A Change of Seasons
Dori sat up in her bed, hearing the crunch of boots on the path outside. “Car! Wake up! Mama and Boo are here.” She scrambled out of bed and ran out of the bedroom as the door to their quarters opened and Xena’s tall form came inside. “Boo!!!”
“Gods be damned, get patrols out!” Gabrielle was yelling as she followed Xena inside. “What the heck Xena!” She continued, fuming. “Pig farts!”
Xena sat down on one of the padded stools and put her arms around Dori in greeting as Cari came to stand in the doorway, rubbing her eyes. “Hey munchkins.” She greeted them. “What a crazy night, huh?”
“Boo mama’s mad!” Dori looked past her, eyes widening.
“Mama’s mad.” Xena agreed as the door was slammed closed behind her visibly irritated partner. “ But you know what, Dor? We’re not mad at you because you’re a damned hero.” She rubbed noses with her daughter. “You saved the village.”
“Huh?” Dori stared at her like she had a second head. “What you say, Boo?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle dropped down into her chair behind the workbench, her blond hair in disarray from running her hands through it. “That’s absolutely right. A hundred freaking Amazon warriors and who sees the invaders? My six year old.”
Xena chuckled a little under her breath. “Cait did the right thing.” She said. “Glad Dori told her.” She ruffled Dori’s hair. “Good job, kiddo.”
“Cait absolutely did the right thing. Dori did the right thing. But what the Hades, Xena!!” Gabrielle slumped back in her chair and gritted her teeth. “Arrrggghh! How long were those brigands in the village? What were they doing?”
Cari came out and stood next to Xena, peering at Gabrielle past her elbow. “Dodo saw a bear?” She ventured. “No one told us what happens.” She added. “Just lots of noise.”
“No bear. Bad men.” Xena told her. “Dori saw the bad men, and then she told Cait, and then Cait and some friends went and took care of them.”
“Go boom.” Dori clarified.
“Yes.” Xena agreed. “Cait, and her friend Paladia, and Ephiny and Eponin and Aalene. They all went boom.” She picked Dori up and put her on her knee. “You did great, Dori. You told just the right person.”
Dori grinned. “I do gooooooood.” She shadowboxed with her fists. “I was going to go get the bear, Boo, but Buppit’s too dumb to help.” She admitted. “And you said don’t go to them.” She patted her hands on Xena’s leg. “So I went to tell Cat.”
“Just the right thing to do.” Xena hugged her. “You don’t want to go out in the dark and chase things, Dori. Not until you’re a little older.” She amended, seeing the wry look on Gabrielle’s face. “C’mon hon, they kicked ass. No one expected those dipshits up here. What I want to know is how they got in.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle got up and shook herself a little. “Yeah.”
“Daylight comes, I’m gonna find out.” Xena stood up as well, setting Dori on her feet. “G’wan back to bed, kiddos. All the excitement is over.”
“Mama, you tell a story?” Dori asked. “We didn’t get to come.”
Her mother regarded her. “Well, you guys get back into bed and I’ll come tell you a story.” She promised. “Okay?”
Both girls ran back into the bedroom and their parents were left in relative silence looking at each other. “Xeeeeena. This is getting weird.”
“Getting?” Xena wandered over and started untying Gabrielle’s Amazons leathers. “This is a nice shawl.” She lifted the garment off her shoulders and folded it, leaning forward to kiss the back of her neck. “Needed it tonight.”
“I need you tonight.” Gabrielle responded, peering over her shoulder. “But yeah, it was nice, just a random gift.” She turned and put her arms around Xena, exhaling as the hug was returned. “Xena, why don’t I understand what’s going on here?”
Xena shrugged lightly. “I don’t understand what’s going on here.” She pointed out. “I don’t know where these creeps are even coming from. They’re not visitors from the market.’ She said. “I know this mountain. There’s no trail up here.”
Gabrielle frowned .”You think it’s connected to last winter?”
“And the gods?”
“Yup.” Xena inclined her head and gave Gabrielle a kiss on the lips. “Nothing else makes sense.” She went past and to the wooden chest against the wall, unclasping the armor on her chest and lifting it over her head. “Especially with those offerings. That has to tie in.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle removed her leathers and traded them for a shift, moving over to put the water pot onto the brazier to heat as she rummaged in her herb box for tea. “Crap. Remind me to go scavenge some mint tomorrow wilya? All I have is some lemongrass.”
“That’s fine.” Xena set her bracers down and unhooked her sword, reaching around to set the weapon into the hooks on the side of the cabinet. “Put enough honey in it, I don’t care if you use grass from outside.”
Gabrielle chuckled a little.
“You know it’s true.” Xena smiled, herself.
“Yes I do.” Gabrielle snipped a bit of the lemongrass and crumbled a few wildflower petals into their cups, enjoying the delicate mix of floral and spice as it rose to her. “But I always looked forward to that last cup at night, and tried to not make it crappy.”
Xena came over and peered past her, then she put her hands on her shoulders and started a gentle kneading. “I remember when you tried those apple skin peelings the first time. That was great.”
Gabrielle paused and peeked back at her. “You remember that?”
“Mm.” Xena nodded. “I remember thinking why the hades I’d never tried it.” She said, bearing down a little more and working at a knot she felt along the top of her partner’s neck. “That and rose hips.”
“You gave your apples to your horse.” Gabrielle laughed softly. “That’s why.”
Gabrielle poured the hot water over the herbs and waited, enjoying her massage as the steam rose off the cups drifted up, altering as she added drizzles of honey into the water. “Glad the day is over.”
“Me too.” Xena moved her thumbs lower. “Hold still.”
Gabrielle felt a twist in the motion and a sudden ease in a tension she hadn’t really realized she was feeling and she exhaled in content. “Thanks.” She stirred the cups and turned, handing Xena hers. “Let me figure out what I’m going to tell the kids.”
“Make it short.” Xena leaned over and kissed her again, eyes twinkling. “And no cows.”
Gabrielle lifted her cup in silent salute and went to her desk, setting the cup down as she riffled her hair into some order, flexing her now eased shoulders that could still feel the probing touch of Xena’s skilled hands in a residual tingle.
Xena sat down on the chest and removed her leg armor, then unlaced her boots. She pulled them off and the socks underneath them, wiggling her toes. “Tomorrow’s another day.” She concluded. “You know what just occurred to me?”
“What?” From the corner of her eye she saw Xena stiffen, and her head turn towards the door. “What?” She repeated, watching her partner walk barefoot towards the entrance,
“Someone’s coming.” Xena said. “I think it’s Jess.” She added, after a pause, her ears cocked visibly as she pulled the door open.
A moment later, Gabrielle heard the guard speak, then she finally could hear the sound of footsteps approaching on the path heading to their door. She joined Xena and they emerged onto the front of the hut as both Jessan and Solari emerged into the torchlight.
“Hey.” Gabrielle greeted them. “What’s up:”
“I went up to let Jess know his son was here.” Solari said, without preamble. “After the fight, yeah?”
“And I was real glad to hear that.” Jessan said, looking worried. “Cause we were out searching the area up there, since both he and Butterbean were missing.”
“What?” Gabrielle said.
“Both of them?” Xena echoed a second later. “Is she here too?”
“No.” Solari shook her head. “Just the little guy.”
“Yeah. So I’m glad one’s here.” Jess said. “But we can’t find Butter. None of us.” He glanced up and over his shoulder. “My guys said the kids all went to sleep in the tent, last they knew.” He said. “They didn’t realize they were gone until I got back and went in to check them.”
“Warin showed up during the fight.” Solari explained. “He was chomping on those guys helping us out, you know?” She lifted both hands slightly. “But he said he was by himself.”
“What does Gaby say?” Gabrielle asked .
“She was sleeping. She says she woke up and they were both gone. I can see tracks coming away from the tent, until the creek. It’s flooded there.” Jessan said. “No tracks or scent past that, and our kids don’t sound real strong until they hit the change.”
“And they think this place is safe.” Gabrielle concluded.
“They do.” Jessan nodded. “Like the valley. It’s home.”
Xena absorbed this. “Okay.” She started back into the hut. “Let me get my boots back on. Gabrielle, can you round up some trackers.” She looked over her shoulder. “Solari, run down to the town and get me a couple dozen of the guard. We need to find her.”
“Got it.” Solari turned and disappeared into the darkness.
Gabrielle let out a whistle, gratified when it generated a rumble of running boots towards her. “We’ll find her Jess.” She patted his arm. “She can’t have gone far. How about you bring Gaby down here and she and Warin can stay with the kids in the bunkroom until we find Butter.”
“I was gonna ask for either that or if we could use your place.” Jessan said. “My guys are totally freaked out.” He admitted. “Not to mention seriously embarrassed. They had like one job, right?”
‘Well, kids can be pretty sneaky.” Gabrielle said. “I’m sure she probably took off after Warin and got separated from him.”
“Yeah. I cant wait to have that little talk with my son.” Jessan grimaced. “He knows better.”
Xena emerged from the hut, fully armed “Lets go to the gathering hall and split up in teams. Gabrielle….” She glanced at her partner.
Gabrielle’s lips twitched, just a little. “I’ll stay here and coordinate everything.” She said, unprompted. “Tracking’s not one of my better skills.” She turned to re-enter the hut. “Let me get dressed.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Xena asked, regarding her partner’s nightwear.
“Shoo.” Gabrielle flicked her fingertips at her. She turned to the group coming down the path. “Meeting house, everyone. We’ve got a missing kid to find.”
Xena stood for a moment with her hands on her hips, head cocked slightly. Then she shook her head and started after Solari, with Jessan hard at her heels.
“What you do?” Dori sat down on the small bench next to little Gaby, who looked a bit overwhelmed. Cari was sitting on her bed, with Buppit and Teo laying nearby.
“I was sleeping.” Their friend said. “Papa came and got me, and Butter and Warin were gone.” She was cross legged on the floor in their quarters, torchlight coming into the windows from guards stationed just outside.
“That’s bad.” Dori said. “Boo is looking.”
A sound at the door made them all look up, to see Cait enter, holding Warin’s hand. He pulled free and ran into the room to join his friends, eyes all agog. “Whoa.”
“We’ll be outside.” Cait told them. “Please stay in here, all right? Once we find your sister, we’ll bring her here too.”
“Okay.” Dori said. “We stay here until Mama and Boo come back.”
Cait sighed. “I suppose that’ll have to do.” She muttered, before she turned and left, closing the door behind her.
They all turned their attention to Warin, who plopped down next to his sister. “Papa’s mad.” He looked a little chagrined. “I helped beat the bad guys but he’s mad.”
“He’s mad you left us.” Gaby said. “That’s bad!”
“Why you leave?” Dori said.
Warin looked both ways then back at them. “I heard a amninal.” He told them. “So I went to go chase. I was gonna catch it and maybe eat it up.”
“What about Bean?” His sister frowned at him. “She go too?”
Warin was shaking his head the whole time she spoke. “No. Just me. I chased it down the hill, then I heard them making fight noises so I went there.” He wriggled forward a little. “There was bad guys and they were fighting with the feather people.”
“I know.” Dori grinned a bit rakishly. “I told them.”
“Dodo heard the bad men.” Cari agreed. “She got Cat.”
“Cat’s cool.” Warin said. “She gots a good knife.” He waved his fist into a sinuous arc. “She made some of the bad men dead and I bitted one!” He said proudly. “And they tooked me to the other house there an gave me some cookies.”
“Mm. Cookies” Dori said. “We should go get some.”
“We told Cat we would stay.” Cari reminded her. “Boo and Mama be mad at us.”
“Pfft.” But Dori stayed where she was, kicking her feet out a little. “Boo can find Beany.” She predicted. “Boo can do anything.”
Cari nodded. “Maybe there are some cookies in the big thing?” She suggested. “Mama keeps some sometimes. We should look.”
“Good.” Dori got up. “Lets find some.” She led the way into the outer room. “You look there.” She pointed at the tall cabinet. “C’mon.”
Xena knelt by the tree, examining the ground with sensitive fingertips. “Yeah.” She nodded. “Footprints end here.” She stood up, and looked out over the flooded ground, sloping gently towards the bed of the creek. “That gods be damned water again.”
Jessan was standing next to her, the rest of this troup at his back. Cait was behind him, with six Amazons and past them, a dozen of her militia were patiently quartering the space between Xena and Gabrielle’s cabin and the edge of the woods.
“Cait, take your gang and go up towards the path to the escarpment.” Xena said. “See if she went that way up this ridge here.”
“Right.” Cait waved her team on.
Xena sighed. “Guess I’m getting wet again.” She started forward into the flood, grimacing a little as the cold, dark water soaked through her boots.
“Guk.” Jessan was right at her heels. “What makes you think she went this way? I wouldn’t.”
“Because every other weird thing the last few days has gone this path.” Xena said. “I’ve spent more time in this damn creek in the last sevenday than I have before in my entire life.”
Gabrielle checked off a quadrant on the parchment in front of her, listening with one ear to what Nala was saying. The tall senior warrior had just come in, boots wet to her kneecaps. “Okay, so that’s the last quarter, just before the path goes up to the valley.”
Gabrielle eyed her. “You don’t think she went up into the valley do you?”
“I didn’t see any sign of it.” Nala reported. “I had Sol bring up two torches and we looked hard at the entrance there. I saw some fox tracks and raccoon but nothing like their .. uh…”
“Yeah.” Nala agreed. “I checked the little guy’s tracks here in the village before I went up there so I would know what they looked like.” She sat down on the bench next to the high table and spread out her own piece of parchment. “We went all the way up into here, anyway, but I didn’t see signs of anything.”
Gabrielle looked past Nala. “Doriana, I thought I told you to stay in our house.”
“Yes, mama but I had a think about Bean.” Dori pattered up and climbed up onto the bench. “I told them rest to stay in our place.” She said. “We found some treasure.”
“Uh huh?” Her mother propped her chin up on her fist.
“Bean put it in a tree.” Dori said, earnestly. “Mama maybe she went to go get it? We forgot when we came home?”
“You really think she would run away from her family just to get something in the woods, Dor? She could have gotten it in the morning, when it was light out.”
Dori thought about that. “Oh.” She sat down on the bench with a look of chagrin. “Yes, mama.”
“Okay, so go back to our place, and keep your friends company. Why don’t you guys get some sleep, okay?” Gabrielle said. “You don’t know how lucky you are to get to go to sleep when you want, Dori. Mama wishes like heck she could go to sleep right now.”
Dori blinked at her. “Mama, you said you would tell us a story.”
Nala covered her mouth hastily.
“Honey, I can’t right now. I’m trying to help find your friend.”
“No you aren’t.” Dori frowned at her. “You just sit’n.”
“No, look.” Gabrielle ignored the snicker from Nala. “Here’s a piece of parchment, and mama is keeping track of where everyone’s looked for Butterbean.” She turned the parchment around for her daughter to see. “Here’s the village, you see?”
Dori stood up on the bench and regarded the sketch. “Mama, come tell us a story.” She concluded. “This is dumb.”
Her mother sighed. “Laugh it up.” She told Nala. “Just wait until she gets bumped.”
“Oh no.” Nala stood. “We’re all retiring before that.” She folded her parchment up. “I’m going to start looking up near your place. Maybe she went up to get an apple from that tree.” She hastened out of the gathering hall, just as Aalene entered to give her own report.
Gabrielle leaned on the table and gave her a look. “Doriana, go to bed.” She said, in a stern tone. “Mama has to focus on finding Butterbean.”
Dori pouted. “Mama I’m not tired.” She complained. “But okay.” She climbed off the bench and ran out, slamming the door behind her.
“Damn you, Xena.” Gabrielle muttered, as she turned to face Aalene. “Next time you take her with you.”
Aalene grinned at her in sympathy. “Kids.” She put down her notepad. “Okay, we went all the way down to town and we talked to the guys there. Nothing.” She shook her head. “Not even a bat. It’s been dead quiet since they closed the gates.”
“Where the heck is that kid?” Gabrielle wrote down the details. “We’ve looked everywhere.” She paused, and her brows knit a little. “Hey, hang out here a minute wouldja?” She stood up. “I’m going to go find Xe.”
“Sure.” Aalene gladly settled down on the side near the night banked fire, unlacing her boots and pulling them off to set them to dry. “Take your time.”
Gabrielle grabbed her staff and went through the door, blinking as the cool night air puffed her hair back. She reached the edge of the square and paused, trying to picture in her head where Xena might be based on where her partner said she was going to hunt.
Her, and Jessan, and his crew and for some reason she suddenly had a powerful desire to be with them, driving her out of the gathering hall and into the forest, almost colliding with Cait as the young Amazon appeared around a bend. “Oh!”
“Gabrielle!” Cait pulled up. “Oh good!”
“Hi.” Gabrielle said. “I’m heading out… what’s wrong?”
Cait looked uncharacteristically unsure. “I just remembered something.” She said. “I’ve been trying to think of who that man down in the town reminded me of and I just did.”
“The one from Crete?”
“Simon?” Gabrielle resisted the urge to run off into the darkness. “The storyteller?”
Cait nodded. “Something… he twitched or something or the way his face was… he reminded me of Apollo.”
Gabrielle went quite still. She regarded Cait’s face, reflected in the torchlight and then her eyes drifted past her, her concentration moving internal. “Apollo.”
“Yes.” Cait said. “We spent a bit of time with him, me and Jess. He seemed all right when we met him, and I was just remembering that and how we talked together before he brought us back to where you all were.”
“He ended up being kind of a jerk.” Gabrielle recalled slowly.
“Yes he did.” Cait nodded. “I remember now Ares yelling at him.”
“And Aphrodite.” Gabrielle mused. “Xe’s right.” She then concluded. “Of course she’s right. She’s always right.” Gabrielle shook herself. “I’ve got to go find her. “ She said. “Come with me.”
“Too right.” Cait gave her sword belt a twitch and they both ducked off the path and into the forest, moving at a fast pace.
Xena had gotten used to the chill of the water and now she moved quickly along the flooded ground, climing over roots and rocks as she watched the trunks of the trees for any sign of passage.
Behind her, Jess and his gang had spread out and were doing the same, and they quartered the ground methodically as they moved downslope towards the creek.
Always the creek. Xena could see through the trees in the moonlight the reflection of the moon on the water, and hear just ahead of them the sound of it’s passage over the bed. She could smell the moss on the rocks ahead, and hear the creak of the roots of the trees as their roots were undercut.
She paused and looked up. “Watch out for these damn trees.” She called out. “They could fall on top of us.”
“Got it.” Jess was climbing over a small escarpment and lowering himself on the other side back into the water. “You really think my kiddo went this way?”
Xena raked the damp hair out of her eyes. “Dori said they were down here playing.” She said. “Before they got into that whole mess with those juniors.”
“They were playing next to the creek.. or in the creek… you know how Dori is with her damn fish.” Xena could now see the true bank of the creek and she paused, spotting something embedded into the bark of a tree. “Here. Look.”
Jessan waded over and joined her, peering at the trunk. “Oh.” He touched the bit of fur caught in the roughness and sniffed it. “Yup. But that could be from before?”
“Might be.” Xena then saw the claw marks and she followed them with her eyes. “Hang on.” She crouched a little then sprang upward, grabbing the trunk and hauling herself along the rough surface and wrapping her legs around it for support.
It was a tall tree, with a small spread of branches further up and she followed the claw marks, just visible to her in the dim light until she reached the first set of branches.
“Getting creaky down here, Xena!” Jessan yelled up. “Water’s undercutting the bank.”
She felt the tree shift under her. “Get away from it!” She yelled down as she freed one hand and searched around the branches, grunting in satisfaction when her fingers hit fabric and she closed her hand over the rough cloth just as she felt a hard jerk and the tree started moving. “Ah crap.”
“Xena!” Jessan yelled. “Its coming down!”
“Get out of the damn way!!!!”
The tree tilted and in one sinuous motion Xena got the bag wrapped around her wrist, grabbing hold of the branches and swinging her body around to the other side of the trunk.
She could feel it toppling under her and was aware of rapid motion, the shadows of trees and moonlight flashing around her as the branches over her head cracked and fell.
One slammed against her shoulder and she ducked only just in time to avoid getting her head taken off as the trunk slid past one next to it.
What was it with people? Xena twisted and her eyes widened a little as she saw another trunk approaching. What was it with people yelling her name all the time?
She jumped free of the tree and hoped for the best as she dropped through the darkness. “Look out!” She bellowed. “Get out of the way!!!”
She thumped against a tree and bounced off a second, trying to keep her sense of up and down as the breath was knocked out of her as she came down across a half-collapsed tree and pushed hard off it, hunching her shoulders at the last minute and pulling her head out of the way of another falling branch.
Idiotic idea. She tucked her elbows in and got herself upright in the air as she felt the ground approaching, bending her knees as she prepared to feel the impact, hoping to stay upright and not go face first into the mud.
She closed her eyes and grimaced.
And then, unexpectedly, she was caught and was slowed in mid air in a multiple clawed grip on her, landing gently in the water that once again came up to her knees. “Ooof.” She grunted. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” Jessan said. “You okay?”
“Everything’s still attached.” Xena finished a cursory examination, checking if she was gushing blood from anywhere and finding mostly just bruises she was confident she might get sympathy for later on back home. “Yeah I’m fine.” She brought the bag around. “Now.”
“Whatja find?” Jessan steered her into a clearer area, where the moon was a bit brighter and they all gathered around to see. “That’s definitely theirs.” He added, touching the bag. “It’s Beans.”
“It was stashed up in the branches.” Xena confirmed. “Dori said they were hunting for treasure out here. Maybe she came out here to find it, and then went back? Maybe the flood was too high?”
Jessan pondered. “Maybe, but she’s a water rat.” He said. “All my kids are.”
“Dori was probably a bad influence.” Xena opened the bag and looked inside, then gathered the cloth in her hands to expose the contents. “Huh.” She took in the random items, stones and pieces of wood mixed with the glint of coins and gems, their color muted in the moonlight but the shine distinct.
“What the heck??” Jessan picked up a small wooden box and opened it. The inside had a couple of river stones inside, but nothing else. “Must have just been stuff they were playing with. Treasure like you said.”
Xena picked up a coin and studied it. “One of ours.” She said, holding it up. “Maybe someone dropped it up here.. guess this was a red herring. Lets go back up the ridge.”
The forest dwellers were glad to get out of the water, and they retreated up the slope, climbing across the rocky ground as they left the creek behind. “You get the feeling something weird is up?” Jessan asked, after a few minutes silent effort.
Xena took a breath of the cool night air, angling away from the creek as the sound of the rushing water faded behind them. “I don’t know what’s going on.” She admitted. “Right now I just want to find Bean and get everyone home.”
They both heard the hoot of an owl, and looked to the side, to see a white object sitting on a branch watching them. Xena paused, then she changed direction and headed towards the tree, expecting the bird to take flight as she neared.
Xena came right up to the tree and tilted her head back, staring up at the owl, who shivered it’s feathers into place and stared right back at her.
It was solid, milky white, except for it’s beak, a darker color Xena could not quite make out.
Then the owl did take flight, sailing to the next tree, and looking back at them.
Xena walked over to it, not entirely surprised when the owl then flew on to the next tree, and waited. “Wants us to follow it.”
“In a good way or a bad way?”
Xena shrugged, lifting both hands up and letting them drop back down to her thighs. “One way to find out.”
The area around their cabin was silent. Gabrielle circled it, Cait at her back, and put her hand against the wood of the wall in absent affection. “I guess Jessan’s whole gang is out searching.”
“I suppose.” Cait said. “It’s a bit of a muck they all somehow missed those kids running off, isn’t it?”
Gabrielle paused and turned, aware of the sound of the spring nearby burbling softly. “What do you mean?” She asked, as Cait came closer.
“Well, its as if we all paid no attention to Dori, isn’t it?” Cait said. “They were supposed to be taking care of those children.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle now continued on around the other side of the cabin and started up the path to the escarpment and beyond them the shrines. “Kids sometimes do things you don’t expect, Cait. I’m sure those guys expected them to be sleeping.”
Cait looked a bit skeptical.
“You remember what Dori was like when she was younger.” Her queen said, pausing to examine a scuff in the path, visible in the moonlight. “Oh look.”
Cait knelt immediately and touched the gouge. “Seems like something was dragged along here.” She got up and followed the mark. “A log or something and it’s fresh.”
They walked faster, here where the trees had only bare spring growth the going easier and the mark in the path vivid. “I thought this might have ended up here.” Gabrielle muttered. “I be Xe’s down by the shrines.”
“She said she was going to check up along here.” The queen said. “This whole area… Dori considers it her backyard. I know they all play up here all the time.”
“Maybe they did bring along a log and built a fort, like down in the barn.” Cait suggested. “Though it’s a bit strange they’d be up here in the dark and all that.”
“Well, we both think there’s something strange going on.” Gabrielle emerged first onto the small plateau and here it was quite bright, the spring grass almost up to her ankles as they went along the edge of the open space and the path curved along it towards the edge of the cliff.
“Xena!” Gabrielle lifted her voice in a yell. “Hiiyouuuuu!!!”
It was quiet. She didn’t hear anything going on below and as they reached the wooden gates she could see they were closed. “Or maybe not.” She conceded as they went to the edge and looked down.
“The ropes are down.” Cait noted. “That’s not quite right.”
“No.” Gabrielle took a breath to whistle, then paused. “Hey, is there something moving down there?” She opened the gates and went to the anchor posts. “Lets just check it out. The kids went down here the other day.”
“What, down these ropes?” Cait said in an astonished tone.
“Yeah.” Her queen frowned. “And for some reason I never went back and figured out how Cari did that, because she can’t climb down.” She added in a mutter. “Too damn much going on.”
“Right.” Cait gave one of the ropes a tug, then she got her boots wrapped around it and started down as Gabrielle wiped her hands off and took the next one. “Have a care. It’s a bit damp.” She called back up. “The rope I mean.”
Gabrielle touched hers, feeling the patchy wetness. “Yeah.” She leaned closer and gave it a sniff, but detected nothing more than water and the wet scent of the rope itself. “Like someone used it and was drenched.” She held the rope against her body, feeling the length of it.
She looked down, to see Cait paused and looking up at her. The she swung out over the edge and quickly started down.
It was like a party. Dori looked around her room, glad to have Cari there with Warin and little Gaby and Teo and Buppit laying under the beds while they had some cakes and juice while all the stuff was going on outside.
“Loud.” Warin commented.
“Lots of peoples looking.” Cari told him. “Here all dem whisssles.”
True. Whistles and horns, going up and down the mountain with lots of running around they could hear outside the hut. “They’ll find Bean.” Dori said confidently. “Boo’s looking.”
“And our dada.” Gaby said. “Mo’tains not that big.”
“Not that big, and lots of peoples going around.” Cari said. “Bet that Wolfie’s looking too.”
“Sure.” Dori got up and went to the window, where she now could see the torches of the searchers sending gold and shadows all around. No aminals were near. All the noise scared them away.
She put her hands on the sill and looked out, and then Warin was there next to her, also looking. “Loud.”
“Loud.” He agreed. “Hope they go fast.” He made a face and leaned on the window. “Bad stuff, can’t find her.” He added in a low tone. “Dor, a bad thing happened.”
Dori turned her head to look at him. “What you say?” She asked. “Bad like the cookies and stuff?”
“No.” The silver hued forest dweller glanced behind him then back at her. “Not like the goatsie or nothing. Bean told me a bad thing.”
“You tell you papa?”
“No.” Warin said. “Remember the big party there? We couldn’t go?” He said. “After that, Beany went down to there. Before we did.”
Dori frowned. “How come?”
“Wanted to see the lady.” Warin said. “Said the pink lady talked to her and said to come.” He said. “But there was bad mens there and they did a bad thing.”
“Bad to Beany?”
Solemnly, Warin nodded. “They made her owie.” He said. “She told me but said not to say to no one.”
“You told me.” Dori pointed out.
“Different now.” He said. “Stuff’s bad.”
Stuff was bad. Dori thought about what to do. In her world, things were good or bad. Good was fun. Bad meant she had to find mama or Boo and tell them. But mama and Boo weren’t here, they were trying to find Bean with everyone else.
Even Poopoo and Eff were gone, running around in the forest. “Hey.” Dori eyed Warin. “You think she went to see the pink lady?”
Warin thought about it. “Maybe.” He said. “Dunno in the dark. Ropes are hard.”
Ropes were hard. Dori thought. “Easy to go down.” She said. “Hard to go back.”
“Hard.” Warin said, and Gaby nodded in agreement. “Took a long time. Maybe she went down and stayed there?” His ears perked up and swiveled around. “Nobody’ll see her.” He said. “We should tell.”
That was true. Even mama and Boo wouldn’t think to look unless mama remembered then going there. She drummed her hands on he window sill, aware of her friends watching her, and waiting for her to say something.
They would wait for her to say. This was her place, and everyone did what she said, all the time.
Except mama and Boo. “Okay.” Dori turned around and faced the others. “We should go up by our house.” She said. “Boo and mama will go there first and we can see them and tell them.”
Warin nodded. “That’s good. Dada is with them.”
“Yes it’s good.” Gaby also agreed. “Nice there, and our stuff’s outside.”
Dori looked at Cari. “You say?”
“I like our place.” Cari said. “Better than here. Too many dumbos here.”
“Dumbos, yeah.” Warin said.
Dori went quietly to the door that led to the inside of the hut and peered through it. There were cups and a plate on the table, but no one was there. “Lets go.” She told her friends. “We’ll go up the hill with Boo’s way.” She led the way through the room and out the front door. “No one can ask us dumbo stuff.”
The path to the open space had lots of light sticks, but instead of going up the path she turned sharply and went behind some trees, then went up past Eff and Poopoo’s house to a way she knew.
A way Boo took her flying, and for the times they went around and Boo showed her things about the ground and the aminals.
She found the path easily and went on it. “Shh.” She told her friends, hard at her heels. “Don’t make noise or they’ll come and make us go back.”
“We didn’t tell no one?” Cari said. “People will be mad with us.”
“No one was there.” Dori said. “Can’t tell no one if no body’s around.” She climbed up the slope, heading out of the village and towards the round place she knew was up above, the place where Boo and mama went sometimes. When Boo went flying she would go by there, and when they went back they went in there sometimes to sit in the leaves.
There was water there, but no fishes. Just a wet going through and Boo would get them a drink and sometimes stick her head in it and make noise. It was fun. Dori wished Boo was there now, and they were having fun instead of all this dumbo stuff.
As they got further away it got quieter, and then soon she could hear the little aminals around again. “Buppit!” She said suddenly. “Where he go?”
“Here.” Gaby spoke up from behind her. “Two doggos are here.”
“Arouf.” Buppit wound his way around them and came up to her, wagging his small tail as he snuffled her hand. “Burf burf.”
“Burf.” Teo answered, from behind Gaby where Cari was working to keep up. “Burf!”
“Arouf.” Buppit responded. Then he bounded ahead of Dori, scrambling up the path he knew well from their morning runs.
It was hard, to do it by yourself and not have Boo there to pick her up and make her move like she was just flying. Dori pulled herself up by the roots of the trees, and then she paused as they got to the round place.
Boo and mama’s place. “Pshhh. “ She hissed softly, as she heard something ahead of her, from the bottom of the place.
‘What you do?” Warin asked squirming up next to her,
The children all got up next to her and they were quiet. “Mens.” Cari said, after a pause.
Dori nodded. “In Boos place!” She whispered indignantly. “That’s bad!”
“Lemme go see.” Warin ducked past her and went into the gap in the trees that led into the round place, before Dori could grab him. They all scrambled to follow, and as they got over the small lip that surrounded the dell they could see a fire burning down inside, at the bottom of the place.
“Boo’s gonna be so mad.” Dori hissed.
“Should I go find mama?” Cari asked her, with a worried sound in her voice. “Must be bad mens!”
“We don’t know where mama is.” Dori got up next to Warin and they crept slowly along the edge of the dell, watching the light from the fire below outlining a half dozen tall, roughly clad bodies. “Dis is not good.”
Gaby came up next to her. “We go back and get the feather people?” She suggested. “Car’s right maybe these are bad mens and they make us trouble.”
Dori chewed her lip, acknowledging to herself that this was true stuff. The mens were big, a lot bigger than they were and she could see they had sharp things and sticks, which could hurt them.
The men laughed, then one of them moved aside and a flash of the firelight reflected first off a blade, then riusset fur.
“Dor!” Warin grabbed his friend’s arm. “it’s Beany!”
“It’s!” Gaby agreed. “We got to help!”
Dori stood silent for a moment. Bean was tied up and had a thing over her mouth, but she was wiggling hard and trying to get loose.
“We need mama.” Cari said, softly.
“Mama’s not here.” Dori said, exhaling. “No body’s here but us. We gotta help.” She looked around and found a stick on the ground and she picked it up. “Let’s go. Get a rock.” She ordered. “We go down there, and make a lot of yell, and doggos will barkety bark and Boo will come.”
“Gots.” Warin and Gaby nodded, scrabbling in the dirt to find something to use as a weapon. Even Cari stooped and picked up a stick, despite the worried look on her face. “We go.”
“We go.” Dori said. “You go that way.” She pointed at a second path. “You and Car go that way and make lotsa noise.” She grabbed Warin’s arm. “We go this way.” She indicated the openin they were in front of. “Make yells, no one knows whats goin on.”
“Yes, it’s good.” Warin nodded firmly.
“I gots a knife.” Gaby said, suddenly. “I found it.” She held up a small belt knife. “We should get something like that. You got that back in your place Dor? There’s lots of stuff there.”
“Too long.” Dori pointed. “They taking her.” She pointed. “We go.” She nudged Gaby towards the other path and got her stick in her hands, holding it like she saw mama do. “Go go go!!!!”
Xena paused at the fork in the path, staring at the owl who had fluttered on lower, towards the back gates to the town.
“What’s up?” Jessan asked her. “There it is, right there.”
“I know.” Xena watched it. “Problem is I don’t want to go where it’s leading us.” She put her hands on her hips. “They’re not down in the town.”
Jessan looked from the owl to her, and back. “Are you sure?”
Xena nodded. “Would have ended up either with my mother, or the militia and either way we’d know.” She sighed and let her hands drop. “But I guess it doesn’t hurt to run down there and ask.” She started after the owl, who hooted in a faintly irritated way before it took off and glided down the torch lined path ahead of them.
The forest dwellers were relieved, and they all sped up, falling into a rapid loping stride that caught up the owl as it angled ahead of them towards the bottom of the hill where already they could see torchlight and hear voices from the guard.
They reached the bottom and the militia spotted them, a half dozen heading immediately in their direction, with looks of relief on their face.
“Genr’l!” Redder was in the lead. “Glad you’re here. Guard sent word up from the pass, got some soljers heading up this way.”
Of course. Xena exhaled. “Time?”
“Late tomorrow, guessing. They just come through the pass and are campin.” Redder said. “Four, five score like.”
Xena shrugged. “Okay. Lets get ready, but we’ve got time to deal with them I need to find our missing kid first.” She told him. “Any sign down here? We saw a.. “ She glanced to her left, but unsurprisingly, the owl was gone. “Never mind.”
“Nothing here, genr’l.” Her lieutenant said. “Get weapons and the like ready?”
Xena looked past him to see Cyrene hurrying over. “Great. Shoulda come visit you instead of the other way around.” She told Jessan. “Redder, get a dozen men and go over the town and the market. See if anyone’s seen any sign of Butterbean, Jess’s daughter.”
“Aye.” Redder turned and let out a whistle.
“We’ll go with em.” Jessan said. “C’mon people. We’ll split up.” He ducked past Xena and joined the gathering of militia who had come running over.
“Torsten, go to the barracks and get everyone out and getting ready in case those idiots want to start a war.” Xena told another soldier. “Maybe we’ll get lucky but don’t’ bet on it.”
“Aye.” Torsten took off running, just as Cyrene arrived.
“What’s going on?” She asked Xena. “Someone’s missing? And now I hear an army’s coming? Good luck didn’t last long eh?” She gave her daughter a wry look. “Should have guessed.”
Xena sighed. “Shoulda guessed.” She agreed mournfully. “Jess’s daughter Butterbean’s missing. He got back up to his camp and two of the kids were gone, but one was in the Amazon village so now we’re looking for the other one. “
“What the Hades?”
“Yeah. I’ve got them all up in the village with Dori.” Xena told her. “Gabrielle’s keeping an eye on them while we’re out looking. Creeks’ out of it’s banks too, heading down to the river.”
“I heard.” Cyrene said. “Let me get my bunch out and we’ll help look. You tried the barn? You asked your brother? Maybe she ended up by him?”
It was very quiet at the shrines. The moon was declining to the horizon, and it sent gray and silver shadows over the river valley below. The wind had died down, and the only sound save the footsteps of two women was the soft crackle of the iron pit fire in front.
Gabrielle went first to the gate and put her hands on it. The barrier to the steps was firmly closed, though not locked and as she looked down the cliff she could see the edges of the steps, still and empty as far down as she could see.
All quiet. Gabrielle turned and looked around, as Cait came from the far edge of the overlook, dusting her hands off and shaking her head. “Let’s check the shrines.” She said. “See if you see any sign of the kids around.”
Gabrielle ducked first into Aphrodite’s, to find it in a bit of disarray, items swept off the altar but with no obvious damage visible. She turned and trimmed up the oil torch inside, bringing a warm glow before she carefully quartered the inside of the space.
The sandy floor had many indents, and she knelt next to the altar to look at them but realized it wasn’t much good. Xena might have been able to get some intelligence from the dints and scuffs. She could only tell that people had been inside, walking around.
Which was what you would expect in a shrine. She stood and went around the edges of the cave, then she paused, kneeling again to study a damp patch, dark and vivid near the wall.
The torchlight was too pungent to reveal color, but it didn’t need to because the smell was uncomfortably familiar to her and she knew sunlight would make it rust red. Someone had stood here and bled, but as she turned and looked behind her, there was no trail leading to the door.
She frowned, looking up at the ceiling and then to her right, but the bloodstains were only in this one area. “Huh.” She muttered, before standing and turning, going to the altar and looking carefully at it. The light stone was, from edge to edge, just spattered with sand and wilted flower petals and as she slid her hand over it, without any wet or stain. “What the heck happened here?”
She looked around again and went to the entrance, which was being gently flooded with moonlight as the orb rotated in the sky.
Cait had gone past her and as Gabrielle emerged from the shrine she saw the young Amazon appear out of Ares and head towards her. “Anything?”
“You better come look for yourself.” Cait said. “I’m not sure what’s going on actually.”
“Fair enough. You go look at the blood stain in there.” Gabrielle indicated Aprhrodite’s shrine with her thumb over one shoulder. “Cause I’m not sure what went on their either.”
“Awesome.” Cait shook her head a bit, but trotted onward, as Gabrielle crossed the ground and entered the God of War’s shrine.
Inside, the torchlight was red, the oil lamp casing tinted to cast the inside in an atmosphere of battle, reflecting off the black obsidian of the altar with it’s intense internal light.
But she ignored all that because her attention was focused on the small wooden casket that was resting on a lashing of sticks just in front of the altar, it’s surface covered in carved runes. “What the heck is this?” She went over and lifted the cover, peering inside.
It could have been anything, but in reality it was nothing. The inside was completely empty, it’s surface a dark, mottled color that smelled deep and earthy. She reached inside and touched the wood, expecting somehow to find it damp but it was dry and pristinely clean.
She stood back and put her hands on her hips. “You know what?” She said to the empty chamber. “I think what we really need here is Xena.”
She heard footsteps outside, coming fast, and she turned as Cait arrived with that expression people had who were coming to give her bad news. “What’s up?”
“They pulled the ropes up.” Cait said, briefly. “We can’t get back.”
Gabrielle sighed. “Maybe one of the search parties thought they were being conscientious.”
“Well, if they did, they didn’t respond to my signals.” Cait said. “Or else they heard them and were having a bit of fun.”
They looked at each other. “Or it’s something else.” Gabrielle said, grimly. “Want to take odds?
“Not really, no.”
The kid wasn’t down here. Xena felt it in her gut, and she left off searching the barn and pushed the door open into the night.
The town was bustling around her, her neighbors giving up an early night to help search for Bean, the kids well known around the inn and long familiar. She could see torches in the distance, and the thrum of slowly cantering hoofbeats.
Hesitating, she looked right and then left. The ground was obliterated with many footsteps and with all the churn and all the motion there wasn’t much for her to track.
She decided to go back up the hill and start again from Jess’s camp. “Redder.” She called out to her lieutenant as she headed for the gates. “I’m going up and look around the ridge.”
“Aye, genr’l.” Redder said. “We’ll find the lass. Has to be around here somewhere.”
Xena started up the mountain, the torches on either side burning low but giving her more than enough light to see the path. She shifted into a lope, and then a run, bounding from rock to rock wanting to get the travel behind her and start tracking again.
It was late. It had been a long day and as she crossed the rope bridge it occurred to her that with all the people looking – all the skilled hunters and her soldiers, they should have found her already.
They should have. She, at least, should have. It was maddening that she hadn’t, and she passed through the small plateau that housed the Amazon village without pausing to look at it as she puzzled over the past few candlemarks in her head.
It was only after she was already on the upper path that she wondered, a little, at the fact that no one had hailed her.
Were they all out looking?
Were the guard just behind the gates, having a drink?
Had she just gone by too fast?
With a silent shake of her head Xena kept going, picking up speed as she neared the ridge that held her home, emerging from the trees into the moonlit splashed opening as she felt a breeze pick up around her, bringing the scent of bruised pine needles and the copper smell of the spring to her.
She went around the side of the cabin and hopped over the cistern that brought water inside, and went to the cluster of tents in a circle behind it.
It was dark there, the fire in the carefully stone lined firepit in the center were banked but not completely out and she felt the heat against the palm of her hand as she held it over them. Then she went to the largest of the tents and unlaced the flap, peeling it back and peering inside.
Three small grass stuffed beds, and the larger one against the flap where their father would sleep at night and it all seemed neatly made and tidy.
Xena knelt, resting her elbow on her knee and stared at the beds, then she turned around and picked up a long branch, bringing it over to her and winding a tuft of grass around the end of it. She extended it to the coals and it lit, and she turned back around and let the light illuminate the inside.
One kid is gone, getting into a fight with the Amazons. Another kid is gone disappeared into the darkness. The third is dragged down the hill to hang out in the village and everything is neat as a pin?
‘What?” Xena said, aloud. “What is going on here?”
She stood up and looked around, then went to the back of the large tent and examined the ground there, moving in a circle as she intently looked at the leaf strewn dirt.
There were no tracks. She slowly searched the ground around the tents, in one place kneeling down and touching the dirt to press her hand in it, then remove it, noting the outline of her fingers clearly visible.
Then she got up, stubbing out the makeshift torch and went into her home, going over and lighting the oil lamp near the fireplace from the gently crackling fire in the grate. She looked around, just standing still and extending her senses, aware at the fringes of a sense of dislocation.
Something was not right. And once those words sounded inside her head, Xena felt her heartbeat speed up. She went to her armor press and removed extra daggers, the hairs lifting on her arm as she became aware of a sense of alarm external now as well as internal.
Gabrielle, aware of her awareness, maybe.
And as that thought formed, she knew she wanted to find Gabrielle, that their being separated had a gray, tingling intent that now felt sharp and full of warning.
She bolted out of the cabin and paused, closing her eyes and opening herself to her own perceptions as she relied on instinct to tell her which way to go and there echoing in her mind as though it was audible on the air was her name being yelled.
She turned in an instant and headed for the ridge.
“Let’s go!” Dori took a deep breath and started running, coming over the edge of the round thing and letting out a yell as she led her small posse through the trees to where the bad mens had surrounded Bean and were doing bad things.
The men turned in surprise and started to laugh, but now they were near and she held her stick with both hands and the end of it poked into one of their legs and she shoved as hard as she could and the laugh stopped as the man let out a bellow of rage.
“Bad mens!” Dori let out a yell of her own. “You go!”
Warin came flying past her with his club and Gaby with her knife and they swarmed over the two men closest to them as now the rest of them reacted. The high pitched childish yells echoed across the dell into the air.
“Ya little.. .ow!” One of the men pulled back a bitten hand. “Hey!”
Buppit came right next to Dori and bit the leg of the man she had hit, shaking his head back and forth and growling hideously.
“Get them!” The man yelled. “Little bastards!”
Cari squirmed past them. “Come, Teo!” She pulled the dog after her and they went over to where Bean was tied up. “Beany!” She got behind her. “I gots!”
“Good good good!” Bean said. “Cut this! They bad!” She had her hands tied behind her, and her feet lashed together and Cari went and started pulling on the knots.
“Get away from that thing!” One of the men swung at her, and Teo jumped up and bit his arm, hanging on it with his teeth and swinging backwards.
“Go Teo!” Cari was afraid. The man was big and angry and she knew she could get owie. But Beany was depending on her so she tugged hard at the knot until she felt it start to move, but it was hard. Her hands weren’t very strong, not as strong as Dori’s.
“Make fast!” Beany said.
“I try!” She heard Teo make a cry, and she looked quickly up to see the man hitting him. “Stop!” She called out. “Dor! Bad mens hurting the doggo!”
Dori had just ducked a kick from the man next to her, and she darted around him and knocked into the one hurting Teo. Her momentum threw him offbalance and he reeled, his arms waving in the air as Teo recovered and chomped his jaws around his ankle.
“Wait, grab that one!” The other man shouted. “That’s the one! That’s that bitch’s kid!”
Uh oh. Dori ducked as Warin came barreling over, teeth bared, claws extended and Buppit joined him as she felt hands grab her and pull her. “No! Stop!” She yelled. “Boo! Boo!!!!”
The man put his hand over her mouth and she bitted him, shaking her head and wiggling as hard as she could as the man started to pick her up off the ground.
“Little bitch!” The man grabbed her and swung her towards a tree. “I’ll knock your head off!”
Buppit bit his knee and the man kicked Buppit, then went sideways as Warin stuck his claws into his leg. Dori fought as hard as she could to make him stop, thumping her head against his side until he let her go and she fell onto the ground, almost hitting Buppit.
“Got loose!” Cari called out. “C’mon! Dor!”
“Get them!” The man yelled, shaking his bitten hand and grabbing for her with his other. “Grab that one – they’ll pay for that one!!!”
Dori wriggled through the man’s legs and went to where Warin was biting the hand of the man trying to grab him, and saw Beany was loose next to him and Cari right behind. “Go go go!!” She started to run, and they all went with her, while the men started yelling and chasing them.
“Get em! Don’t let them get to the top!”
She knew where to go. She went under the roots that went around the big tree at the edge and then scrambled up through it as Teo started barking behind them. She got to the top of the round thing and looked back to see both Teo qnd Buppit standing together facing the bad mens, showing their teeths.
The men took out sharp things. “Buppit! Teo!” Dori yelled. “C’mon!”
Warin and Beany scrambled past her, with Gaby and Cari right behind them and then the doggos chased after, and they all were out of the dell and into the trees past them.
Dori ran fast. “Go this way!” She pointed to a narrow track between two large trees. “We go the way Boo go’s!: She led the way thorugh the trees as she heard the mens coming behind them making loud noises.
Bad. Dori remembered a place and she took off at an angle, scaring some small aminals who ran away as they got up into a thick part of the trees and she led them behind a big rock and pulled them all down. “Psshhh.”
All the kids pressed against each other, shivering, and Warin had hold of both dogs to keep them close, wrapping his hands around their mouths to keep them quiet.
They heard the sounds of the men coming behind them, and they were loud and mad..
Really mad. They went into the trees and were stomping around, and then one of them came by the rock they were hiding behind, putting a hand on it and leaning over to look at the other side from where they were.
“Pssh.” Dori uttered softly.
“Bad mens.” Cari whispered into her ear.
“Real bad.” Dori whispered back. “We go get Boo and mama and they gonna go boom on them.”
Then another man made a noise, and the one standing next to them went away and they heard the men go back down the path heading back to the round place making angry talk.
They waited until they didn’t hear any more noise, all shaking a little, the doggos making irritated growling sounds and whines as Warin finally let their jaws go.
“You okay?” Gaby finally asked her sister, “Those were bad mens.”
“Bad.” Bean said. “Made me hurt.” Her voice was scratchy and tired, “I want dada.” She looked exhausted, and her fur was covered in dirt and leaves. “Every’tings bad, cept Car did a good one.”
Dori patted Cari on the shoulder. “Got the ropes.” She said. “Good one, Car.”
Cari had a smudge of mud on her nose, but she smiled a little in response. “I did a good,.” She said. “Doggos did good too.” She said. “They bitted all the mens,”
“They did, Good doggos.” Warin patted both round heads and the two dogs looked around at them, tongues stuck out. “We got to find dada.”
“Lets go up to our house.” Dori said. “We can keep away from the bad mens there.” She carefully stood up and eased around the side of the rock, it’s surface worn and near one side full of lines where Boo sometimes would sit and do things with her sharp long thing.
It was a special rock, Dori remembered, making a picture in her head of her Boo sitting on top of it, scraping the long thing on the edge of it and making a whistle while she thumped her boots against the surface.
This place, where there were trees all around lying down, was a place Boo liked to make play in, with her long thing and she always had Dori sit near the rock so she would be out of the way while Boo flew around,
She stood near the rock for a minute and listened hard, holding her hand out as she tried to hear if any of the bad mens were still round, or smell them.
But she only heard some small birdies, and a thump of a rabbit, a wary sound that meant the rabbit was listening too.
Then she motioned her friends to follow and she crept across the fly place and out the other side.
“There’s nothing much up here.” Cait concluded, as she met Gabrielle in front of the shrines again. “We can go down the stone steps, I suppose.”
“Long walk,” Gabrielle was sitting on the rock that Xena had, at the ceremony, stood and sung from that morning they christened the shrines. She thumped her boots against the rock and looked around. Her staff was resting on the ground next to her, it’s dark surface blending with the earth,
Cait walked over to the edge of the precipice and put her hands on the gates, looking out over the river valley. “It is.” She agreed. “And you know, it really doesn’t make sense does it? Would someone really be up there searching?”
“Well.” Gabrielle got up and came over to join her, pausing to boot the staff up to her hand. “I don’t know. We can try whistling. Maybe Xe’ll hear us and come let the ropes down.” She suggested. “We can try anyway.” She turned and regarded the cliff behind them. “And, actually, I do know now how to climb up that.”
Cait looked at her in respect. “Gosh.”
“Yeah not that I really want to.” They walked across the open space in front of the shrines and went to the edge of the cliff, as the moonlight started to fade as the moon began to set behind them.
It was now becoming the darkest part of the night, with the moon settling and the sun yet to rise and there was a chill on the air as they moved along the rock face, feeling a mist from a small, thin waterfall that came over the edge and dusted them.
Gabrielle breathed in the moisture of it, tasting the mossy tang on the back of her tongue. It smelled like the forest near their home, and the spring and she guessed it had the same source and at that moment she wished fervently that she was next to that spring with Xena.
Then behind them, they heard the gate open.
Cait whirled and put herself between the gate and Gabrielle, her dagger appearing in her hand. “Now what’s the problem.”
Gabrielle edged to one side and put her hand on Cait’s shoulder. She took firmer hold of her staff and nudged her forward. “Lets go see.” She said, following the young Amazon as they traveled the rock lined path that led from the cliff face.
They paused just short of it, and looked warily out over the central space, where the fading moonlight showed them nothing but rock and earth.
Gabrielle stepped out past Cait and strode firmly into the open. “Hello! Is someone here!?” She called out loudly as her erstwhile guard scrambled to catch up. “Hello? We heard the gate open.”
Wind and silence. Gabrielle stopped in the middle of the two shrines, turning her ears into the breeze to catch any other sound as Cait went to the gate and examined it.
She herself turned and went into Aphrodite’s shrine, standing in the entrance and looking around in the glow of the oil lamp. Did she sense a presence here?
She heard the crunch of Cait’s boots behind her and she turned. “Was it just the wind?”
“No.” Cait responded in a flat tone. “I can see some people coming up the steps. Quite a lot of them.” She added. “I think there’s something going on I don’t quite like.”
Gabrielle led the way across the central circle to the other shrine and went inside, looking quickly around to make sure no one had decided to duck inside ahead of them. The box on the stand was still there, and as she went over and looked inside, still empty.
“What’s that for?” Cait asked.
“No idea.” Gabrielle put the cover back on and circled the inside of the shrine, pausing as she reached the weapons stand that was just inside the entrance. There was a knife in a sheath hanging on it, and she racked her brain trying to remember if it had been there before.
Cait touched it, removing the knife from the sheath and they both stared at it for a moment. “Is that …” She paused. “What is that?”
“Obsidian.” Gabrielle said, after a long pause. “Its stone.” She added. “You… I saw a man once, in a village, making one. You chip bits of the stone off with another stone.”
Cait studied the blade. “It’s quite sharp.” She observed.
“Yeah – I thought Xena would want one.” Gabrielle watched her put it back in the sheath. “But she didn’t.” She cast her mind back to that moment in that time, recalling the small rural market, and the man sitting on his stool working, pausing to glance up at the tall woman watching her.
Xena had complimented the work. The gut bindings had been perfectly wrapped and the hilt had been carefully carved bone. But she’d seen no purpose in getting one and they’d walked on, saving their dinars for a waxed hide to sleep on instead.
Gabrielle smiled, briefly. “And… Xena can make something like that but she told me it’s just too fragile.” She added, remembering now the ax her partner had made in that long horror in the valley. Had she always known how to do that, or had she just remembered the man and his knife and figured it out?
“For fighting.” Cait nodded. “Yes.” She put the sheath back where it was. “For skinning it would be excellent I think.” She led the way outside, and they circled the small plateau, going along the fence line from the cliff out to the edge.
Gabrielle looked over the gate, now seeing what Cait had seen, small figures working their way upward towards the shrines, too far, and in too much darkness to really outline who or what they were. “Pilgrims? I don’t remember hearing about more of them inbound.”
“Well.” Cait came to stand next to her. “You know, actually I feel a bit like something’s just not really quite right here.” She regarded the figures. “It’s not making sense.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle stepped back. “Let’s go back to the cliff. I think you’re right. Something’s up.” She turned and headed back, pausing when on the air from above them they heard the ring of steel against steel. “Ah.”
“Now that, I understand.” Cait said, as they reached the cliff, and she let out a whistle, then a second. “C’mon you lot!”
Gabrielle half turned, and let her staff rest against her thighs as she thought she heard, again, the gate moving. But this time she didn’t move, refusing to be distracted. “Xena!” She let out a yell, reaching out along that ephemeral understanding that they had between them. “Xena!!!!!!”