman's face in her hands. “Gabrielle didn't put those stipulations in the treaties. As a matter of fact, I think she was the one who protested the loudest against the procreation stipulations.”
“You're right, Pon,” Ephiny sighed heavily and rolled her eyes. “She's also not the one who came up with that cockamamie plan to get a bunch of our warriors pregnant,” she sighed again and ran a hand through her hair. “But she did leave me to clean up the whole damned mess.” She paced around the council hut for several long moments. “I can't believe we let Xena talk us into that stupid plan of hers.”
Eponin just stood there with a smirk on her face and her arms folded across her ample bosom. “It wasn't Xena's plan, actually.”
The regent stopped dead and turned to face the weapons master. “What?”
“I came up with the idea,” Eponin shrugged. “Xena just went along with it when she found out she couldn't leave Gabrielle's bedside.”
Ephiny faced Eponin with her hands on her hips. “Are you telling me you're the one I should blame for all these pregnancies and all this craziness?”
Eponin shrugged again. “We needed to do something to stop that army, Eph. It was either that or watch all our warriors go into a battle they couldn't win. I thought adding to our ranks was preferable to losing most, if not all, of our seasoned warriors. Xena knew it was a long shot, and she also knew you wouldn't go for it if she didn't take credit for the plan. So, she told me to keep my mouth shut until after they left.”
Ephiny glared at the taller woman for a moment. “Urrrrgh!!!!” She exclaimed. “I can't believe you kept this from me all this time.”
“I gave Xena my word,” Eponin said. “Sorry.”
Ephiny continued to silently rage for another long moment and then finally realized it wasn't worth the effort. What was done was done. The circumstances were what they were and there was no going back. She finally squared her shoulders and faced the weapons master with a nod of acceptance.
“Okay,” Ephiny said in a calm tone. “I get it. I can respect that you gave Xena your word. But that still doesn't change the situation with the men who keep showing up unannounced in the village. We need a way to keep the idiots from coming here.”
“Tell the women to limit their conjugal visits to the villages where the men live,” Eponin answered.
“And what do we do with the men we have locked up in the stockade?” Ephiny asked. “Besides, I've already tried that one. For some reason they're ignoring my orders.”
“Have the men escorted off Amazon lands and tell them to never step foot here again or risk an arrow to the heart or…” Eponin shrugged. “We can certainly double the guards for a full moon cycle—long enough to ensure we're not going to have anymore unwelcome visitors. If you want, we can use a few as examples.” She removed the dagger from its sheath at her hip, raised a questioning brow and fingered the blade. “I know how to castrate bulls,” she grinned slyly. “Can't be much different than turning a man into a eunuch.”
Ephiny cringed and shook her head, then considered her options. “No, we can't castrate the local villagers. That would just set them all off and cause more problems we don't need right now.” She paced a few steps and turned back to face the disappointed weapons master. “Oh, relax, Eponin. You can still double the guard and order them to shoot any man on sight. The question remains, what do I do about the council?”
“What about ‘em?”
“What do I tell them? We have more than thirty pregnant warriors, all due at the same time,” Ephiny reasoned. “What do I tell them when they ask me how we're going to deal with all those women giving birth at the same time next spring?”
Eponin smirked conspiratorially. “You could recruit them to lend a hand with all the deliveries.”
“As if,” Ephiny scoffed.
“Hey, they're the ones who were complaining about our dwindling numbers just a few moons ago,” Eponin shot back. “Let ‘em help bring the new blood into the world. It'll sure shut ‘em up and get ‘em off your back for a while.” She met Ephiny's gaze. “Or you could send word to the dynamic duo and drop the problem back in Gabrielle's lap.”
Ephiny's blond brow rose as she regarded the slightly-taller woman. “Where did they say they were headed?”
“Amphipolis,” Eponin grinned.
“Hm,” the regent uttered as she turned away from the woman and thoughtfully considered her options.
“I want their heads on a platter for what they did!!!!” A beefy fist slammed down on a wooden table, unsettling several cups and spilling their contents across the rough wood. A bearded man in tarnished brass armor raged at the other men around him. Spittle hung from his lower lip and his cheeks were flushed bright red in anger. He was a big man who looked more like a Viking than a Greek warlord. Blond hair flecked with gray and pale skin barely touched by the sun gave him a washed-out complexion that looked unhealthy and sallow. “They will pay for my brother's death with their very lives!!! This will not go unpunished!!! Do you understand me? They will pay!!!”
“Yes, Commander Kalgred,” a short, stout man in rusted armor, with greasy shoulder-length hair that hung in his eyes stepped up to the table. “What plan would you have us carry out, sir? Do you have one in mind?”
Kalgred thoughtfully scratched the short-cropped blond-gray beard that matched the hair pulled back from his face. “You say they tricked my brother's men into complacency while assassins killed Varagus and his commanders?”
“Aye,” the short man answered. “Not a warrior among ‘em. Cowards, the lot of ‘em.”
“Malachae,” Kalgred paced the length of the tent and returned to the table, glaring at each of the three men, in turn, before his gaze rested on the short, stout soldier in rusted armor, “order the men to prepare for a forced march to the land of the Amazons.”
“A-Amazons, sir?” The man's beady brown eyes went wide. “I-is that really a good idea, Commander Kalgred?”
Kalgred grabbed the neck of the man's stained undertunic and nearly lifted Malachae off his feet. “Do not question my orders, Malachae!” He hissed into the man's face. “Or I will have your head on that platter, alongside those responsible for my brother's death.”
“Y-yes, Commander,” Malachae said as he was set back on the ground. He glanced at the other two men and noticed sweat pouring from both their brows. “H-how do you know it's Amazons that're responsible for…er…the general's death?”
“My spies tell me women penetrated the army's ranks that very same night,” Kalgred answered. “The only women I know of who could have pulled off such a devious plot are the Amazons. So, it stands to reason that they are responsible for what happened to Varagus and his army.”
“I heard Xena had a hand in it,” a rail-thin man in plain leather armor—Illius—said. “Shouldn't we go after her then, too?”
“Do you have a death wish, Illius?” Kalgred growled. “Besides, Varagus knew Xena back in her warlord days. They did business together over a parcel of land a few leagues north of here. There's no way she would have gotten the jump on him. He had lookouts at every post, with orders to kill her on sight.”
“She could have been wearing a disguise,” the third man said. He also wore the plain brown leather of a common soldier, but his shoulder-length blond hair was well-kept and his armor was of a finer quality than his compatriots. “Xena's been known to dress the part when the situation calls for it. I have it on good authority that she's even managed to pass herself off as a beauty contestant and a member of a royal family.”
Kalgred eyed the third man—Prageus—with suspicion. “And how do you know this, Prageus? Last I heard Xena was off conquering lands beyond the rising sun.”
“Stories are circulating that she's a goody-goody now,” Prageus answered confidently. “She no longer has an army, and she travels around doing good, righting wrongs. I've even heard tell she travels with a sidekick—an Amazon, if the rumors are true.”
Kalgred perked up at the last. “Oh? You say she travels with an Amazon?”
“One of their queens, no less,” Prageus added with a knowing smirk. “Rumor also has it Xena's sidekick is a relatively famous bard who briefly attended the Academy for Performing Bards in Athens .”
“I heard Xena saved the woman from a bunch of horny slavers,” Illius chuckled. “The girl now follows her around like a lovesick puppy.”
Kalgred paced again, this time with a devious smile on his lips. “This could actually work to our advantage, gentlemen.”
“You could send someone to capture the sidekick or even kill her,” Malachae rubbed his hands together. “It would send the perfect message to Xena, as well as to those Amazon bitches.”
Kalgred set his fists on the table and leaned forward. “Better yet, we could just kill them all.”
They all chuckled, as they pondered the idea set before them by their commander. Kalgred was a man who enjoyed a good fight, but he was also calculating and cunning enough to survive when the need arose. At that moment, however, his main objective was to bring swift and calculated retribution against those responsible for his brother's death.
“Leave me,” Kalgred ordered with a dismissive wave of his hand.
The men all snapped to attention and filed from the tent in quick succession. When Kalgred was alone, he glanced around his spacious command tent. His blond brow was furrowed as he took in the sparse furnishings around him. It may not have been much, by his austere standards—after all, he was a prince in his own right—but it would do for the time being. No need to put on airs, when he was playing the role of a humble army commander and brother to a deceased warlord.
“Can we use the information to our advantage?” He said, as if to no one in particular.
“We certainly can,” the air shimmered and a mysterious hooded figure suddenly appeared in a corner of the tent. A floor-length, black cloak covered the individual from head to toe and the hood was big enough to keep the figure's identity completely hidden. “I will put out a call to arms immediately.”
“As you wish, Goddess,” Kalgred bowed low to the shorter individual.
A pair of gold-bracered arms emerged from the folds of the cloak and lifted the hood from Athena's crowned head. “I expect you to carry out your end of the deal without failure, Commander.”
“Yes, Goddess,” he answered with a quick nod. “Your wish is my command.”
The redheaded goddess smirked. “I expect nothing less than complete success, Commander.”
He merely smirked with a cunning gleam in his pale eyes.
“This is nice,” Gabrielle sighed and let her eyes drift shut.
She was lying on her back with her head pillowed on Xena's bare thighs, while the warrior leaned against a small boulder. They were both basking in the warm sunshine, content to just relax for a few stolen moments alone. After playing in the lake and catching enough fish to feed an army, the two women had shared a quiet meal together. Cyrene had provided a veritable banquet for their picnic lunch. Pocket bread stuffed to overflowing with savory lamb slathered in a creamy sauce, kabobs of lamb and chicken with roasted vegetables, and mouth-watering apple turnovers for dessert were just a few of the items Cyrene had packed into the wicker basket.
“I'm stuffed,” the bard muttered. “Couldn't eat another bite.”
Xena chuckled. “Not surprised, after the three sandwiches you just devoured—not to mention the kabobs, half a melon and two turnovers that mysteriously disappeared when I wasn't looking.”
“I worked hard today,” Gabrielle said. “It takes a lot of brain power to copy scrolls. You have to pay really close attention to every word on the page or you might make a mistake that changes the entire meaning behind a phrase.”
“Yeah,” Xena snorted. “Taxing the brain is a lot harder than mending fences, putting up walls, and repairing a roof or two.”
Gabrielle slapped the leather-clad stomach close to her right ear. “I didn't say you didn't work hard, too, Xena. We both worked hard today.” She clasped her hands over her bare midriff. “Matter of fact, we've both put in a lot of candlemarks over the last moon. We deserve a break.”
They were silent for a time as they soaked up the warm rays of the sun overhead. Xena's thoughts whirled around in her head, until she finally decided to share them with her content partner.
“We never did have that discussion,” Xena ventured.
“What discussion?” Gabrielle absently asked with her eyes still closed.
“The one we were gonna have when you were ill,” Xena answered and looked down into confused green eyes, as they fluttered open to stare up at her. “The one about what happened in Chin and Britannia and…”
Gabrielle sighed loudly. “Xena, we've been over all that a million times. Can't we just put it behind us once and for all? Let it rest? Move forward to a bigger and brighter future together?”
“I suppose,” Xena's expression fell, which didn't go unnoticed by the observant woman in her lap.
Gabrielle shifted positions until she was lying on her side with her head propped on her hand. She gazed at the woman she loved and saw the uncertainty in Xena's eyes. “Okay, so let's talk.”
“Xena,” Gabrielle scowled impatiently. “You want to talk, so let's talk. Please don't try to get out of it now.”
“Okay, so…” Xena began with a slight shrug. “I don't think I ever really told you why I went to Chin and why I thought it best to leave you behind.”
“No, but you did say you had a debt to repay,” Gabrielle said. “I just figured it was something important that you didn't want to talk about.”
“It was,” Xena agreed. “I told you about Lao Ma.”
Gabrielle nodded once. “She was your teacher, your…um…mentor.”
“She was much, much more than that,” Xena said. “She was the first one, besides Borias, to see beyond the façade of power and strength that I projected to the rest of the world. But she was also the only one who didn't want to tap into my dark side. Like you,” she smiled into shining green eyes, “she just wanted me to stop raging against myself and accept who I really was.” She sighed heavily. “Unfortunately, I really didn't understand or accept what she was trying to teach me at the time. I just couldn't let go of the hate long enough to see what she saw in me.”
“Okay, so what does this have to do with your return to Chin?” Gabrielle prodded when Xena didn't immediately continue.
“I knew what I'd done to Ming Tien and how that would affect his relationship with Lao Ma,” Xena continued. “I knew his father, Ming Tsu, was filling his head with lies about women and about his own mother. I also knew the man would use what I did to Ming Tien to foster more lies and harden the kid's heart against women, especially his mother.”
“Wait, what did you do to Ming Tien?” Gabrielle interrupted.
“Kidnapped him,” Xena answered. “Kept him in a cage and scared the crap out of him every chance I got.” She blew out a breath. “I really hated his father and wanted nothing more than to take that hatred out on the kid.”
Gabrielle was trying to understand. “Okaaay.”
“I know,” Xena shrugged. “The sins of the father, yada yada yada…”
“You were a different person back then, Xena,” Gabrielle acknowledged. “It's not something you would stoop to today. I just needed to know the why behind your actions. That's all. I'm not judging you. Just getting a better idea of who you were.”
“Fair enough,” Xena nodded.
“Ming Tsu was a bastard who didn't give a damn about anyone but himself. He wasn't above turning his son against the very woman who gave him life.” She paused briefly to clear her throat. “When that message came about the green dragon, I knew Ming Tien had killed her. It broke my heart—tore it to pieces, actually—knowing that I was partially responsible for what he'd become. Ming Tien was a monster who had to be made small again. And that's what I did.”
“So why didn't you take me with you, Xena?” Was Gabrielle's simple question.
“I wanted to protect you from him,” Xena answered honestly. “I knew that if he was evil enough to kill his own mother, he wouldn't hesitate to use you against me. I was right.”
“But you didn't know beforehand that he knew he'd killed his mother,” Gabrielle said. “You told me so yourself, Xena. Why would you need to protect me against Ming Tien? He was no more a threat to me than…”
Xena swiped a hand down her face and took a deep breath. “Than I was?”
“No, Gabrielle,” Xena held up a staying hand. “You know what I'm capable of. You were there when Hope was born and I wanted to kill her. You've seen me in action and experienced my blind rage first hand.”
“I didn't care about what you were thinking or feeling when Hope was born. I just knew she—it—had to die,” Xena continued. “I never stopped to consider how the death of that monster you carried inside you would affect you. I just knew that any offspring of that demon, Dakak, was a threat to all mankind. And I never stopped to consider that you deserved an explanation. I never gave a thought to including you in the decisions. I was always the one who made them, and you just went along with whatever I asked of you…until Chin…until Hope.”
“Xena, I'm sorry,” Gabrielle sat up and faced the taller woman with tears swimming in her eyes. “I should have listened to you, both times. I just…I thought I was doing the right thing in both instances. I just…” she shook her head as the words died on her lips, and she lowered her gaze to the hands in her lap. “I lied and I deceived you because…oh, gods…” The tears flowed unheeded down her cheeks.
Xena put a finger under Gabrielle's chin and gently lifted it until their eyes met again. “We both screwed up, Gabrielle,” she smirked. “I should have trusted our relationship enough—should have trusted you enough—to tell you everything. You needed to know why I felt so strongly about killing Hope. But I also should have been more sensitive to what you were going through. Maybe if I hadn't shut you out…”
“Xena, you just said we both screwed up and you're right,” Gabrielle put a hand on the warrior's wet cheek. “We need to trust each other enough to tell the truth, no matter how hard that might be.”
Xena sniffed and swiped ineffectually at her tear-streaked face, then caught Gabrielle's hand in hers. “I will if you will.”
Gabrielle used her free hand to wipe away the tears from her own cheeks. “I love you too much to let anymore lies come between us, Xena.”
“Oh, get on with the kissing, already,” an impatient and familiar voice huffed from behind them. “You two kids need to lighten up. There's just waaaaay too much angst going on around here for my tastes. Thought you came out here to enjoy the rays and have a little…” Her brows rose and fell several times, “…you know.”
Aphrodite leaned against the boulder and looked down at the surprise on one tear-streaked face and the angry scowl on the other. Xena rolled her eyes and gritted her teeth, while Gabrielle merely finished wiping the wet from her cheeks.
“Aphrodite,” Gabrielle finally said, as she got to her feet and faced the blond goddess. “What are you doing here?”
“Visiting my favorite girls,” Aphrodite said brightly as she bounced on the balls of her feet. “I just wanted to come by and see how things are going. Make sure the vibes are still there.”
Xena stood up and leaned her back against the boulder, crossing her arms over her chest as she glared at the goddess. “Just happened to be in the neighborhood, Aphrodite?”
“You bet your brass…um…” she glanced at Xena's breastplate and then absently flipped her hair. “Anyway, I just wanted to make sure Gabby's doing okay. Ya know, after all Athena and Artie put you through with that trial and all. Didn't want ya suffering any ill effects.”
“I'm fine, Aphrodite,” Gabrielle answered confidently. “No ill effects.”
The goddess walked around the bard and surveyed her from head to toe. “Your appetite has certainly returned,” she said as she slapped Gabrielle's bare midriff. “Did you gain weight?”
Gabrielle gritted her teeth and just kept herself from groaning aloud in irritation. “Probably just enough to replace what I lost when I was sick.”
Xena moved to stand behind Gabrielle and wrapped her in a protective embrace. “What do you want, Aphrodite?”
“Want?” Aphrodite flashed the taller warrior a bright smile. “Why would you think I want something, Xena? I'm a goddess. Goddesses don't need or want for anything.”
“Cut the crap, Aphrodite,” Xena growled. “I know you didn't travel all the way down here from Olympus for a social call. What's going on?”
“Awwwwwe,” the goddess put on her best pouty face. “Why do you always think the worst, Xena? Can't a girl just come by and say ‘hi' to her two best mortal girl pals?”
“Aphrodite,” Gabrielle patted Xena's hip in silent signal to let her handle the goddess. “Our last encounter with the gods didn't exactly go…well, you know,” she shrugged. “You can understand Xena's trepidation.”
“Oh, all right,” the blond goddess shrugged. “I came by to let you know that Athena isn't happy about looking the fool in front of all those dead Amazons Artemis conjured at your trial. As a matter of fact, she's pissed.”
Xena gave the goddess an incredulous look. “So what? She brought it down on her own head. We had nothing to do with all the idiotic theatrics.”
“Athena also knows about the little white lie, Gabs,” the goddess looked straight at the bard. “She wants revenge. What else is new?” She threw up her hands in consternation. “Where's the love, I ask you?”
“Revenge?” Both Xena and Gabrielle exclaimed in exasperation.
“What? A full moon spent recovering from that damned illness wasn't enough punishment for my little white lie?” Gabrielle exclaimed. “I almost died because of what those two cooked up in order to turn me away from Xena. Wasn't that enough for Athena and Artemis? Is it too much to ask that the gods just leave us alone and do their own thing for a change? What more does Athena want, anyway?”
“Blood,” Aphrodite winced and held her hands up in surrender when Gabrielle tried to jump at her, but was held back by a pair of strong arms. “Look, kiddo, I'm just the messenger here. I don't want to see you two get hurt anymore than you do. Just stay out of Athena's way and try to lay low for a while. Let this thing blow over, and they'll eventually forget what all the hubbub was about in the first place. ‘kay?” She looked up at the cloudless sky and her expression turned distant. “Oops, that's my cue. Gotta go, girlfriends. Catchya later.” She held a hand up, but paused in mid-motion. “I expect some fireworks between you two while I'm gone. Got it?” And then she vanished in a spray of heart-shaped sparkles.
“Ugh!” Gabrielle relaxed in Xena's embrace. “What in Hades is going on now? Why can't they just leave us alone and let us live our lives without their constant interference? Is that really too much to ask?”
“On the bright side,” Xena said as she wrapped her arms tighter around her shorter partner, “she did leave us alone.”
Suddenly Xena straightened up and held a hand to her lips at the questioning look Gabrielle shot her. Gabrielle mouthed an obvious “What?” as Xena listened intently to the noises around them and filtered everything out until she could hear the one that had alarmed her senses.
“We have visitors,” Xena whispered into the bard's ear, as she quickly reached down to grab her sword and chakram from the blanket.
Gabrielle just as quickly grabbed her staff, which she had remembered to bring along, just in case. She hefted the weapon in front of her with both hands in time for a dozen ruffians to charge from the trees with loud shouts of intimidation. The bard planted her feet and quickly found her center of gravity before the first attackers reached them. Of course, Xena issued her battle cry and charged forward into the fray with her normal aggressiveness. Her sword met three enemy swords in quick succession before she dispatched their owners with practiced ease.
Gabrielle was ready for the two that skirted around her partner and came toward her. She deflected one attacker's sword with a quick jab of her staff and swung around in time to catch the second attacker in the midsection. With a loud ooof! he went sprawling, leaving Gabrielle to face the first guy.
Meanwhile, Xena was in her element. She'd already dispatched six men with both sword and chakram and was working on the remaining four. She was a little surprised that none of the men had said a word while she faced off against them. She didn't even know which one of them was the leader, if they even had one.
“Stop!” Xena shouted above the din and was mildly surprised that all four men obeyed her command without her having to use the pinch on at least one of them. “Okay, now someone tell me what the Hades is going on here!” She held up her sword at the panting man to her left. He wore dark leather armor over a plain tunic and pants—nothing special that she could distinguish. “Talk and ya just might live. Keep fighting and you'll end up joining your friends in the Underworld.”
The four men exchanged confused looks, and then the man to Xena's left shrugged. “We were sent to kill you.”
“Sent by whom?” Xena glanced at Gabrielle, who was still fighting furiously against her one remaining attacker. “Gabrielle!!!!”
“Yeah, Xena?!?” Gabrielle shouted as she held her staff above her head in time to catch the man's blade before it hit her.
“Can you stop a minute and come over here, so we can sort through this whole mess?” Xena called out without taking her eyes off the four men in front of her.
Gabrielle blocked another attempt to get past her guard and managed to swing her staff around fast enough that her opponent didn't see the blow coming. The sound of wood connecting with the man's skull rang out in the silence as he dropped to the ground with a thud.
“What's up?” Gabrielle panted breathlessly as she stepped up beside the taller woman.
“These guys were just about to tell us why they're trying to kill us,” Xena lifted her blade and pointed at the guy on the left. “Weren't ya?”
The guy scratched his stubbly chin and glanced at his three companions. “Better'n dyin' for no reason,” he shrugged. “We were in Varagus' army, but when he was killed by those women…”
“Wait,” Gabrielle held up a staying hand. “Who's Varagus?”
“General Varagus,” the man to their right piped in eagerly. “Athena commissioned him to raise an army to destroy Amphipolis and Potidea several moons back.”
Gabrielle leaned close to Xena, “Athena's dead general now has a name.”
Xena arched a dark brow as she glared at the four men. “I thought the army disbanded after Varagus and his commanders died.”
“We did,” the first man answered with a nod of his bald head. “There's no profit in following a dead general, especially when none of us were willing to step up and fill his boots.”
“So why are you trying to kill us?” Gabrielle rested her staff against a shoulder and wrapped both hands around it.
“Bounty,” an oaf in the middle answered. “Commander Kalgred says he'll pay ten thousand dinars for the heads of Xena and her little Amazon sidekick.” He grinned and showed off several rotted and missing teeth.
“Twenty if'n we bring the sidekick back alive and…um…kickin',” the shortest man, who had yet to speak, said with a chuckle that had all of the men laughing along with him. “You really queen of all them women? Ain't ya a little short to be queen of a bunch of giants?”
“Short, huh?” A blond brow hiked into Gabrielle's hairline. “I can't believe I've gone from your partner to your short sidekick in the span of only a few moons, Xena,” she shot a wry glance at the woman beside her, then returned her full attention to the four men. “The way I see it, boys, you have two choices. One, you can keep fighting until, like Xena said, you join your friends in the Underworld. Or, two, you can be on your way—crawl back under the rocks you slithered out from under when this Kalgred person offered to pay you to die at the end of Xena's blade.”
The men glanced around at their fallen comrades and then at each other, as they considered their options. Xena and Gabrielle looked on nonchalantly, as if the outcome was of no concern to either of them. Xena, however, was silently assessing each man's body language to gauge what they would eventually decide. She knew that if they decided to collectively attack in such close quarters, there wasn't room for Gabrielle to wield her staff against them. It would be up to Xena to fend off the attack.
Baldy lifted his sword and held it in front of him for a moment, before re-sheathing it at his hip and holding his empty hands up in surrender. “I'm not dyin' for a few measly dinars.”
The other three considered the man's words and finally re-sheathed their own swords. They all stood there for another moment, before the four men grabbed up the few comrades who were starting to come around and walked away with disappointed grumbles.
“Well, I guess that went pretty well,” Gabrielle glanced around at the bodies littering the ground around them. “Of course, I think our nice, peaceful picnic is ruined. And I thought it was going so well…”
She grabbed the blanket that was half-buried beneath one of their dead attackers, while Xena grabbed the discarded basket. Neither woman bothered to pick up the leftover food that was scattered around.
“Should we send someone over here to pick up the bodies?” Gabrielle asked, as she and Xena headed away from the scene.
“Probably a good idea,” Xena answered. “Don't want the lake contaminated by a bunch of decomposing bodies.”
Gabrielle stopped at the edge of the woods and turned back to survey the scene with sadness in her green eyes. “What a waste,” she said and shook her head.
“Come on, Gabrielle,” Xena put a comforting arm around her partner's shoulder and steered Gabrielle back towards the woods. “Let's get back to town before it gets dark.” She glanced around them as they entered the woods that separated the lake from Amphipolis. “I don't really trust those guys not to lurk around here somewhere, waiting for a second chance to collect on that bounty.”
“Are you sure you won't tell just one story tonight, Gabrielle?” Cyrene folded her hands on the table and stared intently at the smaller woman across from her.
“Moooother,” Xena growled. “Leave Gabrielle alone, will ya?”
“Xena,” Cyrene shot her daughter a familiar intimidating glare. “Stay out of this. I'm asking Gabrielle.”
The remains of their shared evening meal still sat on the table. Dirty dishes were piled in the middle of the table, as the three women sat there nursing their drinks.
“I'm really not in the mood to tell stories tonight, Cyrene ,” Gabrielle gave the woman a half-hearted smile. “It's late and I'm really tired.” She rose from her chair and glanced at her scowling partner. “I think I'll just head on up to bed.”
Xena and Cyrene watched Gabrielle disappear up the stairs.
“Thanks, Mother,” Xena sarcastically said over the rim of her ale mug. “I tried to tell you not to push her tonight.”
“Oh, Xena,” Cyrene waved a negligent hand. “I had to try. These people all came here expecting to be entertained with stories of your exploits. Now what am I going to tell them?”
“I don't give a rat's ass what you tell them, Mother,” Xena said as she finished off the last of her ale and set the mug in the center of the table with the rest of the dishes. “If you'll excuse me,” she continued as she rose to follow Gabrielle to their room, “I have a partner to take care of.”
As the warrior passed her, Cyrene grabbed Xena's arm and held it for a moment. “Please take good care of her and let me know if you need anything, Xena. I love you both.”
Xena's expression softened. “I'll tell her.” She patted Cyrene 's hand on her arm. “Love you, too, Mom.” She bent down and gave the still-seated woman a kiss on the cheek, before she climbed the stairs to the rooms above.
A single taper cast eerie shadows in the hallway, as Xena knocked once on the plain wooden door to their room. A muffled “Come in, Xena,” greeted her and she quickly ducked inside.
“You okay, Gabrielle?” The warrior said as she closed the door and stood leaning against it.
“I'm fine,” Gabrielle answered distractedly. “Just tired.”
Xena quickly divested herself of her brass armor and weapons, tossing them on the vacant bed. Gabrielle was busy folding a blanket and tidying up their sparse belongings, when Xena moved in behind her and wrapped strong arms around her. Gabrielle tensed up at the unexpected contact. She didn't know why she was acting the way she was, but something was obviously bothering her.
“I love you,” Xena simply said, as she kissed the top of the blond head.
Gabrielle finally relaxed against the leather-clad woman behind her. “I love you, too,” she said quietly as she placed her hands over the arms around her middle.
“So, you gonna tell me why you're so prickly tonight?” Xena asked as she rested her chin on top of the shorter woman's head. “'Cause I think Mom's gonna want an explanation in the morning. Not that you have to give her one, but…”
Gabrielle closed her eyes and just savored the moment. Then with a sigh, she said, “Not sure.”
“Is it Aphrodite's visit?” Xena prodded gently. “I'm not exactly thrilled to be back on the gods' most wanted hit list again.” She blew out a frustrated breath. “The bastards should really find someone else to pick on. I'm getting annoyed enough to do some permanent damage.”
Gabrielle chuckled softly. “Yeah, that'll be the day.” She quickly sobered. “I'm worried about them, Xena.”
“The gods? Pfft!!! ” Xena exclaimed. “Not a problem, love. We can certainly deal with whatever they throw our way. We've played their games fairly well up to this point. What's the worst they can throw at us after what they tried the last time? Huh?”
“No,” Gabrielle shook her head. “It's not the gods that have me so prickly, Xena. I'm worried about Ephiny and the Amazons. Those guys called me an Amazon. What if that commander targets the Amazons to get to me?”
A dark brow shot up into Xena's hairline. “I'm pretty sure the Amazons can take care of themselves, Gabrielle. They did a good job of it before we came along.”
Gabrielle turned in Xena's arms until she could look up into the confident baby-blue eyes that always made her knees go weak. “Most of them are pregnant, Xena. What if they're too preoccupied with all those cravings and mood swings to pay attention to a threat like the one those guys were talking about? What if that commander—what was his name? Kargus? Kalgon…”
“Kalgred,” Xena supplied.
“Kalgred,” Gabrielle said, as she wrapped her arms around her partner and rested her cheek against Xena's chest. “Wait, do you know this guy?”
Xena considered the question for a moment. “No, but I knew his brother.”
“Varagus,” Xena answered.
“Wait, isn't Varagus the guy who headed Athena's army?” Gabrielle clarified. “He's the general that Eponin and Chilapa killed.”
“Yeah,” Xena stepped back enough to look in Gabrielle's eyes. “The guy was a real piece of work back in the day and sounds like he didn't change all that much over the years. I ran into Varagus when I first became a warlord. Thought I could learn something from someone with a few victories under his belt, so I accepted his offer to do a job together. Jerk tried to steal my men out from under me. Offered ‘em all a place in his army if they'd turn against me.” Xena stepped out of the embrace and ran a hand through her dark hair, as she sat down on the edge of their bed. “Varagus had no scruples and never reined in his men when they got out of hand. He let them do whatever they wanted with the spoils from their raids.” Her gaze met Gabrielle's. “I talked to a merchant from Serres today. He said Varagus' army completely razed that village and killed everything in sight.”
“So, do you think Kalgred's as bad as his brother was?” Gabrielle asked as she sat down next to Xena.
Xena shrugged and looked Gabrielle in the eye. “Don't know.”
It was Gabrielle's turn to blow out a frustrated breath. “Why can't anything ever be simple and straightforward with us, Xena?”
Xena chuckled and put a comforting arm around Gabrielle's shoulder. “I ask myself that question almost every day, love.”
Gabrielle let her head rest against Xena's shoulder. “Is it really too much to ask?”
Xena kissed the top of the bard's head and squeezed her shoulders. “Probably. You sure you still want to be my partner for life?”
“No doubt about it,” Gabrielle wrapped both arms around the taller woman and continued to revel in the closeness. “I don't know about you, but I just can't seem to get enough of this.” She lifted her face and was mildly surprised when a pair of soft lips met hers in a searing kiss. “Or that either,” she smirked when the kiss ended.
“Me either, love,” Xena said as she pecked the bard on the lips again. “Let's get some sleep and not worry about the cares of the world until tomorrow. Maybe things'll look a lot different with the dawn of a new day.”
Gabrielle managed to push the taller woman down onto the bed and lean over her. “Good plan, Warrior Princess,” she said as she launched an impromptu assault on Xena's bare skin. “I think… we're both… a little too overdressed…don't you think?” She said between kisses.
“Definitely,” Xena agreed as her skilled fingers found the front of Gabrielle's green top and quickly worked the fastenings loose, until she could lift the article of clothing over the bard's head.
It wasn't long before they were both completely naked and reveling in the skin-on-skin contact. They explored each other, as if for the very first time. Their passionate lovemaking lasted long after the single candle burned out and plunged them into complete darkness.
Neither woman seemed to notice when a certain blond goddess discreetly popped in and stood in a dark corner across the room. Aphrodite silently clasped her hands in triumph and then gave the women a silent thumbs-up. She smiled proudly at the sight, before raising a hand and disappearing in a shower of sparkling heart-shaped lights that dissipated in seconds.
“Did you hear that?” Gabrielle raised her disheveled blond head from the pillow, as she stared into the darkness for a moment. Green eyes searched the dark room, while Gabrielle listened for the sound that had caught her attention. “I thought I heard something.” She sniffed the air. “Why does it smell like…” she sniffed again, “roses?”
“I don't smell anything, nor did I hear anything.” Xena didn't bother emerging from beneath the covers, where her lips were exploring the warm flesh of Gabrielle's belly. “Probably just a bird on the roof or something.”
“Better not be that damned goat in the shed again,” Gabrielle let her head fall back against the pillow as she gave in, once again, to Xena's expert ministrations. Her fingers plunged into Xena's hair, as she encouraged the warrior's complete assault on her body. “Mmmmm…”
Xena didn't need any encouragement as she worked her way down to the place she knew would bring complete bliss for them both. She poured all the love that filled her heart into every sweet moment, until she finally heard Gabrielle's unfettered cry of ecstasy. A feral grin split her features as she lightly kissed her way back up the satiated bard's lithe body and met a pair of expectant lips.
“Your mom's gonna kill us for making all this noise, Xe,” Gabrielle panted breathlessly against her lover's lips.
“Don't care,” Xena muttered and gave the bard another mind-blowing kiss that took both their breath away.
Gabrielle knew it was her turn to show Xena just how much she loved her. With lightning quick movements that surprised them both, the smaller woman managed to flip their positions until she was the one lying on top.
“My turn,” the intent bard growled as she began her own assault and didn't stop until she had her partner begging for release. Without hesitation she complied with the warrior's wishes and soon Xena was crying out her release as loudly as Gabrielle had only moments before.
“We…are so…baaaaad,” Xena panted breathlessly and wrapped her arms around the woman who had just taken her to a place of mutual bliss that only they knew.
“Mmmm,” Gabrielle uttered as she rested in the crook of Xena's shoulder and let herself sink slowly into that place between waking and sleeping.
“G'night, Gabrielle,” Xena kissed the bard's forehead one last time, before she too let go of the world around her and sank into the welcome arms of a dreamless sleep.
“'Night,” the bard breathed against the creamy skin, as she let go and joined her lover in sleep.
“Be sensible, Xena,” Cyrene absently tossed a melon-sized ball of dough on the walnut table situated in the middle of the large kitchen. The table, which was used for food preparation, was currently covered in flour. The diminutive brunette slapped the dough onto the table, sending a cloud of white dust into the air around her. “You two can't expect to continue raising the rafters in that room up there without someone complaining about the noise. My guests aren't simpletons, Xena. They know there are two women staying in that room.
“Traedius and his wife just happened to be right next door and overheard everything you two did last night.” Cyrene threw a hard punch into the abused ball and left a fist-sized imprint, as she folded the dough in half and roughly pushed the base of her hand through it. “They left this morning and said they wouldn't be returning anytime soon, despite Aris' exemplary cooking and the free mead I offered them. If you two stay here for much longer, I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to stop sharing that bed together.”
“Mooother,” Xena hissed loudly to be heard above the pounding of the woman's fists against the poor dough. “Please…”
The leather-and-arm-clad warrior was sitting on a pickle barrel in one corner and remembered well that she had spent many a candlemark in that same spot when she was a young child. If she hadn't been so mortified by her mother's blunt words, she might have enjoyed the moment.
Cyrene raised an accusing finger and waved it in her daughter's direction, sending flour flying in all directions. “Xena, I can respect that the two of you love each other and want to be…um…together intimately,” she briefly stumbled over the words, but quickly recovered and continued on. “I just can't have you doing it so loudly under this roof. I have a business to run and customers who pay good coin to get a good night's rest.”
Cyrene wiped her hands on the beige homespun apron that covered her dark blue dress, as she walked over and stood in front of her daughter. “I'm not so naïve that I don't know what you two are doing in that bed together, Xena.” She put both hands on either side of her daughter's face and smiled warmly into the baby-blue eyes. “I accept that you love each other and want to share those feelings in…that way.” Xena rolled her eyes and winced when Cyrene squeezed her cheeks. “Listen to me, young lady,” the innkeeper suddenly became all business again. “I won't have my customers chased away from here, because my two daughters can't put a lid on it. Do you understand me, Xena?”
“Yes, ma'am,” Xena nodded as best she could with her mother's hands still firmly clasping her cheeks. “I'll talk to Gabrielle about it when she comes down.”
“Good,” Cyrene kissed Xena's forehead, released her grip and smiled when Xena shook off the contact like an errant child. “How is Gabrielle doing this morning, anyway?” She went back to her dough with and finished kneading it with a much gentler hand. “Is she feeling better than she did last night?”
“Um,” Xena considered her answer carefully, as a blush colored her cheeks. “I think she's a lot more relaxed than she was at dinner.”
Cyrene didn't miss the blush or the amused look in Xena's eyes. “Oh, you,” she waved a hand in Xena's direction, before shaping the dough into a loaf and putting it aside. “Did you ever find out why she was acting so strange last night?”
Xena shrugged. “She's worried about her friends in the Amazon village.”
“Oh?” Cyrene grabbed another ball of dough and proceeded to work it less energetically than the last one.
“We ran into some trouble when we were there and apparently it isn't quite finished yet,” Xena answered. “Gabrielle thinks the trouble might find its way to the Amazons again.” She jumped off the pickle barrel and noticed it creaked much louder than it did when she was a kid. “Huh.”
“And how do you know there's still trouble?” Cyrene asked absently and didn't bother to look up from her work.
“We ran into a bunch of guys who wanted to kill us yesterday,” Xena absently answered as she lifted the lid of a pot on the stove. “You mind if I have some of this for breakfast? I'm starving.”
Cyrene was suddenly right there next to her and slammed the pot lid back down with a loud clatter. “What?!? Xena, are you telling me you and Gabrielle had to fight for your lives yesterday and you didn't tell me?”
“Yeah,” Xena shrugged, as she raised the lid again and stuck a finger into the white goop that was simmering on the back burner. “It wasn't a big deal, Mom. We both came out of it without a scratch…Ew! What is this, anyway?” Xena jumped when her mother swatted her bare arm. “Ouch! What was that for?”
“Xeeeeena,” the shorter woman growled in a perfect imitation of her taller offspring. “You will tell me what happened, and you will tell me every detail this instant.”
Xena watched her mother cross her arms over her ample bosom and knew she was in for it if she didn't do as she was told. “Okay, okay,” she conceded as she waved the woman off. “But first I want to know what's in that pot.”
“Porridge,” Cyrene answered impatiently.
“Ew! I hate porridge,” Xena winced as she wiped her finger on a nearby cloth. “Never could stand the stuff when I was a kid and still can't. It tastes like paste.”
“Then don't eat it,” Cyrene stomped impatiently. “I want to know what happened, Xena. Stop stalling.”
“I'm not stalling, Mother,” Xena said as she did a cursory inspection of the kitchen for something. “Don't you have anything else around here to eat besides porridge? What are you serving the guests for breakfast?”
“I don't start fixing breakfast for the guests until well after the sun comes up,” Cyrene answered matter-of-factly. “You'll have to wait until then if you want something to eat besides porridge. Now tell me what happened.”
Xena spotted the last remnants of a loaf of stale brown bread, tore off a piece and popped it in her mouth. As she chewed, she considered her next words. “It was after Aphrodite came to tell us that Athena and Artemis are still sore about what happened when we were staying with the Amazons.”
“You were visited by Aphrodite?” Cyrene gave Xena a confused look. “And why are Athena and Artemis upset with you? Are you telling me you actually interact with the gods on a regular basis, Xena?”
Xena shrugged. “More than I ever wanted to,” she answered with a wry smirk. “Ares comes around sometimes, too, but he's usually just trying to stir up trouble or get back into my good graces. Fat chance that'll ever happen, though. He only has one thing on his mind—himself.” Her expression turned thoughtful. “Actually, come to think of it, he did try to help us out when Athena and Artemis took Gabrielle and me to that…place.”
Cyrene 's expression mirrored her utter bewilderment, but she managed to remain silent as her daughter continued with her outlandish and convoluted tale.
“Anyway,” Xena continued after swallowing the last bite of bread and slapping her hands together to dust the crumbs off. “Where was I again? Oh, yeah, Aphrodite warned us that the other two are still up to their old tricks, and then we were attacked by a bunch of ex-soldiers from Athena's disbanded army. Their general is dead but his brother offered to pay them if they could take our heads to him. He offered to double the payment if they could bring Gabrielle in alive.”
Cyrene stared at her daughter with her mouth agape, as she tried to digest Xena's words. “How…how did you find out about the bounty?”
“Oh,” Xena nodded. “That's easy. I didn't kill all of them and got the live ones to tell me…tell us…” she noticed Gabrielle entering the kitchen with a sleepy yawn. “Hey, sweetheart,” the warrior walked over to the bard. She put an arm around the shorter woman's shoulders and kissed the top of her head. “How'd ya sleep?”
“Pretty good,” Gabrielle winced when she realized they weren't alone. “Hey, Cyrene .”
“Hello, Gabrielle,” Cyrene smiled warmly at the new arrival. “Would you care for a bowl of hot porridge?”
“I'd love some,” the bard answered on another yawn. “You got any molasses and nuts to go in it?”
Caught ladling a generous helping of the gloppy substance into a medium-sized wooden bowl, Cyrene considered the question for a moment. “Yes, I think we have both in the pantry.” She set the bowl on the prep table and went to a curtained doorway across the room. “Yes, here we go,” she held a jar and a sack up with a triumphant grin. “I think I even have some brown sugar in there, if you'd rather have that in your porridge, Gabrielle.”
“Mmm, I love brown sugar,” Gabrielle suddenly perked up and rubbed her hands in expectation. “Did you have breakfast yet, Xena? Would you like me to fix you some porridge, too?”
Xena cringed inwardly at the bard's exuberance. “No, that's all right, Gabrielle. I ate a little something just now.”
“Really, Xena,” Cyrene chided with a knowing grin. “A scrap of stale bread can hardly be called breakfast. Why don't you let Gabrielle fix you a bowl of porridge, while I finish baking the bread for today?” She shot the bard a conspiratorial look. “Xena was just telling me about your adventures yesterday, Gabrielle.”
“Oh?” The bard glanced at Xena and didn't miss the exasperated eye roll. “Please continue. Don't let me interrupt you, Xena,” Gabrielle said sweetly, as she took the second bowl of porridge from Cyrene and proceeded to doctor it up enough to hide the taste that Xena hated. From the corner of her eye she could see that Cyrene was enjoying their light banter tremendously. “Come on, Xe. I'm sure your mom is anxious to hear all about our lovely picnic next to that breathtaking lake.” She turned her full attention on the innkeeper. “I didn't get the chance to thank you for fixing that basket of food for us, by the way, Cyrene . Everything was perfect. There was enough food for a small army.”
“Apparently,” Cyrene nodded with a raised dark brow, as she glanced from Gabrielle to her daughter. “Xena?”
“Gabrielle's the storyteller,” Xena pushed her spoon through her porridge like a petulant child.
“Eat and stop playing with it, Xena,” Cyrene chided.
Xena took a tiny bite and was mildly surprised at the sweet and nutty taste that greeted her taste buds. “Mm, not bad,” she said as she filled the entire spoon, shoved it in her mouth and grinned at Gabrielle. “I can't believe you made this stuff palatable.”
“Stop offending your mother, Xena,” Gabrielle chided in the same bland tone Cyrene used. “She makes very good porridge. I just managed to disguise the taste, so you don't complain so much.”
“No lumps,” Xena said through a mouthful.
“Don't talk with food in your mouth, Xena,” Cyrene chided again.
“Eat my food, don't talk with my mouth full,” Xena grumbled. “Wish you'd make up your mind, Mother.”
“Oh, Xena,” Cyrene chuckled and gently slapped the warrior on the shoulder with the back of her hand. “Just eat, so you can finish telling me about yesterday.”
“What has she told you so far?” Gabrielle asked as she rummaged in a cupboard and came up with a pitcher of thick cream. She sniffed the jug and was satisfied that its contents smelled fresh.
“Carlena milked the goat just last night, Gabrielle,” Cyrene confirmed that the cream was still good and watched as the bard scrunched her face in distaste. “Don't worry. It's not the same goat that chased you yesterday. Milly is our brown milking goat and she's a real sweetheart. Blackie is the little scamp who likes to cause trouble. Funny that he shares the same dark coloring as someone else I know.” She shot Xena a knowing look and smirked when Gabrielle stifled a fit of giggles.
“Mother,” Xena growled.
“Behave, Xena. Where are your manners?” Cyrene wiped her hands on her apron as she took a seat at the table with the women and turned her gaze on Gabrielle. “Xena mentioned something about Aphrodite, Athena, an army and…oh, I think Artemis was in there somewhere. Isn't Artemis the patron goddess of the Amazons, Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle nearly choked on a mouthful of porridge. “Um, yeah. Why?” She finally managed.
“Why would you two have problems with all those goddesses?” Cyrene asked.
“Don't forget Ares,” Xena added with a scowl. “Seems we're plagued by the Alpha-Team of Olympus .” Her expression suddenly brightened. “Hey, that would make a good title for your next story, Gabrielle.”
It was Cyrene 's turn to roll her eyes. “Your wit is astounding, Xena.” She patted Gabrielle affectionately on the shoulder, as the smaller woman glared at Xena from across the table. “Remind me not to ask you to speak at my eulogy. I'm afraid my friends wouldn't understand your wry humor.”
Gabrielle snorted loudly and just managed to keep from spewing porridge across the table. “Oh, that was priceless, Cyrene . Now I know where Xena gets her sense of humor…or lack thereof.”
“Watch it, bard,” Xena growled.
“Well, you certainly didn't get it from her,” Gabrielle pointed her chin in Cyrene 's direction. “She's actually pretty funny.”
“Why, thank you, Daughter,” Cyrene moved to Gabrielle side and gave her a quick hug. “I'm glad you think so, because Xena has something she needs to discuss with you when you're done here. Don't you, Xena?”
Gabrielle exchanged an ominous look with the warrior. “Are we in trouble?” The words came out barely above a whisper.
Xena nodded slightly and mouthed, “Last night's...” she finished with an eyebrow hike and clasped her hands together on the table in front of her.
The beat-red blush that suffused Gabrielle's cheeks did not go unnoticed by anyone, including Cyrene . “Are you done eating so you can finish your story, Xena? Or should Gabrielle finish it for you?”
“Let her tell it,” Xena nodded in Gabrielle's direction. “She gets all the details right.”
Cyrene looked expectantly at Gabrielle. “Well?”
“Where did you leave off?” Gabrielle looked to the warrior for a clue.
“Aphrodite paid us a visit, then those guys showed up to crash the party,” said the warrior blandly. “I may have omitted a few details before all the excitement started.”
Gabrielle blushed again, but cleared her throat in an effort to get her composure back. “Okay, then. Aphrodite came to warn us that Athena is pissed because Xena stopped her army…”
“Let's not forget your little white lie, Queenie,” Xena inserted with a smirk.
“You lied to a goddess, Gabrielle?” Cyrene 's incredulity knew no bounds at this point. “Why in the world would you do such a thing?”
Gabrielle shot Xena another glare. “Artemis wanted to put me to death for loving your daughter,” she answered simply.
Now Cyrene was completely baffled. “Wait, I think you need to start at the beginning of this convoluted tale, Gabrielle. It seems my daughter neglected to fill me in on all the pertinent details.”
Xena just scratched her temple and shrugged. “I told you I wasn't the storyteller in this relationship. According to Gabrielle, I'm just along to provide muscle and keep the riffraff away.”
“Muscle?” Gabrielle scoffed. “You are such a goof.”
Gabrielle proceeded to fill Cyrene in on all the details of their adventure with the Amazons and the army that was camped on their southern border. She didn't leave out a single detail of the encounter with the gods or her illness or the treaty negotiations. But she didn't mention a word about how her relationship with Xena blossomed or that they started sleeping together as a couple once Gabrielle was strong enough for limited physical activity.
“So, when Aphrodite came to visit and those guys attacked us, we weren't really all that surprised to learn that the gods are still out to get us,” Gabrielle finished.
Cyrene sat in stunned silence for several long moments, as she tried to process everything that Gabrielle had told her. It was one thing to hear the bard tell a story about some faraway adventure, but quite another to have the tale hit so close to home.
She was still trying to reconcile the fact that the army had nearly laid waste to Amphipolis and would have killed everyone in the town if the Amazon messenger hadn't warned them to leave. An unconscious shiver raced up her spine at the thought that the two women at the table with her were somehow partially responsible for what had happened.
“What will you do?” Cyrene turned her gaze on her silent daughter.
“Nothing at the moment,” Xena shrugged and exchanged a glance with Gabrielle. “We don't know exactly what Athena is planning. She might just eventually forget about the whole thing and return to Olympus , where she belongs.”
“We also don't know where this other army is, yet,” Gabrielle added. “For all we know this Commander Kalgred is just another overstuffed windbag with a serious death wish. Until he does something besides send a bunch of has-been soldiers after us, there's really nothing to do except continue doing what we're doing.”
Cyrene slapped her hands on the table. “You can't just stay here like a couple of sitting ducks and wait for bad things to happen, Xena. Why aren't you trying to find out who this Kalgred fellow is and why he's so intent on killing you?”
“I know who Kalgred is, Mom,” Xena answered. “At least, I knew his brother. Varagus was the general who led Athena's army. We had a bit of history together, but that was a long time ago,” she glanced at the bard, “long before I met Gabrielle.”
Silence reigned around the table for several moments, until Cyrene remembered something that had been bothering her.
“We should send some men to the lake with a wagon,” the older woman said. “Those bodies can't just sit there and rot. They'll contaminate the lake and the stench will eventually make its way here.”
“Already taken care of, Mom,” Xena said. “I had Cletus round up several men for burial detail first thing this morning.”
“You did?” Cyrene said with some surprise.
“Yes,” Xena gave her mother a raised-brow look. “Contrary to popular belief, I have learned a thing or two over the years.”
“Apparently so,” Cyrene smirked. “You never used to clean up after yourself when you lived here.”
“Times change,” Xena shot her mother a droll look, “and so do people.”
Gabrielle could see that the two women were gearing up for another round and decided to intervene. She shot her partner a look that said ‘Let's go' and motioned with her chin toward the door.
“Thanks for breakfast, Cyrene ,” Gabrielle smiled warmly at the innkeeper, as she made her way toward the door. “We'll be by later to see if you need any help with the noontime meal.”
Gabrielle didn't wait for a response as she yanked Xena out into the main room and continued on outside.
“Where's the fire?” Xena commented as she was practically dragged from the inn into the dusky light of the new day.
“Is it too much to ask that you two get along?” Gabrielle asked as she continued on toward the village square. “She is your mother, after all.”
“We get along just fine,” Xena easily caught up to the shorter woman and kept pace beside her. “I can't help it that she still thinks I'm that little girl who used to run wild around here without a care in the world.”
Gabrielle stopped and stood with her hands on her hips. “Did you really?”
“What?” Xena stopped a few steps away and turned to face her partner.
Xena hung her head, then lifted her gaze to meet sympathetic green eyes studying her intently. “Yes, I did. Drove Mother nuts, because I didn't act like the other girls. I think she wanted a daughter who would eventually share the responsibility of running the inn. Turns out I was a real disappointment in that arena.”
Gabrielle closed the distance between them and looked up into sad blue eyes. “You're not a disappointment to her, Xena. She loves you for who you are, not for what you've done or what you became. Accept it and stop needling her.”
Xena swiped an impatient hand across her chin. “Still, I'm not the daughter she wanted.”
Gabrielle put her hands on the warrior's leather-clad hips. “No, you're not. You're the daughter who associates with gods, travels the countryside doing good for others and who learned to clean up after herself.” She smirked. “You are a wonderful person and a fantastic kisser.” She rose on her tip toes and sealed the words with a quick peck on the taller woman's lips. “And I love you.” She patted the warrior's hip.
Xena pulled the smaller woman against her and gave her another kiss, this time lingering over the soft lips against hers, as she enjoyed the moment. “Mm, speaking of which,” she said, then stopped and cocked her head.
“Xena!!! Yo, Xena!!!” A man's voice made both women turn toward the town square.
The burly blacksmith rushed up and stopped in front of them. Xena shifted positions, until she was standing next to Gabrielle with a casual arm slung over the smaller woman's shoulders.
“Hello, Cletus,” Xena greeted the man with a friendly smile and a shake of his arm. “Thought you'd be at the lake taking care of that little job I asked you to help me out with.”
Cletus ran a beefy hand over his bald head. “Weren't nothin' ta take care of,” he said and then glanced at the smaller blond standing next to Xena. “'lo there. Haven't had the pleasure. Name's Cletus,” he held out his tree-trunk arm to Gabrielle, who clasped it in her much smaller one. “I'm the town's blacksmith.”
“Gabrielle,” she smiled at the big man as he held onto her arm for a few moments longer than was customary. “I, um, travel with Xena.”
“Ah,” the man's brown eyes suddenly lit with realization, as he glanced at Xena and saw the slight nod she gave him. “Ye got a fine grip, there, Gabrielle. Are ye a fighter like Xena?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “I don't use a sword, if that's what you mean. My weapon of choice is the staff.”
He nodded sagely. “Good weapon for a beginner. Are ye any good with it?”
“She's very good with it,” Xena put in with a proud smile. “Now what's this about nothing to take care of at the lake?”
Cletus crossed his arms over his chest. He wore a tunic of dark blue homespun that barely covered the muscles bulging all over his massive chest. “Me and the others got there and searched the entire perimeter. Weren't nothin' there. No trace that anyone was even there recently. You sure there were dead bodies near that lake?”
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged a questioning look.
“I'm sure,” Xena answered. “I killed ‘em myself.”
“You think the army sent someone back to pick them up?” Gabrielle asked her partner.
“Not likely,” Xena answered with a concerned frown. “Not likely our four friends came back to collect their comrades, either. There wasn't enough time.”
“Then who?” Gabrielle's expression mirrored the uneasy feeling that was suddenly creeping up her spine.
Xena gave her the ‘Not now' look and turned her attention back to the smith. “Thanks for taking the time to go to the lake, my friend,” she held her arm out to the man and he took it.
“No problem, Xena,” he said as he gave her arm another quick shake. “I have what I need for that other project ye commissioned, so I'll be getting to it, then.”
“Thanks again, Cletus,” Xena said, as she let go of his arm and waited until he was out of earshot. “Smells a little fishy to me, Gabrielle.”
“Pisces?” Gabrielle agreed. “You think Ares is somehow involved?”
Xena sniffed the air. “Could be his stench I'm catching on the breeze. It sure isn't dead fish or soldiers I smell.”
Gabrielle licked a finger and tested the air. “Not much breeze blowing right now.”
“Enough for me to know that we're being played,” Xena growled. “I really don't want to have another discussion with him. Every time he comes around he makes my skin crawl.”
“I'm glad I'm not the only one,” Gabrielle agreed with a shudder. “He's never completely up front and honest with us. Makes me wonder what he was doing taking your side during that…um, trial thing.”
“This whole thing reeks of something that I know I'm not gonna like,” Xena scoffed. “Let's go see if Jace and the others are working on the grain storage shed yet this morning.”
“Okay,” the bard agreed.
Continued in Part 3
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