A Change of Seasons

By Melissa Good

The sun was rising, faint rays of light penetrating the thick tree lined path up the side of the mountain.  The trees were wearing newly grown leaves and by the side of the path, wildflowers were just starting to emerge, their still curled buds taking on warm colors as dawn progressed.

It was relatively quiet.  The breeze rustled the branches, and nearby a bird was singing as it hopped from branch to branch, head cocking as it searched for a breakfast bug to consume, ignoring the soft patter of paws as two half grown dogs trotted past.

They were shorthaired, and had round heads and small, cupped ears, and a blond spot on each shoulder.  Behind them came two young girls carrying baskets on their backs, one tall for her age and dark haired, the other shorter and freckled, with a curly red mop.

“We gots good stuff to bring the mamas.” Cari stated, as they crossed the bridge and started up the last slope to their cabin home.

“We gots.” Dori agreed. “Gramma made it nice.”

“But no cookies.”

“Not ready.” Dori said, with a pout.  Laters.”

Laters.”

They got to the top of the path and into a clearing, which was full of short grasses and flowering shrubs along with a spring, and a neatly made cabin with bark lined walls and a thickly thatched roof, and a porch that currently held one blond woman in a woven shirt and leggings perched on a seat with a cup in her hand. “Hey kids!”

“Mama!” Dori bolted for the porch and jumped up the steps onto it. “Mama, look what Gramma sent with us!” She turned and displayed her burden. “For us and you and Boo!”

Aw,  she did huh?”  Gabrielle set the cup down on a newly made table and removed the basket from her daughter’s back.  Lets see what we got here.”

Cari climbed up the steps one at a time and came over. “It’s gettin warmer.” She took off her basket and set it down next to Gabrielle’s feet.  “Yay.”

“It is.” Gabrielle agreed, opening the basket.  Inside were two nutbreads, and a crock of new, soft cheese.  Lets take these in the house.”  She got up and pushed the cabin door open, waiting for the two children to run inside before following them with the two baskets.  “Grandma is so nice to us, isn’t she?”

“Mama, where’s Boo?” Dori asked, looking around. “Where’d she go?”

“She’ll be right back.” Gabrielle set the baskets on the table and started emptying them.  “She just went to go see if anyone was coming to our party.”

“Party, party we gonna have a party.” Cari danced around in a circle, patting her hands together. “Yay.”

“That’s right.” Gabrielle chuckled a little. “We’re having a party to celebrate all the trees being green, and having good things to grow and eat, right?”

“Yes.” Dori sat down on the footstool near the fire. “We go swimming, mama?”

“Sure. A little later, when the sun comes up here.” Her mother promised.  “We can go in the spring with Boo. How about that?”

A motion caught her attention and she glanced over to see the round headed dogs straighten up and swivel their small ears to the door in rapt attention.  “Ah, I think your Boo is coming now, Dor.” She commented, a moment later hearing herself the gentle footfalls coming down from the ridge.

Dori got up and went to the window, which was standing with it’s shutters open to let in the spring breeze. “Boo!” She waved at the tall, lithe figure approaching.  “Boo!”

The door opened and Xena entered, closing the door as dogs and children attacked her kneecaps with joyous abandon.  “Hey rug rats and punks.” She knelt and returned the hugs but not the licks.  “Gorgeous out there.”  She pushed up the sleeves on her linen shirt and ran her fingers through her disordered, dark hair.

“Love the breeze.”  Gabrielle agreed, handing over a piece of cheese covered bread as Xena stood up and walked over to her. “See anyone headed this way?” She sat down at the table and picked up her cup again. “I figure the words gotten out far enough by now.”

“I did.”  Xena took a seat on the couch and gained a covering of animals and children.  “Not sure what some of it is though. No wagons, just a bunch on horseback and a couple of oxen in front on the one closest to us.” She chewed. “I could see a caravan behind them just clear of the pass though.”

“Mm.” Gabrielle made a small noise under her breath. ‘Well, we can always just party with ourselves.”  She got up. “Let me go see how Eph’s doing.”

“I’d rather just party with you.”  Xena said, her eyes widening in mock innocence. “Hades with the rest of them.”  She amiably played a game of patty-cake with both Dori and Cari, their hands slapping without much rhythm against her free hand.

“Hedonist.”

“Takes one to know one.”

Gabrielle leaned over and gave her a kiss on the head as she passed. “Want to go swimming later?”

“Yup.”  Xena was breaking her bread into sections and handing it out. “I’d love to.” She looked up at her partner. “Tell Ep I say hi.”

“Absolutely I will.” Gabrielle paused to add a light cloak to her shoulders, and then she went out from the cabin into the cool morning, seeing the sun starting to paint the tops of the trees in gold.  She took a breath of the pine scented air and started on the path down to where the Amazon village was.

A moment later, a shaggy black form joined her at the trot, pink tongue protruding.  “Hey Ares.” Gabrielle greeted their wolf friend. “Nice day, huh? After all that snow?”

The wolf glanced at her, then hopped over a branch in his path.

It was still a little bit frosty, the morning. Gabrielle took care on her way down the slope, not intending on providing the Amazon guard a show by slipping and falling on her ass all the way to the gates.

Again.

But there was definitely spring in the air, and as she safely arrived at the level stretch that curved up into the Amazon village the guards greeted her with cheerful waves, and an offer of hot herb tea as she came up to the newly built sturdy gates blocking the way. “Good morning.”

“Morning your Majesty.”  Posi said.  “Hey Ares.”

“Morning.”  Her companion added, as she pushed back the gates to allow their queen to enter.  As the barrier opened, the sound of hammers on iron drifted out, and the laughter of children. 

Gabrielle entered through the gates and paused to glance at them. They were tall, and during the day they stood open so the breeze could pass unhindered, but they were made of smoke hardened logs strapped together with iron banding, made right there in the village.

The front of the gates had iron studding as well, and in the center of each, a roundel that bore what had been decided on as the sigil for the tribe, the triangle of a mountain peak with a moon behind it, over crossed staves and arrows.

Simple, but the staves there were because of her, and it made Gabrielle smile a little as she saw it.  She moved up the slope onto the plateau that the village was built around and was glad to see a flurry of activity in the early morning light.

In the center was the gathering hall, now robustly reinforced with bark walls covered in designs, and the dining hall to the other side of it.  On the left were the dorms and the children’s hall, and behind them the senior warrior’s bunks.

On the right, the path that led to the tribe’s leader’s housing, where her own hut was, along with Ephiny’s and to the right of that the cozy grouping that held the elders that had just been finished the sevenday before.

Far to the right of that, were workshops where the metal hammering sounds were coming from, along with a woodcrafter’s shop, leather tanning room, and, newest of all, the small cot with the open windows and wide porch where artwork was being created on a variety of surfaces.

As Gabrielle crossed the open central space with the wolf at her heels there was a sense of content and productivity that had been slowly growing and it gave her a sense of accomplishment and frankly, relief.

So many questions, so much contention, but now this adopted tribe of hers had finally come around to the decision that they kinda liked and appreciated both their new home and their queen and had decided to settle down and carry on.

Nice.

She returned the waves of those whose path she crossed and smiled as a gaggle of children broke off from a game and came running towards her.  “Hey there kids!” She paused and knelt as they gathered around and started talking at once. “Whoa whoa whoa, one at a time.”

“Da goats had a baby.” The oldest of the children informed her. “We saw it!”

“It was yucky.” A second said. “But they watched it and now it’s cute.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “I’m glad to hear that.” She said. “When I’m done saying hello I’ll come see it.  Baby goats are cute, until they learn to butt you.” She stood up. “Back to the game, okay?”

The kids rushed off, mostly girls, but two little boys as well that soon, all too soon, would need to be fostered out to the village, and she made a mental note to talk to the council about it.

She walked on up the path through the trees to the glade where the tribe’s leadership was quartered and smiled a little as she heard a baby’s distinctive gurgle coming from the hut to the left.  She bypassed the route to her own quarters and followed the sound.

The doors were no longer just beads, they were solid and she knocked on Ephiny’s with a specific pattern.  Ares sat down on the woven hemp rug outside the door and let his pink tongue hang out, content to wait outside for her. “I know, you don’t really like babies, do you?”

Growf.” Ares eyed her.

“C’mon in.”

Gabrielle pushed the door open and peeked inside, grinning as Ephiny turned, rocking a little bundle in her arms. “Hey there!”

“Ah, my queen.” Ephiny smiled back. “We just finished breakfast.” She walked over.  “And I gotta say, it’s a lot easier not having a centaur this time.”

Gabrielle chuckled, peering at the small baby cradled in Ephiny’s arms.  “She’s so cute.”  She tickled the baby’s hand, that clutched at her finger a little. 

“All babies are cute.” Ephiny told her. “Or you’d kill them after the first time they puked on you, y’know?” She looked indulgently at the infant.  “But yeah, she’s not bad.”

The baby had Ephiny’s blond, curly hair, and her eyes were a soft light hazel.  She had a sweet nature, and giggled as Gabrielle made a face at her.  “Hey little Samba!”    She took the bundle that her regent offered, and rocked her a little.

“She likes you.” Ephiny noted as the infant cooed happily. “Of course, because all children like you.”

“They sense their future entertainment.” Gabrielle remarked dryly.  “Or they know I’m a sucker who carries candy with me all the time.”

Ephiny chuckled, herself.  “I vote for the candy.”  She said.  “They’re all too young to realize it’s not for them its for your other half.”

Xe saw some travelers heading this way.”  Gabrielle informed her. “Maybe I can sell some of those honeyballs to them.”

Nooo doubt.”

**

“Boo, what’s that?”  Dori was on her knees on the ground pointing under the bed.

Xena crawled forward in a sinuous wave and put her chin on her wrists, peering cautiously into the dark spot.  “That’s a hat.” She informed her child. “Your mama got that hat from someone and she doesn’t like it. That’s why it’s under the bed.”

Dori promptly crawled forward and retrieved the object, pulling it back and emerging with the hat and a dust bunny with it.   She set the dust bunny aside and shook the hat, then put it on her head. It promptly came down over her ears and covered her face.

Xena chuckled softly.  “Well it looks better on you than it did on your mama.” She sat up and pulled her legs up crossed under her.

Cari came over and sat down next to her.  “Funny.” She pointed at Dori. 

Dori picked the brim of the floppy hat up and looked out from under it, her light green eyes twinkling.  “Ho ho ho.” She warbled. “Like mama do.”

“Funny, like mama do.” Xena agreed, with an easy smile.   She leaned back on her hands and extended her legs out as the two puppies came over to investigate,  sniffing at the soft leather leggings she was wearing with their untied laces draped over her bare ankles.

The sun peeked through the windows and she could smell the dew outside and she let out a small breath of contentment. 

She was looking forward to their spring festivities.  They had both Amazon and Amphipolis traditions to celebrate, and a new story from her partner to enjoy.  The town and the village were starting to break up the ground for planting, and all around she had a sense of new life emerging.

“You want to go visit your little cousin Samba?” Xena asked idly.  “Or you want to go ride your pony?”

Dori just looked at her, and it made Xena start laughing. 

“Sambo is cute.” Cari asserted. “Rusty more cute.” She added. “Grandma maybe make cookies now?”

Xena pushed herself up to her feet. “You little pirates get more like me every single day.” She told the two girls.  “Let’s take the pups and go see what Grandma has for us.”

She wrangled her little posse and put on her boots, then led the way out the cabin and down the path, the girls running ahead of her with the dogs in a trail of giggles and tails as they crossed the footbridge and went past the Amazon gates down the side of the mountain.

As she went down she let out a whistle on the wind, high and piercing, that echoed lightly against the rock walls beyond the gates.

The puppies barked, turning to look at her.  Xena shooed them forward and followed as they reached the bottom of the trail and the fortified embankment and gated wall guarded by soldiers in hawks head tunics. 

They braced as they saw her, and two of them grabbed hold of the barred gates and opened them.  “Morning, genr’l.”

“Morning.” Xena waved, as she followed the posse through.  “Any news?”

“No ma’am.” The nearer of the two soldiers said. 

Xena paused and looked at him.

“Sorry Xena.” The youngster blushed, wrinkling his nose.  “We heard there were some calves last night, but that’s about it.”

With a wave, Xena continued on, down the path through the back of the town.  On either side of the path were now more sturdy huts , and even this early there was a soft buzz of conversation as she approached the well where many were dipping buckets of water.

Cari and Dori ran through and dodged legs as they headed for the stone lined path going to the small barn attached to the inn, with the puppies loping behind them.

“Morning Xena.” The baker waved. 

“Morning.”  Xena replied.

Xena!”

She turned and paused, to see her senior captain Bennu jogging her way. “Meet me in the barn.” She called out.  “Before the stampede.”

The people around the well laughed, and she continued on her way, hoping the day would continue it’s springlike cheer.

**

Gabrielle heard the light sound of rhythmic drumming as she pushed open the door to her own quarters, her fingers echoing the taps on the doorframe as she went inside and then paused to open the closed shutters, letting in the light and air.

And the drumming.  Gabrielle knew there would also be gathering musicians down by the town and she was looking forward to the festival, with it’s music and dancing and celebration of spring.

This spring, especially given what had gone on during the winter and the threat of that never ending, leaving the land in it’s frozen state.  

A threat Xena had never believed was true.

Gabrielle sat down behind her worktable and pulled over two neatly rolled scrolls, untying and rolling them out flat to study.  

She, too, had been places where winter was unknown.  Gabrielle looked up and out the windows, her eyes slightly unfocused. “I don’t think I believed it either.”  She remarked to the empty hut. “But I’m glad it worked out.”

She went back to the scrolls, one a list of youngsters about to take on their adult status, another a list of singles who wanted to pair.   She smiled at both.  “I like this time of year.” She studied the list of girls she would newly mint as Amazons.

Coming of age, kids she’d watched grow up through the last few years of tension, war, and conflict. They’d take their warrior’s oath to her and gain the single feather of a junior warrior with all the tasks and toil that came with it.

It would be fun.  Xena would be standing behind her with her basket full of feathers and the strips of leather and beads that went with them and though the oath would be to her, the eyes of the oathtakers would be on the towering figure that represented everything they wanted to be.

And that was okay.  Gabrielle set aside the first parchment and picked up the second, studying it with a smile. This list was shorter, only three pairs, but one she knew well and was something of a surprise.  “Ah Cait.”  She rested her chin on her fist. 

The feral orphan had agreed to formally join with the outsider Paladia who had come to acceptance in the tribe about as sideways as one could imagine.   She was looking forward to that ceremony as well.

A soft knock came at the door, and Ares lifted his head, blinking solemnly.

“C’mon in.” Gabrielle rolled the parchments up and set them aside as the door opened and Solari poked her head in. “Hey Sol.”

“Morning.” Solari came in and pushed back the hood on her cloak. “Just came down from the upper valley.  The sheep up there are popping out like crazy.” She reported. “And let me tell you we’re going to have plenty of venison this season.”

“Good.” Gabrielle smiled. “I had a half dozen folks ask to relocate up there now that the weather’s better and I saw the load of copper that came down from there yesterday and it looked great.”

Solari nodded. “Renas made some bracelets I really liked.” She said. “And there’s plenty of space back there for whoever wants to move.”

She came over and sat down on the stool in front of Gabrielle’s workbench. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

Solari paused, putting her hands on her knees and leaning forward a little. “I like it back there.” She said. “I’d like to go live in the valley.”

Gabrielle studied her for a moment.  “Sure.” She said.  “It’ll take a while to build huts, but it’s gorgeous. I don’t blame you.”

Solari grinned. “Yeah I picked out a spot in a place overlooking that lake and I’ve been camping there while we worked that metal spot.” She agreed.  So I woke up this morning and decided I’d come ask.” She said. ”I think Nala’s going to come ask you too. She walked back here with me.”

The upper valley, now that they’d cleared out the rockfall was becoming a popular spot.   It was picturesque, and had pockets of caves for shelter and groups of Amazons traveled up and down the path most days now that it was warm enough.

“I say go for it.” Gabrielle confirmed.  “Makes me feel good to think of you and Nala being up there.  I trust you both.”

Solari grinned a bit wider. “Yeah, we don’t want any renegade crap going on back there.” She said, in a knowing tone.  “We figured that too.”

Everyone seemed happy, but Gabrielle knew you just never knew sometimes.  “Well, you guys have my blessing.” She said. “After the festival?”

Solari nodded.

They both stood up and Gabrielle flexed her hands. “Now let me go find out what my better half is up to. She went down to town with the kids.” 

Solari followed her outside, and they walked down the path together as the sun poured across the central square, lighting up everything in slate grays and thatch brown and new growth green.   “Thanks Gabrielle.” Solari said, as she started down the path that would lead to her current quarters. “See ya later.”

“Later.” Gabrielle saw a group of the elders headed her way, and she pointed to the dining hall, heading that way herself.  “Let’s hope my luck holds.”

**

The horses and pony were all very ready to get out of their stalls and Xena got to the door just in time to prevent Rusty’s precipitous exit with both Dori and Cari on his back. “Whoa whoa!”  She blocked the door, waving her hand in front of the pony’s face as he twisted his lips at her and shook his head.

“Boo! Let us go!” Dori protested.

“Just you hang on a minute.” Xena slid the door bar into place. “Let me get the rest of these jokers and we’ll go down by the river.”

Argo and Iolaus were at the front of their stalls, ears up and perked forward at her and she got their rope halters on and opened up their gates.  Both golden horses surged forward and a moment later Xena had her back against the door being nudged by three long noses. “Stop that!”

Argo kept nudging, blowing out a protest against her owner’s chest.

Dori giggled. “Gogo!”

With a stifled laugh Xena pulled the door back and as Rusty scooted past her she pulled herself up onto Argo’s bare back and ducked her head to clear the barn door as the larger horses followed.

They trotted down the path that led to the crossroads of the town and Xena let out a whistle of warning as they emerged and started downslope to the riverbank.

People dodged out of the way as Dori aimed Rusty at the town gates and he sped up, his small hooves sending up tiny pocks of dirt.

Xena released the rope on Iolaus’ halter and sent Argo after the pony. The mare broke into a canter and Xena relaxed into the pace, her long legs extending down along the horse’s body as she threaded her way through the crowd and down past the turn for the barracks.

Along the river, the long stretch of grass had been marked off for racing, and further down they’d set up holding pens for the horses who were out and being exercised.  Iolaus let out a neigh and thundered past his mother as a group of running horses came past.

“Go!” Dori yelled in excitement as she urged Rusty to follow. “Boo they go fast!”

“Ah crap.”  Xena leaned forward. “C’mon, girl.  Lets go catch the little runt before he gets in trouble.”

Argo snorted but sped up into a gallop as Iolaus caught up to the running bunch ahead of them.   A moment later and they were almost even with Rusty and his passengers and then they were running alongside.  “Be careful!” Xena yelled over the sound of thundering hooves. 

Wheeee!”  Cari let out a squeal as Rusty went even faster, chasing the running horses and more or less ignoring the palomino mare at his side.  “Fun!”

They came to the end of the running track and slowed, the bunch of horses and their riders pulling up and turning, laughing as Iolaus reared and then danced next to them and waving as Xena and her companions reached them.

“Hey Xena, what a rider you got there!”

“That was good, Boo!” Dori patted Rusty’s neck, her hair windblown.  “Let’s do that again!”

“She is. Xena smiled at the girls, and then chuckled as the two puppies arrived, out of breath.  “She’s going to run in the kids races at the festival.” She added, as they started turning the other horses around to go back.  “They don’t have a damn chance.”

“They don’t.” The man who’d spoken said, his arm over the neck of his horse, a beautiful dark gray animal.  “Looking forward to it.  Mace said we had two wagon trains heading our way, and one has some horses too.”

“Yeah, I saw them.” Xena slid off Argo’s back.  “Should be here by nightfall, maybe, the first ones.”  She could see across the river, where the market square was already assembled and the craftsmen and women from the town and the village were setting up their wares. 

A whistle came from downriver, and they turned, to see one of the guard jogging towards them.  The horses sorted themselves out to start a new run as Xena led Argo through them to meet up with the approaching soldier.  “Hold on until I get back Jase.” She instructed the riders. “I need to keep an eye on little miss speed thing.”

“No problem Xena.” Jase leaned against his horse. “Beautiful weather and a nice breeze to enjoy.”

The guard arrived. “Word from down the river, Xena.  Two barges coming up to us.” He looked excited. “Looks like merchants!” He added. “Stocked with bales and boxes, they say, relay up to me from Potadiea.”

“Nice.” Xena exhaled a little in relief.  “Yeah, looks like it’s going to be quite a party.”  She pulled herself back up on Argo.  “Tell everyone down the line they’re all invited. Especially Potadeia. Gabrielle would probably love to see her family.”

“Yes ma’am.”  He touched his chest in salute and turned back around to head back to the watch point.  “On the way.”

Xena guided Argo up to the line of horses, settling right in next to Rusty between him and his small riders and the rest of the field. “You kids ready?”

“Ready Boo!”  Dori wriggled a little down into her saddle. “Let’s go fast!”

Xena gave the field leader a wave and he waved back, then he leaned forward and dropped his hand with a bit of fabric in it.

The rest of the horses took off in a thunder of pounding hooves and Dori sent Rusty after them with a whoop.  Xena followed, making sure to keep between her daughter and the field. 

The pony was surprisingly speedy, his small hooves tattooing across the grass at a full gallop and the girl’s hair plastered back in the wind.   Xena tore along just behind her, hard pressed not to smile seeing the fierce joy on Dori’s face and the absolute confidence she rode that pony with.

Another year or two, and it would be a horse.  Xena leaned forward as they neared the finish line and then thundered over it, even with most of the other horses, though not the leaders.  Rusty raced past them as they pulled up and headed down the slope towards the river.

“Ah crap.” Xena bolted after them and flung herself off Argo’s back as the mare surged forward, reaching out to catch hold of Rusty’s bridle before the pony could simply raced off the edge of the river into the deep water beyond.

With her hanging on the reins the pony hauled up much to his rider’s displeasure. “Hold on there ya rat.”  Xena came to a halt.  “What do you think you’re gonna do?”

“Boo, we want to go swimming. Mama said we could!” Dori protested. “She said!”

“Not in the river.” Xena bounced forward as Argo came up behind her and bumped her from behind.  C”mon.  We can go up to our spring and swim.”

Dori frowned. “More water here.” She pointed.

“Uh huh. Too much water. It’s running too fast, and we’ve got a boat coming in.” She started away from the edge of the river, with Argo and a moment later, Iolaus following her. 

“Good runner you there Xena.” Cecilia the baker’s wife was coming past with a small wagon. 

“Yeah, almost had me chasing her into the water.” Xena angled closer as the woman offered her the contents of a small basket she was carrying. “Ah, thanks.”

“Hey Boo!”

“One for you too, munchkin.”  Xena handed one over, ripping it in half to share between the two girls.  Thanks Cec.”

The baker smiled at her, and the two children. “This spring’s a blessing, after the past while isn’t it?” She said. “Everything’s turned around, and you done a good thing there, Xena, for that little one.”

One look at Cari’s blissful expression, as she munched on her treat left no doubt of that.  The little orphan had been exceedingly timid, often a subject of the older girl’s taunting in the children’ group in the tribe but with first Dori’s friendship and then her adoption by the tribe’s leaders her personality had blossomed.

Still a bit timid, still much shyer than her adopted sibling but she was turning out to have a sunny, happy nature now that she had a home of her own.

“Yeah, we did all right.” Xena admitted. “And Dori got a playmate without a tail. All good.”

Dori looked up at her name, crumbs falling down to lodge in Rusty’s shaggy coat. “It’s good. Thank you!”

“You’re welcome, little one. “ Cecilia laughed. 

Xena winked and popped the last of hers into her mouth then continued on her way towards the big corrals they had set up, to allow the horses to run at their leisure and chew the newly sprouted spring grass, already thick and green.  Dor, you can ride inside here, okay? Don’t go out.”

“How come?” Dori eyed her tall parent.  “We want to go fast, Boo.”

“I know.” Xena ruffled her hair and brushed the pastry crumbs off her face. “But I need to go across the bridge to talk to some people so do me a favor and just stick around here until I get back, okay?”

Dori eyed her dubiously.

“Same look your mama gives me when I say that.” Xena mock sighed. “Okay, you can run out along the track, but don’t go near the river, okay?”

“Okay.” Dori agreed, pulling Rusty’s reins loose from Xena’s fingers. “Let’s go!” She turned the pony neatly and started back down the grass sward at a good clip.

Argo nudged Xena in the side.

“Yeah, I know.” Xena turned and gave the mare a kiss on the head. “Just like me, right?”  She opened the gate to the corral and let Argo and Iolaus move inside, with a dozen other horses.  Then she turned and picked up the path to the bridge, the newly laid gravel crunching under her boots.

She paused halfway over the bridge to regard the river.  It was high, and moving fast, as the deep snows of the winter melted but to her experienced eye, there was no danger.

Yet.  She made a mental note to check the other areas around the town on her way back and continued over, the wooden boards bending a trifle as she walked, and giving her a bit of springy pushback.

As she entered the festival area people looked up and waved a greeting, and a young man with curly black hair trotted over to her.  “Morning, Marcus.”

“Morning Xena, what’s the news?”  Marcus replied.  He was a new helper working for her mother Cyrene, assigned to organize the vendors and the square. 

“Good news. I saw two trains heading here, and a barge coming upstream.” Xena told him.  “I sent word down the river to come on up.”

Marcus grinned. “That is good news. We’ve got lots of space to fill.” He indicated the market square.  There were several shelters already occupied by townsfolk, and two by the Amazon tribe, but many were empty, the newly installed shutters on the fronts of them sealed.  “But you know what, Xena?”

“What?”

“Even if it’s just us, I don’t’ care.  It just feels like a time to celebrate.” He drew in a breath of the spring air and lifted his arms, turning around in a circle.  Cant you feel it?”

Xena smiled. “Yknow, I can.” She half turned, watching the track where Rusty was running flat out, shaking his head as the two figures on his back cheered.  “Feels like a weights been lifted off my shoulders.” She agreed. “And that’s what Gabrielle said.  Even if it’s just us, it’s a party.”

Marcus gave her a droll look.

Xena chuckled. ‘Yeah but she meant all of this too.” She flexed her hands. “I think it’s going to be good.  So let me go rein in my kids and get in some sword practice.”

“Sword practice?”  Marcus asked. “For the festival? Are you having contests for that too?”

“Ya never know.” Xena replied, with a twitch of her lips.

“You really think someone coming won’t have heard of you?”

“Ya never know.”

**

Gabrielle felt a somewhat rare sense of contentment as she entered the town gates and joined the inhabitants as they got busy with their morning tasks in the bright springtime sunlight.  She whistled softly under her breath as she strolled past the rows of small cottages, spreading now along neatly edged paths to either side of her.

Many were out doing repairs from the rough winter, on both sides men were pulling wagons full of newly cut thatch for roofs and the sound of hammers and axes echoed through the trees.

She could see the barn doors spread open wide, and she passed the open gate with a sideways peek inside that showed it to be empty.  She dodged a pecking chicken, who looked up and eyed her as she passed and trotted up the back steps to the inn.

The door was slightly ajar and she pushed it inward, hearing Cyrene’s voice inside. “Morning.”

“Ah, Gabrielle.”  Cyrene turned as she entered. “Just the person I was looking for.”

“Uh oh.” Gabrielle walked over to her mother in law.  “That usually means trouble.”

Cyrene chuckled. “Not this time. I just wanted to see if you could give Rassy here your recipe for that potato soup you make.  It’s perfect for this weather.”

“Ah.” Gabrielle grinned in relief.  “Sure, I’d be glad to.” She pushed up her sleeves and moved into the main part of the inn’s kitchen, bustling and active at this hour of the morning. “Lets see what we got. I usually use whatever I find out on the trail, but.. yeah. That grass is perfect.”

Cyrene patted her back and went over to the worktable, studying a list on it. “Word came up we’ve got a barge headed in.”  She remarked. “Good sign.”

“Good sign.” Gabrielle agreed. “Especially this early.”  She sorted through a stack of vegetables and set aside some carrots. “If you cut these nice and thin, its good in this, and yes, some onions.”  She said. “And it needs milk.”

“We’ve got plenty of that.” Cyrene chuckled. “Twelve cows dropped calves last night it was a mooing barnfest let me tell ya.”

“We had some goats give birth too.” Gabrielle picked up one of the sharp kitchen knives and started chunking the vegetables. “They were making fresh cheese when I left this morning.”

“Did you teach them that?”  Rassy asked, in a soft almost shy tone.  She was a woman of medium height with dark curly hair and brown eyes, she had joined Cyrene’s kitchen just recently.

“I did.” Gabrielle agreed.  “The tribe just started cultivating goats, and a few sheep. So it’s the first time in a while they had access to milk.”

The inner door opened and Johan entered, setting down a basket.  “Barge is tying up down b’the landing.” He announced.  “Big one!”

Cyrene hustled over to her husband and peered inside the basket. “My gosh look at those eggs!” She lifted one, a brown specimen with lighter brown speckles.  “They’re huge!”

Gabrielle glanced over. “Yeah, Xe grabbed some from the wild chickens up by the cabin this morning. We had them for breakfast.”

“I left half them out to hatch.” Johan dusted his hands off. “Going to be a good spring for it. Saw some ducks by the edge of the river too.”

Gabrielle finished her cutting. “So make all these about that size.” She instructed the cook. “Then cover it up with some water and cook it until after lunchtime.”   She added. “Then you add the spices, and the milk, and let it cook some more. It should be ready by dinner.”

“Gabrielle.” Cyrene came over. “How in Hades did you have time to do that out on the road?”

The bard gave her a dry look. “It’s a favorite of your daughters. I used it to make sure we’d get a day off once in a while.”

Everyone in the kitchen laughed, and Gabrielle did too. “I’d collect roots and spices in all the little town markets and wait my chance when we were in a nice spot.”   She grinned. “Hey it was rough out there. I cant tell you how many times we ended up under a rock overhang only wishing we had a fire to cook with.”

She looked around the kitchen with a sense of pleasure, glad to see plenty in a place she knew had recently lacked that.  Amphipolis had gone through some tough times.  

As though reading her mind, Cyrene folded her arms and lowered her voice. “Some think those altars had something to do with our good fortune lately.”

Gabrielle shrugged lightly. “Maybe they did.”  She wiped her hands off on one of the linen towels.  “I say, just enjoy it while we have it.”  She advised. “Now let me go see what’s going on down there and find my family.”

“Saw the kids running on that pony near the corral.” Johan told her. “Xena was with em.”

Gabrielle left the inn and headed out the side door into the sunshine, catching a scent of a cook fire and the earthy smell of livestock nearby.   She continued down the path and waved at the militia standing at the turn off to the barracks, two of them with scythes over their shoulders.

A tradition, in Xena’s militia.  Everyone served a purpose, either as  a farmer or hunter because Xena knew the town couldn’t support soldiers on its own.  Even the two of them had to participate, Xena with her horse breeding and Gabrielle…

Well, she did a lot of things. 

She cleared the town gates and had a good view of the slope down to the river, where there were groups of people traveling over and back across the rebuilt bridge.  Stretching to her right was the barracks along the riverside, and they had tunics and rugs out drying in the sun.

Outside workshops were busy, and the blacksmiths and carpenters that served the militia were fixing and building anew for both themselves and the town.

Two Amazons were standing nearby, talking to one of the blacksmiths and the man nodded indicating a bend in the iron he was working on.

Everyone looked in a good mood.  Gabrielle smiled and waved, and the militia spotted her and waved back, letting up high whistles of recognition. 

Just past the edge of the barracks she spotted the corral that had been set up, and racing around the edges of it was Rusty with his passengers letting out squeals of delight.  Seated sideways on Argo, Xena was keeping an eye on them though as Gabrielle came into view the dark head swiveled and their eyes met.

Without really thinking about it she altered course and let those baby blues pull her in, vaulting herself over the poles of the corral and arriving next to her partner.  “Hey.”

“Hey.” Xena indicated the river. “We’re gonna have a market.” She was dressed in her padded overtunic, arms exposed to the sun. 

So I see.” Gabrielle stroked Argo’s neck, and the mare nuzzled her hip in benign affection. “I am looking forward to shopping.” She turned her head and watched Rusty reach the end of the paddock and haul up to a halt, shaking his shaggy head as he paused to rip up a mouthful of the rich, green grass. “Look at those kids.”

Cari’s coming along.”  Xena remarked.  “She hasn’t fallen off in a fortnight.”

Gabrielle chuckled, watching as Dori hopped off the pony and started searching around on the ground, while Cari more carefully climbed down and trotted over to the trough of water lashed to the posts nearby.  “Dori’s going to outgrow that pony pretty soon, Boo.” She turned and tilted her head to look up at Xena’s relaxed form. “I think she’s gotten a hand taller since the snow ended.”

“Yeah, you should have seen her racing with the horses.” Xena watched her daughter as she traveled along the fence, one hand touching it lightly.  “One of those two yearlings might end up being hers.”   She slid down off Argo’s back and landed lightly on the balls of her feet.

“That copper colored one?” Gabrielle regarded the filly.  “She’s pretty.”

“Mm.” Xena nodded. “She’s got good bones, and she’s calm.”  She regarded the animal with a knowledgeable eye. “She’s one of Io’s.” She draped her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders and they stood there quietly watching, as Dori found something in the grass and looked up, spotting them.

“Mama!” Dori bolted for them, making two of the horses dodge out of her way and enticing Rusty to follow her. “Mama, look what I found.”

“Hope it’s not another mouse.” Xena muttered.

‘Hope it’s not a spider.” Gabrielle stepped forward to meet her child, keeping her hands prudently behind her. “Whatcha got, Dor?”

Dori extended her hand, with a small pink flower in it. “Look! I found it for you.”

“Aw.” Gabrielle took the bloom and twirled it between her fingers. “That’s so pretty, honey! Thank you!”  She returned Dori’s sunny grin.  “Is it okay with you if I give it to your Boo?”

Dori considered. “Yes.”

Gabrielle turned and found Xena regarding her with that rare, sweet, gentle smile as she walked over and threaded the bloom through the top lace hole of her sparring gear.  “There.”   She leaned forward and they kissed, then briefly touched noses.

“Gush.” Dori sighed.  “C’mon Cari.  Lets go find gramma.”  She ran back and got on Rusty, who was standing nearby munching grass.  “See if we gots cookies yet.”

“Go go go.” Cari trotted over and was pulled up by her friend, and they turned and Dori clucked her tongue at the pony and aimed him at the fence, booting him in the ribs as he shifted quickly into a gallop.

“Oh, wait. What ..” Gabrielle yelped.  Oh crap Xena…”

Xena drew in a breath and then just held it, squinting her eyes closed as Rusty reached the fence and leaped into the air, his small hooves just barely clearing the top bar as the girls yelled in delight, almost falling forward off as he landed on the other side and bolted on towards the town gates.

Gabrielle turned and put her hands on her hips.

Xena just lifted her hands in a sheepish shrug. ‘Hey, he made it over.”  She said. “And you gotta admit he’s pretty low to the ground.”

Gabrielle walked over and gently cupped her partner’s cheek with one hand. “You and I have survived so damn much. I hope we survive our kid.”

Xena chuckled a little.  “Want to go see what came in on the barge?”

“Are you trying to distract me from our daughter?”

“Maybe.”

They left the corral arm in arm, reaching the road and starting down towards the bridge over the river and the mooring built into the far side of it.

**

The night air was cool and Xena was glad of her light cloak as she wandered through the filling market square that now had torches planted about and people roaming through the stalls.

Where earlier only a few had been occupied, now almost half were, and the largest one was filled with merchandise that had been loaded off the barge that arrived earlier in the day.

The large central firepit had been lit, and wooden benches circled it, the traveling merchants bringing over pots and pans to cook together and share tales of the road. 

Up at the top of the rise, she could see the town gates still open, the torchlight outlining strolling figures who were coming down as she had to see what was going on. 

Her family was gathering up at the inn, and she knew she had dinner there to look forward to but she took a second circle around the space just to take the temperature, as it were.

She was anonymous, mostly, in her cloak that draped her tall form and she walked slowly past the booths listening to the conversations. 

They were relaxed and easy, there was no talk of war, as there had been in the past, or the horrible winter, or even anything about raiding bands that she’d seen in the hinterlands for years and years.  Just talk about the good weather, fertile fields, animals procreating, and happiness that they’d found a town that had goods to buy and sell here in the back end of the border.

They looked up as Xena passed, most just with a brief wave, some with a welcoming lift of a mug and she ended up over by the Amazon’s area where there at least she was recognized.

“Hello.”  Cait greeted her.  The young Amazon was standing guard over the shelter stocked with handicrafts and to one side some of her partner’s artworks.  She was wearing a sword strapped around her shoulders whose hilt was a match of the one Xena had, and daggers at either hip.   “Grand night, isn’t it?”

“It is.” Xena agreed.  

Nala was seated inside the shelter, and behind her the elder Renas, whose jewelry was on a shelf to one side.  “Evening, Xena.”

“Want some cider?” Renas offered. “We’ve got some heated up here.”

“Sure.” Xena took a seat on one of the stools and accepted a mug as the elder resettled herself.  After the last contretemps in the village, Renas had decided to separate herself from the discontented faction and stayed, when some of them had left. 

She and her partner, who were craftswomen and now were making some good coin with that, enough to buy them comforts and to settle down in the new elder’s quarters where the few remaining of them had moved. 

Had they forgotten and forgiven?  Xena didn’t really know or care. They’d bowed under Gabrielle’s leadership and kept their mouth shut and that was good enough for her.

“Heard from the watch got two more trains coming in.” Renas said. “And a bunch of travelers coming in from up river.”

Xena nodded.  “We sent word up.” She said. “I expect some of Gabrielle’s family to come. My mother’s holding space for them.” She leaned back against the support post, enjoying the taste of the winter cider, made from the last apples and pears they’d had in storage.

“It’s going to be a good festival.” Renas spoke up. “I heard from the guys over there that seems like a good spring from here to the coast.  Everyone’s relieved about the war.”

“I’m relieved about the war.” Xena said, dryly.  “It’s damn nice to just look forward to a bland, boring summer for a change.”

Renas nodded thoughtfully.  “Lot of change, since the winter.”

“Too right.” Cait agreed. “It’s like everything went a different way, didn’t it?”

It had.  Xena sipped from her mug.  The horrors of the winter, she’d found, had faded and fuzzed to an extent that most of the Amazons and soldiers she’d taken with her into Thrace remembered almost nothing of it. Just the march, and some of the fighting.

None of the gods, none of the journeying into Hades Realm.

Nothing of her wielding the Sword of War.

It was a relief.  Xena regarded their mission to have been something of a distinct failure.  She remembered all the details – at least – she thought she did, but she was glad only Gabrielle knew what she knew.  Cait didn’t even remember falling into the split in the earth.

Or all of them being rescued by Ares.

She remembered.  Gabrielle remembered.  They both recalled the ending of it, in the cave, of Gabrielle telling the story of the gods and then both of them clearly remembered being sent home, in the blink of an eye to their own beds.

The army, now, remembered marching home.  The Amazons remembered it, Cait even described the relief they’d all felt crossing back into their home territory and saying farewell to their forest dweller friends on the way home.

Xena knew, and Gabrielle knew, that hadn’t happened.  She had a clear memory of them in the cave, unsure of what the future was, listening to Gabrielle tell her story of the gods and then…

Then she was home, in bed.  Intellectually, Xena understood that the gods had made that change. There was that feel about it, that being manipulated feeling she knew and disliked but there was also a feeling in her that something else had happened that she now didn’t remember.

Something at the edges of that experience she could almost feel the echo of, an intensity of a moment she could not quite call up in her mind, an afterimage that disappeared if she tried to look too closely at it. 

Since their return, and the building of the shrines, she’d had no contact from the gods.  Aside from the four small puppies, now half grown dogs that had attached themselves to their children, her daughters and her nephews there had been no sign of any of the Olympians.

After all the years of complaining about their interference in her life, now Xena found herself in the aggravating position of wanting to know the answers to questions she couldn’t ask and had something of a sense of being hoisted on her own petard.

Peh.

“Could be those altars got us some luck for a change.” Renas said. “We’re planning on an offering tomorrow night, yeah? After the new warriors get made. We’re making that a part of the ceremony.”

“Gabrielle told me.” Xena crossed her ankles. “I told her to use the top route. Otherwise you’ll all miss the damn festival.”

Renas chuckled. “Yeah, it’s still a bit of a trial, scaling down the ropes but it’ll be good for them.  Make it a tradition.”  She eyed Xena. “Can’t hurt, right?”

Xena smiled briefly. “Can’t hurt.” She agreed, putting the mug down and standing up.  “Good night, people.” She walked away from the Amazon stall, past the firepit, and the darkened stage, through the arbor they’d built that marked the entrance to the festival area.

The boards of the bridge sounded faintly hollow under her boots, and she could hear the passage of the river in the darkness past the torches lighting the way, the sounds of the square drifting after her, a buzz of soft, indistinct speech and the first tuning chords of someone on a harp.

**

The inn was mostly full, and the servers were bustling back and forth between the kitchen and the tables, carrying platters of roasted meat and tankards of ale. 

Back in the corner, the family table was also full, with Xena and Gabrielle and their kids on one side and Toris and Granella his wife with their twin boys on the other. Cyrene emerged from the kitchen and took a seat at one end of the table, wiping her hands on her apron. 

“Busy night.” Gabrielle was closest to her.

“Oh yes.. We sold out of most of everything.” The innkeeper looked satisfied. “And the festival hasn’t even started yet.”

Gabrielle nodded. “Tomorrow night we’ll be up at the village so we’ll free up a few seats.” She said. “We’ve got the joining ceremonies and some youngsters taking feathers going on.”

“Want to leave the kids down here, sis?” Toris asked.

“No, all the rest of them are going to be there.” Gabrielle said. “Should be fine.” She gave her two a sideways glance. “It’s part of living in the tribe. I don’t want to hide that from them, you know?”

“No.” Toris grinned briefly at her.  “But I’ll take your word for it.”

“Word for what?” Granella leaned over. “Is it true the nutball twins are getting together?”

“It’s true.” Gabrielle sat back with her mug.  “I’m officiating them and two other pair and we’ve got six graduating to junior.”

Granella watched Dori climbing up onto Xena’s lap. “Glad it’s not her?”

Gabrielle eyed her daughter.  “That’s going to be interesting.” She admitted. “Because she’s not going to listen to any of the seniors or the guides any more than either Xe or I would have. I’m not sure what we’re going to do in a couple years.”

Xena had put one arm around Dori and was sharing a bit of her honey cake with her.  

“Maybe she’ll end up on some other path.” Granella suggested. “You always said she’d get to pick if she wanted to go with the Amazons or not.”

Gabrielle nodded, watching her partner.  Dori was explaining something in her usual earnest way and both her and Xena were wearing light blue shirts and had their hair pulled back in similar tails behind them.  “Yeah.”  She answered after a brief pause. “We’ll see.”

She glanced down at a tug on her shirt. “Hey Cari.” She smiled at the orphan they’d adopted, her curly red hair contrasting against her light tan shirt. “What’s up?”

“Mama.” Cari said, in her shy voice. “Can I get food for them?” She pointed at the four puppies lined up under the table, watching her alertly. “I done with mine.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “Sure.” She stood up and held a hand out. “Let’s go into the kitchen and see what they have.” She clucked her tongue at the puppies. “C’mon you bunch.”   She led the way around the table and pushed open the door behind them, jostled as the four animals hustled in at her heels.

The kitchen staff, busy cleaning up all looked up at her entrance.  “Looking for some scraps.” Gabrielle said. “The furry ones are hungry.”

All four puppies sat down, their round heads swiveling as they watched hopefully, noses twitching.

Adorable.  “Go on, get the bowl, Cari.”  She walked over with her and helped her carry the heavy thing to where the puppies were waiting, tails waggling faster and faster as they approached.

They put the bowl down and the animals rushed over, sticking their round heads in and bumping together in a comical kind of way.

“Cute little things.” The cook said, in an indulgent tone. “Funny those merchants just leaving em. But they found good homes.”

Gabrielle looked up, and took a breath to speak, then she paused.  “Which merchants were those?”

“Oh, the two men with their women friends.” The woman answered casually. “You remember? They spoke to you, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle blinked, listening to the clatter of the bowl against the stone floor of the inn kitchen. “Oh.” She finally said. “Yes, of course. Sorry. It was crazy that night when we came back.”

The woman nodded. “T’was.” She said. “But we were glad to see the lot of you back, and no denying it.”

It was an odd feeling.  Gabrielle watched Cari pat the puppies on the back as they cleaned the bowl to a shine.  She knew she had an image of a reality in her mind that was very different than the cook’s was but it seemed as real to her as what Gabrielle remembered.

So glad to see mama.” Cari spoke up, grinning a little, as she looked up at Gabrielle.  Supprise!”

“Yeah, we were glad to be home with you kids.” Gabrielle returned the smile.  “Okay, we done?”  She stood up. “Cari, bring that bowl back over to the sink, okay?”

“Sure.” Cari picked up the dish and carried it back, making little grunting noises from the weight.

“Ah, what a sweetheart you are.” The cook retrieved it and set it into the stone sink for washing.  “Gabrielle, tis such a blessing what you did for this little girl.” She ruffled Cari’s curly hair.

The puppies came over and snuffled around her boots, looking up with their golden eyes at her. “Yeah, it’s been good for Dori.” The bard commented. “She needed a friend.” 

The door rocked open and Dori came rambling in. “Dere you are.” She held a hand out to Cari. “We got to say goodnight to Rusty.” She announced. “Boo said we’re going up the mountain.”

“Okay.” Cari trotted over and met her at the door. “C’mon, Teo.”

One of the puppies attached himself to her obediently, and a second went over and butted Dori in the knee.  Buppit, stop.” Dori told the puppy. “Be good.”

Buppit sat down and regarded her solemnly, then barked.

The other two dogs watched, but then went to the inside door as Gabrielle held it open, only to turn around when Toris’ twin boys bolted through. 

“We’re going too!” Solon announced. “Hurry, before Daddy follows us.”

The two boys and two girls went out the back door into the kitchen garden, with four puppies following them in a gaggle of small leather clad feet and wagging tails.

The door swung shut and it was quiet in the kitchen.  Gabrielle folded her arms over her chest and eyed the cooks, who chuckled.  “And I thought the Amazons were tough to keep an eye on.”

“Cyrene says they come by it honest.” The closer cook winked at her. “On all sides.”

Gabrielle shook her head silently and went to open the door again, only to have it swing inwards again to reveal her partner with that brow twitchy expression she knew so well “Hi.” She greeted Xena.

“Hi.” Xena responded. “Can we get out of here before that crowd starts singing?”

Gabrielle uncrossed her arms and extended one hand. “To the barn, WP. To the barn.”

**

They could hear the faint sounds of music as they climbed up the path to home,  Cari and Dori rambling ahead of them still full of energy with their two dogs trotting at their heels.

Xena and Gabrielle were holding hands.  Xena had a knapsack on her back with supplies in it.  They mounted the rope and wood bridge over the chasm and paused halfway over while Xena listened. “No flood.” She said, as they continued over, the thick ropes and well woven sides that came up over Dori’s head bouncing a little under their steps.

“Kind of surprising, given the snow this winter.” Gabrielle commented.

“Probably hasn’t’ melted off yet.” Xena said. “The river’s up, that barge driver said they had an easy ride in. Didn’t have to worry about scraping bottom.”

“You think we’ll have a flood again?”

“You think you’ll keep your ass away from lambs if we do?”

Gabrielle chuckled. “I’m keeping my ass in that cabin if we do, hon.  Not looking for a repeat of that experience ever again.”

The air was cool, and around them the trees were rustling new grown leaves, as they climbed up the last slope that led to their home and paused as they reached the clearing and Dori and Cari ran ahead.  The sky over them was clear, and full of stars and when Gabrielle drew in a deep breath of the sweet air she sort of imagined she could smell the first hint of gardinias on it.

They continued forward and mounted the steps to the porch, the door already pushed open ahead of them.  Xena went to the fireplace and knelt, arranging some wood in it while Gabrielle went over to the worktable and stood in the darkness, striking sparks to light the candle on the table.

A moment later and Xena was doing the same to the firewood and as Gabrielle brought her candle around to light others, the first crackle of fire was coming from the river stone hearth.   

She continued on and went into the children’s room, to find the two girls sitting on Dori’s bed, whispering. “What you two up to?”

“Nothing mama.” Dori answered instantly.

Gabrielle eyed her, as she lit the oil lamp hanging from the iron hook in the wall.   The golden light spread and brought out the features of the room, which had light bark covered walls with scribblings all over them and toys scattered everywhere.

The puppies were curled up in two square little beds near the windows and there were two bunks, neatly made with colorful blankets on them.

There was a clothing press up against the inside wall, with a leather padded top.   Gabrielle sat down on it and regarded the two. “Tomorrow night we’re going to have a party.”

“Yes.” Dori agreed. “Feather people said.”

“Big fun.” Cari nodded.

“Well.” Gabrielle said. “It will be fun, but you have to be good, okay? There is a lot of stuff going on, and me and Xena have to be in charge of things.”

“Mama’s in charge.” Dori grinned.

“Will you both promise me you won’t make fun of what we’re doing?” Gabrielle said, in a more serious tone.  “It’s very important to the people we’ll be with, okay?  It’s serious to them.”

Dori was swinging her feet. “Mama.” She said. “You gonna make some of them big shots?”

Her mother cleared her throat. “Some of your friends in the kids group are going to become warriors, yes.”  She said. “That means they’ll be doing different things, and not playing with you anymore.”

Dori nodded. “Dey said they can tell us what to do.” She said. “But I told them no. Only mama tells.”

Xena leaned against the door sill and cleared her throat pointedly.

“And Boo.” Dori added, with a grin.

Cari just nodded in agreement.

Gabrielle sighed and leaned back against the wall, looking up at Xena. “Now I’m wondering if we shouldn’t leave them with mom.  It’s not fair to those kids. They worked hard to get their bump.”

Xena sat down next to her. “It’ll be fine. I’ll keep an eye on them while you’re handing out the feathers.” She promised. “Mom’s going to be busy with the crowd.”

“Mm.” Gabrielle grunted softly.

“Mama.” Dori got up and came over, putting her hands on Gabrielle’s cloth covered knee. “You give me fevvers?”

“Not yet, honey.” Gabrielle reached out and tweaked her nose. “When you kids are older. You’re too little right now for that.” She studied her daughter, who was actually quite tall for her age, about the height of girls two or three years older than her six.

“Okay.” Dori shrugged. “C’mon Cari s’go get the water.”   She trotted out of the room and headed to the bathing chamber, as Cari scrambled after her.  The puppies stayed where they were, ears twitching.

“Wondered if she was going to ask about that.”  Xena remarked. “She knows what that means.’

“The graduating juniors are thirteen and fourteen.  But she’s going to end up at least as tall as you are.” Gabrielle commented to her partner.  “She’ll be big enough probably at ten.”

“Probably.”  Xena agreed.  “That’s around when I started to shoot up.” She regarded her long legs, splayed in front of her.  “You think she’ll want to?”

“No idea.” Gabrielle listened for the splashing coming from the chamber next to them.  “She’s not old enough for me to even have that conversation with her yet.”

“True.” Xena got up and extended a hand back down. “C’mon. I’ve got some water heating for tea.”

They walked together into the main living space of the cabin, which was full of wood and leather furniture, and had wide windows that right now were shuttered closed against the still chilly air. 

Gabrielle went over to the hearth to make the tea while Xena settled on a small stool near the window to work on a knife handle resting on her workbench.

The smell of mint lifted into the air, mixed with honey.  Gabrielle let the leaves steep for a minute and stepped to one side, peering into the bathing room.  Dori was standing in the tub with the water splashing around her, and Cari had just come over to hand her a towel.

It was nice for Dori to have a companion her age. Gabrielle smiled and went back to the hearth.  Her daughter seemed happier since Cari had joined the family, and the two girls had become fast friends after they’d adopted the curly haired orphan.

Cari, of course, was definitely a lot happier.  As one of the smallest children in the Amazon village she’d taken a lot of teasing and some childish cruelty from the other kids, not malicious just part of the natural condition and the environment the children were being raised in.

Her whole life had changed, now that she was a part of Amazon royalty and Dori had stopped any of the taunting that had been going on just because Dori was Dori no matter who her parents were.

Well.  Gabrielle had to laugh a little to herself as she stirred and then strained out the tea into two cups.  Actually Dori was who Dori was because of who her parents were but there was no real point in bringing that up too often now was there?  “Hey Xe?”

Yeeees?”

“Whatcha making?”  Gabrielle came over and set one of the cups down, peering over her shoulder.  “Are those new?”

Toris asked me to make them for his boys.” Xena had two small knives already hammered out on the table, and she was fitting hilts to them she’d just finished carving.  “He gave me the horn from that bull that got his head stuck in the barn chasing them.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “That bull was pissed.”

“They pulled his tail.” Xena took a piece of wet gut and started wrapping the hand hold. “Anyway he wanted to give these to them at the festival.”

Gabrielle pondered the table. “Do we really want to give six year old boys knives?”

Xena glanced up at her.  

“Not criticizing you hon.” Gabrielle put her hand on Xena’s shoulder.  “Just wondering, you know? I know it’s common, I remember kids my age in Potadeia being given them when I was young but I don’t’ know – six? Wouldn’t it be better for you to carve them a horse?”

“They already have carved horses from me.” Xena responded in a reasonable tone. “And puppies from Hades realm. I think hand knives will be okay unless one of them cuts their finger off with em.”  She turned the knife in her hands to study the wrapping. “And that will be my brother’s problem.”

“Did Gran say anything?”

“She’s an Amazon. What do you think she said?”

Gabrielle leaned over and gave her a kiss on the top of her head. “Let me get our children ready for bed.” She straightened up.  “Do you ever get a sense of … “

“Waiting for the other boot to drop?” Xena finished her question.

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.” Xena echoed her. “It reminds me of when you were pregnant with Dori.  Just a time out of time, you know?” She looked up again. “As in, when does the ordinary chaos of our lives start up again?’

Gabrielle nodded. “Yeah.” She patted Xena on the back. “Glad I’m not crazy.”  She took a sip of her tea and set the cup down, circling the wooden table they ate their meals on and heading for the bathing room.  “Just waiting for the other boot.”

Xena finished tying off the gut and stood, as she heard a faint scratching at the door.  She opened it and Ares the wolf trotted in, with two of his puppies at his heels. “Hi there.”

The large black animal went to the bear rug in the center of the room and lay down, with the two puppies, now really full grown wolf dogs, not puppies in any real sense, settling down next to him

They all looked at Xena.

Xena studied them in return. It wasn’t really unusual for Ares to visit, but watching them watch her made her think about the whole discussion about boots falling.

There seemed to be some expectation in those dark eyes and she wondered if there wasn’t something going on that she should be aware of.  “What?” She asked aloud.

Ares’ dark and bushy eyebrows twitched.  One of his son’s tongues lolled out, and the other put his head down on his paws and blinked at her.

The two puppies came out of the girl’s room and trotted over, touching noses with the three newcomers. They stared at each other briefly, then the puppies turned and went back into the room.

Ares put his head down on his paws.

Xena drummed her fingers on the table.

**

Continued in Part 2