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This is an original work of alternative fan fiction. No profit will be gained from its production. It was written for entertainment purposes only. This piece of fiction is copyright of the author.
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Romantic love between consenting adult women
Special thanks go out to the beta readers that kept me on my grammatical toes ; ) Continued from The Way of the Regent.
The Way of
Copyright December 2003
Xena had just come in from scouting the perimeter when Gabrielle rushed into the stables. Pausing for a moment just inside the door, the bard pushed her hair out of her eyes and caught her breath.
"A scout brought this in while you were gone," she said as she held out a scroll and approached the warrior. "It's from your mother. I was about to open it, but then I heard you come in."
Taking the scroll from Gabrielle, Xena studied the wax seal. "Did the scout say anything about trouble in Amphipolis?"
"Nothing out of the ordinary these days. The Greeks are still conscripting, but they're only taking the usual young men at this point."
Thinking of her brother Toris, Xena broke the seal and unrolled the scroll, watching as a smaller piece of papyrus fell out of it. Quickly, she scanned her mother's letter then looked at Gabrielle, who was staring at the piece of papyrus she had picked up. An odd look of fear flickered across the bard's face before she reluctantly handed the other letter to Xena.
"Is that what I think it is?" Gabrielle asked, fear nearly choking the words from her.
Xena studied the precise characters on the letter and began reading. Although her Chinese was a little rusty, she was able to put it all together into some semblance of order. "Relax, Gabrielle. It is, and it isn't," she replied cryptically. Looking around to make sure that no one else was in the stable, the Consort pulled her Queen closer. "Mother says hello, first of all. She said that Toris has taken a trip to visit an aunt that is sick. And she says that she has finally gotten a nice young man to help her around the tavern. Supposedly, he's a little hard on the eyes and his one arm and leg aren't quite right, but he's a hard worker."
Gabrielle read along as Xena's finger traced her mother's writing. "Xena, I didn't know you had an aunt."
"I don't. My guess is that Mom sent Toris away so he wouldn't be caught up in the conscription." The warrior studied the other letter before shaking her head. "That ugly boy is the one that sent this one," she said, lowering her voice conspiratorially.
"She's got an ugly Chinese boy working for her? How did he end up in Amphipolis of all places?"
Xena smirked as she pulled Gabrielle closer to a stack of hay against the stable wall. She noted the two guards that had followed Gabrielle to the stables but remained discretely outside. "Let me read this to you, and then you'll understand."
"Well, Xena, I never thought that I would end up here, but I thought it was best to be somewhere familiar. Your mother seems to be a bit more assured now that I am here. I haven't told her the reason why I'm not there with you and Gabrielle, only that I needed to find my balance after what happened with Triva. Your mother is a lot like you, though. She suspects more, but isn't pressing me.
I go about as a lame boy who sticks to the shadows and the storeroom during the day. I am helping out as much as I can. I'm keeping my eyes and ears open. There's a sense of something about to happen. Don't worry about your mother. I will take care of Cyrene. She has made me a part the family this past month.
When Trasis came by to check on things here, she shared the news of the Nation. I wish I were there right now, at your side. I know, though, that if I come back, I'd do more harm than good at this point. You and Gabrielle need to focus on the village. I just wanted to let you know that I am fine.
With respect for the Queen, I am sure we'll be seeing each other before too long."
Stifling an exclamation that nearly burst loudly from her lips, Gabrielle grabbed the scrap of a letter. "Xena! Wolf is hiding out in Amphipolis!" she shouted as quietly as she could as she tackled her Consort into the hay with a fierce hug.
Feeling a sudden weight fall from her shoulders, Xena nodded. Putting a finger to Gabrielle's lips, however, she warned solemnly, "You understand that we need to keep this quiet, don't you? As an enemy of the Nation, it would be necessary to hunt her down."
"Not right now, it isn't," Gabrielle stated adamantly. "We're stretched a bit thin as it is."
"Still, I'd rather keep this quiet, if you have no qualms about it."
"Of course not, Xena. You know I'm the last person alive that wants to see the Queen's Justice fulfilled."
"I know, Gabrielle," Xena sighed as she wrapped an arm around her wife. "Looks like Wolf is keeping a low profile, at least." Holding up the letter to read it again, Xena's brow puckered in thought. "I wonder what's going on up there if she's getting weird feelings."
At that moment, Argo snorted a warning, and Xena slipped Wolf's letter under her bracer. Standing quickly, she pulled the bard to her feet. By the time that Ephiny entered the stables, Xena was brushing down Argo and Gabrielle was leaning against the loft ladder, reading a scroll.
"Thought I'd find you in here," the Regent said as she addressed the Queen. "I'd heard that Xena was back and figured you'd get the word from her."
"All's quiet out there, Eph," Xena replied as she continued to brush her warhorse.
"Like the quiet before the storm," the Regent commented before peeking at the scroll that Gabrielle was reading. "From Cyrene?"
Gabrielle cleared her throat and nodded. "Yeah, aside from the conscription, things seem to be quiet in Amphipolis for the time being."
"Wish we could say that around here," Ephiny commented. The Regent turned and looked out at the sun that was beginning its descent. "Gods, I hate all this waiting."
"I'm not exactly looking forward to the Spartans and Greeks spilling blood in our forest."
Ephiny looked at Gabrielle; the look she offered was remorseful. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle, but this waiting is like having an arrow stuck in your backside."
"A pain in the ass?" Gabrielle turned thoughtful as she rolled up the scroll. "Wouldn't know, Eph, never been shot in the ass by an arrow." The Queen looked at her Consort, who was turning Argo loose in the pasture. "Xena?"
"Not commenting, Gabrielle," she replied as she rejoined Gabrielle and Ephiny. Taking the scroll from Gabrielle, she tapped her wife's shoulder. "There are just some things partners do not need to share."
Gabrielle tried to stifle a smirk as Xena preceded them out of the stable.
"She has," Ephiny said, nodding to Gabrielle.
"Yep." Gabrielle looked back at Xena, who had fallen into step with M'Eru and Darlea. The Queen winked at her Consort, then turned to face forward.
Matching the Queen's leisurely gait, Ephiny clasped her hands behind her back. "So, no council meetings today and no runners are due back."
"How are the supplies around the village?" Gabrielle asked as she took a quick visual survey of the activity in the square.
"At the moment, they're good. Mulantha should have another batch of arrows and two more swords ready to go by tomorrow."
"I want to make sure some of those weapons are taken to the caves. Once the children are hidden safely away, I want two warriors in there with them. Make sure they're both good with swords and hand-to-hand."
"It'll be done."
"Well, then, I guess we wait." Gabrielle sighed as she looked off to the east. Even though she had more than enough to worry about in Amazonia, she could not help thinking about Wolf in Amphipolis. She wanted the current crisis over with so she could focus once more on getting her trusted guard back.
Cyrene looked up as the door to the storeroom opened slowly. When a covered head peeked through the opening, the tavern keeper called out. "They've all gone and I've barred the doors, Wolf."
Tearing the cowl from her head, the demi-god took a deep breath of fresh air. "I hate wearing this thing," she complained as she ran her hands over her hair. She made a face when she felt the back of her neck.
"Oh, it will grow back," Cyrene chided as she poured the Amazon a cool ale.
"I still don't understand why you cut it."
"How many young men do you know have hair down to their waists?"
Wolf thought for a moment before offering a half-grin. "I don't suppose Egyptians count?"
Cyrene snorted as she wiped the crumbs from dinner off the bar counter. "I happen to know that only the Egyptian royalty have hair like that. I do listen when Gabrielle tells her stories, you know." Cyrene dropped her rag into her bucket and cocked her head towards the kitchen. "I need to clean the kitchen and get things ready for tomorrow. Why don't you put the chairs on the tables for me and sweep up the floor."
"Yes, Ma'am," the demi-god replied as she took another sip from her ale. Setting the mug on the bar, she pushed away and set about completing her task. As she worked, her thoughts returned to the Amazons and the armies that were about to clash on their sacred soil. Thinking back to the decision she had made regarding Triva, Wolf was having regrets.
If she had known that Amazonia was going to be in the path of the Spartans and Greeks, she would have never gone through with it. Every instinct in her body was telling her to go back to Amazonia to keep her Queen safe through it all. Common sense, however, reminded her that the last thing Gabrielle needed was the uproar that her return would cause.
The bards and travelers that came through every night kept Cyrene and her informed of the war, so Wolf knew how close things were getting to the Amazon borders. From her hiding spot in the storeroom, she could hear all their conversations and she warred with herself for the decision that had effectively exiled her from her responsibilities to the Queen and her own children.
While she knew that Xena and the other Amazons would protect the Queen, Wolf believed that only she could ultimately be held accountable for Gabrielle's safety. And here she was, hiding out in a tavern in disguise so that the Greeks would not conscript her. From the sounds of it, the Greeks were on the verge of conscripting anyone that could carry a sword. Male or female, it was obvious that the short and burly demi-god knew her way with fighting and weapons. So she kept up the pretense of being a lame boy, bundled up under stifling clothing.
Shedding a cloak and several tunics, Wolf retrieved the broom from behind the bar. As she moved to the far corner to start sweeping, she spun the broom in her hand and brought it behind her back. She missed sparring with Xena. The fun of the friendly competition was worth the discomfort of the bumps and bruises. Now, it was rare to find room to even practice with her swords, yet alone give up her cover to spar with someone.
As she began to sweep up the floor, Wolf considered what she would be doing now if she had not fulfilled Triva's last wish. She imagined that she would be sequestered with Gabrielle, Xena, and Ephiny, going over strategies and defenses. Now, she was going over inventory and sweeping the evening's meal scraps from the floor. She wondered if the Fates had a policy against reversing the sands of time.
Cyrene watched from the kitchen as Wolf swept the floor. She knew that the demi-god had not been honest about her reason for being there. Wolf had told her that the untimely loss of her lover had made her unable to stay in the village for the time being. The tavern keeper knew, however, that something bigger than that would keep the Guard away from Gabrielle, whom she was sworn to protect. It had not been too long ago that Xena had extolled the loyalty of her long-lost friend.
She had tried to talk the true reason out of Wolf, but the demi-god tended to put up a wall, not unlike Xena. So instead of forcing the young woman to face whatever kept her away from the Amazons, Cyrene gave her time and a safe place to figure it out on her own. If Wolf were anything of a warrior like Xena, duty and honor would soon call her back. Cyrene backed into the kitchen and pushed her sleeves higher to tackle the dishes. Afterwards, she had bread dough to make before retiring.
After sweeping the floor, Wolf ducked back into the storeroom and brought out the barrels of spirits that Cyrene would need for the next day. After tapping the spouts, she made her way to the kitchen. "Need me for anything else, Cyrene?"
The tavern keeper looked up from the dough that she was kneading. "The bar ready for tomorrow?"
"I already know you can't cook to save your life," Cyrene said with a warm smile. "So I guess that's all for tonight."
"I'll see you tomorrow, then."
"Good night, Wolf."
When Wolf retired to her room, she closed the door quietly. Tossing the bundle of clothes that were her disguise onto a chair, she fell onto the bed. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The scents of Xena and Gabrielle still lingered in the room.
The demi-god sighed as she reached over to the nightstand next to the bed. Gently, she picked up a lock of braided hair; it was dark mixed with copper brown. The dark hair she had carried under her bracer ever since clipping it from Eponin before the Weaponsmaster was put to rest. The copper came from her own head when Cyrene had cut off her long braid.
For nights since arriving at the tavern, Wolf had carefully woven the hair into a tight braid wrapped with a leather thong. Running her finger along the braid, she thought of her daughters. They were the living legacy of her beloved Pony, and she had left them. She had left too much behind. She had left a life and a home that would seduce any warrior into settling.
Wolf closed her eyes and surrendered to the silent tears. She admitted to herself that she had made a mistake in not trusting Gabrielle with regards to Triva.
The demi-god lay in bed with her eyes closed until the tears died out. She listened to the wind blowing softly outside. Just as she was beginning to drift away to Morpheus, an agonizing cry brought her fully awake. Sitting up in bed, she focused on the sound. Once she filtered out the wind, she could hear dark laughter following another smothered cry.
Curiosity driving her, she donned her leather boots and a musty old cloak Cyrene had found. Drawing the hood over her head, Wolf crept silently out of her room and out of the tavern. She remembered to play the lame boy, but stuck to the shadows, nonetheless. She followed the laughter until she was standing outside of the common stable.
With her keen sense of hearing, she was able to hear a conversation inside the stable. Nothing that was said sounded good. Noiselessly, she tried the double doors; her frown deepened when she realized they were barred from the inside.
A subtle creaking sounded from above and Wolf flattened herself against the wall of the barn. Casting wide eyes up into the darkness, she saw that the loft door had not been secured against the wind. Quickly looking about the town square, she made sure that no one was going to witness Cyrene's "lame" help scaling the wall.
With no one to see, Wolf crouched and then leapt up to catch the frame of the barn doors. Silently, she pulled herself up until she could find a foothold on one of the cross-planks. Listening intently the whole way up to the loft door, she prayed that no one would happen by.
Nudging the loft door open with her head, she pulled herself up into the stable. With painstaking caution, she crept across the loft behind the hay. When the voices were the closest, she stopped and peered over her cover.
There were three men in the stall across from her. Two of them wore uniforms, which she could not identify in the darkness. The third man kneeling between them was the one who was crying out in pain between wretched sobs.
Wolf could see the wavering light flash upon the crying man's face. His eyes were wide with fear. The smell of blood was heavy upon Wolf's senses. She noted in the back of her mind that the horses were prancing nervously in their stalls.
"We know who you are, Kourtes," the uniform on the left sneered. His meaty fist wrapped around a handful of sweaty hair. Abruptly, he pulled the covering man's head back. Leaning down, he got close enough to share his victim's ragged breath. "We know you're a Spartan spy and we want to know who your contact is."
Wolf listened to Kourtes' shuddering breath. She wondered how far the uniforms, which she now assumed were Greeks, would take the interrogation. Part of her wanted to intrude; the voice of her honor told her to save the man. But loyalty kept her steadfast, hoping that she could gain some useful information.
The flash of a dagger caught her attention. She then realized that the Greek soldiers were skinning Kourtes, one inch of flesh at a time.
"Nothing is going to keep us from our victory over Sparta. We've got the Greek Fire. Nobody has a chance against us. And then when we're done with them, we will conquer anyone that stands in the way of Athens' greatness."
"Enough, Graegus," the second soldier said with another dark chuckle. "He's not going to tell us anything. That's if he even had anything to tell." The second man backed out of the stall. "Kill him so we can leave this sheep dung village."
Wolf was sure she heard a whine of disappointment before Graegus slit Kourtes' throat. The sound of blood gushing to the stable floor was like a waterfall to the demi-god's ears. She shivered as she slipped down to her haunches and waited for the Greeks to leave the stable.
When she heard their voices fade away and the scent of a light rain blew through the open doors, she finally slipped out of her hiding spot. Checking to make sure the Greeks were not coming back, she jumped from the loft to land with a soft thud on the floor below. Rushing over to the murdered man, Wolf crouched down to look at his face. As his features were familiar, she froze in place and studied them.
Frustrated that the memory of him was not surfacing immediately, she left the stall and crouched down next to the stable doors. Listening carefully, she heard the soft protest of leather as the Greeks mounted their horses that were tethered down the road. When she heard hoof beats riding out of town, she slipped out of the barn and straightened to stand. While she was trying to recall the dead man's identity, she forgot to play her part as the lame boy; she was unaware of another watching her from across the square.
Returning to the tavern as quietly as she had left, Wolf lowered the heavy wooden bar into place and silently climbed the stairs to her room. Once inside, she flung off the cloak and began to pace.
She did not really have a side to favor in the war, but the idea of the Greeks conquering anything in their way did not sit well with her. The whole concept of conquering was one reason she had avoided Xena after returning to Greece long ago. The warlord had been in her dark glory sweeping across the land, earning her name Destroyer of Nations. That had changed one night in a tavern when she had heard one of Gabrielle's stories repeated. It was then that Wolf decided to seek out the repentant warlord. From there they had resumed their friendship as if ten years had not passed.
However, best friends that used to be conquerors and being in the middle of murderous intrigue had nothing in common if that friend with the dark past was not there with her wealth of experience. Wolf stopped in the middle of the room. She flattened her palms to her temples and squeezed her head, hoping the identity of the man named Kourtes would come to her. The answer still eluded her and the only result was a headache.
Muttering under her breath, she sat upon her bed, then fell back sideways to stare up at the ceiling. "Think, Pup, think," she whispered to herself. Closing her eyes, she let her mind drift over the past month. Despite the pressure to remember, she fell into a troubled sleep. Her dreams were littered with the corpses of Amazons that were crushed under Greek boots. She cried out in the early dawn when she returned to Amazonia to find the bodies of her beloved family burned under the pyre of the Greek Fire.
Rising to sit, Wolf pushed short sweaty locks from her forehead. She wiped a forearm across her brow. Looking out the window to gauge the time of day, she saw that Eos was just making her appearance. Knowing she had to be downstairs to help Cyrene ready the tavern by the time Helios followed his sister, Wolf collected herself. Quickly washing the stain of the dream from her face, the demi-god resumed her disguise and quietly made her way downstairs.
Cyrene was already in the kitchen getting the stove lit for the morning meal. Wolf ducked her head in to say good morning before making herself busy with returning the chairs to the floor. Her thoughts were troubled by the events of the night, both real and dreamt. Mentally, she returned to the scene from the stable last night as she prepared the dining area. She had just finished setting the last chair on the floor when a blood-curdling scream echoed across the square.
Cyrene rushed out into the dining area and looked at Wolf. The tavern keeper's eyes were wide with shock and curiosity. "Go hide yourself while I see what has happened."
Silently, Wolf obeyed. Quickly, she threaded her way between tables and cloistered herself in the storeroom. Finding a flint, she lit the single candle she kept for light. With her head cocked towards the door, she listened as Cyrene dropped the wooden bar from the front door. The demi-god could only hear bits and pieces of conversation until it seemed as if the entire village gathered in Cyrene's tavern. For the rest of the morning, she sat against the door, listening to conversation and arguments go back and forth about the death of the man found in the stable. And still, she had no idea from where she knew the familiar face.
Breakfast was forgotten with the horror of the discovery of Kourtes' body. No one else knew the man's name except for Wolf. She had to fight the urge to come out of the storeroom and shout his name at the top of her lungs. As nature was beginning to urgently call, the demi-god was becoming frustrated. Normally, the tavern would empty out after breakfast when the villagers went about their daily tasks. Today, all was put to the side and Wolf was stuck in the storeroom.
Feverishly, she began to work out a plan to get out of the dark, windowless room. Her candle had burned out not long before and her eyes could not see beyond her nose, which was beginning to protest the stale air. Wolf's plan was interrupted when the door was nudged against her back. Sliding off to the side behind the door, the demi-god narrowed her eyes at the sudden light.
"Gods, Wolf," Cyrene whispered as she offered a hand to pull Wolf up off the floor. After giving the warrior a quick study, the tavern keeper nodded. "It's quieted down enough out here for you to sneak out. But don't forget to play your part."
Wolf nodded as she made sure that her cowl was in place. Limping and letting her arm hang loose at her side, she awkwardly skirted along the wall until she could struggle up the stairs to her room. Once inside, she quickly shed her disguise and found her chamber pot. Hissing in relief, she stayed there for a moment longer than necessary.
Refastening her breeches, she was about to assume her disguise once more when she heard footsteps upon the stairs. In a panic, she hurried to hide the shape of her body under layers of clothes. By the time a knock sounded at her door, she was once again the lame boy.
Cracking the door enough to see out, the demi-god braced it against her foot to prevent a wider opening. She was surprised to see a young man at her door.
"Let me in before someone realizes that I'm not down there anymore," he said in a rushed whisper.
Although she did not recognize his face, she knew his voice. He was the bard that had been telling stories at the tavern for the last week. "Why should I?"
"For one thing," the bard said as he leaned his face closer to Wolf's, "I'll stop pretending if you do."
The demi-god's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Who are you?"
The bard looked over his shoulder then whispered fiercely. "I am Baroudicus. I am… was Kourtes' contact."
It was then that Wolf remembered Kourtes. She had seen him sitting in the front row listening to the bard tell a story a few nights ago when she had snuck past to go up to her room.
Removing her foot from the door, Wolf swung it wide and pulled Baroudicus inside, nearly lifting him from his feet as she did so.
"What is it with you bards?"
Baroudicus looked at Wolf curiously before becoming serious. "I've answered your question. Now you tell me who you are. I know you aren't a lame boy. So who are you that you have to be sneaking about after Greek soldiers in the dead of night."
Wolf refused to answer.
Baroudicus stood closer to tower over Wolf by a foot and a half. He was reed-thin, but he had a powerful presence. "Come on, I saw you climb up the stable into the loft. I know you saw who killed Kourtes. That's if you didn't kill him yourself."
"I did not kill him," Wolf growled. "I climbed up into the loft because I heard him cry out. I went there to find out what was going on."
Baroudicus raised a trembling hand to his face. "I knew the Greeks would get him. I told him it wasn't safe."
Her cover blown, Wolf removed her disguise until she stood before Baroudicus in her leather breeches and top. When the bard began to stare at her between his fingers, Wolf crossed her muscular arms across her chest. She quirked a brow at him and dared him to speak.
All he managed was a weak sputter before Wolf sighed. "Look, I had nothing to do with Kourtes. I'm no friend to the Greeks or the Spartans."
"You're an Amazon," he said in disbelief.
"What makes you say that? Just because a woman is strong, she's automatically an Amazon?"
"Not necessarily," Baroudicus drawled out as he raised a finger to point at Wolf's bicep. "But the labrys gives you away."
Wolf glanced down at the small tattoo on her arm. She had it done after pledging her life to the Amazon Nation. "Oh, Hades." Giving up pretense, Wolf turned her back to the bard then faced him before sitting down on her bed. "Well, now that I'm done pretending," she said sarcastically, "are you really a bard?"
Baroudicus pulled a chair over to sit opposite Wolf. "I used to be," he began. "Well, I wanted to be one, but right before I was going to leave for the Academy, my older brother died and my father needed me around to tend the sheep for him."
"So you're from Thrace, then?"
"Used to be."
"Well, Baroudicus-not-really-a-bard, you used to be a lot. Mind explaining before I pull out the real labrys and get your story my way?"
The bard paled at the thought then raised his hands. "I'll tell you, just listen."
"And you said you aren't really a bard," Wolf muttered as she rolled her eyes before settling her hardened gaze on Baroudicus. "Hurry."
"My father died the next year and the sheep all got sick. I never had the heart of a shepherd, so I didn't know what to do. I just watched the flock die off one by one." Baroudicus wiped his hands on his cotton breeches. "I traveled after that, believing that I needed to see some of the world before I could tell stories of it."
"As most bards do," Wolf interrupted as she thought of Gabrielle.
Baroudicus looked at Wolf strangely before continuing. "Anyhow, I was traveling through Arkadia when the war broke out. I had heard about what the Greeks were doing and after seeing their work first-hand, I wanted to do my part in stopping them."
"That's when the Spartans turned you into a spy."
"Well, I wouldn't call it that. I still want to be a bard. I go from town to town and tell stories."
Thinking back to the stories she had heard him tell, Wolf raised her brow at him. "You know, the stories you tell aren't like the ones I've heard from other bards." The demi-god's eyes narrowed in study. "Well I'll be a one-armed hydra. You bury your intelligence in your stories. I mean, bards are known to change stories to their own liking. No one would think twice if you changed it a bit. Kourtes was in the audience every night getting that intelligence from you without a single listener knowing."
"I wouldn't say that," Baroudicus responded quietly. "Kourtes is dead now."
"If it makes a difference, he didn't reveal his contact," Wolf assured him with a pat on his shoulder when she rose to pace the floor. "If I were you, I'd get out of the spy business."
"There's another thing you should know," Baroudicus said as he turned to watch Wolf pace. "The Greeks are amassing all their available troops on the main front. The Spartans don't stand a chance. And once the Greeks slaughter them there, they aren't going to stop. If they can wipe out one enemy…."
"They'll wipe out another. Kill two birds with one stone," Wolf growled. "The Greeks pushed the front west to Amazon land on purpose?"
"That's what we've heard from their slags. Once the Spartans and the Peloponnese are defeated, the Greeks plan on opening up the corridor to the north."
"Through Amazon land." Wolf scrubbed a hand through her short hair.
"What better way to finish colonizing Thrace? And from there… who knows?"
"Land, money, and power." Wolf stood still for a moment and closed her eyes. "How much longer before they reach Amazon lands? Do you know?"
Baroudicus shook his head. "I don't know. I only know that with so much conscription going on, the Greek army will be undefeatable."
"Conscription means nothing. Soldiers are not invincible unless they have something tangible to protect, like families or homes." Wolf stopped pacing to find herself standing in front of the trunk at the bottom of her bed. "Amazon warriors, however, have everything to fight for."
Kneeling in front of the trunk, Wolf threw open the lid. Her resolve strengthened, she began to remove her weapons from where they were hidden to where they belonged. Occasionally, she glanced up to see Baroudicus watching her with awe.
"Is it true about the Amazon Queen… that she used to be a bard?"
"She still is, if you ask for a story," Wolf replied as she fitted her armor over her breasts.
"What's her name?"
Wolf smiled fondly. "Gabrielle of Potedaia."
"I thought so," he whispered. "They still talk of her in Athens. She's the only woman to have ever been accepted by the Academy. She's something of a legend there."
Wolf finished donning her weapons when she slipped a dagger into her boot. "Baroudicus, Gabrielle is a legend anywhere she's been. She's that kind of person."
"You know her well?"
"I'd give my life for her without a thought."
Baroudicus watched as Wolf threw open the shutters on her window and leaned out to look. "What are you going to do now?"
"What I should have done from the beginning," Wolf replied as she turned to hoist herself up onto the window frame. "I'm going home." She was about to pull herself up onto the roof before she ducked her head back inside. "Baroudicus, I seem to be making a really bad habit out of leaving without saying goodbye these days. Would you please tell Cyrene I said thank you for everything?"
"Of course… but I don't know your name."
Wolf chuckled as she began pulling herself up. "Trust me, you wouldn't be able to pronounce it. But friends call me Wolf. And Baroudicus?"
"Thank you for the information and for making me realize that it was time to stop pretending. The gods be with you."
Baroudicus rushed over to the window to see Wolf disappear onto the roof. A moment later, he had to shield his eyes from the straw that came fluttering down with a strong gust of wind. Remembering the crowd that still lingered downstairs, he left the room. After finding Cyrene to pass along his message, he gathered up his things and left Amphipolis unnoticed.
Through the air, Amphipolis was not far from the outlands of Amazonia. When she saw an encampment in the distance, Wolf pulled her wings in close and rode the wind on a slow descent. She had landed far enough from the encampment to not be seen. Once she was on the ground, she shifted into her human form.
Crouching behind a low rise in the earth, she raised her head and squinted at the encampment spread out before her. Tents and bedrolls covered the land as far as she could see. Bold banners flying above the largest tents boasted Greek colors. With the wind blowing into her back, she could not hear anything.
Her gaze swept the wide perimeter of the camp, looking for a safe way around. With a frown, she grudgingly admitted that the Greeks had chosen the site well. There was no cover around the immediate perimeter; the sentries would have no problem spotting anyone approaching.
Turning and sitting upon the ground, Wolf considered her options. The only viable one was to backtrack and find a place to hide. She could wait for night. By the time darkness fell, she could put her plan into action. At least, that was if she could come up with a plan by then.
Keeping low to the ground, she made her way to the closest cover. For half an hour, she slowly crossed to a small copse of trees. When she was not ducking behind what little cover there was, she was berating herself for rushing into things without thinking.
When she finally made it to the trees, she thanked Artemis for the concealment they would provide. With practiced ease, she climbed the tallest tree. High enough to watch the distant camp, the demi-god settled on some sturdy branches. She began to formulate a plan. She admitted to herself that there was little that she could do to make a big dent in the Greek force. While she was a good warrior, she was not Xena, who no doubt, could find a way to take on an entire army if necessary.
Knowing that she had to get some sleep while she could, Wolf allowed herself to doze. One warrior could, however, manage a little sabotage that might slow down the immense force. As she fell into a light sleep, she pondered what the most effective manner would be.
Time passed into night and Wolf fell deeper into a dreamless sleep.
Wolf woke with a start. She had to scramble to keep her balance as the command echoed in her head. Looking around frantically, she searched for the body that belonged to the voice. All she saw was a ball of fire quickly closing in on her position in the tree. A silent curse formed on her lips as she swung down from the branches. Hand over hand, she madly sought the end of the branch. Swallowing the scream that was bubbling from her lungs, she let go.
As she was praying for the least painful landing, she felt branches tearing at her legs. She felt as though she were slowly falling into a gaping maw of death. With a cry that hissed between her clenched teeth, she landed awkwardly. Failing to control her tuck and roll, she ended up slamming against a smaller tree, which bowed against the sudden force.
Realizing that she was still in danger, she pushed herself to her feet. Covering her head from falling debris that still burned, she limped away from the copse that began to burn brightly. By the light of the fire, she found a boulder to put between her and the Greeks. Leaning against it, she fought to catch her breath.
She took stock of her injuries. A warm rivulet of blood was running down her leg. Cautiously, she probed the tear in her leathers to find a gash as the source. Determining that it was not too bad, she continued. Her left wrist ached from rolling over it with very little grace. She flexed it and grimaced. It would work, but not without a tolerable amount of pain. When she got to her face, she realized that the headache now throbbing in her skull was probably the result of the tender lump above her left eye.
"I thought I recognized your voice," Wolf said as she looked askance at the figure that materialized beside her. "Thanks for waking me."
Artemis merely nodded as she looked back at the trees engulfed in flames. When she realized that Wolf had fallen to a knee to kneel before her, the goddess gently grabbed her by the arm and pulled her to her feet. "There's no time for that now."
"I'll save it for later, then," the demi-god replied.
Artemis looked at Wolf with steely resolve. "I'm going to give you a small hand here, but that's it. There are too many gods already involved in this folly."
With a wave of the goddess' hand, a thick fog began rolling across the landscape. "Use your senses to accomplish your task. When you are finished, go to my Chosen. She is going to need you."
"Yes, my Goddess."
Without another word, Artemis vanished.
Wolf watched as the fog began to envelop her. When she could no longer see her hand in front of her face, she left the protection of the boulder. Keening her senses, she slowly made her way to the Greek camp.
Although her progress was slow, it was uneventful. As she got closer to the camp, she could hear the soldiers yelling back and forth to each other. Above their shouts, she heard a commanding voice demanding silence. As she approached the perimeter of the camp, she began to creep slowly, doing her best to avoid the soldiers that were stumbling blindly through the fog.
Pressing herself against a sturdy tent support, Wolf took a deep breath. She was not far from her target; it was a bitter tang on the back of her throat. Listening to the breathing and footsteps around her, Wolf closed her eyes and focused. Her movements became a dance as she sidestepped the soldiers that were trying to find their own way. Again, she heard the commander ordering the perimeter guard to be doubled and all the men except the sentries back to their tents and bedrolls.
As the men began to find their places, Wolf found that for which she was looking. Feeling along the side of the wagon, she carefully climbed aboard. Listening for any guards, she knelt and began to examine the barrels that held the Greek Fire. Pulling her dagger from her boot, she began to work at a seam in one of the barrels. She winced in pain when she needed both hands to force the blade between the boards. She knew when she pierced the seal when the soft gush of incendiary fluid splashed all over her knees. From the size of the wagon, she estimated there were five more barrels to break open. Once she was finished with those, she would have to see if there were more wagons.
Just as she was finished with the last barrel in the fourth wagon, Wolf looked up to notice that the fog was beginning to thin. Hopping silently from the wagon, she took a deep breath to help her ride a wave of dull pain that wracked her body. She instantly regretted the deep breath when she had to fight against the searing pain in her nose and lungs; she was covered in fuel. Making her escape would not be so easy now that she could be smelled by the most challenged of noses.
Ducking behind a wagon, Wolf realized that shapes were beginning to materialize through the fog. She backed off slowly from the camp. When she came upon the Greek horses corralled loosely with thick ropes, she grinned. Quickly, she untied the ropes where she could and cut through what she could not. She squeezed herself among the horses and found one that did not shy at her approach.
Grabbing its mane, she pulled herself up onto its back. After finding her balance, she pulled herself up into a crouch. She leapt as high as she could and then transformed into her dragon self. The horses that were startled by the sudden appearance of the large creature hovering over them, fled in fear when a low rumble became a rumbling growl. Wolfdragon laughed deeply when she heard some of the Greek soldiers crying out in fear. Once all the horses had scattered from the corral, she took flight, seeking shelter in the wide-open sky of night. Hoping that her sense of direction was correct, she made her way to Amazonia.
Xena suddenly opened her eyes. She went from a contented sleep to wide awake as her eyes narrowed to pierce the darkness in the Queen's hut. The candles they had lit earlier had burned out, leaving nothing to see by. Then she heard the noise again; it sounded like a sail flapping in the breeze.
Sliding out from under Gabrielle, the Consort grabbed her sword and chakram and stepped out of the hut into the crisp night air. Her nose found the source of the noise before her eyes did. Following the noxious odor, she was brought up short by witnessing Wolf's transformation back into her human form. The demi-god stepped back into the shadows of the Queen's hut.
"Just dropping by?" Xena asked as she moved to stand downwind of her friend.
"Artemis sent me," Wolf explained.
"That's the only reason you're here now?"
Wolf planted her hands on her hips and bowed her head. After a moment of silence, she looked up at Xena and shrugged. "I tried the honorable thing. I regretted it. And the remorseful routine is a bit wide in the shoulders for me. It was time for me to stop pretending that this isn't my home and that Gabrielle is not my duty." Wolf began to pull off her leather breaches, which were covered in fuel. "I was wrong to not go to Gabrielle in the first place."
"She'll be glad to see you and hear that," Xena said as she watched the demi-god strip. "Why do you smell like Greek Fire?"
Wolf chuckled but then grew serious. "It's actually a long story," she said. "Right now, I'd like to wash this stuff off. I can hardly breathe around me. And don't even think about lighting a torch."
"I'll get you some soap and linen. And you'll tell me what's going on while you clean up."
Wolf waited with growing agitation. She worried about being caught by another Amazon. When Xena reappeared, she sighed and headed off towards the bathing springs. "Did you get my scroll?" she asked in a hushed whisper.
"Yeah, a couple of days ago." Xena looked at Wolf oddly before commenting, "You cut your hair."
"Actually, that was your mother's idea."
"You can start way at the beginning. I'll keep watch."
Once they arrived at the springs, Wolf eased her aching body into the water. After Xena made herself comfortable on a nearby bench, the demi-god began her story. She spoke in a hushed voice, sure that Xena could hear her.
"After I left here, I flew around that night, wondering where I was going to go. I should have known then that I'm just lost if I'm not here. But when I finally got tired, I found myself near Amphipolis. I went to your mother's tavern and without a single question, she showed me to your old room."
Wolf took a moment to submerse her head under the water. When she came back up, she began to lather the soap into her hair and to continue her tale.
"I guess you mother got tired of waiting for me because she came up with a tray of food. She asked what I was doing there, if you, Gabrielle, and the girls were okay. I told her things were fine when I left. She told me about all the conscription. That's when she cut my hair and gave me that lame boy role to play, thinking the Greeks would leave me alone."
"How bad is it?"
"The conscription?" When Xena nodded, Wolf replied, "There weren't any men left in Amphipolis, except the very old and the young."
"Easy pickings for a warlord," Xena mumbled to herself.
"If what I've heard is true, it's becoming like that all over. The Greeks are stopping at nothing to finally defeat the Spartans."
"Where'd you hear this?"
"I was lying in bed one night, trying on the remorse thing, and I heard a cry. I found a couple of Greek soldiers torturing some man in the stables. From what they said, this war is Athens' bid for control over the Peloponnese and the rest of the regions after that."
Ducking back under the water to rinse her hair, Wolf emerged and shook her head. "Gods, shouldn't have done that. I'm going to have a headache for a month."
"Does anything need a healer?"
"My leg needs attention, but I can handle that." The demi-god paused in thought as she picked up the retelling of her story. By the time she finished, she had thoroughly scrubbed herself three times. As she exited the springs and began drying off, she let Xena take a look at the gash in her leg. "So I figure that the Greeks will be here in five days if they find only half their horses."
"Doesn't look too bad," Xena commented. "And that lump on your head adds to your devastatingly good looks."
"Real funny, I've missed you, too."
"Gabrielle has missed you, Wolf. She's had M'Eru and Darlea running in circles."
"What have I missed while I was gone? How are Zasha and Peran?"
"I'll let Gabrielle tell you everything. Come on, now that you're less flammable, it's time to get some sleep."
When Wolf began to walk towards her own hut, Xena caught her arm. "You're staying with us tonight. I'm keeping my eye on you until this whole Justice thing is settled."
"I'll behave myself."
"It's not you that I'm worried about."
Wolf was grateful that the Queen had such a large bed. Even with the three of them in it, there was still room to roll over onto her back. With her eyes closed, she listened to the three oldest girls laughing with each other in the corral.
"Can I wake her now?"
The demi-god raised her eyelids a fraction upon hearing the impatient tone of her Queen.
"See, she's awake," Gabrielle said as she scooped Zasha and Peran from the corral and approached the bed. Addressing Wolf sternly, she remarked, "If you weren't hurt, I'd lay into you for running out like that."
The Queen's words were softened when Gabrielle set the twins on the bed next to Wolf. The demi-god's heart swelled with love when her daughters playfully assaulted her. Her face covered in sloppy baby kisses, Wolf pulled them close and inhaled their scent.
The sound of a throat clearing brought Wolf fully awake. She opened her eyes to see Gabrielle waiting impatiently to address her.
When Wolf tried to defend herself, Gabrielle continued. "Why couldn't you trust me? I'm your friend, Wolf."
"I know that, Gabrielle," Wolf replied as she slowly sat up in the bed. "But I didn't see any other choice in the matter."
"There are always choices, Wolf," the Queen responded adamantly. "Now," she continued with a change of tone, "let me see your leg."
Wolf rolled her eyes over to the table for help from Xena, but the Consort shrugged one shoulder, as she cradled Eponin over the other.
"It's nothing, Gabrielle. Just a scratch."
Not accepting Wolf's answer, Gabrielle grabbed the cover that had slipped to Wolf's waist. She pulled it off the demi-god's body with a flourish. Studying the wound intently, she checked for any sign of infection. "Xena tells me that you managed to spill all the Greek Fire."
"And I scattered their horses," Wolf added. "If I didn't slow them down, at least I evened things out a little."
Gabrielle left the bed to fetch a basket of healing salves and bandages from a shelf beside the table. "What do you know of the Spartan troops?" she asked as she sat beside Wolf and tended to the wound.
"Not much, really. The Greek navy has them stretched thin. The Greeks were hoping to overpower them here with numbers alone. They were already boasting of their victory while I was in the camp."
"And Artemis said that there were gods involved in all this?"
"Something like that," Wolf responded; she was busy keeping the twins from interfering with Gabrielle's work.
"Probably Ares and no doubt Athena is involved." Turning to Xena when she finished bandaging Wolf's leg, Gabrielle asked, "Do you think Athena sent the Greeks into war?"
"There's no telling, Gabrielle. But if there is war, there is Ares."
"Well," the Queen said as she stood and smoothed her skirt. "I think that it's time to dispense with the formalities. I'm addressing everyone in the dining hall this morning." Turning towards the bed, Gabrielle smiled. "I've missed you, Wolf. Love the hair. You'll have to give me the name of your stylist."
Self consciously, Wolf raised a hand to run it through her short locks. She grimaced when she realized that it was sticking up all over.
"Get dressed, Wolfdragon, you're coming with us."
The demi-god looked at a change of her own clothes that had been retrieved from her hut. She was about to argue with Gabrielle until she saw the slight shake of Xena's head. Then, remembering her own commitment to trust Gabrielle's judgment, she nodded and promptly began to ready herself for the day.
The conversations in the dining hall came to an abrupt halt when the Queen entered with her family and Wolf. She paused in the middle of the dining hall and turned in a full circle. Even cradling her daughter, she emanated authority; she captured every Amazon's attention with her eyes. Once all eyes were following her, she led the way to her table. Handing Larin to an alarmed Ephiny, the Queen made her choice clear as she pointed for Wolf to sit first. When the demi-god took her seat, Gabrielle addressed the room.
"I have proven myself as Queen of the Amazon Nation the last two years. We have been graced by fortune and we are strong. If anyone doubts my abilities, speak now and speak openly before all our sisters."
"Do you know what you are doing?" Ephiny whispered, barely moving her lips.
"I have made my decision to forego the Queen's Justice in this recent matter. It is my decision that the death of our Caretaker Triva was not the result of malice, but rather, of love. No weapon was raised against her and no coercion exerted. What happened was of her design and her last wish. Who are we to deny our sister the peace of death she sought?"
Gabrielle moved out from behind her table to stand in front of it. Her eyes slowly swept the room. "Is there anyone that will refute this evidence?"
Mumbles echoed through the hall as an older warrior stood. "If it is the Queen's judgment, then it is my judgment." The warrior saluted Gabrielle and bowed her head.
Ephiny wiped a trembling hand across her brow. She waited for the first Amazon to challenge Gabrielle.
"We have to stand united against the forces that are about to sweep into our land. I will not have us preparing for an impending battle as we bicker amongst ourselves. Either we stand as one or we fall upon the soil and slake Hades' thirst with our blood."
Another warrior stood and saluted Gabrielle. "Unity," she said as she saluted the Queen.
Then, one by one, the other Amazons stood. Within moments, Gabrielle faced a room full of Amazons that accepted her decision. "We will face this coming battle like our sisters before us. We will protect our lands and our homes. We Amazons will prevail."
With that proclamation, Gabrielle saluted the room. "Today, we relax. Wolf has brought us news that the Greeks are five days away. She was in their camp last night and has ruined their supply of Greek Fire."
"That's what that stench was last night." Gabrielle glanced aside at M'Eru, who was smirking at her Captain.
The Queen joined the chuckles that erupted. "Let us celebrate this day with our families, our loves, and our sisters. "Tomorrow, I will be meeting with Tyldus to discuss an alliance treaty. If this war becomes more than we can contain on our land or Centaur land, we will give each other assistance. By the time the Greeks and Spartans meet at our borders, we should have more warriors from the northern villages to join us. So cherish this day. From tomorrow until the end, there will be no rest."
Making her way back around the table, Gabrielle took her seat on the bench. With one last announcement to the room, she said, "Let's eat."
The Queen smiled at Xena, who was radiating pride. Conversations began anew when Gabrielle leaned in to whisper into Wolf's ear. "Trust me next time."
Wolf turned to peer into Gabrielle's eyes so close to hers. "In a heartbeat, I promise."
"Better. Now you better get some help with the girls and feed them. They look like they're starving."
Wolf cuddled her daughters close and kissed them both on their heads. She looked up when Aresha appeared shyly at her side.
"I can help, if that's okay."
The demi-god smiled at the young Caregiver. "Thank you, Aresha."
After Xena and Wolf left to fetch two trays of food, Gabrielle turned to Ephiny. The Regent was studying her with a look of admiration.
"That was good."
Gabrielle responded with a mild blush. "I'm still changing that law," she said as she lowered her voice. "Once we get the archives organized and I find the damn thing, I'm rewriting it."
The Regent handed Larin back to her mother
and whispered, "After this is over, it'll get top
To be continued in The Way of Treachery