A Change of Seasons
Xena sensed the alien presence as soon as she got to the plateau, a barrage of scents and sounds that brought her round with her sword in her hand utterly without thought as she was surrounded by dark half armored bodies and turned back the first of their blades.
To one side, she saw the glow of a torch, and from that direction she could hear the sound of hammers striking rock, and snatches of voices ripe with excitement that drew a curse from under her breath.
Another torch flared and she was outlined in it, the glare of it making her blink and squint as her night adapted eyes fought to compensate for a moment before she just closed them and shifted to more reliable senses. Her hearing sharpened at once and she sent a dagger from the top of her boot flying through the shadows acknowledging the grunt and cough as it struck home.
She got her back to one of the trees and drew her dagger with her other hand, sweeping her left arm down as she intercepted a short, curved blade aiming for her kneecap.
No time really to gather a plan.
Xena drew in a deep breath full of pine scented air and ducked a mace, hearing it crunch into the bark behind her as she twisted her body and brought her knee up sharply into the man holding its ribcage with a solid thump and she brought her sword hilt down on his head with a crack.
“Demon!” One of them snarled, making her laugh in response.
She wished she’d taken her chakram. But she hadn’t so no matter, and a moment later she sheathed her knife and grabbed an ax coming at her, reversing it and backhanding the weapon through the air in a twirling blur to crack it’s owner’s head in half right between his eyes.
She let the anger soak in, at these rapacious mindless graspers here in her territory and went from defense to offense, moving into the crowd of them with a low, continuous growl, twirling her sword in her right hand. “C’mon ya bastards.”
A cut and a slash and she was hopping up onto a still body and moving to one side in time to let two men with axes come past her and slam themselves into the tree she’d been in front of.
Then she settled into a pattern, a rhythm of turn and thrust and duck and parry as she let herself be surrounded and drew them all in.
Melee fighting, at its core often came down to instinct and speed. You didn’t have time to decide what to do, you had to trust your body to know and Xena did, moving from one position to the next, the two blades in her hands never either stopping or even hesitating.
A throat, a chest, a gut she never bothered with arms or legs not wasting time on anything but a kill that would take an opponent down and get them out of her way and no worries about watching her back with them. Five were on the ground in minutes as she moved within range of the miners working frantically, scooping everything they could into rucksacks at their feet.
Then behind and to the left, she heard a familiar sound, her name being yelled and she swerved and started working back in that direction, moving around one side of the trees and onto the trimmed path as a half dozen of the anonymous raiders chased after her.
Two of them paused and pulled out crossbows and knelt, raising and cocking them with practiced ease as two others engaged her and worked to distract, encouraged by her unexpected retreat.
Xena let out a long whistle as she dove to one side and let the bolts come past her, her shoulder hitting the ground as a mace whacked against a rock right next to it. She kept going with the motion and rolled back up onto her feet, whirling into a circular motion and burying the dagger into the closest man’s belly as she backhanded her sword across the front of the second man’s throat and tore it asunder.
Then she leaped up into the air and over the second set of arrows, tumbling around and stabbing downward as she felt the steel of the knife grate against the bone of his skull as the first bowman fought to get out of her way.
She could hear the rumble of more people heading towards the ridge, and she cursed under her breath as her sharp ears categorized them as foe rather than friend.
She let out another whistle, and finally, finally heard the faint echo of it from down the slope.
There were already a dozen bodies on the ground now and as she put her back against another nearby tree Xena knew she was perfectly capable of putting down as many others as came at her but now the question started insistently echoing as to why.
Why. What were these people, how had they gotten up into the highlands, what was really going on. She grabbed one of them suddenly and yanked him into what faint light there was and tore his leather helmet off, kicking a second man away long enough to get a good look at him.
Ordinary. Anonymous. Unshaven and raw boned, dark, partially grizzled hair and a round, unremarkable skull. No one she knew and as he stared at her in frustrated anger she was equally anonymous to him.
That stuck in her mind a moment. Who was this mercenary here in the backwoods of Thrace who didn’t know who she was?
She forced his head to face her and looked into his eyes as he struggled against her hold and tried to wrestle with her.
“Xena!” A well known and frustrated bellow reached her.
“Busy!” She yelled back, staring at the man and noting now the lack of emotion in his face. No fear, no anger, his arms were pumping as he tried to stab her and she held him still, whirling and shoving him up against the tree as he fought and twitched against her hold.
She could hear yells behind her.
No fear, because he had no idea he should have any. Her nostrils flared as she put the pieces together and let out a battle yell so loud he flinched.
With one hand she pinned him, and with the other she drove her dagger into his guts, as she looked intently into his eyes. He jerked and looked down, as if in surprise, the sword dropping out of his hand as he reached for the steel now pinning him to the wood.
He looked back up at her, blood spurting from his stomach and Xena blocked out all the other chaos around them, making this moment about the two of them, a killer and her victim ignoring the danger at her back as she watched him die in a shudder of involuntary jerks.
Then she yanked the knife out and turned, spreading her arms out with blood stained weapons in both as she faced the men surrounding her and laughed at them and in the new torchlight they looked around and saw all the bodies on the ground.
The man against the tree slid to the earth and flopped lifeless.
For a moment, it was silent. Then the sound of running boots, light and rapid and many came from down the slope and Amazon battle yells echoed into the air and all the men on the slope, and a rush of shadows along with them bolted and ran for the cliff edge as fast as their legs would carry them.
“Go!” Someone yelled. “Got em! Got em! Fast!”
Xena turned and ran after them, getting her blades tucked against her body, points to the rear as she headed to the right of the path along a line to cut them off.
Gabrielle paused to think, the shadows making the cliff face featureless and almost invisible, the hard rock biting into her hands as she braced her weight and caught her breath, blinking a few drops of sweat from her eyes.
Above her she could hear the fighting, and it leant her a pang of urgency as she tried to figure out a way to get up the cliff despite the knowledge that of anyone on the whole damn mountain Xena could take care of herself and didn’t need some nut with a stick risking her neck trying to come help.
She just had no defense against the need to. Never had. Gabrielle leaned her forehead against the rock wall, and exhaled. Never would. “You okay Cait?”
A shoulderlength to her right Cait was clinging to the wall with a grim expression, edging a bit to the side as she looked for another place to hold on. “Yes, thank you.” The young Amazon answered. “This is quite difficult.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle released one hand and wiped it on her skirt to dry it. “But then we didn’t make it easy.”
Behind them, she could hear the gate swinging, and the soft rumble of footsteps as something, someone climbed up from the plateau below, keeping silent as they moved up onto the ridge where the shrines were.
Damn shrines. Gabrielle searched near her for a handhold. The cliff was almost straight up, and there wasn’t much to grab, but she flexed her hand and got her fingertips into a crack, refusing to look either down or behind her. “Xena!” She let out a yell.
“Busy!” Her partner’s voice returned, now closer to the edge.
“Yeah, yeah.” Gabrielle got her boots onto a small outcropping and pushed herself upward. “Now I..”
“What’s that?” Cait said, suddenly. “Someone’s coming.” She said. “Towards the top there.”
They both looked up into the darkness and then a puff of wind came down bringing the smell of wet rope, and leather, and dirt and they heard a rough slithering sound coming at them coming fast.
“Oh nuts!” Gabrielle realized it a split second before Cait did, and she started to scramble back down the way they came. “They’re letting the ropes down gods be damned it! Look out!” She ducked her head as she was smacked with the tumbling ropes and held on.
Moments after, she heard bodies coming down the ropes and with a fast look down she just released her hold before she could be knocked from it and hoped for the best as she slammed against the rocks with a painful jolt before she sensed the ground coming up.
What was that Xena always said? Bend your knees? Gabrielle just had time to think the words before she landed and fell on her side, rolling away from the edge of the cliff as she heard a lot of bodies coming down fast on top of her.
It knocked the breath out of her and she tucked her arms over her head as she skidded through the sharp rock rubble left from the building and ended up stopping when a thick patch of rough ground cover caught her. “Oh crap.”
“Gabrielle!” Cait appeared, face showing streaks of blood as she stepped up and in front of her drawing her sword as the first wave of men coming down the cliff reached them. “Xena! Over here!”
Still stunned, Gabrielle nevertheless got to her feet and scrabbled at her staff strapped across her back to get it untied and in some position to help fend them off.
There was a tree there, and she got her back to it, but the men rushed past as though they weren’t even there, ignoring them in their haste to move towards the shrines. “What th..”
Then with a welcome rush, the dark, edgy energy she knew was Xena was there, and next to her and the hands reaching and touching her brought a sense of solace and relief regardless of all the confusion. “What the Hades is going on here?”
“Exactly.” Xena said. “I think I got it, hon. I think I know what the score is b..”
“Mama!!!!!” Dori’s voice suddenly screamed out over the hubbub.
“Shut her up! Get her in here!”
“Just stopped mattering.” Gabrielle got her staff in her hands and then she was at Xena’s elbow as she drew her sword and they headed in the direction of the voice with Cait at their heels.
Xena reached the rear of the crowd and started cutting. She whacked one man’s head off and kicked him into a second, swinging her sword around to her right and cutting the throat of a third who hadn’t even seen her coming. A yell went up and she ignored it.
With her height she could see four men close to the entrance of Ares shrine and in their hands she could see a struggling form and she focused on that, turning and twisting against the fingers that tried to grab her, keeping her sword in motion.
Just behind her she could hear the cracking sounds of Gabrielle’s staff and then to her right she saw Cait with long daggers in both hands, using them to good effect as she cleared space in front of Xena to move.
She got room to swing and she leaped up onto the rock before the shrines, throwing herself forward as she saw the four men disappear into the cave and cutting right and left in a rush of blood as she heard Dori scream again, the sound like a dagger scraping against her own spine.
Gabrielle came past her, in a wild rage that rendered her staff a danger to all around her, including Xena who only just avoided a blow to the head as she hauled up in time and then swung her sword over her partner’s head to cut into the face of a man trying to stop her.
Blood went flying, and chips of bone and then they were past the last group and into the shrine itself where the four men were at the altar, two of them trying to hold Dori down.
Xena brought her sword down and around and cut the nearest man’s arm off his body , then she slammed her head into his and knocked him backwards as Gabrielle’s staff end smacked the second man right between the eyes, knocking him backwards.
Cait came flying through the air and onto the altar itself, sliding in the spurting blood as she threw her body over Dori’s, her daggers coming over the child’s head and plunging into the last man holding onto her in a rush of gore as he screamed in shock and threw his arms backwards.
Gabrielle felt her entire body shaking. She held herself up against the altar, tuning out the chaos as Xena got in front of her facing the crowd. “You okay Dor?”
“Mama!” Dori’s eyes were wide. “Bad mens!”
Gabrielle blinked sweat and blood out of her eyes. “Yeah.” She said. “Bad mens.” She looked up at Cait. “We’re not done.”
“Some of our lot are here.” Cait said, looking past her. “But you know I think this is more than just a fight.”
Xena had her back to the altar, her sword pointed towards the entrance in warning, floor covered in bodies and blood and death of her making. Two men were still standing, the new oracle and a second, stranger to her and both were armed.
“What is this?” The stranger said. “Who are these people, to interrupt us?”
“Locals.” The oracle said. “They have been against us since we arrived, lord. This one we think killed our prior oracle.” He looked around at the bodies. “They murder with abandon.”
The stranger had rich clothes, and gold and silver glinting at his wrist and neck and he had a stamp of cruelty on his face that Xena could read without effort and she realized she actually knew who he was.
Praxos, high priest of Ares, from the temple in Athens.
“Here, move aside.” Praxos advanced on her, then stopped as Xena lifted her sword and extended her arm, ending with the point of the blade a fingerspan from his throat. “Do you know whom you threaten, peasant?”
“I do.” Xena responded, in a preternaturally calm tone. “I just don’t care. Move, and I’ll spit you. Like the man says, I kill with abandon and I’d enjoy killing you.”
He smiled. “Would you?” He asked. “And risk the wrath of Ares?”
“Sure.” Xena responded. “Bet he’d enjoy it too. How good a priest are ya, if let his cult go to crap like it has?”
Praxos’ smile faded. He took a step backwards.
Xena let her sword rest on her shoulder, smelling the blood on it, and put her other hand behind her to rest briefly on Gabrielle’s hip. “Eponin.” She let her voice lift to carry.
“Here.” Pony shoved her way inside, followed by Solari, Pasi, Nala, and Paladia. “Got your guys coming down the ropes now.”
“Clear the ridge.” Xena said, briefly. “Tell Benny to close the gates.”
“Got it.” Pony turned and let out whistles.
Xena leaned back against the altar. “Now let’s see if we can figure this all out.”
“We should go down.” Warrin peered over the edge, his sisters and Cari right behind him. “They took Dor!”
“Mama said no.” Cari offered. “She said it was danger, and we could get owie.”
The upper plateau was empty, all of the peoples were down by the places and the bad mens were being sent down the mountain and away. “Dats good.” Gaby pointed. “We should go. They make the bad mens go down.”
Dori had told them to stay in their place, and Cari looked behind them at the trees, the edges of which were starting to take on the faintest hint of bluish silver as the long night was coming to an end. “We should go back.” Cari stated. “You got to tell your papa we found you!” She told Butterbean. “Dor will send mama and Boo there.”
Warrin frowned and peered down again. The ropes were all dangling and he was tempted. “We did it before.” He said. “Maybe papa’s down there? We should go find out.”
Everyone had run past their place and down the ropes, all the feather people, and Boo’s people, all of them yelling and making lots of noise. No one had stopped to talk to them, or tell them what was going on.
So they had gone onto the porch, but still no one had come. So they went to go see, but Cari was worried because Dori had said to stay. Even if she hadn’t listened and had gone and the bad mens had got hold of her and went too.
“We can help.” Warrin said. “Like we do for Bean.” He glanced at his sister. “We got her.”
“You did.” Bean agreed. “Maybe we can help get Dor.”
“No.” Cari said. “I’m gonna go back like Dor said.” She turned and trotted off across the short grass, down the path where Teo and Buppit were waiting for her. “C’mon, doggos.” She said as she went to them. “Go home.”
The three forest dwellers watched her go, then looked at each other.
“We should go with.” Butterbean said, after a minute. “Not go alone Dada would say it.” She turned around and followed Cari.
Gaby took hold of Warrin’s fur and started to pull him along. “We should go with Bean. Not like before and she got lost.”
“Stoppit!” Warrin scowled at her, trying to pull free. “Lemme go!”
“C’mon.” Gaby said. “We gotta go with dem, War, c’mon.” She urged him. “Lets go find dada, and tell him. He can do more than us, he can go down there.”
“What about Dor?” Warrin protested. “Bad mens got her!”
“Biggers are down there and get her back.” His sister said. “I heard Auntie Xena go.”
“You did?” He reluctantly started to walk at her side and stopped resisting. “She went?”
“Make the yow yow. I heard it and you know she’s like bwwwoooosh!” Gaby said, waving her free hand. “She go, Dor’s okay. No body makes anything back with Auntie Xena there.” She called ahead. “Hey wait! We come!”
“Okay.” Warrin relented. “But they better come fast or I’m gonna go help like with the feather peoples.”
They ran to the path and caught up to the other two, making their way up the slope along the ridge line to the place with the tree, the two dogs tails were wiggling as they now saw through the trees the faint outline of Dor’s place.
“Dere’s people there.” Bean said, suddenly. “Our people.” She added with a touch of excitement. “Can hear dada!”
They could hear some voices now, and they ran ahead to find people on the porch of their place, people they knew. “Dada!” Gaby let out a yell. “Dada!! Dada!!!”
“Dada!” Bean added. “I here!”
Jessan whirled in place, then he came down off the porch with two of his warriors with him, looking pathetically relieved as he spluttered and cursed, but went down on one knee to greet his three children. “Where in Ares left boot were you kids?”
“I toldja they were in the tents, and then…” One of the warriors said. “Beanie where were you? Where’d you go!!!”
Jessan picked up Bean and hugged her. “Are you okay?” He looked anxiously at his daughter. “We were looking everywhere for you!” He paused. “Wait.. weren’t you all supposed to be with the Amazons down in the village?”
“We was!” “Dada, the bad mens got her!” “Dodo went with us to go find Bean!” “Dada the bad mens were hurting her!”
He looked from one to the other as they all spoke at once. “Wait. Where’s Dori?” He asked, after a pause to count.
“Bad mens got her dada!” Warrin tugged his leg fur. “They went down to the place with the ropes! We got to go get her!”
Cari pulled his arm. “Boo’s there.” She said. “And mama.”
“Auntie Xena’s there.” Butterbean said, at the same time. “She made a big boom.”
“Scat.” One of the other forest dwellers cursed softly. “This place’s gone nuts.”
Jessan took a deep breath, then released it. “Okay, one at a time.” He said. “Xena, you first.” He said sternly. “What happened?”
Gabrielle leaned against the altar, her back to the voices and noise, just wishing it all would go away. “Dori, where are your friends?” She finally asked, tilting her head to look at her daughter. “What happened?”
Dori had her legs pulled up crossed under her, apparently none the worse for wear from her brief abduction. “Lets go home mama” She deferred the question. “Friends are there, in our house. I told them stay.”
“You did, huh?” One blond eyebrow lifted as Gabrielle regarded her. “Why didn’t you stay there too?”
“I heard a noise.” Dori explained. “Me and Guff went to go see about it. Dere was a aminal like we saw down by the feather peoples and I wanted to find out.”
“Dori.” Her mother sighed “Did it occur to you that you’re six years old and maybe you should leave the chasing big animals in the dark to us?”
Dori tilted her head slightly. “No mama.” She answered. “I go find out. Like mama and Boo do.”
“What do you say to that?” Ephiny leaned next to her.
“What do I say to that?” Gabrielle echoed her, with a sigh. “Do as I say not as I do?” She glanced over her shoulder at the cluster of bodies near the arming rack at the back wall. “What a mess.”
“Lets get out of here. Let Xena handle this.” Her regent suggested. “This is going to end with blood.”
Gabrielle turned her head and looked at her, the faintest of smiles shaping her lips.
“Yeah, I know. What in the seven arrows of Artemis am I even saying.” Ephiny acknowledged, with the same faint grin.
“Mama.” Dori tugged on her hand. “We got Bean.”
Gabrielle’s head jerked back around. “What? You did?” She said. “Where was she honey? Was she hiding somewhere? We were all looking for her.”
“Bad mens got her.” Dori pointed at the entrance to the shrine. “We found them and got her. Warrie bits them, and I got a stick and Car did too.” She said. “Then we went to our house to get cookies.”
Gabrielle blinked. Ephiny reached over and patted her shoulder.
“He spoke to me in a dream.” The nascent oracle explained. “I cannot say how it happened.”
“He was in a trance, and he spoke?” Praxos asked. “That is how he speaks through us.” He looked pleased, and nodded. “It is so, I have felt it myself.”
“Yes.” Two of the oracles men said. “We heard it, and others as well. He said Ares wanted the sacrifice of a child of no father, and his favor would return to all of us.” He turned to Xena. “That child was said to have no father.” He pointed at Dori.
Praxos studied the child sitting on the altar, then he looked at Xena. “Is this the truth? It could mean many things” He said, to the oracle. “The messages from the gods are not always clear and we must be sure we understand what they desire.”
Xena could hear the activity outside as her men, and the Amazons cleared everyone off the plateau, forcing them down the steps and off the mountain, a line of her archers enforcing the retreat in the pearly gray dawn light. Praxos had brought two score accolytes with him but no one was contesting either her army or the Amazons as of yet.
“Dori’s my and Gabrielle’s daughter.” She finally said. “So in that regard, no. She has no father.”
“But Ares wouldn’t ask for her sacrifice.” Xena concluded before he could go on. “So you can take that right out of your head.”
“Why not?” Praxos asked. “Who are you to say what the God of War wants?”
“Because he wouldn’t.” Xena said, flatly. “Me? Maybe.” She added with a humorless smile. “He’d get a kick out of watching me defend myself in this shrine against a thousand of ya.” She glanced behind her. “But not her.”
The oracle looked angry, but Praxos regarded Xena with an even stare. “Let’s speak frankly.” He said. “I have heard many things in this last little while that seem a lot like blasphemy to me and this is but one more.” He added. “You claim also to be an oracle of Ares? That you receive his messages? You know this isn’t possible. You are only a woman.”
Ephiny laughed, a light, sarcastic sound that echoed off the walls.
“Silence.” Praxos said.
“Silence yourself, bimbo.” Ephiny responded. “Your flapping lips have about as much power here as a fishes.” She let her hand rest on her dagger. “Or didn’t you ever hear Amazons referred to as the Daughters of Ares?”
“Women are sheep.” The oracle stated.
“Sheep can bite your testicles off.” Gabrielle said, over her shoulder. “You don’t want to make them mad.” She studied both men. “You really don’t and besides she’s right.”
Xena shifted the grip on her sword hilt, the blade still resting on her shoulder, it’s blade stained a dark crimson and a moment later Redder came inside the shrine, and extended his hand to her with a bit of damp linen in it. “Thanks.” She accepted the rag and started wiping down the sword.
The silence became awkward. “I’m no oracle.” Xena finally said. “I don’t pass his messages on to anyone and never have. Not since I was his protégé, way back when.” She leaned back against the altar next to Gabrielle, her hands casually wrapped around the hilt, as the rising sun entered the shrine and sent a slanted red beam across her, Gabrielle, and highlighted the picture of Ares behind them.
“He never would.” The high priest shook his head. “I have never heard your name, heard of this at all and I know everything of it. I have studied his ways all my life and never heard him favoring a female. Never.”
“Now you have.” Ephiny came to stand shoulder to shoulder with Xena. “And if you live to be a thousand you’ll never find another more suited to it than her.”
Xena gave her a sideways glance and decades of their joint history flickered between them as Ephiny folded her arms across her chest and lifted her head in an arrogant tilt. “This is Ares Chosen.” The regent stated. “So if you think your hocus pocus impresses any of us, forget it. Ares wants something here? He’ll show up and ask.”
“Mama.” Dori leaned her head near her mothers. “Boo has a mad.”
“Don’t worry, Dor.” Gabrielle whispered back. “Your Boo has it covered.” She could feel it, suddenly, a wash of that dark confidence that came through sharp and clean and as she watched Xena’s profile from the corner of her eye she saw the shift in her body – that moment of clarity and a plan about to be put into action.
Xena shrugged. “That’s all true.” She said. “But this isn’t about him.” She added. “It’s just another game.”
Gabrielle turned towards her. “Game?” She gathered Dori into her arms and lifted her off the altar, aware of the soldiers watching her closely and behind them, Nala and Cait closing in. “Game, Xe?”
“Game.” Xena took a breath then she surged into motion, moving past the oracle and taking a two handed grab on her sword hilt as she plunged the blade into Praxos’ body. She felt the shock of resistance for a brief instant, then in a flash of blue light, his body exploded into nothing and vanished, sending a wash of energy across her skin that itched and prickled for just a heartbeat.
The oracles men had started to react, now they froze, and backed away blinking away the sparkles in their eyes, one of them rushing outside to call for the high priests guard, yelling in panic.
A solid wall of Amazons and militia filled in the opening, blocking the way back as the soldiers ran towards them, and then drew their swords and the fight was on.
Xena turned to face the oracle, the faintest wash of blue fading off her skin, and the blade, and then she reached out and grabbed the man, hauling him close to her then turning and shoving him up against the altar. “Game.” She put the edge of her blade against his neck.
He was panting in fear. “What are you?” He stared past her at where the high priest had stood.
“Dat’s Boo.” Dori spoke up from the protective cradle of her mother’s arms.
“Ask your god.” Xena said. “While you’re there, ask him who smeared grease on your predecessor’s boots.” She leaned closer. “Ask him why he let that happen.”
The man’s lips twitched. “I don’t ask Ares. He speaks through me.”
“Yeah?” Xena cut him more deeply. “I don’t think he talks through you. I think you’re a fake.” She growled softly. “I think you’re all fakes, just like that priest was. None of you have the heart or the guts to be his.” She wrapped her hands in the front of his robes and hauled him up onto the altar.
“I am his voice!!” The man yelled.
“Prove it!” Xena held her sword up in front of him. “Put your blood on this stone like the rest of us have and see if he accepts you.”
“Ho boy.” Nala muttered. “This aint gonna end well.”
“He’s rot. She’s right.” Cait said. “They’re all rot. I felt it the whole time.” She drew her dagger and slid between two of the militia to Gabrielle’s side.
“Cut yourself.” Xena barked. “Spill your blood on this stone or I will.”
“Okay now wait.” Jessan sat down on the couch across from the four children. “Let me get this straight.”
They were in Xena and Gabrielle’s cabin, the forest dwellers, Cari, the two puppies and in the corner, Paladia whose expression was as dour as could be.
There was a platter of mostly crumbs on the table and some cups.
“Dada when are we gonna go help Dor?” Warrin insisted, patting the couch leather with both hands. “We gotta go!”
“Son.” Jessan regarded him. “There are around a hundred Amazons and another hundred soldiers, and her mothers there. They can handle whatever’s going on.”
“Grrrrr” Warrin wiggled ferociously. “Wanna go make a boom!”
As a father, it was frustrating and yet, made his heart double thump with pride. “Hush.” Jessan said. “Xena, you said you heard someone calling you? In the forest?”
“Yes, dada.” His eldest daughter nodded. “I heard it, I went out and gots grabbed up.” She had her knees tucked up and her arms wrapped around them. “They was bad men, dada. I bitted them but they hit me.”
Jessan growled low under his breath. “Xena, I know you have fun here with Dori, but you shouldn’t go running off into the dark by yourself.”
“I know dada.” She answered readily. “But the voice sounded like mama.”
“You know mama’s at home.” Warrin said.
“I know, but I heard it.” Butterbean said, and Gaby reached over to take her hand and squeeze it. “I said maybe I could find mama and bring her to our place here.” She looked up at Jessan, and blinked. “Bad.”
“So then what happened?” Jessan asked gently.
“They gots some of those feather people, and did bad things to them.” Butterbean said. “They hurt them, dada. It was like the horses.”
“Like th..” Jessan paused in mid word. “Like when they’re mating?”
She nodded. ‘They was crying.” She said. “One of the mens tried to get me like that but I bitted them.” She looked at her siblings. “Them feather people don’t got no teef and these.” She held up her hands, with their claws extended. “Dumb dumbs.”
“Uh huh.” Her father muttered.
“Mans got mad and hit me though.” Bean said. “I went to sleep then. When I got up lots of noise.”
“Was us!” Warin said. “Dor found them in a round place and said, get sticks and go yell and we did!” He said. “I bitted them, and Gaby bitted them, and Dor and Car hit them with sticks!” He waved his fists. “Boom boom!”
One of the forest dwellers put his hand on Jessans shoulder. “Brave kids.” He said. “Yours are def yours, y’know?”
“Brave kids.” Jessan agreed, with a faint smile. “You guys did great. I’m real proud of you.” He ruffled Warrin’s fur, and gave Cari a pat on the knee. “And I’m real glad you guys are all okay, because if one of your hairs had been hurt here your mother would shave me.”
“Dada. Can we go get Dor nowwww!!!!” Warrin hopped up and down on the couch. “C’mon!!!”
“I’m sure she’s…” Jessan paused, as they heard running bootsteps coming up from the lower slope at a fast clip. “Oh.” He sighed. “Ares left nutsack now what?”
One of the warriors went to the door and opened it as a large, dark haired form almost slammed into the frame. “Toris!”
“Where is my sister?” Toris got out, between gasps. “Where is she?”
“At the shrines but..”
“Shit.” Toris turned and bolted off in the darkness without a further word.
The forest dwellers all looked at each other. “Next time I want to go to a simple, no big deal market, sit on me.” Jessan said, getting to his feet. “Get your weapons. Let’s go.” He turned and pointed at the four kids. “YOU ALL STAY HERE.”
“Dad!!!” Warrin squealed in outrage.
“STAY!” Jessan roared. “Or… or ELSE!” He turned and went out the door, slamming it behind him with a loud and final bang.
The oracle surprised her. He reached out and clutched the blade with violently shaking hands and shut his eyes tightly as the sharp edge cut into his flesh, biting his lip as he fought the impulse to scream.
Then he released it and slapped his hands onto the altar, turning his head to one side and squeezing one eyelid open in a grimace of anticipation.
Nothing in particular happened, save that Xena regarded him with a half raised eyebrow. Then she glanced to one side and her eyes met Gabrielle’s, an almost audible ‘now what?’ echoing between them as the sounds of battle floated into the shrine from outside.
Xena turned back to her victim. “If you thought that was going to save your ass… “ She growled.
The sound of a louder scuffle near by made her look up again to see a flurry of motion at the entrance. Nala, a head above the rest of the Amazons got her body sideways to look, then she turned. “Xena!”
Xena half turned and lifted up the oracle, laying him flat on the altar and putting her sword tip right between his eyes. “Don’t move.” She said. “Because now that I’ve got you on that slab I want to talk about your predecessor.” She took a step towards the entrance. “Whats going on?”
Three Amazons suddenly forced their way through the fighters, a fourth held between them. “Get in here.” Eponin ducked under Benny’s sword and then she paused, looking at the tableau. “Where’s the poo bah?”
“Don’t ask.” Gabrielle said. “What’s all this?”
Pony turned to the fourth Amazon. “Tell them.”
It was one of the kids, Xena realized. One of the youngers who had, what seemed now like a lifetime ago, advanced to junior warrior back in that ceremony that had seemed so lighthearted and fun. Now she was shaking and pale, eyes red from crying. “What?”
“Gwan.” Pony poked her forward. “Spill.”
Impatiently, Xena took a step forward, towards the girl, who responded by taking a nervous step backwards, her eyes widening.
“Xe.” Gabrielle put Dori down and eased over to her, nudging Xena backwards and taking the girl’s attention from her glowering and intimidating partner. “Sali, what happened?”
The girl’s eyes fastened on her with desperate gratitude. “mmm.. “ She was shaking so hard her lips were vibrating. “My qqqquueeen.”
The sound of the fighting flooded inside. Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder impatiently. “Would someone tell those morons their dude is poof gone?” She told Nala. “Tell them Xena made him disappear.”
Xena grimaced, and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Couldja…”
“Hush, you did.” Gabrielle cut her off. “ I can’t hear myself think in all this racket.” She took a deep breath. “HEY! EVERYONE STOP IT! RIGHT NOW!”
Her voice filled the enclosed space with a booming roar and made both Xena and Dori wince.
“Mama, loud!” Dori complained for both of them and put her hands over the side of her head. “Ow!”
The sound of fighting abruptly cut off outside and after a moment of silent surprise, Gabrielle went back to the young Amazon. “Thank you.” She paused to glance at the entrance, then shake her head slightly. “Now, what’s going on?”
Sali glanced nervously around, then back at her queen. “I did it.” She stammered out softly. “I.. “ She burst into tears, sobbing with odd and discordant hiccups.
Gabrielle put a hand on her shoulder, consciously pitching her voice in a gentle tone. “It’s okay Sali. Just take a deep breath. “
Xena caught a bit of motion from the corner of her eye and she slowly turned her head to see the oracle staring at the young girl, and squinting a little bit into the sunlight. She saw his expression change as his vision focused.
Sali stared at the ground. “He was.. he was there and no one was around .. and “ She whispered. “I choked him.” She got out, wringing her hands together. “I did. They said I wouldn’t dare but.. “ Her voice trailed off into silence, then came back more strongly. “I did.”
There was a brief, disbelieving silence. “The old oracle.” Xena finally said, in a thoughtful tone. “You killed him?”
Sali flashed a very quick look at her then focused on the ground again. “Yes.” She whispered. Then she started crying again, dropping to her knees and reaching out blindly to grasp Gabrielle’s staff, leaning against it, and then against the queen’s boot.
A scuff of footsteps intruded, and a moment later Toris appeared in the entrance, breathing hard. “Where in th.. there you are.” He spotted his sister, the paused as he saw the girl on the ground. “Figures. I guess you already know?”
“We know something.” Xena replied cautiously. “Can’t say if it’s the same thing you think we know.” She paused expectantly, and they stood staring at each other briefly. “So what’s the problem, Toris?”
“Hard to believe they’re related.” Nala muttered under her breath, making Paladia stifle a grin.
He wiped his brow. “All those men you all chased down from here are ransacking the place. Someone told them we know who killed that first guy and we’re hiding them and you’re holding these guys hostage up here.”
Xena looked around the inside of the shrine then back at her brother. “Well, for once this sevenday, they got it right.” She admitted. “Both of those things are true.”
“We know who killed him?” Toris said in surprise.
“We do.” Xena confirmed.
Gabrielle turned her head to look at Xena. “I’m sure there’s more to this story.”
“I’m sure.” Xena responded readily. “But I’m not sure we’ve got time right now to hear it.” She shook herself with a faint leathery rattle. “Okay.” She said. “Redder, grab that guy.” She pointed over her shoulder at the altar. “Lets round up the rest of these pinheads.”
Gabrielle got Susi to her feet. “Amazons, lets regroup at the village.” She ordered. “Get everyone weaponed up.” She motioned Cait and Eponin to guide the distraught girl out as she reached down to take Dori’s hand. “Next time I want a festival someone pomf.”
Xena released her from her sudden kiss. “I will.” She herded everyone out of the shrine. “Let’s go.”
The silence outside was explained the moment Xena stepped into the entrance and saw none of the priest’s men in view. Her militia and the Amazons were standing quietly around, a line of them guarding the gates to the stairs and another group surrounding the rest of the oracle’s party.
Everyone looked a bit bewildered, and readily turned when she appeared, just as Jessan and his warriors arrived at the back of the crowd.
“Just vanished, they did, Xena.” Bennu stated the obvious, gesturing to the open space. “Like when we were out in Thrace like? More of that then?”
Was it? Xena pondered that a moment, aware of all the eyes on her. “Good riddance.” She deferred the issue. “Right now we’ve got a bigger problem down in town.” She added firmly. “Get this bunch down the hill.”
Well used to taking her direction the militia spurted into motion and took hold of the oracle’s party, now looking quite frightened, and hustled them off towards the escarpment and it’s ropes.
“Benny, we’ve got a dust up down by the town.” Xena said. “Get the troops back down there and lets get it settled down.”
“Right.” Her captain nodded briskly.
Jessan hustled up to her side. “We found Bean.”
Well, at least one thing went right. “Where?” Xena asked, in a relieved tone. “Where was she hiding we didn’t see her?”
“Boo, we found it.” Dori spoke up unexpectedly. “We did good!” She came trotting over to her parent and extended her arms. “Dup!”
Xena lifted her up and cradled her in her arms. “What happened?” She asked. “You kids were down in the village. Is that where she was?”
“Boo everybody was running around.” Dori said, as Gabrielle came up behind them and stood, putting her hand on Xena’s hip and listening. “We went to our place.”
“Dozens of Amazons on that path and no one saw them?” Gabrielle sighed, covering her eyes with her free hand. “By the gods, Xe.”
Xena eyed her daughter. “Did you go up the path, Dor?”
“No, Boo. We went the other way.” Dori said, readily. “Nobody tell us then.”
“She went the back route.” Xena explained. “Go on, Dor. Then what?”
“IN the round place Boo, there were bad mens and they had Beany.” Dori said. “We made boom on them and they ran away and we went to our house.”
“You made boom on them?”
“Yeah.” Jessan broke in. “The kids beat them up, even your little kiddo according to mine.” He added. “Anyway, they ended up at your place and they’re all okay.” He said. “They were worried about Dori.” He glanced aside as the plateau cleared out. “So what’s going on?”
“You beat up the bad guys, Dor?” Xena looked at her daughter.
“Yes Boo, just like you and mama do.” Dori agreed. “We gots sticks and Warrie and Gaby bitted them. Boom boom, and then we gots out. Boo they were making noise in your round thing.” She frowned. “Bad mens. We go home now? Gots cookies there.”
“Let me go and take her back there.” Xena said. “Before the rest of them try to come find her and we’ve got that to worry about too.” She bumped heads with Gabrielle. “Tell him the rest.” She started towards the ropes.
“Tell you the rest.” Gabrielle sighed, scrubbing her eyes with one hand. “I have no idea what the Hades to tell you about the rest because where do I start? The part where Xe made the priest disappear in a flash of blue light or the part where that feckless punklette Amazon confessed to killing the oracle?”
“Sounds about like usual.” Jessan said, sympathetically. “Maybe we should go back to your place too and get a drink?”
“I should keep a keg right here.”
Dori was probably the only one who enjoyed the next while, as she clung like a monkey to Xena’s back during the climb up the cliff face. “Go Boo.” She warbled happily, as they moved through the morning light up the ropes. “Boo, those were bad mens.”
“They were.” Xena agreed, moving hand over hand up the rope, her boots locked around the lower part of the strand. “Were you scared when they grabbed ya?”
Dori thought about that for a minute. “Yes.” She eventually said. “It hurt, Boo. I tried to get out and they shooked me all up.”
“Y’know.” Her parent said. “If you’d have stayed where we left ya, they wouldn’t have done that.”
“Boo I got to.” Dori objected. “I had to get the aminal, and Guff was there. You said I could go if Guff was there.”
Had she ever said that? Xena kicked outward as they reached the top and then pulled them up over the edge onto the platform at the top, where six Amazons were standing, waiting to pull the ropes up and secure them. “I don’t think I meant tonight.” She dusted her hands off as they moved away from the edge.
“Guff was there.” Dori said, again. “Go fly, Boo!”
“Only to our house.” Xena moved into a run, threading her way through the trees as she flashed in and out of beams of morning sunlight slanting through the branches. The path was quiet and as they moved up it, they heard the patter of paws coming at them.
“Doggos!” Dori cried out, as she peered over Xena’s shoulder and saw Teo and Buppit bounding up through the spring foliage. “They stayed when I told them Boo!”
“Yeah, better than you did, when I told you.” Xena muttered. “Hey mutts.” She greeted the two dogs as they caught them up and turned to head back with them. “You better not have let anyone else follow ya.” She told the two sternly. “If we’ve got missing kids again I’m gonna lose it.”
But childish cheers greeted them as they arrived up onto the rise where the cabin was built and as Xena swung Dori down from her shoulders the door opened and four small bodies piled out to greet them.
“Boo, we can tell you what we did!” Dori pulled on her boot and pointed to the house. “C’mon!”
Xena hesitated, then she followed them all inside and shut the door. “Okay, but just for a little while. I’ve gotta go help your mama and the rest of our friends down by grandma’s.”
“We can go to gramma’s too!” Dori agreed, as Xena sat down on the couch and they all surrounded her. “Boo made a big boom on everybody.” She told the rest of the kids. “Go boof!” She waved her hands, and Buppit danced around her repeating the sound.
“You gots the bad mens?” Warrin asked. “They got you! We sawed, we sent our dada there!” He scowled. “He said we had to stay.”
“Gots.” Dori said succinctly. “Mama came with the stick and boom boom boom boom.” Dori waved her arms as though she had a staff in them, doing a credible imitation of her mother’s motion. “She was maaaaaad.”
“Dada was mad too.” Gaby said.
“Boo chased all the bad mens off the mountain.” Dori added, patting Xena’s knee. “She said go! And they ran away.”
Cari went to the table and came pattering back, offering a plate. “Cookie?” She invited Xena to take one. “We had a sleeps while you were gone.” She added as an aside to Dori.
Xena took one of the cakes and sniffed it, grunting softly and then taking a bite of the familiar pastry she knew was from her mother’s kitchen. She was hungry, and glad the long night was over, and hoping by the time she got down to the town her army would have sorted things out.
Dori went to the hearth and lifted a half full jug of cider, pouring a cup from it carefully. Then she brought the cup back to Xena. “Here Boo.”
“Thank you, Dori.” Xena smiled, taking it. “You kids did good today.”
Warrin grinned. “We kicked the booty.” He said. “That’s what dada said.” He did a little dance around in a circle. “The uncles all said we did like dada does all the time.”
“Your dad is really proud of you guys.” Xena told him. “You were really brave, and strong.”
“Us too!” Dori pattered her hands on Xena’s thigh. “Car got a stick and hit the bad guys!” She said. “Just like mama!”
“Did you do that, little one?” Xena ruffled Cari’s curls. “That was very brave.”
“I did.” Cari looked down at her hands, which had some red scrapes on them. “It hurt!” She showed her palm to Xena. “But the bad man made a noise and fell down!”
Xena examined the scrape. “Yeah, see I have one too.” She showed Cari her own hand, which had a long red mark on it from something or other she’d done. “Here.” She leaned over and put a kiss on the mark on the child’s skin. “That’ll make it better.”
“Boo fixes everything, all the time.” Dori stated confidently. “Love Boo!” She put her head down on Xena’s leg and circled it with her arms in an enthusiastic hug.
Bean crawled up onto the couch and sat next to Xena. “Auntie Xena, can I tell you something?” She said. “A thing that happened?”
“Sure.” Xena finished her cake and brushed the crumbs off her leathers. “Go ahead, oh my namesake.” She gave the forest dweller a wink. “Tell me.”
All the rest of the kids got quiet. Dori stayed where she was, up against Xena’s leg and Cari came over next to her, sitting down on one of the low, hide covered stools scattered near the fireplace. Teo came over and sat down next to her, his ears swiveling.
Jessan’s eldest hesitated, then she nodded as though to herself. “I got up in the dark at night in our tent.”
Butterbean shook her head. “After the big party. Another dark.” She said. “I sawed some fireflies outside making light and I wanted to see them so I went.”
“Like them.” Dori commented briefly.
“Me too.” Xena grinned. “I’ll tell you a story about your mama and a firefly sometime.” She saw Bean make a little face. “I would have chased em too, kiddo.”
Bean smiled a little more confidently. “I like them. We all like them.” She admitted. “Anyway I chased it into the trees and then I heard sounds from the down place so I went to look at it.” She paused. “Somebody was making a scream.”
Xena’s expression became more serious. “Someone was screaming, like they were being hurt?”
Bean nodded. “So I went down the strings. I let them go down.” She made a little face again. “I forgot about the fireflies because of the noise and they flew away and I went to go see what the scream was.”
“By the shrines?”
“In the light one, with the flowers.” Bean said. “There was some bad guys there, and they had a feather people, and they were beating her up.” She drew in a breath. “But not… it wasn’t a fight.” She frowned. “It was on the stone thing.”
Xena felt a chill down her back, and her muscles tensed. “So, they were on top of the stone table?” She asked, cautiously. “They were on top of her?”
“Bad mens were making a joke sound.” Bean said. “Auntie Xena, they were doing a sex thing.”
So much for caution. “So you know about that.” Xena eyed her.
“Sure.” Bean said. “Like the sheeps.”
“Like the sheeps.” Dori agreed. “But it hurt the feather people.”
“She was screaming.” Bean said. “So I went there and tried to make them stop.” She held up one hand, and extended her claws. “I bitted them, and I scraped the big one in his face and made noise and it scared them and they ran out.”
Xena blinked. “You clawed them in the face?” She moved her own hand across her cheek in pantomime. “Like that?”
“Yes!” Bean said. “And the feather one was hurt, Auntie. I could smell the blood and she was crying and I tried to help but she just made me promise not to tell.” She finished, with an unhappy look. “I promised.” She glanced to the side. “I promised – dada said we should always, always keep a promise, but.. Warrie said I should tell you.”
Xena took a breath, and then she reached over and took Beans hands in hers, feeling the claws twitch just a little bit against her skin. “Xena.” She intoned gently, waiting for the youngster to look up and meet her eyes. “You did the right thing. Both in what you did to help, and in telling me.”
“Tell Boo evry’thing, all the time.” Dori said, softly.
Bean’s face relaxed a bit, her muzzle twitching.
“You and Gaby are named for me and Gabrielle.” Xena said. “And that’s because, one day we were in a place and we saw someone in trouble. We went and helped that person, who we didn’t know and we saved them, and that person was your father.”
Warrin nodded somberly. “Dada says we should always help against bad things.”
“And he said we don’t look the same, but you and Auntie Gabrielle, and Dori and Cari are like us.” Gaby added. “All good.”
“So good.” Cari spoke up softly.
Xena discarded the irony of it. “All good.” She agreed. “So everyone did good stuff and the right things.”
Bean produced a relieved smile, exposing her small fangs. “I felt bad for her.” She said. “She was real sad. I helped her go up the string. She was scared.”
“Yeah.” Xena looked at all of them, these tiny reflections of souls she intimately knew. “I bet she was. Now lets all go down to Grandma’s place, okay? I’d like more of those cookies.” She gave Bean a hug, then opened her arms for all of them to join in.
“Yay!” Dori cheered. “Now we can go have fun!”
“Boof!” Teo stood up, tail wiggling. “Boof boof!”
Gabrielle paused just short of the assembly hall, trying to come up with something to say. Something that at least hinted that she had some idea of what the Hades was going on and what they should do to make it right. What should they do. What could they do?
Did she have even a bit of an idea of what was going on?
No, she didn’t really. She turned to find Aalene approaching, glad for the momentary diversion. “Hey.”
“We’ve got Sali bunked down and someone’s keeping an eye on her.”
“Anything out of her yet on what happened?” Gabrielle asked. “I know there’s more to tell.”
“Yeah, I thought the same. Her little buddy Dina’s with her.” Aalene said. “So hard to believe she’d go and do something like that..you think it’s legit?”
“Her confession?” Gabrielle half shrugged. “Hard to think of why she’d say it if it wasn’t. She’s got to know how much trouble that’s causing us.”
Aalene nodded in agreement. “Only thing she said was something about not being worthy.” She said, folding her arms thoughtfully. “But not of what. I gotta think it has something to do with her being bumped.”
Gabrielle paused. “To junior, you mean?” She shifted her grip on her staff. “Are you saying her choking that guy.. no. Wait. What are you saying?” She asked. “Even the challenge in the ceremony’s just a joke. I was telling Xe the other night I was glad no one asked her to do it because she’d have hurt herself trying not to hurt anyone.”
“Well, now sure. It wasn’t always though you know back in the day…” Aalene paused as she watched Gabrielle’s brows knit in puzzlement. “You know?”
“No, I don’t think I do.” Her queen responded slowly. “Did I miss a scroll?”
Aalene studied her. “No, you wouldn’t know I guess.” She said. “You didn’t come into the tribe.. um..”
“The usual way.” Her queen finished, with a touch of impatience. “Get to it, Aalene. We’ve got a mess down the hill I gotta go see to.” She said. “Don’t tell me you had to strangle someone to really be counted an Amazon way back when.”
“No…” Aalene drew the word out.
Gabrielle lifted her eyebrows eloquently.
“It’s not that. Just.. lets just say there are girls who become warriors just because they do. They’re made that way.” Aalene said. “And then there are some that … they just get bumped because they’re too old to stay with the kids.”
Gabrielle remembered now the meeting with the minders. “So, they’re cycling, and .. so put them in the junior group and maybe they.. “
“Maybe they grow a pair. Some don’t.” Aalene stated mildly. “Some go overboard trying to prove they have. Or sometime they get dared to, if you catch my drift.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle grunted softly. “Kind of a challenge.”
“Kind of. Like, prove you belong not just ended up here.” Aalene said. “I remember that when I moved up. Not.. well, I shot a big buck deer on one of our first hunts, you know? I got lucky, put a shaft right into his head and took him down. That was it, for me.” She smiled in memory. “I still have a knife I made with a piece of his rack.”
“I get it.” Gabrielle acknowledged, thinking back to a much simpler time when she’d known that same feeling. “See if you can get ahold of the rest of those new ones, and talk to them. They probably won’t tell me.” Gabrielle smiled briefly. “They probably think I don’t have much in common with them.”
“It’s different, growing up in the tribe.” Aalene admitted, with a slight apologetic note in her tone. “You don’t want to be an oddball. You want to belong.”
“Yeah.” Her queen grinned wryly.
“See what I can do.” Aalene said. “We’ve got all the kids packed in the dining hall except yours, and some of them are there. Let me go see.” She lifted her hand in acknowledgement and headed off up the path, disappearing at the fork behind the deep green of the leaves.
Gabrielle watched her go, leaning on her staff, taking a breath of the clean, spring air so full of the trees around her, and the woodsmoke from the central fire.
“I am damn glad we re graded that central square.” Pony said, coming up behind her, adjusting the sword belt holding her sword across her back. “Now the damn water drains off down the hill and we stay dry when it floods.” She paused next to Gabrielle. “Not like that first spring.”
“No.” Gabrielle agreed. “Everyone getting ready?”
“Yeah.” The weapons master said. “Half of em are already down by the town. Benny sent a guy up and said they got the main gates closed and the inn’s safe.
“Well, that’s great.” Her queen sighed. “My family thinks a cloud of what the Hades follows me around and you know?”
“I know.” Pony chuckled easily. “We figured that out a long time ago. Just hold on and enjoy the ride and I’m saying, I’m in the mood for a fight today so it’s all good, y’know?” She had her dark hair pulled back into a long tail and her eyes were twinkling a little. “Let’s go kick some ass, your Maj.”
What the Hades. Sometimes you just needed to leave the explanations for another time. “Yeah, lets.” Gabrielle moved forward into the hall, and let out a whistle, and the women inside hustled into motion, cocking crossbows and seating daggers as they swallowed last cups of cider and mouthfuls of bread. “Amazons! We have some enemies down by the river. Let’s go.”
Her troops let out a yell of acknowledgement, as Gabrielle turned and led them as a group out and across the central space, more warriors running from quarters to join them as the guard swung the big gates open. The sun poured through the trees and gilded them, leathers and half bared bodies, bits of fur trim and the steel of weapons.
Their boots hit the packed dirt of the path and they rumbled down the path, a chorus of chants breaking out, the senior warriors crying out the calls, and the juniors responding to them, making Gabrielle’s nape hairs prickle as she gripped her staff and hustled to keep her place in front.
Cait was at her shoulder, periodically letting out a sharp, piercing whistle in counterpoint to the chanting, as they hit the lower part of the path and between the spring foliage they could now see the town gates, which were thrown open in welcome with a pair of Xena’s men braced to either side.
The militia raised their hands in greeting as the Amazons arrived, and joined them as they went through the gates and poured through the lanes between the small homesteads and cabins, empty now save a chicken or two who scattered through the fences as they came past.
“The lot of em’s holding the bridge, Gabrielle.” Torsten, the nearer soldier caught up to her. “Got some of the merchants there tied up. Ugly like.” He shook his head. “S’wrong wit these people? Not enough to just have a market and move on?”
“Three score, maybe.” Torsten said. “Arrogant bunch of em.”
“Well.” Gabrielle glanced aside at the inn as they came even with it, and she could see the stockade fence that fronted Amphipolis lined with militia and the rest of her Amazons. “I think we can handle that.”
Torsten laughed. “Tuh. Genr’l could handle that.” He said. “What’s three score to her and them just ord’nary men?” He twitched his hawkshead tunic a bit straighter. “None of them think she’s much. Wait now.”
“True, actually.” Cait remarked. “Might be boring and she’ll let us get a few.” She scanned the gathering soldiers. “But you know, it’s quite strange how dense this lot is, not knowing.”
“Not knowing?” Gabrielle glanced at her.
“About Xena. Its like none of them have heard of her, and you know, that’s just odd around here.” Cait tightened the belt holding her sword to her back and adjusted the leather bracer on her arm. “Don’t you think so?” She glanced to one side, to find Gabrielle studying her with an intent look on her face. “Hello?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle said, after a long pause. “That is weird, considering when I was a know nothing kid living in Potadeia we’d heard of her.” She slowly looked around at the crowd. “And I’ve been in a thousand places that haven’t heard of this place that sure had heard the name Xena.”
Cait watched her in silence.
“Including Mount Olympus.”
A bugle blew, and they both turned to look at the bridge. On the far side, wagons had been rolled to make a blockade, and behind it there were troops positioned, a thick line of arrows pointed in their direction as a line of mounted soldiers clustered behind them.
“Hold that thought, Cait.” Gabrielle motioned the Amazons on either side of her forward. “Lets talk about that once this is over.”
“Right.” Cait kept pace as they advanced to the town walls, edging between a cluster of militia.
To one side, Gabrielle could see the oracle and his group being held, and she angled that way, glad to see the inn’s door barred and guarded, a phalanx of Amazons on the porch.
Everyone was armed. Even the farmers and random residents of Amphipolis had something to hand, be it a scythe or an ax, she even saw a couple of young kids… Gabrielle paused, as she realized the two were her nephews, two chestnut haired boys Dori’s age with their hands on small belt knives.
“What the Hades is Toris thinking?” Gabrielle nudged Cait. “Go tell him to get those kids inside.”
Cait cleared her throat and nudged the queen back. “I think Granella wants them there.” She said, spotting the twin’s mother in full Amazon leathers readying a crossbow behind them. “Not sure Toris has much to say about it, actually.”
No probably not. Gabrielle sighed internally, but turned and went to the gates, where Benny and Redder were standing, waiting for her. “Everyone under cover?”
“Aye.” Bennu said. “Them council said they took all that can’t fight to the hall.”
A loud, male voice called out. “Who speaks for this place?”
Gabrielle glanced out the watch hatch, to see two men now standing on the far end of the bridge, fully armed, in well kept armor. A pennant waved behind them she thought she’d seen before, and she looked briefly up at the guard post where Xena’s black and gold were vivid in the sun.
“Open the door.” She told Bennu. “Lets go see what they have to say.”
“Should we wait for the Gen’rl?” The militia captain asked. “None of us so good at catching them arrows like.” He added, almost apologetically. “And this lot’s dumb seems enough to fire em off at yeh.”
Everyone fell silent, watching her and waiting.
“He’s got a point there, actually.” Cait commented into the quiet. “All this seems nonsense but I’d really rather you not get hurt.” She paused. “My queen.”
Gabrielle’s neck hairs prickled a bit, hearing that title from Cait’s lips, understanding at a gut level the true underlying separation the young woman next to her felt for the tribe they were both tied but did not belong to, their loyalty of the heart bound elsewhere.
Primary reason Cait was her bodyguard, that lack of conflict.
So. Gabrielle smiled, her jaw tilting up a bit. “Thanks.” She patted Cait’s arm, and reached over to clasp Bennu’s hand. “I appreciate that, guys, but open the damn gates, and lets get this over with.” She went to the inner side of the wooden surface, and tapped her staff against it.
“Yes ma’am.” Redder undid the heavy iron catches and shoved his weight forward on one side, and Torsten joined him on the other, the militia gathering around her as they pushed the gates outward.
Gabrielle stepped through as the opening widened enough to admit her, striding forward at a steady pace as a wedge of armed men and Amazons flowed after her, spreading to either side and lining the ridge that sloped down to the river.
It was quiet around her as Xena rambled down the path to the town, pausing as she reached the fork that split off into the Amazon village. A glance to her left showed the gates closed, and as she stood there for a moment, a leather and feather bedecked figure emerged from the guard post and lifted a closed fist in her direction.
Renas. The elder came towards her, pointing down the path. “Rest of them are down there already.” She called out. “We’ve just got the kids and us old crones up here.”
Xena nodded. “Jess and his guys have our kids and his up at my place.” She said. “With any luck, since there’s more of them than moppets they’ll stay put this time.”
“True that big shot was done in by Sali?” Renas asked. “Didn’t think she had it in her.” She added frankly. “Kind of a ditz, you know?”
Xena paused, then she inclined her head towards the gates. “Yeah. Seemed unlikely to me. You talk to her?”
Xena started walking towards the entrance. “I’m gonna.”
The guard post had a double blind entry gate and she used it, emerging into the path that led to the middle of the village that had once been built in the center of a bowl like ring of trees and was now built up along with the structures on all sides of it.
It was very quiet, with most of the residents gone, and as Xena walked across the wide open space her ears twitched at the lack of the usual sounds of life around her.
No voices. No sounds of axes chopping wood, or arrows being shot, or the high, new sound of hammers striking the village anvil near the workshops.
Just wind in the trees, and the soft pop of logs settling in the central fire she was passing, and the soft piping of birdsong and it reminded her briefly of this space as it was, before.
Before she and Gabrielle had decided to settle nearby, and before Gabrielle had talked Ephiny into coming up here, showing her all the land, and all the resources that could be the Amazons for the asking.
Ephiny had laughed it off at first. They’d been living in the place the old village had been for generations, to where they’d considered the space theirs by inalienable right. It had been home, and theirs, shaped by their traditions and the regent hadn’t been able to even imagine relocating to this strange place.
Especially not this strange place potentially given to them by Xena’s hand. She smiled as she crossed to the juniors quarters. That had been utterly unthinkable on both sides right up until it wasn’t.
Pasi was guarding the door, and she lifted a hand in greeting as Xena approached. “Kids.” She shook her head a little as she moved out of the way. “Good luck with getting any sense out of em.”
“Thanks.” She pushed the door open and entered, spotting two young Amazons standing next to a pallet in the back row, furthest from the fire and the gathering table. The room was empty otherwise, things scattered about in evidence of a hasty departure.
The standing girls turned as she came in and looked warily at her as they stepped a few paces closer going shoulder to shoulder and blocking her from approaching.
“Move.” Xena said, in a mild tone. “I need to talk to Sali.”
“It’s not what you think.” Tarah blurted, holding her hands up. “She didn’t do anything wrong.” Dina, another of the new juniors just stayed silent, eyes wide, head nodding in agreement.
“You have no idea what I think.” Xena said. “So why not just get out of my way and let me figure this out for myself?”
Behind them she could see Sali curled up on the pallet, an arm thrown over her face. Breathing in, she caught a hint of blood on the air.
“Leave her alone.” Tarah said, bravely.
Impatiently, Xena put a hand on either girl’s shoulder and pushed them aside, moving between them and going to one knee by the pallet.
Her hearing saved her, as she caught the sound of motion just in time to turn and get her hands up as a chair bounced off her upraised forearms swung by all of Tarah’s nervous energy. “Stop it!”
The girl scrambled forward and threw herself at Xena with a choked yell, grabbing at her armor. “Leave her ALONE!”
Xena got hold of her hands and stood up, then transferred one hand into both of her own and used the other to grab her shoulder and shake it hard. “STOP it.” She repeated in a low, vibrant growl. “All I’m gonna do is talk to her.”
Tarah struggled for a moment, then stopped when she realized how firmly she was being held. “She didn’t do anything.” She said. “You’re going to make her say things that aren’t true. I know what’s true. She didn’t do it.” She lifted her eyes and met Xena’s, glints of pale ice watching her intently. “She didn’t!”
Xena looked at the other girl, Dina, who was hugging herself steps away, staring at them. The figure on the bed hadn’t moved.
“Go on, go fight with the rest of them.” Tarah said, suddenly. “Leave us alone!” She wrenched herself to one side, without effect.
“No.” Xena said, quietly. She turned and pushed Tarah down on the next pallet, then released her. Then she pointed at Dina. “Sit.” She ordered, pointing.
Rapidly, Dina obeyed as though her knees were on the verge of collapsing anyway. Xena waited, then she took a seat herself across from them, between where they were sitting and the door in case they had an idea of running. “Now.” She said, resting her elbows on her knees, and lacing her fingers together loosely between them. “You said you know what happened?” She eyed Tarah. “So talk.”
Tarah looked around, and then back at her. “You won’t believe us.”