My Lord Conqueror: Taking Chances
By Kennedy Northcutt ©2011
See Part 1 for disclaimers and a full description of this installment in the My Lord Conqueror series.
Dawn was fast approaching and Apollo's chariot was just making its daily appearance in the eastern sky as Xena climbed up onto a crate of turnips and silently surveyed those around her. There were nearly a hundred people gathered in the assembly area courtyard just behind the kitchens. They were the only relatively sober ones still within the palace walls. The guests were either in their rooms fast asleep or still passed out in the main hall.
The revelry in the city had finally died down to only one or two smaller parties. There was still the occasional shout or musical strain, but mostly it was quiet. Xena was really not sure what they would find once they stepped out into the streets.
"Listen up, you lot!"
Braes stood next to Xena with his muscled bare arms folded across his chest and a hard glare on his rugged features. He had discarded his new leathers and armor for more practical clothing-a simple black leather vest belted around the middle with his sword at his hip and his pants tucked into worn black boots. After all, this wasn't official army business, so he wasn't expected to wear his formal uniform.
A hush fell over the crowd of men and Amazons who had been waiting patiently for the better part of a quarter candlemark to receive instructions.
"First off, I want to thank you all for coming out here so early," Xena started. "I know the celebration was just winding down outside the palace walls and most of you didn't get the chance to participate in all the drinking and revelry that was going on out there."
Rayna, one of the Amazons in the crowd, took a step forward.
"Any word on the queen?"
Ephiny, who had been standing to one side with Eponin, Zea and Briesse, stepped forward and shot Rayna a meaningful glare.
"We wouldn't be here if you and Margalene had done your duty," she barked.
"My queen," Rayna tilted her chin down in a show of respect as she took a step back.
"Come on, people," Xena said. "We don't have time for this. Gabrielle is out there somewhere and we need to find her and get her back within the palace walls before something happens to her."
A soldier dressed similarly to Braes stepped forward and saluted with a fist to his chest. "We await your command, your majesty."
"Well," Xena continued. "My first command is that you men don't act like you're in the army while you're out there roaming around the city." She shot the soldier a hard glare until he took a step back. Then she raised her voice for all to hear. "Same with you Amazons." She looked pointedly at Rayna. "This situation has to be handled with the utmost care, people. No storming into houses or cracking heads or inciting violence of any kind, unless there's a really good reason to do so." She waited for the murmurs and grumblings to die back down. "Okay, here's the deal. Gabrielle went out there dressed like a simple villager, so she was definitely looking to blend in. Once she left the palace, she disappeared from the sight of the guards on the outer walls."
"Marcus saw her turn down a side street beyond the west gate," Braes piped in. "She pulled the hood of her cloak up just before she disappeared."
A tall dark man with short-cropped hair nodded. "Thought nothing of it. She just looked like one of the servants heading out to the celebrations."
Margalene, who was standing next to him, shot him a glare. "You seriously didn't recognize her? Really? Who doesn't recognize their newly-crowned queen?"
"Hey," he countered angrily. "It's not like there weren't any number of people going in and out of that gate during the course of the night. How the hades was I supposed to tell one young woman from the next?"
"She's not a servant, you…"
"Margalene!"Ephiny interrupted. "That's enough!"
"We're not here to point fingers, people," Xena went on. "We just need to find Gabrielle, plain and simple. Mingle with the crowds. Ask around. Gather information. But under no circumstances are you to raise the alarm that the queen is wandering unescorted somewhere in the city. And when you find her, bring her back here with as little fuss as possible. I don't want this to blow up in our faces. Understood?"
They all nodded silently.
"If you happen to run into trouble or find something that requires my immediate attention," she looked pointedly at her men, "you know the signal. I'll be on the wall keeping my eyes and ears open."
"Amazons," Ephiny said. "The same goes for you. If you can, send up an arrow to pinpoint your location. We'll be keeping watch, too."
"Any questions?" Braes added.
Silence reigned as everyone looked around expectantly.
"Good hunting, everyone," Xena said dismissively, as she hopped down from the crate and turned to Braes. "Take the north wall. I'll stay on the west wall." She then turned to Ephiny and Eponin. "You two take the south and east walls. Anyone hears or sees anything I want to know about it. Don't hesitate. Just give the signal. I'll be there."
"Right," they answered in unison and dispersed.
Xena made her way to a set of wooden stairs leading to the west wall. She took the stairs two at a time and marched to the center of the wall. Glancing down at the street below, she noticed it was completely empty. Not a single soul was walking or loitering there and there wasn't a wagon or horse to be seen, either.
"Cleared all the streets within a three block radius, your majesty," the guard closest to her said, as if reading her thoughts."Orders from the gen'rl."
Xena studied the man for a moment as she tried to remember his name. There was a time she knew all their names without giving it much thought. But things had changed since those carefree days of wandering the countryside and squashing any rebellion against her. She wasn't sure if sitting within the palace walls while her men and those few Amazons who weren't too drunk to stand were out there looking for Gabrielle was such a good idea. Back in the day she would have gone right out there with her men to look.
"Talus?"Xena raised a dark brow of question to the guard, as she placed a booted foot on the wall and rested her arms on her upraised knee.
"'S right ye are, majesty," he smiled grimly. "Joined up last winter and glad I am for it, too. I'll admit I'm a bit surprised you know my name, though."
"I try to get to know the names of all my men, Talus," she returned her attention to the city beyond. "I'm sure your fellow guardsmen told you that about me."
"That they did," he nodded. "Not many rulers willing to do that, majesty. Guess I really didn't put much stock in it til now."
"No, there aren't," she agreed. "But I'm not exactly like other rulers, now, am I?"
They stood there in companionable silence for quite a while. Xena scanned the rooftops and thought about her life. Had it really changed all that much in the few years since she had given up being Conqueror and had settled at the keep in Surra?
Yes, it had. She was willing to admit it. She wasn't the hardened, battle-worn warrior that she had been during those bloody years when every warlord across Greece wanted her head on a spike. She had put more of their heads on spikes than they had ever dreamed possible. And she still carried the scars to prove she wasn't a pushover.
She glanced down at the palm of her sword hand. It was clean and white, a far cry from those long-ago days when it was stained brown with the blood of those she had killed. There were callouses still there, but now they were far softer and less stained than they had been when she was gripping her sword for more candlemarks in a day than not.
She turned her hand over and examined her nails. They were neatly trimmed and clean, too. There wasn't a single broken nail among them, which was saying something. Glancing up at the man standing at stiff attention next to her, she caught him briefly glancing her way.
"Never thought this day would come," she commented absently with a wan smile.
She returned her attention to the horizon beyond. "Nothing.Just talking to myself."
She slowly scanned the rooftops again. Where are you, my love? She silently asked herself. A painful ache of longing filled her as she thought about the earlier conversation and the argument that followed. It had all started out so well. The fireworks. The contentment they both shared afterward in each other's arms.
When had it gone so terribly wrong?
Xena's expression darkened as the memories surfaced. She knew the exact moment. She also knew why she had stormed out of the tower, leaving Gabrielle behind. Gritting her teeth and closing her eyes against the memories, Xena tried to shake off the anger that surfaced. She didn't want to think about any of that at the moment. What she wanted was for Gabrielle to turn up within the palace walls, safe and sound.
Glancing over her shoulder, Xena stared at the courtyard below for a long moment, as if just the thought of Gabrielle would make her step out of a side door of the castle. But all the doors remained firmly shut, so she turned back to the city and watched the sunlight reflect off the rooftops. It was almost magical the way some of the rooftops sparkled with what looked like tiny diamonds.
Sunrise was always Xena's favorite time of day. She loved waking up before dawn and climbing to the highest point wherever she was-be it a tree, a hilltop, a mountain or the highest rooftop in a city-so she could watch the world come alive. It always made her feel like she could accomplish anything she set her mind to. It was a hopeful time full of promise.
Despite the magic sparkling around her, though, she felt empty and bereft. Since her initial meeting with Gabrielle in the village of Potidaea on that fateful day so long ago, Xena had found herself taken with the spunky blond with eyes the color of the Aegean. Over time, Gabrielle came to mean more to Xena than she cared to admit, until finally she just couldn't imagine life without her.
Her chest felt empty yet ached painfully at the same time as she contemplated Gabrielle's fate. Was she with someone else? Did she seek solace in the arms of another? Or was she lying injured somewhere, completely unable to move or cry out for help? Or-Xena couldn't imagine that Gabrielle was dead. The thought was so painful, in fact, that Xena immediately put it out of her mind. There was no way the gods or the Fates could ever be that immeasurably cruel. Besides, living without Gabrielle was unthinkable. Xena knew she couldn't go on without her soul's mate. She would rather take her chances in the Underworld than go on living without Gabrielle. The pain would just be too great and she knew it.
She stared straight ahead until her eyes burned with unshed tears. Blinking furiously, she tried to clear her vision so she could at least see the signal when it came. But the sky beyond remained completely empty and the sun climbed ever higher behind her.
Agatha sat at the table with a pile of potatoes and carrots stacked in front of her. She was using a sharp knife to peel a potatoe and pick out the eyes. It was mindless work and that was just fine with her. Her thoughts were elsewhere and she really wasn't in the mood for conversation. But she wasn't in the mood to go to bed, either.
Dawn had given way to late morning, long ago. Most of the servants who had retired after the celebration were already up and moving about the kitchens. No one was really in the mood to talk. The mood among the servants, in fact, was quite somber. They all knew about the queen's absence. They were also all aware that they had to keep their eyes and ears open for any information that could help with the search.
"It's quiet today," Cyrene sat down at the table across from Agatha and sipped her tea.
"A nice change," Agatha replied. "Better'nlistenin' to all the chatter that ususally goes on this time of the mornin'."
"Is there any word?"
"None at all."
"Been up on that gods-be-damned wall since dawn," Agatha harrumphed. "Doesn't have the sense the gods gave a goat, that one."
"As I recall, you said that about her father," Cyrene hid a small grin behind her mug of tea.
"You never told her, did you?" Agatha's gaze met Cyrene's in challenge.
"She doesn't ever need to know," Cyrene's smile faded as she looked down at the table. "So don't you say a word, Aggie. You swore to me you would keep your silence on the matter."
"And I've kept my word, Cy," Agatha frowned. "Doesn't change the fact that Atrius wasn't the man you thought he was on that fateful night your daughter was conceived."
"Shh," Cyrene waved a hand then slapped the table as she glared at her sister. "Must you? There are enough ears listening around here, and you can't tell me someone won't let something like this slip. I know enough about servants to know they don't keep quiet when it comes to castle gossip."
Agatha lowered her voice to a hushed whisper. "Atrius isn't her father and you very well know it, Cy."
"So, tell her. She deserves to know the truth."
"Tell her what?" Cyrene's pale blue eyes flared with anger. "That my husband went off to war and just magically appeared in our bed one night to make love to me? You know I can't do that to her. She barely believes in the gods. And any mention of the God of War would not be advisable."
"Yes, well, we all know the stories," Agatha said. "He's a sly and cunning one, he is. Slipping into the beds of unsuspecting wives while their husbands are away fighting in his name. I'll take Artemis and the Amazons over that deceiver, any day."
"Ares is not my daughter's real father, Agatha," hissed Cyrene. "And I will not have anyone telling her otherwise. Discussion closed."
Agatha shrugged. "Denying the facts does nothing to change them, sister dear."
Cyrene answered with an exasperated sigh and an eye roll.
"Hey, you're the one who brought it up in the first place," Agatha added. "You came to me and told me about this when you were heavy with child. Back then, you weren't really sure that what you were saying was true. Then you watched her as a child and started noticing some of the amazing things she was able to do that the other children couldn't."
Cyrene smiled wistfully. "She was the only child in the village who could vault from the ground onto a horse's back or do a backflip from the eaves of the inn and land on her feet."
"Toris was beside himself with jealousy and Lyceus worshipped her like she was one of the gods," Agatha nodded sagely. "That kid would've followed her to Tartarus and back."
"He did," Cyrene frowned. She then shook her head. "Besides, what good would it do to tell her my suspicions? It's not like Ares is just going to pop in and confirm my suspicions for her. He's a god, for crying out loud. The gods don't mingle with mortals, unless they have good reason to."
"She's his child, Cy," Agatha stated. "We both know it. And Hercules is half god. He does his own share of mingling, if them stories about him are to be believed."
"You don't really know that she's his child, Aggie."
Agatha raised a gray brow as she gaze intently at her sister. "Don't I? She conquered all of Greece, Cyrene. Who does that? She single-handedly defeated every single solitary warlord and wiped them out. And she's traveled to more places than I've even heard of. That child of yours isn't some innkeeper's child turned warrior. She's an extraordinary person with extraordinary abilities that only the gods themselves possess. She's half god, Cyrene. Believe it. Accept it. And tell her what you know in your heart to be true."
"No," Cyrene shook her head. "Not now. Not while Gabrielle is missing. Maybe not ever."
"She'll find out, eventually," Agatha set the knife on the table and stood up. "And when she does, no good will come of it. Don't say that I didn't warn you."
Agatha walked away without a backward glance, leaving Cyrene to nurse her tea in silence. Xena's mother sighed tiredly as the full impact of her sister's words weighed heavily on her. She knew Agatha was right. She just couldn't bring herself to accept the truth of her daughter's parentage, much less share her suspicions with Xena. Besides, Xena had enough to deal with at the moment.
A fresh salty breeze blew in off the bay as the sun climbed higher in the eastern sky. There was little activity down by the docks. It was still considered a day of celebration and the dock workers and sailors who usually loitered there were nowhere in sight.
Surveying the ships in the harbor, a hooded figure moved stealthily along the docks. A loud cough and the appearance of a stout man in shabby clothes had the hooded figure pulling up short.
"Ah, there ye be," the stout man looked up and stumbled over to the hooded figure. He wrapped a chubby arm around the figure's shoulders and steered them toward a small outbuilding near a ship with a huge eye painted in bright colors on the bow. "Thought ye weren't comin'.Had to convince Cap'nLakonius not to set sail with the tide, just yet. Did ye bring the cargo?"
"I did," the figure replied. "Do you have the rest of the money I was promised?"
The portly man pulled a leather bag from his vest and held it at arm's reach. "Right here." He shook the bag and it jingled. "I hope it don't bother ye none that it's all in Roman denarii."
The figure reached out and took the bag with a gloved hand. "Roman denarii are just fine. I'm sure there are enough Romans where I'm headed who won't mind doing business for good Roman coin."
"Aye, right ye are," replied his companion. "Ye need me to arrange transport?" He waved an arm in the general direction of the ships. "There are plenty to choose from on this fine day."
"No," the hood moved slightly with a shake of the head hidden beneath. "I've already made arrangements. The wagon is parked just beyond the tavern there." A gloved hand pointed to a rundown shack several paces away.
"Ye goin' to count yer coin?"
He shook the leather bag next to his hood. "Sounds like it's all here. Take very good care of that cargo and make sure to give the captain my regards."
"Twill be as ye say, my friend," the stout man replied as he held out his arm.
The hooded figure grasped the forearm of the man. "Nice doing business with you, Altimonias."
"Nice doing business with you, Balthus," Altimonias nodded. "If you're ever in Corinth…"
"It will be a cold day in Tartarus before I set foot here again, my friend," Balthus cut him off. "There's no way I'm showing my face here again. Too dangerous. Can't risk that harpy who was just crowned queen finding me. The gods know what she'd do if she ever learned my true identity."
Altimonias stepped back. "I understand. Safe travels to you, then." He saluted with two fingers to his forehead, as the hooded figure turned and left. "May the gods protect us both." He said quietly after the figure was gone.
Blowing out a heavy sigh, Altimonias headed toward the place where his precious cargo was supposed to be. He rounded the side of the tavern and found the wagon right where his hooded friend said it would be. Lifting the tarp that covered a lump in the back, Altimonias nodded his balding head.
"Nice work, my friend," he muttered quietly. "Very nice work, indeed."
It was well past midday and Xena was bored nearly to tears as she leaned against one of the turrets on the wall. The distant horizon remained stubbornly empty of anything but a few birds that occasionally flew past. A few wisps of smoke drifted up from cookfires as people prepared their evening meals. And she could still vaguely smell the bonfires still smoldering in the city streets. She could also hear a few revelers back at it, as music and other noises drifted up to her on a light breeze.
She wondered for the nth time what her men and the Amazons were doing. She knew no one had found anything of significance. If they had, they would have signaled or sent a messenger to her. Candlemarks had passed and there was still nothing.
"I brought you a bite to eat and something to drink," Cyrene suddenly appeared next to her. "Thought you might need something, since you haven't eaten all day."
Xena took the bundle her mother handed her and unwrapped it. There was an appetizing array of bread, cheese, olives, grapes and a few pieces of dried meat. Cyrene then leaned against the wall and placed a skin next to her.
"Thanks," Xena took a bite of bread and cheese and washed it down with hard cider from the skin.
She wasn't really hungry and barely tasted the food in her mouth. But Xena knew her mother wouldn't give up until she ate something. So, she continued to munch on small bites, while washing it down with the cider.
Cyrene turned so she could scan the rooftops of the city below. She rested her chin on her hand and her elbow on the wall. Bluish-green eyes scanned the horizon and watched the wisps of smoke rise into the cloudless blue sky.
"Anything, yet?" Cyrene asked.
"No," Xena shook her head. "I really wish I could be out there searching with them, but it's better if I stay up here and watch and wait for the signal."
"It's a big city, Xena," Cyrene said. "Someone is sure to have run across her at some point during the night or morning."
"Yeah, I hope so. I just can't help feeling like something terrible happened to her."
"Don't think that way. You don't know that anything happened. She could have made friends who invited her to join them for the celebration. Maybe she just lost track of time."
"Or maybe she left me," Xena said dejectedly, as she set her food aside.
She placed her arm on an upraised knee and rested her forehead against a closed fist. Xena really didn't want to consider that option, but she also didn't want to consider the worst case scenario, either. What little food she had just eaten churned painfully in her stomach at the thought.
"No," Cyrene reached over and placed a hand on Xena's booted foot. "Gabrielle wouldn't leave you without first talking to you about what happened."
Xena blinked back tears. "Yeah, I guess you're right," she raised her head and sniffed.
"I know I'm right," Cyrene patted Xena's foot. "Don't give up on her, Xena. She'll turn up. Just you wait and see."
Xena smiled wanly. "I hope you're right, Mom. There's no way I could live without her."
Cyrene caught the look of deep despair in her daughter's eyes and nearly burst into tears herself. She knew Xena loved Gabrielle, but until that moment she really had no idea just how much. There was also a finality in Xena's tone that raised the hairs on the back of Cyrene's neck.
"Gabrielle would not want you to give up hope or stop living your life if it turns out something actually did happen to her," said Cyrene.
Xena shook her head. "I can't…" She stared off into the distance as several tears spilled down her cheeks. "I would give everything up if it meant having her back with me. I'm so stupid. How could I let this happen?" She glanced around the courtyard and looked at the stone building in the center of it. "My life is meaningless without her."
When she returned her attention to the city, something caught her eye and she jerked upright. She continued scanning the horizon and finally saw it again. This time the arrow that flew high into the air was followed by distant howling.
It wasn't a wolf's howl. It was most definitely human.
Xena sprang from the wall and raced toward the stairs. Then she stopped and darted back.
"Thanks, Mom," she kissed Cyrene on the cheek and raced off again.
"Be careful, Xena!" Cyrene shouted.
But Xena was already well out of earshot.
Xena wound her way through the city streets and down a few deserted alleys. Vaulting overturned barrels and the occasional wagon, she knew exactly where she was going. Her heart pounded in her chest, but it wasn't the exertion that was causing her heart to race.
Someone had discovered something concerning Gabrielle.
Within minutes of leaving the castle wall, she reached the approximate place where she had seen the arrow fly. The street was littered with garbage and the smoldering remains of a fairly large bonfire from the previous night. A thin spiral of smoke drifted up into the cloudless late-afternoon sky from the smoldering embers.
Xena looked around.
"Over here, your majesty," Briesse waved from a side alley.
Xena trotted over to the alley. Briesse was there and Zea, the horse wrangler, was kneeling amidst a pile of rubble that Xena could see had once been a small building. There was nothing left of the building, but could see that it had recently collapsed.
"Okay" said Xena. "What am I looking at?"
"Bodies," replied Briesse grimly.
Xena's attention snapped to the Amazon scout. "Gab-the queen? Is she…"
"No," Briesse shook her head. "They're all men." She then pulled a crossbow bolt from the belt at her waist and handed it to Xena. "We also found several of these. Some of the men were killed by them."
Closely examining the crossbow bolt, Xena's brow rose. "It's the same as the one that spooked Gabrielle's horse."
"From the angle and trajectory of the bolts, he was up on the rooftop over there," Briesse pointed to an overhang across the alley. "He picked off at least two of the men before this building collapsed and buried two others."
Disappointment was apparent on Xena's face. "You didn't find her here, then?"
"No," Briesse shook her head. "Afraid not." She looked at the rubble. "Or maybe that's a blessing from the gods."
"Hey!" Zea suddenly sprang up and ran over to them. "Look what I found!"
She held a dust-covered cloth out. Xena took the cloth and shook it out. It was a tattered cloak that looked vaguely familiar. She carefully examined it and pulled something out of the hood.
"A hair?"Briesse looked closely at the long, blond hair Xena was holding up. "Is that…"
"It's Gabrielle's," Xena confirmed. "It's one of the cloaks I gave her for when she travels. It was missing in her things when I searched our bedchamber this morning."
All three of them dashed back over to the pile of rubble and carefully sifted through it. They spent the next few minutes tossing boards and debris aside.
"I think I found something else," Zea pulled a broom handle out from beneath the rubble. It was broken in two and missing the broom end. "There's also some blood here on one of these boards."
Xena took the broom handle from Zea's outstretched hand and studied it. She then knelt down, pressed her fingers against the blood on the board and raised her fingers to her nose.
"It's fresh," Xena said.
Xena stood back up and walked around. Briesse and Zea stood silently by and watched Xena moved around the alley, quietly muttering to herself under her breath.
"Gabrielle was definitely here in this alley," Xena finally stopped. "She came in and was followed by the dead men. But there was someone hiding in the shadows of that overhang who helped her when the men attacked. She fought them off with the closest thing she could grab-that broom. One of the men got up on top of this building and was shot. The roof collapsed and the building collapsed with it-right on top of Gabrielle. But she's alive. The bowman saved her life. Pulled her from the rubble."
"Whoa." Zea quietly exclaimed. "That's amazing. How-"
"We're still no closer to figuring out who this mysterious bowman is. And we don't know why he didn't just kill Gabrielle when he had the chance," said Briesse. "He obviously had the advantage, as well as a clear shot of her."
"He kidnapped her, instead," Xena's expression darkened. "And when I figure out who our mystery bowman is, I'm gonna enjoy eviscerating him and feeding his entrails to the crows."
"We should let Queen Ephiny…"
"Not necessary." Ephiny entered the alley with Eponin close on her heels. "We saw the signal. It just took us a little longer to get here." She glanced at Xena wryly. "Short legs and all. So, what do we have?"
"Bodies," Briesse repeated her earlier assessment.
"And a lot of debris," Eponin added, as she surveyed the rubble. "Artemis' left tit! What the hades happened here?"
"Gabrielle was attacked by these men," Xena said. "Our mystery bowman from the woods shot a few of them. The roof and building collapsed on top of Gabrielle. Mystery bowman pulled her free and then kidnapped her. I think he headed straight for the wharfs with her hoisted on his shoulder."
"The men are dead, Xena," Ephiny stated the obvious.
"Kidnapped?" Eponin was dumbfounded.
"The wharfs?" Zea was still in awe.
"Wait," Ephiny held up a hand for silence. "How in the world could you know all that from…" she turned in a circle with her arms outstretched, "this?"
"Does it really matter?" Xena headed for the exit to the alley. "We're wasting time when we should be going after Gabrielle. If he's headed to the wharfs, then he's planning to put her on a ship. And he has a good head-start on us. We need horses if we're going to catch him in time to stop him."
The Amazons just stood there in dumbfounded silence and stared after Xena, who had already disappeared around the corner. They then looked at each other and shrugged.
"How far is it to the wharfs?" asked Eponin.
"Horses?" Zea brightened, then sobered as she quickly remembered why they would be riding horses.
"Let's go, Amazons," Ephiny took off at a jog and followed Xena.
Apollo's chariot was slowly creeping lower toward the western horizon when Xena rode down to the harbor with Braes, Ephiny, Eponin, Zea and Briesse following behind her on horseback. The sounds of their horses' hooves on the cobbles echoed around the deserted harbor, just as a stout bald man stepped from the dockmaster's tiny building. He spotted the group and walked over to greet them with a welcoming smile.
Xena dismounted as soon as her horse approached the man. She didn't like him the instant she spotted him. His clothing was patched and dirty, but his boots were shiny and new. He was sweating in the late-afternoon heat and wiped his forehead with a cloth he pulled from his pants pocket. And there was something that looked like food in the bushy mustache he wore on his thin upper lip.
Without a word, Xena walked up to him and thrust the fingers of both hands into his neck. He dropped to his knees with a wheeze as his beady gray eyes bulged in their sockets.
Xena leaned in close, despite the rancid odor of onions and sweat that surrounded him. "I just cut off the flow of blood to your brain," she hissed through gritted teeth. "Talk or die, scum."
Altimonias choked and wheezed as he tried to think through the sudden blood-red haze pounding behind his eyeballs. "Wha-" He raised pleading eyes to her as sweat rolled off his balding head and soaked the collar of his shirt.
"I think she wants to know what you know about a certain blond woman who was brought down here against her will," Braes added, as he knelt in front of the man. "And you'll be respectful of the queen or she'll take that stinkin' head of yours off and throw it into the sea for the fish to feast on."
"Tell me where she is," Xena growled. "Now. You have seconds before your head explodes from the inside out."
"I want her to teach me that one," Eponin elbowed Ephiny excitedly. "Hey, yermaj, what do you call that little-" She finished by jabbing the air with her fingers, which earned her an exasperated eye roll from Ephiny.
"Really, Pon?"Ephiny shook her head. "Can't you see she's a little busy, here?"
"She's always busy, Eph," Eponin said. "And that's a really cool trick…"
A throat clearing suddenly had both Amazons looking up to find Xena and Braes glaring at them with their arms crossed over their chests. Altimonias was sweating profusely and looked on the verge of collapsing. Briesse and Zea just stood by as silent bystanders.
"Talk, you idiot," Xena barked at the shaking man.
"She's…g-gone…" he managed to croak out through lips turning blue, as blood trickled from his nose. "Ship…left…candle…marks…ago."
"Headed for?" Xena prodded.
"Rendevous…with…another…" he gasped one last time, blood ran from his ears and nose and his eyes rolled back in his head just before he keeled over.
Xena quickly knelt next to him and released the pressure points. She then pressed her fingers against his neck, just below his ear.
"Is he…" Zea let the words trail off as Xena looked up and shook her head.
"Ah, crap," Eponin exclaimed. "Now wha'da we do?"
Xena stepped over the dead man and walked over to the squat little building the man had emerged from. Seconds later she returned with a parchment in her hands. She didn't notice the look on the faces of her companions as they stared in dumbfounded silence at the dead man sprawled on the ground.
"Six ships set sail with the tide this morning," she read. "Two headed to Britannia with their cargo holds full of supplies. One is on its way to Indus. The goods are even listed here: olives, port, fruit, wool, twenty casks of wine and several bolts of cloth." She shook her head. "One is headed to Gaul with a shipment of weapons. The idiot even noted that the weapons are for a rebel faction fighting against the Romans." She looked up to find her companions watching her. "What?"
"Shouldn't we do something with…"Eponin pointed at the dead man sprawled on the ground.
"Braes, take care of that piece of garbage," Xena ordered.
Braes rolled the portly dockmaster to the edge of the wharf and kicked him into the water. He returned to the group slapping his hands together in a job well done gesture.
Ephiny and Eponin just exchanged shrugs, as Xena continued scanning the dockmaster's record for the day.
"Another ship went to the land of the Pharoahs with an empty cargo hold," she continued, as her brow rose. "Hm, look what we have here. The last ship to sail with the morning tide is crossing over to Crete to pick up its cargo before heading to Carthage. Well, well, well," she rolled the parchment back up and tucked it under her arm.
"Well, well, well, what?" asked Ephiny hopefully.
"The Sparticus is to rendezvous with another ship near Syracuse before it makes port in Crete," said Xena. "I think we found her."
"No," Ephiny countered. "We have a pretty good idea where she might be. Finding her is another matter altogether. We still don't know where they're taking her or who kidnapped her."
"Feurouge," Xena stated flatly.
Eponin scratched her head. "Foo-who?"
"The minstral at the banquet," Xena decided against repeating herself. "I knew there was something about him that didn't sit right with me."
Ephiny shook her head. "Wait a second. You think the traveling minstral had something to do with Gabrielle's disappearance? How could you possibly know it was him?"
"His accent wasn't quite right," Xena replied with a knowing grin. "I've had enough run-ins with people from that part of the world to know a fake accent when I hear it. Besides, he made my nape hairs stand up when I asked him to stay on permanently."
"So, why not say something sooner?" asked Eponin. "And why didn't you do something at the banquet? You could have killed him or tossed his sorry ass in the dungeons or…well, whatever."
"I had other things on my mind, if you must know," Xena frowned at the Amazon. "Besides, I wanted to keep him close until I could figure out what it was about him that was making me uncomfortable.
"So, what's the plan, your majesty?" asked Braes. "Shall I gather the troops together for a voyage across the Aegean?"
"No," Xena looked pointedly at the Amazons. "The army stays here in Corinth and so do you, Braes. Kick the guests out and lock the place down until I return with Gabrielle. Tell no one that she's missing or that I've gone to find her. The Amazons are coming with me."
"But, your majesty…" he started to protest, but she held up a staying hand.
"That's an order, Braes," she looked him in the eye. "No arguments. I don't know how long this will take, so you'll have to come up with some creative improvising to explain our absence. In the meantime, I expect you to hold down the fort, so to speak. Recruit more troops and get them trained and up to speed. I don't know how much longer Athens is going to go along with this whole me-being-queen thing, but I'm sure my brother is stirring up trouble as we speak."
"Just tell people they're having sex and don't wish to be disturbed for any reason," Eponin suggested with a lopsided grin.
Her three companions looked at her with a mixture of tolerance, annoyance and discomfort. Braes was the first to recover.
"We could just enlist the help of Agatha and Cyrene," Braes suggested. "Those two have more experience at this kind of thing than I do, your majesty. And I will have more troops ready to fight by the time you return. I'm sure word is quickly spreading that you had those foreign emissaries executed, too."
"Oh, I'm counting on it," Xena said. "Go ahead and enlist the help of my mother and aunt. Those two make an unstoppable team, especially when they sink their teeth into something. They might just even come up with a few creative ideas of their own to deal with my absence."
"And if someone insists on an audience with your majesties?" Braes added.
"Yeah, what if your brother decides to make an appearance at court?" asked Ephiny.
"Mother and Agatha can run interference against Toris," Xena replied. "I'm not worried about him coming to Corinth anytime soon. Matter of fact, I don't think he'll come alone at all. It's more likely he'll wait until he has enough opposition behind him to stand against me. He needs to find some eager warlord or king to raise an army for him first."
"He may have already found someone," Briesse added.
"It's possible," Xena nodded. "I'm not worried about Toris right now. I just want to find Gabrielle and bring her home. I'll deal with Toris when I get back. In the meantime, my mother and Agatha can deal with him."
"Or maybe they'll just kill him for you," Eponin chuckled.
"After all the crap he's pulled lately, I wouldn't put it past them," Ephiny added with a wry grin. "I just wish we could be here to see what they do."
"I'll have to let them know that my brother is mine to deal with," Xena said. "Believe it or not, I still have plans for Toris. He doesn't get off the hook that easily."
"Oo," Eponin rubbed her hands together in anticipation. "I sure hope it involves some kind of permanent maiming. I love a good maiming, especially when it's someone as slimy as the Conqueror's brother."
Xena mounted her horse and waited for the others to do the same. "Let's just say he'll rue the day he chose to cross me and leave it at that."
The Sparticus dropped anchor in a small cove just off the coast of Cyprus. Darkness had descended over the seas candlemarks ago and the captain had navigated using the stars for guidance. Captain Lakonius stood at the helm, his loose shirt open and flapping in a late-evening breeze as he scanned the distant horizon for any trace of the ship he was expecting. His instructions were clear-bring the cargo and don't ask questions.
The little side trip they were taking was not something that the captain and his men usually did. But Lakonius was willing to take the risk with the amount of coin that was promised. He ran a hand through his gray hair and adjusted the belt at his waist that held his sword.
"Lights ahoy!" One of his men shouted down from the crow's nest high above.
"Do you really think they will deliver?" asked his first mate, a tall, lean, heavily-muscled man with skin as black as pitch and eyes just as dark. Malieu wore a heavy gold hoop in one ear lobe and his head was shiny and bald. He was bare-chested and had his muscled arms crossed over his chest. "This does not feel right, Captain. My senses tell me these men cannot be trusted."
"We have their cargo," Lakonius replied, as his dark-gray eyes searched the horizon for any sign of a ship. "If they only pay us half of what was promised, we'll still be rich men, Malieu. Then you can return to your village with your head held high and take your rightful place as chief of your tribe."
"I will be on my guard, just the same," Malieu said in his heavy accent. "How do we know that these men are not pirates or slavers or some other form of evil from Poseidon's realm?"
Lakonius pulled a gold coin from a pouch at his waist and help it up. It gleamed in the dim light from a lantern hanging nearby and had the face of Julius Caesar of Rome imprinted on it.
"Roman denarii are well worth this trip, my friend," Lakonius smiled broadly. He then bit into the coin and held it up again. "See? Pure gold. And they will pay us more for that bundle down in the cargo hold. You'll see."
"You once promised that we would never trade in human life, Captain."
"We're not slavers, Malieu. This isn't a slave deal. This is just good business. We transport the cargo and hand it over to the Romans. They pay us for the cargo."
"Is this not the same as trading in human life?" One of Malieu's dark brows rose skeptically. "It was my understanding that we were handing over another human being to men who deal in slaves. Why is this not the same?"
"Because," Lakonius spotted the light from an approaching vessel. "There they are now."
"Because is not an answer, Captain."
"I don't have to explain my actions to you, Malieu. I'm the captain of this vessel and I decide what cargo we take onboard."
Lakonius grabbed the lantern, descended to the main deck without another word and waved the lantern as a signal for the approaching vessel. Malieu just stood there with his arms crossed and watched the Roman ship drop anchor as soon as it entered the cove. He could see a man dressed in blue robes with a white cloth draped over one shoulder and a hint of silver armor beneath standing next to the rail.
"May the gods protect us," Malieu glanced up at the cloudless night sky as thousands of stars twinkled overhead. "And may they protect the innocent on this night."
Proctor Darius stood at the rail of the Tiberius and waited for the small rowboat to cross the expanse between the two ships. Several lanterns swung in the breeze next to him and lit up the dark water below. Stars twinkled overhead, but he wasn't paying attention to them. His brown eyes gazed intently at the two men in the boat.
One of the men was barely discernible against the black waters. His skin was darker than night, except that he had a gold hoop in one ear. He also wore red strings tied around his biceps, which were huge. Proctor Darius glanced at the other man in the boat, but he was of little interest to the proctor.
As the rowboat bumped against the side of the ship, Proctor Darius watched several crewmen scramble to help the men bring their load aboard. The cargo was wrapped in a grungy canvas tarp.
"Remove the tarp," Proctor Darius ordered as soon as the cargo was laid on the deck.
One of the crew pulled the tarp away to reveal an unconscious woman with blonde hair. She wore a simple white blouse and black pants tucked into knee-high boots.
"Here you go, as agreed," Proctor Darius tossed a large bag of coins to the shorter of the two men-the one who wasn't as dark as pitch. The man opened the bag and examined the coin inside. "It's all there. Now, go."
The short man with gray hair immediately turned back toward the rail and started climbing down. But, curiously, the large black man stood on the deck and stared down at the unconscious woman. His actions, or lack thereof, did not go unnoticed by Proctor Darius.
"What will become of her?" The behemoth spoke with a heavy accent that Proctor Darius could barely understand.
"That is none of your concern," the proctor slowly approached the woman and stood over her. "You have your money. Now, go, before I change my mind and sink your ship and send your crew to meet the god of the sea. I believe you call him Poseidon?"
Malieu stared the man down for several long moments, before he turned on his heel and descended toward the waiting rowboat. Proctor Darius watched the two men row back to their ship. He then glanced down at the unconscious woman on the deck and noted dried blood in her hair, as well as a large bruise on her jaw.
"Sink the ship once they're aboard," he ordered in a low voice for the captain's ears only. "Kill them all. I don't want a single survivor left to breathe a word of this night to anyone." He then looked at the woman again. "Have your men take her below and clap her in irons with the others. We sail for Corsica in a quarter candlemark. I want to unload our cargo by nightfall tomorrow."
"Aye, Proctor," the captain turned and started issuing orders to his men.
Proctor Darius went to the rail and watched the two men reach their ship. The rowboat bumped against the side of the Sparticuswith a noticeable thud. A moment later several loud booms rocked the deck beneath his sandaled feet. The distant ship exploded with fire and lit up the night sky. The fire quickly spread until the entire ship was ablaze. It wasn't long before Proctor Darius was smiling with satisfaction as the cargo ship started sinking to the coral bottom of the isolated cove.
Malieu felt the first explosion before he saw it. A blast of hot air hit him square in the face just as he was about to climb up the rope ladder to the deck of the Sparticus. The next thing he knew he was flying through the air. It was unreal. He landed in icy water a moment later and sank instantly beneath the inky waves. It was all he could do not to suck in a breath and have his lungs fill with water.
He kicked his powerful legs and his head broke the surface just as a hailstorm of firey splinters and burning wood fell from the sky around him. He filled his lungs with the heated air and sank back down into the water to avoid being hit on the head by falling debris. Moments later, when his lungs were screaming in agony for him to breathe again and he could stand it no longer, he surfaced.
The sight that greeted him as he took in a lungful of the still-hot air made his breath catch in his throat. The Sparticus was quickly sinking into the dark waters beyond. The entire ship was engulfed in flames that lit up the night sky above. He could see the wheel where he had stood with the captain only a short time earlier. It, too, was engulfed in flames.
Creaking and groaning in protest, the Sparticus sank lower and lower until only the stern was visible above the water. Eventually, even that part of the ship disappeared into the murky water and with it the little light from the few flames that remained. The stars above twinkled but provided very little light for Malieu to see by. The only other light that remained came from the retreating ship that was already out to sea.
Malieu decided to swim for shore and decide from there what his next move would be. The isle of Crete was inhabited and he would surely find another ship to take him on as a crewmember. He had no real loyalty to his former captain, who was now probably at the bottom of the cove with the rest of his crew.
Then Malieu remembered the bag of money Captain Lakonius had received from the Roman. That money had been his one reason for staying onboard the Sparticus when it set sail from Carthage just two days prior. Now the money, too, was at the bottom of the cove with the ship and its crew.
Malieu thought briefly of returning to the site where the ship sank and diving down to the depths to retrieve the bag. But it was pitch black out and the water was getting colder by the moment. He could feel fatigue already seeping into his muscles with each stroke he took. He realized it would take every last ounce of strength for him to reach the shore.
So, he just kept on swimming toward a black hulk that rose out of the water in front of him. Once he reached land and could regroup, then he would decide what to do next.
One thing was for certain in Malieu's mind as he continued to
push through the water toward shore: The Roman called Proctor
Darius would pay dearly for his deception and for sinking the
Sparticus with Malieu's share of the money onboard. That
thought alone drove him onward, even as the icy waters quickly
sapped his strength and threatened to pull him back under.
Xena stood with her feet slightly apart and her hands behind her back on the bow of Athena's Revenge. It didn't take long for her sea legs to kick in. She swayed slightly with the motion of the deck beneath her feet as she stared out at the sea stretched out before her. A stiff breeze blew her dark hair and filled the sails above her head.
The ship was aptly named and her captain was an excellent sailor with years of experience under his belt. Xena had every confidence in his abilities, but she still felt useless. The Amazons were below trying to cope with varying bouts of seasickness, even though the seas were fairly calm despite the stiff breeze.
And there she stood. She stared hard at the distant horizon and willed the line that separated sky from sea to produce a ship-any ship. Sails flapping in the breeze. She heard them above her but didn't pay them any heed. Her ears were attuned to the noises beyond those on the ship. She wanted so much to hear Gabrielle's voice. To hear her laughter.To see her smile just one more time. She wanted to watch that little crinkle in her nose as she smiled that quirky smile of hers.
The ache in Xena's chest was there all the time. Sometimes it was a dull ache that allowed her to function with little effort. But other times it was almost crippling in its intensity-a physical manifestation of the void left by Gabrielle's disappearance.
As she stood there on the bow of the ship with the salty breeze blowing her hair, the ache was stronger than it had ever been. It was so intense, in fact, that she nearly gave in to the urge to drop to her knees. She didn't. Instead, she looked up into the cloudless sky and concentrated on the ache. Then she willed the ache to subside as she pictured Gabrielle's smiling face in her mind's eye and sent good thoughts her way.
Gabrielle was alive. Xena didn't know how she knew. She just did. She couldn't tell anyone, including the Amazons who were with her, that she felt a strong connection to Gabrielle that was still very much there. To do so would confirm their suspicions that she was not all there.
Eponin called her crazy. The others just said she was a little eccentric. Braes thought she had shed too much blood over the years and Gabrielle's disappearance had somehow tipped the scales-and not in her favor. Her mother and aunt just looked at sympathetically, like she was a poor puppy who needed others to look after her well being.
Xena wasn't any of those things, though. Heartbroken? Yes. Focused? Absolutely. Driven? Perhaps.Crazy?Most definitely not. She wasn't crazy. She was in complete control of her faculties and her actions. And the first thing she was going to do when she discovered who was responsible for Gabrielle's disappearance was methodically hunt them down and eviscerate them.
No, she wasn't crazy.
"I still think she's crazy."
Ephiny raised a blond brow and glanced at Eponin to her left. She then returned her attention to the lone figure standing with her feet apart at the bow of the ship. Xena hadn't moved in candlemarks. But that was nothing new.
They had been on the ship for days with no sign of the Sparticus. It was as if the ship just up and disappeared without a trace. They had docked in Crete and made a number of inquiries, but no one had seen the Sparticus or its crew. Inquiries at several different ports yielded the same results. No one knew where the elusive cargo ship was. One ship's captain knew the captain of the Sparticus, Lakonius, but the man hadn't seen Lakonius in weeks. Last he heard, the captain of the Sparticus had taken on a cargo of wool from Éire and transported it to Egypt, but that was nearly a fortnight ago.
Ephiny and the rest of the Amazons were at their wits' end. Most of the Amazons were seasick from the interminable time spent aboard Athena's Revenge. Those who weren't seasick were just plain sick of being at sea. But Xena refused to give up the search.
"She's not crazy," Ephiny replied.
"We've been all over the Aegean without any clue as to where that stupid ship is," Eponin huffed. "This is getting us nowhere and she just stands there for candlemarks on end, staring at the horizon. That's crazy."
"That's love," Ephiny countered with a lopsided grin. "What if I were the one kidnapped?"
"That's different," Eponin put her hands on the rail. "You can take care of yourself."
"And Gabrielle can't?" Ephiny shot Eponin a raised-browed look. "She's not defenseless, Pon. She can fight. We've both seen her in action."
"She's not you."
"No, she's not," Ephiny said. "And Xena's not giving up anytime soon-at least not until she has a lead that points us in the right direction."
Eponin leaned down with her arms on the railing and stared out to sea. "Sitting out here in the middle of the Aegean isn't accomplishing anything."
"It's keeping her from terrorizing anyone," Ephiny pointed at Xena with her chin.
They heard footsteps behind them and turned to find Briesse and Zea emerge from below. Briesse wrapped an arm around Zea's shoulders and guided her to the rail. They both looked a little green around the gills.
"Hey, you two," Ephiny walked over to them and leaned against the railing. "How's it going down there?"
Briesse sat down on the deck with her back to the railing and waited for Zea to join her. The horse wrangler sat down cross-legged and rested her elbows on her knees.
"It's a bit rank, if you ask me," Briesse replied. "Rayna and Margalene are a little better. Don't know if they'll be coming topside anytime soon, though. They're still pretty weak."
"And the others?"Ephiny asked.
"Antonine, Chalidriss, Talia and Brynn are using that wrist thingy Queen Xena showed them," Zea said. "It seems to be working, except now they're hungry."
"And you two?" Ephiny added.
"We'll live," Briesse put her arm around Zea's shoulders and pulled her close. "Just don't ask us to eat anything the others are eating."
"Why?" Eponin was bewildered. "What are they eating?"
"You don't want to know," Zea turned another shade of green. "It's disgusting."
Ephiny and Eponin exchanged confused looks then shrugged. As long as the Amazons were feeling well enough to eat then that was definitely an overall improvement. Then again…
Moving to the railing on the other side of the ship, Ephiny turned to Eponin. "Maybe we should ask the captain to return to Corinth."
"Ya think?" Eponin leaned on the railing and gazed out across the sea to the distant horizon beyond. "We have a bunch of seasick Amazons on our hands who are now eating the gods only know what. How do you think this is gonna play out?"
"Nothing good will come of it, that's for sure," Ephiny sighed heavily. "I really don't want to go below anytime soon."
"Then let's camp out up here," Eponin suggested. "I'll bring our sleeping gear up and we can park it right on the deck. I'm sure the captain won't mind. Not sure about his crew, but who cares about them. Don't think they'll be bothering anyone after that first confrontation."
Ephiny turned so that her back was to the railing. She put her arms up on the railing and leaned against it as she surveyed the sailors working quietly around them. There hadn't been any incidences since that first day. She remembered it well.
The Amazons had been up on deck while the crew of Athena's Revenge moved around the deck once they left port at Corinth. It wasn't until they were a candlemark out at sea that the covert glances in their direction turned. It didn't take long before two of the bolder crewmembers made a few lewd comments that had their fellow crewmembers laughing. The comments continued and the glances turned to ogling. Then one of the crewmen approached Brynn and propositioned her.
She decked him.
Her violent reaction instigated a melee between the crew and the Amazons. Ephiny managed to break up the worst of the fight with Eponin right there with her. Then Captain Atticus joined them. He told his crew to go about their business without any further incidence or he would throw them all overboard. Ephiny said the same to her Amazons. Except that she banished her Amazons to the cargo hold below. They were only allowed on deck for a candlemark at a time and then only in pairs.
Ephiny glanced at the still and silent figure standing at the bow of the ship. Xena still hadn't moved. She was just standing there like a statue, gazing at the distant horizon. Ephiny wrestled with a decision for a moment, then walked across the deck.
"Hey," she said to the black-clad woman.
Xena didn't react at all. She merely kept her gaze fastened on the distant horizon.
"Xena?"Ephiny moved into Xena's peripheral vision.
"Yes?" Xena finally responded, but didn't take her eyes off the skyline beyond.
Ephiny moved to the railing and turned around to face Xena. There was no way the woman could look past her. But that didn't stop Xena from looking right through her.
"This has to stop," Ephiny's features hardened. "We can't go on like this. It isn't good for anyone."
Xena's eyes finally seemed to focus on Ephiny's face. "I don't give a damn," she said in a voice devoid of emotion.
"Then maybe you should start giving a damn, Xena," Ephiny countered. "My Amazons have been seasick for days and now they're eating the gods only know what, all because of that wrist thing you showed them. We need to return to Corinth and come up with another plan, because this one just isn't working out."
"No," Xena answered simply.
"No?" Ephiny crossed her arms over her chest.
"You heard me. The answer is no."
"Then tell the captain to drop us off at the nearest port," Ephiny sighed in exasperation. "Because I can't keep subjecting my Amazons to this. In case you haven't noticed, we don't take to the sea well. Boats aren't our thing. Besides, you don't need us tagging along. What's the point?"
"The nearest port is at least a day away," Xena replied.
"So, that's a day out of our way."
"Xena," Ephiny went toe-to-toe with the taller woman. "We're in the middle of the gods-forsaken Aegean! We've been wandering around in circles and haven't learned a damned thing! This is pointless and you know it!"
Xena didn't flinch, nor did she show any emotion whatsoever. Her expression remained stoically set into a mask of indifference as she looked Ephiny in the eye.
"We're headed to Rome," Xena finally said in an even tone that revealed not a hint of anger. "We'll be there by the time the sun sets three days hence. If you so choose, you and your Amazons can return to Greece on the next available ship that leaves port. I don't care one way or the other."
"Rome?" Ephiny's brow shot up. "Why Rome?"
"Because I have a feeling that Gabrielle will eventually end up there," Xena said matter of factly.
"You have a feeling?" Ephiny shook her head in dismay, turned away and turned back again with anger flashing in her hazel eyes. She managed to reign in her temper as she carefully delivered her next words. "So, let me get this straight. We've been sailing around in circles for days without learning a godsbedamned thing about where Gabrielle is or why she was taken. Now you've just up and decided to head to Rome without consulting anyone? And all this because of a feeling you have?"
"For the most part, yes," Xena replied.
Ephiny turned away, slammed her palms onto the railing and stared off into the distance for several long moments. Her mind raced with the implications of Xena's revelation. Then she spun back around.
"Eponin is right. You are crazy! You've completely lost your mind, Xena!"
Xena just stood there staring at Ephiny with a bland expression. She didn't say another word. Actually, she didn't feel the need to explain herself to the Amazon.
Ephiny waited for a reaction from Xena, any kind of reaction. But none came. Her anger flared and all she wanted to do was lash out at the tall woman standing before her. She even imagined herself punching Xena in the jaw and feeling a sense of satisfaction with the blow. Instead, she pushed past Xena and headed back to where Eponin stood next to the railing.
"Well?" Eponin asked when Ephiny joined her again.
"We find a ship and head back to Greece as soon as we reach port," Ephiny snapped. "I've had it!"
"When will that be?"
"Three days," Ephiny sat down on the deck with her back against the rail and crossed her arms over her chest.
Eponin sighed and sat down next to her. "Three days? Isn't there a port that's close by?"
"Xena is bound and determined to get us all killed."
"We're headed to Rome."
Eponin gulped. "Rome?"
"Rome," Ephiny repeated.
"Weren't we going there anyway?"
"Yeah, but this is different."
"How is it any different?"
Ephiny turned her gaze on Xena, whose back was to them. "Xena has lost all sense of reason and is as unpredictable as Greek fire."
"Oh," Eponin followed Ephiny's gaze. They sat in silence for a few moments before she said, "So I was right about her, after all?"
Eponin sighed heavily. "Sometimes being right isn't such a good thing."