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Editor's Choice Award


Chapter 1 - 3

By M. Parnell
Copyright 1997
Chapter 1

From her perch on top of the bar Gabrielle saw the tall outline of her friend silhouetted against the late afternoon sun. 'Don't' be long,' she had warned her. 'We'll leave as soon as Argo is shod.' The bard considered how she might move her tale along to accommodate Xena. Then, watching the expectant faces of her audience, and remembering how Xena could squirm when she heard Gabrielle embellish her deeds, she decided to give the crowd it's money's worth. Not that Xena's exploits needed any embellishment...

"With that," she continued, "the mighty warrior woman returned to the netherworld to answer the plea of her dead lover." Xena's face was in the light now. She leaned against a wall, crossed her arms, and stretched her long legs in front of her. It was Hades' turn to be-"

"What's this?" A loud voice boomed from behind the bar. The proprietor of the inn, mouth agape, paused in wiping the bar top, to ask a pointed question: "Do you expect us to believe that Xena, the little girl from Amphipolis, helps the gods with their problems? I don't believe it. And I'm one who knew Xena when she was too small to wipe her own nose. The small crowd looked at him; Gabrielle looked at the dark figure by the door, as she stood erect and posed her own question: "Didn't your mother ever teach you that it's rude to interrupt?"

In the dim light of the inn the bearded man squinted to see who had challenged him. "And who might that be that's giving me manners lessons in my own establishment?"

"The name's Xena. Of Amphipolis," she said without heat. "And you owe the bard an apology."

The patrons of the inn held their collective breath, prepared to duck, or run, as pending action might require. They exhaled together as the barkeep spoke.

"An apology she shall have," he said genially. "Bards are always welcome in my inn, and I meant no offense. Only, being from Amphipolis myself, I feel a sort of proprietary interest in Xena. And seeing as you're Xena, I invite you to share a mug with us. My compliments."

Xena nodded, briefly, in acceptance, and joined him at the bar. As they clasped hands he said, "I should introduce myself. Name's Atrius." Gabrielle couldn't hear their exchange, but saw Xena's eyes narrow in suspicion, as she pulled her hand away. "Don't be like that Xena. I'm glad to see my little girl all grown up. So famous. So beautiful. What's wrong? Nothing to say to your dad?"

"I have to be going. Now." She looked at Gabrielle, who was intent on her story.

"You don't want to ruin a lovely tale," he urged.

"I'll wait outside." leaving the mug untouched she left the confining space. He followed her, mug in hand.

"You must be thirsty."

"Not that thirsty." Hurry up, Gabrielle, she urged silently, striding away from Atrius. Gabrielle could find her at the stable.

"You don't mind swimming to the underworld, but you're afraid to talk to me? I don't get it."

"You wouldn't," she said over her shoulder. He heard the contempt in her voice.

"Think you're too good for me? Is that it? What did your mother ever tell you that makes you feel superior to ME! That slut--." Xena stopped and he walked into an elbow, which she drove home for emphasis. He was as tall as she, but no match for her in strength. She held him up by the throat against the side of the building. Cold fury emanated from her as she spoke.

"Don't you ever speak that way about her. Not if you want that black heart of yours to keep beating."

"All right," he managed through bloodied lips. "Like your uncles," he muttered cryptically. She released her grip. "Still, it doesn't change things, you thinking she's so wonderful and me being the villain. I suppose Cyrene tore me down regularly in front of you kids. What did she say to make you hate me this much?"

"She never said a word against you," she said in defense of her mother. "I couldn't figure that. We knew, all of Amphipolis knew, you deserted her. And us. "The happiest day of my life, she remembered.

"So she was the martyred holy woman and I was the wastrel husband? Did it ever occur to anyone that she couldn't say a word about me because I was the injured party." He held his hands up to ward off another blow.

"Don't worry," Xena assured him. "I wouldn't dirty my hands on you again."

"Right. I'm so dirty. And yet it's you who's the bastard. Cyrene never told you that, did she. Your father abandoned you all right, but I'm not the him."

"What are you saying?" Xena's voice was low, her hands at her side, but the potential danger frightened him more than having her hands around his throat.

"I'm saying that I'm not your father, " he began, with a boldness that surprised even him.

"I'm saying that Cyrene, the noble, lay with another man while she was my wife. Why do you think I left a comfortable set-up like the inn in Amphipolis? We had a good life. But what man of honor could hear that his little girl is another man's child, and stay around to watch her grow up? I had no choice," he ended defiantly, the justified cuckold.

Xena stared at him, trying to read his face without revealing the turmoil that swept through her. She wanted to believe that he was lying, but she felt certain, all at once that this man was no blood to her.

"Don't believe me? Ask your mother. Maybe she'll be honest with you for a change." he felt bolder as she strode further from him. "Tell her it worked out in the end for me. Her lover paid me handsomely to keep quiet about his indiscretion," he hurled after her.

When Gabrielle stepped out of the inn she knew something disturbing had transpired. Xena did not heed her calls, and she didn't catch up with her until she arrived at the stable.

"What's the matter, Xena. Are we being chased by a dragon?"

"Get up here with me, Gabrielle." She reached an arm down to pull her up onto the saddle. Gabrielle didn't try to protest. They were long out of Cythera before Xena spoke.

"Gabrielle, I have to leave you for a few days. We can inquire at the next likely farmhouse if they can put you up, or we'll buy provisions and you can camp out. Which would you prefer?"

"Thanks for asking," Gabrielle began, feeling a bit slighted. "I'd prefer to go with you. Where are you going?"


"Some reason you don't want me along?" She had visited Amphipolis with Xena before. "Is there trouble? Is your mother in danger?"

"I need to speak with my mother. I'll cut a day off the journey each way if I'm alone."

"Xena, what does this have to do with the man in the inn?"

"What did you hear?" Xena reined Argo in, dismounted, and helped Gabrielle dismount.

"I know his name was Atrius. I know that's your father's name." Gabrielle recalled Ares, God of War, impersonating Atrius in a scheme to win Xena back to his service.

"He didn't look the way I remembered him."

"I think Ares wasn't concerned about accuracy." The two sat under a shade tree while Argo nibbled grass by the side of the road. "That was Atrius in the inn."

"So this is a family thing. I understand. I'll stay out of the way for a bit."

"No," Xena said, caught off guard by Gabrielle's interpretation of her request. "That's not what this is about. You are my family. I just can't talk about this until I know what to believe." And only Cyrene can help me with that.

Chapter 2

"Hello, Mother." Xena's eyes caught the pleased surprise in her mother's eyes as she lifted her head from the cluttered table she was clearing. She welcomed the moment, and let it fill her, along with the savory smells which infused the warm -too warm- inn. I still can't take this for granted, she reminded herself, and moved quickly, bending low, to accept her mother's embrace. Her mother was already reaching to remove the sword from Xena's sheath. Xena resisted the urge to block her mother's hands. Instead she unfastened the chakram, and lay both weapons aside, though in easy reach. This would be hard enough.

Cyrene didn't take her eyes from her daughter as she finished her immediate chore, and a torrent of words started from her lips. 'So happy,' Xena heard, 'where's Gabrielle, do you get enough rest? Food?' Xena answered perfunctorily, yet one part of her mind was recomposing the questions she needed to ask. The long journey from Cythera had not been long enough.

"You're quiet, Xena," her mother said as she poured a mug of ale and set it beside a small dish of olives. Xena placed one in her mouth and chewed the salty flesh from the pit before answering.

"I saw Atrius the other day," she said, without inflection. Cyrene's eyes widened in surprise. She sat heavily across the rough table from Xena.

"Your father! Where?"

"A long way from here."

"He's well?"

"Do you care? I don't , " she shrugged.

"Xena he is your father, " Cyrene said in mild reproach.

"Your husband. Your long-absent husband."

Cyrene looked at Xena uncertainly "The father of my children. Xena, I might be angry with him but I thank him for my children."

Xena swallowed the last of the ale in her mug, and reached to pour another.

"Atrius. father of Lyceus. Father of Toris. Who exactly is the father of Xena?" Xena looked at her mother with cold blue eyes that chilled the room. Before Cyrene could speak, Xena warned her: "Don't lie. Your husband and I had a brief, but interesting talk. "

Cyrene seemed to shrivel before Xena's stare, her worn hands kneading each other. Xena looked away, to the log burning in the fireplace. Gods! why do we need a fire today, she thought. She didn't look back at her mother even when the soft voice began to speak. She could hear the tears.

"What did he say?"

"No," Xena shook her head. "I don't want to think about what he said. You don't want to hear it. I just want to know who. Someone from the village?" she prompted. "A guest at the inn?" Cyrene had her head in her hands now, and was sobbing softly.

"Mother don't cry. I'm not here to find fault. You must know I'd be the last person to do that. I just need to know," she ended, her voice softer. "Don't cry." She moved to sit on the bench next to her mother and pulled her mother's face up from the table. With hands that seemed impossibly big against her mother's small face Xena wiped tears from the lined cheeks. Bitch! she muttered in self-reproach. It wasn't long since she'd sought forgiveness from this woman for unspeakable crimes. Cyrene was the soul of goodness next to her warrior daughter.

"Mother," she started again." I don't care what you've done. Atrius is spitting teeth for ...never mind." Her mother looked up, questioning." He earned it," Xena smiled, and her mother smiled uncertainly in response. "That's better. Now don't think about him. He's not worth it. I'm glad he's not my father," she confessed. "I wish I had known long ago. I wish ..." she broke off, then fixed a determined, yet tender gaze on Cyrene. "Just tell me who Mother. I need to know my father." I have always need to know my father.

Cyrene smoothed her apron, a familiar gesture that gave her time to think, time to compose herself. Xena waited patiently. Cyrene spoke at last.

"Xena you just want a name, but I have to tell you more. I haven't spoken of this in years. I thought..."

"It helps to talk," Xena said, shaking her head. Damn, I'm starting to sound like Gabrielle!

"There was a time when your fa- Atrius, was away a lot. He wanted adventure. Wanted to be a warrior. You know how that can be for some men-" she stopped awkwardly. Xena let it pass. "Toris was very small. The inn was doing well. I missed him at first, but then, life was easier when he was away. When he came home, he was unhappy. The adventures never brought him as much glory or profit as he expected. Or wanted. He'd come home and lash out at Toris. And me." Xena's face stiffened.

"He hit you."

"Hmmm, "Cyrene nodded, avoiding Xena's gaze.

"He would have lost more than his teeth if I'd known."

"He didn't hurt me really. My brothers would have killed him if he had. I think he knew that."

Xena smiled remembering her powerful uncles. 'Xena's more like us than the boys,' they liked to tell her mother. I was always the different one, she remembered.

"One awful night the inn was quiet, except for a small party of travelers who'd been caught in the storm. And some so-called warrior friends of Atrius. They had just returned from service with some army. Warriors. Drunken louts, more like. He was always worse when they were around. Boasting, bragging, drinking too much. Bossing me around like a serving girl. When he wasn't around I ran this place just fine." A touch of remembered anger tinged her voice." That night he was worse than usual. He swore and blustered. He insulted me and the few guests we had. He grabbed me, in front of everyone, it was humiliating." All these years later her cheeks turned crimson with remembered hurt. "I was holding a pitcher. I hit him. Hard. He was out for the night. But his friends were there. One of them came after me. And from the corner the visiting strangers rose. Three of them, two rather old, one younger. Tall. Commanding. He just raised his voice and all action in the room stopped. He ordered that I be left alone. I was. Without even drawing his sword he ordered them to leave the inn. They did. He sat with me by the fire, so gentle, so... " words failed her. "He said things, Xena. Nice things. He made me feel...desirable. Pretty. Lies, may be , but even so..."

"Why would they be lies?"

"Xena. he was a man of bearing, and courtly manners. His clothes were rich and his horse was not our country stock. I was. Country stock. Not someone he would care for."

"Mother, you were a beautiful woman. You still are."

Cyrene blushed, relishing her daughter's predictable, yet welcome words. "Anyway. We sat late by the fire, singing, talking. At some point his friends retired for the evening. We were alone then. And his touch was so warm. He was so gentle." She looked at Xena.

"I can't speak of these thing with you."

"Mother. You forget what I've been. I've been with men for worse reasons." Far worse, she recalled with a shudder. "I'm glad he made you happy."

"He did!" Cyrene's words escaped exuberantly, then her face clouded. "After, I felt no shame, no regret. He returned to his room. In a village like this, if anyone suspected..."

"I understand."

Cyrene took a breath, as if preparing to plunge into deep waters. "In the morning I went to the barn to milk the animals. I never saw them, or heard them until they were on me." Xena's muscles went taut. She knew without asking. The old comrades. "They had slept in the barn, I guess. I struggled, but..." Xena 's head swam. Her mother? She remembered the times she knew her men had raped. Wondered how many times she didn't know. Pushed away her own memories of rape. She fought the impulse to stand, to stride away to pound the walls. She sat like a rock, for her mother to hold on to.

"I'll kill them," she said simply.

"No Xena. It's done. He came to the barn to prepare his horse to leave. He had his sword. It was over in moments." She spoke matter-of-factly, and finished the tale in a rush. "They took the bodies with them. Your father woke and never knew why he never heard from them again." There was a long pause. Cyrene's head rested against Xena's broad shoulder now. "I hadn't been with your father. When I found myself pregnant I made sure we...were together one night. It never occurred to him that you..." Cyrene looked at the darkening room. "The late afternoon crowd will be arriving soon." She stood to begin her preparations. I can't answer your question because I don't know which of the three fathered you. All these years I thought it best to say nothing." She disappeared into the kitchen.

Xena sat very still for long minutes. At last two farmers wandered in, smelling of hay and earth.

"Xena!" they greeted her heartily. "Welcome! No warlords on your trail?" She rose, gave them an absent nod and picked up her weapons, holding their friendly steel tight in her burning hands. She stepped into the late afternoon sun, mounted Argo, and urged her to a full gallop.

It was dark when Gabrielle heard Argo's soft padding as Xena led her to the nearby river. Xena always put Argo's needs before her own. She poked the fire to rouse it to greater heat and light. Xena would be hungry. There was only some soup and day-old-bread, but the soup would be hot. It took longer than usual for Xena to tend to Argo. Xena will ask for help if she needs me, Gabrielle told herself; still she was on the point of searching them out when Xena stepped into the campsite.

"Xena. Hi, you've had a long day. I kept the soup hot." She was already ladling out a steaming, fragrant mug. Xena took it wordlessly and sat cross-legged on the ground across the fire from the puzzled girl. "Bad day?" she asked.

"Like you said, it was a long day. I'm tired. More tired than hungry." She put the mug on the ground. "How was your day?" she asked.

"My day was fine. See? I'm smiling," she mugged. "so don't try to change the subject. You look as if you've lost your best friend, and since I flatter myself that I hold that privileged'll have to help me out here." Her attempt at humor had the desired effect. Xena smiled despite herself.

"I know you're a great talker Gabrielle. Do you think there's any money to be made by listening? If so, you'd make your fortune."

"I can't see it," the young girl decided, then moved to sit near her friend. "What's wrong?" she asked simply.

Xena fixed her eyes on the flames, and recounted the two conversations without interruption, or embellishment. When she had finished, she continued staring into the fire.

"Look at me Xena." Gabrielle's voice held a hint of command. Xena obeyed. Gabrielle hadn't known what she would see, but was relieved to see something besides anger. "how do you feel?"

"I told you. I'm tired."

"What else," she urged.

"I don't know."

"That just means you don't want to think about it right now."

Xena's dark head moved in emphatic agreement. "You're right. I've thought of nothing else for days and I just want to turn the thoughts off. Where's a good ambush when you need one, huh?" It was Xena's attempt at humor, and Gabrielle responded with a quick smile. "Funny thing is, I keep thinking about Solon. You know how I felt about Atrius, even before I knew."

"Yes." Gabrielle nodded. "For abandoning his family."

Xena nodded, "And for..." she stopped herself, took a long breath and nodded again. "Right. So I don't mind losing him as a father. But it leaves a hole. That must be what Solon feels. If his mother was really dead...but I'm not. If he ever finds out...he'll hate me all over again." She paused, then shook her head in self-reproach. "My poor mother. Explaining to me how why she never told me... And she has a grandson she'll never know because I was such a murderous bitch when he was born that-"

"Stop that." Gabrielle's voice demanded. She hated Xena to speak that way, think that way about herself. "The past is past. You aren't that person anymore. This isn't getting us anywhere; you know what I think about Solon. But he's a side issue right now. You have to think about yourself; sort out your feelings."

"I don't know how to do that. I don't know how to think about this because there's nothing to be done. I don't get to stick my sword in anyone: the rapists are dead. And there's no way to determine whether I'm the product of rape or a casual night of pleasure."

"It wasn't a casual night of pleasure for Cyrene," Gabrielle observed. It was a healing experience for her. If that man was your father, I think you can be proud of him."

"And if he wasn't?" Xena asked. Then a few things about me are explained, she thought.

"Xena, from what you've told me, you don't look like Toris, or Lyceus. You sure don't look like Atrius, and you don't take after your mother. If you could find the man who saved her that night, maybe one look at him would answer your question." Gabrielle made the suggestion uncertainly. It might not be possible to find him, it might answer nothing if she did. She might not like the answer. But Xena needed to take some action, instead of grappling with painful speculation.

"My mother didn't know his name."

"Your father found him."

"I don't want to see Atrius again," she scowled.

"It seems like the only way."

Xena rested her head in her hands a few moments, then shook her head decisively.

"You are right. Again."

" So back to Cythera. Tomorrow? We'd better get some sleep."

"No. Tomorrow, Amphipolis. I'd like you to stay with Cyrene for a few days. Please."

"Why? You don't want me along?" Gabrielle was puzzled.

"I didn't say the right things today, Gabrielle. It was so hard for her, and I didn't have the words to help. I think you would be another kind of healing experience for her." Xena lay a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "I've failed my mother in so many ways. I'm not trying to avoid responsibility now, but this is your area. You have no idea how good it feels to talk with you. I can't believe the things I can say to you. I wasn't kidding earlier when I said you could make a fortune listening. Please do this for me."

"Of course I will, Xena." Gabrielle was moved by Xena's little speech, yet she was confused. "I just wanted to be there for you. I feel as if you're pushing me away."

"No. Never that," she said emphatically. Her hand moved as if it would find Gabrielle's, then fell back onto her lap. "When you went home to Potadeia," she spoke haltingly. "I felt that way, as if you were pushing me away when I most wanted to help you. It had been a long time since I had a real friend, and never one like you. I didn't understand that sometimes even when you've got a best friend there are things you have to do by yourself. We'll talk when I get back. I promise."

They journeyed to Amphipolis together. Xena made several detours over the familiar route, not to save time, but to let Gabrielle enjoy the beauties of the landscape, the glades where the most rare wildflowers bloomed, and the most refreshing pools for bathing. It was a holiday atmosphere. Gabrielle detected a certain tension in Xena, but it was below the surface, out of bounds for discussion. That alone was disturbing. In unguarded moments Xena's face was impassive, yet shadowed by dark clouds. When she caught Gabrielle's eye she'd pull a crooked grin, or point to some feature on the horizon. Anything to prevent Gabrielle from breaking in on her interior life. When at last they reached Amphipolis Xena stayed long enough to rest and water Argo before retracing her steps for the journey to Cythera. Gabrielle and Cyrene stood in front of the inn watching her go, each seeing a different woman, each clutching a different fear.

Once inside, Gabrielle held out a small sack. "Here. Wild mushrooms. Xena gathered them, not me. I nearly poisoned my entire family once." Cyrene opened the sack and inhaled.

"I can never find these," she sighed with pleasure, and pride. "My daughter has many skills." She looked at the young woman closely. "I'll be glad of your company Gabrielle; I'd like to know Xena's friends better. Might help me know her better after all these years. But I had thought, maybe-"

"Maybe Xena needed me now?" Gabrielle suggested. " I thought so too, but Xena makes her own decisions. She wants to be alone, work this about by herself."

"That worries you?"

"Yeah," Gabrielle nodded frankly. "I don't know what she's thinking, or feeling. That worries me." Cyrene busied herself with the mushrooms. The earthiness of their scent reminded both women of Xena.

"Is she angry with me?" Cyrene asked without looking up.


"She said not, but I wasn't sure whether she meant that. I was hard on her when she tried to come home."

"I remember." Cyrene had renounced her daughter, and made no objection when the people of Amphipolis tried to stone her. "Xena doesn't blame you for that, or for anything else. She just wants to find out about herself. That's why she needs to see Atrius again. Only he can tell her about the stranger in the inn that night."

"Is that where she's gone?" Cyrene asked, surprised. "How would Atrius know his identity? I never did."

"I don't know. He boasted that he was paid off for keeping his mouth shut. I guess Xena will find out."

"I wish I'd known where she was going. There's something else I should have told her."

"What's that? If I'm not prying?"

"Atrius didn't really walk out. He told me one evening that he was arranging a marriage for

Xena, to the son of a local farmer. She was so small! I was furious. That isn't our way in Amphipolis. Old tales tell of Amazons passing through our valley. It's said their influence is still felt."

"Knowing Xena, I think those old tales must be true," Gabrielle smiled at the thought.

"Atrius was from away. He seemed to think of Xena as his property. When he insisted on the betrothal, I told him he wasn't hers to give."

Gabrielle looked at the woman with admiration. "Good for you."

She shrugged. "I didn't tell him everything. Not about the rape. Or what happened to his friends. I didn't want him to start trouble for anyone. But he knew who I meant. He had never forgotten the humiliation of that evening. Me whacking him with the pitcher, in front of his army buddies."

"You said he didn't walk out. Is that when you... threw him out?"

"No. We never spoke of it again. But he was different toward Xena after that. Ignored her. Never touched her when I was around, but I wasn't comfortable leaving her with him. One busy night I needed him to keep up with the customers. He wasn't around. I went looking..." She paused to wipe a hand across her eyes. "I found him in the room the kids shared for sleeping. The boys were asleep. Atrius was with Xena, touching her-"

"No." Gabrielle thought she'd be sick.

"That was the night I threw him out. He knew his life would be worth nothing if my brothers knew. I don't know how much, if anything, Xena understood, or remembered. I don't know if that was the only time. I told them their father went away. Everyone assumed he took off for another great adventure. The years went on; he never returned. Only I knew why." She ended simply, drained.

Gabrielle realized that the mushroom she held had been crushed into a paste. She was quite certain that Xena knew and remembered everything. She had long sensed the anguish her warrior friend carried inside. Pain, anger, guilt all seemed to fight for space in Xena. Amazing that there was room for anything else. Yet she knew there was so much else there. She shuddered to think at the early age the hurting had started. "That's a heavy burden to carry for so long," Gabrielle sympathized, touching Cyrene's arm, meaning the words and the touch to be for Xena.

The older woman nodded. "Who could I tell? I don't know why I told you. Except I know you'd never use it to hurt Xena." Her hands twisted a towel, betraying her anxiety. "I still wonder if I did the right thing. If I hadn't told Atrius, he would have stayed to be a father to Xena and the boys. And left her alone. Maybe."

"Don't second guess yourself," Gabrielle reached her hands across the table to comfort her. You couldn't let him sell her in marriage."

"I might have found another way." She shook her head. It would have been better for everyone if that night hadn't happened."

"Excuse me?" Gabrielle's tone was mild, but Cyrene's words disturbed her. "It wouldn't be better for me if there were no Xena. I don't care who her father is, or the circumstances of her conception. I don't think you regret her either. And it's probably a good thing you didn't tell Xena."

Cyrene didn't look at Gabrielle as she spoke. 'Have you considered Xena's likely reaction if Atrius brings it up?"

Chapter 3

Xena made no detours on the road to Cythera. It was a forced march, and she timed her arrival to coincide with the first rays of dawn. She knew the workings of an inn; knew that the first chores began before first light. So it was that Atrius was startled by a figure emerging from the shadows in his barn before anyone else was about. She barred the door, and put her fingers to her lips before he could cry out.

"We'll just keep this private," she suggested. "Give me some information, and I'll be on my way."

"People know who did this," he said indicating his mouth, "anything happens to me and..."

"And what? What monster is going to get me this time?" she asked. Atrius shrank away, wondering what Xena remembered. "I'm not four years old any more Atrius, and I am not your property." Her blue eyes pierced him like daggers of ice, terrifying in their intensity. She had not come within ten feet of him, yet he shrank before her aura. "Just finish your story. How did you find him? The man who gave you the money; who is he?"

Atrius did not even think of denying the request, but paused before answering. He had never been certain who Xena's father was. Assumed it was the stranger because, it fit. Because it touched his vanity that his wife was desirable to a man of such rank. If Cyrene had affirmed it to Xena, it must be so. He looked at her now for some likeness of her father, as he told his tale:

"I was a soldier Xena. You how it is," he winked, hoping to ingratiate himself with the woman before him, knowing it was impossible even as he tried. I learned to see things. Always noticed the crest on a man's accouterments. Your mother wouldn't understand those things. This fellow's crest was impressive. I didn't know it, but never forgot it. Five years later, or six...?" he scratched his beard, remembering. 'No matter. Anyway, I was fighting up north, not much of a campaign, bad food, dumb leaders-"

"Get to the point."

"All right," he nodded. "One night I was sent with a message to the tent of the commander. He had a group of warrior chiefs in camp. Their standards were all arrayed outside the tent. That's where I saw it."

"He was there?"

"I don't know. I never saw him. But I asked about the crest. I was told it was the crest of a prince of Prestia." Xena stiffened slightly at the name. He pretended not to notice. 'Very impressive,' I said. I didn't think about it again for a long time. We saw some fierce fighting that season-"

"If I ever want to swap war stories, I'll let you know," she growled.

"Right. A few years later, I had fallen on hard times and I got to thinking about things. I thought, here's a man with a title, money, everything he could want. Why'd he have to go and break up my little family? I figured it was worth something to me. Ease my loss." Xena swallowed the anger that threatened to explode into activity. "So I went to Prestia, just mentioned the words Cyrene of Amphipolis and I'm in his chamber. He seemed a decent fellow. When I told him he had a child in Amphipolis he didn't argue. He knew what a sack of gold could mean in hard times. I assured him that he'd never hear from me again."

"Is that it?"

He considered. "He did ask the child's sex. And name. Funny, as he'd never see you."

"So the money was not, strictly speaking for your silence. He may have thought it would be used to raise his child. Hmmm?"

"I never said. 'Don't ask, don't tell,' that's my motto. You know how it is. From what I heard of your career I don't reckon you're in any position to pass judgment on me. I thought you'd be happy to know you're royalty." She looked at him, not hearing his words.

"What was his name?"

"Cletus." Cyrene couldn't even tell you that; slag, he thought. "As he and I had an understanding, I'd appreciate it if you'd keep my name out of this."

"I'll follow your rule. If he asks, I'll tell." She moved to unbar the door. The sun was up, and the early warmth felt good.

"Xena? No hard feelings, then?" He stood behind her, hand half-extended, seeking a friendly farewell. Xena turned to him and he recoiled.

'Atrius, I have dreamt of sliding steel into your pathetic hide. Thank the gods that I found you now, instead of a few years ago."

Prestia. Xena lay in the tall grass several miles from Cythera and reviewed what she knew of Prestia. She had never been there, was happy she had never tried to conquer the small kingdom. Why was that? A prosperous place like Prestia would have been a prime target. She couldn't recall it on the list of candidates. Too far to the north she reckoned, and maybe the mountains seemed formidable protection against invasion. She had been close, though. It lay just over the border from Cirra.

She considered her options now. Gabrielle and Cyrene were in Amphipolis, waiting for her return. They'd want to hear his name. Especially Cyrene.. or maybe not. Would she want to know? Xena hadn't told her where she was going when she left Amphipolis. Gabrielle would have done that by now, she was certain. And Gabrielle was feeling left out. She could swing by Amphipolis on the way north and collect Gabrielle. Except she didn't want to go near Amphipolis. She had only been half in jest when she spoke of needing an ambush. She recognized the familiar angry tension within her, and when it was released she did not want to be near her mother, or Amphipolis. Or Gabrielle.

"Gabrielle will just talk it away," she said aloud. "I don't want that." I must be missing someone to talk to, she realized, surprised at the sound of her own voice in the still meadow. So, Prestia. And what then? Mention Cyrene of Amphipolis and gain entry to the prince's chamber. If he was still a prince. He might be king. He might be dead. "You would throw a shoe near Cythera, Argo," she said, remounting the big mare. "Tell me. Do you believe in fate?"

The road to Prestia went through what had once been Cirra. The name still appeared on maps, and some new settlers had arrived to till the fertile fields that had been cultivated by others for generations. Xena hadn't been to Cirra since her army had raided the village, leaving it in flames. She rode through it now, trying to remember what had happened. She had not intended that the town burn, that the inhabitants be immolated. Yet it had happened, and she had paid dearly for it. These new inhabitants waved to her, unaware of her role in making their farm land available. She waved back, and urged Argo to a gallop.

A simple, easily defended ford across a wide river provided the only easy access to Prestia. If an army could seize the ford, and establish a beachhead they might seriously threaten the kingdom. Of course, that meant leaving serious numbers behind to defend the ford against counter-attacks. All in all, Prestia should be a well contented kingdom, she decided. The turmoil that had swept the surrounding area would not have left its mark here. She leaned against the rail of the ferry that plied the waters, enjoying the chance to be still and enjoy the sun. She and her steed were the only passengers this trip. Ahead she could see steep peaks, standing like sentinels against all comers. The token border guard at the landing asked minimal questions of her, apparently feeling no threat from the well-armed woman. She felt a small twinge of guilt for not having Gabrielle with her. The bard would have liked this land. Its picturesque houses seemed to smile from behind low, flower-lined fences. She stopped at one such farmhouse, and asked if there was spare bread for sale.

"Not for sale," was the reply. "You must be a stranger to think we'd ask payment for the fruit of the good earth." They offered her a bed for the night, "no charge," but the evening was so clear and the meadows so fragrant she declined and found a quiet spot to make camp. The first village she came to nestled beneath the bluffs on which stood an imposing castle, home of the Prestian kings. Xena regarded it with detachment. She had not come here to find a royal father, but to find the truth. In the shadow of the turrets she found a small tavern and quaffed an mid-morning cider. Over the door hung a fading portrait of a crowned head.

"King Cletus?" she inquired of the man tending bar.

"It is," he replied proudly. "No finer man ever wore a crown. He was a bit younger then, but the gods have graced him with long life. To his health," he proposed an earnest toast, which Xena joined. "Stranger in these parts? What brings you here?" he inquired genially.

"Sightseeing," Xena said, truthfully, she thought. She examined the portrait. The coloring matched her own, the features could have been anyone. In her experience such likenesses were of little value in actually depicting the person represented. "Is your king in residence at the castle this time of year?"

"His standard was flying this morning, so he's at home. Usually is these days. His days of adventure and travel are long past. His royal progress 'round his realm is about the most he travels nowadays. We'll miss him when he's gone."

"You speak as if his death is imminent." Xena's face did not betray her concern.

:I don't know about these things," he disclaimed. "I hear a lot of rumors, spending all my time in a public place like this. Word is that he's not well. I try not to believe everything I hear."

"A wise policy," she agreed.

"But I have to think about it. When he goes, I pull up shop and go elsewhere."

"Why?" Xena, asked genuinely puzzled. "Will his successor be that bad?"

"Who can say? He has no offspring. No brothers or sisters. The line of succession is in a right muddle. You know what that could mean." Xena did know. The worst type of war: civil war, to determine the heir. "I feel for the poor man. Good king, good husband, his late wife was a lovely woman. Just never produced any children. I'm sure I don't know if he was unable, or if she was barren. Quite a puzzle why these things happen." Xena shook her head in sincere agreement. Quite a puzzle. What did this news mean to her own quest? If he had not fathered any legitimate children, could he have fathered her? How could she determine that?

The bedchamber of the King of Prestia was not large, by royal standards. Queen Lycia had long ago determined that large meant drafty, and drafty was not comfortable. Spread now with official scrolls and maps the chamber seemed cozy, and rather cluttered. It suited King Cletus, but rather annoyed his advisor, Radec. The morning's work was almost finished, and the king was anxious to be rid of the able but officious man.

"One last thing, Majesty." Radec smoothed his graying hair with a soft hand. "We have a report from the border guard. It seems the warrior woman, Xena entered the kingdom yesterday." he peered intently at the king's face for any reaction. From the weathered face blue eyes peered sharply at the smaller man.

"What of it? Was she leading a troop of armed men?"

"No, but in view of her past deeds-"

"Her past is past. I understand that she has renounced plunder and devastation."

"Apparently. I only mention her because you have followed her career with some interest."

"I did not want Cirra to be repeated on this side of the border. I don't foresee that danger now. Unless she breaks the peace in my kingdom, she goes unmolested. Now, would you care to see a little theory of mine about the attractive qualities of the lodestone?" Cletus knew his amateur investigations into the laws of nature and mechanics puzzled Radec as pointless amusements. No better way to rid himself of the dreary man.

Radec gathered his things and left the room, with a deferential bow. He was not satisfied with the king's answer. His king's interest in Xena had predated Cirra, and been curiously like his interest in certain other individuals. Xena's arrival in the kingdom now was too large a coincidence to be only that. Discovering what lay behind it seemed a priority to the king's first minister. Accordingly, he summoned his spies.

Cletus swung a small lodestone at the end of a short length of twine. "So, it has begun," he said to himself, as the metal shavings on the table attached themselves to the whirling sphere. "When shall I see you, my first-born daughter?"

Chapter 4 - 6

Gabrielle with Scroll

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