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Chapters 4 - 6

By M. Parnell
Copyright 1997

Chapter 4

Time had passed slowly in Amphipolis. Since helping to save the village from Callisto, Gabrielle had become a well known and liked figure. Her stories of Xena and Sisyphus, Amazons and Troy were great favorites, and the evenings were tolerable. After hours, she and Cyrene were alone with their speculations about Xena.

"I've never seen Xena in a situation she couldn't handle," Gabrielle assured the anxious woman. But I've never seen Xena deal with a problem like this before, she left unspoken. Cyrene, whose knowledge of Xena ended with late adolescence, tried to trust the words of the young woman who, incongruously, shared a bond with her daughter.

"I wish you were with her," she let slip one night.

"If I knew where she was, I would be," Gabrielle replied.

At some level, she felt resentment, even anger toward Xena for not returning, or at least sending word. At a deeper level she found herself missing Xena, and knowing that they were not together by Xena's choice. That hurt. For the first time she understood how Xena must have felt when Gabrielle chose to go her own way, however briefly. What had Xena said? 'When you went home.. I if you were pushing me away.' The memory of the pain she had caused Xena made it impossible for her to be really angry. For the time being.

Atrius had a bath the night before he set out to see the king. His accommodations were over a stable, but the price was right and it had a deep trough for bathing. It was also unlikely that he'd run into Xena at this stable. He was certain she'd be in Prestia; might have come and gone already, he worried, but he'd still have his say with the king. He carried with him a soft pouch. It bore no crest, but it had held the gold pieces the prince had given that night years before. He was certain the king would recognize it now. Tucking the pouch into his jacket, and whistling a bawdy tune, the innkeeper from Cythera set off to the castle.

Radec's network brought results sooner than he had expected. Before him stood a rustic innkeeper, name of Atrius, he reminded himself by a glance at the scrap of parchment that accompanied Atrius to the guardhouse.

"It is my understanding that you wish to see the king concerning one Cyrene of Amphipolis?" The man nodded expectantly. "You must remember that the King of Prestia is very busy. As his minister I have broad authority-"

"Sorry," Atrius nodded deferentially, indicating that he was aware of the burdens of the crown, but would not be put off by them. "I have every confidence in you, but this is a personal thing, between me and His Majesty."

"Of course. I expect then, that you'll be willing to wait until the king has time for you?"

Atrius shifted his weight uncertainly. "Wait? How long a wait? I have a business to attend to," he spoke indignantly.

'I'm sure we're all busy men," Radec said, knowing with certainty that Atrius would choose not to wait. "If it's urgent, I might bring it to the king's attention for you..." he spread his hands, leaving his sentence unfinished.

"Oh, it's urgent," Atruis spluttered, "I thought he might like to know his daughter's looking for him, is all. If he has any doubts about me, you show him this purse and remind him about Amphipolis." He held out the leather pouch in an angry red fist. Radec waved it away.

"I'm sure that's not necessary. His daughter? Would it be Xena?"

Atrius was startled. "You know? So he's prepared to acknowledge her?"

"Not publicly. Not just yet. You know how touchy these matters are with - with a kingdom at stake," he realized. "I'd appreciate your holding this in confidence."

"Of course, sir," Atrius agreed eagerly. "I only came by because I know what a temper that woman has. I did my best to raise her up right..." Radec cut the speech off with a wave of his hand. He'd heard enough. Xena the king's offspring. In line for the throne. The only heir. She'd come to Prestia to make her claim. Absently Radec handed a few coins to Atrius. Gold coins. Atrius was soon in the sunlight once again, with even more reason to sing.

Xena had decided to camp rather than spend dinars on lodgings at an inn. The weather was fair, warm in the daylight, pleasantly cool at night. The fields and woods surrounding the castletown were lush and full. There was sure to be small game, and the river was clean and brimming with fish. The kingdom had no restrictions on taking game from the land or waters; she'd inquired at the border. Very generous, she decided. More than one king had determined that the bounty of the earth was his alone. She could live well for however long this took. And with the saved dinars she could buy a present for Gabrielle. She hadn't expected to be gone this long when she left Amphipolis. Gabrielle was certain to be worried, or angry, probably both. The present alone would not assuage the young bard, but she would at least know that Xena had been thinking of her.

She had slept, or rather, risen late. It was a sign of her uncertainty over her next move. She had left Cythera a cauldron of anger. That had largely dissipated; she wasn't sure why, but anger had often been a motivating force in her life. It was probably why she was in Prestia. Without it, she was at sixes and sevens. She chewed absently on a piece of bread as she considered. She could seek an appointment with the king, on some pretext. Or she could enter his chamber at night unseen. She could just ride away. Why was it so important to know who her father was? She would be the same person regardless. Why was it so hard to think about this? Her mind seemed to refuse to consider the topic. She was tempted to wrap herself in her blanket again, but she knew she wouldn't sleep. Do something. Anything is better than sitting on your backside.

So it was that within the hour she was in the market place, examining bolts of cloth. She was looking for the green of Gabrielle's eyes when she became aware that the same two men who had been loitering near the stable where she left Argo were now loitering at the stall acroos the way. She seriously doubted their interest in earthenware pots. They were soldiers, even out of uniform that was easy to see. They would have weapons beneath their long tunics. She didn't understand their interest in her, but she had long since grown accustomed to exciting the interest of strangers wherever she went. With a studied indifference to the two men, Xena continued with her tasks. She found a suitable fabric, and a few stalls away she purchased a small jar of scented oil for her mother. She tucked the items under her arm and strode off, quickening her pace incrementally, until she had left the market area and was in a jumble of narrow streets. There she broke into a run and turned a corner at full speed. Her shadows followed uncertainly, gaining speed with her, and panicking as she rounded the corner, afriad to lose her. At full speed they turned the corner and ran into their prey. Xena braced for the encounter delivered knees and elbows to four places at once. They fell like cut wheat. She chose the older of the two for her full attention. He was likely the senior in rank, and obviously more experienced. Her fingers moved to his neck and he winced as she spoke into his ear.

"Listen closely. If you promise to cooperate with me for the time being, I'll prevent your imminent death." He shook a long, shuddering acquiesence and she reversed the grip. "Now then," she resumed, adjusting her bracers, eyes moving from one man to another, "who's going to carry my packages?"

Chapter 5

In the dark corner of a small tavern Xena sat with her back to the wall feeling a bit sorry for the two men opposite her. They were, she had decided, soldiers, not spies or assassins. Joxer could have done a better job tailing her unnoticed. Maybe not much better, but... They studied their hands, cast sidelong glances at each other, and stole looks at her. Neither touched his ale. Xena downed hers and thanked them. A mug of ale had been part of the "cooperation" she requested. Introductions had been made, at Xena's request. "Now, Arcus and Barrus" she said, "I have some things to say. When I finish, you're gonna talk. If I don't like what you say, we'll repeat the process until I'm satisfied. Any questions?" Her eyes narrowed, waiting. "Good. Then listen carefully: I can see that you gentlemen are honest, hard working soldiers. Being one myself, I respect that." They sat a little straighter at her words. "Now take my advice: if you ever have orders to follow someone again, volunteer to muck out the stables instead. If that doesn't work, if you absolutely have to spy, don't stand shoulder to shoulder in front of a stall of kitchenware. You're just not the type." They had bristled at the word 'spies'. "We're not spies, " the older one, Arcus, said indignantly.

"You're soldiers, on duty, not in uniform...In my experience that could get you hung as a spy." They didn't argue, and she didn't want them in a confrontational mood, so she gave them an out. "Of course, this isn't a war, this isn't enemy territory, and you were just following orders."

'Right," they agreed in unison.

"So. Why were you following me? Do I make someone nervous?" There was no reply. "Tell me who gave you your orders, and I'll speak with him," she offered. "Your commander?" she guessed. "Or Cletus?"

"King Cletus, if you don't mind," the younger one said. "Show some respect."

"Ah! King's guard. Loyal to the old coot." That got the reaction she wanted. The older one rose from his seat and wagged a finger in her face.

"I don't expect a murderer to understand the niceties, but if you care to step outside I'll teach you how to speak about your betters."

"Sit down," she said. The fun had gone out of the odd situation, but she had the information she wanted. "So you're working for the king?"

"I've been in his employ for twenty years, " he said defiantly. "You can do that thing to my neck and kill me, but-"

"I'm not interested in killing anyone, " she said, her mood darkening with every word. "You were following me, remember? If the king wants me followed, I want to know why. And I want to know why he sends you two, instead of his professionals."

The two exchanged a quick glance, before the older one reached under his tunic. Xena's eyebrow arched warily. "It's all right," he said. "We're not following you. Just looking for a quiet place to talk." He looked around. "Sort of like this. The king wants to meet with you." He thrust his hand toward her; in it was clutched a red ribbon, with the king's seal impressed in purple wax. It was Xena's turn to be discomfited. She was floundering for an approach, and here was an invitation thrust in her face. "Why the secrecy?" she asked.

"Can't say, miss. But his majesty was very clear on this. And you can't come to the castle. We're to arrange a meeting outside the walls. If you're willing."

At that moment, in a dirty alley not far from Argo's stable, Atrius stopped to get his bearings. He had learned in Cythera that innkeepers did not prosper when they drank up the profits. Away from home he found himself much thirstier. He had slaked his thirst in several public houses already, and the sun was not yet at noon. He heard soft footsteps behind him and turned, ready to share a happy day with whoever he met. He never saw the long dagger that slid between his ribs. His last conscious movement was to feel for the safety of the full purse that hung at his belt. Satisfied, he smiled at the dirt road as he drifted into oblivion.

Gabrielle woke and stared at the ceiling, wondering how it might have changed since Xena was in residence as a child, waking to see this same ceiling. Thatch would have to be repaired, or replaced to keep the elements out. Nothing could keep the rodents out. Even now a mouse poked her nose though to inspect Gabrielle. Village life was much the same all over, she concluded. Funny how one village could produce a warrior, while another produced a bard...Some bard. She hadn't written a word worth keeping since the day in Cythera that had set events in motion. Her mind produced a sudden picture of Atrius, in this room...She shuddered. Along with her admiration, and sometimes, she admitted, envy of Xena, there was often a strong current of sympathy. For all her strength and skill, Xena had been deeply wounded by life. The scars were well hidden. Few could get close enough to see beneath the forbidding facade; even Gabrielle could only guess at the origins of most of them. Some stories she knew. More, she knew lay in the dark recesses of Xena's soul. Cyrene's revelation had shaken her. What must seeing Atrius again have done to Xena? Damn, you Xena she thought with sudden vehemence, why didn't you talk to me? Is that why you left me behind? To avoid the possibility that I'd coax the story out of you? Her eye caught a glimpse of a small cushion on the bed. It was decorative, not functional, yet Gabrielle planned on taking it with her when she left Amphipolis, whenever that might be. For the hundredth time Gabrielle picked it up, and traced the tiny roses and hearts that formed the border. In the center, fluid stitches proclaimed the proud crafter: Xena. "Okay, Xena, wherever you are. You're a lousy talker, but you do a great chain stitch. Just take care of yourself," she said, caressing the cushion.

She heard the sound of broken crockery from the direction of the kitchen. It was still early, but Cyrene would be hard at work already. Local farmers made their deliveries of produce and dairy goods early. Gabrielle was not expected to earn her keep. Cyrene had insisted that she was an honored guest, and a welcome bard for her customers. Yet the work kept her mind off Xena, and made it easier for her to sleep at night. After walking miles every day, it was hard to be tired from a sedentary life. And Cyrene was a chatty worker: Gabrielle now had a store of anecdotes about young Xena that could use to tease or amuse the stoic warrior. Still in her chemise, she rubbed sleep from her eyes and shuffled through the narrow corridor to the kitchen, calling "Cyrene, why didn't you wake me?"

As she turned the corner she had her answer. In a frozen tableau she saw Cyrene, unmoving, lying on the plank floor; a tall, bearded man stood by the blazing hearth, a torch in hand; a second man was sloshing spirits over the floor. As Gabrielle entered the room the tableau sprang into movement. Slowly, as if in a dream, the action unfolded. The tall man pointed a long arm at the bard. In response, his companion smashed the jug he held on the floor, and took two long strides toward her. In that interval Gabrielle had improvised a weapon and sketched out a plan. She now wielded a long-handled baker's peel and thrust it toward her attacker. The unexpected resistance caught him by surprise and he grunted as the broad shovel end met his midsection. Angered, he reached for the sword at his waist as Gabrielle adjusted her grip and swung the handle end in a short arc to strike his shoulder. This sent him slightly off balance, and he fell forward into the shovel as she twisted the handle to bring the flat edge into the bridge of his nose. He wouldn't soon rise from that. She turned her attention to the taller man. He would not be surprised. She braced for an assault, but he merely shifted the torch to his left hand, and reached for the short knife at his belt. It flashed across the room; Gabrielle heard herself scream, "Cyrene!" as the knife thunked into the neck of the man at her feet. The unexpected move distracted her momentarily. In that time he was across the room, kneeling over Cyrene. He held only the torch, but Gabrielle believed the threat in his voice as her commanded her "Put it down. Now get the knife." He indicated the neck of his companion. Gabrielle was no stranger to blood or corpses, but she shuddered as she yanked the dagger out of the man's neck, and tossed it at his feet. "Had to make sure you killed him," he said, wiping it on the straw which covered the floor. Stunned, she replied "I didn't kill him."

"Maybe not," he smiled, "we won't argue over the cause of death."

"Turn around." She considered her immediate options, and finding none, obeyed. She stared at the wall, her mind racing for an idea, listening for the expected whistle of a knife slicing through the air. What would Xena do? Mentally she shrugged. I'm not Xena. I'm the one who talks.

"Why are you doing this?"

"Be quiet."

"If you're going to kill me I have a right to know why. Is it about Xena?" No reply. She strained to hear what he was doing. Going though the tunic of the dead man for identifying items she supposed, from the sounds she could make out. "If you want money, I know where it is." She knew he was not after money, yet she was running out of things to say. 'You know, I'd never be able to identify you. If you leave now we can all forget this happened. Except, of course, for your friend. But--"

"Close your mouth, now!" His voice was at her ear. "I'd like to take the time to cut that quick tongue out of your head, but I'm in a hurry. I'll say hello to Xena for you."

"When she knows what you did here she won't let you live long enough," she said confident that was true, not certain if she'd live to find out about it. This talking thing was going nowhere she decided.

"Xena will never know what happened here." he chuckled deep in his throat. At his words Gabrielle's eyes rolled to the top of her head, and she fell motionless to the floor. He gave her a sharp kick with his booted foot, suspicious. She made no reaction. Satisfied, he began to touch the torch to the alcohol-soaked straw. He exited the kitchen through a veil of smoke, mounted the waiting horse, and rode away. The good people of Amphipolis could make what they would of this little mystery.

With the first clatter of horsehooves Gabrielle had scrambled to her feet, and grabbed a ready basin of water. The fire was not spreading as quickly as the bearded man had hoped. There had been a heavy dew the evening before and the straw was damp. Any country person would have known that. The alcohol was not a great incendiary. The strong stuff was in special reserve storage. The first splash of water was directed at Cyrene, who began to stir groggily. The rest flew over the main area of fire. At the same time Gabrielle began to shriek "Fire! Fire! Fire!" In a village of as many flammable homes as Amphipolis the threat of fire spreading was very real, and even as she beat at the fire with the broom, neighbors were at her side. Strong arms pulled Cyrene from danger, and Gabrielle was hustled out the door to breathe fresh air. In the end there was more smoke than fire. The third occupant of the room was the real story.

Gabrielle soon told her tale to the village, and Cyrene, who remembered nothing. General admiration was directed at the young stranger when it became apparent that her skill with the staff had saved the life of their old friend and kinswoman.

"Learned it from our Xena, eh?" they asked with pride.

"Yes," Gabrielle admitted. But she hadn't learned that phony faint from Xena. That was born of desperation. Had he felt the need to knock her unconscious, the smoky fire would have killed both women before any alarm could be raised. Gabrielle shivered, as usual, in reaction to past danger. Gods, she wished Xena were here. That silent nod of approval, or even the occasional admonition would have quieted the tensions which were only now felt. What was it? What had he said about Xena? She'd never know what had happened? The vague alarm she felt over that boast was followed by a quick, new memory. 'I had to make sure you'd killed him.' That comment seared like a brand on Gabrielle's nerves.

Chapter Six

A stiff morning breeze played with the waters of the River Pres, sending ripples across its wide channel, and causing the men in the tiny boat to pull their cloaks closer. In the center of the boat Barrus pulled at the oars with a fluid motion that propelled it forward across the current. Arcus, hand on the tiller, kept close watch of the shorelines front and back. His conflicting impressions of the warrior woman had left him confused. For now, his responsibility toward his sovereign dictated caution. In the prow, King Cletus of Prestia reveled in the touch and feel of the common military cloak he wore. This was his dress from better days. Many times he had walked among his men, unknown to them, hearing their gripes and worries as just another soldier, sharing their meals and their bawdy stories. This had been a cloak of invisibility then, to hide his royal station. This morning it served that purpose again. Radec would wonder where he was. His personal manservant would put him off. Radec might never know he had left the walls of the castle. If he did find out, it would be too late.

They approached a small island in the middle of the river. Arcus leaped out into the shallow water and, seeing no footprints in the muddy bank, turned his attention to the surrounding undergrowth and woods. There was a clearing which provided shelter from the wind. A nice spot for camping. The meeting was to take place there, away from prying eyes. He would feel better knowing where the warrior was before King Cletus dis- embarked, but the king was not one to wait. He was already striding towards Arcus, smiling in anticipation of-- what? Arcus was not sure.

Xena had camped with no fire the evening before. She had been more than usually cold, since her leather was still wet from her evening swim from shore. But a fire might have attracted unwanted attention. She was still cold now, and hungry. I must look a mess, she thought, and pulled a face in wonder at her concern for that. She was here to see someone, not to be seen. If she was too unkempt for Cletus' liking, too bad. Yet she ran her long fingers through her still damp hair and made a semblance of a loose braid. She heard movement in the woods. Arcus had promised to alert her of their approach. She heard his call now, and rose. In seconds she was looking into eyes as blue as her own.

Xena had never bowed before a king. She didn't plan to start now. Cletus threw his hood back and held out a rough hand, which Xena met with her own. Both pair of eyes were transfixed on the other. "Xena," he said at last, "you're wet, and cold. Take my cloak."

Before he got it off she had declined, with a shake of the head and a step backward. "I'm fine." Some forgotten camper had dragged a log into the clearing for seating. Xena gestured now for the king to sit. Amused, he accepted the invitation. In hours, she has made this *her* realm, he thought. Arcus and Barrus stood behind the king, Barrus watching the woods, Arcus watching Xena, who sat on a small rock opposite the log.

"I think there's little doubt," Cletus said at last. Xena nodded. There was no mistaking the resemblance. In Amphipolis the game of matching children to other generations had not been easy to play with Xena. She had a bit of Cyrene, her mother's family insisted, and a lot of the uncles. Mostly their size, she recalled. It was handy to favor your mother's family if there was no trace of dad at all. But she had never seen her features reflected, or suggested in any one before. Looking at Cletus now she understood how you could 'have' someone's nose or eyes or mouth. He was her prototype. What that meant to her she did not yet know. The silence was going on too long.

"You wanted to see me?" she asked, for lack of something better to say.

Direct, he nodded with approval. "I did. Did you want to see me, as well? I assumed that's why you came to Prestia?"

Right to it, she noted happily. That should make things easier. "I did," she admitted. "The possibility that you were my father ..." she faltered. "Recent news," her voice was suddenly harsh, but she was speaking from a place that wouldn't stop mid-sentence out of weakness.

"Possibility? The other candidates being...?" He inquired, an eyebrow arched.

"Do you want me to say it?" she challenged. "You were there. What story do you think Cyrene would tell?"

"If she remembered that evening clearly there should be no doubt. Those scrofulous characters would never have produced you. How could she think it?"

His incredulity made her laugh, then she felt her jaws tighten as the words spat out: " I don't know how much a woman allows herself to think about the time she was raped by two men and seduced by another. Did you imagine she's remembered you fondly over the years? Recalling the cut of your jaw, and the set of your mouth? I would guess that sometimes the three of you must have blended into one faceless man, getting what he wanted." Gods, she realized, the anger that had been so absent seemed to have found her again.

Cletus regarded her soberly. "I hadn't thought. I'm sorry. How is Cyrene? Was it hard for her to deal with...?"

"With me? With my not being born on the right side of the blanket? I don't know," she shrugged. "It's hard to have a secret. But then, you know about secrets. Not that this one" she thumped her chest in indication, "caused you much inconvenience." She rose suddenly. From the edge of her vision she saw Arcus grip the hilt of his sword. The sun was higher now. She longed to sit in its warmth instead of skulking in the woods. Why had she agreed to this? The reasons were fuzzy, like everything about this episode. But there was one more thing to say.

"I wanted to thank you for what you did in the stable," she said euphemistically. Arcus and Barrus had heard the word 'rape' already, so there was really no reason to be coy. She guessed that she had not yet come to terms with it herself.

Cletus nodded his acceptance. "It was justice." She looked at him steadily for a long moment. His eyes met her gaze unflinchingly. "That's what I wanted to tell you," she said with finality. "I'll be out of Prestia by sundown."

"You dismiss me so easily? I've endured your scolding." Cletus spoke softly, yet his voice held an edge. "Would you grant me the courtesy of hearing me out?" When she made no response he went on. "I don't expect you to welcome me as a beloved father-figure. I see your pain."

Her eyes betrayed her annoyance at that remark. This isn't pain she told herself, yet she wasn't sure what else she might feeling.

"I would like you to understand that, although I've been an absentee--" he paused before venturing to use the word "father. You have been important to me." Her face creased in a smile of disbelief. "Hear me out," he insisted. " I took pains to determine whether you were my issue."

"Big of you. Was that to determine whether you should give Atrius his sack of gold?"

"It was long before Atrius knew of the deception. I wanted to know if I was a father. All indications said yes."

Xena's mind had a thousand buzzing questions. The puzzlement showed on her face.

"Xena you can't be in Prestia for long without hearing about the impending succession crisis. I am known as a king without heirs. All those years ago I was a young prince suspecting that my marriage might produce no children. I had expected a castle full; time passed and we produced nothing. I was urged to set Lycia aside and marry again. Or to have a child by another woman, in secret, and raise it as my own. How tempting those solutions were." He shook his head remembering, then he looked at Xena, and it seemed to her that she was seeing the young prince who had so impressed Cyrene. "I had but one, sweet obstacle: my beloved Lycia. How it would have hurt her to be set aside, or to share me with another woman. I would never have caused her that pain. Besides," he admitted, "I didn't know which of us was unable to produce children. In my youthful impatience I determined to put myself to the test."

Eyes narrowed, Xena shook her head, not wanting to believe what she was hearing. "You slept with my mother to determine whether you could have a child?" she said accusingly.

"You hoped that you left her pregnant. No wonder you were so ready to kill her rapists. How long did you sweat it out, waiting to see who I resembled? Did you sneak over to Amphipolis occasionally? Or did your spies bring back reports?" A cold laugh came from deep within her. "I thought * I* was anxious to eliminate the rapists from contention."

"That's not how it was."

"No? How was it?" He was lost. It had seemed so right. Cyrene had been so beautiful, so humiliated by her unworthy husband. If she had been happily married, he told himself, I wouldn't have touched her. Behind him, Arcus slapped at a fly. The cloak he wore suddenly seemed heavy and musty. His age settled on him like a fog.

"Need some help?" Xena offered. "The village woman was warm and willing. Her husband didn't deserve her. You could give her a night to last her a lifetime, and put your manhood to the test without hurting anyone. Anyone that you cared about. If Cyrene lived in terror that she'd be found out, you weren't there to see it. If little Xena grew up wondering why the man she called 'Father'-- " She didn't finish.

"You are right," Cletus began slowly. "That is exactly what happened. Only I didn't see it that way. Is it because I'm a man? Or a king? Or just a human being with the same frailties as all mortals?" He spoke sincerely, and looked at Xena, as if for answers.

"I don't know why you did it." I have enough trouble figuring myself out, she thought. Human frailties. What does that mean, really, if some humans have so many, and some so few. Like Gabrielle. What was her worst fault? A tendency to sleep late? An active mouth that always seemed to have a story coming out, or some food going in. She missed her. Quite suddenly, in the middle of that island, in the presence of the King of Prestia, exploring the circumstances of her conception, seeing Gabrielle of Potadeia as quickly as possible became an urgent goal.

"I don't know why you did it," she repeated. "It doesn't matter. I'm here."

"I'm proud to have shared in giving you life."

"You can't know much about me," she said solemnly.

"On the contrary. I know everything about you. I know that you broke your arm when you were six, falling out of an apple tree. I know that you travel with a fair-haired young woman, Gabrielle. She's been with you since you saved her village from a warlord: Draco. A former ally." Xena regarded him warily. "You've followed my life so closely? Did you just watch when Cortese attacked Amphipolis? With the troops at your command--"

"I was at sea. When I heard the news it was not of Cortese's attack alone. It was of the young woman who had led the defense of her village. I've followed your career closely since. You were sometimes alarming, but never dull. When your exploits were on everyone's lips I wanted to say 'That's my blood leading those warriors!"

"Which exploits were those?" she asked quizzically. "I can't recall many to be proud of."

"I'm speaking as a warrior, Xena. You were a magnificent commander. The battle of Corinth--"

"Was a mistake. My whole 'career' was a mistake. If you know so much about me, surely you know that."

"I know you indulged in brutalities that made me cringe. I know about Caesar," he said, tenderly. That startled her. He plunged on before she could speak. "When you destroyed Cirra my army went on full alert. If you had crossed the border they had orders to destroy you."

She looked at him steadily. "I learned very early which physical borders not to cross."

"I have heard more recently that you now choose a path of virtue."

"'Virtue' might be a little strong to ever describe my path," she said with the barest hint of a smile. "But I don't kill for profit anymore. Or from blood-lust."

"I'd like to hear the story of that change sometime, Xena."

"Why not ask your spies? They've played the role of interested father for a long time. They must be good at it. Better than Atrius. Better than you." She didn't know why she said that. She had been telling herself that she expected nothing from this meeting, nothing from this man who was, apparently her father. Why, then, the need to hurt him for not having been a father to her?

After a short pause, Cletus replied. "My spies are very good. They supplied very detailed reports about your war against the centaurs." He spoke deliberately, observing her small but unmistakable reactions to his words. "The world has wondered at the sudden withdrawal of your forces when victory was within your grasp."

Solon. He knows. She, too, had abandoned a child. Her eyes narrowed, and her throat grew tight. She couldn't read his intentions in his face, but she warned him anyway: "Stay away." Her meaning was unmistakable. "I suppose we're finished wounding each other," she commented dryly. "Good-bye." She began to move away.

"One last thing. Please." Xena stopped where she was, at the edge of the clearing, and cast a wary look over her shoulder.

"Arcus. Barrus," he beckoned them to move nearer. "In your presence, and in the sight of the gods, I affirm that the woman known as Xena of Amphipolis, here present, is my issue."

The legal formalities over, Xena passed silently into the woods.

TO BE CONTINUED...Chapter 7-9

Gabrielle with Scroll

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