(I)

"Twenty-five dinars? That's an inflated price and you know it." Alix spat.

The merchant huffed, "Madam, it's ten dinars for the wagon wheel and fifteen if you want my blacksmith to come all the way out to your campsite and fix your wagon. It's a fair price and you know it."

Alix squinted in annoyance, "And what if I decide to just fix the wheel myself?"

"Well, I would hope you have the proper tools and knowledge for that." The merchant simply replied. "It is, of course, your decision."

Alix grunted, "Look, pal, my entire wagon isn't worth twenty-five dinars."

"That's not my problem."

"Aren't you people supposed to want to make money?" Alix's calm demeanor was quickly fading as she struggled to keep negotiating, which had never been one of her strong suits, "How about five dinars for the wheel and ten for the labor?"

"No." The merchant folded his arms. "I have quoted you my price."

Alix sighed heavily and pulled out her coin purse. She counted eighteen dinars. Realizing she didn't even have enough to cater to the merchant's overpriced request, she turned and marched out of the market place.

"My friend! My friend!" A slender, olive skinned, man waved his arm to get Alix's attention. Alix paused for a moment and stared at the stranger, unsure if she wanted to approach the man. She was left little choice when he approached her. "You are in need of help?" He asked eagerly.

Alix eyed the man quickly and replied, "Perhaps."

"I hear your conversation. Your wagon, it is broken?" He smiled.

"You often listen in on other people's business?" Alix questioned, she slowly placed her hand on the handle of her dagger, not as a threat, but to ensure he was aware of its presence.

"No, no, no!" He held up his hands quickly, "I accidentally overhear. The merchant, he is very loud."

"What do you want?" Alix asked casually. "I'm very busy."

"We can trade." The man appeared very pleased with his request.

"Trade what?" Alix's patience grew thinner.

"My sister, and her children, they are with me. We are traveling to Greece. We have a wagon, but we are unfamiliar with the land and I am not skilled with a weapon." The man glanced at Alix's sheathed sword. "You are?"

"Protection?" Alix asked. "You'll let me travel with you in exchange for protection?"

"Yes!" The man shook his head and exclaimed with excitement. "We can help each other."

"I appreciate your offer, but I'm not alone. I have a family with me as well." Alix turned to leave.

"A family? That is lovely!" The man quickly interjected. "Our wagon, it is large."

Alix turned back and faced the man once more, "What is your name?"

"Iraj."

"Alixandriah."

"It is very nice to meet you." The man bowed his head. "My sister, she is over there." He pointed across the street to a tiny woman holding a small child in one arm and holding the hand of an older boy who stood beside her. "Sahar!" he called and motioned for the woman to come near.

Sahar cautiously made her away across the street, when she stepped closer to Alix she lowered her head and did not make eye contact. The little boy at her side hid behind his mother's robes. The small girl in her arms barely made a sound.

"Hello." Alix greeted warmly, attempting to not appear frightening.

"Sahar, say hello." The man encouraged. "It is okay. She is a friend."

"Hello." The woman spoke softly but her eyes did not rise.

"I am sorry. My sister is mourning. She lost her husband in war." Iraj put his hand on the small boy's head, "He was a brave man."

Alix wasn't fond of the idea of traveling with strangers, but they certainly seemed harmless enough; nothing she couldn't handle, anyway. Her options at the moment were limited.

"Which part of Greece are you headed to?" Alix inquired.

"Crete." Iraj replied. "We have family there."

"Crete is an island. That will require a ship."

Iraj nodded, "My uncle, he made arrangements, but I do not know the way." Iraj reached into a small sack and pulled out a scroll. He handed it to Alix; she read over the directions, which included that a ship would be waiting for them in Crotona Port.

"I do not know of this port." Alix replied.

"Neither do I." Iraj paused.

Alix thought for several moments before handing the scroll back to Iraj. "If you can find us a map, I will see that you and your family get to Crete."

Iraj smiled widely. "Of course! Of course! I will find a map!" he exclaimed with joy. "I will meet you here, tomorrow morning, we leave for Crete!"

"All right." Alix agreed and shook the man's hand.

(II)

Gabrielle allowed herself to wander into daydreams as she rode comfortably infront of Xena, the warrior's arms engulfing her perfectly. She had always preferred walking to their destination, but these days, with this new riding style, she found herself very content upon the horse. Xena rode at a steady pace as they took their time traveling the countryside. The relaxed state was refreshing and well deserved.

"Have you ever been to Crete?" Xena asked casually, breaking the bard from her dreams.

Gabrielle smiled before replying, "Once."

Xena was surprised to hear of a past visit, "You must have been a child." She concluded.

"It was my seventh year." Gabrielle confirmed. "My sister Lila was only in her fourth year. She used to say she could remember everything too, but I knew she didn't. I barely remembered the visit at all after a few years. Lila would ask me to tell her stories about the trip before we fell asleep. Sometimes, I'd have to make parts up because I would forget. I think she knew that, but she didn't mind. She just wanted to hear the story." Gabrielle's heart ached for a moment from the memory of her sister.

"What do you remember now?" Xena's question was gentle and sincere.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, "The smells." She opened her eyes, "The island was full of different perfumes, flowers, foods…" Gabrielle paused. "It was so relaxing there; the beaches were sandy and the skies were blue. We only stayed for a few days, long enough for my father to make a business arrangement for our farm. It was one of the few times I left Potidaea and traveled. Gods, even then I knew the small village life wasn't for me."

"Good thing I came along." Xena teased. "Who knows who or what you may have run off with?"

Gabrielle laughed lightly, and then turned slightly to face the warrior. "I wouldn't have run off with just anyone." She replied sweetly.

"Why me?" Xena inquired innocently.

Gabrielle smiled, "Because you were different."

"Different?"

"Well, there were lots of reasons." Gabrielle replied, as she turned back around and faced the road. "You had so many qualities that I admired."

"Such as?" Xena encouraged.

It was rare for Xena to press a conversation. It was even more rare for Gabrielle to suppress one. She suddenly found herself feeling awkward infront of the warrior as she recalled, even back then, the obvious affection she felt. "You were strong and independent." Gabrielle finally answered. "Brave." She added. "I had never seen that before in a woman. Part of me wished to be like you, but even more so, I just wanted to be with you." Xena didn't reply. The silence made Gabrielle uncomfortable, so she continued, "And you were so beautiful. I almost wondered if you were one of the Gods." Gabrielle's voice lowered into a soft whisper, "I couldn't just let you leave without me. I would have followed you for months if that's what it took."

Xena's arms tightened around the bard, and she pulled the smaller woman closer to her. Gabrielle leaned against Xena's chest. She felt the warmth and tenderness of Xena's lips press against her head. It set her body on fire and it was if she melted into the warrior's embrace. "I just wanted to protect you." Xena said softly. "That's all I've ever wanted, your safety."

Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's arm and squeezed it tightly; "There isn't a safer place in the world than in your arms."

(III)

"Well, I think it's the best alternative." Adalei replied casually. "At least we'll have some company for the rest of the trip." She carefully turned the fish in the frying pan. "And Crete could be the safest place for a fresh start. It'll be nice to have children around for Rian."

Alix stared deeply into the fire. She tried not to think of the bad things that could happen upon returning to the Empire. Addie was right, Crete could be detached enough to hide them but still offer benefits of the Empire's culture and amenities.

"In the morning, I'll go to town to meet Iraj. You stay here with Rian and I'll come back for you and our supplies."

Morning came quickly and Alix awoke with ease. She had trained herself well, at the first speck of daylight, Alix's biological clock alarmed. She was careful to not wake Adalei and Rian, who often enjoyed sleeping in a little longer. She stood to her feet and stretched. The cool crisp air was refreshing and the idea of moving onward was inspiring. She wanted to keep Rian and Adalei off the road and out of the wilderness as much as possible. The broken wagon wheel was a small set back that had delayed their travels, but not deterred them.

Briefly, she considered waking Adalei to tell her goodbye, but then decided against it. She mounted her horse and quietly exited the campsite. Half a candle mark later she was standing in town waiting for Iraj. He showed up as promised, with a map and his wagon. He was eager to travel, but then, so was Alix. They wasted no time in heading towards the campsite. Alix was pleased with the size of the wagon; there would be room for Adalei and Rian and their supplies. It seemed to be a true gift from the Gods. Alix was thankful, but still on guard. It was a habit she had formed over the last two years.

As they rode up to the campsite, Rian was happily running around the bedrolls laughing and playing with one of her toys. The sight warmed Alix's heart and she thanked the Gods once more that they would be on their way this morning. Adalei had begun packing up camp and was nearly finished when she heard the wagon coming forward.

"Rian, come here, sweetheart." Adalei called, in fear she may run out into their way.

"Momma!" Rian exclaimed, "Look!" she pointed.

Adalei smiled and scooped up her daughter. Rian wrapped her arms around her mother's neck and watched wide eyed as Alix and the horses came closer.

Alix dismounted her steed and stepped towards Adalei. Rian reached out for the warrior. Alix happily accepted the invitation, "Good morning, pup." She greeted tenderly.

"Orses." Rian spoke with confidence as she gazed passed Alix's shoulder.

Alix turned back and looked then laughed lightly, "Yes, pup. Horses."

Suddenly Rian's eyes landed on the other small toddler who peaked her head out of the wagon. It was the first time Rian had seen another person her size. She instantly lit up with excitement and curiosity.

"Hello, I'm Adalei." Adalei greeted the travelers. She stepped forward gently to better acquaint herself with her new friends. "Thank you so much for your help."

Iraj jumped down from the wagon and extended his hand, "No, we are thankful." He replied. "Alixandriah is very kind."

"That's how we feel about you." Adalei smiled. "It seems as if the Gods brought us together."

Iraj laughed, "Indeed." He glanced over at the broken wagon. "I am surprised you made it this far." He immediately began clearing room in his wagon for his new friends' supplies.

"It's nice to meet you." Adalei greeted as she looked up at Sahar. "I have a daughter about the same age as yours." She looked back at Rian who was eyeballing the strangers intensely. Adalei giggled, "It seems she is eager to meet you."

Sahar smiled. She was touched by the woman's warmth and was delighted to see that she was a mother as well. Her guard lowered, "I am Sahar. This is my son, Amir, and my daughter, Malakeh."

"Their names mean King and Queen." Iraj interjected as he grabbed a large crate off Alix's wagon. "My brother named them. He wanted them to be proud… strong."

"I'm sure they will be." Adalei replied humbly.

"They already are." Sahar doted. She called for Amir to step out of the wagon, "Amir, help your uncle." The small boy immediately obeyed his mother.

"No, pup, you can't eat that." Alix gingerly reached down and took a bug out of Rian's hand. "I can't wait till the "everything is potential food" phase passes." She mumbled. "Did Momma forget to feed you this morning?"

"Of course, I fed her." Adalei defended playfully as she walked back towards her family. "She ate an entire bowl of berries and drank a cup of milk."

"She was about toe at dessert." Alix teased tossing the bug back into the surrounding bushes.

"Well, she didn't learn bug eating from me." Adalei picked up the child and placed her on her hip. "So, that leaves you."

Alix laughed heartedly, "I don't eat bugs."

"I've seen you eat quite a few 'questionable' things." Adalei replied in a tone that appeared to be good-humored, but also serious.

"Never a bug." Alix objected.

"It's all right, darling." Alix smirked as she twirled around and walked back towards the wagon to introduce the two toddlers?

"I don't eat bugs." Alix stated again, this time a little louder so that everyone could hear. No one seemed to notice; no one replied. "I don't." she emphasized. She grabbed the last crate off the wagon and loaded it onto Iraj's.

"Ready, friend?" Iraj asked as he clasped his hand onto Alix's shoulder.

"Ready." Alix replied throwing a bucket of water onto the fire's embers. "Let's go."