The Innkeeper had been feeling badly about Xena spending the night in the stable alone and had gathered some food from the celebration, deciding to take it out to her daughter. The plate was now in the middle of the courtyard where shed dropped it when shed first caught the acrid smell of the fire drifting from the stable. Forgetting everything else, shed run to the structure and flung open the door to see her daughter standing beside a burned out stall, smudged with soot from head to foot.
Xena looked at her mother as if shed been caught red-handed doing something naughty. She knew she'd no reason on earth to feel guilty but it was an instinctive response born into all children when asked that question by their parents.
"Ah, there was this accident?" Xena trailed off, unsure of how to proceed.
Cyrene held up her hand to silence her daughter. "Xena. I dont believe this! Youre home less than a candlemark and you set my stable on fire!"
"Mother, its not what you think. You see, there were these..."
Cyrene didnt give Xena a chance to finish as she waved her hand with a dismissive flourish. She knew she shouldnt get into this right now, but the fear that had raced through her just minutes ago got the better of her now. "Xena, Im too tired to listen to your excuses. I knew youre coming back here meant trouble. It always does." Looking around at the damage, her heart sank. "I dont want to talk about this right now. Im going to say things I know Ill regret." Turning on her heals, she moved angrily towards the door. "Ill see you in the morning."
Stunned and hurt, Xena called out after the retreating figure. "But, Mother..."
"In the morning, Xena. Ive had enough for tonight."
As the door swung shut, Xena just stood and stared at it for a minute.
Now, how had this suddenly become all my fault?
She was stung by her mothers presumption of guilt, but, as she took a minute to think about it, she could see where the mistake could be made. After all, her visits home were never quiet affairs.
Deciding to deal with it in the morning, she moved over to the water trough and spent a few minutes scrubbing as she managed to get most of the black soot washed off her exposed skin. Stifling a yawn and realizing she could barely keep her eyes open now, she turned and climbed up into the loft where she curled up and fell into an exhausted sleep, deciding to worry about everything tomorrow.
It was the startled exclamation that woke her this time. Once again instantly alert, she listened as two male voices moved into the stable.
"What do you suppose happened here?" First, a thin whiny voice that set Xenas teeth on edge.
"I dont know, but my first guess is, they had a fire." Then a deep, rich tenor tinged with a note of not-so-subtle sarcasm.
"Very funny Carus. Always the comedian. Boy am I glad I dont have to put up with your smart-ass comments any more."
"Not half as glad as I am that I dont have to listen to your half-witted ones, Brisus."
As she laid back and listened to the two men argue, the thought crossed her mind that, for a quite country inn, in the middle of nowhere, this stable was busier than Athenss Central Square on market day. Xena could hear the men moving about in the stalls below, throwing blankets and saddles on horses before the sound of fingers working buckles on leather filled the silence. Xena noticed it was still dark and idly thought to herself that these guys were setting out pretty early.
And then her heart was in her throat, as their conversation took an abrupt turn.
"So, you know what to do. I expect to hear about the deaths of those Amazon bitches and King Doraclyse by the end of the week."
She was up and silently moving but froze as the short man paused to look around.
"Shush. Keep your voice down, will you." Assuring himself that they were the only ones up at this hour, he turned back to the tall figure in the shadows. "And dont you worry about my end of it. Ill see they get the map. You just make sure the moneys where its supposed to be."
By this time, Xena had made her way to the edge of the loft and was peering down at the backs of two figures in the dark. Frustrated, she silently cursed the sparse stable lamps which left more of the interior in darkness than in light.
The men finished saddling their horses and then led their restive mounts to the center of the stable, pausing before moving out into the early morning. Xena thanked her luck, as both men came to rest almost under one of the lamps.
The one with the deep voice, Carus, was tall and thin. He had a dark complexion, his features were sharp and his eyes were set very closely together. She couldnt tell much else about him since he was covered almost head to foot in a dark-brown hooded cloak. He was holding onto the bridle of a tall bay and talking in a low voice to a short fat man holding onto the reins of a short, fat horse.
Straining to hear what they were saying now, her keen hearing was having little trouble making out the hushed words.
The deep tenor spoke up again. "Ill send a messenger to King Kirilus and let him know about the revised plan. I expect the main force to be there in three days."
The short man laughed. "Theyre just clean-up, Carus. Itll be all over at noon tomorrow. They wont even know what hit them."
"Its that kind of over-confidence that loses wars, Brisus."
The little man just shrugged his shoulders. "Like I said, you worry too much. The plan is foolproof. As long as your informant is right and they are where theyre supposed to be when theyre supposed to be, itll work like a charm. You wont even need the rest of the army."
The tall man straightened from adjusting one of the straps on the saddle. "I dont share your faith. I prefer to make sure theres nothing left to chance. Give my regards to the General and Ill see you in a week."
The men led their horses out of the stable as Xena moved over to the loft window. She watched as the conspirators silently mounted and rode off in different directions without a backwards glance.
Trying to ignore the voice that was screaming at her to saddle Argo and follow immediately, she took a moment to calm her thoughts and think about what shed heard. Absently biting the corner of her lip, she tried to ignore the twisting in her gut as she sightlessly stared out the window. It looked like someone was planning on ambushing the treaty signing and assassinating the leaders of both sides. She had to give the plan full marks. If whoever it was could carry it off, the resulting chaos would leave both territories ripe for invasion and takeover.
She finally acknowledged the knot of fear in her stomach with a rueful grin. It was absolutely uncanny how that girl managed to get herself in the middle of these things. Her mouth drew into a taught line as she remembered their last conversation. She should have stayed by Gabrielles side. She could have handled things at the village. Why did she have to leave like that?
Angry with herself, she swung around and winced as she felt a repeat of the stabbing pain shed been ignoring up until now. She wasnt surprised when she reached down to press her hand on the spot and it came away bloody. She suspected shed re-opened more stitches in the evenings excitement. Going over to the healers kit, she grabbed a piece of fresh linen and replaced the now bloody bandage, packing the new one in between the wound and her leathers. She knew shed have to take care of that before she left.
Striding over to where shed stacked her armor, she carefully bent down and snagged her arm guards. Threading her hand through a short leather and brass piece as she stood, she pushed it up and twisted it round her left biceps a couple of times to make sure it stayed there; she did the same with the other guard.
As Xena began the familiar ritual, her thoughts strayed to what lay ahead. Whatever this was, Gabrielles was in the thick of it and apparently the target of an assassination attempt. Retrieving her bracers next, she shivered slightly as she settled the cold, damp leather around each forearm. Well, whoever it was, they werent going to get away with it. Not even close.
As she slipped the heavy brass chest and back pieces over her head and settled them in place, her hands moved to fasten the side buckles. The only problem was, she had no idea where the treaty signing was taking place; but she figured the little guy with the map did. All she needed to do was ask him and then invite herself.
As she bent down on one knee to buckle her greave over her boot, she began going over a mental inventory of what shed need and what she had with her. She decided as she shifted knees, having a bit of trouble with a buckle on the final shin guard, she needed enough supplies to live off Argo for a couple of days at least.
Standing and bouncing a couple of times to settle everything, she glanced out into the dark once again and noticed a light had now appeared in one of the ground floor windows of the inn. Nodding as if firming up a plan in her head, she turned around and hastily repacked her saddlebags before shifting everything down to Argos stall.
Clipping on her chakram and sword as she silently crossed over to the door, she opened it a crack and slipped out into the dark.
Alini had just rekindled the fire in the baking oven when she heard a noise outside the kitchen door. She liked this time of day the best because no one was awake to bother her. The kitchen was her domain and she enjoyed the quiet peace of the early morning before she had to share it with others.
Frowning now, she grabbed the large paddle by the oven, and hid it behind her back, just in case.
Moving slowly towards the door, she was startled when it was suddenly flung open and a tall dark leather-clad woman wearing a sword and armor strode into her kitchen.
Grasping the paddle tighter behind her back, the cook stood her ground. "Who are you and what do you want?"
The warrior noticed the corner of wood peeking out just above the cooks left shoulder and realized how she must look. Deliberately relaxing her clenched shoulders and fists, she let a tired smile cross her face, "The names Xena."
Visibly relaxing, the cook turned and sheepishly returned the paddle to its usual spot. "Oh, your mother said youd come in late last night." Turning back to look up at the warrior, she was surprised at how much taller she was than Cyrene. "Is there something I can get for you, maam?"
Xena liked this little woman who hadnt been afraid of her. "Yeah. First, call me Xena." Looking around the apparently well-organized kitchen, she turned back to the woman who was staring at her with undisguised interest. "You know my name. May I know yours?"
"Oh, Alini, ma...Xena." A little flustered.
Xena put on her most trustworthy face. "All right, Alini, listen, I need your help. I have to be leaving sooner than expected. Since the market isnt open this early, I wondered if I could get some supplies from the inns reserves."
"Well I dont know, mmm..." Catching herself, the cooks voice trailed off as she took a moment to think about it. Cyrene was at home, probably still asleep and wasnt expected for at least another candlemark, and presumably much later given how late last nights celebration must have gone till. She wasnt sure if she should be making a decision like this on her own, though.
On the other hand, she had to admit that she quite liked this quiet dark woman with the deep blue eyes. And, despite her size, you could tell she was Cyrenes daughter the moment you caught sight of the strong lines of her cheeks and nose she shared with the innkeeper and especially those eyes she shared with her brother.
Deciding to take a chance, Alini smiled back at the warrior across from her. "I dont see why not, we have plenty and you are her daughter, after all."
Xena gave her a grateful smile as she unslung a leather sack off her shoulder and began to untie the top. "Thanks Alini, Ill just help myself, okay?" Xena went about efficiently filling the bag with the minimum of what shed need for a few days hard travelling.
Alini kept a watchful eye on Xenas progress while pretending to be fully engrossed in mixing and then kneading the ingredients for the days bread.
Looking up from a bin where she'd just extracted several apples, Xena startled the cook when her deep voice broke the silence. "Alini, does the healer still live in the yellow hut by the crossroads?"
Panting now from the exertion of kneading the dough, the cook stopped to wipe the sweat from her face with the corner of her apron. Taking up the dark shapeless mass and slapping it down on the wooden surface once again, Xena watched as the waiting hand sprinkled the surface with flour. Punching the heal of her hand into the center of the mass, Alini extended her arm, stretching the dough between the wood and her broad palm. Folding the dough over and rotating the lump a quarter turn, she punched it once again.
"The old one, Mathias, does. The young ones in that big fancy place off the main square."
Alini pressed down on the firm ball a couple of more times before transferring it to a bowl. She covered it with a cloth and moved it to a quiet place in the kitchen before returning to her spot to begin cleaning up.
Xena had stopped to watch the quiet efficiency of the woman for a moment before returning to her task. The cook had noticed Xena watching her and was surprised to see a wistful look take over the warriors face.
As Xena finished, she closed the flap on her bag and her eyes found Alinis.
"Would you do me a favor and give my mother a message when she comes in."
Xena had Alinis full attention now; watching as the warriors eyes came to rest on the door leading into the main room of the inn.
"Thank my mother for the supplies and tell her how much I appreciated the use of her stable for the night. Tell her...tell her I apologize for any trouble Ive caused this visit and this should pay for everything."
Xena reached into a pouch on the side of her bag and, taking out a handful of coins, left them on the counter before turning and slipping back out into the dark, her supplies slung over one shoulder.
Alini looked doubtfully down at the money and back at the door. She carefully gathered up the coins and placed them in a piece of cloth before putting them away in a drawer.
Xenas next stop was the healers cot. As she passed down the narrow lane between the cottages, she shivered as she noticed the breeze picking up. The first birdsong of the new day heralded the faint lightening of the sky to the east and she noticed the glow of lamps starting to appear in windows, thin wisps of smoke rising from a the chimneys above. Well, so much for sleep, she sighed wearily, but broke into a broad grin when she noticed a warm glow coming from the window of the healers cot.
Reaching the door, she knocked softly and waited for the raspy, "Enter."
Pushing back the ancient wooden door threatening to fall off its hinges, she spotted a wizened old man sitting at a table in the center of the cottage and sipping on a mug of something.
Striding across the room, she pulled out a chair and sat down opposite him. "Im surprised youre still alive, old man."
Sharp eyes sparkled in recognition as a thin but strong voice replied. "I brought you into this world and Ill probably be here long after Hades has you, my girl."
Xenas whole face broke into a warm smile as she extended a hand across the table. "Mathias, how are you, you old fraud?"
The old mans face also crinkled into a grin. "When you get to be my age, youre just glad you can open your eyes every morning." Looking across at Xena, hed noticed she'd lost weight since hed last seen her. Her face looked drawn and her eyes held a look hed never seen there before. He took her hand in both of his and squeezed it between surprisingly strong fingers. "But, Id begun to wonder about you, my girl. Its been too long since Ive heard from you."
He gave her a mildly disapproving glare and then felt guilty when Xena returned his look with one filled with pain and regret. "Im sorry, my friend." She seemed to be searching for the right words. "Ive done...many things have happened since we last spoke. I, that is we, have gone through a lot over the past few months."
Mathias became concerned now as he realized the woman across from him seemed to be holding herself together by sheer force of will. He wasnt even sure if Xena realized it. But, he had known her all of her life, in the bad times and the good, and, while he didnt like what he saw before him now, he knew not to push it.
"Well Im glad youre here now. Do you have time for a mug of tea with an old man or are you just here to take advantage of my good nature?"
Xena smiled. "Im sorry, my friend, no tea this time. But I promise next time Im through, Ill share some of that dried sheeps dung you drink and well fill each other in on whats been happening, okay? Unfortunately, now Ive gotta be on the road as soon as I leave here."
"Out chasing the bad guys, are ya?"
"Something like that." Xena exchanged a grateful look with her friend before dropping her eyes to examine her hands for a moment. She knew she could trust him not to press her. Looking a little sheepish, her eyes once again met his. "I do have a couple of favors to ask though."
"I thought so," He cackled accusingly.
Xena took a moment to phrase what she wanted to say next. "Im running low on a few herbs and wondered if you might be able to spare some things? Coltsfoot, bitterwort, you know, the usual."
"No problem. Whatever I have is yours. You know that. What else?" He knew there was something else the warrior was reluctant, no embarrassed, to bring up.
The sheepish look returned to her face as she shrugged her shoulders. "I took a sword in the side a few days ago. Ive pulled some of the stitches and I could use your talented fingers to knit me back together again."
Secretly flattered by the request, he held up two shaking, twisted hands in front of him, and looked at Xena with a grin. "Youd trust these tired, old things."
Xena reached over and gathered both misshapen hands gently in hers. Looking directly into clear pale eyes, she didnt hesitate. "In an instant. Any day, any time."
With a chuckle, the old man took a moment to rise before allowing Xena to take his arm and lend her support as they began to cross the room towards a curtain covering a doorway in the opposite wall.. "Of course, my girl. Step into my private room then and lets see what we can do, shall we."
Xena spent less than half a candlemark at the healers. Just enough time for Mathias to give her a lecture.
While surprisingly steady hands drew a needle through the inflamed flesh, he went into great detail about what happens to warriors who dont properly take care of their wounds. He continued the lecture as she restocked her medical supplies.
He threw several packets of herbs into her bag without asking, then grinned while he dared the warrior with his eyes to take them out again.
As she was leaving, she gently hugged the frail body in her strong arms and thanked her old friend for his help. She also asked him to keep an eye out for a young man with a small burn and a large hangover.
It was less than a candlemark since the two men had left the stable before Xena was riding off after them. She decided she wanted to hear more from the little man with the map and had no trouble picking up his trail. It took her another half-candlemark of hard riding before she caught up with him.
"Ive just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You have less than a minute to tell me what I want to know. Understand?"
The frightened man, kneeling in the roadside beside his horse, bobbed his head in agreement.
"Who are you working for?"
"Whats your connection to him?"
"Amazons...Andorians...signing treaty...tomorrow...King Kirilus...plans to assassinate leaders."
"And the map?"
"Location...time...deliver to Kings General...tomorrow...morning."
"Where are you meeting him?"
"On map...mountains to the north...pass."
Xena knew the mountains to the north, and knew there was no route through those high peaks. There was a pass further to the east between the Amazon lands and Kirilus kingdom, Metzovan. There was also one to the west between Andoria and Metzovan. But not one directly north.
"Wrong answer. There is no pass." Xena started to rise and the little man clutched at her arm.
"No!...forgotten...not used. Kirilus sending advance force through this afternoon...army tomorrow morning. Invade Amazon territory... not spotted by...Amazon patrols."
Pudgy fingers were weakly clutching at his throat now.
Xena had to admit that it was a possibility. "Whered your friend go?"
His eyes bugged out and he was gasping now. "Meet advance force...further inside territory tonight...give same information."
"Very good. One final question."
Xena patted the now nearly unconscious man on the cheek. "Smart boy. Now, youre going to take a little nap. When you wake up youd better travel as far and as fast away from here as those little legs of yours will carry you. Because Im going to tell the Amazons all about you and you know what theyll do to you is far worse than anything I could." Xena let her face break into a feral grin.
The man nodded his head weakly and Xena released the pressure points, allowing the man to sink to the ground, unconscious. Pulling the dagger from his waist, she grabbed the handle with one hand and the sheathed blade with the other and twisted. The handle did indeed pop off to reveal a small piece of rolled parchment hidden inside.
Xena unrolled the map and studied it intently as a plan began to form in her mind.
She didnt look up when she felt the two silent figures emerge from the woods behind her, their swords drawn and pointed at her back. Shed been aware of them following her as shed left the village but her main priority was catching up to the man with the map. Now, as she slowly folded it back up and tucked it in her bracer, she turned and faced the two Amazon scouts.
The nervous women exchanged determined looks before stepping forward. "Just give us whatever was in the knife and well leave."
Catching the snarl in her throat, Xenas voice turned instead into a low growl. "If you heard all that, then you know your people are in danger."
The two Amazon warriors exchanged worried glances, before nodding to each other and raising their sword points as they turned back to face her. "We heard. Just give us the piece of parchment and well be going. Dont make us take it from you."
Knowing she didnt have time for this, Xena moved over to Argo, gathering up the reins. "And what are you going to do with it?"
The two scouts followed the warrior, their swords still raised, their tone belligerent. "Thats none of your business."
Swinging around, Xena confronted the Amazons as they took a step back, her voice angry now. "Wrong! Gabrielle is my business, and I dont take it very well when someone threatens her." Turning back to the saddle, she shifted one of the packs, seeming to ignore the two women.
The Amazons exchanged looks, wondering what to do next. The decision was made for them.
Xena grabbed the pommel and paused to lock eyes with them. They shifted nervously as she seemed to hesitate before coming to some sort of a decision. She shifted the reins to her other hand and turned her back to them. "Im going to go stop that army, before it has a chance to do anything. If youre smart, youll warn your people and get them mobilized, in case I fail."
The two women dropped the points of their swords, and looked unsure as they watched Xena swing herself onto the back of Argo and pull the war-horse up facing them.
"Somebody should warn the border guards at your eastern pass. If I was going to invade, Id take them out first. The other one of you needs to get back to the village as fast as possible and warn the others."
Both women looked dubious. "What are you going to do?"
Swinging Argo around, she faced down the road, focused now on what lay ahead. "Im going to try to stop the army at the pass." She spared a glance at the two women standing there, sending a quiet prayer to Artemis that they were experienced enough soldiers to know what to do. "But if I fail, youre going to need to get as many Amazons as you can to your northern border, and fast."
They both stepped anxiously forward. "What about the Queen and Ephiny?"
The warriors eyes turned icy cold and her voice deadly. "Dont worry about them. Nothings going to happen to Gabrielle." Xena faced forward, her face a grim mask as she now focused her attention on Argo. "I wont let it."
With a "hee yah!" she dug her heels in and leaned forward as the war-horse exploded beneath her.
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