A Change of Seasons
“What is she doing?” The oracle asked the militia guard, who was watching his general avidly from their good viewpoint on the ridge. “That’s crazy! Those soldiers won’t care if she’s a woman.”
“Genr’ls up for killin.” The man said, briefly. “They aint gonna stop ‘er.”
The militiaman just smiled. “Fought along with her.” He said, after a pause. “Nothing like it.”
The oracle watched the troops starting to rush to the center of the line, to the bridge, hearing the yells of excitement as some of them launched out around the wagon to eagerly meet this uncouth renegade who thought to face off against the flower of Athens.
He was proud they were there. He heard they were demanding their release. It wouldn’t be long now, they just had to take down the woman and..
“By the gods.” Arunel said, from next to him. “Did you see that?” He touched the oracle’s shoulder. “Look!”
The militia guard chuckled.
The oracle stared. With no more apparent effort than swatting a fly Xena had taken the head off the Athenian captain and launched it skyward, before engaging the soldiers with powerful sweeping movements of her sword the force of which lifted her body up off the ground as she clashed with the front line of soldiers.
Behind her, Gabrielle wielded her staff with the same ferocity, the long weapon deflecting swords and maces as she guarded Xena’s left side, moving in sync as Xena’s blade wove a pattern around the both of them.
He thought they would quickly be overwhelmed, there were more and more soldiers coming out from behind the wagon every moment but somehow they weren’t, though soldiers were attacking Xena from several directions her sword always met theirs, her body somehow escaped blows.
“Never seen anything like that.” Arunel said.
“No, nothing else like our genr’l.” The militia said, proudly. “S’why we don’t know what your about, here fighting about that shrine up there. Just as much to her, as to him.”
“That’s blasphemy.” The oracle said.
“Tisn’t.” The guard said. “He loves her, yeah? Lord Ares. We all know it. We all seen it.” He watched Xena duck a pike and use her dagger in close, shoving it into the pike wielder’s stomach as she catapulted into the air and over him, landing to bring her sword down onto the back of another soldier’s neck. “Good one, lookit that!”
“You don’t know what you’re saying.” The oracle slowly shook his head.
“Look.” The militiaman said, pointing. “Watch her! She breathes his fire, she does!”
Arundel edged a bit to one side to get a better view. “I thought it was just tall tales.” His eyes were glued to that whirling figure across the river, holding the end of the bridge. “Those stories.”
“Just stories.” The oracle said. “That’s a.. oh!”
Xena let out a long whistle, and with a yell, the lines of militia and Amazons started pouring down the slope, running down to the bridge as a sweep of Xena’s sword cut through the ropes tying the blockading wagons together and parting them.
Instantly, she was surrounded by soldiers and with her sword in one hand and her dagger in the other she met all comers, blades and boots moving so quickly she was a blur. From above, climbing up onto the wagons the bowmen of Athens tried to get an angle on her, firing almost point blank.
It was as though the arrows couldn’t touch her. The oracle watched in growing disbelief as he watched her sword deflect them, even from behind her back and even then, when there were more than anyone could dodge Gabrielle would knock them aside with her staff, standing there in the midst of all the fighting as calm as you could be.
It seemed impossible. It was impossible.
“Them stories are just what happened.” The militiaman said. “Gabrielle tells em good, she should, she’s a part of em.” He glanced at the oracle. “You talk to him. G’wan and ask.” The militia poked him with his spear. “I tell ya he knows.”
“It doesn’t work like that.” The oracle said, stiffly. “He talks to me, not the other way around.”
The militia laughed. “Stick here long enough, you’ll see him, sure nough.” The guard said. “All that swordin, he’ll show up to watch, you see.”
“Came with us, in Thrace y’know.” The man said. “Great big one, he is. Got that big sword. Him fighten next to her? That was a treat.”
“Aye, it was.” His companion agreed. “Remembering it all now, real clear.”
“What are you saying?” The oracle stared at them. “You imagine you’ve SEEN him?”
“Aye.” The militiaman nodded. “Haven’t you?” He asked. “Sure we did, and that Amazon lass did that picture of him up by the shrine. You saw it? She done it good.”
“Real nice.” His companion also nodded. “You got this, Paral? I’m gonna go mix it up with them.” He indicated the bridge, now filled with fighting figures. “Get it done, so’s we can get it clean fore lunch.”
“G’wan.” Paral said. “Told Bennu I’d stay and make sure these fellers stayed put. Kill a couple for me yeah?” He watched his friend run down the ridge towards the battle, then he turned and looked at the oracle and his group.
The oracle himself was muttering and shaking his head, but the rest of them were watching the fight, as Xena launched herself up onto the top of the wagon, sending a spray of arrows in all directions as she took a step and then threw herself into the air, towards the bulk of the soldiers waiting beyond.
Arundel looked at him. “Does she think she can defeat them all?” His voice lifted in disbelief.
“Aye, she does and so do we.” Paral nodded. “I come from a place where I saw it, yeah? Hundred fellers at the gates, and just her holding em. Bodies piled up taller’n I am. Covered in blood head to foot she was by the time we done got down there nothing left much to do.”
Arundel stared at him.
“Never forget that.” Paral said. “You all come here, makin little of her? Hope she does kill ya all and for sure, Ares ain’t gonna save ya. Her and him?” He lifted one hand and crossed the first two fingers of it. “We know what side we’re on.”
There were so many bodies in front of the wagon it made it hard to move forward. Gabrielle looked around in frustration as Xena disappeared over the top and left her behind, along with the rest of her army. “Xena!” She bellowed as she tried to find a way around the blockade.
“Push!” Bennu thumped up next to her and got a hand on the first of the wagons. “Fellas! C’mere!” He ducked as a hail of arrows came over, impacting hardened leather armor and metal helms. “Push em back!”
“I’m gonna kill her.” Gabrielle growled under her breath. “Xena!!!”
The enemy had come up with a reasonably good plan, she ducked lower to see if she could get under the wagons, only to see a solid wall of crates and debris. Someone with some strategic brains was behind the lines there and she could hear now yells moderating from excitement to alarm as the ring of steel sounded.
Brains, yes, but they hadn’t counted on having to deal with Xena. People seldom counted on having to deal with Xena, because in the normal course of standard human battle you didn’t’ often have to contend with someone who could do the kinds of things that she did.
Like deflecting twenty arrows at once. Or fighting off a half dozen men at the same time without a scratch. Or jumping over a tall wagon when no one else on her side could. “Damn it.” Gabrielle gave the wagon a glare. “Get this thing out of my way!”
“Workin on it, little hawk.” Bennu yelled back, as three other men started pushing.
The catapult had stopped, since the militia was now fighting right up against the wagons and any further shots could just as easily hit their own troops. Across the river, she could see a group of Xena’s men standing by their own war machine, holding off for the same reason.
The Amazons were all on the bridge, knelt down, bows cocked, watching the tops of the wagons for targets, but they’d now disappeared, fully occupied with the danger in their midst that blast it, she couldn’t see.
“Gggrrrr” Gabrielle glanced at the wagon, contemplating it, pausing when someone grabbed her by the back of her tooled leather belt and yanked her to a halt. “Hey!” She twisted around to locate her assailant.
Ephiny thumped up next to her. “I know exactly what’s on your mind, and just don’t.” She said. “They’re gonna shoot you down and by the gods I’m not going to be drenched in your blood today, Gabrielle.”
Caught in the very act of considering climbing up the side of the wagon, Gabrielle’s nostrils flared and she sucked in a breath to respond, ears cocked and listening to the carnage going on outside her view. “Damn it Ephiny.”
“We’ll get past this.” Her regent said, in a firm tone. “Listen to them back there. She’s scaring them to death.”
A clash of steel and the low, distinctive laughter of Xena in a fight, and enjoying herself came clearly to her, and with a gritting of her teeth she focused her energy on joining the militia pulling at the wagon.
At least for the moment.
First things first. Xena ran across the top of the wagons and onto the next one on the riverside, reaching down as she ran to slice through the ropes holding the hostages. She sensed the arrows and caught them as they tried to stop her, hearing the yells of alarm and anger from the enemy force.
Two men scrambled up onto the next wagon ahead of her and she backhanded a dagger at one of them, taking him in the throat as the second came at her as she reached center and cut the ropes on it free. Then she switched her sword from her left hand to her right and met his oncoming attack.
The two blades slid together and then Xena simply barreled into him, her weight knocking him backwards and offbalance as she paused to add a kick to send him flying off the structure just as another handful of arrows came at her.
She sheathed her sword and dove for the surface of the wagon, tucking and rolling across it and kicking off the end as she reached the gap between it and the next, where a half dozen soldiers were already waiting for her.
She landed on her hands and threw herself back up onto her feet as she reached the first of them just as an arrow took the second in the neck and a flash of the feathers on it showed Amazon markings. She dodged the blade coming at her and grabbed the man’s wrists, turning and twisting as she moved past him and squeezing hard.
He dropped his sword and cursed and she kept turning, sending him into two others as another man went down with an arrow in the chest.
The last was too close and she sensed the danger, releasing the original man’s arm and getting her hands down just in time to catch the blade grazing her stomach.
He had momentum and motion on his side and he was large and strong and Xena heard the growl and smelled his breath as she simply locked her arms in place and bore down, getting her boots into a braced stance as she came into contact with him and they were nose to nose.
He tried to shove his hands forward, the point of the blade touching her and for a long moment they were at a balance point and their eyes met, his behind the hammered metal nose guard of his helmet, hers between sweat and blood soaked hair.
Xena grinned. Then she slammed her forehead into his and shoved him backwards, turning the blade in his hands around and jamming it between his ribs, driving him backwards and throwing him off the top of the wagon to tumble to the ground.
Xena flipped herself up and over the top of the wagon and landed in the midst of dozens of soldiers, none of whom expected her to come hurtling down on top of them and she took advantage of that as she swept her sword around in an arc and used her momentum to send blades flying with a spray of blood along with them.
She let out a booming yell, and the men nearest her flinched as she put her back to the wagon and braced her legs, aware this half formed plan in her head was maybe not her best thought out one as the enemy force started forward towards her.
There were near a hundred soldiers here, more than she’d expected, and past them she could see the destruction of the marketplace, and bound people mixed with figures lying on the floor. She felt the anger building and she let it, wanting that dark energy and figuring she’d need it.
The color leached out of the surroundings, a little. Xena let out another booming yell, and for a second, it all paused around her as the soldiers took the sight of her in - already drenched in blood, the copper tang of it rising around her.
“We’ve got her now!” One of the soldiers yelled. “Take her men!!”
Xena drew her sword and twirled it in her hand and let out a long throaty laugh. “Oh yeah. C’mon, boys. Come and get me.” She yelled back. “Ya little bastards I’m gonna spit the lot of you for all the mess you made here. C’mon!”
The bold challenge made them pause.
“Well?” Xena spread her arms, brandishing her weapons to either side. “Or are you just men when it’s merchants and children to scare?”
She drew her dagger with her free hand, wishing she’d remembered to bring her chakram with her but willing to make do with the long, slim blade, dark and blood channeled, a mate to the one Gabrielle carried as she swept her eyes from side to side at them.
“Shoot her!” Another male voice yelled. “Shoot her like the animal she is!”
“Bring it.” Xena put all the arrogance of her history into the retort. “Cowards.”
She had a breath to get ready, before a flood of arrows were heading at her and she almost relaxed, allowing her reflexes to handle the motion, her arm and hand moving her sword in what felt almost like a lazy motion as it intercepted the arrows and deflected them, spattering the ground with them at her feet save the ones she ignored that thumped into the wagon on either side of her.
That went on for a few minutes, then there was a pause. She could hear the wagon blocking the bridge creaking and snapping, as her troops, no doubt prompted by her frustrated partner worked to break them apart.
The enemy soldiers looked at their captain, hands shifting nervously on weapons.
“C’mon, little boys.” Xena spoke in to that quiet. “I feel like killing today.”
She was aware of the furor behind her, of her troops and the raging anger of Gabrielle trapped back there. But she also sensed the tipping point ahead of her and she took a few steps toward it, putting a cocky swagger into her motion.
The captain took a deep, visible breath and she smiled at him. “You first?” She asked.
“We are here.” He said, tilting his head back a little. “At the behest of then gods.”
“Are you?” Xena continued walking forward, towards him. “C’mon.” She gestured with her dagger. “Come prove it on my body, little man. You think you’ve got the gods behind you?” She paused, and let her sword rest on her shoulder. “I’m Ares’ Champion. Let’s see who’s got it right.”
The soldiers were staring at her, the front lines now shifting their grips on their swords, licking their lips. Behind their lines, she could now see some of the merchants, bedraggled and tousled, edging up to warily listen.
Xena whistled softly.
“You think you are?” The captain finally answered.
Xena smiled briefly. “Oh no.” She shifted her grip minutely on her sword hilt. “I know I am.” She responded confidently. “So you need to decide if you want to live or die today, my friend. You and the rest of your bunch here because I already know what I’m gonna do.”
The captain drew his blade.
“And I will kill you all.” Xena concluded, in a quiet, gently serious tone as Sileneus appeared, with two men on either side, armed and shielded, protecting him.
She focused her attention on him. “And if you keep sending men here, I’ll keep killing them.. “ She smiled again. “Or they’ll become mine.” She let her glance shift to the men, and a little twinkle appeared in her eyes. “Like some of these are gonna be.”
Then she stopped talking, and waited.
In the quiet, a bird started singing, perched in the branches of a nearby tree.
“Bother.” Cait tore her eyes from the horses, as she spotted what was left of the Amazon’s stall. It forced her to turn her back on the excitement as the soldiers lined the riverfront, the catapult firing off on a regular cadence.
It seemed to her that she should do something about that. She could hear the enemy soldiers cheering and that could not be a good thing.
But she knew the queen would want her to sort out the Amazons, so she squirmed between two barrels and between the wreckage of the bakery stall and climbed over a pile of debris, emerging into the square as a handful of soldiers ran past.
She ran after them, hoping the chaos of the fight would distract anyone watching and was almost across when she heard the sound of a scuffle nearby. She bolted for the central well and jumped up onto it to see of the heads of the soldiers, and saw a swarm of them at the stall, attacking those inside.
With a muttered oath, she jumped down and ran across the open space, aiming at one of the enemy soldiers and drawing her knife as she saw one of them swing a pike around and smash it into the head of one of the elders defending the stall.
Her body flew sideways into another Amazon, and slumped to the ground, and then the soldier, laughing, jumped over it and grabbed hold of the second woman, driving her back and throwing himself on top of her.
Cait swerved towards them but then hauled up when the pike was removed from the man’s hand and brought down on the top of his head with a crunch, as Paladia stepped over him and ducked past a crossbow.
Two of the enemy soldiers attacked her, grabbing hold of her arms and they grappled.
Cait came up behind the first and buried her knife in his back, stabling expertly between his ribs and spine , turning her hands then ripping the blade out sideways to send a splash of blood spurting out. He started to turn, then collapsed as Paladia brought her elbow down on his neck.
Three Amazons lay on the ground, and she jumped past them to see a fourth struggling against the grip of a soldier, his arm coming up with a knife in his hand aiming back down towards her. Cait got her own arm locked through his and then she turned and pulled him backwards over her as she swiveled, hearing a yell erupting from his chest.
She released him and saw the Amazon he’d been attacking scramble out of the way, and realized it was one of the youngsters they’d just promoted, looking shocked and terrified, a smear of blood across her face.
“Hey!” Paladia let out a bellow.
Cait turned again to see two men, and two crossbows and two fingers on two triggers releasing and she acted without thinking about it, bolting forward and throwing herself between the men and Paladia, one hand reaching out towards the oncoming shafts.
“Oh Hades no.” Paladia let out an exasperated yelp, turning and extending her arms as she threw the pike to one side, catching Cait in mid flight and taking them both to the ground as the arrows sped over them. “We aint’ living that story. No freaking way!”
They tumbled into a pile together as a horn sounded, and just as the soldiers were about to take another shot yells of alarm were ringing out and men were running past, calling orders as they all moved towards the river.
“Now what?” Cait asked, as they got to their feet.
“Dunno.” Paladia stretched her length and shaded her eyes. “Freakin bast… oh.” She let out a snort as she spotted Xena’s distinctive figure leaping up onto the barricade pile, outlined against the bright blue sky . “Look who’s here.”
“Ah.” Cait retrieved her dagger and seated it. “Pally stay here and help this lot.” She started to leave, but was grabbed by the scruff of the neck. “Hey!”
Paladia brought her nose to nose. “Don’t croak, okay?”
Cait grinned, and gave her a kiss, then wriggled free and darted off.
“What the Hades is she doing?” Ephiny whispered. “She wants us to just sit here?”
“Sh.” Gabrielle pressed her head against the wagon. “Oh crap, Xe, that’s a bs gamble.” She growled, hearing her partner’s words float over on the breeze. “C’mon!”
“She’s gaming them.” Gabrielle whispered. “The old ‘I’m gonna kill you all even though there’s one of me and a hundred of you so why not just put your weapons down, huh?’ game.” She drummed her fingers on the edge of the wood, as the sounds of fighting faded away to nothing.
Ephiny regarded her with a wry look. “That’s a game?” She said “You know I’ve seen her actually make good on that little threat.”
“Her version of talk first.” Gabrielle acknowledged ruefully. “I know, it’s all true and she can and she has and I’ve seen her do it but it’s such a waste of humanity, Eph. I mean, for what?” She sighed. “What does it prove?”
“That she can, and she has, and she will if she needs to.” Ephiny responded. “That’s what these idiots seem to have either forgotten or they’re willfully ignoring my friend. She is who she is.” The Amazon regent turned and regarded the waiting troops, everyone with their ears cocked to listen for instructions.
And as she thought about those words Gabrielle felt that inner knowledge of rightness, only known so very few times chime inside her like a bell, almost sounding the ‘of course’ inside her head.
Yes, she was who she was.
Well, egos were what they were as well. “Line up against the wagons and get ready.” Gabrielle called up and down the line, keeping her voice low. “In case they don’t buy it.”
“Arrows up.” Ephiny signaled the waiting Amazons. “Never hurts to be prepared.”
Pony chuckled, drawing her sword.
“Well boys?” Xena finally broke the silence, idly flipping her blade in her hand, twirling the long weapon to glint in the sun. “What’s it gonna be?”
Past them, she saw a faint motion, and as though in boredom, she whistled again, two different tones. Sileneius shook off his guards and paced forward to within her reach, beard bristling. “No place for you here, little man. This is between me and them.”
“What I want to know.” Sileneus said, slowly. “Is do you truly believe you are the master here?”
Xena gazed thoughtfully at him for a long moment. Then she drew in a breath and leaned forward just slightly, over her center of balance. “Do you?” She countered. “Put your weapons away, and you have my word you’ll walk out of here alive.”
“What if I was to make the same offer?” Sileneus said.
“I wouldn’t take it.” Xena smiled.
“Neither then, shall I. Captain!” He stepped back quickly and made a hand gesture but before he could lift his arm up past his shoulder Xena’s dagger was buried in his throat and he was falling backwards, a horrible gurgling sound coming from his mouth as blood spurted out of it.
The captain let out a shout. A pike slammed against a shield. Boots started to run. The two guards who had accompanied Sileneus dropped to their knees next to him, one reaching for his twitching form.
“One last chance.” She yelled, as everything started to go into motion around her. “Stop and drop em! Don’t be as stupid as he was!”
She could hear the sound of a crossbow winding and she tensed, as she saw the soldier holding it rise up from behind an ale barrel and raise the weapon up and aim at her, a shout of denial echoing across the ground back at her as the men started forward.
“Ah, crap.” She got ready to move. To plot a defense against many, finding a spot to put her back against, readying a whistle to release the waiting troops behind the blockade, planning a route to the dead official to get her dagger back…
But a moment later an arm snaked around his throat and a blade cut it as he was pulled backwards, the men around him turning in startlement as his body disappeared and in its place Cait rose back up, wiping her knife on the edge of her leathers as she reached over her shoulder to draw her sword. “Now you lot had better run off.” She said. “There’s two of us.”
Xena bit back a laugh, sensing the sudden wave of exasperation coming from Gabrielle who was surely both listening and banging her forehead against wood on the other side of the wagon and she let out a battle yell and launched herself up and into the air, performing a neat somersault as she moved her sword from one hand to the other and landed on the other side of Sileneus’ body.
It almost went the wrong way. Xena could feel the energy as it wavered, the soldiers looking from her to Cait and back, their egos warring with the evidence of their eyes and she thought it was going to go bad until a thunderous roar sounded from the other side of the wagons and those wagons started to move aside and that, finally, won the day because at the end of the day they weren’t all stupid.
They didn’t really want to die, regardless of ego or the desires of their captain, who let out a howl and bolted towards her.
Xena had just enough time to sheath her sword and duck his, balling her hands into fists as she cocked her arm and let loose with a roundhouse punch that caught him on the point of his jaw. His head snapped back and he threw his arms out in shock and the blade came out of his grip and tumbled to the ground.
She leaped forward and got a boot on it, pinning it to the earth as he scrambled to retrieve it and she grabbed him by the chestplate, jerking him back up. “Stop.” She told him, firmly. “It’s your job not to get these men killed today.”
He stared at her, eyes blinking behind his helmet.
“C’mon.” Xena shook him a little.
His body surrendered before his head did, as instinct submitted to that tone of command and his eyes shifted and moved past her in furtive relief.
Then the barracades tumbled, the milita poured in, the Amazons swarmed into place, bows were raised, Xena’s pennant fluttered in the spring breeze and the soldiers took a step back and sheathed their weapons and held their hands up and it was over.
Or, well, at least it wasn’t going to be a war. Not today.
Bennu and Redder waved the militia forward and everyone took a breath, as Gabrielle arrived at Xena’s side with her staff in hand and thumped it’s end into the ground near Xena’s right boot.
“Son of a Bacchae.” Gabrielle pushed the sweat drenched hair back out of her eyes. “That was nuts!”
“Good timing.” Xena said, as she watched Cait thread her way through the crowd towards them. “That yell.” She reached up and pulled a bit of sacking loose from the wagon and started wiping her sword down with it. “They were thinking about that old blaze of glory, I could see it.”
“Thank you.” Gabrielle exhaled. “I was way out of patience with this bullshit, Xe, and there wasn’t anyone around who was going to tell stories about them being glorious.” She put her hand on her hip. “Certainly not me.”
She glanced at Selenius’ body, dust covered amidst the militia now flooding into the market. “That’s going to be a problem, hon.”
Xena shrugged. “Let me go see what the collateral damage was.” She said. “Hey Cait. Nice move.” She complimented her young friend. “I was wondering where you were.”
“Yes, sorry about that.” Cait said, in a rush. “I had a bit of a bother near the horses, getting them out you see.” She turned and pointed behind her, down the river. A cluster of large bodies could just be seen. “They were thinking of going off with them you know.”
“I’m sure they were.” Xena eyed them. “You find the rest of the Amazons?”
“Yes, I did.”
Cait’s stark, unemotional response caught Xena’s attention at once and she turned to focus on her. “What’s up?”
Gabrielle caught the shift and joined her. “What’s wrong, Cait?”
“They made a bit of a fuss.” Cait said, after a brief pause. “Some of them didn’t quite make it.” She caught the look of alarm on her queen’s face. “I went there first, really. I did what I could, and I left Pally there to help them.”
Gabrielle paused, and drew a breath in, then she released it and patted Cait’s shoulder instead.
“Might need your kit there.” Cait finished, nodding slightly at the pouch bumping at Xena’s hip.
“Let’s go.” Gabrielle turned and caught Ephiny’s eye, waving her over. They dodged their way through the milling crowd, past the surrendering troops and the smug looking militia, through the warily gathering merchants.
Past the mess of the market stalls, tumbled and crushed, thrown aside as their structures were taken out to make the barracades, produce trampled underfoot, sacking roofs tattered and draggling in the mud, trampled by boots and the heavy wheels of the catapult.
A chicken lay dead, head crushed in, feathers scattered.
To either side, in the rubble, there were injured people, some wrapping wounds in cloth, some merely sitting, dull eyed with pain. As Xena strode past them, she felt a solid ball of anger growing again, and as they cleared the edge of the marketplace, and saw the smouldering wreck of what was left of the square her eyes narrowed sharply.
“Easy.” Gabrielle put a hand on her back, under the metal of her armor, her fingers moving in a gentle scratching motion.
They got past the stage and saw the stall that had been the Amazons, and saw the bodies on the ground, amongst the rubble and as they were seen the living started to turn and face them, a look of relief and consternation mixed on their faces.
Hard to say, Xena thought, which one of them which emotion was directed at to be honest. As they closed in, one of the figures kneeling in the rubble stood up and shook themselves, the height and sandy hair recognizable as Paladia, though the rest of her was covered in dirt and blood.
She had a cut on her cheek, and the linen overtunic she had on was stained in rust splotches, but she moved forward with an air of stolid authority, wiping her hands off on her leggings. “About fricken time you all got here.”
“Pally, hush.” Cait nudged her aside as both Xena and Gabrielle made their entrance. “We’ve been a bit busy.”
“Yeah, I heard you over there.” Paladia eyed her. “Two peas in a pod with all that Imma gonna kick your ass crap.”
Cait grinned. “I think that’s possibly the nicest thing you’ve said yet.”
“Ugh. Nutcase.” Paladia turned as Xena stopped next to her. “Got three croaked.” She indicated the back of the stall. “They went hard. Bastards.”
Gabrielle had knelt next to the bodies and a moment later, Ephiny joined her.
Xena exhaled. “We got a few of them.” She remarked, briefly. “Whole damn things just a..” She stopped talking and shook her head. “Anyone hurt?”
“Kid.” Paladia indicated a huddled figure in the back of the rubble. “That one was going after her when the nutcase got here and spilled his guts all over her.”
“And that one?” Xena indicated another dead soldier.
“Mine.” Paladia said. “After he offed Renas.” She glanced at the nearest of the Amazon bodies. “Sucked, you know? She’d just stopped being a jerk to me.”
Next to Renas was her partner, a crossbow bolt protruding from her chest. “Ah damn.” Xena said, then drew in a breath as she recognized the third dead Amazon. “Aalene.”
Gabrielle stood up and turned, and looked up at her, and in that moment all the years of her maturity vanished in the blink of an eye and she was once again that kid by the river as Xena stepped forward and put her arms around her, hugging her close and cradling the back of her head in one bloodstained hand.
Ephiny got up, and folded her arms over her chest, gazing off into the distance grimly.
‘They were all just here picking up their stuff.” Pony said, into the awkward silence. “They had such a good market, you know?” She shook her head. “Stupid.”
“We just finished.” Paladia offered. “Renas just went over to scam the baker out of some bread when these guys rode in – happened so damn fast.” She looked away. “Just started breaking stuff up and looting. Those clowns from Crete went in with them.”
“Stupid.” Pony repeated. “Just stupid, all of it.”
“Merchants went with them at first, until they started taking all their stuff. Then they went howling for help.” Paladia concluded. “I told them to stuff it. Greedy bastards.”
Xena felt Gabrielle take a deep breath and release it, warming the skin on her chest. She looked down as she loosened her hold, and their eyes met again.
“Why?” Gabrielle asked, in almost a whisper. “Why did this happen, Xe?”
“I wish I knew.” Xena answered, studying her. “I thought I did. Now..” She slowly shook her head. “I just don’t know.”
Xena pushed the door to the barn open and went inside, shutting it behind her and blocking out the noise of the upper town, buzzing with chatter and relief the fighting was over. With a sigh she unclipped her sword and lay it down on a barrel and added her dagger next to it.
She felt stiff from all the blood on her, and the mud caking her skin and her hair, the earthy copper scent rising and mixing with the rich smell of straw as she walked across it, pausing to rest her hand on a crib full of grain as she unlaced her boots and let them drop off.
In the smaller stall next to her, one of her mother’s goats was lying down, watching her with his odd, vertically pupiled eyes, stolidly chewing a stalk of grass from a pile nearby, her newly born kid at her side.
A chicken fluttered down, pecking in her wake, it’s rich chestnut feathers glistening in the sun coming in the window, completely unaware of all the excitement outside.
Xena went over to the water trough and sat down, regarding it in silence for a moment before she unlaced her bracers and tossed them in the water, which took on a hint of rust. She unbuckled the hammered pieces covering her knees and dumped them in, then she stood up and unfastened the worn straps holding on her body armor.
Once that was done she pulled the armor off and set it aside, then unlaced her leathers and pulled them off over her head, adding them to the trough and then standing there, hands on the edge of the weathered wood appreciating the breeze against her shoulderblades.
There was a bucket filled with water standing next to the empty stall Argo usually was in, and she picked it up and unceremoniously dumped it over her head, closing her eyes as the somewhat chilly water coursed over her and drenched the silk underlay she wore under her leathers.
She repeated the motion with a second bucket, pouring it more slowly over her, and scrubbing the water through her hair to rid it of the caked blood and dirt that ran down to stain the hay and the stone floor under it in browns and ochres as she closed her eyes and tipped her head up to let the stream run over her face.
A dive into the spring by their cabin would have been better, but she hadn’t wanted to walk up the hill so battle stained.
So she wrung the water out of her hair and went back to the trough, spending some time getting the blood and dirt out of the leather and metal she’d dumped inside.
Aside from a few bruises, she herself was unmarked. It didn’t’ really feel even like she’d gotten a good fight in, her eyes were smarting a little but more from lack of sleep than smoke from the battle, and yet a score of men were dead at her hand.
Twenty two of them, bodies being dragged up from the bridge and the riverside to the pyre they’d burnt days before, being rebuilt from the debris of the market. All cut down by her sword, or killed by a knife thrust, or broken neck from a blow or a kick.
Some of them had been young. Many relatively inexperienced, she’d realized. New recruits to Athen’s army likely encouraged to join with promises of land or coin, eager and energetic, proud of their cohort and belonging to this greater thing and confident.
Then she had come at them and brought them eye to eye with Death and cut short their lives and nascent military careers with brutal efficiency.
She’d lived up to her claim, Ares Champion, hadn’t she?
Xena snorted under her breath and removed her leathers from the trough, wringing them out and then laying them over the stall divider to dry. Then she retrieved the rest of her gear and sat down on a box, using a bit of linen sack to dry off the pieces, crossing her bare ankles and thumping her heels idly against the wood.
The goat let out a soft baah.
“What?” Xena turned to look at her, seeing the kid rambling through the straw to the side of the stall, standing up on still shaky legs to peer up at her, it’s tiny tongue sticking out in her direction. “Don’t look at me for your lunch, buddy. Go talk to your mamma over there.”
The door creaked open, and she looked up, already smiling as Gabrielle entered and shut the door behind her, pausing to lean against it as they regarded each other. “Quieting down out there?”
“More or less.” Gabrielle trudged over and sat down next to her on the box, ignoring her damp underlay as she leaned against her. “What a stupid, pointless day.”
“I’m glad you stopped it.”
“We stopped it.” Xena corrected her in a mild tone.
“No, you did, really.” Gabrielle disagreed. “I mean, we would have won regardless, Xe. For a change we weren’t outnumbered and they didn’t have enough supplies for a siege or anything like that.” She said. “But you went out there and got them to stop. I heard you.”
“Touch and go.” Xena shook her head. “Militia tipped the balance.”
“Coming through the barricade, you mean?” Gabrielle asked. “Yeah, maybe, but you got them to stop and think.”
“They figured on a quick fight.” Xena worked a bit of bent metal out of one of her knee hinges. “They figured their catapult and all the archers and their armor would overwhelm us peasants in the sticks.”
“They didn’t figure on you.”
Xena mock sighed. “No, no one ever expects the Destroyer of Nations to fall out of a tree here in the backwoods of Thrace, do they?” She clucked her tongue. “Tch tch”. She paused. “But why not, Gab?” She asked. “Why did they expect us to just cave?”
“I mean..” Xena got up and laid her armor down on the tack press. “In the last few years, we fought Andreas, stopped the Spartan army, and defended the whole back ass of the woods here from whatever that was we did last winter. It’s not like I’ve actually retired here in my retirement I’ve fought more since I got out of the warlord business than I ever did while I was in it.”
“That’s all true.”
“Then what the Hades?” Xena turned and lifted both hands in question. “It should damn well be evident over half the known world to stay clear of Amphipolis because there is demonstrably nothing but trouble here.” She folded her arms over her chest.
Gabrielle watched her, as the sun came in through the barn windows and unnecessarily gilded her skin, picking out a few mahogany highlights in her hair. “You said it was a game.” She said, thoughtfully.
“I thought it was.” Xena’s pale blue eyes shifted to the sword laying across the top of the barrel. “What with that whole thing with Apollo.. I figured if I played out Ares’ name it would make them take a step back but it didn’t.”
“Nothing.” She made a chopping gesture with one hand. “I take out a score of them – no reaction.”
“That was weird.”
“They fire twenty odd crossbow bolts at me, not one touches my ass, and no reaction.” Xena regarded her dourly. “My ego aside, hon, that’s not something recruits from the farmlands around Athens see every day.”
“So it wasn’t about you.” Gabrielle said.
“For a change.” They both said, together, after a breath of silence. Xena chuckled a little. “But then, what?”
Gabrielle pulled her boots up cross legged under her, resting her elbows on her knees. “I was wondering if it had anything to do with Artemis and Athena.” She said. “What happened while they were mortal, I mean.”
“What? You mean.. Oh.” Xena came back over and leaned on the box next to her. “Damn, I forgot about that.”
“Yeah, I did too, until I was listening to that jackass talk.”
“The one whose nose I broke.” Gabrielle could smell the dampness of the silk plastered against Xena’s skin, and the faint residue of blood scent. “What he said about not respecting women.” She looked up at her partner’s profile. “Because they’ve all been like that, right? I mean listen, all those merchants, and the only ones who were killed were Amazons.”
“By them.” Xena clarified
“Well yeah.” Gabrielle exhaled.
Xena got up and wandered over to the tack press, opening it and removing a saddle cloth she used to dry herself off. “You may have something there.” She finally said, ruffling her hair, and half turning to regard Gabrielle over her shoulder. “Those bastards raped that kid.”
Gabrielle looked up sharply. “The kid? Oh.. the one who..”
“Did she.. no, there’s no way she did.”
Xena shook her head. “No. She’s covering for someone. I didn’t get a chance to get out of her who. Cait came and got me.” She exhaled. “Should have come down earlier. Might have stopped it before.. “
Gabrielle got up off the box and came over. “Don’t, Xe. I’ll start thinking of all the things I could have done and where does that get us? You taught me not to look back.”
“Yeah, I know.” Xena sighed. ‘It’s just ticking me off.” She said. “No point to any of it.” She moved closer and gently pushed the hair back from Gabrielle’s eyes and felt her own body relax as Gabrielle took the edge of the blanket and wiped the side of her jaw. “Wish I could turn back time a fortnight and send this whole deal in another direction.”
“Yeah, me too.” Gabrielle rested her head against her partner’s arm. “As it is I’m trying to psych myself up to go and see Aalene’s daughter.”
Xena set the blanket down and let her arms rest on Gabrielle’s shoulders. “Want me to go tell her?” She offered.
Gabrielle smiled faintly. “My gig.” She said, with a slight shake of her head.
Xena regarded her profile through the faint motes of dust in the air, listening to the voices floating through the window on the breeze, hearing a rooster call, and further off, her mother’s tone. “I know it’s your responsibility.” She said. “But it would hurt me less to do it.”
That was truth. Gabrielle felt like giving into it and she thought Xena knew that, as she felt her thumb gently stroke along the line of her jaw. It was truth because it was just the way they both were made. Xena felt for only very few, those close to her.
Who were family, while she pretty much felt for everyone.
What would she say, to this little girl, this child not much older than Dori, who was waiting in the village for a mother who she’d never see again? Gabrielle felt the tears sting her eyes even as the words echoed behind them as she felt again the unfairness of it all.
“Let’s both go.” Xena said. “I’ll get some clothes on.” She leaned closer and gave Gabrielle a kiss on the forehead. “It is your gig, sweetheart, but I am your consort.”
“You are.” Gabrielle turned to watch as she went to the chest near the side of Argo’s stall, where they kept their traveling gear and opened it up, sorting a set of furs aside and pulling out a folded set of worn, dark brown leathers. “I feel bad about Renas and Das, too.”
Xena slipped the leathers on over her head and pulled them down, fastening the shoulder straps and then lacing them up, before she walked back over to the trough and started resuming her armor. “Life was all right for her now.”
“Mm. After so long.” Gabrielle walked over to the chest and looked inside it, aware of the faint clink of brass buckles and the soft rasp of hide against skin behind her. Beneath the furs she could see her traveling bag, patched and folded and the leather sack that held her cooking kit.
In that moment she felt again the tug, dormant now for some time, the urge to be gone from the place she called home and out in the world instead. Not without care, not without danger or problems, but with only the immediate responsibility on her shoulders.
“Xe?” She asked. “Is it cowardly to want to run away from here?”
Xena chuckled softly, a note of wry understanding clearly audible in the sound.
“I mean, I know we can’t.” Gabrielle continued. “But I just get so tired of all the complications you know? I’d like to just be somewhere the most urgent thing I need to deal with is being out of mint leaves for your tea.”
Xena set her sword on its retainers and went over, putting her arms around Gabrielle from behind and looking over her shoulder at the chest. “Lot of good memories in there.” She said, then paused reflectively “Lot of bad ones too.”
“Oh yeah.” Gabrielle smiled regardless of the ambiguity of it. “But you know it’s funny, the longer we stay here, the more I remember even the bad times as something to cherish.”
She touched the edge of the chest. “Maybe it’s because I remember being so cold and so miserable, I love to remember what it felt like to have you put a blanket around me and hand me a hot cup.” Her eyes went a bit unfocused. “How wonderful that was.”
Did she remember that? Xena pondered, sorting out in her mind those distant times of campfires in the wild, surrounded by darkness both inside and out. The utter distraction of her little blond tag a long had been.. welcome in all that.
She did, in fact remember one night, the cold dry air making her eyes sting. Her boots crunching on the dead leaf litter. The roughness of one of Argo’s saddle blankets against her fingers as she dropped to one knee next to the fire.
The look in Gabrielle’s eyes.
That sensation of reaching out to another human being, new and novel, and for no reason. Not yet. Then she smiled. Well, not yet acknowledged, anyway.
Yes, she remembered. “Lets go up the hill and find our kids.”
Gabrielle turned around and tightened her arms in a return hug, feeling the pressure of the length of the sheath of the sword on Xena’s back against her forearm, familiar as breathing to her along with the smell of brass and leather.
She closed her eyes and focused on the moment, breathing in the scents of hay and animals, hearing the sounds of the town on the breeze, far off neighs of horses, the thin notes of a pipe. It painted a picture in her mind, and she wanted it to stay there in full color, alongside the others that surfaced to overshadow the sadness to come.
Then she squeezed hard and released, and took Xena’s hand, turning to lead the way out of the barn and back into the world whose reality became loud as she pushed the door open and they emerged back into the afternoon sunlight.
There were clusters of townsfolk who turned as they passed, and lifted hands in greeting, nodding approvingly at them as they walked up the central town road towards the back gates of the town.
“Well done, Xena!” The town blacksmith called out. “You taught em proper!”
Xena lifted her free hand in acknowledgement.
“It’s weird huh?” Gabrielle commented, as they approached the gates, and the soldiers on either side trotted over promptly to open them. “Everyone here treats this as normal.”
“What, me killing people?” Xena’s brows arched up sharply as she regarded her partner.
“No. Armies showing up on our doorstep.” Gabrielle responded. “I was listening to the crowd as this whole thing was going on and no one was even so much as nervous. I thought the council would be all shook up, but not even a peep from them.”
They started up the path, a long, narrow, slightly crooked and steep way up the side of the mountain that at first traveled through rock strewn and bush laden ground that grew tree lined as the elevation rose and they left the sound of the town behind them.
“Well.” Xena had been pondering the words. “Between everything that’s gone on, it is kinda normal.” She admitted. “And they figured out those guys were outnumbered. They can count, Gab.”
The path was wide enough for them to walk side by side and they did, hands clasped, climbing steadily up through the spring growth bursting out in light greens and yellows on both sides of the rock lined way.
For once, it was quiet as well and they were alone and didn’t’ see another person on the way until they were coming to the small plateau where the path leveled out and split off towards the Amazon village.
They stopped and paused, then without speaking they continued on past the entrance and continued on upwards towards their home.
This part of the path was steeper, and they both leaned forward and they climbed up the slope until they reached the rope bridge that crossed the chasm that split the part of the mountain they lived on from where the Amazon village was and again by common accord, they stopped in the middle of it and looked down.
“Can hear the water.” Gabrielle said.
They turned and moved on, crossing back onto solid ground and past the braces and ropes that held the bridge up on their side of it.
Now the ground leveled out again and they could hear the sound of water to their right as they reached the curve in the path that lead around a solid rock outcropping that from the top gave a good view of the path all the way down to the bridge.
Past that there were steps cut into the rock and they walked up them and up onto the slight rise and slope that held their cabin and as they did Gabrielle slowed suddenly, and paused. “Xe?”
“Mm?” Xena paused with her and turned, to look at her inquiringly.
“I just thought of something. I talked to Aalene before I went down to the town.” Gabrielle said. “She was going to go talk to those girls.. how did she get over the river? They’d already put up the blockade.”
Xena stared at her, pale eyes shifting to one side and then back at her. “I didn’t see her when I went to talk to them.” She said. “But now that you say that, Renas was at the gates when I went in there before I came down.”
They stood there looking at each other in silence, until the door to the cabin opened, and Jessan emerged, peering curiously at them.
“Hi?” He ventured, hesitantly. “What’s up? We all stayed where you told us to.” He glanced behind him. “Five kids and two dogs all accounted for.” He paused. “Everything all done? What happened?”
“What happened.” Xena repeated, as they headed for the cabin. “That’s the question of the day.”
Xena was seated cross legged on the floor inside Dori and Cari’s room, listening to the piping chatter of five children. In the outer room, Gabrielle was bringing Jessan and his gang up to speed and making a pot of tea to give her some space to collect her thoughts.
A cup of tea sounded nice. A mug of ale would be nicer. Xena exhaled and rested her elbow on her knee, propping her chin on her fist as she listened, the children apparently having completely recovered from their excitement of the previous night.
Her recovery of their treasure stash had been very popular. The three forest dwellers were sorting through the rocks and sticks in the bag, and Cari had a pretty stone cupped in her hands taken from the small wooden box.
“Boo, can we go to gramma’s now?” Dori was next to her, Buppit sprawled at her side. “Want to go see Ly and Lolo and Rusty.”
“In a little while.” Xena said. “Your mama and I have to go do something in the village first, then we can go.”
Dori considered this, a small frown appearing. “Mama’s mad.”
“Yeah.” Xena agreed. “She is. We should be real nice to mama today.”
“H’come?” Dori asked. “Why is mama mad, Boo? We found ev’rybody.”
Xena remained silent for a few moments, watching them watching her.
“A bad thing happened.” Warrin said, suddenly, his small ears lifting and focusing on her. “Dada said.”
“Dada said.” Gaby agreed. “Down the mountain.”
“A bad thing happened.” Xena said, in a quiet tone. “There was a big fight down in the market, and some of your mama and my friends were in it.” She tilted her head and looked at Dori. “Dori, you and Cari have a friend in the village, named Amy.”
Dori looked uncertain, but she nodded. “She’s good. Makes nice pitchers.”
“Shares cookies.” Cari agreed. “Nice!”
“Her mama was one of the people who.. “ Xena hesitated. “She got caught in the fight with the bad men.” She temporized, something in her shying unusually away from the bald truth. “Her and two of the Amazons who made jewelry.”
All the kids got quiet. “Auntie Aa?” Cari spoke up softly. “She got hurt?”
“Okay.” Dori took hold of her knee armor. “You fix it, Boo.” She said, confidently. “Make it good, all the time.”
Ah. Looking at those trusting eyes Xena felt a churning in the pit of her stomach. “I can’t fix it this time, Dor.” She said, after a long pause. “She got hurt too badly.”
The three forest dwellers looked very solemn. “She got made dead?” Butterbean said. “That’s bad, Auntie Xe.”
“She did, and the two other Amazons too.” Xena confirmed. “So that’s why your mama’s mad, and so am I, matter of fact because we didn’t want that to happen.”
“Oh.” Cari covered her mouth with both hands, eyes wide. “Oh no!”
Dori was staring at her in disbelief. Xena knew it wasn’t that her daughter hadn’t seen death, she had. Just not, she realized, someone she knew well. “Sometimes that happens.” She told her. “People get hurt so badly we can’t fix them, so that they have to go away to a different place, and not be with us here anymore.”
Dori remained silent, but Cari wiggled closer. “They go someplace?” She asked. “Where?”
“Yes.” Xena reached out and ruffled her curls. “When people leave here, they go to another place, and then they wait for us there. Aalene will wait for Amy, and some day, when it’s time, they’ll see each other again.”
Warrin was nodding, a serious expression on his face.
“Is that true, Boo?” Dori asked. “They go?”
“My dada told my mama about it.” Warrin said. “He said its really sad, but not for always.”
“It’s true.” Xena said, quietly.
“What about the doggos?” Cari asked.
“They go too.” Xena smiled a little. “When you’re a little older, your mama will tell you some stories about stuff like that.” She exhaled a little in relief, seeing the now thoughtful look on her daughter’s face. “Okay?”
“Is sad.” Cari concluded, softly.
Xena wondered if she remembered her birth mother. She’d been very small and she didn’t think she would, much. Dori didn’t remember a lot of her infant adventures, after all, even some of the craziest of them and both she and Gabrielle were grateful for it.
“Boo.” Dori spoke up suddenly, looking up at her. “I heard a story about you.”
Uh oh. “Yeah? Your mama tells lots of them.” Xena eyed her warily. “Which story are you talking about?”
Dori reached out and took hold of her hand. “Did you go away somewhere like that?” She asked in a small voice. “I heard someone tell you did.”
Oh crap. Xena hadn’t quite sorted out in her head what she’d intended to tell Dori about that time, though really why not… by the gods everyone else here knew. Of course she must have heard. She looked over at the three forest dwellers, who were just watching, curiously.
Cari was looking from her to Dori and back. “I didn’t hear.”
The two doggos yawned, and lay down, tongues lolling as though they were laughing. Maybe they were, Xena thought, remembering where they came from.
“Did you, Boo?”
“Yes I did.” Xena focused on Dori. “One time, I got hurt really bad, and I went to that other place.” She could see all the questions popping up. “But something happened, and I got to come back here.”’ She kept her voice even, as though this was a normal thing.
“So then Auntie Aa can come back.” Dori said. “Go bring her! Boo, don’t make Amy sad!”
“No.” Xena said, gently. “I can’t do that, sweetheart.” She paused briefly. “Not for someone else.” She went on. “I could do it for me, okay? Your mama… “ She paused again. “I did it because I had to… I wanted to.. and I could, but I can’t just go there whenever I want to.”
“Scary.” Warrin spoke up. “Dada said he had to go and he didn’t’ like it.” He said. “But he made a big fight and got out.” He added. “But he said Auntie Xena knew.”
Butterbean squiggled forward and patted Dori’s leg. “Auntie Xena has a magic.” She told her, confidently. “Dada told us.”
“Yes, he told us all about it.” Gaby confirmed.
Dori frowned a little, again. “D’you Boo?” She looked back up at her other mother. “Have a magic?”
“Well, I don’t know if it’s magic.” Xena said. “But sometimes when I have to do.. um. Some things. I can do them when other people can’t.” She paused and squeezed Dori’s fingers in her own. “But the important thing is, Dori, that we never really leave the people we love.”
“Amy’s gonna be sad.” Cari spoke up, with a wistful expression. “She went with her mama a lot and when you go by yourself it’s owie.” She was looking past Xena, at the small bed against the wall that was hers, only so recently. “Scary.”
“Scary.” Dori repeated, leaning her head against Xena’s leg.
“Yes it is scary.” Xena said, after they were all very quiet for a minute. “But don’t you worry, little ones. Your mama’s going to make sure Amy gets taken care of. She wont have to be by herself.”
Gabrielle’s form filled the doorway, blocking some of the light. “Hey.” She glanced at them. “What’s going on in here?”
“Well.” Xena sighed. “We started out looking at rocks and ended up talking about Aalene.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle came over and sat down next to her.
“Mama, you should make Boo go bring Auntie Aa back.” Dori went back to her original theme. “Like she do.”
Caught by surprise, Gabrielle straightened up in reflex, giving her partner a sideways, startled look.
Xena cleared her throat gently. “Apparently that story’s made the rounds.”
“I see.” Gabrielle visibly collected herself. “Well, honey, first of all mama doesn’t make Boo do anything.” She said, firmly.
Dori poked her lower lip out. “Mama, Amy will be sad!” She protested. “Make it fixed! You and Boo make everything fixed, all the time!”
Gabrielle looked at her partner, who had a wry, perplexed expression she felt a gut level sympathy with. Really, what could she say? How could she explain the mysteries of their lives in a way that made sense to a six year old?
“I told her I couldn’t just do that for someone else.” Xena remarked. “It was a.. um..” She lifted one hand and let it drop, her shoulders shrugging just slightly.
“Yes, it was.” Gabrielle smiled, reaching out in reflex to take Xena’s hand in hers. “Dori, I know Amy’s going to be sad, and you should help her and be really good to her.” She said, in a gentle but firm tone. “But we can’t bring Aalene back from where she went, as much as we might want to.”
Dori looked unhappily at her, and Cari made a somber face.
“We ready to go down to the village?” Xena sidetracked the conversation. “Maybe we can talk about this later?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle said. “We have to go and be with our friends now, Dori. Do you want to come with us to see Amy?” She asked. “I think it would be nice if you did, and helped her not be so sad.”
“I go.” Cari spoke up unexpectedly. “I was sad when my mama went away.” She explained. “It was good when people were nice.”
Dori looked at her, then she nodded, somewhat reluctantly. “Yes, mama. We should go.” She said. “Can we see gramma too then, and go down the town?”
“Can we go too??” Butterbean asked. “We can say about the magic, like dada told us.”
Gabrielle got up, pulling Xena with her. “Everyone can go.” She said. “Lets go see our friends, and try not to be sad, and spend some time being glad we have good people in our lives, okay?”
The mood in the village was quiet, perhaps even reflective. Xena walked across the central area and passed groups of women getting weapons rehoned, and replacement arrows fletched, some giving her a brief aside glance as she passed.
It was late afternoon, edging towards evening and the sun had already disappeared behind the fringe of forest that ringed the village, leaving a cool breeze in its place, rustling the branches.
Xena knew she had to go back down to the town, and sort out the Athenians, and the oracle’s gang, the men from Ithaca, and the rest of the hangers on and troublemakers now being stolidly watched by her militia but now she was heading purposely towards the Queen’s quarters.
She had a wineskin in one hand, and as she entered the lined path she was intent on sharing that, and whatever was around for dinner with Gabrielle before she went back to clean up the mess.
The children were all in the kid’s hall, with the minders and some of the senior warriors, and Gabrielle had just returned from there where she’d spent a candlemark talking with them.
She bumped the door open and stepped inside, to find Gabrielle in a chair near the small fire, a tray set on the table at her knee. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Gabrielle responded. “What do you hav… ah.” She gave an approving nod as Xena retrieved two cups and dispensed wine into both of them, accepting hers as Xena took the seat next to her and dropped the skin on the table. “Thank you.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle took a sip of the wine. “That last bit just sucked the sheeps out of me. That poor kid.”
“So now what? We send those jerks back to Athens? Xe, we killed their representative.”
“We did. Or well, I did.” Xena said. “But to be fair they attacked us.”
“They did.” Gabrielle sighed. “And for what?”
They were both quiet for a few minutes, just listening to the sounds of the village around them. Then Xena paused and dug a small leather bag from her belt pouch, leaning forward and handing it over to her partner. “That was in the kid’s treasure sack.”
Gabrielle put her cup down and opened the bag, which was very worn, and heavy in her hand, the contents clinking heavily. She upended them into her hand, revealing six gold nuggets, rough and irregular. “They were where?”
“Kids had a bag of booty they were hauling around. They left it up in a tree near the creek.” Xena said. “That was in there, along with sticks and stones and dead frogs and the usual things they keep.” She extended her legs and crossed them at the ankle. “They’re not from around here.”
Xena shook her head. “I guess they found it somewhere.” She said. “Just one more mystery in a sevenday of em.” She swirled the remainder of the wine in her cup idly. “Just like the priest. Just like the random brigands showing up in the village. Just like how Aalene and the two oldsters ended up in the market.”
“You think they’re all connected, Xe?”
Xena shrugged her shoulders. “How could they be?”
“How could they not?”
Reasonable question. Xena stretched in the chair and resettled herself. “I’ve run the possibilities around in my head so many times they’re going to register for the next race in Athens.” She admitted. “Whole thing makes no damn sense.”
Gabrielle shifted so she could look at her partner, faint spears of the setting sun peeking through the leaves to dust her knees. She idly moved the nuggets around in her hand, their rough irregularity scraping the skin on the palm as she ran those same possibilities through the lens of her own experience.
“What if.” She mused. “What if its just simpler than we’re used to, Xe?”
Gabrielle looked down at the nuggets. “I think we need to find out how those three Amazons got to the market. If we figure that out, maybe it will all make more sense.” She got up and put her cup down, returning the gold to it’s little sack. “I’ll be right back.”
Xena started to sit up. “You want me to..”
“No, hang out here.” Gabrielle passed behind her and gently ruffled her hair. “Let me go toss my bard dice and see what comes up.” She tucked the leather bag into her belt and lifted her cloak from it’s hook beside the door, swinging it over her shoulders as she left.
The path leading from the Queen’s quarters was empty and she finished fastening the throat catch as she passed the small fork that would lead off towards Ephiny and Eponin’s hut and continued on, walking down the slight decline that separated their quarters from the rest of the village.
Her boots made a slight crunch on the gravel as she walked, moving along past the firepit and taking the right hand turn that would go between the dining hall and the gardens towards the group quarters at the back part of the plateau.
Cait and Solari were standing near the edge of the woods where the path split off and they both turned as she approached but she lifted a hand and made a slight wave, just smiling at them as she went past, walking down and to one side of the well that right now had a handful of Amazons drawing water up.
All very normal, very natural daily tasks, here as evening approached, sounds and smells of cooking coming from the kitchens, light, female voices echoing softly, to one side the faint sound of wood being chopped, all making a pattern she walked through.
To her left she could hear the sounds of goats being gathered, the tinkle of their neck bells as someone milked them, something she recalled from her own earliest childhood and she heard wings overhead, a quick glance showing a newly woken owl settling on a branch, readying for a night of hunting.
Ahead of her was the junior quarters and she felt her focus sharpening as she approached the door, faintly also aware that behind her, at a respectful distance there was the lightest sound of footfalls at her heels, steps too light to be Xena’s but with the same natural balance.
She nodded a little, to herself, as she reached out and pushed the door open, expecting no resistance and finding none as she emerged into the living space of the junior warriors, a score or so of beds and joint space, each sleeping place with it’s woven storage baskets and wooden made tables providing a bit of separation.
Heads turned and bodies stiffened as she was recognized, and she paused in the center of the room to look around in silence, pushing her cloak back and putting her hands on her hips.
The new juniors were all in the back, furthest from the fire. Conversation had cut off as soon as the queen’s presence was noted and now there was an absolutely awkward silence as all of them turned around to face her with expressions ranging from puzzlement, to curiosity to …
Ah. The furtive refusal to meet her eyes.
That was what she’d been almost expecting. Gabrielle understood that physically she was not the most intimidating of specimens but she’d learned to wear her authority and project it and she did that now, slowly turning her head to cover the room from one side to the other.
She pulled a breath into her gut. “Sit down.” Her tone was quiet, but deep.
Slowly they all did, staring apprehensively at her.
“A terrible thing happened today.” Gabrielle said, after allowing a moment of silence. “Three of our sisters were killed, down in the market.” She let her voice drop on the last few words. “They died as true Amazons, bearing their weapons, defending their honor.”
Several of the juniors shifted, some clasping their hands, heads lifting a trifle.
“But they died when they didn’t have to.” Gabrielle said. “This fight, this conflict, all this chaos never had to happen – and I know that.” She carefully shaped the last part, lowering her voice and putting an edge on the words. “Just like I know there was a reason it happened.”
She could hear the intakes of breath and the reactions as young bodies stiffened against the fabric of the blankets on their bunks and as she drew in her next lungful of air she caught the scent of sweat breaking out, a faint acridity that she’d come to understand as fear.
“So, regardless of what you’ve promised to yourselves and each other, you’re going to tell me what that reason was.” Gabrielle told them. “Because that oath you swore to me wasn’t just a bunch of words and I’m here to hold you to it.”
She shifted her hands a little, letting her right hand fall to clasp the hilt of the long dagger that hung off her tooled leather belt, her fingers curling loosely around it as she looked at each one of them. “Prove yourself an Amazon. Bring the truth to me. Don’t make me come take it.”