A Change of Seasons
It was hard to really quantify how she felt.
Gabrielle regarded the cluster of men at the far side of the bridge, aware of the mass of soldiers spreading out behind her and taking up arms. She came to a halt at the point of the ridge and planted her staff, wrapping both hands around it.
Ephiny and Eponin joined her on her left side, and Cait and Solari came up on her right, drawing swords and cocking crossbows as the militia formed up, a rattle of spears and maces against shields echoing across the softly waving spring grass.
“How much of a moron fest is this going to be?” Ephiny asked, in a casual tone. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, Gab, I’m in the mood to mix it up but for once we literally out man then ten to one.”
“Out woman them.” Pony corrected her.
“Out man, out woman, out forest dweller, out random goats..” Gabrielle found the humor in it. “Usually it’s just us against the whole of Hades army, or Athen’s army, or Sparta’s army.. I don’t know that I know what to do with a superior force.”
Cait chuckled a little.
“Seriously.” Gabrielle glanced around. “Oh well. Let me go try and talk to them, first.”
“Must you?” Ephiny sighed.
Gabrielle spared a moment to imagine the scene if Xena showed up and found them all wiping blood off their swords, having slaughtered their market guests without her involvement. “Yeah, I do.” She told her regent. “it’s my gig.”
“You don’t have to fight.” Ephiny poked her in the upper arm.. “We can do that, y’know. We can tell everyone you talked first and get it over with.”
“Maybe if talking works, no one has to fight.” Gabrielle found herself saying, the faintest of echoes of her own past making her smile, just a bit. “I live in the hope that’ll be true the next time.” She started forward, heading towards the near side of the bridge.
“You ever hear of the saying crazy brave?” Solari said, watching her walk briskly towards the armed to the teeth enemy waiting at the bridge. “She is.”
“Yeah, well. Look who she married.” Ephiny drew her sword out and marched after her queen. “C’mon.”
Cait had already caught up to Gabrielle, her eyes scanning the enemy, watching them closely, hoping with every fiber of her being she wasn’t going to have to give that whole catch the arrow thing a go despite her recent practice.
There was motion at the far end of the bridge and a ripple of response from the armed forces behind Gabrielle as the armored loudmouth started across, a flag bearing second at his heels, and marched forward to meet her. He was tall and bearded and wore his armor as though he knew what to do with it.
Which was a positive, Gabrielle thought. It was the fake soldiers that general gave you the most trouble, because they didn’t know better, and thought fighting was just so much easier than it really was. So if this guy was a pro, seeing the militia would mean something to him.
Or not. She read his body language. Pro or not, he could, as Ephiny said, just be a bucket of moron in a lot of bad cow hide.
She kept walking, now with a cluster of six others around her, aware behind them of the soft thumping of booted feet on the ground as the soldiers, militia and Amazons, marched a little in place to keep themselves loose, sending a vibration she could feel.
The bearded man stopped, and motioned his standard bearer to move to one side, as he put his hands on his hips and waited for her to get closer. “I said, who speaks for this place?”
Gabrielle got within staff range of him and came to a halt, the Amazons and militia captains stopping just behind her. “I do.” She said, in a mild tone. “Who’s asking?” She added, searching his face to see if it rang any bells for her.
It didn’t. If she’d ever met him, he hadn’t made an impact and from the way he was looking at her she figured it was mutual.
“You do.” He said. “A woman.”
Gabrielle glanced down at herself, then she nodded. “Yep.” She said. “I do, and apparently that’s what I am.” She leaned her weight against her staff, watching his face, reading the twitch of his nose and the faint curl of his lip, almost feeling the disdain rolling off him.
But why? She wondered. He didn’t even know her. “Is there a problem with that?” She asked, sensing the agitated energy behind her.
“I am a man, and a soldier of the gods.” The man said. “I do not treat with.. “He glanced over her. “Women.”
“Because you are inferior. You are beneath the notice of the gods. You exist only to service us, and when my troops are finished here, they will take all of you and bed you and make you carry our seed as you should.” He told her, in a shockingly straightforward way. “Since you asked.”
“Here we go.” Cait muttered to Solari. “She won’t take that.”
“Nope.” Solari watched her queen. “I know that shoulder angle. See that tense up on either side of her backbone?” She indicated the lines of Gabrielle’s body clearly seen in the sunlight. “She’s pissed.”
Cait clicked her tongue lightly and the troops on either side twitched and she reversed the dagger in her hand, clearing space on her left side for it. “C’mon, get on with it.”
“Yeah, I missed breakfast.” Solari groused. “Lets get rid of these bums.”
Well, heck. Gabrielle tilted her head slightly and regarded the man, as she sorted through what responses she could make in return.
Would any matter? Would he even listen or was he just waiting to deliver the next insult?
She drew in a breath, and then she shifted her body and went into motion, pulling the lower part of her staff back and then whipping it up and forward as she took a step towards him, the end of the weapon cracking him right across the bridge of his nose in a blur of action that slipped past his startled reflexes.
It broke bone, and split the skin, and blood went flying as he reeled backwards, tripping and falling onto his ass on the gently green spring ground cover. She followed up at once and got her boot on his outstretched hand and the end of the staff against his neck, pressing him down when he thought to get up.
“Don’t.” She told the flag bearer, who had started forward. “They’ll spit you like a pincushion and with my luck I’ll get an arrow in the ass by mistake.”
The man stopped in mid motion, staring past her as the sound of bows being drawn rang in the breeze.
“And I will never hear the end of it back home. So just stay put.” She turned her attention back to her target. “Now for you, my arrogant friend.”
He coughed, a little, and stared up at her, and she was aware of being outlined in sunlight and brushed by the cool breeze coming up from the river and she was more than enough a bard to have her timing down to a razor’s edge. “Hi.” She said, after a pause. “Let’s start this chat again. I’m Gabrielle.”
He lifted his other hand and touched his face with it, bringing his fingers away and staring at the blood on them. “Gabrielle.” He repeated, in a nasal, rough tone. “You have earned death for that.”
“No.” Gabrielle leaned on her staff, driving the end into his throat and cutting off his air. “No one earns death. The best you can do is avoid it long as you can.” She watched his face twist. “And anyway, I’m not the one who’s on the ground here.”
He surged up and twisted, grabbing for her with his free hand and she came up off the staff and smacked his fingers with it, then she got her other boot on his upper arm and pinned him, releasing one hand and drawing her long knife.
He thumped and wriggled, but she was just heavy enough to keep his shoulders on the ground and he couldn’t quite get his legs up to kick her from behind and after another flop she twisted her body and slammed the end of the staff into his groin.
He coughed hard, face flushed with anger and pain, blood streaming down across his lips.
“Here’s some advice.” Gabrielle told him, in a conversational tone. “Ditch the attitude. Regardless of what you think of women, this one’s going to keep thumping you until you do.” She leaned a little bit back on her staff, and his eyes bulged a bit. “Okay?”
“Yield.” He hissed, the word coming out from between clenched teeth.
“Okay.” She lifted her staff up and planted it past his head, then she used it to lever herself up and off him, tucking her boots up and landing past his grabbing range.
She turned and got ready, spreading her hands out shoulder width on the staff’s surface and waiting to see which way it was going to go. Across the river, she could hear the crowd yelling and she listened over that for the distinctive sound of crossbows.
From the corner of her eye she could see Ephiny smirking, and on the other side, Cait quietly standing by, flipping her dagger casually in one hand, scanning the enemy lines as intently as she was listening to them.
Slowly, the man got to his feet, spitting out a mouthful of blood.
Gabrielle shifted her grip and let the staff twirl within their grip. “More where that came from.” She warned. “And it only gets worse from me.”
“They told us to meet them.” Talah looked everywhere but at Xena. “They were his oracles, you know?” She said, in a defensive tone. “They knew all about it. They said they could help us really get in with Ares.”
“We knew it was okay because you all made the shrine.” Dina said. “And we had the ceremony.” She glanced at Talah. “You know.”
Xena was regarding them with a dour expression. “So let me get this straight. You met them down in the market.. when?”
“After the ceremony, in the morning.” Talah said. “Everyone was down there.” She said. “They were asking about what happened.”
“At the shrines?”
Both girls nodded. “We told them about how good it’s been here, since we had the altars.” Talah said. “And I was…” She stopped and furtively looked up at Xena. “We were all kind of…” Her voice trailed off again. “You don’t get it.”
Xena rested her elbows on her armored knees. “I don’t get it.” She repeated. “What don’t I get?” She looked at them, and caught Dina fingering the token hanging over her shoulder, tied into her chestnut brown hair. “Your first morning as an Amazon?” Her brows lifted a little. “First time not being with the kids?”
Dina looked at her. “People say you’re not.” She got out. “An Amazon.” She clarified.
“People say, huh?” Xena forced herself to relax. “That’s true.” She said. “I’m not. But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand what it’s like to achieve something.” She paused. “So you were talking about it. Those guys heard you.”
“They thought it was cool, what I did.” Talah said, in a rush. “They wanted… “
“Yeah. I can guess what they wanted.” Xena sighed. “So they wanted you to go and meet them up there, at the shrines?”
“It wasn’t like what you think. We didn’t get to do the Ares part.” Dina said. “We wanted to and they said they’d help us.” She darted a glance at Talah. “They did!”
“Yeah.” Talah nodded. “They had an in with him, you know? They said they’d do the ceremony with us.” She flushed a little. “We got razzed for not.. everyone had scars.” She looked at her hand. “They said with them we’d have one up on everyone else.”
All this time, Sali had stayed where she was, unmoving and silent.
“But we didn’t.” Talah said, firmly. “We wanted to.” She looked defiantly at Xena. “But we got stuck down in the market while everyone else go to have fun.” She said. “So we didn’t have anything to do with it.”
“We had to stay at the stall.” Dina agreed. “All night until all the stuff was gone. All of us.” She added. “We were all together, and Sali didn’t do anything!”
Talah was watching Xena’s face. “You don’t believe us. I said you wouldn’t.”
“Go on outside.” Xena ordered. “Go to the meeting hall.” She added, in a more forceful tone. “Now!”
On the verge of standing and protesting, the two girls took another look at the expression on Xena’s face and backed away, turning near the door and running out without a further word.
Xena waited, ears twitching, until she heard the door to the gathering hall open and close. Then she turned and sat down on the pallet next to Sali’s. “Now.”
Sali turned her head and looked up at this odd intruder in the junior’s housing, the light from the windows outlining Xena’s tall form. “They’re really not lying.” She said, in a slightly hoarse voice. “You didn’t have to send them out. They’re my friends.”
Were they? Xena had to admit she didn’t know much about these kids, who were too old to have interacted much with Dori – and that’s where her attention had focused, wasn’t it? Even the tokens had just been an amiable nod to her soulmate’s conscience.
She hadn’t cared about them. She didn’t really care about this kid now. What Dina had said was true, after all. She wasn’t an Amazon and often had little patience with their customs. She tolerated them because Gabrielle tolerated them and she was pretty sure the whole tribe knew it.
Xena studied the kid, who really was just a kid. “Where are you hurt?” She asked quietly. “Because I know you are. I can smell the blood.”
“I’m okay.” Sali said, immediately. “Leave me alone.” She backed immediately up to the far side of the pallet, against the wall. “I don’t need any help from you.” She pulled the woven blanket that had been draped over her up to cover her body.
Xena laced her fingers together. “Your choice.” She shrugged slightly. “So tell me about you strangling the oracle then.” She tilted her head a bit to one side. “Since you said you did, despite what your… friends.. were saying.”
The girl flushed. “They don’t know everything.” She muttered. “Anyway, I did.” Sali said. “I went down to the barracks and snuck inside, and I did it.” She closed her jaw with an audible click. “So that’s it.”
“Why?” Xena asked, in a gentle tone.
“Why?” Sali looked at her. “Why.. ah… “ She looked past her interrogator then back at her. “I wanted everyone to respect me.” She said. “They all think I’m a.. “ She paused. “That I’m not tough.” She amended whatever she was going to say. “So I showed them.”
“No, you didn’t.” Xena shook her head. “You didn’t kill that guy.”
“I did.” Sali said. “How would you know you weren’t there.” She glared at Xena in defiance. “You told everyone you were in bed.”
“I was.” Xena agreed.
“So you don’t know.” Sali said. “I was there, and I did it.”
Xena tilted her head a little and regarded the girl. “No you didn’t.”
“How can you keep saying that, if you weren’t there?”
“Whoever killed him was taller than I am, and had a couple stone on me.” Xena stated blandly. “They had hands with fingers longer than mine are.” She held up her hands, then turned them over and extended them towards her. “G’wan. Measure up.”
Sali stared at them, making no move.
“You know how hard it is to choke a man to death?” Xena asked. “Any idea how strong your hands have to be to do that? Or what a windpipe feels like crushing under your fingertips?” She crooked her fingers. “Do ya?”
Now, the girls face was frozen in horror, and she was pressing her shoulders back against the wall as though she wanted to go straight through it to get away from Xena.
Xena leaned closer to her. “I do.” She growled softly. “Cause I’ve done it.” She added. “That’s how I know you didn’t.”
Sali scrambled back away into the corner, then she gasped in pain and curled over onto her side, squeaking like a frightened mouse. “Oh! Oh!”
Xena grabbed her, coming off the pallet and onto one knee as she eased her onto her back, watching her bite her lip as she stifled a cry. “Okay, c’mon kid. Let me see what’s wrong.”
“No..no.. don’t’ touch me.” Sali gasped. “Leave me alone please!” She curled up into a ball and hugged her knees to her chest. “Don’t. Just.. it’s fine. I’ll be fine.”
“Stop it.” Xena twisted her straight again. “I’m not going to hurt you.” She reached over and gripped Sali’s jaw. “Hey!”
Eyes glittering with tears squinted up at her in pain and fear.
Poor, stupid kid. “Butterbean told me what happened at the shrine.” Xena said. “So just relax and let me help you. I’m not gonna tell the rest of them.”
“B..” Sali’s expression fell. “Oh.” She stared past Xena’s elbow, then let her hand fall to the surface of the blanket. “She promised.”
“Yeah, I know.” Xena positioned the now unresisting figure onto the pallet. “But she’s just a kid.”
The blockade at the bridge parted and a man in robes walked through the gap, waving behind him for it to close. He strode up the ridge towards them, his salt and pepper hair flowing in the breeze, the gold threads in the fabric he was wearing picked out by the sun.
Gabrielle’s erstwhile adversary saw the motion and half turned, then he stepped back and wiped his sleeve across his face, ending up smearing the blood over most of it.
Ephiny, Bennu, Redder, and Eponin came up to flank her on either side, and Cait took a step forward with Torsten at her shoulder, curling his arm around a long spear with Xena’s hawkshead flag fluttering a little in the breeze fastened to the top of it.
“Guess that’s their guy in charge.” Ephiny commented, folding her arms over her chest.
“Guess so.” Gabrielle agreed.
“The whole talking thing not work out for you this time?” Her regent queried, biting off a grin.
Gabrielle returned the brief smile. “Not with what his jaw was flapping.” She admitted. “I learned the hard way from Xena that sometimes it’s just not worth the time and effort to argue.”
“Cards on the table.”
“No, more that when it comes to ass kicking, action means more than lip flapping.” Gabrielle said, mournfully. “That kind of guy? No amount of my talking was going to matter because the thought of some chick whacking him on his ass just isn’t anywhere in his head, you know?”
“Women just don’t do that.” Eponin said. “Lot of places, that’s true.”
“Lot of places, that’s true.” Gabrielle felt a bit sad, and resigned thinking that. So many places she’d been, they’d been where they’d had to change that notion, proving it over and over again despite the fact that, at least, Xena’s armor and weapons should have given everyone some clue.
Even so, it had usually taken someone getting a jaw broken where any number of scrubby looking random dudes had just been accepted at face value if they were wearing a rusty knife and a pair of studded gloves.
“Peh.” Cait made a small noise of disgust, also folding her arms over her chest as the salt and pepper haired man strode towards them. “Can I just stab him?” She asked Gabrielle. “I’m a bit bothered. I think Pally’s down there in the market behind all that lot.”
Gabrielle turned to Ephiny. “We have people down there?”
Ephiny’s casual attitude shifted. “Do we?” She asked Pony. “Didn’t they clear the stall last night and bring everything back up?”
Pony frowned. “No… “ She admitted. “They wanted to see if they could just sell that last bunch of … crap.” She started searching the opposite side of the river. “I told them to… “
“Got the downstream watch over there too.” Redder said. “Youngsters. Just got back up from Potadeia way and were having some treats before this lot showed up.”
Crap. The word sounded silently inside Gabrielle’s head. “That’s not good.”
‘Happened fast.” Bennu said, apologetically. “Thought it was just riff raff what we sent down from the shrines… didn’t realize they was so organized, little hawk.”
Xena was going to have a fit. Gabrielle released a hand off her staff and ran her fingers through her hair, wondering now what was taking her partner so long to get down the mountain. “Know what else?” Her eyes fastened on something across the river. “The horses are down there too.”
“Ho boy.” Pony muttered.
“I was just wishing my other half was here, now I hope she hangs out a little more.” Gabrielle sighed. “I can hear the cursing just as I stand here.” She shook herself a little. “Lets see if we can get this figured out before she shows cause she’s going to flip out.”
“Yerg.” Bennu made a face. “We’re in for it.”
The man was now within hearing and Gabrielle straightened her shoulders and stepped forward to meet him, gathering all the dignity she’d managed to acquire in the last decade of her life together for the occasion as she recognized now the woven sigil in his cloak as one from Athens.
“What did they do to you?” Xena asked, in a quiet tone.
“They didn’t… she wasn’t supposed to tell anyone.” Sali had her face turned towards the wall. “And anyway he said..”
Sali didn’t answer.
The girl had been damaged, in a way that made even Xena wince, long used to the cruelty humans could visit on each other though she was. “Bean’s six.” She said. “She’s too young to keep secrets.” She redirected the conversation.
Sali was silent for a bit. “I thought…” She paused ”She’s only six?” She asked. “She knew… I mean, I thought she was older than that.”
Xena threaded a bit of gut into one of her thin needles. “I’m going to have to put a stitch in you.” She said. “Try not to move.” She glanced at the girl, who looked away with embarrassed unease. “Relax.” She added. “Unless you want me to go get one of the tribe’s healers. Want that?”
Sali looked back at her. “I don’t want any of them….” She muttered, looking away quickly. “No.”
Xena regarded her with a faint, wry smile. “I get it.” She said. “I’m not gonna pretend I remember what it’s like to be you, but trust me, it’s gonna heal faster if you let me do it.”
Slowly, Sali turned her head and their eyes met again, as Xena let her hands rest on her knee, the needle held between her fingers. The filtered sunlight from the window splashed over them, winking slightly on the surface of the implement and glancing off the ring circling her finger.
Sali was young, and rather plain. She had chestnut brown hair, and brown eyes, and a slightly flattened nose with a birthmark on one side of it. “Okay.” She finally said. “If I can get out of here faster then.”
Ah. Xena carefully didn’t address the second part. “Right. So hold still.” She shifted her attention, and kept her expression neutral. “Don’t tense up. I’ll warn ya … no, hold on.” She shifted the needle to her left hand and then extended her right over the girl’s groin, using her thumb to press in and twist slightly on a pressure point. “There.”
“Oh.” Sali exclaimed in surprise. “I can’t feel it now!”
“Yeah.” Xena went back to her task. “Useful skill, for a healer.” She said. “Woulda been great if I’d learned that before I started practicing this on myself.” She held up the needle, and then carefully shifted forward to fix the tear in the girl’s body.
It only took a moment, the damage wasn’t as bad as some she’d seen. The girl had been penetrated roughly, the area was bruised as well as torn but it would heal.
She tied off the gut and wiped the area down with a bit of linen and her cleansing herbs, aware of the girl’s eyes fastened on her. Then she set the needle down in her kit and let her hands rest again on her knee. “Sorry that happened to ya.”
Sali blinked a few times. “I thought it would be different.” She finally admitted. “Tarah said it was… she liked it.”
“For her, it was different.” Xena reached over. “It’s gonna hurt again.” She warned, before she released the nerve block.
Sali gasped and sucked a breath in. “Oh! Can’t you make it stop?”
“I can’t. If I leave it in, you.. it’s just not good.” Xena said, with a sympathetic look. “You just have to let it heal.” She slowly wrapped up the supplies from the kit she’d carried, from pure habit, on her belt. “Someone once told me pain was nature’s way of schooling ya not to do things.”
A few tears appeared, trickling down the girls face.
“Never made sense to me though.” Xena admitted. “You forget the pain, y’know?” She added thoughtfully. “You can’t be a warrior otherwise. You’d run from fighting if you thought about how much it hurt.”
Sali sniffled, and wiped her forearm over her face. “You forget? Really?”
“You do. At least, I do.” Xena produced a brief grin. “But I also try hard to be good enough so that whoever I’m fighting is the one who gets hurt. Not me.” She watched Sali’s expression from her peripheral vision, keeping her obvious attention on her kit. “So with your buddy, it was different. Benny wanted it to be good for her. He’s been around.”
She could see the shifting emotions. “Talah said she didn’t even know him.” She said. “But she said it felt nice.”
“I know him.” Xena responded. “He was honored, being asked. Meant a lot to him.” She finished packing the kit up and held it in her hands, elbows resting again on her knees. “He knew she’d remember it being her first time.” She concluded. “He’s a good guy.”
“But he’s just a p…” Sali stopped. “They said we should have found someone more.. more important to offer to the gods.” She said. “Not just a… “ She stopped again. “If we really wanted to honor them, I mean.”
“That what their game was?” Xena asked casually. “Figured they’d set that right huh? Since they were accolytes and priests and all that?”
Sali nodded reluctantly after a moment. “Like here. Rank counts.” She said, looking at Xena with a touch of resentment. “You know. You rank.”
“Uh huh.” Xena kept her tone offhand. “You figure that would bump you?”
Sali relaxed a little, reassured by Xena’s ready acceptance. “How else? We’re at the bottom. We thought moving out of the kids house was gonna be great, you know? But now we’re just everyone’s dogs.” She glanced quickly at Xena, who merely sat there, head a little to one side, listening. “Bootlickers.”
“Huh.” Xena grunted softly.
“We don’t know people. Not like.. “ She paused again. “You have to know people to get bumped. Or do something.”
Pale blue eyes narrowed just a little. “Like what happened with Cari?” She suggested. “That kind of knowing somebody?”
“She lucked out.” Sali acknowledged. “No way was she going to be messed around with after getting picked by the queen to come live with her and all that.”
A memory chimed. “Dori told me some of you older ones got taken out and came back upset.” Xena spoke slowly. “She thought something bad was happening.”
Sali’s eyes widened a little. “No one’s supposed to know about that.” She said, after a long pause. “Especially not the littles.”
“Well.” Xena smiled slightly. “Dori’s not much into rules.”
“Anyway.” Sali changed the subject. “Yeah. I thought I could get some props, if I went with them. I don’t’ want to spend years as a scut like the others.”
“That why you said you killed the oracle?” Xena ventured. “Figure that’d make your mark?”
Sali stared sullenly at her, but remained silent.
“What happened up there? Why’d they do that to ya?”
“You know all about it.” Sali said. “I don’t need to tell you anything else. You saw.”
“I know you were being raped on the altar.” Xena said. “And I know Bean tried to stop it. She clawed the oracle across the face. She helped you climb back up the ropes.” She leaned forward a little. “What I want to know is, why did they end up using something like a dagger hilt on you.”
Sali turned a deep, almost mahogany red. Her lip curled up in a look of loathing. “It wasn’t.”
“It was.” Xena said, in a relentless kind of way. “Why?” She reached out and touched the girls arm. “You were there willing. They were there wanting to offer to the gods. Why go that route?” She persisted. “Why not just take his pleasure?”
Sali was shaking and her eyes went everywhere in the room save up at the angular face over hers.
Xena remembered something else, in a wash of cold understanding. “Was it because he couldn’t do it?” She asked, closing her fingers around the girls wrist. “Is that why?”
Sali shut her eyes. “He… he.. ss….said ttthe gods .. that … they rejected me.” She stammered in fear. “Thhat I was too ug… .” She drew in a breath and hiccuped a sob. “Th.. said … “
“Hey. I get it.” Xena shifted her touch, and cupped the kid’s face in unexpected compassion. “Stupid bastard. He deserved what he got.”
Sali’s lashes blinked, and scattered tears over her face, and Xena’s hand. She was still shivering. “W…. what?” She got out. “No… no, the gods spoke to him. He said so.”
Xena sighed. “Yeah, he said so.” She muttered. “But let me tell you something about the gods… specially these gods.” She regarded the poor, miserable kid. “If they emasculated him, it was because he was a stinker. Not you.” She waited for the girl to look up at meet her eyes. “Those kind of gods I wouldn’t have built a shrine to.”
Sali looked doubtful. “But they’re his men.”
Xena half shrugged, a wry grin appearing on her lips. “I know him better than they do.”
It was quiet then for a moment, and in the quiet they could hear running footsteps coming towards them. Xena accurately placed the likely source and she stood and tucked her kit away as the door opened and Cait appeared, windblown and tense.
“Hello.” Cait said, after a pause to take a breath. “Sorry to interrupt, but you’re wanted.”
“Okay.” Xena turned. “Stay here. We’re not done talking.” She then headed for the door, skirting the pallets in their scattering and joining Cait at the door to the dorm as she held it open. “Lets go.”
“I am Silenius Tosh.” The man stated, as he came to a halt. “I represent the regional government, with authority in Athens.” He glanced behind him. “I have with me a cohort of troops, for the purpose of bringing the law to these apparently wild regions and answer the complaints of our citizens against you.”
“How many is a cohort?” Solari whispered to Eponin.
“Like a hundred or something.” Pony whispered back.
“There’s three hundred militia at least.”
“What complaints are those?” Gabrielle asked, in a reasonable tone.
Silenius took out a scroll. “The setting up of illegitimate shrines, holding of an illegal market without tendering tax, confiscation of horses, murder of merchants, and the holding of holy priests for ransom.”
Gabrielle listened to the gray haired man, as he turned and gestured to the area, turning back to her and pausing, waiting for her to reply. She ran the list over in her head, and her shoulders twitched in the faintest of unconscious shrugs.
“Hold on.” She said. “Lets start at the beginning of that. You’re saying we’re being accused of setting up an illegitimate shrine to the gods?” She asked. “What do you mean, illegitimate?”
“Yes.” The man said. “That was the original complaint.” He glanced at the scroll. “All shrines to the gods must be authorized by the head priest in Athens, and a fee paid. All know that.”
Had she known that? Gabrielle was sure she hadn’t. Had Xena? Her brows knitted a little. Xena might have, but then, of course her partner would not have given one sixteenth a damn. “Go on.”
Silenius nodded slightly at the acknowledgement. “Then as we got closer, we received word of many other things, and now, priests of Ares are being held hostage.” He pointed. “There they are. You cannot deny it.”
Gabrielle turned to look at the group, ringed by Xena’s militia. “It’s not what it looks like.” She turned back to the man. “But let’s start with the shrines.” She eyed the man. “Since when do you need permission to set one up?”
The man stared at her like she was crazy. “It has always been so. If you were not such … if this was not so far away from civilized parts of Greece you surely would know that.”
“I’ve been to Athens.” Gabrielle said. “Never heard that to be true, and besides, the last time I was there, most of the shrines were abandoned.” She half turned to Ephiny. “You ever hear that?”
Ephiny shook her head. “Nope.” She said. “Amazons have been building shrines to the gods for a lot longer than those robe wearers in Athens. Never had to ask permission.”
“What you have heard, who are nothing but an apparent peasant harlot, means nothing to me.” Silenius said. “Release the holy men, and surrender to us, at once.”
Gabrielle paused, and turned, regarding the militia and Amazon warriors ranged behind her, a thick line of armor and weapons that lined the hill all the way back to the gates. Then she turned back around to face the man. “Or what?”
“What did you say?”
“Or what?” Gabrielle repeated. She walked over next to him and turned around so she was facing in the same direction. “Do you not see all those people with sharp things?” She asked. “Do you really think we’re just going to surrender to you, just like that?”
“I see this rabble.” Silenius said. “And yes, you will surrender, Gabrielle of Potadeia, or we will outlaw this entire area, and you will end up being outcasts, facing our army, with no friends and no trade.” He looked at her, and smiled briefly. “Now, release the holy men.”
Gabrielle glanced over at Cait, who turned at once and started through the crowd, moving through the troops who parted to get out of her way, the men closest to the town gates already rapping on them to open.
She turned her head and looked at Silenius. “I can see It’s going to be a long day.”
Xena was half glad, half irritated at the interruption, sensing there was something there she still needed to find out from the kid. “What’s going on down there?” She asked Cait, as they rambled side by side down the path. “More crap?”
“Bit more than that I think.” Cait said. “It’s quite a lot of fellows from Athens, and one of them told the queen she should give up, or else they were going to outlaw the place.”
“I know, it did seem odd.” Cait agreed. “Then there was this other fellow at first who was quite rude, and the queen thumped him.”
“Ah.” Xena frowned.
“Oh, and it’s bad news, but some of our lot and some of the militia is stuck behind the river.” Cait added, almost as an afterthought. “Pally’s one of them.”
“They stayed in the market a bit too long. Silly.” Cait said. “Finishing up the sales, I suppose.” She sighed. “No one expected them to get so ratty.”
Xena increased her pace, cursing under her breath as she shook her head.
“We tried to talk the queen out of going out there to talk with them, but you know she is…”
“Yeah, I know.”
“She’s a bit stubborn.”
Stubborn, headstrong, occasionally foolish. Xena saw the gates open ahead of them. Brave to a fault. “She is.”
The rear of the town was empty, she could see ahead of her the protective stockade and it seemed all the residents were lined up behind it. The inn’s windows were shut tight, and there was militia on the porch.
“Oh, and Xena?” Cait hesitated. “I”m afraid the horses are down in the paddock there, across the river as well.”
Xena paused in mid stride, and looked at her.
“It was such a pretty day, No one wanted to shut them up I suppose.” Cait produced an unhappy expression, seeing the flare of her mentor’s nostrils. “I mean, it was the middle of a market, you know? It wasn’t supposed to end up a fight.”
No, that was true. “Yeah.” Xena started back into motion as her soldiers and the townsfolk cleared way ahead of her, seeing her approach. “It wasn’t.” She regarded the gates. “You think you can get over the river?”
Cait smiled briefly. “Yes.” She said. “I’ve been practicing my swimming, in fact.”
“Take some friends.” Xena said. “Cause some havoc.” She ordered. “See if you can get everyone loose of them and up the road towards the valley.”
“Excellent.” Cait exhaled in satisfaction, keeping at Xena’s heels long enough to clear the gates then heading off at once to the right, parallel to the river.
Xena shook her armor into place and made sure her sword was hanging straight, taking a moment to draw in a steadying breath before she deliberately slowed her pace and stepped into the open as her men parted to give her passage.
To either side, her militia was arrayed in good order, armed and ready. A little ahead she spotted Gabrielle, with Ephiny, Eponin and Solari on one side, and Redder, Bennu and Torsten on the other, Torsten holding a pike with her standard on it.
They were standing next to a tall, distinguished looking stranger, with salt and pepper hair and a fine, golden robe, who had Athens stamped all over him. Next to him was a man in armor with blood on his face, and a standard bearer with a flag.
Near the wall, the oracle’s gang was standing, surrounded by her men.
She let her pace become casual, almost a stroll, as she moved through the grass and approached the small group, watching as Gabrielle half turned to watch her, both hands clasped around her staff, a familiar look on her face.
Trouble. Xena almost, almost smiled. When hadn’t their lives been trouble? Pretty much never, one long decade of nothing but fight after fight after heartache after struggle.
She came up next to the group, ending up at Gabrielle’s side and before anyone could start talking she leaned over and gave her a kiss on the lips.
She felt the faint puff of surprise before Gabrielle kissed her back, the line of her shoulders relaxing as she without sound or sign turned over the command of the moment to her, gladly.
A bump of her shoulder expressing her relief. Confident that whatever was happening, whatever the challenges were they would overcome them together. She could read it in her partner’s posture, and what was more, in the expressions of the men and women around them.
No one, in fact, seemed even so much as worried and she took that as the compliment, however sideways or misplaced, that it was.
“So.” Xena let her elbow rest on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “What’s going on?”
Gabrielle’s lips twitched a little. “Let me see. Where do I start?”
Xena touched a fingertip to her lips. “Hold on.” She said. “Benny, have them bring out a table and some chairs and grab a pitcher of ale. It’s been a long night rousting those mercenaries out and I need a drink.”
“Aye, gen’r’l.” Bennu turned and let out some whistles, and soldiers came running. “As ya say.”
“As I say.” Xena agreed, turning to stare blandly at Silenius. “Now who are you?”
Cait paused, watching the profiles on the bridge closely as she pressed herself flat in the grass. She was alone, despite Xena’s instructions and glad to be so as she waited patiently for the attention to focus and the guards to return their eyes to the small group around the table on the ridge.
It was nice of Xena, of course, to want her to take some backup with her, but really when one was sneaking about and trying to get anywhere unseen it was much better if you didn’t have a lot of other people mucking about to worry yourself with.
Taking in a breath, she started to move through the grass, judging the breeze and timing her motion to it so that any ruffling of the stalks would seem natural to any eyes watching.
She was going down slope now to the river and there was one point where the shape of the earth might expose her, a bit of rocky escarpment she had to get over before she could duck behind it and she decided to go over it at speed rather than wait to be completely sure.
She was in leathers, and a light dappled overtunic that blended in with the grass and even if anyone had been watching it would have been hard to say what they would have seen as she glided over the rocks and then down to the edge of the river.
Easier than it had been, in fact, since the water was high, drowning trees and bushes at the edge of it that she felt under her as she moved from the warmth of the grass to the chill of the current in the blink of an eye.
The current was in favor of her, actually, pushing her away from the town and the market as she surged across, and not sending her right up against the bridge as it would have if it had gone the other way. She could feel the coldness, though, and she sped up her frog stroke as the sound of the rippling filled her ears.
Only the top of her head was showing, and she’d ducked her hair under the water at the start so that the wet darkened its paleness as she crossed the open middle, smelling the smoke from the market and the wood of the barges as it was carried past her.
She was glad to see the shore coming closer as she felt herself start to shiver a bit from the cold of the water and she put more effort into the swimming, also glad she’d spent so much time working on getting better at it, working against the surge of the water in their backwoods little creek.
The river current was far stronger, though, and she kicked hard to make progress, cursing a bit under her breath as it took her further downstream than she’d wanted. A tree underwater flashed past and she grabbed out for it at the last moment, her fingers only barely catching onto it.
The force of the water suddenly threatened to rip her loose and send her tumbling downstream and she concentrated on keeping her grip, getting her boots a purchase on the flooded debris at the edge of the river as it yanked hard at her.
For a moment, she didn’t think she could hold on, as her feet slipped and scudded and the water came up over her head in a chill rush and she barely had time to suck in a breath before she couldn’t.
Then, at last her heel caught on a rock ledge and she shoved herself up and forward, bringing her head and shoulders up over the surface as she moved one hand up the tree and got a better grip.
Now her back was against the bank and she shook her head and spat out a mouthful of water, pausing a moment to regain her composure and energy before she moved again.
A soft crackle alerted her, and she went still, only shifting her eyes as she pressed against the drowned branches and listened hard, staring at the foliage overhead until she realized there were eyes staring back at her.
“Now.” Xena said. “Start with why you’re here.”
Two other men were now at Silenius’ side, and the original herald had retreated back to their lines to have his broken nose and split face attended to. The standard bearer remained, legs spraddled, hands clasped around his standard.
“This should be mine to direct. But as it seems it’s the pertinent thing, I will answer.” Silenius said. “The grand oracle of Apollo, in Athens came to the council..”
“Okay.” Gabrielle held up both hands. “Stop.”
“Got it.” Xena added a hair later. “You don’t need to go any further.”
Silenius paused, and stared at them both.
“So now what do we do?” Gabrielle ignored him, turning to Xena and propping her elbow on the table. “Son of a bacchae, Xena. That little bastard.”
Xena shook her head.
Silenius patted the table with his hand. “I am speaking…”
“We know. You’re going to tell us that the oracle of Apollo told you that some hicks in the sticks set up some illicit shrines to Ares and Aphrodite, and were soliciting offerings and not cutting you in on a piece of the action.” Gabrielle interrupted him. “Right?”
Silenius shrugged slightly. “The word has preceded me, I note.” He said. “But that is not all of it. He told us that the offerings you solicit were denigrating, and that it angered the gods. That we must destroy those shrines, and bring you before the court in Athens to be judged.”
He turned and motioned to the bridge. “And so I have brought a legion of soldiers to do so.” He looked back at her. “So you will release the prisoners you have hostage, and surrender to me, or we will take this place by force.”
“I see.” Gabrielle murmured. “That’s a problem.”
He stood up. “You will begin by taking my captain and his guard to these shrines so that they might be destroyed.” He motioned the nearer of the soldiers forward. “Bring your men forward.”
Xena had remained seated, her chin resting on her fist. Now she straightened up and folded her hands on the table. “No.”
Silenius turned. “You say?”
“Here we go.” Pony grunted. “About time.”
“No kidding.” Solari removed an arrow from her quiver and settled it into her crossbow.
“I say no.” Xena stood to face him, nudging the stool she’d been sitting on back and out of her way with a motion of her booted foot, as Gabrielle almost unconsciously moved to her right clearing space for her to draw her sword.
Silenius moved back over to the table and stood opposite her. “I am not requesting you do this. I am ordering it.” He said. “Surrender and do my bidding and I will take you, and only you and leave all here alone.” His eyes pinned hers. “Deny me and all here will suffer, and suffer again, and suffer until nothing remains here save dust.”
Gabrielle drew in a breath to speak, then paused as Xena’s hand settled on her shoulder.
“Yes, you will fight us.” Silenius held up a hand. “I am not blind, nor stupid. But if you do, more soldiers will come, just as they have been, and more, and more, and never stop. You will have no peace to till your fields, or breed your beasts and all the lands around here will turn against you or else face the same fate.”
“Athens thinks it can do that?” Xena asked, mildly.
“At the request of the gods, Athens knows it will.” Silenius smiled, faintly. “And in the end, the people here will starve, and die, and do you wish that, Xena? Do these peasants deserve that?”
“Peasants.” Xena mused.
“They are nothing, you know it. They are farm boys and old men, and washouts from every direction.” Silenius said. “And degraded women unsuited for wiving.”
“Glad we asked to talk privately.” Gabrielle commented briefly. “Or this whole conversation would have just been made pointless.” She paused. “More pointless than it already is, I mean.”
“So.” Xena said, in a calm tone. “Let me get this right. We go with you, and you leave everyone and everything alone?”
“Save the shrines, yes. Those must be destroyed.” Silenius said. “We know who the ringleaders are here. Without you, this place is a nothing backwater that will fade into nothing but shepherds tall tales.”
There was truth in that. Xena knew it. Here was one of the crossroads she and Gabrielle often kidded each other about, where she could pause and stand and see it coming at them like a runaway wagon. There were always consequences, with the gods, weren’t there?
She could go, and take the ferocious winds with her, draw them far away and leave behind this place and these people to go on with their lives, he said?
In peace? Xena smiled. Oh please.
From the corner of her eye she could see Gabrielle’s profile. See the barest twitch of her lips and the faint motion of her hand shifting position on her staff, fingers curling around the wood as it lay leaning on the edge of the table.
Already knowing what the choice was, not even bothering to argue; probably not even wanting to.
“What’s going on?” Pony whispered to Ephiny.
“I think.” Ephiny regarded the awkward tableau. “Xena’s trying to decide whether or not to just kill him.” She said. “Gab’s about to pick up that stick and give another bloody nose so she better hurry and make her mind up.”
Pony sighed. “I want a drink.”
“Almost there, Pon. Almost there.”
And so really, no crossroads at all this time. Xena put her fingertips on the table and regarded Silenius. “Here’s my deal.” She casually bumped Gabrielle’s hip as she shifted. “I’ll go with you.” She said. “But you leave those shrines alone. Don’t touch them.”
She heard the faint sound of outrage in the soft hiss coming from Gabrielle, and could sense the stiffening of her body, the line of her jaw visibly tensing as she forced herself not to speak, unable to however prevent the one quick, sideways glance at her, brows lifted sharply.
Xena was waiting for it, and as their eyes met an unspoken understanding flashed between them. “Leave em, and I’ll go quietly with you.” She repeated. “We both will.” She metaphorically put her bet on the table between them and left it lie. “Deal?”
Anyone who truly knew her would understand the value of what she was offering. The bet was weighted heavily with her own deductions and she waited, crossing her arms over her chest in silence for him to take it.
Silenius paused, then shook his head dismissively. “You have no coin to bargain with, Xena.” He said. “No. We will destroy the shrines. The gods demanded it.”
“Well, actually no.” Gabrielle finally spoke up, literally unable to keep quiet any longer. “*A* god demanded it.” She said. “The gods whose shrines those are want them right where they are and won’t want them destroyed.”
“You know nothing of what you say.” Silenius said. “A backwoods busker who knows no more of the gods than a goat would.”
“Matter of fact, I do know what I’m saying.” Gabrielle answered, undeterrred. “And I do because the gods, as in Ares and Aphrodite told me so.”
Silenius shook his head. “They have told me this as well, about this claim. The gods do not speak to women.” He said, firmly. “To say so is a lie, all know it, and you will be punished for that as well.” He waved a hand. “After we finish our work. We go to the shrines.”
“Not today.” Xena disagreed.
“So you will defy the gods?”
“Not my gods.” Xena’s eyes glinted briefly in the sunlight. “Buddy, go on back to Athens and tell em I said these shrines stay, and I’ll defend them all the way there, if I have to.” She pointed towards the river. “Now my new deal for you is, if you’re out of here in a candle mark I won’t set my army on ya.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Scram, while you have the chance to.” She advised. “Best deal you’re going to get today.”
“The men from Ares temple were right. You blaspheme openly.” Silenius said. “You think you can speak against the gods this way and exist? Really? Do you not realize what it is to have them turn against you?”
“Way better than you do.” Gabrielle muttered, under her breath.
“No.” Xena shook her head. “I’m betting my gods can kick more ass than yours can and I’m willing to bet my sword on it.” She turned her head and let out a whistle. “C’mon. Bring it.” She told the man. “Let’s see which one of us is right.”
The militia who had been standing near the gates closed them, and lines of armed men and women moved into position as Silenius’s men started to back away towards the river.
“You’re bluffing.” Silenius said. “You cannot defy the gods.”
“She’s not.” Gabrielle signaled the Amazons to move into position. “And unless you are one, I’d get out of the way.”
It was an enemy sentry. Cait had only a moment to absorb that before he lifted a horn to give the alarm and she was out of time to react.
Which was fine, really, since she hadn’t needed any time to decide what to do. She came out of the river like a lizard, with a serpentine motion that kept her hard to the ground and under the level of the grasses as she drew a dagger out.
Lifting his arm to raise the horn was his mistake. It exposed his chest and she buried the dagger into it with one fast move, then she was on him and cutting his throat with a second knife, stopping the yell of alarm after the briefest of gurgles.
She paused to listen, still and crouched over the body, breathing in the rhythm of the wind. After a moment she relaxed a little as she did a quick search of the sentry, removing his sword and shoving it down into the water at the river’s edge.
Then she crawled backwards and dragged his body into the river as well, giving it a shove to let the current take it downstream.
She then washed the blood off her arms and started forward, spotting the track he’d made coming down to the river and following it, aware of the smell of animals on the wind as she made her way through the grass towards the racing track.
She was glad of the sun on her back, warming her shoulderblades and drying the river water she was soaked in as she came to the edge of the track, smelling the change in the ground as it moved from beaten down foliage to packed dirt.
She paused and flattened down, sliding forward and allowing her head to emerge through the stalks as she surveyed the open area ahead.
The horses were all in the paddock, she could see them clustered together, and leaning on the railings she could see strangers in armor, pointing at some of them.
A burst of rough, low laughter on the wind.
Standing a little apart, with her ears cocked, Cait recognized Argo, and a faint motion at her shoulder resolved into Rusty as the pony came to stand next to her.
So far, that seemed all right. Cait was glad the animals were well, and she turned her attention to the market area next, where she could see lines of soldiers milling and moving into position. “Right.” She paused, thinking.
The Amazons were probably on the other side of the crowd. Their market stall had been near the stage and the large tree…
A horn sounded, and the soldiers all started moving faster, heading for the bridge and the swath to either side of it, now blocked well by wagons and as she watched, the men standing near the paddock turned and ran to join them.
Not really even making a decision, Cait lifted herelf from the ground and started running, bolting for the rails as fast as she could, her dappled overlay blending with the earth and grass and her small stature keeping her low enough to the ground to give her cover.
She reached the gate as the horses spotted her, and Argo immediately cantered over, tossing her head in recognition. “Right.” She drew her knife and sliced through the hide rope holding the gates shut, dashing past them and pulling them open and then keeping on going towards the trees that lined the road leading into the market square.
No one saw her. The men were focused on the bridge, and now they were lining up and firing arrows over the tops of the wagons, letting out yells of excitement as a group of them dragged a catapult forward to a position just behind the now blocked bridge.
Cait reached the trees and swarmed up into one, hauling herself up into the branches and running along the extended limbs to the end of it, jumping between it and the next and catching the swaying end of the nearest branch into the next tree.
Below her she could see soldiers preparing fires and buckets, and smell pitch burning and she hoped whatever it was Xena was planning to do she did quickly before everything ended up a giant mess.
The stalls were empty and as she climbed upward into the next tree she could see over the heads of the men to a clump of soldiers gathering into a knot and past that….
A fight, and leathers and then the high keeling yell of the Amazons.
“Take a line there.” Xena yelled. “Get the barracades up before they make us target practice!”
The slope down to the river wasn’t great to defend, though the view made it a decent vantage point. She could see the enemy army getting ready to attack and already smell what they were going to send over the river at them from the catapult her sharp ears had detected being wound up.
“They’ve got siege engines, Benny.” She told the man standing next to her. “Get two squads to move ours into position down the lower slope there.”
“Aye.” He pointed a group of militia in that direction as two dozen more were pulling packed haybales out from the gates and making a sortie line with them. “Soak em, lads.” He bellowed. “They’ll be putting lit arrows up into it.”
A line of militia, moving buckets from the troughs behind the barn.
“This is kind of a mess.” Ephiny remarked, as she wrapped a leather bracer around her wrist. “Wasn’t expecting a war at the gates this morning.”
“No.” Gabrielle agreed. “Xe, should we send those characters over to them? Not doing us any good.” She indicated the oracle and his gang.
Xena had her hands on her hips and she was sorting through her options. “Leave em.” She said. “Send someone up to the cabin and let Jess know what’s going on.” She said. “Tell them to keep an eye on the back there. Guard the shrines.”
“I’ll go.” Solari said, turning and breaking into a trot.
“Xe, whats the game?” Gabrielle got up next to her, and lowered her voice. “None of this makes any sense.”
“No, it doesn’t.” Xena agreed. “That’s why I offered him what I did. Just needed to be sure I was right.”
“And what were you going to do if he took you up? Just go with him?” Gabrielle asked, eyebrow cocked. “You really think that was going to just go that way?”
“Knew he wouldn’t.” Xena shook her head. “It’s a game, hon. Apollo’s game. Wanted to give us, I guess, a taste of what it was like to be.. I don’t know.”
“Spurned? Forgotten?” Gabrielle supplied. “You figure they’re doing their usual? A bet? Let me guess – betting you’d give up the shrines to save the town? “
“I’d have taken that bet.” Her partner said, in a mild tone. “Must have seemed like sure thing – offer to leave everything alone, no one gets hurt, nothing happens…”
“Only if you didn’t know me.”
Gabrielle smiled grimly. “Which is why you knew it wasn’t Ares’ bet.”
“Ya had me there for a second, y’know.” Gabrielle eyed her.
“Yeah. Heard you squeak.”
Gabrßielle chuckled dryly. “Yeah well. What took you so long anyway?”
“Ah.” Xena grunted. “Crap.” She pointed across the river. “Ware!” She let out a yell, as the enemy shoved bound bodies to front their wagons, tying them in place. “Watch your arrows!”
“Ah crap.” Gabrielle exhaled. “They’ve got more hostages than we do. You figure they’d put a value on those guys? She indicated the oracle. “Should I try to go do a deal?”
Xena considered. “Nah.” She said. “He already turned down one deal. I’m not sure he really gives a damn about those guys, not if it really was Apollo who sent em.” She studied the ground. “Get the wall as far down towards the banks as you can!”
The militia started moving the bales forward, and a moment later arrows started to fly from the other side of the river, the men behind the wagons shooting up and over, each tip aflame.
“Get your archers down behind those.” Xena told Gabrielle. “Redder, send three squads down the river to the ford at Potadeia, and have them come around that way.”
“Take time.” Redder said. “Horses are all on the other side. But we’ll get moving.” He moved back and whistled a pattern, calling over soldiers who stopped what they were doing and ran towards him.
Flaming arrows hit the ground. Xena examined them intently, then relaxed a little when a bucket of water doused one to steam. She motioned the troops forward and they started moving towards the banks, heading down the slope, the archers carefully returning fire whenever the bales paused.
Xena heard a catapult let loose and she quickly looked up. “Watch out!” She yelled a warning. “Get down!”
The payload landed and exploded outward at the impact, a collection of loose, sharpened bits of rock wrapped in a burlap that sent shards everywhere, cutting and slashing even through the leather half armor the militia were wearing.
“Sheeps!” Gabrielle shielded her head with one arm, squinting as she heard the sound of steel hitting stone and sensing the motion as Xena drew her sword and deflected the sharp missiles to either side of them. “What the heck?”
“They came to fight.” Xena said. “Stay by me.”
“Like a tick.” Gabrielle could see there had been some injuries from the unexpected attack. “What do we do about that, hon?”
“Getting the guys to bring our stuff up.” Xena studied the line of the river, as another sack full of sharp stones came their way. “But we don’t have that.”
Gabrielle tucked herself along her partner’s shoulder and peered past her, seeing three Amazon figures amongst the hostages. “Crap. This just got bad fast.” She looked up at Xena’s profile, as Eponin and Ephiny edged above the bale they were behind and let loose at the wagons.
“It did.” Xena shook herself a little, the reality of finding herself in a sudden battle making her nape hairs lift as she switched her mental gears with an almost audible grunting sound and tried to reel in her desire to just…
“What in Hades do these guys actually want?” Gabrielle conveniently articulated her thoughts for her. “Listen Xe, can we just go get a bucket of gold nuggets and throw it back at them?”
What did they want? Xena let her sword rest on her shoulder as she listened to the catapult being cocked again. “Give me a piece of that.” She pointed at the shards on the ground, and one of her men scooted over and grabbed one, bringing it back to her.
She turned it over in her fingers.
“What is it?” Gabrielle caught the change in her expression and peered past her elbow at the stone. “Something about that?”
“Its not from around here.” Xena said, handing it to her. “There’s no way a legion of troops dragged wagons of rocks from Athens.”
“It’s from Athens?” Gabrielle studied the stone, which pretty much to her just looked like a stone, one which could have come from the ground outside their cabin. “You sure?”
“Yeah.” Xena motioned the blockades forward. “Keep behind these. Lets get as close to the river as we can.” She glanced behind her. “Make sure they stay focused on us.”
What did they want? She didn’t think it was the oracles.
What was it?
What had he said? That they knew who the ringleaders were? Xena stood behind the straw bale, her hand resting on it’s wet surface. If her ideas were right, then the whole point maybe was knock her down.
What was it that the oracles, and these guys, and all the rest of the merchants who’d showed up had brought with them?
‘Xe?” Gabrielle touched her arm.
“We let them keep this up, it’ll end up a stalemate.” Xena said, turning to her. “At best.” She glanced past the bale. “They’re laughing at us.”
Gabrielle watched her, head tilted a bit to one side. “What’s the game here?” She asked quietly. “For the past two sevendays I’ve felt like its all been one big joke on us, Xena. Like everything we’d done meant nothing.” She said, after a pause. “Like I was on the defensive.”
“Yeah.” Xena said, reflectively.
“What does that mean? Did we just screw up big time with them? Should we have taken the deal, and figured out a way past it after?”
Xena shook her head, and exhaled. “No.” She already had her sword drawn, and now she drew a dagger out, peering past the moving bale as they edged behind it. “Here’s what I’m going to do.” She half turned so Bennu and Redder could hear her. “Listen up.”
“I’m going to go take that wagon out on the far side of the bridge.” Xena said. “Once I do, they’ll all come in after me. Take the troops and storm the bridge and we’ll take them all out.”
Ephiny edged over. “What do you want us to do?”
“If they start coming up over the wagon before I can cut through, take them out.” Xena said, in a firm, confident voice. “Lets get this over with. These are just clowns.”
“Got it.” Ephiny loped over to where the Amazons were crouched, and tapped Pony on the shoulder.
“Sending the word down the line, Xena.” Bennu said, drawing his own sword and smiling.
Xena looked at Gabrielle, who was already lifting her staff and getting ready to move. “You’re coming with me.”
“Of course I am. Someone has to guard your ass and at this stage in our lives no one’s doing that but me.” Gabrielle gave her a tap on the behind. “Get moving, WP. Lets go show them.”
She got it. Xena grinned, and turned towards the bridge. “Get ready!” She let out a yell. “When we get over there, KILL THEM ALL!”
A booming roar exploded from the lines and on the heels of it, Xena came around the bales and started for the bridge, with Gabrielle right behind her as the enemy started firing flaming arrows at them.
She had her sword out and it was trivial to knock them aside and she did, swiping the blade back and forth in a lazy figure eight wide enough to protect them both as the came down the slope and were on the flat at the far end of the bridge.
She could see the wedge of men getting ready to come out to fight her and as she took a breath and sent a half dozen arrows scattering on either side she felt a sense of bold joy rising, erupting as a wild battle yell as they reached the bridge and started over it.
Behind the lines, she heard a yell responding, and echoing that the sound of horses.
The wagons moved abruptly and a dozen soldiers came out to stop her and she knew they couldn’t and in just a moment more they’d know as well.
She heard the yells of the enemy as they started to converge behind the wagons to cut her off and now they were halfway across the bridge, the sounds of her boots and Gabrielle’s making a double thump on the wood and she knocked away the last few arrows as she reached the enemy lines and with a booming roar and a backswipe took the first man’s head off and the fight was on.