Xena let the horse run well into the night. There were no towns between Andreas and Amphipolis, so she wouldn’t have to worry about circumventing any guards that might be taking the late watch seriously. She knew this area well, and she knew there was absolutely nothing between her and her brother’s tomb but grass, trees, and wildlife. Though Lyceus’ tomb was uncomfortably close to her childhood home, Xena knew that no one would be there. Mother would be too busy with her petty worries at the tavern, and Toris-- wherever that coward was-- wouldn’t be around.
Xena had let her mind wander all day, thinking about Petricles, about the way his smile looked in the sunlight and the way his laugh made her grin. She knew the man loved her; he’d never said it, but he had certainly demonstrated it. Petricles had been loyal to her and had sided with her many times when he could easily have gone against her, like some others in her army had. Loyalty was a rare commodity in her world; she had rewarded him for it that first time with gold. Later, it had taken a promotion. She smiled in the darkness as she remembered the first time it had taken her body to reward him. For a man who could be so vicious on the battlefield, Petricles had a tender touch in bed. More than once Xena had wondered why he hadn’t had a woman when she’d met him. When she had finally asked him, he had smiled and said, "I was waiting for the right woman to come along."
He’s always been smooth, that’s for sure, she thought as the horse’s steady gallop ate away at the grassland that stretched in every direction. Not for the first time that day Xena wondered why Petricles would want to marry her. They made a good team; they thought alike, acted alike, even fought alike. He was as ruthless as she was when events demanded it. He was a better talker than she was, and people tended to trust him. I’ll have to learn that skill, she reminded herself. It could come in handy. Where Xena was all fury, he was tempered; he could be both rough and gentle, and she admired-- and desired-- that in him.
So he loves me. And he’s a good partner. He’s loyal. He’s smart. He’s good with his hands... she chuckled at that last one, remembering how tender he had been the night before, and how she had been forced to bite his shoulder to choke off the screams of pleasure she was sure the whole rest of her camp would hear. It’s not like I haven’t had lovers in camp before, she mused as the horse moved down a long hill at a good clip. It’s just that they’ve never been this good...
But good enough to marry...?
The horse galloped on.
* * *
Sundown the next day came sooner than Alric would have thought possible. All in all he hired nine men, every one a warrior or killer of one sort or another. He couldn’t remember all of their names-- he didn’t figure that was important. He felt that all the men had to do were follow orders, and since they wouldn’t be paid until Xena was a corpse, he figured they would.
Her brother’s tomb, the rider had told his companion. She visits it every year near the autumn solstice. Look for her there, alone, and you can take her at your leisure. Alric wondered just what a brother of Xena’s must have been like, and how many men he must have taken with him when he was killed. A dozen? Twenty? Alric shook his head. Any man who could fight like Xena would be dangerous indeed.
They met by the well just north of the center of town as Amphipolis was closing up for the day. Only Cyrene’s tavern was still open this late, and none of this group had any need of any services the inn might offer. Alric counted heads silently and gazed down at the slim, frail figure next to him. "They’re all here," he said, and the figure nodded assent.
"I’ll make this brief," Alric said, his size and voice alone enough to get their attention. "You were hired for one purpose-- to kill Xena. We don’t care how it’s done, we don’t care who strikes the killing blow-- there is no bonus. Just make sure she’s dead and you’ll all get paid. If she gets away, nobody sees a dinar."
The bald man with the tiger tattoo spoke up. "What’s to stop us from killing you and taking the money?" he asked, drawing a knife.
"It isn’t with me, and you’d have to kill me before I told you where it was. And trust me," Alric said, smiling, "you’ll never find it."
"What about the old man?" another warrior asked.
"My friend doesn’t know where it is either," Alric replied. "So just do the job and you’ll get your rewards."
The men grunted agreement, and the bald man asked, "Where will we take her?"
Alric gestured in the fading light. "North of town there is a tomb that she’s going to visit. We’ll wait in ambush there, then take her once she goes inside."
"Are you sure she’s going to be alone?" another man asked.
Alric folded his massive arms. "Positive."
The group nodded their understanding.
"Let’s go then," Alric said, and they came together in ragged formation and walked out of Amphipolis, headed north, toward Lyceus’ tomb.