A Change of Seasons
They paused just inside the Amazon gates. “Cait, I don’t want to keep you running up and down the damn hill..” Xena said, as she glanced through the portal at the approaching Amazons. “But…”
“But you want me to tell Gabrielle everything’s fine.” Cait finished her thought without effort. “It’s perfectly all right, Xena. I’m happy to do it.” She said. “And anyway, I think she was about to tell the Thrace story and I wanted to hear it again.”
Xena frowned. “That’s going to be popular with our guests.” She glanced briefly at the sky, then back at Cait with a faintly plaintive expression.
Cait smiled without much humor. “I think that’s the point.” She said. “She was getting a bit miffed with all the nonsense so I suppose she thought she’d teach them what’s what.” She paused. “What?”
“Troublemaker.” Xena mock sighed, shaking her head. “Now you know why I end up in the middle of all this crap all the time.” She eyed Cait. “If she starts a riot, come get me.”
“I will.” Cait promised, then she half waved, half saluted and started down the path, the dusk and torchlight alternately showing blue and gold on her skin and pale hair as she disappeared.
Pony appeared in the gap between the gates and came over. “Hey.” She motioned the rest of the group to follow.
“Hey.” Xena faced the group. “What’s up?”
“You tell us?” The weapons master said. “Soli said there were trespassers? Kids said you handled them, but some of them ran? What the Hades is going on?”
“Really good question.” Xena gestured through the gates. “Lets talk inside.” She pointed at the guard. “Shut them.”
The guard saluted her casually and went to the portal, tugging the big gates shut as her guard mate came over to help. “What was that all about?” The second guard wondered. “Someone’s feathers are in a flutter.”
“Don’t wanna know.” The first said. “Good enough we can close the doors and sit inside with a skin.”
Xena heard the gates close behind her and she relaxed a little, not really sure why since the men they’d found hadn’t been at all a threat to her, or Cait, or the Amazons or probably not even Dori and her friends as they were the ne’er do well wannnabe scum who’d run like chickens if they ever saw real brigands. “Riff raff.”
“What was that?” Pony asked.
The senior warriors gathered around her and Pony as they walked back towards the firepit. Solari came jogging towards them from the meeting lodge, and as the last light faded from the sky they entered the torch ringed circle out under the stars.
“Your bunch is in the mess hall.” Solari said, briefly. “The juniors are there too. I told them to stay put.” She took up a stance nearby, arms folded, her long, dark hair braided back and knotted at her neck. ‘What’s the scoop?”
Xena leaned against one of the game racks, her tall figure outlined in crimson and gold from the fire. “Two things.” She said, briefly. “I found a couple of scum in that cave we tracked to the other night. They had those kids.”
The Amazons exchanged looks. “They caught them in the woods?” Pony asked. “They were just on a backwoods patrol, they said.”
“They went to that cave.” Xena shook her head. “I really want to know what the fascination is with that place.”
“The cave?” Pony looked at her with a puzzled expression. “Oh!” She slapped her head. “That cubbyhole they found.”
“We’ll scope it in daylight.” Solari muttered. “Probably just some kids games.”
“Not so much. I found a bag in there, with two.. “ Xena paused. “I think they were aborted babies. Dead.” She felt the shock go through the ring of women around her, felt the twitch of distaste twist her own lips. “I hid them up a tree. Didn’t think there were any women here close to term.”
“There aren’t.” Dosi said, after an uncomfortable pause. “Lalas and Key, they’re only two, three months. Miscarry maybe?”
“These were almost to birth.” Xena said, with a faint shake of her head. “If it was, it was late stage.”
“Wow, didn’t expect that.” Solari said. “The juniors said they were just paddling down the creek, saw Dori and her gang, and then they got caught up on a submerged tree when the water started rising. Which is has.” She added, parenthetically. “Snow’s finally melting down I guess.”
“It is.” Xena agreed. “Anyway, on my way down from there I heard some fighting. Found a half dozen more men up in the slopes between our place and here, said someone told them there were gems for the taking.”
“What?” Several of the Amazons spoke at once.
“Said it was Amazons that told them.” Xena pressed on. “Made no sense to me.”
“Son of a Bacchae.” Pony said. “That better not have happened after all we been through. I’m going to put my dagger through a heart if that’s true.” She tilted her head to one side and glowered at Xena. “Little bastards.”
“Middle sized bastards.” Xena responded wryly. “But just rag tag.”
“What happened to them?” Solari asked. “They still up there? We shouldn’t wait for morning. Lets hunt them out.” She said, and the majority of the group nodded in agreement, some tightening the belts holding on quivers of arrows across their backs.
“We killed a couple. Sent the rest down to tell anyone else to forget about coming up here. Said it was off limits.” Xena said. “They were fighting Cait when I found them. She was up here looking for me.”
Pony exhaled, putting her hands on her hips. “Something’s not right. This ain’t making sense.” She glanced at Xena. “We need to put a guard out, but lets talk to those juniors first. They were scared titless when I left them.”
“Lets go.” Xena agreed, starting in the direction of the lodge. “Lets get this sorted out before my dearly beloved finishes telling that crowd down there the story of how I killed Poseidon’s daughter with the Sword of War and all Hades breaks loose.”
“Again.” Solari said, from a step to her right.
About to go up on the stage, Gabrielle paused at her name and turned to find the town weaver there. “Edagar, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” The small, elderly man smiled at her. “It’s chilly. Would you do me the honor of letting me gift you this?” He handed over a woolen shawl, soft and tightly woven. “Wear it while you tell your story.”
Charmed, Gabrielle turned fully towards him and took the garment, which felt gentle and warm against her fingers. “Thank you. It is getting cool. I didn’t want to go all the way back to get something to put on. I should have planned better.”
“It was a busy day.” Edagar agreed, with a sweet smile. “I’m sold out, myself. This is the last thing I had left, and I saved it for you.”
Gabrielle swung the shawl over her shoulders and settled it into place. “Its an honor to wear it. You’re such a skilled weaver.” She felt her body relax, as the cloth blocked the breeze. “Thank you.”
He beamed. “What story are you going to tell?” He asked. “I enjoyed the one about Sparta, but we were lucky there with them all chasing off after you.”
Gabrielle smiled wryly. “Well, you were lucky again for this one, it’s about how we went out to Thrace during the winter.”
He pursed his mouth up in a pucker. “That’ll put a cat amongst the pigeons.” He rolled his eyes in the direction of the Ithacans. “Be careful, Gabrielle.”
“They’re already livid with me, can’t make it much worse.” Gabrielle winked at him, then she turned and hopped up onto the stage, pausing to wait as one of the militia carefully trimmed the torch nearest to her, so the light shone rich and golden.
“There you go, Gabrielle.” The soldier said. “Now they can see you right and proper.” He smiled at her, stepping back and putting his belt knife away.
“Thanks Jolli.” She grinned back. “Lets hope they don’t use the light to throw things at me.”
“Let them try it.” Jolli tilted his head meaningfully. “We’ll keep our eye on em for ya.”
And they would. Gabrielle stood for a moment letting her head turn from side to side.
She regarded the crowd, now all gathered down at the end of the market square, busy with ale and dinner, shopping and wandering finished for the day, ready to settle in for some entertainment. Besides her stories there would be dancing and some music, and probably some prizefights.
If Xena came down, there definitely would be prize fights since the prize they’d always fight for was her attention and her partner had been known to occasionally put a hand in herself.
She saw her sister take a seat with Toris at a nearby table, and she waved, smiling when Lila waved back.
Cyrene arrived, with Johan and a few others of the town council, settling down for the show and she waved at her mother in law as well, getting a thumbs up in return.
The Amazons were gathered against one side of the square, and they moved to one round table, taking seats around it and signaling the servers to come over, confident and flush with their earned coin from the market, comfortable in the midst of their town neighbors.
Finally. Gabrielle had to smile, if a bit wryly.
All the militia had assembled at tables near the stage, looking up at her with a deep, familiar fondness that she returned, this group of men and women who had fought at her side, who followed Xena with the utmost devotion.
Why? Gabrielle grinned at Redder, who grinned back. For the same reason, maybe, that she had all those years ago having fallen all unknowing into the one great love of her life.
Motion caught her eye and she glanced at the bridge, spotting Cait loping across it, focused on her as she dodged through the crowd, her slim form making its way to the stage just as one of the servers arrived with a mug from the opposite direction.
Since the crowd was still gathering, Gabrielle went to one knee and accepted the mug, then waited for Cait to arrive. “Thanks Sallah.”
“No problem, Gabrielle. Figured you might need to get a bit of that to keep your throat warm.” The server said, clasping her hands over the tray she’d carried and leaning against the stage. “Spring, but there’s still a chill in the air we heated up some wine.”
Gabrielle took a sip, the hot liquid spicy and pungent, and smiled a little at the mug and the shawl and the acceptance embodied in both.
This town, and these people had become her place, at last. When she’d seen Amphipolis for the first time, running up the road and across the bridge, hearing the sound of the angry crowd gathered around Xena she never imagined what this place would come to mean to her in her life.
“Everything’s just fine.” Cait reported briskly, as she came up. “Or, rather, there are bizarre things going on but Xena and the children are perfectly ok.” She amended, with a tiny scrunch of her nose and the faintest of shrugs.
“Sounds like a typical day in my life.” Gabrielle grinned briefly. “Should I ask about the bizarre things?”
“Not really, no.” Cait said. “Xena and a gaggle of those Amazons have it under control.”
“Good.” Gabrielle nodded. “I think.” She added, after a slight pause.
“Are you going to tell the Thrace story?” Cait asked, in a hopeful tone.
“Excellent. I keep forgetting bits of it and I don’t want to.” The young Amazon retreated from the stage, going over to join a table of fellow Amazons near the front.
Gabrielle got to her feet and went over to set the mug down on a table to one side. Then she resumed her position center stage and flexed her hands as she looked out over the crowd, wishing briefly that Xena was there, in the audience instead of dealing with whatever was going on up the hill with her gaggle of Amazons.
Because this story, truly, was her story not really Gabrielle’s. She had been there, of course, at Xena’s side through the whole thing but mostly as a bystander.
Well, maybe her soulmate would arrive before she got too far through the tale. She shook herself a little to loosen up her body and took several deep breaths, drawing air down into her lungs to prepare to project her voice. In the back, amongst a table full of merchants she saw Simon, the expression on his face like a child ready for a treat.
Well, she wasn’t sure what kind of treat it would be but she was ready to provide it, and she spread out her arms and leaned back a little, staring unrepentantly up at the stars before she tipped her head down and regarded her audience.
“My friends and family, guests and merchants who are visiting our town.” She began, her voice rising and projecting out over the crowd. “I am here to tell you today a story of daring and battle, challenge and adventure, in cruel weather and ice.”
She took a step forward, as the noise around the stage dropped, and she became the focus of attention. “It is also the story of the gods.” She paused. “Since so many here have wondered about our relationship with them, and why we chose to build shrines to two.”
Now there was a pungent silence, and she was aware of the Ithacans and their tablemates staring at her. “This story should answer that question.”
“Thattttt’ll start some trouble.” Paladia muttered to Cait.
“Yes, Xena thought as much.” Cait responded placidly. “I hope it gets them so mad they do something so stupid we can just kill them all and be done with it”
Xena pushed the door to the gathering lodge open and entered, with Pony and Solari right behind her. Inside she spotted the children in a circle in one corner, busy with wooden bowls and cups. On the far side the two juniors were at one of the tables, looking apprehensive.
“Boo!” Dori spotted her and got up, trotting over with Buppit at her heels. “Here’s a cookie!” She reached up and proffered the treat as Xena knelt to meet her. “It’s good!”
“Thanks shortie.” Xena took the cookie and put it in her mouth, eyes half squinting as she chewed. “That tastes like your grandma’s.”
Dori grinned. “We got some.” She whispered. “Gramma sent Teo with a baggie.”
Xena reached over and brushed her untidy hair back. “Go on back with your friends. I’ve got to talk to someone then I’ll come get you and we can go listen to your mama tell a story.” She watched the pale green eyes twinkle at her. “Okay?”
“Lets go now.” Dori said. “Go get mama.” She turned and headed back to the table, where a small chorus was calling her. “Mama’s gonna tell a story!”
Xena sighed and stood. “Hang on.” She called over. “We’ll go see in a quarter candlemark.” She turned and went in the other direction, towards the small table the two juniors were seated at. Pony and Solari were already there, taking a seat across from them.
The two juniors looked back at her with distinct apprehension and as she settled down between the other two Amazons she could see their hands were shaking.
So instead of what she was going to ask, she tilted her head and studied them in silence. “What are you afraid of?” she finally asked, lowering her voice to the tone she used with young horses. She watched them blink at her, caught offguard by the question.
They looked at each other, them back at her. “Uh… we’re not afraid.” One of them said. “We’re warriors now.”
“That’s right. We’re not afraid of anything.” The other stated bravely. “Not even of you.”
Xena folded her hands on the table and they focused on them, large and long fingered, her joining ring winking in the lamplight.
Pony put her hand over her eyes.
Solari let her chin come down to rest on her fist.
“Okay.” Xena’s voice remained mild. “Then since you’re warriors and pledged to the service of the Queen, just like I am, tell me why you two were carrying a bag with two dead infants in it on your way to meeting invading brigands in the wood.”
Their eyes grew round and huge as robins eggs.
“You the ones who told them it was open season up here? Penalty for that’s an arrow through the heart.” Xena added. “I’ll go ahead and do it before Gab gets back. Save her the mess and the aggravation.” She lifted her eyebrows in mock inquiry. “Well?”
“Y… you wouldn’t.”
“She would and she has.” Solari disagreed. “I’d spill it if I were you.”
“We promised.” The other whispered, in a miserable tone. “We swore we wouldn’t tell.”
“You swore fealty to the Queen and the tribe.” Pony said. “So you need to honor that first. If you don’t, if Xena doesn’t break your neck I will.”
“Spill.” Solari repeated. “Now.”
Xena sat at the table, drumming her fingers against the wooden surface for the length of time it took for Solari to take the juniors back to the group bunk room and return.
Pony sat alongside her, and maintained a studied silence for quite several minutes until she turned her head and looked sideways at Xena. “Okay.”
Xena half turned her head. “Okay?”
“Okay what in the actual Hades is going on?” Pony said. “As in, what the what?”
“What the what.” Xena repeated, shaking her head.
Solari came back with a pitcher and three cups whose handles were hooked through her fingers. She matter-of-factly poured the three cups full and shoved two at them and then took the third and sat down across from them with an audible thump. “This is messed up.” She stated.
“This is messed up.” Xena repeated. “We start off with a spring market selling last years pears and end up with whacknuts wanting to sacrifice unborn kids to the God of War.”
“Why?” Pony asked simply. “Listen. I’ve been in and around sacrifices for dogs years and I never heard that one. Not for Ares.”
Ares the wolf, who had been seated next to Xena, sat up and his ears pricked.
“No me neither.” Solari agreed. “Have you, Xena?”
“For Ares? No.” Xena thought about that for a few minutes in silence. “But there was that thing in Thrace.” She said, slowly. “Posidon’s daughter.” She added. “We never did really find out what that was about, with those women and the children.”
Both Amazons were staring blankly at her. “What?” Pony blurted, after a moment. “What are you talking about?” She looked at Solari. “You never told me about that!”
Xena leaned forward and cradled her hands around the mug and eyed Solari. “You don’t remember what we found in Pinu’s city? That place with the women being held captive, and Pinu rushing to throw that baby in the maw of that creature?”
Both women looked at each other, then at her. “Say what?” Solari said. “I don’t remember anything like that at all.”
“Don’t remember hearing that from anyone!” Pony asserted. “I would have remembered that, Xena. Holy tits!”
Pony regarded her with a suddenly serious expression. “You remember it.”
“Gabrielle remembers it.” Pony said.
“She’s down the hill telling everyone the story right now.” Xena admitted. “She remembers. I remember. Everyone else is forgetting.”
Solari absorbed this. “Well, the river and the creeks are rising.” She suggested. “Maybe Posiedon’s trying to get back at you for whatever it is that happened that you remember and we don’t?” She paused. “Could that be it? I kinda remember something with a bunch of waves and you…” Her voice trailed off as she thought.
They waited, Pony tilted her head to one side in a considering sort of way.
In a wondering tone, Solari finally spoke. “I.. now, wait I do remember you standing off some… “ It was an obvious struggle. “You and a sword and some blue light.” She finished, with a frown. “Why can’t I remember that clearly?”
“Maybe you aren’t sposed to.” Pony said. “Like no two people I speak to remembers how you got from Thrace back here.” She eyed Xena. “I bet if I ask you, I’ll be sorry I asked.” Her hazel eyes were mildly wry. “Is that what our queen is down there telling everyone?”
Xena nodded. “Those waves were the seas sent by Posiedon, to let his rapacious offspring chase us down and kill us.” She said, matter-of-factly. “I got us out of it with Ares’ sword.” She forestalled the questions that visibly bubbled up. “He was trapped in Hade’s realm, and he sent it out for me to use.”
Both Amazons were quiet a moment. “Because you could.” Pony finally said. “As in, you can swing that thing without croaking.”
Pony and Solari exchanged glances. “Well, that makes sense. Anyway, you think it’s him messing around again?” Solari asked, putting the question of swords and gods of war aside for the moment, while Pony just pinched the bridge of her nose and suppressed a smile.
“Anything’s possible.” Xena said, in a mournful tone. “Just don’t get what the whole purpose is, with the sacrifices.”
Pony shifted in her seat and let her chin rest on her balled fist. “Those kids were just being stupid. Two decent looking mooks offering them coin for something no use to anyone anyway. Just one of the townie’s with twins, and it went wrong.”
“We need to find the mooks and pump them.” Solari said. “Find out what their deal is, cause I don’t like the idea of someone looking for that kind of sacrifice.” She shifted. “I’m going to go find Nala, and we’ll go hunt them down.” She got up and set the cup down. “Lets hope those kids didn’t bullshit us on what they looked like.”
“I”ll go with you. Let me take a dogleg and let Eph know what’s up.” Pony joined her. “You want to go hunt with us, Xe?”
Xena smiled inwardly at the casual address. “Let me go see what trouble’s being stirred up down the hill.” She deferred them with a slight hand wave. “And I’ll look for them down at the market.” She stood and looked around. “It could just be a scam.”
“Could be.” Pony said. “But not funny, y’know?”
“I know.” Xena started towards the table where the kids were finishing their cookies. “Not funny at all.”
Pony and Solari watched her go a moment before they turned to head out the back door to the gathering hall. “I remember now.” Solari said, as they passed into the darkness of the night. “I remember her wearing both swords on her back, and the waves all crashing around this rock, and her on it, and a lot of blue light.”
“Gods fire.” Pony said, without any surprise in her tone. “Hey, wait a minute. Paladia did a sketch, y’know? She’s got it in their place. It looked like that. I saw it when I was there talking to Cait about the watch schedule.”
Solari pondered. “Lets go look at it.”
They detoured down a path with thick foliage on either side, and emerged into a small clearing that had a hut in it, built back into the cliff face as though designed to be defended. Which it had been, here in this secluded part of the village.
Pony paused, as they gently pushed open the door. “Careful.” She warned. “Could be trapped. You know Cait.”
“Could be.” Solari retreated and picked up the torch from its sconce outside and returned as they eased cautiously inside.
It was separated into two rooms, one of which had a scattering of parchments tacked up on the walls on one side, and a mass collection of sharp weapons on the other. The other room held a large bed, covered in furs but surprisingly neatly made and there was a small fireplace built into the back wall that had a patchwork fur rug before it made from a selection of animal pelts.
Cait’s hunting skills, no doubt.
“There.” Pony pointed at pinned parchment on the wall near the corner, and they walked over to look at it, standing shoulder to shoulder.
“Yeah.” Solari nodded after a moment. “That’s it.” The torchlight reflected on a sketch, unmistakably Xena standing brace-legged on the top of what she realized was a wagon, a swirl of raucous waves coming at her, a shadowy figure rising past that.
Xena had, in fact, two sheaths along her back, one they both knew well as her own, the other twice the length and breadth, and it would fit the huge, two handed broadsword she had gripped in both hands, inclined ahead of her.
Braced behind her was Gabrielle, staff held across her body, just ready to surge into motion.
The sketch was just an outline, and black and white, no color was applied to it, as though Paladia had done it quickly just to keep the details in mind.
“I do remember now.” Solari murmured. “It was water, yeah? Came over the ground and Xena made it freeze solid.” She turned and looked at Pony. “She really did, Pon.”
“That sword could do that.” Her companion assented.
“It might have, yeah.” Solari said. “But Xena told it to.”
Eponin studied the sketch, slowly letting out a long exhale, her head faintly shaking back and forth. “Bet she did.” She murmured. “But I aint sure telling everyone’s a great idea.” She looked at Solari. “Specially if something wants us all to forget it.”
Gabrielle took a few breaths to sort out what she wanted to tell next, deciding of the various things they’d been through she wanted to include this time. The battles had gone off very well, the militia were grinning and laughing as she’d taken them through the long march, and the skirmishes, when they’d fought alongside of the God of War.
They loved that part, and it made Gabrielle smile to tell it, Ares and Xena fighting side by side, leading the army against the renegades and chasing after the slavers.
Easily shaping the tale around Xena’s battle skills, and the horrible weather, building up to the approach to the city when she’d have to decide how much ethereal detail she’d include in it.
It was one thing, outlining her partner’s martial skills. They were what they were, and it was always good to remind everyone of it, and Ares fighting even got the grudging approval and attention of his minions there at the table, though she wasn’t sure how much of it they believed.
How to shape a hero, though. How much of the gods to add. Gabrielle took a sip of her mulled wine, cooled now but still good tasting. Would the squid just be a squid, or would she bring in Posiedon and Zeus, and the long twilight?
Why were they after the slavers? Did she build the tale of Athena and Artemis into it or just tell about the fighting – Pit Ares against his uncle and gloss over their journey into Hades realm after him?
About to decide, she felt her nape hairs lift in a shivering moment of instinct as though the cold breath of that realm brushed over her skin and in that moment she felt a certainty, a rightness of choice that reminded her of a crossroads, with one path sunlight and the other shadow.
Strange, but there was no denying it and she wondered between one word and the next if this was what Xena felt in those moments when she said she just ‘knew.’
She turned the tale towards the city, making for that gate, and the battle that broke it, making the story about Xena, and the Amazons and the army, keeping the gods details to a minimum, hinting only at the source of Hades’ army attacking them.
A pricking of her thumbs, as it were, and as she almost got to the point where Xena leaped over the wall, she saw a tall figure outlined in torchight coming down from the town gates and her shoulders relaxed. “It was a tall wall, and a tall gate, and the soldiers in the town were ready to defend it against us….”
Bennu let out a whistle.
“The shade army was pinning us to the wall, and then the Amazons got the rider door open!’
“C’mon lass.” Redder yelled. “Twas you that got that door open. I saw you!”
“But it wasn’t big enough and it was getting dark.” Gabrielle chuckled and soldiered on. “We knew after the sun set the shades would be much stronger.” She watched as Xena took a seat at the table where Cyrene was, and lifted her hand in a signal.
Gabrielle signaled back. “So Xena leaped up onto the wall, and then over it, right into their midst.”
“Did you really?” Cyrene leaned over and whispered to her daughter.
Xena propped her chin up on her fist. “Yeah.” She said. “It was a mess. I had to get those damn gates open before it got dark, them it all pretty much went to crap anyway when Cait killed Hades son.”
“So much horror going on there.” Xena sighed. “One thing after another.” She glanced aside to find her mother studying her. “Now I wonder sometimes if that whole fight wasn’t anything but a mirage. Most of it didn’t seem real.”
“Hmm.” Cyrene uttered a low grumble. “Maybe you all did imagine some of it.”
Had she? Xena listened to Gabrielle’s voice, realizing her partner was deliberately leaving out swaths of the tale to focus it mostly on her. Skirting around the women, abused in that room, and the sacrifice.
Xena paused, and stiffened a little.
The sacrifice. The babies. Her mind focused on the bag she’d found, and the strange tale the girls had told her, of one of the men offering to pay them for …
Was there a connection? Or were the kids lying?
She looked over to find Cyrene watching her. “Just thinking.” She sat back. “This is going to get gory. Glad I left the kids up in the town.”
“Yeah? How gory?”
Gabrielle paused and looked out over the crowd. “And then, the monster came.”
“Very.” Xena folded her arms.
Gabrielle drew in a breath as she got to the part where they’d escaped from the city and were camping, the part where they were about to be reunited with Jess, and Jess would hand over his unexpected gift to Xena.
She could see Jessan lean forward a little, and she herself kept the oracle’s group in her peripheral vision as she shaped the dark plains and the frosty silence for them, and then the sound in the distance of a galloping horse.
This was the key of what she was trying to relate. This connection they had to the gods of love and war that had made them create the altars and drew the oracle and his party to them because she sensed, in a way, that he had some of that understanding.
He had known there was something of the other about Xena. He might have even been truly an oracle, and who knew? Ares might have spoken to him as he’d spoken to them.
“We were glad in our hearts that it was our friend coming back to us.” Gabrielle said, with a smile. “Glad because it was the one thing we felt was lacking, before we could take ourselves, and our soldiers and go home, having done what we’d come for.”
Which wasn’t true, really. But it was what they’d felt, there in that crazy, cold darkness. “And we moved the wagons aside and welcomed him back to us.” She stepped to the edge of the stage and waved at Jessan. “There he is among you. Our friend Jessan, of the forest dweller people.” She paused. “Who are also called the Children of Ares.”
The oracle’s table stiffened and turned, looking over at where Jessan was sitting next to Bennu and a handful of militia, having left his group up on the hillside near the cabin. He smiled, showing all of his fangs, and waved back at her.
“He told us of his own adventures.” Gabrielle went on, letting her gaze roam around the crowd. “For he had been taken to a very dark place, and seen very scary things.” Her own voice dropped. “And he brought, for Xena, a gift.”
‘Here we go.” Xena muttered.
“Here we go.” Unconsciously, Cait echoed the words from her table nearer the stage. “I like this bit.”
“The gift he gave Xena was a great sword. It was tall and had a long hilt, and a great stone in it.” Gabrielle continued, a faint smile twitching at her lips. “We recognized it.” She folded her arms over her chest. “We knew this weapon, but not why it had been sent, all Jessan knew was that he had been told to give it because it would be needed.”
The militia were all nodding, the ones that had been with them in Thrace. The crowd went quiet.
“It was the Sword of War.” Gabrielle said into the silence. “Ares had sent it out of the Hades realm to Xena.”
“You lie!” The would be replacement for the oracle stood up. “That is not true! The Great One would never hand his sword to a mortal!” Dennen pointed at her. “Lies! He will strike you mute for them!”
The men at his table jumped up and the militia around them did the same. Gabrielle merely eyed him with a wry smile. “Dude.” She said. “If Ares could have struck me mute trust me he would have a long, long time ago.”
“Silence!” The man roared.
Gabrielle stuck her tongue out and blew a raspberry at him.
“Tis true and no lie.” Bennu stood up. “I saw it.” He faced the visitors. “I was there.”
“We saw it.” Xena’s militia chorused. “We were there.”
“And wait, you aint heard nothing yet.” Redder added, jerking his head at them.
“True and no lie.” Jessan got up next to him, his russet fur glinting in the torchlight. “I was in Hades realm with him. I fought at his side. I carried that blade back into the mortal world and handed it over to her.”
The visitors stared at him, as though they had never seen anything like him before which likely was true. “What are you?” Dennen said, after a pause. “A creature with speech?”
Jessan regarded him. “Yep.” He said, briefly. “Speech, tongue, teeth, opposable thumbs, the whole basket of being a people without having to be a human.” He held up his hands and wiggled his fingers. “We are called the Children of Ares cause our traditions say he had a hand in our making.”
Xena leaned to one side, watching the man’s face carefully as he looked at Jessan. She could imagine two ways for this to go, and it was hard to flip a dinar coin between them.
“I have never heard of such.” Dennen finally said.
“Lets talk about it later, after Gabrielle finishes her story.” Jessan said. “We’re messing up her flow.” He bowed a little in Gabrielle’s direction. “Sorry about that, little sis.” He sat down and stared pointedly at the Ithacans and their party until they did as well.
Gabrielle watched in some amusement. Then she took a sip of now cooled wine and cracked her knuckles before she continued.
‘We had thought, you see, that we were done with our task.” Gabrielle said. “And now that we had our friend back with us, we could just turn and march home, leave Thrace and return on the old east road until we passed into the mountains and crossed the river back here to Amphipolis.” She paused. “But we weren’t done, and the creature, that terrible creature, wasn’t finished with us.”
Xena got up and went to the front of the stage, taking a seat on it as Gabrielle paused to watch her. “Hi.” She greeted her partner, with a touch of puzzlement in her tone
“Hi.” Xena said. “Just wanted to get a good seat for this part so I can hear it all.” She crossed her boots at the ankles and folded her arms over her chest, tilting her head to look up at Gabrielle.
“As though you couldn’t hear me from your mother’s kitchen table.” Gabrielle regarded her fondly. “Okay where was I. Oh yes, the creature wasn’t finished with us.” She addressed the crowd again. “As we were there, so glad to see our friend we heard the sound of water.” Her eyes scanned the group slowly. “Not just rain, or sleet, but the sound of waves, heading towards us.”
The militia was nodding.
“It was dark, and cold, and there were sounds of the ocean where there was no ocean and we went from being glad, to being afraid as we realized it was waters sent by Posidon to allow his creature to track us, and find us, and destroy us.”
She could hear the sound of it, again, a thundering rush first at the edge of her hearing and then rolling closer as she felt the panic rise around her when everyone realized what was happening.
She hadn’t panicked. She’d turned and looked at Xena and as their eyes met, she knew what was coming. She knew, and she knew Xena knew, and it had come as no surprise when her partner had threaded her sword belt through the Sword of War’s sheath and shrugged it onto her back with her own.
“The water was coming at us. We could hear it.” Gabrielle told the crowd. “There was no where we could run that it wouldn’t catch us.” She came to the front of the stage and regarded the audience. “We couldn’t stop it, but Xena wondered if maybe the Sword of War could.”
“It was the only thing that could.” Xena spoke up, drawing the eyes of the crowd. “Ares knew that.”
“So Xena climbed up onto the wagon and faced the oncoming water and now we could see that there were things coming with it.” Gabrielle went on. “Dark things, with their giant master and as the waves reached us, as the darkness reached us, Xena drew the sword and held it up.”
“And turned the water to ice.” Jessan said, in a wondering tone. “I almost forgot that part.”
The Ithicans and the oracles were caught at gaze, staring at her.
“And the water turned to ice, and it stopped.” Gabrielle confirmed. “But the creature kept coming so Xena turned the power of the Sword of War against it, slicing pieces out of it and keeping it back, keeping it away from us.”
“Protecting my family.” Xena spoke up again, in a mild tone. “My friends and my troops.”
Gabrielle gently touched her on the top of her head. “But the creature kept coming, spilling the poison over the ice and over the top of us …. Except Xena used the power of the sword to put a shield over us, and with the chakram, she put out the creature’s eye.” She paused. “And it died.”
“Aye.” Bennu said. “And then the Genr’l took that sword, and pointed it at the lot of them and like they were nothing, like it was fog of the night, they was gone.”
In the silence that followed, Gabrielle could hear the flutter of the torches, and the nearby rush of the river as it thrummed past the bridge. “And if that had been the end of the tale, it would have been a great one.” She said. “But it wasn’t.”
“Not by half.” Redder agreed. “I remember it now.”
“Had to get Ares sword back to him.” Jessan agreed.
Xena smiled, and let her gaze sweep the crowd, her eyes narrowing. She felt her nape hairs lift, and at once she focused at the peripheries, her body tensing as she tried to sort out what her senses were telling her.
Cait caught it, and stood, waiting for the motion to attract Xena’s attention, and their eyes met. After a moment, Xena nodded, and the young Amazon left the table, heading back to the bridge.
Dori stifled a yawn as she settled into her bed in the side room of the Queen’s quarters in the Amazon village. Cari was in her own bed across from her, petting Teo and she looked down at Buppit, who was snoring at the foot of her cot. “We should go listen to mama.”
Cari looked over at her. “You want?” She asked. “Mama will tell the story to us later.. maybe we go to sleeps now?”
Dori considered. It was late, it was dark outside, and they’d been up for a long time. “Yeah.” She acknowledged. “Sleeps are good.” She lay down on her blanket and relaxed. “Mama can tell us later.”
They could have stayed down with Ly, Lolo, and Gabby and that was okay but Cat had come and brought them back up to the feather place and it was nice, Dori admitted, to be in their place and not in the straw bed down by the town.
Here they had their toys and Cat was outside and if she told her to she would go get them cookies.
Dori could feel the warmth from the hot thing near mama’s desk, and on her tongue she could taste the apple juice they’d drunk once they’d come back up the mountain.
All good. She could hear the sounds of the village around them, soft but distinct, much more noise than if they were in their house up on the top of the mountain. She closed her eyes and listened, hearing voices going by on the path.
Someone said a casual hello to Cat. Dori heard her answer and they yakked back and forth and she lost interest, casting her hearing past that, to find something else.
An owl hooted, from behind where their house was. That was cool. Dori liked owls. Boo had made one come onto her hand when they were up in the forest, and she could still remember the weight of it and the prickle of its claws.
The windows were open, and she liked that because it meant she could hear all the aminals going by, and smell the wood smoke and the green things, and it was all different from the smells inside their home.
She heard the owl again, and it sounded close by so she got up and went to the window to look outside, putting her hands on the sill and tapping it gently with her thumbs. “Hoo! Hoo!”
“What you do?” Cari asked from her bed.
“Just lookin” Dori responded. “I heard a owl.” She scanned the area behind the hut which was built back into the forest near the beginning of the slope that ended with the rock walls, along which ran the creek they’d been swimming in earlier.
She could hear that, hear the water as it rushed and burbled, on it’s way down the slope past Amphipolis where it would end up in the big river. All good, and she knew all the sounds and they were okay. She had learned that from Boo, what was okay, and what was bad.
So these noises of the wind and the little aminals, and the water, and Cat and her yak yak were okay.
But then a sound happened that was wrong. Dori leaned against the sill and blinked, then squinted up her eyes to see the edge of the trees, looking for the thing making the noise which was big and out of place. “Somethin’s dere.”
“What?” Cari got up and came over. “I don’t see anything.” She said, after a moment. “It’s all dark.”
“Dere.” Dori pointed at the edge of the tree line, where she could see a shadow moving against the outline of the branches. “Hey Buppit cmere!”
Buppit snorted, and rolled over, then got up and shook himself before he joined her at the window. He stood up on his hind paws and put his front ones next to her, his round ears swiveling. “Boof.” He made a soft chuffing bark sound.
that?” Dori pointed again. “See that? Is it a bear?” She grabbed his head and
made him look that way.
“A bear!” Cari’s eyes widened. “That’s bad!”
Was it a bear? Dori peered at it. It could be. It was big and a little hunched over. She looked over at Buppit, who seemed unfazed, and yawned. “Dumb dumb.” She pushed back from the window and thought about what to do.
Should she go chase it? Dori frowned. If Ares had been there, he was smart, not like Buppit and could help. But he wasn’t. Was it a bear? Boo had told her not to go near bears, and she knew when Boo said things, in that deep way she should listen.
“Bears are big.” Cari said.
“Boo says they’re bad.” Dori assented. “Said we should stay away.” She turned and headed for the door. “I’m gonna tell Cat.”
Cari trotted after her. “Good good!”
They pushed the door open to the hut and emerged onto the path in front of it neatly outlined with bark and stones that scuffed under their bare feet as Buppit and Teo joined them in a rush of doggish toenails and lolling tongues.
The moon was up, but clouds were there and Dori could just see a bare outline of it. “Hey Cat!” She called out. “You dere! Hey!”
Some voices ahead of her cut off abruptly, and then she could see Cat’s outline as she came over at a fast clip. “Cat!”
“What is it Dori?” Cait came to a skidding halt. “What’s wrong?”
“Dere’s something in the back of the house.” Dori said, turning around to point behind them. “I can see it by the trees.”
Faced with two young girls, most of the rest of the tribe might have soothed them and sent them back to bed. Cait however, was different. She put her fingers into her mouth and let out a sharp whistle, followed by two longer ones and in a moment they could hear the sound of boots running towards them.
“Right.” Cait said. “Dori do me a big favor, okay? Go back in your place there, and I’ll come tell you what we find.” She half turned as Aalene arrived behind her. “Grab a torch. They heard something near the creek.”
“Got it.” Aalene ducked down a side path and disappeared into the shadows.
“I didn’t hear nothing.” Cari said. “Just Dodo.” She paused. “And a owl, a little.”
Cait gently herded them back into the Queen’s quarters. “We’ll go look. Please stay here, okay?” She glanced around, then went to the cabinet behind Gabrielle’s worktable and removed a small sheeps bell from it, turning to hand it to Dori. “If you hear anything else that seems odd, give this a ring.”
“Okay.” Dori took the bell, shaking it with some vigor and producing a loud clanging. “Like that?”
“Just like that.” Cait grabbed a pair of the trail bars stashed in the cabinet and handed them over as well. “Here’s a snack.” She looked around the room then she bolted out the door, as light came bobbing her way with Aalene and Paladia behind it.
“Right lets go.” She took one of the torches and noted that Aalene had her bow and arrows over one shoulder. With a brisk nod she led the way around the side of the queen’s quarters, and headed off into the forest beyond.
“They’re lying, they must be.” Brennen muttered. “Its insane.”
“The locals believe it.” Simon spoke up, in a mild tone and the men looked sharply over at him.
“Who are you?” Brennen asked. “Snuck up on us like that!”
“My names Simon.” The storyteller said. “I’m from Crete. Just a traveling teller of tales. I just got here.” He rested his elbows on the table, watching Gabrielle from the corner of his eyes. “Heard quite a bit though, about this place.”
“Brigand’s den.” One of the Ithacans grunted. “Backwater sewage pit.”
“Mm… backwater for Athens, yes.” Simon said. “Front line for Thrace, on the other hand.” He leaned forward and clasped his hands on the table. “And those lasses are known in Athens.” He indicated the two women at the edge of the stage.
“Known for bloodshed.” Brennen said.
“I daresay.” Simon smiled with little humor. “But then that would support their stories of Ares, wouldn’t it?” He got and dusted his hands off. “I remembered, after I’d heard a thing or two, that one of her names was Ares’ Chosen.” He indicated Xena. “Ta.”
The men watched him wander off, as he eased between the tables and settled in with another group of listeners.
“Busybody.” Brennen said. “Another teller of tales.”
“Not from here though.” Alexis answered. “I’ve been to Crete.” He glanced around at the crowd. “Seems like he’s on their side.”
“His loss.” Brennen said. “Ares has spoken to me. This does not please him. We should make his wishes known to these backwards yokels.”
“More of them than us right now.” The Ithacan sitting next to him said. “Wait till the Priest gets here, he’ll sort them.”
“Will he?” Brennen said, giving him a sideways look. “What if he comes? He going to bring an army with him? You heard these people – they don’t abide by the law. Look what they did to that kid? Gutted him.”
Alexis looked away, then back at him. “Maybe the oracle was right. We should get out of here.” He suggested. “He said this place was renegade. What if they kill the priest like they did him?”
“They would never dare.” Brennen said. “Ares would strike them down.”
“He didn’t strike anyone down for that strangling.” The other Ithacan said,. “Maybe these people are telling the truth.” He pointed at Gabrielle. “Cause you know what? Now that I hear that one telling the tale, I remember hearing of her too, like that other guy said.”
“Her?” Brennen eyed him.
“Gabrielle of Potadeia, yeah.” The Ithacan said. “Won some challenge in Athens.” He nodded. “My wife’s sister was there in the city for the games.”
The group around him stirred with some uneasiness. Brennen looked quickly around and then closed his eyes, tilting his face upward and holding his hands up.
“The god speaks.” One of the oracles party said at once, as Brennen’s body started to twitch. “Be still, all of you.” He watched the shudders become more pronounced. “It was always this way.” He whispered, glancing up at the stage, where Gabrielle was continuing her tale.
After a moment, Brennen’s body slumped against the table, his head turning to one side and his eyes opening up and yet looking past them unseeing. “He wants sacrifice.” His voice was harsh, and atonal. “Against all these lies, he wants truth.”
“What does that mean?” Alexis uttered softly.
“A child of no father he wants.” Brennen croaked out. “Who gives him this will be named his champion.” His eyes shivered violently, twitching to either side as his hands shook so hard they drummed against the bench. “All will bow to him.”
Alexis looked quickly around. “What does that mean? A child of no father?”
Brennen went slack, his body going from shivering to limp as it slid down under the table outside his control as though his bones had turned to string.
Two of his fellow oracles grabbed him hastily and hauled him upright before he could hit the floor and cradled him between them. “He has the true vision.” One said. “Even more so than his predecessor, all grace to him.”
Alexis rubbed his fingers together. “We should take him back to the caravan and let him rest.” He said. “I don’t think we should listen to any more of their stories. We should work to find out the meaning of Ares message instead.”
His group all nodded. “Lets take him with us, and make sure he’s safe.” Alexis stood. “I have some wine we brought with us, come on.”
They all stood and two of the Ithacans came around to help support the seemingly unconscious oracle, and they moved through the crowd and back towards their encampment near the river, leaving the stage and it’s occupants behind.
“And as we were working to find our way out of Hades Realm, we came upon Aphrodite, Goddess of Love.” Gabrielle said, watching the group leave. “And she had a task for us.” She gently nudged Xena’s shoulder, but her partner already had noted the motion and signaled and Redder was slinking after them, hand on his knife.
Lila leaned over near Cyrene. “Aphrodite?”
Cyrene eyed her. “Un huh.” She said. “Forgot she’d told me about that when they got back.” She admitted. “Didn’t remember until she just said it.” She frowned. “Or that they’d been in Hades.”
“I keep forgetting too.” Granella, on her other side, said. “That’s why I want to keep hearing this story, you know? It’s weird.”
“Weird.” Cyrene agreed. She nudged Johan. “Looks like those buggers had a cup too many.”
Johan craned his neck. “Nitwits.”
“Better they go sleep it off.”
At last, it was done.
She’d stopped it at the end of the battle for Hade’s passage, had given Ares and Aphrodite their proper place in it, left off before her end tale, before the place where her and Xena’s memories diverged so profoundly from everyone else’s.
Brought it neatly to a point where the creation of the shrines now made perfect sense to the listeners, who didn’t know the rest of the iceberg of that story.
Just that the gods had a disagreement, she and Xena and the army had been drawn into it, and Ares and Aphrodite ended up the heroes of the tale as they in truth had been.
Even the oracle’s men, some of them, had been drawn back in and at the end there, where Ares split the earth, they had been nodding if only unconsciously because it had seemed right and proper to them.
Eh. Gabrielle relaxed in a chair at the table her family was around, accepting a large mug of ale and the congratulations being thrown from various directions. It was what it was.
“Thanks.” She grinned as a plate was slid in front of her with stew and biscuits. “I’m starving.” She wagged a finger as her tablemates laughed. “Hey, it’s hard work. Don’t knock it unless you’ve done it.”
“That was well done, lass.” Johan patted her knee. “Great tale.”
“Yes, Gabrielle that was really interesting!” Hecuba leaned towards him. “I enjoyed it.”
“Us too.” Lila and Lennat both nodded. “One of your wilder ones.” Lennat added, with a faint smile. “I’m glad I wasn’t a part of this one.”
There was a faint buzz of excitement around the market square, many visitors surrounding the militia who’d been called out in the story, asking for more details, craning their necks to watch the group at Gabrielle’s table, the general attitude altered from earlier in the day.
Simon was seated a table or two away, cradling a mug in his hands, a thoughtful expression on his face. He looked up at Gabrielle and she winked at him, lifting her mug up in a slight salute he returned, putting his hand on his chest with a bow of his head.
Ah. Gabrielle was tired. It had been a long damn day. “Did you like it, Xe?” She gave a sideways glance at her companion, reaching over to put a bit of windblown dark hair out of her eyes.
Xena chuckled softly under her breath. “Of course I liked it. What’s not to like?” She leaned an elbow on the chair arm. “Crowd enjoyed it.” She indicated the slowly emptying market square.
“They did.” Gabrielle pulled the plate over and scooped up some of the stew with a half biscuit. She settled down to enjoy it, swiveling a little so she could lean up against Xena’s shoulder and taking comfort from the warm contact. “We lost our main targets though.”
“It was pissing them off.”
“Well, it was meant to.” Gabrielle caught sight of some movement and she glanced past her partner to see a few merchants approaching the table. “Uh oh.”
Xena turned her head, one dark brow lifting as she observed the men. She sighed. “Now what?”
The men came up next to them. “Pardon us.” The man in the lead said. “It’s about those horses.” He had a hat and it was in his hand, and the tone was respectful. “The ones the kid found.”
“The ones he stole.” Johan pronounced, firmly.
“Aye.” The merchant half shrugged. “We paid his way here, yeah? We gave him bunk room and food. If you’re keeping them animals, that’s worth money to you. We’d like a coin or two for our troubles.” He stood to his fuil height, meeting Xena’s eye unflinching. “Seems only fair, yeah?”
Xena regarded the men and after a moment she produced a true, easy, genuine smile. “All right.” She went for her belt pouch, but Bennu held up a hand and stepped forward, holding his hand out to the man. “I got it, Benny.” She protested. “C’mon.”
“Nah, Genr’l.” Her captain shook his head. “Tis my honor to do it.” He gave her a sideways glance. “Did well on a few wagers on the horses.” He grinned a bit.” Seeing as how I know how some of em were trained like.”
“Ah.” Xena chuckled. “Got it.”
He returned his attention to the merchant. “That do yeh?”
“More than.” The merchant took the contents and smiled at both of them. “Kid was a bad lot.” He said. “We’ve had a good market here, no matter all the nitter natter, and been treated well. I thank you.”
The courtesy was so unexpected Gabrielle hardly knew what to do with herself and thinking about the red haired kid, she suddenly felt a sense of sadness that part of it had all gone so wrong.
Shouldn’t they…no. Gabrielle chewed her biscuit thoughtfully. Shouldn’t she have stopped it? Not let that happen?
She’d accepted Xena’s judgement without question. She hadn’t even joined them at the jail, even knowing what Xena’s intent had been. Wasn’t it her part to temper that easy out of bloodshed?
Gabrielle pondered that, watching Xena’s profile from the corner of her eye, the uncomfortable sting of the thoughts fading as she took in the gentle kiss of the torchlight outlining the curve of her jawline and as if sensing the attention, the shadows shifted as her partner turned to meet her eyes.
So much history between them.
But then, she considered, the man had drawn blood from Dori. Gabrielle swallowed and licked her lips. He had attacked both her children and Jessan’s and if things had been different, if the forest dweller youngsters had been less able, had Dori herself been less agile and strong he likely would have killed one or more of them.
She licked her lips again.
So no. This was not an innocent or wrongly accused victim. She owed him nothing. Had she been a little more uncontrolled and a little more thoughtless it could have been her who killed him instead and in fact there would have been less question in everyones mind if she had.
But no. Gabrielle deliberately set her biscuit down and picked up Xena’s hand instead, raising it and kissing the knuckles of it as the long fingers folded around hers in a gentle grip. She kept the contact, drawing both of their hands against her chest as she returned her attention to the merchants.
“I’m glad you did well at the market.” Gabrielle told the merchant, with a smile. “Did you get your traces put back together? I remember he cut them up.”
“Aye the little bastard.” The man smiled at her. “Made well enough out of it to buy them new again, ma’am. So now we’ve emptied our own wares, and picked up some others, and off we go into Thrace tomorrow.” He slid the coins Bennu had given him into his belt pouch. “With stories of our own to take with us.”
The others in his group waved, giving them friendly smiles as he rejoined them and spoke in a low tone, and then with a trade of back slaps, they retreated towards the edge of the square where the traveling merchants had made their camp.
“They was all right.” Bennu sat down and hiked one boot up to rest on his knee. “Tale that’ll counter some others.”
“They were and that turned out better than I thought it would.” Xena agreed. She sat back in her chair and picked up her mug, starting to relax when they all heard a high whistle far off in the back of the town that echoed and relayed up towards them. “Now what?”
Bennu stood up and looked back across the square to the bridge. “Watch.” He motioned to Redder, who had just taken a seat at the next table. “Had someone checking the crick.” He told Xena. “Rising some.”
“I noticed.” Xena took another sip from her mug. “I heard it when I was crossing the bridge coming down.”
“Aye.” Bennu nodded. “Lower fields g’win be flooded.”
Not necessarily a bad thing. Xena stretched and extended her boots, crossing them at the ankles. “Good for the crops.”
“Aye.” Her captain stifled a yawn.
The area around them was slowly clearing out, merchants wandering back to their wagons, tucked into sturdy squares and providing bedroom for them. The visitors were making their way back up to the town, the militia were heading back to their barracks.
Xena nodded, in some satisfaction. “Could have been worse.”
“Time for bed?” Gabrielle asked. “Lets go back up to the village. I’m whacked.” She patted Xena’s leg. “Get some rest if we might need to move things out of the way of the river tomorrow.” She leaned forward. “Maybe you can come up and visit the village before you leave, mother?”
Hecuba nodded. “I want to.” She said, with a brief smile. “So interesting.”
Xena bumped her shoulder with her head and set the mug down. “Sounds good to me, my love.” She pushed herself to her feet and held a hand out to Gabrielle. “Tomorrow’s another day people.”
The market workers were cleaning up and straightening the tables, and the musicians had quit the stage, a semblance of peace settling over the square as the last of it’s customers left it.
Xena and Gabrielle walked back up to the town with their families with Jessan ambling along behind them, crossing the bridge and climbing up the slope with a bunch of other stragglers.
A breeze blew at their backs, bringing the scent of the river, and the dying cookfires in the market to them, a bit of meat char on the edges of it, and at the very end, the soft sounds of a piper playing a lone little tune coming from the back of the theatre.
“Night you kids.” Cyrene stifled a yawn as they came up to the inn, and she and Johan turned aside to join the small group of visitors who were heading for the door and their nights rest.
“Night.” Xena returned the salute, keeping on the main path that led through the town.
Bennu intercepted her as they reached the back gates. “Water’s up.” He said, succinctly. “Got a good flow coming down t’the river, but banks are good.”
Xena nodded. “Keep an eye on it. Let me know if it gets worse.” She waited for the gates to swing open, and they went through. “Night.”
“No s’prises.” Bennu waved. “We’ll let ya know, Xena.”
The torches up to the Amazon village were still mostly lit, and they climbed up in amiable silence, their boots rasping softly against the stone lined path, amongst the gently rustling branches on either side.
The gates were still open at the landing and the guard emerged, giving them a quiet salute as they drew close.
“I’m going to go join my lot.” Jessan said. “They got some of these ladies to do some shopping for them down at the market and I’m guessing it was a party.” He grinned. ”See ya in the morning.”
Gabrielle and Xena waved, then they headed through the gates. “All quiet up here?” Gabrielle asked, almost as an afterthought to the watch.
“Um.” Posi eyed her. “They didn’t tell you?”
Xena let out a long, aggrieved sigh, and leaned against the gate, as Gabrielle fit her hands around her staff and rested her weight on it, regarding the watch wryly.
Cait eased through the trees, aware of the half dozen other Amazons in the vicinity all with torches, quartering the back woods in a line that put them between the woods and the village.
A half candlemark, and they hadn’t seen any sign of any intruders, whether human or animal that were large enough to fit what Dori had said she’d seen.
“Y’know.” Paladia said, in a wry tone.
“I don’t think she made it up, actually.” Cait stated flatly, pausing to examine the bark of a tree. Her fingers touched it, feeling the faint disruption on the bark that indicated something had pressed against it. “She doesn’t, not that kind of thing you know.”
“Her mom makes crap up every freaking minute.” Her partner countered. “She coulda.”
Which was true. Cait drew in a breath, her mouth half open as she tasted what was on the wind. The breeze was at her back, though, and mostly it was just normal smells in the village. “She said she saw something.” She edged to the left. “And Cari didn’t see it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“If they were making it up, they’d both have.” Cait said. “Kids, you know?”
“No, and you don’t neither, ya raised by wolves nutcase.”
Cait repressed a wry smile. “Dori has Xena’s night eyes.” She clarified. “If she says saw something, she probably did.”
“Gimme a break.”
“Pally, hush.” They paused in front of a tall tree, and Cait knelt, tucking her hands into her chest as she examined the ground. “Bring the torch here, would you?”
Paladia obliged, circling a little so the breeze would take the smoke away into the forest as she knelt next to Cait, careful not to muss up whatever she was looking at and risk a whack to the kneecap.
“There.” Cait pointed at a smudge. “Someone walked along here.”
“If you say so.”
“No, look here Pally.” Cait drew her attention to a deeper impression. “Boots, you know? You can see the imprint. They went along here and then down that path.” She stood up. “Let’s go find them. I told you Dori saw something.”
“Yeah yeah yeah.” Paladia stood up, let off a couple of whistles, and then followed stolidly with her torch clamped in one fist, the other free to fend off branches aiming at her face that Cait just walked under. The night wind came in a little stronger, and she felt it ruffle her hair as they squeezed between rough barked trees along a barely seen game track.
Cait was following something, and as she watched the smaller woman she saw her hand go to her belt knife in reflex. “Hmph.” Paladia grunted under her breath, taking a firmer hold on the torch and looking around more carefully.
Weird though her partner was at times, her tracking skills were unquestionable and you ignored them at the risk of getting an arrow through your eyeball.
The leaf rustling faded briefly, and with a wordless yell, Cait took off into the shadows into the moss covered downslope just before the creek.
“Hey!” Paladia bolted after her. “Nutcase!” She rambled down the slope, barely able to see Cait’s pale head and then hearing hoarse, male yells. “Fricken nutcase was right.”
She could hear the rest of the guards approaching and as she got to the bottom of the slope she realized two things. One, that the creek was overflowing, and two, that there were a lot of goons surrounding Cait. “Ware!” She let out a bellow.
“Bows ready!” Aalene yelled from the left.
Paladia plunged into the water up to her knees, and as she reached the scrum she heard the clash of weapons and she took a grip on the torch ready to swing it. “Hey!” She yelled. “Leave one for the rest of us willya?”
Sound of a bow releasing, and one of the dark figures dropped into the water. Paladia used her height to good advantage and raised the torch high over her head, casting red gold light into the trees and seeing it reflect off the flooding waters.
Cait was there, outlined in crimson, daggers in both hands in this close in work moving so quickly they were just the odd flash. Her back was to a large tree and as Paladia waded closer she heard a deep growl and saw an inky black figure come bounding over. “Over here!” She bellowed.
Something grabbed her, and she let out a roar, holding the torch up in one hand and swinging around with her raised elbow to smack into whatever it was. She saw a cheekbone and aimed for it, feeling the shock as the blow connected, snapping the head back of the man with his hands on her upper arm.
Her torch outlined his face, and a second later an arrow pierced his eye and he went reeling back, releasing her and grabbing for the shaft on it’s way to killing him. “Thanks!” Paladia yelled to the unseen archer behind her and then Solari appeared, bow raised. “Nice shot.”
Solari grinned, and slid past. “Whole village is coming.” She warned. “I’m gonna try not to shoot any of em.”
A veritable flood of Amazons, did, then in fact pour in, coming past her with swords and chobos as the senior fighters arrived and a moment later she heard the crack of wood against a skull and then Eponin was standing next to her, whipping back her chobo for another blow. “Hey!”
“Hey keep the light up.” Eponin said, drawing her dagger and moving past. “Great way to end the night.” She slid between two trees and then was at Cait’s side, driving the knife into the side of the man trying to get inside the younger Amazon’s guard.
Paladia splashed up behind them, moving towards Cait as she felt the water come up past her knees, feeling the surge of the current as it moved downslope, the creek out of it’s bed but the water moving past the village, heading for the river.
Now she was close enough to see the tree Cait was braced against, a line of Amazons drawing even with her against the line of intruders. Aalene came to her side, a crossbow braced and she could now hear the men cursing as they were forced back into deeper water.
“Better hurry up.” Paladia said. “For either Her Nibs gets here, or her kid decides to come and help.”
Eponin drew her sword, stepping up in front of the line and letting out a battle yell as she swung, chopping a hand off as her opponent went for his sword, and then turning with a backhanded swipe that hit his neck.
A plume of blood went flying, as with a grunt Pony drove her momentum all the way through and severed the head, a smack from Solari’s blade sending it tumbling to the ground.
Double splashes, as two of the men dove into the creek, letting the waters take them downstream and away from the fight, and then it was a rout and the rest of the invaders followed, those that were able, stumbling into the stream and throwing themselves into the rush.
“Cowards!” Solari let out a bellow.
Cait drove her dagger into her last opponent, who was struggling to get away. “Oh I don’t think so.” She yanked her arm back and stabbed him again and again as he screamed and gurgled, and fell to his knees in front of her and she grabbed him by the hair and pulled his head back.
Aalene fired, her crossbow bolt hitting him in the jugular at almost point blank range just as a furred figure added fangs to the effort and ripped out the front of his throat and his shaking body thumped to the ground into the flood.
Then it was still, and the only ones standing were Amazons, wading through the water to gather around Cait as one final body rolled over into the creek and was swept downstream in a tangle of dead arms and legs pinwheeling in the froth.
After a brief moment of silence, the furred figure standing near Cait spat out a mouthful and shook himself. “Whoa that was cool.” He looked up at Cait, who topped him by a head and grinned. “You’re awesome!”
Cait blinked. “Oh.” She looked at the figure. “Is it.. Warrin?” She leaned closer as Paladia moved in with the torch and it reflected off the dark silver of his fur. “It is.”
“Yup.” The young forest dweller licked his lips. “Heard the fightin from our camp.” He pointed uprange. “Didn’t want to miss nothin.”
Now more torches were closing in and the forest glade took on multiple shadows as Ephiny slipped in next to Pony and Aalene propped her boot up out of the water and cocked her crossbow, settling a bolt. “Just in case.” She said, looking around. “What in the name of Ares was all that?”
“More pirates?” Ephiny suggested, her hand draped over Pony’s shoulder. “Lets go to the gathering hall, and figure it all out. “ She said. “Pon, quarter the boundaries. Make sure we got em all.”
“Got it.” Pony was cleaning off her sword, and she wiped the creek water off the blade before she sheathed it. “Make sure we get rid of all the trash too.” She patted Cait’s shoulder. “Good job.”
Cait straightened up, the torchlight outlining her slim form spattered with the rust and dark of blood and mud. “Actually, we’ve got Dori to thank. She saw them.” She said. “I expect she’ll want some cookies.”
“Cookies?” Warrin said, hopefully.
Ephiny chuckled. “Kids are kids.” She commented. “Aalene, walk the creek boundary, put a watch on the edge of it.” She folded her arms over her chest and regarded the battleground. “Maybe a dozen of those bastards bodies ending up down the hill will keep the rest of them out.”
“We need to figure out how they’re getting up here.” Pony said, in an undertone.
“Hm.” The Amazon regent grunted in agreement. “Something’s not adding up, Pon.” She turned and began a herding gesture towards the gathering hall. “Not at all.” She cocked her head as she heard a relayed owlsong. “I’ll go get our princess and see wha she saw.”
Pony nodded. “What about him?” She asked, in a mutter, watching Warrin climb up the slope next to Cait. “We should go tell his people he’s here, yeah?”