"I donít like it," he said as she climbed up on the horse.
Xena brushed her cape back as she settled into the saddle. "I didnít think you would."
"I know I surprised you last night with that talk of marriage," Petricles said, "but please.."
Xena smiled gently. "I was going to visit Lyceusí tomb anyway. Itís near enough the anniversary of his death." Her eyes met his. "Now Iíll be making the journey alone."
"Itís too dangerous," Petricles argued.
"Are you saying I canít take care of myself?" Xena asked him, smirking.
"Not at all," he replied. "But youíll be gone for several days, alone. If any of your enemies gets word of this..." He shook his head, his hair spilling over his shoulder pads. "Itís very risky."
Xena sighed. "Amphipolis is a small town. They have no warriors. No one would dare suspect me of coming so close to home." She gave him a tender look. "Iíll be alright. I just need time to think about this."
"Let me come with you," he argued. "It would be safer."
Xena chuckled. "The whole point of going alone is so I can consider what you asked me." She reached out a gloved hand and patted his shoulder pad. "I wouldnít really be able to think about it objectively if you were there, would I?"
"Is that what youíre afraid of? That Iíll try to influence you?"
Xena nodded. "Donít even try it. I know you too well. Youíd wrap me up in your words till my head swam." She smiled. "No chance. I go alone."
He started to protest again, but Xena cut him off.
"Or I can just say Ďnoí right now."
Petriclesí protest died unspoken.
"Besides, someone needs to watch the troops while Iím gone." She leaned over and kissed him lightly. "I canít think of anyone more qualified."
He stood on his tiptoes and kissed her more urgently. "Hurry back," he murmured. "Iím already missing you."
"Iíll be back in a week," she said. "Try to stay out of trouble until then."
"You too," he said, and Xena nudged the horseís side and started him into a gallop. Moments later she had left the camp and was riding east over the open grassland.
"Watch over her, Ares," Petricles whispered as her watched her fade into the distance.
* * *
"You want to what?" the bald man asked, laughing.
"You heard me," the big warrior replied.
"Attack Xena? Are you crazy?"
The big warrior shifted his weight on the bench and glanced at his frail companion, shrouded in a dark cloak.
"Iím not crazy," he growled. "I have it on good authority that she will be alone."
The bald man paused. "Come again, Alric?"
"Alone," he repeated.
The bald man squinted. "How good is your source?" he asked.
"Heís one of Xenaís men. Heard her talking to her lover just this morning."
The bald man sat back. "That changes things."
Alric nodded in agreement.
"Very well, then. You have yourself a deal. Iíll meet you at the well tomorrow at sundown." He extended a muscled arm with a tattoo of a tiger running all the way from his wrist to his shoulder. Alric shook his hand, and the bald man stood and left the tavern.
"Thatís five," Alric said. "Weíre not doing badly."
The small, frail figure nodded mutely.
"We still have plenty of money, too. We should be able to hire at least a dozen men."
"Whatever it takes," a thin, reedy voice said.
Alric nodded. "So long as the money holds out, weíll be alright. And we have another day to hire some more men." He motioned to the bartender, a middle aged woman with icy blue eyes and a mane of black hair. She came over and re-filled his ale; he smiled and gave her a dinar. She pocketed it and moved off.
Alric looked around the tavern. "Itís getting late. I donít think weíll have any more takers tonight."
The small figure made no sound, no movement.
The door of the tavern opened up, and a short, darkly dressed man entered. He surveyed the surroundings quickly, his eyes darting about the inn until they settled on Alric. Slowly the man walked to the table, his eyes never leaving the beefy man, and he sat down. The barmaid came over, and he asked for a wine.
"You must be Alric," the man said.
The big warrior nodded.
"Iím called Therseites," he spoke. "Whoís the old man?"
"None of your concern," Alric rumbled.
Therseites took his wine and sipped it. "I like to know everyone I work for."
Alric leaned forward; the table creaked with his bulk. "You work for me."
Therseites cocked his head to one side. "Fair enough." He examined a fingernail for a few moments, and then he said, "Xena, huh?"
"I can do the job. Five thousand dinars. And I work alone."
Alric glanced down at his small companion, then back at the assassin. "We already have some other men."
Therseites gulped at his wine and sat back, pushing the chair up on its hind legs. "You donít understand," he said, glancing from the big warrior to the tiny old man, "I always work alone. And I always get my target." He drank the rest of his wine and put the goblet down. "Always."
Alric shifted, well aware of Therseites' abilities. He glanced at his small companion, but the hooded head moved back and forth.
"Iím afraid this has to be a group job," Alric said. "We need to witness the kill."
Therseitesí face split into a malicious grin. "Iíll bring you her head."
"No," the reedy voice spoke. "Not good enough."
Therseitesí dark eyes narrowed. "Itíll have to be-- or I walk."
Alric looked down at the small figure next to him, but the hooded head merely nodded no once more.
Therseites stood quickly. "No deal. Best of luck. Maybe some other time-- when you donít have a death wish." He left the tavern hastily and vanished into the night.
Alric turned to his employer. "Heís very good."
"No," the voice hissed.
"He probably could do it," the big man suggested.
"I have to see the kill. Not proof of death. I have to see her die."
Alric shrugged. "Okay," he said at last. "Tomorrowís another day."