Chapter 13

The Amazons and the Andorians had been following the well-worn dirt road most of the day. They had stopped at noon for lunch; small knots of Amazons and soldiers sharing a cold meal. General Andrus joined Gabrielle, Ephiny and Princess Cynara as they sat on a grassy knoll and shared the cured meat and cheese.

"We’re making pretty good time. We should make camp early this evening."

Gabrielle stretched out her legs, letting a grimace cross her face. "Not soon enough for me. That horse I’m riding hasn’t missed one bump in the road. I’m really developing an appreciation for Argo." Noticing the amused look on Ephiny’s face, she laughed. "But don’t tell Xena I said that, I’d never hear the end of it."

Princess Cynara spoke up. "I’m surprised she’s not travelling with us. I hope there’s nothing wrong."

Gabrielle tried to hide the frown as she exchanged a glance with Ephiny before meeting the Princess inquiring look. "Oh, there’s nothing wrong. Xena just had some business to take care of." The Princess and the General exchanged their own looks, already having picked up earlier that there was something more going on but having the good manners not to pry.

As the noonday meal was finished, everybody was soon mounted and headed off again. Gabrielle spent the afternoon, shifting in her saddle, trying to find some spot that wasn’t sore already. She let out a grateful sigh when they finally left the road and spilled into a clearing.

After dismounting and handing the reins over to a waiting Amazon, she stood and watched. With Ephiny and Eponin, who had joined them on the trek, barking out orders to the Amazons, and the General directing orders to his soldiers, it was less than half a candlemark before the camp was set up.

The only members of the party who didn’t have something to do, were Gabrielle and the three young Amazon warriors who were the last minute additions. Noticing the girls standing watching the others too, Gabrielle went looking for Ephiny.

"Eph., is there a lake or a stream around here?"

Ephiny gave the question some thought as she paused in directing the two burly Amazons holding the shovels. "There’s a lake through the woods over there. Why?"

"I thought I’d go see if there were any fish in it."

"Gabrielle, we’ve got cold rations for dinner."

"I know Eph., but I thought I’d teach Jess, Philana and Amara how to catch fish, Xena-style."

Shaking her head with a laugh, Ephiny couldn’t keep the grin off her face. "You don’t waste any time, do you."

The bard returned the smile before turning and heading back over towards the girls, calling over her shoulder as she left. "No time like the present, Eph. That’s what Xena always says."

Ephiny was still smiling as she turned back to the two Amazons. "Okay, I want it at least an arm’s length deep, an arm’s length wide, and as long as two full grown warriors. Big ones. And when you’re finished here, I want the same size hole dug on the other side of the camp."

Approaching the girls, Gabrielle slowed to a stop as they turned their attention from watching all the work going on around them, to their Queen.

"How would you three like to help me catch some fish for dinner?"

The three girls exchanged glances as Jess spoke up "Sure. Where do we get the lines and hooks from?"

Gabrielle started walking in the direction that Ephiny had indicated the lake lay. "Follow me. We won’t be needing that stuff."

The girls exchanged wary looks as they followed Gabrielle into the woods. After a short walk, they emerged by the shore of a small lake. Skirting the edge 'til she found the right spot, Gabrielle sat down and started to take off her boots. The girls just stared at her.

"Well, come on. You can’t expect to catch any fish if you don’t get your feet wet."

Philana looked at the others, before looking back at Gabrielle. "You’re kidding, right?"

Gabrielle stood, tossing her boots a bit further up the sand. "Nope, get those boots off. We have a lot of fish to catch before dinner."

The girls just stood there and watched as Gabrielle slowly waded out away from the shore to stand beside a big rock just poking above the surface of the lake. The bard leaned over and immersed her arms up to her elbows in the cool water. She stood perfectly still for a moment and then brought her arms up swiftly. Her fingers hooked under the belly of a large trout, lifting it from the water to send it sailing in an arc, landing a few paces from the started Amazons on shore.

Gabrielle looked up, and called over. "Well? Are you going to help me or not?"

Jess sat down and started to pull off her boots as Philana and Amara stared at her. "You heard our Queen. Are we going to help her or not?"

Throwing her boots aside, she moved into the lake and over to where Gabrielle was standing. She had to duck as Gabrielle’s arms exploded from the water once more, and a silver flash went sailing over her head to land flopping beside the first one on the bank.

Gabrielle moved to stand beside Jess, holding her arms in the correct position. "Okay, the idea here is to let the fish come to you. If you keep perfectly still, they’ll swim right into your hands."

Jess looked skeptical but she held her arms the way Gabrielle showed her and dipped them beneath the water. Standing perfectly still, she was surprised to see bright flashes of light moving beneath the reflective surface. As she held her breath, she noticed a large shape swim from behind her legs and pause in the shadow her body was casting over the water. As she continued to hold her breath, she felt the fish as it brushed against her fingers, moving between her arms. With a quick jerk, the fish was launched straight up out of the water. Jess tried to grab it on its way back down, but just managed to get herself all wet.

Gabrielle was right there by her side the next moment. "Great job, Jess, that’s it. Next time thought, aim for the shore. Try holding your arms like this, that way, when you pull up..."

Philana and Amara watched for a moment before they too had their boots off and were wading into the lake. It wasn’t long before there was a mess of fish on the shore and three very wet Amazons in the lake. Gabrielle, remained relatively dry, returning to the shore to start stringing the fish on the long thin leaves from a convenient bulrush.

When she judged they’d gathered enough to feed the camp, she motioned the girls from the lake. As they joined her on shore, they watched her rub handfuls of warm sand against her legs to dry them. Following her lead, they quickly dried their feet off and put their boots back on, each girl gathering up a string of fish.

Leaving Philana and Amara to bring up the rear, Jess caught up with Gabrielle, who was humming to herself as she walked back through the woods, the fish at her side keeping time with their swaying.

"My Queen?"

Gabrielle slowed her pace and let the young girl catch up. "Please Jess, call me Gabrielle."

Jess nodded and walked for a time in silence before getting the courage to speak to the woman beside her. "Gabrielle, where did you learn to catch fish like that? I mean, I’ve never seen anything like it before."

Gabrielle smiled back at her. "Xena taught me. If you think I’m good, you should see her."

"Xena catches fish?" Jess looked a little surprised.

Rolling her eyes, Gabrielle tried to keep the frustration out of her voice. "Sure she catches fish. What do you think she eats? Little babies and slow-moving old folk?" the bard stopped as she noticed Jess’ eyes grow round. "Jess, Xena is just like you and me. She’s not the monster people make her out to be. I wish you could spend some time with her and see that."

Jess stared at Gabrielle before turning back to watch her path, as they navigated through the forest. The bard noticed, however, the thoughtful looks the young girl kept shooting her way as they made their way back to the camp.

The fish were thrown into skillets and the hot meal was well received before the camp retired early after the long day of travel. Everyone, that is, except the two lone figures left scraping plates and scrubbing pans, long after everyone else had gone to bed.

It was late when Xena finally pulled Argo to a stop in front of the Inn. From inside drifted the sounds of music and laughing voices. As she sat debating with herself if this was really a good idea, the music stopped and the Inn went suddenly silent. Xena noticed anxious faces fill the windows as the front door opened and a shaft of light spilled into the courtyard.

The silhouette of a small woman was framed in the doorway.

"Who is that? Who’s there? Xena?!? Is that you?" She recognized her mother’s voice as the silhouette moved cautiously away from the door and towards the still mounted warrior in the courtyard.

Looping her reins over the pommel, Xena threw her leg over the saddle and slid to the ground. Taking a step away from Argo, she stood awkwardly, looking at her mother.

"Yeah, Mother, it’s just me."

Moving to close the distance between Xena and herself, Cyrene strained to get a better look at the face framed in the moonlight. "Daughter, what are you doing here? What’s the matter?"

Raising a placating hand, Xena tried to forestall the anxious note rising in her mother’s voice. "Nothing’s the matter, Mother. I’m fine. Everything’s fine." Not sure of what else to say, she just shrugged her shoulders with a tentative smile. "I’ve come home for a visit, but it looks like now’s not a good time."

Cyrene glanced back over her shoulder at the people who had spilled out the door, and now stood in awed silence. "Your cousin Melni got married today to a boy from Timus and we’re just having a little celebration in their honor. Everybody’s here, your Aunt Trea and Uncle Theo, your cousins Eustach and Dilas..." Suddenly feeling awkward talking about people who were by now total strangers to Xena, her mother paused, at a temporary loss for words.

Xena realized coming here was a mistake. She'd no idea what she’d been hoping to find, but she realized belatedly that it wasn’t here. She took a step back towards Argo. "Mother, this wasn’t a good idea. I’ll come back another time...when you’re not so busy."

Still convinced something was wrong, Cyrene pursued her retreating daughter as she peered at Xena intently. "Xena, where’s Gabrielle?"

"She’s spending time with friends." Suddenly feeling very tired, Xena didn’t have the energy for explanations. All she wanted to do now was find somewhere to lie down and sleep. Tomorrow, she'd figure out what to do.

Cyrene stared at Xena for a moment, unsure herself of what to do. She knew the presence of Xena at the celebration inside would put a damper on things; her reputation as a Warlord, even reformed, making her the rather spectacular black sheep of the family. She didn’t feel right spoiling the celebration of the newlyweds inside.

She also didn’t feel right, however, not inviting her daughter in. After all, she was family, even if she was almost a stranger. They had begun to get to know one and other again, but the innkeeper knew she had a long way to go before she'd feel comfortable spending anytime with this woman. As for the people in the inn... She sighed. It would be difficult all the way around.

Xena knew what her mother was thinking, and now she just wanted to end the awkward situation. "Mother, really, I’ll be back this way again soon. I promise. I’ll stop by then." Turning and starting to mount Argo, she stopped when her mother grabbed the mare’s bridle.

"Nonsense, Xena, you’re here now." Seeming to make a decision, she smiled up at her daughter. "Please stay. Why don’t you come in and join us?"

Touched by the gesture, Xena knew how difficult this was for her mother and decided to try to ease the strain. She smiled back. "Mother, thanks, but it’s been a long day and I’m really tired. If you don’t mind me staying, I’ll bed down in the stable with Argo." Seeing her mother about to protest, she added with a laugh. "Besides, I remember how Uncle Theo’s side of the family liked to party and I’ll probable get more sleep in there."

Glad her daughter was staying and looking slightly relieved at the compromise, Cyrene sighed then shook her head with a frown. "Xena, I can’t let you sleep in the stable." Looking distracted now, Cyrene started re-arranging sleeping arrangements in her head. Suddenly, she saw weeks of careful planning starting to unravel. Raising a hand to her forehead, she began to rub at the rapidly forming headache in her temples. Half-heartedly, she murmured. "Give me a few minutes to shuffle a few people around. I’m sure we can find a bed for you somewhere."

Xena now took Argo’s reins and gathered them in her hands. "Mother, don’t be silly. The stable's fine. It’ll be like when I was a kid. You’d better get back to your guests. I’ll see you in the morning." Giving her mother a squeeze on the shoulder, she turned and led Argo towards the stables.

Cyrene watched her daughter and the tall horse, the silvery moonlight adding a ghostly glow to their silhouettes, as they crossed the courtyard and disappeared into the blackness of the shadows. A warm glow briefly enveloped the courtyard as Xena opened the stable door and slapped Argo inside before closing it again and returning the courtyard to the moonlight. Standing and watching the silent building, Cyrene anxiously wondered why her daughter had come home.

The few times Xena had returned in the fourteen years since she’d left, she’d always brought trouble. It wasn’t as if Xena deliberately caused the trouble, but still, it seemed to follow her around. Her daughter’s first visit back home after giving up her life as a Warlord four years ago had resulted in farms in the west valley being burned by that Warlord Draco. Then the whole village had been taken and held by those awful men working for that blond-haired lunatic.

The last time was the worst. Cyrene shuddered; the madness that had gripped her daughter. She'd never wanted Xena to know about her father; never wanted her daughter to pay for what she herself had done.

As Cyrene turned and headed back to the warmth of the inn and the excited questions of her guests inside, she cast a last glance at the silent stable and thought with a sigh that she’d probably find out what it was all about in the morning.

Closing the stable door behind her, Xena stood for a moment and let the familiar feel of the place wash over her. Although it had been years, the memories were still there.

Argo, impatiently anticipating a warm stall and some dry oats, lifted her golden head and chuffed at the back of the warrior’s neck. Lifting her hand to brush back the hair that Argo had blown in her face, Xena turned to stare into large, liquid-brown eyes and chuckled despite her mood. "Okay, okay, I get the message. Let’s get you settled. It’s been a long day for both of us, hasn’t it, girl?"

Leading the tall mare over to the last vacant stall, she dropped her packs just outside, removing the saddle and blanket and throwing them over the top of the stall’s partition. Digging out a set of brushes from one of her packs, she gave the mare a good going over. Returning the brushes, she moved back to lean against Argo’s shoulder. "We’ll old girl. Look’s like it’s just you and me for a while." Wrapping her arms around the powerful neck, she buried her face in the straw colored mane and just hugged her friend for a few moments.

Taking a deep breath before straightening her shoulders, she gave the mare one last pat. Grabbing the small pile of stuff she’d separated out of the main packs, she took a few steps towards the loft before releasing into a double summersault and coming to rest up to her knees in sweet smelling hay, her head now just a few meters from the rafters.

As her eyes adjusted to the almost total absence of light, she was amazed at how such a cramped space could have seemed so cavernous when she was small. The faint illumination provided by the stable lamps hung below allowed her to barely distinguish between the black silhouettes of the hay piles and the vertical shafts of faint moonlight coming through the cracks in the old stable walls. She had a quick look around before moving over to a spot under the eave where she and Lyceus used to lie during those late summer nights and talk about what they’d do when they grew up.

Oh, Lyceus. I wonder what you’d think of your big sister now.

Dropping the stuff from her arms in a pile on the fragrant hay, she picked a fairly level spot and spread the blanket she’d brought up with her across the prickly stalks. She stood in the eerie glow of the moonlight seeping through the cracks in the walls and removed her armor, letting each piece fall in the straw by her feet. Dropping heavily on the blanket and sitting with her legs crossed, she unbuckled her greaves and added them to the pile before reaching over and dragging the healer’s kit and waterskin closer.

Removing her leathers and shift, she knew by the sharp pain in her side that she wasn’t going to like what she saw when she removed the linen bandage. She’d felt herself pull a couple of stitches earlier in the day when the steep slope she and Argo had been cautiously edging their way down gave way and she'd had to twist to stay on the scrambling mare. Now the area around the missing stitches felt hot and tender and Xena knew, if she wasn’t careful, she'd soon be getting a return of the chills and fever.

Reaching into her healer’s kit, she found what she needed and, mostly by feel, mixed up a strong salve in a small dish. She carefully cleaned around the wound before applying the herb mixture and replacing the bandage with a fresh one. Putting her shift and leathers back on, she packed up her healer’s kit and reached for the waterskin, draining almost half of it. She debated eating something but decided she was too tired. Lying back with her head on one of the saddlebags, she stared up into the blackness of the ceiling wondering what Gabrielle was doing.

She'd just begun to drift off when she heard the stable door open and the low hiss of whispering voices enter below. All traces of sleep vanished as she slowed her breathing and quietly listened from the darkness of the loft. It took a moment to figure out what was going on before her eyes rolled back in her head and she quietly swore to herself.

"Oh Hades, why me!"

The two young couples, whom Xena assumed were escapees from the celebration, had obviously managed to snag a bottle or two of wine and were planning on having a party of their own where there would be no adults spoiling their fun. The sounds of whispers and giggles and bottles hitting mugs drifted up to her as Xena tried to bury her head beneath her extra blanket, hastily pulled out of her pack for this purpose.

Things suddenly got very quiet again and Xena was just thinking it would be too much to ask them to leave quietly when they were finished when a horrified shriek came from the floor below. Sitting bolt upright, she heard angry, drunken voices.

"You bastard! What do you think you’re doing to my sister!"

"I didn’t do anything she didn’t ask for, you centaur’s ass!"

The sound of a young woman’s anxious tones could be heard pleading, "No, Peracles, you don’t understand. Palinios didn’t do anything."

Xena buried her head in her hands and leaned her elbows against her knees. She was just mustering the strength to get up, when the sound of two bodies crashing into each other filled the stable.

Oh Ares’ Balls!

She slowly got to her feet, figuring she’d give the two drunken boys time to work off some of their excess energy before she broke things up. Her plan changed suddenly as a terrible crashing of wood, breaking of pottery, and grunting of bodies was followed by a deathly silence.

She was moving towards the edge of the loft when the stable was suddenly lit up by an orange glow and a scream rent the silence.

"Oh my Gods, he’s on fire!"

Now at a run, Xena took in the scene below a split second before she sprang off the edge of the loft into a summersault and landed amongst the bodies. The two girls were standing frozen in horror as one of the young men tried to slap out the flames engulfing the other young man’s arms. They had obviously knocked over one of the stable lamps in their fight and the young man now on fire had used booze for brains and tried to put out the blaze with his bare hands.

Grabbing a horse blanket from the nearest stall, Xena pushed a rather confused Palinios to one side before she wrapped the blanket around the burning boy. She held the now struggling Peracles as she pulled them both down to the floor and rolled them a couple of times before coming to rest.

Breathing hard, she rose to one knee and turned the young man on his back, unwrapping the blanket as she gently turned him over. A pair of very bleary eyes stared back at her as he laid there grinning.

"Hey, what’s all the fuss?"

With a roll of her eyes, Xena jerked the blanket out from under him and got to her feet. She stepped over the young man and headed for the fire, now releasing great clouds of smoke into the rafters of the stable. The fire itself was still confined to the broken stall the boys had crashed into. In a few minutes, she’d beaten it out. All that remained of the fire now was the black soot coating almost everything in the stable, the charred wood of the stall, and the acrid smell of burned straw.

The two girls had taken the boys over to a water trough and were trying to get them cleaned and sobered up. Watching from the remains of the stall, it was obvious to Xena these were just kids having fun that got out of hand. She could tell by the looks on their faces that they were now pretty much sober and very much shaken up.

All four suddenly stopped talking and watched with open mouths as Xena walked over and backflipped into the loft, disappeared and then re-appeared carrying a small bag. Jumping down to land lightly on her feet, the warrior approached the four surprised faces and stopped in front of the boy she had rolled in the hay with earlier.

"Hold out your arms." Having very little remaining patience, Xena’s voice left no room for discussion. She saw the young man’s eyes widen. Stop scaring him, Xena. She deliberately gentled her tone and smiled as she looked into the boy’s face. "I want to make sure your arms are all right; that you didn’t burn them. Okay?"

The young man hesitated and glanced over at his friend before raising them. Luckily, the only things that had actually burned were the sleeves of his jacket, which were pretty much gone. There was one small burn about the size of a dinar on the back of his right hand, which Xena cleaned and treated with salve before gently wrapping with a clean piece of linen.

One of the young women touched the warrior’s elbow as Xena tied off the bandage. "Please ma’am, you’re not going to tell our parents are you?"

Xena didn’t look up from her task as she replied with a low growl, "None of my business. But, you did a lot of damage here tonight. I’m sure Cyrene would appreciate you stopping by tomorrow and putting things right."

All four heads nodded as they looked at each other in relief. "You bet. We’ll be here first thing in the morning." The other young man, realizing that moving his head like that not been a good idea, groaned at the thought of what he was going to feel like getting up that early tomorrow.

Turning to Peracles, Xena caught his eye. "You should get the healer to look at your hand in the morning."

" doesn’t hurt." The boy straightened, letting the women know it would take more than that to wimp him out.

Xena shrugged as she packed up her kit. "Not now, but I guarantee it will hurt like blazes once all the alcohol wears off."

Melana, the young girl who was obvious the boy’s sister, took a step forward and looked directly up at her. "He’ll see the healer. And we’ll be down first thing to see Aunt Cyrene." Looking at the ground embarrassed, she seemed to gather up her courage before taking a surprised Xena’s hand in hers. "I want to thank you...for all of us. If you hadn’t been here..." Her voice caught as she remembered the image of her brother, his arms on fire. "How can I ever thank you?"

Xena pulled her hand away, her voice gruff. "Just be here tomorrow to clean up. Okay?"

The young people filed out, talking quietly among themselves, no longer in a mood to party. Xena took a moment to sooth Argo before checking on the other horses. They were all a little skittish after the excitement but she soon had them quieted down. She was just about to return to the loft when the stable door swung open and a very concerned Cyrene came bursting in.

"What in Hades is going on in here!"

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